contente en France

Bonjour mes amis,

I am sitting in the attic of a very old house in La Charite sur Loire, a medieval village about 2 hours south of Paris. The house is newly acquired by my friends Chris and eliza Hart. Oh…I can’t capitalize my “e” because the e on this keyboard doesn’t work, so I am copying and pasting it each time. Crazy, I know. Anyway, I could copy a capital e I suppose, but that would just take too long. And I doubt that any of you mind.

My trip to La Charite was a long one from Addis Ababa…I think I was awake for about 41 hours…well, I slept for maybe 4 or 5 hours within that stretch. But I made it here safe and sound and it has been a lovely visit. I got to meet Garance, the (almost) one-year-old daughter of my friends, and that has been a treat to be sure. She is a charmer. We’ve just been hanging out here for the most part, which is fine with me. It’s nice to just relax. The town and the countryside are magnifique. I am speaking a tiny bit of french, but not much, and mostly with people other than chris and eliza. This is mostly because they speak perfect english (chris is american) and I am far from conversational in french. But I try now and then and I do ask a lot of questions. I would love the opportunity to live here for a few months or a year and study the language…maybe one day.

But I should backtrack to ethiopia because there is more to say about the field.

We revisited some sites that eH (again, can’t capitalize this) and her colleagues looked at last year, to see if anything had changed and we found that either the same stuff was there or that some of it was now gone, maybe trampled by cows and goats, because many of these areas are en route to the river and are appealing in and of themselves for their calcium carbonate reserves which the cows love. They dig holes and stick their big snouts in those holes and just lick to their hearts’ content.

We also went to a couple of new locations that had not been visited yet. In all places, old and new, we found mostly archaeology – stone tools, mostly msa (middle stone age). We found a few fossils, but very few and some of them were also found last year (we couldn’t collect anything, by the way…that takes a different permit). Most of the fossils were too fragmented to identify unfortunately, but it was still exhilarating to find them…for me anyway. 🙂

We had a local guide for all of our excursions…a young school teacher named Gedinka. He’s Mali, which is the local tribe in this area. It’s a small group that hasn’t been exposed to western culture too much…just a bit. So it was very interesting to be around these people for two weeks…they hung around our camp and were fascinated by just about everything we did. Our cook, Achamo, was very popular with them, maybe in part because he often gave them his fresh bread. After tasting the sorghum bread that the Mali eat, I can understand this. It is…well…pretty awful. But I suppose if that’s all you’ve got, you are grateful for it.

I learned a great deal during this expedition…especially about how to run such an operation and what to look for from a geological perspective when surveying an area. So even though we didn’t find much in the way of fossils, it was a fantastic learning experience for me.

And being in France now is also a learning experience, but in a different way. Learning to listen to french…and trying to not translate everything, but to just let it wash over me…this is the challenge.

I think there are probably endless stories that I could tell about being in ethiopia: like when Mesfin got heat rash because he was wearing jeans (sans underwear) during a 6 hour trek and then wandered off by himself so he could walk without his pants on and proceeded to get lost; or how this one Mali guy (nicknamed “pom-pom dude” because of his personal decor) was so annoying to eH and me because he was so clearly full of himself but how Achamo actually thought he was funny and so let him hang around in the evenings; or how the insects got confused when it was night but we had lights on under the big dining tent and so they would fly or hop onto our plates wondering what the heck was going on and what these big animals were doing swatting at them when clearly it was just a misunderstanding; or how we took a daytrip to the village of Turmi where there is a population of Hamer people and a fabulous market but it took us much longer to get there and back than expected and we (apparently) didn’t have the right permit (a tourist one…who knew?) and then it rained and we just barely beat the flash flood that went over part of the road on the way back near the giant, salty, dry lake of Chew Bahir; but there are really too many stories to tell and the e on this keyboard makes it a slow process, though I am being as patient as possible, and actually it’s not so bad…in fact it’s pretty funny. But still…I will just have to save my stories for those days when I feel inspired to tell them to one or two of you. And you know, I may write one last entry when I get home. Only a couple more days now. It’s hard to believe.

