Non-stop in Rio de Janeiro

Two days is not enough time in Rio de Janeiro! Two days was like going into an amazing vegan restaurant where I would want to try everything, but can only choose one dish. I did find a great vegan place: Rio Vegano. I ate there twice, because it was close to where I was staying. Delicious salads and lentil burgers and also pastels de forno, which are like empanadas stuffed with various things, tofu, eggplant, hearts of palm… Chocolate cake of course, and the owners are delightful.  I promised them I would write in my blog.

This is the hat people wear in Rio
Rio Vegano
Chocolate cake at Rio Vegano

I took the train up to see the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer, but it was very foggy. It cleared after a while.  I saw some very authentic samba at Rio Scenarium, at the suggestion of my friends in Belo Horizonte. Today was sunny and time for the beach at Ipanema. Then the cable car ride to the Sugar Loaf mountain. Everything was quite incredible, but mostly it was the friendly people. I don’t speak any Portuguese but they were always helping me. Today I wanted to get to the cable car ride, and I asked which bus to take, but instead people at the bus stop put me in a cab with a wonderful lady who said she was going that way anyway, and paid for the taxi. On the way back, I got lost on the bus, but the bus driver made a special stop for me near a different metro station then the one I was supposed to go to. It will be a great place for the Olympics. Here are some photos of my time in Rio.

Tomorrow I fly to Cartagena, Colombia.

I am in Rio!

Rio de Janeiro. Finally, my first visit to the Cidade Maravilhosa. So far, it is a little rainy and overcast, so no one was at Ipanema beach. People are going about their daily business. There are so many shops and little corner stores and people drinking from big coconuts. The beaches are huge with volleyball nets and soccer goalposts, but nobody playing. Just not the right weather. I can visualize what it is like on a hot sunny day.

Ipanema Beach
Street Scene
I am staying on the 7th floor
Line for taxi at airport

I arrived by airplane from Belo Horizonte. I would recommend taking a bus from BH instead of the plane. It would probably be easier and faster. The taxi line at the airport in Rio was ridiculous. But I got to my little Airbnb apartment near Ipanema and then started walking.

I walked all around Ipanema and Leblon. Then I went to the Vegetariano Social Club. My Thanksgiving dinner was a vegan buffet with tofu stroganoff, stewed beans and nice salads followed by chocolate tofu cake and ice cream. Definitely Brazilian flavors and a nice quiet atmosphere.

Vegetariano Social Club
Vegan Thanksgiving Dessert!

They have Black Friday in Brazil, but of course no Thanksgiving. So nobody quite understands what Black Friday is. Capitalism from the USA is affecting the whole world, and people will go to the sales tomorrow. Maybe I will go shopping tomorrow and be a good consumer!

Encontro de Pesquisa em Parasitologia

This morning I was the plenary speaker at the 5th annual research meeting of Parasitology in Belo Horizonte. Most of the meeting is in Portuguese, so I am not able to understand much. All the participants are gracious and friendly.

The meeting began with the announcer presenting the professors as soccer stars, with the excited voice of a radio broadcaster. Then there was a mini-performance of a choir singing the Brazilian anthem, Kumbaya and the Saints Come Marching In. This was followed by a short introduction by the panel of professors; then a coffee break. I was the first speaker with my presentation “Effects of climate change and deforestation on the prevalence and diversity of avian malaria”.

In the USA and Europe, we are largely rid of dangerous human parasites, but here it seems that everyone knows someone who has had parasites. I have been traveling a lot the last few years. Time to get a check up for parasites?

Opening Ceremony
Professor Sehgal

Yesterday, I had a chance to do some exercise at the gym in Pampulha. This is the gym of the beautiful people, with a beautiful view of the Pampulha lagoon and the famous modern church. There are so many buffed personal trainers that walk around helping people, especially the women in revealing outfits who wear a lot of makeup to the gym.

The meeting continues tomorrow, followed by a soccer party.

Art in Minas Gerais

Soccer is religion in Brazil. Yesterday was an important championship game and the local team, Cruzeiro, won. The fans were all over the city honking horns and setting off fireworks. They spent their day at parties drinking and having churrasco, their big BBQs. There was music everywhere and people dancing in the streets. This was all happening during a huge thunderstorm with rain drenching everyone. I will go to a soccer party on Wednesday for another championship game.

Belo Horizonte is huge. There are all apartment buildings and skyscrapers all over the city. This seems different than American or European cities where the tall buildings are only downtown. The roads are crowded. I think this is a common theme all over the world, and everywhere I go, people say the same thing. “The traffic is terrible”, whether it is San Francisco, Vilnius, Honolulu, Delhi or Belo Horizonte.

