Home Sweet Home!

So I made it home safely and free of parasites or tropical diseases! It’s comforting to be back home and see my family and sleep in my own bed, but as I was warned, I may be experiencing a bit of “reverse culture shock.” It is a little shocking getting used to living without hot water, dryers, an abundance of vegetarian food options, your own room, potable tap water, public bathrooms, affordable ice cream, and reliable internet in the palm of your hands, and then coming back to all those things (and more) all at once. When I first came to EG, it was sometimes frustrating getting accustomed to the different lifestyle, but easy enough to adjust without thinking much about it. Coming home seems to be the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I missed my espresso machine and community-supported agriculture box, and I don’t want to say I took everything for granted before this trip. I’ve always felt blessed and fortunate to be able to live the way I do, and to have the opportunity to visit such different parts of the world. However, returning to overpriced sustainably grown coffee and trendy locally sourced restaurants has left me quite disenchanted. One of the things I really missed in EG was cooking, but particularly cooking with a lot of fresh produce from local farms or markets. Now this seems so irrelevant when the entirety of Bioko Island is practically a food desert and that is the least of their problems. It’s good to be home, but my experience of actually living in Equatorial Guinea has solidified the reality of social and environmental problems in less developed countries, and I’m frustrated more than ever by companies selling social responsibility at a premium. With much to think about for a little while, I’ll try to keep my Christmas presents as sustainable as possible without selling out to commercialism! Happy holidays!

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Last Week in Malabo

We arrived back in Malabo last Sunday, with about two weeks left to wrap up our classes and enjoy the warm weather before heading home to winter. I’ve spent much of that time doing some last minute exploration and revisiting favorite places I missed when we were in Moka and at the beaches. I will always remember the fried plantains you can get at pretty much any restaurant here, and the delicious fresh chocolate croissants from the Guinaco supermarket. It’s been nice coming back to dinner options other than rice, beans and canned vegetables, but unfortunately the ridiculous ATM fees have kept me trying to save up my last few CFA (the currency here, pronounced “say-fa”) for gifts and fun experiences. I’ve been living mostly on eggs, 10 cent loaves of bread, and cheap Senegalese rice restaurants, but we have a few places in mind for a final group dinner altogether. Either way, I am definitely looking forward to lots of fresh fruit and vegetables when I get home.

We head home Saturday night (December 6th), but our last week is filling up surprisingly fast. As for exploring new places, I visited a new area of downtown Malabo with some friends from my group, and we discovered some gift shops with art made in Equatorial Guinea. We also came across a new African restaurant with a very friendly owner, and we plan to go back some time before the week is over. I also discovered a book store that I want to stop by again to get some books written by Equato-Guinean authors.

Last night, some of us went to a Catholic mass at the beautiful cathedral in town. We had planned on meeting up with one of the UNGE students, but he was unable to make it, so we decided to check it out anyway because Catholicism is the primary religion of the country. Although I didn’t understand much of the service (probably because I don’t have much of a background in it in English either), it was still a very peaceful experience. The tall spires on the outside of the church were under construction, but the inside was decorated with lots of art and the voices of the choir were lovely to listen to. I’m not really religious, but I’ve decided I do like being in churches.

This morning we had the last field trip of our society and environment class; we visited two landfills for Malabo’s waste. The first place we visited was more of a trash pile than a real landfill. Apparently there had been some effort to build a container with a lining at some point, but it’s unclear what happened to that project. The leachate is left to stagnate in two lakes down closer to the ocean and no effort is made to treat or purify it. Basically, the entire place looked like the mountains of trash you would imagine in a post-apocalyptic environmental disaster type scene. The second facility we went to was drastically different. The waste was sorted into organic material, recyclable material, and waste that would go into the landfill. Although there are other recycling facilities on the mainland, we were informed that this type of sorting facility was the first of its kind in Africa. The landfill (which made up the fate of about 20% of the waste received) had a liner and relatively clean wastewater. The organic material (about 55% of the waste received) was composted on site. The rest of the material was recyclable, but needed to be shipped to other recycling facilities on mainland Africa and in Europe because there are no factories that can process the materials here on the island.

As for the rest of the week, I’ll be finishing up final projects and studying for exams, in between enjoying the rest of what Bioko has to offer. I am definitely looking forward to going home, but I know I’ll miss the warm breeze and laid back vibe of Bioko. I should get back to studying, but more travel reflections to come soon!

