Amanda Campbell traveled to Nicaragua in the Summer of 2014 with a veterinarian, anthropologist and a small team of students to evaluate hunting dogs in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. Under the guidance of Dr. Christine Fiorello of the UC Davis One Health Institute, the goal was to better understand the health status and zoonotic diseases risk in the area. Dogs catch the bushmeat that is consumed in Bosawas, so the health of dogs directly affects the livelihood of humans in the region.
Throughout her travels, Amanda maintained a journal, exploring everything from veterinary technique and cultural awareness to challenging work conditions and the value of a tight-knit team. Follow her journey below, which features photos by fellow student, James Liu.
13 hours of travel from Sacramento to Houston to Managua.
Our flights, characterized by spontaneous napping and subsequent neck cramps, were mostly smooth; it wasn’t until we landed in Nicaragua that we encountered turbulence. Dr. Fiorello predicted that our empty liquid nitrogen tank would encourage questioning from the customs officers but no one predicted that it would instigate a full investigation and seizure of our luggage. Despite our insistence that our supplies were not for sale (no para vende! No para vende!), all of our medical supplies were detained. We reluctantly left the airport, and all of our bags, and headed to our hostel where we hoped to reunite with the second half of our research team.
Even after dark the bright blue and green walls of “the Nicaragua Guesthouse” were visible. The playful colors of our home and the sight of James and Laura leaning over the balcony to greet us immediately reignited my excitement toward the trip. It was strangely comforting to hear that their baggage had also been withheld because it meant that the team’s activities for the following day were unified.
With our team united, we strategized inventory recovery. Reclaiming 3 bags felt much easier with 4 minds working together and the discussion quickly shifted toward the upcoming weeks and the dawning adventure.
Thankfully, the departmente de reposicion released our veterinary supplies without much convincing, just a quick fine. We spent the remainder of the morning collecting extra supplies (nitrogena liquido, manzanas, and hilo) then had lunch near our hostel. James, Laura and I ventured into a local bar to watch the Algeria vs. Germany World Cup game while Dr. Fiorello spent the afternoon fighting off jetlag. Carrying the spirit of the game onward, we inflated one of the soccer balls that we planned to donate to kids within the reserve and started a friendly street soccer game.
It turns out soccer is not like riding a bike and practice is required for maintaining any form of skill. I was quickly sidelined.
While sitting on the bench I attempted to engage some of my peers, the 3-and-under crowd. Similar to my soccer experience, I realized that my Spanish was not anywhere near as sharp as when I last practiced...in 2007. Even writing this 4 hours after the event, I am still embarrassed at my inability to understand anything that was said to me and frustrated that I couldn’t explain my confusion. To complicate the situation more, when I asked for clarification the speed of each response increased. My only salvation was that the hoard of 3-year-old Managuans seemed to enjoy my confusion and giggled profusely.
I really wish I used the beginning of my summer to brush up on the language more. America is often critiqued for its United States-centric education, language included. Compared to other countries, the U.S. doesn’t push bilingual development. Until now I believed that I wasn’t one of those Americans… that I appreciated the dialect variety that exists within the world and that I made a solid attempt at learning Spanish. I am disappointed that I have gotten lazy and reliant on my primary language for communication. I’ve focused my last few years on really learning the science that would guarantee exam success in vet school and demoted the skills that are necessary for being a well-rounded member of my community. In order to be the kind of vet that can practice effectively in my local community and abroad I need both. Veterinary work is not just medicine. Communication is basic and key. I will make a point to practice my Spanish more often this coming year and next year, if I am lucky enough to return, I will not only play for the entire game but also be able to talk about it after.
Today I navigated Indy’s path for 8 straight hours on the way to the port of Ayapal. Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ride is a surprisingly accurate simulation of a truck traversing dirt roads in a forest, whiplash and all.
For the last six months I have heard stories about the boat ride from Ayapal into the reserve. Based on James’ footage of the river from last year, I prepped for a monsoon.
“My rain jacket said it was water proof but it definitely was not. The water soaked right through. I was not prepared.” –Laura
“Oh just wait until you have sat in the boat for 5 hours then decide if you still like the rain...” –Fio
“Make sure you have that Disneyland poncho accessible.”-James
“I remember pouring out my boot at one point.” –Fio
Two hours down the Rio Boci we were all dripping… with sweat. Not a single cloud graced us with rain or shade as we leisurely floated along. Two hours from our end point, I could barely keep my seat on my boat bench because my sweaty trunk and limbs were slip-n-sliding inside my black rain-resistant suit. Throwing decency to the wind I stripped off boots, pants and jacket and continued the rest of the way in running shorts and a quick-dry shirt.
