22 and torn about my future
September 7, 2008 12:10 AM   Subscribe

i want to live/work with indigenous peoples in the amazon, write literature, and honor my immigrant parents by avoiding a hedonistic/freewheeling lifestyle. how do i do all these things?

i'm 22. female. '07 graduate with the top liberal arts degree in my state (aka useless). two summers ago, i interned at a sustainable development research foundation in thailand; for the past year, i've been the warden at an orphanage out in the boonies of new delhi.

i'm gonna put it out there: i want to be the next sertanista. i've an insatiable taste for adventure (i've trekked the himalayas alone, twice), and have always been fascinated --obsessed, even-- with amazonian cultures. as for the writing... yes, everyone and their mother wants to write for a living. all i know is that, for me, writing is the single activity during which my brain comes fully alive. i do feel enormously responsible to my parents and what they've survived in order to give me this life. so, while my dream is to disappear into the amazon among my journals, i could never actually do it. that being said...

sydney possuelo warns against waltzing into indigenous peoples' lives. i've looked into policy issues pertinent to the future of the basin, and they seem to require enormous amounts of schooling. it's been my experience that public policy grad schools require applicants to have 3-5 years of NGO/NPO experience; NGOs/NPOs, in turn, require applicants to have either advanced degrees or extensive administrative experience to compensate for the lack of said degree. this catch-22 frustrates me to no end. can't i just chill for a while in some manaus-ish town, learn portuguese, integrate into the culture, and apply for a visa/expedition deeper into the amazon?

1. is there a way to contribute to this region w/o (a) effacing local initiative and (b) being screwed over by this catch-22? if the latter is necessary, so be it ---please elaborate.
2. i've spent my entire life living in underdeveloped countries across the planet. consequently, i have only one "normal" work reference. also! i have yet to establish credit history. should i take care of these things first (and harness the power of compound interest...)? one option is to move to east l.a. and live in a latino community for awhile: learn spanish, work with immigrants, earn money, learn to krump, be a normal u.s. young adult. thoughts? older adults: which would be a better use of my young adulthood?

other considerations:
-i want to adopt children whether i get married or not. obviously, they're expensive. feasible?
-while i'd rather not rot in a cubicle, if i need to do it for awhile, i'll do it.
-i'd be more than happy to run around naked and spear piranhas for breakfast. in case y'all are worrying...
-my savings roam b/w six and nine grand. i'm extremely frugal and have no qualms about living in slums.

sorry this is ridiculously "specific," i HAVE read the may 11 and june 28 posts, but i'm not as pedigreed as those posters. thanks for your help, much appreciated.
posted by jiayeeng to Work & Money (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Go for your dream now. Keep applying for your ultimate job 'til you get it.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:21 AM on September 7, 2008

Why wouldn't you join the Peace Corps? It seems like you'd stand a good chance of being accepted and given your inclinations, you'd probably get a pretty far-out assignment. Two years later, you'd probably have learned a foreign language and garnered enough experience to get into the sort of post-grad program you'd want. If you're frugal, you'd come home with a few thousand more than when you left. As for writing, a friend of mine was in the Peace Corps, and despite no real linguistic experience he managed to compile a publishable dictionary of the language spoken where he was stationed, jotting down words for about half an hour each day.

You'd kill about five birds with one stone doing this.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:27 AM on September 7, 2008

1. is there a way to contribute to this region w/o (a) effacing local initiative and (b) being screwed over by this catch-22? if the latter is necessary, so be it ---please elaborate.

Probably the best way to figure that out is to go there and ask the local people. How you do that is up to you but quite a few of my friends have had enormously enlightening experiences in the Peace Corps or local versions thereof. Not universally positive by any means but educational.
posted by fshgrl at 12:47 AM on September 7, 2008

As someone who works with indigenous communities all over South America (and who, like you, loves adventure, has hiked the Himalayas, etc) but has no NGO experience, etc - I do have a suggestion: become an anthropologist or, even better maybe, a linguist. There are many dying languages in this region spoken by communities who could use dedicated, serious scientists to help maintain/preserve their culture, help them validate their own language, create pedagogical materials, etc etc etc etc. It goes on and on. You'll need first to pursue a doctorate and, as part of your research, you could go to the area and do fieldwork (assuming you have a hands-on sort of supervisor). From there, there are many options.
posted by mateuslee at 1:25 AM on September 7, 2008

(Background: have lived and worked in rural Brazil with indigenous people. Not the romantic Amazon itself, but further into the pantanal. So, I'm focusing on what life is really like there, because I think it's not as romantic, dire, or primitive as you are hoping for.)

