Fieldwork

Today, everything you think about when you imagine field work is true. I got up before the sun, silently dressing in the dark because of a power outage. A moto across the city dropped us off at the port of what amounts to a large canoe with a small motor. We passed over a lake and then through a trench cut into the bank, the field workers laughing and sharing inside jokes as we slid onto the black water of the Nanay. I was close to falling asleep, lulled by the steady motion of the boat and the strange coolness of the early morning. We turned, heading straight for the edge of the river where I saw only unbroken selva. At the last minute, a tiny waterway appeared, forcing us all to lean forward lest branches snag our t shirts as we wound up the tributary, which was barely wide enough to navigate. We were dropped off at a dirt path, and under the eye of the steady sun, trooped into the village. The main square (if it can be called that) has a raised cement sidewalk, which is often commandeered by sleeping animals. A generator hummed steadily in the background. I texted a friend and she responded that she is jealous of my adventures. Even here, I can send a message to the other half of the world. (Thank you, T-mobile unlimited international texting.)

Maybe this isn’t everything you thought of fieldwork. There’s a small health post maintained by nurses who trek out daily from Iquitos, jeans, and cell phone signal. We bought Amazonian otter pops from a vendor, bit through the plastic and spit the corner on the ground. None of the chickens in this village have neck feathers, all of the dogs look different. The village is named after the sequoia of the Amazon, but none of the great trees are left. I have seen zero completely naked children, and Tarzan is, unfortunately, busy elsewhere today. But still, when you think of field work, you probably imagine this isolation, the trees knocking together, long walks around a village of bare little houses. That’s often not what my work is. Half the time, I’m sitting on my hiney, writing grants or emails. I wander off to huge hospitals in massive cities or make my way through a slum. Monday I’ll be in the shiny white laboratory, Tuesday I’ll live in Starbucks and Wednesday, I’ll go to the jungle to do “real fieldwork.” It’s all real work, but there’s a Hollywood view even of appropriate locales and activities for public health workers. You’d think Hollywood would have better things to do than dictate my supposed life, but apparently public health workers make excellent gentlemen and damsels in distress for big action movies.

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