|By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, June 21, 2003 - 9:20 am: Edit Post
The Aslan's Botaderos Jungle Adventure
The Aslan's Botaderos Jungle Adventure
The Aslan's Botaderos Jungle Adventure
08/03/02 Day 1
The truck filled with the team and all the supplies pulled up to the Gualaco rendezvous point only an hour and a half behind schedule. There was nothing unusual about that. What was out of place was the queer ensemble of enthused figures that piled out of the vehicle. Dr. Mark Bonta, professor of Geography at Delta State University emerged first, the fearless and unabashed organizer of the excursion. Balding and newly middle-aged, he carried himself appropriately, a renowned 10-year-old Peace Corps alumni that could never quite escape his third world stomping grounds. Julio and Don Jose were there too, two local area natives that seemed as exotic as anyone, the former with an ear-to-ear grin and a door-to-door cowboy hat and the latter a shoe-in for Fat Albert's "Mushroom Head" look alike, donning coke bottle glasses and a shiny silver metallic hardhat that leveled off somewhere below his nose. Julio had to crick his neck all the way back to see straight, but his one and a half toothed smile showed how undaunted the self-imposed handicap left him. Gualaco´s recently retired mayor was rarin' to go as well, though his disheveled hair and general confused expression suggested he was more ready to get back to bed after a midnight emergency bathroom break. Sam Wells stepped out of the truck like a movie star about to hit the red carpet on Oscar night. His grace and poise preceded his title of newly ordained doctor of Entomology from Colorado State University befittingly. His regal aura was suddenly shattered as he darted blindly out into the street with both hands waving in the air, his lanky body flailing maladroitly behind him, as if some private nightmare from the past lurking unexpectedly behind the closest adobe hut had finally caught up to him. He leapt into the air like a suicide and came back down with a closed fist His free hand pulled an alcohol filled vial out of his pocket and he exultingly dropped a copulating pair of sexually dimorphic bibionid march flies into it. So entered the motley crew's coup de grace: the full fledged, Far Side certified no holds barred bug expert. And then there was Clare and myself, of course, with whom there was nothing motley to decry, omitting perhaps our ruddy complexions, baggy, florid, thrift rack clothing, our mismatched, overstuffed back packs and the gaudy, unwieldy necklaces we wore that we sometimes refer to as binoculars. In short, we looked nothing at all like Miami-bound, senior citizen bus-adventure real estate tourists.
For the most part we were amassed and ready to rock. We all greeted and piled back into the truck and were off; our first assignment for the Botaderos excursion was soon ahead of us and Gualaco far behind. And with a merciless sun beating unrelentingly down on us from straight above, our week-long adventure had begun.
Day one was slated to be mild by any standards. It was really just a day trip into the field to do a bit of sleuthing about, a few relatively important scientific inquires burning to be answered. The subject in study: a class of plant called a cycad. As we can all recall from our basic college level biology course (yeah right), cycads were long sought as the missing link in the evolution between fern type plants and more advanced gymnosperms, or naked seed, pine cone-bearing greens. The mountainous slopes to the northwest of Gualaco are speckled with clandestine pockets of some of the last known healthy population of this particular cycad called teocintle. Fading fast due to slash-and-burn agriculture, cattle ranching, and other land "misuse" practices, this endemic species of die-hard, fire-resistant ancient survivor of an older world opens a small window into the distant past. In fact, many of the specimens we looked at had sprouted before Christ walked the Earth, being upwards of 2000 years old. Palm-like in gestalt, they were just as likely to be found twisting serpent-like along the grounds they were to be shooting traditionally up toward the sky. All in all, a hillside full of those things was highly reminiscent of a scene out of Dr. Suess' "Lorax" tale, as if a visit to the area inspired his artwork. Everything about them was grandiose. Many of the older ones measured beyond 10 meters (30ft) in length. The leaves were as sharp as knifes and as long as swords, and the female seed bearing pods weighed 40-50 pounds, akin to prize-winning, county fair, pinecone-like watermelons. The seeds nestled within were easily larger than golf balls. It was the female pod we were interested in. Hard to find due to their cultural harvesting as a source of dough for tamales, the search was on in order to determine what exactly was the pollinating agents that transported spores from the male plant to the female.
