Entry #030: Friday, August 23, 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

Well, it sure has been a hot week here, in more ways than one! Actually, mainly just one...fire. And lots of it. My last week at the Pidwa Reserve has been a fairly eventful one overall, though, with the prescribed burning of a portion of the reserve being a major part of it. And as part of that, I had probably the single most exciting (and somewhat surreal) moment of the entire trip thus far. Also, there are nachos involved. So, going out with a bang and all that jazz! Let's get started, shall we?

My weekend was a mostly quiet affair, very much by choice. I mostly just spent the latter half of Saturday and the majority of Sunday relaxing, reading, listening to music, writing, watching some videos, and generally not having a care in the world. Ah, the joys of having a house in (quite literally) the middle of nowhere to yourself. That said, having nobody else around meant that all the house chores - all of them - fell upon me. In truth, this wasn't so bad (I did slightly begrudge the fact that I had to clean the pool for no swimmers until I saw that there was a salamander on the pool net), but when it came to dinner on Saturday night, I decided that making Pangolin Pot Roast - a chicken dish, in fact - for one person wasn't really worth the effort. So I just pan-fried a couple chicken breasts, baked a couple potatoes, and called it a day. I did make the effort of cooking nachos for Sunday lunch, though, because...well, because nachos.

I also used the time to get some grooming in (including cutting my own hair [which made me feel at home again] to a probably-too-short length), and saw some elephants. Like, right outside the vegetable garden. It was night, so I couldn't see them all clearly, but there were at least two for sure, and likely three or four, just munching away happily on the trees outside the fence. One of them got freaked out when he heard the crunching of leaves under my feet and got the hell out of dodge, but another one took a more relaxed approach to the whole thing, hanging around for a bit before strolling away. It looks like all we needed to get the elephants to come to us was for the rest of the group to leave.

Speaking of the rest of the group, despite telling me that they'd be home in time for dinner, they didn't end up getting back until about 8:30 in the evening. I honestly didn't mind having more time to myself, but had I known that dinner wasn't going to be until 10pm, I probably would have just cooked something for myself. Hindsight and all that. When everyone got back, they all complimented (or at least commented on) my haircut, and I got a couple "we missed you's", which was sweet. I didn't have the heart to tell them I was loving having the place to myself.

The weekend being over, it was time to plan for the week ahead. As mentioned in my last entry, the main thing for the week is the fire burning of a few sections of the reserve to control growth. While I would love to say this would involve me with a flamethrower, burning the countryside whilst laughing, the truth is that most, if not all the work is done by a team of paid professional fire-starters. Joe even told me straight-up that if everything goes according to plan, we'll just be sitting and watching. (That said, if something messes up, it'll be all hands on deck.) Even so, seeing a burning - especially a night burn - is apparently one of the coolest things. However, it's also a very temperamental process, completely at the beck and call of the weather. Too much moisture in the air? No burn. Winds too gusty? No burn. Too hot or cold? No burn. With that in mind, it was decided that we should probably just do our town trip first thing this week, and see where we get with the weather conditions as the week progressed.

Being a town day, we got to sleep in (an in spite of this, everyone who went out for the weekend said that they were tired), and then left. We first made a stop at the giant baobab tree (which, as I mentioned before, would have a better claim to fame as the world's neediest tree, as based on all it's "Please visit me; I'm lonely" signs). I declined to pay the entrance fee this time, since...well, when you've seen a tree, you've seen a tree. As such, I just watched from the car as the others puttered around it, and then we were on our way to the town of Tzaneen. Much like with Hoedspruit, I had already been to Tzaneen and its mall, so there wasn't much in the way of new for me. I didn't have any clothes I needed to buy, so I mainly just meandered for an hour and a half.

