Saturday, September 27, 2008

7-23-08 A day in the life

Let me take you through a typical day in Breu.

The roosters start making a real ruckus at 5 a.m. and shortly after that it seems that the whole village is up. This is followed a little bit later by the Spaniards and Argentine in the next room obnoxiously laughing and carrying on about who knows what. Eventually Laurie gets up and shuffles around under the hammocks. I stay in my cocoon as long as possible, as does James. Eventually I hear "Kim, Kim are you awake?" I've learned that if I answer then he gets up and expects me to do the same, but if I stay silent, he'll lay in his hammock a while longer and so can I. Once up I try putting off the inevitable as long as possible, having to put on my still wet, still very muddy, and very smelly work clothes. They are so gross there is no way they will be leaving Breu with me.

We are served "porage" for breakfast. I'm not sure exactly what this is, but I know there is some type of milk product, and something to make it very thick and a little gelatinous. There's also some little bitty chunks here and there. The Peruvians add hot chocolate powder, that makes it a little better, but today I just couldn't bring myself to drink it. Instead I relished my instant coffee with powdered milk and lots of real sugar.

We are usually supposed to leave at 8:00 to head into the field, but as I'm trying very hard to get used to, 8 often turns into 10 or even later. Once we are finally ready to go, its a good 15-20 minute walk down to the river. There we must wait again. We have hired 5 men from the village to be our guides. The drive the boats, lead us to the sampling sites and carry all our gear. The guides push the cart with all our gear to the river and so must take the longer route. They carry all our stuff down to the boats and then go up to the neighboring huts to get the peca-pecas. These are the special motors for the dug-out canoes. Supposedly the old models were really slow and made the sound p-e-c-a---p-e-c-a--etc. as they went. The new version goes pecapecapeca... very fast as we careen through trees, logs, and debris strewn across the river that often looks impassible and way too shallow, but some how our guides usually know with amazing accuracy where to slip the canoe through. Although not always. Today we spent even more time waiting because Carmelina, our boat driver, broke the propeller not once, but twice.

Everyone else collecting in the lake I wouldn't go in.

Once we dock the boats, its usually at least a 20 minute hike through the jungle to the day's
destination. These hikes are usually quite amazing, although very hot and sweaty. But at least we get a little relief from the direct sun. Eventually we arrive at some small murky body of water that I never would have imagined going into, but in the name of science I jump in and press forward with net or electric fish finder in hand. Except today. There was absolutely no way I was going in. We stopped at several points along the trail that was being hacked by our guide to look at the water. Even at first glimpse I didn't want to go in. Then the guides shared their knowledge of the lake.... lots of electric eels, perfect for Cayman, and maybe even a few anacondas. The guides didn't even want to go in the water. But of course Roberto and Isabell, our fearless Peruvian ichthyology students, just had to go in and catch some fishes. This of course made everyone else feel the need to not be wimps and go in the water too. Except me. They could call me a wimp if they wanted but there was no way I was going in there. The funny part is that everyone came out miserable, saying they wished they hadn't gone in either and that I was the smart one.

We sometimes stop at a second location, usually in the river, on the way back to Breu. We eventually arrive back sometime between 2-4, but the work isn't done. Even though we've spent the whole day more uncomfortable than you could ever imagine, soaked in sweat, river water, and bug repellent, we now have to catalog all the fish, photograph them, take tissue samples, and preserve them. This usually takes several hours and doesn't finish until dark, around 6.

Once the lights come on for the evening, we have dinner. Its often beans and rice, but when its not, I often have no idea what it is. I've decided its better not to ask, because what ever it is, I need to eat. The rest of the night is spent sitting in my hammock and reading, writing, or just chatting. every few nights I actually get to bathe! We're usually asleep shortly after the lights go out at 9 and have to snuggle under our new blankets at night because its surprisingly cold at night.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Breu Accommodations

For this post I'm going to leave my journal and describe the village of Breu and our accommodations there. Breu is an tiny little village on the Rio Yurua. It is actually the largest village in the area, and from what I understand on the entire river. The village was erected in 1960 as a logging camp. In the past few years, they built the first school. I'm not sure how many people live in the village but my guess is less than 100, which includes the loggers that are currently working here and the men in the military camp at the end of the village runway. Most smaller surrounding villages only have thatched huts. Breu has a combination of huts and more typical houses.

