I just got back from a two-week clown trip to Peru with my “holy brother” Patch Adams who, since the movie bearing his name, may be the world’s most recognized humanitarian clown. He is a physician by training, whose specialty I call public health epidemiology. Patch travels to the world’s most troubled spots where war, famine, extreme poverty, and disease etch away at the human spirit. Along with his clowns from the Gesundheit! Institute he provides a moment’s respite from the omnipresence of despair, and develops partnerships with local community action health programs.
We have been close friends for 20 years and I love his prophetic soul, but I have never accompanied him on an international clown trip. This year I decided to go with him to Iquitos, Peru at the headwaters of the Amazon. Exploring this jungle and its indigenous people has been on my “bucket list” for years. Iquitos is the world’s largest city (pop. 325,000) accessible only by air or by river. At the edge of town is the Belen slum which lies in the floodplain, so from February through July every year, it is under water when the Amazon floods during the spring runoff. The ramshackle wooden shacks are built to float or sit on 10’ stilts. 65,000 people live here in extreme poverty, without electricity or clean water. Sanitation consists of open trenches carrying sewage and human waste. The population suffers from all of the attendant diseases of malnutrition, waterborne illnesses, respiratory diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and a host of social problems.
For the last four years, Patch and Gesundheit!, along with Bola Roja (a Peruvian hospital clowning and child advocacy organization), the Municipalidad Belen, and the Pan American Health Organization, have worked together to bring color, joy, laughter, arts, music and healthcare to the community. This year it was done at a level of historic magnitude with over 90 clowns, from 12 countries, aged 16-69 (my granddaughter and I representing both extremes).
We were artists, teachers, actors, students, physicians, dentists, social workers, psychotherapists, filmmakers, and a business executive, all of whom came at our own expense. We conducted workshops on health prevention, art, music, dance, percussion, theater, puppetry and juggling. We also sponsored clinics, painted houses and clowned.
I participated in it all, worked and played 14 hours a day, and wasn’t tired at day’s end. Being surrounded by such loving energy filled me with participatory joy. I clowned in AIDS shelters, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the developmentally disabled, crowded marketplaces, and paraded through the streets. Dressed as a ridiculous giant ballerina (in pink tights, tutu, and a Flamingo headpiece), I held castanets in my hand and danced Flamenco, waltzed with the elderly, and laid balloon eggs for the kids.
I received much more than I gave. Reminded of the healing power of love, I was rejuvenated by the energy of young people who want to make a difference. It gave me renewed hope for the world.
To see the video, follow the link below: