Saturday, January 08, 2005

Regarding happy and unhappy campers

January 8, 2005
North Camp, Gran Caldera de Luba, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.36528° E 8.50035° Elevation 3,374 feet. Temp: 78° F

We in the media have a reputation for emphasizing misery, and darnit, it’s true. We are nattering nabobs of negativism, as one of our nation’s memorable vice presidents once stated. We can’t help it. I normally cover wars, famines, natural disasters and epidemics – if there is human suffering somewhere, the editors look my way. If somebody does a good deed, you can bet we will find something to fault. Every night I go to sleep contented, knowing that through my work in the media, I’ve made the world a little worse in some small way. It’s my nature as a journalist, of course.

But I am making a pledge here today that I am going to change my ways. I am going to start telling the full truth, including positive things, even if it pinches my soul and my negative colleagues in the media try to pressure me to come back to the dark side.

I am starting my emancipation from negativity today, here on Bioko island, where I’m on an expedition to save endangered animals sponsored by Arcadia University and the National University of Equatorial Guinea. As regular readers of this blog know, I went on at length last week about the suffering we are going through to bring you this series of articles from the African rainforest. The drenching rain. The humidity. The grit. The insects. The bad food. The long hikes. The wet boots. The bad jokes. These accounts are offered up with the calculated design to get you to sympathize with me and Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer photographer who is accompanying me, to make you believe we are going through great discomfort and peril to provide you with a front-row seat in Africa. Actually, we are. But some people might think we’re doing this out of some sense of service. Rather, as any number of media critics have told me over the years, we’re really doing this for two reasons: To sell newspapers and to win Pulitzers.

I digress. As discerning blog readers may have picked up in recent days, I’ve ceased mentioning the weather and the hardship. There’s a reason for that. Once we arrived Wednesday in the Gran Caldera de Luba, this wilderness in an ancient volcano crater that is home to four endangered primates, the weather turned really gorgeous.

There, I said it. Something positive. The conditions at this altitude, at this time of year during the dry season, are really comfortable – cool at night, in the 50s, and topping out at about 80 in the day. No rain, just a light overlay of misty afternoon clouds giving the volcano rim a gauzy glow, a nice soft light.

I am having right now what a small circle of my friends call a “Bonnie Jo moment.” The only thing you need to know about Bonnie Jo is that she can get very blissful. I hope you won’t think less of me, especially those dear readers who have written from Missouri and South Dakota to relate tales about the harsh winters they are suffering through, what with the snow and the gloomy days with four hours of light. I feel your pain. If I could bottle some of this sunlight and send it up north, I would do it.

Unfortunately, not everyone on this expedition is sharing my moment of bliss. There is dissension among the ranks of 24 expedition members. It’s nothing mutinous, and I suppose it’s inevitable that some discord would arise after two weeks of traveling as a group under stressful conditions. But not everyone is a happy camper.

Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra, the Arcadia University professors who organize the annual expedition as part of their crusade to save endangered species on Bioko, recruit volunteers whose primary assignment is to gather census information on wild animals. The job requires going out every day on trails that are carefully marked for their distance and walking with a guide in a quiet, disciplined manner. When animals are sighted, the volunteers take down as many details as they can. Other parts of the job require the participants to do various camp chores. Nothing onerous, like doing the dishes – we have hired help for that. But the hikes and the chores can be tedious, and with a beach nearby and the temptation to take long walks and explore, it makes the job even harder. Oh, yeah, the volunteers pay $2,700 plus airfare for the privilege of joining the expedition to see a rare place that is closed off to all but a handful of outsiders (the profits help fund conservation efforts on Bioko). Because they paid good money, some of the participants have a sense of entitlement about how the group should be organized.

