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viernes, 11 de enero de 2013

The epic saga of Berendan Wasp slayer

I left Melbourne, Australia on the 3rd of November. Saying goodbye to my family and heading off into the unknown of South America where no Slade had ever been before. The trip was an epic one leaving at 11 in the morning and arriving in Los Angeles at 9 in the morning of the same day. Wait what? A fourteen hour plane trip and I had gone back three hours in time. I spent all day at LA airport and then headed off another plane trip to Panama City, Panama. I spent another five hours reading before setting off on the last plane leg to Asuncion, Paraguay arriving at 2 am on the 5th of November. This plane was novel as the primary language spoken on board was not English but Spanish, something I had never encountered before. Luckily everything was repeated in English and the headset could also be adjusted to Spanish. Leaving the airport I was very excited and intrigued to see the city. The route from the airport to bus station was not particularly impressive though with many cars and motorbikes squashed in and a general disregard for road rules. I was very glad I was not the one driving although I was concerned about the lack of seatbelts. Using my limited Spanish I managed to buy a bus ticket to Santa Rosa and jumped on. Bus travel in Paraguay is definitely an unusual experience. For one thing the bus had air conditioning, TV, two levels, reclining seats and cost half the price as at home. The other thing was that people continually got on the bus and sold fruit, water and sunglasses. One guy even gave some sort of speech although I have no idea what it was about. I quickly fell asleep. I awoke terrified that I had missed my stop and having no way to work out if I had or not as Paraguayans don't seem to believe in road signs. After a tense hour we did arrive in Santa Rosa and I was much relieved. I waited at the terminal clutching my bags and feeling out of place among sell these dark skinned, dark haired, short, Spanish speakers who occasionally started rambling at me in rapid incomprehensible Spanish which I could only reply with 'no comprehend, yo soy Australia'. When Helen turned up to pick me up I was again much relieved. I had managed to get to Laguna Blanca without any issues. Laguna Blanca is an amazing place. Think of an ideal tropical beach. Laguna Blanca is a lot like that despite Paraguay being a land locked country. It is a large crystal clear freshwater lake with a beach of pure white sand. The house I am to be staying in for the next three months has four bedrooms, each with a bathroom, and a communal dining area. My bedroom has 7 beds but never more than 4 are occupied and at present I am the only one. Each bed is surrounded by a veil of mosquito netting which makes me feel oddly safe. There is also a fan but unfortunately it is no real substitute for an air conditioner. We aren't here for luxury and it helps you to appreciate good plumbing. After arriving in the evening I went to sleep for almost 24 hours straight and the bed never feels this comfortable again. Upon waking I am introduced to the other volunteers, interns and staff. There is Helen, Jacqui, Georgia and Jonny from England, Joe and Tom from America, Monique and Fionne from the Netherlands, Ruby from New Zealand and Dave from South Africa. Rarely before did I meet such a group of friendly and interesting people and I really hope we can all stay in contact once I go home. Primarily I was to be searching for Capuchin monkeys. At Laguna Blanca there is a troop of 9 monkeys which reside in the dense Atlantic Forest. We were hoping to habituate the monkeys so that their behaviour could be better observed and studied. The Atlantic forest is unlike any forest I have been in before. You enter the forest on a tiny little path barely more than an animal track. On either side is dense vegetation which is continually trying to grow back over the path. There are a few key plants which you quickly learn about. The most irritating is a fairly small one with little green leaves and tiny branches which looks perfectly harmless however it is covered in small thorns which gleefully attach to your clothes, making you unable to move. They are also a nightmare to cut down as the thin branches merely bounce off the machete. The next plant has huge flat green leaves about the size of dinner plates and if you touch them you will feel a sharp burning and within a minute an itchy rash. You quickly learn to avoid these and fortunately they are very easy to cut down and doing so gives you immense satisfaction. The next plant is bamboo. Bamboo is not much of a threat but grows very quickly so often needs to be cut down to prevent the path disappearing. There are than ferns which are as tall as me with huge, lush leaves, just after it rains these will leave you soaking wet. Then there are the vines, these grow from the canopy down to the ground and are somehow impervious to being cut they are also a letdown in that you cannot swing on them. Between climbing under and over and between all these plants you scour the tree line for monkeys. Unlike you they can move very fast through the forest jumping from tree to tree like acrobats. I quickly become very jealous. Generally you will hear them before you see them and I was quite surprised to find they sound a lot like a bird chirping, but staccato. Suddenly you will emerge from between trees and see them sitting in the branches and staring at you. It's hard to say who is more surprised usually. They will start moving off through the trees, usually one of the males will try to distract you off in another direction and then they are gone, leaving you staring in wonder with a few blurry shots on your camera. So far I have seen the monkeys eight times, three of them at night under a full moon. Each time is just as exciting as the first and spurs me on to further slogs through the vines and thorns. There are also a lot of other creatures in the forest. The two most concerning are spiders and wasps. For reasons known only to them both these groups like to set up their webs and nests in the middle of the path. There are also many "friendly" creatures. Giant Stick Insects pretending to be twigs, Giant butterflies