May 6, 2010

Photo by Alison Ravenscraft

It had been a very long day. As Alison and I sprinted down the slippery trail in the pouring rain with only our tiny head lamps to see by in the dark trying desperately to get back to the station before our cameras got wet, I had to laugh. The things we go through to catch blood sucking freaks. This particular finale was after a day in which we hiked over 17 miles (most of which was with all of our trapping gear) to change the location of our transect. The morning consisted of the usual routine of waking up before dawn, hiking a couple miles out to the traps, gathering the mosquito filled containers and bringing them back to the station. Each morning we kill the little buggers with some cotton soaked alcohol in a plastic bag. After they have wriggled their last wiggle we separate the mosquitoes from the other insects and look for blood, bwaa ha ha!!!

After the blood was found we hiked back to the traps, broke them down and carried them over 10k to the new transect. We had to return to the station to get the freshly charged batteries and right as we finished and were making our way back at 8:30pm the pouring rain exploded out of the sky.

Here we are, just a little soggy

Sachavacayoc was, in a word, epic. The forest was so varied that I have a hard time putting it all into words. The primary forest was just as I had always imagined the Amazon should be. Towering trees that made me gasp in disbelief and wide open spaces underneath. Since the areas around Sacha are disturbed there are fewer mega fauna running around. I barley saw any peccaries, tapir or cat tracks and the large birds were few and far between. But what this forest lacked in larger organisms, it made up for with the tiny ones. Every day Alison and I saw impressively colored snakes, insects and spiders. Heck, even the mosquitoes were beautiful! So many adventures… where to start…

First, there was the lake. At least 20 times larger than any oxbow lake I had seen previously, the Sachavacayoc Lake was surreal. After hiking for an hour and a half down narrow trails the sky and lake just appear from the behind the trees and suddenly there is more open space than one knows what to do with. The giant row boats are mostly submerged in the water but we managed to find one still afloat and paddled around.

We saw an obstreperous group of squirrel monkeys which numbered well over 30 and macaws galore. We were thinking about jumping in and swimming around since the placid waters looked so inviting but then decided against it until we spoke to the staff about the safety of such an activity. Turns out our little hunch was actually our survival instinct kicking in because the staff later told us it would basically be a death wish to swim in the lake in small numbers due to the abundance of caiman, anacondas and piranhas. Yea… we knew that… I swear.

There were a couple of other kind-of close calls including the time that we heard a giant crashing coming towards us. The deer-in-headlights reaction soon turned into the scream-and-run-for-your-life reaction once we realized it was a tree about to smush us into gringa pancakes.

One thing we did not expect, but were happily surprised by, was the adoption into the Sachavacayoc family. They treated us like sisters and instead of eating out in the dining hall with the other gringos, we ate in the kitchen with staff.

We helped cook meals and learned new Peruvian recipes from their amazing chef Cesar. My Spanish has improved dramatically because of all this and I count my blessings that Alison, Spanish speaking extraordinaire, was willing to be patient and teach me grammar and new vocabulary. She truly is more of a teacher than a volunteer in my eyes… not to mention one of the best friends I have ever had!

They are more stories about Sachavacayoc to come but I fear that you, my wonderful readers, are get weary of my babbling. Gatita Gordita lives to tell another tale. More posting tomorrow!



April 21, 2010

What on earth does one do when stuck in Puerto Maldonado for an extra day as the lethargic research permit process gets cranked through the wheels of bureaucracy? Rent a moto of course!! Alison had the brilliant idea of renting a moped and trying our luck out on the dirt roads around PM. I have to admit that at first I was nervous about the idea. She had only ridden once before and my experience is described in full as three seconds in a parking lot on a street legal dirt bike which never left first gear… or traveled more than 3ft from its original position because I freaked out and jumped off. Well… we decided to do it anyway. I love Peru. As long as you have some form of ID, you don’t need a driver’s license or proof of any prior experience. Paper work? Ha! It’s Peru! With a little help from a friend we got our lovely moto and headed out onto the Caraterra Tambopata for a joy ride. To get to the mellow road we first needed to fight through the Puerto traffic. We decided that Alison should be the girl behind the wheel. Almost everyone we passed laughed and pointed at the two crazy gringas who were having way too much fun navigating through the crazy intersections.