It’s impossible to organize such an expedition with two dozen participants, a couple of demanding journalists, and about 20 African porters, chefs and guides. Morra and Hearn do a pretty good job, moving supplies and people among three camps, scheduling work details each day. But it’s not perfectly organized – this is no travel agency tour, it’s a scientific expedition organized by a couple of academics. We’ve run out of tea and are short on some other supplies. Some of the tents are permeable. The expedition was handicapped by the last-minute cancellation of Javier Garcia Francisco, a gifted Spanish graduate student who helps Arcadia organize its study abroad program in Equatorial Guinea and is comfortable working with everybody from African porters to government ministers. I met Javier in early December on a preliminary mission to do this story, before he fell ill with malaria or some such tropical illness that required his hospitalization in Madrid over Christmas. He couldn’t join the trip.

I’m adding these comments for readers who may think this sounds like a cool journey and might consider applying in the future. This expedition is not for everyone.

First of all, I’m in a little more of a privileged position, since I’m here doing my work and not required to do so many census walks. I’m experienced outdoors, I love hiking and working in primitive conditions, so I’m in my element here.

The participants who seem to be having a better time dealing with the expedition are environmental studies or biology students who have some outdoor experience. For them, this expedition is valuable training that they can use to get a job doing field work or to advance their studies. So they’re more willing to be ordered around as though they were Army privates.

But some participants have complained to me that they’re not getting as much advanced learning as they thought. Some don’t take well to the primitive hygienic issues. Others don’t take well to discipline. Hearn dressed down two expedition members who disobeyed their assignment and walked on a census trail when it was supposed to be quiet – Hearn takes her science seriously (I’m not naming names because people didn’t sign up for this expedition to have their lives splashed on the Internet by a nosy reporter).

Several older participants are more like adventure tourists, less motivated by the biology and more interested in having a broader cultural experience. They are not entirely happy with the expedition, having to work with younger people and sometimes being treated like a college student. They would like more time to go out on their own, to explore the island and its people. Clearly there should have been a better understanding about what was in store. We’re told there will be time for independent tourism next week when we get back to Malabo, so perhaps some of that disappointment will pass.

Morra and Hearn have gone through this before. They say personality clashes inevitably develop, but rarely get out of control. Hearn says she prefers having women on the expedition because they are more cooperative and they get along better with the Africans. Male expedition members often seem to have more to prove and are more difficult to control. The Arcadia academics teach college students for a living, so they’re experienced dealing with people who are in a transitional phase of their lives.

Of course, each and every one of us are going through transitional phases – that’s what life’s about. Right now, I’m going through this power-of-positive-thinking transition. I’m blowin’ the rust out of my pipes. Feelin’ groovy.

I’m sure I’ll get over it, once I’m back in the office, back in Philadelphia, where it’s winter.

Friday, January 07, 2005

We arrive at the deepest point of our journey

January 7, 2005
North Camp, Gran Caldera de Luba, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.36528° E 8.50035° Elevation 3,374 feet. Temp: 74° F

Today we’ve reached the end of the trail, the northernmost camp for the Arcadia University expedition to Bioko island.

Our hike today from the main camp in the Gran Caldera de Luba was less than seven kilometers – not even five miles. But we went very slowly on the first half as we were conducting a wildlife census along the way. You walk a census trail like a fashion model walks down a runway, with tall, exaggerated steps to avoid tripping on rocks or kicking up sticks and leaves. It’s like hunting, only you’re armed with pen and paper. One conducts a census by staying very quiet, keeping about 12 feet apart and keeping one’s eyes and ears open. The signs of monkeys in the south end of the caldera are not good, however, as hunters apparently got there before our group. In two miles, we saw one squirrel and heard one female drill.

In less than five miles, we gained about 1,600 feet today and the rainforest changed remarkably. The north end of the caldera gets less rain, so the ground is dryer and grassier -- we're now in a tropical montane forest. More sunlight gets through the forest, and some of the trees are very large compared to the thin, tall trees that dominate at the lower altitudes. There also seems to be more variety to the vegetation.

The hunters do not seem to have gotten in as far as the north camp, so the hope is that we might encounter more primates here, including the drill, the endangered monkey that is unique to Bioko and a small piece of mainland Africa.

Before we departed the main camp, some members of the expedition began their journey out of the caldera to the beach camp, where they will stay until next Tuesday when the boat is scheduled to come pick us up.

