The Laysan albatross is black and white and soars in its majestic flight. Relatively small compared to other albatrosses, they are doing pretty well in terms of population numbers. They breed mostly in the northwest islands of the archipelago, but there is a colony here apparently making a comeback. Mid-March is the time when the fluffy nestlings are growing rapidly, and the parents take turns feeding their hungry offspring. They are fearless and we can walk within a couple meters of the chicks at Ka’ena Point in Northwest Oahu. This is a remote dramatic landscape and far from the big city of Honolulu. It is spring break, and my sister lives in Hawaii, just a short flight from San Francisco. It is no brainer that I should be here. The Hawaiian Monk seals basking in the sun, and sea turtles on the beach make for a memorable day in nature. Although Hawaii has been overpopulated by people and other invasive species, there are still glimpses of the untamed nature, and the beauty is unrivaled with the big waves of the multi-colored blue Pacific.How is it possible that the current president of the USA doesn’t understand the need for protecting nature? Some of these birds are decades old, and have survived the rapid changes to the environment. I believe that they will survive another 4 years, but other threatened species may not.
Waimanalo is a town on the south shore of Oahu, and near the sunny beach is a delicious vegan restaurant, Ai Love Nalo. Generous portions of creative bowls and sandwiches in a very simple setting with no silverware or plates. Everything compostable. I had the BBQ portabello sandwich: perfect for a vegan exploring this part of the island. Unfortunately we didn’t see the Humpback whales at Makapu’u point, but we did see the teenagers on spring break jumping into the sea at China Walls and Spitting Caves. The waves churn around them when they do their flips and swan dives from the treacherous heights. You don’t find tourists here. I feel pretty much like a local here in another of my many homes.
Honolulu is full of cars, and new big multi-story high-rises. There are hipster cafes and expensive stores for the privileged people. International airplanes take off and land every minute at the airport. There are now Ethiopian and Burmese restaurants in town, so there is no need to ever leave the island: but still no Trader Joes. I get to live cheaply at my sister’s place in Kailua, which has also expanded into the ubiquitous hipster realm. The beaches are crowded on the weekend, and finding parking is a challenge. The water and sunny soft sand are worth it, and swimming in the warm salty sea just feels healthy.
History follows everyone in Lithuania. Each person I meet has some tragedy in their family. The wars and continuing conquests of this little land have molded the nation, and it takes a few generations to let go, and move on. 26 years ago, the Soviets attacked the protestors for Lithuanian independence at the Vilnius television tower. On January 13th, there were ceremonies and concerts in remembrance, but now, in 2017, those times seem as distant as the world wars.
These days, Lithuania leads in fast internet, and the country is a modern nation now officially in Northern (not Eastern) Europe. Its citizens fly cheaply around Europe with Wizzair, and take longer vacations to Thailand or the USA. The older people, with the stories, are left behind with their $300/month pensions in their crumbling Soviet built apartment buildings. Driving in the evening, we saw an entire village in darkness, abandoned, its residents probably in England, or Vilnius. I ask what would this country be like if the Jews were still here? It would probably be much more diverse and cosmopolitan. Yiddish, alongside Polish and Lithuanian would be the languages of Vilnius. It is hard to imagine but eventually this place will once again become more multiethnic, as are the big cities of Western Europe.
I continue my work here, and also find time to visit beautiful snowy places. On a hike through the forest near the center of Vilnius, we run into a family with huge German shepherd dogs that look like friendly wolves. They are near the remains of trenches where some fighting occurred, probably in one of the wars near the turn of the 20th century. My friend and I drive to Druskininkai, where we soak in the healing waters, and melt in the saunas. Along the way, we pass the town of Perloja, which had the interesting history of being an independent micro-nation for several years after WWI. Everywhere, more history.
The Kalvarijų Turgus is my favorite market in Vilnius. Here you can buy imported fruits and vegetables, plus local herbs and old nostalgia items from the Soviet days. I bought some nettle tea, and looked at, but did not buy old Russian watches, which are now expensive. The majority of the women selling their wares are Russian speaking. I hear a lot of Russian in the buses too. Lithuanian-speakers drive their cars, and tend to shop at the big supermarkets.
Should I move to Lithuania? My friends and relatives are always encouraging. Yes, there is bureaucracy, and the difficulty of being an outsider. But the farm, and the little apartment in the center of Vilnius are charming. The snowy forests and the lakes of the summer are inviting. It is tempting.
Snow covers the pine and birch trees and blows by the fast train as I sit comfortably watching the 2:39 pm sunset in the Swedish winter. I have always loved trains, and this one, with comfortable spacious seats, clean bathrooms, free internet, and the Tyst Avdelning (quiet section), makes traveling more fun than going to see a movie. I am listening to northern music written by Kaija Saariaho while watching the northern people head north. Soon the light will be gone. I have never seen the northern lights. This is the northern darks.
2017 has begun, and the consumer frenzy of post-holiday shopping has lost its appeal. The Christmas trees are down, and thrown on the corners of the Stockholm streets. Although this is not condoned, everyone does it, and somehow the de-sparkled pines eventually vanish, taken care of by the highly organized Swedish society. The snow and wind has made walking a slippery challenge. The magpies fly around looking for food, and ate the apple eyeballs of our snowman.
How do you describe someone who is from Stockholm? Who is the typical Stockholmare? This is a question I posed to my friends while sitting around a table with vegan pasta and glögg. According to our conclusions, a Stockholmare has a very strong sense of trends. They are politically correct, and believe they are individualistic, but actually conform to the styles of the day almost instinctively. My friend said that while he was gone for a few years, each time he came back, he saw that another clothes trend had emerged. One year it was rolled up jeans, and then another year, tiny backpacks. Stockholmare are the ones who are likely to be vegetarian, gay friendly, and travel a lot. They have nice kitchens. According to these criteria I am a Stockholmare. Here is a silly website with 22 signs that you are a true Stockholmare. A lot of it has to do with traveling by subway, and the high price of living here. This is my home, but I did notice that my life is pretty unusual: my podiatrist is in Stockholm, my dentist is in San Francisco, and my optometrist is in Delhi.
-26° C outside makes it hard to breathe in Sundsvall. My beard hairs frost over. All the stores are closed for Trettondagen (Epiphany), and it is clear that most people are staying at home. It is the last holiday weekend and the beginning of the long winter.
