Thermal River Systems of the Amazon

Latest update September 1, 2018 Started on June 10, 2018
air
land

I will be traveling with a team to the Peruvian Amazon to study thermal river systems. Along the way, I will trek around Cusco hitting locations such as Machu Picchu, Puno, Lake Titicaca and more! I am excited to immerse myself in the culture of Peru, using all that I experience and learn along the way to create classroom materials for teachers! Part of my mission is to aid The Boiling River Project in learning more about thermal river systems of the Amazon and to promote the protection of this important and sacred space.


2 weeks: Solo Trek 2 weeks: field science in the amazon

http://www.boilingriver.org/

The field science portion of this expedition was funded by the Virginia Association of Science Teachers through the Donna Sterling Exemplary Science Teaching Award The solo trek portion of this expedition was funded personally and by family and friend sponsors

June 10, 2018
Expedition's summary cannot exceed 240 characters

Tags: 
Did you know that the National Geographic Society is currently offering Explorers a variety of funding opportunities in the fields of conservation, education, research, storytelling, and technology? To learn more and apply for a grant click here.
If you're not interested in applying for a grant, click continue below
Mission Underway

Friends, it's been nearly two weeks since my return from the field. I still have that cough. A week ago, I went to the doctor with some nudging from Michael and a text from Andres. It turns out, my biggest souvenir from the Amazon was pneumonia. Since then, I have been on antibiotics, an inhaler, Sudafed, and delsym. I can honestly say I had no idea it was that bad until literally today. I have been looking back at pictures from the field, especially the last few days and I looked terrible. I did not see it at the time, nor did I realize just how low my energy and bad my symptoms were until yesterday when I felt nearly like myself again in the classroom. I am thankful for Michael, urging me to go ahead to the doctor, I was prepared to wait another week. I cannot begin to imagine what would have happened, how bad it would have become had I waited until today to seek treatment. I still have a bit more recovery time but I can tell you that I ate much like a teenage boy today, which is definitely a great sign. I have been able to sleep through the night the last several days as well, which I know is doing wonders for my recovery.


A few field notes: A week ago, I was asked to do a facebook live event for a National Geographic group titled: Women of Impact. It went very well and I could not be happier, more humbled, and excited that I was asked to host the event. The group is filled with inspiring women changing the world; I love learning about everyone and their stories. I also have something in the works with Longwood University, my Alma Mater which I am excited to work on. Soon, I will begin building curriculum based on this field season, working on presentations for an upcoming conference, as well as a few journal publications. I have a lot of plans and big ideas in the works right now, I can't wait to share them with you all soon as they develop further. Also, on the horizon, is my next expedition to Galapagos in November! I have a blog set up for that expedition as well under the title "Endemic Species of Galapagos" if you want to follow there as well!

My friends, thank you for being here. It means the world to me and I can't wait to share more thoughts about this expedition as they come to me through reflection and spinoff projects here. Stay tuned, amigos.

image-1 image-1 image-1

Home. Today, I arrived home and was greeted at the airport by my little family. Gabi and Luke had to look at me three times from afar before realizing it was me. When they did though, they ran and nearly tackled me. Tears welled in my eyes. Michael joined them and I could literally feel the love of our little family, all huddled together in the airport.


Traveling home was full of little surprises. The first being as I boarded my flight from Lima to Miami. I had a bottle of water to enjoy on the plane that was confiscated at the gate. Who knew you couldn't bring it on the flight? Not a lot of people. The amount of bottled water confiscated was enough to hydrate a soccer team. When arriving in Miami, going through customs had a little upgrade. Rather than being interviewed by a person, we used kiosks to claim our good and answer all of the necessary safety questions. This certainly streamlined the process, but was a definite surprise.

My flight to Charlotte, NC, was slightly delayed, but that is okay because I had quite the layover there, where I planned to sleep in the airport. I was definitely not excited about it but it was the easiest option.

While I tried to get comfortable in the Charlotte airport, an angel came in the form of an American Airlines employee, handing me a blanket. This was a great surprise and helped me be as comfortable as possible in my makeshift bed for the night. I am hoping my half-asleep self said thank you, and if not, universe, please bless this gentleman. This was not at all in the scope of his job or responsibility but he extended this kindness for which I am very grateful.

The commute home was uneventful otherwise, but did bring a great deal of sadness for me. This was the difficult end to an amazing expedition.

Thank you for taking this journey with me. It was amazing and your love, support, and strength sustained me through it all.

I have a lot to process here but stay tuned, I know there will be many debrief postings as I reflect on this experience and have more to share with you all.

Until then, friends, good night.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Breakfast. As I awoke this morning, all I could think about was breakfast. Another great sign, I was very hungry. I did not have a fever anymore, thank goodness. I was not holding my breath here though, this fever was tricky. Today, we would fly to Lima for the night and then I would begin my two and a half day journey home.


During the flight, I was able to sit next to Andres and he filled me in on pictures and videos from the days in the jungle that I missed. I was incredibly grateful and loved seeing the parts of the river I was not able to visit this field season. We had some time to talk about what happens next with data and what I planned to build based on this experience that would ultimately benefit students, teachers, and the nonprofit The Boiling River Project. I am so incredibly excited about our next steps and collaborating on a few ideas in the near future. Who could have predicted back in 2014, when I met Andres that we would be here? I certainly had no idea, but I am eternally grateful for that chance meeting, my expert internet stalking, and Andres' choice to be my friend rather than take out a restraining order against me. A beautiful friendship was created and I could not be more happy about where it is taking us!

Upon arriving in Lima airport, we knew that we would soon part ways with Andres. As this realization hit me, literally as we were saying goodbye and getting into two different uber rides, I fought tears again. Another piece of me was leaving and it was another indication that my first expedition was coming to an end quicker than I wanted. Each time we had to say goodbye to a team member, it grew more difficult. This time, we were losing our Superman, our team leader, the man who brought this team, no, this family together. I knew it was not goodbye, we have a lot more work to do together, but any "see you later" with family is difficult.

Marshall, Wesley, and I were soon on our way to downtown Lima to enjoy a bit more of the city before both of these guys would leave me alone. The final team member. We enjoyed dinner and planned some sightseeing. As we wrapped up dinner and began our walk to Plaza de Armas, we heard a commotion in the streets an noticed barriers being placed along the path we planned to travel. Armed guards were coming to the area along with a large armored vehicle. What was happening and how do we get away from this area? There was some sort of demonstration happening with the sanitation workers in the city; they were marching and chanting and armed police were called to the scene. While we were curious how this might play out, we did not want to be the Americans on the nightly news, mixed up in some sort of uprising in the city. We quickly navigated our way from this particular area and explored. Eventually, we returned to the airport hotel where I was staying the night, and where Marshall and Wesley would hang out until they needed to catch their flights home tonight.

When you are the last team members standing, naturally you have some great ideas. One being to make a music video for another team member who would be releasing a single soon. This was our last hurrah together--we filmed our silly video and said goodbye to one another. Being the one left behind is tough but exhaustion is now taking over and I will soon be asleep, trying not to think about how this expedition is nearly over.

Tomorrow I begin my flights home which will take 2.5 days.

Today I slept until 10am. This is very unlike me, apparently, my body needed it (duh!). I took my time getting ready and headed to the hotel restaurant which was our hangout area. The team was assembled there, and I was incredibly excited to see them all. I was not very hungry, but I knew I needed to eat. I was feeling better, but a bit weak. My biggest concern this morning was that the fever was not going away. This morning, I was a little warm, but not nearly as hot as I was the previous day and night. This was a good sign, but the if the previous days taught me anything, it was to not trust the fleeting moments that I did not have a fever. I sat with the team, enjoyed some tea, and toast. Today, we would be meeting a Shipibo family that are friends of Andres. I have been looking forward to this for the entire expedition and saving my soles (money) for this exact moment. This would be later this afternoon, so I had more time to rest. I was hoping that I would continue to feel better and today would mark the day I would begin improving. Andres told me that he had a few days with a fever that seemed to stick around, so I was again comforted that I have whatever he has and that I would begin to feel better soon. He still had a cough, so I knew that would linger a bit.


I returned to my room to sleep a bit more before this afternoon's festivities. A few hours later, a knock graced my door and I awoke from my nap. McClain was here to tell me it was about time to meet the Shipibo family. I felt a bit groggy but not feverish. I think I am beginning to improve! Just in time to meet these artisans and support their family by buying souvenirs.

Before making the journey to meet the artisans, we were able to speak to a jaguar conservationist. A local brewery became a jaguar sanctuary when one day, a jaguar was found tied to the front door of their facility. Mobsters and drug dealers pride themselves with owning exotic animals; in this particular area jaguars were their pet of choice. When these animals become larger than anticipated, their owners then abandon them. When left at the brewery, they made a commitment to become a safe haven for these animals. We were hoping to be able to visit in person but that did not work out this time. Instead, we were able to hear of their conservation efforts and were amazed at their commitment and dedication to the cause.

The time had now arrived to meet the Shipibo family and our transport, to my GREAT SURPRISE were motortaxis. These are motorcycles with seating for about 3 adults attached to the back. Since arriving in Peru, I have wanted to take one of these and now was the time! The drive was magical with what seemed like thousands of motortaxis on the streets of Pucallpa.

Meeting the family of artisans was amazing, the children danced and sang for us and the families were so incredibly loving, warm, and welcoming. I loved being able to support them by purchasing some of their handmade goods.

When we arrived back to our hotel, I was hungry. Another great sign of recovery, regaining your appetite.

Tonight was magical, perhaps I will make a rapid recovery tonight. Here's to hoping.

image-1 image-1

Friends, I woke up this morning feeling so-so. I was unsure of my ability to complete field work today, my energy level was pretty low and my sinuses were going crazy. The thing about no air conditioning is that you really have no relief from the heat and humidity of the jungle. For a healthy person, this is livable, and perhaps just a mild annoyance if one at all. You actually acclimate rather quickly; you have no choice. When you are under the weather, the heat and humidity are terrible and relief from it consumes your every thought. My cough was worse now and my head was now beginning to hurt. You could read all of this on my face, I am certain, because every team member asked me how I was feeling with a sort of look on their face, anticipating a sad response. They were one hundred percent right, I was not any better although I did not feel feverish. We ate breakfast together and again, I was asked to take the day off. We would return to Pucallpa tomorrow around midday--I could rejoin the fieldwork tomorrow if I just took another day to recover. As you can imagine, this news was not what I wanted to hear although we all knew it was for the best. Tears filled my eyes as I realized I would need to sit another day out. I had slept last night from 7:30pm to 7am today and was not better. I did feel a little better, but it was not what I was hoping. Those who know me, definitely know that taking it easy, sitting out, not being a part of productivity is a fate worse than death. I knew though, from how I felt in this moment that I was not ready. Wesley and Dorsey were placed on "Becky duty", I can only assume that this is result of Andres knowing me pretty well--I might try to do work today although we all know I shouldn't. I resigned myself to a hammock and Wesley and Dorsey joined on either side. This wasn't a bad way to spend a sick day, with two family members by my sides, but we all know this was not so secretly killing me. I spent the morning sleeping, the fever definitely returned, I was sweaty from the illness and had chills.


After waking from a few hour nap, I felt nearly all better. Andres came to check on me and I told him of my improvement. He did not seem convinced, I think I still looked pretty bad. That makes sense because shortly after this moment, the fever would return. Before the fever returned, Wesley was able to capture some great imaged for me and help me record a video.

At lunch, Andres let us know that there were dark clouds on the horizon and rain was imminent. We would need to leave this afternoon to escape the rain and be able to leave the jungle by truck. If it were to rain and we stay, tomorrow, we would need to hike out of the jungle with all of our gear in tow. With Andres, myself, and now Kyle obviously sick, we would be fools to stay and chance having to hike out tomorrow. Andres confirmed trucks and hotel rooms for us all a day early, and we would be leaving this afternoon.

A wave of relief and great disappointment washed over me in that moment. The best thing for me now would be to be in a location with air conditioning to recover from my illness and that would happen in a matter of hours. My disappointment, as you can imagine, was in the fact that the last two days in the field, I was sick and unable to contribute to the team.

In the few hours waiting for our trucks, the fever returned with a vengeance. I felt the worst that I had in the last two days at that moment. I brought my bags from my room and slept in the hammock area. The team waited with me, which comforted me a bit; nothing makes you feel better than being surrounded by family when you are feeling at your worst. When I awoke to leave Mayantayacu, I fought tears. This time, it wasn't disappointment in missing out on fieldwork, these tears were different.

Why was I crying?

I realized in the drive out of the jungle, I was leaving a part of my heart there at Shanay-Timpishka. In 2014, when I first heard of this place, the project, Andres' passion, a little piece of my heart was already claimed by The Boiling River. In this field season, my whole heart was taken. I was crying because I was leaving a part of me here in Mayantayacu.

The drive to Pucallpa was filled with emotions. I was greatly looking forward to being in a hotel room with air conditioning and hopefully a bit of recovery from whatever illness I had. My fever was constant during the ride, checking into the hotel, and dinner. I barely ate dinner, I just was not hungry and was feeling quite terrible. I was able to drink juice and water, at least I was hydrated and getting some vitamin c in my system.

I am signing off for tonight, let's hope tonight's rest rejuvenates me a bit for tomorrow. We are supposed to take a couple small trips that I have been looking forward to; I would really like to go.

image-1 image-1

I woke up this morning feeling pretty terrible. My eyes were watering, my nose was running and I had a little cough developing. I attributed this all to the strenuous day I had yesterday. We met for breakfast and during our team meeting for the day, Andres asked that Kyle, Marshall, and I take the day off and take it easy. I think it was clear from my face that I was not feeling great. Marshall and Kyle also felt a bit off, so we took the day to relax and recover. This was the perfect time to pick a hammock at camp and own it for the day. While we rested, the remaining team members continued making observations and collecting data at a part of Shanay-Timpska called "Sacred Waters". I was incredibly disappointed to miss this portion of our fieldwork, I wanted to see this section of the river in person, but alas, you must take care of yourself. If I had any hope of contributing to the team tomorrow, I needed to rest today and recuperate.


I brought books and my journal with me to my hammock but all I did today was sleep. I developed a fever and had chills on and off all day. I did not want to admit that I was not getting better, but I really was not. At lunch, I felt like I was improving, as I ate my fever seemed to melt away and I was able to fuel my body with food. Upon returning to my hammock for more rest, however, the fever returned. I spent the afternoon wavering between feeling great and feeling terrible. I made sure to continue to hydrate and rest, hoping this would be a one-day thing. Andres was still not feeling 100%, but he was improving, which gave me hope. I was rather certain that whatever he has is what I now have, so I would gauge my recovery on his. A plus side to spending the day in a hammock was a chance sighting of Maestro Juan, the Shaman at Mayantayacu.

In early afternoon, just before dinner, I felt great. My energy level was down a bit, but I did not feel feverish any longer. Andres and I took some pictures for VAST (Virginia Association of Science Teachers) on site. We wanted to send them some love, being the group that orchestrated us meeting in 2014, as well as funding this portion of my expedition.

We enjoyed dinner as a team and then returned for our evening ritual of sitting in a circle and enjoying each other's company. At about this time, I felt feverish again and incredibly tired. The time is 7:30 and I am now in bed for the night. I need to sleep, my body is literally shutting down and I really want to rejoin the team tomorrow. Here's to hoping I wake in the morning feeling ready to work!

Goodnight all.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

August 12, 2018


Today, Marshall, Kyle, and myself would embark on a mission to study and collect samples from a thermal river that has not yet been studied. While this is incredibly exciting, it is also quite intimidating. Andres is still sick today, and so we would travel without our Superman. Pressure is on, Andres had recorded water-sampling protocol and gone over it in detail with Marshall, today we would use those protocols. We knew the day would be a full one, trekking to the site alone would be time consuming, difficult, and long. I can say that I was partially, mentally prepared for the day—the science, I could handle. I was also well aware that the trek was not going to be easy and would be quite long, Andres made that clear. I can honestly say though, nothing would have prepared us for what we would encounter. A lot was unknown. We knew the first part of the trek would take an hour, and we actually began about 15 minutes later than planned. With hugs, high fives, and “see you laters” we left the team at camp and headed up the first hill, perhaps one of the easiest portions of the day. We needed to meet Ever, our guide and peke peke driver for the day at the top of the second hill. Again, we were prepared for the hour trek that would begin our day. Marshall and Kyle had actually made this part of the trek two days earlier with the larger team who studied a different thermal system. They knew the way, the difficulty, and time it would take. I began the day, bright eyed and bushy tailed as I do most days, I am after all, a morning person and I was ready to complete today’s mission in particular. We would be using a thermal camera, sampling bottles and vials, GPS, and 360 camera. Nothing makes you feel more official as a field team member than using a thermal camera, I assure you.

After 20 minutes, we made it to the meeting point. Yes, this is the point it should have taken us an hour to reach, we made incredible time, probably because we were deathly afraid to be late, and miss Ever. This gave us some time to catch our breath and hydrate, which we definitely learned a few days prior when the team who set out on a similar mission came back sun burned and dehydrated. One of my personal goals for the day was to make sure the three of us made it back without sunburns and hydrated; I was not certain how the latter would work out, we would be away from a reliable water source and we only had the supplies we were carrying on our backs.

As we waited for Ever, we took in our location. This spot had an amazing view of jungle and rainforest area. You could also hear the percussive hums of bee swarms nearby. There was a large tree about 100 yards away and we were almost certain a rather large swarm called it home based on the humming we heard. One this was for sure, we did not want that swarm anywhere near us.

Before we knew it, Ever was there and we greeted with friendly hellos and sadly informing him that Andres was sick today and would not be joining us. Ever was also the guide and peke peke driver two days prior, so Marshall and Kyle had met him previously. Being a local, Ever was an incredible traveler in this terrain. Outfitted in a lightweight shirt, jeans, rubber boots, a hat, and machete, he was off quickly with little regard to the three of us struggling to keep up. Now, I must tell you, none of the three of us would readily admit at the time that we struggled to keep up, but by the end of the day and of course now in retrospect—we totally struggled! It was a great challenge though, to keep up with Ever, we did not want to disappoint or be the reason the trek lagged on, so off we went with a much faster pace than any of us would have kept on our own. Much of this portion of the trek was downhill, but do not think for half a second it was an easy downhill. The terrain was uneven, wet, and unpredictably steep in parts. I watched in awe, as Ever so effortlessly made his. He did not waiver, he did not hesitate. I breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to the edge of an area that overlooked a large body of water knowing that a peke peke ride would soon follow. What I did not anticipate was getting down to the peke peke itself. If I thought the sections we just passed were steep, I was about to meet it’s match; a very steep, soft soil cliff area that we would need to descend. Of course, Ever leads the way effortlessly, like a dancer, swiftly and gracefully making his way to the river’s edge. I could not tell you what Marshall and Kyle looked like as I was very concerned with myself; my feet, and my livelihood, as I began my descent. On parts of this section, there were small-etched stairs in the side of the cliff, but I use the term stair loosely. These were narrow graduations in the soil, not wide enough for your entire foot unless it was parallel with the step itself and even then, most of your foot would linger over the edge. We all made it safely to the boat and boarded with ease. We enjoyed a short ride to another shore with an equally steep cliff-like edge. This time we would need to ascend—the same etched stairs went to the top and I trusted them, along with my walking stick. Shortly after arriving here, we learned that this was Ever’s property. It was absolutely beautiful, overlooking a large river on one side and the other, hugging jungle and rain forest. Somewhere in the midst of all of this was a thermal river that had yet to be studied, and we would today for the first time and Andres was counting on us back at camp. That right there, kept me going all day. The most difficult parts of the trek were yet to come in the day, but we had no way of knowing that at this moment in time. We set off again, with Ever at the helm. We passed waterfalls, thick vegetation that grabbed at our legs and arms, steep edges with deep detritus threatening every foothold. I cannot overstate the steepness of our trek up and downhill. I am talking, calves burning steep. In my head, Richard Simmons was on repeat saying, “May calving are burnING!” in a way that only his voice could manage. There were a few times during the day that those words escaped my mouth and were met by grunts of agreement from Kyle and Marshall. We would definitely feel that soreness tomorrow. At one point, on our way to the thermal river, the trek was so steep; I literally resorted to skiing on my bottom from tree to tree. I sat down, allowed gravity to pull me down as I steered my body to meet with a tree. Once I hit the target, I held on, repositioned, and butt skied to the next tree until I made it to the bottom of the area. The guys may have found this entertaining, but it was the only way I was making it to the end. Detritus, by the way, is a very tricky terrain to navigate while you never really know what you are traversing upon and oftentimes, you find that the thick leaf litter was just covering a hole which you could easily fall into if you did not test with a stick or light prodding with your foot before fully committing to a step. That was incredibly important on this trek. There were many times we found these sort of foot holes and rotten trunks that, had we blindly trusted, could have ended up with major injury. Before too long, about 2 hours, we made it to a beautiful waterfall, which we followed to its end. To our great surprise, it was the thermal river.

Now the fieldwork began. We were tasked with collecting water samples, creating a map and recording anecdotal notes on the area, as well as taking 360 photographs. As we got settled in, I pulled out the thermal camera that attaches to my phone to begin identifying areas safe for walking and not, areas we would need to take samples, and a general overview of the area and how water seemed to flow, mix, and distribute heat along it’s path. As with any data collection, there are protocols or procedures you must follow to ensure the data you collect is valid and the process used remains consistent. This is especially important with longitudinal studies, studies over a period of time. Validity of data depends on many factors, but I believe that the majority of it lies within your protocols (following them!) and proper labeling. Nothing ruins data faster than improper and/or incomplete labeling. Initial measurements with the thermal camera had me worried, the app was acting funny, images jumping, colorations inconsistent, and the app itself would close on its own, with no warning. At times, the app was not recognizing the thermal camera attachment and would not read temperature values at all. This was all happening that the beginning of our time on site which was causing me a bit of concern. I relayed initial temperature measurements to Marshall so he could at least begin sample collection and I promptly plugged the camera into a charger, hoping that for some reason the battery had drained during the trek and that re-charging would solve the issue. Otherwise, we were on site with no data available after my initial reads. This would be a big failure, all due to equipment malfunction. In the meantime, I set out with the 360 camera to collect images along the site. My personal goal with these images was to have so many that Andres felt as thought he was there with us and knew the site as well as we would upon returning. We would also create a map of the site, but this would be an added layer, which would enhance the map. This site was substantially smaller than Shanay-Timpishka and did not come close to reaching 99C temperatures recorded there. The highest recorded value on site here was 74.8C, which is incredibly hot, definitely thermal, but not close to The Boiling River. The size of this size was incredibly small in comparison, and a lot shallower. Patterns in the sediment were similar but vegetation and algae near and within the water itself were different. This water was also clear but we did not feel comfortable tasting it, especially begin the first time it has been studied and sampled. With all three of us hard at work collecting our data, time passed quickly. Marshall was ready for the thermal camera again for more specific readings and samples, so I returned to his area to help, hoping the entire time that just charging the camera would fix the glitches we encountered before, and we would be able to get all of the samples we needed for Andres. Charging did the trick. This time, I was able to connect the thermal camera and launch the app with no hitches. Marshall used the camera and Kyle and I helped him collect the last few samples he needed. As we wrapped up our data collection, I recalled the trek here and wondered how we would make some of those passes again, especially the one where I skied on my butt. Ever let us know the trek back was different, although not easier. At this point, easy was not a word in our field season vocabulary. What IS in our lexicon is “worth it”, which every thing we are doing absolutely is. We hydrated, snacked, and packed for the return trek. We headed down river and quickly realized, we would be crossing through the thermal system. Yes, through water that is hot enough to scald; we would walk through it. We did not know at this first crossing that we would do this several times and each time, the water seemed to be deeper and hotter. Mind over matter. This was going to be a real mental game with real danger involved. Again, with Ever leading, every part of the trek seemed so effortless, jump from algae covered rock to algae covered rock through 80C water? No problem—for the local who routinely traversed the area.

For the three Americans in sandals. . .

Okay, two of us in sandals, one in boots, but none of us in rubber boots that would actual protect us in case of a misstep. Spoiler alert: we made it through unscathed, but that is not to say that is was in any way easy, that we did not doubt our every step and hop, or that we did not escape near falls every other step. It was difficult. I doubted every one of my steps and hopes. There were several times I could almost feel my skin bubbling up on near scalding falls. Ever was amazing. He was there with hands, legs, and machete, working to get us through safely. The return trek, after we crossed the river several times, was a lot less clear than the trip to the river. Ever seemed to swing his machete non-stop clearing small paths for us to travel with the least amount of nagging thorns and leaves in our faces. On steep sections, Ever swung his machete in measured strokes, creating steps in the soil. So THAT’S how it worked? I instantly thought of the elf-like steps in the cliff sides by the peke peke ride. They must have been created by machete, like the ones he made just now in front of my face. Amazing and again—an effortless swing by Ever with his machete crafted them. Everything about Ever was incredible, his friendly personality, effortless travel through the jungle, and sense of humor as we struggled to keep up. The rest of this portion of the trek was a blur of exhaustion and mental reminders to just keep going. A few parts stick out in my mind though, seeing monkeys, seeing our campsite on the complete opposite site of the jungle through a hole in the canopy, taking a short respite at Ever’s house to rehydrate, and just sit, and oh yes, Marshall and I being left in the dust and walking at least 100 yards in the wrong direction before realizing it. I can almost bet, while waiting for us, Ever and Kyle enjoyed a few laughs. After bringing us by peke peke to the last leg of the trek, we parted ways with Ever. This was a sad moment for us all because he is such a great person. I am almost certain Kyle, Marshall, and I were all grateful for Ever’s pace through the trek as well, it certainly pushed us and made us keep going. The last 2 hours, we were on our own; we would have to create the pace, push each other, and make it back to camp. This last leg was incredibly difficult, but not for obvious reasons. We had traversed the most difficult portions of today, not that this section would be easy. At this point, however, we were incredibly tired. That alone made us stop more than we wanted. We also knew we had one more sample to take on the way back which would take a little bit of time although by now, we were water sampling protocol pros! As the sun was beginning to set for the day, we did have some relief from the heat and, thanks to Ever, our water was replenished just before this last leg. At each of our stops, I took a picture with my phone and 360 camera to document just how tired, sweaty, and nearly defeated we were. Again, we knew the most difficult parts of the trek were complete and we had all of the samples we set out to collect; we just needed to return to camp. This last leg was full of the three of us encouraging each other and ourselves to just keep going. Most of this was unspoken, we all knew the exhaustion we felt, we also knew we were nearly home. As we made the final decent on rock steps to camp, cheers of excitement from the rest of the team greeted us. We were grateful to see them and hear the greetings, but I think they were as grateful in seeing us as well. High fives and sweaty hugs were plentiful; our family was reunited. I knew before this moment that our field team was not just a team; we were family. At that exact moment, however, it was glaringly apparent we all felt it. This team was a family and we loved one another. We celebrated each other’s successes and encouraged each other when things weren’t always looking or feeling the best. In a few short days, we would be saying goodbye, in this exact moment, I did not ever want that time to come.

That night, we gathered in a circle, like we did every night to share in laughs together. This night, Andres had a table with all of the water samples gathered from the new thermal river as well as the ones he and the team gathered today at shanay-timpishka. We ran tests, recorded values, and exclaimed out loud each time something new, exciting, or interesting came up in the numbers. At one point, I pulled up my chair next to him so I could see the data being collected and revel in it with him. Such an exciting time, different from the actual collection of data. At this point, you are seeing some of the answers pop up in the form of numbers, especially exciting with the first samples from the new river! This was brand new data, never seen or recorded previously, making that particular moment, one of great importance and significance.

I go to bed tonight, still thinking of my family here. I cannot imagine what a few days from now will be like; saying goodbye. Before the tears come, I must bid you all adieu!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Today would be a day to remember for sure and would mark a significant change in our field season. Principal Investigator/Scientist fell ill and needed rest desperately. Two days prior, while Wesley and I worked on 360 imagery of Shanay-timpishka, Andres brought a small team to a thermal river system that had not yet been studying. There are two of these to be studied for the first time ever, this field season. He literally brought as many team members as would fit in one peke peke. The magic number was 7 plus the owner/driver of the peke peke. It was a tight squeeze when loaded in the peke peke with all of their gear, the water grazed the top lip of the small boat, which I can only imagine creates for interesting feelings in your stomach and thoughts in your head. That was a day in full sun, due to deforested jungle space. Most of the team returned sunburned and dehydrated. No doubt, that took a toll on all of their physical bodies and energy levels. It would seem that this was a breaking point for Andres' immune system as he was now ill. He took the day off, rested, and hydrated. In the meantime, he doled out tasks to each team member, so that even without our Superman, we could continue with the goals of this field season.


This morning, we would also say goodbye to Prosanta, our Ichthyologist, Ana, and Gabriele who we affectionately called "Team Fish". Since the heavy rains yesterday, Prosanta lost a day of possible specimen collection and ID. He resorted to leaving earlier than planned today in order to visit the previous site one more time, and hopefully collect a few more specimens before returning to the United States.

Today, my task, along with Wesley, was to complete the 360 imagery we began of Shanay-timpishka. We still needed good images of Mermaid and Curtain Falls and the trek in between. We were a lot more confident today in completing this task while we had finally mastered the light conditions and art of hide and seek with a 360 camera. Little did we know that today, a few new challenges would be thrown in our way. Mostly, these challenges being in the form of human beings. Being a Saturday, there were many people enjoying the river, who could blame them? It's absolutely beautiful, peaceful, and relaxing. This becomes a problem though when you need to complete 360 imagery of the river. Of course, we were not going to ask them to leave or even "hide" along with us, we might be scientists, but we aren't socially awkward.

Mermaid Falls is a beautiful location with cold water, while it is North of Yacumama, the source of warm and cold water. The water and rock have a tricky relationship, it's actually geologically fascinating. The water shapes and carves these caverns in the area. These aren't any caverns though, they are perfectly cylindrical in shape and somewhat smooth. They are perfect for a refreshing dip and to lounge around in the tropical, jungle climate. It just so happens that five people were doing just that, enjoying each other's company and a little respite in this area. Wesley and I engaged them in conversation and enjoyed the cool water upon our feet. It was pretty clear they would be here a while and that we would need to be creative in how we took shots of this area. We resigned ourselves to just move past this landmark until we could take photos without them being seen. This was pretty easy actually, we were able to get great shots, human free, just a few meters north of them. The challenge was, however, that if someone stood at the top of the waterfall, they would be in the shot. As we walked past, no one was at that point, but of course, once we staged the camera, Wesley hid around the corner, and I "mission impossible" style hid in a crevice with tarantula nest and other creepy crawlies, one of the people stood upon the waterfall. Mind you, this particular hiding spot, for me, required me to flex my entire core to stay hidden and trigger the camera. I literally watched the guy from my phone, with the 360 camera for when he would bend over or sit down, or possibly decide to slide down the falls and SNAP. I took a few pictures.

Wesley and I traveled a few meters further and set up for the next joining image. This time, I was crouched behind a large rock, so comfort wasn't a worry at this particular moment, but as I went to snap the shot, I could hear and see the group from Mermaid Falls, headed our way. Dang. As we patiently waited for them to pass, they inquired about what we were doing, which makes a lot of sense, since I somewhat sketchily popped up from behind a rock, in the middle of a river. Then Wesley emerges from some vegetation. I actually might be worried if they HADN'T asked what we were doing. As they journeyed forward, I was fearful that they were headed to Curtain Falls which is the end (actually one of the freshwater sources) of the river. It is a waterfall dead end. If they were traveling there, we would in no way be able to capture shots there. Or, we would try our charm and explain what we were doing, and see if they might be game to "help", either way, I knew it wouldn't be simple.

In the meantime, by my foot, something slightly large fell from a palm fan. It looked red, so I knew it must be something I had not yet seen. When I got close enough to see it, it was a giant, hairy caterpillar. The hair closest to its body (shortest) was orange, and the longer hairs which stuck out further were black. It looked incredible, but not being familiar with this creature, I decided to treat it as if it were venomous and backed away. By this time, we could safely take our 360 images in this area. During that time, we also were able to see that the group of friends was headed up to a hut in higher elevation which meant, Curtain Falls would be clear. Yes!

As we continued along the trek, things went rather smoothly, random passersby would be along, delaying great shots, but we were successful in getting what we needed. One shot, in particular, was so important to me that I hid in some thick vegetation. What I did not anticipate or notice was that this vegetation was lined with thorns. I was stuck, seriously, stuck. My shirt, pants, and even hair were tightly secured. At the exact moment that I realize I am pretty stuck, I hear it. It's a sound Wesley and I heard on our previous adventure and to be honest, it scared us into submission. Now, mind you, it may have scared us pretty badly, but do you think we thought to ask anyone of the team members what it was to either ease our fear or confirm that our heads might be torn off by a jungle mammal? NOPE. We never shared the story. So, picture this, my friends. I am stuck in thorny vegetation, and this sound begins. The sound signaling my demise, this time for real, since I am stuck in the vegetation. Imagine a lightsaber from star wars. Vruuuuuum, Vruuuuum. Right? Now, couple that sound with a large winged sort of flap. I'm talking, condor wingspan flapping sound. The Vruuuuum sounds became faster and more frequent and sounded as if they were IN MY RIGHT EAR. So what did I do?

I closed my eyes and snapped a few shots of our location. I had to. This shot was important. Even if I was about to die, Wesley could recover the camera and share the pictures with the team. End of story. I am not being funny, these were the thoughts running through my head, although I admit, it's hilarious in retrospect.

I tore myself out of the thorns and called for Wesley. I told him the story but most importantly, I got the shot!

My friends, I wish I could tell you this is the end of today's journey, but alas, it is not at all. We still had Curtain Falls and to grab shots of Mermaid Falls on the return trek.

Next stop was Curtain Falls and as we encounter the area, we see our most difficult obstacle yet; a couple that is enjoying each other's company under the waterfall with very little clothing. Okay, you guessed it, skinny dippers. AWKWARD. Now, we could just walk away, but we didn't want to be socially awkward here and above all else, we needed the shots. Needed. Them. Wesley and I decided to take a break on the far side of the area, this is a large open space with a waterfall, large pond, vegetation, and rocky resting spots. This entire time, we had not stopped for water or to eat a snack like we should have, so this was the perfect spot to just relax. Wesley and I discussed our plan of attack. How long are we going to wait? Should we tell them what we are doing? Should we maybe wait for a certain time, then approach them? In my wildest expedition dreams, never did this scenario appear. My first reaction was, you know what, let's just take our time, hydrate, eat a snack, and see what happens. Maybe they will just leave. We decided 20 minutes was a good wait time before coming up with a new plan. As the twenty minutes is passing, I start to really investigate the area. Is there a way to take the photos but use natural foliage and angle to block their presence. Yeah, maybe. Guess what I notice next, their clothing and daypacks are on a rock near us--this was going to be even more tricky. We knew we needed multiple shots in the area anyway, it's large and now we have people and their belongings to hide. Twenty minutes pass, and I have it. I picked the shot locations and my hiding spots. I set up the tripod and check my phone for humans and their belongings. Success. As I am about to snap the shot, in my phone, I see the couple on the move. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I cannot snap the shot quick enough. Now, they are literally behind the water, falling from the rock. The literal, Curtain Waterfall. This could totally work. I hide, check my phone and the moving water conceals their location. YES! Time to snap. Noooooooooo--the Bluetooth connection is weak and the camera does not want to snap the picture, even better, the couple is again, on the move. Now, this is going to sound creepy, but I assure you, very necessary. I stay hidden and track their movements until they are once again concealed with foliage, I am able to snap the picture and we are good to go at this angle. We move to the east to find a location with a good angle, but partially hidden in vegetation. This would conceal them and their belongings, but give us a contrasting angle. I am pleased to tell you that we were successful in getting sufficient shots with this creative problem-solving. Interestingly enough, that is one of the pillars of National Geographic Education's Learning Framework: Creative Problem Solving. I found this quite comical as we headed back towards Mermaid Falls. We had already scoped 3 shots in this location, what we really needed was cleared space. No. People. This was an area that with any people present, would be able to work like Curtain Falls did. To our great surprise and relief, we found no people at Mermaid Falls, but wait, what was that colorful stuff on a rock? Clothing. Oh great. We scoped the area for people, to make sure we were not encroaching upon another situation like the last. No people, just belongings. That's okay, we can definitely use good angles here to escape having those belongings in the shot. Wesley and I actually found about 5 angles we liked, and quickly, and easily shot them all. One of the shots required us to straddle to of those craters carved by water. We could not tell how deep they were and did not want to risk injury here, so we relied on brute quad strength.

With all shots successfully taken, we celebrated with a few selfies in our favorite portion of the river. This was a small waterfall section you get to climb up and down during the trek. It is absolutely stunning and kind of an underdog along the trek. It is greatly overshadowed by other stunning views; I am not sure it is even named. It sounds like Wesley and I need to name it! We shared hugs, selfies, and celebratory splashes in the water before returning to camp for the night. Success; there is nothing quite like it especially when a task is littered with obstacles.

image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 17 Monsoon Day
Beginning at 4am today, it rained. I am not talking about your average rainy day. I am talking monsoon type rains. We experienced heavy rains from 4-10am which caused the boiling river to have incredibly high water and sediment levels. What this really means is that none of our expedition groups could complete their tasks today. What is also meant was that the temperature was temporarily low enough that we could swim in Shanay-timpishka.

Instead of the pristine-clear conditions that normally are shanay-timpishka, it looked like Willy Wonka’s chocolate river due to sediment washed into the river from the heavy rains. While this was interesting to see what it really indicates is one of the negative effects of the illegal deforestation happening in the area. You see, rain forest and jungle soil is moist however the dense root systems of the plants and trees keep that soil in place, even in heavy rain conditions. When you take away those trees and vegetation, the soil dries, cracks, and is prone to erosion.

Although that bleak realization hit us all, probably at the same moment, we decided to make the best of the morning by enjoying the opportunity to swim in the normally boiling water. This was a special treat for so many reasons, one of which being Andres’ first time ever swimming in this section, and we shared it with him! While enjoying some downtime together, bonding, laughing, and just being—we could slowly begin to feel waves of heat returning to the river’s currents. This was actually quite magical in the moment, but none of us wanted to end up like countless animals we had already observed, cooked in this very water at temperature. The team paraded to the shower to clean off, which was another real treat. This shower has a cold water stream leading to it and you bring the hot water with you normally, for your shower. Today, the hot water is dirty, and so we would be dousing ourselves in cold water only which is refreshing, but also quite chilling and almost jarring at times. This is an open shower always, so you always bathe with your swimsuit on, I don’t want any of the readers thinking otherwise especially with my depiction of our happy parade to this area. We were not full on showering in this case anyway, we were merely helping one another quickly rinse sediment off our bodies and get some quick refreshment before changing back to our clothes in the privacy of our rooms for lunch.

After lunch, a small group of us returned to Shanay-timpishka which was rapidly warming to temperatures for fish sampling once more. We wanted to return to a few spots from previous trips to see if the rainwater had influenced or allowed and fish species to travel further down river than normal. This was actually quite a treat. The river had a new persona today with its new hue, varying temperatures, and levels. Traversing along it had new and different challenges for us, one of which being, hotter water at higher than normal levels. We had to be creative in how we avoided injury and burns. A few locations included briskly traversing through the warm waters. My biggest fear here was the temperature rising to a degree in the time we would take to return that was higher than we could tolerate. In this case, we would most likely need to travel up and in that moment, I did not see that as a possibility. I guess we would cross that bridge (wait, there isn’t one!) when we came to it later. The good news is that we collected a few more of a particular species we were hoping to find. The bad news is that high waters prevented us from traveling as far as we intended. Nevertheless, I gained a lot of experience here with fish sampling and ID protocols and learned a lot more about a few of my teammates. I think you learn a lot about people when your literal life is in one another’s hands.

Here’s to hoping tomorrow is dry enough to return to normal data collection!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 16 360 image project


Today, the team would be split into smaller groups to tackle tasks more efficiently and more importantly, go to different locations. My task was to capture 360 imagery along the river with no people visible. Piece of cake, right? Let’s talk about this, shall we? Using a 360 camera is terrific because you are able to capture the entire 360-degree picture of a certain point. Now, think about that for a moment, a camera that sees all angles, but you must someone be hidden. The great news is, you can remote trigger these cameras using an app on your phone. The bad news is, this is a difficult hide and seek game to play. With our first few attempts, Wesley and I quickly realized that I had to be within a few feet to successfully trigger the camera. Usually, outside of the jungle, you can be a bit further away. Now, not only would I need to be pretty close, but also concealed from the picture. This turned out to be a big test of critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills along with muscular endurance and flexibility.

Some of my favorite hiding spaces had me feeling like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, handing upside down, head all the way back as I could manage, arms handing into holes where I was hoping I wouldn’t be long enough to be bitten by an animal. Some were crevices in the rocks, where I could sneak into like a bed (barely), just below where I was able to hang the camera. Sometimes, I was nearly doing to splits, balancing on surfaces less than an inch in width. One notable hiding location was full of thorns which grabbed my shirt and hair so well that I was sure I was stuck and would need Wesley to free me. My hair was teased in true Amazon style which I proudly wore for the rest of the morning.

This task, we completed twice today due to lighting conditions. Take everything you know about good photography, and throw it out of the window. That’s what it is like using a 360 camera. They love (okay, the one I use!), loves flat light conditions. A shadow of any kind is incredibly problematic. I mean it will be pitch black or the lighted area will be like white space. You really need even and flat light. Overcast is best. Now, before my photography gurus come after me, I do understand that overcast conditions can be great for normal photography as well, my point here being it is nearly the ONLY good condition for 360 imagery. Of course, like everything else, there are exceptions. Let’s suffice it to say in jungle and rainforest, that blotchy light is the absolute worst. We had a feeling that morning, but confirmed with 3pm lighting, that this was true for our task. We nearly redid every shot, because while they were okay, they were not the best. Wesley and I happen to be very similar in our organization and work ethic so it was great to be partnered. Wesley also happens to be a great social media and photography contact. He has a great eye and experience here. We were only able to capture up to the Yacumama today, but we have solid shots which is what matters. Tomorrow, we will head out to finish the shots in the afternoon of the rest of Shanay-Timpishka.

Photo Credits today: Wesley Della Volla

image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 15 First Jungle Trek
Today, the full Expedition Team was together on a hike to see the extent of the Shanay-timpishka. We knew that there would be a location called mermaid falls and curtain falls, but other than that, we were along for an adventure of a lifetime. Today’s tasks included: 360 photography of field science in action, dip and cast netting for fish, testing water chemistry probe prototypes, and drone mapping the river.

