Conservation of our planet’s botanical resources and ecosystems

Amazon Rainforest Expedition: A Journal by Molly Welsh

Below is Molly Welsh’s account of her trip to the Amazon Rainforest with Dr. Lowman while conducting a herbivory study for her Independent Study Project at New College of Florida:

Amazon Rainforest Expedition: A Journal
Molly Welsh, New College of Florida

I traveled to the Amazon Rainforest with Dr. Meg Lowman (www.canopymeg.com) near Iquitos, Peru from January 20-29, 2010 to conduct an herbivory study for my Independent Study Project at New College of Florida. The following is an account of my adventures, experiences, and thoughts concerning this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Part One: Personal Reflective Essay

I was rendered speechless as I traversed the canopy walkway, enveloped in the vibrant emerald green of the majestic treetops of the Peruvian Amazon. Mere words could not do the stunning landscape justice, and I lapsed into a deep silence as I contemplated the power and importance of the natural world. The treetops seemed to stretch for miles, creating a vast expanse of thriving life. Though I was humbled into silence at the magnitude of the rainforest, the atmosphere hummed with life. I was immersed in the unfaltering buzz of the cicadas, the crisp rapid clicks of the tree frogs, and the various melodic bird calls. The silhouette of a hawk swooped down and caught a bat in mid-air as the sun set slowly and delicately painted the sky with pastel yellow, purple, and orange hues. The fog rolled in and settled over the treetops, and the scene epitomized perfection.

During the Amazon Expedition Independent Study Project, I got to fulfill a dream that I’ve had since I was a little girl: to hike through the rainforest. I got to observe the purity of undeveloped land and the widest array of biodiversity I have ever borne witness to. Visiting precious and beautiful ecosystems like the Amazon Rainforest fuels my passion for science as well as instills a drive within me to preserve fragile ecosystems. Cultural awareness and preservation was also an important aspect of the trip. Learning about the Yagua tribe provided a window into a lifestyle that is much different than the life I lead in the United States. I developed respect for how the Yagua live in harmony with the land and communally with each other, and it was with sadness I learned that more and more indigenous tribes are disappearing, for it means the world is losing the knowledge inherent in their customs and societies. We must strive to learn from these societies while they are still around.

While in the Amazon, I also gained invaluable research experience. I gained exposure to viable methodology for conducting a study of herbivory on plants. I was able to get an idea of the ideal leaf sampling size, the type of data to collect regarding the niches the trees were growing in, and a system for graphing, calculating, and analyzing the results. My study on the herbivory of medicinal plants as related to their chemical composition was made possible through numerous medicinal plant walks, ReNuPeRu Ethnobotanical Garden visits, and conversations with the local shaman. My interest in ethnobotany is renewed; I want to research medicinal properties of Amazonian plants and I believe that the key to discovering cures for devastating diseases lies in the Amazon.

Also, through conducting the herbivory study alongside Dr. Meg Lowman, I was able to gain an appreciation for all of the arduous work that scientists put into their research. I was able to learn about limitations to human research in forests and projects scientists have undertaken to overcome these limitations. A prime example of this is canopy access; before the implementation of cranes, hot air balloons, and canopy walkways, canopy access was often difficult and dangerous, rendering scientific research on the canopy largely impossible. Now, the field of tropical canopy ecology is growing because of increased canopy access, and I’m so fortunate that I was given the privilege of working on the longest canopy walkway in the world with an expert canopy biologist.

Going on this expedition only further fueled my interest in rainforest ecology and strengthened my desire to go into field biology as a career. Field biology appeals to my sense of curiosity about the natural world, my sense of adventure, my spirit of conservation, and my respect for the environment. I’m incredibly grateful to have gotten the opportunity to travel to this natural wonder with an amazing selection of scientists, specialists, and guides.

Seeing so many organisms in symbiotic relationships with one another in the rainforest drove home the biological concept that every component of an ecosystem is important, and altering even a tiny piece could cause great disruption. I understand so clearly now the immediacy of preserving this precious habitat before it is too late. To do this, we must engage the indigenous people of the Amazon in dialogue, for the locals possess impressive knowledge about the land. This, coupled with an increase in public awareness throughout the world about the causes of deforestation of the Amazon, will be a great start in accomplishing this goal. I’m going to continue to brainstorm and implement ways to do my part in sharing my stories and spreading the message of conservation about this beautiful, unique, and vital place.

Part Two: My Travel Log

Day One: Airport and Initial Accommodations
Stepping out into the night air of Lima, charged with excitement, we walked from the Lima airport to the shuttle, awash in a sea of street lights and vivid billboards. The driver narrated the way to the hotel, telling us vital facts about Peru, the country that we would be immersed in for the next nine days. Bleary eyed and weary from traveling, we stumbled into the Miraflores Hotel at 2:30 in the morning. We bought some bottled water to brush our teeth with, then ascended the short staircase to our rooms. The sheets were crisp and the pure white stood out starkly against the decorative red bed shams. Exhausted, my roommate Marilyn and I fell into bed and our subconscious minds slipped into blissful reveries of the possibilities of things to come.

Day Two: Market, Beach, Another Flight, Boat Ride
Recharged and raring to explore, we woke up at 8:30 and showered quickly, eager for our adventures to commence. There was an impressive spread of food for the continental breakfast, consisting of tamales, fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, granola, meats, juice, and cheeses. After devouring the fresh food, we crossed the street to go to the market. We were greeted with a wash of colors–scarves, wraps, sweaters, and blankets were piled high in every hue imaginable. There were little trinkets–key chains, bowls, dolls, stuffed animals, jewelry, and cards adorning the counters and walls of each stand. The vendors were very persistent, with their shouts of “mira! mira! (look! look!).” We stayed for one and a half hours, trying to haggle with the vendors while rapidly converting soles (the Peruvian currency) to dollars in our heads. The exchange rate, though it varies throughout Peru, is generally 2.8 soles to 1 United States dollar.

After a brief return to the hotel to load up our luggage, we departed in the shuttle. We drove through a town and around some winding roads atop rocky cliffs. It was interesting to see that the roads had been re-built a few feet away from their original location due to the frequent erosion–there have been problems with rocks striking people and cars traveling below. We soon arrived at our destination: a beach. Yet, it was unlike any beach I have ever been to before because it was completely composed of fist-sized rocks; there was no sand. Yet, like most other beaches, it was dotted with sunbathers in bathing suits and small children delighting in the waves. We shakily walked the length of the beach, carefully minding the holes between the rocks. We sat in silence for a few moments. I was fascinated by the way the waves swept up the shore and caught in the crevices between the rocks as they receded. I then talked to a few of the fellow students on the trip, Clare and Marilyn, about our home states and different schools. As we talked, we watched surfers and parasailers taking advantage of the pleasant weather. There was a nice resort across the street, with people playing tennis and others sitting at the tiki bar. The backdrop to this resort was the looming dirt cliffs that stretched in the distance, sprinkled with palm trees and other small flora.

After everyone had taken pictures and relished the sunshine, we piled back into the shuttle. As we sped down the street, I noticed car horns honking and a lot of movement as small cars weaved in and out of the lanes, narrowly avoiding each other. The bus looped around and drove up a cliff. Instantly, I had a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean; the vast expanse of blue was seemingly endless and shimmered magically as it reflected sunlight. It reminded me a little bit of the views I encountered while in the Azores, a small island chain off the coast of Portugal. I chuckled to myself as we passed a billboard for Twilight, a movie that was insanely popular in America and evidently other parts of the world as well. The shuttle brought us through Lima to the airport, where we were going to catch a flight on the airline LAN to Iquitos. In the airport, we checked our bags and then got lunch from Papa Johns. I paid for my vegetarian pizza in American dollars but received change in soles. On the way to the gate, we stopped at a small restaurant to try the enticing gelato. They had interesting flavors such as passionfruit, date, guava and pineapple. After our dessert, we arrived at the gate and waited for our flight to Iquitos to board. It was a short flight, and I mostly slept.

