A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Amazonas: The Open Border – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
(Capybara in Spanish is chiguiro. The nature reserve threw their food waste into the same area every evening, and a family of chiguiros would stop by to eat the scraps in the morning.)
I was really surprised when I told the professors at my university that I was going to visit Amazonas before returning home for Christmas and the only response I got was “Why wouldn’t you want to go to the coast for your vacation time?”
When I was actually in Amazonas, a lot of tour guides and various individuals that we met during our ten day trip asked us the same question: “Why do foreigners always want to visit the Amazon?” I’m not really sure what the answer is, but I know that from my personal experience that I grew up learning about the Amazon as a mythical, majestic, wonderful place. I played Amazon Trail for hours on the computer in elementary school, and in science classes throughout my education we would learn with awe about the wonders of the Amazon.
In Colombia, it’s a little less awe-inspiring for a very specific reason.
I and several friends of mine in the Fulbright program spent, all together, ten days in Amazonas, the region in the south of Colombia that shares a part of the Amazon rain forest that also extends into Peru and Brazil. It’s an open-border area, which means that throughout our travels we spent several days in Peru and Brazil, but we were never required to present a passport. We were only required to declare if we were bringing more than two products of another country back into Colombia due to economic sanctions in the area.
Our first two days were spent at a nature reserve in Peru. We hiked, napped in hammocks, fished, kayaked, hung out with capybaras, and searched for caimans (alligators) at night. At the end of our two days, we returned to Leticia, the capital of Amazonas in Colombia, and stayed at a hotel from which we made two additional overnight excursions into Peru and Brazil, as well as a few different day trips into Brazil. We were only once required to exchange pesos for reales (the currency of Brazil), and it was to pay for a lunch that we bought in Tabatinga. Tabatinga and Leticia are more or less the same city, but they are divided by a political boundary on maps and a series of small signs that we accidentally missed the first time we entered Brazil.
Our guide that stayed with us for our ten days in Amazonas explained that while she was a Colombian citizen, she chose to live in Brazil because rent was cheaper. There was no paperwork to fill out. There was no citizenship to apply for. She simply paid her rent each month and crossed the border whenever she wanted to go in to Leticia, which is quite often because she does most of her grocery shopping there.
It was very interesting seeing how the three countries were so fluid in this area. Of course, in the jungle there was no way to tell if you were in a Peruvian river or a Colombian river, but even in the cities there was very little to alert you to the fact that you had entered another country. In Brazil, the signs are all in Portuguese, but Portuguese and Spanish are such similar languages that I often found myself reading the signs and wondering why the Spanish had been spelled so strangely.
(Is this a Peruvian, Colombia, or Brazilian river? I have no idea. I also have no idea how the guides remembered where to go in the different branches of the river, especially since the landscape changes so drastically depending on the season.)
Back to the question: Why is the Amazon not quite so awe-inspiring to Colombians?
Amazonas is the place that many high schoolers visit on their end-of-the-year-trip. At many of the nature reserves that hosted visitors, we were confused about the sheer number of beds, showering facilities, and hammocks that existed until our guide would explain that each location often hosted large groups of high schoolers from international or private schools throughout Colombia.
(They’re not actually called river grapes, but I like to call them Amazonian River Grapes. Unlike other grapes, they grow on trees and the best way to get them down is to hit the tree with a stick (very scientific). You have to peel the skin off the outside of the grape before you eat it or else you risk getting abrasions on the inside of your mouth because the skin is like sandpaper.)
At the first nature reserve that we stayed at there were three school groups also there. One group was from Cali, a city on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. The other two groups were from Bogota–like us! The first night that we stayed at the reserve there were only the five of us, but on the second night the 120 bed facility was nearly full! Another group of high school students also stopped by in the middle of the day.
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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36 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Amazonas: The Open Border – by Laura Blasena. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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Thank you for sharing your story on the Amazon. In my opinion, I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to explore a particular area. It sounds like this adventure was worth your time! I find it fascinating when you talked about the borders of Colombia, Peru and Brazil. How long does it take your guide to travel from Brazil to Leticia? Is traveling between the three countries fast and easy? In your photo on a river, I would like to know what do you mean by the landscape changes drastically? How does its appearances changes?
