The great life of a PhD student depicted in the title… In the past months I visited Cameroon, spend a week in Prague, now I am for 2 weeks in the Netherlands and in the new year I will again shortly visit Prague before going back to Cameroon. I am seeing more airports than the average person in a lifetime! In this blog I will try to look back at my experiences in Prague and Cameroon during the last months.
I ended my story last time when I was working on a grant proposal. It has been submitted and we are awaiting the results somewhere in the beginning of 2017. Part of the PhD studies is a conference for PhD students of our department. The whole department is invited and spends two nights somewhere in the Czech Republic listening to presentations from the first and third year students. So I had to present as well, but well, a starting presentation is much easier than the one in your third year. The conference was really nice, we had a lot of fun (and maybe some drinks as well) and I got some nice questions, comments and tips for my research! And of course it was a great way to get to know everyone better.
After the conference we had to quickly pack everything for Cameroon. Which seemed like an impossible task when you saw the amount of stuff we needed to take (See below). But in the end we managed!
At the end of October it was finally time to go to Cameroon. All loaded with 2x 23kg’s we undertook a nice journey from Prague to Trebon and onwards to Vienna, Istanbul, Yaounde, Douala and Buea. In Douala two bags were missing and of course one of them was mine L. Which included the majority of my clothing… In the end they said that we were transporting dangerous goods (Batteries…) and they had to remove it and only then they could resend it. In the end we got our luggage, minus the batteries, a week later; when we were already on the mountain.
But let’s rewind to the trip up the mountain. One of the heaviest days in my life. I was prepared for a long hike, but having to hike up for 6.5 hours with a bag on your back is complete madness for somebody with little experience in mountain climbing… I struggled a lot, but thanks to two of our great field assistants (Francis and Collins) I managed to make it up to Mann’s Spring (2200m high).
The first two weeks we spent there, doing a case study in the Savanna above the tree line, establishing transects in the mountain forest, measuring traits and setting cameras for our pollination studies. After two weeks we gradually moved the camp down to Crater Lake (1600m), where the same work continued.
The field work was great and I begin to see more and more that field ecology is the best part of the job. So it will be a struggle in the last two years without fieldwork… But now I will first enjoy the field trips! Not being able to shower for a month, sleeping in a tent, having to use a latrine (hole in the ground) and cooking on a wooden fire. Great experiences, although a rather primitive life 🙂
We had a great team with us in the field, so the month went by really fast. Luckily we will be back on the 18th of January for another field season, so I don’t have to wait long before going again! The only thing I am not looking forward to is the hike up and down again. These hikes were the toughest ones I have done until now… hopefully it gets better in the future!
Now after enjoying a short week of civilization in Prague and a visit from Joep and Koen I am back in the Netherlands to see the rest of my friends and family again. On the second of January I will go back to Prague to finish preparing for Cameroon.
It has been a while since I posted something. So it is time to inform you about what I have been up to in the last months. I see my last post was just before leaving for the first longer fieldwork in the Zelezne Hory Mountains in June. So let’s start there!
The initial plan was to go for a two week field work period, but since we were going to catch insects with nets during fixed time periods we already estimated we would need extra time. Only with good weather you are able to sample with this methodology… What can I say, entomologist are good weather scientists…. The weeks flew by, even though I spend some time being ill in the last week. I blame the Czech field methodology (involving huge amounts of Beer). But I had a great time with great people. Pictures probably say much more. So I will not dwell on the subject and just show you some pictures from the field :).
After coming back from the field work (18th of July) I still did not have a place to live. So my primary focus went towards finding a place. Luckily, with a lot of help from my colleague (and now neighbor) I got a place and was able to move in the day after my parents and brother arrived to Prague. My parents arranged a van to bring my stuff from the Netherlands, the van arrived just before I got my keys. So on my first day of having my own place I already managed to move everything in (and visit the IKEA). So I was settled really quickly, due to the massive help to my family of course! The days after were spend exploring Prague with my family and buying the last things I needed. So a short visit turned into a busy holiday for them… But we had a lot of fun!
After my guests left I was ready to really start making a routine and enjoy my life in Prague. I live in a nice and green area with some big parks around. So I started running. My goal was to complete a 5k at the end of September, but I already managed to finish a 10k. So now I am working on my speed and maybe even in the future I will join some runs for fun!
