So much to Explore

A new chapter of my Panama life began when I moved from the crazy bustling city that I grew to love out to the peaceful jungle town, Gamboa. However, the day after I moved in, I had a mini vacation out to the beach town, Santa Catalina and up to the mountains in Boquete. In Santa Catalina we surfed one day and went on an amazing snorkeling tour around the island, Coiba which is not too far from the Galapagos! We swam with sharks and hundreds of rays and there were so many cool fish and corals, it was spectacular. Then we headed up to Boquete for some waterfalls, hot springs and the most fireflies I have ever seen in my life—it was magical. Walking down the street at night, the edges of the road and trees were lit up with thousands of twinkling fireflies, I will never forget that walk.

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Of course, being Panama, getting back from Boquete was a major struggle involving a 2 hour walk in the middle of the night, a very nice family offering a ride to the bus station, missing the bus, and finally making the 8 hour trip back over night to arrive in the city only 2 hours before I needed to collect my snail samples. I cannot explain how difficult it is to get around here and how bad the traffic can be, it is unreal! But I am so grateful for the buses and how there is a way to get pretty much everywhere in Panama by bus no matter how long it takes!

Boquete:

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I then returned back to my new home and explored the jungle there a bit (monkeys, agouties, koaties, sloths, frogs, fireflies!) and met some of the other interns who live and work in Gamboa. Although it is a little crazy getting to and from work now (2 hour commute each way between transferring buses, even though it’s only a 30 minute drive without traffic), it is worth it to come back to the night time noises of the jungle (I’m listening to the frogs, crickets, and other insect choruses right now) and my wonderful roommates. Although stressful at times, it’s been good to get a different view of living in Panama and meet some more amazing people.

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In other news, I started taking Salsa classes and I LOVE it. First there’s a class for a few hours and then we go up to the roof top of the Hard Rock Hotel where there’s a live salsa band and all of the city lights surrounding below. Also, so many amazing dancers come here every week so it is so much fun just to watch them, and I have learned so much more from going! It is the best, I will definitely miss this back in the states but I hope I can find a place to take more classes. Night life may be the best thing about Panama City– there are so many options on things to do, so many fun people, music all the time, and it’s always warm outside.

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More pictures!

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Bio Week: Snail DNA and Tropical Birds

Something new and exciting that I did at work this week was preparing samples for DNA sequencing! It was interesting for me to be a small part of this process because it is a side of biology that I have never been involved in before and find very interesting. All I had to do was choose the snail samples I need to sequence- combinations of large eggs in small masses, small eggs in large masses, etc- and put a small drop of about 20 live snail larvae in a buffer solution. Then we will send this off to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. to sequence the DNA for us. In the end, the relevance of all of the field work and sediment data I am analyzing will depend on the results of the DNA analysis. So it’s really the most important part of my project! The DNA analysis will tell us how many different species of snails I have been collecting and then I can determine whether they have different habitats and how the structure of their egg masses and larval development are different. Or if there is only one species, I hope to describe how they develop differently during the dry season and whether the snails that lay larger larvae are also in different microhabitats. This project will be a piece of a larger study on how seasonal variation (temperature, salinity, nutrient availability, etc) can affect sea snail development. In a time with such dramatic climate and other environmental changes, studies such as this are very important in determining exactly how small environmental changes affect species.

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This has been a very sciency week, but I have loved it! My lab manager is the most wonderful woman who was a bird biologist for about 10 years before working in my lab, so this weekend we went out bird watching. We went to Pipeline Road in Gamboa which is only about half an hour away and is one of the best places in Panama to look for birds. We went with her family and another friend in my lab and saw so many amazing birds. It was so nice to go with someone who knows the forest and bird species here so well because there’s no way I would have been able to recognize or spot these birds on my own. She can recognize many of these species, even ones that are very similar, by their call alone! We also climbed a tower to see the entire forest canopy and trees scattered with howler monkeys, and went to a spot filled with humming birds (and humming bird feeders). The forests here are so alive with vines, monkeys, birds, flowers, leaf cutter ants, the list goes on. I can’t wait to move out here to the jungle in a week!

