Blog

Mid-Year

There are many fantastic benefits to a Fulbright scholarship, and my gratitude for the opportunity is great. Travelling to, and studying in, a foreign country to learn both as a professional and a human being is enough, but the advantages stretch far beyond these. Among my favorite lesser-recognized perks are Fulbright Spain’s orientation and mid-year seminars.

These are (have been) a huge treat: several action-packed days of Fulbright-oriented programming and social events, surrounded by a diverse crowd of motivated, interesting, talented, friendly, and intellectual people. It’s a stunning atmosphere and a chance to savor great company and inspiring energy. It’s impossible to spend time in a group of Fulbright grantees and not quickly feel rejuvenated and charged with wide-eyed wonder and excitement about the world around you.

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A group of 2019 Fulbright Spain researchers, a brilliant and impressive group, of which I’m honored to be a part.

To cut to the chase, I was treated to yet another such experience earlier this month, when I flew to Valencia for Fulbright Spain’s mid-year seminar, a chance for students and scholars alike to share their experiences from all over Spain. It’s a brilliant idea, really; between workshops, student presentations, coffee breaks, and cocktail hours, we all learned from over a hundred other experiences in Spain, from all different parts of the country. My own narrow experience from one city in one state was multiplied hugely as I shared my adventures with others, and soon I felt as though I had been from Murcia to Asturias during my first few months (needless to say, there’s no substitute for experience, and I’ve still got to see it for myself!).

 

With introductions and orientation logistics out of the way from our meeting in September, the mid-year seminar was a different experience entirely. It focused more on exchange of knowledge and experience, reflection, goal-setting, and forging new connections. The diversity and quality of the presentations was staggering, and subject matter ranged from enlightening personal experiences and reflections to research presentations of scholarly merit and TED-esque lectures on exciting topics in innovation and thinking. I was fortunate enough to share some details on my work in Sevilla, and also (taking advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of talking to a roomful of future American leaders) made my soap-box pitch for biodiversity conservation and its inseparable connection to human well-being.

 

 

The first evening concluded with a dazzling talent show, which combined impressive and long-practiced abilities, new skills, and clever humor in an intoxicating mix. There were delightful musical pieces, hilarious and educational skits, jaw-dropping dance performances, and a stand-up comedy bit.

 

 

In addition to the planned portions of the seminar, we also enjoyed unstructured time for a less formal exchange of knowledge and experience, and of course to kick back, enjoy ourselves, and see more of Valencia. Having never been before, I was eager to get out and have a stroll; I was not alone in this and repeatedly found myself among other Fulbrighters on long and satisfying rambles.

 

 

The seminar concluded with several inspiring talks by students and officials alike (including staff from the U.S. Embassy) and was for me a powerful reminder of the importance of what we’re doing and the degree of privilege and behind the opportunity granted in our fellowships. I was grateful and lucky to contribute my own soppy reflections to our concluding remarks, which allowed time for humble contemplation of the past five months and what they have meant to myself and my fellow Fulbrighters.

We were treated next to a delicious Valencian paella at a seaside restaurant, followed by (for me, the biggest treat of all!) a tour of la Albufera, a beautiful, brackish inland lake south of the city. A storied place with a name of Arabic origins (from al-buhayra, for “a small sea”), this lagoon is an ecological treasure like Doñana, sharing its designation as a Ramsar site (a wetland ecosystem of international importance). We toured the extensive marshes in a pole-propelled boat, then explored a traditional home of the type used for centuries by fishermen that survived on Albufera’s bounty.

 

 

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I spent the rest of my time in Valencia exploring the city and getting to know various other Fulbrighters. One particular pursuit of mine was to sample as much Horchata (or Orxata) as possible. This sweetened, vegetable-based drink is an acquired taste for many, and may be familiar to some Americans from the Latin-American (Guatemalan or Mexican), rice-based version that is becoming popular at many restaurants in the U.S. The Spanish (chufa– or Tiger-nut-based) version was yet another cultural import of the Moors to the Iberian peninsula more than a thousand years ago. I was on an absolute war path to consume as much horchata as possible, and managed to get a few glasses down at several local horchaterias before I left.

 

 

My meanderings around the city revealed it to be a vibrant and bustling community, that–depending on the neighborhood–combined striking street art with crumbling old Franco-era brick buildings and spotless shopping plazas and main streets. There were beautiful old churches, stylishly modern parks, and just about everything in between.

 

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One thing I particularly enjoyed was visiting the seashore, which is where I made sure to spend my last few hours in Valencia prior to my departure. Although Sevilla is not very far from the ocean, it’s certainly not coastal, and so I hadn’t seen the ocean since my arrival in Spain. So on my last morning in Valencia, I trekked out to the beach and sat for a couple hours, staring out at the water, keeping an eye out for interesting gulls (I saw no new species, but saw the first House martins of the year, already migrating back from a winter season in North Africa), rescuing scores of Seven-spotted ladybird beetles (Coccinella septempunctata) that were getting blown out to see by the heavy wind, and reflecting on the first half of my time in Spain. It is redundant to explain my gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity that this fellowship has been so far. Suffice it to say I had more valuable experiences to ponder from a short amount of time than nearly any other period of my life. I can only imagine what great experiences and worthy challenges are in store for the second half.

 

Keiko

The decision to pursue a career as a conservation biologist following my undergraduate degree led to a long, difficult, and rewarding path punctuated by frequent changes in scenery. In fact, I have not lived in a single location longer than about 7 months for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve lived in six different states and visited eight countries. A key pattern in my (now well-developed) travel habits has always been to find and join a local martial arts school for regular practice. This was originally a bit of a coping mechanism, because I trained intensely, perhaps even obsessively, during my adolescence and throughout college, and had been deeply frustrated to be separated from my favorite teachers, schools, and training partners while travelling for my career. I soon found, however, that it inevitably led to invaluable travel experiences; I quickly made new friends (in almost every place I have lived and worked, I have often made twice as many friends through martial arts than through work, for example) from different walks of life, and often got a direct “in” to local culture to which I would never have had access otherwise. This was certainly true during my Ph.D research in Hawaii, where I found myself invited to birthday parties and barbecues with people I would never have known if I hadn’t spent hours exchanging kicks and joint locks with them. My old and currently defunct blog, which was strangled by the rigorous demands of my Ph.D., recounts colorfully some of the great friendships and experiences that rewarded my rather daring pursuit of training in Hanoi, Vietnam (part 1, part 2, and part 3).

