Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Week 6/7/8!

I've been so busy lately, I haven't had time to post updates! So much has happened, but I'll try to keep it short.

Two weeks ago, I was able to make it out to Cinta Costera (the coastal strip) on the last day of Carnaval with my labmate Jaime to watch the closing parade, and that was really cool to get to see! I made friends with a guy in a crazy mask with jingle bells on his feet, and heard some cool music that was this awesome mix of Latin and jazz and something else slightly sinful that felt so Panamanian.

Last week we got two new roommates, Yenny from Columbia and Katie from Florida, and they're both really nice. On Saturday, Erin, Katie and I went out to the Biomuseo, which is this really striking building designed as a sort of landmark at the start of the Amador causeway which leads to Naos Island. The museum is loosely affiliated with STRI, and we went to listen to a talk given by Erin's lab manager on the paleoecology of the Isthmus of Panama. It was interesting to hear about and also neat to see the types of outreach they do with the community, as it was an open event to the public. After that, we joined a short tour of the architecture, only to get kicked out at closing time; (we'll have to come back and see the rest of the museum another time). So we started walking down Amador, which continues past Naos to two other islands, until we stopped for dinner at a pirate-themed restaurant near the end. It was a really pretty walk and good to finally get to see the entirety of.

This weekend was also packed. I am taking care of my PI's three rescue dogs for her this week, and Saturday was my first day of official duty. Thankfully, Katie was willing to come with me to play with doggies, because it turns out three is a lot to handle by myself! As soon as we opened the gate, the oldest one made a break for it in search of garbage to eat, and she took quite a bit of convincing to bring back. (She eventually rolled over and surrendered to belly rubs, just like my doggie at home does when she wants to be forgiven.) I'm going back to feed them twice a day this week, and will be bouncing around a lot between there, la jaula, and Naos. But it's worth it to get to snuggle their furry faces!

After feeding doggies bright and early yesterday morning, I met up with Cynthia and Jaime to take a day trip to Summit Zoo in Gamboa, which was super fun! It was my first time on a diablo rojo (aka chicken bus, according to Erin, although there were no chickens on my buses). The driver we had on the way back stopped in front of a random house and left the music blaring for about 20 minutes while he disappeared inside, before coming back and continuing on like nothing had happened, lol! The zoo was really cool to get to see too. It is a pretty big campus, but it wasn't too overcrowded with animals, and there was lots of space for people to have picnics and barbecues. I did get charged extra just for being a foreigner, but that seems common here. ("Panameno" and "estudiante" tickets were $1 while "extranjero" tickets were $5.) Apparently the zoo began as a botanical garden, so there were lots of neat tropical plants that are hard to find in other places, and all the animals there are Panamanian wildlife and mostly rescued from the illegal pet trade. They had a special museum-like exhibit with a talk about natural history and conservation in front of the Harpy eagle enclosure, which made it easy to learn about the bird's cultural significance. I''m hoping to get to go back to Gamboa another time to explore some more of the area and hear one of the STRI talks there.

Work is still going well. The data for my field experiment isn't looking super conclusive, but that was sort of expected. I am still working to improve the techniques used so that maybe down the road more studies could be done along a similar vein. I have developed a protocol that seems to be working pretty well for taking care of the barnacle larvae that we have kept in culture in the lab, so hopefully that will produce some helpful information on baseline growth rates for future students to compare to when doing experiments. When I am out in the field watering my plots, I get a lot of time to take in the scenery around me, which has been really nice. Last week, I found a live conch in a tidepool, and I also saw a heron up close! There have also been lots of vultures and hawks and tons of iguanas coming through to drink my water, and I even witnessed a mass dive feeding event of a bunch of seabirds just off the coast. (I think they were terns? It was pretty cool.) Cynthia and I also spotted a mama sloth and her baby walking along a fence to meet up with another sloth (which I assumed to be the father) while coming back from the field one day! It was the cutest moment of my life.

All this wildlife and introspective time in the field has led me to change my mind a little bit about city life. Before coming here, I always wanted to live for a period of time in the middle of a big city because it seemed exciting and full of freedom, but lately I've found that my favorite activities have been the small things that I get to do away from the bustle, like reading by the Administration building, walking down Amador, and hiking up Ancon hill. My roommates and I went to a cafe that is right down the road from la jaula for the first time last week, and it made me appreciate the comfort and convenience of coffee shops on campus at home all over again. While I do love the unpredictability of the city, I think I've realized that the freedom to come and go as I please without worrying about safety or daylight hours is more important to me than attractions or the number of people around. And while buses and taxis are not too inconvenient here, they do require money and planning, as opposed to just driving myself to the movies or walking to the store whenever I feel like it.

