Kenya field course is over. The days flew by really fast, so here I am again back in Chicago. It was an amazing experience and I am packed full of lovely memories and new friends!
During the last days of our stay, we were busy with our projects having no time to blog at all. Still I will write down some of my random memories in this last blog post, things that I wanted to blog but had no time to do it.
My project was about Acacia Tree Ants, a specie of ants that lives in Acacia Trees. The ants live in a symbiotic relationship with the tree – the tree provides them food and shelter (it creates them spherical like structures, called domiciles) and they provide protection to the tree. My partner in this project was Colin (he had the original idea to study those ants) so every day we went into the filed counting and studying ants. And please remember: Ants DO BITE and yes it hurts!
The Ol Pejeta
The Ol Pejeta was an arms dealers ranch with a big fancy house in the middle. Now it is a conservancy for animals and the house is being used as a Hotel. We went for an excursion there and it was full of animals. We saw Elephants, Giraffes, African Buffalos, Chimps and Baboons! Highlight of the day was seeing two Cheetahs and three White Rhinos! We also visited Baraka (which means “The blessed one” in Swahili), a blind Black Rhino and took some nice pictures and also fed him!
We went to Naynuki (the closest town near Mpala Research Center) to withdraw money and buy souvenirs! We went to the local market, where everything was completely crazy! The sellers were always trying to attract us to buy from them, saying stuff like: “You are my best customer today”, “I will make you the best prize, because I like you the most”, etc. The bargains were tough and amuzing! Some of us were really good at it, dropping the prices from 3.000 to 500 Shillingsor even less, while some others payed much more than they should! It was funny, because there were people that bought the same thing with a totally different price! Money was also not a problem in this market. You could pay with Euros, Dollars and some even accepted any foreign currency, while others wanted to trade with us stuff: Shoes, t-shirts, hats for anything you wanted in the shop. You could bargain anything in those shops!
One day before leaving, Andrew wanted to go fishing at the river. Ann, Albert, Xingli, Khairi, Ian, Colin and me decided to join him. We went at the other camp site of the MRC, which consists of tents and is by the river. While Ann and Andrew fished, we light up a fire and enjoyed the nice weather and the sunset. Ann and Andrew joined us after a while, without any catch. It was fun though!
The last day
We still needed some data collecting for our project so we went into the field first thing in the morning. Cailtin, Andrew, Khairi, Habiba, Albert and Maria joined me and Colin, since their projects were over. We needed some help and they really helped us a lot. During our drive back, we stopped at every chance to watch elephants, zebras and giraffes for the last time!
In the afternoon we had a beer party at a rock were we could see the sunset. Dan drove us there and the view was amazing! We took lot’s of pictures and everyone was happy and smiling because the course went fine and the projects were finished on time. After the dinner we also had a group of traditional dancers of the local tribe. They singed and danced and it was pretty cool!
The staff at MRC is amazing. Always helpful and smiling, trying to solve every problem you have in any possible way.
I would like to personally thank:
The faculty: Tanya, Dan, Ian for their efforts to bring us to Kenya
Margaret – The Director
Mike – The Ranch Manager
Julius – The Head of Security
George – The IT Manager
Lawrence – Head of the kitchen
David – From the kitchen
Frank and Alex – Our roommates !
The other researchers that work there
All the stuff that works at MRC
After having breakfast we have been informed that we will not do any field trips today, but have lectures and discuss about our projects. The whole morning, Tanya, Dan and Ian gave us really interesting lectures, afterwards we ate and then we sat at the table and each one of us proposed the projects we are interested in. We had a long constructive discussion that fueled us up for thirst of beer! At about 6.00 pm we want to Dan’s house, the “Jenga” and the party began! We had beers, music and different kinds of chips! After some beers, the dance come so there was some salsa dancing and a lot of fun! It was a nice break that relaxed us all.
We went to bed at about 23.00 pm and after inspecting (as usual) the bed and the surroundings of the bed (scorpions and tarantulas can be found in these area) I laid into my bed that was covered by the mosquito net. Right about when I was ready to switch off the flashlight, I saw a black spot inside of the mosquito net exactly over my head. I focused to see what that was and I trembled of terror: It was a huge spider, that looked really really dangerous. After the experience with the wasp, I did not wanted to take any risks at all! I jumped out of the bed and thought of ways to kill the insect. In the meantime, because of my agitation, Alex (one of the Kenyan roommates) woke up and I explained him my tragic and dangerous situation! He immediately jumped out of the bed and helped me out! After a coordinated attack on the creature, we managed to take it out, so I finally could rest without worries! I double checked my head mosquito net and the bed before actually sleeping.