I chose a good neighborhood to live in. Close to supermarkets, green, good connection to the center of town and to the airport (direct bus), but the only disadvantage is that I have to travel for 40 minutes to my office…. But hey, in the Netherlands I was travelling for 2 hours to Naturalis once we moved to Leiden, so it could be worse :).
I decided to go back to the Netherlands in the middle of august. I wanted to see my friends again, travel with our sailing groups’ ship from Friesland to Nijmegen, visit Naturalis for my research and see the newborn daughter of Koen en Kelly. I spend almost two weeks in the Netherlands running around to try and do everything what I wanted to do. In the end I managed to do the majority of what I wanted to do, but still I did not see several people. I will be back in December somewhere, so if you want to meet up. Please let me know! I will try to arrange it :).
Prior to my NL trip I had visitors. First Bas (former classmate and friend from my studies) dropped by for 2 days during his European trip with his girlfriend. It was good catching up. Since they did not have much time we rushed to see everything they wanted to see. So it was quite a tiring visit :). After their visit I spend a day with Koos and Loes, whom were visiting Prague for a week, exploring Prague again (a lot of the same places I visited with Bas… I now know I can never be a full time tour guide). Had a lot of fun again and also good amounts of beer, but that is a good Czech experience.
After my trip it was time to get serious and start planning the Cameroon expedition, work on my personal grant proposal, prepare my study plan for the coming 4 years and start with my presentation on my research which I have to give just before I leave to Cameroon. So at the moment we are on track with the preparations for Cameroon, I finished my study plan, am working on my grant proposal and still did not start the presentation. But I will manage. I have already learned that weekends can be interpreted differently for a PhD student…. Furthermore, I have flexible supervisors. So I can shift my working days if that suits me better and I can work from home as well. Which is really great. But something you need to get used to after working with a fixed schedule.
The life of a PhD student is also much different compared to normal working life. You don’t have a real task description. Just an expectation of what needs to be done at the end of the four years. I can understand why a lot of students do not manage to finish their PhD within four years. Another thing which was going through my mind whilst starting with my PhD is that I am not smart enough compared to the people around me. But apparently it is something the majority of students have experienced according to a recent article in Science with the great title No, you are not an impostor. It is still possible that I am a retard though, but hey, let’s hope the article is right 🙂
I don’t have much to add to my story now. I will try to post an update more often, but when I am in Cameroon it will be hard. We will be spending the majority of the time in our campsites on the mountain. Without internet of course and due to humidity issues I will also refrain myself from bringing my own laptop. But you can expect some updates from me in the future. Otherwise, just send me a mail, call or skype if you want to personally hear what I am up to…
it has been already three weeks since I moved to the Czech Republic for my PhD. I directly had to start working. So there was not a lot of time to settle down. The fact that I still do not have my own place yet does not help with that. However, I am very grateful for my supervisor and his girlfriend for letting me stay with them.
Just make a quick leap to the apartment search. I have only visited one place yet and am planning on visiting others this week and the coming week. The last weeks I have been gone quite often. First for field work in the Zelezne Hory mountains. A nice area with a lot of fragmented wet meadows where we will participate in research on the influence of fragmenten on plant-pollinator interactions. The field work is quite similar to what we will be doing in Cameroon. Being:
We are using cameras to follow the plant for 24 hours. Afterwards we then can record which pollinators visited the plants. During the night somebody has to stay in the meadow to make sure that other people do not steal the cameras. So during last trip the three guys who were present had this great task. Sitting on boxes outside playing cards and testing local beers whilst keeping an eye on the cameras is a really hard job :).
In the coming July field trip (2.5 week) we will be measuring a lot more, but during these smaller trips the camera recording is the main important thing. So the last trip robbed me of the majority of my second week in the Czech Republic (or Czechia as we are allowed to say now). Last week we had our team building/ team meeting in the same region as the Zelezne Hory field work. In total four days were planned for this team meeting (travel on Wednesday, work Wednesday night, work Thursday/Friday and travel back on saturday. For me the most important part of this meeting was to discuss my PhD plans with my supervisors, so I can start with planning.
