22 November 2016

The Time We Accidentally Volunteered to Deforest the Amazon

Fat bellied Alfredo piloted our skiff down the Beni River shouting undecipherable words over oven baked winds. His wife Benita sat two rows ahead burbling stream-of-consciousness nothing. Only Lorenzo could be heard—Lorenzo the bright green parrot—Lorenzo the prancing bilingual lord of his own weird world.

Forty minutes down river Alfredo lifted the propeller out of the water and drifted onto muddy shores. The Beni is a tentacle of Mama Amazon. With enough determination and bug spray one could probably follow that watery grid straight to the Atlantic. We didn’t want to go that far but forty minutes felt too close to civilization and too far from the adventure we had imagined.

Tim and I had saved the jungle for Bolivia. Anyone can go Ayahuasca chasing with false shamans or monkey spotting with half the British Isles but overly proud road warriors like us need something different, and different of our own doing. We had made the rounds in the town of Rurrenbaque pitching our services. We explained that we wanted to volunteer with a local community; work, immerse, play with machetes. Several companies offered the same basic program; live with a local family, teach the kiddos English, help out when needed, $15 a day. We went with Alfredo because his sure-sure-whatever attitude was infectious.

We didn’t know what we would find beyond the gate of jungle foliage lining the shore. We understood of course that we weren’t going to go hacking through the dense and dark like conquistadors in search of El Dorado or floating down river on Baloo’s belly singing catchy tunes but we didn’t expect it to be quite so agriculturalized either. Alfredo and Benita’s simple wooden home is at the front edge of their extensive property which rolls back to impassable mountains and the start of the real jungle. Their property has been burned away and allowed to regrow into a wholly new ecosystem; high green grass, nests of thick shrubbery and the odd mango or grapefruit tree have replaced the jungle that was. The majority of the land is not being used for farming purposes; it is simply a burned world reborn.

The front of their house is where all the action happens. It is where the meals are cooked and the livestock roams. It is where sugarcane stalks are fed into a simple mill and squeezed for all their juice. It is where tourists come to gawk.

The sugarcane mill seems to be the Amazon version of the world’s Biggest Ball of Yarn. Several times a day tour groups pull off the river highway to watch Benita and at least one of her twelve kids make the juice. The tourists mostly fidget awkwardly sure that this roadside attraction is solely for their benefit. The interesting thing is that they shouldn’t feel so off balance. The sugarcane mill is a regular part of family life for Alfredo and Benita. They crank out cane juice the way you would twist the cap off a bottle of Coke. Occasionally someone from the community will stop by with ice and lime and everyone will gather around slurping up bowls of the good stuff. If foreigners want to stop and gawk, what’s it to them? As tourists we sometimes forget how weird it is to pay good money to take pictures of ordinary things. Imagine if a few times a week you got slipped easy cash to let a bunch of strangers gather in your home snapping pics and narrating video while you pulled the plastic off a Salisbury Steak, popped it in the microwave and tried to find a ballgame on the tube.

Alfredo and Benita wasted no time putting us to work. Their living room was a carpet of fallen leaves. Benita handed us sticks with fragments of a bush lashed to the end and told us to start sweeping. The jungle brooms were amazingly effective but it still took us quite awhile to clear the common areas. We didn’t know it at the time but this Sisyphean diddy would become a daily task.

Then like a Spanish speaking Cousin Randy, Alfredo announced, “Shitter’s full!” I took a look inside and the bulk had indeed crested above the rim of the outhouse seat. The whole thing needed to be broken down and shifted left. But first someone (me) needed to dig a hole—a very deep hole. Alfredo traced a 3x3 square and I put shovel to dirt. “Dos metros, talvez mas profundo,” he said. “Two meters, maybe deeper.” I squinted up at the burning sun and wrapped my shirt around my head. I chuckled at the absurdity of paying money to dig my own shithole. Fucking tourists.

At first it was fun. I am admittedly dumb when it comes to this sort of thing. If little boy me would have seen a game in it, man me still does. A few feet down the fun wore off. The sun was brutal, the space was tight and my shoulders were on fire inside and out. Feeling a bit picked on, I decided to see what terrible task Tim had been given. I wandered into the pasture behind the house and immediately saw billowing towers of midnight smoke. At the far end where mounds of cleared away brush had earlier lain was a dancing wall of magnificent flames and at the edge of those flames was Tim holding a burning branch, stabbing the unburned bits. He saw me approaching and smiled big. “I’m helping Alfredo with the fire.”

