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June 3, 2020

They were happy. And relieved to say it when I asked each of them that. Their stories nudged me to dream of ways to perhaps make my happiness simpler, less cluttered. Their eyes glistened with the pride only a person living a hard-earned joy could showcase.

They lived simple lives, the world came to them and a better future finally seemed within their reach. No, they were not happily simple. They simply were happy. That was last year. That was a lifetime and worlds ago.

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Ismael was happy to have a job as a tour guide, deep in the Amazon rainforest. That was his dream job. And he taught himself English by eavesdropping, pencil and notebook in hand, to tourists’ conversations during the time he was a handyman for his current boss. With those indigenous features so common in those parts of Brazil and a muscular frame built by physical labour, he always seemed rather shy, but in a perpetual good mood. Trust me, I’ve seen him putting up with things that would have ruined anyone’s mood in an instant.

Ismael lived in the same community he worked in. It’s called Parana do Mamori and is comprised of roughly 50 families. His house was right across the water from his boss’s lodge (see first picture below). 

Ismael’s father belonged to a tribe not far away. His mother, originally from Fortaleza, on the East Coast, had visited the tribe, met Ismael’s father and, when they decided to get married, they had to choose between a life within the tribe or in the world outside of it. They chose the latter, which made for a very difficult adjustment for Ismael’s father. Clothes, shoes, the world, everything was difficult to get used to. But Ismael was happy with the life his parents’ decision gave him. He has a son and a daughter. When we met, he had just gotten them a satelite dish, so they could watch foreign cartoons and learn English – tourists told him that would help. He was also taking Anderson, his son, with us during the day, so he could hear us speak English. Ismael was happy the boy had those opportunities.

He was also happy knowking he was a very good guide, constantly walking a tightrope between respecting the rainforest and impressing the tourists, even when some would come to the Amazon as if going to a zoo: requesting displays of this and that animal. The tip, Ismael knew, would reflect how he responded to even the stupidest requests (such as a Polish man who doesn’t understand why he cannot camp in the jungle during a storm, since – I kid you not – his booked tour clearly had that activity on its schedule).

In order to reach Manaus, the Brazilian metropolis where his clients were awaiting to be picked up for their jungle tour, Ismael had to take a boat, then a car on a dirt road, then out on the highway, then another boat. After the Rio Negro – very visibly – joined the Amazon River at the ‘meeting of waters’ (see picture), one black stream and one muddy-looking creating together a fascinating liquid border, the port of Manaus was in plain sight.
Ismael’s boss was there, in Manaus. Gero was also a happy man, with his tourism agency perfectly located right next to the Amazon Theatre, the beautiful, 120-year old opera house in Manaus. His rented house was adjacent to the glass door, modern-looking office. Gero lived with Kelly, his wife, and their daughter. But most often than not stranded tourists were also crashing their floor, their couch, their kitchen. It was a convenient stop before or after going deep in the jungle with Gero’s guides. Plus, Kelly was an incredible cook no backpacker or posh foreigner alike would resist.

I remember thinking Gero was like a big child with an even bigger playground: the Amazon. He was passionate about what he did. Truly. Whenever he introduced himself, he would say “I am Gero myself”. You could not keep a straight face when you heard him do that. And you definitely could not tell him the right way to introduce yourself in English. His was much better. For years, English speaking tourists must have heard him be “Gero myself” and no one dared to correct him. It was, after all, his brand. His signature. It’s the one thing I’ll always put next to his name. 

Angelica was happy in Cuzco, Peru. Warm and with that soft, high pitched Peruvian voice, she had just started her own business venture. She borrowed money, rented a 3-story house with a rooftop glass terrace and opened a hostel. The house was cold, but that was on the Cusco altitude (3.400m) and changing weather. Plus the fact that nobody in Peru seemed to have ever heard of houses that could be heated. But Angelica always more than compensated for all the cold tiles and walls in her house. 

She was 27 when we met, always working, but happy to be carving a future on her own. Angelica ran a one-woman show. She managed the bookings, airport transfers, cooked breakfast, cleaned the rooms. She was a well oiled machine. By the end of some days, she would just sleep on the living room couch, it was too late and dangerous for her to go across town and get home. She used to cry in fear that her business will be a bust, but, after a few months, she started to allow herself to be hopeful. Things would turn out OK, she started to whisper to herself. Sitting on the terrace in the evenings, the two of us would talk until our incredibly good cocoa brandy would vanish. She was very curious about the world, my world, how life is for other women. 

Dinusha and his wife, Maleesha, were living happily at the outskirts of Sigiriya, a Sri Lankan village famous for the World Heritage Lion Rock (see picture), a huge monolith that give an impressive view over the misted jungles down below. Dinusha was 24, Maleesha 21 and their daughter, Nikki, was 1 when I met them and they first told me their #HappinesStory.

They were sharing the house with Maleesha’s grandparents and they all managed a small bed and breakfast. Dinusha was happy with his 100 euro monthly income. Maleesha did not earn a salary, even though she worked side by side with her husband and took care of Nikki. She was happy with that arrangement, though. They were a young, hopeful family. Married for 2 years, living a decent life, in a country that finally seemed to leave decades of war, sorrow and extreme poverty behind. 

