I finally moved into my apartment in Manila. It only took four weeks to find and fill with enough furniture to make it livable. It is such a relief to be able to unpack and organize all of my supplies and comic books. The apartment is in Quezon City, which is just north of Metro Manila. To give you some reference, I was staying with my friend and collaborator, Arvin Diesmos, at his house in Las Piñas (just south of Metro Manila). The distance from my apartment to his house without traffic should take about 15–20 minutes. With traffic in Manila, meaning 24 hours a day, it takes us 3–4 hours to get across town. So we have decided to boycott leaving the apartment until our next field trip. In a few days we leave for a four-week trip of seven different islands in the central Philippines. I should have plenty more to write about soon.
There must be lists. Somewhere on the internet, you must be able to find out what countries rank among the scariest places to take a taxi ride. With confidence, I would bet that Manila is in the top 3. My first month here has included several short trips to local islands, presentations to universities and protected areas management boards, and of course, numerous taxi rides around the city of Manila. I honestly do not know why Philippine taxi driving is not an event at the X-Games.
All I can advise is don’t get in the cab at all if you get squeamish while traveling at mach 3. Once you close that door you are at the mercy of the cab driver, or as I have come to call them, death chasers. After a few trips though you begin to realize the simplicity of the taxi driver’s rules of engagement: 1. Honk as often as possible, in fact, tape the horn down so it permanently goes off. 2. Ignore all posted lane markings. This rule is actually very efficient at creating a 5-lane highway on a one-lane road. 3. Go as fast as you can and drive as close as you can to get around whoever is in your way. a. As part of rule 3 it is important to swerve towards pedestrians. I repeat, towards. 4. The louder you blare a station full of commercials the more “street cred.” you can secure. That will just about cover it. You are now ready to drive one yourself.
One of the first sites I had on my schedule while in the Philippines was an island called Marinduque. It is actually just south of mainland Luzon Island (not that this description is helping for the 99% of you that don’t study in the Philippines). All you have to realize is that it is one of the closer islands to Manila. So as you guessed, it only took about 12 hours to reach our destination. Unlike our Aurora bus trip though, the Marinduque voyage was broken up nicely into four, three-hour segments—Bus, Boat, Bus, Jeepney...and water buffalo. Maybe the water buffalo didn’t actually carry us the last leg, but the place we stayed at had one roaming the grounds. The island’s habitat has been nearly completely disturbed by heavy mining over the years. There still is some habitat remaining, however, and we were hoping to scout future sites while making courtesy calls to the mayor. Unfortunately for us, we arrived late Friday night, which meant the offices were closed until Monday.
We headed to the only pension house in town—The Buenavista Hot Springs Resort. I know, doesn’t that sound just delightful. A resort, hot springs; I could see the room service serving up some amazing Italian food and pastries. Even the prices were hinting at something amazing. At 1,000 pesos a night, roughly 20 US dollars, this resort was as expensive as staying in moderately scary places in Manila. Everything felt right…and then we got into the room. If you know the feeling of sleeping in a place that wasn’t cleaned since it was built, you were secretly right there with us. The air conditioning didn’t work, cockroaches scuttled across the floor, there was no door to the restroom, and the toilet didn’t flush.
Actually, I might as well just point out that the only running water came from a dripping pipe out of the wall (but the water was warm, probably from their hot springs). Yeah, this was definitely a “shoes while showering, sleep with your clothes on, wear a mask and rubber gloves 24/7, kind of place.” Finally, Monday arrives and we head to the Mayors office to seek a local site permit. Just for your own knowledge, Monday, the 23rd of February is a Buenavista holiday. We found ourselves in quite a predicament having to be heading back to Manila Monday night. Fortunately, the town was small enough that we were able to simply visit the Mayor at her home and she was happy to collaborate on our project.
