Gift of Sport

For two weeks we were in the water every day except for the two days spent traveling from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. We would spend two hours snorkeling in the morning, break for lunch, and another two to three hours snorkeling in the afternoon, and oftentimes when we did get back to land I would spend another hour or so playing in the waves. So when we finished our fieldwork time and had a day to spend working on analyzing our data, I was initially really excited to relax. But by mid-afternoon, the hours behind a computer began to blur into a mass of floating black letters. Finally I gave up and walked outside, desperate to do something active–go hiking, go swimming, play volleyball. Oh how I wanted to play volleyball. To let go of circling statistics and roommate drama and focus entirely on encapsulated moments: serve, pass, set, spike.

The only things stopping me were that we were in a beach town in Panama, with no access to net or ball, and most of my classmates had taken a taxi to the other side of the island: so really everything. But the more I thought about how my chances of playing volleyball were pretty much zero, the more I was desperate to get on the court and out of my head. I had all of this pent-up energy humming on my skin like a build-up of static electricity, which was driving me to go anywhere just to get moving.

I went for a walk, and when I found a beach I pulled off my shoes and started running. For many people this might be a normal thing to do, but I’ve never been interested in running for exercise. This time, though, the impact of my feet on that hard-packed sand grounded me, pulling together all the loose energy and leaving it behind. I told myself I would run the length of the beach, and though I was gasping by the end of it, I kept going the whole way. And there, by some fantastic blessing, was a volleyball net set up in the sand, and even more importantly, when I arrived there was a full game in progress.

I stopped and stood there next to the court, entranced by the movement of the ball back and forth, the good-natured talk bantered around in a mixture of English and Spanish. It was so wonderful just to see people playing that I didn’t even realize I was staring until the game ended. All at once I felt shy, concerned that they already had an even number of players and probably wouldn’t want a random girl in jean shorts inserting herself into their group anyway. But even as I worried that asking to play with them would be rude, I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave without giving it my best shot.

Fortunately, one team was willing to let me join them. A couple passes and a string of serves later, they seemed quite happy to have me there. And I was ecstatic. I had some good plays and some bad plays, and even took a hit to the face from a spike that squeezed over the too-low net, and I was blissfully happy. I had so much fun I kept playing until the sun had begun to set, at which point I realized I was late for dinner. With lots of protesting from tired muscles, I ran the whole way back, and got back sweaty and smiling swith just a few minutes to spare.

Friends

There’s this theory I learned about in Psychology 101, which probably has a name but I couldn’t tell you what it would be, that says in general cases, the more time you spend with a person, the more you’ll like them. It would be an understatement to say that I have spent a lot of time with my classmates in Panama. We take classes together, we work in the forest together, we eat together, we hang out together, we watch movies together, we explore the city together, we even brush our teeth together. We’ve had lots of time to talk and bond, and I have enjoyed getting to know some of these people so well.

To be completely honest, there have been lots of bad moments. Times when people are yelling at each other, or just too many people talking too loudly. Times where interactions are shaped by cattiness and selfishness and general unhappiness. Times when, no matter how lovely everyone else may be, I really just need a little bit of time on my own, but there’s really nowhere in our schoolhouse I can be alone. It’s been long enough that I’d begun to forget that group interactions didn’t have to be this way, that multiple days could pass peacefully and pleasantly without making me feel like I needed to scream into a pillow, or at least leave the room before I snapped at someone.

Thankfully, one of my closest friends has also been studying here in Panama, and we keep each other going. Almost daily I’m reminded of how much more there is to friendship and positive relationships than quantity of time spent with someone. It’s not about carrying a conversation to fill the silence, it’s about trusting enough to share personal thoughts, bouncing around jokes and joy, and sometimes reveling together in the quiet itself.

Over spring break, another wonderful friend joined us, and the three of us spent some wonderfully relaxing time together. It was exactly what I needed, and was a clear reminder that groups of people could, in fact, interact in a positive way, and make decisions so that everyone was content. We were a small group, yes, but it reminded me of various groups of my friends who have constantly done the exact same thing–made all sorts of decisions, about restaurant choices or rules for games–yet I never considered it any special success. I don’t think it occurred to me how much a group of people, planning on hanging out as friends, could conflict and argue and place their own wishes above anyone else’s, and how those types of interactions would turn so many little things, down to serving food for dinner, into unpleasant power struggles.

