Savanna (mis)adventures

– I have gotten up at 5:30 in the morning for the last seven days in a row.

– Oh, the joys of field work.

– I have also watched the sun rise up into the African sky like a fiery inferno and listened to the zebras complain to each other as I sat in the grass beneath a marula tree, calibrating my equipment.

– Oh, the joys of field work.

– I experienced a strange moment the other day. It was 7:30 in the morning, already an hour and a half into my working day, and I was driving through a herd of impala, stuffed into my beat up land cruiser with one working seatbelt and two seats with three other people (one of whom was carrying a loaded elephant rifle) along the Eastern border of South Africa. Realizing all of this in a single moment of clear introspection, I had to ask myself: How in the world did I get here?

– A plane, obviously, plus some other minor detours and modes of transportation, but that wasn’t how I meant it.  No, it was more a metaphysical question, or at least a probabilistic one. As a senior in high school I had only flown a handful of times; I didn’t have a passport, I could barely speak French. Now look at me. How did this happen, and who would have thought?

– A brief aside: since then I have actually spoken French in France to French people. This is a hitherto unrecognized achievement that I am belatedly quite proud of. Japan will be next.

– As any field researcher knows (or friend/family member who has been drafted by a field researcher knows, which I’m assuming is quite a lot of them), working in the field is a very masochistic experience. It sucks, quite frankly. Bad things, frustrating things, uncomfortable things, painful things, really really painful things, really really uncomfortable things- they happen a lot. A LOT. You complain about this more or less constantly, to yourself or your field assistants or your friends (but not to your boss), and you mean it. But then again you don’t really mean it, because in between slicing open your fingers on the power drill (check) and working your way through a thicket of acacia thorns at the speed of 2 feet per 15 minutes just so you can wrap a tape measure around its trunk and lose a pint of blood in the process (check), you get to watch two hyena cubs tumble past, or get stampeded by forty strange stripped mongoose looking things (did that just happen?), or wave at the tourists who are watching you (sick with jealousy) from the road as you leave your vehicle behind and waltz off into the veld, …or, you know, you find a small handful of chocolate Smarties at the bottom of your trail mix bag (Score!). And then you come home and tell everyone how crappy fieldwork is and how you’d never give it up for anything and you can’t wait to go back. Masochistic, right?

– For example: I was measuring stomatal conductance the other day (it’s a thing, don’t worry about it), which involves walking up to a tree, clamping a probe onto a leaf, and holding still for thirty seconds (wash, rinse, repeat), before moving on to the next one. Sounds straight forward, right? Well sometimes leaves aren’t very close to the ground, and sometimes you’re short. These things happen. But wait! I just happen to be a halfway decent tree climber, though then again I’m loaded down with about twenty pounds of equipment (attached via various straps or stuffed into numerous pockets). I could, of course, take off all of this equipment, but that would take about five or so minutes, plus the five or so minutes to put it all back on again, which doesn’t sound like a lot but it compounds on itself when you’re climbing fifteen or so trees and you only have four hours to get all the measurements done (because of reasons), and really field work is a lot like inertia: once it goes, it goes, and you can’t stop it because then it’s never going to start again. So the gear stays on, but this leads to other difficulties of the life and limb variety.  Anyway that’s the scene. And curtain…

– … It was a tall tree (Philenoptera violacea, or Appleleaf, named for the sound when you crunch them), and the leaves were not close, but there were several strategically placed branches. After squinting at potential routes of ascent from various angles I decided it was reasonable. (And it was; aside from a brief moment where I found myself sucker punched by the trunk, maintaining friction by thigh strength alone, but we’ll hurry past that part.) Upon finally attaining the canopy, I contorted myself into a more or less stable position (and since I need both hands free to work the equipment this results in some pretty strange geometries), found a likely leaf and began to take a reading. About half way through the first measurement, I felt my hip crunch through something that I originally took to be some flaking bark. I couldn’t look down, but I figured it was a termite tunnel (termites construct tunnels of dirt and saliva up the side of trees so they’re protected from predators while they harvest leaves and wood; humans employ similar tactics when they’re storming castle walls), and aside from feeling sort of bad that I may have squashed a few termites I didn’t give it a second thought. As I finished with the first leaf and started on the second one, I glanced down to check the damage and was confronted with the fascinating tableau of thousands upon thousands of red, pin-prick sized creatures swarming up my hip and side. They were ticks. I had smashed through a nest of ticks.

– Now, I was precariously balanced several meters off the ground and I had several observations and choices to make. Observation number one: Were the ticks going to reach my face? No, they were very very tiny, and couldn’t move very fast; it was unlikely they would get that high any time soon. Observation number two: How high was I really? Pretty high. And there was that asshole Sicklebush below me. Observation number three: I had several more readings to get through; how long would it take to get back up here and finish the measurements, especially since the reading I was on would be invalidated by  jumping out of a tree halfway through? A pretty long time. Ok. Choice number one: Jump or stay? Well, I’d probably kill myself if I jumped so that one wasn’t really a choice. Choice number two: Abort the measurement to do something about the ticks? There really wasn’t much I could do about the ticks while delicately balanced in a swaying tree, loaded down with twenty pounds of gear, so I might as well continue with the measurement. Choice number three: Flip the fuck out? This is only rarely productive; I decided to stay calm.

