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Artisans of Meaning

Artisans of Meaning

Posted by on Aug 13, 2014 in all posts, on the road | 1 comment

So… we decided to write from the present and share the journey of what it has been like to transform the materials from our year of visiting all of these amazing innovative places of higher education around the world into a series of films. We plan to continue writing about places further on in our trip that we still have not blogged about – to write about them as we are finishing drafts of films.

This ‘making of’ has been quite a ride in itself because of the breadth and amount of material: we recorded over 140 hours of film, with over 80 interviews, visited 21 places in 10 countries. But… it has also been an adventure because rather than editing this material just from our perspective we wanted to involve friends and kindred folk in the making of the films. We also really wanted creative input from people we visited and met along the way, to bounce off our experiences and interpretation of the places visited against the views and experience of those who founded them and of the young people who had gone through them.

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We also want in this project to learn and experiment with a different way of creating knowledge and a story — together — that is collective, rather than so individually-focused. We felt that co-creating would mirror the learning that is occurring in each of the places to be represented in each film. We want to embody in the making of films some of the principles we learnt along our journey: mainly the power of openness, serendipity, co-creation and gift culture. We want to tap into the synergy of having diverse minds and hearts and eyes crafting together stories which are about learning and living and sharing in a different way.

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We are now in rural southern Oregon, a dry region of high desert. It is the height of summer and a thunderstorm has just rolled by and breathed some cool air into the valley giving us some rest from the wildfire-induced smoky air. I look out of the window onto the garden where we have been growing some vegetables and herbs since we arrived. The garden keeps us connected to rhythms of nature’s growth and the life of plants are a nice reminder of the living things that are all around us — providing much –needed breaks from the screen and computer that are the tools of an editor.

Our intention is to make these films within a community of friends.

Nothing substitutes the power of face-to-face interaction when we make things together. We were lucky to have experienced this on numerous occasions during our journey – the intensity of being in the same place and intimately sharing ideas, feelings and intuitions, drawing and sketching ideas, building models and mindmaps, moving pieces of paper around, pointing at a screen or photo, sticking notes on a wall, going for walks, cooking and eating together.

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Enlivened Learning Map by Manuela Pereira

But we ended up in a small rural town where Kelly was born, slowing down with the birth of our first baby —- the friends we met or re-encountered along the way are scattered around the globe.

So we devised another way of maintaining a creative community that would nourish each other and participate in the making of these films. Experimenting with various online tools and platforms we are navigating places of co-creation. Our friends from India, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, USA, Canada, UK and France have been participating in this co-creative process. A syncretic mix of emails, online meeting groups, Skype group chats, a vimeo page to host our interviews and work in progress and a website where we share transcripts, ideas and conversations – provides the architecture where we meet and work.

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This has meant adapting a working environment and editing workflow so as to make it available online and distributed across people, places and timezones. It has also meant opening up the making process out of the ‘editing room’ so that others are watching, transcribing and annotating the interviews, and discussing early drafts of the films together. Beyond this, we have also become a creative community, making maps and images, animations and posters all which are further enlivening the stories we are telling.

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Enlivened Learning Logo Animation made with Madhur Anand

Thinking about this process of editing and finding the threads significance across the range of materials – interviews, action sequences, shots of places, people, events, photographs and sound recordings – we came up with the name of the group as ‘Artisans of Meaning’. This name emerged because we are crafting and weaving the meaning of each film through the strands which stand out for each of us, which move us and which we all find significant. The films then emerge as a tapestry of this process.

We also see and have experienced the group as a way to learn together through the materials. Again we took on board a lesson from our journey of the importance of creating situations whereby we can learn together whilst connecting this learning to real issues happening in our lives. We saw the wonderful opportunity of learning together around the making of a film, as well as learning of the topics that the film covers.

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Enlivened Learning Poster
created by Ali Hodgson

For Kelly and I this community has been invaluable. It has been a tremendous source of nourishment — rather than a typical editing process that is often quite lonely and isolating as editors, writers, filmmakers and many others with a ‘making craft’ may recognize. But much more than that, co-creation has often opened up many wonderful new avenues and perspectives on these stories we are telling, helping us to shape them in a way that is more clearly expressed and relevant.

Now we have been some 10 months into this process. We are about to finish a draft of our fourth short(ish) film. We still have some way to go, we plan 6 films of 6 of the places visited before tackling the feature film which will be a story of the whole journey. And this is before the second stage of editing next year which will be on films of the places we visited that are focused on arts and cultural expression.

