By Jackie DesForges
I knew I was going to like Shaya based simply on the fact that she was the one who asked us to interview her, and not the other way around. She sent a very simple email to Brendan, editor of Vagabundo Magazine, telling him that she had gone on this unique adventure and wanted to tell us about it if we’d be interested in hearing it. She knew she had a good story to tell, and she wasn’t going to wait for anyone to ask her about it.
I immediately felt the pressure that comes with trying to be a good listener when you know someone is about to tell you something important. I knew that if I was going to do this right, I would need to prepare: wine, pep talks, and research in the form of Internet stalking would be required. And then I would need to find a way of telling the story that was as interesting as the story itself, and as interesting as the storyteller, and honest.
Shaya and I exchanged a series of emails that, as a whole, were less like an interview and more like a long, friendly chain of letters you might exchange with a friend you met during a semester abroad.
I started with the basics. I tried to get a good idea of the program I’d be interviewing her about, the Young Explorer’s Program led by adventurer and ecologist Mike Horn, but after about one hour of Internet stalking and a glass or two of wine, I decided that a description directly from Shaya would probably be the best bet.
“Mike Horn is a famous explorer who has done some epic expeditions like swimming down the Amazon River, walking around the Arctic Circle and a lot more adventures that would make most people cringe!” she told me. “His latest project is the PANGAEA, a global environmental adventure for environmental action. For 4 years he sailed around the world and at 12 destinations he invited a few young adults to join him explore nature’s beauty, inspiring us to conserve the environment for future generations. The program is an amazing opportunity for young adults aged 15-21 to Explore, Learn and Act together.”
It was at this point in the interview that I realized I would probably feel as jealous of Shaya as I was fond of her.
She was a natural choice for the program because, in her own words, “adventure and travel run through my blood.” Her parents named her after the ocean, and she is lucky enough to have a mother and sister who love to travel around as much as she does.
She was accompanied on this program by a team of young travelers who were as eager and adventurous as she proved herself to be. This seems like it could have been the perfect breeding ground for competition and jealousy – when you get a group of people together who are not only strong-willed but also grouped together in several stressful, intense survival situations, it just seems like it would be an episode of Survivor waiting to happen. Shaya disagreed: “Instead of competing against each other, we all supported each other. Most of the activities required a lot of teamwork so we quickly worked out everyone’s strength and weaknesses to work effectively. It was great to trust and feel so close to people I had never met before.” I think any of us who have made friends while traveling will know how this feels – although most of us probably weren’t making these friends while trudging through a swamp in the Amazon.
As you’d probably expect, not everyone who applies the program is accepted, and the selection process seems to be somewhat intense:
“The Mike Horn Team first selects you through your written and video application online. Once shortlisted, they invite 16 [applicants] to a selection camp for 10 days in the Swiss Alps where they test you physically and mentally. I think they selected me because I’m just a curious kid who is keen to make a difference! I know that my communication skills, fitness and teamwork were also something they looked at. They didn’t want super jocks, they just look for genuine, healthy young adults who are passionate about the world.”
Throughout our entire conversation, I was impressed by how well spoken and grounded Shaya seemed. She also came across as being very determined and somewhat stubborn, which probably made her the perfect choice for a program that tests its participants both physically and mentally. However, she admitted that at one point, these same qualities got her into a bit of a compromising situation during the excursion.
“At midnight, on the last night, Mike Horn announced that in an hour we would be going for a hike in the jungle. We were given the option to either go individually or as a team. The room split in half depending on our choice. Arrogantly, I declared to everyone that I would go individually.
“For the next hour, we prepared for what would be the night of our lives. The more I packed, the more I realized I had no idea what I was in for. What pants should I wear to avoid snakebites? Are the crocodiles as big as they say? How do I make a fire if I can’t go on? As I signed my consent form, agreeing to take entire responsibility for myself, my arrogance was still present. No matter what the photographer or the film crew advised me, I was not turning back. I wanted to go on my own.
“Mike called me in the navigation room to show me on a brief map where he would pick me up the next morning. As I looked at the map, the reality sank in. There was no way I had enough experience to cross 3 islands, 2 swamps and swim against currents in the jungle. Let alone at night.
“After a long reflection, I let go of my ego and admitted to Mike I had made a wrong decision. A decision that could cost my life if I went through with it. The five people that had wanted to go individually all decided to join the team. Mike dropped us off on the island with the rest. We were greeted by a huge wall of thick green jungle. I knew I had made the right decision to take my weaknesses into account. That night I realised that to survive in the jungle, it is not strength or fitness that counts but the knowledge of your environment.”
