Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Satisfying (or un?) Update

First, sorry for not upkeeping this bad boy for the last month and a half.  Just for a quick satisfaction, here are some facebook updates I made throughout that may give a quick, single idea representation of a bunch of the stuff I did (though not nearly all of it).  It’s kind of cool in the simplicity of jumbleness to see it all together.  Like it if you will, here’s a small summary of my Africa (through facebook):

Sept 2
let's see...

passport - check
boxing gloves - check
video camera - check
hammock - check.

yep, i think that's everything!
I'm not missing anything... am I?
Sept 15
First martial arts/cultural exchange meeting yesterday - Northern Shaolin. Went flippin sweet! Awesome to be sharing something I love and see other people eat it right up, too. Can't wait for Maasai styles on Sunday!
Sept 17
I hope that someday everyone can find a place, outside or within, where smiles crack your face until your lips go numb, where laughter vibrates your being deeper than your heart and you keep going past the understanding of why, and where awakened joy is the only emotion possible, the only thing that makes sense. And I hope that they may never lose it.
Oct 1
Giggling orphans, violent vomiting, non stop martial arts teaching, laughing with the first replenishing rains in months, Maasai jump-dancing, freestyle rapping, underworld and monty python, insightful homestay, on foot mere yards from Africa's leading death dealer, philosophical wonderings and discussions, finding time to read, back to writing about gryphons, Ngorongoro with hartebeest, cheetah, hyena, and lion, hiking alone, and smiling so much my teeth get covered in dust from the wind.

TIA - This is Africa.
Oct 5
Mantis kung fu, buying ebony i can't hope to carve at any level of skill, choosing to be a Lycan rather than a slave, nostalgic memories of the pa and uncles with 'Luke the Drifter', more deep discussions with peers, judo/wrestling/jiu jitsu on dirt, catholic mass in swahili, reading to kids, de-logging my eye, buying too, too much with money that's not mine, and daydreaming of smoothies, pancakes, cheeseburgers, juice, pasta and chicken, and maybe even a slice of apple pie.

This is Africa.
Oct 15
Done with tests, awesome mudded volleyball and soccer tournaments, learning Swahili from 12 years olds (and Emmanuel!) and now 'How to Train Your Dragon' before an amazing trip camping in the Serengeti. It's going to take a lot of discipline for me when I get there to not just readjust the pack on my shoulders, set my mouth determinedly and make some profound quote from either Lord of the Rings or Dumb and Dumber and then just begin walking without so much as a glance behind.

Oh yeah, TIA: This is Africa.

Oct 21
Serengeti dose of new animals everyday; playing on rocks like i was born to; staying up all night whispering about life with Bura the guard and rad mad Nepstad, waiting to ‘bash bash’ hyena; getting too adventurous for our own good and coming close to getting a ‘bash bash’ ourselves; smiling and laughing like we’re crazy because we are; stupidly high-fiving acacia branches just to say I did it; stumbling upon impala while walking for ele, then finding the ele thirty yards away and having to back up not too slowly and not realizing I was crossing the path between an infant and its mother; giving new meaning to the idea that ‘rules were made to be broken’; watching stars in a ground-sagging hammock and never seeing so many shooting in one night; and coming closer to understanding something greater every moment.

TIA. It’s still Africa.
Nov 8
Kenya: new country of experiences; swinging for the first time in years; Halloween and watermelon carving in Lake Nakuru; lion-barking and hyena-whooping at buffalo, having them almost ram the car or through the flimsy fence 20m away; almost flipping in the mud, more memories, spiking my heart harder than ele ever could; chasing baboons trying to steal my chess set and yelling ‘like you’re smart enough for that!’… and other choice words; playing catch with spears and impaling a friend in the rib; stalking giraffe out in the bush; (they were practice spears, geez, settle!); bossed around by 13 year-old Maasai boys like I was born into it and having to curb my annoyance repeatedly; boxing for the first time in months, nailing a 1-3-6-block-block-roll-4-3-3-slip-slip-2-3 combo harder and harder, seeing that spark ignite in others’ eyes as they feel contact from the mitt on their glove; playing soccer in an infinite cloud of dust; and greeted every morning by snow-capped Kili in the distance, yet knowing that’s only the smallest of things on my horizon.

TIA. And you know it.

Nov 20

Washing dishes at night and dancing to the beat of all the bugs crawling on me that have sprouted out of nowhere since the rains came; experiencing the hope and perseverance of HIV/AIDS women who refuse to succumb to despair; actually feeling my muscles get SORE from real boxing and muay thai with Rainer; reading a fantasy novel for the first time in a year (Drizzt!); starting DR - tracking animals on foot with badass KWS guards with huge guns and getting compared to “Bruce Lee, the best martial ‘arts’ (not 'ist')”; taking naps under acacia while ‘recording’ zebra behavior; flushing hyena out of the bush 30m ahead, and later twin bat-eared foxes; getting circled by mixed herds of galloping and prancing ungulates; eating so many sandwiches that peanut butter clogs my jelly-filled veins (seriously, had 12 slices of bread with PBJ the other day); developing patience and calluses on my tongue for how much I’ve been ‘biting it’ in tight-nit living; and keeping a thought in mind from a piece of paper in my pocket reading:
Stop complaining,
Look around,
You’re in Africa.

