Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chumming for Ballenas

The other day at lunch amidst light conversation, Mel casually threw in that she was going away for the weekend with a couple of the other researches from La Selva. Feeling slightly inquisitive, but more for purposes of conversational flow, I replied “Oh yeah, where are you going Mel?”

“To the Osa Peninsula to see some whales…no big deal.”

Um what? Did she just say whales? The thought of Mel spending the weekend riding the waves at sea, gazing across the horizon searching for breaching humpbacks while I stayed behind doing lab work was more than I could stand! Before I knew it, that oh too familiar ugly beast known as jealousy was beginning to rear its head….and there was nothing I could do about it except continue to feed it with a tasty spread of questions.

“Who are you going with Mel?! How long are you going for Mel?! How much does it cost Mel?! What’s the itinerary Mel?! Is there room for me Mel?! Jeezes H. K-riest Mel, throw me a freakin’ bone here!!!!”

Recognizing the overwhelming sense of unease in my voice, she quickly rattled off the facts as she knew them to be. She was going to the Osa Peninsula for an all inclusive whirlwind weekend of bussing, boating, beaching, sunning, and whaling (watching, not slaughtering) with fellow researchers Taryn (South African former Kruger National Park employee invasive species researcher all around most awesome chica ever), Justin (boyishly cute bilingual High School Biology teacher from an East L.A. inner city school with piercing blue eyes, not to mention a very impressive dancing repertoire), and La Selva tour guides Kennith (the quintessential Latin Lover who leaves a slew of broken hearted hopeless women in his wake whom do not possess the important quality he looks for in partner) Octavio (young wanna be Latin Lover who is to clumsy and awkward to ever actually become one but potentially has a promising future as a paparazzi photographer)and Christian (kind, patient, intellectual whom exemplifies the true meaning of the word gentleman and possess a natural borne ability for longwinded storytelling). And yes, there was room for one more….perfect.

A day and a half later I found myself standing at the ticket counter in the stagnant Autobus Estacíon a Puerto Viejo de Sarapaqui purchasing a ticket to San Jose successfully using every one of the 4 words in my Spanish vocabulary. Somehow the clerk understood what I needed and exchanged my $1.50 for a slightly ripped pleather cushioned seat on the Tico bus. With backpacked tightly strapped down and empanada in hand, I eagerly climbed the stairs and took a seat next to my dear friend Mel and soon to be dear friends Taryn, Justin, Kennith, Christian and Tovio….oh yeah, and Shea must have overheard us making weekend plans because he was conveniently sitting on the bus going to Osa as well. As the bus grinded its way out of the station and started sputtering down the avenue, I opened the window to let the humidity hit my face and the pungent combination of street smells envelope my senses.

A few hours later we arrived at the Caríbe Estacíon in a seedy district of San Jose where we negotiated with a flock of vulture-like taxi drivers for a decent fare to our hostel. We checked into Hostel California, stashed our bags on the bunks and found our way to the bar to gorge on cervesas and nachos before a night of continuously interrupted sleep under a questionably sanitary blanket. Morning came far too soon as we were up and out of the Hostel by 5:30 a.m. and walking down Calle Central, carefully dodging the piles of garbage which lined the streets along the way to the strikingly beautiful Teatro Nacional to meet the tour bus at 6 a.m. Once onboard, the tour operators decided to utilize the 5 hour ride from San Jose to Osa to conduct an informative course on bus etiquette and marine mammals in SPANISH by yelling into the microphone consecutively for 2 HOURS! In classic Brenda form, all I gathered from the entire spiel was “prohibito numero dos esta banó”….and now I have 9 words in my Spanish vocabulary! Oh yeah, and the Spanish word for whale is ballena….that makes 10!

At 11:00 a.m. sharp our luxury tour bus dumped us off alongside the road where we lathered up our pasty little gringo bodies with SPF 4000 and enjoyed a short walk down a palm tree lined dirt road to the coconut littered beach where the boat waited. An invigorating beach scramble aboard, amidst the crashing surf, diminished what bits of drowsiness remained from the early morning autobus Spanish lesson and left me feeling refreshed and ready to see some freakin’ whales!
Unfortunately, the first day left us with little more than the tail end of something diving under the surface of the water and a turtle (thanks to my hawk eyed roomy Mel…good one Mel!). After our 3 hour tour, we all felt a little disappointed as Gilligan and the Skipper called it a day and navigated the boat towards the shore. But as the shoreline drew closer and our eyes fell upon the beach that we would be calling home for the night, our moods dramatically lifted as it was one of the most beautiful landscapes any of us had ever seen. The coastal mountains, heavily laden with tufts of emerald green vegetation, sloped down to the grainy sands of la playa where the turquoise waters of the Pacific met the jungle….monkeys swinging from trees and all (please refer to Mel’s blog for an exciting monkey encounter). We spent the remainder of the day soaking in the beauty of our surroundings body surfing in the warm bath- like waters. Shea even attempted a bare chested ascent of a palm tree to retrieve Justin and I a coconut to make the moment that much more magical…wait, I meant comical! Poor Shea is still nursing a few abrasions…turns out coconut palms and bare chests don’t mesh well (sorry Shea…next time you shouldn’t listen to my suggestions….I tend to be full of bad ideas!.