As luck would have it, the rain finally did arrive but not until we were docked in Amak and attempting to unload our boat up a muddy cliff.
The weather in Amak, and Bosawas in general, is characteristically unpredictable. As I would find out later, the rain never comes when you want it and is always there when you’re lugging equipment around or drying clothing on some barbed wire. However, this regular spontaneity of shower and sun play sustains the lush environment.
Salty and sunburned, we tossed our bags onto the dusty floor of “la policia” (where we would all be staying) and attempted to catch the end of the downpour for a shower.
Our previous day of travel along the Amak river knocked us unconscious by 9pm. Based on Laura and James' experience last year, I expected our river ride to be river-rapid and downpour filled. This year, I managed to get rapidly burnt but the rain never came.
Just a long boat ride in scorching heat.
Our preparation the night before gave us a general sense of how the day would play out; the structure of each physical, the processing of the samples, the group dynamic and personal responsibilities. However, nothing prepares you like first hand experience.
We woke at 5am and saw our first set of dogs at 6am. This may seem insanely early, especially compared to the average American starting hours, but the entire village wakes with the dawn and is up tending to their livestock or household chores moments later. Plus, it's pretty difficult to sleep past six when there is a cow mooing through the bars on your window and 360 degrees of roosters informing each other that the sun is up.
Our entire group analyzed the first dog, patient 4001, to reinforce the progression of events during the exam. After, we split down the middle; James and I in one group while Laura and Devin comprised the other. Devin and I were warned ahead of time that the dogs would be fractious and that our presence in town would be received as a source of entertainment for the town citizens. Even with the forewarning I was shocked at the number of people lined up cheek-to-cheek in every windowsill, with the beams of the frame like book ends enclosing a collection of encyclopedias. Some adults seemed interested while others stoically watched but all stayed in their respective windowsills/doorways for hours. The commotion caused by the children (yelling, asking for bon bons, continually walking inside and lining the walls) heightened my already elevated nerves.
Practicing my currently poor physical exams and sample collection techniques is hard enough but I now had highly distracting audience. In addition, the dogs were agitated by the populations and chattering. The combination of these factors and the dogs' lack of familiarity with being handled led to a rough first few physicals. Two of the first 3 dogs thrashed around for the entire duration of the exam. I missed three vacutainer attempts, hit a valve while drawing from the cephalic, and scraped the knuckles of my entire right hand while attempting to restrain. By the time our midday break rolled around I questioned my ability and gladly shifted to processing lab work.
As if Bosawas could tell we needed a fresh start, the clouds darkened and poured rain, which encouraged the hoards of children to return home. When we started back up again, the rambunctious crowd was missing and the dogs were less fractious. With these conditions and the assistance of James and Dr. Fiorello, I succeed in taking blood from the jugular using a vacutainer, hitting the jugular and cephalic using a needle twice and collecting urine from both a male and female dog. The second half of the day took on a completely different mood -- quieter, more efficient, and more confident. I was so proud of my successful blood draws that I lost my annoyance with the onlookers and instead viewed them as valued witnesses to the progress of my competence.
Our day ended with two hours of sample processing and dinner. 12 hours of work with a total of 18 dogs processed and an awesome start to my skill building. Nothing like a little sweat on your brow to give you a feeling of accomplishment. (And some mud, feces, dog hair, deet, a few fleas and a fat mosquito bite).
Today we were kicked out of our homestead and workplace, la policia. The only police officer in town (Don Mario) informed us that a multiday police conference was about to begin and we could no longer occupy the police station. The community coordinator ensured us that he knew of no conference but after being directly confronted by Don Mario, we decided to find a back up location. By the end of the day we eliminated 3 options and accepted a transfer into "la casa materna", the maternity wing of the local health establishment, which was an unused empty building built by an NGO that left long ago. To make matters more complicated, Laura, James and I were all hit with the same spontaneous fever/chills/exhaustion… and just in case that wasn’t enough, the toilet was clogged and the town doesn't own a plunger.
So what was our first step?
An hour nap on the concrete floor of la policia. Duh.
Our new location, la casa materna, consists of two concrete rooms free of hammock hangs like those present on the wooden walls of la policia. The name of the neighborhood translates to "the butchered spider monkey" in Mayangna. The building is a decent walk from the old location through countryside and over a suspension bridge. It feels calmer than la policia and I hope that doesn't hinder our access to dogs. Either way, I feel massive relief that we can continue to process dogs and avoid back-loading our schedule.