Following the river has many challenges to it. Highest priority being: don’t fall into water that is boiling. That sounds pretty simple, but let me assure you, it was anything but that. The first section of the hike is probably the easiest, being mostly dirt and sand and about 6 inches in width. Throughout the hike, however, you encounter moss-covered rock, steep inclined, detritus of varying thicknesses, and paths than become closer to about 2 inches in width. The first half of the trek is by boiling water and the second is through and around cooler water. Neither of these is necessarily easier or more difficult, rather they have their own unique challenges. These are merely the terrain challenges, when you mix in temperature, humidity, and wildlife, things really get interesting. Tarantula webs are commonplace along the trek, as are other spider webs, and, thorned branches and vines. These are all things you readily see, oftentimes it is what you cannot see or do not at first notice that can be a larger hazard. Many different obstacles were given nicknames along the way. My two favorites are Hot Crotch Pass and The Butt-Cracker. Let’s take a moment to talk about Hot Crotch Pass. I am very proud to have named this particular obstacle. I know some readers are now questioning my IQ and maturity at this time, and that is okay. Allow me to explain why this particular obstacle obtained a slightly crude name. There is a section of the hike where you must straddle your body across the hot river and indeed, you know what is dangling above very hot, steamy water. Without missing a beat, every time you meet this obstacle, your crotch will be the recipient of sauna-like steam and heat. It lasts less than five seconds but you will undoubtedly know this pass when you reach it, or shall I say, cross it. Hot Crotch Pass. The Butt-Cracker, another great obstacle, I regret to inform you however, I was not the brains behind this name but I will gladly explain. Along the trek you will come to a set of uneven, asymmetrical rocks that you must choose how to successfully use in order to continue along the river. The middle of this assortment of rocks in a large one that runs perpendicular to the rock wall to your right and boiling river to your left. The rocks around it, which you must use for navigation, are all cone-like, revealing a very small portion on which you must balance your feet on either side of the larger perpendicular rock. So picture this: a collection of 4 cones in no particular pattern, then a trapezoid shaped rock where the top edge runs from right to left and which is taller than the cone-shaped rocks. The space, however, to too large from where you are standing to just place your foot on that trapezoidal rock’s edge, you must use a cone-shaped rock first. Now, on the other side of said trapezoidal rock are about 5 other cone-shaped rocks of carrying heights as well, which you must also use to continue. Now, cone, trapezoid edge, cone, then safely on the other side. I believe that this obstacle was named, lovingly, of course, Butt-Cracker, because of a couple reasons: many team members either fell or slipped their way through this one and the thought of falling here could only, in your imagination, end in some sort of butt ailment. Other than these two, I am not sure we specifically named any other obstacles, but sometimes we did dub certain areas “butt sliders” or “semi-butt slides” for what I am hoping are obvious reasons. Some obstacles are just easier on your butt with a little momentum to reach the end.

Yacumama Yacu means water, and mama means mother. The Yacumama is a serpent spirit within indigenous culture who protects the water, especially that of Shanay-timpishka. There is a rock in the shape of a serpent at one point in the river where the water changes from cool to warm. It is thought that the Yacumama is the reason; she watches over the water, protects it, and breathes life into it. Under this rock formation, between the water and rock is a small cavern which many bats call home. Interestingly enough, a flat rock on which you can stand close to Yacumama, is a common flying location of moths and butterflies. It is actually pretty unbelievable to observe. They seem to almost swarm this one particular rock, taking only short rests upon it. I know a few team members took videos here that I hope to share with you. It is nothing short of magical, I assure you. This is where I saw a blue morpho butterfly in person, for the first time. Absolutely beautiful creatures, and incredibly special to me and my students while we focus on this particular species in class. One thing I noticed about blue morphos is they seem to almost never rest. In fact, that day I saw many blue morphos and not once did I happen to see one stop to rest. Is it because of their size? They were noticeably larger than the other butterflies in moths we saw. I do not know the answer, but one thing is for sure, I can’t wait to tell my students about this observation and listen to their questions and hypotheses, then take a journey together to search for the answers.

Mermaid Falls This is an incredibly special location for all of us. This site contains cold water and is a location of the trek where it is easier to travel through water rather than around it. This site also contains naturally created, deep craters. One of these craters is large and deep enough for you to go inside and plunge your body vertically down. This particular crater is also the site of field team “baptism” as Andres put it, and all members of the team took part. I had the pleasure of going last, meaning a few things. I was able to watch it happen several times, making me hypothetically an expert by my turn, but at the same time, incredibly terrified as I waited. In my head, this was the scene from the movie Labyrinth, where a young girl must travel through a small, vertical tunnel lined with hands. I, of course, knew this wasn’t the case but that did not prevent my mind from “going there” so to speak. I can tell you that when it was my turn, I went second by second between very excited to scared. In the video of my experience, Just as I am lowering myself into the crater to begin, I say, “I don’t want to do this” but the smile on my face indicates otherwise. This was all a part of the mixed emotions bag that I was going through. I especially enjoyed seeing the photos of the event where my face shows you my exact thoughts at each point. The fact of the matter is, the experience was refreshing on a 90C day in the jungle.

Curtain Falls Marks the end of navigable Shanay-timpishka to the north. This is a generally open area with a beautiful waterfall, large pool of cold water, and lush, green vegetation. Navigation in this area is medium difficult mostly due to the moisture on all surfaces. On this particular day, I was tasked with navigating to the top of the waterfall. Some of the team were working with netting fish, taking water chemistry measurements, and/or photography. Today, I was on team drone, but that means the most difficult of the navigations in order to begin our work. This was our indoctrination to “true jungle paths” as Andres puts it, meaning there is no path, you just find a way to get there. The ground we had to cover was mostly detritus of varying depths. With each step, you had to literally gauge whether the amount you would sink in was worth that step or not. This was a fun game of, will I plummet into the 6 foot or less depth pool of water or will the detritus here sustain my weight until the next one? I assure you looking back is a lot more entertaining than being in the moment. There mere fact that I am retelling this to you should prove that we survived, but there were definitely times of foot slippage, butt sliding, and vine trusting that happened along the way that kept our small team of 4 grounded. We made it and accomplished our drone tasks well.

On the trek back to camp for lunch, I was able to help out “team fish” in collecting specimen as well which was a great experience in the field. I learned a lot about the protocols, Ichthyologist Prosanta uses and enjoyed seeing the documentation and ID process in action.

This evening, we enjoyed dinner together and gathered together afterwards with our solar puff lights for what would end up being some fun bonding time.

Never have I been a part of a team where we all truly gelled and did so within 24 hours of knowing one another. Truly special. Truly unbelievable. Truly, a testament to Andres Ruzo, who brought us all together.

Happy 10th Wedding Anniversary to my husband and I, by the way. I hid a gift for him in our house and put an "appointment" in his calendar to find it. I hope he did!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 14 Pucallpa
3am is early, in case you were wondering. I am not talking about waking up at 3am, I mean OUT THE DOOR at 3am. Naturally, knowing of this early departure time, I could not get to sleep last night. Sure enough, the time came, my alarm went off, and I was up, showering, and hustling to the lobby to hop in a taxi to the airport, of course remembering to check for my wallet this time. Getting to the airport proved to be a much bigger deal than planned. I have to brag about the driver of my taxi, although we left last, we arrived first, by a LONG SHOT. Great for three of us, but panic would strike our hearts as we checked everyone in at the kiosk and had to just wait, and watch the seconds pass on our watches. We needed everyone to get there. We needed this plan to work. Time was definitely ticking. We were cutting it particularly close, but everyone’s wonderful face began to show up and we ushered everyone through to check their bags. Literally, they had to just place them on the scale at the desk, but again, that takes time; time we were watching fly out of our grasp. Each person who made it was on their own to hustle to security and get to the plane. It was time to just get whoever could make it in time and the others would stick together and make it when they could. I was one of the first three through, sweating my anxiety out as I navigated security. This is a great time to mention that we were travelling with equipment that often raises eyebrows. I assure you, it is nothing out of the ordinary, but drones in particular can be tricky to navigate through security. And, oh yes, my friends, I ended up with one of the pelican cases with a drone, that did not belong to me. I was READY to hand that puppy off to its actual owner but Roger was not anywhere to be seen. So here are a few scenarios playing in my mind: I get detained and questioned about the drone. The drone is confiscated. They find out I am carrying a carryon that I “did not pack/does not belong to me” and who knows what happens then. As I make my way closer to the conveyor belt, I continue to look for Roger, the one to whom said drone belongs. Not. In. Sight. Okay, so I worked out in my mind that my game plan, if detained and questioned was to stay close to the other pelican case and copy their answers. That is not as creepy as it sounds, they are also on the team, we have two drones. I was also going to answer with vague drone answers and if more specific information about the drone was necessary, let them know this is a shared instrument with the team and I do not know more details specifications. When all else fails, name drop National Geographic. This was seriously my game plan. I played out several conversations while I unloaded my laptop, and data collection devices, took off my shoes, walked through the metal detector, and retrieved my belongings afterwards. You know what’s awesome, no hassle at all. Everything flew through and I was given the green light. Now, I had to actually make it onto the plane. As we hustled, we saw the gate was changed, it was a lot closer, as in 34 gates closer, SCORE. The first three of the team, Wesley, Marshall, and I speed walked to that gate and immediately were ushered through to the bus that would take us to the plane. There was no line, which usually is great, but in this case meant time was really working against us and only 3 of us were here. We stayed near the door of the bus and watched as onesies, twosies, the team made it to the bus, all with a look of sheer panic across their faces. We watched with joy as the entire team made it, but one. Where was our last team member, Kyle? We knew what must have happened, Kyle has some data collection probes that always seem to be questioned. They make it through, but they take some time. Literally, as the bus started up to move, there he came! He made it as literally, the last passenger. WHEW. This was a definite relief.

After the flight, we went through the process of checking in to our research site. This marked the end of any possible connection to the outside world until after our fieldwork was complete.

The journey into the jungle was one of many fragrances. From a new variety of flora, different ways of cultivating agriculture, discarding waste, cooking foods, livestock, creating heat for homes, and even creating charcoal. I was fascinated to observe how charcoal was created and the unforgettable smell of this process. It is also interesting how the earth smells differently in different locations. We rode into our site, which was three hours by the way, via Toyota Tacomas. I absolutely love these trucks. I have always wanted to own one and these, in particular, were outfitted similarly to the Jurassic Park trucks. You’re welcome for the visual. It is actually quite fitting given the flora of the jungle and rainforest that would thicken as we drew nearer to our home for the next two weeks. Some unfortunate sites along the way were cattle, deforested space, and illegal mining activity. I know what you are thinking, why are cattle an unfortunate site. Well my friends, cattle are not indigenous to jungle or rainforests. Cattle are used to “man” deforested sites by squatters. They also devour any vegetation present ensuring that deforested areas remain just that, especially if those cattle are younger in age. I do not want to leave you with this negative image in your mind, although it is necessary in order to combat negative impacts on this sacred and threatened area. I am sure I will touch on this again soon.

As we drew closer to our research home base, the plants grew thicker, fuller, greener, more fragrant, and colorful. The birds, in particular, created a symphony of welcome, or so I thought of it. But the kicker here was yet to come. As the truck began to slow, I saw it for the first time. Tears welled in my eyes, my heart began to race, and my breath was literally taken away. I reached my arm to grasp Dorsey's, who was seated next to me. I looked at her and literally, audibly gasped, smiled and cried. I saw steam rising through and above the trees. This was it. THE Boiling River. Shanay-Timpiska. Since 2014, I dreamed of being here, seeing it, feeling it, experiencing it, and researching it. As I type this for you, I am crying again. It is truly a wonder. I jumped out of the truck immediately, with no regard to anything else, I needed to be close to the river. There is was in all it’s heat, energy, sacred being, and wonder; Shanay-Timpishka. I said it out loud, “Shanay Timpishka” with a ridiculous smile on my face, tears on my cheeks and an incredible wish to just take it all in.

And that I did. In a blur, I brought my belongings to my room, received my mosquito net tutorial, and short tour of the campsite.

After that, I was on the rocks, by her side. I felt the warmth of the water on the rocks and soaked it in like a lizard, flat on my belly, head to the side, eyes closed. The steam from the water rose and convective currents, just like those of cloud formations, enveloping my entire being in sauna-like warmth and humidity. With each cool breeze from the trees, slight relief from the intense heat and humidity was welcomed and at times, was almost chilly. What a combination of senses coursing around me. This is what dreams are made of. No, this is what dreams are.

Dia 13 Lima


I left you last as I headed to Lima to meet the Field Season 10 Expedition Team.

Today could have gone horribly wrong.

My flight from Cusco to Lima was a bit delayed, which has kind of been status quo for me travel wise in South America. With this particular delay, however, I was a bit less patient. You see, while I was awaiting my delayed flight, my WhatsApp Field Season 10 group was blowing up with messages from everyone about where they were, where they were meeting for coffee, etc, all the while I was STUCK IN CUSCO! I just wanted to be with everyone, meet them, and get a feel for my team for the next couple weeks. When I make it to Lima, my bag promptly comes through the conveyor belt, I easily navigate the airport to the taxi desks. I am happily greeted Taxi Green and set off to the rendezvous point for the team. As I enjoy the taxi ride, I search out of the window for familiar places. While I have never been to Lima, or South America for that matter, I do make it a habit to “google stalk” my destinations ahead of time so I have at least some idea of where I will be and landmarks. I begin to see familiar sites and buildings as the taxi driver promptly stops in the middle of the street and bids me farewell. I felt a bit of pressure to quickly exit, while he was literally in the middle of the street, and one thing I have learned about Peru is that drivers enjoy using their horn to communicate. I did not want a car horn symphony to be the way I entered the hotel; the way the expedition team first met me, although admittedly, that’s a pretty terrific entrance…maybe. At any rate, I rush out and hurry up the beautiful white stairs of the hotel, doors opened for me, a warm welcome at the front desk, my Spanish again, carrying me through the experience; absolutely beautiful. The receptionist asks for my passport and I gladly reach for it in my left hand which is also carrying my jacket. Oh, I forgot, it’s in my bookbag! I open my book bag to find no wallet. My heart sinks. No way. No way did I leave it in the taxi, I have been in Peru for 2 weeks without incident, I couldn’t possibly have left it. I frantically begin searching my book bag, every centimeter. The truth is, I did leave it in the taxi. It was in my lap. I clearly remember placing my taxi receipt, credit card, and passport inside neatly to consolidate and organize thinking that was the best idea at the time. I still believe it was the best idea, had I then placed my wallet in my book bag or checked that it was indeed in my hand upon exiting the taxi. But we were in the middle of the street, I had to leave, the car horns would haunt me for the rest of my life. But what about identity fraud and possibility to ruining the field science expedition before it even began? As I slowly come up from being on the floor digging in my bag, I admit to the receptionist the error I had made. She asked if I had any sort of ID or payment method and I nod no. She lets me know that she cannot do anything on the hotel side of things, but they can try to track the taxi down. The good news is, I booked the taxi at the airport and that makes it a bit easier, but it’s still a pretty ominous outlook if you ask me. Lima is a BIG city, who knows what passengers are already inside and what they may or may not do with a wallet they find, the same could be said for the driver. I am one to believe in the inherit goodness of mankind, almost to a fault and was hopeful the driver had found my wallet and was en route to the airport to find a way to reunite me with it. As a hotel employee was working on communication with the taxi company, Andres and two expedition team members begin to enter the hotel and I could not be more happy to see them. I had not yet met the two other team members with him, but I could already tell they were going to be amazing people. As soon as I made eye contact with Andres, I knew everything would be fine. When he was within about 10 feet, I literally ran to him and hugged him. It was more like a jump and almost tackle hug, and it was literally what I needed at that moment. It was then that I met Marshall and Kyle, who were instantly my friends. I had to replay the last few minutes of horror for me and they all assured me that we will get this sorted out. Andres went to speak with the hotel staff to find out what we can do and how to proceed as Kyle, Marshall, and I shared our “who are you” intros together. I immediately knew why they were on the team, however, instantly I began to question my presence on the team. It was at that time that Andres returned with a plan. Kyle and Marshall went to the hotel’s business center to continue working in preparation for the expedition and Andres and I went to his aunt and uncle’s house, literally around the corner. I was not talking much which tends to make people worry (what? I have a lot to say), Andres assured me with a few back up plans that worst case scenario here, we would be fine and the expedition would go on as planned. That was an instant relief although admittedly, I wanted the wallet to magically appear in my hands in the next thirty seconds. At Andres’ aunt and uncle’s house, I prayed. I prayed that peace would come soon to the situation and that I would not be a burden to this team. About 15 minutes later, Andres called the airport taxi service to check on the status of the situation and as he spoke, in what I can only describe as RAPIDO Spanish, he also gave me a thumbs up. The driver had indeed found my wallet and the plan to return it was underway. For a mere 10 dollars, my sanity would be restored. This would mark the second near tackle hug I gave Andres today. At this point, I can honestly say the rest of the day is a blur. I met Wesley, Dorsey, Roger, and McClain before devouring a pseudo lunch from Bembos. Bembos is Peru’s (or perhaps Lima’s) fastfood chain which is fantastic. I even celebrated by trying Inka Kola for the first time. It is literally traditional bubblegum flavor in drink form. It was my ambrosia and celebratory drink. Before our entire team met for our pre-expedition briefing, a group of us went on an adventure to see a Pre-Incan pyramid and track down a post office. At the briefing, I met Prosanta and 3 members of the team who would not be able to physically travel with us but for whom we would collect samples. This is where protocols are so important. Valid data is important and can only be verified using protocols. In this case, some of the samples collected are for others, knowing and following their protocols would be of utmost importance. During the briefing, I heard a bit more about each team member’s “story”, their goals for the expedition, and a little insight into their passions along with important protocols, safety instructions, and research site history.

After our briefing, most of the team continued getting to know eachother over some food before hitting our beds for the night. Tomorrow, at 3am, we depart for the airport.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Phew!!!! So glad your wallet was safe!

No joke! This was a tense part of the trip for sure.