Although totally exhausted from traveling all day and playing in the surf, Taryn, Christian, Kennith and Justin convinced me that I should attend the presentation being given by the onboard whale biologist immediately following dinner. I didn’t really want to go because I figured it would be in Spanish, but everyone assured me that they would translate the important info and I would probably enjoy the pretty pictures of ballenas. Like a fool, I listened to them and went to the presentation instead of going on a moon lit night walk with Mel to look at ocean phosphorescence. BIG MISTAKE! As predicted, the death by power point presentation was totally in espaniol and lasted (and I’m not kidding) 2 1/2 fucking hours!!!!! That makes for a total of 4 1/2 hours of my precious life wasted on Spanish whales that I will never, EVER, get back! AND to make it worse, the only pretty picture he had was a flow chart depicting the evolutionary chain from which present day whales descended from DOGS in PAKISTAN!!!! What?!!! What?!!!!!! I thought that maybe I had lost something in translation, but the picture was right there plain as day…. so I suppose it’s true….whales came from dogs in Pakistan….absolutely amazing.

The next morning, Mel and I woke up at dawn for an early morning yoga session on the beach which was simply glorious…very cliché I know, but still totally awesome. Actually, I must admit that I wasn’t totally able to get into my rhythm because I kept getting distracted by the dogs roaming on the beach and wondering if they were going to spout water from their blow holes anytime soon.

After yet another tasty breakfast of gallo pinto con huevos, the group scrambled aboard amidst choppy conditions and began heading 20 km due west for Isla de Cano in Corocavado National Park. Despite very rough seas, we were a boat full of eager beavers donning jail bird orange life vests with eyes glued to the horizon. Well, most of us had eyes glued to the horizon….some had eyes rolling back into their heads as they chummed off of the side of the boat. I actually didn’t know that you could chum for humpbacks but apparently it works because not long after the purging halted, we had our first spotting…. a baby, the guides said a 4 day old humpback, livin’ la vida loca splashing about learning how to play. I grabbed a Frisbee out of my backpack and chucked it at the whale, having not yet been wholly convinced on the whole dog to whale evolutionary transition, and I’ll be damned if the thing didn’t jump up and grab it with its teeth!!! Amazing! And to think that I almost spent the weekend working with soil samples in the lab (Bill, if you are reading this please know that I really do think that microbial communities are just as fascinating as watching newborn humpback whales breaching and playing frisbee).
Gilligan and The Skipper finished the tour off by guiding the boat into the mouth of the Rio Sierpe and through the crocodile infested mangrove forests, navigating the shallow channels for 30 km to our final destination, the riverside town of Sierpe where we loaded back onto the bus for the 5 hour journey back to San Jose (actually 6 hour journey due the traffic backup caused by a landslide in the mountains that wiped out the road for more than a day.

The following morning, we left San Jose on one of the earliest buses headed back to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui and our lab at La Selva. As the bus driver took us screaming down the lush mountainside through Brallio National Park back into the lowlands, I couldn’t help but look out my window at the countryside flying by and smile from ear to ear knowing that I was exactly where I wanted to be and doing exactly what I want to be doing in life….and that my friend is an incredible feeling. Pura Vida!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

I've Lost My Muse!!!!

As some of you may have noticed, recently, I have been finding it nearly impossible to write. For some reason, every time I sit down to relay my thoughts via the keyboard my mind freezes and I end up blankly staring at the computer screen. I have been having some amazing experiences down here so it’s not for lack of material. My time in the lab has become less intense so it is not for lack of time. Am I finally cracking under the pressure of composing something funny for the masses?

I have heard it said that most great writers turn to their muse for inspiration when the words just absolutely refuse to flow. Now I am not insinuating that I am a great writer but am nonetheless confused by my sudden inability to compose. So what is it I ask myself…what is it that is missing? What has changed in my simple little life down here that has transformed me in a matter of weeks from a blabbering idiot with verbal diarrhea into a wallflower with nothing at all to say?

Oh my god…I’ve got it…I know what’s wrong……diarrhea is my muse....!