Instead of watching soccer, I got to see some art. Inhotim is an impressive outdoor art gallery, with beautiful gardens and pavilions featuring international contemporary artists. It is huge and one could easily spend 2 days there. My friends and I were there for most of the day yesterday. The park is about one hour from Belo Horizonte (on a Sunday when everyone is watching soccer). One artist I liked was Geta Brătescu, a Romanian artist who does colorful collages. I always like how Olafur Eliasson plays with light. The landscape is tropical and reminded me of Hawaii. This was truly one of the most beautiful outdoor museums I have visited, and it is worth a trip to Minas Gerais just to see it.  Here are some photos.


I wish I spoke some Portuguese. This is the third time I have been to Brazil in three years, and it seems that by now I should understand something. I don’t watch TV, but it is curious that the television in the hotel room has over 100 channels, but not one in English; not even CNN. I look Brazilian enough that people speak Portuguese to me.   This is different than Vilnius, where I don’t look like I should speak Lithuanian.

I am loving the food. I have been to a great vegetarian Asian restaurant, San Ro, in Belo Horizonte and the restaurant at Inhotim. Brazilians typically have huge buffets with fresh salads, vegetables and lots of mangos. Birds, fruits, flowers and happy people in Belo Horizonte.

Delicious buffet at Inhotim
Main plaza in Belo Horizonte

Sun in Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte is the 6th largest city in Brazil, but where I am, it doesn’t seem crowded. It is sunny and warm and people are jogging and riding their bikes around the lovely Pampulha lagoon. This is all near the very large and spacious university, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais where I am based this week. I will be one of the plenary speakers at the Parasitology conference here.

Me at the main building of the Federal University of Minas Gerais
Interesting architecture of the famous Saint Francisco de Assis Church on Pampulha lagoon

I must say it is nice to be in the warm sun after arriving from Vilnius where it was beginning to snow. Delicious mangos, papayas and pineapples, plus greens, beans and rice are a nice change after the last few weeks of winter foods.

Delicious Paladino restaurant
Guava preserves
Delicious greens

My talk will be on Tuesday about the effects of habitat and climate change on the prevalence and diversity of avian malaria. I will present  our work in Alaska and Africa, and how although there is much more research to do, we do know that with the rapid environmental changes, we are seeing differences in types of malaria and also the diversity. It is nice to be interacting with students and professors here. Brazil seems to have money to send students abroad and also invite professors for collaborative work. And the lab and facilities are not much different than what we have at San Francisco State.

There are some nice birds, and I will see more nature and more of the state of Minas Gerais over the next few days.

A visit to Kaunas

Probably my last blog from Vilnius for a while:  Here are some photos of the churches in Vilnius. The miraculous Madonna at Aušros Vartai, the Gates of Dawn, is is believed to heal peoples ailments. The churches are fully baroque, but there seem to be more churches than the people need. One friend said it would be better if they sent buses to the suburbs and bus people into the old town, because there are too many churches and not enough people living near by.

Beautiful amber from Lithuania
MIraculous Madonna at the Gates of Dawn

DSCF3807 DSCF3805 DSCF3804 DSCF3799 DSCF3796 DSCF3793 DSCF3790

The second largest city in Lithuania is Kaunas. It was also the temporary capital of the country during the short interwar period of independence. My close friends from Stockholm were visiting, so we decided to take a day trip to Kaunas to see the museum of the Lithaunian artist/composer Čiurlionis. There is a modern fast train that goes between the cities now, and it is as good as any European train and covers the distance in one hour.

Along the way, the train passes lots of small villages, that are typical of the country. People have their own little gardens, and that was partly how they survived the Soviet occupation. It seems that everyone still grows some of their own food, and makes preserves for the winter. That is why when the organic food movement started arriving in Lithuania, it was comical, because people already had their own organic vegetables and fruits.

Here are some photos of my favorite paintings by Čiurlionis.

Here are some photos of Kaunas

Old Castle in Kaunas
Town Hall in Kaunas Old Town
Vilniaus gatvė, main walking street in the old town of Kaunas

I am leaving Vilnius now for nearly a month, for a trip to South America. It is with mixed feelings that I am leaving. I have grown so fond of my daily routine here, with work, friends and exploring Vilnius and Lithuania. I will return. On Friday, I will be in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Farmer’s Market

Wherever I travel, I like to visit the farmer’s markets. In San Francisco, my favorite is the Alemany market, where I shop every Saturday and buy the freshest vegetables and fruits. I have been making kiwi juice for more than a decade with the kiwis that are available now in California. I was in Split, Croatia last year, and I loved the market there. I went to some nice markets in the villages of Cameroon recently too.

Today I was at the farmer’s market in Vilnius. Kalvarijų turgus is not far from the city center. I must say that they have some great pickles, horseradish and adjika (which is a Georgian spicy dip that is very similar to Mexican pico de gallo). If you love bacon and sausages this is heaven. If you love dino kale, bok choy, and long beans, like me, you are out of luck. It was a chilly foggy day, and I bought some beets and preserved sorrel (konservuotos rūgštynės) and made a simple soup. There were pears, apples and pumpkins, which people use to make pumpkin soup. This is not where the prosperous Vilnius suburbanites shop. They go to the new big supermarkets. This is the market of the people, and seems to have some characteristics of the soviet times. Here are some photos.