We made it out onto the dirt road and picked it up a notch letting the wind pass through our hair and the gravel laden dirt speed beneath us. It was so nice to escape from the city and be in the green shade of the forest once again. Alison, being the darling friend that she is, found a nice flat spot for me to learn and we pulled over to switch spots. “The hand break doesn’t work, so use the foot break here. The speedometer is broken but that’s not a problem. Mirrors… no one uses those anyway. Shifter here… gas here… ok! You’re ready!” So she hopped on the back and off we went! It turned out to be a pretty straight forward process, and while learning on a gravel/dirt road peppered with mud puddles and sketchy narrow bridges may not have been the safest environment to learn, it was a total blast. I’d say more but I don’t want to scare the family! I love you Mom! Feet covered in mud, a little sun burned and smiling to the point of facial muscle spasms we finally had completed our moto adventure and arrived back to town in one piece.

Tonight was the day of the high school, middle school and elementary school parade. Once again, Peru never ceases to amaze me. At least 100 little kids were wearing costumes ranging from spider man to native dress. A line of high school boys were crowded under a black cloth tarp which I am assuming was supposed to be a dragon since the leader had a hairspray can and a lighter which he was using to create a totally safe burst of fire at random times. There was also a fabulous marching band followed by the middle schoolers holding individually crafted paper lanterns on wooden poles which each held a small candle inside that lit up the colors beautifully. All of this (of course) was followed up by a car completely covered up by some kind of paper mache with the exception of a tiny slit to see through on the driver’s side shooting firecrackers into the air that often did not make it too far from the ground. It was glorious.

We never got the permit, and are hoping that it is granted by the time we leave the biological station so we can exit with our mosquito collection. We’ll be taking the infamous colectivo up the Tambopata river at dawn with our fingers crossed and hoping for the best. After all… in Peru, anything can happen.

Voy a Regresar a la Selva

April 20, 2010

Back in the noisy/dirty/ever-interesting city of Puerto Maldonado. I didn’t want to leave the Tambopata Research Station and was hoping to hide under the bed so the boat would leave without me… but alas, I was found.   Running through some of the photos I took there really reminded me what my life here is all about: being in the forest and witnessing the big (and small) occurences that many people only get to see on the Discovery Channel and Planet Earth. Here are some of my favorites:

The plethora of Macaws  squawking in the morning, afternoon and evening.

The giant white caiman that lived in a quebrada (tiny river).   I thought this one was a rock because it was so far away, and when my friend Dave took a photo and zoomed in I screamed in shock.   It looked a lot bigger on the camera… and I was scared… apparently.

Two bullet ants fighting.   Probably duking it out over who got to sting me next.

The view from one of my transects over the Tambopata river looking onto the Andes Mountains.

Seeing the rainforest in the light of the rising sun.

Checking fresh animal tracks across the river.

And of course, playing Settlers of Catan at the end of the day!

There were some mishaps too,  like the time that a colony of leaf cutter ants decided to tear part of my mosquito collection container into a hundred little pieces and carry it off into their nest. Good luck growing fungus on that ya pesky mongrels!

But most of the time the traps worked fine and successfully put thousands of mosquitoes on a path to destruction with their alluring UV light and deadly fan… bwaa ha ha!

The bottles have water, yeast and sugar to create CO2.. Oh, and the leaf cutters ate the rubber stoppers too.

I had never been so spoiled in my life as a researcher. Just to give you a taste, here is what the station looked like:

On the boat ride back to Puerto we saw a family of capybara cooling off in the shallows.

This is my excited face:

When I got back to Puerto I promptly drank a tall glass of cold arazá refresco and ate some ice cream.  The temp here in the city must be well over 100 F.  I look forward to getting back to the lush forest that actually has shade and where I have purpose in my life.

I leave in two days for a research station named Sachvacayoc which has no internet. Can you even imagine??? It’s like I’m in the rainforest or something!!  I´ll be doing more mosquito collection and also some ant work.  Another thrilling adventure of finding queens of the Azteca and Allomerus genus and killing them in alcohol!  Sometimes I dream they retaliate by carrying me off in the night.  actually I had a dream last night about running stats on all my mosquito data.  I think I´ve crossed the border into nerd-landia.  I will post a big fat blog entry when I get back on March 3rd so  come back for the next chapter in the ant stinging escapades,  also known as my life.  This time I have my dear friend Alison working with me which will be a hoot!  She just may be one of the coolest girls on the planet and I´m so lucky to have her as a volunteer!    I will be sure to take lots of photos and update as soon as possible!  Caio!!