TIA, where clocks can't exist.

Dec 7

Analyzing so much data and writing one research paper, rough draft and final, that really encompassed four in a week; takedowns, throws, and grappling with a whole group of people so hard and long that the dirt, sweat, tears and blood made us all look like African Highlanders (minus blue paint); reading an old western novel that’s just as entertaining as the movies (people get shot for ANYTHING) and deciding I really like the term ‘knight of the green cloth’; building up my RAP for the whole group as a ‘sweet martial arts video of me’ and then showing my ‘single ladies’ dance video instead; [there wasn’t really blood, don’t worry... no tears either (I think)]; watching and analyzing so many old MMA fights, especially GSP; getting pumped for London (possible training with Roger Gracie!), Germany (TJ and Raech!), and Paris (um…cigarettes, berets, and turtlenecks? yay.); [in the novel, that is]; awesome presentation of data to the Kenyan community and lots of controversial subjects in conservation; and only three more amazing days left to say:

TIA – This is Africa.

Well, there ya go!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Martial Arts: It’s Not What You Do; It’s How You Live

            I had to do my first RAP (reflection, announcements, and presentation) on the 3rd after dinner.  My reflection went a little like this:

       “So tonight I want to talk a little bit about time and experiences, and how one of those doesn’t always help us to appreciate the other.  The older I’ve gotten, and I’m sure other people feel likewise, the faster time goes.  I suppose it’s just a mathematical fact of life that with more years under your belt, each individual day becomes less and less of a big part of the overall scheme.  But I mean, my sense of time has always been skewed, but here it definitely is worse – our classes aren’t normal Monday through Friday, I still haven’t found my watch – but then, I kind of like that.  Not having to constantly check some arbitrary, human-made number system that has to be corrected twice a year anyway because it wasn’t created right to begin with is a nice break.  It’s a nice breath away from our ever-busy western society that keeps us pushing on to goals we’re not sure if we truly want until we finally run out of time and just croak. 
       “But going with this time thing, the older I get the harder it is to keep track of every moment, to really feel everything constantly happening to me.  Here especially we’ve already had so many amazing experiences, from the simplest, everyday interactions to visiting awesome National Parks like Tarangire or Ngorongoro, places we’ve grown up loving and watching National Geographic videos of.  And yet these experiences fly over my head before I can always catch them, before I can really develop an appreciation for my luck.  So I just want to say, to kind of advise, and even more for myself, to try to pause multiple times a day and just take a breath and look around, totally aware of yourself and your environment, and smile because… (and here, at the request of a friend, I switched to Leonardo DeCaprio’s ‘Blood Diamond’ accent) TIA mates; this is Africa.”
            People seemed to like it.

            Then, for announcements – that’s everyone’s section, not just mine.  But it seems most nights I do have an announcement and in fact Whitney, the SAM, has developed the habit of looking to me first because it’s so expected for me to need to say something.  We’re trying to get a soccer and volleyball tournament set up so I told people to write their names down, and I also announced that there’d be a martial arts lesson the next day on ‘Northern Praying Mantis’.  After a few other people saying whatever, I got to do my presentation.

            I decided to teach them a form I made this summer for the girls I lived with this spring/summer and taught self-defense to.  With traditional kung fu, forms often have poems or sayings attached to their movements to both help students remember and to prevent technique theft.  A master could talk about a movement, saying something like ‘dragon exits cave’, and an outsider wouldn’t have a clue because that could mean anything, but the student would know immediately.  So, I wrote a ‘poem’ and made a short form that is a defense for a wrist grab.

“Lush land; plant sprouts and grows.
Moon rises; flower blooms.
Reaching roots, reach deep.”
            I said it a couple times, then acted out the motions, then had them stand up in a circle around me in the dining hall (the professors too – sometimes they try to get away with not participating) and we all said the poem together while doing the movements.  But it didn’t mean much to them at first – and this is the effect I love.  I had two classmates come up – Veronica and Chris (Chris is a great sport – he’s been my demonstration dummy for all martial arts lessons and we box together, and Veronica shows a keen interest for learning and picks things up well) – and I said, ‘Chris, grab Veronica’s wrist’.  Then I talked her through the form, and she did the movements, breaking out and defending herself.  There were a lot of ‘ohs!’ from the crowd and a few quiet ‘awesome’s or ‘sweet’s with approving head nods.  I told them to get with partners and practice for a couple minutes, and then when I brought them back to the middle I went over the physics and anatomy behind the form and why it worked the way it did.  It’s always funny how little people know about how their body functions.  “Some twenty pounds of pressure to break an elbow” and “the kick should stay low, aimed at the privates or shin or knee here, sliding down along it and removing the kneecap” brought some nasty faces and laughs.  I suppose I say things like that pretty calmly – it’s not something to get grossed out about anyway; it’s defense.  Then they wanted me to show it as well, so of course Chris had to grab me and I showed what it would kind of look like in a real situation, and they were definitely impressed with the speed in which I executed the grip break and strikes.

