Sunday, August 10, 2008

Homeward Bound

Friday, August 08, 2008

My trip started with a bang—and what would be the point if it didn’t end with a bang, eh? My mother and I landed in Washington DC, grabbed our car and hit I-66, raring to go home. It happened so suddenly, I only had time to react, let alone time to think. Driving peacefully up the hill, the engine suddenly wined, then screamed like metal scraping metal and the car began to buck as if I were a new driver trying to put the car into reverse while going 60. Ignoring Mom’s hiss of tension as she grabbed the “Oh, shit bar” on the door and checking my mirrors, I flicked on my emergency blinkers to warn the cars traveling 75 mph flanking my little blue car of this sudden change in plans. The car bucked so violently as I coasted to a stop that I consciously thanked whoever it was that invented seatbelts despite my occupied train of thought.

Climbing out to check the oil and tires, we were instantly greeted with warm red brake lights of a car plated from West Virginia. It was our lucky day since the white-collar D.C. workers zipping by in their 2007 Lincolns and Mercedes would never know how to identify the problem even if they had the time to stop. My first sight of our rescuer was of white wiry hair resembling that of someone who enjoyed wetting his hands and sticking his fingers in electrical sockets. A half-buttoned plaid shirt spotted with grease stains hung loosely over the man’s large stomach, matching his comfortable work jeans. I smiled at the sight, feeling closer to home despite the fact that I was only minutes from Washington D.C. “What seems to be the problem har?” the man asked in his thick, muffled accent. We explained what had happened and the man scratched his head, quiet for a minute and set to work checking the car’s fluids, wiping the greasy sticks on his plaid cotton shirt. Mom clicked her tongue disapprovingly for not using the rag she had handed him, but he chuckled, his wide Santa belly shaking, and explained that he was a mechanic.
He wanted to drive the car for a bit to run a couple of minor tests and we agreed. He suggested that we drive his car, so I walked over to the navy blue sedan and peering through its yawning windows, shook my head in wonder at the open whiskey bottle shoved hastily between the driver and passenger seats. Yes, I was certainly back in the South.

“It’s the axle, ma’am” he said confidently. Grabbing the AAA card from the glovebox, I called the road-side assistance and asked for a tow truck while Mom chatted with our altruistic helper. AAA returned my call twenty minutes later and announced that a tow truck was on its way. Announcing the news to Mom and the older man, and he said that he must be getting on his way. Later, it occurred to me that we never thought to ask his name. It didn’t matter though. He had helped us with no intention other than to make sure that we were okay, caring for nothing in return—not even the tantalizing chocolate peanut butter cups I had offered him. It’s good to be home.

Yellow lights flashing in my rearview mirror an hour later declared the arrival of our tow truck. An older man, in his 70’s perhaps, climbed from the cab, greeted us with a knowing smile and hooked the car to his truck in 5 minutes. Driving down the road to Parker’s Truckers, we told him about the diagnosis offered by the kind West Virginian and Delbert, our tow trucker, agreed wholeheartedly. “If the car’s parking brake is on and it rolls without the emergency brake then the transmission is not communicating with the front axles—yup, you’ve got a bad axle.”

Waiting in Parker’s Truckers unlit lot, we listened to two men conversing in the typical Front Royal fashion. The red-faced man in the blaze orange shirt that said “I only date MILFS” gave a big belly laugh and told Joe to come on down to have a Jack burn at the river trailer on the 30th. “It’s gonna be a good one man,” he said, rubbing the exposed skin peeking out from under his XXX Large t-shirt. “Al-rawt,” Joe said. “I’ll be sure to bring my wife, if you don’t mind.” Saying goodnight to each other, they cordially walked over to our car and wished us luck with the rest of our evening. Leaning my head out the window, I asked “What’s a Jack burn?” Joe laughed, not knowing what I was asking about. “A Jack burn?” I asked. “What’s a Jack burn?” The other man let out another hearty laugh, and corrected me: “Honey, I think you’re talking about a Jap burn.” Looking at my wide eyes, he chuckled knowingly, and said “See we like to burn Japanese motorcycles on top of fars as big as your car there. If the fire’s big enough, they’s reduced to nuttin’ but a pile a snot.” I looked at Mom, slightly speechless, but grinning at my revelation of this modernized form of Southern entertainment, naturally tinged with racism, however good-humored it may be.

Paul arrived at midnight and I drove us home in our little red pick-up truck, Mom’s leg always in the way of the gear shift as we hurtled down the dark interstate, sandwiched with tractor trailer trucks. Crashing in bed with my kitty as soon as I arrived home, I woke at 11 a.m. to Mom’s shouts. Realizing she was shouting at me to get up and grab my camera, I rolled out of bed with a tired moan and stumbled down the stairs, camera in hand. Paul was standing on the front porch holding a female copperhead, fat with pregnancy and eyes gray from molting. I raised my eyebrows, snapped some photos and returned inside to fry our fresh farm-eggs in a cast-iron skillet. Later, unpacking the army bag which housed the alpaca skin I bought in the highlands, I stepped in a pair of rubber boots so I could hang them outside. Shrieking loudly, I realized there was a wolf spider in the boot and kicked it off as quickly as possible. And I thought I left the jungle behind. Coming in a few minutes later to check my email, I turned on the computer only to realize that it was not working. Back to civilization? I guess it just depends how you think about it. But it’s good to be home.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Peruvian Highlands (Huancayo)

Sunday, August 03, 2008

I have been in Huancayo for 2 days now. I arrived on Friday night feeling sick and tired due to the 8 hour bus ride in the last row of the bus and the altitude change. Huancayo is only around 4,000 meters, but we passed other towns at 5,000 meters or higher, which made me sick. Light-headed and nauseous, I stumbled off the bus at 10 p.m. to stumble happily into my Mom’s arms. She had been waiting at the bus station for me for the past hour or so even though we had planned to meet at the hostel. Grabbing a taxi, we rode to the hostel known as La Casa de La Abuela which was an ancient house with wood floors and antiques covering every corner and cranny. There was no water that evening, as there is every evening in Huancayo so the prospect of a shower was out…as it is, it was quite cold in the highlands and I was not incredibly keen on exposing myself to the elements. Water is only available in Huancayo from early morning to lunch time. The water supply is low and the city has no water from early afternoon to the wee hours of the morning.

This morning, we woke at the leisurely hour of 10 a.m. and I sat bundled in 5 wool blankets reading The Count of Monte Cristo, enjoying the luxury of relaxing under the weight of warm covers. Even though I’ve been here since Friday night, my altitude sickness is only just wearing off. I no longer feel ill, but I am still quite tired and my legs feel like lead. After organizing our clothes and washing some socks and shirts, we showered in the bitter cold water available only in the morning, and prepared to leave for the market. We are staying in Miguel Torres’s house in Pio Pata, a suburb of Huancayo. Mom met Miguel through couchsurfing. His intelligent eyes and low-key demeanor are a pleasant complement to our day as he provides happy company but in a relaxed manner which allows us to do as we please in his home without encroaching on his own busy schedule. He is not hugely concerned with being the perfect host which is more comfortable for Mom and I as we are both “do it yourself” types and feel more comfortable in this atmosphere. Miguel’s wife and 5 year-old son live in Lima as the life and education is considerably better than that in the highlands. He visits whenever possible.

