Kindness makes the world go round

As you undoubtedly know (how could you not?!) I’ve been crowdfunding to raise money for my rat project in Nepal, which will start next January (see my last blog post for details of the project: https://freshlysqueezedworld.com/2018/04/03/researching-rodents-in-nepal/). Thanks to the generosity of many people I have now raised £2000, which I’m hoping should be enough to make sure we get some useful results out of the fieldwork we’ll be doing.

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The amount that pushed me up to that total was donated by a kind, caring man who comes to visit our market stall every month. He and his lovely wife always used to stop for a chat, and she had a collection of our animals, but she very sadly died just after Christmas. He has been unbelievably brave, coming back to the market every month, tracing their footsteps, no doubt seeing her, hearing her, talking to her every place he goes. He makes sure he always has time to say hello and have a hug.

Any paper that gets published, any abstract that gets accepted, any piece of data that helps anyone, anywhere, will be dedicated to her memory, with my huge thanks to both of them. For being those people.

With much love, Anna

xxxx

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Researching rodents in Nepal

Hello all

It’s been a LONG time since I wrote a blog post. Things like work get in the way, unfortunately. If only I was a millionaire…but that’s rather unlikely (also unfortunately). That brings me nicely to the point of this blog post. As I’m not a millionaire, I need to raise some money so that I can go back to Nepal early next year and do some rodent research.

Rodent research, I hear you ask, what on earth are you talking about? Well, there is a serious lack of baseline information on the role of rodents in disease outbreaks, such as scrub typhus and leptospirosis. This means that people die unnecessarily, because not enough is understood about how these diseases are spread. Rodents pollute water courses with their faeces and urine, spoil crops in the same way, eat or otherwise destroy crops, and carry parasites on their fur. We need to understand all these things to enable people to cope with, or to prevent, these issues.

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So, in January I will be going back to Nepal to work on a rodent survey, learning, among other things, which species live in urban and rural settings, which diseases they may spread to humans, either directly or through parasites they carry, and how they may affect food security through spoiling and eating crops. This knowledge will help people to deal with the effects of rodents in their lives.

I’ll be working with a brilliant Nepali NGO called the Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF). This organisation was started and is run by a group of young Nepali professionals, from a small office in Kathmandu. They are a seriously inspiring bunch of people.

I will be supporting myself financially; both in the UK (mortgage and bills) and in Nepal (flights, accommodation, food, travel etc) and so ALL money raised will go toward equipment and other project expenses.

If you are interested in helping to fund this crucial work, then please do visit my fundraising page here: https://www.gofundme.com/ratsnepal. And I will love you forever 🙂 xxx

Shwedagon…and on…and on

I’ve been lucky enough to see some pretty amazing places in my life – the Taj Mahal, the pyramids at Giza, Machu Picchu, Mount Everest, the Potala Palace, Khan Tengri, Swayambhunath, Rakaposhi, Ushguli, Paro Taktsang – are you noticing a bit of a theme (or rather two) here? Mountains and ‘spiritual’ places? Well, the latest addition to the (hopefully ever increasing) list is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

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People (including me) maybe overuse the superlative ‘breathtaking’ but this literally did take my breath away. I am an inveterate atheist and nothing, not even an incredible, gold leaf- and diamond-encrusted pagoda is going to change that, but I admit to welling up and my knees feeling just a little bit wobbly as I got to the top of the stairs. The quiet beauty of the place just gets to you.

I was supposed to visit Myanmar in the early 2000s, but history got in the way. This year I was lucky enough to finally get there. And Shwedagon was worth the wait. Leave your shoes at the entrance, climb up the stairs with everyone else – monks, little kids, old ladies, young canoodling couples, everybody – make sure you have plenty of time and absorb it all. The first time I went very early in the morning when it was relatively quiet, with just a few people lighting incense and praying, kneeling on the soaking wet marble.

Possibly the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world (so some say) Shwedagon is believed to house various relics of the Buddha, including four hairs, and is 110 metres high. The pagoda holds eight planetary ‘corners’, one for each day of the week, with Wednesday split into morning and afternoon. Each day is also represented by an animal. I was born on a Saturday so apparently my animal is a giant snake (naga). I don’t mind snakes but I’m not sure I’d want to be one.

