Curry and Spice

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Travel: “This is ARABIA!!”

In Uncategorized on February 15, 2011 at 3:03 pm

So much has happened since I last posted – so much of it good, and some of it very challenging and frustrating.  First of all, my camera had a bit of a…problem.  This resulted in a lack of pictures from four very exciting field exercises, which is a huge bummer.  The good news is that it is sort of working again (although I still have to ship it back to Canon when I get home…sigh), and I have pictures from my most recent adventure, and will hopefully have them here on out.

On my first Friday here, we had our first Principles of Resource Management field exercise.  I couldn’t quite believe that we were going out into the field twice in our first week, with so little preparation, but there we were, getting our dry bags and our kayaking paddles.  We drove about five minutes out to an unpolluted area of the bay where Vero, our PRM professor had set a number of “traps” for octopuses.  There is a huge trash problem here, as there is no reliable trash service.  As a result of the trash and the wind, much of the trash ends up in the bay.  Vero believes that some of this trash may act as a suitable habitat for octopuses, and as a result, she has staked down a number of cans in different substrates.  Our mission was to kayak to the rodolith substrate and retrieve the cans in the transect, before bringing them back into the lab to be analyzed.

While I have kayaked before in the pool at school, I have never really kayaked before – and I love it.  In spite of the fact that I was pouring sweat inside my wetsuit (zipped all the way up so I wouldn’t get sunburned), and in spite of the fact that my kayak refused to go straight and was constantly drifting to the left (the open ocean), I had so much fun kayaking to the site.  Once we reached the mangroves, we hopped out of our kayaks, beached them, and got ready to go for a dip.

While SFS recommends that you bring a wetsuit, and while I had already swum in the open water in nothing but my bathing suit (the wetsuit gives you buoyancy, and effectively allows you to cheat while you’re treading water), it was still a shock when I stuck my feet in the water.  Nonetheless, we all put on our masks, snorkels, and fins, and got prepared to dive in.  As soon as my head hit the water, however, I started hyperventilating from the cold.  As I tried to calm myself down enough to breathe properly underwater, I realized something that I objectively knew, but hadn’t thought through: you can’t breathe bubbles out your nose while wearing a snorkel mask.  As I tried to dive to retrieve the first can, I panicked as I couldn’t breathe out, and hauled myself up to the surface.  After that, I decided to tread water and hold the bags that the cans were placed into (in case there were octopuses inside).  I was frustrated with myself – I have been swimming for more than fifteen years, and I love being in the water.  As I resigned myself to my disappointment over my first snorkeling experience, I clutched the bags and swam back to the kayaks, where we stored the octopuses.  The kayak trip back to the other side went much more smoothly – now that I was wet, I wasn’t as hot, and the tide had changed so that I didn’t drift.

When we reached land, we had a surprise: octopuses had crawled out of their cans and were wriggling around in the cans!  To most people, octopuses are not beautiful, and are only something to be avoided.  These creatures, however, are incredible: smart, beautiful, and very dynamic.  The octopuses in my kayak were incredible: one, a female, started out white and translucent, before changing color dramatically during our ride back to the lab.  As soon as we got back to the site and pulled off our damp wetsuits, we ran to the lab to get started.  We counted the prey inside the cans and attempted to coax the octopuses (many of whom had retreated back into the cans) to come out so that we could measure them.  As I cut open the can on our first octopus, we got an even better surprise: We had found a mother with eggs!  She had laid her eggs along the string tying the can to the stake, and she was refusing to come out.  We kept her, and she is still sitting in our lab while we wait for her babies, along with those from the four other mothers we found (one of whom is a new species!) to hatch.  It turns out that octopuses are very poorly understood as a whole, and even more so in this bay, where few people have elected to do research.

The next field exercise we went out on was even more incredible: On Monday, we headed out for another whale watching experience.  Where our first experience was choppy and nausea-inducing, this was enchanting.  We started out in fog so thick that in places we couldn’t see more than five feet in front of us.  As we moved away from this, the ocean took on a glassy sheen, so that it appeared like liquid mercury.  It was utterly beautiful (at this point, I had only realized that my camera was dead).  We moved all over the bay looking for whales, and spotted a number of whales, two pods of dolphins (including dolphins who were playing with two whales!), and a sea lion swimming in the sea – it was amazing.  The dolphins were perhaps the most exciting of the day because they swam all around, under, and after our boat.  When we finally left that spot, it seemed like they would follow us on our way – they were playing in the waves and spray of our boat!

