Adam Benke's Diary


Saturday, August 4, 2007 Sunday, August 5, 2007
Monday, August 6, 2007 Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Wednesday, August 8, 2007 Thursday, August 9, 2007
Friday, August 10, 2007 Saturday, August 11, 2007
Sunday, August 12, 2007 Monday, August 13, 2007
Tuesday, August 14, 2007 Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Thursday, August 16, 2007 Friday, August 17, 2007

Saturday, August 4, 2007 Today was a hot day again, like so many days this summer. As I was sitting in Tent Don, a pub that sets up and works only in the summertime, holding a pint of beer in my hand, with one eye hanging on the stupid movie on the television, I was thinking about the passed afternoon spent at the beach, enjoying the mild water of the Kalitva River, swimming as a last-effort training to get prepared for the waters of the Indian Ocean. I was also thinking about tomorrow, when I leave for a faraway and secret country (Kenya). Far, because it is in the other hemisphere of the globe, and secret, because it is on a continent that I have never been to.

Sunday, August 5, 2007 Whenever I can, I carry as few items as necessary. Why will I need Russian rubles on the journey? Why will I need my mobile phone? Everything is prepared and organized from my house to the destination. But okay, I turned back from the door and took a 500 ruble (US$19) banknote. When I descended to the street, I got the first adrenalin injection: the protocol group, which is in charge of visitor and traveler transfers for Alcoa’s Belaya Kalitva plant, always does a precise and reliable job. But this morning, there was no car at the appointed place.

Sometimes, it’s still good if one has a mobile phone. Julia, the protocol group manager, calmed me down. The car was coming. Unfortunately, it was waiting on the other side of the block of houses where I live.

The more than two-hour Sunday morning drive to the Rostov Airport was pleasant, as well as the music in the car. I said thanks and goodbye to the driver and headed to the domestic flight entrance. Check in: Okay. Customs control: “Would you sit down for a while?” I hate this sentence at customs. I suspected something would happen. The method is very simple: the more information the customs officer finds out, the greater the chance the traveler makes a mistake in the documents.

The young, black-haired officer returned in a couple of minutes. She did not know how to present herself to me: with an understanding smile or with a stern face. “You have a wrong date on your paper; you have to pay a fine,” she said. When she wanted to put more evidence on the stamp with incorrect data on my registration form and was seeking another verifying stamp, she could not find this second stamp on my visa. Actually, customs officers had to put the stamp on my visa. It means I put the wrong date and customs missed the stamp. Score: one to one.

The tone did not change: “You pay the fine, or you miss the flight.” I became so upset that my hand and voice were trembling. In my pain, I called Julia. She was on the phone, speaking with the officer and then with me. I badly needed her spiritual support. When the officer heard on the phone that I had 500 rubles in my pocket, suddenly the situation thawed and everyone in the room agreed that for 500 rubles, the interrogation could be interrupted, the door could be opened, and I might reach the plane.

I rushed along to the check-in counter with the administrators waving behind since I was the last one to get to the passenger bus.

The plane to Moscow was big, with round windows like in a ship. We were sitting on the place while some mechanics were still busy fixing the wheel or the wing on the right side. The pilot revved the turbine up and down, and in a while the big white-winged tube started moving. Surprisingly, it kept rolling along to the end of the runway. At the end, the plane slowly turned back. After a rushed sprint, we took off.

In Moscow, we had a light rain shower, and it was almost the same for my light-colored jeans, for my neighbor on the plane had poured mineral water on them. I had to change for not merely another flight but for another airport. The driver of the transfer bus was so bored, he forgot to stop the bus at the right bus stop. I think he started moving only because many passengers became anxious and were grumbling about whether or not they would reach their next flight.

I thought that at the international check-in I would face more tribulation with my non-appropriate date. The lady behind the left desk looked at my ticket and stopped all the checking in all the queues at all the desks. What is going on? But she returned, took my ticket, and let me go. It was a miracle that I passed customs control, too.

At boarding: “Stop! Upgraded! What? Go!” There was compensation after the pain! On the flight to Frankfurt, I will enjoy business class. I sat down in the front of the Airbus and tried to relax. I was just writing a mobile text message to Julia that everything was okay when smoke flowed in from the top lining of the aircraft body. “The plane is on fire,” I shouted. Before panic broke out onboard, the stewardess cooled down the atmosphere. It was only the evaporation from the air conditioner.

As we were ascending, the clouds were showing off their beauty: gray and white, pink and blue. We were going through at least five horizontal layers: stuffed sheep, cotton patches, wide pancakes, and icy needles vertically intersected by huge cream stacks and candy-floss summits. We left the clouds, and a clear sky received us above Frankfurt. I had a couple of hours in the airport until the connecting flight. Just for fun, I traveled on the fully automated, driverless railway that links the terminals.

Having seen my passport, the airline personnel at boarding continued in my native language. The plane was big and crowded. In spite of the late hour, people seemed noisy and not sleepy. But we got a few hours sleep and a very early breakfast.

Monday, August 6, 2007 Once we arrived in Mombassa, I left the plane through the rear door and went down to the pavement and immigration zone. Fresh air full of vapor hit my face, and the very first native jambo (hello in Swahili) hit my ears from a friendly security guard.

I filled out the immigration form with a flutter in my heart. Do you want to get employed in Kenya? No. I felt nervous, because I needed a tourist visa. In fact, I did not book a hotel, and my instinct whispered I better not reveal I came to take part in a scientific research program.

The immigration officer was kind, but when I was paying the visa fee, he refused my US$50 dollar banknote: “Give me another,” he said. Why is this not valid?  “Not here, but at the exchange desk.” At the exchange, it was accepted. Who understands this?

Dawn found me in the land of Africa, with palms and humid air. In the open hall of the airport, many taxi drivers offered their service. I do not know why I chose a driver named Islam—perhaps because his teeth were crooked and he frequently sniffed his nose. The second impression in Africa: people going to work or wherever, and busy streets with goats, carts, and dust.

