It has been a long but nearly flawless 15 hours of traveling today, beginning with the 3:30 a.m. shuttle pick-up in Lawrence to clearing customs in Maracaibo, Venezuela, at 8:30 p.m. (quick fact: Venezuela has its own time zone, which is 30 minutes ahead of Eastern Standard Time). My colleagues from the Universidad del Zulia, Mauricio Garcia and Jesus Camacho, greeted me at the airport. We retired to Mauricio’s house to unwind and catch up for a couple of hours.
The immediate issue upon arrival that always splashes me in the face like a bucket of cold water is switching over exclusively to Spanish. Usually it takes me a week to get back up to a functional level. Having only been gone for 5 months, it shouldn’t take very long. On the plane there was some confusion over seat assignments, and I got some very strange looks when I was trying to sort it out. Later I realized that I had confused the words “sentarse” (to sit) and “sentirse” (to feel), and had essentially been saying something like “I think I’m supposed to feel there” and “I can feel where you were feeling.” The next few days of the trip will be devoted to some of the more mundane housekeeping and logistical issues, such as making and confirmation reservations, scouting a few local field sites before the full field crew assembles, and getting all our gear in order and packed in a semi-efficient manner. Of course, celebrating the New Year will be thrown in there as well. The main expedition does not start until next week, after my other US collaborators arrive.
We left for a quick 2-day trip to the small village of Tukuko, an outpost at the foot of the Serrania de Perija (see photo at left)--the mountain range that forms the northwestern boarder with Colombia. It has become almost a tradition to visit this area on the first few days of each trip...in fact, all five trips have now started with a visit to this area. It takes about 4 hours to make the trip from Maracaibo...two hours to Machiques by car or bus (or a carrito in our case...), and then another 1.5 hours in the back of a pickup truck or similar transport over dusty dirt roads. It rained during the second half, and that made things a bit muddy. Upon arrival we spent a few hours searching out various Zingiberales that might have some interesting beetles living in the micropools. I had collected them here last July, and was eager to get more....and we did. The second day also brought rain in the morning and we scratched it for collecting, but the afternoon was great and we were able to get into one of the local rivers to do some work. Got some space in an outgoing pickup truck around 3:30 and headed back to Maracaibo.
Over the last few days, we finished our work in Amazonas and cross the Orinoco back to the Llanos region, staying in San Fernando de Apure. Kelly and Luis split from our group yesterday and headed back to Maracay; Luis has to fly back to New Mexico today, so he can teach tomorrow. The rest of us drove straight west and today we started our winding accent into the main Venezuelan Andes. Tonight we stopped for the day in Biscucuy, which is at about (a relatively low) 500 meters elevation. Over the next couple of days, we will cover some of the higher elevations, up to 3000 meters. The highest peaks near the town of Merida reach just over 5000 meters.
A major Midwest snowstorm during the Christmas holiday delayed the 36-hour journey for our intrepid herpetology team, but we eventually made our way from snowy Lawrence to the Kansas City airport. The very long plane trip to Manila included a layover in Minneapolis and a layover in Japan.
I am a new graduate student in the Division of Herpetology in the EEB department. I am interested in studying the evolutionary history, biogeography and morphology of frogs from Southeast Asia.
This will be my first field expedition and I’m very excited. I will on this trip from December 30th, 2009 to January 21st, 2010 with several others from the KU EEB department. We will be going to Mt. Palali, in the Caraballo Mountains of Nueva Viscaya Province, in the Philippines. The purpose of this trip is collect specimens that will be used in current and future research involving the biodiversity of the Philippines.
