Scratch one more off my bucket list . . .

Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to travel the Amazon River.  On September 1, 2016, I was able to scratch that off my bucket list.  My wife, Jennifer, and I spent a week exploring the Amazon and some of its tributaries on an Amazon River Boat called the Delfin I.  It was and will be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

sc-blog-4-1First a little background history. The mouth of the Amazon River was discovered in 1500, when a Spanish expedition led by Vincente Pinzon sailed up it to a point 50 miles (80km) from the sea.  Forty years later, another Spanish expedition, of 50 men under the command of Francisco de Orellana, achieved an epic journey from the distant Andes by way of the Napo River and the Amazon mainstream to the Atlantic.  By the 19th century, naturalists finally began to learn the secrets of the rivers and the surrounding rain forest.  Between 1848 and 1859, the British naturalist Henry Bates collected thousands of insect species entirely new to entomology.  Now, the Amazon is thought to have 2.5 million species of insects, 1,300 bird species3,000 types of fish430 mammals and a whopping 2.5 million different insects.  The botanist Richard Spruce gathered some 7000 new plant specimens.  Now, the Amazon is estimated to have 40,000 plant species, 16,000 tree species and 390 billion individual trees.  The Amazon River is by far the world’s largest river by volume.  It has over 1,100 tributaries, 17 of which are longer than 1000 miles. We were only able to explore a few of these.

sc-blog-4-2We flew into Lima, Peru then onto Iquitos, a bustling city completely surrounded by jungle.  There are no roads leading in or out of Iquitos.  You can only enter or leave on foot or by boat or plane.  The primary mode of transportation is a motor carriages or “Tuk Tuk”.

After a brief tour of the city, it was onto Nauta, the riverboat port.  Once we embarked, we met our guide and our fellow passengers, two couples from Lima, Peru.  We didn’t waste any time and immediately boarded a skiff (motorboat) to search for pink dolphins.  Even though our guide made no promise we would be able to see any pink dolphins that day, we spotted dozens just during that 2 hour excursion.

sc-blog-4-3The next day consisted of a jungle hike where we observed several forms of wildlife.  We got close to a sloth that really seemed to be posing for our cameras.  Our jungle guide discovered a Tarantula and brought it close for us to view (I hate spiders).  We also got close and personal to a boa constrictor, a small poisonous frog, and a monkey (see photos below).  Even though it was 90+ degrees with high humidity, we all had to wear long pants and sleeves due to the huge population of mosquitoes.  Thank goodness I brought along my Para’Kito mosquito repellent wrist band.

sc-blog-4-4sc-blog-4-5sc-blog-4-6sc-blog-4-7The scariest and most unforgettable excursion of our journey was the jungle canopy walk.  It is a series of several tree platforms around 35 meters (115 feet) high connected by swing bridges giving you a unique perception of the wildlife and vegetation seldom observed from the ground.  For someone who is afraid of heights (me), this was quite a frightening but awesome feat.  Had it not been for Jennifer encouraging me from behind, I would have never conquered that fear.

sc-blog-4-8I can now actually tell my grandchildren (not) that I swam in the Amazon, I fed a Manatee, I kayaked in the Amazon, and fished for Piranha in the Amazon.  Fishing for Piranha is an art that I will never master.  Normally, a fish will hook itself while going for bait.  A Piranha is smarter that.  As they bite into the bait (not hook) you have to pull them quickly into the boat.  Well, we fed a lot of Piranha that day but didn’t catch any.  What we did hook was Amazonian Catfish.  I was so proud that I caught one. Jennifer caught five!

sc-blog-4-9On our final day we visited a local village and spent time with some of its 150 inhabitants.  I will never forget that day.  We all brought the children some toys and school supplies which they desperately needed.  Jen and I purchased some beautiful straw items they handcraft which provide their village with income.  I tried to converse with one of the village leaders with the little Spanish I know.  He just smiled.  Many of the jungle people are very happy and live to be over 100 years old.  When asked the reason for their longevity . . . ”no stress”.

sc-blog-4-10The Amazon is more than just the World’s largest river, it is the life force of the surrounding rainforest which is one of the one of the world’s greatest natural resources.  Because its vegetation continuously recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen, it has been described as the “Lungs of our Planet”.   About 20% of earth’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit this area, it will be one of the most extraordinary experiences of your life.

