Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A is for Amazon

A venture into the Amazon rainforest is best begun from a significant source of water. The impenetrability of the forest often demands this more riverine approach for safe passage -- that or a sharp machete, sturdy boots and a steady hand.

Possessing very little of either, our little group of volunteer field researchers opted for the less invasive, non-terrestrial approach - an option that would require two days travel by long boat on the Rio Tambopata to reach our final destination.

The source of the Tambopata lies there in those distant hills that make up the eastern cordillera of the Peruvian Andes.

This mighty river is born in the sacred swells of infamous Lake Titicaca and emerges fast and furious through the dense cloud forests of the Puno region of Peru until it finally arrives - meandering opaque and turgid on the Amazon floodplain where the border of Peru meets Bolivia.

Our embarkation point was the confluence of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios rivers marked by the Amazonian outpost town of Puerto Maldonado. Our destination was the Tampopata Research Center some eight hours by boat up the Rio Tambopata and through the National Reserve.

In terms of biological diversity, the forests of the Tambopata National Reserve are some of the richest in the world and are home to 570 species of birds, 1200 species of butterflies and, hidden in the dense thicket of tropical forests, an unfathomable concentration of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians - not to mention spiders and insects that boggle the most vivid of imaginations.

I have been dreaming of this trip since a young boy - holding that rich, red, dog-earred 1957 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume A placed in my eager little hands by a beloved grandmother who inspired me to dream big. A is for animals. A is for Amazon.

Standing on the shore I gauge the narrow strip of wooden plank required to navigate from muddy bank to boat. The journey begins here. I step into the boat and realize I am living a page out of that much treasured 1957 book. I pause and squeeze the imaginary hand of my mother's mother and give thanks to that incredible woman who no doubt witnessed a fair share of her own dreams dissolve into disappointment. This moment is for you grandmother - that pocketful of dreams you so amply inspired remains intact all these years and my gratitude is infinite.

And so we begin. Our journey up river was marked at every turn by masses of migrating butterflies. Billowing through the air like autumnal leaves on a blustery fall day- these gossamer-winged spirits of the forest engendered a splendid air of magical realism to the extraordinary adventures already unfolding.

Enormous legions of brightly colored butterflies, all males I'm told, mud puddled in tightly packed groups of hundreds, sometimes thousands. Every hundred yards or so - another puddle, and another gasp from our small, normally jaded group. The mysteries of the Amazon are legion and swell and swirl with each beat of a butterfly's wing.

From a distance an odd sound permeates the air - loud enough to be heard over the mechanical whine of the boat motor. Suddenly, overhead now, the Jurrasic screams startle even the most intrepid jungle adventurer.

With a mighty, gutteral, sauric WRRAAACCKKK - the most beautiful and charismatic member of the Amazon forest leads the way up river and reminds us of our mission at hand. We have come from all parts of the globe, from all walks of life, to honor this enormous forest and, if only for a brief period of time, to serve and to protect it.

There is nothing that can prepare you for the first time you bare witness to the exquisite beauty of the scarlet macaw in the wild. The next eleven days will be spent in service to these divine creatures - working in tandem with extraordinary individuals who champion their survival and fight hard to ensure their enduring legacy to these remarkable lands.

And there is nothing quite like an Andean sunset to induce lucid contemplation. Years of travel and I understand I have become, over time, not just a citizen of any specific community -- but of this world and I arrive here to this part of my global village, this seductive region of dark rivers and dense jungles, intent on serving this community I now embrace as my own and to honor the beloved dreams entrusted to me many years ago by a wise and divine woman. A is for ancestors and A is for Amazon.

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