Avoiding downpours from Kalaw to Inle Lake

 

I escaped the oppressive Bagan heat and arrived in Kalaw with some new backpacking friends after another long bus ride. After exploring the cute mountain town, we walked over to Ever Smile where we managed to get a group of 5 hikers together for a 3-day backpacking trip to Inle Lake. Three of us were from the USA (two recent college grads plus myself) and there was Spanish couple on their honeymoon.

We hiked out of Kalaw, through rice fields and other cultivated plots of land, and wound through some remaining forest. Our guide, Ta Ta and his friend Onzo easily went with whatever pace we set, and accommodated any need to stop and take pictures. They answered our questions about the local area and Myanmar in general.

After 15 miles of hiking, we arrived at our lodging for the night. Both nights, we stayed in local villages, in a room in a family’s home with thin mattresses on the floor; more than comfortable after a day of hiking. The homemade family dinners were amazing, and the peanuty-tomato salad, fermented tea leaf salad, stewed pumpkin, and various other dishes were demolished with Myanmar Beer.

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Even though this array of dishes was actually from a Burmese cooking class with Mercury Cooking at Inle Lake, it was very similar to our meals of 7-8 dishes that we would have every night during our home-stays on the trek!

On the third day of the trek, we walked up to the dock at the southern end of Inle Lake, and caught our boat that would motor us an hour to the other side, where most of us were staying in Nyaung Shwe, a small town containing most of the hostels and tourist amenities. Our boat ride began cloudy, and turned rainy, and soon we all had our ponchos on, admiring the lake-view through our short-range visibility. The photo on the right, below, is our tea break earlier in the day while it poured outside!

Our crew of 5 had bonded so much, that we met up in Nyaung Shwe to go out to eat at a classic Burmese Tea House (photo below, left, where we exchanged limited English, and lots of pantomiming to order Shan Noodles, a delicious dish typical of the area) and go out to the one pub (below, right) in town afterward!

For two days at Inle Lake, it rained, but I hopped on the back of a friend’s motorbike and visited Tofu Palace, which took us on a village tour where we saw locals bent over vats of hot oil, cooking snacks I had seen in the market. They worked with their chickpea and rice doughs and hot oil with such ease, and I was impressed given my own aversion to bubbling cauldrons of hot oil.

I extended my stay at Inle Lake by a day to, finally, have a sunny day to boat on the lake after days of rainy exploration. We boated out to see the sunrise, and fishermen already out on their boats, famously paddling with one foot extended as they reeled in their nets.

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We saw hundreds of pagodas at the southern end of Inle Lake, overrun by dogs (and PUPPIES!), and boated through the floating gardens that were beautiful mats of some hybrid between aquaponics and hydroponics.

I would highly recommending the 3-day trek with Ever Smile, and especially with the daughter of the owner Aki (website here soon, but can be reached via WhatsApp at +95 9 775 980403), who is creating her own trekking company and has the savviness to harness social media and make her own website! I stayed, again, at Ostello Bello at Nyuang Shwe, and was happy to have the familiarity of the hostel and to see some friends again that I had met in Bagan.

After the day-long boat tour, I hopped on a VIP overnight bus with JJ Express (so plush, and such a nice company!) to Mandalay, and the final leg of my time in Myanmar.

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From Gringa to Farang (ฝรั่ง)

Full disclosure– my sister’s-friend-turned-my-new-friend, Clayton, wrote the Thai word after “farang”, which almost like the equivalent to calling someone a gringo/a. Clayton has been really generous with his time, showing me around Chiang Mai and speaking impressive Thai to order us delicious food or explain things in markets. Shoutout to you, Clayton, you’ve been a champ!

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Little hose to the left of the potty!

One of my favorite things, right off the bat, is the little hoses right next to the toilets that you can use after using the potty. It’s refreshing after walking around in the hot sun, and it feels less wasteful than all that toilet paper. I would move to bring this to Chicago, but I could see this getting unpleasant in the winter months…

Other than the potties, temples and food have defined my walking experience in Chiang Mai. Up the mountain, around the corner, down the alley, there is another Wat, or Buddhist temple, gleaming against monks’ orange robes. I have removed my shoes and sat on my heels, staring at giant Buddhas at upwards of 10 different Wats. They are all remarkably beautiful, detailed stories in building form. IMG_4066

As for FOOD… well, my tastebuds have been rocked. The first day I had orange Thai iced tea at one shop, spicy papaya salad (seriously so spicy that I could only eat a few bites– lesson learned that “medium” is actually a Hannah HOT) for lunch, a sampler of northern Thai dishes with sticky rice at dinner, and a regular ol’ Chang beer at the Cabaret show (I would equate it, probably inaccurately given the different gender identities in Thailand, to a Thai drag show. You might have seen an example on Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown with the episode showcasing Chiang Mai).

