June 29, 2010

Pictures from Ngamba

Ngamba Island

I journeyed off the island for research supplies, so here's an update on the past few days:

June 26, 2010: Ngamba, Day 1

I am listening to the insistent cheep-cheep-cheep of lap wings as they guard their nests, the buzzing chp-chp-chp-chp of hundreds of golden weaver birds with occasional squawks as they disagree, and screaming, hooting chimpanzees from the forest, all with the gentle background of splashing from small waves. As I look out across Lake Victoria at sunset, surrounded by birds and swarming dragonflies (and quite a few lake midges, I must admit), I am pretty sure I have found close to my version of paradise. There are even armies and armies of ants for me to examine, although hopefully they’ll stay out of my computer this summer.
Ngamba Island is wonderful. I arrived this morning with a boatload of tourists, met up with a some trainee vets and some of the caregivers for tea and chapatti. I rejoined the tourists for a bit of history about the island and basic chimp info, and then onto the first feeding! It was really amazing to see 40 chimpanzees running around, catching thrown fruit, fight over the better pieces, and finally calm down and munch away while I looked on. Overall, the island has 44 animals, but 2 are newcomers who haven’t been integrated into the group yet and 2 are escape artists. Those two males have climbed the electric fence so often that they aren’t allowed out to the forest anymore, but a new enclosure is being created so they can have more freedom.
I took my lunch with the trainee vets, a researcher from the Max Plank institute in Germany, and some of the staff. I had matoke, fried sweet potatoes, and g-nut sauce, which was surprisingly delicious. At 2:30 there was another supplementary feeding- Juliana (the researcher) helped me start to figure out some of the names. So far I can recognize Mika (bald patch scar), Tumbo (grey-ish body), Yoyo (very black face), Sally (white face and beard), and Sunday (tall and lanky). My goal is to learn 4 or 5 individuals per day.
I watched the evening feeding a moment ago. For this meal, the chimps are brought back to enclosure, and placed into separate rooms. The young ones are housed together, and the rest are separated into rooms of about 4 by rank to ensure there are as few fights as possible. The caretakers hand out some leafy vegetables and then pass the chimps bowls of porridge that they eat through the bars. I’ll start helping tomorrow morning.
I love my life.

Pros: Please see everything mentioned above. Also, more internet access than I had been led to believe.
Cons: Spiders. There are spiders everywhere. Of every sort. I have already had one fall from the ceiling down my shirt and bite me. And I could do without the lake flies. I have an indeterminate welt on my wrist from some sort of insect/spider bite.

June 27, 2010: Ngamba, Day 2
The early morning wake-up at 6 am was a bit painful, I’ll be honest… But totally worth it when I put on my huge green overalls and rubber boots and sat down for the staff meeting. Dr. Joshua goes over the plan for the day and we break, each to his or hr respective tasks. I basically just hang out watching the chimps wake up for an hour. Which is great. Tey’re so playful in the morning- r & t abounds…
I’m given a bucket of chopped up bananas at 7:30 and Joseph (a Ugandan intern here) and I walk up to the feeding platform. Those individuals that aren’t being held back to be studied by the researchers are released and make their way up to outdoor forest through a metal barred corridor. Joseph throws huge chunks of posho and directs me to throw first to one side and then the other to make sure no one individual can monopolize all the food (as Mika the alpha male tends to do in the later feedings). IA few individuals sit close to the fence, begging with arms outstretched. Okech is particularly insistent. There’s no way to describe this experience other than: cool. It feels like such a useless word, but it’s just exactly how it felt. Really cool to make eye contact with a chimpanzee and throw her a hunk of banana. And then to look down at the chimp banging a stick against the ground to make sure you don’t forget him. All in all, it didn’t take very long to give them their breakfast, and after they had had their fill they meandered off into the trees.
Then the real work began.
I joined the ranks of caretakers for the prodigious task of cleaning the living area of 44 chimps who excrete a vast amount of waste. Dorm crew has nothing on this. You begin with a wet broom to move the solids and hay to the door where it’s collected into a big stinky wheelbarrow. Next comes the through washing using bleachy water, which is slashed everywhere until the floor is thoroughly coated in suds. You take a hard bristled broom and scrub vigorously for a while, moving the water down towards the drain (one corner of the enclosure is tilted down to facilitate cleaning). After it’s been brushed for a bit, clean water is dumped at the far end of the cage. You switch back to the wet brooms and sweep the water along, getting rid of left over soap and hay. Another splash of clean water to rinse and a thorough sweeping of the floor finish the procedure.
I spent a lot of today watching the researchers work and asking questions. I also took some notes for the 15 minutes before feeding, where tons and tons of social play occur. I timed the amount of r &t that I saw before the 2:30 feeding, and in the last 10 minutes before fruitstarted falling from the sky, 16% of the time at east 2 individuals were playing with one another. And there was a lot less play this time than before 11, so I’m pretty hopeful about this study.
I talked over some toy stuff with the keepers and researchers, and made a basic plan of action. I’ll test it out Wednesday and see how it goes. I’ll either have a keeper feed peanuts to an individual in the middle of the enclosure and place the toys at opposite ends of the cage, just outside the bars, and then have the keeper stop feeding so the chimp turns to check out the new adtions to its enclosure. Or, I’ll put the toys right outside the bars (on opposite ends) and open a door in the middle of the enclosure on the far side to let the chimp into the room. I like that way better because it seems like less noise, but apparently the chimps aren’t always super stoked about going through the doors so the first method may work better. I’ll try it both ways.
In other news, showering underneath the equatorial sun is fabulous. The cool water and the heat of the sun contrast wonderfully and it’s very freeing to bathe outside.

