Friday, June 29, 2007

The Assistant to the Research Assistant

Last year, I switched careers. I pressed the ‘pause’ button in my pursuit of a life long dream. I stopped to re-think my career aspirations. And in doing so, I started a journey backward – reminiscing over what had led me to where I was. I found myself remembering the people, the places and the events that had shaped me into who I am today. I think perhaps what left the biggest impression on me as I trudged my way toward building a career was the experience of my very first job.

For many people, first jobs are often measly, low income positions or even volunteer or unpaid internship positions taken up for the sole purpose of gaining some hands on experience. They’re often filled with endless tedious/boring/monotonous tasks that are grudgingly performed in the hired intern’s quest to climb the career ladder. For me, though, I think I struck gold when I was searching for my first job.

I was fresh out of high school, trying to sketch out a career in Conservation Biology/Environmental Science with barely a clue as to what it all entailed other than the fact that I was big on recycling and subscribed to the National Geographic magazines (yeah, I was a nerdy kid :| ). A local WWF (Erm...the World Wildlife Fund, though working at the World Wrestling Federation too would have been a job to boast about!) branch in my hometown of Nakuru, was looking for a student intern to assist with data collection out in the field (Lake Nakuru National Park - LNNP), and since nobody else had applied for the job, it was mine to keep.

Technically speaking, I was an assistant to a research assistant whose job duties entailed "assisting the assistant with the assistant's jobs". Out in the field, I was a little kid in a candy shop who just couldn’t get enough of being out in the field, being up and close to wildlife and who was out on the biggest adventure of her boring little life. Over the course of the one year I worked there, I helped around with everything from collecting water and mud samples from the lake, analyzing the water and mud samples, collecting meteorological data from a weather station out in the field, assisting in conducting flamingo censuses, collecting macro-invertebrate specimens from the lake and the rivers emptying into the lake, and some less adventurous days filled with plain old data entry into a computer. It ended up becoming the most memorable year of my life.

Now, almost a decade later, I look back and think fondly of those days. It inspired me enough to compile a list of the various memories from that one year – the highlights of my days as an assistant-to-a-research-assistant:

• The daily visits to the lonely weather station that stood in the middle of the vast, open grassland. I remember the resident baboon (Curious George, I named him) that had for the longest time made up its mind that the weather station was the coolest place to hang around, until we had had enough of broken rain gauges and scattered instruments and finally put up an electric fence around the station. I remember the occasional stray gazelle that would sneak up on me ever-so-softly and startle me out of my wits. I remember the day I saw a Cape Buffalo
Cape Buffalo. Photo source:
off a short distance from the weather station, and panicked over how I was going to make my way back from the weather station to the car. I remember gathering up the courage to run madly back to the car, only to find the buffalo rolling its eyes at me as if to say “What IS up with her?”.

• The time we saw two male White rhinos White rhinos in LNNP. Photo source:
battling it out smack in the middle of the road. There we were driving the car back to the office after a long day out in the field and suddenly out of nowhere came these two massive males charging at each other, fighting over a territory right in the middle of the road. I remember thinking about how incredibly lucky I was to see one of the most endangered mammals on the planet ever so casually living out its day to day existence right in front of me.

• The first time I participated in conducting a flamingoFlamingoes in LNNP. Photo source: census. There are absolutely zillions of Greater and Lesser flamingoes out on the lake during peak season – from atop a cliff, the viewView of Lake Nakuru from Baboon Cliffs. Photo source: is that of a pink mat atop a carpet of blue water. I was baffled by how anyone could possibly estimate how many flamingoes were out on the lake at any given time. Until I realized that there were more than 20 people involved in the effort and that each person would be counting the number of flamingoes on a small segment of the lake, and that there would be repeated trials, and that all it took was a little bit of math and extrapolation. Duh!

• The day we almost got mauled by a lioness. Okay, so I’m being a bit dramatic. But just a tad bit. It was the day we (the research assistant and I) had been obtaining water samples from a river on the inside of the park that drains into the lake. For the record, the rules and regulations of the national park discourage (or is it prohibit?) visitors from getting out of their car while they are in the national park. For good reasons. But as employees of WWF, we were exceptions to the rule. We were out of the car, walking a short distance upstream with our high tech looking water quality analysis gadgets, totally focused on our job, and occasionally cracking jokes and talking and laughing loudly, when a KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) car drove close up to us, and a game warden rolled down the car window and hissed loudly at us to “Get into the car, NOW!”. We had no idea what all the fuss was about until we were safely packed into the car. Then he broke the news to us – there was a lioness snoozing on a branch of a tree right above us, and she’d been watching us the whole time. We were just darn lucky the KWS car happened to be patrolling when it did and saw the lioness on the branch and saw us right under it. Brrrrrrr!

