Following the steps of my childhood hero: My experience volunteering with British Exploring Society ~

24 de junio de 2019

Following the steps of my childhood hero: My experience volunteering with British Exploring Society

(Puedes leer este artículo en español aquí)

Almost a million years ago, back in 1995, a very young Fernandito was eating cookies with milk in front of the TV.

His eyes were wide open and the spoon, dripping milk, was hovering motionless, halfway between the bowl and Fernando's mouth. His favourite show was about to start! It was called “La Ruta Quetzal” and it was an exciting competition for young students, who had to prove their knowledge for the chance to go on an expedition with this guy:

Don Miguel de la Quadra-Salcedo

OK, dear readers. For those of you who didn’t know him… How do I explain how amazing this guy was? He was a legend. Some kind of Indiana Jones meets Captain America, with a crazy, crazy life. He studied agricultural engineering in the ’40s, in Navarra, Spain, and soon discovered he was very good at throwing things far away, so he started practising shot put, discus, hammer and javelin throw, and became a national champion 9 times. During the 50’s he developed a new technique to throw the javelin and managed to add 20m (!!) to the world record. Unfortunately, the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) deemed the technique “too dangerous”, and his fantastic records were invalidated. It is thought that being an athlete coming from a dictatorship country might have influenced this decision.

In 1960 he participated in the Olympic Games in Rome (travelling from Spain with his brother on a Vespa!). Later that year he went to Chile, to participate in the Ibero-American Games, and when the rest of the Spanish delegation returned, he decided to stay behind. He worked for a few months as a truck driver in the Andes and, when he saved enough money, he boarded a ship and headed to Easter Island, where he stayed for a while. Three months later, he knew the story of every rock on the island. He got bored and restless... but how to escape? Easy. He joined another ship’s crew, and became a whale hunter (!) for a few months. After that, with the money he saved, he bought a camera and went to the Amazon, where he ended up living millions of adventures. He spent 3 years in the rainforest, leading expeditions, gold digging, and researching ethnobotany for the Colombian administration.

During these expeditions, he became friends with lots of indigenous people, earning their respect and admiration with his javelin and wrestling skills. He witnessed things that no other foreigner had ever seen before.
With some amazing footage, he returned to Spain and went to the National TV, where there was no alternative but to give him a job as a reporter. Soon they started sending them to the most dangerous missions. During the first one, in Congo, he almost died while recovering some Spanish nuns' treasure. He was saved at the last second from a death sentence, by a group of Cuban friends driving an armoured jeep in front of the firing squad, like in a James Bond scene.

Then, for a couple of decades, he went around the world covering all the wars, disasters, and conflicts. His wife, Marisol, also a bit crazy, would often follow him. They got married in Japan, and went together, during their honeymoon, to cover the Vietnam war!

A few years later, they travelled the Amazon river from Iquitos on a wooden raft with their first son, Rodrigo.

Later, in the seventies, he started shooting historical documentaries, mainly about adventure and exploration: Marco Polo, Amundsen, Orellana... Oh, and somehow in those days, he ended up in the Russian Circus, working as a lion tamer 🤦‍♂️.

It’s almost impossible to keep track of all the things he did.

Yes, of course he also trained to be an astronaut.
But the best part started in 1979 when the Spanish King asked Miguel to organise a yearly event "with the aim of strengthening the Hispano American Community of Nations".
The plan Miguel designed was to select a few hundred kids from all Spanish speaking countries (plus Portugal and Brazil) and take them on amazing expeditions exploring historical places in Spain and America, studying the common history and shared cultural values, as well as the wealth of precolombine cultures and their mixture. But, to me, the most alluring part was the jungle. Hammocks under the tropical rain, hiking through the green hell with my machete… Can you imagine how cool must have been to join one of those expeditions? Unfortunately, I also had to imagine it, because I was never selected and had to settle for watching the expedition every year on TV :(

But no worries, this story has a happy turn!

20 years later...

A slightly older Fernandito is again eating cookies with milk (yep, I still like that), spoon hovering and dripping, eyes wide open… but this time he’s not watching TV. I was reading a scientific paper on host-parasite dynamics, while writing a new proposal for my next postdoctoral grant application. I had been at it the whole morning and by now I was tired and, must confess, quite bored… And so, with the extraordinary ability to procrastinate that my brain has, I started thinking about the rainforest.
The rainforest had never stopped to allure me. By then, I had been to a couple of them in Australia and on Trinidad, but the queen of the rainforests, the Amazonia, had managed to escape from me so far. When was I going to plan a trip?? I sighed and went back to work. For 5 min. One, two, three-four-five... With a click of my mouse, I sent the postdoc application to a dark corner of a random folder in my laptop, opened Google and typed:
“Jungle job biologist”
And this is one of the first things I found:

British Exploring Society is a youth development charity which has been organising expeditions to remote locations since 1932. The main aim of these expeditions is to provide enriching experiences for young explorers through Science and Adventure. Just like the expeditions with Don Miguel! Pure awesomeness. This society, to my utmost joy, was looking for an adventurous biologist who wanted to participate, as a volunteer, in an expedition to the Peruvian Amazon. After the whole morning trying to write two lines of my postdoc application, it took me roughly 10 min to write 5 pages for this one and send it. A few days later I was selected for an interview in London, at the Royal Geographical Society building (!), with practical tests and mock expeditions in Hyde Park. It was, hands down, the most thorough and fun interview I ever “suffered”.

