Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Goodbye

I have been silent on this blog for some time now. Mostly I think because I have lost interest in what I do here. I’m tired. Ready for whatever that next step may be. Let me do my best to catch you up on what has happened in the world of Peace Corps over the past few months. 

-          Peace Corps announced that they will be closing down 5 countries and Cape Verde was on that list. We were called one day and told that we needed to be at our consolidation point no later than noon the next day. Rumors and speculation were running wild. I did my best to calm down any first years calling me, and even jokingly said that maybe were getting evacuated. So, after 24 years in Cape Verde, Peace Corps will no longer be serving in this country. I have my serious issues with the decision to leave, but I am happy they decided to wait until September so that we can gradually phase out over 6 months or so, and so that I can complete my service in full unlike our unfortunate first year volunteers. The first year volunteers were given the option of completing their service here or continuing on to other countries. Unfortunately, one of the countries that many first year volunteers were going to serve in recently shut down due to a military coup. I believe that most of them have been sorted out. I know you guys will be great. 

-          I gave my first presentation to tour operators on the island. I discussed the locations of the protected areas boundaries and important wildlife that exists in the region. The presentation went well overall, but was heckled at the end during the Q&A time of my presentation by a guy whom I told I couldn’t help because he refused to do any of the work for himself. He instead expected me to write his proposal, budget, and find sponsors for an event that he couldn’t even explain (I know, ridiculous). Needless to say, it was slightly demoralizing and has stunted my enthusiasm for my job and life here. 

-          The whales are back and I have been assisting the Irish Whale and Dolphin group with research when the need help.

-          Lizard research is also still going very well. Specimen number 100 is currently still alive in my house. I acquired an aquarium from Natura2000 to perform some controlled tests in my house with a few lizards. Observing specimen number 100 has been enlightening. 

Those are a few of the things that have been going on in my life over the past few months. This blog has been much fun for me, and many times has helped me keep track of what has happened to me here. But, life moves on and we lose interest in things that once captivated us. We get bored, restless, and need change to keep us going. I am at that point and feel that I have been for some time now. I don’t regret any of my time here or how I have chosen to live during my time here. It is however, an island, and with oh so limited activities here, I must leave. This will most likely be my last blog. Thank you to everyone who has followed along with me during this adventure. Thank you to everyone who sent me packages… they were always welcomed with great enthusiasm. This is obviously only an electronic goodbye; I plan on seeing many of you back in the states and other parts of the world as soon as possible. Peace and love.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Most Interesting Thing You'll Read (in the next five minutes)

I often think if counting down the days until I set foot back in America is good thing. It plays strange tricks on one’s psyche. Thinking of something so far away tends to get me out of the “Peace Corps Mentality”. I begin to think of the things that will be instead of what is. I should be here mentally. I need to focus on my projects that I have worked so hard for here before looking forward. I still have nine months left here and have initiated basketball projects, wildlife collections, a children’s book, a biodiversity count with the Protected Areas of Cape Verde, and of course my data collection that I will use for my M.S. degree. There is not a lack of work to be done, only a lack of motivation. I have been living in Cape Verde for a year and a half now and have only seen three islands. That’s weird right? I guess what I am trying to say is I am feeling restless here on Boa Vista. The idea of being on a rock that would fit inside of 1604 (the loop around San Antonio) sometimes makes me a little crazy, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I need to explore new things. That being said, next month I have a trip planned to Senegal to participate in a little thing called WAIST (West African Invitational Softball Tournament).

WAIST is a great opportunity for volunteers to blow off some steam, a place where little judgment is passed upon letting loose. Also, the days leading up to WAIST will be host to the GAD (Gender and Development) meeting as well as the All Volunteer Conference. These meetings are exciting because they give volunteers an opportunity to exchange ideas and best practices. I think I will be presenting my basketball program at the GAD meeting. I will be sharing how I have worked with and through the basketball team to get them funded for jerseys and the work that the head coach and I are currently working towards. Our ultimate goal will be to get some professionals here to help train both the coaches as well as the players, more on this as it progresses. 

Processing lizards in the "office/lab"
My research is going well. Collecting female Cape Verde Skinks (Chioninia spinalis boavistenis) is proving very difficult. I have two theories about this; 1) the sex ratio in the population within my study area is skewed towards males. 2) The energy budget for females and males are different. In other words, females spend more time and energy with their clutch then they do foraging or other activities that would require energy outside of the burrows. I tend to believe the latter, but who knows… it’s all a big guess anyhow. I saw this picture the other day that reminds me of this dilemma. It essentially showed the more you research a topic the less you know. Questions arise that would never have been posed had you not begun researching the subject. So the more I look into the life history of this particular lizard the less I feel I know about it. I am constantly second-guessing my results and methodologies. A friend of mine, a PhD candidate at Texas A&M, assures me this is normal and not to get hung up on these things nor to make assumptions and judgments until the data is analyzed. I should stay focused on what I set out to find in the first place and not get side tracked with all the other experiments that I would like to perform. I will push through the urges to wander from the study that I have set up now and that’s easy when you have friends visiting.