Today Dan wanted to drive us more north so we can see sheeps and cattails. The reason was to study the social behavior and the interaction between the different species. We drove almost 1 hour and we finally reached a ranch with some sheeps. On our way we saw elephants and a big group of giraffes – about 25. The shepherd was good and let us take some pictures of him and he also brought the herd closer so we can study it. Locals are really kind and friendly in these area. They are always willing to help and greet you with a big smile when they see you, even if they don’t know you. After the sheeps, we went on a big rock and we climbed again and enjoyed the view from up. Andrew found the scull of a dead cow that was in pretty good condition and we took some nice pictures with it!
On our way back, we spotted a herd of camels and again we took some nice shots with the shepherd. The shepherd had a metal spear and he showed us how he throws it. In our way back we also saw Masai natives, that were really cool. They had huge piercings in their ears and their clothes were full of colors. We went back to the camp at around 2.00 pm to have lunch and while we were eating Julius (the head of security) came to inform us that some lions were spotted killing a camel. Dan and Tanya immediately recruited us and we buckled up in the next 20 minutes. Everyone was full of excitement about the opportunity to see lions. We drove about 30 minutes and even the sight of elephants, zebras and giraffes did not stopped us. We just wanted to get there as fast as possible. On our way, we saw about 10 vultures that informed us that we are getting close.
We arrived at the spot were some locals were expecting us. Tanya’s car crew was relocated in a open truck that could penetrate into the vegetation. We immediately began the lion chase and after 3 minutes we spotted the dead camel that was surrounded of 1 male lion and 2 female lions. Everyone was so excited but as soon as the lions saw us they run away. Some of us had the opportunity to see them for 5 seconds, but unfortunately the most of us did not had that chance. Dan gave instructions to circle the lions so we can get them back, so our truck began a crazy drive into the wild. The driver was totally driving off-road and because the truck was open, branches with gimps were flying around our heads. Habiba had her shirt ripped and got hit in the shoulder by a branch. The other had small scratches but no one really cared! We were chasing the lions with passion and enthusiasm! We chased them for about 10 minutes with the only result to push them further away instead of getting them back to the camel.
When the lions were completely lost from our view of field, we returned to the camel and strategically positioned ourselves hoping that the lions will come back to the pray. Three other vans with Cornell undergrads joined us and we waited … and waited … and waited … Dan gave us instructions not to go out of the van or speak and create noises, so our bodies were completely cramped! At some point the Cornell students spotted the lions behind a bush, but only one van of the 6 cars that were there was in the right angle to actually see them. We had to move the cars, but that scared the lions again so once more we had nothing… At about 7.00 pm we decided to leave, tired and disappointed but at least it was a cool experience! On the road, Tanya’s car was stuck again in sandy area and we had to get out of the car and figure something out. Dan came, as always, waving us to do nothing so he can evaluate the situation. The van seemed completely stuck but then Dan jumped in front of the wheel! 20 years of field experience is enough for impossible to seem possible! With an acrobat’s precision he drove the van out of the pit! Everyone cheered up and was happy and we could continue our way back.
We arrived at the camp at around 8.00 pm, being completely tired so we ate and hanged out for a while in the library to check e-mails and send updates to friends and relatives that we are still safe and sound.
While we were preparing for sleep, once more Khairi went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and came back pale white because there was a huge bug on the mirror and he did not noticed it. Frank (Kenyan student) took over to kill the bug, so Khairi went ahead to brush his teeth again.
Quotes of the day:
- “Dustin Dustin Dustin, this is Dan”
- “Dustin Dustin Dustin, do you copy?”
- “Are we waiting for the lions or are the lions waiting for us?”
While we were sitting in the library updating the blog, a flying creature disrupted our peaceful moment. Me and Tanya were the first that spotted the Unidentified Flying Object. It was a huge “Mega Poisonopterus”, was about 5 – 6 cm long and looked damn dangerous. Khairi joined the group assuring that it sure is dangerous and the biologists that were there (Ian, Jenny, Qing and Caitlin) were looking at us and laughing! Mayank was somewhere in between the two groups, trying to pursue himself that the animal was harmless, so he stayed calm. The biologists looked so uninterrupted and uninterested about the fact that this thing was flying right on top of our heads. Ian was completely absorbed in his laptop, so he probably did not noticed the event and at some point when someone (of the 3 of us) suggested to take it down, he raised his head, looked at the animal, informed us that is a wasp, totally harmless and we should definitely not kill it, because we are afraid of it! We kinda of felt bad about that because he was right and we tried to ignore it as much as we could. At some point, when the creature approached us dangerously, me and Tanya began running around to escape from it. The incident broke Ian’s silence, who decided to inspect the insect. While he was approaching it, he started mumbling:
- Oh my God, this is a HUGE bug! I think it can stink badly!
