It is hard to teach an old dog – at least this old dog – some new tricks. For years, I’ve been traveling the globe and leading in-country teams doing biodiversity analyses for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Although the projects take three or four months from onset to report completion, they only involve three weeks of actually being in the country. But these are the three weeks that make the project exciting, culturally enriching, and fun. When I am in the country – whether it is Liberia, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, or wherever – I make new friends, see new sights, and have many adventures that I can share with you readers.
But now, in the midst of the pandemic, my latest project, Moldova, has been transformed into a virtual online experience, a whole new twist on things for me. And, I have to admit, although I readily use my laptop for many tasks, videoconferencing and giving PowerPoint presentations online is new to me. Sadly, my inexperience at this is obvious. My remote efforts on my computer have shown my tech weaknesses. First off, I’ve been using my old trusty laptop with Windows 7 and, guess what? It doesn’t work with the WhatsApp method the team chooses to communicate with. So, I needed to work on a new laptop with Windows 10 that I have not yet gotten used to. Then there was the in-briefing meeting at the start of the project.
Normally I am in the capital city of whatever-country. My newly established team and I start the project by going to the U.S. Embassy, where I lead an in-briefing meeting of USAID staff to discuss the project. This time, I had to present my PowerPoint introduction remotely, on my own, with no computer tech to help me. I thought I had figured out how to present the PowerPoint, so, at the start of the video meeting that included USAID staff in Moldova and the U.S. as well as the rest of my team, I turned on the PowerPoint and narrated the slides. I flubbed it, but no one stopped me along the way to tell me that the slides weren’t projecting!
Having been to Moldova, I understand the country a bit, and can interpret the many photos, videos, and notes my in-country team has been sending me from their site visits. And I was lucky that my team was one I handpicked from my previous project there, so we were already comfortable together. Nonetheless, it felt awful that I couldn’t be there in Moldova to see things myself.
For this project, I have had to be content with viewing the wetlands, the migratory birds, the forests and rivers of the country from my chair here at home. At least, with videoconferencing, I can take part in some of the stakeholder interviews, but not all of them. The seven-hour time difference presents some problems and sometimes internet issues complicate things too.
By the end of the in-country part of the project, we held a final debrief with the USAID Mission staff, and by then I had learned a lot about the tech side. What I learned, mostly, is that I didn’t want to be in charge of this aspect. I conscripted a tech person from the contract company to advance the PowerPoint slides from his laptop in Virginia and all I had to do was talk. Talking is something I’m good at, or so Bucko and my friends tell me.
When the stressful debrief was finally finished last Friday morning, I needed to unwind. And what better place to do it than the beach! Bucko and I packed up our beach stuff and headed to our favorite spot. We set up our old beach chairs and our umbrella, all faded from years of use, right near two marked sea turtle nests and at a safe distance from any other people. Soon we were bobbing in the surf, watching nearby fishermen catching whitings and people seeking fossilized shark’s teeth.
Relaxing in my beach chair with my feet in the sand, I felt calm again. Sure, I didn’t get to see the beauty of Moldova this time around, but if I have to be “stuck” somewhere, there is no place better than Amelia Island!
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. firstname.lastname@example.org