Four Countries in a Month

I’m starting to get a bit nervous about my passport… it doesn’t expire until 2024 but I only have two pages left for stamps. This past month I was stamped in and out of four different countries, rapidly taking up the precious real estate I have in the form of pages in my passport.

After my strange night in the hotel near the Marcahuasi Stone Forest, where I had vivid dreams of vortexes and levitating, I made my way back to Lima to drop off the car and then called my uber driver for a lift to the airport. We talked about the possibility of him working for the project in which he would pick up blood samples from the airport and bring them to the lab outside of Lima for me to process. It sounded like a win-win for both of us, me not having to call on different drivers for every delivery and him for scheduled work for the months of the study. We said goodbye at the airport parking lot and made plans to coordinate when I’m back in Lima for the project. It was now time to fly to Costa Rica!

It was a short flight from Lima to Panama City, but there the plane was delayed for about 40 minutes since the cloud coverage was too dense over San Jose to fly in. Groans echoed throughout the cabin, especially after we were told we wouldn’t be able to leave the plane and had to sit and wait for the weather to clear up. I took advantage of the extra time, bought some internet, and worked/planned for a bit before we finally took off. Landing in San Jose was a bit cloudy that evening, but I was surprised about all the fuss over just some big friendly looking cumulus clouds. I checked into my hotel around midnight and coordinated with my “potential-future boss” about meeting in the morning for breakfast at 6:30 am. From there we would be picked up and driven the 3 hours or so to the Capuchin Project in Taboga.

This trip was sort of a follow-up meeting for the job I interviewed for in Germany back in July this year. The purpose of my visit was to see what the field site was like, while my boss toured the reserve for potential future investment in the capuchin projects. After reconnecting over breakfast, we got picked up in a bright orange pickup truck from a guy who works at the reserve. From what I could tell he was a jack of all trades; I learned he worked a lot with negotiations with the university to use the land for research, he served as sort of a guide for visitors, helped fix any electrical or mechanical problem with the houses and vehicles on the reserve, just about everything. He explained the project site to us on our drive. It turned out I had driven the exact same road just in the opposite direction months ago driving through Costa Rica! I was blown away, again, with the lush vegetation and glimpses of volcanos and waterfalls along the route.

For the next week, I sat in on meetings with the administrators to understand the role Max Planck, and therefore potentially me, could have with the Capuchins of Taboga project. We met with some folks from the university in which the land belonged to and discussed how to collaborate on projects all together, some other PIs who represented different (US) institutes, and the students and volunteers working at the field site. It reminded me a bit of the Kalahari, where a bunch of young adults spent 6 months to a year volunteering on a project and living at the field site. Everyone was really kind and I was amazed at the copious amounts of fresh and rich food, which was something lacking in the Kalahari.

We were shown the abandoned, run-down building that could be the future genetics lab. It was amazing. I could imagine what it would be like as a lab after getting a new roof and windows… tons of windows for natural light! We dodged bats flying around the rooms, iguanas leaping through the holes in the roof, and lizards and snakes slithering out of the way as we scoped out the layout. It was helpful to see other buildings that had been renovated (and where we were sleeping in) to imagine that it was indeed possible to restore it to a functional building. The foundation included various rooms so it would even be possible to make one room a sleeping quarters next to the lab rooms! My potentially-future-boss joked that they (her and my current boss, I kinda work for both of them I guess) keep asking me to do some next level crazy task for a “genetics job” and I always seem to say yes. I am pretty stoked about making this one happen!

We went out with the volunteers to meet the capuchins, it was amazing. I have yet to work on a study solely with monkeys but I feel like it’s my destiny since my nickname from my parents growing up was K-monkey (or K-monk for short). I was always hanging off monkey bars, horses, or trees as a kid, then rocks as an adult… so to study monkeys would be cool. I learned that the volunteers can identify each monkey by their face, like a human. For my first time with the monkeys this seemed impossible but with each wrinkle or dark patch of hair someone would point out that gave the individual uniqueness, I could understand how after some period of time you could get to know each monkey. Like oh that’s Larry and that other one is Betty… or something like that. The genetic work I would potentially be doing at the field site would determine relatedness, for example whose kid is whose or who are siblings. We also discussed the potential to start cell lines from noninvasive samples such as scat or urine, which would be pretty neat too. In one of the renovated buildings, there’s a hormone lab where they’re processing urine samples. It was awesome to see the renovation, and even more inspiration for the genetics lab.

We’d occasionally get to ride in an old Jeep named Blue Steel. The thing was a tank and the perfect car for romping through muddy roads. On one occasion, on our way to dinner at a place that served fresh caught fish, we crossed through a river where it stalled. The two Costa Rican researchers worked on getting it started again as us four other researchers picked up our feet as water was rushing into the back. Somehow, despite the steam billowing out from under the hood as the water ran over the engine, it started back up and carried us out of the river. I’d love to own a beast of a jeep like that one someday.

