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 23, 2010

The latest crazy adventure, part I

The proverbial road to hell is paved with good intentions. The (quite literal) road to Puerto Infierno is not paved at all, except for about 100 meters where it joins the (also unpaved) back streets of Puerto Maldonado; it’s carved out of red Amazon mud between walls of jungle, and must be entirely impassible when the rains come. But perhaps I should explain how I came to know this.

I guess the story really starts back at the beginning of September, when I was at Las Cruces Biological Station with the course. September is generally a slow time for research at Las Cruces. Besides the USAP group and the usual complement of retired bird enthusiasts, the only people at Las Cruces were a pair of German researchers, Alex and Anke, studying wood anatomy. They were wonderful people with infectious good spirits, and their quirky sense of humor exactly matched mine. Every night after dinner, if I didn’t have an evening lecture, I would linger at the table with them exchanging stories and crazy ideas.

One night—I’m not sure how we got started—we were talking about our favorite animal sounds. I made an impression of my all-time favorite, the tree frog Smilisca baudinii, a distinctly un-froglike, flapping, nasal “mep-mep-mep.” They were in stitches, and refused to believe it was a real animal sound until I sent them this link. After that, every time we met they would greet me with “mep-mep-mep!”

Fast-forward to the end of September, one slow Sunday at La Selva Biological Station. A pair of researchers showed up a few minutes after reception closed. Both were tall men, one with a blond ponytail and one with short dark hair. I marked them instantly as entomologists by the obviously well-used butterfly nets tucked into their packs. I was sitting in front of the comedor grading papers, and a few of my students were nearby studying—this was a couple days before midterms.

The blond guy asked a student, “usted trabaja aquí?” But he’d picked the wrong girl, one who didn’t speak a word of Spanish. (Hopefully she does by now; the students are in week 3 of their homestay at the moment!)

I stepped in to introduce myself ask if I could help. This was how I met John, a Dutch entomologist on a year-long sabbatical in South and Central America. The other researcher, Alessio, was an Italian Lepidoptera enthusiast on vacation.

“Oh, are you Susan?” John said. “Then I have a message for you.” And he managed a quite passable imitation of Smilisca baudinii: “mep mep mep…”

I doubled over laughing. It turns out that John had met Alex and Anke while he was traveling in Santa Rosa, and had a great time with them as well. I decided that anyone who got on well with those two would be worth knowing, and so I sat with John and Alessio at dinner. Their company proved entertaining. The next evening I sat with them again. Afterwards, John was uploading photos to facebook, and he showed me some images of the site where he works in southeastern Peru: wild rivers and oxbow lakes, all kinds of wildlife, thatched huts at the edge of the jungle.

“I’d love to go back there,” I said. I was in Peru for three weeks when I was 17, and that trip changed my life in a lot of ways. For one thing, I don’t think I would have hiked the AT if I hadn’t gone. But that is another story.

“Come, then,” he said. “I’d be happy to show you around. You can stay at the lodge for the researcher rate.”

“But when?”

“Next week. I have a group coming in on the 16th, but before that I’ll be at the lodge getting set up. You should come. It would be fun.”

“Next week? That’s crazy! That’s…” I made some calculations. My break would start on the afternoon of the 3rd. I still had three job applications to finish, along with the interminable grading. I tried to put the thought out of my mind, but that night I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the Amazon and that oxbow lake in John’s pictures. I got up early and looked at plane tickets. There’s a direct TACA flight from San Jose to Lima, and there were still a few tickets for a halfway reasonable price.

At breakfast the next morning I marched over to the table where John and Alessio were finishing their coffee. “John, I want to go with you to Peru!” At this point, mind you, I had known him for less than three days. He laughed about as hard as I had at his “mep-mep-mep,” but then he grinned and said, “excellent.”

To be continued...

Wouldn't you go to the Amazon with this guy, if the opportunity arose?


At 8:31 AM, Blogger Em said...

sounds like a fascinating adventure. can't wait for part deux. your "mep" link didn't work for me, though. too bad.

At 11:13 PM, Blogger Susan said...

I think I fixed the link... try it again. Thanks for pointing it out.


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