I’m finally back home in Oregon for a short while before I move on to the next adventure. I was hoping to write more before I left Kenya or at least sooner after I arrived back in the states, but as always, I needed a bit more transition time than I anticipated on both ends.
My last week in Kenya was very nice. I got to meet some of the researchers that are coming in as I leave, and I had a fun time soaking up the wisdom of the older generation from Kay and Dee. My favorite moment was one night when Kay jokingly asked me who I would like them to dart before I left. I say “jokingly” because it’s next to impossible to pick ahead of time who you will dart, since it’s hard to predict which hyenas you will even see on a given day, let alone which ones will present themselves in perfect darting conditions. I put my bid in for Princess Buttercup (Pbut for short), Parcheesi’s year-old cub and the first black cub I ever saw. She is a bold but not exactly brilliant cub, and is one of my favorites because of her funny antics. I didn’t really expect them to be able to dart her, but then the next day, Hadley texted Dee and me to come to the other car.
Sure enough, Hadley managed to fulfill my parting wish, and they darted Pbut as she was wandering across a field. She is just den graduating (growing old enough that she begins to move around on her own) and was by far the youngest cub I’d ever seen darted. She didn’t even have all of her teeth in yet. Since she was born almost at the same time as I came out to the Hyena Project, it felt very full circle to get to say goodbye to her in person.
I felt so confident in my ability to do my job well, and also recognized so many places for improvement, that it was hard to leave feeling like there was more I could do out there. However, I was also ready to come home. Kenya is a gorgeous country but it is not always an easy place to work, and while I constantly miss the hyenas and the people I worked with, there is a decently long list of things that I will not miss at all (#1 would probably be the blatant and pervasive corruption).
Also before I left, I got one last encounter with the black mamba (which may not actually be a black mamba, as I’ll explain). This time, I was trying to get a look at an elephant that was foraging near my tent in the middle of the day and determine whether it was about to bring a branch down on the tarp, when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I saw a very long silvery-brownish-grey body slide into a complex of holes that used to belong to a rat that I hadn’t seen in a few weeks (now we know why). Kay is taking the whole snake thing very seriously, and apparently by now they have installed a critter camera to try to catch the snake in motion, figure out where it’s spending most of it’s time, and determine exactly which species it is. Kay explained that based on my description and the fact that it ran away from me the first time, there is a possibility that it could be a cobra, which are known to be less aggressive and at least slightly less deadly (though versus a black mamba, pretty much anything is less deadly. Also, one last chance for me to throw in a cool hyena fact: Kay has seen hyenas get attacked by deadly cobras and survive, and I have also heard accounts of them surviving black mamba bites unscathed).
I had some fun leaving luck on the way out and got to see lots of cute cubs and the start of the migration again. I had been soaking up every moment for the last few months but it was still nice to see lions and hyena babies one last time.
I got to meet Kenna, one of Kay’s graduate students, in Nairobi before I left. Kenna is working with hyena vocalizations and has some really awesome theories that I hope to get updates about. Hyenas have a huge range of sounds that they can make, and these vocalizations comprise another facet of their complex social lives; now, sound analysis technology is advanced enough that Kenna may be able to analyze more specific differences in calls, as well as the situations in which they are used. She has some cool ideas about how rank might influence when hyenas vocalize, and how unique vocalizations might play a role in attracting a mate.
Finally, my time in Kenya was up. I lugged my giant suitcases to the airport, got to very, very briefly meet two of the new Research Assistants who flew in the same evening that I left, enjoy the last ineptitude of Kenya’s inefficient airport organization, and then bid the cool East African night farewell.
I decided to split up the long journey home and visit my friend Lindsay, who is studying abroad in Germany. I stayed with her for a little less than a week, spending most of my time in Göttingen, the university town that’s known for it’s famous alumni and teachers, including the Brothers Grimm and Gauss.
As someone with European Jewish ancestry, Germany has always held a certain negative connotation for me, so I was rather surprised at how much I liked it there. The people were very friendly, spoke excellent English, and didn’t give me a hard time when they realized that I spoke no German whatsoever. Everything was very clean and orderly, which felt incredibly nice after Kenya’s perplexingly inefficient non-systems.
I was worried that I would have a hard time so far removed from the natural world, but I was able to find beautiful green spaces even in Germany. The university has multiple large botanical gardens and pretty outdoor spaces. Obviously it doesn’t match up to seeing savannah megafauna go walking past your tent each day, but it certainly helped the transition.
I had a lot of fun eating delicious food (cheese, cheese, and more cheese) and catching up with Lindsay. It was fun just getting to see a different world for a bit. It’s strange to think that Germany and Kenya are just one time zone apart, yet are so completely different. It also emphasized to me how lucky Kenya is to still have so many natural spaces and wildlife left, since a lot of the students I met at the University really bemoan the dearth of untouched nature in Germany.
It was too short of a trip, but I was also eager to finally get home. After two more excruciatingly long flights, I finally got my first mom hug I’d had in a year.
Now that I’m finally back, it’s strange how easily I’ve slipped back into this life. In some ways it’s nice, and in other ways it’s frustrating and a little unsettling. It seems like no matter how much I learn and how mature I grow, I will always be a child to my parents and I will always find myself falling into the role of youngest sibling when I’m with my family. Life here is safe and tame, and I appreciate what a privilege it is to live so comfortably, yet it’s hard to deal with all the emotions that go along with that recognition alongside the desire for exploration. I am constantly thinking about my friends back in Kenya, and especially the hyenas. It’s hard realizing that there really isn’t anyone here who can fully understand and connect with what I experienced over the last year, though I have no lack of support from my family during the transition. I still think about the poisoning a lot, and it’s harder to express how I feel about that here.
For the most part however, I really love being home and surrounding myself with family, friends, pets, good food, and all the little amenities that I have missed. Oregon is even more beautiful than I had remembered, and I am glad to be in the US for a while. My nephew Ira An Lei is so big now, and is fully interacting with the world. I find myself comparing him to hyena cubs, since those are the last young animals I watched grow up. An Lei may not be as fluffy, but he’s quite cute anyways.
After a very brief trip home, I just arrived at my next job. I will be spending the next half of a year working as an Intern with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. As I move in and explore the area, I appreciate how vastly different but strikingly beautiful this place is compared with Kenya. There is so much fog, and it rolls rapidly over the green hills, reminding me much more of a chilly Nairobi morning than the sunny and flat Mara. The views out over the water and the Golden Gate Bridge are spectacular, and it is an interesting mix of human structure alongside natural beauty.
I can’t wait to start working with the raptors (the large predatory birds, not the dinosaurs—though they are related). The GGRO is a longstanding volunteer-based organization perfectly situated along a migration corridor, and working here will be a wonderful opportunity to learn how to identify birds in flight and actually handle these beautiful birds of prey.