Friday, June 7, 2024

Things Aren't Always as They Appear

Madre de Dios River - Peru - 2013

Sitting at a table on a patio at a restaurant with about 10 other people on the absolute edge of the Amazon Rainforest in Peru, the year is 2013.  Trees tower above us and I stare, mesmerized, at the slowly flowing Madre de Dios river which sits a few hundred feet in front of us.  The restaurant is empty except for us.  Hundreds of different types of birds make their presence known in the distance as the sun dwindles across the cloudless sky.

Hey James, what are you ordering?  John asks me from the other side of the table.

I think I'm going to get the fish - I respond as I glance back at the menu.

John leans in across the table and says in a quiet voice - Don't order the fish.

Why not?

Just don't order the fish, trust me. - Still in a hushed and firm voice.

But why shouldn't I order the fish?  It's from the river that's right there in front of us, that sounds delicious.

John gives me a big sigh, looks to one end of the patio towards about 20 empty tables.  Then looks to the other end - also home to 20 empty tables.  Then John looks back at me.

A few other people at the table see John do this and they ask him:  What's going on?

He wants to order the fish, John tells them as he points to me.

OOOHHHH... you have to tell him... you have to tell him... Mark yells over everybody else to John from the other side of the table.

Yeah, tell him, tell him - everybody else chimes in.

There's nobody else here at this restaurant, all of the staff are inside and they're not paying any attention to what we're talking about.  Mark yells over to John - a little quieter than before.

I'm sitting there, eyes darting from person to person, bewildered as could be, not sure how wanting to order fish for dinner has sparked such an odd controversy as I sit in the company of people that I just met for the first time an hour ago at the hostel.

They are a bunch of PhD students from the US who have spent the last few months deep in the Amazon Rainforest doing research.  Today, they just started a weeks break from the jungle and they happen to be staying at the same hostel that I am staying at.

John's sitting there staring at me for an uncomfortable amount of time, obviously contemplating something in his head.  John looks back to everyone else at the table - they've all gone quiet and started staring at John, wondering what he's going to do, while he's staring at me.

Alright, I'll tell him. - John announces to the whole table.  

Everyone else at the table erupts into hoops, hollers, cheers, and clapping.  Leaving me even more confused and intrigued as I try to sort out in my mind what exactly is going on right now.

John leans back over the table towards me, lifts his hand up and motions for me to do the same from my side.

I lean in towards John and everybody else at the table leans in as well to make sure they can all hear.

In a very quiet voice, John asks me - Have you seen the boats on the river?

Yeah, I have.

And you've seen the bigger boats?  Not just the boats ferrying people around?

Yeah, I've seen a few of the bigger boats.

Do you know what they're doing?

I pause before responding and glance up to the left towards the sky as I ponder the question that hadn't crossed my mind.

Nope... I have no idea what they're doing.

Okay, so the larger boats are mining for gold.

What?  Isn't that illegal?

Yes, yes it is illegal but that is what they are doing.  Do you know how they mine for gold?

No, I do not.

They mine for gold by dumping mercury into the water, the mercury then bonds with the gold, they then throw heavy, fine nets out, drag the nets along the bottom of the river to collect everything on the river floor, including the gold that has bonded with the mercury.  One of the many problems with this is they don't pull up all of the mercury that they dump into the water.  The leftover mercury then sits on the bottom of the river, which contaminate the worms, then the fish eat the worms, then everything else eat the fish.

So all of the fish in the river are loaded with mercury?  I ask John.

Yes and it's not limited to the fish, it's affects everything in the eco-system... everything.

The caiman eat the fish as do the river dolphins and everything else that lives in the river.  The communities and tribes along the river all depend on the river to live so they also eat the fish too.  As part of my research I've been trying to figure out how widespread of an issue this is - how much is actually contaminated and what are the mercury levels.  Everything I test is contaminated and I can't tell how high the levels of mercury are.

Isn't there some kind of meter you can get that you put a sample on and it tells you what the mercury content is?  I ask John inquisitively.

