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2015 Amazon Workshops 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 its impact on their lives!  

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


The TSA official pawed through my luggage, sifting around dirty T-shirts and Ziplokced clothing so far beyond smelly it didn’t bear thinking about. I prayed desperately she didn’t break or confiscate the seed bracelets and colorful pottery for which I had traded with the Yagua. It would be too ironic for them to survive the journey only to be taken when we reached America again. It was somewhere around one in the morning. Exhaustion tugged at my shoulders and eyelids, and I struggled to remain alert as the official went through my gear. I had declared my baggage when we went through security because I was carrying an apple and an orange in my backpack, which doesn’t really count as agricultural products. But a traumatizing event at the airport when I was ten that resulted in the confiscation of my favorite second grade scissors has instilled in me a deep fear of customs officials. I declared just to fully ensure they wouldn’t arrest me.

I was regretting it now, though. I was tired, on the ground and missing my parents, and it was time to be home.

The official closed up my bags, removing the fruit from my pack. “These stay with me,” she said, before chucking them into the large trash can next to her checking table. She said I could leave, and as I pulled on my backpack, I looked at the can into which the perfectly good produce had disappeared. “I know some kids who would have liked those,” I murmured to myself, before setting my rolling bag on the ground and continuing my journey.

In Llachapa, back on the Amazon that was now so far away, the schoolchildren with whom we’d painted signs and built gardens would have enjoyed that apple and orange. When we ate a lunch there provided by Explorama, the apples we did not eat were given to the students. I thought about them as I walked toward the airport’s exit where the rest of the Gunston kids were waiting, and realized how different things would feel once we returned to our toilet-flushing, hot water-providing, well-fed first-world lives.

As I write this, it has been almost a week since that last day of travel, since the last day of Spanish voices and wide, wise rivers, and I am once again left to marvel at the passage of time. Already the Peru trip feels like it happened months ago. As the stress of review week, followed by exams, takes the forefront of my daily thought, I can only really go back when inhaling the scent of Guillermo’s orchid extract, and feeling again the stickiness of sweaty skin and the wild, steaming life force of the rainforest. There are parts of it I definitely do not miss–the bugs, the heat, the homesickness. But I close my eyes and remember the parts I do wish for again. The cool breeze that comes with a tropical thunderstorm and rattles the palm fronds. Lucio and Raul, with their endless stories and knowledge of the ways of the jungle. Standing on top of Platform 6 at the canopy walkway and looking over the vastness of the rainforest, surging over every horizon beneath the cathedral clouds. The ancient river and its tributaries, giving life to it all.

The River of Life.  photo credit:  A. Vooris

The River of Life. photo credit: A. Vooris

I have traveled since the age of eight, and have been to many glorious places that I even now long for. Wanderlust is like a fine wine; time just makes it stronger. When we got home at almost four on Sunday morning there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be. But when I woke up the next morning my first thought was of the Amazon, and the fact that I was no longer there. Of course, the next day or two consisted of me trying to get back into my American high-schooler mindset than that of the bugbitten, eco-reporting, exhausted-but-high-on-life-and-loving-it traveler I had been for almost ten days prior. Homework and exams, when compared with saddle-backed tamarins and rainbow boas and documenting it all, now seemed pretty mundane. But I reminded myself that the work I put into my studies now would send me back there one day.

a. vooris 2015 IMG_9123

I could fill a book with all of what I learned in the Amazon; maybe someday I will. It’s certainly too much for one small blog. But the most important thing I discovered, or maybe remembered, on this trip, is that the fight for the conservation of places like the Amazon rainforest is not just one battle, fought by just one group of professionals. It is a war, fought by thousands of people all over the world who choose to make a difference one way or another. You don’t have to have a degree in botany to care about the jungle, or in anthropology to rally behind indigenous peoples, or in marine biology to love the ocean more than life itself, and recognize that these places and people are threatened and that something needs to be done. I think a lot of people do not believe they can change things because they do not know enough about the state of deforestation in the Amazon basin or the rapid depletion of the fisheries to do something about it. “I’m not a scientist, what can I do about anything,” right? But that’s not true. Buying shade-grown coffee or sustainably grown and harvested fish would make a huge difference if just half of America’s population did it, or even one person. The little changes people make are the atoms that make up the body of conservation. It’s the innovative scientists and teachers that we read the articles about, and surely, where would be without people like Rachel Carson and Sylvia Earle? But it’s the silent masses of people who do care about the environment and change the way they live accordingly that also help ensure there’s a world left to fight for.

