Saturday, March 29, 2008

Girl from Ipanema

Like so many things, rock-climbing on Pao do Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was a good idea - viewing the sunset from the top, and the city light up underneath was stunning. It's just that the dramatic set of bruises and scrapes down my left leg so nicely match my skinned right leg - the result of tripping on the sidewalk in Santa Teresa. What can I say... they match my snazzy new red Brazilian bikini (my rather demure one-piece at Ipanema beach left me feeling like I'd turned up to a cocktail party in jeans and a t-shirt). They also have been amazing conversation pieces, resulting in some very nice interactions with Cariocas (people from Rio) - not too mention the acquisition of several phone numbers of some sympathetic guys.

The most distinctive feature of Rio - other than the stunning location between beautiful ocean and bumpy hills - is the people. Cariocas are extremely friendly and helpful - when I fell in Santa Teresa, I was surrounded by about fifteen people in seconds, all helping me up and checking to see if I was alright. Waiters at restaurants aren't in the least bit taken back by a female eating alone, and are happy to chat - despite my dreadful Portuguese. The only people I dislike are a certain brand of obnoxious Western tourist - the ones who loudly complain that no one in Rio speaks English (what? people in Brazil speaking only Portuguese? the gall!); who think that talking louder will make people understand them better; who told me off for giving the streetkids a few reais for opening the door for me (apparently it encourages them); and who were shocked that I was going to catch the public bus to the beach (they seem to feel they're in danger of being shot the moment they step out of their air-conditioned luxury bus). But aside from a few irritable moments, they haven't taken away from my enjoyment of this city.

And what a city: Rio has its share of sights (like the giant statue of Cristo Redentor - and, more amusingly, the tourists getting photos taken in front of the
statue, attempting to mimic the outstretched hands - and, even more amusingly, the sardonic British couple, whose only comment was how tiring it must have been for whoever modeled for the sculptor to hold the pose for a long time). There's Maracana Stadium, where I had a chance to cheer on the favourite team of our cook in the Amazon - filled with true sports fans play samba during the game, wave giant flags and sing songs. But, really, Rio is all about the beaches. I was never a beach person until I saw the culture here. The entire city is out - from favela kids to posh Cariocas in designer beachware. Beautiful men and women are playing volleyball - or futvolei, which is like volleyball but with a soccer-ball and no hands. You can get a massage, have your fortune told, or your hair braided. People are selling agua de coco and cervejas. There are the surfing spots and the fishing spots, the live music spots and the hang-glider spots, the swimming spots and the lying on the beach spots.

On my last day in Rio, I walked around the Lago (lake) behind Ipanema to the Jardim Botanical. The Jardim is relaxed and empty - filled with amazing plants, long walks edged with of tall palm trees, an orchid house and, surprisingly for the humid tropical climate, a cactus garden. And, oddly enough, I was most fascinated by the cacti - from all over South America, they came in every shape and size - including tree-like cacti that spiralled around each other in a living Escher drawing.

I spent my last few hours in South America lying on Ipanema Beach and chasing crashing waves. Normally I'm excited about traveling - or going home after a long trip; but I have never wanted to get on a plane less than on Thursday night. A day and a half later, I am now sitting in a coffee shop in Boulder feeling a mixture of culture shock and, well, cold.

Brazil is a unique mixture of scarlet macaws (paradoxically squawking quite obnoxiously) and leaf-like insects, of art galleries and museums, of beautiful tanned people playing beach volleyball next to favela kids selling underpriced sucos (juice).

I am looking forward to analyzing my data from this field campaign - I hope to find something complex and interesting. Something that will require a speedy - but lengthy - return...

Perhaps not so dangerous: Sao Paulo Part III.

Every guidebook and article on Sao Paulo is filled with warnings: more dangerous than Rio, don't get into a taxi, don't take public transit, and, no matter what you do, you seem almost guaranteed to be mugged, let alone kidnapped or killed. Normally I'm a pretty intrepid traveler, but the number of warnings I received had me at least slightly wary. After three uneventful days of wandering the streets and taking public transit in my searches for museums and markets, I think these fears were blown a little out of proportion.

Everywhere I've been in Sao Paulo (admittedly, mostly slightly touristy, upscale or at least well populated) has felt safe: every park I've walked through has had numerous police officers wandering around, and even the Mercadao Municipale had security guards at all the entrances. The metro is clean and well-lit, and while I obviously keep a hand on my bag at all times, I have found people to be very respectful of personal space. On the multiple occasions I've been 'disoriented' (okay, lost), I've had no problems getting directions from police officers or random people.

Perhaps I've just been lucky - or maybe it's the type of places I frequent (art galleries and sculpture gardens aren't normal haunts for bandits) - but Sao Paulo has been both safe and friendly. The most dangerous thing I've encountered here is the cachaca. There is golden cachaca as smooth as a good whiskey, that goes down as quickly and dangerously as guava juice. There is raw white cachaca that my friends have infused with the roots in an Afro-Brazilian tradition from Espirito Santos - you drink it on Good Friday to give you luck and strength in the coming years (that is, if my Portuguese was good enough to understand the drunken discussion!). It has a harsh bitter taste, the taste being at least indicative of its alcohol content. And then there are caipirinhias. Very dangerous things. Especially when there's an early morning flight the next day...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Perhaps not so ugly: Sao Paulo Part II.