Actually, no, that's not true. I bought a can opener. I'd been meaning to buy a can opener for the Askari house for six weeks, as the ones we'd been using this whole time have been horrid. Terrible. Embarrassing. (Two of them won't even work, the third just works a third of the time.) However, as is the case with items you don't normally buy, I kept forgetting. This time, though, I had a huge slice on my finger caused by me peeling back the half-opened lid on a can, which I guess was like tying a string to the finger, except more painful. Is it a waste of my money buying a high-quality can opener that I won't use one week from now? For me, yes, but the satisfaction of knowing that future groups of volunteers won't have to worry about opening their cans gives me a sublime sense of satisfaction.

Anyway, after having lunch at the same place where we ate last time in Tzaneen (where I got another affordable whole chicken), and doing our weekly grocery shopping, the car I was in took a quick detour to the pet shop (I would say "a pet shop", but I think there's just one in all of Limpopo province). Joe needed to get some mice for his pet snake, and I needed to get some meal worm. Not to feed anything, but to feed upon something. Namely, Tiberius. The maggots and beetles that have found their way to my impala head have been doing an admirable job (there is definitely a few good portions of bone showing), but I want it to get done faster, lest I have to resort to boiling the head. So, three boxes of meal worms should hopefully have enough of an appetite to hasten everything. Oh, and we also saw some cute dogs and rabbits at the petshop. Awww.... Anyway, we got back home, but unfortunately the weather was not ideal, so there'd be no burning for the night. We took a drive out to try to find some lions that had been spotted near the employee village, but that availed to nothing. So, we just got back, had a late dinner, and called it a night.

So, Tuesday. Tuesday was the beginning of what I shall describe as "The Big Burn". I should emphasize that this is not a common occurrence. The last prescribed burning here was in 2010. And the process for obtaining permits has been going for months and months. So it's really quite rare for volunteers to be part of this process, which, when all was said and done, would have a good third of Pidwa be burned. So there was a lot of burning to be done, and as mentioned before, conditions were not really the best, so they wanted to get as much done as possible on Tuesday. They said they would burn from 8am until 4am (Katie told me privately that this probably meant they'd stop at 10 or 11). So we had a long day ahead of us, potentially.

And what an odd day it was. It's kind of weird, really, for the most part, everyone agreed that we were really happy to have spent the day doing this, but didn't want to do it again (though we did end up having to). It was tedious at times, thrilling at other times, and dirty all the time. We started off by meeting up with the fire team and being assigned a partner, who would just be a firefighter we'd kinda walk along the fire line with. We were then all given beaters, which as the name implies, are tools for beating...fires. I'm actually quite enamored with the simplicity and effectiveness of the design. It's a pole, five to six or so, with a sheet of rubber at the end (which itself has strips cut out). Imagine a mix between a mop and a giant fly swatter. You basically go to a fire, give it a good whack, and if you're doing it right, you smother it. Most of the firefighters were using these (though they did have water-based methods, including these backpack guns which reminded me a lot of Super Soakers). And we were told to get going.

Oh! And we were also told to take off any nylon (or other synthetic) clothing, as that would melt to our skin before we knew it. Lovely!

Anyway, truth be told, we didn't do all that much for the most part. We were walking some distance back from where the guy with the drip torch was setting alight the fields, and making sure that the flames did not jump across to the other side of the road. Usually, the flames would putter out themselves, so it wasn't an issue. And when there was one that needed handling, usually one of the professionals handled it. Really, for the first portion, the biggest challenge was figuring out where we should stand: ahead of the drip torch (which is the most comfortable spot, but is pretty useless in terms of handling any problems), far behind the drip torch (which means you're kind of by yourself, but you have a better ability to see any jumping fires), or close behind the drip torch (which is nearest to the action, but uncomfortable as hell, what with the smoke stinging your eyes and the convection of the flames making you feel like a steak). My group (half of all the volunteers) alternated between the three.

