Entry #027: Saturday, August 3, 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

Wow, has it been nearly a week already? Time can seriously fly around here. Though to be honest, the main reason I haven't had any updates in all this time is because I've been doing updates in another way - posting pictures to my Facebook account. Now, this may seem like the worst excuse, but keep in mind, we're not talking a couple pictures - we're talking upwards of over a thousand when all is said and done. And then take into consideration that it's a slow upload speed here, and then take into consideration the fact that I need to (or at the very least, should) write captions for each of them, and then take into consideration the fact that sometimes Facebook messes up, forcing me to start over, and you have yourself a slow-going process. It ends up just exhausting me, making blogging seem less desirable.

But enough with excuses, let's cover some of the stuff that happened this week. (Oh, and I think I'll be posting links to all my photo albums up once I've gotten the first couple South Africa ones done. Though you could always just follow me on Facebook to keep up to date on it.)

So, the week began on a bit of a somber note this past Monday, I suppose, as people were leaving. And there were quite a number of tears involved. Not from me, mind you. And I'm not saying that to sound like some sort of big tough guy. I was super teary-eyed on my last day on the job. But then, that was a major life shift, rather than just a parting of ways with people I've known for a month. Because while I'd call them all "friends" in colloquial conversation, I wouldn't consider any of them to be friends. This is nothing new to me - almost all of the people I would consider friends took at least three or four months before we "clicked". And I've been told as much by numerous individuals, many of which are some of my best friends. It's a slow process, and it hasn't really steered me wrong before. But it does mean I don't get as genuinely close to people in such a short time period. So most of my goodbyes, while genuine and amicable, were all dry-eyed. Though I did mention to the Canadian girl (as per my last entry) that while another month would probably not have gotten us to that friends threshold, I would have enjoyed it all the same. Thankfully, I think she recognized it as the compliment I intended. I was also told by the British guys that should I get to Hammersmith again, I should give them a call. I'd possibly consider it (the big assumption being that Capcom would be in a position to hire me again and then send me over to London), but then, I don't have contact information. But after all that, they went their ways - to the airport, to the shuttles, to other parts of the world.

While we were in town, I got an update from the jeweler on my Kilimanjaro obsidian (he said it was shaped, and would be polished by my next visit, though there are some impurities in it, which I was fully expecting anyway) and then had a wild game platter for lunch, which included Kudu (not my favorite), Ostrich (definitely my favorite, and destined to be a Christmas tradition sometime in the future), Impala (not much different from beef), and Springbok (fine as a carpaccio-type thing, but fairly unsubstantial on its own). On the whole, probably not worth the $17 from a strict value perspective, but then who eats wild game for value?

Anyway, while I was having lunch, some of the new folks arrived (those on an earlier flight), we had a nice conversation, and then when the meal was finished, the second group arrived, we went grocery shopping, and after stopping at a service station to get a new tire for the Game Viewer (where I met what seemed like the angriest Afrikaner), we headed back home. I might as well get some initial impressions out of the way now. And by "initial", I mean "having had nearly a week to get to know everybody".