The school

We are staying in a house built by the World Wildlife Fund as a regional office/field station. There are two bedrooms with a few beds, but only the Peruvians use those. You never know what kind of creepy crawlies are living in the mattresses and you can't use your mosquito net with them. There are two other larger rooms where the rest of us hang our hammocks. Although hammocks don't sound like an ideal thing to sleep in for three weeks, I am pleasantly surprised. My back doesn't hurt and it is so comfortable to sleep in and to lounge in during the day.

The nicest surprise is that we have electricity from 6-9 every night. The village has some sort of generator that runs for three hours a night. When the electricity comes on, it also means the water pump works and that we have water for a few hours. So after dinner every night we fill huge trash can looking tubs with water.

We have a kitchen with a small sink and a propane burner. We hired two local women to work as our cooks. They do most of the cooking out back, over the fire. The food actually isn't that bad, but living on rice and lentils and fried eggs is getting a little old. Oh yeah, we brought an enormous amount of eggs with us. The sit on the floor in the pantry and we eat them almost every day. Sounds pretty disgusting and I never would have thought eggs would last for weeks sitting out in this heat, but they still taste fine and no one has got sick yet.

We also have a bathroom!!! A toilet with no seat and a tiled shower. There's no running water in the bathroom, but that's where those tubs of water come in. We have to pour buckets of water down the toilet to flush and to shower we fill a 5 gal. bucket and use a cup or bowl to pour water over us. Much better than having to hike down to the river and expose your skin to the bugs.

Unfortunately after the first week there, the toilet stoped working and started leaking sewage out under the house. So gross to walk out the door and have to jump over a stream of sewage. So then we had to use the latrine at the school. DISGUSTING. A key shaped hole in the floor to squat over. One evening I opened the door and there was some large animal in the hole. No way in hell I'm going in there at night. We try and wait till dark so we can just pee outside in the bushes. I think I'll leave you on that happy thought.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Breu 7-21-08 Dogs and bats and bugs oh my

This is the beginning of our third day in Breu. I'm not sure which is worse the HEAT or the BUGS. Right now I think its the bugs. They are incessent and will not leave me alone. Nothing keeps them away. They're not mosquitos, but these tiny little bug the size of fruit flyies that swarm every inch of exposed skin. They leave small red bumps with blood blisters in the middle. My body is covered in them. I have 59 bites on one hand. At first they didn't itch, but now, three days later my whole body itches and its driving me crazy. To go along with the little blood blister bugs, I'm having a much more intense reaction to some other type of damn bug that I never even see bite me, but leaves huge red swollen lumps that are visible from under my clothes.
A few of the other bugs around Breu. Gigantism is apparently rampant in the Amazon.

There's also a lot of other creatures to get used to here in Breu. Like the roosters. The bugs never leave you alone and the roosters almost never stop crowing. They only stop for a few hours at night, then start up again at 4 a.m. Its impossible to sleep through the night with the roosters, the dogs, and the bat. There is a bat that lives in the bottom of the cupboard next to my hammock. Every night after we all get in our hammocks and zip up our nets, he comes out and starts flying around us. Around 5 in the morning he comes back, zooms around us a few times and goes back in his cupboard. Then there's the dogs. The dogs here aren't cute and cuddly friendly pets. They're somewhat ferral. They're so skinny you can see their ribs, they're covered in bugs and fleas. We're not supposed to go near them or touch them because they may carry rabies. It is extreamly sad to see and breaks my heart. I'm not sure how their whole social hierarchy works yet but most seem to have territories around or under a hut. During the night there are countless fights. Its very disturbing the barking, screetching, and whinning sporadicly throughout the night.
Our revenge on the roosters! Our cook knocked one out and brought it in our room to see if we wanted to have it for dinner.

