As we arrive in the floating shanty town of Belén two boys are jumping off of a wooden framework into the river. They see us watching and taking photos, so quickly climb up to jump again.
Belén is one of the four districts that make up Iquitos, the city known as the Capital of the Amazon River. Thousands of families live in this town in floating huts or houses on stilts and spend at least half of the year traveling to and from their homes in dug-out canoes. When the rainy season is over the floating houses come to rest on the mud and rubbish that sunk to the bottom of the river when Belén was flooded becomes exposed.
Prostitution, child abuse, domestic violence and illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever and HIV are all problems that are too common in this slum. Approximately 40% of children in Belén suffer from malnutrition and illness and fatal accidents occur far too frequently. The government has offered to relocate the people who live in this floating shanty town but their proposal will move the residents too far away from the market, where they make their livelihood.
We turn down the first ‘street’ and two young girls paddle past us in a canoe, they smile and wave. Up above us, in the houses built on stilts, children gather by the doors and windows to wave to us as we pass by. A boy paddles past us in a floating shop and sitting next to him is a little girl holding a purple parasol, protecting herself from the scorching sun.
Outside a floating bar a group of men are enjoying a beer in the shade. As we pass by they turn to us and wave. A speaker plays upbeat music that can be heard all over the town.
Greeting the children with sun shining down on us it is easy to forget that this is the poorest area of Iquitos, where the majority of the people are living in abject poverty. However, taking another look around there are plenty of reminders. A young boy plays with a beer bottle in the doorway of a house. A man lies in a hammock in a bare room. Six children all wave to us from the same window, one of the girls is holding a baby, probably a sibling that she has been left to look after. Some houses are home to five or more families.
Many of the houses and businesses have electricity, surprising perhaps. The electricity cables hang down so low that we feel we have to duck to pass underneath them in our skiff. An open electrical box sits half way up a wooden pole. It is out of reach at the moment, but the water is still rising and by April I suspect that the wires may almost be within reach of curious children. We are told that accidents and deaths from electrocution are a regular occurrence here.
A man is urinating into the river outside what seems to be one of the bars. Just around the corner two young men brush their teeth using the river water. We are told that the locals use the river water for everything. They bathe in in, cook with it, their waste goes into it and they drink it, making diarrheic sicknesses very common.
As we come to the end of the shanty town a water tower comes into view. We are told that this has been built to provide clean drinking water to residents in one, small part of Belen. Residents who have access to this water use it to wash their clothes and continue to drink the river water, as they claim it tastes better. It is clear that there is a desperate need for education here.
We give a woman a dinner parcel that we bought from a floating take-away shop – a gift to share with her husband, who is fishing in his dug out canoe. Her arms look frail and her skin is wrinkled with the sun. I have no idea how old she is but I suspect she is probably younger than she looks. Her face is a picture when she receives the food parcel. “Thank you Gringos” she says.
As we leave Belen the two young boys are waiting for us. They see us coming and excitedly prepare to jump from the wooden framework for us again. As we watch I wonder what is in the water below them and how deep it is. The water is brown, nothing is visible below it. They run and jump, putting on a show for us. We give them packets of yucca crisps and they beam from ear to ear.