  • Overall - I like this group. On the whole, I think the general dynamics are a little more straightforward. It's a bit less fragmented than the group last month seemed to always be to some extent, and I seemed to have hit it off pretty well with everyone. Honestly, I think my position as "the vet" has helped in this regard, because it fits more with my personality type, and its easier to fit my way into the group structure than when I had the same personality but was the newbie. (Funnily enough, I'm not actually the longest-serving volunteer here at the moment, as the Taiwanese girl is two weeks more experienced than me. But then, in my opinion, being the vet has nothing to do with how long you've been here.) I can't say for certain if the general good vibes will last between all of them for the whole month, but I think I'll get along with them all fine.
  • London Girl - This girl is actually related to both Joe and the older British guy who just left, so this just seems like a whole family affair. I was a little worried at first when she was described as being taller than me, not because I don't like women being taller than me, but that I don't like anyone being taller than me. (Even one of my best friends, when I first met him in college, irked me by being half an inch taller.) Don't ask me; just a weird quirk. Thankfully, she's just a tad shorter than me, so it's all good. But seriously, she's very, for lack of a better term, real, definitely not from a highborn status or anything, but very nice all the same, and we get along quite well.
  • Northampton Girl - I really wish there was only one person of each gender from every country, because now I'm forced to go "English Girl 1 & 2" or go with town names (or go with real names, which I'm not convinced I want to do for this particular segment). Anyway, I think it's her accent - in fact, I'd bet the farm it's her accent - but this girl sounds like she comes from an absurdly wealthy family. There's no evidence to prove it, but her voice is too proper and melodious to be poor. Not that it matters, because what's really important is that she's also a very kind individual, and while she seems to be out of her element (if I'm right), she's adapting quite well.
  • Irish Girl - I gotta say, it's nice to have an Irish person around, because it's so enjoyable to hear that fast-speaking accent. She's also quite nice (you're going to be hearing that a lot with this group), and also quite real, often tearing down and making light of a lot of the preconceived notions people have about Ireland (though, to be fair, she does come from what sounds like an absurdly conservative part of the country). 
  • Taiwanese Girl 2 - So, now there's a second one, which is no coincidence, as this one is the friend of the one already here. She's actually been in the US for a little under a year, as she goes to school at Stanford (aka the one college that I didn't get accepted into). She's also quite nice, but like the other one, she has this...oh, how do I describe this tastefully...manufactured ditziness. Like, she's obviously an intelligent person, but has a confused air about her, and will say things that are either super saccharine (example: using "yummy" as the only adjective to ever describe good food) or just kinda ditzy. It reminds me a lot of the Japanese "kawaii" culture, so maybe it's a gender role thing for Taiwanese girls (there have been books written about Japanese gender roles in culture, so maybe it crosses over)? I dunno. That aside, she's a very nice and energetic girl.
  • British Boy - I would say this guy is the most baseline person here. By which I mean he seems completely normal, though I'm not saying this as a negative. Quite the opposite - if you have nothing but eccentrics, then things degrade quickly. Having someone who is a normal, level-headed individual is a great boon, in my opinion. He's also a very nice guy, and I get along with him very well.
  • Slovenian Girl - In some ways, she reminds me a bit of the Dutch girl who was here before (in being the "other European girl", but she seems to have infinitely more confidence than that one, and I actually realize she's here. So that's a good start. As with everyone else, she's also quite friendly.
  • Czech Boy - This is the only one I can't quite put my finger on yet. And that probably sounds horrible since I've literally said everyone else seems so nice, so I should qualify that he seems nice too. But there's something about him that reminds me of myself. Specifically, an older (by which I mean younger) version of myself. He's very intelligent, and takes every opportunity to show it. That's something I would have definitely done before (and occasionally do now, but at least now I recognize it). He has all the best equipment, and talks about what makes it so great. And he does so in complete earnestness, not condescending in any way, but not realizing that not everyone has access to the same stuff. In short, he's what I would have been had I done this program years ago (he even likes video games). He and I may end up the best of friends - we have a lot of similar interests, after all - but I don't know if I'll be able to look past the fact that he reminds me of a part of myself I've been trying to temper for years. But that's more of a personal thing, I guess.
  • Oh, by the way, when you take me out of the picture, the oldest person in the group is 22. That's right, I'm the old fogey again.
There, feel like you know everybody yet? Well, sorry, that's all you're getting.

Anyway, we got home, and were going to go out for a drive to see the sunset (as is usual on days with new folks), but it was a miserably cloudy day, so we just went on top of the sable station, where we could see a slight sliver of orange cutting through the clouds. It would have to do. We then had a quick dinner, and everyone, tuckered out after a day of travel, decided to go to bed fairly early (and I'm talking, like, 9pm early). This left myself to speak with the original Taiwanese girl. And, as is such a familiar situation for me, I began to play the role of therapist. I'm not saying this in a bitter way at all. People just open up to me. Tell me things they're afraid to tell anyone else. I once had a waitress in Tempe talk to me about her family and drug problems after knowing me for about 20 minutes. Something about me, I guess. Anyway, I tried to remain quiet for the majority of the conversation (because normally all people really want is a wall to vent at), but pulled no punches when my advice was specifically asked for. I'll respect her privacy and not go into details, but I do think one piece of advice is applicable to everyone: take a pen and paper, and - giving it real thought - write down who you are. Not what you do, not who you know, but who you are. I've done that myself, and I found it to be a very enlightening exercise.

