Tuesday, October 09, 2007

the end of the long journey - the UK

Joburg, Part V
Well, it's probably no surprise that my 13 hour layover in Joburg was spent reading the new Harry Potter in close proximity to a, um, facility. I did get the book 7 hours before any americans, though. ha.

Yes, there was another stopover, and another plane.

Ah, home sweet nearly home. Mum thought I looked a bit grim, and she said my luggage smelled like Ghana (warm oily fish. not pleasant). It took quite a few days to recover, but soon I was back in action and laundered. I arrived in time for the summer floods (here's someone's pictures http://www.flickr.com/photos/srahtz/sets/72157601074744062/) to really get underway... we weren't affected, since the college is built on high ground, but there was lots of people who couldn't get into Oxford and the resulting floods of the Thames was quite spectacular. The floodplain at Port Meadow (some of the remaining common grounds in Oxford) was full, and people all seemed to be drawn there to stare at the water stretching all the way to Wolvercote. The following week, once the most dangerous releases of the Thames were settling down, I watched some brave kite surfers get onto the flood. It was awesome. Only the grazing animals seemed a bit upset, since they were wedged onto a small strip of dry land, so a few of the cows and horses were being mischievous and chasing people.

That is really much of the story. Of course there are a million things that I didn't write down here, and the more ecological amongst you should feel free to ask me about all the projects and ideas I picked up out there... those of you who want to bully me about my cultural ignorance, please do - I'm only associated with anthro departments, I make no claims to understanding people at all. If anyone wants travel recommendations, I'm not much use, since I bummed around other peoples' fieldsites (thanks to everyone again); but I can recommend the guidebooks that I used. Yes, you can borrow them too.


I found Ghana to be weird and wonderful in another new way. I'm sure I'll get in trouble for anything I say about it, but the word corruption doesn't even begin to describe the system of favors and mixed allegiances that seems to govern most of life there, not just the wildlife world.
Accra was overwhelmingly busy and city-like, not to mention utterly confusing to me. Fortunately, I was being whisked around by a couple of people who really knew what they were doing. Cole and Justin. We ended up staying in the Hotel Shangri-La, which had a nice swimming pool, an earsplitting frog chorus in the evening, running hot water for showers (after a while in Africa, this really is a treat), and decent food.

I was tagging along on a summer expedition, which for Cole, was to check up on his camera traps and ongoing data collection in Mole National Park in the north of Ghana; for Justin, this was his big spotlight hollywood moment. The National Geographic people were making a documentary of his high-profile Science paper and ongoing study of the links between the fisheries and bushmeat trade and the general ecological upset that results in more baboons than anything else in national parks.

Having realised that perhaps not everyone they were looking for was going to partcipate in the documentary, the crew quickly twigged to the fact that Cole is a tall, good-looking and good-natured guy (sorry folks, it's the truth) that could stand in as a wildlife researcher extraordinaire in the film. Alas, I don't quite qualify, so I was definitely excess baggage... but no matter. I still had a chance to see how these documentaries get created and tweaked, and I saw bits of Ghana that I don't think I would have, left to my own devices. Here's their blog about doing documentaries http://www.seastudios.com/behindscenes.php

There is a part of Accra on the coast called Jamestown, which is where the fishermen come in. This was one of the most beautiful sights around Accra - seeing the big fishing boats pulled up on the shore; and watching one being hollowed out of a huge tree trunk. However, it was also here that I discovered something very disturbing to me. There were no seagulls. There were no cats. There was lots of refuse and bits of fish muck around (as well as discarded underwear and human feces). We asked where the seagulls were; the answer? They ate them. I know that there is a bushmeat crisis, but I didn't really cotton on to the idea that a society that will eat anything, eats everything. They ate all the damn seagulls.

