Friday, August 28, 2015

Kilimanjaro Day 2 (morning): August 9, 2015


The 6:30am wake-up call was Samweli coming to our tents with hot water and a choice of coffee or tea. Turns out Jen is a coffee drinker – one of those people who needs coffee to get started in the morning. I opted for tea, but after the first morning found that the black tea was too strong for my stomach without any food so I just had a cup of hot water. After we got dressed, he came with a basin of hot water for a morning face and hand wash. It was very hot water – it must have been just boiled. We often had to wait for the morning washing water to cool down before we could even use it. Not that I'm complaining!

Kilimanjaro coffee!

Kilimanjaro tea!

We were called to the mess tent for breakfast, and had the pleasure of seeing a blue monkey in a tree above us!

It's hard to see, but there's a monkey in that tree.

We had a big, delicious, hot breakfast. I love eating big breakfasts, so this was right up my alley. Jen is more of a smaller-meal-eat-more-often kind of eater, so she often couldn’t quite finish the big breakfasts but then snacked on a Clif bar mid-morning. This breakfast consisted of hot “porridge” (thin but delicious oatmeal), fresh fruit and avocado, and bread which I slathered with peanut butter and honey. And then the rest of the hot breakfast came: fried eggs and sausage! I was nearly full already, but still happily ate some.

We packed up our duffel bags in our tents and got ourselves ready – day packs on, gaiters on, water bottles (for Jen) and Camelback (for me) full of water, walking poles in hands – and started off. After we left with Simon and Noel, the porters went into our tents and packed our duffels in the waterproof sacks, folded up our sleeping pads, took down our tents, and were on their way. Of course, they always passed us and managed to have everything set up at the next camp by the time we got there.

Typical scenery on today's path
Porters passing us, going uphill, balancing big bags on their heads. Simon was so patient with us as we slowly plodded along.

We saw several other hiking groups and sometimes leapfrogged with them; we would pass them, then take a break, they would pass us, then take a break. Today the vegetation changed from forest to montane shrubs with lots of pretty wildflowers and Protea. We saw fresh springs and a few birds. Today we also got introduced to narrow trails with rocky parts which we sometimes had to clamber to get over. Kili is not just a simple walk up a tall mountain, it turns out.

wildflowers

green plants

rainforest vegetation

a forest stream

Much of the morning’s conversation during the hike centered on religion, since Simon and Noel had deduced that Jen and I study human evolution. Jen grew up Christian but is now an atheist, and I grew up Jewish (and still am, culturally, but I’m an atheist as well), which very much interested Simon. I told him how much it costs to join a synagogue in the area where I live and he was taken aback. We talked about how some preachers in Africa are corrupt, and then had an interesting conversation about why Africa is “not rich”, in his words. Simon talked about corruption and the propensity of Africans (yes, this is a gross generalization) to “stay idle” and not want to work hard. I talked about education and how I thought this was a big barrier to development. Simon told me that kids are taught in Kiswahili in primary (elementary) school, with English being just one subject, but that secondary (high) school is taught in English. I said that seemed like a strange system to me, and he said that many kids really struggle in high school simply because they are not proficient in English. He has two kids, a 7 year old girl and a 3 year old boy, and he said they are both in school taught in English.

Mid-morning we had our packed snacks. Jen is a big Clif bar fan, so that was her main snack of choice for the trip; I had some packets of mixed nuts, raisins, and M&Ms (two students of my husband’s from his first summer teaching session had given him a big Costco box of these packets which I happily packed to take with me, one for each day), chocolate mint protein bars, and turkey jerky. Those last two are some of my staple snacks at home, too. I only ended up eating the jerky once, but the other snacks were very handy. 

Hiking into the clouds!

Jen's loving it!

Cool plants

Jen took lots of photos

This is a not-so-good picture of a cool flower called an elephant's trunk, which Simon says only lives here.

More pretty wildflowers

Here come Jen and Noel!
I can't seem to post more photos at the moment, so I'm going to stop here and continue tomorrow...