At the New Palm Tree Hotel, I got a room. I had no idea what to do. After a short talk with the Polish couple that was sitting next to me in the plane and that I met again in the hotel hall by chance, I rested in my room perhaps one hour. I could not sleep, but I still relaxed a while.

The New Palm Tree Hotel was the meeting point for the volunteers of the second Earthwatch team. I had more than a day to our meeting, and I made a move to explore the town. First, a neat, small park crossed my way. A group of noisy people were demonstrating with banners, drums, and trumpets. I saw cars sound the horn and women in chadors (an outer garment). I saw a rubbish bin sponsored by an organization. I saw a military base.

Led by my instinct, I walked down a street to Fort Jesus on the ocean coast. A schoolgirl in a blue and white uniform was walking along the coast and then visited the fort, diligently making notes about the exciting history of the fort. Taking a glance at the fort’s internal yard, I decided not to follow the schoolgirl and took myself to the busy streets of the old harbor district. I let shop assistants and owners invite me in and show me their wares and souvenirs.

In the government square, a lot of people were sitting in the shadow of a wall: were they waiting for some work, or had they just finished their dawn fishing? Although I did not ask, a man named Tom joined me here and started explaining the secrets of the city. He showed me the fish market, the harbor, the slaves’ well (an escape tunnel connected to Fort Jesus), mosques, and nobles’ houses. He led me through the historical and ethnic districts of the old town. I must say that when my brand new friend, practically a man I did not know at all, was leading me in the labyrinth of one-goat-wide streets, there were some moments when I had no idea where we were and my heart was beating in my throat for fear I could not get out from there. But Tom amazed me. He kept on explaining, and he knew everything: industry, hand arts, fishing, shipping, architecture, history, and religion. And he also amazed me at the very end: he told me the guide tariff. Somehow, after a penetrating glance, a price negotiation, and significant discount, we succeeded in making a bargain, and he left me. My stomach whispered to me that I had to find a way to lunch, and my way led to an Arabic restaurant. Service was so quick, I hardly took a seat when the food was served. The same with the salad.

In the afternoon, as I was walking through the hectic inner city, another man appeared next to me: Omar, who was nine years older than me. First he introduced himself as a safari organizer with free capacity. When he learned that I had less than 24 hours, he changed his tactic. He showed me the grocery market, Indian temple, street sewers, and a car part salesman who was also selling leather sandals. We walked to the Mombasa Railway Station, where the track ends, and along the garages that were more similar to scrap yards than repair shops—most of the work was done in the street in mud and used oil.

Before we turned back toward the city, we saw the commercial harbor from a distance. We did a big roundtrip on foot that I did not mind, and Omar also told me going on foot was his hobby. As we were finishing our common tour, it seemed the morning situation was repeating: I felt I owed Omar a debt. He suggested refreshment and advised a bar. I was a little bit suspicious, but followed him. During the drink, he had a dispute in Swahili with the waiter. I did not understand the situation. Because I was running out of Kenyan schilling, Omar offered to exchange some money. I agreed with some doubt, and he felt this. Omar disappeared with my banknote, and I found myself standing in the motley street. In a while, he returned and counted the money into my hand. I was quite anxious, but it was time to go, and we left each other.

Upon reflection, walking with a stranger in a strange city was unsafe and not in accordance with Alcoa travel guidelines. While Tom and Omar were very helpful and showed me exciting places I would not have visited without their guidance, I should have only taken a tour with an established company.

After sunset, I went back to my day’s starting point. I had a rest in the small park. Evening was mild and quiet apart from a group of little girls playing and running around the fountain, teasing me at each lap by casting a “hi” toward the only European guy on the horizon.

For dinner, I ordered barbecue and rice with chili sauce at the Island Dishes restaurant. A local man sitting at the next table in the restaurant’s gallery was tactful, but I felt his interest in getting me to try his food. Soon, he came to my table and slid the biggest pieces from his plate to mine. Tasting eggs fried together with banana for the first time in my life was not disappointing at all. We remained seated at our own tables, and it took him a while to accept a soda from me. Night at the New Palm Tree Hotel was peaceful.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007 The waitress saw me stepping into the hotel’s restaurant and disappeared. After a couple moments, she returned with my breakfast on a tray. Since yesterday, she has learned I drink a lot of tea at once, and she served my tea with milk in a real pot instead of a small cup.

First, I wanted to find a post office to send out the postcards that I bought yesterday. A boy from the hotel willingly showed me the way. He also helped me exchange some money. “In this bank, no commission,” he told me. After the transaction, he confessed he would be very thankful if I showed a material appreciation (i.e., money) for his ministry in this business.

There were four hours left until our team meeting. After the post office, I left the inner city and passed the bus station, where there were hundreds of buses in different colors and sizes. On the other side of the street, there were dozens of tire service shops, a primitive gas station with attractive advertisements, and perhaps a hospital. I crossed paths with a bunch of people when I realized some of them had machine guns and the others were not very well dressed. For a moment, I took part in a scene of a prison bus being loaded.

I arrived in Mombassa yesterday, but today three people came to me in the street and greeted me as a best friend. “I saw you walking in the market yesterday!” “You are the European guy, aren’t you?” “We met yesterday at the grocery market. Do you remember?” “I saw you at the port!” “Why did you get so far?”

I was returning to the city center, and the commercial skyscrapers were familiar. I knew I was not far from the New Palm Tree Hotel, but somehow I could not get orientated. Suddenly, I stumbled upon Omar. He was leaning against a street rail, maybe hunting for clients for a safari. He was glad to see me, and I him. In a few words, we succeeded in dissolving the tension left from yesterday. I did not ask for help, but from his gesture, I understood where my destination was. We said goodbye to each other. After a lunch at Island Dishes, I went back to the hotel.

