Thursday, February 18, 2010

Missives From Guyana

Feb 16 - Bethany, Guyana

It is Feb 16 and I've been back in Guyana for almost 4 days. As I write this, I am huddled under a mosquito net, recognizing the keyboard keys by the illumination afforded by my headlamp, and sweltering in heat that feels like 35 degrees or so. It is 9pm in Bethany in region 2, and I am presently visiting a clean, organized medical mission run by 7th Day Adventist missionaries. I expected to be sleeping on an open deck, knife clutched for fear of nocturnal aggressive dogs and other such creatures. Instead, the mission has given me a luxurious private bungalow in which to spend the night.

Luxurious is a relative term, of course. This is still mostly rainforest. My bed is shielded by a mosquito net. But all types of creepy crawlies are being drawn to the glow of the computer screen, and the net is now crawling with life. Oh, and there's a family of frogs living in my toilet bowl. The missionaries call them "surpprise frogs" for the obvious reason. They may regret their choice of abode tomorrow morning when my bean-heavy meal is fully digested. Then they'll be the ones who are surprised.

Yes, my line of work really is stressful. To greet us in Bethany, the college arranged for their top massage students to give us each a one our relaxation massage. Beneath starlight, nestled in the jungle's humid embrace and soothed by the otherworldly tweets and chirps of creatures unseen, we had the knots of our muscles expertly pressed away.

The college, by the way, is a training centre for vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist Bible workers who wish to attach medical skills to their missionary work. I have my hesitancies about mixing religion and medicine, but it's nothing new in the history of humankind, and there is no doubt that these are intelligent, caring people who --religion or no religion-- can provide some much needed health relief for the tens of thousands in Guyana who suffer without regular medical care. And there's also no denying that the college has created a wondrous, peaceful and comfortable home here in the Essequibo region, literally carved out of pure jungle. With all the holiness about, it's a wonder my unclean self doesn't burst into flames.

Their vegetarianism is also a boon. Despite my regular bacon fixations, I am mostly a vegetarian myself (mostly!), and prefer to remain strictly so while traveling. Guyana has proven particularly difficult to maintain such a diet, so it's a fantastic thing to be housed in a compound that produces very creative and healthy vegetarian fare.

This is my umpteenth trek to Guyana, each time with a different mission and purpose, and each time with a different destination. In the morning we travel to the AmerIndian village of Mashabo, where we will explore potential new development projects. Then it's back to Georgetown to await our Friday morning flight home. A medical team attached to the NGO I'm representing on this trip is presently in the deep interior, near the Venezuelan border; they are returning to Georgetown Friday evening and I'm sad that I won't be able to meet up with them before leaving.

Our first stop was the frontier town of Bartica, outpost of boatmen and gold miners straggling in from Brazil, Venezuela and all points within Guyana. Here's an object lesson for those North Americans among you who have never ventured abroad: one night, at dinner with four senior men of Bartica, they turned the conversation, in all seriousness, to the topic of whether one's first love can truly end. It's something I've seen throughout my journeys, but never in the "West": men from all walks of life --builders, miners, politicians, labourers-- gathering together to discuss the nature of love.

The bugs are spooking me now. Got to turn off the computer!

Feb 17 - Bethany, Guyana

Just returned from a visit to the AmerIndian village of Mashabo, which is home to 400-500 Awarak and Carib Indians, cared for by one overworked health care worker, the very charming and experienced Esther. Our job here is to scope out the community's appropriateness for a medical intervention. My personal agenda is to determine whether any smaller, low investment but high income, projects can be initiated here. The answer to both questions is yes.

Mashabo is a gorgeous set of wooden homes nestled above a seemingly pristine lake. Like all waters in Guyana, the lake is brown and muddy, but somehow seems cleaner and almost blue from a distance. Esther informed us that ongoing issues include malaria, maternal health problems, chronic pain management, blood counts and contraception needs, all within the NGO's mandate. Additionally, our visit to the underresourced primary school leads us to conclude that teaching aids, particularly with respect to language and science teaching, are most needed. This, I think, is a potentially cheap and impactive development initiative.

At one point, I went for a walk down one of the trails cut by a tractor (logging is the major industry here). Exotic plants and insects abounded, as well as the ubiquitous rustle in the foliage that was usually a splendid ground-dwelling bird or one of many species of large lizard. This is the jungle, after all.

I spotted another trail, mostly overgrown, that looked to have been cut by machete days earlier. Did I dare? How brave was I? This is, after all, the land of five very prevalent poisonous snake species, killer jaguars, poisonous spiders and a plethora of unnamed biting things that can cause disease, pain and even death. I've been to jungles in Guyana, Guatemala, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Uganda before. I've tracked wild mountain gorillas through the Congo jungle, bivouaced in a hammock on the Brazilian border to hear the jaguars patrolling, piloted a bamboo raft across a jungle river from Thailand into Burma, and have stared down forest foxes on the steps of remote Mayan ruins being overtaken by the forest. I contemplated the snake-proof gaiters in my pack, the mosquito mask in my back pocket and the hunting knife in my front pocket.

Yes, I dared.

And as I bravely set foot onto this path of new dangers, furtively congratulating myself on my masculine courage, I suddenly jumped back! I was surprised by six barefoot AmerIndian schoolboys, the eldest no more than 7, running happily from out of the "dangerous" path. Each turned to me and politely said in turn, "Good afternoon, sir!"

Yeah, I'm an idiot.

It's 7pm now and I'm back at the mission. The blazing stars glare down through crystal clear skies, and the oppressive heat sets in for the night. I must awaken at 5:AM to make the boat back to Georgetown. But I go to sleep now with a strange contentment. We heard tonight the members of the mission singing, broken youth who have come here to mend and to find a new way. Christian songs echoing through the jungle, like something out of a Jeremy Irons movie (you know the one). I am not a Christian, but I understand what they do here, and I appreciate it.

Feb 18, Georgetown, Guyana

I awoke at 4:AM to catch a speedboat to the town of Supenaam, where anotherboat would take us to Parika, followed by a drive to Georgetown. In the wee hours, the jungle is dark and silent, save for the constant buzzing of weird insects and the occasional crash of something unknown against a hard surface. I took the time to examine the stars, so brilliant and skewed than what I'm used to in Canada.

I heard another of those mysterious crashes coming from the thickest part of the snaking treeline, and flipped on my headlamp to have a gander. We are below sea level, in a genuine South American jungle. The air is as thick as soup, coarse with raw oxygen spewed forth by the greenery. In front of my lamp, a line of plankton-like objects swam in the air, reminding me that life is everywhere here, even in the breathable air, fully explaining my endless allergic reactions.

Hours of peaceful boat journey back to the "city" were instructive. Passing children --7 or 8 years old-- clean and lovely in their pressed school outfits, actually rowed their own boats to school. Children in Canada at that age whine about their electronic toys. Children here perform daily manual labour to earn the right to go to school.

We stop to pick up a mother and her three schoolage kids. One of them has been up all night with diarrhea, so they are heading to the hospital. There is a diarrhea epidemic across the country right now, as a mini-drought has gripped the nation, leading to improper use of stagnant waters. One child spends the boat time brushing his teeth with clean water in a cup, spitting into the myserious brownness of the river. It is a weirdly peaceful sight.

In Georgetown we checked into the Hotel Tower, my 5th time staying here in the last 10 years. Ironically, my father had been a waiter and busboy here 60 years ago. He wouldn't recognize the place today, with its contemporary discotheque, free wifi and in-house spa. Don't get me wrong --it's still a Third World inn, so it's no Ramada or Continental. But it certainly has changed since my father's day.

We met briefly with the people who run Food For The Poor, an international NGO that delivers --you guessed it-- food for the poor. Then topped off the day with a bit of tourism: a trip to the zoo.

Now, I'd been to the Georgetown zoo several times before, most recently only four days ago! But there's not much else to do around here. For the equivalent of US$4,two people enjoyed entrance and an alcoholic beverage each. Trust me, booze helps you accept some of the horrors you see in this place. My least favourite is the adult African lion, kept in a concrete cage no bigger than a king-sized bed. The poor beast looked bored and miserable.

Most fiercesome were the harpy eagles and various species of South American owls, each big enough and with talons broad enough to easily pick a human baby from its mother's arms. The harpy eyed me with malicious intent, until I distracted it by indicating a nearby child: much easier pickings.

Interestingly, there's a huge fenced in exhibit featuring.... a cow. Yes, a cow. With the cow was a toucan in a cage. A cow and a toucan. I think there's a Saturday morning cartoon there somewhere.

Further on is the tapir enclosure. A sign above it indicates that this tapir is on loan from the Philadelphia zoo. Why is this interesting? Because I've seen tapirs in Guyana before... wandering about, minding their own business. Tapirs are indigenous to Guyana. Why do they need to get one from Philadelphia, of all places?

