Thursday, February 25, 2010

Far From Home

Antisana Volcano From the Plane

I love the sounds of the jungle at night. The cicadas rub their wings together and create a symphony that crescendos and decrescendos and never lets up until morning. An entirely different movement starts in the morning as the birds awaken. My favourite birdsong is the sound of the oropendola, which resembles a huge drop of water popping, and is unmistakable and unique. Being in the depths of the rainforest is a great gift to me, especially since today we drove deep into Yasuni National Park, a supposedly protected area of the forest, but being extensively drilled for oil. It is one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet, and will unfortunately not survive the onslaught of oil exploration, so I am seeing it before it disappears forever.

River Bird

President Correa proposed at one point that for a fee of hundreds of millions of dollars (paid for by western countries) he would halt development of pristine primary forest in the Ecuadorian Amazon. There was in fact an agreement in process, but ultimately Correa backed down. In essence, to prevent further destruction (oil companies destroy everything they touch), the west would have to pay. The deal is actually good for Ecuador and vital for the world, but the lure of money from oil was too great, and the choice was made to follow through with the drilling, although Pamela, a student who is working with Eric on bats, suggested that the deal may go through to save the forest. There is concern as well that there are tribes of indigenous people in the area to be explored that have never had contact with the west (and do not want to) and that to preserve these cultures, the advance of petroleros would have to stop, but I am not sure that the government cares much. Greed drives human behaviour.

So I feel lucky to be in this remarkable place. Eric was worried that it would be too basic for me, that I am accustomed to Sacha Lodge, which is absolutely wonderful and comfortable, almost luxurious! We are staying at the Universidad Catolica Research Station, where Eric has returned each year to do his research with electric fish. His colleague Rudiger, from McGill, his student Sarah, from Johns Hopkins, Erika, who is Ecuadorian and works for Eric, and her boyfriend Vincent, from McGill, who has a grant to work in Ecuador for six months or so, were all already at Yasuni after a week at Sacha Lodge. Melissa, a colleague from Claremont College in LA, and Pamela, Eric's student from Catolica, as well as my friend Debra, joined Eric and I for the five days we are to stay here. The research station was once a camp for petroleros. It is a collection of charmless concrete dormitories, with a laundry facility and a dining area, and huge lab facilities. Its purpose is to provide a site for research for scientists both from Catolica and from all over the world. Eric and I have a room to ourselves, with a bathroom, warm water in the shower, and air conditioning! This is the first time I have been in the rainforest with air conditioning! It feels sinful!

We are far from home. We flew to Coca (San Fransisco de Orellana), seeing Imbabura and Cayambe and Antisana and Sumaco volcanoes from the plane, caught the Sacha Lodge boat for a two hour ride to Pompeia, a small oil town along the Napo River, and entered 'Repsol' territory (the oil company in charge of exploiting this area south of the Napo) for another two hour ride on the oil company road to the Research Station. Of course it was hot and humid and it takes some adjustment to feel comfortable with sweat pouring down your face, but I have learned not to move too fast and to enjoy the breeze I get as I walk. Debra and Melissa (a colleague of Eric's from Woods Hole who is in Ecuador to do a short sabbatical in Yanayacu where she will study the plain tailed wren that Eric is interested in) and I took a walk along the Tiputini River at dusk, and chased a spider monkey, who appeared to want to show off initially, but then got scared when my camera flashed at him and swung off to safety. I am always surprised at how peaceful and inviting the jungle is. I like being dwarfed by the monstrous trees, the darkness under the canopy, the loud noise of the birds and the insects and the frogs, the feeling of both being alone but also connected to all the activity and the noise around me.

Jungle Flower

Spider Monkey

I am excited to be in a new environment. The jungle is different to the south of the Napo. We will see different species of mammals. There are pink and grey river dolphins in the Tiputini, tapirs and peccaries and jaguars and monkey species I have never seen. A young Huaorani guide will join Debra and Mel and me tomorrow to show us his remarkable forest.

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