Rain and River in Cameroon

 

Deforestation in Cameroon

It rained all day and all night, and the forest flooded. When we arrived, it was easy to wade across the river, but now the fast currents made it impassable. The waterfall was now raging brown with the sediments and muds, and I would no longer dare to swim there. But we are absolutely ready to leave. We had packed up all the tents and gear, and hiked to the river to make our crossing and return to civilization. What to do? A helicopter to rescue us? Not likely.  Or sleep in the forest until the river goes down? But that could take days, or weeks, and we had no more food. We talk about the options, and luckily our cook knows this forest well. He lives nearby in the village of Manyemen and grew up here. He hikes around looking for possible spots to make the crossing. He returns, and we lug our stuff to a spot where two trees have crashed down across the river. But the water is still too rapid there and the logs are slippery. Most of our team of 13 people can’t swim.  We decide to look further, getting all the more desperate. Finally our sentinel returns with news that he has found a spot where a single huge tree has fallen across the river. It is overgrown and he has to cut back the sprouting twigs and branches and make this slippery “bridge” crossable. It is not only the people, but also all the equipment, including tents, and scientific supplies for 13 people for 3 weeks. After some time, we dare the crossing, crawling like armadillos with our backpacks over this massive log. We shout with joy once we make it to the other side.

Crossing the river.
Rainforest Ravinder

But where did we end up? In a flooded swamp. Our hearts sink again. So now we have to create more bridges to cross the murky water. While we are waiting, the ants mercilessly attack us, and rain pours on us in our absolute wetness. But the guys on the team are experts with machetes, and we cross over more logs and wade in waist-deep water; our rubber boots full of brown muddy slush. We finally make it to land, and hike out to the road where our trucks are already waiting for us.  Exhaustion and exuberance.  This dedicated group of students is truly remarkable. They have collected blood samples from hundreds of rainforest birds, and identified thousands of mosquitoes for the project. When I first came here 3 years ago and initiated this work, I would never have imagined that 5 Cameroonian PhD students and numerous Masters students would dedicate the most precious parts of their lives to the project and become experts in the field.

Waterfall before the storms, nice swimming

We had some good times too. Swimming and bathing in the river near the waterfall (before the storms) was the highlight of each day. Listening to the insects and watching the numerous colorful butterflies. Hearing the birds, and finding many of the exact individuals that we tested last year, like old friends coming back for a visit. The rains and deafening thunder entertained me while I was safe and relatively dry in my tent.  But overall living in the rainforest isn’t easy. This time I got amoebas. Awful experience.  And while brushing my teeth the first night, a small, but rather venomous green snake slyly watched me. It is the science that drives us. The destruction of the forest in this part of Cameroon is unparalleled. We were all shaken when we saw the clear-cutting before our eyes. Just a few kilometers from where we were trapped by the river, the forest is entirely gone. It’s happening quickly. The road to this region has been paved now, so they can take out the trees faster than ever. We are studying how this affects the disease transmission in this large-scale experiment. What happens to the mosquitoes, and the birds, and their diseases?  Will another disease emerge from the rainforest, like Ebola, or HIV?  The people in the village of Manyemen are certainly eating a lot of bushmeat. You know something is wrong with the economy when a chicken costs nearly $10, and a monkey just a few dollars more at $13. The students will study these questions, and become the next generation of Cameroonian scientists in the process.

Manyemen, Cameroon

Now from the laboratory in Buea, we are going through all the samples and drafting some scientific papers for publication. The Southwest Region of Cameroon, which the separatist movement is calling Ambazonia, is under major upheaval these days. Recently the internet was shut off for political reasons for 93 days. The central government retaliated with harsh measures against the people demanding more rights and autonomy for the region. That meant no email, no Facebook, no web, nothing, for more than 3 months! It meant driving to Douala to check email. It brought the English-speaking parts of Cameroon to a standstill. They still go on strike every Monday. Even now, there is no reliable internet at the university. This morning I said to myself, well at least there is electricity.  But now that is out too. It is nearly impossible to work these days without a reliable internet connection. All the databases and literature are online. But the students and professors carry on, and just shrug it off, because it is so normal to lack the basics here. I have learned that when the electricity works, it is time to charge the laptop. The inequalities in this world are too apparent these days. The injustices are not sustainable and will have to change. Science brings us to unexpected places and deeper realizations.

