I am sitting here watching the Academy Awards and they just rolled the part where they remember all those who’ve died this past year. “In Memoriam.” I always liked that term, the way it sounds and looks in print. You almost never hear it spoken. That’s probably as it should be.
I’m glad to see 2011 go away and I am waiting for it to fade. I’m sorry to see all those people gone, but I don’t miss the year. It was the worst year of my life.
Now, you say a thing like that and everyone wants to know lots of details. And I’m not giving them up. This isn’t the spot for that and it’s not really what you want. But it was my worst year.
I bring it up because everyone always tells me what a great job I have. And I DO have a great job. I work really hard at it and I’m part of a tremendous team. But there are times when it is excruciatingly sad.
Following me, you know I bounce around a lot. My passport is a rainbow of stamps and visas. I love it. It is a prized possession. But a lot of those stamps represent dark images that I know won’t ever leave me. But maybe, like 2011, they’ll eventually fade. Maybe.
India is an amazing place. We had the chance to roll out of the teeming cities and into the rugged countryside. I sat in the sun and ate delicious samosas that were handmade by the grandmother of Priyanka Rani Pandey, a student we were following. Her family is from this tiny spot on the map. The story was about how she was awarded a Schoenl grant through the Honors College to have some water pumps and purification gear installed. They’re making people healthier in a place where the water can kill you. It was good news and people around us were smiling. A woman nearby was holding a cute little baby girl, all wrapped in colorful cloth.
“What’s her name?”
“She doesn’t have one,” came the answer.
“She’s only a few months old. We don’t name our children until they are at least three or four. Because they don’t always live that long.”
It was said so matter-of-factly that I almost missed it.
It was a few months earlier and I was in Cambodia. It was a trip where we followed Greg Jones, a college junior who was also awarded a Schoenl Grant, is raising money for a rough village in very rural Cambodia. Everyone knows Greg. The work he’s doing and the money he is raising is building a school, a health center and a water purification system. I’m sure I can’t spell the word for saint in Cambodian, but I heard it.
We stayed in a very nice hotel in Phnom Penh because there was no way to charge our batteries and keep all our gear safe in the villages where we had to work. Each day we’d get up and drive the long, bumpy roads to the village. I’d been enjoying the trip and the company of the people we were with. One morning we stopped to drive back into the ferry that took our truck across the river. People were crowded on the docks with hands full of stuff. Food, candy, CDs and DVDs…and on and on. They were hoping we’d buy something. We didn’t. But it was a festive scene and relaxing, just sitting in the truck, looking at the river.
Then I saw a very small girl leading an older man very gently by the hand. He was disheveled and his open eyes were clearly damaged. I heard her talk through a nearby open car window, “This is my father. He’s no see. But he sing.” And with that the man started a tune, softly at first then growing. I watched as the window powered up and shut him out. The little girl pulled his hand and they walked slowly to another car. Where she began to speak the same lines again. I pushed a button and my window closed. I closed my eyes and thought of my children.
We rolled into the village that day with the radio on. Our driver was from the area and loved old American pop music. I remember riding over dirt roads, between thatched huts and half-starved looking kids and “We Are the World” spilled out of the speakers. Are we the world? Does it matter?
I’m looking at my passport. It’s a tangible reminder that evokes wispy memories I adore and sometimes don’t want to remember. But that’s the deal. Memories are with you until they’re not. And you can’t hit “delete” or choose not to remember. Instead, they do the choosing. And they hit you when you aren’t expecting it.
It has been while since I posted anything here. I’ve been busy. I’ve been sick. I’ve been distracted. All true. But mostly I just haven’t been able to find the words. There has been a long stretch where I just haven’t known what to say. I’m a journalist, and here, I write about what I see and live. And a lot of that just hasn’t been something I wanted to write about.
Around the holidays I was sitting in my house, in front of the fire. I was staring into the flames with a drink in my hand. My dad was visiting and we were just sitting quietly together. His phone started to buzz. He reached into his pocket and got his reading glasses, then dug out his phone. “Oh, my God. I think Bob just killed himself.”
It was how my year ended. This was a man who taught me a lot about life and a lot about writing and news. He was one of the first people I called when I was looking at journalism schools. An award winning, veteran reporter, he reviewed my early work and helped me find my voice in telling stories about other people. But Bob got to a place where he couldn’t find the use in any more words. He couldn’t find the way through this life that he needed to spend another day living it.
“Bob was a man who took big steps.” Those words came from another dear friend who was very close to Bob. Another of the “uncles” who helped raise the restless boy I was. Bob did take big steps, but he was happy to have you walking next to him. And, as a little kid, I appreciated how he shortened his stride so I could match his pace. In some ways I have tried to match the pace he set in my work. To tell a good story and to always tell it true.
It’s not possible to tell a happy story without some sadness. Shakespeare said something about needing to make people laugh before you can make them cry. Just as there is no courage without fear, there is no good story without some rough parts.
