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My experience as Atlas Obscura's first-ever Conservation Storytelling Fellow

When I first heard about Atlas Obscura's Conservation Storytelling Fellowship, I couldn't believe what I was reading. If I had to design a dream fellowship of my own, Atlas' would surpass mine. They were sponsoring a student to travel with their Expedition Amazon trip to Tambopata, Peru to report on a story about biodiversity while being mentored by three incredible scientists and communicators.


Eagerly, I submitted my resume, three writing samples, and a video explaining what this fellowship would mean for me. The next time I heard from Atlas, I was waiting at a salon and checked my phone just to find an email telling me to pack my boots and desiccant packs.


Wildlife reporter and science journalist Jason Goldman and entomologist and TV host Phil Torres came up with this idea a couple of years ago. They love the Amazon so much that, with the help of Atlas, they were going to bring a student in biology, ecology, conservation, journalism, or science communication to experience the jungle themselves and report on a story.


It took me a long time to wrap my head around this — I was going to (A) travel to the Amazon, a place I never imagined being able to go to, (B) report on a story about conservation in the world's most biodiverse ecosystem, and (C) receive mentorship from Jason, Phil, big cat biologist Imogene Cancellare, and the team at Atlas. When I talk about my dream job, this is pretty much it. It's going to a remote area of the world and reporting on a story to connect people with a place they've never been to.


Honestly speaking, I was the most nervous I'd ever been in my life. Not only was I the first-ever fellow, but I had three incredibly talented science communicators and a team at Atlas rooting for me. What if my story has already been done by someone else? What if I can't find anything to write about? What if nobody wants to publish my story? What if locals don't want to speak with me? What if, what if, what if...


Part of the Expedition Amazon crew with Jason and Imogene.

Preparation


After a Skype call with Jason and Phil in the summer, I hit the books: I read about the Amazon's wildlife, its people, and its importance to the entire world. I reached out to writers, storytellers, and scientists at National Geographic, where I interned during the summer, to learn more about what goes into telling a great story.


During my call with Jason and Phil, they encouraged me to think larger than just biodiversity. On one hand, I realized that all my ideas about highlighting the Amazon's biodiversity had to be tossed out, and on the other, I was relieved. I had wanted to include people in this story all along, but I didn't know how feasible it would be. Conservation is only successful when local communities' wants, needs, and experiences form the foundation. My favorite part of conservation is the human aspect of it — especially when it comes to including usually marginalized groups of people and working with them to build a sustainable plan. Communities are at the center of conservation, and I knew that would also be true in Tambopata.


While reading Paul Rosolie's Mother of God at Jason's recommendation, I learned about the Ese'Eja nation, an indigenous people in the Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon. Rosolie wrote about how the indigenous community knows the forest far better than any outside scientists ever could — they know its secrets, its hiding places, how its wildlife behave, how to take care of it, its medicines. This was their home, and they hold knowledge yet to be recorded by Western science.


I knew writing about indigenous nations could be risky — it has to be very thoughtfully done. I shared my idea with Jason, who replied saying that the first lodge that we would stay in, Posada Amazonas, is partly owned by the Native Community of Infierno, a community comprised of various indigenous groups including Ese'Eja. What an incredible stroke of luck — I (thought) that I had found my story.


I wanted to learn how local knowledge informs conservation efforts in Tambopata, but I realized that wasn't going to go very far. I couldn't expect someone to share their history, their culture, and their knowledge with a random girl who had been in the rainforest for all of 24 hours. And it certainly wasn't my place to ask either, so I re-shifted my idea yet again. With only two nights at Posada Amazonas, I knew had to make the most out of it while I was there.


As I kept reading and going back and forth with Jason, I looked further into Posada Amazonas. It is majority owned by the Native Community of Infierno in partnership with Rainforest Expeditions, a private company. Rainforest Expeditions engages the community in its business model by leveraging ecotourism to support local livelihoods and to protect Tambopata. It was incredible. For the community to continue hosting visitors and generating revenue, illegal gold mining and timber harvesting, two major threats to the Amazon, had to stop. Ecotourism was a plan that sustainably incentivized conservation. So what about the community and its culture? Well, I would tell you, but that would ruin the surprise for when my story (eventually) comes out.


Amazonia


I had the most incredible time reporting on my story. Everyone I spoke to was so excited to share their experiences with me, and I was humbled by the reaction they had to me. People come to Tambopata to learn about wildlife and the rainforest, so I was told that most visitors don't go out of their way to learn about the local culture and way of life. The people I spoke with were so welcoming and excited that their stories were going to be told — I felt like I was doing my job right. I was handing over the microphone that Atlas gifted me to tell the stories of people who are so often marginalized and overlooked. That was my job as a reporter: This isn't my story, I'm just here to help others share theirs.


And the longer I spent in the rainforest, the more stories jumped out at me. Halfway through the week, I was feeling overwhelmed with the possibilities. While preparing for my trip, I could barely find information about the communities or its people, and here I was surrounded by stories just waiting to be told. It was driving me nuts. How could I leave Tambopata like this? My job here wasn't done.


Storytelling


By the end of the week, I knew I had enough content to write two (maybe three) stories. I couldn't have done this without Jason and Imogene's mentorship throughout the week. They helped me organize my ideas and gave me priceless advice. I also felt lucky that Chris Naka, Atlas' Director of Video, joined us on the trip to shoot videos for his work. Between the three of them, Phil, and the whole team at Atlas (major shout out to Tao Tao and Paisley!), this fellowship wouldn't have been this successful. It took a village to organize, and I'm so incredibly thankful that they trusted me with this first-of-its-kind, life-changing adventure of a fellowship. This was my opportunity to introduce myself as a journalist — I wasn't here for a class project or for my job at Virginia Tech, I was here to tell a real story for a real audience.


I had a test run of the dream job, and I've never felt more confident in my choices, uplifted by incredible people, or more in love with this planet. It was by no means easy, but I don't know how else I would've gained this experience and insight. To name a few challenges: I was stumped by my research, pushed out of my comfort zone when talking with people, put my narrative writing skills to the test (I'm a news writer), and spent months sifting through my notes and interviews trying to put together a pitch. But the best part of this fellowship was that I was expected to be challenged, and I felt okay with my newness as a first-time reporter in the field.


Reflection


I had the time of my life in the Amazon. I knew I would love it, but I didn't know that it would soon become my favorite place on earth. Everything in the forest is perfectly balanced, and I was a part of it.


Words can't describe Amazonia. Film can't, either. There is nothing like breathing in that sticky jungle air, waking up to the calls of howler monkeys, hearing critters scamper across the rooms at night, or reaching for toothpaste just to find beautifully terrifying insects on it. I was left speechless on countless occasions: I was stunned by the flocks of rainbow-colored macaws, had an existential crisis after spotting a jaguar track and knowing that I was existing in the same space of an animal I'd only seen on TV, and woke up to moth wings on the bedroom floor, evidence that bats had come in to hunt right above my head. Nothing could beat those feelings.


I was a guest in the rainforest, and I felt welcomed. By the end of the week, I couldn't believe I had to leave. Tearing up as I said goodbye to the rainforest from the airplane window, I repeated this over and over, speaking it into existence: "I will be back."


Everyday for three weeks after I returned, I refreshed the application for an enrichment grant through Virginia Tech's Honors College. The day it opened, I requested funds to go back to Tambopata for the month of winter break. And it happened — I can't wait to go back to the most magical place on Earth and to continue sharing its stories.


Trying (and failing) to photograph two night monkeys.