West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Four wheel karma

At the moment, there are slightly more than 1100 plant specimens covering the desk in my office, sorted by family, genus, and species. There’s hardly space for my computer. In the last four days, Marisol and I finished the last two inventory transects, pressed the plants, and censused half of a seedling plot. I’m tired.

The last pair of sites, Botarrama and Aceituno, were among the most remote. The sites are named after the most common tree species in each one: aceituno (“little olive”) is Simarouba amara, a gorgeous, stately tree with pinkish bark and glossy compound leaves with pale undersides; botarrama (“branch tosser”) is Vochysia ferruginea, with a lovely domed canopy that looks like a child’s idealized drawing of a tree. It really does chuck down a lot of lower branches, getting rid of all but the ones that catch the most light.

In order to get to Aceituno, the easiest road is over the hanging bridge in El Roble, constructed by the Comite Vecinario del Roble (El Roble Neighborhood Committee). It looks a bridge put together by a neighborhood committee. Two concrete pylons on either side of the river support a creaky hanging span 20 meters long and just barely wide enough for a car, constructed of wood, metal, and whatever else came to hand. The sides of the bridge sport irregular patches of chicken wire that wouldn’t keep even a chicken from falling through. The whole thing settles noticeably when a car drives onto it, even a car as light as the Silver Bullet. My faith in the hanging bridge was undermined even further when I went by underneath it on a rafting trip this past summer, and saw at least four species of epiphytic ferns taking up residence between the slats.

The hanging bridge is only the beginning of the journey to Aceituno. When I went out to visit the sites with Edwin a few weeks ago, I drew what I thought was a pretty good map and a set of directions to get out there. But when I went out to look for it on Sunday morning, we kept ending up in the middle of nowhere on dead-end, muddy roads. The GPS indicated that we were way too far north, but there didn’t seem to be any roads going southward. After a fruitless hour of exploration, I decided to go to Botarrama instead. I’d already done a plot right next to that site, so I knew I could find my way back. We turned around and headed for the next bridge, 5 km upstream, to enter Tirimbina from the other direction.

The forest at Botarrama was beautifully open. Unlike most of my sites, which were in pasture for anywhere from two to 20 years, the CATIE plots were slashed and burned once, and then left to regenerate immediately. They’re much more diverse than many of my other sites of comparable age, and much easier to work in. Despite the late start, Marisol and I finished the transect—310 individuals, 96 species—by 3:30 in the afternoon.

It would have been smart to just head back to the station, drop off Marisol in town, take a shower, and eat my rice and beans. But the challenge of finding Aceituno still rankled—it would be my last site, and I didn’t want to let something as small as a bad map stand in my way. When Edwin took me to the sites, he’d shown me a back road between Tirimbina and El Roble.

“No se puede pasar cuando llueve,” he’d said. You can’t get through when it rains. But it had been dry for three days. I had a little over a quarter tank of gas left, according to the gauge. I knew I could find the entrance to the back road, and I was pretty sure I could find my way out the other side. I’d take GPS points at every intersection for when we came back. I told Marisol about the plan. She’s a good sport; she just nodded.

The back road was worse than I remembered. With Edwin driving, I hadn’t really noticed quite how deep the mudholes were, or how many steep ruts cut across the downhills. The drive was fairly hair-raising. Of all the unlikely skills I have picked up en route to my doctorate, four-wheeling in a Suzuki Samurai is among the most complex and subtly nuanced. You’ve got to judge which side of a rut to take, and where to position the wheels for maximum traction in a mudhole; when to gun it and when to ease ahead. My hands are still bruised from rattling against the wheel.

At the bottom of the longest hill, we came across an obstacle that not even the Silver Bullet could surmount: a fence of stout poles and barbed wire placed solidly in the middle of the road.

“Oh,” Marisol said. “Yo pensaba que el rótulo era por pertinencia, que hay que pedir permiso del dueño...” I thought the sign was there for property rights, that you’ve got to ask permission...

“¿Cúal rótulo? Marisol, de que habla?” What sign? What are you talking about?

“El rótulo arriba. Lo que dijo ‘prohibido el paso.’” The one back there that said ‘no entry.’”

With my eyes firmly fixed on the obstacles of the road, I hadn’t even seen the sign. “Oh.” I parked the Silver Bullet and took a GPS reading. We were fractions of a decimal degree from the point I’d taken at the plot three weeks earlier. It had to be just there, just down the road... but the fence blocked the way. And it was no lily-livered fence, either; it was a solid row of poles as thick as my waist and nearly head-high, set deep into the ground. On either side of the road there were deep ditches and barbed-wire fences, precluding a detour. I sighed and turned the car around.

“Bueno, al menos ya sabemos donde queda la parcela,” I said. Well, at least we know where the plot is. And this was when the engine coughed a few times and quit. “Vamos, Bala Plateada,” I said (come on, Silver Bullet), trying to keep the fear out of my voice. The sun was skimming the deserted pejibaye plantations to the west of us. I let the engine sit for a few minutes, and tried again. It sputtered out almost immediately. The gas gauge still read a quarter tank, but it sure seemed like we were out of gas. I didn’t want to think about what else it might be, and how much time, effort, and money it would take to get the car out of there otherwise.