Sitting here on my couch watching the names and faces of those who passed away reminds me of those I miss. That list gets longer and longer. Tonight the world remembers Whitney Houston and Elizabeth Taylor. I keep thinking about Bob. A man who took giant steps. A man who would always wait for me. I wish he had waited just a little longer. I wish I could have told him one more story.
And I wish I could have told him good-bye.
I have been saying for years now that I am tired of “Third World hot.” And now I’m saying it again. Why aren’t any of our shoots somewhere nice and chilly? Why am I always, always stuffing thin garments with wicking properties into my bags in anticipation of sweltering days and nights? I guess it’s part of the adventure.
Maybe I am letting myself get distracted by the steaming temperatures because I am trying not to fall too far into the sadness that surrounds me. I am standing in the “Killing Fields.”
All around me are the mass graves of some of more than a million people killed during the genocide that lasted from 1974 to 1979. I’m standing in front of a sign that tells me more than 2.5 million died as the result of the executions as well as starvation and disease borne of the policies of the Khmer Rouge government.
Greg Jones walks next to me, sweating in the intense sun. “They saw education as the enemy,” he says quietly. “People with glasses were killed because it was a sign that they were ‘intellectual.’”
Greg has been here a few times. The work he is doing in the village in rural Cambodia is still connected to the ripples through time of the atrocities here. “We’re helping to build a school. We’re trying to help more kids get an education so things like this don’t happen again.”
There are memorials here, both man made and made by nature but ruined by man with history. The man made statues and buildings remember those who lost their lives in this dark time. The memorials from nature include things like a “killing tree” that stands next to a large pit. “It was used to smash people’s heads against, even little kids…” Greg takes a deep breath. “…and then they had the pit next to it so the bodies would just fall into it. That way they didn’t even have to carry the bodies anywhere.”
It’s the next day and I’m in an air-conditioned car. We’re driving out to see the village where the money Greg has raised is helping build a health center, the school and a water delivery system. “Aside from the fact that the school needs clean drinking water, a lot of families in the area don’t have water available.” Greg’s telling me this as we’re cruising through the crazy roads of the city as it gives way to countryside. He’s getting more and more excited as we near the village. “So when there’s water at the school, more kids will come to school. More families will want their kids in school so they can get water. We’re going to arrange it so they can get food there too.” This is not a place where kids have to go to school. Many end up working in fields and other places where child labor is the norm and has been for generations. “So this can help break the cycle of that and it’s pretty simple to buy some machinery and get ‘em some good food to eat!” Greg’s enthusiasm and smile are lifting me today. I’m still a little down from the “Killing Fields” as well as homesick and other things. Yes, happens to me too.
At the village we are greeted by the principal of the school who is a monk. Greg says, “He grew up in extreme poverty and became a monk to escape it. Now he gives away everything he has and takes care of these kids.”
The kids are everywhere and excited to see “The Americans.” Greg pulls out a soccer ball he’s brought along and the kids are instantly kicking it everywhere.
The kids here are mostly orphans. Many were left when their parents went off to find work in the cities, parents who are never coming back. And many of these little kids are HIV positive. Even though I know the statistics, it still stuns me how prevalent it is in so many of the countries I’ve been to.
We walk around the buildings that are going up. The school is almost finished and kids are already in desks working away. The health center is looking good and is under construction. They’re still waiting on the pump for the water system so that’s been delayed a bit. The place is buzzing and there is a lot of excitement because Greg is here. It seems like everyone knows he helped this happen.
“I believe in service to people,” he says with a big smile. “I don’t know, I just started giving a little and now I give more and more. I think about whether I really need that new Aeropostale sweater or should I just go to the thrift store and get one that will keep me plenty warm and then give the left over money to help people. I usually end up heading to Goodwill.”
With some good friends and family, Greg has raised more than $10 thousand dollars for this village. A nice chunk of it came from a grant through the Honors College at MSU. He applied for the Schoenel Grant that is designed to give money for good works through students like Greg. Landing that money was the lynchpin for this, he tells me. “When we got that money it was like a miracle! It was just what we needed right when we needed it. I couldn’t believe it when I opened the envelope!” He laughs and his laugh rolls across the grounds of this place.
It feels like a sanctuary, and I guess it is. There is a large pagoda and other ornate buildings where the monks live and pray. There is open space where the kids can run and play. Where, right now, they’re kicking around a brand new soccer ball. And there are places to learn. In a place where not too long ago people were killed for learning, for knowledge, this must feel like a real sanctuary.
The sun is pounding down on me, the humidity and heat are rough. But is a different day and I am standing in the middle of hope, not sadness. I am a little distracted by the weather, but I don’t need that distraction. Not today.