My second day, I went to cooking school with the best teacher, Yui at A Lot of Thai cooking school, who has been invited to cook in countries all over the world and has pictures in her home with Gordon Ramsey! It was a day of making and eating Pad Thai, Penang Curry, Tom yum soup with prawns (left to right in the photos below), and mango sticky rice (and yes, family and friends, I will try and replicate what I learned for your taste buds too). I was entirely too full by the end of class, but my mouth and belly were also entirely too satisfied.

The next day, I scoped out a spot known by locals for excellent Khao Soi, essentially the dish of Northern Thailand. I went to a spot called Khaosoi Maesai and spooned away at this beauty until the bottom of the bowl was visible:

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I ordered Khao soi gai, which was this soup with chicken. Thailand has been an unashamed reinsertion to intentionally eating meat at meals. The environmentalist in me would urge me to avoid meat consumption, but the sustainable traveler in me, eager to experience all aspects of Thai culture, recognizes meat as a fundamental part of enjoying Thai cuisine. I’m all in.

Beyond food, which I could probably talk about for endless paragraphs, I went on a jungle trek with Pooh Eco-Trekking, known for more responsible travel than other companies. On our day-long trek, it was just me and a kind French couple away from their small children for the first time. We hiked to two waterfalls, deftly donning and removing our rain ponchos with frequency as the weather decided to keep our feet wet. Also, there are TRAIL LEECHES. I just can’t talk about them, but they are pretty gross green-ish equivalents of the black-slimy buggers I knew from camp growing up. I pulled 3 or more off during the hike (actually, I had someone else do it, I couldn’t handle it).

BUT, despite the leeches, we had mango sticky rice for a snack, which was brilliant. Also, because everything is wrapped in banana leaves, there is no need for plastic containers/plates, and everything is entirely biodegradable. We ate our snacks and left the leaves for the jungle to use as organic matter later. IMG_4086

The above picture shows 1/2 of the French couple and our lunch! Veggie rice with a fried egg and chicken. Not pictured are the tomatoes and cucumber and fresh pineapple. Our guide really did well for us in the market, and I think I left the hike more full than if I hadn’t done any exercise that day.

To prepare for the Superior Hiking Trail, which my friend Anne and I will hike two weeks after I get back, I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep strong while traveling. Today, I ran to this gem of a park with great exercise equipment around the perimeter (see one example below). If I sweat twice as much in subtropical air, does it count twice as much?

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Next week, I start my Thai massage course! I am eager to have a routine, at least for a week, and drink more Thai iced teas, eat mango sticky rice, and try a less-spicy papaya salad.

11,500km and worlds apart: El Sal and NZ

El Salvador and New Zealand are worlds apart, or specifically one Pacific Ocean– a mere 11,500 kilometers. Yet, both have active volcanoes just hours from brilliant beaches with surf waves. Both countries have equally as harrowing and winding roads. If motivated, in either country, I can climb a volcano in the morning and be at the beach in the afternoon.

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Hiking on Te Mata peak, with beautiful fossiliferous limestone under our feet!

What forests are left in El Salvador (13% of land use area) are tropical rainforests; in New Zealand, the Department of Conservation has created trails winding through over the 30% of land covered by temperate broadleaf and mixed forests. This is partly explained by the difference in population densities, while El Salvador is the most densely populated country in Central America with over 6 million people, New Zealand has a much larger land area with a population of 4.5 million. So the very act of walking in the two countries is a very different experience. Overflowing busses and traffic to rival that game where you have to jig-saw blue cars to get the red car over to the other side of the board define one, while ample trails and regulated car emissions define the other.

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Dry season, dry soil. Without soil cover, soil erodes and looses its humidity.