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When you come down again (literally!) don’t forget to collect your shoes – I almost did. Whatever you think about religion, whatever beliefs you do (or don’t) hold I don’t think you could leave this place without feeling at least a little moved. And then you can go on to the next place feeling enlightened…

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All photos by me 🙂

 

Faecal matter(s)

Please excuse the pun.

So, as you may know, I’ve just started an MSc in Control of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Today was the last day of the orientation week (and, coincidentally, my birthday). I feel a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights right now and am looking forward to the first day of teaching next Monday so I can ground myself a bit. The School is welcoming and I’m enjoying being there (I told the guy working on the till in the refectory this morning that it was my birthday and he gave me a packet of ginger nuts to go with my tea – apposite as I am a redhead).

Tasty gingernut (image from Google)

Tasty gingernut (image from Google)

As you’d probably expect the School is hot on hygiene on its premises and the doors in the loos (the ladies at least, I can’t vouch for the mens) are decorated with informative placards like this one.

A little light reading

A little light reading

It works on so many levels really – it describes the sanitary (or otherwise) situation in some countries in the developing world. It mentions a pretty shocking statistic from the UK. And it states what we can all do to prevent ourselves and others transferring this stuff around and making people ill. I suppose a key point is that even WITH easy access to clean toilets, plentiful clean water and antibacterial handwash we don’t take enough care of such a basic thing.

When I was in Kathmandu 4 weeks ago there was a small cholera outbreak that was mostly due to the fact that a few people are having to live under tarpaulin tents on the banks of the river as the recent earthquake has destroyed their homes and, maybe, their livelihoods. These people really DON’T have access to adequate toilet and washing facilities, and the river is often filled with rubbish, with large black pigs rootling around, looking for their next meal.

It’s a bit like that irritating thing that your mum used to tell you when you were a kid and you left food on your plate: ‘there are starving children somewhere in the world who would like to eat that’. Realistically whether we wash our hands or not is going to make zero difference to those people suffering (and sadly possibly dying) from a disease like cholera. Cholera is actually easy to prevent and treat – if you have the resources available. So if we are lucky enough to have access to these resources, then I vote that we should use them.

The long wait is over: Nepal has a constitution

I was staying in Pokhara, Nepal in April 2006 when King Gyanendra restored the parliament. I remember waking up in my hotel, going outside onto the lawn and looking at the newspaper headline. I couldn’t believe it. This country that I had just discovered and fallen in love with was going through some massive changes, culminating in the abolition of the monarchy in May 2008. Gyanendra became just another Nepali, his palace in Kathmandu became a museum. An amazing thing to see first hand.

Rickshaw in Kathmandu, Nepal

Rickshaw in Kathmandu, Nepal

The big news is that, as of yesterday, Nepal has a new constitution, something that politicians have been working on, fighting over and finally agreeing for the last seven years. Selfishly I wish it had happened two weeks ago, when I was still in Kathmandu. Having been there during the civil war, the restoration of parliament, witnessing the infighting, the king going, I would have loved to have been there at the end. Although this is most probably not the end. One thing that became clear in my visit earlier this month was that some sections of the Nepali people are not happy. Some of the diverse ethnic groups who live in Nepal want the country to be divided further, along ethnic lines, and are not content with the new seven-state system that has been agreed. The south of the country has been seriously affected by strikes for the last few months. However, other groups are ecstatic at the news, and the further good news is that the three main political parties are in agreement, suggesting that this move forward has the support of a large percentage of the ordinary Nepalis who voted for these politicians. And from what friends were telling me over there, most people just wanted it all sorted out and signed.

Sunset in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Sunset in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

So what does this mean for ordinary Nepalis, who had to get on with their day to day lives while the politicians argued? Well, hopefully it means that, now the politicians have agreed the constitution, they can get on with other equally important discussions and start to improve the infrastructure of the country. This can only be good news for all the travel agents, hotels, restaurants and shops who have been suffering as a result of the earthquake. The country has picked itself up, dusted itself off, signed a very important piece of paper, and now can get on with the hard work of making it all mean something.

All photos by me.

