one last word from nairobi

I realized at some point late last night that I had omitted my snake story from my previous blog. It’s a good one so I had to write one last entry.

One of the instructors in the field school, Connor, who had been a student the previous year, was awoken at 3am one night by a most likely startled, spitting cobra biting his forearm. Yes, that’s right. A cobra bit him. Luckily for Connor, he’s a very tough guy…not a small man, and raised on a farm, so we are very fortunate that it was him as opposed to one of the young ladies, many of whom were quite petite. As I understand it, Connor did not sleep with a mosquito net. Now, a snake can probably bite through a net but let’s think about how the snake got to him in the first place. Snakes don’t bite people for fun. They do it as a defense. But Connor was sleeping. So what happened? A mystery, but it may have been that the snake was slinking around the bed looking for a nice rodent to eat or a warm place to coil up and was checking out the top of the bed when Connor moved and startled the snake. The snake reacted as snakes do by biting him. I was not at base camp when the snake bite incident occurred. I was at Ileret, but from what I hear, it went something like this…

Snake bit Connor around 3am. He yelled that a snake had bit him. Steve thought Connor was just dreaming but I guess Steve or someone else woke up and went to see what happened (this part is not entirely clear to me). Once the proper people were informed they called the flying doctors on the satellite phone and decided what to do. Because it was the middle of the night and the nearest airstrip is too short for the doctors’ plane, Jack and a couple of chaperones drove poor Connor to Allia Bay where there is another, longer airstrip. That is a two hour drive. So the poor kid is suffering, venom is making him a little crazy, and apparently he is swearing quite a lot and then apologizing a lot. The two chaperones, Jack and Chris M. went with Connor on the plane to Nairobi. Once on the plane, the doctors decided to hold off on giving him the anti-venin because I guess people can actually die if the incorrect dose/type is given. Speaking of which, Paul W. had killed the snake so that the doctors would know precisely what kind of snake had bit him.

I heard that Paul poured boiling hot water on the snake and then just banged the hell out of it. Interesting. If I have not mentioned it previously, Paul is my hero.

So. That’s the snake story. Oh…well, at the hospital Connor finally got the anti-venin and then flew home a few days later where he will be getting (or has already gotten) a skin graft because the skin around the bite had become necrotic. Yikes.

What’s the moral of the story? Sleep with a mosquito net if you sleep in the bandas at KF base camp. It may not protect you from a snake bite but it might keep the snake from getting close enough in the first place. I did sleep with a net, so no worries there. Lots of people apparently moved out of the bandas after that. Or some people did. From what I hear.

One last word…and this is really directed to a couple of specific people…I finally ate at Haandi! One of the best Indian spots in Nairobi. So now I have eaten at Haandi, Open House and Smokeys. I have eaten almost nothing but Indian food for the past 4 days. Can’t get enough of it. It’s the best! Short of going to India that is.

Okay. I should go. It’s only 2:20pm here but I think I’ll go buy some coffee beans to bring home and sit and read Darwin for a bit. Mmmm….Kenyan coffee. Good stuff. My flight isn’t until 10:05pm but I need to take a shower and my friend Jen’s place before we go to the airport as well so…stuff to do. Must run.

Until I next travel…


I know it’s time to go home when I start complaining

I was having lunch at the Savannah coffee shop on the grounds of the National Museums of Kenya and I was getting crabby about the slow service. So I know it’s time to go home. Usually I am very patient and chill about such things when I’m over here but today…nope. And it wasn’t really even a big deal. I ordered a salad and it actually came within a perfectly reasonable time but there was no dressing on it. Or I couldn’t taste it anyway (they said there was dressing on it). So I asked for a bit of dressing on the side. And I waited really only for a few minutes but I just wanted to eat that salad and so I was feeling very impatient. Especially because my friends had already finished their food. So anyway…it’s time to go home. Oh and the dressing finally came but it turns out that it was mostly oil, very little vinegar, and that’s why I couldn’t taste it on the salad in the first place.

I guess it doesn’t help that there was no water this morning and since I did not shower yesterday I’m a bit grimey. Ho hum. It’s not a big deal in fact. That’s why I always have a healthy supply of wet ones on hand. But I guess the lunch thing on top of the no shower thing left me feeling a bit crabola.

I’m happier now than I was at lunchtime though. I went for a post-lunch walk into the center of the city and am now at a cyber cafe at the Nakumatt which is kind of like a big Wal-Mart/mall kind of place. I figured I might as well use up my time in the city by exploring on foot. It’s my thing. I like to study maps and then walk around whenever I’m in a foreign place.

What else. God, can I backtrack? I’m not sure. Hang on…must quickly skim previous blogs…..

Okay…skimming complete.

