Curry and Spice

Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Travel: Todos Santos and Pescadero

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2011 at 5:36 pm

After the hectic two days of midterms, we were all intensely relieved to finally leave for the long-awaited spring break.  When we were accepted to the program, we were told that our spring break was five days in which we all had to leave campus.  In college speak, five days actually usually means at least seven days, sometimes nine, because breaks in the states almost always include weekends.  While these weekends are almost always used for travel, this means that you actually have five days to be on break.

Alas, here, five days meant Wednesday to Sunday; this meant that, because we had to take a long bus ride from PSC to La Paz, and from La Paz to wherever else we were going (and then do the reverse to come back to school), we really only had three days of relaxation in one place.  While this was a bummer, we were all hoping that it would feel like longer, or that our travel time would be mitigated.  When my friends and I started looking at places to go over spring break, there were two immediately obvious choices: Cabo San Lucas or Todos  Santos.  As it was described to me, Todos Santos is still primarily a tourist town, but is less built-up than Cabo.  This was appealing to me because I am neither a particularly devoted drinker, nor someone who likes to be in a club until all hours of the morning.  While this is still available in Todos, this is not the main focus.

There are a number of housing options in Todos.  Initially, two of my friends and I had looked into the San Pedrito Surf Hotel because it was small, relatively inexpensive (particularly compared to anything we would experience in the US), and came with a full kitchen and many of the things you’d need to get started cooking.  After some more looking and an invitation from some of the other girls, we ended up in a large house on the San Pedrito Beach (in fact, literally only two or three doors down from the Surf Hotel).  The house we stayed in is called Dr. Robert’s Oceanside Oasis, and let me tell you, it’s an interesting place.

After several long bus rides (and I’m discovering that, rather than making my stomach stronger, these bus/van rides seem to be making my carsickness worse, thus making them feel very long), we finally made it into Todos Santos.  There were three people in our group who hadn’t taken the bus because they were renting a car for us for the break.  They were also meeting several friends who were flying in, and would drive down later.  The four of us in Todos meanwhile had to figure out a) where our house actually was, and b) how in heaven’s name we were going to get there without a car.  Fortunately, there was a taxi service readily apparent outside the bus station, and we were able to pile ourselves and our bags into the car and drive to the house.  It turns out that the house is actually in Pescadero, which is a small and quaint town about six miles outside of Todos.  It has little to offer in terms of shops, but does have some very good food, including an excellent flatbread pizza place (Napoli’s Pizza, which doesn’t look like much, but does have the best pizza I’ve tasted in Mexico) and Marlin’s, a fish taco place that also serves amazing American-style breakfasts (and will serve you pancakes at 8:30 at night if you so desire).  There’s also an internet cafe there, although we didn’t visit.  Pescadero is also one of the richest areas for agriculture that I’ve seen; it’s also the only place where I’ve seen organic produce grown.  It was very striking to drive through so many agricultural fields and know that when I look at produce labels in the grocery store at home and see that it’s grown in Mexico, that there’s a good chance it came from Pescadero.

We drove past many such fields on our way to the house, which is tucked back behind the fields and it located right on the beach.  While we still weren’t sure where exactly the house was, it quickly became apparent when we saw the sign that read “Dr. Robert’s Oceanside Oasis: Recreate, Procreate, Meditate”.  After spending some time cracking up about the sign, we headed inside the gate to see two beautiful houses.  We met Robert, the owner of the area.  While he is incredibly…quirky, he’s also extremely hospitable and willing to do as much as he can to make the experience as fun as possible.  Once we got the keys, ooh-ed and aah-ed over the kitchen that was ours for the next four nights, and thrown down our bags, my three friends (including one of my delightful roommates) and I ran down to the beach.  It was as though we’d never seen the ocean before – screaming and shrieking, we ran straight in.  As the water rushed around us, I felt the first inklings of relaxation wash over me.  When we pulled our adult pants back on, we trucked up the hill and began to explore.  We chose our rooms (Naomi, Amber, and I shared a room with a balconey, a queen bed, and a couch with its own bathroom) and got set up.  Once the rest of our group arrived (including two guy friends of Ellen, who were an incredible breath of fresh air), we headed to Marlin’s for dinner and an early night.