• The opportunity to get to know and work with a world renowned entomologist, who would eventually become a very close friend and a much cherished mentor. I remember burrowing arm deep in soft mud from the various rivers emptying into the lake in search for Chironomid larvae
Chironomid larvae. Photo source:
- a wriggly, sometimes red, sometimes white worm that acts as a bio-indicator of water quality. I remember having the most meaningful conversations about science and about life in general with her. I remember the 80 something year old lady chasing butterflies along with me, sharing the same exuberance as the 18 year old me, imparting everything she knew about butterflies and insects to my impressionable young mind.

• The day we waded halfway into the middle of the lake in overall-like, heavy waders, to obtain mud samples. I remember turning around to head back to shore to see a herd of wild buffaloes waiting for us back on dry land. And waiting and waiting, soaked above knee high in mud and water reeking of blue-green algae, wishing and hoping and praying that the buffaloes would move on, and we could get back into the safety of the car.

• The day we drove up so quietly and so close right next to a Rothschild Giraffe
Rothschild Giraffe. Photo source:'s%20Giraffe.jpg
grazing on an acacia tree. And I rolled down the car window and touched its tail. Score one, me! The giraffe did not look amused.

• Driving in circles, lost inside some part of the Eastern Mau Forest, trying to find our way out, in the middle of a thick thunderstorm. It’s still a mystery to me how we found our way back out.

• Stopping by Makalia Falls
Makalia Falls. Photo source:
to collect a water sample the day after the news of a woman mauled by a leopard while collecting water near the very same waterfalls made the newspaper headlines. And then nervously keeping an eye on a small hole in the cliff, suspected to be the den of the leopard and her cubs, while trying to rush and obtain a quick water sample.

The memories go on and on…countless little details that flood my mind and remind me how it all began. For me, the ‘assistant to the research assistant’ wasn’t just my first job; it was my first step in a journey to self-identity.

~vagabond~ © 2007

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Camping equipment, groceries and other supplies: $120.79
Fuel cost per gallon: $2.89
Total estimated mileage: 2956.17 miles
Estimated driving time: 42 hours 28 minutes
Number of states we're planning to travel through: 11
The number of days before it all happens: 11
The anticipation and excitement over a forthcoming road trip: PRICELESS!

~vagabond~ © 2007

Friday, June 22, 2007

Packrats Anonymous Inc.

Alright. So I'll admit it - I'm a packrat. I hoard onto stuff. Even when it's seemingly meaningless and worthless to the rest of the world. As long as it holds some sentimental meaning to me, I'll keep it. And the awful part about being me is when you've moved and changed addresses several times over the years, it becomes harder and harder holding on to everything you collect. Sometimes you end up having to let go, and that can be quite a traumatic experience as any true blood packrat will tell you.

It all started out with just one small shoebox and a collection of greeting cards. Next thing I knew, the one shoebox just wasn't big enough to contain all the little snippets of memories I had collected along the way. The one small shoebox divided itself into two, the two small shoeboxes fused into one bigger shoebox, which then morphed into a much bigger cardboard box, and the last time I checked, the big cardboard box has now given birth to a litter of many more boxes, all containing items dear and near to my heart, which I swear will come useful at some later date.

So in pledging my loyalty to Packrats Anonymous Inc., I thought I'd share my list of random items that I've cherished at some point or the other that have made their way in (and perhaps not yet out of) my shoebox-formerly-labeled-as-"Memories":

1. A small cork-stoppered glass bottle, with an even smaller rolled parchment inside, scribbled with a scrawny "I LOVE YOU" handwritten by the love of my life, given to me as a valentine's gift nine years ago.

Yeeeaaaah. Who knew we'd still be together almost a decade later? It's validation of my good judgment even back then. ;)

2. Stones.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking - who collects stones?! I do. You know, the real smooth, peculiar shaped, interesting colored ones that stick out in the sand. I used to collect them every time I walked along the shores of Lake Michigan. But then when you consider I walked there several times a week, that's a lot of stones, and I filled up a lot of glass jars, and then every time I moved, and it was annoying to haul stones. So I stopped collecting them. Well, technically. I still do, but only if they look really, really interesting.

