Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fieldwork Blues

I originally started this blog because I had serious field-blog-envy. I’d read other people’s postings about their fieldwork, and it make my miss the field. I was excited about getting to my own fieldwork, and sharing my stories to make all of my readers basilisk-green with envy.

Let me warn you then, that sometimes it’s much more fun to dream of fieldwork and read other people’s fieldwork tales than it is to be in the field.

I know this. I’ve said before that fieldwork is 90% drudgery and misery, and 10% of being so absolutely magical and amazing that it make you want to keep slogging through that miserable 90%. But when you are at home, comfortably ensconced in all the comforts of home, reading stories about fieldwork while you are snuggled on the couch with your cat, somehow fieldwork sounds so much more exciting. And memory dims all your moments of being miserable in the field, and instead you remember that one really amazing day when you saw howler monkeys, a coati, and iguana, in the same tree, or the day you saw a juvie female spider using a stick as a tool to scratch herself, or the days when you managed to stick with one party of spider monkeys and follow them for four hours straight.

Yet, somehow, when I was in the US on a two-year break from fieldwork (which was never my intention, but waiting for grant money and life happening in the meantime caused me to push back my fieldwork until about a year later than I originally planned), that’s all I seemed to remember. And this summer, I’ve gotten a HUGE dose of the many downsides of fieldwork.

For starters, there’s illness. Now, I tend to have a pretty dismal immune systems, so I spend plenty of time being sick wherever I am. But this summer, I began my fieldwork with an unknown ailment (according to the doctor, “a bug,”) that slowed me down and majorly cut down on the amount of time I felt able to actually spend in the forest with the monkeys. And the past few weeks (including my time spent in the US), I’ve had bad stomach problems, so between my trip to the US and a week of feeling miserably sick, I missed out on about two weeks of data collection. Being sick is miserable, no matter where you are. But in the field, it’s twice (if not thrice) as worse, because in addition to feeling horrible, you’re away from all the comforts of home, plus you’re stressing out on all the data you might be missing out on. And the combination of feeling icky, stressing about your research, and being bored and frustrated at the station just make you feel worse. And in case that’s not bad enough, there’s always the fun of clinics in a country where you can’t fluently speak the language . . . (although I realize it could be much worse—I’m grateful to be in Costa Rica, where the medical care is good and I at least speak a bit of the language).

And then there’s all the biting and stinging things in the forest. I am the mosquitoes equivalent of crème brulee, tiramisu, and cheesecake, all rolled into one—they absolutely swarm me, and I think I regularly become anemic from losing too much blood to them. While they are the biggest irritation, then there’s the occasional biting ants, and then bullet ants and stinging plants. Today I brushed by one of the stinging plants, which leaves burning welts on any skin it comes in contact with. And yesterday I got two bullet ant bites, which brings my lifetime number of bites up to 6.

Of course, there’s always the swamp. My field site has tons of swamp, and every time I’m stuck in it, I think of The Neverending Story, when Atreyu’s horse dies in the swamp because he thought sad thoughts. Whenever I start sinking in the swamp, my first thought is of poor Atreyu’s horse (which of course, is a sad thought, which would only hasten my drowning if El Zota’s swamps worked the same way as they did in the movie—luckily they don’t. Sad thoughts or happy thoughts, I can usually drag myself out by crawling, if all other attempts to haul myself out have failed). At least right now, the swamps are actually at a minimum, because it’s been incredibly dry here lately (dry here as in not a lot of rain—it’s still super-humid).
But really, the two major frustrations I have right now are 1) not getting as much data as I would like (because those damn spider monkeys are not cooperating!), and 2) being away from my boyfriend. I can put up with the swamp, the insects, all the evils the forest has to throw at me, if I can spend some quality time with the spiders. And I do, sometimes, but more often, it seems like either the monkeys are being elusive, or I find them, and they find ways to evade me shortly into following them. And when I’m not spending enough quality time with them, it’s hard to stay motivated and enjoy being here. And the less I enjoy being here, the more I feel guilty for having to be away for so long, and the more I regret the life choices that have lead me here (why, oh why, did I decide to go to grad school years ago? Why did I decide that I had to do my research on the social behavior and endocrinology of wild spider monkeys? Couldn’t I have picked an easier dissertation project?). Of course, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into . . . so I only have myself to blame.

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