Dia 12 Cusco
Last night, I signed off as I began the ten-hour overnight bus ride from Arequipa to Cusco. That would leave me to arrive in Cusco at 6am, check in to the hotel, hopefully shower, and hit the town of Cusco one more time before heading to Lima to meet the expedition team Monday morning. The reality of the morning went a little something like this: the bus arrives in Cusco at 7:30am rather than 6am. That’s okay, I slept all right on the bus and all I really want to do is take a shower, which is perfect. I will get to the hotel, take a shower, eat some breakfast, and then decide whether I want to hit the town immediately or need a bit more sleep. As I am waiting for my bags to be unloaded from the bus I watch countless items unloaded and claimed by other passengers. My book bag was uncovered and I claimed that but as I waited and watched other bags being unloaded, I couldn’t help but feel my stomach turning and sinking, realizing that I cannot see my other bag anywhere. What does this mean? How will I get it? Will it be here in time for me to fly to Lima first thing tomorrow? What happens next? I can’t help but chase thoughts around my mind about the contingency plan. I look around to see the number of passengers still waiting dwindle and my bag is still nowhere insight. There are maybe five bags left. Great. I start thinking about my next move when out of the corner of my eye; my chevron-patterned bag appears among the last 2 black bags. Yes. Okay, not to the hotel for a shower and food, I can’t wait. As I approach the reception desk, I am told the room will not be ready until 12noon; they had a problem to solve and needed the room. Ouch, okay. No problem, it’s 8am; I will eat breakfast upstairs and just hit the town earlier and crash later. Really, this was the last thing I wanted to hear, but what can you do?! All I really need to feel better is to wash my face; I can easily do that in the lobby bathroom and get some food. Off I go to the restroom, no hand towels. Okay, cool, off to eat, I got this. I enjoy breakfast, video call Gabi for her birthday and do a little catching up on Wi-Fi as I enjoy breakfast. As I head downstairs to take on the town, they surprise me that my room is ready. My exact response was “VERDAD? Muchas Gracias!” I immediately went to my room and took my shower and began rearranging my bags, honestly. Tomorrow morning, I fly to Lima and need to have my checked and carry on ready to go and apparently that moment was exactly what I needed to do, because I did. Eventually, I headed out on the town and had a couple things on my mind to accomplish today. First, I wanted to find a special location, let’s call it a scavenger hunt of sorts that my dear friend Andres Ruzo had thrown out to me a few days ago. It turns out his great-great-grandfather owned a hotel in Cusco named Picoaga. That sounds really awesome, maybe I would try to find it and take a selfie as proof. Well, it also turns out that pictures of his great-great-grandfather and mother are still hanging in the lobby. Okay, definitely cool, and definitely something I am challenging myself to find! But wait; as if that wasn’t enough motivation to go on this scavenger hunt, there is another secret that I am hoping to uncover while I am there. So, off I go to the main plaza to see what is going on in Cusco and to find this family history of a dear friend. On the way, I encounter a few different parades and live music coming down Avenue del Sol. It looks as if they are different branches of military are having a show of their colors and marching styles. I am definitely a sucker for live music, especially marching bands, and really, the icing on the cake is a good drum line. All of these boxes were checked as I strolled through Cusco. You could feel the pride of these service members as they marched, chanted, and presented music. This nearly distracted my from my scavenger hunt challenge and as I entered the plaza, it was packed. Live music from all kinds of different bands, tourists taking selfies, restaurant owners pawning for you attention, and who could ignore the “Hey Lady” calls from street vendors? It was beautiful chaos, excitement, and life. I loved kind of losing myself in the crowd and taking all of it in. St Theresa Why did that thought just pop in my head? Oh yes, St Theresa is the calle I need to find the Hotel Picoaga, now Costa Del Sol in Cusco. I want to uncover the secret from Andres’ family pictures in the lobby. To those who know me, they are well aware that I am competitive. I like a good challenge and I like to be successful when given a challenge. There was so much going on in the plaza today, I was very easily distracted by different events, people, offers, and just the beautiful chaos happening around me. At one point, I sat for a minute to check a map, I honestly could not remember which direction I needed to travel to get to St Theresa calle and on my way to find the family portraits of my friend. I was also a bit distracted in thinking about how I was going to speak to the hotel staff in Spanish about wanting to enter a hotel, look at photographs and make an odd request of them in order to uncover a mystery possibly hidden in the lobby as well. I make my way to the hotel and rehearse in my mind how this conversation is going to play in my mind. Two male staff members happily greeted me and I ask them if there are portraits in the lobby. One of the men responds, “no”. My heart sank; I really wanted to happen upon this treasure, I wonder if Andres knows the pictures are gone? I ask him if I could look around the lobby and he said of course. He was right, no portraits to be seen. Dang, how am I going to break the news to Andres? That’s when I see something; maybe it’s a clue. On one wall, in Spanish is a part of the hotel’s history, written in gold paint. I go over to read it and sure enough it talks about the hotel formerly having the name Picoaga and some other dates and names in the details. This is definitely the place. The portraits must be here. I decided to walk the entire open lobby area, but there were no portraits. Man, that was going to be so much fun, finding the family history and secret it holds. I resigned myself to leave when I thought, wait, where is the check-in desk? Maybe that is the lobby I need to find. There was a small doorway labeled “Reception” and I entered. To the left was a beautiful check-in desk and to the right a few small couches, another wall with silver painted writing and two portraits. On the right was a woman, painted on canvas. As I walked closer to see if there was any inscription to tell me who it might be, I saw another large canvas painting of a man on the left. My heart began to race, are these it? The inscriptions were: Marquesa de Picoaga by the portrait of the woman and Marques de Picoaga next to the man’s portrait. I wonder. I walked to the front desk and spoke with a lady there waiting to welcome guests. I asked her if she knew the history of the hotel. She hesitated for a minute and I asked her if the portraits were previous owners. She hesitated again, and I offered this explanation: My friend’s family used to own Hotel Picoaga, is this that same hotel? She said “yes” and I responded a bit more boldly, those must be the owners then, my friend’s great great grandparents. Now was time to ask about the secret one of the portraits possibly held. I am talking 200 year old gossip, my friends, the good stuff. Andres had told me that, “It turns out, my great great grandfather was not so great after all” and proof would be behind the portrait of his great great grandmother. Now, here is the problem, I am about to ask someone who hesitated greatly with my previous questions if she would mind taking the portrait down so I could see the back. That’s a pretty odd and bold request of some random person to come into the hotel and make. My heart was racing at this moment and I chose to frame the request in this way, “Do you know the secret of that portrait?” as I pointed to Marquesa de Picoaga. Again, she hesitated and I asked if there might be something special behind that portrait. She smirked and said, “There is another picture of a woman, how do you say it in English?” Oh man, I did not want to tell her the English word for “lady who is not your wife with whom you are having a relationship” but I responded and said “lover”. We both shared a smile and I then asked if I could see the secret painting. She motioned for the two gentlemen from earlier to take the portrait from the wall. This is not a Mona Lisa size painting, my friends; it is quite substantial in size with a large frame. I watched as the gentleman took it down carefully and turned it around. The lady at the desk confirmed that there would be a painting hidden behind, I am not sure the gentleman taking the portrait down knew the story. As he turned it around, yes, there was another portrait, which looked to be created with colored charcoal media. It was upside down, which I was happy to just take a photo and flip, but he insisted upon flipping the frame so I could see it right side up. This is the portrait of Andres’ great-great-grandfather’s lover, which he commissioned and had hidden behind the portrait of his wife about 200 years ago. Wow. Although not delighted with that situation from long ago which I am sure did not end well, this was an exciting scavenger hunt to complete. I thanked all of the staff present many times for their help and for obliging me in this little endeavor, they certainly did not have to allow me to see any of this, but I am grateful. I sent Andres the pictures I took, along with a selfie outside of the hotel so he knew I was successful in locating this treasure. Then I began to think about how this story is told during new employee orientation. “So yeah, here are the original owners of this hotel, at the time named Picoaga, blah blah blah, and here are their portraits, and oh by the way—there is this hidden picture…” Just thinking about it, a smirk formed across my face. I walked the plaza and side streets a few more times before deciding to eat lunch and decide how I would spend the rest of my day. I had not yet visited San Cristobal, which was on top of a hill, overlooking the plaza. That’s it, that’s what I will do. As I headed in the direction, I decided to let the streets decide how I would get to my destination. Again, I was not disappointed with the views and streets I was able to discover using this method. Stairs, but oh the stairs. Did I mention San Cristobal is OVERlooking the plaza? I felt like I was back on the Inca Trail climbing steep stairs to get to the prize. There were many stairs and they were indeed steep. Along the way, though, I caught glimpses of older streets and buildings that were a lot more narrow and unique in their construction. I began to hear music again and the crowd became thick within these narrow, steep streets. I could smell the wafting aroma of freshly prepared street meals and as I got closer to San Cristobal, the crowd was nearly impossible to penetrate, the music was enticing along with the aromas and the cars and taxis in the street had their own percussive tunes being played with their horns. The cars could not pass through the crowds of happy families and friends gathered for some sort of festival. I had to be there, I had to penetrate this crowd. I did, and managed even more steps that would render me at the steps of San Cristobal, my destination of choice today. There were so many people, embracing, breaking bread, sharing drinks, and dancing. I was intoxicated with this positive atmosphere. In that moment, and all of those to follow as I entered the crowd, I was a grandmother, hard at work over an outdoor grill preparing guinea pig for visitors, I was a young child weaving my way in and out of the crowd to find some candy or ice cream from a vendor I was a musician playing the bass drum, dancing with my band. I was a young boy, embarrassed to be seen with my family, but secretly loving that I get to be in this festival with them although I will not readily admit that for years to come. I loved being in the crowd, enjoying the smells, the atmosphere. There was confetti sprinkled among the cobblestones throughout this festival. I do not know what we were celebrating but the love was all around. I spent a lot of time weaving my way in this area to see, hear, and feel the atmosphere. What a wonderful day, what a wonderful event to stumble upon, what a great way to spend my last hours in Cusco.

Tomorrow I am off to Lima, and I carry this pride, love, and joy from Cusco with me as I meet the expedition team and as we begin our field science season.

Buenas Noches Amigos.

Soon you will have to use your imagination to speculate what I am experiencing until around August 18 when I will return from the Amazon.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 11 Colca Canyon y Condor Andina
This morning began before dawn, all in the name of the Andean Condor. Last night, I set everything out, clothes, shower things, and was all packed so I could get ready quickly to head to breakfast and out for a day of trekking and hopefully condor sightings. I have been told the Andean Condor is endangered and a rare eight to see, but in order to see them you must be positive and anything is possible. That last part is something I have heard from countless Peruvians on this trip. As I waited to begin today’s journey by bus first then a bit of trekking, I checked the weather while I thought I might have seen a few snowflakes. Sure enough, 1 degree Celsius and yes, it was snow. It never became heavy, but there were definite flurries as we began the day. I boarded the bus in great anticipation of seeing my friends from yesterday, the couple who asked me to go for a walk after lunch. They boarded after me at the next stop and we soon exchanged names, realizing we hadn’t the previous day; Linda and Bram, from Holland. Last night, I also refreshed my memory of what Andean condors look like so I was ready to spot them, should I have the opportunity. If there is one word to describe the Colca Canyon area, it is dusty. That is not necessarily fair though, I would also say majestic, but for the sake of painting this picture for you, you need to know dusty as a primary adjective. Everywhere you turn, dust is in the air, pushed and pulled with moving objects, transportation, animals, people, wind, breathing; the dust is everywhere. My shoes look a few years older than they are as result, but it is part of the charm of the area. Sometimes, I am unsure whether it is hazy or just dusty, either way; it gives a film-like (think Hollywood), quality to what you see. The Colca Canyon has a great history, like every place I have visited. It was originally named “Big River” in Quechua, the primary language of the Inca that I have learned about. It was not until the 20th century (I believe) that the name was changed when government officials came to rehabilitate it and build roads after an earthquake decimated the area. It was discovered at that time that they area was full of storage places for goods, “colcas”, and so the area was renamed “Colca Canyon”. As we happen upon the third largest, well deepest, part of the canyon, we see it. A flock of condors; I kid you not. I heard it is rare to see a condor, much less a FLOCK—hombre, the atmosphere of all present must have been REALLY positive. Extremely special sight, I was giddy like a child in the science lab (see what I did there?!) If you don’t know me, I am a science teacher—so… I digress. I immediately point to them with a huge smile on my face, turn to Linda and Bram and prepare to get off the bus in a hurry.

These majestic birds soar in what seemed to be figure eight patterns, getting closer and closer with each round. Their belly area is black, their wingspan, massive, and their heads, vulture like. If you can catch a glimpse of their wingspan from above, their wings have white feathers. It is a dynamic sight to see the soar around, catching different perspectives of their bodies. This flock stayed for about 2 minutes before veering behind a mountain. Just as I thought the magic was over, I spotted a lone condor flying just in front of a lookout point on the trail. As I was poising to capture photos of this solo flight, two more condors joined. One in particular seemed to want to soar in tandem and it was magnificent. I was able to capture a few photos of their synchronization. I stood in complete awe of these beautiful creatures wondering what it must be like to soar just so, high above the canyon and among the tops of the neighboring Andes. I imagined this a few times at Machu Picchu, at the time not realizing I would soon witness these condors mid-flight. It was more magical than you could possibly imagine. After a few more moments, all of the condors left the area, and we still had time to just wander in this area. Linda, Bram, and I took a little hike on our own to explore the area and take photos of inspiring moments around us. As we happened upon another lookout location, two more condors soared by our heads. And again, two more. It was another magical few moments of these beautiful creatures soaring with what I speculate as great Peruvian pride. If I have noticed one thing about all of the locals with which I have come into contact is that they all have great pride for their country and really, their city. You will often hear them say things like “In my city” followed by an expression or description of something in the most prideful way. I absolutely love their passion for the country and hometowns. Thusly, I speculate that is what this soaring is all about, the condor’s pride for who they are and from whence they come. After a few moments soaking in these new condors, we returned to the larger group. With the large group, we completed a short trek to see a few more sights along the canyon and I took the opportunity to take a few photographs of flora in the area. As we were nearing the end of this large group trek, Ali, the guide for this portion exclaims loudly in English and Spanish: “Here come condors, get your photographs”. The only way in which I can describe his voice was one of pure joy where you could just hear his smile beaming through the words. This last condor sighting, this last majestic flight took place so close to our heads that cameras struggled to focus upon the condor itself. Amazing. Bram, Linda, and I hung back from the group as we were supposed to head back up the mountain in hopes to catch another glimpse of a condor. It didn’t happen, but we did capture a few more photos in the area that were truly fantastic. I am incredibly grateful for Bram and Linda, they are incredible people with whom I enjoyed spending time yesterday and today! They day with this group ended with lunch and a hurried switch of buses for me. There was a last minute change in transportation and I needed to get my cosas NOW. So I did and off to Arequipa I was, on a tiny transport bus for about 3 hours. I spent most of it asleep in the midst of a family who spoke only French. They at least understood Spanish enough to confirm the empty seat I wanted to occupy and off to sleep I went. I only know how to say a few phrases in French, and really only this one, “Je suis tre jolie” and that will help no one. Esta bien, after the exciting first half of the day, a nap was just what I needed. Upon arriving to Arequipa one more time, I wanted to get another selfie, my last of the trip with El Misti. Funny thing is, it seems as if El Misti did not want to do that, he was a bit shy this round. The tops of all 3 volcanoes were concealed by stratus clouds. I guess they were not ready to say “see you later”, in reality, my friends; I was and am not either. I still took a selfie with El Misti. It is kind of the equivalent of taking a picture with someone who does not want to; they pull their shirt over their head, arm over their face, or turn around altogether. As I compose this, I am on an overnight bus to Cusco, marking the end of my solo trekking journey and the beginning of the team expedition portion. On Monday, I fly to Lima to meet Andres first thing in the morning and for the first time, the entire team that evening. To say I am excited for this portion to begin is a true understatement. I have enjoyed this solo portion and certainly am sad to see it end, but there is true beauty in the second half of the expedition that is unparalleled by the first. I imagine I will dedicate tomorrow’s post to what the second half of this expedition means to me, so I will bid you all adieu tonight.

Buenas noches a todos.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 10: Colca Canyon


Today began with a tearful “Hasta Luego” to El Misti. I refuse to say goodbye, so see you later will have to suffice. Truth is, the bus trip was just on the other side of this amazing stratovolcano, so I kind of spent the day with El Misti anyway! The journey through the canyon today was beautiful and brought me through winding mountain roads, even to a location with snow. Hard to believe in 2 days I will be in the jungle and not even a thought of snow will be on my mind. In the snow’s defense, we were 4,000+ kilometers above sea level, so I suppose snow in that altitude, during winter is acceptable. I was able, at this point, to observe a plant that can only grow in this altitude, it is amazing. The plant looks like a fractal of a flower shape and is as hard a a rock. That makes sense being at this altitude, I took many pictures; it is quite a sight to see. In the canyon, pre-incan civilizations still exist. I do not know the exact name of the people who live here, but I can tell you that some are mountain dwellers some are valley dwellers. They distinguish themselves with hats. Solid white hats are those who live in the mountains. I taught myself to remember this like snowcaps on mountains. White hats: live in mountains. Any other color hat are those who live in the valley area. I remember this because lower in the valley there is more vegetation, therefore, more color. Hence colored hat: live in the valley.

So far in this expedition I have met many people and had no problems socializing in English, Spanish, and German. Today was completely different though. I felt completely left out, mostly because I was. I tried to talk to those around me and received one word answers and then they would look the other way. Okay, then. I get it, this lady all by herself, I don’t want to talk to her. Okay. Here’s the kicker though, actually two kickers. At lunch, we all sat at a large table together, I was literally in the center of the table. I was completely ignored. Seriously? Okay. That’s cool. I don’t mind silence, I don’t mind getting lost in my thoughts, I just really felt this was peculiar. After lunch, a couple at the end of the table came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk. They also noted how I was being completely ignored in the center of the table. I brushed it off, I felt tears filling in my eyes because, honestly it did hurt. We went for a short walk then rejoined the group on the bus to be dropped at our hotels. My hotel was the second drop off and the majority of the group is staying here. I only have a book bag, so I began walking to the check in desk, passport ready to go. As I am about to step through the threshold, the entire group walks in front of me. I am not joking. They all have groups of 4 people or more, I am by myself AND was first in line as they were unloading their large suitcases. That was the second kicker, I literally stood in disbelief, tears welling in my eyes as I waited for every one of them to check in. Wow. With the exception of the kind couple who took a walk with me, who unfortunately are not at my hotel, and the amazing canyon views, today was pretty lonely. Now that we are in the bottom of the canyon, I longer have Misti either until tomorrow afternoon. Here is my challenge to you all. Choose kind. The smallest of gestures can make a big difference. Today, that was incredibly evident.

On a bright note, I cannot leave you with that sad tone, outside of my window, I am being serenaded by the baaaaaaaahs of sheep stopping to drink at a fountain. Oh, to be a sheep right now.

image-1 image-1

Sending you hugs!

Thank you! :) It was rough to experience this today, but the next day, I started like all of the others, bright and cheery with a big smile and "Buenos Dias a todos!" when I boarded the bus!

Dia 9: Arequipa


This morning I took my time getting ready, it’s my free day in Arequipa! I traveled as close to El Misti as I could just to take it all in and of course, and take a few hundred pictures. I am still very much in awe that I am this close to El Misti, a volcano I specifically teach my second graders. They have a global focus on South America, so much of what I teach them is rooted in this continent. From biodiversity to climate change, geothermal energy, and landforms; all rooted in South America which is an amazing connection. To be here is incredible. I cannot wait to share the videos, pictures, and blog with them.

Today I also visited the Cathedral, “Company Church”, and convent. These were all amazing experiences to see the cultural and historical connection here in Arequipa. What was even more touching, perhaps was the little siesta I took. After touring the area and seeing the sites through a completely different lens, I have to tell you, my friends, I lost it.

Totally and completely. I must tell you that it has been nearly 2 weeks away from my family; Michael, Gabi, and Luke are my world. Gabi’s seventh birthday is Sunday and I will miss it for the first time since she was born. I was creating a short video for her, in case I cannot video call her on Sunday and I got choked up talking. Shortly after, okay—immediately after I ended the recording, I completely broke down. I am talking full on ugly cry! I miss my family. Throughout the afternoon I fought with myself, whether I should reveal this part of my expedition with you. Ultimately, you can tell, being completely honest, raw, and real won. I pride myself on being real, honest, and telling the truth in any situation. So, naturally, how could I conceal this part of the expedition from you, my friends? I am not good with idle time, for that precise reason, it allows my mind to worry, to miss, and to doubt. Today, my free exploration day where I was allowing Arequipa to determine my agenda ended in a lot of tears. Okay, it didn’t end that way, but shortly after lunchtime, it was filled with tears. Those tears represented me as a mother, wife, and friend, missing my home in the USA. I think I have a reputation of being a very strong person, which I am, but I am a softy at times as well. Not only will I miss Gabi’s seventh birthday, I am also missing my tenth wedding anniversary. Cue the tears, no literally, tears are streaming down my face right now as I attempt to type this. My vision is blurry, but I think you all know my will is strong. My husband, Michael is an incredibly supportive, understanding, and patient man. We all know that I have some crazy ideas, field science in the Amazon, and solo trek through Peru as the latest examples. No matter what I want to do, Michael supports me, my ideas, my missions, my visions, and most recently, my expeditions. Even when they take me away from my family for a month, (cough cough, my current expedition). So you see, these tears are not all full of sorrow. I will readily admit they are very sorrowful, they are also full of thankful and gratefulness for this opportunity and support, especially from Michael. Being on expedition is full of wonder, excitement, adventure, but also full of missing those who are near and dear to me. I am hoping that my family, my children, Gani and Luke, my students, and friends all see what I am doing now and realize that anything really is possible. Those dreams you have CAN happen. I will not tell you it will be easy, because it will not be. What it WILL be is worth it. The best thing you can do is dream, I am talking big dreams, ones that scare you. Those are the best ones, those are the most worth it. Another great thing you can do is build your support system. Those people that will believe in you, cheer you on, and support those wild, scary dreams. It took me a very long time to persue my dreams. I am so incredibly grateful that I have in the last 2 years, begun to persue them. It is scary, but it is worth it. Anything is possible.

In the next few days, amigos, I will enter the Amazon where I will have no access to wifi, cellular service, or even satellite service. My days and nights will be filled with field science and immersion into indigenous culture. My heart will be with you all, and I know yours with mine. I ask for your prayers and positive thoughts as I head into the second half of my expedition. I think of you often and, indeed, a few of these tears are for you as well.

Buenas Noches, Amigos.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Becky, I know it can feel isolating to write and write in a blog and not get any comments. I want you to know that I have binge read your entire expedition blog from start to finish. I've been loving your FB posts, but it's wonderful to get to know you through your honest writing. I am also learning lots about Peru that I never knew! Good luck with the research. I can't wait to read all about it!

Thank you, that means a lot. Bueller?

Dia 8: Bus to Arequipa


Another brisk morning in Peru as I headed to the bus station to begin my journey to Arequipa. I must tell you that this particular bus station is not necessarily the easiest to navigate or understand the process for boarding. I spent nearly the entire hour I was there afraid I was in the wrong place, in the wrong line, and would end up in the wrong location. I was told to head outside with my ticket, passport, and bags—and so I did. I was nearly certain I was in the right place. The gentleman in line in front of me looked at me as I walked up and I asked if he was going to Arequipa to which he responded yes. Turns out, he is on holiday from Canada, also traveling alone. That was the most we spoke to each other until it was time to board the bus, or so we thought. As they were checking our tickets, we were set aside, the line we were in was for Cusco—oh great. That’s okay, it just meant we were early. I really wanted to check my duffel bag but had no idea the process and was deathly afraid to be late for the bus. I have a difficult time with, well, time. If I am not early, I am incredibly anxious. If I even think there is a possibility I might be late, my heart begins to race as if I am playing in a soccer game and have been running for 45 minutes. Seeing as though we were very early for our bus ride, I asked the young gentlemen if he knew where I should check my bag and he brought me to the line, I think he may have seen a bit of panic on my face when I realized I needed to re-enter the bus station that is clearly a place for well rehearsed and traveled people in the area. Turns out he has the same time affliction that I do and we chatted in the line, both checking our watched about every 30 seconds. His name is Mark and he is on holiday also solo traveling and trekking in Peru. He works for some sort of government security agency and on his first day in Peru, received an email that he is up for promotion upon his return. What an awesome way to begin an adventure! He stayed with me the entire time it took to check my bag and then we continued outside again for our bus! In line, we chatted about what we had completed so far and the plans for the rest of the adventures we are on. As we approached the security gate again, we resolved to sit together on the bus, not realizing seats are assigned. This is again one of the subtleties of this particular station and their tickets. There is a secret code telling you your seat assignment and we are nowhere near one another. He is on the second story, I am on the first. Upon arrival in Arequipa though, I waited for Mark to hopefully at least say “Thank you for helping me and I hope the rest of your trek goes well!” The plan worked, we actually hung out while our checked bags were being unloaded. He is staying in an AirBnB and then if off to trek the Colca Canyon tomorrow. I will be trekking the Canyo the following day, not tomorrow. Tomorrow I am staying here in Arequipa for a day of exploring the city first. I have to tell you that my hotel room here is terrific. They have all been. This one is more like a little village of rooms around a courtyard and just outside of my balcony, I have been listening to some interesting bird calls. I will have to post the video I took, it is unlike anything I have head before. Actually, as I type this, a different type of bird has landed on the balcony, but it isn’t making sound just yet. Another amazing thing about this location is that I am in the midst of three massive volcanoes. Two are dormant, Chachani and Pichu Pichu. The third is Misti, an active stratovolcano. This is super cool because I teach about these volcanoes in class. Literally, these three by name. There are others too, but it is definitely cool to be in the midst of these in particular. Interestingly enough, on the drive from the bus station to the hotel, Renco, my guide so to speak, told me that in the last few weeks, they have been watching Misti (the government) because there have been peculiar things happening on the volcano. What?! That’s really awesome. I think he took my excitement at that news as a bit of fear and he assured me it does not mean anything will happen. That’s fine either way, I just think it’s amazing to be in a location that I use in class. Alright, my friends, I am off to explore the city a bit before calling it a night. Hasta la proxima post!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 7: Lake Titicaca
Another brisk morning here in Peru! This time, reporting from Puno. I arrived last night after dark and I could honestly not tell you what the hotel looks like from the outside. This will prove story worthy later, I assure you. Breakfast was spectacular again and the view as well. As I headed down to the harbor, bundled in clothing, I noticed the peculiar way the massive amount of boats were docked. The dock itself is one solitary peninsula which separates two sides of huddled boats all tied to one another. My boat was the fifth in its row. Mind you, there were at least 10 rows and columns of boats and like I said, they are all almost woven together in a tapestry of well, boats. My father owned a boat and growing up, I spent at least 70% of my time on a dock, on the boat, or taking care of the boat while dry docked. I am very comfortable with boats, tying off, tying in, where to sit, where not to sit, how to navigate, etc. This peculiar setup had me second guessing everything I knew. It was awesome actually, my mind began to race thinking about how this system could possibly work. The boat I needed to be on was almost exactly in the center of this boat tapestry. With all of my boat knowledge, I certainly knew that it was not polite to step into or on someone else’s boat without permission. When I was told to go to the fifth boat, I hesitated. I would need to step onto and in four other boats to get there, but I can’t, you simply do not do that. Sure enough, that’s what you do here. The other tricky piece is that the decks were covered in a layer of ice. I told you it was brisk! Well, here goes nothing, I began “boat hopping” and made it to boat five. I can tell you I was extremely uncomfortable stepping on people’s boats to get to m own, but when in Puno…

I was leading the way for four others who were going to the same boat, try to picture this—my hands in the air almost like limp bird wings showing my uncomfortableness (this is a fantastic word I just made up) with boat hopping, but my legs and feet starkly doing their jobs—keeping me steady, and my face some cross between pure joy, embarrassment, and panic that I might be THE ONE who falls; hopefully not in the freezing water! It was quite the adventure, I assure you and I only wish that you could have seen my stance each hop and step and my facial expressions along the way. If you know me, facial expressions are not scarce for me. I have thousands so you can only imagine what my face was during for this portion of the morning.

