It's on the bright, long boats to the Shipibo village of San Francisco when I finally pull my phone into my lap and start to write. The water flowing by in smooth curtains under the rise and fall of the prow is ochre green, with plastic bottles occasionally floating past and little white birds with long beaks diving into it over and over again, hoping to pull up a shining fish.
The trees lining the banks of the river are so full and lush, something my eyes have felt hungry for in the city of Pucallpa where yellow and red and the color of the rich dust line everything in sight.
The humidity presses us into the smooth, worn wood of the boats and drops of water land in my lap as we glide past the shores. Bright blue houses with tin roofs watch from tall stilts as we go by, children running along the docks and then clambering into the moored boats to take a closer look. The sky blends right into the waters edge here under the clouds threatening rain and this year feels very different from the last one. The children are different, Pucallpa is different, and most of all I'm different.
Something in me feels very heavy right along with the sky, the weight of Ben's presence missing for so long now feels a little like a brick in my rib-cage that only weighs more the further I carry it. My heart has stopped looking for him, expecting him to come around corners, or that his voice will suddenly reach me somehow, either laughing or explaining something in his careful, ardent way. It's an ache now that only slips to the surface when I see a photograph suddenly or the wonderful priest who presided over his funeral.
I sat on the bus at the window for a long time trying to remember who he was, knowing I knew that face somehow. Then I remembered the vestments and the basin of water to bless Ben's ashes and the way he took my hands but the world was only a pretend world that I watched the way you watch a film, none of it real.
The younger girl in me who was so profoundly in love with her beautiful fiancee is lying in pain beneath the surface of everything- watching with somber eyes as the world and even myself has to continue on without him.
Seb has the most beautiful girlfriend named Oriana now, and someday soon my Lili will fall in love. I'm afraid to always be the odd one out, the one missing my other half, my arrival into the story set in place by so much hope and then more tragedy than anyone can navigate, really. But my Clan is as loving as ever, and our bonds are growing more and more underneath the otherwise hurriedness of everyday life.
It's only that something in me has changed, but I fear it. I feel an exhaustion that I can't explain and that can't be cured by sleep. It's always there and the lightness that I used to feel is muffled underneath it. I wish that I could be curious again, adventurous, wondering- with the awe and joy that I've felt so often before. But those moments don't come to me now, or if they do, only as a surprise, something like a bolt of lightning that clears the atmosphere and frees me from the closeness of grief for a little time.
How could I ever explain to anyone what I really feel?
In my soul sometimes, I feel like I could never speak again and be somehow very content. I just want to watch the world very quietly now, without drawing any conclusions. Once upon a time I was naive and relentlessly positive. Now I think if I can manage just to be honest, to see the world as it truly is and still to love it, I'll make it out of my ideas about it alive. Here in the boats some darker piece of me wonders if I'll ever be truly happy again. Sometimes my Ben and his leaving feels like a black hole that consumes more of me every day, not as a depression or even an acute pain, but a vast nothingness with an endless mouth that day by day disappears more of the girl I was, and was becoming.
Fishermen standing on a tall boat are swarmed by the white birds, dipping and diving around their shoulders and calling out to each other in their own old languages. The men pull sodden nets from the water laden with food and garbage. The sun comes out for a moment, burning through my black jeans and the volunteers talk in sweet, thick Quebec French about the egrets and University and their lives at home. More and more I've begun to realize how much I take for granted, the kind of comfort that I plead for from my life. I think of my bedroom at home, laden in soft, warm blankets and pillows, stuffed animals and books and pens and everything really that my indulgent heart has ever been tempted by.
It feels somehow less pure than what I know here in Peru.
It seems strange to remember myself sitting at a desk coated in the Coop Bookkeepers perfume only a few days ago, filling out documents and having blackberries with coffee. Peru is nothing like my world in Vermont, which is why it pulls me out of myself in a way I can't help but to powerfully love. This world is wild and humid and strained; the babies at the Center rip the bags of candy out of my fingers and at first the polite white person in me is always astonished, helplessly saying 'Gentle my loves, don't hurt each other' in hesitant Spanish.
Who am I to know what it's like to wake up and fight for just a little piece of something?
I can have almost whatever I could want, whenever I might want it. I don't have to rely much on the charity of strangers to bring sweetness into my life, to bring novelty or specialness. Every day is my own and I have the luxury to be lazy in all my hurts. The people of Pucallpa might never live that, but they're so truly content and they do what they have to, to put gasoline in the motorbikes and to have a bit of plastic and a roof for the rainy season.
I think of rainy days at home with music on a record player and the mugs of tea I leave all over the house. When I get home it will be just starting to be spring, and rainy warm days when everything smells like freshly woken earth will be all mine to treasure. Buds will be opening on the trees and I'll lie under the apple trees shedding all their blooms in the breeze. I realize I live in paradise and I feel ashamed when I think of how the children might never see snow or falling leaves in autumn, or a Christmas tree, a bubble bath, a movie in the theaters with too much candy and popcorn.
Maybe they wouldn't know what to make of it and it would seem as alien to them as the bottles of yellow soda, the honking of the bikes and the men with Rolex's who roll down the tinted windows of their trucks to stare when we leave the hotel does to me.
We land at the long bridge to the Shipiba tribe and men in tall porcupine quill hats and beautiful embroidered robes are playing music to greet us with rattles and flutes. Children are clambering over the wooden planks dozens of feet above the river. The women I recognize from last year greet us with kisses while the music plays and then we walk hand in hand along the new bridge over the water and the egrets and the abandoned boats dissolving into the mud.
