11,500km and worlds apart: El Sal and NZ

El Salvador and New Zealand are worlds apart, or specifically one Pacific Ocean– a mere 11,500 kilometers. Yet, both have active volcanoes just hours from brilliant beaches with surf waves. Both countries have equally as harrowing and winding roads. If motivated, in either country, I can climb a volcano in the morning and be at the beach in the afternoon.


Hiking on Te Mata peak, with beautiful fossiliferous limestone under our feet!

What forests are left in El Salvador (13% of land use area) are tropical rainforests; in New Zealand, the Department of Conservation has created trails winding through over the 30% of land covered by temperate broadleaf and mixed forests. This is partly explained by the difference in population densities, while El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Central America with over 6 million people, New Zealand has a much larger land area with a population of 4.5 million. So the very act of walking in the two countries is a very different experience. Overflowing busses and traffic to rival that game where you have to jig-saw blue cars to get the red car over to the other side of the board define one, while ample trails and regulated car emissions define the other.


Dry season, dry soil. Without soil cover, soil erodes and looses its humidity.

New Zealand has no native mammals, besides a bat, and many of El Salvador’s native species are locally extinct (good luck finding a monkey here). Luckily, it’s easy enough to encounter earthquakes in the two countries.

Both small countries have rich histories, with El Salvador’s human history extending back thousands of years, while the Maori arrived in New Zealand only 1200 years ago. The Maori in New Zealand are a strong presence (albeit not without the colonial problems and prejudices introduced when the British arrived around 200 years ago), while colonial invasion of El Salvador has totally squashed the Pipil/Nahuat traditional peoples such that much of the native knowledge and expression is gone. I’ve seen archeological pieces displayed in people’s homes in El Salvador, more as change holders than artifacts.

In one country, I can go to any ridgeline and have a good chance of finding an established trail to walk on, while the other country, I have to be conscious of which block I walk down. Bare feet are common equally at beaches as in ice cream shops and supermarkets in New Zealand while the tropical aggression, inadequate disposal of garbage, and ample rivulets of grey water in El Salvador make shoes a requirement for healthcare. Yet in one country, I feel challenged and uncomfortably comfortable, while in the other, I am always at ease aside from when I have to drive on the left side of the road.

It might seem like the obvious choice to stick with comfort. I find this contradictory as I seek to understand the world to create positive change, and I’ve grown to revel in the challenge of understanding my geography.


***(Statistics on countries from the CIA World Factbook)

El Campo and a 10k

On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of last week, I was a lucky camper and headed to el campo (the field) to observe coffee and beans and maíz, oh my!

The organization I’m working for promotes sustainable agricultural practices. This means promoting practices like the 4Rs, interpreting soil analyses and fertilizing accordingly, and intercropping. I saw coffee intercropped with beans, which promote nitrogen fixation, a vital resource for the coffee plants. Some beans, like the gandul (pigeon pea) grow into tall tree-like plants, while the canavalia variety are more vine-like than shrub-like. In addition to their nitrogen services, they provide shade (especially the gandul) and ground cover which maintain soil moisture, a necessity in the tropics with intense sun exposure.

I got to follow my teammates who know if there’s a phosphorous deficiency by looking at the plant, and who can recommend to switch from an 18-20-0 fertilizer to an 18-46-0 fertilizer without blinking. Many of the farmers that we met had changed their practices to include many of these best-management methods and in a few years have seen results. Their plants are healthier, and they’re spending less on fertilizers. They have less soil erosion from maintaining ground cover and planting perpendicular to the hill-slope.

Also we saw a lot of baby animals (see baby pigs and calves below), and the vistas from the farms were astounding. Yesterday, we went to parcels in Ahuachapan, one of the highest areas in El Salvador, and from the farmer’s plot, we could see all the way to the ocean.

Earlier this week, I visited a soils lab at national university CENTA. The lab was excited at the possibility of having another collaborator, and someone to help with the mountain of soil samples they process.

I’ve been busy, and learning a lot so that I can be even more analytical in my interpretations of soil data.

…but not too busy for a mid-week surf, with an incredible sunset, and my first trail-run 10k in Comasagua.

Leaving only salted chocolate chip cookies behind

Thursday early morning I’ll hop on a plane to Atlanta, wander through the airport to connect with my flight to El Salvador, where I’ll be for the next 10 months.

I’m leaving my sister some cookies to get her through the first few days of my absence…

These next 10 months are a result of a Fulbright research grant to study soil chemistry on coffee farms. I’ll be working with an organization called Blue Harvest to do some soil analyses that I have become familiar with through research at Smith. The adjustment will be steep, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. It has always been that in these times of discomfort that I’ve grown the most, so while I recognize the present anxiety in the imminent travel, I know that the long-term benefits outweigh any trepidations.


