Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Bracelet Lady

Number of Ticks Removed: 68
Days Tick Free: 2

I thought about writing earlier in the week, but it would just have been more complaints about mosquitoes, spiders, eye infections, my aching neck and back, and my pre-dawn wake-up call. So I decided to wait until I had something more interesting, or at least more positive, to write about.

A while back I got this idea to make bracelets out in the forest to keep myself occupied while the monkeys were sleeping. Initially I thought I might sell them, then I thought I would bring them home to give to friends/family, but finally I decided that I would give this batch to the women who work in the kitchen here at the hostel. The other day one of the cooks was crying about a boy (it turns out that the Dunlap Love Story is universal), so I decided it was time to break out the bracelets in hopes of raising everybody’s spirits. The result was a resounding success. I have never encountered a more bracelet-loving people than the Nicaraguans. Forgotten were the tears over this problematic muchacho (who I'm sure is a jerk anyway) as everyone became fixated on the bracelets. Over the next few days, I doled out bracelets to the cooks working the different shifts, trying to make sure that I gave one to everybody. The bracelets were such a hit that a few days later, three of the cooks came and found me after dinner to ask if I had any more. They pretty much cleaned me out, but I was happy to give all these bracelets away because it was such a small thing that made them so happy. As more people surfaced, intrigued by my rapidly dwindling supply of bracelets, I kept telling them I could make more, just to tell me what colors they wanted. The resounding response was always that the color and even the design did not matter. “Lo que quieres, Meli,” or “Lo que tengas.” In other words, whatever you think is best, Melissa, or, whatever you have on hand.

Yesterday, as I was on my way home from a brief foray into the forest, a small child came running out of his house to meet me on the street and ask me if I had any more bracelets. I guess my reputation as the Bracelet Lady now precedes me. Unfortunately, I am fresh out of bracelets. I asked the little boy what colors he wanted, and he just shrugged, saying whatever I had would be fine. I have the feeling that giving a bracelet to this one little boy will open the floodgates, and every single child on the island will want one. With less than two weeks left now (!) I’m not sure that I’ll have enough time (or enough materials) to supply that many bracelets. I’m going to do my best though. So I guess I’d better get going; I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A few more mangos

It turns out that mango season wasn’t completely over; on Thursday night there was a big crate of mangos in the kitchen, so I had plenty to take out to the forest on Friday. As far as mangos are concerned, I’ll just take it a day at a time from now on.

My week out with the monkeys was interesting. I’d pretty much given up hope of finding a North Group juvenile for the second half of this month, but then on Thursday morning, there was young Horace, low along the North forest patch. As I was walking up the path, I heard a little sneeze (the monkeys actually sneeze a lot), and I thought to myself, “That sounds like Horace.” After 11 months of watching them, I guess have now even developed the ability to distinguish the sound of their sneezes, because sure enough, it was Horace. Bless his little heart. I know it is not on purpose or anything, but on numerous occasions when the monkeys are making a big move (such as to the far away mango patch), I swear that Horace waits for me in some place obvious so that I find him and follow the group to their new location. That’s what he did on Thursday; they didn’t really move all that far, but it was in a place that they have only used once or twice before and there are no paths back there, so I wouldn’t have found them if I was just looking on my own. It was very sweet to watch Horace all day because he stayed close to his mom, Matilda, and to his new baby sibling (who it turns out is probably a girl), Toby. I’m hoping that Horace, Matilda, and Toby turn out to be the key to understanding some of these pre-adult mortality issues. If my calculations are correct, there has been a 67% infant/juvenile mortality rate in the North Group these past 11 months. Horace has got to be around 2 years old, so he’s made it past 2 of the critical stages when I’ve noticed others dying off (6-7 months, when they are no longer allowed to travel on their mom’s back, and around 12 months when mom refuses to nurse them any longer). I’m wondering if Matilda is doing something right, because Horace survived and now she’s got Toby. What I find so fascinating is that even though Horace was starting to get pretty independent, after Toby was born, he returned to Matilda and now spends most of his time sitting by her side. I suspect that Horace’s presence might be beneficial to Toby: all other members of the group are infinitely fascinated with newborns and they are constantly trying to touch or smell or even grab the baby and run away. This can get kind of rough at times, so a new mom definitely has her work cut out for her, trying to keep the others away from the baby. This is a bit of a conjecture, but it seems to me that Horace might be “helping” his mom out in this respect by offering additional protection to Toby during these early crucial months. Unfortunately, I won’t be here too much longer to see if Toby makes it, so we’ll have to see if I can actually make these claims from the data I’ve got.