We spent much of the morning hunting fruitlessly for any pod at all, a necessary preliminary to discovering what pollinators might be busy inside. Meanwhile we watched birds and took photos and curiously stared at Sam leaping through the brush with a butterfly net in one hand and an aptly named "beat net" in the other, which he would place under the foliage while beating the branches to shake unsuspecting insects off of their dining pad and into a new life as University taxonomic closet shelf-decorators.
Eventually we happened across a female teocintle that hadn't had its humbler-than-average sized pod head decapitated yet. Carefully navigating through the razor sharp swords that protected it, we were all very excited to find bugs swarming throughout its surface. Sam was called over and he gathered several specimens with an enigmatic, concentrated expression before proclaiming in a historical tone, "It's a type of weevil, and it's a new species to science."
Photos and notes were taken and we all eventually left the "typical site" to itself, feeling a bit high and a bit important. It was a great moment to have shared. There is yet, of course, to reassure the weevil's claim to unfamiliarity in the lab, but barring any unexpected conclusions, one of those little guys is destined to become the "type specimen", or Smithsonian Institute's collection individual against which all future collections of similar weevils will be compared.
So was the successful conclusion to the trip's initial objective. It was time to return back to Gualaco for a solid night's rest before proceeding with the bulk of our work. The next day would bring with it our main task: a journey into the virgin wild lands of the prospective protected area known as Las Montañas de Botaderos, an unusually large expanse of untapped, unknown wilderness bulging at the seams with infinite possibilities of scientific and human interest. Next stop: maybe not Conrad´s heart of darkness itself, but a good gall bladder of obscurity nonetheless.
08/04/02 Day 2
After an early start (5:15am) and a tiring 4 hour drive, we reached the trailhead-so to speak-a bit behind schedule, which translates to anywhere from right on time to downright early. Trailhead had may be a bit of an arbitrary term, too, in that we stopped only where the cars could no longer forge ahead. There was still a road, mind you, but NASA would be hard pressed to develop a machine to traverse it. We were at the base camp of a major logging operation, a large 300-year-old cedar smashing to the ground with an earth-shaking thud to my right as I grabbed my backpack out of the back of the truck. I´d been living in the eastern part of Honduras called Olancho for a year now and saw 5 or so bulging logging trucks pass through Gualaco from this direction every single day, and now I finally knew where all that beautiful 4 foot-diameter lumber was coming from. The terrain was a matrix of crisscrossing, half-assed logging roads and a stubbled beard of ancient tree stumps. Herds of cattle had kneaded the hillsides into deep egg carton grooves during some past deluge and it had all dried hard as a rock. Perfect ankle breaking country. The whole scene was rather inauspicious as a beginning.
We rested and lunched and took in the disappearing beauty around us until our mule train arrived from the nearest available community of Pacura. They were just plain late, but seeing that that was expected, maybe they were right on time after all. After loading the mules we were off. We had grown in number since the day before. Florencia was with us now, for one. The only other woman on the trip besides Clare and well into her 40s, she took a whole mule to herself to no one's chagrin. It was invaluable to have her along. She was the excursion's anthropologist and amateur archeologist, and she had numerable connections through her position at the cultural museum in Juticalpa. Also present was, Isidro Zuniga, a self taught, disciplined naturalist from Gualaco with a virtual CD ROM database of area flora and fauna and an uncanny ability to track anything from jaguars to giant, arm-sized walking sticks with a strong Zen side to him who incidentally told me one night in an indignant tone that I was no environmentalist after squishing a wasp that was attacking Sam's black light.
We were able to escape the clear-cutting after only about half an hour, the remainder of the day promising to be under the shade of the far-reaching cloud forest canopy, if not slightly more relaxing. Our destination was a town called Los Encuentros, so named because of its location at the convergence of two small rivers. It was yet another 5 miles away at the base of a 3000 foot drop in elevation. By the time we were braving the deep declivity into the thin valley floor, we had entered bona-fide old growth forest and our tired spirits were high. I rode one of the available mules for a good stretch of the trip. What the heck. It was going to be a long week and I wouldn't get another chance to go horseback; the competition for the reciprocal ascent would be like the escarpment itself: too steep.
The trek was far from uneventful, from a nerdy point-of-view. We were all so busy counting birds, identifying medicinal plants and spices, tracking mammals, chasing lizards and snakes and turning over rocks in search of beetles that we never had time to stop and smell the flowers!
