Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Oh boy, fire ants

Monday: the detailed version. I’m writing this on my front porch on Tuesday night, and there are at least three little brown geckos hanging out with me. They have really big black eyes and are actually kind of creepy looking. Cute, but definitely not as cute as the anoles I’m used to in North Carolina. They also seem to lose their tails frequently, since only one of these has a whole one and the one inside on our wall yesterday (assuming it wasn’t one of the same ones) was also in the process of growing a new tail.

Supposedly there are iguanas hanging out in the trees here, but I have yet to see them. Or any exotic birds. Also have yet to hear howler monkeys, which is extremely disappointing. Did find an avocado tree today.

About yesterday, breakfast at eight was far less impressive than dinner the night before. At least to me. There was a variety of choices. I ate tortillas and toast and an overripe banana.

Our very first field school activity was to practice setting up excavation units (i.e., the little string square that marks off the area you’re going to dig in) in the orange orchard behind Hode’s Place. That’s the restaurant where we eat breakfast and dinner and where our lectures and meetings take place. Basically, anything that doesn’t happen at the site happens at Hode’s. We should all love the people that run it a whole lot.

Anyway, excavation units are simple but tedious, because all your measurements and angles have to be extremely accurate. We fail the first time (which is funny because our supervisor was doing most of the work, to show us how it’s done), get it pretty much right the second, and move on to practicing taking measurements for where an artifact is located. I’ve done this before, so it remains tedious. It also gets really obnoxious when some bitch keeps telling me my measuring tape isn’t perpendicular when it clearly is (I’m the one looking directly down on it, so I ought to know) and telling me how to fix it, and arguing with me when I try to put it where it belongs. Finally the supervisor steps in and tells me to do what I’ve been trying to do the whole time.

After excavation units is Survey 101*, and then we have some time before lunch, so my group heads into town in search of graph paper. We don’t find any graph paper, but we do find a variety of cool shops, and several girls go to the bank to change money. We get back just in time for lunch, which closely resembles dinner from the night before.

Something I don’t think I mentioned yet is the gender ratio. Surprisingly, the vast majority of us are girls. There are only about ten male students (out of ~37). Among the staff, who are mainly if not all grad students, it’s a little more even, but guys are probably still under 50%. Jaime, the archaeologist who’s vaguely in charge of us but doesn’t seem to be around much, is a man, but the doctoral student directing the field school on a day-to-day basis is a woman. (Her name is Julie, in case that comes up later.) I’ve always been told that women are still a minority in this field, but I’m definitely not seeing evidence for that right now. I’m not sure I have at Oberlin, either, with the possible exception of the information session about Professor Kane’s field school in Italy.

Moving on, after lunch we have a field trip to Xunantunich, which if you didn’t look it up already is a big local site where a lot of work has been done and a lot has been preserved for tourism. Said field trip gets postponed an hour because of the heat, so we continue to hang around Hode’s. I’m hanging out with Tabitha, who just graduated from UVA, and Sam and Alex, both of whom are undergrads from Australia. We finally leave for Xunantunich around two (more speeding buses) and are taken about fifteen or twenty minutes downriver to a ferry crossing with a row of souvenir stalls along the riverbank. (“You buy one bracelet for five U.S. dollar, I give you one free!”) The ferry is wooden, holds one vehicle at a time, is attached to a cable, and is operated by turning a crank. The river, of unknown depth, is probably less than three ferry lengths across. We could have swum faster than the ferry moved.

The buses couldn’t go on the ferry, so we all got off and walked on, in two groups, each accompanied by a pickup truck, one driven by a staff member and one by Jaime. On the other side of the river, as many of us as will fit at a time (which is more than you might think) climb into the back of a pickup and speed off into the jungle. The road to Xunantunich is about a mile long, mostly uphill, with some curves that are probably way less interesting when you aren’t balanced on the side of a truck bed. We wait outside the site until the trucks have come and gone twice to bring everyone up from the river, and then Jaime gives a wonderful tour. It included the story of why the site is called Xunantunich (which apparently means “Stone Lady”), which I unfortunately missed because I was distracted by my observation that people were CLIMBING ON THE RUINS. I was thinking about how I couldn’t wait to do that while simultaneously being horrified from a preservationist standpoint, and by the time it occurred to me that Jaime was still talking all I heard was something like “… and they say she’s still there, and that’s why it’s called Xunantunich.” I learned a lot of other cool things that I doubt are of particular interest to you, but feel free to ask.