Wandering through the market, we bypassed vendors selling shoes and clothes to explore the weighty fruit stands and small tables of algarrobina and dried goods. Algarrobina is a molasses like syrup that comes from the Algarrobin tree in northern Peru, such as Piura. Artisans sold wool ponchos, purses, and hats of alpaca and wool. Hand-etched gourds lined tables, the stories of the harvest and Santiago fiestas carved into their hard skins. Gypsies selling hand-made necklaces with shells, teeth, bones, and stones from the jungle and highlands sat on blankets next to the curb.

In lieu of the Santiago festivities, Mom had made friends in a small village on the mountain outside of Huancayo. After lunch, we took a taxi up a rocky road for 30 minutes into Cochas Grande for the family gathering. Climbing out of the taxi at a corner when it could not ascend any further, we began to wander up the road in search of a familiar face to direct us to the right house. We had no idea where we were going, and I had no idea who we were looking for, but somehow, with my Mother, everything just seems to work. Sure enough, we rounded a corner and we bumped into the exact woman we were looking for as if she had planned to meet us at the corner at that time. Smiling and kissing each of us, she grabbed our hands and led us up the hill and through a gate bordered with mud walls too high to see over. We were greeted with the cheering sight of sixty people dancing and drinking merrily to the sound of saxophones and violins playing energetic music traditional for the Santiago festival. The dances were simple shuffles, almost like jogging in place, a challenge for the colorfully dressed women wearing high heels in the rocky dusty ground. At first, the dance was tiring, but after standing still in the bitter wind for 30 minutes, I suddenly began to appreciate the value of a beer and an energetic dance.

Una Cervesa por Santiago

Santiago is a celebration of life and fertility of livestock—typically cattle, sheep, and llamas. Animals decorated with colorful ribbons were dragged into the center of the festivities, live music competing for attention over the brawls of each calf and bleat of each sheep, as the host fed each wine and coca leaves for fertility. An ornery bull whose respectable horns tossed and turned furiously when the glass wine bottle was forced into his mouth did not deter the stubborn Peruvians; six men joined in a game of dodge the horns, force feeding wine without being hospitalized. The coca leaves are the very same leaves which are used to make cocaine—just without the arduous chemical process. Old women in hand-embroidered wool skirts and felt hats decorated with flowers and fruits sat cross-legged on the ground chewing the dried coca leaves, grinning numbly and gossiping amongst themselves. I approached them and sat chatting with them in the grass as they smiled toothily at me, green leaves covering their gold caps. Glasses of Peruvian wine, beer, and chicha morada (purple corn refresco) were passed in my direction, each person ensuring that I always had a full glass—I learned quickly to refuse their slightly overbearing hospitality lest I had too much.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Walking to the morning market at 7:30 a.m. I was startled to find that only one stand was open. Asking the dark women selling vegetables when the cheese and fruit vendors would arrive, I was disappointed to realize that I was 30 minutes early (not accounting for Peruvian “punctuality”) and that Mom and I would have to delay our morning plans to go find a Caldo shop and eat sheep or chicken soup for breakfast. Grabbing a taxi, we rode to the town center to meet Rocilla, a smiling, amiable Huancayan and our private taxi for our trip to Al Nevado del Huaytapallana. We met Rocilla last night when we went to help Miguel with his English class and invited her to join us on our outing. Our cab driver, Fidel, announced that he needed to grab a bite to eat before we left, so we stopped at a typical Peruvian eatery overstuffed with tables and diners devouring hot platters of seco del pollo with rice, potatoes, and Anis tea.

Huatapallana is a 2 hour drive from Huancayo, up a steep, narrow gravel road squeezed between the ascending slopes as if resting between a large woman’s thighs. Fidel pointed out sights along the way, chattering away on his radio with a fellow taxi driver about the odd American women traveling with the Peruvian girl. Stopping the cab in front of a crowded general shop, Fidel explained that we needed to purchase coca leaves and sugar cane liquor for the altitude and for energy. Though skeptical, Mom and I knew no other way to battle the cold, thin aired peaks of the Andes and we purchased the suggested items. Andean campesinos chew coca leaves and drink the cane liquor (referred to as “combustible”) to give them the energy to work without resting or eating. The Incas chewed coca leaves as well, using it not only as a meal replacement, but also to numb their mouths in order to remove and replace teeth with gold and silver nuggets.

Arriving at a small restaurant shrouded in an endless fog and wrapped with swirling snow, we placed orders for lunch, bundled our heads in scarves and chullos and hit the trail. Walking up a hill, I paused to catch my breath and admire the pastoral scenes of snow-covered sheep and llamas grazing amongst lichen spotted rocks and wiry grass. Realizing that I had only walked 20 meters, I groaned inwardly, knowing that my lingering soroche (altitude sickness) would not take long to hit as we ascended the mountain. My legs strong from working in the field at the station had no trouble ascending the slippery rocks and loose soils, but my heart and lungs were on a different track. My temporal and occipital lobes audibly pounding with blood, screaming for oxygen, begged me to stop the insanity of the marathon that should have just been a pleasant day hike to a receding Andean glacier. Crossing a windy saddle, we began to descend, picking up our pace to warm our cold toes. Stopping just off the wind’s main path, we admired a smoky lagoon meekly resting under an intimidating snow peak obscured by currents of fog racing around and down its impossibly steep slopes. Fidel removed the bottle of cane liquor from his pack and after giving us each a capful, began to dump the innocently clear liquid into his bare hands, tossing it toward the mountain and muttering quietly. Answering our confused looks, he explained that he was chasing the fog away…sure enough, the fog disappeared for five minutes, exposing the stunning crest of the mountain rising from depths as deep as Hell.

Posing for photos with the grand snow peak and mysterious lagoon as a backdrop, our smiling eyes suddenly widened at the not so distant roar of thunder which echoed ominously off the rocky peaks. Though we were just over half-way through our hike, Fidel explained that we would need to return. Once it starts raining, he explained, it will pour, the fog will thicken, and we will likely lose the trail and definitely get hypothermia. Not doubting any of what he said as he appeared to prefer to continue the awe-inspiring trek, we turned back. We had already hiked over 600 meters and only had around 500 more, but the trail lead straight into the thunder clouds—being on the same shelterless mountain as an electric storm was enough and we felt no need to intentionally walk toward the thunder. An hour later, bundled inside the drafty restaurant eating steaming platters of trout caught from a lagoon that morning, we were grateful for our quick decision to return. The other vehicles on the same trek were long gone (though more likely due to hiking at 4,600 meters than the thunder) leaving our ice-covered vehicle alone to brave the pounding rain and sleet.