We reached a river at the bottom of the steep slope and followed it along the meandering valley's canyon-like walls for another hour. With only a couple hours of daylight remaining, we finally loped into Los Encuentros to a once-in-a-lifetime reception and an utterly raw cultural experience.
We broke out of the forest like a squadron of soldiers emerging from deep within the Vietnam jungle upon a long forgotten village of simple family subsistence farmers. Clare and I were only the 3rd and 4th gringos to ever tread through town (Mark had been through in the mid 90s with another colleague), Clare being the first white woman most of them had ever seen. The kids ran behind our caravan and studied us shyly with the intensity of intrigued lab technicians. The "town" contained around 10 full structures, mostly adobe one or two compartment houses with pitched roofs thatched with dried palm leaves. It was built into grassy, rolling hills, large mounds like breasts rising picturesquely out of the used earth.
We were invited to stay in their school, a garage-sized room with misspelled construction paper signs circumscribing the interior and four or five unleveled wooden tables. Clare and I opted to set up our tent and camping gear outside to take advantage of a moonless, utterly unilluminated, unprecedented night sky. The kids and even a few curious adults looked on as we made camp as if we were setting up for the World's Fair. They couldn't get enough of the tent and thermarests and sleeping bags and hydrapaks and LCD flashlights. In darker times I might have been burned at the stake as a witch when I removed the contact lenses from my eyes, judging by their incredulous reactions.
We spent the rest of the day getting to know people, exchanging cultures. Several of them had never heard English spoken before, much less any other strange tongue. We bathed and ate and set up Sam's black light after dark. We all sat around collecting the bugs that came to it for several hours and afterwards we stargazed with binoculars at one of the most spectacular nighttime displays I've ever been privy to experience. No wonder astronomy was such an omnipresent subject throughout electricity-less history. Absolutely awe inspiring.
08/05/02 Day 3
We awoke the next morning to several children peaking in to our tent, whispering inaudible Spanish giggles about us. We were the last people on earth to arise that morning, it seemed, though it was hardly after 6:00. Montezuma oropendulas sang their ethereal, R2-D2-like song down on us from the over hanging canopy, cattle groaned, chickens pecked and wild tinamous and chachalacas crowed off in the jungle. Don Julio had already adorned himself with his comical chrome carapace and was busy heating water for breakfast, bless his heart. Sam was off collecting beetles and the others were already off looking at some old pre-Colombian ruins nearby. Clare and I broke camp and ran off to join the archeologists before breakfast. Back in the rainforest, we crossed a deep flume in the river on a precarious log bridge and popped out near another settlement of humble houses. Several of the dwellings were placed on top of obviously man-made grassy mounds, Lego-like blocks of stone protruding out from the earth in various directions. One of these raised earthen platforms was fairly extensive. These were the ruins I'm talking of, obviously, and their impressiveness lay not in their mediocre, half-interred, overgrown appearance, but in the fact that they were yet so untapped. Cold hard stone frosted over with hundreds of years of soil and litter, trapping in the secrets of the daily lives of an erased people, waiting ever so patiently to someday be unlocked. And juxtaposed on top of it was the still primitive housing of their descendents, decked out in American second hand clothing and drinking Coca Cola from unbiodegratable, plastic trash. Mark had tried to get a professional archeologist to come on this trip, knowing that there were many questions yet to be asked, much less answered, here, but his contact fell through the last minute. So for now these mounds could do nothing more than entice our curiosity, enigmatic eggs to be cracked another time.
On our way back to the schoolhouse Mark mentioned to us how important it was going to be to get someone out there to record some of the villager's oral histories about this place. There was at least one old man in the area claiming to be over 100 years old who could remember his own elderly grandmother relating stories to him about when the Spaniards first arrived in her childhood to the area.. Imagine that! An oral tradition in present day Latin America only one degree of separation removed from a functioning pre-Columbian society. And it gets better than that. Much better. But I don't want to get ahead of myself.
We finally packed up and loaded the mules and were off (surprise, surprise) later than we wanted to be; the tropical sun already approaching its lingering zenith by 9:00am. We were marching back up the canyon on the other side now, climbing a good 4000ft before stopping for good at a pre-designated base camp in the primary cloud forest. The first part of that climb was on a shadeless, deforested slope, and we baked away in the sweltering sun before reaching the return of the frontier of virgin, thick rainforest canopy.
