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Archive for July, 2015

17 July 2015


The rain started at some point in the middle of the night. I woke up to it pounding on the roof and cursed my poor luck. I might have to stay another day despite my machinations. Best laid plans of mice and men and all that. I wake up several times through the night hoping not to hear it, but the rain continues through the morning. I wake up at 4:00 nonetheless. The rain subsides during breakfast. I head over the bridge in the hope that it will end soon. It is more of a mist than a rain when I reach Don Salvelio’s house. He is not awake yet, probably thinking that the early hour and the rain would drive me away. He gets out of bed and immediately lies down in a hammock and starts asking me about geography, claiming that, “His truck cannot drive in the rain.” I tell him about how deserts are formed, whether Israel is in Africa, Asia, or Europe, and whether Poland is close to Antarctica. We sip on some coffee, which seems to finally spur him to action. We jump in his truck and hit the road. As we drive, Salvelio’s mood toward me seems to soften. He tells me stories about the birds and animals he has seen while working in cacao forests. The rain stops completely as we drive toward the site. Once there, sampling goes well. I spot some bird species that I have never seen in cacao agroforests: golden crowned warblers, olivacious trogons, and a red-legged honeycreeper. The only problem was the slight scare I had when a scorpion emerged from my backpack as I was packing my equipment.

Bridge Over the River Lacantun

Bridge Over the River Lacantun

We head back into town where I meet Emilio and his truck. It is stuck in the deep mud on the side of the road after the rain. Salvelio and I push it free and we lurch to Don Galacion’s home. There, I meet him as he puts on pants. He informs me that he needs to go to Comitan and cannot sample with me. “Well,” I think, “at least I got one more sample today.” However, just as I was prepared to accept defeat, I spot Jose, who is ready to go. So, I take him to the truck and we depart for his cacao plot. We stop where the road turns to mud. The rains have made it impossible to go on in the truck, so Jose and I disembark up the road on foot. The mud clumps and sticks to the bottoms of the shoes to the point that it almost feels that I am walking on stilts. I clamber up hillslopes and slide down the other side. After an hour of walking we reach the site. It has not been tended to as well as Salvelio’s, which is not surprising given its distance from town. I quickly wrap up the sample to minimize Emilio’s wait time at the truck. Another hour and we reach the car. Jose and I sit in the bed of the truck on the back axle so that it does not lose traction in the mud. I say my goodbyes to Jose. All of our equipment is already packed at the CONAMP station, so we just throw it in the bed of the truck and make our way back to San Cristobal, where Emilio and Angelica leave me.

The cool mountain air and familiar streets of San Cristobal are a welcome refuge from the heat, insects, and discomfort of the lowland rainforest pueblos. I am glad to be back in the little cosmopolitan city and settle in quickly, the concerns from earlier dissolving and flowing down the drain after a warm shower. It’s funny, nobody wants to be a tourist, but there is a certain amount of comfort derived from being just one amongst many. Every field trip is trying. I realize I have a tendency to focus on the negatives of an experience, for whatever reason. I must attempt to recall the pleasure of working in the rainforest doing projects that I enjoy in the moments when I doubt myself. As somebody once told me, “They wouldn’t have to pay you if it wasn’t work.” The difficulties are small and the highs incredible in comparison to the prospect of an office or minimum wage job faced by many people. Now I have a week to decompress and prepare for the next trip into the field.

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16 July 2015


I head back across the yellow bridge Armando just before 6AM. The sun is rising above the hill to the east of town. Wisps of cloud float blue grey over the brown river water. Fortunately, the rain appears to have stopped. I stop at Salvelio’s house before going to Armando’s.

“He has already gone to Comitan.”

“When will he be back?” I ask.

“Quien sabe.”

I walk over to Armando’s house. He has business to attend to this morning, last night’s storm brought down a number of trees in the road and landslides which need to be cleared to allow a shipment of lumber through to town, but has arranged for Pedro Perez, another cacao grower, to take me to his plot. Pedro is older than Armando. He has long sideburns that extend to his jaw and a wispy salt and pepper mustache that just covers his upper lip. Armando explains the plan and Pedro starts jokingly that I don’t need an old man to accompany me to any cacao plots, but rather that I need a young woman to keep me company. We make a quick pit stop at Pedro’s house, where his wife gives me a coffee. The coffee here is weak and watery, taken black with a metric ton of unrefined brown cane sugar, or piloncillo. I gulp it down so that we can get a move on to the cacao plots. The walk is about half an hour, but almost entirely along the main road, which is fairly dry as opposed to the muddy horse trails I took in Agua Perla. He peppers me with questions about where I come from: what is the weather like, what do people eat, and of course, when do farmers plant their corn? We step through a few barbed wire fences and reach his cacao. The sampling goes well. I see few species, perhaps because of the rains last night, but hear many. Pedro hacks his way through the acahual to the road, stopping to pick some platano, which he kindly gives to me. He says his goodbye at the road so that he can return to work in his plot and I start back toward town.

Morning in Montes Azules

Morning in Montes Azules

I run into Armando on the way into town. “Did you meet Salvelio and Jose?” he asks.

