Back to the Beginning
In this blog I describe my start in Brazil and give some context for the decision to come here for my dissertation work.
My very first time in Brazil was a study abroad course in the Pantanal. I was 20 years old and it was my first trip out of english-speaking North America. It lasted only 10 days and went by incredibly fast.The course was conducted in English and admittedly, I was a little disappointed not to be immersed in a cloud of Portuguese but it was probably for the best. Although I had studied a year of Portuguese, I wasn't very good at comprehending yet (and I was incredibly shy) so I didn't practice it much that time around. However, it would be the first time I heard native speakers of Brazilian Portuguese. You can read more about the course itself on my research page.
That trip in January 2011 was the start to a year that would be a turning point for me. It was my first international trip, my first time doing field work abroad, my first time truly isolated in a wilderness – it was my first adventure. Ok, pretty mild for an adventure but for me it was an incredible experience and the closest I had come so far to fulfilling a dream. The Pantanal was a magical place full of wild and exotic species, nothing like I'd ever seen before. It would be the measure by which I judged every other wilderness from then on. It was my gateway wild.
The Pantanal was as beautiful and interesting as ever, and yet so different. There was much more exposed land. The first time it had been the wet season, but this time around it was the dry season and there were noticeable differences. It was cooler (and drier of course) and although the abundance of birds and mammals hadn't changed much (I even saw bats this time!), there were noticeably fewer reptiles and amphibians (at least they weren't as easy to find). In January, there had been caiman in every direction. And it was quieter – the first time I had been in the Pantanal the nights were filled with a cacophony of singing frogs all looking for mates. It had been breeding season.
And the new experience of living in a Brazilian city was interesting as well. We stayed at Hotel Paradise where we were always greeted by the ever interesting Portañol man (the receptionist that spoke a mix of Portuguese and Español). The girls and I were two to a room and I bunked with my now very good friend Hannah. It was pretty standard living. The hotel was nice enough to let us use their kitchen to cook, although for some reason eating in Brazil always proved challenging for us. Except when eating out or being fed by Brazilians. Then the eating was only good.
While in the city Hannah and I worked on a phenology project with Vanda Ferreira at UFMS (see research page for more!). But when we weren't working, we were out experiencing the city with friends. We had amazing guides that showed us the must-sees:
Music: we of course were shepherded around to music venues on various occasions. I was introduced to Brazilian music and artists I'd never heard of. These are the places that I remember the most. There was a bar called Rockers that had live bands that played mostly rock and occasionally reggae. Another bar called VooDoo I remember being very dark but lots of fun because our friends band was always playing there when we went. But my favorites were two improvised venues that were relatively small but packed with people: one for samba, and the other blues. These last two places were low key and I don't remember either of them officially having names. But the blues singing was amazing and the samba place featured the most beautiful flute playing I'd ever seen (I grew up playing the flute so I really appreciated that experience!).
Food: Eating was another of our favorite pastimes in Campo Grande. We ate at our friends homes, at the university and at various restaurants. I learned that self-service restaurants (where you pay for food by weight) are very popular in Brazil. I had all you can eat sushi for the first time and I ate my first Brazilian Pizza which is markedly different from the pizza at home. No offense to Brazil but my native pizza still has my heart. We were constantly taking breaks throughout the work day to eat Brazilian snacks and have fresh exotic juices while chatting with friends. Brazil was much more balanced in the sense of work-life balance than I was used to.
We were welcomed into the everyday lives of our friends. We celebrated birthdays, went to Festas Juninas, we hung out everyday after work to relax, play pool, go to museums, to the movies - whatever random things we could think of. And in the process, we solidified friendships that have lasted to this day, so that every time I am in Brazil, I make time to visit Campo Grande. It was no wonder that at the time I was already thinking of focusing my dissertation work in Brazil. Wildlife and good vibes were more than enough motivation for me.
Falling Back in Love with Brazil
It has been two months since I've posted my last blog, and I assure you, with good reason. I wanted to take a break from it (even though I had just started!) and commit all my energy to resolving an unfortunate issue that came up with my research. It wouldn't be real life if there were no challenges.
Long story short, a serious lack of communication, too much blind trust on my part and a whole lot of overlap in the research proposals of two determined PhD students lead to an apparently unresolvable conflict, to which my response was to gracefully bow out and cut my losses. So, no more South American primates for me - at least for now. It may seem drastic to give up on primates all together after bad luck with one group (Amazonian marmosets) but the challenges seemed to be the same for other monkey groups, so I decided to save time and jump ship.
