On a tour visiting the Galapagos islands (here are some photos from that trip) a few years ago, I met Muriel, a wonderful 70 year old woman who loved birds and animals and who could out-hike most of us. Her husband had died a few years earlier, and she spent a great deal of time travelling the world. She told us that it was unusual for her to take tours, and that she usually went on Earthwatch expeditions.
Earthwatch is an organization that tries to match research scientists with projects that require money and labor with enthusiastic amateurs who are willing to pay transportation and a small part of the cost to help out. Earthwatch projects are quite varied, including, among others, biological, archeological, sociological, and geological studies. They publish a list of projects with brief descriptions of each, and more detailed project briefings are available at a nominal cost.
Muriel was so positive about her Earthwatch experiences that I decided to give one a try, and finally found time to go. I got detailed briefings for two projects, and finally decided on " Community Forestry in Ecuador" (the name now is "Ecuador Forest Birds") for two weeks in December and January of 1996-7. The principal investigator for the project was Constance Dustin "Dusty" Becker who is a professor at Indiana University.
I liked the project because it seemed to me to approach the "save the rainforest" goal in a practical way -- by involving the local people. After all, if they see no reason to stop burning their local forest, a group of outsiders is bound to fail.
The area of study was a small cloud-forest a few kilometers inland from the town of Manglaralto on the Ecuadorian coast about 140 kilometers northwest of Guayaquil. Dr. Becker ("Dusty" from now on) and a group of associates has studied many aspects of the region -- plant diversity, effects of deforestation on rainfall, various biodiversity assays, and some sociological studies of how the locals use their land and water resources. The exact sort of work we'd be doing was not clear when I signed up, but it seemed certain to be interesting.
A month or two before it started, I learned that our group would study birds, both by capturing them in mist-nets after which we'd measure, band, and release them, and we'd also just spend some time bird-watching to see what species were present. If the area is interesting enough from a bird-watcher's ("birder" from now on) point of view, the locals might be able to earn a lot of money leading eco-tours and be less inclined to burn or cut down the forest.
As a member of the faculty at Indiana, Dusty does scientific research, but she and a few other people have formed an organization called "PAN", People Allied for Nature. Its charter is to work with the local people and convince them of the value of the rainforest. Long-term solutions will require local support, but PAN's goal is to try to get them started off in the right direction with things like legal support, suggestions for ways to utilize the rainforest in a sustainable manner, et cetera.
When I discovered that Earthwatch's project coordinator for the forestry project, Karin Lapping, had access to electronic mail, it suddenly became very easy to work. We did business almost exclusively using that medium.
A couple of months before we were to leave, I got electronic mail from a Phyllis Bosomworth saying that Karin had given her my address, and that her 17 year old daughter, Molly, had signed up for the expedition, and wanted someone with some experience in such things to talk to. I had done a similar project in Costa Rica, although not with Earthwatch, so I told her what I knew -- basically that I guessed that since the vast majority of the expedition would be out in the boondocks and not in a crime-ridden city that things would probably be quite safe. I offered to keep an eye out for Molly during the trip, although I'm not sure why that was much comfort -- for all Phyllis knew, I was a raving lunatic in an insane asylum with e-mail access.
I did exchange notes with Phyllis and later with Molly, and we talked about what equipment we were going to bring and so on. About a month later, by coincidence, Phyllis and her husband Dave came to San Francisco for a real-estate convention, and I managed to meet them for dinner one night. We had a great time in spite of the fact that it was pouring rain, and at least at the end of it Dave and Phyllis knew that if I was a raving lunatic, at least I was competent enough to escape from the asylum for the evening, find my way to their hotel, and able to "maintain" for at least a couple of hours.
I got my shots, made my reservations, bought a bit of new equipment, and showed up at the San Francisco International Airport at 7 pm on December 20 for a 10 o'clock flight.
Due to the total incompetence of my original travel agent, my flight and that of Joe Cascone, another volunteer, was a guaranteed nightmare. We were to fly to San Jose, Costa Rica, stopping in Guatemala and El Salvador. Then we had a 5 hour wait in San Jose, followed by a flight to Quito and finally Guayaquil.
Of course, since it was the Christmas season, the flights were jammed, and when we got to the airport it was not at all clear that arriving 3 hours early would be sufficient to get on the plane. The families in front of us in line all seemed to be carrying 6 giant boxes full of stuff to take to their families in Central America. The mail system is so corrupt that the only way to be fairly certain of delivery is to take it yourself on a plane and pay excess baggage. With each family carrying hundreds of pounds of baggage, and every seat certain to be filled, I sort of wondered if the plane would be able to make it off the ground. Maybe they just drain some fuel to lighten the load.
The line stretched forever, and I joined at the end with my wife Ellyn to keep me company. After a half hour, we'd advanced 10 feet in spite of the fact that there were 5 open baggage check stations. I don't know if people were cutting in or not, but with hundreds of feet to go, things looked bad. Our hopes were initially raised when we were given a plastic card that indicated that we had been in line on time. But we made the error of reading the fine print on the back which basically said that the card guaranteed nothing. Of course, all the seat assignments were cancelled.
But one of the airline agents walked down the line and noticed that we only had a single relatively small bag and told us to join a special express line with only a single person in front of us. By this time, we'd met Joe Cascone, and Abby, another woman going to Guatemala to spend Christmas with her boyfriend. All of us got in the express line and it only took 45 minutes for the person ahead of us to check in.
Even though the three of us were completely prepared to go, it took about 10 minutes each to check in because for some reason, each of our tickets had to be recopied by hand onto other ticket forms. The agent also tried to send my bags to Costa Rica, but I convinced him that I'd be much happier to have them in Guayaquil. There were no Guayaquil tags, so he took a tag for some other destination, crossed it out, and wrote "GYA" on it, which didn't exactly fill me with confidence.
In any case, we had plenty of time, and since they didn't let non passengers past the luggage check, I said goodby to Ellyn and the three of us trooped out to the gate for the 10 pm flight.
