Entry #022: Thursday, July 11, 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

Cripes, has it been a week since I last made an entry? Sorry about that. I think the main reason for the delay is the fact that this place makes me really tired. Like, physically tired. Normally, I can stay up until 2am or so without issue, but here I'm lucky to get past 11pm without nodding off. The fact that we have to wake up at 6:30 every day (or 5:30 today for an early drive) doesn't really help the situation. In any case, I am not always in the mindset to make long entries when I'm done for the day, and then when I start, I tucker out. Like, a good part of this entry was started on Sunday, but then I just fell asleep at the keyboard. It's probably only going to be worse when I get roommates next week. So I'm going to plow through what I haven't already done, and then experiment for a while with shorter, more frequent entries. We'll see how that plays out.

The first topic I'm going to cover is one that I'm not a big fan of. One of the things that really makes this place summer camp-y is a system they've set up, called Merits and Demerits. It is what it sounds like - a system where, if you do something great, you get a little smiley face on a white board. If you do something bad, you get a frowny face. Anyone can issue you one or the other, be they program leader, or fellow volunteer. Now, I've never, ever been a fan of these kind of things. Not in elementary or high school, not as an resident assistant, never. It's just...I like to work more in a practical manner. If you screw up, you should be told that you screwed up, and work to have it not happen again. Your failure shouldn't be hung up for all to see. Inversely, if you do something really good, you should, at best, get quick acknowledgement, and then move on. To have these things put up like trophies creates the wrong atmosphere. You should strive to do well because, well, you should want to do well. There shouldn't be a public shaming and/or aggrandizing of anyone. And so I've taken a general "I don't care" attitude towards the whole thing. I don't try to remind people to give me merits, and I don't mind when I have demerits (in fact, I've given most of my demerits to myself, so that nobody else would have to worry about having the most). I've also gone and said that I have no intention of giving anyone else either type. Some of the others see the whole thing as a game, which is fine, but I just see it as a bit of misplaced psychology.

Speaking of the others, I think many of the issues I was noting in the last entry have smoothed out. I suppose it really was a case of heartbreak, as apparently all three of the girls had formed a romance with one of the departing guys. But time heals all wounds, etc, etc, and I think it's become increasingly clear to everyone that I'm a vastly different individual than the group that was here before, or indeed anyone. Yes, I'm not as relate-able as your typical frat boy, but if I were, I would just blend in. And that's not me. I'm the guy who stands, looking at the stars at a barbecue while everyone else is talking about jewelry, and then randomly asks "Does anybody know anything about theoretical physics?" (Yes, that actually happened.) As it's become increasingly clear who and what I am, and as the hurt of losing lovers passes, those who were previously treating me coldly have warmed up considerably, and if nothing else, are quite polite in our day-to-days. The Swede is still a bit acerbic, but I think that's just her personality type, as she's a bit of a - and I can't believe I'm using anime terms here - tsundere (tough shell, soft heart).

Oh, and the Scot said perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me after the conversation that began with the theoretical physics question: "You're not like anyone else I know. I find you fascinating to talk to." Oh. My. God. Either of those two sentences - separately - coming in my direction is a compliment of the highest caliber for someone like me. Together, my heart completely melted. My simple, amused "Oh, thank you!" belied the tempest inside of me. I should note, I'm not saying any of this with any sort of romance-colored glasses, I just felt a genuine sense of appreciation from one human to another. I need to remember to thank her again for that.

As for everyone else, it's all going fine. I'm still getting along best with the girl from Taiwan, but there's nobody that I'm not explicitly getting along with, which is really my bigger concern. If the worst-case scenario is neutral, I'm doing pretty well for myself. Though I still maintain that this place has a super sorority feel to it (in particular, a vapid, "mean girls" style sorority, courtesy of the other American), I can easily live and let live. For the most part, they're not really the kind of people I would choose to hang out with, so maybe I might be seen as somewhat anti-social, but I think I'm doing well at establishing myself as the "old guy who just don't give a damn", which is better, I guess. In any case, nothing's permanent; I'm almost halfway through my time with most of them, and the Scot and Swede are actually leaving tomorrow.

Anyway, Friday was a hell of a day. Even though the Fourth of July had already passed, it was probably the most American - or, rather, 'Murican - day of all. It had 4x4 driving, rifle shooting, and ended with a barbecue. I should have worn an Old Glory bandanna and wolf shirt just to complete the feel.

