field notes: Peru
We are all drawn to places that seem to speak our heart's language. I personally am drawn to wild and remote places; deserted beaches, the sands of the Sahara, high mountain meadows, and deep impenetrable jungles. Don't get me wrong, I have my comfort zones as well. I like to be in places that I understand, around languages I speak, where I can be prepared and feel at home... but there is something about getting out into places that challenge you at every step.
Working in the Amazon jungle is one of those places. On this trip deep into Peru we were constantly being reminded that this was not our neighborhood park; there were plenty of things out there that would eat us for lunch and not blink an eye.
I was working with a small local NGO who cooperated with tribal leaders to improve sanitation and access to clean drinking water for the tribal people who lived on the banks of the Ucayali river, which along with the Apurímac River, creates the Amazon River.
The real adventure began on the shore of the Ucayali river in the small town of Pucalpa, your typical frontier town in the heart of Peruvian jungle. You can see just about anything and everything in the streets of this small town. (I even saw an "official" Canon dealer with a pretty official looking sign and everything.) We arrived in Pucalpa in a small plane and left via a smaller boat, an aluminum 5 meter shell with an outboard motor. The boat was jammed with supplies, not only for us, but also to be left in a few villages along the river.
We stopped at 2 or 3 villages perched on the bank of the drifting murky water to see how they were doing with the home-made water filters that this NGO had helped them set up. The shell of the filters were made from concrete with local materials. These were essentially simple, sustainable, gravel and sand filters, simple to operate but effective as well. Most all the materials were sourced locally which helped keep the costs down. Every so often the concrete shells are brought upriver on the larger cargo barge that services that part of the river.
As far as videography was concerned this was a great gig. The area was rich in extraordinary material. The villages were everything you would imagine an Amazonian village to look like. The people’s lives were simple but rough. Very little creature comforts, but then again, not many were needed. They lived predominately off the land, fishing, hunting, and farming for their food.
Where the people needed some assistance was in their water supply. Along with clean water, the goal of this NGO was also teaching in personal hygiene and sanitation issues to improve the health of the people living in these communities.
On this trip I was responsible for both stills and video work. I was with a small team but they were dealing with all the other issues which left the storytelling for me to deal with. I had to travel with a minimal amount of gear, which is my norm regardless. I had enough batteries for about 2 days of work without a recharge, just in case the small generator went down or we had other power issues, as well as enough media to not have to offload at all during our week stay in the jungle. This allowed me to not bring a computer or hard drive of any sort, as I did not want to deal with more electronics that could bite the dust out in the hot and humid jungle, nor did I want more gear that relied on power to operate. I had my trusty camera, my amazing Miller tripod, audio gear and my backup gear, plus a Canon DSLR for stills.
We felt out the story as we went and shot interviews with the local people as well as one of the NGO leaders. The story was there all along, we just massaged it to the surface and found a creative way to tell it.
One of the challenging issues we dealt with on this trip was taking care of the gear. We were in a very humid environment and near or on the river pretty much the whole time, so dealing with water was obviously going to be a concern. At the time I did not have a waterproof case for the camera gear, but if I had it to do again I would definitely get one. It would have taken only one mistake when loading the boat and the gear would have gone to the bottom.
Power was our next big concern. We had to make sure we had considerable run time without recharging batteries. Additionally, it was imperative that we took into mind the voltage of the country. It is not normally a problem now since most chargers now work on both 120 and 220 volts, but you might still need an adapter to change the prongs of your plug. It is a really bad day when you realize you have all dead batteries and your charger will not plug into the wall socket!
As a side note, one of the things we were able to do on this trip is to go night-time alligator hunting with one of the local guys. It was a blast! We were out on the river in the pitch black with a spot light. I had to remind myself that we were out in the Amazon jungle on the big river where fish grow to the size of a large man, piranhas are abundant, alligators swim and hunt at night, and we were floating in a small aluminum boat. Yes, we saw plenty of eyes that night across the water, but were not successful in our hunting.
We arrived back in the village at sunrise and were talking to our guide about other hunting trips and he told us stories of the times when they were hunting the black alligators that live in a small lake upriver. I asked him what these alligators were like and he explained that the difficulty with them is that after you kill them you are not able to put them into the boat. If you tried, the boat would sink! Instead, they tie the alligator to the side of the boat and drag them back to the village. As he stood next to the rather large dug-out that is used for these hunts he indicated that the alligator snout would stick out in front of prow of the boat and the tail would go on past the stern. I took another look at the dugout he was next to and realized that would make the alligator in question a good 20 feet or so. And I just spent the night floating above those black giants… It would have been nice to know about what was under the water before making the choice to go out in that tiny boat.
Working deep in the jungles of Peru was both a challenge and a pleasure. Taking care of my gear in this inhospitable environment was critical. I was not going to be given a second chance if I screwed up. It was also a challenge to not become the center of attention, since I was working with a group of people that were not very used to outsiders. I had to be careful that my actions were not drawing attention because having everyone looking at me was not the shot I was after. I needed to be somewhat of a fly on the wall so that I disturbed the scene as little as possible. It was a rewarding experience working alongside people who were doing great work that was changing lives. I was able to give them the opportunity tell their story in a creative and compelling way which was an incredible experience. I’m sure I will be back in the Amazon someday; there are more stories to tell of the people that call this vast jungle home.