Wednesday, June 27, 2012

This Is Africa

Whenever something isn’t going according to our well-intentioned/best-laid plans, and the Americans among us begin to lose their minds with impatience and frustration, our African counterparts calmly reply, “TIA, Ellen.” Meaning: This Is Africa.

It can drive you insane, if you let it.

So before getting into the details of how AMAZING the trip to Mahale National Park was, it’s worth a brief aside to discuss things about that trip that drove me bat-shit crazy. Case in point: transport.

Getting there: Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The powers that be said to be ready to roll at 10am; the Frankfort Zoological Society trucks finally arrives to pick us up at 1pm. 

The team! Look how clean we are! (We wore the same clothes for the duration of the trip...)
[Field book note (henceforth abbreviated FBN): “Must slow the f&%k down or I’m just going to be angry all summer. I need valium.”]

We don’t leave Kigoma until around 1:45 because everyone is suddenly starving from sitting around doing nothing all morning and needs to carb load before the road trip. It is a TERRIBLE idea to eat right before a bumpy road trip of unforeseeable length, by the by…

Bounce along for 4 hours on roads that under the most generous of conditions could be called double-track bike routes in the states. Incidentally, the horn might be the most important safety feature of our Land Rover as we warn folks on bikes, chickens, goats, and small children of our presence and subsequently coat them in a fine layer of red dirt as we blast past. Try not to think about the questionable beans I ate pre-trip should they decide to leave my body abruptly from either of two very humiliating evacuation routes.

Finally arrive at the End Of The Road Village and are greeted like rock stars. Hop on a “speed boat” and we are finally back on the lake en route to the park. The engine is making a strange noise, but I faithfully pump the ball on the fuel line once per second for the next 30 minutes to assure we actually arrive. I’m wet and cold from the boat spray but am completely taken aback by the incredible beauty of the mountains and dense, untouched forest. So THIS is what the lakeshore of Kigoma looked like before everyone cut down all the trees.

Leslie enjoys her 15 minutes of fame with the local kiddos.

Arrive at our home for the next 13 days or so around 6:45. This. Place. Is. Amazing.

Sit around a bonfire on the beach and enjoy a starry sky free of light pollution with The Nature Conservancy, Pathfinder International, and Frankfort Zoological Society staff. Watch a scorpion commit suicide in the flames. Am overjoyed to learn that a few of the folks there are former Peace Corps Volunteers, and fun stories of former glory and escapades ensue. I LOVE LOVE LOVE finding RPCV’s at work in the world and sharing the stories…because you can only really know what it was like if you’ve done it (and African volunteers are the hardest core of the hard core ;)).

Going home: Monday, 9 July 2012 (and the wee hours of 10 July)

Made arrangements for the gear boat to arrive at 7am; it finally arrived at 10pm (PM!!!). Pete and Ben stay back to ride with the gear so they can do water sampling between Mahale and Kigoma (it’s an 11-hour journey…)

Made arrangements for the speed boat to arrive at 10am; it finally arrived at 2pm.

But whatever. We’re on our way. Say sad goodbyes to our new Mahale friends (esp. Hassan, the best cook in Tanzania) and drop by park headquarters on the way home to pick up our frozen samples. Learn that one of the transport vehicles that was supposed to meet us at the village and drive us to Kigoma got tired of waiting and went back to the big city without us. We’re now down to one vehicle and NOT ENOUGH ROOM for everyone. Saskia and Vanessa graciously volunteer to hang back and come with the gear boat (little do they know that they won’t be leaving for another 8 hours…)

Bliss out and enjoy the boat ride. Beautiful park gives way to impacted village, and the lack of trees is noticeable. Sigh.

Arrive at the village, instigate search party to find our disgruntled driver, and magically pack all of our gear into the small truck. AND WE’RE OFF. Again! Bliss out to my ipod and enjoy the sunset over the lake.

One hour into the trip, we find ourselves head to head with a giant dirt mover and no road to cross one of many bridges. Wait one hour while the power-hungry driver spins around manically in the machine, waving at us and nearly hitting road workers with the giant bucket. At some point, he realizes we actually want to CROSS the bridge, so he makes a half-assed path and we’re on our way. Again. 


Drive ridiculously fast since (unbeknownst to us) the last ferry ride of the day crosses the Malagarassi River at 6:30. Driver makes frantic phone call to someone who convinces the ferry to wait lest we get stranded for the night on the wrong side of the river. Close call.

 And we’re off. Again.
This billboard was at the river crossing. We're not actually sure what it's for...
I took advantage of our brief hiatus from the truck to hug this tree.
 Arrive in Kigoma at 8pm.

Gear boat team arrives at 10am the next morning after a long night spooning with random strangers (Ben: “I was the little spoon.”). Pete sampled throughout the night on the hour, so arrived back in Kigoma a complete zombie.

And this is just the first phase of sampling. Kigoma sampling awaits…

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

And we're off

This will be my last post for a bit, but hopefully I’ll be full of good stories from our trip to the mountains when we return 10 days from now. 

The great Mahale Expedition of 2012 starts tomorrow, and I AM EXCITED!!!

Yesterday we learned that in addition to the Very Poisonous/Deadly water cobra, we also need to be on the lookout for crocodiles and hippos when we’re there, so here’s hoping there will BE a next post ;).

We’ve spent the last 2 days packing and repacking and sorting through the old gear, and sometimes I swear all we do is haul Ridiculously Heavy Stuff from one location to another. There have been numerous snafus in the past 48 hours, but there are a couple worthy of note.