Our new sleeping location is in the side house of a local women's family home across town, in the city center. The structure is actually pretty neat and staying here feels far more culturally authentic than the police office we were in the first few nights. The house sits on tall stilts and is composed of a central hall area with open front and rear walls and two sets of small bedrooms on either side. We have access to two of the bedrooms, each with two cot beds. Unfortunately, we have five people so someone has to sleep on the floor or in a hammock. I ended up volunteering as that person because I have spent the least overall time in a hammock.
Our last adjustment was the bathroom. The showering room/buckets we had been using were in la policia. The community coordinator gave us permission to continue using the shower in la policia but Don Mario locked all the doors and shut all the windows the second we evacuated. As a result, accessing that bathroom has been partially based on the luck of entering the building while the door is open and Don Mario absent and partially on knocking continuously until he answers.
So, as of 7pm on July 5 we are working out of the city of Amak, living in the city and bathing in la policia/the rio Amak/ or la bomba (the local water spout). Thankfully, because tomorrow is Sunday, we can sleep and start work at 11. Hopefully everyone will be over his or her bug and things will play out smoothly.
Today was pretty slow. It could be because it is Sunday (everyone is at church) but I don't think many people know that we are located past the bridge and we have exhausted the houses in our immediate location. Super Don Wario really screwed us by kicking us out of la policia. I'm worried that our slow pace will prevent us from accomplishing our goal of seeing every dog.
It's my first night in the hammock in the new living location. I think I set it up too steeply because it's pretty uncomfortable. I'll have to adjust it to make it more horizontal. Oddly, after we said good night and turned off the lights a strange man investigated my hammock while I was in it. When I protested he proceeded to walk into the boy’s then the girl’s room to look for his friend. Apparently church involves drinking.
We have been in the reserve for almost a week now and I think I am finally getting used to being blatantly stared at everywhere we go. For the past five days, children and adults have peered through windows or stood purposelessly staring in the doorway, for hours, while we exist on the other side of their field of view. Before we start working the town accumulates in our building’s orifices, and they stay there through clean up at the end of the day. They don't leave when you make eye contact and only step aside when you walk through the doorway that they occupy.
When we walk through town, little girls and boys giggle, stare and occasionally walk into a cow patty because they aren't focused on the road. When we visit la pulperia (a tiny store) where we have been plugging in the centrifuge and spinning down blood samples, adults and kids leave their porches and stand, hovering, to see everything we do. If we bathe in the river (still wearing sports bras and covered underwear) people stand at the cliff edge and peer down at us, watching.
It made me uncomfortable at first. I couldn't understand why we were so interesting and why they never left or got bored. But, Amak is tiny. The entire town is 240 houses. Just based on the size of the town (like one high school) everyone knows everyone's business. People frequently float between each other’s homes and everyone's kids are spread together over the entirety of Amak. So, not only are we a novelty in terms of the unavailability of basic veterinary care but we are in a small community that is used to a very open, very intertwined lifestyle. Since realizing this, the town has seemed friendlier and I have an easier time exploring and speaking a little more than I had before.
And you know what? When you address your audience (be it 1 person or 20) they will usually try to respond and then the environment is instantly less uncomfortable.
We started referring to Jeremy by the name Gaston... because he looks remarkably like the Disney character. Sing the following to the tune of the Beauty and the Beast song, “Gaston”:
No one sits like Gaston
Purse his lips like Gaston
Wears a fanny pack above his hips like Gaston!
It is true he can speak some Mayangna (that's right!)
And because he has two hands to spare
You can see him stomping 'round Amak
Or sitting comfortably in his plastic red chair!
I'm in my hammock right now, which hangs between the boy and girl rooms of our host house, and I realized that I'm not sleeping alone. Beside me are four large pink sacs containing either beans or rice. A few of these sacks rest diagonally against the sidewall creating a tiny triangular space large enough to squeeze a regulation soccer ball. One of the family's chickens has made this space her nest and laid roughly 10 eggs.
I feel like this is the perfect way to describe how Amak handles their livestock.
The cows, pigs, dogs and chickens run free all day and all night. There are no property fences to segregate yards or maintain isolated herds. The town's animals have free range of every part of the town just like the people. Identification of one's animals is dependent on personal familiarity acquired through daily animal husbandry and is vital because of the far reach of each animal.