One of the most epic and complicated parts of the documentary was trying to film anything where bushmeat was being sold. It is sold everywhere. It is sold as good chop at good chophouses (places where you get some stew and starch and chow down; these can be shacks on the side of highways, or more established cafes in towns). You can buy bushmeat in the markets in the cities and towns, if you know where to go. You can buy it on the side of the road. I saw a Royal Duiker and a Pangolin for the first time, upside down, alive, in someone's hands on the road. However, they know it's not okay to be filmed. In the major markets, there are "bushmeat queens" who are the women who chop up the meat and sell it. They are in charge. You don't mess with them. If they say you can't come and film, you can't. End of story. I don't know what would happen to someone violating this, but it wouldn't be safe. At all. So there was a lot of days of the crew trying to get to places with all their gear, only to find out they couldn't film. It got quite exasperating, as it meant rearranging travel all the time.

One trip went out to Shai Hills Resource Reserve, which is a pretty well established park. The website will tell you that there are animals there. There are not many. There's some Kob (big antelopey things), and a lot of baboons at the guard station. Otherwise, it's a very pretty rolling savanna plain. I think most of the wildlife was eaten a long time ago.

We went from Accra to Kumasi, which is the center of the Ashanti Kingdom, and also the location of a HUGE market that is really impossible to navigate and mostly smells of oily fish and exhaust fumes, but is absolutely fascinating. I spent a day wandering around the city, went to the historical touristy center, where they have all kinds of seriously precious artifacts in a 'museum' that is just some cabinets around the edge of a courtyard like enclosure. They have the king's various totems in there, including a pot, held down by pillows that contains the spirit of the Ashanti. I mean all the power of the kingdom, is in a little cabinet, without a lock, in a courtyard. I and another eager fellow were urging them that they need more security as well as better information about their artifacts. The woman just politely recited her stock tour material for us again and said she might tell someone else about our ideas.

I saw how they make the weights that are symbols of ashanti, which are used in trade (similar to money, but also, not really); I also went to a drum maker's shop and watched part of the process of making a big skin drum. I watched the kente cloth weavers; men sitting at looms that are about 12 feet long stretched out, and they carefully feed the thread and run the comb. It's only really done by men, apparently, and there is no photography allowed. It was intriguing, but I felt slightly invasive, despite it being set up as a tourist attraction.

I managed to walk quite a way up one of the arterial roads of Kumasi and get up on a hill. I looked down on the market from above, and realised quite how much space it takes up - some people just spend their whole lives in it. I also saw the edges of town, the roads where things are fixed, or just stay... like cars and trucks. There was one corner where the retaining wall was built of all kinds of junk, but one part was a car that had rusted beyond recognition and had no engine or wheels, but the door worked, so some guy was hanging out in the car, just sitting, as part of a wall.

On we went up to Mole National Park, in the north. Mole is a savanna park, it is fairly huge, and clearly harder to access than other parks. I think this is partly why there is still wildlife there. We stayed at the Mole Motel, which is the only place you can stay at the park, or really even the only place you stay near the park. They lose reservations all the time. People show up after 7 hour taxi rides with nowhere else to go and are told they have no beds. They are kind of obnoxious about it too. It's quite a remarkable place. But there it is. It overlooks a nice big waterhole where the ellies come in. It has huge baboon problems, patas monkeys like to take food off the tables, but they don't physically attack people - mostly.

I was standing at our breakfast table, and a big male patas was walking along a railing in front of me, clearly after the sugar or jam sitting on the table. All of the waitstaff were indoors, so I was literally pacing this monkey along the rail, trying to bodyblock him. So his buddy grabbed the butter dish while I was at the other end of the table, and I ran over there, and the big male shoved his hand in the jam and rammed it in his mouth, then hopped back on the rail. So of course I got annoyed and said "get out" and waved my hand in his direction - at which point he jumped and slapped my hand with his. So yes, I have been slapped by a monkey. It was a little bit scary, but they're not that big, so I wasn't too terrified. The baboons, on the other hand, they are truly scary. Apparently they respond to male voices (like the ones in Kibale) and just aren't afraid of women. They grab people's belongings out of their hands, they rush you with fangs bared, and apparenly have attacked female tourists at the Mole Motel. I naturally managed to piss off a couple of males who were working an open door, and Cole had to come along and shout at them before they backed down. It makes it hard to see how I could do research on them, but I figure if the waitstaff can use slingshots to scare them off, that'll have to be my technique too. I'm not lugging a big man around just to rescue me from the scary animals. Nope. No.

