Just finished packing about 30 seconds ago for the rainforest trip. Although I haven’t slept much the past few nights (because of an exam on Wednesday and a ton of assignments that were due today), I probably won’t be able to sleep much tonight because I’m so excited about Tiputini and its ungodly amount of wildlife. Hopefully I’ll be able to experience something unimaginable, such as being surrounded by a herd of peccaries that will try to trample me unless I climb a tree (or a stump), or swimming with anacondas down the river, or becoming accepted into a family of woolly monkies. Also, we have to be at the airport at 6:30am so I’ll have to wake up earlier than normal. Speaking of sleep, I’ve been having some interesting dreams this week even without taking those malaria pills (Mefloquin?) that are supposed to give you nightmares…actually, the entire time I’ve been in Ecuador, my dreams have been slightly more vivid and grotesque. Por ejemplo, in one dream a volcano in Quito was erupting, but instead of feeling panicked, everyone was filled with sorrow because we all knew that we were going to die from the radiation emitted by the volcano (the volcano in my dream acted more like an atom bomb than a volcano). As I was running around trying to say good-bye to everyone, I got a nosebleed and I knew my end was near (apparently, radiation causes nosebleeds). Frantically, I ran down a hallway in search of my brother and sister to whom I wanted to say goodbye, but when I opened the door to their room, it was empty. Then I woke up. But the freakiest thing was that as I was taking a shower that morning, I got a nosebleed. Radiation! Glitch in the matrix!
I’d like to take a moment to make one complaint about my stay in Quito so far. I really like my host family, but they must think that I have the stomach the size of a marble because they serve me enough food to satisfy a small rodent. Actually that’s a lie…I think I just eat a lot. I have been perfectly content with cereal for breakfast for the first month of my stay (since I can control how much I eat, which usually averages to around five bowls), but a few days ago there was no cereal waiting for me on the kitchen table in the morning. In its place were a glass of juice, a glass of chocolate milk, some fruit, and some bread. That food is all delicious, especially when the bread is dipped into the chocolate milk, but I had to raid the refrigerator afterwards in search of more food. Today, my heart sank when I didn’t see any cereal in the kitchen for the third day in a row. My breakfast was actually downgraded to juice, chocolate milk, and one roll of bread. An infant could eat more than that. To make matters worse, the clean water jug in the kitchen has been waterless for over twenty-four hours. I’ll have to resort to poikylohydry to obtain my water from now on. Dinner always tastes exceptional, but I am usually left feeling like I could continue eating afterwards. Sometimes I sneak back down to the kitchen after my parents go to bed and eat a banana and/or slices of bread. I am jealous of all of the other students who say that their host families overfeed them.
I am in severe need of sleep, so I’ll bullet-point the rest:
- after hours of searching, I booked a flight to Peru and a reservation for the Inca Trail.
- During the cab ride home from USFQ (normally I take the bus, but with all the bookings I didn’t leave until 10:30, 1.5 hours after the buses stop running), I learned from the driver that for a crime such as murder in small, nearby towns, the penalty is being doused in gasoline and lit on fire.
- I’m taking less clothing/luggage to the 17-night long trip to Tiputini than I took to our 7-day long trip to the dry forest.
- When I went to the Teleférico with my host brother two days ago, we stopped to pick up his girlfriend at her restaurant on the way, and she gave me oreo ice cream. I was happy. Then we found out that the Teleférico closed almost two hours before we arrived. I was sad.
- We went to a nearby amusement park instead. On one of the rides I was reminded of the time in Nicaragua that an amusement park ride started moving while the door to the ride wasn’t closed and I almost fell out. But this one was safer.
I’m back! There is no way I will be able to describe how truly awesome Tiputini was, but I will try nonetheless. After the first few nights there, I knew I wouldn’t want to do my internship anywhere else, and I can’t wait to return in April to study woolly or spider monkeys (still haven’t decided on the specifics yet…it kind of depends on what other primatologists/grad students will be studying there in April). I arrived back to Quito yesterday evening and was too exhausted to write anything, so hopefully that one night and day of life in Quito won’t taint or cloud over any of my rainforest memories (apparently, however, I wasn’t too exhausted to patronize La Mariscal last night with some amigos).
