Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nicaragua 2014: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Simeon came out again with me again on Sunday (I think he skipped church for this), and I had high hopes of collecting data on two groups.  As I walked to his house in the dark, I could hear monkeys howling loudly from every direction.  Typically this means it's going to rain.  Although I didn’t look forward to a rainy day in the forest, rain would be a very good thing for the island because they were going through a pretty severe drought.  The sendero up to the monkeys should have been a river at this time of year, but it was parched.  I’d only seen one of the red/yellow spiders that are usually everywhere from June to October (Simeon told me these spiders are so poisonous that one bite will kill you, then he laughed and said, “Mentira!”).  There weren’t even a lot of mosquitoes.  

It turned out we only got a light shower early in the morning.  During the rain, Simeon found the group we were looking for, and we stayed with them for a few hours until I got enough samples.

Then we went down the volcano a little bit to try to find the North Group, which was (let’s be honest) my favorite study group during the year I did my dissertation research.  Simeon and I reminisced about Wrinkle Belly (who hasn’t been seen since 2007), and we found the group right along the camino just as we knew we would.  They were having an intergroup encounter with some other group (who I suspect swept in from a distant grove of mango trees), and they were pooping like crazy.  Score.  The forest began to make sense to me again, and we got our samples.  By 10am (after 5 hours of work), we had collected data on two groups.  Because it was a Sunday and we were exhausted and finally making some good progress, I decided we should call it a day.

When I got back to the hacienda, they told me that Rob and Will had just left for Ojo de Agua with some of our friends.  

Truck ride

It would probably be late in the day when they returned by bus.  For a split second, I thought, great: I will eat lunch, wash some clothes, and sleep.  But then I had a better idea: I will run over to Ojo de Agua (it was what… 12, 15 km away?) and meet them there.  This might be my only chance to run while in Nicaragua.

I put about 50 ounces of water and some Clif Bars in my pack and took off, in the heat of the day.  It didn’t bother me much, because the views were amazing.

IMG 3716 View of Concepción

IMG 3717 Playa Santo Domingo

When I finally arrived at Ojo de Agua, Rob said, “Oh my god, what happened to your legs?”  I looked down and saw I had dozens and dozens of bug bites covering my calves from knee to ankle.  I realized this must have happened while I was washing clothes on Saturday.  I often get one or two of these bites (chiggers maybe?) while doing laundry, but I’d never had anything like this before.  All of a sudden I didn’t feel so great.  I jumped into pool and the water helped a lot.

I’d put myself into the red zone quite a bit during the last few kilometers to Ojo de Agua, and although I’d drank about 100 ounces of water throughout the day, I’d only eaten less than 200 calories.  We went over to the restaurant and ordered the only meatless thing on the menu:  french fries.  Rob also found me some real, actual coconut water, which was both weird and great.

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The 4:00pm bus came at 3:42, but luckily we caught it.

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Bus ride home

I was so hungry I was about to cry, but dinner options were limited.  

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My legs got really inflamed during the night, and they itched so bad I felt like I was going to lose my mind.  I honestly wasn’t sure if I could make it to the forest in the morning, but I’d already arranged it with Simeon, and I needed the data.

We went to the Beach Forest—a little patch along the road where we’d heard monkeys the day before.  It is pretty dense in there, and we had trouble finding the monkeys, but eventually Simeon did.  

As we watched the monkeys and waited for them to do their business, Simeon’s phone rang.  He got the news that his cousin had fallen from a tree and was gravely injured.  The family needed money to get him to a hospital, fast.  Simeon didn’t want to leave me alone in the forest and seemed torn about what to do.  But seriously.  He was the only family member with money, and he needed to go. I handed him the rest of what I owed him and assured him I would be fine on my own.  He said he would come back as soon as they got a car for his cousin.

After Simeon left, I passed the time by counting the chigger bites on my legs and torso.  I lost count at 100 and didn’t really feel like starting over again.

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At last the monkeys pooped, and I managed to get the samples I needed.

