Thursday, July 19, 2012

Don't Fence Me In

My cousin Charlotte does not believe in paying money to look at an animal behind a cage.  Why would you look at an animal behind a miserable locked cage when you could view an animal in its natural happy habitat?  I must say, I do agree.  My cousin Charlotte also dyed her jack russel pink with beet juice because she was bored during the rainy season.  Clearly, I am related to this person.

That being said, since our return from Botswana we have spent much of our free time in South Africa visiting different nature reserves and playing with various animals face to face.  Monday we went to the rhino and lion park where we were allowed to pet a cheetah named Eddy and some lion cubs.  It was about mid day and they were very sleepy and didn’t really care one way or an other, but 1 lion cub did show me his teeth and if my translation is correct (the African accent was pretty thick) I think he said, “back the F$%# off white girl.”  Whatever.  I pretty much wrestled a rhino, don’t worry about it. 

On this particular trip we also saw an ostrich-mating dance, which was pretty incredible.  Basically the female ostrich prances around a little and shows off her feathers, then the male comes over with his pom-pom ass and really shows off his feathers.  Then the female acts all uninterested and the male continues prancing around for her.  I can’t help but think how much bird-mating displays are like every bar in a college town on a Saturday night.

Monday night we spent about a half an hour divvying up an impala that one of Uncle Nick’s customers shot.  Apparently there are a hundred different flavors of antelope in Africa.  Impala would be one of them.  200 kilos of impala meat is apparently a lot.  Therefore there was some disagreement as to if this dude actually shot an impala or a kudu or water buffalo or something else entirely.  Personally, I don’t really care, but when you marinate this mystery African meat in pomegranate and cover it with spice and star fruit it is absolutely delicious.    

Tuesday after a lazy morning fueled by coffee and bacon, Charlotte took me to Glen Afric (an other nature reserve near her place) to frolic with the elephants.  There is a mama and 2 babies.  By babies I mean an animal taller than me and weighs 50 times as much, but thinks it is a playful kitten.  When I was in Thailand I was not fazed when riding the elephants or even when the elephant I was riding decided to role around in the river we were walking through.  I am not sure why (charging rhino) but for some reason (charging rhino) I felt a little more jumpy around these elephants (charging rhino).   Regardless it was fun to pet them and have them throw dirt in our general direction.

Rewind!  I should also tell the story of our re-entry into South Africa from Botswana (Sunday afternoon) because even though I am sure it was nothing to Charlotte and Brevis, it was an experience that added a few more grey hair to my head.  If you will remember we still, obviously, didn’t have registration papers for the car we were trying to drive across this particular African border.  This particular African border is interesting because most people from Botswana apparently hate the Afrikaans in South Africa.  History lesson that I will not go into for your own sake.  So even though Charlotte and Brevis both speak Afrikaans, when a Botswana official greets them in Afrikaans Charlotte and Brevis are forced to feign ignorance because if they were to reply in Afrikaans to these officials we would be in about 3 hours and a lot of moneys worth of trouble.  I have so much to learn.  At any rate, we (again) get through the passport side of things.  We even get through the car side of things and we are about to drive over the border when we see an other car ahead of us stopped with at least 4 African officials in uniform surrounding it.  The passenger from the car is clutching his passport and looks scared out of his mind.  Again, I am trying to judge the veterans in the car and when I hear Charlotte mutter, “uh-oh…” my pulse quickens. 

The second we pull up behind the other car, the African officials (and their guns) become immediately disinterested in the poor gentleman they had just been harassing and all eyes turn to our car.  Said harassed gentleman quickly jumps into his own car and speeds away.  Lucky bastard.  Once again I try to plaster on my not so sly wide-eyed creepy grin.  I am in the front seat and Charlotte is in the back and Brevis is driving, mind you.  Brevis, cool as a freaking cucumber, hands the officials his passport and drivers license and asks the officials if they would like to see anything else.  At this point, Charlotte and I are both sitting on top of a number of ostrich feathers we were attempting to bring back.  Charlotte also has a giraffe tail she found on the ground tucked into her Prada.  Yes Prada, your handbags are now being used as vehicles to carry giraffe tails around Africa.  We dirty Americans thank you.  At any rate, the African officials smile at Charlotte (obviously not the weird girl in the front who looks like she has just been let out of the psych ward) and ask Brevis to step out of the car.  They lead Brevis to the back of the car and Charlotte turns around ready to grab certain luggage if and when they open the trunk.  We see them all laughing and within 20 seconds Brevis is back in the drivers seat laughing.   The trunk door not even touched.

