Amazon Adventure

After six months, and an extra week to see the Independence Day celebrations (which other than a parade, there pretty much weren’t any), my time in Colombia was done.  My next destination was technically Peru, but I had decided I did not want to go there directly.  Instead, I flew to Manaus, Brazil, where I could then get on a river boat going up the Amazon River to Iquitos, Peru.  I gave myself about 2 weeks for this river trip so that I would have some contingency days as well as possibly do some side treks along the Amazon.

Holding a baby sloth in an Amazonian indigenous village

As it turned out, I used one of those contingency days right away.  Upon arriving at the airport, I was not allowed to board my flight due to a visa issue as I was supposed to connect through Venezuela.  After some last-minute travel bookings, I had a new flight going through Panama, but it was going to cost me a day.  However, on the positive side, the layover in Panama City was close to 20 hours, which allowed me to spend about half a day exploring Panama City and the Panama Canal, a nice unexpected side trip.

Finally, after my one-day delay, I arrived in Manaus in the evening, and the next day had a tour of the river around Manus.  This was a good introduction to the Amazon region, even if we really didn’t go into the forest.  Among other things, I was able to see the “meeting of the waters”, where two rivers meet with different temperatures, currents, and compositions.  Because of the differences, it takes a while for them to truly join into one river, so for a few kilometers, there is dark blue water and muddy brown water side by side. I also saw the pirarucu, a giant fish of the Amazon river, and some monkeys climbing the trees above us at one of our stopping points.  I was also able to swim with pink river dolphins.  I was a little concerned about this part, because I did not know how it would be set up: if the animals would be penned in or maltreated or something to that effect.  Luckily, I found out that the operators were conscientious of the animals.  The site was simply on the side of the river, with no pens or anything.  The dolphins simply come there of their own volition because they know they will be getting some free fish.  But I was more impressed that they only do this a few days out of the week, so that the dolphins do not become dependent upon the people for food.

Village lodge with an indigenous presentation

The other interesting part of this trip was getting to visit an indigenous village.  At the village, I was able to hold a baby sloth, taste some jungle food (like grubs and other bugs) and witness a traditional dance (and even join in for part of it).  Talking to the guide, I learned that this tribe had moved closer to Manaus because it was safer and more reliable than living further in the jungle.  The government takes care of the people, providing necessary health care and other services and allows the people to maintain their way of life, provided that they allow and participate in tours such as what I was doing.

I mentioned it being safer for the indigenous to be closer to Manaus.  Only a couple of weeks after I visited Manaus, I saw news of a tragic event in the Brazilian Amazon.  An entire indigenous village had been massacred by illegal loggers and miners.  The only reason it came to light was because someone overheard some of the perpetrators talking about it in a bar, and this person then alerted the authorities.    What is even worse, some experts believe this actually happens somewhat regularly because of the combination of the remote and wild Amazon jungle, the lack of information about many Indigenous peoples in the depths of the jungle (especially the uncontacted tribes), and the large number of illegal timber, mining, drug, and other such operations.  Because of these combined circumstances, it is relatively easy for these illegal operators to come across native people, slaughter them, use their land, and no one ever finds about it.

Link to news story on this event:

The next day I headed to the riverside again to take the slow boat up the river.  I received my paperwork, and soon I was on a small dinghy to board the ferry that would be my home for the next week.  As luck would have it, I happened to be on the dinghy with a girl that spoke English.  She was from France, but had been in Brazil for about six months so spoke Portuguese rather well.  It was extremely fortunate to have met someone right away that could help translate for me in case of any issues on the boat.

Hammocks, hammocks, and more hammocks. Not exactly private accomodation

The first step was finding an open spot to hang the hammock that I had bought along with the boat passage.  There were two open air decks on the ship where people would hang a hammock, keep their belongings under it, and then that would be their accommodation for the duration of the trip.  While a hammock sounds relaxing in theory, I have learned during the course of this trip that actually spending multiple nights in a hammock is not the most pleasant of experiences.

