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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Monkey Business

ECUADOR | Thursday, 21 June 2012 | Views [1100]

The end of a transect, a beautiful spot with bent bamboo trees hovering over like a canopy.

The end of a transect, a beautiful spot with bent bamboo trees hovering over like a canopy.

After two weeks in Quito, I headed to Puerto Lopez where my volunteer project is located.  It was a 12-hour bus ride from Quito to Puerto Lopez; Maria woke up at 4:30 AM to cook breakfast for me so I could be collected at 5:30 AM.  She also gave me a bracelet of wood beads to "protect" me, such a sweetheart!

The long bus ride sounded uninviting, but I was used to it by now.  I was more worried about security; every guidebook or travel website I read warned about thieves on the buses who cut through backpacks placed on the floor to steal cash and passports.  The driver who took me to the bus station warned me to keep my backpack on my lap and not on the floor or above on the luggage rack, which I did for the entire trip.  The bus made a few stops within Quito and then headed onto the highway; it stopped a few more times in major towns, for lunch, and to refill petrol.  At every stop, vendors would board the bus to sell snacks or drinks; at the major bus terminals, they would also sell hot food like chicken with chips in a bowl.  At one stretch of the road, several vendors boarded with trays of freshly baked pastries; when I looked out the window, I saw vendors on the side of the road with an oven hooked up to a propane tank, that was where they baked the pastries!  At times the vendors were on the bus for several kilometers before alighting, so they were a long way from where they started; I wondered if they walked back or hitched a ride back somehow?  In any case, it was eye opening.

My bus arrived Puerto Lopez at 7:30 PM.  From my map, I knew the volunteer house was close by, so I walked there while carrying about 18 kg of luggage, and was a bit lost.  Two very nice locals helped me out, even though we could barely communicate in Spanish (lessons not paying off yet!)  When I finally found the house, I was greeted by three volunteers and the local coordinator who also lives in the house.  The three volunteers have been here for a month and would leave in a few days, so I was the first of the new batch to arrive.  

The house turned out to be much larger and "grander" than expected again (I keep my expectation low).  There is a wooden gate that opens to the street; once inside, there is a large courtyard first, and then the house is situated a bit farther back.  The house has two floors; bottom is a large kitchen, a dining room that doubles as the common/working area, utility area to store diving gear, and then a lot of room with a few desks and chairs.  Upper level has four bedrooms, two bathrooms (only one has a hot water shower), and a front balcony that looks down into the courtyard.  There are usually no more than 4 volunteers at one time, so I have a bedroom all to myself.  The house has high, vaulted ceilings; the walls to the upstair rooms don't go all the way to the ceiling though, they are more like "partitions", thus I can hear sounds from all the rooms.  The whole house has wood floors that are quite old and worn, so they creak a lot when walked on.  There is no air conditioning, so the doors and windows are frequently opened (there are nets and screen doors, must keep the mosquitoes out).  Overall it's a comfortable house compared to the others in town.

On my first working day, Monday, a "tortugas captures"(turtle capture) was scheduled.  I was really just a bystander since I haven't even had an orientation yet.  There will be many more to come in the upcoming weeks so will expand in a later story.  Afterwards, we had lunch at a local restaurant (a hamburger cost $2, so food is quite cheap) and the coordinator asked if it would be OK if I spent the next few days "in the forest" on another project counting monkeys.  Huh???  I have been in Pto Lopez no more than 24 hours and they wanted to put me back on the bus!  I was told the bus ride would be just over an hour, and the project is for a Masters student from Europe whose thesis is about the population and habitat of howlering and capuchin monkeys in the Pacoche forest, a tropical rainforest with lush vegetation, large variety of birds, and of course, monkeys.  The other volunteers had spent the previous week there and said it was interesting and not bad, plus the accommodation was like a 5-star hotel by Ecuador's standards.  I rather not board a bus so soon again but figured I have 8 weeks in Pto Lopez, so what's a few days in the forest.  