As we walk from our homestead to our workplace we travel through the center of town. Our path is partially swampy concrete, partially slick dirt road, and mostly animal feces. The people and animals zigzag over the paths leaving boot prints, or other mud-like identifiers, along the grass. The cows and pigs don't make it up the steps into the house but can mirror that movement by marching beneath the house.
The end result amounts to a semi hectic game of pinball in which the players are flying between seemingly random locations. To the onlooker the progression seems chaotic and loud; but to those more experienced, the moving parts and changes in direction are what make the game interesting and characteristically Amak.
So here I am, in a hammock on a porch, on a house on stilts, above a pig and cow pen, next to a chicken roosting in her nest. I'm sure my hammock isn't as comfortable as her nest so she will probably sleep better than I will tonight. I hope, at least, that she has asked her esposa and his amigos to be quiet. Waking up to roosters at 2 am is making my 5:30 alarm seem really early and I want to be rested for the pinball game I have planned for tomorrow.
7/8/14 and 7/9/14
My physical exam is starting to become natural. I have made a solid effort to evaluate each parameter in the same order so that I don't forget anything and maintain flow between each step. I can definitely see that Laura has the strongest vacutainer blood draw skills out of the 4 of us. James and Dev are definitely good but Laura seems like she has been using a vacutainer for years instead of just on two trips to Nica. I'm trying to pair up with her a little more so I can learn her technique.
We have been muzzling every dog so far, which is nothing like how physicals or blood draws are performed in US clinics. The precaution makes sense because we don't have medical aid available and we don't know what zoonotic disease are present here, but it is creating a paranoia that is probably a little exaggerated. Also, the dogs hate the muzzle more than any part of our sample collection. Today we had a dog wear itself out by thrashing around in an attempt to get its muzzle off. The boys couldn't restrain “doggy tornado” and ended up having to de-muzzle (despite the 10 minutes it took to muzzle initially) in order to let the pup breathe properly. Dev and James wanted to release the dog but Laura and I decided to attempt the entire physical muzzle free in an isolated location first. The dog took to this immediately and we were able to complete the exam without upsetting the dog.
For dogs that aren't accustomed to the muzzle it seems to be less stressful to perform the physical without it. However, when getting bitten is likely, it's better to try to muzzle and just deal with additional squirms and cries of protest. About an hour after our muzzle-free miracle, a pregnant female came in that was incredibly aggressive pre-muzzle and outsmarted any attempt at placing it. In this case, muzzle and non-muzzle were not options and we ended up releasing her without samples.
Veterinary medicine is broad in terms of the role it can play in society, the species that it treats, and the tactics it uses to solve each individual case. This is true for physicals as well; each one is tailored to fit the patient. Whether that means in restraint or sample type, each animal is unique and must be evaluated with techniques that serve that individual best. To quote Fio's mentor from vet school, "it depends."
The number of dogs we see per day is steadily decreasing. I think it has a lot to do with our new location in "the suburbs" of Amak. We have seen fewer dogs over the past two days combined than we saw during our first day. We really need a strategy for overcoming this decline or we won't reach our goal of 240 dogs (the estimated dog population size of Amak). We did the math and with the estimated number we only need to assay 10.5 dogs per day. Our new tactic involves seeking out the dogs with a "mobile vet setup." I actually think this might be our only option. We can't return to la policia because of Don Mario and la casa materna is too secluded to draw a lot of people. Tomorrow we hike along the perimeter of Amak for the dogs that haven't been brought to us.
Side-note: I finally figured out the right way to set up my hammock. I wasn't stretching it out far enough so my back was in a constant “C” configuration. The more stretched, the more it behaves like a bed and not a swing. I actually slept super well last night... With the exception of the fact that my hammock got progressively closer to James' hammock throughout the night.
7/10/14 and 7/11/14
My hammock definitely sits on top of James's hammock now. I don't mind sleeping next to him but the nights are already so hot and the additional body heat ensures that we both stink in the morning. James clearly feels the same because he has been attempting to push me away throughout the night using his snake hook.
The past two days have been less restless because we have implemented a mobile vet strategy that involves hiking around the expanse of Amak.
Hiking in a rainforest is a million times different than hiking in California. For one, we have to wear knee-high rain boots because for a lot of the hike you are trudging through shin-high mud. Laura has an uncanny ability to locate the deepest part of each swamp and submerge her foot up to the knee within it. She definitely takes the card for dirtiest clothes at the end of the day.