All that being said, I am still loving my experience here, and looking forward to more adventures before coming home next month!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Week 4/5

So much has happened in the last few weeks! I have gotten to see so many cool things, it's hard to believe I'm not even halfway through my time here yet!

I have been making some good friends here in my rommates and their labmates. About two weeks ago, I got to go with Erin and Alyssa (my roommates) and two of Alyssa's labmates from California to a tapas and flamenco restaurant that was super cool to see! Laura (Alyssa's labmate) used to take flamenco lessons, so she told us all about the history and culture of Spanish gypsies behind the dancing. It was super loud and percussive and really dramatic for such a tiny space! We also got pulled up on stage at the end of the show to try and follow along with the lead flamenca! (We failed.)

That weekend I also went on a small adventure into the city with one of my Panamanian labmates named Cynthia. We walked through a busy area full of street vendors to get to Casco Viejo, which is a beautiful historic part of the city. It was very interesting for me to see, because there are many pretty buildings right next to run-down and impoverished-looking ones. (I unfortunately wasn't able to get photos of the busier parts because it didn't seem safe to have my phone out at those parts). We walked through some craft booths, and I got to try raspado, which is like a snow cone made with ice shaved directly off a giant block, except they also put condensed milk on top! After that we went to Albrook mall to relish in AC, and I got to take some more pictures of all the fancy things there (because I still have not gotten over how huge of a mall it is).

Since then, I have spent some more time getting to see and taste Casco Viejo with my roommates. We went to a pizza place for dinner one night to celebrate Alyssa's last week, and there I tried bacon hazelnut pizza and made friends with a very fat cat that was clearly also a pizza fan. We also went to brunch a few days ago, and Alyssa took me to a really good gelato place where I tried an untranslated flavor that may or may not have been pomegranate.

I have also spent some time relaxing out by the Canal Administration Building reading and sketching. I found a really cute sketchbook that appears to be handmade out of sticks and shells with watercolor paper, so I've been excited to give that a little bit of love and use it as another means of recording my experiences. The last time I was out there, I noticed how accustomed to Spanish I have become when a man walking by with a camera asked to take a picture of me and my drawing and looked confused when I said that was fine. He then said "I'm from India" with a smile as he walked away, and I realized then that I had been trying to speak in Spanish with him when he was speaking to me in English!

My lab work has been going well; I have gotten settled nicely into the routine of things around here. A couple of weeks back my PI and I started talking about pets and how much she loves her dogs here, and after that she invited me out to come walk her three puppies with her, which was really fun! All of her dogs were once abandoned street dogs that she took in, and they were super sweet and fun to play with. It was really nice to get to talk with her about her experience with the differences in veterinary care here vs. in the states and Britain, and also about all of the different career options there are for me to combine veterinary medicine with my love of research, wildlife, and marine invertebrates. She also told me that she has some friends coming later in the term who will be conducting research on environmental influences on insect-born diseases hosted by dogs in the tropics for the University of Georgia's vet school, and that if I was still around she'd introduce me to them!

Perhaps most prominent in the last few days here has been Carnaval celebrations. Festivities have been going on in the city since Saturday, and tonight is the last and biggest night, with a parade and dancing. I didn't get the chance to check out any of the goings on for the previous nights, but this evening Erin and I and my labmate Jaime from Peru are planning to go down to the Cinta Costera (the costal strip which hosts all the celebrations) to check it out, so that should be super fun! It has been very interesting to hear about everyone's plans and opinions on Carnavales this year, because there is a nation-wide drought right now (as well as various other problems that have diminished access to clean water in certain areas of the country), and a main tradition of the festival here includes water trucks that spray partiers in the streets. People seem to have varying opinions on what should be done to conserve both water and tradition, so it will be interesting to see how they handle it in the city tonight.

Carnaval has also reminded me of just how friendly people are here. Something went awry with our electricity in la jaula last Friday, and as a result we experienced power surges and the internet stopped working (along with the AC, microwave, and fridges!). Because of Carnaval, we were told that it wouldn't be fixed until next week (although luckily it got fixed yesterday!). Because I needed internet over the weekend to check my emails, I walked up to a Smithsonian building nearby to use their wifi outside. While I was standing there, a security guard called me over, and I started to worry he was going to tell me to leave--I didn't have my work badge on me since I'd just walked up the hill from my dorm. Instead, he asked if I wanted to come inside, and when I said I was fine and would be done soon, he insisted that I take a chair outside to the spot I'd been so I didn't have to keep standing. He also wrote me a note saying that I was allowed to be there and use the chair and internet, in case anyone else came by and questioned me. It was definitely a silver lining to not having wifi access at home!

