How a Girly-Girl Survives the Jungle

Posted on November 30, 2011 by Elaine Thatcher      

A big thanks to Elaine Thatcher of for contributing the following post as the November 30th Travel Instigator. Stay tuned for a feature post and Q and A from a new adventurous female traveler the 15th and 30th of every month.


People often tell me that I am brave when they read about my travels so before I start this post let me tell you a few things about myself. I am not brave. Not in the least. I am scared of flying, spiders and fish—not a great start for somebody who wants to travel the world. I am also a girl’s girl. I do not leave the house without make-up, I prefer to wear skirts and dresses rather than trousers or jeans, heels are my best friend, and I think I would die without my GHD hair straighteners (which are safely stowed in my backpack as I travel South America). There are many eight-legged reasons why I have not yet visited Australia; I’m still trying to summon the courage to go!

But I do not let these things stop me as travel is all about getting firmly out of your comfort-zone, so I am writing this post to prove that any ordinary girl can do the things that I have done—no matter how frightening they might be.

Last week I went to the Jungle. I’ll admit now that I did not want to go. Of course, I liked the idea of sailing down a river in a dug-out canoe watching the occasional alligator bask on the riverbanks and I knew that I would like to see a plethora of exotic, colourful birds in the trees while pink river dolphins frisk playfully amongst the bow-waves. Yes, that part is all good. But I don’t want to spend the night in a wooden shack getting bitten by mosquitoes and worrying about all manner of other unpleasant insects. And I most certainly don’t wish to share a shower with aforementioned unpleasant insects.

(Elaine Thatcher of Runaway Brit "mans-up" for her journey in the Jungle!)

Unfortunately for me it is difficult to get a trip to the Amazon Basin without it entailing a night in the Jungle: if I was going to visit then I needed to man-up. So I headed to Rurrenabaque, a small town on the Beni River in the north of Bolivia and booked a 3 day-2 night tour to the Pampas. Many tour operators in this area offer the choice of a Jungle or a Pampas excursion. The Pampas tour heads towards the wetlands of the Savannah, taking in more wildlife as it is easier to see there than in the dense, tangled foliage of the rainforest. I was warned that the Jungle tour would involve more insects. The Pampas seemed to suit me better.

The first day went exactly as expected: I sailed down a river in a dug-out canoe watching the occasional alligator bask on the riverbanks. A plethora of exotic, colourful birds fluttered in the trees overhead while pink river dolphins frisked playfully amongst the bow-waves. Everything was perfect.

Then we got to camp.

It was a crudely-built wooden structure on raised platforms, weaving its way around thick jungle tree-trunks. We joked that we were raised above ground to protect us from night-time alligator invasions but as we hadn’t seen an alligator for many miles before reaching the camp we felt pretty safe. The beds were clean, comfortable and protected by sturdy mosquito nets, and even the toilets had a working flush and seemed bug-free. So far, so good.

After dinner we were taken out on an evening tour. We were told to take flashlights as we would be able to see the shining eyes of the wildlife along the banks. With my glow-in-the-dark pink flashlight (I was not lying about being a girly-girl) I could see the haunting red eyes of the alligators in the waters around us. Suddenly the Jungle came alive. We saw far more eyes in the space of one hour than we had all afternoon in the day. Worrying, we noticed that the banks by our cabins were sheltering numerous alligators and we became even more thankful for the raised platforms. We saw fireflies glittering in the moonlight and could hear the magical sound of the Jungle.

We climbed out of the canoes and walked into the forest in search of Tarantula—something not on the itinerary and entirely unexpected. I did not want to go but I did not want to stay alone in a canoe surrounded by alligators either. We found a tarantula nestled inside the trunk of a large tree and I surprised myself by clambering closer to take a look and even a few photographs. Unfortunately I couldn’t shake the idea of the enormous spider out of my mind and spent an uncomfortable night waking up to imaginary bugs crawling all over me and I was thankful when the morning came.

The next day pushed my fears even further when—after sharing my morning shower with a toad—we spent 3 hours walking around a swamp looking for anaconda. We didn’t find any of the scary snakes but we did come across two alligators lurking in the muddy waters when we were standing only metres away! Our guide told us later that only a week earlier, an Australian girl had stood on an alligator and almost been bitten. Later we sailed down the river watching the surface bubble as Piranha caught insects. Some (insane) people chose to swim, as apparently the presence of the pink river dolphins protects swimmers from danger. I have to admit that I was not quite ready to face my fear of fish, and certainly not in the presence of alligators, so I just watched them from the safety of the boat. Maybe one day, I can face that fear too?

I can now say that I faced a fear and survived the Jungle. I certainly extended my comfort-zone far beyond any point it has known before.

Here’s what any girl in the jungle should take:

– Face wipes are your new best friend (if they weren’t already). I had mine to remove my make-up but they came in handy for frequent freshen-ups. The Jungle isn’t always a dignified place

– STRONG Bug Spray and sun cream. Sunburn and mozzy bites aren’t good for the complexion, ladies

– A hat or bandana—there are no hairdryers in the jungle and the GHDs won’t work

– Long trousers and long sleeves. The Jungle is no place for cute little outfits: the less exposed flesh, the better

– Dark sunglasses. To hide the tears of fear. Only kidding, they’re just because the sun is strong

Above all, have fun. The bugs are only a small part of what is otherwise an incredible experience.

