1. Time passes much faster than expected.
Though I initially planned to spend a month at Iracambi, it didn’t work out that way. I bought my flights late, and by then the best-priced round-trip flights were for about two and a half weeks. To be honest, I didn’t mind at the time that it was a shorter stay. A month seemed like a long time. What if I hated it there?
I couldn’t have had less reason to worry. The night I arrived, I asked the other three volunteers how long they were staying: three months, three months, and nine months. I immediately realized that my stay would fly by. Sure enough, rather than my usual mental countdown (“five days left until I can snuggle my cats”), every passing day meant that I had that less time to do all the cool things I wanted to do. There were trails to hike, workshops to attend, weekend trips to go on, hammock naps to take – I made a to-do list of all the ones I absolutely had to do before leaving Brazil and watched the days quickly slip away.
2. The temperature fluctuates A LOT.
I expected it to be hot, hot, hot all the time, especially because summer was approaching. But because of Iracambi’s high elevation, this isn’t always the case. The first week I arrived, it was in the low 70s and foggy all the time. I wore a jacket every day. Then the second week was hot sun and constant sweat. We walked to the waterfall several days that week to cool off. Still, even during this time, the temperature dropped enough at night that I wore sweatpants and a fleece to bed.
Despite the heat, it was generally cooler than I expected. At no point did the oncoming summer feel insufferable.
3. Never underestimate the power of preventive measures.
Namely: bug spray, sunscreen, and traveler’s diarrhea medication (in my case, Travelan). During my research for the trip, I also discovered Permethrin, an insecticide that lasts for six washes on clothing, which I sprayed on many of my clothes before my trip.
Did the bug spray, sunscreen, and Travelan work? Who knows. Something worked! Only a handful of bugs dared bite me during my entire three weeks in the rainforest, I didn’t burn, and I didn’t get diarrhea (just food poisoning). It’s possible I could have done less and been fine, but I was happier safe than sorry, and it kept my mind at ease. I did notice other other volunteers got a lot of bug bites on their arms, neck, and face. Perhaps the mosquitoes simply didn’t like my New England blood, but I like to think it was my vigorous bug repellant routine that kept them away.
4. There’s lots of different types of work that goes into saving the rainforest.
Many volunteers come to Iracambi searching for a tangible way to help – namely, planting trees. But this isn’t the only way to make a difference. Even when you’re on the ground in Iracambi – as tangible as it gets – there are many other tasks that need to be done. They might not feel as relevant as planting a seed, but they are each important in their own right.
For example, other tasks that were on the to-do list while I was at Iracambi: cleaning the entire kitchen and emptying out the fridge; filming and editing a short video on the process of planting a tree; a full day of collecting seed pods from the trees; removing seeds from rock-hard fruits; helping Binka edit an award proposal and choose the cover photos; hiking a trail to set and collect camera traps; studying medicinal plants; writing blogs about our time – to name a few.
And what can you do if you’re not in Brazil at all, but at home living your day-to-day life? I asked Binka this question rather desperately. What can we do from so far away??
She told me that reforestation can happen anywhere. You can help by planting anything. Plant a flower box. Everything helps. Think of it this way.
Also, of course, donating always helps. For $10, Iracambi can plant a tree and monitor it for 2 years on the farm. Baby trees die pretty easily, so the monitoring is super important. If you’re interested in helping out Iracambi’s mission from afar (and I, and hopefully these blogs, can vouch for its legitimacy), check out its website here.
5. A common cause can help remind people of our similarities.
While I was at Iracambi, volunteers came and went. Some had been there for months before me and would still be there months after I left. I met people from the Netherlands, Japan, the United States, England, Germany, Switzerland, and of course Brazil. I celebrated my birthday while at Iracambi, and everyone sang happy birthday to me in all their languages. People I had only known for a week wrote me a card and celebrated with me; they made me feel special.
Maybe I got lucky with a particularly good group of people – but I like to think that most volunteers at Iracambi think that same exact thing.
On one average Wednesday night in October, I remember thinking to myself, how remarkable is it that I’m playing cards in the rainforest in Brazil, next to a British gal about to start a new life in Australia, a middle-aged woman from Japan who has been traveling solo for five years, and a young man from Switzerland taking a gap year, none of whom I knew existed ten days ago? And here we all are, coming together for a common cause, wanting to help the rainforest and make the world a little better. We’re not so different. At a time where the chasms that divide us seem to be widening, I cherished these shared moments with former strangers.
