Saturday, November 10, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Back to School (Part One)

I sometimes put myself through brutal times for no particular reason other than to have the experience that I later laugh about, adventures that now leave me somewhat crippled and probably harder than the average middle class guy from the suburbs; and I've even done some crazy stuff that seriously scares me to thing back on; but one thing that has never come to my adventure seeking mind has been rising at 5:00 a.m to catch a little wooden boat to some tiny village in the jungle on the Amazon River to teach elementary school for a day. When the opportunity came, I took it. I was on that boat. 
My buddy in Iquitos, Peru is a little old lady* (Paula) who used to teach school in France, and now that she's retired she likes to keep busy, teaching still, this time at the little village an hour away by motorised canoe from one of the minor ports a mile or so from the centre of the city. She invited my to come along with her one day after I insisted that I wanted to see the place and get to know a bit more about the area and the people. All I had to do was get up in the dark at 5:00 and go with her and the two American lads looking for volunteer work and a chance to take ayauasca in the jungle on the cheap with a shaman from the area rather than to spend a lot of money on American drugs-and-mysticism hustlers in the city. The four of us rode in a chicken bus to the port in the dawn light and I tried to finish my coffee as the bus jerked and banged in the pot holes down the side streets as we picked up workers on the way. We too were off to work, a first for me in a long time.

I'm a writer by profession, but I never make enough money at it to live on, so I find in my life I have done so many other jobs to bring in cash that I have even been for long periods a school teacher as well as being a semi-professional bad guy in a rough world of hard men. In spite of my occasional forays into war and ultra-violence I am at heart a teacher, a bookish fellow, and I love to chat. I've even been a school teacher in war zones, though not the kind one finds in America with children bringing guns to class. Usually I teach adults-- and in fact I have never spent a day with children since I must have been one though I can hardly recall it beyond those times when I gaze in wonder at my world and feel like a boy so lost, a motherless child in a story book itself, this day a boy in a boat on the Amazon River in the jungle, me now a one-eyed pirate with a bum leg and able if I choose to have a parrot on my shoulder. Good morning, class.

My last real teaching job of a sort was at a local university where I lectured on the History of Early Christianity, thinking I'd play a joke on my students for a time or two by not once referring to Jesus. When I mentioned to my class that they had sat through lectures twice a week about the history of Jesus and I had not once mentioned his name, I was met with dull incuriosity. Why mention Jesus when I had spoken for months about Christianity and shown it is all about anything but? The alternative to teaching is to return to editing trade magazines, teasing the sense out of tangled prose about the latest glue used by leading industries in plumbing, or perhaps to sit for days and weeks and months correcting articles on 'my glazed-over eyes' that only see words on pages as lines of a moonlit night driving down a deserted highway, the miles of prose an empty road leading nowhere in the darkness all around me. To have a day in the jungle to teach school children about anything at all, such is a day in a Dag life. I jumped in that boat with high enthusiasm, looking forward to teaching the making of exotic paper aeroplanes and teaching girls how to terrorise boys by playing "mind-reading" card tricks. In the jungle all things are possible for the fugitive intellectual on the run from a pirate past. 


I taught Byzantine history in Jugoslavia to grown men whose real interest was the history of their neighbours' ancestors who had perhaps 50 or a hundred years before raped and murdered someone's cousin and had to be repaid in kind. If Hatvik or McCoysky was absent from class there was every good chance he was absent from this very life, his body perhaps smoldering in a blown-up building where he had been trying to kill the man across the street, a man who had an uncle 200 years ago who stole a chicken and deserved to die for it, the man alive today being as guilty of the theft as the man who did it. I too am close enough to such men to hate the rotten Campbells. I go through the List of Irene. Grim men stare ahead and dream of death to their enemies and love Irene and revenge. By the instant I am expanded as I stand in the classroom speaking of old wars; I grow to a size I have never known, the artillery shells exploding nearby sending concussive waves through the soil of the people and up from the floor into my body till my joints are about to burst their moorings and make me alive longer than I have been before. I struggle to catch my breath before turning again to Irene and the history of the people as I stand before a group of men in dust and smoke who will after class take up their arms and drink themselves into an angry stupor while the enemy cuts through the perimeter wires and the razor wire and the chain link fence to steal anti-tank mines and even my pack while I'm in the shower as the dogs in the yard eat half of one of my shoes as the guard sleeps through it all and on waking refuses to fire on the enemy, smashing my head with his rifle butt when I try to grab his weapon to defend us all, three days later eight men dead by our stolen matériel. I too become less than irenic. As I move I find myself on the Amazon river floating toward a day at school again, with children in the jungle.

Paula, a Pied Noir, left home as well when young, and like me she remembers her home that is so impossible now and then to return to. We met in the Amazon, and this day we go with young lads to teach children at school in the jungle. 

