Saturday, February 24, 2007

Climbing Volcan Maderas

After a fretful night (see previous post, concerning my fears about climbing Volcan Maderas) and a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, we set off for the volcano climb. An English couple was also doing the climb, and there were 2 guides. The first 2 kilometers were fairly flat and smooth, and I began to feel more calm. This part, at least, was just like every day when I go out to the forest. The gradient became much steeper after this gentle beginning, but still, it was an enjoyable hike. During this first part, we saw 2 snakes. The first was really skinny, with a tan body and yellow underbelly. The second snake, sunning itself on a rock in our path, was a famed boa of Ometepe. There are supposedly magnificent boas on the island (I think there was even some sort of National Geographic documentary filmed about them, in which Rodolfo may have starred), but this was the very first one I have ever seen. It was beautiful. Who would have thought I would have said a snake was beautiful? I know my mom and Cara are screaming in terror at just the mention of a boa, but really, it was amazing. Brown and black and tan and yellow with its sensitive little tongue and beady little eyes.

Shortly after sighting the boa, the hike turned into a climb. Actually, it felt like I was scaling the volcano. Parts of it were pretty tricky, but still, I had no problems. Watching the changes in the forest as we ascended to higher and higher elevations was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. After about 1000m of elevation, it became “cloud forest”—big ficus trees dripping with moisture and covered in moss, looking like you’ve stepped back to some dimly-lit primeval world where elves and fairies might actually exist. We were literally walking in the clouds. By this point, the path was a solid river of mud and tree roots, and I was using my arms to pull myself up even more than my legs.

About 4 hours after we started, we reached the summit: 1370m of elevation. Wouldn’t you know, it was covered in clouds. The wind was howling and the temperature felt almost frigid. As we stood precariously on the narrow path, the clouds began to dissipate, and we could at last view the laguna in the crater of the extinct volcano. At first view, it was so beautiful that I actually gasped.

Crater lake with clouds

More Crater Lake with clouds:

At last, the clouds dissipate:

More view from the top:

Rob with our guide, Randol

Your fave couple, the Ragfields:

We stayed up at the summit, resting and eating some lunch, until our lips were blue and fingers were numb. Finally, with much trepidation on my part, we began our descent. This was the part I had been dreading. It was slick and incredibly steep, and I had visions of myself careening off the edge and somersaulting all 1370m down the volcano. But luckily, there were a lot of trees, roots, and rocks to grab onto, so it wasn’t quite as technically difficult as I had feared. What I hadn’t expected was the complete and total annihilation of my legs. Have any of you ever seen that video footage of one of the Ironman races where professional athlete Chris Legh had gone over his limit and was wobbling—no, flailing—, hurling himself toward the finish-line on his legs rendered non-functional? That’s how I felt and looked. Really, check out the link. It also reminded me of this game we used to play in grade school: somebody would get on either side of you and hold your arms really tight against your body while at the same time you tried to push your arms out. Then all of a sudden, your friends would let go and your arms would just float up, like magic, like you had no control over them whatsoever. That’s exactly how my legs were. Eventually I had to stop and rest every 5 minutes because my legs were shaking so badly that they wouldn’t hold me up. Needless to say (sorry for using that phrase, Amy), the descent took us a loooong time. Whereas we had energetically bounded up the volcano way ahead of the struggling English couple, they surpassed us on the way down as a result of my lame legs. Our guide Randol was really helpful: in a couple of really steep sections he somehow braced me so that I wouldn’t go sliding down the mountain, and he even offered to carry my bag and hold my hand. But I summoned my pride and gritted my teeth, determined not to let this mountain own me. Despite the fact that I had virtually no control of my legs, I managed to fall only twice. Neither of which was off a ravine and both of which I landed on my rear end—which has considerable more padding than my beautiful teeth.

During my numerous rest breaks, we had a chance to enjoy some of the scenery that had been covered in clouds while on the way up. My favorite is this fabulous view of the isthmus, Lake Nicaragua, and Volcan Concepción. We also encountered two groups of howler monkeys on the way down, and I was all too eager to sit there for a while and watch them.

