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"Mud, mud, glorious mud. Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."
-- Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, The Hippopotamus Song
I have had more than a little experience with jungle mud so I thought I had some idea of what I was getting into when I signed up for the Earthwatch program run by Durrell Kapan (right, viewing a lizard on his hat) entitled "Ecuador's Butterflies". The goal of the project is to study mimicry among a collection of Heliconius butterfly species. Our group of volunteers was to capture, mark and measure as many individuals as we could near the Bilsa biological research station in Ecuador. Bilsa station is the headquarters of a fairly large (5000 hectare) biological reserve. The Earthwatch briefing (the trip description) indicated that the walk in to the station could be pretty muddy. As a result of the tremendous amount of effort required to hike through such mud, previous Earthwatchers had dubbed the Bilsa trip as "Durrell's 'Buns of Steel' Workout."
We were going at a good time of year, though -- December 26 to January 11, which is the end of the dry season in Ecuador -- so things are usually about as dry as they get, but unfortunately the winter of 1997-8 was also the year of one of the strongest El Niño events on record.
An El Niño event occurs when the ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean change in such a way as to cause all the monsoon rain that normally falls in Indonesia to land on the western coast of South America instead. (There are plenty of other El Niño effects, but when you're lying on your belly with your arms buried to your shoulders in mud and your fingers in a death grip on the rubber boot from which you just managed to pull your foot, it's hard to care much about the others.)
The trip sounded simple: Fly to Ecuador, drive as close to Bilsa as possible, hike in, catch some butterflies, hike and drive out, and fly home. Only the "Fly to Ecuador" part worked smoothly, or at least as smoothly as possible. It was a red-eye from San Francisco that stopped in El Salvador, Guatemala City, and San José, Costa Rica, where I changed planes and then flew to Quito. There was almost a 5 hour wait in San José, Costa Rica, and I managed to sleep for a couple of hours in the airport using my carry-on pack as a pillow.
My seatmate for the first leg was a fellow from El Salvador who worked parking cars for some fancy restaurant in San Francisco so I got a couple of hours of Spanish practice. When he got his customs forms for El Salvador, he asked the flight attendant for help, and my immediate reaction was, "Oh. The forms must be in English."
But the forms were in Spanish. The guy couldn't read or write his own language. Since most of my experience with Spanish speakers has been with Costa Ricans who all tend to be highly educated, it was sort of a shock, but I guess my seatmate may be the rule rather than the exception in some countries.
I got to Quito a half hour early, was picked up by a guy named Jorge who seemed quite relieved that I could speak Spanish, and was dropped at a hostel to spend the night. Jorge is a doctoral student of biology in Ecuador and was going along on the expedition with us. Since he is in Ecuador year-around, Durrell thought that Jorge would be able to gather a more complete set of data on the butterflies for Durrell, work on his own research, and at the same time earn a little money.
An hour or two later, Brian, another volunteer, showed up at the hostel, and he and I went out to check on the availability of beer in Quito on a Saturday night. We had to walk nearly twenty meters before our search was successful.
Brian is an anthropology undergraduate with a year to go, so I gave him all sorts of advice about graduate school that I hope he took with a grain of salt due to the quantities of beer involved in the conversation. We walked back to the hostel where we eventually met our other three roommates (Stephen and two Dans) who were also part of the expedition. It was pretty late so we just introduced ourselves and went to sleep.
The entire group got together the next morning (December 28). There were 10 volunteers: Libby and Dan (mother and son from Australia), Kent and Sherry (husband and wife from New Brunswick, Canada), Stephen from England, Maki from Japan, and finally the Americans Dan from Oregon, Margaret from New York City, Brian from Texas, and myself from California. The group leader and principal investigator was Durrell from the University of British Columbia, and he had two assistants along: his girlfriend Shannon, who is also a PhD student at UBC, and "Davey". (The quotes are because it's not his real name, which he was not anxious to let us know. Durrell claims that Davey undergoes a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation when he is in Bilsa, and he actually has a highly respected job in his "real life". Of course I only met the Mr. Hyde version.) Finally, the Ecuadorians Jorge and his assistant (and probably girlfriend) Elina filled out the team. The logistics of the travel to and from the trailhead were handled by Jean, a tough woman somewhere in her 50s who makes a living running various tours in Ecuador.
We had breakfast in Quito and then loaded into a Toyota Land Cruiser and a larger rented vehicle of some sort and headed off. We stopped at the "Mitad del Mundo" (Middle of the Earth -- the equator) and learned that the monument actually misses the equator by about 500 meters, which I verified with my GPS unit. After a few hours of driving, we stopped at a lodge called "Salamandra's" where we were to spend our final night in civilization.
Here's the cabin where I stayed at Salamandra's. As you can see, it's
just a treehouse hanging out over the river. Note the lack of insect
It was very hot, and there was a large river flowing by so a lot of folks went in for a swim, but it hadn't been long enough since I looked in a parasitology book, so I tried to beat the heat by sitting in the shade and using some beer for internal cooling. In the middle of dinner, somebody noticed that the roof over the dining area had a large collection of tiny bats hanging from it, and as it got dark, the bats gradually took off. It was probably a great spot for the bats -- there was an incandescent bulb under the roof, and it attracted quite a few insects.
There were wasp nests hanging all over, a bunch of huge carpenter
bees had drilled into the logs supporting the ceiling, and there were a
bunch of other "interesting" insects here and there. On the right is a
photo taken in Bilsa of a giant leaf I saw whose lower half was covered
with wasps. I was framing the shot when somebody made a comment to me
that it was a great view of a tarantula. I was concentrating so much
on the wasps that I never even noticed the huge
spider at the top of the leaf. Of course I re-framed and got this shot
that includes both the spider and the wasps. (They called it a
tarantula, but I don't think it really is one, but it is a pretty big
I think insects and similar creatures are the greatest thing in the tropics. Here's one of my quotes from later on in Bilsa:
"There's something crawling on the bathroom floor and I don't even know what phylum it's in!"(Actually, I was lying -- I knew it was an arthropod -- but I still have no idea what it was. It looked like a larva in the way it moved, but it had a hard body of an adult, and lots of fully-developed legs. It might have been something like a pill-bug or millipede, but it was clearly neither of those. I got Durrell and Shannon to look at it, and neither of them had any idea what it was either.)
-- Tom Davis
On this trip we didn't see too many weird arthropods since the best way to see them is on "night walks" when you wander around after dark with a flashlight poking under leaves and stuff, but due to the amount of rain, nobody was very interested in going out again after they had cleaned up following a day of work in the mud.
At Salamandra's I shared a small cabin with Aussie Dan and Stephen that was basically a tree house over the river. I was on a narrow mattress set right against the thatched roof with God knows what living in it, and there wasn't any mosquito net. If I rolled over in my sleep, I was in for a 2 meter fall to the floor, so I wrapped myself up in the sheet as well as possible and crammed myself between the mattress and the lower edge of the roof.
That night it rained like hell -- probably 6 or 7 centimeters -- but the roof didn't leak, and miraculously, I seemed to be free of insect bites in the morning. Of course maybe the owners of the lodge keep the cabins saturated with exotic bug killers and in fact I'm now well on my way to some bizarre case of insecticide-induced cancer.