“You’re helping Alfredo with the…”

NO SHIT!! I’ve been digging a crap hole for hours and you’ve been playing with fire? Oh this is just… I will… I will charge admission to that shitter! I will bridge troll that shitter! “I’m helping Alfredo with the fire.” Super-fuckin-dooper. I love burn piles! You know this! I’ve told you this! I LOVE BURN PILES! FACT! Burrah! And with my inner-monologue still sputtering and muttering I went back to my hole.

The sun dropped low in the sky and the heat followed like a petulant kid. I was laid out on a bench by then, powdered in dirt, thinking back on the day. I wondered if Alfredo always made day one a challenge—a knockdown to see who would get up and who would scurry back to western comforts. I stood on wobbly legs and asked Benita if I could take a shower. She mumbled something about a pool across the river. As I tried to figure out if I had mistranslated, Jamil (one of Alfredo and Benita’s many sons) approached carrying a massive green fishing net. For historical record, Tim’s second job that day had been standing in the shade helping Jamil unravel said nets. Tim hopped to attention and helped carry their untangled project. Turning back Jamil asked me to get the shovel. Get the shovel!?

Fortunately it turned out the shovel was also an oar. Having motored to the opposite bank, Jamil skillfully paddled the skiff while Tim fed the net into the current. We fastened the trap with a water bottle buoy and hoped for buen suerte. We were net fishing in the wilds of Bolivia. We were in the Amazon beneath a dusky orange sky. Jamil and everyone he knew did this often. No one we knew ever had. My brain registered the uniqueness of the experience but with emotion and clarity turned way down. My tired mind was unable to properly absorb a moment that I knew I could not bookmark.

After fishing it was bath time. Jamil led us up the shore to a clear jungle pool. He handed me a bar of soap and I realized that I had understood Benita perfectly after all. We stripped down to our boxers and soaped up, sending suds and grime trickling down to the river below. Jamil asked us if we were ready for dinner. Ready? Mira… fill that hole I just dug with anything and I will eat my way to the bottom. I pulled dirty pants over wet boxers and laced up muddy shoes minus sweat soaked socks. As we pushed off, I dreamed about the deliciousness waiting on the other side.

Bread and cheese—we had bread and cheese for dinner. I almost cried. Tim seemed alright. Apparently lighting fires and untangling nets doesn’t leave much of a caloric deficit. Despite a gnawing stomach and molasses slow mind I enjoyed the evening. We sat around a long wooden picnic table, lit by candlelight, watching bugs singe themselves again and again. We talked about the weather and politics and the family’s forty plus year history in the region. It is clear that for them being born on the banks of the Beni River meant being born into luck. But they are worried about the fragility of that luck. There is something looming that is far more dangerous than modernization or the slow creep of tourism. Alfredo didn't want to talk about it. He forced a smile and changed the subject. His children reluctantly acquiesced; angry words and helpless gestures coming to a quivering still beneath the weight of obedience.   

The next morning I woke up and immediately picked up a broom. I swept with a wary eye on Benita bustling about in the outdoor kitchen, fully prepared to go chicken hunting if all that noise ended in a plate of bread and cheese. Fortunately it was a big breakfast; eggs, plantain mash and grapefruit straight off the tree. The monster in my belly belched and picked at its gums with a toothpick finally satisfied.

We were planning to go jungle trekking that afternoon at a place called The Canyon. It was Sunday, but Tim and I were still hoping to go into the village beforehand to get a look at the larger community and checkout the school where we would be teaching. We knew this volunteer project would be a fluid, loosely organized experience but assumed that come Monday our days would have a bit more structure. Whatever lay ahead was to remain a mystery. Alfredo unbuttoned his shirt, rubbed his prodigious belly and declared it too damn hot to move.

The canyon was a pretty afternoon diversion. We followed Alfredo and Benita through waste deep water past sleeping bats and between high mossy walls. It felt like a passageway to their secret hideout. The canyon isn’t big enough or grand enough to be a standalone tourist attraction; it would have to be packaged into a larger tour. Alfredo and Benita know that they have something but they aren’t sure what to do with it. It is a story you sometimes find in the less trodden places; exploitable but not yet exploited. Travelers know what travelers will pay for but in the developing world touristic opportunities often go unrecognized. If the canyon does get filled up with Japanese tourists wearing spelunking helmets and life jackets then I hope that Alfredo and Benita directly benefit. They seem happy though, and maybe this is selfish, but I hope their canyon remains a pretty mystery.