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The gym insignia on the back of my team hoodie.

I had this in mind from my first minutes in Sevilla, and consequently spent a lot of my exploratory time early in my stay keeping an eye out for schools and gyms. I will also guiltily admit to having done a lot of internet searching even months before my arrival, and a list of places worth investigating. Naturally, where I would train would also depend enormously on where I ended up living, a matter which wasn’t quite settled until the middle of October. I ended up (very fortunately) moving into a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment in Triana, one of the most “typical” neighborhoods of Sevilla (and with so much local pride that many folks in the barrio specify that they are from Triana, and not necessarily Sevilla), and thus ended up within 15-minutes walking distance of my gym of choice after many visits, Gymnasio Crossfight.

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The emblem on my Yawara-Jitsu club t-shirt.
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Our Yawara-Jitsu group after a Monday-night practice

I was attracted to this gym in particular because it offered classes in three martial arts: kickboxing, Brazilian Jiujitsu, and Yawara-jitsu. I have at least some experience in the first two, which together make up much of the basis for modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), but had never heard of the latter. Yawara-jitsu, as it turns out, is a fusion of techniques from many different disciplines, invented in Spain by a kempo practitioner in the 1970’s. The idea of adding some “local flavor” to my training in the striking and grappling styles integral to MMA was thus a great appeal.

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Our Brazilian Jiu-jitsu class, with a number of visiting students from a nearby academy.

But the school and the style are not the important parts of this story. Abroad or not, the point of my training has always been the process of study itself, the profound and concentrated practice involved with the discipline of martial arts. What comes across only through verbose description in English is succinctly summarized by a useful Japanese word, keiko. For me, keiko has always carried the deeper meaning of a study or regular practice that transcends physical or mental learning, becoming a continual process of self-refinement. My Aikido teacher often likened it to polishing a rough stone until it gleams; the intense and rough road of training is a continual process of refining and polishing ones self. Old masters often wrote about “forging the spirit”, and the words resonate deeply with me.

 


Thus, keiko has been for me not just getting a bit of practice in now and then, but a state of being, a process that is achieved when training can be approached with the right mindset and the right frequency and intensity. Everything in my mind feels clearer, more real and authentic, every aspect of my life more balanced, when keiko becomes part of my regular routine.

 

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Rolling (free sparring) in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a teammate; here I’m attempting a guard pass.

To my great fortune, that is exactly what I’ve experienced in Sevilla. I’ve met great practitioners in all three of the arts practiced at Crossfight, made new friends, and enjoyed hours of great and intense training. All at once, I am learning new techniques, making links between old ones, feeling like I’m getting back into shape for the first time since early on in my Ph.D., and being challenged in a field outside my profession. It’s an invigorating and empowering experience that has defined much of my free time in Sevilla.

 

 

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Achieving keiko is not so much about training every day,  or not feeling winded when you have to climb a flight of stairs, but finding a feeling in training that then pervades the rest of your life. Cultivating mindful practice on the mat, and spending a few hours of solidly focused time every day, leads to a more reflective and level-headed approach to other aspects of life. Particularly in activities like full contact martial arts, when you overcome a bit of personal fear with every practice, it makes it that much easier to face other challenges outside of the gym. These multifarious benefits have been a tremendous help at those times when living in a foreign country has become intimidating or frustrating. Feeling the impact of keiko on my everyday life in Sevilla, I am reminded of one teacher’s response to my asking why he practiced martial arts. “To live well.”

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Of course, beyond the internal benefits of keiko, I have treasured the usual perks of finding a school on my travels, as much if not more than at any other destination. It’s been a privilege to get to know scores of people I might never have met through my professional and social network in Spain, to get invited out for the occasional caña, and to get much-needed chat with people who have Andalucian accents (reputedly the most difficult accent in Spain!). My time at Crossfight is an indispensable piece of my time in Sevilla, and another reason for me to feel deeply grateful to the opportunity to work in this beautiful city.

Until next time!

La Estación de Fiestas

After a lightning visit to the US to visit family for the Winter holidays, I hurried back to Spain on December 30, eager to get underway with work and return to a normal schedule after frantic days spent trying to see as many friends and family as possible. I would have a quick New Years celebration with an old friend who was visiting Spain, grab a caña with my labmates, and get right to it. Right?

No. To start with, massive delays in customs once I arrived in Portugal led to me missing the last flight from Libson to Sevilla for over 18 hours, and when I eventually found my way back by rail from Madrid, it was 10pm on la Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve). I had managed to catch my friend in Madrid, however, and we passed a pleasant, if rushed evening grabbing dinner at a local Chinese restaurant and then watching the fireworks over the river Guadalquivir. Dessert included small packages of 12 grapes, something that baffled me initially, but my friend explained that this Spanish tradition was meant to bring good luck for the coming 12 months. A single grape is eaten for each stroke of midnight. We chewed pensively at our grapes and spat seeds while watching the colorful explosions across the river.

