Do you know what it’s like to be hungry and not know where your next meal will come from? I don’t mean the kind of hunger you feel when you are late for lunch, or when you have to miss a meal because you’re working late. I mean hunger that gnaws at you day and night with no end in sight. I’m talking about hunger without any immediate hope of being satisfied. I mean hunger that will make you desperate, or hunger that will cause you to do things you would never dream of doing if your stomach were full or even had the hope of a coming meal. Do you know what it’s like to be hungry? I know I don’t.
Pulcallpa, Peru, sits on the banks of the Ucayali River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon. It is a sleepy town of muddy roads, friendly people, and noisy motorcycles. That’s where I met a hungry boy whose name I don’t remember, or maybe I blocked out of my mind because of guilt.
One afternoon in 1996 my Squadron Commander asked to see me. I hurried to his office trying to remember anything I might have done that would get me in trouble, but when I reported to him, his only question was, “Do you speak Spanish?” Two weeks later I was stepping off an airplane in Lima, Peru, for a four-month duty in the US Embassy.
My job had a fancy title, something about multinational, multiservice force control. In reality I was a glorified coordinator of government assets to counter the traffic of illegal narcotics from Peru. It was interesting work with a lot of variables and lot of players. I travelled a lot trying to stem the flow of unprocessed coca leaves and cocaine from the high jungles of Peru. The river city of Pucallpa was in the center of the effort because of its location.
They offered me a 9mm pistol to carry with me. I am a proponent of self-protection and a firm believer in the Constitutional right to bear arms, but after careful consideration, I declined. I was in another country and I wasn’t too sure if the law would protect me should I be forced to use a weapon. Besides, the drug runners were much better armed and a 9mm pistol wouldn’t do much against automatic weapons. Instead I chose to use my wits to keep safe and avoid danger.
When I first stepped off the airplane in Pucallpa the hot, humid air of the Amazon region hit me in the face like I was walking into a steam room at the spa. Mototaxis buzzed up and down the clay streets belching out oily smoke from their two-cycle engines. Squat wooden shacks with tin roofs pushed up against the airport fence line. I shuffled down the airstairs and through the terminal looking for my contact, a Peruvian Air Force Lt Col. As I exited the terminal I was immediately swarmed by “shoe-shine boys”—boys living on the street eager to earn a few soles by shining shoes. One of the other members of my party, a soldier who had been in country a few months, handed them his inflight meal and some candy. He was an instant rock star.
|Typical Mototaxi in Pucallpa|
A key component to avoiding danger in a strange place is to develop local allies who can alert you to danger. My traveling companion in his goodwill attempt had stumbled into a brilliant solution for keeping us safe. Those “shoe-shine” boys would alert us to anything out of the ordinary. Since I dressed in civilian clothes I was wearing running shoes that didn’t need a shine, but I usually tipped the boys for helping me with my bag. Like my traveling companion I always brought treats. After several trips they watched for me to deplane with eagerness.
While I waited for my flights I talked with them. They were all under twelve years old. Most of them had no parents. A few had one parent. All of them lived in the nearby huts and scavenged on the streets or hustled passengers for a few soles to survive. One boy in particular caught my attention. He was their acting leader and very talkative. He was alone in the world and survived with help from a local orphanage—a wooden hut with an outdoor kitchen and a tin roof. Despite the difficulties life had given him he had an eager smile and laughed often. Shamefully, I have forgotten his name. Julio will do.
Julio insisted that I bring a pair of dress shoes for him to shine. So during my last trip to Pucallpa I took a pair of dress shoes along with me and turned them over to him when I deplaned. My size thirteen shoes looked like clown shoes in his hands. He joked about their size and showed them off to the other boys. I left the shoes with him while I took care of my business. When I returned they were clean and shiny. I paid him triple the going rate and tipped him well.
Since it was my last trip to Pucallpa, I wanted to do something memorable before I left. Just inside the door sat an ice cream vendor. When I approached a man in a suit cut in front of me and began haggling with the vendor and treating him with disdain. I waited patiently, but inside I wanted to grab the man by the collar and teach him proper manners. In the end he walked away without buying anything. I smiled at the vendor and looked into his cooler. He didn’t have much left. To his surprise, and delight, I bought it all and distributed the ice cream treats to the “shoe shine boys” just outside the door while the man in the suit looked on.
I’ve never been back to Pucallpa, but I am sure that a pack of dirty boys still hustle passengers as they hurry to and from the terminal. I’m sure those boys go to bed hungry wondering if tomorrow they will get a hot meal. Hunger haunts them. Hunger makes them desperate. Hunger drives them to do things they would not do if their stomachs were full, or if they only knew that tomorrow had the promise of food.
Do you know what it’s like to be hungry? I certainly don’t. But I have looked into the faces of hungry children. I have seen hungry, hollow eyes stare back at me as I hurried past on my way to something important. Those eyes haunt me and remind me to share of my abundance.
I don’t know what happened to “Julio,” but he was the inspiration behind the main character of my novel The Charity Chip. My personal experience motivated me to finish the book.
From the acknowledgements - "Although this is a work of fiction, I tried to use actual data to support the plot. Thousands of children die each year from malnutrition resulting from poverty. Perhaps it is time we found a viable solution instead of throwing money at the problem. Perhaps we should find a way to empower people to rise out of poverty at the lowest possible level. I hope this work of fiction raises our awareness of a problem that has lingered in the human condition for far too long."
If you would like a street view of Pucallpa, click here -