Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Dunlap Love

A few of the old Dunlap crowd met up at a P-town cafe called Panache. We used to hang out at Panache back in the high school days, but the place has been significantly vamped up and actually changed location since then. It is way snazzy. Really great food and fantastic coffee drinks. The best part, of course, was getting to catch up with some of my oldest and dearest friends. Its hard to believe that 10 (yes, 10) have passed. It seems like just yesterday we were all 16-- building towers out of our Snapple cans at lunchtime, stressing about our term papers for Mrs. Sullivan's English class, experiencing daily bouts of joy and sorrow, of sweet and bittersweet. In the intervening years, our friends have become doctors, lawyers, grad students, parents, teachers, and everything else in between. But its always so comforting to see each other again and know that the good things never change. We can go months or even years without seeing each other and never miss a beat.

It was just a small group that could get together: that's me on the left (all glammed up) Amy (and Bryn), Maria, and David. After 3-1/2 hours of non-stop chatter, Rob's head was probably spinning from all of our inside jokes, and we finally managed to tear ourselves away from this reunion.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Yet another X-mas

Rob and I left Nana and Grampy's late on the 24th and headed to my parents house in good old P-town. We celebrated with my Auntie and my grandmas on the 25th.

Does anyone notice what is wrong with this photo?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

X-mas Part 2

We celebrated X-mas with Rob's other side of the family on X-mas Eve. More family fun, food, and tales of Rob's antics when he was a child.

We were a little bit late to the party because I had to take a quick spin on Iris 2:

Holiday Cheer at Nana and Grampy's:

Elf and Elfette handing out gifts

Nana enjoys her gift

Grampy's Grumpy Santa

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Festivus Miracle

While celebrating with the family in Evansville, Rob and Cousin Kevin somehow managed to recover the data from my defunct hard drive. A Festivus Miracle! My emails, photos, dissertation data, and feminist manifesto have all been restored.

Seeing Rob's grandparents and aunts and uncles was great. The weirdest thing about this visit home is how un-weird it all feels. I was expecting to feel more out of place in the frigid midwestern US after being in Nicaragua for 4-1/2 months, but it feels surprisingly like I have never left.

Here are some photos of the fam:

Christmas cheer

Playing the Wheel of Fortune game that Rob's parents made up for Grandpa and Grandma B.

Grandma's big winnings after hitting "Bankrupt" so many times

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Ragfields' Christmas Vacation

Merry Christmas Mr. F
Sunday 17 Dec 2006

On Saturday night before we left Ometepe, Sandino (yes, one of the guys who works at the Hacienda is actually named Sandino) came to our room with the bottoms of some sawed off water bottles that he had filled with bits of chicken and some greenish tablets. He explained that it was for the rat, and he helped us place the bottles in strategic locations along Mr. F's usual path. At some point in the middle of the night, I heard Mr. F eating what I can only assume was the poison-laced chicken. Although a non-lethal, vegetarian solution would have been preferable, I was surprised at how little remorse I felt. At the time my only thought was "Merry Christmas, Mr. F."

We left the next morning to begin the first leg of our journey. We witnessed why the local buses are called "chicken buses"-- the woman sitting across from us carried on a live chicken in a wicker basket. We had been well forewarned that livestock is often transported via the local bus system, but I had yet to see it. I kept wondering why the woman was taking a live chicken to Moyogalpa, and my best guess was that it was the chicken's birthday. At any rate, once we arrived at the dock in Moyo, the ferry ride was pretty smooth. In fact I kept glancing at my watch wondering when we were finally going to start moving until I realized that we actually were moving. The most turbulent part of the first leg was a fist fight that broke out between two guys on the chicken-bus from Rivas to Granada. Rob and I speculated what could have been the cause of the fight: I thought it was probably over money, Rob thought it was about a girl.

When we got to Granada, we stayed at a place called Hospedaje Cocibolca . I was totally proud of myself that I had called the place and managed to reserve a room, all in Spanish. Maybe it was just because we've been living in such a rural area, but the hospedaje seemed extremely posh: our own room with a fan and private bathroom for $13 a night. The best part was that the shower was cool rather than cold, which seemed like a luxury. The only problem was that sometimes the water and/or power in Granada would randomly cut out, so you had to carry a flashlight and just enjoy a shower whenever you could.

That first night in Granada we went to the Bearded Monkey and had vegetarian chili plus a brownie with vanilla ice cream on top. The whole thing was so good I almost cried. The food at the field station is really good, but I hadn't realized how tired I am of rice and beans.