Fortunate smiled upon me again the next morning. At breakfast, I noticed that two young men sitting across the long dining table were speaking in English.  I began talking with them and learned that one was from Portugal and the other was from Spain.  They had met during their travels in South America, and were on their way to Leticia, the Colombian city in the tri-border region.

Sunset on the Amazon, from my favorite spot, in the bow of the boat

Early in the week, I found an excellent spot on the boat, where I spent much time, including at night where I could write in my journal or prepare a blog post.  Going down to the main cargo deck, it was possible get to the bow of the boat, where almost no one ever went.  It allowed for an almost unobstructed view of the Amazon River stretching out in front of us. One day, while I was sitting in the bow yet again, I noticed the white puffy cumulus clouds in the sky, and the green forest lining the river banks.  We were at a such distance from the river bank, that it wasn’t possible to really distinguish the types of trees on the bank, just the solid green presence of tree life. The combination formed a scene that reminded me of the lakes in northwest Wisconsin. If I looked at a picture of the two scenes, I doubt that I could distinguish between the two without close analysis.  That familiarity made me think of the interconnectedness of the world.  While reading about the Amazon in preparation for the trip, I learned that the Amazon Rainforest is fertilized by dust from the Sahara Desert that is blown across the Atlantic Ocean.  I also remembered that the Amazon supplies more than 20% of the world’s oxygen.  It is easy to focus only on our own little corner of the world, but we must remember that we are part of a bigger world that is in constant interaction.

Just one example of the litter that we often found in the riverside towns in Brazil

As we made our way upriver, in the latter half of the week, we would occasionally stop at a small town on the river to drop off cargo and passengers, as well as take on new ones.  It is important to note that the Amazon River and its tributaries basically serve as the highway system for this region, with transportation of people and goods happening on these boats.  This was not some tour that I was on, this was everyday life for the people of the region.  Often at these stops, my new friends and I would walk around the town and try to find a place to get some snacks and drinks.  While having a few beers at a makeshift dockside bar, the Spaniard pointed out to me his frustration with the amount of trash in the river, on the river banks, and the casualness with which people would toss garbage off of the boat.  I had noticed the litter, especially when we arrived in each little town.  It seemed there was garbage all along the river banks.  The Spaniard and I could not understand how people were so willing to throw trash into the river, since most of them likely lived alongside of it.  I realize that this is a European/American way of looking at the environment.  However, he was truly frustrated by the state of affairs we were witnessing.  And I have to agree with him.  While I am not an environmentalist, I greatly appreciate the natural environment and hate to see what was happening to such an amazing place.

There was no beer on the boat, so we made up for it in the ports of call along the river

Eventually, we made it to Tabatinga.  As a group, we went to the immigration offices, and then crossed into Leticia, Colombia.  The fellow from Portugal was going to be working as a translator for one of the local tour groups.  We arrived at their offices, and began to say our goodbyes.  He actually was scheduled to go out on a tour that afternoon.  I spoke to the tour operator for a bit and then decided to go on that tour.  I hadn’t really gotten into the jungle yet, and I had time, since I had decided I was not doing the slow boat anymore to Iquitos, and the fast boat would only be about 10 hours as opposed to 3-4 days.  Thanks to my fortunate meeting on the slow boat from Manaus, I was now on my way into the Amazon jungle for a 4-day tour.

Again, there were amazing experiences had in the Amazonian jungle.  Both day and night treks into the jungle including looking for sloths in the wild, a night trip on the river to look for caimans (basically, Amazonian crocodiles), fishing for piranha (and swimming with them as well!).  For the first and last night, we stayed in Puerto Nariño.  This is an amazing town that is fairly new, it was only established in the past 50 years or so.  It is also extremely eco-friendly.  There are no cars, it is extremely clean and well-maintained, and the townspeople are almost all descended from one of the local indigenous tribes. Actually, I had noticed in general that the Amazon region in Colombia, and the towns of Puero Nariño and Leticia, was much cleaner than Tabatinga and the rest of the Brazilian Amazon.

