Looking Back

It’s been just over a month since return­ing from my semes­ter abroad at Osaka Uni­ver­sity. Look­ing back it almost feels like I was never there at all. Over the past month I’ve been slowly re-adjusting to my life here in the US, and I thought I would take some time to reflect on my expe­ri­ences in Japan.

When I first arrived in Japan in April, it felt very much as if my life was start­ing over from scratch. I was in a com­pletely new place, meet­ing com­pletely new peo­ple, and doing com­pletely dif­fer­ent things on a daily basis. Because I lived in a dor­mi­tory full of other study abroad stu­dents, all of the peo­ple around me were expe­ri­enc­ing the same thing, and I think every­one had the idea that this was their oppor­tu­nity to rein­vent them­selves. Over time, I slowly began to for­get about my life before study­ing abroad, and even­tu­ally it felt like I had always been there and would always be there. Of course, I knew in the back of my mind it would even­tu­ally end, but I made a point of liv­ing in the now and I tried not to think about it.

While there, I vis­ited sev­eral famous places, some of which I men­tioned in my pre­vi­ous posts, and I made a point of explor­ing as much as I could. I even took my com­mute to school as an oppor­tu­nity to explore the area, and I would often take out of the way routes just to see more of Japan. Though, even after trav­el­ling around Japan, the places I loved the most were the ones within a bik­ing dis­tance of where I lived. I think if I ever decide to go back, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than Osaka. It really feels like my sec­ond home­town, and I would love to go back if ever given the chance.

I also expe­ri­enced a lot of inter­est­ing things, I think the most notable of which was the cul­ture in Japan. I don’t think the cul­ture there was dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent from that of the US, but there were def­i­nitely a few things that stood out to me. Unlike the US, where we are used to liv­ing with peo­ple from all over the world, for­eign­ers in Japan are a rare sight. Lit­er­ally rare enough for peo­ple to stare when­ever I was walk­ing down the street. Peo­ple there also make the unfor­tu­nate assump­tion that only other Japan­ese peo­ple speak Japan­ese. This made prac­tic­ing my Japan­ese very dif­fi­cult, and even some of my exchange friends who were flu­ent in Japan­ese had trou­ble com­mu­ni­cat­ing. I think my favorite way of describ­ing Japan is “wel­com­ing, but not accept­ing”. Peo­ple were noth­ing but respect­ful, and I think a tourist wouldn’t really notice any­thing dif­fer­ent. But after liv­ing there for an extended period of time, you start to feel excluded. Though, I don’t think this would keep me from going back.

Even­tu­ally, I did slowly start to get home­sick, and I think when it was time to head home I was ready. My time there has def­i­nitely left a last­ing impres­sion. In addi­tion to the expe­ri­ences I have gained through my stud­ies, Japan influ­enced sev­eral areas of my char­ac­ter which I have been notic­ing since my return. For exam­ple, I often catch myself walk­ing on the left side, which some­times leads to awk­ward moments when encoun­ter­ing some­one walk­ing from the other direc­tion. Now that I’m back, all I have left of Japan are my expe­ri­ences, and the friends I was able to make while there. My expe­ri­ence in Japan was eas­ily the great­est five months of my life, and the expe­ri­ences I gained while there will no doubt con­tinue to define me.

Thanks for reading.

The Transition Home

I’ve been home for a week now, after 31 hours of planes and air­ports last Thurs­day, as well as around 50 hours with noth­ing but an uncom­fort­able nap. In other words, I took a long time to adjust (even now I still want to fall asleep at six). But the main rea­son I haven’t posted until now is the sheer amount that hap­pened dur­ing our last week in Geor­gia, and I wanted to take time to think about it.

In Tbil­isi we got to explore the Old Town and the semi-famous Rus­taveli Avenue most days (the cen­ter of the city, basi­cally), as well as a large mar­ket in another part of town. The sub­way we took to get there was an excit­ing two-minute esca­la­tor ride below the ground. Over­all, our time in Tbil­isi was short, though. Two Fri­days ago we were on a two-day trip to Armen­ian vil­lages in south­west Geor­gia, and the fol­low­ing Mon­day and Tues­day we were on a trip to Davit Gareja monastery on the Azer­bai­jani bor­der, and Kakheti, the Geor­gian wine coun­try. Our guide I men­tioned in my last post, Archil, the renais­sance man who’s been in a movie, had works pub­lished, and knows the his­tory and cul­ture of just about every vil­lage in Geor­gia, led us off the beaten path to towns with fewer peo­ple than my high school but more cul­tural influ­ences and his­tory than Wash­ing­ton state. While I regret not hav­ing a week to expe­ri­ence Tbil­isi the way we expe­ri­enced Bucharest, I think our bus adven­tures around the coun­try were much worth our time.

