This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Vanya Rohwer, a veteran of many field seasons and a teller of many great stories!
Field work requires a change in mentality. Small details of day-to-day city life, like tidy clothes, dry shoes, regular meals, and hygiene, lose importance during field work. And the speed at which this transition occurs can be impressive.
In mid-March, many years ago, we departed Panama City in a helicopter, flew 55 minutes north, and landed on a sandbar of the Rio Chagras, perhaps the only river in the world that flows into two oceans (thanks to the Panama canal). Cathedral-like trees lined the edge of the river and the helicopter’s rear rotor trimmed overhanging vegetation as it landed. For this trip, the transition from city to field was immediate.
For the next four weeks we surveyed bird communities in the Rio Chagras drainage. We were completely alone and lived in a self-constructed shantytown of blue tarps and tents. During thunder showers we huddled under tarps and ate US military rations, each of which contained over 2,000 calories and came with a personal bottle of Tabasco sauce—ration shelf life trumped ration flavor.
The animals were stunning. Highways of leaf-cutter ants undulated across the forest floor like green ribbons; Russet-crowned Motmots, adorned with serrated bills, caramel colored heads, and tail feathers that look like tennis rackets, wagged their tails with metronome-like precision; Crested Guans tip-toed the length of narrow Cecropia branches with a calm sense of grace; Chestnut-mandible Toucans patrolled the canopy like hungry marauders crusading for their next meal. The forest teemed with life, humidity, and sounds.
Four weeks passed quickly and, when the helicopter returned, we departed our blue tarps and poor hygiene for what seemed like one of the fanciest hotels in Panama City. None of us had seen a mirror, and our clothes had both a dampness and filth that permeated every fiber. Our tans were either real from tropical Panamanian sun, or fake from an impressive combination of humid air and accumulated sweat and dead skin.
I suspect the receptionist knew that our tans were the product of exceptional filth. As we entered the air-conditioned hotel, our overall appearance, chaos of field equipment, and odor filled the foyer. We were a full-sensory experience. My mangy but highly coveted patches of facial hair were bristling, and I stroked them with pride. Our clothes were filthy with food and bloodstains, and our body odor was strong enough to make eyes water and plants wilt. After four weeks of eating MREs, our mouths watered at the thought of fresh fruit and vegetables. Indeed the transition from blue tarp to faux-marble-floor hotel was abrupt.
Perhaps it was our smell, our embarrassing use of the Spanish language, or our disheveled appearance, but immediately upon check-in with the receptionist we received, complements of the hotel, “distressed traveler vouchers” good for one free drink at the bar.
That night we showered, shaved, and sipped piña coladas. They were delicious.
Vanya Rohwer is a PhD student in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University. He studies bird nests and the selective mechanisms shaping different nest morphologies, and tries to spend as much time outside as possible.