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2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  


Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

I looked critically at the golf ball-like golden fruits attached to the branch I was holding, weighing my options. The local girls were watching me expectantly, and I thought, If I refuse, they’ll judge me, or worse, be offended. That little kid just climbed a frigging tree to get these things. If I eat them, I might catch some obscure bacterial disease and die. But one of the girls had just eaten a fruit, so I shrugged and decided to indulge in my riskier side. Copying her, I tore off the rind with my front teeth, sucked out the inside, and spat out the seeds. The fruit had a dry, sharp taste that was vaguely sweet, and I grinned. The girls grinned back.

We had spent the last two days immersed in the jungle and the river, and it had come time to reach out more directly with the local people of the Amazon. After an early morning birding trip and breakfast, we left ExplorNapo by boat, heading for the nearby village of Llachapa. A day of community service and cultural interaction with the locals had been blocked into our schedule, and despite the non-Spanish speakers’ nerves, we were excited. On the short ride over, I thought about other times I’ve interacted with native peoples. I was younger, but I clearly remember fishing and playing futbol with Guatemalan kids and punting volleyball and visiting the homes of my Kuna friends in Panama. I have learned that language isn’t everything. If you can hit a ball and crack a smile, you’re in good shape.

Pretty soon we came to a cleared area on the banks, where dugouts and motored canoes were pulled against the shore. A brightly-painted bus-type thing, long decommissioned, perched near the water, adding more color to the land. Wooden-slat houses with thatched roofs rose on stilts above the thick crabgrass, and over the knolls a large group of medium-height people with black hair and warm brown skin came walking. A sign in Spanish announced the village as Llachapa. A spike of nerves surprised me as I saw the local people, most of them children, coming toward us. Oh man, I thought. There’s a lot of them, and they’re all going to be staring at us. And I don’t speak their language. I pushed away the fear as we climbed off the boat onto the grass. The local kids grouped around us, some smiling, others observing carefully. I smiled back, offering greetings of Hola and Buenos Dias.

As they led us over the gently-sloping open space, I looked around. Most of the ground was grass, but some worn-down areas were sticky with mud. Trees were scattered here and there amongst the houses, and chickens, ducks, dogs and cats wandered freely. We crossed a wooden causeway over a lake matted with algal life to a main courtyard in the middle of a group of two-storey, rectangular school buildings. A few circular thatched roofs over cement bases formed meeting areas. We went to the largest one in the middle of the yard, where small wooden chairs were arranged around the perimeter. A string of coil bulbs provided light under the dark thatch. Once we had all settled, introductions, mostly in Spanish, were given from our group and the school administrators. The children who learned here were in school two weeks in, two weeks out at this time of year. At least a hundred kids sat in the chairs. After the greetings, my classmates and I broke ranks, joining groups of the local kids. There was bamboo to be hammered into the ground, slats to be painted, holes to be dug. Swallowing our nerves, we jumped to it.

Jack learning to cut bamboo

Jack learning to cut bamboo

Claire and a few boys digging

Claire and a few boys digging

Over the next several hours, each of us Americans adjusted amongst our coworkers. Emily, despite her earlier apprehension, earned friends by carrying water and a smile. My brother tested his not-inconsiderable Spanish amongst the boys and ended up wandering the village with a few of them, answering questions about the far off Estados Unitos. Momo, an international student, taught a teenager some Chinese. I smiled when a little girl ran up while we were splitting bamboo and attached herself firmly to Kenzie, who had been conversing with some school children earlier. Skin color and language had little significance, after we all got over our initial shyness.

Savannah splitting bamboo with a local girl

Savannah splitting bamboo with a local girl

We broke at 12:30, the local students going inside to eat while we ate lunch. After that it was time for the wildlife scavenger hunt, provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to help share the message of environmental awareness and conservation. My friend Jack and I went with a group of teenage girls. We didn’t have to do much. They read the Spanish names of the target and we took off, ranging all over the village. Once we had gotten most of the boxes checked, they started to show us what laid off the beaten tracks.

