Tag Archives: travel

Day 1: All the Traveling

Written at 9:01 pm Belize time on May 15th

How excited am I to be in Belize? As excited as this dog was to take their picture!

This pup is the resident at the Crystal Paradise Lodge, our first place we call home on this lovely trip. It’s been a long day, but it was a great introduction to Belize. (We aren’t supposed to pet the dogs, but at least we can take cute pictures!)

We started at 10:30 am in Anderson Bio Labs on campus—we took a cute group pic for the Biosciences Facebook page/press release (not sure where to find that). Then we hopped on the bus and headed for the airport. Upon arrival, we found out that Claire’s dad would be our pilot! We ate Chick-fil-A and Pilot Jeff bought us all cookies.  Then we turned our phones to airplane mode (not before my last game of HQ for a while), boarded our plane, and left for Belize.

After going through customs, we met Edward, our van driver for the day. He took us to the local convenience store to get some snacks and whatnot—I bought shampoo and conditioner because, oops, mine spilled in my toiletry bag…  During our 2.5-hour ride, we talked to each other, looked through the savannah plains, identified recent burn areas, and learned about each other’s lives. It was a great time. I also really enjoyed talking to Edward and learning about Belize as a country. The highway we took was called the Western Highway, but it is now called the George Price Highway in honor of his role in helping achieve Belizean independence in 1981. We took turns looking out for our taxonomic groups, but I didn’t see any of mine (Amphibians or Sponges). Claire did see one frog in our bathroom, but I didn’t get a chance to look. From her description, it seems like an Hourglass Tree Frog, but who knows…

We arrived at the Crystal Paradise Ecolodge, where we were guided to our “cabanas” and then served a delicious dinner with really good cake for dessert. There are lots of cool bugs and animal sounds, and we are really into trying to identify them all. We are quickly learning that we haven’t even scraped the surface of the insects we don’t know… And now, I’m working on my blog and my field notebook journal.

This trip is off to a really high note! Scott and Adrienne have warned us that this first location is a ton nicer than the research stations and we should enjoy it while we can. Also, on a similar vein, blog posts will be posted only when internet is accessible. Las Cuevas has an ethernet cable, but my computer doesn’t have an ethernet port… So, we shall see what happens. No idea about Glover’s Reef yet.

I hope that we will have ok enough internet to post every day, but I apologize in advance if we won’t be able to!

Day 1

Today was a day of travel, enjoyable conversations, and relative luxury at our tourist hotel.

 

Jeff Boschert, the father of one of the students on this trip, made a shout out to our class on the intercom before he performed take-off on the Southwest flight taking us from Houston to Belize City. Upon arrival, we went through the typical process of entering another country: declaration of goods, going through immigration, and packing and loading up on a bus. Edward, a local driver, takes us and our baggages (in an attached trailer) on the Western Highway, outside of Belize City, to the place we are staying at tonight, Crystal Paradise Hotel. Upon arrival and settling in to our rooms, we had delicious dinners of tostada, vegetable curry, rice, cooked plantain and chocolate cake.

 

As far as scientific endeavors go, we spotted cicadas, ants, moths, palm trees, a cartoon bee, cactus, and too much life to describe. As I am sitting inside right now, to avoid bug bites, I hear the sound of crickets, cicadas, and other animals I know not the name of. Still, I found a very obvious vinegery-smell in the pheromone of a large ant I saw working on devouring a beetle. I also learned that a cicada is a true bug because it is an arthropod with sharp sucking mouth parts. The next few days’ blog post, I can predict, will be heavier with species identification especially since that was not our focus today.

 

As I enter and exit from recollections of today, I am struck by the images of fires we saw, both from the airplane and in our van. Large clouds of smoke emanated from the distance, and sometimes they were up close. As far as I can tell, they all occurred in the Savannah ecosystem, some leaving blackened trunks on palm trees. I wonder what are the uses of these fires, whether they are wild or controlled, sparked by lightning, cigarettes, or a torch. Claire said that some people practice the slash and burn farming strategy, whereby plants are reduced to ashes so they may enter the soil as useful nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, quicker than they would if they had decomposed naturally. Whereas the rainforest can flourish on soils that are not rich in nutrients, human crops usually rely on rich soil for their growth.