“¿Caminamos?” Marisol asked. Shall we walk?

I didn’t see any other option, so I took my backpack with the last half-empty water bottle, my headlamp, and the Ziploc with my license, collecting permit, and money. Walking back through the mud pits, I was amazed the little car had made it through. I could see why they wanted to close the road. I couldn’t quite see how we would get out.

The sun had taken on a red tinge and dropped a few more degrees by the time we reached the main road. I stopped at a field station nearby, where I’d hoped to find someone who could help out, but the place was deserted. The whole countryside seemed to be deserted as evening settled. It was beautiful out there; pastures and fence lines and patches of forest and little streams, all lush green and glowing with evening. (Watching Fellowship of the Ring yesterday evening, at least as much as I could before I fell asleep, I was amazed by how much the Shire looked like Tirimbina). But with night creeping up behind us, and the road empty, it seemed like a desolate kind of beauty.

We walked probably four or five km, all the way to the pulperia next to the Sketchy Bridge. Pulperias are a universal feature of the Costa Rican countryside: little stores, often attached to somebody’s house, selling cold beer, fruit juice, bread, and a host of other items ranging from disposable razors to chicken feed. I hoped that the stock of this one would extend to gasoline.

“¿Gasolina?” said the old man at the counter. “Ay, ya no tenemos, niña. Ayer la vendemos todita la gasolina.” We don’t have any right now, kid. We sold it all yesterday.

“Pero Beto tiene un galón en su casa, ¿verdad, amigo?” This was a man at the little table that served as a bar, elbowing a friend. You’ve got a gallon at home, don’t you, Beto?

Beto was a stocky, short man with a mop of curls. He took a look at me and Marisol. We’d been in the field since seven in the morning. I was sunburned, hungry, thirsty, and at my wit’s end. It didn’t take much to work up a damsel-in-distress look. “Ya vengo,” he said. “Vivo aquí cerca.” I’m on my way. I live close by.

I bought a beer for Marisol and drank a Fanta while we waited for Beto to return with the gas. Santiago, the man who’d nominated Beto for the gas run, chatted with us. He told us about growing up in the neighborhood, and I told him about the little town in Maine where I’d grown up. Small towns are the same everywhere, it seems—whether your neighbors are helping you rescue your cattle from an oncoming flood, or whether they’re helping you shovel three feet of snow off your grandmother’s sidewalk. Or whether they drive halfway out to La Virgen to bring you the last gallon of gas in town.

When Beto returned, evening was painting the hills purple. He and Santiago insisted on driving down to where the Silver Bullet was foundered, even though I warned them about the mud. (On the way in, I finally spotted the Prohibiod el Paso sign, tacked to a tree at the edge of the road.) Beto’s Toyota, only a little heavier than the Samurai but a lot more comfortable, floated through the worst of the mud with barely a protest. In the last light, we reached the clearing where the Silver Bullet was parked in the abandoned pejibay plantation. We improvised a funnel from a plastic water bottle and cut a stick to hold the intake open—Beto’s gallon of gas was in a milk jug, and we didn’t have a hose.

I insisted on paying for the gas. “Mil gracias,” I said. Any words of thanks seemed insufficient—without his help, we’d be stuck there overnight, and if the rain clouds now descending from the volcanoes made good on their promise, we might be stuck there a lot longer. “Voy a decir al mundo que hay muy buena gente en La Virgen.” I’ll tell the world there are wonderful people in La Virgen.

Beto waved away my thanks, grinning. “Todos somos ticos. Quizá mañana ustedes ayudan a otra persona.” We’re all ticos. Maybe tomorrow you guys will help somebody else out.

I told him about the family in El Hueco.

“Eso,” he said. It’s an untranslatable tiquismo, literally meaning “that.” Figuratively, it expresses the utter rightness of something—an impressive soccer pass or dance move, a well-spoken phrase, a story with an appropriate ending.

And this story, too, ends well, though not without one final twist. I reached La Selva just in time for dinner that night, and then spent a few good hours with Google Earth finding the way from the hanging bridge at El Roble to Aceituno. I plotted the coordinates of each intersection and drew up a rough map. It turned out that my earlier map and directions had omitted one crucial intersection, sending me out in the wrong direction.

Early the next morning we headed out to finish the final transect, 30 out of 30. I filled up the gas tank on the way through town. Aceituno was another lovely site, open and spacious forest with tall, straight Simarouba trees like cathedral pillars. Again we finished early. On the way out, we came to an intersection I didn’t remember. I stopped the car and got out to take a GPS point. When I got back into the car, the engine refused to turn over. Marisol and I exchanged a wordless glance of consternation. Fortunately, we were on a pretty level stretch of road. And thus end my adventures with the Silver Bullet: me at the wheel, Marisol pushing, until finally the engine caught and we rode off into the sunset.


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