Finally having made it to my boat, I took a seat and immediately started wondering how you get out of this tapestry of boats. Our boat seemed to be filling up quickly compared to those surrounding us, so what now? Do we just wait for the tapestry to unravel? That seems awfully annoying especially if you are ready to go but stuck in the middle. Is there some sort of crane that lifts you from your location? That can’t be right, although would be pretty spectacular and transformers like! “I think we are just stuck” is what I kind of resolved the situation to be. To pass the years we would be sitting here (a little dramatic, I know) I started talking to the people around me (bug surprise, right!). There was a couple to my right from Germany and two gentlemen behind me from Spain. I toggled between English with the couple from Germany and Spanish with the gentlemen behind me and soon we were interrupted by a musician. He began playing the pan flute and a Peruvian version of a guitar. It was lovely and I thought that he would be with us for the journey, what an excellent addition to the journey! He played a few songs and I even recorded one to send to my dear friend, Sean. After a few songs he promptly opening his guitar case for tips and was on his way. Dang—I was looking forward to live music during the ride! That’s okay because almost immediately after he left we began to drift to the right. Something was about to happen. There were deck hands on the bow of each small boat with long bamboo poles. They were pushing their assigned boats to the right, they loosened the ropes on the port side of each boat and then used the poles to push. This is it. . .but what is “it”? I still didn’t know. The boat on our port side was ready to leave first. They were untied, we all shifted right and when a gap appeared to open water, the boat left us. All deck hands then promptly used their poles to push back into the tapestry. Wow. I watched this happen two more times before our boat left the tapestry. Free at last! I suppose this docking system is great for limited boat slips. In this case, there were no slips, there were just two sides of a peninsula dock and you joined the tapestry and left as necessary. A smile formed across my face in thinking about whether captains had specific strategies to make it easier to dock and undock each day. Do you want to be on the perimeter or front of the tapestry? Do you try to strategically time your journeys each day for easy access? Are there some captains of deckhands that are annoying to be near for whatever reason? Do they bump boats, have less refined skills, are they less polite, do they leave marks on your deck when they hop? So many questions, but no answers.

It would be about 20 minutes before we arrived to Isla Uros which are a set of about 42 floating islands. The inhabitants of these islands are descendants from Pre-Inca civilizations. They create the islands in which they live and live off of the lake, so to speak. Present day, they make money through tourism, people visiting their islands and buying their handicrafts. Prior to being a tourism attraction, they would barter “in town” for good they wanted. Just before disembarking onto our first “isla flotante”, we learned how to say “Hello, How are you?” Kamarisaraki and “I am fine” Wallisky. As we took our first spongy steps on the floating island we were all happily greeted with handshakes, smiles, and “Kamarisaraki”. The island we visited was under the leadership of Rosa. She was a bubbly lady who obviously enjoyed having visitors. She taught us how to create the floating islands, introduced us to reeds, which we happily all ate, and to the families of her island. Each year, a leader is elected for each island. With around 42 islands, they also have a mayor that is in charge of all of the islands as a group. They rotate which islands are visited each day and each family on the island welcome a few guests into their homes. I, along with 3 other visitors, entered Ana and Mario’s home. This was pretty exciting. It was brisk outside but inside their small hut, was cozy. Possibly because six of us were shoulder to shoulder, but it did not feel uncomfortable. They told us of their family and showed us their particular handicrafts. Women of the Uros weave tapestries and men use straw and reeds to create different decorative items. In this moment, I had to translate Spanish to English for a gentleman who was from China. Yeah, I know what you are thinking—me…translate Spanish to English. But HOMBRE, I did it! I was pretty nervous but I totally did it and was proud of myself for being able to do it and help someone else out. Shortly after spending time with Ana and Mario, it was time to head to another isla flotante. We had the option of taking one of the touristic boats around the area but I decided to take our regular boat and ride on top for a panoramic view of the area. I did get a few great pictures of those boats. The Uros made them specifically for tourist rides and for their children to take to school each day. On the second floating island we visited, I was able to see a water purification system made of bamboo that too months to create. Lake Titicaca used to be a beautiful water source from which the Uros could drink directly from but in recent years has become a bit polluted. They still drink and eat food directly from the lake, but they also have purification systems set up. The second island was a bit of free time to relax before the hour and a half journey to the natural island of Taquile. I took some time to just observe the floating island, the birds nearby, and the fish farm that was set up on this particular island. Rosa had explained to use that they hunt birds, fish, and use reeds for food. Instead of brushing their teeth, in fact, the reeds clean their teeth as they consume them. Rosa proudly showed us her teeth and exclaimed that she was 46. They were beautiful teeth, my dentist and hygienist would be proud! As we boarded our boat for Taquile, I decided to hang out on the roof for almost the entire trip. Remember though, I said it was brisk and just think about that in conjunction with wind on the top of a boat, it was a bit chilly. For part of the trip, however the two gentlemen from Spain and the couple from Germany were with me. I spent the time speaking in English, German, and Spanish depending on who was engaging in conversation. Wow—that was a lot but at the same time an incredible experience. The couple from Germany was most impressed while their view of Americans and ability to speak multiple languages was mostly “They can’t”. They readily admitted their bias and we all had a great laugh! The gentlemen from Spain lasted only a few minutes, but I did find out there are from Madrid and I shared that I had family there in Madrid as well! The couple from Germany lasted a bit longer, I found out that they are both attorneys and the wife recently (May), resigned and is trying to decide what she wants to do next. The husband still works for the firm and they are on a 3 week holiday. With about 45 minutes left in the ride to Taquile, the wife went downstairs With about 20 minutes left in the ride the husband and I went downstairs, it was noticeably warmer in our seated section. When we arrived to Taquile, we did about an hour of hiking uphill to meet some locals. They showed us the differences in apparel which showed the marital status of those wearing particular items. Men wear hats that they make themselves. Bi-color hats are single gentlemen whereas singularly colored hats are married men. Single ladies wear black shawls with large pompoms on the bottom. They have 4 pompoms. When they are dating one of the single men, they hide one pompom. Before marrying, a couple must live together for 3 years. During that time, the “hidden pompom” is then taken from the shawl and sewn to the hat of the male with whom she is residing. This is like a promise ring or other symbol like engagement ring we have in the United States. Once married, the male creates a new hat, and keeps the pompom for the new hat. It is also worn with a slightly different tilt than single men. The locals joke that the pompoms on shawls are meant for the single ladies to wave around to show that they are available. For a demonstration, I was a “single lady” and had the opportunity to swing my pompom around for the males. Thrilling, I assure you, my only regret is not having a picture of video of this. I did ask though, if in that moment I was being married off, there was no clear answer here, so it is possible I am not a part of the Lake Titicaca family. Maybe I should consult the attorneys from Germany?

After that demonstration, I had the opportunity to participate in a local dance which was pretty fun! One of my fellow travelers sent me a partial video of the fiasco, I mean, adventure which I will share with you.

We enjoyed a wonderful lunch of locally caught trout, quinoa soup, and chips (fries for you Americans!). We also had some sort of fried bread with spicy sauce, it was awesome.

After lunch, we hiked for an hour more, this time about 30 more minutes uphill and 30 minutes down the opposite side of Taquile to the boat. On the descent, we used terraces and stone steps which was quite an adventure in itself.

It is truly a shame that this adventure was not tomorrow, August 1, while they have quite a festival on the island. Today is when they visit the shoreline of the island looking for fish and fish eggs under the docks and within the underwater terraces. Yes, underwater terraces. Finding a lot of fish eggs is an indicator of a great season coming up for planting and fishing. The entire village gathers to look for eggs and celebrate together. What a site that must be tomorrow. An entire village gathering at the shorelines. I wonder if this is typically when new couples form as well, since the village is all gathered together, or perhaps this is when for the first time for some young ladies, one of their pompoms is hidden and they are hoping that others will notice. I cannot help but imagine in my mind that this fantastic event is one that all ages look forward to each year.

After the adventure in Lake Titicaca today, I was on a bus back to my hotel. Here’s the deal, folks, it is easier to be dropped off in a main plaza and find your way to your hotel. Here’s today’s problem: I have no idea what my hotel looks like because I was dropped off at night and picked up at dawn. The driver agreed to bring me to my hotel, but a few blocks away (actually I have no idea how far away I was), he stopped and said “Go left” in Spanish. Great, I can totally do that—I will just find the name of the hotel or as I peek into window fronts, I will recognize the lobby. The other part of the problem is that this hotel is on a narrow street, so you can’t exactly recognize a location by its storefront anyway, you can’t see it. Okay, so I went left and it looked familiar, so I kept going for two blocks and happened upon pedestrian roads; that’s not right. So I turned around a look another left thinking, maybe he told me two lefts and I didn’t realize it. Same problem, I ended up somewhere I knew wasn’t right. Okay, I can handle this. I know the name of the hotel only, no address but it’s fine, I got this. I explore a few more blocks and things are totally unfamiliar now. Okay, time to ask for help or get a taxi. How about no on the taxi, I can do this…right? I found a security guard at a bank nearby and asked for directions. He did not recognize the hotel name. Oh great. Okay, it’s fine, totally fine. I walked a few more blocks and it seemed familiar but I stopped and asked a police officer for directions. She told me to go to the main plaza, turn right and go two blocks. Awesome, I got this. I walked four blocks towards what I thought was the plaza, turned right and I knew I was on the perimeter of downtown. It’s cool, I can get to the plaza, but when I get there, how will I know which “right” to make. It’s okay, just go. I walked three blocks and decided to ask another police officer for directions. I was on the right street. In fact, in about 200 feet, I would have made it to the hotel just fine. She actually told me that and then walked with me. Hey, whatever gets me where I need to be! My stubborn self did NOT want to take a taxi, the main area of Puno is small and should be easily navigable. What an adventure. After this, I walked to the Plaza easily, grabbed some dinner, and headed to my hotel, no problems. Moral of the story, even if it’s nighttime, scope your location well. Or the next morning at dawn just before being picked up, scope your location. Dually noted, self, dually noted.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 6: Bus trip to Puno
Today I began a 10 hour bus trip to Puno. This trip consisted of a few stops along the way to see more Inca ruins and colonial infiltration of the area. The road were rook for this journey was one of great significance. We would cross the “border” of two different divisions within the Inca Empire. There were at least 14 divisions which seems a bit chaotic if you think about it, but it made the empire what is was. This was an important area for the Spanish to conquer to they could spread their beliefs and split the Incas in manageable, conquerable pieces. They were very successful in this regard, they were indeed able to split the empire into conquerable portions and use rival tribes to the Inca as their allies in the process. These two in combination with the assassination of prominent Inca figures is what led to their success. They proved their dominance, then forced the catholic faith upon their ally tribes and any Incan survivors. One cheeky detail I never ceased to miss, no matter the location I was observing was the fact that even with the strongest efforts, the Spanish infiltration was never able to completely erase the Inca. Whether it be literal building structures, still operational aqueducts, or beliefs in the hearts of locals. So many colonial structures still use Inca foundations, engineering concepts, and architecture. The terraces in particular are one of the most beautiful remains that are still used particularly for agriculture. Although I do not have much new information or experience to relay from this day, it was more of a reinforcement of all I learned so far. I had a lot of time to think today and just talk with other travelers in Spanish. That in itself provides great experience.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Dia 5: Cusco
Today, I just let myself decide at each intersection where to go. I happened upon some of the most interesting places of Cusco, it was terrific. I took my time this morning because for the first time since beginning this expedition, I was able to sleep in until 6am. After another delicious breakfast, I set out on the town with no plan. I made my way to the upper reaches of Cuzco; San Blas. This is a neighborhood solely in colonial (Spanish) architectural style. Don’t worry though, there were plenty of Inca wall remains and aqueducts still in working condition. This section of Cucso has a completely different feel and appearance, more artistic in nature. In this area, you will find more organic stores and restaurant options as well as small healing centers. This was a stark contrast to the part where I was staying which was no less touristy, but seemed to beam more with old school Peruvian pride. One place which surprised me this morning was a small park with large granite rocks overlooking the part of Cusco where my hotel is located. It was absolutely beautiful. It was there that I heard the beginning of the Peruvian Independence Day celebrations begin for the day. Yesterday was Independence Day, but today is Sunday, and so the celebration continued! This was a special treat as I explored different parts of town, live music, fireworks, dancing, and great displays of Peruvian pride. I loved every second. Each street had it’s own special personality, especially around the main plaza. This is also where the Basilica is located which I visited later in the day. I found a small restaurant that was empty on a side street and tried alpaca, quinoa risotto, and locally produced salad. The server was friendly and taught me about some of the locally raised potatoes and maize. There are thousands of species in Peru, he told me about 20. It was fascinating. One of the potatoes looks like a bunch of bouncy balls stuck together. He told me that mothers often “test” girlfriends of their sons with these types of potatoes, giving them a short amount of time and dull knife to peel one. I hope they have a class somewhere, poor girls! If you are vegetarian or vegan, I apologize for the following statement: Alpaca meat is FANTASTIC. Now, before you decide we can’t be friends my (vegan and vegetarians), just think of the most delicious tofu and cauliflower meal you have ever tasted, give it ten more taste bud points and you will know what I was feeling at lunch today. After lunch, I took a little walk back to my hotel to grab my jacket, once the sun goes down here, it gets cold! I knew I would be out for a few hours exploring, so it was a must! I entered the Basilica and was immediately in awe of the oil paintings on canvas. These are originals and the only of their kinds specifically created for this church by locals. I have no photographs or videos from the church while they are not allowed. I am glad, for the sake of preservation and sanctity of the space as well as the fact that when you cannot take a photograph for later, it forces you to really focus in on what you are experiencing. I admit, I am guilty of relying on photos I take a lot of times instead of just allowing myself to soak in memories. I have been concentrating on this particularly during this expedition. In the church, there were at least 50 of these oil paintings depicting different stories from the Bible. In addition to being the only copies of their kind, they each included references to Cusco. One painting with the least subtle references was the depiction of the last supper. In this particular painting, the table which the 12 apostles gather with Jesus was filled with maize, granadillas, potatoes, and a roasted cui in the center. Cui is guinea pig, a unique and special dish served in Cusco. All of the food, including a special purple drink on the table were nods to Cusco. I know I am forgetting some of the symbols, but suffice it to say, you have not seen a depiction of the last supper quite like this. One more subtle, yet very important detail was Judas. He didn’t quite look like himself. That is precisely the point. The painter chose to depict Judas as Francisco Pizarro. This was the painters way of showing the disdain of Peru on this famous Spanish conquistador. For good reason, in the eyes of Peruvians, he is a villain. He is the reason so much of Incan history was erased and prominent leaders assassinated. One Inca leader in particular gave Pizarro more than he asked for, rooms filled with silver and gold in exchange for his life, however after seizing the treasures, ordered the leader killed anyway. I think perhaps he deserved the role of Judas in this painting. Some of the impressive works within the church were the altar and choir area created from local cedar. All hand carved embellishments that from afar are incredible and when you are close, seem so incredibly personal. You can see the etching and marks from rogue cuts, the wear and tear from years of use and I could feel the love, talent, and expertise that were poured into these pieces. Depictions of saints, angels, symbols of Cusco were all etched into these pieces. I can only imagine the dedication it took to create them, knowing they would be prominent figures within the church; the sense of pride and love the creators must have felt when finished and finally displayed in a beloved place of worship. The tired eyes, hands, and bodies as they worked on these for what must have been years. How many times did the creators feel like giving up or perhaps feel as if their work was never going to end? I can only imagine that the range of emotions was vast and thousands of years later, here I stand enjoying and basking in their great accomplishments. I found tears in my eyes as I gazed upon all of the creations I saw; the altars, pews, icons, statues, stonework. Although the existence of this very church was forcefully brought upon this country, the end result being a beautiful art form and bond through the catholic faith. The building was filled with tourists like me, but I couldn’t help but kneel and pray a moment. I prayed for the forgiveness of the Spanish conquistadors and those who accompanied them in their goal to erase the Inca and all of their beliefs. I also prayed for thanksgiving that from all of this, has come a beautiful church and a faith that binds over 90% of the country. Again, I prayed in thanksgiving for this opportunity, this entire expedition. It is not even halfway complete and I am overwhelmed with thankfulness for the experiences so far and those yet to come. Following the Basilica, I visited a few more Inca temples around Cusco. Most of them only partially visible, but even with small portions in existence, the precise architectural style of the Inca was easily visible. In one temple in particular, Dominican monks were tasked with destroying the existing inca temples. They were only partially successful and the foundation remains. They were then ordered to build upon the foundation in order to conceal it. The interesting thing is that since the building was created, it has experienced two earthquakes. The reason for its survival is the Inca temple foundation. I couldn’t help but think about this for a while. Although they tried their best to completely erase the Inca, so many Peruvians still hold to their basic beliefs, still practice rituals for the Pachamama in particular, yet are also stark catholics. This made me connect this architectural phenomenon to present day life in Cusco, and Peru for that matter. We are the sum of our experiences, for better or worse. The Inca existed and although infiltrated by the Spanish, the locals still hold to that ancestry while also embracing Catholicism. Just like the building created upon the Inca foundation is stronger and exists solely because of its Inca foundation. You can try to completely erase a part of you, but the fact remains it is part of who you are, what you believe, and how you live your life. You are the sum of your parts; your experiences.

image-1 image-1

Dia 4: Machu Picchu y Aguas Calientes


This morning, I woke up, enjoyed another Peruvian style breakfast and hit the town of Aguas Calientes. I was not sure at that moment how much time I may have later to explore, so I took the early opportunity. The town itself is small and I loved every second of this small expedition. The two main streets that run through the town have a bit of elevation to them. So much so that they have a set of steps and a set of ramps for ease of travel. This was especially important as I observed businesses beginning to open their doors and accept delivery of goods. Several men scurried the streets with overflowing hand trucks and wheelbarrows full and I could not imagine having to do this task each day, multiple times. In the morning, I was one of maybe 10 people on the streets, but later in the day, the streets would be full of people. Imagine having to transport goods through that kind of heavy foot traffic and with steep elevation changes. The side streets that ran perpendicular to these two main roads were mostly straight with very little elevation change and were much more narrow. In the morning, as I explored, I found a beautiful catholic church, Virgin del Carmen. I felt it calling me to enter, but at that time, I did not answer the call. I could tell from my glimpse through the prominent blue doors, that it would be a sight to behold and I would save any time I had later in the day to dedicate to visiting the site. The church is located in the main plaza of the small town, all white, with a beautiful cross to the right of the open doors. I needed to find sun block for today’s excursion and I had to hurry to the only store open at this time. On my walk to the store, I turned around at least 5 times to head to the church. To any bystander, I am sure I looked a bit odd. I tell you this to illustrate just how strong the church was calling for me to enter; I could literally feel a pull. Maybe it was my heart, maybe it was my head, maybe my experience the previous day on the Inca Trail and at Machu Picchu were begging for some spiritual renewal, and this church was the place to find that renewal. No matter the reason, I would not visit that morning. I found my sunblock, exchanged a few sentences with a lovely storeowner and was on my way to the bus station with Edward, for our visit to Machu Picchu for the day. Today is Peruvian Independence Day and a Saturday, which means Machu Picchu, had the potential to be very crowded. The previous day, we waited about an hour for the bus to Aguas Calientes for the night, we did not know what today might hold in regards to time in the bus line, at Machu Picchu, and in the return bus line afterwards. We had to catch a train to Poroy at 4, then a car to Cusco city for the night. It turns out; we had great timing in our choice to enter Machu Picchu today. It was not too crowded we had plenty of space to tour the site and for me to learn another set of amazing things about the Inca in particular. Each time I think about the knowledge, practices, and beliefs of the Inca, I am overcome with a sense of wonder and amazement. They were the ultimate scientists. They experimented, questions, and continuously sought answers. They perfected practices, particularly in relation to earth sciences and geography—but how? They observed. They practiced. They perfected. They had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, it is apparent in the things they were able to do, to know, and to create. I witnessed a perfect compass made of rock, by the Inca today, and perfect sundial, perfectly coordinated windows for morning and evening sun, equinoxes, and solstices. Who does that? The Inca did. They even understood where to place their storehouses according to wind direction, altitude, and temperature. How many of us are at a loss when the air conditioning system, power, or Wi-Fi “go out” in our houses? Don’t lie, you raised your hand-if you didn’t, you are totally lying. Or maybe you are of Inca descent. If so, that’s great, I would really like to hear about it. By the way, I am being dramatic when I say we are at a loss; it’s not a total loss, but it is pretty inconvenient. I think you get the point I am trying to make here. Their architecture and engineering alone as evidence in every site I have visited thus far are so incredible. Precise measurement, cut, and connection of rocks to create walls without mortar that have withstood thousands of years of weathering, erosion, storms, earthquakes, and overgrown jungle hiding them for at least 400 years. That last bit is specific to Machu Picchu, but it is all impressive nonetheless. So much of what they knew and how they accomplished these feats have been lost. An incredible shame if you ask me. And why were they lost? Many reasons including: invasion of a culture who wanted to completely dismantle anything resembling the existing Inca ways, non-professional initial excavators at Machu Picchu, and looters seeking Inca treasure. There are many more, but the first is what makes me sad to think of it all; especially what has been lost. Had the Spanish known of the vast knowledge of the Inca, would they have approached their mission differently? Maybe, maybe not. I, unfortunately, think the answer is no. Best case, I believe that the Spanish would have seized the knowledge and made it their own or not really cared much and attempted to destroy the culture anyway. I would like to think that they might honor it, but I am not sure, given what I know about the goals of these conquistadors and history elsewhere, I am inclined to believe the end result would be the same. All this, to really say that Machu Picchu is amazing and we know very little about it. I cannot begin to imagine what actually happened here, the purpose of each place, and really, how much MORE there probably is to this site that remains covered in jungle overgrowth. As the bus approached the site today, I noticed what seem to be random terraces far below the official site of Machu Picchu, surrounded by dense vegetation. Is Machu Picchu even larger than originally thought and currently seen? If you ask me, I say yes.