Laura,thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like you had a wonderful experience! I found the concept of these countries having an open border very interesting, it must make traveling much more efficient. The fact that you were unsure which country you were in, unless you read the sign, shows how connected they are. It was also interesting how your guide chose to live in Brazil because rent was cheaper and didn’t have to fill out any paperwork. Life seems pretty laid back! When I think of traveling, the first thing that comes to mind is somewhere on a tropical island, I didn’t expect there to be so many that travel to the Amazon and there be so much accommodation for travelers as well.
The idea of something being fascinating to Americans, but not interesting to the local population is cool to think about. When something is right next door it probably isn’t as cool as when it is far away. Especially if an area is far away and portrayed as exotic. I always have grown up hearing all about the mystical amazing amazon. If I lived in Colombia or Brazil or Peru I might not think the same though.
I can relate to the stories while in elementary school that included all the glorious things about the Amazon. I too want to travel there and experience what you got to experience, Laura. The similarities between the two rivers sounds quite familiar to living in a state that has 10,000 lakes. They all seems to look the same but each beautiful as can be. Laura, did you encounter any animals while in the Amazon? That is one of the attractions of the Amazon to me.
I’ve always wondered about the Amazon! It is funny to think natives there think nothing of if. But I supposed if someone visited my home town, something boring to me might be really fun and new for them. It was cool to hear the borders aren’t super strict, unlike the United States. Thanks for sharing the pictures!
Thank you for sharing your experiences, Laura! It is funny how you mentioned that most of the Amazon’s appeal comes from the mythical, mysterious place because that is always the image that I have in my head. I think that it is really interesting how different it is there. I thought it was interesting how the borders between countries weren’t always explicit, and so you could be in a different countries water without always knowing. Looks like you are having a lot of fun!
How cool. That would be such a sight to see. I find this extremely fascinating and relate-able; I grew up in Shakopee, MN about ten minutes away from Valleyfair. Everyone always seemed so excited about going but to me it was just another day. Although, I must say, I find it hard to understand how people get sick of a part of the world as fruitful and fascinating as the Amazon. I suppose the same thing happens to people from Duluth, MN. Soon Lake Superior and all of its glory becomes part of daily life and it is easy to forget. Either way, what a fascinating idea and thank you for sharing!
Did you find that America’s stereotypes of the Amazonian jungles were mostly true or false? I suppose you’re used to the heat now, but I suspect it was especially difficult to tolerate when you’re deep inside the jungle. Did you run across any surprising animals or creatures? Also, did the “river grapes” taste similar to what Americans call grapes? I imagine that was quite annoying at first, having to peel off a rough skin before indulging.
Thank you for sharing your wonderful story! I have always wondered what the Amazon would be like and have secretly wanted to visit. It is interesting how people lose the view of how beautiful somewhere they live can be because they are used to being in that area. I have definitely taken for granted how beautiful Duluth, MN is and sometimes I have to remind myself to appreciate the beauty around me. It is interesting that the borders aren’t very explicit there. I hope that one day I can visit the Amazon to experience its beauty. What an amazing experience you have had!
That’s amazing. I, too, have wanted to visit the Amazon since I was really little. The fact that they’re nothing special to the locals reminds me of a friend I made recently who grew up in a desert, then a couple years ago moved the Land of 10,000 lakes. Even a small stream still impresses her.
And the point about the borders. It’s normal to us as Americans to have strict borders– the Canadian one, while more chill than the Mexican one, is kept meticulously free of foliage from coast to coast. Meanwhile in Europe, you can make a day trip across three countries, run around three countries in the middle of a lake, have two countries sharing the same cafe, and one army can accidentally invade another. Borders are interesting things. Necessary, I suppose, when countries must be governed and taxed, but very interesting.
Great article to read! I to remember learning about the magnificent Amazon, it is very interesting to find out that so many different people asked you why you chose the Amazon instead of the coast. However, I can see how people can take a place like the Amazon for granted because I have lived in Duluth, MN my whole life and treat Lake Superior like it is no big deal. Anyway, this sounds like an awesome experience and maybe I can visit the Amazon some day as well.
The Amazon has always been intriguing to me as well, but I doubt I would’ve picked it over the beach. I believe that I understand where the people that asked, “why the amazon?” were coming from; they see this area as something that is captivating, but have gotten used to it over the years and don’t share the same value as a non-native. The fluidity between countries is perplexing to most US citizens because of our lack national border influences. To be in three different countries in one day would take planes for us in the upper midwest, but it is a societal norm there. I found it interesting that the woman living in Brazil could take advantage of the lower rent, utilizing the amenities of each country. How did the high schoolers react differently than you? They’re tourists in a similar way but they also are not foreign to the country and have had more influence of the amazon in their lives.