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Other exciting news is I found out this week that I received the Soka’piiwa Scholarship through the College of Forestry and Conservation. This will be so helpful for this project that I am doing here in Panama and I would like to thank the donors of this scholarship and everyone else who has helped me get here. This has been the most amazing experience that I have learned so much from and I could not be here without you!

Thoughts on Conservation

This week I went out to Barro Colorado Island (BCI) to listen to a presentation on a bird project. BCI is a small island in the Panama Canal that has been studied and monitored by the Smithsonian since 1946. It is also very close to Gamboa where I live now and for only $4 (for Smithsonian workers) you get a boat ride out to the island and a wonderful meal! The island is covered in jungle with many critters inside including ocelots, toucans, and so many Tungara frogs- I hope I can come back and explore here.

The talk this week was on forest falcons in the Amazon. In their study area sadly much of the old growth forest is being cut down so the elusive falcons are disappearing. For this project, they are tracking these falcons, setting up a conservation program with the local communities, and educating children about forest conservation. This is exactly the type of work I want to do and it was wonderful to see this being done in South America and meet the woman who started it. Because I work with falcons and other raptors in Wyoming, I am hoping that maybe one day I can work on a project like this here in Latin America.

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photo credit: Erlend Knutsen

Throughout my time here in Panama, I have really grown to love this country- full of incredibly kind and lively people, surrounded by beautiful rainforests and beaches—but something that really bothers me is the amount of trash everywhere. It’s so sad because Panama is so beautiful but the pollution from trash it is terrible for the animals, pollutes the water, and actually detours people from visiting here. So I have come up with 2 ideas that I will seriously consider working on if I decide to come back to work here. One is working with grocery stores to sell inexpensive reusable bags rather than plastic bags. With the amount of travel on buses people do here and walking from the store, reusable bags are so much easier and better than plastic bags, yet every store here insists on double bagging and automatically putting everything in plastic bags no matter the size. And my favorite animals, sea turtles, mistake plastic bags for food (jellyfish). Another thing is reusable water bottles and Camelbaks—they basically do not exist here! So of course everyone uses plastic water bottles. But some of my Panamanian friends have asked me where they could get a Camelbak or reusable water bottle and were shocked at how inexpensive they are. Starting in small towns such as El Valle and working my way up, cutting down on plastic bags and water bottles would help reduce so much of the trash in Panama. I really believe that cleaning up this country would of course help the environment but also the economy through tourism. Panama is so special and needs to be recognized and protected as the gem that it is.

Here is a somewhat random compilation of pictures from this week:

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Snail Sampling!

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Above: Skinny little puppy on the beach that I wanted so badly to adopt 😦

Below: Concert by Cuban artist during Cumbre de las Americas, and city nights

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Sandy Science and the Glorious El Valle

Here’s an odd question, have you ever looked at sand under a microscope? If not, I will tell you that it is a beautiful mosaic of colorful crystals, tiny rocks, bits of shells, and in my samples, baby snails. This week at work I began going through my sediment samples which are just small tubes filled with sand/mud I collected from beneath the snail egg masses. I am going to separate the sediment into 4 sizes using sieves in order to figure out what type of sand my snails are laying their eggs in on the beach. This will help me develop a better idea of what microhabitat, or specific habitat type, that each snail is occupying. Later I will be able to see if the snails with different characteristics also have different habitats. This will be another way to help determine if the snails I am studying are different species or not. However, this entails a very long process of sifting tiny amounts of sand and mud, drying them, weighing them, and calculating the percentage of each size in each sample—for 250 samples. It will take some time but that’s what I’m here for! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIMG_9456

This weekend my adventure buddies were off getting scuba licenses and other cool things so I decided to take my first solo Pananma trek to El Valle de Anton. El Valle is a beautiful town nestled in the crater of a volcano and surrounded by a cloud forest, waterfalls, sloths (supposedly) and mountains. And it’s the easiest 2.5 hour bus ride from the city. I only planned to stay for the day but as soon as I arrived and looked around at the breathtaking scenery, I immediately asked where a hostel was and booked a room at Hostel Bodhi. It is the cutest hostel with the most friendly people, I could not have imagined better.