“No,” I reply, “I saw nobody on the way back.” Apparently he meant for the two men to meet me on the road when I finished sampling with Pedro, but there was some errors in communication and they went on to their plots without intercepting me. He sighs and agrees to take me to his cacao plot. We walk up another road, Armando’s broken plastic flip-flops slowing his pace. The sky has cleared and I have started feeling the heat of the afternoon coming on. We encounter a group of men blocking the road atop a hill. These are the bloqueos Juan told me of, and Armando makes sure that they will let through the wood that the United Forest Cacao Cultivators have ordered for a new processing building. The radio on his belt chirps continuously as he converses with somebody in charge of the bloqueo. After about 45 minutes of walking, we head off-road to the cacao plot. The cicadas here, for whatever reason, are deafening. Armando left his radio on, but I can barely hear it over their electrical buzz. A long-tailed hummer whirrs by and hovers to inspect us. A trio of golden-hooded tanagers flit in the treetops directly above us. A brown jay swoops down in pursuit of a cicada he has spotted on the trunk of a tree. Twenty five minutes pass by quickly and I pack up to return to town.

We catch a combi on the way back to town. The stroke of luck allows us to return in half the time it would have taken to walk. The combi is faster, but slowed greatly by the poor condition of the road. We stop at a taqueria to have a mid-morning snack. The tacos here are small and simple. You can eat them in about three bites and feature two small tortillas; a meat of some sort, usually spicy beef or chicken; and cabbage and radishes. I thank Armando and make plans to meet tomorrow to go with Salvelio and Jose Perez tomorrow.

My mood has improved significantly. The work went well today and I am on pace to finish collecting all the samples that I planned. Admittedly, I am did not sample Don Galacion and Don Manuel’s coffee or the Lopez sisters’ vanilla, but I collected an equivalent number of samples in cacao exclusively. The uniformity of these samples will augment the power of my analysis.   Emilio and Angelica are planning on leaving tomorrow morning around 9, which will give me just enough time to finish my bird sampling and head out with them. I could stay an extra day to maybe sample in the Montes Azules Preserve and Don Galacion’s cafetal, but the road block I encountered today, still 3 days before the election, and Don Armando’s statement about downed trees and landslides makes me a bit nervous to delay my departure.

I head back to the CONAMP station to rest after the bushwhack today. Angelica is leading a children’s workshop about bats, so I try to hide away in the yard behind the building. Unfortunately, it seems every square foot is occupied by ant nests, and their bites make it impossible to stay. I go across the bridge to Amatitlan to meet with Jose Perez and Don Salvelio, the last two cacao growers whose contacts I have. The enigmatic Don Salvelio is finally at home, taking down a “Chiapas Unido” sign from his house. He doesn’t even look down at me from his ladder as I explain my project. “I cannot go tomorrow. I am going to Maravilla Tenejapa.” I try again, stating that I only need half an hour. He mulls over his options, figuring that I probably wouldn’t let up given my persistence over the last two days. He begrudgingly accepts on the condition that I arrive at his house at 5:30, an appointment I suspect he doubts I can keep.

Excited after “landing” Don Salvelio, I head to Jose Perez’s house. I walk into his yard and a dog immediately runs at me, snarling, and is only stopped by the rope connected to its collar. Jose comes out of the shack. He is skeletal thin. His top row of teeth are gone and have been replaced with metallic dentures. His voice is hoarse and I can barely understand a word he says. His cacao plot is two hours away on foot, so I would need to find a car. Initially, I think this might cause me problems, but it turns out that I might be able to borrow Emilio’s car. I tell him that I will come back if I can find a car.

I don’t expect that Emilio would be amenable to me borrowing his car, so I visit Don Galacion, who agrees to take me to his coffee plantation, which is still an hour and a half away. Cornered, I run back to the CONAMP station to see if Emilio would allow me to borrow his car. Surprisingly, he is perfectly fine in doing so. His one condition is that he act as driver, to which I happily agree. I run back to visit Jose. I would prefer to perform a point count in cacao so that the samples are more uniform. However, he decided not to wait for my response and went to Comitan. Resigned, I go to talk to Don Galacion, who says he can meet me after I sample Don Salvelio’s plot. It is already almost dark, so I walk back to CONAMP station to rest up for my early morning.

Rio Lacantun

Rio Lacantun

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15 July 2015


I wake up at 5AM again so that I have enough time to catch Don Armando and possibly go sampling this morning. I reach his house just as six. He is sitting outside on the remnants of an old couch, the cushions all gone, leaving only the metal frame and a few pieces of spare thread. The man sitting next to him wears a white button down and ripped white cotton pants. I introduce myself and the goal of my project. He excuses himself and heads into another room to talk with his wife. I cannot hear the details of their conversation, but it does not inspire me with confidence. I talk with the man in the white. He is Don Galacion, a friend of David’s who grows coffee. Just as I am about to ask him whether I might sample in his plots, Armando returns and agrees to take me to his cacao. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “it will need to be tomorrow. I am the head of the regional cacao growers and I have a meeting with a political candidate today.” So begins a twenty minute monologue about his role as the leader of the cacao growers, his vision for the future, and the importance of cacao in the future of Mexico. His stained t-shirt disguises this politician. Unfortunately, Galacion bows out midway through the speech. Armando suggests that I talk to Don Salvelio about sampling his cacao. I thank him for the suggestion, affirm that we will meet tomorrow, and head over to Salvelio’s house. His wife emerges from his house at the corner of the town square. She notifies me that Salvelio has gone to Comitan. I ask her when he will be back. “Quien sabe? Who knows? Come back later.” I head back to CONAMP dejected by the prospect of another fruitless day. At least I can say that this discomfort is worthwhile when I collect data.

