Saturday, August 29, 2009

camp life - cooking with fire, er, charcoal

I'm going to do a few ex-post-arriving-home-o posts, since I finally have the time to sit down and do them! This first one will basically be showing a few photos of camp - two of the tent situated furthest from camp in a lovely spot on a cliff:

and two some of our crew getting ready to go out to the excavations.

You might wonder how we see at night in this electricity-free camp: we use kerosene lamps for light.

Well, it's not entirely accurate that we don't have electricity. We have a great "solar system" consisting of solar panels,

connected to a car battery,

connected to a power inverter, connected to a plug strip into which we can plug computers, cell phones, etc.

And what about cooking? Well, we mostly use charcoal. It comes in big sacks which you can see off to the left, and we have a big pile of it under the kitchen "tent" (basically a canvas awning for shade) that the cooks use whenever they need it.

The charcoal can be put in a jiko, a stove of sorts, and a pot can be placed on top of it.

Sometimes, we use a BBQ-er, too.

The food gets stored both inside and outside of two big canvas tents.

In one of them, we have the ultimate field food luxury: a LPG (gas) powered refrigerator! There is nothing like a cold glass of water after a hot morning in the field... or a cold beer at night.

Another project I worked on had a good solution to the problem of warm beer - wet a sock, put the beer in the sock, hang the sock in a windy place, and voila. It's like air conditioning. Or something. :D

Here's one of our cooks surveying his domain.

Did I mention that it's hot over there? Here's a view of our main working and eating area - I wish you could feel how much the shade of that awning cools things off.

It was so hot and try that this year some of the local Maasai's dogs hung around our camp. This one decided the shade of my tent was a nice place to catch a break from the heat.

Here's a sneak peek inside my tent - quite luxurious, roomy, with a table/desk, chair, and mattress!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Basic Bush Bathing 101

This will be a short-winded post, since I found out I'm leaving a day early for a conference I'm attending in Tanzania - I leave early tomorrow morning! It was a busy day and I'm pretty tired. But I promised to show you where I bathe in the field.

Yesterday we went over the bush bathroom. In the view here, you can see the shower just beyond it, nestled in a tree:

Here's a closer view,

and an even closer one, where you can see one of my favorite camping gear inventions: the solar shower.

How does it work? Basically, it's a big, thick plastic bag you fill with water and leave out in the sun to heat up all day.

Then you hoist it into a tree and hang it over a branch.

Here you can see the bag, hose and spouty-thing that the water comes out of. (I told you I'm tired, I'm getting a little inarticulate!)

Inside the shower area -- which is similar to the bush toilet in that it's basically some wooden stakes with muslin wrapped around it -- there's a slatted wooden shelf to stand on, so you don't have to stand in the dirt, which becomes mud when it gets wet. Even with flip-flops on, it would be messy, defeating the purpose of getting clean.

You pull down on the little plastic shower spouty-thing, and voila, water comes out!

There's even a little drainage area on the ground where the water tends to collect.

Since the bags only hold about 4 gallons of water, the basic bush bathing procedure goes like this:
1. Bring towel and bathing accessories into shower stall.
2. Hang towel over muslin, making sure it doesn't fall into the dirt.
3. Pull spouty thing open so water flows out. Get self wet.
4. Push spouty thing closed to stop water flow. Soap up.
5. Open spouty thing. Rinse.
6. Repeat with shampoo, conditioner, etc.
7. Try to walk back to your tent with your flip-flops on, carefully, so you don't get yourself instantly covered with dust again.

There's nothing like a warm shower at the end of a long hot day, washing off all the dust, feeling the cool breeze, watching the open sky start to turn dark as the sun sets and the first stars of the Milky Way start to twinkle (yes, folks, you can see the Milky Way from camp_...

Since I'm going to Tanzania for a conference tomorrow it'll be several days until I do another post -- but I will do a few more starting about a week from now. Tune back in to see more of camp life, and have a great week!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

But... where do you go to the bathroom out there?!?


This is one of the most common questions I get, so I decided to let you know all about our bush bathroom!

I go to the bathroom in a long drop "choo" (Swahili for toilet, rhymes with "yo", not "you"). When you enter in the "front door",

You can see it's a big hole dug in the sand, with a toilet seat on it, surrounded by a wooden frame wrapped with muslin on all sides and open on the top.

We make sure there's plenty of toilet paper, and insect spray - which you can see tucked away behind a post on the right - for the flies that invariably like to hang out there.

To discourage the flies, we also scoop sand from these buckets and throw it down into the hole to cover the, uh, stuff.

Unfortunately, whoever designed this toilet seat - with the ring part made of wood, but the rest made of metal - didn't think about the possibility that one might needi to sit on the seat in the middle of a hot day. The metal heats up, and it's QUITE unpleasant.

A very important issue when you need to use the bush bathroom is to make sure no one's in there. Since the canvas is a little see-through, walking up and knocking isn't really an option. So we have the choo flag system - an orange bandana on the top of a stick. When you first walk into the choo, the flag is down.

To let others know you're in there, you put the flag up, and it can be seen from anywhere in camp.