I don’t know if it’s amazing how much conflict there is in this group, or if I should instead be amazed at how little conflict there has been in many of my other groups of friends. I do know that I miss my friends from school and home very much. Spring break was fantastic reminder of how happy I can be when I’m truly comfortable with other people, and it made me realize that I have not ever been fully relaxed around this group. As amazing as my time in Panama has been, with every day full of new discoveries and adventures, I am very ready to return to my “norm” of overwhelmingly pleasant time with the people I choose to be around. And I would like to sincerely thank my friends, from all times in my life, for being so wonderful that I know just how positive spending time with people can be.

Tree of Life

Today we cut down a palm tree. That’s right: we cut down an entire tree. And I don’t mean a little scrawny sapling-could-be-an-overgrown-house-plant either. I mean a full thirty to forty foot palm tree.

And why did we chop down this tree? To look for bugs. In fact, to look for parasites living inside of a particular insect, in a day-long project that scaled from very large, to microscopically small. Along the way, we discovered a huge range of animals that called this palm home, including insects, spiders, caterpillars, scorpions, lizards, and at least four species of ants. It’s one thing to sit through a lecture on how much diversity there is in the tropics, it’s quite different to go out and find that diversity yourself by cutting down a single tree. It was truly fantastic.

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Profoundly Arnold

For one of the early lectures of our parasitology course, our professor set out to discuss something that he called one of the most profound and useful concepts in epidemiology: Arnold. He wrote it large on the blackboard as R0 (spoken as r-naught) but his British accent turned it unerringly into plain Arnold.

I began to think of Arnold as a quiet, middle-aged individual, wandering around oblivious to the hordes of scientists swarming like paparazzi. We estimated Arnold, more concerned with his general ratio than any particular measurements. We discussed what would happen if Arnold was greater than one (the disease spreads through a host population) or less than one (the disease dies out), and I pictured Arnold sitting down in his living room, going through his baby photos, while that gaggle of scientists peered in through the windows. We took notes on Arnold’s personal preferences, discussing how Arnold could be impacted by environmental factors such as temperature. We even wrote down equations to take a closer look at Arnold, not leaving him much privacy at all. Eventually the lecture moved on to particular disease traits and population growth curves, but underlying everything we discussed was this profound idea of the basic concept of Arnold.

The end of course one

For our semester in Panama, we are taking four courses, but we’re taking them one at a time. In a lot of ways this is a great schedule: at least some of our courses are very fieldwork-heavy, and this way we can spend all day (or multiple days) in the field, come back at night to do some research, lab work, and data analysis, and not have to worry about any other classes. At school there’s always multiple psets, projects, readings, reports, and exams coming up for all of my classes, so being able to focus on JUST ONE THING for a single class is fantastic.

What this means, though, is that our first course has ended. In a very short three weeks, we’ve hiked in four national parks, eaten meals with our professors, and chatted on hour-long bus rides. We even spent a couple hours on a beach—and we get to call this class. At the same time, we have had ten lectures, come up with an idea and procedure for an independent project, and carried out that project in nine days of field work, three days of lab work, and one day to write a paper. Yesterday we turned in our papers, gave our presentations, and that was it. Over. We said farewell to our professors not fully processing that we would not, in fact, see them the next morning, or possibly ever again.

It feels like this class can’t possibly be over, and yet despite its brevity, this has been one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Working on my own project in the forests has further convinced me just how much I like doing fieldwork (though I suppose that was never really a surprise, given how much I love being outside and learning about trees and rocks and bugs). I can’t wait to see what the next three classes will bring.

Walking on water

Today is St. Valentine’s Day (which apparently gets celebrated even in Panama). It’s also one of the first days of Lent. And if you combine feasting and fasting, exuberant love and contemplative love, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get something magical.

In my case,  the magic came in a very ordinary package: a medium-sized brown lizard.