It is not clear to me what point in time I became incapable of comfortably traveling long distances by bus, boat, and small, motorized jeeps. However, last week I was quickly reminded of just how old my overweight body feels at the ripe age of 28 (I really need to lay off the queso). I traveled with my friend and collaborator Dr. Arvin Diesmos to Aurora Province on Luzon Island. We are setting up our next site for the large KU biodiversity expedition planned for May and June of this year. Aurora Province is only about eight hours away by bus. Unfortunately, you need to leave on the 4 a.m. bus, which in turn means you leave the house at 3 a.m. to make that same bus. One thing you should note about busses overseas is that the rows of seats do not always provide the same amount of leg room some people might be accustomed to experiencing. In the Philippines, I would describe the legroom as negative space. Somehow the row in front of me continually gets smaller as the trip goes on.
The good news is once my knees have become numb, and my back spasms have subsided, I am quite comfortable. The trip was a great first step to setting up our site though. We presented our research proposal at the Aurora State College of Technology (ASCOT), which is a beautiful campus buried in the foothills of the southern Sierra Madres Mountain Range. The buildings are surrounded by forest and it was much cooler than we were used to in Manila. I was there for a few days with Arvin, and then I returned to Manila to prepare for my next adventure to Marinduque Island, which would take place the following morning.
If you were to take a little drive around a city in the Philippines, several things might strike you as creative ways of taunting death. First, it appears to be a challenge to see who can fit the most people on their little motorized scooters. I mean, it’s unbelievable. I have seen as many as six people on one scooter bike. Of course this usually entails two of the kids to be sitting on the parent’s lap, a baby in one parent’s arm and the other child delicately balancing on the rear seat while juggling three oranges. Here's an example(http://bp3.blogger.com/_PsuSutj5h-k/R4ONL8QvIbI/AAAAAAAAAjk/v1cHvJmCrlQ/...), courtesy of this blog (http://isaaccurrey.blogspot.com). If that isn’t too safe for you, lets talk about “trick” number two. Driving techniques are not what I would call standardized. Often scooter drivers enjoy making sudden U-turns in the middle of the road without checking to see if any traffic is around. Now you might view this as suicidal; I simply view it as courageous. Who else in the world except movie heroes would have the guts to play Russian Scooterette with oncoming traffic? Is there a bus about to hit me, or is the road clear? I don’t know, maybe I’ll just — SCREECH! BANG! — Darn, it was a bus. The third common death-defying act here is cell phone abuse – on scooters. Yes, it happens all the time. Before going on, for those of you that may be unaware of how a motorized scooter works, the clutch and brakes are instruments controlled by both hands. Unlike a car where the steering wheel could potentially be operated by a single hand, scooters require much more concentration and control. Which is why talking on a phone while driving a scooter should be a challenge on Fear Factor.
I thought that I should at least give you some background in the amazing world of tropical diseases, from my own experiences of course. It never ceases to amaze me how many stomach problems I develop on any typical trip to the Philippines. For instance, it took me all of 4 days here on this trip to be back on antibiotics. Four days! I mean, come on, that is ridiculous. For the most part I try to stick to bottled water as much as possible. When we are surveying mountain sites, the pristine river water is just fine, and it is usually the city water that gives me problems. Stomach problems aside, you have the constant worry of infections as well. Numerous scratches, mild wounds, and rashes are just a few of the wonderful side effects of field biology. As long as you can keep the wounds clean and dry they will heal quickly. Of course, in an environment of 2 million percent humidity, and heat that can only be matched by actually standing on the sun, it is often difficult to do this. We do the best we can though. Prior to my first expedition in 2004, I was aware of all of the possible diseases I could catch and be vaccinated for. The vaccination process took several months and was incredibly expensive. I had to receive vaccines for typhoid fever, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, tetanus, flu, hepatitis – the list went on and on. In addition to the shots you can get ahead of time, there are areas where the most dangerous viruses and diseases are mosquito born. Everyone has heard of Malaria, and luckily, you can protect yourself while traveling by taking one of several anti-malarial medications. However, what I was never aware of prior to my first expedition was Dengue Fever, and I bet you can’t guess what the first illness I encountered in the Philippines. It was 2004 and I had been in the Philippines for my first month of Asian fieldwork…ever. It started in Bohol Island. Fever. Chills. I didn’t know it at the time but I had caught Dengue Fever five days earlier on a small island elsewhere in the archipelago (Dengue has an incubation period). The “fever” is actually a mosquito born virus that comes in four strains (flavors, if you will) here in the Philippines. The mosquito is larger than most people are used to, has white stripes, and occurs more often than not in cities and towns rather than in the forest. Oh yeah, it is diurnal, meaning it attacks its victims during the day. Now, I am not saying these harbingers of doom are the size of cars; they are noticeably bigger.