“So what was that all about?”  I asked, trying to seem like I wasn’t crapping my pants at that exact moment.

Brevis just laughed and nonchalantly said, “Oh those guys said I had 2 beautiful women sitting in the car and I must have more important things to do than sit at the border and I had better be on my way quite quickly so I could take care of things.”

Charlotte just giggled and said, “Oh you gotta love Africa.”

Yes.  Yes I do.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Polar Bear Story

I have a friend, Mali, who went on a very long and intense canoe trip in Northern Canada with a group of amazing women.  Toward the end of their trip a polar bear came into their camp and stalked them for over 24 hours.  It is an incredible story.  A story that I make Mali tell at parties frequently and when she isn’t there, I go ahead and thrill people with the story myself.  It is a story that keeps people on the edge of their seats (literally, a rugby guy I know sat on the edge of our couch for an hour while Mali told this story once).  I am proud to say that after visiting with my long lost cousin Charlotte Hanks, I finally have my own polar bear story, so I won’t have to steal Mali’s any longer.  But, I will let you sit in anticipation of that story while I give you the intricate and significant details that lead up to such a story.  But you can bet your smuggled ostrich feathers (an other story) that I will get there!

For about three days there I got into this routine where I would drink about a half a bottle of wine or so and wake up in a different country.  It all started last Thursday when I was packing up my hotel room in Ethiopia and I had some wine left over from…whatever…and I drank wine and watched the traffic of Addis and woke up the next morning (not so surprisingly) in Ethiopia.  The next night I drank wine and watched wildebeest graze and woke up in South Africa.  The following night I drank wine and watch baboons at a watering hole and woke up in Botswana.   So how did I get here (there)?  Well let me tell you!

The end of my thrilling data collection in Ethiopia was anti-climatic to say the least.  I finished up my work Thursday and my ever so kind and thoughtful mentor offered to pick me up Friday morning at 6am to take me to the airport.  It was Friday the 13th and I kept trying to convince myself that I was not superstitious, but when you have a father that survived a firey plane crash and an uncle that was on the plane that crashed into the Hudson river, you can’t help but wonder…so I check in and the woman gladly puts me in the emergency row, hands me my ticket and wouldn’t you know I am in row 13.  I mean…come on!   

As “luck” would have it I survived, but not without denouncing the thought of ever having children thanks to the ill-attentive mother and her 3 heinous children that ran into my legs for 5 hours – straight.  Woah is me.  At any rate, I arrived in Johannesburg and had told my cousin (whom I have never met before, we are actually maybe 2nd or 3rd cousins…we have the same great-grandmother maybe?  Whatever, the point is we both have the last name Hanks and we are facebook friends and she lives in a cool place that I wanted to see) to take her time as I was going to try to change my return ticket home.  An other story that you do not want to hear.  As I was standing at the counter trying to change said ticket I hear a voice behind me say, “Are you my cousin?” I turn around to find…a Hanks.  I don’t know how to describe a Hanks to one that does not know our family.  There is something about a Hanks that reeks of mischief and fun.  Something that tells you, “I am going to get into a lot of trouble with this person, but have a hell of a good time doing it.”  I immediately knew I was in for an adventure. 

After figuring out the ticket situation we piled into her car with her husband Brevis.  Nerdy sidenote – for those of you who have had the pleasure of studying the anatomy of the hand or foot you know that there are many muscles that are short and long and named as such – pollicis longus and pollicis brevis.  Adductor longus and adductor brevis.  Brevis’ mother was a medical student and liked the sound of Brevis.  That made me happy.

