This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Ancient African art

twyfelfonteinThe Cro-Magnon people of Europe drew mammoths, deer, and moose. The San people of Africa made giraffes, oryxes, and wildebeest. Both depict hunts, hunted animals, and the styles are quite similar. If you look closely you can even see an animal with double sets of legs, like the one at Lascaux which is suspected to be like an animation of a walking animal when properly flashed with light. The Cro-Magnon people drew shamanic apparitions, as did the San people: if you look closely at the Twyfelfontein rock painting site you can find a lion with a deer-like animal in its jaws. The lion has a long, angled tail, with a pawprint at the end. As if from a trance dream.

The rock drawings of Twyfelfontein are similar to the ones in Lascaux. We people share a universal, collective mind, regardless of where in the world we live. Which drawings are older? The San people who drew the Twyfelfontein paintings are said to be the oldest original people of Africa, but these drawings are only about 2,000-6,000 years old; while the paintings in the Lascaux caves have survived 17,000 years. The oldest known rock art, in Indonesia, is dated 40,000 years back in time. On the one hand, the Twyfelfontein art is much younger. On the other hand, the Cro-Magnon people seem to have stopped making rock paintings some 10,000 years ago, while the San people did it until they were banished to the nearly rock-less Kalahari desert when farming became popular after Namibian independence.

Living prehistoric culture is unfortunately very easy to kill.

(Twyfelfontein, Namibia; July 2017)

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3 ladies and a monster car

4wd-1Three ladies and a monster Land Cruiser. Four-wheel driven, stick shift, and to be driven on the left side of the road. Requires two people to get it into reverse gear. With two (in principle) pop-up tents on the roof, which in practice require two tall, strong people to pop them up or fold them down – or three ladies climbing all over the car for 15 minutes to do the same job.

This car would take us anywhere safely, and thus is not cheap. Which was also the reason for why the German owner of Africa on Wheels seemed reluctant to hand it over to us. Our every move was tracked on an interactive online map, and if we oversped we got a warning signal – or a phone call from the rental company. In exchange, however, they resolved every issue we had: from locating the barbecue supplies to actually resetting the speed limit signal system when we complained about overspeeding alarms when we were driving under the limit.

This car, together with Google Maps, took us through 3 hours of driving past sunset (uninsured, mind you) on the first day, through the desert, where locating small junctions in the sand was nearly impossible without great beams and a GPS map. It took us through beach sand and seriously bad trails to camp sites, for an entire week. It consumed about 20 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers, partly due to bad aerodynamics, but in return became like a trusted friend.

And I finally learned how to drive on the wrong side of the road.4wd-2(Namibia; July 2017)

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Leaving Walvis Bay

wvbsunsetLast night at Walvis Bay. After one month I still have trouble with how strong the segregation is here. Last Friday we went to a bar and talked to the black bartender we knew. We wanted to go clubbing for once, and thought it was a great idea that he’d come with us to show us the local nightlife hotspots. But most of our team wanted to be within walking distance of the house (on the “white” side of town, mind you), and so the vote fell on another bar in the marina. Our bartender was very sorry but could not join us as he would not have felt welcome in that bar.

He was probably right. I did not see a single black man in that bar during the entire night. Perhaps a handful of black women. And it struck me that we’d been there the week before with a black friend of a friend, but she never really came inside to the bar but stayed outside, at the far end of the terrace.

Perhaps white Namibians do see what I see, and care like I care, but just get along as “things have always been like this”. Namibia has been independent for 23 years, and with this speed, proper multicultural mixing will take generations. This slow process makes me sad.

I have not witnessed a single openly discriminating behavior, but I am sure they do happen. And what is almost equally bad is the hidden behavior: the segregation. Separate housing areas, bars, schools, and recreation areas. Whites, coloreds, and blacks only meet and mingle when running errands in town.

Walvis Bay is also quite the cultural backwater. It is a port town, meaning that people here are mostly not highly educated but blue-collar and working class.  I have seen very few old people. Are they all at home or dead, or have they moved away?