Part 4: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

And so I woke up and it was the morning of my last full day in Bhutan. My flight back to Kathmandu left at 8am the next day, so I had to be at the airport at 6am. At least I would be back in Kathmandu for breakfast!

My final day was the most enjoyable of all. I love hiking, and combine that with climbing 900 metres up a rather large hill to see an amazing building, and I’m happy. Taktshang Geomba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) graces all the travel books and publications about Bhutan. Go to any travel show and I guarantee that the Bhutan agents will have at least one picture of this iconic place, maybe a few from different angles. It certainly is incredibly photogenic, and as you can get under it, above it, next to it, and in it, there are plenty of opportunities for taking great photos.

Up we go

Up we go

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Tiger’s Nest monastery is somehow clinging on to a cliff 900 metres above the Paro valley. Guru Rinpoche was lucky – he flew up here on the back of a tiger to do battle with a demon. I walked. Once he got here he had a nice sit down and meditated for three months. I was there for about an hour and a half and didn’t stop looking at things – it is a magical place. You leave all your technology at the door (no cameras, no phones, no video cameras) and make sure that your arms are covered (I had to borrow a jacket from one of the receptionists at the hotel. It was so lovely that I was tempted to nick it :)).

I’m pretty fit so I was bounding up the first bit, passing another couple of people who had also left their hotel sensibly early. Then I realised that we were climbing quite steadily and I slowed down. We walked through beautiful forest, saw sunbirds and disturbed some grey langurs, who leapt up, staring at us. We were passed by one group of blokes from the Indian Army who rather annoyingly had their mobile phones playing tinny Bollywood hits. We let them get far ahead of us and then continued.

The viewpoint

The viewpoint

After just over an hour we were standing looking at the monastery close up, with the waterfall at our backs. This powers the prayer wheel at the bottom so it never stops turning and prayers are constantly flying off into the sky.

Waterfall on the way up

Waterfall on the way up

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Once we got to the monastery there was a great feeling of camaraderie, as people struggled down across the bridge and then up the other side. First up was where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months after he flew in on the tiger. The cave itself is hidden behind a gilded door and seldom opened. Today it was shut but the murals more than made up for that. I have a thing about these wall paintings and there were plenty of them to look at all painted in beautiful, vivid colours. There were a few Buddhist pilgrims worshipping, praying, chanting and bringing offerings for the monks (mostly bags of crisps and packets of biscuits. I hope their normal diet is healthy!).

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

There it is

There it is

Despite being 100% atheist I did appreciate the spirituality of the place and I could easily have taken some of the murals home with pleasure. How on earth the monastery clings on to the side of the cliff I have no idea, but it does. It almost looks like an organic growth.

Going down the mountain was quicker, even being careful of knees and ankles. We stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two at the cafeteria and carried on back down. What an absolutely amazing place. I don’t think a trip to Bhutan would be complete without a visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery.

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After another enormous lunch (they feed you a LOT in Bhutan) we went off to see our last sight, the Rinpung Dzong. As it was raining we had the entire place to ourselves, with the exception of one very grumpy young monk, who was manning the charm stall. You can buy a charm to protect you from most things you can think of. Rain wasn’t one of them though. The building itself was beautiful, with more of the exquisite wood carving that adorns a lot of the buildings in Bhutan.

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

The dzong was damaged by a fire in 1907, and when the ashes were investigated the massive thangka that is unfurled once a year in the courtyard was found untouched. The murals here are beautifully fresh and vibrant. Some tell the life of Milarepa, the Tibetan saint. Again, these could cheerfully have come home with me, but it wasn’t to be.

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

On my last night in Bhutan I went to a farmhouse a short drive out of Paro, into a more rural area, for some home-cooked food. Part of this involved trying some home-brewed firewater (arra), which I think is an acquired taste! It was good with chura (beaten rice) though 🙂 After eating my fill of chillies it was back to the hotel for my final bottle of Druk 11000 and my last night’s sleep in Paro. The alarm call was booked for 5.15am…

Travel arranged by the lovely Thinley at Sakten Tours and Treks (thinley@sakten.com).

