Monday, July 4, 2011

Creature Feature - 4th of July Edition

I was trying to think of some clever way to write about Rhode Island's fauna. In waiting, however, I was able to capture the elusive Cookie Monster, rarely seen away from Sesame Street, NYC. He was a part of the July 4 parade in Bristol. (Incidentally, the longest and strangest parade to which I've ever been.) Reece, who knows "Cookie" from the show, was quite terrified of him from afar. Later, Elmo came walking by and Reece cowered.
I'll throw in this "two-fer," which I believe meets the requirements of this challenge as well as a challenge past. Caitlin and I are trying to potty train Reece. I never really noticed that this task was called "training," rather than say "teaching," but it's basically the same thing as training a dog: lots of messes, a great deal of frustration, and ever more laundry.
One more... City folk need to get out to the country every now and again to rediscover their agrarian roots (in Johnston, which amazingly enough transforms from suburbs to rural over about 100 yards). In this one, Reece meets his first donkey after strawberry picking. There was a llama in the pen, too, but not close enough to get a picture of the two of them. Of course, this doesn't really help my case for being "in the field," but it's the truth.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lagos Safari

So, much to the disappointment of everyone I've ever tried to convince to come visit me in Africa, Nigeria is not really renowned as a safari destination. Its booming population eliminated most all wild large animals long ago, and its poorly developed tourist industry has done little to make up for it, aside from a few reservations sites mostly known for skiddish antelope and skinny elephants. However, that does not mean my life is deprived of wildlife!

First off, Lagos is literally crawling with lizards, especially this orange variety. They can be found sunbathing between rain showers and bob their heads and bodies up in down in general humping like motions. These guys are pretty big, say like ten inches long or so, but their smaller cousins (unfortunately too tiny and quick for me to photograph this week) often venture indoors and are often seen crawling along your walls and windows, especially in the bathroom. If I name those ones and pretend they are pets, they no longer freak me out. Wish I could say the same for the two mice living in my room, also unpictured.

Next off, another favorite household invader. Nothing unusual here, but this motherf*cker was so big and beautiful that I couldn't help but snap him postmortem a few months ago. Mmm!

Believe it or not, I also have some freshwater intruders lately, in a sense. I rent a room in a compound immediately adjacent to a huge swamp, and with the rainy season in fully swing, the floods have been out of control. The management thankfully moved me up from the ground floor (just after I'd got it all fixed up and everything!), but the first floor of this new building is the worst of them all. It's been at least a foot underwater for months, and there are actual little minnow like fish swimming there around all the time. Let's not think about what all this means for the foundations of the building.

There are of course much more interesting animals around outside of my immediate residence as well. One favorite though odd encounter was at the Lagos Carnival, held at the old cement stadium where they announced Nigerian independence 50 years ago. At the end of the day, they set off a bunch of fireworks to this super somber orchestral soundtrack, as all of the bats flew out of the rafters into a stormy gray sky. A strange end to an otherwise super festive celebration, but a cool one nonetheless. Those black specks are the bats, which, unlike James, I tend to find creepy in even the best of circumstances.

And finally, the pups! Of course Lagos has it's own sizeable stray dog population, though I am happy to say they are not nearly as aggressive or intimidating as Susan's adversaries in Bolivia. In fact, I kind of love these dogs and fantasize about bringing one back with me someday to the US. Most of them resemble the African basenji, which was brought over to the US from Congo and is now a recognized AKC breed. I'm just obsessed with their big ears.

These guys are so friendly that just yesterday, I saw a few rummaging a beachside trash pit with a wild monkey! They seem to get along well with all of the goats and chickens that wander around most neighborhoods too, which means the right one could most definitely be best friends with my own Maddy, right?

And last but not least, I could not do justice to my Lagos canine life without reference to my dear friend Friday, German short hair pointer and regular excuse for me to come back to expatland whenever his owners are traveling, or even when they're not.

If only I could get Maddy in a box and ship her over here too. Just a couple months until our own reunion anyway. Crazy!

Monday, June 20, 2011


In my fourth year of fieldwork at El Zotz (not to be confused with Zotz!), which means "bat" in many Mayan languages, I finally visited the bat cave after which the site was named. I'm not sure why I hadn't gone before; it's not like I have any major fears of bats or ammonia-smelling guano piles. The biologists at CECON say there are three types of bats in the cave, including vampire bats.

So we left camp under the rising moon and setting sun.
The signs were pretty clear.
There was quite the Jurassic Park approach.
The interesting thing about the cave is that it's more like a fissure, or a cenote that has since collapsed. There are some very interesting rock formations though.
To see the main attractions, one must enter the belly of the cave, which involves navigating through rocks completely covered in decomposing bat guano.
But it does afford some nice dusky views.
And, after many, many failed attempts to capture bats in flight (they are in fact much faster than one imagines), the best image is below.
The most impressive part of the journey to the bat cave was the sound that millions of bat generates: it starts like a humming and rises to the sound of a roaring ocean punctuated with staccato infrasonic squeaking. The never ending river of bats that poured out of the cracks got me to thinking: how does one bat decide to go first?

Another close encounter of the Chiroptera kind happened while drawing my final excavation for my dissertation fieldwork at the site of El Palmar. I noticed something small on the ground and asked one of my assistants what it was. "A strange-looking toad."
A baby bat! Not only was it adorable, it was clearly in daylight shock ("blind as a bat," anyone?) and had little idea what to do. I transferred it from our trusty dustpan above to a tunnel created by looters long ago and he perked up and began chirping. I trust mother bat heard his calls that evening and found him.

But what archaeologist would I be without pictures of monkeys?
Or weird bugs?
How about a little jungle escargot?
(Sidenote: Pomacea was a very popular [tasty?] genus with the ancient Maya, as well.)

But really what people want to know is how I deal with the CREEPY things. Tarantulas?

Snakes? Check.
This poor fer-de-lance wandered into the wall of our laboratory and, unfortunately, became a victim of natural selection.

Over and out!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Hounds of Hell-Alto: Scavenger Hunt #6

A still from the below video clip -- can you spot the brown dog baring his teeth at me (click on the photo for a close-up)? This explains my distraction, leading me to walk into the man with the bicycle....

Since anthropologists love to foreground their positionality – that means all the stuff that make us who we are (class, race, gender, childhood traumas) and shapes the way we do ethnography and interpret the world around us -- let me say that my experience of the Hounds of Hell-Alto is shaped deeply by an early childhood experience that has left me super scared of dogs. Period. I like them little and yappy and the size I could drop kick if necessary. Some friends with big dogs have helped me (begin to) face those fears (e.g. Elizabeth and Ben’s sweet yet massive pup Dalva). But as a general rule I permanently give off that musky “I fear you” scent that drives the dogs wild. So forgive me if I am unusually negative in this post.

Terror, Panic, and Trepidation are particularly bad scents to give off in El Alto, a city that has recently been the site of much lamenting and gnashing of public officials’ teeth over the astronomical stray dog population. Well, stray dogs and “pets” that residents encourage to hang around their streets at night to keep watch. Thus in addition to the usual factors contributing to strays, El Alto’s enormous dog population thus reflects circulating anxieties about “citizen security,” as residents crown their adobe walls with broken glass and keep vigilance over people who are not recognizable as vecinos (neighbors), a powerful trope for separating the known from the unknown. In a city notorious for its loteadores – people who sell land claiming it as their own, and disappear when the real owners show up to claim the property and start legal proceedings against the new inhabitants -- many lotes (empty properties) and homes still under construction include guard dogs that pace nervously around the skeletal structures, growling menacingly at people as they pass by.

Now I do not condone animal abuse. And yet, I do fear for my hide and am generally in favor of self-preservation, particularly in a city struggling with endemic rabies. AlteƱos will commonly advise you to just carry big rocks for self-defense. In my zone I frequently see people picking up stones as they approach the packs that circulate on our streets. And, in fact, many dogs are so abused that at the mere sight of you leaning down as if you plan to pick up a rock will cause them to flinch and back away.

This pretense to rock throwing is usually my strategy. But my neighborhood seems to have attracted a particularly rowdy pack of dogs that is unfazed by my pantomime of violence.