I took one last parting glance at the monkeys, packed up my stuff, and began to tunnel out of the forest.  I hadn’t really expected Simeon to return but he did.  We met just as the forest gave way to road.

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By this point, Simeon and I had collected data on 7 groups (5 had been our target), and I had close to the maximum amount of samples I could ship back to the US under the current permit situation.  As far as I was concerned, this project was over.  I probably could have done a better job with it, but I was in desperate need of food and sleep and in searing discomfort from the 100+ chigger bites covering my legs.  This was it.

IMG 3744 There would be thunder and lightening, but only a few drops of rain.


IMG 3748 And then, sunset.

I went back to the hacienda and slept.  And slept and slept.  Waking up only to scratch my legs into burning, blistered, and horrifically swollen little infernos.

The next morning, I did not go out to the forest.  I ate breakfast (gallo pinto and fruit) and took Will to kindergarden.


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Then I went back to sleep.  I think Rob woke me up to eat something for lunch.  And then I went back to sleep again.

Before I knew it, the sun was setting, and I was still lying in the hammock.

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After a non-nutritive dinner of over-boiled white pasta drenched in oil, I decided I was done with Mérida.  I think my collaborators would have liked it if I went back out to get more data, but I just couldn’t face it.  My legs felt terrible, I was jagged-skinny from lack of eating, and above all, I was exhausted.  I decided that we were going to go back to Moyogalpa the next morning on the 8:30am bus (the only reliable bus of the day).  The eating situation was unlikely to improve there (I’ve never had much luck with food in Moyogalpa), but if I was too messed up to go back out to the forest, I just felt like I’d rather be in the “city” than on this side of the island.

We packed up our stuff and got ready to leave the next morning.  There was some confusion as to where and when the 8:30 bus would be coming (it arrived closer to 9), so this was a welcome sight when it finally appeared down the road.

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At last, Moyogalpa.  

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We got a room at Hotelito Aly, a place where I’ve had many uncomfortable nights (the power often goes out in Moyogalpa, so you’re in a 90 degree room without a fan), but is somehow still my favorite place to stay.  Then we did the gringo thing and got a hummus sandwich at the gringo place, Cornerhouse.  It came with a salad that included some dark leafy greens.  That was nice.

Rob tried to work for the rest of the afternoon, while Will and I went to a museum (it was kind of in somebody’s backyard; seriously, we had to walk past a bunch of women doing laundry at a wash basin).  The museum mainly had a lot of pre-Columbian funerary urns and things like that. Then I bought Will a clay bird (that is also a little flute) at a shop in town.

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IMG 3767 View of Moyogalpa from Hotelito Aly, Volcan Concepción obscured by clouds

I had a Victoria at dinner that night, but I didn’t feel too victorious.  Also: how did I used to like this stuff?  I guess once you’ve had Rocky Mountain IPA, nothing else can quite compare.

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We took the ferry back to the mainland the next morning and then a taxi to Managua.  I still had to do two big things for the project, which were: 1) ship the samples back to the US -and- 2) fill out some paperwork at the ministry of the environment.  I was really nervous about both of these things, so I made Rob and Will come with me.  It ended up fine, I think.

IMG 3775Running errands in Managua.  This is the Pan-American highway.

There was a Subway restaurant at the airport across from the hotel (my how times have changed since I first started going to Nicaragua), and even though I hate Subway, it was the closest thing we could get to fresh vegetables.  We ate it for 4 meals in a row out of desperation. 

IMG 3779Running across the Pan-American highway with Subway sandwiches for dinner.

I also got a text from Eduardo, who told me he was sorry that he hadn’t come back to go to the Cascada with me.  He was sick.  I didn’t know what that meant— like a cold?  Or like something really serious?  I hoped the former.  I was glad I got to see him for a little while, though sad that was all it ended up being.

The next day, I managed to connect with Leda, who lives in Managua with her husband now.  It took them 2 hours and numerous bus changes all within the city, but they came for a visit.

