Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Season of Flowers

First of all: yesterday. I was in the forest before dawn and I walked up and down the volcano all day in search of Wrinkle Belly or his group. No luck. But perhaps more importantly, I was able to get some ecological data and also just more general data on the number and composition of other howler groups out there. I encountered 5 groups total and heard two more. That’s a lot of monkeys.

Early in the morning as I was scouring the North group core for WB, I ran into the “rich gringo landowners.” As it turns out, I think I was misinformed. These people are practically kids, and they have no intention of cutting down the forest. It seems like they’re actually just after a Thoreau-like Walden experience of being one with nature. They’re going to build a little hut near the forest edge, and it seems that all the commotion that has been going on in the North patch is to dig a water-line to their place. (I guess Henry David Thoreau didn’t have running water in his house, but at this point that’s probably splitting hairs). At any rate, they seem like nice people. While we were talking, I saw a flash of red, yellow and black on the path (Red against black, friend of Jack…)… the muchachos had found (and killed) a coral snake while working on the waterline. Geez… that makes 2 coral snakes in the past week!!

While wandering around the forest in search of Wrinkle Belly, I did come across a patch of cleared land at the edge of the North group range. I’ve been told a few different things by different people, but it seems like this land has been cleared by a local person who is going to grow oranges. What I do not know is if he is going to clear more land or if this is it. If he doesn’t cut down more trees, I doubt Wrinkle Belly’s group will have to make drastic changes to their ranging patterns. I am still really confused about all the various things I have been told over the last several days, but at the moment it seems like this whole situation got better without actually getting worse. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

On to today: There was some confusion with Simeon as well, but I was finally able to have him come out with me today. We found Wrinkle Belly before we even entered the forest. I have never seen the group that low before. There were just a few trees along the trail, and fields were on either side. Simeon said they use these trees as a corridor to go down to a different patch of forest along the road. Simeon had previously told me that WB’s group sometimes goes down to the road, but I had been extremely incredulous—that forest patch has to be over a kilometer away from their usual location, and that’s a long way for a howler monkey. But after seeing them in the corridor, I am starting to believe Simeon.

Like a true delegator, I sent Simeon off to do some other investigating for me while I stayed with the monkeys. I had him count all the Spondias trees in the North group forest patch and look to see whether or not they were fruiting. I know there are many more Spondias trees in the North patch than in the South patch—leading to dietary differences between the two groups. Next time I will have Simeon count the Spondias in the South patch (I think there might only be 1) so I can compare. At any rate, you’ll have to read my dissertation to find out the true number of Spondias trees up north, but let me just say, it’s a huge amount. And right now, Spondias season appears to be over: none of them are fruiting. As the rains have mainly stopped and the winds have picked up, we have now entered the season of flowers. Some of the trees have begun blooming, and the monkeys have gone wandering in search of the season’s first delectable flowers.

More later, thanks for reading.

Monday, November 27, 2006

San Juan del Sur

Rob had a few days off for Thanksgiving, so we had been planning to take a little trip. In the midst of all this recent forest chaos, I decided that a few days off the island might do me some good.

We went to San Juan del Sur—just a hop, skip, and 6 hour jump away from here on the Pacific coast. I’ve heard people rave about how beautiful the beaches are, and I’ve also heard people call it a tourist trap, so I wasn’t sure what we would find there. All in all, it was a great trip and very relaxing.

The sunsets were especially nice (though they are also quite lovely here on Ometepe); here are a few photos:

After staying in kind of a crummy place on Thursday night (I’m not sure if the bathrooms had been cleaned since the first time Ortega was in office), we found a cute little hospedaje called Hotel Estrella for the rest of the trip. It was right across the street from the beach and so bright and airy. The only drawback was that it was a little loud—lots of drunken backpackers staying there—but what can you do. They served lovely breakfasts, which diminished my grogginess from poor sleep the night before.

