Sunday, February 17, 2008

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.

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