The next morning began with an amazing run on the beach.  PSC has basically no beach, and as I’ve mentioned, what is there is polluted and not appealing to run on.  The San Pedrito beach is clean and quiet.  I saw very few people, and those that I did see were clearly homeowners in the area, all of whom were incredibly friendly.  After some cereal and a shower, I sat down to do some work.  The boys surfed outside for a little while and the girls set up to watch.  After some lunch, they headed to Cerritos, the other beach in the area which is highly recommended for surfing.  We also headed into Todos in the afternoon to poke around a little bit and use the internet.  We found a fantastic internet cafe, Cafelix, which had the best chocolate chip cookies in Mexico.  The owners were incredibly friendly and helpful in pointing out places to go.  After some wandering around (and ogling the incredible jewelry that is one of the trademarks of Todos), we ran to the grocery store for more food.  We headed home to make an amazing pasta dinner and to start the night off right.  While I didn’t partak in the drinking, I did learn to play flip cup, a hilarious drinking game that involves embarrassing punishments for the losers.  My team got off to a winning streak that lasted the rest of the week.

The next morning began without a run,  but with plans to return to Cerritos and rent boards for those who wanted to learn.  The boys and Ellen were willing to teach everyone who wanted to learn, and as a result, we didn’t have to pay for lessons.  I slathered on my sunscreen (unfortunately, I still got burned) and got ready to play on the beach.  I was the first one Ellen worked on teaching, and while I am in no ways a natural, I had so much fun and stood up several times (in baby waves…).  For anyone looking to take lessons, Mario’s La Diablo Blanca surf shop does give lessons that are very well-reputed.  After some laying out and reading, we all packed up to head back to the house.  The boys cooked for us and made incredible grilled vegetables and meat.  The girls made guacamole and got everything ready for dinner.  Both of the home-cooked meals we made were unbelievable, and were such a flavor of food from home.

On Saturday, we made plans to head into Todos for everyone who had wanted to purchase things on Thursday, but hadn’t had the time.  I went to a number of shops to find gifts for family and friends.  While there are a number of beautiful shops in Todos, it is also important to know that most of the shops carry variations on the same things.  As a result, it is also important to know if you are being ripped off.   I am the last person who is interested in haggling, but when my friend purchased vanilla for 75 pesos and I was getting charged 100, I was more than willing to stick up and comment on the price difference.  The point here is to shop around and find the best prices.  I am also fairly sure that there are probably stores that carry more unique items, but they probably also take more work to find.  If you are willing to put in the time, however, Todos has some amazing things to offer.  I was really pleased because I was able to find a thick, nice Mexican blanket for a very reasonable price – my souvenir for this experience.

I spent the rest of the day relaxing in my pajamas in my bed watching Juno.  Others went to Las Palmas, another well-known beach in the area which is supposed to have wonderful waves for playing in, but not for surfing.  The pictures my friends took suggest that the area is beautiful and definitely worth visiting.  After this, a group of my friends stayed in for dinner and chatted for most of the night, while others went out.  They found an incredible wine and tapas bar, and then went to the Hotel California (yes, the very one mentioned in the song) for live music.  Todos is known for its live music, and the Hotel California is only one of the venues in which music is played.

When they returned, I headed for bed.  We had to get up early the next morning to leave for La Paz, and I was exhausted from the week.  When we woke up in the morning, we frantically cleaned, ate, and packed before catching the bus from Todos to La Paz.  In La Paz, we found a wonderful cafe with internet, and a fantastic ice cream place.  We waited for the bus, caught it to PSC, and finally came back.  It was once again a letdown to come back to PSC after being in such a beautiful and different place, but there was also something reassuring about coming back to school – in part, we were all reunited again, and we were able to hear the stories from the girls who went to Cabo, and to share our own stories with the group.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, there are no immediate pictures from this trip – I have some on my phone, but haven’t had time to upload them – hopefully soon!

Travel: The Good News is that I Know Who the President of Mexico Is

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2011 at 2:24 pm

As usual, it’s been topsy-turvy since the last time I posted.  Just after my last post, my entire group was evacuated inland due to the threat of a tsunami due to the earthquake in Japan.  We traveled the 45 minutes into Ciudad Constitucion, the closest town, and stayed in a coffee shop for the day.  The entire day was utterly surreal, because even as disaster was threatening millions of people on the other side of the world, it felt for the first time like we were back in the States – the coffee shop was so normal, by American standards, related to PSC.  And considering what we were leaving behind, and what was happening in Japan, it felt somehow wrong to be so grateful for coffee and a cookie.  Nonetheless, there we were for most of the day, happily enjoying some additional freedom.

Needless to say, we didn’t go turtle monitoring that night, nor the next.  The harbor was closed on Friday due to the continuing threat, and on Saturday, we were needed at the Whale Festival.  Mexicans consider grey whales “Mexican by birth”, and as a result, and as a result of the economic inputs they bring, the town has a festival to celebrate them.  As SFS students, our job is to look grungy nice and paint faces.  We had what seemed like hundreds of little kids come up to us saying “Ballena!” or “Tortuga”, “Estrella”!  After Rosemary painted my face to look like a butterfly, I had a whole pack of little boys come up to me asking for the same – it was unbelievably cute.