Horace eating Acacia

At any rate, I was glad when the week was finally over and I could finally get some respite from the hundreds of thousands of spiders and millions of billions of mosquitoes—not to mention the sometimes torrential downpours—out in the forest. On Saturday Rob and I decided to bike to Altagracia (17 km away) to go to the Museo Ometepe. Rob bikes to Altagracia all the time, but this is the first time I’ve ridden there. The distance doesn’t faze me so much, its just the treachery of the road I don’t like. Even though the road has been “fixed” somewhat, there are still places where your life flashes before your eyes. All in all, the ride over and back turned out to be pretty great, except for the times that I thought I was going to die (which was really only 2 or 3 times). The museum itself was not all that impressive, but again, the trip over there was more about the journey than the destination. There were a few interesting maps to look at, a couple of murals, some stuffed animals (as in taxidermy, not the cute kind), and some undated potsherds from some point in Ometepe’s archaeological past. While in Altagracia (a fairly bustling metropolis compared to our place on the more sparsely populated Maderas side), Rob and I went into a little store and found a few supplies. Rob bought a treasured can of Pringles (we hardly ever eat this kind of stuff in the US, but somehow, “American” junk food is too hard to pass up here), and I found a small tube of tooth-whitening toothpaste. I am pretty low-maintenance as far as beauty products and toiletries are concerned, but I am partial to tooth-whitening toothpaste. I do think the stuff really works. Plus, my teeth are probably my best and perhaps only redeeming physical feature so I like to play them up as much as I can. Seriously, one time there was a retired couple staying here at the hacienda and they told me that my teeth were so white and straight that they wondered if my father was a dentist. I resisted the temptation to ask why they assumed that it would be my father, rather than my mother, who was a dentist and just explained that it was good dental hygiene. Well, I unfortunately mis-judged how much toothpaste I would need to finish out this project, and I ran out of tooth-whitening toothpaste a couple weeks ago. My ship came in yesterday when I found that the store in Altagracia had some. Although it was exorbitantly expensive, I bought it and rode all 17 km home with it in my pocket.

Rob in the bustling metropolis of Altagracia

Melissa will be keeping those pearly whites pearly and white

Some of the more impressive artifacts at the museum

When we were about 5 km from home and in the middle of nowhere, Rob’s front tire went flat. It seemed like we were going to have to walk the bikes the rest of the way back, but we ended up finding a little house and asking a guy who lived there if he could help. While about 6 or 7 children stood around looking wide-eyed at us and pawing us, the guy went and found an air pump to fill up Rob’s tire. It was a temporary fix, because the puncture was not sealed, but it was enough to get Rob about another 4 km and by that point we were just about home.

Rob walking the bike; note the container of Pringles in the back pocket of his jersey
That had prolonged our trip enough to the point we were starving, so we treated ourselves to a really late lunch of ‘vegetarian tacos” at a place down the road. Now I’ve got to spend the rest of the weekend resting so that I have enough energy to get through the rest of this month.

This was a long one—thanks for reading!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Eat mangos while you can

Thanks to everyone for your care and concern about my dad. He had to have emergency surgery, but as of 4pm this afternoon, he is out of the hospital and back at home. He is recovering well, though still feeling kind of cruddy I guess. Please do keep him in your thoughts and send him get well wishes.

To backtrack a bit, this weekend Rob and I celebrated our anniversary by going to a place called Albergue Ecológico (about 6 km away from here) to look at some 3,000 year old petroglyphs. These are rock carvings made by the first inhabitants of Ometepe Island. We took a guided tour (all in Spanish of course), but I wish I would have written some things down because now I don’t remember what all the guide told us.

This one is supposed to be a carving of a monkeyThe circular shapes at the bottom right are a calendar.

