Saturday, September 19, 2015


"I am about to embark upon a hazardous and technically unexplainable journey into the outer confer, converse, and otherwise hobnob with my brother wizards.”  The Wizard of Oz

My transition is about to commence: I am sitting in the airport (8/28/15) waiting to fly to Miami and thence to Quito.  I will start a new life with my new sweetheart Alina as an entomologist/botanist team at the Universidad Estatal Amazonica in Puyo and the CIPCA research station 40 km away.

Thanks to the many of you who have made my sojourn in the Boston area so wonderful over the past 3 decades.  And thanks especially to those who helped me pull it all together to break free of my ties.  There are many on that list, and you know who you are.  No time to thank everybody individually: boarding is soon.  I know I must have left some names off: feel free to direct others here.

It took a lot: I have retired from Boston Public Schools, sold the house, dismantled the garden, kissed everybody goodbye, amicably divorced, gone through paperwork hell in NY and Massachusetts and bought many supplies to use to build a collection and teach entomology, drove Alina’s household goods to MA, and packed a container.

I will be in touch!  Ecuador ho!


In August 2014, Peggy and I decided on an amicable divorce.  Our marriage of 26 years had been largely based on our mutual desire for family and home.  The kids were grown and gone, the home was now too large and expensive, and we had gotten on each other’s nerves.  We just didn’t have any interests in common, and found we couldn’t work or communicate directly with each other.

This was rough for me.  I was on unpaid leave from work to avoid being bullied by a harassing headmaster and department chair, and didn’t know how that was going to be resolved.  Even if I was working, there was no way for me to keep the house and garden, which meant leaving the neighborhood.  I considered numerous places to relocate including Florida, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Ecuador.  And I’ve never been good at dating, but I did not want to be lonely.

In November, that all changed with a first email from Alina:

"While surfing on the web I found your site. Perhaps you do not remember me, but I think we met back in the late 1980s in Ecuador. I think it was you who joined our group from Catholic University in a collecting field trip in the Andes? I remember you were showing us some Aikido techniques during the trip, and after that I joined the dojo directed by Christine (French instructor living in Quito at that time). I continued Aikido and did get my black belt!”

Wow!  Somebody found me!  We struck up email and skype conversations, and discovered that we had a great many interests in common.  Natural history, travel, collecting, martial arts, movies, and not least: looking for love and a stable relationship.

We had our first meeting in 27 years in late January, a long weekend.  Everything clicked immediately.  The day after my visit, Alina phoned and said she was going to Ecuador in two weeks to see her family and job hunt with her shiny new PhD.  Would I come with her?  Absolutely!  In the first week, we decided we would marry.  In the second week, she found us jobs as research professors at the Universidad Estatal Amazonica in Puyo and decide to emmigrate.

Since then, our lives have been whirlwinds of activity.  I had to retire, sell the house, divorce Peggy, empty my garden, get rid of lots of stuff, wrap up my insect research at the MCZ, pack our stuff, load it into a container and travel to Philadelphia, NY, Boston, DC, Gainesville, London, Yellowstone, Seattle, Edmonton and various other places.

Ecuador might not be any easier at first, but eventually we might settle down.

Arrival in Ecuador

Alina and I were met at the Quito airport by some of her large extended family.  We have the ground floor bedroom at her mother’s house in the Carapungo neighborhood of Quito.

Alina’s nephew David has been shuttling us around as we probe Ecuadorean paperwork hell.  We have several things we need to obtain: registration of our degrees, cedulas (the equivalent of social security cards), a work visa for me, and health insurance.  In three days, we only managed to submit our degrees: they are not approved yet.  We discovered that Alina has a documentation problem because her cedula has expired and she may need a copy of her marriage certificate to renew it.  And she had changed the order of her first and middle names, which makes for bureaucratic constipation.

We met with David Neill and his wife Mercedes Asanza here in Quito for lunch.  Orientation in Puyo is Tuesday, so we leave for Puyo on Monday.  It would have been nice to know that!

Arrival in Santa Clara

Alina’s brother Hugo has loaned us her brother Coco’s light truck until we are established: a nice 4 wheel drive with the extended cab and air conditioning.  I was rather tired and didn’t relish a 5 hour drive into places I don’t know, and Alina is not yet comfortable with a manual shift, so Hugo volunteered to drive us to where we are staying in Santa Clara.  We got near at 11PM, drove back and forth, and couldn’t find the place, even with Alina on the phone to the owners.  I finally spotted a sign, and we went down to the bridge over the River of Death.  

It was dark, the river was loud, and the scary bridge didn’t look as if it was meant for cars to me.  So Alina made yet another phone call and the owner drove out across the bridge to show us it was safe.  After a sphincter-cleanching, rattling transit, we drove around a turn to Cabanas Rio Anzu, our lodgings.