When Tuesday began, we split up into groups, as the new folks needed to do some of their lectures. Meanwhile, the two vets were just varnishing the sable station. This was interrupted, though, as we got a call that there was a lion sighting (this would be the first of several throughout the week). So, we dropped everything (pretty much literally), and raced to the Game Viewer, which then raced off to near where the airstrip was. Now, as I've mentioned before, this place used to be farmland, and one of the relics of this bygone era are series of artificial watering holes, meant for cattle. I've discussed them with Katie before, and long-term, they are planned to be taken out and replaced with more natural dam solutions, but until a full plan is worked out, they remain where they are. As such, animals will drink out of them, as they would from any natural dam. And sure enough, there was a lioness (Intombe, the youngest of the main Askari pride) standing on the edge of this watering hole, drinking. She seriously looked just like a typical house cat drinking from a sink or toilet, just a lot bigger. We ended up following this lioness for a while into the bush, where her erratic movements eventually got the better of us (she had apparently been hunting warthog (unsuccessfully) earlier in the day, so it's likely she was still hunting).

After that bit of excitement, and after finishing varnishing, we did some more routine stuff that I won't go into detail about - checking and moving camera traps, and doing research routes, but that night, things got interesting. We were playing some card games, and eventually Werewolf came up. In case you don't remember from some of my previous entries, I enjoy playing Werewolf, which involves people being randomly assigned as villagers, a werewolf, a doctor, and if there's enough people, a hunter. You can look up the rules online, but you play until either the villagers or the werewolf is dead. There are two things that make it great - people really getting suspicious of each other, and a creative narrator (which is what I like to do). It was a great game for an RA to get their residents to play. And because we had a pretty much full group playing, it all turned out quite well (much better than when we only had four people playing with the last group). But then we had another, long-term game suggested, simply called "Murder". Inspired by Clue (or as the Brits call it for some reason, Cluedo), everyone writes down their name, as well as an object and a place. These are then mixed up in three different piles, from which people choose. The three paper slips you choose are your target, your weapon, and your location. You basically have to make the target willingly hold the object in that location to kill them. It's a game that could conceivably last for days, if not weeks, and makes everyone suspicious, so it's quite fun. More on this later.

On Wednesday, we again split up into vets and newbies. Whilst the new folks had more lectures, we went out with our Ghostbuster herbicide backpacks to spray some lantana plants near the river. During this time, there was more discussion between me and Taiwanese Girl 1, and while I won't talk about any of the personal stuff, I will bring up one point. She describes herself as an introvert (which, in my experience, her actions completely belie), and then talked about some articles she read about how introverts are smarter and more reflective than extroverts. Now - speaking as an introvert - I hate (hate) the type of masturbatory things that introverts write and say about themselves. Basically, they all boil down to "introverts are superior to extroverts". Extroverts are portrayed in such things as brutish, unempathetic people who want everyone to be extroverts, whereas introverts are intelligent, thoughtful, and ultimately more successful. The people who write these kinds of articles are basically trying to make themselves feel superior to half the population when, guess what, nobody is superior to anyone.

Sorry, tangent.

Anyway, after preparing the easiest lunch ever (ham sandwiches - literally, the only work was opening packages, grating cheese, and slicing three tomatoes; the eaters did the rest), we did some cleanup work in the sable breeding camps. This involved some scrubbing of water troughs, as well as cutting branches of sicklebush (seriously, is that not a sinister name) to build barriers that would force the sable to walk through tick sprays on their way to get food. (I ended up getting a spritz of the spray myself; thankfully, my skin remained intact, despite the stuff basically being acid. At least I'll be tick-free for a bit!) For a lot of the new people, it was their first experience having to work with the thorny plant, and so a symphony of "Ow!"s was to be expected.