After the site visit, I returned to Aguas Calientes with a lot of time before the train. The church was still calling me; I could feel it immediately upon exiting the bus. I went. Edward came too. He is an incredibly spiritual person, and he chose to spend that time in the church with me. He did not have to—I think he was being called as well. I am not even sure that I told him what I was doing; I just went. He sat in the back pew, knelt, and prayed. I was drawn to a piece of art on the wall of Jesus. As I approached the art, I noticed coco leaves on the ground and in the pew just in front of it. I knew what that meant instantly. You see, here in Cusco, coco leaves are often used in tea or just for chewing to prevent and ease altitude sickness. It is common to see the leaves in a serving bowl in restaurants, stores, and in buffets. It is also used by “old school” believers in Inca traditions. It is very common for Peruvians to be Catholic. It is also common for those Catholics to also believe in Inca ideals such as pachamama. Seeing coco leaves in the church, by this piece of art is a sign that someone or a group of people recently visited and paid homage using coco leaves. Without even thinking about it, I found my head nodding in approval. I was then drawn to a pew midway to the altar. I knelt and prayed. I prayed for a long time. Afterwards I sat back and observed the sanctuary. Every. Centimeter. You see, every Catholic Church is different, and at the same time, they are the same. I love to observe the way each church has chosen to decorate their space. One piece of art stood out to me in particular. It was rather dark, a cloudy image of Jesus, seemingly on the crucifix, with an Incan style headdress. Below this is a clear depiction of people with masks, wearing mostly red and white, carrying a tapestry of sorts to a mountain. Below this piece of framed art on a table were multicolored pieces of what look to be confetti. After praying one more time and exiting the church, I found Edward sitting on the steps outside. I sat next to him and asked him about what I had seen. He looked at me with a very serious face, hesitated, and responded, “This is what we call ‘misteriouso’, it is depicted in this art. I am not sure if I have all the details right, but this is what I know.” He spoke of a family who lived in the mountains. The children of the family met some other kids in the mountains and began bringing food to their friends. Suspicious of this, the father followed them one day without them knowing. His children were bringing food to a cave in the mountain. As he followed them, he never saw the friends his children were talking about, but what he did see was the image of Christ in this cave. Since that time, many people have visited the cave to see the image and have reportedly done so. Wow. It has turned into a sort of pilgrimage and is unique to this area. As he was telling me this story, my eyes teared up. I do not know why. It is not really an emotional story, or maybe it is. Is that why the church was calling me today? Is there a reason I needed to see that art, ask the question, and hear the story?

After that moment, Edward and I parted ways and I explored the city of Aguas Calientes. They have an incredible marketplace, which you must cross a river to reach. This little town has a river and a railroad, which pass through it, splitting the town 1/3 and 2/3. The 1/3 portion is the marketplace, soccer stadium, a few restaurants, and a few buildings that are under construction. There were four different pedestrian bridges, each unique. Two of the bridges had various locks on them. You may have seen similar ideas elsewhere in the world. I had asked Edward previously about the locks and he reported that they represent secrets that stay in the town. The tone of his voice hinted that perhaps these secrets are of the risqué nature, but I did not ask to clarify, almost afraid to know the truth. If nothing else, they looked pretty cool, so let’s just go with that. I rather enjoyed walking the town, each street had its own character, and believe me, I walked every one of them. Just before heading to the train station, I once more visited the plaza where the church is located. This time, a live pan flute band was performing there, a few women and small children from the mountains were there as well in full regalia, and people were gathered to celebrate Peruvian Independence Day. I sat in front of the church one more time and felt at peace. Whatever the church was calling me to do or experience today must have happened. I spent much of the day thinking about the Inca, Catholicism, their symbiotic relationship in Peru, and of course, how all of this wraps neatly together with the world of science. Maybe THAT’S what I was meant to realize today.

image-1 image-1

Today, my friends, was incredibly tough. With that, however, was an amazing award: trekking into the magical Machu Picchu. When I decided to do this solo trekking portion of the expedition, it was very important to me that I trek into Machu Picchu as the Inca would have. My dream is the 4-day Inca Trail. I could not fit that into this itinerary so the last leg is what I did. I would be lying if I told you that I never doubted I would make it, that it was easy, or that I never felt like I needed to give up. All of those would be huge lies. I want to tell you that there were several times I thought I would give up and not make it. It was not easy. This was a total mental game. I had to talk to myself almost the entire time, I knew I could do this, and I would. I learned a lot more about the Inca, the trail, Machu Picchu, and Peru today.


The Inca has many groups within their empire, each specialized in a trade. Some were engineers, textilers (is that a word? I just made it up I think), builders, healers, etc. There was one king of the Inca who felt it necessary to learn all of the skills or as many as possible, not just sticking to your individual skillset. Many believe he was the most important Inca ruler because of this. It allowed his people to learn more and to be able to be more effective throughout the empire. As the Inca Trail brought me to several archaeological sites, it was apparent where original construction occurred. It is perfect stone on stone architecture, no mortar. I spoke about this in the previous blog post, but today I had the opportunity to really study it and take note of where either different groups within the Inca took over the construction of buildings or sometimes archaeologists. I loved hearing of this and being able to see it in person, it was amazing. I also learned more about the Inca beliefs, rituals, and constant connection to the earth. They knew of its importance and always sought out ways to protect, conserve, and give back to the environment. There were a few moments on top of a rock where I thanked Pachamama for this experience and for the gift of the Andes and all of its inhabitants. That happened just moments after the picture of me standing like a condor. As the trail descended closer to Machu Picchu, the vegetation became more abundant and jungle-like. There was a beautiful waterfall and several smaller water sources that produced amazing ambiance and cooler air. You could definitely feel as you approached water, it was refreshing. One time I definitely felt as if I would not finish the trail was in climbing Winay Wayna. The stairs, nicknamed "monkey steps" because many people use their hands and feet to ascend, were incredibly steep and difficult. I used my hands and feet, heart pounding, mind full of doubt, to climb to the top of the terraces. I may have definitely started talking to myself out loud," Becky, you got this." I cannot be certain, but I would not doubt that it happened, a few times. This marked the end of the most difficult section of the Trail for me. Now, do not misinterpret that as saying the rest was easy. It certainly was not, but for me--I knew I would make it after that portion. That is not in any way to say that I did not doubt myself at any other point, there were at least 3 more places where I did begin to doubt, but it was much easier for me to talk myself back to calm. The thing about higher altitudes is that it can be more difficult to breathe, your heart can race, and your thinking can become a bit cloudy. For me, as we ascended quickly in altitude, my heart would feel almost panicked momentarily and I would have to work very hard to regulate my breathing. Couple that with the physicality of the trail and you have a recipe for potential disaster. When you complete physically taxing tasks, your heart rate automatically increases so that adequate amounts of blood and oxygen reach your entire body. I am used to that feeling; but not the increase due to both. Most people are not used to that. That is what made me doubt several times that I would be able to make it. Okay, enough of that--we all know I did--so let's get to the good stuff! I enjoyed the physically demanding sections of the Trail even though they played a toll on me mentally. There were two more sets of "monkey steps" on the trail that I knew would be coming up. I also knew that they would mark significant points, so that also helped me get through them. One of those two set of stairs led to a large rock overlooking the valley and with an amazing view of the Andes. That is the picture with my arms stretched wide like an Andean condor. The condor is special to Peru and the Inca in particular. It only felt right to pay them both homage at this point. I imagined along this ledge what it would like to be a condor flying majestically above and through the Andes. What an amazing perspective they must have. This is also where I mentioned earlier, I felt called also to thank Pachamama in this spot. The last set of monkey steps was the last ascent of the trail; the entrance through the Sun Gate. This is where you first catch a glimpse of Machu Picchu. This was the moment I prepared for, I dreamed about, and would happen as soon as I finished that last set of treachery. I could feel in my whole body, the energy of the area, which each step, my hands and feet would grip and pull me up, one step closer to the sacred site. I could almost hear the Rocky theme playing, but on pan flute, because we are in Peru after all. As I passed through the gate, my body felt refreshed, as if the Inca Trail had not happened, my guide Edward gave me a high ten and I had a ridiculously large smile upon my face. Edward said, "Welcome to Machu Picchu, welcome to the most sacred place in South America" As I turned the corner, there it was, forming centimeter by centimeter before my eyes: Machu Picchu. I leaned my right shoulder upon one of the walls of the Sun Gate and just looked. No pictures, no words. I just looked at Machu Picchu. I thought about what it must have felt like for Inca to pass through this gate, just as I did. Maybe I was a messenger that had just run the Inca Trail to bring news to the city of Machu Picchu. Maybe I was an Inca child who had just made the journey from Ollantaytambo to this city I had never seen. Maybe I was Hiram Bingham, happening upon the site for the first time, covered in overgrown jungle, with a local as my guide. Maybe I was an Andean condor, flying over the site for my morning snack. Maybe I was a llama, looking for a place to rest. Maybe I was just a science teacher from Virginia Beach. I was all of those. At that moment, my eyes began to tear up. What if the Spanish conquistadors had found this place? What if I gave up earlier in the trek? What if I chose not to do this solo trek portion of the expedition at all? The best part of those questions is that they didn't happen.

The Spanish never found the site. I didn't give up. I did make the trek.

Edward and I spent a lot of time on the closest terraces to Machu Picchu for about an hour and a half. Today, we chose not to enter the site. We meditated, shared reflections, prayed, and just observed. I thought a lot about the intelligence and foresight of the Inca. How incredible were they as a civilization? The answer: VERY

I learned from Edward that Machu Picchu might not at all be the name of this site. Viewing the Inca construction from above, all of the sites in the valley form the silhouette of a condor. Ceramics and documents from archaeological investigations point more toward this site being about the condor and possibly being named something along those lines. The jury is still out; there is so much about this space has been lost over time. There is a rock named "eye of the Inca" where evidence of many condors living and visiting the site as well as mummified Inca in the fetal position. It might be a place of worshipping the condor or perhaps just a place they frequented, but it's proximity to Machu Picchu is interesting. I'm learning that almost nothing about the location, positioning, and construction by the Inca was an accident or just coincidence, so I am inclined to believe this means something.

With this, I am going to leave you for tonight. Again, this is an abridged version of the day. Wait, I did not even tell you about the granadilla or "Peruvian pear" I ate. I cannot leave without recalling this epic event of the day. First off, the "pear" was orange. I had to watch Edward eat first because as soon as I picked it up, I could tell that you do not eat these bad boys like pears in the United States. The outside is shell-like, think hard-boiled egg. I used my pointer finger to poke the bottom of the pear, the part that does not have the stem. Sure enough, my finger cracked through just like a hard-boiled egg. There was a white spongy part just inside that shell-like exterior that I also peeled back which exposed hundreds of seeds covered in jelly-like cases. This is what you would typically see inside pomegranate, although these were yellowy-green in color. I questioningly looked at Edward, "Do you just eat it, seeds and all?" He nodded yes and said, "you will just pass the seeds." As a science teacher who often drops bombs of knowledge like this on students, I found it amusing to be on the receiving end. I dove right in. There literally had the texture of a bunch of jelly bubbles. They were incredibly sweet, but not the same sweet flavor of typical pears in the United States. I loved it and continued to devour them. Not before taking a few pictures for your viewing pleasure though!

And with that gem, I bid you all goodnight.

Hasta la proxima blog post, amigos!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

AMIGOS! Today was absolutely phenomenal. I feel like you are going to get tired of hearing about this type of description each day--but I am not sorry! I am not really sure if this is real life--seriously. Today began early with breakfast and hopping a bus to the Sacred Valley of the Incas.


I was able to join a group tour today, which was pretty awesome! Sylvia, our tour guide, named us Pachamamas. In Quechua, Pachamama means Mother Earth. The Inca worshipped Pachamama and they always thanked her for blessing them with life, food, and happiness. I loved being called Pachamamas all day! On the way to Pisac, the Inca name was actually Pisaqa and many signs in the area were spelled Pisaq, we stopped to see weavers, alapacas, vicuna, and llamas. In Peru, they eat alpaca but not llamas, however, in Bolivia llamas are fair game. No specific reason was given, but it was an interesting fact to learn along the way. The Sacred Valley was very important to the Inca, they believed that the river was a reflection of their lives. The river in this valley has many names due to different civilizations having inhabited the area, but the Inca name is: wilcamaya which literally means: sacred river. It is known on maps as the Urubamba River, but I am partial to the Inca roots. The Spanish changed the name in the 16th century when they conquered the area. Maize is the primary crop of the valley, it is a special species with large kernals. On the way to Pisaq, we passed a few snow covered mountaintops which the Inca worshipped; they knew the importance of water to life, therefore these snowcaps, which they used for fresh water, were incredibly important. I think that almost everyone who thinks of the Inca, are familiar with terraces throughout the mountain ranges. They are large steps cut into the sides of the mountains used for various reasons. Until today, I was among the majority of people thinking that these terraces were agricultural. What I found out today is that they had many uses that have been confirmed by archaeologists. I think it would be fascinating to be on one of those digs, finding evidence of civilization and piecing together information. Terraces are used for agriculture, retaining walls, plazas, trails, and personal gardening. The Inca even imported soil to terraces to make them gardens when the soil was not of good enough quality. In the 12th century, the Inca created great aqueduct systems for irrigation and drainage of their cities.

Pisaq was fascinating in that the only civilization to inhabit the mountains in this area were the Inca. When the Spanish conquered the area, they stayed in the valley. Evidence of both Spanish and Inca architecture are found in the valley. The homes are made of clay brick which was the Inca way, but have tile rooves and balconies from the Spanish culture. Many houses have trapezoidinal windows which is a nod to the Inca architectural style. Interestingly enough, I saw perhaps only 1 house with all trapezoid shaped windows. Most were rectangular and had 1 or 2 trapezoid windows. I can only imagine that this was done by the owners as a tribute to their ancestry and perhaps a "gotcha" to the spanish who had taken over control of the area. That is merely my speculation, but it did make me smirk as I passed so many houses. Many houses in the area sport a bull with a cross, which signifies that they are Catholic. Before the Spanish took control of Peru, it was common for Inca to sport llamas and alpacas as decoration as tribute to Pachamama. As you can imagine, the Spanish wanted all of that to vanish, so they replaced the symbols with a bull and cross instead. Along the roads of the andes, you will find eucaplyptus trees, brought to Peru from Australia. The Spanish planted them on the mountains to prevent soil erosion, not realizing that they actually hurt the soil more than help. They do not at all stop erosion, rather they require a lot of water for their leaves and probably do more damage than not. The locals have kept the trees though for construction timber and leaves for medicine. The archeological site of Pisaq was a great trek this morning. This was my first in person encounter with terraces, they are grand in scale. These were agricultural. At the middle elevation of Pisaq, I was able to view the largest burial grounds of the Inca. The picture I took contains many dark spots that look like shadows. These are actually holes in the side of the mountain containing mummified remains of Inca. Only about 60% has actually been excavated.

Another interesting Inca fact: Why did they inhabit mostly mountain areas? They had a lot of trouble getting along with other tribes, so they escaped to the mountains. It was difficult to build in the mountains, which was why no one else lived there. So basically, no one liked the Inca. That's okay because it would seem the Inca were pretty smart and built a pretty impressive empire with advanced architecture and technology.

We had lunch at a lovely buffet restaurant in the valley where I tried alapaca meat. It was good. I had it prepared in two different ways, both were great. The restaurant had a great view of the Andes and a beautiful garden area at the entrance. We were even entertained with a live pan flute band.

Ollantaytambo was our second large hike of the day. So much history here as well. The area was first inahbited and terraces constructed by a civilization dating to BC period of history. Unfortunately, I do not know how to spell the name of that civilzation but they were much older than the Inca who were 12th century AD. I believe that descendants of the area still inhabit parts of Titicaca which I will visit later. This civilization built the terraces that are still a part of Ollantaytambo. They were initially retaining wall terraces for architectural creation of that civilization. When the Inca took over, they decided to make them agricultural and imported soil from the Valley. They also began building temples (which were never finished) using pink granite from the andes. This particular quarry was 7 km away. The Inca brought large stones in from the quarry to build. They cut them in the quarry, smoothed them with textiles, sand, and water, and used a system of logs to bring them to the area for building. Incredible. No mortar was used in construction, purely stone on stone, perfectly cut and angled. This site is as it was when originally constructed. I enjoyed trekking through and taking many photos. I can only attach 4 to this blog, enjoy those highlights!

After trekking Ollantaytambo, I came to my hotel for the night in the heart of this little city. My hotel overlooks the trek I made at Ollantaytambo and is next to an original aqueduct constructed by the Inca. In fact, I can hear the rushing water now. I have a blaconey overlooking the water feature and I am in pure heaven.

Thank you for reading all of this, if you can believe it, this is an incredibly abridged version of today's encounters.

Tomorrow I am off to the Inca Trail to trek into Machu Picchu.

Hasta manana, Amigos.

Photos: aqueduct outside of my current hotel room, terraces at Ollantaytambo, Longwood flag in Pisaq, Women Who Dared with the Inca burial ground in the background (pisaq)

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

textDia 1: Cuzco text
Today was quite an adventure, my friends. After a slight delay in getting here, the day was a blast anyway! I did take a 3 hour nap which was much needed after last night and to acclimatize to this new altitude. After my nap, I hit the town. Avenue del Sol is where it's at! Well, it's where I was anyway, there is so much to see here, I decided based on maps of the area that Avenue del Sol was a great start. The street was bustling and I loved every second. Just outside my hotel there is a small plaza with art dedicated to the sun god and temple. The afternoon sun made an interesting shadow on one mural in particular, I think the picture I took at night was much better. Along Avenue del Sol there are many shops, banks, and street vendors and many, many people. I saw two different families with baby alpacas strolling along the street, it was fascinating. I made my way to a T-insersection where I was surrounded by people, it didn't dawn on me to try out the 360 camera at that moment, in fact I pulled it out at the exact moment the pedestrian light turned green--shucks! I did take a few down the calle and tonight as I walked around. To see them in all their glory, you will need to check out my Twitter feed @schnekser and/or search #ExpeditionSchnekser


If I post those photos here they will not be 360 interactive which would be a shame for you!