Seems simple, right? Well the problem is this: if you walk out of the choo and forget to put the flag DOWN, everyone still thinks someone's in there. Sometimes there's a line of people waiting to go, and no one's actually inside! Leaving the choo flag up can be a real social snafu. We've tried to construct the flag so that you HAVE TO put it down in order to leave the choo, insuring no one is hanging around nearby hopping from one foot to the other, but it's never worked. However, I'm thrilled to report that this year one of the graduate students working at the site designed an elaborate solution to this perpetual problem, and apparently there was not *one* *single* *instance* of the choo flag being left up. My hats off to you, DL.

It works like this: when you put the choo flag up, another thick branch automatically gets lowered in front of the door (you can see it in this picture).

When you put the flag down, the branch moves back up, sort of like a lever. If you don't put the flag back down, you can't actually walk out the door without walking into the branch.

Genius. :)

There's some anti-bacterial hand gel to use when you're done (it's on the left),

or you can wash your hands back at your tent, since we all have a jerrycan of water and a plastic basin in front of our tents...

...for hand washing, face washing, hair washing... a tantalizing introduction to tomorrow's post, all you ever wanted to know about bathing in the bush but were afraid to ask. :) Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

.... and she's back, in Kenya.


Despite being adventurous and priding myself on liking to try new things, I am also creature of habit. I have spent at least a part of every summer in Africa since 1996, but I've never been to South America or Australia (not yet!). When I travel to Africa, I sometimes exercise my habits... I eat in the same place in the Amsterdam airport every year en route to Nairobi from somewhere on the east coast (Washington DC these days), and I always have the same thing. Tomato soup - the eternal soup of the day, made with chunks of tomatoes; a baguette sandwich with brie and lettuce; and a sparkling water. Is it comforting? I think so. Is there nothing else gastronomically appealing in the entirety of Schipol? Maybe not. Well, besides the edibles in the shops which aren't really meant to be eaten in the airport - the variety of cheeses, the sausage stuffed to the gills with what I imagine to be some kind of salty meaty goodness, the impressive array of chocolates.

I had two unusual experiences on my flight from Amsterdam this year. The first was that I struck up a conversation with the person standing in line in back of me waiting to go through our second security screening right before going to the gate (which by the way infuriates me - I bought this bottle of water IN THE AIRPORT, why can't I take it on the plane??). Now, anyone who knows me will laugh at the idea that this is unusual, since talking to strangers is not something I shy away from. It was the topic of conversation that was unusual: international feline transport, of the pet cat variety. This American woman had just accepted a job as the principal of a school in Kisumu (western Kenya), and she was bringing her cat with her since she plans to be there for a few years. I brought a cat back from Kenya 5 years ago, and it's likely that as I type these very words, my husband is playing with her even though he's allergic to her - because he's a saint and because she's pretty irresistable (in my totally unbiased opinion). But I digress. This woman and I immediately bonded over discussions of the awfulness of the idea of quarantine - not necessary going either direction; the fact that having a pet in Kenya, especially a cat, is a bit unusual; and the worry about how a cat might be faring in the cargo hold. After we landed in Nairobi I saw her asking where she could go get her kitty, and I hope they are both safe and sound and settling in now.

The other unusual experience was that not only did I run into one person I knew on the flight, I ran into three. This is because I happened to be arriving in Kenya the night before a prehistory conference. The first person I ran into was in the same graduate school as me but is several years old, so we only overlapped for a year or two, if I recall correctly. During my first year at Rutgers, he and I played on the intramural inner tube water polo team together - a sport I was most horrendous at, but since the Anthropology Department was fielding (pooling?) a team called the Naked Apes and needed folks to join, I thought, why not? The woman he's married to, who got her PhD in History, was on the same team; she was quite good. The second is a distinguished professor from a university in Washington DC who I see fairly frequently at home, though he's been on sabbatical this year so I've seen very little of him lately. The third is now teaching in upstate NY, but he applied for a job at Rutgers when I was a first year student.

My arrival in Kenya was also unusual this year. Normally I am the first one of our research project to arrive - I arrive to a pile of everyone's suitcases and other implements of storage in a furnished apartment we rent every year. So I do the unpacking, the buying of bottled water (I even brush my teeth with bottled water now, after about a decade of annual bouts of giardia I'm done with that *thank you very much*), the provisioning of the kitchen with other basic supplies. But this year, due to work duties at home, I arrived near the end of the field season. This time, I was greeted in the apartment by two thoroughly enjoyable research colleagues who I've worked with in Kenya for the past 4 years (and who live in Washington DC and are married to each other), and a student from UConn who was in the field with us last summer. The female half of the married couple is a fabulous cook, and she'd made me a lovely dinner of lamb chops, fresh green beans and peas, and roasted potatoes. A much more satisfying and welcoming arrival than an empty flat with only the occasional lizard on the wall as a companion.

There aren't any photos to accompany this entry, even though I've been dying to take photos of the ever-amusing street signs and billboards in Nairobi. It just feels strange taking pictures from the passenger seat of a car when you're trying to act and feel like a local. But tomorrow I'll try to post some photos of 'a day in the life' of our field camp, in southern Kenya, in the Great Rift Valley. It will undoubtedly be a hectic day since it's the last day of work before we break camp and head back to Nairobi on Thursday.