Claire Elphick - Rainforest Conservation in Peru
Travel has always been of immense appeal to me so when it came to the time to choose my dissertation title for my Geography degree, my first thought was where could I go to do it. For me it was the ideal excuse to go somewhere extraordinary to carry out my field research and so the Amazon Rainforest instantly sprung to mind. Geography has always fascinated me and the opportunity provided by Projects Abroad to live in the rainforest for five weeks and carry out my fieldwork has proved only to further fuel both my passion for the subject and my love of travelling. My only regret is that I wasn't there longer.
Instead of participating in the conservation project at Taricaya I carried out my fieldwork each day with the help of Eugenio, my cheeky expert guide and 'soil pit digger' who knew everything about the majority of species and creatures in the rainforest. Despite at first speaking no Spanish and him no English we somehow managed to communicate and he taught me everything from counting to 100 in Spanish to how to hold a snake so it wouldn't bite. I also learned how to use a machete, how to get out of quicksand-type mud with wellies still intact, how to identify jaguar and puma footprints and where to look for tarantulas!
On one occasion Eugenio even hid in the bushes pretending to be a jaguar complete with very realistic growling, while my friend and I stood cold in fear with machetes drawn at the ready. We slowly started to move backwards down the trail only to have Eugenio jump out of the bushes! In between all this fun however we did somehow manage to achieve 10kms of soil sampling and vegetation analysis, working long days in the heat and often having to fight our way through dense vegetation, through shallow parts of the river and across logs. Stuart and Nando, other Projects Abroad staff, were an invaluable source of local information and did everything they could to help with my research including chauffeuring me around Puerto Maldonado on the back of a moped in search of a map! Aside from all the fun though and the incredible insight I had into the rainforest environment I could not have asked for the team at Taricaya to have been more accommodating.
Being a gifted biologist Stuart now and again gives a talk in the evening about a creature of the rainforest. I was lucky enough to hold a small caiman that had been plucked from the river to show us, the chief aim being to hold its jaw shut. The wildlife you encounter each day really makes you realise how privileged you are to be there - no typical tourist would ever get to encounter the rainforest as we did. With Daniela the tame howler monkey trying to steal your dinner or Dave the parrot squawking on your head there is never a dull moment. But once the generator goes off at 9pm it is generally bedtime (with the exception of occasional 'jungle rum' drinking and card-playing by candlelight!) as you can be up as early as 5.30am.
When the rainforest goes to sleep all is silent for a while apart from the exceptionally loud croaking frogs and the possums rummaging through anything they can put their hands on in your room. Make sure you sit on the bench overlooking the river at least once when it's completely dark - the stars are amazing in a perfectly clear sky, temporarily lit by the glow of fireflies dashing about. In the mornings you'll be woken by the obvious noise of the jungle waking up and if you're lucky you might just be granted pancakes and chocolate sauce once in a while on a Sunday, an unbelievably fantastic treat after a week of rice, lentils and 'Club Socials' - the equivalent of Ritz crackers. Generally you get meat once or twice a week when the boat's been to Puerto (there's no fridge to store it in all week) but occasionally when chef goes fishing and has a good session, a huge catfish might be on offer. Bring lots of chocolate and hide it away from both possums and people as it is like gold dust out there and you will be craving it after a week!
Needless to say bring many bottles of deet and antihistamine too for inevitable mosquito bites and stings and don't just cover obvious exposed areas like arms - the little devils will bite through your trousers and pants too leaving you desperately wanting to scratch your rear for at least a week! Also be prepared for cold weather, strange though that seems. I was there during a 'friaja' - a really cold spell where you'll end up wishing you'd brought your fleece and thermals. I mistakenly brought no warm clothes and had to beg, steal and borrow anything I could from all the sensible people who had brought jumpers.
The experience of living in the rainforest, the most diverse and fascinating ecosystem on earth, is a memory I will never forget. From the moment I first flew over it and took sight of the vast forest intersected by meandering coffee-coloured rivers, I was in awe. Driving the wooden canoe boat myself from Puerto Maldonado to Taricaya down the Madre de Dios, a wide Amazon tributary is just one of the many amazing memories I will keep with me forever. The same goes for swimming in Lake Sandoval, and swimming in the river outside the lodge, dancing the night away in 'Wititis' to classic Peruvian disco tunes in Puerto and sharing my room with several toe-biting possums (they will eat everything from paracetemol to mozzy nets)!
I went on to teach English in Urubamba and after my placements travelled round Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, both of which were brilliant - but my time at Taricaya will always remain with me as an experience of a lifetime and one day I hope to go back and do it all again. If you have the chance to go, do it and cherish every moment because you'll soon be faced with taking your last boat trip up the river and saying goodbye to a magical place that strangely felt like home.