We awaken most mornings before dawn to the rhythmic tappity-tappity-tappity of the engines as the crew prepares to move the boat upstream to the next pueblocito, the next village. This journey began at Nauta, some 50-60 miles south of Iquitos in equatorial Peru, where the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañon rivers, along with countless tributaries, give rise to the headwaters of the mighty Amazon.
Here, it is everywhere and everything. It is the nexus. It is the unstoppable force. Without the river, there is no life. It is also loaded with parasites and bacteria. Drinking its water will cause many to suffer, even die. As the source of basic existence for the indigenous, the Amazon sadly can and will take life as easily as it gives it.
We each have our reasons for being here, but as for me, it is a test. Something I both wanted and felt compelled to do. To face this implausible dichotomy of life and death. To face the humility of our pitiful existence in the face of immensity. Not to change a way of life or to destroy one, but to learn from it. Maybe bring a modicum of relief to a small few. To bring, as the name of our ship announces, hope.
Our team, like any individual, presents many facets. A young Peruvian physician, who practices most of the optometry on our mission, is our leader and, quite appropriately, our vision. She who organized the trip, the obstetrician with faith to move mountains, is our foundation. The doctor from Kansas City in the prime of his career provides our strength and drive; the dentist from Iowa, with the soft smile and surely a painless practitioner if there ever was one, our compassion. The young resident with her optimistic exuberance supplies our energy and vitality, all melded by two pharmacists, a nurse, three translators, our spiritual leader and more.
And me? The middle-age burn-out? I am the doubt. The fear. That nagging voice which questions whether I should take this trip. Do I have what it takes to face this task? Can I make a difference?
Each day begins with rain, with fog, which yields to the intense sunshine and stifling heat of the jungle, to be relieved finally by dusk, only then to be replaced by the relentless sorties flown by the endless squadrons of mosquitoes. Every day I feel the growing ache in my back, the continual bite of flies and bugs, and the ever-present sense of itching, sweat and grime. I am but a visitor in this place, who samples only a taste of what these people live day after day, year after year. Every facet of my person is being tasked and tested. And defined.
Village after village, day after day, patient after patient, it is the same. Ringworm, hookworms, round worms. Impetigo and strep. Tinea, scabies, and countless other rashes. El gripe y tos. Giardia, dehydration, and diarrhea. And of course, malaria. Government health teams are supposed to screen for and treat it, but we still see the occasional case. We dole out albendazole, fluconazole, benzoato, cremas and antibiotics for as long as they last, often having nothing to offer but vitaminas for nutritional support and a little paracetanol or ibuprofeno for the fevers and aches and el dolor de vida. But you’d be surprised how far a smile seems to go.
Evenings are spent in their villages as friends, welcomed with open arms. Señoras converse in small groups, girls peddle their homemade jewelry and pottery from the steps of their huts, dogs and chickens intermix underfoot. The children follow us like the Pied Piper, ever curious, gobbling the los dulces and los caramelos that we bring. The young men battle in an omnipresent game of fútbol; laughter is similarly omnipresent.
It is community. In what we might describe as a primitive and poor existence, the villagers exude happiness and a zest for life. Truly, what makes a happy life but being in the moment? They have much to teach us, for they seem so much closer to what we desperately seek in our modern world of abundance.
Their children live precariously, on the banks of the massive river, on the edge of their stilted huts, on the brink of illness. But they live. They play. They grow. By our measure, it might appear substandard, even neglectful. Yet I see no catastrophes, no failures, no child left behind. The parents love their children no less than we. Perhaps even more so, maybe a little more unconditionally, since life here seems that much more precious. Were we given so little, could we do as well?
Time seems suspended here. Being disconnected from electronics and mass media, the outside world fades away. I forget about my home, my job, my life, even what day it is. Without the distractions of the world from which I come, my focus is upon life itself — existing and living. The filter of privilege has been removed, and the message resonates deeply in my eyes and in my ears and in my heart, if not my soul.
The waters of the Amazon are vast, overwhelmingly so. Facing its expanse, I know I am insignificant and powerless. Yet as I watch these people, I am bolstered. They humbly receive what the jungle provides and the river proffers and ask little or nothing in return. They float with the current of the river on their boats, and, when forced upstream, they paddle with a slow and steady stroke. I stepped from the plane with the best of intentions, longing to experience a different world, but to my good fortune, a whole different perspective unveiled before me.
Indigenous peoples of the Third World do not have a stranglehold on suffering, but they, unlike most middle-class Americans, do spend the majority of their lives dangling within its grasp. I came to this place expecting dismay or fear or desperation. In its place I found strength, resilience and purpose — all basic ingredients for faith. I came to give them hope. Instead, it is they who have given me hope.
Kirk Shamley is an OB/GYN from Cheyenne, Wyoming, who spent nine days in March 2010 with Amazon Hope, a charity that brings medical assistance to those living along the river. Email him at KirkSMD@aol.com. For more information, see Amazon Hope Project and Vine Trust.