At any rate, we drove about an hour outside of Jo-burg to the nature reserve where Charlotte and Brevis live.  I mean…wow.  Just…wow.  The view, the house, the wine.  All, just stunning.  We had a glass of wine and watched the sunset over the hills.  They live on the top of a hill where you can see (as before mentioned) wildebeest grazing as well as whatever other wild animal comes along. 

That night we went to dinner at Uncle Nick Hanks’ house literally down the dirt road.  Uncle Nick is Charlotte’s uncle and my….relative?  Whatever, same last name, so I am in.  2 other couples living on the nature reserve joined us.  One couple was a British man and his French wife who runs a spa that serves only raw foods to her visitors for 5 days straight.  Charlotte says they live in the castle down by the river.  We were invited to hang out while I am here and I can’t wait.  Dinner was a trip.  I learned what “vee” means in French and it is incredibly inappropriate. 

The next morning I woke up in South Africa and still hadn’t showered from my travels.  We were trying to leave for a gaming camp in Botswana, but Charlotte said, “Oh you must have a bath and watch the sun rise over the African hills.”  Ugh…I guess if you say so… She drew me a bath and it was pretty much a life changing experience. 

After having my life changed, we loaded up the car and drove for 5 hours to Botswana.  When we arrived at the border (and I should mention that for whatever reason I am incredibly skiddish of any border police or customs or what have you) we are walking up to the office when Brevis does a deep intake of breath a la Ethiopian agreement sign and looks at Charlotte with wide eyes and says, “we forgot the car papers!”  Keep in mind we have already driven across South Africa for the last 4 hours.  The game camp is just 30 min across the border, but trying to get across a border with out registration for the car you are driving kind of makes it look like you stole the car.  Oh well, thought I, Botswana would have been nice.  To my surprise, Charlotte looked worried for all of half a second and then giggled and said, “Oh well we have gotten out of worse situations at African borders.”  Dare I ask?  Probably not the time.  Charlotte then turned to me and said, “Open your eyes very wide and smile very big and laugh and say thank you.”  Uh-huh, whatever you say cousin Charlotte.   So we got all the way through the passport part and we finally walk up to the car part of the deal and here I am standing with what had to look like the scariest, biggest grin and eyes popping out of my head, behind a cool, calm, collected Charlotte and Brevis.  We walk up to the window and this Botswana man jerks his head up and says, “What?  No you didn’t just catch me sleeping!  What can I do for you?  I am awake you see!”  I let out a, very likely, much too loud laugh as Charlotte bashfully giggles and says we are headed into his beautiful country for the weekend.  So much smoother than me.  Must be the cool Hanks side, obviously.  We get all the way through the process without him ever asking for the papers for the car, we pay him for our ticket to get in and start walking away.

As we are reaching the door Charlotte whispers in my ear, “I can’t believe we just got away with th-“
The man is yelling for us to come back and all 3 of us simultaneously slump our shoulders and walk back, knowing what must be coming.
“You for got your change.  Have a great weekend in my beautiful country!”

So we make it to Mokolodi lodge where we are staying in a chalet overlooking the watering hole.  Mokolodi is a nature reserve of 8000 hectares with all sorts of animal that basically just hang out and don’t have to worry about being poached.   When we pull up to our chalet there are bunch of baboons just chilling at the watering hole.  So we more or less joined them with our wine.  After that Ranger Brevis took us on a game drive through the park where we saw countless kudu and impala.  You pretty much just drive through these dirt roads and there are animals everywhere and they are not behind cages or captive or anything gross like that.  Just hanging out.

After the game drive we had dinner at the lodge.   Charlotte had been raving about Botswana beef so I ordered a fillet (pronounced Fill-Let in Africa apparently) with the Mokolodi sauce, which consisted of Camembert cheese and cherries.  I will have dreams of that dinner for the rest of my life.

The next morning we wake up around 7 am, enjoy a cup of coffee and pile into the car that informs us that it is 4 degrees Celsius.  Apparently it gets cold in Africa.  We meet up with 2 guides at the registration office for our rhino tracking tour.  This basically involves sitting on benches in the back of a truck freezing your ass off for 2 hours.  To be fair, we were driving through the bush and it was pretty awesome.  Finally, we spotted some fresh rhino tracks (are you paying attention?  Because this is the where the “polar bear” part of the story comes in).  Our 2 guides tell the 3 of us to get out so we can start tracking the rhino on foot.  I was pleased to see one of the guides pull out a very large shotgun from the truck as they tell us this.

