Monday, December 19, 2011
Friday, December 9, 2011
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Friday, October 14, 2011
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Monday, October 3, 2011
Monday, September 26, 2011
Monday, September 19, 2011
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Denizli also is better known as a way-station. The real draw is Pamukkale ("cotton castle" in Turkish), a short bus ride way. Hot springs flowing down the mountainside form strange white terraces, or travertines. You can walk up the surreal landscape without shoes and bathe in the shallow, pale blue pools along the way. Not exactly sure why, but the place seem to inspire the taking of many Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editıon-type provocative shots from the bikini-wearing masses. Even though the temperatures were soaring, the fact that the water running along these icy-looking surfaces (calcium carbonate deposits) was not the tiniest bit cool was difficult to wrap your head around. At the top of the slope, included in the ticket was Heirapolis, a Greco-Roman spa city. For a hefty surcharge, you could swim in the same antique pool. The other ruins were less impressive after Ephesus, but a more jarring sight was seeing the same visitors - still clad in their thongs or speedo's - clamber over ancient structures.
Friday, August 19, 2011
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Once “the land of beautiful horses,” bred for the Persian empire (or Rich prefers “the land of adorable puppies”), the Cappadocia region is now popular for... rocks. Volcanic activity and millions of years created some fantastic geological formations. Hiking lets you see how each valley (e.g. Pigeon, Love, White, Red, or Rose Valleys) has its own features. Sedimentary layers create interesting striations. “Fairy chimneys” alternately look like pillars, minarets, soft-serve ice cream, meringue (ok, maybe those last two are only if you are hungry), or a certain male body part.
Taking advantage of the softer, volcanic rock, people have been digging out caves since ancient times. Whole underground cities even. We visited Derinkuyu, one of the fifteen excavated in the area. It has 11 floors underground with the oldest layer dating to several centuries B.C.! Used for protection from whomever was fighting topside, Derinkuyu could accommodate 25,000 people... and all their animals. When you see the large section that had been devoted to an underground winery, you know they were settling in for the long haul.
Of course, in those days, some of the people were hiding out in caves for religious reasons (think hermits in The Life of Brian). We visited a big ruin of a monastery carved into the rock in Selime. You can also see some of the rock-cut churches elsewhere in the Ilhara Valley and in the Göreme Open Air Museum. Most of those dating back to when Christianity arrived in the region (as far back as when they could say things like “my grandad hung out with Jesus”) are pretty simple, but later ones have frescoes.
Visitors to Cappadocia can share in the experience by staying in caves that have been fashioned into hotel rooms. We stayed in one in Göreme which came with the requisite Turkish breakfast (tea, coffee, bread, butter, honey, jam, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and ample hunks of fresh – probably goat – cheese). The most popular dish (or hyped tourist trap) in Cappadocia was the testi kebap. A casserole of meat and vegetables cooked in the terracotta pot that gets delivered to your table – en flambé in the posher places – and gets ceremoniously broken open to be served. After getting a few grits of ceramic in his mouth, Rich wholly endorses letting the professionals do it rather than taking them up on the offer to break it yourself.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
Istanbul exists at a crossroads between religions (Islam and Christianity), continents (Europe and Asia), and time (ancient and modern life). The Christian church of Aya Sofia, when finished in a scant 6 years (I'm hinting at you, Sagrada Familia!), was compared with the magnificence of Solomon's temple. Then it became a mosque. Now it's a museum. Mosaics depicting Jesus and company decorate the walls while giant medallions of a master Muslim calligrapher hang from the celings.
The Blue Mosque, still used as one, sits opposite. From the outside, it looks like a building from Coruscant, for all you Star Wars fans. All that's missing are a few lighters zipping around the background. Inside is a carpeted expanse covered with domes of intricate painted designs. Outside, we chanced upon a taping for Turkish television with a Rudy Guiliani look-alike. The program allowed us to have a free viewing of whirling dervishes. One poor fellow might have had to abort his prayerful dancing due to premature dizziness.
The sprawling grounds of Topkapi Palace were once home to the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. A selection of the crown jewels are available for viewing with blingin' thrones and emeralds the size of your palm a common sight. Should your tastes run more toward the spiritual, there are also some important Islamic relics. These include bits of the beard of the prophet Muhammad (stored in what looked like light bulbs) and the rod of Moses (handy for parting seas with).
