Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Internship and Peru

Time had passed so quickly during the course of the semester that it still felt like January after we had returned from the Galápagos, and now that I am back in Madison, the presence of June seems baffling. Even more weird is typing in my blog while sitting in my parents’ living room chair, instead of in my orange-quilted Quito bed. I have 1.5 months of South American experiences to write about, but I will try to condense it as much as possible so that I can spend more time with my dog Clancy, Honey Bunches of Oats, and Lost.
On April 16th, seven of us left Quito for the coast, where we would perform our month-long internships at the Lalo Loor dry forest reserve. Transportation to the bus station proved difficult yet again, as the taxi driver decided to circumnavigate the city on the way to the station (apparently going through the city would not have been a wise idea since it was rush hour…but it probably would have been faster than my taxi driver’s 50-minute route). I arrived at the bus station exactly one minute before the bus’s scheduled departure time, and during the last part of the taxi ride I struggled to control both my bladder and my urge to shout at the driver to drive faster. Fortunately, everyone made it to the station on time and we had a pleasant seven-hour ride to the reserve. After dinner and a short tarantula hike, we were eager to hop into our mosquito-netted beds at 9pm.
For our internship, TJ, Rita, and I were assigned to obtain a census of the howler monkey populations in the reserve. With no primatologist on site, we often felt lost and helpless, and it wasn’t until the last week and a half until we felt like we were actually collecting useful data. Initially, much of our time was spent hiking through the trails to count and identify any monkeys we saw, reading the mountain of scientific papers given to us by Joe and a primatologist grad student, and swearing at the monkeys for not being more visible (they seemed to prefer the highest branches of the highest trees). When we could see them they would usually mill around in circles through the canopy, making it almost impossible to get accurate counts of group sizes. Howlers were particularly frustrating to count because within large groups, they would often branch off to form subgroups, so obtaining accurate group size estimates seemed impossible. We often became so frustrated that we considered changing our project topic to “spider web abundance” since we walked into hundreds of them daily. My eyes quickly became accustomed to carefully watching for both monkeys and spider webs, but even with the added caution I could still run my hands through my hair at the end of the day and feel a substantial amount of silky web material. Whoever was the leader of the hike would normally carry a “spider stick” to remove or displace webs that stretched across the trails, but if I was walking behind Rita my head would still be in danger of getting caught in the webs. Walking behind TJ, however, was the best position since he is a head taller than me and would receive the brunt of the webs.
After about two weeks with our sketchy methodology, Joe and Cath visited us at the reserve and we were able to use a GPS in the field. We decided to get accurate GPS points of the trail system and to determine the home ranges and feeding tree locations of various monkey troops, and to create a map with all this information for the reserve’s Ecocenter. We also decided it would be more feasible to determine a density estimate of the monkey populations, and then to extrapolate to determine the overall population size. To do this, the three of us each walked a separate trail (the reserve contains three main trails) three times per day (so that we had each walked each trail every day), and we counted the total number of groups and individuals that we saw on each trail. We divided these numbers by the total area sampled (with help from the GPS) to obtain a density measurement, and then we were able to estimate the total number of groups and monkeys in the reserve…which I think was around 160. We also determined the age- and sex-ratios for a couple of the largest groups.
Despite the small setbacks and the huge spider webs, living in the forest for a month was one of the best experiences of my life. Especially during the last week or so, when we were in the field for up to eight or nine hours a day, we were able to see a plethora (Wordmaster word!) of monkeys, insects, toucans, parakeets, coatis, snakes (TJ found a dead, headless coral snake one day and wrapped it around the showerhead; when I took a shower that evening I was frozen in place for a good minute before mustering up the courage to poke it), and even an ocelot. And the banana pancakes that our chef Bigote made were delicious.
