My high school in Lima provided many positive opportunities for the young to expand their horizons. Among these were class trips. Of course, the parents’ wallets, in addition to the burden of high regular tuition fees, were constrained by the cost of these perks, but they were still a wonderful advantage for their kids. In Grade 10, Mr. Antonio – both a dedicated teacher and an outstanding person hailing from British Columbia – invited our parents to his classroom, where he delivered his annual presentation on the Peruvian rainforest. As head of the Science department, he organized a trip to the Manú National Park (a biosphere reserve located in Madre de Diós, Peru) with the assistance of a volunteer from the school’s staff and some outsourced wildlife professionals to serve as guides. It all sounded really promising.
|A ride on the river Manú|
My buddies, our parents and I sat attentively to take in the presentation. Mr. Antonio easily sold the experience to most foreigners, saying it was a life-altering experience for their children. It was not to be an ordinary camping trip, no sir. Mother nature was the boss of this land, and her creatures enforced her doctrine. This place actually managed to survive all these years because of it virtually inaccessible landscape to this day. It is the largest National Park of its kind in Peru, covering an area of 15,000 km2. It has one of the highest levels of biodiversity of any park in the world, with an incredible number of unique plant species and an exciting number of animals. Many of these were poisonous, including some unusually large ants. Perhaps even if a puma licked you, you would have to be sent to the hospital. There were no settlements for at least 60 kms near the actual campground and the only way to get there was by boat along a river – I think the river bared the same name as the ecological preserve.
I was initially on the fence, as I had visited this type of habitat back in Cumaná, Venezuela in the late 80s, therefore I figured there was nothing new to see there. I was a teenager, so it was tough to impress me - like most of my peers. Afterwards, to my dismay, neither my buddies nor their parents were convinced to invest in this expedition to the rainforest. At this point, the balance was leaning increasingly toward the negative, as I was not interested to be paired up with classmates I barely knew for a good seven days or so. Remember, I was a shy kid so this was a nightmare having to talk to people outside of my regular gang. On the other hand, my parents appeared to be committed to the idea forwarded by Mr. Antonio, that this experience would change my life forever. Furthermore, I think they would have loved to make that trip with their two boys but it was not a possibility. Unfortunately for them, it really was an excursion requiring a large group of travellers, willing to spend a week in very basic living conditions. That’s what “living off the grid” really means. As you look up to the heavens, it seems you can see every star in the galaxy thanks to the lack of pollution and blinding city light and the stars return the favour by illuminating the surroundings.
My fears became a reality once my ticket was purchased, confirming I would be travelling with people I did not know. The person I knew best was Jean-Louis Antonio, but obviously he was not my peer. A select few 10th graders left Lima by airplane arriving in Cuzco to start their excellent adventure by bus. This old Japanese steel demon drove us atop the lofty Andes Mountains through tiny isolated villages where the inhabitants reacted fearfully to the arrival of foreigners. This was really curious. Afterwards, we descended into the scorching, humid, jungle-like conditions and its uncharted territory. From the last village known to man, we then boarded a boat and rode it for about an hour to reach camp, surrounded by howler monkeys – the best kind of monkey in my books – and other wonderful beasts such as alligators, birds, insects and pumas. Especially snakes, nature’s most precious gift to humanity. We spent about 7 days in camp, with mosquito nets over our beds - the netting was always covered inside and out with huge bugs. Showers were less than basic and the river was not an alternative for hygiene as it was full of leaches.
|The howler monkeys, nature's most famous tenors|
The lesson learned here on this occasion is: sometimes, you think you are going to have a dreadful time but can circumstances reward your effort. I made my first Peruvian friend, Sebastián Majluf who enjoyed similar music who lent me a great Pearl Jam tape for my Walkman (love the high-tech) and I began to lose my shyness. I was obligated to mingle with others to keep my sanity. Perhaps this was due to the shared hardship regarding our temporary conditions – we all missed our usual day-to-day luxuries - but we began bonding with the last people we expected. I also became friends with girls my own age, which before, I was too timid for some unknown reason. This changed thanks to a joint American-Canadian group which transformed this interaction into something much more natural. God only knows why there is that certain awkwardness between boys and girls but I am sure it transcends cultures. They are all still dear friends to this date. It was definitely an unforgettable trip and it did change my life forever!