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.