Friday, May 6, 2011

¡Gracias por leer! (6)

Hey! Thanks for checking out the last blog post about my junior year abroad.. I've actually been back in the USA for over a week now, so I figured it was high time to wrap up the blog project and move on!

So in the last post I talked a bit about our geology course and one of the cool (and half-naked) excursions we went on.. Turns out we got to do some more cool stuff! For example, we traveled by boat to a bunch of different islands within the Bocas del Toro archipelago and took samples of rocks ranging from 6.9-1.4 million years old. "Taking a sample" basically means that you get to hack like crazy at the rock with geological picks, kinda like the ice picks used in lobotomies, but not exactly. Here's a pic of my friend Jacinto as he prepares to hack a sample out of the rock.

In case you're wondering, the rocks were pretty soft so it's not that daunting to chip away at them.

After taking samples, we cleaned and sorted all the invertebrates that had been inside the rock. It's neat, because you can tell a lot about climates that existed millions of years ago just by looking at the kinds of inverts associated with them. For example, we found corals in our younger samples and not the older samples, which is consistent with corals evolving and spreading in the Caribbean after the isthmus of Panama closed ~3.4 million years ago. Geology = fun fun fun fun

Our last class had an archaeology component in addition to the geo.. And the highlight was definitely a visit we made to a village of Embera Indians, a people proud of their strong cultural heritage and connection to the environment. The idea behind our visit was to learn about their way of life and, in exchange, provide them with funds for their new community center.

Much of our visit was spent learning how to make baskets. It was SO COOL (not kidding). We used dyed palm fiber and thread to construct these sweet little multi-colored baskets. I'd call it weaving, but it wasn't exactly that. Basically you add each new layer of palm fiber on top of the last and stitch them together with lots of little in-and-out connections. F'sho made for a unique "classroom" experience. Here's what my final basket looked like:

my 'lil basket! a little mishappen, but functional

an Embera child and me (plz note my tat)

The Embera also danced for us and made us a traditional lunch of yucca, rice, and chicken (served in a leaf!).. And the lemongrass tea they served was unreal. So delicious. Aand we got these nifty legit-looking-but-actually-temporary tattoos whose ink comes from a seed the Embera collect in the forest. Here's Karen getting her leg done up:


Another cool thing we did was to visit this old Indian burial site somewhere in the heart of Panama. Basically, for the past 5 years archaeologists have been excavating this site, which has produced an incredible array of skeletons, pottery, GOLD, jewelry, and other amazing artifacts. There will be a Nat Geo feature on it coming out in Jan. 2012, so look out for that.

At any rate, we saw the super-pro archaeological site and then did our best to imitate it by starting our own dig nearby. It was actually pretty legitimate, because we used all these fancy tools and had to dig down carefully and systematically. We found a lot of ceramic pieces, pottery, etc. which was exciting. Some EEBers even found some animals bones..! Here's a pic of our little plot after 2 days of digging:

hard at work

some of the boss tools we used

drigo's friend at the archaeology site

a boa that got into our dorm!

Everything that happened after the dig wasn't that exciting.. Papers, exams, etc. And man, when I first got back to the States last week, it felt really weird. The boondocks of Panama to Princeton houseparties weekend is a pretty stark transition. But still it's really, really good to be back and see many of you guys again!

Final Reflections
After a full academic year abroad and the process of growing through a whole slew of new experiences and opportunities, all I can really say is that I feel incredibly blessed by God. I've been so fortunate to have the cultural and language immersion in Europe and then the field biology immersion in Panama, and I'm really grateful for the friends and family (that's YOU ALL) I've been able to share those times with. It's funny, I've just sort of been typing away about my thoughts and doing my thing, but then hearing your responses and comments reminds me that others are thinking about me and have some interest in what I'm doing.. and that's been a wonderful realization that you guys have given me over and over. Thank you for that.

SO, I really appreciate your sticking with me throughout the blog's development. You guys have really been the heart behind this project. Without you, I for sure wouldn't have had the motivation to record what I've been up to. I'll miss traveling & blogging, but at the same time it's satisfying to bring my Estancia en el Extranjero to a close.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

¡Soy arqueólogo! (5)

Well howdy there everyone.. Thanks for checking out the fifth (and, I think, penultimate) blog post detailing my time in Panama.

So we've finished up our stay on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), which is a rain forested-coated a few miles from Gamboa and (I learned recently) the best-studied rain forest in the world. Kinda cool!