An amazing team!

Following the Ark of the Covenant

 

Following the Ark of the Covenant in Aksum

They look like they could be Halloween ghosts, these thousands of people walking through the town of Aksum in Northern Ethiopia. All wearing clean white shawls, men and woman alike, they are devoted followers of the Ethiopian orthodox church. This chilly 5 am morning, we follow the Ark of the Covenant, of Indiana Jones fame, from its home in an Aksum chapel, through the village in an old town loop. Actually this is a replica of the Ark, because the true one never leaves its chapel, and people wonder whether it truly exists. We pass the mighty stelae that mark the Axumite tombs of kings that governed from here more than two thousand years ago. They rise above the street in the candlelit dawn.  The Ark is on top of one priest’s head, with ceremonial umbrellas gracing the procession. When the candles get too short, the devotees drop them onto the street, and I step on a few to put them out. But then I realize that maybe they should burn out on their own, because no one else attempts to step on these mini-fires.  While they are walking the men and women chant, in their ancient Tigrinya language that uses the squiggly script used everywhere in this country. One hour after its beginning, the procession ends, and the city returns to its business, the white shawls disappear like apparitions.

 

Procession in Aksum
Street scene in Aksum

I simply love Ethiopian food. I have never been in such a vegan friendly country. Ethiopian orthodox Christians are required to fast some 180 days of the year. This means they eat a vegan diet, and drink no alcohol for a large part of their lives. In Addis Ababa, I enjoyed just walking into any restaurant and getting a delicious meal. The same is true in Aksum, the food is flavorful, and I even risk getting sick by eating fresh salads. I love the spongy injera and I think I could eat it every day. What am I doing in Ethiopia?  Well, it turns out that Ethiopian Airlines is the cheapest way to get from Stockholm to Douala, Cameroon.  Why not stop, eat and explore for a few days?  What I experienced is a true pride of the people for their country and their culture, and genuine friendliness and helpfulness.

A 14-year-old young man living in Aksum was my guide. He found me at the holiest church in the country, the St. Mary of Zion church, next to the chapel that houses the Ark.  Most of the boys want to earn some money. I told this young man when he approached me that I wouldn’t give him any money, but he simply expressed that he wanted to accompany me for the day, and be friends.  And that is exactly what he did. He showed me the Tomb of Akeb, and the Palace of Queen Sheba. He showed me where to eat lunch, and helped me bargain for my white shawl. And at the end of the day, he said he would try to get an email address so that we can communicate, but even when I offered to give him some cash, he refused.  This generosity of spirit has struck me with many of the people here. Perhaps it is the home-grown religion, or the lack of colonizers, but to me, Ethiopia seems different than the other countries I have visited and worked in. But still TIA – This is Africa. That is the acronym that I learned from one of the taxi drivers in Addis. There is corruption, there is poverty, there is exploitation, there is overpopulation, there is the terrible history.

Shoe shine

The museums in Addis Ababa are nothing to really write home about. Lucy, the Austalopithecus afarensis skeleton is the highlight of the National Museum. The Ethnographic museum is dusty, but housed in the University of Addis Ababa. More interesting to me was watching the students celebrate their graduation. I spoke with one woman who had just completed her engineering degree, and had so much optimism, and vibrancy, but little hope of getting a job soon. Many boys line the streets working as shoe shiners, for the walkers in the wet streets of these somewhat chilly rainy July days. Taxi drivers are plentiful, and they complain about the corruption in the government while they try to cheat me for a little extra cash. I didn’t see many tourists, but I would easily like to explore more of Ethiopia.

The world forgot Minsk

Monument to the Great Patriotic War, in Minsk

It’s curious how I only noticed that Minsk lacks billboards and ubiquitous advertising when I got back to Vilnius. The avenues are wide, and the Soviet architecture dominates the entire city. Minsk was completely destroyed during WWII, so in the decades following the Great Patriotic War, the city was carefully rebuilt to inspire the communist movement. I flew from Vilnius to Minsk in 30 minutes, but in that time warp, I probably went back 20 years.