Apparently the folks at the baggage check really got their act together, since we only had to wait until 1 am to get off the ground. Thank goodness Abby and Joe were pretty interesting to talk to.
I slept for most of the way to Guatemala, and the late start was no real problem for me and Joe since we were scheduled for a 5 hour wait in Costa Rica anyway. The flight from Costa Rica to Guayaquil was delayed by about an hour and we arrived an hour late in Guayaquil. But miraculously, our luggage was there, and after we finally got through customs behind some people with about 5 thousand pounds of stuff which was carefully searched, we emerged from the airport where we were met by John, Myriam, and Claude of Earthwatch/PAN.
They drove me and Joe to the Continental hotel and returned to the airport to pick up Molly (who was scheduled to arrive from the Newark airport about an hour later), so after getting our rooms, Joe and I sat at a table in front of a 24 hour restaurant next to the hotel to wait for Molly who arrived 3 beers later. We got to know Molly for a half hour or so and then we all went to bed.
After a good night's sleep, I met Joe and Molly for breakfast after which we lugged all our stuff to the 9 am rendezvous at the Palace Hotel 3 blocks away where we met most of the rest of the crew.
Dusty was there, as well as the other volunteers Martin, Penny, Pic, and Rob. We were also joined by an Ecuadorian named Felix who worked in the museum of natural history in Guayaquil and at the moment was specializing in birds. John and Claude drove in a car and the rest of us followed in a van for the 4 hour ride from Guayaquil to Manglaralto.
As soon as we got out of Guayaquil, things got very dry and desolate, and it was hard to imagine how so many people lived in the long series of small towns along the way. Most of the people seemed very poor and lived in very simple houses, although there were a few very nice places, especially when we got to the coast, which were probably owned by the people who ran the giant shrimp farms.
In recent years, Ecuador has turned to petroleum and shrimp as two of its major exports. The oil comes from land that's easily taken from the endemic indians in the Amazon basin since they don't have any lawyers and are no match for the Ecuadorian army. Then, except for various bribes to government officials, the vast majority of the money flows out of the country and into the coffers of giant multi-national corporations like Conoco and Texaco. To raise shrimp, all you have to do is cut down the mangroves which used to cover most of the north-western coast of Ecuador, but they're mostly gone, and the only mangroves we saw were in a tiny patch (perhaps a couple of hectares) in Manglaralto. "manglares" means "mangroves" in Spanish.
After the mangroves are whacked, you make giant pools, put in shrimp larvae, and pour in tons of grain and antibiotics and wind up with millions of dollars worth of shrimp. The antibiotics (with Darwin's help) certainly generate highly resistant bacteria, and removal of the mangroves eliminates some of the most biologically productive acreage on the planet, and dozens of kilometers of coastline missing the mangroves become nearly as attractive as many of the toxic waste sites in the United States. Luckily, in modern economic lingo, those are just "externalized" costs, borne by society at large, and all the profits go to the few shrimp moguls. The fact that the mangroves used to provide breeding areas for a vast variety of fish has caused the original Ecuadorian fisheries to collapse and has probably driven thousands of individual fishermen into poverty, but hey, what's more important -- a few thousand impoverished Ecuadorians, or great langostino for rich gringos and mind-boggling profit for a few shrimp czars, most of which are, in fact, multinational corporations? The World Bank won't loan money to the fishermen since there's no appreciable resulting export to the first world, but they'll bend over backwards to loan you money to destroy the mangroves.
With most of the mangroves gone, Manglaralto should probably now be renamed "Manglarito", but it's a nice town, and most of us stayed in a small motel owned by PAN. Unfortunately, Joe, Dusty, and I were not included in "most of us", and we stayed in another motel in a nearby town that was almost as nice, except that the electricity, water, and hence toilets didn't work. The manager was nice enough to provide us with a bucket of supposedly "gray" water sufficient for a single flush, but it smelled like it was a very dark gray and provided an interesting perfume for the room. We were only able to enjoy the motel's ambience until 5:45 the next morning, however, when we took off for the cloud forest.
During our day in Manglaralto we split into groups to practice taking field notes. Dusty encouraged us to find birds unknown to us (not a real problem; other than the shore birds, almost all of them were new to me). You'd find a bird, and write down everything you could about it, and then try to figure out what it was from the bird guides. There is no guide to Ecuadorian birds, so we used the Colombian guide, and Dusty had combined the lists of a few experts so we had a rough list of Ecuadorian possibilities. During our trip we did find a few birds not on the list (not too surprising -- it's doubtful that the area we were in had ever been carefully and extensively birded). All in all, it was a pretty entertaining afternoon -- some people were trying to learn to take field notes, while others were trying to learn to use their binoculars. Everybody learned a lot. In addition, we found a bunch of interesting critters on the seashore, and a couple of giant iguanas in a tree in the park in the middle of town.
That evening, a couple of other Ecuadorian bird people joined us -- Javier, a student, and Ben, a Dutchman who had come to Ecuador to visit his sister 10 years ago and hadn't ended the visit yet and who had become married to an Ecuadorian in the meantime. His name isn't really Ben; it's the far more interesting Benedictus Joseph Maria. We called him "Benito".
In addition, we met two folks who had just finished their two weeks doing the same project we were about to begin. One was Andrea, an Austrian who had signed up for both sessions of Dusty's project, back-to-back, so she would be joining us for the second session. Meeting her was slightly sobering; her arms and legs were covered with large brown bumps -- an allergic reaction to "manta" bites (whatever a manta was). She looked awful -- without makeup, she could have acted convincingly in Bergmann's "Seventh Seal" as a victim of the black death, but she said, "I nearly went insane with the itching, but it's much better now!"
The other new person was Bernabé, an Argentinian who lived and breathed birds. He was perhaps 28 years old and spent his life working on ornithological projects dealing with South American birds, usually in exchange only for room and board. He was absolutely fantastic, and I would have loved to have had him on our trip. The story was that he shaved his eyebrows so that they wouldn't interfere with his binoculars.
