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.