The other night I got home much later than I like to (close to 11:30pm), and had to walk a lonely stretch that takes me past their favorite hunting ground: an unpaved callejon (alley) where my neighbors (and I) regularly dump and burn trash when our collection service is being unreliable. Most days the pack can be seen foraging through plastic bags of toilet paper (the septic system can’t handle paper) and vegetable scraps. It is a lean dog’s paradise. On this particular night, an exceptionally mean white dog that often gives me trouble spotted me on the empty streets and came at me full tilt, growling, baring his teeth, and setting off the impulses of several dogs roaming nearby. The whole group flew at me, and I was only saved at the last moment as they crossed into another dog’s territory and he bolted toward them, coming between us. As soon as he had chased them off, he turned his sights on me. With my path home cut-off, I spent the next 20 minutes trying to make my way home through unlit back alleys where I encountered more and more dogs whose instincts had been aroused by all the hysterical neighborhood barking and my stench of terror. I have been jumpy walking home ever since.

This video is a small taste of my daily dog interaction – all clips shot over a 2 day period within 2 blocks of my house (walking to and from the corner store, standing in the doorway of my home). None of these clips include the pack in all its fury – because I try to avoid that scenario. But as you can see, I am still skittish and basically run away at the first sign of approaching canines – thus the unusually shaky shots (many of them of the ground as I flee). So, uh, please forgive the palpable cowardliness.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Scavenger Hunt #6: The Wild Beasts of the Field

As we sojourn in our various anthropological field sites, we are often haunted by people’s misapprehension that we study dinosaurs (paleontology) or bizarre insects (entomology). Or people imagine us trekking about virgin forests among wild beasts and spearing our own boars.

But the wildlife we encounter is often far more mundane.

You’ve got your run of the mill anthropological discussions of animal husbandry and subsistence practices. You have Evans-Pritchard studying cattle sacrifice among the Nuer, Clifford Geertz analyzing the “deep play” of a Balinese cockfight, anthropologists debating the significance of llama fetuses in Aymara rituals, or the ways wealth, prestige and power are expressed in animal form. You’ve got biological anthropologists tracing human evolution from our ape ancestors (Australopithecus afarensis – LUCY!). You have all the anthropologists calling for a radical re-thinking of the role of animals in anthropocentric anthropological accounts.

And then you have me, who spends 90% of my time running away from El Alto’s enormous stray dog population. My sophisticated anthropological analysis of the wild dogs of El Alto?
They’re SCARY!
And they are after me.

What are YOUR experiences of non-human animals, insects, or other wee beasties in your field site? You have two weeks to complete this assignment.

* Finally, a note regarding an upcoming Cohorticulture assignment. In the next couple of days Sohini will be posting the details of our next scavenger hunt task – one that comes in 3 parts -- so that we have time to ponder while we work on this first assignment. Be on the lookout for her explanation.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Chicken bus!

I was trying to figure out how to describe the concept of "chicken bus" here in Guatemala, but good thing Wikipedia has done it for me!

A chicken bus (Spanish: "camioneta") is a colloquial English name for a colorful modified and decorated US school bus and transit bus that transports goods and people between communities in Honduras and Guatemala. The word "chicken" refers to the fact that rural Guatemalans occasionally transport live animals on such buses, a practice that visitors from other countries often find remarkable.[1][2] The buses are also commonly used in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Often two young men will partner in the operation of a bus, one of whom will have his license, while the other dubs himself the ayudante or "helper". The ayudante is responsible for heckling passengers aboard, collecting money, and organizing the luggage, livestock, produce, etc. onto the roof of the bus — often while in motion. In Guatemala this helper is also known as the "brocha" (brush), referring to the fact that this person prompts people to get inside the bus (brushes them in) by shouting the destinations the bus is reaching.

Each bus is painted vibrantly with its name and permanent route. Buses are stuffed with passengers (whenever possible) and then hard-driven to their destinations at top speed.

An anatomy of the chicken bus: the plaque at the top describes the route in colorful text. This includes local names for places, e.g. "Reu" for "Retalhuleu" or "Chichi" for "Chichicastenango." The "MENDES" is probably the family name of the owner/operator, as many of these are family businesses. Bright stickers mandatory.

