Sunday, July 21, 2013

One wild night in Amsterdam!

My last visit to Amsterdam in 2000 was a bit underwhelming. Not sure if it was the 30 dorm bed in the red light district or the lack of drinking, but this time around I fixed both of those issues. I thought I'd give it another chance. When I saw a cheap flight from Africa back to the states with a night layover in Amsterdam, I jumped on it. So here goes less than 24 hours in this city. 5 pm to 9 am.

Once we got into town I realized I was in western civilization! Wow. I always have reverse culture shock.

 Loved the bikes and graffiti all over town 

 When in Amsterdam ....
I promised Elaine I'd stop my drinking ban and raise a glass with her. We just meandered around town with no goals except to drink, eat and explore.

 Canals and house boats.
We actually stayed on a cute houseboat.

 So true and it still hits me!
Anyone else feel it?

 Our crazy night in Amsterdam in the red light district!

We did Amsterdam properly, and now I can close that door. No need to return. We hopped on our direct flight back to LA. Made it back for the 4th. Yay USA? Not so sure. I always wish I could travel longer and am in no rush to return to the motherland. But what I did enjoy was a nice long warm shower. I'm pretty sure I used more water in my first (15 min) shower back than I did in my entire month in Africa. Oh the luxury.

Then I went back to crazy work and traveling per usual. 4 days after touching ground in LA I took off to the east coast for a workshop. Then the rest of the summer I proceeded to go the the bay area twice, Vegas and NYC while also working non-stop prepping and teaching. And then the fall semester began. What a summer! Until the next travels...

Saturday, July 20, 2013

National Geographic meets Animal Planet

Playing Tourist: It felt like we were working in that weekends were a break from our usual work schedule. Elaine and I wanted to experience as much as possible so we left the project on both weekends.

First weekend: trip to the Mara Reserve.
 Chilling for breakfast by our trusty vehicle. 
We got a thumbs up when we arrived back, not because we tracked animals, but because we made it back. I have a new appreciation for the Toyota Land Cruiser. it felt like a never ending Indian Jones ride.

 Look, us and an elephant! 
Proof that we were actually with the wildlife.

10 month old cheetah cub and his mom, Maleeka
We were introduced to them with the question, "Do you want to see a cheetah jump on cars?" "Sure!"

ROAN antelope!  First sighting in 19 years!
This was a highlight of our trip. Not necessarily seeing the endangered Roan antelope, but seeing Joseph get so excited! He usually drives fast, but we have never seen him floor the jeep like this time. He then called all his friends and his teach. Al we heard was”ROAN antelope …. FIRST TIME … I SWEAR” repeated at least a dozen times. It was on facebook within minutes. Maybe it was because a dik-dik crossed our road early in the morning which was a sign of good luck!

 Wildebeest Skull
Elaine found this when going for a wee in the bush. You just never know what you are going to find. FYI, I became known as the girl fascinated by skulls. No surprise. I nearly jumped out of the vehicle when I saw my first skull.

Pumbaa (aka warthog in Swahili)
These little guys were elusive! We always caught the family on the run in the shrubbery. So hard to catch a good photo.

“Welcome to the Great Migration!”
We were all surprised that it started early. This was the first weekend. Thousands of zebra come first, followed by the wildebeest.

Our second (and last) weekend.
Local village visit:
A local woman on the house she built
Women build the houses with branches and cow dung. The Masai are nomadic due to their cattle herding, though the culture is changing. Our trip was informative, though a bit too touristy for my liking.

We chilled a night at Encounter Mara, an amazingly beautiful luxury camp that we got a huge discount on for being part of the volunteer project.  This is a whole different type of safari-ing. We ate dinner out in the plains. We had 5 lights in our tent AND a flush toilet! And a view right out into the open savanna. A well appreciated break.

We went on a walking safari. It was interesting to be on the actual ground. We learned a lot about medicinal plants and poo.

 Giraffe poo.

Local “Colgate” (aka Kenya greenheart plant)

Animals at the salt lick.
It was a like a playground. We chilled and watched. Africa!

Back to work:
Game counts
We learned to identify lots of animals and counted animals such as Thompson giselles, Topis, Grant giselles, impalas, heartabeest, wildebeest, ostriches, zebras, giraffes, elephants, cheetahs, lions, warthogs, monkeys, cows, goats twice a week in 6 different transects. These are used to help indicate endangered species, understand migration trends and track animals.

We decided our worst African nightmare is not getting eaten by a lion, but counting Tommy’s hiding in the bushes. I counted over 100!

How many impalas? 
FYI, impalas have the “M” butts like McDonalds, Grant giselles have white above their tail and tommy’s have white tails. You can tell so much from butt shots!

I loved watching all the animals move… giraffes, giselles, warthogs, elephants. Lion King is one of my fave Disney movie of all times. There were quite a few references to it. I had a dream job of dancing as a Giselle in the Lion King musical. Now this I can get used to!

Elaine and I had an awesome time!

Our time on the Mara Naboisho Project with African Impact was amazing! It really was a unique experience. I’m glad we got to volunteer and get a different perspective than just a passing tourist. AI, especially Lincoln, did a wonderful job of getting us involved with the community and wildlife conservation. I definitely recommend this project to anyone who has an interest in learning about wildlife, the community and wants to be in a remote setting. I learned as much as I could in the two weeks. It was just the right amount of time.

My month in Africa was incredible. I came with little expectations and an open mind. In the end, I was floored and humbled by everything I was exposed too. One common theme was meeting so many people that are passionate about what they do. It made me thankful for having a job that I love, but also it was great to leave the stresses of daily life and gain a new perspective. One thing that was expected - this trip was unlike any of my past travels I have blogged about here. Definitely a month to remember.