Stockholm is definitely dark in late December. Swedes have traditions at this time of year. For one, on Christmas eve, Julafton, nearly everyone in the country watches Donald Duck, Kalle Anka at 3 pm. The shops close, and only the tourists walk around the old town. Here people buy their Christmas trees rather late, typically on the 22nd of December, and the tree-sellers huddle around small fires on the street corners. We buy a large one, nearly 3 meters tall for the high-ceilinged apartment. The Christmas lights we place on the tree are probably older than I, and we use an ancient converter to light the colored bulbs; from 220V to 110V. This Sehgal clan has a mix of traditions, USA, Lithuania and Swedish, all seamlessly flowing as if every family in the world does the same. Kalle Anka is followed by Kūčios, the traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve dinner, followed by the arrival of Santa Claus through the chimney with his sleigh guided by Rudolph.
This Christmas Day, the temperature in San Francisco is the same as in Stockholm. It is unusually warm here in Sweden, at least for these few days since I have arrived. Traveling during the holidays is always challenging, but this time, my flight was cancelled, and my luggage was lost. I had one rushed day in Vilnius on the way, where I saw good friends, and bought my favorite black bread, and beet horseradish. The majestic Christmas tree near the cathedral has been featured all over the internet.
The year of 2016 was full of opportunities, challenges and plenty of travel for me. I definitely predicted politics incorrectly and I am concerned about the future of American science. For researchers studying deforestation and global climate change, like myself, I fear that federal funding in the USA will become even more competitive. There is violence against many people throughout the world, but the forest plants and animals have no voice. Eventually the people will figure themselves out, but by then the planet’s biodiversity will be lost. I will continue my research on avian diseases and deforestation in 2017, hopefully contributing in a small way to conservation awareness.
The LIll-Jans forest in Stockholm has lost its leaves. I celebrated my 50th birthday here just a few months ago, and now a different icy beauty accompanies my morning jog. Lots of gifts and cheerful abundance fill my life, with gratitude for the small moments to the large endeavors. To my new and old friends and family, wishing everyone a very happy holiday season!
It was the first November snow in Tokyo since 1962. It was one of the largest earthquakes since 2011. It definitely shook me around in the bed of my small hotel room. But these events, although newsworthy to the people of Japan, just seemed a small part of the excitement of life in Tokyo. For me, the ways the train move, the somehow skinnier cars, the programmable toilets, and the massive scale of the city are much more surprising and exciting.
The trains are impossibly full. The riders entering a packed train actually push their way in, with their backs first, to squeeze everyone; human sardines. But the amazing thing to me is how people leave their purses and backpacks on the luggage racks, without concern of theft. This is the epitome of social trust and is lacking in many parts of the world, noticeably the USA. Even Stockholm doesn’t have this level of honesty. I also love that each subway station has a free clean bathroom. No smell of urine in the subways here. There is no thought of tips from the bathroom cleaners, or at the restaurants, but the waiters are among the most helpful and gracious I have ever met. It is just a special place that way. But in other ways, the people of Tokyo are somewhat behind. Plastic is overused: plastic bags are given out generously, and the amount of fish and meat eaten is extreme. Smoking is still allowed in many bars and restaurants. There is no gay marriage. There are very few female professors, although more than half of the students are women. Conservative societies have pluses and minuses.
The Meguro Parasitological Museum is the only one of its kind in the world. Since I am considered a parasitologist, this was a must. We met the curators for a backstage tour of the collections that include many monogenean worms of fish, and plenty of tapeworms. The museum highlights the diversity of parasites and has lots of glass jars filled with icky helminths. They say that hundreds of people come here on dates, up to 300 per day. I wish I could do a field trip here with all of my students at SFSU. I also enjoyed the Tokyo National museum with its treasures of Japanese art, and the Mori Museum with its incredible city view in Roppongi Hills.
We caught some nice birds in the research forest at Nihon University. I showed the students how kingfishers “fall asleep” when they are placed on their backs. I recognized that I have a very peculiar skill: I can erect mist nets in a logical way, and get birds out of them quickly. I am treated like a prince, with gifts, special meals, and ultimate respect from the students and professors at Nihon University.
A tour of the ancient city of Nikko was my final day in Japan. It took 4 trains to get there, including one Shinkansen bullet train. The Tosho-Gu complex is the ornate mausoleum of the first shogun. Thousands of people visit to see the three monkeys, “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”, and the ornate gilded temples. All of the shrines are surrounded by ancient cedar trees, in the foothills of the mountains. There are waterfalls, and stone stair paths through the forest. The temples just near the main complex are much less crowded and just as beautiful. One of my favorite stops was the hall featuring the “Crying Dragon” painted on the ceiling. A guide claps two sticks together and only at a certain spot, just under the tears of the dragon, the whole room is filled with a magnified echo. They sell small bells as luck charms, and there are warriors for each year of the Chinese zodiac. The tourists, including me, are convinced of the magic and readily purchase the differently colored bell-charms.
For a final stop, my student guides took me to the Syungyotei onsen, a Japanese hot spring. After a long day of hiking and visiting temples, this was the perfect spot to relax, in a hot bath outside among the trees. This is not a tourist spot. The men strip off their clothes, rinse off, and rush outside to sit in the rocky pool. It is a nice way for friends to spend a Saturday evening together, just catching up and talking while relaxing. A perfect last night in Japan. I love that I will arrive in San Francisco before I left, and be able to say that yesterday I was walking among trees and temples in Nikko.
It is actually harder than I thought to find food without meat and fish sauce at restaurants in Japan. In San Francisco, I know of two vegan Japanese restaurants. I expected to find one on every corner here, which was not the case. But with the help of Happy Cow, I did find some delicious places. In fact the food is amazing and even just along the streets and at the train stations, there is plenty to eat.
Here are some of my favorite restaurants. I am not giving directions on how to find them: I am linking the websites. Part of the adventure is walking in the neighborhoods searching for these places. I must say that my guides were very patient with me in my quest for vegan restaurants. We walked many kilometers, but in the end, they all were impressed with the food and my excitement:
For a special adventure night, I recommend Ninja Akasaka in downtown Tokyo. They do magic tricks and have a great vegan tasting menu. The servers are dressed as ninjas, and it is a deep cavernous experience. Here is what I ate:
1.Shuriken star-blades grissini
3.Fried season vegetables
5.Season vegetables potage
Harukucchi in Fujisawa. This was a nice surprise. A tiny two-table restaurant with creative ideas and a sense of fusion among the world’s vegan cuisines. I don’t exactly know what we ordered, but it was all excellent. We just ordered the servers suggestions.
