Dreams are powerful tools that can help guide anyone to success and happiness. They represent some cherished aspiration, an ultimate ideal of achievement.

The word sylvan refers most directly to a setting associated with the woods. Reflecting on the vigorous life that abounds in sylvan settings is a very powerful force in my life. For me, this word evokes feelings of transcendence, clarity, and unity.

A Sylvan Dream is a dynamic compilation of my life dream. It is an attempt to seek out and document the truth, beauty, and clarity that exists in this world.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fifty-Cent Piece Dreams, A Day at CICRA, II

photo by: Will Minehart

Although the weather has been quite variable since arriving here, ranging from forty degrees one morning, then eighty-five the next, our clothes are usually damp with sweat about ten minutes after taking off for our morning’s work as the sun is just breaking the horizon. We usually hike a few kilometers each morning, sometimes as much as ten, as we move from site to site up the trail, stopping at the yellow flags we have placed on small saplings, denoting the presence of another antbird’s territory.
We move through the forest playing these birds’ songs, waiting for them to come flying in to defend their territory. They flit through the understory, shaking their wings and calling back in defense of their home, but little do they know we are only crying wolf, at least today.
In the coming days, the antbirds hear the phantom intruder again, and usually fly in with equal vigor to dispatch the threat. As they dart around in search of the intruder, an invisible hand sweeps out from the void, and suddenly they are hanging, still able to move and flop around in the air they were just flying through a minute earlier, but very few escape.
Watching from afar, we see the net jump, and a black ball of netting forms where the bird struggles in vain. We turn off the speakers singing the song of the phantom intruder, and move in to collect the bird from the net. This usually takes a minute, but sometimes it can take longer, depending on a multitude of ways a bird can rarely become severely tangled. Usually removing a bird entails holding onto both feet after you have untangled the thin netting from its claws, then simply backing the bird out of the net as you remove the loops of netting that have slid over the two wings first and then finally the head. In perfect instances like this, you are left with a bird sitting indignantly atop your fingers as you hold its legs.
However, if nets are not set to the appropriate tension, there are sticks pushing against them for the birds to grab hold of, or it gets tangles around the bird’s tongue, which is forked in the back of their throat, the results for the bird are potentially grim. To an amateur, a snared bird looks hopelessly entangled, and death seems immanent short of cutting the bird free. In reality, removing the bird is relatively simple, but I do recall one time during a hot day in Pennsylvania when a tiny wren had been overlooked in one of our nets where it was tangled on the ground. In the time it took me to find the exhausted bird, it had become extremely tangled, and it had been laying in the direct sunlight.
I struggled for some time, talking to the bird to calm my racing heart. Carefully rolling the bird around in my hands as I searched for the easiest place to begin, I thought of the family of wrens I watched grow up in a bird-box in my neighbor’s lawn one summer. At that moment, holding that bird in my sweating hands, I questioned the rationale of such invasive research practices. Stopping several times, I allowed the bird to hang in the net again as I took a few breathes and looked around me in exasperation as if some help might materialize from the briars surrounding us.
I eventually unraveled the hundreds of strings imprisoning the bird, and an hour later I set the wren in the shade of a raspberry bush. I came back thirty minutes later to find it still sitting there, but as I leaned in for a better look, it flitted away through the brush. Every time I take hold of a bird’s legs as it hangs in the net, I remind myself to remain calm so as to minimize any possibility of worsening this tenuous situation.
These mist-nets are amazing contraptions, and are ironically of very similar texture and density as those lunch ladies or even you may have worn if you have ever worked in the food industry. When hung properly they are virtually indistinguishable in the early morning light. We always chuckle on the trail when one of us gets caught or literally walks right into the net moments after setting it up. We then know we have set a good net, and despite being completely black, you have to focus hard to discern it from the rest of the forest.
photo by: Frances Buerkens
National Geographic and other such organizations have done an amazing job of glorifying the sexiest parts of science and field research, but as many people say, it is really far from glamorous or exciting. Amidst days that can easily feel downright lethargic and unrewarding, work that is initially illuminated with inspiration can easily become obscured within the shadows of this dark and humid rainforest.
The nature of this work makes it very difficult to aptly describe. It would be easy to romanticize this research, only describing the most attractive parts of the position, but it would shed no light on the basic reasons why there are people out here doing this in the first place.
Even the actual act of recording data is so anally structured that you are often too stressed and focused on collecting data in the correct way that you fail to even take enjoyment in the fact that you are holding a living creature in your hand. When else do we ever come into direct contact with a living wild animal?

