Wednesday, December 24, 2014

El Valle

Long overdue life update: I work in a zoo, and I live in one too! Most of you probably know this already - but now I will finally fill you in a little more on what I've been up to down here. When I say I live in a zoo, some of you may be picturing a freshman dorm… but this is not a figure of speech, I actually live in Panamanian zoo. My neighbors are sloths, peacocks, spider monkeys, goats, pigs, and chickens of every possible variety... to name a few.
My grumpy, always hungry neighbor Don Cocodrilo
The fact that I live in El Níspero Zoo is largely due to the kindness of the folks I work for at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC). They offered me a place to stay as part of my  6 month internship here, which makes my life infinitely easier and my wallet much, much happier. The apartment I live in was constructed behind EVACC to house workers that live father away, funded by a donation from a local mining company. The mine has dumped a significant amount of funds into the work that EVACC is doing to help save Panamanian frogs from the killer fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis known more commonly as Chytrid or Bd . This serves as a way to offset any damages they may be doing while mining (at least that was my understanding) – better that than nothing!
The top floor of the green building is the apartment where I live. The concrete building is where I work – tough commute! 
I share this lovely little (not a euphemism, it is very small) apartment with three other girls, at the moment. Two of them are Panamanians that work here as well, and one is a volunteer from Spain that is here for a month. I've got my own room, and we all share a small bathroom and kitchen that doubles as a living room/dining room as well. We all get along very well, and I’m learning tons of Spanish since neither of the Panamanians speak English. I’m also learning lots about how to cook local dishes and generally having a great time immersing myself in this new way of life. 
Our cozy abode
The food has been delicious, I'm really loving fried plantains (patacones) for breakfast, and there's even fresh squeezed orange juice from the orange trees outside our house to wash it all down!  There are also lime trees and even a few kumquat trees!! We've got a machine that spins inside the orange while you apply pressure, and the juice collects in the bottom. Definitely the most delicious glass of orange juice I have ever tasted, and it's totally free! :) 
Simply Orange 
I am lucky enough to really enjoy the work I am doing while here, and I am learning so much about the wide variety of amphibians here in Panama. One of the main reasons I was offered this internship is because I have previous frog husbandry and exhibit design experience while working as an Intern at the Smithsonian National Zoo. A large part of my duties here, at least for the time being, involves redesigning the frog exhibits that are on display to the public.
A peak inside the exhibition area at EVACC
So, I spend a lot of my time behind the scenes in the exhibition area, cleaning exhibits, redesigning their layouts, and generally doing whatever it takes to make this area look appealing to visitors while also meeting the needs of the frogs. I am also in the process of working on creating more educational information about the frogs, Bd, etc, that will be displayed in the exhibition area. The heart and the lungs of EVACC, (where I also do a lot work) is the breeding center located in a separate building. Many different species of frogs are housed and cared for here on a daily basis.  This area is not open to the public however, which makes the exhibition area the face of the whole operation.
An outside view of a small portion of the main lab at EVACC
The breeding aspect of this project is almost certainly the most important - as we go through great lengths to ensure that these species will survive through future generations and hopefully one day be re-introduced into the wild. One of these particular "great lengths" involved an off-roading journey through the surrounding forests to search mountain streams for smooth rocks that we could use in Atelopus breeding tanks. These frogs are known for breeding in rapidly-moving water - so it's important that we try to recreate their habitat as best as possible in order to achieve success. 
Who says work can't be fun?!
This project is founded on the principle of saving ALL Panamanian amphibians from the Chytrid fungus, which spread through this area and wiped out almost all of the local populations back in 2005-2006. But one frog in particular has captured the hearts of Panamanians, and also sadly happens to be one of the species most affected by this deadly fungus – the Panamanian Golden Frog, La Rana Dorada (Atelopus zetecki).
The golden treasure of Panama - La Rana Dorada (Atelopus zetecki)
A stunning bright yellow frog with speckled black spots, it’s not hard to see why this small frog has captured the hearts of Panamanians all across the county. Endemic to Panama and found within only a small range in the central part of Panama – this frog was once so common you had to watch where you stepped in the forests surrounding El Valle. Now, after Chytrid has taken its toll, the only place you are able to see a live Panamanian Golden Frog within the entire country is here in El Valle at EVACC. Its likeness can be found almost everywhere though, from the markets in rural towns to the subway in Panama city.