Cloudy view of Concepción

Today I was back out in the forest for a long day of watching the North Group. I do like being out in the forest, and of course I love the monkeys, but the mosquitoes, spiders, and rain make it difficult. Not to mention the alarm clock going off at 4:20am. It is seriously hard for me. The only way I’ve been getting by is on mangos. Since about April or May, there has been a constant supply of mangos, and every night before I go out to the forest, I cut up a bunch of mangos and put them in a little container to take out with me the next day. That way, when my alarm clock goes off and all I want to do is stay in bed, I remind myself that I can eat mangos all day long if I just get up and go out to the forest. My love for mangos has become somewhat notorious around here. Most Nicaraguans enjoy eating mangos, but I don’t think any of them has met someone who loves mangos quite as much as I do. The ironic thing is that I’m actually allergic to mangos. Strangely enough, mangos are related to poison ivy, and its not uncommon for people (especially gringos) to get a poison ivy-like rash around their mouth after eating mangos. After much trial and error, I’ve learned that if I cut up the mango and eat it really carefully with a fork—avoiding getting any of the juice on my mouth or lips—I do just fine.

Doña Argentina (one of the cooks) asked me if we had mangos in the US, and I said yes but they are usually very expensive and not nearly as good as mangos in Nicaragua, so I do not eat them very often. She smiled and told me that I would have to eat the mangos here then, while I could. So that’s what I’ve been doing—eating the mangos while I can. Well, today I think my luck finally ran out and mango season has ended. When I was getting my things ready for the forest tomorrow, there were no mangos anywhere in the kitchen. I knew that this would happen some day, so I was not completely unprepared. Its just going to make it that much harder to get up when my alarm goes off at 4:20 in the morning tomorrow. At least it was good while it lasted!

Today while I was out in the forest enjoying what was apparently the last of the season’s mangos, I saw Wilma. If you recall, Wilma is an adult female from the North Group who had a baby back in March that I called Mabel. A couple of months later, I realized that Mabel was actually a boy, but by that point I couldn’t change his name, so I kept on calling him Mabel. Well, today Wilma was alone; there was no Mabel in sight. Mabel would be 4 months old now, and still dependent on Wilma for everything. He might leave her side for a few minutes, but not for an entire day. The situation doesn’t look good for Mabel. I keep hoping that I was mistaken; that it wasn’t really Wilma who I saw, and that I’ll find Mabel alive and well tomorrow. But somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen. It looks like another infant from the North Group has died. In the past year, there have been 6 births in the North Group; with Mabel gone missing now, that makes 4 of them who have died or disappeared. All that are left are Stacy (7 months) and Toby (2 months), so I’m really hoping they make it.

That’s all for now; I’ve got to get some sleep. Getting up at 4:20 in the morning is going to be awfully tough, knowing that it will be a day without mangos. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Six year anniversary of the Ragfields

Well, it was 6 years ago today that Rob and I were married. That means we’ve actually known each other for almost 10 years. So far its been working out pretty well.

Here—in no particular order—are a few random selections from a list I made entitled “1000 Reasons Why I Love Rob.”

1. You moved the clocks for me.
4. You ride your bike everywhere.
7. Sometimes when I least expect it, you save the last brownie for me.
16. You have your own dance move, which I call “The Rob.”
40. You can clog.
45. You convinced me that we should get a tandem bike.
58. You like salad.
82. You can multiply large numbers in your head more quickly than a calculator.
97. When the pond froze, you shoveled a path and went ice-skating.
100. You warm my feet at night in the winter.
109. You have gone through the drive-thru at the bank while on your bike.
111. You can squeeze toothpaste from the tube far beyond the point at which I think it is humanly possible.
118. You look really cool in sunglasses.
125. You ran for a public office as a write-in candidate.
145. You can sing “Living on a Prayer” in a Scottish accent.
167. You stop for turtles.
171. You rode your bike to Altagracia at 6:00 in the morning to get medicine for the baby howler monkey we were trying to save.

Sometimes I still find it hard to believe that my life has turned out this good. If I had it to do all over again, I would, but I'd probably want to get married barefoot on a mountain-top instead of in such a frilly dress. I'd still want chocolate cake and bridesmaids though.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th

I’m not superstitious at all (at least about the usual things, such as black cats and Friday the 13th), so I went out to the forest today without any trepidation. There were a few difficulties, but overall, it was a pretty good day. When I got home from the forest this evening, I was reflecting on how well everything has been going lately and I was feeling a bit relieved after all of the difficulties I had in June.