New Zealand has no native mammals, besides a bat, and many of El Salvador’s native species are locally extinct (good luck finding a monkey here). Luckily, it’s easy enough to encounter earthquakes in the two countries.

Both small countries have rich histories, with El Salvador’s human history extending back thousands of years, while the Maori arrived in New Zealand only 1200 years ago. The Maori in New Zealand are a strong presence (albeit not without the colonial problems and prejudices introduced when the British arrived around 200 years ago), while colonial invasion of El Salvador has totally squashed the Pipil/Nahuat traditional peoples such that much of the native knowledge and expression is gone. I’ve seen archeological pieces displayed in people’s homes in El Salvador, more as change holders than artifacts.

In one country, I can go to any ridgeline and have a good chance of finding an established trail to walk on, while the other country, I have to be conscious of which block I walk down. Bare feet are common equally at beaches as in ice cream shops and supermarkets in New Zealand while the tropical aggression, inadequate disposal of garbage, and ample rivulets of grey water in El Salvador make shoes a requirement for healthcare. Yet in one country, I feel challenged and uncomfortably comfortable, while in the other, I am always at ease aside from when I have to drive on the left side of the road.

It might seem like the obvious choice to stick with comfort. I find this contradictory as I seek to understand the world to create positive change, and I’ve grown to revel in the challenge of understanding my geography.

 

***(Statistics on countries from the CIA World Factbook)

El Campo and a 10k

On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of last week, I was a lucky camper and headed to el campo (the field) to observe coffee and beans and maíz, oh my!

The organization I’m working for promotes sustainable agricultural practices. This means promoting practices like the 4Rs, interpreting soil analyses and fertilizing accordingly, and intercropping. I saw coffee intercropped with beans, which promote nitrogen fixation, a vital resource for the coffee plants. Some beans, like the gandul (pigeon pea) grow into tall tree-like plants, while the canavalia variety are more vine-like than shrub-like. In addition to their nitrogen services, they provide shade (especially the gandul) and ground cover which maintain soil moisture, a necessity in the tropics with intense sun exposure.

I got to follow my teammates who know if there’s a phosphorous deficiency by looking at the plant, and who can recommend to switch from an 18-20-0 fertilizer to an 18-46-0 fertilizer without blinking. Many of the farmers that we met had changed their practices to include many of these best-management methods and in a few years have seen results. Their plants are healthier, and they’re spending less on fertilizers. They have less soil erosion from maintaining ground cover and planting perpendicular to the hill-slope.

Also we saw a lot of baby animals (see baby pigs and calves below), and the vistas from the farms were astounding. Yesterday, we went to parcels in Ahuachapan, one of the highest areas in El Salvador, and from the farmer’s plot, we could see all the way to the ocean.

Earlier this week, I visited a soils lab at national university CENTA. The lab was excited at the possibility of having another collaborator, and someone to help with the mountain of soil samples they process.

I’ve been busy, and learning a lot so that I can be even more analytical in my interpretations of soil data.

…but not too busy for a mid-week surf, with an incredible sunset, and my first trail-run 10k in Comasagua.

Leaving only salted chocolate chip cookies behind

Thursday early morning I’ll hop on a plane to Atlanta, wander through the airport to connect with my flight to El Salvador, where I’ll be for the next 10 months.

I’m leaving my sister some cookies to get her through the first few days of my absence…
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These next 10 months are a result of a Fulbright research grant to study soil chemistry on coffee farms. I’ll be working with an organization called Blue Harvest to do some soil analyses that I have become familiar with through research at Smith. The adjustment will be steep, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. It has always been that in these times of discomfort that I’ve grown the most, so while I recognize the present anxiety in the imminent travel, I know that the long-term benefits outweigh any trepidations.

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As I frantically pack last-minute items, I’ll also be enjoying my last day in Chicago summer. Tomatoes will be my primary food group, picked off the vine, and juice dripping down my chin.Mostly sweet, slightly acidic, tasting like sunshine and keeping me grounded for one more day.