Two CONAMP employees have arrived. Emilio is here to establish a camera trap in the Montes Azules preserve and Angelica is here to teach a children’s workshop about bats. They are extremely pleasant to talk to and we eat lunch together, talking about work. I take a nap in the afternoon. The siesta is an excellent way to waste away the hours during the hottest part of the day. I wake up completely drenched in sweat. I stumble out of my hammock and grab a cold water from the rundown old fridge in the kitchen.   It is gloriously cold as it trickles down my gut, chilling my baking innards. I stop at Salvelio’s house later that evening. I hear the wife talking to someone inside. However, she tells me that, “He has not returned yet. Try again early tomorrow morning.” I get the sense that the man doesn’t want to deal with me. I also make a quick stop at Armando’s again to inquire whether there are any cacao or coffee plantations on the way to his plot, which is almost an hour away. He tells me that most of the coffee and cacao on the ejido are in another direction, so it looks like I’ll only be able to sample his plot tomorrow, which is hardly an efficient use of time. I also ask about going to a communal reserve to sample, but it turns out that it is between 1.5 and 2 hours away, and he has no interest in walking that far so that I can do my research. All this would have been far easier if I had a car. The local drunks seem to hang around the bridge and ask me for change as I walk across. I return to CONAMP unsure of how successful my trip will be. Maybe I will stay an extra day. A strong wind begins to blow as darkness falls. I wonder if this means there will be some rain tonight. I don’t know if the nap I took earlier buoyed my mood, but the prospect of staying here doesn’t seem so daunting. I just want to collect all the data that I can on this trip. I wasn’t expecting the agroforestry plots to be so spread out, which greatly impacts my sampling efficiency. At any rate, I want to leave here by the 18th so I avoid the probable bloqueos on the roads on and immediately after Election Day on the 19th. That doesn’t leave me much time. I sip a mango juice and listen to the wind rustling the banana leaves outside the CONAMP station. Geckos chuckle in the night. The rain starts coming down. I hope it stops before morning.

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My friend took care of some of the insects around my bed

A CONAMP vigilante (night watchman) enters the building to get out of the rain. He is about my age and stops to dry off by the table where I am sitting. We start chatting about our work. Juan has worked as a vigilante for CONAMP for about 3 years. He and 5 other rangers guard this region of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve against poaching, land encroachment, and plant and animal trafficking. This seems to be a Herculean, if not Sisyphean, task given that the preserve is 331,200 hectares in total. The main issue is squatting. New immigrants from Guatemala and elsewhere in Mexico settle in the Reserve and form small communities which can go undetected for long periods of time before they become established. The outer ring of the preserve is open to community management. Many communities, including La Democracia, Chuncerro, Benito Juarez, and Nueva Palestina are technically located within the boundary of the Reserve. Their ejidos have been grandfathered into the management plan for the region and they are allowed to continue to plant their milpas, agroforests, and graze their cattle. The nucleus of the Reserve, however, is off limits and has never been actively managed for resource extraction (as far as we know). This area is incredibly difficult to reach, even for researchers, who need to get special permission from the government to do any kind of research there.

The discussion shifts to politics and the upcoming elections. Juan explains that the Verde (Green) party is currently in control of most of the state government and functionally equivalent to PRI. They run on the same platform much like how many smaller third parties endorse main party candidates in the US. The PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) a centrist party that was developed after the Mexican Revolution of 1920. Ironically, although it holds itself as the party of the revolution (can an institution be revolutionary?), its political stances are chameleon-like. Directly after the revolution, it played to the demands of the campesinos by initializing land reforms. Later, to placate foreign investors who were spooked by the Revolution, the PRI government privatized and expropriated Mexican resources. Over time, PRI became synonymous with corruption and fraud. Each PRI president chose his successor, whose political leanings were a response to the state of the nation. If the campesinos get restless, instate some land reforms or social programs. If the businessmen start crying foul, implement policies of neoliberalisim and privatization. PRI dominated Mexican politics from its inception until the 1994 economic crisis. They took a no-holds-barred approach to elections, and were often accused of bribery, electoral-fraud, and even organizing the assassination of a political opponent. Mario Vargas Llosa said, PRI rule was “a dictadura perfecta (“the perfect dictatorship”). Government seems to be a family matter in Mexico (isn’t it everywhere?) and most of the PRI-Verde candidates are somehow related to the current governor of Chiapas. The municipal elections may go against the Verde party given the growing discontent with governmental inaction and ineptitude. The PRD, the main leftist party which split from the PRI, was gaining fairly widespread support among the smaller pueblos. There were some smaller leftist parties like the Partido de Trabajo (Worker’s Party), but they have largely bowed out of the race in support of PRD. However, in response, new parties (Mover a Chiapas, Chiapas Unido) sprang up. These parties are functionally equivalent as PRI-Verde and many suggest that they were “established” by PRI-Verde itself to fragment the left’s voting bloc. The elections on Sunday are going to be contentious, says Juan. Many towns will establish bloqueos to ensure that the candidates do not deliver materials to bribe voters in smaller rural communities. Juan is not altogether certain about the outcome, but believes that it will not be in the interest of poor rural smallholders. “The government is in control. All of these parties are two sides of the same coin, but many people don’t recognize this. If anybody does speak out, the government will deal with them. They will give them a new car and a new house and tell them to shut up. Or, if that doesn’t work, they will deal with the threat in a more covert but direct manner, with a bullet. We haven’t had much drug violence here on the border, but it’s easy to justify a state killing if they “find” a connection to El Narco. I don’t think we’ll have another ’94 (Zapatista Uprising). Many people have been placated. Their situation is bad, but the government has built a new road, has connected some new power lines, and that is enough for most people. They aren’t really united anymore. They don’t see that nothing will change in the long-term even though a few things have improved in the short-term.

