As I slowly stretched my arms into the darkness, I discovered with a shock that my hand was no longer visible. The four of us, my fellow YAVs and our tour guide, stood silently in the night and listened to life teeming around us. We’d already seen scorpions, spiders, and alligators. We filled our lungs with aire puro, partly to calm ourselves, but also knowing that one fifth of all the oxygen in the world comes from the very jungle where we found ourselves. For several silent moments, we stood in the darkness, listening to unseen life. My eyes would never adjust. Perhaps there is a darkness in which our eyes were never meant to adjust.
Over the course of this week, we held tarantulas, hugged sloths, trekked through the Amazon at night, transformed our bodies into a jungle gym for a woolly monkey named Martina, fished for (and caught!) piranhas in the Amazon River, and ate worms found inside a fruit. It was a blast. After spending just a few days deep in the rainforest, I’m reminded of my own smallness. There are entire ecosystems operating entirely outside of my awareness. Organisms, plants, and animals have developed symbiotic relationships over the course of millions of years. Even in my ignorance of the mechanics of this mutual interdependence, nothing nourishes the spirit like feet planted in the earth, lungs filled with the world’s purest air.
As literally refreshing as our Amazon adventure was, I couldn’t turn off my highly critical brain. My fellow YAVs and I joked about how everything (and everyone) is problematic in some way. We were all social science majors in college, conscious of our many privileges and how much space we occupy. In a context where I often feel like my very presence in this country is problematic, this feeling increased exponentially when traveling outside of the community I’ve come to know.
For example, it was difficult not to imagine ourselves through our tour guide’s eyes. Despite speaking perfect English and having a German name (Geyner), he had never left the Amazon. He told us his ancestors had lived in the jungle as well, meaning his family had likely suffered from the rubber boom when Europeans exploited indigenous workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And now here he is, guiding clueless Westerners around the rainforest, enduring our endless selfies and attempts to capture our “exotic” trip to the Amazon. There’s nothing exotic about this land to him, though; his deep familiarity in the jungle is an intimacy I’ll never know with any land. His knowledge is the sum of hundreds of generations.
I’ve spent the past week wrestling with another aspect of our vacation. On my first day in Iquitos I saw more white people wandering the streets than I’ve seen throughout the entirety of my time in Moyobamba. Western travelers, donning their distinctive aesthetic, discussed their recent journeys to Machu Picchu, how long they’ve been in Peru, what country they’ll be visiting next, natural medicines, and how they’ve found themselves through traveling.
Before I go on, allow me to say I’m aware of my own hypocrisy. I travel, clearly. I’m hiking to Machu Picchu in March. I’m hoping to travel more at the end of this YAV year. I’m a living contradiction. But, here it goes.
We have to spurn this delusional, however hypnotic, notion that traveling brings enlightenment. I am no more enlightened than Geyner, who’s never left the Amazon, for having seen more of his own country. Even if “the world is a book and those who don’t travel read only a page,” a page is all most can afford. Enlightenment is not limited only to those who can afford the whole book. I imagine nothing sets the native heart raging like a real, live spoiled-rotten Westerner displaying a full array of underserved privileges and unacknowledged entitlements. This is to pour salt in colonial wounds. Many of the travel agencies we encountered in Iquitos offered to take us to see native tribes “perform a tribal dance” for us, or to participate in an ancient shamanic ritual involving a hallucinogen called Ayahuasca (it’s fitting that the first article I saw when I opened Facebook upon returning was this Onion article). This is openly exploitative. In a world where imperialism still thrives, to wallow in my own pleasure while most I’m working with this year will live and die without seeing their country’s “highlights” feels despicable.
Yet here I am, in Peru, helpless to my own wanderlust, wanting to grasp every opportunity to explore, to learn, to soak in every last new experience. Maybe it isn’t traveling in and of itself that I’ve come to despise, but the unacknowledged privileged narrative that accompanies it. This is why I’m grateful for the YAV program. I’ve experienced cultural exchanges everyday (minus some of those, you know, antisocial days). Sure, my presence here is probably problematic. Maybe I’m participating in the legacy of colonialism, or maybe I’m here only because of my own white guilt, paying penance for my unearned fortune. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I strive for intentionality in the way I’m present here. At the threshold of an unpredictable administration on the verge of seizing power, it is more important than ever to listen, and to listen well.
Stories change us. Connection changes us. Relationships change us. Changing geographical locations does not.
On our first day in Iquitos, I experienced a moment only made possible by the four months I’ve been in Moyobamba with Paz y Esperanza. Catherine and I were sitting on a boardwalk overlooking a river when a woman with a clipboard approached us. The paper read, in English and Spanish, that she was deaf and raising money for a school for deaf children in the region. I set the clipboard down and began signing with her. Her eyes lit up and we began communicating. I asked her what her name is (her hands moved in a quick blur, but I think she spelled Clita) and she asked mine. We taught each other our signed names. I told her I’m a teacher at a school for children who are deaf in San Martín. Clita told me they’re trying to create one in Iquitos. This is an incredible concept to me; there might be a thousand people who are deaf in Iquitos alone, but if no one knows sign language, there’s no community. They remain in isolation, using rudimentary signs with their families.
After we parted ways, we began speaking with two local teenagers from Iquitos for over an hour. They told us most foreigners they encounter can’t sustain a conversation in Spanish with them. After I told them about my work in Moyobamba, they said they’d seen me signing with the woman who was deaf earlier. They’d seen her asking for money in the past, but assumed that she was lying about being deaf to garner pity. They trust her story now and were willing to help her.
This isn’t meant to be a diatribe against traveling as much as it is a call to consciousness, for myself included. There were a few moments in Iquitos I realized too late that I cared more about having a new experience than the harmful consequences left in my wake. If you travel, please do so intentionally. Also know that stories of indescribable beauty, pain, heartbreak, and joy can be found anywhere, whether you’re in Little Rock, Arkansas or Moyobamba, Peru.