We had our presentations for our Ethics and Economics of Sustainable Development earlier in the day – our presentation wasn’t flawless, by any stretch of the imagination (in fact, we went over by eight minutes…whoops!), but we did very well nonetheless, and it was a huge relief to have that out of the way.

On Sunday, we headed into camping prep.  We were heading all the way across the peninsula and then north to the city of Loreto, which is one of the six or seven towns in Mexico that has been designated as an area which is able to be developed for tourism.  Since I was only in charge of getting the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and compost buckets ready, my camping prep was very limited (a blessing).  In spite of this, however, I spent the entire morning baking cookies.  We try and take snacks for camping with us, and I had a hankering to bake (I haven’t cooked or baked since I’ve been here!).  I made four batches of cookies, which did take me virtually all morning.  I then started trying to prepare for exams by making the usual flash cards.

On Monday morning, all ready and prepared, we headed out to Loreto.  What we did realize was how long a trip it was going to be.  Everyone had told us it would take us about three and a half hours of driving to reach Loreto; in reality, we spent nine hours of the day traveling.  We had to make several stops before we even really left the area, to get gas, pick up propane, etc.  When we finally reached Loreto, we all threw ourselves out of the van.  While the vans nominally seat thirteen people, this is in no way comfortable, particularly as it gets very warm driving through the middle of the peninsula.  As soon as we got out, however, we (or I) realized how much our scenery had changed.  Loreto is a much bigger town than PSC or Constitucion, and it is vastly more beautiful than either of those places.  It is right on the Sea of Cortez, which has the bluest water I have ever seen.  Unlike PSC, in particular, there is virtually no trash, and there are very few stray dogs.  The homes are well kept, the shops are nice, and the buildings are incredible.  I have always known this, but it is so clear the difference between towns that have money and those that have very little.

We ate lunch in Loreto at a cute little restaurant, and then heaved ourselves back into the van for the rest of the trip.  We were supposed to talk to the women who run a fish co-op near Loreto, but we were unable to do so at that time.  We drove another windy, nauseating hour and a half to finally reach our camp site.  When we finally did, it was a tremendous relief once again to get out of the van – this time for several days.  Naomi and I were sharing a two-man tent this time, and while everyone else set up near the other campers, she and I trekked across a small strait to camp on an island (this was partially for quiet, and partially to give us an excuse to avoid the rank outhouse).  We had an early dinner and headed to bed early.

The next morning was beautiful – we were able to watch the sun rise over Bahia Concepcion (the bay where we were camped) before breakfast.  We ate a quick breakfast, hauled on our wetsuits, and jumped in the water to do a reef fish analysis.  In Loreto, we were checking for biodiversity (species richness).  Later in the semester, at Cabo Pulmo, we will be doing an assessment of evenness.  While the water wasn’t as clear as I might have guessed, we were still able to see some really amazing fish – stingrays, as per usual, but also Sargeant Major (damselfish), parrotfish, and best of all (in my opinion), Cortez Angelfish!  They were unbelievably beautiful, and it was so cool to get close to them.

After snorkeling, we spent an idyllic afternoon trying to stay in the shade and cramming for our imminent exams – oh joy.

The next morning, much to our dismay, one of our girls woke up with the flu.  She had been up most of the night and still wasn’t feeling well.  While we went to Mulege (north) to see the mission, she stayed at camp and waited for our center director to take her back to PSC.  When we were at Mulege, I was once again struck by how beautiful the town was.  Smaller than Loreto, Mulege is still a very well-maintained town which obviously has more money than PSC.  We had a nice, quick lunch at a local restaurant and then rejoined our group to go to the the mission.  The church was very small, but utterly beautiful.  We had a lecture about the history of the mission system on the Baja, which was interesting, although I felt that it covered up a lot of the brutality of the mission system.  Nonetheless, it was interesting.  Finally, we piled back in the car to head back to camp, and the imminent Spanish exam.

Fortunately, the Spanish exam wasn’t too bad – I second-guessed myself a lot, but nonetheless felt that it went well.

