By the time I was 12 years old, I already had a long-standing fascination with archaeology. It was that year, though, that I met Lucy. Australopithecus afarensis. Only then I called it “ostreopithecus,” and it didn’t dawn on me for a while that what I was thinking wasn’t the correct term. Still. For a 12-year-old that’s not really so bad. Mr. Anderson passed out an issue of Scientific American that had Lucy on the cover. And obviously, an article about her. I tore it out. It was so completely fascinating…to think of relatives so long ago. I don’t remember exactly how I mentally constructed this back then, but it really struck a chord with me. And it stayed.
At that point, the fascination started growing. It was a long time before I realized that that studying these critters was what I wanted to do with my life, but once I did realize that, it became apparent retrospectively that that’s really all I had ever wanted to do.
Cutting through a lot of crap, that’s the back story of this post. I got back into school for anthropology…about nine years after graduating highschool. This past summer, I headed over to Kenya for the Koobi Fora field season. Koobi Fora is the name of a region on the east side of Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolfensis). It translates from the native language as “place of the commiphora,” referring to a tree that grows there.
Let’s zoom past all that happened to me after tearing that article out of Mr. Anderson’s magazine, and to late-2012 into 2013. I’m at Rhode Island College, finally taking anthropology courses. I’m very well read, having spent the past 9 years in between high school and college reading about this stuff. But my knowledge was sort of random, I would know a lot about something, little about a lot, and without any of the history of the science. I knew what I was interested in, or what had floated my way.
Basically I had an informal education.
I had some excellent support from friends and faculty at the school. One professor in particular pushed me to go to field school. I had considered it, but not even to the point of looking into them. But, paleoanthropology was (is) it for me. She pushed me to go, and I started looking into it.
I found the Koobi Fora Field School just through web searching. It was the most cost-effective and seemed very well-respected–some big names in the science (Holly Dunsworth, Lee Berger) got their first field experience there. I applied. Went through all the hoops of the application process. And was accepted. Got word early 2013. I remember sitting with my friend, Kaity, when I got the email. I told her, and texted a few friends about it, including said encouraging professor-friend.
This was a big, big deal.
So I started going through the hoops of actually getting there. Plane tickets and passport (I had never flown), vaccinations, hotel reservations in London. LONDON!? Me? The furthest I had been from the United States was Canada…back before you needed a passport to cross over the border. I paid $1 and got a scratch ticket. I didn’t win anything.
The thought of flying freaked me out but I didn’t really care, because that’s what I had to do anyway. Kenya would be a bit of a drive, and I’m not a very strong swimmer.
Started making my packing list. Printed out the text book and had it bound. Got a new daypack for the hikes.
Got on my first flight on June 13. My girlfriend was the last person I saw. And that was it. Didn’t know anybody where I was. Didn’t know anybody in England. Had never flown. Didn’t know how to get to the hotel at which I had a room reserved in Hounslow. Didn’t know how to get back to the airport the next day. Didn’t understand the currency and I didn’t understand the dialect. And everything seemed so purple. I describe England as a purple rhombus. I’m not elaborating, either.
I did, however, get to ride a double decker. I also got to see Ireland as I flew towards England. I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland. At least I’ve seen it now. Baby steps.
Got to Heathrow and my bags never showed up. Apparently while the guy at Logan Airport had plenty of time to complain about how late I was running, he had no time at all to tell me that my bags were going straight to Nairobi. The guy at Heathrow was super nice. Told me that next time I see my bags, they’ll be on a baggage carousel in Nairobi. And he gave me a “night kit” from the airport. Tee shirt, toothpaste, toothbrush, razor…the kinda stuff you need when your bags are 6,000 miles away for the night.
I wandered around this purple rhombus for probably the better part of two hours. 1–I was kinda lost. 2–I didn’t care, I was taking in what was going on. Eventually I made my way out, got some money, got to a bus stop and rode a friggin’ double decker to Hounslow. Got dropped off less than half a mile from my hotel, asked directions and was told it was about half a mile, straight that way. He was shocked I wanted to walk. Either he was lazy or I was in a bad area. Didn’t matter. I walked and I’m fine.
My hotel wasn’t particularly interesting. Actually, it sucked and the pizza that I ordered made me nauseous. I called home, flooded the bathroom and didn’t get enough sleep. But none of that matters. This was actually happening. The smart car parked outside reminded me of home. And the coke was amazing.
Walked about 12 miles from the hotel back to the airport. Why not? Well, it sucks, that’s why not. But I didn’t know that until after. I won’t do it next time.
I got back to the airport. Had some crappy coffee and talked to some people back home. And got on my next flight. Second of my life. To Africa. Africa. Things had started to dawn on me at this point. Didn’t quite hit me. But it was kind of a big deal.
Still don’t know anyone. Still don’t understand the dialect or currency where I am. And now I’m off to somewhere even further removed from the familiar.
I got off the plane at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at about 11:30pm local time. They’re seven hours ahead of the east coast US, so it was just suddenly later. I couldn’t sleep on the plane. I could fall asleep on the plane. Just not go to sleep. So I was up for a very long time. Was dehydrated, uncomfortable, and kinda freaked out about being in friggin’ Kenya with nothing but my daypack. Fortunately the guy at Heathrow was right, and I saw my bags on the carousel.
I can’t quite describe it. The air felt different. It had a smell to it, but I wouldn’t describe it as either good or bad. It just was. It was humid…the air was so thick in the airport. If England was a purple rhombus, Kenya was kind of yellow…and triangular. I’m not elaborating on that, either.
I followed whatever it was I followed, saw a buncha fun signs with giraffes that said things like “Jambo! Kenya!” and stuff like that. Funneled through whatever it was…I don’t really remember the way but it was the only one so that’s the way I went. I started looking at signs–those signs with the last names of people who are getting picked up by drivers they’ve never met. Figured I must be one of those. I saw some names that could have been gross misspellings of my own. Finally I saw a girl in maybe her mid-20s, holding a white posterboard sign with rainbow text that said “KOOBI FORA FIELD SCHOOL.”
That’s my ride.
Next to her was a stocky dude in a University of Cape Town cap, and another kid, presumably a student. The stocky guy was David Braun, the program director. The girl was one of two people. I think it was Kelley, but my memory can’t tell if it was her or Amelia. The other kid was Zach. Zach and I were the last students to show up.
My first absolute memory of Dave was him backing out of the parking spot, and immediately almost running over several nuns. He blurted out, “Don’t. Hit. Nuns. Bad karma, bad karma!” I liked him already.
We drove the hour or so to the hotel. I was just staring at the landscape. It was dark…about midnight…but I could see the trees. Acacias. You know, the quintessential African trees. Lion king sunset scene trees. The buildings seemed looming in the shadows. I wondered what the next day would look like.
We got to the hotel. The clerk brought out a sheet that had everyone’s name and room number. Directed me (I think) to room 404. My roommate was already there, just knock and he’d let me in. Two knocks and he answered. Amazed I was able to wake him. He sleeps through everything. He’s Silindo. A South African of Zulu heritage. We talked a bit. I showered and went to sleep.
The next morning we were up fairly early. The buffet at the hotel was unreal. The mango juice was the real deal. You don’t know mango juice until you have that stuff. Thick as yogurt.
From there, we all assembled as a group and walked over to the National Museum.
The National Museum of Kenya. The museum that I had been reading about for the past just about 18 years. I was going there. What?
We walked there. Nairobi was so strange, yet not shocking. It was this amazing patchwork of shanty buildings, stucco looking buildings and modern architecture. Western architecture. The roads weren’t so bad. Drainage channels along the sides. There was a slick mud on everything. It had been raining.
We had some introductions to archaeology. We had an orientation. They gave us a run down of what was up, the faculty introduced themselves, and the students introduced themselves. I think the girl sitting next to me on my right was Delaney. I could be wrong, though. I didn’t know these people yet.
We walked over to a cafe first, for tea. Cafe Vogue. We had coffee–it was GOOD, these donut things that we would all come to know and love, called mandazis. Tea and sweet potato. I talked to people about the coffee and experience thusfar. Nolan and Russ, Marian and Zach. I didn’t know these people yet. But I remember them from before I knew them. I didn’t know it yet, but in the coming weeks I would become closer to these people than some I’ve known my entire life.
We toured the Kenya Museum as well as seeing the back roomy collections. Saw everything you’d typically expect from a museum. Complete with a tapestry of Michael Jackson.
Really, the trip hadn’t been very much different from back home so far. I didn’t know any of these people, but that’s true of the start of any semester. I had never been to this museum, but I have been to plenty. I’ve never seen this museum’s private collections, but I’ve seen others. Really, what had stood out the most was the architecture and the consistency of the air. And the foliage. I still couldn’t get over the plants. The trees, in particular:
I had conversations with people I didn’t know yet. I talked to one girl about that dinosaur statue, and how she needs to get a picture of it to show her boyfriend, who is really into dinosaur paleontology. Another guy got a big kick out of the box into which people are to drop slips with corruption reports. We also talked a bit about that Michael Jackson tapestry.
The rest of the day went pretty similarly. We had another tea at Cafe Vogue. Actually, there was one notable difference…but again, not qualitatively much different from back home. We went to the mall. That’s right, the mall. My father was convinced we’d be living in shacks in Nairobi, so here’s a picture I took for him:
On the way, I sat next to Nolan–he was the guy who was so amused by the corruption box. We talked about Pantera and Indian food. The mall has some pretty tight security, so he stashed his knife in the seats of the National Museum’s bus that brought us there. I got my field notebook and some toothpaste. Spotted Zach for a few things because his stuff had had some complications in arriving. Tragically, this is the same mall that was attacked and taken over by terrorists shortly after my return home.
We turned in pretty early so we could wake up to load the trucks and be off. This is a process that would be repeated many times over the next several weeks. Basically, there were several Land Rovers, a Unimog and a huge supply truck just called the “White Lorry.” They were all packed to the brim. This is a self-supporting program. All of our food came with us. As did the fuel to keep going, and other odds and ends, like toilet paper and water filtration systems.
And just like that, we were off. It didn’t take long before things started looking less like a city. I wound up in Steve’s Land Cruiser, with Sarah as the second faculty member. Was with two other students. Delaney and Dave. There were 7 Daves on this trip. This was Dave, South African Dave or DRJ, depending on who was referring to him or how he was being referred to. Right now, he was just one of the other people in the truck with me.
As we headed north, the scenery changed rapidly. The city faded behind us and we were just left to take in our surroundings…likely all in various states of combined awe and anxiety. Eventually we were driving along the Great Rift Valley. It was overcast, but you couldn’t miss it. I mean. It’s the friggin’ Great Rift Valley.
We headed on through countless rolling miles–mostly ascending–through country side. Shanty towns popped up as quickly as they faded into the distance. We passed through places that I don’t see on my maps. Naivasha, Gilgil, Nyahururu, Rumuruti, Kinamba, Kisima, Maralal. I lose track of locations and when what happened at this point. We stopped at a truck stop for a “cho” break. In addition to plumbing, this place had the best samosas I have ever, ever had. A little bit down the road were some baboons. Completely nonchalant about the fact that we were there. We were considerably less “chalant” about having seen him. This was a friggin’ baboon. Just doing his baboon thing.
Shortly down the road we stopped for our first lunch. Yet another process we’d become very familiar with. These processes became just what happened. This was the beginning of this life grafting over the one I had left in Rhode Island.
Eventually we passed everything recognizable as a town, or “civilization.” We climbed in altitude up onto the Laikipia Plateau. To the Mugie Game Ranch, where we would spend the next several days. Here was the boot camp. We thought we were finding out what we were going to be doing. This was just a transition. A buffer.
At night, we got stuck in the mud so many times. This isn’t any mud you’ve experience. This is mud on the “roads” of rural Kenya at the end of the rainy season. This is the only road through the area. Not many vehicles pass through here, when you compare them to roads in the United States. But every one that does, travels this road. The radiator of one of the trucks was punctured. We had to tow it with the Unimog. About 8 hours of our 12 hour trek was towing that truck. When we were “half an hour” from camp, we were stuck. We took two more hours to get there.
The first morning there I felt like I was drunk. I couldn’t think, I was groggy, my vision wasn’t sharp. I had altitude sickness. We spent the days with field activities to get a better idea of the kinds of work we would be doing once in the field, as well as understanding how the environment there resembled the paleoenvironments we would be studying. We woke early, ate and went out to the field. We became acquainted with one another and began to develop a camaraderie. And it was cold at night. It was wet. At one point it was raining so hard we had to head back to camp. We couldn’t write, we could barely see. I found an impala tooth in the scrubby grass we walked through that day. DP, the guy running the field exercise was excited. He could use that tooth for his research into isotopes.
You think of Africa as hot, and dry. Not Mugie. It rained like you wouldn’t believe. The nights got down to probably the low 50s. It rained so hard there was almost half an inch of water in my tent. I had to use every piece of cloth I owned to keep the water from completely flooding and damaging my books and electronics. The rest of my free time was spent drying them. I got a tarp from Marian, to use as a rain fly. It came in handy at least once. My tent didn’t flood again. I was alone here, though. I hadn’t anticipated this. The trip had so far been such a whirlwind of different cultures and foods. New people. New information. Reading and exams. Traveling. Animals. Those first few nights at Mugie the loneliness was permeable. I had such full days. But I didn’t know anyone. I would laugh and share experience and amazement with a bunch of strangers. I knew a few by name. But what does that mean? I could learn someone’s name off a sticker on their chest in passing in the hallway.
I didn’t know these people yet. I was alone. I had no way to share any of what was happening to me, anything that I was seeing. It was just me. I couldn’t tell my mom, my dad, my siblings, my girlfriend or my friends. I had lived with my girlfriend for years. I had slept next to her every day but one (literally) until getting to London. But I talked to her there. I talked to her in Nairobi. I could get a text out here and there from Mugie. But what is that? 10 words?
I just saw baboons. I just walked by a bull elephant. My tent was full of water. You should see the fire orchids. We are getting sick of the zebra. I saw four different groups of elephants.
What would be the point?
The loneliness in this experience was crushing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who experienced it, either. It was such an isolating feeling. I wondered if it was worth it. I knew it was, but I wondered at my ability to get through it.
I lost my money here. I’ll never know exactly what happened. I wound up getting it back, though. I’ll talk more about that later. One night we stayed up pretty late talking to the two guys from Ethiopia–Bladen and Temesgen. We tried to explain the differences between and implications of the words “to” and “for.” When we weren’t out in the field, we were doing our “homework.” When we weren’t doing either, we often had game drives. This was the closest thing to a safari we did on this trip. In and of itself, Mugie would have been a complete experience.
I made it to Africa. I spent a couple days in Nairobi. I ate on the side of the road with some baboons not too far off. Got stuck in the mud in pitch darkness and spent the better part of a week in a flooded tent. I saw, smelled, heard, tasted and did some things most people never will. All while shitting in a hole with flies crawling all over me as I did. I found my first fossils here. I found 9,000 year old pottery and obsidian. These are things I saw on documentaries. Those guys with extra consonants attached to their names did this. Not me. Not Joe.
I saw elephants. Baboons. Vervet monkeys. Water buffalo, zebra, giraffes, ostrich, impala, oryx, blesbok, gazelle, jackals, bat-eared fox and so many other critters…many of which were birds, some of which I’ve probably forgotten. I also helped push a Land Cruiser (the same that I rode up in) out of a waste deep stream after the radiator flooded. Why were they driving through that? It was the road.
