Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Mennonite, a Quaker, and an Atheist

There's got to be a joke in there somewhere.

I'm living with two great housemates whom I have been meaning to introduce for weeks now (because I love to name people on my blog). Cameron (Cam) is another biologist studying some other critters. Ian is a social scientist doing some really awesome applied research. I can't tell you how much happier I am to be living with Cam and Ian compared to living by myself last time. SO. MUCH. BETTER. Ian has a printer (so much better than the virus-ridden setup at the field station), Cam has tons of household goods, and I have the best Ukenzagapese in the house. Everyone wins!  I've evangelized Radiolab to them and they've lent me their books that I haven't had time to read. We share supplies and computer tricks, and commiserate when days don't go as planned. 

It's helping the time to pass quickly, but it also means I have an easy outlet for my thoughts rather than blogging. Things have been slow around this blog, and I apologize to my faithful readers who eagerly look forward to new posts (I think there's at least 3 of you :-). Maybe November will bring a flood of posts.

Two sides of the same coin

Hands down, the coolest part of my life as a scientist is getting to explore the world and work outside in beautiful places. I can't go into what makes my particular field site amazing, but trust me it is. I meet new and awesome people from different cultures who broaden and challenge my view of the world and what is possible.

At the same time, this awesomeness does have a drawback. It means that I leave home for weeks or months at a time. I was fine with that idea in my early 20s, but it's not nearly so easy to just go now that I have a place to call home and a husband with a job there. I'm trying to work as hard as I can in the field so that I can minimize my time away from home, but it doesn't feel like enough time in the field while simultaneously feeling like too much time away.

Over the long term (after my Ph.D.), I might shift to doing research that doesn't require international travel but I would hopefully still be working in beautiful places, albeit perhaps somewhat less extraordinary or exotic. For the time being though, I'm playing with the coin I chose, trying to figure out how to be the best scientist and the best partner I can be at the same time.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


The days are zipping by, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It means I get to see Jon sooner (or rather it feels sooner), but it also means I really have to get a lot done! I just submitted a grant that has been hanging over my head for the past 5 weeks (more on that later maybe) so I'm relaxing a bit tonight. It's a huge relief to have that done, so now I can start tackling the other zillion things I need to do (when I'm not in the field- being in the field alone is a full-time commitment).

Last week did end better than it started, and Thursday was only mildly disastrous due to a literal roadblock and some miscommunication. I did get a pineapple out of it. It was delicious.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This week sucks

This week just hasn't gone very well so far.

On Sunday we had a brownout, meaning we had about half the electricity output that we normally have. My computer runs on that (thank goodness) but most other things don't, including my phone charger (isn't that strange that I can run my MacBook but I can't charge a cell phone battery?). The brownout wasn't so bad, but it meant I couldn't print and had to hand write some data sheets.
On Monday we still didn't have full power. One of my field assistants, B, had missed the one bus back to Nyota on Sunday afternoon and was stuck in the town trying to get a lift. So, it was just me and T, but we were supposed to visit 2 sites, and T was an hour late because he had some motorbike trouble. B never showed up. We only got one site done on Monday. (Thankfully, we did get full power back on Monday afternoon so I could print).

Tuesday was really the worst confluence of problems. We were supposed to do 2 sites to put us back on schedule, and we were picking up a fourth person (me, B, T, and the other guy). For your reading convenience, I am bulleting the sequence of events.

-B called and said he was back in Nyota but had motorbike trouble and needed to go to the mechanic and didn't know when he'd be finished.
-T showed up 20 minutes late, but couldn't start work yet because he had to pick up his son from the clinic (he has malaria), take him home, and then pick up the other guy.
-We changed the plan to go to one other site that was closer when I realized there was no way we'd finish 2 sites.
-I started walking the 5 km to the site because T had to carry other people and B was at the mechanic.
-I called B and told him to leave his motorbike with the mechanic, get a lift as far as he could, and then start walking to the site.
-T passed me going the other way on the road because when he went to pick up the other guy (2 hours late), he wasn't at his house because he started walking to where we were supposed to be that day. The other guy has no phone, so T takes off to go find him.
-I arrive at the site and wait around for while. I repeatedly call B to ask where he is.
-T gets to the other site, and the other guy left a note that he's headed home.
-I start working by myself.
-T still doesn't find the other guy, so picks up another other guy instead. They arrive FOUR HOURS after we were supposed to start working. They have to do something in a different place, so I continue working alone. Still no word from B.
-I work by myself for 3.5 hours until T and another other guy are able to help me finish.
-After I got home, I finally talked to B. He had gotten a lift part way to the site, but forgot his bag (with his phone in it) in the car...

Today we set out to do two sites again (to really get back on track). T and B were both 15-20 minutes late. B was only able to repair one of his two motorbike problems, and now T's motorbike had two broken spokes. This morning I had to decide what was better: getting on the motorbike with broken spokes or the motorbike with the faulty clutch plate. I went with the clutch plate. Whatever. It was fine. The crappy thing that happened today is that I lost my Rite in the Rain pen and we searched for about 15 minutes to no avail. I hate losing those because they are expensive and not easy to replace. I started using the fine tip on my double-ended sharpie. Then, right at the end of the day, I lost the damn little black cap. Once again, we searched (with four people) for 10 or 15 minutes without success. Guess what? We only got one site done.

