Help Ali bring Titi the Wonder Dog to America! Donate below! for more information, see

Help Ali bring Titi to America!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Funding Field Work

One question that I often get asked by tourists in the park here is how our project is funded. They are often surprised to learn that each grad student is responsible for our own funding - Thore and Jacinta (the project advisors from University of Michigan) pay for the general field site upkeep and data collection, but we are each in charge of supporting ourselves out here. That means writing a ton of grants and keeping our fingers crossed!

Grant writing has been a mixed bag for me. I spent most of last year writing and rewriting and submitting grants, and consistently getting rejected. That was really hard and frustrating, but I learned a lot about grant writing and definitely improved my project in the process. I had a ton of help from my advisers both in Princeton and in Ann Arbor, and felt pretty good about the last set of grants I submitted during the summer. However, when I left for the field in late August, I had received a total of $1500 (from the International Society of Primatologists) - enough to cover one round-trip plane flight from New York to Addis Ababa. Since my total project is estimated to cost about $35,000, I have definitely been worried about my financial situation! Luckily, between emptying my savings account and having Jacinta graciously offer to cover the cost of my hormone supplies until I got funding, I was able to get everything I needed for this year and head out to the field with my fingers and toes and everything else I could cross crossed for funding to come through. It has been awkward though - every time a curious tourist asks me where MY funding comes through, I have to admit that I don't quite know yet.

In October, I had my first email of good news - $1500 from the American Society of Primatologists! I had forgotten that I had even applied to them, so getting the acceptance email was a huge, happy surprise. I started to breathe a little easier. Then, this week I got two BIG acceptances - $17,500 from the National Science Foundation's Biological Anthropology subdivision, and $13,000 from the Louis Leakey Foundation! In the space of just a few days, I went from wondering how I was going to pay for the rest of my field season without burning through all my savings to having my entire project funded! What a HUGE relief! Such a funny process too, since I can only check my Princeton email about once a week. My Leakey and NSF acceptances were sitting in my inbox for days without my knowing! What a strange situation, and so unlike the way things would be if I were in America right now.

There are still a lot of things to do before the money starts coming through - contracts to sign, abstracts and budgets to revise and submit, documentation from Princeton to acquire - but just knowing that I won't have to come up with $35,000 out of pocket takes a huge weight off my shoulders. Even better, in less than a week, Sam and Ruth and my family will all be here to celebrate with me! Data collection is going superbly (we got all 102 focals we needed last week, and only have 7 more to finish tomorrow to reach our goal this week), the weather is beautiful, a hornbill has been calling outside our front door, and I have funding for my project. :) What an amazing set of early Christmas gifts! Now, when tourists ask me how I'm paying for all my research, I will have a good answer ready. :)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A First Hand Look at the Ethiopian Medical System

A preface to this story: About 5 weeks ago, our assistant Ambaye slipped in our driveway and broke his pinky finger. We did what we could to splint it here and gave him some ibuprofen, then took him to the hospital in Debark. This was on a Saturday, and we found out (much to our chagrin) that the hospital is CLOSED on the weekends! What the heck? Luckily our friend Shif knew one of the doctors, and knew that he was watching the soccer game at a local restaurant, so we were able to get Ambaye some care once the soccer game had finished. They set and splinted his finger, but apparently did not tell him he had to leave the splint on. We came back a few days later from our trip to Bahir Dar and he had already taken the splint off. Of course, his finger wasn't healed and we ended up having to take him BACK to the hospital about 10 days ago. I accompanied him on that occasion, and got to see the Ethiopian medical system first hand. Very little sanitation or hygiene of any sort (there was a biohazard trash can with a piece of tape on it that said "Infectious" sitting open in the "emergency room" waiting area, for example), and not the best care. They didn't even bother to x-ray Ambaye's clearly broken finger, they just gave him ibuprofen and told him to go home. *sigh* So that was that.

Then a few days ago, we overheard one of our other assistants, Eshete, talking about how he had gotten a stick stuck under his thumbnail a week or so before, and now his finger was swollen and his arm was hurting. We immediately confronted him about his injury (which he should have told us about!) and found out that he had a high fever, pus coming out from under his thumbnail, and what sounded like the start of a serious systemic infection. We knew he needed some antibiotics STAT, but we didn't have any in our house to give him. After our experience with Ambaye at the hospital, we decided that maybe it would be more effective for one of us to try and get the antibiotics instead of Ambaye. At least we could tell the doctors what exactly we wanted, and it seemed like we would be more likely to get good care since we were white. I had a cut on my hand that was mostly healed, but looked passably infected with the application of some chapstick to the wound. So armed with a tube of chapstick and my most pitiful "help me" expression, Ali and I headed to the hospital. After various half Amharic-half English conversations, I managed to get a registration card (4 birr, and it said my name was Caitlin Paul John) and directions to a general waiting area. Ali and I sat there for about 15 minutes while all the other patients stared at us. We were the only white people anywhere in the building, so I guess we were worth looking at! Eventually, we got called into an exam room with a doctor who spoke a fair amount of English. I showed him my hand and explained that it was an injury from a stick that had gotten infected and that I needed some antibiotics. The funniest moment was when he asked how the injury had occurred. In reality, I cut my hand on a nail that we use to hang potholders on in our kitchen, but I sure as heck didn't want a tetanus shot in a sketchy hospital, so I said it was a stick. At the same time, Ali said "a nail"! Luckily the doctor didn't seem to hear her, or our bluff would definitely have been called. He proceeded to ask me if I had a fever or swelling or anything like that and I proceeded to answer with Eshete's symptoms. In the end, I guess I was convincing enough because he prescribed me two oral antibiotics and an antibiotic topical cream to put on my cut. 70 birr and several confused conversations later, we headed out of the hospital triumphantly! What an adventure.

We've been giving Eshete the antibiotics for the last few days, but they didn't seem to be helping. He came over this morning to tell us that his whole arm hurt, and his heart, and that there was a lot of pus. He was also running a pretty high fever, so Julie drove him to Debark instead of going to work. At the hospital, they prescribed him the same things they had given me, after much pushing from Julie. When she explained that those weren't working, they grudgingly also gave him a shot and some additional pills. Poor guy - he now has to take three pills four times a day! He's such a trooper. You can tell he is in serious pain, but he doesn't complain at all. We are keeping a close eye on him and hopefully he will start improving soon. What a scary situation though! And it makes me sad and scared for the people in this area that don't have knowledgeable white people to advocate for them at the hospital. I'm been super careful to not get injured because I definitely don't want to have to spend any more time in that hospital than necessary!

Outside of the medical drama, there has been some monkey drama as well. One of our oldest, most thoroughly studied units, the C group, started to fission into two units a couple of days ago. The unit had 8 adult females and two adult males - one, Webay, was the former leader male who became follower when he was taken over by the other male, Tequila, about 9 months ago. Apparently Webay decided he'd had enough and took back three of the adult females. So for the last couple of days, there has been lots of fighting, chasing, displaying and noisy mating. Very exciting! Both Tequila and Webay have sustained some pretty serious injuries - Tequila broke his wrist and Webay got his ear and head torn up. Two other males, another leader male Dikos and a young adult male Tangle (who I am following in my study) also joined in the fighting and got injured.

We thought things were pretty settled - Webay had successfully taken Coco, Carmen and Cee, and Tequila had the rest of the females. However, the situation got even more interesting today. Some bachelors showed up (the Condiments group - Ketchup, Relish, Sauerkraut and Onion), noticed the chaos, and decided to capitalize on the turmoil. Apparently, one of them was able to take over Tequila's part of the unit! I didn't actually see that happen, just heard the fighting and saw it from afar, but Ambaye said Tequila had disappeared by mid-morning and that now Ketchup was the leader of Tequila's females. It will be interesting to see if he can hold on to the unit. Apparently a few months ago, Ketchup successful took over a different unit (the Ks) but lost it with a couple of days to another male. I think the injuries the males had acquired before definitely caused problems.... Tequila was the one with the broken wrist, and he apparently couldn't defend his unit very well! It is definitely fascinating to watch. A little scary too, when a bunch of males are chasing each other and run right next to you at top speed! It's neat to see the whole takeover process, particularly when it is with a unit that we know so well! I am curious to see how the juveniles in the C group react and fare over the next few weeks. They are pretty much all past the age when infanticide is a concern, but who knows?