3. A baby tooth from my dog Charlie
My dog, Charlie

What?! Don't look at me like that. You'd have to know him to see why I'd do that. He's not even a dog...he's...he's..well, he is a dog, but not a doggy dog...he's just so darn human like. I'd say he's my baby but then I don't want to sound like the annoying Paris Hilton type of girl who dresses her dog in hideous pink outfits. Uggh. :{

4. Greeting cards.

I'm the queen of sentimentalism. I used to save every card that anyone ever gave me - birthday, christmas, congratulations, thankyous...and seeing how horribly addicted I was to it, if any of my enemies had sent me a "I hate you" card, I'd still have saved that too. I broke that habit when I left I don't save every random card that anyone sends to me, I only save the extra-mushy ones that are oozing with sentiments.

5. The geeky academic little knick knacks and nerdy humor stuff from atop my desk when I was pursuing my PhD a year ago.

I quit halfway. And I just don't have the heart to give away or get rid of the geeky knick knacks because they represent a very memorable phase of my life - a time at which I was doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing all my life, but suddenly found myself hating the whole experience...a very passionate yet agonizing moment in my life. Goes to show you, you don't always know what you want from life until you have it in your hands.

Ahem. Enough of the philosophizing. Moving on...

6. Fridge magnets and Postcards.

I have a fridge magnet and/or a postcard for every single place I have ever traveled to (well, almost every place I've ever traveled to - I don't have one for the small villages I visited in Africa but it doesn't even matter because they don't even know what fridge magnets are and it's not like they'd ever object to their lack of representation in my collection). That's just my thing. People buy T-shirts and other souvenirs. I buy a fridge magnet and a postcard. If you were to visit me, my fridge and all the magnets on it from all sorts of places would make interesting conversations. There's a story attached to each one.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. That's it. I'm in recovery now.

~vagabond~ © 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Same, Old, New Thing.

Ever noticed how some things remain the same no matter where you go?

Sure, when you first move to a new country, everything about the country seems strange and new and foreign - the culture, the customs, the language (and sometimes it's not even about the fact that you don't understand a word of what is being said...sometimes it's just about how it's being said to you), the bizarre gestures (what is it with nodding their heads in response to everything you say, even if it's in disagreement?). Heck, even your electronic appliances let you know that they don't feel at home. But then, after months of fumbling around strange elevators (or are they called lifts here?), spitting out disconnected phrases from your beaten down speak-strange-foreign-language-in-30-days handbook, and purchasing countless voltage converters and travel adapters for your countless electronic appliances, you settle down into a calm sense of belonging. And the longer you stay within that country, everything about it starts to feel old and familiar, and you get the eerie feeling that this is the same country you've lived in before, maybe even for years, and that perhaps it is the same old thing no matter where you go.

External appearances aside, no matter where you go, at heart, people remain the same. When you get down to the basics, beneath our different dress codes, different languages, different body gestures, we're all still the same people, with the same concerns, living the same life in different guises. The same questions plague us, be it in form of a casual "Still single, eh?" from a fellow American or the disappointed Asian shake of the head and a "You're getting old, you know" or the African matter of fact "Pretty soon, no one will want to bring their cows and marry you". We crave for our version of success - be it in the form of fulfilling our great American dream, or just plain owning a house of our own someday, or perhaps adding to our great wealth of the many cows/goats/pigs we already own. No matter where we live, we always believe in greener pastures that lie elsewhere - those that live in developing countries migrating in search for a land filled with promises of a "better" future, those that live in developed countries migrating in search for a land with less materialism, more "soul".

Heck, the more you travel and the longer you stay in a place, even the food from all across the globe starts to merge into one. Case in point the samosa aka the samoosa aka the sambhosa aka the bourek. Same filling, different wrappers...different fillings, same wrapper.

Sure, when you first land in them, all countries start off as brand new, but then somewhere along the way, during your stay, you reach a familiar level of comfort when the new doesn't feel that new anymore. Perhaps you just have to live in a country long enough, and give it a chance, to realize that maybe things aren't so different after all, that this new country is at heart the same old country you've lived in before...perhaps pulsating to a different heartbeat, but at soul, the same country nonetheless. And when you do get to that level of comfort, you realize that no matter where you go, it's just the same old 'new' thing all over again.