"My biggest accomplishment of the trip was getting Bernabé to go to the pizza parlor without his binoculars," Andrea told us.
After the bus ride from Guayaquil to Manglaralto and a couple of meals together, we all had begun to know each other, and my first impressions of people proved to be not too different from how I felt after living with them for a couple of weeks.
My only major error was with Pic. When everyone was gathered for the first time in Manglaralto, Dusty asked us each to say a few words about our level of experience with birding, Each of us summarized with two or three sentences until we got to Pic, who began, "Twenty years ago, on Valentine's day, I got a pair of binoculars for my birthday. I went out into the yard and saw the most beautiful bird on a tree. I spent days trying to find out what it was. ..." and on, and on, through 20 years of experience. She certainly knew her stuff about birding, but I figured that two or three more sessions like that might drive me to homicide.
Luckily, I was totally wrong, and Pic turned out to be almost another Muriel -- the person who first told me about Earthwatch. The more time I spent with her, the more I liked her, so perhaps the speech on the first day was due to nervousness or something in front of a crowd. I'm not sure what she did for a living; I think she's almost retired, but works part-time every now and then.
Martin was from England, and turned out to be a real character. He and I seemed to share the same sick sense of humor, and we often played off each other as a sort of comedy team. He's a professional photographer.
Penny was also from England. I got along fine with her, but there wasn't any magical connection like what I had with Martin and sometimes with Pic. Penny worked for the airlines.
Joe was one of those "nicest guy in the world" fellows. We could sometimes get him in a laughing fit where he almost couldn't stop. And sometimes the rest of us would get caught up in it as well. He was extremely sensitive, and I remember how upset he was when he thought there was a small chance that he'd dislocated a bird's wing while taking it out of the net. The fact that the bird flew away under it's own power shortly afterwards (impossible with a dislocated wing) didn't seem to help much. He's a computer programmer for a financial institution.
Andrea was quiet, but loved to work with birds. I took a couple of photos of her with a smile from ear to ear working at the banding station with a bird in her hand. She is a psychologist in her "real life".
And then there was Rob...
From the first time I met him, he seemed a bit strange, and as time went on, he bugged me more and more. He claimed to have a J.D. degree, but he was impoverished, and could only do the Earthwatch program with a scholarship. He taught religion, and had gone off the deep end in Judiasm in the same way that some fundamentalist Christians do with Christianity. Perhaps if he were a fundamentalist Christian, it wouldn't have bothered me so much -- I've encountered plenty of them, so it doesn't seem unusual. But this was the first time I ever met a fundamentalist Jew. I suppose there are plenty of them, but in all my experience with Jewish friends (I had a lot of them; I even went to a high-school nicknamed "Hannukah High" because more than half the kids were Jewish), I had never met a fundamentalist.
On the van ride to Manglaralto, he made it clear to me just how biased his worldview was. Dusty was talking about some tribe of indians who scarred themselves by rubbing ashes into cuts to help cure diseases. Rob was appalled: "How on earth could they think that would do any good?" Within minutes, however, he wondered why people don't include more spiritual activities in health care. I guess it just had to be his kind of spiritualism or it wouldn't work. Any but the largest religious groups he referred to as "cults".
He wanted us to cook kosher meals for him, but then he would order shellfish for himself in the Manglaralto restaurant, so there was at least a little crack in his fundamentalist armor.
I think I really ticked him off the first morning when he dredged up Reverand Paley's ancient (1880 or so) and well-refuted "proof" that God exists because if you saw a watch on the ground you'd know it had a designer since any complicated artifact requires a designer. Since the world is complicated, it therefore requires a designer and therefore God exists.
I rattled off the standard refutation of the argument that anyone who paid any attention in Biology 1 or Philosophy 1 would know, and I guess he thought I was trying to disprove God's existence. I wasn't trying to prove or disprove anything; I was simply showing that Paley's particular theological argument was garbage.
Another thing that annoyed me was the pressure he applied to join in his religious activities. On Friday night at the beginning of the Sabbath, he insisted on a wine and candle and prayer thing before eating, inviting everyone to join him. I think I was the only one rude enough to skip the services, and I'm more than a little confident that Rob would not have joined anyone in a Christian grace before meals had he been offered the option to do so. Maybe I should have gotten out the prayer rug and prayed to Mecca a couple of times to see what happened!
The next argument we had was not religious at all on the face of it, but as I think more about it, it did fit into a fundamentalist world-view. Dusty had a couple of teams out surveying a type of plant named psychotria that's a prime source of hummingbird food. On particular plants we were to count red buds, white buds, dead flowers, et cetera, to track the food availability.
Once the teams split up, however, and began to look at actual plants, it became clear that Dusty's original instructions had not been perfectly clear, and they could be interpreted in two different ways. What should we do about the green buds? They would soon be flowers, so it seemed like they shouldn't be treated as over-the-hill flowers, but should they be ignored entirely, or what?
It was a giant pain to gather the data, so the last thing in the world I wanted was to waste an afternoon collecting the wrong data. I suggested a way that we could count one additional type of bud and later convert our data to either of the two possibilities that Dusty might have wanted.
Rob was totally opposed to this. It was clear to him that we should make a guess and collect according to one interpretation. If we guessed right, we'd be done. If we guessed wrong, four people's work for an afternoon would be wasted. If we did it my way, we could get what Dusty wanted by doing some simple arithmetic when we got back and knew exactly what she wanted. But my way was "wrong" because it was surely not exactly what Dusty had asked for. We almost came to blows over it, but with the voting three to one in my favor, he grudging put up with it. He just showed an absolute refusal to be flexible -- a great fundamentalist trait.
Although I could barely stand to talk to him, I was amazed that nobody else complained. So I kept my mouth shut.
