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Washington Voices

Globe-trotting service teaches much

Thu., March 8, 2012

Jan Boal stands with members of a Masai tribe in Kenya after they made her an honorary Masai warrior.
Jan Boal stands with members of a Masai tribe in Kenya after they made her an honorary Masai warrior.

Volunteer conducts research on endangered species

After tracking jaguars in Brazil, collecting data about dolphins in the Amvrakikos Gulf of Greece and observing black rhinos in Kenya, Jan Boal has a photo album that could come from the pages of National Geographic.

For six months Boal volunteered with Earthwatch Institute to conduct field research about endangered species around the world.

“I wanted to taste the world for myself and see what was going on out there, rather than from the news, and I’ve always been about giving back,” said Boal, 53. “I had a window of opportunity. The only thing holding me back was my job.”

Though she loved her nursing position at Spokane Mental Health, Boal said 2010 had been a year of losses and she was ready to take a leap of faith and follow her gut. She left her job in April and spent the next six months trusting her gut over and over.

“I learned to trust my instincts, to experience and broaden myself. It was trusting and letting go … letting go of the fear that blocks us,” she said. “I pushed all of my boundaries.”

That started immediately in Brazil, where Boal helped track jaguars by scat and footprints. She didn’t know if she’d even see one of the elusive animals, but the team found an orphaned cub and she got to play with it. Later she held hands with a spider monkey at a wildlife refuge.

“It was very spiritual, these experiences I had with the animals,” she said, recounting how she made eye contact with a bottlenose dolphin in Greece’s Amvrakikos Gulf.

While in Kenya to study the black rhino, Boal watched wildebeests migrating from the vantage point of a hot air balloon at sunrise. She took pictures of lions nuzzling and sharing their kill and listened to the hyenas as she fell asleep.

She also took the opportunity to visit neighboring Uganda and trekked through the jungle to observe a silverback gorilla eating leaves.

“Animals are all so beautiful. In many ways they are like us, with their family and social ties. This is their home,” she said, noting that when animals are endangered it affects the entire ecosystem. “We all affect one another. It’s not about politics. It’s about each person looking at what they can do. … It’s all about balance.”

As she learned about different animals and cultures, Boal also learned to rely on her own instincts. In Kenya, for example, she didn’t have a good feeling as her group walked into some dense brush. A few moments later their guard yelled, “Run!” and a lioness sprang from the bushes.

“I’m thinking, I can’t outrun a lion with all this gear on,” Boal recalled, describing how the lion attacked and bit one of the women in the group. Boal’s nursing expertise kicked in, and she applied first aid until help arrived. “I went back and got her. I stared death in the face.”

About a week later, still leery of bushes, she told her Masai guide about the experience. “The Kenyans say no one survives a lion,” she said, noting that killing a lion is part of the rite of passage to become a Masai warrior.

The next day her guide took Boal to his camp and the tribe held a dance ceremony to make her an honorary Masai warrior. “I can have a bad day, but when push comes to shove, I’m a warrior,” she said with a smile.

It was one of many days Boal will never forget. Just as her experiences with the animals touched her, so did her interactions with the various people she met throughout her trip.

The biggest challenge, in fact, was dealing with her own emotions when she saw the poverty close up.

“It was an awareness,” she said. “Being in Third World countries and seeing for myself the poverty. Yet they are so humble and grateful for what they have.”

“I met people from around the world and have great friendships,” she continued, describing how she bonded with the other volunteers who shared her desire to learn and make a difference. While in Brazil, several of her new friends encouraged her to visit the Iguazu Falls before she left. It became a memory that in many ways embodied the spirit of her adventure.

“They are bigger than Niagara. When I was there my heart and soul were happy,” she said. “It was life-changing.”

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