Luckily we found the time to discuss this. As was already known I will be responsible for the botanical aspects of our work in Cameroon. Which besides the camera research includes the creation of transects where we will be measuring plant species and flower traits along the altitude. Now I have already started analyzing the camera data from the first trip (when I still was not part of the team), but besides that I will start to write a review about my subject. In this way I can get directly dive head deep into the research topic. So enough work to fill my workweek with.
During this meeting we also tested some methodology for our July field trip, which was really nice and also a good way to get to know other people in our team. To bond even better the nights were spend “testing” the local beer…
And of course we needed a new group-picture for our website: http://www.insect-communities.cz/team/
Now I am back in Prague searching apartments and watching the UEFA European Championship. I am quite often reminded by the Czech people that even though they are a shitty team they are present…
The coming weeks will be busy, but hopefully I find the time to get an apartment! If I do find an apartment my parents can come at the end of July to visit me and bring my other stuff from the Netherlands. But do not worry I am also already planning on coming back for a short visit. From 17 till 28 august I will be in the Netherlands, however, the majority of the time I will be working. If people want to meet please let me know and we can arrange something during the evening!
it has been a while since I have posted something here. Yesterday I have finally moved to Prague after a trip with a lot of delays. Now I have a week to settle down, arrange all the administrative matters and start the search for an apartment. Once I have found a place to live I can move the rest of my belongings here. From tomorrow onward I will be officially employed by the university and have a 40 hour working week (a bit different from my 32 hours at Naturalis) and 25 holiday days in the year. Luckily the Netherlands is close enough to travel for some weekends off.
I already got a czech phone number (+420 777990943), but for now I will still be using my dutch number for WhatsApp. This will probably change in the near future…
Once I have completely settled here I will be writing a longer blog about my time here. Hopefully with some pictures as well. For now all is well and we will keep in contact,
it has been a while since I posted something. After my trip to Cameroon things got a bit quiet and the job search continued. Luckily I can now make it official that I have accepted a position as PhD candidate at the Faculty of Science of the Charles University in Prague! For this position I will be traveling to Cameroon between 3-6 times in the coming four years for research trips lasting around two months each. The rest of the time I will be in Prague. So feel free to visit ;). I will be researching: Plant-pollinator interactions along an Afrotropical altitudinal gradient. The research is focused on changes of general characteristics of pollination networks along the altitude, as well as on case studies of selected pollination systems. As someone who is extremely interested in ecosystem functioning this is a rather interesting topic.
I was not the only candidate they had. As you can see below quite a diverse group had applied. In total 42 applications where submitted and only six people where interviewed through skype. Luckily for me, I was the one they selected.
I did get the news on a weird day; prior to the funeral of my grandmother. So I couldn’t really celebrate directly, but still enjoyed the news during the following days (and still). From May onward I will be extremely busy with my PhD and before that time I can enjoy a holiday (any suggestions?), work on the website of the Dutch Gorilla Foundation and prepare for my phd (maybe even as a Guest researcher at Naturalis).
So another interesting period is waiting for me and a lot more blog posts will follow! Our research group in Prague also has its own webpage: http://www.insect-communities.cz/
I am writing this from Cameroon. As I wrote in my previous blog I had some other things in the pipeline after the disappointment in Congo. After leaving Congo I had some difficult weeks in the Netherlands. Moving back to my parents’ house and having to live in Millingen aan de Rijn again. Without a job and with my friends in Nijmegen and other parts of the Netherlands. Living in Millingen does not make it very easy to visit people. The bus line which runs between Millingen and Nijmegen was often mocked by my classmates in secondary school (It is yellow and it goes back in time? The bus to Millingen). So you don’t really meet up a lot compared to when I was living in Nijmegen. But still I managed to survive it (including an unknown tropical disease which kept me ill the majority of the time and made me go through all kinds of tests in the hospital) and now I am back in the country I spend the first years of my life. During the week I will add several parts after the experiences during the training. So in the end you are reading a story written in over a week.