The next morning, we packed up our camp and headed back to Loreto.  Another one of our girls was having some serious problems with her back, so she, our student affairs manager, and several others headed to the hospital first.  While we waited in Loreto to find out whether she was coming with us on the next leg of our trip, we poked around and found a bagel shop (!)  Several people were so grateful to see something like American food that we all sat and waited for a nice treat.  Finally, with the verdict that we were to go on ahead to the next place, we all packed our things up and headed out on a boat on the Sea of Cortez to go to Coronado Island, which is part of Loreto National Park.  There, we got lunch and started to set up camp before our next adventure: swimming with sea lions!  We all dragged our wetsuits back on, got in the boat, and with some trepidation, jumped into the water near the colony.  They are reputedly accustomed to people because people go to the colony specifically to swim with them – nonetheless, I had some concerns about getting too close to them.  Even the females are very large, and they had pups, which made them potentially very territorial.  I mostly stayed on the surface and watched them swim under me, although I had two swim very close to me, including one that got within six inches of me, swirled around, and was gone.  They are incredibly beautiful and very fun to be around – their love of play is absolutely infectious.

We headed back after that, dried off, and got ready for dinner.  After dinner, some Uno was played, and I finally started on catching up on the reading I’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t had time for.  I slept out on the beach, which was incredible.  The moon was out, but it was much warmer than other times I’ve slept outside (notably in the Sierra Nevadas, when I was so cold I spent the entire night shivering…) and I slept incredibly well.

The next morning, we finally loaded up the vans and the trucks for good and headed back to PSC.  We had several people who were feeling very poorly at this point, and we were all anxious to get back and actually get down to studying for our exams.  While we’d nominally had time to study during the trip, this time always seemed to evaporate.  When we got back, we unpacked as quickly as possible, and set to studying for PRM and ECO, our first two midterms.

I have successfully taken these two today, and feel reasonably good about the whole situation.  As I said, the good news is that I do know who the president of Mexico is, although I had to double check with one of our staff once I finished the test.  Tomorrow we take our ecology midterm, and then we head off to spring break!  Alas, my camera seems to have quit working again, so the pictures in this post may be the last batch for quite a while.

Travel: La Purisima

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I got my first taste of true homesickness on Tuesday.  I’ve been homesick off and on since I have been here, especially when I talk to my parents about home, but I haven’t felt an aching homesickness until Tuesday.

On Tuesday, we left Bahia Magdalena for the first time since we arrived in Puerto San Carlos.  After driving over intermittently paved, bumpy roads for three hours, we finally reached the small town of La Purisima.  We had been promised the opportunity to visit and swim in an oasis, which is the main source of freshwater for people in the area.  While in any other place, this would simply be considered part of a large river (in a beautiful canyon), because there is literally no above-ground fresh water in the state of Baja California Sur, the area around La Purisima is considered to be an oasis.  For the first time in months, we saw true green.  While we have mangroves growing around the center (and the ulva that I mentioned previously, which covers the sand on our beach), we haven’t seen any green trees or flowers in six weeks.  While it hadn’t really occurred to me until I got there, I have desperately missed seeing living plants.  Even more, I have desperately missed seeing a water source outside of the bay and the ocean.

I always used to think that I wanted to live by the ocean, and I think I might still want to do so – however, at this point, I greatly miss the thought of freshwater flowing through a river.  Seeing the oasis was like seeing something from home, or from the drive my dad and I take every year through Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.


The town of La Purisima itself is very small, smaller than the town of Puerto San Carlos, but is somehow much more beautiful.  Partially because it is smaller, it seems to have much more charm.  It had a beautiful church tower, a nice square, and an interesting mural depicting the town’s history.  We met several people within the town, two of whom were an elderly couple from La Paz who moved to La Purisima in order to try and revitalize the town by opening a hostel and working with local elders to try and maintain the culture and traditions of the town.  As a result, a number of traditions have been maintained, although there are few people to pass them onto – the population of La Purisima is only 500, and most of the youth leave in order to find better jobs and a better situation.  As we sat in their hostel, one of the people in my group was eating pesto – the combination of that smell with the familiar-looking geology, and the dry-weather smell mixed with the smell of freshwater reminded me so much of home, it made my heart hurt.

After we left the town, we drove a brief ways through more of the canyon to get to our spot.  From there, we hiked down into the canyon and along the canal that pumps water into the agricultural areas before we dropped down into the canyon where the “oasis” was.  We listened to our professors discuss the ecology of the oasis, and how it has a number of relic species due to its seclusion from a number of climatic changes.  A number of people from our group went swimming in the oasis – I would have joined them (the chance to swim in fresh water was unbelievably tempting), but because I had put on sunscreen, I was unable to; the oasis water provides people with their drinking water and as a result, my sunscreen could have contaminated it.  I was very content to sit in the shade and observe the canyon, however, and was just glad to have gone to the oasis at all.

