June 3, 2020
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 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.
“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?
And then their happiness got infected.
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