– So I actually remained in the tree another ten or so minutes while completing my measurements before carefully working my way back down. I would check the red tide of ticks periodically to keep track of their progress. After swarming to mid-waist they stalled out and started exploring in other directions. Several hundred were being smashed every time I shifted against the trunk, and they were sprinkled across my notebook like red pepper kernels, unhelpfully getting smashed and smeared there as well. The whole thing was pretty zen after awhile; I hadn’t known ticks lived in nests. I wondered if they were hibernating over the winter or hadn’t really been “born” yet, or just liked the companionship. You experience all sorts of interesting things while doing fieldwork, and you never know what’s going to come next; it makes walking out the front door in the morning quite a thrill. Oh, and the silver lining for all of this? It’s a pretty awesome view from up in those trees, not to mention the overall sensory experience (wind in leaves, dappled sunlight, etc), and the essence of the moment got clarified beautifully when I zenned out, waiting for my measurement to finish with ticks swarming up my side.

– I bet you thought I was going to fall out of the tree at the beginning of this, didn’t you?

– Other field experiences: I was collecting seeds when I suddenly registered the sound of a pervasive leaf rustling, best described as shush shush shush. Glancing down I realized I was in the middle of a termite foraging party (yes, real termites this time, no, this is not a bad or alarming thing, they’re quite harmless). It’s extremely rare to see termites out in broad daylight, they’re always hidden away in their nests or their tunnels. There were so many of them that the sound they made as they chewed on leaves was audible to the human ear, and if that doesn’t amaze you, it should, and you should get out more. I carefully stepped out of the foraging party but unfortunately I had already crushed a few, and there were two that were half-crushed but not yet dead. This saddened me, as I knew I should put them out of their misery but I’ve never been good at killing things (except ticks). As I was contemplating their fate, silent and melancholy, I was distracted by quick movement in the grass several feet from where I was standing. It was an ant, an alarmingly large one, not moving with the usual searching patterns but with a deliberate directionality that I’ve found to be quite rare in insects. Curious to see what it was going to do (if anything) I watched it make a bee-line for the semi-squashed termite, pounce on it with all the ferocity of a lion making a kill, and carry it away, still struggling, into the grass. I didn’t know quite how to feel about this; surprised, relieved, horrified? And in fact I never did settle on one, but that’s nature for you.

– I mentioned that asshole sicklebush earlier. I really have a love/hate relationship with this tree. As the name suggests, it’s covered in modified twigs that are extremely sharp and pointed, in fact they can actually puncture truck tires (and do). But they’re also extremely easy to identify (well sort of), and have fun seeds in twisty little pods that the vervets love (my seed collection has been raided a few times, but that’s another story). The scientific name is Dichrostachys cinnerea, or written in shorthand notation: DIC CIN. I am ashamed to say that I have used this nickname as a pejorative on a number of occasions, like when I land in one or it blocks my way to another tree. What else can you say when it rips your shirt, or carries out an on-going tic-tac-toe game on your arm? Well I don’t know what you would say but I tell it it’s a f*cking DIC and it f*cking knows it and okay maybe my frustration has reached unhealthy and unproductive levels.

– One day I’m going to look back on all of this and laugh. Ok that’s today, but one day I’ll probably miss it.

My kind of privilege

– After several more driving successes in and around Acornhoek, I was ready to test my newly acquired skills in real combat. It was time to drive to Kruger.

– Kruger National Park (which covers a land area the size of Israel) can be accessed via several, scattered gates, the closest of which is a two-hour drive from Wits Rural. However, an entire hour (or more) can be shaved off this time frame, if you’re willing to take the short cut.

– The normal route from Wits to Kruger (or put another way, the route recognized by google maps) forms three sides of an erratic trapezoid. In comparison, the “short cut” is a schizophrenic straight line that gets you from point A to point B across unmarked, unpaved, unmaintained, godforsaken, yet more or less scenic dirt roads behind every village in the greater Limpopo region. From the description, you can probably guess which route I took.

– Originally this wasn’t going to be a problem. Hloniphani was coming with me, and he had taken the short cut numerous times before. But then his committee meeting got rescheduled at the last minute. Goodbye Wendy, have fun with the mermaids.

– No, no, he didn’t just abandon me. In fact he employed some rather clever lateral thinking and sent his girlfriend, Rejoice, to show me the way instead. Rejoice was a pro. She had been to Kruger before. One time. Several months ago.

– Ok, yeah, he did just abandon me.