 

 

Day 15: Goodbye (5/30/2017)

Today began like any other day at Las Cuevas Research Station – with a 6:30 am breakfast. However, today was very different.

Rather than spending the morning in the field, my class and I spent it in a van. We departed from Las Cuevas and are en route to the airport.

The main building of Las Cuevas Research Station

Outside my window, I got a glimpse of the tall angiosperm trees that composed the rainforest transition suddenly to the pines characteristic of the mountain pine ridge ecosystem.

Further along, we stopped at a gift shop and a kitschy touristy restaurant. These served as reminders of why I am going to miss Belize so much. Belize is authentic, expressive, passionate, and in touch with reality. These attributes are rarities in the highly commercialize American culture with which I am so familiar.

We arrive at the airport, and I finally said goodbye to Belize, a country that I had had the privilege to explore the past two weeks.

Now I am back home. Like the trees of the rainforest that sharply transitioned into pine, I have to sharply transition from a tropical field biologist to an American college student. After all, I have meetings all day tomorrow and even more work the day after that.

I miss Belize already – the liveliness of the reefs, the vastness of the forest, the inhibition of the night sky, the friendliness of the people.

I know one day I will go back. I’m looking forward to it.

Back to Reality (Day 15)

Today was the last day of EBIO 319, and tomorrow I will be back in my own bed. That’s pretty wild because it does not feel like two weeks have passed.

We left Las Cuevas around 8 this morning to head towards the Belize City Airport. Since we left early, I had time to bird watch, but I didn’t get a chance to see other forms of wildlife or any orthoptera. We stopped at a souvenir shop on the way, but I didn’t end up buying anything. We also stopped at Cheers Restaurant before we got to the airport. The food there was really cheap and our spending limit was really high, so I ended up getting a jumbo sized watermelon juice because I was way below the limit. I’m pretty sure they juiced an entire watermelon to make it. It was quite delicious.

After we got to the airport and went through security, I got called up to the gate to be randomly screened. I got all patted down and had my things nosed through, but it was okay because I got to board the plane before everybody else. The same thing happened to Ellie too, so we were able to save four rows so that we could all sit together.

My first interactions with Americans (besides those in EBIO 319) were very unpleasant as a result of this. First the flight attendant asked if Ellie or I wanted to date her son. Then lots of grumpy people glared at  us and muttered things under their breaths as the plane got more crowded because the rest of the class was all in the very last boarding group and they didn’t like that we were saving so many seats.

I was asleep for most of the van and plane rides. This was good because we all stayed up late last night and then got up at 5 this morning to bird watch, so I definitely needed the rest. But, this was bad because I apparently sleep with my eyes open and in oddly contorted positions, so now lots of pictures of this exist.

In the van on the way to lunch.

I am very exhausted, and it’s time for me to go to bed. Tomorrow morning, I’ve got to go back to the airport, and then I’ll be finally home.

Final March of the Dive Booties (Day 10)

Today was the second to last travel day of our trip. We reached Las Cuevas and will stay here until the 30th when we’ll head back to the airport in Belize City.

The drive was mostly through the Pine Ridge Forest and the Chiquibul Rainforest. To break it up, we stopped in the Rio-On pools midmorning. This was for us to get an idea of the karstist geological features of Belize and to swim and enjoy ourselves.

At Rio-On, there were a lot of granite rocks with small pools and waterfalls between them. It was fun to scramble around on the rocks and try and slide down the waterfalls. We stayed there about twice as long as we were supposed to, but nobody seemed to mind.

Rio-On Springs. It was really fun to swim and climb around here.

When we got to Las Cuevas, we learned that the cave here is closed. The worst part of this is that we all brought caving helmets and we aren’t going to ever use them. At least we got to see the ATM cave already. We also learned that there isn’t Internet here, which is why all these posts are going to go up at once.

Shortly after arriving, we went on a short hike on a trail near the station. We saw ceiba, cedar, acacia, sapodilla, Gumbo-limbo, and prickly yellow trees. We also saw fish tail palms, a plant that is often illegally extracted by Guatemelons for the floral business.