Three days later, we headed back out whale-watching (by which time, I knew something major was wrong with my camera…).  We headed to a completely different part of the bay, close to the Santo Domingo channel – the boat ride was unbelievable, in part because we got to see a part of the bay we hadn’t yet.  It was back in the estuaries, surrounded by mangrove peninsulas.  When we entered the channel, we immediately started spotting whales – and more whales, and whales logging, and finally, BABIES.  When we realized that there were babies, there were shrieks and many of us began hyperventilating (do you see a theme to my field exercises so far?).  We were all so torn about which whales to watch, especially when we saw one in the distance breach six times in a row (breaching is when they come fully out of the water and slam back down, causing an amazing spray).  We drove all over the bay, and ultimately thought we saw at least eight mom-and-calf pairs…and we had a mother and baby swim right next to our boat, to the extent that the baby blew out its blowhole and sprayed us all!  It was an unbelievably magical experience – the attention the mothers show their babies, along with the curiosity exhibited by the babies was just amazing.  There was a small playgroup going for a while with four babies and their mothers – and we literally sat right in the middle of it and just watched.  Fortunately, Amber let me borrow her camera for the occasion, and once I have pictures, I’ll add them here.  I literally can’t even describe how elated I was to be seeing what we did – I have never seen anything like it.

It was tough to come down from the “whale-watching high” as it’s termed here, but finally we did.  Two days later, we were out in the boats again, but this time for another PRM exercise.  I’d made it a goal that by the end of the trip I’d be comfortable diving when I snorkeled, and within a week, I was completely comfortable with it.  This time, we were looking at catarina scallops and their average size within one square meter.  My group and I had a great time and got it down incredibly quickly – I dove multiple times, and was once again so excited – and so pleased that I had not trouble diving the second time!  Once we finished, we had to wait for the second group in our boat, and so we swam around, exploring what was around – and saw two small stingrays!  While this shouldn’t be particularly exciting, it actually was, although I was grateful I wasn’t walking around them.  I was so comfortable swimming and snorkeling the second time that I really didn’t want to get out of the water.

The downside to these multiple field exercises, however, has been the sun exposure I have sustained.  Like my mother and my sister, I am nominally “allergic” to the sun – meaning I break out in a rash if I’m not very careful with sunscreen, etc.  I am currently recovering from this (itchy, irritating, disgusting) rash right now.

In spite of this, I went this past Sunday on a trip to the sand dunes across the bay – they are part of Isla Magdalena, at its narrowest part – you can climb up and over them within ten minutes, and be at the Pacific Ocean.  Needless to say, I was thrilled to see the Pacific, to stick my toes in it, and lie out and read for several hours.  Naomi and I went on a wonderful walk, during which time I collected some incredible shells.  There are few shells in the bay, so this was a really nice opportunity to find some treasures.  Unfortunately, that further sun exposure did not do my feet (in particular) any good – I have been coating them in cortizone and wearing socks ever since then.  As a result, I didn’t go on the field exercise that was planned for today, which was to plant the cans back in the different substrates in the bay to catch more octopuses for the study.  I am working in the lab later today to make habitats for the octopus larvae (to determine what their preferred habitat is).  My feet are slowly recovering, and my camera is now partially functional, so all in all, things are going well.

Travel: “What am I Looking For?!”

In Uncategorized on February 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Thursday dawned cold and breezy – we all got up especially early to have breakfast, because at 8:00, we were heading out for our first day of whale monitoring.  We all donned multiple layers (usually a shirt, a capilene, a fleece jacket, and a waterproof jacket on top, with an extra sweatshirt thrown in our backpacks), pulled on our rainboots, and trucked off to the boats.  We’d been in the boats the day before as we headed out to cleaner waters to do our swim test, and we all stayed within the same groups.  As we loaded the boats, there were dozens of pelicans and other shore-water birds around us – It was pretty amazing to see so many up close.  As was our due, we continued to make many Finding Nemo jokes related to the pelicans, and in tandem with our whale watching excursions, we became Team Ballena (Ballena means whale, in Spanish.  For us, it’s said the way Dorey would say it, if she were trying to speak whale).

As we headed out, it quickly became apparent that the waters were not the calm ones they’d been the day before – as long as our boat was actually moving forward, it was less noticeable, but we were all gripping our seats for the (unlikely) fear that we might bounce out of the boat.  We made several stops where we all sighted for whales, but found nothing.  As the minutes wore on, we all kept thinking that this wave or that wave was actually the back of a whale, surfacing out of the water; none of these situations was the case, however.  Finally, luckily, Gustavo (our Center Director, and resident whale-watcher in our boat) saw a tourist boat, and then the spout of a whale!  Poncho, our boat driver, quickly turned the boat, and we bounced our way towards the whale.  As soon as we settled there, we began to see it – first a flipper, like it was waving hi, and then a good portion of its back.  We saw it spout several times, and were overwhelmed with excitement that we’d gotten to see a whale on our first time.  We took all of the readings – time, water temperature, water depth, etc so that we could write it up when we returned, and then we headed out (several people were not feeling well, and it was at this point very windy and very cold).