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Satisfied that I had celebrated a good año nuevo in at least something like local style, I resigned myself to the return of a breakneck work pace and the hustle-bustle of Andalucian city life. But I was sorely mistaken. The next day, and the next, and the next after that, the city remained dead quiet, most shops were closed, and the institute where my office was located was a ghost town. “The vacation should go at least until three kings day,” my friend mused, and it dawned on me that the winter celebrations would continue for at least another week. Three kings day, or Dia de los Reyes is the celebration of the arrival of the three kings who delivered gifts to baby Jesus some time after he was born. Accordingly, the fiestas continue well beyond Christmas and New Year. I should have expected the celebrations to persist, given just how much preparation I observed even before my departure to the U.S., with lights being strung up on nearly every street in Sevilla.

Taking advantage of the days off, I focused on recovering from my exhausting return to Sevilla, and exploring the city with my friend; we were joined by another friend of mine shortly thereafter and passed several delightful days exploring Sevilla. We managed a quick trip to Córdoba, but I’ll leave that adventure for a separate post. Before long, the cabalgatas, the parades held to symbolize the arrival of the mounted kings, started popping up around the city. These ended up being my most entertaining exposure to Spanish holiday culture.

 

The first of these we encountered by accident; an enormous crowd had gathered on Calle San Jacinto, a majorly popular strip in my neighborhood of Triana, and people in apparently “royal” outfits pitched toys and candy into the streets. The surging crowd cheered, screamed, and called for the king’s attention as gifts rained down. We had no luck in procuring anything, but were invited by some of my friends from a local martial arts school (more on that later) to a much bigger cabalgata in the nearby suburb of Tomares.

 

We met up with my martial arts buddies and snagged a ride out to Tomares, where we had a quick coffee and snack while we waited for the festivities to begin. Before long, crowds had gathered all along a nearby main road, and we began to hear distant music. We hurried outside and, with the help of my local friends, positioned ourselves strategically to be within tossing range of the passing parade. Marching bands and performers marched with a cacophony of festive song and well-wishing, somehow overcoming the screaming of the crowd to either side. Gaudy floats passed by, thoroughly staffed with costumed children who threw candy down at us in a constant barrage. I nearly took a caramelo to the eye several times.

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It was a festive, infectiously joyous, and loud event, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the amount of people wearing blackface. That seemed to be a major part of the associated costume, and although I’m definitely one for respecting tradition, I don’t think that sort of costuming is acceptable in today’s society. Ignoring the face paint to busy ourselves with candy-gathering, we passed a splendid afternoon, then stopped at a restaurant for a beer and my next lesson in Spanish holiday culture. We all ordered slices of roscón de reyes, a light, fluffy, and extraordinarily sugary cake traditionally eaten on three-kings day. We watched the cabalgata move past, and were even joined by thirsty parade participants refueling from their all-too-athletic candy throwing.

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Above: Exhausted parade participants take a break from the action to rehydrate.
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 A hearty slice of roscón de reyes and accompanying beer.

Dog-tired from the excitement of it all, I thanked my friends and we parted ways back in Sevilla, where I geared up to return to work again the following Monday. I must say, a Spanish holiday season is an intense and wonderful thing. It’s long, family-focused, extravagantly decorated, kid friendly, and comes with a huge assortment of seasonal festive foods and other treats. A major highlight of my time in Spain thus far, and there are still months to go.

Trabajo de Campo

In the already hectic time leading up to the winter holidays (las fiestas), I also found myself in urgent need of a plan for the field work portion of my research here. Whether you call it field work or trabajo de campo, it is one of the most glamorous and often ridiculous parts of being a field biologist anywhere in the world. Field work is the reason many ecologists get into the sciences in the first place; most of just love to be outside. Many an exuberant graduate student or tenured professor with whom I had been speaking has gone starry-eyed at the mention of the field, and promptly launched into the inevitable stories of wildlife encounters, brushes with death, and to what great lengths they have gone for precious data.

Of course, I’m not one to judge. When asked to tell an entertaining story about making sacrifices for science, I ended up telling a field story, which became this Podcast. My own time in Spain, up until the pre-holiday season, had featured time in el campo only when I had managed to convince someone to let me tag along on their own work, and I was excited to have the ability to do some of my own. By that time I had already spent two months learning the theory, software, and statistics involved in analyzing tracking data of Lesser black-backed gulls, the primary study species of my project. Most days were spent frowning at code and pecking at a keyboard in an attempt to create increasingly informative maps and analyses.

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The Rstudio Console, where I less-than-gloriously spent much of my time as a conservation biologist

Fancy GPS tags and powerful analytical software can only get you so far. At a certain point, you have to get out and see what’s really going on on the ground, and validate the findings of your analyses with first-hand observations. And this is precisely what I set out to do: observe the behaviors of wild gulls in Andalucian rice fields. Naturally, the idea was to do this in a quantitative and scientifically rigorous fashion, but it mandated trabajo de campo.

Studying behavior in the field involves classical techniques from the old science of ethology, the study of animals and their behavior, especially in their natural environment. This was my first love as a biologist, and I was excited to return to it, given that my Ph.D dissertation, initially planned to involve much behavioral study, took some interesting and unexpected turns that had me trading in my binoculars and notepad for a labcoat and micropipet. The task was ostensibly quite simple: get into the field, and collect two types of behavioral data. 1) Instantaneous scans, in which one counts the number of gulls in a rice field and records how many of them are engaged in what type of behavior (for example foraging, flying around, sleeping), and 2) focal follows, in which a single gull is followed for some amount of time, and the amount of time it spends doing different behaviors is recorded.

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Performing an instantaneous scan of some gulls foraging between furrows in a harvested rice field.

With the amount of watching and recording that needed doing, it was not a one-person job. Accordingly, I convinced as many colleagues as I could to come with me on different days and engage in some gullwatching. The rice fields had a bleak, redundant beauty all their own, and quite distinct from wilder places like Doñana, but they had their own charm, and certainly no shortage of waterbirds taking advantage of the artificial wetland habitat. Although it sounds exhilarating when compared to picking through R scripts, behavioral observation can get tedious. For example, quite a few of our focal follow sessions involved keeping out binoculars steadily trained on a single gull while it snoozed peacefully for a half hour. Bearing in mind that we can’t take our eyes off that individual for a second without compromising the quality of the data (if another gull walked over and sat down, would you be able to tell the difference?), this meant stiff necks and a lot of time sighing and mumbling “…still resting…” to the data recorder. Fortunately, on more than one occasion, excitement found us. For example, when two of my colleagues and I watched a farmer pull over on a dike to adjust the water levels in his field and then have some trouble starting his car.