Pictures of Granada

Monday 18 December 2006
Masaya Market

After discovering that the Hospedaje Cocibolca serves the greasiest pancakes (fried in oil?) we'd ever eaten, Rob and I set out to figure out how to get to the market at Masaya. This is the place to be if you want any kind of Nicaraguan souvenir imaginable. We happened upon a fleet of mini-buses that ran service from Granada to Managua and would let us off in Masaya-- all for 18 cordovas (just over $1). The whole thing was surprisingly easy, and once we arrived in Masaya, the markets were not nearly as frantic as I remembered. We did some shopping and then found a little restaurante that served cheese sandwiches and salad. The salad (wilty ice-berg lettuce) was topped with the quintessential Nicaraguan cheese: white squares of some of the grossest tasting stuff I can imagine. I picked out the vegetables and left the cheese. A hungry looking boy kept hovering near us, trying to get our attention. Finally I couldn't pretend to ignore him anymore, and he asked if he could eat the leftover cheese from our salad. It broke my heart. I handed him the plate, and he dove into those little white squares of cheese. He thanked us profusely. "Psst... chica," he whispered to me again, and asked if he could have the rest of my drink. Thinking of all the terrible things that the US has done to Nicaragua, I couldn't refuse. He thanked me even more profusely and asked God to bless me forever.

Tuesday 19 December 2006
Laguna de Apoyo

My guidebook said that this volcanic crater lake is at least 200m deep, and the lowest point in Central America. Plus, the surrounding jungle has capuchin, howler, and spider monkeys. I had really hoped to visit the nearby Laguna while we were in Granada, and much to our luck, Rob and I randomly found a shuttle bus headed that way, so we joined them for a day-trip. When we finally arrived at the Laguna, it was so peaceful and tranquilo. The rough waves made me wish I was better at swimming, but I had fun nonetheless.

Pictures of the Laguna

Wednesday 20 December 2006
Long Journey

After the greasiest breakfast imaginable, Rob and I and all our luggage hopped on one of those snazzy shuttle vans to Managua, Once we finally got to the airport, everything went more smoothly than I could even have imagined. I had pictured mass chaos during the holiday travel season as all the rich Nicaraguans headed to Miami for Christmas. But there was nothing of the sort. There were no crowds or long lines, and everything was totally tranquilo. We even got served a special vegetarian meal on the airplane. They gave us a plate of steamed vegetables, a salad (I'm talking Romaine lettuce here!), a roll, and a piece of cake. Plus the inflight movie was good. I don't know what it was called, but it was a documentary about a high school girls' basketball team in Seattle and the struggles that one particular girl had to go through to make it there. So fly Delta everybody. Especially if you are a vegetarian!

At any rate, we finally made it to our final destination, Rob's parents' house, about 2 in the morning. As I've said before, I really lucked out in the in-law department. Without complaint, Rob's parents picked us up at O'Hare about 11pm and drove us back to their place. They both worked the next day, on very little sleep. What's even more, when I woke up the next morning, there was cereal and soymilk waiting for me! A hot shower, plus my favorite breakfast all before 9am-- it was shaping up to be a really great day.

21 December 2006
The Holiday of My People

The winter solstice: the shortest day, but the longest night. The return to light. Each day following is a little longer than the last. Of all the equinoxes and solstices, this one is my favorite.

As I said, the day began with a hot shower in a clean bathroom: it was surreal. This was followed by my first taste of Silk Soymilk http://www.silksoymilk.com/ since August 8. Heavenly. And the day just kept getting better. I met Martin at school for lunch; when I saw him it suddenly hit me how much I missed him. We had Thai food and talked for hours about howler monkeys and trees. It was so good to see you again, El Negro. You're a good friend.

Then we met at the department and saw the secretaries and of course S.L. I was somewhat dreading that initial visit with S.L., when of course he said, "Melissa, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be in Nicaragua collecting your dissertation data?" But after a few hours of regaling him with tales of Wrinkle Belly, Nathan Jr., Spud, and Uno, I think he was assuaged that I am actually doing my project. It was good to see him, plus I even got hug #5 from him. (Jodi: 5 hugs from S.L. during my graduate career... is this a new record or something?)

We met Cara, John, Aimee, Brett, and the kids for dinner. Wow, it was great to see them! There was no better way to spend the winter solstice. I couldn't get over how much Little Miss C and Mr. E had grown while I was away for just 4-1/2 months! We all stayed up way too late talking, drinking some rum, and catching up. Rob and I spent the night at Cara and John's house--which, recall, used to be our house for 5 years. It was surreal to see our house again, only it wasn't our house anymore. It looks like Cara and John are really at home there-- it looks more like a home than it ever did when we lived there. It seems like they belong there more than we ever did, and it made me happy to see the house in such good hands.

