Thursday, 29 July 2010

Toppling sunflowers

Looking up; it was time to come down
Today's mission at the Apricot Centre was one of destruction and reaping. It started out with stripping the apricot tree of all it's fruit, much of which was worm eaten or worm infested (ick). Then picking the biggest of the peaches to let ripen in the cold store. Worm eaten peaches were put into freezer bags for chutney. Then it was time for a coffee break. Thursdays are great fun when Di and Jeanie are around. They make us coffee or tea, bring cake, and we sit around and chat for a while. Today, I got to meet Marina's mom, Jo, which was a real pleasure. Marina comes from a family of horticulturalists and Jo was telling me about her two brothers who went to America, Michigan to be exact, and have done well for themselves as horticulturalists out there. Full of caffeine and sugar, Aidan asked me to pull up the sunflower bed. Some of the sunflowers were huge. Two of the stalks reached the top of the poly tunnel which is about 12 feet. The largest of them had hit the top, sprouted a big yellow sunflower with a center the size of a large dinner plate, and then curved down. It was like a street lamp. Pulling up the littler flowers was pretty easy. They came up from the roots. The larger ones took a bit of playing with. The leaves were covered in white flies; every move sent up a spray. It was sort of like confetti but in the wrong direction. Aidan asked how many I'd eaten; it's part of their biological pest control program. Taking down the 12 footer was really satisfying. I pulled it from high up, bent it towards me, heart a crack at the roots, and sort of walked it around in a half circle, pulling at different points so the roots snapped. Another stalk came up easily, but it had a huge and heavy ring of soil that came up with it. It looked just like a pole that had been set in cement. After the fun of tearing apart the sunflower bed--they were at their end and it was to make space for the other crops--I picked raspberries. 4 bags full for the freezer to make jam. Some of the berries were incredible looking. We picked from both the glasshouse and outside. Then I picked the few blackberries that were ripe and moved on to red currants. Red currants are tedious to pick. Since you can't just run your fingers along and take the berries off, you're meant to pull at the stem, it takes a lot longer than you think it should to strip a bush of it's little red gems. 3/4 of a bag of red currants and I was done for the day. Lots of nettles and I was starting to get stung. A nice reminder of what a nettle sting feels like after managing to avoid them for about a month. I won't be missing nettles when I go back home. But there will be plenty of other things to miss, like the Apricot Centre. The apples are coming on really well. I'm sorry I won't be here for the picking.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Stephen Schneider, Climate Warrior

Last week the world lost a great climate scientist and climate warrior, Stephen Schneider. There are plenty of posts from people who knew him and can write about his life and work better than I would be able to, but I wanted to note his passing. The few times I spoke or corresponded with him, he was patient, always helpful, very clear in his language, able to translate complex issues into terms even I could understand, and right to the point. He contributed a lot to the science of climate change and to the call for policy, lending his voice to advice presidents and communicate with the public. Not all scientists are created equal in their scientific abilities or their courage. His passing leaves a gap.

For more, this short story includes many links to other news stories and tributes. Well worth a read, whether you knew the man or not.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Quiet day at the farm

Sunflower from the polytunnel

Red currants
Turns out someone forgot to e-mail me not to come to the Apricot Centre yesterday, so I showed up and was all by my lonesome. No bother; I picked a tray of raspberries and took some photos.
Glasshouse Berries

Barley about to be harvested


Sunday, 25 July 2010

Bird mix

I went for a walk along the Colne on a break from working on my dissertation. It was good bird spotting today with a nice variety. The river was on its way out and the muddy banks were lined with gulls--black headed,  some sort of black backed gull and I'm guessing some juvenile gulls--and lapwings. It was the first time I've seen a lapwing in months. An oyster catcher flew by. Six swans a swimming, or sitting. A few young moorhens sitting pretty in the water. I crossed paths with blackbirds and sent wood pigeons clapping and flapping into the sky. It was a nice evening for a walk, with a grey-blue clouded sky and the sun making a descent in the west; a perfect break from work and the indoors.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

That's cool and all, but . . .

So a guy goes down to Mexico, starts collecting plastic bottles for cash and something occurs to him: why not build an island out of plastic bottles? It only takes him 3 years, but he does it. Plants are able to grow on it. So he has a ton of plastic bottles, slung together in fish nets, holding up his own personal floating island. Well, nevermind the implications for structural integrity of something built on plastic in salt water, what about the implications for the health of the ocean? I'll be (horrified and) interested to see how he deals with the decomp. Hope the environmental reality sinks in before his island does.

A Citizen's Guide to Plastics in the Ocean: More Than a Litter Problem

Cartoons made me do it.

FernGully: The Last Rainforest (Family Fun Edition)I was thinking today about why I feel the way I do about nature. I think it's Disney's fault. From Cinderella's mice to Sleeping Beauty's tweety helpers, I developed a soft spot for creatures--especially cute little ones. FernGully: The Last Rainforest made me want to save trees; Bambi made me want to stop forest fires; The Little Mermaid made me want to sing, be a redhead and aware of the biodiversity beneath the sea's surface; and 101 Dalmations made me think animal fur, particularly puppy fur, wasn't so nice. There are themes of conservation, preservation, nature for nature's sake, eco-morality and animal rights throughout the catalog of Disney's kid films. Now, I'm meant to watch Princess Mononoke as I've been told it has an environmental message.

