Friday, July 31, 2009

Pictures from the trip to Serengeti

Standing at the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, feeling like I'm on top of the world.
I swear, these cars are made to drive on Mars. We fall into Aardvark holes that I could pitch a tent in, climb up dry river banks, and run over acacia saplings with thorns as long as my middle finger. But as beast as they are, even landrovers get flat tires.

Michael, Meshack's son, enjoying a brief moment of having the entire back seat to himself. There were 7 (yes, seven) of us riding the long road from Arusha to Serengeti that day, accompanied by a months worth of food and supplies.

All of us with Fabio, one of the dummy lions used to study why lions have manes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quick Note

July 28, 2009
Quick note:
1) I am still alive.
2) On the veranda at night I can hear lions roaring (we think they are getting it on).
3) I almost stepped in giraffe poop in my front yard.
4) Hyenas have waaaaay more teeth than lions.
5) I think there are more stars here than anywhere else in the world.
6) I miss the internet and running water, but I love it here.

Now that that’s out of the way, notes and things from the last week will follow.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Notes from my first days in Serengeti:

I am so stunned I don’t even know what to write. I am in the Serengeti. I am smack dab in the middle of a natural phenomenon. In my first 24 hours here, I have seen a dozen things that I can barely pronounce. Impala, Topi, Hartebeest, Buffalo, gazelle. Baboons, Hyraxes, jackals, giraffes, zebra. Elephants, hyenas, lions and leopards.

The baboons hang outside our house, like raccoons of Africa, but bigger and more agile…and much, much uglier. Ingela, one of the field researchers and a spectacularly wonderful woman, reminds us to pull the front door closed lest the baboons invade (this has happened before). She also reminds us to occasionally look up in the tree in the side yard, as it seems to be a favorite rest-stop for a the neighborhood leopard. As I watch a giraffe meander past the outhouse out back, I feel vaguely like I have stepped back in time. Or landed on mars. What is this place?
(Answer: AWESOME.)

Over whiskey and chocolates, Phil and Ingela and I discuss the important things in life, such as the following:

Q: What to do if you encounter a lion while on foot?
a)Run screaming
b) Make yourself look really big and menacing
c) back away slowly, maintaining eye contact with the lion, but without tripping. At a “safe distance” turn around to face the direction you are heading, and absolutely do not look back.
d) wave your pot and shout “kakakakakaka.”

Answer: Word on the street is that “c” is textbook correct, but d has proven to work after sunrise in the Serengeti. I do not personally know anyone that has attemped a, b, or c and lived to tell the tale. Both Craig and Ingela have survived on variations of d.

more backlogged notes

From: July 22, 2009

Arusha is the gateway to the Serengeti. With a native population that is 1/3 the size of Dar, it is subject to a mzungu overflow that practically dwarfs the city itself. Every which way there are western-style restaurants and kitsch for sale. Paper-mache alligators and elephants line the sidewalk outside the glamorous Impala hotel. It’s not just the thriving tourism industry, though: Arusha is home to the International Tribunal investigating the Rwandan war crimes, and we live just past “Pleasantville” which is the gated community occupied by UN folk. Eating pizza outside of a fancy rock-art shop, I watched a European lawyer-sort totter through the gravel in a tight skirt-suit and high-rise heels. At moments it’s hard to believe that the Serengeti is just around the corner…aaaaand then a vervet monkey goes scrambling across the rooftop and the wild savanna doesn’t feel quite so far away.

The city is surprisingly dusty for such a lush place, and running errands around down leaves my throat parched and sore. I saw a man come into the Bulk store where we were buying meter after meter of iron t-bar (on which to put the camera traps if we didn’t have any trees) completely covered head to toe in fine dust. His clothes, skin, hair, eyelashes. Perhaps he had been working in the Tanzanite mines. There is such a thing, you know – Tanzanite. Apparently it’s a very rare gemstone that turns blue if you heat it up. I’ve never heard of the thing, but then again, my earrings tend to run $5 a pop and come from the same stores that sell hello-kitty mini-backpacks, and I have maybe one necklace that I haven’t lost yet. So I’m not the one to consult on such things.