But at the end of the trip, Rob needed to leave a day early so he could fly to Quito for services at the only synagogue in Ecuador, and all of a sudden at dinner, the floodgates broke. Rob had written a letter to Penny, berating her for not apologizing for some slight that he was sure she'd given him, but that she could barely remember. Pic hated him because he didn't pitch in on camp duties if he felt "tired". Martin had noticed he'd been stealing camp food and hiding it away in his backpack. When we were checking the nets for birds, he'd totally ignore the experimental design which called for a 20 minute gap between net visits and he'd go whenever he felt the urge.
So there was one bad apple, but luckily the rest of the group was full of great people. I think there's probably a law of nature that says that in any group of more than 10 randomly selected people, there's at least one jerk, and our group provided one more piece of inductive evidence. Or maybe the average percentage of jerks you run into says something deep about your fundamental psychological nature. For me, one in ten are jerks; for Joe, there are probably almost no jerks, and to Rob, it must have seemed that nine out of ten are jerks.
When I returned, I had a really interesting conversation with a friend at work concerning Rob. My friend is born and raised Jewish, and spends a huge amount of time in Israel, both for vacations, and dealing with our company's Israeli customers.
I was telling him about the trip and how much I liked everybody except Rob, and that I didn't quite know how to describe him, but "fundamentalist" seemed to fit, although I'd never met a fundamentalist Jew before.
My friend said that he'd run into plenty of them, and what he finds most annoying about them is their refusal to help out a group if it's something they don't want to do. (Clean latrines? Fill water bottles?)
Then, out of the blue, my friend asked, "Did he steal food, too?"
I really hate to stereotype people, but what an amazing coincidence -- it was like a blindfolded, over-the-shoulder bull's-eye at 100 yards!
Dusty was the PI, or "Principal Investigator", and John ran the logistical part of the show. John is very much like me, and we got along great -- we were in nearly perfect agreement about what to do in any circumstance, and he and I would often volunteer to go off and do any activity that involved extra hiking, like marking and measuring trails, bush-whacking though the forest to try to figure out where to set up the nets, et cetera.
Dusty was also great fun, and knew her birds backwards and forwards. She'd led a very colorful life, including stints as hippy musician, Peace Corps volunteer, Kenyan bird guide, PhD in biology, and on and on. She had lots of great adventures to talk about. She was always quick to turn into a teacher when we came across some interesting plant or animal on our walks.
For some reason, Dusty and Rob got along quite well. As far as I could tell, it was Dusty's only character flaw.
Claude, who is a member of PAN, lives with Myriam, and is an immigration lawyer in New York. Myriam is from Ecuador, and she and Claude spend a lot of time working on the people-related parts of the PAN project. Claude helps with legal advice, et cetera. He also handles the logistics of the scientific projects from the Manglaralto end. Every time a mule train went up or down the trail, there was a message from or to Claude.
The three Ecuadorians, Ben, Felix, and Javier, all had different backgrounds. Ben studied shore birds and had been doing so for 10 years. He was Dutch, spoke 5 languages, and I learned a great deal from him about how to untangle birds from nets. Unfortunately, he was only able to stay at the casita for a few days. Ben had some physiological problem that made it difficult for him to sweat, and I often wondered how big a chance he was taking, getting through miles of desert and sweltering jungle to reach the research site.
Javier is a student of ornithology and was a very friendly fellow. His English was worse than my Spanish, and when Felix, he, and I were on the same team, we conducted all business in Spanish. I did not get to know him as well as I would have liked.
Felix spoke only Spanish, and worked for the natural history museum in Guayaquil. Apparently the museum has only two employees who deal with the animal collections, Felix and his boss. The boss doesn't do much, so I got a long story of woe on the hike from Manglaralto to the casita. Felix has to be an expert in whatever comes around -- fish, insects, mammals, birds, or whatever. He's recently been working on birds, and was already quite an expert. You'd think that it would be much easier to identify the birds you caught in the nets and have in your hot little hands, but surprisingly, there are cases where it's more difficult. You can't see their behavior and the feathers aren't in a perfectly natural position, so it's sometimes confusing. Since Felix worked primarily with museum specimens of birds, he was far better at identifying the netted birds than anyone else.
Both Felix and Javier spent a great deal of their free time in camp studying the bird books, which impressed me greatly. After a day of trudging through the jungle, reading a comic book would have represented a significant intellectual exercise for me.
The final two members of the team, Pascal and Mauricio, lived in the little town of Suspiro, the nearest town to the casita. They ran the mules, cleared spots for the nets, set up the poles, and various other things. Since they probably ate rice every day of their lives, they were extremely good at cooking it, and usually did so for the whole team each evening. I think the main trick is that when the rice is about half done, they'd add a bit of oil to it, and mixed it in. I'm going to have to experiment with it at home. The problem is that the rice pot usually wound up with a coating of burned gunk on the bottom that required almost a chisel to get out. Luckily, Molly loved the burned rice in the bottom and would chisel out most of it to eat before the poor dinner cleanup crew was faced with the pot.
Both spoke only Spanish, and they were very personable. I particularly liked Mauricio, probably because he laughed at all my jokes.
To get from Manglaralto to the "casita" ("little house" in Spanish) where we stayed, we were driven in shifts in a rented car to the tiny pueblito of Suspiro -- about a 45 minute drive. Then we loaded our stuff on mules and either walked or rode horses for 4 hours. Pic and I don't care for riding, so we walked the whole way; most people did a combination of riding/walking for the first 3 hours, and then almost everybody walked up "heartbreak hill". It's about a 500 meter climb straight up the mountain -- the concept of a switchback doesn't seem to exist in Ecuador. I walked with Molly who just about killed me for the first 20 minutes or so. I don't think youngsters should be allowed to play soccer or run or get any exercise so that we old geezers will have a chance to keep up. My heart-rate felt like it was around 170 beats per minute, but luckily Molly slowed down a bit for the last 20 minutes of the climb and my heart didn't explode.
