Monday, April 16, 2007

when slingshots don't work, throw rocks

My adventures with my "research" project continue. My project has now turned into looking a photosynthetic pigments in moss along a height gradient up a tree, because pretty much every tree has moss. Climbing trees is really really cool. Unfortunatly, rigging them to climb is really really difficult.
How to rig a tree:
Take a small roundish object, tie a string to it.
Take slingshot, try to shoot roundish object over desired branch
repeat 100-500 times until object goes over branch and falls all the way to the other side
Do happy happy dance
tie slightly larger rope to string, drag over branch
tie climbing rope to first rope, pull over branch
think about climbing......

My slingshot skills have drastically improved, but this is still a bit time consuming (it took two days to rig one tree). One of the TAs came out with us this afternoon to try to impart some tree rigging secrets. It turns out that throwing rocks might actually work better then the slingshots... except i am a girl and can't throw. With the slingshot i can shoot something up about 60 feet, when i throw the rock it goes up maybe 15 feet... embarassing!
So we climbed our first tree, it was amazing, sitting 50 feet up on the canopy... so cool! I got my first set of samples (little baggies of moss) and figured out how to process them. Four hours later I had ony two samples to finish and they locked the door to the room where i was storing them. I guess that's one way to tell me to get out of the lab and get a life!
In other exciting news... my homestay mom and I have reached a food truce. She now only gives me enough food for two people (instead of 8) and in return I eat it all. It turns out there is only so much fried food one can eat before wanting to curl up in a ball and puke.... here is a normal breakfast: some combination of fried rice, fried plantains, fried cheese, eggs scrambled in oil, toast coated in butter, some fruit, and coffee. mmmmm fried food.
When not eating liquid fats I spend time playing with my new "sister". She and her 8 year old cousin spend hours devising imaginary games that involve elaborate story lines and somehow require my presence. Having the rules of some complicated game yelled at you simultaneously in spanish by two kids is a great way to learn spanish.

Friday, April 13, 2007

slingshots suck

We made it back to Monteverde, where they promptly dumped us off with homestay families. My family seems nice. On my first day I met about 30 different people, all of who were some how related (my cousin's sister's, youngest daughter....). I have a 5 year old "sister" who is enthralled by my flashlight and intent on preventing any sort of studying I might want to do. My "mom" seems to think I don't eat enough, which might explain why she gives me enough food for 6 people, at every meal.
Life is pretty interesting, my alarm clock... aka the rooster next door.... goes off at 4:30. My family gets up around 5:30, and we have all had breakfast and left the house by 6:45am. I make it up to the station around 8, and then try to work on my independent project.
Ahh, the projects:
mine is on changes in photosynthetic pigments in a plant (i cant figure out which one) going up a tree. So far, no data. My first day was spent learning how to climb trees, and more importatnly, how to get back down. Going up is pretty easy (Jumars!), going down isn't so bad (repelling with a figure 8 device), but swiching between the two at the top of the tree is a little tricky. So I spent most of wednesday hanging three feet off the ground from a tree in front of the station, practicing with the gear... in the pouring rain. Thursday was even less productive. To get up a tree you first have to rig the tree. rigging a tree involves using a sling shot to shoot a metal weight with a string over a branch 100 feet up in the canopy. 6 hours of mosquito bites and tangled fishing line later, still no rigged tree. Oh, and the plant I was planning on studying actually doesnt grow in the area with the trees we are going to climb. So, I can now use jumars, shoot a slingshot, and, ummm, thats about it.
lunch time....

Saturday, April 7, 2007

John and Erik: Preparing for some very intense caving

A view of bird island

A few more photos for your viewing pleasure.
We have just returned from an extended fieldtrip and I seem to remember promising to update this blog at some point. So, here it is, 2+ weeks of our adventures, somewhat faithfully recorded and then sloppily transcribed onto a computer. If I can give you six pages of prose you could at least send me a two letter email that says “Hi” (not that I am bitter or anything…).
Enjoy my grammar-less ramblings!