– You might be asking yourself, why was it so important I take the back way? Why couldn’t I just use the long way around on the main roads and rely on my google maps? The answer is mildly complicated but can be summed up thusly: I needed to get to Kruger before 8:00am for a very important meeting. The gates at Wits and Kruger are not open 24-7. They have very specific opening and closing times. Before or after those times you cannot get through them. My itinerary was such that, in order to work, I needed to get from Wits Rural to Kruger in as little a time as possible, given that my leaving time was restricted both by the opening of the Wits Rural and Kruger gates. Bottom line:

– I needed to take the short cut.

– “Short cuts make long delays.” – J. R. R. Tolkein

– I’m not giving Rejoice nearly enough credit. Quite frankly she blew my mind. This was not an easy route to remember, not by any stretch of the imagination, and after being taken to Kruger only once she was able to recall almost every car garage, crooked tree, discarded tire and ambiguous blue roadside arrow that pointed the way. That’s not to say that we didn’t get lost or make wrong turns. They happened occasionally and I would have the pleasure of becoming acquainted with yet another bumpy village road that was not on the original itinerary, but each time she realized we had gone astray in a more or less expedient fashion, would have us turn around or ask for directions or, if all else failed, called Hloniphani. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I would not have been able to manage any of these by myself, except for maybe calling Hloniphani, in which case the conversation would have gone something like: “Where are you?” — “Driving toward this big mountain that looks like the one from Rescuers Down Under.” — “What was the last turn you made?” — “… there was, a, tree?” — “What do you see now?” — “… A goat. This is fun. Ask me another one.”

– Besides the stress of needing to hit a schedule and not knowing where I was going, I actually found the drive quite enjoyable. There was the novelty and the intellectual challenge, as mentioned previously, but in addition there was the pure, defiant satisfaction that comes when men gape at you as you pass them by.

– A brief aside to explain this: Rejoice and I had been getting to know one another a little better, and aside from telling me about her educational and vocational plans, she also shared some of the frustrations of being a woman in rural South Africa. They are not encouraged to drive, for one. A woman behind the wheel is met with derision and ridicule, and if an accident or a mishap should occur, the fault is invariably blamed on the incompetence of her sex. However, the best way to sum up the situation is to relate a conversation she had with Hloniphani: She was trying to explain to him the importance of Women’s Day in South Africa; why the gesture is worthwhile and necessary and an important observance of all that women contribute to the country. Hloniphani replied with skepticism and incomprehension. ‘There’s no point to this Women’s Day. If we have that, then why don’t we have a Men’s Day?’
Because every day is Men’s Day, you bastard.

– But such is the cultural reality, and I’m just here to sample trees, not fight the good fight on the gender front. Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it when the men we pass have to eat my dust, though. Which is satisfyingly literal on these dirt roads…

– So an unexpected benefit of my clunker truck, it can handle these rutty streets a lot better then the sedans and vans that we were passing. Another source of enjoyment was waving at the kids who were on their way to school. Or I should say returning their waves, as they were very enthusiastic about getting our attention. I wanted to pull over and give them all a lift. I made a special point at waving at the girls we passed. ‘You can do this to,’ I sent to them, as they peered around each other in their nicely pressed school uniforms. ‘You can do whatever the hell you want, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.’

– We didn’t quite make it in time, but my meeting happened anyway. The rest of the day was spent in the normal bureaucratic haze, the same the world over, and I won’t waste time on relating the particulars here. I will say that everyone I talked to was wonderfully pleasant and helpful (misleadingly so, as it turned out), and I had an incredibly productive talk with Michele Hofmeyer, who runs the nursery at Kruger. She took me around the facility, showing me diagnostic traits for my species and shouting at every worker we passed that the trees needed more water. She had this fascinating way of saying, ‘please,’ where from the tone you might better substitute the words ‘you moron,’ and achieve the same effect. It was especially incongruous because of how sweet and friendly she was otherwise, giving all but the clothes off her back (which included the ID book off her desk, which was exceedingly more useful). She invited me to help on a tree survey along the Sabie river and I readily accepted. Ahh, plant ecologists, my people.

– The drive home was even more exhilarating as I discovered that, counter intuitively, the roads were less bumpy the faster you went. The relationship between speed and bumpiness is inversely proportional, who knew? At any rate, we were going, as Rejoice put it, and we made the trip back in half the time.

– I’m sure that the enjoyment and sense of power and self-sufficiency I feel while driving is related to the powerlessness that comes with moving around in public spaces otherwise. I’m short, small, ‘white’ (at least in South Africa), and female; this makes me a target of interest, and not all of it good. In supermarkets I’ve had men reach out and stroke my face and hair before I could move away, and this bothers me far less then when they laugh about it with each other afterwards. It has nothing to do with intent, I’m sure they think they’re doing nothing wrong or threatening; it’s about their access to me or any woman, physical, social and cultural, and the unthinking abuse of this access that happens day after day. This isn’t a South African problem, it’s just more explicit and unchallenged here, but the attitude itself is sadly universal. When this happened when Rejoice and I pulled over to get dinner, neither of us looked at each other, or said anything about it. The words from my study abroad pamphlet floated up out of my memory: If a man accosts you, find your nearest male friend immediately. Do not smile, but do not make the man feel unwanted. Do not do anything that could be construed as an invitation. So practical, so necessary, so damaging. I kept my face locked up in stony silence until the men left, then continued chatting with Rejoice as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened, after all. This was reality. Her’s, and mine for a time. Nothing to do but get back in the truck, and try not to run anybody off the road.