The next day was incredibly eventful.  We had our second DR day, and we were heading out to observe a sea lion colony again.  Our panguero, Chilaco, drove our boat out to Isla Magdalena, at which point a car towed us across the island.  We then shoved the boat into the Pacific Ocean and took off.  The pangas we own are very small, and while they are suitable for the bay, they are exceedingly outclassed when they are placed in the Pacific Ocean.  We spent the first ten minutes being overwhelmed by the fact that we were in a toy boat in the Pacific Ocean and screaming as we went over the big waves – it was unbelievable.  We saw an amazing group of common dolphins, and then saw a group of Pacific White-sided dolphins, which we haven’t seen within the bay yet.  They were playing in the spray of our boat, and jumped all over the water.  As much as I love the whales, dolphins still manage to fill be with more glee, simply because they themselves are so joyous.

After boating quite a ways, we reached Cabo San Lacero, the second half of the island, and got out at a small fishing camp to start hiking.  After hiking for almost an hour (and having a wonderful conversation with one of my friends and teammates), we reached the sea lion colony.  This colony was significantly larger than the last one we saw, but they were also more skittish – we had to be very careful not to startle them into the ocean.  We watched them for a while from up high, and then we climbed down to eat lunch and do a count.  The day was unbelievably long, but so fulfilling and so wonderful.

Finally, today, we went whale-watching again.  We headed out to the Boca of the bay, and while we saw only a few whales, it was the most relaxing experience I’ve had in quite a while.  For the first time, I wore my headphones and it was just like being in my own world.  Even though I was surrounded by five other people, it felt like I finally had time to myself.  The water was so unbelievably beautiful and smooth, and it was the most comfortable and relaxing boat ride.  This afternoon, I finally had time to work, because as we speak, I should be working on a major project that’s due on Saturday.

Tomorrow I’m heading off to go turtle monitoring again, before my major presentation on Saturday.

Travel: “When they Said Wading, it Didn’t Imply Walking Up to my Mid-Thigh!!!!”

In Uncategorized on March 8, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I have been trying to post this for two days (it’s almost becoming three, as the internet is being it’s usual temperamental self), but I think I’m finally getting to it.

When I last left off, we were all still waiting to hear a final consensus on our directed research project, which is our fourth, and possibly most important class.  It’s yet another reason I chose to came here; knowing that I have to write a thesis next year, and having essentially no experience doing research like that is enough to scare anyone into choosing a program that forces you to write something like a mini-thesis.  When I got here, I had initially thought that I would choose one of the social science directed research projects to work on; after a fair amount of agonizingly careful thought, however, I chose to put all of the ecology projects in my top three.  Cetaceans were my first choice, since they were what drew me here in the first place.  Additionally, when I was on our last whale watching day, it was heartbreaking to me to think that I would never get to go out in the boats again to work with the whales.  These three choices (cetaceans, sea lions, and sea turtles, all of which are under the supervision of Lalo, our Coastal Ecology and Conservation professor) were in hot demand, however, and as a result, our staff were in meetings all of Tuesday trying to decide how to place everyone.

By Tuesday night, it came down to students deciding amongst themselves and pulling names out of hats to decide who would work on which project.  The Cetacean project had enough spots for three people to work, and four of us had it in our top spot.  After some very uncomfortable negotiating, we confirmed with Lalo that he would take four students in that arena, which finally allowed all four of us to have exactly what we wanted.  All of the students who choose his projects work closely together, and while he had to take on extra students, we ended up with a fantastic group of students, several of whom include the people I feel closest to here.  I am so excited to conduct research with these people in the next month and a half!

The next morning, as I had hoped, we headed out in the pangas and headed straight for the estuary.  One of the other girls and I had been in the same boat (aka Team Ballena) before, and so she and I were both extremely optimistic that we would get to touch a whale this time around.  When we reached the estuary, it was much the same as it was before – there were fewer whales, as they’ve started to migrate back to Alaska (their feeding grounds), but still many mothers and calves.  Where before, we’d seen them playing with each other, now they were very interested in us.  Before Tuesday, I hadn’t seen a whale spy-hop (where its head, including its eye, comes fully out of the water to observe you), but suddenly, whale after whale was looking at us.  It was one of the most thrilling sites in my life – it is truly humbling to know that these immense, beautiful animals are so interested in you.  I suddenly felt that I didn’t really deserve the attention, that I was meager in comparison to them; but it goes both ways, the curiosity.  Once again, we saw mothers and babies playing together and swimming around; even in the three or so weeks since we were last there, it seems like the babies have grown more adventurous.  Whereas before we saw many of them resting, now it seems the mothers are encouraging them to move around and investigate to prepare them for their long trek home.  Sadly, I still didn’t get to touch one; I am still waiting for this to happen, although it is extremely possible that it is nothing more than a hope.  Nonetheless, I am whale watching again this week, and have high hopes.