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Helping a local rice farming jump-start his car.

We gave him a jump, but unfortunately to no avail, and so we ended up giving him a ride to the nearest mechanic. As the only Spanish speaker in our group, I chatted with him as best as I could (rural Andalucian Spanish deserves its reputation for being nearly indecipherable) and heard stories of the impacts of climate change and overhunting on the bird populations in the fields. That was the sort of inside information I wasn’t going to get just staring at gulls, and it was more than payment enough for a quick ride into the nearby pueblo. I also noticed that buildings in several of the towns embedded in los arrozales, including Isla Mayor and Poblado del Alfonso, had gorgeous murals of native waterbirds painted on them. Awesome!

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A gorgeous Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) mural in Poblado del Alfonso

When the field work wasn’t slow, it was positively overwhelming. One the major outcomes of our exclusion is learning just how intensely concentrated the gulls get in those fields that are being tilled, or fangueado, after the rice has already been harvested. Farmers drive huge tractors through the fields, turning over all of the soil to bury most of the remaining rice plants. This process exposes tremendous numbers of underground invertebrates like the invasive American crayfish (see my previous post on Los Arrozales), upon which the gulls and other waterbirds descend with enthusiasm. The fields essentially become enormous buffets, where literally thousands of waterbirds congregate, stuff themselves, and then spend hours digesting, yawning, and napping. Not a bad life.

 

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A pond under active tilling; we counted well over 500 Lesser black-backed gulls at this site.

I managed to snap a quick video of one ongoing harvest, in which you can easily see the foraging gulls’ particular attention to the areas freshly turned over by the tractor. There’s a mad grab for any newly exposed critter, and then those who won spoils make off with their catch to eat in peace.

After being tilled, the ponds are typically flooded, becoming a huge, flat plane of motionless water. These spots are normally favored napping spots for those gulls that have eaten their fill, and we would find them snoozing or lazily bobbing in the water by the hundreds. Safety is what attracts them to these places; the deep mud, inconveniently-high water, and wide, open spaces with no hiding spots mean that predators will have a difficult time reaching them.

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Flooded, post-till fields like these make excellent and scenic postprandial napping spots for gulls and other waterbirds.

Interestingly, some farmers do not till and flood their fields, but instead burn them. While on one side of the Guadalquivir river we almost exclusively saw tilling-flooding management, on one of our last days of field work we found several fields being set ablaze, another way of letting the nutrients from the rice plants return to the soil. Needless to say, this is not nearly as beneficial for waterbirds, but it does make quite a spectacle, and honestly smells quite nice.

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A rice field being burned after harvest.

Our GPS data tell us that the gulls’ behavior differs dramatically after December, when all of the rice has been harvested and the fields are done being tilled and burning. At this time, their spatial signature shifts, such that they are no longer spending all of their time in the rice fields. From the tracking data, it appears as though they still spend a lot of static (resting) time in the fields, but head outside of the rice fields regularly for food. With the buffet gone, they have to turn elsewhere; GPS data showed at least one gull making a daily commute to a nearby garbage dump! Entering into the second half of January, I’m now preparing to repeat my field data collection, this time during this second behavioral “phase”. I look forward to seeing the difference!

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Until next time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berlin

About two weeks ago, after an early-morning train ride to Madrid and hasty shopping trip for  a reasonable jacket (something I had considered largely unnecessary for winter in Andalucia, and about which I was only sort of wrong), I stepped out of a tidy airport into cool, Autumnal air, listening to passers-by chattering on in fluent American English and watching golden-yellow leaves drop lazily from increasingly bare trees. I could see my breath. I hadn’t returned to New England, though; I was in Berlin, and the climatic resemblance was eerie at first.

Berlin was certainly not where I had expected to spend almost a week of my Fulbright in Spain, but a string of coincidences and opportunities had me hastily booking flights only a couple weeks before. I had been invited to the second meeting of the Alliance for Freshwater Life, a brand-new initiative centered around organizing and promoting research, outreach, and conservation action in freshwater ecosystems and the species that support them.

I had heard about the organization via Twitter only months after finishing my Ph.D., and, having a strong interest in how human societies’ water management affects biodiversity, I was very keen to get involved however possible. Unfortunately, AFL was such a recent, cutting-edge initiative (their official launch was with a paper published just this past August in Aquatic Conservation) that it was still in the process of formalizing its structure, so meetings were not yet open and opportunities for participation were not yet available.

The meeting had come up repeatedly in my ongoing conversations with aquatic conservation experts and potential future research hosts. Representatives from the World Wildlife Fund, IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit, and professors at universities from around Europe had all been mentioning that I “…really should find a way to get out to Berlin,” but none had the authority to get me an invite.

Later, during an already rewarding Skype conversation with a potential collaborator at the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), I was cheerfully informed that she was, in fact, one of the organizers for the event, and that I’d be welcome to join.

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Autumn foliage from my hotel room window.

The event was held at the Berlin-Dahlem botanical garden and museum, a stunning, huge compound in an upscale and attractive neighborhood Southwest of the city. After a pleasant and efficient time navigating the city’s tidy public transportation system, I settled in a hotel room near the gardens (it was Sunday, so they were closed) and reviewed the meeting’s program.

 

The primary emphasis of the meeting was on determining organizational structure and investigating options for raising awareness and financial support for protecting freshwater species. While I will leave a more in-depth account of the importance of freshwater life for a later blog post, it will suffice here to say that freshwater biodiversity, despite contributing disproportionately to human well-being and water security, is also being lost at rates far exceeding terrestrial or marine systems. The urgency and broad importance of the freshwater biodiversity crisis are two of many factors that draw me to this fascinating line of work in conservation.