Second, the foliage is incredibly lush and dense. Our guide, Orlando, leads us with a machete so that he can hack away the banana trees and bamboo that blocks our path. Even with the trimming, we all have a hard time navigating through the low hanging leaves and vines. It's hard to believe that this terrain is real. It actually seems untouched. Man's presence is only evident directly on our path because of the machete trimming and tree trunk bridges over creeks. The best part is when you step out of the trees into a cliff clearing. The view onto the Amak or Bocay river is gorgeous; I completely understand why these Mayangna households choose to seclude themselves.
Laura may win in terms of mud but I hands down take the cake for mosquito bites. No exaggeration, I have 15 bites on my left leg. That's one appendage... I have 3 more limbs that have been equally savaged. Subsequently, I have developed a strange amount of respect for the Amak piglets that spend their day tenderizing themselves against various staircases and displaced roofing material. Jeff Campbell, you were right... I should have bought the 95% deet.
Our trekking through the rainforest has not successfully increased the number of dogs seen, just guaranteed that we saw the dogs too far to be brought to la casa materna. Based on our walks through town, we have seen the majority of the dogs. Jeremy believes that our census was probably incorrect and the dog number was exaggerated. The stragglers that won't bring their animals appear to want more money than we are offering. We are talking about visiting another village soon.
We left Amak today. I have to admit that I'm really happy to move on to a new town because the lull in physical exams is making the days seem very long. We are all leaving something in Amak, not exactly by choice. My blue shirt was stolen from a clothesline, Fio's leatherman was swiped from a table and James's solar charger was taken from our doorway.
We had a strange interaction with one of the Amak adults two days ago that impacted me more than I expected. A lot of the dogs that we see are super sick; they have BCSs of 1-2 (emaciated), heavy ectoparasite loads, often anemic, and generally look worn-out from their rough lives as hunting dogs. The lifespan of the town dogs is short, averaging 4 years, and occasionally we evaluate a dog that seems like it may be days away from death's doorstep. It’s obvious that some of the dogs brought to us may not make it to the end of our visit (let alone our visit next year).
Loba was presented to us emaciated, anemic, tremoring and trying to raise a fresh litter of puppies. Two days ago, we were told that she died. That actually isn't what disturbed me. What bothered me was that her owner sought us out to inform us that we had killed his dog. Despite our explanation that it was poor nutrition in the face of lactation that killed her (hypocalcemia) he continued to blame us. In his eyes, she was alive before us and dead after. I know that we did nothing harmful to Loba and actually advised her owner regarding a better nutritional plan but I still feel guilty.
In class our professors emphasize focusing on the successes while learning from the mistakes. As for the patients that you can't save despite your effort, you can't dwell. Dwelling on the unsaved can fuel hesitation, lower confidence and generally make the job difficult to endure. I have to make a point of focusing on the successful cases and learning from the mistakes because I will encounter more Lobas.
Our dinner had some much appreciated variety in the form of paca meat and tortillas in addition to the standard red beans and rice. The paca was found by one of the Puluwas hunting dogs earlier this evening. We actually sampled (heart and kidney tissue) the animal directly after it was killed so eating it now was a little strange. Either way it wasn’t that bad, like a mix between pork and chicken. My piece still had hair in it. James, Gaston and I were the only ones that tried it; Devin and Fio are vegetarians. I’ve officially eaten bushmeat!
Note: Gaston learned several days later that rumors of Loba's death may not have been true.
In Puluwas, the rain that I have been hearing about showed up. It has been raining, hard, since before we woke up and will likely continue well into the night. The cool weather is welcome but it has complicated our laundry plan slightly. We have soaking wet laundry hanging over every part of our house; every crossbeam has shirts, pants and underwear sprawled limp over its extremities. Walking around inside feels like being in a house with a lot of ceiling leaks because fresh laundry/river water drops on your head so often. My clothing has been rank for days so the sight of clean wet clothing is amazing regardless of the clutter.
Our first day in the schoolhouse went decently well. Laura, Devin and I worked as a three-person team while James organized all of our samples and acted as scribe. The dogs here are infinitely more aggressive than the dogs we saw in Amak. They showed up growling and snarling, far before we had a chance to annoy them with any butt probe. The aggressive behavior summed with the intense rain left all of us slimy, muddy, and smelling of wet dog.