Today I made the big hike up the mountain to our first campsite. The hike was ridiculous. Five hours of scrambling up the mountain rainforest. We started at about 200 meter elevation and ended at 1432 meters. The path was steep and slick with mud. After the first 30 minutes I thought I was going to throw up! I think that was because I was trying to keep up with the porters. Aloy, Perry and I ended up going at a slower pace that was exhausting, but doable. Despite thoughts of my legs giving out from under me midstep, I was having fun hiking through my first Philippine rainforest (my first hike in Asia, really). The rainforest was wonderful – full of trees, vines, bamboo, epiphytes, bird and insect calls, and the occasional giant, mossy boulder. Victory was sweet when I finally made it to camp covered in mud, sweat, Mt. Palali dew, and a little dash of blood.
We made the hike in five hours. The day before, the boys took eight hours. Of course, the boys had to carry their big packs for a good portion of the hike while I only had my daypack. If I had to carry my big pack, I think my heart would have exploded. I wonder if I can hire a porter to carry me down the mountain when it’s time to leave?
For future reference, here’s a quick list of our field team for this expedition:
University of Kansas — Rafe, Luke, Luis, Anthony, Brian, and me. Luis is collecting birds for the ornithology department and the rest of us are collecting reptiles and amphibians
National Museum of the Philippines, PNM — Arvin (herpetologist), Rolly (ornithologist), Josefa (mammalogist), Perry (entomologist — ants, specifically).
Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines, — Aloy (mammalogist)
Project Team — Enteng, JB, Nevong
It is not clear to me what point in time I became incapable of comfortably traveling long distances by bus, boat, and small, motorized jeeps. However, last week I was quickly reminded of just how old my overweight body feels at the ripe age of 28 (I really need to lay off the queso). I traveled with my friend and collaborator Dr. Arvin Diesmos to Aurora Province on Luzon Island. We are setting up our next site for the large KU biodiversity expedition planned for May and June of this year. Aurora Province is only about eight hours away by bus. Unfortunately, you need to leave on the 4 a.m. bus, which in turn means you leave the house at 3 a.m. to make that same bus. One thing you should note about busses overseas is that the rows of seats do not always provide the same amount of leg room some people might be accustomed to experiencing. In the Philippines, I would describe the legroom as negative space. Somehow the row in front of me continually gets smaller as the trip goes on.
The good news is once my knees have become numb, and my back spasms have subsided, I am quite comfortable. The trip was a great first step to setting up our site though. We presented our research proposal at the Aurora State College of Technology (ASCOT), which is a beautiful campus buried in the foothills of the southern Sierra Madres Mountain Range. The buildings are surrounded by forest and it was much cooler than we were used to in Manila. I was there for a few days with Arvin, and then I returned to Manila to prepare for my next adventure to Marinduque Island, which would take place the following morning.
Touchdown. I finally made it to the Philippines. Actually, I made it a few days ago after having spent a night in Hawaii. I highly recommend the Best Western at the Honolulu airport as a nice place to stay if you are only in town for 12 hours. They have waffles for breakfast! Once I reached the Manila airport I had to wait for quite a while for my three large duffel bags to arrive at baggage claim. Once the entire 170-pound shipment arrived, I was picked up by our close friend and collaborator, Dr. Arvin Diesmos. Over the last two days we have set up several meetings for early next week to begin working on site permits for upcoming expeditions. I have also showered twice and plan on brushing my teeth later tonight. Jet lag has to be the worst part of traveling to and from Southeast Asia.
My mother has worked for years at Frontier Airlines and I therefore grew up hearing about jet lag and methods for keeping the effects at bay. Some of these methods are effective, like drinking water throughout the flight, not overeating, setting your sleep schedule to match the country of destination, and of course wearing one pink sock and one purple sock. I have found other methods less effective, like sleeping with your eyes open while holding your breath.
To some extent a few days of jet lag are unavoidable, and to prepare you, let me paint a brief picture of what the average global traveler experiences. For the first few days you are living in one day/night schedule while your mind and body are still back home. The Philippine time zone is 14 hours ahead of Kansas, and while it is daytime here, it is the night before back home. Your body will tolerate things fine throughout the morning, given you wake up at 4 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep. Then there is what I like to call the 2 p.m. drug induced day walking. You know you need to stay awake, but your body and mind have decided to go out clubbing for the last 12 hours and are shutting down regardless of what you tell yourself. All I can recommend is being close to a bed, couch, or small hammock for a quick (6 hour) nap. Things have already started to improve. This morning I slept until 5:21 a.m. before the roosters and barking dogs decided it was time for the morning symphony of nature’s sounds.