We are waiting for Meshack, a brilliant mechanic and our ride into Serengeti, to arrive with the land rover and the 80 feet of iron t-bar. Craig says it’s a 7 hour ride into the park, but my sources tell me to expect 8 or 9*. Susan’s dogs look dead as they nap in the sun, and I am briefly sad to say goodbye to the only animal life I will be able to reach out and pet for the next 6 weeks (if I want to keep all my limbs). Before departing on our next great adventure, I take a minute to reflect on the things I’ve learned and seen in the past week.

From my time in Arusha:

The things I have seen carried on the backs of bikes.
-People, not just small people, but full-sized people.
-7 milk-crate sized rickety wooden boxes, piled so high and wide you couldn’t see the rider.
-A dozen yellow buckets, similarly piled.
-A dog.

The things I have seen people carry on their heads:
-baskets of fruit for sale
-a bag with two mangos
-5 gallon buckets that look reaaaaaally heavy
-a bushel of socks for sale

Other randomness:
-you need a land rover just to get through the roads around town.
-Everybody smiles and nods, but you’re never quite sure if they mean it.
-“Hello” takes about 10 minutes to say, and you can never quite tell if what the other person said is a response or another question, as “Salaam” can go both ways.
- People carry guns. Big scary guns. They are security guards that are hired to watch storefronts and doors, but when they sit down for beer and tandoori chicken with the guns they look like regular people in polo shirts and khakis….regular people sitting down with big, scary guns.
-Despite the dust and the honking and the death-defying driving, I like this place.

*P.S. It took 10 hours.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


For $2 more, I could have had a bathroom. We have one bathroom break on this 10 hour bus ride, and I drank an awful lot of water this morning. Thank God the TD hasn’t set in yet.

I had a choice between “Luxury” and “Super Luxury,” when I purchased my ticket yesterday, and without a second thought I purchased the lower class option. It’s more authentic…and cheaper…and “Luxury” already sounded painfully lavish. Now, a naming convention where “Luxury” is the cheapest option you can find is inherently suspect, but the bus actually wasn’t so bad. Not only were there no chickens nibbling at my feet, but the seats were comfy with ample leg room. Had my equally ample neighbor not also been occupying half of my seat, the trip might have been slightly more comfortable, but hey, it’s better than livestock. (Note: I have never actually ridden in the back of a truck with assorted livestock, but it’s on my list of life goals.)

Driving north to Arusha, the land outside is so mesmerizing that I don’t want to unglue my eyes…except to close them. I am so unexplainably tired and briefly wonder if I’ve contracted some strange, insidious disease. It’s probably just the jet lag – I’ve only forgotten my malaria meds once so far. Besides, I’m pretty sure that the travel clinic shot me so full of vaccinations that I could kill any would-be parasitic invader within a 10-meter radius just by looking at it.

As we first turn our backs on the Indian Ocean, the landscape outside is thick and brushy, then steep mountains erupt from the flatland. The mountains are abrupt – like in Mexico and Mongolia – and they look so near that I’m not quite sure if they are small mountains or just very big hills. Climbing farther inland, the land dries out and the soil turns sandy between wispy trees and sparse grass. There seems to be a cactus plantation, with row after orderly row of spiky bushes. I’ve never seen such an unruly plant look so in line.

Like so much of the metropolis, the tiny roadside villages are a bizarre mishmash of centuries and lifestyles. Rickety thatched-roof sheds stand with walls of laced together branches that bend and point in all directions like the uncoordinated limbs of a growing boy. Next to them, between stalls of corrugated tin, stand smooth concrete buildings with decorative fencing. Brick walls crumble nearby. Children in Osh-kosh-bigosh jean shorts play on a pile of dirt, while women in bright cloth wraps carry groceries home on their heads.