Tony, Momo and the rest of the painting crew

Tony, Momo and the rest of the painting crew

The village was small, but big enough to explore. The girls led us behind a row of houses to a small flooded area, where they picked the golden fruits and we shared them. Then a boy in a dugout paddled up. After riding herself, one of the girls invited me into the boat. I nodded excitedly and hopped in. We paddled around the trees, sweeping our hands through the cool water. I tried to keep my body still and steady the boat. We circled back to the shore and continued our walk. We wandered amongst the houses, going briefly inside one for the girls to get some water. When we eventually looped back to our teachers, kids were running for a hill a little ways off. We grabbed water bottles and quickly joined them. It was time for a futbol game to top off the day.

Futbol is soccer, for you Americans who do not travel, and it’s extremely popular in Latin America. I hoped it wouldn’t be Americans versus locals, because we would be slaughtered. We reached the plateau of the hill worn down to red dirt with two goal posts on either end. We scattered into teams, and the game began. For the next fifteen minutes we Americans tried not to get in the way of the lean local boys, who ran and kicked and head-butted the ball like the moves were in their blood. We had a ton of fun playing with them, with Jack scoring the first goal, much to his delight.

When it was time to go they walked us to the rapido and we all yelled thanks and goodbyes, from both sides. A pleased tiredness washed over me in reflection. Their lives were infinitely different from ours. We would never know or understand some aspects of each other’s ways, but that did not exclude friendship. We were all moved by what we had built that day–garden fences, painted signs and a bridge between two worlds, whose crossing we would never forget.

2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  


Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

I swear, there is something distinctly more satisfying about Fanta from a glass bottle than from a can. Maybe it’s the sugarcane in the soda. Maybe it’s the frostiness that comes from being in a freezer three seconds earlier. For me last night it was the feeling of pleasant exhaustion that comes from a long, unbelievable day that added an extra kick to the orange drink.

Our morning at Explorama started early. Alarms sounded at 5:00 so we would have our luggage loaded and be stumbling onto the rapidos by 6:00. We flew through the flooded trees onto the river in the budding dawn and woke up along the ride to ExplorNapo Lodge, a slightly more rustic Explorama accommodation on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. On the hour-and-half run I birded out the open sides of the boat. Most I did not recognize, but Lucio is a man of many talents, and knows the names of every last bird here, in both English and Spanish. I filled my journal with notes on the Gold-Hooded Blackbird, the Ringed and Amazonian Kingfishers, and several others.

Arrival at the ExplorNapo Lodge

Arrival at the ExplorNapo Lodge

When we reached Napo we were greeted with Buenos Dias and a wonderful breakfast, and afterward found our rooms, where our luggage was waiting. The employees here work very hard to make us feel welcome and comfortable, for which we are all very grateful. The rooms are clean and open-air under a single thatched roof. Mosquito netting covers the beds. I like sitting up inside on my bed and feeling secure inside the little tent the net makes, happy in the knowledge the skeeters are suckered for now.  Overall, the conditions are not as bad as we thought, weather-wise. It’s not very hot due to the clouds and shade, and the humidity can be countered with light, loose clothes. They also have showers here, the water supplied by the nearby river. After breakfast we went for our first jungle walk. Lucio led us over a muddy path of wet clay winding through the trees. Within seconds we were out of sight of the lodge. The forest here is dense, quiet, and watchful, the only sounds the insect hum and occasional birdcalls. There is almost no wind, so the trees and plants stand silent, and I found myself whispering when I spoke. After a little ways we stopped and spread out along the trail, within sight of each other but far enough apart to focus. Our teachers told us to look down, up, and around for one square meter and listen to the jungle sounds, writing down what we saw. As I came to learn, one square meter can teach you a lot.

There is something old and attentive about this land, and everything is connected. The ground is composed of spongy roots tangled together with dirt shoved between the cracks, and the forest is layers upon layers of plants growing atop one another. In front of where I stood, a tree had fallen. I doubted it had been down long; not much that’s dead stays dead in the rainforest. Tiny mushrooms sprouted from the log’s flanks. Young trees and shrubs fed on the decomposing wood. The bark and outer layer had been already disappeared, so the whole thing looked like a cord of live, exposed nerves. The living and the dead take turns here.