Now, most of the firefighter partners more-or-less ignored their wards, but mine was quite talkative. We spent a good half-hour with him telling me, essentially, about my white privilege, and how difficult it would be for him to travel because he's black. While I absolutely will never deny the existence of white privilege, nor the fact that I have it, I also tried to talk about how I think there's a failure in the education system in many African countries, which creates a society that doesn't really rise above its current position. Not sure if my point got through, but it was worth a shot. He also asked me if this was a record for me. When I asked him what he meant, he specified that he was wondering if this is the first time I've spent time working side-by-side with a black person. After all, this is the first time he's done so with a white person. Think about that for a second. That's how segregated South Africa still is. Even with these firefighters, there were 50 black people and one white guy. Guess which one was the boss. So yeah, racial inequality still rampant. Anyway, my partner also spoke with the other volunteers, including one baffling instance when we got to the river. He was telling us all how stones grow with time, and that we should keep some and watch them grow over the years. When he pondered about why stone houses don't get bigger with time, I was legitimately confused as to whether he genuinely believed in growing stones, or was just trying to troll us.

After getting the first section burned, we went back to the house, had some lunch, and shortly after, headed out for another burning. The process was much the same, though we were no longer paired up with the firefighters. For the most part, this just became a long process of walking and talking amongst each other (we played a game of who-can-get-hit-by-the-most-escaping-locusts), though we did get some action...albeit for the wrong reasons. Somewhere a distance behind us, a part of the fire had jumped the road (likely from a burning leaf) and we needed to put out a fire that was now burning on the wrong side. We ignored the fact that this could be construed as negligence on our part because, well, at least we got to be useful! We ran back (by which I mean drove back, because we had all gotten bored enough to go in the Game Viewer) and began beating the fire as much as possible. It's amazing how effective those home-made tools are. Once that was done (with the help of some of the water trucks), we continued down until the block was done, and finished for the moment.

We took another break at the house, but before we could get ready for dinner, it was time to go for the night burn in Buffalo Camp. I figured it would be a while before we got back, so I packed away my leftover nachos from Sunday. I was tired from all the burning, and I'm pretty sure all the smoke had taken two years from my life, but I was told night burning was the coolest thing. And coming up on some portions that had already begun...I could agree. Add to that the fact that it was a full moon, and it was pretty spectacular. This time around, things went a little differently. Instead of splitting up into two groups, all the volunteers went as one, without any firefighters. So, no trained professionals, just a bunch of 26-and-under folks not wearing the proper clothes. Remember, we signed a waiver! Anyway, we basically just walked for a good couple hours, one person with the drip torch, the others doing what they could to spread the flames. See, we were getting both sides burned, so we didn't really need to worry about putting out fires. Just fanning flames, pushing dry grass here and there, and making sure you weren't too close when it got too hot (and it could get hot).

Truth be told, I did get pretty bored part of the way through, and I think most people agreed with me. While this was a cool experience, we kinda just wanted it to be done for the night. And that's when it happened. At some point, the fire that was approaching us on the right side (we were mainly lighting on the left) reached us. At one point on the road, this created a seemingly impassable wall of flame. And then there was fire behind us, and all around us. Simply put, we were surrounded. So, some of the volunteers came back to the Game Viewer (I think I was on a nacho break at the time) and said "We're trapped!" At the same time, the firefighter boss's truck drove through the flames behind us. "We've got the whole place," he said, "Let's just get everyone out for the night!" So, we all got into the Game Viewer, except for Joe and the American boy, who were quite some distance ahead of us (past the flame wall). Fire on every side, Katie started up the Game Viewer and said what I think is the best in-context quote of my time here: "Watch your heads!"

So, everyone with their heads down and all the girls screaming, we drive this roofless 4x4 through a raging wall of fire and forward, forward, the crackling heat of burning grass and trees on either side. Before long, we see two figures coming out from the smoke in front of us. It was Joe and the American boy. Because they were always walking ahead of the fire (by virtue of starting it), they had no idea what was going on. But seeing them come out in the darkness, lit only by a massive inferno, was seriously like something out of a movie. The whole ride until we got out of Buffalo Camp was reminiscent of a Universal Studios ride. I was laughing the whole time. It was definitely the closest I've come to dying this whole trip, but it was also one of the most exciting experiences I could think of. My only regret is that I didn't film it, because it would have been absolutely awesome (unless, of course, the heat got too high and caused my lens to melt and old my battery to explode).