a. vooris 2015 IMG_9410

I am immensely grateful I was able to go on this trip and learn about so much, from the awareness of the state of the rainforest to the lives of the people there, who struggle to survive as their world develops around them. For my entire life I thought I would be a marine scientist, focusing on improving the health of the ocean I love. On this trip I realized and accepted the fact that wars are not fought with a single weapon, and switching arms is not abandoning a cause. I can fight for change by raising awareness, by learning about peoples in threatened areas and how they live in and view their local ecosystem, and through my words and my writing and my stories. I can spread the word about the value of the rainforest and its people through tales of multicolored birds lighting up against the sky, the dances of the Yagua that seemed to reverberate to the very core of being, and the lessons learned on the shores of a goddess river, the greatest on earth, that will inspire me to teach others about the importance of our home, this colorful, wild, miraculous planet Earth.

There is nowhere in the universe I would rather be.

a. vooris 2015 IMG_9404

2015 Amazon Workshops 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 its impact on their lives!  

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


They really do make it look easy, I thought, as the wrinkled but wiry Yagua man handily cleared a patch of ground with his machete, slicing vertically just above the thick dirt and shearing away the grass. I have seen it done many times, but the technique and apparent effortlessness of lawnmowing via very sharp knife never ceases to amaze me.

It was our last full day in Peru, and we were back where we had started, at Explorama. We had spent the previous two days at ACTS, on the walkways or in the lodge working on research projects. We presented the evening we got to Explorama, demonstrating our findings to all travelers present. They went really well, considering we’d had less than a week to gather data and write up a report. Now that our scientific forays were more or less complete, we could focus on the other big aspect of the Amazon rainforest: indigenous culture. The tribe in our area is the Yagua, a people who have adapted well to modern society but still preserve their traditions. On the day they came to the Lodge to show us their old ways, bare-chested men with palm fiber hanging to their ankles and women wearing red skirts and palm fiber halters, all of whom wear modern clothes now with the exception of a few elders, paddled up in their dugout canoes. They set up stations around the lodge to show us how they had thrived in the rainforest for so long. Our school group split into two, one following Raul and the other with Lucio. For the whole morning we saw glimpses of the Yagua way of life.

The first station we visited was machete use. Two older men, withered with age but their strength apparent, were fashioning tools a blade. One showed us how to clear land with a machete, his movements practiced and sure. Raul invited us to try, and though those of us who had a go didn’t suck too badly, I felt clumsy and amateurish in comparison. Two other men then showed us how to make thatch for the junction of a roof, weaving two fronds of a certain palm together in an interlocking pattern to keep out rainwater. Another kind of palm was used for the rest of the roof, the weaving of which a Yagua woman showed us later on.

Learning to weave.  photo credit:  A.Vooris, 2015

Learning to weave. photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

The pattern of a roof junction after weaving.  photo credit:  A. Vooris

The pattern of a roof junction after weaving. photo credit: A. Vooris

  The rest of the walk included learning how traditional blowguns are made and fired (which we tried too), eating guava, the candy of the jungle, watching Yagua women weave beautiful purses and bags from palm fiber, and the natural dyes of the jungle, fingerpaintings of which we put into our journals. Raul then took us to the dining room, where we ate samples of Yagua food. Tamales, manioc and a peanut-candy melted on my tongue. We went next to the porch, where, Raul claimed, he had saved the best for last. Four Yagua men in modern clothing sat on the benches, instruments perched on their laps. One gripped a flute, two had drums, and one was on maracas. Across from them sat a few Yagua women and one man, all in traditional dress. An open space had been cleared in the center of the porch. Nerves and excitement sparked at my heels. The Yagua were going to teach us to dance.