Wave as you pass by

– I love driving in South Africa

– I love driving anyway, but in South Africa it’s especially rewarding. In the States I approach driving the same way one approaches a chess game. I plan out my moves well in advance, assess the mindset and temperament of my opponents, try to gauge just how much I can get away with and, when circumstances allow, undertake every move with a flourish. Of course I can’t drive like this all the time. Sometimes I have something on my mind, or a passenger to converse with; sometimes the road conditions are so static and boring that thinking about something else is a form of self-defense. Be that as it may, to me driving is very much a competitive sport, one that I get great enjoyment in winning. South Africa is a perfect place for this particular mindset, as giving it any less attention is asking to end your trip prematurely, in flames, and probably stuck in a ditch somewhere.

– Two factors contribute to this situation. 1) Everybody drives on the wrong side of the road. Not really of course, I’m sure they think they’re behaving quite naturally, but to an American the road conditions are a mirror image of what we’re used to, and you can’t forget this for an instant. 2) Half the roads are unpaved, filled with potholes the size of Labradors, and are single track. It’s like navigating a three dimensional puzzle. Every moment presents a shifting tableau of obstacles, possibilities, and passes that may or may not be passable. Intellectually it’s incredibly stimulating.

– I drive an old, manual, 4-wheel drive, diesel engine pick-up truck. As previously mentioned there is only one seat belt, and there is no power steering. Even on paved roads it shakes and trembles like it’s contemplating a sudden transmutation into scrap metal. The speedometer doesn’t work at low speeds, or at high speeds, which is all right since I don’t really know what 90 km/h means anyway. There is an extra indicator light on the dashboard called “engine coils” and before starting the car you must turn the key past a mysteries point on the ignition (recognizable by the sound of a faint ‘pop’) and wait for this light to turn off before igniting the spark plugs. Every time I drive it, I expect the steering wheel to fall off in my lap. We get along just fine.

– Hloniphani didn’t have high hopes the first time he took me out for a driving lesson. He gave the impression of fully expecting to end the day plastered on someone else’s windshield. I myself was slightly ambivalent about driving on the wrong side of the road, but I was confident in my off-road abilities, and my grasp of the basic driving mechanics once I got familiar with the clutch. Getting to know an unfamiliar manual vehicle is like getting to know a strange horse. Each one has its own personality, its own quirks and inconsistencies, and each requires its own brand of coaxing. This is less true of new manuals, but only slightly.  Above all you must remain cool, confident, and never show any fear, as that will just make them skittish. Treat them well, and they’ll return the favor.

– I quickly graduated to driving into town. Once he was assured that I had a basic idea of what I was doing, Hloniphani was more than happy to give up the wheel. On my very first trip, Norman asked if he could tag along. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to have another spectator on my maiden voyage, but at the same time I didn’t really mind. To be honest I was rather surprised he was willingly putting his life into my hands so easily. The trip itself was uneventful. I had a few mix-ups with the gears, but that was only to be expected on my second time driving the car and was nothing to panic over. When we arrived, Norman wouldn’t stop gushing about how surprised he was. “Like she has been driving in this country forever. I had my doubts, I was ready, oh boy was I ready, but she completely blew my mind. Blew my mind.” Hloniphani also expressed his admiration, though in less colorful terms, as he had recently taught Monica how to drive manual, and although she grew up with these reversed driving conditions, she had insisted on driving him into oncoming traffic at every opportunity. At any rate, I was pleased and more than a little smug. Anything you can do, boys.

– The smugness didn’t last long, as on the way back I was promptly pulled over by a traffic cop. I hadn’t done anything wrong, mind you, this truck just attracts cops like honey attracts flies. Traffic cops in South Africa work on a bribery system. They don’t have quotas to fill, so they aren’t worried about handing out tickets. When they see a truck like mine they figure it will be easy money, since invariably these old wrecks aren’t registered, have broken taillights or indicators, or are missing their stickers. It’s actually a mutually beneficial system. The cop gets a little cash, and the citizen gets to keep driving his vehicle without getting a ticket. To be honest, people treat this as more of a friendly community service then an abuse of the system. Of course this is only true of the male cops. The female cops don’t take bullshit from anyone.

