A Pilot Study, Data Entry, and some Cheesy Pasta…

Well the title of this one about sums up my week! It was a pretty standard week in the forest, as I did a couple of days on orangutan work and then a few on various projects around camp.  Cis, Ari and I also piloted the new research project that I’ve been working on, which was quite fun.  The new project is on how the microtopography of the forest (the small hills and valleys that in part characterize peat swamp forest) dictates which tree species can grow where.  Some trees like the hilly bits, some like the low watery bits, and its possible that some have no preference; the goal of this project is to gather information on which species prefer which habitats and what this means for forest ecology.  I’m pretty pumped about this because it is the first project I’ve designed essentially on my own (in terms of the methods and compiling the background information) and from the pilot work we did I think it will work out quite well!  Of course now I’ve spoken too soon and I’m sure some major issue will come along, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there I suppose.

In other news, I’m in town for a few days enjoying cheesy pasta, sprite, and relatively non-mosquito free nights while doing some data entry, compiling our monthly report, and researching papers for another project.  Tomorrow will be another sweaty market day- Riethma (our friend/accountant/guru for all things Palangkaraya) and I are going shopping for new office chairs.  Between all of us living in the house here we’ve broken 3 chairs over the past couple of months, and while these occasions add comedic value to our days, we’ve decided that its time to fix the problem and buy some better chairs (see below)

Yep, I broke this one

Yep, I broke this one

In the meantime, for those of you who haven’t yet, check out my Whats Happening Wednesday blog post on the OuTrop blog!  The link is here: http://outrop.blogspot.com/2013/02/whats-happening-wednesday-6-putting.html

Sampai nanti lagi everyone, and for those of you in Amuurica I hope you’re not entirely snowed in!  (Insert appropriate joke about the snowstorm being named Nemo here)


A Day in the Life- Palangkaraya Version

I’m on day 2.5 of a 5-day Palangkaraya binge, so I thought I’d give you all a taste of what a day in the amazingly exciting life of a researcher is like when she is not in the field (aka possibly bore the crap out of you, sorry…)  Ready?

Wake up at 5 am when the most annoying dogs in the entire world start their daily barking routine. Curse the people who keep them tied up there all day and try to go back to sleep. If you’re lucky, you can! If not, well… people in America are just getting off work so at least you can catch up with friends.  Open the computer. Wander off to the kitchen to plug in the kettle so you can heat up water for coffee. Return to computer.


The view from my desk in Palangkaraya

Check email and Facebook to see who’s online and if anything interesting has come up overnight. Get distracted by the latest U.S. news and marvel at how silly politics is.  Lose track of time and think to yourself that the kettle MUST be done by now because it’s been almost 40 minutes, walk to the kitchen to discover that the water isn’t even close to boiling. Continue incessantly checking every 5 minutes until you finally get hot water and can make coffee.  Come back to your desk with said coffee, start answering emails or doing data entry, and lose track of time again until you decide that maybe you should eat something (and by something, you mean noodles, because what else do sensible people eat for breakfast?)  After eating, return to data entry/report writing/Skyping family and friends to procrastinate your one chore for the day: going to the market.  When you finally run out of computer-y things to do, venture begrudgingly off to the market. Although you need to buy things for life/camp, no one really ever wants to go to the market for several reason: 1) it’s hot, 2) only the most seasoned market-goers can actually find what they are looking for, and 3) you must tolerate the endless streets of Indonesian people yelling “hello mister!”, asking to take a photo with you, and telling you how much they wish their skin/hair/nose/all of the above looked like yours.***  Wander around the market until you find everything you need, at which point you are desperately craving a mandi (remember the mandi post, guys? this is one situation in which it actually feels amazing), and go home.

***I have nothing but love for Indonesian people, but after about 20 minutes the routine gets old, and more importantly I run out of clever things to respond with.