Holding a bird, I can barely feel its almost nonexistent papery weight. Just flip a fifty-cent piece in the air. This is all that these creatures weigh. The beating of their heart sends a slight vibration through my hand. Their head follows my fingers, snapping back in defense the moment I put them within reach. You can feel the texture of each feather as softly as a whisper in your ear, and you can see how the pattern on each contributes perfectly to the whole.

photo by: Will Minehart
This is the reason I began this work. So long ago I sat in my yard, staring at robins. I never realized then, as they hopped around in the lush summer grass, plucking long worms from nowhere that they would never be interested in the seed placed conspicuously beneath the box sitting in the middle of the yard that was propped up by a stick with a string tied to it. Why I spent so many hours staring out from behind the shed in my yard, holding onto the other end of that string in vain still makes no more sense to me than the subconscious driving attraction I feel in the midst of a beautiful woman. It is never enough to simply see when attraction is concerned. Some internal force yearns for more, driving me to touch, to reach out and affirm the physical existence of such beauty as though to only see without touch can still leave its existence in question. A feather found shining in the light dappling the trail brings out the voyeuristic side in many of us. I know many who find it impossible to pass by a fallen feather without picking it up. Some of us hide them in books, removing them from time to time to admire their brilliant color and to feel their softness against our cheeks. Others adorn their cars or rooms with such ornaments of refuse, and despite their timely fading in the sun, they still shiver in the wind when the windows are down and the music loud.

However, these are not the thoughts that cross my mind as I hold calipers up to the beak of these petite kites with hearts. I do not feel any realization of my ultimate attraction as I hold a capillary tube to the vein of this tiny bird to collect a sample of its meager blood supply as it lies helplessly in my sweaty hands.
I sometimes question, rather every time we catch a bird, the stress I perceive us imparting on it forces me to question this work. But as I see a sheepish smile spread over one of the other researchers I am working with as he holds up one individual to closer inspect this species plumage patterns, I see a glimmer of passion in his eyes that reminds me what it felt like to finally hold a live bird after so many years of senseless attraction and even obsession with this distant beauty.
In such passion there is a pure love present that is both selfish and benevolent. For every time I look into the eyes of a bird in my hands I see a smile spread across the face of that three year old I used to be, hiding behind that shed in the yard I grew up in, hoping that the string in my hand attached to the trap thirty feet away would eventually turn into the reality of a bird in my hands. However, in those eyes I also see the frail reminder of the responsibility I feel within my chest to protect the world that makes it possible to feel the reality of this little feathered dream.
So, when people ask me to describe what I do on a daily basis, especially now when I am so far from home in the Amazon, I find it hard to answer them clearly. I am going out into the jungle every day, finding where specific birds are located, catching them, putting little identification bands on their legs, and then extracting all the data I can from each bird just shy of taking its life. This is all in the name of science, and in this particular project it is to hopefully gain more insight about exactly how one single species can diverge into many, even though they may live a kilometer or only a couple hundred meters away from each other.
I hate snagging a bird out of the air, smashing its supreme grace with an invisible net, and I doubt anyone doing this work enjoys extracting the integrity from a bird as it lies supine in their hand, bleeding slightly from a vein in their elbow so that we can later compare its DNA to their relatives'.
Nonetheless, at the moment this is one of the very few methods we have to gain the vital knowledge necessary to testify to the intrinsic value and need for conservation that most people doing this work feel moved to be a part of. For me, it is the only way I have found possible to exact some societal value to my life while still achieving the dreams of that kid who still stares with hope from the depths of my memory.

photo by: Will Minehart

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lobos, Cochas, and Hoatzins...

Sunday greeted us with clouds and a break from the oppressive heat and humidity. There are still many places I have yet to visit with potentially great rewards in the local area, and on Sunday we had plans to visit one of these places. So, after a lazy morning, and an equally lazy lunch, people began to share plans for their day, and luckily there were a few people up for some exploring. So, Frances, a newly arrived student from the States, Eric, a Peruvian who is here assisting on the antbird project, and I decided to take a walk to Cocha Lobo to see what luck the change in weather might bring us.

Cocha is the word for lake, but a specific type of lake known in English as an oxbow lake. These form usually over very long periods of time in response to rather complex hydrodynamics. Once a river reaches a level plain, it is free to create the beautiful serpentine shape many of us may have recognized during flights around the world. Rivers pick up sediment from riverbanks in the fastest areas of the river, which happen to be on the outside of a river bend where the water is flowing the fastest. The river then deposits sediment in the slower portions of the river, which happens to be on the inside of river bends. Through this action, rivers are always demolishing and rebuilding the land it flows through. Over time, this process brings the two extreme ends of a river bend closer and closer to each other until they are finally close enough for the water to push through the thin wall of land separating them. When the water finally breaches, it creates a straighter course for the water to flow through, leaving the large bend in the river to become an oxbow lake, or cocha.
Lobo is the local word for wolf. Yes, there are wolves in the cocha that we are headed to today, but they are lobos del rio, or river wolves. The river wolf is actually an otter, and here in Amazonia hides the largest otter in the world, which can often grow up to the length of an average adult human. While this cocha was named after this giant otter, nobody has seen the family known to have live there for some time now, and people have been beginning to worry if they have left the cocha.