The burros went ahead and the group filtered into separate smaller teams based on speed. Clare and I hiked with Mark at a carefree pace, followed only by Don Jose and Sam, who had started feeling a bit under the weather as early as the night before. Mark might possibly be the most loquacious, garrulous person I've ever met, and between bird sightings, there was hardly a silent moment. One of his topics of conversation turned toward his ill-fated trip into Pacura several days earlier to procure the mules for the trip. He went into town with Rafael, Gualaco´s disheveled ex-mayor, which turned out to be an unwise move in hindsight. Rafael had chosen not to run for reelection last year because he had made several mortal enemies while in office due to his meddlesome environmental policies. Some very powerful people had lost a great deal of money during his administration and his welcome had expired. One man in particular, a Carlos Flores, was well known to have had more than 26 people killed over the years due to a heated hydroelectric scheme for the communities between Gualaco and San Esteban. One victim was a local resistance leader who was blown away with a shotgun one day while in his shower. Another (who lived, miraculously) was Gualaco´s own activist Catholic priest who was stabbed in the chest outside the parochial office only days before Clare and I arrive to begin our assignment. Rafael was also on Flores' "to do" list and it was no secret. So when Mark and he ran into Carlos Flores in Pacura that day, tensions were high and they left disconcerted in the knowledge that the nefarious warlord knew they would soon be headed into a conveniently remote area for several days.
At some point after relating this ominous news to us, we all stopped on a ridge to wait for Sam and Don Jose to see how they were faring. After a pleasantly long rest we finally saw them approaching up the trail, but Sam was on a mule! Confused because we thought all the mules were ahead of us, we soon realized that a third party had joined them, lending his mule to Sam because he was feeling so sick. That was nice and all, but the mule's owner turned out to be none other than one of Carlos Flores´ more popular lackeys. The big warning flags came up only seconds later, though, when we realized what he had on him. Like some twisted Yosemite Sam character out of a macabre Bugs Bunny cartoon, he stumbled up the path behind Sam and Don Jose drunk out of his gourd, a pistol tucked loosely into his jeans, a long machete in one hand, and a fully automatic AK-47 in the other. He was loud and carousing and all five of us made uncomfortable eye contact at his presence. The whole trip was suddenly thrust into an apparently very delicate situation, and some quick thinking was in order.
Sam was okay, though weary, and he needed to rest. Fully trusting Don Jose to act prudently in any unpredictable event, Mark, Clare and I bantered diplomatically with the lethal drunk for only a few minutes before pressing on up the trail to warn the others, specifically Rafael, of the unexpected development.
We found the rest of the group lunching at the last water stop along the trail before hitting the campground. They all devised a plan together to inform the uninvited guest through the course of regular conversation that we all had guns of our own, for hunting, hoping that would scare him off from realizing any orders to take the ex-mayor out if convenience allowed. Most likely drunk to dull the reality of what he was charged to do, the man's intoxication could be as much of an asset as a wildcard.
Eventually the laggard party arrived. Rafael was nervous but poised, refusing to hide. Don Jose had managed to take the AK-47 from the interloper through gaining trust with him by sharing in his alcohol. The plan was executed flawlessly, but Sam was still falling more and more ill, and the group actually decided to invite the man to continue with us for the remainder of the assent in order to make further use of his mule. With his automatic weapon confiscated and on our side now, the situation was virtually defused anyway.
Needless to say, we all arrived at our campsite alive and healthy (except for poor Sam) with enough time to set up tents and find a spring before nightfall. In a stroke of utter genius, the Rambo drunk was sent back down the hill, well paid for his help, on the premise that he should come back in 4 days time to help us navigate back to Los Encuentros. Little did he realize, we'd be long gone in 3. We never saw him again (though we did tell the people of Los Encuentros to stop him from going all the way back up the hill again that Friday).
08/06/02 and 08/07/02 Days 4 and 5
In the interest of catering to your (by now) waning attention span, I've opted to combine the events of the next two days. They blend together in my memory already, anyway, as if the bulk of our trip was just a single prolonged sashay through the lower levels of heaven.