At any rate, I should sign off: many things to do and many more people to see. I will post as I have a chance during the holidays. Its going to be a whirlwind tour of friends and family these next several days. I'm sure I'll need to return to the land of lakes and volcanoes when it is over, just so I can have a rest with the monkeys. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Christmas Limerick

By Rob
On a tropical island for Christmas
with two volcanoes and an isthmus.
The monkeys are howling,
and the dogs are growling.
Instead we'll return so our families won't miss us.

Limerick writing is apparently one of Rob’s lesser-known talents. Who would have thought. I tried to take some photos of the holiday decorations here at the hacienda, but they didn’t turn out so great. You’ll probably be better off just imagining twinkling lights on palm trees.

At any rate, phase 1 of this project is just about over. We’re leaving the island tomorrow (Sunday) and flying out on Wednesday. I don’t think its really hit me yet that I’ll be back in the US again in just a few days. I’ve been fairly stressed as of late. Sometimes it seems like this project is going along just smashingly great; other times, it seems like its going to hell in a handbasket. Lately, its been the latter of the two. There was another scare with the toughness tester just this week. What had been a small problem turned into a larger problem, and I had to send a few frantic emails to Barth and P.L. to try to figure out what was going on. It could have been any number of things… mechanical failure, electronic failure, load cell failure… all of which would have been pretty catastrophic. In the end, it seems like we may have fixed the problem by oiling the columns. Its worked just fine the 3 times I’ve put it together since then, but my big fear is that the problem re-emerges when I return and use it again in January. I’ll just keep holding my breath.

The other thing that happened is that my laptop’s hard drive bit the dust. The battery had died several weeks ago, so I could not use the thing without it being plugged in. Annoying, but still functional. Then yesterday, just as I was finishing my final report for my grad college dissertation travel grant, a loud squealing noise started coming from my computer. I ran to get Rob and he said, “This is not good.” He got the squealing to stop, but my hard drive was dead and it appeared that I had lost everything. Well, not everything. Most of the important stuff was saved in other places, but there were several documents that I had compiled from my data that I had not backed up. It wasn’t a total catastrophe: the data were still there, it was just a bunch of lost time in making those documents. Still, I felt pretty grim. Then in a complete fluke, the hard drive started working again just long enough for me to recover the non-backed up documents before it died completely. It seems like everything super important has been saved, but I lost all my email. So if you are waiting for a reply from me, you might be waiting a lot longer. As in indefinitely. Especially if I don’t know your email address—which is likely considering that I usually just click on someone’s name in my address book without paying attention to what their actually email address is. What is perhaps even worse is that I lost my entire iPhoto library: everything from this trip except the photos I have shrunk down to post on this blog are gone forever. Rob says he is going to “try” to see what he can do, but I don’t think there is much at this point.

Rob is, I think, almost secretly glad that now we “have” to get me a new computer. I had been trying to hold out on this ancient and decrepit machine until I finished my fieldwork, because I thought it would be much better to get a new computer when I am at home to write my dissertation. But Rob has been pointing out for some time that my computer is 3-1/2 years old, which is apparently pre-Cambrian for these things. Oh well. I guess if it was going to happen its good that it happened now. We can get a new computer while we’re at home, and I’ll be back in business. Except for my lost photos and email.

Anywho, I need to get going and do some last minute laundry and packing before our big trip commences tomorrow. So, for many of you—see you soon!!

Monday, December 11, 2006

The South Group Shall Rise Again

On Sunday I didn’t go out to the forest, but I’m not sure if one day of rest was not enough or whether it was too much. I could barely even enjoy the day because I was overcome with Forest Anxiety. I couldn’t stop dreading the thorns and vines and rocks and bugs and how much my neck always hurts from looking up at the monkeys. Plus, late on the day Saturday, there had been some confusion with the South troop and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find them again. I am beginning to feel seriously burned out—like that last week of peak mileage while training for a marathon.

Rob could see how much I was struggling with this, so he offered to come to the forest with me this morning for a little while. At first I thought it was just one of those things—you know, when people offer to do something to be nice but they know you aren’t really going to take them up on it. But he really did come out to the forest with me. He rolled out of bed at 4:45am and didn’t complain a bit as we got our stuff together and broke into the kitchen again--where is this night guard??