Around 6pm I had a briefing with Eduardo, who will be with me during the Inka Trail! I am very excited to have him there, he has already told me stories of the views, animals, and Inca history. I can't wait to hear and experience more, he is very knowledgable. That will be Friday and Saturday! After meeting with Eduardo, I crossed the street for dinner in a beautifully decorated rstaurant named Quinta. I can see it from the hotel and I was curious about it earlier in the day. I ordered a soup and mint tea for after dinner. They have a saying in Cuzco "Don't trust the sun", because once it goes down or you step in the shade, it is chilly. Even the 100 steps across the street, I made sure to have my jacket on! The soup was a traditional one, the name I wish I remembered, but I did take a picture. It was full of calamari, beans, and potatoes. They also brought out roasted beans and homemade chips with a green sauce which was spicy. The mint tea was amazing, so incredibly fresh, I wish I could have saved the scent for you--it was heavenly. I was determined to go straight to bed after dinner, however I must confess the charm and charisma of Cuzco at night drew me in. I took Avenue del Sol once more, but this time, I went a bit further. At the T intersection I told you about earlier, I went right and found myself in a larger plaza area overflowing with people, more shops, music, and two cathedrals (I think). There was a fountain in the middle of this plaza and I just took it all in. I sat for a few moments watching people interact and enjoy the atmosphere. I am now torn with whether day time Cuzco or night time Cuzco is better. They are both stunning and I can't wait to learn more about what I have seen so far, on Sunday when I return to this location.

Tomorrow, I head to the Sacred Valley and on to Machu Picchu via a short Inka Trail trek. I am so excited to learn more about the Incas, on location.

Hasta manana, amigos!

image-1 image-1 image-1

AMIGOS! I have made it to Cuzco! My flight here was delayed about 2 hours which has made me rearrange a little bit for today, which is the beauty of travel, right? The original plan was to be here by 10:30 and then have a city tour at 1:30. In the interest of rest and not falling victim to altitude sickness on my first day in the city, I am quickly updating you all, going to sleep, then going exploring later. You might even have two posts to read today! How exciting!


My hotel is at the intersection of the two major avenues in the historic district. I am looking forward to seeing the diverse architecture and culture derived from the Inca and colonization of the Spanish here.

When I set off tomorrow morning around 7:30, I will be headed to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and eventually the Inca Trail.

I am safe, sound, and sleepy. I will update you again soon with even better pictures of the area! Consider these your teasers.

The picture from the airport window does it NO justice. the landscape immediately surrounding the airport is incredible.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Do they have oxygen tanks available if you begin to experience altitude sickness, or would that only take you out of the first part of your trek? Curious. I have a friend in Utah who has issues with it. (I hope you don't mind my questions. I know to not expect answers until the end of your trip...I think!)

Hola a todos! This morning I am already at the gate waiting for my flight to Cusco! Last night, my flight from Miami to Lima was delayed a few times causing me to get in a few hours later than planned, which also meant fewer hours of sleep. That's okay though, what I really wanted was a shower, and that I did! It was glorious. I was able to sleep about 3 hours before needing to be up and ready for this flight. I am happy to report that my Spanish is serving me well, allowing me to navigate, communicate, and even help other travelers. Who would have thought?!


When I arrive in Cusco, I have to take it easy. If you have been following along in the blog, Cuscos is around 11,000 feet above sea level. That is twice Denver--so I guess you could say Cusco is the 2-mile high city? It doesn't have quite the ring to it as Denver's catch phrase. I'll keep working on it. I am dubbing today "Sloth Day", unfortunately not because I will see and hang out with sloths, rather I need to harness that slow pace for at least today to allow my body to acclimatize to the altitude. I am very excited to explore the city today and take a lot of pictures for you all.

Buenas Dias and hasta la proxima blog post!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

VERDE!
Vamos amigos, ahora es mi primero expedicion!

I am very excited to be officially embarking on this expedition with all of you! I am currently in Miami, awaiting my flight to Lima! We are slightly delayed, but that will not dampen my spirits!

Tomorrow morning, I will fly to Cusco and begin my solo trekking adventure. Day one will be slower as I acclimatize to approximately 2 miles above sea level. What!? I could not be more excited. I already made a new friend here while enjoying a late lunch/early dinner. I am sure you are surprised that a random person at the same restaurant was swindled into talking to me and sharing all about his life and today's adventure for him so far. He is a tax attorney from San Diego, headed to the DR for his mentor's vow renewal. We shared a great conversation about how to change the world; the answer of course being through youth, the future of the world! He participates in a fair amount of outreach in schools in California-great connection to make as I head on my first expedition!

I will try to update you all as I settle into Peru later tonight, but if not, I should be in touch soon!

Hasta la proxima, blog post!

Photo credit: Collage--Sean Gaillard

image-1 image-1
Preparation Stage

Twenty-four hours until the yellow "preparation stage" icon turns green for "mission underway". Folks, if it wasn't real yet--it is now officially, real. I am spending this last day tieing up loose ends on a variety of tasks. I am sure you can imagine that I have a million thoughts running through my head, a million emotions running through my consciousness, but at the same time, I am okay.


A year ago, almost to the day, I was notified that I had received an award entitled "Donna Sterling Exemplary Science Teaching Award" through the Virginia Association of Science Teachers. The road leading to that day was not an easy one. In fact, it was filled with disappointment, sadness, failure, and feelings of despair. In fact, it was crushing. I wrote a blog about it you can check out here https://medium.com/@schnekser/the-necessary-crush-6af647b49746 The point of telling you that is, oftentimes we see great success, big ideas, amazing opportunities and think to ourselves "That is THEM, that is THEIR journey, of course THEY are doing that", most often we do not immediately think that it is a possibility for ourselves. We only see the highlights, the highest points and think that where we are, those highlights aren't a part of our own stories. Let me be the first of many to tell you, this CAN happen for and to you. This amazing expedition, the first of many I am hoping, was not easy to attain. I often head from others, "Becky, you are always doing great things" or "Becky, how do you get to do all of this?", as if it just kind of drops in my lap. It doesn't. If you read that blog post about "The Necessary Crush" you will see one of the lowest points of my career as a teacher. That was just a little over a year ago. Out of that crush came this and a few other opportunities because I didn't stop. I wanted to, I wanted to crawl into my own little cave and go about business, status quo. I knew though, there WAS more out there for me. My purpose was different from I thought. My journey was and certainly is not over right now, it is merely different from what I thought it was meant to be. I would say that the journey and expedition I am on now is more magnificent than I imagined and had planned out in my head. Be open to that, be open to possibilities, pursue new ideas, and you will have amazing opportunities. That is what I did here to complete my first expedition.

Wow--that is not at all how I imagined this blog post would go about 10 minutes ago. See--the universe sometimes has other plans. It certainly did up there! For my last "preparation stage" post, I really wanted to exude gratefulness. My gratefulness for all of you, for the Donna Sterling Award committee, for the Virginia Association of Science Teachers, my Head of School Dr. Christopher Garran, Director of Global Studies Willy Fluharty, Harrison Land, Chase Christianson, Tyler Faubert, Jeremy Birkholz, Juanita Jo Matkins, my parents, my colleagues, Andres Ruzo, God, and my family.

My husband, Michael. Oh my goodness, this man is a true saint. He supports my crazy ideas, even those that take me away from him for a month. A month during which I will miss our daughter's 7th birthday, and more importantly our 10 year wedding anniversary. He is an amazing man and I am incredibly grateful for him.

I am thankful for you. Yes, you who just paused and thought "who, me?" Yes, you--you are reading, following, and supporting one of my biggest ideas ever, my first expedition. Thank you.

On this, my last preparation day, it is currently pouring down rain. There are a few more loose ends I need to run around and tie up including chauffeuring my children to camps.

Until tomorrow, my friends. Happy Monday--I will see you tomorrow, in the GREEN as my "mission underway" phase begins.

Last night I had a dream that I embarked on this expedition with only one of my bags...please for the love of my sanity, NO! Honestly, though, it would not be the end of the world, of course. A little lighter packing, and perhaps a little liberating!



So let's talk about the weather on expedition. I will be in the Southern Hemisphere, which right now is experiencing winter time. Lima and Cusco will be in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit, while the jungle and rainforest will be in the 80s and 90s Fahrenheit. Interestingly enough, the clothing I am packing will be used in all of these locations. During the day, I will be wearing long pants and long sleeve shirts to protect from the sun and insect bites. I will also have along with me for my trek, a light jacket and medium jacket for when the sun sets (so scientifically inaccurate, but I'll save that for another post!).

Today, my mom took me shopping for a few last minute things like band-aids, water filter, face wipes, and one more pair of pants and socks. To be clear, that is one pair of socks and one pair of pants, not some new age pants/socks combination--I know at least one of you reading this totally pictured that. I digress. So incredibly grateful for my mother--she beamed as she spoke with two different employees at REI about my expedition. I loved hearing about it from her perspective, and it really made me think about what you all think and how excited you are about this expedition as well. In fact, a few hours ago I was at church for music rehearsal and the expedition came up--I know what you are thinking, I was talking about it AGAIN?! For the record, I did not bring it up, but I will confess I WAS thinking about it. The five others that were there for this particular conversation had so many questions and I loved talking with them and answering questions about it. It made me realize once more that this means a lot to not only me and my students but every one of you on this journey with me! I am so incredibly excited to share this with you in so many ways. Thank you for joining in the fun and thank you for being my cheerleaders--I appreciate you all.

image-1

Great news: test pack was successful. My goal to take a backpack and carry-on sized duffel will work out well.


The reality of this expedition, particularly the first two weeks which are a solo trek is becoming more apparent with each passing day. This is my last week before heading out, and at the same time, I am teaching a camp with international students. I may or may not have really been thinking this idea through when I agreed initially.

Another reality setting in is that I will be on expedition for an entire month. It is going to be amazing, I am confident, at the same time the realization of the time span is setting in. I am very much looking forward to being out in the world, learning, immersing myself in the experience, and sharing it with you all as much as I can "in the moment", but even more upon my return.

I am also a big believer in reflection and I know that for a long time after I return home, I will reflect on my experiences and process them. As a teacher, we are often pulled in many directions simultaneously for months on end--it is incredibly rare to have this type of experience and I am incredibly grateful for it. I am very interested in making such experiences a normal occurrence for all teachers, that is how strongly I already feel about this experiential professional development opportunity. For me, it's an expedition, but for other teachers, similar experiences might be very different, look different, feel different, but no less important or impactful. I want all teachers to have a professional development opportunity related to their field or interest which takes them away from the education realm, immersing them in a new experience, and allowing them to scale it back to their own classrooms. I digress!

In this final week countdown--I am excited, terrified, elated, but mostly grateful that I have this opportunity.

My expedition is about a week away. Today's goal is to test pack my gear. My target is to make this trip with one bookbag and a carryon duffle. Half of the expedition will be trekking, meaning I will be carrying my things. I will have the benefit of gear drop-offs, meaning I can elect to have some of my things "meet me" at my checkpoints each day. I will be taking full advantage of this, but at the same time, any tech that I am taking, I will be most comfortable on my person rather than left at checkpoints. There is also the difference in regulations from US flights and the one I will take to get into our first checkpoint to the jungle. I do not want to the be one that has "too much" or "too heavy" luggage and causes an issue. There is also the fact that you need a lot less than you think. When people travel, I think they tend to take a lot more convenience items than are truly necessary.


Other than this part of mental preparation, I have also been "google map stalking" the areas I am trekking. I often do this before I travel somewhere I have never been so I feel like I know the area a bit before arriving. As I have been scoping the areas I will be trekking, I thought on multiple occasions about how incredibly lucky I am to have this access to technology and information. I have done a lot of thinking about early explorers, or even those twenty years ago. They did not have this insight, and oftentimes, they were traversing into great unknowns. There is beauty in both situations.

Thus far, I have spent a lot of time briefing you about the first two weeks of my expedition, leaving you a bit in the air about the final two weeks. This is partly on purpose; there is a lot I do not know about the jungle and rainforest portion of this expedition. Being a field science excursion means that the plans tend to be a bit more loose, allowing for flexibility in locations. There are also protocols in collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions based on the data and sharing the information with the public. Information collected may not be allowed for immediate release or press coverage. Along with that, the specifics on what is being collected, locations of data collection, and other such details may not be immediately released. I am certain there will be plenty I can immediately share with you all, and in time, most if not all will be shareable. I greatly look forward to that time.

What I can share now, is that we are focusing on thermal river systems of the Peruvian Amazon. Thermal river systems are large bodies of flowing water sustaining high temperatures. Conditions to achieve this are easier to find near volcanic sites; the Shanay Timpishka is 700km away from the nearest volcanic activity. This is one reason it is pretty incredible. Another reason is that it is massive. What we currently know is that this particular thermal river is a fault fed hot spring with an incredible myth attached. You see, myths and folklore are often created with the goal of explaining something that is a "mystery". I love this connection between science, literature, and humankind's natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge. In every culture, there are collections of myths and folktales all with the purpose of explaining a natural phenomenon. One thing I love to talk with students about is how we can take these stories and "science-splain" them. That is, we can use what we know about the world through science to explain what it is the story is based upon. I am excited to learn more stories on expedition, bring them to students and teachers, and help make the connections to science and natural curiosity of the world. All of my experiences and what I learn on this expedition will be used to create cross-curricular lessons, activities, and curricula for teachers and students worldwide. It will be hosted on The Boiling River Project's website.

For even MORE information about thermal river systems and the nonprofit with whom I am partnering to create educational materials, please visit http://www.boilingriver.org/

Photo Credit: Andres Ruzo

image-1

Puno-Arequipa-Colca Canyon-Oh my!
Arequipa was named the capital city of Peru from 1835-1883, after gaining independence from Spain. The city has always thrived economically through agriculture and being a prime trade route intersection.

While its architecture encompasses European and native characteristics, it has been nicknamed "Escuela Arequipeña". I am eager to observe this blend of styles and hopefully hear stories from the area. There are varying accounts of how Arequipa obtained its name which is fascinating, further exemplifying the sheer amount of vast cultural influences that have infiltrated the area over the years.

Another appealing feature for me of the area are the volcanoes which seem to guard the area. A stratovolcano, Misti, is of particular interest while I teach about it with my second graders. We focus on South America as our global connection and investigating the volcanoes are a natural tie-in, especially Misti being a great example of stratovolcano structure!

The following two days will be spent exploring Colca Canyon which I am almost afraid is not enough time. It is located near the Colca River and is one of the deepest canyons in the world. Its depth is 3,270 meters (10,730 ft), compared to the Grand Canyon in the United States with a depth of 6,093 ft. The area's root are traced to Pre-Inca time and colonialization occurred by the Inca and Spanish respectively. The Collagua and the Cabana cultures are still present there and locals still hold true to their ancient customs. I am certain that I will be able to uncover a lot about the area in two days, hopefully, a few stories along the way!

Another fascinating reason Colca Canyon caught my attention and part of my trek is the Andean Condor! This is a majestic, large bird which has gained worldwide conservation attention as an endangered species. A few more notable species I would love to encounter here are the giant hummingbird, Andean goose, Chilean flamingo, mountain caracara, vizcacha, zorrino, deer, fox, and vicuña! That's not asking too much, is it?

As if that wasn't enough motivation to visit the area and dedicate two days to exploration, there are also archeological sites containing caves where art believed to be around 6,000year old depicts the domestication of the alpaca. I am certain among the area are many more significant discoveries to be made.

With this visit, I then head back to Cusco for one more day of open exploration. I have not decided exactly what it will entail yet, I am waiting for inspiration along the way. This is the expedition halfway point and signals the end of my solo trekking adventure. The following two weeks will be with my field team in the Amazon.

Stay tuned for those details!

Photo credits: Arequipa: peruhop.com Colca Canyon: bbc.com

image-1 image-1

Lake Titicaca


Confession time: When I was little, we used the word "titicaca" all the time--mostly because it was as close as we were allowed to saying an off-limits word and partially because it just sounds funny when you're a kid. I had NO IDEA it was an actual word much less a location I would visit in my 30s!

On to the itinerary details! Lake Titicaca is fascinating for so many reasons. This excursion will take me via boat to the Uros Islands. They are famous for "floating" in the lake. After trekking and exploring there for about an hour I will hop another boat to Taquile, another island in the lake. This island is unique in the fact that those who inhabit it, hold to the lifestyle of the Inca. I am hoping to learn a bit about the culture, customs, and stories while I spend time on the island. They have an active market in their main square where I am hopeful to gain a lot of insight!

Lake Titicaca is the natural border between Peru and Bolivia and also the highest (altitude) navigable lake in the world, as well as the largest lake in South America.

Following this full day mostly of cultural immersion, I will head back to Puno for the night!

photocredit: Taquile island: anotefromabroad Uros: Peru Adventure Tours

image-1 image-1

Machu Picchu day 2


The previous day will have been spent trekking into the majestic Machu Picchu, this day will be spent on location, taking it all in and learning as much as I can. Machu Picchu is believed and generally agreed to have had several uses historically, one of which being to observe, study, and worship the cosmos.

Following the day in Machu Picchu, I will head back to Cusco for a "free day" which really means, "What will I spend my time exploring?" With the help of google maps, I am already virtually exploring the area to find my way around and decide where I would like to spend a bit of time. As you may have read in previous entries, Cusco is at a high elevation meaning extra effort must be made to avoid altitude sickness, so I know that whatever exploration I choose to do here needs to be slow and steady with plenty of water! There are many museums and small plazas that look interesting to explore, we shall see!

The following day, I head to Puno. Along this journey, I will visit the church of San Pedro Apóstol at Andahuaylillas, Inca temple of Wiracocha at Raqchi, La Raya pass, and Inca Aymara museum of Pukara.

The church of San Pedro Apostol is a Baroque period catholic church which combines indigenous Andean culture with Spanish influence. It was build in the 16th century after the Spanish began to conquer the area and had their eyes set on the entire Inca Empire.

Temple of Wiracocha is an Inca site thought to be a transportation control hub of sorts for the empire. There are several buildings thought to have been administrative structures, religious structures, and even lodging for travelers. There has been evidence thought to indicate that this was a location created prior to the Inca Empire, but there is not enough evidence found yet to solidify conclusions. This temple was created to honor Wiracocha, and has a fascinating story within Inca Mythology.

La Raya pass is a high (altitude) opening in the mountain range which is generally regarded as the natural border between Cusco and Puno.

Pukara is thought to date back to around 1800BC and during the reign of the Inca, was an important religious center. It contains monoliths which create pyramid structures. The Pukara culture was the main inhabitant of the northern shore of Lake Titicaca and was later overcome by the Tiwanaku around 200AD. The Pukara culture is still widely visible and represented in the area with ancient structures, cultural decoration, and in artisan creations locally.

Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail


This is probably the most recognizable day of the trip. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not at least heard of Machu Picchu; most probably have heard and can tell you that is an important location associated with the Inca Empire. Never in my life did I imagine that I would be visiting this location, much less trekking into it. When this dream was slowly becoming a reality for me, it was important to me that I trekked to Machu Picchu. I did not want to drive in--I felt like if I was going to be there, I wanted to come upon it the way an explorer or tribesperson would. In coordinating the logistics of this, my ultimate dream was the entire Inca Trail, but time and money were not on/in my hands. The reality of doing the entire Inca Trail is that you must reserve about a year out and if you are traveling solo, it is incredibly expensive. Neither of those would be my reality this trip--but it's going to amazing nonetheless!

Historians and archaeologists generally agree that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca Emporer Pachacuteq in the 15th century. With the invasion of the Spanish in Peru, Machu Picchu was abandoned in the 16th century and inhabited by the Spanish. It was not until 1911 that Machu Picchu was a known entity outside of indigenous peoples and archaeologists. The site is home to approximately 200 structures thought to carry religious, ceremonial, astronomical, and agricultural significance. Many of these uses and significances are still unknown to us while their exact uses/purposes have been lost with the Inca civilization. Its location is well hidden and resides within the meeting of the Andes mountains and Amazon Basin which I can only imagine had a significant purpose in its own right.

Needless to say, this is a day that I am excited to experience and share with you all. Most of the day will be spent on the trail, day 2 will be a more intense exploration of the site itself. Stay tuned ;)

Photo Credit: Lonely Planet

image-1

My second day of trekking will take me to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Along this trek, I will visit Pisac which is a partridge shaped city dating back to the Inca Empire, possibly earlier. Pisac means partridge, which is why the city was formed in that shape. Some of the agricultural terraces created by Incas are still in use today. The Sacred Valley, and Pisac, in particular, are important archaeological sites while it was known to have military, religious, and agricultural constructions providing significant insight into the Incas.


I think it is pretty clear I am a #sciencenerd and as I take you on a preview of my trekking portion of this expedition, it will become even more apparent that I am also quite a #historynerd

Honestly, I just love learning about anything and everything. This expedition is going to be amazing and the more I share this preview with you, the more excited I become. I literally have goosebumps right now, just thinking about day two!

That isn't even the end of the day.

Following the Sacred Valley and Pisac, I will continue to Ollantaytambo, another important city to the Incas where notable leaders were housed. There are ruins and many original structures from the Incas still in use today. This was a heavily fortified area historically not only to protect Inca nobility but also in an attempt to avoid Spanish domination. Spanish conquistadors were ultimately successful in their invasion and took control of the area. Throughout history, the claim to this area has changed possession many times and I am interested to see various pieces of evidence of different cultural and religious influence. I am certain that the architecture will hold many stories--I can only hope to hear some of them from locals as I traverse the area.

Stay tuned--up next will be my time on the Inca Trail into the majestic Machu Picchu!

Photo Credits: Ollantaytambo: Peru Travel Sacred Valley: Charismatic Travel Pisac: Audley Travel

image-1 image-1 image-1

These look lime the rice terraces in the Philippines and other places in Asia. Very cool!

Alright--let's break down the checkpoints of my journey. Being a solo trek, these could change on the fly, but this is the plan as of now and I can't wait to take you all along with me and hopefully be able to post onsite! Once I hit the jungle for the field science portion, however, there is almost no chance I will be able to give you live updates--but that allows you to use your imagination with where I am, what I am doing, and experiencing. You bet once I hit wifi, you will be inundated with it all!