The Botaderos mountain range has no summit, so to speak, just a series of high interlocking ridges with several low cresting peaks. We were able to comb much of the area while based up there, several day hikes and birding trips offering us an extensive tour, both on and off trail. The myriad of trees and understory brush came in all shapes and sizes, the ground level barely allowing the intense sun above to dapple the ground through all the foliage. As far as flora is concerned, we were remiss not to have a true botanist along, but one item of celebrated interest was the extensive crop of mahogany on the mountain. Highly prized as a delicacy in the wood world, this tree is a rarity now in most of Central America. It is very illegal to cut it, but that only makes it all the more valuable on the black market. Everyone was mesmerized to see such healthy, fat stands of it, some trees requiring five or six people with outstretched arms to go around them.
Sam was excited about several different captures, especially one type of tiger beetle, which he expects to be a new species, pending laboratory confirmation. Tiger beetles are apparently the holy grail of the Entomology world, and if this specimen turns out to be novel, Sam claims that Botaderos will become a hot spot of investigation overnight, which is potentially great news with respect to the area's prospects of conservation.
We counted 120 separate species of birds, many quite exotic, and discovered several range extensions to boot. For example, the three-wattled bellbird, which we encountered in large numbers, was not previously known to be present so far west along the Central American ithsmus. We also got a good look at a perplexing and very distinctive hummingbird that Mark believes may be yet undescribed by science! He is following up on that possibility up as I write this.
Clare and I came across a troop of about 10 white-faced monkeys during one of our morning jaunts. They were right along the trail, and as they are highly gregarious, we all shared an unforgettable half hour conversation with each other before they finally got bored of us and swung off down the hillside. We also heard howler monkeys that same morning, but as they are literally the single loudest mammal on the planet, their calls could have been coming from miles away.
There was a basic trail which we utilized most of the time, an ancient route of historical interest which connected the San Esteban region to the north coast area of Tacoa. There was extensive evidence of pre-Columbian presence throughout the area, as well as present day sweet gum resin tappers who use the trails to access their trees and hunt. But we were off trail just as often as not, forging through thick virgin jungle in pursuit of crested guans, fresh jaguar tracks and mysterious new hummingbirds.
In short, we were able to gather a wealth of knowledge and discover many exciting things about the region. All the data we collected will go a long way in convincing the proper authorities that the treasure trove of Botaderos should be protected officially by the government. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and really count ourselves blessed to have been a part of such a unique, raw experience. The excursion couldn't have been more successful in all of our opinion, and we were yet to come across the most earthshaking discovery we will probably ever be a part of.
08/08/02 Day 6
The plan was to hike all the way out today, back to the logging camp where we would meet our ride back to Gualaco. Now knowing the full gamut of the trail, it was a daunting prospect. First we would have to drop 4000ft back down into the thin valley of Los Encuentros, and then we'd be climbing straight back up the other side a good 3000ft. All and all, the trail was roughly 9 miles long and it was going to be a tiring, long day even with a train of mules. And on top of everything else, Sam, who had been feeling better since reaching camp, was sicker than ever. He was dangerously low on fluids, losing a bout with hard core diarrhea and he informed us pallid as a ghost that he was now finding blood in his stool. He was also experiencing dizzy spells, which would make riding a mule all the more of an adventure.
We started off at 6:00am at an easy, slow pace, watching birds as we went. Fortunately the descending trip was largely uneventful, with the exception of several exciting bird sightings. We spied flocks of Aztec parakeets, white fronted parrots, several keel-billed toucans and a violaceous trogon, among a myriad of others. At one point we could hear chainsaws roaring away like some twisted animal off to our left. Upon further inspection we lamentingly realized that smugglers were gouging into the forest down below, cutting away at a stand of mahogany. Soon after we could see mule trains 10 mules long carrying the precious lumber through a backbreaking 12 mile journey, at least, to where trucks would ship it off to whatever destination awaited it. The whole process seemed so ludicrously intensive to me, and so environmentally destructive, I still can't understand why it would be worth the effort.
When we arrived in Los Encuentros sometime after noon, Sam looked to be at death's door and insisted on taking a nap. We obliged, of course, enjoying the break ourselves, and utilizing the time to develop a plan of action in case Sam continued to deteriorate. At this rate we were not going to be able to reach the logging camp before dark, and we all checked to make sure our flashlights were adequately powered. Florencia had a medical kit on her, and I was surprised to find a IV kit inside with lactated ringer. As an EMT, starting an IV is outside my scope of practice, but I felt confident enough to give one properly anyway in the event of last resort. We also talked about setting up a canoe-like hammock between two mules and carrying Sam out that way. We swooned at all the negative possibilities ahead of us.
