Into the Gran Caldera de Luba, Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea

January 3, 2013

Into the Gran Caldera de Luba

In a week I leave for Equatorial Guinea, where I will spend two months trying to film primates on the southern part of Bioko island, off the coast of Nigeria. I am jumping on board the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Project’s Scientific Expedition of the Gran Caldera de Luba. It feels so far away from me right now. I have been home for the holidays and am enjoying time with my friends and family, eating so much good food I don’t know how I’ll be able to hike for three straight days through the jungle – or survive the switch to a diet of rice and beans!

Justin Jay – the filmmaker behind our project – and I will meet for the first time in the Frankfurt airport. Justin and I have been independently producing natural history films on a skeleton budget for the last several years. We believe we’ll be able to make a high-quality film with the incredible advances in consumer technology.

Our main cameras are DSLRs. Justin has a Canon 7D and 60D and I have a Panasonic GH2. I can’t imagine trying to have made my mark as a budding filmmaker in the pre-digital age; with our full 1080 HD cameras, and a wide range of lenses, we’ll be able to film for hours for the price of the cameras and a few SD cards. My favorite lens is a fixed, low-light 20mm pancake that creates a shallow depth of field and really sets out subjects in front of a mottled rain forest background. I also have up to 600mm of range to get the drills and red colobus from far away.

We also have bought a few Go Pro Hero 3s. Since they are so easy to whip out we will use them as our POV and “diary” cameras, always having them ready to capture our misadventures and to record the challenges we face. The Go Pros also are great time-lapses, and I’m sure I’ll throw it into some spontaneous situations to try to get a shot, like attach it to branches and hope a drill or red colobus climbs by. We can control the Go Pros wirelessly and stream the footage they capture to our phones or laptops for accurate camera traps. They are also going to capture our glorious quad-copter shots!

With Justin’s TurboAce X830s quad-copter we are hoping to get flyover shots of rivers, waterfalls, canopies, and even cool shots of ourselves hiking. The wet weather could ruin these lofty goals, but a few shots from a remote-controlled quad-copter would really set our film apart, and it’s an addition of gear that costs less than it would to rent certain lenses on fully-funded projects – let’s just hope we don’t crash it!

We are arming up with an assortment of tree climbing gear, hammocks, knives, rope, gilley-suits to turn invisible if we come across some drills to film, tape, bungee-cords, and an arsenal of fasteners. I’ve been proudly breaking in my snake-proof and water-proof boots, and dyeing my clothes to blend in with the forest. We’ll carry a bunch of weight in batteries, flashlights, headlamps, and tripods, and have to waterproof everything for the trek.

Once we get everything ready we still aren’t guaranteed to see our subjects. We are prepared for many challenges, situations and redundancy plans, and now must focus the mental preparation for the endurance and patience we’ll need to be able to use everything we’re carrying.



An adventure to find the Bioko drill

An adventure to find the Bioko drill

In December of 2011 I was looking for an adventure. My wife Shalynn and I had spent the last year rotating between short-term jobs, staying at friends’ and parents’ houses, and reliving the memories of our 6-month backpacking trip through South America. I was also nearly finished healing from my long battle with leishmaniasis, and I wanted to get back out there. A full life is one that challenges and excites you – the experience of the journey always outweighs the potential sacrifices and misadventures of traveling in exotic areas to tell stories. Shalynn found a volunteer position monitoring leatherback sea turtle nesting in a place we had never heard of – Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. She also found a film project based with the volunteer opportunity. I wrote the filmmaker, Justin Jay. She wrote to the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Project. We were too late to join, however, and regardless, my leishmaniasis wound was starting to get bigger again…

The year 2012 ended up being a glorious adventure; after submitting to two rounds of parasite treatment, I followed Shalynn to Costa Rica, married her in the best day of my life, and moved to Washington D.C. to start a new life and career together. I then emailed Justin Jay to see how his film was doing.