I think back to something I wrote some months ago under the title ‘Meeting Hospitality and Friendship on the Road’ (http://enlivenedlearning.com/2013/01/06/). This post was an expression of gratitude for the generosity, hospitality and friendship we met along the journey. I also described here an experiment of the open sharing of ideas amongst academic friends whilst living in the UK, in the ‘amateur academic adventurers club’. Amateur because we were engaged in something we loved and enjoyed, as the Latin roots of the word imply, an adventure’s club because it sounded fun and suggested that the pursuit of ideas and social inquiry can have the quality of an active running forth, an investigation and act of discovery. As I also wrote, the group was an attempt to create a place outside the atmosphere of institutional and often interpersonal toxicity that haunts the walls of the academy, to cultivate the opposite, an environment of hospitality, friendship and the nurturance of ideas. Something that would enrich our own enquiries and enliven our sense of possibility of making, relating and thinking. The Artisans of Meaning has also been an extension of this beyond the world of film-making. It has been an exploration of a way of making a film beyond an industrial model of filmmaking to one whereby the making is also an opportunity for learning together and cultivating relationships as a priority, rather than a by-product. As a friend once put it ‘making is connecting’.

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Re-learning Hope

Re-learning Hope

Posted by on Feb 26, 2014 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

I have been thinking a lot about hope these days. Reflecting on the places we visited on this journey and the people we have met, one of the most noticeable qualities we encountered along the way has been the experience and expression of hope.

Despite the adversity encountered by First Nations peoples’ in Canada or indigenous communities in Mexico who suffered the violence of colonialism, dispossession of their lands, repression of their culture and way of life or else by favela residents in Rio de Janeiro facing prejudice on a daily basis on top of the challenges of poverty and inequality, we met hopeful people and places.

People who were creatively engaging with the challenges imposed by the conditions they faced in the present and the legacies of the past by building and living alternatives. This in stark contrast to the discernible absence of hope we seem to be submerged in through the dominant mass media that inundates us, and the academic and institutional environments we are educated in.

I have been reflecting on a quote Gustavo Esteva, founder of Unitierra in Oaxaca, Mexico, related to us during one of our conversations. Quoting Czech novelist, dissident and former president Vaclav Havel, Gustavo described the notion of hope Unitierra was using. This notion of hope, I believe, gave coherence to their autonomous and collective forms of learning and engagement with the challenges faced by urban and indigenous communities in the Oaxaca region. I recently traced the source of the quote by Havel:

Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit.. […] Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

(The quote comes from an article he published in Esquire magazine in 1983 – available online – and is also found in Havel’s 1991 book. Disturbing the Peace.)

This existential, embodied and non-future oriented understanding and experience of hope appears honest, empowering and appealing to me. It also resonates with the practices of Unitierra, as well as other places we visited, and the attitude they are living by.

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‘Crocheting a new world’ – painted mural on Zapatista house in Oventic. photo by Kelly

By contrast ‘hope’ is not a word you often hear in the corridors of educational institutions. In my 20 + years in such places of higher education I do not remember ever having really encountered it, either as a topic of learning or a focus of discussion. No doubt it has similar ‘fuzzy’ connotations as ‘love’, ‘compassion’, things seldomly considered as worthy subjects of inquiry or conversation in institutions concerned with ‘knowledge’.

Instead these institutional learning spaces have excelled at developing and imparting the very useful (and valued) skills of empirical inquiry, analytical thinking, and – though some would argue decreasingly so – critical thinking.

In the social sciences in general (and I am not even speaking here of the humanities and natural sciences too, where this also applies, but that is another story), the tools of critical thinking and empirical enquiry have been sharpened for generations, with methodological developments and morphing theoretical paradigms. But the conditions within which such developments take place are rarely examined in any depth, let alone challenged. Can critical thinking apply itself to itself?

This question has haunted me for years, as has the sense that there is a largely unarticulated and un-criticized set of assumptions, habits of thinking, practice, belief and social organization, that are a part of disciplinary ethos and institutional life. Beyond that still, there is an unquestioned and unchallenged set of assumptions, practices, values, beliefs and social organizational norms surrounding our system of higher education (or more broadly education). If these disciplinary, institutional and educational systems where to be considered a society and culture of their own, social scientists would be investigating them, also challenging claims to universality and so forth.

My restlessness and increasing unease within the academic contexts I taught and researched in then came from this sense that the conditions within which I was working, thinking, researching, teaching in, where shaping my practices, values, beliefs and how I related to others and to the place I lived in, but in ways that were both taming and at the same time part of a larger and deeper logic I did not fully understand.

I could also sense how this taming, reproducing a logic, set of values, ways of relating, acting and believing was also affecting students. Students, like all of us, are bombarded with the negativity and sense of hopelessness of the mass media. But their capacity for critical thinking is also, hopefully, sharpened through the course of their studies.

Across the social sciences students learn about countless injustices in the world today and in the past, and to critically engage with various modern institutions from a perspective that also points out the adverse effects of these: government, corporations, the economy, development, technology and so forth.

This is a hugely important part of a modern education, the capacity to also understand the horrors of the world and carefully consider the causes of these. At the same time, given the triumphalism of neo-liberalists across the political classes, business and academia, there is also the sense that we are at the end of the road for any further experimentation – that the battle of big ideas and for the organization of society is over. Whether fully conscious of this or not, this has bred a cynicism in the corridors of academia, a cynicism and sense of hopelessness that is also transmitted to students.

