Spending time in Peru, especially in the jungle, has made me realize how much we can’t take for granted. There are some things we should appreciate more, but most of us don’t. Fresh drinking water, for example. People in the jungle don’t drink water. They boil water from tiny streams for coffee or tea, and filter or chlorinate it to mix with fruit juices, but they don’t drink it on its own. Coca Cola is, of course, happy to supply bottled water but at a dollar for two liters, it’s out of most people’s budgets. Since soft drinks go for the same price, if the locals are going to buy bottled drinks, it won’t be water. Ellen and I buy as much clean drinking water as we can carry, and still we rarely have enough. On days when we have sufficient supplies to drink our fill, we feel very fortunate indeed.

Adequate housing is another luxury rarely seen in Peru’s Amazon. It’s a given that any roof here will leak in the rain. A family with more than one bedroom in their house is doing well for themselves. Some houses have electricity; the lucky few have solar panels or generators of their own. Ellen and I often joke on our trip that we felt like first class hobos. We sleep in tents, but our tents are at least as dry as most people’s homes. When we set up camp, we have mosquito nets to protect us as we eat our dinner. My personal solar panel kept my cell phone charged (at least until my phone was stolen).

We’ve really come to appreciate the simple pleasures here. Food cooked over an open fire tastes better. We have time and opportunity to watch the sunset in all its glory almost every night. We have everything we own, and everything we need, with us all the time. We have clothes and bedding for a variety of climates. If it gets chilly overnight, I have a sweater or a spare blanket. When it rains, we have tarps to protect our campsite. The food we eat is produced locally. We know the veggies and fruits were grown within a few kilometers of where we bought them. We see vendors go door to door at restaurants, selling a bag of yucca or fresh papayas. Eating local isn’t a movement, it’s a way of life here.

Somehow in the city, we rarely make time to watch the sunset.

Somehow in the city, we rarely make time to watch the sunset.

I’m writing this from a riverboat on the way to Yurimaguas, leaving the Amazon. This boat ride is a lot more peaceful than the Pucallpa-Iquitos run. I’m sitting in the shade on the upper deck while Ellen reads in her hammock. A German traveller is updating his diary and keeps scooting closer to me as the sun infringes on his cool spot in the shelter of the tarp roof. The view is simple: sandy banks thick with reeds, palms, brush and trees. We are surprisingly close to shore, but the captain steers us clear of the many logs and trees in the water along the shoreline. In some places, full trees are submerged and their leaves peek through the water, determined to survive. In other places, trunks have roots growing out of them six or ten feet above the ground, clearly indicating some past high water mark. Where the bank is shallow, makeshift rice paddies keep the locals fed, along with bananas and yucca growing in soil reclaimed from the river, during dry season at least. Lucio, our Amazonian host, told us that when the river floods each year, the locals live on nuts and seeds gathered from the trees on high ground. I wonder whether the crops survive the yearly deluge or whether families struggle to replant foodstuffs every time the waters recede. In Costa Rica and Ecuador, yucca took two years to reach maturity, but with the fertile soil near the river, maybe crops grow more quickly.

You can clearly see how deep the water is in the wet season.

You can clearly see how deep the water is in the wet season.

We are leaving the Amazon with many questions still unanswered, and sights unseen. I’d like to be here in wet season, when the fruits ripen and the river is teeming with fish. I’ve heard you can just dip a net in the water and come up with enough fish for dinner. I wonder how the houses do with all that water around. Some two-story homes are clearly below the surface on the first floor at least. The better structures are on stilts, but within a community there seems to be no consensus on how high the houses should be lifted above the ground. Some are as high as ten feet, while others just two or three. There must be some families who have just one room when the waters come. Is it a hardship for them, or are they so busy fishing and gathering food that it’s rarely an issue?

In many ways, I’d love to live here, to set up a home on these banks and make a life as people here have done for thousands of years. Living off the land would be much simpler here than in Canada, and with both food and natural building materials at hand, it’d be easy to live a low-impact lifestyle here. Sadly, environmentalism isn’t given the time of day here. Garbage is tossed onto the ground or into the river, and it’s just considered normal. Many people’s homes are surrounded by trash. I guess when the water comes, the flood washes the waste away and the people don’t worry about it. It breaks my heart, though, to see children drink a Coke and throw the bottle off the back porch without a second thought, following their parents’ example. The boat crews sweep the decks and toss the garbage right overboard. The river is so huge, you don’t see much trash in it, but I can’t help wonder which shoreline the bottles and bags wash up on, which marine creatures get caught and tangled in the plastic and nets.

This is the river's surface in the docks, where Ellen and I boarded a small boat to get to Lucio and Ana's place in the jungle.

This is the river’s surface in the docks, where Ellen and I boarded a small boat to get to Lucio and Ana’s place in the jungle. Yes, that’s all floating trash.

Ellen and I packed our garbage out of the Amazon, but what good does that do, really? The whole country lacks infrastructure for recycling and waste collection. Here in the Amazon, the river disburses it, but on the coast you can see the sands littered with bags and cans, blown back and forth across the desert. Humanitarian aid organizations come here to do projects related to clean drinking water and disease prevention – I can’t help but think an investment in waste management infrastructure and educational programs on recycling, composting and safe garbage disposal would benefit the people as well. But changes like this need to come from within, rather than being imposed by well-meaning outsiders. It would take a cultural shift over at least a generation to accept it, and most aid projects fizzle out in a few short months or years. Just like my view on politics, I see little chance of lasting, meaningful change for the better. Maybe it’s cynical or shallow on my part, but I’m going to focus my energies on something where I can make a real difference that I can see.

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