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kilimanjaro Day 1: August 8, 2015


(I'm writing these posts after the climb is done, hence the date discrepancy between the post title and the published date.)

I climbed Kilimanjaro with my friend and colleague Jen. Jen recently finished her dissertation (I was on her PhD committee) and is one of a handful of people out there that basically does the same kind of research I do. She also just got a tenure track job in San Diego, so she was heading back home to pack her things and move after the climb. Jen and I get along very well, and we both know a decent amount of Kiswahili (sometimes just called Swahili), the main language of Tanzania and Kenya from spending several years doing research there. I thought we would make great climb companions, and we did. We had invited several other friends and colleagues we knew to join us, but in the end it was just us.

Jen and I started the day with a delicious breakfast at our hotel at 7:00am – thankfully, it came faster than dinner had the night before, which was more on the “Africa time” end of the spectrum. Still, it was delicious, and clearly prepared from scratch.

We were picked up by a Land Rover which had a few of our climb crew in it. We didn’t know them yet, but I had met our chief guide, Simon, the night before when he came to the hotel to give me a basic briefing about the climb and double check on and collect cash for the gear Jen and I were renting. I rented a summit jacket, hiking poles, gaiters, a head lamp, a sleeping bag, down mittens for the summit day, and a balaclava. Jen rented a summit jacket and walking poles – although there was some confusion initially and they thought she was renting a headlamp rather than hiking poles. That morning we made a quick stop at the Team Kilimanjaro office to pick up hiking poles for Jen – thankfully, because they proved to be an indispensable part of our gear. The other person Simon introduced us to right away was Gideon, who he called our “stomach engineer” – the camp cook.

The before picture at the hotel - the crew is loading gear on top of the the Land Rover behind us.
The Londorossi Gate sign
Porters waiting to have their bags weighed at Londorossi Gate
Packing stuff into waterproof sacks - Noel is in front with the bandanna on, 
our "stomach engineer" (cook) Gideon is in the red shirt, 
and Simon is in back with his ever-present yellow fleece jacket
Loading the bags on top of the vehicle to head towards the Lemosho Gate
Lemosho Gate
#Kilimanjaroselfie - I'm ready to go!

It was about a 2 hour drive to the Londorossi gate where we registered. That consisted of writing down in a notebook the date, our names, what country we lived in, what our professions were, our passport numbers, how many people were in our climbing party, how many days we were climbing, what company we were climbing with, and what our guide’s name was. We had to do this at a few of the camps on the way. As we were driving, we were passing scenes of the Africa I have come to know and love: rural farms (shambas in Kiswahili), bars, shops selling food or basic household items, women carrying enormous loads in baskets or buckets on their heads or firewood on their backs, goats roaming the streets, etc. I breathed in the slightly damp air, and it felt like I was back home somehow.

At the gate, we hung out for a while while the porters weighed their bags. Contrary to some accounts, there are strict limits to the amount that porters can carry up the mountain. A few different groups of porters were weighing their bags, so we had a few minutes to explore. There were some black and white colobus monkeys around, which Jen was excited about, because they are her favorite monkeys and she hadn’t seen them in the wild yet. She got some good photos. Then we drove another 45 minutes or so to the Lemosho gate, where we would start our climb. There are several routes you can take to climb Kili and ours was the Lemosho route, but with a slight variation unique to our climbing company. 

After eating a packed lunch of a boiled egg, a piece of fried chicken, a sandwich with veggies, a box of juice, and a mini chocolate bar, we were off! Well, first Simon helped Jen put on her gaiters. She hadn’t used them before. By the end of the trip, she was a pro at putting them on herself.

5 star gaiter service from Simon!

We each carried a day pack with water, snacks, sunscreen, a med kit, a waterproof jacket and pants in case it rained, and a few other things. The porters carried our duffel bags inside of waterproof sacks. On their heads. And they passed us, all the time. So did the porters of other groups. These guys are amazingly strong and agile. Simon mentioned that he thought my day pack looked too heavy and joked that I didn’t need to keep makeup in it. I laughed too, and told him I don’t even wear makeup at home.