June 29, 2010: Ngamba, Day 4: Research Begins
I did the forest walk this morning. In other words, I walked through the jungle with a bunch of chimps. The group was Bruce, Byron, the German researchers, the Japanese volunteer Haru, me, and Nani, Rambo, Yoyo, Pasa, and Bili. Wearing our green coveralls and gumboots, we walked through the gate into one of the best experiences of my life. We stood waiting as the chimps entered and then made their choices. Nani, a sweet female adolescent, chose me first: she walked over, went behind me, and put her arms up. So I knelt and the 30 kg Nani clamored onto my back. She clung just like a child riding piggyback. Rambo, a playful juvenile male, jumped onto Haru, while Pasa chose Julianna. The rest gamboled along beside us, play fighting and jumping up and down from nearby trees.
We took a small trail through the island’s jungle. This felt like real rainforest. It was drizzling and insects were providing a constant soundtrack and the path was occasionally blocked by colonies of enormous spiders. We stopped after about 10 minutes for a peanut break. Nani and Rambo came down from their perches and gathered around Bruce, who handed out peanuts. He gave me a bunch and I hand-fed Nani. She stood on two legs, with her hands holding my arms to make sure I would feed her enough. Yoyo came over also and stood right behind Nani, so I dropped a few nuts into her open mouth as well. They were quite polite about it for chimpanzees. Usually there’s grunting and arms outstretched and lots of scratching, but these chimps were very calm, probably because there were so few.
We began walking again and Nani jumped on my back again. She was very heavy but it was worth it to trek through a jungle with a chimpanzee on my back. She wrapped her arms around my neck and stuck her feet out on either side of my waist, so I hooked my arms under her legs and we were off! Rambo and Yoyo were getting increasingly more rambunctious, rolling and chasing each other next to the path (and pushing us humans out of the way if we got in the way of their play fight). While we were going downa slippery, muddy section of the trail I slipped a little and Nani decided she had ridden on my back long enough.
We came out by Lake Victoria, which was quite rough due to the storm last night. There were still a few fishermen out in canoes, however. Rambo began eating some fruits from a reed-like plant while Yoyo climbed a thin tree, which bent down to accommodate her weight. We stayed there for a little bit before turning around to head back.
Yoyo and Rambo were in high spirits by this point, and played almost the entire way back. They also began including humans in their play: coming at us with arms held high and then gently hitting us or grabbing onto our ankles. They loved being tickled as well. I tickled a chimpanzee. And he laughed his panting play laugh and smiled at me. And I pulled Rambo along by his arm and play fought with him. And I tickled Yoyo who let that happen for a bit before deciding to pull my pants out of my socks where they had been tucked in.
This was one of the best mornings of my life. All in all it lasted about an hour, but the memory of a chimpanzee’s weight on my back and the way it laughs when I play with it will stay with me forever.

June 25, 2010

It's about to start!

I'm going to Ngamba Island tomorrow! Thesis here I come! Also, people can write me letters whilst I'm on the island (it takes about 2 weeks to reach me) and since my internet will be essentially non-existent there..... this is how I'll get my news and deal with how much I miss everyone.

***PO Box 884, Entebbe, Uganda***

And for emergencies: +256 0787 668 243

Also, don't get worried when I don't update this blog for a week or 2 at a time.

June 22, 2010

Queen Elizabeth National Park


Sorry, just had to get that out of the way. Yesterday I took a trip up to QENP: the Mweya Peninsula area next to the Kazinga Channel that connects Lakes Edward and Albert. I started off the day at 6 am when Peter, my driver and new best friend in Uganda, came by Mbarara to pick me up. Peter is a real character. He punctuates every sentence with "Ne!" and throwing a hand up to his cheek. I slept for most of the two hour drive. I woke up as we entered the park, just in time to see a herd of at least 8 elephants grazing by the side of the road. There was an enormous matriarch, a couple other full grown females, and a whole slew of juveniles and babies. They were incredibly peaceful and took barely any notice of our car. We stayed and watched them for around 5 minutes before they wandered off into the scrub brush.