We arrived at the Iquitos airport at sunset. The sight of the beautiful sky awash in glowing colors with the silhouette of an airplane and palm tree in front of it was one I won’t forget. A surge of excitement swept through my body as I realized I was finally in Iquitos. Our crew walked out to the parking lot and piled into the open-air bus and small van. The Explorama guides, Ricardo and Willy, welcomed us to Iquitos with big bottles of refreshing cold water. Willy spoke to us in Spanish for the duration of the ride through Iquitos, to acclimate us to our South American surroundings.

In the ride through Iquitos, we passed a town square, schools, a military base, and numerous dilapidated bars and stores. I noticed that the air was thick with pollution and a gasoline smell hang heavily in the air. There were a lot of people riding motorcycles as their primary mode of transportation, not cars. The road was also full of taxis, which were motorized carts that could seat two passengers. Willy explained that the wealthiest people purchase taxis for the equivalent of five thousand dollars and then run a taxi service to make their money back and hopefully make a profit one day. We also passed a lot of Chifas, or Chinese restaurants. Willy explained that Peru has a large Chinese and Japanese population. It’s funny–many Chinese people residing in Peru grow up learning only Spanish and not their native language. The streets bustled as we winded our way through them, for it was rush hour. At one stop sign, there were four boys on the street in ethnic tribal dress–grass skirts and painted chests and faces–playing flutes, drums and maracas and asking for donations. Our guide dropped a few coins in their wooden bowls as we drove by. Our group remarked that we felt like obvious tourists, for everyone was snapping pictures and bright flashes kept exploding from the van. The people on motorcycles peered at us through the windows as they whizzed by, curious to see who was taking legions of snapshots.

We soon arrived at the boat dock and piled out of the bus. With anticipation building, we sat in a small room and discussed the coming boat ride. The sun had set and we walked down the dock and boarded the boat, enveloped in darkness. Half of the group ventured up to the top deck, and it immediately started to rain heavily. As we were getting completely soaked, I mused that the rain marked the start of our journey into the rainforest, a forbearer of the elements we would face in the coming days. We soggy students were then re-directed to the middle deck, which was fully enclosed and had many tables, benches and chairs. We devoured our boxed dinners as we curiously examined the pictures of the Explorama lodges that were printed on the outside of each box. I slipped the colorful box into my backpack as a small memento. The box dinner consisted of eggs, tropical fruits, orange crackers, an apple and plantains. I was surprised at how salty and crisp the plantains were–they didn’t taste like bananas at all, but rather like potato chips. There was also delicious coffee on the boat, which I made a mental note to tell my dad, a coffee aficionado, about. The ride lasted two and a half hours and the group passed the time by playing a variety of card games. Upon arrival at the bank of the Amazon in the dead of night, we took out our flashlights and headlamps as we nervously ventured onto the side deck, taking care not to fall in the slippery puddles.

We stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the deck, jittery and excited. With our small flashlight beams, we could only discern high muddy banks. Our beams could not penetrate the vegetation. I was consumed with a deep sense of wonder–I felt like I was about to enter, in the words of Joseph Conrad, the “heart of darkness” and I was exhilarated at the mysterious adventures that awaited me. We left the boat in single file and crossed a muddy bank and a narrow plank to enter a much smaller boat, in which the seats were one foot above the water and a few feet under an aluminum roof. The sides of the boat were completely open. I peered out into the limited beam of light, and my eyes were greeted with only pale brown water as far as I could see. Because of the limitations of the light source, I felt like I was venturing blindly into the Amazon, which only increased my yearning to see what was there. I flicked my light to one side and briefly saw a bird flying low across the water. I switched my flashlight off and enjoyed the boat ride in the dark, blindly entering unknown terrain. I was overcome with a sense of no turning back, which I didn’t mind because I had fully committed to this adventure.

After about ten minutes, I switched my light on again and saw muddy riverbanks, silver fish jumping, canoes, ladders, and palm thatched roofs peeking out from the vegetation. We hit the dock with a bump as we arrived at our destination, the Explorama lodge. Wooden stairs jutted out of the dirt and snaked up a hill; we climbed them and entered the lodge. We entered the bar area and sat at the tables, looking around at the handmade goods for sale that lined the walls. We received our room assignments and wandered through the lodge, which was much larger than I thought it was going to be. Each set of rooms was connected by an outdoor walkway with a thatched roof covering. Once my roommate and I arrived in our room, we organized all of our things, packed our day packs for the next day, brushed our teeth with clean water, peeled back the mosquito netting, and fell into bed. The kerosene lamps gently flickered throughout the night.

Day Three: Morning Bird Watching by Boat, Rainforest Hike, Learning about Yagua Tribe, Dancing and Music, Night Stargazing by Boat
Our wake-up call came at 5:45. We scrambled to get dressed and ready by six o clock and hurried down to the docks and piled into two large canoes for a sunrise bird-watching expedition. We meandered down a tributary to the Amazon, observing a variety of birds along the way. Huts dotted the landscape. Villagers washed clothes in the river, bailed canoes, and looked at us quizzically as we passed by. I was amazed by the sheer size of the Amazon when we got out onto it. The banks were massive and appeared to be constantly undergoing erosion. There were many tropical species of trees that I had never seen before, and the vegetation was rich and varied.

With the help of binoculars, we saw a Greater Ani perched high in a treetop, its distinctive bluish-black coat shining in the morning sunlight. Anis are commonly found on river sides. Though they usually live in groups and can become quite animated, we saw only a single, silent bird. Willy told us that Anis are from the cuckoo family. We saw a Wattled Jacana, which had black feathers and rich swathes of brown on its wings. The bird we saw was an adult, due to the absence of white feathers on its belly that are characteristic of a juvenile. It also has bright red wattles around its yellow beak and large, spindly feet for walking across marshy areas with efficiency. Willy was telling us that the females mate with many different males (they are polyandrous), and the males watch over the nests and care for the young. We also observed a Black-Billed thrush, which was a tiny bird with light brown feathers. We also saw a White-Winged becard, which had a grayish green body with pronounced white stripes on its wings. The Kingfisher we spotted next was unique looking, with its black stripes and mohawk. We heard a woodpecker, though he moved before I could spot him. After spotting many more colorful birds and identifying them with our guide books, we traveled back to the lodge, where we enjoyed a breakfast of eggs, potatoes and onions, pancakes with molasses syrup, yuca, and passionfruit juice.

After breakfast, we had our first lecture on biodiversity. The Amazon region has such high diversity due to its complex architecture, which provides a variety of ecological niches. The rainforest consists of the forest floor, understory, canopy and emergent layer, each with different organisms. There are shady and sunny areas alike, and vines and epiphytes provide increased access to the canopy for small creatures. The Amazon also has high diversity due to its climate, which remains pretty homogeneous in that it never fluctuates more than 20 degrees per year, has continuous sunlight, and consistently receives an average of over sixty inches of rainfall per year. Also contributing to the biodiversity is the continuous nutrient cycling and long-term evolutionary age, which stands to reason, for the longer a genetic pool is in an area, the more diverse life can be due to processes of adaptation and evolution of species over time. It was believed that Ardi, one of the first hominids, lived in a rainforest.

We also talked about the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, for if some small disturbance happens in a section of the rainforest, such as a tree falling, a pocket of sunlight is opened up, which brings in pioneer plants, new insects and birds that take advantage of the sunlight. We also discussed the difficulties of mapping biodiversity in a region so rich with life and the reality that we don’t know how many species live in the world and that many are probably still undiscovered. We touched on the surprising fact that there are actually pockets of the rain forest that are experiencing low diversity, for some species of trees prefer to live in mono-dominant clusters. Over 50% of the world’s species are found in the tropics, and over 40% of species are in the rainforest canopy. One problem that Dr. Meg Lowman has been working arduously at for a number of years is canopy access, so that we can better study the biotic processes and cycles occurring in this vital habitat. Canopy access is relatively new, so the research possibilities in rainforest canopies are virtually endless, it is just a matter of preserving the rainforests so that these long-term studies will be possible.