The reason I can no longer write is due to the return of normal bowel function! So what the hell should I do? I don’t want perpetual diarrhea anymore, but then again, I don’t want to be a wallflower with nothing to say either! Okay, let’s think this through with rational thought…I need to write. I have a responsibility to relay my jungle experiences. The answer is clear to me….I will simply ingest a few Ex-Lax when it comes time to compose. Nothing wrong with that right? Wrestlers do it all the time when it’s time to perform and not to mention I could use a little chocolate coating for the sweet tooth. So it’s settled, I have decided what I must do. I’m off to the Swiss Family Robinson Room to raid Mel’s first aid kit. Should only take a few hours before I know if the creative juices are starting to flow!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

New Adventures on the Horizon!

Thank you to all of those who showed me a little love and commented...I feel fulfilled now and am getting ready to take on a new adventure that hopefully will reap some blog worthy stories....I have just signed on for a last minute adventure that will take me to the Pacific Coast for a weekend of boating, snorkeling, and whale watching off of the Osa Peninsula!!! Yes, that means more vitamin D for me! AND, my stomach feels AMAZING and regular so keep those fingers crossed for an Immodium free adventure! Although, I may need some dramamine for the sea sickness...!Ciao for now and Pura Vida!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Okay listen here people, and listen closely....I will not be posting another blog until I receive some feedback in the form of 'comments.' Life in the jungle can be lonely and I NEED some love from you! Remember, no blog. The choice is yours.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Griswalds go to Wally World

Now I don’t mean to go on and on and on about the status of my bowels, but this is serious business and consumes much of my life down here. Being sick is miserable and can dictate every aspect of one’s day. This is precisely why I feel it is necessary to clue you in on the very personal status of my colon. My therapist says that admitting the problem is the first step to recovery so here goes…I have now been sick for 8 days…. I have developed an unhealthy dependence on Imodium and begun experimenting with a witch’s brew of antibiotics and ameba slayers….I want help...I want to get better…I want to break these chains and free myself from the confines of the BATHROOM! And now that my personal demons are out in the open for all to see, let’s move on….I’ve got a lot of shit to take care of…HA! Okay, I promise, not another comment about my bodily functions for at least another paragraph.

After spending the weekend at sea level, it was time to move up in elevation and trade sandy toes for muddy boots. The Tormentor had arranged for us (The Butcher, Mel, Shea (more to come there for sure!), myself and the rest of The Eaton Clan* to spend 4 days in the cloud forests of Monteverde sampling for the very prestigious Tropical Science Center with the Center’s Director, Olivier. Our transportation was the Costa Rican equivalent to the Griswald’s wood paneled station wagon of National Lampoon fame….a giant white bus that screamed TOURISTS! really, it had a sign on the side which read TOURISTS!!!!

*It just occurred to me that I have skipped over some important information that is necessary for a full account of the excursion at hand. I promise to go into greater depth regarding each individual, but for now a brief introduction will have to do. Shea, by profession is a river rafting guide on the Elwha River in Washington. He was recruited at the same time as Melanie to join The Costa Rican Microbiology Team at La Selva. He refers to me as ‘Dragon Lady’ and I not so secretly LOVE it! The Eaton Clan is the Tormentor’s family who is staying the summer down here and includes head matriarch Michelle, Grandpa Ken, and the two boys Bobby and Liam ages 10 and 9.

Sampling in Monteverde was actually a pretty big deal as we would be the very first people to conduct a microbial diversity study in the very same forests that the now extinct golden toad once lived. Needless to say, Bill (renamed Clark Griswald for the duration of the trip) was elated as were the rest of the Griswalds who were just happy to get out of La Selva and see a different part of the country. After an incredibly painful and teary goodbye to my two new besties Ryan and Dennis, I found my seat at the very back of the bus, threw in my iPod ear buds and silently vowed to not have a good time. Emily and Melanie quickly followed suit and together we joined grumpy forces and became Audrey Griswald. Shea immediately filled the role of Rusty Griswald with his uncanny ability to irritate me with every single word that came out of his mouth…no wonder he calls me Dragon Lady but in my own defense, I was still totally ill with dysentery (before you get testy, there is definitely a paragraph between my promise to not say anything with a fecal reference and this comment…look for yourself) and my patience was incredibly short. Grandpa Ken called shot-gun for fear that we would treat him like Aunt Edna and tie him into the rocking chair strapped to the top of the bus and Michelle (Ellen Griswald) settled the boys in for the 6 hour trip to the mystic mountains of Monteverde.

Let this be a warning to anyone planning on traveling the back country dirt roads to Monteverde, especially if you are sitting over the rear axle and have a cup size larger than a C….wear at least 3 bras for this journey. It is necessary if you don’t want to spend the rest of your youthful years with a chest that resembles my great Aunt Magda’s.

