Camisea River 2006Cabeceras Aid Project

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The Self-Sufficient Fieldworker

Tips, tricks, and lists for successful longish-term field research trips

Last updated: 6 May 2012

  1. Introduction
  2. Caring for your health
  3. Equipment: What you will, and won't, need
  4. Setting up our kitchen and feeding yourself


What is this and who is it for? This guide is a work-in-progress, first launched in December 2010. It is a collection of practical tips, tricks, and lists to help individuals or teams of researchers in setting up and carrying out a longish-term (one- to four-month) field research trip 'off the beaten track', in places like Amazonia. The guide is written for people who want to do their research in relatively 'remote' and 'rustic' locations without requiring much in the way of material resoures from their local hosts and collaborators, so as to both (1) minimize your negative impact on your hosts' daily lives and (2) allow you an agreeable level of independence and self-governance in your own daily life.

Who wrote this? This guide is being written by Christine Beier, a fieldworker for Cabeceras Aid Project, who has been doing mostly self-sufficient, collaborative humanitarian projects based on anthropological and linguistic fieldwork in small indigenous communities in Peruvian Amazonia since 1995. The information offered here is the result of 15 years of trial-and-error and gradual improvements made by me, the author, my fieldwork partner Lev Michael, and the research teams that we have worked with. It is also based on 15 years of putting together high-productivity, low-impact projects on extremely limited budgets. Therefore, the principal theme of these recommendations is simplicity. Our approach may not be to the taste of all researchers, because it often results in some discomfort and self-denial, but it certainly has worked well for us for 15 years...

Why write this? There is so much research waiting to be done in places like Amazonia -- especially the kinds of research that adequately document human and natural diversity, which require longish-term fieldstays in a single place, which is usually pretty far 'off the beaten track'. I have observed over the years that many would-be field researchers are daunted by not having suitable existing infrastructure available to them, and so this guide is meant to help them set up their own simple infrastructure. Also, there are many projects that require only one or a few field researchers to carry out, so those people need a lot of knowledge and strategies at their disposal to set up a solid, cost-effective, and efficient project that is likely to succeed... and ideally, even be enjoyable!

A written version of my talk on 'Caring for your health during fieldwork' on February 22, 2012 at Fieldwork Forum (Fforum) is available here.

Equipment: What you will, and won't, need

Personal equipment. A detailed checklist of recommendations for your personal field equipment -- from tents to clothing to personal items -- is available here.

Electronic equipment: computing and recording. Since what counts as 'the best' computing and recording equipment is highly dependent on the specifics of any particular project; and since what is available changes so fast nowadays, I have not included generalizations here. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this category.

Caring for your health

The indispensable reference book. Start by getting yourself the absolutely wonderful book 'Where There Is No Doctor' by David Werner with Carol Thuman and Jane Maxwell, published by the Hesperian Foundation. The book is available to purchase for $22 from the publisher, and it is also available here for free! as a set of PDFs. Moreover, the book is available in multiple languages, including Spanish.

Having a paper copy with you when you travel is a good idea because you can (1) carry it to places a computer shouldn't go, (2) you can make notes in it, and (3) you can easily let others read it. Plus, reading this book can be extremely comforting whenever you get worried about being sick; clear, sober facts are an excellent antidote to an imagination run wild! Of course, if you'll be working on a field team with me, I always have a well-worn paper copy available for your use -- just ask!

Your medical kit. Put together a basic medical kit in a sturdy plastic box, and always carry it around in your suitcase. You never know when you or someone else might need it! To state the obvious, always make very careful decisions about intervening in the healthcare of yourself and others, and only take actions that are sensible and necessary in the given circumstances. Click here for a PDF of a checklist for a basic medical kit (in english and spanish). Note that my recommendations are made *only* in my capacity as a long-term fieldworker who has had to deal with health issues in remote locations where there was no more qualified healthcare personnel than me available; While I have basic first aid training, I am not a titled healthcare professional!