Tomorrow we're supposed to visit 3 sites. Please send some good vibes my way!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Wash by hand (or foot)

I'd forgotten how much having to wash my clothes by hand drastically reduces the number of different pieces of clothing I wear. I have waaaaaay more clothes here than I'm going to wear, simply because I don't want to wash them all every week! Sunday is my one day that I'm not in the field, so that's laundry day (unless I can find the time on Saturday). I've really got just one pair of pants that I really like to wear in the field, so I'm wearing those 6 days a week. I have two t-shirts, two long sleeved shirts, and two sports bras that each get 3 days per week. When I'm not in the field, I wear house clothes which is a skirt or pants with a t-shirt or button down shirt. I wear two outfits per day, but I re-wear each of those outfits for at least 3 days (more for the house clothes). Even re-wearing several pieces of clothing, it adds up to a few hours worth of laundry each week by the time I wash my towels and rain gear, rinse them thoroughly, and hang them out to dry.

Sometimes I walk around in the wash tub to agitate my clothes. Sometimes I do it while I shower, which just feels like great multitasking but probably isn't. Washing clothes by hand takes a long time. At least I'm able to keep my allergy to 'poison tree' at bay by washing so that I don't spread the oils around too much.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's all about the motorbikes

Sometimes I feel like all of my work out here revolves around motorbikes. The most recent problem: petrol. The town on the main road (the closest town with a real gas station- not like this one) ran out of petrol this week. All three gas stations were completely out of gas. As a result, there hasn't been much petrol for sale in Nyota- even less than usual. Today we couldn't do all of our work because my field assistants didn't have enough petrol in their motorbikes, and no one is selling more. Frustrating.

Aside from the perennial motorbike issues, the work is going well. I've been busy.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Made in China

Many, many things here are made in China. Much of it is garbage, but I have come to realize that China is a powerful position to make things that are very useful to people in Ukenzagapia. Like Ukenzagapia, China has millions of people living in rural areas with poor roads and limited electricity. As a result, they have made many products to serve that market. Or should I say they copied many products?
Chinese manufacturers seem to be adept at recognizing a good thing when they see it. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, right? They copied old English bicycles that are simple, sturdy, and survive the rough roads. They only have one gear (as far as I can tell), so you just push them up hill- but they do last longer than the "mountain bikes".

They copied the Honda CG125- a small, popular motorcycle. They copied it so exactly that when you put them next to each other they look identical- except for the names molded onto the engine. However, they did it with inferior materials so they could sell them for less.

My personal favorite Chinese knockoff is the pedal foot sewing machine. I saw so many of these sewing machines here that I thought that every single old sewing machine Singer ever made must have ended up here in Ukenzagapia. Upon closer inspection, I realized that not all of the sewing machines were 100 years old. In fact, most of them were new. The Chinese just took a pedal foot Singer sewing machine, copied the design, and even painted the darn things black with gold stenciling.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with "Made in China" because on the one hand, they make some very useful things (sewing machines that don't require electricity being very high on the list), but on the other hand they make some things that are so poor in quality that I am ashamed to have contributed the waste of resources to make a useless piece of junk. For example, light bulbs that only last 2 days, or a spoon that bends when you try to scoop jam. JAM.

I hope that Ukenzagapia is able to develop more of its own industries (ideally sustainable ones), but in the meantime, it's MADE IN CHINA.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Voting absentee

I've voted absentee for most of the elections in which I've voted. I found a great organization that helps people abroad request their absentee ballots. If you're ever abroad for an election, the folks at Overseas Vote Foundation can help you out. They even have a low bandwidth version of their site for people in remote places with slow internet (like me!).

If for some reason you have trouble getting through the process (I did, unfortunately), contact their help desk and they really will help you. Include your international phone number and they'll call you. Someone just called me and completed what I was, for some unknown reason, unable to do from here. Bummer that the form didn't work the first (or second or third) time, but props to them for some serious support! The only people who call me here are my husband and my parents- and now Overseas Vote.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The journey to here

When I was two, I watched ants on our sidewalk.
When I was four, I collected itty bitty snails on our driveway after it rained.
When I was five, I tried to "fish" for my goldfish with a worm I dug up in the backyard.
When I was six, I tried to make a bird's nest- how hard could it be? (it turns out, it's really quite difficult architecture for a six year old).
When I was eight, I fell in love with the local nature center and spent every summer there until I went to college.
When I was nine, I had the most amazing third grade teacher who encouraged my interest in science.
When I was ten, my teacher who let me write a non-fiction book about monarch butterflies instead of a fictional story.
When I was eleven, I started a club with my friends called EcoActors to promote recycling and raise money to conserve rainforest.
When I was twelve, other kids mocked me by calling me "nature girl".
When I was thirteen, I had a great jr. high science teacher.
When I was fourteen, I started the advanced science track in high school.
When I was fifteen and sixteen, I mostly forgot about all that nature stuff. It was mentally on the back burner while I dealt with high school drama.
When I was seventeen, I got a 5 on my AP biology exam.
When I was eighteen, I started college, having chosen my school based on the strength of the biology program (especially in ecology and evolution).
When I was nineteen, I traveled abroad to study biology in a phenomenal location and I was hooked on biology and hooked on traveling.
When I was twenty, I spent a semester in Africa.
When I was twenty-one, I did a summer research internship.
When I was twenty-two, I graduated not knowing exactly what I wanted to do next.
When I was twenty-three, I had a job teaching environmental education and decided to go to grad school.
When I was twenty-four, I quit my job and traveled for a year with my partner, and applied to grad school.
When I was twenty-five, I started grad school.
When I'm thirty-one, I hope to have my Ph.D. and a job I enjoy.