Volcano monkeys:

Finally, finally we made it back. It was an unceremonious ending, but I was jubilant to see the Hacienda and have some water. After showering and resting a bit, we ate dinner—which was fantastic but probably would have tasted fantastic no matter what it was, under the circumstances. Just as we came back into the room, a large black, hairy creature scuttled across the floor and under the bed. Tarantula. The size of my palm. I screamed and screamed again. Rob got a flashlight and a machete; I ran out of the room, still screaming. Alejandra came with a broom for help, and told us not to kill it—we’d just sweep it out of the room. Like I said, my no-kill policy goes out the window when it comes to spiders. I wanted that sucker dead. So for the second time in a week, my machete was used to end the life of a tarantula. What is the deal?! None in 6 months and now 2 in one week. Do these things have a season or something? Does anyone out there know anything I can do to deter these creatures from my immediate environs?! Instead of basking in the glow of the volcano hike, I am trying not to puke up that fantastic dinner. I am wondering, how I in the world am I going to sleep on a bed that may still have some tarantula guts underneath. And should I see one again, will my rubbery, Gumby legs allow me to high-tail it out of here fast enough? At the very least, I think I’m going to have to sleep with the light on tonight.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 23, 2007

On the Eve of the Volcano Climb

First of all: Happy Birthday, Dad! I’m glad we got to chat a little bit today, but am sorry I couldn’t be there.

Rob and I have made arrangements to climb Volcan Maderas tomorrow. To be quite honest, I am terrified of climbing the volcano, but it is something I feel I have to do. Tourists in much worse condition than I am climb the volcano all the time, so I’m not sure why I’m so terrified of it. I think it has to do with Professor Pablo and the horror stories he told me and how back when he was telling me these horror stories, I vowed that I would never climb the volcano. Its just so tall and so steep. It will be like running 2 marathons back to back, and I’ve never been able to go a step beyond just one marathon. But still. I feel like I cannot live on this volcano for a year and not climb it. Way back when we arrived, Simeon told me that February was the best month to climb. About 99% of the days its completely covered in clouds, so you can’t see anything when you get to the top. But I guess in February, there is slightly more of a chance of having clear weather. So we’ll see. I’ve seriously planned my whole research schedule around allowing time to climb the volcano in February. All along, I’d imagined that Simeon would be our guide (you need a guide to do the climb, and being a volcano guide is Simeon’s real job); however, Simeon is currently out of commission. Apparently he got sick and recently had surgery at the hospital on the mainland. He’s back on the island now: Rob saw him chatting with neighbors in the road and lifting his shirt to show off a huge scar across his belly. But he’s not quite up to climbing the volcano just yet. So we’ve signed on with a different guide and we’re getting ready for the big hike tomorrow. Every time I glanced up at the volcano today I got queasy just seeing its height. Right now I feel kind of like how I do the night before a marathon, only multiplied by a factor of 100. I am hoping for sure-footedness tomorrow and a clear sky when we get to the top. But I know that the summit is likely to be covered in clouds, so I am reminding myself of that summer I worked for Dr. Joy and how she always said, “Its about the journey.”

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Along came a Pica Caballo

Number of ticks removed to date: 22
Number of days tick-free: 13 (maybe tick season is finally over??)

Rob and I were eating dinner by the light of the crescent moon at a table outside our room when we saw a dark shape moving along the ground. Tarantula. The first one I’ve seen around the Hacienda. And while it was not huge, it was larger and darker than the three or so I’ve seen in the forest. Still, no shrieking. “I’m amazed at how calm you are,” Rob said as we studied it. Clearly, he remembers the days when I couldn’t even touch my Animal Behavior textbook because there was a picture of a spider inside.