The other annoying creature is a "creature" that we brought to Breu. He is the most unorganized, forgetful "creature" I've ever encountered, oh and I can't forget indecisive. I seriously question my ability to work with him for the next several years. There will have to be some major organization implamented in the future. Again, most of my time is spent waiting. I'm already snappy with him because he drives me NUTS. Not only because of the traits I just mentioned, but because he reminds me of that annoying guy that has a crush on you and your mom says you should be nice to, and no matter how much you try and be nice but not too nice, or try to ignore him, or try to have a little space to yourself, he is always there. Oh, he's also very inappropriate, changing in front of all of us and has no respect for personal space. Ok, sorry, enough bitching, but its only the third day here and I may just go insane because of him.

We collected for the first time yesterday in a small "lake". More like a little creek that had been cut off from the river leaving a small pool in the forest that was maybe 2 m across by 10-12 m long. We caught a whole net full of Gymnotus sp. (an electric fish). James says this is very rare and has never seen them in groups or schools before. They are usually territorial and we should only get one in each pull of the net, but we collected about 20 in one net. It was very exciting to jump in the water and get to work. I have to say that I surprised myself jumping right in. I used to have to be carried over the weeds in Houghton Lake, because I didn't want to touch them. Bet you all never thought I would jump right in some murky little lake with who knows what living in it, in the middle of the amazon. Anyway, it was very exciting and we collected 14 species of fishes in that little lake.

Pucallpa 7-18-08 "more waiting"

Today was spent waiting and I hate waiting. I'm getting very impatient and annoyed and its only the very beginning of the trip. We met at 7:30 this morning for breakfast with the intention of going to the fish market and exploring the city a little before we loaded the truck with all the cargo. But the plans always change in Peru. After my breakfast americano, I quickly packed my bags to end up sitting in the lobby for a few hours until the truck came and we sent the first load of cargo to the airport. Those of us left at the hotel rebagged and rearranged the remaining gear while we waited for the truck to come back for the next load. All this time we thought that we too would be going to the airport later in the day to fly to Breu. Eventually everyone returned to the hotel with the news that only cargo was going to Breu today. So, at 1:30 (after 6 hours of sitting in the hotel lobby) we all went to lunch.

If you know me, you know my obsession with good food. So I must talk about our best meal yet. If you ever find yourself in Pucallpa, you must eat at Cebicheria Red. Their ceviche is awesome. The meal consisted of the catfish that is making its migration near town right now. It was chopped up and marinated in lime, onions, and who knows what else. It was piled on top a few rounds of potato and sweet potato and topped with red seaweed. Along side was yuca and a few strips of the fried catfish. Delicious!!! We also discovered the best beer of Peru... Cusquena Negra, es muy delicioso. Although this was the best meal yet, it was also the hottest. Not the food but the temperature. It is so freaking hot today and just sitting in the open air restaurant everyone had sweat pouring down their faces.

After lunch we finally got out of the hotel and went to the local zoo. I was a little worried going there, since the zoo in Spain made me cry due to the horrible conditions the animals were kept in. I was expecting more of the same. But it wasn't quite as bad. Parts were, it was very sad to see jaguars in very small cement and fence enclosures, but conditions for some of the others weren't quite as bad. The coolest part was the animals that weren't in cages. They had either escaped or wandered in from the surrounding forest. A monkey even climbed down the check out James and I. We also came across a trail of leaf cutter ants. They are so cool. They use their huge scissor like pinchers to cut out sections of leaves and carry them back to the nest to grow fungus that feeds the young. They've also been known to cut up anything that lies in their path, like tents, t-shirts, backpacks etc.

After the zoo, James and I made a quick motortaxi tour of the indigenous jungle market. It was very cool, but most of the stalls were closing up for the night, so hopefully when we get back to Pucallpa we'll be able to come back to the market in the day light. Tomorrow its off to the airport and 6 am for our flight to Breu!!!

