Jon Kempsey, NOLS Amazon program manager, has a long and varied history with NOLS. He recently shared his story, as well as his excitement about running courses in Brazil, with us:
Resourceful and self reliant—courses operate hundreds of miles from the support of operations in areas with little infrastructure so at times staff need to be able to operate independently.
How long have you been Branch Director at NOLS Amazon?
What is your background with NOLS? How did it all begin for you?
Twenty-three years at NOLS. I have always worked both as an instructor and in administration and support positions. Much of my experience has been in non-English speaking countries—Mexico, Chile, and Brazil—and I have had to become fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish.
I first came into contact with NOLS while hitchhiking in Botswana in 1987 trying to get to the Okovango Delta. There were a couple of NOLS instructors scouting for NOLS Kenya in the vehicle, and we ended up doing a short canoe trip in the Delta together. Eventually I ended up being invited to the USA by one of them. He took me to NOLS Alaska where I ended up doing volunteer work for a summer in 1990. Then in ‘91 I came back to take an instructor course, and have been at NOLS ever since.
What is your favorite aspect of running courses in your part of the world?
Being in such an amazing environment as the Amazon Basin and also the Cerrado region of Brazil—the base is in the intermediate zone between these two areas.
The independence I have here—I am probably the most isolated of all NOLS employees! I live alone at the base most of time in a rural region dead in the center of South America. Sometimes it is challenging to be so on my own and having to do everything in a second language. I have had to do things I never thought I would be doing at NOLS: buying a property, constructing a house, giving talks in Portuguese to National Park employees, dealing with lawyers, etc.!
What unique or particularly appealing aspect of this branch do you think potential students should know about?
The NOLS course here is absolutely unique. Nobody else offers a full-on expedition in the Amazon region. The courses really are true adventures. Despite the challenges, getting to experience the natural environment here is incredibly rewarding. The cultural opportunities are also a very special aspect of the courses here.
What would you say most surprises students when they arrive or during their course in that part of the world?
The vastness and remoteness of the forest and how alive it is. The cultural section is life-changing for many of the students: getting to live intimately with families whose lives are so simple and who live off the land and rivers is a real eye opener for young people from prosperous backgrounds. We live with diversity and practice diversity as part of our very existence, and our students get that experience. I don’t think they can really imagine this before they come here.
Anything else you'd like to mention about NOLS Amazon?
-The high quality of the Brazilian instructors who work at the school, most of whom were sponsored by NOLS Amazon
- The expertise we have developed in running expeditions in this region
- The emphasis we put on sustainable living here especially in waste reduction, recycling, and buying locally produced food
- The lack of a big support staff means instructors are involved in all aspects of the preparation for a course
- The community life here is very important whether eating together, making music, or doing volunteer work at the base
- The great in-town food!
- Probably the best library on Amazon natural history and other topics Brazilian that you will find anywhere in the world
- Being able to see close to a 100 different species of birds on the property as well a great diversity of other animal life (I think we are the only branch to have monkeys!)
- The many beautiful trees and plants as well and being able to always find something edible on the property at any season of the year!