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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