Sao Paulo probably doesn't have a very large amount of art when considered on a per capita basis. But that's considering the population is somewhere around 20 million. For a modern art afficionado, this is probably one of the most impressive cities to visit in the world. First, there are the galleries, of which there are dozens. I only visited three:

1. The MAM, or Museo de Arte Moderna, in the Ibirapuera park. A small and very eclectic collection of Brazilian art, seemingly brought together with no link other than their country of origin. The most beautiful piece was a drawing of an anteater, hidden in the outline of buildings; the most powerful piece, entitled 'Amazonia' or somesuch, showed jungle creatures and indigenous people painted in green, but under the blood red sky of a commerical airplane ; and the most bizarre piece was scattered throughout the gallery: a series of paintings covered up in MAM cardboard boxes with signs indicating that the pictures had been temporarily removed. An explanation at the door of the museum described how this random covering up of actual pieces should force one to think about expectations and what we learn from pieces of art that we expect to see but are unable to. While truly odd, it did have me thinking of what my emotions might be if I went to the Louvre only to find the Mona Lisa replaced by a card saying 'temporarily removed'.

2. The MASP (Sao Paulo Museum of Art) has a collection of Brazilian Impressionist paintings that completely changed my view of Brazilian art. More than that, the building is considered a piece of art in and of itself. It is a cement and glass rectangular box that sits raised on four red legs. Not, in my opinion, a work of beauty, but definitely a piece of art.

3. The Pinacoteca del Estado - the most impressive of the three. The building is a play of brick and glass - filled with open multi-story atriums, and skylights that interact with internal columns to create unique shadow effects. And, of course, some absolutely spectacular art. Probably the best collection (don't listen to what the guide books tell you!) - everything ranging from Brazilian Impressionist painting and art deco sculpture to modern portrait photography and a large, colourful sewn installation made from a variety of materials including socks, bras, and tablecloths.
Not sure what they were getting at with it, but quite strikingly draped across the Rodin sculptures...

And finally, there are the buildings of Sao Paulo themselves. While the vast majority are rather ordinary cement and glass skyscrapers and apartment buildings, there are still numerous more interesting buildings - pyramids, blocks inspired by Escher, art deco monoliths and Victorian masterpieces. Walking around the downtown core is exciting - standing at the top of one of the skyscrapers and looking out the expanse of city in every direction is plainly awe-inspiring.

Ugly and Dangerous and Totally in Love: Sao Paulo Part I.

I decided to come to Sao Paulo for a few days vacation on a whim. The airport was a necessary connection on my flight between Manaus and Rio, and extending the trip by a few days cost me nothing extra. My uncertainty about this whim was only reinforced by the reactions of numerous other scientists who had visited the city - 'what on earth are you planning on doing there?' ; 'there's nothing to do' ; 'it's just a really big, dangerous city' ; and the most popular response, a skeptical 'why???'.

As I say, it was a whim. Perhaps it was the fact that several Brazilian post-docs and graduate students I had met live in Sao Paulo, so I had a place to stay. Or the description of Sao Paulo and its mortadella sandwiches by Anthony Bourdain, the typically irreverant but always interesting food journalist. Or the fact that the NYTimes Travel section wrote that Sao Paulo is 'the ugliest, most dangerous city you'll ever love'. Who could resist that endorsement??

I certainly could not, and I am just so incredibly glad that I went ahead with that whim. I have completely fallen in love with this city. I've been here for three days so far, and they have been three perfect days:

I spent a day wandering with friends through Liberdade, the Asian district. Liberdade is a mixture of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and probably many other cultures. The street lights are hung on huge red arcs, and store signs are written in characters. We found some mouth-watering steamed buns filled with vegetables in a Chinese bakery, not to mention my first views of the expanse of cement high-rises and exposed power lines that characterize this city. The view carries as far as the eye can see - limited only by the urban haze.

From Liberdade, we progressed to the Parque de Ibirapuera - the city's answer to New York's Central - or Vancouver's Stanley - Park. The city was out - running, walking, skateboarding, rollerblading, playing futebol. But the park is also filled with art: no less than three modern art galleries, not to mention a sculpture garden of alternatingly grotesque (an impressionistic rendition of a spider about 5m high with
spindly organic legs) and beautiful and just plain bizarre (a metal tree) pieces.

After a lengthy walk in the park, we deserved a nice dinner - which is easy to find in the Avenida Paulista district. Actually, good food is easy to find anywhere in this city, as evidenced by the grilled salmon, fancy cakes, and extensive array of sushi I have managed to eat so far.

