Lilies on the Staircase

We wake up to the sounds of jungle birds, street peddlers, and highway workers starting their day. The hotel we’re staying in is run by a family with three adorable girls and a gatito, but we can’t stay for breakfast.

Instead, we drive to a rest stop by the side of the new highway. While it might seem counterintuitive to Americans, this rest stop is one of the nicest places we’ve found in the jungle, and they give us coffee they have grown and roasted themselves. Out front, they have a wheelbarrow full of fresh pineapple that they blend into juice. This particular café is part of an initiative to build more sites like these—and the construction was subsidized by the same contractor that is building the highway.

Christine, Lara, and Victor at the rest stop with la familia Mendez

After such a great start, we dig two sites in one day—the first at a farmyard with baby chicks, and the second at a ranch with monkeys in the trees. Back in the car, I spot a woman on the road walking with a pet monkey wrapped around her leg.

As we drive, Lara explains a little more about shear wave splitting, one of the foci of Maureen’s research. She tells me that when these seismic waves hit a rock at an angle, they can split into two smaller waves, and one may go faster than the other, depending on the composition of the mantle rock. Most seismologists assume this difference is negligible, she says, but not Maureen. Instead, Maureen measures the time difference to calculate which piece of the wave is moving more quickly. Then she uses the faster wave to determine which way the mantle is flowing.

Lara adds that data for shear waves is only one piece of the information she will receive from installing these seismometers. Other attributes include the depth of the crust before it becomes the mantle, and the physical makeup of the mantle itself. For the latter, seismologists need to collaborate with geochemists who can help to puzzle out the chemical makeup of the earth’s interior.

Three hours into the drive, we realize we’re not as close to a town as we should be, and it’s getting dark. As night falls, we’re still winding our way into the mountains on a dirt road which is under construction. We pass two places that look like towns, but Victor realizes they are just camps for the highway workers. Looking at the GPS, Lara can see a village about 40 minutes away. We hold our breaths, and with the help of our excellent drivers Luis and Edwin, we make it. Lara is relived, and declares that we’re never driving after dark again.

My Hand at Our Second Site

Though we started in the 90 degree heat of the jungle, we get out of the car to 50 degree mountain air. Our hostel has rooms up a mouldering cement staircase, and the shower consists of a sink and a bucket. However, it’s still spring in the mountains, and the most beautiful Calla Lilies are blooming by the side of the stairs.

Morning in the Mountains

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