The “plant of the day” was cecropia, nicknamed the “sloth tree,” for sloths love to hang out in it and try to feast on its leaves. Cecropia is a classic pioneer colonizing species, found all along the edge of the Amazon River. This species is extremely fast-growing, which is one reason it dominates the river side. It is not viable commercially for it has substandard, tacky timber–it is simply not a good hardwood. Immature cecropias have lime green main stems, while mature cecropias develop dark green axillary stems. Thirty to forty feet is the standard cecropia height. It has large leaves for high photosynthesis rates and it has spiny stems to deter insects, such as katydids, caterpillars, and leaf-cutter ants from eating the foliage. However, the Azteca ant actually lives in a symbiotic relationship with the tree. Cecropia plants provide the ants with a place to live inside their hollow stems and food in the form of Mullerian bodies which are rich in glycogen and lipids. In return, the ants provide nitrogen to the plant, which is contained in their excrement. Also, the ants provide protection by swarming and killing anything that touches the plant.

However, the leaves that we had picked as samples had a variety of holes in them, indicating that the Azteca ants were not adequately protecting the plant. One question for future research would be why are the ants not effectively protecting the cecropia and has any specific factor thrown off the symbiotic relationship? As a small test, a person in the group pressed her finger firmly against the stem of a living cecropia, taking care to avoid the spines. No ants came to the plant’s defense. It would be worth investigating why this is occurring. A lot of cecropia on the banks of the Amazon River have dead leaves, which hang in the trees and birds come and eat the insects out of the leaves.

There were two “insects of the day.” The first was a harvestmen. It is not a true spider because it only has one body part. A spider has two body parts, an abdomen and a cephalothorax. Harvestmen live at the bases of big trees and are active mainly at night. They belong to the order Opiliones. The second was an amplypigid, or a tailless whip scorpion. It belongs to the order Amblypigi. It is unique in that it doesn’t have the characteristic eight working legs typical of arachnids, but rather has six. It can still be classified as an arachnid, however, because the other two legs were present at one time but have been modified to function as antennae. They have prominent and menacing-looking pedipalps, which are used in capturing their prey. This organism can be found at the bases of big trees or under the leaf litter. The students in the group all took turns handling the amblypigid and taking pictures of this interesting creature.

After the lecture, we all changed into long pants and applied deet-laden bug spray to our clothes in preparation for our first hike through the Amazon Rainforest. Upon entering the forest, we were greeted by an intense earthy smell. Our feet got suctioned to the mucky floor with each step. We entered on a downward slope, and had to hang on to handrails made of branches and step gingerly on the makeshift wooden steps. The trees stretched high above our heads, and were densely packed together in all directions around us. Mosses were abundant, and there was a lot of new growth of things such as fungi and mushrooms springing out of rotting logs on the forest floor. A few minutes into the hike, we observed our first creature–a yellow-striped poison dart frog! Its back was a midnight black color with two lightning-yellow stripes running down each side. The guide caught the frog and flipped it over for us to see. To my surprise, the frog had a light blue underside! An interesting fact that Ricardo told us was that frogs are very competitive for mates and work hard to ensure their offspring survive, to the point where females will stake out other nests and eat the unhatched eggs.

Next we encountered a massive ceiba tree. The guide stood beside it and whacked one of its giant buttress roots. A loud, hollow sound boomed out, like a drum. The guide explained that natives drum on the tree to let others know of their locations, which works great if someone is lost in the rainforest or if people are trying to organize a gathering. We continued on, walking on slippery log bridges over small streams. We smelled a medicinal ginger plant along the way. The guide, Ricardo, explained that ginger functions as the equivalent to our aspirin. We saw many walking palms, which are also called cashapona or socratea exorrhiza. The base consists of numerous stilt roots. It is called the walking palm because it reorients itself to maximize its light exposure by growing new roots on the side closest to the light source and letting the others die off, so that it essentially “walks” toward a light source. Sometimes the fronds of the walking palm are used in thatching roofs. There were many epiphytes twined around the tree trunk.

Someone on the hike picked up an interesting deep brownish black seed and inquired about its origin. Ricardo told us it was from a rubber tree, and proceeded to point one out. Latex can be extracted from the bark of these trees and used to manufacture rubber, making these trees commercially valuable. Rubber trees are easy to identify because their leaves grow in clusters of three. Next to the rubber tree was an astrocaryum pine, which had large spikes on the trunk. The natives use the trunks to build houses. We also observed armadillo trails in the undergrowth. I saw my first bromeliad on the ground–it might have gotten there when a large tree fell. The bromeliad had green spiny leaves that gradually turned pink as they spiraled toward the middle tank. It seemed to be a species of Neoregelia. We also saw a ficus. Ricardo told us that the roots of the ficus can be used in treating stomach parasites.

As we walked along, we encountered a large ant hill with army ants swarming around it busily. We also observed a trail of leaf-cutter ants, who marched alongside us. Ricardo told us that there is a problem with people catching female ants to sell because they are considered a delicacy! We hiked past a cedar tree, which Ricardo said was approximately 250 years old. Trees in the rainforest do not have rings to determine the age by because the climate, temperature and sunlight stays consistent year-round; there is no change in seasons like in North America. The cedar tree is used by the natives in making canoes, which typically last about five years. We also observed a walking stick on a leaf, which we collected for the insect specialist on the trip, Dr. Phil Whitman. A small black snake slithered on the base of a tree trunk and coiled up in a crevice under one of the roots. We identified it as a yellow-bellied whip-snake.

There was a loud rustling in the trees farther down along the path, and our guide started moving rapidly toward it–monkeys! The monkeys moved along quickly as we tried to get glimpses of them and we soon lost them. As we traversed the trail we noticed it was covered in giant seed cases and fruits. Our guide pointed out a passionfruit, which was green with white stripes. So many varieties of mushrooms were present; white flower-like ones, small red spiny ones, orange cupped ones, and black tiny ones. We also saw helosis, a parasitic plant that is reddish orange that mimics a mushroom. Epiphytes snaked up tree trunks and lianas frequently hung over the path. We saw another huge hill full of army ants, and we followed the path of ants through the forest, being careful not to step on them. On many trees we observed massive buttress roots, of proportions I have only seen in textbooks.

We hiked back to the lodge, where we had a few minutes to relax. My camera was already dying and I was able to charge it on a generator. I sat in a chair to do some journaling while others relaxed in the hammocks. The resident scarlet macaw had built its nest next to the dining room, and was getting rather territorial. As people walked by, the macaw would chase after them and try to nip their feet. There was a green mealy parrot at the lodge as well, and the two birds groomed and nipped each other. The lodge itself was beautiful, surrounded by the forest on three sides and the river on one side. We could observe plants and life as we walked along the open room connectors.

Lunch was served at 12:30, and consisted of red peppers, tomatoes, rice and beans, yuca, banana pudding, and seeded watermelon. During lunch Clare talked about her previous travels in the Brazilian Amazon. After lunch, Dr. Linnea Smith, a doctor originally from Wisconsin who had taken a short trip to the Amazon and decided to stay indefinitely, spoke about her tasks in the Yanamono health clinic that she started. She said that nutrition in the Amazon region was poor due to the lack of leafy greens in their diets. Leafy greens do not grow well in the nutrient-poor soil of the Amazon. The natives in the Amazon never grow to be very tall and they have low life expectancies. The people of the Peruvian Amazon region are limited by the terrain and can’t just ship things in from other parts of the country. Also, small things that aren’t big problems if they occur in children in the US, such as diarrhea, can be life-threatening in the Amazon because they don’t have access to adequate healthcare. Also, many medical problems go undiagnosed because families don’t have the money to travel to the city of Iquitos to get testing at the hospital. Dr. Linnea’s speech was eye-opening and made me very grateful to have grown up with nutritious food and access to health services. I’m going to read Dr. Linnea’s book La Doctora: An American Doctor in the Amazon because I’m sure it is filled with fascinating and important accounts of her experiences.