While we weren’t counting monkeys or reading articles, we’d spend our time helping the other students with their work in the gardens, taking naps on the wooden floor of the guesthouse in between hikes, reading books (I finished three!) and playing the Ecuadorian card game “Cuarenta.” During one of the weekends, we travelled to Canoa, a beach town an hour and a half south of the reserve. The main things I remember from that weekend were the unbelievably low hostel prices ($3/night), the frozen chocolate-covered bananas sold at a small tienda a block away, Eric’s botfly’s willingness to show half of its body, the town’s complete lack of monetary change (I tried buying a forty-cent assortment of bread and pastries, but the store owner wouldn’t accept my fifty-cent piece because he didn’t have change), and Luis and Tito, two locals who told me that I would legally be able to vote the following day if only I could quickly find an Ecuadorian girlfriend. The best part of the trip was the ride home: it was election day, so public transportation of any kind was virtually impossible to get ahold of- all buses coming into the town were literally overflowing with people. Limbs were hanging out of the windows, and doors couldn’t even shut because the buses were packed beyond capacity. One man motioned for all six of us to enter his bus, which had about two cubic feet of free space, so we declined his offer. Finally we decided that hitchhiking would be our only hope of getting back to the reserve that day, so we began walking out of the town and flagging down any passing vehicle. Somehow the six of us crammed into the back of a man’s pickup truck (which already had a huge BigWheel-like child’s bike in the back), and as he drove 80+ mph north, we were packed in so tightly that we used each other as human seatbelts. Occasionally the driver wouldn’t see speed bumps in the road and we would subsequently bounce a foot in the air, but the real thrill came when the driver felt the need to accelerate even more in order to pass other cars on blind turns. Although much of the ride to the reserve was spent in the opposite lane of the highway, we did reach our destination 40 minutes faster than any bus, but we were thankful to be alive (and back in the presence of monkeys) nonetheless.
Excerpt from my field notebook: After working at the Primate Research Center in Madison and studying primates in the field, I’ve become fascinated with the animals. Going half a day here without seeing monkeys makes me feel unfulfilled. However, I’ve also had the thought of becoming a human doctor, and especially after reading such books as Mountains Beyond Mountains and Three Cups of Tea, I think I might feel guilty if I don’t dedicate my life to serving underprivileged humans. I thought that by studying abroad, I might be able to view my life from another perspective, but I don’t feel any closer to choosing how I want to spend the rest of my life.
For the last weekend, I traveled to Baños with Rita and TJ. It seemed like a small ditch was carved out of the mountains, in which the city was placed. Green mountains rose up from all sides, with waterfalls occasionally cutting through the forested slopes. Although small, the city contained streets bustling with bars, heladerías, adventure tourism services, street vendors, markets, and taffy stands. For the first time in almost a month, we were able to sleep in thick-mattressed beds without needing mosquito nets. The city is most known for its abundance of hot baths, so we weren’t surprised to see hundreds of people in line for the most popular natural pools. Apparently, the baths open around 5am, so people begin to line up around 3 or 4 in the morning (however, we were still recovering from our long days of hiking and monkey-watching, so we slept in). We decided to swim at a different, less touristy location instead (“Eduardo’s”). I feel like the hot tub literally sucked what remaining energy I had out of my body, because for the rest of the day I felt drugged. Overall, though, Baños was a great end to our internship experience.
The next few days were spent in Quito, as we worked on our presentations and papers. Saying goodbye to people on the final night of the program felt extremely weird, as I had spent the majority of the past 4.5 months with them. Memories of our experiences began to flood into my head: I remembered meeting Alex, TJ, Brenna, and Rita the first day at USFQ, and trying to memorize their names. I remembered Christine and Jamie singing the Nightman song from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia at the páramo, and Melissa and myself singing karaoke in La Mariscal. I remembered walking to school with Dave on San Cristóbal Island and discussing the coolness of seabirds and sea urchins. I remembered Winston being pushed out of Eric’s leg at Lalo Loor. I did not feel ready to leave Ecuador, but I found some comfort in the fact that I was staying another two weeks in South America.
The Peru trip began and ended in Cusco, the once-important Inca capital whose name means “navel of the world.” Surrounded by the Andes, Cusco is a bit higher in elevation than Quito and the climate is drier and cooler. We would often receive sunburns during the day, and then have to wear fleece jackets at night because of the precipitous drop in temperature. Our hostel was located on top of a steep hill near the central plaza, and the increased altitude caused us to gasp for air by the time we summitted the hill each night.
