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.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A "cheena" is...

October 20, 2009

Today started with packing up the campsite in Tangire National Park and loading everything back into the trucks. As we drove through the park to one of the smaller, side gates in order to exit, the biology students had our first field identification exam. This meant that we all sat there with notebooks and writing implements in hand and waited for Simon to being the vehicle to a screeching halt so that Ken could point out something in the distance and say “That bird on the green bush to the left, what is it?” or “Tell me the species and sex of the ungulate under the baobulb tree.”. I was really nervous about it, but ended up being able to identify everything correctly, which was exciting. I think everyone felt pretty good about it, which was cool because as a group I feel like we are learning fast!

The first bird on the test was a small bird, that is usually in groups with bright blue wings, a reddish orange chest and a white band around its chest. It was a suberb starling!

The second thing we had to ID was an ungulate. I was able to tell by its large size, body shape, coloring and straightish horns that it was an eland.

The third animal was a long and graceful, rather large bird perched high in a tree. It took me a minute for this one because previously we’d only seen it in the water, but I was able to recall that it was a maribu stork.

The fourth animal was another bird, this time with a distinctive crest on its head, forked tail feathers, a black face and a very distinctive call, which sounds like it is saying “go away”, hence its name, the bald face go away bird.

The fifth question was another bird, a little, long legged black and white fellow called a blacksmith plover.

The sixth question was two parts. Name the species and sex of a specific ungulate. It was a male impala, which was identifiable because of its very distinct horn shape.

The seventh question had multiple parts. First we had to identify what creature had produced a specific pile of dung and then explain three things that the dung was important for in the ecosystem. It was elephant dung, which other species pick through in order to find and eat acacia seeds which have passed through the elephant digestive system intact, termites can encase and eat it and dung beetles can use it for material to lay their eggs in.

The eight animal was a bird with distinctive long tail feathers black wings and a white underbelly and head. It is called a long tailed fiscal shrike.

The ninth question was another ungulate, a male steinbuck, distinguished by his very large ears and his very small horns – he was at such a distance that I actually had to borrow Rachel’s slightly more powerful binoculars in order to make them out.

The last question was inspired by three beautiful twiga we say munching on acacia trees by the side of the road. The question was “Is a giraffe a browser (leaf/shrub eater) or a grazer (grass eater)?”. The second part was to name a creature that fell into whatever category the giraffe didn’t. On my quiz, I wrote “A twiga is a browser, a zebra is a grazer”, mainly just because I wanted an excuse to write the word twiga because it is still pretty much my favorite word ever.

In the midst of our test, we drove to the edge of the park to see Lake Buriunge, a soda water lake that provides a very good environment for both blue green algae and shrimp, the favorite foods of the lesser flamingo. We saw several lesser flamingo, but they were at quite a distance from us.

Oh, but I’m forgetting the very best part of the morning before we left the camp site. So, as I’ve mentioned previously, Peggy was a total lifesaver and gave me a tube of super glue so I could repair me feet. It worked incredibly well on my heels and toes and walking is a whole hell of a lot more comfortable now. However, when packing, I didn’t immediately have a Ziploc bag available for it, so I stuck it in my pocket just for a minute. Yep, I’m sure you can see where this is going already.

Needless to say, the ten minutes in which I was distracted by ants demolishing a large insect carcass and grabbed my video camera and knelt down to tape some of it was more than enough for the glue to ooze out of its bottle and soak through my pocket, effectively gluing my pants to my left thigh! It hurt like a dozen tsetse bite to literally rip the pants off of my skin and because I had packed all of my clothes away in my big backpack I was stuck wearing a kanga all day, which was pretty much falling off constantly. Needless to day, the incident was hilarious – I don’t think anyone laughed harder than I did and I’m sure jokes about me feeling the need to glue my clothing to my body will abound for the rest of the trip.

Anyways, back to the rest of the day. After leaving the park we drove through many small village areas. Tanzanians are so friendly! Everywhere we drove there were so many people waving and smiling at such a motley crew of waznugu. Eventually we reached a small town center and stopped to fill up the gas tanks and containers (many of the areas we go to are quite remote, so it is necessary to carry lots of gas). A bunch of us got out and wandered around for a few minutes, but soon headed back to the trucks to chat with the large group of children that had gathered there.

The kids were absolutely hilarious – so outgoing and charming. They were a little misinformed though. A few of them were pointing at some of the darker haired people in the group like Rachel Young and Heather and saying “China!” (pronounced cheenah). We were pretty sure that they were saying that Rachel and Heather were Chinese, but we weren’t sure, so we decided to ask what “china” meant. The oldest of the kids, a cheeky boy of about twelve who was clearly the ringleader explained to us very seriously in Kiswahili that “china” are short people with yellow faces and eyes that go like this (he used his pointer fingers to pull the corners of his eyes into squints). We all had a good laugh about this.