Where do I begin? While I wish we’d been able to spend more time in each vil­lage, it was quite some­thing to get to talk to some locals. In one Armen­ian vil­lage right on the Turk­ish bor­der (but I mean, in Geor­gia), the care­taker of the church came up to us as we got off the bus and started speak­ing Russ­ian (Geor­gia and Arme­nia being ex-Soviet states, most of the older pop­u­la­tions speak mainly Russ­ian. In fact, Georgia’s gov­ern­ment is try­ing to imple­ment pro­grams to teach minori­ties Geor­gian, to make it more use­ful as a national lan­guage and bring peo­ple together). Luck­ily our pro­fes­sor could trans­late, and the old man very gen­er­ously gave us a tour of the church and a bit of town his­tory. The chil­dren of the town were super curi­ous about us, and hud­dled near us the whole time. It was pretty cute, I’ll admit. In other vil­lages, peo­ple offered us fresh fruit… or just watched us. Archil and I had fun with can­did pho­tog­ra­phy, and one time a mother and young son had fun run­ning from each other for the cam­era. The real inter­ac­tion we got was with a fam­ily in Cheremi, the last town we vis­ited, in the heart of Georgia’s wine coun­try. This was a house our pro­fes­sor had obvi­ously taken stu­dents on pre­vi­ous trips, but nonethe­less. They taught us (through a lan­guage bar­rier), how to make khinkali and khacha­puri, tra­di­tional Geor­gian foods that we’d had almost every day. It was a lot of fun, but also sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult! Fold­ing dough is really an art. This was also pre­ceded by mak­ing sweet bread, or at least bak­ing it, for which they use a tra­di­tional stone oven. You flat­ten the dough out, then slap it on the inside wall of the oven, and let it rise. It tastes amaz­ing, too. And finally, this was all fol­lowed by a huge din­ner with the most food I’ve ever seen on one table. And it was all delicious.

An inter­est­ing story from this trip is that we actu­ally walked into Azer­bai­jan. Lit­er­ally, the Davit Gareja monastery is a short walk up a hill from the bor­der, which is at the top of that hill and extends up and down that range, with noth­ing but a few ancient guard tow­ers. Now, if a for­eigner were to walk across alone, they might be ques­tioned. But as a group, it is very reg­u­lar for peo­ple to cross the bor­der to see caves on the other side that were inhab­ited 1000 years ago. It’s an impres­sive sys­tem of caves, with sta­bles, a din­ing hall, and Chris­t­ian paint­ings all over. These weren’t even the first caves we vis­ited, though! By the Turk­ish bor­der, there is a much larger sys­tem of caves (still used by monks with an impres­sive church) called Vardzia. From around the same time period, these caves fea­ture mul­ti­ple lev­els of mul­ti­ple rooms and tun­nels which are, admit­tedly, quite fun to run through. Here’s a picture:


At the end of this adven­ture, I was exhausted, but when I got on the plane I was quite sad to be leav­ing. I’m already plan­ning a trip back next sum­mer (if I don’t choose to go to one of the mil­lions of other places I want to visit…). There is no way I’ll ever be the same per­son I was before the trip. My group was the great­est I could’ve asked for too, and I made friend­ships that I know will last, as well as con­nec­tions I couldn’t have made otherwise.

