Sunday, November 22, 2009

Approaching Peru

Time for a bit of looking forward rather than looking behind: I will be in Peru 6 weeks from tomorrow. My preparations are, well, slowish, but going. So far:

Plane tickets. I have my plane tickets to fly from home to Lima, and from Lima to Puerto Maldonado. I also have my ticket from Lima home (through Panama City, how cool is that?!?), but no ticket yet from Puerto to Lima.

Packing. Hahah! Hah! I just ordered a sweet backpacking backpack which will hopefully take me all around the world. As far as things to put IN the backpack ... well ... I'll get on that. I realized that I should have bought for this trip over the summer. There aren't going to be a lot of things for hiking in 110 degree heat available for purchase in NH right now. I will be able to get gum boots, though!

Medical things. I am almost all vaccinated. Most of my vaccines are still updated from various trips to Kenya. I think the closest thing to "expiration" is my typhoid vaccine, which is only good for five years, but I got that in April of 2008, so I'm still good for a while. I'm one shot into the three shot rabies pre-exposure vaccine. I have yet to drop off my prescriptions for an epi-pen (in case I'm allergic to a new and exciting stinging thing), malaria meds, and cipro, but I'm going to do that as soon as I'm back after Thanksgiving. I need to assemble a first-aid kit, and I need to buy a venom extractor.

Monkey-specific things. I've got my fancy binoculars all squared away. I need to get a watch, a small LED headlamp, and a strong headlamp.

I'd also like to get a waterproof notebook thing to use as a personal journal. And silica gel. And a waterproof laptop case?? (Does that even exist?)

This isn't too overwhelming. No problem! I'm really looking forward to this. Not being in St. Louis will be a happy change, I think.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Coincidences

We spent a lot of time prospecting for fossils as the second half of the season rolled around - the areas close to camp had been picked pretty clean. So one day, we began heading north. I don't remember how it was discovered, but for some reason, about a 40 minute drive north from camp over basalt scree, there was a road! The Inexplicable Road, as it became known, was just south of Dark Mountain, which in turn was just south of Dome Mountain.

The first day we went up around Dome Mountain, we all split off to prospect basically on our own. I ended up walking with Jen for a while, not being very successful at finding fossils on my own. Suddenly, we saw a Turkana woman sitting under a tree. She watched us approach, a dog sitting next to her. I waved and, since this was the day after I started Turkana lessons, yelled out, "Ejoka!" She waved me over. Jen continued prospecting, and I went over to the woman. "Ejoka noi," she responded. Then she looked at my backpack and the nalgene full of water. "Ng'akipi?" I knew what that meant! I gave her my water bottle and she drank the rest of the water that was there.

She started speaking to me in Turkana. Of course, I didn't know any other Turkana, and I didn't really know how to say "I don't know Turkana" in Turkana, so I said it in Swahili, and asked if she spoke Swahili. "Sijui Kiturkana, pole. Unajua Kiswahili?" She only spoke it a little, but between her minimal Swahili and my super super minimal Turkana, and the power of expansive gestures, I talked to her for probably 45 minutes or an hour She asked what I was doing, and I said we were looking for rocks that were bones from a long time ago (I have no idea what the actual word for fossil is in Swahili). She warned me that a sorceror lived on Dome Mountain and, while the rocks over where we were were were OK, the rocks on the other side were bad. After a little while, she said she had to go to the goats, so we said goodbye.

About two or three weeks later, we headed back up north to check out an area further north. Tab wanted to check and see how far the Inexplicable Road went. The wazungu went in one car, the Kenyans in the other, and we drove off. We came to the end of the road, but decided to push on a little more to get to a high point so we could look out and see if there were any more exposures. The Kenyans kept going, and Tab sort of grumbled about it, but we drove past a small Turkana settlement, parked the cars, and began climbing up this hill.

We could see so far from the top of that hill - if I recall correctly, we could see all the way to the southern part of Lake Turkana - but didn't see very many potential exposures, so we turned around to head back down. We could see a row of people sitting alongside our car as we came down, and Matthew went over to talk to them. They said that one of women had just had a baby, but the baby was sick. Tab went over to look at the baby, and it turned out he had a cleft palate. The women said he was too weak because he couldn't breastfeed because of his mouth. The mama looked terrified. She was probably my age, with at least two other kids. The Turkana guys were pretty wonderful - apparently cleft palates are relatively common and there is an organization that funds surgeries for Turkana kids, and they were all telling the mother stories of children they knew who had the operation and were now fine. It was decided that we'd come back for the mother that afternoon, explain the situation to her husband, and then bring her back to camp with us and ultimately take her to the health clinic in Lokichar for them to look at the baby.