John smiles and nods in appreciation at the question.  Yes, yes there is and I have one but the levels of mercury in everything that I test are so high that it maxes out the reader so I don't know what the levels actually are aside from... very high.

John pauses as I sit there open eyed, bewildered, staring at him.

John continues - I was trying to secure permits so I could send a fish sample back to my school in the US so we could test it in a lab and find out what the mercury content actually is.  I got a permit from the US approved to bring a dead fish into the US - which is normally the hard part for this type of thing.  Immigration and customs generally don't like people bringing animals from one country to another.  Once the US permit was approved I submitted paperwork to the Peruvian government to take the sample out of Peru - which I thought would just be a formality.  The other day I heard back that the paperwork was denied and yesterday the Peruvian government let me know that my visa for my PhD work was being terminated.

What??? I say in a very loud voice.  What reason did they give you for terminating your visa?

John chuckled at the question.  I look around at everybody else at the table who all look to be sitting on the edges of their seat, attached to the conversation and they all have big grins on their faces.  I look back at John.

They said the institution that I'm doing my PhD at is not an accredited institution.

Which institution are you doing your PhD at???  I ask as I'm also barely hanging on to the edge of my seat.

Harvard... says John in a defiant melancholy voice while giving a half shrug of the shoulders and hands.

The entire table erupts into laughter, hoops, hollers and banging on the table.

Harvard???  I yell back to him over the ruckus.  They said that Harvard is not an accredited institution???

Yup, says John as I join in on laughing with everybody else at the ridiculousness at what I was just told.

Once the ruckus calms down, the other conversations at the table resume, I look back at John and say - But I don't understand, if mining for gold in the river is illegal to begin with, how does that happen?

The miners pay the government officials to look the other way, so they do.  They know the consequences the mining has, not only in the river here, but to everything downstream.  They get paid to look the other way, so they do.  Then when they got my application to take a dead fish out of the country, from this very river - John points to the river directly behind him - they knew exactly what I was doing so they denied the application and now want me out of the country as fast as possible.

Wow - I say, still shocked.  How long do you have to get out of the country?

They gave me 7 days to get out of the country and I'm down to 5 days left.  John is staring at the table, looking disappointed.

Wow, they really want you out of the country.

Yes, yes they do.

After pausing for a minute, John looks from the table back to myself, grins and says much louder than the rest of the conversation, "Like I said... don't order the fish."

I laugh and respond, "Okay, Okay... I won't order the fish!"

We both laugh.

After dinner - which was delicious - we all walk a few minutes back to the hostel for that nights festivity:  Watching the nurse of the group pop a botfly out of a persons arm.

Mosquitos in the Amazon can carry botfly eggs so if a mosquito lands on your bare skin there's a chance that a botfly egg will get glued to your skin.  If it stays on your skin, the botfly hatches and burrows down into your skin where it then grows, resulting in a bump that mysteriously moves around - under your skin - which sounds terribly uncomfortable along with being just plain gross.  This explains why everyone in this PhD group was so meticulous about wearing pants, long sleeves and leaving as little skin exposed as possible - despite the sweltering heat.

I'll spare you the gory details of how the squeezing a botfly out of ones arm went down.  But it involved them biting down on a leather wallet, squeezing their eyes shut while turning their head the other way and sweating profusely.  The nurse was able to successfully pop the botfly out of their arm, it flew about 5 feet across the room while everybody watching erupted into cheers as the person biting down on the wallet let the wallet drop to the floor in relief.  The nurse walked over to where the botfly landed, picked it up, put it in a jar and gave it back to them as a souvenir.

You never know what you'll run into when you stay at a hostel.  You meet the most curious people and have some of the most interesting experiences while learning things that nobody knows about.

I guess I can cross learning about illegal gold mining in rivers and watching a botfly get popped out of somebody's arm off of my bucket list.  First I'll add them to my bucket list so I can then cross them off.

Things in this world aren't always as they appear.

Macaw Bird
Macaw in Peru - Best Birds Ever

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