Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Where were you in '99?

Since today is a "preschool" day (previously known as daycare, "preschool" is less guilt-inducing for me), I had a long list of all the stuff I was going to get done while Jr. is napping. Laundry. Mop the entire downstairs. Go through accumulated bills/statements and file or shred appropriately. Clean the kids bathroom. Start pumping and get a milk stash going since it's only 3.5 weeks until I'm back at work. Clean up dog poop in the yard. Send out way overdue thank-you cards from the surprise baby shower that is now 6 weeks in the past (I know, I know), organize some of the 5 billion pictures we've taken of Jr., and oh yeah, maybe update the blog.

Yes, like most moms with newborns, I have a looooong list of crap that is just not getting done despite my temporary stay-at-home mom status. So with good intentions I was organizing my desk (or maybe jacking around on the computer wasting time on Facebook and Babycenter, whatever), and for whatever reason I decided to "dust" a little photo album that I never look at, a photo album commemorating the Summer of 1999, also known as One of the Most Adventurous Summers of My Young Life. As I flipped through the book, all I could think was, "Holy crap. This is TEN YEARS AGO." It feels like 5 minutes ago, but it also feels like an alternate life that was lived by someone else. I was 22. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment by myself, although TH and I were definitely pretty serious by then. I was still a zookeeper at the Denver Zoo. I was in between my 1st and 2nd senior years at CU Boulder (I needed the "Five-Year Plan" because I had to work full time at the zoo to pay the bills, so I was only in class 2-3 days a week trying to crank out the pre-req's for vet school). I hadn't even applied to vet school yet, and I was still trying to figure out if I really wanted to be a vet or if I wanted to pursue something more academic.

At that time, I knew I was destined to work with animals. Because of my exposure to exotic animals through being a zookeeper and my love of all of my anthropology courses, I kept envisioning myself being The Next Jane Goodall. I was fascinated with primates (still am), and I fantasized that maybe I would become a primatologist, living in the jungle studying monkeys or apes when I wasn't teaching anthro classes (I also had and still have a great interest in teaching). So, when one of my anthro professors announced in spring 1999 that there was an opportunity for students to spend the summer in Central America helping her study monkeys, I jumped all over it. Keep in mind that A) I had never been outside the continental US, B)I was a scholarship/loan student with very little money to traipse around the world, and C) I needed to keep my job at the zoo. I'm still amazed that I actually managed to go on the trip. Somehow, I scrounged up additional student loan money to finance my part of the excursion and keep my rent paid while I was gone, I convinced my boss to hold my job for me over the summer, and I got my first passport. And off I went to Costa Rica and Panama, traveling by myself (well not exactly, I was with a research group but I had never met any of them prior to the trip).

This isn't even the smallest or crappiest plane. It was hilariious -- as small as it is, they had the nerve to have 3 flight attendants and a meal/drink service on this plane.

It was such an adventure! Getting to the island off of Panama where our research station was located took 2 days of progressively smaller and more questionable aircraft, culminating in us riding in a 10-seater, double prop plane that had DUCT TAPE ON THE WINDOWS to keep rain out and that flew so low over the mountains you could see birds in the trees (that part was not so much "adventurous" as "scary as hell"). Once we reached the tiny little "town" that held the airstrip, it was another hour into the jungle to reach the station, which was right on the uninhabited beach. We only had semi-electricity (lights in our "dining hall") for a few hours each day, with no real running water, just a gravity-fed ice cold shower in the "cabina" where we slept on little cots surrounded by mosquito nets. For six weeks, we woke up at around 4am and strapped on head lamps so we could hike into the rainforest and listen for the howler monkeys to start screeching, then use machetes to hack through the forest until we figured out their exact location. (Just thinking back I can't believe we actually did that everyday). The rainforest was exactly as you picture it in movies: hot, humid, muddy, trees so tall and leafy that it was almost night-time dark during the day, millions of insects and lizards and birds and butterflies (but thankfully no big cats or poisonous snakes. Those were on the mainland.) Each day we would set up shop at the base of some huge tree and spend hours watching the monkeys do their monkey thing through binoculars, notating their activities every 5 minutes. Every once in awhile --I kid you not -- a creepy-silent Amazonian-type barefoot and loinclothed "Forest Person" would amble by, say "hola" to us and then kind of chuckle at all of our equipment and notebooks and headlamps before they melted back into the forest to do whatever it is they did.

View of the part of the island where the monkeys were. I know, right?

Standing at the base of one of the giant rainforest trees. This one was a smaller one. Notice how dark it is in the middle of the day because of how dense the forest was.

Inside the cabina where we slept. On those little cots. For weeks. Mine is the upper one on the right.

In the afternoons we would hike back to the station, and have fun -- we'd usually jump into the ocean to wash off the mud, then spend the hours before dark snorkeling, drinking beer on our little beach, playing cards, reading, and smoking cigarettes (yes, smoking. I was a sort-of smoker in my college days, and I smoked so much while in Panama that I pretty much smoked myself out and ended the habit when I got back. What can I say, I was 22, there wasn't much else to do, and the packs were only 25 cents.) On weekends we would go into town and hang out at the local bar, drinking tequila and beer until early morning. It was crazy.

Swinging on a vine in the forest. A real vine, y'all!

After a day of monkey-watchimg. Notice the mud up to my knees. And the youth.

Anyway I could go on and on, but suffice it to say the summer of '99 was pretty pivotal for me. It was the first time I felt like a real adult, travelling in different countries by myself, taking part in a real research project. It was also when I realized that I couldn't stomach being a true primatologist. The jungle was just too "real" for me. The bugs, the heat, the mud, the mind-numbing monotony of watching monkeys sleep and eat and scratch each other's backs all day, having to take daily anti-malaria medication that can cause "hallucinogenic dreams," the lack of interaction with the outside world. When I came back from Panama I was 100% sure I was going to vet school. It was also the first time I'd tried to maintain a serious relationship from afar, and that summer was also when I became pretty sure that TH was The One, because I missed him more than anyone else while I was gone, and when I saw him at the gate when I got off the plane I almost cried I was so happy to see him.

I've had alot of challenging and cool and different experiences since then, but nothing that really matches that summer. When I look at the pictures of myself then, I wonder if I'm living the life that I envisioned back then. I'm not sure. I love my life. I've accomplished most of the goals I made for myself then. But I can't help feeling that my true "Adventure" days are behind me, at least until my kids are grown and gone. And that's okay.


Joanna said...

Dude, you rock! I considered becoming a marine biologist, but once I learned about all of the grant writing, need to memorize lots of words in Latin, and how tedious research can be, I decided on becoming an armature naturalist instead.

I'm glad that you asked the question to. When I stopped an thought about it, 10 years ago this week, I had just gotten my temp assignment at a company I was interested in and really, really wanted to get hired at. I did, and I'm still happy here.

Julie said...

I love this post!! What an amazing adventure you had! It sounds like a pivotal moment in your young adulthood.

I too cannot believe 1999 was a decade ago--it was a big year for me as well. I had just passed my prelim exams in grad school, I ended a long-term relationship and re-entered the dating scene, I met Bill and I was having a blast being a 23 year old living solo in Chicago--I have great memories of 1999.

And for the record, I am the one who chose academic science and I am the one not working by choice! Good move Desi and Joanna to pick a different path--LOL!