After lunch, we learned about the Yagua tribe from the Yaguas themselves as we traveled through a series of stations. The first station involved blowguns; we learned all about construction materials, tribal set-up technique, the animal parts used for poison and typical animals killed with blowguns. Guns and darts are made of hardwood and palms. The cotton on the ends of the darts is obtained from the kapok tree. They often use piranha teeth to sharpen their darts. Plant-based curare is typically used to supply the poison for the darts, although poison is also obtained from fire ants, frogs, and snakes. The natives test the effectiveness of the poison on toucans and sloths before hunting because these organisms have very strong nervous systems. They typically use blowguns to kill jaguars, deer, monkeys, and tapirs. Upon shooting an animal, the tip of the dart breaks off and the curare is embedded in the body. The poison paralyzes the animal as it asphyxiates it. While eating these animals, they simply cut off the part where the poison was. We each got to try blowing the blowgun to hit a target with a dart. The tribe leader led this demonstration, and was dressed in ethnic attire–a grass skirt, a palm headdress, and a tobacco pouch. He demonstrated the Yagua dialect by speaking several sentences in it. Using Willy as a translator, we asked the leader about gender roles in the Yagua society. Generally, the men hunt and build the huts while the women take care of the children, cook, and make things like bowls and bags. Couples get married at about 15 or 16 years of age, and soon thereafter live together and have children. When they get married, they crush chicken eggs on their heads for good luck–it is supposed to bring them happiness in their wedded life forever.

Next we learned about palm weaving. The Yagua weave the leaves of palms together to make roofs for small, temporary shelters and also to create makeshift backpacks. Some of the weaving patterns were very intricate, yet the Yagua did them with ease, like weaving was second nature to them. We were given a small demonstration and then a few from our group got to try it. Next we learned about pottery from the women. They created bowls and pots and demonstrated their techniques. One girl on our trip, Sam, got to create a bowl with them. Next, we learned about dyes. The dyes we saw were pink, green and blue and are all derived from plants. The pink was derived from the bark of a tree, that, when stripped away, releases a pinkish hue. The dyes are semi-permanent and used to dye string, clothing, jewelry and people’s faces for their yearly celebration carnival. Guisador, or turmeric, makes a yellow dye. Arnatto, or bixa orellana, creates a reddish hue. Genipa americana, or jagua, creates a green color. Bixaceae is used as a dye as well. Next, we learned about crafts: bag and jewelry making. The Yagua use the palm astrocaryum in all of their crafts: the fibers from it are durable and strong. They fibers are even used to extract teeth. To increase the strength, they roll the fibers together on their legs to create cords.

We then went to a grassy area for the machete demonstration by three older men who were brothers. Yagua obtain machetes from local markets for 15 soles and use them to clear the land for planting. Every family owns a machete so they are able to farm. Sandstone is used to keep the blade sharp. The Yagua used to be fruit collectors and just ate things such as insects and mushrooms; they have only fairly recently started farming. We also learned about another tool prevalent in the everyday lives of the Yagua: a paddle. Their paddles have a thin handle and a broad leaf-shaped structure at the end. The end is pointed and can serve as an anchor or can be used to spear fish.

We then went into the dining area to sample some traditional Peruvian appetizers. Unfortunately, I was too busy sampling the food to write down the names of the things we were eating. One curious piece of food we ate dries out all the saliva in your mouth, so you must eat it with a full glass of juice nearby.

As we finished eating, the faint, pretty sounds of guitars and maracas drifted through the air. We walked outside, looking for the sound source and discovered it was coming from another enclosed area. Several people were playing Andean and Peruvian traditional songs. Some of the songs were in Quechua, the second official language of Peru. The ensemble consisted of two guitars, one box drum, and one maraca player. We learned traditional dances that are done in celebration at carnival and danced and clapped for a while.

Sweaty and still humming the sonorous melodies to ourselves, we moved outside again to learn about palm thatching. We watched as a Yagua thatched a roof, and got to observe how much work actually goes into creating the roofs that are present on all of their huts. The roofs last for ten years before they start to leak and decay and have to be replaced. Next, we learned about basket weaving. We got to see how a basket was started–it takes concentration to align 5 different pieces of palm in just the right way. The weaver was very quick at finishing baskets. We also learned about one of their primary crops–sugarcane. They passed around samples of pure sugar cane for us to chew on. Some also tried fire water, which was grain alcohol made out of sugar cane. They also passed around rum and molasses made out of sugarcane for us to sample.

Excitedly, we made our way down to the riverbank to do some canoeing. Four people went in the canoe with the front and back people paddling. After canoeing, we sat on the dock and talked about how the people hold superstitions about eating anaconda and dolphins, so they shy away from those foods. The last thing we learned about was fishing net repair. The person tied small knots and patched a hole in less than 3 minutes, and the net looked good as new. Then we had some downtime, during which I talked to Dr. Lowman about a few of the research questions that were simmering in my mind. I spoke to her about herbivory, coning to measure leaf density, bromeliad pH, lichens and mosses, and making comparisons between temperate and tropical forests.

Then, we went to the bar area to enjoy some music before dinner. There were two guitarists and one maraca player performing ethnic songs. One boy from our group, Bryant, hopped on the box drum and began to play along. People from the group were dancing and drinking pisco sours, an authentic Peruvian drink. Professor Lowman pulled me out of my seat to dance. Dr. Linnea came over and we all danced and twirled together. Aiden even remarked, “It’s like a Wall (a dance party hosted weekly by our school, New College)–but in the Amazon!” After a few numbers, we were summoned to dinner by the frantic beating of drums. Dinner consisted of fried cauliflower, cole slaw with interesting spices in it, rice, and lentils. There were two kinds of papaya for dessert.

After dinner, we went on a night boat ride without any motor. We positioned the boat toward the middle of the Amazon and just let ourselves drift, gently moving with the water. The water was still and the sky was breathtaking. More stars than I have ever seen sprinkled the night sky, and we could clearly see the Milky Way and Mars. The guide identified a lot of constellations for us, and then we sat in silence, savoring the view. Meg implored us to reflect on what we are thankful for. The lack of light pollution, for there was no electricity around, was a beautiful thing. After a still, silent time we ventured back to the lodge. We flicked our flashlights on and eagerly scoured the banks of the river with our eyes. We saw a movement in some tiny branches and upon further scrutiny realized it was a baby rainbow tree boa. We also observed a Hyla tree frog, a yellow finch, and a blue morpho butterfly. For camouflage, one side of the butterfly looks like a pair of golden owl eyes amongst brown feathers and the other side is a brilliant iridescent blue. As we looked along the bank, the guide informed us that the red and green dots illuminated by our flashlights were the eyes of spiders and small animals. Back at the lodge, we noticed a glowing speck on one of the steps. Upon picking it up, we realized that it was a beetle that lit up like a firefly–just another magical thing with which to end the day.

Day Four: Dancing and Trading with the Yagua, Visit with the Shaman, Night Hike
We woke up at 6:45 and scurried to breakfast. For breakfast, we were served an egg omelette with red peppers, watermelon, pineapples and toast with guava jam and peanut butter. During breakfast, the scarlet macaw climbed onto one of the kerosene lamps that hung over our heads. He grabbed onto the glass from one of the lamps and pulled it off. It shattered loudly behind Gina’s head, and glass shards showered the floor, her back, and some even got on the table. Immediately, the bird quietly slinked away and hid in the corner, as if to avoid detection.

After breakfast, it was again lecture time. The “plant of the day” was a philodendron, an unusual plant in that its leaves are large on top and small near the bottom of the plant. Usually, leaves at the top of a rainforest tree have a small surface area because they are fully exposed to sunlight and leaves at the bottom are larger so that they have a better chance of capturing the filtered sunlight. Philodendrons are sun-loving. The leaves of the philodendron possess a drip tip, a smooth pointed structure on the end of the leaf used to drain excess water off and funnel it back to the roots. The young leaves of the philodendron are red or pink to deter herbivores, who only view the color green as a sign of a healthy food source. Also, chlorophyll is an expensive pigment to produce for leaves that young.