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After Leda and her husband left (it would be another 2 hour bus ride for them to get back to where they lived), Will and Rob and I went to the hotel pool.

IMG 3783 Nica Libre = rum + coke + lime

IMG 3787 More french fries.  And by this point, I could totally see how ketchup qualifies as a “vegetable."


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We woke up before 5am the next morning to catch our plane.  On the second leg of our journey (Houston to Denver), there was some bad weather.  The Denver airport ended up closing down due to severe thunderstorms, and we were diverted to Colorado Springs, where we sat on the tarmac for over 2 hours and then had to refuel.  We finally arrived in Denver about 4.5 hours late, then had to take a shuttle bus to our car, and then drive about an hour home.  It was after 11pm when we arrived.  What a day.


I’ve been out of the jungle for about a week now, and the jagged-skinny has gone away (yay, food!), but the exhaustion has not.  My legs are getting better too; the swelling has gone down and the itching is much more bearable.  At this point, I’m pretty sure I’ll survive.  This trip took a lot out of me, but I am so, so glad that I had the chance to do it, and I am so thankful that Rob and Will could come along.  I am also grateful to Simeon for coming out to the forest with me everyday; none of the data collection would have been possible without him.

I’d like to go back to Nicaragua again soon, whenever we have the chance.  But maybe next time we could go to one of those fancy resorts on the beach in Santo Domingo.  I hear they’ve got a vegetarian restaurant there.

Thanks for reading.

Nicaragua 2014: I may be too old, too vegan for fieldwork

Of all the trips I have taken to Nicaragua in my lifetime, this one definitely ranks in the top 5 most stressful.  After several years away from doing field research, I wondered if I still had it in me.  The only way I could deal with it was to approach this project as though it were an ultra marathon.  Packing involved a mix of eppendorf tubes, pipettes, Clif Bars, Gu, and Tailwind.  I made sure to put everything essential in my carry-on.  You never know when your checked luggage just won’t make it to Managua.

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I wore the hat I planned on giving to Eduardo.

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TSA confiscated my jar of peanut butter—the thing I’d been planning on to sustain me for ~7 days in the jungle—but they failed to notice my Peanut Butter Gu, peanut-containing Clif Bars, and an actual peanut butter sandwich we had packed in Will’s carry-on for him to eat for lunch.  

We had a shitty 2 plane rides, an uncomfortable night in Managua, a frenetic taxi ride to Rivas the next morning, and a gut-wreching ferry ride with a bunch of loud, chain smoking French tourists.  Still green around the gills from the boat (it was a very windy day and the lake was rough), I climbed into another hot taxi for a ~2.5 hour drive to Mérida.  On the way, I saw Simeon in the back of a plantain truck and we waved at each other.  Good to know he was still in town.

We arrived in Merida about 1 or 2 in the afternoon, and pretty much immediately, I got my field gear ready and went out to the jungle.  My predecessor on this project had done most of the work on her own (and all of it without local help); I wanted to see how feasible it would be for me to work solo as well.

Start with the low-hanging fruit.  I went to the forest I knew well, the one where I had done my dissertation research and logged over 1300 hours with the monkeys.  It was weird and everything looked different.  The gringos who began building an eco-lodge in 2007 (recall: their endeavors inadvertently killed Scooby and his mom) have expanded.  My trails were of course all gone.  The forest has had 7 more years to regenerate.  Nothing seemed the same.  But.  I found the monkeys, and even though Uno has most likely left this world, I was as sure as anything that it was the South Group.

I watched the monkeys and waited.  The objective of this project is to investigate howler health and nutrition by looking at the composition of gut microflora in their fecal samples.  Yes, feces.  My job was to collect monkey poop.  In all honestly, I had thought that finding the monkeys in each of the 5 forest locations I was supposed to sample would be the hard part, and that collecting the poop would be easy.  Howlers poop, it’s what they do.  And typically the way they do it is that the entire group poops at the same time, and then they get up and move.  I had been confident that if I could only find the monkeys, the poop would come easily.