Walking and watching in the forest

Walking and watching in the forest

We looped eventually back to the lodge, passing too much life to count. Monkey ladder vines, leaf bugs, a rubber tree that towered to the sky–the majesty and sheer magnitude of the rainforest is a little overwhelming. We went back and ate lunch, took a siesta during which most of us crashed in the hammocks near the dining room and caught up on sleep, and got ready for our next activity of the day. We were going to visit the medicine man.

Lucio and our other guide, Raul, took us up a short trail over a causeway and into the nearby Botanical Gardens, a cleared area next to a man-made fishing pond in which huge palms rise from the water. We came into a round, open-sided thatched-roof room with a floor of hard-packed clay. Two low-backed benches lined part of the sides, and in the back was a wooden table heaped with greenery and bottles filled with thick liquid. There was no light other than the outside sun. Behind the table stood a Peruvian man wearing a geometric-colored headband with feathers sticking up from the rim. Raul introduced him as Guillermo, the shaman.

Guillermo has been practicing shamanism since his early teens. As he and Raul explained to us, the traditional art of medicine and energy amongst the river tribes is becoming steadily more rare, as Western methods and products take root. Guillermo was taught by his father to be a shaman by his father before him. It is a grueling process, with tests such as going into the jungle for months and drinking periodically the hallucinogenic ahuasca, a concoction derived from a certain vine. It is under this mixture’s spell that shamans can discover new sources of healing, animals sacred to them, and see visions specific to their character and history.

Over the next half hour Guillermo showed us his medicine way. I scribbled madly in my notebook, writing down the uses of plants such as uña de gato, which helps with aches and arthritis, a plant called golden button that, when we chewed it, worked as temporary Novocaine, and my personal favorite: sangre de grado, dragon’s blood, which the local women call magic sap. The blood red sap helps with basic irritations such as acne, to more heavy-duty needs like post-natal bleeding. I bought two small bottles of it from Guillermo afterwards, and am now using it, with impressive effect, on my more stubborn pimples.

My favorite part, however, was the cleansing ceremony at the very end. Guillermo bade us close our eyes and relax. He lit a tobacco pipe and took a shaman’s leaf bundle used for ceremonies. Blowing smoke into the bundle, he walked back and forth in front of us, striking the palm frond on his hand and chanting in a tongue I could not name. His song was roughly beautiful, and something worked loose deep inside me, like the acid released from the muscles during a good massage. At the end, he took a phial of yellow-orange liquid he said was an extract of orchids and other sweet-smelling flowers, and rubbed it onto our palms, for cleansing energy. We passed it before our faces, and were finished.

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I felt better after going to the medicine man. It is easy I find, in a world with so much despair, to forget about the hope essential to the workings of the world. The dragon’s blood tree is rare now due to a years-ago harvesting. Guillermo’s craft, a vital part of his culture, is rare now too. These realities, and others, can cloud my sight of the good. But I bought a vial of that orchid-blood too, and smelling it sends me back under a thatched roof to warm brown hands holding a tradition I do not think will be forgotten any time soon. And in remembering this, I hope.

2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  


Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

I’ve always thought that coming out of a plane and descending one of those rolling stairways to the airstrip below always looked really exotic and travel-ly; the kind of thing Tintin would do in my brother’s old comics. It was only when I stepped out of the airlock door and walked carefully down skid-taped metal to the warm concrete airstrip of Iquitos, Peru, that I found it felt pretty cool too.

Finally, we have made it.

It’s been a long trip, with many hours in the air and on the ground. We left Gunston right after Disembarkation and drove by bus to the nearby camp to pick up the seniors. From there we went to Dulles and boarded a plane to Fort Lauderdale. We arrived after dark, went to a Miami hotel to crash for a blip of sleep, and rose at the inhumane hour of 4:10 AM to make our 8:00 flight to Panama City. From the isthmus we then flew to Iquitos, our final destination by plane. We still had a ways to go, but the scenery was vastly more interesting. We were in Peru, finally. We cleared customs at the Iquitos airport and were met by the incomparable Lucio, one of our two guides for this adventure. He led us out of the airport and into an air-conditioned minibus that carried us through the streets of Iquitos.

As Lucio explained on the way, Iquitos is named after the first tribe of native people that lived in this area. It is a small but lively city, complete with the Plaza de Armas that adorns all large Peruvian settlements. It was on that drive that the outward differences between our native America and this new, wild land became apparent to us.