A Bosphorus ferry ride will take you up the strait between Europe and Asia. Yalis, the summer mansions of sultans and the rich, dot either coast. The European side looks very European in architecture and high street shop options. The bridge at the mouth of the Golden Horn is a great spot to get a sandwich from guys frying the fish up on severely rocking boats.
It is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish). The food in Turkey has been fantastic so far, but we do feel guilty stuffing our faces in front of people who have to wait until sunset to eat. In the ancient Hippodrome and Sultanahmet park, families and friends gather in picnics to break their fast. Lines pack the pavements as restaurants do crazy business (kebabs so fast you'll freak!) in the hour beforehand. When the mosque finally makes the calls, the babble of the crowds goes silent for a good half hour as everyone chows down.
Turkey could challenge even the most hardcore sweet tooth. Most Turkish sweets seem to revolve around combining sugar in all its forms. Solving the problem of sugar dropping out of solution, Turkish desserts just coat everything in honey for good measure. There's your basic dozen variations on baklava (sugared and honeyed layers of pastry) or Turkish delight (jellied sugar coated in powdered sugar), which I did not think was good enough to betray your family for (see Edmund in the Chronicles of Narnia). We also tried out some sweets we are calling “goo on a stick” (multi-colored sugary taffy), “Turkish churros” (dripping with honey and dusted with coconut and pistachio), and “Turkish gulab jamun” (fried doughballs soaked in honey). They were all so sweet that Rich was using Coca-cola as a palate cleanser!
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
USAID's Farmer-to-Farmer Program was a very good experience for me. It was really great to use my agricultural science background and teaching skills in another environment. Thanks to the following organizations:
- Oregon State University Seed Lab
Lost in Translation
Other than numbers and days, my limited Spanish did not really help my understanding of Portuguese. The Mozambican version sounds really different than the accents I'd heard in Brasil and Portugal.
When I first arrived, people kept mentioning talking to or getting help from "fow." It took a few minutes to remember "pao" (bread in Portuguese) is pronounced "pow," so then I realized "fow" probably referred to "FAO," the Food and Agriculture Organization!
Working with a translator was a new experience for me. One simple thing I hadn't considered before is that explaining anything takes at least twice as long. This made my estimates for training time way off.
A few, amusing times, the translator had to go several rounds between the lab members and me, only to discover that, as a scientist training scientists, I had already anticipated and understood their questions. So the translator was the communication barrier! It was great illustration that scientists around the world think alike.
Food and Cooking
Most of the Mozambican dishes I had were simple and unremarkable - beef stews or the ubiquitous grilled chicken and chips. I was really expecting to see a lot more beans or lentils in the diet, but many legumes (other than pintos and green beans) are imported and expensive. Vegetables seemed to be limited to the regular side salad of lettuce, onion, and tomato (this may be because I was visiting during winter). I am told that the highlights of Mozambican food are the seafood dishes, but I was too far inland to sample any.
Much of the cooking at home is done on charcoal, which does add a great smoky flavor. The downside is that this practice results in people getting sick or dying from the fumes and poor ventilation. One shocking statistic said that charcoal-related deaths in Africa were higher than the deaths from malaria! Part of the trouble I was told is that people who make charcoal make it from any tree - not necessarily the most efficient burning or least toxic wood.
As a developing country, I expected to see differences in the technology being employed. On one hand, a visit to a large seed processing/conditioning plant showed equipment and pesticide technology that was a old but still in use in the U.S. On the other hand, it was an awakening to hear a retailer get excited about the potential of their new product - hybrid seed. To put this in perspective, his current seeds were open-pollinated varieties, and hybrid seed technology for corn (maize) became available in quantity to American farmers in 1930.
Power outages were less than anticipated with only the occasional flicker. Phone and internet coverage could be really spotty. Vodaphone and MCel are the two carriers, and some people carry one of each to make sure they have service. The street corners of Chimoio were always littered with guys selling lottery-ticket-type strips of cards to top up your mobile.