            The next day was the fourth Martial Arts Group lesson (the first was Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, then African stick fighting with Iraqw and Maasai tribes, and the third was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – all of them were super fun).  Tuesday’s Martial Arts lesson was fantastic.  It was Northern Praying Mantis this time and about 15 students came.  I made a mantis form that morning with some grab defenses, punch defenses, behind the back take down, and a sweep, incorporating mantis strikes, elbows, shin kicks, uppercuts, and I introduced them to Heel, Open T, Closed T, and Bagwa stances.  I think it worked well to give them a little piece of the form, show what it was meant to defend, and then have them practice, and then go back to the next piece of the form and repeat, building up until they had the whole form down and knew all the defenses for it.  Then at dinner I had four pairs go up and demonstrate the parts of the form they had learned for the rest of the students and staff here, and some got a little into it and Andrew and Rainer executed slightly-too-excited takedowns/sweeps on Lucy and Yash, their partners.  But no one was hurt and they laughed it off, and everyone else watching was impressed with the effectiveness of the techniques.

            Martial Arts has changed my life and will continue to develop who I am.  I’ll keep saying it because it is very true and I love it: teaching and sharing with people something I love so deeply, and seeing them react similarly to it brings me a lot of happiness.  I’ll explain the simplest thing about keeping an elbow at a certain angle on a strike, or what happens to your hips when you shift your foot slightly one way and how that little move can greatly increase the accuracy of a kick, and they get these little childish grins on their faces as their eyes light up and I laugh at them, because I see myself.  “This is so cool,” they say, still grinning and shaking their heads.  I love every moment of it, and people have asked me if I actually teach martial arts back home.  All I say is ‘informally’.  I’ve had a few people already tell me I should teach for real, make money or something and it makes me feel good when they compliment my teaching style and my understanding and passion for what I do.  But even as they say this I know I’m not qualified for formal teaching and I also have qualms about getting paid for something like that… I remember Aristotle said something wise about teaching, and I’m sure other philosophers have agreed and many people today may have also come to similar conclusions.  Knowledge isn’t really something that can be owned by just one person; is there any knowledge that you have that is yours alone, that no one else has had before you?  Your own memories and experiences are different, of course.  But actual knowledge and information – can you really put a piece of ownership on that, and thus a price?  And though we all need to make some sort of living in life (according to our culture that is attached to earning money and owning a nice home with a white picket fence and 2.5 children), I still feel that if you have something important that others don’t, it’s sort of your responsibility even to share it.  I especially feel that way with martial arts.  At the most basic level, it’s a great way to stay physically healthy, it’s tons of fun, it develops friendships and communities, and not only teaches people how to defend themselves, but gives them the confidence and understanding to carry themselves without fear of experiencing some of the negativity that is so prevalent in our world.  Confidence is the first line of defense.  But deeper than that: martial arts isn’t what you do, it’s how you live.  Next to family, my training in martial arts has probably been one of the most important things in developing who I am and helping me to see who I want to be and why.  The discipline, respect, determination, dedication, loyalty, self-control, benevolence, forgiveness, understanding, patience, and so many other hard to develop traits and deeper moralities that are associated with proper training are why I love to practice so much.  And because I love it so much and know how much it has done for me, I want to share that with other people – teach them how to defend themselves and give them other options for their personal development and understandings of how they might conduct their interactions with the world and lead their lives.

            Although I miss Kung Fu, and I miss Jiu Jitsu, and I miss having a six foot tall, hundred pound and barely broken-in hitting bag to go and beat on three times a week at school; and though I miss all the great people I train with, the friends and relatives that deal with my necessity to throw fake combos at them and then suck up a single leg; and though I miss going to Bdubs to watch MMA and am dreading hearing about GSP’s domination over Nick Diaz without actually seeing it, or not having fast enough internet to Youtube random techniques or watch old-school matches; and though I miss slicing my bokken and twirling my three section staff without bashing myself in the shins; and though I miss sharing with people back home all of this because I love to and they need it in their lives, I will never let that stop me from continuing to train, no matter where I am.  Everywhere there is the need to train, and here too I have great people who are keenly interested and great learners.  But even more than that, being exposed to the world more here in so many different ways than at home, seeing life from different perspectives and not only starting to understand those but developing an appreciation and even a desire to live similarly, and all of the problems, big and small, that will rise up anywhere but perhaps right now are having a larger impact on shaping me because of their different nature being in a different continent, among different people and new situations, are all keeping my training going strong in that much more important sphere of martial arts: not in the ‘what you do’, but in the ‘how you live’.

