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.