Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Just passing through

I'm spending the night in Brussels after travelling in by Eurostar, before getting a flight to Banjul tomorrow. I wouldn't really recommend a trip through Brussels to anyone with 46kg of luggage; to be honest I'm not entirely sure if I'd recommend a trip through Brussels to anyone. There are no lifts Brussels Midi station, nor are there baggage carts. I found this difficult to believe, so asked a passerby for confirmation and was rewarded with a Gallic shrug and a tirade about how it was une scandale. I concurred that it was indeed une scandale and proceeded to lug my bags up two flights of steps to the platform, only to discover that the airport express, which you would have imagined would have been designed with the needs of people with luggage in mind, actually has three steps up from the platform to the carriage.

Whilst trying to negotiate these with my bags I tripped (note to parents: at no point was I actually in danger of falling on the track) and the carriage's only other passenger, a young Arab-looking bloke, leapt up to grab my arm. At this point the guard in the carriage, who it should be noted had made no effort to help me up to this point, leapt out and asked the bloke if the bags were his. I said they were mine and he promptly asked for the bloke's ticket (but didn't ask me for mine) and it turned out he didn't have one, forcing him to leg it off the train. The guard them proceeded to harangue me in Flemish, then in English when I was finally able to get a word in edgeways to say that I didn't understand him, saying that I should be more careful and the guy had been trying to steal my luggage. Now the guy was trying to travel without a ticket and for all I know he might have been about to steal my luggage, I suppose the airport express would be the place for baggage thieves to try it, but the whole incident left a rather nasty taste especially when I later overheard the same guard talking to a colleague in French about how he's just known by looking at him that the bloke didn't have a ticket. The guard then told me I couldn't put my bags on the seat next to me because other passengers would need it (as I was the only passenger in the carriage with two minutes until departure this seemed a little unnecessary) and insisted that I put it in the vestibule and sat in a particular seat so that I could watch it in case the guy came back. To be honest I'm inclined to think that anyone who could run off with a 23 kilogram bag probably deserves it. Incidentally two more passengers did get into the carriage. They put their bags beside them.

There was more fun once I got to the airport – Rothamsted has booked me into what its website suggested was going to be a posh airport hotel, with a free shuttle bus to the airport, wireless internet access in the rooms and . I had visions of reclining in a tub of luxuriant bubbles, sipping champagne from the minibar and possibly in my wilder imaginings munching on complimentary gluten-free Belgian chocolates. Sadly it was not to be. I waited an hour for the shuttle bus and then decided I had a travel expense budget for a reason and got a taxi. This turned out to be a good move, as once I got to the hotel I discovered that the shuttle bus only runs during the week – I could have been waiting a very long time. The wireless internet is only free if you pay the 25 Euro business upgrade, which also entitles you to all the pay-per-view movies you can wank over and a complimentary drink from the bar which isn't open at weekends. I declined and am paying for this by the minute. And although in theory it's available in all the rooms, in practice it only works in the lobby, where I am typing this in fear that someone will look over my shoulder and see the word "wank". And someone's eaten my complimentary biscuit and left the wrapper on the tray (I know that I wasn't going to eat the biscuit myself, but it's the principle of the thing).

Even more annoying was the fact that the restaurant is only open during the week, and as the hotel is situated in the middle of a deserted business park there was a good half hour when I though I wasn't going to get any dinner as I wandered past empty office after empty office, desperately seeking an alternative to cracking open my emergency Gambia Lara bars and protein shake. Fortunately I eventually found another hotel with a restaurant and disgusted the waiter by ordering rose with my steak. So now I'm back, contemplating an evening of repacking my Bugdorms and watching Martha Stewart, who seems to have an entire channel devoted to her over here.

The fun starts tomorrow folks.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Hair today, gone tomorrow

I leave tomorrow at ten thirty so I should really be getting ready, but instead I'm going to write a blog post about my hair. It's called displacement activity, folk.

Back in the mists of time when we were freshers at Durham, with little money and less sense, my friend Johny blew his loan on surf wax and economy Christmas pudding and asked me to cut his hair to save the cost of a barber's visit. Why he picked me I don't know, although on reflection there weren't many people on that corridor I'd have trusted with a blade around my face. There followed an (in retrospect) amusing misunderstanding, possibly due to Johny's somewhat unique accent; he asked me to chop two centimetres off, I thought he wanted me to cut it to a length of two centimetres, and of course made a complete pig's ear of it so he had to get his head shaved to a grade one. I don't think he minded too much, because then he got a lot of girls stroking his head and saying "Poor Johny!", but I felt very guilty.

Well this week Johny got his revenge. I have wild, wiry Welsh hair (there's definitely a sheep back in my genepool somewhere) which takes a huge amount of water, shampoo and conditioner to keep clean and behaving itself, and as all of these substances are likely to be in short supply out there it had to go. I had originally planned to walk into a hairdresser brandishing a picture of Julie Bindel, thus becoming the first person in human history to do so, but time and money were pressing so I ended up doing a Britney with Jeff's shears.

My favourite comment so far has come from Ben, one of the other PhD students, who said "There aren't many women who can carry off really short hair". I waited in vain for him to add "And you're one of them".

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

My Dad would approve

I've only met one of the other people I'll be going out there with, and was a little nervous about what they'd be like. But I've just had an email from one of them, describing Walikunda as "a site for sore eyes".