Cinderella (Two-Disc Special Edition)Sleeping Beauty (Two-Disc Platinum Edition)101 Dalmatians (Two-Disc Platinum Edition)Finding Nemo (Two-Disc Collector's Edition)Bambi (2-Disc Special Platinum Edition)The Little Mermaid (Two-Disc Platinum Edition)

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Rained out at the Apricot Centre

Today's visit to the Apricot Centre was a new experience. It rained! Quite hard and for quite a while. I brought my course-mate Anna with me today and we started off the morning with a cup of coffee and a chat, followed by picking raspberries, more raspberries, a few blackberries. The raspberries are going to become jam--my favorite flavor! The apricots were a bit tricky as the ones left on the tree were quite high up. We used a step ladder, but that didn't get us to the top. We shook the tree to see what we could shake down, but that wasn't very successful and might result in a bruised arm. The sap that comes out of the trees is really beautiful and looks like amber. Anna and I admired it as we climbed about the branches trying to reach the fruit. We managed to pick our way through the whole lot of raspberries which was quite an accomplishment. I must say, raspberries are easier on the back to pick than strawberries. After we finished up that job, we went over to plant some leeks, radishes and beetroot in a raised bed that Aidan had prepared. And then something happened that hasn't happened at the centre since I've been there. It rained. It chucked buckets of rain. At first, we kept working. Using the trow to drill a line in the dirt, drizzling in seeds and tucking them in to bed. Then it poured. It was a shame that some of the work didn't get done, but I really enjoyed hanging out in the glasshouse, listening to the rain come down. It wasn't all sitting about. We did manage to pull up a bed of larkspur that was at its end. It was sad in a way to be pulling up the beautiful deep blue and purple flowers, but room must be made for the next batch of things to grow. Today's takeaways included two little boxes of blackberries and raspberries and a bouquet. The rain was a good thing since it has been on the warm side and pretty dry. I think the raspberries (and the rest of the lot) will benefit from a good dousing. I know I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Apple Thinning

It's been two weeks since my last visit to the Apricot Centre and I had really missed it. Yesterday's activities included sewing seeds, hoeing and planting seeds, nearly passing out from the heat in the polytunnel, picking raspberries and thinning the fruit trees.

Thinning fruit trees is almost sad. The idea behind the activity is that you want the tree to focus its energy on a few select pieces of fruit so that the fruit you end up with is larger and sweeter. But it involves picking off some perfectly good looking pieces of fruit. In this case, the fruits were plums and apples. Plums were real fun since thinning the branches of a plum tree just involves shaking them. The apples were done by hand. When an apple tree blossoms, it has 5 in a bunch. 5 apples can form, but we were thinning down to 2 apples a bunch. So that meant picking the smallest, least healthy, runt of the bunch and leaving the rest. It was any easy job, especially easy on the back since you can stand up while doing it, and particularly nice in the shade of the pine trees.

Yesterday was hot, and in the polytunnel mid-day it was stifling. I could only stay in for a few minutes before needing to step outside into the cooler air. I don't know how the plants in there can take it. I was wilting just walking through the door.

I picked raspberries for the first time--which I was really excited to do because I'd had the best raspberries over the weekend. One thing about organic agriculture is that it involves bugs. Well, I found some raspberries with little caterpillars working their way through the berries. Gross. It was careful picking to make sure I was only putting the berries without worms into the trays. Lucky caterpillars, though, to have such a sweet meal.

Red Kites and Long Walks

It's been a week and I've been recovering from my trip to the Maldives and readjusting to Essex life. I had a brief break from Essex life last weekend with a trip to Oxfordshire to visit Jane, walking buddy from the BB2B adventure. It was a fantastic adventure to a little village of Steventon (host of this coming weekend's Truck Festival The weekend included walks through the fields with a springer spaniel named Poppy, working in the garden, a bbq and a journey to the next village of East Hendred. It's a beautiful part of the world, full of old timber frame buildings and thatched roofs. We walked through some corn fields, which I haven't seen many of in this area of Essex. Poppy ran through all of the fields, tail wagging, chasing scents. In the wheat fields, she would pogo stick to get a view over the top of the crop from time to time. It was hilarious to watch.

One of the coolest things, though, was seeing red kites. One circled around the garden for about 15 minutes while I was pulling ivy off one of the walls. On campus, our biggest bird of prey seems to be the kestrel. The red kite makes the kestrel look tiny. The red kite is huge. One website puts its wing-span at 5 1/2 feet. The ones I saw were flying quite low so it gave me a chance to admire them. One lone-flyer had a weird, deep throated call. The three I saw together sounded a more predictable screech. They were beautiful to see flying and apparently very common in that area.

Another exciting feature were giant courgettes (or summer squash). Some of the courgettes were larger than my forearm. Jane made a delicious meal for Saturday evening which included many things from the garden: radishes, potatoes, salad, peas, courgettes, beets, and herbs. I really enjoyed picking things and then having them on the table for all to enjoy. It further convinces me I want a kitchen garden where ever I land.

More info:

Monday, 12 July 2010

Dubai Airport

Random things about Dubai Airport.

The toilet water is steamy.
There are two terminals (at least). The newer terminal (which has the gate numbers 200), which may be entirely Emirates, is big and beautiful and air conditioned and modern. It has planter areas at each end with trees and a koi pond. The 100s, which I assume is the older terminal, is like another place entirely.
It's kind of like Vegas here. Light up, over the top, full of things to buy, fake feeling, and air conditioned. With two classes: hot, seedy, cheap, and things you can't afford.
Maybe not intended to be ironic, but you go down to get to Terminal 1.
They have very conveniently located charging stations, but not in Terminal 1.
The terminal building is very long which makes for good walking.
There is a McDonalds here. There was not one in Maldives. I did not miss it.
There's an entire counter for gold things, including bars.
They have lounge chairs and there is a hotel at the airport.