The first thing we did was learn how to drive the Game Viewer, which is our open-topped Land Rover. Now, Land Rovers may be the sturdiest cars ever designed, but they're also terrible. So I was a little trepidatious about driving it, not really because I thought I'd have any sort of cataclysmic failure and fall off a cliff, but rather because I thought I'd stall out a ton. Manual transmission, doncha know. There were four of us who were being taken out (the other three didn't have licenses). We had to drive over some rocky terrain, across a river, up a steep hill, turn around, and go back the way we came. And, to be perfectly honest, it went...fine. If anything, a bit anticlimactic. All four of us performed something well. The long-time vet was the best at not needing instruction, the Swede was best at using a manual without stalling, the other American was the most exciting (as she floored it up the hill and almost - but just almost - ran us into the electric fence. For my part, I was easily the best at steering, and I made it through 95% of the drive without stalling - but then stalled three times when trying to reverse at the very last part. Ah, well. Thankfully, this wasn't meant to train us to actually drive the Game Viewer in our normal day-to-day activities. It was just to give us the park ranger experience.

Then there was rife shooting. Like the 4x4 driving, this was more to give us an idea of what kind of skills would be necessary to be a ranger/guide/tracker/etc, because despite knowing the protocol, we're technically not allowed to use the guns ourselves, though I'd suppose they'd relax that rule in extreme emergencies. What wouldn't be relaxed is the national laws on shooting animals. Apparently, you can only shoot an elephant when it's charging and within 20 meters, a rhino within 15 meters, and a lion within 10 meters. One meter beyond that (and they apparently conduct thorough investigations whenever something like that happens), and even if it was a life-or-death situation, you'd be arrested for poaching. Anyway, we tried our hand with two different rifles, a .22 caliber, and a .375 caliber. We had a target set some distance away (20 meters, maybe?), and used a telescopic sight to aim. Using the smaller rifle, I got a "headshot" on three lions, an elephant, and, uh, a blue whale. With the bigger one (that only carried two bullets), I got one lion and one elephant. On the whole, a bit above average for the group. Interestingly, I would say my accuracy was significantly worse than when I do archery. And overall, I don't think I'd trade the bow for the rifle anytime soon. It's just more satisfying, and less...gun-y.

Later that Friday, we saw a brown hyena just running around. Apparently, this is one of the rarest things we could see (although a pangolin would still be #1), and Katie was driving the game viewer incredibly fast (about three-four times normal speed) to get to it. I tried taking some pictures, but they all turned out blurry, poorly lit, or both. I still need to work on getting my camera working in tough situations like that. My camera also has the issue of having a poor optical zoom. It's a great camera, to be sure, with stunning picture quality, but the optical zoom is only 3.5x. When dealing with animals especially, that's not much. So sometimes I find myself reaching for my binoculars instead (which are finally getting some good use on this trip). It's a big debate each time - do I want to try to preserve some long-distance memory, or so I want to actually get a good look at the animal? Not an easy choice, especially with the rare ones I may never see again.

Finally, the all-American Friday was rounded out with a barbecue (excuse me, braai) - prepared by the program leaders - which had about three different types of meat, corn on the cob, and scalloped potatoes. Basically, all meat and carbs. Not the healthiest meal I've ever eaten, but it was quite good, and there was good conversation throughout. Well, at least until half the girls got completely wasted.

(I'm going to speed through the rest of the topics here, because I want to actually get this up today.)

Spaking of food, I've cooked two meals while I've been here. Both of them have been lunches, and in both cases I hesitate to use the word "cooked". The first was ham sandwiches, which involved slicing cheese, tomatoes, and avocados so people could assemble the sandwiches themselves. The second one was cooking fish sticks. Fish sticks! Compared to the ornate dinners that some others are making, I have the distinct feeling that I'm being treated as a non-cook because I'm a boy. Funnily enough, I'm okay with that. If they want to give me less ornate meals, I won't have any opportunities to impress, but I'm not here to impress, so it's all good. I have two dinners to make this week, though, so we'll see if anything changes.

Saturdays here are basically half days. After our morning activities and lunch, we're free to do what we want (barring any chores you still have assigned to you). The only really notable thing I remember doing that day was throwing a Frisbee around. This was notable particularly because I'm much better at playing Frisbee than I remember. I guess all the times I played at Berkeley made me better than the average bear (though maybe not the average Bear). Or maybe it's just a California thing, but I was much more adept at catching and throwing than I remembered being. That is, until we started doing impala jumping at the same time, which did little more than make me lose my flip flops every minute.

