I went to the central plaza to find a family that has been sponsored in school by a volunteer last January. We have been trying for several days to connect with the mother so we can enroll the children. In Peru if you are too poor for shoes or pencils and paper you can’t attend.
Vanessa is 12-years-old. She is tall and very thin. Her front teeth are beginning to turn black and rot away from lack of nutrition and brushing. Her clothes are horribly tattered and dirty. Most of the time she is barefoot and though her long black hair is combed, life without soap and shampoo is easy to see and hard to hide. Given the conditions she lives in, her appearance is understood.
Vanessa still has bright eyes and she can scarcely contain her enthusiasm when she sees me. She still has the innocents of a child whose survival on the streets is simply the only life she knows. She hasn’t started to wonder yet why other people have so much and she has so little, or maybe she hides it behind her bright eyes. When she hugs me she hangs on tight. Her affection is genuine…you can feel it.
Vanessa has the responsibility of her little brother Mitchell who is nine years old and Marina who is five. Typically Mitchell is behind the scenes. He is smaller then most of the boys his age and is not bold enough to push his way to the front of any line. When the children in the plaza gather I have to go to Mitchell. He is much too timid to battle the crowd. I have noticed that the three times I have loaded them up in a motor car to visit their home he holds his shoulders back and puffs his chest a little, He rides beside me and looks as if somewhere in his blood there is a hint of royalty.
Then there is Marina...She is 5 years old, tiny and always dirty. The back of her ragged dress is wide open with only the top button keeping it on her shoulders. Half of the collar is missing. It must have been given to her by a tourist and I am sure at one time it was very beautiful. I have never seen her wear shoes. She is like a little monkey. Dancing, laughing, and picking at the bigger kids who all tolerate it because she is so small. Most of the time she is in the doorway of the ice cream store hoping like all children that this will be her lucky day.
The children saw me on the sidewalk and came running with such force I lost my balance and stumbled against the building. They know we are trying to help them but their mother has been missing and without their records I can’t get them into school. Within moments of meeting the question always comes..."will you feed us tonight?" It is always a joy but I wonder about the nights I am not in town.
Their house is in the poorest slums of Iquitos. It is a 7x12 wooden shack on stilts. This is one of 14 rooms in a tenement house. It has one light bulb, one bed for five people, a small table in the corner and a window with wooden shudders and no glass. All the possessions of this family are hanging on nails or strings from the ceiling. The air is foul and everything has the stench of filth from the human waste that flows in the open trenches below. There is no toilet and no running water. Seven puppies crawl around under the wooden table. Part of a cardboard box is propped up to keep then contained.
The mother and father cook food for their sidewalk vending business and the charcoal that they burn ultimately leaves a black film on everything. It is hard to breathe so I sit on a stool beside the open window. The kids tell me that they don't know where their mother and father are. They are gone for the third day. I will look again tomorrow.