Again, the electric. Ghana likes selling it to neighboring countries too, and as a result, at Mole, there was a 36 hour rotation of 12 hours on, 24 hours off. In addition to this was a drought and general lack of water. Which meant being sweaty and gross quite a lot of the time. At some point, one of the crew started getting cramps and fever... which gradually made its way around everyone. I won't bore anyone with details, but my birthday was spent in the back of a truck on a bumpy road for 7 hours trying not to hurl. Swiss Air tried not to let me leave Joburg, offering me the Joburg hospital. NO WAY... I staggered onto the plane, much to their disgust. I arrived in England looking a bit rough; it's the first time Africa has made me ill. And the last, of course.


I went to Etosha National Park in Namibia to join some old friends from the Getz lab at Berkeley - also known as the Anthrax crew. Yes, they are studying anthrax epidemics in Etosha. They were also organizing a centennial conference in celebration of Etosha, so I demanded to be put to work on sampling and more practical conference organization.

Once again, I seemed to be a fecal sample totem. This time I went out with Pauline and Olivier, collecting zebra feces. On the first day, Olivier turned to me and said "do you know how to sex a zebra?" - I, of course, started envisioning all kinds of things, but it turns out that you really can look at the back end of a zebra and tell pretty easily. The boys have, um, tight white buttcheeks. Females, particularly after they have had a foal or two, are more distinct. It was definitely exciting driving around the Etosha pan and pausing to wait for the huge herds of zebra, just keeping an eye out for a lifting tail and then keeping a close eye on the location while confirming the sex of the individual. I also watched the realization of legacy in wildlife biology - the technique that Pauline was using to collect DNA from the feces had been passed on to her by another friend of mine, Clint Epps. So this was known as the Clint technique. I'm not sure I want poop drying and scraping named after me, but Clint should be proud of a named methodology.
One interesting zebra factoid - in Etosha, they have quite a few melanistic zebras. They are simply zebras that are all black (or rather, dark brown); they just aren't striped. It looks slightly odd, but there's no real reason why they shouldn't exist, and apparently it doesn't really affect survival, because they are there. Anyone who has thoughts on this, feel free to air them.

I also had a chance to see a site that I had only previously seen in talks - Mushara. A professor and her husband have a very remote site in Etosha where they study the accoustics of elephants. They have challenged some of the widely held beliefs about rumble calls and are collecting some amazing data on social structure and demography. Their site only exists during part of the year, and is simply a tower made of rebar. They have a fence erected around it so that lions don't get in at night - but have anyway. It is only accessible by firebreak roads, which means you have to be fairly confident about driving quite quickly through light sand. Sort of like real snow driving. Essentially, there were some fecal samples that needed transporting, so I had a unique chance to see the site and talk to the O'Connell-Rodwells http://www.utopiascientific.org/.

The centennial conference was amazingly well organized (I'm not taking credit, Wendy did a lot of work, and all the rest of the Anthrax team did a great job managing the flow); the talks were varied and interesting, and people did a lot of networking. Etosha is an amazing place, in a country that has the second lowest people density in the world (after Mongolia). They are on the edge of getting into bioinformatics (to manage data resources in ecology) and are facing the conflict of getting tourist dollars and managing a natural resource as a wilderness-like area.

