Sparking joy, surrounded by elephants

I’m writing this blog post during a short one-day break between trips to elephant land. This is my first update of 2019, and I’m happy to report that the new year has started off fantastically. These past two weeks have been a whirlwind, and the highlight has been the visit of both of my PhD advisors, Drs. Elizabeth Freeman and Wendy Kiso, over the last week. Still, there’s been a lot of other exciting news too. I finally bit the bullet and got my first Sri Lankan haircut here in Mihintale. My close family and friends know that I’m very particular about my haircuts. It’s not that I have any sort of special hairstyle, and I don’t obsess over the daily care of my hair or anything like that. But since college, I’ve been coordinating my trips home to Dallas with my need for regular haircuts (the barber is most often my first stop after landing at DFW airport). And Julie, my usual haircut person (she’s probably technically called a hair stylist…?), can always tell if I’ve cheated and gotten a cheaper haircut elsewhere. This haircut in Sri Lanka was a different experience: I accompanied a professor from Rajarata who also needed a haircut, and mine took about five minutes and cost less than $4.00. There were almost none of the pleasantries that I’m used to in Dallas. No HGTV playing in the corner on a TV. No discussions about the latest antics of #45 (okay, maybe I didn’t miss that). And definitely no swinging by Sonic for a slush afterward. But, it was a $4.00 haircut, and I’ll have a few more of them before I get to watch HGTV and gossip about politics with Julie again.

And even more exciting from a haircut, my advisors and I recently learned that our musth project has gained a new supporter in the International Elephant Foundation. I’m super proud to have IEF support because it’s my favorite elephant advocacy group (it also helps that all of my past graduate advisors are currently scientific advisors to IEF). What I like most about IEF is their unwavering commitment to saving elephants worldwide, both in wild and captive populations. Our partnership with IEF will allow us to share our work with even more people in the quest to more deeply understand elephants so that we can better manage them. I received this great news on the second or third day that Elizabeth and Wendy were here in Sri Lanka. It was great to be able to celebrate with them here.

But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the day that Elizabeth and Wendy got to Sri Lanka. I wanted to be in Colombo to welcome both of them as their flight landed, so I took Rajnish and travelled the way that locals do by train. I love trains, but I don’t get to use them often enough and that lack of experience combined with the foreign nature of Sri Lanka was sort of daunting. I did my research beforehand on the website The Man in Seat Sixty-One, a resource I highly recommend for traingoers while travelling abroad. Plus, I had Rajnish’s guidance to help me through. I splurged and got a first-class train ticket for less than $4.50, which let me have a reserved seat next to a window that I looked out of during the whole journey. The trip from Anuradhapura to Colombo took a little over five hours (our route was delayed a bit when we encountered rather persistent cows on the tracks at one point), and I arrived at the hotel in Colombo a few hours before Elizabeth and Wendy’s flight arrived at 10pm. I excitedly greeted them at the airport late that night, then we all got back to our hotel for a good night’s rest before our day of activity the next day.

A view from my seat on the train to Colombo. In one of the first-class cabins, there’s much more leg room than on a typical passenger plane. Fans above help cool down the space, but virtually every window was open on the journey.

A view from my seat on the train to Colombo. In one of the first-class cabins, there’s much more leg room than on a typical passenger plane. Fans above help cool down the space, but virtually every window was open on the journey.

Our first full day in Colombo started with a meeting at the US−Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission. The three of us had a discussion with Sandarshi Gunawardena (Executive Director of Fulbright Sri Lanka) about future collaboration possibilities between the US and Sri Lanka. Sandarshi is keen to have more projects that focus on wildlife conservation, and our team is excited to do more work in Sri Lanka. Hopefully this initial discussion will spark all of this. I had a few more errands in run in Colombo before we headed out of the city, but after those, we took a taxi from Colombo to Rajarata University in Mihintale. The trip took a bit over five hours, with a stop for lunch at the same restaurant where Buddhika took me on my first trip from Colombo in November. I helped Elizabeth and Wendy settle into their hotel in Mihintale (and as one of the only ones that is comfortable for western tourists, we’re lucky that it’s only a five-minute walk from my room at the Elephant Center). Later, we had dinner at the hotel with Rajnish, as Elizabeth and Wendy were still dealing with the repercussions of jet lag. The next day, I walked with Elizabeth and Wendy to Rajarata’s main campus to show them the lab space where I’ll be processing my elephant fecal samples. We also had an informal meeting with the vice chancellor of the university before going to lunch at our normal spot in Mihintale. After lunch, the three of us took a tuk to Anuradhapura so that I could run a few more errands before leaving for elephant land the next day. You can’t buy train tickets online, so you have to physically go to a station and talk to a clerk to purchase tickets in advance…this practice seems arcane to my milennial sensibilities, but I needed to make sure I had a seat from Colombo to Anuradhapura after I dropped off Elizabeth and Wendy at the airport for their departing flight the next week. That night, we had dinner with Rajnish in Anuradhapura at an Asian restaurant. The restaurant is curiously called Casserole, which we all agreed makes absolutely no sense…Asian cuisine isn’t exactly known for casseroles, and none appear on the menu.