If you remember from the last post, I was driving howler monkeys crazy with a big stuffed jaguar:

J-Diddy chilling in the beautiful old-growth forest (with a carpet of purple flowers) on BCI

Our freak-monkeys-out experiment turned out to be a success and was lots of fun. (We basically found that (a) howler monkeys reacted the same way to a 3D and 2D stuffed jag model; and (b) the only difference between the two models was that it took monkeys longer to decide that our flat, 2D model was a "threat" to them.)

While on BCI, I also got to see/film two poison dart frogs mating.. They are so intense! Check it out

I really grew to like a lot of things about BCI. The crazy-about-science attitude, the fridge full of Balboa and Panama beers that was treasured by the whole island, the samba dance parties on the patio, the AMAZING food (no joke), the friendly people, and - of course - the ridiculously cool natural life were all positives.

This is Big Tree. You can't really get a scale for the size here, and you can't even see the top of it in the pic.. But take my word for it: the tree is huge.

The only bad thing about BCI is that it's a small island with no more than 50 people around at a time. Which means the island is a great place to focus on research, but it can also become dangerously boring.. Think about it: it's just you, animals, and a few other researchers.. who you see ALL THE TIME. Even after just 3 weeks, I was ready to get back to the mainland - I can't imagine how people live there for a year!

---------------------------------------next topic------------------------------------------------

Soo right now, we're back in Gamboa, working on our fourth and final course. It's different from the others - focused on geology & archaeology, rather than tropical biology.

Today was pretty exciting. We went out to a few different field sites (ranging from 6-18 million years old) looking for fossilized marine organisms.. We saw a lot of bivalve (oysters, barnacles, clams) fossils, tons of snail shells, and some cool things like shark teeth.

I actually got lucky and made a pretty exciting find - some kind of vertebrate tooth which our prof thought might be from a killer whale. It's a neat fossil because marine mammal teeth are generally much more rare in the fossil record than shark teeth are, since sharks shed their teeth & mammals don't. The prof was excited and wants to send it off to a lab to get tested and stuff. Here's a pic:


But even cooler than the tooth was doing paleontology in our boxers. At our second site, we had to get across this little bay to look at some rock formations, and we were totally unprepared for going for a swim. Our professor, an adventurous Englishman, had no problem wading confidently into the water (fully clothed), and it was so funny to see his reaction to our group's entry into the water. It was like those wildebeest herds on their great migration when they stop at the river to think about the crocodiles and then finally decide to make the plunge. Except for our group that meant that Princeton EEBers - guys and girls alike - started stripping left and right, pulling off shoes, shirts, and pants before making the plunge in underwear.

I happened to be in the water next to our professor and just watched his face morph into a blend of wry humor and mild contempt.

Some memorable quotes from the afternoon:

"What the hell are they doing?" [our prof, watching awestruck as everyone figured out how to get in]

"Is there anything unpleasant in the water?" [me, referring to things like jellyfish, crocodiles, sharks..]
"Just you guys" [prof, still incredulous]

"I bet no one listened to a word he said, since we were all standing around in our underwear the whole time" [girl in our class, referring to our 45-min lecture once we got out of the water, huddled around a 6 million-year-old wall of rock, in minimal clothing]

"Dang it, these white boxers are see-through!" [guy in our class after getting in the water. he held a hand over his sweet spot the rest of our time at the site]

"So people get in their underwear here a lot?" [Our group to our prof]
"Not really, no. Just you all." [Prof]

"Fossils have never been so sexy" [fb status after getting back to Gamboa]

Aaand here's a picture of our motley crew after our wet excursion:


A few final thoughts:

1) We've adopted an adorable kitten who hangs out near our schoolhouse in Gamboa. Its name is Lolly, in honor of our charming EEB departmental rep in Princeton. Some fotos:

Lolly the kitten

2) Today, a 24 oz bottle of insect spray (sent to me by my loving dad) really completed my already-impressive arsenal of poisonous chemicals for combating mosquitos et al.:

Totally absurd quantity of insect repellent
(Note: I just discovered two more bottles not included in the picture. Ostia.)

