Friday, April 24, 2015

My first fiction writing

M2M has been quiet for a couple weeks.  I’ve been working on some things here in Oklahoma and preparing for the summer.  But there has been one big development in my path from Marine to myrmecologist to…something else?

This semester I’ve been working on a secret project—fiction!  I wrote a short story and it just got published earlier this week in the journal Origins.  Now that it’s out there for the world to see, I suppose it’s no longer a secret.

The story—A Hedgehog in Bloom—follows an unnamed Marine linguist as he grapples with his role in a morally ambiguous war in an unfamiliar landscape.

Some of its themes may be familiar to M2M readers—place, language and nature—whereas others may be new—war, ethics and self-identity.

Although it draws on my experiences as a Marine in Iraq, please remember that the story is fictional.

You can view an online version of the whole journal here, and a free pdf of just my story here.

I hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Murchison Falls

I haven’t posted much the past couple weeks.  I’ve been working to finish labwork and a manuscript before heading out for this summer’s project.  I suppose this is as good a time as any to finally conclude my Uganda trilogy from 2012.  When I last left off I had arrived with two fellow travelers—Sasha and James—at the small town of Karuma on the south bank of the Nile where it flows through a series of rapids.

The first time I passed through Karuma, with Nicholas, I nearly got arrested by some soldiers for photographing the falls on the Nile.  Supposedly, it was all to keep people from taking pictures of the military base that guarded the south bank just outside of town.

Now, my second time in Karuma, I got my revenge on the soldiers in an act of micro-rebellion.  James and Sasha and I, by walking a trail through some agricultural fields, found our way to a secluded spot on the bank of the river right between the infantry barracks in town and the base with the artillery, without ever sneaking past a single sentry.  We then took all the photos of Karuma Falls we wanted.  It’s pretty bad when three foreigners can easily get between you and what you're supposed to be guarding.

James and Sasha and I were able to photograph the Nile all we wanted by simply walking around the soldiers who guarded the view

Near the military base we came across this raiding column of driver ants (Dorylus sp.)

After Karuma, our goal was Murchison Falls NP, the largest in Uganda.  Nicholas had left us to return to Kampala, and without a vehicle we knew we couldn't really explore the park the way we wanted to.  But there was also a challenge—somehow, get from here to there.  Aren't those the best missions, just get from A to B?

We found a pickup truck heading west toward the Congolese border, and got rides in the back for about three dollars apiece.  It was a cold, overcast, misty morning, and we raced along at around 70 mph stuffed into the bed of the truck with some supplies, construction tools, two women, a baby, an older man, a mechanic, and three Ugandan soldiers in civvies on their way to a funeral.  The three soldiers huddled in camouflage jackets and ponchos, but I, of course, thickheaded as I am, wanted to look tough for the Ugandans.  I'm from Cleveland, the land of ice and snow and eternal darkness, and I wore only my shorts and a skivvy shirt.

I was cold, but the scenery was amazing as we traveled for over 100 km through open savanna, broken only by an occasional village.  Having the soldiers on board turned out to be useful, because police tried to stop and question our driver at every checkpoint.  We could only assume the extra scrutiny came from having three obvious foreigners in the bed of the truck.  But every time we were stopped, the three soldiers warded the police off.

We eventually reached, and crossed, the Nile yet again where it flows northward at the town of Pakwach.  There we hired three boda-bodas—small motorcycles—to take us the 25 km to the center of Murchison Falls National Park.  While I don’t think it is illegal, entering the park by boda-boda is discouraged because of the danger from buffalo and other large animals.  I admit now that that advice is well-grounded.

We rode on the backs of our boda-bodas into the park.  The dirt road wound through a vast savanna of elephant grass, Borassus palms and large grazing herds.  Oribi and Uganda kob bounded across the road meters in front of us as we drove, while warthogs, Jackson's hartebeest, and buffalo watched us from the sides.  No buffalo charged us, but we passed one aggressive one that snorted as we passed. When we finally arrived at the guard house to check in, a ranger scolded us for riding through the savanna exposed on boda-bodas instead of in a truck.  But though it was dangerous, that motorcycle ride through herds of large animals was one of the highlights of my trip.  When it comes down to it, I enjoyed getting to the park more than being in the park itself.

Murchison Falls is not just Uganda’s largest national park.  It’s also where Ernest Hemingway and his wife survived two plane crashes over the course of a couple days in 1954.  What attracted Hemingway here, and most visitors since, are the falls themselves—a narrow gorge that the Nile shoots through in a chaotic roar.

We took a boat up the Nile to view the falls and the wildlife along the way

Grazing hippos were common along this stretch of the Nile... were Nile crocodiles

The next day we hiked to the top of the falls to get the view from above

We parted ways with Sasha in the village of Ziwa southeast of the park.  She was in a hurry to get to Kampala, and James and I weren’t ready to return to the city.  There was one place we still wanted to visit.  Outside of Ziwa is a heavily guarded preserve where a few white rhinos have been reintroduced after being extirpated from the country.  They are the only wild rhinos in all Uganda.

James and I made our way to the sanctuary, where we teamed up with Slovenian couple, Neya and Luca.  Neya was a biology and sustainability teacher at a high school in Ljubljana, and Luca was a nature and travel photographer and instructor.  We hit it off discussing our shared experiences in Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo, and they let us tag along as the toured the preserve.

The reintroduced southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum) at the Ziwa sanctuary are the only wild rhinos in Uganda

The Ziwa sanctuary also gave us a close encounter with Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum)

Neya and Luca offered to give us a ride all the way from Ziwa to Entebbe, a day's journey.  At first they were only to take us a few kilometers to the main road in Ziwa, but when we got to Ziwa, a single line of dirty shops along the highway, a look of disgust and disbelief passed over Luca's face.  He was pessimistic about our chances of getting a lift from there, and I he and Neya felt like they couldn't in good conscience leave us at such a desolate place.  So they offered to drive us the whole way.

Here in Entebbe, I am to start the Ant Course, my official reason for coming to Uganda, tonight.  My travel in Uganda is basically over.  I have said goodbye to Sasha and James and Neya and Luca.  I had a great time learning about the exciting world of photojournalism from Sasha, and will miss James' rants about British politics and the decline of the Euro.  The Ugandan people are overly friendly, and I've only rarely felt in any danger.  The food is great, transportation is easy, assuming you don't care about comfort or space, and the landscape just fits.  Of course, the Biology is indescribable.

But the biggest news in Uganda right now is the Ebola outbreak in the west.  Every day the numbers climb.  The center of the outbreak is around 50 miles from where I'll be spending the next two weeks, although people have died as far away as Kampala, the capital.  I will be fine.  I'll be in the forest anyway, away from towns.  So, assuming everything works out, I will see you all when I return to the US!