Also on Saturday, I decided to go out and take some pictures of the stars, because it was, for all intents and purposes, a full moon that night. So, I did a little bit of research, set my camera to the settings that I thought would be ideal, and then went to the top of the recently-built, 10-meter sable-viewing station. Even on a moonless night, the ambient light coming from the houses was enough to make the sky look mostly dark, but I set my camera to a 30-second exposure, and set it down. I then tried to remain as still as possible until I heard the shutter click. When I looked at the preview that had processed, I was flabbergasted. What I saw looked like a picture you'd see in a legit astronomy book. Hundreds, thousands of stars, and a streak of the Milky Way, clear as day. Never before had my own eyes felt so inadequate. Here I was, badmouthing my camera earlier for not being able to zoom, and for getting blurry pictures of the hyena, but it was able to see a universe my two eyes would never be able to, at least not in the same situation. You could say the picture was a bit disingenuous (as the sky as humans saw it was not so magnificent), but I say it just shows how limited people we can be.

Whereas Saturday was a half-day, Sunday was completely free for us (again, outside of chores). These are usually the times when people will take day trips to the nearby Blyde Canyon or Kruger Park. We didn't do that on aid Sunday, though. I mostly spent the day watching videos, reading, and writing, for the first time in a long time, some parts to my sort story Turtle (which, by being an example of ergodic narrative, is very difficult and time consuming to write, but oh-so-fun)! I also tried getting writing and posting this entry, but, well, you can see how successful that was.

Monday was a very exhaustive day, both physically and mentally. On the physical side, we began the creation of a staircase for the sable station. This requires a set of poles to attach the stairs to, and poles require holes. So yes, for our morning activity, we were assigned to do what basically boils down to ditch digging. I personally didn't mind the concept, mainly because I got to use a pickax. I'm a big fan of axes, pickaxes, sledgehammers, and basically any tool based around swinging over your head. It's just so goddamn satisfying when you do it right. I tried to teach the girls the right form (that is to say, the form that utilizes momentum and doesn't throw out your back), though I don't really think anyone paid me mind; their loss. I also encouraged everyone to wear gloves, but they seemed satisfied getting bleeding blisters, and that's their perogative. It was good, honest work, but it was hard work, especially the hole I was working on (actually, the second hole I was working on, as I switched with someone). The dirt was so dry and tightly packed that it basically seemed like rock, so while getting down to 40 centimeters deep was okay, going that last 10 centimeters seemed to take forever. I then later learned that the hole was started too far over, and so I basically had to dig a second hole right next to it. That said, I at least was able to make a "manual labor song" for it, which I felt had the right kind of fatalistic prison-y attitude:
Clean up the highway,Clear out the morgue,We're going my way,That's for sure.The reaper's shadow,Is at my door,We're going my way,That's for sure.
Anyway, after doing that for a few hours and then having lunch, it was time to finish the physical work, and begin the mental work, because we actually had to take a test (like, a proper short answer test) based on all of our first week lectures, which we had to get a 75% or above on (lest we be forced to take it again). It was actually more challenging than I had anticipated, and there were some things that I didn't know, but I tried to make sure all my wrong answers were at least the kind to make the reader shake their head, laugh, and say "nice try." (For example, one question was "What does 'Pidwa' [the name of the preserve] mean?" It's "wildebeest", but I totally forgot this, and so I wrote down the super-suck-up answer of, "'Benchmark', because it strives to be a benchmark preserve that others should emulate.") Despite this, and despite temporarily forgetting where the clutch fluid container is in the game viewer ('cause, y'know, manual), I still managed to get a 94% on the test overall, the highest of my group, so that's something.

Tuesday was a pretty smooth day overall, seeing as we weren't at the preserve for most of it. As part of our once-weekly town visit, we went to a reptile shelter, where we got the grand tour, which began with a PowerPoint presentation that was impossible to determine if it was made for adults or kids. The bright colors and spinning text asking the audience, "Is a frog a reptile?" seems to imply kids, but then they show an image of serious necrosis from a cytotoxic snake bite. We then walked around looking at all varieties of creatures, and then got to handle a boa constrictor, which I found quite fun (I like snakes). We later saw a demonstration of some of the more dangerous snakes in South Africa, including the Puff Adder, the Boomslang, and the Hooded Cobra (Black Mambas are too big and unwieldy for demonstration purposes), and got to practice the proper ways to pick them up. Again, not that we're actually supposed to do this ourselves (like everything else, we call for the professionals to do it), but useful to know regardless. A quick holding of a baboon spider (much like a tarantula), and that was that. We then went further into town to go to a shopping center before lunch. There were some craft stands on the side of the road, and I escorted some of the girls, as they spent rand after rand on souvenirs. I was able to keep the shopkeepers from bothering me by saying I was the girls' bodyguard - it's amazing how well that works. We then had lunch at an fairly good Indian place (all while watching music videos, mostly cheesy throwbacks from the 80s), did some grocery shopping at the nearby Pick-n-Pay, and then went back. I also stopped into a jewelry store to ask about then shaping stones. I had done some research on my obsidian stone, and it's apparently not easy to shape, as it's like glass and would just shatter if I tried chipping at it. As such, some professional tools are needed. The lady there told me I should bring in the stone and ask her husband, so I think I'll give that a shot next week. I'm curious to see what can be done with it.

