First field trip to Gatlang village to test water quality in the Parvati Kunda wetland is complete! Doing science in Nepal is always and adventure. Here are the highlights (there are lots of highlights so read as you wish):
-Background: Parvati Kunda is a wetland that lies at 2,600 m in elevation and is the only drinking water source for the nearby village of Gatlang, population about 1,500. In recent years, people in the village have become concerned with the aggressive growth of a semi-aquatic plant called bojo (Acorus calamus). They asked WCN to help develop a management plan for preserving their drinking water source. My job is to collect baseline data on water quality, biodiversity, and community perceptions and use that information to define future management targets and understand the rapid expansion of bojo. Additionally, my data will be the foundation of a larger grant proposal that will help the people of Gatlang conserve Parvati Kunda in the long term.
-Shopping for lab supplies in Kathmandu involves visiting a dark, dusty surgical supply shop on Sunday afternoon and rummaging around for plastic funnels, filter paper, sample bottles, and Ethanol, and then bargaining for a better price, and then balancing all the supplies on the motorbike for the ride home. This is so much more fun than visiting the lab supplier in the basement of the Northwestern Technology building.
-I could not find plain old 95% ethanol. In the US you can purchase it by the gallon in any lab supply shop (or just get Everclear from the liquor store). But in Nepal, there was either super expensive 99% ethanol that I could not afford, or suspicious-looking bottles of an un-specified concentration from India. I went with the un-specified concentration. My samples haven’t decayed so far so I guess it’s fine.
-My good friend Bigyan hand-made a 0.5 m2 vegetation-sampling quadrat for me, specially designed to come apart for ease of transportation. I love it and will probably take it back to the US with me.
-I purchased a super expensive Dissolved Oxygen meter from the one fancy lab supply store in Kathmandu and felt very professional.
-We were originally leaving for Gatlang on November 6th. Then it got pushed back to the 9th. Then on the 8th it was moved to the 10th. Then the 11th. Then we finally actually left on November 12th, after about a week of trying to solidify dates. I am learning to go with the flow.
-I traveled with two WCN colleagues named Rajeshwar and Mohan. Rajeshwar coordinated logistics, helped with community surveys, and took care of miscellaneous WCN business. Mohan knew almost all the plants, trees, birds, and insects in Gatlang and took excellent pictures. And my job was to organize our sampling equipment and schedule our sampling plan and carry out the sampling.
-It is just not easy to get to Gatlang. It takes 10+ hours in the best conditions, even though its only about 145 km (88 miles). We took a local bus for eight hours, got stuck behind a broken down truck on a one-way road next to a 30 food cliff for 1 hour, and then transferred to a jeep for 2 more hours of the bumpiest road I have ever experienced. All you can do is hold on for dear life.
-There was a giant spider as big as my hand in my bedroom. I had to have Mohan remove it. I only slept because I convinced myself that a bedroom ecosystem could only possibly support ONE spider that enormous.
-It is COLD in Gatlang. Small children have scabby cheeks from the cold. My legs burned and my hands cracked from the cold. The only way to keep the fecal coliform presence/absence vials warm was to put them in my sleeping bag at night and my sports bra during the day. And it’s not even winter yet.
-I used iodine tablets to purify water and they tasted SO AWFUL I had to dump unreasonable amounts of orange Tang in my water bottle just to choke it down. I will never again travel without my water filter, nor will I drink orange Tang without gagging.
-To test for fecal coliform (poop in the water that makes you sick), we filled a special vial with water and waited for 24 hours. If the vial turned black, the water was bad. If it didn’t turn black, we were supposed to wait for another 24 hours, after which if the water was black, it was still bad but a little bit less. After about 30 hours of no blackness, I got fed up with my Orange-Tang-iodine flavored water and started drinking unfiltered water from the tap. Six hours later, the vials turned black. I had mild diarrhea for about a week…serves me right.
-The water in the wetland was juuuust above my rainboots, so mostly I waded in the water barefoot. The temperature ranged from 2-14 degrees C. My feet were a bit cold.
-People in Gatlang believe Parvati Kunda is 1 kilometer deep (that’s 1000 meters). The deepest we measured was 4.1 meters, but then again, we couldn’t quite reach the center of the open water…who knows…
-I am happy to report that water in Parvati Kunda, as well as taps in Gatlang village, pass national and international drinking water standards. Except for the fecal coliform. This is probably from the large number of chauri (cow/yak cross) and goats that roam around the pond, and is something to be addressed in the future.
-Standing among chauri and their herders, with everything glowing pink in the sunset after a long day of sampling, we saw the super moon hanging huge in the sky just south of Langtang peak. Couldn't be captured with pictures.
