By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
It was anything but a high-mountain environment.
The air was heavy and humid in Peru's Amazon rain forest. Mosquitoes were everywhere.
Eastern Oregon University geography professor Ralph Lewis knew that refreshment loomed above. He reached for a water vine, cut it open and began drinking its liquid.
It was a moment of alpine-like respite and refreshment in the Amazon rain
"(The vine water) tastes like mountain spring water,'' Lewis said from his EOU office on Wednesday. "...You can lift it above your head and momentarily wash off your sweat.''
Lewis was reflecting on a trip he took to Peru and Brazil last summer with four students in his Geography of the Amazon class. Lewis and the students traveled 1,000 miles from Lima, Peru to Rio, Brazil. The first 3,000 miles were the most eventful in paddle-powered boats and a cargo boat on the Amazon River and its tributaries.
Lewis and his students, Sheri Bebb of Prairie City, Michael Vanderjack of Juneau, Alaska, and sisters Ellen and Holly Branford of Newport faced challenging conditions during the trip but never danger.
No large animals live in the rain forest, so you are actually safer there than in places like Alaska where bears and moose pose threats, Lewis said.
Even the waters of the Amazon are safe because the piranha are not the threat that outsiders often believe.
"(The people in South America) make fun of Yankees who are afraid of piranhas,'' Lewis said.
Rivers are filled with women and children playing and swimming in piranha-infested waters. Lewis said that many piranha are vegetarians. The only time they usually hurt anyone is when they bite while people are removing spears from them.
The EOU group walked through the Amazon rain forest during a portion of their journey.
"The hiking was slow going, you can't breathe because of the humidity,'' Ellen Branford said.
Water vines are common in the rain forest. They are an important source of water because the Amazon River and its tributaries are contaminated. The EOU party did not rely on water vines exclusively; they also had bottled water.
More darkness than light
It is hard to see in the rain forest because the thick canopy blocks out much of the sunlight.
"You rarely see animals in the rain forest, you only hear them,'' Lewis said.
Walking through the dense forest is also a challenge because many of the vines have thorns, making it hard to find anything to grab on to.
Traveling along the Amazon rain forest's rivers is the best way to see the region's wildlife because one can see things in the canopy that you can't see from the forest floor.
Unforgettable lily pads
The rain forest is filled with beauty, including lily pads that have a diameter of about 3 feet, making them among the largest in the world.
"One can support a small dog,'' Lewis said.
The beauty of the rain forest helped to negate the discomfort caused by high humidity and mosquitoes.
"You get used to (the discomforts). You ignore them,'' Lewis said.
The EOU professor said his students did a wonderful job of meeting the challenges faced in the unfamiliar environment.
"This is the toughest group I have gone with. They had a good attitude, better than mine,'' Lewis said.
The EOU party traveled on the upper and lower portions of the Amazon River. The upper Amazon is the most interesting because it is much narrower. The upper Amazon is several miles wide, thus being in the middle of it is almost like being at sea.
"It is so wide that the shore (from the middle of the river) is only a speck on the horizon,'' Lewis said.
The EOU party ended its river excursion in northwest Brazil. The EOU students then traveled south to Rio. Most of this portion of the trip was via train and was uneventful.
Throughout their two-month-long trip the group was struck by how little the people of Peru and Brazil have compared to people in the United States, yet their spirits were high.
"They have so little yet they seem so happy,'' Ellen Branford said.
The international trips make an impression on students, Lewis said.
"Whenever I take students to a Third World country they suddenly realize how lucky they are to live in Eastern Oregon,'' Lewis said.
The students all agreed that they learned much more from their journey through Peru and Brazil. They also developed friendships that will undoubtedly endure.
"We were a family for eight weeks,'' Bebb said.