it's been a while, although definitely not because of lack of adventure. It was more a lack of time and a loss for words. It was a very important experience, however, so I will try to find both now that I am back in the age of internet.
I got some rough things to tell you, some controversial stuff and anyway I am tired of writing only nice things so here is my honest thoughts. If they make you angry or you have a different opinion, please do share it. Don't just stay angry I am always open for discussion. I am just contributing my own opinions to it. While I am reporting my experiences from Ecuador in a blog that - again - is way too long but you don't have to read it all at once.
Let me start with how to get where I was working, as it helps to give you an idea of what it was like: A six-hour bus ride from Quito there is a small city called Coca which probably owes its whole existence to the fact that it is the closest place to board a boat into the widely untouched rainforest along the Napo river, tributary of the Amazon. The city, therefore shares a certain likeness with cities of the kind known from Europe, like Rotterdam, Kiel, or Hamburg. Although, clearly it is still a little city in the middle of nowhere in the middle of South America, extremely close to the Equator.
There you board a speed boat owned by the same people that own the lodge and the camping site, where we stayed. This means that over time you get to know them all, which is nice and makes the journey so much more enjoyable. Because otherwise the 3-hour (or so, depending a lot on the water level) boat ride is loud and boring and always left me feeling dizzy and lost worse than the average transatlantic flight. And with a good reason too, because once you arrive, where you are supposed to be, the world is about as different from planet Earth as Mars.
It doesn't even feel like you are in some documentary because, as far as I can remember, TV doesn't feel. But the rainforest does. It feels, smells, sounds and looks. It is all around you, full of things that to me are a clear proof that no god can have created all life on Earth, simply because nobody could think up all of this. Insects, above all, exist in all shapes, sizes, and colors and then you almost wish that, instead of birds, you'd be studying insects. But the wish is soon forgotten, as you hear some macaws call above your head and there, for a minute, you get frustrated with the fact that you are in a rainforest because you can't see them through the closed canopy. This is what the rainforest is like, more or less, in two sentences.
After the boat ride on the Napo river, we changed into canoes to get to the camp that was our home for two months. It took the locals about 90 minutes to row us to the camp. The camp was set up as wooden platforms above dry ground. Well, it was dry when it wasn't raining, anyway. That was about 50% of the time. Otherwise it was wet but it was not flooded. The platforms did make it feel a lot safer, though. We even had bathrooms with running water that they pumped up from the river and electricity from a generator which was turned on every night. So not quite as off-grid as you could have expected, however especially the electricity clearly helps with scientific research. There was no internet there, though, which means it was still off-grid enough for my liking.
The people from the local Sani community acted as our guides and cooks, cleaning boys and just anything that could be needed. After I got to know them better, most of all, as friends. It was quite interesting to interact with these people as it took us quite a long time to get to know each other more closely. Of course, they are used to tourists invading their territory for a short period of time and normally they wouldn't bother making friends with them. Only we didn't stay for a short period so after a while we became good friends. And at the same time it all appeared so wrong, us being there. You would expect and indigenous community in the rainforest to live a more traditional life but many of their traditions have long been lost. If you look further into history you will find that they are not even native there. Other peoples used to live along the river and (presumably) the arrival of the Europeans meant that one people was pushed out of the mountains into the lowlands where they partly intermingled, partly forced the natives to leave. It's very difficult when you try to ask the questions what is "natural". A concept that I had to question in my ornithological research as well.
In any case, the Sani people have their own language and after some fighting are also allowed to teach it in their schools. Which is certainly an important step to the conservation of the culture. For the rest, though, the culture is very strongly influenced by western cultures. Everybody speaks Spanish fluently and even the ones that do not work in tourism grow cash crops (coffee, cocoa). Presumably this is much better than receiving money from oil but that may also be a very western concept. I am not quite sure any more what the real difference would be. When I first worked at the coffee finca in Mexico I stupidly thought that all shaded coffee plantations would look like that. I was so, so wrong. They don't there. They are just plantations. Of course, they are small scale and large parts of the rainforest are conserved. But on the other hand, if there are no oil spills, aren't large parts of the forest also conserved when oil is extracted? I don't know the answer to that, only now that I have been there I am wondering…
I was also quite stupid when I thought that our local guides had basically grown up in the middle of the rainforest, paddling those canoes was their favorite pastime as children and living in the tents like we did was their normal life style. And I never asked until the very end. When I learned that most of them had learned to row those canoes specifically in order to work for us (just like we had to learn it), that they considered the camping as very primitive and that, actually, many of them preferred to live in the city - and if only because they could earn money there. Not so surprising after all.
