Monday, May 05, 2008

Traveling to the KM 46 School

Traveling into the Jungle
The next day I flew to the jungle town of Iquitos located on the Amazon River. Stepping off the airplane onto the open air runway was like walking into a steaming shower room. The temperature was close to 95 degrees and the humidity left a shimmer of sweat on my forehead while walking to the airport terminal. A friend met me to pick up the boxes of books I had bought from Lima. He was going directly to the school in the morning and would take care of getting the books to the village.
My main reason for visiting Iquitos was to see the progress of the new school we are building in the jungle. The school doesn't have a name yet so we call it the rather generic name of Kilometer 46 school since it is located at highway marker 46 KM (30 miles) from the outskirts of Iquitos. The name of the village is called “New Triumph” which is located another 4 KM off the main highway.

The next day I began the long commute from downtown Iquitos to the KM 46 school. To get the full local effect I took the bus (local Combi bus) instead of renting a direct taxi. A Combi bus is similar to an old Volkswagen Bus that were available in the United States 30 years ago. Most of the Combi Buses looked 30 years old with the doors hanging from their hinges and dented fenders which were the result of jousting with other vehicles in city traffic.

I found a place to sit on the bus bench seat. There were nine seats in the bus, but we had 13 people already jammed hip to hip like a bunch of clowns in a circus car. As we drove the rural highway out of Iquitos the bus would stop for someone else waiting on the roadside. Their bundle of bananas went on the roof and the side door of the bus would slide open to squeeze in one more passenger. Just when I thought the person near the door would tumble out, we would find room for another passenger inside. This routine would be repeated over and over until every inch of space was packed with elbows into their neighbor’s armpits. The hot sun warmed the inside of the bus to a roasty 100 degrees. The only fresh air came from when we opened the side door to cram in one more rider. That old deodorant soap commercial played in my head...”Aren’t you glad you use DIAL?...Don’t you wish everybody did?”.

After an hour and a half the bus arrived at KM 46. I stumbled out of the bus and felt the contrasting cool air of the 90 degree jungle. I then started the four kilometer hike along the red clay path. The local people walking this trail had widened it to fit a small all terrain vehicle when the path was dry. Last year many of the bridges were a single telephone pole type log laid over the streams. Now many of these bridges had been replaced with cut wooden beams similar to railroad ties. These bridges were suitable for supporting a small vehicle. I counted fifteen new bridges that were built this year. Some of the areas are still very swampy and there is a need for five or ten more bridges through the marshland.

After 45 minutes of walking I finally arrived at the village of New Triumph. The area is not really a village with a cluster of houses. This region is home to 30 families who live spread out into the dense jungle. Each family settlement is self supporting and might be separated by half a mile. The new school will be a reason for 110 local kids to come together everyday.

Only three grass roof huts are visible from the clearing near the soccer field. One of the buildings is a community center with slat wood walls suitable for social gatherings. This building is where the temporary school is being held today.

I can hear the voices of the children as I walk toward the community center building. Today 56 students would be attending classes. The two teachers had divided the students into four age groups. The teachers alternated their time between the various kids. Their desks were improvised from plank boards set on bricks from the school construction site. Most of the kids and their parents have never been to school. The concept of sitting and listening to a teacher was new to them. The teachers were doing a good job of keeping everyone’s attention. The school day begins at 7:00 AM and is over by 1:00 PM. I stayed until school was dismissed. As the children left school they disappeared back to their houses in the jungle. Within ten minutes the community center was empty and the area was quiet except for the workers at the new school construction site.

Next to the community center the new school was being built into the hillside. I was hoping the new school would have been more finished when I arrived. I had heard reports about how the rains and flooding has made moving materials from the main road impossible. After walking the jungle path and seeing the remote conditions I could understand the obstacles of working in the jungle. All the work was being done by hand. The school foundation had been cut into the hillside which meant moving hundreds of wheelbarrows of dirt from the area. Then the bricks had to be carried from the main road along with many bags of cement and buckets of white sand.

The brick walls of the school were being built layer by layer. The school would have eight rooms of about 20 foot by 20 foot. There would be a perimeter sidewalk and an overhanging roof. I could imagine how the school will look when it is finished after June 1st.

The village is home to many woodcutters who work for a Canadian company selecting exotic hardwood trees from the jungle. They know how to cut wood. For the school they are cutting cedar rafters and making roof trusses. The buzz of chain saws could be heard in the distance. I would follow the men into the jungle to a remote sawmill where a guy was cutting boards freehand with a chain saw. I was really impressed with how flat and straight the boards were being sliced. The path to the sawmill was an obstacle course of stream crossings and ankle grabbing vines. The path had been cleared of saplings with a machete that left many six inch stumpy spikes on the walkway. Stepping on one of the spikes could easily go through the sole of a sturdy hiking boot.

At the sawmill we each picked up a fresh cut board and began walking back to the school. The planks were wet and heavy. I estimate a 12 foot board weighed 75 pounds. I had a hard enough time before walking through the jungle without carrying a board. Now I was trying to balance a board on my shoulder, jump a stream, keep from tripping on vines and not fall on stomach piercing spikes. I was the last one in the convoy of board carriers. I hoped no one saw how I was struggling. Everyone else was walking at a steady trot. I was trying to stay within eyesight and not get left in the jungle. When we returned to the school we needed to stack our board on the vertical drying rack. I could barely lift my board into the rack. My arms and shoulders were aching. Before I had time to recover our convoy of workers was returning to the sawmill. We would make five more trips back and forth moving boards. At home I had moved lots of lumber from Home Depot but carrying boards in the jungle was at least three times as hard. I have to give those workers a lot of credit for moving all those boards everyday by hand.


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