Finishing our lunches, we piled into the taxi to return to Huancayo. Small groups of colorfully dressed highlanders, or witches, dotted the occasional hillside, sacrificing cuy (guinea pigs) and fruits to the gods of the mountains. Rounding a sharp corner, we came upon a large cargo truck loaded with fruits and people from the jungle traveling to Huancayo to sell their goods. The truck was stopped in front of a bridge consisting of eucalyptus trunks tossed casually over trout stream 15 feet below the road. The truck’s narrow bald tires could not cross the bridge without slipping between the logs. Fidel hopped out of the taxi to help the small group of men readjusting the logs forming the bridge and wedging small borders in between to stabilize the ground. Thirty minutes later, the men agreed that the bridge was as good as it would get and began to direct the truck over the wet logs. Two young girls sitting atop the truck watched the spectacle with grins, pointing at the men and the creek below. Just as the front tires reached the opposite bank and the back tires began to rely on the newly constructed bridge, the wet soil which held the logs began to shift and the eucalyptus trunk slid apart allowing the truck’s bald tire to drop several inches. Leaning dangerously, the truck’s engine screamed as the driver gunned it, no doubt clinging to a rosary dangling from his rearview mirror and the grinning girls atop the truck adopted looks of terror. Pitching and turning, leaning one way and another, the truck’s tires suddenly found life and shot up the bank, stopping when the bridge had been crossed. Unaware that every person was holding his breath along the bank or in the cab, a collective sigh spread through the spectators—no doubt the people inside the truck were still holding their breath. Unable to see out of the metal walls or tarp roof, they could only feel the weight of the truck rocking just too close to death (or at least a trip to the hospital). Now that the truck was across, we were next, though our trip was uneventful compared to what we had just witnessed.

Monday, July 28, 2008

El Aguajal

I woke at six to the barks and chatters of the Titi monkeys energetic conversations. Grabbing my boxer shorts and blue t-shirt, I walked to breakfast thinking of Tuco’s hot pancakes smothered in the sickly sweet ooze of condensed milk and followed by a bowl of papaya. After breakfast, Will Minehart, an ornithologist studying antbirds, approached me, reminding me of our plans for a trek in the Aguajal.

Donning my polyester pants, wool socks, and tall rubber boots I prepared to trek through the palm swamp. The first trail was wide and we walked abreast listening for mammals wandering through the damp brush of the primary forest. It led to the retired airstrip, which upon entering, blinds the passerby with a sudden inundation of blazing sunlight. Heat waves shimmering over the short grass give the stretch of open air a surreally vast feeling compared to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the verdurous forest; but as soon as you realize that you’ve been walking for 10 minutes and you’re only halfway, it no longer feels so enchantingly dreamlike and pleasantly airy—just uncomfortably hot. Birders frequent the airstrip to admire the blue and gold macaws feeding in fruit trees, turkey vultures circling overhead, and great black hawks gliding royally through the endless sky. Passifloras and purple clitoralis flowers line the well trodden path leading back to the familiar dank humidity of la trocha Huangana.

Blue and Gold Macaws in a Cecropia on the Aerodromo. (photo by Will Minehart)

Turning onto the seldom traveled trail, Mauritia, the path narrowed, traversing down a steep hill over dried creek beds and under thorny trees. We paused to snap photos of a terrestrial orchid and an inch long bullet ant, whose famed bite apparently feels like a gun-shot wound. Not wanting to test the theory, I remained a respectable distance from the menacing pincers while Will impishly directed the savage ant in circles by blowing in its face.

The solid dirt paths spaced loosely with grandiose ficus trees and chirping trogans suddenly gave way to thick marshy grasses and shrieking parrots. Shiny green vanilla vines scaled lichen spotted aguaje palms while cumulous clouds garnished the pool blue sky. Ferns freckling the islands of palms tenaciously grasped nutrient rich dirt and dangled their flighty branches over tea-colored swamp waters. Palms whose tops had fallen provided nesting grounds for parrots. Oropendulas sang drippy songs, clucking to one another and flicking their bright yellow tails as they built hanging nests from palm fronds and small vines. Orchids as small as my pinky nail, a caterpillar resembling a peachy 1970’s shag rug, a neon red, striped mushroom, black and yellow spiked spiders, and fantastic clusters of algae captured our attention, and we often stood for minutes just admiring the untouched beauty of the remote creatures.

Moving slowly without a machete, I blazed a trail across the soft terrain and tested the ground ahead of Will, his reasoning being that ladies should go first. Spotting the bullshit in seconds, I considered his puckish interests of self-preservation pointing out that I would be the one to fall in the hidden swamp holes and serve as anaconda bait. He graciously offered to fight off any attackers. Muchas gracias, amigo.

High hopes of staying dry in this swamp were futile. Only twenty minutes into the trek, we faced the inevitable and began to venture onto the wetter parts of the trail, never sure of its depth until we stopped sinking. Gasping when apparently solid ground gave way to waist deep muck, we would giggle and pull each other from the resolute grip of the mud, sucking our boots from our feet. We lost the trail numerous times, yet getting lost is never a waste of time—it’s a part of the adventure. The numbered orange tags marking the trail are supposedly spaced every 25 meters (75 feet), but the lively forest never fails to exploit free spaces, so many markers are often obscured with leaves or mistaken for colorful flowers. Even after admitting water into our sweaty boots, our trip hardly moved faster. Walking to the next trail marker, even when visible, could take as long as 10 minutes in some spots, in part because we wanted to move quietly and slowly so as not to scare wildlife from our sights, but mostly because we could not move any faster.

Passing a stretch of fallen trees, I looked up to see the New York City of spider webs. The massive cobwebs and intricate rings hung in a thick cloud for 20 feet and rose 4 feet in places. It was nearly impossible to move around the obstacle, so I reached out to carefully pull a visible thread from a branch in order to pass. When I removed the thread, an audible BING reached our ears, just as if I had snapped a piece of fishing line. Impressed by its durability and extreme stickiness, we carefully crept around the cloudy mess of thread and continued to lose and find the trail.

El Aguajal

As we entered a darker portion of the swamp, this time under the cover of some woodier trees, the path became more solid, and our encounters with deep water became less regular (though only a little). Rounding a thorny bush and avoiding a spiny trunked palm, I suddenly saw a yellow and black head jerk at the sight of my movement. I too reacted, but with a shriek, jumping backwards, nearly running into Will. Peering over the shrubs with wide brown eyes, I laughed. I had to. It was a tortoise. Though grinning, Will admitted that he would have jumped too. We gringos can never be too sure of ourselves in an Amazonian swamp. Armed with band aids and rubbing alcohol, we were not exactly prepared to cure the nibble of an unfriendly fer-de-lance or any number of foreign bug bites, so we keep on our toes.