Speaking of infanticide, we had one in another unit earlier this week. The situation started out similarly to the C fission - the M group split into two, with the leader taking part of the unit and the follower taking the rest. However, one of the females with a newborn baby stupidly went with the male that had NOT fathered her child. He killed the baby, and the mother has been carrying the corpse around with her for the last few days. So sad! Very interesting though - I wonder what made her decide to go with that particular male instead of the other male (who was the father of her baby)? Fascinating, but very sad.

Another exciting thing happened today - I got interviewed for Ethiopian television! A small film crew wandered up to me while I was working, and asked if they could ask me some questions for a program they are making about the Simien Mountains. I said sure, and they filmed me and Ambaye! I don't know if it will actually make it onto the tv, but it was a pretty random and funny experience!

That's the news from up here! It's hard to believe that it's already December. I've been here for three months already! In less than two weeks, my family and Sam and Ruth will be arriving and we're going on vacation for a few weeks! I can't wait. It will be a nice change of pace from working, and a great opportunity to see some more of Ethiopia! Happy December to all of you - hope the holiday season is off to a good start back home!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving in Ethiopia!

Ever since I took my hunter's training and safety class at Davis, I have wanted to kill and prepare my own Thanksgiving turkey. Well, there are no turkeys in Ethiopia, but I did get pretty close - I killed and plucked and roasted my own Thanksgiving chicken!

Thanksgiving up here in the mountains was a blast. Three of our Peace Corps friends joined us, as did Eshete, Ambaye, our friend Shif, and two random Americans who were camping near to our house. We made a ton of food, and despite our limited resources, it turned out quite well! In addition to the chicken, we had green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, twice-baked potatoes, bread rolls, candied carrots, green salad, shiro for the less-adventurous Ethiopians, apple pie, lime meringue pie and a cake! What a feast! We managed to use every single dish in our house (and I had dish duty the next day, so lots of dish washing for me!) and most of our chairs, so I would call the party a success.

The highlight of the meal was when we went around and said what we were thankful for. Most people were thankful for the opportunity to be in Ethiopia, the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving away from home with friends and new family, things like that. There were one unusual 'I'm thankful for..." though. Shif, our Ethiopian friend and tour guide, said he was thankful for his mother, because she was the best cook in the world. To note, his mother was not at Thanksgiving, nor had she cooked any of the food that was on the table in front of him. It was pretty great! Then, when we asked him to translate what he had said into Amharic so that the other Ethiopian guests could understand him, he simply said "Thank you." :)

I have spent a lot of this week thinking about all the things I am thankful for. Being here, obviously - the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country, to interact with local people and learn not only about my research subjects but also about life and culture in a place that often seems worlds away from my life in America. I'm thankful for all the opportunities that have led me down this path - the great education I've had access to, the University of Michigan Gelada Research Project for letting me join the team even though I'm a Princeton student, my supportive family who not only encourages me to do crazy things like move to Ethiopian to live with monkeys, but also is willing to come visit me here, my mental and physical health, the financial and emotional support that my extended family has provided, things like that. I'm thankful for my boyfriend Sam, who emails me every day without fail - even when he is traveling or has no power or is trapped in a blizzard or a flood - and who is taking time off work and school to live with me here for almost two months. He's not a traveler by nature, so coming halfway around the world simply because I asked him to is quite something! I'm thankful for all my friends and relatives back home who write to me and keep me from being lonely up here, and who send me crazy packages and letters even though it's expensive. And I'm particularly thankful for the community I live in here in the mountains - my two housemates Ali and Julie who provide constant food, love, entertainment and opportunities for deep conversations, our three Ethiopian assistants Eshete, Ambaye and Setey who cook for us, teach us about Ethiopia AND help collect all our data, our neighbors who bring us water and do our laundry and chase cows and sheep away from our study site and send their kids over to entertain us, our friend Shif who makes sure we have tomatoes and olive oil and fuel for our car, our Peace Corps friends Derek and Claire who share their house, their garden, their dogs and their care packages with us every week, and all the random Ethiopians who recognize our car and wave at us as we drive to work in the morning. Being here is such an amazing, life-changing experience, and the people really make it worthwhile. I am so excited that my family and Sam and his sister Ruth are coming out here in a few weeks to experience it with me!

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are enjoying the long weekend. I'm off to build and decorate the gingerbread house that my Aunt Catherine sent me - another Barale tradition that will be continued here in Africa!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Keeping Busy

I can't believe it's already mid-November! That means I've been up here for more than two and a half months. The time is flying by - I'm always shocked when I look at a real calendar and find out the date! Data collection has been progressing really well. We've been getting on average 85 focals a week, although this week we managed 97 - hurrah! I am hopefully going to start some preliminary data analysis soon to confirm that the data I'm collecting is what I need to answer my questions. I think that social network aspect of my project will be especially cool - I have a TON of data on play groups, proximity, and grooming interactions. It will be really neat to work up the social networks and see how the different types compare to one another. I also have a bunch of basic data about juvenile behavior that I think will be really neat to compile and publish. I have 51 individuals ranging in age from 6 months to 7 years old (though most are in the 2-4 year old range); they come from 8 family groups with really different compositions, so that will be interesting to look at also. At one extreme is the J unit - it is composed of 2 adult females, 2 adult males, and a single male juvenile. At the other end is the Z unit - 7 adult females, 3 adult males and 14 kids (10 of which are in my study group currently). Looking at differences in social relationships in these widely varied early social environments should be fascinating. I can't wait to see what my data has to say!

I'm on a science binge at the moment because on Thursday, I had the opportunity to discuss my work with Dr. Martyn Murray, a Scottish ecologist who has pretty much the best set of jobs in the world (in my opinion). In addition to being a professor at the University of Edinburgh, he also is an author (he wrote a book that combines nature and travel writing with his personal experiences studying ecology and conservation in Africa) AND an environmental consultant for the EU (which is the capacity we met him in - he is traveling around Ethiopia looking at national parks as potential conservation investments for the EU)! Despite his many hats and responsibilities, he still has the time and the inclination to sit down with three young ecologists and talk science. And he brought us six cans of green beans from Addis for our Thanksgiving dinner! We had no idea he was in Ethiopia, let alone the Simiens, but word traveled through the grapevine of our friends that we were trying to get some canned green beans and he came through for us. It was a really unexpected and fun evening. It always rewarding to see where a background in ecology can take you, particularly if you are interested in jobs outside academia. Between my talks with Martyn and Patrick, the producer of the new BBC movie who also started out in graduate school for biology/ecology, the list of possible paths I can consider after Princeton has grown substantially since I've been here!

Back in the regular world of our day-to-day life, there are only a few other things to report. Julie and I had to disinter poor Tariku, the gelada that got killed by a leopard a few weeks ago. One of the other people on the project desperately wanted some tissue samples for DNA analysis, and offered to pay us in candy if we would get the samples for him. Digging up the decomposing body was NOT fun, but we do have 9lbs of candy on its way to us as a result! In other, less distressing news, I got a package of art supplies and pipe cleaners from my Aunt Sheila last week! The local children have been away at school since I got the package on Thursday, so I haven't gotten to share the treasure trove with them, but we have been enjoying using them here in our house. I made sparkly pipe cleaner crowns for Eshete, Ambaye and Setey, and have put the pens and tissue paper to good use as well. Art projects are a fun way to pass the afternoons up here, if it happens to be a day when I'm not responsible for lab work or dishes! I've also gotten several cards from my mom and my sister, and quite a few awesome packages filled with treats. Thanks to all of you! And thanks too to everyone who has donated money to help bring Titi to America - Ali has already raised about $400 in donations in just a few weeks!