Penas blancas
We hiked out of Monteverde, over the continental divide to Pen_as Blancas (translates to white cliffs, though I never did see any of those) where we camped for four days. The hike was beautiful, all 6 dripping hours of it. We stopped for lunch along a river and it was a great, albeit chilly, place for a swim. I put my backpack on again and then proceeded to slosh my way up the trail for several more hours. All in all an excellent day.

Penas Blancas Dia dos
We woke up to the sound of pouring rain beating on the metal roof. So much for that 6am bird watching we had planned. We sat on the porch with our coffee and watched two scarlet rumped tanagers flap wetly between the distant trees. We had lecture for a few hours while hoping the rain would let up: how to tell the difference between the aracae genera. At 10am the rain showed no signs of relenting and the powers above (aka the professor) announced it was time to go see some plants in the field (which was quickly becoming a swamp).
Off we trudged and learned. After lunch we went on a second hike in the rainforest. I have decided I really like the rainforest, in fact it may be my favorite place ever.
Dinner was an adventure: spaghetti with tomato sauce, beans, and rice. Really, it isn’t a meal if there aren’t beans and rice. After dinner we headed back into the forest for a little frog hunting. It was funny to see 20 people stomping together by the light of their headlamps, because usually I go out at night with just a few others. There were fewer frogs then hoped (one live and one dead) but I felt special because I saw a norops and a Fer-de-Lance (my first Terciopelo!) and that makes it a two snake day because I also found a cute little rear fanged snake on our afternoon hike. I was looking for salamanders but all I got was a snakes, that we played with and later found out were slightly venomous. Anyways, the Fer-de -Lance was intense. There were just two of us left on the nighthike and the other guy was ahead of me on the trail. He took a step and I looked down to see this brown patterned snake with a triangular head right in front of me on the trail, which then prompted me to say, very intelligently: “snake, snake, ummm… I think that’s a Fer-de-Lance”. Pretty much awesome. Why must dangerous things be so beautiful?
Other exciting bits of that day: learning how to play chess. I am proud of myself because I now know the names of the pieces and how to set up the board. At this point I have yet to make it to the end of a game (free time is limited) but I am very excited at this newly acquired hobby.

Penas Blancas: day 3
Yesterday was fungus diversity day. We spent the first few morning hours being lectured to about various fungus forms and were then sent out into the rainforest on a fun filled fungus finding adventure. While searching for assorted fungus forms (polypores, birds nest fungus, etc) I found a very nifty green snake, and of course I didn’t have my camera, and the nine people who walked by also didn’t have cameras. We were pretty sure that the snake was a colubred, but after it attempted to strike at us a few times we decided not to mess with it. A bit later I found a three legged frog that I decided would be safer then a snake to bring back for show and tell. When I made it back to camp my tales of an orange eyed green snake were completely over shadowed because some of the guys had caught a large coral snake mimic and were showing it off. Apparently I am a wimp for not picking up a snake that wanted to eat me. Ha.
In other exciting news, we were given some free time in the afternoon and one of the TAs announced she was going to a waterfall only 45 minutes away. Two hours and several submersions in the river later we made it to the waterfall. It was gorgeous even if I was soaked head to toe before ever going swimming.
Another round of rice and beans for dinner (rice and beans must be served at every meal, or else) and then off on another night hike. This one was optional and only 6 students really felt like slogging our way through the swamp for the 4th time in one day. It was worth it I think: a coral snake, a toad, some froggies, and an assortment of nifty arthropods. At the incredibly late hour of 9:30 we stumbled our way back into camp where most of the group proceeded to mock me for accessorizing my rain pants with an ample quantity of duct tape. Some people, and by that I mean me, just shouldn’t bother with rain pants , this is the second pair I have ripped this year. I think I may give up on the duct tape and amuse myself with the knowledge that I am the sole owner of a pair of rain chaps.