But the gastronomic highlight so far has been the Mercadao Municipal. I managed to find it this morning - after getting lost only a couple of times coming out of the Luz metro stop. The Mercado - apparently the 'new' one, because it was built in the early '30s - is filled with stalls with mounds of cheese, tropical fruits, olive oil, wine, and fish. Probably because it was the day before Good Friday, most stalls were selling piles of salted bachalhau (cod). People were checking the fish for quality and flavour, and I was solicited by an amazing number of vendors to buy their fish. I almost did, it looked so interesting! I settled for a pastel do bachalau for lunch - a fried empanada-like pastry filled with salted cod and flavoured with green onion, salt and pepper. To be honest, the texture of the pastel was a little tough, though the flavour was superb. The memorable part of the pastel was the experience: sitting at a counter and being handed was papers by fellow customers to soak up the grease, watching the barman pour chopp (draft beer) by making each glass of beer at least half foam with a special swirling technique, and chatting to my neighbours (who were convinced I was from Spain based on my incredibly bad Portuguese!).

But where the Mercadao was the culinary highlight, I think my experience last night was my overall highlight: going to a small nightclub with excellent samba music with the couple I'm staying with (one of whom is a musician who was called up to sing with the band before we were allowed to leave). The music was excellent (muito bom!) - a simple enough beat that I could follow along my partner without too much difficulty, but complex enough to appreciate as in its own right. The band was large, and included numerous singers and instruments - even an ordinary plate and spoon was used as the main percussion for one song! The club was located in a brick room, and stuffed to the gills with well-dressed Paulistanos - everyone moving to the beat, drinking beer and enjoying life. Quintessential Sao Paulo.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Farewell churrascaria

The campaign is over, and after a flurry of calibrating and packing, we finished up on Saturday. There was a great sense of relief that the work was finished and a slowly growing sense of how exhausted we all were. But more than that, I felt sad to leave this home. But what a send-off we received!

A few days ago, the cook asked me when I was leaving, and apparently made some pretty impressive arrangements. On Friday afternoon, a truck arrived with a massive amount of food - including my absolute favourite fish, tambaqui. On Saturday morning, a full churrascaria was set up - a large metal barbeque stand, with layers to grill the meat. Friends started to arrive on Saturday morning as well - mostly to help with final packing of all the instruments, but also a few extras... There were only three of us scientists left - the three girls - but we were given special treatment. Beers, guarana, and then we were taught to make caipirinhas. I don't know if I'll be able to recreate the cocktails, as they were pretty potent. This was all before lunch. I spent most of the time after the boxes had left (so from about 9:30am to 1:30pm) hanging out at the churrascaria learning the secrets from the cook.

He out-did himself - the fish was sublime. Roasted to perfection, with just some lime and butter for flavour. I hear that the roasted chicken and grilled steak was also pretty spectacular. There were salads on the side, and fresh watermelon for dessert. When the trucks that had taken our boxes to Manaus returned, they brought the families of various workers to the site. Many cervejas were drunk, as was chachaca with the bark of a liana infused into it.

I decided not to head back to Manaus right after lunch, and took a last walk to the stream with the INPA students. We went swimming, which was a perfect end to the day. I made it back to Manaus that night, happy, satisfecha (full!), and feeling rather sentimental. It's a stressful place to live - I won't miss looking for snakes on the way to the bathroom. Or finding snakes on the way to the bathroom. But I will miss my hammock. And the pool games (we had a final epic series of games on Friday night). The breakfasts of polenta and fried dough. And the constant sound of insects and birds.

There is something special about the Amazon - it's not just the plants or the animals or the daily downpour. Perhaps it originates from the isolation or the inevitable understanding of how small humanity is in the face of this enormous forest. Either way, I will miss it. But not so much that I am willing to delay my vacation! It's on to Sao Paulo this afternoon for five days, followed by Rio. A few days in one of the largest cities in the world seems like a good way to recover...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Beans for dishes

I'm shocked that I've been here in Brazil for seven and a half weeks. In that time, I've gotten used to being without NPR coverage of the primaries, hot showers and chai lattes. I don't think twice about sleeping in a hammock in a room with twenty other people and no walls (okay, there are bunk beds available again, but I choose to stay in the hammock as it's less mildewy), picking off the hand-sized moths and leaf-like insects from my computer in the mornings, or hiking to the instrument container in rubber boots every day.

But it's only a week and a half more here, and I'm already a bit nostalgiac. Tired and ready for a full night's sleep, some clean clothes and a good plate of sushi, but I have that feeling of the last couple of weeks of school, saying good bye to people I don't really know but who have become my family here.

For example, there's the bean game. Perhaps it's because there are so few of us left at the site, but last night, we (the foreigners) got to play for dishes with the Brazilians for the first time. Everyone piles their dishes in the middle of the table, and takes two (dry) beans. You then slam your fist on the table with some secret number of beans, and we go around guessing how many beans are on the table. Each number can only be taken once.

