If You Don't Look, You Won't See

We're crazy.

"We" being those of us who work in the Amazon chasing monkeys. Of course, we don't think so. We think it's perfectly normal to get up before dawn, put on heavy long pants, long sleeves, hats and boots in 100% humidity and up to mid-90 degrees and go slogging through various habitats, covered in biting insects and mud.

And rain. Pouring-so-insane-you-have-no-idea rain. Sometimes we have to swim across channels in all of our clothes with all of our gear. And plus more biting insects. All perfectly normal. I have told everyone on Houseboat Amazon to look at everything twice -- something my grandmother used to say to me when I would go off and travel. What she meant was, "Look at it once for you and once for me." "That way," she rationalized, "I can hear your stories and feel like I was with you."

The directive here is about surveys. I changed it to, "If you don't look - you won't see." I look at all kinds of things that are not animals: dead leaves, wind-wiggling leaves, far-away dark spots on branches, and lots of termite, ant, wasp, and bee nests. I also see lots of stuff that we are meant to see like monkeys and other animals, but I don't feel foolish looking around through my binoculars because sometimes I see things I might not have if I were not looking as intensely. (besides, just two days ago I discovered that bats use old termite nests as roosts to sleep during the day!)

I realized that all of the fun and amazing photos we send of the boat and forest don't describe a normal day for us. The "how" behind the things we are seeing. There are a lot of variations on "surviving" we must do--both in our daily lives on the houseboat and in the forest or on the rivers. Remember: All of this is normal for us, but even so, we definitely notice the insects, rain, fatigue, food -- especially since we are getting lower and lower on supplies, living conditions and working conditions. And insects.

And we still get up each day and go for it (unless the day comes with pouring rain and then it's Life of Pi. I'm the tiger.) We all have variations on this workday, but it goes something like this: The night before we do surveys, Alessandro and Ivan go into the community where we have parked (intentionally or opportunistically, depending on the river and survey needs) and speak with potential guides -- local men who know the area. Often this is done on a moving day when we have sailed the barcos from one village to the next as part of the general methodology to survey as much different habitat as we can (if you have real interest in this, our publications are starting to be submitted--soon you will be able to use Google Scholar to search "Houseboat Amazon" science papers!).

Once we know how many possible trails, igarapés, or várzea/igapó there are, how many guides are available, and how many small canoes they have if needed -- THEN we make a plan for the next few survey days. We try to do five surveys a day in a combination of flooded or unflooded forest (small canoe or walking), terra firme (hiking) igarapé (large canoe). The "real adventure" part of our day isn't simply that we are working in the Amazon. It is that we are facing trails and areas we have never seen previously, meaning -- we are surveying in novel areas that have surprises for us all day long. We regularly face too small and too fragile tree "bridges" that are slippery, high off the ground, expand a long distance over streams, and/or are half rotten and break or large fallen trees. We have to carry canoes over in an igarape or constant showers of ants and spiders in our faces and hair in varzea when the guide makes a choice to go through a tight spot in the flooded forest. All the while taking notes, photos, and observing the creatures around us. So many adventures in a package that is entirely adventure!

On a hike day, I get out slightly different clothes and gear than I would for a boat day. Even igarapé days are different than várzea/igapó days. The size of the canoe makes a difference in how I manage my gear and data collection. For a hike in all kinds of habitats, I need a backpack. I used to carry my normal field pack with a poncho and large plastic bags and an umbrella (Sim! In rainforest! It works perfectly for a downpour if standing still).

But with the business of having to swim or wade across streams, go down igarapés or through small igapó to get to a trail -- I have been using a dry bag backpack instead. It's easier in some ways and more of a pain in others. It's easier because it can withstand a downpour. It's harder because if I need anything, the item swims around in a single compartment making it impossible to get anything out of it quickly.

In every habitat I carry: my notebook and pencil and pens (in case the pen fails or gets wet, I have a pencil), GPS, extra batteries for GPS, camera, extra battery and card for camera, GoPro, and binocular. I carry a compass in one pocket for triangulation of primates. Depending on the habitat, I carry different things: in terra firme I have a knife, sometimes a machete, a water filter in case I run out in my Camelbak, a torch in case we come back late, insect repellent, lunch (unless the guide or someone else carries it), and in my pocket a ziplock with wipe cloths for the camera lens; walking in the forest makes the lens fog up from my body heat alone.

On boat days I add sun cream, sunglasses, and earplugs because the small motors are so intensely loud.

On days when it's a small paddle canoe, I make sure to have my purple rubber shoes and hat (always a hat and bandana for me-so many variations for swatting or keeping bugs away) -- in várzea and igapó, the forest is at once trying to pull you and all of your things out of the boat -- and all of the small creatures are falling into/ running toward the boat to get in. The small "tipy" two-person canoes for surveys in closed várzea or igapó means making sure everything is somehow attached to my body or secure in the bottom of the boat, so I take fewer things.

In terra firme I can have my notebook in a ziplock in a pocket for easy access, but in the canoe, it sits on the dry bag in front of me so I make less noise. The sounds we make in flooded forest carry like bombs going off over the water. It seems super loud to step on a dry stick in terra firme as well, but the flooded forests have a sound system all of their own.

Once the day is decided and things are packed, we get up at 5 AM for a 6 AM leaving time, depending on rain and whether the guides have shown up on time or not. Remember: these are local people we have descended upon in the middle of their normal routines to ask them to take us on tour of their worlds. We pay them and give them lunch and gasoline for their boats, but it truly is an imposition. So if they show up late, we try to be gracious. Often we have to take canoes to get to our starting points where we leave the canoe behind on the shore and go walking, or we transfer mid-stream to a small canoe for paddling. Or 100 variations of this idea!

We spend until 4-5 PM on the trail or in the canoes and then come back to the houseboat. We take lunches with us -- generally rice and meat and farinha -- and then have some dinner at night.

There is data to organize, clothes to wash (see the video!), equipment to dry and sort for the next day. If we collected fruits, seeds, specimens like dead animals shot by hunters, bones, poop, hair -- it needs to be curated for genetics, measurements, or sugar content (fruits) for later study.

We have a meeting each night to prepare the crew and researchers for the next day's work: how many canoes going where and at what time, how many lunches, who is hiking, who is boating, where will Alejandra go to study people in the villages, and will there be anyone working on the houseboat or will everyone be in the field. I decide things like when we need to move the barcos (unless it is low water, then Bitito decides), where we study, and for how many days. The decisions constantly change as well.

For instance, today I was supposed to be doing a survey in igapó this morning and sending the team to the next community to sort out other surveys in igarapé and terra firme. And it is an all morning rain. So--we will stay one more day and lose a survey day, but be able to do recon to the neighboring village to get us set up for tomorrow. All day, everyday I am solving big and little challenges all so that we can have excellent days in the forest, seeing everything twice for people like you!