Not much happened that day, though I did end up having some good conversations with the new girls throughout the day, and showed the Northampton girl some of my travel pics. I realized it was actually the first time that I'd shown them to anyone at Askari; nobody had really asked before. It was nice to share them, though (which is why I'm making an effort to get the newer ones online).

Thursday began with a herbivore research drive, which meant it was the perfect spot to commit my first murder in our game. You see, I had perhaps the easiest assignment ever - the Irish girl, with binoculars, in the Game Viewer. All we needed to do was see an interesting bird, and I was set. It was a little bit trickier than I expected, because she decided to sit in the backseat, whereas my vet status meant I was always in the front seat. I tried compensating for this by offering the British boy - whose birthday it was - a chance to sit in the front, but he declined. Still, some subtle manipulation allowed me to get the binoculars back there when we saw a vulture nest, and I made sure to ask the Irish girl, "Do you want the binoculars?" before she took them, to make sure there was no dispute. The moment she looked through, I smiled. "By the way, you've just been murdered." She was shocked, and everyone else amused. It was a good way to start off the game in earnest.

While on the route, we actually had another lion spotting. Two, in fact. One was of two lionesses, which we were able to catch up with, and one was with the pride's two male lions (who Joe saw near the house). What made this interesting is that, due to fact that we saw Intombi alone the other day, and due to the fact that this was near the river (which goes, through a fence, into Langalanga), and because of how the lionesses were interacting with each other, it seemed as though one of them may have actually been the errant lioness that they've been tracking since before I got here. She may have gotten out the way she got in and returned to her pride. We can't tell for sure, because we didn't get close enough to get a positive ID, but if it turns out to be the case, it would mean that this lioness didn't have cubs after all, that they both died, or - if only one was left - she may have abandoned it. Or she may have just been visiting, and was set to return. Basically, we have no idea one way or the other. But if she is actually out, that means we might make fewer trips to Langalanga.

These sightings had us arrive late back home, and so our pre-lunch activity was moved. I decided to use the time to lie down in my favorite hammock and listen to some music, soaking in the sun all the while. I rested my eyes for a second, only to be woken up for lunch. I love when that happens. (Apparently, they had all sat down at the table before realizing I wasn't there.) After lunch, I put in my headphones and entered in some of the data we had gotten over the last month into an Excel sheet. Interesting fact: one-quarter of all the elephant sightings that Askari has had in 2013 were during last month. Not too shabby! (It seems like they've moved to the southern part of the reserve, though, so I think we'll be seeing much less of them this month.) On the whole, this data entry almost made me feel like I was doing market research again. Familiar, kinda nice. But then, anything can feel nice when you do it listening to the right music.

Later that afternoon, we went up to our scenic viewpoint (disguised to the newcomers as a "wilderness lecture"), which was particular beautiful that day, thanks to crystal clear skies that let us see the nearby mountain ranges almost perfectly. Katie also used the opportunity to present the British boy with a birthday cake, while Joe showed everyone a baby flat-rock scorpion he had found. It was a nice little excursion. However, because we left the viewpoint after sunset, we didn't get home until quite late, and the dinner being prepared was a particularly elaborate one. As such, we didn't at until about 9pm but you know what, it was worth it, because we had an excellent - and long - dinner conversation. I don't even remember what exactly the topics were, but we didn't end up leaving the table until about 10:30. Being a guy who loves the art of conversing, this was something I'd been missing for some time. I knew I liked this group.

