Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Number of Ticks Removed To Date: 17
Days Since Tick Removal: 0

After taking the weekend off, I needed one more day of data with the South Group this month. Yesterday I scoured every inch of that forest but couldn’t find them anywhere. I thought for sure they must have gone away somewhere to some seasonal patch of food, like how when the North Group took the secret corridor down to the road for Chaperno flowers. After all my fruitless searching, it seemed like I wouldn’t find them again until they were good and ready to come back from wherever they had gone.

This morning I headed back out, not expecting to have any luck. Since they hadn’t appeared to be anywhere in the forest near sunset last night, it was doubtful they would be back at dawn this morning. But miraculously, they were right there at point U-14, in a big tree they like to sleep in. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Uno was there, so it was undeniable. As I stayed with them throughout the day, I realized why I hadn’t found them yesterday. They went up the mountain into areas where I’d never seen them before. In some places, there were remnants of really old trails, and in other areas there were no trails at all. What they were after was the juicy, ripe fruit of the Nispero (Manilkara ) tree. They visited 3 different giant Níspero trees throughout the day and stuffed their little faces with the fruit. Seriously, they got the stringy fruit all over their faces, but they didn’t do anything about it, so they just sat there all day with food-faces. Actually, it was pretty hilarious. The best part was that by the end of the day, they went full circle and headed back to the U trail, where I’m sure they were planning on sleeping in their favorite tree.

So the South Group is becoming more interesting than ever. Before, I thought that other groups of monkeys up the volcano kept the South Group pretty much trapped to the lower elevations of the former coffee plantation—where the trees are all shrubby and in the early stages of regeneration. I also thought that the South Group’s apparent restriction to this territory would result in their having a poor quality diet with very little diversity. But today the South Group demonstrated that when the time is right, they can make a jaunt up to where the trees are tall and the fruit is ripe for the picking. I’ll be interested to see how this all turns out. Until later then!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Loosely United Federation of Monkeys Also Known as The South Group

First things first: Jairo, Simeon, and the internet all confirmed that the time is not going to “spring forward” this spring. Apparently daylight savings only happens sporadically in Nicaragua, and this year its not scheduled. This means that by May and June, it will be light out before 5am. Knowing this just about put me over the edge. The past week has left me so exhausted that I feel like I’m hanging on by a thread, and the knowledge that for the duration of my project the precious little sleep I get will steadily dwindle was just about more than I could handle. The monkeys don’t know what time it is; they only know that when it gets light out, they can eat breakfast—which is what I’m here to study.

At any rate, yesterday out in the forest was frustrating to say the least. It started off great—I found Uno and his lady friend and her kid right off the bat. They all had some Capulín (Muntingia calabura) berries for breakfast; then another male appeared on the scene and they all headed up the volcano to a Genízaro tree (the same one that, according to the TT, is less tough). This is where it got confusing. I ended up losing Uno, and in hindsight I realize there were probably two or perhaps even three groups up there. When they separated, I must have followed the wrong group because I had a bad feeling about where I was headed and I didn’t recognize any of the monkeys. There was another massive inter-group encounter, but by this point I wasn’t even sure if the South Group was there anymore. I wandered through the forest looking for them. I went back to the Less Tough Genízaro (where I’d last seen them): not a monkey in sight. So I went back to the Camino, where I thought they might have headed. The North Group, bless their hearts, was there—resting just far enough away from the action to be uninvolved. I also found another weird group that appeared to be coming down the volcano for some Genízaro leaves (again with the Genízaro!). I thought that this weird group had probably been involved in the intergroup encounter, but none of this solved the mystery of where the South Group had gone. Maybe it was all the sun and thorns, but I began to wonder if there really even was a South Group at all. Maybe it was all a figment of my imagination. They could just be a rogue assortment of monkeys that tolerate each other enough to eat Madero Negro leaves when they’re available, and otherwise, they split up and tag along with other groups. Maybe that was why I’d had such trouble figuring out exactly how many monkeys were in the group and why they always seem to be in the same place. The thought was unsettling.