flapping lazily around, their wings vibrant yellow, blue and red. Giant praying mantis sit around looking awesome deadly but rarely actually moving. Giant ants climb up and down logs. Giant, yes everything in Paraguay is at least twice as big as at home. Giant grasshoppers leap around flashing bright orange as if they are trying to be butterflies and then turning back into leaves. Giant cicadas burst from the undergrowth shrieking madly and flying into you for unknown reasons. Giant moths lie camouflaged on trees. Lizards lay basking on the ground ready to shoot off if you get too close. Birds of every colour and shape call and fly around and generally try to pretend they are monkeys giving you false hope. If you are really lucky or unlucky depending on how you look at it you might even see a snake slither across the path. When not monkey hunting i have also been helping out with some of the other projects. I have set up mist nets to catch bats with Ruby. A mist net is basically a large net strung between poles several metres apart. The bats fly into the net and get tangled up. This sounds easy however unfortunately the nets also like to get tangled up and each one must first be untangled. I let Ruby stay out overnight to actually take the bats out of the net but I was able to hold them while she photographed them in the morning. I also helped Jacqui in bird netting which is basically the same thing but with birds and thus can be done in the early morning rather than overnight. By early morning I mean we got up at 4am so we could be out there before dawn. If a bird was caught we would take them out photograph them, measure their head, wings and legs and then let them go. We got a surprising variety of wrens, wood creepers, thrushes, doves and flycatchers. Even though their beaks look sharp they can't break your skin and thus aren't too dangerous to hold except for one species which Jacqui nonchalantly informed me may try to peck my eyes out. I also have helped out with some pitfall traps. These involve a line of plastic over a group of buckets. Animals can't get through the plastic and fall into the holes. Although looking at you would think even an idiot wouldn't fall for this trap we actually caught a reasonable number of lizards, scorpions, spiders, ants, beetles, centipedes and millipedes. Of these the scorpions were the coolest and most dangerous. The final project I have helped with was Monique and Fionne's opossum trapping. They placed 245 small mammal traps throughout the Atlantic forest, transitional forest and the cerrado. A small mammal trap is basically a steel box with a lever so when an animal enters the door shuts behind it. On my trip we found two opossums. These guys are about the same size as mice but are marsupials. They are also one of the most aggressive species I have ever seen. They had their mouths wide open showing all their teeth and glaring and hissing at Fionne. We took their weight and gave them a microchip so we could recognize them if caught again. Whenever I finished field work the first thing I would do is jump in the lake. Unlike at home where the water is always freezing here it is just right and you can just sit with it coming just up to your chin and forget all the heat and sweat and insects. The lake has little fish which swim around you curiously and occasionally nip you harmlessly. The water is so clear you can see the bottom even when it is two metres deep. The whole lake is quite large and in the middle it is apparently 8 metres deep. We took out the kayaks once and paddled around it and this took a few hours. After swimming it was usually almost time for lunch. Food at Laguna Blanca varies a lot. It is usually cooked by Gricelda, one of the locals and she does a pretty good job with what's available. The meals generally include spaghetti carbonara, spaghetti with tomato sauce, rice with lentils, pumpkin soup and bread, pizza, boiled eggs with salad, meat/vegetable pie, roast chicken, empanadas, deep fried schnitzel, fruit salad, cabbage salad, cereal, roast potatoes and even chocolate cake. After lunch it's often time for another swim or just chilling, some people take a siesta, read, make use of the wifi internet to skype or even play cards. Anything to stay out of the heat which is always over 30 and sometimes up to 40. Sometimes in the evening we will get together for a volleyball game with the Paraguayans. As most of the volunteers can't speak Spanish and the Paraguayans can't speak English things can at times get confusing but it is a lot of fun. There have been several other things which have happened which I feel need mentioning. One day we found an armadillo and I even got a chance to hold it! It was immensely cute with a very tough shell and long sharp digging claws. Once we placed it on the ground it vanished within a minute. We have also had a couple of volunteers try the delicacy of fried cicada. I wouldn't recommend it myself but they said it was ok. We went for a horse ride western style on a very placid bay horse. I have seen 6 snakes which have all taken the opportunity to slither away as fast as possible however these guys are also the most lethal animals at Laguna Blanca. Occasionally we have an asado which is basically a bbq and is quite delicious although for some reason the Paraguayans don't start eating till after 10 and then keep chatting till the small hours which is not ideal when you need to be up at 4. Paraguay has regular spectacular thunderstorms and swimming in the middle of them is also a lot of fun. We made a Blair witch project styled home video which possibly only we will fully appreciate and cannot stop laughing the whole time. Overall Para La Tierra is an amazing group mainly because it is filled with amazing people. The work is often tough with very early starts, overwhelming heat and a plethora of interesting plants and animals. However it is also very rewarding when you do succeed in finding your target species and this more than makes up for it. My time here is going by incredibly quickly with only just over a month left and I am still hopeful of hitting the jackpot and seeing a jagarundi, maned wolf and of course more Capuchins. Brendan Slade - Australia Para La Tierra Volunteer 2012/13

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