Friday, June 29, 2007

The best 50 córdobas I've ever spent

Last night was some kind of “parent-teacher conference” for the kids who are taking English classes here. I got to meet Eduardo’s mom, and she is so sweet. No wonder Eduardo is such a good little boy.

A plant chemistry professor (who I’ve met before when he was teaching a class here) also showed up again last night. He's on his way to the herbarium in Léon and he said if I needed some plants identified, he could take my samples with him. That is a really great offer—actually, it would be a huge help to me. There are a few trees out in the forest that the monkeys like to eat from, but no one (including botany students) has been able to tell me what they are. So I decided to undertake an expedition to collect samples of these trees today. I knew I needed someone who could help me cut down samples, but last night when the professor arrived, it was kind of late to arrange a helper for such an expedition. I talked to Conny, a girl who works here, and she said she would make some calls and find someone for me. Sure enough, early this morning, a guy named Pedro showed up and said he could do the work. So Pedro and I went to the forest, gathering samples of some of these mystery trees. His tree-climbing ability amazed me. Several times he shimmied up trees and tightrope-walked out on branches to cut down a sample. I actually had to look away because it made me so nervous. He is only 18 years old, but he knows a fair amount about the forest, and it was really helpful to talk to him. When we were done with the work, I gave him 50 córdobas (a little bit more than $2.50), which was actually more than the amount I initially said I’d pay him. He seemed pretty happy with it, and I am hoping that this is the best 50 córdobas I’ve ever spent. If I can get those plant samples to Léon (without taking time out do to so myself) and they can identify them, my dissertation will be ever so much more scientific.

Rob and I will be heading out to Costa Rica tomorrow because I need to leave the country and re-enter for visa purposes. I’m not sure where all we’re going or what all we will be doing, but I will try to take pictures and write about our adventures when we return.

One more thing: good news, Rob and I finally found a place to live when we return to the U.S. None of this would have been accomplished without the Scho’s, who are the best in-laws ever! Thanks so much for all your help in finding us a home sweet home.

And this is the last thing, I promise. Birthdays of friends and family have been numerous this past week. So far we’ve had the birthdays of Cousin Tommy, Uncle Jim, Nana, Rob’s brother Travis, and tomorrow… its Little Miss Claire’s. A Happy Birthday to all!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lucy's Leap

A tourist who’s been staying here for a while told me that my blog is the number one hit if you Google “Moyogalpa” and “ATM.” Ah, the not-so fond-memories of wretching on that infamous ferry ride.

Yesterday (Monday) I was back out in the forest and had a pretty good day, all things considered. Today (Tuesday) was much more challenging, but if I can just make it through tomorrow (Wednesday), I’ll be done with data this month.

When I got home today, Lucy the Squirrel was perched outside our room and she was chattering loudly. I was really happy to see her again because it had been a while. She could barely contain her excitement as I came into the room to get some cookies to share with her. Rob was out on a bike ride, but when he got home he told me that Lucy had been chattering beside our room all day. He said that when he left for his bike ride, Lucy leapt onto his leg and clung to him. I guess he didn’t like that too much, but I’m sure Lucy didn’t mean any harm. One time while I was walking through town, I’m pretty sure I saw her riding on a little boy’s shoulder.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading. And thanks to all for your emails and comments!

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Trip

Warning: this is a loooooong one

Saturday 16 June - Tuesday 19 June
The Trip, Part 1: A Lesson in Staying Calm

I had no problem getting to Managua to meet Rob last Saturday; the chicken buses here are remarkably efficient. Rob’s plane was delayed but only by an hour or so; when he finally got in, we stayed up late talking and eating M&M’s he had brought from home.

Andy and Kim’s plane was to arrive in Managua at 11:00 on Sunday morning; we had a whole list of places we wanted to take them and things we wanted to show them. Unfortunately, their flight was delayed or cancelled or something, and we found out they weren’t due in until 6:50 that night. So, Rob and I decided to have a day of fun riding chicken buses. For about 8 cents, we took a bus from the hotel we’d stayed at to the big Managua bus station (Huembes), and from there, we hopped on another standing-room-only bus (about 48 cents) to the nearby town of Masaya. We strolled around and went to the artisan markets again, where I browsed and shopped to my heart’s content. We also had a piece of chocolate cake from Norma’s Bakery—the bakery that is apparently so good it has to have an armed police officer guarding it. In the late afternoon, we headed back to the airport and found out that Andy and Kim’s plane had been delayed again. They finally ended arriving at 8:50pm; unfortunately, none of their checked luggage arrived.