Although the meeting plan was exciting enough, I was more struck by the list of participants. Featuring founders of water conservation non-profits, expert fish biologists, water conservation experts, communications gurus, and top scientists from international conservation groups, it was an intimidating who’s-who of the top professionals working across the field of freshwater biodiversity conservation.

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The program for the AFL meeting in Berlin, with its NASCAR-like list of supporters and great roster of speakers.

The following few days were a whirlwind of informative talks, inspiring conversations, insightful brainstorming, and a caliber of professional networking I have never before experienced. Between all the workshop sessions, roundtables, and presentations, I enjoyed coffee break dialogues between brilliant and talented minds thinking creatively and seriously about conservation issues of global importance. It was an invigorating and refreshing environment. I introduced myself to dozens of professionals who were working in the types of positions where I would love to see myself in a few years, and got invaluable career advice, guidance, and contacts. I felt like an over-filled sponge every evening, and spent hours scribbling frantically in my notebook to record as much as possible of the multifarious knowledge in which I was being steeped.

As the meeting moved on into planning stages and breakout groups, I had the opportunity to participate, sharing my views and helping organize, highlight, or modify the contributions of others. I even ended up presenting one focus groups’ results to the rest of the meeting attendants.

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Sharing the highlights of a focus group discussion during the AFL’s meeting on raising awareness and funds for freshwater biodiversity conservation.

As the meeting drew to a close, we gathered for a photograph outside, and had a tour of the grounds of the botanical garden. Although the sun was setting at this point, I managed to snap a few photos outside and one of their impressive greenhouses (of course, they took us through the aquatic plants section first!).

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In lieu of the actual group photograph, which I have yet to acquire, here’s a quick one I took of the group right as they began to disperse.

After a final morning discussing future directions and delegating important tasks, we said our varied goodbyes and dispersed again. I returned to Sevilla with my head absolutely buzzing with new ideas, questions, and most importantly aspirations. I would resume my work in Spain armed with new knowledge and context as to the larger importance of my work there and its relevance to global conservation issues. ¡Adelante!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Los Arrozales

Several weeks into my time in Sevilla, I was keeping busy reviewing literature and learning new analytical techniques for my research project and bumbling my way through a long apartment search. In all that frenetic activity I still hadn’t spent any time in the field, and I was getting anxious to get out  into Doñana. To my great fortune, a key advantage of working in a bustling research center like EBD is that someone is almost always doing field work. An invitation to tag along is typically only a coffee-conversation away.

My coveted invitation came through Victor, a Ph.D student in Andy Green’s lab whose research, like mine, focused on the mosaic landscape of human-modified wetland environments surrounding the park’s core area. Victor’s Ph.D dissertation explores important questions about how the movement of waterbirds between natural and artificial wetlands connects them chemically and biologically. While connectivity is typically viewed as a great thing in conservation (my prior work at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation is a good example), in some cases it can be detrimental. For example, it is suspected that the flow of waterbirds (especially gulls) between landfills and the Doñana marshes may be introducing heavy metals and other harmful compounds to the waters there. In the reverse direction, waterbirds coming from natural wetlands may be dispersing the seeds of common weeds into the highly productive arrozales or rice fields that dominate the landscape just north of the park. Our field trip was to collect seeds from these weeds in the arrozales for laboratory experiments on their viability for germination.

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Part of EBD’s admirable armada of seasoned field vehicles.

I awoke well before sunrise and hurried to the office, where I joined Victor and Rob–a visiting Erasmus student from the U.K.–in loading up one of EBD’s impressive fleet of field vehicles. We were quickly on our way, and drove to the southwest for nearly an hour, passing through many of Sevilla’s smaller suburbs and satellite communities, and no small amount of agricultural land. Speeding through the streets of Isla Mayor, the pueblo set amidst the rice fields, we emerged at last into the flat, surreal landscape. Huge fields of swaying green rice extended far into the horizon, checkered with roads and canals.

It was immediately obvious that the rice fields were positively seething with bird life. With Rob’s help, I was able to identify and count a staggering diversity of avian loiterers contentedly trespassing within. The tall, prehistoric forms of White (Ciconia ciconia) and Black (Ciconia nigra) storks towered lazily over mixed flocks of gulls, lapwings, and other dozing waders, assembled nonchalantly along the field’s edges or raised roads between. As we drove, we were constantly flushing Common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia) and Common snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Herons and egrets would reluctantly take wing as we approached, and heave themselves off to some quieter location to resume their work. Common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), handsome, vigilant falcons, hovered and perched from adjacent powerlines, and Marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus) cruised low and fast just over the swaying heads of rice.

My love for birdwatching aside, it was this diverse and impressive community of birds, and their heavy use of the arrozales that brought me to Spain.  Wetland ecosystems, upon which so many waterbirds rely, are among the most threatened habitats in the world, and have been lost at absolutely alarming rates. The vast majority of waterbirds must now rely on anthropogenic (human-made) wetland habitats to complete their life cycle, lacking sufficient habitat at certain points in space or time. As wetand loss due to development, and degradation due to water diversions, pollution, and climate change continue, waterbirds will become increasingly reliant on these artificial habitats. The story is no different at Doñana. The potent mix of water diversion for commercial agriculture and increased drought from a shifting climate have decreased the hydroperiod of Doñana’s marshes. This means that the period during which the marshes are inundated is decreasing rapidly, shrinking the window in which the natural wetlands can be useful to waterbirds. As a result, the waterbirds will be increasingly reliant upon alternative habitats like the arrozales, but it’s not clear what aspects of these fields are used most by the birds. This is my primary research question, and one which I’ll touch upon again as my research continues.

 

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Victor and Rob examine seed heads from a sedge, a common weed in the rice fields.

