Quickly before my flight!

I do sometimes leave things to the last minute, it’s true…but not intentional. It’s just that it took Virginia and me much longer than expected to go to the grocery store. She’s staying in Mombasa for another week and needed to stock up. But anyway…

Back to the story…we stayed in Ileret for almost 3 weeks all together. Long enough to make Koobi Fora base camp seem like (as Jack would say) the “Hilton”. Not that KF isn’t nice in and of itself…it certainly is. In fact, it is probably one of the most beautiful, romantic places I’ve ever been. I really need to take Ciprian there in fact.

So we went back to KF and started studying our little hearts out for the big exam. We had 2 or 3 days for this. Not really enough time, but not too bad. The exam was a 2-parter: practical and written. The practical was okay…nobody knows how they did, but one of the instructors said I did well, so I guess I did…but there were definitely some tough calls here and there – bones that kinda looked like one thing but also kinda like another. The written part was okay too. I think I did fairly well, but I have to admit that I was really exhausted at that point and felt that I’d learned a lot regardless of how well I did on the exam. And besides, I’m not getting any credit for this whole thing so as long as I know I learned stuff, then that’s all that really matters (but I think I got at least a B :-).

Once the exam was over we all went down to the water to swim. We went pretty far out. Lake Turkana is funny…it’s super shallow for meters and meters. I mean you can go like 30 meters out and still have the water coming only up to your chest. I might be exaggerating slightly, but not much (I’m still working on my meters). So we all went out there and goofed around for awhile. I kept my eyes peeled for hippos (just in case…but I wasn’t paying that much attention, really). One of the girls, Delora, had this really nice inflatable mattress that she’d brought with her and that had a small, slow leak in it so she brought it out on the lake. Much fun was had trying to knock people off of it. I even got to swim a bit…as opposed to just treading water or splashing around. But I have always found it difficult to swim without goggles, so I didn’t go too crazy (hey mom, don’t let me forget to bring my goggles to your pool next weekend!).

Anyhoo…the last day at KF was nice…kind of bittersweet as much of the last couple of weeks have been. The drive down was really fun, but there was definitely an element of giddy sadness that pervaded me and I suspect some of my friends as well. We all got quite close during this field school…much more so than my 3 1/2 months in Ghana because we were all living side by side…whereas in Ghana we were in homestays and didn’t see each other nearly as often.

So the ride down in the ‘mog was a riot. We stopped first in Loiyengalani, an oasis off the SE coast of the lake. It’s beautiful there…we were in a little campground there with thatched bandas. I bought a really cool ostrich shell necklace. The next stop was Maralal (remember the camel derby?)…always a fun spot. Then we stayed one night at the holy of holies, the Fisherman’s camp at Lake Naivasha…what a place. It was a friggin’ palace. I mean we’re talkin’ huge campground with lots of mzungas (white people/foreigners, etc.) and a really nice restaurant and bar…oh and heated showers! That’s right…heated! Actually, Loiyengalani also had heated showers, but they weren’t as nice. Yeah, so Naivasha rocked and the ride there was a trip. It rained. And when you’re riding in an open-air vehicle and it rains there’s a problem. Luckily those people at Mercedes have some smarts and they designed flaps for the sides and back (the top is always covered with canvas…ripped up though it may be from all of the acacias). When we realized it was going to rain we put up the flaps…but wait a sec, they don’t cover the entire side! Oh dear….our feet, legs and bags got very wet. Wet and cold. We didn’t have blankets. We huddled together for warmth. It was uncomfortable and miserable and yet…fun and comfy and memorable. The next day on the way back in the ‘mog they gave us blankets. Though it didn’t rain, it got very chilly….but we still had to huddle. Luckily I was huddled between two of my favorite people (Matt and “negative” Scott), so acuna matata (no worries).

Oh…but I shouldn’t leave out the extremely emotional morning before we left Naivasha. First, I got up and there was whole grain bread with breakfast…I was elated. Then, I got word that there was a hippo grazing on the grounds (behind an electric fence of course) and I was even more elated (is that possible?). THEN, I got to the hippo and someone told me that there were several black and white colobus monkeys up in the trees over my head (gasp!!)…could it get any better!!?? I was in heaven. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good shot of the monkeys, but Matt took some pics with his (much better) camera and so I should be getting those at some point from him. I love b/w colobus…they look like little old men with long tails.

That’s where the happy stuff ends for that morning though. We got word that the father of one of the students had died. Oh my god…a bomb was dropped. Several of us went and hugged our friend, but of course there’s always this feeling of helplessness when someone dies.