Once everyone has guessed, we all open our hands. Whoever guessed the correct number of beans gets to put one back, and once you've gotten rid of both your beans, you stand up and leave the table, out of the game. It was a close call last night. I made some poor guesses and was in the final round, so it was just Fazinio (the cook) and myself at the table with a horrendous number of dirty dishes. Fortunately I had the first guess, so put my remaining bean in my fist and slammed it down. With the ten other players and about six bystanders standing around the table cheering, jeering and generally making a lot of noise, I went with Uno. At which point poor Fazinio shook his head, opened his empty hand and let me stand up to the victorious cheers of the other scientists (and sympathetic sighs from the Brazilians).

Fazinio is a true character. He absolutely loves cooking, and takes care of the entire site. He is fastidious, cleaning every counter and table multiple times a day in the kitchen and dining area. He takes care of the two dogs, the parrot and keeps a stash of bread for the jungle chickens. In his spare time, he takes great delight in fishing. (I take even greater delight in eating the results). He knows how to wield a machete in the face of venomous snakes, doesn't flinch when a tarantula crawls into the kitchen and yet manages to tell jokes in Portuguese so well that even the foreign scientists have to laugh. He has a good eye for people, and always goes out of his way to show me the cool moths he notices, or the monkey stealthily crawling around behind the alojamento.

He also is the first person to grab the beans for the dishes every night. And, far more than pure chance would have it, is typically the last person with beans in his hand.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Instrumental Crises

At about 10:30pm last night, I found myself physically fighting for a piece of cutlery with one of the more reasonably well-known scientists in my field - both of us holding on so tightly that intervention from graduate students was required. I emerged triumphant after chivalry was forced upon my colleague. This was not a fight over climate change policy, voltmeters, or what controls cloud properties of aerosols. It was a fight for the last Spoon in a card game I hadn't played since summer camp. This was after several rounds of Hearts, Cheat and Uno - each card game gathering more scientists as they left their laptops. Spoons started with at least nine people. I made it to the final three.

I needed the break after my last few days. After the generator failure, there was a series of unfortunate events leading to a pool of water forming in the inlet of our instrument. This is not something that you would think could happen or even bother looking for normally, but the 100% humidity and driving rain caused the water to accumulate. So that when I turned the instrument on after the generator was fixed, a drop of water entered the system, was vapourized and caused the pressure to jump by an order of magnitude - which caused every alarm on the (very expensive) instrument (that doesn't belong to me) to go off. In the space of about five seconds, I closed the inlet and turned every piece of electronics off - fast enough to prevent any damage, but not fast enough to avoid another 12 hour delay as we pumped the water out of the system. Water is an incredibly sticky molecule, and can take days to get out of an instrument - and with the high humidity of the Amazon, has become the bane of this campaign for most scientists here. As Alan, our favourite guide at the workshop hotel, liked to say: Rain? In the rainforest? In the rainy season? Yeah... we knew there'd be water - but not this much water!

But the system has cleaned out and is running reasonably well again. And while this is the mid-point of the campaign for our team, it's the end of campaign for some other groups. The gas-phase measurements are leaving today - though I'll be taking over their daily cartridge samples for the last couple of weeks. The German groups have another week to go before leaving - though they'll be leaving their equipment here for us to run. The "us" is becoming a progressively smaller and smaller group, and for the last week will be three of us girls. I'm not sure if the card games are going to become more or less competitive...

An hour off the tarmac


To get to the site on a clear day, it's an hour on the tarmac and an hour off. That's with a professional driver and a 4-wheel drive. That means 50 km of paved road, and 34 km of dirt over the rolling, remote hills of the Amazon. The drivers laugh as we fishtail at 60 km/h.
But now I am sitting at the site, completely isolated and without power (though my computer still has several hours of battery left... which I am shamelessly using to write this, rather than analyze data. in my defense, Matlab is running in the background...), and am beginning to realize where I am.

Yesterday late afternoon, I went for a walk down the road with a friend, Dom. I was charged by our mutual friend to take care of Dom (who is not a field scientist) at the site, and was confident that nothing would happen, save a few mosquito bites. The walk was lovely in the dusk - a trio of macaws flew overhead, frogs chirping all around. We were just a few minutes from getting back to the generator and the lodging - and it wasn't dim enough to require flashlights. When all of a sudden Dom swears loudly, jumps towards me and I notice - not two feet away from him - is a stick lying in the road. A potentially very venomous stick. The snake was languidly stretched out with its head up - we gave it a wide berth as we skirted around, and then - in that kind of panicky-yet-fascinated adrenaline-filled way, took some photographs.

The jararaca was not my only venomous interaction of the evening (though he does literally top the list of the Most Poisonous Animals in Brazil poster at the site - perhaps the absence of suggested treatment under jararaca being the most telling about it's toxicity) - as I was walking down to the alojamento from the container, I saw a tiny scorpion walking up the path. As my fear of scorpions rivals my brother's fear of spiders, I again, quickly skirted around it and came back to the lodge.

Just in time to wait a couple of hours before the absolutely phenomenal lightning storm (we were surrounded - at points, it was as if we were in the middle of the day there was so much light in the sky) knocked out the generator. (A key part was "Frito" according to one of the technicians). A late night with flashlights ensued, complete with discussions of all the tropical diseases and venomous creatures we could encounter in Amazonia. I slept well - I have taken over a hammock, and am definitely enjoying it - once I figured out how to sleep on the diagonal.