Turning onto a narrow dike dividing two fields, Victor slowed the car and pointed casually with his index finger as we watched a startled flock of Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) bounce into the air. Breeding at higher latitudes (including the Netherlands and the U.K.), many of these birds spend their winter season in Andalucia. They are accordingly among the most abundant waterbirds in the arrozales, and a focal species of my research. After admiring the birds and letting Rob borrow my phone to snap a few blurry shots, Victor pulled the car over and we set to gathering seed samples.

 

As I scanned the neat rows of rice stalks for emergent weeds, movement caught my eye. Squatting down to investigate, I found a blood-red, armored mini-monster brandishing its claws in my direction as it backpedaled furiously toward the nearby water. “Ah, un cangrejo!” said Victor over my shoulder. It was an American red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), a notorious ecological invader brought in from the U.S. in the hopes of providing a profitable shellfish market. Delicious as they are, these belligerent decapods alter the structure and dynamics of the wetlands they inhabit, and aggressively outcompete threatened, endemic species of crayfish found throughout Europe. They are a massive problem in Doñana. Staring at the cangrejo‘s beady black eyes as it made its hasty retreat, I was struck by the irony of one American visitor meeting another. We were both here as part of ongoing intercultural exchange. Hopefully, during my time in Spain, I can find ways–through research and otherwise–to make a more positive impact on one of the world’s most famous wetlands.

La Estación Biológica de Doñana

I awoke early on my first Monday in Sevilla to prepare my things and head to the offices of la Estación Biológica de Doñana (Doñana biological station, or EBD), my host institution for my time in Spain. More than a temporary research host, EBD is actually a place that I have dreamed of working since the very start of my PhD. When I began combing the scientific literature for research on my topics of interest (things like conservation biology, wetland ecology, waterbirds, and remote sensing), I found dozens of fascinating papers spanning these topics, all with authors from some mysterious research center in Spain. After a quick internet search and some hasty Wikipedia use, I found that EBD had a designated department of research group for each one of my major interests (I mean that literally; for example there are separate departments specifically for wetland ecology and conservation biology!), and was based around a famous national park, the Doñana wetlands.

 

EBD was founded in 1965 to research the ecology and conservation of Doñana, two years after the latter, an internationally-important, complex and historic landscape was purchased for protection by the World Wildlife Fund and the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas or CSIC (pronounced “say-seek“; the Spanish National Council of Scientific Research). Fully dedicated to studying and protecting one of the most beautiful and unique ecosystems in Europe (more on Doñana later, I promise!), EBD has churned out impressive and important wetland- and endangered species-related research for decades and is one of CSIC’s flagship locations for the ecological sciences.

 

I am based in el Departamento de la Ecologia de Humedales (the department of wetland ecology), which hosts a variety of research labs studying topics ranging from the global evolution of amphibians to the effect of parasites on the survival of invasive diving beetles. EBD has a rich community of research scientists, interns, technicians, graduate students from local universities, and postdoctoral researchers like myself. In my own department, these include people from Colombia, the Netherlands, Germany, and the U.K., and another American.

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The sign for for my home department on our office floor.

My two collaborators and research hosts are Dr. Andy Green and Dr. Javier Bustamante, both principal investigators in the wetland ecology department. Dr. Bustamante’s work involves broad application of remote sensing (typically satellite-based images) to key ecological questions, including the spread of invasive species, environmental changes in Doñana, and monitoring of endangered Lesser kestrels (Falco naumanni) in Andalucia. Dr. Green studies a variety of topics in the ecology and conservation of Mediterranean waterbirds, including recent work on the role of waterbirds as key dispersers of seeds, living organisms, and even pollutants between wetland ecosystems.

 

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A group shot of many of the current members of Dr. Andy Green’s lab, including Andy himself, several Ph.D students, myself, and a post-doc visiting from the Netherlands

So what will I be doing at EBD? What cool project is combining the interests of these experts with my own experience? Check out my forthcoming post, where I’ll take an in-depth look at my research theme and early work here in Sevilla.

Until next time!

 

Sevilla, ¡Por Fin!

After a flurry of farewells and last-minute WhatsApp exchanges, I was on a Cercanias train back to Madrid with all of my enormous luggage–a burdensome state that I had certainly not missed.

At the Puerta de Atocha train station in Madrid, a large and bustling transportation hub, I enjoyed a quick lunch and then boarded a high-speed train to Sevilla. Having requested a seat with a quiet car, I was soon settled in a comfortable seat hearing only the muffled rush of air outside and the occasional open and closing of the car’s doors. The exhaustion of the last few days–and hours–began to catch up with me. I stared out the window at a parched summer landscape and watched olive and citrus orchards whiz by, occasionally feeling my ears pop from the pressure change as the train soared through a tunnel. I was unconscious after not-too-long, and awoke with a start to a clambering of suitcases as we came to a stop in Sevilla’s Santa Justa station.

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A high-speed train or AVE awaits passengers at Santa Justa on the day of my arrival.

I stepped off the train and hurried outside into brutal summer heat (for most of the week, and the next week, it was above 100F/37C), then caught a bus to the neighborhood of my temporary home for the next two weeks, an AirBnB in the Northern part of the city. My host, Nayma, met me at the bus stop and helped me with my preposterous equipaje as we made out way to her apartment building. The cozy apartment was perched on the top floor of its building and had a gorgeous view.

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The gulo that accompanied me on my journey enjoys a birds-eye view of Sevilla

 

Despite the urban setting, I was nonetheless  welcomed by the natural history of Sevilla. Just like back home in New England, cicadas buzzed in the oppressive heat of the late afternoon from the trees lining the streets. Unlike the ones to which I was accustomed, however, they had a higher-pitched, more electronic sound, which had me wondering at times whether I was actually listening to an alarm of some kind. I noticed the sounds of these fascinating insects emanating only from a few tree species–notably, never the palms, conifers, or omnipresent lemon trees–but never managed to spot or capture one.

