Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reintegrating into society

So, after 3 months of being pretty much completely isolated from the rest of the world, I'm back in Johannesburg, one of the biggest cities in Southern Africa. Actually, according to a quick google-search I just did, it is THE biggest city in Southern Africa. I love Joburg, I've lived here all my life. It has a buzz and a 'vibe' (inverted commas to stop me sounding like a yuppie) and a friendly atmosphere and it's beautiful in its own way. At the same time it's crowded and polluted and noisy and rushed. So rushed. Every time I go away I need a few days to learn to slow down, because here everyone is in a hurry. I'm not sure if all the rushing makes us efficient, or we just like to create the illusion that we are, but everyone is stressed out and hurrying from one task to the next. I like to sit back and watch the mayhem, but I'm afraid I'm as guilty as the next Jo-burger in wishing that we could cram another 6 or 7 hours into every day.

So getting home is one of the things that I hold on to when fieldwork gets difficult. I have friends here who I miss like crazy and I hope that they miss me while I'm away. I have my family and my animals and the bedroom that I've slept in since I was 10 and the zoo and my lab...At the same time, for the last few days of fieldwork I dread the idea of coming home. I always realise that the place I'm staying as actually beautiful, if you ignore the scorching heat, the falling down cliffs and the tangles of thorny plants that seem to conspire to grow between me and wherever I'm going.

I would sit outside on the veranda on a super-comfy green vinyl sunbed-type chair (it's hideous, but I could sleep in it if there weren't so many insects bashing against the windows right behind it) in the evenings and look at the sky where the stars are so bright that I could take a walk around the farm at midnight without a torch and still be able to see where I was going. The sky isn't black at all, but a beautiful indigo colour. And I would sit and listen to the night-jars and the spotted-eagle owls and the frogs, and the insects would buzz around me (particularly the dung-beetles and moths the size of my hand) and every now and then bats would swoop down and grab insects just millimetres from my head.

Sometimes I would see antelope in the garden, trying to be quiet while crashing through the bushes, sometimes at night I would see a jackal, sitting under a banana-palm, just waiting, and looking a lot like one of my dogs back home. As much as I'm almost completely bird-impaired, I find it easy to learn frog-calls, so after a day or two listening to the frog-call CD on my ipod (yes, I have frog calls on my ipod, so what?) I would sit outside at night and identify who was sitting in the little catchment behind the house, yelling their little amphibian lungs out. I have a definite soft-spot for tree frogs, and I often heard a close relative of my favourite frog in the whole world. On a few occasions I went looking for them and once I spotted the little guys being SO cute! Unfortunately I never got close enough to catch him, so I couldn't take a picture, but I felt that even a sighting made the stumbling around in the mud completely worth it!

Contrary to popular belief, life in the middle of nowhere is far from silent. When the reed frogs going it sounds like a million car alarms going off at the same time, but I never found it intrusive at all. All the birds and animals and insects (OK, the insects got annoying, there were a bunch of crickets that got into the house, and they were LOUD!). The water is from a borehole (and I know all the dangers f drinking borehole water) and tasted fantastic, I got to make campfires if I felt like it, wear clothes that had been ripped to shreds and stitched up with cotton that didn't match. For 3 months I didn't have to think about blow-drying my hair, wearing make-up, if there were fights between friends I was far enough away to avoid being caught int he crossfire.

I'm not saying that fieldwork is all fun and games, it's hard, hard work, with long hours, no weekends, and the exhausting feeling of powerlessness where your life is controlled by the weather. At the same time though, it's simpler. You can judge a day as a success or failure by how many animals you caught, if all the measurements are taken. If something goes wrong there is nobody else around so you learn how to fix it. It's a wonderful simplicity.

To come home is hard. For one thing my friends are used to me popping in and out of their lives, so I'm not really greeted with much surprise. I'm always happy to see them and they seem happy to see me, but it usually feels like I never left. I battle with insomnia from the noise and the light of the city. I have a constant headache from the noise and the pollution. I'm exhausted from all the human interaction but I can't sleep and recover.

And the worst part: after all that, I have to go back to the lab and learn to think all over again. I have a nice new pile of data to organise and analyse and interpret. And it's hard. My concentration-span (already pretty pitiful) has shrunk down to less than 5 minutes. I literally look at a set of numbers, do one thing to them and then need a break. I'm up against a pretty important deadline and I'm over 2 weeks behind schedule because no matter how hard I try I Just. Can't. Concentrate. Cue the reawakening of my fear of public humiliation!


SuvvyGirl said...

At this moment in time fieldwork sounds amazing to me. Solitude. It sounds like bliss, even for a day. (Can you tell my is driving me crazy and draining me?)

I am sure you will readjust eventually and you will get caught up on your work. You should see my desk with all of the filing and crap I've proscrastinated.

Arjan said...

Hi, first of all thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment.

Interesting to read about how you see yourself when you're doing fieldwork and getting home again. Being forced to learn to fix things yourself sounds difficult but it also sounds like the best way to learn.