Take a Bow

[Hey, all! Thanks for reading, and please disregard any typos. I’ve had very little time for editing. Please Google any unfamiliar terms/places/foods used here, because I also haven’t had the time or abundant internet access to add hyperlinks.]

Now that I’ve been here for two full work weeks, I feel like I can finally talk about our project and explain what I’m up to. My research advisor has devised a new type of filtration paper using inexpensive silver and copper nanoparticles. In lab tests using manufactured, contaminated water samples, the filters successfully killed coliform bacteria. Our summer research is focused on replicating those results in field samples to bring some validity to the filters’ real-world application (hopefully).  The typical workday starts with collecting samples from a stream, either in the rural village we’re working with or close to our lab on the UNIVEN campus {this source is so disgusting that we’ve titled it UCK for all lab purposes}. After lunch, we start membrane filtration of the original sample and run some of the sample through one of the various paper filters. The filtered water is then also tested for a before-and-after comparison. Membrane filtration allows us to get an estimate of the bacterial dangers of drinking a water sample.

The cool part of our lab work is that we get convenient data points just 24 hours afterwards. The petri dishes show color-coded e. coli (blue) and other coliforms (red). So far we’ve shown that the nanoparticles (not just the physical paper) are killing the bacteria in the village canal samples, but that’s not saying much because their water is not extremely infected. We’re testing more disgusting water sources to push the filters to their limits. If they still seem successful with disinfecting really gross water, we’ll start testing even larger quantities of water.

One of the locations we would like to collect water samples is called “the source,” which makes me feel like we’re in the matrix. We’ve been promised a hiking tour of the upstream source of the village canal’s water. The chief has postponed the tour a couple times, so we’re waiting patiently for the chance to hike 5 kilometers uphill in the rural areas of the Limpopo Province. The surrounding mountains are beautiful, and I can’t imagine a more interesting way to explore than being led by Chief Lucas. [We were just told at the end of today that we’ll be hiking on Thursday, but I still don’t fully expect it to happen.]

Being prepared on any given day for being in the field, in the university lab, and away from our hostels has been an interesting challenge. On any given day I bring two water bottles, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, sunscreen or a hat, a notebook, my camera, a piece of candy to give away, duck tape, a bandana, a bag lunch, a long skirt for meeting chiefs, pants for working in lab, and all my electronics. The candy, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and duck tape have certainly come in handy for myself and my teammates. Our lodging situation isn’t safe to leave any valuables in during the day, so we bring them with us or leave them in the trunk. On days when I’m going to be around children, I try to also bring a coloring notebook and crayons, but I haven’t had a chance to use these yet. Instead my camera has been the best play toy because I keep it attached to my belt (in appropriate scenarios).

So that’s pretty much the background and basics of our daily work. So here comes the more fun stuff. Thursday we celebrated Independence Day with a large cookout bringing together various semi-related groups of UVA and UNIVEN students. It was a great environment to sit with new people and ask them about their current project, previous travels, and Fourth of July traditions. Afterwards Sid invited people to come along to a casino. Of all the Americans, I was the only one with enough energy to go out still. I had never been to a casino before, so it was pretty exciting. I sat at the black jack table and learned from Sid how to count cards, but I was mostly too distracted to keep it up. It turns out I’m bad luck for him anyways, but he broke even for the night just before we left.

On Friday night, some of my teammates made plans to go to a local nightclub called the Migeroni (aka Macaroni). After a hectic parking job and just barely following the UNIVEN students’ lead, we started to get comfortable and hit the dance floor. While there, a few of us were given Venda names by a man named Emanuel, who we just found out is also tribal chief. I was renamed Alilali, meaning one who doesn’t sleep until she has reached her goal. I took this as a compliment until I realized it may or may not have an alternative connotation…