It was 2 p.m., and I was on time for the Earthwatch meeting. As I was approaching the reception area, I saw an Earthwatch-looking group sitting in front of the desk. Yes, here we were—eight fellows from different corners of the globe. There were introductions and shaking of hands. In a short time, our team leader, Martin Skov, also appeared. Martin was well-prepared. He did not know the faces, only the names. As he came to us one-by-one, he tried to find out who is who and who was from where. He did a good job, but I think this was not his first time doing this.

We and most of our baggage jammed into the van. I got the front seat next to the driver (on the right side). Soon our van entered the jammed traffic. The road to the Likoni ferry was very crowded. Salesmen approached the window of our slowly moving van, trying to sell nuts, sweets, necklaces, small motorbikes, music, etc. For a last taste of civilization, our team was dropped off at a supermarket. It was like ones found everywhere, but I showed Takanobu, a volunteer from Japan, a toy replica of Deutsche Bahn, the German railroad.

Mombasa is on an island in the Indian Ocean, and we were leaving the city on a ferry for the south. The road was quite good, only once interrupted by a muddy section where cars were creeping through. Soon, honest East African landscape was opening in front of us: palm trees along the road, high grass, green bush, people on foot or bikes, goats, cows. I have seen such scenes only on television before.

Now for some background on my involvement with this expedition. I received the first reply to my expedition application in the beginning of March: “Dear Adam, you may be selected.” A week later: “Adam, you have been selected.” And one more a week later: “Adam, you are selected for Kenya.”

For a week, I could not stand to not open this email every 20 minutes. I did not want to keep my selection a secret, but in the beginning, I did not share this exciting news with wide range of people. So many things might happen until August. What I did not do, the media did. The company newspaper, “Metallurg Alcoa Russia,” published an article about the Russian applicants accepted for an Earthwatch expedition.
 
Here are the interview questions and my answers:
 
  1. Why did you volunteer to participate?
    Volunteering is an excellent opportunity to widen your horizons; it is something outside of your routine tasks. In last few years, I have looked for good chances that make my vacations active and memorable. In this Earthwatch Institute program, there are three things that I like that intersect with one another: making yourself useful, finding adventure, and loving nature.
      
  2. What did you feel when you learned that you had been chosen as one of the participants?
    I was excited and glad at the same time because I found people, or, should I say people found me, who consider the same things that are important to me. I think in the application form one cannot give a whole picture of everything about his thoughts, but whoever made the selection certainly understood what meaning was behind my words. It feels great being selected and awarded the opportunity to participate in this expedition, but more importantly, the appreciation and trust of organizers gives me a good feeling.
      
  3. What will you be able to contribute, according to you?
    The site work is important in scientific aspects. I am glad that not even being a specialist, I am sure that I still can help in such scientific work. But long after the expedition, even more opportunities will appear to share my experience with people, helping to open minds to our common responsibility and make ourselves more sensitive in our everyday life toward our surrounding environment.
 
Anyway, May was a shocking month. On the 13th, our jazz band had a warmly received jubilee concert in the Culture Palace in Belaya Kalitva. On the 14th, my promotion within the company was announced. On the 15th, the article with photos was published in the company newspaper. On the 26th, I received an award for active participation in the 53rd Spartakiada, which is a sports competition among Alcoa employees.

A couple of days after the article appeared, Andrey, manager of technical development and my neighbor in the office, turned with flaming enthusiasm to Kenyan culture. Soon, Andrey became a pioneer in popularizing the Swahili language at the company. We got used to greeting each other in the mornings with a light jambo, then be interested about mutual health: “Habari gani?” “Hakuna matata! Asante sana!

I immediately started organizing my travel to Kenya, but very soon became disappointed. The only reasonable transport solution is…air. I go to a project that has a main goal of environmental protection, and getting there I am going to burn away tons of fuel. That is not a very environmentally friendly situation.

I prefer railway. Once in Turkey, I was dropped off from a train in the middle of the desert. On another occasion, I stopped a train in a village. So, no more surprises. Unfortunately, the protocol group from my plant could not give me a convincing answer to whether or not there was a railway bridge through the Suez Canal. Maybe a railway ferry? Or a ford (shallow crossing)? Or what about going by boat?

My house in Belaya Kalitva is about 400 meters (437 yards) from the Kalitva River. Kalitva leads to the Severskiy Donetz River, and Severskiy Donetz leads to the wide river of Don. Don flows into the Azov Sea. The Azov Sea goes to the Black Sea, and the Black Sea connects with the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus (also known as the Istanbul Strait). From there, I would need to go through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, and I will finally be on the endless water of the Indian Ocean. After crossing the equator, I just have to land at Gazi Bay. It may take a month—and another one getting back. I am afraid I cannot afford to be absent so long. Sorry, I have to choose air. My bad feelings were eased later on the research site. I will tell you why.

This summer, not merely in Belaya Kalitva in the south of Russia but also in Europe, it was extremely hot—more than 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). Records were being broken. “So, you go to Kenya in August! It must be 50° Celsius there.” Previously, I checked it on the internet. Daytime is 28° Celsius (82° Fahrenheit), and nighttime is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit) in any season of the year. Actually, I go to the tropics to cool down.

I come to Kenya with some preventive treatments. The company doctor gave me vaccines—one to the left shoulder, and one to the right shoulder. He also prescribed pills to prevent malaria. I read through the pills’ recommendations and warnings. Potential side effects include madness and suicide. We will see.

Did I tell you I am an expert in planting trees? I have had plenty of experience, since Alcoa undertakes initiatives to keep employees’ environmental skills fresh. You may want to read about last year’s Alcoa Month of Service activities in the Solnechny district in Belaya Kalitva. The photo was taken near the block of houses where I live. Who is in the red jacket?