When we got back I bolted straight for the hammock sure that Sunday was to be a day of rest. It wasn't. On the far side of the pasture where the burn pile was still smoldering, Alfredo had left eight or nine wedges from a fallen tree that he wanted to use as seats for the sugarcane show. He gave Tim and me a wheelbarrow and told us to go collect them. We got out there and loaded up a few of the heavy bastards. I am stronger than Tim, (or so I thought,) and probably a bit of a hard work glory hound, so I pushed the first load. My hands were still aching from the day before and I couldn’t make it twenty feet without setting the wheelbarrow down. It sucked and the second load sucked even more. I asked Tim if he wanted to take a crack at the third load. Sunshine-y as ever he happily agreed. I smirked fully expecting him to struggle mightily. He lifted the wheelbarrow, wobbled a little and pushed forward at a surprisingly steady pace. AND THEN…honestly this is just unfreaking believable…and then that skinny guitar strumming vegetarian started to run. Run! I watched him bound across the pasture and kicked grass all the way back wondering how many Boliviano I should charge him per square of toilet paper.

Alfredo and Benita have a baby cow called Domingo. Domingo thinks he is a dog. He spends his days chasing chickens, nuzzling for food and napping in the shade. He hasn’t figured out belly rubs yet, but he will. Domingo’s mom died giving birth and Alfredo and Benita made him part of the family. He is a skinny little thing, all legs and ears and they adore him. If Lorenzo ever loses his lordship, it will be Domingo that takes it.

Monday morning Alfredo outlined our day while giving Domingo his bottle. Without a mama to scold him Domingo ripped at the rubber nipple like (surprise, surprise) a dog pulling on a rope. Alfredo just laughed and kept the little guy in a headlock. We had thought this would be the day that the real volunteering would begin but there wasn’t much on the agenda. Later in the afternoon Alfredo wanted us to help him hack a fire road around a dry section of jungle that he intended to burn down and use to plant yucca and maiz crops. The rest of the day we were free to swim, read, whatever.
Alfredo and his little buddy Domingo

Our original plan was to volunteer for 7-10 days but it was starting to look like our volunteer program was closer to a homestay with chores. From the beginning I had heard hesitation in Alfredo’s voice concerning our level of involvement with the community and he had reason. A week isn’t enough time to have any real impact as a volunteer. There were no community building projects outlined and teaching English for a week would arguably do more harm than good. It would disrupt the kids schedule and get them (or at least some of them) excited about learning only to have that opportunity taken away the following week. The truth is we were watchers. We were passing through with no expertise in engineering, medicine or business and Alfredo saw no need to use his own community for the advantage of two strangers. Fair enough.

However the inability to connect with the community left us in something of a lurch. We had wanted to get away from the tourist trail and learn about local life by hearing everyday stories from a variety of people. As wonderful as Alfredo and Bonita were the potential for experience at their house was limited. We had already fallen into an uncomfortable rhythm of occasional chores and sitting around waiting for meals. We were keeping ourselves occupied with books, music and conversation, but we couldn’t help feeling like unwanted guests awkwardly hanging around. On the other hand we had made a minimum commitment of seven days and didn’t want to upset our hosts by suggesting an earlier departure. We were doing the dance, back and forth, and that was before the fire.

That afternoon Benita handed us long sleeved shirts and dull machetes. She said something in her soft and lost way and led us into the jungle where we found Alfredo hacking violently at the border of a dying patch of foliage. All the trees and undergrowth in the clearing had been chopped and left to rot save a lone lime tree near the center. We fell in line behind Alfredo sweeping away debris with our useless machetes. I watched Benita wade through the tinderbox sea to the base of the lime tree. With typical slow grace she plucked limes and placed them in the basket of her shirt saving the last living things in that circle of dying.

The path Alfredo had hacked was clearly insufficient; a finger trace around the edge, smeared but not erased. Breeze rustled through in unpredictable gusts and Alfredo eyed its invisible path with disdain. He wanted to burn and the breeze was forcing him to keep the matches in his pocket. It was too late anyway. The sun had already set and darkness was well on its way. We went back to the house and got cleaned up. The fire could wait until tomorrow.

I was reading in the hammock and Tim was strumming on his guitar when we smelled the smoke, heard the crackle. We had barely stood when Benita appeared shoving buckets into our chests and pointing down the jungle path. We ran as quickly as we could and found a fire already leaping across the hacked away path. Other members of the community had arrived to help but their efforts to dampen the fire were pitiful. Half a dozen people were using coconut shells to throw river water on flames that were head high and growing higher. We ran down to the river to fill our buckets and immediately sunk into calf deep mud. The water was too shallow at the shoreline so I took off my shoes and waded into the river. For the next thirty minutes I stood in waste deep water filling buckets, pitchers and gourds as the community scrambled. I watched fan shaped palms, deep green and alive, wither and blacken beneath the onslaught of flames. I watched a sinister brightness defy the darkening sky. Tim brought me updates with every empty bucket. They weren’t trying to stop the fire, they couldn’t, they simply wanted to push it west, away from the community.