Transportation to and from Tiputini couldn’t get any more complex. Everything ran smoothly, and Tiputini would probably be a 3-hour-long drive if it weren’t for the mountains and remote environments we had to cross, but travelling there took around 10 hours. Starting promptly at 5:58am, I took a taxi to the airport, a plane to Coca, a bus to the Napo River, a boat down the river to a petroleum company, another bus to the Tiputini River, and another boat to the station. I was kind of mad we never got to ride any llamas or escalators, my top two favorite modes of transportation.
The Tiputini River alone was one of the major highlights of the trip. When we arrived, the river was almost 10m higher than normal! We couldn’t tell that the water level was abnormally high (since we hadn’t seen the normal level), except for a few treetops that poked out of the flowing river along its edges. The water level remained high for most of our stay, until a few days before we left, when it dropped about seven meters in the course of two days. After long days of hiking through the jungle or tracking down titi monkeys, it was always refreshing to jump off the docked canoes into the river. The river flows to the east, eventually emptying into the Napo (I think), but there always seemed to be many “microcurrents” that would pull us in random directions, and often I felt like I was engaged in a game of human bumper cars. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be travelling in circles from whirlpools while others were riding a current rapidly downstream. A few times, we would float down the river with lifejackets (they were required) alongside a canoe, and it reminded me of Adventure River at Noah’s Ark except the current felt much faster and the sights weren’t as drab- we would often see many types of birds, monkeys, and caimans. During our floating sessions, as a group we would always try to see how long of a human chain we could make by having the first person grab tightly to a protruding tree branch, and only once were we able to build a chain longer than twenty people before someone’s grip slipped off the preceding person’s feet. And sometimes the tree branch broke. Since it was impossible to make any progress by swimming upstream, we had to swim sideways (toward the shore) in order to get anywhere, and it was hilarious to watch people swimming as fast as possible toward a newly forming chain since they had to start sprinting well upstream from the site of the actual chain. When the water level dropped, there weren’t as many tree branches or trunks to hang on to, but there appeared to be more underneath the murky surface of the water, and screams of pain usually meant that, if not piranha, a log was submerged in the vicinity. However, the organism that scared most of us (especially the guys) was a small type of fish that is attracted to nitrogen emissions. It has spikes that are pointed in such a way that help the fish enter the gills of other fish, but make it impossible to pull out. Apparently, there have been cases where boys have urinated into the river from the shore, and the fish sensed the increase flux of nitrogen and lodged itself into the boy’s urethra. I’ll probably have nightmares about that for the rest of this semester. I’m exhausted again, so I’ll have to finish this tomorrow.
…and by tomorrow, I meant in four days. It is now March 7, 2009, the first day of my spring break. This is the first year in which I haven’t been desperately anticipating the arrival of spring break- I don’t feel like I need a vacation at all, since this entire semester has felt like one giant vacation. I am learning a ton, but since it’s mostly outside of the classroom with friendly, funny people, I don’t feel like I’m doing work (except on Thursday, when I worked non-stop [excluding time spent eating lunch/dinner and watching my screensaver, which is set to show random pictures that I’ve uploaded during my trip so far] on a project involving a presentation and a paper from 9am until past 5am the next morning. I was so sleep-deprived when I woke up 1.5 hours later, that I think part of my brain had withered away- during the bus ride to the university, for some reason the outside scenery looked unfamiliar and I almost began to panic that I had taken the wrong bus. As I was about to ask the driver to let me off, I noticed a familiar sign outside the window, and then sat back down, feeling like an idiot).