To make a long story short, I learned a lesson in calmness and patience from my brother- and sister-in-law. Although they had been traveling for some 17 hours and ended up arriving at their destination 10 hours late with only the clothes on their backs, they both seemed as fresh as daisies and never uttered one word of complaint. Andy had made arrangements to rent a car; however, the rental place closed at 8:30. Luckily, Rob realized this and took care of it so that we had a car (a truck actually) and thus a non-chicken bus way to get to Granada, where we had a hotel reserved for the night. The original plan had been to stay in Granada on Sunday night and then take the ferry to Ometepe on Monday morning. I thought that Andy and Kim might want to change that a bit, in order to stay near Managua to get back to the airport and pick up their luggage when and if it arrived. But they decided to power through and stick with the plan—they had such little time in Nicaragua and did not want to spend it all waiting around in the Managua airport.

So Rob revved up the truck and we all drove to Granada. It was the first time Rob had driven in Nicaragua, and I will definitely say that he was quite good at it. After arriving at the hotel in Granada and having a scant few hours of sleep, we all got up bright and early on Monday morning to wander the town, have breakfast, and buy a few supplies for Andy and Kim. Then we drove from Granada to San Jorge, where we would take the ferry to Ometepe.

It was a bit of an experience driving the truck onto the boat, but Rob did it well. Andy and Kim and I just sort of stared on in awe as Rob maneuvered the giant vehicle onto the ferry.

At last, we arrived on Ometepe. On our way from the dock to our place in Mérida, we made a few stops at some scenic points. One place we went was the Punta Jésus Maria, which is some kind of really long sandbar jutting way, way out into Lake Nicaragua. We walked for what seemed like forever on this skinny strip of land surrounded by water. It was nice enough, but what would have been a stunning view of the volcanoes was obscured by thick clouds.

We drove on and finally arrived in Mérida. At last, some of our family was actually going to see this place where we’ve been living for almost a year! Andy and Kim got to meet some of the staff who were working, and luckily the cloudy sky cleared up just enough to offer up a lovely Ometepe sunset.

Again, I thought that Andy and Kim might want to relax or sleep in, but they were undeterred by all the airline mishaps and determined to make the most of their trip to Nicaragua. They wanted to get up at 6:00am the next morning to see my forest, so that’s what we did. Luckily, the North Group was foraging low on the Camino, so Andy and Kim got to see the monkeys. I was ecstatic because Wrinkle Belly was there in all his wrinkled glory and they got to meet him too.

Guess who!! Everyone's favorite monkey.

I think Kimberly was in her element out in the forest. She is an entomologist, specializing in ants, and there were plenty of insects for her to admire. I think she and I could have been content to romp around the forest looking at bugs and monkeys for many an hour; we’re not sure that Rob and Andy like it out in nature so much. Kimberly got to check out those wicked Acacia trees, armed with their nasty little fire ants, and it was not difficult at all for me to find plenty of those red, black and yellow spiders I’ve been complaining about. As luck would have it, many of these spiders appear to have reached their adult size and coloration in the 3 days I was away from the forest. Kimberly’s expert opinion was that they did not seem to be dangerous; nonetheless, I still do not like them. Rob took some really good close-ups of the spiders, but out of consideration of Jodi, I will not post them here.

After a couple hours out in the forest, we returned to the Hacienda. Little Eduardo was here, just finished with his English lesson, and joined us for breakfast. He used his new English-speaking skills to introduce himself to both Kim and Andy, saying, “Good morning, my name is Eduardo. How are you?” Precious. Oh how I wish it were legal or advisable to take him home with me.

After breakfast, it was time to move on. We were scheduled to leave Ometepe for Part 2 of The Trip: San Juan del Sur.