Penas Blancas: day 4
Butterfly diversity day
I am a failure as a butterfly catcher. To learn about butterfly families we were given nets and sent into the forest. When we met to compare our spoils of butterfly battle my single catch looked pretty measly compared to the 5-6 most other folks brought in. On a positive note, I did discover that butterfly nets can be used to catch lizards.
We IDed our butterflies, released them, and then had a painfully long lecture on the families and subfamilies of Lepidoptera. I think I can cross butterfly-ologist off my list of future careers. In the afternoon we had time to plan our independent projects and consult with a prof. Unfortunately after meeting with our rather critical prof most of us felt like a) crying b)feeding self to jaguarondi or c) not wanting to do a project. None of those were really viable options so most of us just moped around instead. After dinner, mac and cheese with rice and beans, we went out to harass the local herps, yet again. Two hours and three frogs later we realized we were exhausted and the 4 of us treked back to camp. When we arrived at the oh-so late hour of 10 everyone else was asleep.

Day 5
6 am breakfast: we are like a pack of starving locusts, if you aren’t at the table when it is served then you don’t get any food. So I fought my mosquito net, escaped and went to breakfast. An hour later we had all been prodded out the door, packs on, marching to Poco Sol. We had a glorious, but as usual, muddy, 8 hour hike to the other edge of Bosque Eterno de los Nin_os. About an hour away from the Poco Sol station we started to fantasize about what treats the prof who was meeting us there was going to bring. Topping the list were guacamole, hummus, clean clothes, and beer. None of these were available, however he did show up with a large box of assorted sugar forms and we happily foraged for at least an hour. In other exciting news, I lost a chess game in four moves and had my first encounter with leeches.
There is a lake near the station we are staying at and we all jumped in because murky lakes are just as good as soapy showers. After I climbed out of the water I looked down at my toes and there were leeches, cute little leeches, but still leeches. Though, in short time I was leech free and on my way.
After dinner the powers above deemed it to be an excellent time for an ornithology lecture. I passed out shortly after the diagrams of avian respiratory systems and got poked awake an hour later to hear the recordings of local bird calls. Oh, the embarrassment… night lectures, 14 hours after waking up, after a 9 hour hike, just don’t agree with me.

Day 6 Poco Sol
6 am bird watching. Oh yeah. I actually don’t dislike bird watching, in fact, compared to most of the folks in the group I appear down right enthusiastic about the topic. After some quality time with an assortment of tanagers there was breakfast, and more lecture. We were released from learning at noon and given until 4 to harass the rainforest as we pleased. I set out with a few other folks in search of a waterfall. While passing the lake I caught a really pretty frog (Rana warswitcheii, I can’t spell….) that had almost iridescent green splotches down its back. We also found two Eleutherodactylus fitzingeri sitting on eggs clusters under a log. Still not a salamander, but very cool. I am starting to think that I am destined to never find a salamander, but in the process of looking I find a lot of other interesting things.
Back to the waterfall walk: The trail ended at a drop off looking across a gorge. Through the vines we could see a huge waterfall with its white sprays of mist highlighted on a background of brilliant forest green. Glorious. We briefly, very briefly, attempted to bush whack our way down there, but gave up after reaching another cliff edge 30 meters down.
The trail back passed below a giant tree dripping with Oropendula nests. These noisy birds weave together their teardrop shaped nests in clusters 50m up in a tree crown. And then they squabble and croon amongst each other in a cacophony of squawks and hanging upside down babbles. When we reconvened for more learning we had another lengthy bout of birding and were then released for dinner.
After dinner we had a statistics lecture. We were terrified of the thought of a three hour lecture; luckily this was not the case. We did a linear regression comparing our individual rum rankings to the nasty alcohols’ price. Ten samples of rum later (during which most of us decided we like statistics, but didn’t like rum) our lecture relocated to a campfire and the festivities, and rum sampling, continued to escalate. Several hours of ¨statistics¨ induced, off key singing later….

