July 16, 2013
Wake to the sound of an alarm at 4:20 AM. Throw arm towards nightstand until sound subsides. Fall back asleep. Have a dream that I’m playing pool with Woody Harrelson before all of my teeth fall out. Wake up to the sound of an alarm at 4:30 AM. Fight with the mosquito net until I find my headlamp. Equip forehead with the power of light, shuffle towards pile of field clothes, and haphazardly dress body in cargo pants and soccer shoes. Brush teeth and spit into bucket while making a cup of instant coffee. Add milk powder. Stir. Choke down bowl of oats. Wash face, pull hair into ponytail and gather supplies for the day: data sheets, collection vials, clean water. Stuff items into fanny pack and wait on porch until Kassim and Zozo arrive. Sample a variety of fanny pack carrying styles and settle on a traditional around-the-waist approach. Commend the functionality of the fanny pack. Decide to replace purse back in DC. Consider the dateability of a person who wears a fanny pack to a bar. Consider the dateability of a person who wears a fanny pack to a bar and also owns a wallaby. Think very seriously about a life with a marsupial sidekick and all the storage potential. Have sleep-deprived lunacy interrupted by the glow of two bobbing lights as my field assistants approach.
Walk south along the beach for an hour. Quicken stride to keep pace with Kassim and Zozo. Hear my stomach churn in protest of oats. Repress the urge to vomit by unhooking fanny pack and throwing it over my shoulder. Revisit value of pelvis-based storage containers. Contemplate asking to be carried. Look around dark beach for driftwood that could serve as a makeshift stretcher. Remind myself that I am lucky to be able to walk. Resolve to abandon daydreams in favor of mindfulness. Listen to the gentle waves of the lake lap against the shoreline. Feel a cool breeze against my face as I move along. Feel my chest rise and fall with every inhale, every exhale. Feel the rock in my shoe. Try to focus on my breath. Feel the rock dig into the bottom of my foot. Try to enjoy the sounds of the beach. Feel the rock stab relentlessly into my big toe and with one final step plunge into my skin. Abandon mindfulness in favor of excessive cursing and stop to remove the malevolent piece of earth from my body. Glance up to see two lights take a swift turn and disappear among the trees. Slam my foot back into its shoe and race off after my guides.
Follow the trail until I catch up with Zozo. Hear an indecipherable rustle in the blackness beyond the glow of my headlamp. Convince myself it is a bushpig. Convince myself I will be gored by said bushpig. Attempt to secure the second spot in line for more adequate protection in the dark forest. Remember Zozo’s wife and children, and an earlier set of wisdom from Kassim: “When will you have a child? I think probably soon you should not”. Accept my place as bushpig sacrifice. Keep close behind until we arrive in Kalande, the southernmost valley of the Kasekela community. Come to the place where researchers nested Sheldon the night before, marked by a large, severed palm frond. Scan the treetops with our lights for a cluster of leaves that give away his sleeping place. Rest on the moist forest floor near a rushing stream and its cascading falls. Watch through the canopy overhead as the sun replaces the moon in the sky. Catch the faintest hint of movement above and wait with patience as he descends slowly down the tree. Study the adult male, his face, his fur, his gait. Determine that as far as chimps go, he is very handsome indeed. Scramble to my feet when he touches the ground and takes off without warning. Slip on a mossy rock while trying to traverse the stream and plunge into the water, soaking my bottom half as I go.
Stop when Sheldon is satisfied with the tallest palm tree in the valley—one that hangs over the tops of all the trees—and he climbs up without hesitation. Sink to the ground and rest against the trunk of a tree so I can crane my head towards the sky. Gaze up at Sheldon, sitting at the center of the giant palm where the fronds coalesce to form a perfect platform. Sit and take data as the minutes bleed into hours and I become aware of the hunger in my belly and loneliness in my heart. Think about gyros with Liz and Rachel, pork belly po’boys and coffee, too much coffee, with Ben, fresh baked rolls and Nutella with Kaitlin and Emily, falafel and vegan pancakes with Aaron, steak and mashed potatoes with Ashley, Dave and Joe, New York bagels, boiled, never baked, with CJ, frozen yogurt, milkshakes, and anything qualifying as junk food with Devon, Taco Bell at 9 AM with Brian, Earl Grey, burritos and the perfect summer tomato with Thomas, Bloody Marys with extra hot sauce and horseradish with Will and Tara, and red wine, oysters and wings with David. Conclude that no company is so divine that it cannot be improved with good food and drink. Split my last chapati with Kassim and Zozo while we take bets on whether I can make it through the next set of vines without swearing.
Move with Sheldon from tree to tree and until he travels to the ground. Saunter along with data in hand, clamoring over logs and boulders alike. Sing “Free Bird” out loud. Smile when Kassim asks if this is one of the great American songs. Laugh and say no, it is the greatest American song. See Sheldon shimmy up a tree and hear the familiar sound of leaves crunching beneath his weight as he bends branches to form a nest. Nod towards my field assistants, pack up and bid Sheldon adieu. Walk home along the beach with a skip in our steps. Arrive at the research house, kick off my shoes, and find Emily and Kaitlin inside with a meal of rice and eggplant. Devour my dinner, and then wolf down a second plate. Exchange our best stories from the day: Kaitlin dodges two bushpigs on a trail in Linda Valley, Fifty gives Emily an unanticipated sample that lands conveniently in her hair, and I, in a fortuitous chain of events, turn my head just in time to watch a belligerent Sheldon pick up a stick and hurl it in my direction. Cry from laughing so hard. Talk until the night closes in. Pack my bag for another day and turn into bed. Lie awake for a moment, feeling the ache in my legs and the heaviness in my eyes. Thank the universe at large for the life I’m currently living, and wonder how in the hell I will sit still at a desk come September.