On Saturday morning, I jumped on the chance to visit the fabric market before we left on our weekend trip. I tried on one of the traditional Venda skirts, found out prices for the Kaiser Chiefs soccer jerseys, and was encouraged to try some unusual foods. On the side of the street, there were stands with bowls of dead insects for sale. I was given the chance (and a lot of peer pressure encouragement) to try a flying beetle. It was hard to make myself even touch the bugs, let alone eat them. I eventually psyched myself up and shoved it into my mouth. It tasted like roasted salt crackers with an after taste of bad lettuce. Then immediately I was handed some of the termites, which were smaller but had more visible legs and antennas. They weren’t quite so tasty, but they did have a crunch and saltiness similar to popcorn. We have some of the traditional mupani worms to cook and eat at a later time, but they are going to be a bigger challenge to eat. Frankly, they look like stale goose turds. Seriously, Google them.

My group then picked me up and headed to Leshiba Wilderness, a fantastic nature resort known for its safari rides. To reach the front gate, you need an intense 4 wheeling vehicle or a ride in the safari truck. The roads character is evident by road signs such as, “10 bumps to Leshiba.” The front gate also had an interesting sign: “Do not drive over rhino droppings. Dung beetles have right of way.” As soon as we arrived, we set off for a hike during sunset led by the resort’s adopted dog. She took us off trail for a bit to a fantastic outcropping before we headed back downhill. We cooked dinner as a group, played Frisbee, and baked cookies to eat around the campfire (we couldn’t find marshmellows and I’ve been craving them). Just before leaving for the fire, some of my friends noted the extremely slippery nature of the dining room floor. In a quick turn of events, we shoved the furniture to the center of the room, started blasting music, and pretending to be speed skating in circles. This group of high-achieving college students really knows how to throw down like the craziest of children, a quality that I truly appreciate and enjoy. When we finally showed up at the campfire, the others mentioned that they could hear us (and specifically my voice) belting, among other songs, Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

When all the lights were out, we had a chance to really enjoy the night sky. I have never seen such a spectacularly clear view of the milky way from horizon to horizon. There was about one shooting star per minute and just an incredible multitude of twinkling, impressive stars. There also happened to be about 7 horses roaming the night that crept up on us during our stargazing session. Horses don’t normally alarm me, but it’s not a particularly comfortable occasion to be surprise visited by horses while you’re lying on the ground. After a couple different approaches, the only way we got them to leave us alone was by issuing personal insults such as, “Your shoes are so last year,” and “Your mother is a HOR…se.”

Early Sunday morning we headed off on safari vehicle. We found a warthog in his burrow, a bunch of warthogs rolling in mud, a group of giraffes, vervets, a harem herd and a bachelor herd of impalas, a wildebeest, a bushbuck, rock rabbits, and zebras. The Indiana Jones style truck had a seat on the very front left corner over the headlights where you could ride alone and enjoy an unobstructed view. Just as I was enjoying my turn as a decoration on the car hood, we found rhinoceroses! I had to join the rest of the group in the protected areas of the car in order to safely get closer. There was a male, two mothers, and two toddler rhinos enjoying lunch. Their shapes, noises, horns, and behaviors were fascinating.

After a huge team brunch, we headed to check out the artist recreation traditional Venda village, paid for our rooms, and headed back to our lodging in Thoyandou. Even the ride back was exciting just because it was a relaxing time with friends who appreciate good music and spectacular views of South Africa.

This morning (Monday) we went to visit a different neighboring village’s chief. This chief was much more traditional that Chief Lucas and required the kneeling and compliments and utter respect we were told about during orientation. Keeping your head tilted downwards is not a comfortable way to have a two hour community meeting… The chief and his advisors were very insistent on knowing the details of any future work in their village, which we frankly knew very little about. We were there simply to ask their interest in further interactions with UVA, not specifically with us. In fact, no one probably knows exactly what will be done for them; that’s exactly what needs assessments are for. After all the translating, repeating, and careful tiptoeing around being roped into false promises, we took our bow—literally—and left.

P.S. We got some of those results back about the super disgusting water being filtered with the nanoparticle-infused paper, and we got like 4-5 log kills! (That means the filters are pretty awesome so far!)

Standard