The conference was in a nice lodge just outside the park, and so there was quite a few opportunities for drinking a few and chatting. One such evening, I had decided I was quite exhausted, and stopped after the first beer and wanted to get an early night. I wandered off towards my room, came around a corner, and suddenly had the feeling that a tree had just moved. I turned around and saw several skinny trees in front of me; then a few of them swayed. Hang on, what's going on here? I only drank one beer. I looked up to see a huge bull giraffe noshing on the treetops - all I could see was about 8 feet of legs! He looped down out of the tree and looked at me when I laughed, then walked over to the next tree a few feet away and started going to town on that one. Giraffes out of context are really tall.


I landed in Uganda in the evening, the plane coming down over lake Vic. What a treat to see fishing boats and sunset over such a large lake; welcome to Uganda! I got out of the plane, found my massive bag (packing for 2 months with 3 different climates including field and conference is an art), and lugged it all outside; I bought the visa, changed my money at the desk as instructed and was ready to find my ride to the hotel. Which they promised. Over email; they had all the flight details. After about a half hour and much refusal on my part of other less savory offers, I agreed to take a taxi to the hotel. I really appreciated their response to my query about the emails we had exchanged - "we weren't sure you were real". At this point, I wasn't sure either, so I happily went up to my awesome room with four beds, mosquito nets (but no shower), a gecko to keep me company, and sure enough, the next morning, I met Tony Goldberg at breakfast. In all, about 7 of us were heading to Kibale from Entebbe, so we split a bus trip there...

I cruised around Kibale and the local area with the Kibale EcoHealth Project for the first few days. We hiked through forest fragments, learned how to smell colobus monkeys on the trail, how to navigate the small grid system within Kibale NP and did some sampling in plantations, fragments, streambeds, wells and villages. The EcoHealth Project is a whole system of looking at disease, wherein they (Tom and Tony) are sampling people, livestock, monkeys and the water that connects them. Since they are veterinary folks, and had vets with them, they had some very exciting equipment - lots of BL2 protective gear for looking at blood samples, and all kinds of drip bags and collection cups (yes, urinary) for looking at the water supply. Once I understood that crypto and giardia are pretty much what they were looking for in all the water we were dipping our hands into, and yes, people had managed to catch them in the past, I started paying a little more attention to my hand-to-mouth contact. After a lot of chat and hiking and more discussion about models and GIS work in the project, I realised that there are so many scales that are important in the project and that it is a huge undertaking. More than that, it is a great model system for looking into other locations with similar structure and set up... hmmmm.

The EcoHealth house at Kibale has the wonderful nickname of Mango Palace (due to mango flies, not luscious fruit). What is a mango fly? Well, if your clothes are wet and you hang them up outside, these lovely flies lay their eggs on them. You put on the clothes, the larvae burrow into your skin, you itch and swell and have wiggly things under your skin. Rather unpleasant. Lesson is: dry your clothes under a mosquito net and keep your sweaty junk indoors.

I had been eating all my meals with the folks at the Mango Palace - pretty much mooching off them entirely. The food up at Kibale is fantastic - there are some local cooks who are employed through the field site, and they make wonderful vegetarian food, with whatever you bring in from the nearest town. Since food comes in irregularly, due to trips out being a bit complicated, there's a lot of repetition, but there's nothing that some Top Up (hot sauce) won't fix. Mostly we ate beans and stewed matooke (ma-to-kay), which is a banana starchy thing like plantain, and is the "national dish" of Uganda. There was sometimes g-nut sauce (groundnut), and some squash, and other green vegetables when they were around. The best part was the chapatis. Big leathery chapatis, which are great with matooke and beans, or with some honey. Main course and dessert in one.