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Halfway in a bog

Back in the USA, and back at school out East, and back doing the research that I started last summer in bogs like this one:
P1170927Peat is this partially decomposed organic material that occurs in anoxic, water saturated conditions: Bogs. This is the stuff I’m studying, because no one has really studied its chemistry and because it is an important carbon sink (people mine and burn peat because it is such a dense carbon source!). For collecting samples, I made a monolith tin (essentially a bread loaf pan without a bottom), per advice of The Bogologist. My advisor and I used it to collected the upper 50cm of peat in a few different bogs. The upper part of peat is called the acrotelm (it has taken me 3 weeks to say this word and remember it), characterized by high hydraulic conductivity and nutrient transfer, and a partially aerated, partially living soil layer.  P1170932

 Getting wet and peat-y when working in the bog is unavoidable. And often samples look like brown spongy wet unattractive blocks. But they’re my peaty samples so I think they’re adorable:P1170939 P1170942

And sometimes you actually have to get IN the peat. And I’m talking full-arm-in and legs immersed in water to grab what you need. And water is everywhere. But it’s worth it for a great sample. P1170944

This last sample isn’t really a peat-sample; it’s more organic, but it’s still worth checking out as it is on the margin of this one bog in Northampton, MA (Burt’s Pit Bog). P1170945

And it helps that bogs are beautiful, generally expansive vistas with beautiful little plants and flours and margins of cattails. It makes the hours analyzing the peat in the lab worth it. I am specifically looking at base cations (Na, sodium; Ca, calcium; Mg, magnesium; K, potassium and some aluminum and silicon). This will tell me which ions have a preference for “sticking” on the peat and at what concentration of surrounding liquid that preference changes. P1170926

I just analyzed my first batch on the ICP (Inductively Coupled plasma– basically it fires up my filtered samples and tells me the concentration of certain elements) and am playing with the data. Hopefully I’ll have more time in bogs soon!

Laughing through AUS to ORD: 10 days in Australia

Lucky for me, my sister and best friend met me in Australia for a 10-day exploration of the country right after I left New Zealand. I couldn’t have asked for a better transition.IMG_2949

We had two days in Cairns– the tourist hub for the Great Barrier Reef. It is a cute town, but I was too stoked to see the wonder of the natural world. We toured with SeaStar, and had a brilliant experience! The company was great and it was a luxurious ride. We stopped to snorkel in two places: one off a sandbar an hour boat ride from the port in Cairns, and the other a reef in open water where we saw a barracuda and turtles and parrotfish.IMG_2951

My sister’s favorite part of the trip was this lagoon in Cairns: a man-made pool with sand and some sprinklers for the kids(at heart) right on the ocean! The ocean water is filled with jellyfish and other fun creatures that make it not so fun to swim in, so this is the city’s alternative, and it was beautiful. IMG_2958 IMG_2969

After two days of sunshine and exploring Queensland, we hopped on a plane to Sydney. As soon as we landed, sister again proclaimed that this part was her favorite. This would be common throughout the trip…IMG_2981 IMG_2984

We spent the first day exploring and walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge (the free walk– not the climb to the top) to see the Sydney Opera House just as a HUGE cruise ship was embarking on its journey. We took pictures of the Opera House from almost every angle. And we ate lots and lots of delicious food (Oxford St. was a great location for us since every side street had cute cafes and options abound).

I took the girls to Bondi Beach on our second day in Sydney to try out surfing at this classic go-to spot. We got lots of salt-water up our noses, and then proceeded to eat the best fish and chips I’ve ever had at our shuttle driver(from the airport)’s brother’s chippery called Bondi Seafoods. IMG_2992 IMG_3006 IMG_3020 IMG_3029

We spent the next day walking around the city, and saw these cute birdies:IMG_3034

Our next stop was Melbourne, and we spent 4 full days there. We explored the street art, and wandered the parks. We hit up Fitzroy ave. and the Victoria St. Market. As our time in Melbourne ended, we realized we had only begun to discover the hidden treasures of the city. I would love to go back and explore more!IMG_3064

The girls and I also went on a hike: we took the train to Upper Fern Tree Gully and did the 1000 Steps hike through some pretty woods. IMG_3077 IMG_3106 IMG_3116

There’s a small blue penguin in the rocks!!!IMG_3119

And we visited the Melbourne Zoo…IMG_3136And then it was time to leave on endless flights home (United delayed the girls’ flight for 8 HOURS out of LAX!!! No United, NO…

We all made it back to Chicago, but still tasting the delicious cafe treats and salty sea air from those 10 days.