One of the guys who works as a volcano guide was walking by, and we gestured to the arthropod. He shone his flashlight on it and stood looking at it for several long moments. I asked him (in Spanish), “This is not dangerous, is it?” He looked at me earnestly and assured me that yes, it was dangerous. He said that if it bit your thumb, you would lose the thumb. I know I wasn’t confused by the Spanish because he used gestures to illustrate the point. He went on to say that if a horse got bitten by one of these on its foot, the horse’s entire leg would become immobile. My throat tightened. “This is a pica caballo?” The fabled horse-biting tarantula that almost made me reconsider doing fieldwork in Nicaragua. “Si, si, es un pica caballo,” he assured me. He said that we should kill it. Speaking over the lump in my throat, I told him that I had a machete in my room and he said that would be good. I usually have a no-kill policy concerning wild animals, but when it comes to spiders, that flies out the window. I thought of the time that Pablo (my professor, not the grad student) told me he found a fer-de-lance (poisonous snake) on the trail in Costa Rica and although he normally wouldn’t have killed it, he did so because he didn’t want it to bite any of the students who would be coming through later. I thought maybe this was a similar situation. The offending arachnid was really close to the rooms (ours included), and I wouldn’t want someone to lose their thumb or worse. So I handed over my machete and the deed was done. One less pica caballo in this world to worry about; how many others are out there? I feel like I need to wear a full suit of armor when I go to sleep tonight.

Local people generally know what they’re talking about when it comes to the flora and fauna around here, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe (or doesn’t want to believe?) that this thing was actually a pica caballo. All the pictures of pica caballos on the internet show them as being much larger and much hairier than the thing we saw. If only my entomologist sister-in-law had been visiting, she could probably have told me exactly what it was.

At any rate, I’m exhausted after a 14-hour work day that even included the Toughness Tester, so I’ve got to sign off and get some sleep soon. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


It was a long, hot week out in the forest. This is the height of the dry season, and there’s not a cloud in sight. I thought it was hot before, but this, this is hot. By about 2pm I swear I can boil tea with the water in my bottle.

After making it through such a long, hard week, I decided that what I wanted to do yesterday was go see Finca Magdalena in Balgüe. Balgüe is a town on the other side of Volcan Maderas from us, about 9km away. I’ve run there before, but a sightseeing trip would necessitate traveling there by bike or bus. And since we’re the Ragfields, you know that means bike. And there’s probably nothing that terrifies me more than riding a bike on these hilly roads comprised in some places entirely of jagged rocks. I managed the ride only falling off the bike twice and sustaining no serious injuries.

We stopped first at a place called Zopilote, where a sign advertises that they sell local handi-crafts. There were no handi-crafts, just a few loaves of bread, a cucumber, and some tahini (how can that be local?). A English tourist staying there, who was nice enough, tried to sell me some bracelets he was making, but I kept thinking that if I wanted English-made handi-crafts, I would go to England. There was a nice lookout point at Zopilote, so we climbed up to that (see pictures below). It’s a cool view; Balgüe is roughly opposite of Merida, so you’re seeing the other side of the volcano in these photos. Zopilote advertised that they had hummus, but we never found anyone to buy it from, so eventually we got frustrated and headed on to Finca Magdalena.

Concepción, not erupting today:

The other side of Maderas:

Panorama from the viewpoint:

Melissa and Rob at the viewpoint

For some time I had wanted to visit Magdalena. The guide books make it sound amazing, plus, it is the farm where they produce the shade-grown, fair trade, organic, bird friendly coffee that I order online when in the US. If any of you have received coffee from me for birthdays, Christmas, etc, this is where it comes from.

The Finca was about 1.5 or 2km straight up the volcano; I’d imagined that we would be walking our bikes up this dirt path to the Finca, but no—we’re the Ragfields—we rode. Well, Rob rode and I rode most of the way except for the end when it got really steep and rocky. To be quite honest, the Finca was a big let-down. There were a bunch of dred-locked, loud, chain-smoking tourists running about, which was a far cry from the peace and tranquility that the guide books indicated. Plus, none of the cool things such as viewing petroglyphs and seeing the organic farm could be done without having had reserved a guide in advance. Plus, it was hot, hot, hot, hot. Did I mention it was hot?

We ordered lunch, which turned out to be the worst food I’ve eaten in my entire life (and I eat things that I find on the forest floor). We got what seemed to be the only vegetarian item on the menu: spaghetti. It was mushy noodles covered in, not sauce, but a medley of boiled vegetables including carrots, celery and potatoes. You know, the tasteless kind you get in a can and that they serve in cafeterias. The kind that has had any redeeming nutritional value leeched right out of them. But what made the meal so bad was that they had poured at least 2 cups of corn oil over the entire thing. And the salad was not much better. Cabbage with a little bit of onion and cucumber, also doused in oil. They had good lemonade though.