We then picked up our park ranger guide, whose English was impeccable. We went around the kob breeding grounds for our game drive. Ugandan kobs are, along with the crested crane, the national animal of this country. They're a beautiful antelope that is reminiscent of the impala but a bit bigger and sturdier. We watched them courting and grazing for a while while catching glimpses of an amazing amount of bird species. We almost saw a lion (it was on the far side of a tree and another safari group had spotted it) but I couldn't afford to pay $150 to drive off road. Which is a ridiculous sum but understandable given that they don't want people driving off road because many birds and reptiles nest on the ground and could be easily killed by cars. Still, a bit disappointing.

It was brutally hot by 9:30 in the morning and the landscape here was the essence of what you imagine when you think of Africa. The yellowed grass came up to mid thigh and was only occasionally interrupted by candelabra cactus/trees (the base looks like a tree while the top looks like a cactus) and small bushes. We also had a chance to explore a different environment around some crater lakes. This park is in the Rift Valley region, where there's a major fault line pushing apart the valley along the Kazinga Channel. This fault line instigated volcanic activity that formed intense craters filled with salty and sulphuric water. Those were quite dramatic.

QENP is a good example of conservation efforts trying to work with local residents who were displaced when it was gazetted. 30% of entrance fees are paid to those villages, who have used the proceeds to build schools and a hospital. Inside the park there's a village that collects salt from the lakes as they dry out during this season. There are some other villages that are allowed to fish in the lakes. When neighboring cattle farmers come into conflict with lions and leopards, they usually try to poison the cats but this park has been attempting to create radio stations where herders can report problems and park rangers can come collect the cats and bring them back inside the boundaries of the park.

Peter and I also went on the channel boat launch. Again- so many elephants! There was a lone bull elephant grazing on the opposite shore as we departed. There were also numerous buffaloes and hippos enjoying the cooling shallow waters. As we floated along there was another large herd of female and baby elephants grazing and drinking water from the channel. At one point there was a medium sized crocodile basking in the sun about 3 feet away from a small group of buffalo eying it warily but still going about their business. Finally, we saw a sizable mixed flock of Maribu storks, cormants, herons, pelicans, and pied king fishers watched over by a fish eagle in the tree above.

As we were exiting the park we ran into another herd of elephants, which was a perfect way to end the day.

June 20, 2010


Greetings from Mbarara! This is a small town in the southwest of Uganda. It is pretty unremarkable except for being on the main road to this part of the country. The transport situation here was kind of hellish. I got to the chaotic old bus park in Kampala around 12:30 and was escorted by a bus tout to one of the Kabale buses (Mbarara is on the way).I sat there in the bus which smelled overwhelmingly of petrol for an hour and half while vendors walked through the aisles selling everything from sodas to watches to enormous sticks of soap. Finally we departed at 2. The first 3 hours to Masaka were alright, but after we arrived there we took on more passengers. As the bus was full already, they sat in the aisles where people had been dropping their garbage for the past 5 hours. I finally arrived at Mbarara at 8, expecting a big city like Kampala but finding a town of only a couple streets.

Mbarara does, however, contain several wonderful Harvard students who are letting me crash in their palace... er, house. Rumbi and Micheal are doing research/work for MGH Hospital here and are living in a fabulously huge and luxurious house on the outskirts of town. Yesterday we went to Lake Mburo National Park and I saw zebras! And lots of wonderfully beautiful water birds and tons of eagles and impalas EVERYWHERE. We started with a 6:30 am game drive and then took a 2 hour nature walk through the savannah. That was incredible. It was just the three of us plus our trainee guide and an armed park ranger. Walking through the tall grass and stopping 20 feet away from a mixed herd of topi, impala, and zebra is indescribable. It beats riding around in a car for a game drive in terms of the power of the experience, although you see fewer animals. At one point our ranger had to threaten a lone male buffalo by clapping and shaking his gun; apparently buffaloes that have been kicked out of their herds are so frustrated and angry that they'll charge humans without a second thought. But the gun rattling worked and we were left in peace. We also took a peaceful boat ride around the lake and saw a montage of crocodiles at different life stages (tiny baby, medium juvenile, huge adult).

Tomorrow I leave for Mweya Penisula in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

June 17, 2010

Sneaking into events

I love Ugandans. They are so incredibly friendly. I ran into a photographer at an internet cafe, and he snuck me into a rehearsal of the National Dance/Shaolin group's new performance at the cultural center. I'm not really sure what was happening or who they were, but the main dancer/fighter was balanced on top of 5 spears at one point. They were practicing a piece that somehow was a metaphor for violence against women. And the main performer was the epitome of a prima dona, despite being the most muscled man I've seen in a very long time, scolding everyone in a mixture of Lugandan and English. My new friend Natty got some awesome pictures of it for a newspaper here, and I'll ask him to email them to me soon and I'll put them under this post.

