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!