Weirdest of all were the monkey enclosures. These are large metal cages holding many spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and other breeds I did not identify. The spider monkeys are huge, elegant and sad, with active prehensile tails and faces of red otherworldly delight. They are so bored that they shake the hand of any passing human, possibly writing on their palms in secret monkey script, "Send help!"

But several of the smaller monkey species have figured out how to get out. They treat the cage like a sort of townhouse, coming and going as they please, occasionally visiting other monkey species in their cages. I was concerned about one of them wandering into the anaconda or jaguar enclosure, so I alerted an employee.

"Oh those aren't our monkeys," she said. "They come from the outside."

Really? If there are so many monkeys just kicking about visiting their monkey friends in prison, why do we bother even having a monkey prison?!!!

Clearly, this is not the most progressive zoo in the world. I think the alcohol might have given it away.

Off to dinner now, then a long night of catching up on overdo work. Then back to the cold winter of Canada.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tuesday Round-Up

Greetings from Vancouver airport where I await my very long flight back to Ontario. Yes, I've managed to get some work done, but am still behind, of course. Will I use this brief and valuable airport down time to catch up... or will I use it to surf Facebook and write a blog post? I think we all know the answer to that.


Many thanks tomy host Gale for showing me around Rossland, BC. It's a stunningly gorgeous piece of the countrywith world-class ski runs, surprisingly good cuisine and remarkable mountainous scenery. I even managed to learn something... While touring the gold mine museum, we discovered that the tour guide was a geology student who had previously worked for Canadian miining companies. According to him, the mining industry is a leading indicator of economic downturns. Since exploration requires heavy upfront financial investment, it depends on speculative money to keep it going. When speculation decreases, mining exploration suffers, and the core mining business is not that far behind.


I've been here several times before, but each time I conveniently forget how ridiculous the drivers here are. Yeah, I said. I've famously written that Toronto drivers are skilled but discourteous; Ottawa drivers are unskilled but courteous; and Montreal drivers are unskilled assholes. Let's add Vancouver to that list. Vancouver drivers are... how shall I put it? Distracted. Yes, they are distracted. Their speeds are random, their timing is poor and many don't seem to know the rules of the road. Now, I will say that they all seem to be quite courteous; road rage appears to be missing in this town. Maybe it's the prevalent pot smoking, but a lot of people here seem to forget what they're doing at any given moment.

I won't bash Vancouver anymore. I actually like it here. The scenery is great, the people are goodlooking and friendly and the food is excellent. It's just that the flake factor is dialed a bit too high (emphasis on the "high") for a cynical Easterner like me. In the course of half an hour I passed dancing middle-aged white Hare Krishnas, a stoned girl standing on a box and giving away "free hugs", a "healer" accepting money in exchange for healing you by waving his hands in front of your face (he'd heal me of the affliction of too much spare change, I imagine), and of course the ubiquitous unbathed white chicks with dreadlocks, biceps Om tattoos, lip rings and tribal drums slung over their shoulders. Nothing like trying to stand out... by looking like everyone else.

I had a lovely time staying in the UBC residence (called "The Pacific Spirit Hostel" in summertime). It's a cheap way to stay in an otherwise expensive city, and you get to wake up everyday on the most gorgeous university campus in North America. But in a moment of weakness, I allowed the dude at the car rental place to sell me on all the unnecessary options. Thus my three day car rental was three times more expensive than my total accommodation cost.

Oh well. Thanks to Anju, Ram, Cam and Jen for hanging out with me in the 'Couver.

Hopefully the plane will board soon and I can watch my many downloaded cheesy movies and TV shows. Air Canada now has satellite TV on many of its flights, which is how I usually get to watch Ricky Gervais' Extras. Here's a compilation of several scenes from the fake TV show featured on Extras, called When The Whistle Blows:

Air Canada

I will say one last thing before I sign off: one would think that with a struggling economy and rising joblessness rates, customer service might improve, as business are desperate to keep their customers and workers are desperate to keep their jobs. But I observe a continuous decline in service across all sectors.

Air Canada is an interesting case. Never the best provider of service, they've made some odd choices of late. In Vancouver airport, all passengers are now required to check themselves in, print out their own baggage tags and load their own bags onto the belt. I watched a single mother of 3 wrestle with her bags and toddlers. (No, I didn't hellp because I''m an unfeeling bastard.)

So to summarize: flight prices are going up, but service is declining in every measurable way.

Fascinating times.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

En Route

Greetings from Vancouver airport. I just finished four days in, um, "sunny" Winnipeg, Manitoba, and am now abou to spend a few days in BC. If you haven't been paying attention, I was in Winterpeg for the conference of the Canadian Public Health Association. (I wonder how many people misspell it "pubic health"?)

It was a magnificent conference.... for the food! On the first night there was a reception with about a dozen freshly roasted turkey breasts. I ate about 4 lbs of turkey flesh and squirreled away another pound or so in my hotel room. When I got to my room, the tryptophan hit me and I passed out on my floor, fully dressed. Woke up thhe next morning just in time to wolf down my stash of turkey breast for breakfast and made it for my morning presentation. The maid must have been surprised to have found my bed untouched.

Throughout the week, the conference was punctuated with balefuls of fresh fruit and vegetables. I haven't eaten this healthily in months. Who knew that a trip to a conference would actually make someone healthier?

In the spirit of the moment, I decided to try to jog in "downtown" Winnipeg. I was met with many stares. A friend informed me that since I have brown skin, people probably thought I had robbed someone and were already calling the cops.

There's a place in Winterpeg called "The Forks" where, the plaques proclaim, people had been meeting for six thousand years. It's now a tourist spot, of coourse, complete with a hotel and an upscale minimall. But more importantly, they've built this magnificent piece of artwork at the centre of the area. It's hard to describe, but it appears to be in the style of a paleolithic observatory, with stations around a circle representing the celestial sphere. At three points on the circle, spotlights beam upwards. At night, you can see the beams meet directly above the circle. For lack of a better word, it's pretty damned cool.

I think it's called the Oodena Celebration Circle, and looks something like this, but much cooler at night:

Thanks to Rita for showing me around.

In Other News

My interview on CBC radio can be heard here. My segment begins at around the 10 minute mark and lasts about 2 minutes. If you don't want to stream the episode, you can download it as a MP3 here.

The interview (about my Twitter haikus) has inspired CBC to host its own Twitter haiku contest. I don't think I'll be submitting an entry. And no, I will not be calling them "twaikus".

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Thursday, June 04, 2009


Know who I feel sorry for? The poor museum tour guide who has to lead around a busload of academics. Everyone thinks he's an expert... and probably is.

Today I joined a tour of "Spanish Jamaica", which was put together by the organizers of the Caribbean Studies Association conference. The term refers to the period between Columbus's "discovery" of Jamaica and the arrival of the British under the command of Oliver Cromwell. It may not have been a brief period, but few beyond bookish academics pay much attention to Jamaica's Spanish history. In that period, the island was referred to as "Xamayca", which was a Spanish mispronunciation of the Taino tribal word for something like "land of water and forest".

The tour consisted of a visit to a special museum exhibition, lead by a knowledgable historian. The poor fellow had to deal with frequent challenges to his expertise, though, by we all-knowing and annoying PhDs.

Interesting factoid: the Spanish crown had bequeathed Jamaica in perpetuity to the Columbus family. Indeed, Christopher Columbus and his leading heirs were all granted the title, Marquis of Jamaica. The surviving ones still occasionally try to assert their "ancestral" ownership rights! I'm sure the descendents of the Taino, the Aboriginal race who were here when Columbus arrived, and whose culture was demolished by the Europeans, find the Columbian assertion rather drole.

In the exhibit, there was a great panting from 1590 by Alonso Sanchez Coello called "View of the Port of Seville". If anyone knows where I can buy a print, cheaper than the list price of $180, do let me know!

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Wine and Rum and Coconut Water

Hmm. 2:30am and I'm still a bit tipsy. So what do I do? Blogging in my hotel room while watching UFC champion Randy Couture in The Scorpion King 2. Zod, my kingdom for satellite TV!

Speaking of TV, today I caught an American commercial for the drug "Ambien CR". Like so many pharmaceutica ads, this one was 90% warning. Check out the text:

"When taking Ambien CR, don't drive or operate machinery.

Sleepwalking, and eating or driving while not fully awake, with memory loss for the event, as well as abnormal behaviors such as being more outgoing or aggressive than normal, confusion, agitation, and hallucinations may occur. Don't take it with alcohol as it may increase these behaviors.

Allergic reactions such as shortness of breath, swelling of your tongue or throat, may occur and in rare cases may be fatal.

Side effects of AMBIEN CR may include next-day drowsiness, dizziness and headache.

