Eulogy for my Backpack


He was a friend and trusted accomplice. Together we trekked across striking wilderness. We conquered smelly and unnervingly crowded Ghanian marketplaces. We cuddled together for many nights alone in our tent on the Antarctic Peninusla, shivering and serenaded to sleep by calving glaciers and unforgiving winds. He straightened me out, supported my crooked spine for endless miles and embraced me like no one else could. He would swell with the excessive baggage I asked him to carry as a backcountry novice without complaint. The very first bit of outdoor gear given to me years ago, he has since sparked a commitment to independence and self reliance. He fostered my confidence to walk long distances in any direction.

Over the years, we became worn and ragged. Yet he continued to support me as I gracelessly fell and bellyflopped in bogs, snow and love again and again on continent after continent. Tossed in the back of public transport with all its pointy edges, he ripped and frayed. This last month I sent him off to the factory for repair. Weeks later I was called with the unfortunate news... big red was beyond repair. Osprey unsympathetically cut a history of ties and sent a  new pack in his place.

Now, an alien sits on my bedroom floor emulating the curves and colors of my former friend. He beckons for adventure, eager to be crusted in sea spray and caked in mud. I miss my old backpack. He was a monument and reminder to past lives. One of the only bits of consistency that loyally followed as I trammeled across the globe. But a decade of loving, leaving and letting go has calloused my nostalgic nature- at least on the surface.  I am ready to wear rugged and dirty this new pack but I must first thank my original friend for the memories and loyalty. Thank you for fostering this lifetime of adventure.

Rest in Peace dear friend. You will be missed and never replaced.

Forever yours, Your frayed friend Bethany

Camping Without Fences

We spent over a week in Kruger National Park camping behind electrical fences. The fences were certainly not flawless- but they were there. On Thanksgiving we tested our field culinary skills by preparing a mushroom risotto dish. A drooling spotted hyena paced two feet away. As conservation savvy folk we like to give accolades to the unfairly vilified species of our planet (hyenas and snakes to name a few) but we were still a little uneasy. After giving thanks to the myriad of friendships and experiences we cherished this year, we gave thanks for the fence.

A hyena visits us for Thanksgiving Dinner.

A hyena visits us for Thanksgiving Dinner.

Hyenas laughing and pacing behind the fence.

Hyenas laughing and pacing behind the fence.

At this point, we were camping at Balule camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Balule is one of the more secluded and smaller sites available. Located in an arid region of the park with no electricity and limited amenities, Balule boasts a more grounded clientele and a brilliant baobab tree. On one night during our stay, an elephant and calf waltzed up to the fence to investigate campers. Over dinner, a pair of lions roared across the campsite. We all froze and shot concerned glances to each other across the fire - how sturdy is this fence after all? Is it possible that the lions that sound like they are immediately behind us, are actually immediately behind us? We were  terrorized by a scorpion and some horrendously hideous creepy insect that chased us around camp. Google 'sun spider' if you want nightmares for weeks. Fences can't keep everything out.

We left South Africa and headed to Botswana- a country that boasts some of the most wild landscapes and experiences on the continent. Unlike South Africa, camping in Botswana is often done without fences. We pulled up to our camp in Chobe National Park and settled on a site by the river. We tumbled out of the land rover, our bodies aching from the sweaty contorted mess cramped in the Landy for seemingly endless hours. Against the tree shading our site, a young elephant skull leaned and an ominous movement caught our eye. A giant river monitor, a pretty mean looking reptile (and I love reptiles) scuttled into a hole in the tree and climbed out of reach. Myles murmured what was on all our minds: "We are going to die tonight". After we set up camp, two attendants rolled up with a smirk splayed across their faces. 'Dr. Phil', one of the attendants, introduced himself and said something along the lines of...

"So, you chose this campsite eh?"....

"Yes. was that a bad idea?"

"No, it's just that two male lions were laying under this tree last night.. but no problems no problems"

Well damn. Apparently giant monitors and sibling lions enjoy munching on elephant heads here. We were a bit edgy for the remainder of the afternoon so when Max, Luke and I were walked back from the showers and heard Lynsey deliver a blood curdling vicious scream, we stopped in our tracks and counted our blessings. Myles was perched on top of the Land Rover and gestured for us to rush and bring rocks.

View from our campsite.

View from our campsite.