Manaus, okay. It's a city, it thrives on tourism. You'll have a great time and learn Portuguese and visit the natives and can live in a slum (every major Brazilian city has them). (I warn you though: I get the impression slums in Brazil are a different animal compared to slums in India (where I've never been, but my colleagues work). Slums in Brazil are poor, and often lack facilities, sure, but they also have tons of money going through them and their own informal governments, police, violence, etc., all owing to the drugs, drugs, drugs. In your typical favela, maybe 10% of the people are actually involved in the business, but their activities shape the lives of everyone around them. I used to work here, too.)

I tell you, though, that successful work with indigenous cultures out there take a lot of time, and a lot of effort. It takes, without exaggeration, years to build the kind of trust where people will let you into their homes and talk frankly with you about their culture and lives. It doesn't matter if you're a foreigner (or maybe worse, a Brazilian) - there is a lot of bad history between Brazilian indigenous people and outsiders, and many of the cultures are intrinsically hesitant about outsiders anyway.

About lifestyle and education. Most of the indigenous people I met spoke Portuguese only as a second language. If you really want to get your hands dirty, be prepared to learn something obscure. The people who had the best Portuguese were mostly entrepreneurs (who went to the "nearest" cities to trade crops and buy supplies) and young people. Believe it or not, there are schools in rural indigenous villages. Honestly, the villages may have a better education system than surrounding areas because they are responsible to each other in a cohesive way that nearby remote areas are not. In the schools outside of the village, teachers often don't have books, and don't even show up to class. I'm sure you see this in Delhi. The teacher who ran the school in my village was one of the smartest and most dedicated teachers I've ever met.

Lifestyle: please don't go around thinking this is the lifestyle of the noble savage. There's no spearing piranha, you can sit in a boat and fish just like you can in Canada. Cattle are raised. Crops are locally grown and processed. A lot (a lot!) of people have television, telephones, and motorbikes. People wear Western clothes most of the time, reserving head-dresses and bare-breastedness for special ceremonies.

There are groups that do good work, but I think you'll find them best through local connections, and not through the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps has a mission, as a government arm, and it's not really aimed at working with indigenous people. Local organizations do have this focus. If you want to work with education in rural Brazil, you might look at the work by the Fundacao Bradesco, for example.
posted by whatzit at 1:40 AM on September 7, 2008 [8 favorites]

Oh, I forgot these two factors:
1) high incidence of alcoholism. Like, drink from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep
2) lots of sexual assault.
I don't like being "!!" but the former is very visible, and the latter is confirmed by local contacts as well as reports from government (e.g. FUNAI) and NGO sources. Obviously, it'll be a little different everywhere, but it's a recurring theme.

(Also, seconding the comments about studying dying languages. The people I work with were really keen on sharing their language, more than anything else.)
posted by whatzit at 1:45 AM on September 7, 2008

After reading and researching, buying and preparing - just do it.
posted by watercarrier at 3:33 AM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would say "do it," whatever the "it" is. Don't work in a cubicle until you have to — if you have more exciting choices now, take them.

People fetishize indigenous villagers in the jungle a lot; honestly, I think there are much more interesting and important issues to look at, but definitely follow your dream, with the caveats that whatzit mentions. Don't forget that Brazil is more than 80% urban — most Brazilians live in small and large cities, concentrated on the coast. So the issues affecting the majority of Brazilians are urban issues; if you want to have a greater impact (and to learn things that will apply elsewhere in our rapidly urbanizing world), you might want to spend your time in one of those brand new resource-extraction towns/cities springing up in the hinterlands. You'll still get to work with indigenous people, but they will be urbanized indigenous.

Or you can do the Peace Corps-esque kind of program, as a bridge from where you are now to getting the job you want at a major NGO. Honestly, you probably already have enough experience to get hired (assuming you've been doing interesting work and the people in the places you've worked will say glowing things about you), but two more years in a more formalized part of the development sector will prove you can do the paperwork and deal with the bureaucracy that is development work.