Not so.  The monkeys were incredibly spread out (like 1 or 2 monkeys every 20-50 meters), and that made collecting the necessary 6 poop samples per group difficult.  I could only watch a couple of monkeys at a time, and even if I managed to see them poop, I had no idea where the poop of the other group members went.

Plus, it was the rainy season.  The vegetation is dense.  The forest is full of vines.  I quickly observed that in the case of arboreal primates, their poop sometimes doesn’t even hit the ground but rather lands on mats of leaves several meters above my head.

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I had a panic attack.  There was no way I was going to be able to do this.

I left the forest just before it got dark and scary, and I went to Simeon’s house.  I surprised myself with how well I could speak Spanish when I needed to.  I explained the project and that I needed his help and somehow arranged for him to come out with me at 5am the next morning.

Then I went back to the hacienda, and while we were eating dinner, I got a surprise visit from Eduardo.  He had ridden the bus from Altagracia (he lives there with his grandparents now and is finishing high school), and he came back to Mérida just to see us.  He had to catch a bus at 4am the next morning to make it back in time for his classes.

I couldn’t stop hugging him.

I gave him the hat.  We made plans for him to come back again on Friday evening, and then on Saturday he and I would get up early and go to the Cascada to find the monkeys up there.  I was so happy to see him.

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IMG 3683 All of us were together, even if just for a little while.  Love you forever, Eduardo.

The next morning came early, and I walked to Simeon’s in the dark.  We went up the camino and found the monkeys near where I’d left them the evening before (I do love the way howlers are so predictable).  We got 2 poop samples by 6am.  I felt a little better about the feasibility of the project, but we still needed 4 more samples from this group.  All we could do was wait and wait and wait for the monkeys to eat and poop again.  

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The group was so spread out, and visibility was poor.  We managed to get our 6 samples by about 3 in the afternoon (note, this is 10 hours out in the forest), but damn it was hard.  I realized that if it was this hard to get samples in the forest that I knew, it would be impossible for me to get samples, by myself, in the forests that I didn’t.  I couldn’t do this without Simeon.  I told him I’d pay him whatever his usual salary was (he’s a volcano guide) if he came out with me for the week.  He agreed.

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I went back to the hacienda, exhausted and so hungry I couldn’t even feel it anymore (I’d only eaten a Mojo Bar and 200 calories of Tailwind all day), and then spent a precarious night worrying about whether or not we’d be successful at the Cascada the next morning.

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Eduardo did not return to Mérida, and this concerned me.  That kid’s word is as good as gold.  I hoped it was just a misunderstanding about the date/time of our trip up to the waterfall and we’d get it all sorted out later.

I was at Simeon’s house by 4:30 in the morning, and we walked for an hour in the dark towards San Ramon (~5km away).  He was fascinated by my Petzl headlamp.  Just as the sun rose we began trekking up a little sendero towards the cascada.  We moved very quickly, and it was tough.  It felt like Towers.  I was acutely aware that I had eaten next to nothing for the last 3 days.

We found a small group of monkeys fairly early along the sendero.  They were eating jocote jobo (Spondias mombin) fruit, and they had just gone to the bathroom.  I was ecstatic.  I collected some samples; even though this was not the group we had been looking for, at least it was something, and now I knew we would not be going back empty handed from this forest location.

IMG 3715 Jocote jobo fruit.

We kept climbing and exactly at our target GPS point along the waterfall trail, we found 2 more monkeys.  Miraculously, I got a sample from each of them.  Then they leapt through the tree crowns and crossed over an impassible ravine.  There was no way we could go after them, and even if we had have tried, we didn’t know if there was an entire group over there or just the original two.

We wandered around the cascada forest for a while, and Simeon found this petroglyph.

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Then I made an executive decision.  There was no point in waiting around this location and staring in the direction where the monkeys had just vanished.  It was only 8 in the morning, so we had plenty of daylight left.  I decided we would go down to a different forest in San Ramon, where I was also supposed to get samples.  If we found the monkeys there and got poop, great.  Maybe we wouldn’t have to have another 3:45am wake up call to come back to this area.  If not, oh well.  Better luck tomorrow.