By 3:30 PM, I was on a bus again heading north to the small coastal town San Lorenzo.  The bus arrived at 5 and I was greeted by Laura, the masters student.  She is Spanish and going to university in the UK, and has lived in Ecuador for two months now while gathering data for her thesis.  Her accommodation was indeed stunning by Ecuador's standards; her "hotel room" was a 2-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen, large living room and dining room, and right outside is a swimming pool.  The beach is just steps away.  She told me even though the place is pricey, she wouldn't live anywhere else because she was robbed twice at the last place she stayed and all her research equipment plus many personal belongings were stolen!  This hotel, meanwhile, has 24-hour security and an electric fence all the way around (very typical of "nicer" homes and lodgings in all of Ecuador, and also in Mozambique; security guard is a popular job!)

Over dinner, she explained to me her thesis, her data gathering methods, and what we would be doing the next morning.  With support from  the Envrionment Ministry, she has created and measured over a dozen transects in the Pacoche reserve, each about 1 km long, where she has trekked daily to gather data on the monkeys; her goal is to walk at least each transect four times, and she'll need at least 40 sightings in order to analyze the data or they're null.  I was really quite impressed with everything she had prepared and captured so far; I can only imagine how difficult it is to work with an Ecuadorian government agency, and she seemed to have figure out a way (being charming and smart doesn't hurt).

We left her place by 7:15 AM on Tuesday to catch the local bus, which took us close to the start of one of her transects.  The first day proved to be the longest working day for us; we walked four transects, three of which we also walked to get from one to the next, with a very steep and long hill on the last one, right at noon when the sun peeked through the clouds and shone mercilessly on us.  In total we trekked about 6 hours, and encountered four groups of howler monkeys.  We were so tired we took a siesta upon returning to her place.

The next day we trekked three transects, which we finished in under four hours.  One group of monkeys was quite threatened by us; the dominant male of the group broke a branch and threw it at us to scare us, all the way howling loudly (there were a few baby monkeys in the group so it made sense).  In the afternoon, we took the "communitidad" (a small pickup truck that acts as public transit, with benches installed in the bed and an extra row in the cabin) to Manta, a relatively large town about 30 minutes north of San Lorenzo.  We went there because Laura needed to use a computer at an internet cafe to work on a presentation that she was supposed to give to the Environment Ministry the following day (but which was cancelled the next morning); moreover, one of her friends was giving a piano concert that evening, so together they were good reasons to head to the "big city" (didn't hurt that Laura's boyfriend lives in Manta so any excuse for her to visit!)  I was glad I got to visit with her instead of on my own at a later time; Manta turned out to be very spread out, would have been difficult to walk around, but now instead I was driven around in Laura's boyfriend's car.  They took me to a nice cafe for local specialty desserts, and then to the beach for a short stroll.  That evening, we attended her friend's piano concert (nice turnout, always impressed when people dress up and turn out for performing arts events), and spent the night at her boyfriend's family home (a gorgeous home on a hill, and of course in a gated area with 24-hour security guards and an electric fence surrounding the perimeter).

The following day, we left Manta early to take the bus back to San Lorenzo, prepared ourselves, and trekked another three transects, finishing within three hours (only a single monkey sighting at the end).  The Pacoche reserve is quite large and full of life; trees covered most of the land, mostly bamboo and palm trees, although there are bare spots where locals have chopped the trees down for wood.  Everywhere we were, there was a wonderful symphony of birds singing, crickets chirping, and (if lucky) monkeys howling.  I saw two woodpeckers in action (what a wonderful sound they make when drilling into the wood), plus Laura lulled a tarantula out of its hole to show me (I've learned they are not venomous, although that does not make them less scary-looking).  

I left Manta in the afternoon to head back to San Lorenzo since Laura was leaving for a long weekend.  She will be here for another month, so time is running out for her to finish data gathering.  Glad I was on some helped to add a few more sightings plus transects trekked, although my biggest contribution was the luck I brought in waiting for public transit; she had waited up to 1.5 hours before for a bus (this is Ecuador so buses run whenever they feel like it), but while I was there, we never waited more than 15 minutes, it was a record for her!

Tags: forest, howler monkey, laura, pacoche, puerto lopez, turtle capture

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