20 Years Later: A Photo of Charlie’s Machete

The Amazon Medical Project was founded in 1990 by Dr. Linnea J. Smith, M.D., a former IE Amazon rainforest tour guest. The project supports the Yanamono Medical Clinic, which provides primary care, involving locally trained people and encourages preventative medicine. Below is PART 1 of Linnea’s recent letter to clinic supporters and friends.

"The very first time I came to Peru, back in February 1990, before the Canopy Walkway was built, before Ceiba Tops existed, the main lodges at Explorama were the Yanamono Lodge (where I have lived ever since) and the more rustic lodge on the Napo River, known as Napo Camp. Nowadays, many groups stay only two or three nights before moving on, but back then, when the flight came direct from Miami to Iquitos once a week, many groups would arrive on that flight, stay a week, and then leave. My group did the same.

Thus, there would be a night or two spent at the Yanamono Lodge, then two or three nights at Napo, then a couple more nights back at Yanamono before departure. While at Napo, we fished for piranha, walked on jungle trails, visited blackwater lakes, and for a change of pace, went to the village of Llachapa, near Napo Camp, where Napo’s administrator at the time lived. His name was Antero, and we visited his home among others. I took lots of photos, and one of my favorites has always been the young boy sitting on a pona slat floor with a huge machete resting across his legs. Pieces of the sugar cane he has been chopping up lie scattered on the floor around him. The pona floor is itself an indication of the photo’s age. These slats sliced off the sides of the pona palm were used as flooring and wall material in houses around here for years. They were slightly rounded, and of course were not completely straight along the sides, so there were always gaps between them, which made housekeeping easy. Babies wore no diapers, but when they peed, it just drained right out between the slats. In recent years, however, this traditional building material has been used pretty much to extinction, and most homes now have board floors.

My real fondness for the photo, though, comes from Charlie’s machete (I made a note at the time, so I know that was his name). I have used the slide in many talks, demonstrating the differences between life here and life back in the U.S., where my own parents would not let me near so much as a paring knife until I was at least twice Charlie’s age.

It turns out that Antero’s now-grown son Jemer has recently come to work at the Yanamono Lodge, so one night I was reminiscing to him about how I had taken photos in his village, possibly even in his house, more than 20 years ago; and I mentioned the one of Charlie and his machete. Jemer looked startled, then told me that he had a younger brother named Charlie. Really? – well, maybe the photo is of him. Jemer grew quite excited. Charlie was always sickly, he said, and when he was 13, he fell ill with meningitis, and died. This was 15 years ago. If my photo really was of him, their mother would be overjoyed.

A friend of mine once suffered a home fire, and afterward, he said that what hurt most, out of all they had lost, was the loss of the family photo albums. Well, here no one has any of those. The emulsion on photographic paper does not survive the rainforest climate for more than a few years, and even then only if carefully laminated. No mother has pictures of her children when they were small. If a child has died, there is likely no memento whatsoever left to the grieving mom.

So I had the photo printed (it has been scanned into the computer and is now digital), and brought it to Jemer one evening. He took it, held it in front of him, and could not take his eyes off it. He just stood there, staring at it, remembering his long gone younger brother. His eyes filled with tears, and so did mine.

And when he next came back from his days off, he told me he had gotten an enlargement, and presented it to his mother, who was beside herself with tears and laughter, and sent her most heartfelt thanks.

I guess the moral is, take lots of pictures. You never know when one will turn out to be significant, even if it is 20 years down the road."

Learn more about the Yanamono Medical Clinic and Dr. Smith at www.amazonmedical.org.


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