Thursday, 11 March 2010

Flora and Trauma

Yikes, it's been a while. I´ve been in the Amazon.
But before I start chatting about that I will start with the preceding Fenix-related news. I like chronology.

The Sunday before last, a girl phoned up Timothy hysterical and in tears saying that her boyfriend had been beating her and that she wanted to leave the house. As I had been working closely with the girl, Timothy called me and before I knew I it, I had been enrolled in a spontaneous, DIY crash course for crisis management. These sorts of things are common in the daily running of Fenix. Just the other week, some of the street leaders Hannah and Amy work closely with had been attacked by the police in La Mariposa (a hub of the youth prostitution industry) and one, seven month pregnant, girl had been clubbed in the stomach had ended up in hospital threatening early delivery.

So I had expected to be involved in this sort of thing at some point. I expected to be prepared and practical. I expected not to have a hangover.

Ha. Nothing like adrenaline to chase that away. After arranging to meet Timothy and Laura at his house at 1pm, I received a call from Timothy at 12.15 saying that his last conversation on the phone with her had been interrupted by the sound of angry shouts, swearing and screaming as her battering-boyfriend entered the room and snatched the phone from her. This led to a good 45 minutes of us panic-calling all her friends to try and find out where she lived and get someone there to protect her, but it wasn't necessary in the end. We later found out her boyfriend had only taken the sim card out of her phone and refused to put it back in again. Luckily this girl isn't stupid and had phoned the police before Timothy, so when we next spoke the police had arrived, rearranged the phone and I was witnessing Timothy's white-knuckle, paternal fury as he spat in vehement Spanish down the receiver to the young man, 'How cowardly you are to ever hit a woman´.
After all this, Laura managed to extract herself, clothes and belongings intact, and make it to Timothy's. He and I sat with her as she composed, broke down, and recomposed herself, all the time with a miserable, innocent and lost demeanor. Occasionally she laughed. She's only 18.

My tone here is glib, but the situation was frightening. I like and respect this girl, and we have a friend/teacher relationship. She is super-enthusiastic, intelligent and adorable. To know she was in serious trouble and to be powerless to do anything about it was horrible.

That night she needed somewhere to stay, and for obvious reasons Timothy has a rule that no girl ever stays at his house, especially if Sarita is not there. So after she had showered and calmed down she came back to mine for the night.
Three years older, with every advantage she never had and I know nothing about having to support myself entirely, having no family around, few friends and an overbearing, violent boyfriend as my one claim to security. God, I'm the polar opposite. Silver spoon, social network, independence. Again, fish out of water.
But it wasn't as terrifying as I had initially thought. We watched 'Shrek' and made dinner. We discussed options for finding lodging for a few weeks and we settled on a distant aunt as the most likely option.

He started calling at about 8pm and didn't stop all night.
'Don't pick it up'. Of course, it was obvious she would.
'You know what he's going to say already'. But she wasn't ready not to hear it.
'Every time you answer it gives him hope, and you can't go back'. Better the devil you know?
And finally, no matter how much you were unhappy, the eternal problem: 'Rose, it hurts.'

Well this was all bit familiar. Minus the bruises and manipulative phone calls, what she was experiencing was akin to any kind of normal break up. Hurt, sadness, anger, confusion, and loss of the security net she had relied on for the last 18 months. It's rubbish to feel that when you have a loving home to go to and a gaggle of chocolate/tequila wielding friends to dig you out of the mire, but when it was just the company of a English chick you barely know and the feeling of being dependent on their charity, I can't think of anything worse. Except him hitting her.

Whether she has seen him since I don't know, and whilst I got her to promise not to meet him, I secretly think it is a bit much to ask such a vulnerable girl to cut her links with this part of her history so abruptly (though Timothy disagrees, for obvious reasons, but he's not a girl). At the very least it will be one less time this happens before she finishes it for good. Either way, I couldn't have had more respect for her as she left the next morning for a full day of work. I, and most of my contemporaries, would have been resolutely wallowing under my bedcovers.

And then The Amazon!

