Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Lonely Whale

Science News Article |

It isn't often that a news story catches my attention like this one did. Mind you, with the gerbils powering my net connection being a tad on the slow side these days, it isn't often that I get to download the news either. Still, this story about a single whale that's been cruising the Pacific for the past twelve years singing a song unlike any other really got me. The details are rather sketchy. Apparently using the sonar readings available through the US submarine fleet, scientists have been classifying whales and their migration patterns in the Pacific. This one whale has a voice unlike any other and also doesn't share the usual migration routes.

The implications of the story are fairly staggering when you stop to think about it. The Pacific is a rather vast area and there are obviously things there that we humans are as yet unaware of. It's quite possible that there are whales in the Pacific that we are not aware of, but then there is the statement that this is one whale rather than a group of them. The first thing that occurred to me on reading the article was the thought of how excrutiatingly lonely that creature must be. To wander an area the size of the Pacific alone is unimaginable to me. But perhaps this sort of whale is a solitary creature. Orangutans are primates, like gorillas, chimps and humans, all of whom live in groups. Orangutans, however, are solitary and do not live in groups. They simply get together at breeding times, and after that the female is raising her offspring without any input from another orangutan.

Humans live in groups. The extended family seems to be almost extinct in many parts of the world, most notably in Europe and North America, but in Egypt it is alive and well. Sometimes an extended family is supportive and other times it is stifling. Much depends on the particular family or particular family members, but the association with an extended family in this part of the world was initially one of the big draws of Egypt. I grew up in North America and had almost no family other than one aunt on my father's side. My mother's family was all in the UK and we didn't travel there much to know them well. I've seen more of them since moving to Egypt than I ever did growing up. Something about the Egyptian sunshine and the English rain.....

The predilection for living in each other's pockets that is found in Egypt has caused all sorts of problems for urban planners. They've built satellite cities around Cairo to relieve the pressure on the capital city, but people don't want to be that far from their parents and old neighbourhoods. Getting Egyptians to move is amazingly impossible. As a college student in North America, I moved so many times that when I decided to add them all up as a grad student, I was astounded at the number of addresses I'd had over the years. That would not be the case here at all. Most young people live with their parents until they marry and then they don't move more than maybe once. Someone applying for a job in North America wouldn't think twice about applying for one in another city or state or province, but in Egypt to find someone willing to move from Alexandria to Cairo or vice versa is almost unheard of. Egyptians are definitely in the extreme of crowd-loving people.

I was talking to a friend the other day and laughing about someone asking me if it was hard living alone. First, when you have ten dogs, you are not living alone no matter how you figure it. A pack of dogs is a complex society and I'm constantly dealing with arguments, disputes and discussions among them. Then my friend pointed out that although I live alone with a gang of dogs, no one could say that I'm not social. I have neighbours dropping by all the time if I'm home and otherwise I'm usually off to see a friend. Then there are the visitors. Since I moved here in February, I've had ten long-term (over a week and usually more like three) houseguests and probably another four short term. Not bad for ten months in a shoebox inhabited by a lone woman and a bunch of canines.

Another story about the whale in the New Scientist quotes researchers as saying that the lonely whale probably isn't a new species. It's voice is at a higher frequency, a much higher frequency, than other whales of what they believe is its species. Maybe this is just a sort of Tiny Tim whale, for those of you old enough to remember the falsetto-voiced singer. And if it's like Tiny Tim, well, that could be reason enough to be alone.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Water, Water Everywhere And Not A Drop To Drink

Cattle Egret in a Canal
Cattle Egret in a Canal, originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
There's an old man who works at our airline. He's worked for our family for many years and over the years we've given him the odd bit of money to help pay for his son's medications and dialysis. His son has been on dialysis since he was about 10 years old or so and now his wife is on it as well. The reason that his family have to have dialysis is that the wells in his village are polluted with the runoff from fertilizers used in the fields. The phosphates and nitrates that accumulate will destroy a person's kidneys, as well as kill infants under 6 months of age when they bond with the iron in the blood in place of oxygen.

Pretty nasty isn't it? Our canals are picturesque if you see them at the right time of day when the light reflects off the surface instead of penetrating to show the rubbish that's accumulated under the water. Riding at dusk, they are streams of quicksilver etched with the ebony images of the trees and passing villagers. Their beauty is breathtaking. If you fall into them you need a serious dose of an anti-parasitic or you risk getting bilharzia (schistosomiasis), and if you drink from them, well, forget it.

