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...