Tomorrow morning (Monday) I will hop on a train and go back to Paris where I will stay for one night with eliza’s cousin. I will visit with my friend Virginia while there (she’s doing a language intensive this summer), and then on Tuesday afternoon I will head out to Charles de Gaulle and go home. Home…home to my sweetheart, home to my kitties, home to my family and friends…it’s a good place to go. But I’m grateful that I get to take these opportunities to be apart for a bit…I recommend it to everyone.

And on that somewhat schmaltzy note, I bid you adieu…I will probably write when I get home, but who knows…maybe not. I’ll see how I feel.

Ciao…gros bisous…selam.


Aaaand….we’re back…and it’s still raining in Addis

Hey folks,

This will be short despite the massive amount of information that I need and want to convey. I will start by saying that I am back in Addis for a few days now and it’s just as cold and rainy as it was before we left for the field, if not more so. The field was hot and sunny most of the time…”tinnish zenab” (a little rain). I did get some color, but not on my legs because I always had to wear long pants when we went out for the day. It’s very bushy…not exactly the desert. Very different from Koobi Fora and Lake Turkana, but beautiful and wondrous in its own way. I’m kind of rambling here, so let me back track for a minute…

It was supposed to take us two days to get to our base camp near the Bala River in Southern Ethiopia. The nearest town is called Weyto…it’s kind of a truck stop of sorts. It actually took us four days to get to our base camp because of “bezu chiggers” (many problems). (My Amharic is waaaaay better than my Swahili ever was. But I am still very much a newbie.)

We had all kinds of car troubles. Mostly because one of the cars that we drove (the one I was in with the rest of the faranjis…that’s foreigners) was new to its owner (Mesfin…our main mechanic guy and all around Mr-fix-it and great guy). The car is actually several years old, but he’d only owned it for about a month. So little did he know that the rack sucked and that the alternator didn’t really work…etc. Needless to say we had things fixed on the road. We stayed in the town of Arba Minch for this purpose. And we were fortunate enough to stay at a swanky hotel called the Swaynes. It overlooks Nechisar Nat’l Park and is at around 1500 meters or so. Lower than Addis, but pretty high. Gorgeous place. Our cook, Achamo, is a cook for a tourist company called Greenland and they own this hotel, so we got a discount. Such a great place.

Anyway, we eventually made it down to Weyto and then got on the “road” to our base camp. Ideally this would take an hour to drive, but it is not a road that is driven much and there had been a lot of rain over past year, so the road was filled with problems. We had to stop several times. Oh…just one more bit of info: the other car (also Mesfin’s) was hauling a trailer…it had a bunch of water in it and weighed a couple of tons. Needless to say the trailer was the main obstacle on this road. We ended up having to drive in the dark and at one point, around 8:30pm or so, the trailer finally had had enough and tipped over….like totally…on its side. Sadly, I didn’t take a picture. I do regret this. Amazingly, most of our water survived. So long story short, we had to camp out right there by the “road”, under the stars, and deal with the trailer and stuff in the morning.

Once we got moving again in the morning we found that we were about 15 minutes away from our base camp. Kind of funny. So we got all set up. Erella and I built the shower (a tarp tied to a tree…we had sun showers) and put up the tents while Elizabeth, Mesfin, Rene, and Ambachew (Ministry of Culture and Tourism Rep) went to Jinka, a town about 3 1/2 hours away, to get yet another letter of permission so we could work in the area. The bureaucracy with the letters is insane. We had to get a letter in Addis, then take that to Awasa on the way down, get a letter in Awasa, then take the Awasa letter to Jinka to get another one…or something crazy like that.

Anyway…we did eventually get to work. And I will continue there next time. I need to let Elizabeth have her computer back now.

Oh…it’s Monday evening and I leave on Thursday at 3:25am…yikes. I may email again from here. If not, then I will write from France.
Wow…I’ll be in France in like 5 days! Crazy.