-We decided to take a public jeep (known by the brand name “Sumo”) through Langtang National Park to Kathmandu. This was a horrible idea. We were packed so tight we were basically sitting on each other’s laps. I refused to let the bag of sampling equipment and plant specimens go on top of the jeep, so I hugged it on my lap.
However, my big backpack containing my laptop, datasheets, and the expensive DO meter went on top of the jeep. I was worried the landslide-ravaged roads would send my bag flying out of the tie-down straps and over the 50-foot cliff, taking my laptop and all our data with it, but I reassured myself that at least the bag was tied down.
But when we got to Dunche and had to pull everything out for a security check, I realized the driver hadn’t tied the bags down. They were literally just sitting up there for 1.5 hours over the bumpiest roads imaginable without being tied down. My laptop was on top of a moving Sumo jeep without being tied down. I grabbed my datasheets and DO meter and did not let them out of my sight until we got to Kathmandu. Everything was fine, but I will never make that mistake again—from now on, all electronics, expensive equipment, and datasheets go with me in the vehicle.
And now on to the next adventure: Mom and Dad arrive in Kathmandu at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, November 29th! They come bearing new running shoes, American chocolates, and 30 Power Bars (one per person, not including me, for each day of their trip). Hopefully Nepal can handle three-fourths of the Moravek family at the same time!
THE CUBS WON THE WORLD SERIES!!!!! I live-streamed Game 7 at 5:30 in the morning, but left for work at the top of the 8th. The wifi was out at the office, so my buddies texted me play by play updates (ball 1…strike 1…strike 2…ball 2…). I cried when they won. This win means so much to so many people because the Cubs are so much more than just a baseball team. They represent never giving up, hanging on to hope, and sticking up for the team you believe in—no matter what.
In other news, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. November 9th was the second time in a week that I got up early to watch a live-stream from America. That horrifying moment when the NYT “Election Prediction” needle went from 85% Clinton to 95% Trump made my stomach drop, and I spent most of the day struggling to explain my thoughts to my Nepali colleagues.
Experiencing the election from Nepal is challenging. In some ways, it’s a blessing to be away from the mess, but in other ways, I feel guilty for hiding out in Nepal when America can obviously use all the help it can get. My consolation is that I’m building bridges on an international setting, and that I am happy, healthy, and productive, and that doing what I’m good and care about is the best way for me to contribute right now and in the near future.
I have the interesting situation of a split blog audience: I know some of you support Trump, while many others vehemently oppose him. As you may have guessed, I fall into the second category. But if I learned anything growing up a Democrat in conservative St. Charles, it was to walk the fine line between arguing and agreeing to disagree. It’s healthy to argue and think critically and disagree wholeheartedly, as long as at the end of the day we can tolerate our differences. Trump may be a lot of things, but I will NOT let him be powerful enough to screw up my family and friendships.
That doesn’t mean I’m not upset by the president-elect. As a female scientist who will soon apply for National Science Foundation funding for a PhD in climate change research, Trump’s denial of climate change makes me worried for my future. I also fear for my friends who identify as Muslim, Mexican, LGBTQ+, people of color, women who have been sexually assaulted, and a slew of other people. Trump’s rhetoric of hate it rightfully makes many, many people feel marginalized and unsafe and that is not okay.
What can I do about it? Clearly I can’t take to the streets from Kathmandu, but I’m calling my congressmen and donating to appropriate charities. It also seems that I’ve lost my handle on the conservative perspective in the 4.5 years since I left St. Charles, so I’m reaching out to my Trump-supporting friends and asking why. Might as well understand what all the fighting is about.
But back to the Cubbies: hang on to hope, don’t give up, stand for what you believe in, no matter what.
Shortly after returning from the trek I headed off again to the Luce Early Assessment Meeting in Thailand. All 18 scholars + partners and our program coordinators Li Ling and David Kim came together from across Asia to share stories and check in on each other.
The king of Thailand died recently, so the mood in Bangkok was subdued. Everyone, including our group, wore black, white, and grey, and we passed through thousands of mourners crowded outside the royal palace. Our tour of Bangkok included traditional communities, out-of-the-way artist colonies, and beautiful temples. We had a lovely four course meal of Thai food on a boat cruising on the river through Bangkok, and an amazing smorgasbord of breakfast food during which I ate salad for breakfast.
After debriefing with Ling and David in Bangkok, the crew headed to Krabi for resort on the beach. Between dips in the ocean, the crew had long, intense group discussions about the issues we’ve been facing in Asia—issues regarding our identities, contributions to our places of work, American nationality, and how to deal with mental-emotional health abroad.