We wandered around a bit after lunch, but really I was just stalling due to my fear of riding the bike back home. Especially of the long 2km down the volcano back to the main road. We didn’t really see anything interesting, so finally we headed out. Because I’d had a couple of close calls on the way over, I would jump off the bike and walk it at any sign of treachery. My doing this caused the trip to take twice as long as it should have. The heat, the exertion, my thirst, and all that corn oil sloshing around in my stomach made me enter the Ugly Zone. I get this way sometimes on long runs or bike rides. Its when everything sucks and you hate it all. When we finally pulled in home, I was still mad and thinking about what a waste of time and energy this trip had been. But Rob looked at me, with that little smile on his face, and said, “That was fun!”

Must sign off for now; we have so many dirty clothes to wash that this is going to be Melissa and Rob’s Day of Laundry. Thanks for reading. Comments and support are always welcome; I am thinking of you all at home who are still snowed in from the Great Blizzard of 2007.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Volcán Concepción

I forgot to mention, Volcán Concepción erupted the other day. It happened on February 9 around 11:00am. Over here on Volcán Maderas, we didn't even know about it, but I guess I can add this to my list of interesting life experiences. A tourist by the name of Emanuel Sferios took this picture:

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Melissa and Rob: Day of Fun

First of all, thanks everybody for your encouraging emails and comments on the blog; that has really helped me a lot. I will get back to replying to you all but it may take me a while!

Anyway, Rodolfo was here the other night and told us that there was an all-stars baseball game in San Ramon this weekend (baseball is big here, ever since some branch of the US armed forces introduced the game at some point when they were either trying to destroy or help this country, I can’t remember which). Rob and I rode over there to see the game today, but we got there before it started, so I suggested we ride on to Tichana, the next town over. I’d never been that far and considering how scared I am of riding on these roads (more on that later), I figured I might never be up for doing this again. So we kept going on some gi-normous hills—I walked the bike on most of these. We saw the property that our friends Doug-las and Tax’a bought over there, and I was content to turn around, but Rob said there was a really pretty viewpoint just another kilometer ahead. So we went; it was pretty nice. Here are a few photos:

And then on the way back, Rob snapped a picture of the road. This is why I am terrified of riding a bike here:

As we cruised back in to San Ramon, the baseball game was in full swing and also, Rob got a flat tire on his bike. Luckily there is a “bike shop” in town. Its really just somebody’s house. We pulled in and 4 small boys set to work on the tire (there were no adults around). We asked what the charge was and they said 6 cordobas—that is something like 30 cents. We gave them 10 and told them to keep the change; they seemed pretty happy.

We hadn’t brought enough water with us, since we’d only planned on going to San Ramon and back, so then we stopped at Chico’s pulperia for some juice. Chico’s is the place where I used to hang out when I was here alone for my pilot study, and Chico himself is a good friend of my quasi-dissertation advisor, Pablo.

After refreshing with some juice, we watched the baseball game for a while. It sort of reminded me of the rodeo I saw in October; that is, it seemed deeply confusing and disorganized. The players were all wearing uniforms, but none of the uniforms were the same so I didn’t know who was on what team (I guess perhaps this is because it was an “all stars” game). And every once and a while, some of the spectators would just ride their bikes through the field, not during a time out (do they even have time outs in baseball?) or anything. But Rob seemed to be making sense of it. He would say things like, “Hey, that guy just made a double play” or “He just hit a pop-fly.” I was surprised that Rob knew so much about baseball; he must have been paying attention all those years at his brother’s games. Rob also revealed to me that from the ages of 10-14 he was the “official scorekeeper” for the little league. So I guess he knows a whole lot about baseball.

At any rate, I’ve got to go wash some clothes (see post below for how this is done); thanks for reading.

How I do laundry

Because Amy’s sister wanted to know how I do laundry, here is a photo. Its a concrete washboard and basin, and it really isn’t as fun as my expression indicates. Although actually, now that I’ve got the hang of it, I kind of wish I could have something like this when I go back to the US.

The other day while I was doing laundry, Daraysi (one of the girls who works here) came up to me and asked me how we do laundry in the US. I told her we had machines and she laughed, like that was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Staking Their Claim

Number of Ticks Removed: 22
Days Tick Free: 1

Its been a tough week.