            Anything in life can be like a test, a sort of training.  No matter how you describe an experience – terrible, amazing, simple, boring, aggravating – there is always some aspect that can be taken and put into a positive light, be applied to your life and, if you choose, can help you be a better person.  When it comes to the development of character and deeper moralities, life is constantly pulling us uphill, even while time may be pushing our bodies the opposite way.  We’re never done growing as individuals and rather than acknowledging that fact of existence with a drawn out groan and thoughts of never-ending labor and exhaustion, we need to embrace it with arms wide and minds and spirits wider.  Because, unlike the natural and much more circular system of life that is our earth with all its mechanisms and animals and plants in their continuous cycles, humanity was long ago pulled from the simple balance of that functioning and given the chance for a much greater existence.  Rather than living out a predictable life – birth through development into adulthood, reproduction, aging and dying – to return our energy to the next line of beings like the simpler animals all around us, we instead have a responsibility to rise above our basic animalistic instincts and embrace those more powerful things, without abuse, that make us human.  Whether you want to attribute it to some divine mandate, to evolutionary luck, or to a synthesis of perspective on those two that has more credibility and understandable truth than either alone, you cannot but acknowledge the important responsibility that has been placed on our species.  Or perhaps you are thinking of this for the first time; still, the fact remains the same.  We have the potential to develop continuously into ever greater people, the power to do it, and thus the responsibility as well to use this correctly in bettering ourselves, helping each other, and safeguarding our world and all the lives therein.  So rather than a burden, our nature is a great gift, but one that, if we aren’t constantly careful, can be too easily misused.  

            Martial arts has helped me, and I would argue it can work for anyone else just as well, to not only see and begin to understand this path, but has instilled a desire to walk it, and is serving to constantly pull me along it, changing and growing toward that endless goal.  And it’s good it is endless because, after all, isn’t it the journey that matters so much more than the destination?  We cannot obsess over death, but rather focus more on our existence in this moment, on life and how we live it every day.  The future doesn’t exist but for our pathetically susceptible plans of tomorrow and ideas of what it will bring.  But the now is real, the now is what we have, and the now is when we have to choose what to do with life, whether it be shying away from ourselves or embracing wholeheartedly who we can be.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Fragility of Life and Some Doings to Make It Stronger

            I think I’d rather start with the bad news first instead of ending with something grave again.  Try to mix it up a little.  Last week on our way to Mtu wa Mbu for our traveling lecture, a town just at the bottom of the escarpment on the outskirts of LMNP, we passed a row of people on the side of the steep drop off.  Livingstone, our driver, slowed down and asked what was going on.  There was a bus stopped on the side and various motorcycles and a car or two.  We asked Livingstone what had happened and he simply said, “Accident.  Two people died.”
            We drove up further and saw a car, a nice blue BMW, smashed up at the bottom of the steep thirty foot drop off.  It made me think a little more about how crazy driving really is here and how lucky we’ve been with our SFS staff in avoiding the morons who speed up and pass around blind corners at cliffs or honk at herds of cattle and people, expecting them to move without touching their own brakes.  But more than that, it was a little wake up again to the fragility that is life.  In all its greatness, in all its potential, individual lives can still be so easily ended.
            And then, just this Monday night, Reggie, the main site manager at Moyo Hill who I taught Northern Shaolin Kung Fu to at my first martial arts lesson, and Rita, our Swahili teacher, were in an accident that took the lives of two pedestrians.  I gave one hopeful, guiding thought for those killed, but then all I thought about were the families affected and Reggie and Rita; after all, aren’t they the ones alive, the ones who have to deal with what’s happened?  The victims, wherever they are, are gone and detached from the situation now.  But it’s been a strange feeling thinking about what it would be like to be responsible for taking the life of another in such an accident, whether it was partially your fault or completely uncontrollable.  We weren’t given much information on it, but I thought about if alcohol was involved.  I hope it wasn’t, and though it easily may not have been, my recent past experiences with people and drinking have disallowed me to give the benefit of the doubt in such situations – I’ve seen too much abuse of something that, up until the last year or two of my life, only ever resulted in fun for people or only minor negative occurrences.  That’s something that I’ve come to realize about my exposure to alcohol.  My family isn’t afraid to drink and has a good time with it; they have done so all my life.  And for the most part it always remains light and responsible enough.  I used to think it weird if I heard of someone with the appropriate age choosing not to drink – why would you put yourself out of the way of this fun that I grew up knowing?  But I’ve started to be exposed, experientially rather than just statistically, to the darker side of what people can do to themselves and each other under the control of alcohol.
            But I hope it wasn’t involved in this situation.  And I wonder how my view will be on drinking once my year of abstaining is up ( when I turn 21, I mean).

            On to a little brighter side… Even as life is fragile, the nurturing of it is so rewarding.