We turned back down the Inexplicable Road and arbitrarily turned off the road onto a big expanse of metamorphic rock. Our path (avoiding big rocks and especially tree trunks, which had destroyed a tire earlier that week) was circuitous, but took us past a couple of Turkana houses. We drove past a little boy who ran as fast as he could in the other direction, and past another house - and standing outside of it was the woman I'd met earlier! We parked the cars a ways beyond the house, but she and her five children came over to say hello. It was absolutely the coolest thing in the world! She gave me a hug, and called me "Lokone" which is Turkana for friend, and explained to John Mark that she'd met me earlier. I met her youngest daughter, and pet the dog, and it was ... really awesome. She also had already heard that we were taking the mama and cleft-palate baby to Lokichar.

We spent the rest of the day collecting, and decided to send the Kenyan car to get this woman and not inundate the family with a big group of wazungu. We waited up by the inexplicable road. At one point in time, an older Turkana man came by and asked us to give him tobacco (EVERYONE in Turkana chews tobacco, and we brought some for the local town council at Loperot, where we got our water. One of the geologists in the first part of the field season also chews tobacco, and caused a big stir in Lokichar by taking some from the store where we bought it and chewing) - turns out he'd heard about Neil and the tobacco. Unfortunately, we didn't have any tobacco, so he headed off to find his goats.
Boniface said that the smaller stick he was holding was to use on his wives, but I don't entirely believe that.

After a little while longer, the Kenya truck came, and we drove back off to camp. The mama and baby slept with the folks who lived right around our camp - incidentally, the brother of one of the guys on our field crew was basically in charge of the settlement we were living next to, so Martin got her situated. The next day, we drove her into town to talk to the people at the health clinic in Lokichar. A few days later, we drove her back out home, up north. They gave her medicine for the baby and told her to come back to the health clinic in three or four months and they'd do the first operation on the baby.

That was probably the end of July, so hopefully by this point in time the baby has had his first operation. I keep wondering what would have happened if the Kenyan truck hadn't kept going a little while longer after Tab was ready to stop... and why the heck we pulled off the Inexplicable Road to drive right past my friend's house!

Organizations that fund and perform cleft palate surgeries:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mid-Season Break

To preface - I apologize for tense disagreements!

We got to the field on June 22. The whole field season stretched before me ... and Tab promised I'd get two days off mid-season to go into Lodwar. Lodwar is the biggest city in West Turkana. It's got a huge Catholic diocese, and is the base for a lot of the NGOs that operate in Turkana - Worldvision and Oxfam come to mind. The other big organization that operates through Lodwar is the United Nations High Commision on Refugees. Lodwar is the closest town to Kakuma, one of the continents' largest refugee camps, and a lot of workers and supplies come through Lodwar. Getting nearly run off the road by a UN convoy was a (hopefully) once in a lifetime experience!

As well as being home base for all of these organizations, Lodwar was a land of legend: a land of electricity and internet, of soda made baridi without my wet socks, of international phone calls and newspapers only one day old. Lodwar was the only place I saw a white person I didn't know outside of Nairobi, the only place in Turkana I saw a natural body of running water, and the only place moist enough to support a cockroach population (they were doing quite well for themselves trying to make up for the rest of Kakuma).

I went into Lodwar with B. (a museum employee who was responsible for the discovery of the first fossil at our field site back in the 80s) John Mark and Boniface (the two younger Turkana guys), John Mark's 17-year-old sister and her baby, and another Turkana woman whose relationship to everyone I'm not entirely sure of. Lodwar is about a 2 and a half hour drive from camp - 1.5 to Lokichar, then another hour to Lodwar. The best part about the drive was that the roads were frequently paved! After crossing an incredibly surreal river (the Turkwell River which flows out of Lake Turkana), we made it to Lodwar Town. There is a basket weaving workshop, a roundabout, some grocery stores and general supply stores, and then past town center you get to the hotels. The Turkwell Lodge and the New Splash Hotel were the two biggest ones - I stayed at the New Splash Hotel (in the room Libya). A really nice room - a comfy chair, a big bed, a bright blue mosquito net (because of the Turkwell River, there are mosquitos), a ceiling fan, and a toilet and shower INSIDE MY ROOM!