Monteverde is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The air is cool and damp with moisture and the misty clouds move swiftly through the trees, along the roads, and down the green valleys as they make their way up and over the continental divide. Due to the elevation and severe winds in the upper reaches, the forests are dwarfed and you fully expect to find elves frolicking in the thick moss covered understory.

On the second day (I missed the first sampling day because The Tormentor kicked me off of the research team due to my intestinal discomforts) after taking antibiotics and feeling rather sparky, I eagerly donned my beloved jungle gear and hiking boots and set out with the research team. We hiked up and up and up through the cloud forest, stopping only briefly to shake hands with Peter at the Gates, and then continuing on up to the famed Continental Divide where you could take a leak on the ridge and place bets as to which ocean it would run down to. The view was rather socked in with clouds but still stunningly beautiful none-the-less. So…where do we sample?...oh not here?...then where?...DOWN THERE?!....

And down is exactly where we went. Making sure to give the machete wielding Tico man a clear enough area for his backswing, we wound down the mountain ridge cutting through vines, ducking under logs, crossing over gurgling streams, and straight through some of the thickest underbrush I have ever seen. All I could think was thank god it was too cold for snakes up here. After almost an hour of sliding on our asses straight down the muddy slip-n-slide referred to by our machete wielding guide as ‘the trail’ we arrived at sampling plot # 1, Piedres Blanco, to retrieve our bounty….32 soil cores full of dirt. A slight sense of accomplishment began to creep in as we pulled the last core, but the realization that we now had to march back up the side of the mountain using the mud ‘trail’ and sample in 2 additional plots quickly snapped us back into our state of misery.

Finally at a quarter to four our research team plodded back into the station through the pouring rain with packs bursting at the seams full of 96 hard earned cores from 3 different study plots. The Tormentor and I agreed that it had without doubt, been the hardest day of sampling either of us had ever conducted. Although physically exhausted, I felt better than I had in over a week. The fresh mountain air combined with a slew of drugs had done me wonders and I actually felt like eating something! To celebrate, Olivier treated each of us to the biggest, moistest, full of gooey goodness looking chocolate cake in all the land and a fresh cup of espresso with which to wash it all down…..I’m actually still drooling.

The next day, we said our farewells to Olivier and the guides and loaded back up into the Griswald wagon (sans Rusty who flew back to the States for a weekend of debauchery no doubt), for the long journey down the bumpy mountain road back to Wally World. Grandpa up front, Clark and Ellen with the boys, and the powerfully moody super-force conglomerate of Audrey, wearing a total of 7 braziers, happily (for the time being) in the front row nowhere near the rear axle.

21 Paces to Freedom

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the fact that I have been virtually M.I.A. for the past 12 days and to officially redeem myself. There is no single reason for my absence however if I had to pinpoint a reason, I would definitely blame it on my new found friends Ryan and Dennis….more on them later. Anyway, after receiving numerous threats in the form of e-mails, smoke signals, and late night whispers through the darkness from this blog’s ever-growing fan club, here is the quick and dirty run down of the past two weeks. I am warning you, it wont be pretty and some feelings might get hurt…and it probably wont be quick….but it will definitely be dirty……regardless, you asked for it so here it is.

Lets start with Ryan. It was three weeks ago, the first time I laid eyes on her and I knew instantly that she was a creeper. I had just finished my morning business in the bathroom (which by the way is an exercise in humility due to the fact that there are ZERO private bathrooms here….its all public…all day, everyday, for two and a half months!)….and there she stood in the hallway staring at me. I don’t mean staring at me like she just woke up and was still in zombie mode….it was staring like she thought I was the dumbest person on earth and had never wanted to punch someone so badly in her whole existence. I knew immediately that we would be lifelong friends but I decided to wait until she cheered up to introduce myself.

Later that day I saw her slowly walking alone on the bridge looking a little less hostile and thought I should take the chance just incase it was a rarity. The expensive Nikon with the telephoto lens and the high powered binoculars dangling from her neck told me that she might be interested in the sloth I had spied up in a tree, so I waved her over and asked if she wanted to see it. As she walked towards me I assessed the situation….bandanna on her head, nose ring, wife beater T, aviator shades, and a sweet pair of trail runners…I asked myself, GJL or long lost twin? I showed her the sloth, she showed me a toucan, and we haven’t stopped talking since. Turns out she is my long lost twin and we are currently putting together a questionnaire to administer to our parents when we get home.

