By Greg Russell
Writing a thesis can be difficult with obstacles around every corner, but one University
of Memphis student might parallel the quest to the old saying, “It’s a jungle out
U of M graduate student Colleen Pawling is exploring the Amazon River in Brazil this
fall for her thesis.
U of M creative writing student Colleen Pawling is embarking on an adventure this
fall that will have her traveling to remote areas of Brazil's Amazon River. She and
her business partner, 30-year-old British biologist David Jackson, will be retracing
the trail of Francisco de Orellana, a Spanish conquistador who was the first non-native
to travel down the Amazon in 1541-42. Mosquitos, Caimans, potentially deadly diseases
and encounters with tribes not accustomed to frequent interaction with Westerners
“That is the part of the trip that is exciting to me,” says the 51-year-old self proclaimed
writer and explorer. “I love a good adventure.”
Pawling will document her travel tales in a memoir targeting a “general audience.”
It will eventually serve as her MFA thesis. The trip is expected to last about three
Before de Orellana was swept down the Amazon River in 1541, he was second in command
to Spanish explorer Gonzalo Pizarro, who was on a search for cinnamon and gold in
South America. According to Pawling, the expedition reached what is now the Province
of Francisco de Orellana in eastern Ecuador in December of 1541. Many on the arduous
journey had begun dying from disease and starvation. Orellana and 57 men were sent
down the Napo River in search of food, but they never returned, so Pizzaro headed
back to Quito. Ten months later, though, Orellana and his men resurfaced with an incredible
tale of adventure and survival, having traversed South America on the Amazon River.
She says while she doesn’t expect to be in any type of survival mode, most anything
can happen on a river as wild as the Amazon.
“We’re prepared for everything. While many parts of the Amazon have larger modern
cities, other parts are still mostly unexplored and untamed.”
As part of the journey by canoe that will begin in Quito around Sept. 7, Pawling said
she is seeking permission to visit 12 communities of indigenous natives along the
"We will talk with local residents about the challenges they face, such as conflicts
over land ownership, water rights and oil exploration," Pawling said. "We will also
document their lifestyles, which are in danger of being lost due to environmental
degradation. This will enable us to report on the impact of 500 years of Western intervention
on the environment and indigenous people living along Orellana's route.
"Our findings will not only illuminate the environmental impacts of Western intervention,
but will also put a human face on the environmental and human challenges in the region. Our
goal is to present our experiences in a dramatic framework to make them interesting
even for readers who may not initially be interested in adventure travel or environmental
“The interwoven stories of two great adventures — Orellana's and ours — will both
entertain and educate.”
Pawling is expected to be back in Memphis for the spring semester. She has spent the
summer studying Kichwa, a Quechuan language spoken in several South American countries.
While on the Amazon, they plan to travel by canoe and public transportation, and rely
on local guides for navigating the river and villages.
Pawling isn’t a stranger to such adventures. She created a program in the Andes Mountains
in Ecuador to rehabilitate captive bears and return them to the wild. She had taken
her life savings, about $5,000, and flown to Ecuador in the mid-1990s to “live an
adventure until my savings ran out.” She had sworn off life as a lawyer and other
established jobs to pursue “something different.”
Pawling was able to fund much of her trip via Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com), a funding platform for creative projects. She raised about $3,000 in three months.
If additional funding permits, she plans to blog the trip with updates via a satellite
phone. Visit rediscoveringtheamazon.org for more details.