Women living on the banks of the Marañón River try to birth as many children as possible because it is expected that a significant percentage of them will die as infants. The water of the Marañón River is not safe to drink; kids die every day drinking it. I’ve just arrived, by boat, to a village on the banks of this river -- the principal source of water for the Amazon River. It’s June 30th, 2015, in the midst of an incredibly hot Peruvian summer but I couldn’t be more excited to be travelling again. I’m meeting villagers I will never see again; unfortunately, they will never know how much merely meeting them will impact me. I’m seeing how little girls here grow up. I meet a young girl and think about how I was seven years old once, too. Things were different, much easier, for me when I was seven. The realization that this girl is as happy as she is, living how she’s living, will change my life forever.
I woke up today on a luxury river cruise, in a comfortable bed. I ate eggs, cooked to order, for breakfast and am now getting ready to embark on a journey to explore the banks of the Marañón. My family and I have just disembarked our small motor boat into the backyard of a local village family. No one speaks English; no one can tell me how or what to think about this place.
A family is greeting us now. I can only imagine what’s going through their minds:
“Who are these white people and why are they in my yard?”
“Here come the pitiful tourists again.”
However, I’m not just a pitiful tourist. For me, observing how these people live is about learning from them, not feeling bad for them.
We have a translator with us but I’ve taken a couple years of Spanish and that’s one of the reasons I was so excited when I found out we would be travelling to Peru. As we stand in the backyard of a local family’s home, I see a little girl with olive skin and extremely dark hair, with eyes to match. However, that’s all I can see of her – she’s hiding. She peeks her head above the rails of a canoe turned on its side in the yard just long enough to let me know she’s there, and then ducks again.
She plays this game with me for a minute or two and then I see a different head pop up; then a different one. I walk around to the other side of the boat to find three beautiful little girls, none over the age of nine years old, giggling at me.
“Hola niñas,” I said.
“Hola,” the oldest replied.
I ask them their names and ages and the oldest sister tells me her name is Isabel but after that, they don’t make much conversation. The three of them hide from me for a little while longer and eventually get bored of their game. They still just stare at me. They stare at my hair and my skin and my clothes.
That day I took pictures of them and they posed for me; they didn’t smile because they didn’t know that’s what most people do when they are being photographed. I still look at those pictures frequently.
After a little while, my family and I start walking toward the main part of the village. There is a “grocery store” stocked with not much more than mints, which the locals think are candy, and water. There is an open space with soccer goals on opposing sides and another with a make-shift volleyball net. There are huts-made-homes by the genuine people living in them.
I said my goodbyes to Isabel and her sisters before leaving. A few steps into our walk, I feel someone come up behind me and take my hand. It’s Isabel. She’s taking my right hand in her left and her sisters are completing the chain. I held Isabel’s small, dirt-covered fingers in mine and felt as though I had a little sister, or three, for a second. We walked as one into the village – different but the same.
When I connected with those girls, I felt myself grow as an individual. Never have I looked into another’s eyes and seen as much wonder and life as I did in those of the children who lived in that village. That experience changed how I see everything that happens to me every single day.
Now, any time I think about complaining about my life in Sarasota, I think about the villagers on the banks of the Marañón. I think about the little girls I met and how some of them may not even be alive anymore, not through any fault of their own; they were just thirsty. I think about how they live in a “house” the size of my bedroom, with their entire families. I think about how no matter what problems I think I have, I’m beyond fortunate to live the life that I do. When I get frustrated, I think about how small my problems are in comparison to, not only those of Isabel and her sisters, but those of less fortunate people all around the world. But the beautiful thing is that those people don’t complain; they don’t pity themselves because this is all they’ve ever known. They just keep going and living. They still find time to be happy and smile and love.