We then discussed shade versus sun as related to herbivory. One of the questions that Dr. Lowman tackles in her research is if herbivores prefer shade or sun for eating and hanging out on leaves. Oftentimes, insects leave specific damage patterns and you can figure out the specific herbivore attacking a plant simply by scrutinizing the arrangement of holes on the leaf. The maximum age of a leaf that has been recorded is twenty years in Australia. Generally, leaf age is extremely difficult to measure and scientists don’t really know how old most of the leaves in the rainforest actually are. We also learned about hemi-epiphytes, which start out growing in the air and gradually put down roots. We then discussed differences between Old World and New World Rainforests. Old World Rainforests consist of those in Asia, Australia, Africa and New Zealand. We were currently working in the New World Rainforest, which is composed of South American countries.

The “insects of the day” were walking sticks and katydids. Walking sticks are from the order Fasmatodia. Their hind legs have giant muscles for jumping. Katydids have spines on their legs and ridges on their wings. The spacing between the ridges and the speed at which they are rubbed together determines the sound the katydid emits. The katydid we were observing possessed a prominent ovipositor, which is a knife-like structure used to lay eggs, indicating she was a female. Katydids are mostly active at night, and Dr. Whitman remarked that we would soon see many on our night hikes.

After the lecture, we took a short hike through the forest to trade with the Yagua tribe. We entered a large hut with a thatched roof. Fans made from palms lined the side of the hut, and they provided some welcome natural air conditioning. The guides talked to us for a bit about Yagua culture, like how the boys all learned from a young age how to hunt and build huts for the villages. There was a giant pot in the middle of the hut that they fill with alcohol when they have festivals, which last for a few days. Then the Yagua demonstrated dances for us. They do spirit dances after hunting, and the women and men each have distinct voices and steps that they perform. As they gracefully circled the hut, they invited us to do a friendship dance with them. A little girl came over to me and held out her hand, and I danced round and round the hut with my hand interwoven with hers as we smiled at each other–it was awesome that dance can transcend cultural and lingual barriers.

After the dance ended, we went outside, sweaty and smiling, for another blowgun demonstration. Five tribesmen stood next to each other and blew at the same time, trying to hit a target on a wooden post. They all came very close. People from our group tried as well. Then, we traded with the villagers. I traded my shirts and hats for several seed necklaces and an emerald green shoulder bag. They had necklaces with things like anaconda bones and piranha teeth on them, and all the fibers for the bags and bracelets were dyed with plant parts. They also had knives made out of piranha teeth. I gravitated towards the musical instruments: small pan flutes, quenas, and decorative maracas. Some maracas were carved to resemble turtles. A young girl was walking around carrying her pet three-toed sloth, Luisa. We asked if we could hold Luisa and the girl happily agreed. The sloth had such a small body and strong claws with which she gripped my shirt to pull herself up. The face was adorable and she looked at everyone with an expression of pure love. She opened her mouth in contentment a few times and was throughly enjoying our cuddling. When we gave her back to the girls she belonged to, they started kissing her: it was clear the feelings of affection run both ways. Another boy in the village had a smaller sloth as a pet, and they said that the two sloths were friends. The sloths were so gentle and docile. We asked our guide Willy how the children obtained the sloths as pets, and he told us that oftentimes a mother abandons her female offspring, which villagers then find alone in the woods. However, sometimes people kill the mothers and take their babies as pets. We had hoped that the former had happened in this situation.

We then hiked back to the lodge and had a few moments to look at the crafts for sale there, which included bracelets, paintings, bowls and wooden carvings. With the wind blowing through our hair, we navigated down Amazon and onto the Napo river. We arrived at another lodge in time for a delicious lunch of palm salad, rice, beans, and Quinoa cake with watermelon for desert. As we walked up the steps to the lodge, we were greeted by two Gray-Winged Trumpeter birds as well as two capybaras! The capybaras–Charlie and Charlita–were so affectionate, nuzzling our arms and making guttural noises as we petted them. Charlita enjoyed the attention so much that she flopped over to get her stomach rubbed. Being the largest rodents in the world, they had extremely coarse fur and large teeth. After lunch and a short water break, we hiked to the shaman’s hut, trumpeters in tow. On the way, we passed a small pond full of brackish water with palm trees dispersed throughout it. A small canoe was tied up next to the bank. The guide told us that caymans had lived in the pond at one point. The trail led us over the pond and up a steep hill and we arrived at our destination–the shaman’s hut. The shaman spoke about numerous medicinal herbs and their uses. Dragon’s blood, or sangron de dragon, is a multi-use plant. It is used to relieve itching, especially of mosquito bites. It is also a coagulant, and is often applied on gashes, piranha bites, or or on women after they’ve delivered a baby.

The shaman crushed up some Ajo Sacha, or wild garlic, and made us breathe it in deeply. The scent was strong and burned the insides of my nostrils. He laughed at the expressions of astonishment on people’s faces at how overpowering the scent was. When children in the village have trouble waking up in the morning, they crush and boil garlic leaves for five minutes and then inhale the vapors to clear out their sinuses and rejuvenate them. Also, the wild garlic functions as an effective mosquito repellant as well as an excellent natural method of masking the human scent during hunting. Botonde oro, also know as golden button, comes from the same family as the marigold. It functions as an anesthesia, and is employed in teeth extractions. It is also used to treat caterpillar and scorpion bites. He then talked about what it takes to become a shaman: you must know from a very young age, it takes many years of training, you must be a specialist in everything, you have to listen to your dreams about different plants having medicinal properties, you have to be careful about your medicine preparations.

The shaman then performed some blessings on people. First, he would blow tobacco smoke on the person’s head, and then he would start chanting and brushing each person with leaves. As he performed his rituals, his seed necklaces knocked together. The blessings were supposed to invoke earth spirits and were used for relaxation. It was interesting to watch, and the chant seemed as if it could be trance-inducing. During one of the blessings, the birds started to sing and puff out their feathers; our guides said that the birds do that when they can feel strong spiritual energy. After the blessings, the shaman brought out a green tree boa for us to marvel at. It was lime green with white stripes, and had very large fangs. We thanked the shaman and hiked back to the lodge, the Gray-Winged Trumpeters in tow.

We then hiked to the canopy research station, a more rustic place where we would be spending the next three nights. During the hike, we heard the calls of toucans. Our guide Willy entertained us with his stories of jaguar sightings: he once saw a mother and a baby swimming together. We arrived at the lodge and got our room assignments and some fresh water. Upon arriving in our rooms, we laid under the mosquito nets for half an hour and just listened to all the sounds in the middle of the rainforest. We heard cicadas, frogs, and birds. I then read the laboratory report of a leaf study performed by my professor and talked to some of my fellow students. Soon, dinner was served, consisting of rice, cole slaw, lentils, and pasta. For dessert, we ate a fruit that tasted exactly like bubblegum.

After dinner, we did introductions, for some new scientists were joining us. Our guides talked about their families and growing up in the rainforest. Willy told us a story of how he was young and followed a monkey to catch it for a pet and got lost by himself in the rainforest. He spent the night in a canoe and swears he felt a spirit sit in the back. Eventually, a search party found him and, after a few lashings from his father, he was able to keep the monkey to eat the bugs that were in his hut. After dinner, we got tattoos from the whito plant. I got an ocelot and Marilyn got a capybara. Dr. Lowman got a tarantula on her arm!

Then, the insect specialist, frog specialist and guide offered up the option of going on a late night hike. I, along with a few other people, got out our flashlights and took them up on their offer. We entered the forest, and everything seemed to be pulsing with life and mysterious energy. The forest looks different at night, and a lot of the life on the floor comes out. We walked slowly and quietly, sweeping our beams over individual leaves, hoping for signs of life. We saw a wolf spider, a tarantula in its hole (that we teased out with a stick-he thought it was food!), katydids, a walking stick, tree frogs, baby tree frogs, and a lot of different cockroaches. We also got to examine some intricate huge spider webs. At times, leaf cutter ants would be walking beside us on the trail, dutifully carrying their leaf pieces.