Only three and a half weeks until my family, Sam and Sam's sister Ruth come to visit - can't wait to see them all, and can't believe it's already nearly December! We are having Thanksgiving up here in a few days, so there will be another blog post about that later this week. Til then, hope you all are doing well and that November is treating you well!

Thursday, November 10, 2011


We have gotten into a pretty regular schedule here. We get up at 6:15am each morning, spend an hour or so slathering on sunscreen, making breakfast, prepping collection tubes, and preparing for the day. We work all morning in the field, then return home for lunch, housework and lab. Some days we go back out to the field for a few hours in the late afternoon. On Thursdays, we go to Debark - very exciting because I get to check the post office box, read emails and eat roasted goat. On Sundays, we have a day off which we spend doing data entry, more lab work, showers and around-the-house chores like laundry and inventories. Every once in a while though, something happens that throws the schedule waaaaay off. Last Saturday was one of those day.

The day started off normally enough. We got up at 6:15am, got ready to go, and made it to the field a little later than usual - maybe around 8:15am. When we got to Wuraba, the standard cliff that we usually find our monkeys on, only a few monkeys had come up from their sleeping area. Pretty unusual, as there are often several hundred monkeys grooming and foraging in the grassy lawn area above the cliff. We all trooped over to the cliff edge with binoculars to see what we could see. Just after we got there and were taking our binos out, there was a HUGE commotion down below us. Our Ethiopian assistants already had their binoculars out, and they started shouting too! "Leopard! Leopard! Gelada is dead!" We all started freaking out and looking everywhere with both binos and naked eyes. We saw a blur of movement disappear into the forest - apparently the leopard. We asked the boys if they could see anything about the gelada and they told us it was an adult male. Although they have extremely good eyes and are rarely wrong about anything pertaining to geladas, we didn't believe them. The literature and common sense say that a leopard could only take a juvenile or an adult female, not a full-grown adult male with long canines, lots of muscle, and fighting experience. The boys said they could see where the body had been taken, so we decided to forgo work and clamber down to where the kill had occurred. It was a beautiful and eerie walk - the forest down the cliff was much thicker and more tropical feeling than what occurs on the plateaux, and the monkeys and birds had gone creepily quiet in the aftermath of the attack. The hillside was very steep and we half-slid half-walked down to where the leopard had last been seen. Eventually, Eshete called back to us that he had found BLOOD on some leaves. We hurried over to where he was and sure enough, there was fresh wet blood spotting the undergrowth. We took a few samples with our DNA kit in the hopes we could use it to identify the dead gelada if we couldn't find him, and then continued, with me in the lead. Following the blood trail was like something out of a movie. We weren't trying to be quiet because we didn't want to surprise the leopard at his kill, but we were all justifiably freaked out and thus proceeded in relative silence. I was in front of the pack, since Eshete said he didn't see any additional blood and I wasn't convinced. A few feet further in to the forest, I found more blood, then a well-defined trail where something large had clearly been dragged through the undergrowth. More blood, more broken branches. Then I looked ahead for the next blood patch and saw the body.

The boys had been right - it was an adult male. He was lying on his stomach in a little hollow under some trees. We quickly gloved up and investigated further. His body was still warm and he had blood running out from a large wound in his throat. He also had two puncture wounds on one flank - clearly bite marks from the leopard. He was definitely dead, and as we looked closer, we realized that taking blood for an ID was unnecessary - this was Tariku, one of the older adult males in our study population. Tariku was the follower male in the T group. An old, smallish male with many kids in the group who loved to climb on him and groom him. We did what we could to tie him to a large stick and carry him out into the open so we could see better. Having done that, Julie and I climbed back up the hill to search for cell phone reception - we wanted to check in with the project advisors in Michigan to see what we should do with the body. On the one hand, what a great opportunity to take measurements and samples from a gelada we had six years of data on! On the other hand, getting Tariku back to our house without drawing attention to ourselves would be a challenge and we didn't want to do that without express permission from someone higher up. There was no reception at the top of the cliff, so Julie hopped in the car to search further afield while I began focaling the remaining T group geladas. Eventually Julie was able to get through to the Michigan profs (in the middle of their night, unfortunately!) and we got the OK to take Tariku back to our house for further study. Julie radioed me, and I radioed down to Ali, Setey and Eshete who were still with the body. They lugged him up the hill, met Julie and the car, and bundled Tariku up in a rain poncho. Then they picked Ambaye and I up and home we went. While Ambaye and I were walking back to the car, he asked me if I thought Tariku had gone to another country and pointed up at the sky. I guess some people believe in monkey heaven!

Back at the house, we laid Tariku out on a tarp in our lab. None of us were quite ready to deal with him, so we covered him and had lunch and tea instead. I also drove up to the campsite to retrieve the enormous scale the mule men use to weigh baggage. While doing that, I managed to attract the attention of all the adults in our village. They trooped back down to our house and started weighing themselves, their kids and their guns - apparently having the scale is a big attraction! After lunch, we set to work in the lab. We took all sorts of measurements - arms and legs and total length, chest patch dimensions, etc. We also took blood samples and some samples from a goiter-like parasitic growth on his arm. Hopefully we will get permission to ship those samples home so we can find out what type of parasite our geladas have. All in all, quite an experience. After everyone had finished weighing themselves and gone home, we weighed Tariku. He weighed in at 55 lbs - much heavier than any of us were expecting! It sort of explained why he was so difficult to carry up the hill from the kill site. After all that was done, we dug a grave for him in our backyard. We decided to bury him nearby instead of returning him to the leopard so that in a few months, we could dig up his skull and bones for more measurements. We buried him in the late afternoon. Eshete, Ambaye and the head scout Berarra came down for the burial and we said a few words about Tariku's life before burying him. Eshete threw some grass in the grave and said "This is for Tariku's dinner." All in all, definitely quite a day!

Even without analyzing any samples or comparing length and weight measurements to other geladas, we learned several interesting things. First, leopards can and do kill adult male geladas - and in broad daylight! Second, geladas don't seem to mourn dead adults. We've seen mothers carrying the corpses of their dead infants for days on end, but when we found Tariku's body, there were no other geladas anywhere nearby. In fact, the rest of his unit was up on the top of the cliff feeding, grooming, mating and socializing just like normal. It will be very interesting to dart subadult males in the spring so we can compare Tariku's length and weight to other males of similar size. Hopefully we won't have the opportunity to steal any more leopard kills - once was interesting but I think that's enough for me!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Help my lovely assistant Ali bring a dog back to America!

Hi all! We've had the opportunity to meet and spend a lot of time with a really wonderful Ethiopian dog. She desperately needs a home - she is living with two Peace Corps volunteers whose service time will be ending next year. My assistant Ali is seriously considering adopting her and bringing her back to America! She could really use any financial help that you can give to cover the medical and transport costs of this endeavor. Below is the post she wrote for her blog about Titi, the dog in question. Hope you enjoy reading it, and feel inspired to donate to the cause! There is a paypal button on the top of my blog and all the money we collect will go towards giving this special doggy a chance at life!

From Ali: Many of you know that I love dogs. A few months before I came to Ethiopia, my dog Beja had to be put down and it was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do . She was my heart, my best friend, my constant companion. I really hadn't thought seriously about getting another dog very soon after Beja's passing, but I have surprised myself in wanting this very special dog I have met in Ethiopia. Her name is Titi and she lives with some amazing Peace Corps volunteers, Derek and Claire, in Debark, which is the town we travel to every week to get our groceries. Titi has been through so much, and if you think it is hard to be a person in Ethiopia, it is 100 times harder to be a dog. You can see from the photos that her ears have been cruelly cut with scissors of a knife, something that all Ethiopian dogs endure as puppies to make them look meaner and improve their abilities as a guard dog. In Titi's case, she is about the worst guard dog there is, and a a couple minutes after meeting her she can be found slouched on your lap or feet pawing at you for affection.

Even though Titi is probably only 2-3 years old, she has already had at least 2 litters of puppies that we know of. Sadly, many of those puppies have died from disease. The last two, Messi and Chubbles, died only a week ago, news we learned while we were bringing food to them on one of our most recent trips to Debark. There is a photo of them in one of my previous blog posts.

