The history of this story involves Peg Meyer and Airline Ambassadors making a commitment to buy 2 radios for the villages on the Napo River in the Amazon Rainforest of Peru, after her visit last Sept. 2004. Two months later in November, Renzo Peña and I visited to the clinic in Mazan, a little town on the Napo River. We wanted to discuss the idea with Dr. Ronald Pinchon and his staff as to the best village with which to begin. Sadly, we found out that Dr. Ronald himself had never even been to most of the villages on the Napo River. Since there is little money from the government for gasoline, the staff at the clinic in Mazan waits for the people to come to them when sick, rather than go to them. Even though we basically decided which village to start with, we have always wanted to include the people in Mazan in any of our activities that concern health care, as they are the oversight clinic designated by the government for many of the villages on the Napo River. In turn, they have shown great trust in me and helped me in many ways, including allowing me to use their boat on my past visits.
San Juan de Floresta, population 170, sits high on a bluff above the Napo River and we had chosen it as the first village to receive a radio, as it is on the outer perimeter of the villages in the lower Napo River and somewhat isolated. Since we have no communication with the villages before we arrive, our visits are always unannounced. We told them in November that we would be installing a radio in their village, but would need for them to build a hut for protection from the elements. They were so excited and promised that it would be done by February.
Meanwhile Peg Meyer forwarded monies for the radio and equipment. We purchased everything in Lima as it was cheaper than buying in Iquitos, as those stores are supplied by Lima distributors. We did get the battery in Iquitos to avoid extra weight costs when flying. Renzo built the crate for the solar panel. Luggage handlers aside, everything arrived to Iquitos safely. We did decide to forego the public boat to Mazan in favor of a private speed boat to transport our things.
As plans would have it, we didn’t return to their village until March, and as we reached the top of the hill, lugging the radio and crated solar panel, we saw that the hut was only partially finished. Arriving unexpected, we found that there were no men around to ask about it. The women said that they ran out of nails. Ran out of nails? Was this true? Or was it just an excuse not to finish it? I didn’t know, but I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that maybe they weren’t taking us seriously. Renzo and our friend John Waymire went ahead with their chores of laying out the cabling and choosing possible trees for the antennas. We said that we would return in the early morning to talk with the men.
The sight the next morning was a first for us. At the river bank were at least 10 men waiting. Never have we been greeted by men – it is always women and children - and mostly children. Big friendly smiles and hand shakes were exchanged and up the hill we all proceeded. Yes, the men told us, they ran out of nails. We gave them $40 for nails and transportation to get the nails. Then Renzo and John huddled together with the men on the partially finished hut and discussed what was needed. I took lots of photos (which were subsequently lost) and played with the children. After that we hauled the radio and equipment back to the boat, and eventually left it in the clinic closet in Mazan under lock and key. We told the people that we would return the last week in June for the installation. They promised a celebration.
So on June 28, 2005, Renzo and I and 4 women from the US left from the Productores Market in Iquitos on our first trip down river in our new boat. I was very excited as this was also the first time that I had seen our 30-foot aluminum boat with the name painted on the side in red lettering, the Lady Di. It has seating for 12 people, and a nice vinyl covering over the top and sides for protection against the intense sun and frequent rain showers. Our good friend Raul Petit took time off his regular job as a guide to be our motorista, boat driver.
Our first stop was the clinic in Mazan, about an hour down the Amazon River. Two days previous we had called Dr. Ronald on his cellular phone from Lima and it sounded as if everything was in order for our visit. When we arrived, we found that neither Dr. Ronald nor Dr. Rivas were there, both having stayed in Iquitos. Also missing were the nurses, who are the keepers of the keys to the closet. The “closet” is a locked room, where in the past and now, we have kept much of our jungle stuff so we didn’t have to transport it up and down the river, and back and forth to Lima. Right now our radio and equipment were locked away in that room, and it seemed that either no one knew, or cared about the location of the keys.
After talking with several disinterested staff members, who were new and did not know us, Renzo finally convinced one of them to call Dr. Ronald in Iquitos. Off they went to one of the 2 phones in Mazan and got phone approval for someone to open the closet – someone did actually have the keys after all. We quickly got the radio and equipment and loaded them in the boat.