Lynsey wasn't attacked by a lion. She was grabbed by a large baboon in pursuit of her grapes. Thankfully, she was not hurt. This vegetarian friend of mine did however spend the afternoon fantasizing about roasting baboons on spits. We threw rocks and chased fellow primates in a mostly pathetic and futile attempt to assert dominance over our hairy relatives. By nightfall we were clustered so close around the fire I think I remember smelling burning hair.

It was hot that night. So cut to the chase, I was naked when I woke up to what I was "99% positive was a lion outside our tent". I worked at a zoo for a few summers and spent time up close with lions before. This rumbling grumbling throaty noise was familiar.  The nudity may seem like a side track, but let me tell you that laying there naked in a thin tent next to what you think are wild lions gives serious legitimacy to the phrase 'I felt like a piece of meat'. Yes, I understand that fleece pj pants would offer little protection in a lion fight. Feeling my heart thump through my chest, I imagined the tent pulsating in harmony, announcing my carnal vulnerability to the toothy beasts five feet from my bare flesh.

 I slowly pulled a thin little Ghanian sheet over my shoulders for protection and rolled over to Luke- fast asleep. I quietly shook him awake. I whispered "I am 99% positive there are lions outside our tent". We heard what sounded like scratching on thin plastic to our right and imagined a lion scratching away at Max's tent. Luke was armed with his Opinel Knife No9 (safety off)- thank god. Maybe he could knife the lion while I held my sheet up and tried to reason with him "Can't you see we're human! We wouldn't taste good, there are some baboons and a lizard up that tree though. In the meantime, here are some grapes." We could hear more 'lions'  enter the site, brushing against the canvas chair immediately next to our tent. We sat in silence surviving and wondering how long we'd be doing that for. Chomp chomp chomp.  Eventually, we started to hear the animals ripping up grass. An overwhelming sigh of relief came over us as we celebrated and chanted (in our heads of course) "Grazers! Grazers! Grazers!'. .. then the farting started.

Big wet loud farts in all directions. Munch munch munch, fart... I thought they might be buffalo. This was frightening because buffalo are one of the more dangerous African animals you can encounter on foot. They are aggressive and powerful with a set of silly-looking horns that would end up piercing your chest if they caught you giggling at their appearance. The cacophony of farting and grass ripping indicated that a crowd was surrounding our tents on all sides. We imagined our human friends, silent in their tents, wide-eyed and awake listening to farting sounds, succumbing to a delightful mixture of terror and humor. We were too afraid to move and too smart to laugh.

 At dawn, we awoke to intruder baboons throwing our things around camp. Eventually, we rocketed out from our tents in unison screaming and waving our arms like banshees to scare the primates away. We celebrated the night's survival, drank coffee, ate rusks and headed out on another game drive. It turns out that African elephant's repertoire of noises includes that same rumbling sound. Myles and Lynsey, our South African friends guessed almost immediately that our night visitors were elephants. Big ol' African elephants waltzed up from the river to eat, explore and scare the stupid humans in strange plastic capsules. Their giant round footprints littered the dirt around our tents.

On the second night we set my camera on a tripod in the land rover and positioned a red spot light on our site. I put the camera on a time lapse setting that took a shot every one and a half minutes. That night, I kept my clothes on as we waited for our visitors.

Sure enough, I awoke to the sound of leaves being ripped off a bush immediately behind our tent. This time unfortunately (or fortunately) it didn't sound like the whole herd came. Knowing that the visitor was an elephant and not a lion may seem like it would be a relief. However, elephants are incredibly dangerous. We were careful to stay quiet and not startle our 10,000 pound guest who could easily crush the tents, crush us (even with clothes on), flip our car and end our good luck. A young woman was trampled to death by elephants in Thailand just last week and in December an elephant flipped a car in Kruger. Despite the light tone of this story I should emphasize that interacting with and camping amongst potentially dangerous wildlife is certainly not a joke and should not be taken lightly. Always respect wildlife. Research, recognize the risks and prepare!

We awoke at dawn and eagerly cruised through the photos to discover a few good snaps of our curious flatulent friend.

Elephants approaching the campsite.

Munch munch munch...while we sit silently and anxiously in our tents.