After breakfast, we drove for about an hour through the large town of Quinindé, and then another half hour or so to the turn-off on a gravel road headed toward Bilsa. At the last gas station, the vehicles stopped to refuel, and since I had terrified all the volunteers with a story of spending the previous New Year's celebration in Ecuador with 18 people and only 1/2 bottle of rum, we temporarily made the guy who owned the liquor-store next to the gas station a rich man. Since weight was a big factor, we restricted ourselves primarily to hard liquor so as to have as many molecules of ethanol in Bilsa as possible. The actual variety was a secondary consideration -- the first thing we checked on each bottle was its proof rating.
When the dirt road reached the bridge at the little town of San Andres
we found that the heavy rain the night before had changed the level of
the river slightly and instead of being 4 meters above the river, the
top of the bridge was a few centimeters under it. The same was also
true of the floors of many of the buildings in the town. We might have
been able to make it across except that all manner of logs and snags
and other crud were tangling up with the bridge in spite of a constant
effort of people to clear it. We were there for a couple of hours, but
the river just kept getting higher and higher, so we finally gave up
and went back to Quinindé for the night. In retrospect, it was a lucky
thing that we were delayed a day, due to some irresponsible drinking
that occurred later in the trip. Read on for details.
There was some rain that night (in fact, I can't think of a day when there wasn't rain), but nothing compared to the night before, and the river was nearly back to its normal level 4 meters under the bridge the next day. The logistics were easier that morning because we'd left the vast majority of our gear in San Andres under the protection of Jorge.
With Jorge in San Andres and since Elina spoke almost no English,
she was pretty much stuck with me and Maki (shown on the left) for
dinner conversation in Quinindé, as Maki and I were the only two
volunteers who spoke any Spanish. I learned that she works as a guide
in a large forest reserve just outside of Quito, and is also a
full-time student with a year or so to go before she graduates. She's
mainly interested in birds and frogs. Since her reserve is even above
Quito, the birds she knows are all high-altitude varieties, and she was
looking forward to seeing some of the lowland tropical types.
Elina (shown on the right with her butterfly net in Bilsa) served as my
Spanish professor for the trip, and was very patient. For example, she
taught me the subtle differences between the three words for mud,
"lodo", "fango", and "barro" which was very important, considering what
happened in the next couple of days. I also got plenty of practice
with the words for "tow" (remolcar), and for "landslide"
(derrumbamiento). I already knew the most important words in Spanish:
"Una cerveza, por favor." (A beer, please.)
Durrell said that normally the Earthwatch teams he takes have to hike for about 3 hours over muddy roads to reach Bilsa, but due to the landslide, it looked like we were going to have to hike another 3 hours just to get to the normal trailhead at "La Y" (pronounced "lay-yay", for some reason). Luckily, Jorge and others had scoped things out and the mules were ready on the other side of the landslide. There were enough mules to carry all the equipment plus about 3 extra that we could take turns riding if we got tired. We started walking at 10 am.
The first job, however, was to help lift the equipment across the landslide to the mules, and when I took one step into the mud carrying a 30 kilogram bag, I instantly buried my boot into the mud a couple of feet and couldn't pull it out. I finally removed my foot and with some help was able to pull the boot out. So, as of my second step on the road to Bilsa, one of my boots was already filled with mud.
Past the landslide, the road was fine -- there were a few small patches of mud, but otherwise it was in great shape and we made good time. I knew it would be hot, so I carried almost 4 liters of water -- two one-liter bottles and a half-gallon jug I bought in Quito. By the time we got to La Y at 1 o'clock, the two liter bottles were empty and both my boots were full of water from sweat. Of course one was filled with pure sweat and the other with salty mud.
La Y looks like the shit-hole of the the universe, but there was a tienda where we could buy various soft drinks and bottled water. I drank about 5 bottles of various things, and then bought enough bottled water to refill my two one-liter bottles. It was carbonated mineral water, of course, so I did a lot of shaking of the bottles and letting the gas out so that I wouldn't get an explosion on the trail.
After everybody got rehydrated, we started off for Bilsa which takes normal Earthwatch teams 3 more hours, in spite of the fact that Bilsa is only about 13 kilometers from La Y.
The road was great for about 50 meters ...
By amazing coincidence, one of the two books I brought to read during the trip was March to Caobaland, by B. Traven, and although I'm sure the author had never heard of Bilsa, I was amazed to discover that his book includes an exact description of the Bilsa mud:
"The swamp had a width of approximately twenty yards. How long it stretched out to the left and the right obviously nobody had ever cared to find out. Of a greenish-black colour, it was full of little watery pools and puddles. In the leaden, heavy dark green enclosure of the jungle, the swamp seemed far blacker, more ghostly and more terrifying than it would have appeared in clear, open sunlight. If one took but a single step into it, placing the foot hard upon, one sank immediately down to the knee. The mud stuck to the leg like glue, more, as if it were a live being. It clung firmly and sucked. One had the sensation that somebody was pulling the foot down, slowly but unceasingly. If one brought the other foot close to pull out the first one, that second foot sank also immediately into the ooze where it was sucked down. If someone had had the audacity to explore that swamp he would perhaps have found that it was not very deep and that, at about a five feet depth there was sheer rock. But then, one might have discovered, just at that very point where one was stuck, that there was a wide hole and that the rock bed was actually ten feet below the surface. For this reason one curbed one's inclination to be an explorer and one did not care at what depths one might find the bottom, if any, but you made every effort to get out. Panting, sweating, breathless and with the heart on the point of bursting, you managed to reach firm ground where you could sit down, regain your breath and now think what to do next. There is no turning back. It's either ahead or perish."It is difficult, using mere words, to describe the mud. Luckily English is based on Anglo-Saxon, which contains a variety of four-letter roots that are quite helpful. Almost every step offered the opportunity to get your boot so hopelessly stuck that you'd have to pull your foot out and reach in with your hands to pull it out. Often, when your foot was stuck, you'd pull and pull on it and finally get it free, only to find that the exertion had driven the other foot even deeper into the muck.
-- B. Traven, March to Caobaland
Eventually you learned to fall forward on your knees and use your weight to slowly leverage the boot out. Although I had been doing a huge amount of running before the trip to get in good shape, after a couple of hours of this, my calves began to cramp as I tried to pull the boots out.
You learned to try to follow somebody else and to repeat their "successful" steps and to roll the dice yourself when the steps of the person in front of you weren't "successful". You learned to consider the color and texture of the mud (red mud is better than brown mud, and you should never step in the greenish-black mud). You learned to try to walk on the edges of the road, trampling grass into the mud where you could. You learned never to step where the mules did, but on the ridges between the mule steps it was sometimes OK (but sometimes not). You learned never to step on the green algae, and you learned just how far you could jump to the next (possibly) semi-solid spot. You learned what happens when you don't jump far enough. You learned that when you took an unsuccessful step, it was often better to throw caution to the winds and try to take three or four quick steps at random in hopes of finding something solid rather than to rationally consider your options as your foot slowly sank to above the knee.
But no matter how good you got, you often found yourself on your knees with your stocking-foot in the mud, pulling the boot out of the hole with your hands.
