South America Travel Narrative Story: Priceless!

Story and photography by Ray Waddington.

If you modeled the probability of this story using Bayesian statistical techniques you'd discover that the outcome is close to impossible!

My current assignments focus on South and Central America. Since I also have a "normal" day job at the moment I travel when I'm able to get enough time off work to make the journey worthwhile. Based on that I'd say the chances I'd be in Peru for about two weeks in November, 2006 were about one-in-fifty. My work could have just as easily taken me to the Andes or the Amazon Basin. Since I chose the Amazon there was about another fifty percent chance it would have been the northern instead of the southern Amazon. That makes it about a one-in-two-hundred chance I'd be using Iquitos as my base.

My work on these assignments involves visiting indigenous villages. My strategy given my always-limited time is quality over quantity. So I'd be choosing one or at most two communities in which to spend my time. Now it was time to do some research.

The research I did before arriving in Iquitos hadn't uncovered any particular tour guide or company that would be an obvious choice. Nor had it revealed that every second person you meet here seems to be a guide! Some even doubled as drug pushers if you didn't like the sound of their tour and even tripled as pimps if you didn't want their drugs. So I spent the first day going into travel agency offices asking them about their trips. The fare on offer was consistently sleeping in remote lodges, jungle walks, the possibility of spying pink dolphins and observing "Indians" dressed traditionally and dancing for tourists. None of this appealed to me and by the early evening I was ready for a cold beer followed by a hot shower.

Then I learned my next Iquitos lesson: Don't trust the hotel employee who tells you they have hot water. "Mañana" he assured me. Since I'd been given a discount for staying two nights I immediately forgot the lesson knowing that I'd need a hot shower the next day. I was right. After spending another day being wowed by the prospect of parting with hundreds of dollars doing nothing I came here to do I was ready to give up and go to a different area. At least a hot shower was waiting for me... "Wait thirty minutes" I was told. I did. No hot water. "Wait another twenty." I did. "Another fifteen?" "Why? There won't be any hot water!" The one-way conversation that followed was beyond my Spanish ability. But I knew how to say "I'll wait fifteen more minutes but if there's no hot water I'm leaving and only paying for one night."

An hour later I was checking into a place so cheap I knew they'd be lying if they claimed they had hot water. They didn't and a cold shower never felt so good. I don't know how I found the place; I just walked across town until I stumbled upon it. Given the accommodation options within that walking distance there must have been about a one-in-twenty chance I'd come to this place. (We're now at one-in-four-thousand in case you've lost track.) As I walked to my appointed room I noticed a travel agency in the hostel. It was closed but I decided I may as well talk to them in the morning. That evening I was on a boat that would take me overnight to a small, non-touristy indigenous Cocama village where I would spend the next five days.

As the boat pulled away from Iquitos I looked at my hammock. I'd never managed to get any sleep in one before so I figured the chances of a sleepless night were one-in-one. By the morning I had turned out to be right about that. Otherwise the boat ride was uneventful and by the time it dropped me off in a tiny, riverside village — much like the ones we'd passed by all day — I began to wonder what I'd let myself in for. It was another hour up a small tributary by motor-driven dugout canoe before I reached the community and met Walter who spoke no English and was to be my host during my stay. Being dark already when I arrived we just spent a few hours talking, eating and drinking some kind of alcoholic concoction he threw together. It actually didn't taste too bad but I declined the offer of a second. I was ready for a good night's sleep after just one.

The next day was spent walking from one end of the village to the next (something I repeated several times as it took only about ten minutes) and meeting and talking to various people. We also took a few canoe rides up and downriver. I spent a lot of that first day visiting the school since indigenous education is the Foundation's main interest. Interestingly Spanish has become the first language in just two generations and now the village children learn their indigenous language as a second one.

Cocama Walking around on my next-to-last day I noticed a toddler who, from a distance, appeared to have a very bad skin rash on her leg. As I got closer I realized the "rash" was actually a series of very severe burns on her leg. To my untrained eye they were already showing signs of infection. I learned that her name was Maria. She was 17-months old and a month previously had spilled boiling water on herself in her mother's kitchen. I met her parents and found out that they'd been unable to do anything for her — not even dress the wounds. They didn't seem overly concerned at her condition. But I was. The chances of me seeing this girl in the village were probably about one-in-five given that she didn't go outside the house much. One-in-twenty-thousand.

"This child needs a doctor." I told them. "Why doesn't one of you come back to Iquitos with me tomorrow and we'll take her to a hospital?"