The ocean was actually quite chilly—I think we are in a bit of an unusual cold-snap here. On Friday, we tried to go swimming in the ocean, but I could only manage it for about 10 minutes before getting out and shivering in my towel. Looking at the ocean is almost as fun for me as swimming in it, so I was perfectly content to loll on the beach and gaze at the water. Rob tried this for about 15 minutes with me, but he got horrifically sunburned and incredibly bored in just that short amount of time. He was shocked that someone as high-strung and prone to freaking out as I am would want to just lie out on the beach and do nothing. In fact, that kind of shocks me myself.

Would have been prettier without all the sailboats, I think....

Saturday we rented bikes from a place in town. They were “cruiser’ bikes—there’s only one gear and you backpedal to brake. Its probably been like 20 years since I rode a bike like that, and I kept forgetting there were no handbrakes. We wanted to ride to one of the other many beaches that are nearby, but when Rob’s chain-ring dropped about 6 times in the first kilometer, we realized we were probably not going to make it. We bravely struggled onward until the road turned into fist-sized rocks that the cruisers couldn’t seem to handle. So we headed back to town and cruised around on the beach there instead.

Oh, in these photos, you might notice that my hair is about 5 or 6 inches shorter than before. Yes, I cut it a week or so ago. By myself, and mainly without a mirror. It was bugging me and I just couldn’t wait. My mom (the only hairdresser I’ve ever been to) will have to even it up for me when I go home next month. Anywho, I know that S.L. and I aren’t related, but we do share the same unruly hair.

We left to come home on Sunday. In Rivas (before getting on the ferry to come back to Ometepe), we stopped at a grocery store. I got toothpaste (see below, in the post on Mr. F), and much to my surprise I found tiny packets of trail mix. Trail mix is at the top of the list I miss about things at home, and I hadn’t been able to find it anywhere. Its about the perfect food while hiking, traveling, in the forest, etc. Its quick energy and features my favorite mix of flavors: sweet and salty. This trail mix I found in Rivas is not so great though: pretty much just raisins and peanuts in a little baggie. Some chocolate chips would be nice, but I have yet to find those here.

Our bus ride back home took a little longer than expected: there was an honest-to-goodness carnival in Altagracia, and the bus driver got out to go have a snack. He left the bus running, and everybody was just sitting there for like 15 minutes, wondering what was going on. Rob got out to stretch his legs, and considered asking the driver if he could just drive the bus route himself—making all the stops and parking the bus at its overnight resting place in Mérida. Luckily it didn’t come to that.
Rob, considering driving the bus home himself....

San Juan was fun, but its good to be home in Mérida. Today I think I’m still recovering from the after-effects of the half a Dramamine I took before the boat ride yesterday; I’m hoping that wears off tomorrow so I can go scour the forest in search of Wrinkle Belly. Until later then.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Plot Thickens

Just like that, the seasons changed.

The rains are over and the dry, windy season has begun. I was shivering last night, and I woke up several times just from the sound of the wind. It is amazing how quickly everything has dried out. Puddles on the road have disappeared and clothes that I hang on the clothesline sopping wet are practically dry 10 minutes later.

I went to talk to Simeon and the landowners about the problems in the forest. Apparently the people who used to own the land sold it to a gringo. Even though they wrote “PRIVADO” on everything up there, they said it was fine for me to go walking around on the property to follow the monkeys. The problem is that this gringo landowner is going to cut down the forest and plant crops there.

That’s a pretty big problem. If there are crops instead of forest, that means there will be no monkeys. And that means, well, I’m not sure what that means for me.

I don’t know when the gringo is going to cut down the forest: it could be after my project is over, or it could be tomorrow. I can still study the South group; their home range should remain intact for the most part. And Simeon said that even if the North group’s forest is gone, the monkeys won’t go far—we could probably find them. On the one hand, that sounds about right, but on the other hand, I don’t know where Wrinkle Belly’s group can go. Fields surround the forest patch, and other groups of monkeys live beyond Wrinkle Belly’s territory. I hate to think of Wrinkle Belly, in his old age, wandering around the forest cold and hungry looking for a group to join. I hate to think of a rich gringo, trying to make a fast buck by destroying a precious natural resource to grow bananas that Americans can buy for 20 cents a pound. Hasn’t the US done enough to Nicaragua? I am twisted up and sick inside. This is the problem, exactly. Local people who come in and take wood for cooking or even building their houses are not the problem. Rich gringos who greedily clear cut the forest for their own profit are what is ruining this planet into oblivion. I’d really like to get my hands on this guy.

