Long Work Days and Mountain Getaways

Saturday April 2, 2022

I watched the moon crest the ridge line of the foothills on the outskirts of Santiago as I waited for my ride this morning. It’s so strange how dark it is here in the mornings. My first two drivers to the airport canceled on me and the moon climbed higher in the sky. Light began to trickle down the hillside when I finally climbed into the car and started my long day ahead.

It was a bloody March, literally! Work days can span between 8 and 13 hours of processing blood samples from European Chileans and Indigenous Chileans. My day usually starts with a ride to the airport, to cargo, to pick up the package of blood samples that was shipped the night before from one of the towns that were sampled. I then head into the lab and can process two individuals’ worth of blood at a time. Typically, around 48 milliliters of blood is collected per individual, and that 48 mls is processed in 4 tubes of 12 mls of blood. It takes between an hour and an hour and a half to process each pair of individuals. The most individuals I’ve done in a day so far has been 11. So for that math… that’s about 528 milliliters of blood processed in 44 “batches” of tubes. It adds up quickly! In total, for the project we’ve process almost 9 liters of blood so far. At times, like when I’m starting my work days at 6 or 7 AM, I wonder if it’s normal to be seeing so much blood so early in the day. And at the end of the days, taking out the waste looks like I’m cleaning up a murder scene. But a clean murder, done in little tubes. I am now working alone in the lab since my boss and the graduate student returned to Chicago. The post-doc, who is based in Santiago, is collecting the blood samples and shipping them to me. However, he’s moving to Chicago at the end of the month so soon it will really be a one woman show.

I am currently living with a couple South of Santiago Central in La Florida. It’s through the WorkAway program, which I did working on the horse farm in the Drakensberg, South Africa a couple of years ago. I live with the two of them, another volunteer from Italy (Aldo), 5 dogs, and a cat. It’s quite hectic! I exchange cleaning up in the kitchen, sweeping, painting fences, gardening, etc. for a bed in a room in the attic. However, due to my incredibly long workdays and hour commute on the metro, I’m sometimes cleaning the kitchen at midnight. I’m still figuring it all out, for now it’s working okay. Ideally, I could also exchange rock climbing guiding but with my gear in Savannah and little time, it’s been difficult to make it happen. We’ll see what happens on whether I find another gig or find a way to make this one work.

There are a few small updates that are probably better described in photos. I went to the coast with my boss and his family for a few days off from bloods. We went to Zapallar and I got to explore the Pacific coast. I saw an island with penguins; I could smell them before I could see them!

I’ve been able to get out and hike in the surrounding foothills – a few times on my own and once with the other WorkAway volunteer, Aldo. We brought bread, avocados, and lemons on the hike for lunch. I needed some convincing that this combination would be good, but it was! All of these hikes showed me just how hot and arid of a climate it is in Santiago. I didn’t realize I was moving to another desert! Aldo made us some Italian pasta after our hike, which as expected, was delicious.

I explored Central Santiago, ate a calzone bigger than my head, and bought a tie dye shirt (because apparently I’m 12) and a good pair of boots. I shipped a box of Darwin’s Frog blood samples on dry ice to New York City as a favor, and another box of DNA and serum samples for the project to Chicago. Both arrived still frozen which was a shock and a relief to me having never sent biological samples from South America. I’ve learned the metro lines and started making new friends, so far everyone I’ve met has been incredibly kind. Barely knowing me, people will offer help with who to call for a reliable Uber, where not to walk at night, which places in town I need to check out, and always the offer to meet up and grab a beer. The language barrier hasn’t been as difficult as I had imagined for two reasons: 1) Lots of people in Santiago speak at least a bit of English and 2) By default from living in a Latin American country, my Spanish is improving.

Looking ahead, most of the month of April will be this insane work schedule as we’re trying to get 300 Chilean individuals sampled in total. I get paid salary, for 40 hours a week, but since there are really heavy sampling times (like now) I work more than that. This means that for example, at the end of April, I can take 1-2 weeks off (paid) to return to Lima and get Savannah. I’ve been in touch with her guardians in Peru, who are my friends, and they’ve been really awesome with giving me updates and assurance that all is well. The Peru-Chile border will likely still be closed by the end of April so it’s looking like I’ll take the long way around to Chile by traveling Peru – Bolivia – Argentina – Chile. It’s about 60 hours of driving, and 20 hours longer than if I could just pass the Peru-Chile border, but it’s definitely doable. I’m beginning to put together a map of the places I’d like to see along the way. I’m really wanting Savannah back in my life, it’s my only familiarity with this whacky lifestyle.

After I bring Savannah to Chile, I will be working in Chicago for a few weeks. We shipped back a liquid nitrogen tank full of the white blood cell samples that we collected so far. Since the Chilean sampling will be done at the end of April, I’ll work on the next steps of the project in the lab in Chicago. This will be challenging the white blood cells that we isolated from the blood samples with different viruses or antigens to gain insight into the immunogenetics of the different populations that were sampled. After a few weeks in Chicago, I’ll then head to Peru for a week to set up the next lab. I’ll train some people there who will later be working on the protocol with me and see what equipment/supplies/reagents need to be ordered. Then I’ll return to Santiago for June (and hopefully have some time to play), then work in Peru for the month of July/August. After that planning is more loose… I’ll probably be in Chicago for the next step with the Peru samples, then back in Chile for a bit, then setting up a lab in Brazil, working in Brazil for a month or so, then maybe back to Santiago for a bit… we’ll see how it all shakes out!