While hiking through the swamp, I was struck with the desire to take a photo so purely swampish that while I’m sitting at a computer killing time in a gray Kentucky January, I will feel like I’m breathing the heavy air of the swamp once again. Six hours and 200 photos later, I could still only hope that I had begun to capture the uncontained rapture I felt for the unique ecosystem. I cannot say for sure, but perhaps my attraction for the swamp stems from my childhood. On hot summer days I would don my favorite purple bathing suit and turn on the hose letting it dribble into the permanent mud puddle in the depression of the sidewalk from my suburban Midwestern home. I would play for hours, content to plop in the mud, covering my skin, and making monstrous faces at passerby’s walking to the park and professors driving to the neighboring University. My love for mud was followed by an interest in frogs and I was later nicknamed “wee toady” by my mother’s boyfriend, Paul, an ecologist. Canoe trips to swamps as a teenager always excited me as much as they unnerved me as I grew more aware of what actually lived in a swamp, but growing through my irrational fear, I find myself slopping through mud and swamps once again.

Caterpillar...1970's shag rug?

Dumping our boots in the ditch next to the laundry line, mud, insects, thorns, sticks, seeds, and a number of unidentifiable objects spilled out, the rest sticking to our pants and socks. We had arrived late for lunch, but covered plates waited patiently on the white and gray flecked tile counters of the cool kitchen and we eagerly plopped on the wooden benches of the comedor to devour the fried yucca, chicken, rice and chicha morada, a refresco made from purple corn. Full, hot, happy, and showered, we settled into our respective cabins to do what one does best during a hot Amazonian afternoon after a long day in the field: take a siesta.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

CM1 and the Miners

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Today started out with rain. Again.

I woke at 8:30 wondering why it was so late and when I turned over to look at my clock, I realized that I had set my alarm, but I had failed to actually turn it on. Thus, any chance of actually working with someone today was out of the question, and I was forbidden to walk alone, so I picked up a new book. Scanning the cover of “The Neotropical Companion” I decided that the thick paperback addressing natural history, flora, and fauna of the Amazon would easily keep me entertained for the morning—and if not entertained, at least educated.

The rain slowed around 10, and by lunch time it had disappeared completely, the sun pouring joyfully from large gaps in the clouds. Everyone was in a good mood. The laundry lines sagged with the weight of 40 peoples clothing drip drying in the humid air and the shouts of “A JUGAAARRRR” came from the cancha. I ran to my cabin to change into my filthy volleyball clothes and began to stir up my slow moving blood stream, jogging to the field. We played for an hour and I ran to the outdoor shower to clean my crawling skin of the collection of bee stings and bug bites with my razor which had accumulated during the game.

Walking back to my cabin, Karina spotted me and asked me to help her track the ocelot. Struggling into my damp, muddy, sweaty field clothes I grabbed my tall rubber boots and met her in the comedor. We set off immediately, walking toward Aerodromo and stopping to pick up faint signals with the GPS. I recorded each signal, it’s strength, location, and time. Using the data, and a trail map, we traversed Perro, Daniela, and Aerodromo, picking up strong signals at the intersection of Daniela and Perro in the woods. After three hours of rough trail slopping, and jogging in clear areas so we would not lose the signal, we called it quits and headed back to camp, the darkening sky chasing our tails.

We arrived in time for a sunset game of fútbol, and I hopped into my OTHER sweaty clothes for a quick game before dinner. The electricity had not been turned on, so there was nothing I could do except play. Sprinting, chasing my offender, and shooting at various intervals, I ran until my legs could go no more. The light had finally receded and I ran to my cabin for my towel. Jogging to the shower hut, I saw Will just ahead and we both raced for the showers, trying to win—the prize being the cleaner shower stall we took this seriously. He had a head start so stopped when he reached the shower and we bet the good shower on the outcome of a vigorous game of rock, paper, scissors. I lost instantly. Grabbing my soap, I headed for the second shower hut and went to dinner.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I took a photo yesterday. A good one. It was the kind of photo that made me shiver, no, tremble, knowing without having seen it that this photo was important and not just to me. I’ve never felt that way before today. I could be wrong, but everyone has their doubts when they get their hopes up. But when I watch people’s reactions, their gasp, raised eyebrows, Nigel’s questioning “I was there? I didn’t see that!” I know that something happened between my camera and I. I’ve taken some amazing photographs before, but they were different. The beautiful Guatemalan children, intricate Chinese and Mongolian architecture, and drab Turkish bakeries I’ve photographed are stunning—but they served no value other than as an aesthetic recording of my travels and their cultures. This time, it’s different.

Nigel and I walked down the rocky, uneven terrain of Carretera to go visit the mining camp just 40 minutes walking from the station. We were going to talk to them about the hunting that had been going on over the past week, but also so I could take some photographs. Hopefully something will come of this. Hopefully I will gain a purpose other than cheering the ACA website with yawning cayman and ruffled rufescent tiger herons yellow glares. Maybe I can help.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Today I woke at 5:15 for a quick yoga session. I had gone to bed at 8 the night before so I was wide awake and ready for a vigorous, blood pumping session. We worked our abs, held our stretches, and sank low on our thighs, letting our weight drop lower into the Warrior position with each exhalation. Wide awake and ready for my day, I went to breakfast and was greeted with the sights and smells of 30 plates of steaming eggs with squeaky Andean cheese, tomatoes, and green onions and toasted slices of Renata’s homemade bread. Eating enough for 2 ½ people, I gorged on eggs and bread with algarrobina, a fruity molasses from Piura, Diego’s homeland.

I continued to read about the gold mining process and picked up A Neotropical Companion for a quick lesson on rainforest ecology. I continued to edit the photojournalism story on the mining and hunting around CICRA. After lunch, I walked down to the river to cool my overheated body and hopefully catch sight of some white caiman. My eyes, now much more accustomed to spotting the camouflaged fauna of the forest spotted a 2 meter caiman basking in the sunshine 10 meters from the boats, nearly invisible in the pale gray brown sand. Though I have acquired some skill in spotting mammals and reptiles, I still see very little from day to day. Even with the help of another’s trained eyes, it’s still quite difficult to find the wildlife concealed in the foliage.

Black-faced hawk (possibly a hybrid because the black-faced hawk supposedly does not exist in this region...then again to have a hybrid would mean that a full-blooded bird would have to exist as well!).

At four, I returned to the station ready for a nap, as I was still too sticky and hot to do anything else. The comedor was quiet as I walked by, others having my same intentions, but Nigel’s voice called my name from the shadows of a chair in the corner, just out of my sight. He asked me to take Aña and Clark, two ecotourists visiting the station for the next four days, to the tower. Not wanting them to go out just before sunset without someone who knows the trails, I forfeited my nap for the unappealing task of ascending the 60 meter tower in the baking sun. However, I was interested in seeing the sunset from the vista 20 meters above the treetops so I didn’t drag my feet and was ready to go in ten minutes. Harnesses and climbing ropes in hand, we hit the trail at 4:30, setting a brisk pace so as not to miss the 5:30 sunset.