For a trip, this was incredible. For THIS trip, it was nothing.
The last morning at Mugie Ranch was a tough one. The mud had gotten so bad that most people were slipping as they walked. It was cold at night, but I’m okay with that–I prefer the cold. I woke at about 3:30am, packed up my things and helped out a bit and called my girlfriend. That conversation was my first realization of how minute I felt. We talked for maybe 8 minutes–a call that would cost me $90 (worth every penny). I can still see so vividly in my mind my surroundings that morning.
It was still dark. Very dark. You don’t get darkness like this in the parts of the United States I’ve been too…and that includes rural Louisiana and very backwoods Maine. It was a fading darkness, at this point a twilight blue. I could make out some of the deeper footprints in the mud. Dave Braun’s yellow Land Rover was more or less on the right of me. The kitchen tents were behind me. The firepit ahead to my left and the felled trees that would otherwise have been cut up for firewood more directly to my left.
I was isolated. I moved a bit farther away from everyone who was moving about, because I would’ve been in their way for one thing, but this conversation had the potential to get emotional. Just hearing the voice of someone back home. It was like opening the doors after a movie. I didn’t realize how disconnected I had become from my life until I heard her voice. I can’t even remember what we talked about. It didn’t matter. It was that connection, and the impending severance of it that mattered. After this, there was no way of knowing when–or if–I would be in contact with anybody I’ve ever known, for the next five weeks.
And. Just like that. We hung up.
And we left.
The drive out of Mugie, from what I remember, was fairly anticlimactic. We started seeing animals like camels. And pastoralists driving them. We camped for one incredibly windy night at the Palm Shades Camp Ground. Russ gave me some shillings to buy a coke. I still hadn’t found my money. I felt somehow isolated because of it. Everyone was concerned. But everyone was having a good time. It’s funny how such camaraderie can manifest surrounding something like a bottle of soda. But that’s how it goes. And I didn’t feel like I was a part of what was going on until Russ lent me that money to get my own.
At this camp ground I met a couple tribal kids. I don’t know what tribe. They were well acclimated with Westerners. They were pretty into my tattoos. Moreso Tony’s. Tony had one of his old dogs tattooed to his forearm. The kids knew dogs. They had dogs. They could relate. They were also pretty into my septum piercing. I got the impression they thought it was feminine. We also met up with some members of the research team who would be with us the rest of the way. One of them was actually the son of an instructor. And also his grandfather.
Next morning, up dark and early. So much wind. Packed up, loaded the trucks and we were off.
This was the last push to base camp. We would stop a few times to get final supplies and have the vehicles mechanically looked over. On the way out of the camp ground, the Unimog blew a tire.
Naturally, the locals came up to talk and try to get us to buy stuff. Mike introduced himself to me. He wanted me to buy some necklaces. I had no money. I really didn’t. He thought I was a good haggler. Really. I explained to him that my money had been stolen. I couldn’t buy anything.
He told me his name is Mike. He is El Molo. The Smallest tribe in the area. The main tribes are Turkana, El Molo, Samburu and Maasai. And Dassanech. We would be staying with the Dassanech.
Mike told me how I could tell the Maasai by their jewelry. He asked me for a pen, so he could write his book. I needed my pens for my school work. I didn’t have many.
I couldn’t buy anything off of him, because I had no money. He told me to remember him. I will never forget him. He had a pretty big cut on his right hand. I wondered how he got it. As we pulled away he pleaded with me to give him money, to buy the necklaces, to give him pens to write his book. I told him that I had no money, but if I get some, and we come back this way on our way out, I will find him and buy the necklaces. I actually wanted them, that’s the thing.
We left what in my memory is South Horr, and continued heading north along the Great Rift. The terrain became considerably rockier. Up and down through what were called roads, but I didn’t get it. Sometimes there were concrete slabs, sometimes just gravel. Really it seemed more or less like the places were more vehicles had traveled. Only in places you wouldn’t expect people to ever have wanted to drive. At times I have to admit I was worried we were going to tip, or just drive straight into the Rift. Or come to a stop on our way up a gravel slope and then go tumbling end-over-end and backwards. Or lose control going down a gravel slope and go tumbling happily ever after.
Apparently this things happen sometimes. One time one of the Land Rovers tipped. The stuff on the roof came through and cut someone’s head very badly. There have been concussions and I think some broken ankles. This is somewhat irrelevant but it was right around this point that we pulled over. Some Maasai flagged us down. One of them had been bitten by a snake. A puff adder. His foot looked like a football and he was crawling. He couldn’t stand up.
We had a doctor with us, so he got out to take a look. Now, we’re days from electricity…literally. There is no way to get in touch with anybody. We can radio for help, but nobody is going to hear it. Really, this guy is on his own. We don’t have anti venom. Even if we did, it likely wouldn’t have been for the kind of snake that bit him, and really there was no way of knowing what kind of snake it was. So we really didn’t have any choice.
He was given some ibuprofen for the swelling and pain. But that was all we could do. The logic was that if he survived this long, he was probably going to pull through. I’m not sure if it was logic or rationalization. Either way, we drove on.
As it got drier, the winds picked up. As the winds picked up, so did the dust. I got some decent pictures, but often times the sand was so thick in the air that I couldn’t take any. It became unpleasant if not impossible to open our eyes when the wind was high enough. I decided it would be better to put my camera away before dust worked its way into the lens.
At some point, we could see Turkana in the distance. Not Turkana as in Turkana people–we could see their bomas (huts) dotting the landscape every so often. Their children would wave to us. No. I mean lake Turkana. Lake Turkana. For someone like me, this is Mecca. This region, the discoveries made here, the history of the science I am dedicating my life to. The history of who we are. Us. Humans. Me, typing here, and you there reading this. Us. Everyone who has ever lived or will ever live. Their ultimate ancestry is more or less traced back to here. More or less. But at this point, you could start to feel it.
We grew closer, winding back and forth, up and down hills. The lake would be obscured and then pop back up again. I took some pictures but really, there wasn’t much scenery here. I mean. It’s all scenery. I’m surrounded by the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. But I’m also bouncing around the back of a Land Rover and we’re on a schedule.
The light began to fade.
Dave made mention of hoping we would get to the “looking off point” in time for sunset. Really? I wondered if he was serious about the suggestion that he had a specific place where he would pull over to stare at Lake Turkana at sunset? We kept going.
We drew seemingly nearer the lake, and it would vanish. This repeated for probably a little over an hour. The drives aren’t like you’d think. Packing up and moving camp might take 2 days. But that’s two FULL days, as in 12-14 hours of travel. You set up camp in the darkness if you have to. And this isn’t darkness as you think you know it. This isn’t darkness like when you wake up to pee at night. This is darkness that’s as palpable as humidity. Darkness that seems to huddle around the beam of your flashlight waiting to get back to what it was up to before you showed up and interrupted it.
This is the darkness that existed before flashlights, lanterns, streetlights, headlights, lamps and candles. This is actual darkness. This is darkness before we made light to combat it.
And watch out for snakes and scorpions.
So we kept winding along the “roads,” the light kept slowly fading and the lake seemed to creep closer. At some point, the sun began to set over the lake. I could see the growing brilliance of the sky. But not enough to focus. Dave commented that he thinks we might actually make it, that he hopes we do. I still couldn’t get any pictures. I wanted to commemorate this. I didn’t want a fleeting, blurry shot hanging out of the back of a truck that might as well be about to tip.
I’m in a Land Rover. About 8,000 miles from home. On a dirt road headed through deep back country. In Kenya. Immediately surrounding the road on either side is essentially wasteland. The winds are high, but the hills block the dust here. The hills are covered in shattered rock. Basaltic rock. Formed eons ago in the volcanic eruptions that tore the land apart and formed the rift valley that I’m currently in. The lake I currently see was formed the same way.
And then it happened. We came up a hill and down around a bend and the lake was straight on. Directly ahead of us. Perfectly centered was an island. South Island. Directly over the lake was the setting sun like fireworks. The clouds to the right of the island were rippled like polar ice breaking up in the summer. On the left the sky was crystal clear. Just before the lake, but in the distance, was an acacia. And the road led straight to the lake. I am pretty sure my heart stopped for about 10 seconds. In any event, I couldn’t breathe.
This, needless to say, hit home. “We” were “there.” Lake Turkana. Everyone on this trip had spent countless hours reading about this place. Our celebrities come from this place. The names that we think of when we think of who we want to emulate work in this place. When our friends dreamed of sports super stardom, we dreamed of Lake Turkana. We might not have ever thought we would get here–I know I didn’t. But the swelling reality hit us all here. There was hugging, congratulating, back patting, and taking pictures of one another. There was also plenty of general disbelief. We made it to Turkana. Now it was real. This was it. We were doing this. We read this crap in books and knew all these multisyllabic words for these goofy ape-men that our friends thought were cool. But as far as anthropology was concerned, they’d rather watch Indiana Jones. Because to them, that’s what archaeology is. Adventure. And dinosaurs. Dinosaurs? Yes, that’s how removed my interests are from those of my peers.
I’d spent almost 18 years of my life reading about this stuff. Pouring over articles and through books and websites reading about this. Imagining what it would be like to go to these places, meet these people, discover what they’ve found. And there was nobody to talk to about it. Nobody. People think they know what I mean. “Cave men, right?” In reality, the Geico commercials are more accurate than the conceptions of the average person I had to discuss my interests with.
And here I found myself. With a group of people who shared many of the same frustrations. In Africa. Standing next to a Land Rover. On a dirt road surrounded by wasteland. Looking directly at the only thing we had ever wanted to do with our lives.
We got back into the trucks, and moved on.
We followed the east end of the lake as the sun continued to fail. As everything around us was roughly navy blue, we could see a light in the distance. Dave thought it was base camp. The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful. It was probably eventful, but we were relatively quiet. The staff was focused on getting to camp and getting set up–the earlier the better, or, the earlier the fewer venomous animals go unnoticed. The students were stunned. The light was dim and there was little to see. South Island was still visible in the fading light.
When we got to base camp it was extremely dark. Our flashlights helped, and were augmented by the ambient light cast by the lamps in the main banda. A banda is more or less a building. Really it’s just a set of walls with a roof over it. The walls don’t go to the ceiling. The walls partition off office areas for staff. The roof keeps the sun off the people dumb enough to think it’s a good idea to visit this place.
We unloaded and claimed our bags quickly. There were showers here, water pumped from the lake. There were lights in the bandas due to solar panels. They would run out at night.
I found my bags and headed down towards where we were directed. I tried to pitch under an overhang. The sand didn’t allow it, and the wind was so high the sand it blew burned as it hit me.
I got my tent up, as we all did, and headed to the main banda for dinner and for the meeting. Now, when I say that I got my tent up, it wasn’t easy. Pitching a tent in the sand is tricky. Pitching a tent in the sand in pitch darkness with a flashlight in your teeth is trickier. Pitching a tent in the sand in pitch darkness with a flashlight in your teeth in 30+mph winds is trickier still. Doing that while keeping a look out for scorpions is unnerving. And the wind kept pulling my stakes out.
After dinner, a staff member asked if I needed anything. I told him some ground that could take a tent stake would help. He laughed. When he told me he couldn’t help me there, I asked for a hammer with which to go on a murderous rampage. He laughed, and told me he’s supposed to report that stuff. I told him to consider himself tipped off. We both laughed. Turns out he’d become my field instructor and eventually a good friend. Later, he didn’t remember that conversation.
We were told not to go down the path toward the lake at night. We would be killed by hippos. The only thing keeping us from essentially certain death was a decision. Go for a walk at night, get killed. Ok then.
This place, though. This was it. I don’t know what I expected. I don’t know what I even could have expected. The bandas were pretty solid. The cook staff was amazing. My tent was set up. Next to Tony and Zach. Nolan was on the other side of Tony. The far end, just past Nolan was Steve. Right near the showers/bathrooms. We would all sit up at night. Everyone–not just the people I’ve mentioned in the tent row or even the names I’ve mentioned so far. All of us, all the students. We would sit up at night, on the walkways between my tent row and the bathrooms. And just talk.
Funny, I can’t remember the dinner that night. My journal tells me that I fell asleep while writing. But we were there.
I slept very well that night. The sand was softer than the ground at Mugie. The wind was unbelievable, but I slept well. I dreamed and I wrote of them the next day. I rarely remember my dreams.
Our first day at base camp was a day off. I went down the the lake with a few people to do laundry. I wondered about the effects the surfactants in the detergent (this stuff takes layers off of your hands) had on the ecosystem in the water. But there were few of us compared to the size of the lake, rarely washing in it, rarely there. Still I wondered about the impact.
I washed one of my bags out. I left it to dry in the sun, out on the main walkway just after the fork that went to the bathrooms and showers. When I came back to get it, my money was in it. It was in a mesh pouch that is used to hold water bottles. A pouch I never use. I looked around, confused. I didn’t put it there. I decided I must have.
I must have. Despite me going through everything. Unfolding all of my clothes and going through pockets in shorts I hadn’t yet worn. Emptying every bag and every container. Despite the money clearly not having been wet. I decided I must have overlooked it. I didn’t want to think less of these people.
Maybe someone did take it. Who knows? Maybe someone from one of the regions around this area, who would have a use for shillings. 8000 shillings is a lot. Maybe they took it, and thought it through. They saw their chance to return it, and took it. I don’t care who took it.
I paid Russel back for the coke he bought me the week before. I thanked him again for it. And told him what had happened. We agreed to chalk it up to my own carelessness.
After our day off, lectures started. We all felt reigned in as the rigidity of academia set in. A full day of lectures. 6 hours of them, 4 hours of lab activities on osteology and lithics. Things were starting to pick up and I began to doubt my ability to retain the amount of information coming at me. We heard presentations for our field projects. Made a list of favorites and were assigned to them.
Took the lab practical exam and went for a run. I went running in Kenya. I don’t know a lot of people that can say that.
Our last night at base camp before leaving for Ileret, we had a beer and soda night again. Those are the celebrations. Marian and I stayed out a bit later than everyone else, on the patio. Just talking. Everything quieted down. We talked about back home, the lives we led that were now being committed to memory as we forgot the voices of people we loved.
We sat there, on plastic lawn chairs. On a patio on lake Turkana. Outside of a banda where just about every name in our science had been. Tim White, The Leakeys. Lee Berger. Glynn Isaac. Personally I wondered how I was worthy of doing research from somewhere like this. But they got started somewhere, right?
We finished up our conversations, long after everyone else had gone to bed. We had to get up early. We stood up, and turned to walk. Something about the sky was different, so I looked up at it. Immediately, I once again couldn’t breathe. I pointed up, and showed Marian. It was the Milky Way.
Once in Ileret, things changed again. The local tribe–the Dassanech–were frustrated with us already. We had shown up, claimed the good camping spots and made a wall of acacia branches around it, to keep their children and goats out. They wanted compensation.
On my walk in, a young boy asked my name. His English was very broken, but better than my Dassanech will ever be. I told him. His name is Samuel. Not like you pronounce it. The “u” is like in the word “food.” Samooehl. He asked me for a pen. I told him I would give him one. He asked me for a shirt. I told him I would see if I had one to spare. He kept bothering me about it. His friends were surrounding me now. Wanting to touch my beard, amazed at how soft my hair was, laughing about my septum ring. I remembered the shirt from the Heathrow Airport night kit. I told Samuel I had a shirt for him.
