An ecologist’s recipe for horrible sleep

One of my favorite aspects of being an ecologist or entomologist is the fact that I get to do some pretty nice hands-on experiments with living plants and insects. Most of this hands-on work I really love doing. Yet, while performing some specific tasks you can just feel that it is bad for your brain.

Today was one of those days…

In a running greenhouse experiment we measured a series of plant traits.  The plants that were measured will form the fundament of a series of greenhouse and field experiments for several PhD projects. The trait data collected today will hence serve as a good background knowledge on the founding mothers for our future work. I think this will be incredibly insightful.

I nicely divided the list of traits to be measured by me and our lab technician. She would focus on the ‘whole plant traits’, such as height, leaf number, number of stems, etc. I decided that I would focus on the leaf specific traits. I work on Tansy, which has compound leaves, consisting of pinnae.  Leaf length, leaf surface area, and the worst part, the number of pinnae. Roughly 25-30 pinnae per leaf.

My brain is absolute toast!

   

Plenty of pinnae

Stabbed to death

I am not so sure what to think of the corona vaccination programs. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an antivaxxer or some kind of science sceptic. Quite the contrary. Science is a huge part of my life. Also, vaccines are life savers. Count me in on getting vaccinated. Get your shots too, please!

Yet, there is something that bothers me pretty much every time I watch the news.

I bloody HATE needles!

I have been afraid of needles all my life. I have literally fainted at every injection I have had since I was a child. It has not gotten better as an adult, I have just gotten smarter. These days I ask if I can lie down while I am stung. That sort of works.

There is such a bad stigma to vaccinations, and I think fear is a huge part of people not wanting to get a shot (or two!).

Please, stop showing people getting violently jabbed with needles the size that could be used to kill someone. No, shots from fifteen different angles do not make it better!

Help the tryphanophobes like me to get mentally prepared!

This vaccination program needs some serious PR work done.

Gratitude

The day that I first saw her. It sometimes feels as if it was yesterday. This new girl that moved into the corridor that I lived in, in a student housing flat. She was so sweet and vibrant. Youthful, but mature. Smart and beautiful. We were so young!

It didn’t take me long to fall desperately in love with her.

I had never been much of a ladies’ man, but I figured that if I would be nice to her long enough, that could work. After several months of being nice, I certainly gained a friend. I was otherwise not on her radar… I had to do something! Just before Christmas, I had gathered all my strength. I expressed my feelings to her, and as this was 2009 and I was a fool, I did this via MSN.

The result? A hard and immediate rejection. Those holidays I spent heart-broken. It is unclear to me what I did after that made her change her mind, but something did, as she completely turned around. Today marks our eleven-year anniversary. My best friend, an awesome wife, a wonderful mother, and here to stay.

I’m grateful for every day spent together with her.  

Two hundred

From today, I wanted to give myself a new challenge.

Two hundred words a day. Every day.

Writing is part of how I make a living. An essential part of life as an academic. However, sometimes work activities just carry you away from this important aspect of the job. Teaching, supervision of graduate students, carrying out experiments, administrative tasks – all of these necessities can be distractions that hamper the creative writing process.

But here’s the thing. Writing is a skill that needs to be trained and maintained. It is almost like a creative muscle. If you let it atrophy for some time, even if only for a couple of weeks, you’ll lose the flow. For this reason, it is important to write regularly. I would even stretch and claim that you should write every day. More than a couple of standard e-mail answers preferably. Writing a small piece of text every day will be good for you, regardless of your profession. It will train your creative muscle, it will improve your ease of writing, and it will give you a new purposeful addition to your daily schedule.

There you go.

Two hundred words a day. Every day.

Ready, set, go!

A new chapter…

On the 16th of November we packed all our belongings into a moving truck. After a tough day of hard work, and a quick wipe-down of the place – to give subsequent inhabitants a pleasant entry – we closed the door to our beloved Wageningen apartment behind us. It wasn’t easy to leave the apartment. It was also strange to leave Wageningen. I had lived there for thirteen years, Heike – my wife – a bit less, but still more than a decade. We studied in Wageningen. This is where we fell in love and spent ten years together. This is where earlier this year we got married and then became parents to our beautiful son Rafa. Wageningen was truly where we were at home. But the time had come. After studying and completing my PhD contract (I’ll do my best to defend my work on the 4th of December, a few days from now), it was time to start probing around for new opportunities. New adventures. I got a wonderful opportunity to further my own line of research in a group in Germany. This job would mean a great couple of years in a good group with lots of potential to collaborate with new people. It also meant we had to move about 750 kilometres away. To Freising, Germany.

