As our plane began its descent toward Iquitos, Peru, I knew I was in for the adventure of a lifetime. I had been anxiously awaiting this trip – my very first international flight – for the past several months, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw outside the airplane window that first day. Witnessing the vast power and beauty of the rain forest as it stretched out before me, extending as far as the eye could see in every direction and disrupted only by the mighty Amazon River snaking its way through the dense foliage, I was so overcome with emotion that I found myself choking back tears. Even recounting it now, simultaneously seeing that view again in my mind’s eye while contemplating the region’s vital importance and vulnerability, I can see the ripples of goosebumps making their way up my arms, and feel the telltale lump rising in my throat. It is quite possibly the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen in my life.
I was immediately engulfed by a wave of hot air as I exited the plane shortly thereafter, and was carried carefully to the ground in my wheelchair by a group of strong, young men. I collected my bags inside the airport, along with the thirty scientists, students, teachers and nature enthusiasts who would be my travel companions for the next week. It was here that I first met Roldan, one of the incredible local guides whose knowledge and kindness would prove indispensible over the next several days. He accompanied me by taxi as we traveled past the slums and litter that lined the congested, hectic streets of Iquitos, cars, trucks, motorcycles and tuk-tuks (three-wheeled rickshaws) weaving in and out without directional signals or designated lanes to maintain any sort of readily apparent order. We met up with the rest of the group, who traveled by bus, at the headquarters of Explorama, whose four lodges we would be staying in at various points along the river. I had communicated via email with Pam Bucur, Explorama’s General Manager, prior to my departure from Maine, and was grateful to finally be able to thank her in person for all of the hard work she put into making everything as accessible as possible, including the installation of ramps and elevated floor coverings at the different lodges, as well as making sure there were plenty of staff members on site to assist me as needed.
We would spend the next week traveling by boat, as roads in this part of the rain forest are nonexistent, and in fact Iquitos itself has no roads connecting it to the rest of Peru. That very first boat ride to our first destination was one and a half hours of pure wonderment. My head was on a swivel as I attempted in vain to take everything in: the stilted, thatched-roof huts with cattle, sheep and chickens roaming the yards, and children’s dark-skinned faces peering through the glassless windows; local fishermen out hoping to catch dinner for themselves and their families, smiling and waving as we passed by; the sounds of many mysterious, unseen birds getting ready to call it a day; the sun lowering in the sky behind large, majestic trees with serpentine roots reaching down over the riverbanks toward the water’s edge; the inevitable signs of “progress”: logs floating down the river and the heavily-laden barges from which they tumbled, drifting among plastic Coca-Cola bottles; and a million more things invisible to the naked eye and not easily expressed in words.
I had been told beforehand that the lodges we’d be staying in were pretty rustic, so I was surprised to find that most of them had running (although not drinkable) water, generators, and even Wi-Fi. Not expecting any of these amenities, I left all electronic devices at home, and am so glad I did. Being unplugged from the outside world allowed me to reconnect with nature in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise, heightening my senses and giving me a renewed sense of awareness and appreciation for my immediate surroundings. I fell asleep to the sounds of exotic birds every night, with background noises that were reminiscent of Maine in the springtime, when everything is reawakening and expressing sheer joy at being alive. Despite the unexpected modern conveniences at the lodges, the showers were cold, a single kerosene lantern kept the bedrooms dark and inviting to bats, since the walls were open at the top, our beds were tented with mosquito netting, and bottled water was necessary for drinking and brushing our teeth. My headlamp became my new best friend, and I made a habit of taking my camera with me every time I made a trip to the outhouse, where others had seen bats flying out of the toilets and tarantulas creeping along the walls. Dr. Meg Lowman, without whom I never would have been on this incredible journey, has been leading this citizen science project in the Amazon for many years, and recalled a sloth crawling out of a toilet during a previous expedition. The most exotic creature I encountered on my way to the loo, however, was a stunning, iridescent blue morpho butterfly, who moved far more quickly than I, and although the photo opportunity was lost, the magic of the moment was not.
Each day of this surreal adventure was filled with a number of activities, which varied as we moved along the river between lodges. Most mornings began with an optional 6 AM boat ride with our native bilingual guides, who were quick to notice and identify various species of trees, plants, birds, fish, butterflies and the occasional sloth. They could spot the tiniest bird in the farthest tree amidst a tangle of leaves and branches from a speeding boat with their naked eye and immediately tell you what it was. I would spend the next ten minutes trying to find it with my binoculars and failing miserably. It saddens me that this incredible skill is being lost, along with many aspects of the traditional culture, as the area’s youth strike out for the city in search of something “more.” Nighttime adventures included surveying insects on forest trails alongside one of our group’s entomologists, as well as boating on the Amazon River to explore the expansive night sky, which flashed with lightning and brimmed with planets and stars and shooting meteors. Meals consisted of amazing local foods: mangoes, pineapple, fried plantains, sweet potatoes, rice, beans, lentils, salads, tomatoes, the largest cucumber and carrot slices I’ve ever seen in my life, all dressed with fresh, delicious lime juice dressings, and so much more. Being vegan, I wondered how limited my options would be, but I had more than enough incredible dishes to choose from, and even the simplest of foods had the most intense flavors.