Shukuriyaa, Maldives

The last two days in Male' were packed. Sunday, first day of the working week, involved an early visit to Saleem in the Ministry of Housing and Environment. I wasn't quite sure if I would get there since it was pouring rain. It fell steadily for over an hour in the morning and the streets were flooded. I made it, though and had a great meeting with Saleem. He's the permanent undersecretary there and has provided consistency during the transition in government. This ministry is huge. It was formerly 4 separate ministries. It oversees housing, water, energy, environment, sanitation, waste, and until last week, it also oversaw transportation.

Then met with folks from the Climate Change department who have been working tirelessly on the issue. They're not impressed with the international negotiations, and I must say, neither am I. I wish a US President had the balls to stand up and say the things Nashid, and Gayoom before him, have said. When asked what they're looking for, they said, they want policy that is science and equity based. Not a hand out. For people who are accusing the Maldives of being in this for the money, they're willing to put their money where their mouth is. They are working to become carbon neutral by 2020, and while we don't know what that will look like, they're talking a lot about renewable energy. They want to lead the way and set an example as the first carbon neutral nation. The message is if Maldives, with its limited resources can do it, so can the rest of the world, and they're not asking the rest of the world to do something they're not willing to do themselves. While all efforts to reduce emissions are good, the truth is their contribution is so small to begin one (one report I read said 0.01%), that reducing and even eliminating their own emissions will not get us to where science says we need to be to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Sea level rise isn't the only threat to the Maldives. They also potentially face rising temperatures (which can have all sorts of impacts including those agriculture and health related), increased number of coral bleaching events due to high sea surface temperature, fish migration which would leave their fishermen (second largest industry after tourism) without, decreased availability of fresh water. They're already seeing a change in the seasons with rain being more unpredictable. They are also seeing stronger winds and stronger storms, higher tidal surges and more erosion.

After the Ministry of Housing and Environment, I went to the UN office to try and meet with some folks from the UNDP or EP, but they were out for lunch. So I called Mohammed Ijaz from the Maldives Science Society. They hosted a talk by Bill McKibben last year and I wanted to find out more about their work. He met me and said, are you free for the rest of the day? I want to show you something. He took me to the south harbour and we boarded a ferry for Villigilli. There, we had tea at a harbour front cafe and then toured the island.

Ijaz is a founder of the society. It has been around for about a year and a half and would not have been possible under the previous government. It's goal is to promote science and critical thinking. They host almost monthly talks which feature scientists from around the world. They are creating ties with organizations like NASA and inviting them to speak. They also issue press releases on relevant issues. There seems to me to be a bit of a struggle between science and religion. While I don't believe they are mutually exclusive, some might. Ijaz's previous job was as teacher and I think he's simply moved from the school to the community. He has a great passion for science and the scientific method. We had a great chat about communicating science and the difference between religion and science, theory and scientific theory.

I was pleased to visit the island of Villigilli. The plan had been to go the day before but the weather was too terrible. The island is smaller than Male', easy to walk around in 15 minutes. They have some real beach, which was exciting to see, and some great trees. Also saw some tiny white crabs which scurry across the beach almost invisibly. This particular island used to be a tourist resort, but hasn't been for some 20 years. The abandoned buildings are still standing on the beach front, graffiti-ed and not looking so good. It's a quite island and I was told many commute to Male'. I've seen a lot of swings, some makeshift, some more official looking. They're hung beneath the trees and people gather and swing and chat. Sounds like a lovely way to pass the time. Also a tradition is the barbecue. Fish are caught, then cooked on the beach. That's a life I could get used to.

At 4:30 I met, Hala, who is the sister of Ana who works as a dive instructor in Shaahina's office. Hala used to work for the President's Office on environmental issues. She helped write some of Gayoom's speeches--which are incredibly moving and should be read. She's done a lot of research on environmental issues, particularly as they pertain to Maldives and she pointed me to some reports which I look forward to digging up. (Weird coincidence, we both went to UEA. She did her MA and PhD there. Her MA was on sustainable tourism--I'll be looking for her dissertation in the British Library.) We had a quick meeting and then I decided I'd like to see another island if possible so went to Hulhulmale. I ran into Shahid on the way and he offered to come with me. It was getting dark and he said I shouldn't be on the island by myself at night since there are gangs (and have been some stabbings).

I'm glad I ran into him. He took me to his cousin's house and I got to meet his cousin who has worked to do some clean up work on Hulhulmale. He said he's stopped now after a few beach clean ups because it's been too difficult to motivate people living on the island to work. Hulhulmale is a reclaimed island that was built to have high density housing. It's larger than Male' and is attached to the airport island. People have come from around the country to living there and work in Male'. Each island has its own identity and it's been difficult getting people to mix and work together. While they were able to get the government involved and nurses and police joined in the clean up efforts, most people who lived on the island wouldn't participate.

There is a litter problem on all of the islands I visited (especially the trash island). I've been told that if there were bins, people would put their litter in them, but bins have not been provided. So trash ends up on the ground, in planters, road ways, on beaches and in the water. Good to know there's a will. Now just need to find the way.