We'd started walking at 10 am, and the majority of the walk was through desert-like deforested land at approximately sea-level, in the middle of the day almost exactly on the equator. I drank about a gallon of water, and sweated so much that my shirt and pants didn't have any dry spots. I was so tired when I got to the casita that I found sitting next to my duffle bag to set up my sleeping area was too hard, so I tried to do it while lying on the floor. That didn't work so well either.
The routine was pretty much the same most days. We'd get up a 5:15, fend for ourselves for breakfast, and then try to get the nets open to capture and band birds by 6 am. We'd band until noon, close the nets, and return for lunch. There were 5 camp chores -- general camp cleanup, cooking lunch, cooking dinner, cleaning up after lunch, and the same after dinner. Two people did each job each day, and things rotated around in a manner that wasn't totally unfair. It was unfair in a sense, however; since Molly and I made up the schedule, I was miraculously not on Rob's team for any of the chores.
We were very careful with the food and water. We drank only bottled water and scrupulously kept the washing water separate from the drinking water. We washed our hands, clothes, bodies, and dishes in the washing water, but all the washed dishes were rinsed in a solution that contained a teaspoon of chlorox bleach per gallon of water. In spite of the precautions, we still didn't have a perfect health record -- Molly felt sick one day but was able to sleep all afternoon, and was pretty much recovered afterwards, and Andrea was quite miserable for a couple of days.
The food was pretty simple -- lots of beans, rice, lentils, pasta, tuna, sardines, and other stuff that was dried or came in cans. But if you work hard enough during the day, it all tastes good. We did have some boxes (not bottles) of Chilean wine that tasted something like paint stripper, and was perfect for our wine-and-cheeze-whiz party. We also had a bottle of rum and three boxes of sangria that we consumed on New Year's.
After lunch and cleanup, we'd just goof off until about 3, since it was usually too hot to do anything. Some folks took siestas, others washed their clothes, took showers, wrote in their journals, or studied the bird books.
The afternoon activity varied -- sometimes we birded, sometimes we surveyed psychotria plants, sometimes we marked and measured or explored new trails, sometimes we moved the mist nets, once we hauled 80 liters of water up the last part of heartbreak hill when the mule "broke down", and once, on Sunday, we goofed off.
At 6 pm the sun would go down (at the equator, if there were no mountains, the sun always rises and sets at precisely 6 am and 6 pm, local time, all year long). We'd have dinner, clean up, and then play cards, have group meetings, or whatever.
I did notice an interesting thing about the card games -- since there were so many of us from different cultures, there were very few (none, as far as I know) card games that everybody knew. We did get around to Slap-Jack, and to another game that's related to Old Maid. So we stuck to simple games that were easy to learn, and tended to be high in the luck component. In the games of the Brits and the Americans, the goal was to win, and there was a single winner. In the Ecuadorian's games, the goal tended to be not to lose, and there was a single loser. It's an interesting cultural comparison.
Most people crashed at 9 or 9:30, and for 10 minutes or so each night before everyone passed out from exhaustion, we told jokes, and it was sort of like a junior-high-school slumber party. As we got to know each other better, the slumber parties got better and better, and on the last night, we probably had half the group laughing so hard that there were tears running down their faces. I think we were all punch-drunk from exhaustion, and at the same time, we were looking forward to going home.
For example, as the end grew near, we ran out of more and more kinds of food, and the dinners got more and more strange. Dusty cooked on the final night, and made "Inca Stew" -- a bizarre collection of things including quinoa (pronounced "keen-wah") grain, polenta, vegetables, spices, and heaven-knows what else. It didn't taste bad, particularly, but it was pretty strange. That night, in the slumber party, she said something like, "There wasn't anything bad in the dinner, was there?" I responded, "There wasn't anything good in the dinner, was there?", which somehow managed to set off a laughing chain-reaction.
One of the main cultural icons of the group turned out to be "Trevor". Penny brought the latest copy of Cosmopolitan to camp, and it was one of the few pieces of literature lying around, so everyone read it. There was a story, presumably written by a man, who said that within him lived another man named Trevor, who was driven into a testosterone-induced frenzy at mere sight of a woman's ankle or neck. "Trevor" seemed very British, so we decided somehow that Martin was in reality only half Martin, and his other half was Trevor. From that point on, Trevor became almost another member of the team, although he never seemed to take his turn cooking or cleaning.
Our main job was netting and banding birds.
The so-called mist nets that we used were 12 meters long and 2 1/2 meters high. They are stretched between two vertical poles anchored in the ground. The holes are a bit over a centimeter square, and a series of ties and trammels leaves the net a little baggy. The mesh is so fine that it's almost invisible, and I almost blundered into the nets a few times myself, even though I knew roughly where they were. A bird hitting the net usually tangles its feet or wings or neck in the net, and plops into a sort of pocket below one of the trammels.
Dusty suggested that one of the best ways to practice getting birds out of mist nets is to buy a hair-net, and to practice tangling and untangling objects in it. I tried with a pine-cone, and got good enough at that, but birds are an entirely different story.
Beginners are afraid to hurt the birds, so they often don't them tightly enough, and the birds can struggle and either get away, or get themselves almost hopelessly tangled as they squirm out of your grip, and twist around in the net. Occasionally, the tangles are impossible, and if the bird is really exhausted, or in danger of strangling, the net can be cut as a last resort. Almost always, if one or two threads are cut, you can get the bird out with very minor damage to the net.
Benito was the only one who never seemed to have to cut. Even Dusty cut a few threads on a couple of particularly badly tangled birds. She typically didn't untangle birds, and the only time she'd be called in to assist is after a bird was hopelessly tangled, either due to its own efforts, or due to a screw-up on the part of a clumsy inexperienced volunteer.
Among the volunteers, Penny and I loved to get the birds out. Others were neutral about it, and some hated it, I think mainly for fear of hurting the birds. Hummingbirds were particularly delicate. Since I was willing to try anything, I was fairly good at it by the end.