Back to Tiputini. Actually, our experience began in Coca, as we were waiting for the canoe to arrive to take us down the Napo. The restaurant/café where we waited for the canoe seemed like a zoo, with squirrel monkeys, a saki monkey, toucans, parrots, and coatis roaming around the limited amount of grass and trees that the restaurant provided. There was also a baby anteater in a cage that looked way too young to be separated from its mother, a young toucan with sparse but matted feathers that seemed to be moaning in distress, and the parrots’ cages were filled with excrement. The monkeys only had a few short trees to use as their home, and living conditions for all of the animals appeared quite unsatisfying. However, the squirrel monkeys were very curious with the new visitors and we enjoyed seeing who could get the most monkeys on their bodies at the same time.
Canoeing/bussing/canoeing again to Tiputini allowed us to witness the transition from urbanization into primary rainforest, but the travel proved exhausting, especially since I had barely slept at all during the preceding nights. Since none of the above modes of transportation contained headrests, sleep was impossible and passing over the slightest wave in the river or bump in the road would cause minor whiplash. After we disembarked the canoe and stepped onto the wooden staircase that leads up to the station from the shore (the majority of the staircase was underwater; we only had to ascend about eight steps to reach the top), we immediately noticed the diversity of life (which is probably unmatched by any other place on earth), especially from the brilliant colors and variable sizes of the insects. Many trees, shrubs, and bushes surrounded the dining hall, but upon closer inspection we could find at least one insect on almost every leaf.
For our first three days at the station, we broke into three groups and rotated through activities, which included a hike, waking up before dawn to travel to a canopy tower to watch birds, and hiking to a different canopy tower and walkway. During the hike, we saw three monkey species (spiders, woollies, and squirrels). As I was moving to get a better view of the spider monkeys, I learned that it is better to watch where you step before stepping there. My eyes were fixed on the primates at the top of the canopy, and after a few steps, my right foot descended about three feet lower than where the ground should have been, and I still didn’t feel solid ground beneath my boot. I had fallen into a hole that had the exact diameter of my foot (if I had stepped one centimeter further in any direction, I would have avoided falling all the way in), so my right leg was almost completely underground while the rest of my body struggled to figure out what happened. My main concern was that it was a giant tarantula lair, so I struggled to free myself from the abyss before the arachnid inside would pull it down further. I would later learn that the rainforest is filled with holes like that one, and they are usually made from peccaries or armadillos for sleeping dens. Later in the hike we ate lemon ants.
Future hikes produced similar eye-opening experiences, yet the primates were always the most amazing animals to watch. I only saw the spider monkeys one other time before we headed back to Quito, but their long, slender bodies and eerily human faces will always be engrained in my memory. The woollies were one of my favorite species to watch, not only because they were easy to see (they normally didn’t mind human presence, but if they did, they would act curious or aggressive and approach us, instead of fleeing away because they were frightened), but also because of their body shapes. Their hair looked as if they had visited a poodle groomer since it was so puffy and free of mats or snarls. It reminded me of Clancy’s hair, and I wonder how thin and fragile the monkeys would look like if their hair got wet. However, their bodies are very muscular, so getting wet probably wouldn’t make much difference. Watching them move was also incredible. To get from one tree to another, it seemed as if they would leap forward and fall as long as it took to grab onto the next branch, as if they didn’t plan where they would land but rather do it spontaneously. Sometimes they would freefall for almost five seconds, and after gracelessly grabbing onto the landing branch, they would casually locomote to their destination. It was easy to tell if woollies were close by because of the loud sounds of canopy trees quivering under the monkeys’ weights. If they were feeling aggressive, they would climb down towards us a bit and shake branches. Sometimes, the juveniles would try shaking branches that were almost bigger than them, so the branch didn’t even move. The golden-mantled tamarins were also enjoyable to watch since they didn’t seem to mind people either. Like the squirrel monkeys, they travelled in large groups, providing us with long periods of entertainment. Saki monkeys, from a distance, look more like really hairy, dark-colored house cats and it seems like they would overheat easily. However, the long hair may aid the sakis as they leap through the air to adjacent trees. During our stay I also saw more squirrel monkeys, a night monkey, capuchins, and a pygmy marmoset, which could easily fit inside the palm of my hand.