Ain Soph Journey at Shinjuku. Wow, the pancakes were fluffy and delicious with vegan whipped cream. They look and taste just like the pictures on the website.
Kamakura Fushikian at Ahikabara. This is an inexpensive Zen restaurant in a food court. Very tasty miso soup and a plate of traditional Japanese salads. Everything tasted great. So nice to have miso soup sans fish.
Ts TanTan. This is one of my favorites because of its convenient location at Tokyo station, on Keiyo street within the toll gates. The ramen here was hearty and full of black sesame flavors. Delicious and inexpensive fantastic ramen noodles.
Then in Nikko, Meiji-No-Yakata is a must. This is a beautiful stop just near the Tosho-Gu complex. They have a relatively inexpensive bento box menu (20,000 yen) in a traditional Japanese restaurant with glass windows facing the bonsai garden. This is serene and even my two carnivore student guides said it was among the best meals they have eaten.
Vegan inaris, and sushi rolls are available in the supermarkets and just about at every train station. Corn on the cob is easy to find in Ueno, however fruits are more scarce, and expensive. At Ginza there is a fruit shop, Sembikiya, that sells beautiful boxes of select fruits for more than $100! But there is the abundance of different types of mochi. The possibilities at every stop along the way are for exploring. I certainly didn’t lose any weight despite all the walking. Enjoy!
Arriving at Tokyo Station on a Sunday morning, the crowds were manageable, but still crowds. The shops underground sell mochis and bento boxes. There are bakeries and candy stores, for all the commuters to snack at, before they get on their trains. Tokyo is an amazing story in efficiency. How can it be possible that the trains work so flawlessly, and that everything is so clean? On top of it, people give me polite smiles and try to answer questions when I get lost in the underground mazes. Personnel at the little shops are so incredibly polite, it is almost unnerving, mainly because you know that in real life nobody can be that obsequious and helpful. Does playing that role eventually wear a person out, and make them resentful? It doesn’t seem like it, in the most livable city on the planet.
I love Tokyo. I am here on a short one-week trip, to give some lectures at Nihon University. Based in a little hotel room near the Shōnandai Station, I can get to anywhere in the city (or maybe the planet) seamlessly. When I was here some 5 years ago, people had flip phones with little ornaments hanging off them. Now the phone gazers in the trains have iPhones and similar models that don’t accommodate the charms. At the shops, women wear their work costumes, and talk in high pitched voices to outcompete the polyphonic synthesized music jingles that come from the trains, and supermarket speakers. This whole city has the atmosphere of a giant pachinko machine. The metal balls are like moving people with an electricity that dominates this massive metropolis. Here cute kitschy items are commonplace. At the university there is a little colorful magnetic animal that you place by your name, to let you know whether you are in the office, in a classroom, or out to lunch.
As with everyone else that I know, the people I’ve met in Japan are surprised and disappointed by the USA election results. This is a homogeneous society, with few immigrants, so it is not simple to compare the two countries. This Japanese culture is rich in traditions and societal norms. Today’s USA was built by immigrants, including many Japanese, and is incredibly diverse. But what is remarkable to me is that modern Japan renewed itself and came out of the second world war as a powerhouse. Based on my experiences here, people have respect for the environment, and nature. I haven’t seen overt rudeness, but the opposite; a sincere respect for other people. I can’t say the same for the USA where I am constantly shocked by the trash in the parks and on the streets of San Francisco. I haven’t seen homeless people here, but I read that there are approximately 1600 homeless in this city of 16 million. San Francisco has about 6 times that number in a population less than 1 million. I would like everyone in the USA to visit two megacities, Tokyo and Delhi (the most polluted city on the planet), and then vote again.
Vegetable sushi, tempura, soba noodles, mochi, tofu and pickled vegetables make a vegan happy. At Ninja restaurant, I had a vegan tasting menu, with all dishes creatively displayed, and Ninja accented waiters performing magic tricks. A boat ride down from Asakusa to the lovely Hama-rikyu gardens frames the tall skyscrapers and gives great views of both the Skytree and Tokyo Tower. Shibuya, with its renowned mega-crosswalk, also has the statue of Hachiko, the faithful dog who returned to the station every day to wait for his owner, years after the owner had died. The statue represents undying loyalty and faithfulness in one of the most hectic busy places in the world. Small surprises like this make it ok to be sentimental and small in the technical universe of Tokyo.
I had no expectations whatsoever for my quick trip to Bulgaria. Perhaps in the back of my mind, I was expecting crumbling eastern bloc buildings and smoggy Ladas crowding the streets filled with wrestlers and weight lifters. Instead I arrived in the spacious Sofia airport, with no lines to get through customs, a fantastically clean modern subway system, and grand avenues with parks, upscale shops and bakeries. On a late Sunday night, I watched a woman cleaning the stairs of the underground. In the morning, my colleagues and I stopped quickly at the impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in central Sofia, the largest church in the country. I bought my soya milk and cashew cheese at Zelen Bio food store near my central hotel, to prepare for the trip to Arbanasi and the Haemosporidians of Wildlife meeting. I feared that there would be no food to eat, but again, I was surprised by a lovely lunch of tomato-roasted pepper salad, and roasted potatoes with mushrooms in the old city of Veliko Tarnovo.
It is hard to imagine that I should fly to Bulgaria for one week. I used to mark the years by my travels. In 1989, I visited Lithuania the first time. In 1988 was a long trip to China. In 1997, I spent a long time in India. But now that travel is so cheap and accessible, it is routine to just get on a 13-hour direct flight to Istanbul, and fly to a spot with a 10-hour time difference. It is too convenient, and it is contributing to climate change. All the traveling becomes a blur, and somehow less special. The airports are crowded and the planes uncomfortable. On the other hand, it allows about 50 scientists from all over the world to attend a scientific conference in a little village in Bulgaria.
The meeting is excellent, with tremendous developments in the field of avian malaria research. The work of the participants would be of interest to scientists in a diverse set of fields, from traditional parasitology to disease ecology to bioinformatics. And the schedule is loose enough for us to informally discuss science in a splendid, yet inexpensive setting.