After a couple of hours, no one in the group was capable of constructing an English sentence that contained the word "mud", but did not also contain the word "fucking". B. Traven also had something to say about the trail itself:
"On these jungle marches one constantly hopes that something might happen which would improve the road somehow. An earthquake for instance may better it, but also make it worse. Then again a lively landslide happens or, not so infrequently, some erstwhile subterranean river breaks through to the surface and blocks the road for miles. Of one thing, however, one feels assured and that is: the road is actually so unbelievably bad that in no circumstances it can become worse. Such belief, though, is unwarranted because experiences show that the road can and certainly will get worse. Much, much worse."Every now and then, you'd find a deep footprint (human or mule, it was hard to tell) that had somehow filled with muddy water, and you'd eagerly wash off your hands that were completely caked in mud. I managed to save a few square inches of shirt near my right shoulder that were mud-free, so that after I rinsed my hands in a mule footprint, I could clean my finger-tips in case I needed to adjust my glasses which were constantly slipping off my sweat-drenched head. Nobody would have imagined that my pants were actually green, and the small spot at the shoulder was the only indication of my shirt's true color.
-- B. Traven, March to Caobaland
Durrell had suggested that we all bring a police whistle as an emergency signalling device, so I had a bright orange plastic whistle hanging from a ring on the rear of my backpack. An hour or so into the mud, somebody said, "I hope you don't have to blow your whistle!" I took my pack off to take a look, and he must have seen the whistle hanging there earlier because there was no hint of a whistle visible -- just a big glob of mud hanging from a ring.
So it was all great fun, but as one can imagine, at 5 o'clock, after about 4 hours of this sort of slogging, we began to run out of mud jokes and of imagination with our mud blasphemy, and at least a few of us would have been pleased to see the end of it. Since the sun sets at 6 o'clock every day on the equator, it became clear that we wouldn't come close to reaching Bilsa in daylight. Jorge was pretty sure that if we could make the tiny town of Descanso (fittingly meaning "rest" in Spanish), they'd let us sleep on the floor of the schoolhouse, and Descanso was only about a half-hour away.
The sun went down at 6, and there was still no sign of Descanso. Unfortunately, the conditions of the road did not improve just because the sun went down -- we just couldn't see what we were doing any longer. We all had head-mounted flashlights and put them on, but 4 AA cells is a poor match for the sun. At least the temperature dropped into a tolerable range, and, of course, it started to rain.
At 7 o'clock, 2 hours after the "half hour to Descanso" began, we were still struggling through the mud. For some reason (heavy sweating?) my ears had gotten all clogged up and I could barely hear. My glasses were pretty fogged, and I couldn't touch them because my hands were covered in mud. My headlight attracted a huge cloud of midges so all I could really see was a sea of sparkling white dots in a blur ahead of me. The rain was getting heavier, and for some reason, I was a little tired.
Finally, at 7:30, we straggled, in groups of three or four, into Descanso. There was a large barrel of rain-water that we could use to wash off the worst of the mud, and the best news was that a family had invited us to sleep on the wood floor of their house instead of the dirt floor of the school.
The people of the town had even found a few old clothes and blankets so all of us had something dry to wear or sleep under. The volunteers were usually quite a bit bigger than the Descanso residents, so there weren't many things that fit. Davey looked great in a skirt. It happened to be Margaret's birthday, and when we got some hot chicken soup, Margaret and I agreed that it was the best birthday dinner we'd ever eaten. The little stroll before dinner had certainly improved our appetites.
They also had some rice and plantains, but I couldn't seem to swallow them. I chewed and chewed, but couldn't make them go down, so I gave up after two or three bites. I could have drunk a gallon of the soup, however. It was hot and salty, and fantastic.
There still wasn't much water, but Durrell filled a couple of gallon jugs with rainwater and put in a heavy dose of iodine tablets to kill off whatever little beasties might be living in it. It turns out that if you let the iodine do its thing for 20 minutes or so, you can make the water a lot more palatable with the addition of some ascorbic acid -- vitamin C -- to the water. We referred to the iodine as "poison" and the vitamin C as "the antidote".
I don't know if I slept for more than a couple of hours that night -- it was terribly crowded and I was constantly playing footsie with somebody. Margaret was sleeping next to me using the mylar plastic "space blanket" from our emergency kit, and every time she moved (which was quite often because Shannon and Durrell were constantly trying to "borrow" a corner of the blanket), it made loud crackling noises. The floor was pretty hard, and I alternated from side to side to my back, but I couldn't lie on my stomach because that meant that I'd have to bend my feet and every time I did that I got horrible calf-cramps due to the day's exertions.
It was raining harder and harder, and I thought that there was a leak in the roof since stuff kept falling on me. It turned out just to be cockroaches falling from the ceiling, however. I sort of wondered how many cases of lice or bedbugs we'd wind up with as a result of that evening, but as far as I know, there were none.
At the crack of dawn, we put on our soaking clothes, and set off for Bilsa, where we arrived after three more hours of the same road conditions.
All the locals agreed that the road was in the worst shape they'd ever seen. Instead of three hours from the end of the road to Bilsa, it took us twelve and a half, not counting our stay in Descanso.
One reason that the folks in Descanso were so helpful is that a couple of years ago Davey formed a group called "Friends of Bilsa", of which he is "El Presidente". The group collects donations from Earthwatchers and others, and uses it to pay for schools and school teachers in a few of the local towns, including Descanso. The money is funneled through the station at Bilsa.
We were anxious to give something to the folks in Descanso for their generosity and hospitality, but an even better plan was devised. We gave money to the Bilsa station and they gave it to the locals. The locals thus have a very positive feeling about the station, and do quite a bit to support it. For example, although the Bilsa reserve consists of a few thousand hectares, there are only a few full-time people in residence and last year a lumber company decided they'd just go in and log it because there are basically no guards. The local people stopped them with shotguns and machetes, so there's a nice symbiotic relationship between the locals and the reserve.
A few incidents of interest occurred during the hike in. Just after we entered the mud after La Y, I volunteered to carry the machete because I thought it would be really cool. The machete, of course, had no protective case and after I'd gone about 100 meters with it, I realized how incredibly dangerous it was. The locals walk around with bare machetes all the time, but on the other hand, I saw more than one local missing a few fingers.
So I gave the machete back to Davey since he was far more experienced in the mud (and I guess because I figured that if any fingers were going to be lost I preferred them to be Davey's rather than mine). Shortly afterwards, when the mud really got ugly, Durrell told Davey to give the machete to a local to carry, and for some reason tempers flared and there was a screaming standoff in the mud between the two of them, witnessed by many of the volunteers. It wasn't a particularly optimistic sight to see two of our fearless leaders screaming at each other, but it turned out to be an isolated incident, probably caused by the combination of heat, exhaustion, and fury at the mud. An Ecuadorian mule driver carried the machete to Bilsa where it subsequently disappeared. Durrell thought it had been stolen, but it turned up a few days later. One of the folks in the kitchen had seen an unclaimed machete lying around, and it had been doing service as an onion peeler and chopper.
The second incident involved Stephen and a barbed-wire fence that he grabbed at when he lost his footing. He managed to put a nasty gash across most of the palm of his hand about an hour into the mud, so he hiked the majority of the way with his hand wrapped up in bandages. After that, I tried to stay as far from the barbed-wire as possible.