In the midst of this delirium, I spotted a mother and juvenile resting at point U-14—in a big tree where I often find that loosely united federation of monkeys I’d been calling the South Group. There appeared to be no other monkeys around, but I decided to stay with this pair and see what happened. Sure enough, late in the afternoon, a whole group descended from the direction of the Less Tough Genízaro and joined them. So maybe there really is a South Group, and maybe they really had been at that Less Tough Genízaro the whole time afterall. These monkeys will never cease to amaze me. On my way out of the forest, I ran into the North Group. Literally, in fact. They were moving in on the South Group’s turf, and the area they had chosen to cross over didn’t have very many trees, just shrubbery. So—bam—there was Sophie and Spud, about eye-level with me and only about 1 meter away. Sophie went “yip” and scrambled across the gap. I’m not sure what the North Group’s sudden fixation with the South Group’s territory is, but I think it has something to do with those Capulín berries. We’ll have to see how that works out for them. Hopefully it will be enthralling enough to get me out of bed every morning, earlier and earlier.

Thanks for reading, until later then!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sound and Fury

The week started off blissful: I was experiencing the joys of the runner’s high, I followed Wrinkle Belly’s group to some interesting places in the forest, and a problem with the toughness tester appeared to be fixable by oiling the columns of the test frame. But somehow it all went downhill. The gringos who bought land in the forest have put barbed wire fences everywhere, which slows me down and increases my chances of getting impaled. Moreover, just when I thought the toughness tester was working properly, I got some weird values for some Genízaro leaves that I tested last night. According to the machine, these leaves were a whole lot tougher than some Genízaro leaves from a different tree they had eaten from just last week. So the jury is still out on the TT. It would be interesting if I had found that Genízaro leaf toughness varies depending on location in the forest, age of the tree, or exposure to sunlight, etc. Its true that toughness can vary according to all of these things, but after all of the troubles I’ve had with that machine, I’m more afraid that the damn thing just doesn’t work.

Today I went out to the forest with Jairo, who had been commissioned by Alvaro to film the monkeys. I’d been following the North Group (Wrinkle Belly) for several days, and today it was time to shift gears and find the South Group (Uno). Even when they aren’t making noise, I can generally find the South Group by walking along an old Rock Wall (it used to be some property boundary when the whole patch was a coffee plantation); they never seem to stray too far from that area. Immediately upon arriving at the Rock Wall, we found monkeys. I happily proclaimed this to be the South Group and Jairo began setting up his camera as I scouted out a juvenile of the right age to watch. As I was scanning the trees, I suddenly saw a most unexpected sight:. Wrinkle Belly. In the core of what has always been the South Group’s turf! The groups occasionally make forays into each other’s territories, but I had never, ever seen WB this far south.

Jairo stayed put while I went a little bit arriba, determined to find the real South Group. I found monkeys in some big trees up there that they like to hang out in sometimes. I scanned the trees for Uno, who could confirm for me that this was the South Group. Although I didn’t see him, I reasoned that if Wrinkle Belly’s group was along the Rock Wall, then it must be Uno’s group up here. I went back to tell Jairo that I’d found the South group, but when I got there, I saw a male monkey who had the pointy nostrils characteristic of Uno. As he shifted positions, I caught a glimpse of his posterior, and sure enough: only one. It was Uno, in the same area as Wrinkle Belly! Who in the heck had I been watching up above?!

Today was the first occasion in almost 6 months of watching monkeys that I have ever seen Uno and Wrinkle Belly in the same location. I was excited, but Jairo was so bored that he packed up the camera and left around 9:30. Immediately after Jairo left, pandemonium broke out that would have been film-worthy. There was massive howling from every direction and monkeys were flying, leaping, biting, and chasing each other through the trees. It was complete chaos, all of them were vocalizing at the top of their lungs and madly dashing all over the place. In addition to the North and South groups, I am pretty sure there was another group involved (its range borders this area as well). With about 15-20 monkeys per group, that’s a lot of sound and fury. They appeared to be negotiating who had dips on those super-tough Genízaro leaves—something that is not supposed to happen, according to all the leading theories on primate food competition (leaves are considered low-quality resources that aren’t supposed to be worth fighting over).