This has made me wonder how academic institutions reproduce hopelessness by the taming of imagination, thought and learning, which at the same time devalues and delegitimizes other aspects of our human experience and capacity to learn. Aspects which have to do with the other ways by which we are in and learn in the world not only by critical thinking, empirical enquiry, analysis, but by feeling, doing, valuing, relating to others and place.

This journey has been for us in a large way about re-learning hopefulness, in the sense quoted above by Havel, learning that what we are doing can make sense even when other things in the world (media, political, corporate and academic consensus and its legitimized cannons of knowledge) appear to point in the opposite direction.

It has also been a learning and unlearning journey, in the deepest sense, with both happening simultaneously. Unlearning in as much as layers of habits, beliefs, ways of thinking, relating, valuing are brought into consciousness and, at least to an extent, let go of in the face of new possibilities.

I have always liked (Deleuze and Guattari’s) expression of how thinking, or rather new thoughts, emerge from a situation of shock with the world, when something new is brought to awareness, provoking us to try to make sense of it in a different way. Instead of falling back to habits when faced with the new, or taming it into an academic logic, through this journey we sought to embrace this shock of the new, explore it, open ourselves to it. In many cases the new happens to be really very old!

Unpeeling an ingrained logic and habit of thinking and the emotional tone of hopelessness is not easy. I think for us it has been gradual and is ongoing.

At this point of the journey – and looking back at what we have written up in these posts since October 2012, we can see some contours of what we have been learning and some key ideas and experiences that have crystalized, configuring what might be described as enlivened learning. That is, a learning that is not tamed, reduced or reductive, abstracted or detached…. Rather, a learning that takes place from our whole being and within our network of relationships with others, humans, non-human beings and things.

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Learning the abundance of a gift economy

Learning the abundance of a gift economy

Posted by on Jan 30, 2014 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

During our second week in Rio (Brazil), I received an email from my good friend Manish Jain, one of the founders of Shikshantar and Swaraj University, in Udaipur, India.  Manish was writing to give me the name of Edgard Gouveia – someone we ‘really should try to connect with’ as he was doing some really exciting and inspiring work in Brazil.

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Following through on our principle of openness to what-arises-along-our-journey, I contacted Edgard right away and told him something of Enlivened Learning – what we were doing and why. Edgard responded within a day and invited us for a visit with him at the small and magical coastal town of Paraty, located about mid-way between Rio and Sao Paulo.  He was there co-creating and co-developing a game project – ‘Play the Call’ which he said he would tell us lots more about once we arrived… Udi saw that we could stop and visit Edgard on our way back to Rio after visiting the Landless Movement University, which was only an hour from Sao Paulo.  We were a bit concerned about finding a place to stay, especially with costs.  I emailed Edgard and asked for accommodation suggestions.  His response came – ‘we are exercising gift economy as much as possible’ … plenty of space in exchange for us cooking a few meals!

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

I first came across the ideas and language of ‘gift economy and gift culture’ when I visited Shikshantar: Rethinking Education and Development in Udaipur, India in 2008.   Manish and his wife, Vidhi co-founded Shikshantar in 2000 as an open space for gathering together, co-learning and co-creating alternatives to mainstream ideas and practices of education and development (so-called progress). Aside from the many activities I engaged in while visiting Shikshantar, all of which included a generosity of time, creative spirit and skills, I spent hours delving through the deluge of donated books, magazines and other texts stacked on shelves that lined the walls.   In particular, however, there was a stack of self-designed, ‘copy-left’ booklets on a range of topics that Shikshantar had self-published on a back table. One of them, Reclaiming the Gift Culture (edited by Manish and his sister, Shilpa) caught my eye.  It became my first encounter with the language and ideas of gift culture, or gift economy, as it is often called. Reclaiming the Gift Culture   The Shikshantar booklets were available through contribution (whatever anyone feels moved to give).  I donated a small amount of money at the time to take several of these publications home with me. I found them inspiring and engaging –  I used several of these booklets and incorporated them into different classes I taught at the University of Bath.   ………. Back to Brazil ……….   We arrived into Paraty after a day of bus travel from the Landless Movement University.  We were without a phone and about 3 hours later than we had said we would arrive.  All of us were tired, hungry and a little car/bus sick from the hours of travel. Paraty is a beautifully preserved Portuguese colonial town along the Costa Verde (Green Coast), a lush green section of coastline in the state of Rio de Janeiro, south of the city of Rio de Janeiro.  The town looks much like it did when it was settled during the Portuguese colonial days – the buildings are all refurbished, left over from the colonial era, the majority of the streets have not been paved and have unique forms of large cobblestone.