Aña and Clark were both unfamiliar with the anatomy of the harnesses, so I helped each strap, tie, and tighten the harnesses accordingly. Carefully looping safety knots for the steep ascension, I climbed first, reaching the top in about 4 minutes. Clark arrived several minutes later, and Aña was last. Sweaty, bug-bitten, and thirsty, the unfamiliar feeling of a breeze was heaven. The forest floor has no such thing as breezes and bugs are abundant, making sitting or standing in one spot for more than 2 minutes uncomfortably irritating unless one likes the sound of a cloud of mosquitoes whining in their ears.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I forgot to set my alarm again last night and I woke at 8:30 bathed in a thick pool of sweat. Walking to the bathroom to splash myself down in the cold water pouring from the tap, I began to feel the rumble of hunger echoing through my abdomen. The comedor was busy that morning, people writing papers, reading, and doing research. It was going to be a hot day, and those who were doing field work had already returned, soaking wet and smelly. I helped myself to leftover potatoes and onion sauce with rice. Still hungry, I returned to the kitchen for fruit, Renata’s homemade granola, and strawberry yogurt.

I spent the morning helping Nigel label photographs of birds with their Latin names for the ACA website. Though it was not difficult, it took patience since not all photos were labeled correctly. I was pleased to note that some of the photos were mine—next to the photos of famous photographers.

Road-Side Hawk

After lunch, I returned to my cabin to pack for my trip to CM1. I would be traveling with Claire Salisbury, Will Minehart, and Diego Olaechea to a research station just downriver from CICRA until Friday. We left at 4 and stopped for emergency supplies at Boca Amigos…aka chocolate wafers.

Keeping our eyes open for dusk loving wildlife, and admiring the glowing sunset which turned the murky river water pink, we pulled up to CM1 and climbed the stairs ascending the river bank. The station was just 100 meters from the river’s edge, making it far buggier than CICRA. As CICRA is at the top of a cliff, there are always slight breezes, barely felt, but just enough to keep the mosquito population at a tolerable level. Also the lack of shade around the buildings prevents much wildlife from entering the clearing—which as soon as I arrived at CM1, I realized was something to be appreciated. A prometor led us to the dorm, which was conveniently empty, except for its rumors about being haunted. The boys took a room across the hall from Claire and I, and we chatted loosely, donning more protective clothing and unpacking our bags. Will and Diego, machetes in hand, left to collect bamboo poles for the bird trapping in the morning. The poles would be used to hang the black bird nets.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

We woke at 5:45 and headed to the dining hall. Jerry was in the kitchen preparing eggs, rice, and broccoli for breakfast while Diego and I searched for water. We found two pitchers of liquid in the fridge and pulled them out for a closer inspection. The first was a fruity refresco, but the second was unidentifiable. It had no scent, but was a murky brown color: river water. Yes, golden brown, mercury laden river water is our drinking water here. We opted for refresco.

Diego lindo, de que estas pensando?

After breakfast, we walked to the first trail behind the dining hall and set up a dark net, almost invisible to the passerby and listened for ant birds returning their calls in response to the playback. A lucky morning for us, we caught a male and female in ten minutes. Claire untangled the female from the nets and began recording its size, took blood and feathers, and weighed it. Just as she was finishing, Will finally managed to untangle the male from the nets; however, as he did so, the slippery bird managed to escape from his clutches and our precious friend was lost to the understory. Fortunately, our luck did not wane and we managed to catch 3 more birds in four hours plus two species on accident. What a success! Four birds in a morning is quite lucky, especially since we started 1.5 hours later than we should have. Normally we leave at 5:30 and return by 11:30 since the birds are awake at sunrise and stop moving around 11 due to the baking humidity.

Their work, like that of most biological research, is uneventful, time-consuming, and unrewarding—that is until a goal has been met or another bird has been caught. As we sat and waited for over two hours, hoping that the white-lined antbird or the yellow subflava would indeed decide to defend its territory from the invisible caller, ants bit our thighs and dropped into our shirts from overhanging branches, mosquitoes whined in our ears, rain came and went, and we sweated. Sound appealing? If so, please, join us.

Yet, to be honest, I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Since the birds stop calling at 11, our work was finished, and we hiked back to camp for cold showers, clean (sort of) clothes, and lunch. The camp was quiet since the all the prometores, except Jerry had gone to CM2 and Jerry was planning on going to CICRA for the afternoon. After lunch, we returned to our cabin to read and sleep off the heat. It is 10 degrees hotter at this station as it’s just next to the river, unlike CICRA. The bugs are far more intense too.

As the sky began to darken, we wondered if Jerry was planning to return. It was dark by six and Will went downstairs to turn on the generator so we could go cook dinner. We knew we were supposed to wait for Jerry, but we were unsure of when he was planning to return and we were hungry. If you leave four hard-working researchers to their own devices in a camp, they will take care of themselves. However, just as we were entering the kitchen to do an inventory of the food, Jerry returned and shooed us out of his kitchen, startled at our audacious intention to cook our own dinner. An hour later, steaming plates of spaghetti with meat and tomatoes (no sauce) was ready to eat. We had water….it was translucent this time as someone had taken the time to filter the sand from the pitcher.

After dinner, we returned to our cabin and sprawled on our beds, analyzing bird calls, identifying sub-species of birds we had seen throughout the morning, writing, and reading until lights out at ten. The lights go out late here! However, the generator just died as I typed that last sentence, which means that lights are going out now: 8:00. Early to bed we go!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

We headed out at 6 this morning, but were stranded by a brief rain shower. None of us can work in the rain. I don’t want to risk damaging my camera and the birds hide, making it pointless to try and capture and record them. When it did stop, it was surprisingly cool, yet the birds were not cooperating. We set up nets twice before any success and when we did finally start to catch birds, it was on accident, when we were trying to clean up so we could go eat lunch. Arriving an hour late, Jerry was slightly miffed, but the soup was still hot, and the beans with ham, and avocado with tomatoes and onions hit the spot.

Moon Rising over the Madre de Dios at CM1. Mining camps can be seen in the distance.

The morning rain was starting to make the sunny air muggy, and with full stomachs, we showered and took a siesta. After waking, we read and walked to the benches, layered in clothing to survive the mosquitoes. The moon was full and was rising as the sun was setting creating a pink glow and providing fantastic photo opportunities. I walked away from the group and sat in silence next to the boats, waiting for the moon to reappear from behind the clouds. As soon as it did, a trail of light spilled across the length of the river, illuminating the distant mining shacks and the nearby motorized canoes belonging to the station.

Friday, July 18, 2008

We woke at five this morning, but not because our alarms were beeping frantically. Rain pounded on the roof, dripping off the palms and a slight mist floated silently into the room coating everything in the finest layer of humidity. We could not work in the rain since it would ruin the recordings of the ant bird’s vocalizations and I would risk damaging my camera. Happy that it was raining BEFORE, we dressed for the day’s work, Claire and I rolled over and fell asleep waking as soon as the rain slowed enough to consider working. Diego and Will rose early as usual, shaking the entire house despite their efforts to tiptoe as quietly as possible. Structures are not as solid here as they are at home…then again, this palm-thatched hut is giving my 200-year-old brick home a run for its money in terms of durability.