By the end of the day, I think that all the monkeys went to their rightful places again. I know howlers have the reputation of being the most boring of all primates, but they never cease to amaze me. After a full week of barbed wire, stinging ants, and TT stress, I am exhausted. I’ve got to make it one more day out there and then I’ll let myself sleep in. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Long Run

I have realized that I need the long run to feel like myself: all those years of running marathons have left their mark on me. For the longest time, I refused to let grad school get in the way of marathons, but I always had a guilty conscience that in the time I’d spent running I could have written some really great article or otherwise furthered my career. My running wasn’t a secret, but I tried not to let S.L. know how much time I really spent on it. Often, I drastically readjusted my life to have time to get all the running in. Like the time I did an 18-mile run one morning and still made it early to a 10am meeting at school. Or all the times I spent not socializing with other people in the department so that I could go home and run instead. During my pilot study 3 years ago on Ometepe, I somehow managed to train for a marathon while also studying the monkeys, but all along I knew that I wasn’t doing either thing particularly well. I finally had to give in last year during the hellishness of proposal writing and preparing for prelims. It made me crazy. Seriously. I realized I needed running like some people need heroin.

The longer I spent away from running, the harder it was for me to get back into it. I never gave it up entirely, but I did give up the Long Run. It got so I couldn’t even make it around my neighborhood on my familiar 3-mile loop. The only times I could have a chance of finishing an entire run without walking half of it were on those rare occasions when I drug myself to running club and had the camaraderie of other people to drown out the crazies and exhaustion in my head. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to run, I just couldn’t make my legs do it. I wondered if I’d used up all my miles and would never be able to run, to really run, again.

I missed it terribly. There was nothing I loved more than a long run of 16 to 20 miles on a July morning when the temperature hovered near 90 degrees by 8am. How you get so hot you don’t even feel hot anymore; how you hurt so bad you don’t even feel pain anymore. When you run that far, your thoughts become almost psychedelic. You become pure motion, nothing physical matters. When you think you can’t go on, that you are going to end up a crumpled mass on the side of the road, there is only one thing to do: run faster. I remember those days: sun, sweat, Gatorade. Crisscrossing the town so many times that there’s nowhere I haven’t run.

Something from my life has been missing since I gave that up, or quit being able to do it. I’ve tried to run from time to time here on Ometepe, but it is not the same. The terrain is rocky and jagged even in the smooth places. You never know when a dog is going to dart out into the road and growl at you, with its teeth bared. People come out of their houses to stop and stare at you, like a freak or novelty. Teenage boys follow you on their bikes, leering, “Hola amorrrrrrr….” Its so much of a hassle. But little by little, I’ve been making myself get out there and do it on my rest days from the monkeys. I started gradually—an out and back 5km (3.1 mile) run interspersed with walking had me exhausted. But if I just kept going, I could make myself go 10K instead. Yesterday I pushed it a little bit farther, running maybe half a kilometer past my turn-around point, and I wasn’t even tired. Today I went out again and just kept going and going, until I realized I was at the fork in the road at a town called Santa Cruz, some 7km away from the Hacienda. On this road, that’s a veritable distance even by bike or bus. All I wanted was to keep running farther, but I was low on water and faced a return trip nonetheless. So I turned around and headed home, beginning to feel like myself for the first time in months. One of the muchachos who works at the Hacienda, Ileya (spelling?), caught up with me on bike not too long after. We chatted for a while before he went on ahead; it was not exactly like having the company of the running club, but it passed the time for a while. When I finally got back to the Hacienda with a 14km run under my belt, I had more energy than when I’d started. Despite the dogs and leering boys and trucks that don’t leave room for a pedestrian, I felt the best I’ve felt since my last marathon.

Afterwards, Rob and I went out to lunch at another hospedaje up the road. This one is a little more posh, and they have exorbitantly expensive home-made veggie burgers. The ultimate post long run recovery meal. It was so worth it. Food just tastes better, the sun shines brighter, and birds sing more sweetly after a long run. I wish I could bottle this feeling, but I know I can’t. The only way to keep it is to just keep running, so I’m already looking for my next marathon.