Language: there is a real tension between learning a small, perhaps dying language spoken by a people in one small region, and learning Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic, or another language spoken across huge swaths of the globe. The local language will let you do much more effective work in one place; a global language will make you mobile. If it's a choice, learn the global language; learn the local language as an addition.

Or move to LA, sure. Career-wise, long-term, it serves much the same function. You are learning a language and demonstrating you can work well with people not like yourself and in what will be seen as a difficult situation. Long-term, I think you could do pretty much the same things either way, get into the same grad programs, apply for the same NGO jobs, though Brazil will be an advantage if you are really serious about continuing working internationally.

Adopting you can solve when you get there. You already have a fair chunk of what an international adoption (if living in the US) would cost; and adoptions can obviously often be arranged much cheaper if you are at that moment living in a poor country with liberal adoption laws. No need to make big changes to your plans at this moment because of what might happen in five years' time.
posted by Forktine at 6:28 AM on September 7, 2008

And as an anthropologist (and linguist) who works with indigenous people (though not in the Amazon) I second going for a PhD in anthropology. Linguistics, public health, cultural rights and heritage management -- these are some of the big areas for research and activism.

Your post reveals a great deal of commendable idealism and enthusiasm, but a rather naive conception of the indigenous world, I must say (on first impression, no insult intended). If you're serious, you need to get more education. A PhD in anthropology, in a program where there are specialists in Latin and South American indigenous peoples, would be a very wise approach to your dreams. Write me on mefi mail for some suggestions about programs.

These days, being an anthropologist in indigenous communities necessitates being a cultural rights activist as well. And being anything less than full aware of the complicated (and genocidal) history *you* represent -- whether you want to or not -- when you show up as a young non-indigene in an indigenous community under pressure (and they all are) is a recipe for disaster all around. The indigenous world -- certainly in North America, Southeast Asia, and even the Amazon -- is crawling with young white adventurers wandering around looking for their own fantasy of the Native world. Don't be that, please (though from your tone, I don't think you want to be that). Do something useful by acquiring useful knowledge. Yes, schooling takes a lot of time. There's a reason for that. There's a lot to learn, no matter where you've lived or what you've done on your own. At a minimum, you need to spend some serious time learning whatever languages you may need to do this work.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are under enormous, extreme pressure that amounts to a continuation of the slow-motion genocide of the colonial era. Disease, cultural destruction, environmental destruction, and outright violent oppression are the everyday realities.

The biggest reason for that is that non-indigenous people will not *leave them alone.* That includes peasant colonial settlers clearing forest, hippie adventurers looking for their own bliss, government bureaucrats trying to administer and exploit them, and microbes all of these people are carrying when they show up.

You could learn a lot from visiting the website of Cultural Survival.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:52 AM on September 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

I should add a couple of PhD level fields that are equivalent to anthropology: there are a few PhDs out there in Native and Indigenous Studies (though they tend to focus on Native North America and the US, naturally); and a lot of virtually anthropological work is going on in geography/cultural geography and history these days.

But the long heritage of anthropological work means that the vast majority of specialists in Amazonia are anthropologists.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:17 AM on September 7, 2008

And oh yeah, to work in indigenous Brazil, you will absolutely need fluent Portuguese, no question; plus whatever indigenous language(s) are relevant.

By chancem, in grad school I spent a lot of time trying to grok the grammar of one of the Ge languages of the Xingu River Basin. It ain't like learning Portuguese, that's for sure.

You have to be serious to have any effect. Learning an indigenous language is serious.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:20 AM on September 7, 2008

Read Dan Everett's Don't Sleep. There Are Snakes. Read George Yudice's The Expediency of Culture. Read Anthony Seeger's Why Suya Sing. If you like what they say, feel free to write to them and ask for advice. They are all very nice people.
posted by billtron at 10:23 AM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: holy crap that was fast. a genuine thank-you to every single person who's posted on this thread. crazy comprehensive.

i hear three main worries: naive conception of the "savage" lifestyle, ignorant blundering into indigenous cultures, and selfish/hippie tendencies...

