Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A sleepless sleepless night

Last night I didn’t sleep a wink. Not for a single solitary moment.

That was the first time that had happened to me in my life. Yes, like most people I’ve had the odd night where I’ve had difficulty getting to sleep because of illness or just too many things on my mind, but eventually I know I will fall asleep. Even on long haul night flights I can usually sleep for a few hours, but I’ve never experienced being unable to sleep even one minute for the whole night.

I went to bed about 2 am which I guess would be late for most people but pretty much the norm for me when I am writing or editing photos. Usually by that time I am quite tired so will rarely take more than a couple of minutes to drop off to sleep. But last night when my head hit the pillow, I realised something wasn’t quite right. I felt hyped up – sort of like I would expect to feel if I had downed a couple of espressos before bedtime – and my stomach was feeling unsettled too.

After half an hour I got up and took half a Travelan tablet because that usually fixes an unsettled stomach very quickly. But on this occasion it did nothing.

I tried listening to my iPod for a while because that usually sends me to sleep if my mind is on other things. But on this occasion it didn’t work.

I tried turning on the air-conditioner because often the hum of that will send me to sleep, but that didn’t work either.

So at about 3.30 am I got up and went back to my office and did some more work for about an hour.

At about 4.30 am I decided I must surely be ready for sleep now, so went back to bed. But I still couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned for a while, tried counting sheep, but couldn’t fall asleep. It was a strange sensation - my body clock seemed stuck on daytime. My stomach was still feeling unsettled, so I started thinking about what I had eaten during the day. Breakfast had been the same as usual, a toasted cheese and tomato Panini for lunch – nothing unusual there – and for dinner an item off the menu at my local Italian restaurant that I had eaten a dozen times before. Coffee mid- morning and mid-afternoon, a glass of Sangria in the evening – nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Then it struck me. I had done one thing that was different to my normal routine. Normally I will make a fruit smoothie before or after lunch, but I’d been running a lot of errands yesterday so didn’t make it until a few hours after dinner. And I’d added an extra ingredient that I’d never consumed before.

When I went to the fridge to get the yoghurt and wheat germ that I always add to my smoothies, I spotted a small jar of chia seeds on the shelf that my wife had bought. I read the label and it suggested adding a tablespoonful of the seeds to smoothies. I’d heard of chia seeds being described as one of nature’s superfoods, so thought I would try some in my smoothie. I wasn’t sure how they would taste, so I only added about a teaspoonful.

Could I be suffering from some sort of reaction to the chia seeds, despite the small quantity that I had consumed?

I got up and went back to my office and googled “Will chia seeds keep you awake” and lo and behold there was a page of results littered with the words “chia” and “awake” in a bold font. One search summary simply said “Do not take Chia after 2 PM as it will keep you awake at night”.

So despite having taken only a teaspoonful of chia seeds, it seems that was the cause of my sleeplessness. And probably because I had never taken them before, my stomach was reacting to them because I had taken them dry (many of the links I started reading recommended that they be soaked in water and made into a gel before adding to smoothies because they absorb large amounts of water and can therefore cause dehydration in the body if taken dry).

Many of the sites to which the search results linked told stories of Aztec and Mayan warriors marching through jungles for 24 hours on nothing more than a handful of chia seeds and some water. Health food sites raved about how rich they were in anti-oxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, and loaded with vitamin B-17 and phytonutrients. Other sites described them as better than coffee for providing an energy kick to enable people to work through the night without the side-effects of caffeine.

One health food site maintained that chia seeds “will let you fall asleep when you want to without disrupting your biorhythms” but that was a solitary site amongst hundreds of others saying the opposite. (I later noticed that the same site said “chia’s high levels of vitamins and nutrition won’t just help keep you awake, but they’ll give you the energy to operate at the very top of your game both in a physical and mental sense” – which seemed to contradict the earlier claim that they wouldn’t keep you awake).

So I came to the conclusion that it must have been the chia seeds that were keeping me awake – despite the relatively small dose that I took (perhaps being the first time I had consumed them, they had a greater effect on my body).