The only way to see golden frogs in Panama outside of EVACC - at the market
As a result, most of the tens of thousands of visitors that this small rinky-dink little local zoo receives every year, are here for one main reason – to see the famous Panamanian Golden Frogs. The zoo on a whole is not very impressive, in fact parts are rather depressing. Most of the animals here are birds, farm animals, or both - chickens. Zillions of chickens. Chickens roaming free, and also on “exhibit.” I think there is a chicken in almost every enclosure here regardless of what animal happens to be actually on display. This comes with the perk of always having a natural alarm clock that can’t be turned off and fresh eggs to enjoy once you’re awake!
One of the many living alarm clocks
Beyond the excess of chickens around me, there are some neat animals that you don’t get to see every day (unless you live in a zoo, or the jungle). There are Tapirs, caimans, toucans, macaws, and an ocelot that is far too beautiful to be spending time hanging out at this zoo. There’s also a few North American animals that we would never think of putting in a zoo, but they are rarities down here – such as raccoons, coyotes, and even white-tailed deer. In my first week here my housemates were telling me I could actually see white-tailed deer in this area if I was lucky! I had to break it to them that white-tailed deer are everywhere back home, which impressed them greatly.

The seldom seen - White-tailed deer (Benado)
 So all of these visitors coming to see the Golden Frog is exactly why my job of making sure the exhibits look awesome is so important; they will be seen by many people every day. I enjoy this work very much - rebuilding an exhibit from nothing to finish can be very satisfying but also challenging. Exhibit design involves all sorts of skills you might not normally associate with zookeepers, including plumbing, engineering, landscaping, artistic creativity and of course a healthy dose of biology.
One of the exhibits I redesigned 
Outside of work there are tons of things to do in this beautiful little town to keep me active and entertained. The town of El Valle (literally “The Valley” in Spanish) is exactly that – a huge valley surrounded by lush, forested mountains. The valley was formed millions of years ago when a humongous volcano blew its top, leaving a massive crater in its wake. The crater filled with water and was a lake for quite some time, before a leak sprung and all of the water drained away. That leak is a waterfall today.
Looking down on El Valle from one of the surrounding mountains
This mountainous backdrop not only makes every day errands a scenic occasion, it provides ample opportunities to explore – there are hiking trails all over the place, waterfalls, hot springs, even square trees… this place has a lot going on. And yet, it maintains a calm relaxed vibe. The peaks of the surrounding mountains are often shrouded in clouds, which never ceases to impress me no matter how often I see it. Every once in a while I pinch my arm to remind myself how fortunate I am to be here, working with such amazing animals and kind people in this beautiful place. 
Loving this location

The tallest mountains are right behind the zoo, and when the weather is nice I enjoy sitting in the garden within the zoo and writing postcards - or simply absorbing the natural beauty. The view is sublime, but frequently the tranquility is disrupted, naturally. These clouds bring with them plenty of rain, varying in amounts from a fine mist to a drenching downpour. Somehow the sky seems to know when I am writing outdoors, as it always seems to start raining as soon as I get all settled. The rainy season has pretty much come to an end now though! The dry season began this month. We are beginning to see signs of the season changing, as the strong winds that bring drier air are arriving rapidly and blowing our sandals off the porch, and the sun is shining in full force. Here they call this season - verano, or summer. 

On my first week here, way back in early November – I got the privilege of being around while the country celebrated a series of holidays, including multiple Independence days (one from Spain, one from Colombia) and a bunch of others. The highlight of the festivities were big parades that took over the one main road that runs through the center of town.
Rockin out

There have actually been quite a few parades since the one that first week, and they're always a good time - filled with over enthusiastic marching bands, all sorts of dancers, etc. The most recent Christmas parade was by far the biggest - there were tons of floats, holiday tunes playing everywhere, and the streets were packed with pretty much every citizen of El Valle. And it actually felt cold! This was mostly due to the wind, but there's nothing like a little chill to help you feel the Christmas spirit. 
Feliz Navidad!!
In addition to various celebrations and the natural wonders here providing ample opportunities for exploration and adventure –  there are lots of small tourist attractions such as a butterfly house, an orchid garden, a serpentarium… the list goes on.
El Chorro de Macho - named for it's "manly" size

