Archive for the ‘Animals’ Category

My Most Embarrassing Secret As a Traveler and Expat

March 20, 2012

I am white, and I have an embarrassing secret.

Two decades ago, I had the occasion to travel for several months in Black Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire.

The first few weeks after my arrival, I was shocked at my lack of ability to recognize people; everyone looked the same.  I couldn’t tell people apart.  I thought something was wrong with me.

More than twenty years later, I found an explanation for my problem through watching a television program.  In this episode of The Good Wife, trial lawyers discover through the use of a consultant that it is difficult for most white witnesses to make accurate identification of black perpetrators, and equally difficult for most black witnesses to make accurate identification of white perpetrators.

This problem, as I have recently learned, is called “Difficulty with Cross-Racial Face Recognition.”

Kenya is a black majority country. When I first arrived, I had trouble noticing differences between people's faces.

After spending approximately three weeks in East Africa, I finally became able to recognize people and tell them apart.  I think what happened to me here as an adult was a reproduction of the experience all of us must go through as babies, yet none of us remember.  It is clear that we learn as babies to recognize best of all those we grow up around, most particularly our family, and our own race.  Recent research shows that it is in the extremely precise judgement of the micro-measurements of the face (which vary by race) where recognition takes place.


When I traveled in Burundi (four years before the war with Rwanda), one person I spent time with told me, “I could never step over the border into Rwanda, or they would kill me.”  When I asked why, he told me, “They would just take one look at my face, and kill me.”

Tutsi boy

This person was a Tutsi.  At that time, not only did I not believe my acquaintance, but I could not tell the difference between the Hutu and Tutsi.  Now, many years later, the differences are clear.

Agathon Rwasa, a Burundian Hutu Militia Leader

Now I live in North Africa.  When traveling with my North African husband (who is Caucasian), I find people in certain regions speaking to him in the Berber language.  He doesn’t speak Berber.  My husband explains, “They just see my face and assume that I speak Berber.”

A Berber man with his daughter

I lived in North Africa for many years before anyone pointed out to me the facial differences between Arabs and Berbers.  Sometimes I can clearly tell them apart; other times not.  But even now, my recognition doesn’t even come close to those who were born here.

A few years ago I went to a wedding in a small village high in the Atlas Mountains.  That weekend I noticed something I had never seen before.  Everyone in the village had a very distinctive cranial shape, and a very particular set of ears.  It was distinctive enough that even if I saw someone who looked like that back in America, now I would ask them, “Are you, by any chance, from this particular village in the Atlas Mountains?”

Atlas Mountains

I finally understood why Americans (or maybe just me) are particularly bad at racial face recognition.  In most Old World countries, people have stayed in the same locations, and intermarried primarily with the local group for a long-enough time to develop very, very precise micro-racial characteristics.  Each village, even 20-30 miles away from each other will have very particular characteristics.  People from these countries are quite used to looking at people in this way, and recognizing which area they are from.

In America, we are not at all used to looking at people in this way.   Since we have immigrants from all over the world, everyone is entirely mixed up.  We have unlimited micro-varieties within every race.  If a black African or white European came to America, he or she would no doubt be able to look at many Americans of their own race, and know precisely where many of their ancestors came from.

America - the nation of immigrants

One important difference in America is that most people, even within their own race, have intermarried with others from many different locales.  So many of their micro-features would no longer be the same as might be associated with a particular European or African village.  Americans have always moved from one part of the country to another on a regular basis, as well.  In addition, many more interracial marriages are occurring.  For all these reasons, people are “mixed up” in America, and Americans are not used to recognizing people by looking at their micro-characteristics and trying to categorize where they are from.  But, as babies, they become used to looking at the micro-characteristics of their own race, in order to recognize family members.

Animal micro-recognition is similar.  Years ago, I used to wonder how biological researchers in the field could watch a troop or a herd of animals, and recognize each animal.  They all looked the same to me.

Later, after we got two cats from the same litter as pets, I began to see the subtle differences  in their faces and bodies, especially when there were several neighborhood cats who looked close enough to my own cats that I called to them by mistake.  Now I never make that mistake as I immediately recognize much more subtle differences, even from a distance.

New information is now being publicized about a condition called Face Blindness.  People who suffer from this condition are unable to visually recognize their own family members or close friends.  The short linked-to video on Face Blindness also explains the opposite condition, which is called being a Super Recognizer, meaning that one is able to recognize and remember every face he has ever seen.  These people are able to tell you where they saw a face, as well as being able to recognize a photo of any of those people taken at any point, at any age, during their lifetimes.

Through this new research, I now see that recognizing faces is a learned skill for most people, an impossible challenge for people with face blindness, and incredibly easy for super recognizers.

My hidden secret perplexed and embarrassed me for many years.  But now that I understand why I had this problem, I no longer feel so guilty!  Thankfully, in my older years I’ve now learned to recognize much more than I noticed in my younger years.

–Lynne Diligent

Acorns from the Cork Oak Tree Can Be Cooked and Eaten Like Chestnuts

November 28, 2011

Map of the habitat range of the Cork Oak, or Quercus suber

Most commonly known for its use in making cork, the Cork Oak tree’s acorns are a delicious nut fruit which can be found for sale in Southern (Western) European and North African markets, already boiled and ready-to-eat, in late November.