About to leave for the field…we hope

Hi everyone,

I am actually typing this offline because the internet connection is a bit wonky
tonight. It’s okay though…I may finish the email tomorrow. I’m actually not feeling too hot. Nothing major, just some more stomach problems. It comes with the territory. I should feel better in a day or two.

Right now it is Saturday evening and I’m alone in the house. EH and Luke (a PhD student from ASU) went to pick up one of the researchers who is coming with us to the field. He’s flying in from Nairobi. They may be at the airport for some time because apparently he didn’t get his visa ahead of time. We’re hoping that there won’t be any problems. He’ll be a really valuable person to have in the field – paleoecologist.

We went out for a super fancy dinner last night at a place called Castelli. It’s a real live Italian restaurant…leftover from that darn Italian occupation back in the late ’30s. Actually, I don’t know if the place is really that old, but the Italian influence goes back to those days. The food was very yummy…especially the dessert! Tiramisu…mmmm….

There were 8 of us at dinner: EH, her former advisor Bill, Bill’s student Luke, me, and 4 others, 3 of whom were new to us. The one who was not new was this nice man named Mike who is a U.S. diplomat, and a former archaeologist (at least that’s what he has a PhD in, but I don’t think he ever had a job as an archaeologist. Anyway, it’s a long story, but we met him last week because he is a friend of Kay’s (the other researcher who was with us last week). So. Mike’s sister was in town as was his sister’s friend….plus a young man named Casey whose connection to the whole crowd is unclear.

These are all boring details of course, but the point is that it was an interesting and fun group and we had a very good time. Nice chianti. Sadly, I woke up not feeling so hot. But I suspect that the culprit is not the fine Italian restaurant.

In any event, I spent several hours napping today. Woohoo! I felt really bad because EH needed my help with packing and I was pretty useless. I fully intend to feel better tomorrow.

And on that note I actually think that I WILL finish this tomorrow when I’m feeling more chipper.


Ah…the wonders of a good night’s sleep and a phone call with the one you love. I feel much better…not 100%, but significantly improved.

Today we are packing. We’re leaving a bunch of stuff here. For instance, I really don’t need a skirt in the field, nor do I need my research material, or my nice strappy sandles. So all that stuff gets to stay and my big backpack is easily the lightest it’s ever been.

Rene and Erella, the two researchers who joined us last night and this morning, respectively, are super nice and I’m really looking forward to hanging out with them for the next week and a half. Erella has to leave us about 2/3 of the way through and I think Rene may leave then too. They both have other obligations to fulfill, but we’ll have them with us until July 8th. Erella is an archaeologist and I already mentioned that Rene is a paleoecologist. At least I think I have that right. Our geologist flaked out on us. So unfortunate. Lord knows I am not a geologist. I can tell the difference between a basalt and a chalcedony, but beyond that I’m not much help.

And so it goes.

What else. We had a lovely lunch today at the house…lots of leftovers and creative mixing of stuff such as bread and cheese, and a tomato/onion/avacado salad with this fabulous rock salt that probably came from the Danakil Depression which is one of the hottest places on earth and one that I am intensely curious about. I’ve seen pictures of it…it looks like what I imagine Venus to look like. Surreal colors…oranges, blues… and smooth, almost cloud-like landscape shapes…and about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Yikes.

Our field site, down south, won’t be quite that hot. EH said that last year it was around 90+ each day. Not as hot as Koobi Fora was last year. So it will be pleasant.

I’m looking forward to the heat. Actually, today has been quite nice…and it’s a good thing because we have to pack everything up.

Ah, Mesfin just arrived. He’s kind of a “do it all” man. We rented his cars (one land cruiser and one Nissan something or other) and he’ll drive one of them to the field. EH or Rene will likely drive the other. He’ll also fix stuff, buy stuff…and just generally help out with everything. He’s been with IHO in the field many times and he went with EH last year. Really sweet man. Ethiopian…has a wife and a few kids. His english is pretty good so when I’m not badgering EH for amharic translations I can badger Mesfin. He’s very good about it.