I’m sitting in a hotel room looking out over Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Getting here was long. Detroit, Atlanta, Seoul, Phnom Penh. Altogether more than 24 hours in the air. It’s now a haze of check-ins and baggage, weird plane food and movies I would never watch unless strapped in above 30,000 feet.
I’m here working on a story about a student who’s raised money to help build a school, a health center and a clean water delivery system to a small village in a rural area about two-and-a-half hours from here. We’re headed there tomorrow.
Today we’re going to get some city shots and a feel for this place. I have to admit that I don’t know much about Cambodia. I grew up hearing about because of the Viet Nam war and then the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. From what I see from my window it’s a busy place where traffic lights are really just a suggestion more than a rule. And it looks hot. I left Michigan where it was cool and fall and I have landed in the tropics. I’m not looking forward to that part. My weather ap tells me it’s supposed to be in the low to mid-90’s and raining. Yuck.
It is always good to see new country. This is my fourth trip to Asia, the second this year. Last time it was Nepal. Down there, it looks more developed than Kathmandu. I’m looking forward to getting on the street and seeing it up close. So I guess that means I need to stop writing,get in the shower and get on with it.
I wonder how the coffee is.
“This mother comes in with a little boy. And she tells me he hasn’t spoken and he doesn’t walk and he’s two and a half years old.”
Doctor Don Moore is telling me about his first day at the clinic he helped set up in Huamachuco, Peru.
“And he doesn’t even crawl. But he knows his name. He responds and looks up when you say his name.”
I’m sitting looking at the sun dropping behind the mountains encircling this little town. It sits at just over 10,000 feet in the Andes. I’m up here with director/videographer Alberto Moreno (If you follow us, you know Al). We’re following a group of doctors, MSU medical students and medical residents who have come on a medical mission. This is third year such a group has made the trek.
Just getting here is quite the adventure. Let me run you through it quickly. Al and I flew from Detroit to Atlanta. Had a six-hour layover. Then flew from Atlanta to Lima, Peru. Then we all, all 41 of us, climbed aboard a bus for a 10 hour trip to Trujillo. We spent two nights in Trujillo, then climbed aboard another bus for the 8 hour ride up here to Huamachuco.
Now, I don’t want to take you through every twist and turn of the trip, but let me say that it was something else. I’ve been on a lot of rough roads and harrowing bus rides, but I have never been surrounded by as many moaning, crying and throwing up people as I was on the ride through the hairpin turns to Huamachuco. There were many, many, MANY times when if you looked out the side window and down toward where you thought the road should be, all you’d see was space. All you’d see was the world falling away next to you and a few hundred feet of rocks and cliff before the next ledge.
Al and I lost track of how many people were throwing up. And, as you know, throwing up is a chain reaction kind of thing. It’s tough to keep yourself together when the woman next to you is losing herself into a plastic bag. Um, I’m trying to show you what it was like, but I’m trying not to paint it too vividly. But there was a single bathroom aboard and it quickly became a sort of road sickness war zone. And with the serpentine road and breakneck pace, there was no way the ill could make it there anyway. So, plastic bags. Lots and lots of plastic bags. At one point we pulled over, I think even the driver felt sorry for his pitiful cargo, and the green tinged humanity piled out onto the nearby hillside. Everywhere there were the sounds of sickness.
After passing over the summit at just under 14,000 feet, the highest I have ever been in a vehicle, we began our speedy trip down and, finally, to Huamachuco.
And here I sit. We just wrapped up day two of the clinic.
I won’t talk about the food. I won’t talk about the accommodations (although my room and at least one other was broken into, nothing stolen). I won’t talk about the wide ingestion of Cipro to battle inner, microscopic, food-borne demons. But, well, you can probably figure out that this isn’t a pleasure trip. But it is wonderful to be here.
“We’re finally getting to work, we’re finally getting to what we came for,” says med student Joe Gorz who’s one of the leaders of this trip.
In the first two days they figure they saw and treated more than 200 people. When the clinic opened at 8:00am the first day there was a line of folks who’d come from near and far to be seen. And it’s been non-stop stop since.
The students and docs are abuzz with chatter of what maladies and illnesses they’ve seen. It’s a treasure trove of pathologies. They are lovin’ life right now. Well, most of them. Some of the medical attention has been directed at our own ranks. “They’re droppin’ like flies man!” Al is watching another student heading for “el bano,” clutching his gut. The combination of altitude and nerves and food challenges has meant a thinning of the crowd. But they’re bouncing back quickly and there are, obviously, plenty of doctors. So it’s fine. And I am being VERY careful what I eat. And I am starving, constantly. Ah, well…
Back to the mission. These are people who live in very basic conditions. One of the discussions here has been whether this is a third-world country or a developing country. I can’t figure it out, but the lives here are lived close to the ground and without a lot of technology or niceties we’re used to in the States.
It is gorgeous here and I think this may be the best weather, according to me, of any work trip I’ve taken. It’s been sunny, low-to-mid 70’s and dry as a bone. The skies are achingly blue with small puffy clouds.
