Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Separation of Past and Present

For all those currently wondering out there: yes, I made it to Costa Rica and I am still alive!

As I stepped off the plane and entered the San Jose airport, a feeling of déjà vu overwhelmed me.  Standing in line for customs, I immediately looked to my right I to find a memorable giant green mural of rainforest trees looking back at me.  Then once I got my bags, I checked across the street to locate the grassy area under the overpass.  Carrying the same EMS Summit 4500 bag with red tape still wrapped around the straps, I walked to a familiar type of bus and took up a window seat.  By this point, I was more than expecting to drive along the Cerro de la Muerte and arrive in Tres Piedras to go see El Duke!  Nearly everything I did and saw in the first hour of arriving in Costa Rica this time around reminded me of my first trip to the country two years ago.  I was a nervous freshman, signed up for the Costa Rica tree climbing course, embarking on a journey that – I would later come to realize – had shaped my college life.

But even with all of the similarities to my previous journey, I quickly realized that it was going to be quite different this time around.   Instead of looking for Keyser Arbolski’s friendly face, I was searching for a sign that read “Duke/OTS Semester Abroad.”  And once I had found that, I was not greeted with a bear hug by friends and ushered over to a slackline, but I awaited further instructions from an unknown professor, clinging tightly to the bags that were to be my only possessions for the next four months.  And stepping onto the bus, I did not find the faces of Cornell kids with whom I had practiced tying knots in the COE basement, but I saw eager, unknown faces amazingly not from Cornell at all.  As the bus drove us to a hotel in San Jose, I struggled to stay in control of the flood of feelings and memories that were washing over me, pulling me back in time to a sunny afternoon spent kicking a hacky sack and walking a slackline as planes screamed overhead.  I was certainly not expecting this nostalgia aspect of the trip – what other surprises will be in store for me?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Habari Gani

Continuing with the Swahili titles, habari gani means "what's new."  This post is all about my latest news from Kenya.  Here is part two of two in my chronicles of the time I spent in East Africa! (uploaded late due to lack of internet access)

Kenya has exceeded my expectations and has been more than I could hope for, in terms of its beauty and the insight it has given me.  It is strange that this experience is over, because only two weeks ago I viewed it as something always looming in the future, as a journey that would never come to fruition.  It shocked everyone last year how quickly the social conditions deteriorated in Kenya, and it was even more surprising to me how the country has turned around in only a year’s time.  Even with their relations towards Americans, Kenya has become far more welcoming over the course of this past year, especially with the coming inauguration of a U.S. president with Kenyan roots.

The rich culture of the country is something I will never forget; all the people we met seemed quite easygoing and friendly, if shy.  Our three guides joked and swapped stories with us throughout the trip, and when we went to visit the children, we were able to meet many of their mothers who were selling jewelry they had made.  We were able to support their craft, while at the same time interacting with the kids who were nervous at first but soon warmed up to the large group of strangers.  On the final night, after we had said our goodbyes and finished our last smores around the campfire, a troupe of traditional dancers came to camp to give a performance.  It was hypnotizing to watch them, but we soon snapped out of it when they came over, grabbed our hands, and had us join them in the dance circle.  Everyone was mixed together: dancing, jumping, and singing – you could not make out the dancers from the students because it was quite dark and the moon had not risen yet.  It was a remarkable and unique experience that left everyone’s calves sore the next morning.