We made it back, safe and sound (though my long-sleeve cotton shirt - which actually isn't one of the disposable ones - got a small hole in it when a burning ember hit me), and a shower later, I was ready for bed, having put 14 hours into the fire work.

On Wednesday, we got to sleep in a tad, because the determination of whether we would burn or not would be made around 8am. The weather wasn't ideal, but the reserve manager really wanted to get things done, so the result came back that we'd do some burning in Pidwa South to "test the waters", and then continue on the big block if conditions were ideal. Everyone was of two minds - on the one hand, we wanted to get it all done today so that we wouldn't have to worry about it anymore (again, we all loved doing it, but didn't want to anymore), but what I think we really wanted was for the weather to get bad and then not get good until after we've all left.

In the meantime, we went out to do some alien plant control. Specifically, we were looking for Prickly Pear cacti, which became like shooting fish in a barrel, since all the formerly concealing grass had been burned away, leaving the cacti exposed. The way we take care of these is pretty interesting, as we literally inject the herbicides straight into the cactus leaves using big hypodermic needles. A lot of folks said they enjoyed this, though I still prefer the spraying method of control. We did this for a few hours (basically until we ran out of herbicide), along the way putting out any small lingering fires. We also came across a pile of animal skulls, which dates back to when this used to be a hunting reserve. Apparently, when hunters took their prizes to the skinning shed (and yes, this creepy shed still exists), they'd just chuck the head. So there's just a bunch of skulls sitting there. I was offered to take one of them in case Tiberius doesn't work out, but I declined, seeing as a) those were killed by hunters and b) they mean nothing to me, whereas Tiberius has a story.

After finishing up with that, we went back, had some lunch, and after a bit of free time, headed down to Pidwa South. Because we had a full house, I elected to sit on the tracker seat of the Game Viewer (which, if I hadn't mentioned it before, is a chair on the hood of the car). It was a long (45-minute) drive to Pidwa South, and a nice hot day, so I decided to see if I could nap on the chair. I made sure to have my hands on the side handles, as if I were to lean forward too much, I'd wake up and grab on to, y'know, prevent myself from falling in front of the car and getting run over. While theoretically dangerous, I didn't really see it as that bad, because I knew my body wouldn't let me die. The weird thing was, nobody believed me when I said I was trying to fall asleep. Why would I do such a thing? I don't think they fully comprehend my way of seeing things, and I don't begrudge them for that.

Anyway, we finally got to Pidwa South, split up into teams again, and went around another block. The first part of this was probably the most unpleasant portion of this entire Big Burn experience, because the wind was blowing against us. Even though we were far back from the flames (necessary due to how hot it was), the smoke was unbelievably bad. Even wearing my goggles, I could hardly keep my eyes open and dry, and it was having a field day with my sinuses to boot. For at least half and hour, we were walking somewhat blindly through this stuff, coughing and stumbling, until the wind finally shifted. Suddenly, everything was peachy keen! We continued at a much more pleasant pace, putting out any lingering flames we came across.

One small surprise we found on the road was, of all things, a chameleon, which are very uncommon to find in even the most normal of times (for obvious reasons). This one was, for some reason, walking toward the fire, so Katie picked him up, and we completely neglected our duties for fifteen minutes to take pictures with the little guy. The one firefighter who was with us stared at us strangely. When Katie asked about it, he explained that chameleons are seen as evil creatures in his culture, that their color changing ability makes them a bad omen. So he was legit afraid of it. However, after seeing us holding it, he wanted to give it a try. Once the chameleon went on his hand, he started climbing all over the guy, even onto his face. I'm not sure if it had to do with the bright yellow he was wearing, or if the chameleon could just sense his apprehension, but kudos to that guy for facing his fears! Anyway, I wanted to name the chameleon "Nero" since his home was burning, but I had stupidly used that name on a grasshopper that landed on me, so I have to settle for "Titus".