He took his bracelet off and put it on my wrist–sealing the deal.
Samuel, it turns out, is an eight-year-old con artist.
You see, he knows some English thanks to the missionaries who come through. I have some issue with the side effects of Missionary work, but a lot of what they do helps people. So, Samuel knows some English.
He knows enough to call you a friend. To ask your name. And to ask for stuff. Shirts. Pens. Notebooks. Money. Sweets. If he can think of a use for it, he wants it.
I don’t blame him. These people don’t have it so horribly. They’re not the typical “African” children…the kind that my father thinks of with the distended abdomens who drink cholera all day. But still, it’s not an easy lifestyle.
They’re pastoralists, and they raise their herds (cows, goats, sheep) on the grasses and sedges that eek their living out on the savannah of Kenya and Ethiopia. You’ll see them alongside massive herds while you’re traveling.
Or, while out in the middle of nowhere, crawling on your hands and knees to find a fragment of a creature that lived two million years ago under the 110 degree sun, you’ll hear a faint cowbell. It will slowly grow louder. Then the herd will move right past where you’re trying to work. Maybe you’ll see the guy driving it. Maybe not. Maybe he’ll bring you a fossil that he thinks you’ll like. Then you’ll get frustrated because you know he knows this area better than you ever will. He also knows what you’re looking for. But he doesn’t know English and you sure as hell don’t know Dassanech. Somehow you’ll get him to bring you to where he found it. Then you’ll take it, put it on the ground, and try to convey to him that he’s not to pick them up. They’re useless without their context. But, you leave it there, even if it’s a specimen you’d otherwise collect. It’s out of context–you don’t know if he brought you to where he got it.
So anyway. They’re pastoralists who raise cattle. They bathe in fermented milk, which gives them a unique smell. They’re living in some of the more hostile environments on the planet. They’ve got plenty of cows, but the cows give milk and bring income. If they eat them all, they’re out of the game. But they do eat.They’re tiny though. Thin, not short. Some of them were considerably taller than I am, and I’m 6 foot.
They’re not starving to death, but I don’t think I could live their lifestyle. Did I spend 5 weeks in the Kenyan bush? Yes. Did I spend those 5 weeks in a tent? Yes. Could I live like they do? No. Isn’t it the same thing? No. Not close. I think the average life expectancy in that region is mid-40s. That means that on average, we’re going to live about 30 years longer. Sure, I was out there with them. They were driving cattle all day to make sure they got enough to eat. I worked my ass off finding complex looking rocks while carrying over a gallon of water with me. For a while I had cookies. I was going back to enough food on my own plate to feed one of these people for probably 4 days. I had a pillow. A tent that zipped shut to keep the scorpions and venomous snakes out of it. We had a doctor with us. I had more money on me than these people might see in their entire lives.
I was going to have fresh bread and clean water. I had beans, spaghetti, four kinds of porridge, stew and concentrated juice. And I knew it was going to be there.
Was I “roughing it?” Right now I’m laying on a $600 cherry wood futon with a nice thick comfy pad. My laptop is plugged in. There are four guitars hanging on the walls of this room. The room is almost sky blue, but too grey to really be. All the trim is white. It used to be green, with a slightly brighter white for the trim. I decided a couple years ago I’d like it better this way. My cell phone is within eyesight, in case someone needs to get in touch. My iPod is charging, it acts as my alarm clock. Both floors of my house are automatically heated to just under 70 degrees with fuel that is automatically supplied. I pay for it as I use it, not up front. In the summer, when it gets “too hot,” I pull one of the chains hanging from the light fixture to turn the fan on. My friend offered to order pizza tonight, because I paid last time. It’s 9:30 and I’m getting frustrated that that hasn’t happened. I don’t think it’s going to. Also, it’s 9:30 and I am able to be typing this. To see what I’m doing. To walk around without fear of a small animal injecting some immediately fatal poison into my foot.
Just outside of the room I’m laying in is my dog. He’s asleep. He genuinely has a more comfortable life than the Dassanech.
Compared to where I am, I was roughing it. Compared to how the Dassanech spend their average day, I was living in luxury.
And they knew it. We coexisted. I made some people I think I could consider friends. If I go back, some will probably remember me. Samuel will probably remember me by name.
But mostly, they did their thing, we did ours. They were as curious about us as were were about them. They could tell we had whatever we needed. That we had more than they did but for some reason didn’t share much of it with them.
Out in Ileret, it started to get a very regimented feel. I don’t know when we woke, but I’m pretty sure I was up by 6am daily. Pitch black when I woke. The darkness I described earlier was 12am Manhattan compared to the darkness at Ileret. One morning I woke up. Put on my fivefiingers (I wore them around camp, just too hot for boots all the time). Unzipped my tent, checked for venomous critters, stepped out, zipped my tent before poisonous critters got in, and started to walk over to brush my teeth. Not five feet from my tent, a searing pain shot through my toe.
Was I just bit or stung? No. An acacia thorn had gone through my toe. Through the skin on the bottom of my toe, out the skin on the top. Through most of the layers. It was so quick that I couldn’t process the pain for more than a few seconds. Then it dawned on me that I had to get this thing out. 2.5 inches of thorn. I hobbled to my tent, unzipped it, sat down and pulled the thorn out.
It felt more or less as you’d think. And it hurt for the better part of a week after that. And I was reminded with every step of the 6-10 miles I was walking every day. It became funny after a while…once I realized that it probably wasn’t infected and wasn’t a poisonous species of acacia that had gone through my toe.
So random reality-checks aside, the regimented schedule of the days made them go more quickly. Interestingly, the weeks still went slowly.
Wake, get dressed, meet in the chair circle, wait for breakfast, eat breakfast, hang out a bit, meeting, fill water bottles, meet with group, hike to site, do what we needed to do, hike back, have lunch, fill water bottles, hike to a second site, do what we needed to do, hike back, collapse, do some background reading, hang out or fill out field notes while waiting for the other groups and for dinner, shower or head to the lake to bathe/do laundry, eat dinner, meeting, hang out, go to bed.
No moment wasn’t busy, at least not until night time. And at night, we would go to the laga. The dry river bed. The Ileret River. It runs during the rainy season. At this time of year, in July, it was sand. Just sand. A few milkweed plants popping up here and there. Some river cobbles clustered like an aerial view of the cows I mentioned earlier.
We would get into our little groups of closer friends. We had those at this point. Usually I would head out with Marian. Usually we would find Nolan and Beccy. Often there would be many more than that. Roma, South African Joe, Katherine, Silindo and South African Dave were usually within earshot. Brian, Grandpa Dave and Duncan were around somewhere. Ohio Dave was out there from time to time, but he was quiet. You could here the faculty off in the distance. Not far, but it seemed forever away. Sometimes Russ would tell us all about the night sky.
Every 5-10 minutes, without fail, would be a shooting star. Brian has the record. I think he saw 9 or 10 in an hour. I’ll have to confirm that. But it’s a lot. It’s hard to keep track of the entire sky. You miss a lot.
So we’d turn our little flashlights on. Usually Marian and I, but almost always others by the time we got where we were going. The flashlights nudged just enough of the darkness out of the way for us to walk without being worried about where we were stepping and what would be there. We would find the little opening in the acacia fence. The one near that one tree that had the low-hanging branch that the children would use as a ride…almost like a seesaw that didn’t need another rider, but they hung from it.
We would make our way past that tree, onto the sand of the laga. Past the Dassanech who were already out stargazing. Who would often fall asleep there. We would make our way out into what seemed like maybe the middle of the laga. Mostly it just seemed like we needed to stop. We would sweep the ground with our flashlights to make sure there were no rocks or critters that would kill us before we could bitch about the pain of the bite. And we sat. We sat and turned off our lights.
Then we would lay down, and just look up. And this is where words fail me.
Here I was. Here we were. We, now. I had friends now. The loneliness felt at Mugie was long gone. I hadn’t spoken with or heard from anybody back home in who knows how long. But I wasn’t alone. All of the traveling, the underwear blowing off clotheslines, the yodeling goats in the morning. The crappy juice and repetitive food. The snoring. The stories. They were bringing us together.
I had someone to share this with, now. People I knew, who knew what I was going through, what I was seeing, because they were going through and seeing it, too.
So we would lay down, and just look up. And what do I even say? We would lay down in a river. In the Ileret river. I guarantee you less than 200 people in the United States know what that is. And we would lay down in it. Every night.
We would lay down in it with the Dassanech nearby. The Dassanech who had all been laying in this river for their entire lives. Each of them had been brought to this river by their parents who came out here at night to stargaze. Stretching back eons. Stretching back as far as humans have been living in this area.
And humans came from this area.
They are still in this area. They’re seven hours ahead. So tonight. They are headed out, and laying down. To look up at that sky. They’ve been doing it their entire lives. This is just how things are for them. This is just everyday life. And they still do it anyway. Imagine every day of your life. Since before you had memory, you would do something. Every night. With the exception of weather. But every night. You do this thing. You’re old now. You don’t count the years because your culture just doesn’t do that. But you’re old now. And every night, you do this. And you’re still not close to tiring of it.
That is the intensity of the beauty of this sky.
So we would lay down. Looking up at this sky along with the entire shared heritage of humanity who had done it before us.
This sky that was so pitch black you could often only make out the tree tops by the absence of the stars. A sky never perverted by streetlights and neon.
So full of stars it could be a picture of a snowstorm. The Milky Way was a cloud here. Not like at base camp. The sky here was so intense that the sky at base camp was barely mentioned.
The Milky Way was a cloud. Like when you’re on your way to work on a foggy morning. The little embankments that run down on some parts of the highway form valleys. In those valleys are little clouds of fog.
Put that in the sky. Stretch it across its entirety with an exploded beehive of stars in everything you can see. Surrounding the contours of the cloud is a blackness so dark that black doesn’t capture it. There is nothing. There is nothing and everything. Stretching out from that, as the edges of the galaxy fade the sky blurs to purple. It’s still black, though. But in relation to the black surrounding the clouds of the Milky Way, it’s purple.
We would talk, sometimes. Sometimes we would overhear others talking. This was a solitary experience. And an experience with the person or people you headed down to the laga with. And a group experience with everyone else whose conversations you could overhear. And with those who weren’t speaking, or who had fallen asleep. And also with everyone who had ever existed. The first people. The people of whom everyone alive is a direct relative. They came from here. We came from here. There were so many levels to this. The connections. The beauty. The awe. The solitude and fraternity. The isolation and grandeur. The awareness of your own insignificance combined with the knowledge that at some point, perhaps over a million years ago, a member of your family stood here. Lie here. Saw this sky. And never tired of it. There is no way to articulate that in a way that does it justice. And yet there we were.
So, it turns out that this was a field school. The academic aspect did stretch beyond our stint at base camp. The field activities at Mugie and the lab work at base camp were intended to gear us up for what we were in for once we actually got out into the field. At base camp we each selected three projects in order of favoritism. With any luck, we’d all get our #1 pick.
I got my #3, which actually turned out to be my #1 once I found out how the others panned out. My three choices were working with hominin footprints, working with the evolution of the human shoulder girdle, and working with paleoecological reconstruction and surface collections.
I got the third. And it was amazing. This is where this gets a bit nerdier. But that’s what I’m here for.
Basically, DP is a PhD student at George Washington University. He is particularly interested in recent isotopic data published on hominin teeth. This data shows that around 1.99-1.67 million years ago, the genus Homo was eating certain kinds of foods. This is determined by drilling into their teeth and extracting stable. Meaning not radioactive and breaking down into other isotopes. Carbon 14 is unstable and breaks down to Nitrogen 14. We know how long that takes. So looking at how much Carbon 14 vs Nitrogen 14 is in something tells you how long it’s been since the thing died. The isotopes extracted from these teeth are stable carbon isotopes, so they don’t tell you the same kind of stuff. Carbon 3 is found in the teeth of early Homo. In Paranthropus (sorta like Lucy), Carbon 4 is found. The stable isotopes don’t change over time. They’re accumulated based on what the individual was eating, and build up in the teeth. Drill into the teeth, extract some stuff, find out what kind of carbon isotopes are in there and you know what the individual was eating.
Carbon 3 isotopes are found in trees and shrubs and the critters that eat them. Carbon 4 are found in grasses and sedges. So anyway.
From 1.99-1.67 years ago, Homo was eating Carbon 3 foods exclusively. Paranthropus on the other hand was eating Carbon 4 foods. So essentially, they ate different foods–as shown by the isotopic signatures these foods left in their teeth, and therefore inhabited different ecological niches. They weren’t really hanging out much.
After 1.67 million years ago–starting at around 1.65, actually–you see a shift in Homo. The isotopic signatures in this time period expand and incorporate more of the Carbon 4 isotopes. This indicates a generalization of the diet in Homo, as well as an encroachment into Paranthropus territory. Some competition for resources, but I’m not going there. Homo generalizes and expands. Paranthropus tapers off and…well…you don’t see them walking around anymore, do you?
So DP is doing his PhD on this stuff. Only he’s not focusing on the isotopic signatures in Homo, not directly anyway. He wants to reconstruct the paleoenvironments these critters were strutting around in, and collect information about the fauna there. And do the same isotopic analyses on the animals they were strutting around with. In order to do this, he has to get to the sites these specimens were found in. Problem is, these fossils were discovered sometimes 50 or more years ago. And nobody but the guys and their cows and goats have been through there since. And this was before GPS.
Now, this stuff isn’t published yet, so I’m not getting into the methodology used here. But we were able to get back to these sites.
We met every morning and discussed our plan for the day. DRJ, DP and I. We’d talk about the sites in proximity of one another. What species was associated with what sites, which of the two time frames (1.99-1.67 and 1.65-1.45 mya) the sites were dated with.
We tried to get a balanced amount of each genus in each time frame. More or less it worked.
Doing this field work was different. I’d been hiking for most of my life, and in Rhode Island it’s pretty easy to find bones. Usually deer, sometimes a raccoon skull. Sometimes I’ll go hiking and find the majority of a skeleton. I’ve brought bones back plenty of times, and freaked my sister out pretty badly once.
It’s easy to find the bones. They look just like bones. Bright white and like they’re ready to be photographed.
This was pretty similar in a lot of ways. You hike out across the landscape. A different landscape, maybe. Flat and sandy, with sudden rolling hills and outcrops. Greyish brown soil littered with rocks and debris. Sometimes the scrubby plants come up so thick they’re tough to walk through. There are rarely any trees. The acacias that act as them dot the landscape all around. Every so often you’ll run across a cluster of them.
There are shorter plants, too. And these things called “wait a bit bushes.” Now, acacias have thorns. They’re about 2″ long and more or less like the point of a metal compass. They scratch you. I mentioned that one that went through my toe. If you’re not paying attention and one grabs the person in front of you and whips back as they pass, it’s going to hurt like hell.
But not the wait a bits. They have tiny, hooked thorns. Barbs. Like snake teeth. They’re maybe an 8th of an inch long, and they’re everywhere. Some are tiny and eviscerate your shins. Some are knee height. Some are waist. Some shoulder and some are legitimate trees.
There are some bushes that look like them, but without the barbs. So you let your guard down. And the branches are so covered in these thorns it’s like a cat-o-nine tails. They’re so sharp they immediately hook you. And they’re so curved that you’re stuck. Just walking, and paying attention to where I was going, I got 9 of these thorns stuck in my shin before. They scratch for an inch or two, drawing blood the whole way, and then lodge in, and tear off the bush.
