9/20: Last Day in Cusco

Luckily, things were mostly packed from when we left for the Urubamba Valley so I didn’t have to do too much in the morning. A big group of us had all agreed to meet at noon to coordinate the rest of the day together. As we waited, I hit up the cafe/bakery next door with three other girls. Sitting there, sipping on espresso, it was weird to think about going home because it no longer felt like we were in a different country–Cusco had started feeling like home already. I can imagine how much stranger it would be if we’d spent a whole quarter or half a year abroad.

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I’d been carrying all this around in my ‘day pack’ for the last month

At noon, we all took taxis to the Plaza de Armas because that’s where all our hostels were. Me and 3 other people were staying at the same place, Pariwana Hostel, so we traveled together with all of our stuff. It was a very cool hostel with nightly activities and lots of cool services, and I wished I was staying there longer. At 1pm we all met up and some of us went to the market for more souvenirs. I went to exchange money then Tristan and I took a stroll to find food. We stumbled on a street fair type event happening in front of the college of sciences and we bought chicha to drink. The plan was for everyone to get back together at 3:30 to go to the football (fútbol) game that started at 4, but when we got back together we learned that the game had actually been at 11:45 in the morning! The rest of the plan was to watch the Seahawks game afterwards at Paddy’s Irish Pub (yes, an Irish pub) so we all just agreed to meet at 7pm for that.

Having slept barely 4 hours the night before, I went back to the hostel for a nap. I got about an hour of sleep in between people coming in and out of the room. At 6:45pm I headed over to Paddy’s, met the group, and we spent the next 4 hours hanging out and watching the slightly underwhelming game. I was falling asleep in my seat by the time it was over and promptly returned to the hostel to pack my last minute things and get as much sleep as I could. I had to get up before 5am to check out and get to the airport. It would be weird spending the next day traveling all by myself but I had grown comfortable in Peru and confident in my Spanish. Plus it gave me time to reflect on the last month and get ready to jump back in to my regular life again (I’ll never be ready, but who is?). On the 8 hour flight from Lima to Los Angeles I discovered that they had two Bob Marley albums available, which was the music I had been craving the most. It’s funny that being in Peru made me love Bob more than when I was back in Seattle. Now this was the perfect way to send me back home.

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9/19: Last Day of the Program

This time we could see on the train back to Ollantaytambo. Most of the group was asleep, though. I, having gotten 7 hours of sleep the past two nights, was able to stay awake. I spent most of the time finishing a drawing of a mandala that I had started on the bus ride back from Wayqecha. We got breakfast at a cute cafe that had a poster of Bob Marley so I immediately liked it. A couple of Colombian botanists that had been on the train with us (and apparently were also at the pizza restaurant the night before) walked in to the cafe about a half hour after us–I don’t really have anything to say about them but the coincidence is worth pointing out.

We got on our friendly bus back through the Urubamba Valley and visited a giant white Incan corn farm. The corn is known as giant white corn. Ever buy “Inka corn” from Trader Joes? Well they farm and make it at this place. We heard about Incan agricultural traditions, watched the uncanny trotting practice of the Peruvian horse (“the Cadillac of horses”) and were sent on our way with bags of dried corn products. Next we stopped at Ursula’s parent’s weekend house for an outdoor lunch. Again, I ate the leftover pizza from the night before. We had a long discussion to reflect on the second half of the course, and the course as a whole. It was a very empowering sharing of how each of us saw something new in terms of conservation and new ways to be once back at home. As an absolutely perfect ending, the universe and powers that be graced us with the appearance of 4 Andean condors flying around the nearby cliffs. The Andean condor is the world’s largest non-seafaring bird, worshiped by the Incas as representing the realm of the sky, featured in statues around Peru, and is also incredibly rare due to hunting and poisoning by humans. Basically, it was a really big deal that we saw them. I actually almost cried.

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The Andean condor

As another witty play by the universe, our next stop was a wildlife rehabilitation center for injured and mistreated wild animals, many of which were kept as pets at one point. There were Andeans condors there, too. Up close I was stunned by how truly giant these birds are–they stand over 4 feet tall and have over a 9 ft. wingspan–which we witnessed as one of the workers chased the birds to get them to fly. All in all, the center was heartbreaking to see but is an accurate depiction of the harsh reality that exists between humans and wild animals.

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The magnificent birds in [artificial] flight.

On the bus from there to Cusco, we were all in a somber mood. But again fate came around to provide us with the most stunning sunset I’ve seen in a long time. We all got off the bus and withstood the cold evening air to watch the day change to night. We were mostly silent for the shear beauty of what we were seeing. The perfect way to end our program.