Sunset in an Amazonian village

The middle night, we stayed further upriver in an indigenous village.  It was another great opportunity to learn more about the culture there.  The community has a soccer league with about two dozen nearby river villages.  There was supposed to have been a game that day, but it was cancelled for some reason, so we were treated to an impromptu soccer scrimmage as the sun set over the river and the piranha we had caught that day were prepared for dinner.  Walking around the village, and hearing from the guides, I was amazed at how resourceful and perseverant these people were.  The houses were on stilts due to the seasonal flooding of the river basin.  We learned that a few years ago, it was an extremely high river, and the entire village (about 7-8 families) had to stay in one village building because many of the houses were flooded and full of caimans and snakes.

We also heard some of the darker tales.  While in the mirador (viewpoint tower) of Puerto Nariño, overlooking the town and the jungle and river beyond, our guide told us how rampant alcoholism, drugs, and violence can be among some of the indigenous communities, especially at the hands of others.  He told the story about how one of his grandparents was the result of the rape of an indigenous woman.   These are the types of struggles people in these communities often still deal with to this day, and we hear so little about.

Crossing the river to Peru

Upon returning to Leticia, I dealt with immigration yet again and then got on a small motor boat, along with an older gentleman and his dog, to cross the river to Santa Rosa, Peru.  I had quite a bit of time to kill as my boat was not leaving for Iquitos until almost 5 AM.  The town had no cars and no real streets to speak of either.  Just one main road that was mostly dirt, except for a few stretches that were wooden.  I walked up and down that main road just to get a sense of the small town.  The people of the town were amongst the most friendly and welcoming I had yet met I South America.  Multiple people saw my bags, asked where I was from, if I needed anything, and just chatted for a short time.  Then, I decided to get a drink and dinner at a small restaurant that was blaring music onto the street.  While there, I overheard a couple speaking English, and struggling with their Spanish, so I began talking to them. They sat with me and we shared some drinks, and soon another two people joined us, these from Portugal.  We were all going to Iquitos and therefore had a night to spend before our boat left.  After dinner, we made our way to another bar that seemed to be the only one open.  Even though it was a Monday night, and we were the only ones there (aside from the workers, and the waitress from the restaurant we just came from), they stayed open until almost 2 AM for us.  When we left, there was not even a light on anywhere in the town, so we pulled out flashlights and made our way to the small dock to wait a couple of hours to for our boat to leave.

A quick swing through the Amazon Rainforest

In the pre-dawn hours, our boats arrived (it turned out that we were taking two different boats, departing about 45 minutes apart from each other), and the crowds boarded the boats.  For the next 12 hours, I sat on a boat heading up the Peruvian Amazon, with a seat layout similar to that of a standard bus.  That evening, I arrived in Iquitos, had dinner with the English and Portuguese friends, and then walked around the town that evening by myself, doing a little bit of exploring.  There were almost no cars in the city center where I was staying, instead, mototaxis were the prevalent mode of transportation around the town. It was an interesting, but very loud scene, as the mototaxis had an unmuffled engines and hundreds of them were driving around the center square.  Overall, I found Iquitos to be an amazingly quaint city, with a wonderful riverfront, shops, even a small coffeeshop/art-gallery that was open late.  I truly wish I had more time to spend there, but alas, the next morning, I repacked my bags, and headed to the airport to fly to Lima, my two weeks exploring the Amazonian region of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru at an end.

I realize this is cliché but the Amazon truly is a wondrous place with so many different aspects to it, and I saw just a fleeting glimpse.  But even with that quick view, I witnessed how fragile and in danger the area is.  And I never even saw many of the true dangers that are threatening the more remote areas of the Amazon rainforest and its people.  As I said earlier, I am not a tree-hugging environmentalist by any means, but I try to be acutely aware of what is happening, and there are many good and bad things happening in the Amazon.  Hopefully, we can help support those good things happening to overcome the bad.


Here are some links to sites that have more information and organizations that are working to protect the Amazon rainforest and its native peoples. – A collective organization, based in Ecuador, for Amazonian native peoples – An organization that promotes welfare of the Amazon, both its environment and its people.  It works primarily with local indigenous groups, but also environmental causes as well. – An article highlighting groups fighting for the Amazon (Amazon Watch is the first one listed).

