06 January 2020

Clothes began to stick to bodies and sweat dripped down faces – it had to be at least 90 degrees. Thirty humans packed in to the living room of the farmhouse to play a “pub quiz.” The birders even came down from the farmhouse on the North end of the reserve –they study the effects of climate change on hornbills, drongos, and babblers. I gave a cheeky radio call around 9 PM telling them we’d begin the quiz soon. We counted off in 5s to split up and separate ourselves to different corners of the room – some of us on the few couches that we haven’t broken yet during parties and some on the ground. I was floored with the other 4’s. Trivia was later than usual since I was on alta (dinner) with my friend Joachim and we were the ones who organized it. The game finally started at half past 9 – topics included history of the world, deep sea life, Scotland (Joachim), traveling the world (yours truly), facts about the farmhouse (close friend Lena), classic vines, american food by state, and communal/what we eat as a project.

My alta was a version of pad thai. Anytime I had planned a beach backpacking trip along the coast of Washington, I made this meal to bring with me. To my surprise, no one had even heard of it here. Ideally the pasta would have been linguini or some other flat noodle and I could have acquired chicken to cook in the peanut sauce for everyone. But as we are in the middle of the Kalahari, the only noodles I had to work with were spaghetti, I didn’t get chicken or fish sauce, and the vegetables were limited. I was bad and made it spicy, knowing full well that some people here don’t like spicy food. But for the number of times we ever can even taste heat in a dish, I decided it was worth it to add a little more chili pepper and peri peri sauce. We also decided to bake desert and since it was my day off I offered to peel and core the 24 apples we needed. It took a couple of hours as I sat cross legged on top of the chest freezer working away at them while listening to some boho + chill playlist on spotify.  We brewed some ginger beer with a few cheap packets of sugar, yeast, and ginger from the store in the nearest town, Van Zylsrus. It tasted like flat white wine but it was cold (and the fridge just broke) so spirits were high for the quiz. I’ve actually come to enjoy cooking weekend altas. We fought over the attention of everyone – the ginger beer helped me overcome my soft voice and steal the floor for my round:

  • What is the name of the longest motorable route from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina? Bonus point for the name of the gap in the network of roads between Panama and Columbia. Pan American Highway, Darien Gap
  • If you were to drive from Cape Town to Cairo, what’s the fewest number of border crossings (ignoring political conflict) to do it? 7
  • How many nautical miles is it to sail from Cape Verde to Barbados? 2300 miles
  • A photo of climbing in Cochamo Valley – which country is this amazing place in? Chile
  • Photo of Gates of the Arctic – At over 8 million acres, where is this national park? Closest answer gets it.  Alaska

It was readily apparent that this wasn’t only a trivia round but also my plans for 2020. Given restricted internet, why not use what you’ve been researching?

I’ve been chomping at the bit to start planning for what’s next. My resolution for 2020 is to live more in the moment and not so much for what the next big moment might be – but I guess it’s in my nature to plan ahead. Time is running out in the Kalahari, I have mixed feelings about it. I’ve never stayed in one place, a small place, for so long. I gave up so much freedom to endure this, but I grew from it and learned more than I could have if I wasn’t forced to sit still. Ideas and dreams have had time to brew in my mind. I told myself I’d wait until 2020 to start acting on them – I wanted to wait until they were so ripe that they were like plump grapes hanging on the vine ready to drop. They are now and I’m making moves to stack the year with more learning experiences and adventures. I’ll finish here in May, that feels soon. And most of March I’ll be traveling with Joachim and Lena through Botswana and Namibia. The march of time feels inevitable and persistent. 

I’ve enrolled in WWOOF and some other opportunities to aid traveling through Africa for a few months after my appointment ends – June and July. I’d like to climb Mount Kenya so my focus has been on opportunities near there. When I was creating my profile for volunteering, it required a photo. I realized I didn’t really have any and had just gotten out of the pool looking sunburnt and raw. Before, I would’ve blinked on some mascara so my eyes weren’t invisible, cover up the zit on my chin, and try to tame my hair to look civil. I didn’t see the reason to now and didn’t want to – why fabricate a version of myself that isn’t really me? I finally feel comfortable in my body just as it is, I hope that continues back in the real world.