All photos by me 🙂

Part 3: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

Today we were off to Paro, but not before watching some archery – the national sport of Bhutan. I’ve never really thought much about archery. Really my only exposure to it was on one of those activity holidays at school. I was expecting old-fashioned wooden bows and arrows. Boy was I wrong. The crowd was huge (considering that less than 700,000 people live in Bhutan, I think a large percentage of them were here), maybe as a result of the presence of one of the King’s brothers, who is apparently an archery expert. I did see him but unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of him. It’s amazing how little security there was considering the fact that he must be something in line to the throne. The archery itself is quite impressive – they use carbon fibre American hunting bows. Lots of dancing and singing goes on and the archers are certainly enthusiastic. Whenever one of them (they shoot in groups, not as individuals) scores a bulls eye (or maybe just hits the target, I’m not sure!) the group puts their arms around each other and starts doing a funky dance, complete with singing. I wish I’d had the video camera with me.

Archery (and archer)

Archery (and archer)

Archer and bow

Archer and bow

From the archery we drove up to the Dochu La pass to see the 108 chortens. These were built in 2005 to atone for the deaths of Assamese militants who invaded the south of Bhutan. If the weather is good you can also (apparently!) get an amazing view of the Himalayas. Unfortunately the day I was there the place was shrouded in mist, but this just made it more atmospheric. I did two rounds of the whole place and my hair was wet by the time I got back to the car.

Some of the chortens at the Dochu La pass

Some of the chortens at the Dochu La pass

Detail on one of the chortens

Detail on one of the chortens

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From here we drove back down , heading for Paro for the last two nights of my trip. On the outside, Paro looks far more like a traditional town than Thimphu – wooden buildings, narrow streets (the main street was only built in 1985). It reminded me of film representations of the Wild West in the US. The centre is stuffed full of craft shops.

After lunch we headed off to my second-favourite place in Bhutan, the Kyichu Lhakhang. This beautiful, peaceful temple is obviously well used by locals, and there was a small herd of friendly dogs hanging around too (I remember dogs like this in the monasteries in Tibet). The temple was supposedly built in 659 by Songsten Gampo, a king of Tibet, and there is an interesting story behind the construction. In 659 the king built 108 temples in a day to pin down a recalcitrant demoness and, in the process, convert the Tibetans to Buddhism. Temples were built on parts of her supine body, and the Kyichu Lhakhang is helping to pin down her left foot. Whatever you think of the story, the temple is lovely. One of the buildings contains a huge statue of Guru Rinpoche and one of Red Tara (I am familiar with Green Tara and White Tara, but this was the first time I had seen a Red Tara). The original wall paintings are visible – just – but are now covered with a layer of black as a result of the years of butter lamp smoke. Now only one or two butter lamps are lit in a single day in an effort to stop the damage getting worse.

Kyichu Lhakhang

Kyichu Lhakhang

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So by now you’ve probably gathered that I like markets. My next stop was the weekend market, which was in the process of setting up. Already there were a lot of stalls selling vegetables and flint-like yak cheese (both natural and smoked). There were also stalls selling doma (the same as Indian paan – betel nut etc – the reason for splashes of red on the ground). The national dish of Bhutan is chillies with cheese, which sounds like an acquired taste but is delicious. And luckily I LOVE chillies and put them in everything, so I felt right at home at the dinner table 🙂

Fern fronds (used in cooking here)

Fern fronds (used in cooking here)

Dried yak cheese - the brown squares are smoked yak cheese

Dried yak cheese – the brown squares are smoked yak cheese

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Delicious fresh chillies

Delicious fresh chillies

My home in Paro was the Hotel Olathang, which was built in 1974 (and is thus 2 years older than me!) to house people coming to the coronation of the fourth King of Bhutan. The room was good and the buffet dinner included chillies with cheese, so I was happy 🙂 After such a full day I decided to have a bottle of Druk 11000 beer, a great way to round off the day! And I certainly needed my sleep before the next day’s main activity – my trek up to the Tiger’s Next Monastery…

Me + Druk 11000 = a match made in heaven :)

Me + Druk 11000 = a match made in heaven 🙂

Travel arranged by the lovely Thinley at Sakten Tours and Treks (thinley@sakten.com).

All photos by me 🙂