Finding foldscopers in the middle of the rainforest

The South America Diaries is a monthlong series documenting Foldscope's first trip to South America. Starting July 13, the team travelled all over Peru, Argentina and Brazil to lead workshops and presentations with schools and organizations. We experienced new cultures, ate cool foods and met tons of people. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the beautiful and mundane experiences that come with our mission to give every person on the planet a microscope.

This is part four in a series. In this post, we find a Foldscope enthusiast couple in the middle of the Amazon. Read part three here.

Cast of characters in this post: 
The Foldscope team: Jim, Judy, Wenying, Paola, Alice (me)
The ACEER team: Jon, Paul
Inkaterra staff: Frank, our tour guide

Day 8: ⛈⛈Puerto Maldonado, Peru —> Inkaterra Guides Field Station, Peru 🐦🐧🔬☕️

A cold front from the Andes hit last night and it’s pouring thunder outside. The temperature has dropped thirty degrees (Fahrenheit), and for the first time here I feel something along the lines of coldness. There's a name for this sudden change in weather, it's called el friaje, and we've been talking about this mysterious cold weather from the mysterious mountains since it was predicted earlier in the week. These friajes don't happen often, and the locals are very unused to the sudden temperature drop mixed in with an unshakeable rainforest humidity that makes the coldness stick to you like a wet t-shirt. We've stuffed ourselves in all our layers (which is still, not very many) as we wobble onto a canoe-shaped boat and drive an hour down the Rio Madre de Dios. You can see the Billinghurst bridge behind us (the one that looks like a wiry Golden Gate).

 The Foldscope team (from left to right): Alice, Judy, Jim, Wenying, Paola on the Rio Madre de Dios

The Foldscope team (from left to right): Alice, Judy, Jim, Wenying, Paola on the Rio Madre de Dios

We're going to Inkaterra Guides Field Station, a lodge/research hybrid where we've planned to stop for the night before heading back to Lima. We arrive to the most picturesque set of large, hut-like cabins dropped in a fogged up rainforest. Then, Paola and I have the best hot chocolate of our lives. It's served all day in the dining cabin of the lodge, and, in hindsight, is also where Judy starts her hot chocolate obsession that will last all the way through the end of our trip. Everything feels wintery, which messes around with my ideas of mid July. 

It's nice to know that the Reservoir of Cool People to Meet is endless sometimes. It's lunchtime when we arrive to Inkaterra, and Jon and Paul, who arrived a day earlier, introduce us to a family from the states who is vacationing at the lodge. The man is a family doctor who's brought his three sons and 75 year old mother here, and Jim gives his sons a quick Foldscope demonstration right over the dining table. Then, walking back to our cabins, a kid that looks around my age stops Paola and me to chat. He introduces himself as Alex, and he's just arrived in Peru after doing some field work in Montana. Alex turns out to be exactly the same age as me, a rising junior at Cornell, and he's an aspiring ornithologist carrying a pair of super nice Cornell ornithology club funded binoculars and a camera with a lens the length of my arm. He's fluent in Spanish (and apparently talks with a Colombian accent) and doesn't believe in making bird noises. Alex very much looks the part of a cool field guy. 

As we're getting ready to leave for a small excursion up to the forest canopies, Wenying finds Inkaterra's research lab, which happens to be next door to our rooms. There are two researchers in the lab who immediately catch her attention, Gideon and Mini, who are married and have been living with their three children at the lodge since May this year. 

 Gideon, Mini and researcher number 3 whose name we didn't catch working in the Inkaterra lab.

Gideon, Mini and researcher number 3 whose name we didn't catch working in the Inkaterra lab.

Photo courtesy Wenying Pan

Gideon and Mini are biologists studying a wide variety of genomics and ecology questions in field labs. When Wenying asked how equipped the lab in the jungle was, Gideon showed us a mini genomic sequencing machine called MinION which can do whole-genome sequencing in the field. Gideon founded a non profit called Field Projects in 2013 and helps organize field based projects for researchers, students, and wildlife enthusiasts. Gideon knows Aaron Pomerantz, one of Foldscope's most dedicated super users who hosted a Field Projects workshop with Foldscopes in 2017. And still, there's more. Field Projects featured Foldscope back when we still had our first design to raise money to buy 1,000 units so they could distribute them around the world and advocate for our mission. 

And here we all are, in a internet-less, zero waste lodge off the Madre de Dios river in the Peruvian Amazon. A totally unplanned, unexpected collision of two groups of people who didn't know each other but should have, and then now do know each other, accidentally. Many things seem to happen in this all-at-once way as I think about how I got here and where I was, four years ago, as a high school intern working on Foldscope in the Prakash Lab. 

Anyway, this entire interaction with Gideon and Mini was actually around ten minutes as we ran off into the forest to look at some birds and trees. Here is a self-timed photo of our entire team and our tour guide Frank, taken on a cracked iPhone.

IMG_4959.JPG

At night, we all took a boat ride to look for caimans. Jon and Paul told us hilarious stories over dessert after dinner. I taught everyone how to use Airdrop. It was still cold and drizzly and half the team got chigger bites. But the hot chocolate. Oh man. 

Day 9: Inkaterra Guide Field Station, Peru  —> Lima, Peru

The weather is paradise today, once again. Birds wake me up in the morning, that's how much of a dream it is.

After three attempts, Frank finally leads us to the family of capuchin monkeys on River Island, the island a few minutes away from the lodge that's, surprise, surrounded by a river. These monkeys were rescued from a pet store and have been living on the island since. Spot the monkey: 

DSC_0052.JPG

Today is a travel day as we head back to Lima. Through the airplane window, I saw huge patches of forest that were brown from the trunks of all the felled trees and it made me sad. I don't think I'll ever forget seeing the shadow of our plane cruise down towards the deep green trees in Puerto Maldonado when we first arrived a week ago. Someone named Emiliano (whom we won't meet until the team goes to Brazil in three weeks, but I'm writing this in both present and future) told me that the feeling of first seeing the Amazon rainforest never leaves you, and I'm glad.  

Alice Dai has worked with Foldscope since high school and will be a junior at Duke University this fall. She is the trip blogger/photographer. 

All photos taken by Alice unless otherwise attributed.