August 5, 2018
August 3rd was my first day living in Sucusari. Ellie (AKA Liz, who just told me she prefers Ellie) and I moved all of the expedition gear, food, and our personal belongings to the community the evening of the 2nd. Shout out to Explorama for giving us a lift with the huge amount of stuff that we had to bring.
I had pitched my tent inside the community center, a large structure in the center of the community that has the only flushing toilet in town. I woke up on the third at around 5am, without getting much sleep. It was one of those nights where there’s a million thoughts going through your mind all at once and suddenly the sun is rising again. I kept thinking of the work that needed to be done, the budget, the house to be built, and how life was going back home without me in it. I rose with the sun at 5:30am and decided to have a relaxing day more or less, to get my bearings. I began by organizing all of the gear and food that I had brought with me from the haphazard pile of bags and sacks that it was in to something that looked like a system, where I could find something that I needed more quickly. By 9am we were starving so we walked over to Jairo and Marina’s house looking for some breakfast, with a pile of eggs and oatmeal in hand. Marina whipped us up some fried eggs and pasta with turmeric and man did I put that away quickly. I must have made an impression on Marina because, since then, she has given me mountains of food for each meal. After a nice meal, some chatting, and a cup of coffee, it was 10:30am and Marina was saying she was going to just go ahead and make lunch while we were over. I had eaten so much pasta that I happily declined. I was nice and happy and relaxed, so I sat by the river reading for a while, chatting with whoever came by. Elvis was organizing a team of scientists that were visiting the community to study the bat species in the area, and why they are living in peoples’ houses instead of in the bat house that was built specifically for them. Ironic. Ellie and I spent the evening making a plan for the next day, when we would try to visit our first set of mineral licks nearby the community together to make sure that we agreed on the methods and everything was solid. We decided to head a little ways up river with Shebaco and a few others for a short two to three day expedition, and packed all of the gear and food that we would need. I was sad I was going to miss the bat team working, but excited to get up the river and start on my research. My hopes were dashed, however, when Shebaco stopped by late at night to announce that he forgot that he had a commitment and a meeting the next day, and we would not be able to do the expedition. Something always comes up.
When we woke up the next day, we set out with a different plan. We had some whole fried fish, rice, and oatmeal for breakfast and packed the extra away for a rancho frio (AKA lunch on the go). We hitched a ride a bit up river to Seberino’s house, who knew of several mineral licks within a few hours walking distance of his house. When we arrived, he was free for the day and agreed to take us to four licks. That’s more than we thought even existed in that area, so that’s always good albeit stressing news. Within forty minutes we had arrived at the first mineral lick, which was no more than a medium-sized hole in the ground. We took the GPS points and headed to the second, about 30 minutes further from Seberino’s house. The second one was a bit more impressive, with a clear area where the animals had been consuming soil, plenty of tracks, and lots of mud. There was a tree positioned beautifully facing the face of the lick, and we put two camera traps on it looking at the face itself and the main “entrance” to the lick. Mineral lick number three, another 20 minute hike away, was very similar with more mud. The positioning of the camera was a bit more tricky but it was becoming easier now that we knew more and more of what to expect. We managed to get by with just one camera, which is huge because with more cameras free I can measure more mineral licks. The last mineral lick of the day, over an hour and 40 minutes from Seberino’s house, was a famous one called Yao Uti Tuara in Maijiki. Right outside the lick is a spot where a spirit called Maba lives. The spirit protects the lick and forbids children to pass through the area, cursing them with illness and eventually death if they do. When you arrive at this spot, you can see why it would be conceivable that there would be beliefs associated with it because it’s unlike almost any other type of primary rainforest: it’s more or less a clearing.
Rainforests are dense. They have many many layers of plants that are constantly competing for space and sunlight, so any movement at all is difficult because of the multitudes of trees, vines, plants, palms, and rotting trunks in the way. Clearing just simply don’t occur very often. This type of clearing, though, occurs for a reason. The only species of tree that grows in it has a symbiotic relationship with a species of ant, which lives in nodules occurring intermittently along the branches and stems of the tree. The ants get a lovely place to live free of predators. In exchange, the ants eat every other plant that grows around the trees, and only allow trees of the same species to grow. The result is a group of trees, all the same type, spaced out, with no other plants growing around them. Stumbling upon it in the forest definitely feels somewhat spiritual. Yao Uti Tuara itself was also pretty impressive in terms of mineral licks. There was a sheer face where animals were clearly consuming the soil with a cave-like entrance leading to it. The mud around it was absolutely full of tracks of all kinds, including tapir. All in all not a bad hike. We headed back to Seberino’s house, ate our fish with Seberino, and hopped a ride back Sucusari by 2pm.