We took a day off to explore a local waterfall. It rained the entire time and we were soaked to the bone but it was absolutely stunning. The blue hue of the water is caused by aluminosilicate. The particle size of this compound is really big so it reflects more light causing the water to appear bright blue, or something like that. We saw signs for tarpars in the area but unfortunately did not see any. After the hike we visited a massive tree that apparently was inspiration for the Avatar villages and enjoyed some pork kabobs, then coffee.

My time went by quickly at the field site and it wasn’t until I was packing my bag in our shared room that I told my boss I’d take the job in Germany. So my plan now, after all the paperwork is complete, is to move to Germany in August of 2023. It’s still a bit of time away, but I already know that I will not be done traveling in South America by then. My plan is to find a place to leave Savannah somewhere down here, in South America, while I work from Germany for two years. I heard Paraguay is easy to get a residency if you just move a bit of money into one of their banks… we’ll see.

I flew back to Panama City and spotted a campsite on a spit of land that Savannah was parked at back in December. Then hopped on another plane to Lima, Peru, and saw yet another coastal campsite spent on my way down to Chile.

I was trying to keep the costs of flights separate for each job/project so I landed in Lima, collected my bag and then tried to recheck in for my flight to Santiago. Apparently it was too early (about 10 hours before my flight) so I slept on a bench in the airport for the night. I felt like a turtle sleeping stretched out on a bench with my duffel bag worn as a backpack to keep it safe. Pulling my buff up over my eyes served as a sleeping mask and I was actually able to catch some sleep before the morning. I had a slight issue checking in to the flight since I didn’t have a flight out of Chile and apparently Sky airlines requires this. The only proof I had that my vehicle was in Chile was a receipt that stating that I didn’t claim anything like plant or animal products from the land border near Puerto Varas in which I crossed back in October. Somehow this worked (though actually did not prove at all that I crossed with my own vehicle) and I was able to board the flight.

I spent two days in Santiago and rang in my 31st lap around the sun with a party at my friend’s hostel. I made him promise he wouldn’t tell anyone it was my birthday and that the celebration was just because, but word got out and it still ended up being really great. Old friends and new friends from all over the world ate well, drank wine, and stayed up late to enjoy the night. I made a friend from Canada and we went to a mall earlier in the day to shop for some things we needed during our travels, then we ate at an Ikea which was a new experience for me. I also met people from France who were going to see the Arctic Monkeys (!!), though I unfortunately could not get tickets in time to go too. And I met some new friends from Germany and the US. It was a good night 😊

The next day I took an overnight bus down to Puerto Varas to return to Mari Mari Ecolodge where I had parked Savannah. I met a new volunteer for the farm there that morning and was greeted with a big hug from Marco and Kristina, who are my friends at Mari Mari. I slept so good that night back in my van, despite the howling wind off the sea and rain slamming the roof. The next few days I spent getting the horse therapy I always crave. I spent time with a younger horse, Joya, and worked with her a bit introducing her to the ocean and the apparently very scary waves. A new mare also arrived at the farm and I was able to work with her for a bit; she’s a very cool horse and reminds me of my old horse Daisy.

I met some new friends at the farm as well and had some of the deepest, purest laughs I’ve had in a while. I joke that when I truly laugh it sounds a bit like a hyena and I definitely had some of those with this visit. There was another French workaway volunteer there during my time and we had similar Spanish vocabulary, so we understood each other perfectly. We rode the horses together, hiked with the dogs, and got pretty tipsy off cheap beer around a fire on my last night and shared so many laughs. I made friends with another Chilean guy and the three of us hung out quite a bit on my last few days. At one point, we hiked to a mirador (lookout) for sunset and after arriving there we found out everyone was meeting at a different beach with some beers and we should come. The Chilean guy said we should stay and watch the sunset, despite the motivation the French guy had to get to these beers (it’s pretty dry at Mari Mari). After about 5 minutes, where the Chilean guy was facing away from the sunset and talking to me, the French guy had an outburst of (translated) “Are you watching the sunset or the girl?” He replied with “both” and I couldn’t help but laugh during our walk to the other beach. We shared beers and laughs and stories about the stars, it was the perfect last night.

The next morning I left the farm, after saying goodbye/see you soon to everyone over breakfast. I feel so fortunate to have found such amazing friendships, especially with Marco and having an open-ended invite back to the farm. I hope I will be back someday.

I drove North to Osorno and eventually found a mechanic who could change my air filter. Since it was Saturday, the Ford dealerships were closed. I ended up finding a local mechanic and chatted with them for about an hour after they asked if I really did drive from New York. The old air filter was gross and I’m so thankful for a new one (thanks Will!!). I camped near the border and rested for a bit since I think I’m a bit sick from working in the rain at the farm. Then, I crossed back into Argentina and I find it so amazing how easy border crossings are down here!

I wrote this from a pulloff on the side of a lake on the 7 lakes route. It was so nice, I had to drive it twice, I guess. I’m currently back in San Martin de los Andes with old friends and new adventures. I’m unsure what my future work schedule looks like (in Peru and Brazil), so until then I’ll be hanging around the border and hiking to some cool spots in Argentina.

Updated campsites here!

Song blasting from Savannah’s windows lately: The Valley of the Pagans – Gorillaz and Beck

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