As I frantically pack last-minute items, I’ll also be enjoying my last day in Chicago summer. Tomatoes will be my primary food group, picked off the vine, and juice dripping down my chin.Mostly sweet, slightly acidic, tasting like sunshine and keeping me grounded for one more day.


Halfway in a bog

Back in the USA, and back at school out East, and back doing the research that I started last summer in bogs like this one:
P1170927Peat is this partially decomposed organic material that occurs in anoxic, water saturated conditions: Bogs. This is the stuff I’m studying, because no one has really studied its chemistry and because it is an important carbon sink (people mine and burn peat because it is such a dense carbon source!). For collecting samples, I made a monolith tin (essentially a bread loaf pan without a bottom), per advice of The Bogologist. My advisor and I used it to collected the upper 50cm of peat in a few different bogs. The upper part of peat is called the acrotelm (it has taken me 3 weeks to say this word and remember it), characterized by high hydraulic conductivity and nutrient transfer, and a partially aerated, partially living soil layer.  P1170932

 Getting wet and peat-y when working in the bog is unavoidable. And often samples look like brown spongy wet unattractive blocks. But they’re my peaty samples so I think they’re adorable:P1170939 P1170942

And sometimes you actually have to get IN the peat. And I’m talking full-arm-in and legs immersed in water to grab what you need. And water is everywhere. But it’s worth it for a great sample. P1170944

This last sample isn’t really a peat-sample; it’s more organic, but it’s still worth checking out as it is on the margin of this one bog in Northampton, MA (Burt’s Pit Bog). P1170945

And it helps that bogs are beautiful, generally expansive vistas with beautiful little plants and flours and margins of cattails. It makes the hours analyzing the peat in the lab worth it. I am specifically looking at base cations (Na, sodium; Ca, calcium; Mg, magnesium; K, potassium and some aluminum and silicon). This will tell me which ions have a preference for “sticking” on the peat and at what concentration of surrounding liquid that preference changes. P1170926

I just analyzed my first batch on the ICP (Inductively Coupled plasma– basically it fires up my filtered samples and tells me the concentration of certain elements) and am playing with the data. Hopefully I’ll have more time in bogs soon!

Laughing through AUS to ORD: 10 days in Australia

Lucky for me, my sister and best friend met me in Australia for a 10-day exploration of the country right after I left New Zealand. I couldn’t have asked for a better transition.IMG_2949

We had two days in Cairns– the tourist hub for the Great Barrier Reef. It is a cute town, but I was too stoked to see the wonder of the natural world. We toured with SeaStar, and had a brilliant experience! The company was great and it was a luxurious ride. We stopped to snorkel in two places: one off a sandbar an hour boat ride from the port in Cairns, and the other a reef in open water where we saw a barracuda and turtles and parrotfish.IMG_2951

My sister’s favorite part of the trip was this lagoon in Cairns: a man-made pool with sand and some sprinklers for the kids(at heart) right on the ocean! The ocean water is filled with jellyfish and other fun creatures that make it not so fun to swim in, so this is the city’s alternative, and it was beautiful. IMG_2958 IMG_2969

After two days of sunshine and exploring Queensland, we hopped on a plane to Sydney. As soon as we landed, sister again proclaimed that this part was her favorite. This would be common throughout the trip…IMG_2981 IMG_2984

We spent the first day exploring and walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge (the free walk– not the climb to the top) to see the Sydney Opera House just as a HUGE cruise ship was embarking on its journey. We took pictures of the Opera House from almost every angle. And we ate lots and lots of delicious food (Oxford St. was a great location for us since every side street had cute cafes and options abound).

I took the girls to Bondi Beach on our second day in Sydney to try out surfing at this classic go-to spot. We got lots of salt-water up our noses, and then proceeded to eat the best fish and chips I’ve ever had at our shuttle driver(from the airport)’s brother’s chippery called Bondi Seafoods. IMG_2992 IMG_3006 IMG_3020 IMG_3029

We spent the next day walking around the city, and saw these cute birdies:IMG_3034

Our next stop was Melbourne, and we spent 4 full days there. We explored the street art, and wandered the parks. We hit up Fitzroy ave. and the Victoria St. Market. As our time in Melbourne ended, we realized we had only begun to discover the hidden treasures of the city. I would love to go back and explore more!IMG_3064

The girls and I also went on a hike: we took the train to Upper Fern Tree Gully and did the 1000 Steps hike through some pretty woods. IMG_3077 IMG_3106 IMG_3116

There’s a small blue penguin in the rocks!!!IMG_3119

And we visited the Melbourne Zoo…IMG_3136And then it was time to leave on endless flights home (United delayed the girls’ flight for 8 HOURS out of LAX!!! No United, NO…

We all made it back to Chicago, but still tasting the delicious cafe treats and salty sea air from those 10 days.

