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

Sunday 31 August 2008

Choking on Coke

I had my first hint that The Gambia might not be the Heart of Darkness type experience I had anticipated when I explained to a former researcher from the centre that I was allergic to beer and asked what I could drink instead. I was expecting an explanation of how to use water purification tablets, but was instead told that the nearby American Peace Corps training camp held cocktail nights every Friday. Beverages, intoxicating or otherwise, may be a little harder to come by however when I head into the villages to collect samples, so I’m embarking on quite the most painful and unpleasant preparations I could make for this trip. I’m trying to make myself like Coke.

I feel much the same way about Coke as I do about pesto (and my observations on that unholy substance are a matter of public record), that some sort of invasion of the body snatchers has taken place causing the rest of the world to behave in strange and inexplicable ways whilst I remain the only sane person still able to tell that this stuff they’re drinking is foul. I mean how has something that’s mostly sugar, caffeine and phosphoric acid with a few industrial byproducts thrown in become the most widely consumed beverage in the world, and the only safe substance I can be sure of getting in a tiny Gambian village?

Although it’s rather hard to get my head around the idea that I’m trying to like something that’ll rot my teeth and is made by a company indulging in some extremely dodgy practices, I’m trying to drink it as much as I can to get used to it as drinking it in The Gambia does beat the alternative. And frankly that’s about the best I can say for Coke; drinking it is fractionally less unpleasant than having dysentery.

Friday 29 August 2008


A poem about flies. Because it's Friday and my I've spent all day dealing with crazy people.

By someone who posts their poetry on Wondermentalist but doesn't seem to have put their name

I take a friendly interest in the fly
Which buzzes round me as I sit and write.
Phlegmatic fly, I wonder what there might
Be going on in you. I’d like to pry
Inside your little exo-skeleton
And look out from behind your compound eyes.
Perhaps we would be in for a surprise,
And you might not be quite the simpleton
That we have long assumed from outward signs,
But possessed of a vast intelligence
Whose breadth and scope our minds could never guess.
We plod along the same familiar lines,
And can’t make much variety of sense.
Perhaps you make far more. Or slightly less.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Postponing the inevitable

I’ve just had my jab appointment cancelled, and must admit I’m slightly relieved; the prospect of getting stabbed in the arm at 8 in the morning didn’t really appeal. This is, unfortunately , only a temporary reprieve.

Monday 25 August 2008

Goodbye Giftaid!

The fact that I will shortly be starting a PhD has finally begun to seem real to me (the prospect ofbeing given a list of jabs as long as my arm, probably with a needle that is also as long as my arm, does appear to do that). And so, after four years, three departments, half a million angry Friends, enough cups of tea to fill Boston Harbour and the opportunity to say "I'm sorry ma'am, Kew doesn't have a position on baboons eating flamigoes" I have finally handed in my notice and will be leaving Kew on the 20th of September.

While I'm looking forward to having weekends again (I can distantly recall those regularly spaced periods when all your friends are off work too), and I do anticipate the company of filth-flies being rather more pleasant than that of the great British public, I will miss the Gardens themselves a great deal but more importantly all the lovely, crazy, creative people trapped behind tills or in offices that I've had the priviledge of working with all these years.

I've managed to either time my departure rather well or rather badly, depending on your perspective, and will have to have two sets of leaving drinks, one on Friday the 19th for the people I work with during the week, which I have arbitrarily decided will be in The Botanist, and one on the 20th after my last gate shift, which'll be in the Kew Inn. Whichever department you've worked with me in though you're welcome to come to either or both (or neither if you'll be glad to see the back of me after having been impaled by a flailing knitting needle in the ticket box once too often).

Monday 18 August 2008

Messing with my mind

I’ve made an appointment to discuss immunisations and anti-malarials, and like every GP’s worst nightmare have done a bit of research before hand. Apparently my anti-malarial options are Larium or Doxycycline for going up-country in The Gambia. Larium is a lovely-sounding little pill, which has been known to cause temporary or permanent severe depression, anxiety, paranoia, aggression, nightmares, insomnia, seizures, and other central nervous system problems you probably wouldn’t want. Doxycyline on the other hand is a broad-spectrum antibiotic which has been known to cause photosensitivity in about three percent of users and so is not recommended for particularly sunny areas, rather unhelpful as malaria isn’t exactly endemic in Wolverhampton. It also interferes with hormonal contraception, which could well make El Jefe’s visit rather less exciting. However it does also offer some protection against elephantiasis, which doesn’t look like much fun.

