Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Back home

  Well, I'm now back in sunny California!  It feels a bit odd to be back.  The apartment feels so spacious and clean and white to me that it's like I've gone to the heaven of Hollywood movies; it doesn't feel normal after spending weeks in a hotel room so small I can't spin around without touching the walls (or stand up straight without banging my head).  I just drove around on some errands, and that felt odd too.  My flight home was very long, about 28 hours in transit all told, but uneventful.  They pretended to lose my luggage, but I discovered it where they had hidden it, on the wrong carousel.  Such playful people those airline baggage handlers are; it must come from a work environment that revolves (so to speak) around "carousels".  It's like they're just happy, mischievous, luggage-destroying clowns.
  By the way -- and this is the real reason I'm posting at all today -- I've just added a References Cited section to my talk in this blog, for those who want to look up the primary literature.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Last views of Manaus

Most of the group left this morning at 6:30 AM on a long trip up the river to try to see boto, the pink Amazonian dolphins. I had seen those on my side trip at Juma Lodge, and it sounded like a very long time in a bus both ways, and the dolphins they would be seeing weren't wild dolphins anyway, but semi-tame ones accustomed to regular feeding by humans. So I stayed in Manaus and bopped around with Dr. Myatt instead.
First we caught a bus back to the Parque Mindu, which had seemed like quite a neat spot. We had gotten rained out there when we went as a group, so Rod and I wanted to try to see it again. We caught the right bus at the bus stop near our hotel, but it was the wrong bus stop, so we took that bus all the way through the downtown area before heading back out, passing the bus stop on the opposite side of the street from where we had caught it, and on northeast towards the edge of Manaus. After a bit we got off and transferred to a second bus which would actually get us to Parque Mindu, and that went pretty smoothly. The buses here are not quite as much of a mystery as they were at first; we now know how much they cost (2 reis, or perhaps $1.50), how to get the bus you need (ask a local, there are no route maps anywhere), how to get off where you need to go (ask the fare collector to warn you, street signs are almost nonexistent and the routes are very complex), and how to avoid being flung about like a sack of potatoes (adopt a very wide stance and hang on with both hands).
Parque Mindu was quite pleasing on the second visit. Since it was Saturday, there were tons of children running around everywhere, but they were well-behaved, so that was fine. As usual the easiest thing to see was insects: a new kind of dragonfly, damselflies in abundance near a small stream, a little yellow beetle (I point it out because it is almost the only beetle we've seen in the Amazon, oddly), lots of caterpillars including one species that seemed to make little houses for itself out of a rolled leaf and then forage from that home base, very handsome little multicolored grasshoppers, and paper wasps buzzing around a little nest they had built. We saw leaves that had been eaten my leaf miners, little insects that actually burrow around within the leaf between the upper and lower layers, leaving winding tracks behind. A huge wasp terrified and fascinated us; it sounded like a helicopter when it flew away. There were spiders in abundance, and little white moths that like to hide in large groups on the undersides of leaves. A strange vine with an undulating, creased surface hung across the trail; even Dr. Myatt, who knows more about plants than I know about everything else in the world combined, found it remarkable.

The crowning glory of our visit, however, was our sighting of the little monkeys that reside in the park, the pied-faced tamarin monkey. If I recall correctly, they are native to the Manaus area, and live wild in the park (and almost nowhere else). They were quite small, not particularly afraid of us, and fairly noisy. They were foraging in the canopy, and ran up and down the trees, hopping from branch to branch with great agility. At one point I was only perhaps three or four meters away from one, but of course I didn't get a good photo then; the photo here is one from a rather larger distance, of a more cooperative monkey.

So that was really neat. There is an orchid house at Parque Mindu too, but a quick look revealed that it was small and none of the orchids were blooming, so we skipped that. After a little drama with losing a pair of glasses (and then finding them by retracing our steps), and getting caught in a sudden downpour (when we serendipitously took shelter in a spot where they were giving out free popsicles to the children, and then to us), we walked out and caught a bus down to INPA.
We have been to INPA many times this trip, so we had a clear mission. Agenda item #1 was to see whether the river otter was more active this visit, and indeed he was; he was having a grand time in his water tank flipping around a little blue plastic water bottle cap. He would toss it in the air, catch it on his nose, chew on it, bat it around, and then deliberately fling it through the bars in front of the enclosure in order to involve the humans in his game. We would dutifully pick it up and toss it back in to him, and he'd do some more antics and then fling it back out to us again. He was absolutely charming. On the other hand, I had my camera inside his enclosure, between the bars, to photograph him, and at one point he made a sudden lunge for it, and if I had been just a hair slower I suspect he would have both gotten the camera and drawn blood. After that we noted his sharp claws and teeth and his very muscular arms, and kept our distance rather more respectfully.

