It all started nicely, the car service ( I thought I was worth the treat, considering that everyone else was working) arrived at 11:00 AM. The drive was uneventful, except for the traffic, and we arrived at LaGuardia ( the airport of choice, at least for Continetntal, it used the least of Margie, my fiance╣s miles) at 1:15, plenty of time to make a 3:30 flight.
At around 2:30 we were notified that our plane had been delayed in Maryland and would not take off until 4:30. Now that was a real problem as I had to make a connection in Houston at 7:00. After conferring with the Continental representative it was getting clear that the connection could not be made, and that there were no alternatives. At 4:30 the plane had not even arrived, so I booked the flights for Saturday, but this time for a 1:30 flight to Houston. That way if the weather was bad I had a better shot at getting to Houston.
A call to Earthwatch, and a message left with the secretary explaining my situation and it was time to get home.
A bus trip to Manhattan, and then a train ride to Trenton to meet Margie and I was home by 9:00 PM
On Saturday I was up early and Margie drove me to Trenton to get an 8:00 O╣clock train to New York. At the train station I put a twenty dollar bill in the ticket machine and was surprised when my change, all $9.60, came back as Sacagawea dollars. I actually got an earlier express to New York, so had plenty of time to get a cab. The cab ride was very quick and I was back at La Guardia by 9:30 AM.
When I checked in I asked about an earlier flight and was put on standby for the 10:30 flight to Houston.
When I got to the gate there was a long list of standby╣s so I thought I would have to get the 1:30. After a few minutes my name was called and the young man behind the desk told me I might get the last seat but he had to check. After waiting ten minutes another Continental employee called another passenger to get the last seat. I asked her what happened to my seat and she told me I already had a seat. I was happy but informed her that was the first time I had heard about the seat. Just then the guy who had told me about my seat appeared and ushered me onto the plane to get the last seat.
The good news was I was on my way to Houston, the bad news was that I would arrive about seven hours early!
The trip to Houston was uneventful and I found a way to get through the seven hour wait without falling asleep.
The trip to Merida, Mexico was nice, the middle seat was empty so there was a little room to stretch.
In Merida, I flew through customs and even got my dufflebag off the coveyor first, now to see about getting in contact with someone from Earthwatch. My first inclination was to try my cell phone, only to get a message in Spanish, but no call through to Margie to let her know I had finally made it. It turned out tht I had no service in Mexico.
Oh well, the flight was early, so I thought I would wait awhile and see if anyone showed up, if not, I would get a cab and see if I could get a room at the Holiday Inn.
I waited about twenty minutes and then I saw a green T-shirt with Earthwatch written on the front. I walked up and introduced myself and was quite relieved when Jorge knew who I was. We threw my bag and backpack in the VW van and off we went.
Jorge did ask if there were any other Earthwatch people on the plane and I told him that I hadn╣t noticed any of the Earthwatch tags or T-shirts. He informed me that two of the woman had arrived and that two were still missing.
We arrived at the house after a slight adventure and I met Luis and Leonardo, two graduate students who would be working with us on the project.
I guess it was the combination of adrenalin from the trip and my first adventure sleeping in a string hammock, but I found falling asleep almost impossible. Sometime in the night I finally fell asleep, and awoke to the smell of fresh coffee.
Our home for 8 days in Chicxulub Puerto,
two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico.
It turns out that Jorge the professor in charge of the project, made an excellent pot of coffee, and it quickly had me awake and finding my bearings. I soon met Carol (whom I had spoken too before the trip, as she is almost a neighbor) and Barbara the other two Earthwatch team members and after a breakfast of toast and coffee was ready to meet the day.
Before we loaded ourselves into the VW van (which brought back happy memories of my bachelor days), we would all fill water bottles, get cameras, binoculars ( which of course I forgot) and the all important bug spray on our bodies. The trip to the sight was about twenty minutes and was always filled with six pairs of eyes looking for a new species of bird. When we got to the site which was a few hundred meters from the Gulf, Luis spread the rope marked at ten meter intervals into a square. We then took another rope and divided the square into two equal halves. We split up into two teams; myself and Jorge and Carol, Barbara and Luis. Leonardo went off to do a survey of the bird species in the area.
Our job was threefold; (1) to measure the height and distance from other members of the palm ( Coccothrinax readii), (2) count all Orchid stems with green leaves (Myrmecopphila tibicins, or M.Christina) and (3) to measure the diameter of all dwarf cacti (Mammaleria gaumeri).