Before leaving for elephant land the next day, I walked Elizabeth and Wendy to the Buddhist sites on the mountain in Mihintale (I described my first trip to the mountain in a previous blog post that can be found here). We all sweated on the hike up the mountain, making me feel better after having been surrounded by local Sri Lankans who don’t appear to have the physiological ability to sweat. We arrived early in the morning on a weekday, so for the first part of our trek, we had the whole mountain to ourselves. The weather was beautiful, and we enjoyed taking in the scenery for about an hour before heading back to town.

Wendy and I sit with a local macaque as we climb down the Aradhana Gala. Photo by Elizabeth Freeman, who walked inches past this monkey to get this shot.

Wendy and I sit with a local macaque as we climb down the Aradhana Gala. Photo by Elizabeth Freeman, who walked inches past this monkey to get this shot.

Just before lunchtime, the three of us left Mihintale in a van headed toward elephant land in Wasgamuwa. We drove about an hour after stopping in the city of Dambulla to meet Sachintha for lunch and pick up more supplies. We stopped by a home goods shop to pick up towels for Elizabeth and Wendy, where we learned that pink towels cost more than green ones (Wendy was especially disturbed by this because she inadvertently ended up with a pink towel, a color she doesn’t like even when it’s cheaper). We drove the rest of the way to Wasgamuwa to arrive at the bungalow, where Elizabeth and Wendy got their first taste of my time in the field. We were pretty lucky with timing; most of the tourists on holiday were long-gone, the weather was mild, and there were few biting insects. They enjoyed meeting Jimi, the bungalow manager’s pet dog, who always seeks attention of visitors. We had dinner outside, watched an episode of Killing Eve (Sandra Oh just won a Golden Globe for best actress for her performance in the series, so if you haven’t seen it, go watch it…seriously, right now), and then headed to bed to get some rest before our full day in the field the next day.

Jimi, the resident dog at the bungalow in Wasgamuwa. Photo: Elizabeth Freeman.

Jimi, the resident dog at the bungalow in Wasgamuwa. Photo: Elizabeth Freeman.

We woke up early to head into the park and find elephants. We got pretty lucky and came upon a female group rather early, and we also encountered a bull elephant new to our study (I’ll introduce him in a later post). But our luck ran out just before lunch. Our vehicle had been making weird noises for a few hours, and as we were driving towards the front of our park, it just stopped in the middle of the road about ten minutes from the gate. We peeked our heads out of the vehicle to the sight of the drive shaft on the ground. Well, crap. Our driver, Nirosh, got down to inspect the damage and after quickly coming to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done there, he called his father (Nimal, the bungalow manager) to come rescue us. We were only stranded for about 30 or 40 minutes before Nimal and another vehicle with a new driver arrived. The driver and Nimal chained the broken vehicle to the back of the functioning vehicle, and then we rode along in the “tow truck” as we exited the park for lunch.

A photograph in the first female group we spotted in 2019 at Wasgamuwa National Park. 11 January 2019.

A photograph in the first female group we spotted in 2019 at Wasgamuwa National Park. 11 January 2019.

Nirosh inspecting the drive shaft resting on the ground during our vehicle breakdown in Wasgamuwa. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

Nirosh inspecting the drive shaft resting on the ground during our vehicle breakdown in Wasgamuwa. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

I’m really good at “supervising” vehicle repairs, as long as that means no one asks me what we should do. From the cabin, Sachintha offers Nirosh advice that’s probably more helpful. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

I’m really good at “supervising” vehicle repairs, as long as that means no one asks me what we should do. From the cabin, Sachintha offers Nirosh advice that’s probably more helpful. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

We took this group photo after admitting defeat and getting in touch with our rescuers. Left to right: Chase, Nirosh, Elizabeth, Sachintha, and Wendy.

We took this group photo after admitting defeat and getting in touch with our rescuers. Left to right: Chase, Nirosh, Elizabeth, Sachintha, and Wendy.

A shot from our “rescue vehicle” as we tow the broken vehicle behind us through Wasgamuwa. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

A shot from our “rescue vehicle” as we tow the broken vehicle behind us through Wasgamuwa. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

Despite our troubles, we went back out into the field in our replacement vehicle after lunch and had a rather successful day. We observed some more elephants and collected a few fecal samples without any real trouble. Vehicle breakdowns and repairs are just part of life in the field, and I’ve learned to roll with whatever punches fieldwork throws at me. It certainly helps to be surrounded by folks who are committed to the project; not everyone is lucky to be in such a safe, productive environment during field excursions. And I’m proud that we all kept our cool in the field, and even in the moment, we were able to laugh about what was happening to us and around us. When you’re lucky enough to spent any amount of time in a country filled with elephants, you take the bad with the good I guess.