Raul explained that down here, music is very local, with not many outside styles coming to the jungle. I had read that dance was a common occurrence amongst the Yagua, and the band here would be live. Raul asked us to please be polite and not refuse if we were asked to dance, and the four players started up. Their song was instrumental and with a fast, foot-stomping beat. The man and one of the woman dancers demonstrated the first dance, one of friendship. The band stopped, they took their seats, and Raul asked us to dance next. The players began again, and after a handful of awkward seconds Jack, Hanna and I hopped up and had at it. Pack instinct kicked in. The rest of the Americans stood and tried to mimic the Yagua’s fluid movements, and we grouped together, catching the rhythm. They showed us a few dances, and I got into it as best I could. I was no local dancer, but it felt great to move my body other than just walking. After five minutes of it I was drenched in sweat. When we finished, we thanked the dancers and musicians and took the hours before lunch off. We headed back to our rooms to pack our backpacks for this afternoon. It was time to trade.

Around 2:00, Raul led us along the short path between Explorama and the Yagua post that had been set up for trading. We came into a huge tapered hut whose roofing went all that way to the ground. Inside it was dark, the only illumination coming when the clouds rolled off the sun outside. Yagua, young and old, gathered on the benches inside. Raul told some of the history of ExplorAma, when Peter Jenson, an anthropologist, came over fifty years ago and saw a vision of an ecotourism lodge that interacted positively with the indigenous people. Explorama has expanded over the years, but the Yagua still come to show the tourists their ways and to trade or sell. When Raul finished, the Yagua stood up and invited us to dance as a group.

Dancing with the Yagua.  photo credit:  A. Vooris, 2015

Dancing with the Yagua. photo credit: A. Vooris, 2015

They led us through several dances, including the King of the Forest dance, which honored their highest god. We formed an undulating line, with our right hands on the shoulder of the person in front of us. Those in the front of the line set the beat, thumping the ends of their staffs into the hard-packed dirt. As the dance started, the Yagua began to sing. I could not understand the words, but their voices rose harmoniously in the darkness, calling on some ancient communal spirit that flowed through our ranks as we circled the center of the hut. I could feel the old power of the ritual, rising and falling with our movements and their words, and I knew these people understood things about this part of the world more than we scientists may ever grasp. We traded for the rest of the afternoon, bartering common American goods for seed bracelets and small blowguns, before running through a cool rain back to the lodge.

A group of Yagua children at the trading post.  photo credit:  A. Vooris, 2015

A group of Yagua children at the trading post. photo credit: A. Vooris, 2015

The Yagua have been in the Amazon for years beyond my knowledge, and they know the moods of the rainforest, its twists of fate and little nooks of gods. The tribe here is fading as elders die and young people leave to seek a change in the modern world, but the stories are not all forgotten, nor the old ways of doing things. The Yagua hold a jungle-taught wisdom, and they have reinforced my conviction that despite the perks of so-called “development” and the many allures of the modern world, sometimes the old ways really are the best. Even if it involves cutting grass with a machete.

2015 Amazon Workshops 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 its impact on their lives!  

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


A rainbow. It was almost too sweet to be true.

I looked toward the east, over the endless green canopy of the rainforest, reveling in the upper air on my face. For the first time in days I felt I could spread my arms again and not feel so closed in between the trees. Now I stood atop them, next to my brother and one of my best friends, savoring one of nature’s most beautiful displays of color, light and joy.

We had reached our last new Lodge, the research station at the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies. After a morning of birding by boat, followed by lunch, we hiked through the jungle to the field station. ACTS is a slightly more rustic lodge, smaller than the previous two at which we had stayed, but it has one major feature that has made it the part of the trip I have most looked forward to: the canopy walkway. ACTS canopy walkway is several hundred feet of single-file planks rigged with netting and steel cable, linking the forest floor and several emergent trees high above the canopy. It was on Platform 6, the highest point of the walkway at nearly one-hundred twenty feet off the forest floor, that I now stood with Kaeo and Jack.

