Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Traveling is good, volunteering is great, but DON’T GET CAUGHT OUT!

For those who live outside the equator, visiting a tropical rainforest can be a truly unreal experience! The jungle and its wildlife, the weather and storms, and the cultures of tropical regions are totally different than anything the average American experiences. I visited the rainforest for the first time this past summer doing volunteer work and can definitely recommend it.

This trip unfortunately was not all swinging from vines and snapping cool pictures (Yes, you really can swing from vines!) There were a few crucial things I either forgot to bring, was unprepared for, or just plain did not expect. I have learned from this trip though and will not get caught out next time I visit the lower latitudes.

I signed on as a volunteer research assistant for a UK based foundation called Operation Wallacea (http://www.opwall.com/). This foundation has research stations all around the globe; I however decided to stay local (in the western hemisphere at least) and visit a little country called Honduras. I shouldn’t say “little” though. Honduras is Central America’s second largest country and over 80% of it is comprised of extreme mountainous landscape. The research station I was staying at was situated within the Cerro de Las Minas mountain range at an average 2,850 meters above sea level. The highest point in the range is approximately 9,000 meters! These high altitudes within the tropical region, getting so much rain as they do, create extremely unique micro environments. Every rainforest is different ecologically and physically.

As a student at UMass Boston, studying Environmental, Earth and Ocean Science I found this trip particularly amazing. As a research volunteer, I had the opportunity to work with teams of scientists and students who were working on different projects. A few examples include the small mammal and large mammal monitoring teams, the bird team, Chiropterology team (bats), and the Herpetology team (amphibians and reptiles).

You don’t however have to be interested in science in order to enjoy a visit to the tropics. I had wanted to visit the tropics since I was a young kid. I just simply loved the outdoors and the jungle seemed like an extreme trek. Traveling to Honduras turned out to be one of the cheapest ways to do it. A roundtrip to San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second largest city was only 280 dollars. Transfer from the airport to the research station was taken care of by the foundation.

I encourage everyone to travel more, volunteer, experience new cultures, and to go outside your comfort zone. But you have to do your research. I would recommend doing as much online reading about other people’s tropical adventures as you can. There are plenty of forums such as http://www.tropictravelonline.com/ where people will talk about their trips. There are also other forums such as http://www.abc-of-hiking.com/ where extremely outdoorsy people talk about gear and equipment. These are a good place to get started when trying to get ready.

Going out on nightly herpetology walks really enlightened me as to where I was lacking preparation. Our guide for these excursions was a young Honduran student named Mario. Mario was crazy about amphibians and reptiles and just a little crazy in general. We would meet up outside the campsite headquarters at about 10:30 at night for the late night walks (these were when you saw the coolest stuff). Before going out he had just a few announcements. First off: no bugspray. When he said that I immediately did a double-take. I thought, “You mean were going out into the jungle, following streams and finding ponds at 10 at night and we can’t wear ANY bug spray!” He went on to explain that we could wear bug repellant only if it did not contain the chemical DEET. DEET, which I did not realize, is what is known as a persistent toxin. This means that aside from being extremely effective at killing bugs, it is also extremely effective at poisoning everything else that might be found in a pond or stream. If we were to handle a frog, salamander, butterfly, or any other creepy crawly the DEET would kill it not long after putting the little one back on its log or plant. What is also amazing about these super chemicals (DEET was developed by the US military back in World War II to be the most effective chemical defense against mosquitoes) is that even if you were to wash your bug repellent covered hands in a stream or pond, the chemical would wash off and infect the entire body of water. Mario talked about an instance when, due to the volume of people visiting a certain stream near the camp, an entire cloud of tadpoles of that area were killed off.

To resolve the issue of DEET killing off critters indiscriminately you can simply purchase a bug spray that does not contain the chemical. Unfortunately these tend to not be as effective. And heaven forbid you should try and purchase an organic and/or biodegradable insecticide, these will cost you an arm and a leg. Try finding an affordable, non-persistent and/or biodegradable insecticide such as Neem Oil. Also you can use brewer’s yeast tablets as a natural mosquito repellent. By far the easiest solution is to wear long sleeves and long pants!