In the beginning of my career as a bird-untangler, I certainly messed up on a few of them and had to call in an expert to undo my mistakes, but by the end of 2 weeks, I was not too bad. I did get one bird out that looked almost impossible at first which I was quite proud of.
I was untangling the tanager, and was making reasonable progress, and getting only a "reasonable" number of bites, but all of a sudden he jerked his head loose from my grip and got a mouthful of net. Tanager's tongues actually have a little back-pointing barb on them, and he managed to get the net behind the barb, and then clamped his mouth shut.
I offered him pencils and sticks and other stuff to bite on, so I could open the beak and use a toothpick or something to lift the net over the barbed tongue. He refused all my offers, and the only thing he was willing to open his mouth for was to bite my little finger. I decided to sacrifice my little finger to science, and underwent a great deal of pain while I tried to work the net from behind the barb with my other hand. Finally I gave up and clipped the net thread, and got the bird out without further incident.
At the banding stations, we usually worked in teams of two -- one manipulating the bird, and the other writing everything down. I never got good enough to be a bander, and my back usually got pretty sore when I tried to be a scribe, but Andrea and Dusty were very good, and Molly learned a lot about doing it herself.
Since the banding station is usually within a few hundred yards of the nets, the measured and banded birds can just be released there, but some birds should be taken back and released quite near where they were captured. I learned that it's a good idea to stand between the net and the bird when you let it go -- when I took my first bird back, I stopped about 40 meters from the net and released it. It proceeded to fly 40 meters straight down the trail, and then into the net again.
Each day, we'd select the "bird of the day" -- something unusual or new that we caught. I think the most interesting was a woodstar hummingbird -- the tiniest thing I'd ever seen. It was amazing that it got caught in the net at all -- the holes in the net are almost bigger than it is. On Christmas day, of course, the bird of the day was a partridge.
What I hated most about the mist nets was repairing them. Sometimes, when a bird was hopelessly tangled, we've have to cut a couple of threads, and I did that a couple of times with experts (Dusty and Andrea), and we never cut more than three threads. But to fix them, you've got to re-weave the net, tying tiny threads with tiny knots to reconstruct the web's mesh. After a while, I got so I could fix a two or three thread cut in a few minutes.
When we took down the first set of nets, however, a cursory check found holes the size of basketballs, requiring hundreds of knots. This was all done in broiling sun, kneeling in the dirt, covered with flies and mosquitos, working with nearly invisible thread on a nearly invisible net. I spent five or six hours doing this, and if I had ever caught the person who went after the nets with hedge-clippers, I would probably have found an excuse to go hiking alone with them, deep in the jungle, with a machete. But with the passage of time, I've become much more forgiving. If I learned who it was now, I'd simply break all their fingers and toes!
Birding, or bird watching, as some folks call it, can be pretty well summed up by one of Bernabé's comments: "This isn't science -- it's bird watching."
The goal is to see as many different species as you can, but since you rarely get as good a view as you'd like, there's a lot of guesswork involved, and the decision about what the bird actually was is often determined by the person who's most persistent in the argument. A couple of times Dusty and I looked at the same bird in terrible light -- directly into the sun so all we got was a silhouette, and a cloacal view at that, and she'd claim to see colors on the tail where, in spite of the fact that I had far better binoculars, all I saw was a perfectly black outline against a brilliant sky.
After a while, you find that you're not just looking at the bird -- you make your decision about what it is based on its behavior, your geographical location, and where it is in the canopy. Since I'd never seen 90% of the birds there, I was at a big disadvantage. At least I'd seen a lot of Costa Rican birds, and was vaguely familiar with most of the families.
Sometimes you get a brief or bad view of a bird, and you still have a pretty good idea of what it was, just by how it flew, it's general size, and so on. This is called "jizz". (I suppose it should really be "gis" -- "general impression and size", but everybody spells it "jizz". For the grammarians, here are a couple of correct usages of the term, as a noun and as a verb:
"That bird has a hawk jizz."
"I saw it for an instant and was only able to jizz it."
In our group, Dusty and Pic were the real birders and the rest of us were far less experienced. Even Ben, who had studied birds in Ecuador for 10 years, was no match on the forest birds. He concentrated on sea birds, and his trip to the casita was the first time in 10 years he'd been away from the coast.
All birders keep lists of the birds they've seen. At well-known birding places, you can get a list for the area of all the species known there. Then you try to check off as many as you can.
Very few people had done any serious birding around the casita, so the list we started with was a mixture of a couple of other lists for nearby areas, but it was more of a loose guide. During our stay, we found a few species that are normally found in the Andes, and were able to make the list a bit more accurate. I think about 180 species were seen by members of our team and the previous one.
Being a natural-born pessimist, it was pretty easy for me to find stuff to be discouraged about.
It seemed like the little towns were drove through were all very poor -- tiny shacks that the people lived in, dust everywhere, and fairly desolate land between them. The area between Guayaquil and Manglaralto is naturally pretty dry (as is, I guess, most of the west coast of South America), so perhaps it looked worse than it was. But there were plenty of burned areas that we saw on the way to Manglaralto.
Burning clears trees and bushes, and the resulting ash provides a pretty good fertilizer, so after a burn, you get a pretty good crop of grass to raise cattle. Unfortunately, the soil is poor, and generally only produces for a few years before it is completely leached of nutrients and eroded and becomes virtually useless. This is particularly true in rainforest where there's a lot of water to do the leaching and eroding, and it's not so severe in the desert areas.
But the little towns between Manglaralto and the casita like Loma Alta and Suspiro were particularly depressing. The rivers no longer run most of the year because their source for the drier seasons used to be mist (called "garua" there) condensing on trees. With most of the trees gone, the water has, too. Pumps were installed to suck out the local aquifer, but more and more of those are failing, and new wells have to be deeper and deeper. (Of course, we're emulating this in the United States with the Ogalalla aquifer in the midwest that's being sucked dry at an amazing rate, so we don't provide a particularly good role model.)