I recently played tour guide to the parents of a great friend of mine, Matt Kubal. He is a PCV on Santiago and his folks spent their last few days in Cape Verde here in Boa Vista. They wanted to spend most of their time in Sal Rei and so we explored the village for three days together. I had such a good time hanging out with them; it was almost like having my own folks here, but obviously not exactly. However, the experience did get me talking with my folks again about coming to visit…. and now they have decided to take that leap of faith with me and come to Cape Verde! So I will plan their trip with great vigor and do my best to achieve ultimate travel satisfaction. It will be tough not to have a good time here. If the season cooperates, they might be able to see Loggerhead Turtle. At the very least they will get to experience a culture and country they previously did not know. That can never be taken away, we always have our experiences.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Beginning of The End

With turtle season coming to a close, it seems strange to look back on all of the relationships made in such a chaotic time. There are night patrols, English classes needing to be taught by yours truly and two other PCVs, sleepless mornings, and the ever impending foot injury. It is not a matter of if you will receive a debilitating foot injury, but when and how severe. 

The foot injury was a thing that never concerned me in America. I never thought, I should be careful here not to injury my feet. I think this true for two reasons:

  1. 1)      Last year I wore closed toed shoes a total of 5 days in Cape Verde. This was just not the case in America. I almost despised flip-flops before Cabo Verde. These days I wear them for everything…. That is as classy as I am willing to get here. When in Rome.
  1. 2)      The chances of even the seemingly insignificant injuries turning infected are much greater here. I think this has to do with a general sanitation issue throughout Cabo Verde.
Thus, cuts on feet become much more serious to me than ever before. I had bad luck with feet injuries this past turtle season and even had an unfortunate spill during a serious game of sand soccer (I still have some serious scar tissue from that incident). But, we continue moves in the same speed that it did before. One must keep on no matter, and had I not, I would have missed out on some really fun people. 

There was a German girl who was really cool, demanding and all-knowing, but very fun. The English guy who just so happened to be a fellow herpetologist. I will never forget the night that my roommate and the English guy's girlfriend realized that there was more than one herpetology-obsessed person that they now knew. As we discussed new taxonomy and general evolution of squamates over many a’ brew, the blank stares that we received from our company were ignored. The Italian who could not handle the turtle patrols. A German whom I am almost positive should have been born American and many others that have left lasting impacts. The relationships formed over the course of three to four months, during such a hectically tranquil time tend to be remembered in only the best way. But of course real work was accomplished during a wonderful time on the beach working with both Natura2000 and Turtle Foundation.

A picture at turtle camp with a visiting PCV from Santo Antao
Hands-on work with these organizations affords me valuable experience as well a close working relationship with both organizations vital to my work as an ecologist for the Protected Areas of Cape Verde. Our Protected Areas team on the island of Boa Vista is nearly complete, and I will have a website for you all to visit soon. Since I have been tasked with building the website, I can probably tell you the day that the site goes live. I am also still collecting data on Chioninia spinalis boavistensis, also known as a lizard. With my current study I am be looking at reproductive cycle, diet, and habitat selection. All of this will give some insight into the life history of this particular organism, which I think is way cool. Another neat aspect is just adding to the general knowledge of the environment. We know so little, and to gain knowledge, no matter how insignificant, about one of the creatures within the phylogeny of life is an incredible thing. I know that many people think, “It’s only one lizard” or “why is it important to save one species”, but this is the wrong way to think about this issue. If this is your thought process, then my question is when do we stop saying ‘it’s only one’? Where do we draw the line on massive extinctions that we are currently seeing? We are not the pinnacle of evolution. We have merely evolved to a different state than other organisms. We are clumsy and maladapted to many of our current habitats. We need to remember that this earth cannot sustain us at the current rate of usage and extinctions that we are seeing today. Now I will come off of my soapbox and tell you a little success story about the basketball project that many of you in America are familiar with and have even pledged support. 