Art in Vilnius

Last night was the opening of an exhibition of the artist Teodoras Valaitis at the National Gallery. He was known as a sculptor but also painted prolifically. He was an artist during the Soviet times. As I understand, he was killed under mysterious circumstances at the age of 40 in 1974. There is tragedy behind every person’s life here.

I got an invitation to the opening, and there were many eager cultural enthusiasts lining up to hear the talk. After the opening ceremony there was a rush to see the paintings and sculptures. Some of his sculptures look like mitochondria, and are actually called biomorphs. His paintings range from dark to colorful abstract. Here are some of the images. I liked it. I was impressed by the amount of interest by the Vilnius community in this relatively unknown artist.

I am also uploading a couple of images by Čiurlionis, Lithuania’s most famous artist/composer. I have performed some of his piano music.

Čiurlionis is Lithuania’s best known artist/composer


Then the Friday sauna with my new friends. Probably the hottest sauna I have ever been in. Jumping in the very cold pond and being beaten with birch leaves/branches. The guys munch on chicken livers and Lithuanian cheese and bread, but surprisingly no vodka or liquor. I ate pickles and chips. It doesn’t get much more authentic than this, and I will miss being here.

Sauna Snacks
The wet birch branches used for beating each other

Topics of Discussion

Droopy flags of Lithuania and the EU

I have noticed that there are some recurring themes in conversations with Lithuanians. One big one is about the rapid pace of change going on here, and how some people are left out, and others are getting rich. Starting in January, the country is switching the currency to Euros, but everyone I talked to is fine with that, and they are not too worried about prices increasing.

Russia is a big topic. It is right next door. People I have spoken with are not fearful of a Russian invasion, but still they seem to want to stay as far away from Russia as possible. To me, as an outsider, it would make sense to have some type of open door policy with Russia, or at least Belarus. Many people still speak perfect Russian here, and it almost seems a waste to not take advantage of all the common cultural and language skills. This country could take advantage of its location between Europe and Russia. Yet, some people here have never been to Belarus, even though it is just about 20 km from Vilnius and Minsk is the nearest capital city. Now there are strict visa requirements between the two countries. A lot of Belorussians come here to shop at the big malls, but they need expensive visas. The reality is that after years and years of occupation, and now complete integration into the European Union, there is no big need to work with Russians and people have no trust in what the Russian government says.

Lithuanians talk about languages a lot. Everyone I have met is multilingual, and young people all speak English, along with other languages such as Russian, Polish, German or French. There is a very strong pride in the Lithuanian language.

People are curious about the USA, and a lot of people have traveled there. But it does seem a very strange country from here. Especially the hugely expensive elections and the domination of the news. But there seems to be a trust in America, that they are doing the right thing by policing the world. Swedes and Lithuanians differ a lot in this regard.

It has been a warm fall so far, with little rain. I am missing the delicious vegetables and fall fruits of California. Those of you in San Francisco, must recognize that you live in food paradise. I have been to 5 vegetarian restaurants in Vilnius, plus 2 Chinese. It is great that there are 5 vegetarian restaurants, 2 of which are raw, but there is just no comparison to the food in San Francisco. Sue’s Indian Raja is an exception with excellent Indian food. Restaurants are still relatively cheap though.

It is a pleasure to be here, working with wonderful generous people. Soon I travel to Brazil.


A day in Dzūkija

Here is the full moon over the Congress Concert Hall in Vilnius. I will continue to capture each full moon this year.

Full Moon, November 6th, Vilnius

Lithuanian is an ancient language, rich with a complex grammar and full of poetic subtleties. Today I was in a region in the southeast, Dzūkija. On the way to the Čepkelių Reserve, we stopped in a small old village called Zervynos. It has traditional houses upon a lovely river, the Ūla. While walking around, we met an old woman of 88. She spoke in the local dialect, and invited us to her house. She immediatly began singing a rather sad song, which I didn’t quite understand. But it was clear that she is lonely. Like many other villages, this one is rather empty, as people have left to go to the cities, or abroad. About 25% of Lithuanians have left the country, and in the UK there are more than 200,000 recent Lithuanian immigrants. Vilnius is bustling and full of new shopping malls and skyscrapers, but the villages are being abandoned. It would be a good time to buy Lithuanian land.

