I had not so great of a sleep in my own comfortable bed last night because it felt strange to me. I guess it wasn’t a close enough sensation to sleeping on the ground – which I had been doing for the previous four nights…
Bright and early Wednesday morning I packed a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, grapefruits and pears, clothes and other necessary amenities into my giant bag and headed off to the FUPNAND (something something parque nacional nombre de dios) office to meet the folks I would be adventuring with up the mountain. I had no idea with whom exactly I would be going with, or what exactly we would be doing. I carried no expectations but was relieved when I came face to face with the team (all from Tegucigalpa – the capital city). Julio, a professor and biologist at the National Museum of National History in Tegucigalpa had a long beard, long hair in a braid, and a kind intelligent demeanor. His team was composed two older fellows named Will (museum curator) and David (volunteer for the museum, chain smoking medicine man and plant enthusiast who went by William as well), Emmanuel (employee and biologist of FUPNAND) and four students around my age Eduardo, Malcom, Mildred,and Cindy. Mildred is a friend of my coworker and she as well as the two guys spoke English very well which proved to be mighty helpful on the trip.
Two trucks of people and equipment were taken about 20 minutes east of town to one of the many park entrances. I felt a huge weight off my shoulders when our trail guides began to load our gear onto 2 horses and a donkey. Not that I wouldn’t be able to carry my huge pack with me – but I have never really attempted a 6 hour mountain hike with 40+lbs on my back. Even with my little backpack the first twenty minutes or so were steep and I was sweaty and red and about to quit right there. The team dispersed on the trail and then would collect back together at break points. For the first little while I walked with David (photo to the left)who had miles of information for every plant we passed. He told me he was really into fossils and had visited the arctic. Later on the trip I found a beautiful snail shell and gave it to him – he was quite pleased. At 58 years old I was ever so impressed by his ability to scale steep slopes with a seemingly never-ending cigarette.
The better chunk of the hike up to camp was spent with the four students and Emmanuel. We had a good breather break at the half way point waiting for the old farts to catch up, which they never did. It was important for us to stick together and to have our gun wielding guides near. A gringa-looking woman can call upon unwanted attention and a lone human is easy prey for a jungle cat. I was quick to fall into being teased (which is good because it means they like you) about being rich enough to buy pears and loving Justin Beiber (and over the next 5 days many other things). I was happy to find out that these cursing, charming, playful, good humoured, intelligent young environmentalists were very much on the same page as I. I was excited to get to know them better and am excited now to have known them and see them again. The 6 hour hike went by quick now that I look back. It was amazing and every stretch seemed composed of new species, views, and things to learn. I asked a lot of questions and found out about half way up that the purpose of this trip was to collect specimens for the museum – therefore there would be some killing of animals happening. I wasn’t too keen on this, but was reminded that it was for the sake of science! We found our first specimen near the last leg of the journey – a coral snake. Emmanuel, who had handled many snakes in his life, was bitten, and not until he was severely ill at camp for days afterward did I realize how powerful some tiny little creatures can be.
Camp was set up with several tents under tarps, a little kitchen and a bathroom (aka h*** in the dirt with some privacy tarps) set up a short walk away. The beautiful raging river was also a short walk away and we drank from it and washed in it. The horses and mountain men had beat us to the punch so our things were there upon arrival. A lovely young lady was cooking up a storm over the fire – two little kids by her side. Maria was her name, and she was the wife of Manuel (our guide and mountain man).
We ate some chicken yucca soup (que rico) and then got to work setting up the mist net (see photo above with net, Maria washing dishes and one our guides filling up the water supply) that would be catching the bats near the river where they feed atnight. It is a very fine netting that is used in bat as well as bird studies - most species of bats cannot detect it with their echolocation. After that, two teams split up to go up hill and down hill to set up little live traps to catch small mammals. They were baited with sardine/bread meatballs. Mmm. The bats were fantastic to look at; I have never seen one so close. They are designed so perfectly for what they do…by looking at certain features like their nose and the pouch-like skin between their legs, you can determine what kind of food they eat. Fruits, bugs, people. Their wings are made of the same bones as our hands, but evolved for a different mechanism: flight. Though I found it difficult, I realized that one would not be able to observe such beautiful and important features in a live creature, and thus grew more of an understanding an appreciation for the concept of an animals life sacrificed for the “sake of science”.