Jen had a very nice SLR camera which she carried in a separate camera bag. I had debated bringing my nice SLR as well, but decided I didn’t want to carry the extra weight, and that it would be a hassle to take it out of my pack every time I wanted to take a picture. Jen had to do that, and sometimes Simon and Noel – who were the only crew members that consistently hiked with us – would get a bit exasperated by Jen having to stop and take our her camera whenever she wanted to take a picture (but in a good-natured way). Simon nicknamed her “the photographer”, as well as “Jennifer Lopez”. I brought a very old point and shoot camera which promptly died; although the battery was fully charged, it took about 2 pictures before turning off. So I ended up using my iPhone to take all my photos. It worked well for me; I had it in my pants pocket and could whip it out to take a quick photo anytime. I brought a portable charger for it, so I recharged it every night.

We hiked about 2 hours to our first camp, in thick forest. The Lemosho start point is 2424m (7953ft) in elevation, and we gained over 400m (1312ft) during that hike. At first we both felt pretty winded, but we found a good pace and got into a walking groove. I told Simon that I had come right from a prehistory conference in Dar es Salaam, and that I had gotten to see some of the original early human fossils from Tanzania. He asked if I believed that these were the earliest men, and I said yes, that they were some of our ancestors and cousins. Once he realized that Jen was also a scientist, he asked us how Carbon 14 dating works. We told him we’d let him know once we got to camp and had more time to explain it – which Jen did. Noel, our assistant guide, said he’d heard a recent report that elephant ivory had been sourced by DNA, so we explained how it was actually strontium isotopes in teeth which tell you where an animal grew up, essentially.

Simon was great at making sure we started off slow – pole pole in Kiswahili (pronounced poll-ay poll-ay), which means slowly slowly. (Confusingly, a single pole means sorry.) We’d both heard from others who had climbed Kili that you should go slower than you think you need to. He reminded us often to drink our water, or “white wine” as he jokingly called it.

When we got to our home for the night, Forest Camp (elevation 2821m/9255ft), one of the crew (the “waiter”, Samweli) gave us each a small plastic basin of hot water to wash off our face and hands. In the gear list and informatioin we received in advance, it explained that we wouldn't be able to bathe during the climb, but that we would get some hot water for washing. We both had small pack towels to dry off afterwards. This became the post-hike routine. The camp was a little chilly and damp, but overall a pretty nice temperature. 

Forest camp
Our tents with our plastic hot water basins;
the mess tent is in the background on the right


 

Equipment shout-out, day 1: my small (travel) bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. Having a squeeze soap turned out to be ideal. Jen brought a small bar of soap which she promptly dropped in the dirt, and shared my squeeze soap after that.

Then we were called to the mess tent – where we ate our meals – for a snack of popcorn and hot water for tea (or coffee or hot chocolate). Yes! Popcorn and tea became the post-washing routine. The popcorn was a great way to get salt back into our systems, and the hot water insured that we continued to rehydrate.

 Popcorn snack inside the mess tent!
Yum.
The crew had set up our tents and put our duffel bags in them, along with a nice sleeping pad – not a thin camping pad, but a thick one. This turned out to be fantastic when it got really cold to help insulate us from the freezing ground. Jen and I opted to have separate tents, which we had to pay a little extra for (it’s usually two people to a tent), so we could have some personal space to spread out. I think that was a very good idea. Before we got settled into our tents, Simon pointed out our private “bathroom”, which was a port-a-potty shaped tent with a wooden toilet seat with a bucket underneath it with water treated with something that smelled like a chemical cleaner. The camps all had public bathrooms in small wooden buildings so at first I thought this was a bit of an unnecessary luxury, but when your tent is far away from the public bathroom and it’s really cold at night, having one close by was really nice.
This was the only camp where we saw “safari ants”, which form amazing lines up and down the paths and forest floor. Simon always told us to move quickly when we saw them. One managed to crawl up my pants and bite me on the thigh… and that was the last act that ant did in its life. It stung a little bit, but the pain went away quickly.

