Setting up Camp
19 June 2012
After we arrived, I took a little tour of Gelada camp: a scattering of tents at the head of a long, wide valley. There is a kitchen tent, a storage tent (tattered and torn from the relentless wind and sun; Tyler had bought a replacement for it in Addis), a little shower tent, a handful of tents for the researchers and staff, and a rough little latrine, screened off on the side towards camp, but open towards amazing views in other directions.
The bare heathland seemed more like Scotland than Africa, as if we had driven so high that we had somehow found a shortcut in the sky to Europe. But the dizzying view of the rift valley below made clear we were somewhere else entirely.
We piled our more vulnerable belongings inside the kitchen and storage tents to protect them from the rain.
Before long Peter returned from the field, where he had been collecting plants for nutritional analysis, and welcomed us to Guassa. We huddled in the kitchen tent and drank tea and ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches waiting for the rain to stop before setting up our own tent.
In the kitchen tent, I tried reading the labels in Amharic on the honey jars and tea bags. I could work out that honey was mar, water was wuha, and tea was shai, but couldn’t make out much else. Bedulu saw what I was doing and helped out, pronouncing the words for me. He asked in Amharic if I would be visiting the farms while here; unfortunately there wouldn’t be time for that.
Wanting to get the tent set up before nightfall, we eventually settled for a lull in the rain, rather than waiting for it to stop completely. We chose a spot that had been previously occupied, still marked by a bare patch on the ground. Fitting together poles and stakes with hands numb from cold and wet with rain brought back memories of camping trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.
Once the tent was set up, I changed out of my rain-soaked town clothes and put on layers of field clothes. Even after the rain stopped, and even inside the kitchen tent, I kept my raincoat and hat on for warmth.
The other researchers gathered in by sundown, and we ate dinner: huge bowls of rice with a sauce of tomatoes and onions. Dinner started with placing big pots of rice and sauce in the center of the table, surrounded by bowls for the nine people in camp: Peter, the project co-director; Ethiopian staff Bedulu and Shoa; the outgoing volunteer, Taylor; the incoming volunteers, Carrie and Bryce; visiting researcher, Morgan; and Tyler and me.
Then one person served rice and sauce until each bowl was piled high with what seemed like enough food for three people in each bowl. Then the salt, chili sauce and berberi (the local spice, a dark orange in color) were passed around for flavor, and everyone ate and ate, not saying a word, just shoveling in the food. Everyone emptied their bowl, hungry from a long day’s work. Then we talked, telling stories about the monkeys and people of Guassa and other places we’d been, and drank tea. I drank several cups, trying to warm up, holding the mug close between sips to warm my body.
Conversation included the researchers’ names for local places and things. Where did the geladas sleep? Darjeeling, down by the Cliffs of Insanity. Some others might be sleeping in Norway. During some parts of the year, the monkeys eat Injury Berries, which despite their name are supposed to be not only harmless but very tasty.
By 8:00 I was nodding off, and soon we all went off to our separate tents. I snaked into my sleeping bag wearing heavy winter socks, field pants, t-shirt, and long-sleeved field shirt, with the collar turned up to warm my ears. Even with a wool blanket on top of my sleeping bag, I shivered with cold.
I slept in fits and starts. The tent shook in the wind, then beat like a drum when the rain fell. Having drunk all that tea before bedtime meant I had to get up repeatedly in the night, slip on my rain-soaked shoes, unzip the tent, and step outside for a bit in the howling wind and rain.