The next morning, which was Thursday, 4 out of 40 mammal traps were successful and caught some cute rodent mammals. We went on a hike towards tapir territory in the afternoon – checking out our hidden camera footage and collecting amphibians along the way. After a few hours of steep walking, we had to get back as it was nearing dark and we would try to set out early the next day to see if we could catch a glimpse of the big funny looking mammal that is a tapir. On my way to the bathroom that evening, a big snake was crossing my path. It did not scurry away like many Canadian snakes do when you meet them, but looked me in the eyes and raised its head in my direction. It had a beautiful green and yellowish pattern (from what I remember) and I immediately yelled out to my new friend Malcolm (our reptile and amphibian enthusiast) that I’d found something. An array of floating lights came my way and a commotion was raised for this particular snake is one of the most venomous there are. It is also strange that it was crossing my path because normally these snakes are strictly creatures of the trees. Good luck? It was double bagged and put in a bucket to be brought back to Tegucigalpa as a live specimen and put on display at the museum with a plate that says “found by Sarah Osborne” underneath it. I can’t wait to go visit and see her! On our amphibian hunt later that night we found another one of these deadly snakes, a few frogs, and beautiful non-venomous grey snake that was only a few cm taller than me.
It rained hard hard hard that night so our morning tapir hunt on Friday was postponed until after lunch. My belly felt weird but I went anyway and we found tapir tracks which we made moulds out of and later on jaguar tracks as well. There some beautiful waterfall spots along the way (Cindy at the waterfall) and I could not believe my fortune of being able to participate in such an wonderful journey. We foraged wild coffee, bananas, pineapple, and sugar cane. On the way back I felt pretty dizzy, weak, and I broke into a fever. Retiring to my tent around 4pm, I did not leave it until 6am the next day. The medicine man brought me lime-forest herb tea and mint balm and he told me to keep the air out of my tent and that I was going to sweat and sweat and sweat. For a few hours I worried about what would happen to me (death?) but thankfully I was in the good hands of the forest and good people. I felt much better the next morning to make the decent. I still don’t know what exactly it was that knocked me on my ass but hopefully I am now more immune to whatever it was…
The descent was easy peasy and slightly shorter but probably just as sweaty as the climb. We made it down in a little over 3 hours and I bought a big ol 3L of cold coca cola from the pulperia at the bottom. Our last night (Saturday) was spent working in Cacao Lagoon (a flatter and familiar terrain for me) looking for amphibians, catching bats, and fishing. It was easy going and we were once again fed well and instead of a camp on the ground, the 9 of us and our gear stayed in two ‘apartementos’ aka two cement rooms. We did have a nice little bathroom and lights so it wasn’t bad at all. They all cursed me for having my thermarest for I can imagine a cement floor ain’t great with just a sleeping bag. We were up late, but it was a beautiful night working under the stars. We found some cool frogs, interesting fish, a few bats, and also caught a glimpse of a Central American porcupine! We got accidentally high on formalin (the stuff used to preserve the animals and us to I guess)when we were working before bed, and Malcolm sang to us (as Julio put it) all night long with his deep snores. Hooray for ear plugs.
We were up with the 100 crowing roosters Sunday morning and after breakfast headed back to La Ceiba. I really didn’t want the adventure to end. It did go on a little longer than expected for when we returned to the office it was discovered that the car battery of Julio's truck had been jacked. The other car in the parking lot had its windows smashed in and radio stolen. I got blamed for stealing the battery (a sign of affection?)– and got some extra time with my new buddies while some folks went to the store to buy a new one. I said my final farewells and thank yous and gave hugs to all. While they made the 8 hour trip back to the capital city (+ another hour or so with the flat tire they got) I was in the ocean and on the beach having some Salva Vidas and reflecting on my journey.(thats me with the arms up)
As most of the journey was in Spanish – quite a few things were lost in translation. However, I did gather some important knowledge and wonderful life experience from this trip. Julio – the bearded braided scientist, talked with us in our cement apartment about how Honduras lacks a lot of information about their wildlife. Many people rely on books and information that come from Costa Rica or Mexico. These can be helpful, but these countries are very different and with such different ecosystems and ranges, how could they have the exact same species that Honduras has? A trip like this is important in building the knowledge and repertoire of who and what truly exists in the mountains, rivers, oceans, lakes, and forests of Honduras. There may be even some species that have never been discovered! We were also asked not to post any pictures of the specimens we collected before they are properly identified and the report is sent out – incase of any smartass people making claims that they know what something may be. I am ever so grateful to have been part of this trip and to have contributed to a collection of museum pieces that will go down in the natural history of Honduras
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