At first I was extremely disappointed, and even a little depressed about it. I had dedicated the last 2 years of grad school to making this project happen just for it to fall apart after only 2 weeks in Manaus. Also, because of the terrible timing of the official and final failure of the project ("discussions" about minimizing my losses went on for a while after my initial decision to quit the project), I missed out on a Fulbright reunion trip to Chapada Diamantina! If you have never heard of this place, google some images of it and you will see why I am thoroughly distraught that I did not get to go.
However, in the end it worked out. With the help of some great biologists here in Brazil and in the US, I already have a new project that I am working on like mad (hence my prolonged absence). The focus of my dissertation has turned to biogeography of neotropical birds. I'll give more details on this after the project is fully under way on my research page.
Now, the past two months have been tough and involved lots of slow going ground work to start a brand new research project toward the end of my fourth year in grad school (ugh), but it hasn't been all bad...
I've eaten some great food and learned to drink beer. I've always hated beer, and wouldn't necessarily say I like it now but being able to drink it is a new social power I suppose (if maxing out at two doesn't make me lame).
Tambaqui and another local freshwater fish from the Manaus region. Served with black-eyed peas and rice, farofa and vinagrete. Oh and lime of course. Delicious. I had this at an exclusive (so exclusive I never did get the name of it), very out of the way restaurant in Manaus with a great view (see pic below).
I've adopted a Brazilian cat. Meet Mia Feral. This kitty was rescued by my current housemate just days before I arrived in Brazil. She was extremely young, her eyes hadn't completely opened yet. She was abandoned at a local bar (while it was closed) along with two siblings. My roommate found them because of Mia, who was meowing with all her might. Her meow sounds like "mia mia" which is how she got her first name. Sadly, her siblings did not survive but Mia has grown to be very strong since her days feeding from a syringe (thanks to the dedication of my housemate Carla). I have fallen in love with Mia, and since Carla already has enough cats and was going to find her a nice home, I decided to keep her. Now I just hope the transition in the US is smooth (and possible!).
I hung out on a floating bar or "flutuante" for the first time.
I visited a cool little town, Novo Airão. Another blog on that later :)
And so I've received many small reminders about why I tried so hard to get back to Brazil to do research in the first place. Thinking about this, I've decided to do a series of flashback vlogs about my previous adventures in Brazil which will include some things I got to do earlier this year before I started the blog.
For the highlight reel, scroll down! Of course you could always do both, read and watch ;)
I celebrated my 25th birthday this past Saturday. Having only arrived in Manaus less than 3 weeks ago, I had no idea what to do to celebrate. I did know however, that there was no shortage of natural wonders to explore here in the Amazon region surrounding the city. It happened that a friend of mine, Whitney – a fellow Fulbrighter, was going to be in Manaus for the day and was taking a trip out to the “Terra das Cachoeiras” (The land of waterfalls). The gateway to this wonderland is the municipality Presidente Figueiredo, situated about two hours drive from Manaus.
We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant serving local dishes including pirarucu, a very large fish from the region. Very good food, a large quantity for a small price.
The first waterfall was Cachoeira Santuário. There is a R$10 (the currency in Brazil is Real - R$10 is a little more than $3 US) entry fee per person but it is well worth it. The place is beautiful and there are actually multiple falls inside. There are plenty of places along the fall where you can sit and enjoy the cool water and an adjacent river where you can swim. The falls are located in an ecological reserve and so is a popular destination for ecotourist, there is even a restaurant and hotel by the main entrance. This particular day I didn't many animals aside from insects but there were surprisingly no mosquitos (at least I didn't get bitten by any)! This is probably due to a lack of stagnant water - the mosquitos preferred breeding arrangement. The falls are gushing hundreds of gallons (or more) of water per second and so the river downstream has a constant flow.
Our next stop was Gruta da Maruaga (“gruta” meaning grotto or cavern). At the entrance is a small but powerful waterfall. The cave is also located in a protected area and is typically accessed with a guide. We were lucky enough to be able to hike down to the site on our own. There were no there visitors at the time, so we had this beautiful place to ourselves for over an hour!