I will post more updates and pictures later! I hope everyone is well at home! :)

Carousel at Albrook mall
Flamenco performers!
Casco Viejo
The city from Casco Viejo
With Cynthia :)
More Casco Viejo
I made an iguana friend!
Many iguana friends!!
My quick sketch of the Canal Administration Building
My sketchbook! :)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Weeks 2/3!

I am finally starting to get settled in! A lot has happened in the last two weeks, but I am finding myself more comfortable with my surroundings as more time goes by.

Last week I went with Max and Loraine (my neighbors) and my roommate Erin on a walk up to the top of Ancon Hill. It was beautiful and great to get a better view of the city and surrounding area! They told me that the Ancon area has the same name as the first ship that traveled through the Canal, the SS Ancon. Apparently they named each ship that entered from both sides of the canal after local landmarks, Ancon for the Pacific side and Cristobal for the Atlantic side.  Along the hike up, we watched for sloths and monkeys, because rumor has it a group of monkeys goes through there from time to time. We didn't find any of them, but we did spot a single sloth way up high in a tree off the path. We also made friends with a big group of toucans! I learned they usually hang out in small groups or pairs and call back and forth to each other, and their call sort of sounds like a frog croaking. At the top of the hill there is a Panamanian flag, and you can see the whole city and the canal locks. It was absolutely beautiful!

I tried to go back this weekend to get some more pictures, but I somehow missed the turn onto the path that I was supposed to take and ended up in a residential community (which was still pretty!). I got in a bit of trouble though when I went to take a picture of a row of palm trees that were all missing their tops. A police car was that was driving by as I snapped the picture stopped and called me over. They asked if I was an American and what I was doing there, and then told me that I couldn't take pictures of people's houses and that I would have to delete the photo. I didn't realize that there was a house in the background, and I think they may have been worried about someone taking photos in order to come back later and rob the place! They were very nice though, and sent me on my way once I deleted the picture.

I've also done some exploring in an attempt to locate the post office. I was given general directions by multiple people and had the location on google maps, but the app wouldn't give me an explicit route, and I was weary of having my phone out the entire way to track my progress in case it could make me a target for thieves. Making matters worse, many streets here aren't labeled with street signs, so most people give directions by land marks. I was told to go towards Ancon hill, but then go down hill when it splits, and then keep going until I see the biggest staircase of my entire life, go down it, and continue down the street lined with palms. Of course, now that I have found it, these directions make perfect sense, but at the time, they seemed rather ambiguous. I ended up going down the wrong hill through a small park and ending up on the wrong side of a highway. However, eventually I was able to make my way over to a safe corner to cross the street and up the "street lined with palms" to the post office. By this point it was about 5:30pm and they were closed, but I was still proud of myself for finding it. I was also very sweaty. When turned to begin the walk back, I discovered the Canal Administration building directly opposite with what were indeed the longest set of stairs of my entire life! It's a very pretty building and all the other buildings along the little patch of grass in front of it are also government buildings, making the area relatively safe. Many people were running up and down the stairs (I was in awe, as I was rather worn out just by walking from my dorm!), and some were sitting near a monument in front that provided shade. I have decided that this will be an ideal spot for me to relax with a good book on slow weekends.

Work has also been going well. At the start of last week I still hadn't ironed out all the details or gotten all the supplies I would need to start my project, so I spent some time in the field helping Dr. Altieri with his other projects. That was very interesting for me to see, because his work is basically pure ecology and all about leaving everything as it is and simply observing minute changes over time. I spent quite a few hours in the sun scraping barnacles and oysters off of cages that were protecting his plots from predators with a screwdriver, and it was oddly satisfying work. I also managed to get some great pictures of all the neat sea life that accumulated in the more protected areas--all kinds of super colorful sponges, flatworms, crabs, urchins, and snails! Later in the week I had the chance to meet with both Dr. Collin and Dr. Altieri to pin down the details of my barnacle experiment on the effects of rainfall on larvae recruitment, and yesterday I officially set up all my plates in the field to start collecting. Today I started watering, getting rather wet myself in the process! In addition, I presented my previous work at OSU on the functions of reproductive hormone receptors in corals and sea anemones to the rest of my lab, and that lead to some further brainstorming of small side projects I could do related to key concepts from that project, either looking at snail or barnacle reproductive cycles and the variables that affect their timing. I am excited to start planning something smaller on the side that I will have more say over the details of. It will be nice to have the freedom to conduct my own in-lab experiment--that's my comfort zone!