Soon after that, we were called to the mess tent for dinner. The mess tent was quite big; I think a group of 6-8 could have fit inside comfortably. We had opted for 3 hot meals a day; there’s a cheaper option which includes only one hot meal a day (dinner). We had camping chairs and a folding table with a checkered Maasai blanket as a tablecloth. The table was decked out with condiments like salt, ketchup, hot sauce, margarine, honey, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. Dinner that night started with fresh, homemade cucumber soup flavored with ginger. A soup made out of cucumbers? You’re skeptical. It was AMAZING! It was our favorite soup the entire trip. We also got boiled potatoes and “sauce”, as Samweli always called it; this time it was meat stew. Dessert was slices of avocados. We were happy campers.

We could hear laughing from the tent where the crew was prepping dinner; these guys clearly enjoy the hard work they do and get along well. We also saw other groups at the campsite. You won’t be shocked to know that I was looking forward to meeting other people on the hike (extrovert much?) but it turned out that we hardly socialized with anyone else. By the time we got to each camp, washed our faces and hands, and had our popcorn snack, we were pretty exhausted and wanted to just crawl into our tents to get organized and rest.

After dinner we got ready for bed. We realized that most of the crew slept in the big mess tent after we were done with dinner, and a few others (I think the rest) slept in the kitchen prep tent. We had 13 people in our crew altogether: Simon, the chief guide; Noel, the assistant guide; Gideon, the cook; Samweli, the waiter; and the other guys were all basically porters. According to the Team Kilimanjaro website, our staff was the following - Chief Kilimanjaro Guide: Simon Kaaya, Assistant Guide: Noel Ngoye, Cook: Gideon Daud, Senior Porters: Samwe Balaba & Jacob David, Toilet Porter: Eliakimu David, Crew: Shabani Jumanne, Samora Mathias, Charles Ibrahim, Frank Singo, Fadhili Mollel & Melickzedek Adini.

Simon told us that tomorrow would be a fairly long day, with a 5.5-6 hour hike, and that we would be woken up at 6:30 am. We got settled and both read books before falling asleep.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Heading to the top of the world tomorrow!

This is it - the Kilimanjaro climb starts tomorrow! Here's a picture of the top of the mountain poking through the clouds as I was flying from Dar es Salaam to Arusha. Yes, that's the plane wing in the foreground.



I'm as ready as I ever will be to climb a mountain that you can see from a plane, with a local (Maasai) nickname of "house of god" (ngaje ngae). They also call it  “the white mountain” (ol doinyo naibor), and I'm glad I'm climbing it when there's still snow at the top, because there are predictions that all the snow will melt in the next few decades. I guess this light reading I brought with me for the trip is appropriate, then.



The flight was uneventful, but I was amused by a few things in the in-flight magazine. I flew fastjet, a newish airline that flies regionally in eastern and southern Africa. I learned that they have all of three planes, and that you can pre-book your fish buckets to save a little money. Yes, really.



Well, now I know for next time am in dire need of a bucket of fish.

I was pretty happy that this was one of the billboards that greeted me at the airport, because I have waited a LONG time to climb this mountain!



I spent the afternoon at my hotel in Arusha: repacking, doing email, charging my digital camera and iPhone batteries, and even getting a chance to have a quick chat with my awesome husband. It was good to hear his voice. He's been solo parenting since I left, but this Sunday his mom and cousin are coming to stay for about 2 weeks. He emails me daily updates of how he and Toby are doing, sprinkled with delightful anecdotes of day-to-day happiness (mostly). Did I mention that he's awesome?

Our Kilimanjaro guide came for a briefing tonight, which was... brief. He wanted to see if I had any questions, collect money for the gear I am renting from them (things like a sleeping bag, warm jacket for the summit, and hiking poles), and let me know what time he'd come to pick us up after breakfast tomorrow. The friend and colleague I'm climbing with, Jen, didn't arrived in time from Kenya for the briefing, but got in soon afterwards. Jen recently finished her PhD in Anthropoology - she's the first person whose dissertation committee I've been on! - and we basically do exactly the same research so I figure if we run out of other things to talk about, which if you know me at all you know is highly unlikely, we can just talk about awesome research ideas. Jen just finished up a long field season in western Kenya and came straight here from there  - she was literally at the field site this morning! She was very happy to have a good meal and is looking forward to a good sleep, as am I.