By the end of the year, I received the good news: I had been selected to participate as a Science Leader in their next expedition to the Peruvian Amazon!! ... And that postdoc application is still forgotten somewhere in my laptop.

The Expedition

It is extremely hard to transmit with simple words the explosion of feelings you are blasted with after five weeks sleeping in a hammock in the rainforest. You’d need to experience it to understand it!

Photo: Hannah Findlay
Waking up to the spectacular sound of the howler monkeys. Salute an epic sunrise while we do a bird survey looking over the river. Enjoying breakfast, sharing antimalarial vivid dreams, missing-home feelings, and funny night-expedition-to-the-latrines anecdotes.

Planning the day over a map, assigning roles in the team. Packing machete, compass, bannock bread (lembas!) and scientific gear. Starting the route, walking the narrow paths in single file, observing tracks, fauna, and flora along the way.

Surveying streams, identifying butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, birds… Hiking up the creek in search of the source, making our way among the lianas. Settling in a new satellite camp, hanging our hammocks -bartering for the best trees- and tents. Cooking and having dinner, telling stories, playing games.

Deciding, once more, that tonight we’ll go to bed early; then changing our minds again for another night walk to look for snakes, glass frogs, amblypygids.

Coming back to camp destroyed, but incredibly happy. Getting in the hammock and falling asleep, attempting to write in the journal, lulled to sleep by the night sounds, rocked gently by the jungle breeze.

What has meant to me to volunteer with British Exploring Society?

Apart from becoming my childhood hero, you mean? (all things *not* being equal, of course, there will never be another Miguel de la Quadra!).
Wait a minute. I’m inspiring young people! In the rainforest! I’m Don Miguel!! Photo: Alex Mallison.
That moment in the photo, I promise you, was a sudden instant of realisation. Finally, I had achieved my dream of going to la Ruta Quetzal… an expedition leader! If I’m honest, when I applied to go on an expedition with BES, youth development was not high on my ranking of motivations. I just wanted to go to the Amazon! Luckily, my selfish motives didn’t trigger any warnings during the job interview in London. Or perhaps they did, but BES staff knew that it didn’t matter: Those brilliant young explorers would end up winning my heart and, inevitably, become the absolute highlight of that experience, and the reason I keep coming back to volunteer again and again. If that weren’t enough, there are other great things that happened after joining the Society:

Many more incredible adventures

After that first experience, I came back to civilisation, thirsty for more adventures. BES upped the game and offered me a new challenge: Exploring the Canadian Yukon, this time as Chief Scientist of the expedition. Bears, wolves, Northern Lights, canoeing a distance equivalent to the one between London and Paris...

After the expedition per se, I even stayed for another week, recceing a large area by truck and canoe, with the aim of improving future expeditions.

It was EPIC. After that, I participated in a pilot program in the UK, then in another wonderful short expedition to Scotland last April… And, in August 2019, the ultimate adventure! A heroic journey to the land of the sagas. We sailed from Scotland to Iceland on one of the largest wooden tall ships in the world. A proper pirate ship! 👇

And then we hiked across Iceland! Climbing volcanoes, crossing rivers, stalking arctic foxes…
I stopped shaving altogether.

Meeting amazing humans

Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur and motivational speaker famously said:
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Well, if working with young people was the unexpected highlight of these expeditions, spending all that intensive time working alongside other leaders, staff, and members of the Society was, undoubtedly, the catalyst for the start of a Golden Age of my life. Mmm… that sounds like I’m becoming an old lady or something. Maybe I’ll rephrase it later. No, seriously. Amazing, incredible people. My “average” has gone through the roof after meeting them, and it’s still trying to catch up.
“British Exploring Society manages to gather a very special kind of people as expedition leaders - experts of thinking out of the box, incredibly gifted misfits who dare to be different and love sharing their enthusiasm.”

The effect of these lovely misfits on my life goes all the way from the personal to the professional, and I don’t have the space or time to thank them all today. You all know who you are and how much I appreciate you.