There are few tourists in Minsk. I heard that Vilnius gets more visitors in one month than Minsk gets in a year (and clearly Vilnius is not a major tourist destination).  Belarus has a bad reputation, due to the dictator Lukashenko’s being in office since 1994.  There is a definite military vibe, and a lot of homage to the days of the USSR.  The city was preparing for the July 3rd celebration of the liberation of Minsk in 1944. Military jets flew over my head, and the parade route was adorned with flags. Nearly one-third of the Belorussian population died during that war, so it is the major celebration of Independence. They even still have a holiday for the October Revolution of 1917. But it is noticeable that the country doesn’t have a national holiday for its 1991 independence from the USSR.

The Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum is the place to see tanks and airplanes and life sized replicas of the partisans in their forest hovels. The horrors of the war are omnipresent, but in a way, this museum glorifies the conflict. The most chilling section is of the German death camps. Here there is some space devoted to the holocaust, but the emphasis is on how many Belorussian civilians and soldiers perished. After leaving the museum, I would have liked to have had the feeling that war is an atrocity that should never be repeated. Instead I left knowing that the Soviets were the victors, and it was honorable. I got the same feeling at the WWII museum in New Orleans, USA. In my mind a war museum should be horrific, and not a place for children to fantasize about guns and tanks.

Victory Hall at the Great Patriotic War Museum

At the ballet, Orr and Ora, watching the audience was actually more interesting than the ballet.  The performance had world class dancers, but the story was rather cliché and the music repetitive. But the dresses and outfits of the women in the audience were from a different era. Women showed off their long flowing gowns of bright flowery colors. Their hair dyed and friseured in ways not seen in Western Europe or the USA.  High spiky heals. See, there is no H & M in Minsk, no Zara, no Marks and Spencer. That is why these stores in Vilnius are full of the wealthy Belorussians who cross the border for their shopping sprees.  Besides McDonald’s and Coca Cola, I didn’t see much in terms of Western branding.  Here I saw avant-garde Belorussian.

In terms of art, I saw the exhibition of Belorussian artists at the Arts Palace. Marc Chagall is the most important Belorussian artist, but again, he is forgotten here. There are very few of his paintings in the country, because the Soviets didn’t like his style, and he was Jewish. This exhibit is an attempt to revive him to national prominence. I also liked the paintings by Bakst and Zarfin. I visited the Belorussian National Arts Museum, on Lenin street.  Here there was also a small exhibit of Chagall’s prints. It is a grand old style museum that houses with a collection spanning centuries.

Would I go to Minsk again?  Probably not for a while. Most of my Lithuanian friends were surprised that I had any interest in Minsk. I didn’t get to see the botanical gardens, but I did take the subway, taxis, trams and buses. I saw how clean the city is, and how it is actually nice to not be bombarded by advertising all the time. People were super friendly, although English is not widely spoken. I like knowing that in every culture, people are brainwashed, and there is underlying propaganda that subconsciously affects us. But in the end, we are all more or less the same. Minsk is fun and fascinating; like a strange dinosaur moving in a different direction.

Getting to Minsk

At this point, July 2017, if you fly to Minsk, you can enter Belarus for 5 days without a visa (EU or American citizens). This is only if you fly to Minsk.  If you take a train or car, a visa is required.  The flight from Vilnius to Minsk is only 30 minutes, but ended up being late in both directions. When you arrive at the Minsk airport, you must buy the travel insurance.  The counter is right before the passport control. It is cheap, about 1 euro/day.  I would recommend to rush off the plane to get the travel insurance first and then stand in the passport control line.  It takes a while to get through. They thoroughly examine each person’s passport with a magnifying glass.  Then you go through baggage claim and the green channel with nothing to declare.  We had a hotel transfer waiting (arranged beforehand with Hotel Belarus).  Taxi to the city costs 50 Belarusian rubles, which is about 25 euros.  It takes about 45 minutes to get to the center of Minsk from the airport.  If you are going to buy any chocolates buy them inside the duty free area, because they are half price after passport control.

Vegan Minsk

I wasn’t in Minsk long enough to really explore all the options.  At Hotel Belarus, the breakfast buffet had plenty of vegan salads and fruits.  Vega Burger is near the Victory Square about a minute from the mighty obelisk.  It was quite good, with salads, and a variety of vegan burgers.  I had a tofu and tomato salad, and a nice lentil burger. They do the burgers, in a panini style. The atmosphere has a yoga center vibe with Indian music. It’s a nice place with qualities of a typical vegetarian restaurant.

