I haven’t been able to get out of bed all day. Luckily another storm system is passing through and it’s been a bit cooler this evening while the clouds move in. But the drop in air temperature is doing nothing for the fever that’s left me in cold sweats all day accompanied with back spasms and an exploding headache. I was confused for how I could be so sick when no one else appears to have fallen ill. Then I realized it’s likely a side effect of the yellow fever vaccine I got on Tuesday. I’ve never really reacted to vaccines before, it’s not very fun. I’ve asked around and it sounds like it’s pretty common for this vaccine to make you feel like you’ve gotten the shit kicked out of you. I just hope it passes by tomorrow – my Fulbright interview is at 4 PM over Skype.
I tried something new with journaling last week but haven’t had the time to keep up with it. But I’ll share as much as I did manage – I tried to document each day with a few paragraphs. Sometimes it seems like so much happens here everyday that I forget a lot of things and a lot of thoughts I have get lost in the flood of what is going on. I guess I need to find a compromise between this and the usual biweekly recollections.
I went out for a bike ride with a new MS student, Mara, from Zurich. We ditched the bikes and walked the dunes eventually finding the skull of a large rodent – perhaps a porcupine, maybe a springhare, possibly a hyrax? She’s cool but after seeing my room and the bones and shells scattered throughout it, thinks I’ve gone mad.
We sat on the deck, legs dipping into the lime green water masked by the darkness and reflection of the moonlight, sipping our bread beer. Not as good as the first round, but not bad. We tend to talk up our brewing here as some underground secret mission but I’m pretty sure everyone knows what’s going on and that our “beer” is probably only 3% or so – sure it’s basically free but that last mouthful of the settled, yeasty bread residue could nearly make you toss up the rest of the beer. The pool filter broke a few weeks ago and despite my efforts with chlorine and various other chemicals, it’s a losing battle and it’s turning in to more of a lagoon. Faces lit up as fast as they disappeared as the clouds passed in front of the half moon. Four of us there – part of the 10 block crew and the most ambitious in brewing. One in the pool (Belgian who is a part of the March holiday and my neighbor) to whom I delegated my pool responsibilities to try to make him scoop the masses of dead moths making the bottom of the pool slick. The 10 block couple – a joker (I mean that in an endearing way, he’s one of my closest friends here) from the UK and his sometimes crazy (also endearing, she keeps it spicy) French girlfriend bantered throughout our conversation. And me. Conversations drifted from molerats (well mostly molerats) but also to aliens, conspiracy, snakes, sex, malaria, “sport” (working out), and gossip. These are my favorite kinds of nights.
But today has been the kind of day that takes all of me. Some days, or weeks, I can’t figure out how to turn off. I wish my brain could have a switch. I haven’t had bloods all week so I’ve been left to keep busy and try to do something to feel productive by the end of each day. Today I did an inventory of the lab, did a ton of math for concentrations of stock treatments and working solutions, made a priority list for supplies to bring over on the next US visit, overturned my room to clean, shadowed a behavior experiment with the molerats and predator (snake) scents, drew, wrote, made a plan to resurrect the pool, made social plans to take a walk with the new MS student from Zurich (she found a springbok skull), bread beer get together, and I was hoping to go camping but the lightning is warning me not to. Sitting still doesn’t sit well with me.
The Friday brai was a jol (term for good time or party in Afrikaans) as usual. The steaks were cooked just enough to not be considered raw with a bright red center. We salivated watching it cook and spit on the grill – meat, especially beef, is rare at the project. After consuming it I felt a wave of energy and like I was strong, surely a placebo effect but much appreciated. We sat around the fire dripping in sweat and still stinking from our field work (birders and meerkaters) or midday escapades (me) until fines and accolades were distributed with appropriate drinking costs or rewards, then we moved inside just as the lightning got close enough to make it feel like broad daylight and the power cut out. We enjoyed a pleasant candlelit dinner and passed around dishes we each made – I made tomato chickpea bread again. Just as we left the farmhouse the rain began to pour down. The generator has had to kick on a few times already tonight.
Earlier today my friend and I biked out for a scavenger hunt. There’s a map on the database here with every meerkat burrow and bolt hole as well as random landmarks or places that are interesting enough to share. We sought out to find Nem’s magic tree, the magic tree, and Swing tree. Joachim brought his compass and after we parked the bikes on the side of the road, we worked out some trig calculations in the sand, then followed our first baring at 210 degrees to find Nems tree. Somehow our dodgy math worked out and we came upon the most beautiful Shephards tree on the reserve – roots crawled out of the ground and up the pit of sand that the tree grew in. We climbed up into it and imagined a tree fort or some kind of web of rope to make seats and beds among the trees. It would be the perfect sundowners spot. We’ve got a plan and we’ll be back with some rope, maybe a hammock. We did not find the other two points, and in the heat of the 100 deg humid day we were getting a bit delirious wandering around the desert, but that just means more fun for later.