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A Pallid swift (Left, photo credit to David Shallcross) and Chimney swift (Right, photo credit to the National Audubon Society)

Vencejos (Pallid swifts, Apus pallidus) swooped, shrieked, and cavorted in stunning aerobatics throughout the day, sometimes not more than 6 or 7 meters above the street. Preparing for their fall migration, they were in larger, more boisterous groups than usual. I was impressed at how much lower they tended to fly than the much smaller Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) native to my home.

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Sevilla’s arid environment is suitable for plants that thrive in drier climates, like palms and citrus trees, which are found throughout, making a very novel botanical landscape. This picture is from Parque Alamillo, near the office where I work.

I spent the following weekend exploring the city, its buildings and parks, and trying to begin tackling the many logistics ahead, among them opening a bank account, getting a new cell phone plan, and finding an apartment. For the moment, though, I admired Sevilla’s distinctive, elegant, and powerfully baroque architecture. It’s impressive. It’s different. And as many Spaniards had told me in Madrid, Sevilla is in many ways as España as it gets. The pictures below are as good a sampling as my hurried walkabouts and phone camera could muster, but needless to say there will be much more of Sevilla’s beauty in posts to come.

 

The following week, I would at last begin work at my host institution, Estación Biológica de Doñana. Between errands and sightseeing walks, I was sure to take my afternoon siesta when the heat was at its worst, to catch up for the start of my academic tenure in Sevilla.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fulbright Orientation

After trudging across town with my laughable burden of luggage, I arrived at a gorgeous hotel on the Western side of Alcalá de Henares just as the heat of a mid-morning sun was beginning to exert its scorching influence on the late-summer cityscape. Greeted first by triumphant signage outside of an elegant and well-groomed building, I was already beside myself with excitement as I made my way through a set of revolving doors with my armada of suitcases.

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I found myself in an enormous lobby overflowing with a diverse and impressively boisterous crowd of young people socializing energetically in Spanish, English and just about everything in between. The enthusiasm, positivity, and excitement in the air were palpable, and would have been somewhat intimidating, if two people hadn’t immediately rushed over to introduce themselves, help me with my things, and orient me to the situation.  From there, I was passed seamlessly with great tact and care from conversation to conversation, hardly aware that I had been essentially conveyed from the hotel’s entrance to a registration counter, all while being amiably introduced to at least seven people. Finally reaching the registration desk, I was given a stylish nametag and the keys to my room upstairs, to which I retreated to finally dispose of my burdensome luggage.

I wrestled my suitcases up the 2nd floor and took a moment in the solitude and relative silence to clear my head. I’m here, I thought, staring perplexedly into a nearby mirror. I made it. Still shaking my head in disbelief, I donned my nametag and returned to the stentorian roar of my hyper-talented colleagues on the first floor.

Unlike the intimidating, awkward difficulty of socializing at scientific meetings (let’s face it, stereotypes of brilliant scientists having poor communication skills are not entirely unfounded), I was spared even a moment’s standing alone outside of the gathered mass of Fulbrighters. Instead, before I had even finished descending the stairs, I was beckoned to join a group of smartly-dressed people happily conversing by the elevator doors. Never have I played part in such smoothly-handled, equitably-shared, interesting, polite, or engaging conversation. With the utmost respect and politeness, opinions and stories were exchanges with great enthusiasm, questions posed, curiosities mused upon, and diverse experiences related and compared. All this, and everyone’s voice seemed supported and encouraged, while topics ranged from the logistics of life in Spain to favorites from classical literature and poorly understood oncogenic gene complexes.

We were soon corralled into a large ballroom for a rather impressive and elegant almuerzo, complete with our option of red or white wine (when in Spain…). As before, the fascinating conversations rolled on, always expertly conducted; I was reminded of a colleague’s analogy, likening such discussions to dancing with highly experienced partners.

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A rather swanky welcome luncheon, packed with excited Fulbrighters 

To say that I was impressed with my Fulbright colleagues would be a massive understatement. I met people from diverse ethnic, cultural, educational, and economic backgrounds, who differed hugely in disciplinary expertise and perspective, but who shared a combination of self-actualization, passionate dedication to scholarship, and genuine interest in others.

After welcoming words and continuous uproarious conversation, we were herded across the beautiful streets of Alcalá de Henares to the city’s University, which had a stunning campus of elegant old buildings hearkening back to its establishment in 1499 by a cardinal, and as a distinctly religious institution. One room, in which we attended a panel featuring the U.S. ambassador to Spain, featured some tremendously ornate craftsmanship and impressive decor. In an attached building nearby, a saint or some other religious figure of import was in an impressive sarcophagus.

 

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A beautiful tomb of some religious figure at the University of Alcalá de Henares. I wish I had written down the name! The University is one of the oldest in Spain.

Over the next four days, through dozens of presentations and workshops, I was repeatedly, happily surprised by the careful attention that the Fulbright commission in Spain had taken to prepare its students, but also by the import and prestige of our mission here in Spain. The notion that Fulbright Students and Scholars were real, functional ambassadors for the United States was not just some loose idea tied to an academic grant, but instead the underlying structure of the fellowships. We had been chosen, among other things, to represent our country; the notion shocked me at first, and I reflected purposefully on it in rare moments outside of riveting conversation and new introductions.

It will suffice to say that the orientation passed in an absolute blur of learning, socializing, shaking hands, laughing, networking, ad so on. I felt privileged and deeply grateful to be part of the Fulbright community. The 2018-2019 cohort consists of nearly 200 Fulbrighters, of whom 26 are researchers like myself (though only two postdocs!). Interestingly, by my reckoning there was only one other Fulbrighter in the province of Andalucia, where I would be headed shortly. I met several other biologists, one of which was a fellow ecologist, and added a completely unrealistic number of trips to my planned itinerary for exploring the rest of the country. At least I’ll have places to stay wherever I do make it!

