Last week I and several colleagues (including Daniel Whitmore and Mindy Syfert) arrived back from deepest, darkest Peru. This is not the first time that I have been on a museum trip to Peru; in fact it is part of an ongoing investigation led by Dr Sandy Knapp and she joined us for part of it (read her blog about it).
So instead of telling you about the project (which Sandy has already covered) or about the amazing exciting insects there, I thought I would take time out to explain some of the less glamorous things associated with fieldwork. This little blog will detail the annoyances and the downright bizarre things involved.
First there are the 3 am drives to the airport; or rather the 2:30 drive because the taxi had arrived early. And so, on the day of travel, you find that your consumption of coffee increases exponentially... so, before I have left my flat I have my first coffee. Then your driver is Jensen Button and as such has broken every speed limit on the way to the airport and is exceptionally pleased with himself in the process. Consequently, you arrive at the airport way too early and there is nothing to do. An hour of twiddling thumbs sitting on my rucksack before the bag drop desk opens. I get through and have some more coffee.
Finally a few hours later, we board and depart during the most glorious sunset (ok, so that was nice). Then we arrive in Madrid, which I have to say is one of the worst airports in terms of having something to do; I have another coffee and wait a further four hours for my long haul flight. There is nothing to say about a flight that takes 12 hours apart from that it is not fun. Not at all. Especially when there is turbulence for half of it ... several glasses of wine and more coffee sorts that out though. My colleague Dan's flight was slightly more traumatic as he was surrounded by many children under the age of 2 :-)
So that was just the start of the trip - I wrote most of this blog sitting in my hotel room at the end with decidedly dodgy insides. I can't decide if it was the food, the altitude, a parasite or just the tiredness from these crazy roads but, at the time I was writing, all was not well in the land of Erica. I missed the last full day of fieldwork as well which was annoying, but just couldn't risk it.
The last time I was in Peru, we were on the road less travelled (as the Lonely Planet described our route). This time around, we didn't even make that! A few places that we were planning to stay were in the guide but often just with a passing reference. It was all up to Paul - our intrepid Peruvian Botanist - to lead us on our potato quest. Not always so easy in a country that does not really do road signs.
Let me continue with the less glamorous side to fieldwork. There are always the early starts (and not just the flight). Potatoes and tomatoes have to be sorted out...
So, the main reason why the team are in Peru is that at the Museum there is a group of us trying to establish what species of insects are associated with the wild relatives of potatoes and tomatoes. The collections of both the plants (Solanacea) and the known associated insects at the Museum are being digitised at the moment and that information will help us model the distributions. The fieldwork side, though, is to see what is actually there - there are many new species waiting to be described for both the insects and plants!
I never thought, however, that this would lead to me scrambling around cliff faces 4,000m up, looking for tiny potatoes, but that is what has happened. But the problem with these high altitude loving species is that we have to get up there in the first place. And this is why we have upsettingly early starts, to enable us to get high enough to find them.
Striking landscapes at high altitude, but don't try pootering here when you can barely breath...
For our first base of the trip we stayed in a town called Canta. We were only 2,800m above sea level but we could feel it - even walking up the stairs at this altitude was odd. And this was one of the lower altitudes of the trip!
We collected up to 4,800m - trying to pooter at this altitude is almost impossible – you have no ability to breath and so the fly just sits there on the leaf wondering what you are doing whilst you are desperately trying to suck the little thing up into a tube. If you have never experienced high altitudes it is like strapping an enormous rugby player to your chest as they hold on with an overpowering squeeze.
Canta and other high altitude towns were often shrowded in mist from about 3pm onwards, giving them a surreal appeal.
The accommodation is often not the most glamorous of hotels or field stations that you think of most of the time. Here we are all sleeping in one large room that felt like we had stepped out of a Enid Blyton novel ... except with added snoring ...
Not the Ritz Hotel
Now, please, add ontop of the snoring: dogs barking, car horns and alarms, and weird South American pop music for the entire night, to truely immerse yourself in the experience.
So, if the early starts are not going to kill you, then the roads definitely will. As I have already mentioned above, these plants like to get up and around in the mountains which meant some long and sometimes dangerous journeys on less than great roads - I had my stomach in my mouth many a time ... And that's assuming that you could see the roads in the first place ...
Not sure where the road goes here ...
Then there was the traffic - there are crazy drivers over here. We learnt that road signs, regulations etc. are generally just there for their purely aesthetic qualities rather than anything else:
No adelantar (don't overtake): translation - of course you can overtake and the less you can see in front of you the better! Blind bend you say; we laugh in its face, haha.
40km speed restriction: translation - surely that is just for mototaxi? I am a car/lorry/bus and I laugh at that speed restriction; if I am not going double then I am not happy!
One-way: translation - really? I am sure that it will be fine if I go 'my' one way, they will move.
Solo carril (single lane): translation - surely you are joking? I know it is a mountain pass but I must get through now ...
No Mototaxi (on main road): translation - then I shall use the hard shoulder instead, that is not the main road ...
And as for livestock...
Charging bulls can be a little intimidating, even in a car
... however, goats were better behaved
... never trust animals with long eyelashes when they are on the road ...
And, as for the llamas ... the guy was wearing a safety helmet!!
And then there were the petrol stations ...
... but at least that one had a hose ... and a wall.
"I nonchalantly lean at the possibility of a road existing here..."
We saw this a lot on the road too. Usually it meant that either there was no road to drive on, or that it had lots of potholes, or they were creating avalanches...
And more annoyingly sometimes there were good roads but we couldn't take them:
Me: Paul, why can't we take that road?
Paul: It's not good
Me: ... but it's much quicker
Paul: ... it's dangerous
Me (thinking about all crazy roads so far): Really?
Paul: Men with guns
Me: Oh... ok, let's go on other road
And what about the diet? Some of the food was a tad rich for my liking - check out these cakes...
Ummm, cakes. Rich, rich cakes.
This was a country that eats guinea pig, both the populous and their pets. We came across a dog eating a guinea pig and I thought of how my sister would feel if she knew that my childhood pet was feasting upon hers!
We shopped everywhere for food. Street corners were a must but receipts for the inevitable claim forms at the end of the trip were often scraps of paper if anything!
Then of course there is the Health and Safety aspect of the trip. Not forgetting the dodgy stomachs resulting from god knows what there are the other things that we must consider.
You had to remember the repellent before collecting near a river or your life becomes a living hell. Dan (modelling the mere handful of bites) had to sit through several days of Mindy and I complaining about the couple we had ourselves, knowing that we were being smug in our irritations.
Dan's legs model the latest must have fashion, just a 'few' bites
So next time you think that we are all swanning around having a lovely time remember that ... it is mostly true :-)
Even all the things that make fieldwork hard are also the things that we reminisce over and smile about! It is an amazing experience to be able to collect new material including new species from such remote and challenging places! You will often here us hidden in the corner of a pub trying to outcompete each other over who had the worst fieldwork belly or internal parasite. Sadly, my next tall pub tales will not be quite so good ... I did not get a human botfly this time!