This will probably be my last post until I get back, since I won't have my laptop with me. I think this is the longest I will have gone without my laptop since... my honeymoon, in 2009? Yikes. I'll post photos to Facebook if/when I can, though.

If you want, you can watch our Kilimanjaro climb progress on the TK Google Map page (you can click on the link and another page will open up - here is the actual map). Our climbing group will be called JEPA x  2, 8th – 14th August 2015, and will be posted on the map when we arrive at the entry gate to the mountain tomorrow. Our guide will also post updates on the Team Kilimanjaro blog when he can.

Wish me luck!!


Thursday, August 6, 2015

The EAAPP conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

I've spent the last few days at the EAAPP conference at the National Museum and House of Culture in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which has been great. It's the 10th year that the association has been in existence, and the 5th biennial conference. I serve as the Secretary of the organization and I help organize the conference every year.

Since one of the aims of the organization is to bring African and non-African scholars together to exchange research findings and to have discussions about cultural heritage management and other museum-related issues, I am especially excited that there are about twice as many talks with African first authors as non-African first authors. There are also many young African students and scholars here. The conference was covered by a local TV channel, and many of us were surprised to see ourselves on Tanzanian TV two nights ago!

Another thing I like about this conference is that like my all-time favorite annual conference, the Paleoanthropology Society, this is a small conference where there is only a single session going on at once. Everyone watches the talks together, and there is usually time for questions as well as conversations among the conference attendees during the tea breaks and lunch. I had a great conversation yesterday with a long-time friend, Jason, who just happens to be on the team that discovered the oldest stone tools in the world (led by his wife and my friend Sonia), in Kenya, which made the cover of Nature magazine a few months ago.


I've known Jason since 2002 when he was a student on the summer field school that I used to teach on in northern Kenya while I was a graduate student. Actually, his wife Sonia leads the team (go young female researchers leading major field projects!), and we're long-time friends too, having met around then when we were both collecting our dissertation data at the National Museums of Kenya. My husband and I went to their wedding, stayed at Sonia's flat in Paris, and they've stayed at our house. Yeah, it's a small paleoanthropological world, and they're such good people. :)

The conversation I had was over casts of those oldest stone tools, which Jason brought with him to show the conference attendees. It was pretty exciting to get to hold those casts!


Many of the other people enjoyed holding and talking about these tools. While people were at the table where the tools were I was sitting next to a graduate student from GWU, Katie, who studies stone tools, and watching her interpret the behavior of the early humans who made the tools by looking at the way the tools were broken (flaked) was really cool. I think she should put "Paleolithic mind reader" on her business card, because that's pretty much what she was doing.

During Jason's presentation at the conference, on behalf of the team, which included information and photos from their most recent field season which they finished about a week ago, he joked that "if anyone wants to see the geological context for themselves, we invite you to come pickaxe through the 3 meters of sediment that overlies the archaeological horizon... because we could sure use the help!".

There's been a thread of conversations about a paradigm shift our field has been going through. For quite a while, stone tool making and using - a key behavioral innovation - as well as meat-eating has been tied with the origin of our genus (Homo), going back about 2.5 million years. This year, that paradigm has essentially been broken. Fossils of our genus have been found dating back to 2.8 million years were announced, and the oldest stone tools I mentioned previously now date to 3.3 million years ago. In 2010, 3.4 million year old animal fossils with butchery marks were published, and despite some criticism, the evidence looks pretty good to me. Now we can ask some really interesting questions: were stone tools made and used by our earlier ancestors, the australopithecines? What were they doing with the tools (besides cutting up animals to eat their meat) - were they using them to break open nuts like chimpanzees do, or to process plants? How important and frequent were these behaviors in the past? Why does it seem to appear ephemerally, and then is not seen again for 800,000 years? Is this an artifact (pun intended) of the geological record; are sediments of these ages not preserved? Have people just not been looking for stone tools and butchered bones in these sediments? In the case of the oldest stone tools, they look different than what has been known as the previously known earliest stone tools; did people simply not know what to look for? Paging the graduate students - these new discoveries lead to new research questions and there's lots of work to be done!