Adrenaline rushes and 'fight or flight' moments like these are both startling and cathartic. The seconds crawl, your senses peak and you suddenly become aware of every inch of skin, every follicle of hair, every noise and breath. Forgive the cliché, but life moves so damn quickly at times- I treasure all moments that give pause. I also treasure all moments where I feel humbled by nature. Orcas, elephants, bears, scorpions, venomous snakes, Antarctic conditions- I love when nature reminds me whose boss. As a conservationist, I'm all too aware that this isn't always the case. It's my job to help fight the battles she's losing and regardless of the times she kicks my weak bottom,  I'm damn proud of that.

My depiction of the evening.

While leaving camp, we noticed lion tracks on the road. About ten minutes from camp, Luke spotted him under a tree. With one injured eye and a short mane (an indicator of low testosterone levels), a  golden lion rested in a bed of yellow wildflowers. Eventually, a ranger stopped by. He informed us that originally three brother lions lived here. Recently, one was killed when a zebra gave him a kick to the head- a surprising reversal of roles. The two remaining brothers hang out around camp.

Male lion that lives around this camp, he is blind in one eye.

We left Chobe, where an injured brotherhood of lions march around camp and herds of elephants relieve themselves besides tents and headed to our next site. This one had fences. But don't be relieved. At that campsite, I nearly stepped on one of the world's most dangerous animals- a black mamba snake heading for the girl's restroom.  After all, fences can't keep everything out. The trip was well worth the risks and I'm still far more afraid of humans and society than nature.

Everything happens by the roadside

Today Lynsey and I were driven from Accra to Assin Fosu. The streets of Accra are like a mobile, living, breathing flea-market balanced on the heads of perfectly-postured people. Everything you could ever imagine is sold from bags of drinking water and snacks to stacks of bibles, toy planes and foam childrens building blocks. Toys I haven't seen sold in twenty years available directly from the comfort of our bakkie (South African for pick-up truck- Lynsey's lexicon). On the the pike in Taxachusetts, I imagine traffic sitting bumper to bumper filled with frustrated Bostonians waiting to pay those ever increasing tolls, road signs warning of the effects of drunk driving dot the highways.  Meanwhile... Lynsey, Eric, Joe and myself sit in traffic waiting to pay our highway toll leaving Accra, Ghana. Head-carriers weave in and out of traffic -a small army of thrifty salesmen- and we could turn to our left and buy a 6-pack of cold beer if we so chose. This is the start of a wonderful adventure- Lynsey and I are off to 'the field'.

The saying 'started off on the wrong foot' could only apply to the beginning of our work in Ghana if we were talking about an octopus- eight wrong feet I think should do the trick.

1. Our bus driver to Heathrow was a horrible twit

2. The woman who issued us our ticket (emphasis on the non-plural) to Accra through Lisbon woke up on the wrong side of a bed dangling from a tree above a pool of starved emaciated leeches. She claimed she could only give us a boarding pass to Lisbon and that we would need to pick up our second boarding pass through to Accra at the Lisbon airport but ensured us our bags were checked to Ghana...

3. Flight is delayed on the runway for an hour and a half.

4. Lynsey is a vegetable and TAP Portugal has no vegetarian meals. The air steward told us he'd see what he could find (to replace the chicken salad sandwich I enjoyed)... he came back with a ham sandwich because in Portugal ham is not a meat...

5. We make it to Lisbon, a bit rushed. We meet with the transfer counter he tells us to go driectly to our gate. A drunken angry lady holds up the line at security, we make it through and check out the departure screen and our flight says 'final boarding' so, Lynsey and I- sweaty stinky, exhausted, hungry hopeless travelers sprint at top speeds through a seemingly endless hallway, past other gates and onlookers until we finally make our gate where we are met by a line of  about a hundred calm, cool and collected passengers waiting to board laughing  at the two exhausted sweaty white girls who ran at top speeds just to stand still.   The woman at the gate then proceeds to yell at us and carries on in portuguese about how we were supposed to go to the transfer desk and that it is too late to give us our tickets and this that and the other, we think we are not going to Ghana... finally we are given the go-ahead and again, we sprint at top speeds down the stairs to make the plane and BOOM we are greeted by a trolley filled with calmly waiting passengers staring at the two girls who are responsible for making them wait... Oh, and this plane also surprisingly doesnt have vegetarian food either- Lynsey ate four rolls instead.