So I have decided that I want to bring Titi to the States. When you are living in Ethiopia you really want to help everybody and everything, but this is not possible. I want to adopt a child from here, build a school, give people food, and all the other things that I feel could help someone, anyone. However in reality my life is going to go in a different direction. I am going to move back to California, get a teaching job and maybe Ethiopia and its problems will be a distant memory. After all, there are plenty of issues to put my energy into helping back in the California Public Education system. Something that is within the realm of my ability is to help Titi, and she, in turn, would help me by filling the role of my constant companion.

There are many things to consider when thinking about bringing a dog home from Africa. The first is, can I afford the $900 bill in air travel and other fees? The answer is sadly, no. However I can ask for help from amazing people who are reading my blog and thinking of me while I am in Africa. Bringing Titi to America would be so exciting for all of us who have grown to know and love her.

I will be posting a paypal donation button on my blog, and any amount would be greatly appreciated to help bring Titi home! If you don't have paypal and still want to be involved, you can send a check to Ali Von Striver 621 La Sierra Drive, Sacramento, CA 95864

Derek and Claire are kindly getting Titi spayed while she is staying with them in Debark, and any contributions will be going towards getting additional health clearances and the cost of travel.

I will hopefully be posting more photos of her later and updating this blog with news of our progress in making arrangements for her trip. One of which is to leash-train her and buy a carrier for her travels. So stay tuned and thank you very much for your support!

Friday, October 28, 2011

How to Conduct an Interview with Folks who Don't Speak English

sorry for the radio silence! it's been a very busy last few weeks and the time has just gotten away from me! hopefully all is well with everyone back home and you all are enjoying the fall.

first big news: we hired a third ethiopian research assistant! his name is setey, and he's from the same village in the park as our two other assistants. we had to conduct interviews to choose him, and man, the interviews were SOOOO awkward!! first of all, there were eight candidates when we had been told there were only going to be four or five. actually, there were supposed to be nine people interviewing, but our liaison from the parks department nixed one guy before he even interviewed, on account of nepotism concerns (he is the son of one of our head scouts here in the village). the candidates were a wide range of guys who appeared to be between the ages of 12 and 40, but were actually all 17-20. weird. they pretty much spoke NO english, which made things awkward and challenging. ali and i were in charge of the first stage of interviews with the guy from the parks department. we had a sheet of paper for each person where they had to write their name, their age, where they were from, and their three favorite things about the simiens. some of them could read the questions (written in english), but others could not at all..... so that was an interesting and very revealing way to start! then ali and i asked them why they wanted to work for us. some of them said "because i am interested in your research" or "because i want to learn more about the park/about geladas", but about half of them said "because i need a job". one of them said "to survive." how are you supposed to respond to that? they didn't seem ashamed or anything, just stating the obvious. then i described our standard day to each interviewee - about how we walk all the time and how they will have to be somewhat independent, etc etc. finally, we asked them if they had any questions - none of them did. then we sent them inside to eshete, ambaye and julie (and one of the scouts who was there to "supervise" - the scout who's son had been nixed, so also awkward). inside they got asked questions about themselves - how many brothers and sisters they have, what they like to do for fun, what they want to do for work when they are older, things like that. eshete and ambaye (our two current assistants) apparently asked them really hard technical questions, like how long is the gelada gestation period and how far do geladas range each day. pretty hilarious! for the "what do you do for fun question", setey (the guy we ended up hiring) said LAMMERGEIER (a big scavenger bird up here, like a vulture) - i guess he did not understand the question, as it was a very random and also hilarious answer! after that part of the interviews, all but one of them literally RAN away up the driveway. very awkward.

after they had all finished interviewing and left, julie, ali and i discussed who we thought were the best candidates. it was really overwhelming because they all clearly really wanted and needed the job, but very few actually seemed qualified. in the end, we narrowed down the list to two people we thought would be a good match with the project, spoke enough english to get by, and were enthusiastic about what they would be doing. we then talked to eshete and ambaye, and asked them who they thought would be the best. their list overlapped with one name on our list, setey, and so we decided to hire him! we were a little unsure because he seemed very cocky and self-assured in his interview, but as we have been working with him this week, he's actually turned out to be fabulous. curious, smart, friendly and has a great sense of humor! one of the funniest things he does is say "SHIT!" (in english) when he makes a small mistake - like misidentifying a gelada or walking too close to them. he then apologizes profusely for swearing. very cute. we have been working this week to train him, which is a challenge given the language barrier. with lots of hand gestures and drawings and occasional translational help from ambaye, it's working out well. he has already learned how to recognize about 30 adult geladas and 8 or so juveniles, and we're really looking forward to him being a part of the project! he will be working with the juveniles (helping me and a postdoc who will be arriving in december with our data collection) so i will get a chance to really get to know him and also an extra pair of eyes and hands working alongside me! it's wonderful.

in our non-work life, the main highlight has been sharing meals regularly with eshete and ambaye. they have cooked for us once (shiro - very delicious), we have cooked for them once (pizza - not such a big hit with them), and together we made doro wot (chicken stew). it's been really cool to get to know them better - to see their house and how they cook, to watch movies together, and to teach one another words in english and amharic. they are really coming out of their shells and we're starting to feel like their friends in addition to their employers! their english is getting good enough that they can tell jokes and can understand when we joke around with them. it's so much fun! it is so great to feel like a real part of this community, instead of just the white researchers that live down by the lookout.

work has been going really well. we have been collecting data six days a week for the last month, and have been getting a TON of great data. i've found all my research subjects at least once this month, and three of my units (the Cs, Vs and Ds) almost every day. once setey is trained, i'm thinking about adding in an additional unit, the Ms, which have about 10 kids. it's great to feel like i'm making such good progress!

this weekend, we are headed to bahir dar, a town by lake tana about 10 hours driving from here. we are going to buy food at a real grocery store and to mail hormone samples back to the states. we are also going to go to the market there, to a restaurant that has the best pizza in the country, to a floating bar on the lake, and to generally just relax. it will be our first time out of the mountains since we got here in early september - it will be fun to go to a real town and not work for a day or two! yay for mini-vacations! :)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Further Great Times at the Lodge

Baby Cranberry
More babies!
Hanging with Isaac
Last night, we got invited to the Simien Lodge to spend the evening with the BBC film crew! It was such a fun evening. It started out with an invitation to come to their tech room and watch some of the footage they have been taking for their 3D movie. It took a while to get all the equipment up and running properly (the electricity kept cutting in and out), but once it did, AMAZING! They have some truly astonishing footage, and the 3D filming and glasses really make it feel like you are standing right there on the hillside with the monkeys. The movie is going to be SO cool! They are filming in 18 other locations in Africa, so I’m sure the footage they take elsewhere will be equally incredible. It was so special to get to see the raw film before it had been edited or compiled or anything. I really felt like I was behind the scenes and part of the production! The film crew was all so nice too. They invited us to dinner afterwards, and we got a chance to chat with them about the filming progress and the other shoots they have been on. It was quite a star-studded cast – the various people working up here at the moment have worked on Lord of the Rings, The Last Samurai, movies with Martin Scorsese, Human Planet, Life, Planet Earth, and all sorts of other things (including the California farmer commercials!). Some of the world’s most famous wildlife filmmakers were sitting there eating soup and bread with us! It was seriously a dream come true. They were very generous with their time and their stories, and it was very neat to hear about how they had all gotten into the field. The producer of the movie even told me that I was a really good public speaker – so gratifying coming from someone who has done so much! It’s been such an amazing experience working next to them in the field. They are so respectful of our data collection needs, and are always asking our advice about where to set up their equipment so that they can get the best shots. It will be amazing to see the film when it is all finished, and to be able to say “I was there! Right there out of the shot while they were filming it!” It will also be very cool to see my monkeys in 3D on the big screen. The movie isn’t due out until December 2013, so there will be quite a while waiting in gleeful anticipation…..