Colombian Reflections

My time with Prints of Hope and in Colombia ended in late July.  For the past two months, I’ve done more traveling: Panama, Brazil, Peru, Chile, and now Argentina.  I’ll be writing more about those adventures in upcoming posts.  But given that the six month stint in Colombia was the starting point, as well as the longest I have ever been in another country (I only spent four months in Ireland after graduate school.), this post is a general reflection upon my time and experiences in Colombia.

Striking a pose at the Boltero Museum in Bogota

While I don’t really want this to be a typical “travel blog” about where I went and what I did, but more focused on the needs I observe in different areas and communities, and how these needs could be or are being addressed; much of the important aspects and details related to that have been covered in my previous posts.

Therefore, this will be closer to an “experiential” post.  First and foremost, upon reflection, I am glad I took the leap and began this trip.  And my time in Colombia with the Prints of Hope was a good start to it.  While it didn’t go exactly as expected (discussed in earlier posts), it offered me an excellent opportunity to learn more about nonprofit management.  And more importantly, it gave me the chance to experience a new culture, in a different language, which proved to be a challenge for me to rise to in order to make the best of my time there.

One of my last nights out in Bogota (3 blond Americans and 3 Colombians)

Although the language barrier was certainly difficult, for me, the general cultural barrier was the larger struggle.  Prior to leaving the US, I happened to discuss Colombia with a few different people who had visited there, and they all told me how much they loved it.  This was reinforced by many travelers that I crossed paths with while in Colombia, who talked about how much they were enjoying the country.  Having lived there for six months, and discussed the country and the culture with some of my roommates, I realized that an old cliché is probably best for how I would describe Colombia:

It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Colombia is an amazing travel destination, and I highly recommend it for tourism.  It is strikingly beautiful with such a variety of landscapes and climates.  There are different vibrant cultures across the country in each region, and I never even made it to Medellín, which often seems to be most travelers’ favorite city.  You could spend weeks and months in Colombia and discover something new each and every day.

With a couple of YMCA friends (Carolina & Leydi) at Monserrate overlooking Bogota

However, I found it difficult to build something of a life in Bogotá.  Now a good portion of that could be specific to the city life of Bogotá, but some of the reasons I believe are more general to Colombia, and how they interact with my own personality.  There were two main cultural aspects that really caused difficulties for me.

Group of YMCA volunteers having a night out after a training camp

One was something that many travelers had told me they loved about Colombia.  And that is the reputation Colombians have for being friendly.  That seems like it would be a positive, but I noticed that Colombian “friendliness” is a different type of “friendly”.  It seems to be a “cold” friendly, rather than a “warm & welcoming” friendly.  Again, a big part of it could be Bogotá, but I noticed it in other cities as well.  Basically, in my experience, unless you already had a connection with someone, while people would be friendly when you spoke with them, they never made an effort to start a conversation or be truly welcoming.  This is actually understandable, given the troubles that Colombia has faced over the years with drug cartels, guerillas, and paramilitary groups.  To survive, one would need to be friendly so as not to offend anyone, but at the same time, maintain a wariness about strangers.  The exception to this cautiousness seemed to be the people who obviously had an ulterior motive, to sell you something in one way in form or another.  To be honest, I have come to have a visceral reaction to the word “amigo” as it was almost always spoken by some aggressive vendor, with an obvious tone of inauthenticity, dripping with hidden condescension.

As I said though, if you do have an established connection with people, the Colombians are extremely welcoming and wonderful.  I was lucky to meet amazing people during my time in Colombia through my work with the YMCA, including people that opened up their homes to me, and I truly appreciate their generosity.