In patients with depression, worsening of depression, including risk of suicide may occur.

If you experience any of these behaviors contact your doctor immediately. "

Sweet Jebus, based on this ad, who would take this poison??!!

Had a great day in Kingston, Jamaica. I haven't really seen much except for a couple of hotels. But people have been very nice. One of the joys of the Caribbean Studies Association is that it holds a very social conference. The attendees are always interesting and diverse. I've met a black Guyanese woman from Scotland, an Italian specialist in Cuban literature who lives in New Mexico, an economist from Guadeloupe, and the list goes on and on and on.

This evening was a reception at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. This place was paradise! Built on the site of a former sugar plantation, there are stone ruins on campus, overlooked by rounded mountains and a beaming sliver moon. Remind me why I teach in Ottawa again?

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Flying Behemoths... Or Should That Be "Behemothra"?

Here I am in Toronto international airport, awaiting a flight to Kingston, Jamaica. I'm attending the annual meeting of the Caribbean Studies Association, where tomorrow morning at 8:am sharp I'll be saying my two bits about health literacy amongst AmerIndians in Guyana's far interior.

Right in front of me is the largest civilian jumbo jet airliner in the world, the Airbus 380-800. This one is run by Air Emirates. Here are a couple of pics I just snapped on my trusty Treo:

And here's a blurry pic of the press scrum surrounding the behemoth's pilots. I'm surprised no one tried to arrest me for taking this. Security is pretty tight. Mind you, even the ground crew comes with cameras in hand:

Almost ready to board. Before I forget, my recent interview with Drs Robert Huisch and Qais Ghanem, about the Cuban medical system, is now available for download on Dr Ghanem's website. Here's a pic of Robert and me, snapped by Qais before the interview:

Yes, my hairstyle is a tribute to Ed Grimley.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Back When Swine Flew

I'm an epidemiologist, a word derived from "epidemic", which means that I'm supposed to know something about diseases. This past week, several people have approached me for "expert" commentary on the emerging swine flu pandemic. The university has asked me if I'm comfortable enough with the topic to field inquiries from the media, and the Maytree Foundation has asked me to offer an official statement, also for media digestion. As well, concerned friends have been asking for advice on how to protect themselves.

I'm wary of misrepresenting my expertise. A few years ago, I wrote an article for The Toronto Star called "Are We Overdue For A Pandemic?" It garnered so much attention that CBC Newsworld invited me to go on-air to be interviewed by Evan Solomon. Uncharacteristically responsible, I told them that I am not a flu expert, but rather a global health generalist, and that I could only discuss the issue on those terms. They thanked me for my honesty and retracted the offer.

The same day, CanWest Global called with a similar offer. I told them the same thing. The producer then asked me, "Are you good looking?"

"Um," I said, "My mother thinks so."

"Can you be controversial?"

"Sure," I said, thinking about all the penis jokes I could offer.

"Then come on down!"

So I went down to the Global "studios" in Ottawa to be interviewed remotely by Bruce Dowbiggin in Hamilton. It was quite a farce. I was on with Donald Low and a couple of other experts in what quickly devolved into a WHO-bashing session. The "studio" was me standing in the middle of the Global TV offices, alone with an unmanned camera and a wonky microphone and earpiece, with no local producer or technician to guide me, and no monitor to show me what was going on in the Hamilton studio, but with a buzz of unconcerned office drones scribbling away behind me in their cubicles.

My audio cut off early into the segment, and I spent the rest of the time looking like a mute doofus, tapping my ear in frustration. After 15 minutes of that, with no one telling me whether the segment had ended, I just took off my earpiece and went home.

I don't think I'll be doing Global TV again anytime soon.

Thus, with the current flu panic, I am loathe to stretch my expertise too thin, lest I find myself knee deep in another media travesty. Having said that, I thought I'd put up one token blog post to summarize what little I know about the current swine flu epidemic.

If you're an old codger like me, you may remember the first big swine flu scare in 1976. Panicky public health officials convinced President Gerald Ford to push for a widespread vaccination programme across the USA, for fear that another 1918 pandemic was imminent. (The 1976 virus was believed to be closely related to the 1918 strain). Well, the side effects of the vaccine --predominantly Guillain-Barre Syndrome-- ended up hurting more people than did the flu itself.

For history's sake, here's a PSA from 1976 advertising the swine flu vaccine:

The current strain of swine flu is a new strain that, I believe, is unrelated to the 1976 variety. Today we have reports of the first death in the USA, while Canada's tally holds at 13 cases, but no fatalities.

These numbers are to be expected. They are the result of travelers returning from the endemic zone of Mexico. As far as I can tell from news reports, there have been no cases in Canada of someone contracting the disease from someone who has just returned from Mexico. This means that the system is working as it should: those returning from Mexico with the disease are being quarantined and treated... for the most part.

The fatality rate thus far is about 5-7% (which is actually higher than the 2.5% rate of the world-changing pandemic of 1918). Also, the cases in Canada have all been of the mild variety, which means there is a reasonable expectation of full recovery for each case. This is not the Bubonic Plague. In other words, if current controls are kept in place, there is every expectation that our very thorough and professional public health infrastructure will keep civilization quite safe from this disease.

Having said that, it is too late to fully contain the disease. It is already among the population. But its mildness suggests that most people contracting it will recover on their own. Flu viruses tend to mutate very quickly. If an individual is infected with several viruses simultaneously, those viruses may swap DNA and become something new. With more infections in the population, there is an increased chance of a virus mutating into something really lethal... or into something quite banal and barely noticeable.

Let's not forget the killer bees scare of the 1970s. Back then, there was genuine panic that as the killer bees migrated north from Brazil, they would destroy scores of people, animals and infrastructure as they went. But as the interbred with tamer species, by the time they reached the northern climes, they were barely noticed. The same is always possible with varieties of influenza: with greater mutation and DNA exchange, there's always the chance the predominant strain will be something quite manageable.

Every flu pandemic is compared to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed so many people in the prime of their lives that it is thought to have contributed to the stoppage of World War I. As the current swine flu is actually more fatal than the 1918 variety, there is cause for concern. But the world today is much different from that of 100 years ago. In terms of disease threats, we now have a great many more people, each of whom represents a possible vector for disease. We also have a lot more international travel and a lot faster travel. This means that a voyage from Mexico City to Toronto actually takes less time than the incubation period for most diseases --a far cry from the situation in 1918.

On the other hand, we also have a great many advantages today. We have a remarkable communications infrastructure, which allows us to know of outbreaks everywhere in the world, pretty much as it happens. Combined with our much more advanced public health system, we caqn then theoretically marshall resources rapidly in preparation for anticipated stressors on our health care system.

Lastly, today we have technologies for treating the flu which were not available in 1918. In Canada, our hygiene options are much greater than they were 100 years ago when many more people lived in agricultural environments with limited access to fresh water and indoor plumbing. We have hospitals with quarantine protocols and the experience of SARS to guide us. And we have superdrugs, like neuraminidase inhibitors (that I did some work on), which can serve as both prophylaxis and treatment for many varieties of influenza.

So it looks as if we are in a very good position to avoid a major influenza pandemic.

Frankly, though, I don't know. No one knows. The next few days will tell the tale. Is the epidemic outside of Mexico dying off, or is it yet to fully manifest? I think it's foolish to give an opinion one way or another.

As for what we can do to protect ourselves, just do what your mother told you: wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow pits, don't touch your face or mucous membranes before washing first, avoid extremely crowded areas (like sporting events, theatres, etc) and keep yourself in good health to maintain a robust immune system. You can do the latter by practicing good daily health: eat fresh foods, particularly fruits and vegetables; enjoy moderate exercise regularly; get lots of sleep; drink lots of fluids; avoid stress; practice basic hygiene; and avoid unhealthy products like alcohol, tobacco and preservatives.

Oh, and don't worry about pork products. That's just ridiculous. The food chain is safe from this particular disease. I avoid pork for an entirely different reason: eating pig is just gross.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Oops, I Forgot A Title

Greetings from a Starbucks on Chapel St in New Haven, Connecticut. I'm here to attend a conference at Yale University. What a nice place! Weird how I can't find any free wifi here, though; I've been reduced to paying for wifi at a coffee shop. I'm so ashamed.

As a new professor struggling to find his footing at a 2nd tier Canadian university, I must admit to being a bit star-stricken here at this storied and ivy-draped legend of academia. How I wish I'd had the money decades ago to attend a school like this. We really do live in a classist society, wherein the trajectory of one's life is oft determined by the size of one's family's assets.

Thus it's a bit ironic that I'm here essentially to hear Jeff Sachs speak about the financial and economic basis of world poverty and ill health. Doubly ironic that Sachs' name is tainted by his associations with corporate greed, classism of the worst variety, and the nightmare of Russian economic "shock therapy".

