In 1542, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana and his men were the first westerners to travel the entire length of the Amazon River — some 4,000 miles. Come September, Colleen Pawling, a second-year MFA student in creative writing at the University of Memphis, is planning to retrace the route of Orellana along the Amazon. She'll be joined by David Jackson, a British biologist based in Ecuador, and if everything goes as planned and if Pawling can raise the funds through her Kickstarter campaign, she wants to blog about her trip in real time using a satellite phone.
The trip, she's estimating, should take three to four months. The trip, she's hoping, will serve as her thesis project: a memoir — a "hybrid" memoir, she calls it — combining her own experiences and the story of Francisco de Orellana.
When asked about the rigors of such an adventure, Pawling wasn't one to bellyache:
"I'm a bad swimmer. I'm almost 52 years old. I have a bad knee. And I'm 20 pounds overweight. Yada yada yada. But I travel light — just a backpack. You don't need much: toothbrush, change of clothes. In the Amazon, you sweat. You're always going to be stinky."
But it's not like Pawling and Jackson are setting out to replicate Orellana's hardships and the dangers (including head hunters and poison arrows) that the Spaniard encountered. They're not going by brigantine, either. They'll use public transportation, or they'll hike (machetes in hand) along the river. They'll hitchhike if they have to.
"Our idea is to go sort of the same way that Orellana went," Pawling says. "We'll see what we can see" — today's environmental conditions and indigenous populations — "and compare that to what was reported when Orellana was there."
What's there to report about Colleen Pawling herself? Plenty.
She's served in the U.S. Army. She's worked as a lawyer. She's taught English as a second language in Korea. But, as she said, every once in a while she does something different. "Something different" happened in 1992, when Pawling took a break from lawyering and went to Ecuador:
"I didn't know any Spanish. But I flew to Quito, got off the plane, and thought, Let's see. What can I do to make myself useful? I had my life savings, about $5,000. I figured I'll have an adventure until my money runs out."
Pawling had that adventure: She started a program in Ecuador to rehabilitate captive bears and return them to the wild, where Pawling and her volunteers (including David Jackson) tracked the animals' progress. Tracking Pawling's progress in the U of M's MFA program has been faculty member Kristen Iversen, whose work in creative nonfiction has been, for Pawling, an inspiration.
Inspiring too: Pawling's parents. Her father was a school psychologist in upstate New York; her mother, a nurse. The family didn't have much money to go on, but Pawling, her parents, and six brothers and sisters went anyway and every which way across North America in, at one point, a converted delivery truck that became a house on wheels. What Pawling learned from those early travels was as much about herself as it was about others.
"I don't like to go to museums when I travel," Pawling admits. "I like to see how people live. In Alaska, for example, I remember a village my family visited. I was 7 years old. There was a festival, kids were playing, and I wondered: Who would I be if I had been born here? Would I be one of those kids? Or would I still be me? That's the question of my life. Who is me and who is the product of the things I've done and the places I've been?"
And this is where Pawling the writer comes in.
"When I worked in D.C. as a lawyer, I found a couple of good writing groups and became fascinated by the personal essay. I've always felt like I had something to say. But how to form it into something that means something to someone other than myself?
"I see things from an angle that baffles people. That's what I'm trying to communicate: that there's another way to look at the world. I know my way is a little skewed. But it's what makes a good essay." And it's what should make a memorable book.
For more on Colleen Pawling's Amazon project, go to rediscoveringtheamazon.org and to her Facebook page. To see how you too can contribute and even participate, type in rediscoveringtheamazon at Kickstarter. But what if Pawling doesn't reach her Kickstarter goal?
"We'll go anyway, on a bare budget," Pawling says. "It'll just be even more bare-bone," Pawling adds.