– After he had pulled me over, the cop walked around my truck looking for problems while I was busy panicking. I didn’t have my license with me. I had taken it out of my purse for safe keeping, before I had started driving. I was hoping he would just wave me on after seeing that nothing was wrong but he insisted on knocking on my window, already looking bored. Hloniphani and Norman were also relaxed, they had no idea I didn’t have my license with me. I rolled down my window, gave him a winning smile, and handed him my proof of insurance, which was the longest document I had in my purse with the smallest type that still was related in some way to operating a vehicle. The cop was obviously confused. He squinted at the document, reading it line by line, getting caught up in the jargon and the unnecessary legal stipulations. I handed him my international student ID card (expired in 2007), for good measure. Finally he looked up and asked me what the document was. I told him that it shows that I am financially responsible in the event of an accident and in the states you need it in order to drive a car. “This document allows you to drive in the states?” …Yes, you definitely need it in order to drive legally. He looked at me, looked at the document again, and handed it back. “How long will you be here for?” I knew the correct answer to this: “Not long, I leave in about a month. …though I’ll be back again next year.” “Where are you staying?” “Wits Rural.” Ah, I could see him thinking, one of those people. He gave me a nice smile and told me to enjoy the rest of my day.

– Neither Norman or Hloniphani said anything, and I stayed quiet as long as I could before I told them I didn’t have my license with me, still amazed at my close call and expecting the cop to track me down any second. They couldn’t believe it, they wanted to know what I had handed him, and they kept saying how they thought nothing was wrong, finishing by telling me I was pretty clever. Yes, pretty damn clever, I thought to myself, feeling a little smug again. But I still hurried back as quickly as I could, not wanting to press my luck.

At least there aren’t any lions

– Norman very kindly offered to teach me some of the tree species I would be studying. I was very grateful… no, I was desperate, and unfortunately this mindset instantly put us at odds. Norman was having a nice, relaxing walk through the bush, enjoying some interesting conversation with his new acquaintance from America. I was on a schedule; I needed diagnostic traits, scientific names, and phylogenetic sketches of each scrubby tree we passed. I needed confirmation, absolute certainty, a moment to put down a GPS point and no time to waste otherwise. The sun was going down, damn’it. I can only imagine the rictus smile I presented to him as he strolled through the shade of a jackalberry tree (Diospyros mespiliformis), speaking wistfully of his youth and his ambitions for the future. This actually was all very interesting, and I reflected on it later, but at the time there were certain situational priorities that needed attending and a substantial checklist of species to get through. The walk was, inevitably, less productive than I had hoped, but I did get a great black mamba story out of it.

– Black mambas are not, in fact, black. They are a dusty greyish color that blends in well with the scrub and the dirt paths that wind throughout Wits Rural. They get their name from the color of the inside of their mouths, a black that reflects the despair of your soul right before you’re bitten by one. A black mamba can kill a full-grown man in twenty minutes. Fittingly, it has a “coffin-shaped” head, and its venom is paralytic. Black mambas can grow up to 14 feet long, and can move at 20km/h, or 5 meters per second, or faster than you or I. “Common highly dangerous snakes of South Africa” has this to say about the black mamba: Many people have survived being bitten by black mambas. (Oh, good). The biggest thing is to remain calm. (Excellent).

– Norman returned from a long trip to find a black mamba in his house. This is the house directly behind mine. The situation arose thusly: He got home late at night, and fully exhausted, paused only long enough to drop his bags before collapsing into bed. In the early hours of the morning, he awoke to a strange scraping sound. At first he ignored it, but the sound persisted, and when he opened his eyes he was unable to locate the source. It stopped as he was looking for it, and he was about to return to bed when he noticed a slight movement above him. There was a black mamba perched on top of his bedroom door, presumably because this was the closet thing it could find to a tree branch. He vacated his house and called a park ranger of his acquaintance. His friend was not pleased with being woken up so early in the morning and wondered why a grown man couldn’t kill a single snake. When he arrived he realized it was because the snake was over 12 feet long and as thick as his arm and he promptly called for back up. It took three of them to wrestle the snake out of Norman’s house. Norman assures me that he’s not afraid of snakes, but he was happy to see it go.

– Norman’s story was not only interesting, but like calling the name of the devil, slightly prophetic.

– The next morning I prepared for my first day of sampling. I had my backpack, snacks and water, my crappy tree identification guide, a dbh tape and a clinometer. My mind was largely occupied with my troubles: my tree identification guide was unsalvageable crappy, my clinometer required a clear line of sight up to 10 meters and an unobstructed view of the base of the tree. Where did it think I was, a golf course? I needed another set of hands, a map that actually mapped, and someone to tell me what all these stupid trees were. Thus preoccupied, I wasn’t paying much attention to where I put my feet, as I wasn’t even sure where I was going. Suddenly, I was startled nearly out of my skin by a harsh hissing sound, like steam escaping from a burst pipe. I froze, and looking down, saw that I had almost stepped on a snake. I remember thinking what a strange looking snake it was. It was very short and blunt, no more than a foot or two long, but nearly as thick around as a man’s bicep. I didn’t jump back or run, I was still catching up on what was going on and in my experience snakes usually flee themselves before you get a chance to. I was also thinking about how Hloniphani had told me that in all his years here he had only seen a snake once, and here I was tripping over one on the third day. By this point it was clear the snake wasn’t going to strike, it was far too cold, but it wasn’t running away either. I was perplexed, almost insulted, by its cavalier unconcern. Finally it began to move away in a sluggish, ungainly series of flops, resentment clear in every S-shaped curve of it.

