Archive for February, 2014

School Overnight Field Trip in the SC Forest

During the second Hands-on Amazon course for teachers, eighteen youngsters from the Santa Cruz elementary school enjoyed a field trip and overnight at the forest preserve.  The culmination of months of coordination between Project Amazonas and the community of Santa Cruz, the experience was intended to foster the children’s team-building skills, self-confidence and a respect for the forest and environment.

It might seem strange that Amazon children would revel at the chance to spend the night in the forest, but these children had never had an opportunity to bond with their classmates outside of school and this was a chance to be together.  Although a few families live within walking distance of the school, most arrive every day by canoe, which can be an hour-long commute unless the family has access to a peque-peque (the same canoe with a motor, pronounced “pecky pecky.”)


A late July Sunday at noon, volunteers Nina, Edis and Isabelle Levent stopped at the village on their way back to the station to pick up the youngsters with our transport boat, the Yucandero.   We were extremely disappointed when it arrived at camp without children.  The American teachers had spent the evening planning a program of lessons, games, challenges and fun for the children, and the mother lode of food and sports equipment was ready to go.  The Levents reported that the children were all waiting at the river with their little overnight knapsacks and “jumping out of their skins.”  But the principal and lead teacher, who live two hours away in Iquitos were not there and the community would not release the children without them.


Disappointed yet hopeful, we sent the boat back in two hours to learn that the principal and teachers had been stuck in Iquitos waiting for a boat to Tumicurillo, the small port on the Amazon that serves as the gateway to the town of Mazan and onward up the Mazan River to Santa Cruz.  Principal Jimmy Valera, teachers and parent chaperones hopped on board with great excitement.

After the boat ride to the landing and a half-hour hike from the river to the main field station, the Peruvian teachers sorted out the various sleeping accommodations in the tambos (open-air huts).  The American teachers started their thoughtful plan of tried-and-true activities.  The first task involved getting the children to arrange themselves in a line chronologically in ascending order of birthdays without verbal communication.  A great ice-breaker for American children accustomed to “organized” social games, it fell flat.  Explaining the directions was just the beginning: only Andrea Mercado, an ESL teacher, was a native speaker of both English and Spanish; the only other bi-lingualism belonged to Devon Graham (the real tropical biologist) and yours truly, and our Spanish can be described as fluent while interesting in terms of pronunciation and linguistic validity.  Luckily the colloquial speech does not strain toward literary excellence and comprehension is more important than grammatical purity.


Things picked up with a hula-hoop challenge and finally broke loose when a rope for tug-o-war was tossed out.  Immediately, spontaneous games broke out with volleyball and soccer going until dark.  An exquisite meal was prepared by a local cook, whose talent could make stone soup not only tasty but tender; tablecloth of fresh banana leaves.  The principal and local teachers led the children to their evening ablutions, girls sharing the showers and boys washing at pond’s end.   The boys and girls jumped on the air mattresses, told stories, giggled themselves to sleep and a chorus of frogs and birds bridged the gap to sunrise.

After breakfast, there was time for coloring and puzzles before heading back to the river.  There, Dr. Graham gave the children a primer on how to plant a tree: add abono (compost) for nutrition, build a perimeter of cut vegetation on the drip line, but not too close as to encourage insect predation, particularly leaf cutter ants, then water copiously.  The children each proudly and dutifully planted a 3-year-old grafted citrus seedling and were invited to name their tree and to write the name on a plant tag.  So eager to please, at Devon’s suggestion: “for example, if you want to name your tree ‘Jose’, write it on the tag.”  So a dozen trees were named “Jose.”  The letters have since been weathered from the tags, but the trees had all survived their critical months as of December 2013.


The children readied to depart with their hula hoops and soccer balls, then rushed back to the river house at the announcement of free toothbrushes and toothpaste (donated by Frances O’Flaherty of Ohio and her dentist friends).

Before boarding, the Peruvian teacher reminded the children: “Who’s first?” – “mujercitas!” – young ladies, the boys responded.  Granted, although perhaps antiquated and chauvinistic by current norms, it was a heartwarming display of civility and respect among youngsters, and that is indeed worth preserving.

If our goal is living in peace with ourselves and with the planet, there is so much to be shared.   To start, we could learn from the wealth of traditional plant-based medicine from tropical forests.  And we might help the locals learn that plastic doesn’t decompose.

In retrospect, the children’s experience is not very different from that of my home school community in New Jersey, where we bring our seventh grade class on a similar overnight excursion for the same purpose.  Except for a few differences.   The kids there aren’t burdened with electronic gadgets that shorten the attention span, nor have they ever experienced snow, in essence, the differences exist only in the stuff they have and where they are, not in the heart or spirit.  Children are children wherever and whatever.

The next school visit is planned during the Hands-on Amazon course for teachers from July 23-30, 2014.


One of a dozen seedlings named “Jose.”

Don Dean

February 2014