My day begain today by oversleeping and arriving at the airport technically after the gates of my flight had closed. I was scolded by the airline dude ("I really shouldn't check you in but...") And as I was about to thank him profusely for making an exception for me, I discovered that my flight was running aan hour late. Yeah I was technically late, but I was also technically early. Asshole.

I'm checked into the Duncan Hotel, which is a 120 year old grimy building that's both dark and moldy, but is also very cheap and smack downtown, a couple of blocks from Yale. The elevator dude warned me: "We shut down the elevator after 11pm, so you'll have to take te stairs if you come in late."

"That's okay," I said. "I need the exercise."

Then he barked at me: "It ain't no laughing matter for the disabled people!" Asshole. They should really let him out of the elevator now and then.

I stopped for a giant buffalo meat burrito at a brilliant cafe called the "Corner Copia". Quite unlike me, I decided to share a table with a stranger. She was an older woman with a floral hat, crumbs about her mouth, and many possessions scattered about her. I have a habit of attracting crazy people, so I was braced for the worst.

But this woman was remarkable. She was a retired anthropologist with an incredible amount of wisdom and experience about a great many topics. She had done cutural fieldwork in Trinidad, some research on the linguistic potential of Neanderthals, had written a Chinese cookbook, and presently starting an ESL business in Asia. Her husband had been a project manager on the Apollo space flights, for Zod's sake! Given the great number of ambitionless people I've been encountering of late, it was a joy to learn of the details of this woman's life.

In Other News...

More evidence that the world is fundamentally retarded: The Pirate Bay has been found guilty. This bit of prosecutorial nonsense seems to be a case of pure vindictiveness and a rather liberal and reaching interpretation of the law. Copyrights as we know them are passe. We live in an era when we need to redefine the limits of so-called intellectual property, the assumptions underlying which are inherently philosophically problematic.

I particularly like TPB's so-called "King Kong defence", with its shades of South Parkianism.

The amazing part is that while the owners of TPB have been found guilty, there appears to be no legal compulsion to shut down the website. What a frakked up situation. So get yer torrentz while u can.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Football Team With Guns

You know, in the past four days I've been given three traffic tickets. One of them I really deserved: I was parked illegally in a campus lot, and they caught me red-handed. Another, I was definitely innocent, parked between two parking signs (confirmed by my passenger).

In the third, I made what appeared to be a legal right turn in downtown Ottawa, but was pulled over and dinged for an "illegal right turn". While waiting for my ticket to be written, I sat in the car for about six minutes, during which time I watched the same cop pull over about five other vehicles for the same infraction. Clearly, we all can't be blind. Was there really a sign?

Then I took a good look at each of the other drivers as he (they were all men) was directed to park near me and await his ticket. We were all visible minorities, more precisely men of dark skin. Coincidence? Quite possibly. Maybe we darkies are all visually impaired when it comes to street signs. Or, to be more demographically precise, maybe non-white men between 30 and 55, traveling alone, are more likely to be scofflaws?

In Toronto a week ago, I was pulled over by a cop for no particular reason. He later stammered out a weak explanation of, "Um, you're driving a rental car and I thought I should check it out."

Really? Driving a rental car is now grounds for being pulled over? And remember this story about being interrogated by a traffic cop over a lost passport three years earlier? How does a traffic cop get access to my federal travel documents from his vehicle computer, and why does he feel the need to express his power trip by bringing it to my attention?

Another common characteristic to all of these incidents (minus simply finding tickets on my windshield, of course) is the attitude and behaviour of the policemen involved. Gruff condescension is the norm, not respectful concern for society.

I don't know what's going on. I do notice however, that something has changed within me regarding my perception of policemen. When I was younger and saw a cop walking or driving by, it made me feel safer. I was happy to see him. Now when I see one, I get tense and try to avoid eye contact.

These experiences are almost akin to those continuously experienced by non-white people at borders and airports. Just last November, as I was the only non-white person traveling with a medical team to Guyana, I was stopped four times in one leg alone, consistently the only member of our team singled out for scrutiny. Random search, my ass.

Do keep in mind that I have never been charged or investigated for a crime, beyond traffic violations. Few would argue that I'm not an involved and visible member of civil society.

As a friend put it, something has changed in the way our society selects and trains policemen (and customs people), it seems. Years ago, he argues, they were chosen for their paternal characteristics (they were all men, after all). Middle aged, wise-cracking dudes were the norm. Now they mostly seem to be 25 year old thugs with brush cuts. A more discourteous description is, "a football team with guns".

Mind you, I've had some very positive experiences with policemen, as well. But, as in all things, when enough negative experiences arise, those are the examples one remembers and that one slots into a pattern. (Is this unscientific? Let's let Nasty Nicky B figure that one out for us.)

All of this is weirdly in contrast with my experiences dealing with members of the military in pretty much every country I've visited, including the USA. I have found soldiers to be remarkably well mannered and deferential.

Perhaps this is all yet one more reason I should consider running for public office one day.... if the questionable content on this blog hasn't already disqualified me!

In Other News...

I had an interesting visit to a student massage clinic last night. The therapist I was assigned was blind. Well, good for her. What a great career for a visually impaired person, since she can feel her way through it quite well. We had a good laugh about her having to struggle to "drape" me appropriately. Frankly, why should I care whether or not I'm exposed to a blind person?

It did get a little weird, though, when she tried to give a happy ending to my big toe.

(Kidding! I'm kidding! ...mostly.)

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Burlington, Vermont

I just wanted to say a quick note about my recent weekend in Burlington, Vermont. What a lovely town! With a population of only 40,000 or so, it still feels like a cosmopolitan centre, ringed with gorgeous natural beauty. As with many American towns, the cuisine benefits from the best of a variety of traditions, in this case both New England heartiness and Southern fattiness. I will not soon forget my excellent breakfast of sweet potato waffles, battered chicken covered in sausage gravy, buttery grits, and an omelet filled with kelbasa and sauerkraut. How inspired!

While I was there, I partook of a wine tasting at a local liquor store. Mmmm, free cheese and lots of free South American wine. Can't beat that. The town is so quaintly small, that the somneliers from the liquor store were later encountered at the same restaurant where I had dinner that night. They were hesitant to comment on the restaurant's wine list, however.

Driving from Ottawa to Vermont is an interesting experience. It's actually shorter than the drive to Toronto, but a bit more hectic. See, you have to go through Montreal, which is some of the most unpleasant stretch of highway to be found in the North American northeast. Once you're past that hell, there's an hour or so of nothing.... by which I mean lovely scenery, but no gas stations or pit stops.

Crossing into the USA, the driving picks up noticeably. One thing I absolutely love about driving south of the border is that Americans know how to treat long distance drivers. Along major highways are rest stations with clean bathrooms, snack machines, free coffee and tourist literature. We could sure use that in Canada.

Actually crossing the border was sort of odd. Crossing into the USA, the American border guard was very polite and friendly and just waved me through after a couple of brisk questions. I guess the new Obama era openness is already percolating to the fringes!

Returning to Canada was another story. The Canadian guard pulled me over and searched the car. I guess he was concered I was smuggling sweet potato waffles.

Just south of the border there's a sign for the 45 degree latitude mark, declaring it (accurately, though somewhat ridiculously) to be "exactly halfway between the equator and the north pole." Speaking of signs, I was bemused to find a street parking spot in Burlington reserved for the mayor. Don't know why I find that odd, I just do. Just adds to the quaintness.

Final verdict: I recommend a visit to Vermont. What a nice place!

In other news: New article up at, this one about the new animated series, Wolverine & The X-Men.

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Friday, February 20, 2009


Greetings from Cuba, miles from the town of Remedios, with no internet access. This post sent via sms. See y'all Monday!
<This message was sent using Fido's e-mail service. >


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cuba Bound

Wow, the rate of blog posting has really slowed down lately! Well, it's going to get a tad slower. I'm off to Cuba later today for a week. I will try to post while away, but I'm not sure of either my internet or mobile phone access. So, just in case I don't have access to any such high tech communications, see you in a week!


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In Guyana

Courtesy of our field commander Bekkie Vineberg, here's a pictorial representation of last November's mission to Guyana:

It's eerily accurate.

It's also a nice segue into this story.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Et Tu, Canada?

Greetings from the Porter lounge at the Island airport in Toronto. I'm grabbing the first flight out to Ottawa in order to make my class today. (So if any of my students are reading this, you'd better show up!)

When I was living in the USA in the aftermath of 911, one of the unique perspectives granted me was the blatant discriminatory treatment given to travelers of my skin colour. It was a relief to return to Canada where such practices are rarer, or at least not as obvious.

Indeed, it's a mantra among many of we hued folk never to take a flight through the USA if we can avoid it, in fear of the humiliating disrespect shown by customs and immigration troglodytes.

