Amazon Hope, by Bo Keely

October 20, 2009 |

AmazonYesterday I hiked a jungle path along the Rio Amazon that broadened every thirty minutes at villages of 10-30 thatched huts and every couple hours at a stream where I sat on a bank to hail a passing canoe with a cheer. Occasionally a barefoot Indian came toting the ubiquitous 30'' machete and 20-kilo sack of yucca, bananas, nuts or fruit from his farm an hour's walk from a pueblo, smiled and passed, and I spoke to a dozen when I was a bit bewildered by the land. By late afternoon, I realized an image of a network of trails leaving the Rio Amazon into the interior jungle for days or weeks interconnecting thousands more villages, and derived a model for the early settlement of this planet.

In the beginning man settled along the great waterways in clusters. As the rivers were fished out, land farmed up, and game trails yielded less, the bolder families struck out one day's walk from their village to start a new settlement with fresh land, more fish and plentiful game. In a couple generations that area would dry up, the more slothful who could eke out a life remained, and the pioneers ventured yon… until the land became a network of game trails with villages about a day's march apart. The further you venture on these trails, I know from earlier hikes, the more rugged the gene pools, fewer the clothes, and the natives are surprised but genial.

A soft pad and shadow caused my snort on the path, and a Grandma pulled aside with a grin and offered to be my guide. We continued for an hour until the track touched the Amazon bank where the 36-kilo lady with a machete stopped, squinted upriver and jigged. 'The annual ship! ' she called up and down the trail though no one was there.

We dangled our feet on a stump 20' above the mighty Amazon and in ten minutes a handsome 130' double-deck black ship with white trim and multiple antennae, as if by fate, did one full circle to ferret a dock and it's shallow draught allowed it to pull to our feet! Two-foot tall white letters Amazon Hope filled our vision, a little brown man jumped out, swam to shore, and 6'' thick anchor lines were flung and clove hitched around two trees. A 1'wide plank splashed ten feet short of shore.

Grandma and I slipped hand-in-hand down the muddy bank, waded, and boarded first. By eye, ear and jungle divine, news in minutes of the godsend trembled along the network and the first of a hundred natives found the knoll behind us. I caught a baby from shore, and the hand of a senorita to wade thigh-deep water to the plank, and up. A green-frocked lady with apple cheeks led us up a dozen spiral steps as I reflected that the best equipment in any hospital is a warm welcome. It was a medical ship!

On the second deck we faced an amphitheater of bleachers before a wooden desk on the most shipshape craft on the Amazon, despite our muddy, dripping bare feet. Two eager Peruvian doctors in red Bermudas and white pressed shirts with shinny, caring faces breezed in and opened wide at the gringo. So I rose and announced, 'I'm not sick but my ten children are', fatherly spreading my hands over the heads of the nearest infants, and promptly sat down. The docs hurrahed, and all laughed. The nurse handed out forms and pens — Peru has the world's most reaching primary education and virtually everyone is literate except very deep in the jungle — for names, ages and medical complaints. Grandma is 65 and gets headaches working under the hot sun.

The nurse shuffled forms as a doctor rose to murmur, 'I want to tell you about intestinal parasites…' and soon erupted, 'Everyone has them, they will kill you, but here is the cure!' and he thrust high two red tablets . I accepted my free worm pills and was told to swallow even if I didn't have worms, but secreted them to fume that the floating medicine show had opened with a snake oil salesman act to grab the minds, strike fear and offer salvation to primitives who believe in animal spirits and have pathogens as pets. Yet I sat riveted for a rare glimpse of what happens when Third World disease meets First World medicine in the examination room.

Quick as a bucket brigade, the patients — now swollen to fifty — sorted into groups of ten and filed down spiral stairs to the yellow painted ship bowel to seat along a long bench from which I clearly viewed four open doors of the doctors ‘consulting rooms, a sonogram closet, tiny operating theater (local anesthesia), small lab, phone booth pharmacy, and fully equipped dentist office where a six-foot lassie raised a loaded needle to stare at my diastema I guess.

The staff was pure Scottish except the two Peruvian doctors, and the hospital was spic-and-span. The procedure was snappy, and half the bench emptied, as I sat put. A medical history begins with the doctor prompting the patient to chronologically relate the symptoms so he can make a diagnosis and write a prescription often before the patient stops talking a minute later. This is good medicine though as a veterinarian I took a little longer to muzzle some patients. Each exam took five minutes, the patients filed to other rooms, and the rest of the bench including Grandma emptied for the free doctor's offices.

Another group of ten descended the stairs, and to make room I walked three steps to milk the stout pharmacist. In 2001 Scotland donated the Amazon Hope, an ex-Royal Navy ship 'RMAS Milford', to cross the ocean via USA (to pick up volunteers) to the river Amazon to carry out medical trips using American, UK and Peruvian medical professionals to provide gratis services to jungle riverside pueblos. Each team of 6-8 is delivered by speedboat from Iquitos, works afloat ten days, and four on holiday before returning home. This crackerjack Scottish staff of two doctors, dentist, nurse, pharmacist and lab technician has paid their own way during annual leave from practices. It's their ninth day of sunrise-to-sunset work, yet they're keen at the task.

The breakdown of medical cases includes 30% dental with fillings and tooth extraction, 40% pediatrics, 20% geriatrics, and 10% catchall including a man sitting next to me with a fish spine in his red swollen foot. The majority of cases are intestinal parasites and scabies. Rare emergencies are speedboated to Iquitos or Pucallpa. The ship stops twice daily along the Amazon wherever she can dock with 100-200 patients seen at each, and a clinician goes ashore to the nearest schoolhouse to teach hygiene and family planning, The Hope has no base and provides health service to about 100,000 indigenous people where I've been walking for three weeks.

The people welcome the visit like the Starship Enterprise. The rub is these patients are pictures of health, the children golden aglow and the seniors move with oympian grace. Nearly everyone boarded for the show and coddle — who can blame them in this insect inferno — and free meds to stockpile if a disease hits before the annual ship revolution. I am the best bet for the most ill aboard and feel pretty fair for sore feet and a thousand chigger bites. The past three days on the trail were sluggish, and yesterday I shivered, put a cup to my forehead instead of mouth, and defecated in my baseball cap. When the pharmacist heard this she slipped seven Chloroquine in my pack should the symptoms manifest of what I suspect is malaria, and those grains will kick hades out of the Plasmodium, one strike for medicine.

Grandma and I exited the plank now extended by a log to straddle the shore. I laced my shoes and she confided high blood pressure and had been told to limit salt intake and prescribed aspirin. One doctor makes the work of another, so I countered that she maintain salt, wear a hat, jump in the brook, drink, and get the grandkids off their butts to the farm.

We strolled the jungle where the report, 'The ship has arrived!' shook the grapevine and dozens scurried the paths to make the docking as if it were Pizarro. I winked and introduced Grandma to Hippocrates, saying, 'Walking is the best medicine'. Beneath a ten-story tree she begged my worm pills for her husband, and peeled off to the interior for a pueblo called Santana, leaving me a bit lost. But there is no medicine like hope, and no tonic so powerful as an open track into the jungle.





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