I realize its Thanksgiving for you all back home. Thanks everyone, for all your comments. Rob and I are getting out of here for a few days to have a mini-vacation; I think we both need to clear our heads and have a breath of fresh air. We’re going to head over to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific; its supposed to be beautiful, so we’ll take lots of pictures. When we get back, Simeon and I will continue the search for Wrinkle Belly in what’s left of the forest.

Until later then.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


My main objective for yesterday was to find the North group (that of Wrinkle Belly) and collect focal data on an adult male all day. It seemed like a simple plan. But when I got to the forest, the North group was nowhere to be found. I checked all their trails and there was no sign of monkeys. At last I heard a howl in near the North/South group border zone, and I raced over there. The monkeys were feeding and traveling through the exact same area where I had watched the North group on Friday. But what made this interesting was that this was not the North group at all—it was Uno’s group, the South group. All day I watched the South group hanging out in the North group’s home range (and beyond), and I grew increasingly perplexed. Not only where these places I had never been with Uno’s group, but also, I couldn’t figure out where the North group had gone. At the end of the day, I decided to explore a little bit and see if I could find them. At the entrance to main part of North group homerange up the volcano, several trees and large rocks had been spray painted with the word “PRIVADO.” A sign with “PRIVADO” written in red had been nailed up to one of the trees, and a few of my trail markers had been cut down. I was filled with a sudden and intense feeling of dread.

Last week I had heard a huge commotion in this part of the forest, and later on I asked Simeon if he knew what was going on. He said some gringo was building a house somewhere around here, and workers were digging a trench to pipe water to the property. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time. But apparently, whoever owns this land now doesn’t want trespassers.

Its one thing if the toughness tester quits working. Its quite another thing if I am prohibited from following the monkeys.

Feeling sick, I raced down the volcano and went to Simeon’s. I told him about the signs in the forest and asked him what this meant. He considered this for a moment and told me that most likely I could still follow the monkeys—the signs were probably meant to keep people from cutting trees on the property. He said he would speak the people in charge of the property and ask them if I am allowed to walk on their land to follow the monkeys.

I left to head back home, and there on the road I saw a dead snake. I stood over the it, studying its pattern of striping and trying to remember the rhyme: Red next to black is a friend of Jack, Red next to yellow will kill a fellow. This snake definitely had red next to yellow stripes—a clear indication that it was a highly venomous coral snake the only thing in Nicaragua that could kill me. Some guys on bikes came by and confirmed that this was in fact a coral snake. I stood looking at the snake for a long time, glad that the it was already dead and wondering if I could get antivenin somewhere to have on hand.

So in retrospect, when I remember this day, will it be the day that I couldn’t find Wrinkle Belly? Or the day when I got kicked out of the forest and had to start this project over somewhere else? Or will it be the day I saw a coral snake?

Just for the record: in spite of everything, I still love Nicaragua.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ojo de Agua

After a full week with the monkeys and the TT, Rob and I went to Ojo de Agua today. Ojo de Agua is a lagoon on the isthmus of the volcanoes—about 12 km away. Rob’s summary of the adventure is: “It was great except for the parts which were terrible.” True. Swimming in the lagoon was quite refreshing, but I did not have fun on the bike, especially on the way home. In my memories, I’ll try to ignore that part and just concentrate on the beautiful scenery and cool water of the lagoon. Here are some photos of Rob jumping off the rope swing, Tarzan style. I think he really enjoyed that; he must have done it a dozen times. If the road to get there wasn’t so bad, I would love to go back!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Mr. F

I mentioned in an earlier post that I saw a rat in our room one evening. Finally seeing this creature answers a lot of questions for me. Such as, who has been leaving teeth marks in the soap and who has been chewing holes in my bookbag. I decided to name the rat Mr. F (if Cara’s reading this, I know she will laugh), and I didn’t really mind him until he chewed through our brand new tube of toothpaste and left a big gooey mess. Not to mention, I had to throw away the toothpaste and now we need to go buy some more. We have tried to rat-proof our room, but I am not entirely opposed to rat poison if it comes to that. This is war, Mr. F.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


My great-great-great grandmother’s name was Patience. I’ve always thought Patience is the most interesting name. My mother claims to have inherited no patience from Patience (but in fact, my mother is a very patient person). Sometimes I wonder if instead it is me who did not inherit patience.