In America, the streets are generally, outwardly organized. Traffic is a pattern, regulated by lights or hand signals, and you wouldn’t see vehicles beside one another on a narrow, one-way street. Not so here. Iquitos is a loud, crowded, colorful animal, and the streets are the blood vessels flowing through it, each red cell crowding for space and moving along.

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There are not many cars or trucks. Most motorized modes of transportation are muddy, agile motorcycles or tuk-tuks, converted dirt bikes with a small, covered seat for two attached to the back end while the driver sits on the chassis. Behind the driver is typically a multicolored webbing, the weaving pattern individual to each tuk-tuk. Others go by foot, picking their way through the cluttered sidewalks. We passed through the marketplace where tarps laid out on the cement were covered in ripe bananas, coconuts, and other bright, delectable-looking fruit. Fish vendors gutted piles of piranha on knife-lined cutting tables. Ribby dogs wandered around or laid curled against the buildings, which were themselves a mash-up of old architecture and new. We passed what Lucio called the plaza de heroes, where war heroes are honored with monuments. Many people waved as we passed by and watched; others simply watched back carefully, reiterating another of the differences I noticed here.

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The feeling of being a tourist is something I’m not really accustomed to. I have traveled to places where I was different, sure, but I was younger then, and less tuned in to the intricacies of culture. It really struck home when we came into the Iquitos airport and were following Lucio out. Many people stared at us, at our pale skin and strange clothing. Gringos, I thought, the name in many Central and South American places for Americans. I was expecting it, but it’s always a little jarring having a visible reminder you are no longer the majority.  The people who have accommodated us, however, are infinitely polite and helpful. Lucio and our brave driver took us effortlessly through the wildness of Iquitos to a dock, where we were greeted by friendly mutts and treated to a bathroom, fresh water, cookies/crackers in small packages, and the most freaking delicious bananas I have ever had the pleasure to consume (I ate two). We then bundled into Explorama’s rapido, a covered, open-air speed boat that is the best way to get somewhere fast on the river. We pulled away from the dock and set out over the muddy water. I’ve seen many pictures of the Amazon, and read about it, but when we sped out over the currents, the wind running fierce fingers through my sticky bangs and whipping away from my face, I knew my imagination could not do it justice.

The Amazon, and even the tributary we first went out on to take us there, is massive, wide and deep with shifting countercurrents and powerful running water surging past its red clay banks. Mats of greenery bob alongside sticks and deadheads, and the locals go by in dugout canoes or covered boats. The sky looks bigger down here, filled with puffy white clouds standing out against their tarnished undersides. The rainforest rises above the riverbanks in tangles of shadowy green, while huge emergent trees rear above the rabble like the heads of dragons. It is a forest of secrets and danger, and I couldn’t wait to see it up close. Everything about this river and this place hums with life.

We roared down the river for a little over two hours. We were heading for the Explorama Lodge where we would stay for our first night. I kept drinking in the scenery, unable to take my eyes off the shoreline and the sky. After a while we turned left into a small tributary, racing up it (no apparent speed limits here, another, fairly welcome difference from America), passing plants and trees that would be much taller in the high-water season. It is something out of science fiction, taking a boat through a flooded forest. It was quiet other than the motor and the omnipresent hum of insects.

When we reached the Lodge we unloaded and found our rooms, charged cameras and phones and went over the nightly group-up, and ate a delicious dinner prepared by the Lodge staff. Kaeo, my brother, somehow spotted a smallish tarantula chilling on one of the walkway rafters. We snapped shots and I took a picture before my camera battery, already drained from my pictures and videos from the ride here, died for good. Later, after dinner, we went for a night boat ride. Our driver turned off the motor and the lights and we gaped at the stars, twinkling unimpeded by the light pollution of the cities. Lucio showed us the Southern Cross, and I found the Dipper and Polaris, taking a little comfort in the face of all this newness that I still knew which way was north, despite my excitement. He also pointed out katydids and cockroaches and strange mimicking spiders, and a tiny snake coiled loosely on a large leaf. We followed the loop back to the Lodge, were we stumbled sleepily along the wooden walkways and crashed for the night. We were pumped, but our bodies were tired from travel, and we had another early morning, and another amazing day, coming with the rising of the sun.