The buckets slowed and then stopped. The community had done what they could. The fire would continue to burn but their homes seemed to be safe. I pulled my feet from the muck and followed the shoreline back to Alfredo and Benita’s. Behind me the jungle glowed soft and orange. It was beautiful. Fucking tragic but beautiful. I was in a grim mood and sure that everyone else would be as well. I was wrong. When I got back to the house the firefighters were drinking sugarcane juice and joyfully recounting the adventure of the afternoon. We were all partially responsible for untouched Amazon going up in flames—Deforestation. And this fun? This is funny?

Sometimes it is hard not to be biased. We didn’t have a problem with Alfredo burning to plant crops. That method of farming is an ancient thing. And the area in question was small. He wanted to burn a little to feed his family long-term. Fine. It was the carelessness, the rush, the disregard for the unnecessary loss that stoked our bias. The burn pile Tim lit on day one was controlled, nothing living died. The fire that night, burned all night, because Alfredo didn’t want to wait a day. We saw it as contributing to global warming. We felt burned by the irresponsibility and couldn’t understand why the others did not. But maybe it's a matter of perspective.

Alfredo did not burn the exotic Amazon, he burned his property. He did not irresponsibly scorch the lungs of the earth, he accidently made the garden bigger than it needed to be. If the fire had happened on the property of friends or family I would not have been nearly as judgmental. It certainly would have felt like a mistake and plans to replant would need to be made, but I would have seen it as an accident rather than a tragedy. Part of me wanted to turn the incident into a statement about lack of awareness in the developing world—Western bias whispering judgment because I was somewhere from the stories. The truth is that however unprepared, however irresponsible, the fire did minimal damage. It wasn’t an attack on the environment it was simply subsistence farming gone wrong. Alfredo can plant his yucca and maiz for now but the Amazon has been there for millions of years, eventually it will reclaim its own.

It was time to leave. There was nothing but hanging around ahead and hanging around is not what we had been sold. And yet we hesitated. Alfredo and Benita had been so welcoming we were considering wasting the next few days just to avoid breaking up with them. Thankfully, Alfredo gave us an out. He needed to go back to Rurrenbaque for a night and invited us to join him. The plan was to stay at his house in town and return to the jungle in the morning. We packed our bags with no plans of coming back.

Alfredo was surprised but not upset by our decision. He insisted that we stay at his place anyway. I don’t think he believed us. Maybe he thought we’d get a quick WIFI fix and come begging for the jungle. I had no desire to stay at his house. As far as I was concerned the volunteer experiment was over. I wanted a hot shower and a restaurant meal. I had a polite refusal worked out in my head but as we drifted up to his house I found myself unable to say the words.

His entire family was there that night; sons, daughters, grandchildren, everyone happily buzzing about, everyone directly linked to Alfredo and Benita. Before we had even set our bags down beds were being made and snacks set out. It wasn’t what I wanted in that moment but it was exactly what I had been searching for; family life in the Amazon basin, Bolivia off the tourist trail.

I listened that night more than I interacted--sometimes to conversations near me and sometimes to motion and chatter from other rooms. It could have been a family gathering anywhere, it could have been any other day or any other year; you would never know from the simple noise that this was a family in danger. Bolivian President Evo Morales wants to dam the Beni River and flood their valley. His plan includes building a hydro-electric station and selling energy to Bolivia’s richer neighbors. His plan does not include compensation for Alfredo and Benita or the thousands like them. A bureaucrat wants to drown their entire way of life and I was worried about tourism and a few palms falling to the flames. 

Our beds were in a room with a dirt floor and shelves full of unsorted hoardings. A circus of bugs pulsed in and out around the naked bulb. I switched off the light and pulled the covers over my head only to be blinded by an even brighter light. With a flashlight tucked beneath her arm Benita began hanging a net around my bed, murmuring softly about mosquitoes. I tried to protest but to no avail. It didn’t matter that I was a grown man and an extranjero, I was a guest in her house and she is a mom, so whether I liked it or not she was going to tuck me in.

Benita shut the door with a gentleness only she could manage. Alfredo’s laugh boomed from the other room. And behind them the Amazon sang. 

It wasn’t perfect, but parts of it were. And that’s enough.