This is unfortunate because studying howler monkeys requires considerable patience. Howlers are very slow and deliberate about everything they do: to move 50 meters it may take them 45 minutes. When they arrive at their destination, they are likely to sleep for 3 hours, and when they decide to eat (what I actually need to study), they may move into dense foliage where visibility is impossible. Before I left to do my pilot study some 2-1/2 years ago, Pablo told me not to get frustrated in the forest. “The monkeys are just doing what the monkeys are supposed to be doing, Melissa,” he told me, and I repeat this to myself several times each day.

But still, I do get frustrated with the monkeys when they have been sleeping for hours and I have so little data on their feeding behavior. Today I was losing patience because the month is now half over and I have no toughness data on the plants consumed by the North group. As I mentioned in an earlier post, getting plant samples from high in the trees is more difficult than I had anticipated.

Well, my ship came in today, I think. This afternoon they were feeding on Laucaena laucaena (a close relative of the Guanacaste tree). In addition to the leaves, they also were eating the broad green pods that have begun to appear on Laucaena trees. I really wanted to get my hands on some of those pods so that I could come home and use the toughness tester on them. As the monkeys ate, I scanned the forest floor for scraps of anything that they dropped, but I didn’t have much luck. Then I heard a snap from where Sophie and Spud were feeding; a whole cluster of pods broke off the branch and fell to the ground. Jackpot. I snatched up the pods and will use the TT on them tomorrow.

No sighting of Wrinkle Belly today, but I saw him yesterday, so he’s still around somewhere. I guess I just have to be patient; he’ll turn up again eventually.

I finally took my camera out to the forest again today and got a few photos of the monkeys. The first two are of juveniles with their mothers:

This photo shows Spud (approximately 2 weeks old) peeking over his mother's (Sophie) shoulder. Notice how blonde Spud is compared to the adults!

Thanks for reading!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Monday the Thirteenth

Grandpa always said that a Monday the 13th was more bad luck than a Friday the 13th

Today in the forest I saw the most exquisite little hummingbird. From tip to tail it couldn’t have been any longer than my thumb, and it was such a bright emerald green that it looked almost incandescent. I also saw a couple of parrots—pale green and yellow. I’ve never seen parrots in the forest before, but I often see them perched and skwawking outside of peoples’ houses—kept as pets.

Unfortunately, I did not see Wrinkle Belly or Sophie and Spud (the new mom and baby in the North group). I guess I just had a little Monday the 13th bad luck. There is still much to learn about these monkeys’ ranging patterns and territorial disputes with neighboring groups.

I came home exhausted, disgruntled, hungry, and thirsty. After showering and washing my clothes in a zombie-like state, I fell into a nap that was interrupted by a rustling noise. I opened my bleary eyes and saw a dark shape scurrying across the room. It was a rat. I screamed like a girl. However, all things considered, I am glad that the dark scurrying shape was of the four legged variety rather than the eight. This time, my being awoken by an animal was actually real—a week or so ago I woke up screaming in the middle of the night, convinced that I had seen a snake in the room. Rob tried to reassure me that it had been a dream, but I still searched the room thoroughly and then lay awake for a long time, wondering.

At any rate, I need to get to bed. I guess I should watch myself for any signs of the bubonic plague after my encounter with the rat. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Beach Excursion

Happy Birthday to my dearest friend Amy and to my brother-in-law Andy and Happy anniversary to Frida and Martin!

For those who haven’t yet seen my post from earlier in the week and would like an update on Wrinkle Belly, Uno, and Ortega, scroll down.