2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  

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Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

I still can’t get over its name. The “Andean Cock-of-the-Rock?” Seriously?

I’ve been perusing the ID guide to Peruvian birds I bought for a little pre-departure studying, and I have to say I’m a bit awed. Besides the sheer volume of Amazonian winged fauna–Peru holds over 1,800 avian species–their common names are as unique and at times amusing as the birds themselves. Along with the bright orange Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru is home to the Amazonian Umbrellabird (its huge feathery crest reminds me of an overenthusiastic flapper girl), the prehistoric-looking Hoatzin (you can really see how birds evolved from dinosaurs), the jewel-like Little Sunbeam (the hummingbird names are especially fantastic), and hundreds of others.

Me looking in the Peru bird guide at the extravagant Cock-of-the-Rock

Me looking in the Peru bird guide at the extravagant Cock-of-the-Rock

Needless to say, we’re lucky we’ll have a guide well acquainted with the non-human inhabitants of the Amazon. There’s no way each of us could memorize all of the names and faces we’ll be seeing down there, not with the little time we have left to study. For those of us going on the Peru trip, research and planning have become much more immediate parts of our lives. We have less than two weeks until we fly out, and it’s crunch time to get all the loose ends tied and make sure we’re completely ready.

The biggest assignment that we need to complete individually is to plan and prep our research projects. This trip is possible because it is part of the Bay Studies program at our school, a week taken from the school year each spring for the student body to split up and research different parts of the Chesapeake Bay, or in our case, the Amazon River. To take advantage of this, we’ll all be doing individual research projects. One of our teachers, Mrs. Vooris, has downloaded a sound recording software from the Cornell ornithology site onto her computer so several of us can work with the calls of the jungle. One of us will be listening to frog calls, and I’ll be experimenting with the pitch and volume of birdsong in different levels of the canopy and at different times of day and night, along with just general observation and field journaling. Other research projects include soil analyzing, butterfly observation, medicinal plants, and studying the light gaps in the rainforest. My brother will be experimenting with leaf-cutter ants’ reaction to certain stimuli, such as created obstacles or a shifted food source, and one student will be studying the bioluminescence produced on some of the trees. We each need to figure out what we’ll need to bring with us to complete our projects, as we’ll obviously not be able to dash out to the nearest store for something missing. We have been meeting through the last several weeks to pin down what still needs doing.

The group of Gunston students going, minus two

The group of Gunston students going, minus two

The other big objective is gear. We each have a packing list, but many of us are not fully kitted out with waterproof pants and hiking boots. The mosquitoes will be vicious, so long sleeves and lightweight pants are imperative. One of the moms has recommended Permethrin to spray on our clothes and sheets to help keep the bloodsuckers off. It’s less toxic than Deet, which is a relief because they taught me on Hog Island that Deet eats your binoculars, and I’ll be glued to mine. Mrs. Vooris is taking her computer for communication, sound and blog recording, and other functions that require a keyboard and Internet, provided they have strong connection so far from Iquitos. I rather doubt it. The rest of us have been warned to keep any electronics in a Ziploc when not in use. Thinking back to my time in Guatemala when we were still living on our boat, I understand why. It’s called “rainforest” for a reason. We’ll also be there in the high-water season, so max humidity and river levels. As useful as my iPod would be on the long plane rides we’ll be taking, it’s staying home.

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Some of our gear and research material

And there will be lots of flying. Lots of moving in general, actually. We leave on May 15, which just so happens to be the day the seniors of our school Disembark, a traditional transition ceremony where the graduating class leaves campus by boat, just as they had arrived on their first day of school four years before. Normally, they go downriver to the nearby Camp Pecometh for a barbeque and celebration, but the Peru trip seniors will be picked up by Mrs. Vooris, Ms. Beck (our other teacher) and the juniors as soon as they reach the camp. From there we’ll drive to the airport, fly to Fort Lauderdale, drive to and spend the night in Miami, fly to Iquitos the next day and take a several-hour boat ride downriver to one of handful of Explorama lodges where we’ll be staying and studying.