Tuesday 19 June - Thursday 21 June
The Trip, Part Two: A different Nicaragua

Tuesday morning after breakfast, we all piled into the rental truck again and drove back to Moyogalpa to get on the ferry. We had time to make a brief stop at the beach in Santo Domingo, so Kim and Andy got to see that. After our boat ride back to the mainland and a fairly disgusting lunch in Rivas (Rob and I have never actually found anything decent to eat there), we were on the road again to the beach town of San Juan del Sur. San Juan is one of those places that can either seem really ritzy or really grungy, depending on where you stay. Andy and Kim had arranged for a fancy hotel up on the bluff called Pelican Eyes. I’m surprised that a place like that even let riff-raff like the Ragfields step foot in it. It was so big that they had to give us a map at the reception desk. There were 3 different swimming pools in the compound (swimming pools!), plus a zoo, and our room (a 4-person suite, actually) came equipped with a kitchenette and cable TV. My head was spinning. I’ve been here so long that warm water is about as luxurious as I can imagine. This was definitely a different Nicaragua. I kept thinking of Eduardo or Dalila, who works in the kitchen at the Hacienda—what would they think of a place like this? It seemed like such a strange juxtaposition to have a countryside lined with falling-apart ramshackle huts and people living on one dollar a day; then such a fancy resort like this.

All fanciness aside, even Pelican Eyes was not immune to the city-wide blackout that lasted most of the night. We’d been out on the street at some souvenir shops and didn’t realize that the power was out in the city until it started getting dark. We stumbled around the pitch-black town trying to find a place to eat dinner; I’m not really sure what I ended up eating because I couldn’t see it, but it had jalepeños in it and was quite good. We scaled the treacherous hill up the bluff back to Pelican Eyes and then fumbled around the room trying to locate the candles and matches on the nightstand. Before, I’d thought that was probably just supposed to be a romantic touch, now I realized it was a necessity for the frequent and prolonged power outages that are so much more common on mainland Nicaragua than on the island. No sooner had we gotten the candles burning than the generator kicked in, so we had power once again.

Wednesday morning we cashed in on our complimentary breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants. The breakfast was as fancy as the hotel itself. We all got fruit plates, muffins, juice and coffee—that was before our actual meal. I wish I’d saved more room for my breakfast of granola, honey, and yogurt. Before we checked out, we took a quick dip in one of the hotel pools.

When Rob and I had gone to San Juan del Sur back in November, we’d rented bikes and tried to ride to some of the many other beaches along the coast. Unfortunately, there were some bike mishaps and we never made it. This time we had a car, so the four of us set out to try to find some of these supposedly beautiful beaches. We drove and drove, only winding deeper into the green Nicaraguan country-side and never finding any roads leading to a beach. We finally ended up turning around and driving back to San Juan del Sur. By this point, I was somewhat desperate for the ocean (as those of you who know my obsession with the ocean can imagine). The day before, I’d dipped my feet into the water, but that was it. So when we arrived back at the shore, I made a bee-line to the water and ran right in. The water was freezing; does the Pacific ever get warm, anywhere? I didn’t care about the frigid temperature; I soaked up all the salty loveliness of the ocean that I could because all too soon we had to go.

We drove back to San Jorge so that Rob and I could catch the 3:30 ferry and return to the island. Kim and Andy would be heading back to Granada for the evening and flying back home the next morning. It was sad saying goodbye to Kim and Andy; we’d had such a good time and packed in so many activities. Hopefully they have many memories of Nicaragua. I’m glad they got a chance to see the rural countryside where we live as well as the richness of a place like Pelican Eyes.

Rob and I have been incommunicado since we’ve been back; the internet isn’t working and there is no sign of when we may have service available again. So as I write, I’m not sure when I’m actually going to get to post this; hopefully it won’t be too long before we’re back online. At any rate, a million thanks to Kim and Andy for coming to visit us. I hope that both of you enjoyed your trip as much as we did. If anyone else is considering a visit, make it fast—we’ve only got less than 2 months left now! Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 15, 2007

You have many beautiful things

Number of ticks removed: 54
Days tick-free: 0

I feel like all I’ve been doing lately is complaining, and that is not how I want this to be. I keep reminding myself of what this little boy Eduardo said the other day. Eduardo is one of the local children who is part of a project where he works here 1 day a week and attends an hour of English lessons Monday through Friday. One day as he was sweeping the porch, Eduardo peered into our room and said, in an awed tone, “Tiene muchas cosas bonitas.” Roughly translated as, “You have many beautiful things.” Its true, I do have many beautiful things. Not just the things sitting on the shelves, other things that you can’t see. Such as a year on this beautiful island, plus friends and family back at home who will be there when we return. So I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining too much—I do know that I have many beautiful things.

On Tuesday I stayed in with the toughness tester in the morning, and in the afternoon I biked over to the beach at Santa Cruz. I think I needed that, to renew my faith in the island. With the road repaired, its a 25 minute ride through volcanic beauty. At the beach, I found that the shore was lined with thousands and thousands of teeny tiny frogs. They were seriously small, only about the size of this line: |___|. Seeing them served as a reminder that even though the lake looks like an ocean, it really is a lake.