I was interviewed by the documentary guys. I was asked what I have having the most trouble getting used to, what the hardest part of the trip had been so far. I told him that I’m from New England. That I love the cold and New England winters. That coming here, what I was most worried about was the heat. I told him that I hike a lot, and I bike a lot, so I wasn’t worried about being able to physically handle the hikes, but that getting enough food was a concern because I have a high metabolism and am more or less never not hungry. And that I’m always thirsty. I told him that I camp regularly, but I’ve never been so long. That I’ve never been without my family or my girlfriend for this long.
I told him that people have been complaining about the acacias. But it’s the wait a bit bushes that are really what there is to worry about. I told him I would rather 1,000 acacias than one wait a bit bush. And I still stand by that. There were times when something was dropped, and naturally rolled down into the wait a bit. Reaching in to get it was like sticking my hand into a fan covered in cheese graters.
You probably think I’m being dramatic. Unless you were on the trip with me. You cannot understand these plants unless you’ve dealt with them or something like them. If you’ve ever touched stinging nettle, picture a field of that that you know you cannot avoid. And then go walk through it for a month. I have a friend who does primatological research in Costa Rica. She describes what she calls “plant bites.” Plants that are so toxic that brushing against them gives you an immediate reaction. I liken the wait a bit bushes to them.
So these are the surroundings in which we searched for these fossils. Without shade. At about 10:30, the wind starts dying. Before that it’s more or less a consistent gale. But by 11, the wind stops. Completely. Until about 1:30 or so. It’s so incredibly stifling hot that really just finding a bit of shade and laying there is all you can do. I couldn’t bring myself to do it while out in the field, though. We’d stop for a bit and take a break. DRJ and DP would take a nap, I couldn’t. I tried, sometimes I did. But stopping made the heat more noticeable. And not heat like New England. I mean about 120 degrees with no shade or wind. Sure, it was dry. But there were some days where it was too hot to move. You just had to lay there and wait for the wind to start moving again.
So all of that. With some cow and goat herds, some curious pastoralists and hot water. With the occasional hyena den thrown in for good measure.
That’s the context for finding these fossils.
But they’re not pristine bright white bones like the stuff I’d find in the woods back home, or like in any anatomy or osteology book. These are discolored fragments of stone. Long ago, minerals from water that had seeped into them had replaced the organic material as it decomposed. Sometimes swept by rivers, sometimes buried by landslides. Sometimes trampled by animals. Sometimes all of this while the bones were fresh. Sometimes after fossilization. Sometimes any combination of all of those factors, at any point in time. And over the course of about 2 million years.
Then I show up and expect to find it. They’re pretty much everywhere. Some areas more rich than others. But sometimes, you’re finding tiny scraps of stuff. To a lay person, it’s just a rock. To an idiot like me–including all the idiots who also spent their summer doing this stuff instead of laying on a beach somewhere–there are certain signs that show it’s a fossil rather than just a stone.
Sure, it’s a randomized fragment, but after a while, you can orient it. You can mentally spin it around in your head and see where and how it fits on a full bone. You can tell at a glance while walking along whether something is a fossil or a stone. You can also tell what kind of stone it is and something about the formation and mineral content of it, but this isn’t a geology lesson, which is good, because I’m not a geologist.
So it takes some conditioning for you to be able to pick these objects out on the landscape, and it takes some more on top of that to be able to orient it and diagnose which bone it is. Furthermore, it takes another level of conditioning to be able to tell which side it is, and how large the animal was. Then, it takes yet another level of it to be able to tell what kind of animal it was. Bovid (cow, goat, deer, antelope type stuff), equid (horse type stuff), hippo (yeah), rhino, giraffe, fish, turtle, croc, etc.
Day in, day out, this is what we did. I mentioned the military-like structure, and there was a good reason. No regimented discipline to it, and nothing would get done. It was pretty amazing.
On July 3rd, we hiked out to area 8. To find a site at which the specimen labeled KNM-ER 1590 was found. KNM stands for Kenya National Museum. ER stands for East Rudolfensis. Lake Turkana used to be called Lake Rudolf. The “ensis” is a Latin suffix that denotes origin. The number is just the specimen number. In a season or region, 1590 was just the next number in the sequence. So, this is the 1590th specimen collected in a sequence of collection, in the region east of Lake Turkana, and found by a representative of the Kenyan National Museum.
This was the site at which the calvarium (skull cap) of a juvenile Homo was found. DP told us to be very on point. A calvarium isn’t something that preserves easily. I mean, it’s pretty much a bowl. Put a bowl on the ground in Africa. Wait 2 million years. With all of the weather, trampling, and whatever else that may happen, do you think it will still be there?
His logic was that if a calvarium was found, something else was probably preserved. We walked the site and found tons of teeth. Bovid, equid, suid, hippo and croc. Maybe I should get into a breakdown of the teeth and how we diagnose those. Without getting too jargony (I’m trying desperately to avoid that), they’re all very different. They all have diagnostic characteristics.
Equid teeth are very, very tall, and very square when viewing from the top. The biting surface is very complex and looks almost like a maze. Bovids are sometimes similar, but they’re not as tall, not as squared, and the biting surface is a lot less complex. Pigs look almost like a small bundle of pens. These tiny cylinders all bunched together. Hippo teeth are huge and pointy. Croc teeth look like little spikes that are almost perfectly circle. Within each, there are differences that denote different genera or species that they came from.
We found plenty of those. In the center of the site was a bone pile. This was the remnants of the original excavation. In this case, it’s how we knew we were there. The sites all have cement markers. The original team conducted the excavation and sends someone back with a site marker. A cement block with the specimen number on it. They head back and leave it where the specimen was found. But all the turbation that occurs in Africa means that they’re not necessarily there anymore. Sometimes they were right where they were left. Sometimes they were washed away. Sometimes they were broken. Sometimes moved. Sometimes stolen. The bone piles help.
We combed along the landscape and found pretty much all that was obvious. So we spread out a little bit and saw what else was immediately in the area–but not too far from the site as to be considered a different one. It’s hard to tell when that should be. Largely, it’s a judgment call–at some point, someone else is going to be considering your methods. How far away from the center of your site do you want to be before you consider it to be a different area, affected by different streams, animals, weather, whatever?
Consider my parents’ back yard. In the front is just grass, with a few gardens. Not 100 yards away is a bit more woodsy. The soil turns to natural compost and is riddled with roots. 10 feet farther back and it gets softer, swampy. Skunk cabbage and reeds grow. Just next to that is a stream. Things worked the same back then. At some point you have to take into consideration that micro environments can shift quickly. You need a broad enough focus to take into consideration the factors that influenced the species and individual animals that you’re trying to study. But not so broad that you artificially inflate the ecosystem and get a skewed impression of what the critter/s was/were up against.
At some point, I saw DP sitting, using his dental pick to dislodge something. I knew it was something he thought was pretty valuable. I kept on looking, finding some good teeth, some of which were close enough, some of which were too far away for collection or documentation.
I glanced over at DP again, and heard him say, “Uh-oh…” I knew he felt like he was onto something.Not a minute later, he called me over to look at something. It was a tooth. A single molar. It looked like it could have come out of my mouth. He was tentative, but pretty much convinced it was Homo. It looked like it to me. But pig teeth, when very worn, can look like Homo molars. So he was more or less positive it was Homo, but didn’t wanna say so and be an idiot. We tagged the location with GPS and wrote up a tag, with “Homo? molar” for the description.
He had us stand next to one another, arms length apart. And just crawl. I found a small stick to help me move the soil back and forth. We made our way up a small hill, along a little stream bed near which his tooth had been found. This went on for about 15 minutes. Eventually, I saw the edge of a bit of enamel poking out from the ground.
I nudged it with my stick, and picked it up. And just stared at what I was holding. For I think 4 months.
“Dave, I found another tooth.”
“I found…another tooth.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Yeah man. I swear to god.”
He came over, and agreed. We had found two molars, of what was likely Homo. What could very well have been the same individual whose calvarium had been found 50 years prior. He walked away to keep on with the surface collections. It took a little bit for it to sink in. I took two pictures of “my” tooth. Still a chance it could be a pig. But neither DP nor I thought it wasn’t. We were pretty confident on what we had found.
We finishing up what we were doing and collected all of the teeth we had marked with little cairns so we could find our way back to where they were. We’d mark everything and collect at the end. That way it’s uniform–locate the site, survey it, look for concentrations of fossils, bone walk, mark anything worth collecting and document anything else we find so we can get a representation of what critters were around the area back then, take a break for a couple minutes and then go collect everything.
On that walk back, we talked about the potential of what we found. And discussed not mentioning it to anybody just yet. Until Brian Richmond had the opportunity to confirm our suspicions that it was hominin. I remember him sitting near the research tent, around the little card table that served as a study area for people working on the computers (solar power!) or reading through some library stuff. He confirmed it. It was hominin. Likely H. habilis because that’s what the site was associated with, but really with an individual tooth it’s tough to get it down to species, because there’s some overlap in morphology. But. It was Homo.
DP patted me on the back. Congratulated me. Told me it’s a big deal. I knew that. He said it was safe to tell people. Really it’s still not entirely sunk in. That article I mentioned at the start of what I’m now writing, the one about Lucy. That’s where this began. Everything I had been through, everything I had to figure out. The issues going through high school, the issues since. The stupid debt that everyone accumulates before they realize debt is stupid. The pains I took getting out of it. The therapy sessions helping me come to terms with anxiety issues that had really crippled the progression of my life. The chance meeting and subsequent friendship with a dinosaur paleontologist who encouraged me and offered me opportunities that I had never dreamed of. The realization that not only were my fascinations unique among my friends but that people also make their careers and lives out of doing the very stuff in the books I was reading. The decision to get back into school for it. The perseverance through all of the general education courses with kids 10 years younger than me who just didn’t care. The thoughts about how amazing their position is in life, and how little they cared.
The transfer to Rhode Island College. The immersion in my studies beyond anything I had ever anticipated. The ease of it all because of my passion and familiarity, my drive surpassing my obstacles. The biological anthropology professor who encouraged and inspired me to do exactly what I was doing at that moment. The prodding questions and challenges she would give me in class because she knew how passionately I felt about this.
And there I was. I was in Kenya. In the bush, days from electricity. Had been living in a tent for two weeks. Back home people were getting their hot dog buns for their Fourth of July parties. And I was flashing through everything I had experienced in the past 18 years. The trajectory that had started so long ago and everything that threatened to derail it–and almost succeeded without me ever knowing.
People spend their entire careers without finding hominins. And here I was, two weeks in, and I did. And no, they’re not the most important thing. They’re particularly important to me because the romance of the science captivated me when I was so young. But it isn’t about finding the next perfect skull; the next Lucy. People’s careers are made overnight with discoveries like that. But there is so much other information that you can get from finding pig teeth in the sand. Too few people care about that.
But this. It was a hominin. I may never wind up back in Kenya. Never back in Ileret. I may never move into this science as a profession. But I did it. It wasn’t the most significant contribution to this project or to the field season. But it was hominin. It was electrifying to the camp and to the friends I had made over the past couple weeks.
At Mugie Ranch, I didn’t know these people. But now I had spent half a month with them. Spent 14 hour days sweating with and on them in the back of a truck, traveling across a country to visit the relatives of everyone who has ever lived. We bonded over our shared misery of flooded tents, huddled around a fire on 50 degree and drizzly nights. These people were my friends. This was becoming my life. The people I knew back home became more and more like a dream I once had. The interactions, the crazy things I’ve done. They became blurry and eroding memories of something that may as well have been a past life.
These people. These people who less than a month ago I didn’t know existed. These people whose lives shared this peculiar similarity–this idiosyncratic fascination with why we are who we are, where we came from and how that came to be. This group of people who chose to leave their lives for an entire summer, sacrifice comfort, habit, friends, family, lovers, jobs, pets, safety and home…to come out here. To live in tents and to find scorpions in them. To get rasped by wait a bit bushes and to sweat, crawling in the punishing African sun. These people were my friends and neighbors now. This was my life now.
That night we had beer and soda. Dave Braun announced that we would have it. Because we had found the teeth. But not only that, we had found more footprints–five at this point. I studied dinosaur prints back home. You could relate to the prints. A stone tool was one thing–it was what they did. But the prints were the exact spot where they stood. And when you see them, when you see the impressions of the toes, so like our own. When you know that 2 million years ago something different from any other creature that has ever existed and different in many of the same ways that you yourself are. When you know that the individual who laid this footprint is representative of everything that “we” would ever do. The feeling of a constant lineage stretching back to time immemorial. There’s a chill you feel that can’t be described.
Not only did we find the teeth. Not only did we find the footprints. But we found tools, too. We found Achulean hand axes in an area where none were thought to be. This means that for the time period being studied in that area, the technology was indisputably more advanced than anyone had yet anticipated. Not only that, but we found other tools, too. Older tools. So old, in fact that they predated the oldest yet found. The oldest tools ever found were 2.6 million years old. These are older. In the absence of tools, you can find evidence for their use on bone surfaces–cut marks.
The oldest cut marked bone is about 3.2 million years old. These stone tools are yet older still. These tools stand to be 3.4 million years old. Almost a full million years older than any tools ever found. And potentially 200,000 years old than any evidence.
That was July 3rd. All in one day. The electricity in the camp was palpable. We were just a bunch of students. PhD students, Masters students and undergraduate students. But students, all. We were part of something. We were contributing to the science we had dreamed about. The feelings that kept us all awake at night as we thought about these distant places where people uncover evidence of our earliest ancestors. The individuals we can all call family. We were helping flesh out those branches of our collective family tree. That night, we all felt that we were part of something real.
After the meeting, Dave Braun told me that he had received an email from my mother. She was wondering if there was any way she can get an update about how I was doing, because she hadn’t heard from me since Nairobi. You know, mom stuff.
He told me that they were going to set up the satellite phone for me to give her a call. I jokingly said that there was a 9% chance of me getting through. He asked why. I told him that nobody ever answers the phone in my family. I called my parents’ house. No answer. I called my mom’s cell phone. No answer.
I left a message, telling her I was alright. That everyone was safe and that we were living with a tribe in northern Kenya. That I found a 1.8 million year old tooth from Homo habilis. And I made some sarcastic comment about them never answering the phone.
Also, tonight was the night that the documentary crew would join us. They felt like outsiders at this point. Just these guys who showed up. The new kids on the block. One of them took that picture of the night sky that you saw after my description of it. He’s a professional photographer and makes his money selling pictures just like that one. To companies like National Geographic. That feeling of them being outsiders would fade–they are now like brothers to everyone who was there.
The next day was the Fourth of July. We headed back out to 1590, where we had found the teeth the day before, and also with Marian, a student from another group who was very interested in what we were up to. We didn’t find anything new, and also found out that the bone pile was all from likely one enormous crocodile. It was amazing, but of little value to our work. Like the group that had discovered that site 50 years ago, we left it. We found a bit more, but nothing incredibly substantial. We explored a bit, and satisfied ourselves that we had found what we could, to the best of our means at the time.
I found another tooth, very like that I had found the day before. DP said that it was likely a pig, because of how deep the enamel went. Baffled, I trusted him. I still wonder, though. Really it doesn’t matter, because the isotopes extracted from the two Homo teeth we did find yielded no less information than a third really would have, and if it were a pig, it would matter even less because we had already found a ton of them.