– As is always the case after a snake encounter, I was mildly more jumpy and vigilant for a time, but eventually the encounter slipped my mind. It was only later that evening, sitting in front of my computer, that I thought about it again and realized the snake had enough distinctive characteristics that I might be able to do an amateur ID. My first stop was the aforementioned “Common highly dangerous snakes of South Africa” and there it was on the front page, right beneath the black mamba. The puff adder (Bitis arietans) kills more people every year in South Africa then any other snake. They are dangerous because they don’t move out of your way, and they have large fangs that inject venom deep into your skin. The venom is cytotoxic and haemotoxic, and one of its effects is to cause the skin near the bite site to die and fall away. Though the venom causes severe pain and swelling, death usually occurs from the secondary effect of kidney failure. Reading all of this on “Common highly dangerous snakes of South Africa,” I very quietly began to hyperventilate.

– Other wildlife sightings have been exceedingly more pleasant. The giraffes in particular are always a treat. I have never seen such curious animals. If they catch sight of you in the bush and you aren’t doing anything too alarming, not only will they stand and watch you, they’ll move around to get a better view, staring placidly as they chew on a mouthful of leaves. They remind me of those old couples you sometimes see in restaurants, the ones that ran out of things to talk about twenty years ago and instead openly stare at the diners around them. Giraffes have that same guileless gaze, and they chew their food in the exact same way. Sometimes I stop whatever I’m doing to stare back at them, but it’s a face-off I’m doomed to lose. As soon as I find better internet I’ll post a video of them.

– There is a bird that I want to kill. I have yet to catch sight of it, but I know it’s indecently pleased with itself. It thinks the whole world is one, never-ending hilarious joke. If I laughed that long and that often I’d be committed or shot. As I don’t own a shotgun, I told it to get a job.

– Avoiding impala poop is hard.

Early days

– I love research camps, you find the most interesting people here. I have met and made friends with two women from Zimbabwe (Monica studies natural resource use and the international pressures on elephant culling. Lillian evaluates and assesses public health organizations), a couple from France (Ritta works with AIDS patients, Basil is “taking a vacation from permanently looking for a job.”), a girl from Kentucky (another AIDS worker, Angela has just gotten her bachelors and has decided to take a romp around the world, to the great distress of her parents. She misses her mom’s cooking, and her own bed, but otherwise she isn’t homesick at all. She is also most definitely some permutation on hapa Asian), a PhD student from the Tsongo tribe in Shingwedzi or in other words a local boy (Norman studies the cultural use and practices associated with native trees. His short-term dream is getting a post-doc in the states. Unlike most South Africans he doesn’t have a tribal name, just his English one, because he never participated in the traditional initiation rite into manhood. Norman likes his name a lot, as he has read about the historical exploits of the Normans (from Normandy) and finds them to be a powerful people, well worthy to be named after), and a host of other characters that I wave at periodically but haven’t gotten a chance to speak with. It’s all right though, we see each other, and to some degree we already know each other. We’re both here, after all.

– I have also met Hloniphani’s local girlfriend, Rejoice (“I don’t know, she’s my girlfriend but… I’ve been staying here for two years and it gets very lonely… and I’m going away soon… you understand?”). Rejoice is 21, and at the end of the summer she is going to Johannesburg to get her drivers license and pursue her education. She wants to work for a business. She doesn’t know which one yet, but she’s confident she’ll know it when she sees it.

– Rejoice doesn’t believe shark documentaries are real. More specifically, the scenes where human divers interact and swim with the sharks. I’m not entirely sure whether her disbelief extends to the sharks themselves, but at any rate she very strongly believes that humans would walk on the surface of the moon before they would get into the water with a shark. I did not challenge her on any of these points, because she had just made me dinner.

– To my great relief, there was hot water in my house and the oven/stove did in fact work. I wasn’t just being a moron, Hloniphani showed me the correct flip to switch on the circuit breaker to turn on the water heater, and the oven/stove just happened to be a device composed entirely of M.C. Escher logic. You see, you can’t just turn the oven on and set it to the right temperature. You also have to set the timer, to any time, before the coils will heat up. Since the timer is one of those annoying, clicking egg timer models, I had not experimented with it as thoroughly as I might have otherwise. The stove did not work for the simple reason that the knobs had been installed backwards. To get high heat you set it to the lowest setting and vice versa. The highest heat setting (so the lowest heat production) gives off the same amount of heat as a lizard on a frosty morning, completely thwarting even my keen senses of detection. Perhaps it gets warmer eventually, but I will only stand with my hand flat on an active stove top for so long. 

– My meals are simple, and alternate on a rotating schedule of eggs and rice (with chicken/turkey hotdogs), grilled cheese sandwiches, and ramen. I have also bought spaghetti and something like tomato paste to add into the mix, but forecasts have shown that the time is not yet right for such a development, as I’m having enough trouble as it is.