Our bus slows suddenly. We see another bus – a Dar Express, just like us – heading southbound, stopped on the road. Beneath its front wheels is a motorcycle, a pikipiki. We all press our faces against the window as we pass – there is no blood, nobody with his head in hands – a crowd has gathered but there seems to be no injured victim. After a moment, we pick up speed and continue our climb to Arusha.
Closing in on Arusha nearly 1300m up, I notice the flowers for the first time. They are bright purple and seem to promise some sort of respite. The highlands are green and chilly – I reach for my sweatshirt as we pull into the dusty bus station. Craig and Susan and Philipp are waiting anxiously after having watched the last bus – the Super Luxury bus - pull in without their grad student on board. In the yellowing light of the early evening, we smile and wave, shake hands and high-five. It is Saturday night, and I am one step closer to the Serengeti.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dar es Salaam

July 17, 2009

Inside the feebly air conditioned Movenpick Hotel, Philipp and I sip our lattes and wonder how much it costs to stay in this marble-floored hotel where a club sandwich costs $18 for lunch. Lonely Planet, with the answers to life, the universe, and everything, tells us: $235 per night. We are not sure what it must be like to have that kind of money.

This place feels more western than I suspect East Africa should – the dark wood decorative lattice and upholstered, claw-foot chairs feel like a remnant of some colonial officer’s club. The staff bustles by in button down shirts or poufy chef-hats, flowing slacks and shiny dress shoes. Behind the bar, a woman lifts and lowers a pitcher of whole milk around a whistling steam wand that is thick with accumulated scalded milk. Behind us, a cell phone rings insistently and the scene feels unnervingly like home.

I desperately want to be back along the shore with the smiling women who cook ugali in big pots and deliver to us whole smoked fish with empty eyeballs and tiny tails. Phil and I were trapped there yesterday – by the “pot women” we call them, because they dance and sing and chant and laugh as they flit through buildings filled with giant cooking pots, dressed in white shirts and black skirts with rags tied around their heads. They all wear flip-flops or old keds with the backs of the shoes folded down beneath their heels. We have ordered smoked fish lunches and various sides; Phil gets a spoon with his rice, but they just laugh when I ask for one to go with my ugali.

Ugali is a Tanzanian staple – some sort of white cornmeal mush that is solid enough to eat with your hands. You tear off lumps and dip it into coconut milk sauce or lukewarm pinto beans. Being a heavily Muslim country (about 50/50 with Christianity), it is generally rude to eat with your left hand. So I fumbled through lunch with my lonely little right hand, twisting and contorting to rip off chunks of ugali and lumps of smoked fish. There are no such things as napkins, but because water is free, a girl comes by with a pitcher and some soap to pour over our hands when we are done.

The streets of Dar es Salaam are filled with bright colors and big smiles. Palm trees nod in the barely perceptible breeze. It is oppressively hot and humid and everyone wears a sheen of sweat. Women walk through the streets with big baskets of colorful fruit balanced atop their heads. I once asked my taxi driver – Mzee Alex, Old Alex – if he could do that too. Many men cannot do that, he laughed. I can a little, but I cannot go fast. The women, they can go very fast! They can run without spilling anything.

The people are a startling clash of western wear and the traditional colorful robes. Everywhere there is honking, yelling. Men make kissy noises, but it is not to me – it seems to be a way of getting attention as they hawk their wares. Women balance bushels of socks on their heads, men drape themselves in hanger after hanger of designer dress pants. Along the shore, they parade with a platter of finger-seafood – octopus arms and squid, shrimp, goodness knows what else. All I can see is a mess of tentacles and suckers and feelers piled around a mason jar of what looks like cocktail sauce.

But inside the Movenpick Hotel, there are no octopus arms for sale at 15 cents apiece. There is no eating with your hands, no peddlers draped in the random assortment of goods that they are trying to sell. Inside the Movenpick there is overpriced internet and a pair of scissors we can use to cut apart our half-dozen passport photos so that the next time we go into a permit office, we are better prepared. Mostly inside Movenpick is a chance to catch our breath – two days into the permitting process we are exhausted of cab rides and stone benches and scowling permit clerks. “Just sit and wait for a while,” they say, again and again and again. So we go next door to the Movenpick to wait in relative peace. Waiting anxiously, impatiently. We drink more coffee, get on internet, make obsessive copies of all our important paperwork, and drink coffee some more. We are acutely aware that we do not belong in a place like this, yet no one seems to notice.