And by the way, these three research teams are ALL led by relatively young scholars - at least the first authors of the publications were all young scholars, at around my career stage. (Hm, now that I'm 40, am I still young?) Who are keen to have conversations with each other and often to collaborate.

Today I gave the final presentation at the conference - not on my scientific research, but about an education and outreach effort we did last summer: showcasing Kenya's prehistory (and my boss's ~30 year partnership with the National Museums of Kenya; I have "only" been doing research in Kenya for 18 years) on the US National Mall during the Smithsonian's 2014 Folklife Festival.

We had a tour of the new museum storage facilities after lunch today. Here's a picture of my Tanzanian friend and colleague Jackson Njau -  whom I shared an adviser, field site, and even a house my first year of grad school -  talking about the collections. Behind him is Agness, the paleontology collections manager. Jackson is now a faculty member at Indiana University, runs his own research projects in Tanzania, and helped with funding and advice when the museum was ready to update their collections storage facilities.



I think the biggest thrill for all of us, though, was getting to go into the "strong room" where the original early human fossils are kept. Tanzania has a wealth of early human fossil material, including the type specimens (the first fossils a species is named from) of Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis from the famous site of Olduvai Gorge - where I did part of my dissertation research. Not on the early human fossils, though, on the fossil bones of animals the early humans ate. Here Amandus, one of the collections staff at the museum, is showing us these fossils.




This skull is OH5, the type specimen of Paranthropus boisei.


Here's me, feeling pretty excited about being in a room with so many famous fossils!


The other great thing we got to see was Tanzanian fossils in Tanzania. Why is that great, you ask? Well, Mary and Louis Leakey excavated thousands of fossils from Olduvai Gorge starting in the 1930s (and continuing for several decades), but brought them all to Kenya - to the National Museums of Nairobi, where they were based. It wasn't until 2012 that these fossils were repatriated to Tanzania. Having the fossils back at the National Museum of Tanzania, well-curated, is a real source of pride for the Tanzanians.



The last part of the conference was a discussion about development of prehistoric resources and capacity building and opportunities and obstacles for junior African scholars, which was very stimulating. We talked about what our association can do towards these efforts. I always come away from these conferences with many new research ideas, which I am jotting down in my notebook. I saw several long-time friends and colleagues, which is always fun, but also met several African students and scholars with whom I intend to communicate, interact, and even conduct research. It's invigorating! Though tiring; we always end up dancing the night away to African rhythms on the second night of the conference which is a conference dinner at a good local restaurant.

Tomorrow I fly to Arusha (Tanzania), where I hunker down, tidy up some work loose ends, and then I start my Kilimanjaro climb on Saturday morning!

Monday, August 3, 2015

My 40th birthday

Things I did on my 40th birthday:

1. Wake up in a city in Africa I've never been to before, Dar es Salaam, with a view of the Indian ocean from my hotel room (it's there in the background at the top right of the photo... really!)



2. Exercise - still going strong with P90X3 baby!

3. Eat a big, beautiful breakfast that included Tanzanian tea, local mangoes, and coconut milk - right out of the coconut!

4. Take a walk on the beach on the Indian Ocean

5. Work on my conference presentation for the East African Association for Paleoanthropology and Paleontology (I'm on the clock, after all)

6. Hang out with lots of awesome scientists - and get a champagne toast by my fabulous conference organizer colleagues at the conference reception!