            We went to a secondary school for a traveling lecture in Kilimatembo Tuesday morning.  It was very interesting to see how involved they were in environmental conservation: they had an extensive tree nursery, a rainwater tank collecting from a gutter system, and had recently redesigned their stove system to use less firewood.  We may be able to go back to plant a tree with a student and exchange emails and whatnot.
            The interesting thing about starting this environmental awareness in the school is that the kids will then grow up with the knowledge and bring it into their lives and jobs and even back to their families and parents.  Also, allowing local people to experience and develop an appreciation for the earth is really the only way to effectively manage conservation.  Policies can’t just come from high up – people are detached, uninformed, and don’t care.  But for example, if I’m able to plant a tree with one of these students, and our guest lecturer said the same thing, then both the student and I will care much more about what happens to that tree and thus will take better care of it and ensure that it gets watered and what not.  When people are allowed a personal attachment and responsibility for nature, they are much more likely to rise to the challenge because they have something more at stake.
            In the afternoon our Swahili test was canceled because our professor wasn’t feeling well.  We found out why last night, but I’ll get to that at the end of this post.  Instead, we went to the primary school a five minute walk down the road from our Moyo Hill camp.  Students here brought children’s books to donate, and we were going to divide into groups to play and read, focusing on English usage.  As we walked by the buildings toward the head mistress’s office, faces clogged the windows and door frames as the kids in their little worn and patched red sweaters waved and shouted ‘jambo’ at us.  My little friend Emmanuel was at the entrance of one door and gave me a big high five and an arrogant chin ‘sup’, but I just laughed at him and he broke into his more fitting childish smile.
            When we came to the office not all thirty-two of us could fit inside, and I waited outside but some of my friends called my name and told me to come in, saying, ‘She wants to see you’.  I remembered instantly that Mama Paulina, one of the women from my homestay last week who had such a beautiful home and was so inviting.  When she saw me she gave a huge smile and called, “Luka!  Karibu.  Habari?”  I said, “Shikamoo,” the proper greeting for an older person (I give you my respect) and she replied with anod and ‘Marahaba’ (I accept your respect).  We did the sweet handshake, bro hold, back to handshake that people love here as a greeting.  It was cool to talk with her again and felt good that she not only remembered me so easily but actually requested to see me.
            We went into the classroom then with all our books.  It brought back memories that weren’t mine: dirty chalkboards, uneven dirt floor, bare walls and wooden desk-benches that were worn smooth from the years with so many marks and little bits missing.  Emmanuel was sitting in the front row with a handful of other kids on the same little bench and he tried to push a classmate off the bench to make room for me to sit, but I just laughed and pointed to the back of the classroom where there was an empty bench.  Emmanuel got up quick and ran after me.  Two other boys followed excitedly.  I introduced myself to them, “Jina langu ni Luke,” (Name-mine is Luke), and they introduced themselves as Masai and Johnson, and a fourth joined later named Franki.  When Masai didn’t get my name right on the first try, Emmanuel was quick to correct him.  They crowded in around me, Emmanuel on my right, Johnson on my left, Masai and Franki on the other bench in front facing backward.  Johnson had his hand on my shoulder, leaning over, Franki and Masai were leaning in tight, and Emmanuel had his thighs pressed so tight against mine on the bench I thought he was dying of cold.  I felt like we were conspiring over some secret plan, me and my little munchkins.  But it wasn’t a plan, it was a little square copy of “The Three Little Pigs”.  I opened the book and started reading to them, a little slow and enunciating while trying to watch my Minnesotan accent that has been made oh-so-obvious to me by my ever polite and patient classmates here, but the boys quickly took over and began reading in turns while I helped them sound words out.