I think we're going to get on pretty well.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Weight watching

Just about everything I need to survive two months in The Gambia. I have 46kg of baggage allowance to play with, which sounds like a lot but at least 20kg of that will be taken up with equipment. I had a minor panic attack when I weighed all this lot and thought it came to 28kg, then realised the scales were reading in lbs.

The next problem, of course, is carting it around, given that 46kg is 73% of my own bodyweight - for the first time in my life I wish I was an ant.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

The essential difference

My beloved will be coming out to visit me for a few weeks and so is currently choosing his antimalarials, leading to this conversation:

'im: "What are you taking doxycycline for? Why aren't you taking Larium"

moi: "Well I looked at the side effects for both of them, and decided that the ones for doxycycline didn't seem as bad."

'im: "But you have to take them every day! You only need to take Larium once a week!"

moi: "So?"

'im: "Well you'll forget to take it if you have to take it every day, won't you?"

I look around to reassure myself that no, we don't in fact have some children I hadn't noticed and then gently point out that as a woman I have some experience in taking a little pill every day to make sure bad things don't happen. He remains unconvinced that it is possible for a human being to remember to take a daily pill. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the male contraceptive pill is doomed.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Baggy Trousers

I've just stumbled back from some penultimate minute shopping (the last minute shopping will take place at the airport in a blind panic) and am now the proud owner of two pairs of antibacterial trousers, a phrase I never expected to find myself typing. They are also UV proof and quick drying, and quite frankly for the price I paid for them I'd hope they could stop a small dirty bomb and bullets at twenty yards.

Up to this point I'd managed to be quite frugal in my preparations; I managed to pick up a second hand rucksack, bought a lot of long sleeved men's shirts from Oxfam and got four desert scarves off eBay for £4 from a bloke who realised that the only people who should wear desert scarves are emo kids or people venturing too far from civilisation to be mocked for it, and presumably also realised that he didn't fall into either of these categories. I also picked up a pair of jungle boots for a very reasonable price from a surprisingly urbane survivalist in an army surplus shop at Waterloo, and in any case the lovely people at Kew paid for them. But sometimes you do have to pay for quality and these trousers didn't just blow the budget, they performed a variety of sexual acts, some illegal, with it.

I wouldn't have minded so much if I could have envisaged myself wearing them at any other time but The Gambia is a Muslim country and quite conservative up river, so they can't be too close fitting. I did try on a pair that was two sizes too large, but as these fell straight off when I did them up I didn't think they were fit for purpose. The ones I bought were a mere one size too large, and the crotch is half way to my knees which isn't a good look on anyone. I felt like a member of All Saints. After I'd spent the best part of £40 a pair on some extremely unflattering trousers, the part of my brain that complains at wanton profligacy promptly overloaded and shorted out and in a daze I then bought a couple of karabiners, an LED lamp and a new water bottle. I then staggered out of Blacks to have a bit of a sit down, came to the depressing realisation that the amount I'd save on travel cards whilst in The Gambia would be more than outweighed by the amount I'd spent on kit and vowed to economise over the coming month by using email instead of text messages and eating Jeff.

At least I will now not have to wander around The Gambia in just my pants, which up to this point had been a source of some concern to me, particularly in dreams. Unfortunately the rest of my shopping trip was less successful. For the record, I think that this is the only intelligent thing I've seen in the media about swine flu – yes there is a lot of hype in the media, no that doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about, using alcohol gel after taking public transport is probably a good idea anyway because an extremely unscientific survey I once carried out in a public toilet convinced me that one woman in three doesn't wash her hands and sorry to be sexist but the figure is almost certainly higher among men. If however you do not already possess alcohol gel then tough, you can't get any for love nor money on the high street because in the panic at the impending aporkalypse the shelves have been picked bare. This is quite annoying if, say, you are going to a country with minimal hygiene infrastructure (at least upriver) and want to avoid picking up something a darn sight more common than the hamdemic. I have so far resisted the temptation to buy "travel wash", which is three times the price and comes in an attractive green bottle but is otherwise the same stuff (shhhh, don't tell everyone).

There will now follow a short paragraph featuring my ladybits. I can only offer my apologies to any of my male readers who may be unsettled by this, but really chaps, you should have accepted that we have them by this stage. Not to beat around the bush (sorry), in a hot, humid climate I'm fairly likely to develop either thrush or cystitis, either of which have more potential to make my trip miserable than a herd of rampaging hippopotami. The best preventative measure is loose-fitting, pure cotton underwear, but being either a saucy little minx or too cheap to buy many pairs of pants I don't seem to have much of this. I did however recall that my Gran used to have some knickers that would have been ideal; large enough to propel a reasonably sized schooner and if memory serves made out of something resembling flannel. That sort of thing would have been ideal, so I headed to Marks and Spencers and was shocked to discover that they no longer stocked anything of the kind. Maybe Myleene Klass refused to wear them or something. I left disappointed, and rather curious as to where today's respectable women of mature years purchased their sensible unmentionables.

Even knickerless, I am now rather more prepared than I was, although I don't know if I'll ever feel prepared enough. Here's hoping that parmageddon doesn't ground all the flights and leave me sitting at home with my two pairs of antimicrobial trousers. Still, I suppose if that does happen I could cut them up and flog them off as facemasks.