~vagabond~ © 2007

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

It's a procrastinator's life

If there were an annual award given out for procrastinator-of-the-year, hands down I'd win it every year, without even breaking a sweat. So in celebration of the one thing that I'm really, really good at, here's my list of things that I'm procrastinating on right now, this very minute:

1. Sorting out my whites and my darks so that at some future date, I can actually get my laundry done in an organized fashion. I will get it done soooon, you know.

2. Replying to one of my closest friend's fourth (or is it fifth?) email asking me if I'm going to be attending her wedding in August in Seychelles. "No!" The answer is "No!" but I just don't have the heart to reply and say, "No, I will not be attending your wedding because flying to Seychelles would be the quickest way to empty out every last dime I have within my meager bank account...but that doesnt mean I dont love you or that we arent as close as we used to be...what?! you really think it's easy to say no to seychelles?! come on!"

Yup. So instead I choose to procrastinate.

3. Returning my aunt's zillionth phone call in the past month to express concern over the fact that I'm still not married. Sheeeeesh. I miss the good old days when she still lived in India, long distance cost a fortune, and phone cards were a thing of the future.

To call or not to call is the question.

4. Returning books that are waaaay overdue at the library. Maybe they wont even notice they're overdue if I just don't show up at the library ever again. ;)

5. Replying to emails from people who call themselves my friends, but who really are only my friends by virtue of wanting to know exactly what I'm doing with my life, so that they can tell me how much better they're doing in their life. :/ I've had enough of "Do you have kids yet? Oh, I'm only just asking because I just gave birth to a baby boy last month." Seriousssly, were we even competing? I didn't know, otherwise I'd have gone over to Malawi along with Madonna and adopted a kid.

6. Going grocery shopping. There's nothing wrong with an appetizer of stale crackers, an entree of ramen noodles, and the last bits of icecream left in the tub as dessert. I'm doing just fine with my three-course meals, just so you know. :|

7. Getting rid of my junk mail. No, I don't want another credit card. And while I do enjoy leafing through the Avon catalogs that you people keep sending me, I never buy anything. And why send me coupons for take out and delivery places that don't even deliver within this zip code?! I've reached a point where I peek into my mail box, look at all the junk mail lying in there waiting for me, stuff it all back into the mailbox and walk back into my apartment cool and composed without any mail. 8)

This ought to do it for today. Now, this is true therapy. Try it. Got a list of your own? Do share. :)

~vagabond~ © 2007

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Conversations with your soul

The hardest thing in life, I think, is to find yourself... really question what it is that you want out of life

...and even harder it is to look the answers from your soul in the eye and face the realities that make you YOU.

It is so easy to accept your friends as they are, to remain loyal to them, to defend their causes, to make excuses for them, to not judge them for who they are...

...but it's even harder to look at your own naked soul in the mirror and to accept yourself as you are, to remain loyal to who you are, to defend yourself against the world and remain true to the soul within you.

It is so easy to chase a dream once you see it in the hazy clouds over the horizon...

...but so much harder to extract that hidden dream you barely knew existed from the innermost depths of your soul, to give it life and paint it with the colors of hope.

It's easy to sit and dream and imagine what it would feel like to hold that seemingly impossible dream in your hands...

...but harder still to dream with your eyes wide open to the real world you live in and then dare to LIVE the dream instead of just dreaming it.

It's easy to sit and wish that life would change and complain about how it's never quite how you want it to be...

...but if for one moment life asked you back what it is that you wanted, how easy would it be for you to answer and know what to ask for?

The hardest thing, I think, is to have conversations with your soul.

~vagabond~ © 2007

Friday, June 8, 2007

Mbuzi on the house

*Warning to the easily grossed-out and the queasy-stomached: You may not want to read this particular blog*

One of the things that makes travelling so much fun are the meals you eat along the road. There is something to be said about a pani puri eaten fresh off the streets of Mumbai or a baguette straight out of the boulangerie in Paris. But nothing beats a goat cooked over an open bonfire in the middle of a national park in Kenya.

