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!