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.

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