My monkey sense started tingling around a path I call “Laucaena Way,” which is in the border zone between the North and South groups. Sure enough, monkeys were there, but my monkey radar told me it was the North group. As much as I love observing Wrinkle Belly et al, I really needed to find the South group and get some data on them this month. Rob and I wandered around all their usual places and did not find them. Just as I was panicking, we heard what appeared to be an intergroup encounter near where we’d initially seen the monkeys. It turned out that the North and South groups were howling back and forth to each other. I was overjoyed when in the midst of all this commotion, I saw Uno—the “king” of the South group. (Note: He may only be the “king” per se, in my mind).

Rob stayed a while and took a lot of pictures of the monkeys with his good camera. I’ll post the best ones:

Near as I can tell this photo is of Nathan Jr., who was born shortly after I got here.

And here’s how “Uno” got his name…

Here are Rob and me in the forest

It was comforting to see that all the monkeys were back in their usual places after their mad dashing around for specific food resources. But at the end of the day on my way out of the forest, I saw Wrinkle Belly and some others headed down the corridor again. I guess they wanted to see if that Chaperno tree had any more flowers.

Thanks for reading, until later then!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Photo of Wrinkle Belly

On my way to the forest this morning, I heard a howl down in the corridor. I took off through a rice field and got to the monkeys just after 6am. It was the North group all right—sighting Wrinkle Belly confirmed that. Apparently they had gone down the corridor again for some of those lovely magenta flowers that they just can’t get enough of right now. The whole group was there, even the ones I hadn’t seen in a few days. Much to my relief, I saw all the missing youngsters. There were the two main juveniles (Horace and Buster), plus the third that sometimes plays with them. There was the little guy, who I surmise is Newb—an infant born two months ago up on Spondias Lane. I also saw Spud, now one month old and happily riding around on his mother’s back. Scooby was tiny and golden, clinging to his mother’s belly. And then all of a sudden I noticed that there was another tiny gold infant—the North group has had two births within the past week! I started calling this one Stacy, even though I probably won’t be able to tell Stacy and Scoob apart because they are so close in age. At any rate, it was really great to see the whole group. At one point, I counted 15 individuals in the tree crown, with two others in an adjacent tree.

We were so low in the corridor that we were literally in peoples’ backyards. Here’s a photo of one of the houses I was loitering around to watch the monkeys.

The patch was so scrappy, I would hesitate to call it “forest”—it was more of a banana field with a few trees in it.

Although I was initially elated to find the monkeys, the day quickly proceeded to boring as the monkeys settled down for a 4-hour nap after their morning feeding bout. There were a few scuffles that broke up the monotony though. At one point, one of the juveniles made away with either Stacy or Scoob, and the mom went on a frantic chase to get her baby back. I don’t know what the other group members want with the babies, but they are all intensely interested in them. Even Wrinkle Belly periodically came over to peer at and sniff the babies. I think in the case of the juveniles, they just want to play. When this particular juvenile stole the baby, it just hung there by its tail, holding the newborn precariously in its arms, while the mother shrieked and bit and clawed until she got the baby back.

In the afternoon, 3 children crept into the forest patch to look at the monkeys, and they were certainly surprised to see me. I was a source of endless fascination for them—with my binoculars and databook and watch that beeped every 2 minutes so that I could record the monkeys’ activity. The children—Hilder, Fernando, and Alejandro—were mainly barefoot and shirtless, but they fearlessly tramped through the thorns and brush with me as though it were nothing. These kids were all so small; I asked them how old they were and all of them replied that they did not know. I asked them if they went to school and they said no. I asked them if they had their own machetes, and of course they said yes. Fernando and Ale left when they heard their mother calling for them, but Hilder stayed with me to watch the monkeys. That kid is so cute. He would circle the tree to find the best viewing location and then call me over. He smoothed the dirt and drew pictures for me. He arranged rocks to create a sitting place, and he carefully picked off thorns and burrs stuck to my pant legs. And he squealed with delight as he watched the mothers and their newborns.

These kids were actually featured in the blog earlier--I met them on one of my early days after a fruitless search for monkeys in the Machete forest, and they wanted to show me their chained-up pet capuchin.

When it was finally time for me to go, Hilder led me out of the forest by way of his house. I talked to some of his family members and asked them what was the name of the big flowering tree in their backyard. I think it was his grandmother who identified it as “Chaperno.” I don’t doubt that she is right, but there are at least 5 different species of trees that go by the common name “Chaperno,” so I will have to figure out which one this is. I may have to enlist the help of botanists at the herbarium in Léon.

As promised here is a long-awaited picture of Wrinkle Belly. He looks so bedraggled and forlorn! But you’ve got to love him.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Anonymous comments now enabled!

