Foldscoping in the Peruvian Amazon, part 2

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 three in a series. In this post, we welcome some new friends onto our team and wrap up the week of workshops in the Amazon. Read part two here

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

Day 5: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🔥🔥🐕🐮

Carmen is lulling a baby to sleep right now. I’m in this sunlit classroom in the indigenous town of Infierno (translates literally to Hell), watching the students and their intensely entertaining concentration faces.

The ACEER team's grown overnight and we've gotten a properly large bus now to transport the whole crew. Jon, Paul, Cecilia and Ken arrived yesterday from various parts of the world to join us for the rest of the workshops. All of us have only worked together for a short time, but it's already like family. We eat together and wake up early together, and a few nights ago we celebrated Carmen's birthday with piña coladas and a huge Costco-sized tiramisu. 

The workshop is a well-oiled machine. Sometimes, I just stand very still and watch everyone move. Jon and Cecilia take photos. Everyone helps the kids, and Judy is the superstar 75 year-old who picks up the little bits of Foldscope scraps that tend to get scattered in the chaos. She says that this way, she can get in her 10,000 steps a day on her pedometer, but really she's outrunning all of us who are half her age. Paola translates Jim. Patricia and Ken gather samples to help the students image. Jon climbed on top of our bus to get a picture of all of us. The students here are quieter than the students in Puerto Maldonado, and I took some of my favorite photos from the trip so far of them being seriously focused. 

The biodiversity in the various nooks and green patches in these schools is so rich. The schools I've attended always had too-clean corners and maybe a few ants in the summer months. I remember one of my classmates in elementary school found a bee and ate it, and everyone freaked out by his close encounter with nature. Not here. Patricia takes care to gather a huge spread of samples: pollen, different species of ants and spiders and butterflies, fungi, leaves, flowers. She probably knows everything ever about plants and bugs. We Foldscoped a flea one of the students picked off the school dog today, and Therany took a video.

Video courtesy Therany Gonzales

After the workshop this morning, a group of us decided to tour around Puerto Maldonado. There’s the Billinghurst Bridge here that looks like a mini, slightly wirier version of the Golden Gate Bridge and creates a connection across the Madre de Dios river. According to Paul, this bridge is incredibly important for the region since before everyone had to boat across the river (including huge cars and things like that) and now there’s a reliable path across that connects places like Brazil all the way to ports in Peru for exporting goods. What better way to celebrate this information by testing the bridge suspension with a good jump and a panoramic view of the Madre de Dios river behind us. 

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Photo courtesy Jim Cybulski

Day 6: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🚌🌺☀️🌱🌸
Long ride today to a school called Javier Heraud in Laberinto, a mining town. These rides are a good time to birdwatch and talk with Jon and Paul, who normally sit in the back of the bus with me. They get along so well they've started referring to themselves as one unit in a sort of franco-italian accent, Jonpaul. This is them together:

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Photo courtesy Paul Morgan

Jon teaches photography at the University of Delaware, and Paul is a professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Both are board members on ACEER. Both are what you'd call very cool dads. Paul used to be one of those 80s hippies who had a pony tail and moved to China to become a teacher. Now, he owns many chickens and has a funny kid neighbor who shows up to his house uninvited. Jon’s spent the last five years documenting the oral history of the Ese’Eje natives in the Madre de Dios region of Peru and is exhibiting his work in Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Jon’s a National Geographic Explorer, as are Carmen and her husband Ken, who's a climatologist at the University of Miami. He talked to me about deforestation vs. beef consumption yesterday, and walking through the Amazon while having this conversation tinged everything with a sense of urgency that I guess, honestly, had never fully registered before. I'm convinced that every person on our bus could fill the length of a dinner party with cool, hilarious, revelatory life stories. The day begins with these amazing conversations and miles of trees and birds flying against a pure blue sky. We spotted teardrop-shaped oropendola bird nests, hanging off the trees like nuggets of gold.