I knew they couldn't afford that but I wanted to see their reaction before making it clear that I'd be paying. They were non-committal, saying they'd think about it. I decided I'd do the convincing later with Walter to avoid any risk of embarrassing them at the suggestion of charity. That evening I learned that the village shamans were able to "cure" the child but that the family couldn't afford to pay them. I sensed this was a lead-in to get me to leave behind money for the shamans as well as leaving behind the parents and their daughter. I have a great respect for shamanism. I've heard many first-hand accounts of seemingly miraculous cures brought about by jungle medicine. But I was not convinced of the girl's future well-being by this scenario. In the end I told my guide that if the girl didn't see a doctor soon her leg might one day have to be amputated — a prognosis I fully believed. I concluded to him that since this was not my daughter the decision on how to proceed was in the hands of her parents.

I don't know if he ever discussed the option with them but I was happy when I left the village the next evening with the child and her mother, Susan. Again we went down the tributary by canoe where the boat to Iquitos was supposed to meet us on the big river. Apart from the stars and a little moonlight coming through the clouds it was pitch black. Three hours later I was astonished by how calmly the toddler was taking all of this — there'd not been a peep out of her. On the other hand they must have thought of me as the child when I asked for the tenth time, "Is it coming yet?" Eventually it did come but instead of stopping riverside like I expected, we did a mid-river rendezvous that James Bond would have been proud of! Safely on the boat, there's about a one-in-fifty-thousand chance all of this would have happened. And a one-in-one chance I'd get no sleep again. I didn't.

After arriving the next day in Iquitos we went to the Ana Stahl Adventist Clinic. I'd been told the doctors would speak English there and the one on duty that morning did. He prescribed antibiotics and told us to come back the next day to see the surgeon. I informed him of my impending schedule to leave town in a few days and asked if we could see the surgeon that day. There was no way. Then as we were filling the prescription the same doctor approached me with the question of paying for future medical expenses. I assured him that I would cover them (he must have known the family couldn't and now saw me as a "flight-risk"). It was then that he told me the surgeon might have to operate and that Susan and Maria would have to stay in town for at least three weeks. He told me that if we came the next day to a different hospital he would already have the total expenses calculated.

All this seemed a bit unorthodox to me but I agreed to meet Susan at the place she was staying at nine o'clock the next morning. I then went into town, checked back into the same hostel for the only three nights I had left before I had to leave town and went back to Mad Mick's Trading Post where I'd briefly introduced myself to Mike Collis a week before. (I'd done that on the advice of two Irish guys I'd met in Leticia, Colombia on my way to Iquitos. They were traveling in the opposite direction. Chances I'd meet them... maybe one-in-ten-thousand.) I related the whole story to Mike who offered what help he could. I felt better and offered to buy him a beer that night.

After another cold shower I fell asleep and woke up at midnight not expecting him to be at the bar still. I went anyway, he'd left. A couple of beers and an hour of contemplation later (is this really happening?) I was ready to go back to the hostel. I don't know what made me go back to Mad Mick's first the next morning to apologize to Mike for standing him up. It would have been much easier to do that after taking care of Maria's medical needs. So the chances that I'd be having any conversation with Mike that morning were about one-in-a-million. The chances it'd be the following conversation were, perhaps, one-in-a-billion.

"Ray, there's a team of volunteer doctors in town this week from Denver, Colorado and — get this — half the team are burn specialists."

"No *^%$#@ way! How can I contact them?"

"I wrote down the name of the team leader and the hotel he's staying in. They're working at the Ana Stahl Clinic."

Off I went to the hotel, promising Mike I would buy him that beer tonight. The team had already left for the Ana Stahl so that was the next stop after picking up Susan and Maria. I hadn't told Susan about the visiting doctors yet in case we were disappointed. I needn't have been concerned. A doctor saw Maria within a few minutes. He also happened to speak fluent English and Spanish so both of us knew exactly what was going on. He concluded there was no infection and prescribed a six-month course of baby lotion! He even had a small sample with him which he used to demonstrate to Susan how to apply it to the burned area of Maria's skin. Not surprisingly the little girl cried at this.

I asked him if he was sure of his diagnosis and prescription. He assured me he was and that Maria would be OK. The examination was free of charge. We returned to town where we managed to find a pharmacy that had three large bottles of baby lotion. Susan and Maria were all set to go back to their village the next day. Although Susan had thanked me verbally many times already I knew how truly grateful she was.

That night I joined Mike for a few beers. I think I forgot to pay for one of his though!

I didn't pay for any of Maria's medical expenses by credit card. But as I sat there with Mike that night I was reminded of an old TV commercial and I thought to myself: 'Roundtrip from Iquitos, thirty dollars, accommodation and food, another thirty dollars, six-month supply of baby lotion, sixteen dollars. Taking a one-in-a-billion chance to save a child's leg, priceless!'

Photography copyright © 1999 - 2024, Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2024, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.


Waddington, R., (2007) Priceless! The Peoples of the World Foundation. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from The Peoples of the World Foundation.

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