As we headed to Isla Magdalena for a bathroom break, the waves got more and more choppy, and the spray became very intense to the point that when we reached the island, we were all drenched from head to toe, and many of us were trying desperately to get the salt out of our eyes.  As we waited for others to use the bathroom, many of us tried to dry off and keep warm (by doing several renditions of “Baby Shark”).  I tried desperately to dry off my camera, which didn’t have a dry bag.  Because I’d needed it to see the whale (and photograph it), I had kept it out, and during the trip to Isla Mag, it had gotten, like the rest of us, completely soaked.

We set out from Isla Magdalena to go home – we didn’t think we would see any more whales due to the unfavorable conditions, and we were all in quite the state of cold and wet.  The ride back was so windy that I was regularly checking the ties on my hat to make sure it was still on – my hood on my rain jacket refused to stay on my head.  By the time we disembarked, we were thoroughly rattled, and I could definitely still feel the sea moving beneath me, even though I was on dry land.  We all hurriedly changed into warm clothes, and headed into the sun to warm up – but to no avail.  The wind was blowing so hard that we just got colder being outside.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to be outside the rest of the day, and there was hot soup for lunch, but as we headed into the classroom, it became clear that we were doomed to be cold.  The classroom was freezing, as it seemed that every part of campus was.  By the time dinner rolled around (with delicious tamales!!), everyone was wearing at least one pair of socks, a hat, and multiple sweatshirts.  We all crawled into our cabins, pulled our sleeping bags around us, and started with our first readings.

Travel: I’m on a Boat

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm

In spite of going to bed (or at least finishing this post) in a foul mood last night, I was able to wake up on a brighter side of the bed this morning.  I was still full of apprehension, but also excitement, and a renewed belief that I could handle this adventure, and that it would only last for three months (which was both a good and a bad thing).  We all have chores while we’re here, so two of the other girls and I had to report early this morning for dish duty (oh joy – because I really love to wash dishes).  Breakfast was delicious, as I’m beginning to believe all the meals will be, and gave me a great start to the morning.

As soon as we finished with the dishes, we raced to change into our bathing suits, slap on some sunscreen, and receive a life jacket – why?  Because today was our swim test.  Knowing that we would be spending quite a bit of time in the water over the course of the semester, we were required to swim 200 meters in the 60 degree ocean, without our wetsuits.  We took three boats to a secluded area, stripped, and plunged in.  As someone who has swum a decent amount in her life, I know that if the water is cold, the best thing to do is MOVE.  However, the water was so cold that moving only made me worry that I would hyperventilate, panic, and have an asthma attack (uncommon, but always due to stressful situations) in open water.  I treaded water for a handful of seconds, pulled myself together, and then got moving.  As soon as I was under control, the water was more manageable, and I was able to complete the swim without any problem.

The boat ride both to and from the swim site was amazing.  The ocean right in front of our site is polluted, and so we aren’t allowed to swim there.  The fish cannery down the road from us has a sewage treatment problem, and as a result, we end up with a fair amount of pollution in the sea near us.  The good news is that it’s localized.  The bad news?  Well, that we can’t go for a dip right outside the center.  The boats however, allowed us to see the three islands in the bay itself, and allowed us to get some wonderful, salty fresh air.  This inspired both a rendition of “I’m on a Boat” and many impersonations of the seagulls in “Finding Nemo”, as there are both seagulls and pelicans in the area (in addition to a number of other birds…).

The afternoon was spent seeing San Carlos, the town we live in/near.  Never having been to another city in Mexico, particularly a large one (like Mexico City), I have no basis of comparison on which to judge the town.  It is small – probably no more than a mile in most directions, and while most parts of it seem well kept, they are also in many ways what we would consider “rudimentary”.  Signs in the US are almost always made of plastic, or light up, or stick out from buildings, and are almost always in a fancy script.  The buildings here are all painted with their signs, and the script is much more plain – in  many ways, stereotypically “Mexican”.  There is one grocery store here, a bar, a club, and a handful of places to eat.  There are several places where Americans can rent boats/services to whale-watch or deep-sea fish, and these are considered the fancy places in town.  Admittedly, they are much nicer than most other places.  The irony is that our staff talks about how “gringos” go there, without realizing that most of the students are gringos…I’m unsure how to respond to a comment like this.

Finally, we talked about our whale expedition tomorrow.  Whales are the primary reason I chose this program.  I had a fascination with them as a child that was renewed when I was reading an article in “Outside” about whales used in venues like SeaWorld.  When I abruptly had to change my study abroad program, this one appealed to me because of the chance to study whales.  Tomorrow, we will be going out to monitor the whales – to count them, look at behavior, and generally, I think we will all squee over them.  I am looking forward to using my telephoto lens to take some pictures – hopefully by tomorrow, I will have some to start adding to my posts!