Okay. So with the depressing stuff about chemicals wiping out entire communities of tadpoles aside, let’s talk about how you can better enjoy one of these Herpetology walks if you ever get the chance to go on one.  One thing I learned from this trip is that your headlamp can never be bright enough! For those who are not the most outdoorsy people you probably have never worn or owned a headlamp. Yes, they make you look a little goofy but they are an absolute necessity when visiting the tropics. I went with the most light weight and least bulky lamp. This seemed like a good idea at the time. It saved space in my rucksack while also being lightweight. This was a mistake though because when actually out in the jungle and around camp, to use the old idiom, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face! I needed a more powerful head lamp. As I said earlier, some of the coolest stuff to see in the tropics is at night. When on these Herpetology walks I found myself reverting to my flashlight for light. But this is not a good idea at all. A flashlight can be a nuisance when traversing a rocky stream at night. You absolutely need both hands free in order to get around in the jungle. What I have learned is do not invest in a top notch flashlight, it will only become a burden. Buy a powerful headlamp—these can be just as powerful as flashlights and will direct light exactly where you are looking and free up your hands to keep you steady over those rocks and logs.

I would recommend taking way less clothing than you think you will need. As I mentioned earlier, go with pants rather than shorts. Pants, or as the Brits call them, trousers, protect your legs from mosquitoes and chiggers (nasty little bugs found in the lowlands that will eat up your shins). I ended up wearing the same dirty, mud-stained pants for a week straight.

Bring duct tape and string. I was lucky because we slept in elevated tents at base camp. However, when you’re out in the middle of the jungle and far away from base camp you will sleep in a hammock with a tarp overhead to shed the rain away. It is a good idea to bring extra string with you and duct tape for patching up holes in your mosquito net.

My friend Alex posing next to our tents.
Don’t forget to bring something to purify water. Boiling water is the perfect method for killing bacteria and viruses but you will not always be near a campfire. Use Chlorine Dioxide. This is usually a liquid that you can put into single bottles of water which make it great for treks. You can fill up your bottle at any stream and purify it right there and then. There is a new trend in buying built in water filters for water bottles. These tend to be extremely expensive, will require replacement filters, and do not effectively take care of viruses. A small bottle of Chlorine Dioxide will save you time spent in anguish on the toilet.

This brings me to my next suggestion. When you go to get vaccinations for your particular country, after doing your vaccination research at the Center for Disease Control website at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/content/vaccinations.aspx, make sure to request a bottle of Ciprofloxacin. This is a very widely used medication that will take care of most bacterial causes of diarrhea. Around campsites like the one I was at, no matter how many precautions were taken, there were still bacteria around every corner waiting to give you the runs. Nearly everyone who had been there had experienced at least a day with some kind of infection. When I got sick myself I simply took the recommended dosage of Cipro and was back to normal within two days.

There were a few things that you simply cannot prepare for or deal with once in the rainforest. One example of this is having your camera fog up. Descending the mountains only a few meters can cause the lenses and all other parts of your camera to fog up and become completely useless. This is simply because of condensation. Once your camera has adjusted to a certain temperature and you descend into a warmer, more humid atmosphere, even just a few meters, water will begin to condense on all parts of your camera. People in my group were plagued by condensation daily. The weather, especially in mountainous regions, changes so drastically and quickly that it is hard to combat.

Another thing that is simply impossible to prepare for is living within and among a new culture. I traveled deep into the mountains to one of the most remote regions of Honduras. I met only four other Honduras who spoke English with at least some fluency. This experience was truly special to me. Pictures, movies, and textbooks for a long time had developed a desire in me to travel to the tropics and see it for myself. This trip was only the beginning. I plan on visiting other regions of Central and South America and meeting other locals and seeing how they live. I believe that traveling is a crucial part of growing and learning. You have to be ready to do a lot of research for your specific journey. Make sure to read up before you go and learn from your experience afterwards.

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