On Wednesday, we began the day by searching for the truant lioness stalking the Langalanga section of the preserve. While we didn't find her, we did get evidence of her on a camera trap, and found a freshly (<48 hours) killed carcass of a zebra, which had to have been killed by her, as she's literally the only predator in the area. The stomach of the zebra was spilled out, and the rump was pretty much completely eaten out, but other than that, there still seemed to be quite a bit of meat remaining. After ensuring that the lioness was not in the bushes ready to pounce upon anyone gutsy enough to steal her food, we set up a camera trap there and tied down the carcass so it couldn't be moved. And if you were wondering, yes, it did smell. Quite a bit, in fact.

Wednesday also involved more work on getting those poles up for the sable station (after we did some tree identification exercises, which I think hardly merits mention). Unfortunately, whilst my hole was deep enough, I found out that it was still too far over, and so additional digging needed to be done. My muscles were still quite sore from Monday (though the day break did help quite a bit), and so dig I did. I had brought my Zune with me, and listened to some Rammstein (German hard rock) while I worked. Coming a no surprise to me, this seemed to make it easier. We then began moving poles into the holes. While some of them were quite light, others were made of the ominously-named "leadwood", which was appropriate. It wasn't too bad, though I did get several splinters in my hand the one time that I took off my glove. The real tricky part of this was making sure the poles lined up properly, because the only way to really see if they were straight was to view from a distance, in the sable camp. As I've been pegged as having the best eyesight, I was volunteered for this. It went fine, although the adult male sable, who had meter-long horns, came within 10 meters of me. I mentally prepared to run for the fence and jump, but it thankfully never came to that, mainly because I never got to close to his kids.

After dinner on Wednesday, I basically went straight to bed (well, "straight" is a bit of an exaggeration, but before 10pm, for sure), because we had to wake up an hour earlier to go stalk the lioness again, as we had the zebra carcass as bait. Now, I'm not a morning person, so the prospect of waking at 5:30 was not an attractive one. I basically wanted to see the lioness just to justify it. But when we got to the carcass, it seemed untouched. We stayed there for near-on two hours, but nothing showed up. She's won this round. Later, after second breakfast (we eat two small breakfasts here), we went out to do road clearing, which basically involves taking pangas (wide machetes) and saw to cut down sharp and thorny trees and bushes. While it went successfully, it was almost impossible to do this without getting poked, prodded, and pricked. I managed to make it out with relatively few cuts overall, but I find it funny that you're more likely to get hurt by the plants here than the animals.

Later on in the day we went out on a research drive, which was the most uneventful thing ever until we came across a pair of cheetah brothers, and followed them for about 20 minutes as they were searching for something to hunt. We later crossed paths with a large elephant who just would not get out of our way, and was making us all a bit nervous every time he inched closer to us (though, aside from a couple mild starts, he was ignoring us in favor of delicious grass eating). We got home late, had a Swedish dinner to honor the Swede's last day, and then later in the night, played the oddest variation of Werewolf I've ever been a part of.

And that gets us about up to speed. A couple final notes:

  • On Saturday, I managed to get a real, honest-to-God human being to say "I want a Zune so bad." I almost find that resume-worthy, from a marketing standpoint.
  • Health-wise, I'm definitely feeling better than I was this time last week, though all the mucus in my system suggests I'm not exactly cold-free yet. We'll get there, though.
  • I found out some bad news today, as Capcom has been hit with considerable layoffs due to a reorganization. A number of my friends have been affected. My heart go out to them, and I ask any and all my readers to keep these people in their thoughts and prayers while they look for new opportunities, because they are wonderful, talented people, many of whom I had a great amount of respect for and can hardly imagine the company without. (Honestly, it makes me wonder what it will look like when I get back - will there be anything familiar at all?)
  • Update on the Kilimanjaro entry - the video has uploaded! That only took about 10 days (though, to be fair, the fact that it could upload continuously for 10 days without issue is pretty impressive in its own right). However, I still have some annotations to add, and a couple other things to worry about, so it might be another day. You've waited this long; what's one more day?

As I said, I'll see if I can do shorter, more frequent posts. I know I said the same thing at the orphanage, so maybe I'm just blowing hot air, but I'll make an effort to try. That's something, right?

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