Monday, September 28, 2015

It was the best of times...

So many times in the past few weeks, I've made myself sit down and try to write a blog post about last summer's field expedition, and (frustratingly) the words just won't come. My new friend Katie (a key field member and all-around wonderful person) described what I'm feeling as this:

Rückkehrunruhe: The feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness
Katie! My sunglasses later got accidentally offered up to the lake in sacrifice.
Spot. On.

In the past, writing has been this thing I looked forward to at the end of a long field day to make sense of what happened and ensure I wouldn't forget anything (In general, I write for 80-year old Ellen, whom I can only imagine will find entertainment value in these musings). The trouble now is that it's all over, the drama of the individual day is masked by knowledge of how it all got resolved, and enough time has now passed that I can look back on it all with a feeling of "Yeah...that was hard, but it was all so WONDERFUL, all the time! How LUCKY we are to have worked in such a place!"

But it wasn't all wonderful. Not all the time. There were days that absolutely sucked, when the waves broke my spirit and ribs, I cried from frustration, and I wasn't sure I'd go home in one piece.

But yes, at the beginning, it was wonderful.
Little did I know this was the LAST time I'd have free time...
And so finally, at long last: The Beginning

It always cracks me up to look back at photos from the start of a field season. Legs are shaved, beards immaculately trimmed, hair washed and combed, stain-free clothes that smell like soap instead of dank water and body odor.

The Tanganyika dream team! Left to right, back: Rita, Msafiry, Ellen, Mgoti, Ishmael, Colin, Gadiel, Pete. Front: Georgie and Katie
Transit went a little something like this:

Three planes, 16 hours in the sky binge-watching a year's worth of movies, and too-few, all-too-short naps interrupted by offerings of meals and free booze ("Really, you're feeding us AGAIN?") I normally plug in earphones and buckle in for the long haul, but this time I'm befriended by an old Indian man from Denmark whose attempts to become my new best friend feel more endearing than annoying (but also prevented me from finishing 'Interstellar' en route to Amsterdam). Brush teeth in the Schiphol bathroom (me) and stock up on a year's worth of duty-free stroopwafels and chocolate (Pete). Arrive to the familiar conflicting smells of burning garbage and fruit trees, the calling card of Dar es Salaam, almost 24 hours after leaving Madison. Meet Colin-from-TNC, sleep, board another domestic plane, and...

...voila! Kigoma*. On the shores of the World's Greatest Lake. Easy peasy.

It's been 2 years since I set foot on this continent, and things are strangely, reassuringly (?), pretty much the same with some notable exceptions: there's a new couch store where the chipati shop used to be, and 3-wheeled motorcycles have overtaken the taxis as the popular (read: cheapest) way to get around town. That mostly covers it.

In general we accept an effortless familiarity that lets us believe we belong here. Kind of.

According to our preplanned field schedule, we have 2 days to get All The Things ready before we're whisked off to Mahale, and there's much to do. Our top priorities include...

1. Staying out of Kigoma jail: to that end, become a regular visitor to the immigration office to make sure our paperwork's all in order (and develop renewed respect for poor Benja, who was given this unenviable task every year up until now)
2. Making sure the Zodiacs still float and the motors start. When they don't, service said motors.
3. Visiting long term storage/assessing how much of our gear's been stolen since our last visit. Risk hantavirus exposure and sift through 2 years worth of rat poo to locate key pieces of research gear in unlabeled action packers
4. Saying goodbye to the the people we love back home; we're going off the grid.
5. Becoming best friends with the collection of strangers that will become our field team
6. Enjoying tolerating weak pilsners at the Prison Bar with aforementioned strangers to make the work day stop
7. Desperately seeking a New Kigoma Experience, play volleyball at the prison with random locals

So #5 and #6 were my personal priorities. If you're going to spend 30 days with people in the field, it's much more fun if you like each other.
This summer we're part of TNC's ongoing initiative to protect one of the most incredible places on this planet, that is, Mahale Mountains National Park. It just happens to be a few hours south of our usual field site near Kigoma, and back in 2012, we did the baseline surveys for the Tuungane project. Up until then, I didn't know places like this still existed, and having seen what lies below the water, it's impossible not to give everything you've got to make sure it stays safe.
After a long drive, we finally see the lake!
Our vessel! And we're off to the South.
Back then, we found a sharp divide between what could persist within the park boundaries, and the shocking reality of what exists just outside.
This is what happens when you cut down all the trees and sediment ends up in the lake. (Photo by Saskia Marijnissen) 
On paper at least, our summer agenda seems...tangible. As long as Life conforms to our rigid field schedule, gear never breaks, the weather plays nice, and no one gets hurt.

All of those things were pretty big assumptions, it turns out.

The tough stuff lies ahead, but for the moment, there's only the unwritten future, and in the present Now, there's no reason not to smile.

*Click the link. DO IT! The song is damn catchy. And hilarious. I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but apparently these guys are a Big Deal in Tanzania.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Dangerous Animals Club

"Total blackness, starry sky, warm water, silence and waves. It was perfect."
-Field diary entry, 8 July 2015

When I try to make the days of last summer fit into some coherent order in my mind, all I'm left with is a jumbled mass of random scenes (which is, I suppose, the fate of all memories), and so...