We then proceeded to play a little game I like to call, “follow the gun.”  Both guides were tracking the rhino, but there are 7 rhinos in this reserve, hence many different tracks, so often the 2 guides would split off in different directions.  I would always “follow the gun,” for obvious reasons.  Finally the guide with the gun tells us that we have walked quite far and he is going to go back and circle around with the truck so we don’t have to walk so far when we come back and he hands the gun off to our female guide.  He leaves and she leads us further into the bush.  I should mention that we are walking through sandy Kalahari bush that is laced with Acashia thorns, which are (no lie) 2 inches long.  These thorns kept ripping off our hats and tugging at our jackets.  At any rate, we are walking along and all of the sudden our guide says, “wait…I think he was…and then he went…there!”  And she is pointing to what appears to me to be a bunch of thorns and bush.  “You see him?  Right through there?”  I see thorns.  But then…maybe?  And then I realize there is something very large not 20 yards away from us.

I pull out my camera and start trying to snap some pictures.
“That is the male that protects the herd,” our guide was saying.
“Oh yeah?” snap, snap.
“Yes, he cannot see very well, but he can hear us and smell us,” says the guide.
“Yeah?”  Snap, snap.
“Yes, he is not a very nice rhino…”
“Really?” Snap, snap.
“Yes, he has heard us.  He is not happy.”
“Ok, now we run.”

Have you ever had a gazillion pound prehistoric creature with a horn that could skewer you in an instant, come charging through the bush in your direction from 20 yards away?  I have. 

I don’t even know what happened next, but we were running.  The 2-inch thorns were not helping, but next to the blind, angry rhino behind us they looked like child’s play.  Basically we darted left and rhino went straight and we avoided him for the most part.  When we finally came to a clearing it appeared that we had escaped the most immediate threat.  I was, obviously, still shaking and trying to catch my breath.  I turned around expecting to find the same of my compatriots only to find Brevis calmly smoking a cigarette, Charlotte looking at me with this huge grin saying, “I don’t know about you, but I love this sh*t!” and our guide banging the butt of the gun on the ground and pointing at me and howling with laughter saying, “Woooo!  You should have seen the look on your face!  I said, ‘Ok now we run,’ and you say, ‘Where?!’  Hoooo!! Hahaha!” 

Ok, first of all I don’t remember saying anything except for running.  Second of all, really?  No kidding I was scared!!  Then, she pulls out 2 shotgun shells from her pocket and says, “You don’t have to worry.  If anything serious happens I put these in the gun.”  Wait.  You are telling me that gun isn’t even loaded?!  Then it dawns on me that I am standing in the middle of the African bush with these 3 loony toons, an unloaded shotgun, and a very pissed off male rhino somewhere in the bushes.  Excuse me while I go change my underwear…

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Pass the Syrup

My hotel has complimentary breakfast.  I actually find it better than most complimentary hotel breakfasts (breakfasti?) in America.  There are scrambled eggs and what they call French toast, but I actually think it is better and sweeter.  Plus they have all the Ethiopian fixings which adds delicious spice and of course coffee….mmm….coffee.  At any rate, it’s a pretty sweet deal and there really is something for everyone, I think.  So yesterday this big dude comes in for breakfast right after I arrive looking like he just got off the boat and is trying to figure out the deal.  I inwardly grin at myself because it’s nice to finally know what’s going on (sorta).   I should also mention that the staff here at Harambee hotel have been awesome.   Many of them speak only a little bit of English, but we all smile at each other a lot and it’s very pleasant.  So anyway, dude is trying to figure out breakfast and to his credit he smiles and says good morning to me, but then…he gets stuck on wanting syrup.  Then he does that thing that just makes me want to throw my American passport out a window, when no one understands what he is asking for, he just says it louder.  And louder.  “Suuur-UP!  DO…YOU…HAVE…ANY SYUUR-UP?!”  Come on man, you are in Ethiopia!  Does it look like syrup is served with this meal?  And then he does the thing that I hope none of you will ever do when traveling to a country other than your own, he lets out this exasperated (and very loud) sigh and demands, “get me someone who speaks English.”