Frog trying to escape the rain

Frog trying to escape the rain

The rain finally lets up for a moment, so Juan says goodbye and hops on his motorcycle to go home. I head to bed.

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14 July 2015


I wake up at 5:00 to prepare for sampling today. It is overcast, but not rainy. I hope that the weather will hold out. Ermilo has an upset stomach, so he sends his son out with me. We depart shortly after 6AM and start up the muddy trail to the cacao. I never get the son’s name. He doesn’t say a single word besides alerting me that we have arrived at the cacao plot. The half-hour trip is no less muddy than the one to Reynaldo’s plot. I complete my point count and head back to the house where I pack up for the trip to Amatitlan. I decide to forgo sampling in Rio Azul because there was only one contact that I had there, whereas I have 3 in Amatitlan.

IMG_8040Getting started on “my” project so early in my graduate career was both a benefit and a shortcoming. It seems that my methodologies are all developed post-hoc. I discover what works and what does not through trial and error. This is fine, but it invariably involves the regret associated with wasted time and effort. It would have been nice to have had time to study different research methodologies to decide on a standard and establish all of my field sites rather than trying to expand my project by meeting with friends of friends of friends in the middle of nowhere to gamble whether I might be able to sample on their property. On the other hand, I did get a head-start on data collection which will hopefully serve me well in the future. I just hope that I don’t need to toss out too much of it.

IMG_8042I say my goodbyes and begin the walk to the river crossing. There I meet a canoe piloted by an older man. He drives it into the bank so that I can step onto the craft. The route across is much smoother than that when I first arrived. It is also significantly cheaper. The earlier twenty peso fare was an exceedingly high price which the boys must have figured they could get away with given that I was a gringo.   Turns out they did.

The clouds of the morning have broken to reveal a sapphire-blue that glows like a jewel in the sun. I take a seat under a roof by the road to settle in for the long wait for the combi to Amatitlan. Who knows just how long it will take. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take all that long. An empty cattle car heads in that direction. A man in a wide-brimmed white cowboy hat opens up the gate and I hop aboard, along with several children and their mothers. This is a wonderful way to travel. The breeze is lovely and the pastoral countryside zips by as the truck weaves around potholes and puddles. The man in the cowboy hat jokes with the mothers, revealing a row of silver teeth that could belong to a Bond villain. After no longer than half an hour I reach Amatitlan, pay the man in the cowboy hat his 20 pesos and walk over to the square to inquire about Don Armando, who Reynaldo told me I should get in touch with given that he is the head of the cacao-grower’s organization. Nobody seems to be home and I am informed by a passerby that he is away and will return later.

I lug my bags back across a large bridge to La Democracia, a smaller town just on the other side of the river. The CONAMP station where I am to stay is open, but nobody is inside. I wait outside until a young man with a pencil mustache drives up on an ATV. He is a CONAMP employee, and I explain the object of my stay. He lets me in without any hesitation. I enter the bunkhouse. It is hardly the home away from home that I had hoped for in a biological station. A trail of some creature’s turds lies on the floor. I grab a shovel from outside and toss them into the woods behind the house. I check the mattresses which all look like they may be infested with bedbugs. I pick out the cleanest one and lay out my hammock atop a set of moderately clean sheets that I dig up out of a cabinet. There is no way that I will sleep directly on either the sheets or the mattress. I want as many barriers of separation as I can muster.