El Cancion Del Bosque

April 13, 2010

It is hard to believe that the simple act of traveling 8 hours east down the Tambopata River has brought me to such a different forest. But this indeed is the case. No longer am I surrounded by the night songs I had grown accustomed to at CICRA and I instead find myself listening in complete wonder to the night chorus once again. Meandering through the muddy trails here has brought about an entirely new experience. The first major difference is that this rainforest has never been logged or displaced by the fickle course of the river. There is open space between trees instead of thorny bamboo patches or spider webs of vines. I can’t help but stand and stare in awe at the house-sized buttresses of some of these living giants. To compliment this pristine habitat is the abundance of wildlife around every corner. Huangana (peccary) are so numerous that they are almost a nuisance due to their unholy smell and potential to be somewhat of a threat. The group I have regularly encountered near one of my transects must be at least 40 individuals strong. The macaws are so frequently sighted that my head sometimes keeps ringing with their piercing calls even after I return from the field. They also frequent the lab to try and steal our bananas used for butterfly traps…the little buggers. Every day I come across fresh cat prints (jaguar or puma) and today I saw my very first tapir.

Mosquitoes. My little blood sucking freaks. I have spent the equivalent of at least 70 hours in the past 10 days sitting in front of a microscope staring at piles of dead insects separating the blood-fed mosquitoes from nonblood-feds and sand flies.

My totally clean and organized lab

I am convinced that without music there would be no scientific data collection…at least not very much of it. Without the sweet tunes of Del McCourey, Bob Marley, Gangstar or John Coltrane I would have gone quite mad some time ago. As I wiggle dance in my seat in front of the microscope (trying not to get double scope-eye), headsets pressed against my ears, I find that the hours and piles of dead buggies whiz on by. Without this manifested state of bliss, my sanity would have disappeared faster than a freshly discovered cockroach on my soap bar. Why do they eat soap???? Anyways…

I had a morning off because my batteries failed..which isn’t a good thing. But I did get to go to the clay lick, supposedly the biggest in the world.

Hard core birding

We left at dawn and waited on the shore for the brightly colored birds to flock in.

The birds were alright, but what I found most interesting was this wasp digging her nest.

I even got a video of her dragging a dead fly into her lair when it was finished!! Maybe if the macaws didn’t try to steal portions of my meager meals here at the station every day I would have been more impressed by their bright colors and incessant squawking.

News on the strike: it’s over! Negotiations have been taking place in Lima between the government and miners. Puerto has gone back to its bustling self and left the spotlight once again. No burning of buildings and CICRA is safe! Good times.

And one more chapter in the bullet ant book. I have several types of mosquito traps including one that uses incredibly stinky water. I fill a 2 liter bottle each day out of my 30 gallon garbage pail which has been rotting grass in water for a good week now. This water is so stinky that if get it on my hands, the smell hangs around for several days despite vigorous hand washing. That being said, I was filling my Gravid trap with this stinky disgusting water and a bullet ant had managed to lodge itself between the bottle and my hand. I knew the sting as soon as it happened and watched the jerk face gallivant off gleefully as I managed to fumble with the stinky water and spill it all over myself instead of into the trap. As the venom spread through my body I lost the ability to use my right hand and the pain traveled up my arm and into my chest like bad heartburn. Spent the night in the fetal position rocking back and forth waiting for the pain to stop and inhaling fumes of garbage water that wafted from my skin. Oh the joy of bullet ants!

Long entry eh? Well there ya have it. I hope to get another one in before I leave for the next filed station which has no internet.

The Tambopata Research Station

lluvia y zancudos

April 5, 2010

I  don’t have much time but here are some photos!

A Tyra

Scarlet Macaw

I miss Muqui!!!!!!!!

Macaw braaa

April 3, 2010

There is a lot going on in my life  right now and I don’t know where to start.   I picked out my transects and set up my mosquito traps today with my two wonderful volunteers.  Fingers crossed for blood-fed mosquitoes.  I haven’t brought my camera out yet but I borrowed some photos from my friend Ben.  He has a great website at  .   As you might be able to deduce from the address,  he works with butterflies and really knows his stuff!!  The Tambopata Research Center has a macaw project year-round and when they first started out they made a big mistake by keeping some of the parrot chicks for too long.   This resulted in the Macaws being too friendly with the researchers and they return every morning to try and steal our breakfast.  Oops.

  The other day when a bunch of us went out into the field and found this crazy caterpillar.  Then when we brought it back to the lab Ashley squished him with a banana.  Another oops.

Here are some of Ben and Ashley’s butterfly specimens:

On a not-so-happy note, the strike in Puerto is going to be worse than most people previously thought.  Here are some blogs to scope out..I’m sure you non-spanish speakers can translate them with bablefish or something.  It is going to be scary for people who are there.  I will keep everyone updated.