Entering the old and historic section of Paraty on a rainy night, photo by Udi

Entering the old and historic section of Paraty on a rainy night, photo by Udi

It had been raining when we arrived and some of the streets were nearly flooded.  The pedestrian-only streets of Paraty consisted of large stones where we had to either hop or take large steps between them, because of the rain.  Not such an easy mode of transport carrying heavy bags and feeling tired and sluggish.  However, we all felt a burst of new energy as we walked/hopped deeper into the town in search of the house with the address where Edgard was staying. We finally found the address at a huge corner house, one block from the sea.  We rang the doorbell and no one answered.  Suddenly around the corner came three people.  We heard a loud, booming voice, ‘Kelly?  Udi?’  Edgard was suddenly there with two other friends.  He enveloped each of us into a big hug (quite easy for him to do as he is 2 metres tall!) and ushered us into the house. We entered into an exquisitely beautiful house that looked as if it could still be the 1800s.  The floors were dark wood, high ceilings and lots of windows.

Colonial architectural splendor inside house in Paraty, photo by Kelly

Colonial architectural splendor inside house in Paraty, photo by Kelly

The walls were adorned with signs and posters from what I was assuming were drawn by the different people that had been joining Edgard to co-create the game project.

Shot from inside the house with poster of 'Play the Call' - photo by Kelly

Shot from inside the house with poster of ‘Play the Call’ – photo by Kelly

We all sat down in the huge main room and a long conversation ensued.  The friends that were with him – Chris was leaving the next morning and was just passing through town as Udi, Marina and I were.  The other friend, a lovely woman called Adrienne, had been there several months offering her time and creativity on their game project, ‘Play the Call’. The intent of the game is to involve young people to engage more directly in making change within their community.  It had evolved as an online, virtual game that is carried out in real life.  Young people over the age of 8 are given a series of ‘missions’ to plan and carry out, each one more challenging than the previous.  In order to move to the next mission, each player also had to engage with others about what they are doing and why, take a few photos to exchange the story of how they had accomplished each mission – and have it ‘liked’ by many on facebook, before moving on to the next mission.

Hand-drawn poster, 'Play the Call', photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn poster, ‘Play the Call’, photo by Kelly

The entire project had been completed almost entirely without monetary exchange. The aim was for the game to be entirely accessible, for anyone and without any barrier-of-entry due to some financial requirement. The idea was that the planning, creating and establishment of the game should be completed in the same way.  In other words, all stages of ‘Play the Call’ (from its conception to its full functionality) were to become part of a gift economy and culture. Edgard had been experimenting with various possibilities of a gift economy to not only provide access to the game, but to set it up as well.

View of Paraty town from main room in house, photo by Marina

View of Paraty town from main room in house, photo by Marina

Edgard made the point that if you are clear in what you want and open to asking and giving (through acts of reciprocity) things open up, often beyond what you think is possible.  The idea of ‘Play the Call’ aspired to contribute to a more peaceful and just society.  But, to get things rolling, Edgard needed a place to stay, to host other people, access to food, technical expertise and people who could help co-create the specificities of the game.

Posters hanging in the house - made by co-creators of 'Play the Call' to organize process and intention, photo by Kelly

Posters hanging in the house – made by co-creators of ‘Play the Call’ to organize process and intention, photo by Kelly

Most of us are completely dependent on money to ‘do the things we want to do’.   I hear this statement all the time.  If ONLY I had the money, I could…. I would… Again and again – before embarking on this journey, and during this journey, we have met many people who stopped projects because of the lack of financial resources ‘it just became impossible because we did not have enough resources’. Yet, many, many others along our journey have used their lack of financial resources as a welcome opportunity to imagine alternative forms of resources to be more creative and further enhance what it is that they want to do – to reach out – building communities and learning (and exchanging) time, creativity, energy, hospitality, new skills in the process.  At the base of this, it has seemed to me is a willingness, a confidence and a courage to re-define what is meant by ‘resources’ and to see the abundance of what is around you, immediately available (if you can see it in this way), rather than seeing most of the world through a perspective of scarcity.

Goethe quote hanging inside house as point of inspiration, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Goethe quote hanging inside house as point of inspiration, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Udi and I have been trying to do this as well – where we can.  Coming from research backgrounds where institutional money is spent much more freely (e.g. – hotels, restaurants, taxis) during time spent in the field conducting research, we have been unlearning on this journey — by being committed to engaging in gift economy practices as much as we can.  Although there are obvious costs associated with flight travel that are difficult to negotiate (especially long flights between countries), we have been taking many long (15+ hour) bus rides, staying in homestays and with friends– as well as couchsurfing (rather than staying in hotels).  We have also been offering our skills with filmmaking and photography from a ‘copy-left’ (what is mine, is yours) perspective when we can.

