I stood on the corner as a constant wave of people flowed along the sidewalk and a constant stream of mototaxis rushed along the streets. My duffle bag sat at my feet. My backpack clung to my shoulders. I scanned faces, focusing on the eyes, looking for a flash of recognition. There were no other foreigners around and so, even with my mask and hat, I should be easy enough to spot.
Someone walking toward me: a woman; slim, just this side of skinny; the eyes searching above the mask. I turned toward her as she said, “Andre?”
“Andrea?” I returned.
Her cheeks rose as she grinned behind her medical mask. “Yes! We’re over there,” she said, pointing back the way she’d come at a waiting mototaxi.
I followed her and the driver helped me load my bags among sacs of bread, fruit and other less immediately identifiable items. A second woman stepped out of the mototaxi and was introduced as Gabi. Andrea explained that, though she herself spoke some English, Gabi spoke none.
The three of us crammed into the mototaxi and I thanked Andrea for coming to meet me rather than having me find my way up the Amazon river to Santa Clara on my own. She waved this away.
“We come into the city most weekend to get things,” she said. “Food and things.”
Her weekly supply run had simply coincided nicely with my move from Iquitos to Santa Clara.
I had learned of Proyecto Iquitos through my Peruvian friend Ale. Her own best friend, Gabriela, visited the city regularly, her family having come from here, and she’d learned of the volunteer project. She passed this along to Ale when I’d asked if she knew of any volunteer opportunities. That this particular project was set near Iquitos, a city I’d wanted to visit for ages, had seemed like kismet.
I’d reached out to the organization by email, speaking first to Pia, one of two project founders, and later Andrea, the second founder. I’d initially thought I wouldn’t be accepted due to my complete and utter lack of ability with the Spanish language, given I’d be working with members of a remote community, but Andrea made it clear that this really didn’t matter to them.
“We use art as a base for everything,” she’d explained, “so maybe you use music or dance or singing or drawing. They will understand.”
Well, I could draw. Certainly a more communicative art than dance, in my opinion. I simply couldn’t imagine trying to teach the difference between “I want” and “I have” through dance, but drawing these things would be easy. I also knew that, when teaching English, not knowing the local language could be an advantage, giving the students the opportunity to teach me as they learn.
The second challenge, however, was less easily remedied. Even before I left Canada, Andrea said that, due to covid, they couldn’t say exactly when their work would resume. Yes, they had accepted a few volunteers to help with clean up and maintenance of the school and living quarters, given that both had been essentially closed and abandoned for over a year and a half, but she couldn’t say with any certainty that these would actually be open by the time I arrived.
I told her that I planned to be in Iquitos for three weeks. If their project was back up and running upon my arrival, I would spend two of those weeks with them and the third in the city. If they were not yet open, I would simply enjoy Iquitos and the surrounding region for the entire twenty-odd days.
Thankfully, I learned weeks ahead of my arrival that they would be open and that I was welcome to join them as their first post-covid foreign volunteer.
Headed for Nanay, the mototaxi followed very much the same route I’d taken with Armando a couple days before. We disembarked at the Nanay market and while Gabi wrangled a couple porters to help carry our stuff to the docks, I followed Andrea as she picked up a few more things for the house, mostly foodstuffs but also toilet paper and what appeared to be dry dog food.
Proyecto Iquitos had begun—as these things often do—with a chance encounter. Pia, a Peruvian, and Andrea, a Colombian, were both volunteering in Cuzco and, one fateful night, discussed the idea of starting their own charitable organization. In fact, Pia knew of just the place, a village she had once visited and fallen in love with. Its name was Santa Clara and it hugged the legendary Amazon river. The villagers were kind and hard working but poor and the children had largely forgotten what it was to be kids, having instead to help their parents with the various chores and works of living in a remote community in a poor part of a poor country.
They discussed it together and then they discussed it with Santa Clara’s town council. The village would provide them with a place to stay and a space for their lessons and activities and, in return, Pia and Andrea would run an after school program—from approximately 2:30pm to about 5:30pm—that would give the children of the village a place to learn but, most importantly, a place to be children. The children would also be given a healthy meal, thereby reducing the burden on their parents.
Over the course of three years, the project grew and evolved, while the two young women became part of the community. They were rarely there at the same time, switching over every few weeks or as necessary, but they both made their mark on the village, individually and as an organization. They began accepting volunteers, intent on keeping the requirements as basic as possible. They believed everyone had something to teach. A physical therapist could teach basic yoga or calisthenics. An engineer might also love to dance on her spare time and so could pass a few moves along to the children. A lawyer who’d spent years working in a fast food kitchen could teach basic food preparation. Everyone had something to teach and everyone had something to give. The important thing was to show caring and acceptance, to let those kids be kids.
Their original home had fallen apart after a couple years’ exposure to Amazonian weather and Amazonian termites and a new house was built nearer the river and nearer the school. The school itself is comprised of two small and rarely used classrooms (it simply gets too hot to stay very long in there, even with the windows open), a small library that had not yet been refilled since covid had shuttered it, and a large gazebo-like structure that is the favored area for activities and play. It is also under its roof that every session begins and ends.
Sessions follow a loose but vital structure. The first half hour is the most important. This is the time for free play, when the kids bring out toys and games and paper and pencils and simply occupy themselves. The teachers, during this time, are there only to engage and interact. The kids set the pace and theme of play. The teacher might sit with a few kids and join in as they play with toy dinosaurs. Another might help complete a puzzle (my own favorite activity during free play). A third might simply ooh and aah at the drawing of Minnie Mouse a child has colored bright pink for no discernible reason.
Next comes the circle. The kids are instructed to put away the toys and clean up any mess they might have made and come sit round Andrea as she leads them in a few songs or games meant to get them excited but also engaged and focused. Kids who aren’t paying attention are gently singled out to feature in the next game or dance or song. It is also during the circle that newcomers—like me—are introduced.
For my own introduction, the children were named, one by one, and then I was called upon to repeat their names. I typically hate exercises of this sort, being put on the spot, but also risking hurting a child because I’d forgotten their name. I trusted that Andrea wouldn’t put me in a position to disappoint one of the kids on my first day. Indeed, when I struggled with a name, they laughed it off. When confronted with a girl whose name I did recall, I purposely called her Luna—her pet parakeet’s name. Naturally, this got a big laugh from the group and I figured it would stick as a first impression.
During those first couple days I was the only volunteer, though Gabi did come by every day. Gabi was local. Thirty-five, she had grown up in Santa Clara but lived the last five years in Iquitos and Lima, three in the former and two in the latter. She’d only been back for two months, having returned to help her aging parents, but it seemed to me as though she had never left. Broad-shouldered and strong-featured, she wielded a machete and filleted fish with an ease that spoke of an undiminished comfort in the jungle and along the river. Though she wasn’t an official volunteer, she proved an invaluable member of the team and, honestly, did the work of two volunteers like me.
By the time Andrea and I had finally made it from the Nanay market to the docks, our gear had already been loaded into one of the long wooden boats that ferried people along the Amazon between Iquitos and the villages and towns that dotted the riverside. Done with our own stuff, Gabi was now helping others load their own bags and supplies.
It would be a forty-five minute boat ride up the Amazon to Santa Clara. I would live there for two weeks. It would be challenging but rewarding. It would be an experience I’d not soon forget. It would be an adventure and a story.
Stick around and I’ll share it with you as best I can.