Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bewailing Belen

Upper Belen (The Markets):

A posse of guides are shouting at us, "watch your things… pick-pockets, pick-pockets!" I have even been instructed to remove the small, gold cross that has hung from my neck since the day we left Greensboro. This uber-defensive posture is conflicting... it feels wrong to cling to your material belongings when you are walking alongside children who live on the streets and own little more than the clothes on their backs. 

It's early, but it's already hot and sticky. It's hard to breathe because the stench is so strong – I’m guessing raw meat mixed with leather, sweat, garbage and the unfiltered exhaust of all the moto-cars nearby. Our group is in route to the slums of Iquitos known as Belen. I’m not sure what to expect of an area labeled as “the slums” considering that everything we have already seen of Iquitos has been broken and poor.

Our tour begins in the upper markets where the variety of items puts Walmart to shame. The thinly canopied isles are indescribably crowded, and still the moto-cars find a way to push their way through the throngs of shoppers. The market is organized somewhat like a typical store, by product types. There is a section for shoes and clothing, home goods, toys, meats, medicines, etc. My dad is excited to take us to the meat section, a thought that already has many of us feeling queasy.

More shouts from our guides, “Watch your ‘tings.’ Stay together!”

Meat market… that was an understatement! We are looking at raw turtle, monkey, cow, chicken, pig, fish, alligator... even some animal they call the "deer rat" (think giant rodent from the Princess Bride). Everything is spread out across open tables; it’s a sea of blood and bones! I look up and see a woman eating her breakfast and a small child taking her morning nap right next to a huge stack of animal carcasses. Definitely feeling green now.

We finally make it to medicine row, something I have been looking forward to for several days. One of our guides calls my name and we walk up to one of the many booths lining this section. He grabs my left hand and shows a vendor the red rash/fungus that has been spreading on two of my fingers ever since our stay in the jungle. The woman looks at it, says something to her colleague that I could not understand, and then pulls out a small bottle with a homemade label that reads “aceite de copaiba.” She spins off the cap, grabs my hand and rubs a brown oily liquid all over my two infected fingers. I look at Carlos, our guide, who nods. “Cuanto questo,” I ask. “Dies soles,” she says. Sold! At this point I am willing to try just about anything to get my fingers back to normal.

After my “doctor” visit, we join the others at a booth nearby where two vendors are pulling items from their collection for the members of our group to sample. Some of our samples include:
  • A Peruvian honey (very delish)
  • Sange de grado (translates to “blood of the dragon”)
  • SVSS (a natural aphrodisiac)
  • Camu-Camu (highest vitamin c rich fruit in the world)
  • 21 Vines (a mix of 21 jungle fruits and barks and a cancer preventative)
  • And something our guides call “wake up old bird” (another aphrodisiac)

Lower Belen:

The fun and fascination of Upper Belen has turned to utter despair in just ten, stone steps – the demarcation of where the water rises during the rainy season, leaving half of this community completely under water. Picture New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, only no relief efforts. 

There are children playing next to piles of garbage, malnourished cats and dogs searching for food, drunken men hanging out of dilapidated buildings (at 10:00 in the morning) and piles of trash (10-15 feet high) around every turn.

There are five dugout canoes waiting for us as the end of one street. We break up, hop in and begin touring this part of the neighborhood by boat. The guide on our boat is telling us about the people who live here.

A lot of the people have come from the jungle. They build houses on the river so that they don’t have to pay for land. When the water is low, they farm. When the water is high, they fish.

Tears are streaming down my cheeks. I cannot believe there are so many people who live like this. And for some reason, buried in this brokenness, I keep seeing crosses, bringing one abounding question to front of mind, “Where are you God?”

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