We hiked back to camp, exhausted, satisfied but still wishing we had found more. For lunch we had fish. Tilapia and catfish caught in the lake by another group working on finding evidence that aquatic food sources were important to our early ancestors. They were measuring the spines on catfish, to compare them to those found in archaeological assemblages. I’m not going to get into that project, but suffice it to say that they were trying to find evidence that larger fish are found in higher concentrations at archaeological sites than are found in lake bed sites, suggesting that they were going for specifically the larger fish when they pulled themselves on land to spawn.
So they would catch a lot of fish. That day, they had caught 40kg. And a good amount was sent back to us in Ileret. We had an amazing lunch that day. And it was the Fourth. We had the afternoon off. And that night we were to celebrate.
And that’s exactly what we did. We dragged a huge pile of wood out into the laga. Sarah and Russ got a fire going. The locals knew what was up, they’ve dealt with this before. They probably have no idea why we celebrate the fourth. But they sure as hell know that we do. We bought a goat off of them. It was killed and hung from a branch so that we could butcher it using stone tools.
There was a good crowd waiting to give it a go. So a few of us decided to sit it out. I got it on video. Nolan played some death metal along with it. I have still yet to watch the video on my computer. I should take a look at it. We got the goat cut up good and early so that it could be prepared in time for dinner. Dinner, of course, was goat. We had more beer and more soda that night. And I believe this was the first night that we got chocolate.
As the light faded, the fire was built up. The Dassanech came, some in head dresses, many of them painted, all of them ready for a good time. They chanted, jumped and clapped. I have no idea what they were singing about, but they clearly did. As the music got more intense, it became more of a symbolic wedding ritual. Many of the people in our group were married that night. And the children had very little reservations about their sexuality. Each of the women in our group had their legs humped at least once, and I would be surprised if any of them only once.
I had become close friends with Marian at this point. And the kids seemed to have taken a very keen interest in her. Needless to say, the side of her leg had been thoroughly violated by children of all ages under 11. She started hanging a lot closer to me, much to their dismay. At one point, and older man came up to me while I was standing with her. He gestured to her, and said a bunch of stuff to me. Of course, I have no idea what he was saying. He seemed to be asking me something. Marian and I decided that the story would be that he offered me two shirts for her. We stuck with it, too.
Eventually they got the hint, and then started getting annoyed at me. Later on, they gave up, and started pushing us closer together. One of them put my arm around her shoulder. She was grateful that they began to keep their distance.
The kids took an interest in me, too. One young boy with his face painted white began snorting at me. Now, he must have been all of 6. So, I snorted back. He was terrified, which means he thought it was amazing. For the rest of the night, we would sneak up on one another, and snort. He would jump, scream in terror and run off, laughing.
It was right around this point that one of the camera guys came up to me, in a panic. I’m not sure whether it was JP or Ferny, but his liquor had been stolen. He asked me if I had seen his bottle of Jameson–I had, it was stashed under the wood pile. It wasn’t there anymore. He began to get worried. He had thousands of dollars of camera equipment set up, unattended. Was this vulnerable?
I assured him that he shouldn’t consider the liquor getting stolen to be theft. They had no use for his cameras. They knew what the bottle was, though. Some kids probably spotted it, waited until nobody was looking, grabbed it and ran off into the woods with some friends to drink it. He would never see that bottle again, but his equipment was fine. I think it goes without saying that he made some Dassanech kids’ night that night.
As the night wore on, the dance and chanting stopped. We broke into groups. The Dassanech seemed to separate by age and sex. Probably just into friend groups, same as the students did. I had purchased a stool from them–a kara–a small wooden stool made from commiphora wood. It was like a tiny saddle with a base. It had a goat leather cord and notches in either side of it. It was surprisingly comfortable, the notches allowed you to use it as a head rest because the notch accommodates the back of your neck very well, and it was expertly crafted. It has a matte finish on it–they rub goat fat into it to preserve the wood.
I noticed a bunch of them snickering at it. Eventually one grabbed it, and turned it over. Apparently I was carrying it incorrectly. You’re supposed to hold it with the cord in your fist, but with the seat part of it facing down. Upside-down, essentially. You learn something new every day.
Everyone was pretty well sloshed at this point. The liquor caches were dwindling, but people brought out what they had. At some point I realized that these kids really love it when you grab them by the wrists, spin in a circle and throw them. I did this with several and they were all having a great time.
Nolan had made friends with one older boy named Joshua. He was maybe 13. He had been getting him to since death metal–some Immortal song called Tyrants. He was pretty good at it, especially considering he had no idea what he was singing about. Nolan, like most of the people there, was pretty drunk. I showed him the trick with spinning and throwing the kids. So he tried it with Joshua. Being as drunk as he was, he didn’t see the little kid running over to snort at me. As he let Joshua go, he slammed right into that kid’s stomach. Naturally, the kid doubled over in pain and fell onto the ground. Joshua was hurt, but fine. The kid lie there for a few minutes, and got up, sniffling. An old man had comforted him. Joshua then came up to check on him. He was alright, and they hugged, and the party continued–mostly oblivious to what had just happened.
Kat–Dave Braun’s wife–pulled one of the Land Rovers out onto the laga. They hooked up an iPod to some speakers so that the Dassanech could hear some of our music. What ensued for the next several hours was essentially the scene from any American club…blasting from the speakers of a Land Rover in the middle of the Kenya bush. Out in a dry river bed with people from all over the world dancing with a remote tribe from northern Kenya.
This trip was pretty awesome.
At this point there were three days left in Ileret. Then some of us would head back to base camp, some of us to the Karari escarpment. Nolan’s group headed back to base camp (working on fishing in the fossil record, there is no water anywhere near the Karari). My group headed to the Karari, along with the camera guys, Beccy’s group and Marian’s group. We would spend a week at the Karari, bringing us to my youngest sister’s birthday–July 16th. She would turn 20.
This last day, my group stayed behind. We had collected so many specimens and logged so much data that we needed a day to put it all into a spreadsheet database. There was a lot to enter. DRJ and I spent so many hours, each on separate computers, charged by solar power. I entered the collected specimens into one database, and we shared the responsibility of entering the bonewalk data into two separate spreadsheets to be combined later. It became apparent that not only did we have far more data than the other groups, we also had a lot more direction in our project than many of them, and were also farther ahead of the others in compiling the paper records onto the computers.
I liked this project.
Samuel had come to the conclusion that he could no longer extort any stuff out of me. He had gotten two pens–the second of which I knew he would get. I had him and his friends sign their names in my journal. I knew Samuel would never let me have that pen back. He had gotten a shirt. He had also gotten two pieces of candy. In return, I had gotten his shr (pronounced “shar”), lessons on throwing it, a bracelet and some fun times hanging out with him.
He tried to get my journal off of me. They are learning to write, but have no pens, pencils or notebooks. They practice their spelling in the sand. I promised him a notebook on my last day at Ileret. He then started asking me for money.
I wasn’t about to give him that, and told him as much. He wanted 200 shillings. I refused, he persisted. After a while, I told him I would give him 4000 shillings for a pizza. His eyes lit up, “4000!?” I told him yes, but that he needed to get me a pizza. He didn’t understand.
My phone had been charging on my solar panel, so I decided to go get it to show him some pictures. I couldn’t explain pizza, but like any good facebook user, I had plenty of pictures of dinners I had cooked on my phone. I showed him, and he pretended to pick it up and eat it to show me that he understood. I then pointed to it, and told him that I would give him 4000 if he got me one. He scoffed and waved his hand to show me he knew I was joking.
I showed him other pictures, too. Pictures of my dog (they have dogs), my house, my girlfriend. I had no pictures on my phone of she and I, but I had pictures of both of us individually with the dog. He made the connection. I know this because he walked down along the acacia fence, over to the staff side of camp, outside of Amelia’s tent. Amelia was a pretty cute, young staff member that hadn’t yet started snubbing the Dassanech kids. He was just outside of her tent, but on the other side of the fence. He kept calling her name. She never came out, but I know he had made the connection regarding my relationship with my girlfriend at that point.
At this point, the friendships I had made were real. I had been through a lot with these people. I connected with several people on different levels. I was friends with everyone, but only a few were very close. Around this time, it began to dawn on me how difficult it would be once this trip ended. I began finishing up my Dassanech shopping. People thought I bought too much. I explained that I have a lot of female friends. This is one of the consequences.
I got a kara, a shr and a knife for myself. I also bought Wesley a shr for her birthday. In addition, I bought a kor (a mallet used to castrate goats) and a second shr for my anthropology department. A second kara for a friend back home who was a good part of the reason I had found myself there. I also bought some earrings, necklaces and bracelets. All of which were owned and used by the Dassanech people. I also bought a goat skin to tan and hang on my wall. The skin was 1000 shillings–about $13, well worth it. I also collected some stones. I didn’t want to go home to find I had left someone out. I made a list of names and got extra.
The day before leaving Ileret, I gave Samuel the notebook I had promised him. Upon handing it to him, he immediately asked me for money. I told him I had no money for him. He stared down at the notebook, and asked if it was his. I told him it was. He flipped through the pages–all blank. He was stunned. And he thanked me. Samuel thanked me! Here is this little tribal conman, who has extorted probably everyone there for pens and shirts and candy. He seemed like a clever and inconsiderate kid. A nice kid, but totally inconsiderate. Not that that’s a problem, he’s just being a kid. But he thanked me! And he meant it. I shook his hand, and he was happy. A handshake isn’t part of their culture, but they’ve dealt with westerners enough to know that it’s a sign of respect. I walked back to my tent.
A few minutes later, Joann, Hassich and this tall guy whose name I’ll never know came up to me, with Samuel close behind, looking at the ground. Joann asked if I had given him the notebook. She thought he had sneaked into my tent and stolen it. I told her that I had promised it to him when I left, and I made good on it. That it was his. His eyes lit up, and she handed him back the notebook. He ran off with it. I told her I didn’t want to create trouble. She said it was fine that I gave it to him, but she just thought he had stolen it.
On one of the last days in Ileret, something happened. Duncan (13) was with some of the local kids, and they’d gotten into some kind of altercation. One of them threw a rock at Duncan, who retaliated by hitting the boy with a stick.
Now, part of me doesn’t blame him. He’s surrounded by a bunch of kids who are definitely a separate group from him. And he was hit. “Instinct” is to hit him back. Both for justice as well as to show this group that you aren’t afraid. Well, the Dassanech have a different view of justice.
He was taken by an adult of the tribe, and they formed a circle around him. He was to be whipped publicly. His father was out in the field. It took a lot of explanation by camp staff, with several translators going each way, that that’s not how we do things. That he would absolutely be punished, but in our culture it’s up to the father to determine what is appropriate. Things were getting pretty tense.
You see, the Dassanech aren’t stupid. We showed up and took their best shady spots for our camp. We keep them out with acacia branches. We buy their jewelry and a few goats, but some people don’t get much money out of this. Now we were trying to let this stuck up white kid get away with hurting one of theirs, and in their view, without repercussion. To make matters worse, their chief wasn’t around. This whole time, they had been without that figurehead to call the shots. So they were pretty headstrong.
Not only that, but it isn’t like they don’t have weapons. In their bomas, they have plenty of AK-47s to go around. Tensions were high the day we showed up. They didn’t want to give up their camping and I’m pretty sure they got money out of us for it. And food. This was a relationship of mutual convenience, but they don’t really care about us. We aren’t their people, and we’re in their territory.
The law here is tribal law, and we had broken it.
This stuck up, spoiled little brat kid had no idea the consequences of his actions. He just didn’t want to get whipped. He wasn’t. We talked them down, and his mother extorted (or tried to extort) a couple hundred shillings out of us. I don’t know if she succeeded. As expected, Duncan’s father laughed it off, and the kid is still as clueless as ever.
It was a good time to leave, and fortunately, it was time.
We loaded up the White Lorry like a reverse Jenga game.. We loaded up the Unimog with our lunch supplies and tents and any other small, soft packages. We loaded up our water drums and cooking fuel. We loaded up the stools and research tents and tables and water filters. We loaded up the camera gear and showers and laundry basins. We loaded up the toilets and toilet paper. We loaded up the mattresses for the camp staff and the luggage of all of the students and staff.
We loaded the trucks like we had done so many times before. Bucket-brigade style under the punishing sun. This place had begun to feel like home. The purpose of this trip had started here. I got to know people here. I learned the details of the lives of friends I made here while spending nights laying up and gazing at the eternal sky above us. Made real discoveries and learned so much.
I didn’t know this place existed before coming here. Nobody I knew back home knew this place existed now. But each and every one of us found part of ourselves here. Alien as it was when we got here, it had become home. And now we were packing up and leaving. Many of us will never return to it. And never will we have that group again. That dynamic. Those stresses, unknowns, discoveries, frustrations and joys. It was a little pang of the end.
The Dassanech gathered to watch us pack. To see us off. One night at base camp to entertain some government officials, then off to the Karari for the final push of the field work. The kids waved. The students payed particular attention to the individuals they were closest to. That they’d like to think of as friends. Samuel and Angelo and Alex. Alex is Samuel’s older brother. I found that out when they signed my journal.
Samuel Namuya Hasubaite. Alex Yievat Lotuv Hasubaite. One of the other kids saw that I had noticed the surname. And pointed to them and said “family.” Alex was clearly older.
After we had packed up, it was time to gather rocks in the Unimog, to build a retaining wall over the hominin prints. 19 in total. 19. Wow.
We drove down the laga, with the kids following us. Threatening us with a bow and arrow and chasing us with their arms outreached. The kids tried to impress us with the size of the rocks they could carry. We filled the floor of the Unimog around the seats and headed to the footprint site. I hadn’t yet seen it.
I desperately wanted to, but was very involved and passionate about the project I was working on. When I found out that all students got a chance to check out the footprints, I was relieved. I wanted to see them, but didn’t like various aspects of that particular project or how I had heard it was being run. I loved my project, the methodology and the people involved.
The Unimog pulled up, and we got out and scrambled up the rock, sandy hill to the footprint layer. Brian Richmond explained what they had done, and put it in context. A bit about them finding it, a bit about preserving them. A bit about why we need the wall. And a bit about why we couldn’t touch them or photograph them.
As I moved along the ridge to catch a glimpse, I saw nothing but faint impressions several feet away and largely obscured from view. Brian talked on, and I kept looking for some prints closer to me. He led our eyes with his fingers along the layer. And there was one, right next to me. Right next to me. Not two feet from my hip was the footprint of an individual who had stepped in that exact spot 1.5 million years ago. Not for the first time and not for the last, I lost my breath again. I lost the focus in my eyes when I saw the individual toe impressions. This print could have been made that day. If it weren’t in stone, I would have thought it was.
This made it so personal to me. The bones are the remnants. They are the bits that help us understand what they were and, to some extent, how they were capable of behaving. The prints are what they did.
What they actually did. Where they actually were. How far they actually stepped. Just like the dinosaur prints I’d worked with for years. Only these prints may have very literally been made by my own ancestor. How big of a population was there 1.53 million years ago? At worst, this was literally my cousin. Your cousin.
The toes were arranged like mine. Similar proportions, similar divergence from one another. I have flat feet. This person was standing in mud, but the arch impressed deeply and at least gave me the impression that it had flatter feet than modern humans. I could relate to this. My foot would fit here and I would be standing in the exact spot. My mind raced back in time. Back to the time of the individual who made this print, as well as back in time to a childhood spent fantasizing about doing just this.
