A Child Explorer in the Amazon

08 Feb A Child Explorer in the Amazon

Sabine Bergmann poses with her parents in the Tambopata region of the Amazon basin. ©Denise Filakosky

Dad’s duffel bag was permanently damaged, but it was a small price to pay to meet a superhero, in my opinion.

“Now I see why they warned us!” my mother sighed.

As always, mom was right: the locals who met our group of explorers had indeed warned us. Shortly after we arrived at our new residence in the green tangle of jungle along the Tambopata Amazon tributary, they showed us to our thatched accommodations and pointed out the thick metal safe in our bedroom.

“Leave your valuables — money, jewelry — wherever you like. It will be safe here. But your food, your food you must store in the strongbox.”

In the explorer’s tradition of arrogance, however, we did not heed their warning. Weary after hours of travel upstream in canoes, we collapsed in the main lodge to recover. It wasn’t until after dad had indulged in a few cocktails (another explorer tradition, I’m told) that he remembered.

“The banana!” he exclaimed.

It was my mother who ventured back across the timber bridge with her flashlight to rescue the bag. She was the one who heard the scratching from the floor, the one who overturned the duffel and leapt, shrieking, into the air at the sight of the palm-sized beetle. By the time dad and I had returned to our cabin, the encounter was over.

My parents had joined in alliance against the insect. I seemed to be the only one who recognized the superhero strength and persistence this particular arthropod had used to chew through the scissor-proof canvas. As I marveled at the egg-sized opening, I imagined what life would be like if I had the strength to break through walls at will.

These, I realized, were the best weeks of my school year.

– – –

My sixth-grade teachers were remarkably flexible when it came to my family’s South American adventure. They hatched a deal with my parents: After missing three full weeks of school, not only would I write a report on Peru, but I would also give an hour-long presentation to the entire middle school. This was an intimidating undertaking: In my eleven years on earth, I had never taught a class.

In preparation, I bought two lined notebooks, a pouch of pencils and three rolls of slide film. During our 23-day excursion, my mother’s advice echoed in my brain: “Think of Peru as a living classroom,” she had said, “and the tour guides as your substitute teachers.”

A sketch of the Bergmann family cabin in the Amazon. ©Denise Filakosky

There was plenty to learn. Our jungle lodge — a collection of lawns and cabins with no electricity or hot water — was a tidy anomaly in one of the largest undeveloped areas in the Amazon basin. The jungle was swarming with life: Hummingbirds flitted and macaws glided by; walking sticks and tree frogs popped out of their camouflage; monkeys screeched from towering trees. In the evenings, I reviewed my notes under the oil lamps in the main lodge, poring over my drawings of rain forest ecology and the indigenous lore of thorns and weeds and tree spirits.

The only way my classmates would understand this place, I realized, was if I described not only the jungle, but also the experience of being in the jungle. They would understand the size of the rivers only if I told them it took half an hour to cross them in a wooden motorized canoe; they would understand the amount of dirt in the water only if I told them the eddies looked like swirling pools of my mom’s milky morning coffees.

“There’s too much stuff to talk about!” I wailed from our cabin’s porch on the second afternoon. “We haven’t even gone to Machu Picchu yet! There’s no way I can fit this in one class.”

Within seconds, an ocean of water began to stream from the sky, slapping the ground so hard that I dropped my notes on the floor. Mom chuckled.

“You’ll just have to pick the parts you like the best!” she said over the roar of the rain.

– – –

I couldn’t quite understand why we needed to wake up at three in the morning. The fact that breakfast was scheduled for 4:30am didn’t make sense either. When I asked, I was told by the collective adult alliance that our group of explorers had an itinerary to stick to.

By mid-morning, we had arrived in the Urubamba Gorge, a forested gully with a narrow, frothing river, just below Machu Picchu.

A sketch of stone niches at Machu Picchu. ©Denise Filakosky

“Machu Picchu means big peak,” our tour guide, Washington, told us. “The city is at 7,000 feet of elevation,” he continued, pointing up a steep road of switchbacks, “close to the god of creation.”

I turned a page loudly in my notebook, and Washington glanced down at my scribbling pencil. “They called this god kon titi wiracocha pacha yachachi,” he said, chuckling as my pencil stopped short.

Our group spent five hours threading through stone temples and gates as Washington lectured on sun cycles and farming and offerings. But it wasn’t until we returned to Machu Picchu in the silence of dawn the following morning that I really felt the place.

Under a pink morning sky, I scrambled behind dad’s khaki shorts on the smooth stones of the ruins, stopping alongside him as he marveled. Soon, I wandered off by myself, walking between ancient walls, imagining ancient peoples. I pictured the sunlight that once streamed through temple windows at solstice, the statues that once stood in the stone niches, the crops that once grew on the terraces.

A couple weeks later, I donned an alpaca hat covered in llama designs and stood before all the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to give my presentation.

The untraditional classroom setting of Machu Picchu. ©Denise Filakosky

“This,” I said, pointing to a slide of Machu Picchu’s ruins, “was my classroom two Thursdays ago.”

– – –

Mom had said to pick the parts I liked best. The thing was, I liked all of it.

So, following explorer tradition, I stretched my initial expedition into a life-long pursuit. I continued to study jungles in traditional and untraditional classrooms, ultimately gaining a degree in environmental science. I moved to Bolivia and became fluent in Spanish. I joined the Peace Corps and moved into a thatched cabin in the forest. I carry notebooks everywhere.

As it turns out, being a student of the world can be a real-life career, although there are more pitches and deadlines and copy editors than I realized there would be. Other than that, not too much has changed since I was eleven years old: I still learn incredible things from incredible people, and I still look for superheroes — no matter their size.



Explore the Amazon on these Adventure Collection Journeys:

Lindblad: Amazon Expedition

OARS: Machu Picchu Explorer

Backroads: Family Breakaway Andes and Amazon

Natural Habitat Adventures: Custom Family Machu Picchu Adventure

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Sabine Bergmann
Sabine Bergmann is the Adventure Collection’s Managing Editor. As a professional writer, traveler and conservation activist, she writes for a dozen publications, including Wired, Sierra, Ethical Traveler and The Best Travel Writing series from Travelers' Tales. She’s done some pretty crazy stuff, like mountain biking from the Andes to the Amazon, spear fishing in shipwrecks and serving in the US Peace Corps. She's based in a little yellow house in Berkeley. Read more about Sabine at www.sabinekbergmann.com.
Sabine Bergmann

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