Not long after that, we met up with the other group, and then waited for a while for Joe to get the Game Viewer. Once that finally came, I hopped in the tracker chair and made sure to have my camera at the ready. I also had a bag of Cheerios handy, which I happily munched on while watching the place burn. I did end up getting some video footage of us driving through burning wilderness, but it wasn't even one-fiftieth as exciting as what it was like driving through the inferno on Tuesday night. After a long drive back (which, after getting away from the fire, was particularly cold for me seated on the hood of the car), we had a nice chicken curry dinner, and then called it a night.

On Thursday morning, we woke up and began a long drive. I packed away my leftover chicken from Monday's lunch, because I knew we wouldn't be back for at least five hours (though it turned out to be six). When we started out, we just happened to stumble upon a male lion, who we followed for a bit, until he walked into the bush, in the direction of a dam. We drove to the other side of the dam and waited. And waited. We heard his roar multiple times, each time getting closer to our position, but always out of sight, always out... "Oh my gosh, there's a rhino!" said the Northampton girl. Sure enough, just some distance away to our 8-o-clock was a rhinoceros. In terms of unexpected things, that one ranked pretty high. The rhino puttered around some time, contemplating getting a drink from the dam, before finally deciding against it and walking away. We also waited a bit longer for the lion, but when he didn't show, we continued on our way.

We drove down, down, down, past Pidwa South, in the territory belonging to the Makilali Reserve. We were going down to see the same pod of hippos that we'd seen before, but I noticed and noted that we seemed to be taking a much more backwater route than we did last time. Katie also seemed to have more difficulty navigating than someone who drives this way each month should. Finally, after getting into the middle of who-knows-where, we finally saw why. It turns out that there was a sighting of a spotted hyena den in this area, and Katie wanted to check it out as a surprise. Sure enough, we found it, complete with two adult hyenas and two cubs (tiny little things), just resting. Like, we were pretty darn close, and they didn't care. They were just content to lie down. I personally dislike spotted hyenas (they're one species I actually liked less after learning more about), but even I'll admit that it was cute how one of the cubs rested its head on its mother's. That said, we stayed there no less than half an hour, and after 25 minutes of looking at them lie down and maybe shift positions, I placed my hat over my eyes. Katie began mocking me: "How could you sleep at a time like this?!" Though, to be fair, she loves hyenas for some reason, so I'll let her have that indignation.

A surprisingly short distance after that, we found the hippo pod in the water. Seeing as we could only see the tops of their heads - and considering that I'd literally seen the same guys last month - I wasn't really all that wowed. We also tried a little bit of radio telemetry to see if we could find any signal of a collared cheetah, but to no avail. So, we drove home by going onto the main road outside the reserve. Even then, it took 45 minutes, maybe an hour to get back. Along a open, clear road. That should give you some sense of how big this place is. Anyway, when we finally did get back (about 1pm), I cooked lunch for everyone, and we were told that we'd wait until we got word about what was happening with the burning tonight (which wouldn't be until after sunset). There was a strong eastern wind, so I wasn't confident that weather conditions would be ideal, but either way this meant we had the next couple hours free, so I wasn't going to start complaining. By dinnertime, we were told that the wind was still against us, but we could be called at any time, so eat, drink, and be merry, for tonight we could die (two drink maximum, though). By a windy 11pm, we all figured we were safe for the night. Basically, the Thursday had become an impromptu Saturday.

This (Friday) morning, we were informed that the fire teams had gone home. For good. That meant that the big portion in Pidwa South was not going to be burned this year; it would have to wait until next year (should there be a burning then). So it was back to normal business. We began the day with tree protection, during which we pretty much tapped out the dead tree from which we were gathering old rocks. Maybe there could be one more load's worth, but a lot of it was under thick fallen branches, so we couldn't get to it. Seeing as there were no more spare rocks just sitting around, that meant that we were pretty much as done with tree protection as we could be at this time. I immediately became a bit wistful, as I'd not be able to do this, my favorite activity, again.