It was a short hike to the cocha, perhaps two kilometers. We stopped along the way to enjoy climbing some of the large rainforest trees with huge buttresses and vines, and stopped at several spots to strain our necks in search for some of the beautiful forest canopy birds flitting through the treetops.

photo by: Frances Buerkens

There were two wooden canoes at the entrance to the cocha. We all climbed in one, and pushed off. Gliding softly in silence into the center of the lake we looked around, wondering where to head first. Across the water a large kingfisher stood atop a tree over the water, scanning for unwary fish near the surface. The water seemed to be a mix between your common muddy brown, and an unpalatable green like split pea soup.

photo by: Frances Buerkens

After gazing around us in wonder for a moment, we promptly chose a direction with little reason, and headed off. A larger bird flitted to a perch under the canopy, flashing some bright red as it landed. Through my binos I could make out it was the bright red belly I had seen. This bird had a long tale, an emerald colored back and head, and surprisingly drab, grey wings. I couldn’t see the bird completely clearly due to the rock of the canoe, but this was enough to tell me it was one of the species of trogons that are somewhat common to those searching for them in these forests.
A moment later a rustle in the bushes far ahead accompanied with an odd cough-like hissing sound broke the silence of the lake. We could see bright reddish-brown feathers slapping through the brush overhanging the cocha, and we knew we had found a group of perhaps one of the oddest animals one can find in the Amazon, the hoatzin. This prehistoric looking bird is the size of a turkey. Flying from perch to perch, these large birds are just as clumsy any large bird can be, but they apparently don’t notice. They crash through dense foliage, making their way up to a point in the forest they can easily fly from in case of emergency. Keeping an eye on us, they peer out from behind larger clumps of foliage as if there is a chance they have made their way to safety void of detection. I can’t help but giggle at their cartoon-like character, reminding me of the foolishly aloof loonytoon vultures I watched growing up.
We watch one group for some time, waiting to take a picture, when finally one seems to have lost its inhibition and flies right down in front of us in plane view, perching uneasily atop a sparsely vegetated cecropia tree. It flaps its wings to maintain balance until the tree finally ceases to sway beneath its weight. Frances snaps some pictures quickly, unsure of how long the bird will remain, while I smile through my binoculars. Their bright red eyes remind me of an albino pet rabbit. As if the red eyes didn’t stand out enough, they have bright blue skin surrounding their eyes, and a sparsely spiked orange mo-hawk streaking over the crest of their head. We sit and stare at the bird for a few minutes as it does the same, constantly cocking its neck back and forth, craning it as far as possible as if to get a better view of us as well.

photo by: Frances Buerkens

The hoatzins turned out to be by far the most abundant animal at the cocha. Every hundred feet we advanced it seemed a new group of them exploded haphazardly from the brush near the water, frantically trying to get up higher to safety, all the while pausing from time to time to gaze at us cryptically as if we couldn’t see them. This is by far the most awkward animal I have ever seen. The locals say they taste terrible, and would be hard pressed to eat them even if they hadn’t eaten for some time. These birds eat leaves, a very uncommon practice in the bird world, and they have claw-like hooks protruding from their elbows at birth, a remnant of their reptilian lineage.

After making it to one grass filled end of the cocha, we turned around and headed back the other direction. We worked along the banks slowly and quietly, searching for hiding animals along the way. As we rounded one corner I traced streaks of lime green algae that reminded me of the way pollen coats the lakes in spring back in the states. I suddenly noticed the streaks were moving, and saw there was a wake extending from around the corner. Just as I realized there must be something moving in the water ahead, brown dots popped up, breaking the horizon of placid water.
The family of giant otters appeared suddenly, swirling, spinning, and rolling over each other, completely unaware of our presence. We sat motionlessly until two of them spotted us, and uttered a series of grunt like barks as they turned and swam in our direction. Bobbing up and down as they approached for a better view, they could easily lift their necks almost two feet out of the water while still swimming forwards.

photo by: Frances Buerkens

“Oh my God, how big are these things,” questions Frances as she finally gets a clear view of them bobbing towards us.
“A little less than two meters supposedly,” I uttered, trying not to make to much sound or movement.
Frances began snapping photos of them, and finally they had seen all they needed to when they were about 100 feet away. She later shared with us that due to her vision, the white streaks on the otters’ necks looked to be wide open mouths, causing some question about not only the size of these animals, but subsequently her safety as well.
What we presumed to be the young behind the adults had been playing in the water with each other while the parents came to inspect the aberration in their lake. As soon as the parents returned the group, they swam past the youngsters, who promptly followed. It was then apparent they were headed in the opposite direction, most likely back to their sheltered campsite along the lakeshore under some thick cover.
We followed as quickly as we could in the canoe, but we hadn’t quite perfected the teamwork of paddling the canoe in a straight line, let alone while in pursuit of creatures perfectly adapted to swimming quickly in water. As we rounded the next corner, they dipped under some overhanging foliage, leaving only several wakes spreading across the lake. We looked at each other with grins – a family of six lobos!
Lobos are apparently quite endangered, and while it is known that they exist in this area of the quite remote Peruvian Amazon, scientists are rather unsure how healthy their populations are. The only places they are known to be doing well are in the northern regions of the Amazonian Guianas. One can guess their plight – the usual impacts due to presence of man: hunting, trapping for furs, and loss of habitat due to deforestation.
In less than one month I have been so fortunate to see so much here already: Many species of monkeys up close, an 8 meter long monster anaconda up close, a rare black cayman 3 meters long basking along the riverbank, many birds I have dreamed about seeing for years and years, and now a very rare glimpse of a family of lobos playing in the middle of a cocha.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Waking Up - A Day at CICRA, I