            During the story I gave Swahili translations for the simplest words I could remember and they would nod seriously and then continue.  Sometimes they read in pairs, other times they paid no attention to the story while one read alone.  I kept feeling a little fly-like presence on my arm and finally glanced down to see Emmanuel staring at my arm hair, absolutely mesmerized, slowly brushing his tiny fingers across the hairs.  The others would sneak rubs in too and then giggle at me and I’d just smile.  When it came to “not by the hair on my chinny chin chin!” I grabbed my chin as I said it and they laughed and then wouldn’t leave my beard alone, pulling at it roughly – most men here don’t have facial hair, or if they do it’s just a small mustache.  The four were crowded around me so close I had a hard time even moving.  But it was so amazing to see their enthusiasm to show me how well they could read or to show me how well they could try.  English is such a terrible language.  I especially remember Masai struggling over the ‘ight’ like ‘light’ and ‘night’.  In Swahili, things are spelled exactly as they sound.  ‘Corner’ is ‘Kona’, ‘twiga’ is pronounced ‘twiga’, along with every other word in their language.  It’s impressive that these kids could read as much as they did.
            But then Emmanuel started getting antsy (he wasn’t as good of a reader as the other boys and was more easily distracted) and moved from my arm hair to poking me in the neck and then when I’d look at him he’d whistle and look away, then squeeze the muscle in my arm and widen his eyes and I’d just laugh; they had no idea that I’m one of the smaller people in the US as far as muscle mass goes.  In Tanzania, I always do a double take if I see a man with even a hint of a chest or large arms beneath his shirt.  I haven’t seen any fat people here, either.  Emmanuel kept saying ‘Twende, Twende – let’s go’, pointing outside to where another group of kids was playing soccer.  ‘Tunacheza mpira’ – let’s play soccer.  Emmanuel was the first boy to play with us when we went out to the field so many times our first week, and he showed up out of nowhere within minutes every time we went to play.  It was no surprise that now he wanted to go play again.  But I stayed with Masai who was very into the reading and the other three went out.  After another book or two Masai and I joined them, and I found Emmanuel running around with Rainer’s (another student here) camera.  I said ‘picha na wewe na mimi’ (Picture, you and me) and Emmanuel handed the camera reluctantly to his friend.  Then I said, ‘Emmanuel – kung fu!’ and put my hands up characteristically toward the camera.  He did too, but then turned to me and put his fist into my cheek, laughing.  I played along and made a ridiculous face.  I was wearing my Karate uniform t-shirt to top it off, and a minute later a boy walked by and said, ‘ah! Ninja warrior!’ and smiled, giving me the thumbs up.
            It was such a great feeling to read with the kids.  I don’t remember the last time I sat down with someone so young and had such an experience with them.  But it was so amazing to be a part of the source of their excitement, to witness the enthusiasm they had for learning, especially on those old benches, on that uneven dirt, in that musty classroom.
            I can’t wait to be an uncle.  You get all the fun stuff but you don’t have to deal with the shit (literally: ‘oh such a cute kid! Wait… uh… yeah, it pooped.  Here you go, Nick’).
            I also started working on my gryphons again.  I love writing (as you can tell by my ridiculously long blogs) and maybe I’ll finish a story or two someday.  Here’s an excerpt from what I’ve written in the last few days:
They waited, unmoving and uncomfortable in their positions.  Finally, when nothing else had stirred but the wind and no life was seen except a few bats out later than the rest zipping silently through the air, dark silhouettes against the sky, Yakpura felt a light touch on his hand.
       He rose slightly from his crouch, Pali beside him, and they picked their way quietly across the bare dirt and stone.  Their heads swiveled constantly.  Reaching their bedrolls, they bent down together, still looking up at the sky, and reached down for their Windstaffs.  Something felt off to Yakpura, and he stole a glance down at the thing in his hand.  It wasn’t his weapon at all, but just an ordinary branch.  Pali appeared just as confused, and they exchanged looks.
       “What the-”
       It clicked in Yakpura’s mind a moment before he heard the rush of air behind him.  Pali had already ducked and was dashing toward the forest when a blast of wind caught her in the chest and sent her sprawling across the camp.  Yakpura turned to take the brunt of another blast and landed away from her.
       “Pali, go!” he shouted. 
            I have another post coming soon too, so hold onto the edge of your seat!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