Joninės

Ravinder with 9 types of flowers for Joninės

Cars are jammed with people from all over the country traveling to participate in the solstice events in Kernavė. Modern traffic to attend pagan rituals. This is the first capital of Lithuania, and each square meter of this ancient city has historical significance. I didn’t notice any tourists from other countries; this is a very Lithuanian festival. We walk down the sidewalk to the church and the main hills where the castles once stood. Alongside, it is like a country market, with vendors selling typical Lithuanian foods and handiworks.  It is like a mini-Kaziuko mugė (the huge handicraft market that happens every March). There are cheeses and breads, beers and gira (the drink brewed from black bread). They sell leather goods and knives and ceramic cups, plus there are women weaving wreaths for the visitors to wear on their heads.  I learned about Kupolė, who was the pagan goddess of springtime vegetation. We are to find 9 different types of flowers in the fields to bring us good fortune.  And if you find a magical blooming fern this night, at midnight, you will be able to speak to animals.   

The evening begins with some traditionally dressed women singing the medieval songs. Most families have picnics and their blankets, and the girls have their hair adorned with the flowery-grassy-leafy wreaths.  They walk up and down the hills that probably are still full of knightly archeological relics. Throughout the evening, more singing, and then finally as midnight approaches, the bonfires are lit. One main one where Mindaugas’ castle once stood, plus smaller ones on each hill.  Another one is fired up later near the river.  It finally gets a little dark, and most of the people here will drink and wait until sunrise before departing.  The pagan rituals of centuries still survive in this corner of Lithuania. 

I have written this before, but each time I come here, there are more and more shopping malls, and new restaurants. The economy seems to be booming despite the decreasing population and low pensions of the elderly. If you get a European salary, and live in this relatively cheap city, you clearly have money to shop.  To me it seems that there are more malls than in San Francisco or Stockholm.

 But that is the capital city of Vilnius; the countryside seems untouched. The magical forests seem full of unexplored mushrooms and gnomes. The lakes are large and clean, with just a few fishermen on the bridges searching for giant catfish. I took a brief swim in the Asveja lake, the longest in the country. This was after a huge seemingly tropical, but cold, rainstorm drenched me while walking in the forest. When you are wet anyway, might as well swim in the lake. Then the mosquitoes attack, while we look for tiny wild strawberries. There are dilapidated barns and abandoned houses spotting the landscapes. The little village store sure has a lot of alcohol, but not enough farmers populate this country. It really is time for more immigration and less emigration. 

My favorite of the few immigrants are at Beardland in Vilnius.  I was the first customer there last year, just before my 50th birthday party, so I am welcomed like a returning prince. Now it is a Syrian barber who does my hair, and he is excellent. He wraps my face in warm towels, and uses hot wax to pull out any stray hairs. Of course there is tea, and a somehow more Mediterranean, or Mesopotamian atmosphere here in the old town.  The barber tells me about his family still in Damascus, and I once again recognize my incredibly good fortune. These are refugees just like both my parents once were. The Varnelis museum right at the Town Hall square documents the plight of the many Lithuanians, who like my mother were forced out of the country and ended up living in displaced persons camps in Germany for the years following WWII.  Now it is time for the Lithuanians to accept the refugees that could contribute to this country in so many new and creative ways.

Then after the pagan rituals the catholic ones started. One priest, Matulionis was being beatified, and is nearly a saint. He died sometime in the 1960’s after being persecuted for many years by the Soviets. Thousands of Catholics streamed into the cathedral square for the ceremonies.  

Cathedral Square in Vilnius with thousands of devotees

 A picnic on the bench with my plaque from last year, at the University Botanical Gardens gives me some type of physical link to the ephemeral spring that embodies Vilnius.

Stockholm Scenic

 

In June, people are still at work in Stockholm, anticipating the upcoming Midsommar holidays and then July, when basically everything shuts down.  I took my bicycle and rode around the city, enjoying the views and sunny warm weather. I notice men wearing blue suits with light blue shirts and brown shoes, and plenty of students wearing their white graduation caps, shouting and singing during their graduation parties. Some of them have rented party buses to drive around the city. Other are just in their cars expressing their new freedom from school.  I already managed to join friends for a few parties of celebration. In the few warm months, every moment is full, and a whole year of festivities is compacted into these night-less days. For me, it is already summer, and I have begun my yearly sojourn to the northern countries of Sweden and Lithuania. Then I will soon enough be in Africa to continue the research project in Cameroon.

