After arriving from an eight hour car trip to our base site in the city of Cochabamba, we then went to a remote site in the middle of the Andean mountains. This was our first study site, and took a 4 hour drive, plus a 4 hour hike to get to. We found a gorgeous landscape at an elevation of 4,100 meters, hardly visited by humans, and surrounded by grasslands with patches of gorgeous, highly diverse forest (our reason to be there). We were there to work and camp for five days.
The extreme absence of humans, the silence, the wind, the birds, the sound of the branches of woody plants when bending in the wind, were all evident from the moment I left the car. Breathing seemed so evident, not an autonomous action anymore, the air was pure and crisp. An enormous freedom; freedom from pollution, from noise, from commitments, and from normal life. When I go to remote areas for field trips I find my life cleared out from all those things that seem to be like mosquitoes around my head. I clear the clutter. I like to think that these opportunities are like a sieve, I sieve my life, and I hold onto the things that are useful, and matter to me.
It is true that in this situation we also had a lot of challenging work to do. We had heavy gear and equipment to both carry and work with. Here is when you find some of the elements in their full expression:
Air/oxygen. How we overlook it, and oh dear, I missed it while I was there! At an elevation of 4,000m you have almost half of the amount of oxygen available compared to when you are at sea level, and I can tell you, it is little. As I mentioned in a previous post, when you walk, you notice it, even when you first talk. Walking is hard! My male colleagues in the field were counting their heart rate, and they found that even in a resting position (lying down in their tents before sleep) they had a heart rate similar to the one they would have when running at a low elevation. That, ladies and gentleman, is hard. You struggle to breathe and your performance is far lower than what you are used to. Even though it was hard there was still a silver lining as we would have to stop quite often to recover a more gentle heart rhythm, and were “obliged” to have a look at that gorgeous landscape. I didn’t complain.
Water. It was not ideal, but there was a reason for us going into the field during the rainy season, but I won’t get into the details of it here. Imagine those abundant and inescapable tropical rain storms, add summer temperatures, and now mix them with high elevation: a recipe for thunderstorms. By the evening of the second night we noticed how the clouds that were under us were now coming closer and we sheltered in our tents. Not much later we noticed the rain start, heavy rain…. Well, not just that, but also an enormous and angry thunderstorm. You would see the light from the inside of your tent like camera flashes shooting at your tent (the paparazzi in the high Andes?). Three seconds later the sound of thunder would follow making my hair vibrate. Coming from an Andean country myself I had experienced this many times, but never so close. The thunderstorm went on like this for the whole night. Although I was restless I was tired enough after the intense working day to fall asleep.
When I woke up at 4.30am, my tent was a pool, and my sleeping bag had soaked up as much water as available (a lot of water!). Everything was wet, including inside my tent. I went out to check on my colleagues. They seemed to be okay, they were all sleeping. Although it was cloudy the storm had stopped. There was snow outside… it was cold. We just managed to change our camp to a higher, more drained area, and a new thunderstorm started. For safety that day we remained in our tents. That was the longest day of my life. I had to stay for the whole day lying down inside a wet sleeping bag and tent (in which I didn’t fit sitting as it was very low). That was a hard day.
Were the elements against us? I don’t think so, it is all a cycle and thanks to the abundant water supply we had plenty of water to drink and to recover after our exhausting hiking days. There is no way we would have been able to carry so much water there… we needed that rain.
Sun/heat/fire (?). When it wasn’t raining, it was hot as a sauna during the day. Imagine the radiation at that elevation? From the international scale of 0-11+ for UV index, considering 11 extreme, we were above the value of 14. I guess it is needless to say how we felt. Our high metabolism trying to pump as much oxygen as possible to our body while we were working did not match well with the heat and the radiation. Of course we used sun cream protection, long sleeves, hats, sunglasses, etc. But that didn’t stop us from experiencing the sun. And although it sounds extreme, I was so grateful when, two nights after my tent got flooded, I saw the sunshine coming up at 5am. I literally took everything out and happily experienced the heat drying everything, aaaahh! Such a blessing.
Some of the things I learned/reinforced from this fieldtrip were:
• Coming back to basics, sieving your life, all feels good to me
• I can sleep in a wet sleeping bag in the high mountains and I won’t die in the process
• Everything, absolutely everything has their bad AND good aspects
• As my very experienced male colleague Chris said: “women in the field are badass!”
• Fieldwork, it is such hard work, but it is also so worth it; I couldn’t live without it
Do I also have to mention that when the sun appeared in the morning those were the most amazing sunrises I have ever seen?