Chimoio is the fifth largest city in Mozambique, and still, finding items on your shopping list, particularly electronics-related, could be difficult. Much in the shops are secondhand luck of the draw or poorly manufactured, giving China a bad rap in Mozambique. It took three stores to find a plug adapter for the scale in the lab, and we never did find a replacement light bulb or a good desk lamp to use for evaluations.
Sunday, July 31, 2011
My time with the seed lab was over but not the work. USAID volunteers prepare a detailed trip report to document their experience and observations. Some of it could have been written during the weeks with the lab. However, as training outcomes and future recommendations are a large chunk, I waited to provide the most comprehensive information. This probably sounds arrogant, but the mixture of pride and relief at finishing that slog of writing (and realizing what we had been able to accomplish) felt almost akin to turning in my graduate school thesis.
The bumpy trip back to Beira was the first time I had really been on the roads late. It was easier to understand a news piece I had seen where a single highway accident had claimed the lives of 20 people. Chapas (the local transportation) are packed tightly, bicycles and pedestrians do not keep to the shoulder (people drive on the left), and lights on vehicles or streets are pretty rare. Apparently, the general lack of bicycles I had wondered about in Chimoio were a result of road checks discouraging them because of the amount of accidents they caused. And oh, yeah, we also passed a massive wildfire in the bush, which in the States, would have had camera crews swarming, did not even register a comment from my companions in the truck!
My last morning in Mozambique was spent finishing paperwork at the CNFA office in Beira. It was a quick trip to the bank to exchange Meticais for euros and off to the airport. No one in security questioned the bottle of water in my bag, but careful examination of the two bottles of piri-piri sauce was needed. It was probably strange for them to think that something as common as salt in Mozambique would be a souvenir.
Joburg was freezing again, even armed with my coat from the Chimoio market. I did get a nice surprise (and the supreme envy of my aero-engineer-by-training dad) when I got to board my first A380. There were two jet bridges to board the two floors, so those in first and business classes did not have to mix with the riff raff of steerage, er, I mean, economy. Inside it did not look too much different, except the overhead storage bins were impressively deep, and the sides of the plane were so concave that you got a fishbowl effect with the window. Unfortunately, these observations were not detailed enough for the grilling from my Dad, who even suggested I should have lifted a safety card from the seat pocket in front of me for a souvenir!
Friday, July 29, 2011
In its heyday, Gorongosa National Park was the premiere safari destination in Africa. Civil war and poaching caused devastating losses in the wildlife and left the 5000+ sq km (~ 2000 sq miles) riddled with landmines. In recent years, the Carr Foundation and the government - along with other partners, like USAID also - have been working to rebuild the infrastructure and repopulate the wildlife as Africa's largest restoration project.
The public camp was fully booked for several weeks, but luckily, I squeezed into a spot with Explore Gorongosa, the first private venture. I found out why when I arrived. National Geographic was shooting a follow-up on the park after their first film, Africa's Lost Eden (see the link below for the trailer).
While I didn't a glimpse of E.O., it was a great consolation to see some equally rare creatures! With the short time frame, our game drives were so lucky that I was seriously starting to doubt the guide's claims that some animals were difficult to find. Elephants there are particularly skittish since their interactions with humans have been through the violence of war or unrestricted hunting. We sat and watched elephants twice... even though the previous guests had gone almost a week looking for just one! Even the night viewing was good. A mother lioness and her three offspring were lounging with their bellies full at Casa dos On a walk, I got props for spotting a hefty Pel's Fishing Owl, apparently quite a feather in the cap for many serious birders. On my final drive, we came across a herd of buffalo, which even the guide hadn't seen since he had started working there.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
With most of the observations and customer interviews over, the real work began. The lab makes sure that farmers, processers, or retailers know that the seed sold in this region of Mozambique is what the label says it is. For example, the lab does testing to estimate how the seeds from a specific lot or field would germinate and produce healthy seedlings. Here are some of the things I did:
Made suggestions to improve the consistency and efficiency of their testing
Defined how each step should be done with the resources available - even down to how many times the equipment needed to be cleaned and with what
Checked that the testing adhered to - or at least, moved closer to - the international accreditation standards
Prepared documents so the lab could improve record-keeping
Organized a chain of command to monitor the steps, handle problems, and conduct internal audits
Conducted training for all the above
...and repeat. For pretty much every regular thing the lab does. Even mundane tasks like how you should handle soil. If it seems like a lot of paper shuffling, it's because the long-term goal of international accreditation requires a paper trail closer to Law & Order or CSI's chain of custody for forensic evidence.