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That afternoon I went on a beautiful hike along the ridge of the mountain named La India Dormida (Sleeping Indian) where I could see the whole town and mountains everywhere- I could even see the ocean in the distance! I also accidentally followed a trail onto someone’s little farm with banana trees and and a tiny shack. Some people along this trail were carrying big baskets on their backs and walking up the mountain to their home on the other side. I’ve almost always found that taking the wrong trail turns out to be way better than taking the right one. It was so cool to see how the people live on this mountain and everyone I passed was so friendly – one person even gave me an orange to eat along the way.

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Once I wound down the mountain I ended up at a waterfall and went swimming-the water here felt so refreshing. This is a place I have to take my friends to, they will love it! And there’s a cloud forest I must explore next time. It was a great first overnight by myself here and although it is more fun with friends, there is something to be said about going alone too. I feel more confident now traveling around Panama and figuring out the sometimes crazy buses. It was a wonderful adventure, El Valle is a treasure of Panama.

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Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a Caribbean island paradise and 4 of my friends and I had the great fortune to visit it for the weekend! One of our friends that we went with is actually from the island which was perfect. And I will say again, it was by far the best weekend in Panama and one of the best of my life. So I know that in these blogs I mostly focus on the weekends but that’s when all the adventure happens! It’s not that I don’t love work, but that is more daily life and I am subtly learning new things every day- I would describe it as a much slower paced adventure but equally as important.

So back to Bocas. After jumping on the super cold midnight double-decker bus (Panamanians love air conditioning) and taking a mostly dark but after sunrise extremely beautiful 11 hour jungle ride up to the dock to Bocas, we caught a boat over to the main island. The 20 minute boat ride gave us a view of all the little islands surrounded by mangroves and crystal clear blue Caribbean water. We had found paradise. After wandering for a bit and eating the best tacos from Taco Surf, we decided to stay at a hostel called Mondo Taitu, filled with graffiti, crazy colorful paintings, pancakes, and very fun people. After dropping our stuff off, we headed out to the beach. We took a dollar water taxi over to a beach that was exactly like the island that Jack Sparrow got stuck on in Pirates of the Caribbean (probably because we actually were in the Caribbean). Except this one had little huts, a restaurant and dock, and surfers. So we played in the water and then found a sunny spot on the white sand surrounded by coconut trees and fell asleep for awhile. When we woke up, we broke open some coconuts to drink and then headed back to town for dinner and a night of dancing at a bar on the water called La Iguana

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The next day we went over to the beach and a restaurant on the beach where our friend worked in high school, and watched a surf competition. There were three famale competitors which was really cool to see and a bunch of very young and talented local surfers. I want to find a way to live and work near a place where I can surf, that would be my version of paradise. To conclude the day,  we had another fantastic night dancing at a bar called Aqua Lounge which was mostly made of a giant deck over the water. It also had a huge hole in the deck with a slackline and 2 swings over the water, so of course we jumped in and gave our best shot at slacklining before we left.

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Our last day was perfect but also so sad because we had to leave. Our friend who grew up there and his little brothers brought all their surf boards to the beach in the morning for us to use—I was finally able to stand up and control a short board! Proud moment for me. Then we took our friends boat over to his house to have lunch. His house is hands down the most beautiful house I have ever seen. It is literally on the bright blue water surrounded by mangroves and palm trees and is painted yellow with a grass roof. We snorkeled around his house which had so many coole sponges and corals and tropical fish everywhere, we even saw a little ray! And his mom cooked the most amazing meal of yucca with a special sauce, rice, meat (for everyone else) and coconut water. It was amazing and so special to meet his wonderful family.

