Sharing Hands and Building Bridges: A Day of Community Service in an Amazonian Village
May 22, 2015
2015 Student Field Reporter Project: We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!
Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland)
I looked critically at the golf ball-like golden fruits attached to the branch I was holding, weighing my options. The local girls were watching me expectantly, and I thought, If I refuse, they’ll judge me, or worse, be offended. That little kid just climbed a frigging tree to get these things. If I eat them, I might catch some obscure bacterial disease and die. But one of the girls had just eaten a fruit, so I shrugged and decided to indulge in my riskier side. Copying her, I tore off the rind with my front teeth, sucked out the inside, and spat out the seeds. The fruit had a dry, sharp taste that was vaguely sweet, and I grinned. The girls grinned back.
We had spent the last two days immersed in the jungle and the river, and it had come time to reach out more directly with the local people of the Amazon. After an early morning birding trip and breakfast, we left ExplorNapo by boat, heading for the nearby village of Llachapa. A day of community service and cultural interaction with the locals had been blocked into our schedule, and despite the non-Spanish speakers’ nerves, we were excited. On the short ride over, I thought about other times I’ve interacted with native peoples. I was younger, but I clearly remember fishing and playing futbol with Guatemalan kids and punting volleyball and visiting the homes of my Kuna friends in Panama. I have learned that language isn’t everything. If you can hit a ball and crack a smile, you’re in good shape.
Pretty soon we came to a cleared area on the banks, where dugouts and motored canoes were pulled against the shore. A brightly-painted bus-type thing, long decommissioned, perched near the water, adding more color to the land. Wooden-slat houses with thatched roofs rose on stilts above the thick crabgrass, and over the knolls a large group of medium-height people with black hair and warm brown skin came walking. A sign in Spanish announced the village as Llachapa. A spike of nerves surprised me as I saw the local people, most of them children, coming toward us. Oh man, I thought. There’s a lot of them, and they’re all going to be staring at us. And I don’t speak their language. I pushed away the fear as we climbed off the boat onto the grass. The local kids grouped around us, some smiling, others observing carefully. I smiled back, offering greetings of Hola and Buenos Dias.
As they led us over the gently-sloping open space, I looked around. Most of the ground was grass, but some worn-down areas were sticky with mud. Trees were scattered here and there amongst the houses, and chickens, ducks, dogs and cats wandered freely. We crossed a wooden causeway over a lake matted with algal life to a main courtyard in the middle of a group of two-storey, rectangular school buildings. A few circular thatched roofs over cement bases formed meeting areas. We went to the largest one in the middle of the yard, where small wooden chairs were arranged around the perimeter. A string of coil bulbs provided light under the dark thatch. Once we had all settled, introductions, mostly in Spanish, were given from our group and the school administrators. The children who learned here were in school two weeks in, two weeks out at this time of year. At least a hundred kids sat in the chairs. After the greetings, my classmates and I broke ranks, joining groups of the local kids. There was bamboo to be hammered into the ground, slats to be painted, holes to be dug. Swallowing our nerves, we jumped to it.
Over the next several hours, each of us Americans adjusted amongst our coworkers. Emily, despite her earlier apprehension, earned friends by carrying water and a smile. My brother tested his not-inconsiderable Spanish amongst the boys and ended up wandering the village with a few of them, answering questions about the far off Estados Unitos. Momo, an international student, taught a teenager some Chinese. I smiled when a little girl ran up while we were splitting bamboo and attached herself firmly to Kenzie, who had been conversing with some school children earlier. Skin color and language had little significance, after we all got over our initial shyness.
We broke at 12:30, the local students going inside to eat while we ate lunch. After that it was time for the wildlife scavenger hunt, provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to help share the message of environmental awareness and conservation. My friend Jack and I went with a group of teenage girls. We didn’t have to do much. They read the Spanish names of the target and we took off, ranging all over the village. Once we had gotten most of the boxes checked, they started to show us what laid off the beaten tracks.
The village was small, but big enough to explore. The girls led us behind a row of houses to a small flooded area, where they picked the golden fruits and we shared them. Then a boy in a dugout paddled up. After riding herself, one of the girls invited me into the boat. I nodded excitedly and hopped in. We paddled around the trees, sweeping our hands through the cool water. I tried to keep my body still and steady the boat. We circled back to the shore and continued our walk. We wandered amongst the houses, going briefly inside one for the girls to get some water. When we eventually looped back to our teachers, kids were running for a hill a little ways off. We grabbed water bottles and quickly joined them. It was time for a futbol game to top off the day.
Futbol is soccer, for you Americans who do not travel, and it’s extremely popular in Latin America. I hoped it wouldn’t be Americans versus locals, because we would be slaughtered. We reached the plateau of the hill worn down to red dirt with two goal posts on either end. We scattered into teams, and the game began. For the next fifteen minutes we Americans tried not to get in the way of the lean local boys, who ran and kicked and head-butted the ball like the moves were in their blood. We had a ton of fun playing with them, with Jack scoring the first goal, much to his delight.
When it was time to go they walked us to the rapido and we all yelled thanks and goodbyes, from both sides. A pleased tiredness washed over me in reflection. Their lives were infinitely different from ours. We would never know or understand some aspects of each other’s ways, but that did not exclude friendship. We were all moved by what we had built that day–garden fences, painted signs and a bridge between two worlds, whose crossing we would never forget.