I squinted my eyes into the bright yellow light flooding my vision, obscuring any thoughts. I couldn’t tell where I was or if I was awake, and I couldn’t see very well. It wasn’t until I heard the insects outside, and felt my mosquito net against my head that I realized I was still in the in my cabin back in the jungle behind the station.
Still utterly confused why bright yellow light was shooting through the darkness into my cabin, I sat up and I looked around trying to figure out what direction the light was coming from. An early morning breeze filtered in through the screens, cooling my sweaty back. I ducked under my mosquito net, and took the two steps across my cabin to get dressed. My pants felt sticky and damp still with yesterday’s sweat. Drying doesn’t really happen, so I am getting used to this grimy feeling I wash away once a week or so from this pair of pants. Wearing clothing here is very much a ration system. Bringing a piece of clothing out of the small, slightly mildewed armoire means it will not be clean again until it is washed by hand on a lucky day of sunshine.
I am enveloped in darkness again as soon as I step outside, the blazing yellow light still illuminating my cabin. My back has already begun sweating again as I follow the white circle my headlamp casts on the sand path before me. Blue and red spider eyes reflect every other step. I prefer to walk in the dark, for it really isn’t that dark, but I have been asked several times now to use a headlamp by various people here. Passing from the forest into the wide open soccer field/helipad, I momentarily gaze into a hole in the side of the trail where I was told the poisonous Fer-de-Lance snake is known to live, but I quickly get distracted by the Common Pauraque shining red up the path. If I shine the light on this ground dwelling nocturnal nightjar early enough, I can walk quietly to within three feet of some of them before they pop off the ground, and silently swim through the heavy early morning air.
As I approach the series of buildings making up the bulk of the CICRA station I see no lights on at all, but then see a glow from behind the lab building and realize that it was the full moon low on the horizon that was blasting my sleepy eyes a few minutes ago. I take off at a run to get my camera at my desk in the lab, excited to get some good shots of the moon shining down over the river and the surrounding jungle as the twilight is fading blue across the rarely luminous night.
A minute later I am heading out of the lab, past some cabins towards the overlook of the river to the West. I step off of the trail as I pass the last few cabins so as not to wake everyone with abrupt raucous of brazil nut husks crunching beneath my shoes. The bright glow from behind the last cabin urges my pace faster, and I emerge to the overlook to see a huge moonlit cloud sweeping across the moon. Only one cloud in the whole sky, and it is a huge, high level, slow moving, and thick cirrus cloud. My shoulders drop a bit, but I still take the time to practice a few cloud shots.

Five minutes later, twilight has chased away the night, and the day grows brighter to my back. I take off my shoes, laying the contents of my pockets and my hoodie on top of them, and wriggle my toes into the damp, sandy soil. Touching my toes for a few minutes, I sway back and forth, waking up my back. Lifting my chin and chest with my breath, I rise, and arch my chest to the sky, reaching for the new day. I momentarily loose equilibrium, and stepping forward to regain my balance, I grin uneasily as I look over the edge of the drop to the red clay riverbank far below. Taking a step back, I try this motion again a little slower. My chest cracks where my ribs meet, much like most people crack their backs, and I feel my chest now open to the sky. Rotating my arms in circular motions, reaching up to the sky, then bringing my hands to a prayer position at my chest, I imagine myself drawing the new day inside, scooping refreshing light into my body. Moving through some sun salutations and warrior poses, my heart also wakes up. I can feel my pulse in my ears as I move through the poses, in my wrists during down-dog, and moving through my hips as I settle deeply into the warrior poses. The heat returns to my body, and I no longer feel the need to for the hoodie lying next to me. As I move through these poses, I hear some rustling in the bushes in front of me. A few minutes later a family of Titi Monkeys materialize from the shadows. They only glance at me before moving out into a tree directly in front of me to bask in the sun and eat some unripe green fruit.

Finishing standing up with my knees slightly bent, my breathing slowly relaxes, as does my gaze out over this place, the jungle, la selva, Peru, the Amazon! I watch the red river ripple around the bend just upstream from the station, following its course right up next to some eddies, where the water swirls, and turns back upstream for a short while. Muddy sandbars melt into the water. Where the water licks the mud the softest, animals tracks help create the distinction of these two domains.
I scan each side of the river up and downstream in hopes of catching sight of a cayman skulking beneath the morning mist, but I have yet to see one this time of day. At this distance, I have no way of telling what the tracks belong to, but the possibility of sighting a jaguar, peccary, tapir, or a cayman is alluring enough to stand for some time watching for any movements on the riverbanks. However, my eyes are continually drawn into the swirling currents of the river’s minute whirlpools, dancing and spinning like a butterfly in the early morning sun.