By this time I had been on the Web for more than an hour, and it was already dawn. I still didn’t feel sleepy so decided to have a shower and breakfast. At around 8 am I headed out to run a few errands and came home just before 10 am. I went into my office, turned on the computer, and started answering emails, but then realised I was nodding off in front of the computer. So just after 10 am I went back to bed, put my head on the pillow, and in less than five seconds I was fast asleep.

Despite being an advocate of natural foods with a strong interest in medicinal plants, I have always been a skeptic when it comes to many of the claims that health food purveyors make about their products (especially those that claim to cure cancer or make you look 30 years younger) but I seem to have stumbled across a product here that was definitely living up to its claim that it would “feed the body with a steady supply of energy that can last for hours”.

Unfortunately it supplied me with a steady supply of energy at a time when I didn’t want it, but having been subjected to its effects without realising what was causing them, I had unknowingly undertaken a sort of blind trial without being influenced by the claims for the product.

Sometimes when you consume a product that claims to give you more energy, and you subsequently feel energised, you are never sure whether the product is really working or whether it is a psychological reaction to the marketing claims. In my case I experienced the feeling of having more energy without realising what was producing that feeling. So it does seem that the claims being made by promoters of chia seeds are real.

Today I am feeling completely washed out because my body clock got thrown so much out of kilter by taking the chia seeds late at night (I feel like I have jet lag right now) but assuming I can get to sleep tonight, tomorrow I will try some chia seeds with my breakfast and see if they give me an energy boost in the morning.

The ‘offending’ chia seeds. I note the bottle says this is a 7-day supply. Based on the reaction I had to one teaspoonful, I don’t think it would be wise for me to try consuming the contents of this bottle within a week – I think I would be jumping out of my skin.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Jetstar’s crazy cyber-bureaucracy

A couple of months ago I booked a flight for my wife on Jetstar from Darwin to Manila. The flight was scheduled to leave at 7.00 pm and arrive at 9.40 pm.

About a month after booking the flight I received an email from Jetstar stating: “Jetstar is sorry to inform you that since you made your booking, your flight schedule has been changed. We understand it can be frustrating when plans change, and we apologise for any inconvenience caused. While we try to avoid any changes to our timetable, in this instance it was unavoidable. The change to the schedule has been made so we can maximise our aircraft utilisation and continue to offer you everyday low fares. Please click the button above to be directed to our website. Once there follow the prompts to accept the change. If your new flight time is not acceptable please contact our Reservations team for other available alternatives.”

When I checked the flight schedule I discovered that the only thing that had changed was the arrival time – which had been amended from 9.40 pm to 9.45 pm.

Who cares? Flights rarely arrive right on time, and five minutes is neither here nor there after a four hour international flight – especially when weather and air traffic congestion regularly causes much longer delays, and you can spend anything up to an hour queuing for immigration and waiting for baggage.

But the email asked that the change be “accepted” by clicking a button, so I thought I’d better do that to make sure the reservation was retained in the system.

The button took me to the Jetstar website where a screen asked me to click a box accepting the change and print the page and attach it to the e-ticket.

I did not print the page and attach it to the e-ticket (it did not state what the consequences of that would be – “Sorry Madam, you will not be permitted to board the flight as you did not waste a sheet of paper and costly ink to print an extra page to attach to your e-ticket to show that your flight will be arriving five minutes late”) but I did click the box and then the ‘Accept’ button.

That produced a pop-up panel which said: “Are you sure you want to acknowledge the changes made to your reservation?”

I looked for a button which said “No, I don’t care whether I acknowledge this or not, I am only doing this because you are the ones who started this stupid cyber-bureaucracy”.

But there was no such button. My only choices were ‘OK’ or ‘Cancel’.

I pressed the “OK” button. But that just returned me to the same screen as before. I tried it again a couple of times, and it kept returning me to the same screen. “Maybe I am supposed to press the ‘Cancel’ button,” I thought. But I was hesitant to do that fearing the next screen I would see would be: “Congratulations, you have successfully cancelled your reservation”.

So I gave up.

About a month later I received the same email again. I guess that was because I had not yet accepted the late arrival change.

I tried all the above steps again with the same result, alternating between the screen that said “Accept” and the pop-up box that said “OK”.

So I gave up again.