I am filing a story for the newspaper today, which allows me little time to tell you more stories on this blog. But stay tuned, we are rarely short of words.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

It’s all about the gear

January 6, 2005
Main Camp, Gran Caldera de Luba, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.32972° E 8.47899° Elevation 1,713 feet. Temp: 78° F

My $150 boots are still damp and moist after the hike up from sea level to the Gran Caldera de Luba, the ancient volcano crater that is home to several threatened primates, myself included. Gore-Tex boots are a fine idea for Eastern Pennsylvania, where the trails are well-maintained and one can reasonably expect a river crossing to include some modern assist, such as a suspension bridge or an air-conditioned ferry. But here the trails are ill-planned and the rivers contain slippery rocks. No amount of high-tech waterproofing material can keep your boots dry when you go knee-deep into a rushing stream.

My wife, Amy Blackstone, who has proven to be a providential addition to the Arcadia University expedition we have joined because of her skill speaking Spanish and working with Africans (we lived in South Africa for six years), reminded me of a quote from a 19th Century European adventurer, back in the days when white people hired Africans to heave them on their shoulders to cross streams. One day the tourist filed this log entry: “I fell into the water today. It was the fault of the man who carried me.”

Well, you can’t get that kind of help these days – the porters only carry our gear. So I have to admit it was my own damn fault I got my boots wet.

It was a small admission price to pay to enter this breathtaking forest on Bioko island, where the trees are a tangle of vines and branches. The dense foliage often requires one to use senses other than vision to identify the wildlife. The forest is mostly green and brown, broken only by an occasional delicate flower or a bright butterfly. There are a couple of holes in the canopy above our camp, allowing just enough light to penetrate to provide a weather report, and just enough space through which we can aim our antenna at the Inmarsat satellite, 22,000 miles above Earth.

The trees here are not very large in diameter, unlike some primary forests where the timber is gargantuan – big logs that wash up on the beaches are immediately identifiable as coming from the mainland. The absence of big timber works to Bioko’s advantage for those seeking to preserve the biodiversity here – the Asian timber companies that have opened up vast stretches of African forest, depriving wildlife of habitat, are not interested in these skinny trees.

Amid this primal place, we have an embarrassment of Western technology. Our group is carrying satellite telephones, digital cameras, shortwave radios, laptop computers, GPS systems and an Apple iPod. We’ve got gasoline generators to power the gear. My digital thermometer that went into a humidity-induced coma woke up today after 24 hours cocooned in a Ziploc bag with a pouch of silica gel. We’re wearing clothing made of impermeable fabrics or fabric designed to dry quickly. Our gear is carried in waterproof drybags that could withstand a monsoon. For breakfast today, I had a cup of Starbucks coffee, provided by our expedition leaders, professors Wayne A. Morra and Gail W. Hearn.

Meanwhile, the Equatoguinean porters, each of whom can speak or understand four or five languages (including English, though they don’t like to admit it), carry all their personal belongings wadded up in a plastic grocery bag.

And their footwear? Some wear Wellingtons, knee-high rubber boots that, when filled with water, they empty by raising one foot behind them like a heron so that the water can pour out.

Others prefer plastic sandals whose deep treads seem to cling to rocks that have me doing the splits. A pair costs $6, and they dry out in about the same time that it takes me to pry my wet $150 boots from my pale, puckered feet.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Arrival in the Gran Caldera de Luba

January 5, 2005
Main Camp, a/k/a Camp Hormiga, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.32972° E 8.47899° Elevation 1,713 feet. Temp: Not bad

After a wonderfully arduous hike, we’ve arrived at the Gran Caldera de Luba, the ancient volcano crater that is the quest of the Arcadia University expedition.

The caldera is surrounded by steep walls on three sides, the old walls of the volcano, and drains to the south through a narrow river that has broken through the outer circumference of the volcano. The camp is located at the narrow, southern end of the caldera above the river, which cascades over smooth, round boulders. I was told the caldera is a plateau, but little about this site seems flat. The camp is set on a hillside, most of the tents are pitched at a slight incline. It’s called Main Camp because this is where the two Arcadia University professors operate their expedition to save endangered species in the caldera. It’s known locally as Camp Hormiga, or Ant Camp, for the nasty fire ants that attacked the camp’s occupants a few years ago.