Agenda item #2 was to go back to the indigenous crafts hut to buy more jewelry and such from them. Since we're coming up on the end of the trip, we're trying to make our money come out evenly so we don't have to exchange any reis back to dollars, so we estimated how much we would need for expenses through Sunday night, and blew the rest on their beautiful necklaces, bracelets, belts, earrings, and so forth. That spot has the best and most varied work we've seen in Manaus, and because it's run by INPA the money is all going to the indigenous people themselves, not to middlemen, so we've tried to buy there instead of in the downtown shops. Outside the hut a little raft of ants went by, so I photographed them; they were probably each about an inch long, and were moving together in a group sort of the way that a flock of birds move. We haven't seen proper army ants on this trip, so this was neat to watch -- still not army ants, but perhaps a little like how they would move. There was no clear leader ant, and yet the group as a whole maintained a direction of travel that seemed consistent and purposeful. Individual ants would stray from the group only slightly before returning, and the whole group of perhaps a hundred ants remained very cohesive and tight the whole time we watched them. Very neat.
Agenda item #3 was a return to INPA's ice cream hut. I got my favorite again, the chocolate and orange swirl. Fantastic. I took a photo of it this time; I think I haven't posted one before. We have been to many ice cream places in Manaus, because Rod has an unbelievable sweet tooth. The other night we popped into a place near downtown and all ordered scoops, but while we were all still working on ours, Rod was back at the counter ordering a second one. The INPA ice cream is the best in Manaus, though; great flavor and texture, and very friendly service.
Well, we're coming up on dinner time here now. This will probably be my last posting from Manaus, since I fly back tomorrow night, and tomorrow day will probably be spent packing and organizing and then sitting in the airport. My flight leaves at about 4:30 AM, so the logical thing is to go to the airport with the others, who fly out just after midnight, and sit. Catching a taxi at 1 AM would be unreliable and possibly even unsafe, so I'll just read my book and have food and beer at the airport concessions until they close for the night.
I'm glad I'm leaving tomorrow. It has been a great trip, but I'm ready to go home. My legs are absolutely covered in bites, I'm heartily sick of the monotonous food in Manaus (would you like grilled fish or grilled chicken or grilled beef?), my room seems to be infested with ticks (I've lost count of how many I've been bitten by at this point, but it's somewhere around a dozen), and I may even be reaching my limit on how many insects I can photograph without wanting to do something else for a while.
So I'll be in touch back in the States, and as I've mentioned in passing before, I'll probably post various links to movies, other people's photos, presentation writeups, and other miscellanea here for those who are interested. Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Insects and Indians

This morning we went to a botanical garden in a larger biological reserve called the Jardim Botanico Adolpho Ducke. Ducke was an Austrian naturalist and conservationist in Brazil in the 1940s and 1950s who came to be prominent enough to have a reserve named after him. The botanical garden was established quite recently, in 2000.
I took a few flower photos, but mostly pictures of insects. The insect-watching was virtually unparalleled. Pretty bicolored grasshoppers and little orange bees were abundant before we went into the jungle. A blue morpho butterfly seemed to like the margin of the jungle a lot, and flew in and out of the trees repeatedly, eventually settling into a pleasingly photographable behavior of hopping along the ground and slowly opening and closing its wings for no discernible reason. Our guide through the park pointed out a remarkable spiny green caterpillar on a leaf. A species of dragonfly with black-tipped wings liked semi-open areas within the forest. Lots of different species of ants were running around, including a very long-bodied, elegant ant and a huge vicious-looking ant well over an inch long. A large assassin bug sat still on a leaf, perhaps waiting for a victim, while on the underside of the same leaf a huge tan and black spider lurked, perhaps considering making the assassin bug its lunch. Leafhoppers abounded: a small bright red and turquoise species, a yellow species, and a very camouflaged brown species. A huge crane-fly sat on a tree trunk, the joints of its legs elegantly set off in contrasting white. There were lots of fungi too, as always, but the only ones I photographed today looked like little satin umbrellas.

In the afternoon we visited a museum dedicated to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, the Museo do Indio. Photographs were prohibited in the museum, so I can't show you any of the things I saw (why is it that bureaucrats are so hostile towards photography?), but I can describe a bit. They had displays of pottery, weaving and basketry, dwellings, musical instruments, and dioramas of funeral rites and of Amazonian animals. The taxidermy in the dioramas and displays was shockingly bad -- desiccated and moth eaten birds, contorted squirrels nailed to branches -- but I suppose it's the thought that counts. Some of the displays supported the authenticity of the dance performance we had seen courtesy of INPA a few days before; they showed a large ceremonial house exactly like the one we had been in, and musical instruments like the ones we had heard, and clothes like the ones we had seen worn. They even had photographs in the museum of dance ceremonies in which the men wore the same bright-colored boxing shorts they were wearing when we watched them; those boxing shorts must have been an early cultural transfer from the West! It was nice to see that the ceremonies we had observed hadn't simply been made up from whole cloth for the benefit of tourists. There were also several things that underlined what I've been reading in One River; we saw a very large pot into which people spit chewed fruit, which is then fermented to make an alcoholic beverage, for example. There were a lot of pictures and artifacts from the Yanomami, which was good since Dr. Ouverney had spent time living with them; he was able to vastly supplement the rather threadbare commentary on the signs in the museum with additional information and personal stories.
One thing Dr. Ouverney commented on was how hard the women in indigenous groups often worked. They usually do not get to eat until after the men and the male children have eaten their fill, so they often suffer from malnourishment. At the same time, they do much of the work in the society; Dr. Ouverney says you rarely see a woman who is not carrying a baby on a sling at the same time that she is carrying a load of some kind in a bundle hanging from a strap around her forehead. These stresses combine to produce short lifespan and high mortality, particularly during childbirth. One River, the book I'm working on, speaks to this from a different angle: in the group Wade Davis describes in the part I've been reading, the women are responsible for cultivating and harvesting the coca leaves that are central to their culture, but only the men are allowed to chew the leaves.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Supermarkets and operas