I didn't mean to go on so long about running; I wanted to write about some other things, but this post has become too long already! If anyone has made it all the way through this entry, thanks for reading. Until later then!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Return of Green Parakeets and Sally

The first time I was on Ometepe was three Januarys ago, as a TA for Pablo’s field course on primate behavior. At the time, I was testing the waters to see if this kind of fieldwork was really what I wanted to do with my life. On one of our last days here, he gave me some free time to go out to the forest and explore by myself, to figure out what I needed to figure out. So I walked to the Machete Forest and set an ultimatum. I said to myself: " Self, if you find the monkeys here, on your own, you are going to do this thing." If I didn’t find the monkeys, I’d either measure baboon brains for my thesis project, or quit and work at the running store, or start over and try to get into physical therapy school.

As you may have guessed, I found the monkeys.

I remember looking up at the monkeys that day; they were in a big tree that was almost barren of leaves but had plenty of pale pink flowers. The tree was a mystery to me at the time, but now I know it well as Madero negro (Gliricidia sepium)—a tree they eat from constantly. I also recall that they weren’t alone in the tree. What seemed like hundreds of squawking green parakeets noisily fluttered around in the uppermost branches, gorging on the delectable flowers. From down on the ground, the birds just seemed like blurs, but when I looked at them through my binoculars, I saw what a beautiful bright green they were.

With the return of the season of flowers, the bright parakeets have returned as well. Today they were making such a racket that my ears were actually ringing when I finally made my way out of the forest and to the comparative silence of the road. I hadn’t thought of those green parakeets that I saw 3 years ago while out in the forest by myself—not until today when I noticed that they had returned. I remembered my ultimatum, and I was glad that I had found the monkeys that day.

As if the green parakeets were not enough, my little dog Sally has returned as well. Maybe I haven’t written about her: she is a little stray dog who used to show up at the Hacienda around dinnertime. There are a lot of strays around here, and we’re not supposed to feed them because that encourages them to stay. Rob has warned me not to get attached to the stray dogs—more often than not, they are hungry and tired and do not meet a happy ending. This happened with Anita, the first stray dog I fell in love with after I got here. For the first couple of weeks, she followed me everywhere. She was dirty and probably disease-ridden, but she was so cute that I couldn’t help petting her. Then one day she disappeared and I never saw her again. Every night I eyed up the strays, searching for one I could love. I finally found another cute little dog and started calling her Sally. Every once and a while I snuck her bits of food and petted her soft little head. When I called “Sally!” she would come to me, as if she knew her name. But ever since we’ve been back after Christmas, I haven’t seen Sally. Just when I’d resigned myself to her sad fate, she showed up at dinner last night. At first I don’t think she remembered me, but I called her and she came running.

I don’t have any good photos of her, because she only comes around at night. Here’s one I took before we left in December; its all blurry because she wouldn’t stop moving:

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Blessed Event

My sister had her baby on Saturday, January 13th—two weeks early. She went to the hospital on Friday night, and here I was, oblivious to the whole thing. I’d had a good, solid week out with the monkeys, so I was positively jubilant about taking the weekend off to relax. On Saturday morning I had a lovely breakfast, did some reading, and went on a 10K run. Little did I know. When I finally got online late in the afternoon, my mom instant messaged me to tell me that Michelle had been in labor all night and all day.

I think by the time my nephew finally met this world, I was bouncing along in the back of a truck headed to San Ramon. I’d promised Alvaro that I’d give a talk about my project to some pre-med students doing a field school here. I don’t have any idea what I must have said in the talk; my mind was thousands of miles away. As soon as we got back to the hacienda, my mom and dad called to tell us that the baby had been born, he was healthy, and my sister was doing well.

I still haven’t talked to my sister, but I talked to her husband. He said, “Don’t let that sweet exterior fool you; your sister is tough.” Given my penchant for toughness, he couldn’t have chosen a better compliment. Beauty and sweetness will only get you so far in life: toughness is what its all about.

Now I’m officially an auntie to two nephews (Rob’s brother and wife have a little boy), plus Bryn, plus little Miss C and little Mr. E. When I was growing up, my own Auntie was so cool (and she still is). She had a puppy dog and she lived in a condo that had a swimming pool (which made me think she was always on vacation even though she wasn’t), and she took us to the Dairy Queen. I hope my nephews don’t think of me as the crazy monkey lady who lives far away and they never see. I’ll have to work on that.