We got back late and I was exhausted. I ate a very nice dinner in the hotel. One of the waiters said he'd make something special for me so I didn't even have to decide. What arrived was red chili chicken (not too spicy) and fried rice. It was delicious! After dinner, it was quick to bed.

This morning was beautiful. It was the first time I think I saw sun during my visit. I needed to be at the airport at 2, but wanted to try and fit in all of the places I hadn't yet been. I had a meeting at 8:30 with Paul from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He works on agricultural issues. We talked a little about the current system (mostly subsistence, working on some commercial--traditional--agriculture) and how climate change might effect it.

Then I ran off to the climate change department I met with the day earlier to get some copies of reports copied to a thumb drive, back to the UN (struck out twice), over to the ministry of tourism and culture, met with Salih who was very helpful, then to the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board, and an unsuccessful try to find the Environmental Protection Agency there. I took a break for lunch and to cool down. It was hotter and more humid than the previous days. Then I went to say thank you and goodbye to Shaahina and Gert and the office team.

I've picked up some good materials and have had many helpful conversations. I'm not sure I know everything I would wish to know but I think I'm on my way and hopefully after it all sinks in and I read what I've been given, I'll know more specifically what I'm missing.

I think this trip was good, but it also complicates what I'm writing in some ways. I was worried that they might frown upon some American chick writing about their place but instead I found that they really encouraged me to help bring attention to the issue. I hope I can do them justice in my dissertation.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Maldivian Storm

The wind is howling, lighting flashing in the sky, thunder crackling, and the rain is pouring down. It's been coming down for at least an hour without any sign of relief. From my window on the 3rd floor, the sea is only distinguishable from the gray clouds by one small area of wave action at the foot of the airport reef. Yesterday, with short periods of heavy rain, many of the streets flooded. I can't imagine what they're like now. I think wading would be involved. (Shame I didn't think to bring my wellies.) I can see the rain falling in patterns on the corrugated roof next door. The wind is howling around the building. The trees are swaying. I have a meeting in half an hour and I'm not sure whether I should go. I'd hate to arrive, soaked through, to find no one has come to work today, and I'd more than that hate to miss my appointment with the Ministry of Housing, Transport and Environment.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Rainy Maldivian Day

Today was super rainy. From when the sun came up to now, nearly midnight, it's been a full day of heavy low clouds and rain. This morning, the clouds were touching the sea. When the ran came, it moved in. First hitting one roof, then all the roofs and making a very loud noise. Also, construction on Saturday morning, right outside my window. This all meant no sleeping in for me. But it was nice to do some work from my hotel room and watch the ran come and go.

Today was supposed to include snorkeling and an island visit, but the weather did not cooperate. Still, it was a rather productive day. 

I went back to the fish market today to take some photos. On the way, I met Rittey, who is an unofficial tour guide. He basically takes people around and can't ask for money, but accepts gifts. A lot of guys who do this have shops that they take you to at the end of the tour so you can buy souvenirs. I told him I didn't need a tour, but would like to ask him some questions. I ran into Buck in the meantime who was meeting his host for the two nights he's staying on an inhabited island about an hour south from Male'. Rittey obliged us by answering some questions. He believes that the sea level is rising. He thinks that Maldives will not survive it. While he dreams of going to Egypt and he thinks Male' is not the best place in the Maldives, he wouldn't like to live somewhere other than his home. He says people here do care about the environment and they would not like to leave their home. If he could speak to the world, he would ask them to please change their ways and save his country.

Don't know if I'll see Buck before I leave Monday but I hope to. I look forward to hearing about his trip.

Then I ran into Shahid. Who walked around with me while I took photos. Back at the fish market, we saw barracuda, swordfish, yellow fin tuna, smaller tuna, red snapper and many other types of fish. I finally understand why it's called yellow fin. It has little fins along it's tail that are yellow. It's quite striking.Then we went through the market again. I tried a cinnamon stick--delicious! For whatever reason, things here are going in one ear and out the other. I have been doing a very poor job of remembering the names of things I have learned. We walked out to the sea wall and there's a little water break where fish swim around. Saw a box fish and a few butterfly fish. Then the rain came so we went to his shop, had a drink and a chat.

He said he plans to interview the president and ask him some questions about environmental issues. He wants to ask about transportation: electric vehicles as an option, to get rid of the diesel engines and the air pollution. Maybe a bus system so people won't need motorbikes and for people who own cars to get rid of them. He also wants to get rid of plastic bags and bottles, to reduce the amount of trash that people produce. I hope he has success. I think that would be a positive step anywhere.

Before I left the shop, he played some music for me that was made by Maldivians using natural sounds: from waves and wind to the sounds of people working, whittling away at wood, opening coconuts. I think he said it won a grammy.

I managed to catch a break in the rain and walked to Shaahina's. She said there was no point going to Villigilli today because of the weather. People would not be out to talk to and it would not be nice to go around. So she invited me back to her house and to meet her friend Salma who works for the WHO. I'm so glad I accepted the invitation. Not only did I get to try breadfruit, rambutan, and some savory and sweet treats, including fried spicy fish balls. Rambutan is amazing. It's got a spiky exterior, but you break it open and it reveals a gelatinous looking egg shape that's subtly sweet. The soft translucent white flesh covers a large, white, almond-shaped seed. The fish ball was delicious, but a bit too spicy for my sensitive stomach.