Wow, thank you for sharing your experience. It sounds like it was an amazing trip. It is interesting to hear how connected the three places are. It seems so natural and not complicated, people just simply come and go. It must make the traveling a lot easier! It seems like no matter where you are in the world, some people (mostly the ones who have lived there for a long time) find unique things not as exciting. It is almost like we get too use to things that we forget them, or take them for granted. This is like a little reminder to look around at the beauty around us each and everyday. Thank you again for sharing!
To me, the Amazon is so unique whereas there are plenty of opportunities to see a coast. Perhaps because many have already seen it during their “Senior trip” they assume you too have seen it. I think for many, if something is close and familiar it loses it’s novelty, charm, uniqueness. I spent a few years living on the North shore of Lake Superior and never thought of it as anything other than living close to a lake (quite a large one, but still), however when I moved to Texas others were amazed that I got to experience life one of the Great Lakes. Thank you for sharing your experience with Amazonas and the open borders!
I really find it fascinating that Americans can think something is so fascinating but Colombians don’t like the Amazon, but then if you think about it we do the same thing when it comes to things in American. I also thought that the fluidity between the two countries was very interesting it kind of reminds me of the border between Duluth and Superior. when you were exploring the Amazon did you see any interesting animals? Great Article!
Very interesting story about your travels in the Amazon. I totally understood your opening paragraphs about how many of us see the Amazon before going there. It was also very interesting seeing how one could live in Brazil but still cross the border without a passport for even just grocery shopping. It makes me wonder what some of the benefits and consequence of this are.
I find it interesting that the borders inbetween these countries are so relaxed. I guess coming from America we don’t really have any idea about anything other than strict border patrol and regulation. On another note I think that my desire to go and see the Amazon originates from being born in Alaska. I have always loved being in the midst of a forest and surrounded by life, the sounds, the smells, and obviously the sights. There is something about standing in the forest that brings me to the present moment and the Amazon forest is everything I have just described on a larger scale.
The was a very engaging article. I’ve always wanted to go to the Amazon just to see all the different animals and agriculture. Do Colombians not care to travel and see the Amazon because they live so close to it? At first I was a little confused about why the Colombians don’t go visit it often but it makes sense with us and Mall of America. It’s a huge mall that’s fun to go to but not often.
My roommate is from Colombia. She read this article with me and it made her smile a bit and reminisce about her middle and high school years. Perhaps a part of what brings us to desire to see the rain forrest is due to the fact that it is disappearing so rapidly! It is a sad thought, but one to meditate on. It is wonderful you had the opportunity to see and explore it! I know you mentioned that it was difficult to navigate or tell where you were, but did you find that it was as ‘wondrous’ as you expected it to be?
I too have always viewed the Amazon to be a magical place. That was why it also shocked me that it didn’t seem so special to those that lived near it. I think it is interesting how we grow accustomed to the things around us and how it often times causes us to forget their significance. One point I was able to take away from this article was to not take things for granted. I think it is is important to reflect on the things around us. I also found it extremely interesting how they had open-borders. Especially with the election around the corner border control is a topic in the news quite frequently. It was interesting to see how another area handled border control. I am interested to know if the local people liked this system?
This article sums up the idea of locals not being as amazed or entertained by the biggest spectacles in the area. After being around and exposed to certain areas for a long period of time, we seem to lose interest with why those places are so special. It was also interesting reading about how intertwined the three countries are, and the ability to cross borders without presenting a passport. This seems like such a bizarre concept when looking at how America handles the borders.
Thanks for sharing your amazing experiences! It is understandable how many of us take our surrounding nature for granted. I was fascinated and amazed by Lake Superior when I first arrived in Duluth, but now after a few years I don’t visit it as much or sadly appreciate it as much.
The concept of the countries having open borders was really interesting and how this enabled efficient traveling. Of course, with open borders many other issues arise, as they do in the open borders of countries in Europe.
I liked this article a lot. I am interested in studying abroad so I loved hearing about how the writer has gone to a few different destinations to study. I think that it is very important to be aware of the world around you and see how people live in different areas. I would love to travel before settling down with a full-time job.
I have also wanted to study abroad but with my CIS major it is often harder to do so in my opinion. Luckily, i have gotten to travel outside the United States so i have opened my eyes a little bit towards other cultures. I have a love hate relationship with places like the Amazon. Seeing this article makes me think about how fun it would be to see all the animals and scenery. However, due to all the movies and documentaries of the dangers of going out there, I tend to lean away from it as well.