Day 7: Poco Sol to Tirimbina
No one made it out of bed for 6 am birding this morning. Most of us stumbled out of our mosquito nets around 7 because the threat of a missed meal was more terrifying then the act of waking up. After our morning dose of rice and beans we learned a pile of new plant species and had a lecture on bats. At noon we said goodbye to Poco Sol and deposited ourselves and our mud covered belongings into the back of some very sketchy pickup trucks. For the next hour we bumped and jostled our way out of the mountains, stopping once at a bridge to walk across so the trucks would be light enough to cross. We eventually hit a paved road, got ice cream, and met up with the bus. Along the drive we stopped for ice cream again (one of our profs really likes ice cream I think). We also took a few minutes to walk around an arts and culture faire that was happening in the town square. While checking out the handicrafts we encountered some of the most terrifying clowns known to existence. We are fairly sure that some of the most frightening we, in fact, women, which refutes our hypothesis that clowns reproduce through binary fission and popcorn shaped spores. Yep, we are nerds… we actually had a lengthy dinner conversation about what our favorite chemical reactions were.
Anyways, we made it to Tirimbina and there was much excitement over showers, sheets, and semi-clean clothes. On an amusing note, we finally had access to ¨The Savage Book¨ (pretty much the golden bible of all things scaly and slimy in Costa Rica) and had time to look up some of the critters we had annoyed in the past week. We discovered that the striped snake we had all played with was a colubred, but a rear fanged venomous one. Woops. We also read up on the nesting frogs. It turns out that the last/only other report of that was from 1930, and counting the eggs in those two nests might have made a note or something. I guess this is a good reason to never go anywhere with out the Savage book.
So, Tirimbina is supposedly stuffed full with highly poisonous snakes. We were expecting great things from the two days spent there…. Bushmasters??? Alas no

Day 8: Tirimbina
Today we hiked across the Tirimbina reserve. We started at the field station and hiked down into the rainforest. As usual, we slogged through mud and learned new plant species. It was a very nice, but very wet hike. I am now fairly certain that my raincoat was lying when it said waterproof. On a positive note, my hiking boots were dry for the first time since day one in Pen_as Blancas. I forgot how nice it feels to not squelch my way down the trail.
In the afternoon we had a lecture on tent-making bats. The most entertaining part of the lecture was when our prof, who was translating for the folks who don’t understand Spanish, misheard the speaker and with a bemused look announced that some bats can modify thermal vents to use as nests (what was actually said was termite nests). After that I stayed awake to learn what other unexpected things bats could do. After the bat lecture we went off into the forest to look for some bat tents. Actually, we just followed our lecturer, who showed off one of the tents/bat groups he was currently studying. It was really cool, we looked under a heliconia leaf (like a banana tree) to see three cute fuzzy white bats.
Conveniently located in the same area as the sleepy little bats was a nicely swampy frog ridden patch. A few of us spent several entertaining minutes chasing poison dart frogs around the woods (Dendrobates pulmillio: bright red and blue, only sorta toxic). After our bat hunt we headed down to the river where the more adventurous members of the group jumped into the frighteningly green and murky water. Ok, I am a wimp, and for once I just didn’t feel like getting wet.
Additional excitement of the day: bullet ants, giant ants named for their painful sting that apparently feels like getting hit with a bullet. For this reason three folks in the group decided it would be a good idea to harass these relatively mellow ants into stinging/biting them. 10 hours later they were all still sort of whimpering. Note to self: never mess with a bullet ant.
Anyways, after bats and bullet ants we bounced our way back to the station (via taxi vans) for dinner and lecture… the effects of pineapple plantations on Costa Rican ecology. As interesting as evil fruit corporations may be, sitting still for lecture gave me time to realize how many really itchy bites I had. It’s probably my own fault, I was too lazy to put up my mosquito net the night before. Sooooo itchy, soooo very itchy. I started to feel sorry for myself and then looked across the table at one of the bullet ant victims and suddenly didn’t feel so bad.

Day 9: Tirimbina
What I thought was a few mosquito bites turned out to be several hundred chigger bites. Everywhere. It made for a very itchy day. While not attempting to tear my skin off I tried to look interested in the pineapple plantation and managed forest our “humans in the tropics” class was visiting. The lectures and papers for that class are painful but the field trips do tend to be interesting. Quite randomly, the pineapple plantation is owned by The Collin Street Bakery, a Texas fruitcake company that mom used to get fruitcakes from every holiday season: small world. The managed forest was interesting. By mapping out and carefully selecting which trees to cut the foresting company is actually able to maintain an okay looking forest.
After dinner we had a “talent Show” which eventually digressed into the standard revelry and insanity.

