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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Day 8: Homeward Bound

Day 8-9: January 18th-19th, 2013
Location: ARC Lodge, Esperanza, Iquitos, Lima, Miami, Boston, Henniker

Click here to view a web album containing 31 photos from today.

This blog entry will actually cover days #8 and #9, including our long journey home.

After a night full of thunderstorms (at times quite impressive ones, with loud torrential rain and frequent lightning), we all awoke for a 6AM breakfast. We realized that we would not be able to head out on our final boat ride - not because we are afraid of the rain, but because the animals tend to hide away in that weather. Instead, we attended a lecture by Alfredo, the resident biologists at the Amazon Research Center. He showed us his camera traps, infrared cameras that he stations around the research grid to help inventory the animal life.

It was fascinating to see photos of jaguars, tapirs, deer, anteaters, and various other mammals taken right where we had been walking the day before.

The morning was spent relaxing, showering, packing, and getting ready for the day as the rain stopped and a thick fog settled over the river.

We ate an early 11AM lunch, loaded the boat with our gear, and then posed for one final picture with the staff:

This photo shows our main guide Wennie (Wennington) on the bottom left (in the white T-shirt and hat), Elisa (a guide in training, just to his right in the yellow T-shirt), Haler (a local who helps on a temporary basis, and who loves to wield a machete) and Carolina (the 2nd-in-command guide, back row, white T-shirt, just to the right of Lori). Many of us bonded with our guides while there and we all benefited from the warmth and knowledge they shared with us. They were all greatly appreciated and will all be missed!

We managed to fit all of us and our luggage into the motorboat and headed downriver:

After about an hour, we reached Tahuayo Lodge, where we switched to a larger, faster motorboat. We headed upriver toward Iquitos. On the way, we stopped at Esperanza village, home to a clinic that services much of the area. Wennie explained that this clinic, paid for and sponsored by the tour company that runs the two lodges, provides treatment to locals, saving them lengthy and costly trips to Iquitos. We prepared a donation of a first aid kit and a variety of medications. Wennie and I walked into the village to hand over the supplies.

The nurses (who were quite amused at my height, laughing and saying they had never seen someone so big) asked me to explain the purpose of each item to make sure they understood. They were unfamiliar with many of them (Purell, Pepto Bismol, eye wash). If we ever return, I'd like to bring more serious supplies (surgical equipment, etc.).

We rode about 2.5 hours upriver to Iquitos, merging with the Amazon river, and passing through one final hard rainstorm along the way (which made for a rough journey).

We arrived in Iquitos and transferred to the bus. The ride to the airport was a panoply of colors and blurry motorbikes whizzing by.

We boarded a 5:30PM LAN flight to Lima

In Lima, we had several hours to shop for souvenirs and eat before boarding our midnight flight to Miami. We were all pretty bleary eyed upon landing as we worked our way through immigration, customs, baggage, etc., reaching our gate as our 7:15AM flight to Boston was loading. We landed in Boston by 10:30AM, indulged in a dozen Dunkin' Donuts (the taste of home!), and gathered our bags. Several of us were met by loved ones at the airport. The rest of us were ably spirited to Henniker on the NEC bus (thanks again, Dan!), arriving around 12:30PM. 

It was sad to leave, but it's great to be home!

Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Day 7: Hey Hey, We're the Monkeys

Day 7: January 17th, 2013
Location: Amazon Research Center (ARC), Peru

Click here to jump to a web album containing 31 photos from today.

Greetings from the Amazon Research Center! Today was an interesting and somewhat difficult day exploring the flora, fauna, and ecology of this section of Amazonian rainforest.

Our day started off with a 6AM breakfast at the ARC lodge. One discussion thread focused on the deep grunge that many of us have achieved, a skin-coating combination of sunscreen, sweat, bug spray, smooshed bugs, and forest detritus. Cold showers (no hot water is available) offers some brief relief - but how long would you be willing to walk around clean before putting a thick layer of DEET on your recently-washed skin? For most of us, the bugs force us to reach for the lotion in short order!

For our morning, activity, we headed out into the ARC research area, a grid of paths and trails separate by 100m from each other. The grid runs from A to U in one dimension and from 1 to 20 in another. After a short paddle, we started out at A-12 and split into two groups, each with five students and two guides.

We literally slogged through the mud to the other side of the grid. One group (the wimpy group) lasted about 3.5 hours, while the more hearty group lasted around 4.5 hours. It was very hot, buggy, and muddy - in a word, uncomfortable. But of course we all appreciated the unique beauty of the rainforest that surrounded us.

The ARC is known for its diversity of new world primates, and they were our primary target. Along the way, we viewed several bands of saddleback tamarins as well as a squirrel monkey:

We spotted fresh tracks of a tapir and a jaguar (!) as well as various birds, such as parrots. We also saw the creepiest spider we've seen yet (and believe, me, that's saying something!), a blue tarantula about 5" long. It was moving very quickly - and boy was it mad!