Looks like I never even got to the point of discussing the KF field season! Geez. Well, let’s see. Once at KF base camp I was assigned to a banda with my friend Melanie. The bandas are made of large stones and cement with thatched roofs and some chicken wire in between roof/wall to help keep snakes at bay. And there were many snakes this year. More on that in a minute.

The students had a few days of lectures which I happily helped out with although I did not actually give any lectures. Instead I kind of helped explain things after the fact. Especially the bone stuff. We have a decent comparative collection of modern animal bones at base camp which is very helpful for teaching.

After a few days the camp was split up. I went to Ileret with a small group of people to set up camp there and the rest of the people coming to Ileret joined us the following day. The other half of the group (actually fewer than half…I think it was 45 people at Ileret, 35 at base camp) stayed at Koobi Fora to excavate footprints at Area 103. It’s a site where Kay Behrensmeyer found footprints about 30 years ago and they were looking to see if there were any more. Kay, if I have not mentioned her previously, is a taphonomist with training in geology. She was in Ethiopia with EH and me back in 2007 for about a week. Brilliant scientist and very nice woman. Moving along…

Excavations at Ileret were supposed to last two weeks but ended up lasting three weeks. Now, I like being in the field and all, but Ileret is tough living and we were not thrilled about the extension at first, but in the end we made the most of it. The biggest issue really was that we were out of peanut butter (one of our main sources of breakfast and lunchtime protein) and running out of water quickly. The peanut butter thing sucked but was do-able. The water thing? No. So we had to arrange for some of the drivers to go to a place called Jaragoli to get more water from the well there. It’s a two to three day mission. They had to drive to KF base camp, spend the night, get up early the next morning, drive to Jaragoli, get water (which takes hours), and then drive back to Ileret. I actually don’t recall how many days it took but it was quite an ordeal. This is drinking water, by the way. We bathe in the lake.

We found more footprints at Ileret. Animal prints, hominin prints. Very nice stuff. Some of the bird prints are massive…must have been huge storks or pelicans or something. I probably should not talk too much about the stuff we found because it’s not published yet, but the people at KF base camp also found some nice fossils…including some hominin bits. But again…can’t give details. Sad.

After the first week at Ileret, the student groups switched and the people at KF came to Ileret and vice versa. But we staffies were to stay put. Which really was fine because I was with several of my favorite people such as my buddy Wayne, Jenna, DJ Green, Andrew, and others. Maybe I’ll try to post some pics at some point. No promises though. 🙂

Part of the reason that Ileret is so harsh is the combo of the intense heat (at least 110 F every day) and the powerful wind blowing fine dust around everywhere. At the end of each day you are hot, filthy, and thirsty. The glory of the bath in the lake is the equivalent to a really fabulous chocolate dessert after not eating chocolate for a year…or for those of you not into sweets, it’s like taking a hot shower on a cold winter morning…or eating your favorite food…I keep thinking in terms of food.

Speaking of food. There is this phenomenon at KF wherein all of us feel so deprived of our favorite foods that we begin “food porn.” Basically we sit around and talk about all the foods we crave. It’s dangerous business. You don’t want to start doing it too early in the field season because at first the camp food is really fine. I mean the cooks do an amazing job with their limited resources. But by about the 3rd or 4th week in you are really craving something different…something from home…something with more sugar or fat or salt or whatever…and the food porn chats just begin. It’s so easy to slip into it without thinking. You dream of food. It’s a bit crazy. In fact, when Andrew and I got to Olduvai we kept going on and on about how impressed we were with the food because at Olduvai you get fresh veggies and fruit. Something that KF lacks after the first few days. Reason is that KF is too far away from any farming towns that fruits/vegs are just not accessible unless they are flown in. But Olduvai is two hours from the nearest town (Karatu) and the soil there is relatively fertile from what I can tell probably because they are volcanic soils. So Olduvai was like a luxury hotel compared with KF, although not in every way. For instance, KF base camp has running water that gets pumped up from the lake. At Olduvai you take sun showers (for those who don’t camp, that is a large plastic bag with a shower spigot…you lay the bag in the sun during the day so the water gets warm) and only every other day…and the air in the evening is cool enough and it’s windy enough that you are cold despite the warm water. But no complaints. Olduvai had lovely canvas tents that we got to share with other grad students. My roomie was a woman named Lis R. who is from Liverpool and studies carbonate isotopes. So I got to learn stuff which was cool. In fact I learned a lot.