That afternoon, we divided by project.  I will be working on photo identification of whales and dolphins, which will allow us to understand which whales might come here each year, and might allow us to understand population dynamics better.  In other areas along their northward migration, biologists have been able to establish certain whales and know that they have calves every year, or every other year.  I am really looking forward to this project as it combines two of my major interests at this point, and I think it will be incredibly cool.

Later in the week, as a group we headed back to Isla Magdalena to look at rocky shores ecosystems.  Our PRM instructor wanted us to look at what kinds of lobsters were being harvested, and if they were being harvested at their legal size.  We spent quite a bit of time combing the beach measuring carapace (head and abdomen) length and checking species.  We also spent a fair amount of time looking at snail populations in the tide pools nearby for Lalo.  The tide pools weren’t as diverse as some of the others I’ve seen, but it was both incredibly fun and ridiculously funny to wade around in them.  My friend Amber and I were working as a pair, and I’m 5’3″ and she’s 5’1″.  Where everyone else was comfortably wading, she and I were quite literally splashing around with our shorts hiked up to avoid getting completely wet.  It was an incredibly fun day, complete with a nice hike over the island.

The rest of the week into the weekend and the beginning of this week were very interesting.  Friday was a quiet day – we spent the morning in the classroom, and then suited up in the afternoon to assess the presence of a plant called Ulva.  Ulva blooms in response to eutrophication, or the presence of additional nutrients in the environment.  Here’s why we were doing this, as a bit of a social lesson on Puerto San Carlos:

Up-current from us is a sardine and tuna cannery, which primarily processes sardines.  While the sardine cannery has a waste treatment component, this requires very specific chemicals and requires more labor, and is thus very cost-ineffective.  As a result, human excrement and waste, in addition to any fish parts that aren’t used (they can sardines, and they make fish meal/flour at the plant next door, so theoretically, very little goes to waste) all gets dumped into the bay.  The good news for the bay is that it is extremely effective at cleansing itself.  The bad news is that because the site is down-current from the cannery, our beach is polluted.  Initially, this only meant to me that we couldn’t swim outside.  Now, it means to me that there is an entire “mud-flat” composed of human excrement and fish blood and guts outside my door.  As a result of this, and the high nitrogen and phosphorus levels in human excrement, the ulva blooms in the bay and potentially threatens the species close to shore with anoxic conditions (only in a severe, continuous bloom would this occur; nonetheless, it is a consideration).

Due to this delightful situation, our class was out in the “mud-flats” measuring ulva abundance for 200 meters outside the center.  All of us were in our rainboots, which have become the most valuable piece of clothing I own.  Unfortunately, I found out as I was literally walking through watered-down human shit, that my right boot leaks (the location of the leak has yet to be determined and fixed).  While I could have been utterly nauseated by this (I was tempted to be so), I was not, and I attempted to find the humor in the situation.  Our ulva abundance report was good; it showed that the concentration of ulva in the area is relatively low at this time, which is good for all of us.

After this project, the plague began.  Several of us (including myself) hadn’t been feeling well, to the extent that I spent a good portion of Thursday night in the bathroom feeling incredibly sick.  Luckily, I woke up Friday morning feeling hungry and normal.  I ate carefully and carried out my day.  By Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, however, it was apparent that others were not so fortunate, to the extent that by lunch time, six out of sixteen people were in bed or in the bathroom.  As a result, my fellow students and I ran around doling out water, gatorade and saltines, and checking up on people throughout the day.  We thought that  maybe it was food related until it started passing between people very quickly, by which time we decided it had to be a virus.  People were still extremely sick on Sunday, and only by Monday were people slowly starting to recover.

Monday was particularly lovely because we actually went and took a tour of the sardine cannery and the fish-meal processing plant.  I was surprised to find it as normal as I might have hoped.  I was expecting some sort of horrible scene straight out of The Jungle, but only found the usual foul fish smell and lots of noise.  52% of the cannery workers are women, who mostly work on the packing lines.  Men fix the machinery and do heavier jobs.  The women are paid anywhere from $10-15 a day; this seems like very little, and in reality, it is.  When someone in my class asked why they did it, I could barely keep the incredulity out of my voice when I said “Because there are no other options here”; and it’s true.  In spite of the fact that these women know that the cannery pollutes the bay, and in spite of the poor pay, the health detriments, and everything else I could list, that small amount of money helps them to sustain their families, and ensures that they have food.  It is a fact of life that people will do what they have to in order to feed themselves and their children.  Nonetheless, I was grateful to leave the cannery – it caused me to think over so many frustrating questions.  Of course, I would like the cannery shut down for polluting the bay and treating its workers poorly.  But then, the entire town of San Carlos would suddenly find itself with very little income.  Unemployment would skyrocket until people began to leave and it became a ghost town.  It would be ideal to regulate the cannery, but in an entire state, there are 20 employees who enforce environmental regulations.  There is no way that they can come down here and make sure that the waste treatment is running every day.  There should be a punishment, but fining the company does little to change its behavior.  In spite of how much I am learning here, I regularly feel like I know nothing about how to fix tough questions that eventually effect everyone in a community.