1pm. Time to go back to immigration. We are waiting for our class C residence permit so that we can finalize our dozen other research permits. In the overcrowded office, the story is again the same. “Just sit and wait,” they say, “we will see.” The faux-marble floor is packed with tired-looking Tanzanians who are also waiting. A tall and frazzled looking German lady shuffles in overanxious laps around and around the office. I play peek-a-boo with two children who teach me how to say cheetah and leopard in Swahili. And we wait. Perhaps for dinner we will go back to the pot women with their flopping shoes and big smiles. Or perhaps we will trek back across town to the late-night street-side cafĂ© we discovered the night before, grilled tandoori chicken and fried cassava root, manned by the portly Indian immigrant, Karim, who lost a leg and a knee to a fight with a bus. But for now we sight and wait. If all goes well, tomorrow we will leave for Arusha – my mind soars with optimism. Arusha, then Serengeti. We are almost there! A clanging gate brings me back – it is 2pm and they have closed the doors to get in, yet the office is full of people waiting still. And so we sit and we wait and we daydream about dinner and days to come. About smoked fish and cold beer, about sunsets in the Serengeti. And so we sit. And so we wait.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Journey

July 15, 2009

The sun never set.

We flew into tomorrow across the Atlantic Ocean and the sun just never set. Sunset melted into sunrise in a seamless wash of blood-orange and fiery pink. Around 11pm they gave us breakfast and turned on the lights. “Good morning!” In one hour we would be landing. It was 6am Holland time; their day had only just begun.

Scott and I munched our Egg McMuffins and watched the world lighten outside, talking about everything from Borat’s irreverence and penchant for potty humor to the battle between evolutionary biology and Creationism to, my favorite, UFOs.

“They way I see it,” starts Scott, his green eyes twinkling from behind his enormous glasses that circle in wide arcs across is face, “they’re either here to use us for food or entertainment.” I smile uneasily. I am bizarrely self-conscious about our conversation. I do not normally talk about aliens, and even though I will never again see the people in the seats ahead of us, I am painfully self-conscious. This sounds totally crazy. I usually change the subject when my dad talks about aliens in public.

I didn’t expect a conversation with a complete stranger to take on quite such a life of its own, but 8 hours after boarding, Scott and I were still talking. He was interesting – an aging surfer-dude, an English major drop-out. He looks vaguely like he’s dressed for safari – beltless field pants and khaki snapdown shirt with two front pockets. But he’s wearing scuffed white tennis shoes and carrying a battered leather satchel. No, he’s not going on safari. He’s visiting the Ukranian family of his late wife. It is almost a year to the day that she, a translator with the looks of a model, 26 years his younger, died of rare and incurable synovial cancer.

The man is a walking contradiction. He does customer support for Verizon, yet doesn’t own a phone. He his smart and well-spoken, yet his thought process is penned up behind rigid pillars of belief that he can neither articulate nor defend. He is searching for answers to an existential question and denouncing science because it cannot provide the spiritual satisfaction he is searching for. We argue about the mechanics of evolutionary biology, and I wish I had with me any one of half-a-dozen of my colleagues who are better versed in this than I. We argue about species concept, direction and design, barriers to natural interbreeding, gradualism and venus flytraps. I desperately want to escape this circular conversation. Scott is searching for a “why” – but science can’t give him “why,” it can only give him “HOW” or “how come.” Science cannot make sense of the unbearable beauty and tragedy that we encounter in our lives, and this frustrates him.

Somehow we escape the circular debate with no resentment. We talk about the warmth and generosity of families from former USSR nations. About honesty in expression. About Beauty. About Freedom. About being meaningful in our lives. We talk the whole time and the world lightens around us and I do not even notice when we land.