Allow me a little soapbox time for a minute here.  When traveling outside of your home country, you are guest.  It is not a requirement for everyone in the world to speak English, much less serve you syrup.  Yes, it is frustrating to not be understood, I’m not claiming that I haven’t been a little frustrated myself in the last couple weeks, but usually my frustration is with myself for not knowing the language.  I had drinks with Peace Corps Volunteers last weekend who spoke easy Amharic to our waitress and I was so jealous to not have that ability in this country.  It is just so much more respectful, I think, to take the time and learn the language, not just demand that someone speak your own native language.

Ok enough preaching to the choir soaps or whatever, let’s all just be polite and if you are traveling away from home remember to BYO syrup!  On a lighter note, I started thinking about different ways to say (or not say) signs of agreement.  For example, in America when someone says, “Hey man, brats and beer at your place?”  One would reply with a “Yeah” or “Yup” or “Right on” or what have you.  In Samoa (and this is my personal favorite) they don’t reply.  They simply raise their eyebrows a few times.  I caught on to this pretty quick and I actually still catch myself doing this from time to time in America.  It can be a little tricky though because if you are not looking at the person when you ask, “Is this the right road to the beach?” and you hear nothing it can be deceiving.  But then you look up and see a flutter of eyebrow activity and you know you are on the right track.

In Ethiopia, I have discovered that the sign for agreement is a sharp intake of breath.  Like, pretend someone just crept up behind you and grabbed your shoulders.  “Huuuhhh!”  I don’t even know how to write that, but go ahead and pretend that happened right now.  Go on – quick breath intake.  Got it.  That sound.  So I was going through all my data today with my mentor, making sure I wrote down the right name for diagnoses and procedures, etc.  Which is actually trickier than it sounds because it involves trying to decipher various doctor’s handwriting out of a log book.  So I would periodically say something like, “this one here, is this perforated bowel?”  To which he would respond with a sharp intake of breath (go ahead, do it again so you get the full effect) to which I would jump (every time!) and be like “What!?  Where?!  I’ve got pepper spray!  Oh…you mean…yes, bowel perforation, sooo next surgery…”  Eyebrow raising was much easier on the nerves…

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Ethiopian kids do this cute little trick where one kid comes up to you and distracts you with something he is selling or saying “hungry” over and over again, while his buddy puts his filthy, sneaky little hand in your pocket or purse.  I know this.  I have been warned about this.

So today I woke up late and enjoyed a nice breakfast across the street from my hotel.  The waiters finally understood my sign language for “jam” on my toast (this took 3 weeks to work out) and all was good.  I then went to the ATM to get money for the week and pay my hotel bill.  After that my plan was to walk down the street to buy a present for some friends (Tim and Burda you better like you stupid gift) and then stop by the hospital and do some work. 

I was walking to the shop when this kid about half my size jumped in front of me with a box of gum.  He was persistent.  I will give him that.  I’ve also been told that avoiding eye contact helps to show your lack of interest.  So I was trying to do my best to look straight ahead and keep my hand firmly over the top of my bag which was carrying my wallet, my passport, one of the 4 backups for my data, and my laptop.  My phone, unfortunately, was in an outside pocket because I had just been texting with a Peace Corps Volunteer in Addis about possibly meeting up. 

It was after a couple of yards that I heard this little punk’s friend coming up behind me and grabbing my arm muttering what I could only imagine was his attempt at “hungry.”  I kept walking with eyes forward trying to shake them without being too rude.  Finally after a block or so, they mysteriously dropped off.  I thought I had just done a good job and looking uninterested.  Once I crossed the street and was about half way up the hill to the shop I reached into the outside pocket to check the time on my cell phone only to discover, you guessed it, no cell phone.  &$%*#@%!!!  Come ON!