By 6:30 on Monday morning, the North Group had moved into a fruiting ficus tree in the South Group's home range. They behaved like they like they were homestead squatters, staking their claim. They stayed in that tree the entire day without budging. Yes, the same tree. All day. They seemed to be afraid that if they moved, the South Group would run in and eat all the figs. And with good reason. The South group had them flanked, and they were howling as they hungrily eyed the ficus. But they had no luck. Wrinkle Belly and the rest of the North group had claimed those figs as their own.

It was an interesting day, but the action was-- in typical howler fashion-- quite subtle. The sun was blisteringly hot and I had such a headache that I thought I might puke. But I knew I needed to power through. Minute by minute, the day was boring, but the implications of this territorial dispute over figs were profound. Or at least that's what I would somehow try to say in my dissertation.

Out in the forest, I have plenty of time to think, and more and more I've been thinking about how I'm now halfway done collecting data, and I have no idea what I'm going to say in my dissertation. Marginally functioning toughness tester aside, I certainly can't answer the questions I came here to answer. At this point, I feel like I can't answer any questions, and I will go back with absolutely nothing new to say about howler monkeys. This worry quickly transforms into an even greater worry, which is that I'll never be able to get a job at the end of this (I've been on the job search committee, I've seen what it takes). And from there my ever-present concern is that even if I do manage to get a job, the stress of it will likely drive me to a conniption before I'm up for tenure review.

So this was my dismal mind-set on Tuesday evening when I realized that something had happened to my data file from Monday and all my data had been erased. Even Rob couldn't do anything about it. Neither of us knows what happened; my data are just gone. Since October, I’ve been recording my data with a hand-held iPaq (like a palm pilot)-- using software that Rob wrote expressly for this purpose-- and then I beam it to my computer every night. So far, this is the first problem I’ve encountered with the iPaq. Its not as bad as it could be—if I were recording everything by hand and something happened to one of my notebooks I could lose weeks of work. This was just one day. But still.

There was really nothing to do except get back on the horse and go to the forest on Wednesday morning. It ended up being a pretty good day. They dropped some Albizia leaves, and when I came home I used the toughness tester on them. I thought if I got weird values that would probably drive me over the edge, but my values were actually in-line with previous tests of that specious. I breathed a sigh of relief and entertained the tiniest iota of a possibility that the damn machine might actually work.

Thursday morning I was back at it again and had a really interesting day following Wrinkle Belly's every move. He ate some really crazy foods, including uripe mango and unripe avacado. Just as it was coming up on 4pm, I was following WB across a rock wall (incidentally, in the heart of the South group's range) when I somehow crashed into a rock and crushed the iPaq to smithereens (see photo at right). The screen was all black and nothing would happen when I pressed the buttons. Talk about freaking out. And just when my great day with Wrinkle Belly had begun to take away the sting of Monday's lost data. I gathered my things and ran down the volcano. Literally. I was surprised at how agile I could be in a time of crisis. Of course, getting home sooner wasn't going to save my data if it was lost, but I had to know.

Miraculously, Rob hooked the thing up to a bunch of cords and extracted the day's data. It was all there, everything. I had destroyed the device, but my data were intact. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

A huge part of me wanted to take today off, but in the end, I decided to come out for one more day before taking a rest. In fact, I've written this whole thing in the forest while the monkeys were napping. We have an extra iPaq and a more durable case, which I don't like as well but under the circumstances am learning to love.

I've heard that its been a rough week for a lot of my friends and family back at home, too. Just so you know, I am thinking of all of you and wishing you the best. As for myself, if any of you could think of alternate dissertation topics, job prospects, or general words of encouragement, I could really use some of that. For now, I need to get back to my enthralling observations of nap-time with the South group monkeys, who still have yesterday's Nispero plastered all over their faces. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Of all the things to take my mind off the wasp sting

First of all: moms, everything and everyone is okay, so no freaking out, please.

