Student - August 16, 2012

'I was glad I was unattached '

Who? Masha van der Sande, fifth-year biology, Wageningen University
What? Measuring felled trees at a basic field station
Where? La Chonta in Bolivia, a tropical forest where timber is logged

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'The tropics are a mystery to me; I want to know just how things work there . Last year I was in Panama, but stationed in a western research village. This time I was keen to get some real 'bush experience'. I found that in La Chonta. It was just me and three local field assistants, 75 minutes drive from the nearest hill with telephone reception.
'Basic' wasn't at all bad. Sure, there was no telephone or internet and a generator provided electricity very infrequently. But I had everything I needed. I could even take a shower, although I preferred to wash in the river.
I am studying what determines the speed at which trees grow. It was my assistant Bruno's job to cut down selected trees and then we took all kinds of measurements. I had expected to be lonely at times, but I often had amusing conversations, especially with Ricardo. He is covered in scars and is blind in one eye but even so he manages to radiate enthusiasm. I did not really miss anyone back home. My assistants would sometimes tell me about students who would leave the telephone hill in tears. That made me glad that I'm not that attached to anyone at the moment. It creates a huge sense of freedom: I can go wherever I want.
I was continually amazed by how simple life really is - time and again this would be brought home to me by something my assistants did. When I forgot the cutlery for lunch, for instance, Bruno fashioned some spatulas in no time - little things like that. Back in Wageningen I can still get irritated by the 'problems' Dutch people have.
Am I still in touch with my assistants?  "We never hear from students",  Ricardo said when I left. Ah, I did mean to call him, but you know how it is, I never got round to it. But I'll be seeing them again next month because I'm about to start a PhD in the same area.'

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