Today was an overall great day; I started out by having a brief phone chat with Amy (“we’ve been friends since we were 9 years old”) to wish her a happy birthday. After breakfast, Rob and I decided to go to the beach. We hopped on some mountain bikes and rode over to the Santo Domingo area, some 8 or 9 kilometers away. Santo Domingo is near the isthmus of the two volcanoes and is a somewhat ritzy area of the island; there are a couple of “resort” hotels (meaning, they probably have hot water) and beautifully lovely sandy beaches.

Although I’ve been to Ometepe 3 times, today was the first time I have actually been in Lake Nicaragua. Hard to believe, I know. Maybe its the tales of freshwater sharks lurking in the brackish waters, or maybe I’m just more partial to the salt and the green, gray, blue and gold of the ocean. But I’m pleased to report that there were no shark attacks during this excursion and we had a really nice time. The bike ride wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, but there were still a few more tooth-rattling descents over slippery jagged rocks than I would have cared for. Here’s a few pictures of Rob and me riding our bikes on the beach.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

An update of many things and nothing

Yes, I realize it has been a long time since I posted anything, but really—there hasn’t been much to say. After we got back from Costa Rica, I spent a week out with the North Group—the group of Wrinkle Belly. One of those days my new Guatemalen friend Tax’a came out with me. The monkeys were in rare form that day: they were up on Spondias Lane interacting with the North-north group and at one point the two groups even traded places. I’m not kidding. Wrinkle Belly and his comrades went out to the scruffy territory that appears to belong to the North-north group, while the North-north monkeys came on down to Spondias Lane. At the end of the day, they traded back and each group ended up on its own turf. Strange monkey business, that. I keep saying, everytime I think I understand the monkeys, they do something that totally baffles me. Martin, are you still reading the blog? Do howler monkeys typically do this? Anyway, I also discovered that there was a brand new baby in Wrinkle Belly’s group: this makes 2 newborns that I have seen in this group during the 3 months that I’ve been here.

I’ve spent this week with the South group—the group of Uno. Again with the intergroup interactions and overlapping homeranges. I had some trouble on the first day out with them—I got all tangled up in vines and fell down, wrenching my knee at an unholy angle. But there doesn’t appear to be any permanent damage, and the next day I was pleasantly surprised to find that there appears to be a newborn in the South group as well. According to my observations, there have been 2 births in the South group since I began, so a grand total of 4 births in both of my study groups. The mother and baby were quite popular among the group; everyone wanted to get a look at (and a smell of) the baby. From time to time, the mother would hold the baby upside down by its tail and sniff it. In addition to following the mother and newborn, the highlight of the day was when they went to a mango tree that I had never before noticed in their core homerange and began to feed on unripe mangos. I don’t know why this thrilled me, but it did, to no end. Even though the two groups have overlapping homeranges to a certain extent, at their cores, there appear to be some differences in the trees present, which I am sure will result in dietary differences. If nothing else in this dissertation works out, at least I’ll have that to write about.

And by now I’m sure you’ve all heard that Daniel Ortega won the presidential election in Nicaragua last Sunday. Although when I checked Google News and even the BBC the next day, the only headline was that Britney Spears is getting a divorce, so maybe no one outside of Nicaragua has heard about the election afterall. Anyway, it was kind of exciting to be here for the election. Nicaragua takes its democracy seriously. Sales of alcohol were prohibited for 48 hours before the election, and all campaigning/advertising was stopped 72 hours before. (However, one of the radio stations played “Give Peace a Chance” about a billion times on Sunday—that was Daniel Ortega’s theme song). Rob and I walked to town to see the voting going on: almost the whole town of Mérida was lined up by the school to vote, and vendors were selling food and baggies of juice (yes, the juice bag is a popular Nicaraguan beverage). I’m told that 72% of Nicaragua’s eligible voters voted in the election, and I’m not surprised at all that they chose Ortega. Let’s hope he lives up to his promises.

So for an update about nothing, its gone on and on. Thanks for reading, until later then!