I had a great time with my video camera, taping a bit of the interaction between my friends and the kids, having to be really careful not to let the kids see what I was doing. They were excited enough about regular cameras (“Picka picha! Picka picha!), that I can’t imagine the craziness knowing there was a video camera in their midst would have called. As a result, I have adorable footage of Zach “taking five” (bumping fists) with every child who could crowd into reach him, Rachel R. chatting with the cheeky twelve year old who seemed quite smitten with her, Lisa Clifton talking to two of the children who had climbed up the side of the truck like little monkeys and Natalie picking pichas of the children and then showing them the result on the small screen of her digital camera.

The cutest thing of all occurred when several of the children asked Kim if she would give them money. She replied (as we have been taught) “Mimi ni wanifunzi. Sina pesa” (I am a student, I don’t have any money). A very young boy, perhaps six years old, scrambled up the side of the truck, reached into his pocket and dropped something into Kim’s hand. It was couple of hundred Tanzanian shillings. “For you,” he said in Kiswahili “because you have no money at all.” She was able to convince him to take it back because her mwalimu would make sure she was taken care of, but it was still an incredible gesture. That is what Tanzanians are like – so warm hearted and welcoming that even a small child will give his last shillings to a silly mzungu if he thinks she is in need of them.

Finally we were on our way again! We stopped for lunch at a beautiful clearing by the river. It ended up being quite a long break because the general culture students’ truck was having mechanical issue that took the very capable Habibu nearly two and a half hours to resolve. During this time, I worked on crossword puzzles with Meryl and Lisa, talked books with Zach and Devin and resovled to listen to “The Last Five Years” soundtrack in its entirety during the rest of the journey with Rachel as she’d heard Meryl and I obsessing over it in detail last night and wanted to know what the big deal was.

As luck would have it, we were able to listen to the whole album (and Rachel fell in love with it too, of course) before the drive started to get really interesting. Driving into the mountains in order to reach the Noh forest was a huge adventure! Some of the trails are only single track and we were excited that almost all of us were riding perched on the outside railing and hanging onto the top of the truck which meant we all had to dive into the middle forming a giant pile of wazungu anytime large branches or thorn bushes presented themselves, which happened quite frequently. Even so we all have thorns/prickly things of other sorts everywhere! After arriving, I even felt something weird in the back of my throat, stuck my fingers down (and almost vomited in the tent…now that would have been actually embarrassing) and removed a small barb from a plant! Excellent! Our mechanical troubles had us running late, so we were able to watch the sunset through the trees from our perches on the truck and even continued our duck n’ drive style of travel by headlamp and headlight as it became quite dark.

It was so amazing though. The climate here is so different than either the coast or the grassland. It is much, much colder. I am currently wearing wool socks, long pants, a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, my fleece jacket and my 20 degree sleeping bag and am just barely warm. Keep in mind though, I am a total wimp, so its not as if the temperatures are Antarctic or anything like that. The forest is dense and so many different and vibrant shades of green. The other locations we’ve been have been quite dry – I think I’d almost forgotten what green really looks like. There are even evergreen trees and a hint of moisture in the air at all times, so it really does smell like home. We are allowed to running here tomorrow and I’m so excited – it will remind me quite a bit of going running in Forest Park, but much much wilder!

Oh, about the running here… both Ken and Daudi gave us a quick talk about how it was very safe here and fine to go off and explore but they preferred that we go in groups of two or three, especially for running. Especially if the runner was “among the smaller persons in the group” because the combination of aloneness + running + smallness is quite likely to equal “breakfast” in the eyes of any leopard that happens to be watching from the trees. As they were expanding more on this, I can’t tell you how many times my names was mentioned by other students! They seem to think I just fit the ideal description of leopard bait (and I’m somewhat inclined to agree – the fact that I come in from most of my runs limping slightly/running unevenly probably makes me look even more like easy pickings). However, I’ve made arrangements to go running with Laila and Alex in the morning, so that should move me out of prey category, I hope!

I also talked to Ken and Daudi a little bit more tonight about my very serious interest in field biology in animal behavior. I got some good advice on classes to take (Animal Behavior this spring, ecology next spring and an independent statistics study project of some sort) and the charge to become as good of a naturalist and biologist on this trip as I can with respect to African fauna. I’m still really stressed about school and classes and getting good grades and doing well enough to get into graduate school someday, but I’m also feeling more excited because I think I’ve found something that I’m interested in. I mean, I’m not sure exactly what I’d like to study, even if I could pick from all of the animals in the world – just because there are too many!

I think really that doing research is something that I’ve wanted to do my whole life. I’m sure my parents remember when I was a very little girl and would go to the library, kind of systematically working my way though that non-fiction animal section, species by species as I would bring home huge stacks of reading material on one animal and only switch it for another when I’d totally exhausted all of the resources on the first. And Jane Goodall has been my absolutely number one hero since second grade. It has just always seemed like something that other people do, but that I could never do, people who are a lot smarter and more scientific and all of the jazz, you know?

But more and more, I’ve been thinking that how do you ever know you can’t do something unless you give it a try first? And sometimes, I think that having passion and enthusiasm for something can really go a long way.

But right now, it is late and I have an early morning run planned! Lala salama,

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