Another camp, North Camp, is about 7 kilometer hike to the other end of the caldera. It’s at a higher elevation and is a little more open and dry than this camp. The expedition sends census teams out from these camps to count animals, mostly focusing on primates.

We plan to stay in the caldera until Monday, when we are scheduled to descend again to Moraka Beach, where we made our D-Day beach landing a week ago today.

The hike from our previous camp was not especially far – less than five miles, according to the GPS. But it included several steep climbs and descents as we crossed the remains of the conical volcano and then plunged nearly 500 feet into the caldera itself on a trail that was as steep as 70 degrees.

We began the day at Camp Peter, a small camp in the woods at about 390 feet of elevation. The trail gradually became more steep as we ascended through the rain forest that covers most of the southern end of Bioko island. By the time the trail reached a 45 degree angle, my heart was going pretty much steady at 180 beats a minute – I could count the pounding in my ears. We were ascending a cone that was formed as a side vent to the volcano, so once we reached the peak, we descended immediately to a lower altitude. I hate that about trails.

One strange sight on the trail: An old rusting Pepsi sign that somebody attached to a tree years ago. Too bad, 'cause I woulda paid some serious money for a cold beverage at that time. Another commercial opportunity missed.

Then the trail continued up, up, up to about 2,275 feet to a point called Buena Vista that indeed gave us a lovely view of the caldera, its steep forested walls and the steep descent that awaited us. The African guides hired by the Arcadia project – the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program – built a little bench out of the poles they cut during the trail clearing. It was a nice little place to contemplate the view, the misty clouds coming in, alternately concealing and then revealing the landscape. We were drenched with sweat. I longed for one of those clouds to sweep over us ever so briefly and rinse us off, but for once the rain stayed away.

During the descent, the trail is cut crudely and with few switchbacks, but the local guides buried numerous poles along the way as handholds. The poles are a little frighting because they are like pungi sticks along the trail -- one false move and you would have one skewered journalist, which I suppose might satisfy the media critics out there. I can describe the ground on the descent very well because I did not spend much time letting my eyes stray from the next spot to place my foot. It took us about 25 minutes to descend, where we were greeted by a stream and several pools of cool water. It's a nice spot for the members of the expedition bathe and do their laundry.

Now that I’ve had a refreshing bath in the cool stream, the sun is setting, the camp is filled with laughter, the sky is clear and the woods are a symphony of insects and animals calling to each other. A sublime place.

But there is ominous news from the expedition members who have arrived before us. They have found fewer monkeys here than in the coastal areas below, and the monkeys they have encountered seem particularly skittish. There are numerous fresh shotgun shells near this camp, indicating the bushmeat hunters have been here recently. And that may confirm the concerns Arcadia biology Professor Gail W. Hearn that the absence of the Bioko’s forest guards – fired in May because their funding had expired – may have given a signal to the hunters that there was an open season on this protected wilderness.

Photos from Ureca

We have a Flash photo gallery with Barbara Johnston's photos from Ureca. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity

January 4, 2005
Camp Peter, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.29093° E 8.46678° Elevation 390 feet. Temp: About 80° F

We’re camped for the night in a spooky place in the rainforest, a stopover on our hike up from Moraka Beach to the Gran Caldera de Luba. The African guides on our expedition named this place Camp Peter a few years ago in honor of the husband of Gail W. Hearn, the Arcadia University biology professor who is leading our expedition. They named it in the hopes that Peter Hearn would someday come over and visit this place that has enchanted his wife.

Peter, let me spare you the airfare: If the only incentive for you to visit Equatorial Guinea is to visit this camp named for you, I’d hold out for a better place. This is one lonesome camp: dark, wet and uncomfortable.