Drums along the Amazon

The plastic canopy over the canoe obscures my view of the river bank so that I have to hunch down to see the shore and the sudden looming maze of black painted steel that makes a tanker-landing for an oil company in the selva. Blood sniffing fish are inches from me as I try to lean out of the boat to see the wonder that is Modernity, a massive maze of metal that supports the shipping of oil stored in monstrous black drums rising above the bright green canopy, a towering black beast dominating the landscape, tiny figures crawling across its breast like beetles on a rain darkened tree trunk. Massive black metal storage containers, two and then three, loom above the forest, almost alive and striding forward to steel bars welded into complex geometric patterns of a landing stage for ships, almost a scene from a movie of a Lost Jungle Temple of Death, sacrificial virgins tied helpless and waiting for the towering behemoths to devour. Our boat rocks badly in the wake of a sleek fiberglas watercraft with mirrored windows that rushes past us without a wave, our boatman pulling hard on the long pole that ends in the peke-peke motor that propels us, the boatman keeping us from capsizing, and we carry on toward the village. I knock the water off my camera by tapping it on my pant leg, and I sit back and use my finger to daub up the last drop of coffee from my plastic cup. The outer world returns again to muddy brown and verdant green and the clear blue sky that carries on to Manaus, a million river miles away. Mile after mile the river is the same, and the banks and the blue. There is nothing to say, and we sit silent for the duration. 
People are created by nature, itself a dumb a force more mindless than any of its creations. People are born by design of individuals to families, and those who claim there is a plan to it, some choice among preborn babies, I have no patience. Who could ever dream of choosing to be born to anyone living in a backwater village up a cut off the Amazon in a tiny village where a few people might someday land for a day to look and talk and write about a few hours of a lifetime among generations gone and yet to come. It is arbitrary and it has no meaning. Paula, the boys, and I, we land at a steep and slippery river bank of sucking mud and make our way up the hill to the shaman's house in the selva where Paula stays with the family part time. The villagers live isolated from most of the world, even from the river itself, living in the village and living privately within its confines as if it were the world in its totality. It might as well be, if not for bottles of Inca Cola that come by canoe and the Mysterious Hand of the gods. We could be anywhere. For some this is everywhere that matters and the rest is nowhere at all. We walk down a pale sandy trail and into the deep jungle to find a hand hewn wooden plank building and a man weaving roof mats. He will weave for much of his life, the insects and the sun and the rain destroying bit by bit his work so he must return to it daily to stay in place. This is home, and this is life. Down the river the jungle oil drums pound, but for now the sight and sound of them is too remote to notice. Life in the village goes on and on like the river, water and lives in an endless stream carried away and replaced without interruption. 
One man weaves, another man mends. 


Everyone every day must eat, and fish swimming in search of prey are eaten. The net encompasses all. We are all trapped, and eventually all of us are eaten. Like drops in the Amazon, we come by and then we pass along to the ocean beyond that we do not know. 

Paula and Jake

Paula and the boys and I made our way from the boat landing to the shaman's house where Paula stays during her time at the village. We left our day bags and walked again through the jungle, thick trees with myriad shades of green leaves and dark dirt paths in shadows leading into a black ravine filled with broken branches and the flotsam of a forest of a day and a time. Birds I couldn't see flitted between the trees and stopped to sing and coo, and small things moved in stealth in search of food. I couldn't see the details, only the outline of life all around, the mystery of green engulfing me, a stranger who knows not any detail. And so it was that I came into the village centre where at the top of a bare hill sits an abandoned Catholic church, a large dwelling suitable in size for a solitary man in search of shelter from the world at large, a place I later said I would be pleased to buy, though why was of concern to others, they who laughed uncomfortably when I said 'to put up a perimeter fence with posts mounted with skulls; and that I would sit inside, the windows painted black, and there I would hunched in my chair cleaning my guns, muttering to myself in the darkness.' The church itself is deserted, the idyll of the village being the scene of a recent feud between those who wanted the priest to stay and those who prefer some variation of the Christian revelation in the making. A fine and potential home for me, but alas, I shall not linger. Searching the abandoned church I found a private corner inside and took a piss in a mound of dust. I christen this place "Almost home."

I looked down from the hill and the church and saw the sweep of the land and the rivers and byways, the land those around call home and are part of. I could have been such a person had nature left me there as a baby, but I cannot be part of it now, me a man who has no roots, none anywhere but in the mind and the lost, storm shrouded mountains of my old home. 

I recall the pine trees and the trout rivers and the ice capped mountains of my home, the ice on the tree boughs, the snow on our roof, the sun shining thin through the forest and melting bits of snow on the ground, the forest floor streaked in black and white and there was no shade of grey. 

They were calling me to join them to go to school, my first day, and my excitement rose as I made my way through the jungle again back to the edge of the river where the school house sits. I saw a butterfly on a leaf, I saw the sky, I saw the land where people live and work and make life whole and real and round. I don't belong there. It's not my place. I'm simply there to learn a bit one day and move on too quickly to something else. I have no roots like the forest, less course than the river, my attachment less deep than the selva sand. It's other people's life I was seeing. How happy I can be sometimes.

Why am I so happy? See next installment
*OK, so I'm not exactly so happy until Paula gets over being described here as a little old lady, by which I meant something nice about her that somehow came out wrong. Who can figure women anyway? She told me she wanted to kill me, but that doesn't mean she isn't nice. She's way shorter than I am, and she's older too. None of this, of course, means a thing in the real world. I'm working on that. Not very hard, mind, but I do think about it sometimes. Always something to learn.

To read the rest of this story, please turn to the following link;

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