At the end of the field season, we store our boat motors in at a Top Secret Location, since they’re singlehandedly the most expensive (read: most theft-worthy) pieces of equipment we own. So under the cover of darkness, we go on a reconnaissance mission to collect them when we first arrive in Kigoma. This year we had the key to the door but NOT the key we needed to unchain them from each other.

Those keys were with Ben. 

Ben, if you’ll remember, is still in Dar es Salaam.

So at 3am yesterday morning, Ben was tasked with finding the Least Sketchy Kigoma-bound passenger at the airport, approaching them, assessing worthiness and willingness, giving them our keys, and flying them to us in Kigoma.

So many of the things we do here would never fly in the US. But whatever. We got the keys, and we now have our motors. 

This is probably the second-most disgusting cat I've ever seen. And it likes to wait for me outside my room. Ew.
I know I've complained a fair bit about how bad the food is in East Africa. The fruit and veggie spread, however, is AMAZING. My current favorite sando-combo is avacado-cucumber-banana on bread.
Today there’s a HUGE storm on the lake and we never got to take the (leaky, old) boats for a test run as planned. Given what I already mentioned about the variety of things in the water ready to kill us, I’m not super excited that we don’t have great vessels to keep us out of the water. 

The storm (CLIMATE CHAOS, people! This is not typical weather…) also made packing up George’s boat (the Maji Makubwa (“Big Water” in Swahili)) pretty difficult tonight. But as of now, someone (?!) is sleeping on the boat with half of our gear while the other half will travel via another boat and head out in the morning. The crew will travel by truck to some arranged location and then it’s all speedboat from there to Mahale (honestly I’m hazy on all of the details, which I don’t really want/need to know). 

After the craziness of the last few days, I’m kind of excited for a long drive with a good book and good company.

So, friends, I hope to have updates post-trip, so stay tuned. 


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Karibu Kigoma!

Against all odds, we are in KIGOMA! And the lake never looked so good!

Incidentally, the fact that we arrived is the only thing that’s gone right in the past 48 hours. 

After a 3am wakeup, we were off to the airport for the first leg of our flight to Mwanza (home of Lake Victoria, famous for the problematic Nile Perch).

Ryan, Lesley, Vanessa, me, Renalda, and Yvonne on the edge of Lake Victoria

One more flight and we were in Kigoma, and basically all things have fallen to shit since we landed. So far the field season is off to a bad start, which is bad since we haven’t actually started.

1.       We arrived at the lab to find that there is no lab.  
We’re working out of our hotel rooms this year. Oh, joy. The space we’ve used in the past is apparently being renovated, and we never got the heads up. This Sucks.

2.       The place we store all of our gear from year to year was broken into. Apparently nothing was stolen, however…

3.       The boat we were counting on to replace our old Zodiac (full of holes, transom falling off…) is GINORMOUS and our motor is too small to fit it. Oops.
It took the train back to Dar today, and maybe we’ll get our money back. Now we’re down to our spare boat which is iddy and barely sea worthy…

4.       The (very expensive, very data-rich) thermistor chain that we so carefully deployed offshore in the lake last year magically found US today.
This piece of equipment has been a point of contention for a Very Long Time. It’s basically a long rope with temp loggers attached at various depths (down to 160m!) so we can detect (via a thermal shift) if an upwelling occurred (hypothesized to be a periodic source of nutrients for the nutrient-poor lake). We threw it out last year with a pinger and a good luck charm and hoped for the best. Last week some folks accidentally (?) brought it up with their fishing gear, which saved us the hassle of trying to relocate it I guess.

But overall, I'm just giddy to be out of Dar, and I truly love Kigoma.

The fun thing about coming back to a place you’ve been is that people remember you, and since I’m now a seasoned veteran of Tanzania, I have people. The lady who cleans the rooms and washes my (filthy, disgusting) field clothes gave me a huge hug when I arrived at Aqualodge today. The night guard was excited because I knew how to say hello in Swahili. 

The best was a reunion with my buddy George, fish parataxonomist extraordinaire and completely wonderful human being.

Georgie! This shot is from last year after we successfully deployed the thermister chain.
So now we’re going through gear, sorting our stuff, and trying to prepare for our expedition to Mahale. It’s long, dirty days, and we’ve all pretty much (already…) given up on the notion of being clean. But I LOVE it here, and being back on the lake reminds me of why I wanted to come back in the first place.

In the words of my nephew Nolan, age 3: “I happy.”

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Good news for people who like good news


Word on the street is that we now have 6 out of 7 residence permits in hand, and we’ll be flying to Kigoma Saturday morning!!
 (This is whom I mean by “we”: me (note my trendy Xtratuff clogs; Pete hates them), Ryan (Yvonne’s tech), Yvonne (co-PI: Wright State U.), Pete (my boss, co-PI: UW-Madison, shoe-hater), Lesley (MS student, WSU), Magnus (Canadian; not here actually, but still part of the team!), Renalda (Ph.D. student, WSU), and Benja (Ph.D. student, UW-Madison). Vanessa is our REU, but I don’t have a picture of her yet. This photo was taken on the banks of not-yet-frozen Lake Mendota last December at our annual team meeting just a few hours before the BON IVER concert!!  I had to work on a Saturday, but we finished in time for the show. I’m almost over it.)
Game on!

Ben…probably won’t be joining us until Tuesday or Wednesday, but we’re still hopeful he’ll arrive in time to make the trip to Mahale.

It’s good timing for us, since as previously posted, too much time in this city could make you lose your mind.

And my body really doesn’t want any more Indian food…

Here are a couple shots from around our neighborhood taken on the sly (lest I be accused of stealing souls with my camera).