That’s when I should have said goodbye, shaken hands, and wished him a heartfelt hope for luck in this life. But instead we got breakfast. I was tired and wanted to be alone with my thoughts and my little pocket-sized Swahili phrasebook. When he asked me, I told him that I rarely keep in touch with the people I’ve met along the way. It is hard to maintain the magic, I say, it seems to only prolong the end. Better to remember the friends I’ve made by spotlight searches through my memories, remembering them vibrant color, than to let them fade slowly out in dwindling mundane emails. I do not say that it is because it hurts me that people I love write me, and I do not find the time to write them back. Or that it hurts to never hear back from people that meant so much to me for a flashing moment in time. This keeps it simple.

When we part ways, he says with a sardonic smile “let’s keep in touch,” and I feel guilty for how impossible I’ve made that. I give him my CouchSurfing name and tell him he can find me there, but as we walk away, we both know that we will never speak again.

Alone for the first time, the Amsterdam airport is big and bustling. There are corner coffee bars where people stand with their lattes and cappuccinos – I guess this is a world where there is no time to sit down? But for one of the world’s international business and travel capitals, it does not feel as fresh or space-agey as I imagined. The toilet paper looks recycled and feels single-ply. But the people are beautiful and seem to know a dozen languages. I fall briefly in love with the young Indian guy working the chocolate counter. He greets me in English – a lucky guess? I ask, Or can you tell us by sight? He’s usually right, he says. He has a slicked up faux-hawk and the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard in conversation. Before boarding my plane to Nairobe, I impulsively return to tell him this but he is gone. Oddly, that’s okay – he will remain in my mind as this flash in time – the boy with the beautiful voice.

And then I’m off. Somewhere between Sarejevo and Malta, the water below is deep blue and vast. I see the white wake of a boat below and tell myself it’s a great white whale, it’s tail fading into the blue behind it like brush strokes in an oil painting. Over the Ionian Sea I get a choice of Italian Pasta or Chicken and Rice. Floating across the Sahara I sip on a plastic cup of cabernet. The day before and the day ahead seem distant and surreal. I don’t know how long I’ve been traveling or how much farther I have to go.

It is still daylight when we land in Nairobe, where all the signs are happily in English. I stroll through the duty-free shops, stocked with $76 of Clinique perfume, generic luggage, and m&m’s. Once inside the pre-boarding area, I sit on the dusty carpet and curl up on top of my carry-on, my arms laced through my bags 5 times over. I’m no fool when it comes to watching my back, although I manage to misplace the stub of my boarding pass. It is a small airplane, the kind that you have to walk across the tarmac to climb into, and even though they have checked our passes, they need to check our stubs before we can climb the stairs into the little puddlejumper. So I kneel desperately on the tarmac fumbling through my bags with no success until the attendants take pity on me. They find my name on the roster and let me through. The plane’s not full, it doesn’t even matter; I can sit where I want.

It is after 11pm when we land in Dar es Salaam. I make it through the visa line in record speed, and am in a taxi-cab by 11:40. I barter with the driver before climbing in, warned by my colleagues that they are all in cahoots to rip of incoming tourists for a ride into town. I’ve practiced this conversation in Swahili again and again, but when the drivers swarm me outside the automatic sliding doors, I am caught of guard. “Taxi?!” They shout. And then in English: “How are you? Would you like a taxi?” Stunned, “Well, yes,” I say, “how much to the city center?” I kick myself. That was supposed to come out as “Ni gali gei kwenda Dar es Salaam?” When he tells me a price that is 4 times what it should be, again, I am too stunned to respond in Swahili. I lose momentum. So I feebly barter in English, with limited success. But it works, and despite the driver’s tendency to take red lights as subtle suggestions instead of law, we make it to the Luther House Hostel in one piece.