The ride back was a bit less crazy with the news hanging over our heads. But we got back into Nairobi after a couple hours of driving only to learn that at some point during the trip the brakes on the ‘mog had given out. Interesting. Anyway, we checked back into the Sirona Hotel and had the rest of the afternoon to check email, shower, rest, etc. before our big final night out at Carnivore – a world famous restaurant (so they tell us) that is known for serving various types of game – of course it’s all farmed now (or it better be, anyway).

With our friend on a flight home to be with his family, most of us enjoyed our night. The food was good (I had a veggie meal, though I did try various types of mystery meat…I think I ate camel) and several of us danced…a lot. I do love dancing. Virginia, April and I were sort of the ringleaders, at least at the beginning. Almost everyone danced at least once. It was so much fun. I’ve actually never been with such a rambunctious group of dancers before…totally fearless when it came to a little bump and grind action. It was hilarious. You definitely get close to people when you camp with them for 6 weeks in a row…when you share long drop “chos” (toilets) with them…when you sweat with them and get sick with them…it was really awesome.

Anyway, I have to run (literally) to the bank and then to Virginia’s apartment before my taxi comes. It’s raining here…but I went to the beach anyway today and walked in the Indian Ocean…beautiful.

I’ll post pics when I get home…I’ll miss Kenya, but I’m happy to be going home too. I just hope I come back soon.

P

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Hand me a trowel please

Things started to get serious when we got to Koobi Fora base camp. First they laid out several hundred animal bones in the main banda – crocs, bovids, equids, a few primates, a few felids and hyaenids – that was enough to get me excited. Then they took us to a local site. I don’t recall the exact Area number, but I think it might’ve been 103 (for those of you who know of such things). Anyway, this was enough to make me want to cry. There were fossils everywhere…just lying around! Here’s a distal femur, there’s an astragalus (my current fave bone), here’s a bovid tooth…amazing! I seriously was a little choked up. My friend Matt and I (fellow fossil lover) were shaking with happiness.

The fun didn’t end there…we had a few days of lectures on various things like faunal analysis and hominin fossils and then we got back in the unimog and the Land Rovers for the 2-3 hour drive up to Ileret.

Ileret is a small town a few km south of the Ethiopian border. It’s on the lake…sort of…a bit of a drive, but close enough that we went there every evening to bathe. Okay, so here’s the deal…we pitched our tents on the banks of a laga – that just means river bed (might be local language – not sure) – it’s the Il Eriet River and it’s ephemeral (only flows a bit twice a year during the two rainy seasons). If you dig down a meter or so though you’ll hit water. Donkeys do it all by themselves…pretty cool to watch. I think I have a pic of a donkey drinking out of a laga well. And they weren’t kidding when they said it’s 110F everyday in this region…in both Koobi and Ileret, we basically rested during the hottest part of each day (12:30-3:30). I’m trying to learn celsius – 110 is about 40.5 degrees. It got this hot every single day. Lucky for us there are trees lining the banks of the laga so we had a bit of shade. Oh…things I didn’t think to bring but should’ve – hammock, camp chair, more m&ms, dried fruit, good vodka, dust broom/pan for tent (the sand is relentless). For future reference.

Moving along…there are two sites in the immediate vicinity that we were going to work at: Area 10 – FwJj25 (a Holocene site – that means within the past 10,000 years), and Area 1A – FwJj14East (an Okote site – I think it was Okote anyway…about 1.4 mya – million years ago). After a few days of prep work where we learned about the local vegetation, culture (Dassanech), blah blah blah, we finally got to break ground. My fave was the 14East site of course because I prefer old stuff to new stuff. They had found some hominin arm bones at this site previously and so we were looking to see if we could find some more (we did find a few fragments that have been fitted together…not sure if they belong to the same individual though – a PhD student, Dave Green, is working on it currently). There were also footprints – very very cool. I got to excavate some of these. It’s mostly animal prints, but there are a few prints that look an awful lot like they were made by hominin feet (probably Homo ergaster/erectus). Excavating them was a delicate process – we used brushes to lightly get the sand out so that we could tell what animal(s) made them. There were carnivores, hippos, lots of birds and who knows what else…some of them were on top of each other so it was hard to tell.

There was a third site that some of us got to work at as well – it’s further east along the laga – Area 41 – FwJj20. This site is a bit closer to the Ethiopian border and a bit more out of the way. Only those of us who were truly interested were to go. I got to be on the varsity team (Group A) – the first group to go – it was me and 7 boys. So much fun! Oh my goodness…we had a blast. They were such sweet guys. We set up a separate camp a few km from the main camp. Having a small camp was much easier to deal with than the big one. More intimate and fun. We only excavated for 2 days, but we got a lot done. This site had bones littered all over the landscape to an even greater extent than the Koobi area. It was remarkable. You had to watch where you stepped less you step on something important! There were stone tools too, but I’m much more interested in bones. 🙂 Anyway, this was probably in the Upper Burgi member (that just means that its dated to about 2mya). They didn’t have definite dates yet, but it’s definitely older than 1.8mya.