I have also gotten closer to my roommates here. Last weekend, Erin and I went to a free Jazz festival that was super neat! I didn't realize that jazz would have such a big influence here, but there was quite a turn out. We heard a big band from Detroit play alongside a Panamanian keyboardist and vocalist who sang in Spanish. During the show, they gave out lots of scholarships for local kids to come learn jazz at camps and high schools in the US. There were also a few stands selling crafts displaying lots of beautiful beadwork, woven masks, and tiny flutes!

I haven't decided yet how I will be spending all of this weekend. Tomorrow my roommates and some of their coworkers might go to a tapas place that has flamenco shows, so that should be fun! I would  also like to get into the city more and perhaps do some shopping or find a museum to visit. Or I may have some work to do still in order to plan out my new project ideas. Either way it should be good! More updates to come later! :)

Panama City from the top of Ancon Hill

Great view of the locks!

                "Towards Ancon Hill" and "Protect the animals"                    The flag at the top of the hill!

The Canal Administration building (and its infamous steps)

                                                  Some colorful sponges and a dead puffer fish found in the field!

             Three weeks of mud, blood, and sweat on the notebook.                         First watering day!

Erin and I at the Panama Jazz Festival :)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Week 1!

I've made it to Panama! And so far I am loving it!

I arrived in Panama City on Saturday evening, excited to meet three unknown roommates in my Smithsonian dorm. However, when I got there, no one was there, although there was evidence of roommates! I spent the next morning trying to build up the courage to go outside on my own and explore some of my surroundings, since I had assumed someone would be there to show me around my first few days. Luckily, as soon as I timidly stepped a few dozen feet away from la jaula, (the local name for my dorm building--it means "the cage" because of the bars on the windows for security, but it is actually pretty safe and cozy!), I ran in to the couple that I had sat next to on the plane the day before! It turns out the husband, Max, works at the Smithsonian too and they also live at la jaula. He and his wife have been incredibly kind to me, helping me figure out the STRI shuttle and navigate the slightly chaotic bus system to the grocery store and mall. I went with them to Albrook a few days ago, which is the largest mall in Latin America and is two bus stops away from my dorm. It has an entire grocery store inside it and a bus terminal attached to it. It's so big that the entrances have cute little animal names like tiger and rhino so you can remember what door you came in!

I have also seen tons of wildlife in the seven days I've been here. The first morning I woke up to a tamarin monkey in a tree right outside my window, and I have since seen giant iguanas, geckos, agoutis, toucans, and tons of other birds I have yet to be able to identify. I also saw three sloths yesterday in trees near my field site! I had told my lab assistant that I really wanted to see a sloth, and she told everyone else to help me find one while she took me the long way around to introduce me to the site, and before long an education worker was waving us over to three all cozied up near each other! It seems like most of the animals here are not nearly as afraid of people as the wildlife I am used to at home, which is great for getting a closer view.

My lab is also in a really beautiful place! The shuttle in to work goes over a causeway that was built with left over material from when they built the Panama Canal, and you can see all the ships coming and going from the canal all the time! My lab facility is on Naos Island, which only takes about 15 minutes to reach from my dorm. I haven't met my PI yet because she's away at a conference, but everyone else in my lab is very friendly, even if we don't always understand each other! :) Although I am still waiting on my PI to return to hash out more details, for now it sounds like my project will be looking at the effects of rainfall on the ability of barnacles to settle and stick to rocks in the intertidal zone, possibly using sprinklers to create artificial rainfall. I will get to spend lots of time in the field at Punta Culebra, which is a short walk away and also gorgeous. It is used by the Smithsonian for education so sometimes groups with kids come through and watch people working. From the patch of rocky beach I will be working at, I have a clear view of Panama City and the Bridge of the Americas connecting North and South America. I absolutely love it and I wish I could just hang out there for hours, but I guess if I'm doing field work I couldn't have a better place to do it!

Hopefully by next week I will meet my PI and have a more concrete research plan. I might also go in to the city with my roommates (two of them showed up after a few days! Still waiting on the third!) to check out a jazz club this weekend. Or maybe I'll stay in and finally unpack. I've been too busy marveling at everything outside.

More updates to come!

 Goodbye Portland, hello Panama!
 I wanted to take a classic shoes and carpet pic, but I sat down first and then got too lazy to stand back up...

 A neighboring door at la jaula

 Lots of vultures!

 The view on the ride in to work

 Panama Ciy, seen from Naos Island

 These guys are all over Punta Culebra.

 Heading down to the field!

 This is Amigo. He protects my room from bugs. We're buds.