Following a six-month work phase with an EU institution in Brussels, I found myself boarding a series of planes en route to Iquitos, Peru, as my final destination. Little did I know what was in store for me! My first impression of Iquitos deceived me as I travelled along a nice tarmac road leading to the city, but as the motocarro (a hybrid between a motor and a car) took its first right, things changed. Pot-holed roads, small wooden houses mashed with bricks and zinc roofs and families eager to stare at me – the new Gringo in town.
Since Iquitos is bang in the center of the Amazon forest, life is extremely laid back. “This will be your first challenge,” Fr. Raymond advised me. As I was to discover, Fr. Raymond is an extremely hardworking and multi-trained parish priest, and it was with this exceptional man that I was to spend the next months living with and helping. Learning to slow down and play by their rules was my first task. His advice helped me understand this culture better.
My daily routine was never the same. From visiting the sick, funerals, organising meetings with catechists, altar-servers, the elderly, helping out with English lessons at the Seminary, organising activities and catechism to the poverty-stricken area of Belen, and the 5 houses run by the parish.
The parish is an extremely busy one, caring for more than 50 pastoral teams ranging from youth groups to pastoral work with kids, the elderly and the sick. It also hosts a hospital community for a group of around 20 terminally ill patients, mostly HIV. Another house hosts a group of around 15 elderly persons who need assistance and very often are without a family. The latest addition to the houses is a shelter for homeless men, where in the morning they are also provided a nice hot breakfast, and most of them, together with other people, form the long queues for the daily lunch. The last group of houses is Talita Kumi, a drug and vice rehab programme split in three houses: very similar to the Caritas programme here in Malta. Each house hosts around 15 people.
A good lump of my time was spent ministering to these houses: both by taking care of projects which were extremely needed, such as the drainage system in one of the Talita Kumi’s houses, which to date is still protecting the clients from life-threatening illnesses; and also through prayer and communion. Together with the youths of the parish, we organised a number of pastoral visits to the houses; such visits included playing music and singing with the elderly and the terminally ill. The aim of these visits was to uplift the morale of these poverty-stricken people.
Regular appointments we kept were the visits to the remote villages along the rivers. Fr. Ray is also a medical practitioner, and as he administered medical aid to these remote villagers, I used to organise some games for the children of the village. What impressed me is how these kids enjoyed themselves without any props. Loud cheers and laughter could be witnessed echoing across the village. And, the shimmering glitter on the eyes when we give them a small gift (some paper, a chocolate and a pen)? Totally outside of this world! What an incredible thing to witness. Even as I write about it, and remembering their joyful smiles, my heart is skipping a beat! Utter joy!
But life is not only about joy. There are its lows too. And this was the life in Iquitos, at one time celebrating the inauguration of a new Christian life, or of a new family or a new shop, and at another called to pray and accompany someone on his last breaths, or celebrate a blessing of a corpse. It is in this atmosphere that I felt my vocation to the priesthood being confirmed: truly accompanying the person in whichever stage one is at: sharing the joys of Christ at one time, and bringing Christ’s comfort and support at the next.
Was this my last experience in Iquitos? God-willing – NO! This was definitely only the beginning to a life changing experience.
Hasta luego amigos!