The thatched roofed homes are waiting like last year and they usher us into the marketplace again where rows and rows of tables ring the room covered in tapestries, bracelets, necklaces, painted monkey skulls, beads, rattles and bowls. They put things in my hands and I try to tell them again and again how beautiful everything is and then the Chief comes and whirls us around the room dancing. A boy half my height pulls me away from Joel and we laugh dizzily the whole time; he drags me by the wrist through a bridge of hands and arms the others form and for a little while the room is just a stream of color and everyone clapping and swaying around each other while the drums play.
Two little girls run up to Oriana and I and take us by the hand saying 'Hi friends!' and then give us their own version of the tour, making sure the larger group never leaves us too far behind and letting us stop for flowers and stray dogs with big soulful golden eyes. We tour the school where the blue paint is peeling off the walls and there are hand drawn posters in crayon done by the children where they are learning phrases in English. One drawing features a person walking saying 'Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye'
We pass huts and hammocks and boys playing soccer at their high school, chickens missing all their feathers and babies running barefoot in faded shorts. We kneel down at the bottom of a hill and a little dog watches me very cautiously, then approaches with a wag of his tail. I pet his sweet face and he closes his eyes for a long time. I wonder if anyone else ever pets him.
But then we are going back down to the bridge, another friendly black and white puppy bouncing between our feet as I walk slowly with Donna and Joel, drinking the jungle in. A bird with a long red beak fishes in the water and we find 'Touch-Me-Not' ferns along the path that shyly hide their leaves when we stroke them.
Another Western person, a tall boy my age with flip-flops and long hair emerges from one of the huts and seems unhappy to see us. I'm surprised at first and then realize he must be here, alone in the jungle for Ayahuasca. He marches silently past us to a little store for a bottle of water and doesn't return my smile, but I understand what he must think of a group of 30 foreigners snapping photos of the poverty-stricken village where he's come to examine his spirit.
I am so grateful for my dearest friends Kirk, Lizzy, and Joel who have stepped so lovingly into the place he left empty, and really I'm astonished with gratitude to be right here, all of me still present, my heart still beating and my old worries growing more calm and easy again. Every time I hear 'Lulu, Lulu!' and the sound of the childrens feet running in Los Jardines, something somehow seems to make perfect sense, but what exactly it is I couldn't say, and what my ultimate purpose is, I can't tell yet.
Tonight we walked through the humming, bright streets of Pucallpa along the riverbanks. Piles of fruits and vegetables and many things that I wasn't quite sure of what they were sat steaming in the sun. Fish with flashing opal scales just pulled from the river lay writhing in plastic buckets and I felt a little conspicuous weaving through the stalls and vendors under the rainbow colored umbrellas. We wandered through a crowd down the busier streets filled with people selling balloons and plastic sandals and TV's and auto parts.
Everywhere in Pucallpa is alive with sound, there's no way to escape the stream of voices and the roar of the bike engines- I realize I'm so unaccustomed to the volume of noise coming here from my quiet, empty farmland world of forests and hills. But in truth, I don't mind. It makes me feel more a part of everything, only a quickly passing face in the crowd where a little girl is chasing bubbles dispensed by a man with a bubble gun, shrieking with laughter and clapping her hands. I secretly love the voyeurism of it; to quietly watch people being themselves in their countless myriad of ways, and for myself to be only a set of admiring eyes beholding them.
I wonder if maybe that's why I love taking photographs so much. With my face behind the camera, I'm only a lens and a mirror, and the world happens in 1/60 of a second. A woman in the muddy water holding a baby, the man half my height who asks if I want popcorn, Sam and Murielle walking together in the sun, Daniel laughing at something the other drivers say, Liam watching the world in his gentle way.
I always find it so much more delicious to observe rather than to be observed, and I'm careful about the way I present myself. In Pucallpa, I wish I was invisible, and all the throngs of people could melt right into me with their stories. But I could romanticize everything, and there's something better ultimately about having to stand right in the midst of it with my pale skin and arm of tattoos, and to have to meet everyone who stares and asks me to buy a necklace. At times I worry that I greet the world too far back from within myself.
Peru pushes me to step outside of my life, of myself, all my watercolored interior worlds- and to embrace the real one that is happening so quickly all around me, everywhere I turn.
We had dishes of ice cream in a tall green and orange building and I stumbled through asking in Spanish for chocolate and trying to place the word 'boleta' when the kind waitress said it to Sam over and over again. I realize every year I remember less and less, it's been almost a decade now since it was a part of my life. Every now and then I catch only a moment of Mana playing on a radio and I remember learning Spanish to his voice first, and then Alejandro Sanz, Juanes, Reyli.
'Poquito a poco, te llevo al cielo amor, poquito a poco yo te inundaré en mi amor'
The funny sweet man named Richard whose tenacity for selling eagle feather earrings and jaguar claws is admirable and always makes me laugh, caught sight of us on the balcony and settled in on the sidewalk below to wait for us. We slipped past him just in time to buy playing cards on the way back to the hotel and to find everyone relaxing in the pool of soft, cool water.
A doctor from Tanzania joined us at dinner and spoke to us about his work in Pucallpa and what is being done to save the life of a young boy with leprosy named Luis. Tomorrow 4 volunteers are going to give blood at the hospital for him, and I squeeze Lili's hand at the table. His heart is so full of concern and compassion for others and I sense how much this story touches him.
After dinner I hid on the steps high above with the brothers and Joel and Lizzy to watch the dancers who come to visit us and later everyone throws each other into the pool before we go upstairs to sleep and then alone in the warmth of the approaching night, I sit in my favorite rocking chair high above the city to put words to all my thoughts.