 Q and A with Elaine Thatcher

1. Teaching has afforded you a wonderful life of travel. What advice do you give teachers considering a life of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)?

Teaching is not as easy as many people think, if you just want to drink your way around the world then take bar jobs not teaching jobs—your students are relying on you. If you want to do it you should make sure that you are committed to being professional.  You should take a CELTA course first, it is more expensive than many of the other TEFL/ESL courses around but you will get better jobs with better pay and working conditions. DON’T do an online qualification—you need classroom experience and the support that only a CELTA will give you.

2. Considering the many places you’ve taught, what characteristics do all of your students seem to share?

Outside of the UK, my students have been motivated and keen to learn. The nicest thing about teaching overseas—especially in Asia—is that teachers are respected. It is nice to hear students, parents and senior management say thank you sometimes!

3. How long have you been away from Britain and how have you adapted to a life on the road?

This is now my 5th year away from the UK (plus a year in Japan when I was 23). My family and friends are now so used to me being away that they are more surprised when I come back! Facebook and my blog are fantastic methods for keeping in touch as time differences usually make phoning difficult. I don’t have many possessions, most of what I own fits in a few boxes—I’m not a hoarder, I rarely keep anything I haven’t used in the last year. When I go back to the UK, I stock up on things I miss like Cadbury’s chocolate which doesn’t taste as good anywhere else in the world!

4. Do students in other countries kiss up to the teacher with an apple? What’s the strangest gift a student has ever given you?

Ha ha! They respect their teachers more so they do give gifts and you can get some pretty nice things. When I left for Japan my class made me a load of cards with hand-drawn manga cartoons and anime stickers on them. The Japanese are crazy about mobile-phone trinkets so I got a load of those when I left there. I was also given a traditional Japanese hand-fan decorated with the Union Jack—that was a bit odd!

5. What is a perfect travel day for you? How does it make you feel and what do you gain from it?

I love the first day in a new place when you just walk around getting a feel for it and you don’t know what to expect, especially if it is somewhere you’ve wanted to go for a long time. I love taking photos so if I can just wander with my camera then I’m happy. I like the feeling of having time to explore, life is so busy the rest of the time that it’s great when you don’t have to worry about anything.

 6. You got a pretty sweet tattoo in Saigon, Vietnam.  What advice do you have for those seeking an ink souvenir?

Do your research beforehand: look at some of the artist’s work beforehand—too many people regret their tattoos afterwards. Check out the parlour to make sure that it is hygienic—your health is more important than a cool tattoo. Finally, get something that you really want and don’t be pressured into it by friends.

7. You’re fascinated with unique accommodations. Where is the strangest place you’ve stayed during your travels?

Dead Fish Guest House in Cambodia is pretty unique. We stayed in a room at the top of a tower where we had to walk across precarious wooden walkways and climb tiny ladders to get to our room. An entire wall outside our room was completely missing so when we walked outside we were faced with a six-storey drop to the street. Downstairs they had crocodiles in the bar, our friend was staying in the sole room in the bar area—his bedroom door had a 25cm thick metal door to keep them out!

8. Every traveler seems to have that, “holy cow, I can’t believe I did that” experience. What’s one of yours?

Strolling through an alligator-infested swamp is definitely my most recent experience in that category! When I first started travelling I did a few stupid things that could have been dangerous—In India a guy asked me if I needed a place to stay and I said yes. He said he’d take me to a guesthouse on the back of his motorbike. It was only when we were zooming down a dirt track through dark forest that I realised I may just have done something very, very stupid. Thankfully it turned out okay but I’d like to think that I have a bit more common sense now.

9. After extensive travel and experiencing so many incredible foods, what is one of your favorite ethnic dishes?

I really like Bo Luk Lak, a dish of rice, beef, onions and green peppers. I think it is originally a Khmer dish but is very popular in Vietnam. In Japan I loved okonomiyake—somewhere between a pancake and an omelette. My favourite food of all time is Greek food, I love Kleftiko. Simple but delicious.

10. Share with us the name of one of your students and why you remember him/her so distinctly.

I’ve been teaching for ten years now and there are so many students who are memorable for so many reasons. When I was teaching in Japan, I taught a pre-school class. We played games and sang songs, they could just about say ‘hello, how are you?’ There was a tiny three year old girl called Kimiko. Her family took her to Canada for six months where she went to an English-speaking school. When she came back she was practically fluent and would assist me in teaching the other students in the class. Kids are amazing at that age, like sponges they can just absorb a new language. I wish I could do the same!

Want More From Elaine?

Elaine Thatcher of

Get to know her:

Elaine is a 32 year old English teacher from the United Kingdom.  Her longing to travel was born after a short trip through Eastern Europe in 2000 when she went from Germany to Romania by train and experienced the first flush of wanderlust. Thus, Runaway Brit was born at 23.
Since, Elaine has taught English in Tokyo, Vietnam, and currently Sweden.

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  • Beth Yost

    I googled “Pink River Dolphin”. So amazing! I’d never heard of such a thing! As for the other creatures, I can’t say I would have gotten much sleep either. What a cool adventure. Thanks for sharing!

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