The narrow cobblestone streets and abundance of tourists milling around the plaza made Cusco appear like a mix between Granada (Spain) and a ritzy ski resort like Vail. Old stone buildings and churches from the 1500s lined the streets, dotted with small shops selling alpaca hats and sweaters of every color. For every tourist present, there were probably four street vendors in the city. Nobody could last thirty seconds in the main plaza without being bombarded by people selling cigarettes, paintings, day-long trekking passes, hats, or shoe shining offers (we all agreed that “no gracias” was the most common phrase we spoke in Cusco. By the end of the two weeks I think I probably became a slightly meaner person, since the vendors wouldn’t leave unless I ignored them or shouted “No” in the sternest, curtest voice I could muster). Everyone who works in the restaurant or tourism business is required to speak two languages, and although most chose to learn English as their second language, we found it easier to understand Spanish than their broken English.
We had planned on travelling to Bolivia (possibly La Paz), but after bussing to the Peruvian town of Puno on Lake Titicaca, we learned that U.S. tourists needed to pay an entry fee of $135, so we decided to just stay in Puno for a couple of days. Just 45 minutes off the coastline of Puno on the lake are Los Uros, floating islands made out of reeds that are inhabited by indigenous people who were fleeing the Incas many centuries ago. Their main source of income is tourism, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for them as the tourists from our boat stomped onto the islands and began taking photos while our guide showed them off (like cattle?). However, I was impressed by their ability to adapt to modernity while still preserving the traditional lifestyles. For example, I met one man (Johnny) who spoke five languages and travels to Puno once per week to study engineering at a school. After Los Uros, we headed to the natural island of Taquile, where we could see the outlines of Bolivia’s highest mountains in the distance.
Upon returning to Cusco (after a night bus ride full of swerves in order to avoid rock falls), we had a day to rest before embarking on the Inca Trail to see Machu Picchu. The sights were so amazing that I can only describe them as “indescribable,” so I’ve been considering just posting pictures (after all, a picture is worth a thousand words). I had no trouble believing that the four-day trail was a religious experience for the Incas who trekked it centuries ago, since I was continually humbled by the mountains and forest surrounding me. Also amazing was the food: challenged only by the cooking on the Galápagos boat tour, the Inca Trail food was the best we’ve eaten all semester, with most lunches and dinners consisting of 5- or 6- course meals. Somehow our porters were able to carry all of our food, tent material, sleeping bags, and a few people’s luggage on their backs as they literally jogged up and down the mountains during the four-day-long trek.

Two months later…I promised myself I’d finish this blog no matter how much time it would take. It’s strange to think that I will be taking classes at UW inside of buildings in about a month, especially after spending the majority of the past 7 months outdoors (working at Shorewood Pool is pretty much the best job ever). But anyways, back to Peru and the Inca Trail- for the last day of the trail, we woke up around 3:50am so that we could arrive at Machu Picchu for sunrise. I normally have trouble waking up before 7:30, but surprisingly I was up and ready to hike at 4. After about a 1.5-hour traverse across a mountain and a nearly 90-degree stairwell that stretched painfully too high (I considered setting up base camp on one of the stairs), we arrived at our destination (the Sun Gate, which overlooks the ruins that everyone sees in pictures and postcards, from a slightly different angle) with about 30 minutes to spare before sunrise. Our guide gave us a tour of the ruins, then we had an hour to explore by ourselves. Almost every aspect of the architecture seemed to reflect the people’s utter worship of the sun- light would enter certain windows at certain times of day, and placement of temples was based on the sun’s position at the solstices and equinoxes. We couldn’t have had a more perfect day- sunny with no clouds, and a cool breeze. Also, llamas roamed on the grassy lawns lining the ruins.
Although I had been living in the Andes for almost the entire semester, the scenery during the drive back to Cusco still made me wonder how such beautiful formations on the planet were made, and I added it to my own list of possible sites for the filming of the next episode of Planet Earth. We only had about 5 days left in Cusco before our return flight to Quito, and much of that time was spent exploring museums, monuments, artisan stands, and other nearby ruins (and we spent one day rafting in a chilly Andean river). The morning we left Cusco was the beginning of a 24-hour saga of travelling and four plane rides, but somehow I made it to O’Hare in one piece, with all of my luggage. In fact, my arrival at the Chicago airport couldn’t have been more perfect, since my family greeted me with boxes of Honey Bunches of Oats and bananas (there was even a bowl, a spoon, and a gallon of chilled milk waiting for me in the car). I didn’t experience too much reverse culture shock, probably because I had been used to forcing myself to be open to ANYTHING this entire semester, but the main thing that surprised me in the US was the presence of water fountains in the airport…free water??!! It was amazing. As was my entire experience. The end.

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