New paragraph…that last one was too long. I did learn a lot. Alright, enough about KF. If you’ve read my previous blogs you’ve heard most of it before. Olduvai…so micromammals. Yes, there is a researcher who studies these little critters (rodents, shrews, etc.) because they can give a finer resolution to paleoecological reconstructions. Little critters live in relatively small spaces…I mean they don’t venture far afield. They kind of stay in their little habitat area, some of which are fossorial (burrowers…like groundhogs and the like). Anyway, when you find them in the fossil record, which isn’t that common, but does happen, it can provide another layer of ecological info to your reconstruction of the past environment. Kinda cool. Andrew and I were given the task of going through literally thousands of tiny little bones to pull out the specific ones that were needed for the analysis. Then we had to clean them. Then we had to clean all the macromammals, birds and stone tools. It was a long slog but in the end we actually learned quite a lot.

Speaking of learning…we also got our first real taste of excavating with dental picks. It’s such a cliche but in fact archaeologists and paleoanthropologists sometimes really do require dental picks and brushes! So that was fun. I have also been told by Rob, my advisor, that I should have my very own excavation kit, dental pick included. He said to ask my dentist for old used picks. Who knew?

Well, this is quite long so I think I’d better wrap it up.

Oh…my flight was changed by the way. Delta cancelled all of their direct flights between Nairobi and Atlanta so they re-routed me. I was supposed to leave tonight. Now I’m leaving tomorrow night (24th) at 10:05pm. Getting into EWR at 9:13pm on the 25th. It will be a 3-flight trip instead of two. And I’ll have two 5 hour layovers but one of them will be in Amsterdam, which is a very nice airport. I wish it were all 10 hours in that city because then I could go explore! Oh well. Maybe next time.

Not sure if I’ll write again or not, but I will try and post some pics as soon as possible once I get home.

Safari njema to me (save journey).

oh my goodness…where to begin

It has been a whirlwind tour this summer. I’m not sure if I can choose where to pick up the story again. I am back in Nairobi at the easy surf internet cafe in the illustrious sarit center mall. It really is quite nice. In fact I just had lunch with my buddy Andrew at the Java House Cafe where I had an excellent cappuccino and chicken burrito. Really really yummy. Quite impressive. Practically New York prices, but hey, sometimes you have to treat yourself, no?

Here are a few highlights of the last few weeks:
1. Olduvai Gorge at any time of the day is stunning…truly gorgeous…it rivals the beauty of Lake Turkana, but is on a different scale. Olduvai (or rather Oldupai which is the correct masaai spelling…actually means the place of ‘dupai’ which is masaai for the sisal plants that grow everywhere there…sharp, thick succulent-like things…they can seriously gorge you if you are not careful)…Olduvai is a massive y-shaped gorge west of the rift valley in Tanzania and is bordered by several volcanoes to the north and east (at least one of which is still active) and the serengeti to the west. In fact the serengeti plains start at the gorge. Pretty cool. The plains are ash plains so that there is actually volcanic ash in the soil and the dirt on the ground is quite ashy in color and texture. The main gorge is probably 20km in length…huge, but in fact the fossiliferous area is small compared with the scale of Koobi Fora which is an entire region of east Turkana. Anyway, one of the neat things about Olduvai is that there are plenty of animals in the area. One morning Andrew and I were walking down into the gorge and there were 4 giraffes (masaai race) browsing just outside our camp.

2. Staying at the old Leakey Camp at Olduvai – this is the actual camp where Mary and Louis Leakey did there work. Where Mary lived out her years after Louis died. It has a rich history in terms of the buildings and even the people who work there. Two generations of staff (Masaai and others…can’t remember the other tribal affiliation) have been associated with the camp. So many wonderful stories. For instance, Mary at one point had a pet wildebeest and a pet vervet monkey in addition to her precious dalmations. Apparently the wildebeest liked charging into the tents of young ladies as they were getting ready to bathe. This was probably in the 1940s and 50s.

3. Arusha Conference – Arusha is a lovely little city…much more laid back than Nairobi, if less convenient. Andrew and I were able to stay at the apartment of one of the conference organizers, Jackson. He is one of Rob’s former students. Really nice man. Such a sweetie. He was in the field with us too. He’s been working at Olduvai for at least 13 years. Anyway, Arusha was lovely. At the foot of Mt. Meru, west of Kilimanjaro (which I never saw), it’s a mountain town with a big masaai community from what I could tell. But it’s pretty mixed. I only saw part of it since we were at the conference every day. The conference was a lot of fun. Only about 80 people attended which was a perfect size because it gave you the opportunity to meet lots of people and share the experience with them. I met many new people, some of whom I think will become good friends and colleagues.

4. Micromammals – Andrew and I had the wonderful job of sorting through micromammals at Olduvai. And I will have to elaborate on that later because I just realized that I am supposed to be meeting him at this very minute! We are heading back to the museum so he can do some work.

More soon…