What else? Data collection has been coming along fairly smoothly. The first half of this week was awesome – I got at least one (and in many cases two) focal observations on all the individuals in four of my six units! I also collected quite a few fecal samples – always good! The other two units in my study have been MIA for the last week. Very frustrating – we do a lot of driving around trying to find them, but they seem to be hiding! Hopefully they will be back tomorrow or early next week. Today was particularly irritating, as we couldn’t find ANY of my monkeys! I’ve got six units, each with an average of seven kids and about the same number of adults. You would think that we could find SOME of those geladas, but no – not a single group was at any of the usual places (or even the unusual places!) today! Fingers crossed that tomorrow is more successful. It’s very frustrating to not be able to get any work done at all.

Since there were no monkeys to be found, I spent a few hours reading my book down at the lookout behind our house. It was amazingly clear today, and the view was exceptional! The combination of yellow flowers, green grass, and agricultural fields made for a very beautiful patchwork of colors down below our lookout. I could hear geladas fighting but didn’t see any from where I was sitting. It was nice to get to be outside relaxing while the weather was nice! Usually we spend that time working and arriving home just in time for the cold and cloudy afternoons. I might go out on Sunday to make up for not getting any data today – it will depend on how tomorrow goes, I guess! Hopefully some of my units come back to their normal haunts.

Aside from data collection and our fun times at the lodge, not too much is going on. We are all chugging along with work and play. We are headed down to Gondar and Bahir Dar in a couple of weeks to mail our hormone samples back to America, to celebrate Halloween with ourselves, and to generally relax for a few days. It should be really nice – a chance to use the internet and call home, in addition to just getting out of the mountains for a little while! Also good to have a bit of vacation.
Ali and me in our UC Davis WFCB (Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Bio) shirts

Two funny stories from our assistants. This morning, we asked Esheti and Ambaye when their birthdays were. Ambaye said "January 21st". Esheti just looked confused. So we tried to be very explicit and said "on what day of the year were you born?" He thinks about it for a moment and goes "Wednesday!" then a pause... then "1982" (which is 1990 our time). Eventually he decided he was born on a Wednesday in June, possibly the 12th, but he wasn't sure. very funny! Also when we were at the lodge last night, the two of them and our scout stayed with us. They were in the dorm room next to us, which had two bunk beds. The three of them went in there and then it was verrrry quiet. We went in to see if they were okay, and Esheti said "There is a problem! Only two beds." Apparently they had never seen a bunk bed before and didn't realize that you could sleep on the top bunk too! :) very funny. In the end, Ambaye slept on the top bunk and did very well - he didn't fall off during the night, which was a serious concern!

Hope all is well back in America and wherever else you are! If you feel like sending me a letter, I'd love to hear from any of you (and send pictures of what you're up to nowadays!)! Getting mail is one of the most exciting parts about our weekly town trip. I think airmail stamps are only 78 or 98 cents - and it would make me so happy! :) My address is:
Caitlin Barale c/o Shifarew Asrat
P.O. Box 18
Simien Mountains National Park
Debark, North Gondar

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Bethlehem and Tidesse and some tiny animals
So today, Tidesse (11) and Bethlehem (3) were over at our house to say hello and hang out for a bit. It's great fun having them over because they always like to do whatever we're doing. Today, for example, Ali had some coconut oil/paste out and was moisturizing her hands. Tidesse and Bethlehem were curious about it, so she let them use some. Tidesse understood what was going on, and rubbed it into her hands, legs and elbows. Bethlehem, on the other hand, just rubbed and rubbed and rubbed until her tiny hands were SUPER oily. Then she started rubbing the oil onto our arms like a little masseuse! Very cute. A little while later, Ali brought out a monkey puppet that she had brought with her from America. The reaction was unexpected - Tidesse RAN out the door and up the driveway screaming because she thought the monkey was real, and Bethlehem just stood there and laughed and laughed! Eventually we got Tidesse to come back to the house and showed her that the puppet wasn't real. Once she figured that out and learned how to control its arms and legs and mouth, the game was on. She wanted to take it up to show her mother, so off on an adventure we went! Her mother, Simay, had quite a few other ladies from the village over for coffee, and they all screamed when they saw the puppet! One even threw a can at it! Tidesse of course thought this was hilarious, and the noise brought the other kids over to Simay's. Every single one of them - boys and girls - saw the monkey, stopped in their tracks, and turned around and ran as fast as they could in the opposite direction!  Tidesse, being the kind older sister she is, started chasing them with the puppet and making monkey noises. Eventually one of the boys got brave enough to come a little closer and then quickly reach out and try to touch it. When he felt the plush fur, he snatched his hand back and ran away again! Eventually all but one of the boys figured out that it wasn't real and then they all wanted a turn to play with it. It was quite a sight seeing everyone from tiny children up to adults and grandparents freak out about a puppet! I can understand though - if you've never seen a puppet before and don't know how it works, it would be pretty scary! It was very funny though.

After the puppet incident, we were invited to stay for coffee at Simay's, then went for tea at another lady's house.  From there, we moved to a nearby field where the grownups, Julie and Ali played soccer and I did gymnastics with the littler kids. They know cartwheels, handstands and somersaults pretty well, and everyone was VERY impressed with my one-handed cartwheel and my ability to walk on my hands. It was really fun to watch them try to imitate me! They were all really excited to see what I could do, and to show me their tricks. We all had a great time. It's so much fun being a part of this community - they really take care of us and treat us like family. We are always included in their games and social activities, and receive more invitations for tea, coffee, beer and supper than we know what to do with! They don't like our food all that much (except the kids when it's sweets like banana bread or cookies) so it's hard to reciprocate, but everyone seems to have a good time. So nice to be part of the group instead of isolated because we are foreigners! They appreciate our feeble attempts at Amharic, are always curious about what we're doing, and seem to honestly enjoy spending time with us. It's wonderful!

That's it for today. We've got a lot of house work to do - inventorying hormone supplies, entering data, updating the demography, etc etc - and have spent the majority of the day relaxing instead of working. oh well!

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Day I Ate A Sheep Testicle!

September is a month of holidays here in Ethiopia (January too, I hear!). We had the New Year celebration a few weeks ago, and this week was Meskel (the Finding of the True Cross). As far as I understand it, from hearing several versions over the last few days, here is the story behind the celebration:

A Ethiopian lady had a dream that she found the True Cross (the one that Jesus was crucified on). She was in Israel at the time (no clue why), and she prayed and prayed to God for directions to the location of the cross. She lit some incense while she was praying, and the smoke trail went up to heaven and back down, and led her to a landfill outside Addis Ababa. She dug and dug and dug, and eventually found three crosses - the True Cross and the two crosses where the robbers who were crucified next to Jesus had been crucified. In order to figure out which was which, she tried touching sick people with the different crosses. The one that cured the sick was the True Cross.

To celebrate Meskel, people set up wooden crosses on piles of grass and sticks in their yards and along the roads. Then they dance around them, sing some songs and light them on fire. Surprisingly, most of the burning happens during the day - apparently because the smoke represents the incense that led the lady to the True Cross and it's hard to follow smoke signals at night. :) We went to Debark for the holiday. Tuesday night, we went to one cross burning - lots of coffee, beer, dancing and flames. at one point, the entire cross structure started to topple over towards us! luckily someone propped it back up quickly, but it was a little scary!

On Wednesday, the actual holiday, our "program" started early in the morning - around 6:30am we were rousted from our beds and ushered to the house next store, where there was another cross ready and waiting. we had coffee ceremony and ate popcorn while the cross burned (and one of the Peace Corps volunteers' puppies slept on my lap the whole time!). We had to stay until the center supporting pole of the cross fell over - apparently the direction the pole falls points to the direction where the crops will prosper in the coming year, or something like that.

After the neighbors' ceremony, we headed over to the official town cross burning. What an event! There were probably five thousand people there, all dressed in their special occasion white shawls and dresses and pants. We sure stood out with our white skin and colorful clothes! Because we were the only white people there, we were given seats of honor - the top row of the bleachers, just below the dais where all the priests and the mayor and the speakers and people like that were sitting! This meant, of course, that allllll the other people there were looking straight at us the entire time! It was a really cool event though - lots of chanting and dancing and kids and grownups in fancy costumes. We never really figured out what the costumes signified - they looked like they were going to do a play or something, but ended up just sitting around in groups of similar costumes. There were a ton of Orthodox priests too, with fancy robes and velvet umbrellas with tassels and turbans. The cross that they burned was really really big - once the fire got started, we could feel the heat all the way at the top of the bleachers!