It's been a lovely quiet morning - sleeping in, card games, reading. Token data analysis and discussions. We all seem to have forgotten - or perhaps come to terms with - our isolation. Watching the competitive chess is much more worthy of our attention...

Aerosols and Anaconda Bait.

Caipirinha: $4 ; Mosquito Repellent: $12; Night at Amazonian Eco-Lodge: $180 ; Having your dessert stolen by monkeys: priceless.

On Monday afternoon, I was walking out of the dining hall at our workshop hotel with a piece of cake in my hand so I could eat my dessert outside. Before I could even register what had happened, a monkey had jumped on my leg, climbed up my back and down my shoulder and stolen my cake out of my hand. The impudence!

I should explain: I have been out of the field site for a five-day workshop on Aerosols in the Amazon. The workshop is being held at this eco-lodge on the Rio Negra just north-west of Manaus - the Ariau Towers. The workshop consists of about 80 aerosol scientists from around the world discussing various aspects of the science. As for the location... well, when us field types got on a boat, we knew we were in for a shock. Upon arrival at the hotel, we were greeted with a dancing girl, musicians and a wooden "treehouse hotel" (slightly euphemistic) built on stilts on the river edge, complete with paper mache scarlet macaws and river dolphins. Emerging from the woods and walking into Disneyland is a truly surreal experience. Not a bad experience when viewed with the appropriate sense of humour. But a surreal one, nonetheless.

This workshop has been quite a fantastic experience! The science has been educational and challenging - but I won't bore you with details on that. Much more exciting, on Monday evening, I got to hold a caiman. Our guide jumped out of the canoe and scooped this one up (small) and told us all sorts of interesting information about her. On the trip back, we were told about the local anacondas - they get to the size of 12m, and can swallow small cows. Don't worry. After they've swallowed the cow, they sit in a tree for a long time and digest. Apparently you can even pat them on the head at that point. Just don't try that when they're hungry...

Other highlights have included: front row seats for the complete lunar eclipse, seeing a three-toed sloth in a tree, watching bats fly over the river at night (fishing?) and drinking caipirinhas with my friend Colette. But the highlight of the trip - perhaps of the entire Brazilian experience - was being able to hold a three-toed sloth, after we (the royal we - actually, our guide) had rescued her from near-death: as we took the boat (16-person motorized canoe) back in a rain storm from our jungle walk, our guide noticed the sloth struggling in the water. She had been caught up in reeds - either while swimming or having fallen into the river from a tree, and wasn't able to get herself loose. So our favourite guide, Alan, plucked her from the water, cut the tangled reeds off of her with a machete, and then let a couple of us hold her as we went to the nearest tree and hung her back up.

Slippery Soils and Slithery snakes


I have never seen anything like the road between the site and the highway (which goes between Manaus and Caracas). I am looking at it now - a bed of shiny camel-brown clay, etched with streams of clear rainwater flowing down in miniature versions of the Amazon watershed - tributaries flowing to the steep sides of the road cuts. This is everything that is the problem of agriculture in the tropics: soils leached of any nutrients and organic matter, aged and whethered, incapable of absorbing the daily torrential downpours, and yet host to so much life it's mind-blowing. The forest leans in to the road, and a typical drive to the highway involves driving around several tree-falls (fortunately all small enough so far to hack through - if an emergent collapses on the road, we're stuck for days), fast driving through ever-growing pools of water (we are recommended not to open the doors as there have been caiman sightings), and more topography than I imagined in the Amazon. There is a constantly rolling landscape.

On Monday afternoon, there was a 7-foot long bright green snake stretched out on the road between the instrument container and the lodging. When he finally decided to move out of the way and let us pass, he coiled himself into an S-shape and slithered UP the 2-m vertical roadcut, expertly levering himself on the branches of hanging ferns.

We climbed to the top of the K34 tower in the late-afternoon a few days ago to watch the sunset. There had been a pause in the rain, and the forest dripped with water. It's about an hour hike to the tower, and then a few minutes to climb 60m to the top. The view is incredible. A never-ending forest - like being in the middle of the ocean on a boat. Except that instead of the ocean, where most of what you see is fluid with occasional moments of life in the form of fish or whales, here you have 40+ meters of solid life, with occasional gaps of atmosphere in between. Everywhere you look is different shades of green. As the sun set (admittedly, not as spectacular as we had hoped, but it did produce a beautiful quality of light), we saw a huge single scarlet macaw swoop across the top of the canopy, dive between the trees, and rest on the top of a near-by emergent. He was close enough to see the red and blue feathers - and the white of his beak. Through which, for such a colourful and stunning creature, he makes a decidedly horrible squawking racket. (Which seems typical of this ecosystem - the most beautiful creatures sound dreadful, while the plainest brown bird will produce the most distinguished notes). As the temperature dropped, you could see a perfect example of atmospheric phenomena: clouds forming at the tops of trees in the lower valleys of the rolling topography - as the temperature dipped to the right point relative to the humidity.