We witnessed the light show over the ruins of Tsaravets, in Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgaria Empire: lasers and colored light patterns over the ancient fortress. Arbanasi is famous for its old monastery and nice views of the surrounding countryside. This is a modern hotel with a conference center in the middle of a rustic village. Only after arriving here did I understand the reason for the long trip. People are curious to hear impressions of the Trump/Clinton election from an American, but I am the wrong person to ask. Am I American? I don’t follow the news, yet I am certain that Clinton will win. In any case, I think that the USA can do better. They can learn a few things from the Bulgarians.
The days are shortening, and a chilly wind blows some rain onto my face in these northern places. In one short week, I found myself with friends and family in Sweden, Finland and Lithuania. I am now fifty years old, and it is a time to look around and forward. Three simple gatherings with good vegan food, and creative people in nature celebrated my birthday.
The owl house at Ugglevikskällan in the Lill-Jans forest in Stockholm used to have a spring with healing waters. A hundred years ago, Stockholmers would meet there to take the waters. It is a special island meadow quietly hidden in the modern metropolis of Stockholm. I jog past this spot in the mornings, and remember that this place has been a nearby special destination, both in winters and in summers, for half of my life. Nice place for a picnic.
The Finland boats are a very typical Swedish-Finnish tradition. The Viking and Silja lines travel back and forth between the two countries several times a day. On board passengers gamble, buy tax-free alcohol, dance the tango, or sit in the saunas. The trips are inexpensive, so inexclusive. The destination was Mariehamn on Åland. This maritime Swedish-speaking part of Finland has its autonomy and its own postage stamps. The economy is more or less based on the Finland boats stopping with their tourists, for bike tours, and the idyllic archipelago. They claim to have more sun than the rest of the Baltic islands, but the rain reminded me that this is not a Mediterranean climate. The beauty of the hundreds of small islands is the draw, and each one has a name and a Viking history. But here the birds and fish are still more plentiful than the people. You can go back and forth to Åland from Stockholm in one day. A good way to avoid seasickness is to sit in the Jacuzzi hot tubs and sauna while enjoying the view. From the top of the ship, the feeling is like in an Imax movie theater, because the huge cruise ship seems stable, but the view moves around, surrounding the eyes.
The same weather in Vilnius: periods of rain followed by periods of windy cloudiness during this particularly chilly August. But the flowers at the Vilnius University Botanical Gardens brighten the greyness. A small rainbow adds some more color. Now there is a bench there with my name on it. You can find it gracefully facing one of the small ponds. The island in the middle of the pond has a tree on it. The gathering at this memento of my age gives me one more foothold into the nature of my mother’s ancestors.
The summer is ending and now it is time for classes to begin. I am flying back to San Francisco to my favorite tomatoes, a welcome drought after much wetness, more creative friends, colleagues and students, and another home.
The last few days, I have been a beach bum in Gabon. The Pongara National Park is near the capital Libreville. It has a fantastically long sandy beach next to the warm sea. I pitched my tent at the Sea Turtle Conservation center and disappeared from humanity.
Gabon is very different than Cameroon. The country has oil, and few people. Hence there are lots of French expats driving nice SUVs, and it is entirely unlike the chaos of Douala. They use the same money as Cameroon, but everything is at least twice as expensive. Actually the prices are comparable to San Francisco or Paris. There are glamorous French restaurants, and big supermarkets selling name brand items.
I am completely impressed with the taxi system in Libreville. It is far more efficient and simple than Uber, because there is always a car available. You simply tell the driver how much you want to pay and where you want to go, and that’s it. They pick up other passengers along the way. But this means there are no buses. It seems to work extremely well, but perhaps it excludes people who can’t afford to pay, although the prices for taxi are the only affordable thing in this country.
Instead of partaking in the lavish luxury, I became more spartan. The speedboat crowded with Gabonese women carried me too quickly to Point Denis, and from there I met the manager of the sea turtle center. I had the beach entirely to myself, with the occasional motorboat passing by once in a while. Elephant tracks are common, so I asked the manager to take me to find them. We woke up early and hiked for 16 kilometers back and forth. Plenty of elephant tracks but the forest elephants were elusive. We also saw panther tracks, and I did see monkeys and plenty of birds. Colorful bee-eaters were my favorite birds. The place is a mixture of forest, mangroves, savanna and beach. This turned out to be a wonderful spot to escape from civilization.
Gabon, the dog at the camp, became my companion, following me around everywhere. He slept next to my tent, and barked and howled at people who walked near the camp, but never at me. We ran back and forth along the beach at sunset: I had my own private dog for a few days. While waiting for the boat back to Libreville, he sat by my side, as if he knew he would never see me again. I would like to take Gabon home with me.
This is the rainy season in Cameroon. We are a group of professors, students and helpers in the jungle, in the mud. On one side of our nets, the forest will remain, but on the other side, the forest will be cut completely, to grow palm trees for palm oil. The nets catch colorful forest birds, and we are testing to see what diseases they have now. Then over time, with the loss of trees, we are monitoring how mosquitoes and malaria change. This is a 3-year project, and we are racing to get the data before the trees are all gone.
Getting to this forest is not easy. From the University of Buea, we drive 4 hours to the village of Manyemen. This place is like the Wild West, with a few bars, and trucks loaded with huge felled trees parked outside. Bushmeat is openly sold in the market. I have been here before, 3 times in two years, but I am still not fond of the place where we sleep. The rats in my cobwebby room gnawed into my backpack and ate my precious supply of nuts. The next morning, we begin our hike into the forest. This time we have to cross a river. Apparently not many Cameroonians learn to swim, so we carefully haul all the supplies back and forth across the flowing waste-deep waters. This is food, tents, supplies for catching mosquitoes and birds, and basically setting up a lab and mini-village of 17 people for 3 weeks in the jungle.
Then it starts raining. This is not drizzle, but monsoon tropical rain, and we are forced to create a camp and put up our tents in the downpour. Will it ever end? The first night we sleep in our flooded tents wondering how we will be able to endure this deluge. The rain doesn’t stop the next day, until the afternoon. We are now soaking wet and disheartened, but still begin to work. We can’t catch birds in the rain, and the mosquitoes don’t fly much either. So every non-rainy hour is precious.