Back to my first day with the team in Kenya. In a good hour, we reached our destination: Gazi Village. The village is on the coast of the Indian Ocean in the middle of a palm plantation. You may look for stone buildings, but it would be in vain. Houses here are mostly made of wooden grids covered by stripes of palm leaves.

It took one minute for the curious children to surround our minibus when we stopped in the middle of the village. I think we foreigners had the same curiosity and anxiety in our hearts when we were carrying our baggage to the rooms in the two guesthouses. My name and home country were labeled on the door. I had the privilege of occupying a single room that had a little rattan table, an even smaller table with a glass top, and a worn sofa. I would not say I am tall, but the bed was wider and a little bit shorter than necessary (I will sleep diagonally). A white bundle hanging above the bad was the looped mosquito net. Linoleum on the floor curled at the edges. A split wooden palette covered the two small windows. On the surface of the whitewashed ceiling was a relief using a dozen mangrove poles.

Very soon, Martin gathered us in the dining room, which is of a light construction. There are no walls, so breezes and rays of sun are permanent visitors in the early and late hours. The room is sheltered from the heat and rain by a pretty roof made of knitted palm leaves. The whole place is on top of a car parking site and serves as the center for communication.

Our program started. The staff members introduced themselves. Dr. James Kairo, the other scientific leader of the program, greeted us in his freestyle use of words, and we heard what we would face in the following 10 days. Dinner was served here, and afterward an interactive lecture about safety, goals, hopes, and expectations was served.

We learned what volume of work we were supposed to accomplish just to set a target. We shared our belief: our being here would be beneficial for the local community. Since Earthwatch has been here, Gazi Village has healthy wells, several new jobs, and other commercial advantages. Our work seriously contributes to the scientific work and it gives us, the volunteers, new experiences and knowledge as well. Like dinner, the lesson tasted good and was not heavy at all.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007 This was the first research day. Like each day, it started with a breakfast of fruit, toast, tea, beans, and chapatti (a type of bread).

The laboratory is in the middle of the village, actually the place where we arrived yesterday—about a two-minute walk away. Later, when I saw more houses, I remarked to myself: this building (maybe made of stone but plastered) is too luxurious to house just a laboratory and not be used for living.

In the biggest room were some chairs, and on the chairs a folder waited for each of us—another sign of professional organization and attention toward us: “Wonderful Products for Wonderful People” the title on the folder said. Dr. Kairo conducted a scientific but easy-to-digest lecture about the earth’s mangrove population.

In the 1960s, 75% of the tropical coast was covered by mangroves. The population has decreased by 15% since then.
 
We learned about three aspects of a mangrove ecosystem:
  • Ecological: Provides a home for fish and other animals and produces organic material;
  • Economic: Provides timber, firewood, charcoal, furniture, and fisheries production; and
  • Environmental: Provides coastal protection and erosion, water quality control, and carbon sequestration.
 
We also learned about the reasons why mangrove population decreases:
  • Over-exploitation, such as for timber or firewood;
  • mangrove areas converted to other use, such as urban or industrial growth;
  • Sewage disposal and oil spill pollution effects; and
  • Sea level rise due to global climate changes.
 
Following Dr. Kairo’s lecture, Martin spoke about the tide phenomena. The tide mainly depends on the position of the moon to the sun/Earth axis, but there are influencing secondary factors. These include the distance between the Earth and the moon and the Earth and the sun. The period of orbit also differs, so therefore the intensity of spring and neep tides is based on many factors.

After the lessons, our team was handed over to a girl wearing a big, very colorful, mostly red chador for a guided tour through the village. The sightseeing tour started at the oldest house of the village, which had quite a bad reputation. It used to be an internment camp for slaves, complete with a prison pit. Then we passed the cow farm and stopped at the façade of the Gazi primary school, where somebody, if they did not yet know, could read this encouraging slogan: “Knowledge is life.”

Our walk continued toward the coast into the tidal forest zone. Here, I met my first mangrove. We took a glance at the hut of the village doctor, who, based on the surroundings, must have been a hermit. We reached the Indian Ocean, where we witnessed fishermen and fisherwomen sorting and cleaning the morning catch. Our female courier then led us back to the center, where Dr. Kairo was eager to take leadership and begin his initiation program for beginners: the Mangrove Marathon.

We left the village on another path leading northeast toward the coast. As I mentioned before, Gazi Village is on the coast of the Indian Ocean. A strip of land some hundred meters wide stretches between the settlement and the water. The width of this strip depends on the tide. At low tide, water leaves more land between the village and the ocean. At high tide, the water comes closer to the village as the land strip shrinks.

We were following Dr. Kairo on ground that had wet spots and was dominated by mangroves. Sometimes, he stopped to explain how the function of the root and leaves changes depending on the water level balancing the salt concentration in the plant.

These species grow in the tidal zone, and some of their roots—called stilt roots—stand out of the ground. From time to time, the roots are flooded by saltwater. When they are in the water, the leaves take on the function of breathing. At low tide, when the water draws back, the plant breathes through the stilt roots. The leaves, which must change their role, now eliminate surplus salt, and the surface of the leaves becomes salty. That is how the plant controls salt concentration.

At another station, Martin acquainted us with his crabs. His area of research is mangrove animals, especially crab nutrition. He spoke about the crabs as his good friends.

Soon, we reached the Gazi Women Boardwalk, which is a tourist site that is maintained and guided by the Gazi women. At the starting point, another girl received us very kindly and started the biology lesson. We were stepping forward on a path of wooden planks winding among the green branches of the forest at a meter above the tide mud. The girl probably was very pretty, but above her dress, she was wearing the same type chador as the red one worn by our previous guide. This chador was made of green damask and covered the girl from head to toe. One of our scientific leaders remarked with a lowered voice, “She is very charming,” and I had no reason to disagree.