One of our guides left us with a story of how the hyena came to be as it is today:
There was a time of great famine in Kenya many years ago.  The hyena had not eaten for days.  He met a hare that also was very hungry, and together they went in search of food.  One day they came upon a beehive, high up in a tree.  The hyena told the hare to go up into the tree and throw down the honeycombs and he would catch them on the ground; when the hare was done, the hyena promised they would split the honey between the two of them.  So the hare climbed up the tree, branch after branch, and finally reached the beehive.  He called down to the hyena and dropped the first honeycomb.  But the hyena, being so hungry, devoured the honey as it fell into his mouth.  He did this for each piece the hare dropped.  After a while, the honey stopped falling, and the hyena had eaten all of it.  The hare saw this, got upset, and left.  The hyena smiled at his good fortune of having so much food.  However, he was afraid it was the only food he would get for a while.  He saw a raven flying in the air and called to it.  The hyena asked the raven to sew up his back end so that he could keep the food inside him, and not have to be hungry again.  The hyena found some string and used an Acacia thorn to sew up the hyena and left.  A few days later, the hyena began feeling very uncomfortable.  He had a terrible stomach ache that was so bad that he could not move.  Luckily, the hyena spotted the raven again and called to him once more.  The raven flew down, and the hyena requested that the raven remove the stitches.  As the bird began to do so, the pressure that had built up within the hyena was finally released – spraying the contents of the hyena’s stomach all over the raven, turning him black.  Angered, the raven flew off instantly to try to clean his feathers.  He could not get them clean and they are black to this day.  Meanwhile, the recovered hyena had become hungry once more.  He joined with a pack of his fellow hyena in search of a meal and they looked for days and days without finding sustenance.  One night, the raven caught up to the hyena and his pack, and told them that he had good news.  The raven told the hyenas that up in the sky, the moon was a giant piece of meat, waiting to be eaten.  The hyenas started licking their chops and looking to the sky anxiously.  The raven offered to take them to it and they agreed; one hyena held onto the raven’s tail feather using his teeth, and the next hyena grabbed the bushy tail of the hyena in front of him.  In this way, the hyenas made a chain, and when they were all set, the raven began flying to the moon.  He went up and up, so high that the trees looked like small green specks.  Then the raven began saying to his tail feather, “Come loose, come loose.”  Eventually, the tail feather that the hyenas were holding was plucked from the raven, and all of the dogs fell, plummeting towards the ground.  They all landed hitting their back legs first and breaking those bones.  When they tried to get up, all they could do was limp off, crying in high-pitched yelps.  Because of its greediness, today the hyena has short hind limbs and can only yelp.

I came to Kenya thinking that, with the country’s almost desert-like conditions, we would rarely see any wildlife.  But I was quite mistaken and it’s been very inspiring to see such an array of life thriving in this semi-arid bushland savanna.  Especially during the night-drives.  On four separate occasions, two of the vans would head out at night to look for animals with a spotlight.  We located animals by their glowing eyes that stood out in the darkness.  It was always amazing to come upon a herd of sleeping impala, because 30 pairs of eyes would appear out of nowhere.  Yet even more exciting was discovering a pair of eyes that didn't belong to an herbivore.  n my last night drive, I was controlling the spotlight when I strafed across a pair of eyes far in the distance.  We redirected the path of our van to follow the animal and try to identify what species it was.  After much searching and chasing, we learned that it was a striped hyena - it was the first one we'd seen all trip!  I felt like I saw at least one new species of mammal or bird every day.  If it is like this during the dry season, I would love to come back and visit in the rainy season.

My time abroad has better prepared me for my coming semester in Costa Rica; I realize it is definitely something I must do.  The more time I spend in the field, the more I love the outdoors.  This planet has a great deal to offer and I hope to do my best to appreciate and respect it.

Even the vegetation here is stunning – everything has thorns!  One of the species of Acacia trees is locally known as the “Wait-A-Bit” tree, due to the frequency of getting caught in its thorns while walking by.  We did one of our projects on the Acacia trees in the area around camp, looking to see how much elephant damage there was to different species, and in proximity to the river.  This involved a day of walking around studying individual bushes for over two hours with very little shade.  Another day we spent high noon in an Acacia forest looking for the ants that live mutualistically in the trees.  After a couple hours without water, the heat was starting to get to me, and definitely gave me a feel for the Kenyan climate.

The weather was in the 80s and 90s during the day and dropped to the 50s at night.  It was constantly sunny, making it a complete opposite of the weather I’ve been experiencing in Ithaca for the last three years.  It did not rain a single time during our stay, until the last two days; on Thursday we had a brief shower late in the afternoon, but on Friday, there was a downpour that lasted through the early hours of dawn.  This turned out to be a somewhat inopportune time for a rain shower, since we had to drive 6 hours to Nairobi that morning.  I was in the first van to pull out of camp and onto the dirt roads, and the roads did not seem to be in good shape.