In the afternoon, we hung out with Shif (our Ethiopian friend) and Claire and Derek (the Peace Corps volunteers in Debark) and the puppies. It was very nice to just relax and chat with people other than ourselves! We all made dinner together and spent the evening doing nothing much. Very nice break from work!

This morning, we drove back early from Debark and worked a full morning's work. Then we finally made it home and unpacked all our groceries and sleeping bags and what not. As we were heating water for our weekly shower, one of the kids from the village came down saying "buna buna! beg allah!" which basically means "come for coffee! and also there is a sheep!" we tried to beg off, since we really wanted to shower, but she wouldn't take no for an answer! So we headed up the hill, and discovered that the entire village had assembled for an outdoor bbq/picnic/coffee ceremony event thing in honor of the Meskel holiday. They had done their cross burning while we were in Debark, but since Wednesdays are mandatory fasting days (no meat) for Orthodox Christians, they had had to postpone the sheep killing. As we walked up to the fire pit, we saw the sheep hanging from a tree - they were in the process of skinning and butchering it!

Coffee was very good, and then we learned a lot of anatomical vocabulary words as the sheep was butchered. Asmaro, the head scout and butcher du jour, would hold up an organ, say its name in Amharic, and then ask what the English word was. We also got to see firsthand what goes into beg tibs (essentially stir fried lamb with onions and hot peppers) - not just the muscles, but also the heart, kidneys, trachea and testicles. That's right, lamb testicles. Of course, we had to take ridiculous pictures with the testicles, and then I said I'd eat some of one if it were served to me. This unsurprisingly led to Julie asking specifically for a testicle (good thing we had learned the Amharic word, right?) so that I could taste it. I tried it (it was a little weird in terms of texture but didn't taste that remarkable), then goaded Ali and Julie (both vegetarians, although Ali has started eating meat again since being out here) into eating some too! So we all had some sheep testicle for lunch! Don't worry - there are pictures and I will try to post them next week from town! What an adventure. I also ate some kidney and some heart, two new food items for me. Definitely the most interesting lunch I've eaten in my life!

Now that that exciting meal is over, we've had a chance to shower and are getting back to work. Ali and I are making our ID sheet this afternoon so that we can start data collection tomorrow!! Very exciting. It will be good to be collecting my own data instead of just helping out with general project stuff. It's nearly October, which means I've been here for a month already - so crazy! I feel like I'm getting into the swing of things pretty well. Hopefully the transition from photographing ears and helping Julie out with adults to doing observations and fecal sample collection with rowdy juveniles will go smoothly! The weather is getting better every day, and the muddy road is drying up slowly but surely. Fall is off to an awesome start!

Hope things are good back in the USA or wherever you are at the moment!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

just discovered that I can upload pictures today in town! so no post - sorry - but a few pictures to tide you over! tonight and tomorrow is Meskel, the finding of the True Cross, so there will be a lot to report once the festivities are over! miss you lots!

Julie, me, Ali and Ambaye in our New Year photoshoot!

the mountains are beautiful right now!!

me with the geladas this morning! very misty but still worth working!

lots of monkeys this morning.... here is Ambaye doing some observations.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Crazy (Good!) Week

Helping with sheep herding
This last week has been a little crazy. Last weekend, we were invited to the Simien Lodge to have dinner and to schmooze with some ladies from the African Wildlife Foundation. It was a very nice evening - good company, excellent food, hot showers and comfy beds! Lots of treats. The two women were very interested in the park and the geladas, and it was quite an experience to talk to them. They are so well-traveled and so smart! They've worked on a number of high-profile projects in Africa, including the parks in Rwanda and the Congo where mountain gorillas live. It was very interesting to hear about their work, and to learn a bit about how conservation is put into action in Africa. In the morning, we took them out to see the geladas. Luckily for us, the monkeys cooperated and were easy to find! There were a few hundred sitting on one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the park, and it was a blast to spend some time there with the AWF women. They took lots of pictures and asked lots of really good questions, and everyone had a good time. Our day off ended up being a bit of a work day - we had to get up early and drive out to see the monkeys - but it was very neat to get to spend time with some movers and shakers! As they were leaving, they gave us their business cards, and it turned out that one of them was the president of the organization!! It really put their visit in a whole different light to know that they had found our site interesting and valuable enough to send their top-ranked member! After they left us, they went to Addis to meet with the head of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Authority, the ministry that oversees us. We are hopeful that we impressed them enough to have AWF invest in fixing and preserving the Simien Mountains National Park!

On Monday and Tuesday, we had regular work days. Ali and I have taken lots of ID photos and have been organizing them into a cheat sheet that we can take to the field with us. The identification is going really well, and I feel good about starting on some of the smaller units next week! It will be great to get my data collection really underway.

On Wednesday, we hiked out to a number of sleep sites and didn't find any of our monkeys. So, around 9:30am, we hiked back to the house and spent the day doing some of the backlog of computer work that has been building up. I organized ID photos of the juveniles, we typed up the fecal sample list, and Julie updated the behavioral observation program and the demography. Despite not being able to do observations, we got a lot done. In the late afternoon, we drove again to the Lodge - this time to give two nights of lectures to some Australian tour groups. It was a pretty wonderful experience - the group paid for us to have dinner with them each night, breakfast in the mornings, and a room at the Lodge for both nights! They were a really great group - a bunch of medical professionals who had been at a conference in Kenya and were doing an add-on trip to the highlights of Ethiopia. Julie and I made a powerpoint presentation, and we showed that, talked about our research and about basic gelada biology, and then answered a lot of questions. It was really fun to get to share our knowledge and our excitement about our work with a bunch of smart, interested people!

On Thursday after breakfast, we did some work in the morning with the units that live near the Lodge. It was great because we don't see them very often and they usually involve a lot of driving to find. Since we were already at the Lodge, it was very easy! Around lunchtime, we drove to Debark for our weekly shopping trip. Again, very good timing - the Lodge is about halfway from our house to Debark, so we saved again on driving! Debark was crazy, as usual. Lots of people and livestock on the roads, stressful driving conditions, and a host of other small problems - the guy we wanted to see at the park office was out, the post office was closed, etc etc. We did get to spend some time with the local Peace Corps volunteers, which was excellent. and there was both electricity and internet, so I got to check my gmail for the first time in weeks! I even got to miraculously chat with Sam online for a little while. And as usual, the Peace Corps couple's puppies were running around and being adorable. AND there were tomatoes at the market this week! So that was exciting too. All in all, a good trip!

Thursday night was another lecture to the Australians, with their second group of tourists. It went well and people had lots of good questions. This morning, we had breakfast with them and escorted their bus to some favorite gelada haunts. It was really gratifying to see them appreciate the information we had given them about gelada behavior, and to see that they were following our directions about how to approach the monkeys without scaring them. It was also really fun to walk around the tour group and answer questions while they had monkeys to look at! They left around 9:30am, so we still had most of the morning to do our real work. I got some more photos done, which was good. It will be nice to be finished with them and on to just collecting poop and observing behavior!

Julie strained her back while working, so I got my first opportunity to drive in Ethiopia! It was a little stressful but overall not as bad as I was expecting. It helped that we had had several days without rain, so most of the really bad ruts weren't muddy and slippery. I gained a whole new appreciation for Julie's driving skills - navigating ruts, mud, sharp rocks, cliff edges, enormous speeding trucks, errant livestock and a manual transmission is definitely a feat! But we made it home safely and our scout even told me I was a good driver. Hopefully I'll be able to help Julie out with the driving responsibilities now!