After the tour, our hostesses invited us for spicy tea and cakes made of coconut under the straw roof at the entrance of the boardwalk. Soon we took our farewell of this fairy-like forest, and from there we were systematically led into the wilderness. We first went into the bush, then mud under our feet, then mud to the ankle, then mud to the knee, then mud…combined with the labyrinth of roots. We stopped at the edge of the water to enjoy the view, the silence, and the softening mud.

Upon our return to camp, we immediately occupied the village’s public wells. At the end of the Mangrove Marathon, only Martin was a little bit disappointed, claiming the team was not muddy enough. While shoes, socks, and trousers were hanging on the fence to dry, we had lunch and lectures about biodiversity.

Biodiversity means richness of species. Ecosystem means the combination of the physical and living environment. We studied how ecosystem function correlates to the number of species. Basically, the more species that are present, the more functions the ecosystem has. Sometimes you may add more species without a change in ecosystem. In another case, one additional species can make a major change. To not miss the right conclusion in this research, a mangrove plantation is being planted in different combinations and with a randomization of species.

In the evening, a new adventure awaited us: the official village reception. The village was very curious about who we were, and we were curious, too. It had turned dark, and under the starry sky on the main road to the center, young and old were coming together to make a big circle. Around the bonfire, a bunch of drummers was making noise. Some guys in English and Australian titled T-shirts were jumping out randomly to prove their skills in tribal dance. When a guy jumped in the front to show a new, fascinating dance, a girl soon followed him and kept on jumping behind him until he realized she was there. The girl shyly ran back to her group of friends. If I were a girl, I would not jump behind a guy unless I fancied him.

Soon, the village chairman greeted us with a short speech. Afterward, we introduced ourselves. Our team was very international, consisting of eight volunteers representing some 11 countries. On my turn, I was singing a folk song but, unfortunately, I could not finish because a crossing car suffocated my flute recorder performance. Anyway, I think the people liked it and really accepted us since, in a short time, we found ourselves arm-in-arm with the tribe, bouncing around the fire to the boom of the drums. I was watching whether any girl started jumping behind me. The show continued until the late hour at a house in the neighborhood, where the sweet music of a wedding party kept us dancing.

Thursday, August 9, 2007 The muezzin (a Muslim crier who calls the hour of daily prayers) first woke me up at around five, and then I got up at seven. Actually, every morning I was dreaming about the muezzin before I got up at seven.

Today, we start working on the research site! After breakfast, we went to the laboratory building in the center of the village. This is the usual meeting point, since our team was accommodated in two locations not far from each other. We took the van, and in 15 minutes we arrived at the next village, Kinondo. A short walk and we are at the site: deforested tidal zone with dead boles (tree trunks) emerging out of the sandy soil.

The forest was cut down some 10 years ago, and the task now is to replant this area. Very briefly, the goal of the research is to determine the fastest and most effective forest restoration. To get the various growth data, we would plant trees in different densities and combinations of species. Our team was working on 25 plots measuring 36 square meters (49 square yards) to measure the growth of the biomass and animal population.

After overall instruction on the research site and methods, we were split into smaller groups. I got to be with the animal group. We counted crabs living in the soil and snails living mostly on leaves.

Crabs are alert and quick, and you have a chance to see them only from a distance. If they realize you are coming closer, they escape into the closest hole that fits and is not inhabited already. If inhabited, the crab is ejected and must run to find other shelter. So, we counted only the holes.

I do not know how shy snails are, but they did not run away. They were plentiful and loved sitting together in one big herd.

When the sun was rising high, we had a coconut break. How they pick the coconut from the top of the palm trees remained an enigma. Some trees are around twelve meters (13 yards) tall, and coconut does not grow at the foot of the tree. You can shake the tree, but the coconut will not fall. You must climb the tree with a machete in one hand. That is not all. You must open this bone-hard ball. I did not know that coconut is green, smooth skinned, and full of precious refreshment when fresh.

Luckily, the food was prepared for us. We first drank the tart-sweet “milk” and then spooned out the white, soft flesh. We flung the empty nut at a palm trunk.

We had some more hours of work to finish today, and then we walked back to the van escorted by a flock of children. Lunch was waiting for us under the palm-leaf roof. Mama Niko made it with a lot of care, and the cook’s helpers were busy serving us.

In the afternoon, some of us went to the laboratory and processed data on the computer. Liza was a real expert in using Excel spreadsheets. She knew so many tricks that made our job faster.

I still had time to take a walk around. It’s not easy to walk alone; somebody always joins you. This time, Atman and Mohamed did.

In the evening, Bernard, a Ph.D. student, taught us the carbon circle in the geological and biological sense. We understood the two ways to balance the harmful effects of fuel emissions on climate change: burn less fuel or plant more trees. The second one is very good motivation and balances my bad feelings of choosing high-emission transport to get here.

We also had a guest speaker—a fisherman from the village. He spoke to us about village life, the fate of fishermen, and the fate of their fiancés. Why do you have to be able to make at least a cupboard if you want to marry a girl?

The last attraction of the day was the presentation from Phil, who is an Alcoa employee from Australia. Volunteers were supposed to make a presentation about their home country, and Phil was brave to start. He brought books with photos showing the unbelievable flora and fauna of Australia. It was a good benchmark for the rest of us to follow.

Friday, August 10, 2007 When we arrived at the village of Kinondo, children immediately ran to our van. One or two of them chose one of us and started chatting. In fact, their English was braver than rich, and they asked the three questions they knew with honest interest: “What is your name?” “Where are you coming from?” “How old are you?”  We were walking to the research area with such conversation, but somehow it was very entertaining.
 
This was the second day coming here, and the second time I met Rashid. He was ready to present me with a lace wristband with my name sewn in it that he had made since yesterday.
 
Today, I went into another group: “the odd people.” I deemed this name not very consistent, and I took the initiative to rename the group. We were going to count plant biomass growing, so let us be “the Bushmen.” The new name did not stick.
 