We were at ACTS to take advantage of being in the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet and execute the research projects we planned before our departure.  Several of our projects involved variation in the levels of the rainforest, and we would spend all of the next day  working on them. But for now, Raul and Lucio were taking us to the canopy walkway, to watch the sunset from the top of the world. We drew names out of a hat to see who would be on Platform 6, and mine, my brother’s, and Jack’s names came out. I tried to contain my excitement. I have been in or above the forest canopy thrice before–once on a similar walkway in Guatemala and twice on top of Mayan temples in the ancient city of Tikal. This one was different. I was in the rainforest, and this time I understood what that really meant.

photo credit:  A. Vooris, 2015

photo credit: A. Vooris, 2015

Lucio and Raul took us to the initial platform, a thatched floor on stilts about twelve feet off the ground. They invited us onto the first walkway, a narrow bridge with safety nets on either side rising to head-height. I hopped on and started walking. At first, the wobbling and slight rocking of the walkway made me nervous; I am not naturally inclined to heights unless there is a firm, preferably flat surface beneath my feet. But pretty soon I got the method down. Slowly we ascended, rising past the leaf-cloaked trees, their branches laden with the iconic epiphytes, or air plants, whose roots, depending on the species, sometimes stretch dozen of feet down. Most birdcalls only Lucio knew, but I did recognize one from my days in Guatemala. When we reached the canopy the Screaming Piha, a diminutive bird but the loudest one in the forest, threw its wolf-whistle call over the treetops, and I felt the aura of the upper rainforest settle over me like a gentle wind.

We spent that sunset on the highest walkways and platforms, a blazing ball of orange sinking beneath the horizon and setting the clouds aglow. Swallow-tailed Kites wheeled on thermals to the south. There was magic up there on Platform 6, a solitude but a connection to the forest around us. I think we all felt some of it as the sun went down.

Sun behind the Epiphytes photo credit:  A.Vooris, 2015

Sun behind the Epiphytes photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

On the way back, we visited the patch of forest hosting bioluminescent fungi. Raul took us a little off the trail next to a big emergent tree and asked us to shine our lights upward before turning them off. After a few seconds, we looked down. The floor was covered with glowing nodules of bioluminescence, like someone had taken stardust and shaken it amongst the roots. This place had more than one kind of magic, it seemed.

The next day, the rainforest lived up to its name. Up until now there had been little precipitation, but shaggy gray clouds rolled in on Wednesday and a locally-named “female rain,” short-lived but with something to say, soaked the field station. We still went birding on the walkway at 6:00, a few of us rejecting ponchos and letting the clean water wash off some of our stink, but most projects scheduled for being out in the morning holed up until lunchtime, hoping the rain would stop. It let up some, and most of us got solid data in to work on our projects. Kaeo poured sugar water on the floor to call in his ants. The butterfly groups compounded pictures and identified several species. I, with the help of Jesse, started to work with the birdcalls, using his recorder. Jesse has been with us the whole trip, and I haven’t talked about him yet simply because there hasn’t been enough room. He works with the Rainforest Trust, a Washington D.C. based group dedicated to creating parks and preserving the rainforest, and is with our group as a teacher and occasional guide. We met up with him in Miami, when he was wearing a T-shirt with the classic “evolution of man” silhouettes leading to a man hunched over a computer, with a caption reading “Something, somewhere went terribly wrong.” I liked him instantly. He showed me how to use his handheld recorder, which I took into the treetops to capture birdcalls so I could measure the frequency at different heights. Though my research project has evolved into a more “sounds of the rainforest” endeavor, with the local stories and lore of the environment my greater focus, I still wanted birdcalls in my hand. I loved taking five-minute chunks of sound and playing it back, hearing again the parrots and the oropendolas and the pihas. I would put it into Mrs. Vooris’s computer the next day, when we would be presenting our completed presentations.

Jack, Kaeo and Claire on a walkway - photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

Jack, Kaeo and Claire on a walkway – photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

At the end of our only full day at ACTS, we went back up for a sunset on the canopy. This time though, we were quiet, curbing our excitement and adrenaline, taking it all in with reverence. The rainforest was singing under the orange light of the sun, and a fine mist started to rise from the trees, lacing the green with gossamer clouds of white. We are so lucky, I thought, to live in a world so beautiful and powerful and wild. Sometimes when I go to certain places I get a brush of the force of nature, of all the beings contained within this garden of gods, and feel a deep sense of peace and purpose. When tired from schoolwork, or later, work-work, I will remember Platform 6 and the rainbow, the majesty of the rainforest, and the wonder and importance of the world I am trying to help save. And I will remember then too that it is worth it all.


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.

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