Coach G counting the equipment

I was sending out emails to every organization and NGO that I could think of looking for support for the women’s basketball team on Boa Vista. Then within a matter of days I found support from an unlikely source, the United States Embassy of Cape Verde. They were speedy and more helpful than I had imagined could be possible with a government entity. They were able to donate $1,700.00 USD to our cause!!! We were able to get special order jerseys, tops and bottoms, from Portugal, legitimate women’s basketballs, and cones. I gave a short speech at one of the practices where we unveiled the jerseys. All was right in the world that night. Now I am trying to find speakers and money for a Women’s Rights Day. This is proving to be more difficult than I had originally planned, but this is one of my top priorities to be finished before I leave Cape Verde. Which, for those of you counting… is not very far off these days.  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Year In The Making

Over the past year as a Peace Corps Volunteer serving on an island in the Atlantic I have had more time for self-reflection than I have ever wanted. We constantly judge ourselves and compare ourselves to our counterparts and colleagues. I have been in this self-reflective mode heavily over the past few months, but never to the point of depression. Recently, I have come to a conclusion that changes my attitude, my demeanor, and my overall mental health; I don’t care what other volunteers are doing. Don’t get me wrong, as the administrator for the country’s PCV newsletter, and as a friend I care what other's projects are, and I wish them nothing but success. However, personally it doesn’t matter to me. My service, my life, and my projects are mine, and I don’t care about other people’s integration and sustainability of their project (both classic Peace Corps words that tend to turn us all into the egotistical and judgmental volunteer). I do what I do, because I can. I have actually found some peace and no longer see the need to judge my success as a volunteer to what others are doing. I can’t increase agricultural production by 200% because we don’t have crops, I can’t stop malaria, because we don’t have it. I am forced to focus on projects that wouldn’t exactly be my first choice, but have become surprisingly successful.

A year to the day I returned to Regina's for some pizza

I spent two weeks in America back in July and, as many of you have pointed out, I have fallen silent on my blog. I think there are two reasons for this. One, I think that after seeing everyone (I assume that my readers are mostly people I know) that reads my blog, I didn’t see the point in writing to you about what I have been doing when you already knew.  And two, I have been really busy trying to get my life back to some semblance of “normal”.  The day I got back to my island after several plane delays in Texas, Boston, and Cape Verde (about 19 hours in total of delays) I was on my way out to a small islet, Curral Velho, to assist a Cape Verdian retrieve and replace the GPS locators on the Cape Verde Shearwater.  The islet is just off the coast of the southernmost tip of Boa Vista. Curral Velho is protected nationally and inaccessible without written permission from the Cape Verde government, because it is the nesting site for many endemic (only occur here) birds. I spent a week on this islet with Samir collecting blood samples, wingspan length, weight, and of course changing the GPS units. It was an incredible experience; we spent our days fishing for lunch and dinner and our nights with the Shearwaters collecting data. I had some of the best conversations that I can remember having in months. A week alone on a tiny piece of land with one other person and you begin to understand each other intimately. Samir is an amazing person who has real potential to be a leader in the science community of Cape Verde. 

Replacing the GPS band on a Shearwater
There seems to be something about the year mark in a PCV’s service that makes us feel uneasy. I am definitely not the only volunteer that I know of who seems willing to move on. I enjoy my life and time here, but there is only so much exploring and learning that can occur on such a small piece of land in the middle of such a large ocean that lies in between such large continents. The island I live on could fit inside of Bryan-College Station, home of Texas A&M University, if you are unaware of this area, “google it”.  However, I am not too worried about all of this; I’m still doing my thing, regardless of my “feelings”. This little piece of land that I call home has also been experiencing major water problems the past few months, but the giant all-inclusive resorts still have that sparkling swimming pool, thanks RIU for giving us the shaft. The tourists continue to be ignorant and get served by locals whom are underpaid to begin with, only to return to their homes and be slapped once more with a water shortage. I had a discussion with an English guy here recently who sells luxury condos and time-shares on the beach that was originally a protected area until the government decided they could use the money. I don’t blame the English guy, it’s not his fault the land was sold, but he tried to convince me that he was practicing sustainable tourism and development! Here is a definition for those of you who are unfamiliar, “sustainable tourism is tourism attempting to make a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping to generate future employment for local people”. This is a personal opinion, but I don’t think “luxury” suites and condos fall in that category. The word luxury itself is gluttonous. On top of all of this, I am tired of environmental organizations spreading rumors about one another, and I am tired of the stale mate style of conservation that seems to come with this. I get it, there are personalities that clash, and there are strained relations, but they are all fighting for the same thing… in different ways, but still fighting to conserve any way they know how. I guess I am just tired, in good spirits, just tired of constantly hearing rumors and bickering, pettiness really. 

On a brighter note, the women’s basketball project that some of you know about is coming together nicely. I received funding through the United States Embassy of Cape Verde for jerseys, balls, cones, and other miscellaneous training materials. However, I am still looking for the money to get some proper shoes and for at least two activity days in which myself, Gilson, and Huberta and the rest of the basketball team will raise awareness of the women’s rights issue here in Cape Verde. I constantly find this to be one of my biggest struggles with culture here in Cape Verde. Not that we have women’s rights figured out in America, because we don’t. However, I think that the issue is seriously lacking publicity here. I have found myself highly motivated by this issue, and it helps to keep me focused on something that I can actually help, maybe.