7. Drink a Kilimanjaro beer

Other than being able to hug my boys, it doesn't get better than this. So far, my fourth decade is pretty darn awesome.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Back in the travel saddle


I'm baaaaaaack! I never quite feel the reality of leaving on a trip like this one until I get in the taxi to go to the airport. For many years I would spend about three months each summer in Africa, mostly Kenya in the last decade or so, so this three week trip sort of pales in comparison. But since my son Toby was born in September 2011, this is the longest trip I will have taken - and I miss him so much already. Once, when someone asked me what changed for me most since I became a parent, without thinking too in depth I instinctively said "I have a new appreciation for my own mortality". I love traveling, but it takes on a gravity now that it never did before. It also makes me realize how brave my parents were to cheer me on as I adventured for years on a continent neither of them had ever been to, sometimes - back in the Paleolithic without good cell phone or internet connections - for weeks at a time, in places without quick access to medical care should I have needed it. Thanks for trusting and believing in me, Mom and Dad, and for never showing how scared you must have been. :)

This will be a unique trip to East Africa for me in a few ways. First, I'm not actually excavating - no fieldwork for me this time around. First, I'll be attending a conference I helped organize in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I'm the Secretary of the East African Association for Paleoanthropology and Paleontology (EAAPP: https://www.facebook.com/pages/East-African-Association-of-Paleoanthropology-and-Paleontology/167166840038050?fref=ts), a small organization started 10 years ago dedicated to bringing together African and non-African scholars in Africa to exchange research results and to have discussions about cultural heritage management and other museum-related issues. We've been working hard on the conference planning, as we always do - me from the US, handling all email communications, organizing the abstracts, and working on the program. I'm honored to be the only non-African on the Executive Committee, and I feel like it's part of my service to my discipline and all the hospitality I've been afforded doing my research in that region. It's also my first time in Dar, and I'm excited to see it.

What will not be unique is to celebrate a birthday in Africa, though - tomorrow! I've had most of my adult birthdays here, at famed sites such as Koobi Fora and Olorgesailie, Kenya (I turned 30 at the latter site with the most delicious chocolate cake that was ever made in a field "oven") and Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. This year I am turning 40; it's a major milestone. I will be missing my family dearly, but I am also hoping to walk along the beach at the Indian Ocean in celebration, and I'm happy to be in a place I feel is my home away from home, and really, the original home of us all. Oh, and the opening reception for the conference is tomorrow, so I've told my colleagues that everyone will be celebrating my birthday there!

But back to unique... I usually get myself a birthday present, but this year, it's the biggest one ever. After talking about it and saving up for years, I'm going to be climing Mount Kilimanjaro! After the conference I'll fly to Arusha, and the next day my friend and colleague Jen and I will start our 7 day trek up the highest freestanding mountain in the world. We were hoping to go with a larger group, but everyone else who was interested was not able to join us. I will especially be missing my best friend Cindy; we've been talking about doing this climb together ever since we met in graduate school - in Tanzania in fact, doing fieldwork - in 1998. I'm not a technical climber, but I do like long walks. In fact, the last time I was in Africa doing long walks was when I was 6-7 months pregnant with Toby! He hasn't quite been here in person, yet, despite my Kenyan colleagues constant requests for me to bring him with me - but I figure he spent some of his formative months here, in utero. I'm excited to bring him when he gets older and when I have a trip that he'll enjoy, like on an excavation, or doing fieldwork in a modern game reserve. I haven't had the time to go on the long hikes I should have to train, but I've been walking at home on my treadmill, on the highest incline, with my hiking boots on. That's basically the same thing, right?

After Kilimanjaro, I'll fly to Nairobi to spend about a week at the National Museums of Kenya, studying fossils from Olorgesailie that date back to about a million years ago. It's a project I've been working on for a long time; so far I have over 50,000 fossils in my database! I can get a lot done in a week, and I'm looking forward to diving in.

By the time I post this, it will be late evening in Dar, and I should be asleep. For now, it's time to head to my gate for my flight from Amsterdam to Dar. But not before I say a happy birthday to my amazing husband, whose birthday is the day before mine (and maybe a few years earlier, too). Among all the other things he does for our family, he is flying parent solo for these three weeks while I'm here. Well, mostly solo - his mom and cousin will come to visit for about two weeks, so I know Toby will be surrounded by lots of love while I'm gone.