One of my favorite Uganda traditions that is common to other bantu language cultures is the use of mpacos - a sort of pet name. Whereas Swahili or Kiswahili is the official language of Uganda, local bantu languages persist. Near Kibale are a couple of tribes whose languages are in the region; I was mostly in contact with Rotoro, the language of the Toro or Mutoro (Mu is people). There are around 12 mpacos, and when you meet someone, you ask how they are, what their name is and what their mpaco is. I tried asking about mpacos, but got mixed answers on some obvious questions. I think there are some male and female specific ones, but not all of them are; some of them have meanings, but I couldn't get consistent results on that, either. I was given Akiki, which may imply something princessy or tall, but that might have been someone making fun of me. The Ugandans I have met are, to a person, happy, laughing, kind and communicative. So I spent a lot of time having half-english, half-rotoro and totally giddy nonsensical conversations while I was there.

After a few days, the Chapmans got to Kibale. For anyone unclear on this, Colin Chapman is my supervisor at McGill. He's my boss. Even though he hates any titular notions of responsibility, the fact is, he is my boss. His wife, Lauren is a phenomenal fish biologist, who works on aquatic systems and morphological changes in fish - at least, that's the parts I had the pleasure of finding out about. I am sure, like Colin, that she works on many many things.

I had a sort of switch of allegiances from the EcoHealth project over to the McGill folks at Chap House, and started going along with students collecting monkey data more intensively. It turns out that I am quite a totem for fecal sampling. Imagine, if you will, that you are walking through some really nice jungly forest, looking for groups of monkeys up in the trees. They are not totally happy to have you follow them, so they sometimes move away, but mostly, they're just looking for some good leaves to eat. So they settle down to some eating; and pooping. In order to study monkeys via their fecal samples, you want to collect freshly fallen samples, preferrably from identifiable individuals (as in, the large male or the small female with a baby). So, you stand under the tree until you hear crap raining down. Quite literally. Then you look for fresh pellets. It's often hard to know which tree is about to rain down crap, or whether a monkey will pee from great heights as you're standing there. Until now. Guaranteed, if I'm standing there, it'll happen. Is this a good thing? It certainly helped Stacey collect a few samples.

Aside from that hilarity, I got a chance to see both colobus species (black-and-white and red) for more than a few minutes (sitting there for hours while they sleep can inspire some crazy conversations), and to hear chimps roaring at 100 feet and see their nests; I also saw another 5 species of primates, a duiker, lots of butterflies and even a scared farming lady, who thought we were raiding baboons and came running out waving her arms yelling "Enkerebbe" (baboon).

While I was in Kibale, there was a chimp conference that celebrated chimp research in Kibale, but also gave me a good idea of the park itself, the history of research and how the various projects had come together. It was quite amazing, and I wished that I'd had a similar introduction to other study areas in the past. Part of the conference involved being entertained by a local school's singing group. I had somehow managed to be persuaded by a local man with a briefcase and a plastic recorder and an exquisite singing voice, to teach him the US national anthem. Irony is not wasted on me. It was a wonderful experience, because he didn't know notation per se, but knew do-re-mi notation. For someone who neither spoke English very well, nor had the background in western tonal structure that is jammed into our heads, he caught on really quickly. It was a little disconcerting to hear the bits that he didn't quite get - like some of the rhythms as the words get mashed into the tune, and the modulation that occurs. I also realised again how totally unsingable the star spangled is. The reproduction of our morning's lesson and transcription was proudly displayed through the voices of local school children. I hung my head in shame. I wish I had insisted on the Canadian anthem instead (McGill loyalties run strong). Fortunately, they know the British anthem because QE park is nearby and they've been having Liz celebrations galore.

Another delight a the conference was hearing about the Kasiisi project - the rural school has been doing teacher exchanges and penpal programs, among others, like feeding kids so they can go to class and providing boarding facilities. http://www.kasiisiproject.org/index.htm

One afternoon, I thought that a baboon had got onto the tin roof of the house I was in... it was shaking and shaking and crashing and crashing; then I realised it was an earthquake, so I stood in the doorway. It seriously lasted for over 3 minutes, just rocking and shaking. Even the monkeys kept quiet. Kibale is subject to the movement of the Albertine Rift, so earthquakes are quite common. After it calmed down again, the monkeys started calling out to each other, checking that the groups were still around. Everything else was still - it was quite creepy.

