Foldscoping in the Peruvian Amazon, Part 1

The South America Diaries is a monthlong series documenting Foldscope's first trip to South America. Starting July 13, the team travelled all over Peru, Argentina and Brazil to lead workshops and presentations with schools and organizations. We experienced new cultures, ate cool foods and met tons of people. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the beautiful and mundane experiences that come with our mission to give every person on the planet a microscope.

This is part two in a series. In this post, we arrive in the Peruvian Amazon and teach workshops in rural schools with our partners at ACEER. Read part one here

Cast of characters in this post: 
The Foldscope team: Jim, Judy, Wenying, Paola, Alice (me)
The ACEER team: Carmen, Therany, Patricia, Cecilia, Raquel

Day 2: Lima, Peru 🇵🇪—> Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🐞🐛🕷🌳🍄(aka the AMAZON RAINFOREST💦💦💦🌳🌳)
Getting off the plane was that sort of heart explosion thing that happens when you’re somewhere you know you already love. A blow of humid air. Blue skies, flying things, sweat, burning sun. Green, green, green. 

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 A wasp got stuck in my hair in the hotel lobby and Patricia extracted it out of the nest of hair at the top of my head and it was *this* close to stabbing me before she pulled its stinger out. This will forever be the first memory I have of Patricia, one of the most well-versed ecologists/naturalists I've ever met, who also happens to be a researcher at Duke but has spent months by herself studying fungi and other nature-y things in the Peruvian Amazon (Manú National Park is a big research hub here in Peru). She's one of the team members at ACEER. 

For the next week, we're going to be teaching workshops all over the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon in collaboration with ACEER (which stands for Centro Amazónico de Educación Ambiental e Investigación). ACEER was founded in the 90s and has done extensive work in education and conservation all over Peru. In 2013, ACEER won Peru's National Award for Environmental Citizenship for a project called Puppet House, and organizations like National Geographic have supported their work. Our time in the Amazon will be lead by Carmen, the organization's director of Peru programs, and her super-team of researchers, coordinators and professors who are moonlighting as Foldscope missionaries for the week. Carmen leads her team with razor focus. Foldscopes are through customs on time, all the details for the week are sorted and organized, everyone on the ACEER team works in sync like a symphony. 

Today is día de pollo a la brasa, one of the many Peruvian food holidays where people eat certain foods on certain randomly assigned days. Pollo a la brasa is charcoal fired rotisserie chicken, and this is where ACEER's Carmen, Patricia and Therany joined the Foldscope team for our first meal together. We had buckets of fries and ordered two whole chickens for the table. A man came up to our table selling gum, and Carmen gave him a big chunk of our chicken instead of shooing him away.

Over dinner, Carmen told us about Peru’s ecological crisis and the huge illegal gold mining industry that is four times more lucrative in this area than cocaine production, and Peru is now the number one country in cocaine production in the world. It’s surreal to be able to sit here and watch Carmen and Patricia talk about their concerns for the environment. ACEER has started multiple projects to preserve Peru's ecology and support the country's education system. For example, in 2011, ACEER's Leaf Pack program helped students and teachers learn about water conservation in their local streams. 

The energy from my new friends also comes from a necessary resilience when the places they love are slowly destroyed for capitalistic gain and short-term financial stability. Carmen ends dinner with a detailed itinerary for the week. Lots of early wake up times. We’re going to nine schools in five days all around the Madre de Dios region of the Amazon. 

July 16 Day 3: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🛵❤️🏫

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First day of workshops. In the morning we visited UNAMAD (Universidad Nacional Amazonica de Madre de Dios), the best university in Madre de Dios. The Amazon has the lowest rates of college matriculation in all of Peru, so the students here are the few that have made it into higher education. Our workshop today lasted almost four hours and by the end of it everyone was happy-exhausted. We're just getting into the swing of things: Paola translates for Jim, Patricia leads a group of students to gather samples outside, everyone helps the students construct their microscopes. Many of the professors and students at UNAMAD stayed until the end. The school is so colorful and there are motos (vespa-like motorcycles) everywhere. I can tell that Peruvians are very affectionate as the students walk around in groups or pairs. There’s a physical closeness that makes me feel immediately close to people I don't know very well. A hug and a kiss and that's how it goes. None of the tension in the transition from stranger to friend. I think it’s nice that people are comfortable in their relationships and with their bodies. I saw a little baby walking in the halls with two younger girls, and that is something I’ve never seen at Duke. 

