This morning we hugged school children with tear-filled, smiling eyes and waved goodbye to new friends as we crossed a gentle, muddy river in hand-carved canoes.
We had the opportunity to spend the past four days at Nueva Vida, a small boarding school only accessible by boat. The modest campus is located on the border of the TIPNIS National Park, a rural region of the Amazon Basin set aside solely for people indigenous to the area. Nueva Vida was built in the 1950s by a group of US-American missionaries and has since been run by the Yuracare people. Rarely does the community accept visitors from outside, so our welcome was a huge privilege, to say the least.
The people of the Yuracare region prefer to live in small clusters of 20-30 families along the river, so kids must venture outside their home community for weeks at a time to live and take classes. Students ranging from age 4 to 18 come to schools like this one to receive their formal education. Parents take turns visiting for week-long shifts to communally care for the little ones and cook large pots of delicious food over an open fire for the eighty students and ten teachers in residence.
During our time at Nueva Vida, we passed the time playing with the fearless kiddos out on the soccer field and scattered across a rec room floor. We shared knowledge about the geography, landscape, and culture of one another’s countries and taught each other hand and card games into the night (or at least until their 9 pm curfew) :). The kids excitedly looked through family photos that our group brought along and gratefully received stickers, candy, and homework help.
While the students were in school, we received classes of our own. A local woman, Doña Prudencia, instructed us for hours in her self-taught craft of weaving animals out of dyed, dried grass called jipijapa. The following day, a group of men brought us for a trip up the river to try our hand at fishing. Admittedly, we caught nothing on our own, but the experts brought a bounty of Surubi and Catfish, shaded on the canoe floor by a bundle of leaves. On our final day, we took a walk through the thick jungle, accompanied by a community member armed with a machete.
Amongst all the play and adventure, we took time to discuss the colonial impact on the region’s religion, culture, and daily life, modern neoliberal threats to Indigenous sovereignty, and the inherent power dynamics at play in our role as outsiders during our visit. We intend to continue to explore these topics as we reflect on this unique experience.
We have enormous gratitude for the community of Nueva Vida, who we left with full hearts and bellies. The learnings from these days are ongoing, and the memories are sure to last a lifetime.