The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Basically, I fail at being a biologist…

Basically, I fail at being a biologist…
October 5, 2009

This evening the biology group had our first lecture in our BIO 211 Land Vertebrates course, which was funny because we actually talked quite a bit about fish. It was also fun because even though they aren’t at all required to, some of the general culture students attended as well

We spend the morning snorkeling again, this time in our research teams. Sam, Alex and I swam around with Mike Peterson quite a bit learning how to identify several different types of grouper and two kinds of snapper. Unfortunately, Sam is the only in our group who can really dive deep enough to see the snappers as they like to swim around at a depth of a couple of meters and even he couldn’t deep enough to see the big schools of them that Mike could. I love diving down and looking at things under the surface, but I’m not very good at it. I seem to be incapable of popping my ears like you do when you get off a plane, to account for the difference in pressure. Its really important to do this so as not to end up with ear problems, but the only way I can do it is to yawn really big, which is something you really can’t do underwater while wearing a snorkel and mask! I haven’t managed once to do it the hold your nostrils closed with your thumb and first finger and act as if you are going to exhale, but not open your mouth in order to force air out your ears way that seems to come so naturally to most of the other students.

I’m starting to get really nervous about grades and doing well in my “classes” here, a feeling I haven’t experienced yet here, despite all of the essays and things I’ve had to write. I mean, I know I can write essays if I just set aside the proper amount of time, so that wasn’t a big deal. Plus, those classes weren’t biology courses and while I wanted to do well, I’m much more worried about doing well in my biology classes.

I’m not a science whiz like Rachel R. or Peggy or some of the others who already have tons of real research experience under their belts and I’m not super experienced in the water like Kai (who swims like a fish, can dive so deep I can’t even see him anymore and is practically an expert at locating the ever elusive octopus already – he really might be a marine mammal) or Lisa H., who knows tons about boating so I’m really worried. I’m going to try really hard of course, but I’m worried that my best won’t objectively be good enough, you know?

I try to tell myself when I’m really worried about things that if anything we were doing involved handling large prey animals who thought everything in the world was going to leap out and chase/eat/attack/kill them no matter how benign it might actually be or if we were videotaping animals instead of sketching them on underwater slates that I might be able to do a good job because then I’d be the one with more experience, but that is stupid because we are not doing those things and they don’t matter anyways.

I guess I’m just worried that the fact that I’m not a very good biologist will quickly come to light! I mean, I work very hard and want to learn, but so much of it just doesn’t come naturally to me. The only reason at all that I’m a biology major is because I love animals. I mean, I like plants too because lots of animals eat them and different habitats and ecosytsems are fascinating because they effect how animals live and why animals evolved the way they did, but really I’m only interested in that stuff in the context of animals, preferably mammals. I feel bad that I can’t be as enthused about photosynthesis, microbacteria, unicellular organisms and structure at the molecular level as many of my peers are…but those things are just kind of boring, not interesting like a living, breathing mammal who runs around and lives it life and has its own behaviors and goals but is still a warm blooded thinking creature who had a brain strikingly similar to yours and mine.

Like I said, I’m happy to learn the other stuff if it will help me in the context of understanding animals and animal behavior better, but other than that, not so much. I’m so worried this is a sign that I’m really not cut out for a career in the biological field after all. I don’t particularly feel like I want to be a veterinarian, but I want to do something that involves animals, but I just don’t know if worthwhile animal careers even exist anymore for people who A) aren’t geniuses and B) aren’t extremely lucky to be in just the right place at just the right time (never a strong point of mine).

Whew. Sorry about the lengthy monologue of self-doubt. Its something I’ve been thinking/feeling for a long time now and those feelings only continue to grow as time passes and we get more into the biology stuff on the program.