Yesterday's return to Toronto, via Trinidad, from Guyana was a bit eye-opening and disappointing. During our 20 minute layover in Trinidad, I and my 5 White compatriots had to walk from one section of the airport to another. Within a span of less than 5 minutes of this walk, I (and only I) was singled out for a "random" security search TWICE.

Once at the gate, there was a youngish Black woman screaming at the top of her lungs, complaining about her multiple "random" searches, as well.

Well, that was Trinidad, right? Maybe some dude matched my description. Or maybe someone was having a little fun. Who knows. Surely, a more serious and advanced nation like Canada would be fairer.

Hmmm. During our departure from Toronto 2 weeks ago, I (and only I) was singled out for another "random" search. At that time, I actually complained, and miraculously the security dude (another abashed brown guy) apologized to me and, in a moment of fascinating brown solidarity, decided to take the next man in line instead. He happened to be a member of our
party, a white dude. But had I not voiced my displeasure, it would have been me... again.

Upon arrival to Toronto last night, we were met by an extra barrage of passport control officers right off the plane. (I think the Trinidad flight is known as a drug gateway). My White compatriots were waved through without incident. But I, holding up my Canadian passport, was stopped and was asked, "Are you Canadian? What are you doing here?"

Because, as we all know, only White people can be Canadian, and only Canadians are White. Maybe she assumed my passport was a forgery.

After we passed customs, we went to wait for our bags. There was another line of thugs in uniform there. Again, my White friends walked right through, but I was taken aside and interrogated.

"Where do you live?"
"What do you do?"
"What are you doing here?"

You would think the Canadian passport and the answer, "I'm a professor at the University of Ottawa. I teach global health and epidemiology and I'm returning from a huminatarian medical mission in Guyana with my colleagues, those fine looking young doctors and nurses over there", would warrant a pass. But no, more menial and frankly irrelevant questions like, "Where were you born? " arose.

Miraculously, I was not selected for a deeper search of my possessions. But I had already identified and set aside my bags from the group possesions, in full preparation for that eventuality.

Sadly, this is not my first enounter with what appears to be racial profiling at Canadian airports. The practice appears to be accelerating.

I have lived in this country since I was 2 years old and have been a citizen for 3 decades. I have paid a shitload of tax dollars to this country. I speak idiomatic, accent-free Canadian English, demonstrably better than many native-born Canadians, and am functional in our other official language. I am a 41 year old University professor who does not dress outlandishly. I have no criminal record. I sit on several corporate Boards of Directors and am a visible, active member of Canadian democratic society. Through my business activities, I have employed fellow Canadians and have contributed to the growth and health of our economy. I have proudly worn the maple leaf as a representative of my country abroad, as a participant in official Canadian projects and as an honoured guest of foreign nations. In the media of Guyana, the nation of my birth, I am referred to as "Canadian", not "Guyanese". I have given much to this country, arguably more than others of my generation, and I have been vocally grateful for the bounty that this country has given me.

Moreover, yesterday I was returning from a humanitarian mission in the name of Canada, an activity that brings further distinction and honour to this nation.

What more must I do to be recognized as Canadian? And what of those non-White Canadians less publicly active than me? What must they do?

Yes, customs agents are universally dickish, and I suspect they are selected for their dour personas. But I suspect more that they are indoctrinated into their paranoia by an official training programme. I would really love to observe that programme sometime.

I think it's about time they started selecting their targets based on behaviour, rather than skin colour.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Last Night In Guyana

Reclining in the Tower hotel, digesting rum and Chinese food, watching CNN and blogging on my phone.

Today we zipped out to Kaieteur Falls near the Brazilian border. It was my second time, but no less fun. Kaieteur really is a natural wonder of the world.

I just realized that Venezuela is going to the polls soon, as Hugo Chavez bids for an end to term limits and gives credence to American charges of dictatorship. I am reminded of a drunken Amerindian we encountered in Kamarang a few days ago. He was ranting about Chavez's virtues,
particulary of how Chavez is, in his opinion, the champion of the the oppressed against the Americans and the "white people".

The big news today, however, is a follow-up from yesterday's farce. The transportation of the two patients, resulting in a car crash, made page 2 of the newspaper this morning. The article reported that "there were no injuries", completely missing the point that these two Amerindians, flown in from the bush for medical care, have been doubly traumatized in a world they do not understand.

When one of our number, Bekkie, went to see them at the hospital, she found a pathetic, tiny woman with a bruise on her face and a pain in her chest and no one tending to her needs. Her husband with the hip issue had been more-or-less cared for, but she had been admitted with minimal care.

In fact, she had not been fed in a day, and no one had offered her clothes or a towel. It seems the hospital only feeds you if you have your own plate. So Bekkie bought her a new nighty, a cup and plate, and a towel.

These people are impoverished, traumatized and have no one to care for them. In many ways, it would have been better for them to have stayed in the interior and suffered with their illnesses. As the Amerindians say, people come to the city hospital to die.

I am sadly reminded of the snake bite woman who was flown here and who died of the bite. Her final hours must have been horrific, spent alone and terrified in an unfriendly, dirty and alien place. It would have been better to leave her to die in her village, surrounded by love and care.

This place needs advocates for the poor and remote. Soon.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Return to Georgetown

Greetings from the lobby of the Hotel Tower in Georgetown, Guyana, where I am miraculously able to access free wifi (while mosquitos eat me alive).

What a day.

Last night, I craved rain. So a local taught me a rain summoning chant: "Mike mike musawa!" I repeated it three timesd and the heavens split open to crap down a river of unending rain. In the morning, I washed in the raised and blackened river, as nameless flotsam floated by.

I presented my snake boots to our boat captain as a gift, and was immediately beset with personal requests for more boots from everyone else in the vicinity. One 10 year old girl, who claims she wants to be a scientist, implored me, "You must remember us!"

We left Waramadong on schedule at 7:30 am on an emormous bark canoe. But this time we took with us an old man with a broken hip, who had to be lifted on in a sling, his wife, a woman with a broken arm, another abused woman with human bite marks on her arm, her baby, another woman and her baby who suffers from a strange flaccid paralysis, and a random selection of rivergoers.

Arriving in Karamang at 9:30, we were abashed to find the weather disfavourable for an aerial pickup. We lingered for hours before our two bush planes could land. Most of us, and our bags, left for Georgetown in the first plane. But two (thankfully not me) stayed behind to carry the man with the broken hip into the second plane.

You need to understand that these are remote river folk. None of them had ever been in a car, let alone an airplane, before. And now they were being compelled to fly to the nation's only city at a time of great medical distress.

Well, most of us arrived in good order and headed to the hotel to wash up. The second plane, however, was delayed 2 hours. Upon arrival, no ambulance was available to take the man with the broken hip to the hospital. Instead a station wagon was found for him and his wife, while the others went on to the hotel in another taxi.

Both vehicles took the same route. But the hotel bound vehicle was stopped because of an accident up ahead... the station wagon had crashed! The man with the broken hip was thrown forward. His wife crashed through the windshield, earning an enormous hematoma on her face. A miscreant from the crowd then attempted to steal their meager belongings. The taxi, too, was totalled, removing the sole source of income for the driver. (There is no real insurance here.) In one brief moment, three lives were altered, possibly permanently.

You also need to understand what a nightmare Georgetown public hospital is. People will attend to your basic medical needs. But no one will ask about your emotional disposition or if you understand the system or if youu have a place to go. There is plenty of tragedy to go around.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Last Day In The Interior

Once more I am huddled in my tent in Waramadong village on the Kamarang river, a distant stone's throw from the Venezuelan border, frantically squishing monstrous and nameless jungle bugs like the big sissy that I am. Outside, a torrential downpour is sending the river into frenzies as gorgeous sheet lightning frames the otherworldly flat mountains near the Venezuelan border.

Today was our last working day in Guyana. Tomorrow morning we are scheduled to pack up our tents and take a motorized canoe downriver to Kamarang, whence a bush plane will fly us the two hours to the capital city Georgetown.

But what an eventful day it has been.

While we are indeed cut off from phones, tv, most radio and all internet, news still travels astonishingly fast. Remember the poor woman who was bitten by a snake? The one whom a colleague and I had to carry up 30 feet of stairs from her canoe to the clinic? She was flown to Georgetown with her worried husband a few days ago. Today we learned that she died there.

My heart goes out to her and her family. The government pays for aboriginals to be flown out for medical care, but not for their return. The impoverished husband is now all alone in the "big" city without people who speak his dialect, facing enormous amounts of racism, and possibly without any way to get himself or his wife's corpse back home.

We had another snake bite victim right here in Waramadong. But thankfully, after spending a night in the health post (where we have cast our tents), this morning he walked home on his own power.