Some are definitely worth paying the few dollars of admission – others not so much. The serpentarium was rather disappointing, unfortunately. The snakes did not appear to be very well cared for, and the collection wasn’t very large at all (thankfully I suppose, given the conditions). On the other hand, the butterfly house was accompanied by an informative tour (in English!) and came with the perk of having a relaxing café next door with delicious goodies. The café happens to be owned by a cool chick from the U.S. that teaches yoga classes on Saturdays - for the price of a fresh fruit or veggie! So I’ve been enjoying learning yoga and the café is definitely one of my favorite spots to chill out on Sunday afternoons.
Exploring the Mariposario (Butterfly museum)
One of my most enjoyable day-off excursions so far has been hiking to the top of La India Dormida, a mountain named for its resemblance for a sleeping woman. The mountain was named after a local indigenous woman who fell in love with a conquistador from Spain. Her father forbid the romance to continue, and so “La India” headed into the forest and took her own life in protest. According to local legend, the mountains assumed the shape of her resting body as a testament to her love. 

La India Dormida, resting in the mountains forever. Can you see her?
 I hiked to the top with Maria Eugenia, a visiting volunteer from Madrid. She is here for a month helping out at EVACC, gaining experience and absorbing all she can - just like me. It was nice to have a hiking partner, especially one that speaks Spanish fluently. This hike turned out to be quite the adventure – just getting to the trailhead from our apartment in the zoo took about an hour. The trail cost $2.50 to enter – well worth the price of admission. One of the few attractions here I would pay to see again, with no hesitation. Along the way to the top, we passed a series of waterfalls and petroglyphs carved into stones by natives long ago.

A close-up of one of the many ancient petroglyphs we found
The hike up was not only gorgeous and fun, but also educational – since every chance I get to hang out with Maria means lots of practicing Spanish, and learning new words to describe the situations we’re in. Learning a new language is an adventure!

Stopping for a moment of Zen at the first waterfall
 We passed three waterfalls throughout the course of the trail, and then began the steep climb to the top of “La India’s” head. The view did not disappoint!!
Started at the bottom, now we're here
 The woman that sold us our admission tickets and gave us a bit of background info on the petroglyphs and the story of “La India”, recommended that we return back the same way we came once we reached the top. But curiosity and a strong sense of adventure got the best of us – and we decided to continue following the steep rocky trail along La India’s body to see where it would lead.
Hiking along "La India"
The views did not cease to be amazing, but slowly our sense of confidence about where we were going faded. We recognized the area where “Las Cruces,” a local landmark with an easily accessible overview, was – so we continued on heading towards that direction while climbing up and down the mountain ridges.
Views don't get much better than this!
Eventually we broke out onto an established road that cut through the mountains, and found the crosses that were our landmark!
This is a good sign
We followed the (extremely steep) road back to town and enjoyed a cold smoothie made with fresh fruit to celebrate our accomplishment! All in all the hike took about 4.5 hours and we covered roughly 11 – 12 very steep kilometers. The café where we enjoyed our smoothies has become one of my favorite spots for a fresh fruity blended treat and a scrumptious empanada. They even put up a tree to celebrate the season!
Diana, Maria y yo – enjoying a delicious smoothie after a hard day’s work. Qué rico! 
As much as there is to do here during the day, my heart always yearns for the opportunities to go exploring this biological playground at night! Luckily I have had quite a few opportunities to get out and explore with others, since I’m not too keen on heading out on my own - if I can help it. My first excursion was with Edgardo and Milagro – our mission was to collect a few more frogs for the exhibition area. Our prime target was glass frogs, which we found bunches of thankfully. These frogs are incredible since they have transparent under-bellies, and of course they’re super cute! 
Peeking through the “glass” into this little dude’s body
The particular species that we found the most of was the White-spotted glass frog (Cochranella albomaculata) – thanks to Edgardo knowing where to look. We even found a pair in amplexus!