Yesterday was a down day; most of the others were stayed at the campsite an extra day, so those of us who decided to come back early could do whatever we wanted to do. We headed downtown to do some souvenier shopping; in one shop, I made an instant friendship with a little moth who must have liked the taste of my skin or something; I would try to brush it off, and it would just hop onto the brushing hand and sit there looking very pleased with itself. More determined efforts led to the moth flitting up to my face. At that point I decided I had to take a photo of my friend, so here it is.
I also went to the supermarket again, and since Keewi requested it, here are some photos of the supermarket. Not terribly exciting; it's a pretty typical supermarket. Fairly large Asian food section, which is interesting since we've seen no Asian people and no Asian restaurants in Manaus whatsoever; I'm not sure who is buying the miso and the wacky Japanese snacks!

After that we had a bit of an exciting time. Last night there was an enormous storm, the biggest we've seen on this trip. It was presaged by huge howling winds, and the rain followed soon after. I had gotten back to the hotel from dinner before it started; others were not so lucky, and got the most thorough soaking of their lives, I think. Leaks started in my room immediately. I put out an old water bottle to catch the main drip, and laid down a towel to soak up most of the rest, and then lay back to read as the storm raged outside. The lights flickered repeatedly, and brownouts lasting several seconds occurred repeatedly, but the power never quite went out entirely. Eventually I went to sleep as the storm continued. I didn't hear about it until this morning, but apparently some others had it much worse. Mike got the shortest straw; he got three (count 'em, three!) inches of water in his room, and most of his possessions, including his laptop, got soaked. He wasn't in his room when any of this happened; he just came back from a late dinner, and when he opened his door, a wave of water washed out towards him -- he said it was like Jumanji (although I think Jumanji ripped that off from Delicatessen, myself :->). It's not clear whether his laptop will ever work again, or whether any of this is covered by any sort of travel insurance, or what. There was an awful lot of swearing last night, apparently.
Also last night I discovered a small tick on my leg. I've found ticks crawling on me before, but I've never had one attach; the ones in California are big enough that they tickle me as they crawl, but these guys here are tiny, perhaps about a millimeter long, or slightly more. I put some Neosporin on it, on the theory that the suffocation of the vaseline would make it detach and back out. I don't know if that's just a myth, or what, but my tick did not detach by the next morning, and a more thorough search turned up two more as well. I have no idea where I got them; nobody else has them. I had my pants tucked into my socks the entire time we were at the INPA campsite, even when I was sleeping. So it's a mystery. Anyhow, we used alcohol and hydrogen peroxide and hot sterilized tweezers and all sorts of implements of destruction, and got the ticks removed, probably leaving behind all the little jaw parts and tick feces and everything that you're not supposed to leave behind. Supposedly there are no tick-borne diseases in the Amazon, so the risk of infection of the wound is the main thing. We'll see how that develops.
Anyhow, after all that excitement the group went today to the Parque Mindu, a fairly large park in northern Manaus with some nice stuff in it. It makes no pretense of being wild jungle, but it does have lots of orchids, a river with naturally occurring caimans and electric eels, agouti, and so forth. Mike spotted a glassy-winged sharpshooter, which was interesting; it is an invasive pest in California that causes big headaches for the Central Valley farmers, but perhaps here it's native, I don't know. It's the insect that looks like a leafhopper, but it's quite large, maybe almost two centimeters long. The acai palms had their lovely red roots showing nicely. We saw two wild sloths up in the trees, but they were impossible to photograph since it was raining hard; point your lens up at the sky, and it would immediately get raindrops on it.

Then we went for a tour of the opera house, called Teatro Amazonas, in the center of downtown Manaus. This is a building that was constructed at the height of the rubber boom, just over a century ago now, and it is ostentatious and overblown; not as much as comparable buildings in Europe, to be sure, but considering that it was built in the middle of the rainforest, it's quite a phenomenon. My favorite part was a ballroom in the upper part of the hall; its parquet floor was quite beautiful. We all put on felt overshoes before entering it, so as to not scuff up the varnish, and it was so smooth that walking felt like skating.

We have a group meeting in a couple of hours, at which a few students will do presentations. You may have noticed I haven't been putting up presentation synopses any more; it got to be an oppressive amount of work, since I couldn't have my laptop present for many of them, so I would have to take hand notes and transcribe them. Dr. Ouverney intends to browbeat everyone into typing up their own presentation summaries and putting them up somewhere; I'll link to that on this blog when it becomes available, probably well after the trip itself has ended.