Belated Blog #2: Un Día Increíble

11/15/14
Today was quite possibly one of the best days of my trip so far. We did a census of Balacha Sur and the morning started off with some challenges. The Cybertracker stopped working right as we got to the trail head, so we had to walk back to the wildlife center and switch it out for another one. This delayed us about half an hour and we hadn’t gotten an early start to begin with, but we were still hopeful. As we walked I became slightly disappointed, and when we finally reached the end of the trail we hadn’t seen a single monkey, just heard the call of a male red-eared guenin.
We took our lunch break and were rather disheartened, but planned on getting an earlier start the next day. With low expectations for the census back, we trudged up the muddy hill, slipping and tripping on thorny vines. After some time, we saw a couple of groups of red-eared guenins, and decided things were looking up after all. All of the sudden, we heard a loud cacaaaawww! It was the crow of a male drill, one of the rarer primate found in this region. The sound was terrible, but so exciting! We kept walking and hearing the calls, hoping to meet up with the group later on along the trail. Things quieted down after a little bit and we kept walking, and finally we heard a loud call again right off the trail! We sat on the edge of a ridge that opened up into a foliage filled canyon, and we could hear movement down below. There was a group of five Bioko drill monkeys ascending the hillside: two males, one female, and two juveniles. I was able to see them clearly through my binoculars, and I even got of view of their colorful rear ends! We watched their interactions for about 10 minutes until they left again. Our guide said we had been lucky to see them because they would have run away if they had not be fighting over a mate. It was the most amazing wildlife sighting of the trip so far, and quite possibly one of the best moments of my life. I can’t wait to see how things go tomorrow, but I don’t think much can top this!

Belated Blog #1: First Encounters with Moka Monkeys

11/13/14

We are on our break between our two censuses of the day, and so far this trail has proved promising. Up until yesterday we were marking trails, and then we had our first full day of census on the San Joaquin trail. This trail is closer to the road and seems to have fewer monkeys than some of the others, but we did see a group of erythrotis (red-eared monkeys) and pogonias (golden-crowned monkeys). Today we are surveying the Balacha Sur trail, which has been pretty exciting so far! At first we didn’t see much except for a lot of bullet cartridges and some shotgun batteries from hunters, sadly. Just as I was starting to lose energy and be very ready for lunch, we found drill poop on the ground! Our guide, Fermin, had been pointing out signs of drill activity, such as the fruit they eat or bark that was stripped from a log in the process of searching for invertebrates. Finally we found something we could actually take back as a sample!
As we continued down the last 1000 meters of the trail, we saw a polyspecific group of erythrotis and pogonias, and could clearly hear the warning calls of territorial disputes. We finally finished the trail and I ended the census on our Cybertracker, the device we use to enter our census information. Just as it was loading the final GPS coordinates, we saw a large group of nictotans (putty-nosed monkeys) at the end of the trail! We ended up putting it in as a new survey and will later add it to the first census. I have high hopes for our census on the way back, at least this last half of the trail farther away from camp. Tomorrow we are planning to mark our third and final research trail, Balacha Norte, and do a census on the way back.
The days are fairly, but unsurprisingly, walking slowly through the forest and observing your surroundings can be quite nice (even if we do have to get up at 5:30 am). It can get monotonous sometimes when we don’t see as much, but it seems like every time I’m starting to lose hope, we hear a distant “chi-choh” or “de de de,” the calls of elusive monkeys in the trees.

Moka

11/8/14

This morning I woke up feeling comfortably cool and dry after a week camping at Moraka Playa on the southern side of the island (during which my sleeping bag was wet and sandy most of the time). We arrived in Moka last night to begin our individual research projects now that we’ve had some practice with mammal and sea turtle censuses at the beach. I definitely didn’t anticipate the sheer amount of water the rainforest was capable of producing, but between torrential downpours, the wildlife and natural beauty was unreal. The trails around the southern beaches have much less hunting pressure than the northern side of Bioko because of their remote location. Our campsite is currently the home of seven volunteers who come each year for five months to record the nesting behavior of four types of sea turtles (green sea turtles, leatherbacks, olive ridleys, and hawksbills). We joined them for five nights on our FMTE (Field Methods in Tropical Ecology) course to learn research methods for surveying mammals and sea turtles on the island.

To reach the beach, we first drove from Malabo to the village of Ureca, which was about a two hour drive on a road that wasn’t paved until last year, and was first cleared in 2010. We had to wait in Ureca for a few hours for the tide to go out before we began our trek down to the beaches since we would have to walk along the shore for much of the 16 kilometer hike. Due to poor planning on our part, most of us (including myself) had stayed up way too late packing the night before, so the wait offered a bit of time for a power nap before the hike. There was also a conveniently located tropical waterfall where we were able to swim, jump off rocks, and actually wake up for the first time that hot rainy morning. Unfortunately, much of my newfound energy disappeared about an hour and a half into the hike, most likely a result of sleep deprivation and my diet of primarily bread and rice over the last six weeks. After hiking down through the rainforest, we emerged onto a long stretch of stony shoreline that seemed to last forever.