Perhaps the steady rain that greeted us on our hike today has distorted my objectivity. Or it could be that there are only three tent sites here under the forest canopy, all of them conveniently shaped like bowls, so they efficiently collect rainwater. We dug a few trenches with my plastic trowel to drain the water, but I think we’re in for an unpleasant night.

We only hiked about four miles this afternoon. We’re told the hike to the caldera, the ancient volcano crater that is our holy grail and the home to many endangered primates we want to see, is too difficult to make in one day. So Hearn and her academic partner, Wayne A. Morra, created this camp here to make the hike less stressful. Today’s hike was pretty easy, a clear path up a gentle grade through rainforest with only a few interruptions where the trail descended to cross modest creeks.

The forest is dense and green, and in many places it is impossible to see more than 50 feet deep into the woods because of the undergrowth. The forest floor is covered with rocks and roots and little soil – many of the trees have root structures that begin a few feet off the ground. Much of the ground is covered with luminescent green moss. Some rocks are so densely covered with moss that small ferns have sprouted from the rocks.

The hike took a little longer than expected because one of our group left a pair of shoes behind in camp – I’ve promised not to mention Wayne’s name. But that allowed us to spend about 45 minutes parked on the rocks beside a river where it flowed into the sea while one of the porters dashed back to camp to find the shoes.

The rain began as we hiked into the forest and only stopped around sundown. I’ve discovered the first casualty of the rainforest, which is my digital thermometer – I’ve just got a blank screen. There won’t be any more temperature readings on this trip.

I’m writing this under battery power while sitting on a log under a tarp, where the African guides prepared us a dinner of spaghetti and sardines over the fire. We’re being swarmed by bees that seem particularly excited by the sweaty spots on our backpacks.

This morning we packed up our tents and packs at Moraka Beach while the three Spanish tourists who dropped in yesterday slept in. They’re on holiday – two dentists and a biologist. They also spent the evening on a walk looking for nesting sea turtles. They hired one of the African turtle watchers, offering to pay $1 for his services before agreeing to pay $10. The Spaniards complained that was an “American” price but went on their walk until 1 a.m. and saw two turtles, including a giant leatherback as she laid her eggs. What a rare treat they had.

This morning, after the Spaniards woke up and went on a day hike, the Africans approached us and complained that the tourists had refused to pay for the turtle walk. The Spaniards decided they were paying too much for the other costs of the trip and decided to stiff their turtle guide. What stupidity, to cause a lot of ill will to save $10. I don’t think this sets a good example for other tourists who follow. I hope nothing bad happens to those chintzy Spaniards. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

I’ll try to upload this blog when the rain ceases. There’s a gap in the trees near the camp where I can get a faint satellite signal on the telephone. But no questions and answers on the Web site tonight.

Monday, January 03, 2005

New photos from Barbara Johnston

We've posted some new photo galleries of Barbara Johnston's work from Bioko Island. Unfortunately, I'm having trouble creating direct links to the galleries now from this blog, but you can find both listed on the project's homepage.

Incidentally, I am one of the Inquirer's online editors working on this project. If anyone knows any Javascript pop-up window workarounds for, please put a comment on this entry.

Sound clips from Ureca

Here are digital clips of the music at the camp at Ureca, which Andy Maykuth refers to in his Jan. 2 blog entry: Real Media or MP3, 1:07 seconds.

Trash and tourists washing up on our shore

January 3, 2005
Moraka Beach, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.25878° E 8.48594 ° Elevation 8 feet. Temp: 89° F in the shade

Oh, the humidity.

This is my last day along the sultry coast, where the census-takers for the Bioko project have repeatedly trod the same three paths, counting groups of monkeys and other animals. The data they’ve collected will be crunched and compared to previous years. So far the signs are positive: A fair number of monkeys, often alarmed at the invasion of larger primates, scold us from the branches overhead – a red colobus relieved itself from the trees above on one of the census takers this morning. And we’ve found very few fresh shotgun shells, which indicates that there has been little hunting recently.

We’ll be working on stories for next week that look more closely at the monkey census.