Within 100 feet of leaving camp, our van had begun fishtailing in the mud as we drove.  Dustin, our driver, did a great job of keeping control the entire time.  We reached a dip in the road where a river crossed during the rainy season.  As we started to go through it, Dustin tried to punch the gas in order to get our luggage-laden van up the opposite side of the hill.  The first and second attempt failed, so we all got out to push.  As Dustin began giving the van gas, it slowly started creeping sideways down towards the streambed and the giant boulders it contained.  The car managed to stop with its front bumper gently resting on a massive boulder.  We heard a tractor coming and people went to flag it down.  Another person ran back to camp to enlist some help.  The two men in the tractor were a great help and aided us in getting the van back on the road.  We all began pushing again, but one of the tires was stuck behind a large rock in the road that had been exposed by the rain.  We laid down some smaller stones for the van to roll over, and put dried elephant dung under the rest of the tires to absorb the water.  We all got behind the van once more, pushing even though our feet were sliding in the mud and the tires were spraying dirt all over us, and managed to get it up the hill.  With a cheer, we scrambled up to the van to continue the long journey back towards America.  It was going to be an interesting trip since most of us were wearing our only clean clothes and shoes before we started pushing!  To our amazement, along the way we spotted a pack of wild dogs off the side of the road.  We sat and watched them for some times, getting to see them play while watching hyenas and tawny eagles in the background.  It was a perfect way to end the wildlife portion of our trip!  

Soon after, we reached the tarmac roads and let go of our fears of having to get out and push the van again.  Three airports, two plane rides, and 34 hours later, I showed up in New York, exhausted but happy to be finished traveling … for the week.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mzuri Sana

In Swahili, mzuri sana means "very beautiful" and aptly describes my adventures in Kenya.  Here is part one of two in my chronicles of the time I spent in East Africa!  (uploaded late due to lack of internet access)

Jambo! I’ve been in Kenya for two weeks now, but it feels like far longer.  Each day begins at dawn, with a breakfast of eggs, toast, and pineapple served under an open tent overlooking the Ewaso Ng’iro (Brown River).  After breakfast at camp, we usually embark to do one of three things:

  •  go to the field to collect data for our projects (i.e., walk around the African savanna)
  • work on drafts of our research papers at the Mpala Research Center, where the computers are
  • set out on game drives during which we usually find herds of impala, zebra, and gazelles, and the occasional giraffe, elephant, or warthog along the way

We spend the morning and the afternoon out, stopping back at camp for lunch (and a nap if I’m lucky).  We return to camp for the night usually around 6pm, giving people time to shower, wash their clothes, or play some soccer with the camp employees before dinner.  The dinners are always amazing – there is always some variety of delicious meat (once they told us it was camel) with a side dish of potatoes, pasta, or rice.  Once in a while we are given chipates, which are delicious fried dough pancakes.  If you add meat, it’s a taco; if you add chocolate sauce, it’s a crepe. Yum.

After dinner, we hang out around the campfire watching the amazing array stars in a sky that is clear enough to make out the Milky Way.  I usually go to bed around 9pm.  We sleep in deluxe “tents” located under thatched roofs.  They house two students each (my tentmate is Jennine! She’s awesome!) and most are not far from the river.  After dark, we can hear hyenas, hippos, baboons, and sometimes elephants on the opposite riverbank or just outside the tents.  If we don’t hear them, we often find evidence of animals in the form of fresh dung piles or browsed bushes around camp in the morning.  Just before daybreak, a loud chorus of birds breaks into song, helping wake me up whether I want to or not. I’ve included pictures to show what the tents look like.


The diversity of life is amazing – I’ll step out of my tent to brush my teeth in the morning and I’ll be watching a bushbuck grazing across the river, or see a Vervet monkey just waking up in the Yellow Fever acacia trees (Acacia xanthophlorea) outside my tent.  For the final project, I was watching the foraging behaviors of a bird called the Forked-Tail Drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis).   I spent four hours watching a short section of the river, and in the first two hours I saw: a toad, a lilac-breasted roller, 2 goshawks, a pygmy owl, 3 parrots, an egret, 2 hadada ibis, 2 vervet monkeys, a guineafowl, and some drongos.  I’ve never been somewhere with such richness and abundance of species!  It fills me with a desire to see more, do more, and know more.

Bushbuck     Vervet Monkey
Lilac-breasted Roller     Toad