Sunday, September 25, 2011

Week 2 - Lothagam

Hello everybody!

This week was dominated by a camping trip to Lothagam. Lothagam is a Miocene formation (basically, a big pile of very old rocks) about an hour and a half away from TBI. We went there on Thursday, camped overnight, and went back on Friday. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were mostly lecture days, so we could make sense of what we were about to see.
But I should start at the begining!
The lorry whips up large clouds of dust as is puffs through the dessert on sandy roads. We pass straw huts, herds of goat and camel, and the omnipresent local kids running towards the truck and waving. Sometimes when we hit an especially big bump I'm launched for a moment into the air above me seat. My iPod is on full blast to compete with the diesel engine I'm sitting next to and I need to wipe the screen off every few minutes from the dust. We pass a village that is receiving aid from the Chinese government. Every person in the town is sitting on the ground as men carrying assault rifles distribute sacks of maize.
Camels look goofy when they run
At one point we reach an impasse. Some villagers had stuck a palm tree log in the middle of the road, and were demanding we pay a fine to pass. We backtrack to negotiate with the chief in the village, and eventually make it through. Never had to do that before!
Lothagam looks like a group of small mountains from a distance.
Lothagam from the lorry
The area has dried up lacustrine  deposites (river beds) weaving through it, with mountains both to the East and West. The only real shade for miles are the palm trees that we park under.

As soon as we stepped out of the Lorry, we go to the mountain on the Eastern side. After some hiking on rocks formations that looked like they  belonged on Mars, we got over the ridge to see miles and miles (excuse me, kilometers and kilometers) of unbroken sand.
On our way down to examine a fault line, we encountered a Hyene footprint!
When we made it back, we waited out the hottest parts of the day in the shade, and went out again in the afternoon. To pass the time, I had tea and biscuits. Hot tea is surprisingly good when it's over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (sorry again, over 38 degrees Celsius). The next hike was to the West. The professor showed us ancient buriel markers, which are basically piles of rock called kerns. A few shards of pottery could be found lying on the ground, as well as tiny fragments of bone.
The only shade

After a delicious dinner, we fell asleep under the stars. We didn't use tents, but put bed rolls on the ground and set up mosquito nets over them. It was pretty amazing looking at the night sky through the white tint of my mosquito net, while we took turns trying to tell amusing stories.
The next morning we set out on the long hike. This time we traveled south, almost the entire length of Lothagam. It was about ten kilometers there and back, or about four and a half hours. The morning weather is comfortable, but by the time it's 9 am it starts to get hot, and by 11 it's burning. The only things I was carrying were my camera, a GPS device, and two water bottles. Hiking through ancient rock formations, I try and force my mind to pay attention to geology and not the heat.

Dehydration can creep up on you. The heat evaporates your sweat nearly instantenously, and so you can easily loose track of how much water your losing.
The only place sweat remained was the front of my hat, pressed against my forhead. My lips became extremely chaped, and whatever moisture remained on them caused the ambient dust to stick. The sleeves of my white shirt were quickly dirtied by continually whiping my mouth.
The hardest part was stoping myself from drinking my water too fast. It's so tempting to just chug it down, but it's much better for you if you sip it bit by bit. And by mid day, your water feels hot enough to make tea with. While a lot of the rocks are uneven, it's the sand that tires you out. After a while, it feels as though the sand is swallowing your feet with every step.

After seeing fossilized hippo bones, giraffe imprints in a rock, lots of sedimentary strata, a watering hole with orange water (ew!), and rock piles used by the locals to slaughter goats we were told to find our way back (with a GPS and a compass it isn't too hard). By the end of it, I was indescribably thirsty. I was so thirsty, that I couldn't even remember what it was like not to be. Looking at my GPS and seeing four and half kilometers to go, and then seeing the 500 mL of water I had gave me a keen appreciation for the value of water.

But we all made it back alive!
The next day we took our geology final in the morning, which marked the official end of 1/5th of our time here. Our next unit is ecology. So I finally get to learn about all of the bugs around here!
Today (Sunday) we took a trip into Lodwar, which is the nearest town.

It felt like we were on display, as the local children gather around us and talk amongst themselves while giggling and pointing. Somehow, the only english that most of them know is "how are you?", which they repeat like a religious chant whenever we're in sight. I bought potato chips and hot sauce at the local store. Somehow, I've been craving potato chips and Coke, two things I rarely have in the states.

Me and Francis, our guide standing over one of those kerns
 And so ends another exciting week!