Bathing in the river next to a massive waterfall is the best part of every day, and what I look forward to after a long day of work. When I was in this forest in January, we had no water. Now there is too much. Ideally this waterfall would remain hidden from people, but with the inevitable development of the region, it would be much more appreciated by visitors at an ecotourism lodge, or a yoga retreat center than the palm oil trees that will have this beautiful view.
We hear and catch glimpses of monkeys, and see the magnificent hornbills flying across the tree canopy. The termite mounds look like Chinese lanterns on the forest floor. Plenty of birds land in our nets. We measure them and take a drop of blood before releasing them. One day we catch an African goshawk as it is attempting to get an easy meal by preying on a dove in a net. Mostly we find Fire-crested Alethes, Olive sunbirds, and Yellow-whiskered greenbuls. This is excellent because we have been tracking the parasites of these birds for years already.
Every day, we eat simple starchy food: spaghetti, or rice with tomato paste, or plantains with peanut stew. We know the rains will return, so everything is done in a rush. The clothes never dry, even when the sun finally comes out for a few hours. The mud covers our rubber boots: slosh slosh slosh. We all hate the water in our boots, so we try to dry them by placing them on sticks next to the cooking fire. The thunder and rains usually return around 4 pm.
We have converted one large tent into a laboratory to study the mosquitoes. A small generator provides electricity to a couple light bulbs that keep the students working into the evening, among the moths and other insects that are attracted to the light. There are so many insects, but actually not that many mosquitoes in this rainy season. My body is itchily covered with bites from black flies and biting midges. No one complains. Instead we do the best we can, and try to gather as much scientific data as possible, to make it worth it.
The USA and Europe used to be covered with forests teeming with biodiversity. I tell the story of the passenger pigeon to the students here, and how the most abundant bird on the planet was hunted to extinction in North America. The animals are scarce now in this Cameroonian rainforest, and the hardwood trees are being pulled out to make our furniture. The villages are filled with young children who will have a hard time finding jobs, and will most likely never see the once abundant rainforests of their homeland. The villagers see that the climate is changing and that the forests are disappearing before their eyes, and no one is happy about it. The economic forces are beyond their control.
The professors and I leave the students in the forest to continue the work, while we return to our computers in Buea. The mold on my backpack, and the stench of my clothes will probably never wash out. My trusty tent has never been this muddy. Still, remarkably, I look forward to working with these dedicated students in this forest, next year.
Flying in the Schengen area of the European Union is very different than air travel in the USA. You don’t need to show any ID. Of course there is a very thorough security check at the Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, but if you are flying within the EU, no ID card or passports are required. This makes perfect sense to me. If you can drive among the countries without showing an ID, why not be able to fly? I think that the US could save a lot of time by eliminating the ID checks. But on the other hand, it is curious that between Copenhagen and Malmö, you have to show an ID or passport on the train. Basically the EU is in a state of flux right now, where changes are happening in response to rapid immigration. But for now, it is reminiscent of the ‘unafraid’ days when anyone could fly with anyone else’s ticket.
Flying over Sicily with Mt. Etna on the horizon was the most dramatic view on the flight to Malta. These are tiny dry islands with a perfect Mediterranean climate. The sea is warm, and the people are super friendly. Since I don’t drive cars that much anyway, it was no problem to drive on the left side. It is easy to get lost, but a friendly young Maltese couple showed the way to St. Julians. A nice hotel, and swimming pool add the necessary components for a mini-vacation in this cosmopolitan place before another few weeks of field work in Cameroon.
Every corner of Malta has history. Most fascinating to me are the ancient megalithic temples that pre-date the Egyptian pyramids. These are 5000-year-old “stonehenges” that are of course much older than Stonehenge. The corpulent female fertility figures found at the sites were displayed at the Archaeological museum in Valletta. Nobody knows what happened to the people of this ancient culture. Were they decimated by invaders? Or did they use up all their resources like on Easter Island and slowly die out?
These people are enthusiastically Catholic, with baroque churches in every village. I enjoy listening to their language, which sounds like a singsong mixture of Arabic and Italian. Are they truly descendants of the Phoenicians? The islands are desert-like, with few trees and little greenery. Northern European tourists arrive on the many cheap flights and shuttle themselves to the coastal hotels. The casinos are big money makers, but the sparkling sea and sunny skies are the big draw. Multicolored fishing boats populate the coastal bays, and the sandstone buildings hide the sleeping Maltese enjoying their Sunday siestas. The island of Gozo is where they go for holidays, with the cliffs, natural arches and blue waters reminiscent of California.
Valletta rises on the horizon over the salty Mediterranean Sea, again with churches, fortresses, Italian restaurants and the modern parliament building. There is no talk of leaving the EU, and although this is a commonwealth nation, with fondness for Queen Elizabeth, there is no talk about a “Maltexit”. Euros work here just fine.
I learned about the Maltese Cross, and the 8 points representing the 8 languages of the Knights of Malta. I don’t know when I will return, but the wonderful history, nice vegan Maltese platters, and genuinely friendly people made for a perfect break.
This is the famous image of Trump kissing Putin, “Make Everything Great Again”, by Mindaugas Bonanu. It is plastered on the side of the BBQ restaurant Keulė Rūkė, not far from where I live in Vilnius. The unity of politics and painting exemplifies the cornucopia of artistic expression that is inundating this city. Unlike San Francisco and Stockholm, Vilnius is still affordable to artists, so there are ateliers and galleries along the streets. Especially in the summer, there are concerts and performances nearly every night. The culture night, Kultūros naktis, was last Friday, with hundreds of art exhibits and performances throughout the city, running all night, for free. The warm days are long, and locals and tourists are flooding the outdoor cafes, drinking locally brewed beers, and eating at all the new trendy restaurants. I saw a dance performance from Croatia, a chamber music concert in a dilapidated church, a laser art installation formed in a tube of smoke, a hanging band, and giant white puppets roaming the cathedral square. There were poetry readings and experimental films throughout the old town. I find the artists to be sincere, and lacking cynicism. It seems that they know they are not destined to be famous, but that doesn’t seem to matter. It inspires all of us to be more creative.
