Tuesday, November 14, 2000

Home Sweet Home

Ah, the Mirón Lento—our home for the next two weeks. It is hard to imagine what life is like on a small boat deep in the Amazon until you get on one. While we knew the Mirón Lento was a smaller boat and that we would be living in more "rustic" conditions, none of us was quite prepared for how rustic life would really be on this boat. Fortunately, we are all adventurers of one kind or another and are up for the challenge.

The Mirón Lento was built in 1993 as a research boat. It has two decks and is about 17 meters from bow to stern and 3.5 meters wide. We are living in close quarters indeed, particularly since there are 10 of us sharing this space for two weeks. There is virtually no privacy or anywhere to "get away" from one another should we feel a need for a little alone time.

The lower deck has a kitchen (a counter with a sink and a three burner, portable stove) a table for eating, six bunks, and an engine room. There is a curtain that separates the bunk area from the kitchen. Tamara has a very small "space" at the front of the lower deck for herself.

The upper deck is one long, undivided space. The Captain's wheel is at the bow. There are hard wooden benches along the left and right sides near the front of the boat. This area is where we hang out during the day and conduct our research. It is covered with a plastic tarp to keep us out of the sun and protect us from the rain. The sides of this area have plastic tarps, as well, that can be quickly rolled down in the event of a storm.

There is an area at the back for washing clothes and hanging laundry. The boat's solar panels that provide energy for the lights at night are on the roof of the bathroom. The Virtual Explorers' solar panels are placed on top of the awning to get the maximum amount of sun during the day. There is a large freezer located just back of the covered area. There is no generator on board, so the freezer isn't plugged into anything. Instead, is packed with enough ice to keep two weeks of fresh food—fresh.

Last year on the Delfín, we had four bathrooms and separate cabins for sleeping. We actually thought we were a bit cramped then. How silly! If we only knew then that we'd be coming back to live on the Mirón Lento, we would have thought the Delfin a floating five star hotel.

Instead, we have only one bathroom. Like the Delfín, the shower is located right next to the toilet so everything gets wet when you take a shower. Shower water is nothing other than river water in a holding tank located on top of the bathroom. Letser refills the reservoir with five-gallon bucket a couple of times a day. Showering in this heat makes you feel good for about five minutes, after which you are immediately hot and sweaty once again—but boy are those five minutes wonderful! After 24 hours we all have discovered the necessary technique for flushing the toilet (which flushes right into the river). There is no handle for flushing. Instead, there is a bucket of river water with a scoop right beside the toilet. To flush, you take a scoop of water and pour it in the toilet. However, to be effective, your aim needs to be dead center and you need to practically throw the water in the toilet. Takes a little practice, but by now we have all mastered it.

The Race is On

Darkness comes quickly this close to the equator, so night seems to sneak up on us. This is important because once night falls, the bugs come out in force. There are two places to sleep on the Mirón Lento; small bunks and the top open deck. The bunks are next to the kitchen area and are like shelves built into the side of the boat. On each there is a thin mattress and most importantly, mosquito netting.


The covered area upstairs becomes another sleeping area. The benches are pushed together, mattresses are laid down and a huge canopy of mosquito netting is hung to cover the entire "bed." This "Mosquito Palace" is really the bed of choice on the boat. The "roominess" and fresh breeze all night long makes it ideal.

We learned quickly last night that setting up the beds, especially the mosquito netting is very important. As the sun begins to set, a race begins between the mosquitoes and us. The task is to get the nets up without letting mosquitoes inside. We weren't very much help with this since it was also transmission time and we were busy with sending our data via the satellite phone. Tonight we are going to have to do it ourselves. Hopefully we won't have any new bug bites to complain about tomorrow.

So Who Is Driving the Boat Anyway?

The rivers of the Amazon are constantly changing, so there are no maps or charts of the river. Captain Antonio knows the patterns of the water and can read the river very well. He has been a boat captain for 20 years. He also has great eyes, pointing out dolphins long before the rest of us.




We are excited that our cook from last year, Horatio, is our cook again. He is able to create amazing meals in the tiny kitchen. This year he has a cookbook that we can buy and take home, so we can have some of our favorite meals from the Amazon at home. Horatio is currently reading Harry Potter in Spanish! He has a 10-year-old daughter with whom he wants to share the book.


Letser is the first mate and his main jobs are to help the Captain and keep the boat looking good. He is in love with the captain's daughter, so will do what ever the captain wants. Sometimes on the large Marañón River, Letser takes a turn at driving the boat, but the captain takes over when the river narrows or becomes more difficult to navigate.

The Daily Rhythm

Our goal this year is to actually enjoy the river, sleep for more than a couple of hours a night and still do our job. So far, we are on our way to reaching this goal. We are much better prepared—knowing how much time things take and when work should be done. Last night our transmission was finished by 8:00 P.M. Last year we were lucky to start by then, and often didnŐt finish by midnight! We even had time to test our temperature and light probes with our Palm handheld computers. We will need these tomorrow.

We are delighted (and relieved) that our solar panels are capable of charging both our super batteries by mid-day and that the two batteries are enough power for us to run three laptop computers, recharge our satellite phone and our Palms each day. This weekend when we have a little more time we will describe in detail the equipment we have with us and how we are using it.

Jungle Symphony

The jungle is layered with sounds at night and can only be appreciated once everyone is settled in bed and quiet. The first "layer" is the constant hum of thousands and thousands of insects. Croaking frogs break through this hum adding a regular rhythm that you can almost keep time to. Above this, the cries of night birds break through with irregularity and beauty. The most unusual is the call of the Hay Hay Mama. Their cry sounds so much like a child weeping that the local people have a story about it. The birds are reported to have once been lost children who now spend their nights crying for their parents.

Mixed with this cornucopia of sound is the river. The swish of the current and the dolphins' "phew" as they break the surface to breathe are constant companions all night long.

Today we traveled up the Río Marañón to San Pablo Lake where we will spend the night. We encountered some dolphins along the way and will share the data with you tomorrow. You may want to review the background information about the two species of river dolphins found here and the research tools. In particular, you will want to read about how we do a transect survey. We have also posted a map of our location that we will update periodically.


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