Once the sun had gone down and the stars had come out, our group of five made our way down the tower and back through the trail - a slightly adrenaline-pumping experience, particularly when you pause and turn your flashlight off and listen to the sounds. An animal is calling out on every frequency you can hear - frogs using empty tree trunks as echo-chambers, birds whistling to prospective mates, insects chirping. And not just every frequency - but from every height in the forest and from every distance. It's like standing in a complete sphere of noise, and it isn't until we were within a few meters of the lodge that we could hear human voices over the din of the forest. Walking in for dinner felt a little like stepping into another world and knowing that you belonged in this one, but didn't want to leave the other...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Relaxing into the Brazilian Spirit...

There are very few certainties in the Amazonian rainforest - a fact that has caught numerous scientists here off-guard. It is impossible to make plans, or even priorities. Time and temperature are equally unpredictable - while there may be a correlation between spontaneous changes to vehicle schedules and rainstorms, it is impossible to guess whether a rain event will last for 10 minutes or for two days - and thus whether a truck will be able to leave for Manaus on time, or be obliged to delay overnight. (Note, the truck that was supposed to leave this morning make over nine tries to get up the steep hill in front of the lodge before giving up...). Animal sightings are frequent but not guaranteed. I have seen several snakes while a German colleague has seen none (though he attributes this to my ability to speak in parseltongue). There can be thousands of mosquitoes in the jungle, but no one will be bitten except one girl, Qi. And electricity will be constant in the container with the advanced instrumentation producing 60A fluctuations, but collapse under one too many lightbulbs in the lodging.

But there are several things that we can say with confidence: 1. Lunch and Dinner will consist of spaghetti, rice, salad (grated carrots and beets, sliced cucumber, greenish pepper and tomato), beans and some form of meat. 2. It will rain today. 3. The puppy will bite your ankles and chew on your shoes (he seems to have a particular affinity for Hugh's Crocs - in my opinion, a chew toy is about all those shoes should every be used for, but Hugh disagrees).

Everything else, we bet for beer: whether the pasta will have fried garlic or onion mixed in, are there going to be grated beets, at what time today will it rain (person closest wins), if instruments are working, how many tries it will take for the vehicles to get up the hill...

That tends to result in the one other certainty: that there is never enough beer. Perhaps there's a correlation...

Jungle chickens and Amacoons

Language is a funny thing. As often the only native-English speaker in a large group of people in which English is the only common language, I have had an entertaining week, translating between Indian-English to Chinese-English to Portuguese via Spanish. A sense of humour is of course the most difficult aspect to communicate, and while the majority of scientists at the site are good-natured, there have been a few moments of tension arising from miscommunication. I find it helpful to take a deep breath, remind myself that not everyone wants to be in the middle of the Amazon several hours from what can only in the loosest terms be described as civilization, and laugh.

Some spectactular moments include the Chinese graduate student asking the slightly baffled Austrian post-doc about how similar the forests back home were to the Amazon - only after several discussions on local climate, geography and people did the post-doc realize that the graduate student thought he was from Australia.

When my boss (Jose) and I were taking a walk with Paulo, a butterfly researcher from Conservation International, we were having a typical portunol conversation (we spoke spanish, he spoke portuguese). For the most part, this works. We were learning all sorts of good information about local natural history. However, in a discussion about venomous snakes, we were shocked to hear about the most dangerous venomous snakes can grow up to seven meters long and actively hunt large mammals (ie, us). The image of a poisonous anaconda-sized serpent was disconcerting. It took several minutes to realize that these massive "venomous serpent" was actually a caiman...

Occasionally linguistic mix-ups occur in more serious contexts - changing schedules, trading timeslots for vehicles back to Manaus, food 'with meat' versus 'no meat', and such. The only truly upset people, however, are certain Swedish graduate students who didn't understand differences between hammocks and beds, and ended up sleeping on the floor for a night.

However, my greatest amusement has come from creating new words and watching them disseminate. As a leading authority on the English language at this site, I can't resist the temptation to take advantage of the situation. On our first morning here, we saw these two lovely black birds on the road across the lodging - wandering along while we had our breakfast. They have long legs, yellow beaks, slightly upright tail feathers and an awkward, rather silly walk. Someone asked me what they were, and, inspired by a turkey-like similarity, I promptly replied "jungle chickens". And jungle chickens they have been every morning since. It is now two and a half weeks later, and veteran scientists are pointing out the jungle chickens to the new scientists with the same tone that toucans and macaws are described.

Along the same vein, Joel - scientist from my lab - came out for a few days to help out. We went for a fabulous walk one afternoon and saw this band of creatures crossing the road in front of us. There were at least twenty mid-sized mammals crossing. They walk on four legs, have lengthy snouts, and a long, curled, and upright tail. Something about their social behaviour and striped tails reminded us of raccoons. But not the urban bandits of North America - these are a Brazilian, Amazonian variety of raccoon. I believe it was Joel who coined the term Amacoon. And while this term hasn't become as widespread as 'jungle chicken' - probably becuase they're a rarer find - I have high hopes.