When we arrive at the school, we find out that it's activity day, which only happens twice a school year. All the kids are out of class and celebrating a day full of food, sports and games. We even saw a hallway that looked like a mini science fair setup. Kids are drinking juices from straws stuck into plastic bags, and there's treats everywhere. One of the girls in the younger grades comes up and hugs me without warning and it feels like a little, timid lick from a puppy. Something really corny like, "Oh! The joys of childhood!" spasms into my brain, and I remember my own activity days in elementary school, the spontaneous laughter over nothing too important and the rust-smelling sweat that you can't wash off your hands. It's not that I feel old, it's just that I'm very happy to be here, watching these kids bounce around and learn things. 

We teach a big group of kids in the midst of the day's festivities. The teachers and students have prepared a warm welcome for Foldscope. They've made a huge sign on the wall of the workshop classroom that says "Welcome Stanford University, creator of Foldscope" in Spanish. It's easy to see that the teacher's here have a made a big deal out of the workshops today, as they call up a student to give a small prepared speech and formally welcome our arrival. The students here are in caring hands, and I can tell that the teacher's strict in the very earnest and hopeful way that good teachers always are. Needless to say, it was another successful workshop with students from other classes peeking through doors and an ambling school dog. 

Day 7: Puerto Maldonado, Peru 🐰🐜💕

Today was the last day of workshops, and we arrived at a private conservation space called the Fundo Refugio K'erenda Homet. The first thing I learned about K'erenda was that there is a rabbit that has been sitting on an ant hill for three days, and our group went to go visit the rabbit during lunch. We spent all day here in a sort of humid summer daze. Workshop in the morning, nap/rest time at noon, where we got to try some out-of-season cocoa pods (the stuff chocolate's made of), workshop in the afternoon. One of the kids from the morning workshop was so funny and kept on opening to pages in his encyclopedia whenever Jim talked about anything that he understood. When Jim demoed a frog blood sample, the kid opened to the frog section of his book and raised it high in the air for everyone to see.

In the afternoon, a group of very well behaved 12-15 years olds from a science club at Santa Rosa, an all-girls school, came to visit us. Therany lead the workshop entirely on his own, in Spanish, like a pro. One of the girls picked a lice from her own head and imaged it. This is our very last workshop in Puerto Maldonado, and after a week of lessons, this last one is serene. Everyone’s a bit messy-tired (except for Judy, who is made of steel). Paola has translated for Jim for the last week and both are thoroughly winded from talking so much. Feet hurt, legs ache, but of course, it’s the good kind of pain with all the sweaty satisfaction of a post-workout milkshake.

I’ve seen more this week than I have in a lot of one-weeks that I’ve lived, at university, at home, on family vacation. Visiting schools in parts of the world where the concept of education is much different from the one I’ve taken as normal or “just whatever” back in states makes me feel less like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and more energized for what's to come. There are only two options, ever: to be hopeful or to be unhopeful, and one option pushes you forward and the other creates stasis. This week has been relentlessly hopeful. I've seen it in the almost 400 students we've taught, in the teachers who nurture them, in our friends at ACEER and all my teammates at Foldscope. We’ve made good friends with Carmen, Therany, Patricia, Cecilia, Cecilia (there are two), Raquel, Jon, Paul, and it’s the sort of fast, loving togetherness that's worth so! many! exclamation points!! Everyone has taught me something about their passion, given me some sturdy life advice, made me laugh. The workshops are sacred if I think about them too hard, like there’s probably some ancient pre-human ancestor that also practiced these series of funny gestures called teaching and that’s what we did this week, and so everything has its beginnings and we’re just carrying out our jobs like they’re innately a part of what we, as now-humans, are supposed to do. It's a generous cycle of giving and taking, and it's the to's and from's that's always a surprise, that always give me something to look forward to. It's so special. 

Since it was our last night in Puerto Maldonado, Therany took us out and I ate suri, grilled worms skewered on a stick. Crunchy. Buttery. Salty. Like everything I hoped they could be, and then some. 

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.