Arrive back at the house. Take the aforementioned mandi, and cool down while doing more data entry or reading some papers on your favorite research subject.  Check email, check facebook, do work, repeat until 5:00 pm.  On a good day, kick back with a beer and catch up on the latest news from the forest.  On a slow day, keep working until you realize that it’s 7 pm and you haven’t eaten dinner yet.  Go out in search of nasi campur, or better yet hit up the juice place (we don’t actually know the name of this restaurant, but it’s got delicious juice, and the owners love us).  Return home, do the Gchat/Skype thing as necessary, and go to bed at a time that feels really late, but actually is normal because not everyone in the world goes to bed at the same time the forest does.  Congratulations, you made it through a day in town!  Get ready to do it all over again tomorrow, but if you’re lucky you might end up going to the mall instead of the market.  Oh, Palangkaraya….

Selamat Hari Natal dan Tahun Baru!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!

It’s been a rushed past few days full of staff meetings, data entry and other tasks before I go on vacation.  Most people left yesterday, so it’s been very quiet in our house in town, and I’m off tomorrow early in the morning on a bus to Banjarmasin in South Borneo.  I’ll be there until the 29th, spending Christmas with two of our camp cooks who have graciously invited me to their village. On the 29th I fly to Lombok to travel about for 10 days… I have no idea where I’ll be for the new year, but I’m sure it’ll be fun!  My only solid plan is to stay at a very small resort (http://madak-belo.com/) for 3 days at the end of my trip, then fly back here on the 7th.

It’ll be weird spending Christmas in some place other than good old Minnesota, but I think the beaches and snorkeling will make up for the fact that I’m missing a nice big blizzard.  They won’t, however, make up for the fact that I won’t be there for the annual Freund-Knell Pictionary game, endless family photos where we can’t seem to get the timer or camera position just right, hilarious quotes from questionably sober parents and children alike, and the traditional Christmas Eve stuffing your face with 800 cookies.  Unfortunately part of working in the field (the sucky part) means that I’m far away and miss out on important things like holiday celebrations. I guess all jobs have their pros and cons, right?

I’m not taking my computer with me, so I can’t promise any new blog posts, but if I make a rainy day visit to an internet cafe I’ll try to post some vacation photos. Until then, here are some highly entertaining Christmas 2011 photos. Sampai nanti, everyone!

Freund-Knell Christmas 2011

Freund-Knell Christmas 2011

Mark and I in our Christmas hats

Mark and I in our Christmas hats

Christmas Eve family photo!

Christmas Eve family photo!

(We don’t do serious photos well, do we?)

What’s a shower?

Today I put out an open call on Facebook for ideas for blog posts because I’ve been having trouble coming up with them lately, and I got some great ideas back.  So without further ado, I present you with an in-depth analysis of the showering techniques of white people in Indonesia.

This may sound like a completely random topic, but let me give you the background information first. Showers as we know them in our Western nation homes don’t exist in this country. Instead, we take what is known here as a mandi, which consists of essentially taking cold water out of a bucket with a smaller scoop and dumping it over yourself.  Dump more water, lather, rinse, and you’re done!

The basic idea of a mandi. Ours at camp consist of essentially giant garbage bin-sized tubs full of water and covered with mesh to prevent mosquito infestation.

Mandis take some getting used to, and unlike your basic shower one can take multiple approaches to this all-important task.  If you mandi directly after returning from the forest, your technique is less important because the idea of throwing cold water all over your body is extremely appealing.  However, if mandi-ing first thing in the morning, or in the late afternoon after you’ve cooled down for an hour, dumping cold water on yourself sounds less refreshing and more like stepping into a frigid version of hell.  Indonesians, on the other hand, don’t seem to mind. Most of them mandi early in the morning and/or late in the evening when the water is at its coldest.  So how does a bule (white person) accustomed to warm showers manage?  Should you just “take it like a man” (or woman) and dump the first scoop right over the head?  Should you start at the legs to let your body get over some of the initial shock of the cold?  Is there ever hope of getting warm water instead of what feels like glacial melt?

After doing some extensive research on the topic- i.e. asking the first 5 people I encountered in our house this afternoon how they handled the shower situation here- I have discovered that each person has his or her own approach to the mandi.  Here are the results and feedback from my informal survey (to be written up in scientific paper form at a later date):

1. Jess: “The mandi is mandi-tory!”  Argh… all bad jokes aside, Jess’s approach is the boldest one- just dump the first scoop right over your head.  There are some costs and benefits to this technique, but having tried it I can tell you that it’s only good at certain times of day.