We returned to the ARC around 11AM-noon. Most of us showered and rested for a bit, since the heat and humidity of the hike really drained us. Soon it began to rain.

The rain varied from a gentle sprinkle to a tremendous thunderstorm. Occasionally it rained in a manner much harder than what we are used to,as if to say "Now, *that's* how we rain in the Amazon!".

In the afternoon, we headed out on the boat to a nearby spot to fish for piranhas. That was fun! We put chunks to beef on a hook attached to a bamboo pole. You let the hook drop about 6' or so into the river, and soon, the piranhas would bite. The trick was to pull them up into the boat still attached to the hook.

Eventually, every one of us caught at least one piranha. Talk about a unique experience!

We rode over to the lake for a swim - so refreshing in the heat of the day! (And yes, the lake is sufficiently far away from where we fished!).

During dinner, we all samples some of our catch:

We were lucky to be joined during dinner by Rose, a graduate students from Southern Illinois University who is spending 18 months at ARC studying one species of monkey. Rose was kind enough to explain her work to the students, to describe how she found her niche, her graduate school experience, and to answer all questions. The students were grateful for the opportunity learn from her. Rose is in the lower right hand corner of this photo (in the light green shirt):

At the end of the mail, our cook surprised us with a farewell cake, which was quickly and gratefully devoured:

By the end of our dinner and conversation, around 9PM, most of us were exhausted enough to go right to bed. Some even bunked overnight in the hammock room (a series of 6 hammocks radiating from a central spoke in a round, tall thatched-roof room). It really rained overnight, including some tremendous storms. We all joked about the wildlife in our room; some have bats flying overhead, I had a 4' snake in the rafter just outside my room, and others had various geckos, spiders, etc. as house guests. It takes some getting used to!

This was our last night in the Amazon. Friday will have a few activities and then a long journey home. I'll probably next update the blog from the airport, either in Lima or Miami.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Day 6: Black water

Day 6: Wednesday January 16th, 2013
Location: Tahuayo Lodge, Chino village, and Amazon Research Center, Peru

Click here to jump to a web album containing 41 photos from today.

Greetings once again from Peru. I am writing this entry from the Amazon Research Center, a biological preserve and research facility located deep within a protected region of the rainforest - one that totals over a million acres. We transferred here today from Tahuayo Lodge, and this will be our base of operations until we leave Peru.

Lori (my colleague and trip co-leader) and I were talking today about how dedicated the students are on this trip. There is no experience that they have turned down, no opportunity they have shunned. Case in point: 7 of the 10 of us participated in a voluntary 6AM jungle hike. We awoke to a wonderful Amazonian dawn:

We trekked for about 30 minutes through the jungle behind the Lodge to view some pygmy marmosets:

It was so great to see these primates in a wild. A real treat for a biologist, to be sure. We were back at the lodge in time for a quick shower before our 8AM breakfast (which today featured freshly squeezed passionfruit juice - yum!). After our meal, we gathered at the boat dock to head out for a visit to Chino, a nearby village.

We spent the morning wandering through the village of about 200 people. The students were fascinated to see how the locals lived. We were able to visit some families who opened their homes to us and showed us how they lived and worked. We were told that our Lodge often brings visitors to this village, so they were used to our presence.

I will admit that I did not feel a deep connection with anyone I met. Beyond the language barrier, there was a deeper cultural divide. It is pretty hard for Americans and these Amazonians to relate to each others' lives. One example: I asked about land ownership in the village. If someone wants to move into the village, they stay there for a year, living with friends or relatives. After that time, they can apply to the village chief (elected once every two years, often but not exclusively from the elder males) for the right to build a house. The village chief assigns this person a place to build and some land to farm, for a fee of 10 Peruvian SOL (about $4.50). That money goes into the community coffers. I tried to explain how, in our towns, there are lines on maps that assigned all land to individual owners (or the government) and that land is bought/sold among the citizens. They nodded, but I'm not sure it made any sense!

A market consisting of artisans from Chino and another local village was set up for our behalf in a community building. This was our first and only opportunity to shop for local goods, so every one of us did our part to stimulate the local economy American style. Bargaining was allowed, but few of us bothered, as the prices were all quite reasonable: $12 for a woven basket, $1 for some jewelry, etc.

After the market, we spent more time visiting the village and the local people.

We returned to Tahuayo Lodge for lunch. The we packed everything up and squeezed the 10 of us, 4 guides, and all our luggage into our 20' motorboat for the cruise to the new facility.