How do they modify the school buses? A classmate of mine from Vanderbilt, Mark Kendall, is making a documentary called "La Camioneta" about them as well, photostream here. Preview here.

Now living and working in the same 4 block radius means I don't take the chicken buses very often. However, I do encounter them every day near 9th calle oriente, nicknamed "Calle Sucia" or "Dirty Street" for the layers of chicken bus exhaust that exist on all the walls and sidewalks.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Ok, so I hate starting every post with an apology and an excuse, but it's so hard not to! I was so ambitious, so optimistic, but really have nothing to say for myself. I beg your forgiveness. Part of the reason I've been putting this off, though, and also the reason I was originally so excited, is that buses really are a big deal here. Even the BBC says so. They have their own weekly column in my favorite newspaper and have become a popular icon of the city in the few tourist-friendly souvenir markets, which feature countless impressionistic paintings like this one. And they are central to the next project of a certain junior faculty member in a midwestern public university. So I wanted to do them justice. But that's stressful. So here's what I've got.

There are several different classes of buses in Lagos, but the beat up old yellow Volkswagen "Danfo" vans like the one above are easily the most iconic. Theyare completely hollowed out and installed with three or four hard benches instead of seats, fitting up to 22 people, including one drop seat for the conductor, who hangs out the side of the van as it becomes full, collecting fares and bellowing out the next stop. A favorite Lagos memory is the first time I saw these guys really in action, when they have to actually jump out of the van as it's still moving and then run along side it as passengers exit and new ones enter, all still while the bus is in motion! I don't quite have footage of this (of course, excuses excuses), but here's a conductor getting ready to hang out...

Bus decor is another beloved danfo institution. You can see decorative reflectors on the above piece, and some superfluous antennae on this one.

This one sports a number of common painted motifs -- the Nigerian flag, bad Nike swooshes, and praises to God:

Here's one of my friends' personal favorites (the buses are green on in the super special Victoria Island area), with praise for both family and Chelsea football, of course.

As you can imagine, with 22 people in a van built for what, 8?, danfo are quite crowded, hot, sweaty, and sticky, with everyone sitting shoulder to shoulder jammed in rows with little ventilation. Not extremely desirable, and not the safest either. They break down often along the side of the road, but what's worse, the motor parks where you catch them and change lines are notorious for gangs of area boys, and I've heard too many stories where the driver, conductor, and other "passengers" are all in cahoots to rob you of your money at some remote off-route destination.

So, with all that, I don't really take them by myself too often, usually only riding them with friends who know the system a bit and can give me a heads up if any trouble comes our way. Not surprisingly, then, most of my expat friends have never taken them, and find the idea of it just ridiculous. Which is why, at my friend's Nigeria themed going away party (based primarily off of local funeral traditions--thus the aso ebi matching nativewear), he decided to hire one for the night, and we all posed for photos in it. We definitely earned the crazy oyibos award that night, shocking the police at every checkpoint with a bunch of giggly white people giving the thumbs up from a beat up old danfo...

Besides the danfo, some of the other bus varieties include the much bigger Molue variety, which usually hold well over their official capacity of 44, with people standing in the aisles and hanging out the door along with the conductor. They were also the inspiration for Fela Kuti's song "Suffering and smiling" with the following lyrics:

Every day my people dey inside bus
Every day my people dey inside bus
Forty-nine sitting, ninety-nine standing
Them go pack themselves in like sardine
Them dey faint, them dey wake like cock

Anyway this particular molue has an aesthetic that looks straight of Anthropolgie catalogue, I think.

And finally, there's the new BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) and LagBus system, which much more like the buses we see in the US. The much beloved governor of Lagos, Babatunde Fashola, is credited getting these "modern" buses out on the street, and, what's really impressive, actually enforcing at least some of the dedicated lanes for them on the traffic-plagued Lagos highways. Here, we see one plastered in advertisements for Gov. Fashola himself, who is up for re-election next month.

And well I wanted to share a video from the road but the technology gods just won't have any of it -- blogspot won't let me upload it directly and I even opened a youtube account only to have them refuse the format as well. I will work on this for the future, but in the meantime leave you with this borrowed footage instead. (It's kinda long, but the first couple minutes give you the idea...)