There are only a handful of us left here at the beach camp. In recent days, most of the Arcadia University expedition has departed for the ancient volcano crater called the Gran Caldera de Luba, a two-day hike up to about 3,000 feet. It’s a secluded place, drenched in rain and walled off by imposing chasms. Its isolation is its advantage over the rest of the island – it’s more protected from the commercial hunters who prefer forests from which they can quickly remove their catch. The last surviving monkeys on Bioko island will flee to the caldera for refuge.

Gail W. Hearn, the Arcadia biology professor who is leading the expedition, has reported back to us by satellite telephone from the caldera that everyone is healthy and relatively dry. The census is going slowly because the trails are overgrown and need to be cut.

My interviews and explorations along the coast are nearly finished and I will head up the mountain tomorrow with Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer photographer, Arcadia economics professor Wayne A. Morra and a small entourage of other campers and porters. While Hearn focuses on the research, Morra’s contribution is to keep this large operation running smoothly. He organizes the porters, sorts out and repairs the gear and keeps loads of cargo moving between camps. His bonhomie transcends language, and the Equatoguineans seem to like him a lot and are eager to work for him. They pronounce his name “Wine.”

I like the beach as much as anyone, but the fine, black volcanic sand finds its way into everything – clothing, tents, teeth, computer keyboards. My body is covered with so much sweat and ointment – sunscreen for the beach walks, insect repellant for the bugs and anti-itch cream for when the repellent fails. The only thing the multiple layers of goo seem to do well is collect grit. I’m looking forward to climbing to a higher elevation, where I will get to experience different varieties of biting insects, slightly cooler temperatures but just as much humidity.

I have come to realize that while I like the tropics, I do not love the climate. I dream about ice cubes. I fantasize about hitching a ride with an expedition to Antarctica.

There are barely more than 100 adults living on the southern edge of Bioko, where the warm air coming from the south collides with the dramatic dormant volcano. The air condenses at it gains altitude and releases more than 30 feet of rain a year. The northern end of the island, the populated rain shadow, is fairly dry compared to this place. One might expect that an area as remote and as uninhabited as this would be pristine. But the coastline is littered with debris, much of it washed ashore from the jetsam of passing freighters. It’s a little disappointing to stumble across a hypodermic needle in the sand. The same goes for the trails that cut through the rainforest here, the highways for villagers, fishermen and hunters. It’s easy to find the paths because they are usually marked every few yards by crushed plastic bottles, clumps of fishing nets, empty sardine cans and the discarded plastic footwear worn by Equatoguineans. There are few places on the planet untouched by humans.


A curious thing about this beach is that the tides take place at the same time each day. The tides vary in size from day to day, but they always occur at the same time. Nobody from Ureca can offer me a plausible explanation because, to them, all tides everywhere occur at the same time of day. So if any readers out there can help me understand this phenomenon, please weigh in on our Web forum.

Speaking of curious tides, this afternoon a boat washed up on our beach bearing three Spanish tourists – two women and a man. They hired Ureca’s cayuco to take them to the village for a two-day visit. The boat had engine problems – not the first time that has happened, we’re told. So they had to stop short of their goal while the boatmen work on the motor overnight.

They don’t look too prepared for this – they’re a little puffy and pale and they’ve packed their gear in luggage with wheels that does not appear to be waterproof. I’m not sure if they knew exactly what they were getting into, but I suppose they are well-meaning – they’re spending money to come here to see turtles. But they didn’t bring much food or a tent. Perhaps they were hoping to find a guest house in Ureca, but I suspect they wouldn’t like the room with the bat where Barbara slept the other night. Wayne Morra has offered them the only spare tent the expedition has – unfortunately, it’s the tent that leaks really badly. At least the mosquito netting is sound, although I see they’ve left the flap open.

They did, however, bring plenty of liquids – a case of bottled water, a case of San Miguel beer and eight liters of boxed red Spanish wine. The alcohol is real currency in this camp. Also, if the tent turns soupy and buggy, they can drink themselves to sleep.

