Monthly Archives: April 2012

South African Adventure #43 – Clogged Drains and Noncommittal Communications

Bush vehicles

Roads I frequent in South Africalocal rules of the road

Convenience is about as far from my world’s vocabulary as fresh sushi and pedicures. Phone service goes down on a weekly basis, which doesn’t matter much to me since I usually don’t have reception anyway. This is the first place I’ve ever been where you can literally stand still and go from full signal to none without doing so much as emitting a breath. Even in the cities, signal just plain sucks.  Not surprisingly, internet access is even worse.  Hence why I don’t update this blog as much as I’d like.

Depending on who you ask, there are either eleven or twelve official languages in South Africa. Luckily for me, English is one of them.  However, the majority of the local people around me speak Zulu or Shangaan, languages I cannot hope to comprehend in the near future, if at all.  They click when they speak, something my tongue simply refuses to do.  It isn’t nearly as difficult as Xhosa, another South African language, but that isn’t saying a whole lot.  Attempting to wrap my tongue around their pronunciations is akin to me doing the vocal equivalent of Rachmaninov.  I speak English and Spanish (poorly), with a smattering of French (even more poorly).  My languages pretty much all stem from the same source.  Zulu does not, nor does Afrikaans, another major language here.

Afrikaans is very similar to Dutch and German (neither language of which I comprehend, so it doesn’t matter anyway), and to me, it sounds and looks like a language I made up as a child. No offense, Afrikaaners, but it does. For example, ‘please’ in Afrikaans is ‘asseblief,’ pronounced hassa bleef. Readers, you draw your own conclusions.

At any rate, unless people speak English, I am screwed in the communications department here unless I gesticulate wildly and/or learn mime.

Things break on a daily, if not hourly, basis where I live.  Take the bathroom situation in one of the camps at which I worked.  The bathroom sink drained into the shower, which was supposed to then drain into the septic tank, ‘supposed’ being the operative word here.  That’s how it’s ‘supposed’ to work, anyway.  It didn’t.  Instead, the shower didn’t drain at all because the piping hadn’t been cleared since the Nixon Administration, and instead it filled up backwards with water from the septic tank, which also hadn’t been cleaned or cleared since around the same time.  You showered in sludge and toothpaste scum and who the hell knows what else.  For the first few visits to this camp, I opted to shower with the hose outside while wearing flip flops and a bathing suit.  But I love me a shower, so I knew I was eventually going to have to take matters into my own hands.

I’m fine with a lot of things most people would cringe at – sleeping in rooms (or tents) where geckos often fall on my head and snakes often sleep in the dark corners; going for days sweating in temperatures topping 40 celsius without being able to shower (of course, people here also don’t care if you smell a bit because so do they); constantly slathering myself in a barrage of bug repellants (of which the chemical component has probably shortened my lifespan by ten years); cooking and eating in kitchens that look like a cockroach convention when you turn on the light at night; the list goes on and on.  But this shower managed to test my patience and my ability to roll with it in a way nothing else has.  Because I work in conservation, I am not allowed to pour Drano or its South African equivalent down any drains, nor am I allowed to drop a nuclear bug-killing bomb on the kitchen or bathroom in an attempt to rid it of my nighttime multi-legged army.  I’m stuck with hand-to-hand combat, which has already landed me in the doctor’s office once for an allergic reaction to the potion I had to concoct.  It isn’t pretty.

Not one to be deterred by small trifles like ambulance visits, I finally decided one day to take the garden hose and snake it down the shower drain in an attempt to dislodge the mass tangle of hair and other crap that had taken residency in the drainpipe. What came out looked like something from Swamp Thing, and smelled worse.  I scrubbed my hands for almost an hour with bleach afterward. To this day, I am convinced some parasite managed to lodge itself in my skin during the battle, and my intestines are probably a host to the Aztec empire of nasties. I have to deworm here on a bi-yearly basis. I’m not kidding.