Meanwhile, I treated myself to a much needed bath in the river and we all sat around one of the houses drinking home made wine fermented from a local fern. Very delicious but potent; I only had one glass myself, opting for sobriety in the face of the long, hot afternoon ahead of us. While we waited, sitting around on the family's front porch, we notice how several of the girls wore necklaces with ancient jade jewelry laced through them. We commented on it, and several people brought us boxes of pre-Columbian jewelry and other artifacts they had collected from the area over the years. Some of it was beautiful and pristine, such as several elongate stones carved into intricate dolls or figurines. Florencia was beside herself with excitement and took whole rolls of film of the objects. There were also pristine matate slabs and other chiseled tools.
Just as we started to realize how archeologically rich the area actually was in light of all these trinkets, Rafael´s mind did a double take as he made some new, mind boggling connection. He turned to Mark and let him in on his discovery and Mark let out a slow, resolute "Oh my God" as he looked out at the town. They showed us what they were gaping about, and suddenly we couldn't "unsee" the overtly obvious fact that had until then remained so quietly clandestine.
We all looked around dumbfounded, chills surging up and down our backs, as the rolling, Hobbiton-like hills of the town uncovered themselves in our minds to become an intricate web of Mayan temples and edifices, courtyards and ball courts. Suddenly we looked out at the breast-like waves in the earth and we saw a whole lot more than two or three prominent man made mounds. We saw an entire, bustling acropolis. Mark and Rafael and Florencia jumped down off the porch to go explore everything from their new point-of-view. I ran to get my camera off the mule.
By the time Sam was awake and ready to head off, feeling well enough to venture off on his own two feet, own three burgeoning amateur archeologists were well armed with evidence of our bold new claim. Mark says they even found a deep pit correlating to one of the old native's stories about the "medicine man" tradition, whereby the town medicine man, ostersiezed from public life, was given children on a regular basis on the outskirts of town to do with as he pleased and eventually sacrifice. When done with them, he would toss their bodies down a deep pit in some religious ceremony. It took all Mark had not to jump down in to it right then and start looking for children's bones.
In the end, this Botaderos acropolis promises to be about as large in extent as the famous ruins at Copan, which would put it easily at the second largest pre-Columbian city in all of Honduras, approaching in scope perhaps even the world-renowned Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.
The more we noticed, the more we continued to see. All it took was a little imagination and the glaring truth manifested itself to us in all its lackluster glory. We finally pulled ourselves away from Los Encuentros already eager to return, Mark and Florencia deep into plans for coming back next summer with some experts for the purpose of getting the region on the map. Just as an aside, the people in charge of our trip, such as Dr. Mark Bonta, are wonderful stewards and I am fully confident that their further archeological endeavors will be low impact with the desires and wishes of Los Encuentros´ current inhabitants well in mind.
There's not much else to relate, really. We got back out well after dark, nervous that our rides would have left. They hadn't, luckily. I guess everyone is used to everyone else being hours late on a regular basis in this country. Sam was a real trooper, and lived to tell the tale without having to endure being poked in the arm by yours truly. On the way up the last escarpment the cinch band broke off the mule holding my and Clare's and Sam's bags, all of our equipment tumbling a good thousand feet back down the cliff before the kids pushing the mule could slide down and find them. Bless their souls, they hauled all that stuff back up to the mule, and we were relieved to find nothing missing or broken, not even my camera. Sam was sure he had lost all of his insects, but they were all accounted for. He decided he would write a letter to Nalgene after the incident; his entire collection had been floating serenely in numerous Nalgene vials of alcohol.
We got back to Gualaco just before midnight, grateful that we were all okay and even more so that we were finally at the foot of a real bed. The company dispersed to meet again several days later to digest to trip in Juticalpa with other interested parties unable to attend the actual excursion, and Clare and I fell soundly to sleep on empty stomachs.
The motion to protect Botaderos as a national park is already in full swing, though the road to success is sure to be much the same as the trail we took: long and arduous. We are all quite optimistic as we look to the area's future, and Clare and I look back on our trip fondly, still wondering how it was that we were so fortunate to be a part of the ground breaking of something so monumental.
Thank you all so much for your support and interest in reading about this. It always means a lot to us to have such a strong network back home to share all these experiences with. We'll be sure to keep you all up-to-date on the further information that comes from this excursion.