Here in Cameroon I will be a trainer and participant in a course on “Capture of Primary Biodiversity Data on West African Plant”. I will be responsible for the database management part and the explanation of the systems used by Naturalis. The course was scheduled to last six days, but prior to starting the schedule has already changed. Visa problems (or lack of organization?) caused the majority of the participants to arrive on a later date. Everybody was supposed to arrive on Saturday or Sunday, but at the moment of writing this first part Sunday afternoon I am sitting here in the hotel restaurant with the other foreign trainer (American from the New York Botanic Garden) and a Cameroonian botanist who took over the management of the training, since the organizer is stuck in Ghana himself. As someone who has visited a lot of African countries the only thing I can say about this is: “This is Africa” and shrug it off. You need to have a relaxed mentality and be able to work with slow changes if you want to work in this interesting continent. The plan is now that we will start on Wednesday and continue until Sunday. Which means the training will be one day shorter. But since I had some duplication in my presentations I will probably be able to reduce the time of my presentations and exercises.
Part two: Written on Friday
We have passed a working week since I last wrote something in this document. My plan to write something every day did not go as planned. After every course day I was completely tired and did not want to spend more time on the computer than I already did during the day. Today I am forcing myself to take some time to write everything down whilst waiting for our food to arrive at the hotel restaurant (which can take over an hour). So let’s take a few steps back and start where I finished in my last part. On Monday we visited the herbarium for the first time. It was situated on a small dirt road and the building is also rather rundown. Inside you find nice wooden closets containing approximately 60.000 herbarium specimens and the offices of the staff working there. We found out that we will be giving the training inside the herbarium. In the hallway next to the closets.
But this first day we would spend to set up the equipment for the image capture in another room. So whilst Kim (the other trainer from the New York Botanical Garden) did that I had some time to review my presentations. During the day we got the news that the other participants were not going to arrive that day since they were waiting for a document which allowed them to get their visa at the airport. Finally the document came on Wednesday, but again another problem arose. There were no flights to Yaoundé until Friday…. So finally they will only be arriving tonight. Already on Tuesday morning we decided to just start the training with the two Nigerians and the local Cameroonian staff. Since we did not have the information from the third trainer (who was providing everything digitally) we had to improvise and change the schedule. In the end I had to keep the participants busy during the majority of the day. Exploring databases, database management systems and a journey through the Naturalis data. So completely knackered I arrived back in the hotel knowing that the next day would be a whole day of Brahms related presentations and exercises again. Oh I could not have been happier!
The dreaded day came and was again very tiring. Talking a lot and looking at faces that express a look of desperation. A lot of information and training to do in just this short amount of time. For some people the language was also a factor which made it more difficult. But I made it through the day and went to bed really early. Before I came to Cameroon I spend a day in the hospital since I have been sick for a while. Having recently returned from Congo, the first thing you think about is a weird tropical disease. So I had to get my blood tested for several diseases and make heart and lung X-rays. They did not find any tropical disease, so the doctor cleared me to go to Cameroon. However with the statement to rest a lot in order to get better. Until now I have not been doing that. So I have to make that up when I am back….
So still recovering from an illness I can be proud of myself what I have accomplished here in Cameroon. Now (Friday) I have finished the second training day filled with Brahms and I can relax tomorrow. If I would have been completely well this day could have gone better, but in the end we managed to get a lot done. Probably on Sunday we will have to give a crash course for the people who arrive tonight. No rest for the wicked….
The local participants find it really amusing that I spend the first years of my life in Cameroon. Now that we spend several days with them they are also opening up more. So today they even got us avocado’s to eat and in the afternoon they brought cacao to “eat”. Where we Europeans dry it and process it into chocolate here they have a different use. They open the pods and suck on the beans which are still covered in pulp. Rather sweet, but I think I prefer eating chocolate.
The last week the only places we have seen are the airport, the road from the airport to the hotel, the hotel, the road from the hotel to the herbarium and the herbarium. So we wanted to see something else. Today they took us to have a look at the University of Yaoundé 1. A huge complex with a lot of different faculties. After this visit they also promised us to take us in the coming days to other places to see more of Yaoundé and get to know the culture better. Including the food! Until now the only real Cameroonian dish that I have eaten is Ndolé. The people who have eaten at my parents’ house probably know it as Cameroonian spinach. A sauce with ground peanuts and a local leaf. Although it is not quite the same I must say I prefer my mothers’ Cameroonian spinach compared to the Ndolé.