I would like to give a shout out to my mother, Paula Acre, today is her birthday. She is wonderful person and an even better mother. I love you mom.  

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Good Hope for Morabeza

“This is as close to Africa I have ever felt”, says a guy from England as we sit at a local bar in Barraca. This place, Barraca, literally means shanty or shack. It is full of recent immigrants from Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, and of course the main island of Santiago. Barraca has grown parallel with the large hotels that are beginning to dominate some of the most beautiful and environmentally important regions of Boa Vista. As you can probably denote, this population growth has come with rapid growth of construction jobs. However, when those jobs end, there is nothing for the large population of construction workers. Barraca has become a breeding ground for some less the reputable characters, but also contains some of the hardest working, most giving people I have ever met. So as we sit there and I am doing my best to translate conversations for people in both directions I realize that he was right. This is Africa. I forget this on a daily basis. 

Many Capeverdians will swear up and down that they are not African. As if being an African is an insult. However, a recent genetic study conducted throughout Cape Verde has revealed the most frequent genes are of African descent (1).  The population is African, many things have become such a normal part of life that I forget how different life truly is, and speaking with people who don’t know the language or culture snap me back to something that I once knew. I am by no means an expert of either, but I am infinitely more experienced than those stepping off the plane today. The idea of not having to worry about if you will have water tomorrow is just one of the many things that don’t seem that strange anymore. 

I find myself drawn to Barraca, I feel safe there. When I go there I see many of my friends that I don’t generally see in other parts of the town I live in. The scene in Barraca is rapidly changing as well; many government initiatives have commenced to clean and beautify the zone. The name has even changed to Good Hope, but I don’t think the name has quite caught on yet with the majority of the population. There is another term that I like to use with this zone; morabeza. This is one of those words that will never directly translate because there is an idea and mentality behind it. My friend tells me it’s a mentality of friendship and joy, and when you come to Cape Verde you feel full of happiness because of the accepting nature of most people here. The people of Barraca are some of the poorest, but they are some of the happiest I have ever known. I use to constantly wonder what was behind someone offering me something cloaked in friendship. That feeling has slowly left me the more time I spend in places that I like to call “super-traditional Cape Verdean”.  This feeling has undoubtedly grown with my confidence in the language. I always felt as though I was falling behind in language because I had spent less time out practicing and more time working at the computer. All of that has changed in a matter of months. For the first time I feel as though I am really hearing the language. In languages, many words have a meaning because of our history or culture. Think about it… there are words that are funny because of some facet of American culture etc. The same is true in other languages, without cultural growth, language is truly difficult to understand. I attribute all of this personal growth to my work with Natura 2000. 

I was recently in Praia with Natura 2000, but representing Peace Corps for the third annual TAOLA meeting. TAOLA is the word turtle and Kriola smashed together to represent this incredibly lengthy title; The National Sea Turtle Protection Network of Cape Verde. The organization allows for all programs, large and small, to present the previous year’s data and then turtle experts from around the world critique and offer suggestions for the upcoming turtle season. This is a positive step for the protection of the third largest nesting population of Loggerhead Turtles in the world, 90% of this population is from Boa Vista.  We are also an integral breeding ground for Humpback Whales; needless to say Boa Vista is incredibly special and has a special place in my heart. The TAOLA meeting went really well and many of the smaller organizations benefited greatly having so many experts present to provide feedback. I was also very lucky to have met Adolfo. He lives in Spain, but was in Praia with Natura 2000 for the meetings. He is a herpetologist… who studies lizards… his PhD was a population study…. I obviously enjoyed speaking with him immensely. He was excited to see the things I have been working on, and added some great insight to something that I am currently trying to explain. Here is a brief overview:

  • ·         Under rocks that have burrows leading to lizard nests, I have found large circular piles of spines from a common plant species on the islet. Further, the spines are occasionally refreshed with green, newly fallen spines from this plant. 

  • ·         A few explanations; this is some form of nest guarding. However then the question is; nest guarding from what and how do the spines play a role. The second explanation would be to keep the nest moist and hydrated. If this is the case I will need to look at nesting success compared to nest humidity. One more possibility is that the spines could play a role in thermoregulation of the nest, which I believe would be closely tied to nest moisture.
These are the things keeping me so busy and happy over the past couple of months. The idea that I have found MY people amongst the constantly evolving life of a Peace Corps volunteer, is one of the most comforting feelings that I have ever had. I don’t think my friend Samir will ever quite understand what he has meant to my current mentality. Thank you friend, amizada de bo e muito importante para nha mentalidade e n pensa bo sabi bo ta fika nha amigo siempre. The coordinator for the national park on Boa Vista has arrived, but my future with him is currently clouded. Next month will be the year mark here in Cape Verde, and I have made it this far without the park job, not knowing the future with the parks is nothing new.

Samir presenting his data at the Third Annual TAOLA meeting