6. It’s never too late.
The volunteers and staff at Iracambi are from all walks of life. They vary in age – from recent high school grads to Robin and Binka, who founded Iracambi twenty years ago and appear to be in their seventies (though they work with the energy of twenty-somethings). They vary in their careers – teachers, park rangers, entrepreneurs, doctorate candidates, journalists. Many of the volunteers are solo travelers breaking the routine of their life to travel to South America for a few weeks or months to see more of their world.
One volunteer who particularly inspired me was a young woman who used to work in insurance. She decided it was time to do some work that helped people. So she quit her job and started traveling South America, spending a few weeks at Iracambi along the way.
Binka told us how, 23 years earlier, she and Robin quit their jobs and drove from Washington DC to Brazil in a van. Her friends told her, “I wish I could go on an adventure like that!” but went on to say that they were too old or had too many responsibilities.
That’s ridiculous, Binka told me. Anyone can do what we did.
7. The rainforest gives back.
One of my co-volunteers observed this phenomenon: new volunteers arrive eager to help as much as they can. They want to work during all possible working hours, and beyond. I felt this too when I arrived. I wasn’t there to relax or hang out; I was there to make a difference, however small. I wanted to make the most of my short time and be helpful whenever and however I could.
One afternoon after lunch, the volunteers were ready to plant seeds in the nursery. But Deivid, the nursery coordinator, invited us to the waterfall with him and his friends. The other volunteers and I exchanged looks. We should be working! But we followed Deivid to the waterfall.
It was hot out, and the water felt perfect. We returned to the nursery refreshed and ready to plant seeds later that afternoon.
While we are there to help the rainforest, the rainforest also has something to teach us. Sometimes a break helps to revitalize us and allows us to do even better work. The rat race simply doesn’t exist in the rainforest. Take a deep breath of the fresh air. Enjoy the rainstorms. Drink your coffee slow in the morning while watching the birds. As I’ve returned to my life back home, I’ve tried to carry this mindset with me. We can all live like this, with an attention and awareness of the moment that we’re in.
8. Good things ARE happening.
Another refreshing realization: there IS a good fight happening on the front lines. The media thrives on negative reporting, and that couldn’t be more true than with the climate crisis. The reality around the climate crisis is sobering, and it’s important that people are educated, even if we don’t like the facts. But I also believe that these notifications can inspire despair and paralysis more than they motivate, especially when your own life in suburban New England or wherever else feels distant and disconnected from anything going on in places we only read about online. I think it will be important that the positive stories are told too, so people know how they can join in. That maybe, if we work together, there’s enough compassion – and with luck, time – to fix it.
At Iracambi, I saw the good work that’s been going on for twenty years now. Swathes of rainforest – 130,000 trees in total – have been reforested by hundreds of dedicated people. There are people that care, and positive change is happening.
9. Sometimes it’s hard to notice that something is wrong.
That being said, the people at Iracambi were realistic with us about the huge issues facing the rainforest. Some of these issues were hard to see at first glance. When I first drove through Iracambi’s land, I was struck by the rainforest around me. There were so many trees!
Once I got used to the incredible sights, I started to notice the vast amounts of negative space, the pastures where trees should be but weren’t. At first glance, the landscape looks vibrant even without the trees. The fields of grass are bright, green, and lush with life – birds, cows, insects, and the occasional tree. Hummingbirds flit by; cicadas hum from the trees; creeks meander along. It takes a few moments to remember that this landscape is not healthy. This is not a sustainable environment. There should be trees where that grass is. In fact, the grass shouldn’t be there at all – it’s an aggressive invasive plant from Africa that chokes tree seedlings.
The takeaway here is that things are not always as they seem. Always ask questions. It’s important that we are directing our efforts towards the right goal, and that we are not swayed by appearances.
10. Wherever we are in life, we can all do our part.
There’s a legend about a forest fire and the hummingbird. All the animals are running, flying, and crawling away from the flames. Except for the hummingbird, who flies straight towards the fire with a few drops of water in its beak. “What are you doing?!” cried the eagle. “You can’t put out that fire alone. You’re just a tiny hummingbird.”
And the hummingbird replied: “You’re right, I can’t put out the fire alone. But I can do my part.”