Just downriver from the small town of El Chino is Buena Vista, a nearly deserted town of just seven families. Once one of a number of thriving and economically successful villages on this part of the Amazon, the increased dangerous high floods of recent years have resulted in a number of families’ moving away. The other factor was the retirement of a beloved teacher, and many families moved elsewhere when subsequent teachers stayed less than a year each. This has left the town devastated, with just a few stragglers left.
This is a window into a tiny town in transition- just a few families whose lives are deeply and irrevocably affected by the actions of a dedicated woman and the not-for-profit she formed. Dolly Beaver and Angels of the Amazon, two names that are synonymous with hope and happiness around this part of the Amazon, have been working hard to improve lives and maintain a way of life precious to these river people. Dolly, wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who created the Tahuayo Lodge for tourists wanting to explore the Amazon, is from Iquitos, and understands the needs of these people well.
Dolly and I disembark and walk up the steep slope on rickety wooden steps to the cracked sidewalk. We are carrying a heavy pink plastic bag of rice and sugar to drop off with an elderly couple she says is food endangered. No one seems to be in the dark shack, but she won’t leave the food unattended.
This old couple is made up of Maria, 83, who is blind and suffering from early dementia, and her second husband, Manuel, 78, who has bad eyesight but can still fish and farm. Their only son died, but managed to leave behind some twelve grandchildren who sometimes come by to panhandle the food that Dolly leaves for them. Manuel does his best to take care of Maria but he is limited given the lack of local family support. Sometimes Dolly and I pass him fishing quietly on the Tahuayo River.
At one point last year, a fly laid eggs in Manuel’s ear while he was sleeping. They hatched into maggots, which fed inside his ear canal. He complained of fever and headaches, which the local could only help with pain relief. It wasn’t until some time later that Angels of the Amazon got him to Esperanza Clinic , a proper healthcare facility supported by Angels of the Amazon. There, they discovered that he was living with fly larvae feeding on his inner ear. Manuel and Maria have no one living with them, and there is no such thing as a nursing home close by to care for them. Yet they continue on.
In another instance, the couple’s very old woven leaf roof had deteriorated to the point where it was caving in. Rain would pour into their home. He patched it, then it would tear open on the other side. Eventually Dolly had the roof removed and a new one installed for their safety. In this case Dolly involved high schoolers from Long Island, New York to help install the roof and clean up the house for the couple. These are just a few of the examples of how essential Angels of the Amazon has become to the river communities, integrating tourists into village activities. This teaches travelers what life is like here, while also providing life changing services to those in need.
Down the badly broken sidewalk is the shell of the kindergarten, which has no roof. A teacher lived here for three years, collecting a salary for teaching kids that didn’t live here anymore. Now the government sends a supervisor to check on the schools in the area to ensure that teaching is actually taking place.
We stopped in to see Marta, whose son Boltamar is being sponsored by Angels of the Amazon. The people who provide sponsorship through Angels are tourists and others who are determined to see children like Boltamar get a decent chance. His parents don’t have the money to pay for the required school physical exam, uniform and books. An Angels donor has made this possible, and with this, Boltamar’s future has hope.
Marta, Boltamar’s mother, barely has three teeth left on her bottom gums. She is developmentally disabled, and has a habit of slapping her shirt up and down to cool herself or wipe the sweat, revealing her naked upper body to anyone in sight. She laughs often, and is difficult to understand. Sweet and affectionate, she understands why we’re here, and brings her 11-year-old boy out to sit with Dolly and show his school workbook. Balthamar’s great obsession is soccer. Over the years Dolly has delivered him a number of soccer balls and once, a pair of soccer shoes which he quickly wore out. The sport interests him far more than his schooling, but Dolly encourages him to continue, and he does. He’s eager to please Dolly, and Dolly takes delight in his progress.
Someone has written “son of a bitch” in Spanish in his workbook, and Dolly helps him erase it so that he doesn’t get in trouble with his teacher. The boy is an innocent- it’s a prank by another student.
The boy’s father paddles his older son Armando an hour each day to get him to the new high school in El Chino. It is powerful testament to the man’s commitment to getting his children the education he and his wife never were able to secure for themselves. The kids get river fish only as the dad can catch. Vegetables are nonexistent here. Boltamar looks pale. He clearly isn’t getting enough iron. Dolly leaves the sugar and rice with Marta which helps, but the child needs meat in his diet. He’s small for his age, especially compared to other boys in nearby villages. His small size, along with the fact that a good career in sports in Peru is extremely difficult, make his education even more essential to his future.
From here we walk further down to visit a bright young girl who is fast outstripping her older sister in school work. A lean, longhaired child in a dirty white top bounces into the darkened room and brings us her workbooks. Dolly and I sit on the benches and go over her work with her.
Adriana Meliza Caro Del Aquila loves math, and loves equations. Work on the board at the front of the class gives her pleasure, she says, and she has fun working out the problems both at school and at home. She loves processing equations in her head.
She plans to be an accountant. She also loves to read, from picking up old newspapers to anything she can get her hands on. This alone is something of a miracle.
Not long ago a girl like Adriana couldn’t even countenance such a dream. A jungle girl with just a government provided elementary school education could only dream. More likely, they would end up getting pregnant and live out the rest of their lives in a vicious cycle of agrarian poverty.
With the access to higher education, provided solely in this remote jungle region by Angels of the Amazon, and the passionate support of Dolly’s personal followup, girls like Adriana can do far more than just imagine professional careers. They will be able to attain them.
Adriana is the kind of child that delights Dolly. A girl whose eyes are set on the future, who delights in learning. Even given her limited circumstances, she has a real chance to complete her education. With support from Angels of the Amazon, mentoring from Dolly and her own determination, Adriana is likely to make it. She’ll be able to provide funds for her family and the other kids to finish their education, which benefits everyone.
Even more importantly she’ll set an example for her own family. Any daughter she has will grow up in an educated family, a working professional mom and a new set of circumstances. The poverty chain will be broken, with the help of Angels. Boltamar has the same chance, if he can channel his fascination with soccer into his schooling. His parents are already committed. The boys only need to live up to their hopes, and the support of Angels of the Amazon.
As Dolly and I climb back into our boat to head back to the Lodge, we wave goodbye to the small figures on the shore. Ever cheerful, Dolly grins. Tomorrow there will be more families to visit, more mothers to hug, more children to encourage. The best news is that those who help support Angels of the Amazon can see their support working: saving lives, creating hope, and opening doors for the villagers of the Tahuayo.