Travel: Ballenas, Tortugas, y Lobos Marinos, Oh My!

In Uncategorized on March 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm

It has been way too long since my last post – so much has happened, and so many incredible things have taken place – I finally have my camera more or less in working order, so in spite of the fact that I’m missing pictures from some of these cool events, I also have some sweet pictures from my more recent adventures.  Since it’s been almost two weeks, I think this is going to be an incredibly long post – bear with me!

So, from the beginning: In my last post, I completely forgot to mention our second field exercise with Vero – we were snorkeling again, but this time we were attempting to assess the abundance of the scallop population.  Scallops have been important in this region since the pre-colonial era, and currently, they provide a significant income for a lot of fishermen in the area.  As a result, as a result of the Mexican fisheries laws, we are looking into what their abundance is here, and whether the PESC law is actually protecting them so that they can develop and reproduce.  We were using quadrants in the water, and throwing them at random before diving down to count the number of scallops in the quadrant.  We also took one of the scallops from the quadrant to bring back and dissect.  This was an incredibly awesome day – in spite of my trepidation about snorkeling again, as soon as I got in the water, I knew it would be better.  My partners dove for the first few quadrants, and then I finally decided – this was it!  I was doing it!  And it went absolutely fine, to the extent that I had a hard time stopping after that because it was so much fun.  When we got back to the lab, we dissected them to examine the relationship between the shell size and the weight, and we’re now in the middle of writing that up (our second lab report for PRM).

On Saturday, February 19, we had an amazing day.  Earlier that week, we were supposed to visit a sea lion colony on Isla Magdalena, the island across the bay from the center.  Due to inclement weather (mainly very gusty winds which would have made it dangerous to land our pangas on the island), we had to reschedule.  On Saturday, we were scheduled to go whale watching and have free time in the afternoon.  Our professors decided that, because we had to head to the mouth of the bay to watch whales anyway, we would combine our whale-watching with our hike on Isla Magdalena to see the sea lion colony.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera in working order on this day.  We did see some whales that morning, although Team Ballena strongly felt that nothing could really compare to our experience with the baby whales in the estuary.  When we landed on Isla Magdalena, we all stripped out of our hot waterproof clothing so that we could prepare for the hike over the island.  Yet another reason I chose this program was because of the amazing outdoor opportunities that are built right into the curriculum.  As a result, I was more than excited to go for a hike.  The island is very much a desert – in spite of the fact that we are so close to water, everything here is very dry, and dry-weather plants dominated our landscape as we climbed the pass to the Pacific side of the ocean.  As we reached our descent, we began to see evidence of the illegal activities that often sustain people here; mainly, we saw evidence of abalone harvests.  Our PRM instructor, Vero, was with us, and she told us that all of the shells we were seeing were significantly smaller than what is legal to harvest.  Interestingly, however, Mexican Law mandates that any Mexican may harvest/grow/etc things that provide food for their families.  If poachers were caught (unlikely, as enforcement is not a reality here), they could simply claim they were using the abalone to feed their families and get off without a fine.  That side of the politics here is very interesting, particularly since the law is meant to do so much good for people here, but does allow poachers to slip through the system.

When we reached the other side of the island, I was once again struck by how beautiful the Pacific is here.  The ocean is incredible to me (and the friends in my panga with me will definitely tell you that I remark upon the state of the ocean every day – whether it’s as smooth as glass, or silky like mercury, or shiny and choppy like our first day out), but it’s amazing seeing the Pacific here where there are so many fewer people than anywhere else I’ve been along the Pacific coast.  As we came around the bend from where we’d come off the mountain, all of a sudden – there was the colony!  Our job for the afternoon was to get as close as possible without scaring them into flight, and to count the numbers of males, females, and juveniles.  As we ate our lunch and watched them for a minute, I was struck by how beautiful they are, but how utterly absurd and funny they are at the same time.  They sent a non-dominant male over to see what we were up to (or so we were convinced), and watching him walk back up the beach to his colony was enough to send us all into giggles.  Monitoring them was so cool, mostly because they were so much fun to watch, and because the setting was so beautiful.