10 days ago….enter Dennis…or Dr. D as he insists on being called (makes him feel young and hip I think)…or The Bloody Brit as we like to call him. It wasn’t tough to spot him….he is ruggedly handsome, talks with a ridiculous accent, and is incredibly arrogant (we try to cut him some slack…he’s British after all, he can’t help himself), Have I mention the serious shortage of male eye candy around here? Anyway, Ryan and I were sitting at dinner enjoying yet another surprising spread of rice and beans when he sauntered into the cafeteria, effectively turning every female head and leaving my jaw drowning in the beans….Ryan, thanks for slapping it back into place before I started panting.

Not sure exactly how it all happened because I was still trying to wipe the beans off of my chin, but he ended up joining our table where Ryan (who has an uncanny ability to talk to anyone about anything) chatted him up and got all of the vitals for me. 42 years old….old but seasoned…..Ecologist…yummmm….. British….. yet disserted his country because he secretly adores all things American such as Alabama accents, shootin’ vermin, drinkin’ Bud Light, and ridiculously enormous 4x4’s. YEEHAW!.......2 kids……okay, I like kids…..and duhn duhn duhn….
Married…...crap….oh well; I guess that means I don’t have to shave this week after all.

Over the course of 5 minutes, the three of us became fast friends and were completely unable to do anything without each other’s company. Mostly we just made fun of Dennis’s accent and sentence structure and used him for his night vision camera (which I still think has ex-ray vision) to search the swamp for frogs and stalk kinkajous on the bridge. Ever notice how the British always end a sentence with a question? They always say something like “Hail to the Queen, have a pint, blah, blah, blah, BRILLIANT isn’t it?” What the hell does that even mean?!

8 days ago…..The Butcher arranged for Ryan and I to stow away with her and some of the other researchers to the Caribbean to get IRIE MON for 3 days! I was so freakin’ pumped I could hardly contain myself….and I mean it in the most literal sense….overnight, I became ill again and the toilet became my closest acquaintance. Not good if you are planning on sitting like a lady on a bus for 3 hours…so what do you do?.... take an Imodium and pray that god himself doesn’t want to punish you. Absolutely nothing was going to keep me from dipping my toes in the Caribbean and finally getting a tan….not even way.

3 hours later our bus pulled into the palm tree lined beach town of Puerto Viejo de Limon near the Panama border. Ryan and I rented the honeymoon suite at Kaya’s, fully equipped with bunk beds, a sink that stopped working, and our own private bathroom with a sign that read “Please to not flush paper in toilet. Please put in the trash can.” Dios mio how I would hate to be a housekeeper there! I immediately christened the toilet before Ry and I headed out for a candle lit dinner of vegetarian nachos and pizza. Ever since coming down here I have become a vegetarian to help eliminate possible gastrointestinal illnesses which sounds lovely except that I am also lactose intolerant….but I LOVE cheese and it is especially delish in Costa Rica obviously because the cows are happier here.

Okay, lets pause here to assess the situation…hindsight is always 20/20…isn’t it? I was already afflicted with a pretty gnarly case of explosive diarrhea so why wouldn’t I test fate and indulge in a copious amount of queso?! Sometimes my own intelligence astounds me.

Okay, so Ryan and I throw back a couple of drinks (vodka soda limes to kill the bacteria), meet up with the other researchers, throw back a couple more and retire to the honeymoon suite to dream the night away. Fast forward to 3 a.m. and you will find me in my bunk lying in a pool of sweat and trying not to shit the bed (sorry, there is simply no better way of putting this). I’m not sure how long I lay there in agony visualizing every single step that separated me from the toilet but as soon as a small break in the violent cramping came, I seized the moment and hauled ass. Clenching every single muscle even remotely associated with my bowels I scurried down the 5 rungs on the ladder, shuffled the 6 steps to the door and bolted 15 more straight down the hall which landed me precisely at my target….el bano (I chose not to defile our own restroom because I didn’t want to alienate my new friend so early in our relationship). Feeling a bit better and thinking the worst had to be over, I gingerly slipped back into the room. I had just closed the door to the hall and barely taken 3 steps into the room when I heard the bell rang and the announcer yell “ROUND 2!” Sorry Ryan, but logistically there was no other choice…by my calculations, our bathroom was exactly 13 steps closer than the one down the hall and there just wasn’t any time left! So in I went, head first this time and purged the cheesy contents of my stomach….(don’t say I didn’t warned you that this would get dirty).... and what I saw will baffle me to the day I die….I have never seen anything like it…. I swear I could have rolled it in almonds and called it a cheese log. BRILLIANT isn’t it!