We then had our first second breakfast in what seemed like forever (in which I finally finished off the half of a chicken I had left over from Monday - I swear, that thing was more an investment than a meal) and then we went off again to do more prickly pear injections. It was genuinely impressive how many of them we saw throughout the reserve. Actually, it got kind of annoying hearing people say "Here's another one" again and again, as we traveled further and further into the bush...without any sort of protection from a rifle. Like they had nothing to be concerned about. I, for one, was just waiting for a lion to come up. (Joe called this behavior "fourth week invincibility".) Thankfully, no lions did show up, so we got through and ended up injecting a lot of plants before heading home for lunch.

During lunch, I began making preparations to hopefully finish off cleaning my impala skull.

[NOTE: I try not to get too gory with this, but we are talking about cleaning a skull, so it is by nature pretty gross. If you think you might be squeamish, you don't have to read the rest of this entry. I won't judge.]

The worms and maggots and beetles were doing an admirable job, but they didn't have much time to work with. Honestly, it would have been great if I had started the process, say, at the beginning of the month, but whatcha gonna do? So, I had to boil it to get a good portion of the rest of the non-bone out. This wouldn't be on any ordinary stove, though (and Lord help me if it was, because everyone in the house would hate me for it). I ended up picking a spot as far away as I could from people, kind of in the middle of an empty space. Thankfully, this was also right next to the "Ash Pit", which is a pile of stuff meant to be burned. As such, there was rocks and wood and kindling and everything else you could need for making a fire. I built myself a small fire pit, set up the wood and kindling, and got the cooking tripod from the braai pit, as well as a half-barrel from Joe, which would work as my makeshift pot. It wasn't an ideal pot, though, as there were holes in the sides of it, so filling up past a certain point was impossible. I set all that aside, and then got Tiberius ready. Basically, I took a bucket of water out to the aviary where the head was being kept, took it out of the bag, wretched, poured water over it to wash the muck off, wretched, put it in a new bag, emptied out the sludgy contents of the old bag, wretched about three times, and then buried it all with some dirt, to let microorganisms have at it.

I waited until after eating lunch (Mexican chicken salad - my fave!) to start the fire, as I didn't want to leave it unattended while I ate. Afterward, I borrowed someone's lighter, went outside, started the fire up, put some water in the barrel, and got it going. I then went to retrieve Tiberius, and after wrapping his horns in tin foil (to protect the horn sheaths from boiling away), placed the head in the water. Eventually, the American boy came out to offer me his assistance. I gladly accepted. We basically went through a process of boiling it for some time, then taking it out and trying to remove the fleshy parts. Even with the work the insects had done, it was tough-going, especially near the scalp. And it reeked. Seriously, the smell was horrid, more horrid than you're even imagining it is right now. Between the stench and the sheer revulsion of, essentially, dismantling a formerly living things head, I came close to vomiting several times. Never actually did, but man, let nobody say that skeletonization is a glamorous job. (Actually, I think it was even featured on Dirty Jobs once, so that should give you a hint.)

Unfortunately, we had to stop part of the way through, as we had an herbivore research route to go on. People wasted no time in letting us know that we smelled. I didn't deny it for a second, though truth be told, the "bad smell" the people in the Game Viewer were experiencing was, maybe, one-fiftieth of the stench that I was dealing with. They had it lucky. In any case, the route went fine, although we barely saw any herbivores (we did make a quick stop into Jon the Owner's lodge again), but the big part of the trip was BIRD WARS. It was an intense competition of bird identification, much closer than it was last month when the Canadian girl steamrolled us. However, when all was said and done, I ended up the winner. Yay! Truth be told, more than half of my points were awarded by rebounding when other people called out a bird and then identified it wrong. Still, a win is a win, so maybe I'll get a keychain or something.