Shaahina is wonderful. So generous and kind. She answers all of my questions and has offered to help me in anyway she can. Tonight was a big help. I got to meet her brother-in-law, Hamdun, who served as minister of planning under the last government for about 6 years. He oversaw two master plans. He obliged me by answering questions about sea level rise and their plans. He explained, using a plate, that there are two kinds of islands. One, plate right side up, in which the reef is higher than the land. This protects the land better because the reef breaks the waves, but if water comes over the reef, it gets trapped. The other way, the land is higher than the reef which leaves it more exposed to waves, but the waves would wash right over the land. He says, like with Hulhulmale', they wanted to design it so there was a higher lip near the reef so that the water wouldn't come in as easily. Lagoons also protect the islands. He told me a bit about islands that have been eroded or that have been washed out by storm surges. He believes sea level is rising and considered that in his plans. He says in order for people to move from their island, the entire island has to support the decision. And then the government relocates them. It seems there has already been a good deal of movement. He said there were 9 projects in the works and more islands that had applied.

I also found something I'd been looking for in a book. All the things I read about the number of islands in the Maldives say "about". Turns out they are regularly coming and going, shifting with the seasons and tides. Sandbars come and go regularly. Islands less easily, but it's common. An island in this case is considered to be land with vegetation, however simple, uninhabited or inhabited. Shaahina says it's commonly to see a sandbar once and then have it be gone the next time she visits the area. She said on her island, she has seen the sand go around the whole thing within a few months. The beach shifts with the current and the winds and the seasons. She says this is being altered by the developments they're making. Like the airport island, hulhulmale and the resort at the tip of that reef have now blocked off the currents which used to flow into the atoll from the east. She thinks this makes for a stronger current on Male'.

Her friend, Salma, is a great lady. She lights up when she talks, has a good sense of humor and tells a good story. She said that no one is really looking at climate change and health. She is working to change this and has had some initial meetings, including a technical meeting, for her region, which is SE Asia. I look forward to hearing from her and getting some more information. Health implications of climate change include heat related illnesses, a shift in vector borne illnesses, water availability, and issues related to flooding.

It has rained so much today that the streets are flooded. I was given a ride back to the hotel in a car and was glad for it. I was going to walk, but flip flops and a few inches of water would have made for one incredibly slow and slippery walk back.

I wish I were doing a better job of recording these conversations as there is so much to remember and learn. I'm so grateful to Shaahina for her help. I hope I do the Maldives justice in my dissertation.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Trash Resort

If garbage died and went to heaven, it would go to Thila Fushi, Maldives, where it would decompose (or not) by the seaside, warmed by the tropical sun, bathed by the rains and cooled by the breeze.

Thila Fushi sits two islands west of Male' in the North Male' Atoll. It was a short ferry ride to get there through rough sees and over the Gulhi Falhu reef which makes for some beautiful turquoise water in a lot of dark blue sea.

Thila Fushi is a reclaimed island. Reclaimed not in the sense that it was rescued or restored, but as in Merriam-Webster's definition 2b, "to make available for human use by changing natural conditions". It's a nicer way of saying "filled with trash and imported sand and gravel". I'm told this island is a garbage sandwich. Coral and sand on the bottom, garbage in the middle, coral and sand on top.

I suppose the island's composition is appropriate given its uses which are largely industrial. It's quiet dirt roads are very different from Male's paved and busy streets. It it made for an interesting excursion today. We saw two mounds of plastic bottles that were over 10 feet tall and longer than a bus. We saw a harbor that was full of trash: wood, plastics, and more. The water was hardly visible under the blanket of debris. Our guide, Shahid, said he has a friend who collects the wood and makes things from it. It was refreshing to hear that some of the reclaiming on the island involved taking debris out of the ocean and re-purposing it. Buck, with his architect hat on, was considering them as building materials. Shahid was saying the plastic bottles are a problem. Before they were brought here a decade or two ago, he raised the issue to say that if they were coming, a plan was needed to recycle them. A plant should be built. But no such thing has happened. The development here seems to have been rather rapid and not entirely planned and thought through. It worries me to see the bottles blowing int he window, floating gin the water, and dumped so close to the sea. I've been reading about the different swirling vortexes of plastic that exist in the oceans. I've spoken with the folks from 5Gyres who built a JunkRaft and sailed to the North Pacific Gyre to document it. I would think that an ocean nation would be a bit more considerate, that locals wouldn't simply throw their trash in the street or their plastic bottles over the sea wall. Surely they see it floating in the water. Don't know the best way to change the behavior, here or back home or in England. Education? Communication? Celebrities? Improved water quality?

I've been feeling guilty and seeing the plastic in the water made me worry about my contribution to the problem. I've had only bottled water since I arrived for health safety. I've opted for the 5 litre bottles rather than many smaller ones, except in restaurants where the 2 litre or smaller single use bottles are what's available. Maybe if the water quality was improved or the delivery system was changed, the water bottles could be eliminated. Wouldn't that be cool? Then we might have a country that could outlaw water bottles, just like the Los Angeles DWP.

Many laborers come to the Maldives from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Most of the people on this island were Bangladeshi. We saw some men who had scavenged for scrap metal and were carrying it out to sell. (Reclamation in a different sense!)

Other highlights of the adventure were collecting some shells from the piles of rubble coral, seeing some birds (parrots, I think) at one of the accommodation sites, learning a bit about how boats are built at the Gulf Craft workshop, and getting to see first hand the trash, shipped onto the island in trucks carried on boats, sorted, and piled up. Some things to be incinerated, some not. (That's a 6 ft wall, by the way.)

All in all, a very interesting trip. And so nice to take a boat trip!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Schwood You?

