I still remember clearly heading out on my first solo field trip for my PhD research. I had a one-way ticket, a pile of surveys and had never set foot in Belize before. As a social scientist, I was faced with the prospect of having to show up in six consecutive communities, live for a few months in each, and convince literally hundreds of people to talk to me. I was actually terrified. I tried to read up on what it’s like to be a young female researcher doing fieldwork in Caribbean Central America (or anywhere for that matter) and found very little. With this blog, we will share a series of anecdotes and stories that reflect the diversity of experiences, challenges, and idiosyncrasies that researchers faced while doing social science fieldwork in far-flung corners of the world. Some of them will be light-hearted, where others will reflect more serious dilemmas related to safety and scientific rigour (I’m casting my mind forward here to a blog I plan to write entitled; There is no such thing as “random as possible”).
I’ll start with an experience I had in Belize. Although a relatively frivolous entry, it actually highlights a very important facet of our understanding of the human relationship with the environment, traditional ecological knowledge. It also reflects a valuable lesson in life; when in doubt, follow the advice your elders. It was October 2005 and I was on Caye Caulker, 30 surveys away from ending nine months of data collection. Hurricane Wilma, classed as a category 5 storm was, according to NOAA, heading straight for Caye Caulker (think small, flat island … look left … there’s the sea, look right … there it is again). It was rumoured that all but one tourist had been evacuated from the island. Planes had stopped running and the sea would soon become too rough for a boat back to the mainland. I was staying in a wooden hut on stilts that swayed in the ocean breeze. I was faced with a difficult decision - stay and finish data collection or deplete the final dregs of my grant getting back to the mainland and forego those final surveys (those of you who have done quantitative survey research will appreciate the gut-wrenching nature of this dilemma). My father, a former pilot and Navy hurricane hunter called me and said, “Honey, please tell me you are not still on that sand bar in path of hurricane Wilma.”
I called my supervisor Richard Pollnac and said, “What do I do?” I guess I was looking for some justification for foregoing those final surveys and escaping. He asked me what the locals were doing and I told him they were preparing for a hurricane party. He said, “If you are really worried, go talk to one of the old local fishermen. They have been through this dozens of times and will know what to do.” So I found an old guy who always sat under his house fixing his net and told him NOAA was predicting Wilma would hit northern Belize. He cast his eyes out to the ocean and said, “the sea is green, it will go north to Mexico” and got back to the business of fixing his net. So I stayed on Caye Caulker and Wilma headed to Mexico.
So what was he seeing out there on the ocean? Was it that a combination of the wind speed, direction and temperature was changing the hue of the ocean, thus allowing him to predict which way the hurricane would turn? It’s hard to say although I have heard accounts that people in the Pacific also predict weather patterns based on the colour of the sea. Their predictions are based on accumulated life experiences, not the latest technology and scientific knowledge. In that moment, I trusted the old fisherman more than NOAA and felt safe enough to stay on the island (although, I admit I moved into a concrete establishment for the night!). I’ll never really know for sure if I took an unnecessary risk but, for me, it was one of those experiences that makes it feel good to be alive and lucky enough to have a job that allows me to explore and experience the diversity and beauty of the human connection to nature.