My wife is due to travel in about a week. I fear that when she gets to the check-in counter she will be told: “Our computer records show that your brainless husband has spent one hour and twenty minutes of his valuable time trying to accept our advice that your flight arrival time has been changed from 9.40 pm to 9.45 pm. As he was not able to work out how to accept this change, you will be required to leave the aircraft at 9.40 pm”.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

NBC News - Nothing Beyond California?

Today BBC World disappeared from our channel line-up at home. I knew it was going to disappear because our cable service provider, SkyCable, had been running a crawler across the screen for the past week saying that if we wanted to continue to watch BBC World we would have to get a ‘digibox’ – whatever that is.

We only have two international news channels on our service – BBC World and CNN International – and apart from an occasional movie, they are the only channels I ever watch (most of my other TV viewing is done online these days, and movies downloaded to my iPad).

When I turned on the TV this evening the screen was a ghostly grey as I had left it tuned to the BBC channel number (I normally watch BBC for about 70% of the time and CNN for the other 30%). I switched over to CNN, but there was just another boring Piers Morgan celebrity interview on, so I went surfing through the other channels to see if I could find any English news anywhere. To my surprise I discovered a channel called Talk TV that seemed to be a compilation of NBC programmes from the US. At that moment the Today Show was just starting which included a national news bulletin from their New York studios.

I watched the full bulletin which led with the story on the plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington DC, had lots of stories about the Republican candidates vying for the nomination to run against Obama next year, and finished with a story about a woman who got lost in a cornfield maze (a maize maze?) and couldn’t find her way out. She had apparently called 911 from her mobile phone and the police went to ‘rescue’ her from the maze (which took them about one minute according to the reporter).

I realised then that the bulletin had not contained a single story about anything that had happened overseas, so I guess that the NBC news editor had decided that a woman lost in a maze would be of more interest to US viewers than the final battle for Sirte, the passing of the carbon tax in Australia, the release of political prisoners in Myanmar, the devastating floods in Thailand or the jailing of the former Ukrainian prime minister.

Is it little wonder than the average American has no clue about what is going on in the rest of the world?

I’d better call SkyCable in the morning and find out how much they are going to hit my pocket for one of their ‘digiboxes’. As much as I like some of the programming on CNN (Fareed Zakaria’s GPS is one of their best offerings), I need an alternative when Piers Morgan is on his soapbox.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The good luck/bad luck bird

I posted this photograph to my Facebook wall yesterday to see if any of my Malaysian friends could identify the bird. I took the photograph last December in the restaurant at the bird park in Kuala Lumpur (where it had landed next to my table and was watching me eat) so I had assumed that it was a bird from the Borneo rainforest, given its striking colours.

However, I was wrong. Turns out it is an African ground hornbill (thanks for identifying it, Angie). When I looked it up on the Internet, I discovered quite a few interesting facts about this bird. Apparently female birds lay two eggs, but they only raise one chick, leaving the other to die within a few days.

According to some information posted by the Honolulu Zoo (which has two of the birds) the African ground hornbill is classified as ‘vulnerable’ in South Africa now (which is the next classification down from ‘endangered’) because they can now only be found in reserves (with about 700 birds in the Kruger National Park). The zoo’s website states:

“In South Africa there has been a large decline in their numbers for a number of reasons. They are popular to use as ‘muti’ or tribal medicine among some of the indigenous people of South Africa. The brain of a ground hornbill, if kept in a village, is reputed to bring the village luck. Irate homeowners kill them because they will attack windows, breaking them, if they encounter their reflections. They are also vulnerable to picking up poison baits that are set out for predators. Currently there is a conservation project underway in South Africa, in which the second chick from a nest is taken before it dies and raised and released to help increase their numbers.”

That’s good news that efforts are being made to help prevent these birds from becoming an endangered species.

Some other facts on the website that I found interesting related to the local folklore surrounding the African ground hornbill. The Masai believe that the bird should never be killed because it will bring bad luck, but if one lands on the roof of a house, the occupants must move immediately or they believe death will ensue.

Seems this bird has a split personality in African folklore. In some circumstances it brings good luck, on other occasions it brings bad luck.