That would be totally mango.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Avoiding the Anklebiter

It's been 12 days (and a little over 200 emails) since I was last in town, but I came back to Manaus for one night and am trying to remember what it's like to wear clean clothes and have a long shower. I have to admit, I had a hard time sleeping as it was too silent - I have grown accustomed to the jungle soundtrack, with its never-ending cacophony of frogs, insects and birds. Those sounds remind me that I am completely surrounded by life - a thick green ocean of it, and makes me feel a little more mortal and human and connected with the world! I prefer it to the horn-honking and television-blaring of Manaus - not that I'm complaining about the shower. Or the ability to read the news!

But there have been many adventures here, and since I have to catch a truck back to the site in half an hour, I don't have time to begin. So here's the concise version: the day before heading out, we took a river trip on the Amazon (and saw those giant lily pads, the meeting of the rivers that signals the true start of the Amazon river, caiman, and even went piranha fishing).

Definitely fun, and a good initial bonding experience for all of us... Taking a half-million dollar piece of equipment out to the field site was an adventure, but after a few days (and numerous power failures), we had it all up and running, and took the opportunities (read: power failures) to go for a few walks and climb some of the other research towers in the area. Highlights have included seeing numerous groups of scarlet macaws fly overhead, bands of monkeys playing in the trees next to the dining room and 2-meter long worms crossing the path after a rainstorm.

Numerous insects - one enormous, tarantula-like hairy spider that emerged from the floor boards under one of the dining tables during dinner and made it's way across to the other table, much to everyone's surprise (either you grabbed your camera, or you got up on the bench to get out of its way - i got up on the bench, but it was about a foot away from my toes, so I have no qualms about that decision). The only other drama was seeing a snake in the middle of the path (see photo). We were about to take a walk down one of the smaller paths, when I noticed this guy under some leaves in the middle of the trail. What scared me is that even when I pointed him out, it took a while for the other people with me to notice him. We then had a discussion as to whether he (or she?) was venomous. I think yes (note slightly flat, triangular shaped head common of vipers), but it's up for contention (and a bet over a beer). Any thoughts?

The most dangerous creatures we've encountered so far are, ironically, the field station dogs. We have nickname the puppy the Amazonian Anklebiter, due to his tendency to nibble on shoes - and ankles. Fortunately I had my rabies shots, so I just have to watch him for sypmtoms for the next week... We renamed this incredibly cute - but desperately in need of a chew-toy - dog the "piranha". Until we were told that that's the term used in Manaus for a streetworker/prostitute.

But I must head back out to the excitement of the jungle - an odd combination of occasional adrenaline rush and general relaxation. Rather like a cheap version of an eco-lodge...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Turtle crossings in the Amazon

My image of the Amazon is dominated by a National Geographic article I read when I was little about the Amazon, and all the amazing animals there were. Photographs of dense green jungle and googly-eyed frogs - stories of indigenous tribes and intrepid scientists. That article probably had a lot to do with my career choice. This week I had my first Amazonian experience, and it certainly lived up to expectations...

Our field site is located on a scientific reserve, so it's definitely off the typical tourist track. About 50km on paved roads (the one highway out of Manaus, which heads north towards Caracas), followed by a left-turn onto an unmarked dirt road for 34km. By 'dirt road', I actually mean a clay bed - beautiful orange-red clay that reminds me that tropical soil science is a fascinating topic in and of itself. When exposed to lots of heat and sunlight, the clay road is not too hard to drive - but when it rains, it apparently turns into a bit of a roller-coaster ride. We were lucky enough to have sunny weather for our preliminary trip to the site, so the drive was fun, but not too dramatic.

The site is beautiful - surrounded by dense jungle - a thick understory filled with giant palms, lianas and strangler figs draped down the canopy, bright sun on the road and deep shadow when you step off the road and into the forest. The site consists of a telescoping tower next to an air-conditioned container, about a ten minute walk from the alojamento (lodgings). The lodgings are rustic (one room for everyone to sleep in, one room to eat/work in), but on par with most other remote tropical field stations I've stayed at. There's running water (supposedly we can drink it, but I'll stick with bottled), a cute puppy who liked my shoelaces, electricity until 10pm, and a very good cook (who is nice enough to make adjustments for us non-meat eaters, though he doesn't quite understand us!).

Highlights of the site visit (other than seeing the tower and arranging for my sonic anemometer to be placed appropriately, of course! not that my communication with the site workers wasn't an adventure with my spanish/portuguese hybrid) were seeing a little monkey up in the trees next to the tower and a turtle in the middle of the road when we were driving back.

The turtle was walking across the road as we drove up to it and stopped. It moved as slowly as one expects, so I got out to take some photos. As I approached it moved ever more slowly... Then I picked it up and moved it to the side of the road. Don't worry - I won't be quite so friendly with the snakes!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Views of Manaus

There is a certain irony in being a field scientist - we have the incredible opportunity to go to interesting places - Mexico City, California's Sierra Nevada, the Brazilian Amazon, and yet we spend almost the entire time working in small spaces fixing equipment, emerging only to drink a beer or buy some bottled water in whatever cobbled-together version of the local language we can muster.