Part 3: written back home
The training continued onwards until Sunday due to the late arrival of the Ghanaian and Togolese participants. So in the end we had to work more than expected beforehand. Thankfully the local staff found some time in between the long days to show us around Yaoundé. Some sites we visited: the National Congres center, the house of the President and several embassies.
Afterwards we enjoyed local food again (First “Soya”: meat kebabs and later smoked chicken with fried plantain). Overall I must say Cameroonian food is pretty fat due to the fact that most of it is fried). So I am happy to be back at home and eat more boiled dutch food and a lot of vegetables (Boerenkool!).
On Monday we had to fly back in the night. During the day we answered all the remaining questions from participants and tried to get them as ready as possible to work on data capture. With every training in Africa you need to be ready for a final group picture. Since they also received equipment for image capture we needed to make pictures with the materials given. But also with the participants and local staff. They wanted to do it “quickly” before lunch. In the end we arrived 1.5 hours late at our restaurant since everyone needed to make pictures with their phone or camera. Towards the end I was really tired of having to pose for pictures, so I am already looking forward to receiving the pictures from everyone. During the last 20 minutes a lot of them will have me on it while making some silly faces J.
After a quick visit to an Artisan market after lunch we went back to say our goodbyes and get ready for the journey back. I was travelling back together with Kim, the American from the New York Botanical Gardens. We would split up in Paris. Me going back to Amsterdam, she was going back to New York. Once we entered the airplane we did not meet again. She was seated somewhere else and due to a broken gangway in Paris we only disembarked after 20 minutes at the gate. I had to hurry to get my connecting flight to Amsterdam. I arrived at my gate at the moment they were already busy boarding. So I quickly entered the airplane and continued to wait for departure. However due to no-shows our flight was delayed (removing the baggage of the people not present). So in the end I arrived in Amsterdam a bit later. We landed on the Polderbaan, which makes the journey to the gate also very long.
Since I only slept for one hour in the airplane during the night I was completely tired and spend my Tuesday at home trying to sleep and watch some series. Now on Thursday I finally found the power to sit behind my computer again and continue writing. I still need to visit Naturalis soon to discuss the progress made during the course and to give them some books on the flora of Cameroon which I took with me on behalf of the National Herbarium of Cameroon. So now back to work to wrap up the project and afterwards back to my job search abroad. Overall I am thankful for this opportunity and happy with how it went. I have gained valuable experiences which I can use in the future. I will keep you updated on my progress!
since I got a lot of nice responses on my previous blog I decided that I will write another one here in Congo encompassing my last week in this country. As I explained in my previous blog the plan was to go pick up my stuff at the Mandrill site on thursday, go to the islands from friday till tuesday and then tour around the sanctuary and visit Pointe Noire for a last time. As is the case with a lot of things in Africa. Normally things don’t go as planned. Especially when you look at timeframes. Thankfully I am used to waiting after my years abroad.
Thursday came and went without me going to pick up my stuff. The new plan was to leave friday early in the morning. So I was ready from 08.00 onwards. 9 o’clock came, 10, 11, 12 and still no sign of the car which was supposed to bring us after getting gasoline and food for the mandrills. I was getting worried about having to stay for another day of doing nothing. But finally at 1 the car came and the driver assured me that we will go and that he will return in the evening. It took him another hour to get ready. So at 2 o’clock we finally left. The field assistents insisted I sat in the shotgun position (next to the driver) and, as the luxurious bastard I am, I accepted it without any fight. After a three hour drive I was finally back in the camp and was already dreading the journey back (another three hours on the mainly terrible roads and now even in the dark).
Quickly I packed my bag and got my tent down. You could actually not describe it as packing the bag. I would rather call it throw everything inside and sit on it till everything fits… After 30 minutes we left the camp already. It was getting dark, so we needed to continue quickly. Every guide book of a random African country advises you against travelling by car after dark. But since I sure as hell did not want to stay for another night with my large army of friends in the forest (called the Tsetse-fly, black-flies and Malaria Mosquitos) I decided against speaking with the driver about it. Luckily we did not encounter any problems and got back to the sanctuary at around 20.45.