3) And FINALLY, the Barca pride from last semester definitely hasn't worn off. Why do I bring this up? Because, for the first time in history, FC Barcelona -- the good guys -- and Real Madrid -- the bad guys -- will be facing off FOUR TIMES in the next 18 days, starting this Sat, 4/16. At stake is a lot of glory and bragging rights. First, they'll play each other in the second installment of La Liga action, with Barca trying to maintain its substantial but not unsurmountable 8 point lead in the standings. Second, the two Spanish powerhouses will face off in the final of the Copa del Rey. And third, they'll do battle in the home and away legs of the Champions League semifinals. So the four Clásicos should make for some really exciting action - enjoy!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Una maravilla a un lado y un bosque al otro (4)

Hey! Thanks for checking out blog post #4 from Panama. It's hard to believe, but only 1 more month of Central America before I head back to Princeton. Wild.

Alright so this update picks up over spring break, when I had the pleasure of my parents, brother, and the bro's gf visiting for most of the break. It was great to see them, hang around the city, and even show them a bit of the rain forest. However, the coolest part was definitely crossing the Panama Canal..

Some fun facts:
>The French tried to build the canal first. They attempted to blast through 50 miles of solid rock. They failed.
>U.S. engineers developed a far more elegant solution involving two sets of locks that raise and lower ships across the isthmus, using gravity to move water.
>After its successful completion, the canal was billed as arguably the most impressive engineering feat ever and the 8th wonder of the world.
>In 1928, British adventurer Richard Halliburton - a Princeton grad! - paid a whopping fee of 36 cents and became the first (and only, it's now illegal) human to swim across the canal.
>The Panama Canal uses the same iron locks today as it did when it first opened almost 100 years ago.
>A current expansion project (due to finish in 2014) will allow the canal to handle the ever-larger container ships being built.

For more background on the canal, I recommend checking out my big brother's well-written, informative post here.

Getting back to our crossing: As we embarked, I was really excited to get a better idea of how a ship 3x as long as a football field could be hoisted up and down just by water power. Our trip started out on the Pacific (south) side of the canal, where our passenger boat steamed ahead toward the famous Bridge of the Americas. It was cool seeing (and passing!) all the giant boats patiently waiting their turn to enter into the canal, which saves them roughly 8,000 miles of travel and hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintenance costs by providing a direct conduit between the world's two great oceans.

As we got to the first lock, our guide explained how the immense amount of water in the Chagres river provides the incredible power that raises and lowers the dozens of monstrously big ships that pass through daily. Via vents in the bottom of each lock, water rushes in or out of a lock to move the boats 27 feet vertically in just 8 minutes. That sounds pretty slow, but having seen & experienced it, that's actually a remarkably fast rate!

Our boat shared a lock with a larger ship (the canal obviously tries to maximize the number of vessels that go through), so we were able to observe first-hand how a ship gets through. I'll spare you a detailed explanation of the process, but there's a cool little simulation here.

Some pics from the crossing:

me & the bro

the panama canal is the only place in the world where a ship's captain is required to relinquish control of his vessel.. he has to hand it over to a specially-trained canal pilot. here's the big-shot pilot for our boat, about to board

a big cargo ship coming the other way, 20-some feet above us

the boat we shared a lock with.. notice how close the edges of the boat are to the sides of the lock!

the lock gates are HUGE

Bridge of the Americas

Next topic - our third class is taking place on an island called Barro Colorado, in Gatún Lake. BCI is a sweet place, because there's really great rain forest and a ton of amazing flora & fauna that are super easy to study - they're literally right next to the field station. Our course is focused on the ecology & evolution of predator-prey interactions, and we're working in groups to study predator response in howler monkeys, agoutis, and tungara frogs.

My partner and I chose to study howler monkeys and see how they respond to different jaguar models.. The idea is to see if the monkeys exhibit different anti-predator responses according to the presence or absence of three-dimensionality in a predator stimulus.

Translation? We're scaring the bejeezers out of howler monkeys using a huge stuffed jaguar. As you might imagine, it's really really fun.. Here's the jaguar we've been using to scare the howler monkeys:


We'll also be using a 2-D version of the stuffed jaguar and a flat, rectangle-shaped control to try to see just how good monkey vision is.

I'm not really feeling the writing flow too much today, so I'll spare you some verbage and leave you with neat videos of (a) a devil dance we saw at a festival in Colón; (b) howler monkey alarm call (showing monkey); (c) howler monkey alarm call showing J-Diddy the jaguar; and (d) leaf-cutter ants in Gamboa.. They're all short!

I have really bad luck with uploading videos to, so I've put the videos on youtube.

Devil Dance
Howler Monkey 1
Howler Monkey 2
Leaf cutter ants