All the miles are a fine price to pay for this experience, though, as is the bug factor. I remember the insects of the tropical Americas, and though I’m not as jumpy around them as I was when I was ten, the mosquitoes are still going to be a pain. Immunizations and vaccinations have been a major focus, especially for parents. My brother and I were recently immunized against yellow fever, and two days before our trip we will start taking anti-malarial pills, which we will need to keep taking during our stay in Peru. Hopefully the bug spray, mosquito netting and covered bodies will be enough to keep the worst of the little buggers off.

Trade with the local Yagua people is also on the horizon. I love bartering, and the artwork and tools the Peruvians craft for trading are truly beautiful, so I’m especially excited for this aspect of the trip. It’s also a great opportunity for me to give a bunch of the shirts I’ve grown out of to people who can use them more. I wish I’d had more time to brush up on my Spanish before leaving, as it is the lingua franca between travelers and the local peoples. I haven’t spoken it to someone who can’t speak English in more than three years, so hopefully my brother, a Spanish student as opposed to my Latin, will be able to converse when I cannot. I’m not too worried about it, though. I have been with many people who do not require a language to strike up a friendship.

I imagine the Peru group will be closer after this adventure as well. Experiences such as walking dozens of feet above the rainforest floor, sharing hours-long plane rides, and seeing spiders larger than your hand–which I anticipate if not necessarily hope for–tend to bring people together. My excitement is building as the push-off date draws near. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the body-hug of rainforest humidity or been have woken by the shrieks of the tropical dawn chorus, and it begins to call to me again as the days tick down till takeoff.

2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  

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Reporter: Sophie P.  (middle school student, Sidwell Friends School)

Location:  Sidwell Friends School classroom, Washington D.C.

“Wow, our trip to the Amazon leaves in 9 days,” and the whole room seems to radiate.  Everyone is so excited for the journey and the adventure ahead!

Sidwell Friends Middle School students are ready to escape winter and head to the Amazon!

Sidwell Friends Middle School students are ready to escape winter and head to the Amazon!

“I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path and I will leave a trail” – Muriel Strode

For the past two months we have had several Amazon trip meetings, with the enthusiasm building up as the journey nears.

A pink-toe tarantula (Avicularia avicularia)

A pink-toe tarantula (Avicularia avicularia)

At our first meeting, all of my peers shared a rose and a thorn, or something that we are excited for, and something thatwe are nervous about. The majority of the answers revolved around being excited for the canopy walk in the trees, but many of my friends were nervous about bugs, snakes, and especially tarantulas

So, my teachers spent the meeting discussing the various harmful creatures in the Amazon, and the chances of getting hurt by one of them: slim to none!

At our next meeting, we watched a video on the rainforest wildlife, mainly about parasitism with cowbirds, which are birds that take the eggs out of other birds’ nests and replace them with their own, so that the other birds raise their young.  We also learned about toucans and aracaris, which are very colorful birds that I am very excited to see.

A many-banded aracari  in the ACTSPeru Canopy Walkway (photo credit:  Phil Kahler)

A many-banded aracari in the ACTSPeru Canopy Walkway (photo credit: Phil Kahler)

Most of our other meetings covered helpful information about our trip, like not to drink any water that you do not know the source of, and, obviously, listen to the guides when you are on the trails!

We’ve been given loads of hand-outs with background information including a very long list of the cool birds that we will see, and by long, I mean more than 100 types.

Last week I went shopping for the expedition.  I bought lots of bug spray, sunscreen, and a pair of hiking boots.  My group was told to make sure that we have shoes that we can get muddy, to stay covered in lightweight clothing, and to wear an ample amount of bug spray to avoid getting bitten.

Today was one of our last trip meetings.  As the student field reporter for the expedition, I interviewed my friends and asked them what they were most excited about and why.

Trading day with the Yagua

Trading day with the Yagua

Many friends are excited to spend time on the rainforest canopy walk at ACTSPeru, and view the beautiful scenery.  Another friend is very enthusiastic about going stargazing at night.

Personally, I am ecstatic to meet and trade with the Yagua people.

Overall, I’m so thrilled to be going to the Amazon River in Peru for this trip of a lifetime, and I can’t believe that I will have the opportunity to personally see the wildlife that I only thought I could view in nature videos. :-)

Submitted by Sophie P. Sidwell Friends School, ’19                                              2015 Student Field Reporter 

It’s all fun and games until you get birds and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology involved…then mayhem, hilarity, and learning ensue!