The locals wait patiently under the stunning skies, sometimes for hours, to be seen. But things run smoothly and the few that are turned away seem happy to return the next day.
“We try to get everyone in. Everyone. Last night we stayed, what, two hours later than planned?” Assistant MSU dean Dr. Gary Willyerd has been coming to work here in Peru for 12 years. “At a certain point we just have to close the doors, but we’re back here early the next day. We’ll get ‘em in.”
The clinic is up and running for five days. In those days they expect to see more than 1000 people and hand out most of the more $100,000 in medications the students and docs brought in their suitcases. Meds paid for by funds raised for this mission.
I’m wiped out but I can’t complain. Or at least I shouldn’t. It’s really cool seeing the work going on here and the appreciatio that comes in hugs, cheek kisses and blessings bestowed upon the caregivers.
Back to where I started, Dr. Moore is telling me about the small child he saw his first day. “So I ask the woman to lay the child down on the bad so we can get a look at him. And she unwraps all the blankets she’s got him wrapped up in. And he’s very small. And I can tell, right away, that he has Down’s syndrome.” The veteran physician lowers his head as he tells it. “And the mom has no idea. Not a clue.” He pauses and takes a slow sip of his drink. “And so I have to tell her about it and I know he won’t ever get the sort of care that could help him in the U.S. And so that…that was awfully tough.”
The two days here have been just like that. Moments of hope when a child is given a packet of medication that will make him better. Moments of crushing sadness when a diagnosis is that of a hard life ahead.
And we’re just two days into it.
The sun is gone now and I need to find something to eat. I think we’re meeting for dinner at 8:00p.
Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa
“They call Africa the Dark Continent, but there sure is a lot of sun here.” The delightfully named Sieglinde Snapp is saying this over a single gin and tonic after a long day under the blazing sun. Of course, it was called the Dark Continent because so little was known about the vast continent of Africa in early colonial days. But you already knew that, right?
I’m sunburned and sitting in a “disco” where the music is BLASTING and one person dances alone. Dr. Sieglinde Snapp (I love saying her name, feeling she is actually a character out of “Around the World in 80 Days” or a Seussian creation) is laughing and chatting about our time with her. “I know you guys were stressed out about not getting enough stuff early on.” She’s right. I always feel better when we get some really good video in the can right away. But we ended up with great stuff.
We’re here working on some stories for our MSUToday program and some other things. We’re looking at how some of Dr. Snapp’s (See? I managed not to say her entire name!) research and fieldwork is leading to amazing results. Our main focus is the elusive pigeon pea. I say it’s elusive because Malawi is all about corn. Everywhere you look, even in the cities, you see the stalks. It is just everywhere. I think there’s even some in the corner of the disco. But man cannot live on corn alone. And corn can be rough on soil and hard on the environment, needing nitrogen and a fair amount of water. So Dr. Sieglinde Snapp (Darn it!) has been helping farmers here realize the benefits of planting the pigeon pea. This legume (A word that is tossed about so often in this crowd I’m even using it) is pretty easy to grow here in the tropics and is quite common in India. It also packs in a lot of nutrition, lots of protein, critical to everyone, and vital in Africa, where food is often scarce and largely made up of maize-based foods, foods made from corn. Some findings are starting to come in and Dr. Snapp says it’s looking really good. She tells me health care workers are reporting that kids now eating the pigeon peas are healthier.
Standing out under the intense sunlight, I’m talking with Colby, a farmer growing pigeon peas.
“I have been planting the pigeon peas and my children are eating it and my little children are getting so big and strong!” He’s clearly proud and shows us around his land, Dr. Snapp inspecting the pods closely. She touches the pods, squints at the pods, nods sagely and moves to another row.
Alberto Moreno (You all know Al, right?) is dripping as he moves the heavy camera in and out of the plants, getting just the right shots. It’s not even that hot, the sun is just extreme.
“Remember, we’re just next to the Equator.” Dr. Snapp looks at me, bareheaded like an idiot. “I always wear my hat and lots of sunblock.” I do go and dig out my silly hat. It is better.
This has been a fast trip. It took us about two days of travel to get here, another two to get home. And we’re only on the ground for five days. So almost as much time traveling as shooting.
We flew into Lilongwe where we spent a little time at the Bunda College of Agriculture, one of the collaborators on this project. We also got a chance to head over to one of the nearby primary schools. I talked with some kids and teachers who were all well versed in the importance of good nutrition, if not the humble yet spectacular pigeon pea. They all loved having their pictures taken and all leapt in front of Al’s camera.
From Lilongwe we had a long, winding, five hour drive up to Mzuzu (So many great names on this trip!) where the pigeon peas are being grown. It’s another hour or so over dusty, red dirt “roads” to get out to the fields, like the one where we meet Colby.