We continued down the river, eventually turning up onto the Napo River. We were famished by the time we actually arrived to Raul’s new lodge, the Jaguar Jungle Lodge, near the village of San Pedro. After we unloaded supplies and luggage, we were treated to a wonderful lunch prepared by Luis, a chef that Raul had brought in especially to cook for us. Although I jokingly say that jungle food consists entirely of chicken, fish, rice, bananas, and papaya, the combos that the people come up with are very good. Food is always fresh, and as Renzo likes to say at breakfast – lunch is either swimming or walking around.
And now on this afternoon in late June, as we approached San Juan de Floresta by boat, I must confess that I was a bit nervous about the completion of the hut and the readiness for the radio. We trudged back up that long hill, huffing and puffing in the heat and humidity, and lo and behold, there sat the most beautiful new hut I have ever seen. I felt like dancing. It had a large open area with 2 rooms on one side. One room already had a table built, waiting for the radio. All was covered with a thatched roof. Poles had been installed outside to hold the solar panel, laid out to maximize the sunshine. I must point out here that we gave no money for this hut, which was nicer than most of the huts the people lived in. They cut the wood and had it milled into lumber and thatched the roof themselves. Our total contribution was the $40 for nails. They had indeed taken us seriously and had contributed a great deal to this project themselves. This was definitely not a hand-out project. This was a village working together with people who saw a need and wanted to help them live more safely.
The next morning, the men were waiting, so Renzo, and this time, Raul, got right on the project of laying out the antenna wires and all the equipment. The men did most of the work and all was installed and working within a few hours. Our celebration waited until the following morning as we had to make other medicine deliveries that day.
In honor of the presentation, I wore my white sleeveless long cotton dress that day. It was a far cry from my usual jungle clothes, but I wanted to show respect for what they had done. So I tied up the hem of the skirt as I once again hiked up the hill, showing off the jungle boots underneath. It had rained for the last 12 hours and mud was everywhere, so boots were part of the outfit.
Two of the women, Norva Achenbaugh and Catherine Barton, accompanied us and had brought fun items to share with the children. Also Norva really surprised the men by bringing wonderful tools to give them. So the morning started out with children playing with toy cars on the deck of the hut, even though I am sure that none of them had ever seen a car. They seemed to know what to do with them. The men were in tinkering with the radio, trying to pick up stations. We shared the channels of other villages that we knew in the area and of course those of the clinics. I did catch the men, who were supposedly looking over the radio, discussing and admiring the tools. I really doubt if they ever have tools given to them. Lots of photos were taken, many group shots and radio shots. I also took this opportunity to deliver my medicines and supplies to the health promoter, Romulo Pacaya Diaz, a serious-minded young man. I also had some gloves and pads for the midwife as well.
Then the men lined up along the wall of the hut and three of them, as spokespersons for the community made speeches. One was an old man with quite a twinkle in his eye, one was the mayor and one was Romulo. I presented the log book to Romulo, and Renzo went over in great detail in writing what data was requested, certainly to include the frequency of calls, the reasons, and the outcome. But also who they called and the radio channels, problems they encountered and basically any other data that they thought might be useful to know in the future.
Then Renzo made a nice speech and I spoke a few sentences in Spanish to thank them and to tell them that it was my goal that they be safe in their community. The mayor then presented me with a necklace and put it around my neck. I was just about speechless. It is made of seeds and feathers and one large shell as the pendant. I found out from Raul that the people in this village do not make jewelry and had made this especially for me. They produced another necklace and gave it to Norva, who brought the tools. We think it was made for Renzo as it had a large animal tooth on it, but courtesy and decorum must have prevailed and a decision was made to share it with Norva. I saw her crying as she exited the building. The children were walking beside the women, holding both of their hands, and one very special young lady offered to carry my backpack. It was quite heavy and I protested. But she wouldn’t accept that and put the backpack on her back, took my arm and helped me all the way down the big slippery hill and safely to the boat.
Many of the villagers had come to see us on our way, and as we pushed of the river bank, there were many hands waving in the air. We will return every few months for our educational sessions and medicine deliveries, which will allow us to help Romulo and the others with any questions or issues that come up with the radio and equipment. It will also help keep them on track with data collection. The only other village in the area with a radio is San Pedro and Renzo repaired it on our visit in March. I intend to supply them with a radio log on our next visit so we can monitor problems occurring there as well.
What a privilege it has been for Renzo and I to be part of this project. On behalf of the village of San Juan de Floresta, thank you to Peg Meyer, Airline Ambassadors and all the supporters. And on behalf of DB PERU, thank you for helping us fulfill our mission of improving health care knowledge and conditions for the people in Peru.
July 10, 2005