2. Helen: Washes her hair first without getting the rest of her body wet to cool down a bit, then starts from the legs.  She also makes sure to take advantage of the water sitting in the pipes on warm days, and targets the outdoor mandis for a nice afternoon shower.

3. Sarah: Similar approach to Helen, but utilizes the “countdown method” to psych herself up for the first scoop.  I’m thinking about adopting this method myself!

4. Luke: Takes a slightly more roundabout approach. He does one arm first, then the other, then the front of the body, then the back, and then FINALLY gets his head wet.  Interesting, interesting.

5. Nick: Wants to be quoted as saying “the mandi is never pleasant” and “I’ve never liked a cold mandi.” Ironic, since he has been here the longest of all of those interviewed.  Since Nick has been able to spend more time in town lately, he sometimes boils the kettle and mixes it with the cold water so he can have a warm mandi- the luxury!  Anyway, if there’s no warm water available Nick likes to delay the inevitable for as long as possible by washing his face and arms first, then braving the cold.

It’s funny how something as simple as washing yourself can inspire so much conversation (and pose such a challenge at times), but that’s field life for you.  Nothing is ever comfortable, but we make do.  As for me, my mandi technique changes on a daily basis depending on the time of day and how I feel, but it generally wavers between the countdown/legs first method and just sucking it up and taking the plunge.  I like to think that 18 years spent enduring the Minnesota winters has upped my mandi tolerance, but after many months here I think I’m just a big baby.  And for the record, I am very much looking forward to my next warm shower, whenever that may be….

Guest post: Jess Stitt, orangutan intern extraordinaire

This post is a little bit different than normal in that my friend Jess and I decided to a do a one-post blog swap, so here is a post entirely in her words!  Jess is also from the U.S., and we in fact have some friends and places in common.  She’s been here since August and is about to ship out back to the homeland, potentially to start a Ph.D. in the fall.  Anyway, I gave her some prompts for this post, which are written here in bold, and here are her responses.  If you want to see MY guest post on her blog, head on over to jessmstitt.blogspot.com

More from me in a bit, right now I’m off to make some noodles for lunch!


Hello everybuddy! My name’s Jess, and I am the Orangutan Intern here at OuTrop! I get
to work and hang out with Cassie, stomping around the swamp all day in Borneo, which I
think is a pretty sweet deal.

What do you do every day?

My job is to find and follow orangutans. This means I basically have free reign over a
national park to spend my time wandering around, playing hide and seek with orangutans
in the tropics. If I find one of the big red apes, I get to follow them as they go about
their daily routine. During this time, I take data (alongside another researcher) on
activity budgeting, ranging behavior, and social encounters to get a better sense of
how orangutans live their lives. The project I am working on is specifically looking at
social networking in female orangutans, studying the interactions between individuals.
The goal is to gain a better understanding of where this population of orangutans falls
on a sociality scale, ranging from highly social to completely solitary, and what the
motivations are for social behavior. I keep sending the female orangutans Facebook
friend requests to get more info on their social networking habits, but no luck so far.


Jess may make bad jokes (a lot of bad jokes) but she takes amazing pictures- here is Teresia, an orangutan who I have actually spent a lot of time following lately, and her 1.5 year old yet-to-be-named infant

What is your favorite and least favorite thing about your job?

Well, my favorite thing about my job is my job. I have wanted to study great apes in the
jungle since I was a young girl inspired by Jane Goodall. This work here is really cool,
because we are following wild orangutans, witnessing their natural behavior, and they
are okay with playing this game of hide and seek with us. Following the same individuals
over time, I start to notice personality differences, and hanging out mostly with females
means I get to spend a lot of time with their adorable offspring, too.

I also love that I am witness to an incredible amount of biodiversity, living here and
spending so many hours out in the field. I really love the array of creatures I see in a
given day or week, and I’m always looking for new species.

However, the toughest thing about my job is spending all those hours out in the field.
Orangutans get up at dawn and go to bed at dusk, meaning the researchers have to get upan hour before dawn, and sometimes don’t end the day until an hour after dusk. It can be very physically and mentally draining to spend 12-14 hours in the field in one stretch,
especially if you do it several days in a row.

If you could be anything in our forest, what would you be?