I am trying to remind myself that at least it wasn’t my passport or my wallet that I just put $3000 birr in (roughly $200USD) or my computer full of all my data.  But it is hard to be optimistic when an 8 year old just made you a sucker…Damnit!!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Puzzle day

 Dr. Nebyou and I outside the OR at Black Lion Hospital
Ethiopian Epic...

Beats Working

My sister’s boyfriend likes to do puzzles.  My sister’s boyfriend is also very strange, so we usually just roll our eyes and laugh when he talks about doing his puzzles, but I started thinking today about how the human body is kind of like a 3D puzzle.  This morning I watched my mentor remove a giant, very vascularized (read - very bloody) carotid body (read – in the neck) tumor.  Watching him work through the anatomy of the neck was like working through a very complex puzzle… one that occasional sprayed blood in your face.  It is such an incredible thing to posses the knowledge that enables one to cut into a human, remove the problem, and then put them back together again.  Watching something like that…its like time, spreadsheets, food, school, nothing else exists except for that giant 3D puzzle that needs to be put back together.    

My Dad always says that, “any day in the OR beats working.”  I never really understood what he meant by that until I actually worked a 9-5 job and then set foot in an OR.  Yes, I only just finished my first year of medical school, which means I know next to nothing when it comes to medicine or surgery for that matter, but there is just something consuming about being in an OR and watching a surgeon work out the puzzle.  Maybe that will change for me one day, but at this point in my life, it really does beat working.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Jerk Shower

I am currently not speaking to me excuse for a “shower.”  Ugh the nerve of that guy!  So I come home from the hospital earlier this week.  Side note, I finally convinced my mentor that I am perfectly capable of walking the 4 blocks from my hotel to the hospital this week.  I know he was just trying to help me out, but after sitting all day and staring at a computer a 15-minute walk can be the difference between insanity and pseudo-sanity.  At any rate, I walked home and I should also mention that I have never seen as much air pollution in a 4-block radius as I have here.  “I need my asthma spray!”  But seriously…I find myself wheezing every time I make this walk and have debated wearing a surgical mask on the walk if I didn’t already stand out like a sore thumb. 

Ok but for real, the damn shower!  So I get home and all I want is a hot shower.  As mentioned, there is a little box connected to the showerhead that apparently controls the hot water.  If the light on the box is on, the water is hot.  No light=ice cold water.  Don’t be fooled in thinking I have any control over this light.  I don’t.  So I get in the shower, tired and covered in African hospital and pollution and the water is hot.  Thank you shower box gods!  Oh but wait…just kidding.  I get maybe 30 seconds into this delicious hot shower before the light shuts off.  Cute shower box gods.  Real cute.  I take a deep breath, finishing getting my hair wet and shut the water off.  Sometimes if you just give the water a break it will decide to get warm again.  Sometimes.  I take this water hiatus to put a good amount of shampoo in my hair.  Since I am feeling particularly grimy I go ahead and really lather it on.  After a few minutes I try the water again.  Nothing.  Not hot water, not cold water, but NO water.  Umm excuse me?  The string of swear words that followed would have scared any rugby player or pirate.

In other news, I met our oldest ancestor Lucy last weekend.  She is very short, skinny, doesn’t talk much and lives in a glass box in a basement.  Rough life...or death I guess.  We also went to the Ethnological museum at Addis Ababa University.  It was a little bit more well done than Lucy’s home.  The AAU campus was gorgeous though. 

Last Sunday I was supposed to go to Entoto Mountain with my friend Liz who is a family medicine resident at UW and also working here.  I can’t help but mention that she is a year older than me and 5 years ahead of me in schooling.  Sigh.  At any rate, a friend of hers from her MPH program lives here in Addis.  Both of them have been very nice by including me in weekend outings and lunches and whatnot.  At any rate, we were going to go up the mountain, except for this whole rainy season thing.  It rains.  All.  The.  Time.  So instead I slept, read, and watched movies all day.  I honestly can’t remember the last time I spent a day doing that…maybe when I lived in Samoa.  There is something to be said for the fact that I have to leave America in order to get a day off.