I went to stay for 6 days with Sarita, Timothy’s wife, in Puerto Nariño. Sarita also runs a foundation called Natutama, which is as rural as Fenix is urban and equally unique in essence.
Natutama has its headquarters in Puerto Narino, a fishing village of about 2000 inhabitants. The work they do is based around the conservation and monitoring of dolphins and manatees and other river creatures in the area. They foundation has constructed a small exhibition centre, meticulously researched and beautifully executed by the community carpenters, artists and foundation educators. This is all in order to educate the community, children and visitors about their natural surroundings that aren’t all that easy to see. One room was called the ‘underwater world´ which showed the fish and plant life surrounding the giant tree roots that grow down into the river. Instead of flashing lights, electricity powered displays and printed information, the display contains natural looking, life-size, handmade dolphins, eels, manatees and fish all swimming around real tree roots which spring from the ceiling, and a foundation educator takes you round and explains the habitat, eating habits and features of each of the animals. It is so authentic and professional looking. Each leaf has been hand painted and sewed on.
The next room was completely black and covered in sand. This was the ‘Beach by Night’ and shows just what it suggests with all the animals and vegetation, including little turtles making their first great escape to the water. The night sky is dotted with stars and constellations which were accurately researched and the date settles on was the 4th of October. I love the idea of looking at the sky of a particular date.
What was especially interesting about these two exhibitions was that each demonstrated the local myths and legends of the Ticuna Indians, keeping the local history alive for both the foreigners and the ever decreasing population of Ticuna speaking people.
As for the research on the dolphins and manatees, this was carried out by Sarita and the team of local fishermen, and it is this that makes the foundation one of a kind. Their attitude to the inclusion of local knowledge and methods of information gathering has lead to some invaluable discoveries and serves the community as well. The fishermen are paid for their work, and as a result care for and monitor the environment. Sarita was telling me that the politics involved in getting in some of them to stop hunting manatees was complicated, delicate and to me it seems to be a great achievement. Natutama has brought a lot to the community, the wildlife and the promotion of an important symbiotic relationship, using the native fishermen as ambassadors to other, otherwise unreachable, communities, and becoming an example for foundations in other areas.

I had such a relaxing week. I slept so much! Didn’t realise I was so tired after a month in Bogota so it was a nice break. I went out on the boat a couple of times which was brilliant. Had to hack through ‘water-undergrowth’ at times, saw some dolphins, and heard our guide, Jose, call and get answered my caimans. Jose also took me out into virgin forest for a hike, which was amazing. We hacked Copuasu (my new favorite fruit) and something else I can´t remember the name of, off trees and ate breakfast out there. Chevere.

I spent the evenings wondering around Puerto Nariño looking at the artisan shops, and taking in the wildlife. Very good to see trees again and be out of pollution, though the heat and humidity was pretty intense. I stayed with Sarita and Rocio (one of the foundations artists) in their house next to Natutama, which is lovely, and spent a lot of time reading and rocking in the hammock. Sarita was worried I would be bored, but it was so beautiful there and with a pile of books, I was more than happy.
Otherwise it is good to be back in Bogota, and I went to an interesting, if slightly claustrophobic, conference on sex trafficking today. The speakers were brilliant, but my concentration span was not quite up to a whole day of Spanish lecturing. I’m working on it.


  1. Tried posting you a comment last night from Saudi but failed.Trying again. If this one works, expect more.

  2. Like your bus pic.Local Amazon transport I guess. You obviously had a great time with Sarita in Puerto Narino - what a marvellous experience! A view of fresh water dolphins will be a lasting memory. I did a trip on the River Piraparana once, an Amazon tributary.
    Now you will have settled back into the hurly-burly of Bogota where every day has a new adventure in store. It is absolutely right that you should be aware of your privleged position, but what you are doing now is giving something of yourself. And that, as your old GP Dr George Saadeh to whom I was talking last night said, is the most important thing you can do. Enjoy and learn!
    Day 3 in Saudi and all is well. We started in Al Khobar and move to Jeddah tomorrow and Riyadh on Saturday. Met Geoff Fennah yesterday who has contributed Pds 30 to your cause! Thinking of you lots,love to Timothy and Sarita.