I head back across the bridge later that evening. There must be some kind of party in La Democracia as a band sets up beneath a small tent covering stretched out beneath a field of balloons and folding chairs. It turns out that the children’s clasura, or graduation ceremony, is tonight. Unfortunately this means there will be more music in the night. Back in Amatitlan, I am greeted at Don Armando’s house by a pair of teenage boys wearing Bono sunglasses. They tell me that Armando is resting after his travels and that I should try back tomorrow. They try out some English phrases on me. I smile and say goodbye. I hear snickering as I walk away. It looks as though tomorrow may not be at all productive. I buy some food at the market and walk down the road past piles of gravel in the middle of the road, old men with permanent four o’clock shadow covering their constant scowls, dilapidated trucks with broken axles abandoned on the roadside. The air is hot and thick with dust. I don’t know if my mood is only allowing me to dwell on the negative or whether this really is such a shitty town. Rain clouds swell black and heavy above the mountains. Thunder cracks in the distance. Maybe some rain will lighten the air and reveal this place ion a new light. I retire to my hammock draped bed and try to get some sleep in between Norteño songs.

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13 July 2015


I wake to rain drumming on the shed’s tin roof. The opposite hillside that I stared at yesterday is completely enshrouded in dark clouds which roil on the horizon and race into the valley where Agua Perla lies. There will be no sampling today. I crawl back into my hammock and listen to the pitter patter raindrops that ebbs and flows with the intensity of the storm. The storm finally breaks around 10AM, at which point it is too late to do any sampling. It looks as though I will need to stay for an extra day.

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The kids, suddenly freed from the confines of the house, race over to me. I escape their babbling by walking to the stream that Reynaldo and I passed yesterday. “El arroyo de la sierra, me complace mas que mar.”  I roll up my pant legs and dangle my feet off the bridge into the water. The brisk coolness is a welcome antidote to the heat of the day. I read continuously for the first time since my arrival, taking a break only to observe a few electric orange dragonflies perched on a floating log. I head back when it is time for lunch lest my hosts think me ungrateful.

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After lunch Ermilo asks whether I would like to go to the cabins. I agree, if only to do something different. An appointment with the dentist would be a welcome distraction at this point. Luis eagerly volunteers to come with us. The cabins are situated near stream past a barbed wire gate. Three neat wooden cabins that were quite obviously constructed in only the past few years stand next to a large, open-walled dining building. The thatched roofs rustle in the breeze. This is a community ecotourism project organized by Ermilo and 9 other men in the village. It is evident that a large amount of money has been sunk into the project already and I am sure that they were hoping for a greater return on investment. This is exactly the kind of ecotourism project that contrasts that at Las Guacamayas outside of Reforma Agraria. It arose organically through community support rather than being imposed from a far-away government. Profits too will return into the community rather than being funneled into the national government’s coffers. It is too bad that the infrastructure necessary to bring and retain tourists does not yet exist here. The bridge that would connect Agua Perla to the main road broke three years ago and has been in disrepair since. They do not have internet or phone service to take reservations or any advertising to draw in tourists from the road. I offer both my excitement and a few choice suggestions. Agrotourism is expanding rapidly throughout Mesoamerica, especially that fueled by chocolate and coffee. Tourists come to observe the process of harvesting and making their favorite bean-based delicacies. This site, in my opinion, would offer a great opportunity to do this, especially combined with the proximity to intact rainforest. The lodge could offer an eco-agro-tourism where tourists could learn about cultivating cacao and then visit the rainforest which is preserved partly thanks to the cacao agroforestry itself. IMG_8018We bathe in the river, but cover up quickly to protect ourselves from the piercing proboscises (proboscis?  proboscies?  probosciszszes?) of the mosquitoes waiting for a moment to strike at our exposed flesh. A lizard of some sort, possibly a skink, shuffles off into the undergrowth as we walk back up the trail to the cabins. Luis grabs my hand gently as we walk along rocky road back to the house. He holds it so softly that his soft, pudgy palm would fall out of my grip if I uncurled my fingers. It seems less an effort to actually be safe or secure, and more a simple gesture of comfort in acknowledging my presence. Of course, he punched me square in the balls as we were playing yesterday. It wasn’t an, “Oops, sorry about that. It was an accident,” punch. He wound up. There was intent in that little fist. Once I was down, he took the opportunity to try to rip out my beard. So all in all I don’t know if he really appreciates me all that much. IMG_8017My sabbatical has been noted and terminated by the children, who pull at my arms and drag me to play. I have come to actually appreciate the half hour I can physically devote to the kids. It offers a nice change of pace during the day and gives me a powerful bargaining chip to entice them to stop bothering me for a moment. Fortunately, they seem to forget what we were doing during my bathroom break. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of accidentally peering into the hole in the floor that serves as a toilet. I shudder and close my eyes. The writhing shit stew below was enough to make me gag, but I had to suppress the reflex so I did not need to face the opening while vomiting. I gingerly crouched down over the opening, praying that nothing from down below would investigate me. Ermilo’s son and two grandsons, who live in the house next to his, join us for dinner shortly after dark. I like this system of keeping family close, but not too close. Certain facilities, like the living room, kitchen, and bathroom, are kept in a common building, allowing for, or rather forcing, social interaction, while bedrooms are in separate small buildings for each family within the family property should you want some privacy. The other men are not nearly as talkative as Ermilo and we eat in silence until they leave. Ermilo then opens up. We talk about the cacao cultivating workshops that he has attended. Excited, he leaves the kitchen and brings a few small books detailing the process of cacao fermentation which we peruse until his wife, a somber, thin, unassuming woman brings us a special desert: boiled squash. She asks her husband what I thought of the cabins. I don’t know if I have ever actually been spoken to by a Mexican woman. They always speak through their husbands. It seems that this use of intermediaries to converse with outsiders is a widespread social convention in Mexico.