April 2, 2010

Oh how the tides have turned. I arrived last night at the Tambopata Research Center after an 8 hour boat ride up river. I found myself checking into a room with a real mattress, essential oil of lemongrass sprayed on my pillow and a bar or organic green tea soup delicately placed on freshly cleaned sheets. But let me digress…

Leaving CICRA was hard, especially since I don’t know if it will be around after the strike or not. Puerto was its bustling self, though news about the strike has put many people into a heightened state of awareness. I heard several different predictions about the length of the strike. Some say it will only last a few days since the miners lose money every day they are not working. Another told me that all his neighbors are miners and believed that the strike would last at least two weeks. All agree that this is going to be one of the worst strikes ever to hit Puerto Maldonado. There are rumors that homemade bombs will be used, and that miners have been going around the city taking photos of all the NGO and conservation offices in order to prepare for attack. There will be looting, rioting and general chaos until the government repeals the law. How long it will last obviously depends on several unpredictable variables.

I would not want to be a gringo in Puerto for the month of April. On top of all the riots there will be tear gas flowing in all directions as the police try futilely to control the situation. In other words, I’m glad that I have made it to TRC. This place is beyond description. I somehow got situated in a tourist room and am living in the lap of luxury. Word on the street is that this place originally was just a research center that was bought out by a tourist company which uses the desirable scientists as a way to draw tourists to the establishment like flies to honey. It works. All amenities are provided to these tourists who are paying an ungodly amount to stay here. The researchers on the other hand are treated like a colony of lepers and are shunned from interacting with the tourists. We are not allowed to occupy the couches or hammocks distributed inside the elongated cabin if there are tourists present. We cannot walk in front (or near) them on the trails and we must eat at separate tables and are fed different food. I am living in the gray zone of getting half the spoils but still having to walk on eggs shells to keep the tourists/tourist company happy. Very strange indeed… but I’m not complaining! The food is fantastic, the trails are confusingly marked but extensive, and the forest here is more beautiful than any other place I have even been in my whole life.

This morning I set out with some of the people in the group I will be tagging along with these next two weeks and scouted out where I will be setting up my mosquito traps. Apparently the first transect I chose is on a haunted trail. That should be exciting! One of the things that struck me right away was the increase in numbers of butterflies I encountered when compared to the Rio de Madre de Dios. They are so frequent that one cannot walk more than a couple meters before seeing a flash of brilliant color flit by ones face. I’m really excited about this place. I’ll be setting up traps in my “lab” (also known as table in an open room) this afternoon and planning out my next two weeks. I’ll post some photos tomorrow! Till then….

El Paro

March 24, 2010

Photo by Sarah Federman

On January 31, 2010 the Peruvian Administer of Environment, Antonio Brack, passed a law that forbids mining in several parts within the State of the Madre de Dios. On April 4th there will be a national mining strike. This law particularly targets “informal mining” along the river of the Madre de Dios and he has drawn up a map of where future mining will now be allowed or not allowed. Informal mining is illegal, and means that it is being done without a permit, usually consisting of small barges that float along the river banks and mine for gold opportunistically.

Photo by Sarah Federman

The laws that require miners to obtain paperwork have rarely been enforced until now and consequently are habitually ignored by smaller mining groups. With the rising price of gold and new flux of formal and informal mining operations appearing on the Rio de Madre de Dios, pressure from environmentalists and indigenous groups to cease the practice have arisen. The formal mining operations are usually boated in all the way from Brazil and function using massive mining boats with a bottomless budget. The informal miners live in along the banks of the river with their families and are usually depend entirely on the small profit they make each week to make ends meet. They grey area that over laps includes miners who are employed by medium sized companies in Puerto Maldonado and other Peruvian cities to mine the gold and in return receive a small percentage of the profit.

As with every law, there are two sides to the coin. Mining is dangerous. Not only for the river which is exposed to constant dredging and massive deposits of mercury from the boats (used to separate the gold from other substrates) but also for the workers. Many miners spend the majority of their day up to their necks in the river which causes immediate and consequential health risks including life-long fungal infections, susceptibility to tuberculosis and constant exposure to mercury. Most of the people who work for the these operations (formal or informal) as mentioned above, are already living through incredible hardships for very little profit. Hmm…still want that gold ring?

While this law is important, it is also extremely quixotic. There are no job alternatives given within this law, nor any details that provide a safety net for the families who will lose everything once mining is taken away from them. Upon closer inspection, this law in its current state will most strongly affect those who are already precariously living on the financial edge. There are immediate consequences from this predicament.

On April 1st the CICRA station will be evacuated, 3 days before the national mining strike on April 4th. Communities around here are close knit and rumors travel faster than the muddy river that runs along our banks. There have been numerous threats that have trickled through from the small mining villages that on April 4th several groups will come to CICRA and vandalize the station because we are associated with a conservation organization. The stronger rumors have suggested that they plan to burn down all of the buildings. On the spectrum of responses to this new law, these attacks are obviously coming from the very small percentage of radical and violent miners who prefer a blind and immediate revenge in retaliation.   In past national strikes several government buildings and conservation headquarters were burned to the ground in Puerto Maldonado so these threats are being taken very seriously.