The cool weather has kept up which has been nice because I can wear my rain pants instead of crazy amount of deet. The less deet the better. I have the same relationship with deet as I do with sunscreen: I know I really need it but I hate putting it on and the feeling of wearing it. Unlike sunscreen, deet melts plastic. My baby dry bag no longer has its rain proof seal because my deet container melted a portion of it off. I can't get away with eating crema's (a 4 pack of cookies) secretly because the wrapper melts in my hand and literally leaves me red handed. I hope it's not too toxic because I have definitely ingested a good amount of it. Sooo…. super safe. The more I can wear pants the better.
We successfully saw every dog on our side of the river (12) if we can see the other half (19) of the river tomorrow we will be finished with Puluwas and move onto Ahsawas.
I'm feeling better about my technical skills today than the past few days. I like the faster pace because I get into more of a rhythm. My only technical goals for this trip included becoming confident in my physical exam procedure and developing proficient venipuncture. Based on the way things are going, I really feel like I will accomplish both.
I have made a new enemy: culicoides.
In the middle of wrapping up yesterday Laura and I agreed to examine one additional "puppy." Usually puppy exams are quick: nasal/conjunctival swab, jugular stick and fecal sample. In this case, the owners misestimated the age and the dog was actually an adult... And crazy. In the middle of wrangling this crazy, sopping wet dog, a swarm of culicoides filled the schoolhouse and targeted any and all free skin they could find. Unlike Mosquitos, you can feel when these bite you and they leave an itchy bite to remind you that they were there. Laura and I are covered. It literally looks like we have chicken pox. The constant itching is making work really difficult to focus on. I can't skip deet anymore. It's just not an option.
Note to self: bring more clothing next year, including a few long sleeve over shirts and quick-dry field pants, and treat everything in permethrin.
Today we worked on the opposite side of the river in the kitchen of one of the Puluwas households. The limited space meant that we could only work one team at a time but we still successfully saw the other half of Puluwas's dogs. In total we have examined 159 dogs. The people of Puluwas seem more kind and hospitable than those of Amak. They still crowd around when we are working but they don't shout "chine" at James or throw things through the windows. I've noticed this trend with all of the houses outside of Amak city center.
Completing all the dogs in Puluwas should have inspired celebration but our whole team was pretty spent at the end of the day during sampling. Devin was tired from consistently poor sleep in his hammock, Fio caught some traveler’s bug, and Laura and I were fed up with itching. We were a pretty sad group by the time we arrived in the church to use the only town generator, which turned out to be out of gas.
With the rain came a change in mood. James and Devin picked up the church's guitar and bizarre acoustic bass guitar and started playing Weezer, the Animals, the Beatles and other well known songs from home. Gaston attempted to join in with the accordion but clearly had no idea how to play it. While waiting for the gas to arrive, Devin and I broke into two coconuts that we were given earlier in the day and passed around the milk and meat which we carved out using a pocket knife and spoon. I can't explain how good it tasted to eat something fresh and not cooked in oil. The scene was pretty absurd: 4 muddy/pee covered veterinary students (and Fio) sitting in the town church eating coconuts with a spoon and belting house of the rising sun, with a gas fueled generator powering the sample-filled centrifuge in the center aisle, while a small crowd of indigenous Puluwas (one holding an armadillo) sat in the back of the room laughing and watching.
As much as I would like to attribute the change in mood to the magic of Bosawas rain, I think the turning point really came when we all admitted that we were tired and missed home. The fact that we could complete our vet work and enjoy our environment while at the same time missing some parts of home helped me feel more comfortable with our remaining week in the reserve. My exhaustion doesn't make me weak. Fieldwork isn't easy. Just like any other vet team, it's ok to lean on each other occasionally. A team isn't composed of individual pillars but a series of support beams. We are more capable of dealing with the weight of the situation when it's distributed.
Tomorrow we leave for Ahsawas. I hope the next house isn't over a pigpen... I really don't want to spend another night with crazy bugs and squealing.
We left Puluwas at 6:30 this morning after packing up our still wet laundry. The trip was considerably faster because we were traveling with the river and all the rain elevated the river level above the rock obstacles.
My bug bites still itch, but Laura is more miserable today. I keep catching her scratching her bites and have to remind her to stop. We convinced her to take a Benadryl because today is mostly travel and set up... She ended up sleeping for the entire boat trip. Fio's GI bug has gotten worse. She threw up a few times over the side of the boat and spent the afternoon sleeping on her thermarest in our new open roofed home.