In the afternoon we went to Señor de los Milagros, a secondary school, and taught a classroom of around thirty 13 year olds. Mixi is the first girl here that I’ve given my phone number to for WhatsApp. When I think about how many students we will be meeting in the coming weeks, I get a little bittersweet knowing that I'll most likely never see them in person again. It'll be good to keep in contact with some of the students, even if it is just to share selfies or to answer their questions on where I am in the world. The kids here are like all the kids everywhere, glinty-eyed, optimistic, a little mischievous. After we told them to keep track of their pieces, most of students took the instruction manual and made a barricade for themselves, and so for the rest of the workshop they worked in their own meager fortresses. They're fascinated with us as foreigners, and stare widely when they see something cool on their microscopes for the first time. At the end of the workshop, the kids presented drawings of their Foldscoped images in front of the class, and I've started a collection of sketches from the schools we're going to visit this week. It's so amusing to hear the kids joke around as they haphazardly take pieces of each other's hair into their Foldscopes or gather around like hummingbirds when we're displaying images of pollen of flower petals or ants on our phones. The hugging culture here is my favorite. Students we've just known for a few hours hug us goodbye as the workshop ends and the sun sets.

Day 4: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🌟

Rise and shine. It's funny to think that it's the winter season in the southern hemisphere right now, and I'm sweating way too much while all the kids we're teaching this morning at Jorge Chavez Renfigo look pretty comfortable. After an hourlong bus ride, we've arrived in a small town called Planchón. One of my favorite things about visiting the schools so far has been the colors. The walls are painted lime green and yellow and Jim likes to say the vibrancy matches the Foldscope color scheme. He's not wrong. It's nice to wake up every morning and see so much activity going on, an entire family sitting on one motorcycle, insects, the unmistakable movements that come from people and things living together. It's a synergy, a word that Jim uses all the time and is probably his favorite word at the moment. 

Yadhira, one of the students, was so funny and kept posing with her various Foldscope parts while I walked around the classroom taking pictures. She asked me if she could use my "fancy camera" and then spent a few minutes ambling around taking photos of the flowers outside the classroom and of her friends using Foldscopes under the sun.

Students from other classes started peeking through the windows and doors to see what we were doing. I went outside to find one of the students intensely looking for an ant to image under his microscope, completely engrossed in the way I've seen kids engrossed in their video games or cartoons. We wrapped up the workshop right in time for recess/lunch break and the older students were in a heated match of soccer (I guess the only way to play soccer on a basketball court is heatedly), kicking around in their white school uniforms and ties and dress pants and dress shoes.

In the afternoon we visited the Madre de Dios COAR (Colegio de Alto Rendimiento), which is a new experimental boarding school for secondary students. The school's only been open for five years, but the hope is that this model of education will help students in under-educated areas of the Amazon gain access to resources and constant support from teachers. The students stay at the school during the week and go home to their families over the weekend. The school receives heavy support from the Peruvian government and has the best resources out of any school we've visited so far. Labs, art studios, classrooms with projectors.

I can already tell which students really want to talk to us. I’ve gained some experience in the last day and make myself as friendly as possible (lots of smiling, and a full opportunity to practice my Spanish). If I wait just a few minutes and linger around they start asking me questions as I try my hardest to feign fluency. Being able to speak in the student's native language is so useful. I don't really know any Spanish vernacular, but when the students realize I can understand them, it's usually the equivalent of unclogging a sink. 

What comes out of this language flow is a ton of energetic chatting. A few students in the COAR have latched onto me in an unexpected way. Two girls squealed when I told them that I was vaguely familiar with Kpop (Korean pop music). After class, at least 15 students suddenly circled around me as I was talking to the girls about Kpop and going to school in the United States. It’s crazy that I can talk to high schoolers in Puerto Maldonado about music that we’ve both found on the internet. This dissemination of information into the cracks of the world is the sort of global impact Foldscope is striving for someday. Weird comparison, I know. But “Magnify curiosity worldwide”, after all.

One of the students was also interested about Jim’s educational journey. He asked Jim about all the classes he had to take to become an engineer and the schools Jim studied in to develop the Foldscope. The kids are so hopeful for their futures. They go to the best high school in the region, and the Peruvian Amazon has notoriously low education matriculation levels. They practiced English with me and confidently spoke in front of their classmates during their Foldscope presentations.

These might seem like small gestures, but it's the energy, the affect, that strangely brings me back to a question I'd thought about a lot when applying to college. Stanford's infamous undergraduate application question asks something along the lines of What is intellectual curiosity? I'd tried scrapping together a cogent answer at the time, but now, seeing these kids actively pursue a path of education that their neighbors never will, swimming against the current, I have my answer. The students embody everything I'd had trouble writing about when I was 17, as if maybe what we're experiencing here in Peru is intellectual curiosity in its platonic ideal, the kind that escapes words, that you know when you see, that influences you more than you've influenced them. I'm learning, too. 

Alice Dai has worked with Foldscope since high school and will be a junior at Duke University this fall. She is the trip blogger/photographer. 

All photos taken by Alice unless otherwise attributed.