Palm, Coccothrinax readii with fruit.
Orchid, Myrmecophila tibicins growing on Palm, Coccothrinax readii
Dwarf cactus, Mammalaria gaumeri with fruit.
The teams worked quickly in the heat and except for the problem of constantly watching out for the rather small (usually about 5 to 10cm) Dwarf cacti, another plant that makes you itch like poison ivy, the other species of cacti with the rather long spines, and the mosquitoes all went well and by noon we were ready to tackle a new problem.
But to our great joy, Jorge had other plans, we were going to visit Dzibilchaltun, one of the Mayan cities nearby, because it was free on Sunday. You have no idea how happy this made me, I was hoping that we would have time on the last Saturday to visit one of the Mayan sites, not this soon. Ever since my college days and a book I found while working in the college bookstore on the Mayans, I had dreamt of visiting a Mayan site.
We went back to the house and had a quick lunch and changed into more comfortable, (not cactus proof long pants) and were off. The ruins were all I had hoped for, the museum, visit ,and the commentary about the different structures from our hosts only added to the experience.
Temple of the Seven Dolls, Dzibilchaltun
Besides the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after seven doll like statues found buried under the floor of the temple there was a great view along the sacbe or road that lead up to t he temple past a stele believed to have been a clock. You can see the stele in the background and also how wide the road was in the picture.
We walked to the back of the site where Barbara and Carol went swimming in a cenote╣, a natural pool in the limestone that can be very deep. They were used by the Mayans for water and sacrifice.
Sacbe with ruins in foreground, and clock stele
in the background at Dzibilchaltun.
That evening we (the gringos) prepared a traditional American meal of chicken cooked on a grill fired with real charcoal (not those briquettes used in the US) and a fantastic salad with a very creative homemade salad dressing, and of course we had some Mexican beer and wine to complete a very long but educational day.
Monday morning I awoke to another pleasant aroma, homemade pancakes, by chef Leonardo. A cup of coffee, pancakes and honey, and this is work?
The morning brought us to a new site, a hundred yards or so from the first site. After setting out the ropes for the new quadrant, it was a real battle to work through the underbrush to find our study species. The bottom line is that almost everything was dead, because this site was lower ground and had been submerged for a longer time from the 2002 hurricane. I did find a very large bright orange caterpillar which is still unclassified. Luis taught me a trick using a 2x magnifying lens with my digital camera to get great close-ups.
We then returned to the first sight to get some additional data, we would mark any palms that were under 50 cm high, so a record could be established to see how they recovered.
We spent the remaining time birding with Leonardo and saw lots of flamingos, a tri-colored tern, comoronts, a least tern and possibly a lesser yellow legged tern.
Back to the house where Jorge made chicken frajitas that were outstanding.
In the early evening we walked down to the beach to watch some ominous clouds develop, lots of lightning in the distance, but no rain.
Around 6:00 we drove top Progresso, a port city and walked along a nice promenade next to the beach. We saw the pier that is being extended to deep water so cruise ships can bring tourists, the pier is now 2 miles out and will be extended another 4 miles! We stopped at the internet cafÚ on the way home and I emailed Margie.
When we returned to the house, we reviewed the day╣s work and got our journals caught up.
Tuesday morning saw a breakfast of coffee, toast and strawberry marmalade.
Back to site number 2 to also do a count of palms under 50 cm tall. As would be expected there were none.
The rest of t he morning was spent birding with Leonardo. Then a quick dip in the Gulf. The water is rather shallow and I felt like I could walk to Texas or Florida,
When we returned to the house for lunch we discovered what appeared to be a black scorpion that had been in the wrong place when Carol put her, rather heavy suitcase down. Upon further investigation, thankfully with a book and not my finger, I discovered that it was very much alive as it scooted right back under the suitcase. A plastic cup, a quick scoop and the book saw the scorpion safely removed and deposited over the wall outside.
Another gastronomic treat for lunch as Luis prepared Papadzules, a tortilla filled with chopped hard boiled eggs, covered with a crushed pumpkin seed sauce with a small amount of pureed tomatoes.
Chef Luis !
The rest of the day we cleaned the house and caught up on journals, data, etc.
That evening we met Alejandra, Jorge╣s wife and went to Progresso to walk along the beach.
Wednesday morning we returned to the same area that we had been working in and watched Jorge and Luis do a survey of all of the plant species found within a one meter frame. The frame was placed on the plants at two meter intervals for a total of 30 meters. Because of the diversity of plants it was easier for the two of them to work in Spanish with an English translation when a new or unusual species was discovered.