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An interesting presentation slide from the Fulbright Commission, showing the distribution of Fulbright students in this year’s cohort throughout the country.

 

Between highly informative workshops, we enjoyed ample time to get to know one another, and the volume (in intensity and duration) of conversation shared was so immense that I managed to completely lose my voice within the first two days. By the end of the orientation, I felt as though I had made dozens of new friends, and was looking forward to opportunities to explore the many parts of this rich country to which they were being sent.

 

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An after-lunch picture with a group of this year’s Fulbright researchers, including the only other postdoctoral scholar (to my right), who will be studying classical guitar in Madrid.
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A photograph showing almost all of this year’s Fulbright Spain Researchers

Despite the exhaustion of four straight days of excitement, socializing, and non-stop intellectual conversation, as the orientation drew to a close, I found myself absolutely supercharged to start my Fulbright experience in Sevilla. Taking advantage of photo opportunities with the much-coveted Fulbright España sign, I felt that my colleagues and I were finally beginning to understand just how much of a life-changing experience was about to commence. There was a tacit, shared feeling of disbelief, overwhelming gratitude and relief. Beyond this, I sensed in many–including myself–an anxiousness to be underway. In a flurry of activity as chaotic as it all had begun, we dispersed the next day, catching trains and buses to all corners of the country. And so began what is sure to be a monumental and unforgettable experience for all of us.

 

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Paying homage to the six years of research in Hawai’i that forged my path to the Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship in Spain. Mahalo to all of my colleagues, mentors, and friends for their support and guidance!

 

 

 

 

Arrival – Alcalá de Henares

Despite my best efforts, I arrived in Madrid absolutely exhausted, having lost a night of sleep to my inability to doze effectively on airplanes. Feeling depleted and lightheaded enough that a meal was necessary before I attempted to take public transportation to my first destination, Acalá de Henares, I shuffled blindly toward the scent of food, and found myself face-to-face with a digital kiosk for ordering at Burger King. Although I don’t remember what transpired next, in moments I was seated at a spotless table eating a chicken sandwich, a wonderful salad of tomatoes, assorted greens, and balsamic vinaigrette, and, as if it couldn’t get any more strange, a beer. This was definitely not what I had expected, and so the culture shock had already begun.

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The streets of  Alcalá de Henares

More importantly, with the fortification of these victuals, I bumbled my way onto a Renfe Cercanías (like a metro or subway, or for us Bostonians, the T) train that whisked me westward to Acalá de Henares with surprising alacrity and in the welcome comfort of stiff air conditioning. I emerged into charmingly narrow streets, got directions from a group of teens preparing for a rap-battle around a park bench, and found my way to my temporary dwelling, an AirBnb apartment owned by a charming Venezuelan family. I found their Spanish much easier to understand than the castellano on the streets, and enjoyed a good chat with them as I settled in. Just as I was planning out how many hours of sleep I could get if I was in bed before 9pm, I was informed that a craft beer festival was happening not far away, and that I simply couldn’t miss it.

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Live music – as if the throngs of delighted beer fans weren’t energetic enough

Well, I thought, perhaps a bit of a walk will do me some good. So I headed out and followed the garbled echoing of concert loudspeakers to a nearby plaza, where I found crowds of people happily imbibing an assortment of fine looking beers amidst dozens of tents and kiosks. These, in turn, were plastered with the logos of local craft breweries, and filled with yet happier people loudly explaining the particulars of their specific creations while doling out generous glassfuls for a coin or two. At the northern end of the plaza, a rather peppy rock band played on a grandstand, complete with lights and smoke machines. I found an information booth, and there was able to purchase a small souvenir glass, with which I could sample any number of the dazzling array of brews stretched out before me. I bought a witbier for a Euro, and sat down on a bench to admire the nearby architecture, write in my journal, and enjoy the show.

 

 

 

The following day, once I had won my battle against jetlag and dragged myself out of bed, I enjoyed a stroll around the town, hoping to get a sense of the place before Fulbright orientation, which would begin the the day after. Wandering contentedly through beautiful, cobbled streets and admiring old churches and statues of antiquity, I learned two fantastic pieces of the Acalá de Henares’ history. The first: the town had formerly been the site of both a Roman and Moorish settlement many years ago, and the second: Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote among other great works, was born there (in 1547, no less).

Don Quixote de la Mancha and his creator were a combined motif in the city, featured prominently in graffiti, statuary, and murals alike. The baffling name of a major road in the city “Via Complutense” turned out to be a derivation of the latin name for the old Roman city, Complutum.

 

 

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The entrance to the local archaeological museum

As if walking through a town steeped in history wasn’t enough, I followed my host’s recommendation and visited an archaeological museum near their apartment. This was utterly fantastic, and went into deep history; we’re talking back when this portion of the continent had a wet, tropical climate, and when most of Acalá de Henares was a massive wetland crawling with prehistoric megafauna like Gomphotherium, Mastodon, and sabre-toothed tigers. The historical lessons carried on through the arrival of hominids, development of hunting technologies, advent of agriculture, Roman rule, Muslim and Gothic rule, and medieval times. The information was staggering, and the exhibits beautiful and well organized. I managed to stumble my way into a group tour, which was as good a chance to practice my Spanish as it was to learn fascinating historical facts, for example the way that early iron tools were smithed.

 

 

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A local band with, of all fantastic instruments, a lead ukulele.

I left the museum with my head spinning, and my handy notebook of Spanish phrases and vocabulary overflowing with new words and terminology I’d need to look up. It was quite a haul. I got a late almuerzo from the food trucks set up around the (still ongoing) beer festival, enjoyed more live music (this time including a band that featured ukulele!), and headed home to prepare for orientation the following morning. At long last, my  Fulbright experience was about to begin.

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The sun setting over Alcalá de Henares on my last evening before Fulbright orientation.