We did count leaves and stilt roots on the appointed plots. We formed a closer friendship and had more interaction with three species of mangrove: Brugiera gymnorrhiza, Ceriops tagal, and Avicennia marina. The little seedlings were planted a few years ago and were being measured from period to period to control the speed of reforestation.
 
I mostly worked with Satoko from Japan. I think she was the most diligent and strenuous in the site work.
 
After the coconut break, time went quickly. We traveled back to Gazi and had lunch. We arrived three days ago, but this afternoon was the first real free time. We decided, along with Fritz, to take a walk to the coast. On our way there, we met some people from the village, and we greeted one another as old friends with a jambo.
 
The coast was sunny and windy. Yellow and pink-like crabs were running everywhere and digging diligently their own holes in the white sand. Late afternoon, Martin gave us a lesson about mangrove population.
 
Mangroves grow in the narrow coastal area. In addition, these species compete in a certain sense, and they need to be tolerant since they have to share a limited territory with other species. Notwithstanding, mangroves are very productive and precious plants. They provide living space to many animals, from ants to monkeys and from fish to human.
 
We also listened to the country presentations from two fellows. From Liza, we heard that some men wore skirts called kilts. She showed us photos of relatives to prove it was true, and it may have happened even in her family. She told us that a real monster lived in a lake called Loch Ness, or at least some people thought they had seen it. This country is Scotland.
 
Fritz was talking about the environmental programs at Shell. We also learned from him how people conquered precious land from the sea for living—how they raised dikes and pumped out water to build towns below sea level. We heard about hundreds of windmills and cheese. This country is Holland.

Saturday, August 11, 2007 We took the van to the research area. I got to be with the animal-counting group again. Both species of crabs (Uca and Sesarmidae) were hiding when we entered their territory. We counted the holes only, but it gave us a reliable picture about the density of the population. Both species of snails well withstood our counting, as usual.
 
The coconut break in the shadow of the palm trees was refreshing. After lunch, the whole team continued working in the laboratory in groups of two or three. I took a big bag of soil samples that had been taken from the soil at different heights. Phil and I started selecting from the soil the organic parts—roots. It was not the cleanest and most delicate of tasks since it was done manually, but sitting in the small yard of the laboratory and having a conversation was time well spent. We finished with many samples.
 
It was time to go back to the guesthouse to get ready for a presentation about Kenyan tourism and the environment. Today’s guest, Davis, gave us a general overview about the country’s topography and society. He let us know about the disadvantages, but he spoke with great enthusiasm about how much his country had developed and what opportunities should be utilized in this regards.
 
In the evening, we took our expedition van again. After a half-hour drive to the south, we stopped at a bar. People were having their beer in groups already, and with some difficulty the waiters got enough chairs for us. We sat down in a round pergola with a straw roof.
 
After ordering, we listened to Rudelle give her presentation on Canada. Her family’s roots led her to Africa, and she had a dog and went figure skating. She was followed by Satoko, who amazed us with the surprises she was drawing out of her bag. We tasted salty and sweet snacks from Japan. We listened to the sound of a breeze interpreted by bells, and a real origami zoo crowded us. With Satoko’s instruction, we all folded our own paper crab. Mine was orange but still recognizable.

Sunday, August 12, 2007 We took the van to the research area, where a few of us were selected for a special task—preparing for tree planting.
 
The seedlings are planted in a very systematic way to get measurable and comparable growth data. The dimensions of each plot are the same (36 square meters, which equals 49 square yards), but the plots differ in seedling density. In some plots, 12 seedlings per row will be planted. Other rows will have three or six seedlings planted.
 
Today, we measured and laid out rows and marked the place for each seedling with a stick. Finding enough appropriate sticks was more challenging than measuring.
 
We had time for a coconut break even though our workday was shortened because we were invited by the village to a common lunch. Out of respect to us, the festivities were set in the oldest house of the village, which we had visited on the first day. The house was the biggest one made of stone—probably this is the reason why it was still standing. It last functioned as a school, but for years it has been absolutely empty. Even windows were missing. I would almost say it was in ruins.
 
There was no actual table, so the food was served on a nice carpet on the stone floor. First I thought having lunch in a house that was famous for torturing people was a bizarre idea, but the company was pleasant and the food was fine, too.
 
The village chairman and leadership received us very warmly. We sat down around the carpet and had potato, chapatti, vegetables, and juice. When we finished, we walked back to the laboratory and spent an hour separating mud and roots.
 
In the evening, another invitation was waiting for us. All the volunteers were sent in groups for dinner with a local family. A local villager named Bob was already familiar to me since I remembered he had joined us on our first-day excursion. He chose Rudelle, Judah (volunteer from New York), and me and led us to the house that was near the village center under a newly constructed communication transmitting tower. This red and white steel construction with a red signal light on the top was perhaps the only footprint of civilization visible from a good distance, and its buzzing was monotonous.
 
Bob’s family had two buildings with a lengthwise yard between them. I could not see the rooms, kitchen, or furniture, for we were served in the yard, again on a carpet. Women were sitting at a distance while Bob took the role of host. We were eating fish, rice, and salad and drinking tea. Bob was a member of a middle-class family, as they had running water and a bathroom. He was dreaming about getting a contract with a football (soccer) club in Europe.

Monday, August 13, 2007 This morning, we took the van as usual, but we turned not to the research area but in the opposite direction. It was a day off, and we were taken on an excursion to Kisite Marine National Park, which is very close to the Tanzanian border.
 
After driving on the main road, we turned off and drove on a dirt road to Shimoni Village. After driving through the village, we stopped at the visitor center, which consisted of several buildings. In the exhibition hall, we looked at some tables and photos of marine animals and wildlife.
 
After this short rest, we went to the coast. Each of us chose snorkeling gear to his taste but not always to his size.
 