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Sunset on the last day of the Exploration Seminar: from Andes to Amazon

But we weren’t done yet; we still had the last supper. We had a little under an hour at Alfonso to put our stuff down and relax before catching a taxi to Ursula’s brother’s restaurant. It was a fancy place that played smooth jazz covers of very not-smooth-jazz songs. We had the whole back section to ourselves which was good because there were several toasts and speeches (I actually started off the set). We spent almost 3 hours there talking and laughing and generally enjoying being all together before going our separate ways. But eventually things wound down and people started heading back to the hostel. It was around 10:30pm, and being the last night and all, I was going out dancing.

Others had gone out on various nights and I’d been waiting for the last night this whole time. I walked directly to the plaza from the restaurant to hit the town. It was Latin night at the place we went to, which I was happy about because it fit with being in Peru. The club also had a poster of Bob Marley (brownie points!). That night I danced non-stop for 4 hours and by the time I got back to Alfonso I could barely make it up the stairs because I had no leg muscles left. But I made it to my room and spent my last night at Alfonso.

 

9/18: Machu Picchu

Surprise! We all had to be up by 5:15am to pack our lunch, eat breakfast, and catch a bus to Machu Picchu by 6am. In the bus line I was standing with Kiley, a fellow lover of reggae music, and he pointed out that one of the Peruvian workers had a hat with the Rastafarian lion of Judah on it. Upon commenting on it and asking where he bought it (en Español, of course), we ended up telling him we were from the U.S. and were surprised and impressed when he responded by listing all of the states! He then told us how tourism to Machu Picchu has increased from 15 people/day in the ’70s to the 4000 to 6000 people that currently visit the park every day. With that staggering fact, we loaded the bus for the 20 minute ride up the mountain to the site. On the way, we realized how truly incredible a location we were in.

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Unveiling of the Inca ruin

Machu Picchu is located on the East slope of the Andes in the cloud forests of the Amazon. Although we’d already visited this ecosystem on our trip, the unbelievably sharp cliff faces and tall peaks of the surrounding mountains were like we’d never seen before. Our group had hired a tour guide, Hector, to show us around the ruins. He first took us to a ledge to get the shot of Machu Picchu that you mentally picture when you think of it. Watching the clouds slowly reveal the city was magical and exciting. Hector also explained to us how the ‘Picchu’ in Machu Picchu is pronounced like ‘picture,’ something I had not known before.

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Me and the group getting our Machu Picchu pictures in

Afterwards, Hector walked us through the city, giving us anthropological information. Apparently everything is way cooler if you visit on June 21st, the Winter Solstice. The tour finished at 11am and we had the rest of the day to wander and get back in town in time for dinner. Kiley and I met up with Luke to go to the two easily accessible hikes to the Inca Bridge and the Sun Gate which overlooks the ruin. Although the hikes weren’t long, hiking up the steep slopes at the 9,000 ft. altitude was very hard on my legs. The views were worth it though.

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What most people don’t realize being at Machu Picchu looks like.

Also, a surprise to us all were the sandflies. We thought we were done with biting bugs after leaving Manu, but we should have never let our guard down. Lots of people in short sleeves got torn up–I’m glad I stuck with the long-sleeves long-pants protocol. I still got several bites that swelled up a lot, and even bites from flies that flew up my untucked pantlegs. Little buggers! I felt bad for all the unsuspecting tourists; at least we were used to it.

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Alpacas on the trail to the Sun Gate

There was also the option to hike back down to Aguas Calientes from Machu Picchu which Kiley and I did as well, to the chagrin of my shaking calves. On the way we ran into Jen and Ursula who told us about this restaurant back in town that has the best fries. As we hiked back they sounded better and better so we had to stop and get some. The four of us sat and relaxed and ate fries for an hour then headed back to the hotel to shower before dinner.

They had planned a big dinner at a fancy pizza place–we had to give our pizza orders a couple days earlier. Before we got our food, a game of pictionary started up with me and Ashlyn vs. Kiley and Kyle M. It was probably  the most fun game of pictionary I’ve ever played, with topics ranging from Amazonian animals to obscure sports to draw-other-people-in-our-group-using-only-accessories-that-represent-them. At the end of the meal I proposed that Luke make a toast. I had heard that the guys had taught him what a toast was and how to ‘cheers’ a few nights before and I thought this was a great opportunity for him to try it out. I don’t know if I’ve already mentioned that Luke is an international student from China and we took lots of opportunities to teach him American phrases and culture, learning Chinese (Mandarin) ones in return. Anyway, he made a really beautiful toast to the occasion and to all of us in the program. After that we all shouted out our own toasts to other things, like no more chiggers and sandflies [Cheers!].