The "glass" might be frogging up in here ... har har 
In addition to this trip with Edgardo, I also had the good fortune of being approached while working in the exhibition area by an undergrad student named Kei from Tufts who was in El Valle for a short time doing a research project on frogs. Her project was very simple, she was simply trying to document what species of frogs she could find in different locations in Panama. I told her I’d be happy to help her search for frogs in the area, and so we made plans to go out that night! Gotta love when you meet other frog enthusiasts J

Kei posing with her new friend
We went out over the course of 3 different nights, thwarted one evening by a flat tire on my bicycle. That’s right folks, I have a bike down here. Makes getting around sooo much easier, especially when my average walk to the supermarket takes about 30 minutes, one way. Got lucky when I met Erin, the yoga instructor who owns the Butterfly café. She sold me some wheels for only $40, hard to beat that! Not the best bike in the world, but it gets me around – and I am very happy with that. Regardless of how well the brakes may or may not work…
My mode of transportation around El Valle
Anyhow, back to our nocturnal adventures. We found quite a few species of frogs – which was great! I am still learning lots of the species, but thankfully Edgardo is basically a living guidebook – so I was able to verify any species we found with him assuming the frog stuck around long enough to be photographed.

A well-camouflaged Scinax boulengeri
Sadly, despite all the species we managed to find – it’s hard not think about how many used to be around before Chytrid was introduced to the area. The night we were out with Edgardo, he explained that we were seeing about 1% of what the frog community used to be. Hopefully with time, scientists will be able to develop a method to allow frogs to naturally combat the fungus. Until then, we are working hard here at EVACC to maintain a viable population that will hopefully one day be the great-great grandmothers and grandfathers to frogs that will once again hop around in the beautiful streams and mountains of El Valle and surrounding areas. 
Hanging in there (Anotheca spinosa)
 Even when we’re having trouble finding frogs – at least the cover of darkness always provides unique opportunities to view some of the many animals that call this corner of the world home.
A wooly opossum dropping in to say “Hola!”
 Some of these creatures are more of a welcome sight than others. Kei and I were both a bit freaked out, when we found this guy – but couldn't help be amazed!

The stuff of nightmares
Maria came out with us one night, and we explored inside the zoo for a change – since it is quite a large property complete with vegetated ponds… exactly the sort of places frogs love! We were successful in finding a different species of glass frog, arguably even cuter than the ones we found before...
"You are my friend?"
 My only snake (sad, I know) sighting so far was actually found on the road between the zoo and the town. I've also seen owls, toucans, falcons, iguanas, and quite a few different frog species while on the same road. Not too shabby! 
(Micrus multifasciatus) - variety of Coral snake
 Other outings have included climbing up to a lookout below the summit of Cerro Gaital, the tallest mountain surrounding El Valle. The view was exactly the opposite of what we experienced while at the top of La India. We found ourselves in the midst of a rather thick cloud, with only fog visible in all directions. Still, in its own way – that was a very neat experience.

Milagro (one of my roommates) – peering into the fog
A fairly recent adventure involved exploring the hot springs with Maria – which was honestly not too impressive, but thankfully we had the entire pool to ourselves. This was partly due to the part that we were there early on a chilly Thursday morning, which worked out well. The full experience involved placing a cleansing mask of mud on our faces – which obviously had to be documented!
Gotta get a little dirty before you feel clean!
Most recently, this past few weeks have centered around Navidad - of course. We decorated the front door of the apartment to welcome in a bit more spirit, and a few days ago we did a gift exchange amongst the employees at EVACC. I feel super blessed that this time away from family during Christmas has actually gone really well all things considered, I'm super lucky to be surrounded by such kind, friendly people down here. Truly makes this place feel like a home! 

Welcoming the season!

Diana y yo intercambiando regalos

 Of course I miss my friends and family a bunch, but I'm also really loving doing things a bit differently this holiday season. Opens my eyes to new customs, traditions, foods, dances, all that good stuff. And luckily in a few weeks my parents and siblings are coming to visit!! Very excited to show them around this wonderful place, and explore new spots as well. In the meantime, I'll be working a bunch to make sure I have plenty of days off when they arrive. Feliz Navidad a todos, and thanks for reading! Stay tuned for a story on my first overnight trip into the field since being down here. Until then, Peace Out!

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