View of the sea and mountains from the room we slept in, Paraty, photo by Kelly

View of the sea and mountains from the room we slept in, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Edgard had been searching for a place in which he could host people to help create and support all aspects of ‘Play the Call’.  A friend of his let him live in a house of theirs for 4 months, for free – a house that accommodated many people at the same time.  To feed himself and the people who came to help, Edgard reached out to local restaurants and food businesses and asked that they donate meals during the months they were creating and finishing the game.  For the technological expertise needed to create and complete the game, Edgard invited people he knew – to then reach to more people that they knew – to locate interested and technologically skilled people to come and give their time and energy. All of these steps of reaching out worked.  Gifts of accommodation, food, skills and creative energy were exchanged in this way through reciprocity.  The abundance that is there, literally right at Edgard’s doorstep – was not out of reach.  It just had to be located and asked for.  The reason it worked?  Edgard’s humility, energy, commitment and passion for what ‘Play the Call’ could be … would be … once completed.  Not just for the young people participating, but for their communities – and as a huge network of individuals and communities across the globe. As Edgard explained – ‘who can say no to the earnest and innocent energy and courage of children? — as adults, we are far more likely to listen to the views of children than other adults’   This was a fledgling, but very much living gift economy that Edgard helped to setup in the local community of Paraty around his project.  These gifts were actually alive – providing sustenance, energy… as Lewis Hyde describes the ideal of a gift in his wonderful book ‘The Gift’.

Another inspiring quote (this one by Williamson) hanging up in the house, photo by Kelly

Another inspiring quote (this one by Williamson) hanging up in the house, photo by Kelly

The gifts exchanged as part of the ‘Play the Call’ gift economy were imbued with a spiritual energy surviving the consumption from those individual participants – these gifts literally, kept the creation and development of the project alive… and they created new networks of community relationships out of individual heart-felt expression of hope toward the project.  These gifts as part of the ‘Play the Call’ gift economy were simultaneously material, social and spiritual. A gift economy or gift culture focuses on exchange as any economy does – but this exchange avoids typical exchanges that we are used to within a capitalist system.  In other words, beyond money … money is seen as one form of many different types of exchanges, rather than the ONLY form.  A gift economy and culture exchanges services, skills, time, non-commodified labor, care, hospitality, love…

From left - Edgard, Marina, Kelly and Adrienne - walking in the streets of Paraty at night, photo by Udi

From left – Edgard, Marina, Kelly and Adrienne – walking in the streets of Paraty at night, photo by Udi

… and as Edgard taught Udi, Marina and me, a gift economy increases the livingness, the value of the gift by creating community and bringing forth abundance where it might not have been seen or experienced previously.  Typical to gift economy or gift culture, there was the avoidance of the interaction of money or consumer good as the center point of the exchange. Gifts exchanged within a gift culture or economy, are centered on relationships between those exchanging gifts (which again Lewis Hyde beautifully describes in his book). Imagine if learning communities that emerged from gift culture were commonplace.  Imagine if our learning was to imagine, create and experiment with different forms of gift culture and reciprocity.  How much richer could our worlds be?

Flower petals in Paraty cobblestone, photo by Marina

Flower petals in Paraty cobblestone, photo by Marina

There are communities all over the world that are experimenting with different forms of gift economy – places like Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth in Oaxaca, Mexico), Swaraj University (that emerged from Shikshantar in Udaipur, India), transition towns creating local currencies and time banks, home-schooling communities tapping into the wealth of local knowledge and skills that are within walking distance of their homes… In various forms, each of these places are experimenting with gift culture and economy.   Last October, Manish and many others organized a ‘Giftival’ in Istanbul, Turkey followed by another Giftival held in Kerala (India).  See this link for a detailed blog posting about the Giftival event in Turkey. I hope to write much more about our continued learning and encounters with gift economy and gift culture as our journey continued… Edgard taught us about the possibilities of taking a brilliant idea and creating a living project and community — by finding the abundance that is right around you and engaging in a reciprocal gift economy.  We did cook those few days with Edgard — and he gave us the invaluable gifts of courage, wisdom, hospitality and friendship, to inspire us to notice the abundance around us – and to spread that awareness and inspiration with others….

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Arriving at the Marvelous City, a cidade maravilhosa

Arriving at the Marvelous City, a cidade maravilhosa

Posted by on May 23, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Over the past few months we have written a lot about land and landscapes and forms of learning that emerge from these. It might then seem strange to write about enlivened learninga learning that tends to reconnect to place and communitywithin an intensively urban and highly unequal setting which is the city of Rio de Janeiro.

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Rio sunset, Copacabana Beach, Leme, photo by Udi

We have also been writing about identity, often about indigenous identity, about the traumas of colonialism and the role of learning in healing, in re-signifying and strengthening identities and providing the space and tools for creating other stories and possibilities. All these ingredients, in their particular way, can be found in this vast and complex city of Rio. As groups, say for instance those living in shantytowns, who have been historically marginalized seek to be more fully a part of the city, of its economy, its infrastructure, its culture and its production of knowledge, innovative forms of organization, social action and culture have been created which provide possibility and inspiration.

Of importance to us in our visit here were exciting initiatives emerging in Rio de Janeiros favelas or urban shantytowns, the occupied settlements that pepper the cityscape climbing up the granite hills or stretching outwards in the peripheries. In Rio around 1 million people from its total population of 6 million (1 in 6 people) live in these settlements, some of which date back to a hundred years ago.

