Written by and photos courtesy of Kathryn Christinsen
This summer I spent nearly three weeks in Peru on the Pacaya – Samiria National Reserve helping biologists collect data through surveys. With no exaggeration, I can say it was simply indescribable and eye-opening. I attended with a group from my high school, and prior to this trip I was fairly well traveled. I got accepted to attend this expedition in May 2017, and it didn’t matter how many packing lists, tips, reminders, or stories I heard and read; I still couldn’t grasp exactly what I was getting into. I had senses of excitement, hesitation, and fear going through my mind that year, but most of all I had a deep curiosity.
Fast forward to June 24, 2018. We are boarding the Rio Amazonas, our home for the next 12 days. The feeling of leaving Nauta and setting sail was a feeling I had never felt. Knowing that with every second that I am further away from civilization. I mean, I had been off the grid before. Every summer I go on a four-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. I was used to this, but I was a
little uneasy. This was not summer camp. No one can bail you out if you get homesick. Nobody can come pick you up. Maybe I felt some pride in that, but in the same way I felt I was too young to experience it. But, there is always a cheesy quote to make yourself feel better and mine was “life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. The nerves vanished. I realized that everybody else was in the same boat as me. Literally.
I am not saying that I had no clue on what to expect. I have always enjoyed science in school, and I am very much an outdoors gal. I knew this was not going to be a beach vacation or a tourist trip to Machu Pichu. It was a research trip in the AMAZON RAINFOREST. I would’ve been happy with just being able to look at the jungle. I mean come on. This is the rainforest that you learn about in elementary school when you talk about amphibians, mammals, and reptiles.
“No need to worry kids, those poisonous frogs only live in the Amazon.” “Phew.”
Yeah, it was that rainforest. I specifically remember learning about biomes and habitats in fourth grade. We spent a whole unit on the rainforest. Never, never did I ever think that I would ever go to the Amazon. When I was that young, I didn’t even know that people could even actually go there. Well, fourth grade Kathryn, you were there. You saw the famous pink river dolphins, sloths in their natural habitat, a TOUCAN, caught a PIRAHNA, and even held a blue morpho butterfly. Yes, the butterfly that is on every single butterfly sticker and poster in existence.
The hardest part for me was definitely my mindset. Everything I saw was so magnificent that my original reaction would be neutral because I constantly forgot that I was not in a zoo. It was most definitely not a zoo. It was their home. I’ve seen these creatures in the zoo many times. I guess it is just hard to actually believe that you are in the most diverse place in the world when you are used to going on field trips to the zoo and seeing them there. It took some time, but I was able to change my thinking.
The two weeks consisted of capturing caimans, stargazing on top deck (with no light pollution! We even saw the southern cross), counting river dolphins, data sheets, GPS devices, waist deep mud, bird beak wounds, bullet ant stings, itchy bug bites, the aroma of bug spray and sunscreen, camo life jackets and most of all, relationships with people that I will never forget.
As much as I love science and animals, the highlight of my trip was surprisingly not what I saw in the jungle or on the small boats. It was the people that I met. I was not expecting for this trip to impact me as a person as much as it did. So, the staff of the June -July 2018 Peru trip, if you are reading this, keep reading. I’ve never been an extremely outgoing person but I do listen closely to what people say. Max, you taught me to not take life so seriously and to live life by experiencing things, not stressing about things. You also sparked my curiosity in butterflies. Brian, it was nice to have someone from my neck of the woods there (Boston!) and I really enjoyed your jokes while on the mist net surveys. You taught my whole school group so much and I appreciated your patience in the pouring rain while collecting the data. Truly an unforgettable last survey. I am a sentimental person, but after talking with all of you my life is changed for the better. As cliché as it sounds, I believe that the best things happen when cell phones are not in the picture, even if only for two weeks.
It is a funny thing that I realized when I returned home. I could talk for hours and hours about this trip, but there is no way to express the emotions and how you felt in specific moments. That is why the people you meet will stick with you in life. I like the idea that only 30 people on this earth share the indescribable feelings you felt. I bet a lot of people wish they could put the trip into words, but I find joy in knowing that it is not possible. This trip isn’t about letting the world know your experiences, it is about finding peace in the fact that the people you were with have those same experiences with them around the world.
So, I guess the point I am trying to make is to let go of your fixed expectations of things for the future. I guess I am lucky that I am only sixteen and I learned all of this. At the end of the two weeks I thought about that quote from the beginning of the trip again and I thought about how not only does ‘life begin at the end of your comfort zone’ but about how it really begins when you start living without an audience. Without the need to share your life with the world. An Operation Wallacea expedition is more than collecting data through surveys. The trip will teach you how to live off the grid and connect more with the people around you. If I learned nothing else on this expedition it is to value moments and value the people you shared them with.