Community Connection

African Impact - The Mara Project in the Naboisho Conservancy

What I enjoyed most about this project is that it is closely connected to the community, both people and animals. The Naboisho Conservancy and this project is less than 3 years old so it’s a work in progress. Our project leader, Lincoln, was fantastic at orchestrating opportunities.

The local people are Masai, which is a unique culture.
Koiyaki Guiding School Students

We stayed down the road from this competitive, excellent school. We talked with the students to give them exposure to “tourists” for real life practice. Most of our guides were local Koiyaki grads and were excellent!

Women Empowerment Project

Of course this was of extreme interest to me. Sarah is the amazing local woman behind this project. We joined a village workshop teaching local women business opportunities such as beadwork, chicken raising and soap making.

Conservancy Management: Cattle grazing. 

All local Masai families own cattle herded by boys. Justin, a native Kenyan, manages the conservancy. He explained to us the cattle grazing rotation that he set up, among many other amazing organizational feats.

Spear throwing

I saw the boy throw the spear into the ground, so the competitive side of me and intrigue of weapons had to give it a go. After careful observation, I got it on the 3rd try.

Working at the primary school

We played games and sang. The kids had beautiful voices. Note: never try to race a Kenyan kid. I totally went down and have scars to prove it.

Living in the bush! 

Here are our basic accommodations. I wanted remote, and we got it. It was actually a lot nicer than I anticipated. 
The bathroom
The two doors on the left were toilets. Didn’t have to squat, but they didn’t flush either. We were lucky enough to have running water, and even warm showers after 3 pm, except for the one day all the water trucks broke down and couldn't deliver.

The massive tent that Elaine and I shared.
Not too shabby, though the no light and big (venomous?) spiders were a minor inconvenience.
Animals seen or heard outside our tent: lions, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, baboon, others???
Animals inside our tent: monkey, big spiders
Animals suspected: baboon (did he take my sock?)

Weather was pretty hot during the day (~85-90 deg) and cool at night (50s). That sun was strong though.

Our common area where meals were served

We had mostly western meals cooked for us which was a luxury. I didn’t mind after 2 weeks of traditional African food. Thankfully, I didn’t get sick once the whole month. Praise for daily doses of Emergen-C and multi-vitamins.

The internet bush

It was quite the challenge to just check e-mail. Forget about surfing the web. But I do like being off the grid. I walked 5 minutes to this bush at 6 am before our days' work, careful to avoid unruly animals. I waved my phone around hoping to get one bar long enough to download e-mail. A 50/50% chance. Then I'd return back the next day to try and send a response e-mail.  A two day process, at best. Anyone who received an e-mail from the bush (literally) should count yourself as special.

laundry time

 Many hours staring out at the savanna grasslands from the jeep

 Our gang

This is AFRICA!

Our volunteer project through Africa Impact was located in Mara Naboisho Conservancy, just outside the famous Masai Mara Reserve.

What town? 
The nearest “town” was a row of shops and the goat market an hour drive away. We were living in the bush with the wildlife.

Our jobs: monitor big cats (mainly lions and cheetahs) and elephants, animal counts, interact with the local community, conservancy work (ie. clear roads) and whatever else came up.

Did we go on a safari? We went on 2 to 3 game drives a day. A game drive consist of going out in a jeep looking for animals. Most tourists stay for a few days and go on a few game drives. We were there for 2 weeks, went on ~20 game drives and easily clocked more than 70 hours in the jeep. It was a great mix of work and seeing incredible animals.

This is what I came for, and I was not disappointed. We worked with the Mara Naboisho Lion Project runned by Neils from Denmark (go DK!). We even spent all night in the bush tracking a collared lioness with an antenna and GPS system!

From the core pride which has ~22 individuals. All the adults are identified.
Mating lions. 
Yes, we were even tracking this for 4 days. We all got live footage. Hilarious.

More cubs! While we were there, sadly, one cub was killed in a fight. 

 Now I'm doubting that a jeep can out drive a lion.

The project tracks all the prides, social hierarchies, interactions and deaths. Only one lion is collared at the moment so most of this is done by just driving around. Unfortunately, the second collared lioness was killed recently due to poisoning.

Elephant Monitoring: our other main project.

We learned how to take pictures of the elephants to identify them. We inputted our sightings in the database (but the internet was seriously slow and often nonfunctional which hinders progress).
This elephant was injured by a poisoned arrow. Unfortunately, some local Masai people are seeking the tusks. One tusk can bring in $5000, which is 100 months worth of wages.

Elephant family. The largest elephant herd we saw had 42 indiviudals.

Cheetah tracking
Also a project. We learned to ID cheetahs by their tail patterns.

Hippos! They are stinky and viscious!
I have a new respect for hippos as they are responsible for more people killings than lions. One hippo ate a Chinese tourist the same day we visited the reserve. I have a whole new perspective on the hungry hippo game now.

Our resident baboon. 
I could watch baboon colonies all day long. So fascinating. If you have any interest, definitely read “A Primates Memoir” by Robert Sapolsky. Being out here made me wish I did field work instead of lab work!
Water buffalo and their bird friends: a codependent relationship

Note: if you are confronted with a buffalo, lie down. It’s better to get trampled on than speared by its horns.

Killing! Yeah!

Birds abound. We had a birder ecology professor in our group. He almost saw 200 different types of birds in East Africa! Towards the end, we got awarded homemade jerkey for every new bird sighting.

 Spitting cobra crossing our path
We had one in our camp and one went into our friend's house and spit at his dog. Scarier than any lion.
Wildebeests and Tommys

We saw lots of gorgeous giraffes
Now this is Africa!!!
After hours and hours in the jeep, I thought I’d adapt to the animals and beauty. Sure I got used to zebra here, giraffe there, elephant here, but it was still all pretty incredible!