One of the groups that A Villager’s Hand is helping to develop a sustainable fair trade business lives in the Amazon jungle in Peru. On my recent trip to visit several villages in the jungle, I prepared myself just as anyone new to the jungle would – all the necessary vaccines because the area has one of the highest disease rates on the CDC map, malaria medication, insect repellant, clothing that would cover as much flesh as possible but still keep me cool in 90 degree temperatures, and a backpack with survival gear. My husband insisted on the latter.
As a former journalist who travelled into war zones and other dangerous locations, I really wasn’t afraid. Sure, the Amazon has piranhas, alligators, anacondas and other snakes – it even has panthers and other carnivorous beasts. Instead, I was focused on the villagers themselves, especially their children. My husband would say I’m a big kid at heart, and children just seem to follow me wherever I go – they always have. Maybe it’s the blonde hair and blue eyes, but I think more than likely it’s because of my heart for them. What really stood out in my mind was that these children are growing up in a dangerous, disease-filled place, and their only source of water comes from the mighty Amazon River, or jungle run-off during rainy seasons.
Since the villages in the jungle do not have sewer systems, or toilets for that matter, the bathroom is anywhere they want it to be. Rain washes the waste into the pooling water or into the river, and only adds to the unsanitary drinking water they live on. Like many villages, the water is where they wash their clothes, their animals, themselves, and they drink and cook with it. Here in the jungles of northern Peru, the childhood mortality rate is 50 percent because of the unclean water. That is why my visit there was to join several volunteers to drill wells and bring clean water to these people.
Each day, I would travel for an hour up the Amazon River in a narrow wooden boat, known as a “peki peki” for the noise its tiny motor makes. The boat has a palm frond roof, shielding us from the burning sun. And when I arrived in the villages each day, I set up to work preparing clay that would secure the sandy walls of the well as we drilled, preventing them from collapsing. I worked in buckets of water up to my elbows, smashing the clay in the water until it became like a thick soup. On my first day, little girls that lived next to the well would shyly walk past me, carrying a small orange kitten. I called out to them in Spanish, and they giggled and would tell me their names and their ages, then run off. Sometimes they came by with the kitten following them, and they would then scoop it up and hand it to me to pet with my muddy hands.
On one afternoon, I sat underneath a small tree, trying to find what little bit of shade I could from the equatorial sun. After all, blonde hair and blue eyes comes with fair skin that doesn’t tolerate the Peruvian sun . The black biting flies were terrible on this trip, and I was constantly having to swish them away. Their bites were not only painful, they drew blood that left an open wound exposed to the bacteria and organisms in the water I was using. I found that if I lathered any exposed skin with clay, it seemed to help. But on this particular day, I kept feeling something tickling my back, and would reach around to swish the bugs away. They persisted. I swished. I felt another tickle. I finally turned around to see this persistent pest, and there in the tree above me was my shadow, a little girl named Sarai! It was her toes brushing my back as they dangled above me. I laughed and told her I didn’t know she could climb like a monkey. It was nice to have my little companion as I worked.
Every day I visited the villages, I looked for my little friends. We brought bubbles to blow, games to play, balloons for them to blow, and lollipops of course. But the reality was that on my next trip to the villages, many of my little friends may no longer be there – with a mortality rate of 50 percent that meant I was seeing some of them for the last time.
On my last day in their village, I saw my little friends that had brought me their orange kitten to pet. This time, we would say goodbye. Sarai had a small bird in her hands today, not the kitten. Since the jungle is filled with all kinds of exotic birds, I was a little intrigued at how these kids would make pets of them. I considered her a little lucky that she could explore the world the way she does. I got my camera and approached her little group of friends to gather them for one last picture, bird included. And when I set up my camera, I happened to glance down to the ground nearby and saw what was left of the little orange kitten. It had probably been dead a day or two, but in this heat, maybe less. Nature’s little cleaning crew were already at work on the kitten. Sarai must have seen what I was looking at, and very in a very matter of fact tone informed me that the kitten had died. To her, it was as if she had told me it was Saturday, or that the sun was up. Nothing more. And I realized that in a place where 50 percent of your friends will never reach adulthood – in a place where death is so common, then there was no reason to get upset over a kitten. It just didn’t mean to these jungle children what it would mean to a child here at home. How sad, yet how profound.