There is leaving for an expedition, and then there is leaving for a nine-month expedition. Where to begin packing is a question I am always asking myself. The airlines have not made it any easier. While we used to be able to check-in two enormous 70-pound bags, we are now only allowed two 50-pound bags. This means I will be leaving my car at home this year. I would say that I get a little too meticulous about packing. Everything has to be placed out on the floor organized by size, and then by color. Lists have to be checked off, and then the list listing the original lists also has to be reviewed. Don’t get me started on making sure you have duplicates of everything in preparation for the day a thief targets my Britney Spears music collection and 15 containers of dental floss.
In the end, I have packed and repacked. Each time a bag gets full, I have to hold it standing on a scale to make sure it will make the weight. The process is tedious, but if you can pack 90% of the field supplies you intended to, you are a rockstar. Important equipment always comes on the plane with me. This means I have a daypack filled with camera equipment, my computer, important documents, and of course, my passport. With all of this equipment, my carry-on bags get pretty heavy. By the end of a long trip overseas I have the most beautiful red rashes on my shoulders and a back that has aged 10 years. Finally, you arrive to check in at the airport and you do what every field biologist does while checking in. You hold your breath. Are the bags underweight? Will I be charged one million extra dollars for my luggage? Can this Northwest Airlines agent smell my fear? Unfortunately, I am convinced that the scales at the airport make everything heavier, and what weighed 48 pounds at home will weigh 53 pounds at the airport. The lesson I have learned over the years is to pack with 5 pounds to spare. And so I depart for the Philippines, by way of four cities, and 48 hours of fun travel time. At least I have two copies of Britney’s recent hit.
Preparations for fieldwork start many months before your planned departure. After choosing where you want to do fieldwork you must start applying for permits you may be required to have to conduct research legally in that country. Some types of permits you may need include a research permit stating you are allowed to conduct research, a collection permit stating you are allowed to collect specimens, and an export permit stating you are allowed to export the specimens you collected back to the US. In some countries, you need an import and export permit for chemicals you need to bring in or take out of the country. You also need to check if you require a visa to enter that particular country. Processing of these permits and visas can take many months, so you must apply early. Once you are approved for your research activities, and your flights and accommodations are booked, it's time to get all your field gear ready! For me, this means packing a full set of SCUBA gear (wetsuit, BCD, regulators, fins, mask) and gear for collecting sea anemones (including a hammer and chisel!). Needless to say, I rarely travel light for fieldwork. The photo in this post shows some of the gear I am taking with me to Moorea.
After two weeks of diving and snorkeling the beautiful waters of Moorea to collect sea anemones, my time on the island was coming to a close. Which meant it was time to pack all my gear and specimens. My dive gear was dried by the tropical breeze while I packed up my laboratory equipment. The specimens I had collected had been stored in 10% formalin or 95% ethanol. For transportation, I removed the specimens from their jars filled with liquid preservative, wrapped them in damp gauze, and sealed them in plastic bags. I packed them all into a box and sent them back to the Biodiversity Institute in the US via FedEx. Finally, I re-packed my suitcase with everything else I had come with (plus a few souvenirs) and flew back to the US.
Once back in the US, I sent all the paperwork regarding my collecting work to the administration at the KUBI. They checked the documents to make sure that the specimens were collected and exported legally, and then allowed them to be accessioned in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology collections. I unpacked the specimens and put them in their final resting place – jars full of formalin in our museum! The photo shows some of the jars full of specimens I have collected in my time as a graduate student, including the new ones from Moorea.