I'm all for sustainable and cutely named products. I'm not for overpriced anything or green washing. While this may not exactly be greenwashing and might be a unique idea and fashion, it is overpriced. $95 for a pair of wood framed sun glasses? Please. Cool as they may seem, my first thought if I saw someone wearing them would probably be: guess that person had $95 to spare. How about sustainability and truly responsible products be affordable for everyone? I know the argument about a price spot that signals it's cool and exclusive and makes people want to have it. I just don't buy it. Guess that makes me a bad capitalist and consumer. Oh, well.

The sea level is not rising: Optimism or fact?

This morning came to soon, but I was up and to breakfast at 8am and out the door by 9:30 only to be stood up for my 10 meeting with someone from the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. I tried to go to the museum to see what I could learn about history and folklore, but it's closed. The museum is moving locations from an old saltan's house to a new more modern building. Many military personnel hang out in front of the building, keeping an eye on the precious contents, bathing in smoke to keep away the mosquitoes. On my way from the government building that houses some ministries, I ran into a face that I'd passed a few days earlier, Shahid. Today, he stopped me to talk. The other time, I think he was telling me I was on the wrong side of the road.

It was the second time I was approached by a local who told me his family had a shop and offered to show me around. I am not really sure what to make of it. Are they just friendly? Or do they want to give a mini tour and then drop you at their shop where they hope you'll feel pressured to buy overpriced items? Well, they haven't asked me for money, so I take that as a good sign. I let Shahid show me around and was actually grateful to have a tour guide, even to the bits I'd seen before. Turns out he was part of the Kyoto Protocol meetings, went to Copenhagen and organized one of the dives for 350. He was also a classmate of Shaahina and Anni's. Small island.

Shahid is about 5'7'', lean, with a kick to his walk. He was wearing a blue button up, jeans and sandals. He has close cut facial hair and short, buzzed hair. He worked for a resort island that was managed by a Japanese company for a few years and has traveled to Japan many times. He went to University in Sri Lanka where he caught the travel bug. His family has owned the shop they have near the fish market since 1973. It's a beautiful 3-story place selling antiques and souvenirs. 

I asked about sea level rise. He said that the coral grows faster than the sea level is rising. He is not expecting to see the Maldives go under water. He's not worried about it at all. (I haven't yet asked what he thinks about his government claiming the islands are drowning if it isn't true and why he thinks they might do that for fear of seeming rude, but I hope to.) When I asked him about Maldivians' attitude towards environment, he said they do care, more now than before.

He took me through the fruit and veg and fish markets and I got to sample some of the smoked fish. It's like fish jerky. Really tough, but flavorful. I got to see a breadfruit and some other things neither he nor I could identify, and a passion fruit. I got to smell the leaves they use to season the curry. They seem wonderful and you can smell them just wandering the streets.

I've been playing it safe foodwise. No typhoid shot for me, so I'm boiling water and eating only cooked or peel-able things. I think it's been successful so far, but as there's a 6-10 day incubation period, I won't find out until I'm either on a plane or home.

From the marina, I went to the dive school to find Shaahina. She was out, so I decided to go for a walk around the rest of the island. I think I've now covered the perimeter. To the east, there's a fake beach. To the south, some crazy breakwaters, the power station, the waste facility, and another marina that stretches for a long ways and then curves around the bend. Some of the streets were flooded.

I walked back down a street that was new to me, past the international school and the Stelco Energy building. From the street side, the power plant looks kind of nice, with a well planted garden and play ground.

I didn't hear from Shaahina, so I came back to my hotel to cool off and do some reading. I ended up napping. I headed out again after a couple of hours to walk the western border of the island. I walked the main street from the east to the west end, and on the western edge, I found many people hanging out on the sea wall, chatting with friends, talking on their mobiles, spending time with family. Couldn't see the sunset due to the clouds, but there were plenty of boats in the water to watch and a few bats flying around. Plus, there were crabs. The sea walls are full of crabs. They scurry at the sight of people. (Also earlier, spotted a gecko. Way cool.)

I came around to the northern edge and ran in to Shahid again. He said he had met an American who was looking at climate change and architecture and offered to introduce me. So he did. The American called on time at 7pm and I spoke with him on the phone. We made plans to meet for dinner. He's staying at the hotel across from mine.

On my way back from the family shop, I found a grocery store and bought myself some cereal, milk, bread, peanut butter and jam and hope to have myself covered for all meals except dinner for the next 4 days. When I got back, the hotel asked me to switch rooms, which made me a little late for my dinner date, but he didn't mind.

SO Buck. The American. He's staying at the hotel across from mine. He studies architecture at MIT and is looking to capitalize on the changes set to occur from climate change by designing buildings that can adapt or adjust with a rising tide or sea level. His research is taking him all over the world: New Orleans, Amsterdam, Japan, China, Dubai, and the Maldives. He's also recently married -- congrats! -- and will be honeymooning with his wife in Europe following his Dubai visit. I really enjoyed chatting with him and exchanging impressions about this city. He has double the length of time in the Maldives that I do and he's been here since Saturday. We talked briefly about restaurants we'd come across. He was having coffee in the Holiday Inn when the Sri Lankan president came by. The Holiday Inn is one of the fanciest hotels in this place. We laughed because back in the US it's considered one of the more economical. To pay $200/night at a Holiday Inn is outrageous! Hotels here are very expensive. The cheapest I could find was $89/night.