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Last summer, birding in the Amazon became a full contact sport as U.S. and Peruvian educators and students raced around the grounds outside the Amazon library – flapping their “wings” as they searched for resources needed to survive!   Language barriers dissolved as hands were clasped and teams were formed.  Laughter filled the air as educators learned to communicate with hand signals and pantomime.

How does magic like this happen?  It takes partnerships and a lot of planning, but it is so worth it!  During the annual Educator Academy in the Amazon for K-12 teachers, we partner with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to bring their BirdSleuth programs to the Amazon.

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While they are in the Amazon, U.S. educators work with Lilly Briggs, Cornell’s International BirdSleuth Coordinator, and are introduced to the new Habitat Connections curriculum.   This great program uses inquiry, games, and citizen science to help students discover the diverse habitat need of birds and the challenges they face when migrating.  We then partner with CONAPAC’s Amazon Library and host a similar teacher training for Peruvian educators – many of which have to travel for hours by boat to make the training.

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The high point of all this in-depth exploration is an afternoon of fun and community building between U.S. and Peruvian teachers.  Together we “field test” several Habitat Connections activities with the students who visit the Amazon library after school each day.

14662568112_248a60d934_oIt was an experience none of us will ever forget, but we left with way more than just happy memories.  All of us have new tools and resources that will improve our teaching and engage our students – whether we teach in a one room school in the Amazon, a private school in NYC, or an elementary school in Tuscola, Illinois.

 

So how does all this translate back to a US classroom?  Here’s how one teacher took what she learned in the Amazon and integrated it into her classroom.


 

Connecting the Amazon to the Classroom via BirdSleuth 14750812696_ffdf8d12d1_k

by Pam White-Evans, 6th grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Tuscola, IL.

(Pam teaches math, science, and social studies but if she ever needs another career she has a real talent for talking to howler monkeys in rehab!)

“Our first science unit of the year this fall was Birdsleuth’s Habitat Connections. It was very interactive and the students really enjoyed this aspect of the curriculum.

The first lesson was “Habitat Investigation.” This lesson gave the students a chance to get outside and explore their schoolyard. We had one particular area in mind that we would like to improve, so we studied it extensively. This was the start of information gathering for a grant that we applied for. The students were introduced to the idea of citizen science. It was an idea they really liked. We got out our binoculars and took a bird walk and practiced taking data to input into eBird.

The second lesson (and their favorite!) was “Migration Obstacles.” It was a beautiful, slightly windy, rather warm day when we did this activity. This activity is so much fun because everyone is involved in some way during the exercise. Improvising “hazards” makes it interesting. Our hazards ranged from a “ghost” building to wetlands to glass buildings and an airstrip, cars to cats. The children enjoyed being the hazard as well as trying to dodge the hazards. It wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be. We talked about ways to improve the migration route and make it more bird friendly. Then they tried again and were much more successful.20140821_142542

There are some very good slides to go along with each lesson. We looked at the migration routes that certain birds followed. They were interested to see the birds that were in South America near the area where we visited the Amazon.

The third lesson “Bird Survivor” teaches about the life cycle of birds in an interactive game. The “Fact or Fiction” is a good way to get them thinking about some common misconceptions they may have about birds. For example, do all birds build nests? The survivor games goes through the life cycle of birds by having some students be the bird and the rest of the class telling them their fate. In the end, not all are successful. It is sometimes hard being a bird!

The fourth lesson “To Migrate or Not” looks at tropical and temperate residents and migrants. Talking about tropical migrants was the perfect time to talk about the birds in the Amazon! Through my eBird account we looked at many of the birds I had seen while visiting. We could then see if they were migratory birds or if they lived in the area year round. The students were able to see additional hazards of migration. This tied in with the sixth lesson “Modeling Migration” that takes a close look at eBird. Students were able to look closely at data and learn to decipher what the graphs were trying to tell them.

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The fifth lesson is “Scientist in Action.” I don’t believe that too many of the students had thought that scientists actually study birds and what they do. Nate Senner’s activities intrigues the students. They found his study interesting, but many thought it would be really hard to do that.