6. We make it to Accra and surprise surprise, our bags do not. And isn't it grand that TAP Portugal only flies here every other night and so we are bag-less for 2 nights. Good thing Lynsey and I packed really responsibly and brought nothing in our carry-ons but electronics and reading material. Needless to say we washed our panties and t-shirts in the sink of our hotel and hung them to dry each night. Lynsey slept next to me wrapped in a sheet cocoon and we had to meet government officials from the Wildlife Division and apply for research permits dressed like smelly tramps. If you want to hear the story of how we surpassed security to reclaim our bags- you'll have to buy us a beer and ask in person.

7. Lucino, the laptop Luke lovingly lent us for our fieldwork did not survive its first night in Ghana. This is unfortunate and meant we had to buy a new one-which is slightly more possible than impossible in Accra for a good price.

8. Ooh, what should the final wrong foot be on this Ghanaian octopus of troubles- it could be any number of small misfortunes but no, lets stop with the negativity because despite all these impediments Lynsey and I are bursting at the seems with joy and love and excitement for this month! Our supporting NGO, Conservation Alliance have done everything in their power to make this research a dream and the Ghanaian hospitality more generally, is unsurpassable.

So Lynsey is asleep nestled adorably beneath her little mosquito net in our lovely little room in Assin Fosu and the voice of a little girl singing just waltzed past our window. Let me tell you just a little more about getting here from Accra. You will have to wait for another time to hear more about our place in Assin Fosu, this community and the life we will lead for the next four weeks. .. You will also have to wait to hear more about our research (partly because I'm not sure we understand it either.. )

I'm going to try and piece together the sights and thoughts I jotted down in my journal during our trip to Assin Fosu (if I can decipher this horrid writting).

Now, I understand why people in England call mini-vans 'People-carriers' and Malaysians 'People-movers'. The amount of people stuffed inside these cars is utterly remarkable. It seems like the energy of this country streams from roadways- like arteries. Perhaps this is just because I have spent too much time in Ghana thus far on the road but seriously.. I think I've seen just about everything people do, happening plenty on the side of the road. People bathing, entire malls balanced on heads, lots and lots of bedframes for sale, lots of grilling (more on whats being grilled later...) and you can even buy a casket from the side of the road.

After leaving the major streets in the Greater Accra region and entering the more rural areas of Ghana, the sights and sounds changed dramatically. The items sold on the roadside changed from car covers and toliet paper to fruits, vegetables and smoked 'grass-cutters'. Grass-cutters are a c like rodent that are apparently a delicacy here. They look sort of like an over sized less-attractive version of the American opossum (for those of you shaking your heads baffled trying to imagine a less appetizing or attractive version of an opossum, this is precisely the point). I literally saw a man pick up by the tail from a grill a completely flat, hard smoked grasscutter. Its head and extremities were intact but its body was as flat as a board- roadkill perhaps, something I imagine Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from the Simpsons would eat on a bad day.

I saw an elderly man facing away from the road sitting on a box, playing an old trumpet to an audience of nobody and this is just one of a hundred thousand tiny beautiful and curious narrative I saw flash by my window in an instant. There are a lot of people napping on the side of the road, next to their petty trade shops. Everyone and everything seems exhausted from working so hard in the humid west African heat- even our horn sounds utterly exhausted. This makes sense because people in Ghana honk for every reason you could imagine- they honk to just remind you they are coming, to tell you to get out of the way, inform you they are passing, just at normal intersections.. we didn't honk at the baby goat we almost squashed though.

Oh I'm overwhelmed with things to share and say but i'm tired and need to sleep. We are going to church tomorrow with Alex, our new friend who is helping us do our research. My head is thumping with the sound of Ghanaian music- by the way there wasn't a single advertisement on the radio all day.

Till next time,

An utterly gracious and overwhelmed Yaa-Bethany (one of the two obruni I have seen my entire trip thus far in Ghana.. this number includes Lynsey who is an obruni i've seen quite a lot of this trip.. but we'll just count her as one)

ps. In Ghana, the day you were born on carries importance and your first name reflects this. I was born on a Thursday which means I am Yaa, men born on a Thursday are Yao. Lynsey was born on a Monday and her name is too hard to spell but its something like Adwa- Lynsey. Our computer was born on a Friday and so her name is Afia.

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p.p.s. I will post pictures soon I swear,