There is no natural or artificial light inside of the cave, so we used a headlamp to spot a number of bats congregated on the ceiling (that had created an impressively large pile of guano), countless insects and there was even a frog hopping around in the dark. The patterns of erosion created beautiful structural patterns and smaller sub-caves within the cavern. Very cool. We definitely could have used a couple more headlamps though.
Our final stop was at a waterfall close to the roadside. We were on our way back to Manaus when we saw the sign and decided to stop and take a look. It was unplanned and so I didn't catch the name of this particular fall but it was lovely and just a few meters walk from the road (off of BR-174). There was no entrance fee but a R$20 cover for parking vehicles.
This final impromptu waterfall at sunset was a spectacular way to end our venture outdoors. It was a little later in the evening so this fall was much less crowded than the first. Most of the other falls close access to the public at 4PM so it seems that people tend to head out before then. So we enjoyed another beautiful area in the peace and solitude of nature virtually by ourselves. There was nothing to be heard but the crashing waters from the fall. I'd definitely recommend a trip to the land of waterfalls!
Back in Manaus, we went to a Festa Junina (June Festival). During the month of June, all over Brazil, there are rurally themed parties to celebrate various saints. Men and women often dress in iconic farm apparel including straw hats and pigtails and freckles for women. Sometimes men will sport a unibrow. The main event of a Festa Junina is arguably the mock wedding that takes place. A pretend bride and groom are wed by a comedic priest after which begins a night of dancing and continued festivities.
Birthday Eve Launch
For the next six months, this blog will focus on my experiences in Brazil. This adventure technically started in February at an orientation for Fulbright scholars in Sao Paulo. In the past three months, I have met some amazing people, caught up with old friends and have seen some beautiful wildlife.
My first two months were spent in Porto Velho (Portuguese for “Old Port”), the capital of the state of Rondônia. This city, situated in the southern reaches of the Brazilian Amazon in the “região norte” (North Region), has a population of just under 500,000 people. A large part of the states economy is based in mining and ranching which unfortunately contributes to the rapid deforestation happening in Rondonia. I traveled there to work with the mammal collection at the Universidade Federal de Rondônia (Federal University of Rondônia).
During the month of May, I spent some time in the city of Campo Grande (Portuguese for "Large Field"), the capital of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul which is in the “região centro-oeste” (Central-West region) of Brazil. The population is about 800,000 people.
I have met some wonderful people there while doing research abroad at the Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso do Sul that have become some of my best friends in the world. Whenever I am in Brazil I make time to visit them in the region where I first practiced Portuguese with native speakers, first tried capoeira and yoga, first saw wild monkeys and hyacinth macaws, caught my first fish (a pirana!), first tried Brazilian cuisine, had my first caipirinha and first fell in love with South America. The experiences are numerous and I look forward to many more in the many diverse places of the country.
Now I am living in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil. This is a huge city in the middle of the Amazon, (also in the região norte of Brazil) in fact it is the largest city in this region with a population of over 2 million people (7th largest population in Brazil). Despite its size and economic importance, the city is relatively isolated from the rest of the country and is typically accessed only by boat or plane. This isolation has resulted in a unique culture, based largely in native traditions of the region, which I am very excited to explore. It also has one other benefit – it has slowed the degradation of the forest surrounding the metropolis. Manaus serves as one of the main gateways to those drawn to the Amazon rainforest. I am here with the hopes of collaborating with biologists at the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia and the Universidade Federal de Amazonas.
I will tell more stories and give more details of my experiences in these various places in future blogs...I have some video editing to do and pictures to post...but for now I just wanted to give an introduction to the blog and to what I'm doing here in Brazil. I probably should have started this 3 months ago when I arrived (I am already a third of the way through my Fulbright – 6 months to go), but I'll catch you guys up with what I've been up to as I go. I figured the eve of my 25th birthday is as good a day to launch the site as any.
My stories will not be strictly in chronological order and I won't only talk about nature, especially while traveling in another country. The people, the food, the cultures, the cities are all part of the journey as well and I have appreciated getting to know them. And it is arguable that all these very human elements can be related back to nature – the nature that still surrounds these structures, or was there before they were built. Anyway, I hope you'll enjoy taking this journey with me.
For more details about my current and past research in Brazil, visit my Research page.
Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington
Illuminating the Diversification of Evolutionary Radiations
stories of current and past fieldwork and explorations of nature.