Little ol’ me will be far from the action. As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, I will be traveling to the Tambopata Research Center (which happens to be incredibly far down river from Puerto) on April 1st to collect mosquitoes. Also, since the station I will be staying at is mostly a tourist attraction and field school, there is actually an armed security force!! Locura!!

So no worries about your favorite Amazonian gringa please. CICRA, however, is in grave danger. The director, manager and several staff members plan to stay here with a hired security force (actually, the marines) in hopes of dissuading any invaders from burning down our precious station. If the worst case scenario occurs…in which this place is destroyed…I will not be abandoning ship. Never!!!! I have offered my services to rebuild the station if need be. I will be updating everyone on the situation as the date draws closer and as I get news from CICRA as the events unfold.

And now for some happy news!! My friend Emma had an amazing botfly extracted from her head the other day! Here is a photo:

Notice the black barbs around the head that are used to dig into the upper layer of skin so it can’t be squeezed out. How charming. And some actual good news exists too! A group of volunteers named “There Will Be Dragons” recently passed through and helped build the new organic veggie garden! Here is the process at the half way mark.

Thanks guys! I also have these adorable little sprouts just waiting patiently to go into the ground. Yeay.

New Plan!!

March 18, 2010

It turns out that the bus I was going to take to Cusco arrived one hour after the last bus for Wayquecha leaves. So I get to catch my breath here at CICRA for five days before I head down to Puerto Maldonado again, much to my relief. It was going to be really hectic otherwise. So here is the update: I will travel to PM on Tuesday, Cusco on Thursday and Wyquecha on Friday. I’ll spend two weeks there, then I’ll be camping for two weeks in the Tambopata conservation concession (a lowland rainforest on the Tambopata river) and then I will be on my own doing the mosquito trapping and processing at the Tambopata Research Center. I’m even going to have my very own field assistant!! If case you can’t tell, I’m really excited about this. So in total I will be working with ants and mosquitoes for six weeks. I will be able to update the ol’ bloggy woggy once every two weeks…so I’ll be sure to make them extra entertaining.

Yesterday I traveled on the colectivo boat to CICRA which is the public transportation up and down the river. It was quite the experience… There must have been at least 35-40 people crammed onto the long wooden boat and I somehow got situated in between five babies and toddlers. I love kids, but being hit in the face with an inflatable Spiderman on and off for 10 hours definitely was a little trying. To my left was an adorable 1-year-old who impressively saliva marked everything in a 3ft radius including my watch, face and big toes. I was the gringo jungle gym for the entire trip and there really wasn’t anything I could do about it so I just gave in. As we approached CICRA I saw my very first tapir just hanging out on the side of the river. The size of this fella blew me away! He/she was at least twice the size of a baby cow. Getting back to the station brought a smile to my face and a calming inside beyond what I can describe. This is my home. Even as the sweat started to build up as I climbed the 238 stairs to reach my cabin I couldn’t help but think that this existence in the rainforest is my dream. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else during this time in my life.

More updates: I got my test results back…the doctor insisted on doing every test known to man on me but since the entire ordeal (without using insurance) cost just $30 I figured that it was alright. Apparently I am totally fine! Much to my amusement this means that I can eat three times as much food than normal and still lose weight. I guess I’ve been physically exerting myself more than I thought. So that is great news! What else…. Muqui is growing up big and strong but his latest x-ray revealed that his knee is beyond repair. While we already had a strong feeling that he would not be able to be released into the wild again…the physical evidence of this conclusion was never the less heartbreaking. After he is weaned he will be living his life at a very reputable rehabilitation center as a permanent resident.

One last note..I saw this Pachycondylas attacking a wasp nest and it was totally epic. That’s it for now! I’ll try and write another entry before I leave for my next crazy adventure.


March 17, 2010

Big news! Frank (remember him?) has asked me to join his research team in a cloud forest outside Cusco at a field station named Wayquecha for a month studying ants and mosquitoes. I´m so down! However there is no internet so I will not be able to share my little stories for quite some time. Little updates will be given thanks to the help from my wonderful friend Sarah who will be in contact with me over the radio. So I guess this is a bit of a break..but I want to say thank you to everyone who has been reading and I look forward to writing more in the future. I´m going to try and write one final entry tomorrow night but if I don´t have time I hope everyone has an amazing month! Yeay cloud forests!!!

Sincerely yours,
Katharine Fountain