At one point in the hike, the guide stopped us. He told us to turn off our lights, and we complied. With our vision reduced, our ears instantly snapped to attention, and we really concentrated on all the sounds of the rainforest. He instructed us to look up at the moon. The moon was full and bright. He paused for a moment and then told us to look down. We let out a collective gasp as we looked at the ground. Sprinkled all over the forest floor were glowing leaves. I turned in a circle and observed speckles in all directions. My body instantly warmed with happiness as I delighted in the beautiful sight. We were observing bioluminescent fungi, which only grows on the leaves of one certain species of tree when they are decomposing. We turned the flashlights back on. The leaves just looked like regular leaves. We turned the lights off again and instantly the forest floor became magical. The guide instructed us to not ruin the surprise for the others, who were coming out to see it on our group hike tomorrow. It was the best secret I’ve ever had to keep, and I smiled all the way back to the lodge. I went to sleep awash in rich sounds and slept soundly.

Day Five: Sunrise Canopy Hike, Medicinal Plant Hike, Data Collection and Calculation, Sunset Canopy Hike, Night Hike
We woke up at 5:00 to hike to the canopy walkway to experience the canopy during sunrise. The woods were damp and soggy. We saw a lot of ant-plants, or myrmecophyte, along the way. We arrived at the canopy walkway and climbed a tower to get to the first point. The canopy walkway was constructed with a ladder laid sideways with a wooden plank on top of it, secured with netting that was tied to the trees by ropes. The walkway itself was built by three men. Only three people are allowed on each pathway at one time, so we had to get into groups of three to traverse the canopy. My first step into the canopy was exhilarating. I felt so free. The views just kept getting better as we ascended on the walkways. The tree tops were shrouded in mists, and we saw giant palms and beautiful bromeliads. I was so overwhelmed with the experience of being in the tree tops, I just kept breathing “this is amazing” to myself. The sounds were incredible–screeches and clicks and hums. From the highest observation point, which was 150 feet in the air, it seemed like the treetops stretched on endlessly. I took a lot of pictures so I would never forget the amazing views. There was vibrant green everywhere, and some reds, pinks, and yellows peeked out from behind branches. After we visited all twelve platforms, we hiked back to the lodge. The trail was slippery from all the rain, and a few people fell. We saw so many different mosses and mushrooms.

Back at the lodge, we had a breakfast of eggs, potatoes, french toast, and cocona jam. I had some mate de coca tea. After breakfast, we had a lecture and interactive activity about plant identification. The bug of the day was a leaf mimic, and I was surprised at how realistically it resembled a leaf. After the activity, I saw a bright green and yellow butterfly on the walk back to my room.

We then went on a medicinal plant hike with Willy as our guide. The walk was beautiful, and took us past a small, tranquil stream. At one point, we walked past a high wall of bamboo. We saw lianas, piper plants, fallen logs, and all sorts of colorful vines. We trekked back to the hotel for a lunch of bean salad, eggs, rice, peppers, plantains, and–my favorite–flan. After lunch, Willy went into the forest and picked more medicinal plants for us: jungle iodine, cats claw, bixcassae and dragons blood. We then did data collection, creating our leaf graphs and data tables while calculating percent herbivory.

After calculating our data, we went on a sunset canopy hike. Again, a trail of leaf cutter ants walked side-by-side with us. Ascending to the highest platform, I beheld a spectacular view. It was a little foggy, so the oranges and purples were a little subdued. We heard beautiful noises, and even saw two toucans. We enjoyed some moments of silence, where no one talked and everyone savored the feeling of just being suspended in nature. After the sunset, we hiked back to the lodge. Dinner consisted of Russian salad, which was composed of beets, potatoes and spices, beans, carrots, green peppers, rice pudding, a roll, and some small citrus fruit. After dinner, we went on another night hike. First we went back to the bioluminescent fungi patch. Willy hushed everyone and told us to turn our flashlights off. Bioluminescent leaves spread out across the ground like constellations. Willy said that it was the Amazonian’s own sky on the ground. He said if you try to feel the energy from the tree, you can sometimes channel it’s exhilarating warmth. Willy said that he feels refreshed every time that he comes to the tree, and that it is his favorite place in the forest. He picked up a leaf, and then quickly released it, saying, “it’s a shooting star!” I picked up a leaf and moved my arm all around, creating circles, spirals and patterns of glowing light. The bioluminescence really starts to intensify as your eyes get used to it. I concentrated on the specks of light, and I started to feel like I was soaring through the air. It was like having a night sky beneath my feet.

We then walked back to the lodge and went on another late night walk. We saw pink toed tarantulas, bullet ants, two poison dart frogs, katydids, cockroaches, a butterfly, and a lizard. We also stayed still as we watched Dante use time lapse photography to take pictures of the bioluminescent fungi. After he completed the process, we looked at his photograph, and the leaves were growing green. We hiked back to the lodge and I took my flashlight to the shower and showered in mostly darkness. Marilyn told me that when she had taken a shower earlier in the day, a small frog had sat on the shower head and just looked at her for the duration of her wash. We laid down in bed and were lulled to sleep by the many noises of the rainforest. It down-poured throughout the night–at one point people said the rain was falling in sheets into their rooms and soaking them. Due to the heavy rains, the sunrise canopy walk the next day was cancelled.

Day Six: Learning to Climb, Medicinal Plant Garden Visit, Sunset Canopy Walk, Night Canopy Walk
Since the sunrise canopy walk was cancelled, we were able to sleep in and have breakfast at 7:30 in the morning. We had vegetable egg omelette, fruit, toast with guava and cocona jam, and fresh juice. After breakfast, we had another lecture. The insect of the day was a weevil, which is a type of beetle. We then spent all morning doing more data collection, graphing, and calculations. After lunch, we had a tree climbing demonstration. Since it was too rainy and damp to climb outside, the demonstration consisted of Dr. Whitman throwing a rope over a high beam in the ceiling and hooking a harness up to it. Those who were interested in learning got a chance to climb. I climbed to the top of the hut–climbing is a lot tougher than it looks! You have to use your arm muscles to pull yourself up and then move a clamp up the rope while moving your legs at the same time. I ascended to the top of the roof–it was high enough to see into a few rooms! I then descended, slowly and rather jerkily, because I was afraid of going too fast and injuring myself by crashing into the floor. I watched a few others climb and then bandaged up my hands before the next activity, for I had gotten some deep blisters on my palms and fingers from the rope.

In the afternoon, we had the option of sampling the pH of bromeliad tanks or going to the ReNuPeRu Medicinal Plant Garden–I chose the latter because of my interest in ethnobotany. So, we set off for our long hike back to the shaman’s hut and garden. The walk there was very relaxing and we hiked mostly in silence, just taking in the rainforest. When we arrived at the shaman’s hut, he demonstrated some more medicines. This time I was able to have a blessing, wherein the shaman asked my name, cupped his hand on my head, and blew tobacco smoke on my hair. He chanted melodiously as he lightly brushed my head and shoulders with leaves. I closed my eyes, and I began to hear the sounds of the rainforest spring to the forefront, with his chant subdued in the background. A feeling of calm and relaxation spread through my body. I felt like the leaves were mother nature’s caress: symbolic of the spirit of the rainforest touching my spirit and soul, enlivening me throughout my voyage in the Amazon.

After the blessing, I stepped out of the hut and into the sunshine of the garden. I delighted in seeing all of the medicinal plants and listening to the shaman enthusiastically explaining the uses of each. I took many pictures and tried to record the relative herbivory levels on each plant. The plants all had unique fruits and colorations: some leaves had pink and white spots, other plants had bell-shaped berries, while others had bright green burrs. All too soon, it was time to leave. We took a different trail back through the forest, and moved at a brisk pace so that we could have dinner and make it up to the canopy walkway before sunset. I hurriedly ate dinner and then joined a very small group on the optional canopy sunset walk. Being up in the canopy was so tranquil and rejuvenating, I did not want to miss any opportunity to ascend to the treetops.

As we made our way along the gently swaying walkway, we noticed beautiful mists rolling in, shrouding the lower branches in white and lacing the uppermost leaves. Amanda mused that this scene must have been absolutely stunning in prehistoric times, free from human encroachment. The sky was awash with purples, pinks and oranges peeking through the fog. Hawks were swooping down and catching bats. Again, we saw toucans. I was filled wholly with awe, for I was standing in the most beautiful place in the world. I sat down on the walkway, looking around in wonderment.

