BY MATT HUTCHINS
When a Harvard LL.M. tells you that they took a vacation in South America over Christmas break, the image that comes to mind is of an all-inclusive five-star coastal resort in Brazil where girls wear thong bikinis. This could not be further from the reality of what LL.M. Tajan Tober and visiting researcher Benjamin von Engelhardt set out to experience.
Despite repeated warnings from fellow law students, map makers, local guides, hotel proprietors, boat operators, and an American anthropologist, these two set out to journey up the Yasuní river into a part of the Ecuadorian jungle inhabited only by native Huaorani tribes.Their perilous journey, which lasted nine days, took them through alligator and piranha-infested waters and into jungles populated by jaguars, dangerous snakes, and hundreds of rare species of birds.
The two adventurers speak of their travels nonchalantly, accepting that they took several risks that could have put them in serious peril, and looking back at themselves in pictures they laugh at how awkward they were at the beginning of their journey. Having traveled up the river for six days to within a few hours of a native village, they speak in retrospect of how their primary driving force was the desire to stay on schedule, “So that Tajan could make it back for his Negotiation Workshop.” With less than one day’s travel remaining to the village, the two turned back, fearing that if their boat’s motor or propeller were to fail they would be unable to return on time.
The biggest challenge of traveling in the jungle was the constant vigilance it required to avoid making one of a large number of simple mistakes that could have been fatal. Navigating the boat was one critical aspect of the journey, as hidden logs could easily have flipped the boat or broken the motor. But many other daily chores, such as preparing water and setting up a proper campsite were serious matters that had to be executed carefully. “Each day we had to purify and boil four pots of water, which involved many steps and took several hours,” says Ben. Tajan recalls, “There were a thousand decisions to make every day. Looking back now it sounds strange, but we were constantly making important decisions.” Ben agreed, “Everything changed as soon as we entered the jungle. Up to that moment, we were worried about how to prepare, how to reach the jungle, and how to avoid being intercepted by both the police and bandits. But then, suddenly, we were only worried about how to stay alive.”
Lucky for the two Germans, everything went well, and they were able to travel with only minor misadventures and no major illnesses or unfortunate encounters with wildlife. “The boat’s propeller broke while we were all the way up the river, but it continued to operate with some effort. If it had completely failed us, everything would have been different.” Tajan’s favorite part of the trip was a night of cayman fishing with a harpoon. After they had caught one, Ben and Tajan realized that they had gotten lost, but they were able to find their way back when Ben devised a way to use the stars as a roadmap back across the lagoon.
“When we arrived back in the village at the end, we were very relieved that we were safe and that we would not break our families hearts by dying in the jungle.” The inhabitants of the town were impressed that the two tourists had successfully returned. Tajan and Ben are very proud of how they defied the odds. “Everyone, literally every person we met, told us ‘You can’t! You shouldn’t! You mustn’t’, but we did it