The acorns are up to four centimeters long (two inches), and are boiled before eating, similar to the way chestnuts are boiled before peeling.  The fruit of the nut tastes sweet, and remarkably like chestnuts.  (I would not be able to tell the difference in a blind taste test.)  This cooked nut is large and meaty and makes a perfect substitute for chestnuts in any Thanksgiving or Christmas recipes.  (The advantages to using acorns over chestnuts is that each acorn contains double the meat of a chestnut, and the step of cutting x‘s in the chestnuts before boiling them can be dispensed with.)

Acorn of Quercus suber (Cork Oak) on the tree

Here is what the boiled acorns look like:

Cooked Acorns from the Cork Oak Tree (Quercus suber)

I had never heard of eating acorns, or that the Cork Oak even had an edible fruit.

If you live in North Africa, the name of the fruit (and the name of the tree) is called ba-lote (neither syllable emphasized, and “lote” rhymes with “note, but draw out the long o sound twice as long as it would be in English).  They are sold on carts in the medinas (older parts of town) of North African cities and towns.

Cork Trees in Portugal, called "Balote" in North Africa.

Doing some research on line, I discovered that oak trees are divided into two main groups, Red Oaks and White Oaks.  The White Oaks are all the genus Quercus, while the Red Oaks are the genus Mesobalanus.

Acorns from the various Red Oak species contain much higher amounts of bitter tannins (which interfere with the ability to metabolize protein).  The acorns from White Oaks are much lower in tannins, and have a sweet nutty flavor.    The Cork Oak tree itself belongs to the White Oak genus, and White Oak is used to make wine barrels.

Acorns are an important food for birds, and for many small and large mammals (pigs, bears, and deer); however, they are toxic to horses.  In Portugal and Spain, pigs are turned loose in oak groves in the autumn to fatten themselves before slaughter.  (This is similar to American pigs being fattened on peanuts in order to produce the famous Virginia Smithfield hams.)

Smithfield Ham

Acorns have a high nutritional value, and compare well with other nuts  in terms of being high in protein and carbohydrates, as well as important minerals.  Acorns are are sometimes ground into flour, as well as sometimes roasted and added to coffee drinks.

Are any of my readers eating acorns, anywhere in the world?  If so, please tell me about it!  I had never heard before today that acorns were an edible fruit; I hope others will have an opportunity to try them.


–Lynne Diligent

Expat Problem: Neighborhood Cats Jumping IN Through the Windows

April 12, 2011

I never imagined that neighborhood street cats jumping IN to our house through the windows would be a problem when I first became an expat.  It also never occurred to me that others also had the same problem!  But among expats, it’s actually quite a regular problem.

I was really scared the first time it happened to me.  My infant daughter’s crib was below a window.  One night a neighborhood cat jumped in the window and right into the crib!  Luckily, my daughter was not in it, but was instead with me.

Shockingly, most people have no screens, and don’t want any.  All the windows here are inward-opening casement windows similar to the picture below.

Inward-opening casement windows with a fabric screen installed using thumbtacks and a hammer

It was several months before I could find screen material which is sold on a big bolt like fabric.  It needs to be cut with scissors to the size of the window, and attached with thumbtacks and a hammer into the wooden window frame.  (Then it can never be removed for cleaning, but at least it keeps out the insects, cats, and large black scorpions.)

Now my daughter is older and we have two cats of our own.  We have one window where we have left the corner of one screen unattached to make a “cat door.”  However, the neighborhood cats have discovered it and we often find them in our house.  I finally figured out why.

The wild street cats are looking for food, and when they come in, they go to the kitchen and eat our cats’ food.  Once they get food in one place, they remember it and keep trying at that place.  Actually, they go from house-to-house and try to get in every house.

Over the years, we’ve had trouble with many cats trying to jump in.  In one house we had a metal screen that someone had installed years before in the kitchen.  Yet one night some street cats managed to destroy a corner of it and get into our kitchen.

I used to think we were the only people having this problem until I discovered many other expats (at least in our city) are having the same problem. The neighborhood cats have also discovered our cat door, so we have to be careful.

Street cats in Turkey

When I first moved here to the Middle East, I was shocked about how many street cats were around, and it really disturbed me.  But after a couple of years, I realized that if it were not for the cats, there would be rats everywhere, particularly as there was a lot of garbage dumped in nearly every vacant lot of every neighborhood.

These piles of garbage were not caused by people throwing garbage there.  They would put their garbage out for the trash man, but often, just before the regular trash truck from the city came by, someone with a donkey-drawn cart would come by and take it from many of the houses.

Typical donkey cart

They would then dump it in the nearest vacant land or vacant lot.

Sheepherders used to collect trash from houses and dump it in a vacant lot to provide forage for their sheep--nowdays there are dumpsters around the city neighborhoods where people put their trash.

Sheepherders used to collect trash from in front of houses and dump it in a vacant lot to provide forage for their sheep--nowdays there are dumpsters around the city neighborhoods where people put their trash.

Then local sheepherders would run their sheep through the garbage to forage for food!  (For years, every time I bought lamb to eat, I wondered whether the animal had been eating garbage instead of grass.  A farmer once told me he didn’t think it would make any difference what the sheep had eaten.)

Thus arises the actual importance of these street cats in the ecosystem as predators in keeping down the rat population.  So I don’t mind them any more.  (I just don’t like them coming in my house!)

Now, most of the vacant lots have been built up and the sheepherders have moved out of the city, so you seldom see these piles of garbage any more.

Is anyone else at other locations around-the-world having this problem with street cats? (Of course they are not vaccinated, but that is a whole other issue.)

–Lynne Diligent

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