Thanks for reading!
Auntie M.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

You can’t have your figs and eat them too

It’s a lame saying, but its true—I’ve learned that much in life.

Today apparently Wrinkle Belly had a hankering for figs. In the morning, the group slowly meandered to an area in the forest where there was a fruiting ficus tree. This particular location is frequented by at least 3 different troops of monkeys—all wanting some of those tasty figs. I could hear howling from two of the other groups that were in proximity to the tree, but this did not phase Wrinkle Belly. He was the first monkey of the North group to bravely cross over and enter the giant ficus. Some pandemonium definitely broke out as soon as the North group entered the scene. Two males from a neighboring group raced over and tried to chase them out of the tree. There was massive howling all about. and monkeys were moving every which way. It was all I could do to keep straight who my focal animal was.

At first it seemed that all was lost for Wrinkle Belly’s clan. They retreated as the others chased them out of the tree, but they managed to hold their ground. They stayed in the area of the ficus and just waited until everything settled down. Then they rushed back in and had themselves some figs and young leaves from the tree. Wrinkle Belly’s group did not tarry too long in this area though. After grabbing a quick snack, they high-tailed it back down the camino and continued eating some really crazy foods that will make for a very interesting dissertation. So, I guess if you are part of Wrinkle Belly’s group, you really can have your figs and eat them too.

Just one more noteworthy tidbit: Sophie saves the day… Yesterday, Spud (2 months old) climbed off of Sophie’s back while she was feeding. Spud amused himself by swinging from his tail, and Sophie just went on her merry way. Either she forgot about her baby, or she thought he would be able to follow her. When Spud looked around and realized his mother was no longer in the tree, he kind of freaked out. He tried to go after her but was scared, so he started screeching. Eventually, Sophie turned around and went back for him. She reached up to bend a branch down, so that Spud could climb right on her back. He did just that and then hung on for dear life. Maybe you had to be there, but I thought that was really sweet.

That’s enough tales of the monkeys for one night. I’ve got to get to bed so I can do this all over again in the morning. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Another day at the office

Today was my first day back on the job after our big vacation. It couldn’t have gone better. For starters, the sun is rising a little bit later now than it was when we left. Before the solstice, it was as bright as day by 5:30, but today the sky was still purplish blue at 5:45 when I got to the forest entrance. I think I was still half-asleep when I stumbled upon the monkeys. They were half-asleep themselves, yawning in a couple of large trees low along the camino. Now that the dry season is in full swing, many of the leaves have fallen off the trees, so visibility has improved by an order of magnitude. It was like a veil had lifted; with the trees nearly bare, I could see the monkeys’ little faces so clearly. Plus, without so many leafy hiding places, I was able to get a better count of the total number of individuals in the group. It seemed to me that I was with the North Group, but one very important member appeared to be missing: Wrinkle Belly. Without seeing him, I couldn’t be sure if I was with the North Group or not.

Four hours passed with no sighting of WB, and then— miracle of miracles—he emerged from the canopy in all his wrinkled glory. I think I may have actually wept for joy. It was cathartic. Here I was, gone for 2 weeks and wondering if I am really capable of doing this project, then Wrinkle Belly turns up and all is right with the world.

I'll sign off now so that I can get to bed and do this all again tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

We made it back

Just a quick post to let you know that we finally made it back to Mérida. There were no major mishaps, it just took a lot longer and was more of a hassel than we had hoped. The moral of the story is to not travel on a Sunday in Nicaragua. Scroll down if you want to read a belated update of the rest of our time at home.

At the moment I'm too tired to post anything else; I'll try to catch up in the next couple of days.

Cold Feet

Literally. The whole time I’ve been back in the US, my feet have been cold. Especially at night time. I’ve had to wear two pairs of socks and slippers just to make it bearable. I think I could really get used to tropical life and no winters if I had to.

