Thursday, September 1, 2011

Third World Green Daddy 22: Working Dad

As soon as I got back from Haiti in late July, I had to start a new job. More than a year ago, my wife and I wrote a grant proposal for a project called the Muisca Garden project. With our town's archeological museum, we would study the crops used by the Muisca people who lived in our region before the Spanish, and try to promote these crops in the present day as a way of improving nutrition and income for our state. We had spent a lot of time and effort writing that proposal, and were amazed when, after much delay in the process, we were selected to be funded by Colombia's equivalent of the National Science Foundation! I would be the coordinator of the project's agricultural component, in which we would study ten ancient crops and promote them through demonstration plots and through controlled experiments with different varieties of one of those crops, achira.

Achira or sagu (Canna indica) is a tuber-forming plant, somewhat related to bananas. It is native to the middle to high Andes, where from the dawn of agriculture people have consumed it cooked or extracted its starch to make things like cakes and cookies. Today it is rarely cultivated in the Andes, and in fact its major uses are in Vietnam, where farmers extract the starch to make glass noodles, and in the flower gardens of Europe and the US, where achira hybrids give the showy flowers we know as Canna. The proposal of the Muisca Garden project is to experiment with different varieties of achira to evaluate things like yield, fiber content, starch, pest resistance, and whatever else farmers tell us is important for them.

Aside from my agronomic component, the Muisca Garden project has a social sciences aspect, and a forensic archeology aspect. The social sciences group will review original conquistador sources and more recent academic texts to better understand agriculture in general as a cultural process, and specifically Muisca agricultural practice. The biology and archeology teams will analyze phytoliths, microscopic silicon bodies that plants leave behind when they die. By analyzing these phytoliths in the plaque found on the teeth of Muisca mummies, we can better know what plants the Muiscas were eating.

In fact, I haven't yet started working much in earnest on this project. Another project came up that is more urgent, and I have been dedicated most of my time to being the field coordinator. This project is called the Four Provinces. Our museum was contracted by the state government to carry out inventories and registries of the archeological heritage sites in four towns of Boyaca. So every week we spend four or five days in one of these towns, doing fieldwork. The typical registry consists in taking GPS coordinates of each archeological site, filling out standard sheets about what the site consists of, its state of preservation, etc., taking professional photos of the sites, and marking each one with a standardized number. The novel aspect that we bring is to perform an agrarian diagnostic in the area surrounding the archeological sites. Through days of observation, interviews, and economic calculations, we come to understand how people are farming and what their income is like, which gives us guidelines as to the economic ability of local people to participate in preserving the archeological heritage sites.

Thus far we've done fieldwork in three of our four villages. In Ramiriqui, an important Muisca capital, we catalogued different rock paintings and massive carved monolithic columns, as well as a remote cave where the chief of Sogamoso used to come to sacrifice parrots, who would then take spoken messages to the gods.

Here is a monolithic column in a field:

And another one that's been "improved" by the construction of a hideous sculpture around it.

The sculpture gives the idea that the column was carved not by an advanced civilization of our Muisca ancestors, but rather by 9-foot-tall ogres.

Another column in Ramiriqui has been repurposed by a school to plant its flagpole. All things considered, it seems to me like a reverent modern-day use of the archeological patrimony.

The local culture in Ramiriqui is interesting. A favorite breakfast staple is goat's head soup, complete with a chunk of jaw to gnaw on.

In Mongua, a freezing, wet coal town, we marveled at lifelike statues in the village museum.

As well as some of the more realistic rock paintings I've seen in our region. Here's what seems to be a deerhunting party.

In Sachica we found hundreds of meters of natural cliffs with areas of dense rock paintings.

Each town has its own social dynamic, too. Part of Ramiriqui has an organized irrigation district, and the farmers there are generally wealthy (though dependent on lots of pesticides). The other part has no irrigation, and the people's poverty means they probably wouldn't be able to help much with protecting the painted stones. We recommend improvement of farm incomes and the establishment of a tourist circuit around the paintings. Mongua is a mining town, and as such has largely abandoned agriculture. We came to understand the economics of local artisan coal mines, and it seems that the biggest problem for the rock paintings of Mongua is that no one lives in the countryside anymore to protect them. On the other hand, the town's statues are held in a little museum that could stand a lot of improvement in its infrastructure and presentation. In Sachica there is a rock quarry that arrived maybe ten meters away from the painted cliff face before being shut down by the state environmental authorities. There is also a recent irrigation channel that has eroded the riverbank bordering the rock paintings. Here the channel has eroded away so much that they patched it with tubes strung through the air.

We've had lots of adventures in the process of our fieldwork. In Ramiriqui we slipped and slid down a muddy slope leading to the mouth of a cave. In Mongua we faced an impromptu lynch mob when we tried to take the glass covers off the museum cases in order to better photograph the statues. In Sachica we scrambled from rock to rock along the shore of a raging river, before finding a rickety bridge and solid ground. In particular, this last adventure was very stupid and pointless, and I was thankful no one got hurt. Here I am afterwards on the bridge we finally reached, giving a sheepish thumbs-up.

I've settled into a routine in these weeks. We usually work in the field from Wednesday to Sunday, then I go to Bogota to be with my family for a few days. The change is always drastic and difficult. I go from wide-ranging academic inquiry and freewheeling adventures in the outback, to the worries of city life, debts, bills, doctor appointments, household repairs. Then every time I have to leave Bogota I feel like I'm leaving real life and family love, for a monotone, solitary existence. Before I leave I hold Samuel and Caro a lot, and feel awful, like when a loved one dies or a girlfriend breaks up with you. Of course Sam doesn't understand that I'm leaving, and then when I finally return he takes a while to get used to me. After the initial shock though, I feel happy to set off on new adventures. Out there in the field, exploring ancient sites and present-day agricultural landscapes, I feel like Indiana Jones!

I'm getting used to this new routine. It's not ideal; I'd like to see my wife and child more than a few days a week. Once the Four Provinces project wraps up I'll have more flexibility and free time, and once Sam is a bit bigger I'll be able to take him home with me sometimes. For the present though, this is the life I have to get used to, my new life as a working Dad.

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