 

Red-breasted sapsucker in California

San Francisco in the spring was full of flowers and unusual green grass on the city hills, after all the rains. Then suddenly, I am on a plane, first to Minneapolis, then Frankfurt, then Vilnius, and finally Stockholm.  This time the planet seemed huge, given the number of hours of flight. The airplanes are all full, very unlike the days that I remember as a child. I remember flying on Pan Am around the world in half empty airplanes.  It seemed that there was always an extra seat or row to sleep in. What will it be like in 20 years? If it continues like this, we will be strapped in while standing up, to save space.  Or perhaps there will no longer be a need to travel whatsoever, because of virtual reality. And in any case, the whole world will be rather homogeneous anyway, given the obvious entropy that is causing each city to be alike any other. Stockholm now seems to have a diversity of people that is similar to London, Frankfurt or New York. I like that I can’t recognize the languages people are speaking in the trains and I love hearing the different accents when people speak Swedish. This is a country going through major changes, and for the most part, it seems to be going well. Watching the television and listening to the radio, it is noticeable they have news in several languages, including sign language. In direct contrast to the USA, here there is an emphasis on being welcoming and inclusive of all people. I use my Swedish passport nearly exclusively these days.

The traffic through the center of Stockholm City is bad these days because of the reconstruction going on. It seems constant, and Swedes tolerate the incessant building of new parts of the city. There are always new subway lines to consecrate and new more efficient buildings coming up. Practical and forward thinking, but rich in traditions, this is Stockholm.

Aloha!

Laysan Albatross at Ka’ena Point

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. 

Ravinder with Monk seal in the background
Laysan Albatross chick
Green sea turtle on the North shore

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. 

The locals at China Walls

History in the Forests

Ravinder in a forest near Vilnius

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.

Northern Darks

2017 Snow in Stockholm

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.

Christmas Trees thrown on the corners of Stockholm streets

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.

Stockholmare Ravinder at the Opera.

-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.

Frozen Ravinder at -26 degrees.

God Jul – Linksmų Kalėdų – Merry Christmas

 

Huge Christmas tree with Ravinder in Vilnius

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.

Christmas at home in Stockholm

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!

Earthquakes and Snow in Tokyo

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Ravinder outside the Kabuki theater in Ginza, Tokyo

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.

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Majestic Mt. Fuji
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View from Roppongi Hills City View, with Tokyo Tower in the distance.

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.

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Ravinder at the Meguro Parasitologial Museum
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Mori Museum at Roppongi

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.

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Ravinder in Nikko
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Ravinder hiking among cedar trees in Nikko

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.

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Syungyotei Onsen near Nikko

Vegan Tokyo: à la Ravinder

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Corn in Ueno, Tokyo

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
  • 2.Vegetable Sushi
  • 3.Fried season vegetables
  • 4.Avocado carpaccio
  • 5.Season vegetables potage
  • 6.Tofu steak
  • 7.Vegetable roll
  • 8.Fruit sampler

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.

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Delicious meal at Kamakura Fushikian

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.

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Very expensive boxes of fruit for sale in Ginza, Tokyo

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!

 

Transported in Tokyo

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Ravinder at Shibuya

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.

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Ravinder with Hachikō at Shibuya Station

 

 

Bulgaria Week

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Light show in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

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.

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You can buy these coffee mugs in Arbanasi!

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.

Viking 50

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50!

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.

  1. 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.
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Picnic at Ugglevikskällan
  1. 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.
On the Viking boat
On the Viking boat
  1. 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.

A dog named Gabon

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This is Gabon

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.

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Half woman/Half man statue representing freedom from slavery in Libreville.

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.

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Gabon chasing the crabs on the beach

Mosquitoes and Mud in Cameroon

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Ravinder with Olive sunbird

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.

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Ravinder hiking into the forest before the rain starts

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.

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Some happy boys in Manyemen

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.

Swimmingly Malta

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Ravinder with view of Valletta

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.

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Valletta
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Dwejra on the island of Gozo
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Vegan platter of delicious Maltese foods.

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.

Expressions of Vilnius

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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.

Raivnder at the parade
Raivnder at the parade

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.

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Late night rainbow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long Stockholm Days

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Ravinder at tree outside the Museum of Modern Art.

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.

Lithuanian Life

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This is Ravinder’s farm

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.

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View from Pilies gatvė, we live in the most touristic part of town.