Yesterday at breakfast, Rob announced that he was going to ride his bike around the island—a 7 or 8 hour endeavor. To amuse myself while he was away, I went for a run. When I got to my 5K turnaround point, I just kept going. I got to the fork in the road at Santa Cruz, and just kept going too. I turned right and headed up in the direction of Balgüe. It was so cool; I’ve never ever been on this road before. Balgüe is almost exactly across the volcano from us, so you are looking at the mountain from the other side. The view was amazingly beautiful. Maderas was on my right, and Concepción and the lake were on my left. I couldn’t take my eyes off the volcano, since I’d never seen it from this angle before. I reached the school in Balgüe, probably about 9K from here, and although I felt great, but I knew I should head back. If only I’d thought to bring money with me, I could have stopped at a pulperia for something to drink, but alas. I still felt great until about 3K to go—it was then that I became painfully aware of how hot and thirsty I was and how much my legs ached. But still, no major troubles. I made it back to the Hacienda where I had cool water waiting. All in all it was a great run: I explored previously uncharted territory, no dogs chased me, and only 2 guys said “Adíossssss, amorrrrrrr” (and both of them were more polite than smarmy).

Before I knew it, Rob was riding in back home. He was covered in grime and his voice was hoarse, but he seemed okay. He showered and I made him some Gatorade while he was resting. After an hour or so, he had drank only 2 sips, and he told me he felt “weird” and also “cold.” This was not a good sign, as it was probably 90 degrees in our room and I was sweltering. His electrolytes must be off, so I knew I had to get him re-hydrated and balanced. Back when I was sick in August, the German doctor gave me Coca-Cola, because of its sugar and salt content. I know the stuff is poison, but I swear it brought me back to life. When Rob agreed to try a Coke, I knew he must be bad (he swore off the stuff when he was like, 15). But the Coca-Cola didn’t help, and the puking began. He was miserable, and I was desperate. I found some suero packets (rehydration salts) leftover from our sickness in August. The stuff tastes horrible, and he was having a really hard time choking it down. But both of us knew we could not let this get bad enough that he needed an IV at the hospital. So milliliter by milliliter, he slurped the suero. At dinnertime it didn’t even occur to me to go up to the kitchen, but after a while, Esther (bless her heart) came to the room to ask me if she could bring me something. Eating was the last thing I wanted to do, but I finally decided that if we did end up at the hospital, it might be a long time before I would have food again. Plus I’d run almost 18K that day. So I had a little bit of rice and beans and kept coaxing Rob to drink his suero.

It must have helped, because he stopped puking and we both fell asleep. About 4 this morning, he woke up thirsty, and I crept up to the kitchen to fix a cold glass of water with a little lemon and sugar in it (another trick the German doctor taught me). Sandino was in there making bread and offered his condolences to Rob. They have this great little device, sort of like a garlic press, to squeeze the juice out of the lemons (the lemons here are really small, like globe grapes). I took the drink back to Rob and he drank it down and kept it down. We fell back asleep, and when we woke up at breakfast time, he said that he felt better and was hungry. Hallelujah. Gracias a Diosa. He had some bananas and orange juice. He is tired now but is on his way back to normal. At the moment, he is munching on jalepeño tortilla chips (of all things) and drinking more lemon water. My feeling is that if he is hungry for jalepeño chips, the danger must have passed. Plus, we tested his blood sugar in the midst of this, and it was normal. I am just so thankful that he was able to choke down enough of that suero to avoid a trip to the hospital. Because honestly, I’m not sure how we would have gotten there. I need to make sure we always have some of that suero, as foul as it is, on hand. The thing about Rob is that I have always felt comfortable in his ability to know his own limitations. He usually has this keen sense to know when enough is enough, and to stop pushing himself before he’s gone too far. But I guess in the tropics sometimes the system sometimes breaks down. I hope he thinks twice before trying to ride around the island again. Actually, I hope he does not do that again, but I know better.

At any rate, Rob’s crisis was enough to make me completely disregard my wasp sting. Only now have I noticed how much of a mess my arm is, but in the scheme of things, it seems inconsequential. Some ice and benedryl, and I’ll be okay. Plus, Rob and I noticed that the Indigo Girls released a new album this fall, so we used our iTunes gift certificate from Michelle and Mark to buy it. So today we’re just going to rest, recover, and listen to some mellow music. Sorry for the long post, and thanks for reading.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Big Event

I couldn’t think of what to title this post, but hopefully this will make sense as you read.

