The struggle continues

We hiked to the lower reaches of the stream and made a temporary camp. The Forest Guard team left: A lighthearted chattering filled the forest as they started back to headquarters. Thien and I were alone. We spent the night and waited for the new team to arrive. Both of us needed a break. The next afternoon the replacements came. It was too late in the day to set out to a new survey area—our campsite was already drenched in the violet shadow of a nearby mountain—so we would spend another night at this interim site. I honestly didn’t mind the extra day of rest. That night the Forest Guards cooked a sumptuous fish stew. It was first substantial protein I’d had in over a week. Fish has never tasted so good.

Fish stew
Forest feast

We awoke the next morning to a blinding rain. “We must hurry or the streams will become impassable,” warned one of the guards.  I nodded silently and shouldered my backpack. We spent several hours hiking through secondary growth. As I had seen so many times in Vietnam, with every half kilometer the forest gradually improved. Eventually we were flanked by tall trees. The terrain was becoming rough but the Forest Guards insisted on going further. “We must go to the most remote area,” said the leader. I was too tired to reply. I trudged along, focusing all of my energy on putting one foot in front of the other. The rain continued. The water was up to our knees now and the current strong. The seven of us braced together arm in arm to avoid being swept away. Finally water became too high. We found a semi-flat area and made camp in a deafening downpour.

It rained on and off for the next two days. Miserable bone-chilling rain. Each morning we would wake up, slide on sopping clothing, and set off for the mountains. The difficulty of the fieldwork didn’t necessary bother me. What bothered me was that we were getting almost no leeches. In seven hours of hard searching we were collecting between ten and thirty samples. It was an ectoparasite ghost town.  I was baffled. The Forest Rangers said that the heavy rains had driven the leeches underground. Maybe this was true. I felt demoralized. We were killing ourselves—and for what? We needed results and we weren’t getting them. But I wouldn’t quit. Even if we only got five leeches per day that was five more than we had the previous day. The team members couldn’t understand this truculence. It was then that I noticed that the weather was beginning to fray tempers. Myself included.

On the evening of the third day Thien came to me with a worried expression. I knew something was on his mind. “I think we should leave tomorrow,” he said. I gave him a blank stare. “It’s not because we’re not collecting leeches. It’s because the rivers may flood. It could be dangerous to everyone . And if they flood too much we may become stranded. What will we eat when our food runs out?” I took a long gulp of gritty instant coffee and sighed. I wanted to stay and work. On the other hand I would never put the safety of my team in jeopardy. And as a friend and fellow field biologist I trusted Thien’s judgement. I said: “I’ll make a decision in the morning.”

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