If I could be anything in this forest, I would be a Tumih tree. This is a tree that appears to
be softwood, so it grows relatively fast, and gets quite big and tall. As a tumih, I would
tower over the forest, getting to sit and watch life go by. Being a tree means I would get
a nice long lifespan (especially since I don’t think tumih wood is commercially viable),
with great views, and get to witness the changes that occur over a century. As an added
bonus, because of deep furrows in my bark, epiphytes love to grow on me. They add
a little bit of weight, but give me a gorgeous, awesome living green coat. Orangutans
sometimes climb me to eat these epiphytes, and gibbons and kelasi like to sleep high up
in my branches, away from the dangers of lower down trees. I am sure an occasional sun
bear, civet, and clouded leopard use my open canopy for lovely lounging from time to
time too! Tumih, or not tumih – that is the question I know the answer to.


Jess hard at work taking data

An Orangutan Adventure

This blog post was written a few days ago after an especially hectic and slightly nerve-wracking morning in the forest.  Read on for all of the details!

Today I decided to help team kelasi search for their monkeys, so Supian, Azis and I left camp at 5:30 am to scour the main habituated group’s territory.  After leaving Azis at his first transect, I started walking toward mine as well.  The tag that marks the start of that rtransect, however, has gotten lost recently, so I ended up passing the turn off- which led me straight into the path of a male orangutan feeding high up in a tree.  As with most orangutans, I could hear him crashing about in the tree before he came into view, so I wasn’t surprised to see him in a big tree right on my path.  He, on the other hand, was a bit surprised to see me, and immediately started to kiss squeak (a vocalization that often sounds exactly as its name describes, although this guy’s kiss squeak was more like the sound you hear when you step in mud and then quickly pull your foot out).  This is a common vocalization we hear from orangutans which are uncomfortable with our presence.  This guy also dropped a few small branches in my direction, so I backed off and watched him for a minute from a bit further away before continuing with my search.

A bit later, as I was approaching the spot where Azis and I had agreed to meet for breakfast, I again heard the trees shaking.  These were much more graceful movements than the previous crashes, so I knew it wasn’t an orangutan.  I immediately moved off the transect to get a better look, hoping to see a group of small orange monkeys bopping around.  Just as I was scanning the trees in that direction I heard yet another crash to my left.  Apparently I had inadvertently stumbled into the primate version of Grand Central Station!  Unfortunately, after a few minutes of observation I realized that the group to my right was gibbons, the animal to my left was the same orangutan as before, and I was left empty-handed with no kelasi (sidenote: you know your life is weird when you can say “unfortunately” and talk about seeing “only” wild orangutans and gibbons in the same sentence).   Although finding these other primates was a nice way to break up a monotonous searching morning, they weren’t what I was looking for, so I moved on for a rest and some breakfast.

After eating Azis and I split up again to keep searching.  I had only gone about 300 meters before hearing orangutan sounds again. I figured that, like before, he was in a tree somewhere near the transect, so I walked ahead slowly while checking the trees on either side of my path.  After a few steps I quickly looked down to make sure I wasn’t going to trip over anything, and as I did I caught a glimpse of something big and orange about 8 meters from me- and this big orange thing was sitting on the forest floor.  I stopped dead in my tracks.  Male orangutans are extremely strong, many times stronger than humans, and can move surprisingly quickly on the ground.  They aren’t usually aggressive, but if they feel threatened they can charge at humans, so I knew that I had to be very careful.  As soon as he heard me, the male climbed back into the trees and turned toward me.  I was thankful that he was no longer on the ground, but I also knew that this was no retreat.  He was kiss squeaking a lot, so again I moved back a couple of meters and sat on a fallen log to observe him.  He was putting on a bit of a show to try to intimidate me, which included pushing over a massive dead standing tree with one hand and then climbing through the trees toward me.  Although people naturally anthropomorphize primates they are in actuality very powerful wild animals (which I was acutely aware of after he yawned a few times to show me his sharp teeth), so even though I was at a safe distance I was still a bit afraid!

Luckily, after about 15 minutes he lost interest in me and turned to a feast of termites, kiss squeaking every so often to let me know that he still knew I was there.  I decided that it was time to go and moved off the transect to (very slowly) pass him, staying about 25 meters away the entire time.  I let out a small sigh of relief when I was out of his sight; it was the first time I had encountered an unhabituated male while alone in the forest, and was definitely a cool but slightly stressful experience!