So, my dear friend Amy finally clued me in on how to let "anonymous" comments on my blog. Changing this setting was actually surprisingly easy, and it allows you to post comments without going through the trouble of setting up an account on Blogger. I think it may also allow Spam on my blog, but we'll try this out for a while and see how it works. Sorry I didn't figure this out earlier. Now I'm having a guilt trip for guilting so many friends and family into creating blogger accounts so that they could post comments (a pleading conversation I had with Cousin Dan comes to mind). Don't get rid of your accounts just yet; if I get inundated with Spam, I may have to revert to the old system. At any rate, if there is anyone out there who has ever wanted to post a comment but refrained from doing so because you didn't want to create a blogger account, now's your chance. Just make sure to tell me who you are or give me some kind of clue, so I know who is posting!

Sorry to everyone I forced to get an account, especially to Cousin Dan.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Corridor

I had wanted to post on Dec 1 to wish a happy birthday to my dearest friend Jolyne and to my father-in-law Bruce. Unfortunately, due to general tiredness, power outages, and a country-wide lack of internet for the past several days, I am just getting around to it. So the best I can do is say that I hope a good birthday was had by all.

December 1st ended up being an eventful day for me and the monkeys. It started off though, by me swearing a blue streak when the door to the kitchen was locked and I could not get in there to retrieve my carefully packed breakfast and lunch. This has happened a few times before; I think it means that there is some night guard or something who doesn’t show up and the door is still locked at 5 in the morning. A few times I have waited for the muchachas to come in at 6 and unlock it (they appear to be the only ones with keys); once I went to the forest with a couple of Clif bars and tap water instead of purified. At any rate, this past Friday, Don Miguel saw (and heard) my predicament, and he helped me break in through the window. All set with my water, fruit, and rice and beans, I headed out to the forest.

On the way, I met up with Simeon and his cronies, who were headed to some plantain fields for work. As we walked along the path together, we encountered monkeys at the forest entrance. This was approximately the same location we had found them the day before, and Simeon assured me that it was Wrinkle Belly’s group. He surmised that the group was going to use a thin corridor of trees to head down to a different forest patch by the road, and he gave me instructions on following them before he continued on to work.

It turns out he was right. For months he’d been telling me that Wrinkle Belly’s group sometimes goes down to the road, and I had not genuinely believed him. But today I saw it with my own eyes. Wrinkle Belly and the entire group was there, in all their glory. Sure enough, they headed down the narrow corridor between fields of plantains, rice, beans, and corn. At times the trees were so sparce that they couldn’t cross the gaps. I stood directly under Wrinkle Belly (with my arms outstretched to catch him if need be) as he made a flying leap and landed squarely on a plantain tree. The frond on which he had landed promptly snapped, and just inches from the ground, he scrambled back up into the nearest tree.

The monkeys continued their sojourn down the corridor. The “forest patch” we entered wasn’t really a patch per se; it was just scrappy underbrush with a few medium size trees in what happened to be a few peoples’ backyards. I was a little bit paranoid that I was on “propriedad privado” and I should go ask these people if it was okay with them that I was in their yard. But I didn’t want to lose the monkeys in so doing, and besides, I thought it might cause more of a shock and commotion if I emerged from the underbrush and revealed myself. In the end, I just stayed quiet and hidden, observing the monkeys.

The reason that they went to this obscure locale appeared to be because there was a particular tree in bloom right there. It was a lovely tree—large and with apparently scrumptious magenta colored flowers. When the monkeys arrived, they ate for about 2 hours without stopping. I was just about ecstatic. If all else on this project fails, I can write a paper on howler monkeys’ persistence in agro-ecosystems by using thin corridors of trees that connect between patches of forest.

The next several days, I have continued breaking and entering the kitchen to get my supplies (where is this night guard anyway?!) and watching the monkeys unceasingly eat these wonder-flowers. I’ve also spent some time following the South group (Uno’s group)—who, in the absence of Wrinkle Belly’s clan—have gone to forage in some of the more traditional North group areas. The ecological aspects of this project are turning out to be hella cool.

The only thing that has me a little concerned now is that I know there should be 1-month old infants in both the North and South groups (Spud and Scout, respectively), but I haven’t seen any sign of them lately. They keep having babies, but what is happening to them?? In fact, there is a brand new baby in the South group, who I started calling Scooby (I really don’t know why I’ve given them all “S” names…). I’ll post this picture of Scoob, even though you probably won’t be able to make out anything. The little speck of gold on the mother’s belly is Scooby, and there is another female just to the right of the mother, peering at the baby.

Many thanks for reading, I’d better hurry up and post this while the internet is still working!