This is how Dinusha, Maleesha, Angelica, Gero and Ismael were when I first met them. When I stayed, ate, traveled with or simply talked to them. They were all happy. They all had plans. Not overly ambitious, mind you. But oh, they were so proud of having them! If only they knew how their happiness was about to get infected…

Ismael was working on building some lodges of his own on a land that he got from his parents. The rains and, with them, the school year was about to start. His two children needed school supplies so he would have to wait a little longer with the construction. The lodges were not only an opportunity for Ismael and his family. They would be a blessing for the community, which, up till then, mainly had 2 employers: Gero, Ismael’s boss and the owner of the Ararinha Lodge. And the school boat (think school bus, but on water), a job subsidized by the state which was awarded every year to a different family in the community, so that they could take turns in having that income.

Ismael’s house and land

Gero was planning to start learning German, because the number of German tourists in the Amazon was increasing. He was thinking about new social projects in the jungle – tourists teaching the community children English, helping with conservation projects. Maybe even expanding the lodges.

Angelica had more than a plan. She had a timeline. Now, that her hostel had been open for a few months and good reviews were pouring in, she was going to earn money for her family, pay up her debts and then, in about 6 years’ time, she would start her own family. Not a large one, because she was never going to afford having many children if she wanted them to go to good schools and have decent healthcare.

Gero’s lodges in the jungle

Dinusha and Maleesha wanted to keep earning money at their hostel, so that, one day, Nikki would learn proper English – grammar, spoken English, everything. That would be her ticket to their vision of happiness.

Maybe, one day, they could visit the US, where Maleesha’s uncle married an American woman. That’s how Dinusha and Maleesha met, actually – at the uncle’s wedding.

That’s how Ismael, Gero, Angelica, Dinusha and Maleesha were when I met them. They were happy foreigners came to them and made their world bigger, inexpensively borderless, more informed about what they hadn’t yet seen. They were so happy when tourists were happy with them. When they got back in touch after checking out. Bottom line is, they were happy they were trailing their own path in life. 

Angelica was happy when the weather in Cusco was good and her guests could wander around the city or the surrounding Inka landmarks. Ismael was happy when there were a lot of pink and grey dolphins popping out of the water, when he was showing tourists around. Or when he impressed them by spotting sloths in the trees: how could he even see them anyway, when they were so perfectly blended into the scenery?! Gero was a bubbling display of happiness whenever he got a good review on TripAdvisor. Or when he talked about his beautiful, fashionable daughter. Maleesha was happy when she and Nikki went to the sea, on the Eastern coast in Sri Lanka. They would videocall Dinusha and tell him about their day, while he was back home, taking care of the bed&breakfast.

The World Health Organization says that Latin America is now the epicentre of the Coronavirus pandemic. In Peru, Angelica moved back with her family and closed down her new hostel in Cuzco. Who’s to go to Machu Picchu these days? Even though the Andes have been hit less by the pandemic than was coastline Lima, where the situation is truly dire, the whole area around Cuzco lived strictly off tourism. 

The situation in Brazil is by far the worst in the region. The country is only second to the US by the number of infection cases. That’s taking into account that only the patients in hospitals get tested. This is the same country whose president called COVID-19 “a little flu”. The state of Amazonas (see map), where Gero and Ismael live, has by far the highest number of cases per 100.000 people. The humidity, poor hygiene, many people sharing the same living quarters or even the same eating utensils, they all make things incredibly difficult. The death toll rises so fast here, that there’s a shortage of coffins and burial places.

Deep in the jungle, Ismael is not working anymore. But he’s been taught to use the rainforest for resources as much as possible so he’ll try doing that for a while longer. 

There’s no trace of the Gero I met months ago. The man today is desperate. It’s been 2 months since he shut down his business. Close friends died because of COVID-19. He’s not living with his family anymore, because they’re isolating, while he’s trying to Uber. He sends me pictures – of himself in his Uber car, wearing a mask, of his office with the shutters drawn. There are hardly people taking the Uber in Manaus, while he still has to pay for the gas and the car rental. So he’s got debts he cannot pay back and he’s on the verge of losing the car. He’s starting asking friends and people online to help him with money. Any amount will do. He’s ashamed to tell me this. We talk on WhatsApp and I’m even more embarrassed for not being able to comfort him. 

“I see it’s ugly”, Gero says about asking money, but explains it’s even worse for him to see his family in distress and be unable to find a solution. “I am going to fight with all my power”, he assures (me? himself?). Even now, he’s thinking about the people in the jungle, how, without him, they have no work again. He’s brainstorming ideas with me – maybe there will be an environmental NGO willing to do some reforestation projects in the jungle? Maybe they could rent his office and his wife could help them there and he would go in the field and do the work? Maybe tourism will pick back up starting with June? What should I reply?

They were happy telling me their life stories only months ago. They were happy with the hard earned – though little – money they got. They were happy because their struggles and perseverance were lessons for anyone with half a mind to see them. They were happy they had food. They were happy in the beautiful nature surrounding them. They were happy because they were just beginning their new lives, in a changing country, a better economy, a more connected world.

And then their happiness got infected. 

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