So all in all, today was an eventful day.  Azis did end up finding the kelasi and the rest of the team collected behavioral data and followed them to their sleeping tree so that they could relocate them tomorrow.  I, on the other hand, came back to camp for a nice meal and long nap.  Hard life, yeah?

“Mozart”, a fully grown male orangutan that often comes near camp (the one I encountered was smaller than him, but more aggressive)

A Long Weekend Camp Life Update

Ahhhh, sigh. Long weekends exist only for the volunteers, as I still have to coordinate most of the logistics and make sure everyone is safe/happy/fed/etc, but no complaints here. Today we go to the swimming pool for some swimming (of course), nice food, and a relaxing time…hopefully it doesn’t rain!

Fun at the pool!

As promised to a friend (Hi Joana!) I thought I would explain a little more about life around camp these days.  OuTrop is the biggest it’s ever been, which is super exciting but also presents some challenges!  We currently have too many people for the number of beds we have in camp, so some people are on a rotation between Palangkaraya and camp for the time being.  Luckily these people have lots of work to do in PKY, so it’s a win-win for everyone.  This will only last for a short time, since Camille’s 6 months are up at the end of October and she’ll be leaving, and then we should have enough space for everyone again.  Here’s the rundown of the people at camp right now (in addition to myself of course)-

  • Nick- project manager
  • Luke and Aimee- primate scientist and research assistant
  • Amanda and Esther- orangutan PhD students
  • Barbara and Jess- orang interns
  • Sarah- gibbon intern
  • Camille and Helen- kelasi interns
  • Stijn- biodiversity intern
  • Thea- communications
  • 7 volunteers
  • occasional visitors
  • Indonesian staff

Sometimes the count of people eating breakfast is up to 30, which is insane! But generally everything is going well, and now we have a break from new people arriving.  Between July and October I think we’ve collected about 10 staff/interns, so it’s been really busy.  Obviously this is great for the project and for data collection; almost every day we have team kelasi and 2 orangutan teams out in the field following animals, and often we also have enough people to follow gibbons as well.  Team kelasi just had an 8-day follow, which is one of the most exciting things to happen around camp in awhile.  I think I’ve written about this before, but for the past month we have been having a really difficult time finding the kelasi and so locating them and then collecting 8 continuous days of data was both a great morale-booster for the team as well as just great for that project, as they documented some new behavior and learned new information about their focal group.

Back to the research- on top of all the primate projects, we also on a regular basis have team forestry (the best team!) doing their thing, collecting phenology data and working on the volunteer student project.  At specific times of the month we also have staff out in the field collecting litterfall data, working on the camera trap project, checking the dams in some of the canals, setting and checking butterfly and other insect traps, and doing surveys for orangutan nests.  All of this research is made possible (I sound like a public service announcement right now) by our amazing camp staff, including Twenti on the logistics/camp management duties, and the kitchen crew, headed by Lis.  The kitchen crew wakes up at 2:30 or 3:00 am every day to have food ready for the primate teams that leave for the forest around 4:00 am, then they go back to bed for a little while and wake up again at 5:30 to make breakfast for the rest of camp.  We’re pretty lucky to have them, that’s for sure!  I shudder to imagine what would happen if we had to cook for ourselves.  It would result in lots of noodles and nothing else, I think.

Anyway, that’s it for today, stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment on the new seedling project!  In the meantime, here are a few links for everyone to check out, and if you all know anyone who might be interested please send them around.  We have posted the volunteer announcement for next year here; this is a great opportunity for students or anyone interested in learning more about tropical conservation to join the project for 7 weeks! This month’s group has seen tons of orangutans, gibbons, kelasi, tarsiers, lorises, macaques, insects, snakes, etc… and has helped collect a lot of valuable data for the project that we probably wouldn’t be able to otherwise.  ALSO the 2013 OuTrop calender is out, which you can order here, and it’s full of amazing pictures from all my friends. I guess I should really tell you not to order it because none of my pictures made the cut this year (kiddinggggggggg) but really….you won’t be disappointed if you buy one.