The new sun quickly warms the air, pushing quiet breezes into the west. Emergent trees across the river peaking out from the whole of the jungle canopy sway back and forth. I trace the advancement of the breeze across the land as trees further and further begin to sway to life. A blanket of jungle extends out to the horizon where it meets another blanket of clouds. Behind those clouds rise the Andes. On the clearest mornings they shoot up into the sky, capped in the vast glaciers that can easily be taken for clouds at such a distance. My first morning here, the sunrise erupted upon the mountaintops in bright rosy hues. A wall of clouds resides at the foot of the mountains where the cloud forests are licked in mist, accentuating the vast heights of these behemoths. I figured that since I was being given such an amazing view on my first morning here, it would probably happen again. Well, it is my third week here, and the mountains haven’t been so clearly visible since.
I watch flocks of macaws and many other different types of parrots scatter through the sky in squawking and shrieking flocks of bright greens, yellows, blues, and reds, smirking momentarily at how ridiculous the macaws’ shrieks sound in juxtaposition to the beautiful plumage they adorn. Some are heading across the river to get an early check up on some fruit trees, others may be headed to one of the many local collpas, or clay-licks, which are important areas where jungle animals eat clay to obtain vital minerals.
The smell of garlic and rice finally filters to where I am, telling me it is time for breakfast. Some mornings we have lentils and garlic rice, other mornings we have scrambled eggs with some veggies and the most delicious Andean cheese, simply called queso here. The meals are pretty good, always including rice in each meal, and always heartily filling.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I Never Would Have Thought...

“We’re going to Pozo Don Pedro, wanna come,” asked Susan and Lindsey as they approached Claire and I on the trail. It was almost 10am, and it was getting rather hot. All of my clothing was more wet than dry, and we were headed back to the station anyways.

“You can go if you want to,” said Claire, shrugging her shoulders after the girls asked her to come as well.

“Nah, come on,” I replied, and we all plodded down the trail to the palm swamp, in search of some interesting animals.

A few kilometers ahead, we descended eroding mud steps a couple hundred feet down to a boardwalk that took us to the pond, or pozo. We all hopped into the catamaran, which was two wooden canoes linked together by a wooden platform atop them. We pushed off with wooden, spade tipped paddles that reminded me of a serpent head, and glided into the middle of the murky, red pond.

I looked around at the towering palms. I had never heard of a palm swamp before, now I was floating in the middle of one. Palms stood perhaps almost one hundred feet above us, bright brown fronds heavy with golf ball-sized fruit leaned out from the trees like fishing rods, periodically dropping fruit into the pond like bombs.

We pushed into the first island of grass and stood up, searching around for movement, anything. The grass would move every few minutes, but we couldn’t see much. Floating past a leaning palm a few minutes later, we watched small, mouse-sized bats fly out from the underside of the crooked tree. Some swirled around us while others disappeared directly into the swamp forest, but they were all gone in seconds one way or another.

Floating past the palm, we approached a prominent finger of grass protruding out into the pond, and Lindsey stood up, looking around, and sat back down surprised not to have seen anything interesting. We sat around for a few minutes discussing some orchids that grew in the pond, and shared some knowledge of them. There were some interesting dragonflies and spiders around, so we took some pictures of them as we talked. The sky was bright blue above us, but the waxing sun was feeling rather oppressive, making me miss my hat in my cabin.

As we pushed off to inspect a few more islands of grass, something shiny caught my eye. I stood up, and saw something definitely shiny and rather large in the grass. I stepped up onto the deck of the hobey-cat, and there it was, clear as day coiled amongst the swamp grass.

Its scales glistened like thousands of huge fingernails in the sun, the texture of each individual one easily noticeable. At it’s thickest point it was about 18” in diameter, but we couldn’t see its head.

“I’d say its about 4 meters,” said Lindsey as she knodded her head, keeping her eyes on the large serpent.

Twelve feet, twelve feet…I was standing less than ten feet from an Anaconda, that was over twelve feet long.

We jockeyed for the best photo spots on the deck of the boat until finally someone saw its head, shining eyes staring motionlessly from behind a sapling.

Its head was bigger than my dog’s head back home, which I think to be pretty big. I couldn’t get over it. We stood there next to the thing for maybe 20 minutes taking pictures of it, seeing if it would move, until finally for us to move on. We actually found another Anaconda within a foot of the boat at a later point. Lindsey spotted it as it was moving away from us through the swamp grass, but this was a small one, its girth a little less than my thigh, most likely about 3 meters long.

Back at the station for lunch, we questioned two of the locals about the size of the Anaconda, showing them how big the snake was, using a hugging motion with our arms, something usually reserved for showing tree girth until I came here.

“Eight meters,” replied Antonio solidly with some quinoa hanging from his lower lip, his brow furrowing in apparent assurance, making a large scar on his forehead stand out from his skin.