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Rio, classic view from Cristo, photo by Udi

I have worked with different groups in favelas since my postgraduate work in Rio more than ten years ago. During this time I focused on children and young people who were living or had lived on the streets of the city, with the incentive of understanding more about how they managed to leave this way of life. I then focused on how young people living in the favelas organise in different groups and projects and create art, media, music in their struggles against inequality. Over the next few posts we will explore an initiative that has been at the vanguard of innovation in developing creative forms of media literacy and production from favela communities and in broadening access to higher education, for its residents.

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Rio, Cristo in the clouds, photo by Udi

I was very excited to arrive back in Rio. It is also my home, the place I grew up. The city could not have contrasted more to the loud animated tranquility of the forest we had left just a few days before at the Peru/Brazil border. There in the National Park we walked through rain-drenched jungle paths in search of giant otters, stayed in an eco-lodge with a tarantula hanging out in the bar and had one of my socks stolen by a forest rat in the night. (I still imagine fondly my disappeared sock serving as bedding for a rat family somewhere in the jungle).

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Rio city map

Landing in Rio the murmurs of the forest were replaced by hum and beat of city life, increased manyfold by the coming new year party which draws hundreds of thousands of people from across Brazil and beyond.

On the night we arrived we attend another ceremony, this time with around two million other people, gathering on the shores of Copacabana beach to greet the new year under a shower of fireworks.

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New Year at Copacabana beach, photo from http://www.emirates247.com/news/emirates/world-welcomes-2013-in-style-2013-01-01-1.489400

This ceremony started decades back when a few groups from the city’s Afro-Brazilian religious communities (Candomblé and Umbanda), predominantly living in the favelas, gathered dressed in the traditional white to lay offerings to the sea deity Yemanja to bring good fortune in the coming year.

Although members of the Candomblé and Umbanda communities have declined in numbers across Brazil, in particular due to the growing strength of evangelical churches, the outer form of the ceremony remains as most people still dress in white and many light candles in the sand and offer flowers to the sea. Despite the mass concentration of people and the loud music thundering from the stages and the mesmerising firework display, all sponsored by the city council and various corporations, a calm prevails in the sandy stretch as we wait for the Gregorian calendar to tick over at midnight.

I imagine a great global penumbra, a sweeping shadow of time, of midnight, traversing the planet greeted by cheering crowds, each place at midnight. A festive Mexican wave of fireworks and champagne and hugs and kisses. I imagine that festive wave only works in places with a Gregorian calendar or the mass media has penetrated. I guess we all celebrate the passage of big cycles of time somehow and here in Rio we have the help of Yemanja. Maybe that is why people come here, to feel her gentle embrace along these shores as we send her gifts in the hope of a good and peaceful coming year.

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Rio downpour gets people off the beach during Carnival, photo by Udi

For me it also feels good to be where I grew up, know people, feel embraced by the language and recognise the thickness of the air, the smell of sea, plants and car fumes. Actually, I am reminded now that at least two people in this journey, both carvers, one a First Nations person from Canada the other a Maori from New Zealand, have told me of how the thickness of the air gives them a sense of home. I suppose it is the same for me, shame it had to be such a strange mixture of fumes! But despite the chaos, the inequality, the pollution and lack of security something creative stirs in this place between the hills and the sea and animates the city and its vibrant and hospitable people.

 

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By road and boat from the Andes through the Amazon

By road and boat from the Andes through the Amazon

Posted by on May 18, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road, Peru | 0 comments

The day after Christmas, somewhat reluctantly, we climbed on to a bus bound from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, in Peru.  We had spent just over a week in Cusco, staying with a friend of Udi’s who has been living in Cusco for a decade.

Originally from Ireland, Ev is now running her own (fantastic) clothing design shop called Hilo (thread in Spanish).  Her clothing is quirky, unique and elegant.  I am a huge fan – if you ever go to Cusco, do check it out!  She lives high up on a hill overlooking Cusco.  Needless to say, the view is sublime.

Peru - view over Cusco

View over Cusco from Ev’s place after a rainshower, photo by Udi

Alongside Ev’s generosity and several Christmas celebrations she invited us to, our time in Cusco was vibrant, uplifting and very full.

Peru - Cusco - lama and Quechua, photo by Kelly

Typical scene in the centre of Cusco, Quechua women and their llama, photo by Kelly

From connecting with old friends, meeting new friends, being introduced to Pratec’s CEPROSI through Elena, participating in a powerful Quechua ceremony (see previous post – Learning in a Quechua Ceremony) and climbing on the sacred Inca stones of Saqsaywaman, Ollantaytambo and Machu Pichhu, we felt disheartened to leave yet another beautiful place we were beginning to felt deeply connected to.  It is hard to continue being open along this journey, especially when it is time to move on.

Surreal rainbow scene unveiled at Machu Picchu after a sudden rainshower, photo by Udi.

