Yalie relays Amazonian adventures

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Photo by Blair Seideman.

Journalist and jungle explorer Scott Wallace ’77 returned to campus Tuesday to regale students with tales of his Amazonian adventures.

Wallace recounted the 80-day journey he took to unexplored regions of the Amazon’s Javari River Valley in 2002, an expedition intended to locate a tribe of isolated indigenous people without disrupting their way of life. Roughly 50 students turned out to hear Wallace discuss the purpose of his expedition, dangers he encountered and the regions of the Amazon that still remain untouched by modern culture.

“This may be the last big area [of the Amazon] that can be demarcated and protected,” said David Jackson, director of undergraduate studies for the Portuguese Department who attended the talk.

Wallace began his career as a photojournalist, broadcast journalist and writer during the 1980s, reporting from war-torn South American countries including Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. He has worked for major news networks such as CNN and CBS, and written for publications such as the New York Times, National Geographic and Newsweek.

Wallace initially went to the Amazon when National Geographic asked him to profile Sydney Possuelo, the head of the National Indian Foundation of Brazil’s Department of Isolated Indians and a longtime jungle explorer. Wallace said he joined 33 other men on the trip — including representatives from three “friendly” native tribes — and spent the next few months traveling uncharted parts of the Amazon.

The excursion was designed to isolate and protect areas inhabited by the “Arrow People” — one of 26 Amazonian tribes that Wallace said are considered “uncontacted” because they do not interact with modern society and retain their traditional culture. The explorers were instructed not to contact the indigenous people, which could compromise their lifestyles and expose them to foreign diseases.

“No matter how good the intentions, attempts to contact these [untouched] tribes has invariably resulted in massive deaths,” Wallace said.

Wallace called the expedition “fraught with danger.” In addition to facing snakes, ants and piranhas, Wallace said the group was tracked by the Arrow People, who he said are known to be hostile to non-indigenous people and are named for the “deadly accuracy” of their arrows. At one point, Wallace said two members of the expedition disappeared after accidentally stumbling upon a village of Arrow People, though he added that they were later recovered by the group.

As part of his presentation, Wallace showed videos of the expedition hacking through the jungle with machetes, building native-style dugout canoes, and hunting and cooking various animals.

Seven attendees interviewed said they found Wallace’s talk engaging and that it gave them a perspective on culture in isolated areas of the Amazon.

“I was so used to hearing about how the government wants to integrate native people,” said Zachary Belway ’13, who has taken two trips to other parts of the Amazon. “It was refreshing to hear about this awesome adventure to keep [that] from happening.”

Susannah Benjamin ’15 said she has always wanted to explore uncharted areas of the world for a career, and that Wallace’s story encouraged her to continue to pursue this path. She said it was inspiring to hear about a former Yalie having adventures after graduation rather than choosing a profession like banking, but she added that she was disappointed no women were on the trip.

“I saw that these adventures are way harder than they seem in the articles, that they cost people their lives, but it was so inspiring to hear about,” Benjamin said.

The full account of Wallace’s Amazon journey appears in his recent book, “The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.”

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