While we were there we found loads of stone tools and also a rib. The rib is probably from a bovid – a fairly large one – like the size of an eland (if you don’t know what it is, you can look it up on wikipedia or something). AND…the rib has at least one cut mark. How cool is that!!?? So needless to say we were all very excited. The guy who is in charge of the site, Dave Braun, was jumping around with glee. The rib was found in the square that I was working on with Milo (one of my classmates). Milo’s a good guy, but he gets teased a lot for being careless – even though he’s really not. So I was off with two other people looking for surface fossils (especially suids) when Milo found the fossil. Apparently he wasn’t being very gentle for the first few minutes and they were concerned that he’d damaged the bone (he didn’t). I said to Dave, “I’m so sorry Dave, I should’ve been here.” He replied, “Pam, you let me down” (or something to that extent). I was kidding of course, as was he, but I was a bit jealous that Milo’d found it and I hadn’t. Now I understand how these crazy anthropologists compete for bones – it’s such a game! Thankfully I have the presence of mind to recognize my own thoughts…because of course the game is mostly about luck.

On that note…I have to say, I loved excavating – moving dirt around with a trowel, sitting in the dirt, getting it all over myself – it was awesome. I definitely want to do this again and again. The heat is intense, it’s true, but it’s a small price to pay. It’s immensely satisfying to excavate a 1×1 meter square, to find even the stuff we don’t want like fish bone (and there was tons of it)…there’s this sense of mystery about it that’s a little bit addictive…but in a healthy way of course.

Our stay at Area 41 was far too short, and the JV team replaced us. They found a mandible – I think of a suid, but don’t quote me on it. I was so sad that I wasn’t there. Such is life.

Ileret was about a 2 1/2 week deal for us…maybe a bit longer. I’m not positive. We didn’t have any water at the camp so we had to go to the lake to bath every evening. I stopped wearing my bathing suit after the first night and just went in shorts and a tank because it was too friggin’ hot to put on a suit. Most people bathed in either underclothes or a suit. The water is really soft and we actually got quite clean, but it was shortlived. The ride back to camp always got us a bit dirty again – especially if we rode on the ‘mog. I actually stopped riding on it at some point because they removed the seats from the back and people had to stand. Let me tell you that it is not an easy task to stand in the back of the ‘mog. It hurt my back after the first time and I only did it one or two more times out of absolute necessity. Mostly I tried to ride in the cab with Bob (“Unimog Bob” – the driver – a Kiwi and all around awesome guy). Occasionally I rode in a Land Rover, but they were usually reserved for “staff”. It was weird though because some of the staff are younger and in better shape than some of the students and in fact there were several of us “older” students who had a hard time standing in the ‘mog. It was one of the major bitches I had with the field school. The young interns got to ride in comfort while those of us with crappy knees and backs had to go in the ‘mog. I mean whatever, we all lived through it, but it was, as my friend Wayne would say, “bad form”.

But I’m not here to complain…I’m here to tell stories…so moving right along.

One of the exercises we had to do at Ileret was to make our own “Karari scraper” – that’s a stone tool from about 1.8mya (roughly). It wasn’t easy to be sure…at least for those of us who’d never done it. Then we had the option of butchering a goat. I opted out. I considered just watching, but when they brought the little guy out to be killed (slitting its throat), I lost my nerve. I actually cried a bit. I even put on my headphones so I wouldn’t hear it cry. It was so heartbreaking. But then I sat there and had a nice chat with David Braun (the guy from Area 41 – he’s one of the instructors). So that was cool. I saw part of the butchering toward the end. Oh and I didn’t eat any goat – I just couldn’t bear it.

I have definitely not gone in chronological order here, but that’s okay. It all happened around the same time. One important thing about Ileret…there were two things that were fairly constant – the wind and the Dassanech. The wind was relentless…and loud…I’m glad I brought earplugs. At the main camp the sand was very fine and silty and it would blow right into our tents (even with a fly on). Every morning I would wake with a thin layer of silt on everything (including my face). The Dassanech hung around our camp constantly – sometimes trying to sell us things, sometimes trying to get things from us. The little kids knew two phrases in English – “Give me pen.” and “Give me shirt.” But they were cute and sometimes we did give them those things. I mean really…who needs it more? Us or them? I’m leaving some shirts here to be taken back up there because I couldn’t leave them at the time.

I guess I should wrap this one up. I have to be back at the apartment in 25 minutes. Oy vey…I still have errands to run!!

More soon…
Pam