Justin has spent the last two years filming a baboon-like monkey called the bioko island drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus poensis) on the small island off the armpit of Africa. He initially traveled to Bioko to study the leatherback sea turtles (in the same program that Shay found) but in his free time he wandered off the beach and into the rainforest. The rumors about this “ghost of Bioko” intrigued Justin to put his wildlife tracking skills to the test: he sought the elusive drill. He found scat, footprints, and discarded fruits, but it took him two months before he could reliably find a group of drills and follow their feeding corridor. Justin then became the first person to film this species in the wild.

The soft silver fur and red and purple genitals of the drills stand out in a lush, green riverside. Justin filmed mothers feeding their young, groups of drills eating and playing, and a solitary male who was limping, his arm wounded from a poacher’s snare.

Most people of Bioko have never seen a drill alive. Their flesh is prized as a luxury item: bush meat. Offshore oil has brought increasing wealth to the island – now more people can afford to buy the meat of drills, pangolins, palm civets, and other wild animals. Wildlife populations cannot sustain this increased hunting pressure: palm civets (a small wild cat) are now extinct on the island, and drill populations have plummeted. Over the last three years over 4,500 drill carcasses have been sold in the Island’s illegal bushmeat market located in the capital city of Malabo. The drill’s range has decreased by more than half since 1986. New roads threaten to increase access to remote areas, potentially allowing poachers to hunt drills more extensively.

Justin devotes his life to save the drills from extinction: he hopes that through his films, Bioko islanders will learn to value their unique wildlife and forests. In December 2012, Justin finished his first film – a documentary showing the drill’s role within the Bioko island ecosystem. The film screened in Equatorial Guinea’s capital of Malabo to great success, and it has aired repeatedly on EG’s only television channel. Not only does it show exclusive footage of the species, but it also teaches the viewers about the drill’s plight and urges them to change their social norms for what constitutes acceptable cuisine.

When I reached out to Justin in November 2012, a year after learning about his film project,  he invited me to become a part of the Drill Project. We are leaving for Bioko Island on January 7th, where we will join the yearly scientific expedition of the Gran Caldera de Luba. The Bioko Biodiversity Protection Project (BBPP) surveys the southern forests of the island to establish mammalian population numbers, and Justin and I will be going off on our own to film drills, red colobus (one of the most endangered species of primate), and the beautiful landscapes of an untamed wilderness. Our film will be a mix of a conservation message, a natural history film about the drill, and a character-driven, “making-of,” film about the difficulties and resolve inherent in a new generation of wildlife filmmaking.

We have never met in person, but will soon spend two months together hiking, filming, and working within a photography hide. We will backpack with students from the United States and from the local Universidad Nacional de Guinea Equatoriana. There is no guarantee we will find the drills. We must cross rivers at low tide or else they will be impassible. Justin hears the Caldera is full of green and black mambas. The stage is set for an unforgettable adventure.

Becoming “The face of Leishmaniasis”

Monsters Inside Me: How I became the face of leishmaniasis

On a grumpy day in May, 2011 Shalynn began clicking around on the Animal Planet website. A friend had told her that I should submit my story to the show “Monsters Inside Me.” I didn’t think it was that funny, having a tennis ball of oozing scab stuck to my face and a scrape down my throat caused by the monster inside me at the time. But Shay took the initiative and sent a testimony to the generic comments form on the Discovery website. I was sure that it would never find its intended destination in the endless fabric of the internet, and that that would be the end of that.

But we got an email back. We had a Skype interview with one of the producers, and soon enough they decided to come film our story! Suddenly in the bleakness of the indeterminable parasite we found something to look forward to. I immediately thought that the attention from being on national TV would help out all the non-profit organizations I made videos for, and I was determined to make the story stick to the fact that we were there doing amazing things, and not just about having a parasite.

They were really interested in the part of the story about getting engaged at Machu Picchu. In their eyes it became a romance that went wrong. A beautiful misfortune.

Two producers and two cameramen flew out from New York in August of 2011. We started out with reenactments of when I first noticed the parasite. I was in a jeep on a tour of the Salt Flats of Uyuni, so we piled into their rented SUV and they filmed me looking at the left side (unparasited) of my face in the side-view mirror with a parasite wound beginning to show up in red marker. Then they would flop the video in editing to make it look like my right cheek. We were lucky because the cloudy day matched perfectly with the clouds over Uyuni that fateful day, and I had on my same Tie-Dye shirt.

