¡Adiós, Oaxaca!

Queridos amigos,

I write to you once again from Oaxaca, Mexico as an Institute of Nature and Society of Oaxaca (INSO) intern.  It’s hard for me to believe, but my three months here are already coming to close.  I’m now in the midst of tying up loose ends, buying gifts, packing up, and getting ready for another semester at Bard CEP.  I’ve had a great time in Mexico, but I’m ready to get back to New York just in time for fall, my very favorite season.

Reflecting back on my internship with INSO, I’m left with many great memories and myriad lessons learned; however, what has struck me the most is the overall organization and dedication required to carry out a watershed sampling plan.  Call it naiveté, but I arrived to Mexico with the idea that performing a robust sampling of the Oaxaca watersheds would take a few weeks at most.  Instead, water sampling took up the vast majority of my three months with INSO.  Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time water sampling and truly learned a lot from it, but the time and effort that water sampling took was somewhat unexpected.

In order to illustrate this point, I give you the story of one of our least successful sampling days.  Like most sampling days, this day began with me waking up, opening our Google Earth file of possible sampling sites, and mapping the route to the next four or five sites.  I then joined Nolan and Simon in the office to calibrate our equipment and pack up for the day.  Although I have made these tasks sound rather simple, each step of getting ready for the day is filled with debate and discussion—Where are we going for the day?  Do we have everything we need?  Did we remember to make new pH standard?  Why is the Sonde acting funny?  etc.  Added to this morning’s pre-field chaos was the fact that a camera woman from the Luce Foundation was with us for the day, conducting a follow-up interview on how we (Bard CEP) were using their grant money.

Once all of the people and equipment were packed into Nelly’s car, as the designated navigator, it was my job to get us to each site.  Early on in our sampling days, we discovered that Google Maps actually has great coverage of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca—much better than any printed map we were able to get our hands on.  As a result, I began simply taking screenshots of our sites in Google Maps and using my computer to navigate us to each site.  Despite Google Maps’s great coverage, we still encountered quite a few unforeseen “hiccups”.

This fateful day, we had Google Maps problems attempting to arrive to both sites one and three.   At site one, Google Maps had us taking a road down to the water that didn’t actually exist in real life.  At site three, Google Maps failed to show us that it was nearly impossible to get down to the water from the road because there were so many houses around the stream and such heavy vegetation.  In the end, we got to site three, but it was not pleasant and we couldn’t help but think that there had to be an easier way!  That day, I also forgot the data sheets for our sites (forcing me to jot notes messily in the field notebook), and Nolan and Simon got soaked from not having waiters to conduct the water flow test.  All in all, we were only able to get three sites done despite being gone all day—a lot of time was lost to driving around, trying to figure out the map, and keeping track of our equipment.

Now, it’s easy to read this simple story and misunderstand how much this day seemed like a failure for us, but it really did.  When you measure your day based on the number of sites completed and the ease at which you complete them, it’s hard to accept spending all day on just three sites (and two failed ones), and having a camera woman with you to document it.

So, I’m brought back to my original point: water sampling is fun and rewarding, but it requires a ridiculous amount of organization.  Even so, I’d say that the most frustrating part of water sampling is that, even with perfect organization, sampling still requires some luck.  It follows, then, that my internship with INSO has taught me to appreciate the organization, planning, and money that goes into many of the papers, studies, and reports I read for Bard CEP with such a critical eye.  If my work ever takes me back into the field, I feel much more comfortable with both the heavy organization and the go-with-the-flow flexibility that fieldwork requires.  I’m so lucky to have had this experience and to have spent my three-month internship exploring the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico—I will miss it dearly!

See you all back in New York!

Cheers, Michelle

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