Amazing AMAZON

By CYNTHIA FLAHERTY

Special to the OBSERVER

The purpose of this article is threefold: as a travel log, to increase awareness of the Amazon and to encourage action.

The Amazon is a global resource worth saving. The Amazon watershed plays a critical role in regulating weather patterns and precipitation. There has been a global escalation in carbon dioxide levels due to burning of fossil fuels. This increase is a major driver of climate change. The Amazon basin absorbs a significant portion of atmospheric carbon. Deforestation releases all of the carbon stored in leaves, stems and trunks back into the atmosphere. Currently, the Amazon absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases but this can be reversed if deforestation continues. The habitat for the Amazon’s biodiversity is also being destroyed.

I decided to see the Amazon first hand as a participant in the “Educator Academy in the Amazon.” I packed for high humidity, daily rainfall and temperatures from 70 to 85 degrees. On July 2, my sister-in-law and I headed off to Iquitos, Peru. Iquitos has no roads connecting it to the outside world and is accessible only by boat or plane. It is the world’s most inland port. Iquitos is a busy city – with a population of 400,000 – and a vital commercial center drawing people to its markets from many distant villages.

We arrived in Iquitos to be told there was a bus strike and would have to hike three miles to the river. Luckily, we found a motorcycle taxi that would take us. The road was muddy and full of ruts. Thatched roof shacks lined the road. We boarded a boat and as we headed up the muddy river, the houses became few and far between. Women were washing clothes in the river. Barefoot children and chickens were everywhere. Men were returning from fishing in their dug-out canoes.

Deforestation was evident, as logs rushed by us in the river.

Because of this, river boats are not allowed to run after 6 p.m. We were not going to make it to the lodge. We stopped for the night at Ceibo Top Resort – the only resort on the Amazon. Electricity, air conditioning, swimming pool, hot water – not what we expected!

We departed by boat early next morning and rode 25 miles to the lodge and met the rest of our group. We were shown to our room – no electricity, outside shower, outhouse and mosquito netting on our beds.

Entering with care

We went on our first hike through the muddy rainforest. Dense vegetation included many types of trees and palms. Epiphytes, vines, and stranglers were everywhere, all in intense competition to find sunlight. Most mature trees that reach the canopy are 80 100 feet. Emergent trees can be over 200 feet. The rainforest has four levels: ground, understory, canopy, and emergents.

We hiked to visit a local shaman who performed a ceremony to rid us of negativity. He explained medicinal plants and their uses. Many villagers have embraced eco-tourism to supplement their incomes and he was more than willing to sell his “tonics”.

Each night offered a night boat ride or hike. We saw scorpions, bats, bamboo rats, many different kinds of spiders, huge moths, butterflies and experienced the best star gazing ever. One evening we observed bioluminescent fungi. The fungus on the ground glowed in the dark. It was like walking on stars! This fungi has yet to be identified and named.

Every night we used our head-flashlights to find our room. We were being cautious in the outhouse because of reports of bats and a sloth in the pot. We were also careful upon entering our rooms. One person had an owl in his room and another had a snake. Most nights we were exhausted so we tucked in our mosquito nets and let the sounds of the forest lull us to sleep.

We took advantage of daily early-morning birding. We were treated with colorful displays of tropical birds such as macaws, parrots and toucans. We went fishing one morning. I caught two piranhas and saw several pink river dolphins. Yes, they are actually pink.

Supporting a school

Our next destination was Amazon Conservation Training Station. The tributary river was low so we had to trek the two miles to get there and could only take what we needed for the next two days. There are no roads in the Amazon, so a visitor walks or takes the river. Upon arrival and after a short rest, we headed over to the canopy walk, 14 platforms connected by rope/wooden walkways. Some are over 100 feet. Besides a new look at plant life, we also saw black monkeys swinging through the trees.

We visited a small village to do a service project there. The children met us at the dock to welcome us and escorted us to the village.

We painted the school inside and out, the water tower and a fence. After our work was completed, we were asked to take part in a celebration. We danced around a small palm tree in which the palms were braided and a coconut was tied at the top. One man danced with a machete, hacking at the tree until it fell. The children rushed to get the coconut (like a pinata).

We then listened to an explanation of the water filtration system that has been provided by CONOPAC. CONOPAC is a Peruvian non-profit organization whose mission is to promote conservation of the rainforest through education of the Amazon people.

Yagua tribe members visited us in traditional garb and demonstrated uses of sugar cane, fiber bag and basket weaving. We also learned how to make a thatched roof, saw a pottery demonstration and listened to traditional music. We had samples of native food made with guava, corn, nuts, antioch and bananas. We had a lesson on weaving and dying, machete use, paddle carving and ax use. We even had a chance to use a blow gun.

Monkey Island awaits

The next day, we gathered all the items we brought with us for trading. We walked to the Yagua Village. They demonstrated a celebration they do each year which includes much music and dancing. We joined in and there were smiles all around. (Or were they laughing at us?) I traded t-shirts, flip flops and fishing equipment for baskets, jewelry, pottery and a blow gun.

Off to Ceiba Top Resort where we started. Hot showers and air-conditioning never felt so good! The resident tapir (large pig-like animal) walked through the resort begging for food. This tapir was domesticated. They are usually found in the wild.

On our last day, we went to Monkey Island. The people here take in orphaned monkeys, raise them, then release them back into the wild. Some were quite tame and one monkey climbed all over us and tried to take my water bottle.

We boarded the boat for the last time and made the long trip back to Iquitos. We said farewell to new friends and to the amazing Amazon

I had mentioned earlier, a non-profit organization, CONOPAC. Among their projects, they provide: clean water (water filtration systems), an “Adopt a School” program, Amazon library, education workshops, and community service projects

To make a donation and help preserve the rainforest and its people, go to info@conapac.org.

Anyone interested in participating in this trip next July can contact www.amazonworkshops.com or www.ecoteach.com. Warning: Be prepared for hot, humid weather, lots of walking on uneven, muddy terrain and the adventure of a lifetime.

Cynthia Flaherty retired from Dunkirk City School District where she taught music for 33 years. She still directs the steel drum band (Marauder Steel), does accompaniment work and gives piano lessons. Comments on this article may be directed to lifestyles@observertoday.com