When I get home, I really must look into some way to get antivenin made and stored locally here.

We also made our final --and biggest-- presentation today, this time to 400 high school students. Once again, I pretty much winged it, but it went well. Half way through our condom demonstration, however, we were ordered to move on to another topic!

Which brings us to today's real drama. In the wee hours, the local principal came knocking with 2 women in tow: one a mother, the other her 13 year old daughter who had been impregnated by an older man. For some weird reason, the mother ran out to fetch the purported father, and a whole little Maury Povich show erupted in our little camp. My kingdom for a paternity kit!

I'm not sure what was resolved, if anything. But the lesson here is that these communities need counselors, community organizers (Gobama!), condoms and a greater intervention by the law.

To bed.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Another One?

Today was our first full day in Waramadong village, a remote riverbound Amerindian community notable for its gorgeous boarding school of 300-400 high school students who have been shipped in from around the region.

Guess what? We have another snake bite victim: a middle aged man with three fer-de-lance (labarria) bites on his leg. He's resting in the adjacent room right now.

There's something idyllic about a place where everyone, young and old, says good morning, good afternoon and good evening, and where children --at least outwardly-- are content to be children.

Problem is that there's a little epidemic of teen sex going on here, which is where we are targeting our message. Enter the great bugaboo of this kind of development work: the community is very religious (Seventh Day Adventists) and are forbidding us from giving out condoms because, "condoms encourage them to have sex."

People, they're already having sex! Let's at least stop them from getting diseases and babies!

Today was punctuated by a surreal meeting with the headmaster and the entire faculty, which lasted well into the blackness of the unlit night, wherein all of their frustrations with the "White man's world" and development strategies to date came to light. I found myself giving them strange advice: to take control of their situation, to start their own epidemiology projects in order to sue for government support with real data, and to take the initiative in documenting their own heritage, particularly dwindling knowledge around medicinal plants.

But we must acquiesce to their wishes. So tomorrow I will speak to 300 high school kids about condoms... While not providing any.

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Up The River Without A... Toilet?

Greetings from Waramadong (hope I spelled it right.) I am encased in a tent inside the health centre as a bat and all manner of bizarre insect crash against my thin tent wall, and outside a much needed tropical rain finally begins.

This is a community 2 hours upriver from Kamarang, populated entirely by Amerindians, and serviced only by the bark canoes that laze up and down the Mazaruni and Kamarang rivers. There is no electricity or running water here, so I suspect I may have to crap in the woods. Sigh.

The snake bite woman was evacuated from Karamarang to Georgetown this morning as I gave my outdoor talk to adorable school kids. I hope she will be all right.

We are in poisonous snake endemic zone right now and I have decided to donate my boots to the community when I leave.

To bed.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What? No Ghost?

Well, it turns out my fellow travellers are not very observant. There really was someone else on the plane with us-- our cook. So no, there was no ghost.

I do have a more serious story to tell, though. This evening, well after sundown, word came that an Amerindian had arrived with a snake bite. Three of us rushed to the landing where we carried a tiny aboriginal woman from a bark canoe up 30 feet of steep steps to the clinic.

She had been bitten by a labaria --fer de lance-- 24 hours earlier. Standard bush medicine had been applied: advil and an antibiotic. That's pretty much given for everything.

She's presently lyng in bed across the way from us while her worried husband sits by her side. All our doctors could do for her was to give her steroids and antihistamines and hope for the best. We'll know in the morning.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Ghost On A Plane

Greetings from Kamarang, a community of 350 people, mostly aboriginal, set up explicitly to service the mining industry. The only contact with the outside world is via satellite phone (yes, I called my mother yesterday), so I am storing these blog posts on my phone/pda and will upload when we return to "civilization" on Friday.

To get here, we took a speedboat from Bartica to an airstrip further down the Essequibo, then flew in two 8-seater airplanes, for about an hour, toward the southwest and the Venezuelan border.

This town is essentially an airstrip, which functions as its main street, with a police station, school, hospital, general store, two guest houses and a series of bars and houses lined up along the airstrip.

We are close to the middle of nowhere. From here, one can see Mt Roraima less than a hundred miles away. The Roraima region is among the rawest, untamed jungle in the world. Its geography dates back to the origins of the world and its flora are pehistoric. The place is so untamed that Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by the plateau to write The Lost World.

There is raw physical beauty here, enhanced by its remoteness. The general store sees visitors speaking English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, as the mining rush sees all sorts of characters sift into the region.

There was a moment of Zen as a few of us slipped away to swim in the river. There we were, soaking in an Amazon tributary in the outskirts of the rainforest as a jungle storm rolled upon us. Later, safe in our hovel, lightning and thunder bore down upon us, and the weird and wonderful sounds of the forest berated us from all directions. This aint Kansas anymore.

The funny thing is that on the flight here, I would glance occasionally to the rear of the plane where a Black dude in a red baseball cap would wave at me. At one point, he commented how much he hates flying.

What's so funny about that? Well, it turns out that no such person was on the flight. Either I was hallucinating or saw a ghost.

Tomorrow morning I will speak to the local high school about basic biology and sex education. Wish me luck!

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Last Day in Bartica

Thank the gods, it rained all morning today and our session in Batavia was cancelled. Instead we planned, packed, recouped and feasted.

Yes, my friends, it's true. After 5 months of failing vegetarianisn, tonight my protein starved body once more feasted on Brazilian churasceria -- all you can east barbecued steak. Oh, my Hindu ancestors are all spazzing out in their cremation urns!

Daily battle with the roaches is made possible only by the nightly sponsorship of our friend El Dorado rum, which keeps me numb and clueless.

Tomorrow morning we take a small bush plane into the interior to offer our weird little missionary health education show to remote Amerindian communities. I'm packing now for what will be several hours of rain-soaked slogging by plane, boat and foot. Luckily my little Asus Eepc fits into a standard ziplock bag, so it might yet survive this trip.

A week ago, a similarly sized plane, also carrying Canadians, vanished in this region. British special forces are here now, as part of their regular jungle training, to help in the search.

Hopefully WE won't be the first ones to find out where they went!

Okay, off to bed.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Day 5 In Guyana - Death to All Roaches

Want to know how tired I am? (Okay, replace "tired" with "drunk"). I can't remember the name of the village we visited today. I think it was called Karao.

This was a community of about 200 people, developed 30 years ago in the wake of the mining boom. Getting there, I finally had a chance to field test my snake boots. Yes, everyone, they really are completely waterproof, as I waded knee-deep in the river and emerged perfectly dry. I proceeded with complete confidence in areas possibly filled with snakes and chiggers.

And yes, I continued to look like a complete idiot wearing the bloody things. But I'm a complete idiot with dry feet, no fear of snakes, and a funny accessory to brandish.

Today's educational intervention was very well received. I'm impressed by how smart the women of these villages are; they are more knowledgable about certain health topics than many of my university students! One recurring theme that is both surprising and suggestive for my other work is the seeming high prevalence of infertility among this population. This is something I need to give some thought to in the future.

Well, my belly continues to grow and my muscles continue to shrink. I am a shadow of my former self. I'm afraid meat has come back onto the diet (as expected). Now I must slowly slip weight training back onto the slate and beat my body back into shape. It's pretty embarrassing here to be advocating for a healthy lifestyle while sucking in my disgusting gut. I did manage to join 2 other team members on a challenging jog through Bartica yesterday; I could barely keep up!

We met a couple of fellows from Georgetown today who have put together a street theatre performance to teach locals about HIV/AIDS. They are an impressive duo, both goodlooking young Black men with advanced degrees in economics and development studies, but have chosen to forego immediate financial reward in lieu of preparing this national traveling "health soap opera." Unfortunately, we won't be able to see their show tomorrow, since we will be in Batavia doing our own show.

Speaking of all things Guyanese, this week is the 30th anniversary of the massacre of Jonestown. No one here is talking about it.

Off to bed.... or rather off to battle the cockroaches. Two fucking ENORMOUS roaches invaded my room --SHIT! One of them just buzzed my head! It's a flying beast!-- and I was up for hours hunting them down. I managed to kill one, but many more remain. These fuckers are bigger than my hand. Aieee....

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Day 4 (What Happened to Day 3?) in Guyana

Closing in on midnight in Bartica. I'm typing this on Bekkie's borrowed laptop, so I don't get charged a fortune for blogging on my phone. Yes, Karan, they have internetz in Guyana now. Do tell your granny. It moves like molasses, though. And speaking of molasses --or at least the thing it turns into-- yes, Karan, you may also search for the leading brands in the USA. Do tell me if you find them: El Dorado and D'Aguiar.