Even though I remained a slave to my gastrointestinal track, I spent the next two days lying in ecstasy on the black sand beach soaking up the Caribbean vitamin D. Aside from the obvious distraction, I had a great time getting irie and now I can finally stop complaining that I have been to this country of rich coasts 3 times without ever seeing la playa. By Sunday evening, I was back to the sullen rains of La Selva practically drunk with kisses from Caribbean sunbeams….and possibly a slight overdose of Imodium.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

SWF seeks Jungle Companion

For the first 2 weeks at La Selva, I happily lived the life of a bachelor(ette). I could stumble into the Swiss Family Robinson Room in the wee hours of morning and poor myself into bed and not worry if my drunkin’ snores would wake anyone. I found a sense of freedom in the ability to swagger around the room naked, allowing the numerous bug bites to ooze without fear of judgment. I began to feel a peculiar sense of pride for the musk that wafted from the confines of my room which was no doubt a result of dirty socks strewn over chairs, underwear balled up and thrown into a distant corner, bug spray and mildew soaked everything, and empty Dominoes boxes on the bookshelf…okay, you got me…there is no jungle delivery…its Digiorno. But down here, despite all of the glamorous attributes, the life of a SWF (single white female) is very yin and yang. Without someone to laugh at my jokes, or kill the giant spider that lurks in the cabinet threatening to eat my face off at any moment, life became a little lonely. Oh how I wish I could be like the other researchers....I wanna’ roomie!!!

Not being one to stew in my own misery, I decided to place an add in the back page of the Jungle Times. It read; SWF seeks jungle companion for long walks in the swamp to search for frogs, snakes, birds, and such. Must like to eat rice and beans for every meal, drink Imperial, Pilsen, Flor de Cane, and/or Costa Rican Firewater, not be offended by the sight of my sweaty ass not so gracefully descending down from the top bunk first thing in the morning, talk openly and without embarrassment about bodily functions, listen to me go on and on and on about my three little furry babies back home, and most importantly not annoy the bloody hell out of me. Would prefer a HSM (hot single male) 28-35 years old, but would also consider a SF (single female), SM (single male), K9C (K-9 Companion), or GJL (Giant Jungle Lesbian) as long as you promise not to steal my sweet camo pants and bandanas.

As the old saying goes…ask and you shall receive. One balmy summer afternoon no different than any other, I meandered back to the River Station anticipating a rejuvenating solo yoga session in the comforts of my musty bachelorette pad and as I opened the door I laid eyes on the answer to my lonely cries. There sitting on the lower bunk, feet kicked back and drinking an ice cold Imperial sat Melanie….insert The Dating Game theme song here…and “Hit it Bob!”….”Melanie is a 34 student currently living in Port Angeles Washington with her long term boyfriend Pete, 3 cats, and a three legged dog named Jeb. In her free time, Melanie enjoys incredibly long walks in the jungle at night without a flashlight, loves birds, and can most often be found scanning the canopy with her trusty binoculars and guide book tucked neatly into the fanny pack around her waist. Melanie is looking forward to spending the entire summer collecting soil from the god forsaken jungle, extracting DNA, running PCR, and cloning!”

As I sit here and look around the room, I realize that the bachelorette pad is no more. Even though The Swiss Family Robinson room is little more cluttered and there is a new component to the musk, overall, life has been great with Ol’ Mel! I wouldn’t trade her for the world unless of course a HSM answers the lonely jungle call and then sorry Mel, you gotta go…but all in all we are like a match made in jungle heaven.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Pasty Skin Healin' at the Benthic Lab

After being in the tropics for almost 3 weeks, one would rightfully expect my skin to resemble something out of a Hawaiian Tropics add…moist, golden brown, and radiating as if the great fire in the sky had come down and gently covered every inch of my body with sweet, sweet sun kisses…if this is what you think, I am sorry to inform you that you couldn’t be any more wrong. My unglamorous epidermis is a result of sitting in the sterile lab day after day, gazing out of the window at the rain and trying to ignore the blinding florescent light reflecting off of my pasty, insect bite covered legs….dreamy I know. Emily and I have decided that enough is enough. We are putting an end to this. Rumor has it that there is a cable car that goes across the river and leads the science weary to a sort of Shangri-La where sun deprived sickened skin meets healing river water and ultraviolet rays….we’re fucking out of here.

We tear out of the lab to the Swiss Family hut, hell-bent on retrieving our swim suits before the Tormentor notices we’re gone. Then it’s 2 sets of wheels racing down the trail, the Butcher clearing the path of everything that threatens to stand in our way. 3 km later, we turn onto a leaf littered trail and pedal feverishly until it abruptly ends at the cliffs edge where a carelessly hung sign read “2 person maximum.” Across the turquoise river, we see the cable car resting 30 feet above the ground on a tree platform. Slyly peaking at each other, we hesitating only long enough to make sure that the other hadn’t chickened out and gotten on her bike for a swift retreat; we grabbed the ropes and beckoned the car to our side of the river. With arms burning and adrenalin rushing we climbed onto the car and hoped for the best…after all, the worst that could happen is that the frayed ropes would finally call it quits after god knows how many years and we would go plunging into the water 30 feet below where the crocodiles anxiously wait. One last glance at my albino legs and I knew it had to be done….like a personal mantra giving me strength, I sang, ”aint no river wide enough, aint no fer-de-lance venomous enough, aint no crocodile fierce enough to keep me from gettin’ tan!”