Surreal rainbow scene unveiled at Machu Picchu after a sudden rainshower, photo by Udi.

Steep terraces of Machu Picchu, photo by Udi

Steep terraces of Machu Picchu, photo by Udi

Kelly reflecting on the surrounding natural wonders of Machu Picchu, photo by Udi

Kelly reflecting on the surrounding natural wonders of Machu Picchu, photo by Udi

The Cusco bus station was chaotic.  Although we were the only ones on the bus travel list just three days before, somehow the bus was now completely full.  Waiting for our luggage to be placed on board beneath the bus, a young Quechua woman was trying to convince the bus driver that her enormous bag of grain should also be considered luggage.

It was an all-night bus trip over the windy roads of the Andes Mountain range.  We were to descend over 3,500 metres from the high altitude of Cusco to the lowlands of the Amazon where Puerto Maldonado lies.

Thankfully, in spite of the questionable odours permeating the recycled air of the very crowded bus, we fell asleep quite soon.  I awoke only once and was blessed with a view of ice and snow glittering in the moonlight as the bus wound its way higher and higher into the Andes over what I guessed was another summit.

We reached Puerto Maldonado the next morning.  Very early.  Nearly 2 hours before we were meant to meet other guests also travelling to an eco-lodge we where we would be staying for three days, about 1 hour up the Tambopata River into the Amazon forest.  Unlike the cold thin air of Cusco, Puerto Maldonado is lowland jungle.  It was very hot and very humid.

I have been fascinated by the Amazon rainforest since I was a child.  I remember reading eagerly about the different animals, plants and people that populated this huge, vast region.  I could never seem to acquire enough information.

During my university years, I remember writing a paper in an environmental studies class about the debt-for-nature swap set-up (forgiving financial debt with the promise/exchange of preserving Amazonian forest).  That we were passing through the Amazon, to get from Cusco in the Andes, to the lowlands of Peru and then into Acre, the southwest state in Brazil, seemed to me quite an obvious choice that we should spend a few days there to explore!  This was in spite of the expense that was definitely over our very low-budget norm.

Peru - Sunset point Explorer's Inn

View of the Tambopata River at ‘Sunset Ridge’ Explorer’s Inn, photo by Udi

I had looked into various options to stay.  Over the past few years there seemed to be an explosion in the numbers of eco-lodges being constructed along the river.  The best deal we found was at the Explorer’s Inn in the Tambopata Forest Reserve.  It is one of the oldest eco-lodges in the area and one of only a few within the Tambopata reserve.  There is also a sustainability ethic that permeates all aspects of the Inn.

Boat ride on the Tambopata River, photo by Udi

Boat ride on the Tambopata River, photo by Udi

The boat ride to the Explorer’s Inn lasted about 90 minutes with a quick stop to have our passports stamped at a ranger station in Tambopata National Reserve.

Peru - Tambopata Reserve passport stamp

Tambopata Reserve passport stamp – definitely my first non-national visa!

It turned out that the couple with us on the boat were also from the west coast of the USA – from Humboldt County, where the last stands of redwood trees still thrive in the thinly protected boundaries of Redwoods National Park.  The Redwoods outside of the park are under constant threat of logging (similar to the Amazon).

Arriving at the docking point for the Explorer’s Inn, we walked up the muddy hill and along the elevated wooden walkway into the main lodge.  Inside, just at the bar area, we noticed a tarantula resting on one of the wine bottles.  We were told it was the friendly bar tarantula. I had only ever seen a tarantula in a glass cage.

Peru - Amazon - friendly tarantula

The ‘friendly tarantula’ at the bar area in the main lodge at the Explorer’s Inn, photo by Udi

Alongside a night walk to identify nocturnal animals, a range of insects, plants and frogs; a trip to the macaw and parrot clay lick; an evening boat trip to locate any alligators on the edges of the river (we saw just a pair of eyes), there was also a 10km return walk through the forest to Cocococha oxbow lake to see about finding giant river otters, birds or any other mammals, such as the elusive jaguar.

Peru - march of the leaf cutter ants

March of the leaf cutter ants, photo still from film footage by Udi

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The clay lick we visited had only a few scarlet macaws. There were not more birds at that time because there had been a bird-of-prey in the area just before. We did not take any pictures because we did not have our camera with us. This photo is from the Tambopata Wikipedia site of a clay lick – blue-and-yellow macaws, scarlet macaws, chestnut-fronted macaws, mealy amazons, blue-headed parrots and a single orange-cheeked parrot. These birds use clay licks to help them digest otherwise poisonous seeds that they consume. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Parrots_at_a_clay_lick_-Tambopata_National_Reserve,_Peru-8d.jpg

When we left toward Cocococha lake, it was lightly raining.  There were six of us in total – the other couple from California, two guides and us.  We were all wearing long rubber boots that were offered by the Inn.  The walk was easy and flat, along a well-marked trail through thick forest.  About an hour into our journey, however, the light rain became heavier and we were walking in water past our ankles.  I kept trying not to think about the return journey.