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12 July 2015


A few minutes or a few hours later (I didn’t bother checking my watch), a loud bang wakes me with a start. It sounds like a gun being fired. But who would be firing a gun at this time of night? Another bang. I go outside to investigate and realize that it is not a gun, but several avocados falling from the tree above onto the corrugated tin roof.

I wake at 5:00AM and meet Reynaldo who is also ready to go to his cacao parcel. The recent rains have exacerbated what I can only image was already a mucky trail. Horses’ hooves have pummeled the ground creating a minefield of mud. The next step could be either solid or you might sink up to your shins in the grey-brown muck. Every footstep is made more difficult as the mud holds your boots firmly, releasing them with a loud pop. Of course, some of the mud still clings to your boots and it weighs down your subsequent step. Moving uphill is tedious, as I slid a few inches backwards with every step. Heading downhill is easier but no less precarious, as I slip down with all the grace of a drunk ballerina, pirouetting and jeteing to avoid falling.

After a 45 minute slog, we finally reach Reynaldo’s cacao plot, where I complete my point count. Reynaldo suggests that we stop at the cacao plot of his other brother on our way back. More data is better data, so I agree. On our way back, the dogs traveling with us start up the hillside, barking like they were possessed. Reynaldo stops and listens to the tumult. “Javelinas,” he notifies me and begins whistling to his dogs to get them to come back. Javelinas are wild pigs which generally travel in groups. Although not as big and bad as boars, they can certainly do some damage to a dog. The dogs finally return and we continue.   Once at the cacao plot, I observe a black and white hawk-eagle snatch a smaller bird (which I could not identify before its guts were torn out) and perch on the broad branch of a tree in front of us just as I set up the microphone and begin the point count. He glares ferociously and begins to eat his breakfast in front of us. I wonder if this impacted the point count as I couldn’t help but be somewhat distracted by the activity that was transpiring only about 20 or 30 meters away.

I am surprised that I am also allowed to sample in Reynaldo’s second cacao plot. This one is closer to town, which almost undoubtedly impacts the bird community. I observe only about half the number of species as I did at the previous two sites between the sample location and later time.

We return to the village around 9:30. I sit down to read and relax after my morning hike. Luis and Anamaria are not up yet, so I take advantage of the relative quiet punctuated by the occasional falling avocado. Of course, the calm before the storm is but a temporary lull and the kids don’t stay down for long. They barrage me with questions until Ermilo calls me away to discuss the plan for tomorrow. There is not much variety to the meals here. It’s either beans and tortillas or tortillas and beans in some incarnation. Of course, the tortillas are always hand-made from corn ground that morning, so I have no problem with the monotony. I always find it a challenge to decide whether it is impolite to turn down seconds or whether it would be gluttonous to take them as a guest. I bear on the side of caution and say that I am full.

The heat of the day crescendos after mid-day. I sit in my chair and stare out the window at chickens scratching in the mud. Chickens in the tropics are some of the ugliest creatures I have ever seen. They are ratty and most of their feathers are gone. They accumulate a covering of dirt and mud as they scratch in the soil for insects and worms, undeterred by the impropriety of their naked bodies. It must be noted that their dinosaur ancestry becomes obvious when they lose their feathers (though I suppose the feathers shouldn’t really hide it given that most modern theories posit that most dinosaurs were feathered). The terror one feel upon being charged by a naked chicken is real.

I read a little bit, watch the shadows of trees in the forested mountain slope shift on the horizon, return to my book, see where the shadows have moved to…and so passes an afternoon in a Mexican village. I offer to help with cooking, cleaning, splitting wood, anything to help my hosts, but that is seen as a complete upending of traditional gender dynamics, which are still fixed here. Luis has apparently been playing with a machete and cut his forehead. I open up my first aid kit, clean the wound, close the wound with a butterfly bandage, and cover it with a piece of gauze. He hops up with a grin and runs off undeterred. I hand a few bandages to his mother, as it seems but a matter of time until he reopens the cut.

The evening brings some coolness to the air and the kids force me to play with them. They greatly enjoy roughhousing and urge me to throw them into the air and spin them time after time until I am drenched in sweat. The game spills out of the yard and becomes a community affair as children come out of the woodwork to join in the fracas. Their manic laughter brings several onlookers into the street, all of who seem bemused by the antics. I am a researcher in the mornings, a student in the afternoon, and a clown in the evening. The kids do not recognize my exhaustion and therefore do not allow me to return to my chair to rest. They yell incessantly,”Otro! Yo! Yo! Otro! (Another! Me! Me! Another!).” I recall the final attack scene in Lawrence of Arabia (“No prisoners!”). We play until darkness falls. The evenings are shorter here near the equator. I am treated to a lighting bug light show as a recompense for the lack of long summer evenings. Although I miss the latter, the former is something that I rarely experience back in the United States.