We then loaded the van and headed for a totally new sight between the Gulf and a large lagoon. This had been one of the earlier sites before the hurricane and after we set out the ropes to mark off the 10 meter study area quickly discovered that moving through the thick underbrush was a real challenge. Especially when you had to be on the lookout for dwarf cacti underfoot at all times. Not to mention the fact that we had discovered the remains of a rattlesnake on the road not too far from the location. After battling the brush we discovered that there were no living palms or dwarf cacti and only a few orchids.
Me at work !!
After collecting our data we walked down to the lagoon to do some more bird watching and we discovered a fiddler crab at the waters edge. We also spotted rare kite near the lagoon.
For lunch we went to a local restaurant in Chicxulup Puerto and had fried sea bass plus a rather large assortment of appetizers.
After lunch we were treated to yet another visit to a Mayan ruin, Xcambo, which had only been excavated 8 years earlier. The site was interesting because it was a major city involved with the trade of salt to the other Mayan cities. While we were there we met Carlos an employee of the Museum involved with the restoration of the site. He showed us pictures he had taken of the ruins before they had been reconstructed and other artifacts that had not been cataloged, again, a highlight of my visit that was not expected.
Building at Xcambo
Artifacts at Xcambo
On the way home Leonardo wanted to stop for some food he needed to make a special treat that evening.
That evening the gringos made hot dogs with roasted vegetables on top. We called it the Seaside heights Italian Hot Dog. After dinner we were sitting around working on journals, etc while Leonardo was busy in the kitchen.
Finally he brought each of us a coffee cup or mug with his specialty. It was white with what looked like cinnamon sprinkled on top. To my surprise it was one of my favorite deserts, rice pudding.
Thursday, we woke up late and headed for Merida to go shopping. Carol and Barbara wanted to go to a supermarket to buy some of the ingredients they would need to duplicate the dishes we had tried. I wanted to purchase a bottle of good tequila, so Luis and Leonardo brought us to one of the major supermarkets after doing a little sightseeing.
After finding everything we needed we headed for the checkout where things looked much the same s at home. The big difference being the baggers. The baggers are all young boys and girls who wear a colored shirt indicating the store where they work. Thankfully we were informed by our hosts that these children earn their jobs with their grades and are NOT paid. They work only for tips.
After the supermarket we visited a monument to the Mayan Indians and the modern Spanish people and then drove to Jorge and Alejandros for as you have already guessed, another great meal. This was a chicken dish that was rather complicated to make, bu delicious and had been prepared by Alejandro╣s mother.
After lunch we went to a Mayan craft shop to buy some souvenirs and then to an art museum in a small village outside Merida. The art was of two distinct types; religious and very contemporary, but very interesting.
Friday had us back in the field to try another ten meter study at the second site, near the lagoon. Again we found no palms or dwarf cacti alive and only a few orchids alive.
We then proceded to visit some old churches, an old sessile plant and an old Hacienda and sessile plant that still had all of the machinery in place.
We also visited another cenote╣ that was in the middle of nowhere. I was nothing more than a hole surrounded by a stone fence. The hole itself was about five meters to the water surface, and the water itself was another five meters deep. There were several boys swimming and because time was running out we headed home.
Jorge was to meet us at the house, and we had the only key. From there we were taking our three hosts to lunch to celebrate Leonardo╣s upcoming wedding. We went to a very nice restaurant that specialized in seafood and again had a great meal.
After lunch we said goodbye to Leonardo and Luis as they were returning to Merida, and went back to the house to clean.
After cleaning we took a casual stroll along the Gulf into Chixulub Puerto for some great ice cream.
Saturday saw us getting up early, to pack the van with all of our belongings. We dropped Barbara at the airport and said our goodbyes, then me at the Holiday Inn.
Later I met Carol at the Museum of Anthropology and we then went for a nice last meal in Merida.
Oldest church in North America
I returned to the hotel, did some reading and was finally greeted by one of the thunderstorms that had been stalking us all week. I opened the door to the veranda and enjoyed the pouring rain!
The next morning I took a cab at 4:30 AM to the airport, I met Carol and we went over the events of the past week and were both of the same mind. It had been one of the most exhilarating weeks we had ever spent. The knowledge gained, the people we had met and the fact that six people could literally spend eight days 24/7 together and never even have the hint of a negative word or act was amazing.
The flight home was uneventful and now I am thinking about my next Earthwatch adventure.