The boats on the water were swinging side by side, and we took one. We could not leave the port immediately, for it took a while for the crew to get a sufficient number of life vests. After the problem had been solved, we headed for the deep water. The clouds were turning darker and darker, and soon we had a heavy tropical shower hitting our necks. The clouds left us and only the water remained beneath.
 
When the bay was far behind us, the captain slowed down. We all were scanning the water’s surface with alert eyes. Suddenly, a triangular fin emerged for a minute. In a short time, two more emerged. The dolphins knew how to attract us. In the beginning, they showed themselves little by little. In the end, they jumped out of the water a few times.
 
The captain turned the boat to the right and sped up. We passed big and small islands, and in one hour we reached the marine national park. The captain stopped the boat, and we put on masks and flippers and jumped straight into the water.
 
I soon saw something different from what I had seen before in national parks that are on land. When I pushed my head into the water, a miraculous world opened up. We were near a flat island edged by corals. In the transparent water, the bottom was still visible and was full of corals in various shapes. They were mostly grey, but between the branches, charming plants grew. I do not know what it was— maybe a shell—that sat on the bottom with a frilly big open mouth that was purple (I saw another one in violet). When I swam closer, it quickly closed up.
 
The fish were big and small, lonely or in schools, flashy and pastel, mottled and brindled. They were not afraid of me until I suddenly stretched my hand toward them to check their alertness. One hour in the water was just enough. Our bodies cooled down, and when we climbed back on board the boat, we all were shaking and quickly searching for towels.
 
The captain did not start the little motor. We had good wind, so we sailed back. Before we reached the port, we had our lunch. Mama Niko showed her care from a distance, as she had packed cake, watermelon, and soda.
 
In the village, we had one more descent that we did on foot without snorkeling gear. It was into a cave that was used as a gathering place for slaves before they were deported. We next had tea with milk in a primitive but very friendly bar—perhaps a hut is a better word. We arrived back at Gazi Village before it got very late in the afternoon.

Researchers have been present in the village for years, and the locals have gotten used to having foreign visitors. Walking along the two intersecting main streets was not an issue. However, I was eager to see what was beyond these streets. Unlike in Mombasa, I don’t need to ask for a guide from a travel agency.
 
When children saw me walking alone on the back paths among the plastered wooden houses, they shouted mzungu (a white man!). Soon, they boldly clustered around and spoke directly to me: “What’s your name?” They were getting mad and exclaimed: “Take a picture!” It was almost impossible to take a photo, because they all wanted to be in the very front and were jumping into the frame of the photo. I finally managed to take the photo. A little girl was so thankful that, for my sake, she turned out her eyelids. More and more children joined me until I met two older girls. The children felt this was the time to give up their place to the girls. I asked Doto and Anastasia if it was embarrassing to walk with me, but they answered hakuna matata (no problem) and willingly showed me the other quarter of the village. This sightseeing seemed safe apart from some bites I got from safari ants.
 
In the evening, Takanobu gathered us in the laboratory building and gave his interactive presentation on Japan. We learned Japanese writing, the meaning of our names, and how to communicate without words. The laboratory soon became noisy and hectic when we started shouting “Janken Poi!” (an exclamation in Japanese to challenge your mate to play a game.). Soon we were playing a game that Takanobu taught us. When you lost, your partner stuck a black round sticker on your face. We soon got to see what would result if you crossed a human with a ladybug. Two days later, I still saw a beauty mark on somebody’s neck.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007 This was a very efficient day. We planted 690 trees in the plots we set at the Kinondo research site. It is fortunate that the tide does its own part, watering the seedlings from time to time during high tide.  This was our last time at Kinondo. Children escorted us to the van and did not move until we got in and left the village.
 
The afternoon was busy with laboratory work. It was like in the “Star Wars” movie. Obi-Wan Kenobi tells an empire warrior “You want to separate mud and roots,” and the warrior, under the influence of the Force, answers mechanically, “I want to separate mud and roots.” So we did it.
 
Later, we had a pub program. We drove to Ukunda, the nearest town, and stopped at a nice restaurant in a tourist place named Diani Beach. The restaurant, called the Forty Thieves, was right at the beach. We took a bench not in the building but on the beach, where the longest waves reached our and the table’s legs.
 
After the exhausting workday, Frits, Takanobu, and I immediately dashed into the water. The waves were coming unceasingly, and we enjoyed them a lot. I swam a bit farther out from the coast, and when I got back to land, Rudelle remarked, “You seemed to be so far, I thought you were a coconut.”
 
The restaurant was equipped not only with an ice-making machine but with a refreshing shower, too.  After a cocktail and a chat, it turned dark and we returned to Gazi.
 
This evening there was one, maybe two programs left. It was my turn. Actually, I had two countries to present. First I did Russia, where I live and work. I brought a folksong (presented live) and photos from Belaya Kalitva that I presented with the help of Bernard’s computers. Then we imaginarily moved to a smaller country, Hungary, where I was born and my family lives. The big world map that I brought with me (later donated to the Gazi staff to help with future volunteer orientation) was real useful.
 
Hungary is in the geographical center of Europe. Its history teaches us about glory, failures, and vivid culture. The country is rich in spas, fruits, and unpronounceable town names.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007 Today our destination was very close. We went on foot to the Gazi beach, where we planted trees. The nursery was located on another section of coast, so Fritz and I were driven there by jeep. The soil here was rich in organics—in other words, we sank in mud to our knees. We dug out the seedlings and loaded them into the jeep. It was a bonus to come back to the planting area on foot along the coast. We rinsed our legs in the shallow, soft water.

We finished planting by lunch. After lunch, we had an hour of work in the laboratory. Three of us prepared samples for drying, packing leaves into little folio baskets.

