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Teacher thrills to life lessons on trip to Peruvian rain forest

(ran East, South editions)

There's a focus this week on big dreams. While some reach for Olympic gold, Marilyn "Mimi" Bridge reached for a rain forest.

She has just returned from a seven-day Peruvian jungle adventure she describes as "just incredible."

The thought of living without electricity, hot water and phones didn't deter the 20-year teaching veteran, who has carried her crusade for saving the trees at schools where she's taught _ Shorecrest, Lutheran Church of the Cross and, for the past eight years, Canterbury.

"I always had a love for the rain forest," she said. "Now I've really seen it."

The Woodlawn resident decided to make the trip when she learned her sisters (one from Georgia, the other from Virginia) were going. One sister, Ann Zyglocke, a teacher in Richmond, called to share the news that she won a grant for a teachers' workshop in Peru.

When she found out, Bridge woke her husband, John E. Bridge, co-owner of Acme Air Conditioning Co., and said: "I'm going to the rain forest; I have to go." It meant leaving him with their four sons, ages 5 to 17.

Parents from Canterbury collected $500 to help defray the more than $2,000 cost of the trip. She was given a surprise shower and presented gifts of insect repellent, ponchos and film.

Bridge was among 60 teachers visiting the country. The culture shock was immediate, she said. A four-hour walking tour of the city of Iquitos (population 400,000) revealed no refrigeration and very little electricity.

Residents shop daily for food stuff, she said. "A plastic tarp on the street is the store," _ an open-air market _ where medicine vendors sell seeds, tree bark and roots. They also proclaimed a drink from boiled bark as a cure for cancer.

During a two-hour boat ride on the Amazon River, teachers witnessed what's referred to as "slash and clearing" of the land for cattle, houses and logging.

An acre sells for $30, and loggers will cut }-acre to locate one mahogany tree, said Bridge. Natives can live off the land for only three years before exhausting the nutrients and moving on.

Bridge was among a smaller group of 20 teachers who stayed in an open-air hut in the heart of the jungle. Florida's hot temperatures and high humidity helped her acclimate. She saw first-hand what she had only read about before _ colorful toucans, monkeys everywhere in the trees and macaws. "The trees were so big, so green," she said.

During the evening, everyone gathered around the one kerosene lantern.

"I never got used to the cold showers," said Bridge, "but the food ranked second to the showers."

Locals prepared their version of scrambled eggs for breakfast, rice and beans for lunch and fish or gamey chicken for dinner. Bunches of hanging bananas were always available, she said.

The group visited the Yagua tribe to barter for souvenirs. Bridge traded small packages of crackers for seed necklaces, gourd dolls and blowguns still used by hunters.

For Bridge, the trip's highlight was visiting the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research built in 1992. It's one of three places in the world where rope bridges have been built in a canopy of trees as educational observation stations. The others are in Belize and Australia, she said. The ropes stretch \-mile and reach 120 feet above ground.

This year, Bridge's students will hear lots more about the rain forests. She's planning to collect money for the Amazon center to boost research and education for the natives.

"What's so important about the rain forest," she said, "is that we don't know half of what's in there."