When we got back, I immediately got back to the skull, to get as much done as possible before dinner (as I still needed to shower before anyone would let me sit near them). I went out and tried to get the fire going again, which was much tougher this time, as it was sitting underneath the big pot. But the American boy came out to help, and the Czech boy joined as well, and between the three of us, we got the fire going. We then got it going to a boil, and continued working the head. Again, we alternated between boiling and pulling. We tried using tools where possible (namely, a file, a saw, and some pliers), but at one point, it became clear that I'd have to pull off a big chunk with my hands. It...was not pleasant. But it gt the job done, and I just had to chuck the stuff over the fence into the bush. Something will take care of it, and all we care about is that it's not the two Askari dogs. We continued boiling for maybe an hour and a half before it seemed like progress seemed to be at a standstill. We got, I'd say, 95% or more of all the stuff off, but there were still some gibs at the back of the head. After consulting Joe for advice, it seemed like these were parts that did not come off easily. We decided to call it a night. We set the skull atop Quadric the Owl's boma to start drying, and then cleaned up our mess as best we could. We ended up burning some items (like the bags I was originally holding Tiberius in - hey, I know it's bad to burn bags, but that's what would happen if we dumped them anyway), and throwing away the stuff that wouldn't burn easily, including my nice leather work gloves. Thank goodness I pretty much had no more use for them. We put out the fire, chucked out any remaining gibs, and then buried everything with dirt. Pretty much just then, we heard that it was time for dinner.

We all seriously had to take showers before even considering eating, so we were all a bit late to dinner (which was Toad in the Hole, which impressively may be one of the weirder British food names I've heard). During the meal, the head was brought up in conversation. I tried to keep the topic high concept, so as not to gross people out with the gross details. The main question to answer was "Will it be ready by the time you go?" To this, my answer was (and still is, I suppose), I don't know. The fact is, there's still little bits of non-bone left, and I have to bleach the thing, and then it should take two days to dry, and only then can I wrap it up to ship. That's...that' an incredibly tight timeline, and I genuinely don't know if I can make it before Monday. If I don't, then the best I can do is leave some money and request that the skull is shipped at a later time, when all is ready. After all, I'm in no rush - I wouldn't see the skull at home until April regardless. And even if I can't do that for whatever reason, at least I tried, and got to experience something completely new and different. After all, when am I ever going to have another time when two other guys and myself are standing around a barrel containing a boiling impala head, throwing scalps over fences. As has become my catchphrase for this Askari adventure, "Well, that wasn't in the brochure!" So even without the skull itself, I still have the memories...and some pictures.

So, that's been the last week, and my last week at Askari. We just have two more drives tomorrow, a end-of-the-month party, and then that's all she wrote here. I'll save my reflections on this for later. But I guess, as has been normal, I'll give you a quick update in terms of people. Well, things are still going well. I'm getting along with everybody, and even the Czech boy has begun to tone down the know-it-all position (for whatever reason), which makes him much more pleasant (and makes it more clear to me what it must have been like when I was that bad). Anyway, the only person at this point that I actually don't like is the American girl. Namely, because she's a very harsh person, and she's exceptionally mean to her boyfriend, yelling at and belittling him constantly (usually this is when they're alone in their room; I'm not sure if they realize that everyone can hear them). She also snaps at him when he offers even the most mild helpful advice. I really like the American boy; he's a genuinely nice guy. He also has a deep spiritual side, which I discovered while having a long, meaningful conversation with him. He deserves better than someone who badmouths him all the time. I also think that she would try this on others if she could. Multiple times I've seen her stop herself when speaking with me (like when I said I was taking Tiberius' head, or when I said that I wasn't holding onto my Askari shirt for reasons of backpack space) when I just know she wanted to tell me how wrong she thought my stance was. She's also kind of had a generally negative vibe; I don't think she realized the kinds of things she'd be doing here (that is to say, work not involving looking at baby animals). As such, she hasn't really been trying to put in much, and so I think she's not getting as much out of it as she could be. But that's her cross to bear. For my part, my personal interactions with her are civil if not pleasant; I simply hope the American boy gets treated with the respect he deserves, whether with her or someone else.

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