Conquering fears
on the world’s mightiest river

The dense jungle of the Brazilian Amazon is among the most treacherous in the world. For a group of UC students, it was a place where fear was faced, confidence tested and courage found. 

If you’d asked Megan Roberson a month ago if she ever imagined handling a creepy-crawly tarantula the size of her hand, the spider-squeamish third-year nursing student would have stared at you as if you’d sprouted a second head.

Yet here she was on a sandy beach in the middle of a remote tropical jungle nervously taking stock of the pink-toed arachnid affectionately named by locals as “Julia” crawling across her face and onto her head a mere five days into the 10-day University of Cincinnati honors study tour to the Brazilian Amazon.

“I hate spiders,” she emphatically declares. “But I feel like when I go back home, when I see all the spiders I used to be afraid of, I’ll think, ‘There are worse spiders in the Amazon.’”    

Described by the area’s first European explorers as a “green hell” for the death and disaster faced by those who dared to map it, the Amazon has long stood as an untamed wilderness where fear was faced, confidence tested and, for many of the 16 UC students taking part in the study tour, courage found. 

For some students, the nagging doubts started long before the 3,333-mile journey to the world’s largest rain forest. Erin LeFever, a third-year environmental studies major, faced down the long list of detailed and complex international forms, medical vaccinations and health precautions required for the study tour and sighed.  

“There was a lot of stuff to work through to get to Brazil. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was even going to go through with it,” she admitted. “Then at the end of the trip, I could really feel this was worth it.  I know in future travel, there’s going to be things I have to work through, but I’ll remember this experience.”

For yet others, the prospect of spending 10 days in an exotic and unfamiliar place with a group of complete strangers proved more nerve-wracking than the destination itself. 

“When I signed up for this class, I didn’t know anybody else. You never really know, especially going somewhere that’s unknown like the Amazon for an entire week, which itself is already crazy to me, but to add on top of that, I don’t know anyone else?  It made it a little more intimidating,” said Rajiv Karani, a graduating chemistry major set to enter medical school at UC in the fall. 

But, Karani added, those fears were misplaced. The structure of the program – the 10-day study tour is embedded in the middle of a semester-long course – allowed the group to get to know and become comfortable with each other well before globe-trotting to South America, he said.  

“I’ve gotten to know everybody pretty well and am now good friends with them,” he said.

A boat ventures into the unknown of the Amazon river.
Students walk a boat ashore on the Amazon River.
Tree boa staring into your soul.

Pre-tour class outings like a group swim test and bird-watching jaunts helped launch budding friendships among the classmates, but it was those 10 transformative days in the Brazilian Amazon that solidified the strong bonds of unity among the diverse group, says Chelsea Morinec, a senior majoring in economics. 

“I’ve always been moving and making friendships then leaving them,” said the transfer student who’s previously studied abroad twice before the Amazon study tour. “Going on this trip, I have 20 new best friends.”

“Everyone is super-close and even though we’re very different and have different backgrounds, we all enjoy each other’s company and have experienced something that we’ll probably never experience again. It creates a bond,” she said.    

For students like Luke Swanson, a second-year engineering student who’s admittedly not an outdoorsy kind of guy, it was the 10-day immersion into the wild and woolly jungle that seemed most formidable. Yet three days into the tour, he found himself taking point position on a motorized canoe during a rip-roaring ride through the floating Montrichardia forest, a narrow water canal hemmed in by 20-foot high cliffs blanketed by a crush of vegetation.    

“The first day [of the tour] was the longest day of my whole life,” said Swanson with a laugh. “I said, ‘Man, I don’t think I’m actually physically capable of handling this for 10 days.’” 

He paused, his voice becoming more sober. 

“I’ve never been one to escape to nature,” he continued. “When I’m on campus, I walk really fast and have a destination in mind. In the Amazon, experiencing this amazing place like you’ve never experienced anything in your entire life… there was no destination in mind, it was taking it all in and whatever happens, happens.  It changed my entire mind-set.”

Kaitlin Kelley, a second-year nursing student, remembers vividly that electrifying canoe ride through the shallow tributary coursing like a slender thread through what seemed like an impenetrable rampart of green as far as the eye could see.

“When you first go on the river, everything is so vast and expansive. Then we get to this really narrow passageway where you could hardly get through,” she recounted. “We were zooming through, and there were branches flying. They’d pop up in front of you and you had very little time to react.”

“It felt like we were in an amusement park, but it was real-life,” she said laughing.

“We had a person in the front using a machete chopping our way through,” added Monica Hemmelgarn, a fellow sophomore in the nursing program. “All of a sudden a fish flew into our boat. Talk about adventure!”

After nearly two hours, the cramped channel opened up to reveal the dark still waters of Lago Janauacá, also known as the “Enchanted Lake” – and for good reason, says Jeff Maler, a senior nursing student.  

“There were multiple times on that adventure when I thought, ‘Will this be worth it when we get there?’” Maler recalled. “And then we get there, and it’s the most beautiful water, so calm and crisp, and you dive in. I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is the reason it took us so long to get here because of how awesome this location is.’”

“I used to be worried about snakes, or, if I was down south, alligators [while swimming],” added J.R. Stoll, a second-year engineering student who nonetheless took the plunge into the fathomless waters.

“I’m still aware, but I’m not super-scared anymore,” he said.  “I feel like I can swim anywhere now.” 


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