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Week 1

We are now one-tenth of the way done with our studies here. The first module is Geology. I've never taken Geology before so I didn't really know what to expect. I thought we would just be examining rocks, but the first morning we made maps of the camp, and on the second we learned ow to actually scale them proportionally. Having class in a field school is a very different experience. I'm learning so much so fast because I actually get to see what the professor is talking about first hand. On Thursday, we waded across the river and measured it's size and how much water was flowing through it. Then we looked at fluvial deposits from 5000 years ago and then 2 and a half million years ago. Seeing the way our landscape changes through time is fascinating.

On Friday we drove to a dried up lake bed. It was incredible, and hot! There isn't any shade for miles and miles. Just the cracked clay that normally forms the basin of the lake.
The next day we took a day trip to Central Island, which is a volcanic island in the middle of Lake Turkana. The drive there was beautiful. Because Kenya is a developing country, there are tons of little kids around, and they all some running waving their hands when they see our truck. It makes me feel like some sort of celebrity. On the drive up we actually found a poor guy who crashed his motorcycle, so we took him to the local health center. He seemed OK. Wear your helmet kids!

We took a boat out into central island, ran it on shore and started to explore.

Just over a ridge there was a crater lake called Flamingo Lake. And the name was no joke. There were literally thousands upon thousands of flamingos hanging around the lake, and when we got near they all started flying over us in circles. I can't really explain the feeling of watching thousands of pink flamingos fly over your head. I've never seen so many of one animal at once.

Afterward we took a swim in the Lake, which was nice and refreshing. But as soon as we got out we spotted a crocodile swimming not so far away. Close one!
Before I go on I should tell you our schedule: we wake u at 6:30, have breakfast at 7:00, class at 8:00, tea and biscuits at 9:30, class again or a field trip, then lunch at 1:00, some more class or another activity, tea and biscuits again at 4:30, and then break until dinner at 8:00. I'm normally asleep by 9:00! Quite a change from my normal habit of staying up until 3 a.m.
The wild life around consists mostly of goats. The people here are goat herders by trade, and we pass groups of 100 or more routinely on our drives. We also have occasional donkeys here, and quite a few camels!

Bats are a very common sight at night. I even had one fly around my room! I was surprised to find that crows live here. And also a type of dove that looks somewhere in between a morning dove and a pigeon and makes a funny noise. I haven't actually seen a chicken, but I hear one almost every morning when I wake up!
Lots of bugs. There are scarab beatles, tons and tons of moths, flies, mosquitoes en masse, very large wasps, scorpions, and just tonight I saw what's called a goat spider, which actually isn't a spider. It looks a lot like a spider, but it moves very quickly and is humongous. I thought the scorpion were big, but this is almost the size of my hand. I think it will take me a while to get used to it, but I saw a couple in this room about an hour ago. Wish me luck!

Our group is smaller than last years. We have exactly ten people. Three guys, and seven girls. Most of us our from Stony Brook like me, but we have one student from NYU, one from Columbia, one from the University of Oregon, and one from New Mexico. You make friends with people pretty quickly when you're with them 24/7. And surprisingly, we all have different interests. We have a geologist, a philosophy major, physical anthropologists, archeology students, and I'm into the cultural side of anthropology myself. So when we go places there will be a couple of people fascinated with goat bones they found, another with the rocks they were found on, one pondering the nature of the goats existence, and me in the background observing them interact.
I'm usually one of those people that mosquitoes just don't seem to like. As a result, I was confidently walking around with bug spray the first couple of days. I ended up with over 60 on my feet, so lesson learned. I also haven't had serious sun burns before. But the skin on my arms, face, and back are red as tomatoes at the moment.
Today on our day off, we took a trip to a local resort. It was basically a bunch of straw cottages on the beach, but it was beautiful.

Swimming feels awesome when its 100+ degrees. We also saw a little baby baboon who was apparently somebodies pet. So cute!

So far it's a great time!

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 11th

Writing this blog today reminds me of how different a world I'm in. Back home, I'm sure images of the towers falling pervades every channel, and the front cover of the New York Times has every story dedicated to the tragedy. Here we are so completely removed. No news, no TV, and only ten Americans.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself...
We began in the JFK airport, where we met up and boarded an eight hour flight for Züruck, Switzerland. The plane service was fantastic! I watched two movies and had a delicious dinner. When we arrived we stayed at the airport for about two hours, and then boarded another eight hour flight for Nairobi. Spending all that time on airplanes was pretty disorienting, and it would've been close to intolerable if the plane service wasn't so excellent.
Then, we stayed at a hotel in the suburbs of Nairobi and ate dinner. It was dark, so we couldn't see very much of Nairobi, but what we did see was incredible. The highways were totally packed with people (driving on the wrong side of the road!), and the driving was so crazy that all of the stop lights were deactivated, because no one would pay attention to them.
We flew to Lodwar to following day, which was quite a different experience. We went through security who didn't make us spill out all of our water, and got on a small propeller plane.
This one!

