The Rollinson Lab 

Evolutionary ecology, long-term data, environmental change

Hey there intrepid web surfer, it's great that you've discovered the underbelly of my website; you're probably one of only a handful of people who have pursued my links this far! So, as promised, this page dedicated to a tongue-in-cheek account of events that transpired in June 2007, while performing research in Nicaragua. The names have been changed, just to ensure everyone's privacy.

"Mount Jukusama"

A short story

By Njal Rollinson. July 2007.

I've never understood Spanish very well, especially not the slang-infused dialect from the mountains of Nicaragua, but I understood enough to have a vague idea of what all the commotion was about. Anna, the primary investigator on the research project that I'd been working on, had gone missing a few days ago. This was somewhat disconcerting, because recently there'd been a series of attacks on foreigners in our area ... but I just figured Anna was missing because she'd collapsed into a singularity from a lack of edible food, like I was about to do. That was the problem with living in the village: apparently, nobody told the locals that Canadians are used to massive portion sizes, so I was constantly on a rumblin' prowl for food.

The discussion came to an abrupt halt, and Alonzo turned to me, "Njal! Quieres ir a Esteli para encontrar informationne sobre Anna?".


'Good idea', I thought. Send me to the nearest town, Esteli, to find Anna … Me. The guy who knows the least Spanish of everyone, the guy who doesn't know Esteli very well, and the guy who's the most likely to get attacked by campesinos while hiking down Mount Jukusama to get the Pan American highway.

I was really hungry though, and I figured I could either waste away in the mountains for another week, or go to Esteli and pretend to look for Anna, but really just eat massive quantities of food.

"OK!", I agreed, and I plowed off to my room. I grabbed a plastic bag, and jammed in a couple shirts, a water bottle, and some stale crackers. I put on my disintegrating running shoes and my gross old research socks, and mentally prepared myself for the two hour near-vertical hike down Mount Jukusama.

With a triumphant Nicaraguan war-tune in mind, and with my plastic bag in hand, I was all ready to go. I turned to blow out of my room, but I found that I was being watched. Most Nicaraguans own about 80 guard dogs. These dogs get to eat about once a week, and they deliver a crippling maul if you make the wrong move. All dogs except Jo-Jur, that is. Don't get me wrong, I fell in love with Jo-Jur during my four months in the village, and we became best friends ... but Jo-jur was, lets say, a few eggs short of optimal clutch size ... I mean, Jo-Jur was a really stupid dog. He was also, unfortunately, not a particularly attractive dog, which didn't generally earn him any extra affection. Basically, picture the ugliest person you know, imagine them on all fours, stretch their tongue out to the floor, cross their eyes, pluck off an ear, knock out some teeth, add hair, fleas, flies, ticks, ticks, ticks, mange, pin worm,  pink eye, round worm, stink eye, tape worm, bot fly, an outrageous quantity of gross, stringy saliva, and at least 19 tropical diseases new to science. That's Jo-Jur. I'm not even sure why my host family adopted him. He doesn't really guard anything, he just wanders aimlessly around all day, panting like a maniac, scratching like a fiend, hoping that the other dogs don't punk him out of his food. But I'd made the mistake of rooting for the underdog, and I'd been feeding him, and, when I could stomach it, petting him. But I couldn't pet him all time, because I usually got a rash when I did, so I'd have to wait for the first rash to go away before I could pet him again, usually at about 5-day intervals; we'd both look forward to it. Anyway, I was his new best friend, and he had nothing better to do all day, so I knew he was about to follow me to the road. 'Whatever', I thought, 'Maybe I'll be less likely to get attacked if he's with me'. So I packed a couple extra packs of extra-stale crackers, and we took off.