It was a marathon of preparing training materials, working with the translator to get them into Portuguese, doing the actual training, and finishing any revisions. It didn't help that each morning, the rooster outside my room insisted that I get out of bed by 4:00 am. The training schedule became even more intense due to some final interviews with a customer and an unexpected tragedy.
A relative of the senior analyst died suddenly. Mozambicans really respect the time for mourning. Typically, a week of funeral leave is expected with up to a month or two off if the distance is far. Everyone who knows the deceased or even distant relatives go to offer their condolences. Funerals were not an uncommon site in Chimoio. I passed processions (a few open bed trucks with standing room only and a white cross at the head) for 4 different ones just going to and from the lab. It is telling that, hearing a relative of mine died recently at 51, the people in the lab considered it a ripe old age.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
My first full week I was observing the lab's practices, learning about their current protocols, and generally inventorying their current situation and resources. They have been very patient with my one-on-one interrogations, which could be nerve-wracking without knowing what to expect. Later in the week, we met with some of their customers (seed companies, retailers, and growers/producers) to interview them and get feedback about the lab's services.
The lab is actually located on the grounds of one of its customers. Originally part of SEMOC (Sementes de Moçambique, the only seed company in Mozambique before 1999), the lab now operates under the Ministry of Agriculture. The perks of being at the site were SEMOC letting us tour the processing/conditioning plant (I was told over a handful of seed, “Here, you can smell the insecticide [seed treatment]!”) and use of the canteen.
The lady in the semi-outdoor kitchen prepares a couple of options everyday. Notable dishes were Zambezi-style chicken in a peanut and coconut sauce and a whole, fried mackerel with a side of pinto bean-kale stew. Accompaniments are a huge pile of rice or giant lump of nsima, the southern African version of … grits! Yes, in various states of congealment, this is a major staple in the diet. According to the translator, Mozambicans prefer a more refined version compared to more “grit”-like Zimbabwean style. It seems to go pretty well with the piri-piri sauce and stays steaming hot, an added bonus when dining al fresco on a cool day.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Leaving the heat and humidity of Barcelona's summer, a southern hemisphere winter smacked me full in the face upon arrival in Johannesburg (South Africa) airport. At a nippy 34F/1C, other passengers in this way-station were bundled in blankets and an abundance of fleece. I watched a better prepared bulky woman shrink before my eyes as she shed layer after layer going through security. If you came ill-equipped, the airport had a high-end outdoor clothing and shoe company with stacks of floppy hats and zip-off trousers for those headed on safari. Other stores, like a butcher selling an assortment of bush meat jerky and a home decor shop where you could buy a real zebra skin rug, were easy reminders you were now really in Africa.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Other notable structures open for Corpus included the granite tunnels used as a bomb shelter during the civil war (exceptionally cool in heat of the day) and the Roman ruins of the bath house of Can Terres whose "series of small walls" (a la Eddie Izzard) were scorching hot. The indifferent docent reluctantly took a break from her sunbathing to tick off our visit on her record.
The pride of La Garriga's Corpus festival are the floral carpets, or "catifes," that different schools and organizations design and construct on the streets of the town. Bright carnations and gerbera daisies were set off nicely by the greens of stems and sprigs of evergreens, pale yellows and tans of dried grains and chaff, and deep browns of mulches. Even celebrities were attracted to the event - Rich can now say he said, "Hola!" to the President of Catalunya! He was passing by with the mayor of La Garriga.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Barcelona celebrates with parties the night before on June 23rd. A few days beforehand makeshift stalls sell one of key components of the celebration - fireworks. Although there seemed to be plenty of ads for the package deals like you get for Independence Day in the States, there seemed to be very few bottle rockets in them, and instead, very heavy on the snap-and-popping kind that crazy folk like to throw at the feet of unsuspecting bystanders... and these tend to come in a giant size, that can blow an iron cover off a drain if aimed and timed appropriately. Firework safety also tends to be pretty lax with individuals letting them off with little regard for the place or people around them. Of course, this tends to make dogs out for their evening walks a bit nervous and people a little jumpy, particularly when the wielders of such explosions are small children of dubious hand-eye coordination.