Prescriptions. In Peru, at least, over the 15 years, nearly all medicines have been available from pharmacies without a written prescription, as long as you know (1) the brand name or generic name, (2) the unit size necessary (for example, 100mg capsules), and (3) the number of units you need. This is changing finally, and more pharmacies are requiring written prescriptions. This is good because it curtails the (rampant) misuse of medicines which, among other things, leads to drug-resistant pathogens; it is bad because you can't so easily equip yourself with a range of basic antibiotics. Obviously you can always ask your doctor for prescriptions for these things and then buy them at (usually) a much lower cost in, for example, Lima. Don't forget that you can not enter the US with presciption medicines unless you have a valid prescription to accompany them!

Clean drinking water. Traveling in any country not your own is likely to provide you with gastrointestinal challenges due to the different set of local bacteria. An obvious concern, then, is having easy and consistent access to clean drinking water. In general, the more dense the (1) human and (2) animal populations are around you, the more you should be concerned about making the local water clean. You have three basic options: (1) boil your water, (2) treat your water, and (3) buy your water.

1. TREAT your water. This is often the simplest long-term option. You can use iodine (such as Potable Acua tablets or Polar Pur crystals) or clorine (such as basic Clorox bleach). Put some water in a vessel -- a liter water bottle, a bucket, whatever! -- and follow the instructions on the chemical's packaging for how to treat the water. We have had excellent results with simply setting up a bucket in our kitchen (one with a lid and spout is nice) and treating a large batch of water every morning or so. The main advantage of iodine is that the brands I'm familiar with are sold in good, portable, safe packaging, easy to transport in your luggage. The disadvantages include: (1) you can taste it in your water at the correct concentration, (2) it is not recommended to consume iodine on a regular basis; and (3) it is much more expensive than clorine bleach. The advantages of clorine bleach include (1) at the correct concentration, it imparts no taste to the water and (2) it is readily available everywhere and inexpensive. The disadvantages of clorine bleach include (1) carrying around such a caustic chemical in liquid form can be risky and (2) dispensing it can be tricky. But there is a simple solution: buy a 5cc syringe at a pharmacy, throw away the needle, and use the plastice measuring plunger to dispense the correct number of drops of bleach into your water.

2. BOIL your water. Depending on your living conditions, this is a very appealing option because it involves no chemicals! But it depends on you having a place to cook. How long you need to boil your water in order to kill all the bacteria depends entirely on the basic cleanliness of the water. If you'll have access to a stove, buy yourself a small kettle (tetera) and boil up a bunch of water at the beginning of the day. Once it cools, you can store it in a reusable plastic bottle.

3. BUY your water. This is, in my opinion, the least desireable option because (1) it is much more expensive and (2) much more wasteful than the other options. But sometimes it is the only option, especially when you're on the move. In addition to buying 1- or 2- or 3-liter bottles of water, remember that you can usually get yourself some nice clean boiled drinking water in most places simply by asking for a cup of tea or coffee!

A word on fresh food. As good as they are for you in other ways, fresh, uncooked foods like fruits and vegetables are one of the most common sources of gastrointestinal troubles. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem: thoroughly wash anything that you want to eat raw and then soak it in a mild chlorine bleach solution, according to the instructions given on the label (how much to use depends on the concentration of the chlorine in the bleach you buy). Some sources say not to soak any food in chlorine bleach because a certain amount will be absorbed and then you'll consume it. So, obviously, you should use your own best judgment and be careful with the concentration of your soaking solution.

Avoiding malaria. If you are spending time in the jungle, you may need to take precautions against malaria. Speaking concretely, malaria has been a serious problem in Loreto, Peru in the last few decades. Malaria is, in general, (1) only fatal to individuals already in a compromised state of health and/but (2) an extremely unpleasant experience, worth avoiding. Here are the basic facts about malaria: It is transmitted by mosquitos of the genus Anopheles. This species of mosquito is active at dawn and dusk; only the female bites; and she does not transmit dengue fever (an even more unpleasant experience than malaria). Note that if you are bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito, 2 to 3 weeks of incubation will pass before you show symptoms. Early symptoms of malaria are sudden high fevers and severe head/neck/backaching. Be alert and treat malaria as soon as possible so that you aren't a vector to others!