And yes, of course he hit on me. But I don't particularly mind the Ugandan way of hitting on people. We went for coffee and banana cake because I have been craving caffeine and his horoscope told him he would meet his soul mate this month. Ridiculous but funny. And he gave me a bunch of numbers for good people to know in a couple different cities. And then he left without being pushy.

I will write about my Murchison Falls safari when I can do a pictures post.

June 16, 2010

What's the point?

I was told this story about the differences in European and African culture by the head of the Ndere Cultural Dance troupe:

One day the World Bank is examining its records and realises that Uganda tops two of its lists: natural resources and debt. The president of the bank travels to Uganda to determine why a country so rich in natural resources would be so unable to repay its debt to the bank. When he arrives, he asks President Museveni what kind of resources the country has. "Well," Museveni replies, "we have the largest freshwater lake in Africa and it's filled with fish."

So the president of the world bank travels to the shore of Lake Victoria to see what's up. He encounters a Ugandan man in torn clothes lying in the shade by the lake shore. He greets the man and asks what he does.

"I am a fisherman," the Ugandan replies without getting up.

"Why aren't you fishing?" demands the president.

"I caught 3 fish yesterday."

"What did you do with them?"

"One my family ate, one I gave to my neighbours, and one we will eat tonight."

The president, obviously at a loss, asks, "Why don't you catch more fish now?"

The fisherman replies that there's no reason to- let the fish live one more day.

"But you could catch more fish now!" the president of the world bank exclaims.

"And then?"

"And then you could sell the extra ones"

"And then?"

"And then you could by a net to catch more fish!"

"And then?"

"And then you could sell those and make enough money to by a boat with a bigger net!"

"And then?"

"And then you could sell all the fish you catch with your big boat and make lots of money!"

"And then?"

"And then you can relax!"

The Ugandan, still reclining by the shores of Lake Victoria, stares at the President of the world bank for a while before replying, "And what exactly do you think I'm doing now?"

June 13, 2010

Some Pictures!

The equator!!!!!
Jo and Sandra standing on the equator:
Aaand me and Jo on the equator:
Some vervet monkeys chilling in the hostel yard:
Mother and baby vervet:

The Independence Monument in Kampala:
An awesome food delivery service:
A view of a park on Kampala Road:
What the roads are like (matatu= identical white vans, boda-boda=motorcycle taxis):
The entrance to my hostel:


I've been in and around Kampala for the past couple days. This city is intense and interesting and a little overwhelming at times. The streets are filled with unfamiliar but melodic languages that remind me where exactly I am on the globe. Traffic is chaotic- the streets are jam-packed with matatu, boda-boda, cars, and people everywhere. I haven't figured out the traffic rules yet, since people seem to switch sides of the road quite often while driving to either go faster or avoid the enormous potholes (a feet deep and five feet wide at times) that appear quite often on the less well maintained roads.

Ugandans smile more than any other group of people I've ever encountered. Everyone has been incredibly friendly and helpful; I stopped a man to ask for directions and 2 others came over to help and then bargained with my taxi driver for me. Each conversation starts with a full set of polite greetings.

I met up with Jo Read and we've been going around together. Yesterday, her friend Sandra drove us to the official equator crossing. So touristy but enjoyable and worth it none-the-less.

Tomorrow I leave for Murchison Falls- a national park where the Nile forces its way through a narrow gorge to cascade in what I am told is a fantastically beautiful way.

June 9, 2010

Red Chilli Hideaway

I woke up in Africa this morning.

That sentence alone fills me with glee. Although the waking up itself was rather traumatic as some enormous and incredibly loud bird screeched right outside the window at 5:30 am.

My hostel is very nice but unfortunately my mac isn't connecting to their wireless internet so I can't upload any pictures of it yet. I'm staying in a huge dorm with some very nice people and a surprisingly old clientele (since I expect hostels to have only folks under 25).

I chilled with my first "wild" primates yesterday when some vervet monkeys with enormous blue balls were hanging out in the yard; there were about 10 of them including some very adorable babies.

June 8, 2010



I am finishing the tail-end of my 12 hour layover in Dubai. I didn't get to see much of the city because I arrived around 8 at night and left my hotel at 5:30 am (thanks grandma and grandpa Caro), but the airport is ridiculous. There is an entire city of stores in here and everything shines. I am sitting in the middle of a garden complete with waterfall and chirping birds that flit around. There is also an enormous water cascade next to the glass elevators and lime green lighting on a lot of the walls.

Interesting experience: As I got in line to take a taxi from the airport, I was directed to a line for a "Ladies' Sedan." This car had a pink roof and a female driver in a fabulous bright pink veil. We listened to "Like a Prayer" during our drive. Some things change and some things stay exactly the same.
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