Arriv­ing home, I truly didn’t know what to do with myself, because I was so used to liv­ing with less and out of a suit­case, explor­ing new places, see­ing the same friends daily… but I also didn’t know how I viewed Amer­ica any­more. I think these are all good things. If travel doesn’t shake your sense of nor­mal­ity, you didn’t go far enough. In real­ity, travel is quite a self­ish thing. Unless you’re work­ing on human­i­tar­ian aid or polit­i­cal issues, the truth is your pres­ence doesn’t really help any­one you meet. Other coun­tries are going to develop the way they do no mat­ter what we do. Even if they’re more pro-America than I think is good or would expect from even ex-communist states (maybe my expec­ta­tions were low, but I tried to not have any). But that said, I think travel’s a very nec­es­sary self­ish thing. I don’t think we can develop as a nation with­out know­ing, in per­son, what other peo­ple are doing, not just because there are other good ideas out there, but because it’ll always put our place in per­spec­tive. If any­thing, I’m even more grate­ful for what we have here, but I also see that great­ness can go to our head, and that can actu­ally hurt other coun­tries as well. This bat­tle between the East and West that’s gone on for cen­turies con­tin­ues to be point­less (although the rea­sons are great insight into human nature), and destruc­tive for nations like Geor­gia and Roma­nia lit­er­ally stuck on the bor­der. Yeah, I still find Rus­sia and the Mid­dle East wor­ri­some, but some­how see­ing the actual place — even just from a moun­tain top on the bor­der — and talk­ing to peo­ple who have been there, makes them sig­nif­i­cantly less scary, because I have a whole new under­stand­ing of the area, includ­ing why it is the way it is. We’re scared of what we don’t know, and I think too many Amer­i­cans, West­ern­ers even, don’t know the East well enough. This makes it very con­fus­ing for nations who don’t know which direc­tion to turn.

I have a much brighter out­look than that might imply, trust me. These new expe­ri­ences, though, were so amaz­ing and life chang­ing that I’m per­ma­nently addicted, and this home life just isn’t gonna do it for me until I can afford a plane ticket again. The travel bug is some­thing that really sticks, though I never want to get rid of it.

Prague Beginnings

10/01/2015, Blog by Jef­frey Roy, Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Stud­ies, CHID Prague: Dis­cov­er­ing Cen­tral Europe

pragueTonight marks the end of my third day in the Czech Repub­lic, and the expe­ri­ence thus far has been noth­ing short of mem­o­rable. It’s 3am local time and I just got back from a mid­night walk through the city. I’m cur­rently pro­cras­ti­nat­ing read­ing an arti­cle on the unrav­el­ing of the Soviet Union; blog­ging brings about a con­ve­nient sense of pro­duc­tiv­ity that falsely per­mits one to put off that which can con­ceiv­ably be done later.
Despite my cur­rent lack of aca­d­e­mic moti­va­tion, I am look­ing for­ward to the var­i­ous edu­ca­tional prospects of the pro­gram. Tomor­row we’re attend­ing a con­fer­ence here in the city on the cur­rent state of the refugee cri­sis. Then on Thurs­day we’re board­ing an early train to Vienna, where will have 3 full days to absorb all that the Aus­trian city has to offer.
The pro­gram I’m par­tak­ing in is through the UW Seat­tle CHID depart­ment; as such I’ll be study­ing and expe­ri­enc­ing Cen­tral Europe with 15 other UW stu­dents. Being able to share the expe­ri­ence with other peo­ple was crit­i­cal in my choos­ing to apply for the pro­gram as I’ve never been abroad before and knew I didn’t want to expe­ri­ence it alone.
Between 16 of us there are a total of 4 apart­ments spread out across two Prague dis­tricts, Praha 1 and Praha 2. The apart­ment I’m liv­ing in is in Praha 2, and I share it with 4 other guys. On our first night we set out to explore the city with one of the other groups from Praha 1. We walked down to Charles Bridge and lin­gered a bit near the old town square; it was sort of mind bog­gling wrap­ping my head around the fact that I was actu­ally in Prague. After all the sav­ing, plan­ning, and prepar­ing I actu­ally made it to the Czech Repub­lic! The city is vastly dif­fer­ent from any­thing I’ve ever encoun­tered in the states. From the cob­ble­stone streets, to the vast cathe­drals found on every other cor­ner, I can now appre­ci­ate why they call it Europe’s “golden city.”prague 2

9/9–9/10: Leaving Cocha Cashu

The alarm went off at 5:00am this morn­ing, when it was still dark. Kyle and I didn’t start pack­ing right away. I sat in the dark­ness lis­ten­ing to the soft waves break­ing from the lake below our tents, to the howler mon­keys far off in the dis­tance, to the sounds of the night slowly fad­ing away. For those last few min­utes of night I was a lit­tle sad. I knew I would miss the sounds of the rain­for­est keep­ing me com­pany at night. A much nicer ser­e­nade than the sounds of cars in the dis­tance that punc­tu­ate the night even out in Duvall where I live at home–as small and removed as it may be. The honk­ing, music-filled nights of Cusco will cer­tainly be a shock­ing change from the jungle.