Take the following simple precautions to prevent malaria:
1. Do not bathe at dawn or dusk when the Anopheles mosquitos are active and feeding.
2. Retreat to a mosquito net or mosquito-proof tent at dawn and dusk.
3. Wear long sleeves, long pants, and socks at dawn and dusk. I've never done it, but you can also impregnate your clothes with the insecticide permethrin; see here for more information.
4. Take a prophylaxis.
* I've always taken doxycycline -- 100mg once a day, always right after eating a big meal, beginning the day before you enter a malarial zone and for 30 days after you leave it. The advantages of doxycycline are that (1) it is readily available, (2) in its generic form it is very inexpensive, (3) as a side benefit it provides a level of protection against other infections, including food-related gastrointestinal ailments. DonÕt forget, youÕll need a prescription with you to bring the doxycyline into the USA during those last 30 days.
* Many people prefer to take Malarone. I do not think it is easily available in Peru. I've never taken it, but I've known people who have had no side effects, and others who have suffered chronic nausea from it. Talk with your doctor about the options.

Setting up your kitchen and feeding yourself

Cooking strategies. Depending where your fieldsite is, you will have different cooking options. The basic choices are (1) using a cooking fire, (2) using a cooking stove, or (3) hiring a cook (an option I won't discuss in detail since it is only a good idea for very large teams).

Cooking fires. The advantage of a cooking fire is not needing to bring a stove and fuel with you. The disadvantages are (1) needing to acquire firewood, which is time- and labor-intensive, (2) needing to learn to manage a cooking fire over the long term, and (3) needing to learn how to cook with variable temperatures. If you'll be using a cooking fire, you'll want to have the following resources with you:
1. A sharpened machete (you may want to bring your own file, if your fieldsite doesn't have rocks), and an axe, if you don't think you'll be able to borrow one. Have a local person teach you how to sharpen these tools.
2. Cooking pots of the 'campesina' style, which means rounded bottoms and a single wire handle. Pots with flat bottoms are much more difficult to accommodate in a stable position on top of firewood, and side handles are much harder to use with flames flaming.
3. If possible, pots with inset lids are much better than pots with lids that extend beyond the edge of the pot itself, because the latter style traps smoke and directs it inside the pot, giving everything you cook a smokey taste.

Cooking stoves. The advantages of a cooking stove are (1) having all the fuel you'll need with you upon arrival, (2) quick and easy on-demand use. The disadvantages are (1) having to transport the stove and the heavy cylinder(s) of gas to your fieldsite, (2) having to find a place to set up the stove that is sheltered from wind and poses no fire risk to anything, and (3) never knowing exactly how much gas you have left.

How to set yourself up with a cooking stove from Iquitos. Purchase a simple aluminum two-burner gas stove (cost starts at about S/40) and a válvula (cost starts at about S/14) from one of the hardware stores in or near the Mercado Central (on Próspero). Then call one of the gas companies (Llamagas, AmazonGas, etc.) and request a 'balón de gas' with a 'sesión de uso'. The 'sesión de uso' (S/90 in 2011) is a deposit that you pay on the cylinder and is fully refundable when you return the cylinder with this documentation. 10K of gas costs ~S/35 (in 2011) and lasts 2 to 3 months, depending on how much you cook each day.

Recommended cookware for your fieldsite. The following two lists lay out the basics. It's amazing how little stuff you really need, if you decide to keep things simple!

Click here for a PDF of this shopping list.
Click here for an XLS spreadsheet of this shopping list.