I was back in the forest on Wednesday and Thursday. Both were extremely frustrating days, especially Thursday. In the early morning hours, we had a thunderstorm that dropped over 7 cm of rain on me, and I was soaking wet for the rest of the day. I think the monkeys get weird in the rain. They were so spread out, and it was hard to know what was going on. Finally I settled on an adult male from the South group, or so I thought. He hung out by himself all day, about 10 to 20 meters away from a small subgroup of other South monkeys. About 5 in the afternoon, he took off up the volcano. I’ve been with the South group in this area of the forest before, but I had this sinking suspicion that something crazy was going on. Most of the rest of the South group was far down below. My gut tells me that this male was not actually in the South group: either he was some kind of loner or maybe he was part of another group but he just happened to be hanging out in the South range all day. I’ll never really know, but I suppose I should re-do my observation of a South group male for this month. The thought of this was too much for me to bear yesterday—that I might as well have been at home in bed all day instead of out in the pouring rain.

Despite my possible wasted day yesterday, I just I couldn’t go out again today. All along, I’d been planning to take Friday off so I could get ready to go to Managua on Saturday and meet Rob at the airport. This morning I helped out Joel (the English teacher, who is actually French-Canadian) with the kids. Wow, if these kids manage to learn any English, it will be a miracle. The entire class was a total cacophony of all 5 students shouting and giggling at the same time, throwing back and forth their notebooks and pencils. After class, we went over to the garden to teach the kids English names for the vegetables. It was a jumbled procession of cart-wheeling kids, who were climbing all over each other, over us, and up in the Guayabo trees to pick fruits. You wouldn’t think a simple walk in the garden would be fraught with danger, but about a dozen times, Eduardo did something (like balance on a precariously thin Guayabo branch) that make my heart catch in my throat as I shouted, “Eduardo, cuidado!” Most of the kids stayed after that, and I took some pictures. Kids here are endlessly fascinated with cameras. After I had taken a few photos of them, they each wanted to take pictures of me, of each other, of themselves. The result is a lot of blurry images, but we had fun.

Meli and Professor Joel with the students. Eduardo is on the far right, next to Joel.

More pictures of the kids at the dock

Eduardo, balancing precariously over the water and making me nervous

Tomorrow I’m off to Managua to meet Rob. At long last, we’ll be having visitors too. Rob’s brother Andy and his wife Kimberly are flying in on Sunday, and we’re going to travel for a few days with them. I am definitely looking forward to this!! I will take lots of pictures of our adventures. Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Intruder alert, intruder alert

Number of Ticks Removed: 53
Days Tick Free: 0

Well, Rob got to where he was going without any major troubles, I guess. Before his bus left on Friday morning, I saw them fill it up with gas, which answers my question of how they actually do that here. There's not a gas station on this side of the island, so I am glad someone had the foresight to realize they needed fuel to make it to Moyogalpa. I was also glad to see that Rob had some friendly company on the bus. Clara, the woman who lives/works next door at the vegetable stand, was on the bus with her kids (or maybe niece and nephew?) Every evening as I walk by their place on my way home from the forest, Clara tells the kids to wave at me and say "Hola, Melissa." Cute. Here's a picture of the kids spontaneously starting to dance when somebody cranked up the music before the bus took off.

Rob ready to go

I've been working pretty hard since Rob left, but unfortunately don't have much to show for it. There are no juveniles of the right age for me to study in the North group, which certainly makes it difficult to get data on that age class. There are two older juveniles (Horace and Jess) who are already weaned, but I’ve had trouble finding them recently. On Saturday, I couldn’t find them at all, so I followed Wrinkle Belly. The day was a good one for Wrinkle Belly because he got lucky with a female twice, plus he ate tender young ficus leaves for his afternoon snack. What made the day most noteworthy, however, was that I saw a baby coral snake. So poisonous, but so beautiful. Out of the corner of my eye, I just happened to catch a brilliant flash of red, black, and yellow. It was moving so fast that I couldn’t really tell what the order of the stripes were (Red next to black, friend of Jack…), so it is possible that it may not have had that deadly red/yellow combination and was instead a mimic species. I guess we will never know!