We went from there to the scene where I was bitten by the parasite. I was on the bank of the Heath river, which forms the border between Peru and Bolivia. For the reenactment, I swatted at imaginary sand flies at Zumwalt Park on Fern Ridge.

We drove from Bolivia to Corvallis to interview my doctor and to do the fake biopsy scenes. They had made me a corn starch wound to put over my bandage and as I lied down in a hospital gown to “receive” my drugs through my arm, under the hot lights of the shoot I closed my eyes as the producers said: “Put more ooze. I think more ooze. Alright add a bit more ooze…” as they applied my “makeup” for the scene. No egg salad ever had as much mayonnaise.

They wouldn’t let me wear any of my T-shirts that had the logos of the organizations we worked for in South America, so my wardrobe ended up being a mix of solid colors. In plain blue and pea soup green I received worried calls from my doctor, sighed heavily, and looked up at the sun through the window to question the Gods for my fate. I wore bright green going to my primary care physician who couldn’t figure out the parasite. Shay comforted me in many colors.

The “Monsters Inside Me” crew was great. They knew that I am trying to get into the documentary film industry, and were encouraging me to check out their gear, ask questions. We all got along really well and they were so gracious for us to share our story and our home with them. One of the cameramen filmed my solo-reenactment scenes just he and I, and we had a fun time getting into my role. It was almost like the Austin Powers director: “Ah yeah baby that’s great! Yes! More despair! This is the stuff!” Working off of his energy I really hammed it on. I am really looking forward to the scene in which I am grossed out at seeing the wound after partying all night at Carnaval. I stumble, pretending to be hung over, and really repulsed by the wound having opened up after too much immune system degradation (cheap Bolivian alcohol).

I learned a lot about interviewing people on camera from being interviewed. I sat down knee-to-knee with the producer for about two hours. This was probably the fourth time interviewing me and getting the whole story, but the first time on camera, and she wanted to get every detail again… but told in the way she wanted. When asking me about how gross it got, she contorted her face and emphasized strong adjectives – sticky, oozing, festering. Then she’d bring it down, somberly, fearfully asking me what the worst part was:

Me – “We went on this trip as a volunteer, and I filmed our projects and our adventures because my dream is to someday host a show about volunteer travel. So when my face was so bad, and I looked at myself in the mirror at the horrible infection, wondering what I would look like, I worried that my dreams would die along with my cheek if I became too disfigured to host a TV show.”

“Did you think… were you afraid you were going to die?”

“Oh no. I mean, it got bad, but once we knew what it was and had a plan for treatment I knew it was never going to get that bad.” (Was “I was afraid my dreams would die” not enough drama for you?)

“But you could have died…”

“Yeah… if I didn’t get treatment for like two years.”

“So – were you afraid you were going to… die?” 

“Yes. I was afraid I was going to die. Next question.”

The most fun part was recording a couple party scenes with our friends. We all dressed up in our clothes from South America and decorated my mom’s house like it was Bolivia. It was at the end of the shoot, and having my friends get up in my face and point out how gross the wound was, joking around about Bolivian parties, and playing bad pan flute music was a ridiculous way to celebrate the parasite. I’m sure in the show the scene will be presented as an embarrassing flashback, set to tense music, but to me it sums up my perception of the parasite.

As you watch my dramatic episode please think about who I am. I am not a dramatic person at all. I was joking about this whole parasite experience – “who gets a flesh-eating parasite?!” My approach to Monsters Inside Me has been casual. I’m not ashamed about having gone through this experience, I don’t want pity from people seeing how bad it was. I just thought, well I have to go through this experience anyway, might as well share the interesting story. So as I watch the chiaroscuro lighting, the tense music, the douchey “biologist” talking about leishmaniasis, and watch as our romantic story about a wonderful trip gets molded into a grotesque, near-fatal medical mystery, I will be laughing at the ridiculousness of participating in the dramatic time-eater that sells pet food and constipation treatment today that passes as Animal Planet. Have fun with it! Laugh jeer, and soak up the comedy!