I saw two species of Orthoptera, which surprised me. One I think was a species of Leaf-mimic katydid (Mimica spp.) The other one I couldn’t confidently identify yet but it might have been Amblytropidia trinitatis.

A Leaf-mimic Katydid.

Tomorrow we are forming a question that we are going to answer with camera traps, and we’re going to spend most of the day setting them up throughout the forest. I think it is going to involve a lot of walking, which I am not looking forward to because my foot still hurts from when I stepped on a conch.

 

Cold and Fruity (Day 9)

Dear Adrienne,

Today we went to Actun Tunichil Muknal archeological reserve. Here we hiked into a cave that was used for Mayan sacrifices and has lots of well-preserved artifacts and human remains. I did not see any Orthoptera.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside of the cave, but here’s a picture of the sign!

To get to where the artifacts and remains were, we had to swim and scramble our way through the cave. The guide said I had to wear the top I had been carrying out of respect to the ancient Mayans, so it was real frigid being in the cave because the rivers were so cold and my clothes were so wet.

Nevertheless, it was crazy to be inside of such a sacred place, especially since we could see the vessels and victims of sacrifices all around us and knew that only the most elite Mayans would ever enter the cave. As neat and memorable as it was, I kind of felt like it was inappropriate for us tourists to be climbing around in there, given the religious significance the cave has.

Maneuvering through the cave was pretty complicated because it involved a lot of climbing up tall structures and fitting our heads through small cracks. At some point when we were climbing, Deepu scraped his leg and bled some. When we were in the cave, our guide taught us about bloodletting, a process in which people would slit themselves with obsidian blades or stingray barbs and offer their own blood to the Gods, so we were joking about how Deepu was partaking in bloodletting. It was really eerie when we emerged from the cave to see that it had just started to pour as if Deepu’s sacrifice to Chaac, the rain God, had worked.

After we left the cave, we drove to Crystal Paradise Resort where we are spending tonight before going on to Las Cuevas. On the way we stopped in the town of San Ignacio. There I bought a bag of grapes and tried a baby banana. Also, I made Therese go ask a man with a produce stand if we could have some of the oranges that had fallen out of his truck. I think he took pity on us because he just gave her two fresh ones. These are some of the advantages of having a TA.

The towel swan at Crystal Paradise: They really treated us well!

Back to Land :( (Day 8)

Today was another travelling day. We left Glover’s in the morning to head back to the mainland. We did one last snorkel on the way back through the mangroves at Twin Caye. There, we saw a manatee, a yellow seahorse, a magnificent feather duster worm, and a lot of upside down jellyfish. I also saw some Caulerpa algae, and many of the algae species I’d seen around the patch reefs.

A seahorse found in the mangroves. His coloration makes him look a lot like a dead mangrove leaf!

The other place we stopped on the way back was Carrie Bow Caye, the Smithsonian Research Center. It was cool to meet the volunteer station manager, Clive, and hear about the research going on there.

Once we got back to the mainland, we went back to the Tropical Education Center where we are staying again tonight. We spent the evening at the Belize Zoo and got an amazing tour. We saw five big cats, including a jaguar that did somersaults for us. We also fed a tapir and two crocodiles.

The Tapir we fed at the zoo.

The last thing we did tonight was talk with Lucrecia, who is in Belize to do cat research and took EBIO 319 last year. It was good to see her because we ran cross country together in the fall but she spent the spring semester in Tanzania, and it sounds like she has been doing some really cool stuff.

Tomorrow we are going to a cave. I’m sure it is going to be awesome, but I’m still a little sad that we aren’t at the reef anymore.

First Day at my Atoll (Day 2)

As neat as the Belize City Airport and the Tropical Education Center were, today is when the real fun stuff started. We woke up at the crack of dawn to meet our boat in Belize City and were on our way by 8. The boat trip was idyllic because the skies were completely clear and the ride was very smooth. The water was a mosaic of different shades of blue, and we could see Mayan Mountains on the horizon. In terms of wildlife, we first saw flying fish and a green turtle. The green turtle sighting was especially special, and he was huge!