We watched the antics with the masses that took to the beach. Here and there bonfires sprouted, and you could watch out for those who had shelled out the extra cash for particularly impressive displays. Rich was quite taken with an inventive youth whose trial-and-error with construction resulted in a pop can launching several feet into the air upon detonation, and Rich claims to still be impressed although a piece of the shrapnel came flying into his arm (he was uninjured). The cafe/bars along the beach were also doing great business with little to distinguish the patches of flooring and wood frames besides the choice of pounding music - house, reggae, and sentimental cheese were the options.
The other key component to the celebration was the pastry - the coca de Sant Joan. Traditionally, this is an oblong or rectangular pastry about twice as long as wide. The bakeries and pastisserias all advertise their cocas with special billboards all week, but judging from the crowds, most people wait until the last minute to buy theirs. It's easy to pick out the coca-buyers as the baker packages them in a distinctive carrying case- a cardboard portfolio with handles usually emblazoned with the name of the bakery or pastisseria. Since I have an aversion to radioactively-colored fruit (which I am slowly addressing through repeated exposure to English fruitcakes), we opted for the slightly less traditional coca which comes sprinkled with sugar and covered in pine nuts. It had more of a bread consistency, mildly sweet, and the faintest hint of an anise aftertaste. The coca was fine, but the final verdict was that panallets (the Catalan cookies you get during Halloween) are a much better use of pine nuts.
Monday, May 30, 2011
The public transportation in Barcelona is fairly good, and since our apartment is centrally located, very convenient. Even the shuttle bus to the airport is only a 10 minute walk away. The old part of the city, where we live, is predominantly a pedestrian zone anyway, and mostly we pity those who try in vain to maneuver their cars down the narrow streets and alleys. Traffic is legendary, and parking can set you back 30 euros a day. This is enough to convince many to opt for motorbikes, which can be left on the sidewalks. Getting a subscription to Bicing, a company which maintains red bicycles in locations all over Barcelona, is another popular choice. Skateboards and microscooters - much to Richard's dismay- also abound.
Since he doesn't feel comfortable risking his neck in this traffic, Richard leaves the longboard at home, and instead, chooses to walk the pleasant 40 minutes to his office listening to BBC podcasts. Most days I commute via the Metro (the underground train system) or the Ferrocarils (the commuter train system). There are specific areas in the tunnels designated by the Barcelona City Council for street musicians to play for change although you will still feel cursed if you accidentally step into a car with the odd accordion player singing "La Vie en Rose."
Sunday, May 29, 2011
In any large city, especially one couched between mountains and sea like Barcelona, housing is at a premium. Wages (for those 80% who do have work) have not kept up with cost-of-living, and most people live with their parents or rent a room in an apartment with 3 to 6 other people. Our main considerations were the dog and wanting to feel like we were really in the city. The rent on our 500 square foot apartment is brutal, and since we are foreigners, we got hit up for the typical 3 to 6 months' rent for a deposit. We live in the old city so it's a fifth floor (read: sixth floor, since Europeans don't start counting until the second one) walk-up. The advantages are being a 10 minute walk from the center (Plaza Catalunya) or the city's largest park (Ciutadella), and the streets around us look straight out of a chase scene from the Jason Bourne movies.
We are lucky. Our place is furnished in IKEA-ware, and our penthouse suite is awash in natural light most of the day (for which our dog-turned-sunbather Pepper is grateful) and gets a refreshing cross breeze my dad couldn't stop gushing about. We have a washer in a little outhouse on the balcony and the dizzying dryer lines to go with it (I have yet to hear of anyone in Spain having a dryer... even the people with swimming pools). Our kitchen is small, but not much smaller than in North Carolina, and amazingly for a European place, has full size appliances! Most fortunately, we have piped in gas. The common alternative is orange butane tanks, which have to be carried and refilled by the "butanos," men who wander the streets, banging on their wares like an audition for STOMP!
Sure, it was an adjustment to begin with, but with our pictures up on the walls, it feels like a pretty good home.