The sun was setting as we made it past the rocks and reached the final stretch of sandy beach, casting a warm orange glow on the end of our hike. It was the kind of fairy tale sunset where thousands of little puffy clouds made the sky look endless and the horizon was so wide you could see the curvature of the Earth. There are a few incredible moments I’ve experienced only after hiking several hours away from any easily accessible human settlement, and I think this was one of them. We finally reached camp and devoured a dinner of mostly white rice and a sparse amount of canned vegetables, which was of course heavenly at the time. However, after five days of pretty much that same meal, my insides are disintegrating and I would definitely be ok with never eating rice again. The lentils and fresh baked bread at Moka have been a welcome change, and there are rumors of salad tonight, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Tomorrow is the first day I’ll be going out on a mammal census here in Moka, and I’m looking forward to it after my first encounters at Moraka. Each day at the beach, we did a morning mammal census at 7 am, or an afternoon one if we had done a turtle census the night before from 11 pm to 3 am. For the mammal census, we walk quietly through the rainforest at a pace of 1 km per hour, listening for monkey or duiker calls and looking for movement in the trees. It’s almost like a game, trying to spot them before they spot you. I had the opportunity to go on one census with one of the excellent guides from Ureca, and one census with Drew Cronin, the advisor for our research projects who can magically sense and identify a monkey in the forest 100 meters away. I saw a group of red-eared monkeys, a red colobus, and a putty-nosed monkey, and heard a red duiker and a drill. For the turtle censuses, we walk from one end of the beach to the other, then sit and wait for half an hour, and walk back, repeating the process and stopping to observe if we see a turtle nesting. Unfortunately we didn’t see any turtles the night I went out with the volunteers, but we did sit in the pouring rain for a good amount of the night. The first night, however, a leatherback nested about 30 meters away from our campsite, and I got to watch it lay eggs at two in the morning. It felt like dream because I woke up for it and went back to sleep afterword, left with the memory of an amazing experience in the morning.

For now, I’ll be looking forward to seeing more animals and working on my identification skills. I can’t wait to see how this project goes! 

So I’m going to Africa…

Bioko Island seems more than half a world away as I sit in my sunny California backyard, just a week before I embark on my adventure. I have started to prepare for the semester that lies ahead of me, but after six vaccines, two pairs of quick-dry zip off cargo pants, and countless wool socks, it still seems impossible to imagine what’s coming.

I suppose I should probably give you a better idea of exactly where Bioko is. First off, it is part of the country of Equatorial Guinea, which is on the coast of West Africa bordered by Camaroon and Gabon. The island is nestled right in the corner of the Atlantic where Africa begins to narrow out and where South America once resided a very long time ago.

(http://www.hydrocarbons-technology.com/projects/bioko-lng/images/1-gulf-of-guinea.jpg)

(http://www.hydrocarbons-technology.com/projects/bioko-lng/images/1-gulf-of-guinea.jpg)

The small island covers about 2,000 km2, but is home to 11 species of primates, nine of which are classified as either “endangered” or “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The reason these animals are so threatened is the market for bushmeat in Bioko; the monkeys are considered a delicacy. While hunting these species is illegal in Bioko, it is poorly enforced. The reason for my journey to this unique part of the world is to contribute to research documenting the effects of hunting on the populations of monkeys on the island. This also means camping and collecting data in a tropical rainforest, which has seemed to make up the bulk of my “preparation” for the upcoming semester.

The last couple weeks have involved way too many shopping lists and digging around in my garage for gear. I’ve been told that pretty much everything will get wet, and nothing will dry. Hence, I’ve stocked up on zip-lock baggies (sorry, Earth), Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks, and non-cotton clothing. I even found a brand of quick-dry underwear, marketed with the slogan “17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of underwear. (Ok, maybe two.)” However, despite the surprising extent to which I have managed to waterproof my life (this is quite a change coming from the land of brown lawn and unflushed toilets), I am almost certain there will be things I’ll forget and things I’ll wish I left at home.

At this point, I’m tired of packing and list-making and errand-running and hustling-and-bustling-about-looking-for-things and I just want to GO! I’m not even nervous. I swear. Ok, maybe a little bit. But I’m excited enough to forget to worry about being sweaty and bug-bitten (don’t worry, I got malaria pills), or homesick, or physically sick, or in any kind of danger. I chose this program for the very reason that it will force me out of my comfort zone, which is where I think the best parts of life happen. My shields of Gore-Tex and merino wool may not protect me from tears, but my wanderlust has gotten the better of me, so… adios!