Since I was supposed to leave for the islands where they are reintroducing chimps on Friday I wasn’t sure when I would get a new opportunity. So saturday I set out to find someone who would know. Finally aroun noon I found the head of the Islands project and he told me that they would actually leave in 10 minutes. So I quickly packed my bag (nicely, not like the day before) and went with him. Tuesday I would still be able to return. After a nice one hour boatride over a big river (forgot the name) we arrived at the basecamp on the opposite side of the Tchindzoulou Island. After finding a nice spot for my tent I went with the local staff and the french head of the project to feed the group on Tchindzoulou Island. Wow, it was really great to see chimps so closeby. The only thing which separated us was 1 meter of muddy shoreline. I was not allowed to leave the boat, something I also did not wanted looking at the size of some of the chimps (yeah yeah, pussy, I know).
On sunday I woke up early and went with the staff to all the islands (Gombe, Tchindzoulou and Tchibebe) and spoke extensively with the head of the project. Encountered a lot of chimps, one decided to even spit on us (there is always a possibility to get piss or poo on you when being around monkeys, so spit was one of the best things you could get on you) . Overall a nice experience. I even found the time to have a small hike in the forest in the vicinity of the Tchindzoulou camp. However, hiking alone in an unknown forest with several dangerous snake species present did not seem to be one of the best ideas of my life. So after an hour I decided to head back. Thankfully (and rather boring) I did only see some birds, crabs, insects and butterflies (of which I made some really nice pictures, but I can’t share them now since they are on my camera).
On monday I joined the head of the project and some staff members during a trip in the forest near the Islands to gather and cut fallen trees to use in the construction of the houses for the project. A good way to use useful timber species which are otherwise decaying on the ground. However, there is also an argument against it (in dutch we say “Dood hout leeft”: Dead wood lives), being that dead wood harbours a lot of insects and nutrients for regeneration. But looking at the small scale at which this is done I would see it as a good example of the multi-purpose forests we like in Europe as well.
After a relaxing afternoon of reading with a view on the chimps on the Tchindzoulou island (on the opposite side of the river) night came and meant that my last day at the Islands was over. It was a great experience and a good example of project with a bright future!
Tuesday I had to wait again for the boat. Which came around 12.30 and we left around 13.30. Fully packed with staff whom where going home we got back to Bas-Kouilou in only 35 minutes. There was already a car waiting with building supplies for the islands and two white researchers whom also needed to go to the Islands. The odds of finding another dutch person in Congo Brazzaville are very low and for that dutch person being from Wageningen University the odds are even lower (however, probably Wageningen has one of the largest amounts of students and researchers doing research abroad). But here stood two researchers (a supervisor and a masters student) from Wageningen university whom where going to research Malaria-mosquitos in the vicinity of chimps. After a short introduction they left for the Islands and I went back to Tchimpounga for a nice shower and a normal bed.
I still needed to buy some food, so thursday I wanted to go for a shopping trip to Pointe Noir. The new car (sponsored among others by the JGI Netherlands) had arrived and I could go with it to town. However, plans quickly change and I had to wait another hour and go with another car and the other dutch people to town. I only needed to get my last groceries, but they needed more. So in the end we spend the whole day in Pointe Noire and we only arrived back with groceries, a cooler box (since they couldn’t find the rest) and only the dutch student since his supervisor already had to get back. Today (friday), was marked by two nice experiences. The youngest chimps here are led every morning to a nearby forest to play and learn more about the forest. Since they are led to the forest by their caregivers whilst being free some manage to run off and making the caregiver to follow them. This morning I was sitting outside going through my pictures when the caregivers walked near me with the young chimps. One broke free and ran at me. Quickly he climbed on top of me, after which he hugged me and ran of again since the caregiver was nearby. I was a bit stunned about what had just happened, but afterwards I can say it was again a great experience.
