"Building Resilience In the Amazon" by Assistant Head of School and Head of the Middle School John Gifford
We took a relatively short flight from Quito (where, due to the altitude, a walk to the hotel elevator was like a trek up a mountainside) to Coca. From there we flung our bags on top of a bus which drove us for 30 minutes to the banks of a tributary of the Amazon River called the Rio Napo. Long, thin canoes are the preferred mode of transport on the Amazon — not just for two but for much larger parties as well so approximately 15 of us boarded a motorized version that was no wider than six feet but 25 feet long. For two and a half hours we churned up the roiling Amazon, miky with silt and dotted with hidden rocks and snagged branches that our “capitán” knew and avoided — seemingly without paying any attention.
From there we hiked for 30 minutes (although, I sheepishly acknowledge that the luggage I referenced before was hauled by two men with a large wheelbarrow-like contraption). Each yard we’d travelled from Quito brought us further away from what we call “civilization.” We went from crowds to scattered numbers to individuals standing along the banks of Rio Napo waving as if they’d been expecting us.
From there we were met by two sturdy and pleasant men who (by now, you are undoubtedly relieved) were to paddle us the 25 minutes to our final destination; the Sacha Lodge in the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador.
All that, a somewhat indulgent way of saying that we were really out there. This was beautiful, largely untouched land. Sacha Lodge was well equipped, but it seemed like a guest to the surrounding wildness, we couldn’t escape the feeling that if left untended for even a short period of time, the jungle would reclaim anything that man had carved out.
The location was extraordinary but the experience was “made” by the guides. Fausto and his father-in-law are members of a nearby tribe that has become greatly modernized over the past 50 years. While they are nostalgic for their youth when fresh water pink dolphins were abundant and the sky was free of the steady plumes of white smoke from the oil fields, they appreciate and enjoy jobs with the growing ecotourism economy. It has provided them with a better life for them and their family. They work to embrace the changes that are helpful and, like many peoples whose culture is being challenged by outside influences, they struggle to hold onto traditions that are important.
It is one of those traditions that caused me to write a note to myself last spring.
“April 16 - Should do some more research, but consider the story that Fausto told me last night. The “rights [sic] of passage” that his people put their children through. A potential Parents Newsletter topic...”
Ten days before Fausto’s tenth birthday his father came to him while holding a small bowl. He’d been muddling a locally grown species of pepper. It was an extraordinarily hot species of pepper. Fausto knew that it was coming. He felt a mixture of pride in the fact that he was about to undertake an important rite of passage, meant to usher in “adulthood.” He was told to look at the ceiling and his father held open his eyelids with his thumb and one finger and put two drops of the pepper fluid in each eye.
The pain, Fausto remembered, was excruciating. He lost vision for a short period of time. Later he could see, but stars also streaked across his vision. It was six brutal hours before the pain subsided. The relief was blissful but relatively short lived. This would be a daily ritual for each of the ten days leading up to his birthday.
My daughter Olive was with me, listening intently. She is 11 years old and I imagined holding her eyes open to inflict lasting pain. I don’t think I could do it. But Fausto did the same to his own children and he was adamant in his reasoning.
The basic idea was that living in the Amazon is hard in all ways. The jungle can be unforgiving where tasks that are easy in the city are a huge burden. And the poverty, he said, was demoralizing. When Fausto completed those 10 days he felt changed. He had survived unspeakable pain but he was on the other side of it. It showed him that he could be a survivor and that pain doesn’t last forever. It gave him great confidence in his ability to persevere.
It made some sense to me. His tribal tradition was an exercise in safe pain. It was a controlled painful event meant to teach resilience. Resilience is a hot topic nowadays in large part because we think that some of our children are lacking it. Many fear that it is the result of an over-protected, perhaps over-parented, culture shift. We want the best for our children and when it doesn’t happen we feel their pain almost as acutely as they do (maybe more so). Our reaction is often to try to dull the pain or fix the situation.
I suppose the lesson from Fausto’s hot peppers in the eyes is not too far from Wendy Mogel’s Blessing of the B-. In that book, Mogel suggests that the act of facing down fears, pain and disappointment is what allows young people to become healthy adults. Absence of difficulty and even pain means that the resilience-building opportunities are missed.
Unfortunately, adolescence comes with plenty of opportunities for pain, shame, guilt and disappointment. I’m not suggesting that we need to rush down to the supermarket for a fresh habanero. But I am suggesting that when the inevitable painful moment comes down the pike, while it may be something that needs solving, it might be something that just calls for sympathy. Then, the hope is, that with time and perspective, the pain recedes and vision is restored.