That's my controversial thoughts on the community we worked with. Again, let me make it very clear that I love each and every one of the people we worked with dearly just the way they are. They aren't the problem, it's us...
Before I get to the other controversial thing, let me first talk about nature, as, after all, it is what I came to study. The one thing that completely threw me off was to see how quickly the ecosystem changed. It was a continuous change really. After the first week I though I kind of understood how everything worked, what kind of birds there are, where they are and so on, until, the week after that, everything was different. The water level in the small stream that was our road back to civilization changed several times and by several meters. And it took it about 2 days to rise or fall 3 meters or more. And with the stream also the many marshes, ponds and swamps that were spread out through the forest would grow, shrink, or even disappear for days at a time until the suddenly grew so high that trails could not be passed unless you were ready to have the water in your rubber boots. Coming from a temperate climate where things are a lot more stable this was really hard for me to deal with. I wanted to know which birds there were "normally" but the task of defining "normal" was too big for me. Which, to be honest, was probably the most valuable lesson learned in the end. Just chill and live with it…
I barely need to say that the birds themselves were amazing. Although none as much as the Blue-and-yellow Macaws when the fly by only a short distance away but clearly the whole forest was full of birds of all colors. Although not quite as full as I had expected it to be. Somehow the density of birds in the rainforest was quite disappointing. There were dozens of species, of course. In fact, at only the one place where we were, e-bird records 559 species of birds. Which is just a little more than for Spain as a whole. Which is overwhelming. But you see one of each species, two, maybe three at a time. But even small flocks are normally of mixed species. As if there weren't enough of one species to form a flock. Only little parakeets were often seen in medium sized flocks, that, I believe, consisted of only one species (although it is quite impossible to tell, really). Oh, them and Swallow-tailed Kites. Unfortunately the results of the research I did for two months were mainly questions, no answers…
Finally, I need to write about the youth that visited the site each week to stay for a week. They not only made our research possible but, in the end, were also the reason why we were there in the first place. Basically the research was there to provide an entertainment program for the students (aged 16 to 18). And it was amazing to see how little interest the average 17-year-old that paid a huge amount of money to get the chance to visit the rainforest shows when they get there. Again it took me until the very last days to find out that, probably, they actually were interested they just didn't show it. But in general it became very clear after a very short time that attention spans of most of those kids were just way too short to even start to try and observe anything in nature (quite difficult if you can't keep your mouth shut for more than three minutes at a time). They all had some experiences that did shut them up and I hope these were impressive enough so they will remember their trip for the rest of their lives and, ideally, even so that next time they have to make a decision that could endanger the rainforest they will think about it twice. Which, supposedly is the ultimate goal of the whole enterprise, even though I am not sure if that goal is reached with the majority of those students. Obviously, the ones most impressed by everything they saw were the ones that were interested from the start - the ones that made our jobs worthwhile really. But they were few, unfortunately. I will just never be able to quietly accept that other things could be more interesting to the students while I am holding a bird trying to explain things about it because, really, there is nothing cooler than being able to hold a bird and share a tiny bit of its life. Clearly this concept is way too far away from the lives of high school students from a random city in the richer parts of the world.
Well, and that made me wonder, in how far "real" experiences even matter in a time and age when cyber experiences make up like 90% of all our experiences. Have we lost the ability to value "real"? Or is there such a thing as "real" in the first place? How "real" is an activity in the virtual world, compared to the "real" world?
I mentioned that we didn't have internet and I never noticed how nice that was and how big a factor it was when it came to interpersonal relationships (or trying to teach the students). It was only when we got back to the wifi-world when I noticed how different life suddenly was. How everybody around me was immediately lost in the cyber world and I was the only one left to talk to myself or random strangers in the city. I know now better than ever why I never want to have a smart phone and I am not quite sure what to do with the rest of the world when everybody else has one. Maybe the only solution is to move into a part of the rainforest without wifi. And I know that part of the reason why the experience there was so intense, overwhelming, and went so deep, is that we were not distracted by the digital devices through which we normally live our lives.
Of course, I cannot and will not tell you to get rid of your smartphone. I know it is too big a task. But a good advice I can share is, get some time without it at regular intervals. Try if you are still able to experience the real life. And then look around and feel bad for all those people who can't.