My sleep is once again disrupted. This time a speaker blares the Norteño music that I have come to abhor. Blaring trumpets, accordions, and overly dramatic vocals punctuate the rainforest night as I lie sweating in my hammock. I am unsure whether the music finally ends or maybe I allow my tiredness to overtake me.

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11 July 2015


It’s still dark outside as I stumble out onto the road, closing the gate behind me with a clang. The roads are empty, so I have no choice but to make my way to the bus station on foot. My backpack, laden with all the gear I will hopefully need over the next week, digs into my hips. I arrive at the terminal as they are calling for passengers to Comitan.  I board the bus along with only three other people, so we depart according to schedule.

I step out of the Comitan bus terminal into the street after a 90 minute bus ride. The clouds that enveloped the region a few days ago have not let up yet and a dreary rain soaks everything as I make my way to the combis. The drizzle turns into a gale just as I step under the corrugated tin roof over the combi station. I ask when the next combi to Agua Perla is bound to leave. I am told that it ought to depart in half an hour. I am foolhardy enough to believe the prediction, but wind up waiting for about an hour and a half before all the passengers finally make their way on board. I toss my backpack atop the combi amongst boxes of vegetables, a crate of chicks, and a handful of mops. The driver covers the cargo with a PVC tarp and we head out into the rain. The drive is fairly pleasant before we reach Maravilla Tenejapa. I chat with a man from Nueva Esperanza and explain my work. He is interested and surprised that a gringo wants to undertake it. I must admit that become less and less sure myself with every passing year.

These long spells of nothing allow me delve into myself and force me to reckon with the self-pitying and self-doubting part of my psyche that I usually am able to ignore by focusing on work.  I become tired of living out of a backpack. Tired of constantly being gawked at and talked about in hushed tones as I walk by. Tired of campesino men jeering at me with shouts of, “Guero!” Tired of having to put the rest of my life on hold to travel to collect data. Tired of re-wearing sweat and mud-caked clothes day after day until even I realize that I smell something like spoiled milk. Tired of waiting for combi drivers who don’t stick to their schedule and all the what-ifs that worm their way into my mind as I wait. Tired of chiggers, bedbugs, and mosquitoes. Tired of my feet looking like they have been stricken by leprosy because of all the bloody welts and bug bites that cover my ankles. Tired of…being tired…just tired…

There are some things I still appreciate. I have made several friends and not many people can say that a Lacandon Maya milpero calls them, “companero.”  I believe in the projects I am doing; that they can make a positive impact on the local and scientific communities, perhaps now more than ever. I finally feel like I am an expert in something.   I get a rise out of teaching others about the work I am doing and the places I have experienced. I am excited by the fact that I can now do so with confidence rather than self-doubt. I love p values less than 0.05. I still love standing in the forest with a pair of binoculars and scanning the treetops for the movement of a bird, even if it just turns out to be one I’ve already seen a hundred times before. I love that everyone will greet you with a brief acknowledgement of “Buenas dias,” if you do so in turn.  I still get butterflies when I look at deep-green forested mountainsides dotted with skeletal bone-white tree trunks, or when I look up at a giant cedro tree around whose girth I cannot wrap my arms.  Maybe that’s all that matters. Maybe I just need to suck it up and come to grips with the choice that I made and that ultimately that what I am doing is meaningful.  Then of course comes the guilt that I’m should recognize my privilege and the fortune that I have had in my life thus far.  Maybe I just need some sun and a good night’s rest.

The combi ride becomes significantly less comfortable when we reach Maravilla Tenejapa. A family fills in the rest of the empty seats, which means that the little bus is already fairly well stuffed. Unfortunately, this combi driver, like so many others, does not really grasp the concept of “full.” We continue to stop in every town to take on passengers. This is only made more uncomfortable by the fact that the temperature outside is rising steadily as we descend to the lowlands around Montes Azules. We are stuffed like sardines bouncing down the highway. Our heads bob in unison as our little metal can maneuvers around potholes (can it really be called a pothole if half of the road is gone?) and landslides almost undoubtedly caused by the recent heavy rains. Actually, sardines may have it better off than us. At least sardines are packed in water.

I reach Plan de Rio Azul after 4 hours in the combi. I squeeze out and squint into the sunlight as the driver lowers my backpack to me. He drives off leaving me to my own devices to find my way to Agua Perla. I ask a few teenage boys hanging around a small shop for directions to Agua Perla and get little more than sideways glances and stifled giggles in response. Teenagers are pricks everywhere. A man inside the shop tells me that it’s across the river and that I will need to take a lancha. I thank him, shoot a disapproving glance at the boys, and start walking down to the river.

Two boys paddle an old canoe that seems to be taking on water toward me and offer to take me across the river. I agree given that I don’t seem to have any other option. The boat shivers in the water as I get in and I immediately crouch down in the middle of the craft, which is apparently put together from roughly hewn scrap wood, not even bothering to remove my backpack. The boys, aged probably about 10 years old, start paddling upstream. The river is swollen to just below its bank-tops due to the storms that have passed through the watershed over the last week. It drifts sluggishly, dyed chocolate brown with silt and clay. The boys prove to be fairly adept oarsmen and we make our way across in short order.   I ask them about a price. They counter with a twenty peso fare, which I fork over, glad to be over that obstacle without having ended up downstream with all my equipment at the bottom of the channel.

