November 24, 2010

Iquitos by way of Minnesota

Dr. Judith Bechtum at Cabo Lopez
Iquitos is so overwhelming that it is hard to put into words. It is full of sights and sounds that are uncommon in my Minnesota life. Right now, the rescue dogs are barking because some have been moved to different pens for the night. The kennel is located on the grounds of the Cabo Lopez casa that belongs to Amazon Cares, the charity organization for which we are volunteering. The house has 3 bedrooms and six beds...all filled with Molly, the director, and the five volunteers, all women: Barbara my friend from Great Britain, Lisa a vet nurse from Wales, Catherine a Scot traveling in S America for 6 months volunteering for the Worldwide Veterinary Association, Gabriela a wonderful Spanish woman working in Great Britain, and me. Linda, a web volunteer from Wisconsin, stays here intermittently in this home that Molly opens to vets from all over the world. It is rather like a slumber party in the evenings, and we get along well; the cultural differences and accents are quite enjoyable.

Our days start early, around 5:30 with the early risers stirring and reshuffling the endless pile of stinky damp clothes, getting cleaner clothes for the day, taking turns for the dribble of cold water that masquarades as a shower, and waiting for the cook, Marlena, to serve breakfast and get the water hot for the instant coffee. The power from the noisy diesel generator goes off around 10 pm and comes back on around 7, so there is no rush to get going until then.

Chicha Morada recipe

Marlena and Molly keep us well fed...breakfast may be pancakes or fried eggs or delicious skinny omelets along with white toast, french fries, fruit juice. Dinners are also starchy with more fries or potatoes, rice, a meat dish in sauce, more bread (some eat it with ketchup), fresh pineapple or mango or grapes, and usually a salad of cucumber and tomato. Add this to our huge late lunch (anywhere from 3-4 pm after the surgeries are done) at a local restaurant that is bartering food for animal care, and some of us find that we are gaining weight. One of the favorite drinks is chicha morada, which is dark and fruity and made from black corn (maize) with sugar, cinnamon, maybe some chunks of apple floating on the top. It is said to be rich in vit c, we are sure it is rich in flavor.

The standared mode of transport is a motokar, or 'Moto'. It is a medium to small sized mororcycle with a covered buggy attached that will hold up to three people as well as some baggage that can be tied in the open rear platform. They are very noisy and ubiquitous. The diesel fumes can be nauseating and I usually put on my sunglasses no matter the time of day to try to decrease the dirt and exhaust debris that flies into my eyes. Most times of the day except early am the streets are massed with motos and their detritus. A line of parked motos looks exceptionally like a line of Model A's. One hails a moto, which is easy since they are everywhere waiting for work, and then tells the driver the destination. If it is Cabo Lopez, where Molly's house is, some drivers refuse because of distance (about 5- 6 kms) or because to get there we have to drive thru a not-so­-upscale neighborhood. The second question or perhaps statement a potential passenger will make is 'cuanto cuesto' ---how much. The standard cost from downtown eastern Iquitos, near the Plaza des Armes, is 7 soles (about $2 for a 25 minute ride). If the driver asks for more, we turn away to leave, he calls us back, and we usually end up paying......7 soles. Barbara and I, being older, wiser, tougher, rather fearless, and less efficient with our time, often end up coming home around 6:30 which gives us an arrival time in the dark. We were advised not to walk in the Cabo Lopez area after dark, but with very vague reasons, and since we both like to walk and I yen for the fresh air, we often get off at the cabo or river landing and walk the half mile or so to the house. It is so refreshing to get away from the diesel and smell the forest and the wood smoke.

Molly's house is on the bank of an Amazon River tributry, Rio Itaya. The local residents use if for bathing, washing clothes, and household water. Other people bring their dugout canoes and wooden boats there to dock as they proceed to the village or Iquitos for business of herbs, chickens, fish, fruit. One man made an impression on me by tying his dugout to a thin tree branch that he stuck on the bank. The local children are not shy about playing in any emtpy boat that happens to be waiting at the cabo. There is a lovely sound every morning from the bird called the Oro Pendula. His voice sounds like bubbling water and Miguel told me they are about a meter long with bright yellow and chestnut coloring. One evening when we walked the rutted dirt road to the casa, there was a small crowd at the cabo. I thought the group of men in the river and on the shore were seining the logs out for easier landing. The next day some authorities were there too and we heard that someone had drowned and they were searching for a body. This exactly in the area the women and children were bathing and doing laundry.

The locals in the poorer areas of Cabo Lopez live in wooden houses on stilts: usually the river is up to the banks and can flood the village, although this year it is low. Most have no windows or doors because they only have walls on two or three sides. The kitchen is the front or side yard, and the bedrooms sometimes are open to the street also. Beds are wooden platforms, some with no bedding. Being able to enter some homes as we walked the streets offering parasite control for cats and dogs, the stiking feature is the nearly total lack of belongings other than a few clothes and cooking pots. Many men work on diesel engines and some with their machetes and axes and saws do wood work. Even though there are few if any bathrooms or running water and many children are barefoot, the families are very clean, which is notable.

By Dr. Judith Bechtum, a Platinum Sponsor of Amazon CARES


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