Friday, June 6, 2008

Trekking to a remote field station

These last four days of hiking have been really useful for me to
start envisioning the details of my own field work. This is a pretty
long and rambling post, but here's what I've been up to:

I signed up for a four-day hike to get to know the people, flora, and
fauna of this area better, since this is the general region where
I'll be working next year (when I actually have my permits). No one
else was interested in this hike, so it was just me and my local
guide. He spoke good Ukenzagapian English but I also tried to
practice my language skills with him and the other people I met along
the way, though many people who spoke to me did so in English.

The first day of my hike started with a near-death experience (ok, a
bit of an exaggeration) in a bus to the starting point. Our bus
passed between two lorries with about 6 inches to spare on either
side. Even before this near-accident, our driver was taking the turns
like a maniac. I didn't even see just how close we were to an
accident with the moving lorry, but my guide did and he told the
driver off and demanded that they stop to let us off. We walked along
the road for a few minutes until the next bus came, and my guide
spent most of the rest of the ride telling the passengers of this new
bus about our first crazy driver. When we arrived in the town he
found the bus driver and proceeded to tell him off some more. I told
the driver, "You are crazy." Apparently the guide threatened to take
this guy to the police, but finally we bought some food and left
(after my guide told the story to a few more people).

The whole first day of walking was through small farms. We passed
many children (pretty much every day). This area in general isn't
very touristy, and apparently tourists only go on this particular
trek a few times a year, so these villages rarely see foreigners.
Children stared at me without exception. Many of them greeted me in
one language or another, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some of
them also think that I am hilarious, and spend the whole time
laughing at me (one girl laughed uncontrollably). A few of them are
scared of me to the point of tears.

The first day we stopped in a village to eat lunch at my guide's
sister's house. They have a "haircatting saloon" there which was a
good laugh. Everyone we encountered on this trek seemed to speak the
language I've studied interspersed with their tribal language, which
made conversations especially difficult for me to follow.

I was really unimpressed with the first night's accommodation
considering that I was paying $60 per day, but it was ok. I never saw
where there was a shower, but apparently I could've arranged to
bathe. The place where we ate had the TV on, and I found it
captivating to watch. Most stuff was in the local language but there
was some English too. Also, they had one Celine Dion CD on repeat.

The next morning we went back to the same place for breakfast and
they were playing the same music. We walked through small farms for
about an hour before the scenery got wilder. This was a welcome
change, as I was getting tired of making children cry. We arrived at
the field station around 2 pm. It has beautiful gardens, rooms, and
furniture, and an odd collection of books. Shortly after we got
there, the American Ph.D. student who I met on Monday evening arrived
(like I wrote earlier, you're never alone for long when you travel
alone). Let's call him John (not to be confused with my Jon). We were
the only two foreigners at the station. John is just starting 4
months of fieldwork in an area that is conceptually and
geographically close to my research, so it was great to talk with him
about his project and my ideas. Just as useful were the tips and
hints we traded about dealing with bureaucracy and logistics in
Ukenzagapia.

I hadn't anticipated how disconnected the field station would be from
the rest of the world. Somehow, no cell towers reach there so I was
completely out of range on my phone (FYI- mobiles are everywhere
here. Probably 75% of adults have one, so it's not unreasonable to
expect at least some coverage there). Also, the station is powered by
small-scale hydropower and if too many leaves clog it up the lights
go out. Around 10 pm the lights dimmed rapidly and we had to make mad
dashes for our torches. Each room only had one light bulb to begin
with, and there are very few outlets in the house. John brought his
own small solar system with a battery so that he can power his laptop
and charge batteries because the field station has so little
electricity. It's odd to find such a western-style building (it was
built by a Swedish family) with almost no electricity.

It was interesting reading the guest register for the past two years.
Not very many people visit (once every 1-2 weeks), which I find
remarkable. This place could really be an important center for
research in this area with relatively minor investments in solar
power (electricity and hot water heating) and perhaps a nearby cell
tower. It is still difficult to access by road, but it's doable.
About $30,000 could go a long way here towards attracting researchers.

I spent two days exploring the area. I'm able to identify some of the
prominent flora and fauna but I've got a long way to go. On Friday
morning we headed back to our starting point ("civilization" =
internet cafes). The walk back was misty/drizzly/rainy the whole
time. I had my rain pants and jacket but I still ended up very damp.
I'm not sure if it was mostly sweat or that my rainjacket is wearing
out. Either way, it was pretty miserable but I kept a positive
attitude about it and just kept on truckin'. I was thankful for my
decision to purchase a waterproof camera. I had puddles in my shoes
within an hour or so of walking, but my socks kept my feet warm. We
made it to the town where we spent the first night by noon, and we
ate lunch at that same place with the Celine Dion music. I could see
steam rising off my body when I took off my jacket and I didn't even
come close to drying out during lunch. Then we took buses the rest of
the way back to "civilization" which I was thankful for since the
weather was crap. The drivers were good this time and not suicidal.

I'm writing this on Friday evening to post on Saturday morning, and
I've thoroughly enjoyed this evening with my computer to catch up on
email and do more reading. Hope you at least liked the pictures even
if you didn't read this whole thing.

2 comments:

Alexandra said...

Gosh, I can't decide if your trip sounds awesome or awful. At least it was sort of useful, eh? I can't wait for you to come home though! The weather is finally starting to behave as it should and I'm stuck inside writing a paper for a competition I have no chance of wining. ugh.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Sounds like a cool trip.