The Cabanas is reminiscent of the screened wooden buildings we enjoyed at 4-H camp, but somewhat nicer.  There is a small kichenette with a refrigerator, and a bathroom with a shower and toilet.  Remarkably economical too: $150 per month!

The river is about 50 feet from our cabin.

The insects at the lights here are fantastic: the big tropical stuff we see in the picture books and endless smaller, weird stuff.

Universidad Estatal Amazonica

We woke up in the morning at the Cabanas de Rio Anzu, and knew we were in the tropics!

The Oropendola nests are a dead giveaway.  Oropendolas are blackbirds with golden tails that make hanging nests.

The research station (CIPCA) is in Santa Clara, 40 km from the University in Puyo.  The Cabanas is there too, about a 2 km walk.  We drove from the Cabanas to the research station to pick up David and Mercedes, and thence to Puyo and the Universidad Estatal Amazonica.

The University is small (but growing), with about 900 students.  We attended the morning part of the orientation, then attempted to work on the hiring process.  We discovered that the Rector (head of the university) and at least 3 other important officials were out of town, and wouldn’t get back until classes started.  we will need to wait until they return.  However, they could have hired me full time to teach English immediately.  But that wouldn't allow me any time for research or improving my Spanish.  We will wait until the Rector returns to start the hiring process.

There must be bright lights on the white buildings at night: we found many huge moths perched on them even in the daytime.

This Morpheis pyracmon  (Lepidoptera: Cossidae) moth is about 3 inches long, and in a family that is fairly scarce in the US.  The caterpillars bore in wood.  They seem to be common here.

Centro de Investigation, Posgrado y Conservation Amazonica (CIPCA)

David and Mercedes took us to CIPCA and gave us places to work.  Alina shares their office in the administration building.  

I have a very nice desk in the front of the Herbarium building with two enormous openable windows: later I will probably move into the Laboratory building in between the two.  Unfortunately, the labs don’t have windows that can open, and get quite hot.  I might have one of my air conditioners installed.  Security on campus and at CIPCA is very high: there are many armed guards patrolling day and night.  They have little fear of anything being stolen: a rarity here.  They also have squads of gardeners and cleaners: I suspect that it is in part a jobs program to boost employment and the economy while making the president popular.

CIPCA has a huge nature preserve: thousands of hectares alongside 5 km of the whitewater Rio Piatua.  The forest near the road and the buildings is secondary growth, and there is a moderate amount of pasture which is being used as research plots.  The primary forest is somewhat further out in the reserve. The lights on the buildings at CIPCA attract all sorts of cool insects, and actually work as traps.  I emptied one, and the next day it was full again.  That’s going to be very interesting!

Alina and I discussed our situation, and I suggested that we don’t really need the money right now: we should wait.  If we don’t teach this semester or even this year, so what?  Things here cost 1/3 to 1/10 what they do in the US.  Alina and I could afford to work full time on research, collecting, and organizing the botanical congress for 2018.  But I think we will be hired at UEA before that.  If not, she could be hired at pretty much any university.

Alto Piatua

David Neill and I drove to the CIPCA research station in the primary rainforest.  It is relatively undisturbed, with only the larger and valuable timber stolen.  About 10 km of very bumpy dirt and gravel road, best with 4 wheel drive.  It took about 40 minutes.  Then you take a footpath to a pedestrian suspension bridge across the Rio Piatua. Photo traps show that there are jaguar, deer, and tapir present!

Just before the footbridge was a small wet area where I saw (and caught) the most beautiful dragonfly I've ever seen.  Follow this link to gaze in awe at Zenithoptera: The Morpho of the Dragonflies.

We walked around a little bit and I was shown the beginnings of the three or four major trails.  The caretaker and his wife were absent.  They have a wooden lab building if I wanted to spend time there.

The next week, Alina and I went there to set pan traps, since the rest of my equipment hasn't shown up yet.  We met Edison, the caretaker, and he walked us over a log path 1.5km to where the primary (virgin) forest began.  I set up 20 pans.  We caught a modest number of flying insects, and saw lots of butterflies including morphos.  We also collected some amazing specimens that I brought back live to rear.

These are some moth caterpillars that are parasitized by braconid wasps (the yellow ovals are wasp pupae) the same way tomato hornworms are.  I reared out the wasps.

This leaf has giant whiteflies, whose nymphs secrete long, waxy fibers.  I reared wasps out of those too, but I'm not sure yet which family they are in.

On the way back, we went past a marsh where the tall plants were tipped with what looked like bright blue flowers.  Alina thought she knew the plants, but we didn't stop to check.  When I went back two days later, it turned out there was quite a population of Zenithoptera there, looking like flowers!