Aside from the cold feet (and a never ending sinus headache), being back in the US has been very comfortable. After Christmas, Rob and I headed out east for a few days to visit my sister and her husband in Pittsburgh. Exciting times for them are ahead: they are having a baby at the end of this month, and soon after they are moving to the Midwest. They’ll be much closer to my parents, who are thrilled at the prospect of being able to frequently visit their first ever (and likely only ever!) grandchild. Seeing my very pregnant sister and her husband was great; Pittsburgh itself seemed gray and gloomy, but maybe that was because I was car sick couldn’t get rid of a ridiculously powerful sinus headache. The next time I see my sister, she will be a mom, which is mind-boggling to me. They have some names picked out for the baby, but it’s a secret, so I’ll have to wait for the blessed event to see what they decide on.

On the road to Pittsburgh: Would a "carved meat buffet" sound appealing if I was not a vegetarian?

Pittsburgh skyline

We spent New Year’s with our friends Aimee and Brett and their two kids, Little Miss C and Little Mr. E. Miss C was so excited that Rob and ‘Lissa were staying for a sleepover! We all had fun playing with some of the new toys the kids got for Christmas, but Rob and I were so exhausted and head-achy that for us, the new year rang in without much fanfare. The next morning, Aimee and Brett made the most delicious pancakes ever, and I kept popping ibuprofin and vitamin C to try to feel like a normal person.

For the rest of the week, we stayed with Cara and John, our friends who bought our old house. I can’t come up with words to describe the surreal-ness of being house guests in the house we lived in for 5 years. It was so comfortable and comforting, but I had to keep reminding myself that this is their house now; I don’t live there anymore. Bit by bit my enduring headache subsided, and I braved the cold to go out and run my beloved 3-mile Loop a couple of times. In the 5 years we lived there, I must have run that route on hundreds of occasions in every conceivable form of weather. Before we moved out of the house, I always had planned to have one ceremonious last run along that beloved route, but everything got so hectic and busy at the end that I sort of lost track of when my last run was. So this time I tried to savor it despite the cold and rain. Many months of Nicaraguan rice and beans plus the ensuing deluge of Christmas goodies have made me doughy and out of marathon form, but I managed to hold my own and run the route at a respectable pace.

The whole trip back to the US has really made me aware of the ties that bind. I have the most amazing friends and family in the world. Everybody went over and above the call of duty. They provided us with food, shelter, clothing, transportation, vitamins and cold medicine, soymilk, and veggie burgers without complaint.

Some of my favorite memories of the trip, in no particular order:
• All our family Christmases: at both of Rob’s grandparents’ houses, my parents’ house, and my aunt’s house.
• Going running early in the morning at my parents’ house, then coming back for a lovely breakfast and coffee with my mom and dad.
• Little Miss C requesting (and eating) a ham and chocolate sandwich on a croissant for lunch.
• My sister’s dog Dixie: such a quiet dog except for the 30 seconds preceding her nightly milkbone treat.
• Seeing a pure white goose on the lake with Cara and wondering if it was a Ghost Goose, an Albino Goose, or a swan.
• Hanging out with Aimee and the kids while Rob and Brett rode their bikes.
• Driving the Purple Car.
Sex and the City
• Coffee with Martin.
• Chatting with S.L. in his new office.
• Both Little Miss C and Little Mr. E on my lap, reading stories.
• Staying up late with Cara and John, catching up on TV shows I’ve missed, and having gin and tonics. And of course sharing the lap duvet.
• Hot chocolate
• Hot showers

I could go on forever. The trip was chock full of happy, warm and comfy moments. At the moment I’m torn between worlds. I wish I could have my cake and eat it too: going back to the monkeys in Nicaragua, but having my friends and family close by too. Like, if I could spend the day out in the forest watching Uno and Wrinkle Belly, but then come back and night and watch Sex and the City with Cara or read a bedtime story to Little Mr. E and Little Miss C. But I guess I’ll have to be content to just wait a few more months for all of that again. For the time being, I’ve got to shift gears back to Nicaragua mode and focus all my energies on the monkeys. I’m just hoping that I don’t have to go through a period of re-adjustment again: the Vortex and being all swollen up from bug bites is not an experience I’m eager to relive.

I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to post this; at the moment I am writing while on the plane back to Nicaragua. Stay tuned; I’ll post more from Mérida when I get a chance.

Thanks for reading.