This post was shared by sophomore biology major Alexandra Bishop ’21 from Kingwood, TX.
It’s 5 AM. Still dark outside. Giuseppe Verdi’s Libiamo ne’lieti calici from La Traviata starts out softly playing over the loud speakers, penetrating every room on the big house boat. Suddenly the song drastically increases in volume, the singers join the instruments, and it is all you can hear. It is time to wake up. We need to be ready to go before the sun rises.
Spending winter break 2018-2019 in the Brazilian Amazon on a research trip through study abroad was one of the most amazing things that I have ever done. Led by Dr. Leslie Winemiller of the Biology department and Dr. Kirk Winemiller of the Wildlife and Fisheries department here at Texas A&M, they managed to (mostly) safely and successfully take us on a once in a life time amazing adventure.
We were led faithfully by Moacir (aka “Mo”), our 76-year-old guide who skillfully navigated our way from the Amazon River, up the Rio Negro, into the Rio Branco, and back to Manaus. Often times hacking through forest with his machete, we hiked, swam, and canoed our way through one of the largest undeveloped ecosystems left on planet earth. Mo is an amazing guy. Born and raised in Brazil and stemming from one of the local tribes in the Amazon, he studied and worked in Germany as a young man. He knows at least 6 languages, including Portuguese, English, German, Japanese, French and native dialects of Amazonian tribes, and these are only the languages that I managed to decipher while he was speaking. He knows basically the entirety of Amazonian plants, animals, and most insects off of the top of his head. He can spot a Belted Kingfisher bird from crazy far and then tell you all about it. We started eating random red berries along the side of the river one day just because Mo said it was alright. They tasted a little sour, but otherwise good. Mo catches caiman from the water with his bare hands and then proceeds to have us pass the caiman around our canoe from person to person as if it isn’t a wild alligatorid crocodilian. He is truly the best guide for such a place, as he knows the Amazon like he knows himself.
Led by Mo, we found squirrel monkeys and fed them bananas from our hands. I got to swim surrounded by pink river dolphins. I met a baby giant river otter, made a rubber ball straight from a rubber tree’s sap, caught 9 piranhas using a hand line (which we later ate for dinner), and hovered 3 feet over a 70-pound caiman. I stood 2 feet away from a 15-foot anaconda, sleeping in the sun after a meal. Each and every experience alone would have made the trip feel worth it, but we got to do them all.
We also got to learn a lot about the native people who inhabit the rivers. Visiting many different settlements, we got to see big towns like Novo Airo, small floating villages, and single farmsteads where they farm the famous Brasil nut. We got to see how the vital manioc crop is grown and processed to provide so many different things for these communities, like tapioca. Learning about and experiencing other cultures is so important. Being from the United States, it is very easy to forget how other people live all over the world. Actually meeting new people and trying to understand their lifestyle is by far the best way to be reminded that our American lifestyle is not ubiquitous on Earth.
Now coming back to Texas A&M, we get to choose something from the trip that we are interested in and conduct a research project. We learned a whole lot about the flora, fauna, and ecosystem as a whole while there, getting to experience most of it first-hand. While the trip itself was insanely spectacular, I am still getting more out of this experience. A 3-credit hour course towards my upper level Biology electives, this research course will help me achieve my degree while giving me invaluable experience. The Amazon is a rich and colorful cradle of biodiversity that provides so much for our planet. I am so incredibly thankful and appreciative of the chance I had to experience it.