Sailing the Amazon with cargo of hope

ADVENTURER: Christine Hodge, 53, from Trinity...

ADVENTURER: Christine Hodge, 53, from Trinity travelled to Peru, with her husband John, to see the work of The Vine Trust. Picture: GARETH EASTON

Sailing the Amazon with cargo of hope

SCORES of children trailing bin bags crawled over the mountain of rubbish, scavenging for bits of wood, plastic or other items to sell. Overhead, vultures hovered menacingly waiting for their turn to rummage amongst the food scraps and dead cats on the pile. The atmosphere was rank with the smell of rotten food but the children, many of whom were barefoot or in flipflops, carried on regardless, accustomed to the overpowering stench.

Looking on in horror was former nurse Christine Hodge, 53, from Trinity in Edinburgh who had travelled to the shantytown of Belen, near Iquitos in northern Peru, with her solicitor husband John, to see the work of The Vine Trust. John, 56, was doing some legal work for the Scottish charity and Christine had accompanied him and a group of church leaders to see first-hand the extent of the deprivation there.

She says sadly: "The poverty is quite amazing. Belen is built on the main sewer from Iquitos so you can imagine the smell."

Around 150 of those who live next to the rubbish tip are registered to scavenge six days a week, while on the seventh day, anyone is allowed in. "It’s seen as a privilege and they scavenge for anything. We went late one morning and saw children on it – happy looking children – but the smell was horrendous," says Christine. She and John wore stout shoes to visit the tip but many of the children were barefoot. "My gut reaction was shock and horror. You couldn’t go away being the same person," adds Christine.

Inspired to act by what she had witnessed, the mum of three grown-up daughters – a volunteer youth worker, who is also a trained nurse – pledged she would go back to help the charity the following year. So in August last year Christine embarked on a two-week trip down the Amazon where she worked as a dental nurse aboard Amazon Hope 1, a boat providing medical and dental treatment to villagers on the river’s banks.

The Amazon Hope Medical Project, which serves around 100,000 Peruvians, was set up by preacher Willie McPherson, of Port Seton in East Lothian, in 2001. The intrepid clergyman, who was formerly assistant minister at Barclay Church of Scotland in Tollcross, wanted to assist the work of Scripture Union Peru with street children in the Latin American country.

He raised funds to set up projects which included a carpentry workshop and a water bottling plant to employ street children. He then bought and refurbished an old Royal Navy boat, initially to use as an income-generating ferry, but which some US medical volunteers asked to use for healthcare. Amazon Hope 1 first crossed the Atlantic from Scotland in 2001 and since then has seen constantly changing UK and US medical teams treating up to 250 patients daily.

Willie says proudly: "One of the teams saw 2000 people in a ten-day period."

Now the Vine Trust – founded in Willie’s former Bo’ness parish – sends 300 volunteers to Peru annually, to work on the medical project or with street children. A second medical boat, Amazon Hope 2, was launched in 2006 and Willie says the vessels’ work is vital to keep people from migrating to the cities, where most end up in squalid shantytowns.

"The ships go out from Iquitos, deep into the jungle and serve over 120 jungle communities."

Each medical team goes to Peru for a fortnight, to work with 17 Peruvian staff, including a cook and translators.

Christine says: "Everyone worked together, it was an amazing feeling."

The boat tied-up along side a riverbank and waited for crowds to gather or, if it couldn’t get close to the bank, villagers would canoe the short distance out. There were two dentists, two nurses and two patients in the tiny surgery, but only one dentist’s chair. The villagers didn’t seem to mind the lack of privacy and would be smiling and laughing, excited at the novelty of the experience. "Some of them had some dental care before in Iquitos, but the wee tots had bad teeth because they didn’t take care of them. The teenagers were better but the old people had awful teeth," Christine adds. Her main task was to sterilise the instruments. "I just prayed the steriliser wouldn’t break down because there was nowhere to repair it."

Things don’t always go according to plan though, and while the steriliser didn’t break down, the staff discovered to their dismay that the trays for the sterilisers had been left behind when the boat set off from Iquitos. In an example of how everyone pulled together, a metal tumbler was found in the kitchen and one of the engineers halved it to fashion a new tray.

Amazon Hope 1 would stop at one village in the morning and another in the afternoon. Over eight days, the two dentists treated 800 people. "Lack of care was the most common problem with people’s teeth, sometimes abscesses and a lot of cavities," says Christine.

Most striking was the attitude of the children who came for treatment. Unlike children here who often clamp their mouths firmly shut at mere mention of a dentist, on Christine’s boat only one little girl couldn’t be treated because she wouldn’t open her mouth. Another who was very frightened was persuaded when they offered her bouncy balls and hair clasps. "The children were amazing. They sat there and took their injections. They were used to a rougher standard of life – you’d never see it here."

Once a light fused while a patient was having a filling. But such was the villagers’ grateful attitude that he did not complain. "Luckily we found an extra bulb. People were very trusting and just so pleased to be treated. Some were in awe of you, though in bigger villages people were more confident and came up and shook your hand."

Without the visits from the medical boat, which passes through each route quarterly, many villagers on the banks of the River Tigre, a tributary of the Amazon, would have great difficulty in accessing health care. Just one doctor is responsible for the whole river – around 6000 people spread over 42 communities. He has a medical centre in one of the villages but it is often a long trek by river to reach him.

Since she got back to the family home in Trinity, Christine has given talks about her experience in churches and to Telford College’s dental nurses, whose skills would be so useful there. But you can sense she is itching to return.

FLOATING HEALTH SERVICE

WILLIE McPHERSON and Christine Hodge from the Lothians feature in a new eight-part television series.

Amazon Heartbeat follows medical ships Amazon Hope 1 and 2 as they provide health care in some of the most remote and inaccessible locations on the planet.

Led by charismatic preacher Willie McPherson, the group sets out to create a floating health service for more than 100,000 people in Peru.

Their work is part of charity, The Vine Trust’s, Amazon Hope Medical Project.

The first episode of Amazon Heartbeat goes out tonight at 8pm on STV.

For more information on the charity, or to donate or volunteer on a trip, see the web site on: www.vinetrust.org.

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