Our guide pointed out different tree and plant species along the way, describing different medicinal values.  The bark of one tree in particular, is known to have properties helping to reduce the effects of malaria.  I was the only one aside from him who volunteered to try it.  The taste was strong and bitter.

We arrived on the banks of Cocococha after a couple of hours.  The rain was now in a steady pour.  I had managed to keep my feet dry up to that point.  The couple with us both had to empty out the water that had filled up some of their rubber boots.

We were urged by both guides onto a boat – which was basically two canoes connected together by a plank in the middle.  Three of us climbed onto each side – one guide per couple.  The guides rowed at the back of each.

We were told that the lake had a plentiful supply of piranha and anaconda.  I tried to keep myself pre-occupied with the beauty of the edges of the lake – the trees, the unusual birds that kept coming into view – rather than focus on the rain that was gathering into small pools on the bottom of the boat(s) and consider what it might be like to be forced to take a swim.

Suddenly I spotted a few heads surfacing the water about 200 metres or so in front of us.  There were, in fact, more than a few.  I counted 8.

Unfortunately we did not bring our camera on the walk because of the rain.  The photos of the giant otters below are from two different websites.

GiantRiverOtter(Duplaix)_web

Giant river otter – photo from ‘The Circus – No Spin’ blogspot – http://circusnospin.blogspot.com/2012/06/giant-river-otter.html

The guides were also suddenly very excited, explaining to us that there was a family of 8 giant otters living at the edges of the lake.

Giant river otters, or lobo de rio (river wolf) are endangered and it is apparently quite rare to see one, let alone 8!  The guides told us that they had never seen the whole family together.  Due to hunting, the population of giant otters dwindled down to less than 100 in the early 1970s.  The population has risen steadily since then, but they are still considered endangered.

As we approached, they otters came into view.  In fact, they seemed to be heading toward us, swimming at an alarming rate.  They were moving faster than the speed of our rowboat.  All 8 of the giant river otter family were all advancing together toward us, extending their long distinctively patterned necks and making horrifyingly loud screeching noises.  We were invading their territory and they were not very happy!

Giant river otter - Wikipedia shot

Photo showing markings on the neck of a giant otter (notice the teeth!), taken from wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_otter

Giant river otters are around 2 metres long and are known to be aggressive when threatened.  The guides began to turn the boats around.  To say that I felt vulnerable sitting in pouring rain out on small boats that were filling up with rainwater on a lake with angry, screeching giant otters, piranhas and anaconda, is quite an understatement.  We were relying on the strength and expertise of our guides who also appeared to be a bit shaken.

The trail was a shallow river by the time we headed back.  The water was nearly at our knees every step of the way.  The guide in front of us was using his machete in front of him to warn off any creatures in the water.  I kept wondering about the likelihood of snakes, but as luck would have it, we did not encounter any.

As we tiredly walked into the lodge to return our boots, we were greeted by the encouraging shouts of the manager’s little girl who had told the kitchen staff about a pink python that had wrapped itself around one of the wooden beams holding up the main building of the lodge.  The snake was beautiful and seemed very happy just to be hanging out.

I kept wondering what it must be like to be a child and grow up in such an area – to learn about the forest’s secrets and vast knowledges embedded within the soul of each living being.  And also to look at the many tourists coming in and out of the doors of such a place with continuous curiosity.

Peru - boat jourey back on the swollen river after ains

Tambopata River swollen from rains, photo by Udi

The Tambopata area surrounding the Explorer’s Inn is a nearly 1.5 million hectare rainforest preserve that is firmly protected from being cut.  In areas where the Amazon forest is not firmly protected legally through some form of legal regulation, it faces serious threats from ranchers, loggers, farmers, etc.

As we drove along the highway from Puerto Maldonado toward the border of Brazil, the views looked uncannily familiar.  This was in spite of the fact that I had never been to this part of the world before.

Peru - cows grazing amazon forest

Cows grazing on deforested Amazon area, photo taken from moving car, by Udi

I remember as a teenager and young adult feeling an intense sadness seeing photographs and films of sections of the Amazon forest being clearcut with the primary purpose of converting the land for cattle-grazing.  Its aftermath appeared as an eerie open space with intermittent canopy trees left to listlessly stand and provide thin areas of shade for the overheating cattle.

The road we drove on was only just recently paved.  For at least 50 kilometers on either side of the highway was grazing land.  I noticed the intermittent canopy trees and felt the exact feeling I had felt 20 years earlier.  It was a feeling of mourning and loss.

Peru - canopy tree amazonian highway

Along the Amazonian highway, just across the border into Acre, Brazil, photo taken from moving car, by Udi

Udi reminded me that beyond these 50 kilometers there were vast areas of protected forest.  The Amazon is under continual threat from different types of intrusive development – logging, mining, ranching, dam construction…The pressure and threat of deforestation will not end anytime soon.

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