The way it works is a lamok (that’s Tagalog for mosquito) bites an individual already infected with the early stages of the virus. Then it finds someone else to bite. So not only was I unlucky enough to get bitten in broad daylight, probably while walking down the street in my town, but the insect had been one of the infected. I spent the next eight days in a hospital bed, on an IV, and close to needing a blood transfusion. The blood’s platelet count usually drops significantly with the virus, sometimes to a point that a person will actually experience internal bleeding. Just so you know, a normal platelet count is between 150,000-400,000. My count had gone from 155,000 on day three to 115,000 that evening, and by day six was down to 58,000. The fever is a continual 103 degrees for the duration of the virus. It is not all bad; the hallucinations can at least be an adventure. One night in particular I remember having to capture the dragon each time I wanted to fall asleep. Finally on day 8 my fever broke. My body slowly stopped aching and my platelet count started to rise again. Now I find that when I see a mosquito I jump back and start swatting at the air. What a wimp, huh?
There is leaving for an expedition, and then there is leaving for a nine-month expedition. Where to begin packing is a question I am always asking myself. The airlines have not made it any easier. While we used to be able to check-in two enormous 70-pound bags, we are now only allowed two 50-pound bags. This means I will be leaving my car at home this year. I would say that I get a little too meticulous about packing. Everything has to be placed out on the floor organized by size, and then by color. Lists have to be checked off, and then the list listing the original lists also has to be reviewed. Don’t get me started on making sure you have duplicates of everything in preparation for the day a thief targets my Britney Spears music collection and 15 containers of dental floss.
In the end, I have packed and repacked. Each time a bag gets full, I have to hold it standing on a scale to make sure it will make the weight. The process is tedious, but if you can pack 90% of the field supplies you intended to, you are a rockstar. Important equipment always comes on the plane with me. This means I have a daypack filled with camera equipment, my computer, important documents, and of course, my passport. With all of this equipment, my carry-on bags get pretty heavy. By the end of a long trip overseas I have the most beautiful red rashes on my shoulders and a back that has aged 10 years. Finally, you arrive to check in at the airport and you do what every field biologist does while checking in. You hold your breath. Are the bags underweight? Will I be charged one million extra dollars for my luggage? Can this Northwest Airlines agent smell my fear? Unfortunately, I am convinced that the scales at the airport make everything heavier, and what weighed 48 pounds at home will weigh 53 pounds at the airport. The lesson I have learned over the years is to pack with 5 pounds to spare. And so I depart for the Philippines, by way of four cities, and 48 hours of fun travel time. At least I have two copies of Britney’s recent hit.
Cameron Siler studies the diversity, biology and evolutionary history of amphibians and reptiles from Southeast Asia at the University of Kansas. Cameron is a graduate student in Herpetology at the KU Biodiversity Institute, and is working toward the completion of a doctorate degree focused on studying the evolution of limb loss in lizards. In the group of lizards he studies, some species have evolved a completely limbless body and look just like worms or small snakes even though they are still lizards! Other species in the same group still have four limbs and resemble the typical lizards that we all think about. Cameron leaves for the Philippines Feb. 1 as part of a Fulbright-Hayes fellowship. He will collaborate with the Philippine National Museum and the Philippine government to conduct conservation and biodiversity surveys throughout the country. The project will last for nine months until October, when Cameron will return to KU. You can follow Cameron’s blog entries from the Philippines here at Field Notes.