I’m not sure the reason but lately I have been sharing stories of my past life – we all have. Perhaps it’s because now most of our memories are made together as we create a closer community, or maybe it’s because the days blend together so much that sharing something novel is interesting. Over coffee sitting around the molerat lab I shared a brief synopsis of my first few months of living in Colorado. I moved to Fort Collins for grad school and my then boyfriend moved out with me, with his best friend. The best friend was Russian and played his saxophone at all hours of night. The three of us adventured together, adopted a ferret, drank too many PBRs, watched Misfits every night, bar hopped around town depending on the weekday night specials, and brewed beer together. At first the memory, and especially verbalizing it in front of my coworkers and friends, was jarring – it seemed like a past life. It was a past life. None of us are in touch anymore. But despite our fall outs I’m glad to have this story, they were good times. I guess sometimes I forget to share and find I’m better at listening and learning about other people, but maybe now I’m comfortable enough here to share pieces of my past – whether humorous or sharing lessons I’ve learned. Tonight I’m listening to Hotel California by the Eagles because that was on constant replay in the basement apartment we shared together.
Saturdays I clean the lab – ethanol the bench, equipment, and biosafety cabinet, autoclave water to change the water in the incubator, check that everything is in good working order, sweep, and mop the cell lab. I send out the weekly update after updating the sample tracking sheet with the blood volumes, draw times, and sample ID codes. Then I attend the 11 AM molerat lab meeting, usually just for the coffee and entertainment that the volunteer vs manager dynamic provides. Then I check Crewseekers for opportunities to sail in July and WWOOF to see if there are any additional ads for working in Kenya in June. By lunch I’m off to do my own adventures. Today went as routine – I found a sailing opportunity around New Zealand and sent an email.
It’s quite humid from the rain but I thought the clouds would provide enough shade and a breeze. But I was still completely soaked in sweat by the time I got to the top of fire tower. It was at least cooler up there and my friend and I took in the landscape while the clouds passed over us. Soon though we retreated back the farmhouse to cool down. He went out to track birds (hot bird project I mentioned before) and I played around with my camera in my room. I brought a few rolls of film out here with me but could only find color in Chicago. My neighbor traded me some black and white film for it and we were both happy. From June 2019 to now, I’ve only shot one roll of color film, finishing it off in my room today. That’s pretty bad… My goal is to shoot more film here before I leave and make sure I take my (mom’s) camera on my travels through southern Africa. As the sun was sinking, I took a walk to the riverbed and took a few photos. I’m much more motivated with B&W, maybe because I expect it to look different than what I see.
I made it back in time to “sport” with a friend – which ended up in gaining abs from laughter, listening to his ridiculous workout playlist that included the pokemon theme song, the faster stronger song that was popular in the 2000s, the classic Lincoln park song (can’t actually remember any of the names of these). We rotated through 4 stations that we made up – bicep curls, Russian twists with weights, handstands, and squats though I don’t think either of us can do a proper squat. We have a low bar goal of twice per week to get strong.
Dinner was a weekend alta – haggus. Haggus is a UK (I think) tradition of liver meat cooked inside a sheep’s stomach served with potatoe mash and leaks. They made do with what we have here and cooked mince meat and chicken liver with onion, then added the oats. Traditionally, haggus is served with an offering poem. Joachim downed half a bottle of rum to recite the Scottish verses before all 40 of us while presenting the meatball looking haggus. It actually was pretty good! We held a pubquiz after dinner that got pretty rowdy – topics ranged from Australian slang, the squirrel study groups at the KMP, facts about France (in French), odd facts about volunteers at the project (i.e. ate a deep fried tarantula, fasted for 3 and a half days, allergic to strawberries, had a pet tortoise that hibernated in her fridge), audio round of animal sex noises, celebrities from London, and one girl describing animals (quite poorly for a biologist) where we had to guess what it was. My team got second place out of five, so not too bad. Once the rounds were over, I headed to the riverbed to camp with a friend. The moon was so bright it was basically like brought daylight on the dune so we ended up staying up all night chatting.
We woke up around the sunrise to a radio call for him to join with pit tagging a hornbill chick. We packed up camp and walked across the riverbed to watch the process of tagging the bird. Hornbill chicks are basically naked without any feathers and with their large hook beak they look quite strange like a weird little dinosaur. The pit tags log body temperature of the bird throughout the day – the interest is the body temp during the hot hours of the afternoon. The skin is lifted between the shoulder blades and the small chip is inserted. They’ll collect data continuously until the body rejects the pit tag or the bird eventually dies.
Today was the bimonthly vollie weekend event – a trip for lunch to Van Z, the nearest “town” to the project. Everyone got dressed up for the hotel restaurant to lounge by the pool with the luxury of cocktails we didn’t have to make ourselves. I wore my favorite Prana blue dress. I ordered a 400 gram steak (that was beef not some sort of beest!), fries, a strawberry milkshake, and a cocktail called Passion Potion that had granadilla (passion fruit) and vodka. We played in the pool like kids making huge human pyramids (our record was 9 people) and dunking each other in the lime green pool water. The meerkatters, moleratters, cell lab (me), film crew, and managers were all there and we enjoyed our day off.
