Laura Darby Cup 45 Coffee With A Stranger

Cup 45: Laura Darby – Speaker of five languages, primatologist and United Nations employee.

Laura Darby Cup 45 Coffee With A Stranger

The Place: Starbucks

The Cup: An iced coffee for me, while Laura went for the “most complex drink order-able”. I heard her order it and even asked for clarification and still don’t remember what the girl ordered. It was something like a light vanilla bean Frappuccino, but with a few extra instructions in the mix. Whatever it was, it looked cool, interesting and just the right amount of complicated. I wondered if my coffee companion would be anything like her drink.

Background: When I first landed in Austin and started this project, I had no idea just where things would go. I didn’t talk about the project a whole lot because, well, it was barely anything at all. When Cup 10, Jacqueline Hughes told me about a blogging event called Blogathon ATX and suggested I go, I distinctly recall wondering ‘why?’. Because if this was barely a project at all, then I was as much a blogger as I was an astronaut.

I decided to visit the website. Then I told myself I could go, sit in the back and try to blend in. Something changed for me as I considered going – just to see what it was all about. When I showed up on that Saturday last October, I was greeted with the warmest welcome and ushered into a roomful of people, heads down into their computers – blogging, Tweeting, Liking and updating their fannies off. I was so worried about looking like an impostor, but the fact was (as it always is) no one even noticed or cared.

Laura was at this event and I was in a session where experts were giving advice on how to make sites look and function better. I recall Laura providing some great advice and then I recall her mentioning that she was a primatologist. Er, what? If I hadn’t been so busy trying to blend in I might have inquired further, but afraid someone might ask for some blogger credentials, I just kept my mouth shut.

Fast forward nine months and here we are. Martha Stewart was in town and having a chat with Cup 41, Colin Pope the other day at the ABJ Face to Face event and I sat next to familiar face, Eve Richter of Napkin Ventures. I decided to ask her who she thought was the most interesting person in Austin. “There are so many!” she declared. Then I told her about the project and asked her who I should interview next. She actually emailed me a list later on but on the spot she said, “Well, it’s too bad she’s moving to Kenya, otherwise I’d tell you about this primatologist I know.” What? How many could there be? It had to be the girl I met months back, right? I looked at Eve and offered, “Laura?” She nodded and asked if I knew her. “Not really,” was the answer, but luckily, I’d connected to her on Twitter and decided to see if she’d make time for a visit before leaving for a new continent. I guess you know what she said.

***Warning: The story that follows may leave you wondering just what the hell you’re doing with your life. That’s the effect hearing it had on me, anyhow. I suggest you read on despite the warning. First, let’s cover some:

Common Grounds

  1. What is the last movie you saw? Star Trek: Into Darkness.
  2. What is your guilty pleasure? Rupaul’s Drag Race and Amazing Race – I love trashy shows.
  3. How did you make your first buck? I worked as a programmer and did data entry for my mom when I was 15.
  4. Where is your favorite place to eat in Austin? Rudy’s. I know there is a huge BBQ war in this town, but it’s really good. You don’t have to do anything. You just show up, order and they give your your food.
  5. What is your favorite way to unwind? Crafting. Needlepoint and felt crafts.
  6. What was your favorite TV show as a kid? Quantum Leap, Quincy, M.E. and Murder She Wrote
  7. What is your best feature? My hair.
  8. What is the last awesome meal you ate? Hopdoddy – the Magic Mushroom Burger
  9. What is the last great book you read? Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Laura’s story is far, far, far too big to even begin to tell in a blog post. It’s hard to know where to begin and what to leave out. I feel like no matter how hard I try, it will end up sounding like “Michael Jordan was a decent basketball player.” It’s the truth, but in no way is it the whole story. In reality, everyone’s story is gigantic, and can’t possibly be told in 2000 words. But a lot of us have chapters of our stories that sound very similar. Grew up, went to college, got married, had a career… Intermixed into our tales are a few wild adventures that we tell as our highlight reel. After two hours of coffee with Laura, I walked away feeling excited, nervous, courageous, fearful, inspired and determined to do more with my life. I was also exhilarated and felt like I’d been on a wild trip to Africa and back.

Laura grew up in New York and after high school she went to Columbia University. I was curious how she decided to become a primatologist and she tells me there were a few contributing factors. As a kid, she’d read a book called Koko’s Kitten by Francine Patterson, about a sign-language-speaking gorilla who befriends a kitten. Laura says her interest in primates goes back to at least the age of 10 when, according to her mom, Laura wrote a paper about bonobos. {I’m a little embarrassed to admit that when I was 10, I was probably writing papers about unicorns or something. I’m positive I didn’t even know what a bonobo was, because until I looked it up on Wikipedia JUST NOW, I had no clue!}

What really catapulted things was the interest she showed in a course at college, that made her professor suggest that she work as a research assistant for another professor who was headed to Kenya. In 2002, she packed her bags and off she went, as she says, “to collect poo” as a part of a paternity study.