I start up the opposite bank and almost immediately slip on the treacle-like mud slope, the full weight of my pack collapsing atop me. I dust myself off. Fortunately, only my hat is partially crushed and I am no worse for wear. The trail intersects a road. A man walking up it greets me and asks where I am going. I explain that I am going to Agua Perla to meet with Don Reynaldo to sample birds in his cacao plots and ask whether he knows where I could find him. Ermilio responds that he does, given that Reynaldo is his brother. Ermilo was heading back to Agua Perla himself and offers to show me the way. He also reveals that he cultivates cacao as well and allows me to sample there.  It is good to have contacts here, because many small rural villages are extraordinarily insular.  One certainly does not just walk onto some random person’s land, and you should expect to be ignored or rejected even if you do introduce yourself as a student researcher.

On the road to Agua Perla

On the road to Agua Perla

We reach the town after about half an hour of walking. It is past mid-day and the heat is oppressive. Sweat drips from my forehead and stings my eyes to the point that I can barely keep them open. Ermilo leads me to Reynaldo’s home, where I am welcomed and given a glass of chocolate water. It is something akin to a Yoohoo, but made with bone-fide cacao. I recount the purpose of my travels to Reynaldo, who agrees to help me and suggests that I hang my hammock in Ermilo’s tool shed. I am not entirely enamored with the idea, but it turns out that the shed is open on one side to let in the breeze and quite clean and spacious.

My home during my stay in Agua Perla

My home during my stay in Agua Perla

A little boy, Ermilo’s grandson, walks into the shed as I unpack my backpack and set up my hammock. Everything is carefully inspected by his exacting gaze. Luis is an indefatigable 5-year-old. He pelts me with questions until both my Spanish and mind are exhausted. Everything needs to be removed from its container so that he can see it more closely. However, despite the obvious fact that these technologies are completely unknown to him, his interest is purely academic. He has no jealousy or desire towards my relative material wealth. He is quite content to snack on his Sabritas: spicy Cheeto-like corn snacks.

Luis in action

Luis in action

Reynaldo invites me to eat dinner at his house. I realize that the food I brought was in all likelihood going to be completely superfluous, which doesn’t bother me at all. Fresh corn tortillas, beans, and avocado beat potatoes, carrots, and lentils any day. The municipal elections are coming up in the next week and he tries to clear up the confusion I have about the process as we eat. It appears that three new parties, namely the PRD, Chiapas Unido, and Mover a Chiapas, have popped up alongside the centrist PRI, conservative PAN, and the center-right Verde party. I have no real notion of what separates these parties as they all seem to be promising the same things: development of one form or another. One candidate promises a road; the other promises a bridge. One claims that the other is corrupt; the other retorts that his opponent does not really represent a change from the present administration. The campaign posters that invariably depict the candidates smiling a toothy grin and giving the thumbs up don’t really do much to differentiate them. Despite the fact that the elections seem to have very little impact on the well-being of these oft-forgotten rural villages, they are very passionate about local politics. Upping the ante from lawn signs, every home seems to have a campaign symbol or slogan painted on its side.

After dinner, Reynaldo and I talk about cacao cultivation and my plans for my field work on this trip. He says that there are two main groups of cacao producers in the region. One is organic while the other raises cacao conventionally, that is, allowing for the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He belongs to the former group. He admits that his work would be much easier if he could use chemicals, especially to treat the fungal infestation (“la plaga”) that significantly impacts his crop yield, but is very adamant that he believes that organic farming is the best way to reduce his impact on the local environment, which he cares deeply about. Not everybody is as devoted as Reynaldo. He tells me that some people have accepted chemical pesticides and fertilizers from political campaigns in exchange for votes. I suppose that there is no way for the politicians to actually ascertain whether their return upon investment, but I suppose that it can serve as a powerful incentive when one politician is almost indistinguishable from the next. Reynaldo supplements his income from cacao with milpa and fruit trees. These plots have become increasingly important for him given that recent years have been hotter and brought more intense but sporadic rain events, thereby reducing the productivity of his cacao. He also suggests a few more people in Amatitlan whose cacao plots I could sample.

Anamaria

Anamaria

I make my way back to Ermilo’s place and sit down in a plastic chair that he has provided for me. Luis and his older sister Anamaria come over and begin their inquisition regarding my equipment anew. I must explain the function of a teakettle at least four times. It would appear that I will have no rest while they are around. I try to escape to the shelter of my hammock, naively thinking that they would leave me alone if I hide and remain silent for a while. It turns out that this merely gives them the means and opportunity to batter me around like a piñata. Their mother comes over and reprimands them for their behavior and they settle down. Luis, however, does not cease to babble quietly to himself. I finally manage to fall asleep shortly after dark, thoroughly exhausted from almost 8 hours of travel.

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