Monday, March 17, 2014

Fieldwork Blog: Seafood Wars, The Papaya Incident, and On Being Digested By A Jungle

We are well into our final session of mammal diversity surveys! It is a bittersweet but bustling period: everyone is rushing about, securing post-project employment and planning flights home and for travel within Mexico after we wrap things up at our home base.
For our past "weekend" between sessions, we headed to the beach! It was our first time heading east of Tapachula, the largest nearby city and our source of groceries and other supplies. After a half-hour's drive past the familiar neighborhoods, in which we passed scrubby fields full of construction projects, scorched grass, and one with an assortment of brown Shetland ponies, we ended up in lovely Playa Linda. It was the off-season, and our vehicle was immediately surrounded by waiters, trying to get the lone beach visitors on a winter Tuesday to visit their seafood restaurant. After promising to return and make a selection in a few hours, we headed to the beach. The sand was scorching and the water warm and heavenly. It was fantastic to get out into the open air and smell the ocean after so much time in the mountains; growing up in New England has spoiled me for prolonged inland living. After swimming, sunning, reading, and (in my case) getting moderately sunburnt despite sitting in the shade wearing sunscreen, we headed back to the main road for lunch. Fortunately a few tourists had rolled in, and a lot of the pressure from the eager waiters had abated. We lunched on refried beans, guac, tortillas, real-sugar coke, and a variety of very fresh seafoods; all very good! After lunch, stuffed to the gills with gilled creatures, we staggered to the nearest superstore to load up on the next week's groceries before heading home for naps.
The day after, we visited a nearby farm to scout for contiguous forest to serve as our control sites. The manager there greeted us warmly as we explained our project and what type of sites we were searching for. He sent for a truck to convey our team, our guide, the manager, and his assistants and guides from the farm up the mountain. A shaggy white dog napped under our car. Several nearly-identical shaggy white sheep grazed nearby. While we waited, the manager broke out a giant papaya. Our guide informed us, conversationally, that for a guest to refuse a gift was bad luck and would mean they might not return again. Our group exchanged glances. Several members had previously discussed their hatred of fresh papaya; I had only once tried a slice and wasn't impressed; none of us liked them. Of course, we enthusiastically accepted the heaping, dripping slices of papaya and each of us began to scarf down bites of segments larger than a liter water bottle and containing about as much liquid. The flesh was sweet, and as someone inconveniently pointed out, tasted strongly of cheddar cheese. Juice rolled down my arms and dripped off my elbows. Tim's beard was full of the orange pulp. Mandi looked sick.  Looking over at our guide Philippe, I saw that he and the other locals were eating the papaya as neatly as one would an apple. I studied them as they ate. No trick was apparent. I resigned to be a papaya slob. I am proud to say we all finished our massive slices; by the end, the taste was actually growing on me.
Our search at that farm for sites within contiguous forest was not successful; apparently all of the forests in the nearby area have been thoroughly fragmented by farms and development. We fell back to our original plan, sites in forest fragments relatively near our home base. The day after was spent hiking around, reestablishing our site selection within the forest fragments. It was slow and adventurous work, bushwhacking along invisible trails we originally bushwhacked two months ago. Burrs and thorns were abundant, as were well-camouflaged ditches and mysterious drop-offs. I was in my element, and had a lot of fun navigating the highly challenging terrain.
By the next day, we had ironed out a plan and placed and baited our traps in the forest. This, too, took some bushwhacking and adventurous vine avoidance. There is a particularly spiny vine shaped a lot like a churro that has become my nemesis. I love navigating through the forests, which involves a lot of ducking, dodging, backing up to unwrap branches from ankles, and getting hit in the face with branches that definitely weren't there a moment ago. It's a challenge that keeps each moment interesting. I compare all the getting ripped up, poked, prodded; climbing, sweating, squeezing, slipping, and getting very dirty in the oppressive heat to being digested by the jungle. I also maintain that by that the end of this session I will have passed these trials of the jungle, be at one with the forest, and be able to phase through its matter like a nymph and summon the small mammals to our traps with a song. I will report back on such developments, of course, for science.

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