“What, no! Eight meters you think?” replied Lindsey in disbelief.

“Yes, of course, eight meters,” he repeated, getting up to walk over to Angel (pronounced an-hell).

Antonio and Angel exchanged a few sentences, Angel asking him to show him the girth of the serpent. Antonio showed the common hugging gesture indicating the massive girth of the snake, and Angel immediately replied, “eight meters.”

My jaw dropped. I was standing about three meters from a snake whose girth was bigger than my waist or chest, and was possibly over 24 feet long. It was apparent this snake had eaten recently enough from its behavior and girth for this distance to not be an immediate threat to us, but at such a distance, imagining the sheer strength of that body wrapping around me and its rough scales biting into my skin seemed quite visceral.

Back in April I sat on the bed of Kevin’s truck sipping a beer with Silas in Central Pennsylvania, close to Penn’s Creek. It was then they made me realize I may be seeing Anacondas and Caymans in the Amazon. I was so focused on finally living my dream of life in the jungle with only visions of so many of the most amazing birds in the world that I had never remembered what everyone else thought of when the word Amazon, or jungle was mentioned. Within hours of getting on the boat that took us the final leg of the journey to the research station, CICRA, Claire spotted a large, 3 meter quite rare Black Cayman, which quickly submerged into the river,. Now, only my third day at CICRA, I have seen two Anacondas within a few feet of me in a pond where four such serpents are known to live. Sitting on the bed of that truck, sipping that beer as we swatted relentless blackflies in the early spring, I never would have thought…