It took Laura 10 years in all to complete her studies at Columbia, because every year or so, she’d head back to Africa for more field study. By the time she finally graduated, she’d also accumulated six years of field study and spoke five languages – English, French, Swahili, Lingala and American Sign Language. She also knows a fair amount of Spanish and Italian. Her degree or her field study – I asked which was more educational. I bet you can imagine what her answer was.

Her work in Africa was largely focused on researching the transfer of infectious diseases from chimps to people and vice versa. Unlike in the United States where the population is pretty evenly spread out, in Africa, there are huge swaths of land that are so remote that no one has ever been there. As the population expands and more importantly, as mining, logging and palm oil plantation operations expand further and further into these remote areas, the number of novel interactions between the species is increasing. And so is the threat of spreading infectious disease.

Laura tells me about the most difficult field season she ever experienced. It was between 2008-2009 and this was the first trip that she brought a companion on. A year before her trip she’d begun dating a guy – Adam. They enjoyed a long-distance relationship and when it was time for her to head back to Africa, Laura assumed, as was the case with the relationships she’d been in before, that it was time to part ways and sever ties.

Adam wasn’t into that plan. Instead, he wanted to join her. So he did.

Sounds good so far, right?

Soon after getting to Africa, Laura and Adam needed to get from one city to another. Her objective on this trip, in part, was to take care of five chimps who were awaiting placement in a sanctuary that was nearly completed. To get to the location of the chimps required a trip on motorbike. A six-day trip. Six twelve-hour days on the back of motorbikes through miles and miles of remote Africa, where most people have never seen a white person. Laura tells me that the villagers would hear the motorbikes coming and run to the roads to wave. The first two bikes were driven by the men who were carrying their belongings, followed by Adam and Laura. She said the looks on the people’s faces went from excitement as they waved to the first bikes to confusion and alarm as Adam and Laura cruised by.  Laura, seeing the look of empathy on my face, says, “Oh yeah, it was bad. I made babies cry.”

Even though when on day three, Adam proclaimed that he was done with the motorbike adventure, they persevered and eventually made it to their destination.

Things didn’t exactly get better.

Laura and Adam were responsible for five young orphaned chimps that had been legally confiscated, were unwell and needed to be nursed back to health. This involved caring for them, almost as children. Laura says that one of the little ones, who needed a lot of care, even spent nights in bed with them as he recovered, and also like an infant, had managed to pee on them on several occasions. Good times!

Soon after their arrival, a man (who we will refer to as “the bad man”) began harassing Laura. He’d come every day and try to shake her down for money. Each time, he brought along receipts that his assistant had typed up on a typewriter which was missing the “N” (he cleverly substituted an “M” for the missing “N”). The bad man would make threats to her and would say things like, “If you and I were to take a trip into the woods and you didn’t come back, who would know?” Using some ancient book of outdated rules regarding the holding of chimps – which was totally bunk – the bad man had his assistant type up receipts of things Laura needed to pay him for. Such as $1000 for each chimp, a fee for taking pictures with her magical diamond-finding camera, among other charges. The receipt, issued from the Democratic Republic of CoMgo, was hard to take seriously, but the bad man seemed determined, and the threats were getting scarier.

After several months, it became obvious that the sanctuary they were waiting on would not be ready in a few months after all. Laura used her contacts to find the chimps a home at another sanctuary, hundreds of miles away. If Adam wasn’t keen on a multiple day motorbike trip, Laura knew the toddler chimps would be even less excited about it. She managed to get in contact with missionary pilots and make secret arrangements to get the chimps out of the area. In order for them to come, they needed an airstrip to land their plane. The area Laura was in had not had an airstrip since 1970, so she paid 10 men to hand cut an airstrip. It took them 10 days, and even then it was by no means perfect. She hoped like hell that their plan would work.

The missionaries were scheduled to arrive on a certain day around 10am. Very early that morning, Laura, Adam, her staff members and the five chimps headed out to the newly-cut secret airstrip, which was across the river from the village. The only way across the river was via a single canoe paddled by one man. They hoped that this detail alone might help them sneak away.

They got to the landing strip and waited, hidden in the bushes. Laura and given the chimps Valium to keep them calm during the experience. One of the chimps wasn’t having it and escaped the makeshift cage they’d made for her. They raced around trying to get her back in the cage and then they heard the plane. Yes! Finally, their chance to escape.

As the plane landed, hoards of villagers, most of whom had never heard or seen a plane in their lives, started showing up to see what was going on. The plane needed to refuel, which gave the Bad Man just enough time to show up, with the full police force. They surrounded Laura and her chimps and demanded they return to the village. Laura had been issued paperwork from the government showing she had permission to transport the chimps to the sanctuary. (Papers she’d had to travel 150 miles via motorbike to the nearest printer to print out). She presented the documents, and the Bad Man instructed her to wait as he went back to the village to verify.