Being rather fonder of my brain than of my skin, and given that I’ll be covering up anyway as I’ll be in a Muslim country, I’m going to try and go for Doxycycline and take the risk that I might be one of the 3% it turns into a vampire. Thanks to one of these Blogger – poll jobbies, however, I can now offer all of you the opportunity to help me make this crucial health decision. If you’re reading this on Facebook you’ll need to go to the original blog, which is here. I reserve the right to completely disregard the results. And I’m not usually a violent woman, but if anyone suggests homeopathic anti-malarials I will carefully and patiently explain the concept of evidence-based medicine to them, possibly with the aid of a cricket bat.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Creature comforts

I spent the weekend at my cousin's wedding, drinking wine, eating cheese and poking the eyes of my nearest and dearest out with a rather wonderful butterfly hat my friend made for me. We stayed in the 16th century hotel where the wedding was held, which unfortunately seemed to have authentic 16th century plumbing. I find it amazing that as a species we can send people to the moon, swap organs around without killing people and create an amazing global network that allows people of all nations to instaneously exchange amusingly captioned pictures of cats, but we can't seem to create a piece of equipment that will deliver a stream of water at a constant temperature, and more importantly at a constant temperature that the user has chosen. I stepped out of the bathroom surrounded by clouds of superheated steam and the faint stench of boiled human flesh, my inner environmentalist weeping for the ninety-five litres of water that had poured straight out of the tap and down the plug hole in order to induce two litres to come through the showerehead, and was about to launch into an angry tirade when a little voice whispered "It'll be much more uncomfortable in the Gambia".

The disturbing conclusions are as follows; firstly that I hear voices even without taking anti-malarials, but more importantly that I will never be able to bitch about trivial things again which anyone unfortunate enough to be familiar with my facebook notes will know is one of my main pleasures in life.

Incidentally, the groom takes amazing closeup photos of insects which can be found here if anyone's interested.

Wednesday 6 August 2008


Thought you might like to see where I'll be going:

View Larger Map

The fun thing about this map is that the high resolution pictures are taken in the dry season - zoom out and you'll see how different it all looks in the rainy season!

Monday 4 August 2008

How the human mind works

I recently made my first conrete step towards preparing for the trip and signed up for an online Wolof language course (although I should be able to get by fairly well with English and French I thought I should try to make an effort). Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on myself as I've only had a quick click through the first module, but the only word I've managed to remember is the number 10, spelled Fukk and pronounced much as you'd expected.

Sadly the rest of the language does not sound like obscenities, so may be a little harder.

Sunday 3 August 2008


As you are all no doubt aware after putting up with months of my excited squeaking, in January next year I’ll be heading out to The Gambia in order to do my bit for the country’s economy by buying many, many beautiful clothes, to listen to a lot of good music and to be able to convincingly assert upon my return that the scars my pet dog gave me on my leg were in fact caused by a lion. If I have any time in between these activities I’ll be working on trachoma.

For those of you who haven’t yet had it explained to you in grisly detail, possibly while you were trying to eat, trachoma is an eye infection that causes scarring of the inner eyelids, which eventually makes them turn up and under, dragging the eyelashes across the cornea whenever the infected person blinks, slowly and painfully sending them blind. It’s spread by a fly with a pretty name and some extremely unattractive habits, Musca sorbens (sounds like a grape-based iced dessert, at least to me). This fly seems to be preferentially attracted to the eyes of children, so children and the women who care for them are most at risk. My PhD involves trying to find the odour components that attract these flies, in the hope of making traps which would at least allow their numbers to be estimated more accurately than they can be at present.

I’m setting up this blog because I suspect that while I’m out there my time on the internet will be limited, so while I will try to respond to emails a blog might be a more efficient way of going about it. So point your feed readers here, ladies, gents and anyone in between in anticipation of thrilling tales of my exploits dynamiting rhinos and feeding sponges to leopards (Tintin in the Congo has a lot to answer for, in many ways). Alternatively of course bandwidth issues may prevent me from posting at all until I'm invalided back home with malaria of the toenails, in which case I apologise for the ensuing four months worth of posts you'll have to sit through on whatever drivel pops into my head. This may include knitting, coeliac disease, slug control and my incipient paranoia that I am developing hairy knees after years of waxing above and below them but shaving the painful kneecap area. You have been warned.