To speak positively for a bit now, I should say that I saw an absolutely amazing eel today while snorkeling. It was probably about 3 – 4 meters deep and it was busy burrowing into the sand as I dove down a couple of different times to watch it (unfortunately, I am not a marine mammal like Kai, so have to surface at regular intervals for oxygen). I also saw a couple of squid – they were so cool and alien looking, with their strange eyes on the side. Ken had said they were laying eggs, which happens through a female squid spraying a bunch of eggs into the water and the male squid spraying a bunch of sperm into the water and hopefully most of all of the organic matter running into each other and getting fertilized to eventually grow into tiny little squid that themselves will hopefully grow into big squid!

My other exciting snorkeling news for the day is that I got stung by a real jellyfish (not the little tiny creatures that you can’t see and everyone gets stung by nearly constantly ng and are just annoying not painful. I got stung because I wasn’t paying attention when I was diving down to see if that flash of yellow and bright blue was a snapper or an angel fish and a small but pissed off jellyfish zapped me right across the lip. It didn’t really hurt that bad (the jelly was only an inch or two long, including tentacles, but it was big enough to see) and was a hilarious moment because I was so shocked I almost spit out my snorkel but then grabbed it with my hand and shoved it back into my mouth…all of this happening about 8 feet under the surface of the water.

Everyone saw all sorts of different cool things Alex spied a giant rass fish under a patch of corals, Michael found a very poisonous Stone Fish, someone saw a lobster or two and we all enjoyed learning more about our study area of choice. The octopus and lobster group (Kim, Michael, Kai, with help from Ranjab, one of Dorobo Safari’s employees who is an excellent octopus hunter) even got to hold an octopus, though it did get scared and ink them at one point!

We also went for an evening stroll into the little bit of mangrove forest that is easily accessible from the beach here. We didn’t see many creatures other than a few birds, but we did get another good look at mangrove trees which are amazing. They are able to grown in soil too salty for just about anything else. They secrete the extra saline out through their leaves and if you lick the underside of a mangrove leaf, it literally tastes salty. We also saw huge crab holes where giant mangrove crabs hide. They are a very prized culinary delicacy and Thad Peterson was telling us about the traditional way they are hunted which involves reaching in with your hand and very slowly and gently encouraging the crab out so as not to destroy its hiding place hole. This is because if the hole if left empty, another crab will take up residence and then you can catch that one. Otherwise the crabs have to keep making new holes which takes up lots of their energy and they won’t just be hiding out waiting for you to catch them. Of course if you make a mistake, you risk losing a finger or two, and they said most of the local crab men are missing at least one finger, but they are very proud of their work and very upset with the young men who hunt the crabs in non sustainable ways.

The Petersons also pointed out a tree area which was used as the old Pembe-Abwe village graveyard, way back when the Pembe-Abwe village actually existed. As it turns out, their descendants live not too far down the beach and often come back to visit and leave offerings for the spirits, so the Petersons wanted to respect that and didn’t want to take us all up their to visit. I thought that was very respectful, even though I did want to take a closer look and think it is so cool that these guys are running a safari business that really does respect the people and culture it is near, even as they try to give wanifunzi wazungu (white people students) the adventure of a lifetime.

They said that when they bought the land adjacent to the old village site, they promised not to infringe upon this sacred ground or the people’s access to it and also had to go through a ceremony to introduce them to the spirits and tell the spirits they were friends and it was fine for them to live near their sacred place and that they were friends.

It seems to me like the Petersons do a terrific job of making sure they have the local people’s best interests at heart. They’ve asked us many times to be sure to have a kanga or towel with us when hanging out down at the beach in bathing suits so that way if we happen across anyone from the village we have an easy way to cover ourselves up and be more respectful They also speak fluent Swahili with their employees who are more comfortable conversing in that language and have encouraged the L+C group to do the same and make sure we take the time to be courteous and polite and exchange the daily greetings.