Lodwar was full of ridiculousness, including:
My first serious proposal of the summer
Making friends with Elizabeth
Making a baby cry because of how scary and white I was
Boniface's drunken shenanigans
Spending 2 hours at the welding store with B while they fixed the boot of our truck

But the most ridiculous event of all was ABSOLUTELY the trip to Lake Turkana. So Lodwar is about an hour drive from Kalakol, a village/town right on Lake Turkana. The guys were adamant that I *had* to go see Lake Turkana while I was there, and in fact we'd all go on the second day we were in Lodwar Town. John Mark never showed up, and Boniface's sister had apparently been sick so he couldn't come - so it was me and B. We ran some errands in the morning, but left Lodwar at about 11. He pointed out some other exposures that they'd explored in previous field seasons, I took pictures of vast expanses of desert, we talked about marriage and cultural differences between different ethnic groups in Kenya and in the US, and so on.

We finally got to Kalakol, and found our way in the general direction of the lake. B wasn't sure exactly where to go, but we picked up a guy along the way who said he'd point us in the right direction. Incidentally, I was watching this news report on Youtube (partially in Swahili, sorry) about Lake Turkana, and our guy is the fisherman wearing all blue. I recognize the 60-year old that they spoke to as well - he was sitting and smoking pot on the beach when B and I drove out there. The lake itself is really quite beautiful, and it was really bizarre to know that I was in the middle of the desert, and here was this HUGE lake so wide you can't see across it, and so long (with strong winds and frequently bad weather...and crocodiles) it takes the fishermen a week or so to get to the southern tip from the halfway point of Kalakol.
Western shore of Lake Turkana by miocyon.

By this point in time, B and I had caused quite a stir on the beach, and a bunch of early teenage guys had showed up and were following us around. Meanwhile, our original guide was sharing the pot with the old guy. B chose this moment to tell me, "Oh, by the way, I forgot to fill up on diesel before we left Lodwar and I don't think we'll have enough to get back. But don't worry - this is a national park. Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya National Museums are friends - they'll lend us some diesel!"

So we get back into the truck with our now-high fishing friend who takes us to the house of the chief warden of the National Park. Not his office, mind you - his house, where there are five little girls playing in the yard who run away screaming and in tears at the site of me. The warden comes outside and B explains the situation. The warden gets in to the front seat of the pickup (where I'd been sitting), tosses my backpack in the seat behind him, and directs us to the radio room - a round tin hut with a huge old CB-type radio. It turns out that they can't just give us diesel, or even sell it, without talking to the warden in charge of the whole district, and he in turn directs us to the warden at Mt. Elgon National Park - a day and a half drive from Lokichar, minimum. They want to know our names and affiliations, so I write it down on a piece of paper. I was waiting outside of the hut for everyone to come out when I hear over the radio, "Irene Brown, an mzungu who's working with the museum, needs to borrow some diesel." Don't ask me where they got Brown from - I wrote my last name very clearly!

Well, the warden at Mt. Elgon gave the warden here the OK for us to get 10 liters of diesel, which should be more than enough to get back to Lodwar, provided that we then buy 10 liters in Lodwar and deliver it to the KWS offices there. The Turkana warden commandeers my seat once again, and we drive right back down to the beach, where we displace two very old and frail looking Turkana from a shelter which is also sheltering drums apparently full of diesel that they use to power the KWS motorboat. Our high friend siphons the diesel out of the drum and into a jerry can using a piece of tubing and his mouth - I've never been so grateful for gas pumps before! After filling up the tank, a man wearing a bright yellow tanktop, crazy Hawaiian board shorts, and wrap around sunglasses comes over to ask if we're heading back towards Kalakol and if so could we transport him and someone else to a small settlement nearby. We oblige, and he goes over behind the shelter and hoists the oldest, sickest, frailest, most emaciated man I have ever seen onto his back. He and the old man, who is wearing only a plaid blanket around his waist, sit in the back seat. B tells me to get in the front again and the Turkana warden waves us off.

After about 10 minutes of driving, we get to the settlement where the two men wanted to be left, and let them out. I'm sure that the old man died by the end of that week. And ... we drive back to Lodwar.