That night, several people went out dancing but I was still very tired and went to bed, especially considering that we had to leave the hotel by 4:50am to catch our 5am train (remember what I said about 8am being late?). In the middle of the night, however, I was awoken by drumming and shouts coming from the school courtyard outside out window. I looked out to see maybe 20 people performing a synchronized routine while holding what looked like short sticks and shouting rhythmically. I looked at my watch at it read 12:02am. . . well that’s Peru for you.

9/15-9/17: The Urubamba Valley (Sacred Valley of the Incas)

By this point, leaving at 8am was considered ‘late’ and I had a very leisurely morning as I showered, ate breakfast, and packed for our next departure. It was an exciting morning because Victor met us and rode the bus out with us to the Urubamba Valley. This kicked off the cultural portion of the program and our travels would take us through the cultural history of the Andes, instead of the natural history of the Amazon Rainforest.

Our first stop was at a school called Tikapata, which is what is known as a ‘free school’, not because there is no tuition but because the students (ranging from age 7 to 17) are free to choose how their education goes. The original model came from Barcelona, where it is known as “la casita,” or ‘little house.’ As someone interested in innovative approaches to education that work for everyone, I loved hearing Marlise, the woman running the school, talk about the methods and ideas behind the ideology.

But our visit wasn’t just educational (pun intended), we were all given different projects to work on around the property, which traditionally is what our group does at the school every year. I chose the task of digging holes so that they could hang four hammocks beneath a tree. Everyone said this would be the hardest job, but I really liked the idea of digging. What I and the other diggers didn’t know is that we would have Victor on our team! I swear that man is part machine–he would come by and finish a hole we had started on in minutes. I was glad to get to work with him and was able to talk with him and hold a minimal conversation in Spanish. I learned that to say ‘big rock’ in Quechua is “hato rumi!” Anyway, we finished first and us hole diggers went around and helped/chatted with the other groups doing their jobs.

Right before lunch, a group of the younger girls begged us to watch their dance routine which was choreographed to One Direction. It was adorable. We then all ate a lunch of sandwiches (I also ate the last piece of the giant pizza from the day before) and watched some of the boys in our group play basketball. It got real when Tim jumped in–he and Luke made a great team!

After lunch we continued on our way and stopped at the site of an old Incan castle courtyard where Victor would perform an earth-blessing ceremony. Watching Victor conduct the ceremony was an honor; my favorite part was when he went to every person and jingled a bell over their heads and said Quechuan words of good blessing and fortune. The whole ceremony took about 40 minutes, which was a shortened version, as Victor explained.

Last Import - 1The offering to the ‘apus’ (sacred mountains)

We then continued to another town where Victor disembarked back to Cusco and we all got checked into our hotel. The Urubamba Valley is a big tourist attraction and the hotel we stayed at was nice. So nice, in fact, that I could never figure out at dinner what to do with all the plates and utensils that were on the table. We used our time here to do a quick analysis of our data to present to the group, and also 3 groups had to lead discussions (mine included) so a lot of free time was spent preparing for that. The way the rooming situation worked out, I was sharing a room with 2 of the boys, which was actually a ton of fun because I’d felt like I’d mainly only gotten to know the girls so far (which is understandable considering there were 10 of us girls and only 5 guys, TA’s not included). We were out of the hotel most of the day anyway but it was certainly a nice place to go back to in the evening. The breakfasts in the morning actually immobilized me momentarily because of the shear number of options to choose from. I wasn’t the only one–we were all used to living on the minimalist side of things.

The second day, we started by visiting a traditional women’s weaving co-op, something I had been looking forward to since applying for the program. I have always been fascinated by weaving and tapestries yet know absolutely nothing about how it’s done. We didn’t learn that, but we did spend the morning learning about the natural dyes they use to color the sheep and alpaca yarn, and we spent most of the time actually preparing the dyes themselves. Whether it was from pulverizing twigs for peach dye or lifting the huge quantities of colored yard out of the boiling water, I used enough muscles that my shoulders were sore for the net two days. Experiencing the process of dying wool gave me a lot of respect for the Quechuan women who do this for a living to help support their families.

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All of us making dyes

Nilda, the woman who created the co-op, is actually world renowned. She has published three books and led weaving workshops as close to home as Whidbey Island. I’m going to keep my eye out for those because they sent each of us home with a skein of dyed wool in each of the 7 colors we made. We were also given the opportunity to buy textiles from the women there and I bought the most beautiful table runner I’ve ever seen. It was 100% alpaca, hand-dyed and hand-woven, and probably the most expensive thing I purchased on the trip, but I couldn’t be happier.