In the third incident, I learned (I think) what it's like to take a dose of heroin. After slogging for about 3 hours through the mud, it was my turn to take a ride on a mule. It was like heaven -- I can't describe how good it felt to be sitting with a cargo saddle digging into my back with only a couple of rope loops for stirrups but having the mule do the work. A half hour later, when it was somebody else's turn to ride, it took every ounce of my willpower to kick the mule habit and climb down into the mud again. I don't know how they did it, but Davey, Aussie Dan, and Brian managed to walk all the way to Bilsa. There were more mules available for the Descanso-to-Bilsa leg, and I rode a lot of that.
It's probably lucky that I didn't ride on that cargo saddle for too long. With only a half-hour of riding I had a pretty nice bruise on my back where the saddle hit it, and that didn't go well with the wooden floor that was my mattress in Descanso.
We got to Bilsa before noon, drank gallons of water, washed up, and had lunch. For some reason, nobody was much interested in exploring the area in the afternoon and we all just sat around like zombies. I did manage to carry my bags to the dormitory, but that was by far the most effort I expended that afternoon.
This year we were more successful, and not only did we celebrate the new year in London, but also in the Canary Islands, the Azores, and finally in Rio de Janiero. We weren't sure if the islands and Rio were in the correct time zones, but after the celebration for London, we didn't care much. Nobody was awake to see the true Bilsa new year arrive.
We had so much fun at the new year party that we began having a "happy
hour" in the dormitory every day at about 5. On the left is a photo of
Dan at a happy hour. We'd usually worked
pretty hard, and most of the volunteers (and usually most of the staff)
were regular attendees. Unfortunately, the gas station liquor store
didn't have much of a variety, and the vast majority of our stock was
rum. On the first night we actually had a couple of bottles of Coke,
so we made rum-and-cokes, but after that, things got tougher.
Sometimes we could get fruit juices from the kitchen, but Margaret had
brought plenty of powdered Tang, so usually we drank rum-and-tang. At
first it tasted pretty awful, but we got used to it. We did have a
couple of bottles of vodka and whiskey, and those were not too hard to
drink straight. With some effort, bottles of "Inka Cola" could be
obtained, but rum-and-inka tasted so bad that we went back to the
Technically, it's against the rules to have hard liquor in Bilsa so we kept it in the dormitories rather than in the station. The rationale was that we didn't want to make a bad impression on the locals who worked at the station and only drank beer. It was actually an irrationale, because one look at the staff's garbage barrel showed it to be filled with empty "Cristal" bottles -- Cristal is basically cheap firewater. Once it gets dark in the jungle, there's really not much you can do for entertainment other than drink or go to sleep.
Just outside the reserve is a small cantina that sold essentials -- beer, Cristal, cigarettes, and things like that, and we found that we could pay one of the Ecuadorian kids (Maximo) a couple of bucks and he would haul back an unbelievable amount of stuff at night through the mud. It took him 45 minutes to make the round trip, and it probably would have taken us an hour and a half, in daylight, unloaded.
Maximo's greatest feat was to haul back 24 bottles of beer, a couple of bottles of Inka Cola, and some random crackers and cigarettes. They were giant glass bottles of beer, each containing 578 cc. We never did figure out where the 578 came from -- it doesn't seem to convert to a nice round number in any system of measurement known to man.
We got into big trouble when we tried to get Maximo to bring us some bottles of Cristal because Durrell found out about it, and was terrified that "the director" would learn that we were drinking hard liquor. Given the fact that the hard liquor rule was so constantly and flagrantly violated, it didn't make much sense, but after that we restricted our Maximo orders to beer.
The happy hours provided entertainment not only for the volunteers, but also for the staff. Since a bunch of us were basically my age, we began to try to sing 60s songs. Everybody knew parts of lots of songs, but nobody knew all the words to any song. We did try to reproduce the harmonies on the fly, and the result was always entertaining. The closer it was to the end of happy hour, the more entertaining it got.
It turns out that "the director" was not there when we arrived, but he was due to arrive at any moment, and in the meantime, the place was being run by the assistant director, Cesar. As the days passed and the director repeatedly failed to show, Oregon Dan began to regale us with stories of the director. We would know that he was coming because even before we heard the triumphant notes of the trumpets, we would hear the thunder of the hundred elephants carrying him and his retinue. The Nubian slaves would then kneel in the mud so that the director could walk on their backs to avoid soiling his golden slippers as he descended from his elephant to get into his sedan chair to be carried to the feast of oysters and fresh fruit with his concubines.
Anyway, that was Dan's story on the first day. As time went on, he improved it significantly.
The director never did show up, but I'm pretty sure he must have arrived the day after we left because there were no elephants in any of the towns we passed on the way out, so he must have taken all of them to assemble his procession.
Margaret was the star of the happy hours. She had been on many Earthwatch trips earlier, and had a lot of interesting stories to tell. Her verdict at the end was that ours was the second worst trip (in terms of discomfort). Although our mud going in and out certainly won first prize for maximum local misery, the days in between were quite comfortable and enjoyable.
Apparently Margaret had been on a trip to Borneo a couple of years previously to work with orangutans. They'd hiked in through a swamp for hours with water up to their chests, and the leeches made things pretty interesting. Then, since the leader of the expedition was apparently a bit psychotic and loved her orangutans far more than humans, she spent all the money she got from Earthwatch for the trip on food for her female orangutan rehabilitation project rather than on human food, and the volunteers only got a couple of bowls of rice per day. Everybody lost 10-15 pounds over the 3 weeks.
The woman was constantly battling the local government about the apes, and occasionally had to move them so the government couldn't find them. The moves were always in secret in the middle of the night so the movements couldn't be observed, and Margaret said that one of the worst things in the world to do is to move the orangutans. You're walking at night, in jungle swamps, in high heat and 100% humidity, effectively wearing a giant fur coat because of the orangutan draped over your shoulders. And as if that weren't bad enough, the fur coat is constantly pissing and shitting on you.
That was the final trip for that leader however, because to top it all off, one of the volunteers got raped by a large male orangutan and the leader refused to try to stop it for fear of hurting the animal. Of course there was a giant lawsuit against Earthwatch, but Margaret didn't know how it came out.
Actually, the information in the above paragraph is probably not true. In the May, 1998 issue of Outside Magazine, there's a story about Biruté Galdikas, the leader of that Earthwatch expedition. A rape did occur, but the Outside article indicates that it was a cook, not an Earthwatch member. If the Outside story is true, Galdikas has gotten pretty psychotic -- sort of like Dian Fossey.
Margaret also had a stash of junk food for the happy hours that lasted for 3 or 4 nights and tasted unbelievably good. Cocktail peanuts, Pringle's potato chips, and those little cracker and cheese combinations of an orange color-not-found-in-nature were all incredibly delicious and went perfectly with the rum-and-tang. It was even better than the "boxed wine and cheeze-whiz" party we had in Ecuador the previous year.
On the left is a closeup of some eggs of Heliconius sapho. They are
laid close together on a bud, and as the bud grows, the eggs stay stuck
to the little leaves, and are thus spread apart. The plant is from the
passionflower family (passiflora), and the leaves may get to be 30 cm long.
On the right is an individual of H. sapho fluttering around her eggs.
Durrell took this photo with my camera, so I've got the slide!