-"savage" lifestyle: haha. that line was supposed to be facetious, but i agree with whatzit and fourcheesemac in that non-indigenes tend to bring more harm than good. i'm going to look into every single program you guys have mentioned. thanks.
-ignorant blundering: the only thing worse than unskilled do-gooders is condescending do-gooders --i realize that. i guess that's why i asked mefi. i'm really trying to do the right thing here, and i'm willing to be responsible about it. hence the sydney possuelo quote. i'm glad you guys called that out.

the queries into whether i'm seeking my own happiness are valid ones. i went through a phase where i read migration policy books for fun; for a while, i considered going into that b/c i saw it as the future of development policy. but that sums up my life: i'm torn b/w going for what i want to do and what i feel is the noble, the best, the most just thing to do. i'm trying to figure out whether these are mutually exclusive options. thanks again. incredibly helpful thus far, keep it coming.
posted by jiayeeng at 12:08 PM on September 7, 2008

Response by poster: oh, i forgot. peace corps and manaus.

peace corps: i got three people to do it, and never applied myself. i didn't want to apply simply b/c i didn't know what to do after college. but if i have a goal in mind...

manaus: that was careless of me, i just threw out the name of the biggest city near the amazon. no particular fixation on the city. thanks for the heads-up on the favelas. i was going to ask about the likelihood of me getting raped/assaulted in that area.
posted by jiayeeng at 12:14 PM on September 7, 2008

I'll throw my two cents in, having lived among indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon and having maintained relationships with Amazonians for five years now. Living in a tiny indigenous community is tough no matter what. It's a lot of work just to boil water for a cup of tea, and Amazonian native communities (as they are labeled: comunidades nativas) are often political and nutty, as with any small, isolated rural community. There are several areas that are actively enlisting outside expertise to build wells, teach Spanish, help develop sustainable growth of trees like the chambira, whose bark is used in textile production. barging in, however, without an idea of how particular communities function, is dangerous and intrusive. The first time I went, I tagged along with linguistic anthropologists who have already established long-term relationships with Native Community X. I am bilingual, so Spanish wasn't a challenge, but understanding the nuances of the area was. After five years living on and off in rural and urban Amazonia (the longest trip being 11 months in an Amazonian city) I'm still figuring things out. I believe that a great way to make an impact is through consistency and mutual trust. I agree with fourcheesemac and whatzit; there is tremendous fetishization of the Amazon, despite being mired in postcolonial tragedy. I went because it was a free trip and I was free for the summer during my graduate school days, which are not far behind me at this point. :) I knew next to nothing about the area, hated it the first summer (those sandflies can get you down!) and yet returned. Again and again. And honestly, what kept me going back was the need for something that I could help out with, while at the same time understanding my position as a member, willing or not, of that colonizing history. And I talk weekly with my friends in Peru (thank God for Skype!) and I get back as often as I can. Live there again? Hopefully one day (I'm in a 9 to 5 as I finish the dissertation). And now I've rambled too much.

End advice: Learn Spanish or Portuguese. Go to grad school for linguistics, anthropology, or public policy and take a summer to explore - head to Pucallpa, Iquitos, or Tarapoto. (I only really know the Peruvian Amazon; sorry Brazilianists!) Volunteer. Test out your Spanish. Talk to people who've been there, spent time there. Email me any time. And be aware that it might not be everything you dreamed of. And fishing is a bitch - lots of netting, lots of leaking canoes. Everyone wears clothes, has a fully equipped stereo system, even if there's not electricity, and everyone has a cell phone.


Good luck! You're young - you've got plenty of time!
posted by cachondeo45 at 12:36 PM on September 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Excellent responses jaiyeeng.

Here's my view of the value of investing precious time in serious education if you want to be an activist in *any* area where politics, policy, science, and culture come together, whether that's environmental activism or peace activism or activism on behalf of Native peoples.

Lots of people have the emotional desire to "do something, anything" about intractable problems like AIDS or genocide or environmental destruction. People leap into ambitious projects of personal engagement in these areas all the time, only to be quickly discouraged by the realization that emotional investment isn't enough. Native people who would potentially benefit from the "help" of outsiders coming into their community don't usually just need passion; they need expertise. And people with passion and without expertise are all over the place mucking about in things they don't understand, including in many indigenous communities.