Sunday I set out, determined to find a North group juvenile, but was unlucky yet again. It was actually a pretty wretched day. With all the rain we’ve been having, the canopy has become so dense that it is sometimes almost impossible to see anything. Picture a house with green ceilings. Now imagine that you are trying to look up through the ceiling to observe monkeys on the roof. That is what it is like. Thus, I have been having a lot of trouble staying with my focal animal and actually seeing what he/she is doing. I had thought with the rains that tick season would be over, but not so. On Sunday I removed 7, count them 7 ticks. I swear, Nicaraguan insects actually like bug repellent instead of being deterred by it.

For the second day in a row, the North group was squarely in the South group’s home range, and I really began to wonder—if the North group is in the South group’s range, then where is the South group? That brings us to today, when I resolved that come hell or high water, I would find a North juvenile. Mercifully, I encountered Jess after about a half an hour of wandering the ranks of the North group. She was foraging with her mother and a male I call Medio. As the morning progressed, I heard a bunch of howling not too far away. It quickly became apparent that the South group was close by and not happy that the North group had intruded into their range. All of a sudden, Uno (of the South group) charged from out of nowhere and chased Medio out of his tree and almost down to the ground. I was so close to the action that I actually had to dart out of the way because I thought Medio was going to fall on top of me. The other monkeys fled the confrontation as quickly as they could. Poor Medio clung to a spindly Cecropia trunk, barely 3 feet off the ground. It was clear that he was frightened: his breathing was so heavy that I could see his sides heaving. There were no other trees nearby for him to scramble up into, and he seemed too scared to actually walk on the ground. Uno stayed in the tree crown, directly above him, and Medio had nowhere to go. I stayed there watching them; at one point Medio looked at me, directly into my eyes, and I swear he had this sad little expression on his face like, “Please help me, lady.” Believe me, I would have if I could have, but in the end, I just backed away slowly to give him room to do whatever he needed to do.

In all the commotion, I must have gotten Jess mixed up with a like-aged female juvenile from the South group. It took me about an hour and a half to realize that I had somehow switched to the South group and the North group had retreated down the camino. It was another hour before I found Jess again amid the North group. I managed to stay with her for about 5 more hours before then dense canopy intervened and I lost her for good. So after these last several days, I’m feeling exhausted and defeated and like the next two months are going to be incredibly frustrating. I’ve made it to the point at which the sun begins to rise later, but it really doesn’t seem like there’s been any change. Thankfully I collected a plant sample this afternoon, so I am going to stay in from the forest tomorrow and test it. Hopefully after a day to recover, I can re-energize and actually get some meaningful data when I go back out to the forest.

Its been a long day, so I need to sign off before I fall asleep at the computer. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

It just got worse.

I was sitting here in the room, reading the wonderful comments you all posted to my last entry, and thinking that I really shouldn’t complain so much, when I heard Rob say something muffled that ended in the word “tarantula.” With my voice becoming shrill, I demanded, “What about a tarantula?” He gestured towards the wall and sure enough, there was a tarantula crawling along the corner. (Don’t worry, Jodi, no pictures here). I ran and got a broom, Rob swept it out of the room. I am glad for Amy’s vote of confidence that I am tough, but seriously, I wonder if this might be the undoing of me. When I remind myself that Rob is going back to the US tomorrow, leaving me alone for a week in this tarantula-infested room, I become quite queasy.

Outside it is thundering and lightening and pouring down rain; I guess it really is true: when it rains it pours! Someday I’ll look back on this and laugh, right?

One more thing: could you all please send out prayers and healing wishes to Rob’s Nana and Grampy. Hang in there Nana, and Grampy, we hope you are back on your feet again soon.

Thanks again for reading.

The Sun Also Rises

Thursday 7 June 2007
Happy birthday to my first little nephew, who is 2 today!

I’ve been dreading this for many months. Nicaragua seems to randomly “spring forward” for Daylight Savings in some years and not to do it at all in other years. 2007 is one of those years when Daylight Savings is not observed, so since the end of January, the time of the sunrise has been creeping backward, earlier and earlier. This means that in order for me to get a full-day follow of the monkeys, I’ve had to keep getting up earlier and earlier. The worst is upon us now: the sun is rising at its maximally earliest time. Official sunrise is at 5:17am, and it is light enough to see by 4:55am. I’m getting up around 4:15 so that I can get ready, walk to the forest, and find the monkeys by the time they start their day. The good thing about having finally reached this point of maximal earliness is that at least I know it won’t get any worse than this. In fact, on June 10th, the sun will actually rise one minute later, and by the end of July, sunrise will be at 5:30. So if I can just hang in there for a few more days, I can start sleeping in—ever so gradually—again.