We ate break­fast and loaded the boats and were off by 8am. As we passed the river that marks the bound­ary of the Cocha Cashu Research area, we all offi­cially became ‘Cashu Nuts’. We stayed at Limonal again for the night and this time it was much less buggy–or maybe we were just used to it. Within 1 minute of set­ting up our tent we got a very cute frog vis­i­tor, and that night I prac­ticed tak­ing more star pictures.

DSC_0543The frog friend

DSC_0545Milky Way at Limonal

The boat ride to Ata­laya from Limonal ended up being the wildest adven­ture of the trip yet. Because the river was low, and we were trav­el­ing up-river, we repeat­edly had to exit the boat to make it past rapids. Some­times some of us had to get out to help push the boat, other times we all had to get out and walk along the gravel bars to catch up with the boat sev­eral hun­dred meters up. Other times we had to wade through the river–which was actu­ally extremely dif­fi­cult because of the swift cur­rent and slip­pery rocks. The ride took 3 hours longer than planned because of how often we had to get out of the boat. It felt like real-life sur­vivor as we all held hands to make it across the river with­out falling.

The chicos push­ing the boat. We even­tu­ally con­vinced the boat dri­ver to let the chi­cas push as well.

When we finally got to Ata­laya we were all exhausted and starv­ing, so they pro­vided us eggs and rice as a pre-dinner snack. We then got on a bus to go to the Villa Car­men bio­log­i­cal sta­tion where we were to stay for the night. When we arrived the first thing we noticed were the lights lin­ing the gravel walkways–that was def­i­nitely dif­fer­ent from Cocha Cashu. The aston­ish­ment con­tin­ued as the girls were shown to our cab­ins along man­i­cured path­ways lined with care­fully planted trees and flow­ers. When Kyle and I were shown to our room I nearly cried. There were two nicely made beds with mos­quito net­ting, clean walls and floors, and then when we went into the bath­room I saw the most beau­ti­ful shower I’d ever seen. I then under­stood why we heard all the other girls scream­ing with shock and joy as they entered their rooms before us. For one day, we would be in luxury.

DSC_0551 DSC_0552
Our beau­ti­ful lodg­ing and incred­i­ble shower

As we passed the din­ing room, I saw that all the young Amer­i­cans inside were so nicely groomed com­pared to our group that just spent 2 days on the river that I had to wash up before din­ner. The food was deli­cious and there was as much as we wanted, and what’s funny is that a cou­ple of the Amer­i­cans I talked to were from Ore­gon and Colorado–nice and close to home.

9/6–9/8: More Field Work


I have reached the point in the pro­gram where I’m just tired of it. I’m tired of doing field research, I’m tired of being at Cocha Cashu, I’m tired of my group, I’m tired of the peo­ple and their con­ver­sa­tions, I’m tired of jour­nal­ing, I’m tired of being hot…what else? I think that’s it. Oh, I’m tired of being sweaty and stinky, too. That being said, I’m in the mid­dle of a 3-week long pro­gram and this is exactly how I’m sup­posed to be right now. And that being said, I need to stop mak­ing it every­one else’s fault and being upset at them for it. I’m writ­ing this as I’m sit­ting by myself in the loft, after a lunch in which I didn’t talk to any­one. Boo, Kendall! Stop being a sour­puss and stop mak­ing it up that I have to do the whole project by myself, because that’s what I’m pre­tend­ing and as a result I’m feel­ing angry and upset. So I guess now I’m going to go apol­o­gize to my group for being a butt to every­one. I’ll go do that.


Later in the woods after we (the Fun­Gals) had fin­ished our plots for the day, we were all in a much bet­ter mood. When I apol­o­gized for being cranky, all the other girls admit­ted they were being the same way and so we all brought it in for a group hug and yelled “Fun-Gals!” on 3. After that we all under­stood each other much bet­ter and even though we were tired and cranky the rest of the time, we didn’t take it per­son­ally and always had each oth­ers’ backs–literally, we often checked each oth­ers’ backs for ticks. We com­pleted the last two days of set­ting up plots and col­lect­ing data and on the last day we were able to relax. It also helped that by the end we fig­ured out to remove our flag­ging as soon as we fin­ished a plot, so by the last day we only had to go take down plots on two trails.