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He looked uninteresting. He sounded uninteresting. He was uninteresting—until he ran. And oh, how he ran.

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Basilisk lizards are famous for being able to run on water. I’d heard of this before, but had never actually seen it. Until this afternoon, when I saw not one but five basilisks take off and run across a small pond. It was fantastic.

But, someone is surely saying, I don’t think you’re Catholic. And I know you hate Valentine’s Day.

True, and true. But what is also true is that I’m always happy to celebrate something truly wonderful. And holidays, if nothing else, make a great excuse. So Valentine’s Day or not, I hope you have a wonderful, magical day.

OMG SLOTHS!

Yesterday, I stayed late in the forest finishing up fieldwork with three other students and our professor. While the last student, was finishing her project, a group of people came by. They were releasing rescued sloths!

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One of the two-toed sloths had a baby with her.

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We got to watch them climb up the trees, one at a time. Between us we took hundreds of pictures. And then we got to hold one of the sloths! It was such an amazing experience.

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I felt so unbelievably lucky to get this experience–and we were all so glad her work took that long!

mini-lecture of the day: Inga

Inga is a genus of trees that are quite common in the neotropics. Two of the species I worked with last summer were Inga (thibaudiana and pezizifera) so I’ve gotten fairly good at identifying the genus.

I find Inga really interesting because of its extrafloral nectaries. “Extrafloral nectaries” may sound really complicated, but actually they’re fairly simple: “extra-floral” meaning not on flowers, and “nectaries” meaning something that provides nectar. With inga, the nectaries are on the leaves, and they attract ants that help protect the tree from herbivory and vines.

an ant drinking out of a nectary on an inga leaf
an ant drinking out of a nectary on an inga leaf

Another interesting thing about inga is that it has compound leaves. This means that all the parts that look like leaves are actually leaflets, and the leaves themselves are made up of four to twenty leaflets. Inga leaflets always come in pairs. Inga leaves (and leaflets) can be fairly small, or really big.

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not an inga: ends with a single leaflet
not an inga: ends with a single leaflet
sometimes Inga leaves are really big! This picture has one leaf with eight leaflets
sometimes Inga leaves are really big! This picture has one leaf with eight leaflets

Lastly, some Inga can have a winged rachis. The rachis is the part of the leaf that connects all the leaflets together, and when it has a lot of leaf-tissue on it, it’s considered winged. I don’t know if this serves any biological purpose, but it makes them look really cool.

that bug is standing over the rachis, which is winged in this picture
the bug is standing over the rachis (winged in this picture)

Mini-lecture of the day: cloud forests

We went to a highland tropical forest today. When I say highland forests (that is, a forest up on a mountain) perhaps you imagine somewhere dry and cold, with packed soil and sparse vegetation.

Try again. Think wet–clouds of mist that frequently condense into rain. Think warm enough to wander around in a t-shirt. Think mud, sucking at your boots and splashing onto your clothes. And think green–trees, palms, vines, epiphytes, ferns, mosses–everywhere you look. Got it?

This was much more of an experiential learning trip, so think about following along with our group. There’s twenty one of us, including our professor and two TA’s, and we’re all ready with our hiking boots and backpacks. The trail is our version of fun: steep climbs up, steep drops/slides down, with lots of cool things to look at along the way. At one point a green railing has been added to the slide of the trail to make the steps easier, but much of it has fallen sideways or slid with the mud, so we’re holding onto it as we go, and occasionally swinging under or climbing over it. There’s lots of laughter, and a few slips, and mud all over the place, and it’s fantastic.

We can’t help commenting to each other: “we could be sitting in a lecture hall right now!”

At the same time, we did learn a fair bit. We saw flowers, commonly called “hot lips” because of their shape and bright red color, which are in the Rubiacaea family (so is coffee). We saw thick, woody lianas and thin green vines. And now, when we hear about how cloud forests are areas where mist condenses into clean water that trickles down to other areas of the forest, or about the extremely high biodiversity in the cloud forests, we know what that actually means. We’ve seen it, we’ve smelt it, we’ve touched it. Cloud forests have a meaning to us, one that leaps off the page, and across our path.