That's it for the moment! Three nights at the Lodge in a week is a new record - we have been very spoiled this week! Now that all our fun plans are over, it's nose-to-the-grindstone time. We will go to Debark for the Meskel holiday next Wednesday, but other than that, our plans are lots of observations and lots of poop collection from now until the end of October when we go to Gondar and Bahir Dar to ship off samples and do a big grocery shop. Hope all is well back in America - I miss you guys and think about you often!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ethiopian New Year and Coffee, Coffee, Coffee!

Melkam Addis Amet! Happy Ethiopian New Year!

Today, according to the Ethiopian calendar, is September 1st, 2004 – New Year’s Day and the official end of the rainy season. Yay! We knew that nobody would be working today, so we worked yesterday and took today as a holiday. We had grand plans of sleeping in this morning but were thwarted by a passel of adorable Ethiopian children banging on our door and shouting our names at 7am. They had brought us all yellow flowers for the holiday and were so excited to see us that getting up early on our day off didn’t matter too much. We took some cute pictures with them – the kids look super adorable, and we look extremely disheveled and half asleep. Soon after they left, another set of children arrived with MORE flowers, and then a kid from the first group came back to invite us to his parents’ house for coffee ceremony. So by 8am on our day off, we were squashed together on a bench in Berarra’s house drinking the first of many cups of coffee.

Coffee in Ethiopia is an event. They roast the beans right there on a little ceramic stove, then make three pots of coffee, which they serve to you in tiny cups filled with sugar. There is also a snack, which this morning was bread and popcorn. Everyone sits around drinking cups and cups of coffee and chatting. Usually they burn incense or frankincense, so the house is smoky and dark and smells delicious. Most of the people that live in our camp came to the coffee ceremony this morning, so there was lots of chatter and small children running in and out.

Now that we are back home, we’ve started heating water for showers (yay!!), charging computers because it’s sunny out, and generally relaxing. We’ve got another coffee invitation for just after lunch, so we’re trying to get some real food in out stomachs before the next three pots of coffee! One of those days, I guess! :)


Well, it turned out that what we thought was an afternoon invitation was in fact a 10am invitation. and it was for an additional four cups of coffee each, three types of snacks and a celebratory tin can of home-brewed beer. We managed - somehow - to keep the beer down, though I don't think any of the four of us actually finished the entire tin can. Something about the gritty texture and the knowledge that it was made with unfiltered water was a little off-putting.... very friendly and gracious hosts though, to provide it for us! And now we just got ANOTHER invitation - from a very cute boy wearing a roll of tin foil like a hat and cape to keep the rain off. We told him "maybe later", since we are waaaay full of coffee and beer at the moment. Ali is making some soup for us, which will be a nice change from what we've eaten so far today....

After getting back home, we started the weekly shower rotation just as the rain began. So - hot showers were had, but you had to run back and forth from the tent in the yard to the house to get them. It will be so nice when it's dry!

On the work front, this has actually been a very productive week. Our first day up here (last Thursday) was rainy and gray, but since then it’s been sunny and warm in the mornings. The afternoons are consistently wet and gross, so we’ve been diligent about getting back from the field by lunch time to avoid being caught in the rain, hail and thunderstorms. I’ve been helping Julie collect fecal samples from the adult geladas, and have also been making some serious headway on identifying juveniles for my own study. I’m hoping to start data collection in the next week or two, depending on which units I can find between now and then. It’s so nice to be back out in the mountains, especially when it’s sunny. Last year, I was here for the entire rainy season, so sunshine and fieldwork is a fairly new thing for me. It’s so wonderful to see the green hills and the waterfalls appear when the fog burns off! The geladas, for the most part, look fat and happy and there are lots of adorable new babies. So far, we’ve named them Berbere, Pterodactyl, Zazu and Kaleidoscope. All the babies I knew from last summer are brown juveniles now, and it’s fun to see how much they have grown up! I am looking forward to getting started on my real work soon – it will be very neat to actually start observing the juveniles. I can already tell there are going to be interesting differences between the large units and the smaller ones, and of course between the males and females. Ali has been sick this week so hasn’t gotten much time with the monkeys, but I know already that having an extra set of eyes on those rascally juveniles will be helpful!

It’s also been fun to really get to establish myself in our house. Last summer, I was in a tent in the backyard for most of the summer. This time, I have a real room, and I don’t even have to share it! I’ve put a bunch of pictures up on the wall, and unpacked my clothes and books and things out of my trunk onto some shelves. It’s great to not live out of a suitcase, and to have a real bed and a window and walls that I can put things on. It makes me feel like I’m actually staying for a while. That’s good, since I’m going to be here until May! My room is very homey and it makes me happy to come back to it after work. I also have a real bed frame – not sleeping on a cot this year! :)

I guess that’s all for the moment. I’m hoping for one more week of preliminary work, maybe two, then get started with data collection by the end of the month. Wish me luck!
Sunset from our lookout

Happy New Year! And happy start of school for all of you doing that at the moment!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Adventures in Addis (or Yay Sisay!)

I have just finished my first week in Ethiopia, all in the capital Addis Ababa. My first few days were extremely busy, but things have been very low-key since then.

I arrived at 7am on Thursday morning (September 1st), after approximately 28 hours of traveling. I was pretty exhausted but since Friday is often a half-day for government workers, I needed to get started on my official business right away. One of the friends of the project arranged a driver for me, Sisay, and he and I left my hotel for the offices of the Wildlife Authority soon after my arrival. After a number of trips up and down 10 flights of stairs, a hell of a time trying to find the correct bank to deposit my and Ali’s research fees in, and the help of some very kind wildlife officials, I made it out with my official letter of support and a receipt for my fee payment.

With that in hand, Sisay and I headed across town to the Immigration Ministry, where I needed to apply for a resident’s card. What an adventure. First I went in the wrong entrance – apparently men and women enter on different sides of a building and I had tried to go in the men’s side. Oops! Once inside, I wandered around for a little bit trying to find the correct room to wait in. All the signs were in Amharic so it was a little challenging! Finally, I found the correct room and the correct forms to fill out, and a Somali lady nicely loaned me a pen. I filled out the form to the best of my knowledge and waited in a long queue to have my paperwork checked. I was starting to get worried as the clock ticked its way towards noon, as everything shuts down for lunch at that point. Luckily, I was the last person the lady checking papers helped! So I got my forms nominally approved and was instructed to come back at 2pm to a different room with a different line. I went at met Sisay and the car and we headed to the Lucy Restaurant near the National Museum for lunch.

We finished eating around 1pm, so we figured we could try and get my driver’s license approved at the US Embassy before heading back to Immigration. So I headed inside, armed with passport and license. Once again there were many sets of lines and frazzled workers, but at least some of the signs were in English! Once I had gotten my license checked, paid my $50 notary fee and waited in yet another line, I was sent to an embassy worker who made me raise my right hand and swear that all the information on my license was correct. I didn’t tell her that I no longer weigh 125lbs (although that may change over the course of the next 9 months!), so I was able to get my official stamp and instructions about my next destination in the quest for an Ethiopian license – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since Sisay and I had a little time before we needed to be at Immigration and the MoFA office was nearby, we headed there next. Once again, I picked the wrong entrance. Once I made it to the correct entrance, I was told that driver’s license certification was done at a different branch of the MoFA! And not just that, the officials at the second branch were having an important meeting so the offices were closed all afternoon. So much for that errand.

Next stop – Immigration. I waited in another line for a while to have my picture taken, then an additional line to pay for the processing fee. I was hoping that once I had done that, they would just hand me my resident’s card, but no luck – I was instructed to come back the next day at 2pm to pick it up. Sigh. It was okay though. With no more errands possible for the day, Sisay drove me back to my hotel and I took a much-needed nap!

I was woken from my nap by my phone ringing – it was the wildlife official I had been working with, telling me I needed to come back to his office because he had forgotten to give me a letter for the park officials in Debark! So on Friday morning, after sitting in a traffic jam for at least an hour, Sisay and I made it back to the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Authority office. I was hoping to just pop my head in and get the paper, but the man I needed was in a meeting, and then when he was out of the meeting, the Archives person he needed to file the forms with was out of the office. What a start to the day! It was nearly noon and I hadn’t even started on the list of errands I had been hoping to accomplish Friday morning! As I was preparing to leave however, the Archives man returned and I was able to get everything processed quite quickly. Yay!