I think Buck's project sounds fascinating. He talked about his trip to New Orleans where a house has been designed to rise with any flooding. It's built on steel polls that extend as the house rises, up to 3 meters. He's also concentration on photography while he's here. He has found the same thing I have: Government says sea level is rising; people don't believe it. It's not deterring him though. We shared information and contacts. He's been having a lot of luck just wandering and chatting with people and hanging out by the marina. Tomorrow he and Shahid are going to the industrial reclaimed island nearby where all the trash goes. I hear there's a cannery and a water treatment plant, too. I've been invited and think I might just tag along. Buck blogs at: Hope to see some of those photos soon.

We also talked about a scientist who says that the sea level is not rising in the Maldives. Nils-Axel Morner, a sea level expert (best in the world if you ask him), says it's not rising. Not only has he conducted interviews with locals who tell stories about how they used to have to swim to islands that they can now walk to, but he says it's impossible because of scientific reasons. One being physics: if sea level were rising, that would increase the circumference of the earth and that would slow the rotation.He says sea level rose for a little while and then stopped, and then dropped in the 1970s -- which local fishermen confirmed. He also claims that people from IPCC tore down a palm tree to try to create evidence of sea level rise. He says the claims are based on models which are flawed where as his research is based on observation. His name came up last night, too. I hope to speak with him about his research as I find his logic compelling. I would like to know how the government of the Maldives responds to his statements. (See:

Now it's after midnight and I'm exhausted. Got to be up early if I want to make the ferry.

Photos being dumped at

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Maldives Marine Research Centre

This morning, I had a few e-mails in my inbox. Dr. Shiham Adam of the Marine Research Centre offered to meet with me at 11am. Shaahina picked me up at 9:30 and brought me to the dive school office. I met her husband, Gert, and a few of her employees. Shaahina and her husband run a dive school and tourist diving business. Very kindly, she offered me the use of her office and computers. I did some work there until I left for the Centre.

Dr. Shiham is the director for the centre. He spoke with me about their work, which focuses mainly on fisheries. The centre falls under the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. It opened in 1999 and has about 40 staff. The role of the centre is to conduct research, create technical reports and give policy advice. He said that often his advice is ignored by politicians who focus on the short term and delivering on promises made to or hopes of the people. I guess that's a global phenomenon. But one way in which Maldivian politicians and US politicians differ, especially at the presidential level, is that the Maldivians stand for the environment. Both the current president and the previous president have been outspoken on issues of climate and small island states. President Gayoom was instrumental in starting AOSIS, the Association of Small Island States. He has said that the Maldives does not want to drown, have it's lands eroded, economy destroyed or for its citizens to become environmental refugees, but rather, they want to stand up and fight. Just last year, President Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting to draw attention to the issue of sea level rise. He has also been front and centre in the call for a reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 ppm.   

When it comes to the fisheries, overfishing is a problem here. There is little regulation of the harvesting. Tuna is a main catch (85%) and also reef fish, which they use to bait the tuna. All fishing is done with a line and hook. Concerns related to climate change have to do with warmer temperatures. Here's my (very basic) understanding: The fish eggs develop more quickly in warmer temperatures. Female fish lay eggs, males fertilize them, and then they drift in the currents and settle on the reefs. If fish are hatching sooner, they may not mix across reefs.

Warming ocean temperatures also pose a threat to coral reefs. In 1998, there was a massive bleaching event in the Maldives and another just this past spring. Some corals have recovered, others not so much. When water temperatures rise above a certain point, the algae with which the coral structures have a symbiotic relationship leave. The corals need the algae for food. So do the fish.Once coral dies, it becomes more vulnerable to the crashing waves and breaks down into a pile of rubble. That process can happen in just a few years. As it happens more frequently, the resilience of the coral decreases. If this happens over a large enough area, the dead and crumbled coral would leave the land behind the reef more vulnerable to waves and erosion.

Erosion is already a problem. He estimated that 90% of the islands have problems with erosion and homes are being lost right now. He told me about one woman on an island who says she's seen the land erode about 100 feet in the last 10 years. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami made matters worse. Trees that were once in from the shore line are now lying in the waves. While Tsunami's are not climate change related (or so we think), they can change the environment rather quickly and leave it more vulnerable to further changes.

Climate change is not only a professional concern for Dr. Shiham, but also a personal concern. He says he finds it's very scary and sad. His fears extend beyond sea level rise, though. He thinks of Male' being a concrete jungle and the added weight of the development. This island rises from the depths, and some say when the sea level was lower, the waves would crash and eat away at the coral, creating caves. He fears that the added weight could make it topple.

This is just another reason why I don't want to focus only on climate change, but rather environmental change. It's not just the changing climate that poses a threat. It's all changes, even the ones considered to be beneficial. 

I asked if he has children. He does, a daughter. His wife and daughter think about leaving. His daughter is off to study in Australia later this month and his sister lives in the United States. He thinks about leaving but doesn't think he will. He stays optimistic, thinking that the reefs might be able to adapt or that there might be a technology that is developed. Some studies do suggest that the reefs could adapt, but I think they assume that sea level doesn't suddenly rise, but rather rises at a pace the corals can keep up with.