Driving down the bone-jarring roads I keep looking for exotic African wildlife. But it’s only goats and cows. A couple of dogs. Disappointing. But as I’m bouncing along, something shoots out in front of me. Al and I both notice.
Al shouts, “Oh my God!”
I shout, “That’s not right! That can’t happen!”
We look at each other in complete shock and amazement and disbelief.
Over that gin and tonic, Sieglinde Snapp is calmly saying, “Well, a balanced diet is important. And protein can be hard to find for all living things in Malawi.”
She’s referring to what we saw. A big old chicken, dashing across the road, with a dead mouse firmly clenched in its beak.
Africa always shows you something you’re just not ready for. Sometimes it’s baby hyenas, sometimes it’s the warm smile of a farmer. And sometimes it’s the dreaded carnivorous chicken of Malawi.
East Lansing, Michigan
Africa is calling, again.
This will be my third trip in less than a year and a half.
My videographer Al is loading the rig right now. He’s tucking away all the crazy gear we need to take along on such a journey.
This time we’ll be following stories about food security, nutrition and the environment. We’re headed to Malawi (see past blog posts for my last trip to Malawi). But this time it’s Lilongwe, north of Blantyre where we were looking at malaria and tropical medicine last year.
I was going to post a picture of my bags, but they are buried beneath all the other stuff and, well, who really needs to see my luggage anyway?
I’m a really fast packer. It took me about 10 minutes to gather my clothes and personal gear, another 15 to pack and cinch up all my camera equipment. It’s just a bit more than a week this time. I know it will fly past.
Detroit, Amsterdam, Nairobi, Liliongwe. Almost two days to get there.
I’ll write more from the road.
And make sure you follow me on Facebook at facebook.com/msutoday
2:18 AM Salt Lake City, Utah
I can’t sleep. If you’ve been following this blog you know that’s become the norm.
I’m out here for work, just got here after a ridiculous amount of hours in airports and in the sky.
I’m strung out from the road, sick, Anthony is in the hospital…it’s been quite a trip.
The drive out of Chitwan back to Kathmandu is somethin’ else. Yes, it’s the same crazy drive we’d had coming in, just every bit as jarring and nerve shearing. And both Anthony and I are deeply concerned that our driver is either falling asleep at the wheel or having some sort of medical event. He keeps sort of nodding, his head bobbing. I try to engage him in case he is sleepy…but he doesn’t speak English very well so I believe he’s finding me tiresome. Probably wondering, “Why is this American chattering away so loudly when I’m just trying to drive. He’s killing me with this incessant talking!”
He did ask to turn on the radio so we’re jammin’ down the road to some truly bizarre local tunes and American pop hits mixed in.
There’s a very surreal set of moments when it seems our driver is nodding off, cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and bikes are coming at us like kamikazes and we’re bumpin’ along to Akon. Anthony and I are laughing. The driver kinda looks at us like we were crazy. “And now they’re laughing! It’s maddening!!!”
We finally get to Kathmandu. We’re in a plain old hotel this time so hopes are high that we get hot water and warmer sleeps. We are in luck.
What’s not lucky is that I’m feeling some serious rumbling inside. On trips like this, you don’t go around telling everyone every time you feel queasy. But stomach issues are always a concern in countries like Nepal. Even our beloved travel nurse Gaylene warned us and wrote us prescriptions for antibiotics. “If you feel something just take it.”
Let me just say…I am feeling something. And so is Anthony. I mention this to him after we get some final shots around Kathmandu. “Yeah, I’m feeling it a little too,” he tells me. And he’s got that look. You know that look. I bet I have it too. It’s that, “Man I hope this isn’t what I think it is” look. I am feeling it to the point where shortly after our arrival I have the pills in my pocket, ready for whatever this to either blow away or dig in. Sadly, it will turn out to be the latter.
But before any pill popping we check in and hit the showers. Pure bliss. Just happy. Happiness from a showerhead. Happy.
Anthony and I do a little shopping out on the streets and then grab dinner at the hotel. Some really good Chinese food. Knives and forks and chopsticks! I don’t really miss my spoon (although I did think of swiping it).
It’s an early day tomorrow and we need to pack for flying. That’s a whole ordeal with all our gear. So we update each other on stomach status, I tell him I’m taking my meds and we say quick good nights before heading to our rooms.
I take the pills and another shower and pack everything up. Then I fall into a bed of cool, crisp sheets and warm comforters and central heat. All seems right with the world.
Except I sleep about two hours and then I’m up. And all is no longer right with my world. “Come on antibiotics.”
We get to the Kathmandu airport very early and check in. Ten hours later we are still there. All flights in and out are on hold because of intense fog. Just like when we tried to land. Flights are being diverted to Bangladesh. I feel for those folks. The only problem with all this is we are seriously in danger of missing our connections. I always build in plenty of times for layovers on international trips, but these delays mean we’re cutting it close.
