Wednesday, August 13, 2014

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.


Anonymous said...

How long do I have to hold my breath???EVEN THO! ,I know the. End results! i am. Exhausted , Nervous and starving!! you would not have been VEGAN anymore HAD I been with you!!! Hurry with part 2,,, !!!!

Anonymous said...

Guess you know it was your mama that just commented! Oops :)