The rain finally slowed and we started to work, but we were fooled by the “sucker holes” in the clouds, the blue sky shining tantalizingly above the gray rain. Sure enough, we were shooed back under the cover of the kitchens and we waited, drinking coffee and reading to pass the time. At 8, we set foot on the trails and set up nets, but to no avail. Moving and setting up again about a mile from the station, we had much better luck and caught a bird almost immediately. Before we knew it, there were three birds in the net: a subflava, a cinnamon rumped foliage gleaner, and a red billed scythebill (yes, the redundancy is correct). Though we only wanted the first of the three, it was still exciting to catch the other birds as they were unique and curious to admire (and photograph).

White-lined antbird.

Claire and Will set to work measuring the subflava and taking data while Diego and I posed the other two birds for photos in the weak gray light. Just as I finished photographing the second bird, we heard the thunderous sound of a heavy downpour drenching the forest with the force of a fire hose. I ran to cover my book and put away my camera, and not a minute too late. Will and Claire finished recording data, while Diego and I took down the bird nets, carefully wrapping the ropes and fine mesh so that none of it tangled while remaining taught. Packed in minutes, we checked our watches and realized that we were going to be late for lunch—4 hours passes quickly in the field. More than happy to set off as the rain made us feel sluggish from the rising temperature due to the humidity, we quickly strode to the dining hall in 45 minutes and sat down for a hot lunch of rice, beef, and tomatoes.

Re-energized, we admiried a troop of red howler monkeys crawling quietly through the trees next to the kitchen. I began to follow them for a ways into the brush, but changed my mind, opting for a shower. However, just as I returned, I saw them heading near the showers and stopped to watch them still tempted to track them. Just then Will came over and we grinned at each other—time to follow some monkeys. We leapt and crawled carefully into the thick, thorny underbrush until we were under the tree where the great monkeys were feeding. Unable to see anything, Will shook some vines and imitated a hawk’s call in hopes of bringing the monkeys lower. Instead, they hid. We waited for 30 minutes, but to no avail, so we began the slow trek back to the cabin (even though it was only 100 feet away). On the way back, I saw a wonderfully tempting climbing tree lined with vines. Shedding my awkward rubber boots, I scaled them easily for the first 20 feet. Looking down, I realized the stupidity of my actions since there were no prometores at the station at the moment. Claire, Will, Diego, and I had been left to our own devices for the afternoon, so if something happened, we would be in trouble. Descending carefully, but with smiles, we returned to shower and pack.

At three, we walked to the river’s edge to flag down the Friday supply boat which would serve as our ride back to CICRA. The startling sound of an approaching boat interrupted the silence, but it wasn’t a CICRA boat. The boat belonged to a miner and he was landing on CM1’s dock along with two other men. The unknown men scaled the stairs and stood next to us chatting as if it were perfectly normal for a miner to be at a research station. Claire and I stayed quiet while Diego chatted lightly with them, hoping to catch wind of their reason for stopping without being invasive or rude. They asked if anyone was at the station and Diego said no, that we were the only ones—Claire visibly cringed. It was true, but I interrupted quickly, “reminding” him that a few of the men were on the trails near the kitchens. Diego smiled meekly at me and quickly agreed, shaking his head as if he just had a bad memory for details. Next, the men began to admire Diego’s fine birding binoculars and asked him how much they cost. Diego tried to avoid the exact price, saying that it was a gift, but they persisted and he said they were $100 dollars or so. I quietly pushed my camera case into the brush and picked up a machete, playing casually with it…. I didn’t feel threatened, but no one knew who these men were and why they were at CM1.

Awkwardly chatting with the men, everyone fell silent at the sound of a tremendous crashing just 20 meters from where we stood. A majestic 70 foot tree was falling at an epic rate down the steep embankment into the river. We all stood in awe, some of us examining our own surroundings wondering how many other trees would follow suite in this networked grouping of veins holding to each other for dear life. The silence that followed the crash seemed to leave an impression on everyone, and we remained silent, looking at the tree sinking into the water.

Finally we heard the sound of another boat, and peering into his binoculars, Diego delightedly announced the arrival of the CICRA boat. We began to wave at the boat, relieved at the idea that we would no longer have to worry about the miners (except that we didn’t know if we should just leave them at the station). However, Samuel, and the people on the boat just waved back as if delighted that we should come down to say hi. We began to run toward the edge of the shore, but the sweet, dimwitted boat-driver just kept driving. Now what?

So, we did the only thing we could do. Wait. With the anonymous miners.


An hour later the miners seemed to lose interest in us, the station, or whatever they had come for and left. We never knew what they wanted. They didn’t even seem interested in conversing with us as they kept to themselves for the majority of the time.

Minutes after their departure, we saw the CICRA boat upriver, empty, and heading in our direction. We waved vigorously, but stopped as soon as we saw it was Jerry with Lisseth and Edwin. Jerry had realized that Samuel had left us at CM1, so Lisseth and Edwin joined him for the pleasant boat-ride down to the station. The sun was stunning on the dark river water, shafts of light illuminating portions of the dark green forest. I rolled up my pants, pulled off my long sleeves, let down my hair, sat back, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the ride.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

“We’re going to do a necropsy on a huangana,” Mini said. “Would you be willing to help?”

Grinning dryly at the thought of dissecting a rotting three day old peccary, I jumped at the chance—I had yet to see these infamous wild pigs, the same which had bitten the leg of Travis in Old Yeller. Darting down the path to my palm thatched cabin, I collected my knee deep rubber boots, a long-sleeve shirt, my headlamp, and my trusty Nikon. In ten minutes, Susan Cousineau, Mini Watsa and I hit the trail for Cocha Lobo, a nearby oxbow lake where the dead huangana had been spotted. Setting a brisk pace down Carretera, we stopped cold, but just for a minute, at the sound of two thundering shots fired in the direction of our destination. Hunters.

Looking each other in the eye, we took a deep breath and continued our trek down the rocky hill, reaching the peccary in 30 minutes. It lay ten meters off the trail, hidden from sight but not from smell. Susan, quoting a Tom Robbin’s novel, broke out a small container of cinnamon, claiming that the scent was opposite that of death and coated our blue face masks with the light brown powder—as it turned out, neither she or Tom Robbins is completely crazy because I forgot about the horrid decay and instead confused my senses with a mix of dead peccary, sweat, cinnamon, and baby powder scented masks. Slicing through the thick skin and fat with the scalpel for blood, lung, and cervical samples proved to be difficult, so we ditched the small sharp blade for the brutish blade of the machete. Most of the blood had congealed and the spinal cord samples were poor as well, but this was not a problem as its cause of death was obvious. Unfortunately, we still needed to retrieve the samples.

Shot holes sprinkled over a stretch of intestine lining the pig’s side, and though we could not find the cold, man-made killers lodged in the mammal, nothing else could have made the multitude of perfect circles exposing the innards of the pig. I perked my ears to the sound of approaching footsteps, wondering who in the world had any desire to help us dissect the carcass. The footsteps stopped, but I could just make out a figure peering at us through the thick underbrush wondering who we were. “Hóla,” I called and a gruff voice responded. The man decided the three girls were harmless and he strode boldly past. As he did, Mini and Susan became aware of his presence and stood up just in time to see him laboring under the weight of a large huangana and an awkward shotgun. Mini, a petite Indian woman, displayed her spunk, clenching her fists in a death grip and turning red at the sight of the hunter. So intimidated by Mini’s well founded anger (for she could very easily be mistaken for a huangana while tracking her Tamarin monkeys), I forgot about the hunter. No one spoke for several minutes as we finished our work and returned to the station with photos, samples, and stories.