Day 10: To Panama
After a late night of much excitement we all had to be up at 5:45 to pack and leave for Panama. Miraculously, at 7:30 all bags were packed and loaded, and so were we. Reunited with the bus we went careening down the Atlantic side of Costa Rica. Lunch (pizza) took place on a beach that was vaguely reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ Truffula tree forest. All the trunks of the numerous palm trees were painted in a variety of shiny bright colors: a little weird, but very cool. After lunch, which for some inexplicable reason, half the folks didn’t want to eat, we continued barreling on to Panama. We came to the border at around 2 and proceeded to jump through metaphorical hoops for the next hour. Eventually passports had been stamped, copied, stamped again, and checked a 4th time, and we were allowed to continue. At this border crossing Costa Rica and Panama are separated by a rickety bridge that makes disturbing creaks while being walked across and distressed grumbles and squawks under the weight of a bus. The bridge stayed put, and we entered panama, where they once again ordered us to show our passports.
Not too much later we made it to the Bocas del Toro harbor, juggled our stuff from bus to boat, and head to Bocas del Drago on Isla del Colon (in Bocas del Toro province, Bocas del Toro region, and near the city of Bocas del Toro… not at all confusing). On the ride I thought the prof said “don’t put your hands in the water… there are piranhas”. Not quite, there are certainly no piranhas, just “poop”. Ok, gross.
We eventually made it out into the poop free waters of the archipelago, set up our bug nets, and called it a night.

Day 11: Panama
I woke up bright and early to the sound of one of my bunkmate’s sandy flip flops noisily smacking across the floor: it’s becoming a daily ritual. The morning was spent learning new Atlantic side, Panama species. Some new trees, biting sand flies, and a unique color morph of the local poison dart frogs. Our afternoon homework assignment was to read a chapter in our reader on marine diversity and spend at least 30 minutes snorkeling. After skimming over the names of all the marine critter orders I went splashing into the bathtub temperature water of the Caribbean. We all meandered through the meadows of sea grass and islands of slightly bashed coral to see some shiny fish and other creatures… like fireworms (why must such tactile-y painful things look so tantalizing to touch?)
After diner we had a lecture on coral reef ecology and I stayed awake the whole time… I am so proud of myself.

Day 12: Panama: A day on the water
We headed out onto the reef at 8am with snorkels and sun block in hand. We baked for several hours in the morning, and then several more in the afternoon whole admiring the shiny, squishy critters under the sea. One of the interesting places we swam in the afternoon was along the mangroves. The sea bottom was covered with hundreds of jellyfish that sometime back in their evolution got confused, flipped onto their backs, and settled into the murk with their tentacles waving up in the water like a frilly anemone. These jellies sat quite peacefully on the bottom until someone didn’t watch where they kicked their fins and suddenly the water was filled with sediment and floating balls of potential pain. EEK! Also cool: big stingrays.
Other interesting notes: I learned how to play dominoes, the big kid way with multiples of 5. And, the island we are on has very limited fresh water (drinking water only). The ocean is our bathtub… who needs salt for a tequila shot when you can just lick yourself?

Day 12: Panama: of biggish cities and bat caves
In the morning we were turned loose in the city of Bocas del Toro, a bumpy 45 minute drive to the other side of the island. With commands of “ be back by two” and “make sure you are sober for lecture at 7” we wandered off into the maze of tourist stalls, bars, and other assorted entertainment. After two hours I was in possession of a woven bag and a traditional beaded bracelet and it was time to find some internet. Fun stuff… looks like Berkeley will let me back in next semester. Excellent.
After our brush with civilization we retreated back into the wilderness to check out some bat caves. The first cave we splashed through was an educational experience with hundreds of sleepy, annoyed, bats roosting in the stalactites above our heads. Very cool (I seem to find myself saying that a lot these days). The adventure in the second cave was more for the fun of goofing around in caves then bat viewing. We spent a very enjoyable hour wading through waist deep water and slipping across bat guano. Once again, very cool…. I think I might like caving.
We emerged, covered in muck, squeezed into a minibus and bounced our way back to our side of the island where, clothes and all, we hopped into the ocean.
After diner we had a lecture during which one of our instructors presented her thesis work she had just finished on high altitude tropical birds. The lecture was interrupted when a few of us in the back row noticed that Benito, a guy who worked on the island, was sitting behind us proudly holding a very large, very irritated vine snake. After a brief snake break, the bird talk continued. Eventually we were released from learning. I hung around hoping to use the pay phone and pathetically lost another chess game (favorite comment on my playing: “either you are luring me into a brilliant trap, or that was the dumbest move I have ever seen…”)