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Our finished products hanging to dry

Lunch was provided for us and it was the most diverse and abundant collection of dishes we had seen yet (in ecological terms, it would be considered to be a very rich composition of foods). This was also our chance to try cuy, or guinea pig. If they hadn’t brought out the whole, roasted animal first I might have been more receptive, but as it was, it was incredibly salty and I didn’t care for it much. Others, however, did enjoy it a lot. Good for them.

It started raining just as we were leaving so we said goodbye to the women and made our way to our next destination: the salt mines, or salt ponds. Tim told us about how the Incas, or even pre-Incas, were the first to divert the naturally salted water coming out of the mountain into ponds to evaporate and leave salt. The two amazing things about this water is that it is something like 60x as salty as the ocean and that it comes out of the mountainsides warm to the touch. The tourist trail walks along the top ridge of the expanse of over 7000 ponds and turns into a trail that goes all the way down to the Urubamba River. Needless to say, we walked down seeing some nice views along the way and becoming friends with a stray dog and the local children of the little village at the end of the trail. The bus was waiting for us there to take us back to the hotel where we had dinner and also those data presentations to do.

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The salt mines reminded me of the Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park

The next morning was my group’s discussion so we met after breakfast to prepare for that. I also took my last shower at the hotel whose water pressure and fine temperature adjustment made it hands-down the best shower of the trip, and definitely up there in all-time best showers of my life. Others agreed. We also were getting on a train that night so we packed up and took everything out to the bus in what was by then a very familiar ritual.

The first stop of this day was at a ceramics shop/workshop/museum which followed designs and practices inspired by all of Peru’s ancient cultures. Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy my time there that much because, big surprise, I was dehydrated, and after drinking powdered Gatorade I was feeling better. I forgot what lunch was that day but I do remember we next stopped at a chicharia (where they make chicha, the traditional fermented corn drink). We received a very quick description of the process, tried some chicha, and received dinner in our Tupperwares to eat later. We quickly headed off to the town of Ollantaytambo (“oh-JON-tay-tom-bo”) which is where we’d be catching the train that evening.

Ollantaytambo is a town built between the mountains with a significant role in the Spanish conquest of the Incas. As it is now, there is one road into and out of the town, paved in stone, and the town itself flourishes around tourism because it is a main stop on the way to Machu Picchu. We arrived with several hours to spare and the group went together to do a short hike up the mountain, but when we got there we weren’t allowed to go up because the trail closed at 4:30pm. Ursula was very surprised because it wasn’t that way last year but we learned that just a month ago, a woman hiked up at dusk and slipped and fell to her death, and that’s why they close the trail at 4:30pm now. So I guess that’s fair.

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View of Ollantaytambo

After that, we all wandered and a group of us found a cafe with upper balcony seating and we stayed there until it was time to meet to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu. For most of us, the train left at 7:00pm, but four people had to catch the 9:00pm train, due to our “last minute,” 2-month in advance booking of the tickets. The ride took 2 hours, and I slept most of it because the night before I drank too much coffee and couldn’t get to sleep very well. The train to Machu Picchu is all windows but since it was dark out we didn’t see the amazing landscape to which we were entering.

 

9/13-9/14: Back in Cusco (again)

After making one last stop inside Manú National Park, we stopped at Paucartambo to look at a museum of the cultures that were blended into the very Spanish-Catholic influenced town. When we made it back to Cusco in the afternoon, we had the rest of the day off. Unfortunately for us, it was Sunday so all of the useful places like laundry services and internet cafes were closed. Tim and Ursula gave each of us money to go to dinner on our own so at 6:00pm, Kyle K., Tristan, and I met up to head into the Plaza de Armas to treat ourselves. It being our first restaurant meal in 17 days, we went a little all-out. If going all-out can be done in a ‘little’ fashion.

We all shared a big vegetarian pizza (since I switched to being vegetarian for the rest of the trip) which was a great way to conserve money; money which Tristan and I then used to buy 2 pisco sours each. Kyle bought cheesecake for dessert and then we went in search of chocolate. We ended up at a cafe where we all bought more dessert and Tristan and I got more pisco sours flavored with aguaymanto–we didn’t know what it was and it tasted kind of weird. After all this, we caught a taxi back to the hostal and Kyle and I went over to the different hostal where Tristan was staying and we played Spanish Bananagrams for an hour. Kyle and I soon went back to our own hostal go to sleep.

Needless to say, my stomach was a little upset the next day, which I mainly attribute to the large amount of sugar I’d consumed–the most I’d had since the program started. We had all been given a group assignment to pick up some items from the market, but most important was to drop off our laundry to have it done by the end of the day. For this, Kyle and I combined forces with another guy in the program and then she and I hit up the internet cafe to let our families know we were alive after being deep in the rainforest for 2 weeks.