People get married at a young age. Many will eventually divorce later, and so there is a large number of single people in their late 30s, early 40s. The number of men clearly outweighs the number of women, as Walvis Bay is a port town. And everybody looks a little rugged, especially the women. Survivors. No fragile, stereotypically feminine women here. The men even seem to favor the same hairstyle: short crew cuts.

Eventually, Walvis Bay has been an enjoyable and peculiar experience. I feel like I entered a microcosm of some kind and only got to know a tiny bit of it, both due to culture rifts as well as my busy schedule. And even if my logic lists all the things I wrote of above as take-home messages, my heart trumps them all with one single observation: the kindness and generosity of the people here is simply remarkable. Loving kindness in action, every day.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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How to barbecue fresh mussels

pelicanpoint-6How to have fresh mussels on the beach:

  • Get into a wetsuit and goggles, brave the cold water, and spend a considerable amount of time hacking off mussels in the swell bashing you against rocks and the pier. Or, preferably, get somebody else to do that for you.
  • Scrape the mussels clean from seaweed, barnacles, and tiny baby mussels. Cut  your fingers at least twice.pelicanpoint-8
  • Place each individual mussel flat on the barbecue, burning your fingers in the run.
  • Cook the mussels in their own brine.
  • Throw the cooked mussels into the potjie they were originally supposed to be cooked in.
  • Enjoy the obviously sub-optimal energy acquisition vs. expenditure in preparing the dish – and the delicious flavor of the ocean.

pelicanpoint-7(Pelican Point, Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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At Pelican Point

pelicanpoint-3For a month we’ve been cruising around and past Pelican Point, viewing the desolate, 10 km long sand bank with its millions of noisy seals from the sea. Today we off-roaded through it, all the way to the seals at the northernmost tip. 2 cars, 12 people, 1 kayak, and lots of food for a beach barbecue. pelicanpoint-5We could naturally not do a beach outing without gathering some data, too. The kayak was brought along not just for fun, but also to record Cape fur seal sounds. The seals often move with the dolphins when feeding, and so it is good to understand the noises they make. Two from our team also snuck up on the seal mothers and their pups in the nursery on land, crawling as close as they possibly could, and leaving a SoundTrap behind.pelicanpoint-4I crawled close to the seals, too, just to watch. On all fours, we three people ultimately got about 10 meters from the “gentlemen’s club” of male seals, lying away from the big group of mothers and pups. The furry, almost shaggy large males sat proudly with their noses in the air, as if they owned the world. And from their point of view, they probably did.

From time to time, the fat old bosses would scoff at the younger or weaker one, yelling, jaws open, straight into their faces. For no apparent reason than to just vent their egos.
pelicanpoint-2The seals and the jackals inhabit a long, lonely stretch of the world. If the wind picks up, there is no way for the jackals to go except for to trot ten kilometers back towards mainland. Or to burrow themselves down into the 4WD tracks. Because this is Namibia and it is full of desolate places.
pelicanpoint-1(Pelican Point, Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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The hidden (less intelligent) lives of crayfish

aquariumDinner time, both for us and for the fish. The lucky wish were hand-fed squid fillets, by scuba divers. Except for the one scuba diver who was mainly filming with his GoPro, never-minding the poor starving fish.

The little krill-like crayfish were fed, too. After some observation, I am now convinced that crayfish have a social life we know nothing of. And some of the crayfish are socially awkward, just like us humans.

In particular, one little, young, crayfish just did not know how to exist among the others. It was trampled on by all the other crayfish passing by. Then it wanted to somehow crawl straight through another individual, not realizing that quantum mechanics was not going to favor its attempt at walking through another living being today. Their feet got all entangled and it seemed to want to push itself through its mate. No wonder the poor socially awkward crayfish had already lost a leg at a tender age.

Perhaps its recent shell-shedding had something to do with its apparent mental instability: it was all white and soft still. It takes time for crayfish shell to harden. Perhaps its brain had shedded a layer, too.