In any case, Mauricio (who lives in Suspiro) assured us that things had been much better when he was a kid -- more greenery, more water, and a better life. It didn't look to me like it would be much fun to live there.
For this particular part of the world, there are a few hopeful possibilities. Many years ago, the Ecuadorian government divided the region into local watersheds and gave the local people quite a bit of control over how those areas are to be used. The Loma Alta comuna (community) controls a watershed that includes not only the desert towns of Loma Alta and Suspiro, but also extends up into the cloud forest where the casita is located. The upper regions have been declared a "Bosque Protector", or "protected forest". The lower regions are used for various things -- woodcutting, ranching, farming, hunting, and growing paja toquillo -- a plant that provides fibers for the so-called Panama hats (no -- they are not made in Panama), among other things.
The comuna meets regularly and makes decisions about who gets to use what land for what purposes, and in principle, this could lead to a pretty good land-use scheme.
Unfortunately, it's tough to police anything -- OK -- there ARE no police -- so aggressive folks can and do take advantage of the situation. Although I understand that there's little problem with the acreage assigned to individuals, the unassigned areas are subject to Garrett Hardin's classic "Tragedy of the Commons" problem. There's huge private gain available to those misusing the common lands, and the penalty is externalized among all the owners. So if you're a woodcutter, and are assigned a hectare to cut, it's much better to go cut in the public area -- that's "free" wood, and later, if you need to, you can harvest your own. Similarly for hunting, et cetera.
Already, there is almost no "old growth" forest there -- all but a tiny number of the big trees were felled 30-40 years ago, so most of the area was second-growth forest -- much more jungle-like than the relatively clear primary forest that still exists in a few places on earth.
But as you walk away from the casita, the forest suddenly disappears, and all that's left is deforested land -- small farms, cattle, wasteland, and so on. Most is extremely dry -- almost desertlike -- and since most of the garua-collecting forest has been cut down, it's unlikely to get any new water for 100 years (the 100 year estimate, of course, assumes everyone stops cutting and burning -- fat chance).
The forest around the casita is in pretty good shape -- it is so hard to get to that it's only been worth exploiting for the really valuable hardwoods (like the guayacan tree). It's such a pain to get there that many members of the Loma Alta comuna have never been there.
Unfortunately, it's over the hill from another comuna, and a particularly aggressive cattle rancher named Arguello is busily burning the Bosque Protector and fencing it in for his cattle. So far, he's destroyed about a third of it, and he was busily burning while we were there. A few years ago, there was a court decision in favor of Loma Alta that declared his actions illegal, but enforcement is impossible, so he's continued. He's a relatively rich man (at least by Loma Alta standards), and can hire men to guard "his" land with rifles.
There are conflicting laws, so depending on which one you read, the land is either protected forest, or it now belongs to Arguello for any purpose he wants. The older law that supports Arguello is based on the reasoning that idle land is wasted, and anyone who develops it owns it.
Since he has been burning it regularly it's his (according to that interpretation).
It seems to me that the land is pretty much lost. Even if Loma Alto won the California Lottery and bought the land from Arguello, if they didn't "develop" it, he could, and then it would belong to him again.
On the other hand, if Loma Alta could start some eco-tourism project that "used" the rest of the Bosque Protector by bringing in rich gringo birder nut-cases, that might be enough to protect it.
The one thing nobody mentioned is the enormous population pressure. Mauricio has 9 kids so far, for example. When I brought this up, the response was that "they move away". The point is, there is virtually no new land available, so things are just that much worse wherever they move away to.
One final thing that's really sad is that the poverty is so great that the people are forced to burn firewood for cooking instead of using propane or something similar. We asked about the cost of the propane, and it turns out that for government-subsidized gas, the cost to Mauricio's family of 11 is about fifty cents a week. But that's too high, so they burn firewood. Needless to say, you have to go a long way to find firewood these days.
It's difficult for me to imagine living as the folks in the comuna do. They want televisions and cars just like the rest of the world, and if there's a quick way to get there, why not? If you don't cut down the forest for your own profit, your neighbors will.
As the folks in PAN have discovered, it's very difficult to figure out how to help. The only way to make a permanent change is to get the people themselves involved. But you have to start them off.
For example, in the rainforest you can find tagua nuts -- they're sometimes called "vegetable ivory", and can be carved into jewelry -- necklaces, earrings, buttons, and so on. It's a renewable resource, and in their spare time, many of the women in Suspiro carve tagua jewelry. But how do they sell it? PAN is one of the few groups that brings rich gringos into Suspiro, so if PAN were to leave, their largest market would disappear. PAN is trying to help them set up outside distributors, but without much luck, so far.
The treatment of the mules was one of the things that showed most clearly that we were in the third world. In the United States, we're used to animals getting reasonably good treatment, but the poor mules in Ecuador lead a horrible life.
The ones we saw were always overloaded. Claude would look at the load they had to take up, and decide, say, that 5 mules were needed. He'd pay for 5 mules, and only 3 would show up. But the drivers would load as much as they could on the 3 mules anyway but some stuff was always left behind. When they got back, they'd insist that there had been 5 mules and demand payment for all 5. This happened repeatedly, I guess because Claude kept paying them.
I got to use my Spanish a fair amount. Since it's passable, I was often assigned to work with Felix and Javier, and consulted on lots of translations.
Other than the Ecuadorians, Pic, Dusty, and I spoke reasonably well. Pic had lived in Colombia and Venezuela for 20 years and did fine. Dusty could certainly understand the locals better than I, and had a larger vocabulary, but her grammar was basically non-existent. It seemed like every verb she used had a random conjugation and every noun, a random gender. I found that quite encouraging -- in spite of that, the locals seemed to understand her very well.
Although "they" say that Spanish is pretty much the same around the world, I certainly noticed that it was harder to understand the Ecuadorians than the Costa Ricans, Spaniards, and Mexicans I'm used to talking to. When I asked Pascual about my accent, he assured me that it was weird and hard to understand for him. But if I concentrated, I did fine, and I don't recall ever opening a Spanish-English dictionary, so that's a vast improvement over last year in Costa Rica. Or maybe I was just too wiped out most of the time to climb up the stairs of the casita to dig out the dictionary.