Then I heard from my mom, who told me that my dad had gotten very sick this morning and had to be rushed to the hospital to have emergency surgery. He is doing much better now, and after a bit of recovery it seems like he will be as good as new. What a Friday the 13th. To think, I’d been blithely sitting in the forest all day, having no idea that all of this was happening back at home. It seems like since Rob and I have been gone, a ton of our friends and family have had major health scares. We are really hoping that everyone stays healthy and happy from now on.

Please send out some get-well-wishes to my dad, to speed him along in his recovery. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

One-year anniversary of the blog

Number of Ticks Removed: 63
Days Tick Free: 5

It was one year ago today that I began the blog. I browsed through some of my old posts, just to remind myself of all that has taken place in the past year, and I was overwhelmed by the lameness of my entries. This pretty much happens whenever I go back and re-read anything I’ve ever written. After the fact it always seems so lame. The only thing that I think has maintained some of its integrity is my NSF grant, although if you look closely, there are a few typos in there.

At any rate, I am doing my best to struggle through the last few weeks of the project. It would be nice to end this on a high note, but the rain, the spiders, the endless tangles of vines, and the lack of juveniles are making it a punishing task at best. A hundred times a day I swear that I will call up the airline to change my ticket and be on the first plane out of here, but when I actually consider leaving Wrinkle Belly, Horace, Jess, Uno, Stacy, etc, I get all weepy and never want to go.

I’m sure with each sentence, this post is getting more and more lame, so I’d better sign off for now. Thanks for reading, for a whole year.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Very Ragfield Adventure

With my visa getting ready to expire, I needed to leave the country for 72 hours and then re-enter. So Rob and I left for Costa Rica in the morning on June 30th. When we got to the border we waited in a confusing, blob-like line to get our “exit stamps” for Nicaragua; then we had to walk to the Costa Rican side to get our “entry stamps.” Outside the Costa Rican immigration office, we were greeted by a very, very, very, very long line. We’d left in the morning about 9am, and by this point it was around 3pm. We had enough snacks to keep us going, but a bathroom would have been nice. Since public restrooms do not appear to exist in Central America, there was nothing to do but wait in the hot sun. We realized that trying to make a border crossing on a Saturday afternoon in June is probably not wise.

Finally we got the necessary stamps on our passports and among the chaos, we managed to find a bus going to Liberia and somehow figured out how to buy tickets for it. We aren’t sure why, but the whole process was infinitely more complicated than the last time we did it. At any rate, we finally made it to Liberia around 5pm. It was definitely weird to be in Costa Rica after so many months in Nicaragua. First of all, where we get off the bus in Liberia there is a Burger King and a Papa John’s. Its like Little USA. Rob and I decided that we were actually hungry enough to eat at Papa Johns, and after that, we got a room at the same hospedaje where we stayed the last time we were there. A friendly iguana (photo at right) greeted us.

The next day (July 1), we took a little trip to a beach called Playa Panamá. It was really quite lovely; not touristy at all, just lots of local families out having a relaxing day.

We headed back to Liberia for the night and the next morning (July 2) we left for the next phase of our journey: Volcán Arenal. Arenal is supposedly the “most active” volcano in Central America and is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica. It required several long trips to get there: a bus from Liberia to Cañas, another bus from Cañas to Tilarán; an hour an a half lay-over in Tilaran and then a final 3-1/2 hour bus ride to a town called La Fortuna. Constant bus-rides and Dramamine over the past couple of days had me feeling quite vomitous, but I managed to make it.
Picture of Lake Arenal from the bus window

La Fortuna is the place to stay if you are planning to visit Arenal. Seriously, I think this town is the Pigeon Forge or Dolly-Wood of Central America. Take a beautiful natural treasure and then build up a town around it that is full of over-priced tour operators, tacky souvenir shops, bad restaurants, and a million different hotels. We decided to stay at a modest place called “Cabinas Sissy” and tried to figure out what to do from there. The whole place is a huge money pit: Arenal National Park is actually 17 kilometers away, and there’s no local transportation (ie, bus) to get there. You either take a $15 each-way taxi ride, or you go as part of a “tour.” There dozens of tour operators each offering a multitude of different tour options, including canoe tours, kayak tours, white-water rafting tours, hiking tours, bungee jumping, wildlife watching, nighttime lava tours, etc. The options were overwhelming. Rob and I couldn’t find a single “tour” that was less than $35 per person (plus park entry fees), and none of them seemed worth it. What we ended up deciding to do was make up our own “tour,” and thus began the Ragfield Adventure.