Well, the team managed two live TV call-in shows, last night and this evening. Thankfully, I was not a part of it. (Especially tonight, since I'd started on the rum a bit early, and was in no condition to be placed in front of a live mic.) They did splendidly, fielding some very telling questions. My favourite phone-in question today was: why do some men ejaculate earlier than others? The way it was phrased, I wasn't sure if this was a concern over premature ejaculation or someone worried about his impending threesome.

Today was definitely a highlight of the mission. We went to the river-based community of Kartabo, population 200 or so. There, the doctors gave clinical care, and we useless members (i.e., me) engaged in some public education exercises. This really is the heart of the intervention. Of course, I had to preface our shtick with stupid jokes and finger tricks. (Those who know me know what I'm talking about.)

Nothing makes friends faster in a remote Third World community than the ability to simulate bird noises and to look like a complete buffoon. Apparently, I'm well skilled in the latter. This allowed us to talk to these women about very intimate topics, including sexual health and pregnancy planning.

In the process, I attracted the attention of about 30 adorable primary school children. At one point, all 30 --just heart breaking in their little school outfits-- gave me a tour of their village, stopping frequently to demand another riddle or a magic trick. Rarely have I seen such astoundingly beautiful children, and I can't help but worry for their futures in a community where 30 year olds look like 60, and where preventable maladies like Typhoid, HIV and TB run rampant.

Tomorrow we are off to another river community. And Sunday, we enter the thick interior, where the more physically challenging segment of this mission begins.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Day 2 In Guyana

Finally got my long awaited taste of Guyanese rum. I've missed it so.

Today we stumbled through a test case of our evolving educational intervention. While most of the clinicians actually saw patients at Bartica hospital, the rest of us attempted to engage patients waiting for care.

The lovely and forthcoming women at the prenatal clinic were my first mission. I am always impressed by how well Guyanese rural women carry themselves.

But the bulk of my morning was spent teaching basic health science concepts to people awaiting care at the diabetes and hypertension clinic. It was rewarding to meet with such receptive minds who were clearly thirsting for knowledge about their own bodies.

This evening our group was supposed to host a call-in tv show. But in true Guyanese fashion, we arrived at the studio to discover that we had been bumped for a cricket match.

Only one solution.... Hence the rum.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

First Dispatch from Guyana

Greetings from the Lion's club in Bartica, Guyana. Everytime I come to Guyana, the infrastructure improves a modicum more. Thanks to the arrival of Digicell, I can now access email on my GSM smartphone! Mind you, it's costing me a fortune, so recognize how expensive this blog post -sent from my phone- is.

The original plan was to head straight into the interior to meet with remote communities. But since our irreplaceable local contact, my old friend Bekkie, has malaria, that has been postponed till next week.

Instead, this week we will deal with river-based communities within boating distance of Bartica.

I haven't had a chance to field test the snake boots yet, but rest assured it's a priority.

The trip started with a bang as we arrived in Parika to load up our boat for an hour long trek to Bartica. A smaller boat had just floated in from the interior on its own. Its sole occupant: a dead man.

No, I did not photograph the corpse. Even I have some decorum. On the plus side, this is still an unusual enough of an event to be gossip worthy. On the minus side, it's not so unusual as to warrant any gasps or flash crowds. Just another dead guy in a boat.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Off To Guyana

In an hour I head to the airport for yet another 2 week stint in Guyana. This time, however, instead of being attached to a CIDA mission, I'm joining an expedition from the Toronto-based group Veahavta.

Quite honestly, I don't know what to expect, since we're going to a region I'm unfamiliar with. But I've got snake-proof boots, a raincoat, a compass, a world phone and a very a sharp knife. So if I trip on my clumsy snake boots and land on my knife, shattering my compass in the process, I can at least rest on my raincoat and phone the city to send a dude in a boat. That's how it works, right?

Right? Anyone? Bueller?

Anyway.... I will try to blog while I'm away, but you never know what kind of electricity options will be present. So maybe you won't hear from me for 2 weeks!

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Snake Bite Fever

In two weeks I head back to Guyana as part of a team sent by Veahavta, a Jewish philanthropic organization, to engage in some mother-infant health projects in the interior. This means having to get my fat ass into some kind of shape, and overcoming my distaste for sleeping in a tent. Right now, I'm shopping for a pair of comfortable yet functional snake boots, appropriate for lowland jungle usage. See, Guyana is beset with 5 species of poisonous snakes, one of which --the labarria, a type of fer-de-lance-- really likes to bite people. So if anyone knows anything about buying snake boots, let me know ASAP!

In the mean time, I have some random election-themed images for you. First, courtesy of EK Hornbeck, here's a behind-the-scenes look at the Sarah Palin stripper-lookalike-contest in Vegas:

Speaking of Ms. Batshit Crazy Alaskan Governor, here she is on that fateful day when she realized the full extent of her international affairs experience:

And can you believe the Republican strategy for addressing the global economic meltdown? More breaks for the rich? It's that ridiculous Reaganomics nonsense again: trickle down economics. Oddly, it was Michael Moore (who pisses me off a lot) who said it best, last night on Larry King Live. He said, in the days since FDR, America attained its wealth through the production and selling of goods. Then, in the Reagan era, they switched to making money from money, essentially through the manipulation of currencies and securities. There is no innate value in such speculation; ultimately a nation's wealthy comes down to its resources and production capacity. Hence, today's final image is a summary of the Republican's tired and wrong policy of trickle-down economics:

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Mountains of Snot

A "felucca" pilot plying his craft on the Nile at sunset in Luxor. Photo taken on my trusty Treo 680.

Let's recap:

-bad back
-no sleep in 24 hours or so
-jet lagged
-new item: head cold
-middle seat (groaaaan)

Fold all of that into a 20 hour travel stint from Cairo to Ottawa and you have my Tuesday, Jan 8, 2008.

My last minutes in Egypt were spent trying to get rid of all my Egyptian money. Remarkably, when you need them, there are no touts around to bilk you. So I did a tour of all the bathrooms in the airport and tipped all the bathroom attendants. Mind you, I couldn't find any male attendants anywhere, so I had to skulk around the womens' toilets waiting for the female attendant to emerge so I could pour cash into her hands.

Okay, that sounded way more creepy than I'd intended.

I hate the idea of restroom attendants. I get performance anxiety when I know there's someone skulking outside the stall with no other task but to monitor by excretions and, um, service my sanitary needs. Can there be a more demeaning job? So while I detest the service, I nonetheless feel for the servicepeople. And given that the airport was filled with European backpacker ingrates, I doubt that anyone else had been tipping these folks. Judging from the delight in their eyes when I rained sweet currency into their hands, I think I was correct.

That's me: the Santa Claus of toilet generosity. Okay, that too sounded way more creepy than I'd intended. Change of subject in 3, 2, 1....

To say I am relieved to be home would be accurate, though a tad underexpressed. I was further relieved to find my lone houseplant still clinging to life, and none of my "valuables" looted by curious neighbours. I've yet to venture down to the mail room, though, to check on my stack of junk mail.

What I have found, though, is that my piece of crap Dell Inspiron has once again crashed on me, and I cannot restart it. I am soooo through with Dell. Remarkably, for once in my life I had done something genuinely smart. Hours before I left for Egypt, I backed up EVERYTHING onto an external hard drive, so I'm sittin' pretty. And snotty.

Speaking of which, I'm also sucking back mountains of Neo Citran and sipping canned chicken broth (yummy, I know) in hopes that I will be well enough in a few hours to slouch to the office. I also hope I'll be well enough to attend this: a film about the mining exploitation of Guyana, to be screened at the National Archives later this evening. For free. So come. Once again, the link is

That is all for today. See ya.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Last Night In Cairo

Me, about 3 steps up on the Great Pyramid of Khephren, the second biggest on the Giza Plateau. Photo by Andrew Currie.

Yes, I peed in the Temple of Karnak. And no, I'm not remorseful about it. See, I really really really had to go. And I should get points for managing to do it while hundreds (maybe thousands!) of tourists wandered by. Besides, the bloody structure has been standing in the open for thousands of years, exposed to rain, hail, wind, sand, light, cold and smog; it was meant to withstand a little urine. What it can't withstand is all the "officials" beckoning tourists to bribe them in exchange for access to the more delicate portions of the historic site.

These are my final few hours in Egypt. My back is still killing me, and I'm limping about like the villain of a 1930s horror movie. About 24 hours ago, I came down with a nasty fever and am still recovering. Mind you, if you're going to be sick in Egypt, it may as well be in the $300/night Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, where my comfort knows no bounds. My illness, however, prevented me from visiting the Red and Bent pyramids, which would have been pretty cool.