Collecting (elephant) fecal samples in the field, donning a shirt from another of our generous supporters,   Asian Elephant Support  . Photo: Wendy Kiso.

Collecting (elephant) fecal samples in the field, donning a shirt from another of our generous supporters, Asian Elephant Support. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

We spotted Male 023 again in the field, so he’s officially been named “Mason” after my home university, George Mason University. Wasgamuwa National Park, 11 January 2019.

We spotted Male 023 again in the field, so he’s officially been named “Mason” after my home university, George Mason University. Wasgamuwa National Park, 11 January 2019.

Elizabeth and me in the tower at Wasgamuwa, the best spot to get cellular signal to check emails from back home. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

Elizabeth and me in the tower at Wasgamuwa, the best spot to get cellular signal to check emails from back home. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

Another successful fecal collection. Left to right: Sachintha, Chase, and DWC tracker Nawa. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

Another successful fecal collection. Left to right: Sachintha, Chase, and DWC tracker Nawa. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

We spent the next few days in the field at Wasgamuwa finding and observing elephants. The purpose of Elizabeth and Wendy’s trip (funded by the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute) was to check in the progress I have made since I arrived in Sri Lanka a few months ago (yes, it’s official…as of this post, I’ve spent more than two months in Sri Lanka). We had a bit more bad luck with some rain in the area, but nothing really debilitating. That is, until our last two hours in the field for the weekend. Surprisingly, the rain here drives the elephants to hide in the forest (this is surprising to me because almost all of the zoo elephants I’ve met seem to enjoy rainy weather). Because of this, our driver had to drive further and into deeper corners of the park to try and find elephants. With the rain, this also meant that muddy patches were more common. We had almost signed off on our last day of elephant observations when our vehicle got stuck in a particularly deep patch. In the past month, our vehicle has gotten stuck before, requiring some creative maneuvering and even some manual labor. But this patch was tough. It took about an hour of pushing, placing foliage on the road, and wishful thinking, but we finally got out with a few stains on our clothing. But like our first breakdown a few days earlier, we all kept our cool and worked as a team to make the best of a potentially bad situation. I just hope that I haven’t developed a reputation of ruining vehicles among the local drivers…

Our vehicle stuck in the mud during our last day in the field at Wasgamuwa. Yes, that’s the vehicle that rescued us a few days earlier.

Our vehicle stuck in the mud during our last day in the field at Wasgamuwa. Yes, that’s the vehicle that rescued us a few days earlier.

This time we waited until our vehicle predicament was over before taking a celebratory group shot. If we’re all in the shot, how was the photo taken? A camera with a self-timer balanced on a poop cooler.

This time we waited until our vehicle predicament was over before taking a celebratory group shot. If we’re all in the shot, how was the photo taken? A camera with a self-timer balanced on a poop cooler.

All of this hard work and a few hardships are ultimately worth it though. Not only are we collecting data that will be meaningful for elephant conservation, but I’m getting to spend time around the animals I love with people who truly care about helping me achieve my mission. Elizabeth and Wendy constantly reminded me of this during their time with me here, and their message really hit home during our last breakfast in the field (it may have helped that our stuck-in-the-mud incident happened after this). We sat together with Sachintha and our new tracker Nawa up in the same tower where I get a decent cellular signal, eating my favorite Sri Lankan dish of roti and coconut sambol. It was such a peaceful moment, and we were all looking at each other and out at the landscape with smiles. When conducting research, it’s easy to get caught up in the data and the logistics and the pressure to deliver meaningful results. But I was also reminded that these sorts of moments are the ones that will last, and more importantly, they’re the ones that inspire and motivate action (for those also obsessed with the new Netflix series “Tidying Up” with Marie Kondo, they’re the ones that “spark joy”). I miss the comforts of home in the US almost constantly here in Sri Lanka, but I know it’s all worth it to experience these moments surrounded by work I’m passionate about. One of the best lessons I’ve learned with my advisors is to enjoy these times while I’m still in them.

A great Sri Lankan breakfast in the tower at Wasgamuwa. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

A great Sri Lankan breakfast in the tower at Wasgamuwa. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

These three days weren’t the last of Elizabeth and Wendy’s trip to Sri Lanka, though. I’ll write the next post about the rest of our week together, which will be automatically posted to this website sometime next week when I’m in elephant land. Spoiler alert: be prepared for even more photos of elephants.