My first days at the station were full of the sights and sounds of young children performing traditional Peruvian dances, a 24 foot anaconda basking in the marshy reeds of a tea-colored pozo, researchers diligently tracking Tamarin monkeys and ant-birds, and fútbol games every day at 5. It’s a haven here at CICRA, but even the most isolated oasis cannot escape social and economic adversity. A flock of batty scientists mindlessly crashing through the thick brush at ungodly hours of the day could easily be mistaken for the tasty flesh of a peccary, creating a preventable danger in addition to the perilous flora and fauna of the shadowy jungle.

Several days later, Nigel Pitman, CICRA’s research coordinator, and I visited the neighboring mining camp where the hunters resided, just 30 minutes from our doorstep at CICRA. The camp consisted mostly of Cusqueños, men from the Inca capital, Cusco, who flock to Amazonian havens such as the Río Madre de Díos to mine for the alluvial gold blended discreetly in the sandy banks of the river and forest soils. Miners such as Juan, leave Cusco for four months each year to work in the mining camps and provide a supplementary income to their businesses. We met Juan as he was gently mixing mercury with the sandy particles of gold in a small tin bowl and he explained the steps he was taking to finalize the extraction process. His dark skin contrasted with his bright red soccer shorts, rubber boots, and simple watch. A baseball cap obscured his eyes, but he looked to the sky and light shone on his face when speaking with Nigel as he towered over him. Smiling as he chatted with us, he explained that he had been mining in the Madre de Dios for 28 years.

As we broke through the cover of the secondary forest, we were greeted with a stirring view, more reminiscent of a World War II battle scene than the pristine verdure of the jungle lining the river. Forty foot pits carved into the skin of the earth yawned widely at the anxious knots forming on our brows. Smoke drifted casually from the edge of the forest where three laborers were clear cutting the grand ficus and rubber trees. Not wanting to arouse suspicion from the men, we began a slow trek over the fallen trees and around the spiny palms toward the camp. Nigel’s long legs leapt easily over the thick branches and tree trunks while I stumbled and climbed clumsily, panting to keep up, running into various spines and wasps along the way. I finally reached his side as we looped around the last pit filled with water pumps for knocking the gray soil loose from the steep banks of the hole. Smoke filled the pits and I turned to snap a photo before a new sight distracted my darting eyes. Feeling a sudden chill as I looked through my viewfinder, I knew this photograph would be significant.

Hydraulic pumps are used to excavate and loosen soil in the first part of the mining process.

Tiptoeing across a fallen tree used as a bridge between the village and the mining pits, we entered the camp. It consisted of small 14 by 14 ft. (5 by 5 meters) shacks whose walls consisted of blue tarps that blocked the eyes of the passerby from the activity under the palm-thatched roofs. Approaching a group of men devouring lentils with red onions and rice, crammed on a rickety wooden table under the watchful eyes of a mothering wife (or perhaps just an industrious cook), we greeted them with smiling eyes and “Buenos tardes”. Some, mouths full, only grunted and nodded, acknowledging our presence, while others seemed to know Nigel and came to shake his hand, returning the greeting. Nigel’s voice, soft spoken and unhurried, commanded a certain degree of respect among the Peruvian workers, and wrinkling his eyes, he asked (not for the first time) that the men hunt outside of the CICRA concession. Everyone listened, knowing that if others spoke he would not be heard over the din of another conversation. Even the dogs stopped their vociferous barking. Despite the appearance of their unhesitant “claro” and “sí” responses delivered in Nigel’s presence, we can only hope that the message will be conveyed and the men will stop hunting on CICRA land as they agreed to do so serenely each time under Nigel’s paternal gaze.

He asked if we could walk around the camp, and one man, apparently a leader, though only in a naturally acquired sense, nodded. We thanked them and set off, walking to the edge of the camp, winding around the piles of gravel back toward the cavernous pits. Just as we reached the edge of camp, four dogs came bounding after us, and the largest of the four leapt and wrapped his solid jaws around my calf. Just before he broke skin, I landed a swift kick on his jaw. Snarling once again at my retreating back, he stood his ground, but did not advance, feeling my bold decision of using my sturdy hiking boots to defend myself. Nigel, smiling grimly, said that the dogs were a necessary precaution for the miners. The price of gold is soaring, and miners are pouring into the region to collect the lucrative flecks of metal from the sands of the Madre de Díos. Bandits rob the mining camps hoping to make a profit off the tired backs of the slaving miners. Thus, the aggressive dogs (such as the pit bull in the next camp and the muzzled Rottweiler in Boca Amigos) show that both the miners and the bandits mean business.

Along the river banks of the Madre de Dios, one can observe ingenio, the simple 2-6 man mining process favored in this region. Men dump wheelbarrows of rocky, gold-containing sediment into sluices lined with deposition cloth. Gold sticks to the cloth while diesel water pumps wash the unwanted debris off the sluice. Placing the cloth in barrels, mercury is added, and the miners stomp vigorously on the thick fabric to loosen the heavy metals. “Mercury amalgamates the gold, that is, binds to it but leaves most other metals and impurities behind” (Goulding 45). The mercury is then separated from the gold by heating it, evaporating the substance and releasing noxious fumes. The gold, ready to sell or trade, is readily accepted at banks in exchange for money, general stores for gasoline and equipment, and unfortunately, at bars in exchange for Cusqueñas, a nationally popular, low-cost beer.

As Nigel and I looped around the barbaric excavation, we neared the smoldering piles of ash and fallen trees where the men were clear-cutting. Nigel cringed, and with a melancholy look, pointed to the remains of a research trail buried under accumulating soot. The men were cutting directly into the concession of protected land yet there is little Nigel can do from his post in the rainforest except to beg the miners to go elsewhere. Though CICRA owns the land, the miners have “underground rights”. Despite the fact that every inch of life 25 meters above and below ground (not to mention what’s downstream) is destroyed to obtain the gold, the Peruvian government avoids confronting this discrepancy in its natural resources policy. CICRA and the Amazon Rainforest need a new policy which faces this concern at both local and national levels in order to avoid future annihilation; harder yet, the need for resources to enforce this change is in demand as well. Being 5-6 hours by boat from the nearest small town and 3 hours from any police, the station is forced to take matters into its own hands (though with considerable tact). This very week, the regional capital building of Puerto Maldonado was stormed and burned by 5,000 Peruvians during a 6 day strike—the majority of the strikers were miners. Yet, it would be unfair to call these men dangerous. They are like any other man, raising a family or leading an independent life, but with few resources and taxing conditions. Miners cannot be blamed for resorting to destructive practices to bring home bread. Unfortunately, a lack of man-power and resources to address these issues and advocate for change at a governmental level makes this emotionally charged topic extremely difficult to undertake.