The morn­ing of the 8th, our last day at Cocha Cashu, both Feli­cia and I slept in until 7:30am (yes, that is sleep­ing in by a long shot) and got break­fast then just went back and sat in our tents until 10:30am. It was pretty relaxed. The morn­ing before, I met Ursula and Jen at 6:00am to go on the lake. The fam­ily of river otters actu­ally found and sur­prised us by sud­denly appear­ing next to the canoe! I hadn’t been on the lake yet so it was pretty nice, but I was in the midst of deal­ing with an unpre­dictably upset stom­ach so I was a lit­tle dis­tracted. The last day I was pretty groggy–I acci­den­tally took a 30 minute nap and was late to the group photo. Prob­a­bly because the night before I was in a ter­ri­ble mood and my fin­ger was swollen and numb from a bug bite (the third of its kind I got in the suc­ces­sional for­est) so I took a Benedryl right after din­ner and slept for about 12 hours.

All in all, when the time came to leave Cocha Cashu, I was def­i­nitely ready. My only qualm is that it will still be 3 more days until we are out of the itchy, buggy low­land for­est. All of us girls, at least, have been look­ing for­ward to get­ting to Wayqecha in the cloud for­est for awhile. We did have some excit­ing times at Cocha Cashu, though. In gen­eral, the more dan­ger­ous and frigth­en­ing, the more excit­ing. One of these expe­ri­ences for the Fun­Gals was hav­ing huge tree limbs fall from the can­poy and crash down around us. This hap­pened two days in a row and is def­i­nitely some­thing none of us will for­get. For the group work­ing with Heli­co­nia plants, for exam­ple, their most excit­ing moment was walk­ing into a col­lec­tion of bul­let ants–both that are ter­ri­fy­ing at the time but that make great stories.


Blog 9:6-9:8 - 2Blog 9:6-9:8 - 3 Blog 9:6-9:8 - 1
3 exam­ples of the over 60 fungi species we found

Also in the last two days I had to catch up on tak­ing some required pic­tures for the trip. One of which was to find 3 fungi–luckily for the Fun­Gals, this was our entire project. All the pho­tos were very inter­pre­tive. I did get harassed, how­ever, for ask­ing some­one else to take my ‘selfie’ pic­ture. As some­one who never takes actual self­ies, I didn’t really get what was wrong with that sce­nario. I get it now (I guess you have to take your own pic­ture, or some­thing silly like that) but I’m still sub­mit­ting that pic­ture anyway.

By the end of the last night I wasn’t tired at all, for once. Prob­a­bly because of the ungodly amount of sleep I got the night before. We had sev­eral pre­sen­ta­tions after din­ner, one by the Con­ser­va­tion Com­mit­tee from our pro­gram, and then a slideshow pre­sen­ta­tion by Dano, the wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher. The power kept cut­ting out at the end of his pre­sen­ta­tion, though, because the charge from the station’s solar pan­els was low. So we took this as a sign to go to bed. Also, all of some­thing must have hatched at once because there were bil­lions of tiny bugs swarm­ing the whole sta­tion. They got in your food, mouth, eyes, nose, every­where. By the morn­ing they were all gone. It was quite bizarre and was quite the send-off for the group from the Uni­ver­sity of Washington.

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Good­bye Cocha Cashu


Upon reflect­ing on my time at Cocha Cashu, one of the coolest things about being there, and for which I am very priv­i­leged, was the chance to see all the mon­keys, specif­i­cally the spi­der mon­keys. Just as cool, though less exotic, was the fact that John Ter­borgh, world-renowned trop­i­cal biol­o­gist and man­ager of the sta­tion since 1973, was there while we were. We were assigned sev­eral papers to read in prepa­ra­tion of our stay at the research sta­tion and many of them were by John him­self. The biggest con­tri­bu­tion John made to our learn­ing was the night he gave a pre­sen­ta­tion after din­ner on the effect that the over-hunting of spi­der mon­keys has on for­est com­po­si­tion. From his pre­sen­ta­tion we learned that you can travel nearly the entire trop­ics with­out see­ing a sin­gle spi­der mon­key due to hunt­ing by local and indige­nous peo­ples, and the reserves around Cocha Cashu are nearly the only place to see such large pri­mates. Also, and more strik­ing and per­ti­nent, was his com­ment and strong urg­ing that the only real way for con­ser­va­tion­ists to make a dif­fer­ence is to get into pol­i­tics, like it or not. After hear­ing this, and hear­ing John him­self say that his years of work have made no dif­fer­ence in gov­ern­men­tal pol­icy in Peru, all of the stu­dents were in a sober mood. But it sparked dis­cus­sion for the rest of the trip on ways we can indi­vid­u­ally start mak­ing that dif­fer­ence now. His was a talk that I and the rest of the group will cer­tainly never forget.