It was the summer of 1999 and a huge group of us (a bunch of friends and an assorted mix of equally irresponsible strangers) had gone camping in Maasai Mara - one of the most famous national parks in Kenya. As was the tradition of all of our camping trips, we stopped by the customary village-on-the-outskirts-of-the-park to pick up groceries. I am not quite sure how the discussion started, but I think it had something to do with the sight of a very healthy goat tied to a stake accompanied by a fast-talking, business-savvy Maasai goat herder convincing us that nyama choma (directly translated as roast meat) was the best meal we could eat out on the road. Heck, he would even offer us the bargain of a lifetime - we could buy the goat, and he would come along with us to the campsite and "prepare the meat" (read slaughter) for us and take the goat head off our hands. Before I knew it, standing stiffly at one end of the already crowded matatu, between the red, ripe tomatoes, golden yellow potatoes and a big bag of red onions was a tall Maasai goat herder and the by now bleary-eyed and panic-stricken bearded goat. :/

We rolled into our campsite into the late hours of the evening, and amidst the general confusion regarding offloading the matatu, how best to position the tents and where the "kitchen" area ought to be, our brave Maasai warrior headed off into the bush with our prized dinner. A short while, and a dreary "Baaaaaa" later, he emerged with a big grin on his face. "This, I take home", he said, waving a goat head that vaguely resembled something out of a low budget horror movie. "This, you keep", handing over several personality-devoid slabs of meat to us. Numerous hand shakes and a heart-felt bunch of "Asante sana"s later, he disappeared into the dark of the night, leaving us to cook our meal as we best saw fit.

There is just something very memorable about the whole experience of cooking mbuzi (kiswahili for goat), seasoned with a random mix of Indian and Kenyan spices, over an open flame, all the while with everyone simultaneously expressing their opinion on how best the goat ought to be cooked..and then proceeding on to eat the nyama choma at various stages of the cooking process because you thought it was cooked when it really wasnt...*gag*...and then finally having it cooked overdone. But still, there's something to be said about the whole memory of a meal eaten under the great big starlit African sky, with distant animal sounds mixed into the chatter of friends surrounding a dying bonfire.

It wasnt until the very last piece of goat meat was tucked away into the bellies of some very happy campers, that we realized the enormity of what we had just done - we had consumed MEAT in the middle of a NATIONAL PARK filled to the brim with WILD animals! : Who's idea had it been to bring a goat in the middle of a national park, anyway?! That too, a park reputed for possessing Africa's top predators! With visions of lions, leopards and hyenas running amok, sheer panic ensued, followed by the grim realization that we had nowhere to dispose the bones and left over meat.

A heated discussion followed, and somewhere amidst the flying accusations ("You just couldnt walk past the goat without inviting it into the matatu, could you?!") and the absurb suggestions ("What if we just keep it in the matatu overnight?", which invited an angry glare from the matatu-driver-who-would-be-sleeping-overnight-in-the-matatu), we decided that dumping the meat and bones down a pit latrine was our best option. So a team of the few, the brave, and the proud lead the excursion down to the sole pit latrine at the edge of the campsite, and hid away the last bits of dirty evidence of our prized dinner that evening. The meat and bones from the dinner may have been easily enough disposed off, but the memory of our meal would continue to haunt us progressively through that moments when we thought we heard a lion roar too close to the campsite and it really turned out to be nothing...or when someone had to pee desperately in the middle of the night and remembered that the pit latrine was currently "occupied"...or when we were convinced that the green eyes peering at us in the dark during the excursion to the bush latrine were carnivore eyes that turned out to belong to a lonely gazelle that has strayed too far from the rest of its herd.

Yup. That's memorable alright. There just isnt anything quite like meals eaten around a campfire. Especially if its a mbuzi eaten in the middle of a national park.


1. Mbuzi - goat
2. Nyama choma - roasted / grilled meat
3. Matatu - the Kiswahili word for a minibus like public transport vehicle
4. Asante sana - Kiswahili for "Thank you very much"

~vagabond~ © 2007

On the art of vagabonding

I am a desi girl, grew up a mhindi, now living in the land of the yankees. I occasionally hopscotch around, crossing states, countries and often continents.

Yup. I'd say vagabonding is a skill that comes naturally to me.


1. Desi - term used to refer to people/things of South Asian origin.
2. Mhindi - term used by Kenyans to refer to an Asian-Indian.
3. Yankee - term used to refer to an inhabitant of the United States.

~vagabond~ © 2007