In addition to the earliness of sunrise, there are other reasons why I’ve been dreading this time of year. The return of the rains means that the path up to the forest (also used to transport livestock) is a slick of mud and slime; out in the forest I am soaking wet all the time; the trees have leaves again so it is difficult to see the monkeys; the mosquitoes are back in full force; and there are spiders everywhere. I have learned that my hiking boots are not so waterproof as they are supposed to be, and I am considering buying a pair of those rubber galoshes that the men wear when they are working in the fields. The past few days, the mosquitoes have been almost unbearable. No amount of DEET seems to deter them. At all times, they are swarming around me like an unwanted entourage. I’ve got to bat them away from the air in front of my nose just to take a breath. Their constant high pitch whine makes it seem like I am at an airport or around machinery. They are particularly fond of my knuckles, fingers, and ears, but they also bite me right through my clothes. I find myself wondering if it is possible to actually get woozy from blood loss resulting from mosquito bites. And I think of Professor Pablo, who compared Ometepe to other field sites he’s worked at in Panama and in the Amazon and said, “There are no mosquitoes on Ometepe.” If that's true, I'm not sure how long I would last in those other places.

But what I find worse than the mosquitoes is, of course, the spiders. When the rains stopped at the end of November, the spiders all but disappeared. I was jubilant. But ever since we had that bit of rain in April, I have kept my eyes peeled for them. There have been a few here and there, but as of yesterday—its official—they’re back for good. During the wet season, there is a particularly terrifying form of spider that is everywhere in the forest. It is red and black and gold, and although I have been assured by numerous people that it is “harmless,” I still don’t like it one bit. (The photo at the right was taken during my pilot study in 2004). After describing the spider to Aimee, she said it sounded kind of like a “banana spider” they had on Hawaii; that wouldn’t surprise me because this spider is most prevalent in the South Group’s scrappy home range where there are still banana trees growing amid the vines and early-regenerating trees as the forest re-emerges from the fields.

Yesterday I was following the South Group, and like always, was taking note of the type and quantity of spiders around me. What was there didn’t seem too threatening. A lot of spindly little things with sort of yellowish bodies that didn’t scare even me. I kept thinking, well, at least the red, black, and yellow spiders aren’t back yet. But at some point in the afternoon, I took a closer look at the spindly little things all around me. Thin little legs, the body yellow with a black splotch on it. I looked even more closely and realized that these things were juvenile morphs of the very same red, yellow, and black spiders I fear like no other. They’re back!! They don’t scare me too much when they are tiny like this, but I don’t know enough about spider life history to know how long I’ve got.

So I feel like its going to be an ugly finish to the end of the project. Much like my first marathon—I finished, but it was sure not pretty. The next week or so is going to especially nasty. Rob leaves tomorrow for a conference in the US, so I’ll be metaphorically running these difficult miles without him cheering me on. I like to believe I'm as tough as nails though; I’m sure I’ll make it.

At any rate, lest S.L. is reading, I haven't taken the day off-- I’ve stayed in from the forest to test some young Ficus leaves. Its lunchtime now and the soup’s on, so I’d better go. Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Miss Gay Ometepe

As some may recall, I mentioned in my last entry that Harry, a cook who works here and who happens to be gay, had invited us to some type of Gay Pride fiesta on Ometepe last weekend. Unfortunately, the fiesta—which was actually to be a beauty pageant dubbed Miss Gay Ometepe—was cancelled when the church fathers got wind of it and put the smack down on homosexuality. But the gay community of Ometepe refused to be so easily defeated, and they bravely forged onward—rescheduling the event at a different venue for last night.

I worked hard this week to make sure I could go. After we got home from Laguna de Apoyo, I went to the forest on Wednesday with Pablo the botany student and we worked on identifying some trees. Then I spent the rest of the week collecting behavioral data and using the toughness tester. And it rained. And rained, and rained. The seasons changed so quickly it was like someone had flicked a switch. Almost overnight, the forest went from brown and dry to a green, green, green, tangled mess of vines. Its official now—the rainy season has begun.