After the sea lions, we headed into our next week, starting with the due date of our first PRM lab.  In groups of four, we wrote up a report/scientific paper about the habitat preferences and substrate preferences of octopuses, and I have to tell you, the most I learned from that experience is that group labs are hard to write!  As a control freak, it was so hard for me to do anything but sit there with my computer and try to make it exactly the way I wanted it.  Luckily, I had great people in my group, and I think our paper turned out well (although I don’t know yet, because we haven’t gotten it back yet…hmm).  We also knew that we were preparing for our first camping trip at Banderitas, an area close the estuaries where we saw the baby whales.  First though, we had our last whale-watching experience.

Team Ballena headed out in a different boat on Tuesday, so we were off our game from the beginning, or so it felt.  We were also headed out to the Boca de Soledad (the mouth of the bay), while the other boats were headed to the estuary.  We were very jealous, but tried to resign ourselves to the fact that at least in the Boca, the others had touched whales.  As we headed out, the sea was again calm, until we reached a certain point when it became much more topsy-turvy in our boat (which was much smaller than our usual one!)  Nonetheless, we reached the Boca safely.  We tried to approach a number of whales, but with very little success.  Finally, after an hour or so, we found a number of tourist boats that were nearby watching several whales – as we approached, we realized they were mating!  Whale mating is extremely interesting because it involves three whales: one breeding male, one breeding female, and another male which holds up the other two so that they can breathe.  We sat and watched for a while (which really just made us all feel like voyeurs; but it was so cool that it was impossible to tough to leave!), but then we finally had to return to the center, at which point we heard that the other groups got to touch baby whales.  This made our experience seem not as exciting, and we were a little bit out of sorts as a result.  Our experience was still incredible, however, and I was really satisfied.

By Thursday, we were all packed up and ready to head out on our first camping trip.  We had way more things than you would imagine needing, including all of our fresh water for the three days, our food, our packs, etc.  We also don’t camp the way a lot of people do (or I guess, the way I’m used to): we bring real food to eat, not dehydrated food, and as a result, it takes up significantly  more space.  We took all three pangas for us and our personal gear, then brought  our two trucks with everything else.  After a 40 minute boat ride, we reached Banderitas and began to set up the cook tents and our personal tents.  We then had our first field lecture with Lalo about sea turtle ecology, which was really cool.  It was really windy when we arrived there, but we were in a sheltered area down on the beach, listening to our professor (and hoping not to get sunburned).  We then moved up to our cook tent and listened to a guest lecture from our center director on the importance of rhodoliths (red algae) in the ecosystem.  Finally, we made dinner and picked our first turtle monitoring shift.  My group ended up with a monitoring shift on the second  night, but I volunteered for a second shift on the first night with my friend Amber.  After dinner, we started a camp fire and my group got ready to head out at dark.

As we piled into our boat in our twenty layers and rain gear, all I could think about was how excited I was, and how beautiful the stars were.  I haven’t seen stars that clearly in a number of years – because there aren’t any trees here, and because there aren’t any lights where we were, the stars were incredible.  As we boated quietly in the darkness, I was utterly enchanted with the entire experience.  As soon as we reached the turtle nets, we hauled them up and found – a juvenile green/black turtle!  (The kind that are illegally consumed here).  We chose a gender-neutral name for it (her, I decided) and called her Peyton.  We checked the nets once more that night before heading back for a nap until 6:00 the next morning when we started measuring and weighing the turtles before releasing them.  Each group caught one turtle the first night and we learned how to measure them, take a skin sample, and tag them.

The second day at Banderitas was relaxed, but very fun – we talked about desert ecology with Lalo and went on a brief walk to look at the desert, which was beautiful.  We then went snorkeling again to look at rhodoliths.  While the water was freezing when we got in, it soon warmed up and became very comfortable for snorkeling.  Once again, I was extremely comfortable in the water and was so excited to swim around.  When night came, I dove into my tent for a brief nap before my midnight to 4:00 shift the next morning.  The second night, my group caught no turtles, which was a disappointment, but it also meant that our next morning was less stressful.  One turtle was caught the second night (Isabellita) and released in the morning.  Before we packed up to head out, we had a quick class with AJ in which we talked about the native people and their use of turtles.  We finally got back in the boats (albeit very sleepily) to head back to the center and begin cleaning everything out.

Now that we’re into our next week, we are finally getting ready to start our directed research projects – but due to the number of people interested in the same projects, it hasn’t yet been determined which projects we will be working on.