Once upon a time . . . I was 22 and looking for adventure. As a girl I had always dreamed of the Amazon rain forest.
After college, I found an American agricultural economist working in the Peruvian Amazon who was willing to take me on as an intern; all I had to do was get there. I got a student ticket to Pucallpa, Peru. I arrived in June on the eve of San Juan and the economist picked me up at the airport (which looked about like a bus stop to me). We bumped into town over dirt roads. At a restaurant not much more than a street stall, we sat in plastic chairs in the humid night to eat juanes, the jungle’s San Juan specialty: rice and other goodies wrapped in a bijou leaf (photo, selling bijou leaves by Jose Choy-Sanchez).
I joined a team doing participatory research in the area . . . the team was all local nurses, agronomists, and health promoters, I the only gringa except for the boss, a Canadian woman whose doctoral research project it was. We travelled to villages, by road and by motor boat, and we asked what they ate, what they grew, fished, and hunted, if they had jobs, if their children were healthy. The most remote was an indigenous village 24 hours away by boat on the Ucayali River, the major Amazon tributary of the region.
We slept under mosquito nets with the stars as our cover, sweating in the humid night with the buzz of zancudos in our ears. We brought food staples with us and local women prepared feasts for us. I arrived as a vegetarian and left having eaten giant river fish, small rain forest mammals, alligator, and wild boar, plus roasted palm fruits and probably a hundred other local fruits. Once the team even tricked me into slicing into a piranha, telling me it was the easiest fish to eat because it had no bones (the opposite is true!).
When we started out, I felt shy and awkward. I could barely communicate, I missed ALL the jokes (which came in a constant stream!!), and the simplest social expectations were a mystery to me. I felt like I was listening to everyone from underwater and there was a veil covering my eyes. Everything was blurry around the edges, never quite clear. It was easier in the field than in town, where I had wondered . . . did I really have to kiss every single person present every time I entered or left a room? On a Sunday, when we were still sitting at the lunch table talking three hours after eating, what exactly were we waiting for?? And WHERE did the toilet paper go??
In the jungle, protocols slipped away. I found a sacred solitude in a few sweet moments — when I opened my eyes to the gentle twinkle of the morning sun, slipped off between banana trees and palms for a “nature pee” as the oropendolas (yellow birds) made their drip-drip call over head. And after the long, sweaty, dusty day of work, as the zancudos buzzed hungrily around us, the big question was, where to bathe? The most delicious feeling in the world, sinking into cool water, immersing myself in refreshment. Que riiiico. Once, we balanced inside a sunken canoe in the river. Our skin was left with a layer of red river silt afterwards. Usually it was a bucket with a bowl inside, and pouring that cool water over my back felt better than any steamy shower back home.
Finally, I was upgraded to sleeping in a tent when I became fast friends with Yoly, one of the nurses. Her San Martin accent was so strong and full of slang that I BARELY understood her. I faked it. But she, like her companions, was so expressive that I felt I could just tune it to the emotional life around me like listening to the radio. I understood what her heart was telling mine, without knowing all the words. The women became like sisters . . . Carolina, Danica, Ingrid, Karlita, Rocio. We giggled as we fell asleep under our mosquiteros. Mama Vero fed our souls with her giant pots of beans.
The constant warmth and laughter of the team was a much-needed antidote to the hard life we were documenting. These were remote areas where life was a struggle. There were many sick children and elders; clean water was hard to find (we brought a microscope so moms could see their children’s intestinal parasites up close); deforestation from logging was devastating the ecology that these families had depended on for generations. You could see it in the children’s eyes; those who still ate fruit from the trees, fish from the rivers, animals from the forest, had a spark, an inner light, an awareness, that was hard to find in the children who didn’t have enough. The villages welcomed us with so much warmth. They welcomed us into their kitchens, their huts, their hamacas. They shared with us (we bought from them of course) the animal meat their village hunters brought from the jungle. (photos here)
The women especially welcomed contact with us. As we noted all the ingredients of last night’s stew, they filled our ears with stories of their lives and their struggles, their dedication as mothers to care for their families. They were hungry for company, often living in isolated spots, and they were starved for someone to listen. To be truly heard. And me, I understood probably 50% of what they told me, but I listened attentively, smiled or nodded or offered comfort when I thought (hoped!) it was appropriate. Again, I felt that my heart could hear theirs, even if I missed so many words.