It is the nature of the world to incorporate extreme beauty with extreme danger, I think. I just wish that it was the nature of governments worldwide to care more about the welfare of the poorer people who have their lives cut short by a lack of decent water. There are "fresh water" wells dug all over the countryside, but if the wells are not deep enough, they are polluted by the runoff from the fields. Poor people have a hard time scraping up the LE 2000 that it cost me to dig a well that would provide me with non-poisonous water. Where I have a good well, I've installed a tap outside the garden wall so that my neighbours can use the water. But they still wash clothes in the irrigation water.

Rome wasn't built in a day and the Egyptian countryside won't be cleaned up in one either.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

War On Gerbils And Other Musings

My left hand is more or less healed now (meaning that there is an impressive looking gash in it but I can leave the bandage off now when I'm not riding) and I can type properly again, but do you think that the gerbils would let me have enough bandwidth to use Flickr so I could post a picture? Not today, lady...nor yesterday and so on. Pics will have to wait for at trip to a friend's house. This is why I have a laptop. For some bizarre reason the bandwidth on our phone lines is now about 19 thou bps, a miserable level but what can I do? I'm lobbying with Vodafone to get a Mac compatible PC card to access the net wirelessly, but so far it's a no go.

Winter is underway here as I mentioned before, having dropped in on us like a busload of in-laws, that is without warning and in full glory. One day we were in t-shirts and the next we were hauling out sweaters. I invested in an oil radiator for the living room to take the edge off the chill at night and found myself in a stream of cars at our shopping center (on the other side of the Nile and closer to higher income civilisation) with large square packages of similar objects all struggling to get home to take the ice out of the dwelling places. Okay, those of you with REAL cold issues may laugh, but the way that buildings are constructed in Egypt concentrates on the dispersal of heat rather than the retention of it. That means that they tend not to collect the summer heat but to bounce it off or radiate it, and during our admittedly short and not very cold winter, our houses turn into refrigerators. They heat up a bit during the day but the chill of the night takes it away. When we were living in Canada, we would come to Egypt in the winter and the children would only wear their winter coats in the house when we were visiting their grandparents. Needless to say, this drove the grandparents right around the bend, but they had trouble believing that it was actually spring outside for these transplanted penguins.

The horses love the chill and have a great time roaring around the desert when we go out there. I have a riding client who comes with her daughter twice a week, a diplomatic spouse who was trained as an archaeologist, and we were out in the desert yesterday for about 3 hours. I wanted to show them how the illegal strip mining is actually removing a major plateau just west of us so we took a straight course out of the country club. I was shocked to see how much more of the plateau had been carted away by the gravel trucks. Thousands of cubic meters of desert are simply gone. I have no idea how to try to do something about this since it is being done under the unwatchful eyes of the governorate of Giza and the Egyptian Army.

After the plateau, we headed back down into a wadi where we ride all the time. I wanted to show them a hill where there was an old hole from some "informal" excavations and large limestone blocks that were left behind from ancient Egyptian work. We had a wonderful gallop across the wadi and up the hill where, again, I was brought up short in utter shock. The old small hole was now about six times larger and the piles of sand from the effort were new. Below the hill there had been some small holes and chips of limestone, but as we approached it was easy to see that there had been some clandestine work in that location as well. An old screen for sifting had been left on the sand and the sand itself had obviously been disturbed by digging although it had been put back into place.

Interestingly, the department of antiquities feels that horsemen are not their allies in the fight against antiquity pilfering. At Giza they've constructed a huge wall between the desert and the habited area of Nazlit Semman and there is talk of doing a similar contstruction here in Abu Sir. Walls accomplish nothing, however, when trucks can move in from any other area of the desert to transport shovels and men. In fact, having horsemen in the desert is a deterrent of sorts since we notice problems and activity and can report it. On the other hand, much of this work is done at night and there is no feasible way to patrol the entire desert at night. The fact is, less than 20% of the sites in Egypt have been explored by the archaeologists and Egypt simply doesn't have the budget to either explore it all or to spread people all over the desert to safeguard it. The poorly paid employees of the Antiquities Department actually contribute to the problem since it is so easy to bribe someone who makes so little to "guard" something if they can't make their extra income simply by showing off the site.

For someone who loves this country, watching the theft of antiquities and of the desert itself is killing. The desert is being stolen with the agreement of the government itself so to whom can one complain. Local rumour is that the biggest gravel customer is the government of Israel for the construction of their infamous wall. That may, in fact, just be rumour, but if true, it is really criminal. Sometimes I do get frustrated here.