Amidst the excitement of my current job, I’m also looking forward to what’s ahead. After years of trying to find funding for my eDNA project in the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve (Southern Chile), I’m excited, and still in a bit of disbelief, that my project has been funded. I had a few meetings/interviews with professors from the University of Magallanes that have funding available through the university and they have agreed to support the study. For the month of November this year, I’ll be living on Navarino Island in a research station and collecting water samples from the lakes, streams, and rivers, across the island. We will optimize a method to capture environmental DNA (DNA shed from an organism into the environment) and screen for invasive species. For Navarino Island, we will be specifically targeting DNA shed from the invasive mink. Eventually, my dream for this study is to set up a surveillance method for the archipelago of the Cape Horn Biosphere and screen for multiple different invasive species as ecotourism increases. But, you have to walk before you run. After the pilot study in November, and after my appointment with the University of Chicago ends in March 2023, I will move to Navarino Island in my van and continue working with the University of Magallanes for 3-6 months depending on the progress of the project. Stoked is an understatement for how I feel.

I’m currently writing this from the back of a rental car parked at the edge of Embalse el Yeso (Yeso Dam). City life was wearing me down a bit so when I found out I had only a half day of work today (Saturday) and Sunday off, I rented a car and planned to head for the mountains. You can take the girl out of the van but not the van out of the girl, or something like that? I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like to finally be up in these mountains. The lanky, skinny shape of Chile means that even a short 2 hour drive from Santiago puts me up into the Andes just next to the border of Argentina. I’m stunned, in awe, and quietly observing these giant mountains. On the drive up today, I passed glaciers clinging to edges of mountains whose shapes I couldn’t ever have even imagined. I drove along a river that I must raft. My eyes are tracing the ridge lines and peaks wondering what is climbable. There are miles and miles of trails to be walked and places to camp. This evening, I walked up the valley to find a herd of wild horses grazing on the edges. I sat near them for a while trying to wrap my brain around reality; I’m finally here.

Sunday April 3, 2022

Last night I spent some time gazing at the milky way blasting across the sky and reuniting with the Southern constellations. I saw my old pals who are also in the North, like Orion and Ursa Major, but I was excited to see Leo and Hydra again, though I did miss Scorpio. It was freezing cold at night, despite the intense heat during the day. So my star gazing sessions didn’t last too long before I’d dive back into my sleeping bag. I haven’t slept as good as I did last night since I’ve arrived in the city. I guess I’ve grown dependent on silence and stillness at night to be able to sleep well. I had a plan to wake up at the crack of dawn and head to another area for a hike to a glacier, but when the alarm went off I listened to my body to stay. There is no need to rush now. Canceling the alarm, I burrowed back into my sleeping bag and drifted off for a bit.

Instead, I decided to hike to a side canyon I had noticed way up the valley. Having no idea what would be there or how far it was, I gave myself a turn around time of noon and headed out. I visited the wild horses again, giving them a large enough berth not to scare them but close enough to notice their markings and behavior towards each other. Moving farther up the valley I started crossing the streams to get closer to the Western side of the valley where the canyon was. Some stream crossings surprised me being deeper than my knees. The icy glacial water was shocking and refreshing at the same time. The landscape reminded me of an arid Alaska and I wondered if the saying, “if it’s green it goes” (referring to if the slope is green with vegetation you can hike up it) applied here as well. The canyon was farther away than it had appeared from the car but eventually I arrived and was shocked with what I saw – a crazy pyramid shaped peak. I wondered if the ridge had a route up it, or the face. Maybe even a scramble that I could do solo.

The trail up the valley was simply amazing, stunning, breath taking… all of the sensations! I ran/walked for another half hour past my turn around point to see more before giving in to time constraints on when to get the rental car back. I wandered for about 8 miles in the valley and canyon but it felt like only a fraction compared to what my mind had already made up it wanted to explore here. I could see trails that ended at rock faces and I know they must be approach trails to some big climbs. I found my happy place here. My heart feels so full.

Also my favorite band, The Black Keys, just released a new song, “Wild Child,” and I’m really digging it.

One thought on “Long Work Days and Mountain Getaways

  1. Wow! I think I start all my replies with WOW. I can’t even comprehend all that you are doing, Kelly. I am at a loss for words. Amazing, awesome, unreal, exciting, hard … all of the above. Love the pictures! It is a beautiful country and with the Andes right there – I am speechless. I hope you get a lot of chances to enjoy your surroundings and it will be wonderful to get Savannah back, I’m sure. Stay safe Miss Kelly … Love you!
    P.S. Nice calzone !!!


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