Sometime several days later:
I knew it was bound to happen: one day I just wouldn’t feel like writing anything and my journalistic attempts would fail. Here I will just outline the highlights (i.e. what I can remember) of the last few days.
-The last day in Panama: we went to “Bird Island” where boobies, frigates, and tropic birds nest. I was actually looking forward to birding, but when we arrived they handed us our snorkels and pushed us overboard. Birding is pretty awkward through a mask and snorkel. In the afternoon most of the group went out for more snorkeling but the other Herp-nerd and I went out in search of the island’s frog species. We had fun crashing through every spider web in a four hectare patch of rainforest, chased by fiendish mosquitoes as we chased the frogs.
-Leaving Panama: After heavy partying on our last night in Panama (read, drunk folk falling from hammocks and embarrassing attempts to dance) we loaded ourselves and our stuff into boats for the trek back to Costa Rica and eventually Tortuguera. On a side note, It is never a good idea to wash your hair with biodegradable soap and salt water. IT DOES NOT WORK.
We made it back into Costa Rica and at some point had lunch in a restaurant with a large portrait of Mao on the wall. I think it might have been Chinese food. More bus, then boat… the boat broke down, but eventually started to work again… and we finally made it to Tortuguera. Highlight of the day: Showering! I love running water!!!
-Next day we did some learning, ate ice cream, and bought sea turtle t-shirts (I tell myself that this supports conservation). The powers above decreed that we were more likely to see nesting turtles in Parismina, a town a 2 hour boat ride away, so in a flurry of packing, off we went. Several hours later we found ourselves marching single file down a black sand beach, in search of sea turtles to harass. Eventually one was found to watch. Turtles are amazing, especially when they are 5 feet long and laying tennis ball sized eggs. Two hours of marching around later and we were released to bed (sometime after midnight, don’t they know my bedtime is 9:30?).

Day ?: La Selva
We headed out of Parismina and began the journey to La Selva, a big research station in lowland Atlantic forest. We arrived in the pouring rain, which is appropriate because it is the rainforest. La Selva is an interesting place. It is a BIG research station on a large reserve maintained by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). The OTS folks are a little neurotic (Rubber boots or Else!!!!). The administration decided to encourage research farther into the forest by creating paved concrete trails through the trees and providing bicycles. It gives the whole place a slightly Disney-esque feel, especially with their strictly enforced boot policy on their neatly groomed concrete trails.
So we settled in at La Selva, the administration lectured us about the large poisonous snakes that wanted to get us, and then our profs ordered us off into the wood to find said snakes.

La Selva: day 2
Morning time spent in lecture and learning, first in a classroom and then on a neatly paved trail (concrete in a rainforest is soooo weird). The afternoon was more lecture because theoretically it was “Herp diversity Day” and we had to learn the family of every creepy crawly vertebrate in Costa Rica. After lecture we were sent out on Herp walks (wait, isn’t every walk a Herp walk?). We all got split in groups and I managed to find myself in the least froggily enthusiastic group, who then left me in the woods. Moderately sucky.
Following dinner another night hike was announced. Everyone looked quite unenthusiastic until the Prof mentioned that the hike was going to end at a bar and the drinks were on him. Suddenly 8 kilometers didn’t seem so far. We eventually ended up at a bar, which upon the entrance of so many gringos promptly changed the music videos from mariachi to old CCR.
We eventually left La Selva Land and meandered our way into San Jose, where nothing was open because it is Semana de Santos (Easter week). We hit up the fast food restaurants, because they were the only thing open, and it suddenly dawned on me that Passover was going to be hell to keep in this country.