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Sadly we had to catch the bus back to the city but then the most coincidental and awesome thing happened. I sat next to a girl from Australia who kindly shared her sleeping back with me because no joke the bus is so cold. But that wasn’t even the greatest thing. So she came to Panama to work on a sailboat and was headed there on the bus. We started talking about Canada and discovered that we had taken the same road trip from a little town called Whitefish, Montana up to Fernie, Canada and both ran out of gas at the same time and followed a long dirt road to a seemingly abandoned gas station. There, we both met Thad, a big burley Montana man with an eyepatch. Although he looked a little intimidating at first, he turned out to be so nice and helped us both out with our car issues and sent us on our way with smiles and a great story to tell. I have run into so many people in Panama that I have met before but this was incredible. These are the little things in life that make you realize how small the world really is and that even the smallest act of kindness can go a long way- literally around the world

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Beautiful beginnings and endings

I had now been in this concrete/actual jungle for forty days and forty nights.  And last weekend was my birthday! (clearly I’m a little behind, my birthday was Feb 26). Friday was a fantastic celebration with feather masks and dancing and no sleeping until all of Saturday. It also served as a great bonding time for my little family here in “La Jaula” (that’s the unofficial name of my apartment; it means “the cage” in Spanish. Because it’s surrounded by jail like bars but I love it anyway). Before my birthday I did a little reflecting on my year and have concluded that it has been amazing. I had some of the best and worst times of my life this past year and it has definitely been one of the most impressionable years I have ever had. I feel as if I have learned so much and I am so grateful for my family and friends and for where I am –at university in Montana, an awesome summer job in Wyoming, and of course working here in Panama. 20150226_19362420150226_21162120150228_02001420150226_193705 To conclude the weekend, I took a peaceful little solo trip near Gamboa to go for a hike. I ended up at a little zoo called Summit on accident but it was nice to see, especially because they do some rehabilitation and conservation work. Then I took a stroll through the forest and happened upon some capuchin monkeys- a mom and baby. The mom was not happy that I was there and kept shaking branches and glaring at me until I left. The trail had little signs along the way with beautiful nature quotes in Spanish and nice paintings. It was so nice to see that this random small trail had so much character and care that someone put in to help others take the time to appreciate their surroundings- and see how important they are to protect. I’m going to miss little things like that. In Panama there is a clear mix with the old and new, the old ways seem to be slowly taken over my modernization but I hope that some things, such as this unique little trail, are kept old.

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To the Beach! and things

Attempt to catch up to real life: The week after Carnival everything at work started becoming routine. I was collecting samples every two weeks, measuring and taking photos, working on my paper and helping out around the lab. I feel like this is my home and I will be here forever! I cannot imagine leaving. Once again, it has been the best weekend so far. Friday night was a friend’s birthday out in the rainforest town, Gamboa. It was full of good food and drinks and wonderful people. And at the end of the night, an adventure through the forest up to a tower to watch the stars and look out over the mysterious darkness of the rainforest and the twinkling lights reflected in the water of the Canal.20150322_084050

Saturday two of my friends and I decided we should go back to the beach. We slowly got up in the morning and headed out – I had to go into lab first but then we were off! We ended up somewhere else than we expected but it turned out to be the perfect spot. It was called Playa El Palmar and it had warm (maybe kind of burning) sand, nice waves for surfing(!), a little outdoor bar, a restaurant and a small hotel. And the people working there turned out to be really fun and interesting too, so we made some new friends. That night the tide was far out so we strolled along the beach and watched the stars reflected in the wet sand and took a baby swim in the warm water. It was beautiful and so peaceful.

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The next day I finally got to go surfing! It turns out I was not as bad as I expected to be after so long and actually managed to ride the waves (they were perfect for beginners). Also -something I now listen for every time I go in the ocean- the sand and rocks beneath the gently moving waves make the most magical sound that is kind of like a rain stick but really best described as unicorn glitter. Of course the bus back to the city was an adventure in its self. They were actually playing great music with music videos on a screen precariously set in front of the driver so he could watch it at any time.. And I met a nice old Panamanian man who told me all about the U.S. Virgin Islands and taxi driving in New York versus Panama. He told me that it was very important to him that my friends and I have a wonderful time in Panama and gave me a key chain that he normally sells to remember him by. I love the random people you meet on buses, always so unique but also sincerely kind.20150225_174955 From the market down the street, all for $5!

