Basura, Burros y Baños in Peru

Now into day 34 of this summer’s Peru Amazon Adventure, we have only been two days apart and both trip leaders are left in the jungle already missing each of the volunteers’ bright faces and idiosyncracies. On August 8th, Independent Travel Time commenced, marking the start of new adventures for each of our 11 volunteers but also the denouement of our Amazonian adventure. Since going off the grid a couple of weeks back we have worked in and learned about many new ways of life (to us that is). In living conditions which seem basic to us but more than enough for them, these communities have taught us such humility.

First off we traveled with our Peruvian counterparts Mayantu to the community of Meliton Carbajal on the Amazon tributary: the River Itaya. Mayantu are students in forestry, biology and environmental sciences from the Peruvian National University of the Amazon who form an activist group specializing in raising awareness for the conservation of the Amazon within the city and with rural and indigenous communities. They also practice their fields with projects such as the one we have just collaborated on. Combining issues of sanitation, recycling and sustainable living, Mayantu and Operation Groundswell combined to form “Mayanswell” and built 12 dry bathrooms for families in Meliton.

Operation Groundswell and Mayantu join volunteer forces to create Mayanswell!
Operation Groundswell + Mayantu = Mayanswell

The dry bathrooms function to provide a safe and healthy area for the community to use the toilet. At the moment most families would be likely to step only a few meters from their kitchen at the back of the house and into the jungle to relieve themselves. Not only can this cause contamination, but in the middle of the night there’s also the huge risk that mum, dad, the kids or grandparents could be struck by one of the many venomous creatures lurking on the canopy floor (snakes and tarantulas mainly). The bathrooms are ecologically friendly as well. We installed removable chambers which are dumped at a community compost host. Mixed with sawdust and ashes from their firelit stoves, the compost will eventually be used for gardens, plants, and trees in the community.

Operation Groundswell's Ben and Laura working on toilets with Mayantu
Ben and Laura working on the toilets

Over the course of the week we joined the community hauling hundreds of planks extracted by chainsaw from the heart of the jungle, which would make up the bulk of materials for each bathroom; we learned how to mix and lay cement with just a shovel and bucket; we uncovered nests of angry fire ants and got bitten to shreds while digging for the corner supports; we bathed everyday (or not for some smelly trip leaders) in the cool river; we forgot what Facebook and makeup are; and we each learned some of the thousand uses of the machete. We culminated our time by celebrating with the community and tasting the local aguardiente or “fire water”, an alcohol made from cane sugar and notching up to 90% alcohol.

But the jungle journey didn’t end there. After a brief sojourn (not even 24 hours) back in Iquitos we joined forces with our friends, Brazilian jungle guide Katoo and his protege Carlos to visit Carlos’ home in El Chino. El Chino (or the Chinaman in English) is a community renowned in the Loreto region for their conservation work since being established in the 50s. Their approach to fishing and farming is purely sustainable and regulated, their knowledge of the local area and the richness of the medicinal plants unmatched and they are able to provide for the entire village with their handcrafts (plates, ornaments, jewellery). Their handicrafts are sold throughout the country and even exported internationally and they serve as an example of a community which many other villages in Peru have begun to model themselves after.

Our host family in El Chino
Our family in El Chino

During the six hour boat ride to El Chino we even had the opportunity to save our own little part of the rainforest, a sloth we found swimming across the 10-metre wide Nanay River who we dubbed Slothy Joe. Slothy Joe mainly consumes only a single variety of Cahuita shoots and leaves which releases energy so slowly into his body that his metabolism forces him to sleep for around 20 hours per day. To find Slothy Joe was certainly unexpected and swimming is an activity not often seen in sloths of any kind. Our only guess was that Joe must have fallen from a tree along the river side. We were able to release Slothy Joe a few hours later across from El Chino on the other side of the river where there are no human inhabitants and where we hoped he would find another sloth which was previously rescued and released in the same area by the community.

Operation Groundswell with our new friend, Slothy Jo
Our new friend, Slothy Jo

During four days in El Chino we trekked deep into the jungle to discover and learn about the dense variety of nature. We saw the infamous and vivid poison dart frogs, a number of the prolific Golden Orb Spiders, monkeys of all kinds (including Dorilla the Spidermonkey who came aboard our boat) and the rich and lucrative offer of plants which are processed for so many uses in our lives that it is difficult to believe. The locals also took the time to teach us their traditional approaches to medicine, making jewellery, piranha fishing and even roofing. After four days in El Chino we felt at home but the adventure never truly ends so in pure OG style we continued swiftly on!

After celebrating the 21st Birthday of our very own Gabisha Garitharan, the group has now dispersed (mostly down to Cuzco in the Andes) to explore a little more of the country for themselves. They will all be climbing Macchu Pichu at some point in the coming week before we meet up in the oasis of Huacachina on the coast.

So for the next week and the rest of our stay we will be back ON the grid. If you’re trying to get in touch with any of the participants, don’t hesitate to contact Laura or myself by phone or email.

Country Code 51 973977364

Country Code 51 965070313

Peace from Peru!