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Puerto Maldonado

Today has been quit the day. It started rather early, much earlier than I would have preferred, but the night had other plans. Before going to bed last night I walked around town to experience the nightlife of Puerto Maldonado a little bit. I can’t explain every too well, because I still can’t write in Spanish that much, but here is a basic, and potentially very ethnocentric view of Puerto Maldonado.
I saw three cars the whole time we were in Puerto, but perhaps a few thousand motorbikes, and many, many took-took’s, which are the equivalent of taxi’s here. They are motor bikes with a two wheel axle and seat attached to the back with a canopy overhead to shield you from dust, rain, flying rocks, etc. Maybe 25% of the roads here are paved, and I use that term very loosely. There are a few traffic lights, and I was surprised to see they are respected. The driving down here is very, very crazy, and it makes a lot more sense. It seems like while Peruvians are on their feet, they are the most laid back people I have met, but when they are driving, for some reason getting to the destination as quickly as possible seems to be a goal that one’s life depends on. Stop signs are more like precautionary signs letting you know there are going to be people ahead. Everybody just works through an intersection as they can, no matter how close you come to each other. Babies sleep, open mouthed and arms swinging as they bounce along the dirt roads, sandwiched between the driver and their mother on the back of the bike. Most of the buildings are composed of wood, but there are also plenty in the market area that are more secure with cinder block, and rolling, locking doors. There is a grand market in the center of the town where you can buy almost anything you need from food, to clothing, to hardware. There are wooden structures with corrugated roofing or tarps. There are gutters in the center of each walking aisle where run has gouged away at the dirt. There are tons of fruits, breads, and grains, veggies, etc. I think it is encouraged to barter for your goods here, but the difference someone is willing to go down on something is so miniscule that it isn’t work it unless you are buying something large and expensive. The people are like in any town, except I can’t understand most of them. Some are nice and don’t care if you can’t understand them. They talk fast no matter how nicely you ask them to speak slowly and repeat themselves. Then there are others who naturally appreciate someone who is courteous and calm, and willing to learn their language. They speak slowly and simply, repeating themselves ad nauseum for my sake. I love these people. I walk away after talking to these people feeling encouraged and benevolent towards humans again.
So, after taking one last stroll around the market, I heard some loud music, and followed it to the center of the market, where there was a large opening, and people gathered all around. There were keyboards being played, people singing and clapping, dancing, etc. Then I heard the word Jesus in Spanish, along with some other words commonly accompanied when Catholicism is involved, and I realized I had stumbled into a circle of people holding mass right in the middle of market, singing gospels about the great lord Jesus Christ…I hung around and bobbed to the music, observed the crowd for a few minutes, then walked away. There were some who were completely enthralled by the music with a huge smile on their face, hands in the air, while others stood in the back alone, void of facial expression or movements except clapping their hands idly to the beat. It was pleasant.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped to get a Gelato, and spoke to another very kind woman who was interested in why I was walking around Puerto by myself late at night. I explained for the third time that night that I was going to the jungle for work tomorrow, and that I was a researching, researching the birds in the jungle with a University. Most people here in Puerto smile and nod with a pensive look on their face, and I feel some pleasure in this, hoping there is some great rift between someone coming to their land for tourism, and for work. Their pensive smiles and nods tell me they appreciate this more, but who knows…
I enjoyed another very large Peruvian beer in the restaurant attached to our hotel, wrote for a while before going to bed. I fell asleep very quickly, but found myself lying wide-awake around 3am. I knew I shouldn’t have gone to bed at 1030pm. I dozed in and out of sleep, but it was useless. There were many noises outside to keep me from regaining slumber. First, a noisy group of people in the lobby, then an obnoxiously loud TV in someone’s room accompanied by a phone ringing in the open air office 20 feet away with people on the other end most likely irate over the amount of noise. Once this stopped then there were people walking past my door, some of them with lights that were flashing in through my window. In my delirium I began to worry they were people looking for rooms to attempt to enter and rob. I had a knife next to my head. I laid there, analyzing the minutia of sounds outside, growing more paranoid by the minute. It was now 430am. I was ready to get up, and figured I could better use my time writing, but I didn’t.
As the footsteps faded, a new sound emerged from the night, which I will refer to as Peruvian Water Torture. This is the sound made when the heavy mist that descends in the early morning hours condenses on the corrugated roofs and walls of buildings, eventually creating a constant but completely irregular drip. The drops fall on the tiled walkways, wire-mesh ceilings, other corrugated plastic roofs, tympanic leaves of all sizes, and who knows what else. I enjoyed this sound for about two minutes, extolling the vast amount of different tones a myriad of rain drops could make before realizing there was no rhythm of consistency to it, which left no way to fall asleep to it. Just as I would feel I was drifting off, a large dead bug would fall, dropping a staccato, “OH NO YOU DON’T,” and I was awake again. This continued menacingly until eventually the mist subdued, and I fell asleep until there was light outside around 6am.
Once it was light, that meant breakfast was on, finally giving me a good enough reason to just let go of the failed night’s rest. There was fruit and little fried roll things filled with cheese and guacamole, fresh bread with rich yellow butter, and delicious juice. I ate until I realized I ate too much again, snagged two bananas for the boat, and went back to my room to pack.
An hour later Claire and I were on the road, leaving Puerto in a small car, whose shocks we bottomed out with our luggage. As we left the town of Puerto, I realized why all the taxi drivers had windshields that made even the worst winter windshield in the States look wonderful. The roads connecting towns down here are mainly dirt with cobble, which bounces very well as cars run over it. After realizing this I noticed rocks flying through the air as every car passed us, and became rather paranoid of getting hit in the face, deciding to cover my face as every other car passed after this. Speed bumps down here are serious too. There is no way any vehicle at all can pass one without coming to an almost complete stop. They are about as tall as they can get without bottoming out most normal size sedans as they pass over. Weighed down by all the gringos’ shit, we bottomed out every time.
An hour later, we arrived to the town of Labrinta, which reminded me perfectly of Nueva Vida, in Nicaragua. I don’t recall any paved roads in this very small town, but there may have been some. We were dropped off at the port, and as we unloaded our stuff, there were some guys sitting in a pavilion next to us, obviously gawking at the spectacle of these clean gringos covered almost completely from the sun, with all this luggage pouring out of the car.
We stood there awkwardly for a few minutes until other people began arriving. We promptly began loading the boats, which was a challenging task in itself. The bank of the river had mud steps pounded into it, but they were just that, soft mud. We managed to load the boat with no one falling, and all was well. The bank was composed of old burlap rice sacks that has been filled with dirt and stacked to make a levee of sorts to minimize erosion along the heaviest used parts of the river. They worked, but the river still bit into the town where there were no trees to hold the fine, alluvial soil together. Houses hung over the edges of the banks, and were apparently abandoned with the time had come to let the river claim them.
We pushed off an hour or so after boarding, with one open seat in the front next to me. A minute later Labrinta disappeared around the river bend, and I smiled as the wind washed clean, fresh smelling river air into my nostrils, a blessing after four days in Lima.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Around the Hotel

I have been spending a ton of time around the hotel. It is a nice respite from everything happening in the streets of Lima. I can only handle so much at once, since every time I have to talk to someone it is stressful, yet funny too!

Today I had more of what I consider to be a European lunch than a Peruvian. I was very surprised to see an old favorite beer sitting in a wicker basket in the market today. The beer is a wonderful one that I enjoyed during a time I travelled to visit Joelle in Germany, and man was it a megaplop when I opened that sucker! The bright yellow cheese in the sandwich was very rich and delicious, and I decided it was time for some chocolate.

Other than that, here is a look at the momma dove I hear every morning just as it is getting light out, and her chick, which just fell out of the nest yesterday, but seems to be ready for the venture. He is still relaxing outside at the same place.

Necesito una pistolera por favor!

Well, the last couple days have been composed of hours of sedentary waiting and writing, accentuated by moments of intense and utter confusion. Claire and I have been taxi'ing all over Lima, trying to meet with people who are helping us procure our research permits from the government, while trying to round up the last minute supplies we need for the next four months in the jungle. These are menial tasks, which back home would take perhaps twenty minutes to an hour in most cases, but things run differently here. Things don't get done as quickly, and Claire and I are rather hilariously stumbling through spanish conversations that are more hand and body gestures than actual spanish conversation. However, every few minutes we both are able to muster up a good sentence here or understand a whole sentence that someone says back to us.

