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In lockdown during fieldwork abroad

Imagine: you are at the end of your fieldwork in Peru and ready to go home when all flights get canceled because of Covid-19. It happened to master student Visual Ethnography Mark Lindenberg. By now, four months later than scheduled, he is back in the Netherlands. How does he look back? And what was the situation in Peru? What was the impact of the lockdown on his graduation project?

On 16 March, two days before Mark's flight from Lima to Amsterdam was due to leave, Peru went into lockdown. As one of the first South American countries, Peru took strict measures to curb the spread of the virus. At that time, Mark had been in Pucallpa, a medium-sized town in the east of Peru in the Amazon, for 2.5 months. "Everything was closing down and domestic transport was no longer possible. Then almost all international flights were canceled and I didn't know when I could go home again".

Staying in Pucallpa

Mark decided to stay in Pucallpa. "There were people who did try to get to Lima, but if they succeeded, it was still not certain if and when there would be a plane leaving for the Netherlands". He didn't want to get stuck in Lima, where he probably would have to stay in a small room. The virus circulated faster in crowded Lima than in Pucallpa. The virus was there as well, but it did not spread as quickly. Also, Mark had access to a garden there and was able to go outside more easily. Mark: "Lima is a very intense city, which absorbs energy and where it is very gray and polluted. I didn't know anyone there and I wasn't happy to go into lockdown on my own, without knowing when I could return to the Netherlands".

Too hot to write

Even before the official lockdown, people in Pucallpa only went out on the streets for the much-needed, ordinary meetings didn't happen anymore. Mark: "I had planned a few more interviews, but I was not able to do them". After all, Mark stayed in Peru for four months longer. He was able to follow lectures online, so he didn't lose out on that. "The lessons were at 2 p.m. Dutch time, so I was in the hostel behind my laptop by 7 o'clock in the morning. I really enjoyed working together with my classmates, although it was digital and remote".  During the first two months he managed pretty well to write his thesis too, but from May on it got increasingly hotter. "I got up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning to start writing, but after that, it became too hot. It was an intense rhythm to keep up. There was also a lot of environmental noise: rock-hard cumbia coming out of a generator or a tree being cut down. That didn't help to keep you focused. And when people see you sitting here behind your laptop or with a book, they think you're bored and start talking. I tried for a while, but eventually, my energy ran out.

No wasted time

Mark looks back on the extra four months in Peru with mixed but predominantly positive feelings. "There have been times when I wanted to go home, but I also knew that the situation in the Netherlands was not good either. At times it was nice to let everything sink in." Zooming out didn't work as well, because Mark was still in the midst of his research area. An advantage was that he was able to watch his film in person with his respondents. "It wasn't a waste of time for me, I could still learn. Not only for my thesis but also for myself and my future. When I think back, I remember mainly the inspiring people I met. The people who were there to help me. Even though I was in a foreign country, I felt very much at home there".

A still from Mark's graduation film.

Graduation film

For the master's in Visual Ethnography, Mark researched the communication between man and plant. Medicinal plants can cure people not only physically, but also mentally. Besides, these plants that are considered ‘teacher plants’, of which Ayuahasca is probably the best known in the West, can convey lessons through images or feelings that emerge. In his film, Mark primarily tells the story of a family of curanderos (healers) who guide Peruvians. The knowledge about the plants has been present in their system for many generations. The graduation film is now finished and will be shown to a limited audience in a cinema in Leiden in October. Mark hopes to complete his thesis before November and graduate successfully.

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