Dirt, Grass, Plants, and Walls: Community Partnership in Iquitos

Written by Mariam Schachter, Amazon Adventure volunteer

It’s been a month now in Peru and so much has happened in this short amount of time. We’ve started our independent travel time and for the next 10 days we’re all heading out alone or in groups to various parts of Peru doing what we’d like and exploring wherever we choose. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves because last we left off our group had just arrived in Iquitos (and that was three weeks ago!)…

We arrived in town and jumped on motos to get to our hostel called “Casa Begonia”, a hostel run and owned by a woman named Belinda and named after her daughter Begonia. Little did we know that this hostel would soon feel like our little home in Iquitos. Whenever we left Iquitos and headed into the jungle, we’d return back to Casa Begonia,  direct our moto drivers to the familiar address of 955 Pablo Rosell, Casa Begonia!
So what can we say about Iquitos? It’s big! It has a population of 500,000 people. Motos drive everywhere. Streets are very run down and full of pot holes. Buildings vary in size and colour, but mainly have the same outer appearance with stucco or tile, heavy doors, and window frames without glass. The town is a web of narrow streets lined with tamale stands and grills cooking fish, meat skewers, and more!
Our trip leaders, Beck and Jesse, started our day in Iquitos with a scavenger hunt around the city. We were divided in groups and sent out to find different items, buildings, and places in the city. The scavenger hunt took us to many places in the city. We managed (actually quite easily) to get ourselves to the biggest market in the city, “mercado belen”, where we checked things off our list, such as finding a cool item for one sol.

Tip: if you’re ever in Peru, try the 1 sol whipped drink sold in the markets, the ingredients of which turned out to be whipped egg whites, beer, and sugar. Yum!

We took pictures of three types of jungle fish, bought a natural remedy for mosquito bites, and tasted for the first time a fruit called aguaje. Aguaje resembles, if you can picture it, an orange egg with a shell of black scales. We also saw floating houses on the malecón, took a picture of the cutest mongrel we could find (street dog), and much more. It was a cool activity in that really allowed us to navigate the city and get well acquainted with this new place.

The next two days in Iquitos included a lot of educational activities. We had a tour of the Iquitos architecture from the rubber boom period and visited the manatee wild life rehabilitation centre. We even had a discussion with a young local biologist named Christina Lopez Wong who informed us about the foresting problems in the Amazon and the neglect and mistreatment by the government and oil companies alike. We also had the opportunity to meet with an organization called Capital Humano y Social Alternativo that works in various parts of Peru on the issue of sex trafficking. Finally, we met with Associacion Kallpa, the organization we would be working alongside in our first community partnership in Iquitos.

Kallpa is a group that works to improve the health, rights, and well being of the people of Iquitos. They conduct projects on sexual health, access to sanitation, general human rights, and outreach programs for children.  Our partner project took place in El Aguaje in Pampachica, a community that developed in a part of Iquitos that was not meant to be developed. In the wet season, El Aguaje is heavily flooded by the constant downpour. The entire first floor of houses is filled with water. Garbage collects in the water streams the area becomes neglected and littered with trash. There are raised walkways within the neighbourhood put in place for the rain but not much else is set up to handle the water.

Kallpa determined that the construction of a retaining wall down the main road of El Aguaje with a dugout ditch was needed for this community. The retaining wall would collect the rain water and direct it beside the street rather than flood the road. Grass and plants would also be planted along the wall to try to decrease the amount of littering and neglect that the area is usually associated with. The idea was that not only would the wall act as a retainer, but community involvement in its construction would prevent future littering.

Community leaders–Don Luis Peso, Don Guido, and Don Raphael–guided us in this project. Our work involved lots of physical labour and long hours under the sun with shovels! We filled so many sandbags, sewed them up, hauled them onto a little moto truck and heaved them into the formation of a wall. An excavator dug the long ditch along the road. Community members were very much involved in the process and even the children helped to shovel, sew and lay grass everyday. Enthusiastic helpers! In fact, had they not contributed their time, the wall may never have been completed during our week there.

After the wall was big enough, dirt was poured over the top of the wall creating a sloping hill toward the dug out. Then we were to lay grass and plants over top. To lay grass we had to literally dig our own grass sod from a nearby field. The process took forever! Each square of sod had to be dug one by one and we had to dig enough to cover yards of dirt. Nonetheless, after one full week of hard work, the wall, the grass, the ditch, and the plants were all in place.

It was a successful project and it was so great to be there from start to finish! Even more special was the experience we had with the people of El Aguaje. Each day we ate a homecooked lunch with the Dons and kids, getting to know each one better and better each day. Even with the language barrier, we still seemed to really be able to communicate with everyone and express what we were thinking. Never before had we come across such warmth and hospitality. 

This is where we will leave you all for now. Look forward to hearing about our second volunteer project and our crazy jungle treks!!