Unlike in Kenya, where everyone is busy, busy, busy, people in Tanzania are really polite and it is expected that you will ask someone how their morning, day, life, wife, children, grandparents, cows, goats, fishing, house, second wife, uncle, mother, father, dog… well you the picture, is before going on and getting to the matter of business or real conversation at hand. Of course, this lead to Anton saying a cheery “Habari zako?” (What is your news?/How are you?) to a palm tree bright and early this morning on the way to the choo (toilet) as the combination of poor lighting and sleepiness made it appear as if the palm tree was perhaps one of the very nice night guards at the camp here.

Hmmm…what else… I’m feeling unexpectedly home sick (probably brought on by my nervous thoughts about my shortcomings as a biologist) and writing all of this is making me feel less homesick and more appreciative of this amazing experience. Oh, we had a fabulous conversation before our lecture this evening in which many of us expressed a deep love for the novel “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman (even Mwalimu Ken), which somehow progressed into a short discussion about the Hitcherhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

I’ve also finished another book “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathon Safran Noer, lent to me by Jesus himself (Zach). I loved it. It reminded me a bit of “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night Time” because the narrator was an extremely likeable, but entirely socially awkward boy named Oskar who is out to solve a mystery. The story revolves around his quest to find out what the key he discovered in his father’s belongings after September 11th and his father’s death as a result of the collapsing of the World Trade Center, belongs to.

That sounds really depressing, but the book itself is hilarious. Oskar likes to think of inventions and he wants to invent things like “mencils” (big pencils for men with fat fingers) and the letters he writes to his favorite scientists like Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall are included in some of the chapters. He also refers to depression as “having heavy boots”, which I think is a fabulous way to describe that feeling.

I got a chance to pet the gorgeous German Shepard today and am now even more dog-sick than ever. The sleeping bag just isn’t as warm when there isn’t a small Labrador squeezed inside of it with me and it is much too big for just me, I think! Besides, I can’t help but think of Lance almost constantly here because this would be like heaven on earth for him, with all of the sand and ocean and trees and the fact that nice breeze keeps it from getting too warm.

I was wearing pants and a light fleece sweatshirt almost all day (which ok, speaks mainly as a testament to the fact that I’m a wimp because most of the other girls were in shorts and tank tops) and felt perfect, though maybe I was still warming up from the snorkeling. Even though the water is usually a bit above eighty degrees, that is still colder than human body temperature and it doesn’t take me long to end up freezing cold. I wish I’d acknowledged the full extent of my wimpiness and purchased a thin exposure suit of some kind because even though I refuse to get out early just because I’m cold, it would probably be more enjoyable if I wasn’t. Also, I’ve had trouble with some of my joints swelling as they like to do when I get cold. My fingers were pretty painful today, but never to the point where I couldn’t bend them, so if that is as bad as it gets, I should be able to do all of the data collection just fine.

I think I might be a total nerd and try wearing the pair of riding gloves that I brought with me tomorrow. They aren’t diving gloves by any means, but they might be able to help a little bit at least.. I also might end up snorkeling in my Kerrits tights at some point. I started off in the Jane Fonda shorts, switched to biking spandex today and am still burning the backs of my legs – they are so exposed to the sun and reflection from the water when you are facedown snorkeling for hours on end. Rachel R. was super smart and brought a black long sleeved spandex shirt and leggings and so far has only burned on her face a little bit. I’ve only burned my legs a bit so far, but I think the doxy has definitely made me sun sensitive even more so than normal as it doesn’t take long at all for the burning to occur. If it is even possible I might arrive home even paler than I left, due to the fact that I keep wearing as many clothes as possible!

I also discovered a huge raised bug bite welt of uncertain origin on my left thigh and what appears to be the beginnings of a rash on my right leg, so I’m itching up a storm, but really am not too bothered by it – yeah its not preferable, but I’m just so happy that I’m not vomiting again that all of this other stuff seems like no big deal at all!

Well, I better go…have to get up early tomorrow for a run (solo, I need a break from big groups) and to take more notes in my super duper underwater notebook to help me better ID snappers and groupers.

-Hill

PS The moon was the most incredible blood red color tonight.

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