– I did not challenge Rejoice on the shark conspiracy because she had just fed me dinner and also because I didn’t want to be at home scrubbing burnt rice off the bottom of a pot. Obviously this heathen practice takes some getting used to. 

– On the animal front, I have very consistent, dependable neighbors. Every morning the impala herd wanders past my front porch, sometimes on my front porch, on their way to literally greener pastures. The vervet monkeys are quick to follow, with the exception that they travel across the wooden awning of my porch and occasionally jump down to look into my windows. Finding no pane unlatched and no door unlocked, they leave disappointed. Throughout the day both groups can be seen hard at work around the camp. Sometimes the monkeys wage genocide on each other, and although this is a relatively bloodless affair it is always very chaotic and noisy. So far the monkeys have always won, though they have also always lost. In the evening, the warthog couple shuffles past on their elbows, and if they’re startled they race for the bushes, their tails pointed to the sky like samurai standards. The evening is also the impalas time to play, and the females never get tired of racing around and around and around the green while the male chases hopelessly after. They enjoy taunting the poor guy by kicking their back legs high into the air, springing like rabbits, as if to show just how graceful and quick and out of his league they really are. The vervets collect their wounded and retreat to the marula trees for the night, stopping by my windows one more time, just in case.

Day of firsts

Aside

– The day I was picked up from the airport in Nelspruit was a day of many new things.

– I met Hloniphani for the first time. Hloniphani (Slyo – ni – pa – ni) is Rico’s post doc for a separate project in Kruger. Our paths will crisscross throughout the summer, and will sometimes proceed in parallel. My general welfare and survival were put in Hloniphani’s hands for the first few days, until I learned the ropes and could take care of myself. Perhaps ‘take care of myself’ should be put in quotes… well now they are.

– Hloniphani is from Zimbabwe (I believe) and I have yet to get a very clear idea of his character because he is currently in the middle of defending his PhD thesis, and his default modes alternate between stressed and preoccupied. He was supposed to have defended before I arrived but because of ‘difficulties’ that seem to be bureaucratic in nature, the process has gotten drawn out like a surreal visit to Never Never Land, where instead of never growing old, he never graduates, and spends his time exchanging arrows and musket fire with his defense committee while keeping me from getting eaten by crocodiles. He’s about as good at this as Peter Pan was with Wendy though, and frankly I expect to be drowned by a mermaid while he’s off doing whatever it is one does when one doesn’t graduate.

 – Unlike my study abroad days of living in the OTS bubble – being shuttled here and there and emerging at pre-ordained locations, carefree, clueless, and coddled, I was now in the real world of South Africa, and this was a very different world indeed. At first one wouldn’t think my situation was all that different. Hloniphani had arrived to pick me up from the airport and presumably was going to deliver me safe and sound at my home base in Wits Rural. But we had errands to run, and Hloniphani had little more idea of where we were going than I did. So for the first time, I used my (wonderful) unlocked iphone to use google maps to direct us through a South African city. We were trying to find something like a building supply store to buy heavy duty fencing for Hloniphani’s project, and this became quite the perilous endeavor. To make matters more interesting, the truck we were driving did not have a passenger side seatbelt. Luckily I don’t let such things bother me (specifically things outside of my control), and having never experienced the horrific sensation of going head first through a windshield it was easy enough not to dwell on it. Such is my temperament.

 – Through much trial and error we found the building supply store far outside the city limits, which turned out to be a compound like affair with a check-in security guard and great piles of struts and metal and heavy machinery. When we entered the air-conditioned office I instantly drew every eye in the place, an experience I was quickly getting used to and knew would remain a constant during my entire trip, and the young Afrikaans guy behind the counter offered us soda (which I turned down, though I have no idea why, maybe because there was no ice). Another Afrikaans guy came out of the back office and showed us the fencing we were looking for, waving over some of the workers to move it around for us. We had to decide how much of the material Hloniphani would need and the deliberations didn’t seem to be going anywhere so I asked him a few questions about the project, ran through a few mental calculations, checked with the Afrikaans guy about cost and transportation, and offered my recommendation. I only mention this because, as another first, I have never had a group of men listen and take my advice on a subject I knew less than nothing about (that being material for building construction), certainly less than the other people present. It was a strange feeling. But for better or for worse they loaded up my recommended number of mental fencing (maneuvering my luggage around in a very professional manner) and we were off again.

 – The drive from Nelspruit to Wits Rural is over two hours long, which provided plenty of opportunity for Hloniphani and I to get to know one another. I was surprisingly awake and free of jet-lag, but a good portion of the trip was still spent in silence as I re-familarized myself with the landscape and Hloniphani (presumably) worried about his thesis defense. However I was reassured that our personalities didn’t clash outright, and I could easily see myself working with him in the bush, which is really the most important thing.