Initially I thought he was joking around, but when an insect expert speaks, his words must be heard! The biologists started feeling uncomfortable, Mayank joined the scared group and the creature was flying like a predator, searching for his next victim. At some point the wasp fall on the ground and started circling around and everyone started chasing the wasp to kill it. Ian was in the head of the hunt, holding a sheet of carton to defend himself. He tried one of those japanese techniques, where you are supposed to kill the fly with a sword. Instead of a sword he was holding a paper carton and instead of a fly we had a poisonous wasp. Mayank tried to capture the creature by throwing a piece of paper on top of it and throwing coins on in it. The trick did not worked, so Ian came into play: He slashed the wasp with the piece of paper into pieces! “Yeahhhh!” The wasp was dead, we were all happy and we continued our our businesses peacefully! Everything was so calm and nice and after about 15 minutes, Jenny opens up the door:
- Hey guys, there is a wasp outside.
Before finishing the sentence, the wasp evaded into the room, seeking revenge for it’s BFF.
There was a moment of silence…
And then panic came! Everyone – even the biologists – were running around the room, while the wasp was gazing at the next victim. While the wasp was chasing us, it got caught in Tanya’s hair, who went completely crazy – and she was absolutely right – and started shouting, screaming and running away. The wasp was still stuck there, so in her panic, she grabbed the wasp with her bare hands and throw it on the floor. Without any thought, Mayank took over, throwing a book on top of the wasp and Ian followed by punching, and hitting the book. It was a coordinated attempt in a complete anarchy, but it had a big success! The wasp was dead and Tanya was trying to calm down. After she calmed down and the adrenaline stopped pumping in her veins, she realized she was bitten by that creature! Her hand started swelling and we put some cortisone on it. Tanya did not know if she was allergic and Ian did not know how poisonous and dangerous the wasp was. Caitlin was googling and giving information about the side-effects of the bite and what Tanya should do, while Jenny went to wake up Dan. Eventually Tanya’s hand was swollen – A LOT – and we all went to bed. I double checked that night my bed for insects, wore my head mosquito net and fall immediately asleep.
Day 2 started at 7.30 am. We had a quick breakfast and left at 8.30 am. The trip to Mpala took us about 5 hours and while on the trip we saw no animals.
After we arrived we ate lunch and Tanya with Dan took us out with the cars for a quick overview of the area. We saw for the first time in Mpala and for me in my life hippos, elephants, giraffes and zebras! The ride was full of excitement and you could hear the whole time “woaw”-ings.
The night was the first night in here and after Tanya told me some nice stories about scorpions, spiders and insects, I went into my bed full of excitement. I maked sure my mosquito net was put and after that I took out my “special” mosquito net that I bought for my head! Super-fine and super-safe! The nets did their jobs well, I slept like a baby :p
Highlight of the day: Wasps killing a tarantula and carrying it in front of our eyes!!! The biologists were in a total nirvana, pulling their hear and I was kind of not so excited seeing a tarantula and huge insects at the same place!
The night was pretty silent, I had no problems sleeping. Fortunately the two layers of mosquito nets did their job well. We woke up at 7.00 am – that was rough – ate and then left at 9.00 am. We took a big ride around the MRC and see a lot of zebras, kudus, dik diks, giraffes, elephants, one oryx, Impalas, zebras and gazelles. Highlight of the day were two beetles rolling spherical fecal matter of an elephant to a hole that they were digging. One other interesting thing that we saw was an acacia, that was inhabited by a colony of ants. The acacia provided the ants spherical nests and the ants provided the acacia protection by attacking any herbivore trying to eat it. Dan also explained us how to differentiate between male and female zebras: “Just check the luchpack”. Before going back to the camp, Dan wanted to show us the areas were scientists enclose animals in order to study them. These areas are enclosed with electric wire so that the animals cannot go out. The idea behind this is that when the animals touch two wires they get a small shock. Dan was explaining us how and why the scientists do that and he was touching one wire all the time, pointing out that if you touch only one wire you do not get electrocuted. After that Dan drove us to another enclosed fenced, that had wires only up and down, so that zebras can pass and elephants and giraffes cannot. On the upper wire, small wires were hanging, the so called “Dingle Dungles”, as he explained. While he was explaining in a cool and calm matter, he touched them and got a small shock! It was another funny moment, but fortunately he was ok. After Dan’s shock, we came back at the camp at 1.30 pm, ate, rested for 10 minutes and then the lectures began! Initially Dan lectured, explaining how rain effects vegetation and vegetation effects the animals that are going to leave in an area. Tanya followed lecturing a small introduction in Computer Science for the Bio students, explaining what algorithms and graphs are. Again we rested for 10 minutes and left at around 5.00 pm for the second trip. Dan drove us to Clifford, that was a really beautiful rocky hill. In our way we had some really close elephant encounters and saw two warthogs. Ian’s car saw a big hippo and they tried to chase them. We lost radio contact with them, after having the following conversation with him:
- Papa one, we just saw a huge hippo.