Pucallpa 7-17-08

I saw the Andes Mountains today!! I was amazed at the number of villages all the way up in the mountains. Above the tree line, nothing but dusty, baren earth, there were pathes snaking across the mountain tops and then scattered about were small villages with shiny metal roofs.
Pucallpa is very different than Lima. Its a bustling city surrounded by the Amazon. There are motortaxies every where, thousands of them. They're just as hair-raising to ride in as the taxies in Lima, but now with the addition of dust flying in your eyes every second of your journey.

The theme of the trip thus far is "hurry up and wait". It drives me insane. We are always waiting. We are supposed to meet in the hotel lobby for lunch.... we leave an hour later.... we get to lunch... we leave three hours later. In the restaurants you have to ask for the bill when you're done. They don't want to rush you, you can sit there all day if you want. Since James talks incesently, we often sit there for what seems like forever waiting for him to shut up and ask for the bill. Hopefully tomorrow we will actually get out and see the city.

Lima 7-16-08

We have finally made it! We are in Peru!! Lima is not what I expected. It is a very poor, run down city. I figured being the capital city it would be a little nicer, but it seems a very sad place. The buildings look sad, old, worn, and decrepid. Even the people look sad. Amongst the masses of people on the streets this morning there were no smiles.
We did finally meet some smiling Peruvians today. We made our first trip to the National Museum of Natural History. My advisor, James, has been working with Hernan, the director of the ichthyology department for many years. Hernan was great and most helpful to everyone and all his students seem to love him. I think it will be great working with his students, but too bad the museum won't give him time off from teaching to join us in the field.
Upon leaving the museum, James, Laurie (LSU professor, mollusks), and Carolina (professor from Spain, flatworms) went to buy us plane tickets to get to Pucallpa. This left me sitting at a table in the hotel restuarant drinking beers with the remaining members of our team: Christina, Fransico, and Io. Being my first day in Peru and not having spoken a lick of spanish in the last 8 years, I didn't understand a darn thing. They would chat and every so often stop to look at me and say "entiendes?" This of course was always followed by "no" from me. I really hope my spanish will improve quickly, it could really make it a difficult trip.
I forgot to add Blanca, one of the peruvian students, is a god send. We would be no where without her. She has taken care of arranging everything for us here. I'm also very glad that she is insistant that we take snake antivenom with us. James didn't seem to think this very important dispite the abundance of potentially deadly snakes that we could encounter. Blanca will remain in Pucallpa while we are in the field in case there is an emergency and also to make the plane go to get us when it is supposed to instead of whenever the pilot feels like. Tomorrow morning we fly to Pucallpa. I can't wait to actually be in the amazon.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Trip Purpose

Before I start relaying the journal I kept during the trip, I figure that I should first explain the purpose for the trip and who was involved.

The trip was funded by NSF (National Science Foundation for those non-science folk). This is the first trip for a four year grant. The goal of the grant is to inventory all aquatic fauna (fishes, mollusks, crustaceans, tubularians (free-living flat worms) etc.) in and around the newly designated Alto Purus reserve. Most of the sights to be sampled are at a higher elevation than the rest of the Amazon basin. This region is usually seperated by rapids and is thought to have a marked difference in fauna than the lower basin. This first expedition was located in and around the village of Breu on the Rio Yurua. In the map below, Breu is the red dot near the boarder with Brazil.

I would also like to introduce all of the people involved in this trip, because thier names will come up frequently in future posts. James was the leader of this expedition, he was also the man that was supposed to be my advisor for my Ph.D. In later posts I'll get to why he isn't my advisor any more. James, I, and two peruvian ichthyology students, Roberto and Isabell, were there to collect fishes. There were also four scientists with us to collect flat worms, Carolina and her student Io were from Spain and Christina and Fransico are both professors from Argentina. Laurie a professor from LSU was the sole mollusk scientist. I will also mention Blanca. She is a peruvian ichthyology student. We originally thought she would be going into the field with us, but upon arriving in Peru we learned she was five months pregnant. Even though she didn't go with us, she organized everything. This trip never would have happened without Blanca.