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Adventures of a Birdwatching Pioneer - Part Two

Confessions by Peter Alden

This is the 2nd part of an interview with Peter Alden that recounts some of this “mis-adventures” in this long career in birdwatching. “When you’ve traveled to over 100 countries, and you are obsessed with seeing rare birds, you’re bound to have strange things happen.” Read Part I.

Q: So it’s 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, you’ve been hired by Mass Audubon, and you decide to travel around the world?

Peter: That’s right. I inherited a little bit of money at the end of college and got a 4-F from the Vietnam War because of a shoulder injury playing football. But before I started, rather than put my small inheritance in stocks, bonds on a down payment on a house, I decided to spend it all traveling around the world to places that have been intriguing me. I decided I wanted to go birding internationally. So I did a trip in 1968 on my own money, and I spent almost a year in India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and a bunch of islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Q: What was it like to try to see birds in areas of the world considered remote and off the beaten path to most Westerners? What kind of challenges did you encounter?

Peter: When I traveled around the world I was all alone. All I had was traveler's checks and I don't know jujitsu, and no medical training whatsoever. It was pretty scary. And there were no field guides to any of the countries I was visiting. I would go to book shops and try to find them. But in India at the height of the monsoon in July, I ended up picking up cholera. I was unconscious in a hotel in New Delhi for 48 hours being fed intravenously. I didn’t want to go to a hospital for fear or picking up 6 other diseases. I survived, then went to see many birds in India. And I had connections with key people in Kathmandu so I continued to Nepal, recovered there, then birded all over the country. I ended up in Thailand and other areas of Southeast Asia. I had some close calls in New Guinea, including traveling with a local who entered the wrong valley - something you don’t do there. We had to rush back to our rental car and get the hell out of there. There was still some headhunting going on back in those days some60 years ago.

The trip provided me with a birding knowledge and connections to go back later as a tour leader for Mass Audubon. It also gave me a foundation for my first book, Finding Birds Around the World.

Q: So, in a sense, this was a long scouting trip. Did you always scout trips before leading groups?

Peter: I liked doing pioneering trips -- first trips to countries where there were no field guides, no birding tours. I would scout out these different countries, often with friends from the American Museum of Natural History, and other people that I knew, like my friend John O'Neill, who illustrated my Birds of West Mexico book. The scouting trips gave me the confidence to be able to run tours for Mass Audubon to many exotic locations including India, Southeast Asia, Australia, Africa, and even several 80-day around-the-world tours.

Q: In your early years leading tours, did you and your travelers run into any trouble due to political instability at the time?

Peter: Back in 1971, I had a tour group held hostage in Ecuador at gunpoint for 24 hours. We were caught in a local uprising against the government. On the first part of our trip, we were in a floating hotel on the Rio Napo. We went down the river to town called Coca, which means cocaine in Spanish. We saw all sorts of Amazonian birds. Coming back to Coca in the evening, we noticed that there were some trucks on a bridge over the river with locals who were really upset. The government had promised workers jobs to build roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools. When they didn’t fulfill their promise, the workers decided to keep us, the first group in this area of the Amazon, as hostages. They had guns, machetes and other weapons. They said "you're our hostage until the president of Ecuador signed documents to put more money back into the Amazon". We didn't know what's going to happen. We were told we we're going to be there for probably a number of weeks because the President was in Spain. Then, the early next morning, we heard some airplanes coming into the nearby dirt runway. Some of the locals had parked pickup trucks on the airstrip to block it from use. But that morning it was not guarded. At night, without anyone knowing about it, officials pushed the pickup trucks off the runway. At dawn, we were told to grab a few items, not our suitcases, then lie face down in the back of two army trucks to go out to the airport. People threw rocks at the army trucks, broke some windows, but nobody got hurt.

We arrived at the airport and two small planes were ready for us. But the people who held us as hostages ran out several miles to the airport as well. There was chaos as we boarded quickly. We managed to take off without any gunshots and escaped to Quito. After we collected ourselves, I gave our travelers a choice to go home or continue on to the Galapagos a day later. They all decided to stay. They were troopers, these birdwatchers. I called my boss at Mass Audubon and said we've all been successfully rescued from being held hostage and he didn't know anything about it. He called the State Department, and the ambassador he didn't know what was going on. The incident managed to get the American Ambassador to Ecuador fired actually because he was unaware of the rescue of 25 Americans.