 – Other firsts included buying avocados through the window of the truck, shopping for groceries in the small village supermarket (drawing stares and second glances everywhere I went), and buying dinner at a South African KFC. The KFC is the only “restaurant” in what seems to be miles and miles around. Arriving at my house in Wits Rural wasn’t a first, as I was staying in the portion called Caraville, exactly where I stayed with OTS, but it was still an experience because they hadn’t been expecting me until the next day. This required an Indian Jones-like mad dash through the bush as we made our way from Caraville to the main registration area, looking for keys to unlock my house. I generally feel very comfortable in cars, for example I hadn’t worried about my lack of seatbelt the entire drive from Nelspruit to Wits Rural, but going balls out down the extremely bumpy and rutty dirt road, fording rivers and taking turns at ridiculous speeds in pitch blackness (night had fallen awhile ago), I think I rather feared for my life. Hloniphani doesn’t normally drive like this, it was just the end of a long, stressful day and it was obvious that he wanted to be in bed. He also really hates to drive, as I learned later.

 – I eventually got access to my little two-room house (kitchen + bedroom, and bathroom), and ate my KFC, my first meal of the day. The stove/oven appliance didn’t work and there was no hot water (a situation that I desperately hoped was temporary), but I made do as one does. I started to make a home of the place; my KFC bag became my permanent trash bag, my food was put away in the refrigerator, and my clothes hung up. After these efforts I was suddenly exhausted, and so I gratefully settled into my bed (tiny, with bad springs, but strangely comfortable), and listened to the bats come and go out of the loft and the tiny geckos chirping from the walls as I fell asleep. 

Bare bones bullet points for now

– I have no idea how this is going to work. My internet connection doesn’t allow photos or pop-ups to load, so I don’t know what customizations I picked or what my blog actually looks like.

– Choosing between identical, white box options is an interesting exercise in austerity.

– First and foremost, or conversely third and third-most, I am alive and whole despite considerable effort on my part to the contrary. But more on that later.

– My arrival into South Africa was smooth and largely painless. I was horrendously sleep deprived but that was business as normal, as the school semester had just ended. The ATM refused to issue me cash, no matter what permutations of cards and on-screen options I went through, and I resigned myself to the money exchange booth, getting just enough Rand to survive.

– Currently 1 US dollar will buy you 10 South Africa Rand, according to the world economy. The exchange rate at the booth was not that generous.

– Never use money exchange booths if you can help it.

– I had to visit two vodocom shops but I managed to unlock my iPhone and insert a South African sim card, buying 150 minutes and sms messages for 150 Rand, along with 2 Gigs of internet use. All things cellphones are cheap in South Africa. I could have bought a phone with a small handful of cash, but I wanted to keep Google maps and all of my apps.

– The first vodocom shop did not have sim cards, but they did provide me with an unbent paperclip with which to ‘unlock’ my phone. I was embarrassed and astounded to realize that sticking an unbent paperclip into the tiny hole in the side of your iPhone was all that was required for unlocking it. I had assumed it was a euphemism for a far more complicated and technical process, possibly requiring circuit boards. “That’s it?” I asked the Afrikaans man behind the counter. He nodded, looking exhausted and unimpressed with my epiphany, and was too polite to wave me away.

– I waited for my hotel to pick me up by the information booth, shaking my head at illicit taxi drivers and telling every man that asked that, yes, I was waiting for someone, no, I wasn’t interested in whatever it was they were making overtures about. I did this by not saying anything and craning my neck, looking busy and taken. 

– Blending is an important skill, as is looking like you know exactly what is going on, where you’re going and what you want. Never look like you need someone to provide any of this for you. 

– My hotel was close by, in a bad part of town, behind a tall fence and surrounded by a beautiful garden. My room opened with an antique key, I had a master bed, a twin bed, a walk-in bathroom and internet, which after the bed was the most important thing. I called my credit card companies and told them to put a flag on my cards so I could use them. Speaking. One. Word. At. A. Time. So. They. Could. Understand. Me. Over. The. Internet. Connection. I am infinitely grateful that the representative never hung up, but always asked one more time if I could repeat that. My phone was for emergencies only and I was still feeling protective over my minutes. I couldn’t use up 10 listening to bad waiting music.  

– Unsure of when my cards would be safe to use, I didn’t want to order a dinner I couldn’t pay for. I bought a salad in their lovely, rustic dining room, sitting by the fire because it is winter here and I was still in rumpled traveling clothes. 

– The room was empty except for a young guy sitting across the room with his back to me. I was sure it my prior labmate, Garrett, who was also coming to South Africa, but I didn’t think quite so soon. He looked and moved like him, but didn’t sound like him at all, as I learned when he complimented the older woman who was our chef and server on the food.

 – The credit card worked, so I also bought ostrich sausages with a side of buttery mashed potatoes and was exhaustively happy. The fire, food and elegant, empty dining room was lovely, and the cook told me I could take my tea back to my room because a young dear should always be allowed her bedtime tea.

– Hot showers are humankind’s greatest invention. I love them more than almost anything.