Party on, amigos.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A village greets us, and we are entertained

January 2, 2005
Ureca, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.25587° E 8.58443 ° Elevation 486 feet. Temp: 82° F

Many of the people who live in this village on Bioko island’s southern coast are employed working for the Arcadia University expedition we’ve joined. So the town’s population of 80 adults was depleted of many men when we arrived on New Year’s Day. But that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the women who came out to greet us on Saturday after a grueling six-hour hike along the beach and through the rainforest. It seems many of them were in a New Year’s Day holiday mood, apparently enhanced by prodigious amounts of alcohol.

In short, they were blotto.

Each of our group of four Americans, one Equatoguinean professor and three porters received a bounty of hugs, kisses and cries of “¡Feliz año Nuevo! They were mostly glad to see Wayne A. Morra, the Arcadia economics professor who is the man who organizes much of the difficult logistics behind the expedition while biology Professor Gail A. Hearn concentrates on the animal science.

Since Morra is responsible for the various turtle and primate protection projects that keep this village employed, he is seen as the village’s patron. Soon there were a number of villagers lined up to greet him, and then ask for favors, gifts and shipments of goods in the future. As the most bilingual person of our entourage, it fell to me to translate between the villagers and Morra, who is still working on his Spanish. My Spanish is not perfect, so I hope I didn’t miscommunicate any promises on Morra’s behalf.

There is not much to Ureca village – dirt paths that are as slick as waterslides, a few humble wood houses with dirt floors, a military outpost where six soldiers assigned to this rainy outpost looked glumly at our credentials before allowing us to do our work. There are no cars in the village because you can’t drive there – it’s an eight-hour hike from Luba, the island’s second largest city. In the evening, after a dinner of spaghetti and sardines (which we had brought with us) and two liters of cheap boxed Spanish wine (which we bought from a local person) and some sweet local pineapple, we were entertained by one of the men who brought out a guitar with dented edges and sang, accompanied by several women. Morra recorded some of the music, and we’ll try to upload it for listening on the site.

Us menfolk spent the nights in tents next to the house of one of the turtle-watchers. They cleaned up a nice bed with a mosquito net for Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer's photographer. Alas, while the guys snored away in the yard, Barbara was visited by a bat in her room, which seemed to want to roost beneath her mattress. I don't think she had a restful night, what with nightmares of Transylvania.

I’m writing a story about Ureca for the newspaper, along with Barbara's photographs (though I don't think she got a shot of the bat). We hope to get it in the newspaper in a couple of days. Stay tuned.

Today, after doing some interviews in Ureca this morning, we hiked back to to the expedition’s beach camp. Morra and one of the expedition’s participants, Paul Jaffe, tested a GPS system they are developing that would allow the locals to count wild animals more precisely – that’s the subject of another upcoming story. We saw a few groups of frisky guenons and red colobus monkeys while hiking through the woods, along with many snares set up by the citizens of Ureca. They don’t hunt endangered animals any more, but they are poor people who live off the land, so they are not about to give up eating some of the wild porcupine and tiny antelope called duikers that keep to the ground in the woods. Their favorite game is the giant pouch rat, which they call "ground beef" because it tastes like beef and it scurries across the ground.

After returning to beach camp – a hike of about nine miles – we learned that a substantial rain had come through the camp on Saturday, swamping several tents and forcing the cancellation of the afternoon census. But word came down from the Gran Caldera de Luba, where Hearn is located with about a dozen expedition members, that there was no rain at all yesterday. So the rains that drench this area, caused by warm air coming from the south and condensing as it rises over the caldera, are very much a hit-or-miss proposition.

There was still time left in the day to take a refreshing dip in the ocean and a bath in a stream, following by a half-hour of vigorous laundry scrubbing on a log that seem to have been deposited by the creek for that very purpose. I discovered during the bath the limitations of insect repellent while hiking and sweating profusely – my arms and legs have become a swollen landscape of red welts. But my feet are still in good shape, which is a blessing

Dinner of rice, beans and sardines. No wine tonight. We’re back to roughing it. Flying ants are bouncing off the light from my laptop screen. Gotta file this report and get some sleep.

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