And so we did…

On the early morning of November 17th we left the house of my parents-in-law, where we had spent the night after packing. It would take us about 9 hours to get there with the moving truck. Me and two in-laws would drive the truck with all our stuff. Heike, Rafa and her mother would go by a smaller vehicle, containing mostly plants and enclosures for my lizards. My brother and two friends, who had helped packing the truck, had asked me the day before whether the right hind tire needed more air… I said then that it was probably fine, as it was a rental truck and the rental guy probably knew about this stuff. However, after five hours or so on the road, I was driving the truck and I noticed it started to get more and more wobbly. We soon stopped for a quick sanitary break at a shabby German road side toilet and we all agreed there that it looked like the tire was flatter than before and that we should soon stop at a better stop where we could look at it. That stop was about 5 kilometres further, at Rasthof Wurzburg-Sud… When we stopped the car the tire was even flatter! Within 15 minutes of parking it, it stood on the rim. On the positive side; the tire could have blown up while driving 100 km/h on the highway. We were at least safe and sound on a parking lot with a restaurant.

The rental company had rented us a truck with an inaccessible spare tire (broken mechanism), with a tire that had 0 profile on it. Therefore, we spent the next 26 (TWENTY-SIX) hours waiting for someone that could get our wheel off, bring it to a tire shop, have the shop put a new tire on, and bring it back to the truck. This could have been done in two hours. Bear in mind, this shop was only 2 kilometres away. We waited 24 hours for the person… The fix was done in a little over an hour (and that’s because not the tire but the rim was broken, and this had to be replaced and taken from another shop, which was also a few kilometres away).

So, long story short. My wife and the baby had to sleep on the floor of our new empty apartment together with her mom, and I spent the night in a Best Western with her sister and her mothers partner… plus two hysterical cats, a bunch of geckos and tarantulas that had to be kept warm. Conclusion; Best Western had a good German breakfast.

A day later than planned we finally arrived in our new home. By now, I can safely say that we have settled into our new home. The new chapter can start!

 

 

We saw the birth of a hurricane!

The past few days just flew by.

Poof. Gone!

After our slightly disappointing encounter with Mahahual, we went further south, to Bacalar, and later Chetumal. In Chetumal we hopped on the ferry to San Pedro. Of course we had la Isla Bonita high on our list of things to do in Central America.

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Nope, just kidding. We only stamped our passports to enter Belize there and continued our ferry ride to Caye Caulker.

On Caye Caulker they all say go slow and now that it is slow season, they probably want you to go even slower. It is an interesting place. The white beaches are dotted with palm trees and simple shacks where various vendors sell their products. The population is about 1500, but I get the idea you only actively see about 50 or so people. About 25 of those are crazy Rastafarian folk that clearly smoked and drank themselves to Korsakoff syndrome. They speak to each other in riddles and to others in rhymes that make snoop dogg seem like nothing. On the day we arrived, we saw the beginning of what a day later turned into hurricane Michael, which hit Florida this week.

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In Caye Caulker, our main aim was to scuba the blue hole and the meso-american barrier reef. Spoiler alert. We didn’t. It being slow season, most of the diving companies were closed or only went for local dives. The only place that handled longer distance dive sites have us a pretty unfriendly vibe and overall poor impression. The type of people that dive to make big bucks with minimal input. I don’t support that sort of shit. I want my dives to be an experience from start to end and for me the company (business and people) is a part of that. Maybe we’re just spoiled shits and had excellent experience in various places before. So be it.

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We saved ourselves some money and went for a snorkeling trip instead. We hung out with a local kid named JR for a while and his uncle ran a snorkeling company. The next day we went out on the water and saw Loggerhead the Hawksbill sea turtles (sea turtles are awesome). Other than that we saw a bunch of fish and heaps of beautiful corals. Yay.

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After 4 days of going slow, we were pretty much standing still, so it took us some effort to drag our asses to the ferry terminal (well… terminal, more of a wooden mini pier, really). Off to Belize city!