I’ve been biking more than ever – after work I bike out to find the wildebeest, hartebeest, eland, and oryx, and I look for bones. I’ve got the eye for a good place to die and often scout out the carcasses of animals. This week I found a decapitated wild cat which was perplexing and I still don’t know the answer to its fate.

I’m always craving a good, deep laugh and a prime opportunity presented itself this week. Around midnight a few days ago, I couldn’t sleep with the heat and decided to step outside and get some fresh air on the porch. As I stepped out my neighbor/pal Joachim (we’ve exchanged more life advise than I have ever taken or shared with someone in such a short amount of time) also emerged from his room. He said he heard a “deflating balloon noise” which to him meant a venomous snake. We did indeed find a snake pressed in to the crack between the porch floor and wall of the room, it was yellow but without a hood (so wasn’t a cape cobra). I’m pretty certain it was just a sand snake. Anyway we watched as it tried to get in to his room and decided it needed to be moved. This week in particular, Joachim’s family was visiting so soon we had his mother and sister in their underwear peering over our shoulders as we tried to move the snake. They speak Dutch, I don’t – I tried to explain the snake was probably harmless but to no avail. We worked on moving it down off the porch and Joachim grabbed one of the tent stakes with a hook (for a rainfly?) and scooped it up. When he went to fling it out into the desert, instead of propelling into the dark of the night it stuck to the hook and the length (about a foot) of the snake swung back at him. Surprisingly he didn’t shriek (past experiences with him have produced ear shattering screams from stepping on a thorn thinking it was a scorpion and walking out of the bathroom seeing the big looming eyes of an eland a few meters away and thinking it was something about to kill him). He said he never sweat so much so quickly out of fear in his life. Eventually the snake returned to the ground and I left the scene still unable to stop laughing.

With the bird teams here I’ve been attending their Friday braiis with a few friends from this side of the reserve. It’s fun to dress nice and get in a truck to travel the few kilometers to their farmhouse – almost like real life going out. Though I still think it’s a little too warm to be gathering around a bonfire (it rarely gets below 80 degrees at night), it’s been fun to join them and partake in the drama on the North side. Each week, they give out “fines” to each other which entails taking a drink for a mistake. These mistakes can range from forgetting to bring a radio to field, not cleaning up dishes or mess, killing the battery of their vehicle in field and needing help, etc. Now that I’ve been to a few, I’ll likely start becoming involved in the fining. The only piece of information they had on me before attending was that I responded to the radio calls for bloods as “Kelly Tung.” I work for the Tung lab and there is another meerkatter named Kelly so despite my requests for a different name it’s still Kelly Tung over the radio… which they thought was Kelly Tongue… oof.

Field o’clock is as early as 4:30 AM now so I receive the radio call and bloods before 7:30 AM. This means I’m usually done with my workday by 1 PM so I’ve been helping around the reserve in other ways. I’ve been tagging along to help with the weekly towntrips to the small town of Van Zylsrus (different than the big biweekly towntrips to Upington). It’s interesting to see the small luxuries that people order from the small store – crisps, soda, chocolate, and of course beer and wine for our parties. It reminds me of a part in the movie The Beach with Leonardo Decaprio where everyone in the beach community lines up and gives their orders for the real world – really cool movie, highly recommend! I rewatched it recently and noticed a lot of parallels with living here. It usually takes about 45 minutes to cash out for everyone and divide up the total between plastic baggies of cash and credit cards. I always look for ways to get out so this has been an added benefit of finishing early and having seniority at the project.

For New Year we popped over and into Botswana. Very illegally but surprisingly there is only a short barb wire fence separating us. The entire project drove up to the border in a convoy of trucks. We brought dinner and a few of us made the crossing. I had done this around when I first arrived and was suddenly given the responsibility of guiding the new volunteers across – I didn’t apprehend becoming a senior here yet. We hopped the fence, then the road, climbed the dune, and watched a storm move in. Times are changing, always. These are my people and I can’t wait to see where the wind scatters us of to next. 

Everlasting Nothing – Beck

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