Sijambo everyone! Habari gani? It’s been awhile since I last updated, so I thought I’d write up a few of my impressions, both scientific and not, from the past couple of weeks.

First of all: the ‘common Swahili’ booklet that is currently a main-stage player on our dining room table is HILARIOUS. It’s a winning combination of super-useful phrases and a bunch of BS. (Exhibit A: a list of common animal names, including giraffe (twiga), elephant (ndovu), and kangaroo (bukunyika). Ah, yes. The famed East African kangaroo.) Specific gems that cracked Molly and I up the past few mornings as we ate breakfast? Keep in mind, this is a booklet filled with supposedly useful phrases for the non-fluent speaker:

“Avocado juice”: sharubati parachichi (WHAT is avocado juice??)

“Give me warm beer”: nipe bia vuguvugu (…….why, though?)

“I think I am pregnant”: nina uja uzito (for the visitor to Kenya who REALLY should have checked in with their doctor back home before leaving)

“Appetizer”: kiamshashamu (slightly normal til you realize it’s in a list of words related to plants, alongside words like ‘insecticide’, and ‘corrosive’, and ‘winnowing’)

“These traffic police are disturbing”: polisi hawa wa trafiki wnasumbua (I have no idea when I would want to use this particular phrase, but it’s weird enough that I’ve now memorized it)

“Chips”: vibanzi

…followed immediately in the list of snack foods by “crips”: kaukau (What sort of English or American snack food is a crip? I must know.)

“bring two mosquito coils”: leta koili mbili za mbu (…..Again. What’s a mosquito coil.)

…and on it goes.

Clearly, not only do I not know much Swahili, I am utterly unaware of ESSENTIAL PHRASES THAT WILL HELP ME GET AROUND THE COUNTRY. Brb, going to go make flashcards of Australian marsupials and important farming terminology like ‘appetizer’.

In other news: the rest of the Young/McCauley lab has arrived on site, toting boxes of parasitology equipment and baby toys (unrelated items, but when packed together make for a hilarious unveiling). Hillary (my advisor) and her husband Doug (my housemate Molly’s advisor) had all of us over for appetizers (KIAMSHASHAMU), including cheese that Hillary had smuggled in from the States. They and their two-year-old boy are staying at a gorgeous house on-site, with another scientist couple and their one-year-old boy. There are a whole lot of cute kid shenanigans going on in that house. Also a whole lot of scientist brain, as exhibited by the conversations on mammal trapping and transect-walking that flowed around the cheese plate, while the kids read childrens’ books on fleas (“it’s the only kids’ book I could find on ectoparasites!” said Doug in disbelief) and wandered around looking for animals.

Molly and I have been traveling to and from the Centre by Toyota these days, in a little 2-door Rav4 named Mtoto (“little child”). It resembles a clown car, in as much as we always end up extricating either tons of equipment or several people from the backseat, and such a process always requires a bit of elbow grease. We drove Mtoto up to my field site the other day to place litter bags out there, and the backseat managed to hold (precariously) a plastic crate plus two cardboard boxes of litter bags, a cooler full of stakes and zip-ties, and a person. I was impressed until it was time to pull all of these things/persons out, after which I was sweaty and sort of annoyed. I shouldn’t be: Mtoto has been faithfully carrying us back and forth to our house twice a day for a few weeks, and despite its size is a pretty bad-ass little vehicle.

Gratuitous monkey photo. Has nothing to do with the above text. Carry on.
Gratuitous monkey photo. Has nothing to do with the above text. Carry on.

That brings me to science update: I’ve managed to get a set of litter decomposition bags out in the field, which leaves me with the two sets of replicates to finish filling/weighing/closing. Once there’s a certain amount of dried leaf litter in each bag, and they’re labeled and sorted, they can be transported up to the mammal-exclusion plots where they are staked into the ground at 10m intervals. This requires walked 100m transect lines across all of the plots, which I swiftly realized is easier said than done out here. These plots are COVERED in a variety of species of bunchgrass, which makes the footing a bit unsure, and in addition I seemed to pick transect lines that ran directly through several large trees every time. Then there was the matter of actually walking in a straight line, which it turns out I’m not great at. Our field assistant, John (who knows EVERYTHING about this system and has worked out here for a few years), was very diplomatic about it: after my last transect ended up looking more like a pronounced curve ending with a zig-zag than a line, he alerted me to the fact that I ended up 20m off from where I’d intended by saying, “I think we’ve messed up the transect about 40m ago; see that stake? That’s where we wanted to go!”.

a photo of my transect tape next to elephant poo, which about sums up the status of my first few transect lines.
a photo of my transect tape next to elephant poo, which about sums up the status of my first few transect lines.