Later, I met Atman in the street. He took me to a friend, who was coming back from fishing on the coast. We entered the house, and though a room we got to a small yard. Actually, this was the kitchen. A small oven stood in the middle, and there was a metal pan with oil on the oven. They threw the fish into the hot oil. Today’s catch did not seem very bountiful, so I did not wait to be invited and soon left.

The sun was still up but already on the way down. We faced a very challenging event: Gazi/Earthwatch friendly football. The teams and supporters were gathering at the sports field behind the primary school. Bernard led the warm-up training, and Martin selected the positions each of us would play:
  • Goalkeeper: Fritz (Netherlands);
  • In the back: Liza (Great Britain), Phil (Australia), and Satoko (Japan);
  • Midfield: Adam (Hungary) and Rudelle (Canada); and
  • Strikers: Judah (USA) and Takanobu (Japan).

The game started, but it soon turned out that the two parties were not balanced very well. The ball seldom got in front of our strikers, and almost by chance when it did. Fritz’s defense was heroic and Phil did his best, too, but a red-shirted Gazi player on the right side poured the goals into our gate. Even the palm tree in the middle of the field was playing against us. Whenever the ball hit the tree, it always ricocheted toward our gate. In the second half, Joseph and Martin reinforced our team. The final score was tragic: 9 to 1.

After the match, players and supporters went to the village center and shared a refreshing soda and friendship in the street. There were many children in the village, but I met only a few old people. Let’s say elderly—above 50. Usually when I talked with people and after they got to know my name, we had a debate: is this name Muslim or Christian? Perhaps we could answer if someone proves whether the first man was an Arab or Hebrew.

We had dinner. I think every fellow was quite tired, not only because of the sport, but also because of the daily work, unusual climate, etc. Anyhow, after dinner we had an organized program: nightlife in Ukunda. We took the van and drove first to a backstreet bar. It was big but almost empty. We sat around a big table and had a beer.

Only one fellow’s presentation was left: Judah from New York. He showed us a magical thing—a self-heating package of food. The package consisted of an aluminum tray with chicken, peas, rice, and a heating pad. Judah started the reaction between the iron and magnesium in the pad, and the exothermic reaction heated up the packed food. You can have a hot meal everywhere without fire, an oven, or a match.

From this bar, we drove to another one in the busy main street. There was music, and people were dancing, having drinks, and playing billiards. We adapted ourselves to the place, and we left late.

Thursday, August 16, 2007 This morning we did not rush. After breakfast, we visited the Gazi primary school. There are eight grades in the school, and every grade has one classroom with three pupils to a desk. We visited the eighth-grade class—the school leaders.
 
Each of the fellows gave a short introduction and briefly presented where he or she was from. I was asked the most questions. We asked the students about their dreams and what they wanted to be. We learned the most popular professions were doctor, nurse, dentist, soldier, pilot, engineer, and bank manager. At the end, the volunteers presented their gifts to the school.
 
From the school, we went directly to Gazi beach. Today’s planting was gentle exercise. We had our last coconuts and our last lunch under the palm-leaves roof. In the afternoon, we had a rest while we shared our photos with one another and saved them to disks.
 
I took my walk in the village not as a stranger anymore. Children joined me with curiosity and wonder. I felt they believed it was a privilege to touch me, and they were jealous of the two who held my right and left hands. I met Anastasia, too, and I felt she was a little bit disappointed we met in the street only by chance. I saw Takanobu sitting in a ring of children. He was teaching them some game. I saw Rudelle, and she was the most popular among the Gazi boys. Fritz was the most popular among the fellows. After dinner, we listened with respect to Fritz’s insightful summary about this Gazi experience.
 
If we look at the dresses, no doubt Satoko’s kimono was the most attractive. She wore this long, purple dress with a huge knot at the back and a decorative chowree (fan) to social events in the village—except for football, of course.
 
In the evening, we went out to the beach. The Southern Cross constellation that shines above the southern hemisphere was rising above the horizon. I knew it only from the novels of Jules Verne. There was a mild ocean breeze and no light except for the stars in the sky and the fire we lit on the beach. Time was spent singing songs from different nations.
 

Friday, August 17, 2007 Breakfast. Packing. Group photos. Hugs. We took the van and left Gazi Village at 11 a.m. We crossed the bay on the Likoni ferry and arrived in Mombasa.
 
We had a short time for shopping in the supermarket, and then we drove to the city center to a self-service restaurant. This lunch was our last common event. Mark Huxham, whom we had read about and who was the principal investigator and leader of the next group, greeted and joined us. After lunch, the team split up. Some of us drove to a wood carving store, which actually was a huge area with thousands of carved animals, warriors, and plants.
 
Martin stayed with us, and we drove to the airport. Fritz’s and Judah’s flight to Nairobi was due to depart at 5 p.m. and mine at 7:30 p.m. after sunset. I thought, why wait for the evening flight? I tried to change the ticket for the earlier flight in the hope that in daylight I would have a chance to see Mount Kenya or Mount Kilimanjaro.
 
I succeeded in getting the ticket changed at the last minute, and I had to run through the check-in posts to get the plane. I was watching to the right for Mount Kenya and to the left for Mount Kilimanjaro. They must have been there, but I saw only clouds and the sky turning dark.
 
To my great surprise, I found an article in the magazine on the plane that made me proud. It was about Earthwatch and its efforts to reforest mangroves on the east coast of the Indian Ocean.
 
Epilogue
At the Zurich Airport, I found another brochure about Lufthansa’s largest climate protection project ever to emit as little carbon dioxide as possible.
 
Thanks to Earthwatch and the Alcoa staff, who made my participation possible and helped me both in preparation and onsite. Special thanks to Katalin Hargitai, who did a lot to help me join this expedition, and to Jim Purins for his good advice and photo editing.

Photo Gallery


View the images from Adam Benke's diary.
go

Earthwatch Institute


Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.
go

Tidal Forests of Kenya


Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.
go