For example, I have only two photos to show for myself after a week in Brazil. And they're not particularly exciting photos at that.

The first photo is of Qi (graduate student from Harvard who I'll be working with) and myself in front of the AMS (Aerosol Mass Spectrometer) that we're going to be taking out to the middle of the jungle. It took three months to get through Brazilian Customs, and no less than a week to track down a computer problem that prevented us from turning it on. But here you see us working on it at INPA - the local research institute we're collaborating with. They had no space for us, so the AMS was located at the end of the hallway. 'Was' because it got moved last night into someone's office as construction workers accidentally (?) tore the wall behind it down. This is what happens in Brazil. It makes me laugh. On a daily basis. Make that hourly.

The second photo is from our hotel room in Manaus. (I told you I hadn't taken any exciting photos). I took this on Sunday afternoon - in the midst of staying in my room with a decidedly unpleasant stomach bug, I heard a choir. Which turned out to be a massive close-down-the-streets parade - more of a moving congregation with a minister preaching, choir singing and enormous audience responding and praying. Quite the sight.

This photo also gives you a lovely glimpse into the glamour and sophistication of the city of Manaus.

Friday, January 18, 2008

the samba-bingo connection

Little did I know that the stereotypical refuge of elementary school classes and senior community centers - bingo - would have anything to do with the sultry, sexy samba. It wasn't until last nights meanderings into the city center of Manaus that I first witnessed this unlikely union.

Manaus is not a beautiful city. It is standard Latin America - with rutted streets and unfinished cement buildings, feral dogs and cats, and smiling people playing futbol. It is a city that is isolated from the rest of Brazil - the only road goes to Caracas, Venezuela. Otherwise, you're left with boats and planes. However, in defiance of its isolated location, the Brazilian government had the marvelous idea of making a Free Trade zone. So there's a set of electronics/manufacturing companies with plants in the city. They use materials imported from other countries, and then export the products out of Brazil - so aside from a few jobs in Manaus, the system benefits very few Brazilians. I have to admit that seeing the bureaucracy and red tape that our equipment suffered through for temporary importation, I can only wonder about the logic of the system.

But the main plaza of Manaus is beautiful. The city once fancied itself a satellite Paris - in the late 1800's, I think. There is little left of that but rotting facades of once-painted buildings with decrepit ironwork balconies. The notable exception is the plaza. Surrounded by well maintained and brightly painted buildings, the plaza has tile work and a fountain. And a French opera house, with all the trimmings. The Teatro Amazonas was designed in France, and all the materials were imported. It almost looks out of place, but is painted like a bright peach, which makes it fit in.

Better than that, next to the Teatro Amazonas on the plaza was the location of last night's entertainment. A stage was set up, with plastic tables and chairs in front - filled with a cross-section of the community. We arrived during the 15mins of Binghuino (bingo) - you buy cards, and the announcer calls out numbers. Once that round is over, the band - who came all the way in on the river from a distant part of the Amazon - came on and played music. After their set, bingo restarted, and then some more samba...

It somehow worked - all ages were entertained, the band was pretty good (they even had a few adoring fans get autographs on some homemade cd's), and I finally got to sit down and enjoy a chopp (beer) and some music...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Arrival in Manaus!

At 4:30am on Monday morning, I found myself walking through airport security at DIA with a sonic anemometer in hand. That is, carrying a 32" long piece of (expensive, delicate) scientific equipment that has pieces of metal jutting out in all directions, making it near impossible to pack in any hard suitcase or box that would legally fit as checked baggage. So I carried it on, much to the amusement of TSA security officials. My thought was that if I looked as oblivious as possible and stared back at people as curiously as they stared at me, all would be fine. This theory worked.

We arrived in Manaus around midnight on Monday, and made it through Customs with no problem. (They seemed to be more worried about Brazilians bringing home electronics in than the sonic anemometer...). On Tuesday I learned first-hand why our equipment took 3 months, instead of the supposed 5 days, to clear Brazilian Customs. Bureaucracy in this country is amazingly inefficient. An example: to buy two wrenches at a hardware store, you have to take them to a desk, where the receipt is printed. You then take the receipt to the cashier, and pay for it. You return to the first desk to get your stuff, which is carried by a third set of employees to the final inspection, where every item is checked against the paid receipt. At which point you can leave with your purchases. Because that makes sense.

We had an appointment with the Receita Federal for 8:30am on Tuesday morning for the Final Inspection. Suffice it to say: 4 hours, one very meticulous official, and no less than 40 photographs of 8 pieces of equipment - every serial number and country of origin was checked on every power cord. If one number had been off, then we could have lost the whole shipment.

But all is well (for us - some other groups are not so lucky!), the equipment got through, finished arriving to the Brazilian institute in Manaus, and now we are testing to see how it reacted to 3 months of shipping. Back to work... Tchau!