This morning I followed the South Group up to Níspero trees they love so well. When we arrived, there was another group or two already up there. The monkeys stayed pretty tranquilo though; just a few howls and everybody settled down to eat. Even with two or three groups up there, I’m not sure they have much to howl about anyway. There are at least 5 fruiting Níspero trees in the vicinity, so it seemed like there was enough for everyone.

In the afternoon, I followed some monkeys in an area where there was not a trail. As I hacked my way through vines and thorns, suddenly I heard buzzing all around me and could see only yellow and black. Then there was a sharp pain in my arm, sort of like getting a tetanus shot. I screamed and tried frantically to get away but was hampered by the vines. Finally I got away from all that buzzing and miraculously had gotten only one sting. I put on some “Sting-Eze” stuff designed for this purpose and hoped for the best.

As I was recovering from this encounter, I heard some strange noises that sounded sort of like birds and then all of a sudden, I saw the weirdest looking monkeys I had ever seen. For a split second I thought it was some kind of albino howler monkey, and then I realized they were capuchins! These are the monkeys with black bodies and white faces—the only other non-human primate species that lives on Ometepe. All the times that I have been here, I have never, ever seen wild capuchins. This was the big one. The big event. I was speechless. I forgot all about my wasp or whatever sting.

The capuchins had apparently come in for Níspero fruit as well. So in addition to the 2+ groups of howlers, a group of capuchins was now vying for it. The howlers didn’t seem too happy about having the capuchins on the scene, but they also seemed unwilling to get up from their afternoon nap to do anything about it. There was some weak howling and a bit of movement, but nothing like the pandemonium I might have expected. Regardless, the capuchins were extremely skittish. I think they were probably pretty freaked out by me; unlike the howlers, capuchins don’t see people as often and they definitely weren’t habituated. They did not hang around long: they retreated back from where they came, and in the end and I’m not sure that they got a whole lot of the Níspero fruit. Even so, it made my day.

Later on, I also saw an iguana, but under the circumstances, the capuchins made this day more memorable.

Okay, I need to sign off. Here's a picture of a capuchin that Rob took last weekend from Monkey Island; unfortunately I didn’t have the camera with me today. Oh, and by the way, my sting isn’t too bad. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

100% All Natural Chewing Gum

Number of Ticks Removed: 17
Days Tick Free: 2

This morning the monkeys were howling at the top of their lungs over four fruiting Níspero trees. I’m not sure how many groups were vying for the fruit, but it seemed like there were about a ka-jillion monkeys up there. They were eating and eating this stuff, and their faces were all covered in food. I’d tasted the fruit when I was out there the other day and it was actually really good. In fact, people around here eat it all the time. So today I saw some fruits fall out of the tree, and I picked them up and began snacking. The fruit is sweet but very stringy and chewy. As I was snacking and looking up at the monkeys, I realized that I had been chewing a really long time. I spit out the wad of fruit and there on the forest floor was not fruit pulp but chewing gum. Yes, chewing gum. Níspero is in the genus Manilkara; I’m not sure if its Manilkara chicle or Manilkara zapota but either way, its the stuff that chewing gum is made of (ie, chicle=chiclets). Well, I suppose they actually chemically manufacture chewing gum now-a-days, but at one point, it was made from this stuff. I knew all this as I was eating the fruit, I just didn’t think it was as simple as chewing that sweet, stringy fruit until it just magically turned into gum. Somehow, I thought it would be more of a process.

At any rate, after sampling some of the fruit myself, I have a better understanding of why the monkeys get food faces when they’re eating it. The juice of the fruit is extremely sticky, and when it dries it feels like, well, chewing gum. Like if you are chewing gum and you blow a bubble and it pops and gets on your face. So as the monkeys eat this fruit, they get the juices all over their furry little mouths. Then it dries and essentially, the monkeys have sticky gum all over their faces! I wonder how they ever get it off? For me it took a lot scrubbing.

I haven’t had much in the way in visual aids lately on the blog, so I’ll post a picture of the Níspero fruits (with a quarter, for scale). That's just the outside; the real fruit is on the inside but I don't have a picture of that. If there are any plant knowledgeable people reading and you know which of the Manilkara species this is, please do let me know.

Thanks for reading!