Carnival!

This week was Carnival! In Latin America, Carnival is a huge celebration that lasts 5 days and ends on Tuesday of Mardi Gras. It is a celebration before Lent and is a time for everyone to leave the city, dress up in bright colors and paint, throw water everywhere, and relax. The whole week my friends and I were planning to leave the city to go to one of the celebrations out of town that are much bigger, but when it came down to it, the traffic out of the city anywhere was insane. And without any advanced planning, we would not have found anywhere to stay—risk setting up a hammock and maybe getting robbed? Tempting but we decided not to. So we stayed in the city and it turned out to also have a beautiful celebration. The first two nights were filled with late night dancing in streets full of food vendors and every personality type imaginable. The music was always reggaeton and DJ pop remixes which are great for dancing no matter how many times a different version of the same song plays in an hour.

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For the relaxing part of Carnival, two of my friends and I decided to get out of the city and go to the beach! Because it was carnival weekend, the 1 hour bus ride turned into 3 hours but we finally made it and it was wonderful. The sand was oddly black and especially sparkly and the water was so warm. It was such a carefree and perfect day, I could not have asked for better. The bus ride home was on another Diablo Rojo, this time with all green lighting, and we sat on the floor for the much shorter ride home.

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mmm patacones and nachos 🙂

Finally, on the last day of Carnival, the biggest celebration began in the city where they brought out the parade with all of the floats and Carnival princesses and queens. It was spectacular. The floats they made were insanely decorated and the girls smiling, waving and dancing on the floats had some major endurance to be up there in 4 inch heels for hours at a time. And there were even some cross dressed queens! That was great to see and super progressive for Panama. Most of the floats represented a different ethnic group in Panama and each one had something unique to that culture. The streets were full of people dressed in costumes, the floats were covered in glitter and the gorgeous queens had on huge feather dresses followed by a stream of drummers, dancers, and people dressed as devils. It was a beautiful sight, I wish I could be in Latin America for every Carnival. Or maybe we can bring Carnival to Montana? It’s worth a shot 🙂

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Panama has been so up and down for me but I absolutely love it here. There are days I am so frustrated and just want to leave everything and set up camp on a far off Caribbean beach, but then I realize how blessed I am to be here and the amazing little family that I have here. Although I spend a majority of my time indoors in the lab and am not playing on the beach or in the jungle for the entirety of my internship, I have learned so much from the people I have met here and that alone is priceless. I could not wish for anything better and I want to thank the people who helped me get here in the first place, and everyone in Panama who has made my time here so special.

Jungle Time

My third weekend in Panama seemed like a fine time to go on a rainforest adventure, even if everyone else was busy and I would be trekking alone. So I went over to the bust station and after a difficult time figuring out where the bus actually was, I was on my way…so I hoped. I didn’t really know where I was going but I knew to get off about an hour down the road in a place called Gamboa. Now the buses that run outside of the city here are nothing like you would expect. They are so much more awesome! They are called Diablo Rojos (Red Devils) and are actually old American school buses that are all painted with bright colors and beautiful artwork that often depicts where the bus goes. My bus even had blue and red tassels hanging off the side and they all play great music that’s usually a DJ mix of reggaeton.  After some worrying when almost everyone got off the bus and it was just me and one other person, I finally arrived in Gamboa. The hour long bus ride was only 50 cents! I started to feel like I was becoming a local.

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And then I realized I had no idea where anything was and that Gamboa was a very small town with no signs or stores or really anything to point me in any direction.  So I began to wander. I walked back and forth a couple times up and down a few streets until I happened upon a mysterious set of ancient looking stairs that led straight into the jungle.  I spotted them from across a field that was below a huge hill covered in luscious jungle. Naturally I had to know where these stairs went. Immediately upon climbing them, I saw two toucans and heard so many more exotic sounds. This was a great decision. The stairs went straight up for a ways, and then ended at a water tank and a road! Who knew, maybe they weren’t so ancient after all. However, this road clearly hadn’t been driven on for years and it lead through beautiful jungle full of trees, vines, huge leaves, and amazing views. I saw a group of coatis and so many toucans- they just keep coming- and a bunch of other beautiful birds.

