Thursday, October 13, 2011

What I’m Doing When I’m Not Trapping Degus

My advisor suggested that I talk a little bit about the challenges of working at an international field site. While it would be easy for me to list off the difficulties I’ve faced and the obstacles I’ve overcome, I feel that I should also talk about some of the terrific experiences that I only could have gained by traveling to Chile. So in this post, I’ll be writing about both the ups and downs of fieldwork and living in Santiago.


In Chile (and pretty much the rest of the world minus the U.S.) everyone drives stick shift. Because my parents didn’t want me to burn out the clutch on their old Volvo, I never really learned how to drive manual. Not long before I left for Chile, I was informed that I would have to drive a truck with manual transmission… surprise! So, after two short lessons with some trusting colleagues, I flew to Chile and prayed that I could “wing it.” I mean, where better to learn how to drive stick than in a major, South American city? (To be fair, Santiago drivers are no crazier than Boston drivers.)

Luckily, I didn’t have to start driving right away, so I had some time to practice before driving out to the field myself. Our daily commute takes about 45 minutes (depending on traffic) and involves driving through the heart of Santiago, taking a highway for a few miles, and then navigating a very long, bumpy dirt road. I started practicing on the dirt road and then one sleepy, Sunday morning my patient co-mentor, Dr. Loren Hayes, had me drive around the city until I got comfortable with shifting through all the gears. As time went on my stalls became less frequent and my shifting started working on a subconscious level, and so, thanks to the degus, I now know how to drive manual.

The truck in front of our cabin at Parque Nacional Fray Jorge 


Working at the same field site for five months has given me the chance to see many cool plants and animals. Spending hours upon hours in the same place has allowed me to observe some things that I would have never seen otherwise. Here are some of my favorite wildlife memories:

-While observing degus one day I saw little sprays of dirt flying into the air nearby. After a couple dirt sprays a tiny, shiny black head would pop out of a hole like a Whack-a-Mole. The culprit was a cururo, a type of subterranean rodent that has glossy black fur, tiny little ears, and large yellow teeth. The coruros construct little dirt mounds (kind of like molehills), which threaten to break my ankle every time I have to walk down one particular hill.

-One time while on my way to the boulder field I suddenly saw an enormous hummingbird. It was hovering in front of a tall, red flower, and it made a loud “PEEP!” every time it went in to drink some nectar. After consulting my bird book, I found out that I had seen a “Giant Hummingbird” (appropriately named, in my opinion).

-A few weeks ago my friend Meredith (she’s an American studying for her PhD here in Chile) found a Southern lapwing nest. The four eggs were very well camouflaged, so much so that we sometimes had difficulty re-finding the nest! But after checking on the eggs everyday, we were lucky enough to witness the baby lapwings hatching!

They look much cuter after their feathers dry.

-And sometimes I see things that are slightly cool/slightly disturbing, like the time I saw a tarantula walk in front of me (I’ve been told that they’re pretty rare in Chile), or the time I saw an eagle take out a degu (you just have to tell yourself that it’s the Circle of Life).

Student Protests

Chilean students have been waging a long protest against the government. The students are calling for more educational funding, both for public secondary schools and universities. Chile previously boasted an exceptional public education system, but when General Augusto Pinochet came to power in 1973 (through a military coup which ousted socialist president Salvador Allende) the government immediately cut education funding and encouraged privatization of the education sector. Because of the low number of public schools today, many young Chileans only have the option of attending a private school, which has subsequently saddled these student with lots of debt. The main aim of the protestors is to make education affordable for the middle and lower classes.

While the protests in Chile haven’t really affected my fieldwork, I have still felt a lot of the effects of the protests themselves. Not long after moving into my apartment, the university across the street was taken over by the students. One day I woke up and found that the students had blockaded the gate entrances with tables and chairs and had put up banners on the buildings. The next two weeks were rather annoying because the students put on their own little mini-concerts/rallies while I was trying to sleep. Earlier this month, some students also blocked my street with burning trash, but the police were quick to arrive and dispersed the protestors with water cannons and tear gas. I’ve gotten a few whiffs of tear gas while walking around the city, and let’s just say that it’s not a pleasant experience. 

The students.
And the police.
In addition to school takeovers, strikes, and random street fires, students have also been organizing many protest marches. The government denied a permit for one march in mid-July, so when the students tried to march without a permit the police immediately swooped in and used water cannons and tear gas to break up the protest. The citizens of Santiago sympathized with the students and showed their solidarity by banging pots and pans out of their windows and honking their car horns for several hours. Banging pots and pans was a form of protest during the food-shortages of Allende’s presidency, but was used as a way to anonymously protest during the dictatorship of Pinochet.

Public Transportation

Because of funding availability, I only had access to a field vehicle from June through August. For September and October, I’ve been getting rides to the field with the technicians of our Chilean host, Dr. Luis Ebensperger at the Pontificia Catolica Universidad de Chile. This has ended up working well, but I needed a little more time in the field during early September to collect the rest of my late-pregnancy seasonal samples. So, with the help of my friend Meredith, I learned how to use the public transportation system to travel to my field site.

Getting to my field site involved a 15-minute walk to the subway, a subway ride of approximately 30 minutes (with only one transfer), a bus ride of 30 minutes, and then an hour-long walk through the field. It was pretty exhausting to do the trek both there and back, but most days I had a ride to the field in the morning. I actually enjoyed the commute because I could see lots of cool animals during my walk (which was also good exercise) and I could read on the bus and subway. One of the frustrating things about fieldwork is that there are always limits on time and resources, so it’s always nice when you have backup plans.
Here's a burrowing owl I spotted while walking to the bus.
 Life in the City

Overall, I like living in Santiago. I can buy fresh bread from the corner store everyday, I can walk up a picturesque hill in the middle of the city and watch the sunset over the Andes, and I can even go to the university and practice my Spanish with the ecology department security guard. Some of the downsides of living in Santiago, though, are the air pollution, the earthquakes, and the loud traffic.

When we first arrived to Chile in June we found ourselves in the midst of a soccer-crazed nation; the Copa America was about to start! Whenever Chile played a match the whole city would watch, and we would immediately know when Chile scored a goal because we’d hear people cheering and taxi’s honking their horns. After every game, win or lose, there’d be an impromptu march on the Alameda (the city’s major street), which would be promptly dispersed with police water cannons and tear gas. It was really cool to see a whole city cheer for their country; I can’t really compare it to anything in the U.S. (sadly, Chile lost in the quarter finals, Uruguay went on to win the cup).

I was also lucky enough to be in Santiago for Chile’s independence day, the Dieciocho de Septiembre (September 18th). There are activities and events before, during, and after the Dieciocho that basically involve eating lots of BBQ and drinking chicha, a type of sweet, fermented wine. My Chilean friend Cecilia took me to a “fonda,” which is sort of like a U.S. fair but a little smaller. I looked at livestock animals, ate some BBQ, and tried some chicha. Rodeos are a big part of the Dieciocho celebration, but unlike a typical U.S. rodeo, Chilean rodeo only involves two cowboys on horseback trying to force a cow up against the arena wall. While they do knock the cow into a padded section of the wall, it does seem pretty hard on the cow so it was tough for me to sit through. I also watched the Chilean bomberos (firemen) do a little skit, but everything they did went wrong: they started a mini-fire so they could hose it down but the fire went out on its own, and then when a bombero holding a Chilean flag tried to zipline down from stage he got stuck. Nevertheless, I had a great time and I hope to be in Chile for another Dieciocho!

The cowboys are just about to knock the cow into the padded wall.

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