What I’ll share today is a couple of examples of the generosity and pure awesomeness of these people and the ripple effect that their kind gifts are still having on me:

Alex Gregory and public speaking

I always get nervous when speaking in public. Particularly just before speaking. Back in Academia, when I had to present something in a conference, I would be nervous for several days before the event, reaching a scary point, close to total incapacity, seconds before my "performance". It’s a bit better when I talk out of Academia and the impostor syndrome is a bit milder. Still, imagine the crippling fear when BES invited me to talk briefly about my experience as a scientist on a British Exploring Society expedition… the Royal Geographical Society! Imagine! Darwin, Wallace, Livingston, Burton… probably they all talked there! I did what I could 😅

There were many friendly faces in the audience: other expedition leaders, members of the staff... but it was also full of scary, famous people. One of them was Alex. Alex Gregory is a double Olympic Gold medallist, an adventurer and Arctic explorer, an author and, most importantly for this anecdote, an inspiring and experienced speaker. As a former participant in a BES expedition, and nowadays also a patron and a Fellow of the Society, he was sitting in one of the front rows, whilst I was up there mumbling things about Science and Adventures, with my thick Spanish accent. When I finished talking and went down the stairs, Alex approached me, shook my hand… And then he said something to me that, somehow, has had one of the most dramatic effects to date on my self-esteem.

I don’t know why or how, but his kind words (almost) cured me! Now, every time I have to go up some stage, I channel my inner Alex and off I go! No wonder he is sought after by all kinds of companies to make superheroes out of their employees… Thank you, Alex :)

Emma and the rainforest

Emma Brennand is a freelance filmmaker, producer, and adventurer who joined the 2018 BES expedition to the Peruvian Amazon as their volunteer Media Leader. Apart from mentoring, guiding, and keeping everyone safe, she carried along metric tons of filming gear, and shot hundreds of hours of footage, to give this beautiful present to the young explorers. Back in Bristol, where she’s based, she went by the BBC Natural History Unit to say hi to her mates - Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that she often works there, doing cool stuff such as the EMMY & BAFTA winning series Planet Earth II. You might have heard about it. There, she heard that her friend Chadden Hunter -also a legendary producer and director of blue-chip nature films- was looking for a field assistant to support a filming expedition to the rainforest. A few days later, whilst hiking in Spain, I received one of the most exciting emails a field biologist can get. And a few weeks later I was working in South America… On this!

Emma (and Chadden!), you rock.

Volunteering with BES helped me in a difficult moment of my life

Do you know why it was so hard for me to write that postdoc application? I was burnt out. It’s happening a lot in Academia. The main cause is that the most coveted position you can attain, the most advertised and desired, it’s also the most difficult to reach.

“The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity”, Royal Society Policy document, 2010.
But that was not my problem. I mean, not saying that it would be easy for me to get that Professor job! No, of course not. My real problem was that I wasn’t sure if I wanted that job! You see, I studied biology to be outside, observing animals.

Most professors I know, however, spend their time roughly like this: 1) Writing grants 2) Sending students to the field to get data. 3) Fixing what those students write after analysing the data. A few lucky (and/or very intelligent) ones get to go to the field for a few days, maybe a few months at most, but usually they must go back quickly to feed some bureaucratic monster. I hadn’t studied and worked so hard for all these years to end up behind a desk, but that was exactly where the system was pushing me to. And, what was the alternative? “Are you going to give up?” “Such a pity, all that effort for nothing…” I was torn. But the problem was easy to solve. I had become too stressed, thinking about what I wanted to be, instead of focusing on what I wanted to do. The people I met through BES helped me remember that important difference. Now I do more of the things I enjoy, including something I didn’t know I could be good at: Helping young people develop into confident adults. And not only on expeditions! I’m SO stoked to be supporting a course to help early career conservationists to find their first job. Perhaps my experience becoming a mercenary biologist will also give confidence to not-so-early career switchers ;-) "not-so-early" 😂 Don’t worry, “older” colleagues. Let me finish this monster post with one last story:

A few days ago I phoned Sol de la Quadra-Salcedo, the daughter of my childhood hero. 

I just wanted to ask permission to use the photos of this post, but we ended up talking for 40 minutes about expeditions, youth development, and the never-ending energy of her father. 

She told me about that day when Miguel, already 84 and bedridden, removed his intravenous drip and the oxygen, and run away from the hospital to be, one last time, with his young explorers. 

They were being received by the King of Spain at the Palace. When Miguel appeared there, chased by doctors, the King laughed and said: “Of course, we know that nothing could stop you”. 


Thank you, British Exploring Society, for not only changing the lives of the young explorers, but also the lives of their expedition leaders. I hope to be still leading expeditions with you when I’m 84! 

After all, as Don Miguel once said:
"I found that which Ponce de Leon so hard looked for: the Fountain of Eternal Youth. I discovered that the trick is to maintain your curiosity and to be surrounded by young people. If you do that, you will never get old".

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