At this point, I could hardly contain my jealousy. Shaya’s life was rapidly beginning to sound like the latest adventure film starring Liam Neeson, or a cool video game, or maybe an episode of Lost. I decided that at this point, it might be wise to switch over to a bit of girl talk and target some questions towards the mysterious character of Mike Horn, leader of this incredible expedition. Shaya kindly obliged, and the girl talk began:
“I have to admit Mike is an intricate character. He has a view on life that is a lot different [than] most people. To him, the impossible just doesn’t exist. He can be intimidating sometimes. From the very start (I am conscious of it now) I really wanted to impress him (everyone wanted to). I thought that if I managed to impress Mike Horn than I could impress anyone.
“It helped that I wasn’t scared of him and thanks to that I got to talk quite a bit with him which opened my eyes to different ways of thinking. But behind his hard looks, Mike has a HUGE heart! He is such a nice guy to be around.”
I got to know a little more about Mike by perusing many of the videos that were taken during the excursion. There is even a video where Mike discusses the episode Shaya described above, about her almost-solo foray into the Amazonian wilderness! (Find it here). The videos gave me somewhat of an early-era Survivor vibe, and I asked Shaya to describe how it felt to have the cameras around during this entire experience.
“I always thought of myself as a great public speaker before selection camp. To see myself on the videos gave me a big reality check! Sometimes I felt like I had given a superb and enthusiastic interview and it would turn out really dull on screen. There is still a lot of improvement to do but I really enjoyed learning to speak in front of media and communicating effectively. It was also nice learning from Bobby Coleman (the young actor from the USA) who has played lead roles in many movies; he would give us a lot of tips.”
The cameras and the midnight adventures in the jungle certainly add a glamorous aspect to the program, but I quickly learned that one of its primary focuses is the very serious issue of environmental conservation.
“Going to the Amazon, I thought deforestation could easily be fixed… that we just needed to educate the local people and like magic it would be fixed. Only once there did I realise the complexity of the issue.
“When we were on the Rio Negro we met other young adults that are doing conservation projects in their local community to protect the environment, it was inspiring to meet young people on the other side of the world that share the same passion. It really shocked me when they told us that the size of six football fields is deforested in the Amazon every minute! We then saw it first hand in one of our jungle hike in the Amazon, which really opened my eyes. It’s so different reading about it then seeing the awful reality, it’s like walking through an endless graveyard of trees. But what I find the saddest is that deforestation in the Amazon goes unseen. So few young people in Western countries know where the Amazon is, let alone the problems it faces! Neither do they know it is in desperate need of help.”
The Young Explorer’s Program seems to strike the perfect balance between focusing on the individual traveler – the personal struggles you face when you force yourself out of your comfort zone, the new friends from places around the world that you’ve almost never heard of, the experiences that are unique to traveling, and traveling alone– as well as the things surrounding the individual traveler – the environmental, social, and economical issues that inevitably surface if you venture out far enough on your own.
As our interview was nearing its close, it seemed there was only one thing left to talk about: our mutual obsession with boats. After staying on a houseboat in Amsterdam, wandering the docks filled with gorgeous yachts in the French Riviera, and staying on a boat for a few days in Gibraltar, I have decided that boats are what people are referring to when they talk about “living the dream.” To my delight, Shaya agrees:
“I absolutely love being out at sea! Just like you, I have always romanticized sailing. Ever since I can remember I dreamt of sailing to new unexplored lands, I was really obsessed with boats. Dad is a captain (he’s actually out at sea right now) so I had sailed a few times with him but he lives very far. Apart from that, every chance I ever got I would sail…marine scouts, sailing camps, you name it. (I’m even doing dockwalks right now to find a job as a deckhand.)
“Sailing on Pangaea confirmed that being on a sailing boat is one of my favourite places in the world. Every night I would sleep on deck under the stars or in the sailing bag and tried to stay awake for as long as possible to help navigate through the narrow channels. A lot of the other young explorers had never slept on a boat before but they soon experienced and fell in love with its magic. We were all really jealous of the crew that got to stay four years on the boat. Personally, during the expedition, there was countless times when I was on the edge of quitting high school to keep sailing with Mike and the team to Africa…”
I think I can safely say I am also considering quitting everything to start a new life on a boat, too. Mike Horn, if you ever read this: I’m a really fast packer and can leave at a moment’s notice. I have also been known to study proper boat lingo at my leisure. I’m your girl.
(I have discovered through my stalking that Mike is currently selecting the young adventurers for the next chapter of his program…in Africa! You can watch the videos they’ve taken so far, read more about the program, and try to out-stalk me by heading over to Mike’s website)
About the Author
Jackie DesForges is a writer from Los Angeles currently living in Chicago. To date she has served as a student ambassador in England and France, a volunteer in Mexico, an art student on the Riviera, and a fledgling travel writer in Edinburgh. Currently she spends her time blogging about travels past and present at www.jackietravels.com and saving her pennies for her next great adventure overseas.