I will initially fly into Lima, stay the night and fly the next morning to Cusco. Although none of my travel (that I am aware) will be a change in time zones, one factor I do need to consider is altitude change. Cusco is about 3,400m or 11,200ft above sea level. This is quite a bit higher than the approximate 1,600m or 5280ft elevation of Denver, Colorado. Paired with being in a foreign country, my motto is: "Be the sloth". I will be taking most of the morning slowly, hydrating, and eating soup. I know what you are thinking, "Becky, take it slow?", but I assure you, I know that this is necessary and failing to do so has the potential to ruin the entire experience.

In the early afternoon, I will be touring the city area beginning with Cusco Cathedral also known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. I am fascinated already on the history of this roman catholic church for so many reasons. Next on the trek will be Qorikancha, the Incan Temple of the Sun, created to honor the Sun God Inti. It was an important Incan building. My trek will end with the ruins of Q ́enqo, Pukapukara, Tambomachay, and Sacsayhuaman which contain architectural accolades from the Tawantinsuyo, or Inca Empire!

I am excited to learn about some history of the Incas at each of these sites; did you know I am also a History Nerd?

Cusco is a World Heritage site, which was declared in 1983 by UNESCO. It was the historic capital of the Inca Empire.

My next entry will be about the Sacred Valley of the Incas--stay tuned!

Photo Credits: Cathedral: JSBurton Qorikancha: Kuoda Travel Sacsayhuaman: Costa del Sol travel

image-1 image-1 image-1

Today is all about family. I want to take a few moments to recognize all that my family has done to support me in the last 34.5 years. Oh yes, I did put the half in there!


If you think about all of the ideas I throw out there, the projects, the activities--it’s a lot. Imagine now that you have been by my side for 30+ years, listening to these ideas, watching me tackle projects, and countless activities. That’s a lot to deal with, and my family has always been supportive. They may not understand why I do what I do, but they know it’s important to me, so they go with it.

For this particular expedition, I want to specifically talk about Trish and Steve Cutter and Terry Zach. They chose to sponsor this opportunity and I can’t wait to bring back photos for you guys on site! Thank you, thank you, thank you for helping sponsor me, it truly means a lot.

Trish and Steve: you've been there forever and I cannot ever thank you enough for all that you do and continue to do to support me.

Terry: From racing mini coopers, working at NASA and cheering me on during my time there, and now with this expedition--thank you!

This is just the beginning of my expedition-life and I am glad you are there to kick it off.

It takes a village!

There is nothing quite like talking to Andres Ruzo. I am willing to bet that anyone who has ever had the opportunity will tell you that it is an amazing experience. That was me back in November of 2014. I was enthralled with his story--it is not what you would expect but it brought him to where he is today, and it is fascinating. So fascinating to me in fact that I am heading into the Amazon with him in a few short weeks. I would say that is quite an influence.


Since that time in 2014, Andres and I have forged a great friendship which brought him to my school to present and speak with students from ages 3-18. This was an incredible event that students still talk about to this day; no exaggeration. Here is a video of the surprise we were able to pull off with 2nd graders.

https://www.facebook.com/capehenrycollegiateschool/videos/10153752710093999/

Prior to Andres' visit to my school, second graders had been skyping back and forth with him about South America, in fact they had one scheduled for that day as well. Little did they know, he would be there in person instead!

I think the encounter that solidified our friendship, without a doubt, was the night I picked Andres' up from the airport for this event. Until this moment, we conversed briefly when I first met him after his keynote at a conference in 2014, via email, Twitter, and a couple phone calls. We were fast friends, even with this limited communication, but something definitely happened over dinner that night.

There are very few, if any other than Andres, that can keep up with the way my brain functions in conversation. I will juggle at least 5 topics without stopping and interweaving them with no warning. It's just me. In this dinner conversation, we covered so many different conversations simultaneously, it was unreal. This dinner lasted a few hours and could have been days longer, easily.

Fast forward to summer 2017, where I was applying for an award with professional development money attached. As I was forming my idea for professional development, my mind kept going back to this idea of field science. Having the opportunity to experience this and be able to bring it back to my own students and, bigger picture, students and teachers nationwide. My initial proposal was to study climate change through glaciology in Bolivia. This idea fell through, however, and left me in a state of panic. That's when I thought of my friend Andres and The Boiling River Project. I nonchalantly (is that a word?) sent a text to Andres asking if by any chance he would be in the field in the summer of 2018 and by another chance, I could invite myself to be a part of the team. To my great surprise, the answer to both was an emphatic YES. We hopped on the phone almost immediately to talk about the expedition, and in true Becky/Andres fashion had a whirlwind 2-hour phone conversation that could have lasted a few more hours.

Fast forward to yesterday and our 2-hour conversation that could easily have been days long with no lull in conversation. Yesterday was about many topics, but perhaps the most pressing being the fieldwork portion of my upcoming expedition. That piece will run from August 6-18 (just a heads up!) and is filled with excitement, but most of all passion. Passion for science, learning, education, activism, and a call to action. Having conversations so saturated with passion are emotionally, physically, and mentally charged, in a good way. It can also be exhausting, but the type of exhaustion you experience when you have put your everything into an idea. That was yesterday.

With even more gusto now, I am looking forward to entering the Peruvian Amazon, staying in the midst of it all, and studying thermal river systems. I can only imagine the observations that I will be able to make. I know that there will plenty of photography, videography, and audio collected for me to share with you. I am also looking forward to speaking with locals, especially the Shaman to gain insight on the spiritual and historical significance of the Shanay Timpishka. I want to hear the stories and be in the midst of their origins. I want to take you there, too.

Here is a treat for you, a little teaser, if you will about what I will experience and get to know on a personal level. Check out this TED talk by Andres!

https://www.ted.com/talks/andresruzothemythicalboilingriveroftheamazon

image-1 image-1

Today's post is dedicated to my students. Those I currently teach, have taught previously and will teach in the future. To date, I have taught for 12 years. Five of those were dedicated to fifth grade, all subjects. The last five have been solely in the science lab with students in PreK-grade 5. That means I have had countless opportunities to make a difference in the world--I can only hope that I was able to do this more than I was unable. In fact, this expedition and all of those to follow are rooted in my wish to make a difference and passion for authentic learning experiences. I can tell you that in the last 12 years (and MANY MORE TO COME!), I have learned more than I have taught my students. That statement is actually pretty difficult to write, but definitely true. Every moment, every student, every class, every year--that's a lot of "everys"--they have all taught me countless lessons that I use to improve myself and my teaching for the next moment, student, class, year ( I think you get the point here!)


Every decision I make, especially when it comes to professional development is based on what I think I need to improve in order to be better for my students. This is a big decision for me--I preach citizen and field science to my students, and we do a fair amount of citizen science in partnership with some great organizations like NASA, Trout Unlimited, and CoCoRaHs. When it comes to field science though, I haven't actually contributed to an authentic data collection. That's a gap for me, and I know to make it authentic for students, I need that experience. So here I am--expedition #1 of hopefully many more!

Do I want to do this for me? YEP! Have I always dreamed of this type of work? YEP

But really, it's happening for real, because of my students. I want to be able to be more authentic with field science protocols, so Amazon--here I come!

There are a few families that have chosen to sponsor this trip and I would like to say a few words about each of them.

Arriens-Dwarshuis Family: I have had the pleasure of teaching Julia and Emma for the last two years and to say it is a pleasure is no understatement. I can't wait until I have the opportunity to work with Nolan, by the way! This family loves learning and they truly put one another first. I love watching them come to school together, usually holding hands, smiling, and conversing about something new one of them learned or discovered. This year, Emma worked with microscopes in class and came to school each day with new specimen to investigate. I often had insects given to me at morning carline by Emma herself, that we would use later in the science laboratory. Julia immersed herself into every discipline of science we covered, never ceasing to ask questions that would oftentimes change the course of what we were learning, in a great, inquiry-based way. I am honored that you have chosen to sponsor my expedition and can't wait to share this experience with you!

Salomonsky Family: Ben and Max are true scientists; I would honestly classify them as natural engineers. In the laboratory, they were enthralled by robotics this year and I feel they connected best to our study of physics in particular. Max especially enjoyed programming his EV3 robot while Ben was an avid electrical engineer, always seeking to make his electrical circuit creations better and employ as many elements as possible. I can't wait to find connections to these concepts on my expedition and share them with you both!

Klimkiewicz Family: Wyatt and Owen were my "how does this work?" scientists. Although they are both now middle schoolers, I know that I will have a lot to bring back for them as well! In class, they were both interested in figuring out how things worked or what made them work, whether it was a chemistry lab or gardening outdoors. They were masters at questioning and investigating!

Hobbs Family: Coral is a budding scientist who finds excitement in all activities! I have always been impressed with her ability and interest in taking on challenges whether in engineering, biology, meteorology, or even anatomy. The way I teach, I often just throw out a challenge with very little explanation to students and see what they can do. This does a lot for me as a teacher, it allows me to assess their prior knowledge and figure out where I am going to "enter" with the concept I am trying to demonstrate. Coral, when given such challenges, tends to be one of the first to jump in and try ideas. I love that sense of curiosity and willingness to take risks. I am so excited for another year in the lab with her and bringing back some great experiences from the jungle!

Derber: Eleanor is a natural born explorer. Some of my most fond memories of her (she's leaving me for middle school!) are when we went outside for investigations and Eleanor would be right with me, digging in dirt, climbing into bushes (don't tell our facilities staff!), laying on our bellies in the grass, or staring up at the sky making observations. Recently, she was on a trip with me to the Florida Keys for some field science and she was "all in". I loved watching her alongside marine biologists, learning and making observations in real time. Although she is headed to middle school, there will be plenty I bring to her as well from the jungle and I have no doubt she will come back to visit me for some great stories!

There is so much more I could say here--maybe I should write a book?

Long story even longer. . .thank you to all of my students and their families, past, present, and future for teaching me so much and pushing me to be a better teacher, scientist, and person.

As I look through my expedition itinerary and really plan what to bring along, I would be remiss if I did not mention those who have chosen to sponsor me along the way. These people are incredibly special, all for unique reasons. Follow me on this journey through memory lane, as I acknowledge each of these special people!


Today is all about Pat Mulloy.

Pat and I met and became fast friends at Longwood University in 2006. I was finishing my Masters, he was finishing his senior year; preparing to enter the Army as an officer at the conclusion of his time at Longwood. Pat is one of those people that genuinely cares about others. I have so many fond memories of and with him that I cannot begin to articulate just one that stands out most. What I can tell you is how he made me feel, which I think is why he was and is so important to me. Any time I was with Pat, he made me feel important and that whatever I was up to that day was the most interesting thing he had ever heard. He always made time to support my endeavors; one that sticks out most was when I had a huge event for Residential and Commuter Life. It was the day of the event and Pat rushed me to campus so I could get all of the details of the day put together; I was a frantic mess. Pat reassured me that everything was going to be great and that I had meticulously planned this event; there was no way it would go off without a hitch! In that moment, it was exactly what I needed to hear and he sent me off with a hug. One of those hugs that permeates long after it is over. He was right, the event was a hit. It's moments like those that Pat's support and positive influence is most evident. Even thinking back on it now, I can feel his undying support of me. Fast forward to the announcement of this expedition. When Pat heard about what I was up to, it should come as no surprise that he jumped at the opportunity to talk to me about it. Question after question, he wanted to learn more about what I would be doing, what motivated me to do it, and most importantly, he wanted to support me. Many miles separate this incredible friend from me, but through facebook messenger, I felt his hug of support. I am incredibly grateful that Pat is a part of my life and one of my main supporters on this expedition in particular. In January, he sent a donation to http://www.boilingriver.org/ The Boiling River Project, the nonprofit for which the thermal river system data will be collected.

Part of preparing for this expedition in particular is photography. I recently had the pleasure and amazong opportunity to learn about photography, videography, and science-telling/storytelling from experts at National Geographic Society. That experience alone is worth it's own post!


Suffice it to say I learned a lot and try to practice what I learned often. Some key points I learned were:

  1. Unless you absolutely must (or have a crazy-awesome camera meant for this type of shooting) do not zoom in--YOU get close!

Since I am shooting with my iPhoneX, I am working on the "no zoom" principle and finding ways to get close to what I want to shoot.

  1. Patience.

Man--if you know me at all, this is NOT me. It requires a lot of concentration for me and I am getting better each time. Waiting for the right shot is paramount.

  1. Perspective will make or break your shot.

Working on this concept is actually what makes it fun for me. I take tons of pictures of the same subject from as many different angles as possible. I have the most fun, honestly, when I pretend to be microscopic and take photos from underneath a subject.

  1. You didn't take enough pictures (even if you took 1000)

Functioning on this principle means, just keep shooting. You never know what you will catch. Better to have too many than not enough. Wait, you can never take enough. . .so scratch that.

So, those are my biggest takeaways, I learned a lot more than that of course, but the point of this post, really, is to share some of my favorite shots from today's practice shots.

Do you have tips and tricks for photography? Share them!

I am enjoying practicing now and can't wait to use my skills in the field and share with you all soon!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

In preparing for the biodiversity I will encounter in the jungle and rainforest, I paid close attention at the zoo recently and found a few "friends" that I may encounter along with some of their relatives. Snakes, tarantulas, and spiders, oh my! Good thing they are not on my list of fears. I am fairly confident, tarantulas and snakes, in general, will be abundant. Mostly, this excites me beyond belief, especially thinking more specifically about what may inahbit the banks and close proximity to thermal river systems. What can survive in boiling water? What THRIVES in boiling water? What feeds upon THOSE? Questions just keep coming and I love that! Afterall, that's the basis of science, questions and questioning. Just as I was typing those few sentences, this question rang in: What lives in and near thermal systems that we did not previously know about? Can any of these organisms be used as indicator species of the water quality and surrounding areas health?


In my classroom, we study the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which is comprised of six east coast states. An indicator species for water quality locally is the Brook Trout. As a part of this study, citizen science project, and experiential education tie, we raise brook trout in our classroom from eggs to fry stage then release into a freshwater river system. The health and abundance (thinking positively!) of this particular species indicates the quality of water within this watershed. The project is sponsored by Trout Unlimited and occurs in many states using various salmanoids as indicator species depending on geographic location. We often get lost in this study (in a good way!) and thinking of this expedition is making me think of what ties we can find within this tropical location.

Has this prompted any questions in YOUR mind? Post in the comments or visit my flipgrid and record your questions. Don't forget the super secret password: Cape https://flipgrid.com/df7daa

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Preparing for an expedition is more than having an idea, booking flights, visas, research permits, etc--part of preparation is knowing your location in its present form but also historic presence, changes, and significance. I believe this is true for almost anything you are preparing--you have to know it's history and present-day configuration in order to attempt to prepare. I also believe no matter the amount of front-loading prep you make, you will undoubtedly find some gaps in knowledge. What matters is your attempt and commitment.


I recently bought the book "Alfred Russel Wallace in the Amazon: Footsteps in the Forest" in order to read from two naturalists' points of view while exploring the Amazon. Alfred Russel Wallace was on expedition in 1848, and the author Sandra Knapp interjects about her tropical rainforests studies where it appears there are gaps in Wallace's recounts. I have only begun this book, but I believe it will be a great background knowledge for what I may or most likely encounter while on expedition.

I look forward to comparing/contrasting my expedition and studies to theirs--and who knows--maybe I will write a book which compiles information from all of our expeditions!

So, why the jungle? Why South America? Why thermal river systems? What exactly are you up to? Why are you doing this?


All great questions. I am excited to answer them all plus some! :)

I love learning; learning about anything and everything. When I grow up, I want to save the world. Pretty small goal, huh? Well, it's true. I am certain the only way to do this is through education, whether formal or informal, with youngest of students or most seasoned. I know that goal is lofty, but I also know it's attainable because we have this huge gift called education. I could blog about that topic along for days, but let's keep it brief, shall we!

Currently, in the field of science, my passion for education and learning has brought me to study the jungle, rainforest, biodiversity, and thermal river systems. How did that happen?

Two words: Andres Ruzo

If you have ever had the pleasure to meet him or encounter his work, I am willing to bet you know how his passion caught ahold of me. His passion for conservation of the Shanay Timpishka (a thermal river in the amazon) is captivating and his story, his journey equally captivating.

Once I heard his message, heard his story, I realized the importance of the conservation of this thermal river system, jungle, and rainforests. Basically--if you have lungs; this is important to you. Rainforests generate massive amounts of oxygen, which I am sure you know, we need in order to survive. The amazon alone produces nearly 20% of the world's oxygen. Destroying it directly impacts human beings (yes, YOU!). Honestly, this again is just the surface here. I could also blog about this for days, but for your sake, I'm providing a cliff notes version. If the impact of rainforests have a large impact on all human beings on the mere basis of survival--think now about those who live in and near the rainforest. Let's focus on indigenous peoples for a moment. This is their home. The effect on humans as a whole is large, think about the paramount effect on those who even more directly depend on this ecosystem for daily life, belief systems, heritage, etc.

Now, thermal river systems in the rainforest are a whole other topic. They are incredibly special being that they occur independent of typical geothermal activity: volcanoes. Around the world, there are thermal river systems that are near volcanoes--but these in the rainforest are not. They are not nearly close enough to be affected or a result of that geothermal source. So then, how ARE they formed? What powers them?

Great questions: we are studying THAT! This opens up a lot of opportunity for scientific study, discovery, and possibility of energy alternatives. As you can imagine, that can all be sensitive to broach, the important part though is studying and understanding the systems. The world is a vast and amazing place, there is so much to learn out there, especially with these unique systems. I cannot even begin to imagine the organisms that live here that we most likely have never discovered before. What lives in and around a boiling river? Let's find out!

Apart from the pure scientific part of this--I want, as a teacher, to provide opportunities for my students that are authentic, experiential, and spark their curisosity for the world around them. One tool is using field science protocols with my students. THAT is real science. By participating in this expedition, I am completing field science. With this experience, I will better be able to serve my students and provide them with authentic, experiential education in the sciences. They cannot possibly learn those skills from a book--okay, maybe they can. But isn't it better if they DO it instead of just consume the information and know what it is?

I think so. And there you have it folks, an abridged version of my "why"

So, tell me, what else do you want to know?

GEAR UPDATE!


Alrighty, yesterday I had an appointment with Zach Roberts of Great Outdoor Provision Co, the Virginia Beach, VA location to talk all things gear, outfitting, and well--survival! He is incredibly knowledgeable, helpful, and on top of it all, decided to donate a pair of Astral TR1 Junction Shoes for which I am incredibly grateful! These shoes are great for hiking and trekking, even when your terrain becomes muddy or wet! I can't wait to use them on this expedition and get some great action shots to share with you all!

https://greatoutdoorprovision.com/locations/virginia-beach/

I was able to check out a lot of outfitting choices, now I need to find affordable options--anyone have ideas?! I would love to hear them! I am looking into long sleeve, breathable tops and pants as well as hiking sandals.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Today is a big day in the preparation portion of this expedition. Later today, I will be meeting with a local outdoor outfitting store to talk about equipment, gear, and clothing I will need in the Amazon. I look forward to seeing and trying on the gear with an expert. What I am not exactly prepared for is the cost that might be associated--I like to call this #expeditionproblems #explorerproblems #fieldscienceproblems but guess what?! It is not going to stand in the way!


Have you ever traveled to a tropical rainforest or jungle? I am curious about your experience, equipment necessary, and gear you brought along. Any advice?

Talk to me, I would love to hear from you!

I haven't traveled there but ever since I read the opening chapter in the Song of Trees by David George Haskell about the Ceibo tree in Amazonian Ecuador it's been on my list to do.

Beautiful! I will be reading Footsteps in the Forest by Russell Wallace soon!

As I prepare to head out, I would love to hear from YOU! Visit the link below and talk to me! There is an intro video asking about what you want to learn about my expedition. This will help me know what interested YOU most, and where to focus my energy as I learn about rainforests, jungles, thermal river systems, and the culture of Peru. BEFORE you jump to the link, you will need this SUPER SECRET password: Cape


I can't wait to hear from YOU! :)

https://flipgrid.com/df7daa

Excellent! I tried to sign in. The password wasn’t working for me. Let us know!

Hey David! Make sure you use a capital C in Cape--let me know if it still does not work, I can update!

Expedition Background

Photo Credit: Sofia Ruzo


In 2017, I was awarded the Donna Sterling Exemplary Science Teaching award which provided a small amount of funding to complete professional development. Under the mentorship and guidance of Andres Ruzo, I have chosen to accompany him in collecting data in the Amazon for The Boiling River Project. I will use data we collect to create educational materials for teachers to incorporate into their classrooms!

image-1

Contribute to this expedition

Name
Email Address
Contribution
Currency
Number card
Expiration
CVC
Postal Code

Review Your Contribution

You have chosen to contribute to expedition.

Confirm your details:

  • Name:

  • Email:

  • Last 4 digits:

Click below to proceed.

Thank You for Your Contribution!

Fundraising Details:

Submit/Modify

Goal
Currency
Deadline
Tell us how raising these funds will impact your expedition
You're almost there, we just need to know three more things:
Is any part or component of your project funded by the National Geographic Society or a National Geographic Society Grant?
Is anyone on your expedition/project team affiliated, either currently or in the past, with the National Geographic Society?
Did you apply for a grant/funding from the National Geographic Society for this project?
You have a goal to raise by for:
Is any part or component of your project funded by the National Geographic Society or a National Geographic Society Grant?
You’ve responded:
Is anyone on your expedition/project team affiliated, either currently or in the past, with the National Geographic Society?
You’ve responded:
Did you apply for a grant/funding from the National Geographic Society for this project?
You’ve responded:
Note:

Thank You

Fundraising is almost live!
Thank you for applying to collect contributions! We will review your request and follow up with next steps via email.
Feel free to email us if you have any questions. openexplorer@natgeo.com