We sat in silence, listening to the noises and really feeling like a part of the environment. Pure nature sounds filled our ears–there were no motors, car horns, or blaring music. It was so relaxing just laying in the canopy, listening to the diversity of life. Sitting in the middle of the forest, you feel so tiny in the scope of the world–I was very humbled by the vast power of nature. The tree tops were sprinkled with all different hues of green–jade, emerald, forest—and the trees stood tall in quiet majesty. My curiosity was sparked by all of the different noises, for there was so much life that I could hear and sense but not see. The rainforest pulsed with life all around me. Though the forest is a place of majesty and mystery, above all else, it is a place of extreme beauty.

After enjoying the sublime tranquility of the sunset, we reluctantly headed back to the lodge. As we walked along the trail, we were accompanied by leaf-cutter ants working conscientiously. We were able to rest at the lodge for a bit, and then given the opportunity to go on a night canopy walk. We flicked on our lights and ventured into the forest. Again, we stopped at the bioluminescent fungi, a very special place. No matter how many times I saw the bioluminescence, it still retained its magical aura for me. As we walked to the canopy, we saw many poison dart frogs sitting on the leaves of the undergrowth. We kept our lights on as we climbed up to the canopy walkway. Once in the treetops, we flicked our lights off, and traversed the canopy by the light of the moon. Our eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, and it actually became easier to spot life with our lights off–we were more in tune with the environment and more attentive to subtle sounds and movements that were occurring in the tree tops around us. Standing on the walkway by moonlight was so still and peaceful, and the dark that blanketed the forest only added to its mystery and wonder. I could still faintly see mists lingering amongst the branches and settling down among the bromeliads.

Suddenly, lightning illuminated the sky in the distance. Flashes kept illuminating the sky, and again I was in awe of the mighty power of nature. I was witnessing nature at its purest, its finest, at its element. I became overwhelmed with feelings: I felt bliss and appreciation for being able to experience this moment, suspended in the canopy in the dead of night, witnessing a powerful natural event. Alas, it was soon time to go. I walked back to the lodge in silence, awash in thoughts and feelings. On the way back to my room at the lodge, I ran into Amanda and Jeanne sitting on the walkway, talking while looking out at the forest and up at the stars, with crickets steadily pulsing a beat behind their conversation. They invited me to join them, and we had a pleasant conversation–our collective thankfulness and happiness for the opportunity really came out in our descriptions of the rainforest. It was getting late, so I reluctantly got up and trekked to the shower. I showered quickly. By the time I got back into my room, I could hardly keep my eyes open yet I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.

Day Seven: Piranha Fishing, Soccer on the Amazon Sandbar, Water Purifying Project, Soccer with Children on Land, Arrival at Luxury Lodge, Dinner Performance
We arose at the crack of dawn, and murmurs of excitement could be heard from everyone’s rooms as we got dressed and ready–we were finally going piranha fishing! After breakfast we hiked to Napo and departed by canoe onto the river. We waved to locals along the river as we passed by, and the children waved back at us excitedly. We pulled into a small inlet in the river bank and Willy passed out fishing poles fashioned out of small tree branches and line. We baited the hooks with bloody raw meat and one by one dropped our lines into the water. Two muscovy ducks each stood on one leg and peered at us curiously as we splashed the water furiously with our sticks, to try to catch the piranha’s attention. An elderly Peruvian couple passed by in a canoe and looked at us bemusedly.

The boat driver yelled out excitedly as he felt a bite on his line and pulled up a glistening piranha. Willy grabbed the piranha underneath its mouth and pulled the hook downwards, exposing intimidating, sharp teeth. The appearance of the piranha surprised me, for it had vivid orange coloring underneath its mouth and inside of its eyes. Dr. Lowman also felt a bite, and to our surprise brought up a crab. Once off the line, the crab fell under the wooden slats at the bottom of the boat, from where it was able to make an escape. While we dangled our bait in the water, Willy told us the story of how he was bitten by a piranha whilst fishing when he was younger. He still has a large, visible scar underneath his elbow.

Since we weren’t having much luck and our lines were constantly becoming ensnared on the muddy river bottom, we decided to switch to a deeper location. We cast our lines again at the more favorable area, and sat patiently waiting for the fish to bite. Three local children sat on the embankment and watched us, captivated, for the sight of us trying to fish unsuccessfully must have been quite comical. Suddenly, Gina cried out as her stick started to bend dramatically. Willy helped her pull up the line, amid gasps and excited yelps. Gina had caught a gigantic piranha! The fish was one of the largest Willy had seen in his life. I shivered when Willy opened the mouth and I saw the sheer size of the powerful teeth. Jessa caught a fish as well!

It was sunny out, and it was pleasant relaxing in the boat and conversing with peers. After an hour or so, we headed back to the lodge. As we made our way back up the river, a child on the bank yelled “Adios, gringos!” to us. We made our way down the winding tributary and out to the Amazon river. The water had receded dramatically, exposing a vast sandbar! “Well…” said Willy, “vamos a la playa!” With that, we pulled up to the sandbar and bounded out of the boat to walk on the Amazon river bottom. The sand was smooth and burnt orange with swirls of gray. There were sections of it with deep, snaking cracks. We all frolicked around, marveling at the enormity of the Amazon river. We heard the faint chirp of children’s voices, and scanned the opposite river bank to locate the sources of the sound. Children clustered underneath a large tree, watching us and waving furiously. We yelled and whooped back at them, and so began a call-and-response game, with them mimicking the tones and rhythms of our shouts. We weren’t saying words, but we were still communicating and connecting in a playful way with each other. Finally, someone from our group yelled “Como estas?” which was met with a cheery chorus of “Bien!”

The other boatload of people arrived at the sandbar and piled out, amused at our cross-river conversation. Three boys climbed down the ladder on the side of the riverbank, ball in tow. They hastily plopped into their canoe and rowed over happily. Upon reaching the sandbar, they flipped their canoe over to make us laugh. They goofed around in the water for a few minutes more, and then brought the ball onto the sandbar. We asked them if they wanted to play soccer and they nodded enthusiastically. We all spread out in a circle and began to kick the ball around. The kids were having fun chasing and retrieving the ball, especially when it bounced into the Amazon River. The children were having such a great time splashing around in the river that a few people from our group decided to join them, and jovially ran into the Amazon, exchanging high fives and throwing the ball around with the boys. All too soon, it was time to depart. As we were leaving, the kids climbed onto the bow of our canoe, and in one last display of showmanship, fell into the water comically as the boat glided away. Their antics were greeted with hearty chuckles and smiles of appreciation by all. We decided that we wanted to get together a collection of money to buy a new soccer ball for our new “amigos.” I smiled all the way back to the lodge.

When we arrived back at the lodge, I decided I wanted to seize my last opportunity to pet a capybara, so I stood outside the lodge, caressing the cuddly rodent. It started making its signature low guttural noises and even flipped onto its back to get a belly rub. Being a very sweet and gentle animal, it kept nuzzling my hand, begging for more affection. It occasionally nibbled my fingers. For the duration of our short break, I sat outside with the capybara keeping me company, listening to the rainforest noises and scribbling furiously in my journal, eager to record every minute detail of the voyage. A flash of brilliant blue caught the corner of my eye, and I was pleased to observe a butterfly flitting between different plants. The trumpeters were out and about catching bugs. The blue macaw also bopped around, surveying the activity in the area. Soon, I had to go into the dining hall for a delicious lunch of beans, rice and fruit. During lunch, we passed around a wooden plaque for everyone from our New College group to sign. This plaque would soon join the other plaques hanging from the beams of the lodge, commemorating all the hearty visitors to the Peruvian Amazon. We drew the gray-winged trumpeters on our plaque, because we felt a special connection to them and appreciated their eagerness to go on hikes with us. We all signed our names, and some wrote short messages. During lunch, the chef brought out a tray of steaming piranha–the very fish we had caught that morning! People clustered around eagerly to try small pieces.