I got out my camera to document the day, and discovered that the batteries in my flash were almost exhausted. I had packed 4 brand-new batteries in a zip-loc bag in the backpack I carried through the mud to Bilsa, so I decided to use those in my flash unit. Apparently the bag had flexed in my backpack, and the batteries were a little wet, and a day and a half in the incredible heat and humidity had completely covered the terminals with rust. I dug out my brand-new Christmas pocket knife and found that it, too, already had a thin film of rust. At that point I became very anal about keeping certain things dry, and had no further rust problems on the trip.
To use the word "trail" to describe what we followed down the stream is a bit optimistic. What it amounted to was a few places that small chunks had been knocked out of the rocks on the sides of the stream where things were particularly slipperly or steep or hairy. Every 25 meters there was (or at least was supposed to be) a plastic marker tied to a tree. We could usually walk in the stream, but at waterfalls we'd bushwhack into the jungle to get around them. Although we wore our rubber boots (we never wore anything else in the field) things were still pretty slippery and it wasn't hard to go in over the tops of your boots.
Stephen, who had suffered the barbed-wire injury earlier, was the first to slip, and they were going to name the spot "Stephen's butt-drop", but I pointed out that to be scientific, we should probably call it "Stephen's first butt-drop" because it wasn't clear how many more there would be. I was very careful, but I still slipped around quite a bit, and some of the rock traverses were sort of scary.
One of the pieces of equipment I took that I was most thankful to have was a collapsible camera monopod that doubled as a walking stick. I never used it as a monopod, but used it almost constantly as a walking stick, both on the hike into Bilsa, and on the trails around the station. I highly recommend it.
We did catch a lot of butterflies of the appropriate species on that
first day, and we learned to catch, mark, and measure them, and how to
record the information in the field notebooks. That day I did mostly
recording. On the right is a photo of me with my notebook.
Recording is sort of fun, and there are two activities that go on. The most important, obviously, is that when you catch a butterfly you have to write down all the important information -- species, measurements, time captured, number assigned, distinguishing marks (such as damage to the wing from general wear or attacks by birds), phenotypic information (such as number of spots on the wing margin, relative sizes of dark and light areas), et cetera.
But as you walk along, you also keep effort data. You rig your watch to beep at you every 15 minutes (Almost every biologist I met this trip had a Timex "Triathlon" watch because it has this feature. I can't imagine how biology is done without it.), and at every "time check", you write down where you are, weather conditions, temperature, rain, et cetera, and when you see a butterfly of one of the study species, you simply note that you saw it, even though you were unable to capture it. Since the capture times are written down on actual captures, that information can be cross-referenced to the effort data to know approximately where you were and what the weather conditions were. Of course the time checks always seemed to occur when you were clambering down a particularly steep mud wall, were involved in a particularly hairy river crossing, or when it was raining particularly hard. Biologists have as complete an understanding of Murphy's law as computer scientists.
Everyone I've talked to seems interested in how you mark butterflies because they seem so delicate. It's actually quite simple -- you use a felt-tipped marker and write a number on the wing. It's a good idea to write it on both wings in case a bird takes a chunk out of one of them. The marks don't seem to affect the butterflies, and it's often possible to tell whether a butterfly in flight is marked or not. We had little clips to hold the butterflies still while they were being marked and measured.
The notebooks were made of "Rite in the Rain" paper, which actually seems more like plastic. It works quite well, and the few pieces of actual paper we had to carry didn't fare nearly so well. Unfortunately, the covers of the "Rite in the Rain" notebooks were made of standard cardboard, and after a couple of days many of them were close to disintegration.
Except for the fact that we went as a large group on the first day, all the other days were similar. We'd split up into groups of three or four and go off to different sites on different trails in search of butterflies. Sometimes we'd do other things, like measure the plants on which the butterflies were laying eggs or were eating, and sometimes, when they were particularly damaged, we'd have a group replace the tattered trail markers from the year before. But mostly it was capturing, measuring, marking, and releasing the butterflies.
We'd get back to the station at 3 or 4 pm, and then I usually walked
down to the river to stand under a shower/waterfall to wash all the mud off.
Then after I'd been standing under it for a while, I'd take off my
clothes, rinse them well, and put them back on. Since the shirt and
pants were light nylon, they were usually pretty dry after a couple of
hours and with the weather so warm, I never got chilled. I hope there
weren't too many parasites coming over the waterfall because I spent a
great deal of time enjoying it. It was by far my favorite place in
Bilsa. On the right is a shot of Margaret enjoying the shower.
During this period there was usually a "clinic" held in the main
building. Stephen's hand was re-dressed, and various other wounds and
bites were treated. There were no medical people along, but luckily
Libby seemed to know a lot about first aid. I am certainly going to
learn a bit more before my next trip like this, not because anything
too terrible happened, but because it was pretty obvious that if
something did, I'd rather have some actual knowledge than to depend on
whatever group of quack doctor wannabes I wound up with. Shannon was
also active, but somehow managed to get the sobriquet "Nurse Ratched"
(from Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") fairly early on
because she did a lot of work on Stephen's barbed-wire-palm-gash, and
since everybody knew that all the "doctors" were quacks. Here is
Shannon on the left.
We had various pamphlets on first aid, quite a few supplies, and in the clinics, all of us played doctor and offered our professional advice on each of the cases. Then the patient got to select the treatment from among those suggested. The suggestions always ranged from "do nothing" to "amputate with a machete".
Stephen's hand healed amazingly well, considering the circumstances. We used lots of iodine and/or betadine, kept it taped up and in a glove during the days, and open to dry at night. By the time we hiked out, what had been an incredibly ugly gash was almost healed, and there was never the least sign of an infection.
Only one of the injuries was really frightening. A German girl named Marina who was independently volunteering at the station had gotten a bunch of flea and insect bites because her bed had been used by the station's dog "Lucky" until she arrived and threw it out. Some of those bites got infected and one infection on her thumb hurt so much that she couldn't sleep at night. It was swollen and hard as a rock. It looked a bit like a boil, but treating it as such didn't seem to have any effect. We finally talked her into hiking out and getting to a hospital in Quinindé or Quito. We recommended against waiting for the medi-vac helicoptor because we figured the director was probably using it.
There were a couple of other infected bites, and Stephen managed to fall again in the river and cut his head open. He got a cut next to his eye that bled like a stuck pig, but he passed his mental status test ("What are at least three Spanish words that mean mud? How many elephants are there in the director's procession? How many bottles of vodka are left for happy hour?"), so we figured he'd survive. Almost nobody got sick -- Brian felt lousy and stayed in bed for a day and that was it. There was no diarrhea (except for the almost infinite quantity of nature's own in the form of mud), no venomous bites, and no sprains or strains or broken bones.
The only other notable injury occurred when Davey was the victim of Aussie Dan who was trying to be a good samaritan. Before man arrived on the scene in the Americas (i.e. more than 12000 years ago), there were lots of giant herbivorous mammals living in the jungles. To protect themselves, many plants developed sharp thorns on their trunks to avoid being eaten. Primitive man was able to wipe out the herbivores, but lots of plants still have the spines. The nastiest collection I've seen is sported by a particular species of palm that's not too uncommon. If you slip and start to fall, it can be a very bad idea to reach out and grab at random for the nearest tree trunk. If it happens to be this palm, you'll probably wind up with a couple of dozen thin, filthy spines completely through your hand.