Once our programming was finished and we said goodbye to Ling and David, most of us headed to Tonsai beach resort, where we spent more time beaching, rock climbing, and snorkeling. After a few days at Tonsai beach, Jen Tu and I headed by ourselves to Koh Phi Phi, a famous Thai island about 2 hours from Krabi. Phi Phi (pronounced P. P.) provided more snorkeling, lots of mango sticky rice, and endless coconut smoothies before we headed home.
Interacting with the Luce scholar class is a truly enlightening experience. It is a privilege to interact with a group of such talented, motivated, inspiring young people, and even more of a privilege to learn to view myself as one of them. I can’t wait for the Lucers to visit Nepal!
Side note: I have an intense pathological fear of heights, and if I’m any more than a few feet off the ground I start to panic and hyperventilate and my muscles freeze. This has happened every time I’ve ever tried a rock wall, and at this point I don’t even like to climb ladders, lean over balconies, or walk up flights of stairs where you can see through the steps (think fire escapes).
The mangoes must have gotten to my head, because despite this lifelong fear I agreed to go rock climbing with the Luce crew. True to form, on my first climb I panicked five feet off the ground, started sobbing, and screamed when I lost my grip on the wall and swung down (which then put me at 2 feet off the ground. Lame as it may sound, 2 feet is terrifying to me). But then I took a break, gritted my teeth, got back on the wall, and climbed to the top, largely thanks to the encouragement and instructions from the Luce crew. Thanks to everyone for helping me reach this major personal accomplishment!
For many Nepalis, Dasai is a time to return home, eat lots of mutton, receive and give tikka, and spend time with families. I, on the other hand, did my absolute favorite activity in the whole wide world and went trekking. Here are the highlights:
-My two trekking partners were Sophia and Christina, who are both Princeton in Asia fellows and are the brightest, toughest, loveliest pair of Americans who could have taken on the trails with me. Our destination was Annapurna Base Camp, better known as ABC.
-ABC is a teahouse trek, which means we ate/slept in little lodges along the way and didn’t have to carry tents, food, or cooking gear. This was helpful for several reasons, most obviously because we didn’t have to rent/borrow tents and cooking gear in Kathmandu, and also because campers smashing down vegetation to make space for tents and fire pits is bad for the ecosystem. In any case, all we had to bring was clothes, toiletries, and sleeping bags, which we carried ourselves instead of hiring porters. We did, however, hire a guide through a local trekking company. Our guide Bimal was experienced, efficient, fun, and somehow always knew when it was going to rain. Overall, he was amazing and I would recommend him to anyone interested in trekking in Nepal.
-Foreigners who speak Nepali (or at least a little Nepali) were a rare sight along the trail, and we made fast friends with guides and porters. During my entire time in Nepal, Nepali language skills were most valuable during the ABC trek. It was a major sign of respect for guides and porters.
-Speaking of porters: It would have felt uncomfortable for me, with my egalitarian American tendencies, to hire somebody to carry my stuff. But it is extremely common in Nepal, and for many porters it’s actually the first step to becoming a more well-paid guide. In my opinion, hiring a porter can be fine, if they 1) aren’t given too much weight; 2) have proper shoes, gear, and blankets for nighttime; 3) are treated with respect; and 4) are paid a fair wage and tipped generously. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many porters, and I was sad to see several people carrying ridiculously heavy bags in only flip flops.
-Our ten day timeline was a generous amount of time to complete ABC, so we only hiked about 4-6 hours a day. Usually we got going by 7:15 am and arrived at our next location by 12 or 1. The rest of the day we ate dhal bhaat, rested, chatted, and played raucous card games of B.S. and Go Fish with Bimal and the other guides and trekkers before hitting the sack at 8 pm.
-On day 3, we did a sunrise hike to Poon Hill for panoramic views of the Annapurna range. It was cloudy the night before, and we went to bed expecting disappointment. But when we stepped outside at 5 am the next morning, the sky was filled with the one of the most amazing blankets of stars I’ve ever seen. We turned on our headlamps and followed the train of trekkers for about 45 minutes up the hill just in time to see the pre-dawn Himalayas, and watched as sunlight slowly flooded the mountains. It also happened to be my 23rd birthday—one I will never forget.
-Our second sunrise hike was to Annapurna Base Camp itself. We spent the night at Machaapuchre (fishtail) Base Camp, about an hour and a half below ABC, and started off at 3:30 am. ABC is at 4,100 meters (13,451 feet), which isn’t high all that high for the Himalayas but definitely made me light headed. We started off so early the mountains were bathed in light from an almost-full moon. Once the moon set, we could see that awesome blanket of stars again—this time, complete with a meteor shower. And once we reached ABC, everybody cheered when the first ray of sunshine struck Annapurna 1—the tenth tallest mountain in the world at 8,091 meters (26,545 feet).
Meet Jessie Moravek
I am a 2018 Fulbright Scholar at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Studying for an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation. Click here to learn more about me!