With My Own Two Feet

            On the 28th we had a traveling lecture.  We drove up to a high point outside Rhotia and could see Ngorongoro crater to the west, the shiny white salt of Lake Manyara to the east, and hills covered in small forests and farms everywhere in between.  After having short talks from each of our three main professors – Kioko (WE), Christian (WM), and Mwamhanga (EP) – we drove to a thicker acacia forest off the side of the road toward Mtu wa Mbu and LMNP (Lake Manyara National Park).  It was nice being able to be free to walk around in some slightly wilder African landscape.  Of course there may be some usage by animals when they travel outside the park boundaries of LMNP, but with a bunch of cackling students and a large road, plus being mid-morning, I knew there was a fat chance of seeing anything.  But I still had hopes for my elusive friend, Mr. leopard.
            I found a narrow stream bed, fairly deep (maybe 3 meters) but short across (maybe 4-5 at the widest) covered in large rocks and boulders at the bottom.  It was easier traveling than the thorny acacia everywhere.  I was glad I had my hiking boots on and was excited to finally get to explore a little bit where there’s not as much human interaction.  Though of course the first thing I noticed at the edge of the treeline near the road was garbage, and not too far inland the white ash remains of a recent fire pit.  But still, it was the best I could get.  For now.
            The freedom reminded me of a field exercise we did a week or two ago, but I’ll come back to that.  I climbed up along the streambed, still able to see (and obviously hear) my classmates.  I needed to get further away.  The stream bed quickly sloped up into what I’m sure would be a series of small rapids and, at the top, a beautiful waterfall once the rains come.  I began to climb.  It was mostly heavy hiking style climbing, but it did begin to get very steep until finally I had to measure my foot and handholds a little more slowly, not desiring to roll across large boulders all the forty feet down.  One point involved a more serious jump and pull, but once I got over that, I paused for a moment to look down.
            I could see the bright colors of classmates far below picking their way between the acacia, the cars and road behind them, and the drop off edge of the escarpment and LMNP beyond.  In front of me was thicker forest, all dry cactus-like plants and acacia shrubs or trees.  And on the ground at my feet was a thin white bone.
            It looked like a knee type joint at one bulging end, and the other broke off before its length ended.  I smiled.  I loved finding bones, just sitting out where some predator has left them.  It was likely a small ungulate, maybe dikdik but more probably an unlucky goat.  But what had killed it?  I knew there weren’t lions in this area, nor could hyena climb rocks like these.  My smile grew as I imagined two, unblinking eyes staring out at me from within some dense thicket overhead, measuring my movements and judging whether to retreat, attack, or stay hidden.  It would be the coolest thing to happen to me to come face to face with a leopard.
            I began climbing again, higher up and toward the very top of the empty stream cliff.
            When I made it a couple minutes later and came up over the last rock, my gaze followed the streambed deeper into the forest.  Up here my classmates’ voices were faint enough to be second-guessed as even occurring, and the plant life closed in around the edge of the streambed’s rocks.  I began walking along it.  The slope was a much more gradual increase now, and the stream grew very shallow and narrow at points, sometimes so tight that acacia branches reached overhead, their vines dangling down, and I was forced to pick my way carefully around their strong thorns.  I stopped every minute or two, looking around and just breathing, trying to take it in, and also hoping quietly in the back of my heart that I’d see a flash of spots at the corner of my vision, hear a low growl, or catch some pungent scent with my poorly experienced nose.  The rational side of me knew I wouldn’t see a leopard, but the other part of me hoped for anything, and also knew that my rational part was likely to easily overlook one even if it were there until it decided to pounce on my neck.
            I hiked alone for a few more minutes, meandering roughly north with the dry stream bed, nothing in my hands, my bright red ‘sweep the leg’ shirt on my back, and a simple multi-tool and knife on my belt.  I was ready to take care of business.  But of course, if given the choice, I would befriend a large cat before fighting it, or if given the better choice, I would fight it, we would grow to respect each other’s abilities in the process, come to an agreed truce, and become steadfast companions.  It could teach me how to hunt and I could teach it… I’m still working on what use a leopard could make of any of my available skills.  But it would be amazing, a partnership spanning not only a species, but an entire world of separation; one of unnecessary comforts, disconnection, and invisible bonds with that of the wild, free, and balanced with life.
            I came to a stop in my path and in my wishful daydreams and wondered how the relationship of my professor’s annoyance with me would be with each minute late back to the cars I was.  Would it increase exponentially, hit an asymptote and not be able to go further, or simply be linear?  Whitney, the SAM (Student Affairs Manager) wasn’t with us on this excursion so I figured I’d be fine in any case, but the profs had said ten minutes only, and it had taken me at least that long to climb the stream wall.
            I looked back at the streambed longingly, wishing I could keep going, but yet again society and its expectations for a civilized, obedient, and sensible (at least according to society) type of person pulled me back and I turned around.  But for a few minutes I got to be a little more free in Africa, a little more alone, independent, and a little more of a part of the world around me rather than aloof from it like the majority of humanity has become.  This experience, and one other were like that for me.
            I had a similar feeling just a few kilometers away from that acacia forest.  We had a class activity in grass species identification by transect.  A few weeks before the streambed we went out to the southern edge of LMNP, driving across the short grasslands and dodging cattle and goats of Maasai.  Dung littered the ground.  When we got out we started our assignment, identifying grasses along a straight line and estimating percent coverage in square meter plots.  We had sharpened sticks to use to stab randomly downward at measured distances for our grass identification, but I used mine to continuously poke at poop.  I’d get really excited when I’d find the perfect consistency kind – solid and thick, though not dry enough that they just crack when you puncture them.  I had quite a good time of poking them and lifting my stick overhead and then, with a quick wrist flick, sending them flying out over the grass, sometimes jokingly close to other student groups, other times bouncing them into the startled faces of grazing livestock.  Once in a while the puncture would be too deep and the poo would stay on the stick, and I’d have to be careful that the feces didn’t wait until the recoil to come flying off into my face.  ‘Who flung poo?’  I sure did.  I also got to work on my golf swing a little bit. 
