An Immersion in Peruvian Culture

March 5, 2011

Patrick Garrett '12 on balcony overlooking the Amazon river.

Patrick Garrett ’12- What may have been the end of a long week of studying and completing midterms or putting the final touches on papers and projects for a lot of Wabash students, for the 12 men in Dr. Wetzel’s invertebrate biology course, it was an adventure to say the least.  Just thirty minutes after my week of hard work ended I was on a bus with friends and colleagues, bound for the Peruvian Amazon.  We were headed for the city of Iquitos, a city of half a million people that is only accessible by plane or boat, to study invertebrate biology in one of the most speciose environments on earth.

The Invert biology class exploring the city of Iquitos

After a long day of flights and virtually no sleep we finally arrived in Iquitos.  Up until this point it had not felt like we were in South America at all.  All we had seen were airport kiosks and planes of all shapes and sizes.  However, upon the descent towards the small airport in this incredibly diverse city a new image formed in my mind.  Breaking through the cloud cover revealed a lush green habitat of tropical vegetation, accented by the thick Amazon River that coiled like a snake through the green mass.  I had never seen a river so big and encompassing in my life.  The feeling of being in the jungle had finally come.  Getting off our plane we began our travels through the city via bus and experienced firsthand how crazy Iquitos traffic can be.  As a collaborator with Wabash in this project, Dr. Devon Graham explained with a smile, “The rule of the road is that the bigger you are, the more people get out of your way.”  At times we couldn’t let our arms hang out of the window due to how close we were to other buses.  Moto-taxis and dirt bikes sped all around us weaving in and out of the convoluted traffic bearing up to five people on a single bike.  This was no Crawfordsville for sure.

Kris Devineni'12 (left), Austin Broadwater '13 (middle), and Michael Wittman '13 explore the Belen Market in Iquitos, Peru.

We soon began traveling on foot, exploring the city and learning firsthand what Peruvian culture is about.  Among the various places we went was the Belen market.  Walking there I told myself, “I have been to Otovalo in Ecuador, so I’ll know what to expect.”  It’s hard to grasp how unbelievably wrong I was.  This market was very hectic.  Dirt bikes zoomed through the mangled streets at high speeds, women filet fish to lay out for people to buy, with vultures eating off the tables feet away.  The very ground you walked on was an indistinguishable mass of crud, trash, and animal scat that gave the market its distinctive smell.  Anything you wanted to buy could be found in this market, whether it be a pleasant gift for a loved one or the hide of a leopard, the Belen market was the place to go.

Tomorrow, we move from the city that rests on the edge of the Amazon, traveling by boat for four hours deep into the rainforest, to the Madre Selva research station.  Here we’ll begin to expand our knowledge of invertebrate biology through small research projects, specimen collecting, and exploration.  Personally this trip so far has already brought me a lot closer to everyone taking the course with me, bonds and experiences I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

With that being said, I can’t wait for our group to get to the research station and experience the beauty of the rainforest firsthand.  As Charles Darwin wrote about the rainforests of South America, “Epithet after epithet was found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical regions, the sensation of delight which the mind experiences…. The land is one great wild, untidy luxuriant hothouse, made by nature for herself.“

Let’s see if he was right.

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