Spi­der mon­key and baby. Photo by David Chang.

9/5: Second Day of Field Work

I woke up to howler mon­keys howl­ing directly above our tent. This was at 5:20am and I got up mostly because of my sur­prise at how atro­cious the sound was. I took a morn­ing shower, which I will never do again because the cold lake-temperature water is much less pleas­ant first thing in the morn­ing than in the hot after­noon after a long day. I was present for 6:30am “break­fast” which was just crack­ers and hot choco­late, and waited for the rest of my research group to be ready to go. We left the sta­tion around 8am, com­plet­ing our plots in around 2 hours, which is typ­i­cal, and made it back in time to meet Ursula to plan how we were going to sur­prise Tim for his birth­day. We came up with a steamy dance set to 2Pac’s “How Do U Want It?” mim­ic­k­ing the mat­ing behav­ior of the birds Tim stud­ied in the trop­ics back in his day. We sur­prised him after lunch by blast­ing the song and sur­round­ing him to show him our bird-moves. He was def­i­nitely sur­prised, and sur­prised us by freestyle bird-dancing in the cen­ter of the circle!

After­wards, we all split up to do weekly chores around the sta­tion. I cleaned the com­post­ing toi­lets with Kyle M. and the sta­tion direc­tor, Rox­anna. This took about an hour, then the Fun­Gals went back into the field for more data col­lec­tion. We were back to check in with the self-appointed Con­ser­va­tion Com­mit­tee to dis­cuss how it’s been going keep­ing track of our eco­log­i­cal footprints.

We heard rumors that there would be pizza for din­ner, and it was true! The piz­zas they make here have lit­er­ally every­thing on them: they were quite deli­cious. Once we’d all had pizza and con­tin­ued intro­duc­ing our­selves to the other researchers at the sta­tion (which we’d started the night before) the cooks brought out a choco­late cake for Tim and we all sang multi-national birth­day songs!

After din­ner, one of other Cocha Cashu res­i­dents, a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher named Dano Grayson, took any­one inter­ested to the beach to take pic­tures of the stars. Most of the time was just spent hav­ing him take pic­tures of us pos­ing under the Milky Way, but I did get 2 suc­cess­ful night­time sky pic­tures that I’m pretty proud of. I stayed out later than I have the entire time I’ve been at Cocha Cashu so far, get­ting back to the tent at around mid­night. I’ve been so tired lately that I don’t even inflate my sleep­ing pad before I lay down. It’s pretty nice, actually.

11143277_10204791596084785_5066226549282831804_nDano’s pic­ture of us all

Blog 9:5 - 1My first star picture!

9/2–9/4: Life at Cocha Cashu


WARNING: This post con­tains spiders.


I have to say I’ve become obsessed with hunt­ing for spi­ders at night–something I never though I would ever say. Ever since read­ing in Trop­i­cal Nature that spi­ders’ eyes glow green, as soon as it’s dark enough out for a head­lamp I auto­mat­i­cally start scan­ning the leaves and trees for the emer­ald twin­kle that indi­cates a spi­der is stand­ing there. The color is quite beau­ti­ful, actu­ally. It is a sort of sick obses­sion because as much as spi­ders make me extremely uncom­fort­able to be around, when I see the green lights I have to go look to see who is hid­ing there. Usu­ally they’re very small, hid­ing under the leaves, and it’s impres­sive how you can see the eye-reflection of spi­ders even as small as a dime. So usu­ally it’s a pretty harm­less search. That is, until I see the mas­sive, hairy front legs just in front of the eyes being held above the ground in lung­ing posi­tion. Upon closer inspec­tion I see the most giant, yes giant in the Ama­zon­ian sense, spi­der I’ve ever seen. After telling Ursula about it she con­firms that it was most likely a taran­tula. Every walk back to the tent I simul­ta­ne­ously hope I do and don’t see it again, just to prove to myself that I really saw it in the first place.

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Call­ing this a big spi­der would be push­ing it

It also rained last night for the first time since being in the rainforest–funny, right? It rained again this morn­ing, too, which thwarted most people’s data col­lec­tion but since my group is sur­vey­ing fungi, we con­tin­ued our work. The rain also reduced the inces­sant heat that cov­ers most of the day and it was a pleas­ant relief. I would also like to say that our group of girls study­ing fungi has been offi­cially named the fun­gals (get it? Fun-Gals?) and today we spent our first full day in the field mak­ing 5x5 meter plots along early suc­ces­sional and old-growth for­est to count the num­ber of fungi species we see.