Rebeca (the head of the sanctuary and JGI Congo) took me and the dutch student to a hill overlooking the sanctuary and explained us everything about the history and the future of Tchimpounga. She also took us to see the large groups on another side of the sanctuary where you are normally not allowed to go as a visitor, since these large chimps after a possible escape could easily hurt you. Seeing these large chimps makes you really wonder why they aren’t called the king of the Jungle…
Now I am finished with packing and also done with writing. Having to write this on a tablet with a bluetooth keyboard which sometimes has a delay, causing you to write double letters or delete more letters than you want to, is not a great way of writing. So for my future trips I will probably take a laptop with me again. I would like to thnk you all for reading and I will keep you updated about my search for a job or projects abroad where I can work. Somethings are currently being arranged. But since there are a lot of maybe’s I am not going to discuss it here yet.
greetings from Congo for the second and last time,
As promised on my facebook I am now finally writing my first blog from the guesthouse of the Jane Goodall Institute in Tchimpounga (Republic of Congo). In this blog I will take you through my journey to Congo, the first experiences and the first trip to the Mandrill release site in the Conkouati-Douli National Park. So let’s start!
After a bad night of sleeping at my parents house I was ready to start my journey to my beloved Africa again. It seemed like the Dutch railwaysystem already wanted me to get a headstart at the African way of life. No trains between Ede-Wageningen and Utrecht… Which would result in an hour of extra travel time if I decided to continue my journey by train. Thank god my parents were already planning on going to the middle of the country for a visit, so they could take me to Utrecht, however they changed the route midway and decided they will drop me off at Schiphol. After I ride in the dutch rain I was already looking forward to the African sun. I will not bother you with the events during my long flight from Amsterdam – Frankfurt – Addis Abeba – Pointe Noire. Just that whenever anyone has a stopover in Addis Abeba I would advice them to go to the toilet in the airplane instead of the Airport. The state of the toilets come close to that of a roadside public toilets I had to use during a busride from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba (Bolivia) while having a severe foodpoisoning. As you can imagine a very traumatic experience :).
Being sleep-deprived I arrived at Pointe Noire airport. A small airport where instead of smelling the dusty African air I was welcomed by a sea-breeze coming in. I must say I prefer the dust. After filling in the arrival forms and going to baggage pick-up and customs I walked into the arrival hall. Where a lot of taxi drivers were fighting for people to take to town. Luckily I was met by three people from the JGI. Patrick (one of the Mandrill researchers I will replace), Neus (a Spanish woman working as head of logistics at the JGI) and a colleague of her. They told me we were going to do some shopping and I was supposed to get stuff for a week in the forest, since we were already leaving the day after instead of two days later. Not knowing what to buy I randomly got stuff to eat and with some help from Patrick I was ready to go. On to Tchimpounga Animal Sanctuary. Where we would spend the night and early in the morning would leave for the forest. After arriving I couldn’t wait to sleep, so I quickly dove into some pasta Patrick made and afterwards went straight to bed. Only to wake up at 5 in the morning by chimps making a lot of noise. The benefits of being surrouded by chimps…. Both Patrick and me were up early and ready to go. 8 o’clock, no car. 9 o’clock still no car. 10 o’clock guess what? Still nothing. We finally left at 11.30 for a 3 hour drive to the forest. In kilometers it is a drive you can do in 1/1.5 hour. But the quality of the roads here made that impossible.
After a three hour car ride which felt more like a continuous bumpercar ride we arrived at the camp. The place which I need to call home for the coming period. The camp was not much different than the pictures I got from the PhD student working there. So no strange surprises there. After a short round to meet the people in the camp I was allowed to go and check the Mandrill site. With a boat we had a nice 10-15 minute drive over a winding river to the Mandrill cage. Did I arrive in Amazonia or was this still Africa?
After a quick look we went back to allow me to “build” my house for the coming period. With help of Alessandro (the other researcher) I got my tent up quickly and started with the decoration of my house. Where to put the inflatable bed? Where my clothes, books and other equipment? Being scared of the rats eating a way into my tent I decided to keep my food in plastic containers outside of the tent. Just like the others did.
