Why I Did It
When I was a kid, not realizing how far away some of the places were on the globe in my room, I often suggested to my parents that we should go to the Amazon on one of our annual road trips. I loved being outdoors looking for frogs, bugs, and wildlife in general, and I fantasized about packing up a small rucksack and camping out in the forest near our house in Michigan. As the years went by, I finished school and got a job as an engineer for a renewable energy company in Chicago, and in my spare time I began to find various volunteering roles with different local organizations. During an assignment in Scotland, I had my first real volunteering experience working during a week’s vacation with the Scottish Wildlife Trust as a volunteer on Handa Island, and then when I returned to Chicago, I spent a couple of years being a volunteer frog monitor in the evenings for the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Through these opportunities and a few others, I realized that volunteering could open up a world of new experiences that may differ from one’s day job.
Over time, I began to learn about the work that Doug and Kris Tompkins were doing in Chile and Argentina, and decided that I needed to see some of the places they were conserving with my own eyes. This, combined with my growing interest in volunteering with different organizations, eventually evolved into the idea of spending a year in Latin America, backpacking from country to country and volunteering with a host of environmental organizations.
Through this website and my book, I'm hoping to inspire people to do some volunteering work of their own with great organizations working in beautiful places on this planet as an alternative to leisure vacations. Feeding rehabilitating animals, hiking for miles with a camera in an unexplored terrain, or building trails in new national parks might just be the best cure to stiff backs that have seen too many days in an office in front of the computer or to numbed minds that need a break from the 100+ emails, phone calls, texts and newsfeeds we now receive every day. Experiencing something new while giving something back can often lead to new progressions in life.
I was on the road for over one year, camping and hitchhiking for much of the time. For the first weeks after quitting my secure job in Chicago I had very vivid dreams that probably were a result of the anxiety I faced with leaving my salary. The fear of what would happen at the end of all this came and went every now and then throughout my travels, but at some point, while living in a tent in a Waorani settlement in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, I found my solace and realized that I was where I was supposed to be. Fear was part of the process of leaving behind a steady part of my life and replacing it with something new and unknown.
This trip took me from Ecuador to Guatemala, and then to Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. It brought me lots of new friends and acquaintances. During the process, I got over my fear of spiders, helped record sound for a documentary and made friends within a local Amazonian community, helped rehabilitate tropical animals on their ways back to the wild, learned how to build trails, helped install solar panels, hiked and camped my fill for the year, poured my first concrete, traveled the entire Carretera Austral mostly by hitchhiking, and helped film and photograph the 2013 Patagonian Expedition Race. All of this eventually led me to meet the woman who now became my wife.
I'm grateful for all the experiences I lived and for how it all turned out. Mostly, I'm grateful for deciding to do it. Helping this world through volunteering will continue to be a part of my life, as I hope it will be for you too.