Two or three such palms happened to be right next to one of the trails we were working on, and since the group stopped there to measure a plant or mark a butterfly or something and Dan had nothing else to do, he decided to "shave" the palm tree with his machete. In just a few minutes he was able to shave off almost all of the larger spines.
A day or two later, Davey was climbing the same trail, needed a handhold, and grabbed the trunk since there were no obvious spines. Unfortunately, there were quite a few tiny ones that hadn't been shaved and he had a pretty painful experience.
After happy hour, dinner was at 6, and then we'd copy the data we collected during the day into a more permanent form. At 8 or 9 we'd go to bed, and then we'd get up at 6 for the next day.
On the second full day in Bilsa, we were ready to do some real work. A group of 8 of us went down to "Dos Equis" (two Xs, in Spanish) with our butterfly nets, and a smaller group went with Shannon along the same trail to measure some plants. Its name comes from the fact that it is where two trails cross (that's the first X), and the first time anyone was there, someone almost sat on an "equis" -- the highly poisonous snake also called Fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox) because of the pattern of Xs on its back.
Our group caught the first Heliconius butterfly of the day and as I was reaching for my Sharpie pen to mark it, Durrell and I simultaneously said, "Uh-oh!"
On the first day, the group had marked butterflies from 1 to 27. But
there were two groups out looking for butterflies today -- what number
should we use? It would be a disaster if we both started with 28, so
perhaps we should jump ahead to 100. But 100 is a pretty likely number
to jump to, so maybe it should be something stranger, like 137. We
spent about 5 minutes trying to out-psych the other group, and we
finally decided to start with "dot-101". We put a dot in front of the
number so that in case the other group started from 100 we'd be safe.
In fact, here's a photo of "dot-101" on the left.
A mathematician would think that the safest solution would be to choose a huge random number to reduce to zero the chances of an overlap, but butterfly wings are small, and the white parts of the wings suitable for accepting a number are smaller still, so about three digits is the most you could use.
It worked out, with Davey (the leader of the other group) reasoning as follows: "Durrell will think that I'm such an idiot that I will be completely oblivious to the problem and will start with number 28. Therefore he will choose some number significantly different from 28 and everything will be cool."
We split into two groups to investigate the trail that crossed the main one in both directions because we had heard that it was in pretty bad shape and we wanted to see just how bad. I went to the right with Oregon Dan, Cesar, and Jorge. In our direction it was completely overgrown, very steep in places, and the steepest places were, of course, the muddiest. We finally gave up when Cesar, the assistant director, declared the trail to be "muy feo" (very ugly). I was having a lot of trouble making progress when something happened that lifted my spirits immensely. I had clambered up a particularly "feo" patch, and when Cesar and Jorge were about half-way up, they lost their footing and wound up in a muddy heap at the bottom, laughing their heads off. It was great to see the experts were having some trouble too.
In splitting the group, we demonstrated more incredible stupidity, but the fates were with us and our error didn't cause any problems. We had, minutes previously, gone through the agony of deciding what numbers to use on the wings of butterflies we caught, but when we split into two groups of four, we again neglected to agree on a numbering convention. Luckily (well, actually unluckily for Durrell's thesis), it was getting cloudy and starting to drizzle, so neither group caught any more butterflies that day.
That evening we took all six data books and assigned non-overlapping sequences of numbers to each book that could be used to number butterflies that were caught by the holder of each particular book. So for example, if you caught a butterfly, you'd look in the data book you had and in the front might be a list like this: 65, 66, 67, ... You could write "65" on the wing of your butterfly, cross out the "65" at the front of your book, and be assured that nobody else would use the number 65 in the future.
When we got back to Dos Equis we met the other half of our group, argued for awhile about which direction was "mas feo", and then returned to the station. As I recall, not too many butterflies were caught that day.
It started raining so we turned around and found ourselves going faster and faster as the rain got harder and harder. We met Shannon's group trying to measure plants in the pouring rain. Shannon is so devoted to Durrell that she was determined to get his data for him, no matter what. Durrell basically forced her to stop and take her group back. Members of the plant-measuring group that evening changed their references to Shannon from the somewhat friendly "Nurse Ratched" to just "Ratched".
That evening (and it was only our second full day there), the main topic of conversation at happy hour was how in the hell we were going to get out. Some fairly wild inventions were discussed that might allow one to move though mud efficiently, but all were obviously hopelessly inadequate. Oregon Dan (a patent attorney in real life) did come up with a great name for a solution if we could ever figure one out. We'd market our mud-walking product as "Bilsa sliders".
We also wondered what we could take along for lunch on the walk out. We figured we could save the various power bars and stuff like that we'd brought along, but we weren't convinced that there'd be enough food for all of us if we got into trouble. Since Lucky the dog's flea problem was just becoming obvious (Marina was not the only one affected), I suggested dog jerky which met with widespread approval.
The next day we took the same trail down to Dos Equis but continued on the main trail all the way to where it ended at the confluence of two rivers, called "Dos Bocas" (two mouths). It was about 2.5 kilometers, and one of the nicest trails I hiked in Bilsa. At the confluence of the rivers it opened up, and there were lots of butterflies. Although 2.5 kilometers doesn't seem like much, on the sub-optimal muddy jungle trails it's a long way, and since it was hot, we'd used most of our water by the time we got to the bottom.
So while the others were catching butterflies, Shannon, Margaret and I hiked up the stream with a water filter and pump to try to find some relatively clean water to start with. We found a great waterfall that came from a tiny stream where it was obvious that there were no humans or large mammals above, and we pumped gallons of water through the filter to reload everyones' water bottles. It was a lot of fun, and we got absolutely soaked by the spray.
We'd noticed that the trail markers were in pretty bad shape below Dos Equis on the way down, so four of us volunteered to remark the trail on the way back by finding the official (but small) numbered plaques nailed to large hardwoods every 25 meters, and then using plastic flagging material on a semi-permanent tree as near to the trail as possible. It seemed like a good idea at the time to volunteer for this service because Shannon was about to pick another team to do some plant measuring on the way back and the Ratched stories were fresh in our minds. The hardwoods were often 4 or 5 meters off the trail, so finding them was sometimes a bit of a challenge. But once you found one, you could take 22 steps up the trail, and it would be likely that you were near the next one. We split into teams of two and leap-frogged up the trail, each team replacing every other flag.
On the way back, of course, it started to rain, and a couple of hundred meters below Dos Equis, it was raining so hard that we couldn't write on the trail markers with the felt-tipped pens any longer, so we just left the plastic flags in the right places. Beyond Dos Equis, the rain got really heavy. We heard some howler monkeys and we managed to see one of them, but we lost him in the rain, and in spite of a bit of bushwhacking, we were unable to catch sight of him again.
The next day was a Sunday and we just goofed off. When we got out of bed, everyone had high-minded plans to go hiking, birding, exploring, or whatever, but somehow the most ambitious thing that occurred all day long was that some clothes got washed. I don't think the hammocks were idle for a minute.
I think it was that night that we had our first rodent for dinner. The English name is "jaca", but the locals call it "huanta". It's about the size of a pretty hefty house cat. Protein was pretty rare, so it wasn't surprising that finicky eaters were also rare, and the huanta was polished off pretty quickly. It tastes like chicken.