In addition to following monkey research, I also had a chance to play with the fish people. When a large sampling effort goes into effect, more hands are better. So I joined in with Lauren's project with her students, and we all loaded up the truck with wire basket fishtraps, boots, waterproofing, coolers for live fish to come back in, other containers for less live fish to come back in, and so on... and we set the traps in the river, wading into the edges. The local villagers were very curious as to what we were doing. We spent a while poring over trays of bottom muck, trying to see if there were invertebrates that the fish might be eating. My favorite moment was when we were ID-ing the fish coming out of the traps, and a student would inject them with formalin to preserve stomach contents (diet analysis), but some of the ciclids were allowed to be freed at the end. Lauren said "oh, you might like to see this one" and she gave the fish's mouth a little squeeze, and lots of little wiggly tails came out! Live mouth-brooding ciclid! Very cool.

After Kibale, I went to Jinja with the Chapmans for a couple of days - Jinja is at the source of the Nile. We went over a very heavily guarded dam, which provides much of the hydroelectric for Uganda. To control it would be to control a considerable resource. Photography of it is illegal. I'll take a moment to point out that Uganda has a wondeful system of selling electric to neighboring countries; in the process it actually turns off electric inside Uganda for rather long periods of time. So it's always good to ask what the schedule is for electric where you are.

I spent a day being a tourist in Jinja; it's a really nice old colonial town, with great old houses that are either tenements, US NGOs or falling down. Apparently, since it was the economic hub of the country for a while, there were lots of Indians and other Asians living there. Then they were all thrown out of the country during the great scourge. In the 90's all the shopfronts were closed in Jinja, and only now is it starting to come back. Parts of the residential roads reminded me of the Panama canal zone in the late 90s - lots of empty colonial housing with a backdrop of re-emerging jungle growth.

I decided I'd like to go to whatever tourist spot was the "source of the Nile", so I followed some signs along some empty dirt roads. I was convinced I must be on the wrong route, or going to a municipal controlled version of the source. But no, I got there, on a nice afternoon in the height of the tourist season, and I was the only person there. They opened up the bar for me, and a nice friend I made showed me the fastest flowing part coming out of lake Vic and took my tourist posed picture. It was very nice to see something that dramatic being very undramatic.

Joburg, Part I.

I first flew into Joburg at the beginning of June - I had exchanged a few emails with professors I had never met, and agreed to meet them in Entebbe, Uganda, at a hotel for breakfast. Some people might flinch at such chancey ideas. I was just ready to go.
I spent a day in Joburg at the Ritz backpackers (not highly recommended, but if you are working within a budget, they do at least get you from the airport safely). I thought I'd go out and buy some supplies, so I wandered down the street, slightly jetlagged, to the nearest Spar. It was a nice day, the leaves were changing, I was strolling and breathing autmnal air. It probably should have occurred to me to notice that, as usual, everyone was in their car/SUV, not on the sidewalks. I noticed a charming sign in a parking lot explaining how much they weren't responsible for its users, and thought it would make a nice picture. A man walked past me as I was taking the picture, and I thought perhaps he might think I was a bit nuts. About 3 yards later, an old lady stopped me, in great alarm "Did you not see that black man? Were you not so terribly afraid?" - I suppose different cultures operate differently (ok, so I'm not quite that naiive, but clearly jetlag makes me forget the delights of post-apartheid reconciliation efforts). Ah, Joburg. Of course, in my attempts to actually get to Spar (the grocery store over there), there was no pedestrian route, because nobody walks to the shops, so I had to navigate a high-rise carpark just to get inside. (!)
I also greatly appreciated the artistic intertwining of razorwire and wisteria growing at the youth hostel - time to get out of civilization.

just prior to running a 1/2 marathon

Bizz Johnson - 04
Originally uploaded by rwheeks
13 miles. Yep, I ran the whole thing.