The scenery of the boat ride out to Glover’s.

Actually being at Glover’s Reef is pretty wild because I’ve been wanting to come here for so long. Actually diving here is equally wild because it’s the first time I’ve been on a reef with any grain of legitimate knowledge whatsoever with regards to reef life.

After touring the island, eating, and getting settled in the cabins, we did a little “scavenger hunt” on a patch reef to make sure everyone was comfortable in the water. That was quite refreshing after 22 hours of feeling sticky. I saw a lot of stony corals, gorgonians, vase sponges, seagrass, and herbivorous fish all over the patch. Some of the highlights of things that I saw were an Angelfish, a Barracuda, a Manta Ray, and a Feather Duster Polychaete.

A massive coral, with a feather duster worm on it’s surface.

While all these things were quite neat, they could not compare with the Green Algae that I saw!! (I am obligated to be excited about green algae for the duration of this trip but they actually are kind of exciting). Since they were in the sand, rather than on the reef itself, I could get really close to the algae to examine them without worrying about kicking and harming any organisms.

I saw a few species that I know were types of Penicillus. I immediately recognized some Rhipocephalus phoenix when I swam up to it because it really did look like a pinecone! I think I also saw some Penicillus pyriformis. Then I saw an Udotea algae that I think was Udotea flabellum, but it didn’t quite match what I was expecting for either of the Udotea species I had on my card.

Udotea flabellum in the foreground, and Penicullus pyriformis in the background.

Later on, I saw some Halimeda that I guessed may have been Halimeda discoidea. I know for sure that it was Halimeda because I found calcium carbonate Halimeda chips around it.

Halimeda algae. If you look closely in the sand, you can see some Halimeda chips as well.

After the snorkeling, Adrienne took us back to a big heap of coral skeletons on the other side of the island. Apparently it’s super rare for there to be so many skeletons so well preserved and so easily accessible, so that was neat. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone as excited in a graveyard before as Adrienne was.  It was a good way to practice identifying stony corals and to clarify the differences between species with similar morphologies by comparing them side by side.

Two of the coral skeletons we saw in the skeleton pile. I think the right one is Pseudodiploria labarinthaformis.

In the evening, Jordan lectured us on the Stony Coral taxon group which bettered our familiarity a bit more. Mikey lectured on Echinoderms which was a lot of new information. I didn’t see any Echinoderms today, but now that I know what to look for I think I’ll be able to spot some tomorrow.

The last thing we did for tonight was make the quadrats we are going to use tomorrow. That was not particularly noteworthy except for the fact that I got my very first wound of the class by stabbing my thumb with a pair of scissors. The trauma was minimal and I’m expecting to survive but I’m sporting a nice little Bandaid for now.

Finally Here! (Day 1)

Today has been a long day of travel. Fortunately though, everything went smoothly! I can only hope that tomorrow’s boat ride is equally lacking in complications.

We left Rice a little after 10:30 this morning and loaded on a bus to go to Hobby Airport. Even though our flight didn’t leave until 2:30, the five hours we gave ourselves ended up to be just the right amount of time. As I’m learning, everything goes slower when you’re part of a group of fourteen.

Even though I was in one of the later boarding groups, I managed to snag a window seat. Most of the trip we were flying over the Gulf of Mexico. I fell asleep for a good chunk of the flight, but luckily when I woke up I could see boats below so I assumed we must be nearing the land, and I got to get a glimpse of Mexico’s gulf coast as the land reappeared.

The Gulf coast of Mexico, as seen from the plane

I thought I remembered reading in the textbook for this course that we would fly over the Chiquibul as we approached the Belize City Airport, but I only saw agricultural plots with some trees in between. Maybe I wasn’t looking at the right time, or maybe the author came from a different direction.

Once we landed in Belize City, got our luggage, and got through customs, we got on another bus to head to the place we’re staying for tonight. We also stopped at a supermarket to pick up some snacks.