My roommates, Elena (left), Laura (bottom left), and Chloe (right) and one of the teachers we worked with, Lili (center) at the teachers’ appreciation party

The second struggle was something that I already had a little bit of experience with, but until you are truly immersed in it, you don’t really understand it.  And that is the general “casualness” and “indirectness” of Latin Americans, and this is extremely strong in Colombia.  I never before really appreciated how different that is than my nature.  Maybe it is my Northern European heritage, but most people who know me, know that I like to be in control of every situation as much as possible, which is very un-Colombian.  Qué será  or “what will be” is a common saying and not one that I do well with.  I also have a tendency to be as explicit as possible when writing emails or communicating otherwise, so there is no room for misunderstanding.  I do not like subtlety when it comes to communication, but subtlety is more the language here than Spanish is.  Especially the aversion to saying the word No.  Which led to so many frustrations for me.  Chloe, Elena, and Laura began to laugh about and wonder when I would finally explode from the countless frustrations I had due to what I felt was a lack of communication and/or planning about one thing or another.

Rock Al Parque. An annual free music festival in Bogota, in Parque Simón Bolívar

This “casualness” also extended into social life as well.  Making plans with friends was always an unknown.  My roommates and I had learned that you need to make multiple plans for a given night, because you never knew who would actually follow through and who would cancel.  Often, a group would talk about doing something on a night for a week or two, but then when it came, nothing would happen.  Then, another night, a group outing would suddenly happen with only a few hours’ notice (if that). While I like to be spontaneous, and the latter situation is completely fine with me; I have always been bothered when people cancel plans, and it happened with so much frequency in Colombia, that it became a constant source of frustration for me.  But on those occasions when a night out did actually occur, I almost always had an incredible time.  Whether it was my pathetic attempts at salsa dancing (despite my friends best efforts at teaching me), nights out at a variety of clubs, getting locked inside Parqúe Simón Bolívar after sunset and having to help each other either through or over the fencing to get out, or any of the other small adventures we had, they all helped to make my time in Colombia memorable.

There were no Holsteins at the Colombian Ag Expo in Bogota, so I had to settle for an Ayrshire

All that being said, this was an incredible opportunity to learn about another culture (and my own quirks), as well as make new friends that I hope to keep in contact with over the years.  This was only possible by forcing myself to look for such opportunities to travel and to participate in cultural exchange programs.  I have received comments and messages from people talking about how they wish they could travel and do some of these adventures. This has been common from former students.  Especially for those of you, what is stopping you?

The Lego convention came to Bogota

I am fully aware that I am fortunate with my place in life that I can go on a trip such as this to travel the world.  However, there are many other opportunities out there for you to travel and see the world, with limited time and financial constraints.  I have met so many people that are travelling and finding unique ways to afford it.  One friend spent a few weeks in the Amazon for free working as a translator on the tours groups.  I just finished an amazing two weeks doing a workaway in Taltal, Chile helping teach English at a nonprofit and had my accommodation and most of my food paid for.

If you don’t have personal or family responsibilities holding you back, and you are thinking about traveling to experience a foreign country, don’t find excuses, find a way to make it happen.

Here are some links to just a few of the ways you can travel to new places, have unique experiences, and do it rather cheaply (or maybe even make some money!).  Most of them require a commitment of at least 2 weeks, but you often have some free time. This is the organization I went through for the program in Colombia, but it also has other programs for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.  It is important to note that foreigners can get temporary work visas for Australia and New Zealand, but only until you are 30 (AUS) or 35 (NZ) years old.  So don’t put this off for too long! A website where you can find free lodging (and occasionally food) around the world in exchange for working.  A common set-up is working at a hostel, cleaning or answering phones or something similar.  If you are multilingual, you can also be a translator for tours and such, and get to go on those tours for free.   This is probably the most popular site, and you are more likely to find places in popular tourist spots.  Similar to workaway, except more focused on volunteering with nonprofits and projects.  Since they are nonprofits, there might not be as much covered as the ones on workaway. WWOOFing is going to work on small farms dedicated to sustainable farming practices.  Often both food and lodging are provided in exchange for working on the farm.   Obviously, these will not be in major cities.

There are other sites that you can find free housing that I don’t have experience with:

There are also many programs to work as an English teacher and/or au pair in other countries.  You can do a google search for these to find different programs.

For all of these, make sure you do your research and try to find hosts that have been reviewed and seem legitimate, and always trust your gut if something doesn’t seem right!

The world is an amazing place that is waiting to be explored.  I’ll leave you with a famous quote by Mark Twain:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.