I'll abandon chronology and jump 10 days into our summer chronicles with the tale of what will forever be known as...

"The Scariest Thing That's Ever Happened To Me, Ever"

or in benign field terms:

"How S8 Came To Be Known As Crocodile Island."

*Spoiler alert: my story involves a crocodile...*

This is a BARBUS, not a croc (obviously). But this gives you an idea of how bad the GoPro footage was...
Jumping right to the middle of a story without context is a gutsy move, but I suspect I'll get around to discussing the reasons why we returned to the lake in a future blog post. Plus there are a few years of backstory to draw upon if you're new to this blog.

First off, if you've never heard of Stephen Tobolowsky (yes, the creepy guy on Glee Season 1 and Deadwood, among other things), stop reading this immediately and go check out 'The Tobolowsky Files'. His stories are sincere and endearing, and my hope is that if I listen to him long enough, I'll become a wiser, more Zen version of myself. Seriously...

Awhile back, he wrote an episode called "The Dangerous Animals Club" (which all parents should listen to) about his childhood in Texas collecting deadly animals with his buddies.

I thought about that title a lot this summer, since for awhile, almost every day, we'd encounter some kind of deadly creature while going about the business of Collecting Data. And I somehow found myself an honorary member of a club I never wanted to be in.

So there I was...


The scene:

a sliver of a moon on a cloudless night, far from the boat, a crappy dive light and a GoPro in hand to collect what I assumed would be documentary-worthy film footage of docile cichlids. At night, the fish let you get really close.

The waves at Kalya had been kicking our collective asses for days*, and the Tanzanians on the team made a (convincing and surprising) argument that we should camp on the beach following the night fish collection and resume sampling early the next morning (and avoid dashing our boat against the reef when attempting a return to shore at 3am).

We were attempting to collect 6 of every type of fish species in this particular spot in the lake which, at first glance, seemed to have not just lots of fish, but lots of types of fish. Since we were entering a new part of the lake this summer, the food web collection became priority one ('Amass a food web collection!' appears to be a standing lab order whenever we start working in a new part of the world). I've described this in detail elsewhere, so I won't go overboard on explanations, but when you add in samples of what each fish eats, you get some insight into how all the living parts of this system are connected. Since we have to kill the fish to get the samples (...), this summer we added on some additional metrics, like DNA, fatty acids, etc. to make those little deaths all the more worthwhile.

Our fearless captain, Mr. Kabumbe (who's not afraid to Shut It Down if waves threaten the boat)
Camping on the beach meant packing up all our stuff (i.e, several hundred pounds of gear) post-dinner, leaving port without the aid of daylight, pitching our tents on a vacant beach, and casting off again for the big rock island where we'd been collecting and processing fish for the past days.**

Isotope days go long, but the scenery's nice if you remember to look up once in awhile. Plus the locals get a kick out of the spectacle. It's a pretty sweet setup, complete with plastic tables and chairs. (Photo by Katie Wagner)
For the record, since nothing (EVER) happens fast in Africa, it's now about 11:30pm. And we haven't actually started 'working'.

Pete and George were off collecting fish via SCUBA (you catch different fish at night than during the day), and since no one felt like hopping in the water with me and there were several hours to kill before we could conceivably sleep***, I decided to venture forth solo.
Really. What's the worst that could happen? (Photo by Katie Wagner)
When all of a sudden, 10 feet in front of me, was a crocodile.


I spotted the claws first.

Then my brain registered the body and scaly tail.

And in that moment, I learned that I'm a flee-er, not a fighter.

We were never really briefed on what to do in this situation..., so I did a 180 and hauled ass back to the boat.

According to the video, the whole scene lasted just over 7 minutes. That includes me stalking fish for the first 3 and a lively discourse about whether and HOW we should warn the others once I got back for the last 2...

...because George and Pete were still out diving.

Meanwhile, across the water by the big rocks, we saw red eyes on a dark head swimming away from the islands towards land, so we're probably all "safe". And more importantly, I had witnesses.

George and Pete eventually surfaced but were generally unfazed by the news and promptly headed back underwater****.

I saw the footage for the first time a couple days ago, and it's disappointing to say the least. The sad combination of camera and dive-light angle prevented a good shot of the croc, and even my cichlid footage is pretty...meh.
Back on the boat, long-arming a barbus George caught in the net, generally no worse for the wear (photo by Katie Wagner)
...and playing with crabs (photo by Katie Wagner)
We saw what we assumed to be the same croc the next day, basking lazily on a rock and on a typically toasty African afternoon. He was probably only 8-feet long, tops...but underwater everything's ~33% bigger, so I maintain that I had reason to panic. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition...or running into a giant reptile whilst out swimming.
Slightly less scary in daylight (photo by Katie Wagner)
* Kalya, it turns out, is famous for its Big Waves. On the journey from Kigoma, we were forced to take shelter for a few hours so the waves would die down and we could commence the voyage (which had been far from smooth up until that point). Since "we" didn't add any flex days into the schedule, this would prove problematic later on.

** For the record, I was NOT on board with this plan, much as I love to camp, on account of the lack of a bathroom and having questionable bowels...

*** George can make a tank of air last a shockingly long amount of time.

**** George said I probably would've only lost a finger at most in the encounter. Still, I'm fairly attached to my digits. And for the record, I don't believe him.