It is midnight, a full hour earlier than I had expected. I am ecstatic…and exhausted. I’m sharing a room with a German collaborator whom I have yet to meet – all I want is my own room so I can change the clothes I’ve been wearing for the last 2 days and fart in peace and privacy. But the hostel was full and we are on a tight budget. So I dutifully drag my leaden suitcase up the narrow steps. I’m a backpacker with a bum shoulder; I hate suitcases but have no choice. Phil has promised to have cold beer waiting upon my arrival, which he does. There’s a spotted cat on one. “Cheetah!” I say excitedly at quick glance. Yeah…it’s a leopard. He forgives me easily, if only because I also had to forgive him for booking the “double” room that had just one big bed instead of two twins.
We tried to switch it at the front desk – “You see,” we explain, “We just work together. In fact, we only met today.” “Ohhh,” says the clerk with a devilish grin. “Because if you were a couple, it would be a good thing!”


You kind of have to love this country.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hakuna Matata

I'm never quite sure how to answer when people ask me just what it is I study, or, as they have in my last 24 hours of relentless travel, ask me why I'm headed to Tanzania. I often feel like my research is kind of like a real-world investigation of the Disney's Lion King that defined childhood movies for my generation. (I guarantee you that I can sing along word-for-word with every single song on that soundtrack - including the second, extended version of "Can you feel the love tonight.")

As much as I hate to admit it, a little part of me kinda sorta likes it that the general public thinks that lions are kind of a sexy thing to study. I've discovered that my answers depend on my mood and how cute the person is that's asking me. Sometimes I want to play the question-driven scientist who's in it for the thrill of scientific discovery - then "I'm an ecologist, studying competition and coexistence." Other times, especially when I feel like my recent relinquishment of nomadism has rendered me boring and mundane, I play the field biologist in search of adventure - "Oh, [said ever so nonchalantly] I chase lions in the Serengeti." When people push me further, I really do say, "It's kinda like the Lion King."

Now that I'm actually in Tanzania, though, I am almost reluctant to admit that I, some white chick from the American Dream suburbs, raised on lattes and cul-de-sac kickball, think that I might be able to say something insightful about lion-hyena-cheetah interactions. For the last year, I’ve been eating, sleeping, and dreaming lions, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards – trying to teach myself sophisticated statistics, GIS, and theoretical ecological modeling. In typical fashion, I want to say something big about what environmental and biological mechanisms mediate coexistence between these large, charismatic species. In so many systems, the dominant carnivore can drive subordinate carnivores to lower densities or even complete localized exclusion – and it’s not that there isn’t enough food to go around. Such competitive exclusion can derive solely from interference competition in the form of direct killing (such as lions killing cheetah cubs like a little kid pops the bubbles on packing wrap) or in kleptoparasitism (like stealing candy from a baby…or a zebra carcass from African wild dogs). In fact, lions and hyenas can and do drive down cheetahs and wild dogs. Why then, since lions can incur similar costs to hyenas, do lions and hyenas show positively correlated densities across Africa? Furthermore, why do the same assemblages of species have different dynamics in different landscapes?? My research is centered on the idea that fine-scale landscape complexity and fine-scale spatial partitioning hold the key to coexistence. I’d argue that spatial complexity as a mechanism of coexistence is sort of a hot menu item at the moment, although most of the theory has been applied to plants or petri dishes. I want to do it with big fuzzy things. I want to be able to predict how species distribute themselves locally with respect to competitors, whether this distribution is because of niche specialization or because of competition, whether there is a reproductive impact of high densities of their competitors, and predict how different landscape features will impact these interactions. Yes, I want to do all of this, all at once. Don’t laugh.

But as I’m talking to a Netherlands-educated Kenyan on my flight into Nairobe, I feel plain silly talking about fine-scale partitioning and behaviors in animals I’ve never even seen. His eyes twinkle. “Lions and hyenas?” I can’t tell if that’s a smirk or a genuine smile. Who the hell am I? Hm, well, right now I’m a grad student that hasn’t showered or changed or slept in 2 days, embarking on my epic East African adventure. I have a return ticket and a place to stay, which is nice for a change, and it makes me better prepared than normal, and I can say “No! That’s too much!” to the taxi driver in Swahili. In the end, I don’t know if I really have any right to talk about lions and hyenas and the mechanisms of coexistence in Serengeti, but I do know all the words to “Hakuna Matata,” and that has to count for something.