Just like loading the truck, we built the wall bucket-brigade style. And we were off. I waved to Samuel as we drove away. Marian sat next to me and we talked a bit, but not much. We both knew what was happening. So did everyone there. Mackelmore played from Sarah’s iPod. South African Joe made comments about the upside down dead trees sound hilarious in the way that only he could.
–7/9/2013 5:35 pm–
Packed for Koobi again. 1 night. V.P. of Kenya coming
to check out our operation here.
That’s incredible. I feel so honored to be a part of this country’s push to education.
I am so glad that the antiquities here are such a source
of inspiration to the citizens of this country…
…Back at Koobi now. Amazing shower. Big Lunch. Moved a lot of shit around.
Will sleep well tonight. I’m so tired.
I can’t wait for the heat to abate, and for the stars.
Two Weeks Left.
It was a smaller group that showed up first at the Karari. Another group stayed behind to wait for the Deputy President. On the way, the axle in Steve’s truck broke. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “heat” until we unloaded the truck with this small crew. About 13 of us. It seems like a lot, but it isn’t. One piece at a time, some of us on top of the truck, handing down. Some of us grabbing the stuff as it was handed to us.
Out of the lorry, down a steep hill, across a laga (loose sand) and up another steep hill. The heat was brutal and there was no shade. After we unloaded the truck, we set up camp and talked. Waiting for the others to arrive.
It rained that first night in the Karari. Not much, but it was unseasonal for it to have happened. I was so happy. Apparently it rained again during the night. I woke up several times without a clue as to where I was. I had dreams that I still remember. I rarely remember my dreams.
The Karari was interesting. The work continued. The landscape changed slightly. There was a lot of hyena shit. Some of the terrain didn’t look like anything on earth. The fossil deposits looked different. It was clear that we were somewhere “else.”
At around 11am, the wind stopped altogether, and every day. It then grew so hot. Everyone complained about the head back home. Apparently this was one of the hottest summers on record for Rhode Island. They told me that it wasn’t humid where I was. There were also no buildings. No fans. No air conditioning. No refrigerators. No ice cream. No trees. No shade. And no water. No. Water.
We built up a stock of water to bring with us. Several hundred gallons. It was gone in days. At the height of the day’s heat, you couldn’t move. You just couldn’t. There was no break from it, either. There was one large tree that would cast a bit of a shadow. It would cover part of you. But you had to share. Best case scenario, you got a few extra canvas stools and made a bed of them and succeeded in falling asleep for maybe 40 minutes.
There wasn’t enough water to shower regularly. A couple days into our stay, a group had to go out, back to Ileret, to dig a well and get some more water.
I have a different relationship with heat after the Karari. I had no idea what heat was.
But this was a desert. The heat in the day was in the 120s. That is not an exaggeration. At night it would probably be as low as the 50s. The wind was incredible at night. The nights made it all worth it. Some friends were still at base camp, their projects kept them there. But many of the closer ones I’d made were there. And we had a lot of talks.
We also slept very well. The heat sapped so much of your energy that you were ready for bed early. My group was still hiking 8, 10, 15 kilometers a day. I would bring 2 bike bottles and another 1 liter Dasani bottle filled with water, plus another filled with some juice concentrate that was more or less Hawaiian Punch. It went pretty quickly, so I always brought too much.
The beauty and hostility of the Karari strengthened my resolve to return here. I still plan on interning. Those of us that went to the Karari felt a certain kind of bond that we felt the others didn’t. It was so much different from Mugie, Base Camp or Ileret. Sarah made her first fire at the Karari. We would hear jackals at night. I could see the Milky Way from my tent. It was at the Karari that I felt completely immersed in this. We had all been through so much together. Seen and done things that most of the people we will ever meet will never do. Learned more than we had in our entire college careers.
I was interviewed here. One of only a few students who were. I talked about my experience. About the wait a bit bushes, about the heat. About how much I had learned and how it had changed my outlook on my own education and abilities to articulate and apply what I know. I felt comfortable leading the bone walks and filling out the sheets. DP was able to be more focused because DRJ and I became participants rather than merely students.
We were gaining an expertise. We could talk to one another about this, without wondering if we were correct. We would find scraps of bone and know what they were without needing confirmation. We could find teeth and know if they were suitable for collection or if they were of too poor of quality or just overly represented in our collections already. We could fill out the tags and mark the GPS coordinates without having to bug DP for everything. It was here that we were really beginning to feel that the approach of this field school was paying off.
Later, I would tell people that I have a completely different relationship with my field. That new relationship grew from my experience in the Karari. Having the mental and experiential framework to draw from started happening here. And it hasn’t stopped since. There were no new hominin teeth. But I began to understand why that wasn’t the reason I was here. Why it was so much more than that.
The trip also started to feel like it was winding down while here. We started to run low on certain things. The food was more repetitive than ever, and there were restrictions on things like how many slices of bread we could have.
I talked to DP about a lot of things. He wasn’t my instructor at this point. He was a friend in the field who had more experience than me. There were no reservations. He offered to send me literature pertaining to a thesis proposal that I was working on back home. He suggested direction for it. “Back home” was coming back into vocabulary.
It had never left, really. But it seemed some kind of abstract concept. This was a tipping point. After Karari, field work was over. Maybe we’d go to some other sites close to camp, but really, this was it. How many more days of sweating and getting torn up by wait a bit bushes? How many site markers would we find? How many “left distal tibia, bovid, size 2″s were left? How many more times would we talk about missing people back home, or bust DRJ’s balls for being involved with another student? How many more teeth would we collect? It was here that I found a baboon incisor. Almost 2 million years old. DRJ found a juvenile elephant mandible. How many more times would our brain not believe what our eyes were telling it?
In a way, this was the end. We would push to get our data entered. One night, Dave Braun was astounded that I was copying bonewalk data from my field notes onto a data sheet. That way we could better keep track of everything that was going on. I had never been so serious about my work before. It wasn’t even a big deal to me. I spent probably 12 hours that day working in punishing heat to pick up funny rocks off the ground. Had eating shitty food for dinner that was just like the shitty food I had eaten for lunch, and for dinner and lunch the day before, and day before. Had drank stale water that was filtered and chlorinated. Was wearing through the soles of my boots, one of which no longer had a lace long enough to properly tie. The others lace was so worn thin I was afraid to pull it tight.
But I sat down after dinner, flashlight pinned between my cheek and shoulder like a phone, scrawling out this data in the darkness because it just needed to be done. It didn’t strike me as odd. Apparently students don’t do this stuff. I didn’t feel like a student anymore. I still don’t, and I don’t think I will again any time soon.
I spent a lot of time thinking about my own, future research, and getting to really know the people I was with. I didn’t notice it at the time, but retrospectively, this is where I got to know the people I was with at the Karari the best. I saw DP this past weekend. We talked about some stuff that had developed in our lives since then. He told me that he remembers exactly where we were when I first brought something up to him. “In area 8, headed up that hill. I was just like, ‘Ohhhhh, shit.'”
We were partly friends, partly bored and partly delirious from the heat. But this is where many of us really got to know each other. And I think it was partly that we were ready for all of this to be over. We knew what was coming, we knew we couldn’t stop it, we didn’t want this to end but it had to. So we wanted it to.
Missing isn’t the same. this has been such a part of my life for so long. I feel I am aligning. All that I have been missing. All that has not been a direct part of my life. It now is. I feel so complete here. I am ready to be home. Well. Ready to wrap up and head home. I feel so much better equipped for life. I feel all the time spent anxiously coping rather than actively pursuing is being transcended. Like the person I am is becoming the person I want to be.
This is my own heart. My own life. Finally coming into focus.
I can do this. I have done this. I hear jackals. It’s time for bed.
Reflecting on this part of the trip, I realize how much the camera guys really became part of it all. When they showed up, they seemed like these dudes who had no idea what they were in for. Like they were so detached from life out here because we had been here so much longer. Typical outsider mentality. And I’m sure that had something to do with how standoffish the faculty were at first. Apparently previous years weren’t so studious. They didn’t take their work nearly so seriously and the entire experience wasn’t quite like this one. This was the first year with GWU, and the first year the students participated so intensely in the research. I’ve heard from more than one instructor that this approach wouldn’t have worked with students from other years. Anyway, at this point we all considered them all friends. We had worked, hiked, sweated and bled with them. Literally. Ferny was walking around barefoot one morning and cut it pretty badly. Another time he was running around naked on some outcrops but I’ll let him tell you that story.
To tell you the truth, I have no definite memory of the ride back to base camp. The last day out we wound up at two more hominin sites. One is unpublished but obviously a gigantic excavation took place there. I don’t remember the specimen found. Another was FxJj1 (the regions are set up on a grid, locating sites is like finding “C6” on a map)–the first archaeological site discovered in Koobi Fora. Archaeological meaning tools and artifacts rather than biological remains. And I went there. I also made fire with sticks. Russ showed me how. It took me a bit, it was a full-body workout, but I did it and it worked.
In my brain, I’m still just some idiot. And I mean still. It’s changing, and I’ll get to that soon. But I still feel the anxiety that prevented me from doing anything with my life for so long. It’s still there, making me doubt anything I’ve ever done. It will be there making me doubt anything I go on to do. When I see myself in third person, it’s different. When I see things I’ve written, hear things I’ve recorded, or see video of me presenting or performing, it’s different. I can see into my head, know what was going through my mind when I did whatever it was I’m now reviewing, but I can also see it how others see it. And I don’t look like I’m full of shit.
Returning to base camp was a reunion of sorts. I had made friends from whom I was separated when I headed to Karari. It was a celebration of sorts, also. We had done it. Field work was complete, with few exceptions. It was also the beginning of the mourning of the end of this experience. I felt we all pulled more closely together in the final days there. We had become veritable experts in our subfield, and literal experts in our project.
We all huddled around computers and crunched our data into spreadsheets. We all huddled around tables and reviewed osteology, lithics, geology and dentition. Silindo and helped with scapulae, I helped with teeth, Beccy and Matt helped with lithics. We all had something to offer at this point, and we all trusted each others expertise.
We began planning our papers, studying for our exams and putting together our presentations. DRJ and I discussed the idea of doing a joint paper. We had both drafted outlines for our individual papers. Mostly I had mine hand written. We decided he’s write his, and I would either add mine, or if our styles were too different, I would write my own. He wound up working hard for pretty much the entire day. I got a hold of a computer with a flickering screen. A laptop connected to a desktop. It was getting late and I was running out of light. I’m glad I got to it when I did and I’m glad I got it drafted a bit by hand. My paper was about 5 pages long and took about an hour and a half. I guess that’s pretty quick, but really I knew all that stuff already. My research and data collection was simply what I was doing anyway. I had to do a little bit of reading and get my references together. But really I just typed it out. Reading it after getting home, there were a few goofy typos and stuff. But too bad. It was awesome.
Our writing went pretty late. I finished a bit before DRJ. DP had a rough outline, no content, but just suggestions for the direction of our presentation. I took it apart and worked through everything we had done over the summer. DP’s main suggestion was this: We had so much data. Our presentation was to be about 20 minutes. We could easily go over every coordinate and skeletal element found. We could talk individually about every site we went to, what it was like and what kind of stuff we found there. Or we could take one point, and drive it home.
We went back to the original data. The stuff that drove DP to this project. We knew the isotopic signatures in the teeth of both Homo and Paranthropus and in both of the time frames. So we took each combination of genus and time period and compared the animals associated with each. And we would talk about how that compared to the Cerling isotope data.
I broke the outline down into sections. At each good stopping point, we’d switch off. I wrote out pretty much the entire presentation, and elaborated on mine parts pretty in depth. I generalized on his topics, he’d add to it. He was excited about my idea. We didn’t have much time, and this gave us direction. He knew where to start, and I knew when he’d stop. Our own sections were up to us. We would reproduce some graphs from DP’s original pitch of this project. The only issue is we didn’t have any time to run through it. The first time we would hear what the other would have to say, is when he was saying it. Needless to say, there was a bit of anxiety there.
Before the presentation, DRJ told me we should talk about some things. I had them in my end of the presentation already. I also told him we should talk about some other things. He had them in his end. This was good. He talked about some literature he had reviewed that I hadn’t, and vice-versa. This was also good.
The presentation was awesome. We got up there and I drew out the graphs we wanted to refer to on a white board, with some P-values underneath. And our presentation was perfect.
Neither one of us stumbled. We knew our cues even though we hadn’t rehearsed, so there was no awkward pause waiting for the other to pick up. I went right into the background of the science, of our particular project, and how we set about doing it. The moment I finished my part, DRJ started his. And so it went for the next 20 minutes. We explained and referenced the graphs perfectly and broke down the implications of our P-values regarding the Cerling data, and why it was so exciting for our project.
The documentary guys were clearly into our presentation. But it didn’t phase us. There was no nervousness. We knew this stuff. We barely referenced our notes. We were just talking about what we did. We didn’t have to think because it was our lives. I’ve given a similar presentation to several friends when they asked what I did in Africa. There didn’t need to be any rehearsal because we’d spent the past month rehearsing.
Afterwards, the questions were good. Steve asked us about how we determined how many individual animals were represented at a site. Jack made some comments about geological and environmental changes in the area throughout time that tied well into what we explained. Dave Braun asked us if there were any anomalous associations with animals throughout time or between genera. Off the top of my head, I could answer. This is how it was supposed to go.
It went so well that DP told us that if either of us wanted to present this data at a convention, we were welcome to. He was impressed, he said we nailed it. I thought so, too. Some of the other presentations exemplified what he meant by overloading with data. They were all good, but some were more difficult to follow than others.
Nolan and Bladen presented their findings on aquatic food sources. I could tell Bladen was nervous. He knew what was up, but English is new for him. And he was able to give a presentation on original scientific research to a group of scientists–some of whom were there at the inception of the science. Everyone did awesome. This was a diverse group of people with widely varied backgrounds in the field. They conducted original research in a completely alien setting and did awesome.
After the presentations, everyone was in the best of moods…or at least as good of mood as can be expected when yesterday was the push to write papers, today were the presentations and tomorrow was the final.
We didn’t know what to expect from the exam. We were so engrossed in our niche of the science that we wondered about what we actually knew regarding the others. We studied our text books, hoping for some insight, but the text books were awful. A Jeopardy-style game was organized. I was feeling a bit withdrawn so I didn’t participate. I hung out with the few others who didn’t. I tried to listen in for the academic value. Mostly I was reading Lance Armstrong’s autobiography (read it. it’s amazing. regardless of your opinion of him as a person.) and talking to Beccy.
I felt the part of my brain responsible for storing crammed information reach critical mass. At that point, nothing is retained. I’m just looking at words but unable to read them. I went to sleep. The next day we woke up, had breakfast, had the morning meeting and cleared out of the main banda. Within the next two hours, it would be over. We would be done.
Done. Just like that.
I don’t think anybody really liked the final exam very much. Like the first practical exam we had, this one was several stations, each with on question. We’d go to one, have a little under a minute to answer the question, then have to move on to the next. Everyone did awesome on the questions related to their own project. Pretty sure everyone also sucked at the others that pertained to other topics. Then there was an essay portion that everyone was pretty happy about because it was more generalized so everyone could apply their own experiences to it.
And then it was over.
The past three days had been such a whirlwind of preparation, stress, anxiety, typing and studying. We hardly had any time to reflect on the experience that had been ending since we left the Karari. Everything we had been up to had come to a head. It had become so hectic that we had lost sight of the inevitability we had been coming up to. And now it was here.