I am hoping to get a chance to drive one of our 4WD vehicles while I’m here, but we’ll see. It’s been awhile since I drove a stick, but it’s like riding a bike, right??? 🙂 Well, it hasn’t been THAT long. And besides, how else will I learn? It’s not like there are lots of off-roading opportunities in Brooklyn.

I finished up my research on Friday. Well…okay, maybe “finished” is a strong word. I finished with the monkey bones that I was playing with, but there are still more monkeys and other animals too that I’d love to look at. However, even if we get back with 5 days to spare in Addis, it will be difficult to do much more. I mean I could probably get the monkeys in, but maybe not any antilopes or other bovids. And it’s probably fine, but it would be nice to do more. It’s not just looking at the fossils that takes so long, it’s the photography and molds. I make little orange-colored molds of certain things like really cool marks that are bewildering to me or punctures that I’m confident were caused by some big kitty or hyaena. The molding material is actually dental impression material – ya know, like if the dentist makes a mold of your teeth for dentures or braces or whatever. It’s fun stuff. But it holds the greases from my skin and then that gets on the fossils, so I have to use a Wet One before using it otherwise I’m left with greasy fossils…no good.

The bathroom situation in Addis hasn’t been too bad (I know, major change in subject matter…I’m stream of conciousness here), some long drops, some toilets (always bring your own toilet paper), but I’ll be glad to get out into the field where our toilets are whatever secluded spots we find. We’ll have a shovel of course. But no long drops this year. With only 10 people in camp there’s really no point in digging a latrine. Each to his/her own. Chigger yeulleum. That’s “no problem” in amharic. Good phrase to know.

Our bathing will be with sunshowers. And after our Addis water runs out (we’re taking several massive barrels), we’ll get water from the river nearby. It’s fast-moving so the water should be pretty good. I hear there are some crocs, but not as big as Lake Turkana crocs. Shouldn’t be too much of a problem as long as we keep our eyes peeled for lumpy rock-looking things floating in the water. No worries.

It’ll take two days to get to our camp. We leave bright and early tomorrow morning (assuming all goes well, and it usually doesn’t but I’m still optimistic). We’ll arrive in camp (theoretically) on Tuesday afternoon. Not too bad a trek, really. And we have some computer speakers that “should” work with the ipods in the car. EH has an adapter that we can use with the car lighter to plug the speakers in. It’ll be quite the contraption I’m sure.

Well, this is pretty friggin’ long, so I’ll stop. I will write again in a few weeks. Maybe two weeks, maybe three. Not really sure how long we’ll be out there. So I’m sure I’ll have plenty to talk about then!!

Much love to you all.

On a cold, rainy night from Addis….

Hello all,

Well, to my great surprise, I will be unable to use my blog this time
around. I do believe that the Ethiopian government has a block on it
(yes, this is a government-run server). Who’da thunk it? Thank goodness for my wonderful web host!

And so it goes…
(in memoriam of K. Vonnegut)

I am sitting in the IHO house. IHO stands for Institute for Human Origins. I’m not clear on the specifics, but it’s basically part of the Biological Anthropology department at Arizona State University. Without boring you with the historical details, the IHO folks have been digging around in Ethiopia for several decades and have a great set up here…house, land cruisers, the works. My advisor, Elizabeth (from here on out known as “EH” because it’s faster to type it), went to ASU so she’s basically an IHO alumnus. Therefore, she gets access to cool stuff and I do too as her student. Not a bad deal, if I may say so.

For those of you who don’t know what the heck I’m doing here, let me quickly explain. I’m doing two things:

1.) Data collection for my MA thesis which is a study of some 3.4
million year old hominins (Australopithecus afarensis…same species as Lucy), and some other animals from the same time/place. I am looking at the damage on the bones, with particular interest in any tooth marks that may have come from carnivores like big kitties or hyaenas.

2.) Going to the field with EH – she has a new site in southern Ethiopia called Bala. It’s exploratory research, so no digging, just poking around on the surface and seeing if anything looks promising. Last year she and her colleagues found some stone tools and some animal bones, but nothing with cut marks. Maybe this time!