Leaving the mining camp to return to CICRA for lunch, Nigel spotted bananas ready for harvesting and made a note to tell Jorge to fetch them as we had forgotten a machete. Two hours later, intending to retrieve the bananas, Jorge encountered a hunter from the mining village pursuing the distant sound of barking huanganas….

Goulding, Michael, et al. Amazon Headwaters: Rivers, Wildlife, and Conservation in Southeastern Peru”. Lima: Amazon Conservation Association, 2003.

This grows all over the place. It's a plant called cat's claw and it's valued for its medicinal properties. Ethnobotanists go wild over this stuff.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Flor de Alaconia

Insecto Extrano cerca del Torre

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I woke at 5 for an hour long yoga session. It was chilly and damp from yesterday’s rain, so the systematic stretching and flexing of muscles allowed me to quickly fight off the oncoming chill that hoped to settle in my bones. It proved to warm me quite a bit as I’ve been sitting and reading in shorts for three hours while everyone else is wearing wool sweaters and pants.

It’s pouring again, so there’s no sense in taking photos. Alas..another reading day.

Plant with Dew...5:30 a.m.

Mariposa on Carretera! By the way..I've seen over 20 Morpho butterflies, but they're impossible to photograph since they move quickly and close their wings when they do land.

Monday, July 07, 2008

This morning I woke at 4:30 in a cold sweat and couldn’t fall back asleep. I crawled out of bed searching for my headlamp to scan the floor before I touched my bare feet to its surface. Slipping into my linen pants and cotton shirt, I went to the classroom and began to take deep breaths, beginning my day with a vigorous yoga session. After working for an hour, feeling energized yet relaxed, I strode into the comedor and ate a quick bowl of granola and yogurt before grabbing my camera and walking to the mirador to watch the light change with the coming of day. Cautiously treading the path of brazil nuts, I turned on my headlamp and stepped off the path so as not to wake the people in the cabins lining the trail. As soon as I arrived at the mirador, I switched off my headlamp and covered myself in my sarong and jacket from head to toe to protect my skin from the cloud of accumulating mosquitoes. The howler monkeys roared from a short distance, perhaps near Plataforma, and I quietly listened to them call to the sun. Oropendulas swung from branch to branch, emitting their chaotic variety of vocalizations, from the sound of water dripping to a shrill twitter that travels for miles waking all at the camp.
Pluma and Jesus at Boca Amigo

Tired of being bitten by mosquitoes, I tiptoed into the library and began to write. Nigel asked me to write a story relating to the hunting and disease concerns around the huanganas, so as soon as I felt a sudden urge to write, I knew I had to start immediately, or I would lose the feeling in minutes. Sure enough, I began to tap my keys furiously, my hands barely keeping up with my train of thought. Thirty minutes later, I stopped dead—in part because my laptop battery had died and also because I could smell Don Pascual and Raúl cooking eggs for breakfast. Walking downstairs just as the serving window opened, I received my steaming plate of fried eggs and Renata’s homemade bread with a mandarin orange.

At 10, Brian and I decided to wander to Segunda Mirador for a 3 hour hike to search for birds. Walking quietly, and conversing in low tones, we had no such luck. At the mirador, we looked down upon Cocha Raya and watched a white heron and two horned screamers (birds) tiptoe through the mud flats of the nearly dry oxbow lake. Turning back to camp, we meandered across Sobrevuelo to Aerodromo. In the open air of the retired landing strip, we took deep breaths and looked at the trees on the other side of the strip that took 10 minutes to walk to.Devouring a platter of lentils and stuffed chile peppers, I wandered to the dam to take an outdoor shower in the jungle and then back to my cabin for an afternoon siesta. Waking to the sounds of an aggressive volleyball game, I climbed out of bed and wandered into the comedor for a snack and started to read more about the gold mining process undertaken by the local miners. I was curious to learn more since Nigel plans to take me to a mining village tomorrow morning. There we will speak with the miners about their hunting habits and I’ll hopefully be able to take some photos.

Phantom Hands (Woodland Creeper)

After reading for two hours, I caught a strong whiff of fresh rain and was surprised to see the clouds dumping buckets of rain on our heads. It has not rained in two weeks, so the rain smelled immensely refreshing. As soon as the rain stopped, Will and I put on our walking shoes, grabbed a headlamp and went on a late afternoon walk to primer mirador to watch for birds and caiman. It was late dusk by the time we arrived at the mirador and we sat for a few minutes, observing the river in utter silence. Alas, we saw nothing apart from the general beauty of the forest after a fresh rain. Sitting on a log, it was easy to remain still in hopes of catching sight of movement both near and far, but something took a large bite of my upper thigh causing me to leap up and yelp in pain. We decided to return back to the station, walking as far as we could without using a headlamp in order to conserve batteries and observe the bats swooping centimeters from our noses. We walked in darkness for about 15 minutes, but it became too dark to function without risking stepping on snakes or breaking our ankles on loose roots, so I reluctantly turned on my headlamp and we returned just in time for the first course: hot soup.

Black Caiman, Cocha Lobo (Oxbow Lake)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

No one had a full night’s rest last night. Rain came at 2 a.m. and again at 4, roaring through the dense tree cover as heavily as a falling tree. Even the heaviest sleeper (i.e. me) could not ignore such a sensation of fresh air inundating the peaceful cabaña. Mosquito net flapping in the heavy wind, I curled under my sheet to avoid the spray of fresh water that filtered through the dusty screens of my cabaña.

Waking on my own at 5:30, I crawled from my bed and put my shoes and warm clothes in my backpack, and walked barefoot to the library in the dribbling rain. The sky had an eerie orange tinge and the old anecdote, “red sky in morning” popped into my head as it did whenever I saw such a sky. The classic phrase held true to its word because no sooner than I had stepped foot into the library, than the sky began dumping buckets of rain which would have soaked me in seconds. We will not go to the mining village today…maybe Friday if it’s sunny. Hopefully the sun will coincide with Nigel’s schedule.

"Friendly" doing a traditional dance at Boca Amigo...yes, her name is Friendly..there's also a girl named Blanca (white), Negra (black), and Chinita (little Chinese girl). I don't know.

I joined a group of students traveling with a program called “Where there be Dragon’s” to go search for orchids on a fallen tree near Yuguntoro. We had no luck finding orchids, but we did run into a family of 10 saddleback tamarins. The students went ballistic, taking photos and whispering excitedly at their first sight of a mammal in the Amazon. The guide, though well versed in Amazonian flora and fauna, was not familiar with the CICRA trails so I led them back on a new trail for some different sights other than those on primer mirador.

After lunch, I put on my boots and did a 2 hour loop by myself, walking from Carrizo to Jean to Perro and then to Aerodromo…at least that was the plan. Despite the fact that I can read a map and despite my strong sense of direction, whenever I’m alone I always end up somewhere other than where I had intended to go. I don’t actually get lost and it still takes me the amount of time to hike that I predicted, but I just end up in random places.