Banks Peninsula and out of the Field

Decanter Bay-- my team's mapping site for our last field module

Decanter Bay– my team’s mapping site for our last field module.

I’m out of the field (for now at least) and it’s a little jarring to be back in reality. I just registered officially at UC and have a new student ID and class schedule and everything. My flatmates are from Finland and France and it’s odd to feel “international” and starkly American. I can pick out other Americans easily– neons against natural tones and I sort of hope that I’m not as glaringly distinct.

A dome!

A dome (where lava exited the earth)!

We were camping this past week as opposed to the field stations we had been staying in throughout field camp. It was nice to wake up and walk over fallen pine needles to the bathroom, and feel the cricks in our shoulders and necks from sleeping on our semi-padded ground.


View of Decanter Bay from the beach during low tide.

This area has not been mapped extensively before, so we split up into groups of 4 or 5 to conquer lava flows. My group headed to Decanter Bay– a privately owned bay in Banks Peninsula.


Sheep crossing in front of the van: typical New Zealand.

After three days of mapping, we were sitting on the beach and had a few hours before we would be picked up by one of the vans. Three children came up to us and proceeded to interrogate us about volcanoes and daringly teased us with sheep poop. For two hours, we became a horde of 10-11 year olds and played hide and go seek and tag and this new game avoid-getting-sheep-poop-thrown-at-you. The last one is a toughie. And we spent many minutes giving piggy-back rides. They clung to our pant legs and begged us not to leave. The hours with them equaled in exhaustive energy to the field days!


Our map in progress, mapping the old lava flows.


Seal in the mapping area! I think it’s posing for us. Also who dyed the water such a vivid turquoise?

We are all working on our Directed Research projects, and I opted for developing a Virtual Field Trip/Experience for a geology field exercise we had done on Mt. Doom. It will be a challenge and also an insight into how learning works, and what makes an effective learning program. Lots to read and lots to play with Google Earth. Semester starts on Monday!


Another beautiful bay for a group mapping day.

From Westport to Ruapehu and Mt. Doom

We went from a beach house to a ski lodge: Westport to Ruapehu.


Lunch spot in Westport, watching the tide roll in over metamorphic rocks

Westport was an academic feast and we learned structure and mineralogy and stared at cute seals (mommas and babies and poppas) for hours. It was a gentle field environment, and a race against the tides to get to various outcrops on the shore platform (outcrop= rock exposure. Shore platform= the flatter part of the beach notcovered by water).


Can you see all the seals? Spot the baby!


It became more and more beautiful every time we turned the corner to a new portion of our field site.

One plane ride and 5 hours of driving later, we arrived on the North Island at the infamous (Mt. Ngauruhoe) Mt. Doom’s neighbor, the volcano Ruapehu. There’s a beautiful Maori story about the string of volcanoes in the area, and it’s impressive that the volcanoes are active and need constant monitoring in order to avoid disaster via eruption.

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On our first full day, we completed the Tongariro Crossing (see picture of trailhead above); one of the Great Walks that takes us alongside Mt. Doom. The 19.4km trek was cold and misty and rainy (see picture of me and Ashley) and cloudy and we saw little but the 100ft in front of us. We were required to wear high-vis vests and we donned them with the sarcastic and dorky response they deserved. The clouds lifted for a moment as we walked down a ridge and exposed some emerald green geothermal pools and we saw craters in the area and fumaroles smoking. The walk could have easily been miserable, but we were all so excited to be near such a prime Lord of the Rings site that we could not be brought down. It was less of a geology day and more of a recon-get a feel for the area day. Lots of pumice– do New Zealanders have the smoothest feet?

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We spent succeeding days mapping lava flows and geothermal pools. The geothermal day, we finished mapping and threw on our bathing suits. After loading up the vans, we drove and, because of timing, arrived at the bank of a river and ran up to the bridge 7-8m above the water and jumped in. Still high on adrenaline, we loaded up the vans again and drove to natural geothermal pools that wouldn’t scald us. Our professors handed each of us a beer and encouraged us to cool the drink in the cold river water that intersected the hot geothermally heated river water. The late dinner time that night was well worth the adventure.

A film site for Lord of the Rings and our mapping area for the (very cold) day.

A film site for Lord of the Rings and our mapping area for the (very cold) day.


View of Ruapehu from a mapping site (lots of pumice!) in an abandoned stream bed. Some pumice was pink!

Same duration of journey back to the South Island, and now we’re moved into our student apartments and ready for our last week of field camp and the start to our own Directed Research.