Posted by Sahana Venkatesh
“If you ever run into a jaguar, just make a lot of noise and don’t run.” I made a mental note of the useful survival tip and looked around at the table of fifteen students who I would be spending the next three weeks with. We were in Puerto Maldonado, grabbing a late dinner and preparing for the 6-hour boat ride to the field site the next morning. For the next 3 weeks, we would be spending our days learning as much as possible about primatology and field tropical biology. None of us had been to the Amazon before, and for many (like myself), it was a dream come true. I had no idea what to expect, and as our instructors narrated fantastical tales of mustached primates, indigenous people, and swamps full of caiman, I couldn’t help but wonder what tomorrow would bring.
From the moment I climbed up the 251 stairs leading up to CICRA (the Los Amigos Biological Station), I was in awe of my surroundings. I couldn’t believe I was truly there. We hardly had enough time to grab a quick lunch and put up our bags before we were whisked away on our first hike. Despite slipping down a ravine and tripping on practically every stray root, I knew I was in the right place as soon as I spotted my first primate – a brown capuchin perched in the trees.
Days started at the crack of dawn and ended well past sunset. Power was limited to two hours a day and there was no hot water or steady Internet connection. By the end of the trip, we were all covered in more bites and bruises than we could count, courtesy of everything from mosquitos to bullet ants. Yet, even circumstances that would have normally been unpleasant somehow contributed to some of our best experiences. It was after one of our late night hikes that I was able to sit in the middle of a clearing surrounded by the calming sounds of crickets and nightjars to see a meteor blaze its path across the Milky Way. With no technology to serve as a distraction, most of the camp gathered at the lookout point around 5:00 every night to watch the breathtaking sunsets and trade stories of adventure. As for the plethora of insects, getting chased by a swarm of angry Amazonian bees (and escaping without a single sting) proved to be one of many memorable experiences to come from this trip.
For the first few days, I found the trails exceedingly difficult to navigate. I was utterly confounded by how people managed to walk without keeping their eyes glued to the ground- watching out for twisted roots and other hazards. Little did I know that after off trail hikes through thickets of spiky bamboo, I would be able to walk these trails in the dark (though certainly not recommended).
Our first few weeks were peppered with the hilarious mistakes expected of newcomers. On one of my first off trail hikes, I thought I was done for when I heard a low growling sound growing louder and louder. The jaguar I envisioned ended up being a small plane flying overhead. Another night, our cabin spent a good amount of time trying to discern the origin of an eerily human shout near camp. To clarify, there were supposed to be no other humans for miles, let alone within earshot. Our visitor was none other than a friendly burrowing owl – later dubbed the ‘party owl’ for its late night vocalizations/whoops.
As I settled into camp life, however, two truths became evident.
- The Amazon will never cease to surprise you.
One cannot peacefully exist in the Amazon without abandoning the nearly universal human tendency to understand everything. No matter how much you believe you know, there is another world of discovery still unexplained.
- Nothing in the forest is ‘out to get you.’
From bees to pumas, nothing in the forest is out to get you. Most animals simply want to live and let live. If you seek to minimize your damage of the surroundings, you’ll be surprised by how little your surroundings hurt you.
4. Bittersweet Farewell
The time to leave camp came far too soon. Though ice cream, hot showers, and a wonderfully speedy Internet connection awaited on the other side of the boat ride, it was nearly impossible to leave behind the friends and experiences from the past few weeks. Shortly before we left for civilization, a few new research assistants arrived on site. As we passed on advice about where to find the famous anaconda and the art of doing laundry by hand, it was clear how much we’d grown over the past few weeks. Though I’ve left the Amazon, the wonderful memories I made there will certainly stick with me for years to come. This was truly the experience of a lifetime.