A few short minutes later, The Butcher and I were chill-axin’ on the cobble beach, waist deep in a river channel soakin’ up the rays. We lay in this self indulgent trance until the nagging voices in our heads, reminding us of the lab work still to be finished, overpowered the quiet chatter of toucans overhead. As we made our way back up the tree, over the river, and down the trail, we eagerly anticipated returning to our little Shangri-La. Making a pact to not divulge the location of our secret hideaway to anyone we decided that it needed a dreary and un-enticing code name…and this was how the Benthic Lab came to be….like I said, it’s like nerd camp here...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Jungle Surprises" and Bad Bad Boys

Today was a long day…again…I should have asked for an hourly wage instead! We spent 11 hours in the lab tediously extracting DNA from the soil samples collected from our study plots last week. My back hurts and my nerves are shot. But as I sit here in my Swiss Family Robinson room feeling sorry for myself the orchestra of rain and crickets outside reminds me that with all things considered, even the longest days here are is incredibly beautiful, I am surrounded by people who are here to make me smarter, and above all else I am getting paid to be here! I still can’t get over it…oh AND there is bound to be a “jungle surprise” along the way to break up the monotony of the day!

After lunch a couple of days ago, I was walking across the suspension bridge and found myself caught in the crossfire of two warring troops of howlers presumably fighting over who had toll collecting rights. Coming in from opposite sides of the river, the troops met in the middle of the bridge with balls swinging (see photo above!) and switch blades in hand just like something out of West Side Story…I think they were planning a dance off for the evening showing. Anyway, there was a lot of howling and some blows were thrown ending with one of the males falling into the shallow river 30 ft. below. In retrospect, it could have simply been a bitch slap and poor balance that led the monkey to fall. Nevertheless, he made his way back onto the bridge to reestablish his toll collecting dominance sporting a lovely new bloody jaw and a gash on his arm. Feeling a bit uncomfortable by the amount of testosterone and nudity exhibited, the others and I paid our banana to the gate keeper and went on our way...back to the lab for me…

The topic of discussion at lunch today was snake encounters. When you first get here, “snake” is always on your mind…your eyes are glued to the ground and you try to stay away from areas that look “snakey”…like that’s supposed to mean something…it’s a jungle…the whole place is “snakey.” But I always try to sneak a peek over the log before stepping and make every effort to stay away from buttress roots where Senior fer-de-lance is known to hang out with his comrades Seniors Coral Snake, Eyelash Palm Pit Viper, and Hog Nose Pit Viper. Up until last night, I had had the good fortune of not being introduced to any of those troublemakers. But, despite the fact that my parents have always warned me to stay away from those kinds of boys, last night true to form, I made the acquaintance of a very bad bad boy. On my way to dinner Senior Coral Snake was waiting at the bottom of the steps leading from my room and scared the living bah-jesus out of me. I politely told him that I wasn’t looking for a bad boy anymore and am patiently waiting for a nice boy with a good reputation…now scram so I can go eat.

At least my encounter was a little more civilized than undergraduate Virginia’s was. Like me, she took a research assistant position here for the summer. Unlike me, she spends all of her time in the jungle setting and gathering live capture rodent traps…to a snake those traps are like a cafeteria in a starving village with locked doors just brimming with tasty morsels. So here is poor Virginia, alone in the jungle about 4 km out just trying to do her freakin’ job so that someone will accept her into grad school. She is reaching down to collect her trap when out of the corner of her eye no less than 8 inches from her hand she watches Senior fer-de-lance, fangs glistening with deadly venom, take a strike at her…what a jerk. Fortunately for her the thing had bad aim. There is no question in my mind that I would quit my job immediately (but only after changing my soiled underpants, going to the bar, heavily sedating myself and leaving the bar tab sitting on my bosses desk). I have decided that the lab isn’t such a bad place after all, oh and mom, can you send me some body armor and a snake bite kit? Okay thanks! Ciao for now!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle!

After 24 hours of travel, 2 full days of setting up the lab, marching all over the god forsaken jungle, and then laying in my bed for 48 hours only getting up to purge from both the northern and southern exits..... if you know what I mean.....i have arrived! read on if you want to hear how it all played out...