I knew moving here wouldn’t be easy. I knew there would be adjustments and differences, some subtle and some apparent.  Most of this has been fine.  But being cut off from everything is hard in so many ways.  I cannot speak to my friends and family whenever I want.  In fact, I can barely speak to them at all.  I’m lucky if I get in a phone call a week to someone outside this country.  I cannot reach them online because most of the time I have zero access to the internet.  I can’t even mail them a letter because I’m nowhere near a post office.  There is one in town, but that presents a whole slew of other problems, like adding driving and the local population of people and farm animals into the mix.

I’m still learning how to drive my manual diesel with the steering wheel on the other side of the car, so I don’t always feel comfortable going out on my own to town, and I often need to drive another 20k or so on dirt roads littered with roaming agriculture and potholes the size of a small country before reaching tarred roads. Those tarred roads have equally massive potholes and roaming livestock.  And then there’s town.

If I were to make an assumption about people’s regard for life here, and had to base that assumption on how said people interact with traffic, I could easily assume the locals all have a death wish and aren’t interested in living til tomorrow.  Everyone ducks and dodges within a hair’s breath of you and your very heavy vehicle. They don’t bother moving out of the road for oncoming traffic. They don’t move out of the way for anything. You can literally hit them with your car and PUSH them and they still don’t move out of the way. It stretches all the boundaries of patience, not to mention hand-eye coordination. I’m getting there, though.

I haven’t hit any trees or animals yet, though I did take out a few millipedes, which is understandable since they are only about 6 inches long. Luckily, nature seems to understand these types of things, making allowances for idiots behind the wheel by ensuring that creatures like millipedes reproduce in vast numbers, so a few run over here and there don’t make much of a dent in their population. As usual, nature is always one step ahead.

Driving poorly becomes an issue when the larger animals, particularly the endangered ones like wild dogs, are getting run over due to reckless driving – going too fast, texting while driving, or performing some other distracting task that shouldn’t be done while behind the wheel of a car at any point EVER. Unfortunately, I imagine nature assumed we all had brains and would use them whilst handling a vehicle. Sadly, in this case, nature is one step behind technology and underestimates mankind’s overall level of unwillingness to take responsibility for its actions. Like everywhere else in the world these days, South Africans are more interested in playing with their gadgets while driving irresponsibly than avoiding killing the local wildlife, which is interesting, since it’s that same wildlife which fuels a significant portion of the economy here. Yet another reason I cannot quite wrap my head around something like poaching.  But that’s another post for another day.

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #27 – Mambas in the Rafters

The other day, I walked into my bathroom, turned on the water to wash my hands, and – out of the corner of my eye – saw a rope fall from the ceiling. Rope? There was no rope in the bathroom. I swear my lizard brain kicked into gear a split second later because I very quickly stepped back against the canvas walls, somehow knowing I had to get out of the way. The rope was actually a snake. Had I stayed in place, I would have been blocking its only escape route (which was, unfortunately, right past my legs, no matter where I stood).

At first, the snake literally bounced around the floor, a potentially venomous jumping bean, unable to get any traction on the screed concrete. Eventually, it wriggled enough and threw itself past me, around the corner, and behind my bed.

I had to keep an eye on the snake (or in this case, pay attention to where it went and make sure I kept tabs on where it might go next), so I calmly walked past the bed, grabbed my cell, and called my fiancé, who has been handling snakes almost all his life. “Snake,” I said. “What kind?” he asked. Strangely, though I hadn’t gotten a good look at it and wasn’t particularly familiar with snakes to begin with, instinct told me what it was. “I think it’s a mamba,” I replied.

He quickly made his way down to our tent with snake tongs in hand, checked the snake’s whereabouts and confirmed that yes, it was indeed what is often considered the most feared and deadly snake in the world.  Apparently, the color (which, contrary to logic, is not black but gray), the size (thin and long), and the shape of the head, which is coffin-shaped, give it away.  Easier to identify when it’s curled up behind the bed, but when a snake is writhing about at top speeds in a dark room, it’s hard to tell what it is, except that it’s either a live wire (and since we have no electricity, that was ruled out immediately) or a snake.

