Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How my life became like that Seinfeld episode where George pretends to be a marine biologist

It started out of the blue, with just a simple “Welcome to Colorado” message from my dissertation advisor, who had heard that we’d moved here.  Then there was a chain of emails, a family trip to his cabin in the mountains, and now all of a sudden, I’m about to leave for Nicaragua to collect data for a project he and some colleagues have been working on the last several years.

It’s a pretty good deal for everybody, right?  I get a trip back to Nicaragua, they get somebody who knows the area, who knows where to find the monkeys, and who can (comparatively easily) collect the necessary data to continue their study on wild primate health in different forest types.


Except I feel, for all the world, like that Seinfeld episode where George pretends to be a marine biologist.  Remember the one?  He is walking along the beach with his date, who is impressed by his supposedly successful career, and then they come upon the unthinkable— a beached whale.  Someone in the crowd yells out, “Is anyone here a marine biologist?”  George, unable to give up the ruse, wades into the ocean.

Of course, I actually was a primate behavioral ecologist in my previous life (i.e., about 5 years ago), I did my year-long dissertation research at the exact field site I’m returning to (spending over 1,300 hours following around these monkeys), and for crying out loud, I have a PhD in this stuff.  If anyone can find the monkeys and collect the data, it should be me, right?  

But that doesn’t stop my anxiety, or rather, abject fear, about whether or not I can do it.

We decided that the whole family would go along, to provide emotional and logistic support as necessary.  And also, I am just outright unwilling to leave my son for the ~11 days this trip will take.  Or even one day, for that matter (I’ve only been away from him overnight one time, and it was horrifying).  Besides.  If I were gone, Rob would have to take time off work anyway because we don’t have any other childcare.  And as long as he’s taking vacation time, I figured, he might as well go on an actual, sort of, vacation.

We leave a week from today, and I am feeling completely overwhelmed by everything I have to take care of in the meantime.  As in, I’m kind of paralyzed and catatonic and don’t even know where to begin.  In terms of the project, everything seems squared away— I’ve got the supplies I need, I’ve gone over the protocol with the principal investigators, I have the proper permits to conduct the research, and I know (roughly) the locations in the forest where I need to collect samples (i.e., feces… no monkeys will be harmed in any way for this project).  But otherwise, I am kind of a wreck.  I need to somehow figure out a way to clear my mind so I can at least make a list of what I need to pack.

Bugspray, field clothes, sunscreen.  Any kind of medication we could need (Tylenol, Benedryl?), stuff to put on bug bites.  Snacks.  What am I going to take out to the forest to eat while I am out searching for monkeys?  It could take all day.  I wasn’t vegan when I did my dissertation research, and I used to take out sandwiches, but now that isn’t an option because they make the bread with butter.  Can I take enough Clif Bars to get me through the trip?  What if Will refuses to eat anything while we are there?  He’s been to Nicaragua twice (very minimal eating both times), but this time we’ll be there longer.

I need hiking boots.  I was going to just take my New Balance WT 1010v2’s (trail running has made me pretty confident that I can hack around in the forest in these shoes), but as of last weekend, they now have a big, gaping hole in the toe box.  Great.  It’s the rainy season.  I’m probably just going to take these shoes anyway (too late to order a new pair, and besides, the expense), so I’m steeling myself for the prospect of walking around with wet, muddy feet for 11 days.

And speaking of running.  About the time that this whole trip came about, I had just signed up for the Bear Chase 50 Miler at the end of September.  Now I’m faced with the prospect of basically taking ~2 weeks off during what should be prime training days.  I realize, theoretically, there is nothing stopping me from running while on Ometepe.  But the project takes priority.  I’ll be getting up before dawn, trying to find the monkeys at first howl, and out with them all day, just waiting for them to poop.  Maybe I could get all this done and run in the afternoons (evenings would not be feasible, it gets dark by 6pm), but that would still entail getting chased by dogs and adolescent boys, which is why I pretty much didn’t run the entire year I lived there.  Oh well.  Hopefully traipsing around the jungle during the days will keep me conditioned, and I can jump back into big mileage once I get back home.

But back to the real, actual, project.  

I feel like in many ways, this is combining ultra trail running and science.  It’s exciting.  Two things I can sort of do, and I get to put them to use.  But there is the overwhelming fear that I might not find the monkeys, that I might not get the samples my collaborators need, that it might be a huge waste of everyone’s time and money.  Having help out in the forest will be critical for this to be successful, I think, but that is something I cannot really arrange ahead of time.  I sent some inquiries to see if Simeon would be able to come out with me and help me tunnel through the jungle, but I haven’t heard anything back.  There’s also Eduardo, of course.  We were texting last night, and he said he could help me find monkeys.  That’s great.  But in reality, he is back in school (yay), in a village that is an hour and a half away from the place where I need to collect samples.  Hm.  Maybe not so feasible.

This is really the kind of thing Rob would excel at—speeding up rocky terrain where there are no trails, navigating by the sound of the monkeys’ vocalizations, not getting lost on the way back down.  You know, ultra running meets science.  We’d be quite a team.  But Rob will probably have to be back at the field station, trying to get some work done and looking after Will.  We’ll see.  They have a kindergarden and preschool in the village, plus I know people who would look after Will for a while, but I’m not sure he would be comfortable with that.  He was very shy and scared the last time we were in Nicaragua (when he was 3), and he still refers to that time I left him with Reina, a strange lady he didn’t know and who spoke only Spanish.  

I keep trying to minimize the panic by remembering something Cousin Don told me before I ran my first ultra: “Nothin’ to fear. It’s only runnin’.”  The same applies in this scenario too, even though it’s not exactly running.  Nothing to fear, it’s only going out into the forest.  It’s only being calm and quiet and patient, waiting and watching for the monkeys.  I’ll find them eventually.  It is what I spent a year of my life doing, while I was collecting my dissertation data.  Of all the things in the world, it might be the one thing I am actually capable of accomplishing.

And that’s why I can’t turn down this opportunity, even though it is stressing me out to such an extent that I feel like vinegar is running through my veins instead of blood.  I’m Melissa.  I’m badass.  I can do this.

Thanks for reading.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Take some deep breaths !!! You won't be like George!! There won't be any beqched whales near you!! look at it this way!! It is for only a few days, not a year!! You can handle it!!! Relax! Enjoy! and when you are thru , you get to go home to the. Mountains!!! Stay safe! Luv mama