Onwards to the MoFA branch #2! We arrived – of course – just as they closed for lunch. So Sisay and I killed another hour and a half of our time at the Lucy Restaurant (I guess Sisay really loves their food!). Then we joined another line at the MoFA, sat in the rain for a while, then finally had the privilege of paying for yet another stamp on my license certification paper. Then off to the Immigration Ministry again, where I was able to use the correct entrance, avoid all lines (amazingly!), and pick up my bright green, squeaky clean, hot off the press resident’s permit! Very exciting! One set of tasks was completely accomplished! And only one more errand remained – taking my many-times-stamped sheet and license to the Road Authority.

I think the Road Authority was my favorite of the places we stopped at, perhaps because I didn’t have to do any of the talking or negotiating!  Since EVERYTHING there is conducted in Amharic (including all the forms you have to fill out), Sisay came with me and basically did everything for me. After a fair amount of shuffling from one desk to another, we were handed my new license – a tiny slip of paper with a photocopied picture of me on it, a postage stamp sort of thing on the back, and an incorrect birthdate. I was a little surprised that after all the stops along the way, all the stamps and signatures and this and that, I just had a business card basically (and printed on regular weight paper!). Luckily, we weren’t entirely done. Sisay ushered me out of the building we were in to one next store, where I paid a lady 15 cents to laminate my license! Amazing! Now at least it won’t get destroyed in my pocket. :) So great.

So those were my two crazy days of bureaucracy. Since Saturday, life has been pretty much off-the-clock. I walked to the Hilton one day (about 40 mins from my hotel) to buy plane tickets up to the field site, change some money, use the internet, buy shampoo and conditioner, and generally just get out of my hotel. I also went to church with Sisay on Sunday – a riotous, lengthy (but pretty fun) affair full of singing and dancing and jumping around while it bucketed down rain and thundered like crazy outside. I’ve watched a number of movies on the TV in my room, read some books on my Kindle and generally relaxed. I also went on a trip to the Piazza to buy some methanol for the lab. Now that all the necessary official stuff is done, I’m itching to be up in the mountains! Yesterday (Tuesday) – Julie (camp manager) and her friend returned from their vacation and Ali is arrived from the US. This morning, we flew to Gondar, ran some errands and drove up to Debark. We had coffee there with some Peace Corps volunteers, then headed up to the Simiens! Hurrah! It’s been foggy and rainy since we arrived in the highlands, but hopefully it will clear up in the morning so we can go see geladas!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

almost there!!

I'm writing this from the Wellcome Library in London, halfway to Addis from the USA! I left Newark last night and arrived in London this morning. After leaving my luggage at the airport and navigating the Underground, I made my way over here to check out some free museums that my Aunt Marie had recommended. Very fun afternoon - I went to an exhibit about human perceptions of dirt, disease, waste and sewage over several centuries, saw some creepy old medical instruments, perused the UCL Egyptology Museum and went to my current favorite zoology museum (also at UCL). The Egyptology and Zoology museums were these funny tucked-away little things, packed floor-to-ceiling with skulls and bones and tablets and mummies. Very cool. And so nice to be out walking around after the plane ride over!

My next flight leaves in about 6 hours - London to Addis! Looking forward to finally being on the ground and getting my hands dirty....

Saturday, June 25, 2011


This has been an excellent week in terms of preparation for leaving.

First and most excitingly, I've bought my plane tickets!!! I had been keeping an eye on a set of tickets that looked promising (only one layover each way, correct dates and pretty good times....) and suddenly they dropped in price by about $300! So I snapped them up. It was pretty scary spending that much money at once, and on something that's basically not refundable, but so exciting to be officially going! I'll be leaving on August 30th and returning on May 22nd - nearly 9 months of monkey-time for me! I still need to get tickets for my field assistant Ali, who will be joining me in Ethiopia about a week after I arrive. I have a lot of logistics sort of stuff to take care of in Addis - getting a driver's license, which (from what I understand) requires me to first get a resident's permit, which needs a business visa authenticated by the government, which in turn needs a letter of support signed and stamped by the Wildlife Conservation Authority and the Embassy! So while Ali is spending a few days at Burning Man, I will be running around Addis with Tariku, a friend of the project, getting all my paperwork signed, stamped, authenticated, paid for, issued and re-issued until I emerge with residency and driving information in hand (and a much lighter wallet in my pocket)! This multi-day adventure is called The Ferenji (white foreigner) Olympics, and is a rite-of-passage of sorts for gelada project researchers. Luckily I'll have an habesha (Ethiopian) to help with the linguistic and cultural barriers I will no doubt encounter!

I've also gotten all the prescriptions and vaccines I need taken care of, thanks to a great travel doctor  at McCosh Health Center. Joe even wrote me a preemptive prescription for some anti-amoeba drugs that will come in handy when I get a GI tract infection from the water. I don't think you're really supposed to prescribe them before someone gets the infection, but he nicely got me enough for dealing with several bouts of trouble. And they are the generic version, so only $5! Awesome. It was great to get that price break, considering my meningitis vaccine was $105....

I've also got nearly everything I need for my field season, with the exception of a few hormone supplies on back order and some luxury food ideas that I will add in if I have space in my luggage. I have a fantastic spreadsheet of everything I'm bringing, how much it weighs, and which of my various luggage pieces it's going into - I do love planning! :)

Other than all that, I've been working on the next draft of my grant application to the Leakey Foundation. Leakey is an organization that funds research into human origins - paleoanthropology, genetics, primate behavior, and studies of modern hunter-gatherer groups (according to their website). The gelada project has had a nearly 100% success rate with getting funding from them in the past, so I'm hoping to get a big chunk of my project expenses taken care of that way. Jacinta (my advisor at University of Michigan) and I have been hard at work on the latest draft of my proposal. It's a challenge because there are so many interesting questions to answer, and only 6 pages (and 2 field seasons) in which to address them! It's also been tricky because so little is known about geladas, particularly juveniles. The two sources I have been using to get my information about juvenile social groupings are monographs from the 1970s, focused on gelada biology in general rather than on juveniles in specific. In one of them, the juvenile section is based on 3 days of data collection! THREE DAYS! SO it's been a challenge to figure out what information is really true and what is just a function of a tiny sample size and time duration. But I'm plugging away on it and looking forward to getting a draft off to my Princeton advisors by the end of the weekend....

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

slowly slowly, the grad student gets organized....

Welcome to what will hopefully be an entertaining series of musing about monkeys, mountains, life in Africa, and my Ph.D research in general! Over the coming year, I will do my best to regale you with my experiences living and working in the Ethiopian Highlands.
                                                                           ahhhh, the life of a gelada....

I am going to be updating this blog from the field through emails to my lovely mommy in California (assuming she is willing to be the updater while I am gone....). We have a satellite modem at the field site, so we are able to send and receive emails to/from a select few people once a day. We get charged by the size of the emails that pass through our modem, so it's a plaintext-only, no attachments sort of deal....which means this blog will lack up-to-date pictures, unfortunately. Sorry!! I will do my best to add pictures when I am in towns with real internet, and hopefully Mom will add in some pictures from last field season so you have something to look at besides text! You can always check out the pictures on the main project website for a general look at what we are up to, or my photo albums from last summer.

                                                               .....and ahhhhh, the life of a gelada researcher!

So, what's new? This week, I've started getting my act together to move to Ethiopia for 8 months - ordering supplies, making lists, arranging visas, seriously looking into plane tickets, making this's very exciting! and not at all stressful, as my departure date is still 2.5 months away (plus I love planning things). The pieces are finally falling into place - all my hormone analysis supplies are on their way to Princeton from various warehouses around the country, I've got a good Sam's Club shopping list started, I've ordered 8 months worth of daily disposable contact lenses, I've told my landlady that I'm moving out in August, and I've even found a place to buy a second footlocker to bring everything over to Ethiopia in! Kes buh kes, slowly slowly....