They chimps were beyond stressed. The plane, the cages, the 500 people crowding them on the airstrip – it was all too much for all of them. When one of the officers tried to grab a hold of the chimp who’d slept next to Adam, he’d had enough. Like a proud papa bear, he sprung into action and pushed the guy aside. Laura and Adam loaded the chimps into the plane and told the missionaries they had just a short window of time before the Bad Man returned. The police approached and told the pilots they needed to wait for the man to return and that’s when they started the propeller, backed away and quickly closed and locked the doors. As the plane moved down the runway, gaining speed, Laura said her heart was in her stomach. As they felt the plane leave the ground, she and Adam looked at one another and both immediately burst into tears.

The chimps made it to their new home safely. But the story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. Laura and Adam learned that their employees had all been arrested, thrown in prison and were beaten. Adam’s shoving of the officer who was trying to grab the little chimp turned into “Adam beat up five police officers” and resulted in an arrest warrant. As if all of that wasn’t enough, they discovered the visas they’d been issued were fakes. All they wanted to be to out of Congo and into Rwanda and it couldn’t happen soon enough.

It did eventually all get worked out. The experience is much scarier to Laura in hindsight, and she realizes just how lucky they were to have made it out at all. And yet, this is just one of many stories she has of her adventures. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the last time I went without power for longer than an hour. It makes you realize just how much is taken for granted on a daily basis.

Despite these stories of hardship and heroism, Laura is headed back to Africa once again. Unlike the trips before which all had an end date, this one is indefinite. She has been hired to work on conservation initiatives at the Nairobi office of the United Nations. Yes, the UN! How cool is that?!? 

I ask this adventurer about her bucket list and she tells me she doesn’t have one. Here is her explanation: “I feel like so many things that are extraordinary happen to people on a regular basis, that if you quantify things based on whether or not they are on a bucket list, you miss out on counting and appreciating the things that do happen.”

What would she do to earn her living if happiness were the national currency? I was surprised when she said you’d find her sitting on a beach, crafting and listening to music.

In Laura’s estimation, the biggest issue facing society today is a lack of personal culpability. She says, “Any person can get anything done.” People complain, but then they don’t take action. Laura says those who are complaining are just as responsible for fixing the problem as those whom they’re complaining about. “If you don’t like what a company is doing, stop buying their products. If you don’t like what someone stands for, don’t vote for them,” she says, adding, “the  only things you can control are your own actions.”

I told Laura that on several occasions throughout our conversation she managed to articulate precisely how I felt about about something but never managed to put into words myself. One of those examples came when I asked her about the qualities she likes in a person. She said, “I like someone who is comparably gregarious to me.” She went on to explain that as a person who is quite social and outgoing, conversations with those who are shy or just less social than she is can be difficult. When the level of gregariousness is unbalanced, she describes the challenge she feels in having to compensate for the other person’s lack of sociability. I can totally relate to this, and have never thought to put this into words, or to appreciate this quality in someone so explicitly, but Laura nailed it and I will be more grateful in encounters with sociable people from now on.

Laura tells me that she has a friend who remarked that Laura collects people like some people collect spoons. She explained that when people come back from vacation, some of them bring back spoons as reminders of the trip; Laura comes back with new friends.

“I have a huge gamut of friends – as a result, I end up being a more dynamic person, because I can learn things from people that don’t come naturally to me. It’s no fun to live in an echo chamber – to have people tell you things you already think,” Laura says.

I could not agree with her more. In fact, an intense curiosity about other people is what lead me to start this Coffee With a Stranger project in the first place. And it’s the magic that comes from opening yourself up to people who are vastly different that has proven to be the greatest joy in the journey thus far.

Everyone has a story, and every story is incredible. Sometimes the stories take us to exotic locations and describe experiences most only dream of. Other stories are in settings more familiar. In every case, the tale is personal and in sharing it, we give a little of ourselves to the other person. In listening to it or reading about it, the story is given new life and the meaning and moral is passed along, likely to become a part of another story. Our stories aren’t our own, after all. There really is only one story – a story that we are all a part of. Laura is a reminder to me to make sure that what I’m adding to the story is good, kind and makes a difference. And perhaps, like Laura and her drink, to be a little more cool, interesting and just the right amount of complicated.

To learn more about Laura, follow her on Twitter and you can check out her website at

4 thoughts on “Cup 45: Laura Darby – Speaker of five languages, primatologist and United Nations employee.

  1. Wonderful story. I met Laura just before she married Adam when she was on her way home from one of here trips to Africa. My kids, who had also gone to Columbia, were friends with a friend of hers who told her to visit me on my farm outside of Giza when she heard that Laura had a layover in Egypt. We had a great time sharing stories and I was in awe of the motorcycle ride. Funny how we collect friends.

    1. Maryanne – Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Laura is as warm and friendly as she is fascinating! Sounds like you feel as lucky as I do to know her!

  2. I met Laura on a flight from NYC to Austin. Such a great read! We are a match in gregarious nature! I look forward to meeting you one day Melissa!

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