Anthony and I are hanging out in the lounge area of Gulf Air. The people here are very nice and keep us up to date on our flight. Finally the fog lifts enough for things to get going. Our plane can finally come in from Bangladesh and soon we’re up in the air with the pulsing beat of Kathmandu falling away beneath us.
We get to Bahrain and have a bit of a dash to the connecting flight. But we make it. Aboard I am still a slave to my churning stomach, but I’m making it. I keep thinking it’ll get better.
Somewhere during the flight from Bahrain to Amsterdam Anthony comes over to my seat. “I’m not doin’ so well. I’ve been throwing up the whole flight.”
We get to Amsterdam and have about two hours before our next flight. Anthony is not looking good. We get some seats and he tries to sip a little water and some 7Up. It’s just not staying down. “I’m just so dehydrated,” he says.
We talk about what to do. He says he can make it, doesn’t even want me to carry his gear. But I can tell he’s hurtin’.
As we head to our gate Anthony’s moving pretty slowly. I hear the haunting strains of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.” It echoes through the terminal. We come around a corner and there’s a man slowly working it out on a piano.
The next flight is more of the same for Anthony. I get the flight attendant to give me some ginger ale before we take off and I take it to him. He’s doing okay, he tells me. Just feels terrible. He hasn’t taken the meds yet but now we’re worried they won’t stay down if he does take them, and we’re not sure if he should take them at this point anyway. He’s hanging in there.
It is a long flight for Anthony.
Roughly 50 hours after we left the hotel we land in Detroit. He lets me carry some of his stuff this time. We clear customs, get all our hulking gear from the baggage claim and get out into the terminal.
I’m sitting here in Salt Lake City in the middle of the night thinking about this trip and what a hard ending it was. When I left Anthony he was sitting in the terminal surrounded by gear. An uncle or someone was on his way to pick him up in a couple of minutes. I had to make a mad dash to catch my flight out here.
As soon as I got here I sent Anthony a couple of texts and an email to see how he’s feeling.
“Actually I’m in the hospital,” he texts. “One reason is for IV and two I haven’t been able to touch food yet, and the infectious disease doctor wants to run tests for typhoid/other.”
Later he send me a longer email describing the scene at the hospital in Detroit. I guess when he told them he’d just gotten back from Nepal they went into full lockdown mode. “It was like a scene from Outbreak!” He tells me. “They all pulled out these masks all of a sudden and put me in a glass room!”
He’s spending the night and is staying home a few days. Once he can eat more than clear liquids he’ll be back at work. Turns out it’s some sort of food poisoning, maybe salmonella, they tell him.
“At least they finally put the masks away,” he says laughing.
So you can see it was quite a trip. I feel like my own “issues” are nothing compared to his. I’m sure it’ll pass, soon. I hope. It usually does.
I can’t wait to see the footage and start working on the story. It’s always amazing to learn about the different research going on at MSU. I am stunned by how these people work so hard and travel so far and endure so much. I’ve seen it now with regard to climate change, the environment, Malaria and lots of other challenges. While I know they’re trying to…well…to solve the biggest problems in the world, I still admire them for all they do.
We do bring back good stories to tell. Some make it onto the television, some get told around dinner tables (I’m sure this’ll be talked about by the Siciliano family for years) and some end up here, in this blog.
Thanks for reading.
Chitwan, Nepal 4:39 am
I’m listening to the drops of water hitting the roof again. This morning I have a candle that I grabbed from the dining room, so that’s adding a warm glow to things. Perhaps the only warmth on what’s turned out to be a damp, chilly trip.
We’ve finally gotten some good stuff here. It’s been frustrating for all of us, I think. There have been hassles with the officials here at the park. It seems they’re all freaked out because we’re taking video with our “big cameras.” The main problem is that, even though we have permission to be here and take video, the people on site are unsure of it. They keep asking for something more official than the official letter we have or for someone higher up the ladder to tell them it’s okay.
The other morning I headed out with Neil Carter, who’s conducting the tiger research here, and Anthony and Sue Nichols who’s here from MSU with Neil. We went to some sort of park administration headquarters to talk with the man who’s supposed to be able to further approve our taking video and all of that. It was a cold, wet ride in an open-topped Land Rover to the place. Neil and I went in to have our talk. We were lead to a crackling fire and handed cups of warm, sweet tea. The guy we were supposed to talk with greeted us and introduced us to a bunch of other people…I’m not sure exactly who they were. So we all sat there. And sat there. And sat there.
The officials seemed to be telling stories. They laughed and talked as the fire burned. I kept looking at Neil, he’d look back at me, shrug. We kept staring into the fire.
I have to say it was nice. I was finally getting warm after a string of days in my room with no heat and no hot water.