The fact that Mauricio was missing his four front teeth didn't make him particularly easy to understand, either. Luckily, Spanish doesn't make heavy use of the "labio-dental" sounds like "th".
It was interesting the other way around, too. Among the Ecuadorians were folks of all levels of expertise in English, but even the experts complained of difficulties with the Brits, and with Molly's North Carolina accent.
The bottom line is that Spanish wasn't required on the project, but it was nice to have. My advice for travellers to Central and South America is that there are really only two sentences you need to know to get by:
"Una cerveza, por favor." (A beer, please.)
"Otra cerveza, por favor." (Another beer, please.)
I wasn't sure exactly what to expect in the way of annoying and/or dangerous critters. I got a yellow fever shot and was taking Larium, the malaria medicine while I was there. But mosquitos also cause Dengue fever, and there's no innoculation for that, so I was planning to avoid bites as much as possible.
We all slept under mosquito netting which, for me at least, seemed to work quite well. My "tent" consisted of just some netting supported a bit above my head with a tail that covered most of the sleeping bag. There was no bottom. Others had elaborate floored tents that were probably a bit easier to use, since you just got in and zipped up -- I had to get everything arranged carefully each night.
Different people seem to attract mosquitos and other bugs to very different degrees. Andrea, for example, seemed to be eaten alive, and she got strong allergic reactions to many of the bites. Others got intermediate reactions, and I got few bites, and almost no reactions.
Some people soaked themselves with DEET (the repellant), and I almost never used it.
I did, however, spray my pants and some of my shirts with permethrin -- a strong repellant -- before I left. I wore T-shirts most of the time, not the permethrin-treated shirts, and all the bites I got were above my waist, or on my ankles. I'm planning on sticking with permethrin in the future.
In addition to mosquitos, there were ticks (tiny ones, at least compared to those in California), and some folks were plagued with them. Joe got nailed on his neck, and Molly got one in an even less desirable spot.
After we pulled out Joe's tick, Dusty and I painted betadine on the wound, painted in the form of lips so it looked like Joe had a giant hickey.
I found a few ticks on my boots, but none made it to my skin, perhaps due to the permethrin.
There were also so-called "mantas", or "manta blancas". I never did figure out exactly what they were, but the Ecuadorians regularly swatted them, and I never felt a thing.
It was a little weird not having a mirror, however. When I got back to the hotel with a full-sized mirror in the bathroom, I found I was mistaken about my impression that I'd only gotten a few bites -- my back had 20 or 30 little red spots!
But overall, I was lucky -- very little itching, I almost never used DEET, and compared to others, I got very few bites.
It was pretty dry, at least compared to some of the rainforests I've been in, and hence there wasn't a lot of insect life. We tried a couple of night walks where you shine flashlights in the bushes and in a wetter time, you'd find hundreds of amazing bugs. We found almost nothing.
It's apparently an Ecuadorian custom (or so Dusty assured us) that to bring in the new year, you make a model of a man made of straw-stuffed clothes to represent the old year. At midnight (London time; 7pm, local time), you torch the man to represent some sort of cleansing of the old year.
Since Claude hadn't sent up enough alcohol on the mules for a proper celebration, we made a model of him out of cardboard and paper.
Apparently, it's quite a bit more humid up there than it seemed; we couldn't light the model. With the help of (quite a lot of) kerosine from the lantern, we were finally able to make it burn, and the new year was brought in successfully.
GPS units are tiny (not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes), and they pick up the weak signals from satellites, and can determine, within a hundred meters or so, your exact location anywhere on earth.
The satellite signals are weak, so I didn't know whether the unit would be of much use in a forest. I'd fiddled with it in the forests at home and could usually make it work, but I wasn't sure what would happen in heavy-duty rainforest.
The answer is that you could use it, but usually it took about 5 minutes of moving to slightly different locations, holding the unit at different orientations, et cetera. It was just about long enough that you'd lose your patience and just start looking. It would be great if you were really lost, however. It'll point you directly toward home (assuming you saved the coordinates of "home" before you left).
Except for the fact that only 7 mules showed up the first day and 10 the second, things went pretty smoothly. We split into two groups -- one that wanted to ride out on the mules and about 6 of us who decided to walk a longer and more scenic route.
Dusty was in the walking out group, and she and Pic wanted to do as much birding as possible. The rest of us were pretty birded out, and there was a minor mutiny when the birders wanted to stop at a good birding spot for an hour or so. We knew that when we got down to the desert at the bottom it would be hotter than hell, and we preferred to get there as early in the day as possible.
We compromised and went slower than we wanted to, but faster than the birders would have preferred. We had a nice dinner (with cold beer) in Manglaralto, spent the night there, and returned to Guayaquil the next day. It was sort of complicated in Guayaquil because various people went in various directions, and when Martin, Joe, Molly, and I arrived at the continental hotel as the final stop, we found that mixed with our baggage was a 30 kilo bag of plant cuttings that were supposed to go with Dusty.
Since we all planned to meet at our hotel later for a final meal, we left the bag in the lobby -- I'm not sure how pleased the hotel management was with that, but there were 4 paying guests to consider, and apparently the hotel rates for non-Ecuadorians are far higher than for citizens.
For our last supper, we searched in vain for a place to eat "cuyos" (guinea pigs), and so we let Javier take us to one of his favorite spots -- a seafood place. Molly had never eaten ceviche (raw fish, "cooked" by marinating it in lime juice), and figured that it was better to try it on the last day so if she got sick, she could puke her guts out on a plane headed home rather than deep in the jungle at least 2 days from medical attention. A lot of ceviche was consumed that night without incident.
I had a nearly perfect exit from the country, and when I stepped on the plane headed home, I had less than 30 cents worth of sucres (Ecuadorian currency) in my pocket!
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