Belize city, from what we hear everywhere is more or less the capital city of gang violence and shootings (don’t worry mom, we took the bus straight out). We took a dirt cheap old school bus-like vehicle to San Ignacio, which took us about 3 hours. Here we will live for a few days, and San Ignacio’s is a friendly town and the center of many adventure tours. Today we made a trip to the ATM cave, which surprisingly only took money instead of dispensing it. Totally worth it though. This cave is one of the most spectacular caves in the world apparently. I’m no expert and our guide was, so I’ll take his word for it. An awesome cave system full of shiny crystalline structures and Mayan artefacts, including human sacrifices. The cave is a strict no photo zone because some respectless piece of shit (or plenty of them actually) dropped cameras on human sacrifices, breaking skulls and bones. This sort of stuff makes me feel bad for being part of the ‘tourist’ category.  I wanted to respect these rules, so use Google for an impression of ATM cave. I was pretty overwhelmed by it all. Luis, our guide was also a cool guy with knowledge of botany and anthropology so talking to him about the country was very nice.

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This is probably the best thing about traveling in Belize. Apart from it being pretty, English is the main language, along with Creole, which is pretty much broken English (as the locals say). This gives us a pretty good chance for interactions with locals. We have tried in the past with all means available, but Arabic, Thai, Bahasa or Khmer aren’t exactly my strongest, so this is usually hard. Traveling Spanish speaking countries is easier, but still, we’re not fluent, but we get around. I think this is what makes Belize a great experience. The locals are such a great source of  insight into the country. And apart from some gang violence they are all so respectful when talking to and about each other.

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I can’t help but think. What beautiful people :).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t like cruise ships

After we left Playa del Carmen a few days ago, we spent two days in Tulum, a smallish town a bit off the coast, with nice beaches a short bike ride away. Tulum town itself is nothing too special, although we found quite some interesting looking local restaurants and taquerias off the main road, which itself is lined with tourist crap restaurants and souvenir shops.

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Tulum is mostly famous for a Maya ruin that looks out over sea. We beat most of the crowds by arriving there early in the morning. It’s a small, but nice site to stroll around for a few hours.

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In the afternoon, we took our bikes to Gran Cenote. Cenotes are deep freshwater pools that often connect to cave systems and the nice rock formations and crystal clear waters make for excellent swimming and snorkeling fun. The entry price of 10usd per person was a bit steep, but what can you do… It was beautiful, so I would recommend it.

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We wanted to get a bit closer to sea and away from the crowds. From the descriptions online, Mahahual seemed to be such a place. Laidback Carribbean vibes, they said. Perhaps that was some years ago. I knew that there was a Cruise ship dock in Mahahual, so i should have known better. We arrived in the early afternoon and our Airbnb cabin was interesting. It looked like a ramshackle hut from the outside, but inside the owners put in a lot of attention for small details that were cool. We then went out to sea to finally see some of the marine life that is supposed to be abundant here. Instead, we were met by heaps of American tourists cruising around on Segways. Moreover, except around some restaurants, where they removed it, the beaches were lined with red seaweed that smelled like rotten eggs.

Bummer.

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We were quite disappointed in the whole Mahahual experience, so we went to our cabin. Our cabin was nice, right? After the sun set, our cozy little cabin turned into a mosquito-infested swamp hut. Having both been through the Dengue fever experience before in Thailand and Cambodia, we generally respond to mosquitoes in the tropixtwith extreme paranoia. Our hell hut had a mosquito net, so we were safe! Wrong again. The little fuckers were smarter than us and managed to get in although we didn’t know how… 20 bites and 2 hours later they disappeared as quickly as they came, only to wake us up again the next morning.

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Thankfully, this allowed us to take the first bus out of town and now we find ourselves in Bacalar. A small town on the edge of a beautiful blue lagoon. We have our own hammocks, kitchen and small pier to get in the water. It’s a good reminder that wherever you are, awesome things are always close by. You just have to look 🙂

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Hasta luego.

 

Quintana Roo

Quintana Roo. What a great name for a province. It reminds me of the hopping kind of marsupial that has very little to do with the Yucatan peninsula, the actual destination of this trip…

We had another greatly delayed flight by United Airlines… (They had to replace tyres and brakes of our plane, a very comforting feeling). They seem to make a habit out of that as it happened to me both ways on my recent teip to the US.

All in all, it took us 24 hours to get here, but we have made it… (Drumroll please)

Playa del Carmen

We were too tired to continue onwards to other regions and it was pretty much midnight when we arrived in our room. Now, I’ve heard quite some stories about PDC and very few good ones. It must be the tourist season that makes things bad, because today, in the middle of hurricane season, it feels like a pretty agreeable place (though with brown seas and seaweed beaches).

Nevertheless we will take a bus to Tulum this afternoon. I hope we can spend some time in the biosphere reserve there and perhaps see some temples and cenotes.

Regardless of the hurricane season and terrible weather forecasts, the weather so far is pretty awesome! I was a bit worried about this in the past few days as the forecasts predicted rain, rain rain.