The lodge where we are staying is called Tiger Tops. It’s nice, if rustic. Apparently it’s a favorite of celebs as there are pictures of Mick Jagger and Cameron Diaz and others on the walls. We are staying in staff quarters where I can only assume things are a lot more basic than they are in the main lodge and rooms. It’s cool, but not a lot of amenities. No hot water and no heat. And I could use a few more blankets. I see my breath as I go to bed each night, and I see it now as I type this. It’s a little like camping under a roof. I should have packed warmer stuff. One of the jokes has become Neil’s Forecast. See, he told us it would be chilly in the mornings and evenings, in the 80’s during the day. So far…well…he’s been about 40-50 degrees low. It’s not really his fault, everyone here is talking about how cold it is, even the locals. We are getting one nice thing. Every night, we’re not sure quite when, a person Sue has dubbed “The Hot Water Bottle Fairy” places hot water bottles under our covers. I’ve never slept with or used a hot water bottle in my life. But I’m becoming a fan. What I do is put a pillow on the edge of my bed, then the hot water bottle next to me and then curl around it. I laugh at myself and the others laughed at me when I was explaining this over coffee. And then they tried it and are now converts.
The people at the lodge are very nice and are taking good care of us. We’ve been eating with the staff and eating what they eat, which is pretty much the same thing each time. It’s some sort of meat cooked in sauce with vegetables, which is quite tasty. Then there’s dal baht (sorry for spelling in advance), a wonderfully warm, soupy bowl of lentils in light brown, saucy liquid. We pour that over white rice and mix it all together. Now, the locals do all of this with their right hand, as is traditional. I’ve read about this and tried it a few times. Neil is all in with it. He shows us newcomers how to use our fingers as a sort of scoop and our thumb to push the food into our mouths. We all do pretty well, I think. But it’s just messy. And I’m so hungry I feel like I can’t get the food in fast enough. So by the second day I wuss out and go to my old friend the spoon.
See? This is the sort of stuff I write about and think about when I’m not out gathering lots of video.
We’ve gone on a couple of excursions into the jungle, but since we’ve been forbidden from shooting any video…it’s been trips more of frustration than exhilaration and good TV. We did take the smaller of our cameras on an elephant safari. That was very cool. I think Anthony was going a little crazy trying to get a stable shot from our perch on top of the pachyderm, but I got some really good stills. The whole area is shrouded in fog every morning, and often into the day.
Travelling by elephant is often the best way to see the area and see tigers. You’re high up and quiet. It stuns me how quiet an animal as large as an elephant can be. Neil tells me he saw his first tiger on an elephant. That is, he was on the elephant, not the tiger.
This is an interesting project. We’ve been talking a lot about how the tigers interact with people and the environment. That’s at the heart of what Neil’s doing here. People and tigers have been living in this part of Nepal as long as there have been people and tigers. The tigers, and all the animals, in this big park are protected. The thick forests set aside from logging and hunting. But then there’s a large area of forest called the “buffer zone” where people and tigers and other animals cross paths. Neil has cameras that are triggered by movement all through the park and the buffer zone. He’s gotten some amazing pictures of tigers and lots of other critters. He plots them using GPS and is building his research using those locations, the times of the movements and the proximity to people. All of which we want to get video of, if we can get permission!
So we’re staring at the fire. Another group of people come in and are seated around the fire. There’s more talking, none in English. And more staring into the fire. More tea.
Finally the guy we’re here to see says, “Neil. Now we should talk.”
We leave the warmth of the fire and head into an office with florescent lights.
After a lot of chatting and smiling and reassuring, the official agrees to allow us to shoot video within the park, as long as we stay close to the lodge. I’m not sure why that matters, but it’ll get us what we need. The main thing seems to be how we are going to use the video and how we’ll tell this story. I almost feel like they think it’s either for some sort of commercial venture or political propaganda. Neil does a terrific job of explaining what we’re doing. I talk about how we want to show the good work happening in Nepal, stories people in the States will never hear otherwise. I’m not sure he’s really won over, but he reluctantly agrees.
And so we’re off, flying into the jungle, over bumpy roads, across rivers…feeling happy because we can finally start the real work of why we’re here.
We start right away and spend the next days following Neil as he sets up cameras and works with his local field technicians. He’s got some new cameras which are higher resolution and in color.
We also head out to the buffer zone and see the villages where people are living right up against tiger habitat. Occasionally the big cats pick off a couple of villagers. That’s relatively rare and has been happening, again, as long as there have been people and tigers here.
The people are very accommodating as we take video of them and the area. They smile and surround Anthony as he rolls away. He shows them some of what he’s shooting on the little screen on the side of the camera. They laugh and talk and point. I’m taking pictures and showing them the images on the back. It’s one of the nice things about working in digital.
It feels really good to have really gotten to work. These sorts of hang ups and hassles happen a lot. I’ve gone through this in every place from Australia to Cuba. It usually works out. People are usually happy to work with us once they understand that we’re just trying to tell their story.
