It was just past 2 a.m. on a sultry summer night, and in spite of a gentle breeze, temperatures still hovered near 90 degrees. In a long-sleeved shirt and pants, Carol Pfleiderer, a schoolteacher from Minnesota, did her best to ignore a menacing swarm of flying insects drawn to the quartz-halogen light she guarded with quiet intensity. Close-by, Herman Urschel adjusted the shoulder strap on his stereo recorder and stifled a yawn. Then with a move of his head, he signaled Caroline Newman and Sana Loue, both carrying mobile microphones, to edge closer to the whirling mass of brightly costumed dancers moving in a circle before them.
The place was Pindar'e, a remote hamlet in Brazil's northeastern state of Maranhao. These people and others, along with Hollywood filmmaker Bill Oliver, had come here on their vacations to help Kazadi wa Mukuna, a Zaire-born ethno-musicologist, trace the origins and development of the Bumba-meu-Boi festival, the region's most important folklore event. Dr. Kazadi's goal was to record it in a documentary film.
This exuberant celebration - part social commentary, part religious ritual - takes place annually from June through September, and Kazadi and his crews were kept hopping day and night over a month-long period in order to document the festival's Indian, African, and Portuguese versions.
Is this any way to spend a summer vacation? It is if you're working with Earthwatch, the Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that matches scholar-scientists with lay volunteers interested in supporting academic research expeditions.
These adventurers are part of a growing number of Americans of all ages and interests who are opting to spend their vacation time ``siteseeing.'' Each year from Maui to Majorca, from Switzerland to Swaziland, on seven continents, Earthwatch plays matchmaker to a lively mix of students, retirees, business people, educators, and other professionals - and some of the world's leading researchers.
In this particular study, each team of Earthwatch volunteers spent two weeks in and around Maranhao's capital of Sao Lu'is, interviewing festivalgoers and photographing their elaborately embroidered costumes and handcrafted musical instruments.
The Bumba-meu-Boi project offered them the opportunity to put their specialized skills and interests to work in pursuit of a common goal. Carol Pfleiderer, fluent in Portuguese, proved a natural for many of the project's interviewing needs. Herman Urschel, a veteran of the motion picture business, brought his knowledge of sound recording to the documentary work. Caroline Newman, a piano teacher, brought her interest in music. And Immigration lawyer Sana Loue shared her writing and photographic expertise.
During spare moments, the volunteer crews explored the historic colonial town of Sao Lu'is with its Portuguese-tiled exteriors, winding cobblestone streets, and shaded squares, visited its uncluttered beaches, and sampled Brazilian culture firsthand.
``It's a type of populist philanthropy,'' explained Brian Rosborough, Earthwatch's president. ``Through the mechanism of Earthwatch, people can invest directly in research in the sciences, humanities, and arts, and have the opportunity of participating in that work if they choose.''
Earthwatch has come a long way since its modest beginnings back in 1971, when it sent its first dozen volunteers into the field. Today the organization sponsors some 400 expedition teams annually, and its projects have expanded to include 37 countries and 17 states. Last year its grants to selected scientists topped the $2 million mark, making it the third largest private source of field research funding (after the National Geographic Society and the World Wildlife Fund).
For a $25 yearly fee, Earthwatch members receive four newspapers and a slick quarterly magazine updating them on both continuing projects and new ones. A recent catalog, for example, offered the reader no fewer than 72 research choices, ranging in price from $600 to $2,500. (Expenses cover expedition costs plus food and lodging. They do not include transportation to and from the research site.)
Some trips included the opportunity of helping unravel the mysteries of ancient rock art in the Camonica Valley of northern Italy. Or diving alongside marine biologists studying coral polyp reproduction in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Nearer to home, volunteers were being sought to unearth dinosaur fossils in western Colorado.
At Earthwatch, there is a project to suit almost every fancy, and everyone is welcome from singles and couples to groups. In fact, generations of family members have been known to join one expedition. Still, the organization estimates that out of its 20,000 members, only 12 percent go into the field during any given year. Indeed, some members never participate directly in expeditions, preferring instead to finance a worthy student, relative, or pet project.
Mr. Rosborough of Earthwatch noted that the Bumba-meu-Boi project in Brazil offered its participants the opportunity to make a distinctive contribution to an important area of academic field research that might not have taken place without their help.
For more details, write Earthwatch, 680 Mt. Auburn St., Box 403, Watertown, MA 02172, or phone 617-926-8200.