I was still a bit dehydrated, so I made sure to stock up on bottled water in my CamelPak, and to bring a bandanna to keep the sun off of the back of my neck. I also resolved to take it slow - one great part about birding is that no one expects you to keep up with the crowd when your face is glued to binoculars.
We pulled into the mouth of the canyon and dismounted. Right away we noticed a group of large, soaring birds circling far overhead. Our presence had disturbed a large colony of Griffon Vultures!
|When I die, I hope I am eaten by vultures. (Wikipedia.org)|
I digress. We began our hike up the canyon. Even if I was separated from the group, there was no way I could have become lost: a pipe carrying fresh water ran along the entire length of our trail. It was also leaking in many places (I was told that local people punch holes in the pipe to access the water) so there was also no way I would die of thirst.
|You can picture the vultures circling patiently overhead...|
If only I had been carrying any form of food that a vulture would have found palatable, I would have stayed crouched to see if it would have landed: I wouldn't want a vulture to go to all the trouble of landing if it was not going to get a good meal out of it. After we stood up (and made quite a few Monty Python jokes about not being dead yet), our opportunistic Griffon Vulture made a couple more passes and ascended out of the canyon.
This was the highlight of the canyon trip for me. The flora in the cool confines of the canyon was lovely, but my interest in botany was waning with my energy. My body was telling me to give it a rest. I sat out the rest of the hike at one of the many tables set out for our catered lunch. Complete with circling vultures.
|One of the several prayer cairns set up along the canyon.|
The next day (May 27th) we traveled back via train to Turkmenabat to attend the international conference. I was looking forward to this with some trepidation: no one on the Expedition had any idea what the schedule was for the talks, or how long each speaker had for their talk. We knew there were the plenary speakers (Rich, Federico, and Martin were among those), and regular speakers (my category). We figured that we would get the information when we needed it.
May 28th was the first day of the conference, and the rest of the international and national attendees had arrived in Turkmenabat.
|The Expedition and Conference were the big news item in Turkmenistan that week.|
|This was the largest performance we had seen to date.|
|This performance focused on the national treasures of the country.|
|EVERYTHING we did was recorded. Our track site interviews were being played over and over on Turkmenistan TV that week.|
|No pressure. That gentleman in the back is the current President of Turkmenistan. That screen was not used for any of the presentations. It displayed this image for the entire plenary session.|
After the plenary session concluded it was time for lunch. We were shuttled to the Hippodrome for a huge banquet lunch.
|The Hippodrome. I didn't get to see any of the famous horses of Turkmenistan.|
By this time the rest of us speakers had figured out when we were to present. I had a major problem: my jump drive containing my presentation was back at the hotel. Another presenter had a similar presentation conundrum: there were images he wanted to add to his presentation. I also wanted to add a few more images. We agreed to be a united front in needing to return to the hotel. We flagged down Dr. Poladov and asked if we could get a ride to the hotel and from the hotel to the theater. We were, and we quickly put the last minute tweaks on our presentations and made it back to the theater with time to spare. I was feeling quite proud of myself for being able to improve my talk on such short notice. That feeling was not going to last.
I get to my session, sit down, and Rich whispers to me "Five minutes."
"Wow," I replied, "I made it back just in time!"
"No," said Rich, "that's how long you have to give your presentation. Including translation." He smiled that smile that said "Now it's your turn."
Five minutes. Oh crap. Where are the Griffon Vultures when you need them?
I had prepared my presentation (challenges in preserving and protecting large intact track surfaces) using the typical international conference formatting: a presentation with images and data that can be delivered in 12 minutes with a couple of minutes for questions. I had (after my sneaky editing session) a grand total of 17 slides.
I sat there with a stunned look on my face. I watched the presenters from Turkmenistan give their talks. Their presentation style was to deliver a monologue with little to no images and sparse (from what I could tell) supporting data.
I am a nervous public speaker. I have given numerous public presentations, several professional talks, and have taught multiple labs, but before every presentation a knot of anxiety tightens in my chest and stomach. I have been presenting for more than a decade, and I think this is a reaction to public speaking that I will always have. This time felt completely different. A surreal calm washed over me. It was a different feeling than not caring, but I felt as though a lot of pressure had been relieved. This was the most relaxed I had ever been for a presentation. I think it was because I knew I had no time whatsoever to say anything ridiculous or make any mistakes. I had to keep my blather on a leash. I even threw in a joke that translated well. At the break I received a lot of compliments on my talk.
I won't go into the 20 minute long closing ceremony speech to the President about the conference and about all the wonderful successes for which the President can take credit (this was the style of official meetings in Turkmenistan: the President receives long and detailed praise for all accomplishments).
That concludes the memorable (for me) parts of my trip to Turkmenistan.
This trip was definitely a cultural experience. Will I ever go back to Turkmenistan for more paleontology related work? I can honestly say I do not know. Dr. Poladov, the Turkmenistan researcher who succeeded in the monumental task of organizing, coordinating, and executing the Expedition and Conference, has not responded to my emails, nor has he responded to the emails of the other paleontologists who I know have tried to contact him. I wish Dr. Poladov all the best: he did a fantastic job coordinating such an event and should be commended. Maybe we will hear from him someday soon.
Strange Woman out.