Blog 9:2-9:4 - 2The ladies of Cocha Cashu


As I said, the morn­ing was pleas­ant, though very wet. The after­noon, how­ever, was a whole ‘nother story. The under­story was very dense with plants and spi­ders. Mul­ti­ple occa­sions of nav­i­gat­ing around webs of colo­nial spi­ders, and in one of our plots we kept find­ing bul­let ants and ant-plants (plants on which ant colonies live and defend their homes). Pretty much we always start off strong then about 3 plots in we just push through as quickly as pos­si­ble to get out of the rain and bugs.

Blog 9:2-9:4 - 4Set­ting up a plot

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An exam­ple of colo­nial spiders

I’ve also been deal­ing with two very large swollen, itchy, painful patches on my wrist and behind my knee (of which Stella has a match­ing one). The pro­fes­sion­als think it is an aller­gic reac­tion so I took a Benedryl pill before bed and then slept the hard­est I have since being here.

9/1: Second Day at Cocha Cashu

Today is going much bet­ter than yes­ter­day! Not only was I severely dehy­drated, I found out, but the three days of travel had taken a toll on all of us. It relieved me to hear that I wasn’t the only one strug­gling yes­ter­day. Talk­ing to some of the girls today, we all were second-guessing com­ing into the mid­dle of the jun­gle and pri­vately count­ing down the days until we left. But today we are all hav­ing a great time. I could sense a dif­fer­ence in my mood immediately.

Last night all I wanted to do was go to my tent and fall asleep to escape the itch­ing. I barely made it through our group work time after din­ner with­out cry­ing, and after get­ting in the tent I have no mem­ory of what hap­pened until I woke up this morn­ing. I spent a cou­ple of min­utes this morn­ing upset that I left my lit­tle travel cup some­where last night and for­got it–I asked the cooks and our whole group and everything–then I found it later in the skinny note­book pocket in my back­pack with no rec­ol­lec­tion of putting in there. I had also some­how stuffed a shirt in that lit­tle pocket as well.

Any­way, we only hiked for a cou­ple hours this morn­ing but I enjoyed it 10 times more than the hike yes­ter­day. We saw 2 species of tamarins (emperor and another) and three other species of mon­keys (spi­der, white capuchin, and squir­rel). Yes, tamarins are mon­keys too but they’re a spe­cific fam­ily. I paid no heed to the insects pos­si­bly bit­ing me or the bites I already had and thor­oughly enjoyed bush­whack­ing off-trail. I even had the desire to pho­to­graph Cocha Cashu today, which I did not at all before.

Blog 9:1 - 6A prod­uct of mist-netting with Ursula

We spent the late morn­ing in a plant fam­ily ID work­shop and then split into two groups to set up bird and insect traps. My group made but­ter­fly traps with Tim. It felt like those activ­i­ties they’d have us do in ele­men­tary, mid­dle, and high school (even col­lege) where you’d get a pile of ran­dom knick-knacks and your group had to make the tallest struc­ture you could, for exam­ple. Kyle M. and I made a killer but­ter­fly trap (with help from Kyle K.) pri­mar­ily out of twigs and string. Tomor­row we’ll see what has been caught in it.

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Plant ID workshop

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Kyle and I’s killer but­ter­fly trap

I also don’t have the over­whelm­ing urge to bathe myself, being quite com­fort­able with my phys­i­cal con­di­tion. And, I have energy and moti­va­tion to catch up on my jour­nal­ing and not just go to sleep. I also had a fan­tas­tic run-in with a katy­did after din­ner! I’m get­ting up early to do more laun­dry tomor­row; it’s pretty stan­dard to get up at 6am. Break­fast for the sta­tion is ready at 6:30 every morn­ing, after all.

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It got me

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It got Kyle

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It got Tim!

8/31: First Day at Cocha Cashu

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Cocha Cashu lake and station

This sounds ungrate­ful and I don’t like to admit it, but what I’m feel­ing right now is that I don’t want to be in the jun­gle any­more. The only rea­son is the itchy, bit­ing bugs. I know I just have to get used to it, and when I look at other peo­ple they have way more bites than I do, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an itch­ing wimp. It makes me go crazy! I woke up at 1am last night and couldn’t get back to sleep for 2 hours because my body itched every­where. I don’t even mind the heat or sweat­ing pro­fusely nearly the whole day. But the itch­ing is push­ing me to the brink. I couldn’t even enjoy see­ing tamarins and a tou­can on our first walk because I was too para­noid about get­ting bit­ten every­where. The spi­ders are bet­ter than the itch­ing. THIS is my test for being here.