The current is too high on the rio Bocay for us to bathe so we sought out the mouth of the creek. This is by far the best bathing experience we have had. The Ahsawas canyon creek opens directly into the rio Bocay. All the tributaries connect at la boca del canyon between high clay walls and fan out over a mesa of bedrock. The slabs that line the river are carpeted in moss or river grass that vocalize with gurgling and swirling turbulence as if the river is openly bragging about its freshness.
As if our appearance wasn't signal enough of our foreigner status, our unfamiliarity and excessive enthusiasm with the canyon sealed the deal. To avoid slipping and falling we crouch/semi-crawl to the middle of the canyon mouth and then spend the entire bath giggling while fighting the current's attempt to throw us into the river Bocay. Sorry Teva, you just aren't cutting it with the moss. Like in every other town, the people of Ahsawas stare at us during this activity and the cows wander down the cliff edge and hover over our rapids. I'm pretty used to it now so I don't really notice it. It feels so good to be clean.
Our sleeping situation should be better tonight because we are no longer sleeping over a pigpen and my hammock isn't going to touch anyone else. I feel like I'll actually be rested tomorrow.
We successfully saw all of the dogs in Ahsawas, which means that we are moving communities today. I'm kind of bummed out to leave. The community is newly established so the houses are more spread out and the terrain is cleaner. Our house isn't even finished. The layout is different from the other communities in that it is open field punctuated with houses instead of a dense grouping of houses and surrounding field. The people are nicer than any other community so far. The food is better, it's quiet enough to sleep during the night (we aren't over cows/chickens/pigs) and the little kids seem interested in a bashful way, not a "you're an alien" way. To show our appreciation we gave the community a Frisbee, our last soccer ball and pump and some pencils for the school. It was adorable watching the little boys try to figure out the Frisbee.
I apparently haven't been drinking enough water because I experienced severe dehydration -related GI stasis. I had to bow out for the last 3 dogs because my gut was cramping too much to focus. Thankfully, it was an easy fix... I drank 3 containers of water and then pooped for the first time in 6 days. I have to be more careful about that; this diet has way more rice than I am used to.
I think it's safe to say that our group has grown closer considering we spent an hour discussing our bowel movements (or lack thereof).
Currently in my hammock in a dirty schoolhouse in Wina. The church is hosting an evening sing-along that we can hear out of our window. Literally everyone is off key. It's actually hilarious. I might not be able to sleep because it’s so entertaining. Tomorrow we strive to break 200 dogs (current count 191)
This town is simultaneously disgusting and hilarious. Questions we have been asked thus far:
"Are there any blue eyes here?"
"Is James from China?"
"But is his family from China?"
"But he is from America?"
Jeremy can speak some Mayangna, which makes town interaction more stimulating and draws a crowd. We ended last night by singing our broken down version of "Stand By Me". Jeremy and Laura are the only ones with semi-decent voices, although Jeremy loses the beat fairly often. Devin drummed on the taut walls of his hammock while Fio and I snapped. We were terribly off key but they seemed to enjoy it… Either that or they legitimately cannot tell what good singing sounds like. I'm beginning to believe the latter based on the town talent we have been hearing. The best part is that the singing is so bold. Every person we have heard belts out Spanish lyrics at the top of their lungs while they cook or clean. I have a video from this morning that demonstrates pretty well.
It's amazing how one person can change your entire perspective on a culture. Our main liaison in Wina is Kenya, the coordinator of the women's group. We met Kenya while she was hiking down a muddy cliff to help sling our heavy equipment through the rain. This is a far cry from the other women we have communicated with, which are kind but reserved and primarily act as the home keepers to their households.
Beyond physically helping us, she has played a large role in making sure our project goes smoothly while in Wina. She coordinated our work/housing in la escuela, she makes and delivers our breakfast and dinner and she was a key voice during the initial town meeting for permission to work in Wina.
Tonight Kenya surprised us with a visit while we were all sitting in our hammocks playing 20 questions. She sat in the center of our ring of hammock cocoons and attempted to get to know us a little better (and vice versa). She ended up staying an hour and we learned about her life in Wina. She only made it to the 4th grade before transferring to an escuela secondaria about an hour away. She really enjoyed her schooling but returned home to her grandmother after getting pregnant. Wina will always be her home but her ultimate goal is to finish school then move on to a university. She divulged to us that her father had been killed and that her mother abandoned her. Her grandmother is the only family she really has left besides her brother. We attempted to learn some Mayangna, which she found hilarious. Apparently we were emphasizing the wrong part of the word and ended up saying that we were husking people instead of thinking of them.