I made my way past Anna's house, the last house I'd see for some time, towards Jukusama ridge, with Jo-Jur stinkin' up the rear. I started down the mountain. It was steep. Every step you took was about an inch forward and a mile down, step after knee-buckling step, under the insane afternoon sun. Heck yeah, it was hot. It was one of those days where you wish that you owned nothing but a G-string and property in Greenland. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I could see the Pan American highway way off in the distance, but more importantly, I could see about a mile in every direction. That way no campesinos could sneak up on me, beat me up, and steal my crackers. Also, I was pretty sure Jo-Jur would freak out and run away at the first sign of danger, so I figured I'd have fair warning before anything went down. The heat was getting to me though, I knew it, because my legs were starting to quake a bit with every step, and I was starting to care less and less about where my feet were falling. That's one of those things you can't help: when you're really hot, and you stop caring about important things, like safety. Then I stepped on something. The next thing I knew my foot was on fire and I was tumbling head over heels down the mountain side. Crunch! My head against a rock. Crack! My face against a tree trunk. [Nicaraguan profanities]. Me swearing because I didn't bother buying medical insurance. Whump! I landed in an abject heap, with terrible pain all over, but mostly concentrated in my left foot. It was pretty bad, I could tell; it felt like someone was cauterizing the area between my big toe and my other toes. I collapsed over onto my back, carefully took my worthless running shoe off, peeled off my gross old research sock, and inspected the damage.

Things weren’t going well. Something had gone through my shoe, skewered my foot, then torn itself out. I sat up a bit, wincing in pain, and looked around for my plastic bag; I wanted to bathe the wound with drinking water before I tied my gross old research sock around it to alleviate the bleeding. I couldn't see my plastic bag at first, but I could hear it rustling in a nearby gully. Jo-Jur's butt was also protruding from the same gully, pointed enthusiastically towards the sky, tail wagging like a short-circuited windshield wiper. He was eating all our crackers. I let out an exasperated groan, then focused my attention back on the problem at hand. I carefully tried to put some pressure on my foot. 'I do have a problem' I thought. 'I'm stuck on the side of a mountain in what is probably the most dangerous country in Central America, no one knows where I am except a handful of locals, and they don't expect me back for a few days. Soon I'll have no food, and my only resource will be the world's most unattractive dog.'

I decided I'd better stop 'Captain Stinks Alot' from eating all our crackers. I decided not to bother screaming at him to make him stop; screaming at dogs was useless. Nicaraguans are always screaming in horror as they got attacked by their neighbour's dogs, their friend's dogs, their own dogs, whatever, and as far as I could tell, screaming never made an iota of difference. So I picked up some small pebbles and hucked them over towards Jo-Jur. He didn't care, he was engrossed in the stale crackers, and he continued eating. I wasn't going to risk hopping on a mountainside, so I turned over onto my stomach and, more or less kneeling on all fours, crawled across the 70 degree incline towards Jo-Jur. By the time I got there, he was eagerly awaiting my arrival, panting like a maniac, looking proud as heck, as if I was going to congratulate him for winning the 'Look How Much I Just Ate' award. 'Fabulous' I thought, and out of what remained of the plastic bag, I swiped my water bottle, took a swig, and stared at him grudgingly. Jo-Jur sat tall, licking the delicious, life-giving salt off his lips, wreaking havoc on everything that was within waling distance of his tail. I gave him the evil eye one last time, then I washed the wound, wrapped it in my research sock, collapsed onto my stomach, and buried my head in my hands. I was in serious trouble.

Then it occurred to me. I took my hands from my face, and I looked Jo-Jur directly in the eye. Was this dog capable of helping me? Was my trusty companion going to save the day? Maybe this could be one of those heroic stories where I limp down some long aisle, to the tune of triumphant music, and I loop a golden medal around Jo-Jur's head, as the whole crowd applauds.

'Perfect!', I thought. I took a deep breath. 'Okay, Jo-Jur', I began in a very serious tone, 'I am seriously injured, and I need your help. You need to go get help, go get help, boy!'. Jo-Jur let out a quick, whimpery yelp, and disappeared behind me. 'Well, that was easy', I thought. Then Jo-Jur mounted me.