House in Zervynos
She sang a sad song.
Traditional crosses in Zervynos

The Čepkelių Reserve is a huge swamp, and in the summer there are millions of birds. Today is was extremely quiet, and peaceful. There is a huge forest around, that continues into Belorussia. People love to hunt for mushrooms and berries here. The countryside is not crowded and there is still space for trees and swamps. We continued on to Merkinė, where we climbed the ancient hill fortress of Queen Bona Sforza (the Italian who became queen of Lithuania, who was the evil mother in the ballet I saw last week, Barbora Radvilaitė). It was a lovely view of the confluence of the Merkys and Nemunas rivers.

Čepkelių Reserve
Čepkelių Reserve
View of Nemunas River from ancient hill in Merkinė

Last night was a sauna experience. Pilaitės Dvaras is like a small old village just on the outskirts of Vilnius. With a few friends, in an old sauna, enjoying the heat and then jumping into the cold pond. I certainly am no longer just a visitor, I am a Lithuanian.

Clapping in Unison

I just returned from the ballet, Barbora Radvilaitė. Great dancing, music and costumes. I have a friend who is friends with the conductor, so I am getting excellent seats to performances for free. The ballet is the story of a Lithuanian prince who is supposed to marry a girl that his mother has chosen for him, but instead falls in love with Barbora. A true historical Lithuanian love story. In the end Barbora gets sick and dies.

Curtain call for the ballet

Over the years, I have noticed changes. When I went to performances at the opera house years ago, at intermission, people in the audience would walk in a procession, in a circle on the mezzanine of the hall. Now, it is just the older generation that does that. That tradition is slowly dying out, although there were still quite a few people, including myself and my friend, walking in the circle. But the tradition of clapping in unison at the end of the performance is still alive. It is nice to hear how from a cacophony of clapping, suddenly a rhythm develops and the whole audience claps together in unison.  Going to a performance here seems somehow different than going to a ballet in the USA or else Western Europe.  I don’t know how to explain it, but it seems more understated here.  As if it is a right of the people to have these performances, and the individuals in the audience are not making a statement by going to a ballet.  No over the top enthusiasm either.  Perhaps these are remnants of the socialist days.

Vilnius National Opera and Ballet Theater
Fewer people walking in the intermission procession circle these days.

I have some photos of the Neris river, and some of the more modern parts of Vilnius. The city is changing quickly, with new skyscrapers, and shopping malls popping up everywhere. I take the bus 1G every morning to get to the Nature Research Centre. We are having lovely warm weather. It probably won’t last much longer. Tomorrow I will hear an opera.

Some skyscrapers in Vilnius
Neris River, with the words, I “heart” you too.
Vilnius television tower in the background
People loading onto a bus.
Gedimino pilis, castle in the background.
Bus 1G, I take this every day.


Christopher Columbus was Lithuanian

Yesterday was Vėlinės, All Soul’s Day, in Lithuania. Every person in this country goes to the cemeteries on November 1st to clean, and place flowers and candles on the gravestones. You can imagine the traffic jams at the cemeteries as people drive from near and far. I joined my mother and her friends to visit the Biržai region, in the north of the country. It was a three hour drive in the chilly fog to get there. Along the way I got to hear some history. Always there is talk of the grand days when this country reached to the Black Sea, and was one of the great powers of Europe. There was one king Jogaila and he had several sons. One of the sons was Vadiclovas and he was sent to be the king of some state in Russia. He had a battle against the tartars and in that battle he was the leader. He disappeared and nobody found his body, and nobody knew what happened to him. Apparently he ended up traveling and fathered several children along the way. Christopher Columbus was one of his sons. It is also that clear that basketball originated here. (The national passion here is basketball). People are very patriotic and proud, and the history is rich.

The cemetery we visited was in a little village called Kupreliškis. Imagine a village where most of the people have left. Abandoned houses, and farms. All the remaining people know someone who has moved to the UK, or at least to Vilnius. All the older generation has gone through some type of suffering, through wars, and communism, and then the new struggles of capitalism. There is no work to do, and it is not profitable to be a small scale farmer. These people have been forgotten and somehow left behind, as if nothing has changed since the 1990’s and independence. We visited some relatives, who were gracious hosts, serving us their best cakes and foods. It is clear that they don’t have much.

Many abandoned homes in the Lithuanian villages
Cemetery and church in Kupreliškis
People tending the gravestones
At the bell tower, where Lithuanian freedom fighter partisans used to store their weapons.

DSCF3682 The next stop was the town of Biržai, which has a castle that was destroyed by Swedes in 1704, and then only recently reconstructed.   Lovely mushroom dumplings in the cellar restaurant. Then on to another cemetary and another visit to some more friends’ relatives. Again, with tea and hearing about how the husband worked in Scotland for 6 years, but doesn’t speak a word of English, because he only worked and stayed with Lithuanians. These people live in an old Soviet style block apartment.

Biržai castle
Apartment building in Biržai


Then returning to Vilnius, in the dark along the way, all the cemeteries glowing with candles. Strong traditions in a small country.