During the last week of our stay, we all broke into small groups to carry out mini research projects. With two others, I studied red titi monkey behavior. We observed a family of three titis for three days in order to determine when they were most active during the day, when they foraged the most, and what composed the majority of their diet. The family that we followed around was habituated to humans (the adult male had been wearing a radiocollar for about five years), but their preferred habitat is in what seemed like the most tangled, vine-infested area of the rainforest so they were often concealed from our sight. At one point, the vines and lianas were so dense that moving through them reminded me of the “spider web” at the ropes course…except it was a spider web from hell, since it was three-dimensional and the holes I had to move through were often smaller than the circumference of my head. Also, there were many actual spider webs that seemed hidden until I walked into them- luckily I had no run-ins with the “5-minute spider.” To move forward fifteen feet, it took me almost half an hour, and by that time the titis had moved far out of sight. The other days of data collection were less frustrating since the understory was less dense. Although their home range is small, we would return from the field exhausted every afternoon because most of our time was spent straining to see the individuals.
Although we didn’t expect to find valid results in our project (behavioral studies often require at least 80 hours of observation…we had probably a total of five hours), it was interesting because actual primatologists, grad students, and field assistants were also at Tiputini conducting similar studies. In fact, one of the grad students let each of the members of my group (including me) shadow him in the field for a day. He also helped us track down the titi monkeys every morning. After the three days of our data collection, I would see titi monkeys in my mind whenever I closed my eyes…kind of like when I would see the structural formulas of certain compounds after long nights of studying for chemistry tests.
Aside from the monkeys, the food at Tiputini is also worth mentioning- it was delicious and plentiful. For breakfast, there would always be a main dish (such as pancakes, or a ham/egg sandwich), and then CEREAL. With the immediacy of cereal and the duetting sounds of the titi monkeys, I couldn’t imagine a better way of waking up each morning. Fruit was always set out in the dining hall throughout the day and I enjoyed grenadilla for the first time (an orange covering on the outside, with fruit on the inside that looks like frog eggs). Perhaps most importantly, the station provided us with peanut butter, which most of us hadn’t eaten since we arrived in Ecuador. Perhaps because of that reason, almost everybody became addicted to it (I seriously think it was spiked with nicotine), and eventually I was putting peanut butter on my fruit, in my rice, in my cereal, and on almost every other food I ate except meat (although peanut butter and turkey sandwiches are very tasty). This addiction turned dangerous when the jars would start to run low, as everyone wanted their share of the condiment (is it a condiment? Judging by how much we ate during our stay, peanut butter should be placed in its own food group. The cooks began to look irritated by the second week of our stay whenever we asked for it). A table of eight people could easily empty a jar in the course of one meal, so I learned to strategize my consumption by obtaining a huge spoonful or knifeful as soon as the jars were placed on the tables. The station receives food replacements every Monday and Friday (those are the only two days canoes go to and from the station), so sometimes on Sundays and Thursdays the peanut butter supply would be deficient and we would eat meals without it. Everyone was visibly aggravated during these meals.
I was surprised about many aspects of the rainforest when I actually experienced it first-hand. As its name suggests, I thought that it would rain almost every day, but in fact it only rained for a few days of our stay. Strangely, after two days of constant rain, the running water at the station ran out. As one student put it, “the rain sucked all the water away.” Humidity was always high, but there was a lot more sun than I had expected on the forest floor. I also thought that there would be more emergent trees, a shadier/extremely humid understory, more vines and lush plants filling every inch of space and soil outside of the trails, and hordes of insects (especially mosquitoes) swarming us day and night, but these assumptions were all false. Mosquitoes were not a problem at all, and after taking malaria pills for two days, I decided to stop taking them (I was supposed to start taking them a few days before entering the rainforest, but I had never bought any, so I borrowed some from another student when we arrived at the station). However, if I feel flu-like symptoms any time within the next year, it may be malaria.