After lunch, we went on a long boat ride, during which I observed breathtaking scenery, towering palm trees, small huts, thriving vegetation and ladders propped up against eroding clay banks, to provide the villagers access to the river. Despite attempts to keep my eyes open to take in as much as the Amazon as possible, they kept fluttering shut and as my exhaustion started to set in.

I was awakened with a jolt by Willy’s shout of “look over there!” Two small fins broke the surface of the water, and then disappeared quickly–pink dolphins! The boat captain cut the motor, and we drifted in silence, trying to catch more glimpses of the curious creatures. We were rewarded as the backs and fins of the dolphins rose out of the water repeatedly, and it was a sight to behold. The feeling of knowing that we were mere feet away from these unique animals was amazing.

After observing the dolphins in awe, we arrived at a water purification project established at a small town. We got to tour the purification tower and learn about the filtration system. We also were able to witness a remarkable demonstration of the way the chemicals used to purify the water work. Children flocked out of the town to greet us. A group of very cute little girls clustered around Marilyn, fascinated by her camera. She took their pictures and showed them what buttons to press to see their images. One of the men from the town brought out a large boa to show us. The boa had deep cuts in its sides, for it had gotten caught in a fishing net. It was not going to survive.

Following the tour of the water purification system, we were given some time to play with the children. I tossed a New College football around with two young boys: their wide smiles and content laughter made me so happy. After they tired of playing catch, we went to watch the others in the group playing soccer against the natives. I sat down in the grass next to two cousins and shared some fruit that I had saved from breakfast with them. In Spanish, I asked them their names, ages and what they liked to do. As we talked, we watched the intense soccer game. Willy scored a goal and caused the chickens in the area to scatter in surprise. The atmosphere was one of jovial competition. We were making many new friends, young and old. All too soon, it was time to leave.

We said our good-byes and piled back into the boat. We had another long boat ride through the Amazon to Ceiba Tops Luxury Lodge. The lodge was indeed luxurious–it had hot water, private bathrooms, and a pool! We all changed into our swimsuits and eagerly raced down to the pool. The pool had an upper “jacuzzi” part that was connected to the pool, which consisted of jets but no hot water. This jacuzzi area branched off into a water slide into the pool. We all whizzed down the slide and into the cool water. Then, we sat in the jacuzzi area, relaxing and talking until the pool closed an hour later.

We all took showers and then reported to the dining hall for a fancy dinner. There was plenty of delicious food, including rice, beans, cucumbers, cole slaw, and mashed potatoes. During dinner, we enjoyed a dinner dance performance by students from the local high school. In between the movements of their dances, a group named the White-Bellied Frogs played music, using drums, guitars, mini guitar and maracas. A high school student joined them on flute. Ricardo was the Master of Ceremonies for the festivities and he joked and laughed easily with the audience. The high school students performed various dances with different themes, such as a harvest dance and festival dance. During the last song, one girl brought out a boa and danced with it. She weaved through the audience, rubbing the boa on various spectators necks and shoulders. Also, the students pulled people out of the audience to dance with them during this number. During the whole event, there was a snake slithering among the upper rafters of the lodge above our heads–we craned our necks looking upward every once in a while, wary of the snake falling onto our plates.

After dinner, we had a short “closing ceremony,” during which Dr. Lowman asked us all questions about the trip as a final exam and we received awards for our various roles on the expedition. We also presented our tour guide Ricardo with a few gifts; Willy was sick that night so we decided to give his to him the following day. After dinner, we headed back to our rooms, and I talked to my roommate for awhile about the day. Later on in the night, we ventured back to the lodge, where we sat at a table and conversed with others in the group. We went to sleep in the cool room, appreciating air conditioning more than ever before.

Day Eight: Monkey Island, Iquitos Market, Flight Home
Our wake-up call came at 6:45 in the morning. We sat down to a lovely breakfast of eggs, potatoes, yogurt, toast, jams, watermelon, starfruit and passionfruit juice. After breakfast, we walked out to see the ceiba, or kapok tree. We marveled at its sheer size–it was simply enormous, the largest tree I had ever seen. We all took pictures standing amongst its roots, as a point of scale. After we stared at the tree in disbelief and took a nice group shot, we took a short boat ride to Monkey Island.

Upon our arrival, monkeys latched on to our bags and clothing and climbed up onto our heads. One monkey, Jose, determinedly latched onto my arm. “It’s ok, he doesn’t bite,” said a staff member reassuringly. Calmly, I nodded my head as I felt a sharp pain piercing my skin–Jose was biting me! I tried to shake his teeth off and unclamp his mouth, but he was holding on very tightly. Finally he let go and I was unharmed. Some of the monkeys had beautiful long reddish coats, and there was a mother walking around briskly with her baby firmly latched on to her back. The monkeys were fighting and playing together, tussling about in the dirt and ambushing each other from tree branches. Many monkeys walked around chewing furiously on pieces of banana and mango. We saw small, cute tamarins. The types of species at monkey island included marmosets, tamarins, monk sakis, red howlers, titi monkeys, woolly monkeys and spider monkeys. The owner and founder, Gilberto Guerra, gave us a talk on his monkey rehabilitation center. He said that in the rainforest, if a mother monkey dies, most of her babies will die as well. Sometimes the mothers are killed for food in the jungle. That’s why he established his orphanage for monkeys, to keep the species alive. There are twenty-four monkey species in Peru. Clearly, it’s important to strive to save every one of them.

After getting dirty at monkey island, we were all too eager to take showers at the lodge to get cleaned up for our long trip home. After our showers, we did our final packing and then ventured to the lodge for lunch. The rice, lima beans, cole slaw, peppers and wheat roll all smelled delectable, and the taste did not disappoint. After lunch, we took another boat ride, this time back to the initial boat dock, where the adventure had all started. It was interesting to clearly survey the landscape that we had not been able to see on account of nightfall last time. There was a small marina-type area with a few aluminum boats. There were also some larger establishments along the waterside as we neared Iquitos–the jungle seemed less and less wild.

We reached the boat dock and all climbed up the steep hillside to the waiting room above. We waited a few minutes and then boarded another open-air bus. Talking excitedly about our adventures, we took the bus into town to a small market in Iquitos. There, we were given an hour to peruse the items and talk to the vendors. Going to the market made me a little melancholy, for there were illegal jaguar skins in some of the shops, and I was saddened to realize that humans mercilessly take the lives of such beautiful animals in the hopes of making money. There were also a lot of mounted piranhas. There was an artist selling beautiful paintings, and though I did not purchase any, I still admired all of them and really enjoyed talking to him about his passion for art. At another stand, I spoke to some young girls as their puppy yipped and attacked my feet. Other stands had gorgeous wooden bowls and sculptures, and still other places had many bracelets and earrings to sell. I bought my brother a wooden pen with a carving of an anaconda on the outside.

Pretty soon, it was time to leave. We boarded the bus and showed each other the treasures that we had haggled for. The bus bumped along the busy road, taking us to the airport. On the trip to the airport, the contrast between the peaceful, pure jungle and the bustling, polluted city became more and more apparent–returning to society was somewhat of a culture shock. Living in the rainforest is definitely a peaceful experience, and I felt like my head was so clear and my thought processes were so fluid in the absence of all societal distractions.

Final Reflections
Though I’ve written for twenty pages, I feel I have left so many descriptions out. Mere words cannot do the Amazon Rainforest justice. Part of the reason it is so hard for me to convey exactly what the experience was like is because it played so deeply on my emotions, my passion for nature, and my sense of spirituality and connection with the environment. It is hard to describe such intense feelings in words, and I fear I have fallen short in conveying the true magnitude of the experience. It was wondrous, and the whole experience was enveloped in this certain dream-like quality, for it all seemed just too perfect and beautiful. Thus, it is important to rally for conservation. Hopefully those who read my journal will gain a better sense of the true importance and value of rainforest flora, fauna and cultures and will feel the same sense of urgency I do in spreading this crucial conservation message to others.

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