Marian told me right around this time. The night before exams, actually. That we had not been legitimately indoors since Nairobi. Almost five weeks. Outdoors. I described the bandas earlier. As little more than roofs with partitions. The bathrooms are more or less cement outhouses. They have large windows without any kind of covering over them. Slate floors in the shower, cement floors otherwise. Rickety wooden doors. One time while I was showering, Nolan sneaked up to the window and threw a 5′ branch in through it. They aren’t very private.
I started thinking about the people back home. We had just gotten through the last push. Now it was time to get ready for the long slog back home. To my girlfriend, my pets, my family and my friends. The drive started the next day.
I was still writing in my journal with less than five hours before wake up. And we woke up at 4:30am. Breakfast was supposed to be at 4:30, but in typical field school fashion, I was the only one up that early and breakfast wasn’t served until well after 5. My next journal entry after mentioning I was waking up in under five hours was at 10:27pm.
My phone started saying “Emergency Calls Only” again, instead of “No Service.” I felt like I was getting closer. Closer to everything. Closer to the end of this field school. Closer to goodbye to all of these people who I had met while I went through the most incredible experience of my life. Closer to Nairobi. Closer to the people I left in June. Closer to returning to work, my undergraduate studies. Closer to my family, friends, girlfriend, pets. Closer to home.
As we headed south, back down the country, we could see the scenery change. From extremely hot and dry with little plant life, to cooler. More humid, greener. It was a different route than the one in, and while I wanted to see the same sights now that I had a different lens toward the world, it stayed fresh because of the different route. As we got closer to Mt. Kenya, the temperature was almost frigid. Blad had never dealt with temperatures like this. He’s from Ethiopia. He has never seen snow.
We pulled an emergency blanket (those filmy things that are like foil on a baked potato) out and Blad, Nolan, Beccy and I shared it. Blad thought he was going to die. It was probably 50 degrees, overcast, foggy and windy. And we were in the back of a truck with nothing blocking the wind from us. It was pretty cold.
We had one more camp to stay at. I don’t remember the name of this one, and I don’t know that I ever knew it in the first place. We stopped at the equator. It was anticlimactic, but still exciting. People back home could relate to this and I felt connected with the life I had left behind.
This would be the last time we would select our tent sites. The last time we’d drop our tents on the ground near those of the people we had grown closest too. This time they were a bit closer.
The days bled together. 14 hours in a truck surrounded by beauty that still hasn’t begun to get old. Now freezing, now too hot. Hungry, sweaty, shivering, Redundant food. Pee stops. Mountains and donkeys. Shanty towns. It was the drive in in rewind. Only this time with the nostalgia of recognition as well as the pain of the end of all of this.
Some of the sights we saw were unimaginable. Most notably the clouds hanging on the tops of the mountains. Pouring over the edge like the birth of a waterfall in slow motion. It had been almost 6 weeks. Of hard work and minor injuries. Hunger and bland food. Chlorinated water and instant coffee. Packing, carrying, sweating. We had seen from Nairobi to Ethiopia going straight up the center of the country. These aren’t places you find on a typical map.
Tony sat next to a woman from Kenya on his flight into Nairobi. She was headed home. He was the furthest from it he had ever been. She asked him where he was going. He told her that he was going up to Turkana for field work. That he would be staying in Ileret for a good part of the summer.
She said that that’s where she was from, Eldoret. He said no, Eldoret was somewhere else, he was going to Ileret. She said yeah, Eldoret, that’s where she’s from.
She’s from Kenya, not extremely far southwest of where we were. And she had never heard of it. These aren’t places you go to on safaris.
We cut a slice up and back down the center of the country. Experiencing the cultures and landscapes and wildlife in ways that few people outside the country ever will. And we experienced the westernization of the country first, and then traveled through its past, through its history back to a time when we were first beginning to separate ourselves from nature with our own cultural contrivances. And even further back to when our first immediate ancestors stood on the shores of the same lake we had bathed in. And even further back to when our ancestry becomes clouded. Before agriculture and pastoralism. Before bows and arrows. Before jewelry and art. Before fishing. Before language as we know it.
Now we were headed back down and seeing it all in reverse. Only this reverse was in forward. We left the fossil beds and shattered tools dotting the landscape. We said goodbye to our pastoralist neighbors. Watched the lake fade into the distance along with the bomas peppering the landscape and the children waving to us as we passed.
We saw houses pop up. Stores. Chickens in cages dotted the sides of the roads as the roads began to resemble things we would call recognize as them. We once again saw things like hotels and churches. Saw signs for Coca Cola and saw fences surrounding properties that people actually owned.
Eventually we hit pavement. Still surrounded by this stunning landscape of such familiarity yet alien beauty, our minds struggled to understand the clash of where we had just been with the paved roads we were now driving along. We knew we were close now. The pavement seemed to make the traveling automatic. The speed seemed terrifying even though I had certainly pedaled this fast on my bicycles back home. Even though I had come here in a plane.
Modernity popped up all around us now. Cement walls and gates. Homes with electricity and plumbing. Other drivers on the roads with us. We were pulled over and bribed. It was like deja-vu. We recognized it all. It was so familiar. But it was like from a dream. Did we really know this? Is this where we had come from? What we had been through was so much different from anything we had ever experienced. But it had replaced the lives we had left entirely. There was no communication, only memory. Now it was coming back in bits and pieces. There was overlap now. The landscapes overlapped with those of the more developed areas to which we were returning. And those reminded us of home.
Then we were on a highway. With billboards. They were enormous and advertised things like cell phones. We passed Jomo Kenyatta University. A college. Within minutes we pulled into the Hennessis Hotel. The last time we were here, we didn’t know each other.
Now we were back. We were family. United by our experience and by our inevitable separation.
And it was my birthday.
I was 30. The night before, as more and more of us crept off to bed, giving into the futility of resisting the end of this life we had come to love, the hour changed. Without any discussion, Marian’s face jumped, and she checked the time. 12:01. It was my birthday and she immediately wished me a happy one, and went into song. Followed by Russ, Amelia and Jean-Paul.
Now we were back in Nairobi. At a hotel. Silindo and I had a room to share again. We had a key card to open the door. The door unlocked electronically. It beeped and lit up to let you know if you were successful. There were lights and switches. There was an elevator.
I opened the door to the room and it was bizarre. I recognized everything and before I could process how strange this all was, I unpacked my shaver, let it charge for about 20 minutes, and went into the bathroom. A bathroom. With a mirror, a toilet, running water and a hot shower. I shaved. I hate shaving. It was a joke, though. I shaved the day before I left home, and would shave the day we got back to Nairobi. And I held to that decision.
I took a shower in hot water and felt the difference in my skin immediately. I got out of the shower and noticed how dirty my clothes were. They had been washed, they didn’t seem dirty. But I was waking now from the life that would become the dream. And returning to the dream that would become the life. My off-white shirt was brick red on the back. From the dust and the weeks of being subjected to some of the most hostile areas in the world. This was clean?
I unpacked the single button down that I had brought with me, along with the black jeans. For the dinner tonight. The farewell dinner. I splashed some water on the more wrinkled parts. Already my inhibitions returning. I just spent over five weeks with no privacy. Eating with and sweating on these people. With few outfits. No way to actually clean anything thoroughly–myself included.
Not an hour out of that life, I was already worried about my appearance.
We took the bus down to some pub sports bar type thing. It had a separate area akin to a circus tent with a big screen for watching whatever sporting event (soccer) was taking place. Here we ate, and began our goodbyes.
I don’t even quite remember who was at my table. Marian sat to my left. Nolan and Beccy were at the table. And DP. Wesley I think was there. Who else? I’ll try to remember but that evening was too intense. I saw everyone. Took pictures with them. Said goodbye to many of them. Some of which I know full well I will never see again.
After the food, we headed over to the pub. Some people danced. Some sat and talked. Everyone acted like this wasn’t happening. I talked a lot with Katherine that night, as well as Nolan, Marian and Beccy. There was some obnoxious drunkenness, some announcements and speeches. People started to leave from the pub. DP was supposed to take me out to try some of the better restaurants in Nairobi the next morning, but his plans were changed and he had to head out early. He contacted Tyrus, his favorite cab driver, and told him I would be calling. Let him know where I wanted to go, and he’d take me. Wouldn’t screw me over, either.
We took the bus back to the Hennessis. Hastily got set up in our rooms. And I headed back downstairs to see who was already on their way out. Tony and Marian were leaving. Tony was an eclectic older punk guy from New York. His personal space is important to him, and he doesn’t like physical contact. That he shook my hand and hugged me said a lot about how this trip had affected him.
And then it was Marian’s turn to go.
This one was hard. We had gotten close talking about our partners and our cats, and I felt we really connected. Some (most?) people don’t believe that there isn’t some kind of romance between us when I try to describe our connection. There is in that the entire experience we shared was a highly romanticized situation. But as far as beyond platonic? Not at all. We share a deep connection that I can’t really define. She was one of those people who you just click with. Didn’t have to be a female. She just was (and is!) one. One of those ten or so people you meet in your life that you just know you’re always going to know. She was keenly perceptive of what was up with me, and we shared a lot of awesome conversations and experiences. I feel like I have a very deep level of appreciation for things, and feel like she shared that. So often, we weren’t talking anyway.
It still happens. It kept happening on my trip home. I’ve had a lot of hard things to deal with since returning. As if on cue, I hear from her when I need to. So far without fail. Why? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s any kind of hocus-pocus-psychic crap. I just think she wonders what’s up, remembers what was last up, and asks as often as a friend should. That’s downplaying it.
Those nights of gazing at the sky that I devoted a few thousand words to? She was inevitably next to me 90% of the time. I don’t care who was there, everyone who has ever experienced that is someone that I’m connected to. But that it was specifically her so often built that connection. The conversations we had about everything, and the relatability of our situations back home kept it there.
So she left. And with our hug I knew this trip was over. And that I was done with it. But it wasn’t over yet. We had all been dumped into this mixing bowl of cultures, backgrounds and personalities, become family, and now it was being dissolved. By the time this trip was actually done, it had dragged on far too long.
I missed my goodbyes with some people that night. I tried to send them messages, but probably missed a few. Some of them don’t have access to computers regularly. Those that have computers, I’ve since reconnected with.
We had our old roommates back. But we shuffled around the rooms so that two students who had gotten together during the field school could have one last night together. She’s from California. He’s from South Africa. This was pretty much it for them.
Our shuffling around landed me in a room with Nolan. While I expected to be up late showing him music off my iPod and just generally talking about everything, he was asleep in minutes. I was up late talking to my girlfriend via wifi.
The next morning Nolan and I took a cab with Matt down to the Sarit Center–another mall, not Westgate. We spent some time dealing with the street merchants. I got pretty legitimately raped by some men who make their living haggling the white tourists. I’d like to think I got a decent deal, but I know I didn’t. I got a couple of bone forks and spoons, several necklaces, a couple of pairs of earrings.
Headed over to Sarit for breakfast at Nairobi Java House. This is a cafe in Nairobi that I’ve honestly considered franchising in the States. This was to be my first real breakfast after the field. I went to the buffet at the Hennessis, and it was eerie. It was essentially a reflection of that first buffet. The one I described earlier. With the amazing mango juice. Only there were far fewer people, those who were there…it already felt like I knew them from a past life. I also can’t remember anybody that was there. I’m pretty sure that for nostalgia’s sake I took the same seat that I took that first day.
So we went into Sarit and headed to Java House. I ordered way too much food. This was it. This was the start of my life after Koobi Fora. This was the start of my life headed home. It was my first autonomous action, and it was going to be a good one. I ordered the iced coffee. I ordered the almond croissant. I ordered the Juevos Rancheros. I ordered the pancakes. The waitress was shocked that I ordered so much food.
Matt came in a bit later and had a seat next to us. Was impressed at the spread on the table. Asked what we got. I told him what I got. He was amazed and impressed. Patted me on the back. Called out “Yoooooh” as South Africans do. And I ate all of it. And it was amazing. Later, the waitress came back to ask if I really did eat it all. And I did. And it was awesome. Nolan explained to her that we had just spent several weeks in Turkana, camping and doing field work. This was our first breakfast. I bought 500 grams of coffee, or maybe it was 1000. Had it ground for my sister. And got another batch of it for myself. Kept it whole bean because I have a grinder and a French Press. It’s still in my freezer. It’s good coffee and I didn’t want to screw it up before I got good enough with my press. I need to remember it’s there. I guess I’ll save it for a special occasion. Maybe I’ll have one soon. Never know.
From there, Katherine, South African Joe, DRJ and Silindo left. In a curio shop on the first floor of the mall I found an “I ❤ Warhogs” sticker. I bought it for Katherine. I still have yet to mail it to her, along with an almond croissant from Providence.
Nolan and I walked around in the mall, still a bit weirded out about everything, how different it was being back. How different it was being with the people we had just been through all this with. How much I had just eaten. Et cetera. We found a music store in Sarit. I was able to play guitar again. I still remember, early on at Koobi, the physical sensation in my right arm of wanting to play. It was surprising. I hadn’t played much in the year before leaving for Kenya. The desire returned pretty quickly. It was nice to get a hold of a guitar. Even though every guitar in that music store sucked.
I couldn’t remember my PIN, for the life of me. I didn’t have a clue. I had plenty of money in the bank and no way to access it. I had been a month and a half away from my debit. I didn’t have any idea what my PIN could possibly be. Nolan remember his. Took out 3,000 shillings (about $35) so I could get around for the next few days. He was headed home that night, I was in Nairobi for another couple of days. I had bought some shillings off of Tony for cash the night before at dinner. But the street vendors shook me down for everything I had.
From there, we had the woman who was doing Katie’s hair call her father, who drives a cab. He brought us to the National Museum, where we saw Beccy. We hung out in the archaeology lab for a while, then the three of us walked back to the Hennessis. We packed up, and I switched to my own room, and we headed up to the restaurant attached to the hotel. We sat reminiscing and talking about the future–about home. We stayed here for a few hours, what was left of us. Eventually it was time for Russ, Nolan and Emma to head home.
I headed down to say goodbye to Nolan. Beccy and I saw him off, as he called, “Oh man, this sucks” out of the window of his cab. The three of us were always together whenever we had the chance. Nolan’s mom had sent him with at least 60lbs of food. Beccy has a gluten intolerance. Nolan smokes and had no cigarettes. Nolan would trade her food for smokes, and they became friends. He and I became friends over talks about music and Indian food. The three of us became incredibly close and would stay up often very late just talking. He was right, it did suck. I still haven’t gotten a hold of the pictures taken these last few minutes that the three of us were together.
That morning I almost died. In the shower. Things are different there. There’s an instant hot switch for the water, kind of like the Poland Springs dispensers you’ll see in office buildings or that you can get in your house. The water stays hot, and it’s awesome.
The shower heads are a little different, too. There is a big, rainy-like shower head, but off the side is a smaller, bendy doodad that you can use to do stuff like get the conditioner out of your hair so you don’t wind up looking like that episode of Seinfeld in which low-flow shower heads were installed in their apartment building and nobody could get the conditioner out and everybody’s hair was all flat.
There’s a little switch to divert the flow.
So I’m showering and doing my thing, and that doodad popped off from the water pressure. All of a sudden there was a jet of water going strait across to the other side of the bathroom, and no water on me. So I pick it up, and go to stick it back on the little barb that it popped off of. And my hand started tingling. I thought I was crazy, so I tried it again. And go shocked again.