While I appreciated his usage of the word ‘we’ rather than ‘you’, I realized who was having the trouble in this here scenario, and spent the next few transects looking down at my compass the entire walk to ensure that I kept my bearing. While that worked pretty well, it resulted in my walking straight into several acacia trees and getting pretty banged up and scratched by their thorns. Sacrifices must be made for straight transect lines: in this case, my shins. Despite these sacrifices, one set of transect lines ended up getting offset by 30m, which meant coming in early Saturday to fix it for a few hours. Fortunately, we got it all squared away and things are moving along. Since Saturday, I’ve been working with a field assistant named Godfrey, a guy just a few years younger than me who knows the experimental plots really well. I’ve worked with him a bit since getting here: he was part of the crew that sewed litter bags for what felt like forever when I first arrived. He’s a super nice guy, and offered to play DJ in the car on the way back from the field on Saturday afternoon. He told us we needed some East African music in the car, to which Molly and I gamely agreed. What came next was slightly unexpected, though not for a few songs; the first few were all a Tanzanian reggae artist, which was really good, but about three songs in, I heard the familiar strains of a flute…then humming…then Celine Dion breathily crooning, “eevvvvvery night in my dreams, I see you, I feeeeeeel youuuu…”

I shot Godfrey a big ol’ eyebrow raise, and asked, “THIS is the East African music you had in mind?” He shrugged and grinned, and replied that he just liked the song. We had a bit of a sing-along for the rest of the drive. Celine Dion: bringing folks all over the world together since 1997.

Molly staking a litter bag pair into the soil.
Molly staking a litter bag pair into the soil.
Molly and Godfrey walkin' the line.
Molly and Godfrey walkin’ the line.

To take a break from the fieldwork we’ve all been doing, a few of us went into town on Sunday morning, to the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, to partake in their famed brunch buffet. First of all: it’s not brunch. It starts at 12:30 and the longest line was for the homemade chapatti and the grilled steak. Second of all: this place was SWANKY. It’s a 5-star hotel in the middle of downtown Nanyuki, which is odd and frankly, a little uncomfortable. The dichotomy between everyday Nanyuki and this place is stark. To get there, you drive through fairly run-down sections of town before arriving at a massive gate where you state your name and the reason for your visit (hotel guest, swimming/golfing, visiting the animal conservation area, or a meal). You then drive down a long, long road with overhanging trees, before arriving at the hotel. The hotel itself is gorgeous, with a massive grassy courtyard where brunch takes place, and a huge pool with a view of the extensive grounds and Mt. Kenya in the distance. Peacocks and storks pick their way gracefully through the gardens and seem pretty unperturbed by the legions of guests in swim trunks and big hats. Those guests seemed similarly unperturbed by the arrival of four mildly dirty scientists carrying backpacks, wearing Tevas, and pulling acacia thorns out of their legs at the pool. Most of the folks milling around swimming and drinking cocktails were foreign; there seemed to be a legion of Englishmen hanging around the pool, a few Americans from Washington DC sitting at the table next to ours, a family from India across the way, and a lot of accents floating around the air.

the luxuuuuurious pool in which we gratefully dunked our farmer-tanned selves.
the luxuuuuurious pool in which we gratefully dunked our farmer-tanned selves.
The grounds, overlooking Mt. Kenya.
The grounds, overlooking Mt. Kenya.

According to Georgia and Grace, the idea for brunch is thus: swim a little, enjoying the non-parasite-and-dung-filled pool, and then head straight for the buffet. Sample a little of everything, and expect to go back for seconds and thirds. Then, approach the dessert buffet. With abandon. So…we did. I enjoyed some amazing Indian food, gorgeous veggie dishes, some of the grilled steak and chapatti, and sampled from the fancy cheese plates. For dessert, though, our table really rose to the occasion, and we cumulatively consumed macarons, ice cream with hot fudge sauce and chocolate chunks, cheesecake, chocolate-covered-strawberries, and more. It was impressive and sort of horrifying all at once. But that’s the point of buffets, right? …right? (Paging adulthood…)

Poolside, like good ecologists (on their off days).
Poolside, like good ecologists (on their off days).

Anyway, that was the weekend: long day on Saturday fixing fieldwork errors and running household errands, and Mt. Kenya Safari Club on Sunday. Since then, the Young/McCauley lab has been cramming ourselves into the office and generally running around working on our projects. I’m hoping to get the rest of my litter decomposition experiment in the field this week, and get moving on the rest of my plans. Here we goooooo!

Animal sighting of note: five elephants, including a male or two and a little baby, about 20m away from us on the road while driving home on Monday evening.

Two bat-eared foxes right outside the gate to our house.

A mama cat and her two kittens, which was either a feral cat or a wild cat…turns out it’s borderline impossible to tell the difference unless you can get a really good look at the backs of their ears or the lengths of their legs.

Mystery animal with a striped tail. Moved damn fast across the road, though.

Aaaaaand a peacock. (Which doesn’t count, because it was at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club and was therefore only present to look ritzy. Mission accomplished, though.)

Aforementioned peacock.
Aforementioned peacock.
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