I know the key is to not scratch the bites to make them go away, but when you have bites on your under­wear line (front and back) and the top of your foot, just mov­ing and walk­ing per­pet­u­ates it. The worst are the sand­fly bites on my hands and neck (the only places that are exposed), mostly because I can see and feel them and psych myself out. My hand bites also send sharp twangs across my nerves and has made my hands and wrists very sen­si­tive to touch. Right  now all that’s get­ting me through is look­ing for­ward to leav­ing the low­lands. But I’m sure once we start our projects and I can be very focused on some­thing besides my bites, it will get better.

Today on our walk I think I coped by shut­ting down my body. It felt like my mind retreated and I could barely talk or think or move. Or I’m just extremely dehy­drated so I’m going to focus on drink­ing a lot of water. Just now I spot­ted the giant river otters for which Manu is famous so we are all watch­ing those. Yes, look­ing at the otters is mak­ing my itch­ing go down.

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Giant river otters


8/28–8/30: Getting to Cocha Cashu


Expe­ri­ence of the bus ride so far: motion sick­ness pills save the day.


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Our trusty bus

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A pit stop at pre-Incan tombs with lit­tle hairy epi­phytes (macro practice)


And then I was too exhausted every night to write any­thing. The trav­el­ing was enjoy­able but thor­oughly exhaust­ing, as I just said. We were on the move for a total of 3 days, one by bus and two by boat, mul­ti­ple morn­ings leav­ing by 5am. Get­ting up when it’s just as dark and buggy out as when you went to bed is no fun. But get­ting to see the rain­for­est by river­boat at sun­rise was pretty fantastic.

Blog 8:28-8:30 - 14Load­ing the boats

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El Rio Manú at sunrise

I can liken the bus ride and boat ride to two other rides I’ve taken in my life: the Juras­sic Park ride at Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios, Orlando, and the Jun­gle River ride at Dis­ney­land. Yes, Mom, it really was like the Dis­ney ride except it was real life. I sat up front with Ursula and spent the whole ride spot­ting birds and learn­ing about the ecol­ogy there. We made some great pygmy owl sight­ings and learned a lot about iden­ti­fy­ing vul­tures and shorebirds.

Blog 8:28-8:30 - 07Our real jun­gle river ride

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Blog 8:28-8:30 - 09  Ursula explains some­thing eco­log­i­cal Blog 8:28-8:30 - 04She also catches horse­flies in mid-flight with her bare hands.

The first night on the boats we stayed at Limonal, the bug­gi­est place of my life, but the night explor­ing was truly amaz­ing. Above the hall­way in the kitchen/dining build­ing was one of those giant spi­ders they have at the Wood­land Park Zoo that’s in its huge web behind no glass. I’ve got­ten pretty used to see­ing fright­en­ingly large but very col­or­ful orb-weaver spi­ders. We have fun throw­ing bugs in their webs and watch­ing the spi­ders eat them. It’s the big, fast ones on the ground that I have more trou­ble with. Later on the trip I wit­nessed one jump over a foot; they’re giant jump­ing fast ground spi­ders. Back home, a “big” spi­der meant some­thing the size of a quar­ter, and “giant” ones were prob­a­bly the wolf or house spi­ders you see in the garage. But here, I’d con­sider a 50-cent piece sized spi­der small, or at least aver­age, most of them being 2–3″ across includ­ing the legs. Here, “big” means you’ve never seen any­thing that size at home, and “giant” spi­ders are the size of your palm or larger.

Peo­ple said there were giant striped spi­ders that would appear along the path, or on people’s back­packs for exam­ple. I didn’t see any of those, I’m happy to say. We still have a lot of time in the jun­gle, though. Tomor­row we’ll arrive at Cocha Cashu by the late after­noon and get this pro­gram really going.

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The bath­room (a.k.a. but­ter­fly room) at the Limonal Bio­log­i­cal Sta­tion, and a stick­bug we found in there.

*** More pic­tures from the trip

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Leaf-cutter ants in Ata­laya were our first taste of the real rainforest!

Blog 8:28-8:30 - 10Lunch stop on the river

Blog 8:28-8:30 - 11The most friendly but­ter­fly