I am pleased to report that death did not ensue after it landed next to my table at the Kuala Lumpur bird park!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Monkeys suck their thumbs too

I was walking back to my car after having lunch at the Kuala Lumpur bird park today when I spotted a monkey on a waste bin across the road eating banana skins from the bin. I took a few photographs as she had a cute baby monkey hanging onto her chest. When I got back to the hotel in the evening, I downloaded the photos onto my laptop. On a larger screen the baby didn’t look quite so cute (their faces look like old men!) but I noticed it was sucking its thumb. I guess that must be something that monkey babies and human babies have in common.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Water views, but caveat emptor

We arrived in Manila today after an 11 hour flight from Honolulu - the last leg of our four and a half months' trip around the Pacific. As we were flying in over Laguna de Bay, I noticed that a new sub-division of houses had been built on low lying land close to the water. Up until now I had only seen predominantly squatter homes in this area.

Why on earth would the local authorities permit building on such flood prone land? It is not long since Manila was devastated by floods, and there has been so much debate since then about the need to build away from flood prone areas because of global warming and rising sea levels, yet new homes are continuing to be built in areas that will be at risk of inundation by water in future years.

It was difficult to see from the air exactly how high above the surrounding water the houses have been built, so I shouldn't be too critical until I have had a look at the area from the ground. So I made a note to go and have a look at this sub-division in the next wet season. Might make an interesting case study.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

American Airlines – a goddamn awful airline

Over the past four decades I’ve flown on most of the world’s major airlines – except one that is: American Airlines (AA). Up until 9/11, that wasn’t for any particular reason. It just happened that way. After 9/11, I made a point of avoiding AA because of its name. It seemed to me that AA would be the first choice of Al Qaeda in any future attacks because of its ‘American’ name.

But that was until today when I found myself on a codeshare flight from Toronto to Honolulu that I had booked through Qantas but turned out to be on American Airlines planes. It was actually two flights because it was via Dallas-Fort Worth and we had to change planes there. It was an early departure out of Toronto – 6.45 am – so we checked in at 4.45 am. The lines for immigration and security were a mile long, so we only had time to grab a yoghurt parfait and a coffee before boarding. That didn’t worry us as we knew AA was a full service airline in the One World alliance, so we looked forward having breakfast on board on the three hour flight to DFW.

After take-off the flight attendants came through offering a drink. After an hour or so I was getting hungry and started wondering when the meal service would start. I looked back down the plane to see if there was any activity in the galley – but there was none. So I walked down the back and found the flight attendants sitting in the rear seats, one reading a book and one filling in a crossword puzzle. I asked when breakfast would be served. One of the flight attendants raised her eyebrows, then frowned, and replied: “there is no food on this flight”. She frowned again as if to suggest I was crazy to think the airline would be serving breakfast, and turned back to her crossword puzzle without any further explanation as to why a three hour 6.45 am flight on a supposedly full service airline would not be serving breakfast. There was no food for sale either, so AA wasn’t even offering as good a service as a budget airline.

I had read stories in the past about American airlines cutting costs and imposing extra charges for checking baggage, but I’d not heard anything about them cutting out the food service entirely.

When we got to DFW, I went to an AA service desk and asked the clerk there whether a meal would be served on the flight to Honolulu. I had assumed that perhaps AA had cut out its meal service on shorter flights, but surely on an eight and a half hour flight to Honolulu there would be meal served. But I was wrong. She asked if I was flying first class. I said no, to which she replied “you can buy a sandwich on board”.

There were three hours between the flights so I took the opportunity to have some lunch at the airport and buy some snacks for the rest of the trip, but what I found quite incredulous was the announcement at the boarding gate before our flight left. The gate clerk announced that due to the incoming flight being full, the cleaning of the plane would take longer than usual and therefore the flight would be leaving 15 minutes late. She then went on to suggest that passengers use this time to go buy some food because “we’ve got some food on board to sell but there’s not enough for everyone and eight hours 40 minutes is a long time” (referring to the estimated flight time). Not the sort of announcement I would expect from a full service airline!

The flight actually left 50 minutes late because after the cleaners had finished they announced that there were some “technical problems that had to be fixed” but eventually we were on our way – or so we thought.

About three hours into the flight the pilot came on the PA to advise that we would be diverting to San Francisco because there was a technical problem. He said it was nothing serious but he didn’t want to fly over the Pacific with it. He said parts were available in San Francisco and it should take about an hour to fix on the ground. “Nothing to worry about, folks” he said.