I got my wish, though. But we didn’t climb the partial temple I’d been watching the other guy on. No, we climbed el castillo. The gigantic, almost intact major pyramid. And if you’ve ever been hiking with me, you know that I’m content to climb up a lot more things than I’m content to climb down. Up the wide steps to the first level isn’t so bad, and the steps up to the next point aren’t so bad either. The steps up to the topmost floor, though,

Holy shit. There is something either on our roof or in the tree hanging over it that chirps. I doubt it’s a gecko.

Anyway, the stairs zigzag up the back of the pyramid, where they’re sort of just tacked on. Very narrow and uneven and lacking in places to hold on other than the wall. I’m a little bit freaked out at this point, but not enough that I can’t handle it, because I can just sort of fling myself upwards without being too worried about it. The view from the top is amazing (we can see into Guatemala, the border of which is fairly close), and Jaime tries to point out other sites in the region, but none of us can really see what he’s talking about, because it’s all a sea of green and we don’t really know what we’re looking at. I stay close to the wall, but some people get down on the stomachs and look over the edge, which scares the crap out of me. I’m scared about going down the whole time we’re up there, but fortunately the second staircase, on the other side, is slightly less frightening than the one we came up. I still creep, and hang on to the wall, and wish I wasn’t wearing a backpack. Lucky for me, Sam is behind me and moving even more slowly, so I don’t have to freak out about holding up the line while I’m trying not to fall to my gruesome death.

Now I have five geckos. I think they’re gathering an army. The one that just came down to the floor must be a scout. Haha, Holly just came outside and I told her about the geckos. She said they’re going to carry us off in the night.

The rest of the site tour is less exciting, then it’s back on the truck, back on the ferry, browsing through the market stalls, and back to San Ignacio. Supposedly there’s an artifact talk before dinner, but it keeps getting pushed back because there’s too much light to use the projector (remember Hode’s is not enclosed). Dinner comes out and we have cheeseburgers and French fries! Granted, it was the worst burger I’ve eaten in a long time, but they tried.

Seriously, geckos don’t chirp, do they?

After dinner and artifact show-and-tell, I came back to get my computer and write all of this down, but some girls were on the patio playing Loteria (sp?), which is pretty much Bingo in Spanish. So I played for a while, and wound up not having time.

This morning we went to Baking Pot for the first time. It’s on a government-run farm, which explains the cows.

I think it IS the geckos chirping. Weird.

First on the agenda was a tour of the site. There wasn’t really much to see, since most of the excavations were filled in and allowed to be reclaimed by the jungle. Baking Pot “isn’t ready for tourism” and there’s not money to maintain it right now anyway. So mostly, we saw mounds, and sometimes not even that through the trees, and it was really hard to picture what Julie was talking about. I’m sad I didn’t get to do this several years ago when they were excavating the main ceremonial groups, though. That would be so much cooler than what we’ve got now. I’ve forgotten what site the UCLA program this year is at, but the main reason I almost chose that is because they ARE excavating temples and plazas. What’s cool about BVAR, though, is that it’s run by Jaime, who’s also the director of the Institute of Archaeology in Belize. We’re essentially working for the Belizean government.

Anyway, not even halfway through the site tour, we began to suspect it was raining, though we couldn’t really tell because we were in the jungle. Rain doesn’t really reach the ground.** Except eventually it does. Because all of a sudden there was a roar and the sky started gushing. Instant downpour, and instant darkness. I will never again say “I’ve never been so wet in my life,” because I doubt it will ever again be true. We stayed where we were for about fifteen minutes, because we had some cover in the trees and the next leg of our hike was in the open, but when the rain didn’t let up we just had to venture out into it. So much mud. And wet cow shit. It did stop raining a little while later, so we finished the tour soaked but in sunshine. My hat did not survive the drenching very well, sadly. It has lost its shape and no longer wishes to fit my head with falling over my eyes. I will be searching for a new one.

After a short break, we finished the tour by looking at the current excavations, which are all house mounds in a complex farther away from the main farmyard than the other groups. In a cow field. Then we waited for lunch, and ate lunch, and had a talk about how we shouldn’t steal artifacts, publish photos, or tell people in town about cool finds. Then we split up into our groups to start our first field rotation.