There was plenty to eat at Bilsa, but it wasn't too exciting. The vast majority was starch. Dinner might consist of rice, potatoes, yuca (a starchy root vegetable), bread, and plantains. The nights when we got protein in the form of beans or chicken or huanta were special. There wasn't much fruit, either, but there were occasional bananas. We almost always had a sack lunch packed by the cooks to eat on the trail, and it usually had a banana, a jelly sandwich, some hard candies, and perhaps some cookies. There was seldom anywhere to sit for lunch (there was mud everywhere) so we usually ate standing up.
On Monday, January 5, I was in Shannon's group, marching down the river bed that we'd visited the first day to measure some plants. We had to go far, far beyond where we'd gotten the first day, and Shannon had a list of the various trail marks where the plants were to be found. As we progressed down the river, there was more and more water, we were visiting less and less traveled parts of the trail, and so of course things got slower and slower. The trail markers occurred every 25 meters, and each one was harder to get to than the last. It took us an hour to get from number 40 to 50 (we started at number 8), and when we reached marker number 50, it was already 3 o'clock -- well past the time we usually turned for home. The final plant was at 66 -- an hour and a half away at the current rate of progress -- and I was terrified that Shannon would insist on going for it. I did talk her into turning around, and if we hadn't, I would have mutinied, since I had absolutely no intention of hiking back in that nightmare river-bed in the dark. I already have a couple of good personal stories about forced jungle night hikes (one of which was the "half hour" walk to Descanso and the other of which involved hacking through a swampy, overgrown pasture with a machete -- see Machetazo) and that's plenty.
On the right is a shot of Margaret (facing the camera) and Shannon and
Elina talking to her. Margaret had just found a particularly slipperly
rock and unintentionally washed her pants a few hundredths of a second
later. At least
we could use the butterfly nets as walking sticks sometimes. This is a
typical shot from the river trail.
By the time we got back to the parts of the trail we'd visited the first day, I realized that I was a lot more skillful and confident as a result of the downriver experience. The parts that had been quite scary on the first day were a cakewalk coming back.
January 6 was similar -- hiking, butterflies, and plants. The trail we took that day went up a very impressive mud wall that I was amazed I could climb, and I was even more amazed that I could descend it later. (Of course it's actually quite easy to descend, but at the time I was interested in the sort of descent where my feet remained under me and I didn't wind up with a quickly alternating mud-sky-mud-sky-mud-... view.)
That evening at happy hour we realized that we had been totally irresponsible in our drinking, and we completely ran out of alcohol. There was even some crazy talk about negotiating the sea of mud between us and the cantina to score some Cristal. We had a full day and night ahead of us before we'd begin the march out, so it looked like we'd be faced with a "sad hour" on the final night. If we had made it across the bridge at San Andres the first day, there would have been two "sad hours", so at least we had something to be thankful for.
Durrell had decided to leave one day earlier than planned in case something went wrong. We could, in an emergency, spend the night in La Y.
On our final full day in Bilsa, January 7, the sun came out with a vengeance, and not only did that mean a lot of butterflies (I think we got more that day than any other), but it meant that the trail out would have a full day to dry out and would probably not be nearly as bad. In addition, Durrell and the staff at Bilsa had arranged for 16 mules, so we'd have 6 to carry the bags and 10 for humans. The trip out would be a walk in the park.
But about noon, it started to rain, and it rained hard all night. In fact, it was the most rain we had seen on the entire trip. We don't know exactly how much rain there was because all the rain gauges overflowed. So maybe the trail wouldn't be dry after all.
But then the miracle of the cognac occurred. It turns out that Kent and Sherry were not as irresponsible as the rest of us and had squirreled away a quart of cognac for the final happy hour. The next day's march through the mud looks a lot better when you have a mug of cognac in your hand.
Actually, the hike out was easier than going in. We had a lot of mud experience under our belts, and I, in particular, did some equipment modification. I wore two pairs of heavy wool socks to keep the boots on as tightly as possible, and I stuffed my pants into the socks for good measure before putting the boots on. Then, to make sure there would be no surprises, I wrapped duct tape from 10 centimeters below the tops of the boots up nearly to my knees over the pants. I didn't lose a single boot on the way out, and the duct tape stayed in place for the entire hike. Due to all the rain, I'm sure the road was exactly as bad as when we went in, or possibly even worse.
It turned out that the mule problem wasn't as bad as I thought. Other mules were in the first couple of tiny towns we passed, and I think there were about 12 altogether.
It did get hot, however, and at about 11 o'clock I was pretty tired and was starting to run low on water, so I decided to rest when I got to the top of the little hill I was climbing. Unfortunately, it was not little, and I nearly collapsed at the top, an hour later. I found some grass by the side of the road in some shade, and crashed down in it. I had a little water to drink and decided that I should eat some of the sandwich I'd brought along. I took a bite, chewed on it for about 5 minutes, was unable to swallow it, so I finally just spit it out.
I didn't move for 15 minutes and finally the other two people in my group (Oregon Dan and Libby) arrived, followed, 5 minutes later, by a couple of mules. The mule's riders got off, and I let Dan and Libby get on, and I started walking again, but I was so tired and dehydrated that I only got 100 meters or so before the next shady grass seduced me and I decided to wait for the next mule.
When I say "grass", it's not correct to think of the beautiful manicured lawns of suburbia. It's a meter or more tall, is stiff with sharp edges, and is probably infested with all manner of chiggers and ticks, due to the constant passage of mules. But it's out of the mud, and since I'd had my pack on all day, the part of the pack that had been against my back was clean, so I had a pillow and a grass mattress. It was pure heaven. Miraculously, I only found one tick later, and it was still walking around on my shirt when I found it.
The mule ride was another heroin hit, and I rode for 45 minutes or so to La Y.
La Y, as I said, is the shit-hole of the universe, but that's only if you look at it going toward Bilsa. Coming out, it's more like the Garden of Eden. They had Cokes and pop and bottled water -- as much as you could drink. And after La Y, there was real road, except for a couple of landslides, all the way back. Durrell had not used a mule, had not arrived yet, and Shannon had stopped to wait for him a couple of kilometers back, so although most of the people started walking, a few of us waited at La Y to make sure Durrell was OK. He got there about an hour later, and was pretty wiped out.
There were four of us and four mules, so, not being completely stupid, we just rode them all the way out. Stephen refused to get on one because his horse had fallen in the mud on the way out and landed on his leg and he had no intention of getting on again. I think the problem is that he's a big guy and the horse was just too small. It's lucky that he fell in the mud, since he could easily have broken a leg had the horse fallen on it on hard ground. Stephen certainly had the worst luck with falls and injuries and got more serious ones than all the rest of us put together.
The original landslide had been cleared, so the hike out was 2 or 3 kilometers shorter. There was a very heavy rainstorm on the last stretch, so when we got to Herrera even most of the mud was gone. I spent the ride yakking with Durrell about photography and computers.
Jean was in Herrera with the vehicles, and we drove back to Quinindé for the night and got there at about 5 pm. We hosed ourselves off in the parking lot, took showers, put on relatively clean clothes, and went out for a great dinner.