After a bit of a struggle (the snake was happily ensconced in our mosquito netting and really didn’t want to leave), my fiance managed to get a good grip on it, get it out of the tent, and take it a few kilometers away to release it into the bush.  Valiant ranger saves the day.  The only problem is, mambas are territorial and arboreal.  And we have a bit of a squirrel problem in our roof.

A week later, I heard scuffling above my head, and what was looking down on me?  A little, gray, coffin-shaped head.  Mamba.  Guessing it’s probably the same one.  However, since it’s almost impossible to get up to the eaves of the roof to find it, we can’t really get it out.  In my book, though this is not good, I’m okay with it.  As long as it stays in the roof and gets rid of the squirrels, it can stay.  If it drops back in on me while I’m in the bathroom, we might need to relocate it to different pastures.  We’ll see.  At the moment, mamba and I seem to have reached an understanding.

I have many of these types of understandings out here. The geckos can hang in my house because they eat insects. Same with the frogs. But if the frogs are the really noisy kind, they get relocated as well.  You’d be amazed how loud a single frog can be. And frogs are kept to a minimum because they are a favored treat of spitting cobras and other terrestrial snakes. Arboreal is ok.  Terrestrial is not. They end up under your bed by choice, not default (as was the case with the mamba).  Not good.

I even tolerate some spiders, as they too eat insects. Some, however, cannot stay for reasons of personal safety. Black and brown button spiders cause much pain and illness, so they get the boot by way of Doom. I know, not exactly very conservation-minded of me, but my house is my kingdom. You invade and you get war. They do the same to me.

Baboon spiders get kicked out, though not through death by insecticide. They just get gently moved back outdoors by way of notebooks, brooms, or being nudged along by an article of clothing. Scorpions have to go as well, as many can very easily land you in the hospital. And they don’t eat the mosquitoes, so they don’t provide any necessary service to me. They don’t pay rent, so to speak, they don’t get to stay.

The nyala family that calls our camp home can stay as long as they want, though. They trim the hedges and mow the lawn on a regular basis, keeping the grass short and helping to keep hiding places for snakes to a minimum. And, shallow though it may be, they are awfully cute. They decorate the lawn nicely.

I’d like to add one note about this whole experience. Mambas are often labeled as aggressive snakes. I did not find that at all with this one, or any other snakes I’ve encountered since arriving in Africa, except for one baby Mozambican Spitting Cobra that we almost ran over (which I think probably entitles it to be aggressive). Snakes strike when they are threatened, or to kill food, and I promise you, for the vast majority of snakes in the world, you are WAY too big for their menu and biting you is a waste of their precious resources. Usually, they make a point to avoid you, and with the exception of puff adders, who have a habit of just sitting lazily, will hear the vibration from your footsteps and flee before you ever spot them.

Like pretty much everything else in the animal kingdom, snakes have learned that their best defense against humans is to avoid them.  Our mamba did everything in its power to avoid me and my fiancé, and never once did it lunge at us or show off the reason behind its name – the midnight black inside of its mouth. What you see on TV, even those ‘wildlife documentaries,’ is not always reality. Snakes are NOT around every corner, and also not always aggressive, and they should only be handled by professionals, as it is very easy to misidentify and mishandle them. Please keep that in mind the next time someone yells ‘SNAKE.’ The venomous monster they’re pointing at might actually be a harmless little brown house snake. Or the harmless little black snake in the corner you try to pick up might be a highly venomous baby forest cobra. Point is, leave them alone, and if you don’t want them around, get a professional to remove them for you.

Below are some images of our local snake population, including the mamba from my bathroom.

Black Mamba Removal

Puff Adder Bathing

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #246 (One Guinea Rescues Another)

Because I can poke fun of myself and my culture, I feel I can use this title with impunity.  If the fowl language offends you, well, there are many other blogs out there.  For those of you who appreciate my sense of humor – read on, intrepid travelers!