Week 1: I am having a great time down here but am totally exhausted. We (Bill, Emily the Butcher, and I) have been working all week to put the lab together and gather all of the soil samples so that we can start working in the air conditioned lab this week. We are hiking anywhere from 5-8 km a day on the trails and through the undergrowth and riding 6-12 km a day all on top of being really sick...but all is well and i am having a lot of fun. I am soooo excited because they have loaned me a mountain bike for the summer seeing that my study plots are about 6 km down the trail. That can make for long trip out and back if you are walking. However, no matter the means of transportation, it is a beautiful trail to be follows the Rio Sarapique and there is a ton a wildlife. I still cant believe that i am getting paid to hike and bike in a tropical forest! Saw howler monkeys today on the bridge and in my study plot...their name says it all...the males grunt and howl when they don't want you near them....rumor has it they also throw feces...i suspect they haven't done it to me because they have heard of my sickness and know that I am capable of throwing it back. Have also seen a ton of beautiful birds, poison dart frogs, peccaries (jungle pigs with musk), coatimundais (like raccoons), and ants.......SO many ants....they are just part of my creapy crawly life here.

The weather has been comparatively cool and less buggy compared to years past. not sure if that is due to it being earlier in the season or different location....probably both....i suspect it will be hotter than two rats humpin in a wool sock soon enough (thanks for that metaphor fits well here!). The rain comes everyday and stays for minutes to hours. My boots are thoroughly soaked and are beginning to smell pretty bad so they have been banished to the hallway outside of my room. i feel bad for the poor guy rooming down the hall...but not bad enough to move them inside....sorry guy.

When I finally get a chance to go to bed, i retire to my room which is straight out of Swiss Family Robinson with a bed, desk, small closet, and a fan. No boots allowed. i have a view of the river and the suspension bridge which connects the two side of the campus. I have to cross it to get from the main dining area to my room. On the bridge there is a sign that says something like 'swim at your own risk...crocodiles are present in the river'....lovely, i think i will least until it gets really unbearably hot or I get incredibly drunk. this place is like a mini college campus in the jungle with the labs, dining area, living quarters, and library all separated by trails. this can be a little intimidating at night when you only have a head lamp and have to walk 10 minutes through the jungle with snakes and ants all over!

There are probably close to 80 students and researchers here from all over the world so there is always someone new to talk to...or bother you....the classic conversation starter is "so, what are you studying?" and "hey dirt girl" or "hey frog guy" (who by the way is totally smokin' hot!) there also seems to be a distinct social hierarchical cast system emerging where your place is determined by what you study. As far as I can tell, the microbiologist (thats us) are the highest class (duh!), followed by the botanists, then the herps (herpetologists whom I only put in here because they got extra points for good looks), with the bottom class consisting of a conglomerate of ants, bats, mites, and who knows what other nerdy stuff people are studying. Then there are the 'untouchables' who are the dorks coming in for a couple of days to learn 'Tropical Biology' and don't have the huevos to actually leave the safety of the trails. Basically, this place is like a zoo full of nerds and club med all wrapped into one!

Bill and I are working well together as always, and Emily, an undergrad from the University of Tennessee who is working with us all summer, is fitting in like a champ...and ENJOYING being around Bill and I! That is important when you have to work and live side by side with each other all summer! Not to mention smell us! We actually don't refer to her as Emily anymore ever since her new nickname was bestowed upon her....she is now known only as the Butcher following an unfortunate series of rapid events where a toucan was knocked out trying to mistakenly fly in front of her as she recklessly careened down the trail on her bike, a green poison dart frog was run over by her tire, and a bat met its demise with the spokes of her tire....sad yes, but hysterical to watch it all unfold!

Today, we all went into town (Puerto Viejo) to go to the supermarket and have lunch since we were out in the field when lunch was served at the station. the lovely ladies in the kitchen will pack you a lunch to throw in your soaking wet pack and take with you out into the field if you politely ask in Spanish, however we didn't think we would need it became a good excuse to go into town. not to mention I am a bit leery of eating the packed lunch because I suspect that may have contributed to my bout of dysentery and the illness that landed me in bed for 48 hours last week. The cab ride cost $3 and took 5-10 minutes to get there so all three of us piled in and split the cost....good thing they pay me the big bucks! At the cafe, ate arroz con camarones and some ceviche which was delish and bought an umbrella, soda water, limes, and a pint of vodka (to kill the bacteria living in my stomach) at the supermarcado. Life is good.

Well, that is all for now...i hope you didn't fall asleep reading my novel. i am off to bed to rest and enjoy my first day off tomorrow. think I will get up, drink some coffee, go for a ride on the bike, and will of course be keeping you posted on more of my adventures as they unfold!

Mucho besos!