 The two hour flight felt like a roller coaster at times, but we managed to land safely. The weather getting on the plane must have been high 60s, and rainy. The weather getting off was about 100 degrees, dry, and sandy. The culture difference was really too much to describe. Everyone was living in grass huts, and brightly dressed women were walking around carrying things on their heads. People gathered around us trying to sell us things, and goats were wandering around the town at will.

The drive from Lodwar to TBI was about an hour, on (very!) bumpy dirt roads. The level of vegetation and human settlement gradually diminished to nearly nothing, as we drove further and further into what I can only describe as the middle of nowhere. Eventually, we came upon the compound of buildings that is to be our home for the next ten weeks. It's situated near a big muddy river, which provides water for all of the surrounding trees.
Here's our dorm:

We were immediately served a delicious lunch and shown to our rooms. We each get our own room, our clothes are washed for us, and our beds are made for us. So it basically feels like living in a resort. The heat is intense, but so far it's manageable. One just cannot be lax about drinking water, and sunscreen is a must. We slept outside on the veranda in mosquito nets, and I heard people chanting and beating drums in the distance as I dozed off.

My computer gave out last night, which explains why I'm posting this a day late. It seems to be working alright now. My plan is to post something every Sunday that I'm here.
This is #1!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Beginning

             This is the beginning of what will be my first extended international experience. My only other trip overseas was in Italy, and that was only for a week. I’ve never been in a third-world country, and the hottest temperature I’ve ever experienced was about 100 degrees. The only scorpions I’ve seen were at zoos, and the only daily pills I’m used to taking are multi-vitamins, not malaria medicine.
            But before I go any further I should introduce myself. My name is Roy Lotz. I’m from Sleepy Hollow (yes, like the movie), I’m a junior in Stony Brook University studying anthropology and I’m twenty years old. I also have music minor (I sing and play guitar).

Here's me:

        Destination: The Turkana Basin Institute, Kenya. It’s a semi-desert, with temperatures (so I’m told) routinely reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The institute is a small facility with a few buildings. I will be staying in dorm style living and taking classes in two week modules. The entire length of the program is ten weeks (five classes) and I get back on November 20th. The area around the institute is peopled by the Turkana tribe of North-east Kenya, who have their own language and distinct culture. I’ll be learning about geology, ecology, paleontology, and archaeology.

      After the months of running around Stony Brook campus trying to get my application in, this is the moment of truth! While I was getting my professor recommendations, filling out the forms, reading pamphlets and web pages about information this day loomed in the distant future. Even during the summer I rarely thought about it, I was busy hanging out with friends, working, and playing music. But a word to the wise, if you are planning on studying abroad, don’t procrastinate applying. It’s easy to let things slip on to the backburner but before you know it, due dates can fly by. I’m a terrible example, I just bought the pants I need today!
            Looking at what I will be carrying with my to Kenya I’m struck by how little it is. The plane from Nairobi to Lodwar has a weight limit; my check-in bag can’t weight more than 40 pounds. My luggage includes a bare minimum of clothing (mostly lightweight cotton stuff), hiking boots, insect repellent, toiletries, flashlights, a laptop, a digital camera, my IPod, and my harmonicas. That’s mostly it. I’ll have to go the longest time without playing guitar since I picked it up five years ago! I hope I don’t drive the other Stonybrookers crazy with my harmonica playing (sorry guys!). Fun fact: playing the harmonica is a great way to pass time on long plane rides, waiting in long lines, and during boring class lectures.

            Weirdest thing I’ve had to do to prepare? My travel doctor recommended I buy this industrial strength insect repellent. He suggested I spray all of my clothes with it before I go, which is what I just did! The stuff is basically poison. The fumes stung my nostrils, and smelled like those toxic bug sprays. It’s supposed to kill anything that’s unlucky enough to land on me. We will see if it works.

            This will be a big change. In a little under 48 hours I will be in a climate I’ve never experienced with nine people I haven’t met. Also, I expect it to be the time of my life: getting to see and experience things that I’m used to reading about in textbooks, experiencing new cultures, making new friends, and generally broadening my experiences. Yes, it does sound a little cliché now, and my expectations will have to remain vague clichés until I actually get there.
            And now, I have a 17 hour slight to attend to, so I will leave you. 

(this is me in my poison clothes!)