It took us a while, but we did find some monkeys.  Super spread out.  Simeon left me with the 3 monkeys we found and he circled the area looking for the rest of the group.  They were scattered through the forest in little clusters of 2 or 3, maybe 50 meters away from each other.

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Simeon conducted some kind of real estate deal (don’t know how he managed to get cell signal here) and then made a broom while we were waiting for the monkeys to poop.  Eventually they did, and we got some samples.  It was less than what we needed, but it was better than nothing.  We’d been out in the forest for around 10 hours at this point, and it was time to call it a day.

It was about an hour and a half or two hour walk back home.  Simeon stopped off at Chico’s and bought a can of Toña—and he doesn’t even drink.  As we walked, he asked me, “Meli, estas mas tranquila ahora?” — was I calmer now that we had samples from the groups that were the farthest away from Mérida, the groups I had been the most nervous about getting samples from.  

I was hesitant to reply.  In one sense, yes.  We had technically gotten samples from 3 groups that day, but we had not gotten enough samples from any of them.  It was better than nothing, but maybe only marginally so.  And more than that, I could feel myself fading fast.  I wasn’t sleeping at night (loud tourists), I was subsisting largely on Clif Mojo Bars and Tailwind.  Simeon and I had walked around 25 kilometers that day.  I desperately needed a good night’s sleep and a decent meal (or several).  I wondered how on earth I had done this kind of thing for an entire year.  I hoped I could power through to finish off the remainder of the project, but I was beginning to feel too old, too vegan for fieldwork.

IMG 3712 Wait for it...

IMG 3713and there it is.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dear William (60 months)

Dear William,

Today you are  5 YEARS OLD!!!!!

I can’t believe it.  Wasn’t it just yesterday you were a tiny little baby?

Meli & Will

So much has happened in the last month.

You had a visit from your grandparents; they brought you a giant cake.



You showed them your favorite playground.


We all went to Rocky Mountain National Park.


You threw snowballs at Grandpa, in July!!


You got worn out.

Worn out

But after you rested up, we went for a bike ride!

Open streets


You were sad when your grandparents left, but it cheered you up to play Star Wars with daddy.

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We read stories, too.



And you took a Superhero yoga class.IMG 3558

We visited the Gardens at Spring Creek.

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And we went back to your playground, where you practiced mountain climbing.

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At the end of July, we took a camping trip that involved a long drive through Poudre Canyon.

Poudre River


We camped by the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs.

Yampa River



The biggest thing of all this month was that we took another trip back to Nicaragua.  William, you are only now just 5 and you have been to Nicaragua 3 times in your life already!


Exciting breakfast Breakfast in Managua on the first day.

Mama had to work a lot in the jungle, but you got to do fun stuff with Daddy.  Like ride in the back of a truck.

Truck ride


And swim at Ojo de Agua.

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You actually went to kindergarden for 2 days on Ometepe.

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Nicaraguan kindergarten

When you weren’t busy studying, you enjoyed chasing chickens around the yard (I’m not sure they enjoyed it so much).

Chasing chickens


You had plenty of hammock time.

Eating cookies in a hammock


You loved going down to the dock and watching the sunset.



We got to see Eduardo again.



Before we left Ometepe, we spent a day in Moyogalpa.  We went to a museum of Nicaraguan pre-history, and I bought you a toy bird.

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You helped me run some errands in Managua.

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We went swimming at the hotel pool in Managua, and I figured out how to order you some french fries.

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It was a long, long, very long trip back home, but you didn’t complain.



After we got back to Colorado, it was time for your birthday!



You were thrilled that your birthday coincided with Taco Tuesday.

Taco Tuesday


You helped me bake and decorate your cake (High Altitude: 0.  Us: 1).




William, you are my best little buddy.  I am the luckiest mom in the world.  We’ve had so many amazing adventures these past 5 years, and I know we are just going to keep on having more.

Love always,