Travel: Denver to Los Angeles to La Paz to Puerto San Carlos

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2011 at 7:57 pm

When people find out that you’re studying abroad, the first question they ask (after asking where you’re going) is: “Are you excited?!”.  Like a dutiful child, you are absolutely expected to answer in the affirmative, regardless of what your actual feelings may be.

Let me tell you something: I haven’t been excited about studying abroad (genuinely excited, that is) since I made this harebrained decision (to go to a country where I don’t speak the language, the classes have nothing to do with my major, and where I know nobody.  Oh, and have I mentioned that I get homesick easily, that I’m a picky eater, and that I don’t handle change very well?!).  Nonetheless, like a good girl, I have been answering the “are you excited” question in the affirmative for what feels like months.  And then, when 5:00 on Monday morning rolled around, all I could feel was terrified.  I’d been feeling worried, and anxious, and at times vaguely nauseous for the past several days, but nothing really quite compared to what I woke up to on Monday, which was literally terror.  I have traveled out of the country before, but never by myself, and always my first stop has been to a place where English is the most common language.  As I got my breakfast together, I managed to pull myself together, mostly out of sheer necessity.  I talked to my cat, held her, petted her, and generally squeezed her until she squirmed because I worry about how she handles my transitions.  I wanted her to know and to remember that I love her, and that she is precious to me.  Once I got my teeth brushed, I threw my last remaining toiletries into my backpack and ran down the stairs to say goodbye to my mom – my dad would be driving me to the airport.

In a valiant effort not to cry, I simply listened as she told me how much she loved me and how proud she was of me – it really gets me when they tell me that they’re proud.  After choking out a goodbye, my dad and I got into the car and drove off in the snow to DIA.  There, we parked, and for the first time, my dad not only walked me to check-in and waited with me while I got my bags ready, but walked me to security, where I had to say goodbye to him – this was possibly even harder, because I could tell he was fighting tears as much as I was.  Everything from there was a blur – walking through security, wrestling with my laptop, my shoes, my liquids (how do people do this on a regular basis?!), and getting to my gate.  I spent most of the plane ride asleep, listening to my same mix that I made back in November when I was not a mess (I’ve been a mess more or less since Thanksgiving break).  When I landed in LAX, I was lost.  I have never been to that airport (I ended up with AutoTune the News’s “Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife” because of a comment I kept thinking to myself, which was my distraction from my impending terror), and finally was able to find a kind soul who could tell me that not only was I in the wrong terminal, but that I had to leave, walk quite a ways, and then go back through security in order to get to my gate.  Knowing that my plane boarded in thirty minutes was not a cheerful thought.

Nevertheless, I was able to get to Terminal 3, get through security, refill my nalgene, and blessedly, find some of the other SFS kids (I scorned wearing my t-shirt, but I was so glad that they had worn theirs!)  As soon as I saw them and talked to them, some of my fears abated (like those that I would never find friends, or that I would hate everyone, or that they would hate me – the really rational fears that go through your head when you know that you will not know anyone in your school, and be around the same seventeen people for three months…).  We boarded the plane together, and prepared for the final flight.

When we landed in La Paz, I saw a roadrunner outside of my window – I haven’t seen one since I was very young and my dad did field work in Arizona, and I took it as a good sign.  I got through immigration without a problem (and without having to speak any Spanish, thank heavens!) and found both of my bags very quickly.  Then came customs, and a long wait at the airport, during which time I managed to get to know some of the other students a little bit.  It turns out that we were all spending the night in La Paz (you can’t drive at night in La Paz because so many cows roam freely and it’s so hard to see them that it’s a danger to all involved).  We reached our hotel, having met the same people we would room with for the rest of the semester, and went out to dinner.  As soon as we got to dinner, we encountered one of the things I know will be a challenge for me – stray dogs.  We aren’t supposed to touch them because many of them have fleas, and we have no idea what their rabies status is; this is already so hard for me.

After dinner, we made it back to the hotel, where I crashed quite quickly.

In the morning, we had breakfast before starting out for San Carlos, the city where I will be located for the next three months.  The drive is about four hours, including a stop and some slow driving through the two  major towns you travel through.  The countryside is barren – much more so than I expected.  There are a number of cacti (saguaros?  I’m not sure!), but very little other vegetation.  As we got closer and closer to the coast, we started to see some beautiful osprey – but very few other animals.

We spent most of our afternoon at the field site, where we talked about expectations and safety.  It seemed like it dragged on forever, but I’m also not sure how it got to be almost 9:00.  I am very tired – much more so than I was last night, and I’m disheartened.  I like the people with me on this semester, but I am also incredibly homesick.  When I got out my sheets, the smelled like home, and all I wanted to do was go back to Colorado, or even to Washington.  I think this will be a hard transition for me, especially since no one else seems to be feeling as uncertain as I am.