I really enjoyed this article, It is really awesome that you were able to experience a trip like this. I think it would be really neat to go to the Amazon and see all different types of animal species and learn about them in a more in depth way. It amazes me that you are able to cross the border with no passport at all, wouldn’t there be safety hazards? I find this interesting because the U.S. is so much different and more strict in this area. Its interesting to compare the U.S. to the Amazon and see how different the two really are.
I find it puzzling that the natives are confused that a large amount of Americans want to visit. I want to visit the Amazon some day! It is a unique situation on crossing the border so fluidly, and I wonder if any problems have been caused or solved because of this. Also the economic sanctions are quiet interesting. Thanks for sharing!
It was interesting to read about open borders right after reading Kathryn’s piece on the U.S.-Mexico border. I suppose that if there is not an influx of people traveling one way or another, heavy restrictions are not needed. Additionally, border protection is particularly difficult in wilderness areas. This seems similar to the U.S.-Canadian border between the Boundary Waters and Quetico Provincial Park.
I really enjoyed this article! My brother is adopted from Bogota, Columbia. Like you stated in your article about freely being able to cross the boarders and such, my parents also remember that being the case as well, at least with their interpreter. What a strange concept that there was little attention drawn to that notion of freely roaming around. I know when my brother was brought home, he was not used to rules and restrictions that we have here. Very interesting read, thanks for sharing!
Wow such an interesting experience! I was intrigued when you mentioned that the female guide was Columbian but lived in Brazil no questions asked. I can’t imagine the borders of the U.S. ever being like that. It was also interesting that to Americans the jungles of the Amazons are revered as like a sacred forest, but to those who live there its just everyday life.
What an exciting adventure you went on! I think you made a bright choice- hitting up the Amazon instead of the coast. Although I love beaches and sunbathing, exploring something that you have only dreamed of as a child is much more rewarding. I hope someday I can see the Amazon too. Was it very humid and sticky? I also am surprised you were looking for alligators–I would have been trying to avoid them! Great article- safe travels!
Reading this article made me think about ecotourism in the Amazon. Large part of the Amazon have been deforested for timber or farming land, but preserving a forest for the purpose of tourism offers an alternative source of income. The article mentions that many Colombians are not particularly interested in visiting the Amazon because it is a trip many high school students take. However, Americans (including myself) tend to be fascinated by the forest. I wonder if these viewpoints generate enough tourism income to sustain the forest long-term. The fact that the border is largely open seems to indicate there is not significant competition for the resources. Hopefully this situation can continue for the preservation of the forest.
I think you raised a very interesting question because I also look forward to visiting the Amazon when I spend a semester in Ecuador. I think that maybe the Amazon is not appreciated because it is something that has always been accessible to the people in the area. However, I know that there is a lot of environmental damage in the Amazon and maybe if the rain forest was held in higher regard by the native people and the world in general it would not be so easy to use as an energy resource. I am happy to hear that you decided to spend your free time experiencing nature, rather than spending time on a possibly tourist overrun beach along the coast. Wonderful article and very thought provoking question. Also, I will have to look into the Fulbright opportunity because this is the second time I’ve heard about it this week.
Wow, this article was so much fun to read and I was so amazed by the stories of exploring the Amazon rain forest. I did not realize that Colombian high schoolers visit the Amazon rain forest by going to nature reserves where their are facilities for them to use. All my life, I have read books about the mysterious and dense jungles of the Amazon rain forest and it has intrigued me. Another thing that caught my attention throughout the article was the many rivers that run through the jungle where it makes it very hard to know what country you are in. Its just so fascinating that the southern part of Columbia is a open border area from the dense Amazon rain forest dotting the landscape. Overall, I hope to visit the Amazon rain forest one day and discover the mysterious beauty of the jungle.
Thanks for sharing this insight from your time in Colombia! While I have visited the Amazon during my semester abroad in Ecuador, no one ever seemed confused as to why I chose to take a trip there. I especially found the reaction you received by locals surprising considering that so many highschoolers visited at the end of the school year. I wonder if the same people who were confused about the Amazon’s draw for foreigners were to visit the United States if they would only vacation on the beach? Or would they instead go to explore some of the countries’ unique landmarks; such as the Grand Canyon, Redwood & Giant Sequoia forests, National Parks, and so on?