We are staying for tonight at The Belize Zoo’s Tropical Education Center. We got in just around dinner time, so although they showed us the trails, pond, and observation deck we did not get to do much before dark. However, we’ll be back here again at the midpoint of our trip before we head to Las Cuevas Research Station.

Just walking around the gravel trails here though, we did see a little bit of fauna. I did not see any Green Algae or Orthoptera species, but it was cool to see other people in the class recognize species from their assigned taxa groups.

We saw a green iguana snacking on some leaves in a tree right over the trail.  There was also a lot of leaf cutter ants, to the point where there was a sign warning us of their traffic corridors. We saw a lot of epiphytes around the trail on the many trees here. We are in a savanna environment, but at least in the near vicinity of where we’re staying there is much denser vegetation than I would expect for a savanna. Although, driving here we passed a lot of ‘classic savanna’ scenery: sparse short trees, grasses, and very flat land.

Green Iguana Perched Precariously on a Branch

Right in the middle of our cabin, we also saw a little toad. It would be great if all the Orthoptera and algae species got the memo and were to show up right by my bed in the coming days, but my hopes are not high.

This Kind Toad Came Right into our Cabin to be Identified!

Belize is almost Here … and We’re Almost There!

This time tomorrow, I will be in Belize. That’s pretty wild, but to be honest it really hasn’t hit me yet. I have been putting so much of my time and thought into preparing for the trip that I haven’t had time to really think about what an exciting and fun experience it’s going to be.

As far as expectations go, I sure hope that the course itself will be less stressful than the time leading up to it has been. I am really excited to get to spend a lot of time on the reef, and I am expecting that I will be able to appreciate it much more than any other snorkel trip I’ve been on. While I’ve visited reefs several times before, I never have been able to experience one through the eyes of being a tropical field biologist! I’m especially excited because I learned so much about reefs in the Coral Reef Ecosystems class this past semester. I’m expecting to see a lot of things that I won’t recognize initially, but I hope by the end of the week on the reef I’ll have a much better idea of what I’m looking at.

In the rain forest, I expect to learn a lot. I’m expecting the days there (and the days on the reef too, I’m sure) to be extremely tiring, so I’m hoping I don’t have any gear issues that make things at all more difficult. I think the last time I was in a rain forest I hadn’t realized that I was blind yet, so I couldn’t see anything. I still don’t have the best eye for detail, but now that I wear contacts I can actually see and I’m hoping I’ll be able to notice things hiding in the trees or underbrush (especially snakes!!)

What I’m hoping to learn from this course is what it’s like to be a field biologist because that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m also excited to learn about the intricacies of the rain forest and the coral reef, two of the world’s most amazing and threatened ecosystems. In preparing for this course, I took Dr. Correa’s class ‘Coral Reef Ecosystems.’ I’m really hoping I’ll be able to apply what I learned last semester to the reef we’ll be studying, and that I didn’t forget too much of the course material by this point in the summer. I’ve also taken other basic EBIO courses, and hopefully those prepared me well in terms of field techniques we might use in the rain forest.

I am nervous that I will not be able to spot any Orthoptera species at all. I am also nervous that I’m going to have trouble identifying species, of both Orthoptera and Green Algae. I’m also nervous about having difficulty staying underwater long enough to get anything done. Luckily, I have prior experience with snorkeling so I’m quite comfortable with that, it’s just the time spent underwater where I struggle sometimes. I’m also nervous that I will be ill prepared in some way. I really really hope I did not forget anything important.

I have a little previous experience in the Tropics, but only as a quite young tourist. I visited the Cloud Forest in Costa Rica with my family one time. I’ve also been to Mexico and snorkeled on reefs and in cenotes in the Yucatan more recently.

I am most excited about seeing unique tropical organisms. I want to see some Christmas tree worms, and maybe some Parrotfish on the reef. In the rainforest, it’d be amazing to see a scarlet macaw, a monkey, or a big cat, but I know that probably won’t happen. And as long as they don’t bite me, I’m exciting to see the snake species we saw during our visit to the Houston Zoo Herpetology exhibit. Finally, I’m exciting to grow close to my fellow Tropical Field Biology Classmates. I can’t believe this course is about to start!