My thought was that there must be a battery powered light in the shower head. So I shut the water, got the doodad on good and tight, and put the water back on.
And it started arcing. And popping. Big loud sparks. I decided I was clean enough and got out of the shower.
Interesting how I can spend 5 weeks in a tent in the Kenyan bush. Hearing jackals at night and finding scorpions in my tent. On a hike we walked right by a bull elephant that could have effortlessly killed us all. And it was amazing.
Then I get back to the city and almost die in the shower.
Beccy wasn’t feeling so hot that day. She had checked out of her room, but wasn’t feeling well enough to head to the museum and do some work. She thought she’d wait until maybe noon or so. She ended up pretty much sleeping the whole day. Good thing I stayed.
Around lunch I walked the same route to the National Museum that we had followed that first day. Before I knew anyone. Back when I was taking pictures with people in them. Strangers in them. Strangers that would soon have names attached to them. Names that would soon have experiences attached to them. Now they’re some of my deepest connections.
The feel of everything was so much different. Everybody was gone. I remembered the sights from my first day here. I was alone then, surrounded by people I had not even met yet. Before our formal orientation at which I introduced myself and what this trip meant to me. I was surrounded by people but completely alone.
Now those people were all friends. They were gone now. The surroundings were familiar but I was not at home. I was again alone, but in a different way. In June I was alone because I had left everyone I knew to come here. Now I was alone because here had become my world, and everyone I knew had left.
I got to the museum. Only I didn’t go there. I went to Cafe Vogue for lunch. Same place we had tea after that first walk. Where we became excited for the coffee being good, and those strange pastries that we would come to love–mandazis. I got lunch here. I got the paprika chicken sandwich and an iced coffee. I was so glad there was iced coffee. After, I got an espresso milkshake.
I think in total my lunch cost me about $7. Maybe that wasn’t what I got then. Maybe I went twice and this was the combination of the two. I can’t remember anymore. Time in the field stopped. Weeks seemed like years. Each day felt like two. Getting back to base camp, time sped up. The final days took about 4 hours, including the drive back to Nairobi.
Then it was all over. Everyone was leaving. Russ, Nolan, Blad and Temesgen, Marian. Now it was just Beccy and I. And time stopped again.
The ranks were very thin at this point. Beccy was now staying at the National Museums apartments with the majority of what was left of the faculty, she left later that day when she was feeling up to it. I was at the hotel with Matt and Steve, although I never saw either of them. I talked to my family, my 9 year old cousin, my mom, my girlfriend. Everything was well back home. The only news I got from the outside world was that DOMA had been struck down, and that Mandela was dying. Now I had access to phone calls and “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!”
I felt closer to the city from walking through it. I felt I had been getting to know it. I knew streets. Not by name, but by sight. Same with some of the buildings. Some of the people were part of the scenery. I didn’t feel like some random American guy that couldn’t possibly know where I was going. Even though that’s still more or less exactly what I was.
I got “burritos” at the pub. Burritos! Now I felt at home. They weren’t burritos, though. That’s just what they were called. Really they were seared beef, onions and white beans wrapped in Enjera. Enjera is this kind of sourdough tasting pancake thing served with Ethiopian food. You tear bits off and grab the food food with it and eat it. No utensils.
So these things weren’t like burritos back home. But I appreciated the sentiment and they were absolutely amazing. So was the coke. The soda was still so good.
While I was up at the pub, I was still connected to the hotel wifi. Talking to people back home. The power went out. I loved it. I was in Nairobi. At a pub attached to a hotel that cost me $35 and was nicer than some I had spent $100 a night on back home. Getting the Kenyan take on burritos. And the power went out. Pitch black. Music off. A few minutes later it came back on. Only now the Bee Gees were playing. How awesome is that? I love the Bee Gees. Go ahead and judge. I don’t like you anyway.
It was here, this day, July 27th, that I really began deeply reflecting on my life back home. I didn’t know how I had changed, and I knew I was unable to be wholly aware of the changes until returning home. By definition, this trip had changed by perceptions of want, need, comfort and discomfort. I knew the changes would be profound. It scared the hell out of me, but I accepted it.
Africa was starting to feel less like home. I was alone again. I started listening to Lindsey Buckingham on my iPod again. Wesley knows who he is. Most people back home don’t. Go Your Own Way was on. That’s what I did. Was doing. Am still.
I felt like a loose tooth that didn’t want to come out yet. I wanted to be home but had such a trial to go through to get there and it scared me. I didn’t want the trip to end, but it already had. Every friend I had met had either headed home, or at least left the Hennessis. I had already begun to hear from these friends as they returned back to their lives.
And there I was. I felt like a ghost. Lingering as my world comes to an end, hoping to escape but incapable of doing anything but watching. And waiting. I didn’t want to be here, but didn’t want to leave. I wondered if I would ever see any of these people again.
Would I come up with ridiculous exercises, go running and listen to Maiden with Nolan? Would Katherine come by to see Russ? Would I see Blad and Temesgen in Addis Ababa? Would Beccy, Nolan and I go to Peru like we talked about? What of Marian?
It had become so painful to be here that it wasn’t worth the $320 I saved on the plane ticket by leaving on a Sunday instead of a Friday. I would much rather be at home, with my girlfriend, remembering this trip as it slipped into memory and the reality of it fading like a dream.
I was absolutely terrified of my life back home.
I walked again through the city. This time to the National Museums apartments. Where Kat, Beccy and whoever else were staying. I walked to far. Wound up downtown. Took a few pictures. You wouldn’t know it was Nairobi if the signs in the pictures didn’t tell you it was. Even though the traffic is so far beyond horrible, the roads were far better than in Providence. That didn’t make me homesick. I hate driving. I hate the roads back home. New England roads are miserable from the constantly fluctuating weather and onslaught of nature. Depending on what radio station you’re listening to, they’ll tell you it’s the politicians, too.
At the apartments we watched some of Hunger Games. Some cooking show that Beccy is into. I don’t remember what it was but it doesn’t matter. Walked back to the museum with Beccy and Kat. Then back to the Hennessis. Or maybe someone got a cab and I went with them. This part is fuzzy and I don’t have much written about what was actually done, only what I felt.
At just after midnight on the morning of the 28th I wrote about how in 24 hours, I will have been in the sky for an hour. My next entry is at 9:51 pm. My luggage was checked.
I left from the National Museums apartments. Packed my bag in the back of Steve’s truck. The same one I had first left Nairobi in. Said bye to Matt and Steve at the pub. Matt bought me a coke. Steve told me how nice it was getting to know me. He seemed skeptical of a student’s ability to not be an idiot when we first left Nairobi. He now took most of us seriously, myself included. And he never stopped appreciating me helping him out of that stream that day at Mugie. I said bye to Beccy, which was sad. She was the last student left. Other than me.
I saw Duncan again. He was a spoiled kid, but still a kid. He had done some upsetting things. Taken more than his share of food. Stolen sodas from the camp and bragged about it. But he was also like 13 and I had had some very mature conversations with him about fitness and training. There’s hope for him.
I saw Brian–his father–and Grandpa Dave–his grandfather. Shook their hands and climbed into Dave Braun’s truck with Dave, Kat, Kevin and Steve.
I stood in the wrong line, had to get to a different terminal. That’s fine. My bags went through the scanny thing. I took a bit longer. When I got through, a security guard pointed to an unattended bag on the floor. Asked if it was mine. I told him yes, it was, but that I got held up a few minutes and it must have found its way there from people moving it around. He told me that it was fine, but could I come with him a moment. He picked up the bag.
He set it down, and asked me to open up one of the side compartments. I did. There was a clothesline, some clothespins and a few rocks. And some kinda modern vertebrae from maybe a water buffalo or something. No big deal. He asked me to open the other side pocket.
Now I was getting worried. Clearly he thought something was up. Nothing in that pouch either. He asked me to open the main compartment. That sucked, because it was so tightly packed I thought it would explode when I opened it. I was careful not to use that wording.
He asked if I was mountain climbing. I told him I was at Turkana, for an archaeological field school. I kept taking stuff out. Finally he saw what he was looking for. He pointed with whatever it was he was holding (a flashlight, maybe?), asked what it was. It was a package of batteries. I told him, and picked it up.
He started laughing, loudly. He told me that on the x-ray scanner, they looked just like bullets. He told me he considered me arrested, and held them up to the woman working the scanner, calling out that it was batteries. I clapped him on the back and laughed. I told him I had no idea why he had stopped me, but that now I understood.
I was used to the air here now. The thickness of it wasn’t strange. It was just how it was. It was the air I had been breathing for two months. I checked my bags. Got into the terminal.
I saw Steve again, at the Java House in the terminal. My last stop at Java House. Maybe ever. I hope not. I’m tempted to franchise the place in the states. I love it there.
Sitting where I was. In the terminal. I thought how it was the last seat in a building in Kenya that I would sit in, for at least a year.
So many thousands of miles now separated me from everyone I care about. This trip was over, and in leaving I would actually be going closer to most of those I had met–minus the Kenyans, Ethiopians and South Africans. I resolved then to myself that I would visit them all at some point. There were some who I would bike to see starting the day I returned.
I was currently half a planet away from those I had met. The trip home bringing me closer counted for a lot. It was a halfway point. I didn’t (and still don’t) know when I will see all of them again. But the solidarity and connectedness is something I felt we all shared and there is a commitment in me to meet with them and keep in touch.
My life will settle and resume, though in a new form. I have always planned trips along with the end of chapters in my life. They were all smaller trips. Marking things like getting myself back to school, or managing debt or anxiety. This trip felt like the end of a volume, not a chapter. Stepping off the plan in Boston would be the start of a new life. I would grieve for the end of this summer, but I share a bond with those who were there and nothing can change that.
And with that, I boarded the plane and headed home.
I thought I was clever before I left, scheduling a 13-hour layover in London. I would see Westminster Abbey and visit the man whose caricature is tattooed to my left shoulder. I would see the tower of London. Maybe Abbey Road.
But I wasn’t clever. I was naive. I was at Heathrow Airport again. Exhausted. Done experiencing. I just wanted to be home. I was not interested in this place. Not now. I checked to see if there were any earlier flights.
I reflected on what I had put myself through…
My very first flight was alone and international.
I didn’t realize the enormity of that until meeting with a good friend of mine the day before I left. She asked how long the flight was. And then if I was able to sleep on planes. I told her that I probably could. Her face showed how stunned she was, “You’ve never flown before!?” “I’ve never had a reason…” “Huh…well…you’ll be able to sleep.”
Her face showed how stunned she was for a while after that.
7/29/2013 7:08 London, 9:08 Nairobi, 2:08 Home
My first flight was alone and international.
I walked alone from my hotel in Hounslow back to the airport.
I had successfully managed to get myself–historically never finishing anything–to Kenya.
I got my backs.
I was picked up by Dave Braun and I believe Kelley. Zach was there.
We got to the Hennessis. I woke Silindo. We shared a room those first nights. His name was the first thing I wrote in this journal. The next morning we ate, and headed to the museum.
I remember Ohio Dave and Zach at the bird exhibit. Nolan at the cultural exhibits.
I can’t remember who was taking pictures of the zebra and other animals on display.
I remember that cat I saw asleep on the roof that day. I hung out with that cat just the day before. Grey and white. Very squaky.
I am so tired.
I camped for 6 weeks in the Kenyan bush.
Made friends with a tribal boy. He is left-handed, too.
I saw the sunset of Lake Turkana. And I have seen it rise.
I have seen the Milky Way, a white smudge across the sky. I have seen elephants and giraffes, ostriches and hippos.
I have become the person I have always felt I am.
No, I am not done with my education. Yes, I still seek a better mastery of everything in my life. But I am this person.
I have proven it to others and myself by doing it. Others who do it for a living. And I have lived a lifetime in six weeks.
My life in Rhode Island had faded to memory. At times I had difficulty remembering everything. Close friends. Pets. Even my girlfriend, strange as that may seem.
As the days grew less, the lifetime became the dream.
In what I think of as the start of my waking, I remembered all.
The love, the friends, the job. The problems I have with all of it.
And the intense beauty and profound catharsis of this trip began to be that of memory.
Now it is.
I am sitting at Heathrow.
I saw the sun begin to rise at 30,000 feet above France that morning. I am done spending money.
I am done with the experience. Darwin isn’t going anywhere. I have done it. I have lived it.
And I loved every minute of it as deeply as it is possible for me to love. I did not need to go into the city, though I considered it.
The memories, the love, the beauty of this trip along with the grief at its end are still too fresh.
To have drowned my emotion with a flood of tourism and hasty consumption is to cheapen it.
I want to savor every moment of this summer. Of the blistering heat, the lack of bathing, the redundant food, the long treks, the learning, discoveries, smiles, laughs and every other bit that has not already been marred by the fallibility of memory.
I want to savor it all.
I am in no rush.
I am tired.
I have lived utter beauty for a lifetime.
I am ready to be home.
And I have nothing left to prove.
I bounced around the airport. Looking for different places to sit, to hide. To just blend in without having to interact. It isn’t an issue somewhere like Heathrow. They have trains to get around that airport. I found this area, I think it was one that Steve had told me about. There were flat, backless seats about the size of a love seat. And round papasan chairs. I situated one under a staircase. I was in and out of it all day. I would nap, write, wish that I could connect to the internet (I had already long used my free daily Heathrow wifi and used some of the last of my money to waste 45 minutes on their horrible internet computers. I would walk around and explore.
Did you know that Heathrow Airport has a TARDIS?
My anxiety for back home, for the people I had left. For ambiguous friendships growing closer. For my girlfriend. For my cat who I had heard was sick. For all of the changes that would come. And my anxiety for it all pounded in my throat.
I got some frozen yogurt. Salted caramel with almond slices. I thought ahead in the day. I arrived at Heathrow at 6am, boarding was at about 7pm. At that time it was 2pm. I was bored. And reflective.
In using my free wifi earlier, I found that–almost as if on cue–Marian had emailed me on facebook. She was on her long journey home as well. Keeping true to the peculiar knack she has for just knowing when to show up, she did. I was comforted in hearing from a friend. Glad to already be in touch with one of the closest I had made over the summer. But also saddened to be reminded of the finality of it.
I made sure that my girlfriend was awake. I would be home soon. Soon. Soon wasn’t relative anymore. Soon was soon. Soon as in hours. Not soon as in a month. Or a couple of weeks. Or in three days. Soon as in a few hours from now. Not even 12. I would arrive in Boston, so close to home. My girlfriend’s face the first thing I would focus on. Her voice the first thing I would hear. I was under 20 minutes from finding out what gate I would fly out of. I wanted to be done. To start negotiating the issues I left at home. Those that were waiting on this trip and those that had inevitably come up since leaving. I left with so many worries but headed home with only hope.
I read through my journal. I could see my transition. From insecure and worried. Alone and isolated. To coming out of my shell, finding my confidence there. Meeting and getting to know people. Having jokes with them. Becoming comfortable and hopeful. I came to know details of these peoples lives. These people who turned up in pictures from the last few days before I knew them.
So soon I would see my girlfriend. Hear her voice. Hold and kiss her. Go home. See my pets. Call my family. Shower in my own bathroom. And sleep in my own bed. And wake up the next morning in my own life.
6:50pm-London. 20 minutes to boarding.
There are few things more beautiful to me than the rain.
As I sit, with minutes until I board,
The rain has started.
This could not have been more perfect.