The leader of our team, Jose, was an agronomist with endless knowledge and deep compassion for the communities. I sensed that he understood this work not just with his head but with his whole being, his life. He and his buddy Pancho seemed to know everything — I would pick their brains, asking a millions questions about the mysteries of this selva. The rains, the flooded forests, the fish, the fruits . . . What was this one? That one? Which animals ate this one? It was related to what? Do I recognize this plant as a relative of the tomatoes or the cucumbers or poke weed back home? Can you ask the hunters how they FEEL when they are tracking an animal?
It all blew me away. It flowed into my mind and my heart in equal measure. I remember when Pancho said to me, “Here in the jungle, magic is real. There are plants around us that are hallucinogenics. Things like love and magic that you can’t see, here in the jungle they are real.” The forests were full of love and magic, of medicine and community. Family. But it was being cut down and sold for a few dollars because there was no other choice. I don’t have to tell you all the historical reasons . . . colonialism, slavery, governments scrambling to dominate the land and the native people who are its guardians, the drug trade, terrorism, even the approach to agricultural development was tainted by racism for so long . . . all these pieces of history are here in living proof. My heart aches to feel it all again.
Flash forward to last week, 15 years later. Even in the jungle, today they have Internet, mobile phones, and Facebook. Jose sent me a message . . . Yoly and I will be in California with our two children very soon. My heart skipped a beat. This week, for three days, my sweet children ran wild with Yoly and Jose’s beautiful little ones: daughter aged 4 1/2 and son almost 6.
Yoly fed my children in my kitchen, Jose pushed them on the swings. Diego asked for Mama Yoly to stay with him, for Papa Jose to hold his hand to cross the street. I think Papa Jose held my hand to cross the street, metaphorically, back in Pucallpa so many many times. And surely Yoly comforted me at night when strange sounds kept me awake. To see our four children entangled together on the tire swing. Dressing up in my gold samba shoes and our play silks. It was breathtaking.
And sweet Santiago. He has developmental or neurological challenges (the reason for their visit, considering a move here, to find the support he needs), and on this long journey away from home and out of his daily rhythms, he must have been going through so much.
He came into our house and turned on every single light, to get rid of the darkness. He swept away the darkness, for sure. He raced around the house, making me dizzy. He pointed out every airplane that roared over head. They came to the Spanish circle I lead every week. I told a new story of seabirds and rainbows in the Galapagos Islands. Santiago was rapt, gave me his complete attention. He held up a wooly cloud over my little silk island as the story progressed. When I got out the instruments and started the songs, he lit up. He played two different instruments, one with each hand! He was right with me on every beat. He was smiling. I felt more alive. We played a little samba and I started singing the children’s names into the beat.
The warmth and laughter fed me, the children’s shining eyes. It woke me up from my half-dazed state of just-getting-through-the day. I remembered how alive I had felt in that crazy jungle.
True friendship and unconditional love, that’s what it is. Friends who saw me then, young and naive, so awkward and unaware; I’m embarrassed to remember the things I said and did back then. But they saw something in me anyway, even though I could barely communicate. They took care of me, totally. I was out of my element and in their hands. And they’ve remembered me all this time. I am thankful that my children got to feel their magic. And I’m thankful that they woke me up from a sleep, so that I can again feel the love and appreciate my children, my husband, my neighborhood, and my friends and family, in a deep way that I had almost forgotten.
Unconditional love is magic. You can’t see it, but here, it is real.
The day our friends left, Pepa and I waved goodbye as their taxi pulled away, and we felt so sad. To distract ourselves, we began to draw pictures. Suddenly Pepa said, “Es la selva!” So we imagined your jungle as we missed you and remembered our special time together.
Now she is reflecting on our days, so curious about all the little differences between life in Pucallpa and life in San Francisco. It’s fodder for her imagination for a long time to come.
Muchísimas gracias, queridos amigos. I miss you and I hope to see you again very soon!
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Top four photos by Jose Choy-Sanchez. Here are vintage photos from our 1999-2000 research trip. Below are more of Jose’s photos on the Rio Ucayali today.