It was a very interesting conversation. I'm so grateful Dr. Shiham made time to speak with me today.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

To the Maldives

I've flown through the afternoon and night via a steamy Dubai to reach a air like bathwater Maldives. While the moon was out in Dubai and the sky seemed clear, it seemed like we flew between clouds most of the way here. Luckily, there were a few breaks and I could see the islands from the air. It's an incredible site. Tear shaped bits, and one like a human head. They're incredible. They rise from the depths of the deep blue Indian Ocean into a spectrum of blues until they reach white at and above the surface. It's like nothing I've seen before. After landing at Maldives International Airport, I hopped on a ferry to Male'. The ferry ride was a rough one, especially as we left the shallow waters of the airport marina and headed into the open water. There are a ton of boats around--some large cargo-looking ships, some smaller. The capital seems misplace: a modern looking city with high rises in the middle of the ocean. I've just checked into my hotel and in a few moments, I'm off to explore. Looking forward to getting my bearings and a full night of sleep.

I posted a note on President Nasheed's facebook page and got a response to e-mail him, so I will be doing that today. Also looking forward to meeting up with my contact, Shaahina.

Hello, Maldives!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Maldives Trip

Tomorrow I leave for the Maldives. I'll be staying in the capital city, Male', for a week to interview Maldivians and learn as much as I can about the country, the culture, the people, and their plans for the future. I've been debating whether to go for a few months. On the one hand, the carbon emissions. On the other hand, the experience of going enriching my writing about the place and meeting the people I'll be writing about and the challenge of meeting and interviewing people from here. I've been told that once you're there, meeting people is easy. That Maldivians are friendly folks and as it's a small town, I shouldn't have any trouble finding my way to the right people.

Last week, I decided to go. I bought a ticket and booked a hotel. I have one contact there and I'm not sure what to expect from that. The night before I bought a ticket, the cabinet resigned. I'm not sure what the political situation is exactly as it's hard to find good news coverage. I'm excited and nervous. It seems like an incredible place, so different from every other place I've known. Male' is 1sq mile. It's a tiny dot that you have to zoom in on quite a bit before it even appears in the midst of the blue Indian Ocean. It will be my first visit to a Muslim country. I'm interested to hear the call to prayer 5 times a day. Because I booked on short notice, I haven't had time to get the recommended vaccines. Luckily, there's a clinic at the airport. Unluckily, I'll only be getting a jab for Hep A. No Typhoid vaccination for me because it's not 10 days prior to my departure. That means I have to be very careful about what I eat and drink--or maybe I doesn't mean that in the capital city, but I am not sure what to expect. I hope to visit the museums and learn about the history of the islands, how they were settled, the archeological studies, the people, the culture. I'm curious to know attitudes and opinions about climate change. If knowing about sea-level rise affects the way people think about their futures. I want to know if people have noticed any changes. I want to know how the government dispenses information around it's nearly 1200 islands or at least the 200 inhabited ones. What are their evacuation plans? What about the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami? How did they manage that? I have so many questions and I can't wait to find out the answers. I hope this experience will be incredible and that I will meet wonderful people who are willing to share with me.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

This week at the Apricot Centre

I only managed to make one day this week, but it was a full day of picking in the hot sun. Today's fruits were all members of the genus Ribes and included blackcurrants, gooseberries and redcurrants.

At the Apricot Centre, the black currant and gooseberry plants occupy the same area. They are planted outside in neat rows, in an alternating patern: black currant, gooseberry, black currant, gooseberry. The black currants were pretty easy picking. Growing in bunches on small bushes, their branches stand up and it was easy enough to brush them off their stems and into the trays below. I think of black currants as being a quintessentially English fruit. I had never heard of it before I came here and it's very common to see it in beverages (particularly as squash).

Gooseberries took a lot of concentration. Their branches have stiff thorns an inch long. The branches went all over--some reached out into the black currants, some grew really close to one another. I was told the secret was to pinch the type of a branch--careful to avoid thorns--and lift it. The berries are quite heavy and roll to the underside. For the most part that worked. It was slow going through the gooseberries, trying to be careful to avoid all thorns. I didn't manage to make it out unscathed, but I did manage to pick two trays and even sample a ripe berry, which is a very subtle sweet taste and a polar opposite to its unripe green self. A gooseberry looks kind of like a grape (but with a watermelon like pattern) and has seeds like a grape ( A green gooseberry tastes incredibly tart and dry; I couldn't help making a face when I tasted it--while a red gooseberry is only faintly sweet. 

The the redcurrants. The redcurrants were located in what my fellow picker refers to as the nettle patch or the forest garden. On the upside, it was shaded which was a nice break from the sun. On the downside, it was in a nettle patch. The idea was that the nettles would prevent the birds from eating the berries. Well, they also prevent me from wanting to pick them. Aidan went through with his foot, pulling the nettles down, gently weeding them out from the redcurrants and stomping them into a nice patch at the center of the ring around the cherry tree. I pulled the nettles I found up at the roots. There was an abundance of redcurrants, but they're not as easy to pick as some things (due to nettles and other things) and they need to be pulled where the stem attaches to the branch. They're also tiny little things and it takes a big amount of the fruit to fill up a tiny tray. I kept at it, filling up a tray and a bit, until exhaustion took over and I started grabbing at nettles. Stung, stabbed, and sweaty, I called it a day.

P.S. I hopped off the bus at a different stop and found my way down a new path. I went past a field of some sort of grain with red poppies rising above the soft golden crop. It was lovely. On the way home, Aidan gave me a lift to the Salary Brook cycle path and I followed it for about 2 miles to the University. It's a lovely little patch of green space on the edge of Greenstead. Estate to the right, open space to the left, it was a nice way back to uni, accompanied by bird song and avoiding the magic roundabout.