Night Searches and Beaches – Part 1

Since I wrote my last post, a lot has happened. Sometimes it feels as if one month has passed instead of one week, other times as if a single day will drag on and on. We are forever on the monkeys’ schedule, and the monkeys really don’t believe in the 9-5 life. More often than not, I have no concept of what day of the week it is, and I’ve found this to to be a very freeing realization.

This week, we spent the majority of our time and energy searching for our 3rd group of monkeys. Let me explain what this means and why we do it. For this research project, our team is collecting data from 3 different habituated social groups. The names of these groups are Administration (Admin), Rosa Maria, and Guanacaste. Each group has roughly 15-30 monkeys more or less, and their territories range in different areas surrounding our house here in the park. We have found and worked with Admin and Rosa Maria since I have been here, but on Sunday, it was time to find our third and final group, Guanacaste. Guanacaste can be elusive (aka: be a betch) because they live in the northern most territories that we search, and they often go much much further north out of this known territory for 1-2 weeks at a time. Tracking them would not be a problem if we were with them all the time, however, because we only stay with one group 2-3 days at a time and then search for our next group in another part of the park, by the time we cycle back around days later to do a search – well, they could be anywhere. This process of course happens with our other 2 habituated groups, but they are a little more predictable and often one night search results in finding them fairly easily.

It was during one of these physically exhausting, morale draining, slightly frustrating night searches that I experienced being alone in the forest at sundown for the first time. A heavy part of this job is not only collecting data with members of your team during the day, but someone has to be with the monkeys when they wake up at sunrise and when they go to bed at sunset. Since our monkeys are not tagged, this is the only way to know where the group we are working with is at all times. This often means leaving the house before the sun is up and trekking home after the sun has set – aka hiking through the jungle in the dark. And because we only have a small number of people and no one would get time off if these shifts were always done in pairs, these “wake-ups” and “put-to-beds” are often done alone.

In mathematical terms, my mental processing of this realization looked something like this: ME + ALONE + DARKNESS + FOREST FILLED WITH POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS THINGS THAT COULD KILL/MAIME ME IF THEY REALLY REALLY WANTED TO = NEW LEVEL OF INNER FEAR.

Now when I say “new level of inner fear” I mean a kind of primal fear. I’m sure there are varying levels of primal fear, and the fear I am experiencing is probably a few grades lower than say someone actually being attacked by a wild animal, or someone actually lost in the forest for several days. But for the sake of my story, and considering I am a white middle class American female whose average fears are typically manifested from some bullshit existential crisis, I am going to call this primal fear. I could also make a nice bullet point list of all the animals, insects, and general “scary situations” I am afraid of running into out in the forest, but I am not going to do that as this is a mental rabbit hole I have spent the last week clawing my way out of. Instead, I’ll focus on my observations and realizations I had while I was alone in the forest for the first time.

Since my first day of work, I have been out before sunrise and after sunset several times with other members of my team. During these times, I would follow behind them fearfully while they bravely bushwhacked their way through the harsh underbrush, quickly spotted hard-to-see trail flags in the dark, and calmly found their way through a particularly rough patch of forest with only a headlamp to light the way. The entire time, I watched astonished and terrified that we were expected to do this same thing on our own, sometimes on even rougher trails that could take 45 min to an hour to trek through. During these follow-the-leader hike times, my helpful brain came up with all the colorfully detailed “scary situations” I mentioned earlier. In short, when it came to my fight or flight response to fear during these times, I was team flight.

A few days later, we were asked to go it alone. It wasn’t quite a full wake-up or put-to-bed shift, as night searches are typically only 3-ish hours and we try to meet up with other members of the team for the walk home, but baby steps people.

At first I felt fine, but as I walked deeper and deeper into the northern territories of the forest, my very helpful brain decided it was the perfect time to replay the “scary situations” reel. Cracking branches, flapping of bird wings, a locust whizzing by – all became the “scary situations” on the verge of becoming reality, and that flight response started to kick in…

And then I did something that probably made any animal in my general vicinity look up and say wtf. I stopped and said no. No I actually did that, I literally stopped and said the word “no” out loud, very loudly. I think I was even standing on a rock to make it even more dramatic. And just like that (after a few more spoken word affirmations) my flight response slowly dissolved, and I was suddenly team fight. Any sound, worry, shadow, rough terrain, thorn patch, insect bite, missing trail flag, and uneasy silence only made me trudge on, move faster, and fight through the rougher parts of the forest without hesitation. Now don’t get me wrong, I still had fear, but I was responding to it in a much different way than I had been, and, quite honestly, in a much different way than I’d ever been forced to in my entire adult life. And that was a very cool experience.

Because when you are out on your own, and you can’t whine and complain to the person next to you, and there’s no cell service to call someone, and no internet to google what to do, and crying only makes it harder for you to see the trail flags ahead, and freezing and panicking only worsens your situation – you suddenly find there’s a very deep part of you that actually can face any and all fears when you have a healthy body, sound mind, and enough adrenaline pumping in your veins to power a one man army. And that is a lesson in personal growth I hope everyone gets to experience at some point in their life.

Now please understand, I am once again being very over dramatic. I work with people who have experienced much more isolated and fear inducing situations out here than that first sundown shift I was on my own. But, as I said in my previous post, I am recording my more uncomfortable adventures and how I made the best of them, and I think a moment of fear turned “personal adult growth moment” fits into that category nicely.

img_6136Sundown forest selfe!

Check out part 2 where I talk about something less anxiety inducing – the beach!

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