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Journals from Galapagos, Ecuador

2010-01-24 Tiputini Biodiversity Field Station, Amazon

First off, let me say that getting to the Amazon was an adventure in and of itself. From Quito to Tiputini Station: Bus, Plane, Bus, short stop for malaria mosquitoes in Coca, Boat, Bus, Boat. 12 hours total. The boat rides were by far the highlight. The boats were these long, thin affairs, with two rows of seats, though I use the term loosely. They were lawn chairs set on either side, facing each other, with an aisle between them. This was quickly changed. En masse, we rotated the chairs and placed them back to back, facing the water " plenty of time to stare lovingly into each others eyes later, this was the AMAZON RIVER. We werent about to miss it. And let me just say, I love boats. I dont particularly enjoy driving them, and theyre hardly my favorite form of transportation in bad weather, but get one out on a sunny day and theres almost nowhere Id rather be. For something like 2 hours we cut through the muddy-brown water, warm sun on the feet we dangled from the boat, wind in our faces, feeling the spray and chop, watching for birds. Great day. The wind from the boat disguised the heat and humidity of the air as we drove deeper into the jungle, but we felt it as soon as we began to slow. Ive never felt air so oppressive. The thermometers we brought with us read 80F, though I never felt it was that hot " what was truly stifling was the humidity. The water in the air clung to our skin, our clothing; we werent hiking through the jungle, we were swimming through it. Our mattresses and sheets soaked up the water all day long and clung to us at night like a second skin. I dreamt of sleeping in a human-size dry-box. The library and labs were air-conditioned, but to enter them was to squander our precious three days at the station, so we took to the river instead. We clambered onto the docked boats and did flips off the bows, catching hold of the sides as the current threatened to drive us to Atlantic, directing ourselves into the swirling eddy that would push us downstream and then back, up to the boats again. Repeat. From the hours of 12:30 to 2 every day the river was our playground and our refuge, all other times, we hiked. Or slept. But mostly hiked. The day began at 6:30, and promptness to the dining hall was the rule or you could forget about breakfast. Meet at the library at 8 to get the plan for the day and break into groups. Hike, look at rare and exotic plants, try to ignore the bugs that swirled around our faces and landed on our exposed skin to suck up the precious sodium and potassium we so cavalierly excreted in our sweat. Lunch at noon. Swim in the River. Hike starts at 2. Get back to the station by dinner at 7. At 8, a lecture in the library. Electricity cuts out at 9:30pm. Hope you werent doing anything important. Wake up tomorrow and do it again. Id like to tell you that I can remember every instant of every moment I spent trekking through the jungle, but the truth is that I was usually so uncomfortable that I could hardly focus. What I do remember was pretty spectacular, though. The first day, we went out, climbed up into the canopy, scampering out along walkways in the upper-story of the trees, looking the jungle in the eye. After that first morning, I could go pro at spotting monkeys. All told, I saw Woolies, Howlers, Squirrel, Spider, and Titi monkeys. Anyway, though, the last platform on one side was built around a tree protected by an ant colony. I unclipped from the walkway and within two seconds they were biting me. I booked it off that platform as fast as I could, but it was a little difficult as I was simultaneously trying to clip my harness back into the safety line AND pull ants out of my shorts. Not fun. I spent the rest of the trip wincing at the sight of an ant colony, an affliction not helped after I learned about so-called bullet ants " ~1-inch long ants whose sting is purported to feel like being shot. The locals call it the hormiga vientecuatro, the 24-hour ant because the pain from the sting lasts, unabated, for 24 hours. I totally saw them hunting me down a couple of times too " theyd just charge down a tree, or sometimes the tables during dinner. By the end of the week I was jumping at shadows. Later on we trekked out to a lake and took a boat around the edges; we were hoping to see caimans (think tiny alligators) or an anaconda, but no luck on my trip. I guess some of the others did see a couple of caimans on that trip, but I still got to see one later on when we took the boats out on the river at night. Also saw a Paca that time " think a cross between a miniature elephant, a baby dear, and a hippo, and you might have some idea of what that creature looked like. Another day, we spent the afternoon on the river. We boated downstream a ways and stopped in an area where we saw a pink dolphin " an actual freshwater dolphin that lives in the Amazon basin. And yes, its really a fleshy pink color. When we saw that it had swum off, the guides started passing around bits of bait " steak, actually. What did we desire to catch? Piranha. Did we? Yes. What did we do after we confirmed flesh-eating fish were in the area? Why, jump in the water of course! I think the altitude has directly affected the logical-thinking portion of my central cortex. We floated down the river for a good two hours, watching the sky for birds flying overhead and letting the current take us where it would. I highly recommend doing this if you ever find yourself in the area. Youd be amazed what youll see if youre quiet. Course, a good portion of the group werent quiet at all, so I spent most of the two hours trying to out-swim their noise, but still, all and all a good day. The next day we left, we repeated the day-long journey back to Quito, and this time got accosted by squirrel monkeys during our stay in Coca. That one probably deserves its own post entirely. Suffice it to say that I had to fight to protect my Ritz crackers, Nate was pooped on, Leahs backpack was pooped on, and one of the monkeys was assaulted by another monkey. It was a hectic 45 minutes. That was the end of my Amazon adventure, though. I hope youve all enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed doing it. Check back soon, Claire

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