Yesterday’s South African adventure was to rescue a helmeted guinea fowl chick (hence the title).  Well, I’m not sure that I really rescued it, but I’m going with that, because it was clearly confused and lost, and needed a bit of redirection, which I, ever-eager Patron of Lost Causes, was ready to supply.

For the record, I am still in Cape Town, hence the references to things like windows, which I don’t have in the bush.  I have shadecloth.  Windows, walls? Doors? Those are luxuries, my friend.

Anyway, I heard a chirping sound coming from the backyard that I was sure was a guinea fowl (they wander around all over here), but I didn’t see any, so I brushed it off.  Then I saw something cruise past the window and realized it was a guinea fowl chick gone astray.  Eager to get it back to the parents and family it clearly lost somewhere in the brush, my fiancé and I attempted to corner it, catch it, and re-release it with its family.  As with catching any wild animal (and even some domestic ones), catching birds, even terrestrial birds, is like greasing a pig and then trying to put a bow on it. They don’t want to be caught, and understandably so.  Most caught animals either end up missing limbs, or even worse, on a dinner plate.  I’d run like hell too.

There are two species of guinea fowl in South Africa – helmeted and crested – and you don’t only find them in the bush.  Guinea fowl traipse all over the neighborhoods in places like Johannesburg and Cape Town, whistling away like persistent pan flutes and dashing in sync from lawn to lawn like schools of fish.  While their body shape is essentially the same (apple-bottomed-jean-types with all their junk in the trunk, sporting giraffe-like necks, dark plumage, and the requisite wiry bird legs), their tiny heads are totally different. The crested species looks a bit like Elvis, complete with black bouffant of feathers sprouting on top of the head.  The helmeted ones resemble modern day dinosaurs, with baby-blue faces and crowns on their mantles akin to a hadrosaur (you remember them – the ones with the big, bony crest on their pates), and slight turkey-ish wattles on either side of their beak.  Watching them run around evading me is what I imagine it would’ve been like to watch herds of their prehistoric predecessors evading T-Rex.

Back to yesterday’s rescue.  Having heard adult guinea fowls calling from the front of the house, and hearing none at the back, I assumed this little chick somehow got seriously turned around, ended up on the wrong side of the building, and was now frantically searching for a route back to its bigger family members. However, once we caught the chick and released it to the flock out front, we went back behind the house and realized there were now three more brown fuzzballs pinging around from one bush to the next like wayward pinballs, and that we’d just introduced this other chick to a whole new family.  Luckily family dynamics in the guinea fowl world mean that the new family would take this little one in, either not knowing the difference or not caring.  Guinea fowl are precocial (meaning they can take care of themselves from birth), so all he really needed was safety in numbers anyway, which he now had.

The rest of our ‘rescued’ chick’s fluffy brown bundles of softly squeaking siblings might’ve noticed his absence, though, as they continued to chirp away for quite some time in the backyard, I’m assuming probably searching for their missing family member.  Though I doubt they can count, I’m pretty sure they instinctively know one was gone from the ranks.

I’d like to believe that guinea fowl have short memory spans, but apparently either they don’t, or they simply can’t break routine. The babies were all back today.  And there was another little one – possibly the same one, as it’s very hard to tell the difference between one cotton ball and the next at these speeds, sizes and juvenile colorations  – frantically trying to break into the house again.  Perhaps it’s been dared by less intrepid family members to enter human habitat.  Have I come across the Mikey of the helmeted guinea fowl world?

Once again, I found myself on guinea fowl chick patrol, catching and releasing, catching and releasing.  This one, though, I took a little time to snuggle with, in a pathetic attempt to calm its clearly frayed nerves.  Finding I was a poor stand-in for a guinea fowl mama, I reluctantly let the little guy go, ushering him under the bushes and out of view from potential predators sailing overhead.  Hopefully this time the little guy found its family before a local predator found IT.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Attempting to calm the nerves of this lost little peanut

Mom/Dad Helmeted Guinea Fow

What a helmeted guinea fowl chick looks like when not in a vise grip

 

ELVIS LIVES!!!!adult helmeted guinea fowl

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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