We shared the hotel in Quinindé with two busloads of Colombians who were touring Ecuador. The party was in full swing when we arrived and got into fuller and fuller swing as the evening wore on. They were still swinging at 2:30 when they sensibly went to bed so they could get plenty of sleep for the 5 am departure. At 4:30 for some reason not everybody was up, so the yelling started, and when that failed to produce their compatriots, the Colombians began to pound on the doors. Of course nobody was sure who was in which room, so to be on the safe side, they hammered on all the doors. I was pretty tired, but only got about 3 hours of sleep that night. I tried to sleep, but in retrospect, it probably would have been a better idea to join the party with the Colombians. Aussie Dan and Brian did so, and they had a pretty good time.
Getting from Quinindé back to Quito involved simply a lot of driving, and since we came out a day early, we decided to stay at a wonderful place called Bellavista in the mountains at about 2200 meters about half way between Quinindé and Quito. There was great bird-watching there, and I'd like to go back sometime. The rooms are all arranged inside a giant geodesic dome with a complicated set of stairs and ladders to get around inside. Best of all, there were hot showers! Kent and Sherry, in fact, decided to abandon us at Bellavista and to spend the three extra days they'd planned to use to tour Ecuador to enjoy the bella vista (beautiful view) at Bellavista and its birds.
One bird for which Bellavista is famous is the Plate-billed mountain toucan, and although he had visited the lodge many times, Durrell had never spotted it. He was convinced that some sort of jinx was in effect for that bird, and that he never would see it.
Within 20 minutes of arrival, however, I spotted one in the trees while I was standing on one of the dome's decks. Brian was with me at the time, and he saw it too, so we yelled for Durrell. Durrell came running but I lost the bird just before he got there, but fortunately Brian saw where it went. Unfortunately, Brian is not a birdwatcher and one thing that's surprisingly difficult to do for a beginning birdwatcher to do is to describe where a bird is located. Good birders might give an explanation like this: "See the big palm. 20 meters to the right is a tall tree with white bark. The bird is at about 2 o'clock in the crown, out near the edge."
But we had Brian. Durrell yelled, "Where is it?" The reply: "In the tree!" "Which tree?" "The green one!". So there was Durrell, looking out into 10,000 green trees. Maybe Durrell's right about the jinx; he certainly didn't see that particular toucan, and in spite of the fact that he and I and Shannon got up at the crack of dawn to check out some purported toucan nest sites, he had no luck the next morning either. We did see plenty of nice birds, however.
At about 11 o'clock that next day we left Bellavista for Quito.
The drive back was not uneventful, however. After I take that course in first aid, I think I'll also take a course in auto mechanics. The vehicles were all about 20 years old and all seemed to have bald tires. We had 3 flats, 2 burst radiator hoses, and one broken linkage for the 4-wheel-drive system in the two day drive from Quinindé to Quito. Jean was somehow able, using a portable phone and who knows what other methods, to find us spare parts in tiny towns, to find places to repair flats, et cetera. Thus we got to Quito almost too late to do any souvenir shopping (which is probably a good thing), but early enough to go to a big farewell dinner.
Elina, who had gone to her aunt's house to clean up, joined us for dinner together with her aunt and her little 3-year-old cousin. Elina and her aunt (and cousin, of course), spoke no English (although Elina can read it passably), so I tried to entertain them through dinner. I gave Elina my Colombian bird guide. She had no idea that I even had it, but had mentioned to me in Bilsa how hard it was to get in Ecuador, and how she would love to have one. It was a perfect gift, and she was overjoyed to get it. Of course she'll have to work on her English a bit to use it.
The dinner was great, but Jean, the iron woman of the road, finally showed some pretty peculiar pathology at dinner. It was a fancy restaurant (for Quito), and the entrees were expensive ($10 to $15, and even some $20, when converted from Ecuadorian sucres). There were 15 people eating, and a lot of wine was ordered. The alcohol bill was about $120 (for which the drinkers had to pay), and about $220 for the rest of the meal (which is about right -- 15 people times $15), for which Earthwatch was responsible. Jean was the banker, and Durrell gave her $20, I gave her $40 and Oregon Dan gave her $60 in US bills for the liquor. In addition, others gave her what amounted to approximately $30-$40 equivalent additional in Ecuadorian sucres for their drinks.
Before the contributions, Jean had the $220 (in sucres) for the non-alcoholic portion of the meal, but she totally freaked at the thought that the restaurant wouldn't give her the best possible exchange rate on the dollars -- she might lose $5 or so. We were stalled for at least an hour waiting for her to pay the bill. She argued with the waiters about the prices. She insisted on adding and re-adding the entire bill. She railed at us for giving her dollars. She made Elina go argue with the management. And on and on. Finally, by using "her own" money and some borrowed sucres, she only had to exchange $20 or so of US bills. So she wound up with about a $30 profit, and blamed us all for causing her so much trouble.
I didn't sleep well that night -- some idiot started honking his horn at about 11:00 and yelling for "Bill". This went on for 45 minutes and as far as I know, "Bill", like the director, never showed up. Then Stephen, my roommate, had to get up at 5 to make his flight, and I couldn't go back to sleep afterwards.
My flight was at 1:20, so I took a taxi to the airport and got there the requisite 3 hours early. The baggage check area wasn't even open for my airline, so I stood in line in front of it and was shortly joined by a few other people, but the baggage check never opened. We checked the board repeatedly, and there was our flight, but no people. Finally, somebody came by to tell us that the flight was cancelled because there weren't enough people who wanted to go that day.
So I went to the business office and arranged for a flight home the next morning (Monday). The airline gave me vouchers for hotel, lunch, dinner, and breakfast, and for taxi fare to and from the hotel. The folks behind me in line got the same deal, and we were relatively compatible, so we hung out together for the enforced stay in Quito. They were all from San Francisco -- two friends (Raul and Alicia) traveling together and Alicia's sister (Belinda), who was 6 months into a stint with the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Raul and Alicia had done the usual sorts of tourist things -- white-water rafting and a jungle adventure -- as well as visiting with Belinda and meeting the people she worked with.
Belinda from the Peace Corps had been eating lentils and rice for 6 months, so it was pretty easy to make her a friend for life by buying her a dinner in the hotel restaurant and a couple of bottles of wine. Belinda was helping at a school in Quito and was a bit worried because the next day the regular teacher was gone and she would be facing the class by herself for the first time. All the way through the two bottles of wine she kept talking about how she'd have to get started on her lesson plans soon ...
After dinner, the sisters wanted to talk on their last day together so Raul and I went out in search of beer. We could have done so at the hotel bar, but that didn't seem right. The hotel was in a very different part of Quito, and since it was Sunday night, we walked for a long way before we found anything open, and the only thing we found was a bar in another hotel. I did notice the effects of my time in Bilsa, however. As we strolled down the street, I noticed that Raul was pretty winded. Of course the fact that Quito has an elevation of over 3000 meters may have had something to do with it too.
When we returned, I couldn't get to sleep right away, so I pulled out the Bible in the hotel to work on my Spanish. It provides great practice for the usually rare imperative plural familiar "you" verb conjugations. In other words, there's plenty of practice with "thou shalt".
On Monday, everything went smoothly, and the flight home was long, but uneventful. To make up a bit for the rigors of the trip, for the first time in my life, my bag was the first out of the luggage carousel, I was the first through customs and immigration, and it took 6 minutes total from the time I stepped off the plane until I met my wife Ellyn outside of customs.
It was a great adventure, and, as advertised, I now have buns of steel.
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