God Jul!

Season’s Greetings from Stockholm

Merry Christmas! God Jul! Linksmų Kalėdų! Feliz Navidad! Frohe Weihnachten!

In a few minutes the traditional Christmas Eve in Sweden will begin with Kalle Anka; Donald Duck with Mickey Mouse and his friends on television. Nearly 40% of all Swedes will be watching the program that is nearly exactly the same every year. It has been a tradition since 1959.

There is still no snow in Stockholm, but it is cold. The lights are up in all the houses and apartment buildings and the Sehgal family has a huge Christmas tree with the same ornaments and lights that my parents have been using for decades. On the table are 12 dishes for the traditional Lithuanian Kūčios. We have a mix of Lithuanian, American and Swedish traditions in this household.

Three meter tall Christmas tree

Stockholm doesn’t seem to be experiencing an economic slump; shoppers are rushing around on Christmas Eve buying last minute presents. The stores are crowded, and the signs are already going up for the after-Christmas sales. Sweden has a social democrat government but it doesn’t exclude consumerism.

Stockholm Winter Solstice.

It has been a tremendous fall with a lot of travels. Merry Christmas in the 5 languages I have been trying to speak these weeks.  I will continue this sabbatical blog in 2015. Wishing everyone Happy Holidays and a very Happy New Year!

Frequent Flyer

Culture shock occurs when you leave the incredible rainforest and within one day find yourself in the Christmas market in Frankfurt. I left Tambopata in the early morning, and took a boat for 5 hours to return to Puerto Maldonado. Then flew to Cusco, Lima and Bogota. I had a 5-minute connection in Bogota, and actually made it. Lufthansa had changed the timing of the flight to Frankfurt, so now it leaves nearly one hour earlier. I ran from the Avianca flight from Lima to the gate for Frankfurt. They asked “are you Señor Sanchez?” and I said yes, and quickly showed my passport. They gave me Señor Sanchez’ boarding pass, and closed the door behind me. Only after take-off did I tell them that I was in fact not Mr. Sanchez. They made some calls from the cockpit, and everything turned out fine. Of course my duffel bag didn’t make it, but it will arrive in Stockholm sometime soon. Call me if you want some tips on how to deal with airlines.

I arrived in Frankfurt and felt somehow very comfortable. Clearly South America is not my home culture. I loved every minute of my time there, with the warmth of the people and the sun. But when I arrived in Europe, everything seemed familiar and easy. I visited the Christmas market and then had a South Indian thali at the Saravanaa Bhavan restaurant near the train station. This multiculture is my culture.

Now I am in Vilnius. There are Christmas lights everywhere. I slept until noon and am getting organized. I will participate in a thesis defense on Friday, and then fly to Stockholm to celebrate the holidays with my family. Frequent Flyer.

Very sleepy but smiling in Frankfurt
Weihnachtsmarkt Frankfurt
Back at home in Vilnius


It is rare to see such a pristine forest. There are so many birds.   I was watching the macaws and parrots eating the clay when suddenly they all flew off. We soon spotted an ornate hawk eagle in the tree: this is the macaws main predator. The macaws presumably eat the clay because it is rich in sodium.   I saw beautiful manakins in a lek, and several mixed flocks of birds. There are toucans and red-necked woodpeckers; beautiful tanagers and plenty of antwrens. The researchers here study the development of the scarlet macaws. This involves climbing 30-meter high trees and taking the chicks out of nests and measuring them. The baby macaws look like plucked chickens, but with cute macaw faces.


The sounds at night are incredible and at dawn the howler monkeys begin their roaring. In the dark, there are always some lighting flashes in the distance, and wonderful spiders and butterflies. Of course there are fungi everywhere and the biting insects. I didn’t get attacked by bullet ants, but there were plenty of sandflies to keep me itching for a few days.

A high point was swimming with a group of students in the fast flowing Tambopata river, with a rainbow overhead. Four nights at the field station was not enough, and I promised myself to return sometime, and begin some research projects there in earnest. Here are some photos from the rainforest. Unfortunately, I do not have the right type of camera equipment to get good photos of birds, but I did see plenty. The rainforests of South America have a chance. I cannot say that I feel the same way about the rainforests of Africa, where the deforestation and poverty is so rampant. Take a deep breath and think about the rainforests.

Deepest Rainforest

Huge Hardwood trees
Tambopata River
Macaws at Clay Licks

When the rain is about to start, the howler monkeys and toucans start making their wild calls. The orangutan colored howler monkeys roar like lions, much louder than their size would suggest. Then you hear the rain start to approach from a distance over the vast forest. You know when it will start to pour like a shower; it is no surprise.

I am deep inside the jungle in Peru at the Tambopata Research Center. I flew in from Bogota, spent the night in Lima, and then took a 3-hour boat ride along the Tambopata river. Spent one night at at the Refugio Amazonas lodge, and the next day took another boat for 4 hours to get here. This is primary untouched protected forest, which is rare in today’s world. I remember why I chose this profession. It is incredible.