Sunday, the day of the pageant, dawned. In the morning, Harry worked in the kitchen, and as he was washing dishes, he explained to me the basis of the pageant. Much like any regular beauty pageant, the Miss Gay Ometepe contest would feature a casual wear, evening gown, and swimming suit competition, plus a session in which each candidate was given a question to answer. However, all of the contestants would be gay men from Ometepe who were dressed as women. The pageant was to be held in a community called San Jose—which is still an hour away by car even though the road has recently been renovated. Esther (one of the girls who works here) had arranged for a truck to go from Mérida to San Jose, and when I asked her, she told me it would be fine for me and Rob to come along.

Long about 9 o’clock at night, Rob and me, and Daraysi, and several other local Mérida people piled into the back of the pick up truck and drove off into the night. The ride over was beautiful. A million stars glittered in the purplish-blue sky, and the moon—nearly full and shimmering gold—hung low on the horizon. The dark silhouette of Volcan Maderas loomed large behind it all. After about an hour of hanging on to the rails on the truck bed, we arrived in San Jose. It was a fiesta all right. There were strobe lights, 15 speakers (2 would probably have sufficed), and everyone was decked out and dancing. After maybe an hour or so of this, I really began to wonder… so when does the Miss Gay Ometepe pageant begin?

Finally the contestants took the dance floor. In addition to Harry, there were 3 other men vying for the Miss Gay Ometepe title. Harry’s first outfit was sort of a glittery red gown, while the others were more scantily clad in belly-baring halter tops and scandalously short skirts. Below is a photo of the 4 contestants. Harry is on the far right, modeling for the camera. Alvaro (the field station manager) is dressed in khaki and standing in the middle.

There are a few Gringos in the crowd. Can you spot the Ragfields?

After a brief introduction of the candidates, the music started blaring again and everyone (well, not Rob and me) took to the dance floor. A bit before this, Rob and I had noticed that there were two police officers milling about the party (one had a machine gun, the other had a pistol). “Let’s hope they’re not from the Catholic Church,” Rob said. Alvaro spoke with the police officers and told us that they said the swimsuit competition would not be permitted. I guess this is sort of what happened last week, only that instead of out-lawing just the swimsuit competition, they refused to let any of the pageant proceed.

Harry makes friends with the policeWell, maybe Alvaro had it wrong about the swimsuit competition because next thing we knew, the contestants began parading out in bikinis. That was a sight. We didn’t take any pictures of that because it actually seemed kind of dirty. Harry—whose stage name was Wendy—was much more conservatively dressed. Here is a photo below. (For other Futurama aficionados, we thought he looked like Coilette, of Robonia.)

The swimsuit competition was followed by another interlude of loud music and dancing, and then round 3 of the pageant—the question and answer session—began. I thought Harry’s response was poignant. His question had something to do with the issue of discrimination, and his response included a powerful explanation about how he wanted to participate in the pageant to bring focus to the gay community and to foster understanding. Well, at least that’s what I got from it. The candidates also performed a dance to the song “I Will Survive,” sung in Spanish (Yo viviré) by the woman (well, actually the man) who is wearing the short red dress.

Harry with adoring fans in the background

There was more dance-party dancing by all the party’s attendees while the judges tabulated the results. I should point out that by this point it was quite obvious that Harry was a clear favorite, at least of the crowd. I think half of Mérida must have somehow trucked over there just to scream and shout and cheer for him. I’m not sure how exactly the results were tabulated, but before I knew it, Harry was called to the front of the stage and the judges placed a sparkling tiara on his head. Harry was the new Miss Gay Ometepe 2007!

Harry gave a brief speech, indicating that all of the pageant’s participates were winners; there were no losers, and then the loud dance party resumed with gusto. Rob and I finally got home a little before 2:30 in the morning, so needless to say, I am not going out to the forest today. I think all that fresh (and dusty) night air I got while riding in the back of the truck gave me another eye infection, so I’m hoping to dose up on the anti-biotics and be able to go out to the forest tomorrow. At any rate, it was a very interesting experience last night. It was a little weird, because I have a lot of gay friends, and I can't imagine any of them wanting to dress up as women and participate in a beauty pageant, but I figure, this is how Harry wants to express himself, so more power to him. Nicaraguans seem to love beauty pageants of all forms—even when the contestants are all gay men dressed up as women. I was glad to see so many people—both gay and straight—out there supporting Harry and the other contestants. It was a little perplexing though, considering that “machismo” is so prevalent in this country. But this investigation would be a job for the cultural anthropologists; I’m happy just sticking to the monkeys for now.

Thanks for reading!