The director arrived later that night since she wanted to check up on the project and discuss current events. Something I won’t be able to talk about due to a confidentiality agreement. However it caused the project to change dramatically and there was only a small place left for me. The days were spend getting to know the Mandrills at the cage (the humans were caged in and not the monkeys) and having nice hikes with Alessandro and Patrick trying to spot a forest elephant (and other wildlife). Going through dense understories filled with Marantaceae. I can’t identify it to species level since I am terrible at botany, something you wouldn’t expect from someone who spend more than two years working in the herbaria of Naturalis (Wageningen en Leiden). I must say I was pretty proud of myself when I identified the correct family 🙂
The stay in the forest lasted longer than expected, so in the end I did not have anything left for breakfast, which resulted in me having to eat pasta or rice as breakfast for several days. When we arrived back in Tchimpounga on saturday whe were forced to eat rice as breakfast for another two days, since there was no car on sunday to Point Noire. Thank god we were saved sunday afternoon by one of the spanish staff members and her boyfriend here. They took us to the beach where we could eat fish and fried banana whilst enjoying a lovely Ngok beer. La bon vie en Afrique!
Les bon moments sont rare
You are probably wondering why I am adding some french phrases in between all the English text. The manager of the fieldcamp has some catchphrases which we were hearin on a day to day basis: Les bon moments sont rare (the good times are rare), La bon vie en Afrique (the good life in Africa), Les hommes bien (the good guys) and La music blesse (the music hurts). Sorry for my bad writing in French. In the last few months my focus was on understanding spoken french and being able to speak french. The last catchphrase needs some explanation. He was always together with his small radio with Congolese music on it. It would start from the moment he got up until his batteries were dead. So as a protest the others created the phrase and now he is using it as well.
Now back to the title of this chapter. As I wrote on facebook I needed to discuss some things before writing a blog. Due to the changes in the way thte work is done. The only role for me would be to drive the boat, make sure the local staff is working, observe the Mandrills for a short time two times a day when they were feeding at the edge of the river and for the rest of the day spend my time entering data collected by the local staff. Coming from a job where I spend the whole day behind the computer working with data one could say I wasn’t looking forward to this change in plans. So I needed to talk to the director to see what we could do about this. After a long talk we decided that there isn’t much else I could do here and that I needed to decide what I wanted to do. Stay and sit behind the computer the majority of the day (whilst being in the primitive camp) or go home and spend my time trying to find another job. In the end it was a difficult decision, but a good one. I do not want to feel miserable for the 3 coming months so I have decided to come home after I visited the several projects which the JGI has in Congo. The plan now will be that tomorow I am getting my tent and other gear at the Mandrill site and then come back directly to Tchimpounga. Friday I will leave to the islands on the reserve where another project is on its way to release chimps from the sanctuary back into the forest. I will return on tuesday after which I get a tour around the sanctuary and see how they are working here. Then the following saturday (26 september) I will fly back to the Netherlands, where I will arrive on sunday morning around nine. So in the end it is a short stay in Congo of only one month but again it is an experience where I learned a lot as a conservationist and as a person. But I hope the next experiences will finish on a better note. I would like to stress that I will not hold any grudges towards the JGI. I have been active within the JGI since 2009 and know all about the great work they are doing around the world and I also can see the great work they are doing here. But sadly enough there is no place here for me to feel useful and to have a positive impact. Now I will return back to the Netherlands where I will continue my activities with the JGI Netherlands. So Burgers’ Zoo here I come :). And if someone has a nice job for me from October onwards please let me know…
Probably another blog will follow after my experiences on the islands and around Tchimpounga (but most likely not as long as this one). Thanks for reading (if you made it this far) and see you back home!
the bags are packed and I only still need to buy some “stroopwafels” to hand out to the local staff at the Jane Goodall Institute in Congo. So I am ready for take off. This afternoon I will start my long trip. First from Nijmegen to Schiphol by train continued by a flight to Frankfurt, Addis Abeba and Pointe Noire. In total I will be traveling from this afternoon 15.00 till tomorrow 13.30. In Congo I will directly do my grocery shopping for the field so that we can continue to the Tchimpounga Sanctuary without having to return to Pointe Noire. After only two days in Congo I will already leave for the rainforest and have to live in my tent for the coming two weeks. The plan is that I will be staying in the forest for two weeks at a time. Studying the Mandrills for 14 days continuously and then returning to the sanctuary to rest and eat some fresh foods again. This cycle will continue until I leave the country on the 19th of December.
I am really looking forward to my trip and also a little bit scared for the living conditions in the field (humidity, mosquitos and primitive living). I will try to keep you updated by posting regularly on my site.