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My Life Changing Trek

Kathy blog 2 15There are moments that you never forget, those moments that could be called ‘life changing’.  One of those times for me was my mission trip with Smile Network. This is a humanitarian organization that provides life-altering reconstructive surgeries and related healthcare services to impoverished children and adults in developing nations.  When you make a donation for a dollar, ten dollars, five hundred dollars or more, you are giving someone in need the priceless gift of dignity.  In fact, I learned that 45 minutes and $500.00 changes a life forever.

Kathy blog 2 4 So here is my story.  After a major health scare and recovery, I was feeling pretty lucky, blessed.  So I wanted to give back.  Turns out my good friend and college roommate, Dawn, felt the same way.  We went to a meeting to find out more about the organization and the work they were doing in Peru with many children from the Ketchwa tribe.  Wow!  Here is what we signed up for . . .

 

Kathy blog 2 21We were going to be gone from our families and the basic comforts of home for 17 days.  The first few days in Peru we acclimated to the elevation in the beautiful town of Cusco.  Beautiful people.  Then, it was off to the classic Inca Trail where we would be bonding with our surgical team by hiking together for five days and four nights.  We hiked about eight hours each day and summited at ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ at around 13,000 feet above sea level.

 Kathy blog 2 9The Inca Trail is really three overlapping trails: Mollepata, Classic, and One Day.  Mollepata is the longest of the three routes, with the highest mountain pass, and intersects with the Classic route before crossing Warmiwañusqa (‘dead woman’).  Located in the Andes mountain range, the trail passes through several types of Andean environments including cloud forest and alpine tundra.  Settlements, tunnels, and many Incan ruins are located along the trail before ending at the Sun Gate on Machu Picchu mountain.

Kathy blog 2 12We trekked with moms, dads, teenagers, photographers, porters and even a Peruvian shaman, Roni.  There were lots of laughs, really bad camp food, twisted ankles, altitude sickness and NO BATHROOMS!  The trail tested our physical fitness, mental toughness, even our modesty.  But, man-oh-man, was it ever life changing.  I was truly present for every moment.  Nothing but the trail and your walking stick for days.  The scenery was breath Kathy blog 2 22taking, but the moment that we got to the Sun Gate – the end of the trail – Machu Picchu was beyond words.  We were exhausted, dirty, hungry and SOOOO awe inspired to see in person what we have only seen in pictures.  I mean when was the last time you did something for the very first time?   Machu Picchu is enormous!!!  We spent hours there soaking it all in and then it was off for showers and food! 

Kathy blog 2 13But after all that, the REAL adventure was about to start.  We were there for a medical mission and it was time to start the process, our higher purpose.

 Day 1 of the mission was where we started the screening process.  Some families had walked for days to just get the chance to see one of the mission doctors in hopes that their child’s face could be repaired and life changed.  There were hundreds that came in to be screened, and Kathy blog 2 14less than 75 that would get this life changing surgery.  I have to say, much of that day was heartbreaking, having to turn away families and knowing what they had gone through just to get there, much less what their lives were like back home.  Gut wrenching really.  The doctors are made up of volunteers from all over the world; pediatricians, plastic surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, all here ‘on vacation’ working 15 hour days to give the less fortunate in this world another chance.

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Days 2-4:  Surgeries began and recoveries continued.  Most of the families didn’t speak English or Spanish but rather a Ketchwa dialect that required translators to help them discuss the surgery and what to expect.  Mostly Kathy blog 2 3for me, it was telling moms that it was going to be okay by dishing out a lot of hugs and prayers.  It’s so surreal – a mother handing over their child and their trust to you while they really can’t begin to understand what is happening.  I became a ‘godmother’ to many of the babies that we were able to help.  I actually even got to assist in the surgeries, becoming sort of a ‘scrub nurse’, in what are not modern surgery centers, but more like M.A.S.H. units.  Pictures tell it best.  Truly, in 45 minutes, these doctors and nurses changed lives forever, mine too. 

This experience has changed the way I think about the world and my life . . . forever.

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