Central park in La Fortuna

On Monday morning (July 3), we rented bikes at a place called “Bike Arenal.” The bike shop was actually pretty cool. They had good quality mountain bikes, and the rental fee included a helmet, bike gloves, repair kit, lock, and bottle of water. Oh, and a not-to-scale cartoon map of the region. With all this gear in check, Rob and I set off to bike around the volcano, or at least as close as we could get.

The breakfast of Champions: Rob found some Zucaritas (Frosted Flakes) at the Mini Super Cristian (the grocery store in La Fortuna)

Rob, stocking up on supplies for our ride at the Mini Super Cristian

The guy in the bike shop had described the road to Arenal as “suave”—which I suppose would have been true if you are a veteran rider of hills and are not scared of skinny roads with a lot of traffic. I lost count of how many close calls I had with giant Mack trucks zooming past me and blowing diesel in my face.

We had decided that instead of actually entering the park and doing touristy hikes, we’d just ride around for the views. Unfortunately, it was a bit rainy, and after all of our effort, we were rewarded with a lovely view of… clouds. To be honest, I was feeling pretty crummy. Riding on the hilly road was one thing, but riding among so much traffic was quite another. The farther we went, the more I dreaded the ride back.

We also did a bit of riding around Lake Arenal—its an artificial lake made when they dammed the Arenal River. By this time, the clouds cleared away and at long last, we could see Volcán Arenal looming huge above us. It was impressive enough to clear away my dismal mood as well, and I actually started to feel glad that we had undertaken this adventure.

Helmet head Ragfields

After stopping to admire the volcano for a while, we headed back to the town of Fortuna. There were a few really tough sections and a lot of fast trucks, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d dreaded. It reminded me a lot of that time Rob and I took a bike trip to the Smoky Mountains—only this time I do not have health insurance and barely speak the language. But still, whizzing down those big hills was a lot of fun.

When we got back to town, we returned the bikes and somehow miraculously found a restaurant with some decent food (ie, minimally greasy) to eat (I didn’t think it was possible, but it seems that Costa Ricans use even more corn oil in their cooking than Nicaraguans). Because we’d biked over 50 kilometers, we treated ourselves to ice cream as well.

With just one night left, our trip was quickly coming to an end. The helpful proprietor of “Cabinas Sissy” had told us that we could take a 6:30am bus from La Fortuna to a nearby town called Tanque, and from there, we could catch a bus that would take us directly to the Nicraguan border at Peñas Blancas.

Sissy’s information was correct, but the trip was not nearly as smooth as we would have hoped. We did in fact board a bus to Peñas Blancas from Tanque; after a brief layover in a town called Upala, we were on our way again. Despite my ever present motion sickness, everything seemed to be going well until the bus came to a dead stop on the side of the road. The driver made some sort of announcement; I didn’t really understand everything he said, but the gist of it was that there was a problem with the bus and he was going to try to fix it. We waited and waited as the driver and several passengers went under the bus to repair it. Also, it began pouring down rain. After some time, the driver emerged again, all covered in grease, and announced that he did not have the proper tool to fix the problem, and that he had called for another bus to come pick us up, but that it would not arrive for 45 minutes or so. At this point, I was beyond-nervously glancing at my watch. It was nearing 1:00pm and we still weren’t even at the border. In order to make it all the way back to Mérida, we needed to be through the border by 2:30, so that we could be in San Jorge to catch the 3:30 ferry, so that we could catch the 4:30 bus back home.