Part 1. Kitchenware for the whole team, to be bought in-country unless specified otherwise:
1 kettle (tetera) for boiling water
1 small-to-medium-sized pot for cooking rice, legumes, sauces, etc.
1 large-sized pot for cooking pasta, popcorn, etc.
(A third medium-sized pot is convenient but not necessary unless you are part of a large team.)
1 frying pan
1 cutting board (or plastic plate or tray) to use as a chopping surface
1 large sharp chopping knife
1 small paring knife
1 vegetable peeler
1 large stirring/serving spoon
1 large serving bowl (for serving salads, popcorn, etc.)
1 flipper (for frying bread, pancakes, plantains, etc.)
(1 rubber or silicon spatula, but nearly impossible to find in Iquitos; bring from US)
1 medium-to-large basin for washing dishes
1 large basin or 5-gallon bucket for washing clothes (2 for a large team)
1 container of dishwashing paste like Ayudín with a green scrubbie or two -- calibrate to length of stay
1 can opener (these are scarce in Peru, so consider bringing one from the US)
A small plastic container that seals well for storing salt
A few plastic containers with good lids for storing raw and cooked foods (táperes)
Several 5-gallon plastic buckets with lids for protecting provisions from moisture, rodents, and insects -- about S/7 to S/10 each; these can be tricky to find, so leave time to hunt them down. They are sometimes available from vendors in or near the Mercado Central, or from a shop near Puerto Productores in Iquitos.
For coffee drinkers, a 1-liter plastic presspot (purchase online in the US -- example here)
2 thin cotton kitchen towels
2 sturdy cotton cloths for general cleaning and wiping
(2 buckets, same size and shape, if necessary, for hauling water from the river to the kitchen)

Part 2. Household items for whole team, to be bought in-country unless specified otherwise:
1 Sharp scissors
1 Screwdriver with interchangeable bits
1 Pliers
1 Monkey wrench (llave americana)
1 Roll heavy-duty tape
1 Roll wide transparent tape
1 Superglue
1 Lighter
1 Small but reliable LED flashlight with batteries (best to bring from US)
1 Sharp machete (if you can't borrow one)
1 Metal file for machete (if you can't borrow one)
1 handful of nails of various sizes
3 10m segments of plastic clothesline (more for a large team)
12 plastic clothespins (more for a large team)
3 hangars for drying laundry indoors on rainy days (more for a large team
1 plastic scrub brush (for clothing, feet, tent floor, etc.)
1 handfan to fan your cooking fire, if necessary; chambira works well 1 Broom
1 Wall clock with battery

Part 3. Items for each team member, to be bought in-country:
1 all-purpose dedicated drinking vessel, like an enamel mug with their name written on it -- this (1) reduces frustration keeping track of your own vessel and (2) reduces conflict regarding dishwashing
1 all-purpose largish-sized plastic bowl for all meals -- with their name written on it
(1 plastic dinner plate)
1 spoon
1 fork
1 chamberpot (bacín), if bathroom facilities are inconvenient at night

Feeding yourself in the field

Simplest is easiest! Deciding exactly what food you need, and calculating how much, can be challenging and time-consuming work. Over the years, we have come to opt for simplicity, since you're at your fieldsite to get work done, not to have a 'fine dining experience'.

Bring just a few treats and relish them. That said, bringing a small number of favorites from home, to be consumed on special occasions, can provide a wonderful change of pace. These are the main items we like to bring from the US:
Peanut butter in plastic jars -- very hard to find in Peru.
Your favorite kind of chocolate.
A few packets of instant cocoa mix.
One cup or so of loose nutritional yeast powder for popcorn (It sounds weird but is delicious!)
One unit of your favorite condiment (we like to bring SriRacha chili sauce, or Tabasco, or Furikake rice seasoning, for example)
Wheat or soy gluten cubes (aka TVP)
Knorr pasta sauce mixes (These are expensive, but add welcome variety to your menu once or twice a week)
A handful of Powerbars, Clif Bars, or equivalent

Calculating the basics. Depending on the sizes and appetites of your team members, you'll want 1/8 to 1/4 kilo (that is, 1/4 to 1/2 pound) per person per day of one of the basics: rice or noodles; and one large handful of dry legumes (that is, before cooking.)

A basic list of provisions for extended fieldwork stays. The following recommendations are per person; calibrate your own list to the needs of the people involved.
We recommend storing most of these items in large plastic buckets or bins with lids, to protect them from spills, moisture, rodents, and insects!
All of these items are available either in bulk quantities in the Mercado Central or in a largish supermarket like Saby on Raimondi or Los Portales on Próspero in Iquitos.