This year the Baltic Pride parade was allowed to proceed down the main street, Gedimino Prospektas, for the first time without controversy. It is held in Vilnius every 3rd year, alternating with Tallinn and Riga. There were still some protestors in the cathedral square, but overall, it was a joyous celebration of freedom, albeit still relatively small, with about 1000 participants from the 3 countries. I noticed that there were no drag queens, or Lithuanian politicians, or major floats from leather bars. There was no mention of the Orlando killings, but this is Lithuania, and it was a major statement of freedom for people here. The event seemed spontaneous, with not many observers watching from the sidelines, but everyone just joining in to participate in the parade: again, sincere and heartfelt.
Then there is the nature. Labanoras Regional Park is the largest forest in Lithuania. The lakes link together and one can travel between them with canoes. Unlike the USA, where the native people were exterminated, here the forest stories and songs are still alive, passed on through the Lithuanian generations. The people know the mushrooms and medicinal plants. They swim in the chilly lakes and build metal towers to watch the birds and landscapes. They have their summer gardens, and are proud of their forest honey, collected from forest bees. Time runs a little slower here, for now. A late night 10 pm rainbow wraps it all up.
The sun doesn’t seem to go down. This is Stockholm in June, when the leaves on the trees are bright green, and the people are beginning to plan for their upcoming July holidays. I live here. My bicycle awaits me, pumped and ready to ride me to the movie theater, or to the Chinese store, to buy some bok choy and unsweetened soymilk. Stockholm is somehow not a bike-packed city like Copenhagen, and I don’t understand why not. Maybe it gets too icy here in the winters, but I think it just isn’t part of the culture. But the Swedes did invent the helmet that inflates to protect the skull on impact, like an automobile airbag.
When I first moved here in 1992, nobody spoke Swedish to me. Now, in the shoe stores, in the movie theater, at the colorful subway stations, people would be surprised if I didn’t speak Swedish. That is how much society has changed in the last 24 years. There are still a lot of people with blonde hair, especially in the center of Stockholm, where housing is prohibitively expensive, but now the city is also full of people from all over the world. Immigrants of all types make up this multi-cultural society. Stockholm is no longer the provincial capital of the north. Now there is bok choy and unsweetened soymilk to be had, and plenty of Swedish vegan cookbooks in the bookstores.
This morning I read the news about the heinous shootings in Orlando. I have never been to Florida, so it seems very foreign here from Sweden. It is illegal for a person in Sweden to carry a gun, unless for a specific, legal purpose, such as hunting or at shooting ranges. Here, there is little resistance to change. For example, the new Swedish money: the government says we need new coins and bills, and then suddenly there are new coins and bills. The green, differently sized 200 kronor bill is an entirely new invention. I imagine how long it would take for people to accept a new $200 bill in the USA. Why is it that Sweden is progressive and that change is accepted as normal? Right now, I am at the university library, doing my writing and reading surrounded by the studious students. Is it the sign of an educated society, where universities are free? Or is it because this is still a small country of just about 10 million people, so change is easier.
The other day, I visited my farm near Višakio Rūda, in the center of Lithuania. The oak tree that my mother and I planted some 20 years ago has grown and is healthy and strong. The lawn was freshly mowed and everything is in top shape, taken care of by the industrious tenant who adds character and artistic touches to what was once a dilapidated hovel. He works at the Ikea furniture factory, and earns too little money for too much work. It is clear that the managers are taking the profits, and the dedicated workers, putting in 12-hour days, with no holidays off, are squeaking by. Scientists have it hard too. Grants are extremely competitive, and PhD researchers don’t make much more than the friendly factory worker. Since independence in 1990 around 825 thousand people or almost one third of the population has left the country. Jobs are lacking, prices are high, and salaries are low. England and Ireland are the favorite EU destinations, but now Lithuanians are living throughout the world.
But those who stay love their country. Patriotism is overflowing like the beer in the many outdoor cafes. On the television, nightly musical programs showcase mediocre rock bands singing their ballades with televised Lithuanian flags behind them. There are certainly the wealthy people, with their expensive Porsches and Mercedes, and then the regular people, who still have the post-Soviet style haircuts and take the rather shabby buses. The forests are green despite the short drought, and nature and space are abundant.
This is not a big tourist year in Vilnius, at least not yet. Some new restaurants have popped up. I am eating beet soups regularly, and of course my favorite black bread, which really is worth a trip. At a Hare Krishna restaurant in Kaunas, I had cepelinai, potato dumplings stuffed with vegetables instead of the traditional meat. Yesterday at one of the Vilnius museums, I saw an art opening featuring the collections of items from Asia of an older man who donated his many souvenirs. Vilnius seems at the same time both cosmopolitan and provincial. It is a capital city, but a distant one.
Flowers are a little withered already at the Botanical garden, but that didn’t stop the many white-gowned weddings from overrunning the park. I saw some few darker skinned kids, and recognized myself in them, as a noticeable oddity in this still quite racially pure society. Now would be a good time to invest in this country, because just as everywhere else, immigrants and diversity will arrive. The economy will expand. For now, it is a pleasure to be in a city that still lacks the homogenous mix of cultures that is now becoming rather commonplace in the more affluent countries. This culture has retained authenticity and identity, but vegetable filled potato dumplings served by blonde sari-wearing waitresses are just the first sign of the changes on the horizon.
Suddenly I am traveling again. Something about entering an airplane and flying around the world gives a sense of freedom and anonymity. When I land in Copenhagen, on the direct flight from San Francisco, I don’t know anyone and the people dissipate into the airport. I had a rather long layover, of 7 hours, so it was the perfect opportunity to re-explore this fun, wonderful city. Since I am traveling alone, I can disappear for a while, offline, for a little excursion.
I have been to Copenhagen many times, so I know how to get to the central station from the airport. I know how to walk to the museum, and then take buses to the less touristic parts of the city. On a warm sunny day, people are out sunning themselves, and going about their day. Millions of people ride bikes in Copenhagen, and there are traffic jams of bikes instead of cars. The buses have a hard time turning right, because of the constant streams of bicycles in the right lanes. These are not the expensive trendy bicycles that people ride in San Francisco. These are normal people riding normal bikes, getting to work, and doing their errands. I hope this is the future of major cities; full of bikes instead of combustion engines.
I stopped at one of my favorite museums, Ny Carlbergs Glyptotek, with its tropical courtyard and paintings of Gaugin and Danish impressionists. It is so close to the central station, and a nice quiet place to breathe after a long flight. Then I got hungry, and I wanted some vegan Ethiopian food, so I took bus 66 to Ma’eb restaurant in a more ethnically diverse neighborhood. I chose this instead of going to Christiania, which in my mind has become mainstream “alternative”.