The seventh and final lesson is “Improve Your Bird Habitat.” After going through all the lessons, we took another look at the area that we would like to improve in our school yard. We decided to make the area an outdoor classroom where we can observe birds and other wildlife, as well as attract Monarch butterflies. We went through the grant application, so the students could see what needed to be done. They drew sketches and helped write the answers to the questions. We look forward to finding out whether or not we will be funded for our project!

I ended the unit with a slideshow of pictures from my trip to the Amazon. The students were intrigued by the pictures and the information that I shared with them.”


 

So what’s next?

We have another Educator Academy in the Amazon scheduled for July 1-11, 2015.  This year, as part of the program, we will conduct two BirdSleuth training for U.S. and Peruvian teachers and expand our reach deeper into the Amazon so we can share this wonderful resource with even more Amazon teachers and students.   This is our way of giving back and thanking the Amazon and its people for allowing us to use their backyard as our classroom!

We’d love to have you join us!  More info on the 2015 Educator Academy can be found here:  http://www.amazonworkshops.com/educator-academy.html

 

Blind Dates in the Amazon

November 6, 2014

Standing on the banks of the Sucasari River as dusk began to settle around me, I strained to hear the sound of approaching boats over the cacophony of rainforest insects and frogs. 14660644373_8d44daf6cf_z (1)

I had only emerged from the jungle two hours earlier after spending over a week with high school students exploring the rainforest from top to bottom – my personal version of heaven.  With just enough time for quick shower and a clean set of clothes, I needed to regroup – and quickly. I had to be ready to greet a boat of weary educators who had just spent the better part of two days traveling to this remote corner of the Amazon rainforest in Northeastern Peru.   I knew their names and some of their faces, but we had never met in person.

Feeling like I was about to go on a blind date with 28 people all at once, I could feel the butterflies of nervous anticipation taking wing in my stomach.  Who were these people that I would spend the week with? (I’ve been at this long enough to know educators can be WAY harder than students!) Was I ready for them?  Were they ready for me?

Could they handle the ambitious agenda I had planned in order to cram as many learning, exploring, and discovery opportunities as possible into our short time together?  In the end, would they be able to justify the fees they had paid to attend this K-12 science professional development experiment that I (along with my amazing Amazon faculty) had dreamed up?  Would they embrace the adventure with gusto and not balk at the rustic conditions, the heat, the humidity, the mud, and the biodiversity in the latrines?

Would they find their inner explorer and ring every last drop of wonder out of each experience we threw at them?  14643775381_171477c4ba_oCould they get up before dawn, bird before breakfast, dig up leaf cutter ant nests till noon, climb through the rainforest canopy after lunch, and keep going long after dark in search of nocturnal wildlife along rainforest trails?  Would we, together, be able to successfully build curriculum connections between these amazing Amazon experiences and the classroom?

Or, would they revolt and retreat to the hammocks, exhausted, nursing their frustrations with pisco sours and cervezas, while plotting a mutiny?

Finally, the sound of outboard engines parted the curtain of rainforest noise and two boats full of the 2014 Educator Academy participants rounded the bend in the river.

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In short order, 28 disheveled, but smiling bodies emerged from the covered boats. As the educators clambered up the steps to the lodge, I could see a wonderful mix of anticipation, curiosity, excitement, and awe wash over their faces as they took in the Amazon rainforest for the very first time – mirroring the euphoria and relief felt when you realize your blind date is going to be way better than expected!  It was immediately evident that my 28 “blind dates” were more than up for the adventure we had planned.

Little did any of us know just how life changing the next 8 days would be, how close we would all become, and how the Amazon would transform the ways we think and teach. No one could have anticipated how the Amazon would refuse to let us go once we returned home.    

“This program immersed me into life on the Amazon River. I am forever changed by the knowledge, stories, challenges and life-long friendships developed during this experience!” ~Melissa Jordan, 2014

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Are you ready for the blind date of a lifetime?  Registration is open and scholarships are available for the 2015 Educator Academy in the Amazon.  Learn more and download the syllabus here.

Submitted by Christa Dillabaugh, Director, Educator Academy in the Amazon

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