Thankfully, we were not served squid but other delicious treats. And I was glad to only have to shed clothes that do not fit, not an entire shell.
swakopmund-5(Swakopmund, Namibia; July 2017)

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Ray or shark?

guitarfishThese weird things hang around in the lagoon. Why they are called guitarfish is kind of evident, at least with a little imagination. Although this individual was quite slim.

Guitarfishes are rays, and thus related to manta rays and stingrays. Except for that their tail half looks like it belongs to a shark, with two dorsal fins and a vertical tail fin. Just a lot more friendly-looking. I nudged one with my toes and it did not seem to mind me at all.

These guys and girls have as a species been around for some 100 million years. Thus a lot longer than a guitar, or even a banjo. And certainly longer than us humans.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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How to unfriend dolphins (with good intentions)


Photos are of Heaviside’s dolphins – obviously, as the bottlenoses did not feel like hanging around

It has been an eventful day. Those on the research boat were planning to biopsy bottlenose dolphins. One of our principal investigators was demo-ing the Hawaiian sling for Heaviside’s dolphin biopsy (why, I have no clue, as the target were bottlenoses), when he dropped it and it sank to the bottom of the ocean.

The team attempted to use the crossbow to biopsy bottlenoses, by shooting off a skin sample smaller than the scratches dolphins make on each other when they love or hate. This means much preparatory work: agreeing on one single animal as it surfaces for air, cross-referencing their dorsal fin ID with the database of identified dolphins, and then obtaining a new fin shot with the camera (not easy as the dolphin surfaces only for a moment). Only after all this is somehow completed, either methodically or in total chaos on the research boat, does one get ready for a biopsy shot with the crossbow. The tip of the arrow sinks into the skin and blubber layer of the dolphin, and as it is pulled back out it removes a little button of tissue.heaviside-2The team tried – and missed. A few times. Soon the dolphins removed themselves from an understandably unpleasant situation. It was impossible to work with them anymore, neither by shooting arrows at them nor shooting cameras at them. The team obviously got what they deserved. I heard most of that day was spent playing with the cape fur seals and a GoPro and a SoundTrap, both submerged underwater for the seals to have fun with.

I was on bird survey duty with another team mate. We had barely begun when we saw dolphins in the lagoon. As per new protocol, we abandoned the bird count and assembled the kayak, the hydrophone with recording equipment, and the data sheets. We then spent nearly 2 hours floating among a pod of dolphins, recording their underwater communication and above-water behavior.heaviside-1After a good hour and a half we, too, got the feeling that the dolphins did not want us around anymore. Like an unpopular kid at school, we noticed that they always moved a little distance away from us and resumed their behavior. It was pretty clear we had fallen from their graces, so we paddled home.

As a result, both teams managed to unfriend a pod of dolphins each. At least for the day. I guess we humans would unfriend any one anthropologist who would attempt to shoot at us with a crossbow or hang around observing our every move for hours. Dolphins are socially intelligent and bottlenoses have larger brains than humans. Why they should suffer fools gladly is beyond me, but they seem to do that most of the time. Just not today.
kayak-2(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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How to count 3,000 flamingos

birdcount2,500 avocets, 1,500 sandpipers, 3,000 flamingos, and several hundred stilts. In just our little section. I did not get the final tally for the entire lagoon and surrounding saltworks. Just take my word for that there were A LOT of birds. And so, why not spend my Saturday off counting birds with a lovely bunch of bird lovers?

It is quite remarkable that an avocet on the 23rd latitude South looks just like an avocet on the 60th latitude North. An oystercatcher here looks like an oystercatcher back home in Finland, only that it is a solid black and not black-and-white. Sandpipers, turnstones, gulls, and plovers all look like their relatives up North. Kind of. With a twist. And different names.

And a plover here is pronounced “pl-oh-ver”, instead of “pl-uh-ver”. Weird.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)