Click here for a PDF of this basic shopping list.
Click here for an XLS document of this shopping list (same file as above).

Note: The documents above are more extensive than the list here!

Packaged items = Castellano peruano = Qty per meal:
Rice = Arroz = .25 to .5 K
Noodles = Tallarines/Fideos = .25 to .5 K
(Alternate noodles and rice day-to-day for your principal meal; eat something different on Sundays!)
Flour = Harina = .5 to 1 K
(Pan bread or pancakes make a nice treat every few weeks on Sunday)
Oatmeal = Avena = 80 to 100g
(The easiest breakfast possible; quick oats just need boiling water added, no cooking!)
White and/or brown sugar = Azucar blanca o rubia = to taste
Canned fish = Conserva, atún = .5 to 1 can
(We have canned fish a few times a week for flavor and protein)
Tomato paste = Salsa Rojita = to taste
(For sauce for noodles; to stir into rice; to flavor your legumes)
Powdered Milk = Leche en polvo = to taste
(To drink, to add to tea or coffee; to add to bread or pancakes)
Cooking oil = Aceite (Primor) = to taste
Ramen instant noodles = Fideos Ajinomen = 1 to 2 pkg
Coffee (ground or instant) = Café molido o Nescafé = to taste
Tea (lemongrass, camomile, etc.) = Té (hierba Luisa, manzanilla, etc.) = to taste
Cookies = Galletas dulces = to taste
Crackers = Galletas saladas = to taste
Wheat or soy gluten cubes = Carne de soya o trigo = 100-200g
(Available at large supermarkets, or buy in the US; add to legumes and pasta sauce for protein and texture)

Bulk items = Castellano peruano = Qty per meal:
Split peas = Arverjas = 1 to 2 handsful
Lentils = Lentejas = 1 to 2 handsful
Quinoa = Quinoa = 2 to 3 tablespoons
(Add to spit peas or lentils for variety and texture!)
Popcorn = Pocór, canchitas = 2 to 3 handsful
(Pop corn over a very hot flame in a big pot with just enough kernels and oil to coat the bottom of the pot; shake continuously to avoid burning.)
Peanuts = Maní = to taste
(Raw peanuts are often available in markets; toast with salt in your frying pan)
Fariña = Fariña = 1 to 2 handsful
(An easy, nearly indestructible snack or addition to legumes and soup)
Beans = Frejoles = 1 handful
(Note that beans take very (too?) long to cook, but soaking them overnight first helps. Red beans take the longest; try the smaller white or yellow ones)

Seasonings = Castellano peruano = Qty per meal:
Bayleaf = Laurel = 2 to 3 leaves
Oregano = Oregano = half handful
Salt = Sal = to taste
Black pepper = Pimienta negra = to taste
Cumin = Cuminos = to taste
Cinnamon = Canela = to taste
Soy sauce = Sillao = to taste
(To sprinkle on rice or for simple salad dressings)
Sesame oil = Aceite de ajonjolí = to taste
Vinegar = vinaigre = to taste
(For simple salad dressings)
Bouillion cubes = cubitos 'Maggy' = 1 or 2 cubes
(To add to your legumes or to drink as broth)

Household items = Castellano peruano = Quantity:
Toilet paper = Papel higiénico = suit yourself
Laundry powder = Jabón en polvo (Ace, etc.) = 1 handful per load
(Use sparingly; just soak your clothes in it for an hour or so, then rinse)
Laundry soap = Jabón en barra = 1 or 2 small bars per month
(Use bar soap for cleaning spots and stains, and for single item handwashing)
Dish soap paste = Ayudín = ~300g tub per 2 month
Matches = Fósforos = lots for cooking stove
Shotgun shells = Cartuchos = trade for meat or garden produce!

Fresh food for first week or two = Castellano peruano:
Cabbage = Col, repollo
Carrots = Zanahoria
Tomatoes = Tomate
Onions = Cebolla
Garlic = Ajos
Cucumbers = Pepino
Eggs = Huevos

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