Most of the group had signed up to get ceviche lunch with Ursula and Tim, but I didn’t really want seafood (or want to break my vow to vegetarianism) so I opted out. The four of us not going to the cevicheria instead got lunch together which consisted of a meter-long pizza. If that doesn’t sound atrociously large, then you should probably review your metric lengths because it was a ridiculous amount of food. There were 4 of us at lunch and by some act of God we finished all but one piece, which I took back with me. After that, my stomach was really unsure of itself but the show must go on, and my group had to go to the market still.

That assignment only took us about fifteen minutes to complete, but we had taken a taxi all the way up to the plaza and all of us wanted to shop around. Over the next couple hours we found various members of our UW group, I ended up buying an alpaca sweater, and we eventually made it aback to Alfonso to meet up before going to dinner, which was to be at Ursula’s parent’s house and made with the ingredients we all bought at the market.

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Ashlyn and our fresh ingredients!

We made the short walk to the house and spent the next several hours sharing about our purchases and actually making the dinner itself. Even though we didn’t eat until about 8:30pm, it was a lot of fun preparing all the fresh ingredients. Unfortunately, my digestive system still wasn’t in tip-top shape so I couldn’t eat the yummy fruit-flavored dessert. I was also about to fall asleep by the time we all left the house, which was after 10pm. We still had to pack to leave Cusco again but I was much too tired and just went to sleep and wound up packing in the morning.

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Me mixing potatoes and the kitchen cooking party

9/11-9/12: Wayqecha

We spent the morning until lunch time at Villa Carmen touring their medicinal herb garden where Kyle K. got partially stung by a bullet ant; their sustainable mandala-shaped vegetable garden; the pineapple, banana, and watermelon plots where experiments using biochar were being conducted; and finally the oven where they made the biochar itself. By the end, lots of us were tired and dehydrated and had to pee so I went back to the station to pack and get ready before lunch. Before lunchtime I bought some seed-jewelry made by local women that I wear all the time, now that I’m home.

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We got a little bit LOST at Villa Carmen

We then took the bus to the Wayqecha Biological Station which was not a long trip at all (just about 3 hours). When we got there, about 10,000 ft. up the mountain, I was happy to feel the chill of being at high elevation again. The station is situated on a hillside with beautiful views of the expansive rainforest. We had a couple hours to relax in our dorms before dinner–all the boys in one room, all the girls in another. It was a lot of fun bunking with all the other girls for two nights.

 Blog 9:11-9:12 - 2Tristan enjoying the view

The dinner they treated us to–as with the rest of the meals, as we’d find out–was fanciful and delicious. The dining room was also beautiful. After dinner we heard a presentation on birds by a researcher staying at the station. By the end we were all very tired and went to bed. In the morning, we got up before breakfast time to look at the mist nets we’d set up the day before. It was hard having the whole group there so Kramer took a small voluntary group on a hike on the mountainside trails. We wandered for awhile and when we got back for breakfast we were super hungry and exhausted. It was weird hiking down the mountain first, only to have to hike back up it later. Totally the opposite of all hiking experiences here in Washington State.

After breakfast, Tim and Ursula took groups on another hike to look at the natural history of the ecosystems of Wayqecha. We hiked back up for lunch, then had a break before our second (or in my case, third) hike to the canopy walkway. I took a nap during this time. The canopy walkway hike was absolutely beautiful–I think being in the damp, misty elfin forest was my favorite experience so far. They walkway itself was a metal pathway suspended in the air above a small forest valley. It was raining by the time I got to it and continued until we returned to the station around 5:00pm.

Blog 9:11-9:12 - 6Gathered around the breakfast table

Before dinner, me and two other girls bought pisco sours from the kitchen and the man making them invited us all into the kitchen to see how it’s done. We also used flavored pisco that he makes himself at the station with the local blackberries. They were delicious! We also had the most delectable dessert too, which Ursula told me was called ‘leche asada.’ It was bascially a souffle with the flavors of flan.

That night we had two presentations after dinner which ended around 9pm. I used the opportunity of being so close to the sky to take more star pictures and a group of us spent an hour outside just goofing around with what’s possible when taking pictures at night. In the morning all the girls got up early to pack before breakfast, which was a glorious combination of pancake-berry stacks and egg sandwiches. We were given lunch in our tupperware and were sent back on the road to Cusco.

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Wayqecha during the day

Blog 9:11-9:12 - 4Wayqecha at night

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Me under the stars!

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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 5×5 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.