This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Look up and tell me what you see

astro-2I may have studied a little bit of astrophysics and astrobiology, but when it comes to looking up and knowing what I am seeing – well, that is a completely different thing. The constellations I know are the ones I learned when I was a child: the Big Dipper/Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, and the Polar Star. That is it. Orion? Betelgeuse? Halcyon? The Zodiac? I had no clue. How does the night sky shift (or how does our planet actually move) through the seasons, and how do I orientate to find stars and constellations? No knowledge.

Fortunately, spending one day with the local university astronomy society helps, I find. The only thing is, stargazing with equipment is not so easy. The past 3 years I have tried to combine remembering my intention to stargaze with the weather report and have not been successful at all. Every time I remember it is overcast, and every time I do not remember, there are weeks of clear skies to use the astronomy society’s telescopes. astro-3One sunny day in August I discovered that the little, old observatory was open for sun viewings. The sun is a star, right? Mission accomplished. And I have been able to stare at the sun without being blinded. Seeing its protrusions, its sunspots, all the beauty flaws it tries to hide under its brilliant light. I have seen the true nature of the sun and it is absolutely fascinating.
astro-1(Helsinki, Finland; September 2017)


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The Spice Isles were not always so

spices-1Zanzibar and its surrounding islands are also known as the Spice Isles. Curiously, this is a wholly imported conception, as there was no real concentration of spices growing here until the Portuguese came and planted spice and fruit varieties they had encountered on their travels around the world. Everything seems to grow on Zanzibar, and so now the farmers grow peppercorn from India, lemongrass from Southeast Asia, avocado from Peru, cloves from Indonesia, and vanilla from South America. In essence, the ecosystem of Zanzibar changed completely with the settlement of the Portuguese. spices-4.jpgAnd yes, cloves come from red flowers on a tree and peppercorn grow on a vine. Cardamom comes from overground root-like pods produced after flowering, and pineapple takes 6 months to mature (and one can only harvest one fruit per plant per year). All of these, as well as cinnamon, turmeric, and other spices are now an integral part of the Swahili diet and kitchen. I would love to know what food tasted like before the Portuguese came.
spices-2.jpg(Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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Lunch with the turtles

turtles-3At the tip of Nungwi village, by the lighthouse, there is a turtle sanctuary. And for nearly a week they offered sanctuary to me, too, in one of their vacant guest rooms.

The turtles are brought in either as hatchlings from the beach or adults, stuck in fishers’ nets and in need of care. The sanctuary originated in the minds of the villagers and is entirely community-driven, not European or American. Young volunteers do contribute to the upkeep of the sanctuary, as do all the tourists that come to feed endless amounts of seaweed to the greedy turtles floating around in their huge seawater pond.

I could count roughly a dozen babies and some 20 adults or young adults in the basins. While the effort is good, one can ask whether so much contact with people is a good thing. Feeding turtles is a main attraction and source of money, but what happens when the turtles are set free in February each new year? Will they approach swimmers or fishermen and put themselves in danger, thinking there is seaweed to be gained from contact with people? And if this risk was not taken, would people ever really learn to appreciate the friendly, vulnerable turtles as a species?

Absolute goodness probably does not exist. Perhaps the benefit gained already by the villagers’ increased appreciation for turtles has saved so many turtle lives that it does not matter if some of them think people equals seaweed fiesta. I for sure could not resist watching them munch away every time I visited.turtles-1(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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The night sky unveiled

qtbn2-v2And there it was: another of those unbelievably bright, long-lived shooting stars above the desert. The night skies over Namibia are remarkable. During a night drive between Windhoek city and airport one is bound to see at least two shooting stars. It is not because they are more common here, but because there is barely any light pollution, clouds, or humidity in the sky between us and the universe.

The first time in my life I truly saw (and paid attention to) the Milky Way was in a tiny village on the Kenyan coast. It seemed to me as a string of cloud and stars in the sky. But here in Namibia I have seen the Milky way in an entirely new resolution: as swirls of uneven, nebulous patches of light and dark. Here in Namibia it is possible to view other galaxies with the naked eye.

The sky is so densely speckled that I have to get used to the thought that this is what the night sky, anywhere on the planet, REALLY looks like. My perception of a sky full of stars has lacked about half of what my ancestors saw, before the invention of electricity. In fact, if anybody asked me to imagine a night sky, in my mind’s eye it would look completely different than if my ancestors were asked to do the same thing.

It saddens me to think that one needs to go to Africa or the deepest central Asia to see what the sky really looks like. My generation and further, younger generations, will probably not even know what the sky and space beyond really looks like. What was normal to my ancestors will be lost to them. Just like an extinct animal species.

Photo borrowed from Florian Breuer’s blog. Apologies Florian for the steal but there is no way I would have been able to photograph the amazing Namibian night sky with the iPhone I was carrying.

(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)


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What’s in a name (of a dune)?

dune-elim-1The colors of Sossusvlei and the Sesriem area at dusk and dawn are the colors of every Namibian travel guide. No, the photos of those guide books are not photoshopped: the colors are truly magical. The red and pink hues come from iron content in the sand.

Many dunes in Namibia have names: Dune 7, Dune 45, Elim Dune, Big Daddy. Elim Dune, just off the Sesriem camp site, takes its name after an old farm. Dune 45 got its name as it is on the road to Sossusvlei and exactly 45 km from the Sesriem camp site. Some dunes, like Dune 7 are simply given a number, often counted from the sea towards inland in rows, like waves of sand.

And yet, when one looks at a satellite image, behind each of these famous dunes is about 500 other dunes. The sand sea is endless and we only see the edge of it because there is no way we can move or survive through the rest. All we are capable of doing is perhaps climbing one of them and running down the side like tiny ants.dune-elim-2(Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)


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Endless sand

namib-2East winds are here again, blowing from the desert for a few days. In Walvis Bay we probably have 27 degrees Celsius on land, and we can feel the hot desert winds out at sea and witness the sand storm behind the dunes. The dunes have obtained a black rind that indicates a shadow: the wind has blown the edge of the dune over toward the sea.

A weekend off means exploring the desert. This time with just a clumsy 2WD Volkswagen, but it does fit all 6 of us. The road between Walvis Bay and Windhoek, toward the junction of Solitaire, is terrible. From the junction onward it is dreadful. No paving but a sand road through the Namib desert, with ridges and bumps so my teeth shake in my mouth. There is a mountainous area with a few narrow passes, and otherwise there is sand on the road, enough for some proper swerving of any type of car.

After the highlands come grassy plains. Everything is yellow and dry after December rains (the first in 4 years). Still, the plains are inhabited by hardy animals: zebra, springbok, oryx, wildebeest. The oryx can apparently live on the tiny amount of water in desert plants, and only need to top up with drinking water every few weeks.

It is a strange experience to drive in the desert. There are signs to lodges, but nowhere does one pull up into a nice lookout spot with the buildings hiding in the shadow of trees. Simply, someone staked a plot of land and decided to put up a number of houses in the sand. A road sign, and voilá: done.

Before cars there was no living in the desert. People only crossed the desert because they really needed to, even with risking their lives factored in. Today, one can experience a night in the desert by entering from one side and exiting through the gift shop the next morning. namib(Namib desert, Namibia; July 2017)