After trying to fix the bus for about an hour and a half, the driver started it again and proceeded to drive. It wasn’t just that I have trouble understanding Spanish; I kept asking the people around us what was going on and they were just as bewildered. Somehow, we made it to the town of La Cruz (only about 25 minutes from the border); there, the driver announced that we could either wait for the bus to be repaired, or catch the next bus to the border—which didn’t come for 55 minutes. It was 1:30. Rob and I ran off the bus and found a taxi willing to take us to the border for about $8. The driver assured us that on a Wednesday afternoon, the border crossing should be a breeze.

For the Costa Rican side, it was. We were through by 2pm. We then ran something like 1/2 mile through the pouring rain to get to the Nicaraguan side. Once there, we saw a huge amorphous line—more of a blob really—of hundreds of people. “This can’t be the line to enter Nicaragua, can it?” we asked ourselves. Oh but it was. The electricity was out on the Nicaraguan side, so everything was at a standstill. No one could get their papers processed until the power came back on and the computers were up and running. In an instant, we knew we wouldn’t get home that night.

In the midst of this sickening realization, we heard a familiar voice: “Hey guys, what are you doing here?” It was Alvaro, the field station manager. Apparently he had come to Costa Rica to pick up some things and was on his way back home. He had made it through the line before the power went out. “Too bad you have to wait in this line; otherwise I could give you a ride,” he said. I felt like shaking my fist in the air.

After 45 minutes or so, the power came back on. The amorphous blob of a line now started to split into two, one being a line to ENTER the country and the other being a line to EXIT the country. Somehow in the confusion, Rob and I got pushed over into the Exiting Nicaragua side—not where we wanted to be. “We’ve got to insinuate ourselves back into the entry line,” I said through gritted teeth. At this point, we didn’t really care who we ticked off, and we wormed our way back into the correct line. Eventually we made it up to the front, where a very grumpy government worker laboriously took our documents and processed our paperwork. It was 3:15. The ferry we needed was leaving in 15 minutes, we were still 45 minutes away from it.

At that point there was no reason to hurry anymore. We got on a bus bound for Rivas and eventually got there around 4:15. Then we had to take a short taxi ride to the dock at San Jorge. We thought that there might be a chance of catching Alvaro with his truck at the dock, in which case we could ride with him and still make it home. But Alvaro was nowhere to be found. We wouldn’t be able to get all the way back to Merida unless we took an expensive taxi ride, but at least we could get to the island, stay in Moyogalpa overnight, and hop on a cheap bus in the morning.

There was a little boat leaving at 5pm, and then the last boat of the day—one of those big, smooth-riding Ferry Ometepes—was taking off at 5:40. Rob took one look at the violently churning lake and proclaimed that he was waiting for the big boat. So we waited around for the big boat (which thankfully had a bathroom, albeit gross) and began our journey across Lake Nicaragua. It was actually quite nice and peaceful. We got to watch the sunset, and the temperature cooled down enough that I put on long sleeves.

We got a $6 room at “Hotel Central” in Moyogalpa (actually quite a fun little place) and ordered dinner for 23 cordovas (just a little bit over a dollar). I had no idea what it was going to be—it was called “Indio Viejo Vegetariano”—but it had the word “vegetarian” in it, which is something you don’t often see in Nicaragua. When the dinner arrived, it looked kind of gross, but was actually really good. It was some kind of corn mush with vegetables in it (green peppers, onions, and tomatoes), all covered in black beans.

We were exhausted and full, but we drug ourselves over to a place called “Yogi’s Bar” (owned by a gringo) for some self-advertised “fabulous brownies.” After we could consume no more brownies we went back to Hotel Central and fell asleep.

Thursday morning (July 5), we caught an 8:30 bus back to Merida and finally arrived at 11:30. It took us 24 hours to go the last 45 kilometers, and the whole trip back was 29 hours from our start in La Fortuna. As we got off the bus and walked towards the hacienda, little Eduardo met up with us and cried out, “Hola Melissa!” He asked me if I needed help carrying my things. What a sweetie.

I spent the rest of the day unpacking, washing clothes, and getting ready to go back out to the forest tomorrow. Just as I was about to go to sleep, Rob noticed a scorpion on one of our curtains, so we had to get rid of that. Seriously people, August 12th can’t come too soon.

Thanks for reading!

The Long Trip Home

Just a brief note in case anyone is checking the blog: Rob and I made it back from our trip to Costa Rica. It was a long trip home; I have many adventures to write about, so stay tuned....