A word about touts: several people have emailed me to offer advice on how to deal with aggressive touts and salesmen. While I appreciate the advice, I should point out that I'm no stranger to such behaviour, having travelled extensively in the developing world. Maybe it's something peculiar to this season, but the toutism in Egypt has been unbearably intense during our visit. The standard strategies of always saying no, saying nothing at all, feigning ignorance of English, or even carrying no money, sometimes don't work on this crowd. At Khan al-Khalili market in Cairo, touts would try to physically drag us into their stores! Some, upon being rebuffed, would shout insults to our backs. At one point, one of them even pulled me halfway out of a taxi I was attempting to board; I feared it would come to blows.

Of my decades of adventure travel, this has been my first experience with locals actually physically touching me in a menacing way. When I venture out alone, mind you, I look like an Arab and people pretty much leave me be. But in tourist rich areas, everyone is fair game for the occasionally threatening tactics, whether I'm with my white colleague or not. This is what I mean about Egypt's toutism being off the scale in terms of aggression, and why I would not recommend this place as a tourist destination for inexperienced travellers.

But for those who can tolerate such things, or who are willing to insulate themselves in tour groups or with expensive guides, Egypt is a fascinating place rich with living history and modern intrigue. Even the less aggressive touts become funny after a while. They all read from the same script. They ask where you're from, you say "Canada", and --to a man-- they reply, "Oh! Canada Dry!" Then they take another look at me and say, "You look Egyptian!" This happened so often that at first it was funny, then became annoying, then became funny again after we lost count of its occurrences.

On our last night in Luxor, Andrew and I enjoyed a sunset felucca ride down the Nile, just a few hundred metres from the West Bank and the Valley of the Kings. With a little bit of imagination, you could imagine Pharaonic boats plying the magic hour, or even the boats of Alexander come to claim their Egyptian jewel in the Persian war prize.

And this evening, I dined in the hotel's Italian restaurant, overlooking Cairo's stretch of Nile, as all around me, Italians, French, Germans and Arabs chain smoked and imbibed fatty foods. See, Egypt is, in many ways, more European than African. Europe has claimed it for millennia. It has been ruled by the British, the French, the Turks, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. All these nations still claim a sort of romantic ownership of the place. But it speaks well of the robustness of Egyptian culture that its centuries of occupation by foreign powers have in no way compromised Egypt's sense of itself.

The culture is so refreshingly robust that it seems to exist apart from ubiquitous American influence. The television is replete with Arabic and European content; American content is hard to find. Indeed, even American pop music is remarkably rare here, as the indigenous music and film industries are strong enough to weather any sort of competition.

Speaking of European TV content, I've been particularly enjoying the news broadcasts of France 24, an English language news station from France. I think I need to spend more time in Europe.

And speaking of US influence, I have neglected to report on one very interesting observation. When I arrived in Cairo airport last week, what did I see on the tarmac, kept at a respectful distance by security trucks and encircled by men in black suits and sunglasses? Yep, Air Force One. Or maybe it was one of the decoys. I can only assume it was on its way from Benazir Bhutto's funeral.

Our overpriced (and annoying) guide taking my photo on the Giza plateau, while Andrew photographs his butt crack. Photo by Andrew Currie.

As many of you know, I consider myself a bit of a massage connoisseur. I've travelled the world sampling different styles, and even learning a few. I'll try it all: Swedish, aromatherapy, Ayurvedic, Thai, Rolf, Shiatsu, reflexology.... so long as it involves me doing absolutely nothing, and someone else poking and prodding me to make me feel better, I'm all for it.

My stay in Egypt has been no different. During my ten days here, I've had three massages in three different hotels. (I figure the hotel masseuses/masseurs are most likely to be above board). Here's the rundown. The first one, given by a really goodlooking chick at the Pyramids Meridien in Giza, was a true waste of time. She giggled a lot and barely touched me, with made me more tense than when I went in. In retrospect, I wonder if she was hoping to solicit some of her "extra" services after hours. This seemed unlikely to me at the time, considering it was a family resort-style hotel.

The second one was given by a matronly middle-aged British nurse at the Movenpick hotel in Luxor. Hers was an airy-fairy aromatherapy approach, something I usually don't have a lot of tolerance for. But I was very surprised by the potency of this experience. While there was nothing special about the firmness or style of her touch, I suspect the order of her touches, combined with her choice of oils, just knocked me right out --in a good way!-- like I'd taken half a bottle of melatonin.

The last was just a few hours ago, a Swedish-style pounding given by a burly middle aged man who was probably a butcher in a previous life. I feel that I'm now ready to be marinated and placed on the grill.

Now, I'm typically a fan of the hard styles of massage, particularly Rolfing. But I have to conclude that in this trip, it was the aromatherapy massage that was tops. In case anyone cares.

In Other News

Congratulations to my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary! I'll be lucky to make it to my 50th birthday...

After the Iowa primaries, has Obama ahead of Hilary in terms of betting odds. Not to me counted out, my man Al Gore still leads the pack with 5-1 odds. I'm not giving up on my prediction yet!

No one knows Pakistani intrigue like Brother Margolis.

Everyone has been sending me this: Intel pulls out of the One Laptop Per Child board, with intentions to push its competitor product onto the market and drown out OLPC. Intel sucks.

My friend Tahmena has shared with us her new blog, describing her experiences with Muslim villages in Southeast Asia.

Sarah sends us this great "poppy" science fiction site.

That be all.... signing out from Cairo!

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Friday, January 04, 2008


Hanging out in the Valley of the Kings. (Photo by Andrew Currie.)

Greetings from the lobby of the Movenpick Jolie Ville hotel, near Luxor. We have checked out and have 7 hours to kill before our overnight train ride back to Cairo. We're taking this opportunity to relax and lavishly enjoy the free wifi offered by this extremely comfortable facility.

Today we visited the Temples of Karnak. Yes, we took time to also do a cheap version of the classic Johnny Carson Karnak routine (video forthcoming), so don't ask. The temples of Karnak are an enormous facility, about 1.5km by 800m, containing obelisks, chapels and other stone artistic treasures dedicated to the Theban gods. Karnak was first built during the reign of Rameses III (12th century BC), and was maintained as a place of business and worship for 1500 years. Most of it has decayed and crumbled, but what remains provides quite a taste of what must have been one of the world's most impressive architectural achievments. In fact, I would say that Karnak is as impressive an engineering feat as the Great Pyramids themselves, so colossal and intricate are its elements, which include scores of ram-headed sphinxes, obelishs, giant pillars, temples and even a giant artificial lake, fed by the water table. To have even designed such a thing speaks volumes about the scientific prowess of the ancients.

I am convinced that if Karnak had been more intact during the time of Herotodus, it would have been counted among the Wonders of the World.

Of course, I've been reading about Karnak for decades, and always suspected that one day I would stroll its avenues. But in those fantasies, I never imagined the clouds of annoying tourists blocking my view, scurrying about like rats in a granary, many rarely even looking up to perceive the true grandeur of the wonder before them. It caused us to rank the annoyingness of various tourist origins. I won't mention which nationality came out as the most annoying, but I will happily report that the Japanese are the least annoying; they are generally happy, respectiful, stylish, engaged and quiet.

I've neglected to mention an important personal connection to the Valley of the Kings. Called "the greatest Egyptological find since Tutankhamen", in 1995 Dr Kent Weeks discovered the tombs of the many sons of Rameses II, a find that has turned out to be the single largest tomb network ever discovered in Egypt. (It's amazing that such stupefying discoveries are still being made in the modern era). The complex is not yet open to the public, but Dr Weeks' online project, The Theban Mapping Project, gives us all a glimpse into the design and layout of the KV5 site.

It seems that an old childhood friend, and one of my early polymathic inspirations, was intimately involved in the development of the Theban Mapping Project. Walton Chan is an artist, animator, engineer and architect. When last we communicated, Good Morning America was about to report on his project ---from a hot air balloon above the Valley of the Kings!

Indeed, my one regret from this trip is that I won't have time to rent a hot air balloon and make a similar journey.

I've written a lot so far about the antiquities of Egypt, but very little about the bustle of modern Egypt. Cairo is a gorgeous, clean and modern megalopolis. Its subway is efficient and pristine. Several times, I had to remind myself that I was riding a subway in Africa! Luxor is cinematic in the way that high priced hotels and cobbled boulevards on the East Bank complement so well the ancient temples, ochre dust and reaching palm trees of the West Bank. Peppering it all is the smoky, colourful din of rich, Islamic life. Turbans, burqas, veils, luxuriant full-length embroidered suits and stylish leather shoes adorn passersby, lending further romantic zeal to the place.

Yes, the hassle of touts is intolerable. But today it's all quite acceptable, because it's the sabbath, and everyone is leaving us alone. The melodic call to prayer echoes from the various minarettes around town, providing a glorious soundscape to mirror the blinding noon sky and the pastel allures of the rising and setting suns.

And threading through both cities, eternal and silent, is the immortal Nile, sparkling and redolent with history.

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