After dinner, we usually had our evenings free, so night hikes were a popular activity. Both the sounds and the sights were unique. During one hike, we turned off our headlamps and let the pitch-blackness engulf us- it was both awesome and frightening. I couldn’t imagine the two nights that two scientists spent in the rainforest after a plane crash (our professors told us about the unfortunate crash- the plane was carrying one of the most well-known botanists and ornithologists in the world, and both ended up dying from exposure and wounds caused by the crash). Many frogs, insects, and large mammals are nocturnal (never saw a jaguar, though), as well as giant spiders. At one instance, I turned to enter a trail, and when my headlamp illuminated an overhanging leaf, I suddenly came face to face with a huge wolf spider. However, I maintained my composure and didn’t even wet my pants. I’m definitely becoming more accustomed to large spiders, especially tarantulas. There were three times when tarantulas were found in people’s cabins (one was on the top bunk of a girl’s bed, one was on someone’s porch, and one was in the bathroom of my cabin- after Melissa found that one, I found her meditating in the library, and we made plans to sleep in shifts later that night), yet I always managed to sleep peacefully…except for when one of my cabin-mates woke me up by crawling his fingers in a very spider-like fashion across my face. There was also a tarantula who decided to join us for dinner one evening in the dining hall, and it just so happened to be someone’s birthday. Right after the tarantula was spotted, the lights went out and we all had to sing Happy Birthday in nervous, quavering voices as the candle-lit cake was brought out to the tables. My feet didn’t touch the floor until the lights came back on, and even then I was cautious about where I placed them.
Speaking of lights, my headlamp began flashing its “low battery” light during the second week of our stay. To conserve battery life, I tried to only use my headlamp when it was absolutely necessary (such as during night hikes, early morning hikes, and for checking under my sheets each night for tarantulas). The walk from the lecture room to the dining hall for dinner was composed of blocks of wood one after another, which always were muddy and slippery. Most of the path is lighted, but a few places had burnt out light bulbs, so walking on the path with possible tarantulas and poisonous snakes lurking nearby at night in flip flops without a headlamp was difficult. However, I tried to assure myself that there are also disadvantages of using a headlamp, such as attracting an occasional moth to fly into my face.
When we didn’t do night hikes after dinner, sometimes we would play intense games of Pictionary (involving words such as existentialism and neuromuscular junction… “Jackal! Jackal! It’s a jackal!”) or listen to Courtney read excerpts from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. During the last few nights, however, we would have to work on our projects and study for the field and written exams. One night included a very intense review session, in Jeopardy fashion (I’m surprised no fights broke out). After one night of studying, I walked back to my cabin alone and could have sworn I heard a jaguar growl, but it was probably something completely unrelated, like a leaf rustling…but my mind wanted it to be a jaguar. Unlike the large cats of Africa and Asia, South American jaguars aren’t known to attack humans. An Indian biologist once told Joe (my professor) that studying in the New World “is nice, because I don’t feel like prey.”
Speaking of prey, I read Michael Crichton’s Prey during our stay.
Lectures were held in an air-conditioned room adjacent to the library, and unlike lectures at UW, I stayed intently awake for all of them. It is so interesting to learn about plants, animals, and their ecological interactions when they could be seen right outside the windows. The lecture on primates was interrupted by a group of woollies that was climbing through the trees right outside the classroom. I’ve been continuously disappointed back in Quito when I look up in a tree (of which there are very few) and see no monkeys.
After our exam, we had a free day in the rainforest and it was incredibly refreshing to become active again after about 48 hours of studying. I had been having many dreams about running and racing, so it was especially nice to be able to put my running shoes on the morning after returning to Quito (but that was one of the only good things about returning, since we then had to work on our papers and presentations). But those are finished now, and spring break has started. I’m leaving on a night bus to Cuenca in a few hours, and after a few days there I’m going to the beaches of northern Peru, and for the last day of spring break a bunch of us are going to Cotopaxi. After that, we have one day of class in Quito, and then we leave for our coast/Galápagos trip until mid-April. Then we have a few days in Quito before our internships begin. So I think I only have about five nights left in Quito.
Pictures will come soon! Next week. I'm in a rush because I haven't started packing yet and I'm supposed to meet some friends to leave for Cuenca in 18 minutes.