The journey took about 2 hours, including a nice long relaxing stop in a black water lake for swimming. (Another cultural divide; we haven't quite figured out the meanings of the different names for the different kinds of water - black water, white water - it definitely does not have to do with the color of the water, but the precise meanings are elusive!).

We arrived at our home for the new few days - the Amazon Research Center - around 5PM. We loaded in our luggage and attended an orientation session from the staff biologist, focusing on the many species of primates that can be seen and studied within the preserve.

The facility here is pretty similar to the last- a series of thatched sleeping huts and common rooms attached by an elaborate series of walkways. One difference: the Internet connection isn't nearly as good, so I am having trouble posting this blog!

After dinner, we headed out for a night river cruise, spotting frogs, owls, and some large rodents. It was incredibly peaceful to be out on the river in canoes, watching the stars and clouds slip by, being surrounded by jungle sounds of such intensity that its hard to know where your own self ends and they begin. Many students commented on the extreme serenity of this two-house paddling - a true moment of Zen.

Thanks for reading! Everyone is doing well and happy. No significant injuries or problems. Everyone sends their greetings and thanks!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Day 5: Big River

Date: January 15, 2013
Location: Tahuayo Lodge and Amazon River, Peru

Click here to jump to a web album featuring 30 photos from today.

Greetings from Tahuayo Lodge, on the Tahuayo River, a tributary of the Amazon. Everyone is happy and healthy. No major problems. Oh, there are bug bites to be sure, and a few scrapes, and some sunburn, but nothing beyond what is expected and what we can handle. Everyone is having a great time.

Today was spent on the river, pretty much the whole day. We set out in the morning in our 20' motor boat: 8 students, 2 professors, and 4 guides. We motored upstream for an hour or so. The students often take this opportunity to work on their journal (which, along with two presentations last semester in the classroom, and one blog entry, constitutes the bulk of their grade in this 2-credit course). I encourage the students to record the experience for their own memories.

After about an hour on the large river, we turned left and headed into the jungle along minor waterways.

This quickly turned into some serious bushwacking. Two hours later(!), after many fits and starts, we emerged on the other side. This was quite a unique and unplanned adventure. Imagine trying to navigate a semi-trailer truck through the narrow alleys of Boston. We spent a lot of time maneuvering the boat through narrow passes between the trees,often pausing to bushwack a clearing with a machete.

We would frequently scrap along trees and shrubs, requiring everyone to duck down out of way as jungle debris (leaves, branches, and many insects) rained down on us. We had to backtrack a few times. But eventually we did make it out and on to the Amazon river itself, which compared to where we had been seemed as wide as a lake, and a fast-moving as whitewater. We turned down another small tributary to view the Victorian water lilies, spectacularly large aquatic plants best known in America for supporting babies:

We stopped here for lunch, enjoying pineapple, rice, and spicy catfish under the canopy of a large tree. After lunch, we stuck to the main waterways as we cruised further upriver. We passed many villages along the way, each with rows of thatched huts, children running about, lots of laundry drying (a full-time activity in the jungle!), and various farm animals. Passing by the local villages was a real window into a vastly different culture.

 We traveled to Lago Charo, a black water lake about 150' deep. Here we swam, which was incredibly refreshing, and we viewed grey dolphins in groups of 2-3, about 100' from us.

Our next stop was the local village a Charo, a community of about 40 people living in huts spread out along several acres of riverfront. There were many children from ages 2 months to 13 years, and several mothers. There were some men around tending to fishing nets, but many of them were out working at the time. The villagers greeted us somewhat reluctantly; we were told that we were the second group of outsiders to ever visit their village.

There was definitely a cultural barrier, one that extended beyond language. For example, when viewing the inside of a dwelling, I asked how many people lived there. After a little bit of back and forth, I realized that my question didn't make full sense in their culture because the housing was more transient, people come and go as they work, relatives move in/out, etc. The idea of one family occupying one dwelling didn't reflect their reality. But, not surprisingly, after a while, everyone began to warm up to each other, especially some of the little girls (who, as a rule, seem to be friendlier and more outgoing than the little boys). We gave the eldest woman a bag of school supplies to distribute to the area children. All in all, it was a unique and enriching experience, one that most students pointed to as the highlight of the day.

As we boated upriver, we stopped to view two species of dolphin, the grey river dolphin, and the very rare amazon pink river dolphin. The latter is larger, and definitely pink (similar to a flamingo) but they never show much of themselves, and so a photo proved elusive.

We returned to the Lodge by sunset, enough time for a shower and a brief rest before dinner.

At dinner, we unanimously agreed that we wanted to go back out on the boat for some night river exploration. We could hear thunder and see flashes of lightning, but the rain didn't come until we were just about back. Along the way, we picked up a snake (the Amazonian boa) and a large tree frog):

We were back at the lodge around 10PM, having spent about 10 hours on the river today. A day well spent!