So that’s why I’m here. And after about 6 weeks here, I’ll move on to France for a few days to visit some friends. I feel very fortunate, to be sure.

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, for those of you not up on your African geography, is pretty high up (in altitude)…kinda like Nairobi. Which is a good thing because I don’t have to take any malaria drugs…yet. I’ll need them in the field. Oh well. Better drugs and no malaria than no drugs and sicky. Anyway, Addis Ababa means “new flower” in Amharic (national language). And it really is a beautiful city. Yes, there are lots of shacks made with mud and rusty corrugated metal roofs, but there are lovely green mountains all around and in fact the city is quite hilly. It’s chilly now because we’re at the beginning of the rainy season. It rains every day without fail. Usually in the afternoon. So it’s nice and sunny in the morning, warm by 10 or 11am, stays warm till around 2 or 3pm and then you begin to hear the thunder. It’s like clockwork…about 90% of the time (actually, on Sunday it waited till about 6pm to rain! Such a treat.). Then it’s usually pretty wet until late at night. Temps are probably in the upper 40s at night. Not so bad really, but certainly not what one expects when coming to Africa. I had to buy a sweater. It’s kinda cute…has a hood.

I’m eating pretty well…okay, yes I had some minor stomach problems already, but nothing tragic. Just a little new food and new bacteria. The local food is pretty good, but I’m not a huge fan of injera, the bread. I’m sure many of you have had this so I don’t need to explain, but it’s a bit sour and I’m not big on sour. Having said that, I’ve had Ethiopian food twice in the last week and I did eat some injera both times. I will continue to do so. But I’ll also have “dabbo” (that’s bread…as in pasty white, completely devoid of nutrition, wonder-like bread). Sometimes you have to ease into these things.

The rest of the time we eat things like pasta, salads, pizza…ya know, stuff like at home. No thai, 😦 but lots of hot and spicy stuff. 🙂

Collecting data at the museum is going really well and it’s an amazing opportunity. Not too many master’s students get to manhandle hominin fossils. Of course I’m very gentle. They’re really beautiful and I have in fact found some nice chewed up bones. Now I’m looking at monkey bones and I may look at some other animals too…some hooved critters. Depends on time…I really only have one more week to collect data unless we leave the field early in which case I can squeeze in a few more days. Have to wait and see.

The only drawback to the museum is the hominin room – it’s moldy and cold cold cold. Not fun. But now I’m in the faunal room and it’s a bit nicer. Big, newer, not so much in the mold department. The big drawback there is the disorganization of the fauna. Many of the animal bones are not labeled well and the drawers are not labeled by species or even genus or even family sometimes! Geez! Some drawers are only labeled by the date and the field expedition…that’s all fine and good for some people maybe, but not for me. Alas, it means that I’ll spend a lot of time just searching for stuff. Ho hum. And then…there’s the dust. Whew! Somebody give me a feather duster! These poor fossils. It can’t be good for them. But I’m not complaining….I am really happier than a clam to be here.

And speaking of cool fossils…I got to see Lucy. She’s such a pretty little thing. My goodness. And if you don’t already know, she’s coming to the US…on tour. Not sure of the various localities, but I know that Houston and Chicago are two of them. Just so you can plan.

What else…well, I should probably wrap it up in fact, but I did want to tell you one other little bit. We ate at this lovely Armenian place the other night…the Armenian Sports Association I think it’s called. The food was fantastic, but the music…well, they seem to only have one song: a muzak version of that cheesie Eric Clapton song “Tears in Heaven” or whatever the heck it’s called. They played it, it stopped for a few minutes, and then it was back on again. In fact I’ve noticed that several of the restaurants here, especially the ones that cater to “faranjis” (foreigners), are really into the western muzak. Curious.

And on that note, I need to get some sleep. I will (hopefully) write once more before we leave for the field on Monday 6/25.

And as for pictures (because I realize that I never really sent y’all a link to my Kenya pics), well I’ll post’em. I promise. Actually, many of my Kenya pics ARE posted on a website, so if you are curious, go take a look. Go to my website and follow the trail of relevant links starting with “travel”:

Love to you all,