This candle was really a good idea. My little cabin has flickering fluorescents, so I’ve turned them off in favor of my headlamp and the candlelight. A much better choice.
We’re wrapping this trip up. We’ll get a few more shots today and then start heading back to Kathmandu. Already Anthony and I are dreading the crazy ride back, but we’re looking forward to the promise of hot water and heat.
The water drips and I need to get up. I can still see my breath and my hot water bottle has spent all it’s heat through the night.
Here we go.
Chitwan, Nepal 5:21 AM
I have never felt so remote before. And folks, I’ve been in some remote places.
The cold drops of water are falling softly from the trees onto the tin roof and I’m listening to the first sounds of human life this morning. The non-human life has been the soundtrack to the past six hours since I tried to sleep. “Tried,” because I fell asleep, but didn’t stay that way. I finally just got up, pulled off the warm covers and on some thick fleece clothes.
We’re here in Nepal for tiger research following MSU PhD candidate and researcher Neil Carter. In very basic terms, he’s studying how the tigers in this part of Nepal live in close to people and he’s looking at the tigers’ habitat and surrounding environment.
I am very bleary after many, many hours and days of travel getting here. Videographer Anthony Siciliano and I climbed on a plane in Detroit, flew to Amsterdam, had a six hour layover, caught a flight to Bahrain, had a six hour layover, flew to Kathmandu…and Kathmandu was fogged in…so after circling for an hour we flew another hour to Bangladesh to refuel…because we were running out of fuel (which I really didn’t need to know)…than took off and finally landed in Kathmandu, about 40 hours after leaving the ground in Detroit.
Kathmandu is one of those places you’re always curious about, isn’t it? Sounds so exotic (Bob Seger notwithstanding). It is crammed with people, filled with exhaust fumes and seemingly made up of a maze of tight streets.
We made it to our home for one night; The Kathmandu Guest House. Turns out this old place is a favorite of celebrities. A sort of walk of fame lets you know the sort of rare air you’re breathing. A carved stone set in the walk informs you that The Beetles stayed there. Hmm…wonder if they’re anything like The Beatles?
I didn’t see any beetles but the food was local and good and so was the refreshing Everest beer.
We took a walk around the area which was throbbing with life. Expats in North Face parkas, children scrambling everywhere, panhandlers squeaking away on tiny guitar/violin things, people selling everything you could ever imagined emblazoned with EVEREST! And KATHMANDU!
We wandered back and I climbed into BED! hoping for sweet sleep after so many nerve jangling hours of crossing oceans and continents. I have an iPhone and cranked up the “White Noise” ap, but couldn’t drown out the strains of “Black Magic Woman” wheezed out by a Santana wannabe in the booming night.
I got about three hours of sleep, got up and read until about 6:00AM and then clumbered down the stairs in search of coffee. In the small courtyard restaurant they were turning out steaming cups of excellent brew. I was happy. I took some pictures and tried to come to grips with the fact that I was actually in Kathmandu. I mean, KATHMANDU!
Anthony stumbled in a bit later. He also couldn’t sleep much. We had more coffee and stared off into the brightening morning.
When Neil and Sue Nichols, also with MSU, showed up we were well energized by caffeine. We all downed a good breakfast and headed out into the screeching city. Neil had to get some fresh batteries for the cameras he hides in the jungle. These are for when an unsuspecting tiger ambles past a sensor trips the shutter and, voila, tiger paparazzi!
Anthony toasts the day
Neil got his batteries, I was “blessed” by some gentlemen in saffron gowns who dabbed my forehead with red paste and then followed us asking for more and more and then still more money and then we hit the road to Chitwan.
And, man, did we hit that road. I can’t really describe the nerve ripping, fear infusing nature of this drive…but needless to say it was intense. I am somewhat used to crazy rides in weird vans in foreign countries. I’ve been scared half to death in Mexico, Malawi, Spain and even the US. Maybe especially the US (I’m talkin’ to you Idaho!). This trip was all horns and fumes and kids, dogs, old ladies, goats and cows barely escaping death at our rusting bumper. It was ditch-diving turns into the corners to pass slower moving weird vans. I did what I always do; close my eyes and hope the driver of our vehicle and others has a family he/she loves and wants to see again.
A couple of hours into this FIVE HOUR DRIVE, we pulled over for a “comfort stop.” Anthony was looked shaken.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Not good.” He swallowed hard. “Not good.”
“Yeah. I’ve never been this scared in my whole life.”
Until the drive back, but that comes later.
We piled back in the van and eventually made it to Chitwan where we unloaded our gear from the van, loaded it into a couple of canoes, rode the canoes across a river, loaded into a couple of Land Rovers and made our way to this lodge in the jungle.
And so here I sit, listening to water dripping from the trees to the roof. I hope we see tigers, though I’ve been told it probably won’t happen. I hope we see something good.
And I hope I sleep.