So far this tiny update on this trip. I’ll write more soon.

R

 

 

 

 

 

Crocodile Hunting in City Park

**** TL;DR: There are pictures all the way at the bottom 🙂 ****

It is crazy how time flies. It seems like just yesterday that I was in Italy for work, but here I am, four weeks later, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Again for work. I arrived here in the middle of the night two days ago, after my flight from Washington to New Orleans got delayed by five hours. I think it was because of bad weather, although I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. Some rain? I’m not a weather man, and no pilot either, so I guess there were good reasons for it… The long travel made it very easy to fall asleep and have a good night’s rest. Thus far, the jetlag has been pretty mild, although I am feeling a bit out of tune today. Perhaps because I found out that my phone found Washington time good enough to display, so I was basically living one hour ahead until this morning at 7 (so not 8AM, dear alarm clock!).

I hate jetlags. I am just very bad with them and lately even feel like I get a jet lag when clocks move from summer to winter time. Terrible. Yesterday I tried my best to fill up my schedule as much as possible, as they say that having a regular schedule helps to prevent jetlags.

First, I walked around in the French Quarter a bit and this was quite deserted (perhaps because I started my walk not at 8AM, but actually at 7AM). Next, I had a nice unhealthy breakfast at the Ruby Slipper, which really seems as American as it gets. Then I took a bus through Magazine St (where I will return probably for dinner tonight, as this street looked super nice) on my way to the Audobon Zoo. I like to go to zoos in other countries, it gives you a great sense of what the people are like in that country. Americans are surprisingly American and I can already say that most of the stereotypes that I knew existed about Americans are true.

The zoo was small, but quite neat. A young kid told me that last week a jaguar chewed its way out of its cage and escaped and killed a few alpacas and a maned wolf? I’m not sure how much of the killing stories is true, but indeed, the alpacas and maned wolves seemed to be off display (as were the jaguars 😦 ). I liked the Louisiana Swamp part. Where I am from, we have a lot of swampy stuff, but aside from the occasional frog and invasive red-eared slider turtles, there’s very little excitement to be found. Indulging in the American style deep-fried lunch accompanied by a huge disgusting rootbeer on a porch overlooking some alligators swimming around outside, to me, feels like a little adventure.

I know that alligators are pretty common here, but the idea of it just feels unreal to me (seeing black and dwarf caymans last year in the Peruvian Amazon also was an unreal experience 🙂 ). To make it all a bit more real, I wanted to see them for real. You know, the ‘not in an enclosure’ type of real. I had seen some swamp tour adventures advertised all over the place yesterday, but after looking into that a bit more, the whole idea of going out on hoverboats with 20 other tourists in order to look at gators that are being fed on a daily basis also did not feel so real or cool to me.

Disappointed by the tour options, I ended up reading about City Park, where management was making efforts to get rid of the gators above 1,5m long. Being the enthousiastic field ecologist that I am, I decided I could just make my own swamp tour. I hopped onto a streetcar in Canal St, which dropped me off at City Park Ave. Although it was dry when I got on, it had started to drizzle somewhere halfway and by the time I was out, it was just a fucking downpour. Two other tourists must have had the same idea, but they came prepared and brought rain jackets. My rain jacket was still hanging on a chair in the hotel room. Of course. Having packed the damn thing for this trip made me feel even more stupid for not bringing it out.

As a Dutch guy, I am used to a bit of rain (although it has been bone dry for weeks on end this summer) and the temperatures were still a solid 25 degrees. Good enough for me. So brave (and just plain stupid), I just walk into the park. The downpour continues. Now, the City Park in NOLA is not your average park. Apparently people here don’t go to the park for a stroll or a picknick. This park has a big lake where you can rent a pedal boat, some bike paths and roads through it. It is also home to the NOLA art museum. Most of that stuff is south of the highway (where the park management removes gators as much as possible, probably because this is where still a few people visit the park?). So I take the tunnel under the highway to the North side of the park. Not a person in sight. The place is huge. I figured that this is where I should look for alligators, if I wanted to increase my odds of finding one.