'So this is it', I thought to myself moments later, I'm going to die of blood loss on the side of a mountain, while the world's most diseased dog tries to show me how much he loves me. In what was easily the most important decision of the day, I decided I'd better stop him. Jo-Jur was pretty insistent, but I fought him off, twice, then I sat up and began to think some more. Jo-Jur sat tall beside me, proud as heck. 'There's only one way down' I thought. And I started crawling.

Several months later, it seemed, I collapsed onto the side of the Pan American highway, my chest heaving, with my face oriented in the general direction of oncoming traffic, so that if a bus came (one was never too sure about these things), I could flag it. Jo-Jur had gotten bored with my slow progress a couple hours earlier, and he'd gone off to chase rabbits. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later, and after a couple confusing conversations with passing motorists, a bus cruised around the corner at top speed and flashed its lights at me. I picked myself up, slowly raised my miserable hand, and the bus pulled aside, narrowly missing me. I limped aboard, with my foot still wrapped in one of my research socks. Having mastered 'the bus scene' in the month previous, I spent the next 30 minutes trying not to disappoint a panhandler too badly, avoiding stepping on chickens (with my good foot), holding on for dear life, and trying to explain that I'm not a doctor (yet). I paid my 75 cent fee, kinda-sorta half put my shoe on, to look half-civilized, and hobbled off the bus in Esteli. I grabbed a taxi for the downtown core.

Despite my fatal injury, the only medicine I needed was a massive quantity of American food (being the intrepid and adaptable traveler that I am). I craved cheese. I craved bread. So I got the taxi driver to let me off near a joint that had pizza. I paid him my 50 cent fee, apologized to him for not having any clue what the thing growing on his neck was, and then I hobbled into the restaurant.

As I entered, someone called 'Njal!'. I looked around and saw Jennifer, an English entrepreneur who was entrepreneuring something in Esteli, sitting at a table with a couple people I didn't know. 'Ok!' I said, and I limped over and took a seat. I explained to her why I was limping, then I started rambling on about something to do with something that, ultimately, was not related to anything. Eventually she cut me off and asked, 'Did you hear what happened to Anna?'. Suddenly remembering my mission, I answered, 'Why, yes! ... I mean, no. What I mean is, I've been looking for you for some time, to see if you could help me. That's why I came to town….. Um, do you know?'.

I'm gonna be the next Sherlock Holmes, I swear.

Then Jennifer said, 'Anna had to fly back to the United States because she might have rabies! They don't have rabies shots in Nicaragua!'. My jaw kind of dropped, 'Rabies?!' I said, 'How the heck could.. she…. have ……. gotten…….'

I trailed off at that point, remembering events that transpired a few days earlier, while Anna and I were mist-netting for rufous-and-white wrens.

(Dialogue from the field site, four or five days prior)

Anna: Hey Njal! Check it out! There's a bat in the net! Over here!

Njal: ..... Holy! Its huge!

Anna: Yeah, look at the size of its head…. You know anything about bats?

Njal: Nope, but you better get it out of the net, it looks angry.

Anna: Yeah it does. ……

Anna: Ow! OW! Ow! OW!! ... It bit me, like FOUR times!

Njal: Yeah, I'd bite you too, if I was an angry bat stuck in a net.

Anna: Ok, got it out…..You think bat bites are dangerous?

Njal: Probably no more dangerous than that enchilada I ate last week.

Anna: Yeah, I guess not.

Njal: Oh! Oh! Look! Tolmymias! Four o'clock!

Anna: Where!? Where?!


….Zoning back in on the conversation with Jennifer, and nodding a very serious nod, I assured her that I'd warned Anna about the dangers of being bitten by bats. I didn't say much after that.

Anna returned to the field site a few days later; work resumed. Birds were watched in the early morning, habitats were sampled in the late afternoon. And every so often, a local villager would report seeing a tall, gangly figure limping across the hillside in the late afternoon sun.