Once we returned to the project, a few of us were on dinner duty that night. We had decided to make a surprise alta (dinner) so each of the three of us turned in our desired ingredients list secretly. But when the today came, communal (the group of volunteers that allocates food) had lost our lists and each of us had forgotten what we signed up for. I assumed I had thought to do a stir fry so went with that. For most of the evening, with intermittent pool breaks and a slight buzz from the passion potion, we cooked in separate corners and hid the ingredients and utensils we were using from each other. We blasted bangers from the 90s in the kitchen as we schlepped in the heat. After a couple of hours we gave in to our curiosities and convened in the center of the kitchen to share what we were making – I making the spicy stir fry, Jai making naan bread, and Joachim making baked potatoe, cheese, and bacon balls. Everyone loved it despite their doubts at our idea of a surprise. After dinner we camped on a new dune to the South of the farmhouse.
I prepped for the towntrip the next day – I would be joining to help out on the bi/tri weekly trip to Upington to get the personal food orders from a grocery store called Pic N Pay, dropping off the trailer load of recycling, dropping off the hazardous waste buckets accumulated from the labs, refilling Oxygen tanks, and so on. Despite leaving at 4:30 AM on Tuesday with everyone, I couldn’t turn down the invitation to camp under Dune to Nowhere Monday night. I’m not sure I slept much with the crazy lightning storm but I managed to get to the farmhouse early enough to shower and help load the trailer.
It’s a 3 hours drive to town, I tried unsuccessfully to sleep as the car bounced and vibrated over the washboard roads. We arrived at the Kalahari Mall and split up to run the necessary errands – hygiene products from Dischem, electronics like hard drives/projector wires and markers from Game, medication from the pharmacy at Clicks, and any outdoor gear from the Cape Union sports shop. We had enough time before my appointment at the pharmacy at noon to order breakfast at Mug N Bean (with bottomless coffee!) – it was a real treat. A couple of us also scavenged around the mall to find craft beer. It took a few stores but we found some and loaded our backpacks with IPAs, Pales and Blondes – I even found a milk stout!
The yellow fever shot took all of 5 minutes but the nurse was very chatty and we ended up talking for half an hour. She had never been to the Kalahari Meerkat Project but had heard a lot about it and wants to visit sometime. She thought I was 17… yikes. I ended up having to wait around the plaza for a few hours before I was picked up again. Eventually I wandered into a small clothing boutique and decided to treat myself to a cute, comfy, sleeveless black dress with pockets – I’ve basically lived in it since I’ve come back!
We realized we forgot the coolers to transport the meat back so we brainstormed an alternative. We bought trash bags, tripled them up, dumped ice in them, and then added the meat. During this process, the other managers were using the car and trailer to run errands to the vet office. I can only imagine how the group of us looked with groceries scattered out in the parking lot, sticking bags inside bags with ice, and trying to consolidate the groceries into the bins we brought to stack in the back of the trailer. We gained an audience as people leaving the Pic N Pay stopped and stared. One of us said – You have to be weird enough to decide to go to the desert for a year to study animals, then you’re surrounded by weird people for that year, so you get weirder – then you don’t really know how to react in the real world. I thought he described this situation perfectly.
Finally everything got loaded back into the trailer – tires, groceries, luggage from the couple we were picking up from their holiday, my 25L jug of distilled water for the lab, a bunch of plywood – we were completely loaded down. The three hour drive back felt like it went by more quickly as we sang and bobbed our heads along to music. I was actually relieved to return to the project, the real world felt pretty overwhelming with so many news faces and cars and noises. I even got a few big hugs that evening even though I was only away for the day. Guess I’m not quite ready to leave here just yet.
The rest of the week:
I had a few days of bloods and tried to get out on the bikes as much as I could. I checked out a cool burrow hole with the new MS student. She had found it while she was tracking a meerkat group in the northern part of the reserve. Inside the burrow was a steenbok skull – we retrieved it with her microphone pole (she does audio recordings of the meerkats).
We started holding game night on 10 block. One night we pulled one of those big wooden spools out of the dump to make a table in front of my room. We sat around it on the ground and played cards until dinner was called. I hope we continue this.
I finished building out the genetics lab! Now I’m just waiting on equipment which should be coming in over the next couple of weeks. I calibrated some pit-tags for the birders so even though it wasn’t genetics related, the lab is starting to be in use!
I’ve camped out a few more nights this week at new locations. The moon has been huge and each night I’ve been out, a storm has taunted passing over but never actually does. It’s always the best way to wake up out on the flats or on top of a dune. Lately it’s been really windy as well which I find I sleep best in.
The pool died… well the filter died and killed the pool. Now I’m working on draining it so I can scrub it clean, refill, then hook up a new filter system.
I was checking out our music server and rediscovered The White Stripes so I’ve been hooked on that all week while studying for this interview.
A Martyr For My Love For You – The White Stripes