At this point, I am already walking for at least an hour and the rain is so strong that I have taken my rain cover to protect the backpack holding my camera gear. I can barely see something as the rain is constantly wetting my glasses, blurring my vision. I walk past a dog park (wtf is that people? a playground for dogs? it’s a park for christ’s sake, it already is a playground for dogs…). The dog park clearly is the most popular thing in the whole park, as there are many cars parked outside of it. However, not any form of shelter in sight… I continue my journey. By now, my underwear is starting to get soaked as well. It was that bad. I pass a family of three that are fishing along the banks of one of the lakes. These dudes are hard core! Louisiana fishermen don’t give a fuck. I admire that sort of mentality. I see no sign of life in the lakes, so I walk on. A roundabout. I follow the road to the left. There’s supposed to be a botanical garden or forest thing here. It looks okay, but at this point I am fucking frustrated that I cannot use my camera and I just want to find a gator.

I cross a bridge.

Wait. Bridges cross water! I go back and carefully scan the water surface (which is mainly water hyacinth here). A lonely turtle. Fuck you turtle! The developing hate for turtles – which usually have a special place among the other reptiles in my heart – shows that the weather was taking its toll on me. I cross the road, the only water I had seen on this side of the park was coming from the sky, so I had to take this opportunity. I peak over the concrete wall. More water hyacinths. Some trash. Glass bottles, plastic bags on the right side. A young gator on the left side. Wait, what?!?! There it was, its tiny head breaking the water surface, gazing at the concrete base of the bridge. A beautiful little alligator. Probably about 90cm long. A small one, but nevertheless a wild one that is not kept behind a fence. I’m feeling all Steve Irwin here.

Luckily, I found the mighty river monster just before I exited the park. I looked like a drowned fucking cat. People were seriously laughing at me from their cars. Morons. I just found a gator motherfucker. I probably looked ridiculous…

Then, I made the first mistake of the day. Starbucks. Not that coffee was a bad idea. Coffee is always a good idea. That fucking airconditioning… Goddammit. Waiting for three minutes already gave me hypothermia. I use the free WiFi to google maps my way back to the hotel and I find out that I have to take bus 60 and 55, which I do. The bus seriously is a worse place than Starbucks. What is up with all these shabby-looking but insanely well-functioning air-con buses? Two bus rides turn me into a popsicle and I decide to get something to eat at Willie’s Chicken Place (this place is wrong in so many ways; they sell slush drinks in a dick-shaped bottle disguised as a chicken – the Willie’s COCK tail – and people actually buy them, a lot). The lady behind the counter asks me if I need hot sauce. Sure, I like hot sauce, thanks. Her colleague interrupts me to inform me she can give me a *Louisiana accent on* taste of the real hot juice if I know what she’s talking about *Louisiana accent off*…. I decide I really don’t have  a clue what she’s talking about. I want my hotel room and a hot shower.

It was a horrible day, but at least I saw a gator. I’m happy.

And guess what? I think it was dry about 30 mins after I got back to the hotel and it is sunny now…

Maybe I’ll walk to Magazine St for dinner. But this time I’ll pack a rain jacket

 

It all happened while I was on the plane!

So… Yeah. The first conference I attended this summer has ended. As you may remember from my previous posts here and here, I went to Italy last week.

Ten days, alone, which, for me, was very VERY exciting. After a scarring terrible experience a few years ago in Malaysia, I felt very bad about going solo again. I love travel. I was just afraid of being alone. What if I will have to sit out ten days, doing absolutely nothing?!

Yeah, that never happened…

One day I spent speeding through Rome (35 km walked), followed by a one day of traveling to Napels, then a full day exploring Pompei ancient city, then the conference started with a packed programme and by Friday, when the conference had ended, I was already pretty sure that I could 1) not visit Vesuvius and 2) would not make it to Capri. Instead, I visited Ercolano, another ancient city. Interesting, but not even close to Pompei when it comes to impressiveness.

I needed to get back to Rome on Saturday, as my flight back to the Netherlands would be from Rome Fiumicino airport. I stayed in the weirdest AirBnB with a guy that attempted to play trumpet or saxophone (it was that bad, I couldn’t recognize it) all night. He ended the evening with some relaxing music at maxed out volume. Why not.

I was very happy when I woke up on Sunday. Time to leave again… and the day started off exciting!

When I opened my phone that morning, I got an exciting message! My ‘baby brother’ and his girlfriend brought their first baby son into the world!

The little one was born when I was up in the air on the flight from Rome to Amsterdam. I got the call from my brother when I was waiting in line to order my meal at Burger King Schiphol (I usually only go to BK when I arrive on Schiphol). Probably my most memorable BK meal! I love that the baby boy waited until I flew back to the Netherlands before it arrived.

On Monday, I visited the fresh new family in the hospital. It is special to see new parents hold their first-born. They looked so proud. I loved it. Little Jake is a very cute baby!