I was scheduled to work under Eva, who is Slovakian and is a grad student at University College London. We had not seen her mound during the current excavation portion of our tour, so I was suspicious. Turns out, it’s far away. Far enough, in fact, that we are driven there in the back of another pickup truck (I’m really starting to like this part of being an archaeologist.) The truck pulls over at the side of the dirt road, where there is no gate in sight. Eva basically hops through the barbed wire fence and is gone while we’re still trying to crawl under it while avoiding A) the barbs, B) cow shit, and C) fire ants. (I forgot to mention before that one of the first things we were told upon arrival at Baking Pot was that we should always be aware of where we put our feet and how long they stay there. The greatest peril after fire ants is cows. Then killer bees.)

Eva and the guy who drove us chase off the cows that are standing literally in the middle of her excavation with shouting and rock-throwing, and when we finally get ourselves and our stuff through the fence and catch up, we discover that our site is a vertical test pit that is already almost two and a quarter meters deep. Eva explains what’s going on, then she hops in and cleans up the mess the cows have made by knocking stuff in over the last week. She climbs back out like she’s been doing it all her life, and then a girl named Brenna, who has excavated before and has more balls than the other four of us, jumps in to finish off the level. I prefer to sift dirt. In fact, I would be content to sift dirt all day tomorrow if it means I never have to go down in the pit. I am 100% certain that I will not be able to climb back out, even if I manage not to break both ankles on the way down.

We only had about an hour and a half to work since we didn’t start until mid-afternoon, so when Brenna finished the level we took some measurements and some pictures and laid sticks over the hole so the cows won’t fall in and that was it for the day.

Back at the Midas, we took showers*** and discovered that Belizean cable includes a bizarre mix of American channels in English and Central American channels in Spanish. I watched Scrubs and saw commercials for Olive Garden and Arby’s, which was totally and completely weird. Holly and Suzan and I ventured into town in search of graph paper again, but most everything was already closed for the day. We came back and Tori was watching Angels and Demons on TV, which was even more weird than Scrubs because that movie is way too new to be on TV at all, much less here. (Also, I only got to watch about twenty minutes before dinner, but it seems to be a lot more engrossing when there are not people having sex beside you.)

Dinner was quesadillas, and other than chicken I have NO IDEA what was in them. I just know they were hot and tastier than more chicken and rice (that was lunch again today). But afterwards I discovered two exciting things: Hode’s has an arcade, which has seen better days but which has an air hockey table, and Hode’s serves ice cream for the equivalent of $0.75 American.

After dinner, Julie was figuring out some stuff with our work rotations. There’s someone here studying bones that have been collected from Baking Pot who’s going to take about three students at a time out of their regular rotations. I wasn’t even paying attention when I heard Julie say “I need a volunteer to work with human remains tomorrow.” My hand was in the air before she added “I’ll take the first person who raises their hand.”

Two of the girls at my table are also in my group, and one immediately said “You just don’t want to go in the pit,” to which I replied, “True. But I also love bones.” And in fact, I wasn’t even thinking about the pit when I volunteered, although that is definitely a gigantic bonus. Also, two of my favorite people here are the other two bone people for the day, and the three of us sat around talking for ages after the post-dinner lecture and after we’re done working tomorrow we are going to go to happy hour at a bar in town that has rum and cokes for $1. So tomorrow might just be the best day ever.

We had an Intro to Archaeology lecture after dinner. Before Julie got started, she asked how many of us had already taken an Intro to Archaeology class. 98% of us raised our hands, and someone asked if we could leave. Unfortunately the answer was no.

What I’ve learned today: Vertical excavation sucks and geckos chirp.

* a ten-minute demonstration of how to pace off a distance an how to use a sighting compass
** Side note: Someone whose identity can’t remember told me a while back that the cardinal rule of the jungle is Don’t Touch Things. I now suspect that that person has never actually been in the jungle. To a place in the jungle, perhaps, but not IN the jungle proper. It is IMPOSSIBLE not to touch things. And even when it’s not, there are some things you just have to touch. Like leaves that fold themselves up when you touch them.
*** In theory, we have both hot and cold running water. In practice, we mostly just have cold.

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