Saturday, January 08, 2005

Regarding happy and unhappy campers

January 8, 2005
North Camp, Gran Caldera de Luba, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.36528° E 8.50035° Elevation 3,374 feet. Temp: 78° F

We in the media have a reputation for emphasizing misery, and darnit, it’s true. We are nattering nabobs of negativism, as one of our nation’s memorable vice presidents once stated. We can’t help it. I normally cover wars, famines, natural disasters and epidemics – if there is human suffering somewhere, the editors look my way. If somebody does a good deed, you can bet we will find something to fault. Every night I go to sleep contented, knowing that through my work in the media, I’ve made the world a little worse in some small way. It’s my nature as a journalist, of course.

But I am making a pledge here today that I am going to change my ways. I am going to start telling the full truth, including positive things, even if it pinches my soul and my negative colleagues in the media try to pressure me to come back to the dark side.

I am starting my emancipation from negativity today, here on Bioko island, where I’m on an expedition to save endangered animals sponsored by Arcadia University and the National University of Equatorial Guinea. As regular readers of this blog know, I went on at length last week about the suffering we are going through to bring you this series of articles from the African rainforest. The drenching rain. The humidity. The grit. The insects. The bad food. The long hikes. The wet boots. The bad jokes. These accounts are offered up with the calculated design to get you to sympathize with me and Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer photographer who is accompanying me, to make you believe we are going through great discomfort and peril to provide you with a front-row seat in Africa. Actually, we are. But some people might think we’re doing this out of some sense of service. Rather, as any number of media critics have told me over the years, we’re really doing this for two reasons: To sell newspapers and to win Pulitzers.

I digress. As discerning blog readers may have picked up in recent days, I’ve ceased mentioning the weather and the hardship. There’s a reason for that. Once we arrived Wednesday in the Gran Caldera de Luba, this wilderness in an ancient volcano crater that is home to four endangered primates, the weather turned really gorgeous.

There, I said it. Something positive. The conditions at this altitude, at this time of year during the dry season, are really comfortable – cool at night, in the 50s, and topping out at about 80 in the day. No rain, just a light overlay of misty afternoon clouds giving the volcano rim a gauzy glow, a nice soft light.

I am having right now what a small circle of my friends call a “Bonnie Jo moment.” The only thing you need to know about Bonnie Jo is that she can get very blissful. I hope you won’t think less of me, especially those dear readers who have written from Missouri and South Dakota to relate tales about the harsh winters they are suffering through, what with the snow and the gloomy days with four hours of light. I feel your pain. If I could bottle some of this sunlight and send it up north, I would do it.

Unfortunately, not everyone on this expedition is sharing my moment of bliss. There is dissension among the ranks of 24 expedition members. It’s nothing mutinous, and I suppose it’s inevitable that some discord would arise after two weeks of traveling as a group under stressful conditions. But not everyone is a happy camper.

Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra, the Arcadia University professors who organize the annual expedition as part of their crusade to save endangered species on Bioko, recruit volunteers whose primary assignment is to gather census information on wild animals. The job requires going out every day on trails that are carefully marked for their distance and walking with a guide in a quiet, disciplined manner. When animals are sighted, the volunteers take down as many details as they can. Other parts of the job require the participants to do various camp chores. Nothing onerous, like doing the dishes – we have hired help for that. But the hikes and the chores can be tedious, and with a beach nearby and the temptation to take long walks and explore, it makes the job even harder. Oh, yeah, the volunteers pay $2,700 plus airfare for the privilege of joining the expedition to see a rare place that is closed off to all but a handful of outsiders (the profits help fund conservation efforts on Bioko). Because they paid good money, some of the participants have a sense of entitlement about how the group should be organized.

It’s impossible to organize such an expedition with two dozen participants, a couple of demanding journalists, and about 20 African porters, chefs and guides. Morra and Hearn do a pretty good job, moving supplies and people among three camps, scheduling work details each day. But it’s not perfectly organized – this is no travel agency tour, it’s a scientific expedition organized by a couple of academics. We’ve run out of tea and are short on some other supplies. Some of the tents are permeable. The expedition was handicapped by the last-minute cancellation of Javier Garcia Francisco, a gifted Spanish graduate student who helps Arcadia organize its study abroad program in Equatorial Guinea and is comfortable working with everybody from African porters to government ministers. I met Javier in early December on a preliminary mission to do this story, before he fell ill with malaria or some such tropical illness that required his hospitalization in Madrid over Christmas. He couldn’t join the trip.

I’m adding these comments for readers who may think this sounds like a cool journey and might consider applying in the future. This expedition is not for everyone.

First of all, I’m in a little more of a privileged position, since I’m here doing my work and not required to do so many census walks. I’m experienced outdoors, I love hiking and working in primitive conditions, so I’m in my element here.

The participants who seem to be having a better time dealing with the expedition are environmental studies or biology students who have some outdoor experience. For them, this expedition is valuable training that they can use to get a job doing field work or to advance their studies. So they’re more willing to be ordered around as though they were Army privates.

But some participants have complained to me that they’re not getting as much advanced learning as they thought. Some don’t take well to the primitive hygienic issues. Others don’t take well to discipline. Hearn dressed down two expedition members who disobeyed their assignment and walked on a census trail when it was supposed to be quiet – Hearn takes her science seriously (I’m not naming names because people didn’t sign up for this expedition to have their lives splashed on the Internet by a nosy reporter).

Several older participants are more like adventure tourists, less motivated by the biology and more interested in having a broader cultural experience. They are not entirely happy with the expedition, having to work with younger people and sometimes being treated like a college student. They would like more time to go out on their own, to explore the island and its people. Clearly there should have been a better understanding about what was in store. We’re told there will be time for independent tourism next week when we get back to Malabo, so perhaps some of that disappointment will pass.

Morra and Hearn have gone through this before. They say personality clashes inevitably develop, but rarely get out of control. Hearn says she prefers having women on the expedition because they are more cooperative and they get along better with the Africans. Male expedition members often seem to have more to prove and are more difficult to control. The Arcadia academics teach college students for a living, so they’re experienced dealing with people who are in a transitional phase of their lives.

Of course, each and every one of us are going through transitional phases – that’s what life’s about. Right now, I’m going through this power-of-positive-thinking transition. I’m blowin’ the rust out of my pipes. Feelin’ groovy.

I’m sure I’ll get over it, once I’m back in the office, back in Philadelphia, where it’s winter.
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