- We are gonna – HOLY SHIT – chase him !
We arrived at Clifford just before dusk and Dan together with a local guy took us into a small hike up the Clifford rock. The hike was gradually converted into a rock climbing and after some effort we reached the top of the Clifford. The view there was amazing and we took some nice pictures. During the descend, we met a 13 old child, named James. The girls loved him and were talking with him all the way down, so I thought that he is the right age to start becoming a “player”. I proposed him to go tomorrow to the school and kiss the girl that he likes! The girls went completely crazy, telling him not to do that, but I think I changed his perspective of life with my advise. Will see.
We went back at the camp at 7.00 pm, ate dinner and we were expecting another 10 minute break and then lecture again and we felt so relieved when we were informed that we are free! I went for a shower, had an encounter with a huge wasp and then while I was relaxing in my bed, Khairi went in pale white, shouting that there is a huge bug in the toilet! He took our other roommate, Alex, to exterminate the bug and after 3 minutes Alex came back with a smile on his face. What Alex did not see and I did, was that the wasp followed him into the room. I shouted to him to look back and kill the flying object, he began spraying it and the insect went completely mad and started chasing him. Alex started shouting and spraying everything, I was ready to wear my mosquito net into my head and waited for the predator with my slippers on the hand. Eventually Alex managed to flank the creature with his shoe. Another adventure with a happy ending
The reason I am in Kenya right now, is a course named Computational Biology offered by University of Illinois at Chicago in collaboration with Princeton University and instructed by Tanya Berger-Wolf (UIC), Dan Rubenstein (Princeton) and Iain Couzin (Princeton). 5 Computer Science students from UIC and 11 Biology students from Princeton University are attending. We will spend most of the time at the Mpala Nature Conservancy studying animals and plants. The objective of this course for the CS students is to learn how to effectively collect data from a live environment (install and test the hardware, minimize the noise, etc.) and later on analyze and create a useful application that biologists can use. Also we will learn to write algorithm that describe populations and social behavior of animals.
Let’s get back to the trip now.
I left Athens yesterday, January 4 at 12.55PM with Qatar Airways. The flight had a 14 hours layover in Doha, capital of Qatar, so I also had the chance to visit Doha for some hours. In Doha, I met with Khairi Reda and we went to eat traditional Arabic food, but unfortunately I had no camera with me. When I ‘ll get the photos from Khairi, I will post them here.
We arrived in Nairobi on January 5 at 1.20PM. The Princeton group was arriving two hours after us, with the Emirates flight, so we chilled at the unique cafeteria the Airport had. We waited for the Princeton guys for one hour, trying to make sure we won’t miss them. The problem was that we had no phones or contact information for any of them, so we were concerned that if we miss them we are stuck at the airport. Except from Dan, we knew the other guys only from photos – that looked like prison photos – but fortunately we identified Dan and joined the group. Tanya and the rest were arriving at 9.00 pm so we went at a research center located at Nairobi to rest for the day.
The research center was about 30 minutes away from the airport, but because of the traffic jam, it took us about two hours. There were moments when the pedestrians were literally walking faster than us, so we had a good opportunity to take a lot of pictures.
The city of Nairobi seems quite dangerous. Maybe it was because we did not went into the center, but the route we followed was awkward. Most of the houses seemed old and shabby and there were houses build of aluminium foils or woods. People seemed poor and tired, but friendly and light-hearted. The arrival at the research center acknowledged the fact that outside was dangerous, because it was circled by a huge brick wall with gimped fence on the top.
At the entrance guards with guns were guarding. Inside the center, a new world arose. Everything was clean and neat and all the buildings were nice. It was like I was in a 4 star hotel with really nice gardens. The best thing that happened that day, was the super fast free internet access! We went to sleep quite early cause the next day we had a long way to the Mpala Research Center.
This semester I have registered to Computer Graphics I, Visualization and Visual Analytics and Virtual Reality classes. I will keep my blog updated about projects I am working on.