The bat group arrived at 4pm for a meeting with the community to make sure that they had permission to work there, and to set up nets to trap the multitudes of bats flying around. It was all very nice and formal, and the Maijuna said yes, that the work is well and good. We walked around with the team and showed them the places that we had seen bats in the community, and explained how the bats were living in the thatch roofing on the outside of the bat house, but not actually inside of it where they are supposed to live.
The team set up a series of bat nets around the bat house itself and the maloca (communal meeting space), where some large fruit bats live. The nets were huge, around 20 feet high and forty or so long. They set up the nets at 4pm, and waited for the bats which usually come out around 5:30pm or 6pm. I hitched a ride back to the lodge to pick up some gasoline and say hello to Katie, and when I returned the team was sell under way catching bats. It was pretty cool to see, I have never seen those types of bats up close before. Kind of scary. They advised me not to handle the bats since I wasn’t sure when my last rabies shot was. I tried to argue, and lost. Classic. By 7pm, the team had caught way more bats than they could handle and they couldn’t process them fast enough.
The morning of the 5th, Ellie and I split up to find some more mineral licks. Ellie went east with Victorino to a site known as Boqueron and another lick nearby, and I went walking with Jairo to the west. Jairo said that it would be a nice easy walk and we’d be back before lunch time no problem. Little did I know that the Maijuna pretty much say everything is “muy cerca” (very close). I think I have about figured out the “cerca” scale. Anything within an hour and a half hike is “muy cerca”. Anything from an hour and a half to two and a half hours is “cerca”, and anything more than a two and a half hour hike away is “lejos” (far). When I think of hiking through primary rainforest, “muy cerca” means maybe 15 minutes, because the hiking is not the same as what you’d think. Most of the time you’re either doing high knees so you don’t trip over vines, branches, and plants or you’re walking through palm swamps with mud and much up to the middle of your calf. The easy times come when you’re crossing rivers and streams over rotten, fallen trees – there’s no mud there. I think you get my point. To me, a one hour hike should probably qualify as “lejos”, but I’ll leave that point there. The first mineral lick Jairo took me to was a brisk 55 minute walk from the river, through chacras (fields), palm swamps, and across rivers and streams. It took us a few minutes to clear the mineral lick of debris and plants and place a camera trap. The second mineral lick really was “cerca” in that it was only 20 minutes walk from the first lick, although man were we booking it through the forest. Jairo can cross tree-bridges like nobody else I have ever seen, he screams confidence. When we finished with the second lick we headed back towards the community (hour and 45 minute hike), while taking a detour to one of Jairo’s chacras to harvest some plantains for the upcoming expedition. I saw Jairo break a sweat for the first time here – while he hiked the last 30 minutes through palm swamps with 60 pounds of plantains strapped around his head. It was only a few drops of sweat, but it counted. I was soaked and tired and smelly and arrived to find that Ellie had gotten back hours before, was perfectly dry and happy and playing with Nancy’s pet baby Saki Monkey Raul. Then she informed me that Luis, who was with Nancy, knew of three mineral licks that I had not mapped. Just what I wanted to hear…
With the bat squad, today was more of the same. The bat team came back with nets around the school, where they had seen bats roosting. This time, the nets were up by 6pm (rain delay), but by 6:30pm there were so many bats in the nets they couldn’t take them out fast enough; and they couldn’t take down the nets without taking out the bats first. The result was more and more and more bats being caught. 41 in total got caught before the team could finally get the nets down – way more than they could hope to process in one evening. It was a pretty cool process to participate in and I love getting to do some new science of course. Elvis was busy at work setting up an expedition for tomorrow, to the Maronal region halfway up the Sucusari basin. It seems that we are set to go for tomorrow, just have to get the food and gear laid out and distributed.