Required cocktail for travel, Pepto Bismol.

Q: How about weather? In your years leading groups did you have any dangerous storms of any kind or catastrophic events from a natural standpoint?

Peter: I survived earthquakes in Chile, Mexico City. I remember in the Mexico City one I was in a skyscraper hotel. I was about to get into bed when suddenly I started wavering back and forth and fell on the floor. I didn't know anything about an earthquake and I thought it was the elevation and the tequila I had. I went to sleep thinking I needed to give up drinking. Then the next day I found out about the earthquake.

As far as storms, I've crossed Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica something like 60 times and I have been through some killer storms. Once, when I was lecturing on the Lindblad Explorer, we had a storm with 60 foot and even higher waves for 24 hours pounding our ship from the west. And they tied all of us into our bunks. We had no dinner, no breakfast or lunch. I was the only one on the ship who didn't get seasick. And so storms are something you have to deal with and you have to deal with the weather and decide whether to go or not to go. But sometimes cloudy or rainy days right after the rain is when the best birding has been best.

Q: You’ve mentioned that in your travels you survived three plane crashes. Really? And you keep traveling?

Peter: They were all the two or four engine planes at the time. When I travel to Tikal in Guatemala I had a lady with me who'd never traveled in a plane before but she departed on the trip. As we were landing on the dirt runway in Tikal one of the wheels just locked. And we started doing horizontal cartwheels off into the jungle. The plane’s propellers were still swirling around and chopping up bushes. Finally, we crashed against some trees. And we were able to get everybody off the plane with no one seriously injured. I had luckily told that lady to put on a seatbelt. She didn't know anything about seatbelts. And after we landed, she said, “Sonny I'm glad you told me to put on the seatbelt. Is it always this rough landing in Tikal?”

Another time I was on a four engine plane flying from Guadalajara back to Tucson and two of the engines caught on fire. They had to do a landing in a cornfield. We all thought we're going to die. You don't know when a plane might explode because you've got leaking gas or whatever the propellant is. But the pilot managed to glide and land with just the two engines on the left and balancing it somehow. We were about 20 miles south of the airport. We were near Culiacána, home of El Chapo, a very dangerous place these days. But the Mexicans authorities did a good job. They loaded us and our luggage on buses, put us up at a hotel, and we flew back the next day. The other time was on a scouting trip to the area where vanilla come, Poza Rica, in northern Veracruz, and again it was engines on fire had a forced landing with fire trucks and everything on a runway. But again, it was really scary having the airplane on fire.

Q: Let’s change gears and talk about safer moments in your travels. You've run across celebrities in your travelers. Any moments you’d like to share?

Peter: Sooner or later when you're traveling 100 countries, you are going to meet some fascinating people and get to know them. I've spent time with Jane Goodall in Tanzania and Serengeti and gotten to know all of the Leakey's. And I also met up with Prince Philip in the Galapagos and eventually Washington DC. I remember a magic moment chatting with Jimmy Stewart, the president of the World Wildlife Fund, Prince Phillip, and myself for 10 minutes. So I'm not afraid of people that are famous. I've also met up with President Clinton and I've had drinks at various times with Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, and Jimmy Buffett. I get to run into these people. I've also almost had a date with the Duchess of York. Fergie, in Nairobi. I saw this Rolls Royce pull up and I see Fergie get out. And so I've decided just on the spot to go up and say “Hello, so good to see you, it’s Peter. We met in a couple of different events briefly in New York City”. Since she was divorced at the time, living in New York and going to parties every night, she went along with me. She was checking me out up and down. We talked briefly about her itinerary then I said “So good to see you, maybe we'll chat after lunch”. She smiled and winked at me. My group was thinking “Look at all the famous people our tour leader knows!” before I broke it to them.

To Be Continued in Part Three!


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