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To my surprise the road ended at a little zoo! Everything was closed but there were people around and a huge beautiful lake. I saw a trail that went back into the forest and around the lake so I followed it. It lead me through the rainforest to the banks of the lake where a small boat was tied. The man who owned the boat came up a few minutes later, got in and rowed off to his house on the other side. There was a whole village over there! From the brightly colored flower skirts and clothing some of the girls were wearing, I think it was a Kuna village.

I stayed there awhile and saw some monkeys and tourists on a motor boat. Overall it was an amazing day and my favorite day in Panama so far. I say that every weekend, but it’s always true! Once it got dark (and I saw FIREFLIES!!! and heard the Tungara frogs)  I waited (only slightly in panic) on the sidewalk for the Diablo (which turns into a party bus at night) to come around and went back into the city. By the time I reached the bus terminal, I was so hungry but the thought of formulating the words in Spanish (after not speaking a word of English all day) to order food at the station was too much for my brain to handle. I finally understand how difficult it is for people living in countries that don’t speak their native language, it’s exhausting! But also it’s wonderful and I have learned so much more Spanish. Every week here is a new adventure, I can’t wait to explore more of the jungle!

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Little Zoo

         

Snails and Society

I should explain a little about what I’m actually doing in Panama and what brought me here in the first place.  I am working as an intern for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute doing a research project on…sea snails! Specifically, Natica chemnitzii, a species of moon snail here in the Bay of Panama for all you marine biologists out there.

So here comes the sciency bit in case anyone would like to know..

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20150122_103117 Baby snails under microscope!

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Moon snails have a two week egg laying cycle that is exactly in line with the moon cycle. What I’m here to figure out is why there are two different sizes of moon snail hatchlings during upwelling and if I can identify them in the field.  Are there two different species? Does one species just have a lot of variability during this season? The second part to know about this project is that the two different hatchling sizes only appear during the dry season which is the upwelling season. During this season, there is little rainfall so the ocean is saltier, cooler, and has more nutrients. Sea snails are very sensitive to their environment, so these slight changes could cause major differences in their reproduction. I need to figure out if there are two different species, or just one, and I may try to test a few of the environmental variables to get an idea of why this is. And that’s my project!

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Adult moon snail (left) and egg mass (right) in the field

To collect my snail eggs, I sample at a few different sites that are all very close to the Panama Canal on the Pacific side. One of these sites is Bique, and it’s my favorite.
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Rope bridge across the creek (there are caymans)

Bique is a tiny fishing village with a huge mudflat and beautiful mangroves. The people there are famous for collecting clams and selling them at the market- which is actually the same thing that my snails eat, but I won’t try to mess with that. Sadly, it is a very poor little village and with the canal comes many other problems that don’t help the situation. Coming in there as an outsider, and a gringa at that, I don’t have much credibility to really know what’s going on or have any idea what it’s like to live and grow up there, but I saw something there one day that really struck me. After we had already collected our samples and were driving off in the big white truck with the Smithsonian logo on the side, I looked into the doorway of a small bright orange house. A girl about my age was sitting on the floor staring out the doorway, surrounded by small children. But it wasn’t just that, it was her expression that I cannot forget. It was a look of exhaustion and hopelessness.

I don’t want to make assumptions, but she did not seem happy, and by the looks of it there was no way out for her. In places such as this and so many around the world, women do not have access to a decent education, so once they are old enough- or just barely- they start having kids to fill the time because there are not many other options or opportunities for work. In these places where people are already barely getting by with enough food each day, bringing new children into this situation only makes it worse. After seeing this and from other similar instances in Africa, I truly believe that the first step in turning around the fate of our fast growing world is education for women. We need more schools, better teachers, and people who want to make a difference for children who feel like they are stuck in their situation; for those who don’t see a better future ahead of them. The world needs inspiration and hope – that is the root of change.


Critters around the lab 🙂

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Lunch spot near work

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Running hill behind apartment