One of the most memorable events of the trip took place at our first destination, Explorama Lodge, where we were welcomed by squirrel monkeys and saddle-back tamarins, who were often spotted racing through the trees just outside the dining area. This is also where I met Denis, my Peruvian knight in shorts in tee shirts, who was so instrumental in getting me everywhere I wanted and needed to be. He didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much Spanish, but we somehow understood one another perfectly, and I couldn’t have been in better hands. Our group spent its first full day interacting with and learning about the indigenous Yagua people, who engaged us in dance, played beautiful music with handmade drums, flutes and maracas, taught us how to repair fishing nets, weave baskets, bags and roofs, make clay pottery and natural dyes from local plants, and even how to use a blowgun. Some wore cargo pants, shorts and tee shirts, while others wore their traditional garb of dried grass skirts and tops. That afternoon we trekked a short distance through the forest to their village, where we danced and enjoyed music in the large, circular, thatched-roof hut that all of the village members called home. Outside, we had the opportunity to purchase their handmade crafts, or engage in trade with clothing that we had brought. It was here that I got to hold a little three-toed sloth, helping to make this an experience I will not soon forget.
Farther up the river at ExplorNapo Lodge, we met trumpeters (birds) named Kevin and Raoul, and a resident capybara named Charlie. We visited a local school, where students clad in skirts, trousers, button-down shirts, ties and berets greeted us with drums, horns, tambourines, cymbals, waving hands and smiling faces. The teachers and school kids alike clearly went out of their way to prepare for our arrival, singing, dancing, introducing us to local foods like coconut and yucca root, and bestowing us with handmade gifts of necklaces, woven fans and baskets. Since I couldn’t access the facilities there, I left early to start my work on leaf herbivory (specifically, measuring the consumption of leaf material by insects), while the rest of the group stayed to play volleyball and soccer with the kids.
The following day we visited an ethnobotanical garden, located a short distance through the woods from ExplorNapo, where we learned about local medicinal plants from a shaman, who also blessed each of us in turn during a ritual that involved chanting, shaking clusters of leaves over and across our bodies and exhaling smoke onto the crowns of our heads. Those of us who wanted one were also gifted with a temporary tattoo drawn by the shaman, mine being of a scorpion surrounded by beautifully detailed tribal symbols. The afternoon was spent piranha fishing to catch the evening meal, and although I didn’t fish, I used the opportunity to enjoy another boat ride and observe life on the river.
Much of our remaining time was devoted to scientific work, collecting leaf and insect samples from the forest canopy at the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies (ACTS). Although I could not physically join the others on the quarter mile long canopy walkway, I was able to spend the day with them at ACTS, where I helped process leaves that had been collected from various tree species. We spent our final night at Ceiba Tops, an entirely new world with a swimming pool and rooms with large beds, air conditioning, flush toilets and hot showers. There I saw a tapir and a gorgeous masked crimson tanager, but the highlight of the night was the after dinner entertainment. Young members from the local Indiana village performed various dances for close to an hour, showcasing significant aspects of their culture through movement and some of the most extraordinarily beautiful music I have ever heard, which was comprised of strings, drums, maracas and a wooden flute played so melodiously it could make you cry.
Saying goodbye to the Amazon and its people was not an easy thing to do. It took a very large team of individuals, both in the States and in Peru, to make this amazing experience a reality for me, and I will be forever grateful to each and every one of them. Our Peruvian guides – Roldan, Ricardo and Willy – as well as the other staff members, and most especially Denis, will always share a special place in my heart. They truly went above and beyond to make this dream of mine come true, physically lifting and carrying me from place to place, up and down numerous stairs and steep, slippery riverbanks several times a day, so that I could participate in as many activities as possible. No matter how difficult or strenuous, no matter how seemingly impossible, they would find a way to make it happen. Always with a smile, always with a kind word and a hug. I owe a very big thank you to TREE Foundation, to Explorama director Pam Bucur, to Christa Dillabaugh and Deb Smucker at EcoTeach, to California Academy of Sciences, to my mentor, Meg Lowman, who first proposed this audacious idea, to everyone from my home town who generously supported my fundraising efforts, and especially to the people of Peru, who are some of the kindest and hardest working people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
I honestly had no expectations going into this adventure, but even if I had, my experiences would have far exceeded them. The brief time I spent in the Amazon had a profound, and undoubtedly lasting, impact on me, reinforcing my commitment to living simply, being fully present, and living with an awareness of the rippling effect my words and actions have on the world around me. More than anything, it reminded me how very fortunate I am, filling me up with pure, unadulterated gratitude for being alive and having the opportunity to experience life on this extraordinary planet, something I have vowed never to take for granted.
Written by Rebecca Tripp
Research Associate, TREE Foundation