I love walking around the canals and seeing the boats. I walk by a café called “Slice of San Francisco” run by a San Francisco woman married to a Dane. They sell burritos and sandwiches. Then it is time to go back to the airport, and I get a little nervous because the trains are running late. Now that passports are required to enter Sweden, as a mechanism to stem the immigrants, trains between Denmark and Sweden are delayed. Luckily the security line at the airport is short, and I make it easily for my flight to Vilnius. How refreshing to be in a country where the security lines are short, where trains go right into the terminal, and people happily ride bicycles in the city. This is happy Denmark on a sunny day.
Now I am in Vilnius at home. I immediately see friends and family and re-enter my life here. There is work to do, and people to see. This will be another summer of research and travel. I will update the blog regularly.
The tour guide on the Chicago River architectural boat tour is well prepared, and talks excitedly nonstop for 75 minutes giving the history of each skyscraper and each bend in the green muddy river. She is also well prepared for the weather. We start the tour in sunny warmth, but then a windy rainstorm hits. I have my umbrella, but it is shattered immediately by a flash gust. The rain is cold, but she continues her descriptions, completely unfazed by the disruption. The tour ends again in sunny warmth. This is the windy city, and my San Francisco umbrella should have known better.
I have a better understanding of American politics by seeing the Trump – TRUMP- , tower from the boat. It is the 2nd tallest building in Chicago, and the only building with such huge signage. Since everyone in this country knows his name, from television, tabloids and his hugeness, he has automatic recognition and votes. Any Hollywood persona could be president: I would predict that Madonna would do equally well.
The Art Institute of Chicago is marketed as one of the world’s best museums. I walked through the many sections trying to keep my pupils dilated, to see it all. I got interested in a painting by Atsuko Tanaka and spent time examining the smooth round colors. However, I was dismayed by the exhibit – “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms”. It was a mob scene, with hundreds of people crowded into a small maze of rooms. I always admire the paintings of Van Gogh, but how did this one starving artist become such a posthumous rock star? How did his tragic life now turn into a multi-million dollar industry? They showed a video comparing the three similar paintings of his room, and the colors in detail. They had hundreds of different Van Gogh books on sale. Somehow it seemed terribly wrong to me: this commercialization of tragic beauty. There are thousands of artists alive today who are currently struggling like Van Gogh. They should be appreciated now.
The Field Museum of Natural History reminds me of my childhood fascination with dinosaurs. One of the best things about being a scientist is that I now have friends working in incredible places, including this museum. I got to see and hold the voucher specimen of an Ivory billed woodpecker, and a passenger pigeon. Both of these birds are the sad remains of once thriving species that are now extinct. The woodpecker was particularly incredible, with its crimson crest and bold size. Afterwards I wander the many halls of this vast collection. The little boy shouting out the name “Parasaurolophus” when he sees the duckbill emphasizes the impact that these dinosaur places of worship have on our lives.
One more vegan restaurant to review: Chicago Diner. The delicious Reuben sandwich with sauerkraut and braised seitan made me buy their cookbook. Please visit me at home to look through my too large collection of vegan cookbooks. I ride many trains to find vegan restaurants in this world. I watch people along the way.
I am here in the Chicago area attending the Summit meeting of the GlobeMed organization: “Students and communities improving health around the world”. This is a terrific group of students coming together in a spirit of inclusiveness to really make change in health outcomes, locally and internationally. Amazingly, one week ago, I had disc-replacement surgery for my neck. Modern medicine is absolutely incredible, and I am now pain free, and recovered, enjoying the – still not spring – in Chicago.
Big Sur spills over with the dramatic ocean views, rugged cliffs, and spouting whales on the horizon. On a summer February day, driving down the coast, the flowers are already in full bloom, and the redwood trees are enjoying their quenched thirst after the winter rains. Sun makes the seals sleepy on the isolated beaches, and the tourists spread their arms, soaking in the warmth.
The best thing about hosting visitors is having a reason for a California road trip. With the unusually warm weather, and clear skies, we decided on Big Sur. I promised whales, sea otters, elephant seals, California condors, and redwood trees; knowing that the only guarantee was the redwoods. The campsites were already all booked, but no problem, because motels in the Monterey area had prices reflecting the low season. The first stop was the monarch butterflies in the eucalyptus trees at Pacific Grove. With the warmth, their days of huddling had already passed, but some were still flying among the trees. Then, onto Point Lobos, in the dramatic waves we saw the sea otters eating abalone on their stomachs. There should be thousands of them, but they are making a very slow comeback, possibly due to Toxoplasma, which is passed to them from the many stray cats in the area. A ranger displayed their extremely soft fur, and my friends understood immediately why they were nearly hunted to extinction.
At the McWay falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park, we saw the grey whales in the distance, spouting their misty breaths, and flashing their backs and tails. Wow. At San Simeon, we avoided Hearst Castle, and instead spent a long time watching the elephant seals. This is high season, with the aggressive males dominating the younger ones. Plenty of mating and plenty of noise from the pups, as they all snuggle on their crowded Copacabana.
We did some beautiful hiking among the redwood trees, and then it was time to return to civilization. At one of the high overlooks just north of the McWay falls, we had our picnic. Then they came out of nowhere. Five California condors, and they did a spectacular Blue Angels show. Swooping and flying incredibly close to us, it was a rare experience. With only some 400 birds alive, and about 200 in the wild, we were incredibly fortunate. They are easy to spot, with their extensive wingspan, and identifying numbers on their wings. Each has a radio transmitter, so researchers can track their movements. In my laboratory at San Francisco State University, we are actually doing some research with these birds, trying to identify if they have malaria-like parasites.
On the drive back to San Francisco, Elkhorn Slough enticed us with more birds in the wetlands. Even with all the traffic and huge Bay Area population, this part of the world is truly beautiful. The animals are making comebacks after years of decline. The grey whales are nearly at pre-hunting levels. The elephant seals are rebounding from their bottleneck population. Eventually the sea otters and condors will become commonplace. It is a lesson that conservation can work. It takes a lot of time and money to stem the losses caused by human greed, and it would certainly be easier to curb our demand for limited resources before the damage is done. Big Sur is the place to visit for inspiration.