The remainder of the night was spent failing to get in contact with my medical provider to get their help filling out a form for my Everest trip, and Friday began with a bit more of all the same. Varnishing steps, data entry, and a bush walk. But that was just the first half of the day. The second half was AMERICA DAY! By which I mean it was the time of the month where we had rifle shooting, 4x4 driving, and a barbecue! On the rifle course, the Slovenian girl proved to be a crack shot, hitting almost three bulls-eyes in five shots. I, being the vet, decided to do something different, so I went with the speed challenge, which is to do five shots in 30 seconds. In theory, this shouldn't be too hard, even for someone who doesn't really use guns. However, I think the rifle's telescopic sight threw me off, because you have to look through it just right, and getting in that position takes seconds in and of itself. I think it may have actually been easier to just use iron-sights. In any case, my speed challenge went...decently. I got one lion, a couple elephants, one piece of tape holding the target to the board and one completely wild shot. Not the worst, but definitely not the best. I did a little better with the bigger caliber rifle (though not much - I actually shot the scoreboard on my target sheet), but the Slovenian girl proved too much for everyone else, earning her the nickname "Lara Croft" (as she kinda looks like a blond version of the character).

4x4 driving went much better for me. Of the seven of us driving, I would say I was among the top three, and I easily had the best gear shifting, which is ironic, seeing as I'm the automatic-driving American. We did have some excitement when the London girl forgot to let go of the clutch going downhill, causing us to freewill into the river crossing. Everyone survived, though, which was good, because we had a braai to put on. It was here that I would pull off my second attack in the Muder game. You see, after you kill someone, you assume their target. My new one was the Northampton girl, with a spoon, in the garden (i.e. the yard). This encompasses quite a large area, including the fire pit. So, I went pretty deep in getting it to work. I went out, pretending to have a cup of hot chocolate, complete with a teaspoon for stirring. I then got next to the Northampton girl, and got the conversation onto the fire. I then say, "I'm tempted to do some coal juggling. You ever try that?" She was so surprised that I could have given her anything. I poured some water from my mug onto my hand to get it wet, and then I handed her the spoon, saying, "Here, hold onto this." After she took it, she said, in a sweetly concerned voice, "Please don't do this." I wiped my hand on my pants. "Okay, I won't. By the way, you've just been murdered." Everyone got a kick out of the elaborateness of the setup. (Though it wasn't as elaborate as the setup I had planned when I originally thought I had to give a spade to her.)

Throughout the cooking, we could hear lions vocalizing, each time getting closer and closer. In fact, they got so close that we jumped on the Game Viewer for an impromptu drive to see if we could spot them. Unfortunately, we could not. So we just came back and had a delicious meal, and another good dinner conversation. This one ended up with me singing the commercials for Almond Joys, Tootsie Rolls and Mentos. I...I don't actually know how that started.

After dinner, the Czech guy, Slovenian girl, and myself went up to do some star photography. The Czech guy easily had the best equipment, and was very knowledgeable about cameras, but he kept trying to tell me that my settings were not going to produce good results, especially on a point-and-shoot. I had to hide a smug grin each time he saw the results and said, "Oh, that's actually quite good." Again, it was like interacting with my former self. I left the astro-photography session a bit early though, when I heard another lion vocalization, this one very close. Unfortunately, my fence line check did not provide any results, as "close" for a lion's roar can still be 50 meters away, well out of sight. I just decided to call it in for the day.

Not much to talk about today. We went on a research route drive in the morning, and then a sable breeding camp, and nothing exciting really happened on either. When we got back, I tried to go out to my hammock, but the London girl was in there, clearly because I had recommended as the best place in the area. I had to settle with grabbing my blanket and lying out on the lawn, trying to get my torso as tan as my arms and face (and I didn't realize it until I got a picture with the Irish and Northampton girls, but I am tan). And then after lunch, I've just been working on getting my Kilimanjaro pictures up, and then writing this entry. Taiwanese Girl 1 (that is, the other vet), who has been seemingly try to get the whole group to do everything together, all the time, asked why I wanted to be antisocial. "First of all," I replied, "If you think I - the guy who starts half of all conversations and sang the Mentos song at dinner - is antisocial, you don't know what it is to be antisocial. Second, I have my own life, and after spending a week doing things with people, I need my me time."

But yeah, on the whole, it's been a good week, and I think this is going to be a good group of people. I look forward to seeing what comes out of it overall. Also, I'm waiting to make my next strike in the Murder game. It's a practical assignment, but with very specific conditions. I'll have to be patient...so very patient...

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