That skill can be writing -- the act of bearing witness, of going into a community and forging strong emotional connections in order to advocate for that community in the outside world. But you don't have much power as a writer at the entry level, unless you're lucky, damn good, and actually a fine writer. Think of the amazing Peter Matthiessen, whose work as a journalist has been tremendously helpful as advocacy for Native peoples. Doing that means building a serious professional career as a writer as well as a traveler or adventurer. It takes one kind of expertise and education.

Most of us will not write on that level, or reach the kinds of audiences someone like Matthiessen reaches. But there are *specific* skills you can bring to work in Native communities; and you can gain specific kinds of power and influence in the world from developing specific expertise and getting the credentials to prove it. You could be a doctor (or a medical anthropologist or public health epidemiologist) or a lawyer or a linguist able to help document (maybe save, though I doubt it in most cases) a dying language, an ethnobotanist helping a tribe realize the value of its traditional knowledge and environment in the capitalist world, or a scientist able to help document the destruction of a subsistence ecology. Then you *bring* something to the encounter besides sincerity, passion, and friendship. Those are fine things to bring to any human encounter, but the encounter between almost any first world Westerner and a fourth world indigene still living in a subsistence mode in the Amazon will *always* be inflected by vast differences of power and world view.

You could spend the next 6 years on your own pursuing this passion. Or you could do it in the context of getting an education and credentials that will make it possible to engage with an indigenous community in a way that leverages your power -- your access to education and capital, your freedom to travel, your ability to translate btwn languages and world views -- to the community's advantage.

Travel for personal development is a great thing. Seeking out new relationships across cultural boundaries is a great thing. But the world is not socially level and there are a lot of people blundering into indigenous communities with good intentions and naive understandings of the history behind their interest. Native communities in the US and Canada are acclimated to this in many cases -- they have one layer of culture on display for tourists and passers-through, and another that's harder to see from the side of the road. People who still subsist in the rain forest have no such defenses, and are caught up in a political struggle in which strangers often represent a violent threat.

Another vitally important thing to do is to form relationships with Native intellectuals and activists, which is another valuable thing that can come from going to graduate school and entering the relatively level playing field of the academic community. Recognize that the work of "empowering" other people, if it is not condenscending or patronizing in intention, involves forming equal partnerships with those people, sharing your own (often naturalized and assumed) power as a person with a first world passport and a good education.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:08 PM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: i'm gonna be very un-MeFi and defend my honor here. there's a recurring assumption behind the "white colonialist" comments, and i want to forestall future comments made under this assumption.

i am not a third world voyeur. after mao's communist revolution, my parents lived in a refugee internment camp ---you know, the usual. i'm not an ungrateful trust fund baby, dying to break free. i spent my childhood in a shanty in kazakhstan, a mongolian ghetto, a romanian orphanage, and an abandoned communist watchtower. (i don't believe in travel for personal development; frankly, i feel it's patronizing, self-centered, and very white. lynch me.) i've come a long way from pursuing what my parents wanted for me: a cushy career in medicine with sunny skies and a chance of offspring. it's ok; it's b/c they love me (and want chinese babies). i respect them greatly, and i don't want to be like every other g-ddamn kid my age who wants to backpack through europe and then write franzen-esque memoirs on the universality of beer and friendship.

it's just that my idea of nirvana doesn't include building a free-trade loft from which i can jet off in my prius to the farmer's market with my recyclable canvas tote. it is not my idea of happiness to cloister myself away into some intellectual monastery where ppl shrilly cry about "caring" but would rather neuter themselves than actually experience poverty. i genuinely appreciate the hard-nosed pragmatism of every single post so far (esp. this last one, fourcheesemac, precisely what i'm looking for), and i am taking them to heart. keep 'em coming. but please, don't assume i'm a selfish little fetishista. it hurts my pride.
posted by jiayeeng at 11:07 PM on September 7, 2008

No such assumption here -- you sound very serious and thoughtful, which is why you have gotten serious and thoughtful answers.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:03 AM on September 8, 2008

Yeah, um, I wasn't assuming this was a fetish either. I just really want you to know what's going on on the ground now straight from someone who has been there, and has no personal vested interest in your going on my tour, reading my book, etc.
posted by whatzit at 5:49 AM on September 8, 2008

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