Following the Love of My Life

If you know her, you would easily say Shalynn Pack is one of the most passionate people you have ever met. Following in her footsteps, meeting all the people she has touched here in Costa Rica, and shadowing her experience to better share her story has been another wonderful chapter of my blessed spiritual journeys following the lovely Ms. Pack (whom I am so honored to soon to make Mrs… well, Pack.).

I first met up with Shalynn in La Fortuna, a tourist town with waterfalls, volcanoes, ziplining, and horseback-riding. After we caught up detailing our adventures of the last two months, she immediately transformed into a wonderful TV host. We started shooting the show “The Volunteer Traveler: Costa Rica” with her vacation segment, in which Shalynn shares the travel advantages of volunteering in an exotic country. We hiked to a volcanic lake, waterfalls, and hot springs with a tour agency with which I had secured a discount by showcasing the flying camera abilities of the Drone. Although I had originally planned to film an exhilarating zip-lining/bungee sequence, the beautiful landscapes and waterfalls should be a compelling argument toward encouraging anyone who might watch this project to consider one of the benefits of volunteering.

Along with Shalynn’s enthusiasm for travel, on-camera she is an excellent teacher. As I first began working with her in the field, mostly just trying to keep the camera steady, in-focus, and protected from whipping branches as we ducked through the undergrowth, Shalynn consistently described the project’s demands with confidence and poise. It is really hard, actually, to talk to a camera or an imagined audience and still look natural. Maybe with me behind the lens, she is able to just talk to me, but whatever she does it works for her to be a knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide through a technical science project.

The project itself is complex but straightforward. What cannot be learned from her blog, however, are the demanding conditions in which she and her crew works through. Starting with the 4AM wakeup, the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes have been draining for me. Not to mention that the nature of the job is to wade through the dense undergrowth looking for impossibly-hidden nests that are indistinguishable from “SLCs” (Suspicious Leaf Clumps) while also keeping an eye out for venomous snakes below and on any palm you might brush by, bullet ants, spiders, and a number of other biting and itchy things. Shalynn carries her enthusiasm and remains patient with me dragging behind and asking her to repeat herself several times – this time with a different facial expression.

Our closeness allows – I hope – for an intimate portrayal of her work. She ignores me hovering six inches away to get a close and continues her delicate work extracting blood from a nestling. She cannot get too frustrated with her “producer” as we have a long road and many further episodes to share. And if she does she can say or do whatever she wants and not ruin a professional relationship. But beyond that she is so excited for me to see everything she has experienced and to share what she has learned that it is easy for me to capture and forward that inspiring zeal for what she does.

But the true highlight is to meet everybody who will always represent this wonderful country to us. The first week of filming the project sequences we were staying with Rigoberto at his farm in La Virgen. Shalynn has developed a strong relationship with this loving and generous man, and their bond included me. When I met him, Rigo was sitting in the back of the church he founded, listening to the sermon. He gave me a long hug and told me he loved me and introduced me to the whole church, who all applauded me and then sang happy birthday to Shalynn. I was hugged, kissed, and welcomed so warmly, and then the whole church prayed for us with each person speaking their blessings out loud at the same time for an incredible symphony.

It would be difficult to share this part of the story on film, but it is the most important part. Shalynn has become a part of this community. There are dozens of people here who love her. She is a delight to all she encounters with courteous curiosity and warmth to new people she meets. Her crew – her boss Deb and several other assistants, the other scientists she has met here, the park rangers with whom she’s shared field offices, and of course the loving community of La Virgen are all starting to say their tearful, best wished goodbyes to her, and their stern warnings to me to take care of her and to appreciate how lucky I am to be marrying her in less than two months.

Maybe the idea of promoting the idea of volunteer travel is really just my desire to share her love with others. To share all that she has taught me and to show that I do know how lucky I am. Not everybody can do what she can; she has found the farthest flung stars in the company of her proximity, jumped into the river of her passions, and shared her love and enthusiasm with new friends. I hope to be better able to share these ideas on an entertaining, video format, but mainly to share that I am so lucky to be able to keep following wherever she goes…