Every evening at dusk, the fireflies come out and display their green flashing light show. At night the turacos and occasional tree hyrax call with their haunting voices. Then there is a gunshot, and the poachers have possibly killed another monkey or duiker to bring to market and sell the bushmeat. During the day, we hear chainsaws, killing in minutes trees that took hundreds of years to grow. This is the present state of the rainforests in Cameroon. I am here working with a team of scientists in a race against time, to catalogue the mosquitoes and bird diseases before the rainforest is gone. We know when and where the logging will happen, so we are taking advantage of a situation we can not stop: to learn as much as possible about the pristine rainforest before it is gone.
I arrived in Douala, and witnessed the terrible traffic that people encounter every day. People use all kinds of vehicles to move around, often 3-4 on one motorcycle. The bridge out of Douala is notoriously bad, and can create havoc for hours at a time. Then the police stop us twice along the road to Buea, blatantly asking for bribes. “Happy new year” are his words, delivered with a suggestive connotation. Corruption is just accepted, as is the poverty and lack of infrastructure. In short, life is not easy in Cameroon.
At the University of Buea, the professors and students are wonderful, dedicated and excited about learning and participating in the project. This will be an opportunity for them to learn about the diversity of the rainforest, and it is the first time for some of them to camp in the jungle. We have to pack up a lot of gear, and get organized for the 10-day trip. We drive past Kumba, and it is clear that the logging trucks are a priority. The road has completely changed since I was here last in the summer of 2014. We see Chinese workers beginning to pave the road, and one of my favorite spots along the way that had a tremendous view of a river and deep forest is now a gravel mine. This is “progress”, allowing traffic to reach the interior of the forest in half the time.
Manyemen is the village nearest to our point of entry. Incredibly small children play in the street, and women openly sell the bushmeat to the truck drivers. The bar blares Afro-beat music over big loudspeakers. We spend the night here in a less-than-clean guesthouse with the incessant noise of a generator before the morning hike into the forest. My vegan diet limits my food choices; there is only rice or plantains. It will be a starchy time in Cameroon for me.
We become a village of 18 people after hiking for more than an hour from the nearest road into the forest. We carry everything; the tents, food, cooking supplies, traps for mosquitoes and nets for birds. It is the very dry season, and it won’t rain at all. Our problem is that it means that we have a very limited supply of water because the stream is not flowing. We must conserve, and drink boiled water, with the smoky sediment that grows on the tastebuds with our increasing thirst. One bucket of water each day is sufficient to clean the sweat off our bodies. The stinky clothes never dry. We are professors, students, and 4 helpers, developing a working community. We all get along and become friends living in the bush. The bees attack us the first day, and hundreds enter my tent as soon as I open the fly. When I want to bathe, I am attacked by biting ants, piercing my feet with their jaws until I run to safety. The tingle in my feet lasts a few hours, and I start to think that perhaps this could be developed as a natural alternative to acupuncture. The ants are bad, but at this time of year, the mosquitoes are not. Still somehow, I end up with a lot of itchy bites. We dance together on Saturday night, accompanied by music on a battery operated CD player.
Every morning at dawn we open the nets to catch the birds. We take a drop of blood for our molecular studies, and make blood smears for microscopy. Most common is the Fire-crested Alethe, an orange-headed squawky bird. We get a lot of olive sunbirds, and some beautiful wattle-eyes. The diversity is still high in this pristine forest, but it won’t last long. By the summer, most of this will be gone. The mosquito group works in the tent trying to learn these obscure forest insects that don’t seem to bite humans, but may feed on frogs, birds or snakes. Nighttime is my favorite, and I go to sleep early, so that I can wake up in the middle of night, and listen to the sounds. One night a poacher walks through the camp, shining his light on my tent, but then quickly departs. Our headlamps are indispensable tools, allowing us to see in this dark humid place. We don’t need much. I don’t miss the computer or the internet, the soft beds or the dry towels. I guess I truly miss fresh green vegetables, and the occasional shower would be nice.
Now, back in Buea, after a shower, I contemplate what is happening in Africa. The students’ grandparents used to see chimpanzees, elephants and numerous monkeys everywhere. Now they are gone. In their place will be palm oil plantations, to fuel our thirst for Doritos. I tell the students the fate of the passenger pigeon and how hunting truly can cause extinction. On the hike out, the chainsaws have left their visible mark, and another portion of the forest is gone. The hope lies with the young Cameroonians who are inspired by the experience and have the opportunity to institute change.
The New Year in Pretoria, South Africa, was marked by tremendous displays of private fireworks all over the city. Since it is more than 15 Rand to the dollar, everything seems cheap here. I got 6 huge fireworks, each one shooting 100 times, for about $2.25. This is the time to visit South Africa, because restaurants, movies, museums and food all are relatively cheap when thinking in dollars or Euros. It reminds me of being in Southern California, for one third the price. I saw Star Wars at a huge Imax theater, better than what we have in the USA. I must say, that I liked the original better, but that is probably because I was a kid when I saw it. Some of the mansions of Pretoria look like they could be in Beverly Hills, with 6-car garages, and massive windows overlooking golf courses in gated communities.
The Apartheid museum documents the history of oppression in South Africa. When you get your ticket, it states either “white” or “coloured” on it, and you enter the museum through different entrances, depending on your randomly assigned ticket. I got “white”, but I recognize that I would have been classified as “coloured” if I had lived in South Africa at that time. There are disturbing videos and photographs but also the optimism associated with the end of Apartheid. This is a thought provoking well-designed museum in the center of Johannesburg, and certainly worth visiting. There is certainly still racism, bit now the separation is based on economics; rich and poor.
I also got to see the Cradle of Humankind museum in Maropeng outside of Pretoria. This is the region where our ancient Australopithecus africanus ancestors were discovered. The caves in the area are still an area of active research and the Homo naledi was uncovered here recently in 2013. The museum teaches evolution effectively and has a fun boat ride through the ice age, and interactive games for children, including a talking dodo explaining extinction.
Now I am on my way to Cameroon. Flying Rwandair through the green hilled city of Kigali, and over the huge megacity of Kinshasa before crossing the mighty Congo river for a stopover in Brazzaville: finally to Douala. I will soon be in the rainforest working with Cameroonian professors and students studying the incredible diversity of birds and their diseases.