Buying things: It isn't as forward as buying things back home. Once you get someone to actually understand what you are looking for, they usually don't have it, so they tell you to go somewhere else, which we don't understand until they start pointing out the door. They then give us directions, a whole other test in itself. Once we get to the new store, we have a better idea of what to say, and things generally run more smoothly. Once we find what we need, our specifications are usually much more acute than what most people need. For example: I needed a transformer to allow me to plug my chargers into the outlets here since the electricity would fry my goods. So, once we got to the third electronics store, we found one, but it took about 10 minutes to make sure the person thought this one transformer would work for all of my belongings. I was skeptical, so I figured I would plug my least necessary amenity into the wall first, my shaver. That quickly ended with me realizing I now needed an adapter so the freaking plug from my razor could plug into my transformer. So, that required a whole other trip in which Claire was also looking for a very specific speaker cable with two male ends of different, but very specific sizes. At our second store, I procured the plug I needed, only after slightly offending the lady who was helping me because apparently I had to buy two of them at once, and couldn't buy one. I figured it was a ploy to make more money, and continually repeated I only needed one (this was after a long conversation in which I repeated myself three times, obviously not saying the right things, to get the lady to understand what I needed). The lady became frustrated and said something a little quieter under her breath that could have been something mean, but I am giving her the benefit of the doubt, thinking she may have only said, "Well we only sell them in packs of two sir."

So, then (no it's not over) she gave me a ticket, which by then I was becoming familiar with. I finally understood I had to take that ticket to another person and pay for the item, then go to another person and actually receive the damned item. I took the ticket to a door in the back, and uttered something, but realized there were no cash registers as the lady stared at me with nothing on her face at all. I tried to utter something, but had no clue how to say anything. I looked back to the lady up front, who was helping someone else, nothing. Finally, someone else saw the debacle, and showed me to the other door only 5 feet away, where I paid, then went back to the original door, and collected my damned plugs. Whew.

After this, Claire had been directed to another store, so we walked down the corner to another store, and this felt good immediately. We walked in to see pieces of electronic equipment and cables strewn everywhere. By this time Claire had gotten her bit down about what she needed, and all of the sudden, they were like, "Yeah, Yeah, you need it now?"
We were amazed. They measured out the cable, pulled out the correct plugs after pulling out the wrong ones three times, opened up the plugs, cut the ends of the wires, soldered the plugs to the wires, and voila! After watching for an hour, we had two new completely amazing custom made radio speaker cables. We were so stoked.

The boss-like man came over and inspected the work, "Es muoy cara, muoy cara para el gringo!" he said a few times, luckily joking with us with a big smile on his face. I appreciated how someone else could make light of this hilarious situation as well

Today we found a shoe taylor, and tried to tell them we needed a pistoleramade of leather for our huge, phallic microphone. After talking to them for about ten minutes, punctuated by minutes of no one talking as if we weren't there at all as if the matter was solved, a nice younger muchacho told us there was another store down the road, and took us there. Finally, we arrived to a shop with a wrought iron door. Inside sheets of leather, all colors and patterns, hung from the wall. We were let in, and luckily the shoe taylor explained what we needed, and left after we thanked him for his help. I love these people.

We negotiated exactly what we needed with the guy, and luckily he knew how to speak to gringos, or at least idiots. He spoke using the simplest sentences, and spoke very slowly, most of the time only using a verb and an adverb, or something like that. He told us six hours, we paid half of it then, and will hopefully go back tonight to pick up our pistolera para microphono de selva.

This stuff is pretty fun, and intense, and wonderful. I really appreciate how people approach time down here differently. When someone you need isn't present, you either wait for a few hours until they show up, or come back later. You don't call them and expect them to come back to the office just because you are there expecting them. I love it.

Tomorrow it is off to Puerto Maldonaldo, gateway to the jungle. It is like 15 degrees here, which is almost chilly, and there it is currently 32 degrees, freaking hot and very humid...woohooo! We will be stopping in Cusco, but not exiting the plane, so hopefully I will get to see something out of the plane of the andes and the fabled Cusco. I have been drinking Cuscena this week in hopes of good luck for seeing the city.

I will write more when I have time.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Hotel de Patio

Bienvenido de Hotel de Patio, en Miraflores, Lima, Peru.

A low marine layer hangs over Lima right now, just a few minutes past midnight, (which is equal to central time zone, US) reminding me of the night I spent in San Francisco over a year ago now. There is an abundance of new smells in the humid air, ranging from sweet colognes of taxi drivers in the airport, to a tinge of sewer in the hotel room. That being said, the room itself is probably 100% better than what I expected, or what I would have ended up staying in left to my own devices. There are two beds! It may be time for a party, who knows. I immediately realize in conversation that I am ready to begin pushing myself to use Spanish, and will do alright for someone who knows almost nothing. There are some people I can understand perfectly, and others I can understand nothing at all.

As for now, I leave you with a view from my hotel room, for it is time to sleep.