            We were barely halfway finished with our transect when Kioko decided that we could be done and we had a quick talk about the three dominant species we found, and then he asked if we wanted to walk to the lake and see the flamingoes.  While we were doing our transect, grazing ungulates could be seen beyond the livestock.  There were zebra, wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelle, and a few buffalo.  Christian mentioned later how many more there’d be without the Maasai’s livestock overgrazing everything.  But in any case, I didn’t even wait for people to think about Kioko’s proposition or respond ‘yes’ before I started walking out across the grass.  When we had first stepped out of the cars an hour earlier I had been filled with an urge to just go.  Just to start walking and see where I would end up.  Now we were getting out of the exercise early to have a taste of that.  I remember some girl asking ‘we have to walk there?’.  No, honey, you get to walk there.  I have difficulties in being patient with a couple people sometimes, though I try to tell myself that it’s all ‘character building’.  Anyway, I was off, a couple people walking briskly to catch up with me, my wooden stick still poking at all the poop and flinging it ahead.
            We started getting closer to the zebra and as I got excited I also was very aware.  There’s such a distance between you and the animals while you watch from a vehicle – it’s not a large step up from seeing them on tv.  But when you’re on the ground and there’s a harem of 3-4 hundred pound kicking fiends in front of you that you know are getting more nervous with every step you take and can sense your primal desire to hunt them, that’s a much deeper connection with the world.  I found myself running after the black and white stripes, grinning ear to ear in my half-sunglasses (one side had broken in my back pack, so I looked like a pirate with one eye shaded and the other just looking through a plastic hole), and some of my fellow students yelling at me for chasing away their opportune pictures.
            I’ve never enjoyed killing anything and haven’t done it often, but I understand the necessity for it.  I also feel this primal instinct ignite in me, as if a million years of evolution still hasn’t wiped out my thrill of chasing an animal down.  People here told me that human beings are actually the most adapted to endurance of any mammalian species.  That seems off at first thought.  But when you think of a group of us, hunting a zebra, though we cannot run as far as fast as those four hooves, we can steadily wear it down.  It tries to stop and graze, and we approach and send it off.  It looks for water, but we’re slowly right behind it, stressing its body to the limits until finally it succumbs to exhaustion and a series of spears or knives end its misery.  It’s quite interesting to think about.
            But the zebra outran me and my silly wooden stick and bouncing back pack, neighing and whinnying, and I settled for walking toward the lake once more.  The water’s very low as it is – less than 2 meters on average – but Lake Manyara has been seeing more and more decreases in water level, likely due to climate change but also more immediately and measurably to sedimentation.  Runoff from the escarpment on the north end of the park, the hilly area where we live in Rhotia, ends up in the lake and builds up the muddy bottom, further concentrating salt or nutrient levels in a smaller volume of water.  I could go on with all my oh-so-extensive lake knowledge (it’s my job), but basically, and with it being the end of the dry season, we never reached the water.  Off in the distance swarms of pink specs would take off from the horizon, circle in a mob, and then land once more.  We walked across dried mud caked over with salt deposits toward the pink.  Eventually the mud became wetter, and we trudged through it.  Like a slime it stuck to our shoes and made us slip.  It was quite a high percentage flamingo shit.  Maybe some of it was from the flamingoes that died off in large numbers a few years ago due to a cyanobacteria bloom – toxic algae associated with high levels of phosphorus (farming, especially animal waste). But eventually it got too wet, and I stood at an invisible barrier, spinning in slow circles, taking in the flatness of the lake, of the grassland, the specs that were our cars, the grazing animals, the forests beyond, and the giant hills and cliffs bordering the area. 
            The cars came to the edge of the dry dirt to pick us up and we hopped in, but soon after I jumped out again (the car had stopped, don’t worry) where there was a giant buffalo carcass.  Its body was partially eaten, but its head and skulls were still very much intact.  Together the surface area of the forehead and start of the horns and muzzle were as large as my torso.  I imagined fighting or hunting such a monstrous (some 1600 pounds) and pictured myself slipping, making just one mistake, and taking those horns full in the ribs.  I whistled to myself, but then someone yelled my name and I turned to pose for a picture, squatting behind the horns with my hand up in the air like I was rodeo riding it. 
            That experience of walking was better than any game drive I’ve had yet.  Even though an elephant cow with her calf approached within twenty yards of our car at one point, and though in Ngorongoro I got to see a lounging Cheetah become suddenly interested in a young Thomson’s gazelle, there was not really a sense of caution or a spike in my heart rate – there was not as much connection with the life around me.  As soon as I stepped out of the car, got into the wild a little, I could feel it much more.  I’ve had similar experiences back home, hiking randomly through the Boundary Waters, through my grandparents’ land in Wisconsin – anywhere that’s at least slightly off the beaten path, at least a little away from society and obvious, direct human influence.
            I really hope I can continue to have more feeling experiences like these, more connected ones.  And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to belittle everything else that I’ve been so lucky to have, with multiple game drives and so much exposure to what I’m studying immediately after I learn about it, but I can’t quiet that calling in me to have it deeper, to give more of myself into this wildness connection, and receive so much more at the same moment.  In a few weeks we are going on a five day camping trip in the Serengeti National Park, the place famous for the wildebeest migration, a wonder of the natural world.  Filled with so much wildlife and energy that people everywhere know the name, even if they don’t know where it is or what it means.  I can’t wait for driving 80 kmph over broken roads because speeds any slower would result in a definite vehicle sticking.  I can’t wait for hyena to sniff at our tents while my classmates sleep and I sit outside with my spear, watching them.  Or when a cheetah makes a kill yards from our lecture and watches us carefully as it feeds, blood splattering its narrow chin.  When a pride of lion fight a bull elephant, guttural roars and ear-blasting trumpeting renting the air.
            But all the same, whether I see it or not, I will still know, deep down, that it is happening, that the energy is flowing and that life is being lived fully all around me.  And even when I must leave here I want to still feel that everywhere I go because life is going on all the time, and there’s so much to take from it and so much more to give back, whether it’s with a pristine East African savanna ecosystem or downtown Saint Paul.