This place is famous for its macaws. Blue and yellow, scarlet, and red and green macaws. They are in the trees and along the cliffs, eating the clay to get salt and minerals. There are monkeys, capybaras, and of course many unusual bird species. I am here to hopefully develop a long-term research program.

The field station is incredible. I have never seen anything like this before; more like a first class lodge.  A lovely dining room, and each private bedroom has a open wall to the rainforest. Excellent food and company. The researchers here focus on the macaw biology, but other scientists come through to study this remote rainforest. I have a private guide showing me all the birds and wildlife. I am giving a research talk tonight.

The internet connection is poor, through a distant satellite, so I will post more photos later. I wish everyone in the world could experience this, to understand why rainforest conservation is so important.

Gold in Bogotá

View of Bogotá from Cerro de Monserrate. You take the cable car to the top for the view and to visit a historic church.

Bogotá is huge, and from the airplane looks like it goes on forever. The buildings are not the tall skyscrapers of São Paulo, or other Brazilian cities, but instead just sprawl over the landscape, in a valley surrounded by green mountains. The avenues are wide, and easy to understand with a convenient north south numbering system. The TransMilenio bus system is a model for transportation. It is a mix between a subway and a bus system, and people play music and sing on the buses. But it can be confusing with different tickets for different lines. I am staying at a hotel near the National University of Colombia. In the evening, there are fireworks outside my window.

TransMilenio Bus system, seems like a subway with buses. I think San Francisco is supposed to adopt something like this along Geary Street soon.
Vegan beans and empanadas near the Gold Museum
Plaza Bolivar, the central square of Bogotá
The Arhuaca mochila is a popular artisan bag in Colombia

The Gold museum is unique. I thought all the gold had been stolen from this country, but the museum is full of ancient gold artifacts. You walk into bank vaults that showcase the gold masks and pieces that the ancient warriors wore. I like the gold animals; frogs, birds, fish and crocodiles.

I am not sure I am in love with the art of Fernando Botero, but the museum is interesting. The people in his art are simply voluminous. Even the still lifes look fat.

Today my hosts took me to Chingaza National Park. The park is about 2 hours from Bogota on steep gravel roads. I have never seen this type of landscape called the Páramo. The plants look as if they should be in a desert, but it is very wet and foggy. We did a hike around the Laguna Seco in the cold rain, looking for birds at an altitude of more than 3600 meters (11,800 ft). It is an incredible landscape and a big change from the humid heat of Cartagena.

There were literally thousands of bike riders going up the hill. It was like the Tour de France, but just regular people from Bogota. Sundays are Ciclovia, where hundreds of kilometers of roads are closed to cars.
In the strange páramo landscape at 3600 meters in Chingaza National Park.

On Tuesday I fly to Peru.


Full Moon over Cartagena


Here is the full moon over a church in the old city of Cartagena. It means I have only been gone from San Francisco for two months. It seems longer, because I have been to so many places, and met so many fantastic people. The best is that everywhere I have gone, I have very dear close friends.  The conference closed with a salsa band in the central square, under a warm moonlit night.

Pirates of the Caribbean in Cartagena

The Zoology conference is huge, and Cartagena is overrun with biologists. It is ongoing, but of course I have found time to explore the area. Cartagena is surrounded by beautiful nature. The mangroves are just outside the city, and yesterday we did a canoe ride to see the birds. There are mangrove tunnels, with the names “tunnel of happiness” and “tunnel of love”. Young boys were practicing their fishing with small nets, and the older men used large nets.

Then today was a boat trip to the Rosario islands, with snorkeling and a chance to swim in the warm Caribbean Sea. Cartagena must be the inspiration for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. There is a long history of pirates plundering the city, and there are old fortresses and walls to repel any attacks. An abundance of colorful fish, and great times with scientists and students studying avian malaria.

Boat ride to Rosario Islands near Cartagena

Exotic fruits in Cartagena

I read that Cartagena is one of the top 50 cities to visit worldwide. I agree. I arrived yesterday for the 4th Colombian Conference for Zoology. There are about 3000 people here all participating in research in Colombian wildlife. Colombia has the highest diversity worldwide of birds, plus an incredible diversity of plants, mammals and insects. It is also number one in orchid diversity. The conference opened with speeches, but then there were some traditional dance performances. I have seen a lot of Mexican dances, and the costumes seemed rather similar, but the dances were much more wiggly, as if they had been inspired by Tahiitian hula, with hip action.

The old city is full of life, with people selling fruits and hand-woven bags. Bougainvilleas pop out of the balconies of the colorful old buildings. I had some delicious vegan paella for lunch, and enjoyed the company of my Colombian hosts. I am a millionaire in Colombia, because the exchange rate is more than 2000 pesos to one US dollar. The weather is warm and humid and my shirt gets wet from sweat in just a few minutes. Then in the afternoon, a visit to the San Felipe fortress, with its massive walls and maze of tunnels. I bought some fruits which I had never tasted before, and a huge fresh avocado. The hotel Monterrey where I am staying must be the best hotel in the city, because of its location, and beautiful view from the rooftop balcony. The Christmas lights are up, and people are enjoying themselves, because Colombians say they are the happiest people in the world.

My Colombian look
Opening ceremony of the conference