The way that she described her life and her goals was inspiring. She has grown up with very little support in terms of her family and her education and yet continues to press forward in a way that combines her educational goals and her cultural traditions. We have met plenty of men in pursuit of further education but no women, until Kenya. She, similar to the other women in the community, maintains her household and is raising a child. However, she also works at a preschool and leads the women's group. It's obvious from when you first meet her that she is driven and direct but, after getting to know her more it is clear that she is extremely kind, capable and not afraid to explore the Kenya that exists beyond the cultural norm.
I regret that I can't help her more. It seems selfish that our team should show up with 3 women that are considered peers to their male counterparts, all of which have had the world at our fingertips, and not really help her community. It's true that we are paying to survey the dogs and that our donation to the church will benefit the general population but will it help Kenya go back to school? I feel selfish and dumb for not bringing something to donate to the communities. Something as simple as a stack of books would have made a large difference (especially because the only book anyone seems to know is the Bible).
Based on Kenya's interest in English and school we decided to give her our English-Spanish dictionary. I hope she finds it useful. Or, though this may be a stretch, I hope that watching Laura, Fio and I work helps reinforce her drive to learn and encourages her not to give up on her goals.
Our interactions with her have changed my perspective on the communities within the reserve. I can see now that the individuals are not stagnant but in the midst of modernizing their world while maintaining their culture. The isolation makes it difficult to bridge the gap but also helps preserve cultural practices. There is a tug-of-war between modernization (complicated by isolation) and tradition.
(Ode to Latrine" (Sing to the tune of "Jumper" by Third Eye Blind)
Crazy girl you look like you're in pain
Hopping in boots over muddy terrain
There's kids with flashlights out here
You reach the latrine
The doors starting to close
that vile smell tickles your nose
And bees sting your rear
Everyone in Wina hopes and prays
Someone clean the latrine today!
Our last few days in the reserve were highly productive. James, Dev, Laura and I found a pace that allowed us to complete 25 dogs a day without forgoing our breaks. After 3 weeks sweaty and getting peed on together, we are all comfortable enough to voice when we need rest or some food.
When I first applied for the project I remember watching Laura, James and Fio interact and feeling like I wouldn't be able to treat my mentor/superior like they do, like a peer. I'm happily surprised to say that I do feel like Fio and I have a friend relationship. She is definitely smarter and more skilled than I am, but on a human level there is no ranking or awkwardness associated with social hierarchies.
We successfully completed 250 dogs today. We are STOKED! Our time in Wina may have begun with low spirits but they have steadily climbed. The improvement is obvious to any onlooker that associates a smile, laugh or group song with happiness.
I think it is safe to say that we are a happy group. Our individual personalities play off each other in a way that keeps everyone at least smiling. There is rarely tension between the four vet students, which makes the environment conducive to learning. I can honestly say that I am not tired of anyone in our group. I feel closer to all the vet students and my respect for each has grown in both a professional and personal sense. I feel really lucky to be considered their friend/equal and hope we continue our friendship beyond the isolation of the Bosawas biosphere reserve.
Teamwork is emphasized in every year of schooling and necessary for almost every career I can think of. During the academic year we work in groups to research, to solve problems, to evaluate organ systems or microscopic samples and to study. Despite all of this preparation many individuals resist fully embracing team dynamics. There are many instances I can recall where I have not been the best team member. I can be critical of mistakes and impatient, especially when I feel like an individual should be far above that level of functioning. Like any other skill, working successfully in a group takes practice.
Vet school and my involvement in this group have helped improve my ability to work alongside others. We have not had a break from work or each other during any point over the last three weeks, and yet, we continue to function successfully. Individuals have fluctuated with frustration, exhaustion and disappointment but the team is not penalized. We read each other's needs and accommodate to the best of our ability. Everyone flocks to help if a fractious dog reaches full tornado status and provides guidance when a vein keeps disappearing. Because of this, we function efficiently.
A successful team supports each other, works hard, provides and accepts feedback, is attune to the needs of its individuals, is respectful, willing to compromise when needed and continually strives to improve. This is what we have created, and it is essentially self-sustaining as long as that list remains true.
I am proud to be part of this team. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to participate in a research experience like this one. I leave Nicaragua confident in my physical exam and venipuncture technique, more suited to teamwork than I was prior, more aware of a foreign culture and more capable of handling unexpected problems.
Through our work, a little part of me will always be in Nicaragua, but the rest is happy to return to the United States.
Vet school year two, I am ready for you.