Nothing to worry about? Maybe not, but when we landed in San Francisco we were quickly surrounded by fire engines.

AA never did tell us what was wrong except that they “needed to replace a switch”. That took two and a half hours instead of one. When we were eventually airborne again I wondered whether AA would try and make up for all the delays by offering passengers a meal (after all we were now running over four hours late, and wouldn’t arrive in Honolulu until 3 am Toronto time). But no, all we got was a recorded announcement saying “American Airlines and One World airlines thank you for choosing to fly American Airlines”. I wonder how many passengers would have been thinking “for the last time”?

All we got was a single drink again and then the flight attendants disappeared until it was ready to prepare the cabin for landing in Honolulu. And I wasn’t impressed with the condition of the plane either. The headset socket in my seat wasn’t working so I couldn’t watch the movie (which was only on a small screen about five rows in front of me; so difficult to see) and the passengers about three rows in front of me kept complaining about a bad smell around their seats (fortunately I only got a few whiffs of it).

I’ve not flown on many airlines worse than AA. I’d rate it on a par with Uzbekistan Airlines. Maybe slightly better because Uzbekistan Airlines probably wouldn’t bother landing if they had a technical problem – but at least Uzbekistan Airlines offers a meal service on flights that are eight hours long (although admittedly not very appetizing).

What amazes me most about the atrocious AA service is that they are still part of the One World alliance. Having flown on most of the other One World airlines, I can say without fear of contradiction that AA is not in the same class. It puzzles me that One World would still want to have an airline in its alliance that doesn’t even match the service standards of many budget airlines in the US (e.g. JetBlue who offer free drinks and snacks, and have flight attendants who are attentive throughout the flight).

So I will put my two flights on AA (which turned out to be three) down to experience, but I certainly won’t be flying on them again.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

No age limit for this Cuban model

Whilst walking around Havana’s old town this morning, I came across an old woman sitting against a concrete wall in one of the side-streets, puffing on Cuban cigars and posing for photographs in exchange for dollars.

I don’t normally like to pay for posed photographs - to me they look too touristy - so I just walked on by.  But after walking another couple of blocks I regretted not taking advantage of the photo opportunity, because she looked such a character.  So I turned around and went back, and she was still there, seemingly doing a roaring trade posing for tourists who were snapping away with their cameras and handing over dollars.

I took my photograph (above) and paid my dollar and went on my way. I guess she was making a good living ‘modeling’ for tourists – certainly enough to keep herself well supplied in Cuban cigars. Not sure that the cigars were doing much for her complexion though (click on the photo to enlarge and you'll see what I mean!)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A day with the Embera Indians

Today we visited an Embera Indian village north of Panama City. It was a fascinating experience providing an opportunity to learn first-hand about their culture and how they live. To reach the village, we traveled by road for about an hour out of Panama City towards Colon, and then about 30 minutes by dugout canoe down a river and across a lake. The village has no road access.

The Embera are one of eight indigenous groups that live in different parts of Panama. Sometimes the Embera and Wounaan (which have similar cultures but speak different languages) are referred to as Chocoe Indians, so that’s why there are references to there being seven indigenous groups, rather than eight. The village we visited comprised 16 families, most of whom were relocated from the Darien Gap about 15 years ago (due to raids on their villages by FARC guerrillas from Colombia).

It was a wonderful day. We were welcomed by one of the village chiefs, and it looked like the whole village came out to meet us.
Later the village medicine man showed us around, and then they cooked us a lunch of fresh fish and fried plantains.

It was so peaceful (the visitors comprised just four people – me, my wife, an American film maker and a guide/interpreter) and so far removed from the reality of modern day living, that when it came time to leave in the afternoon, we really didn't want to go.

This teenage girl looked so sad the whole time we were there (but I took quite a few photographs of her as she was very photogenic). I guess she was about 13 or 14 and maybe suffering ‘puberty blues’. In the Embera culture, girls get married soon after puberty. Most are married between 14 and 17. They will marry only other Embera or Wounaan. It is rare for them to leave their villages to live in the ‘outside world’. It’s hard to know whether they are better off living the simple lifestyle that their culture provides, or whether they should be given the opportunity to join the modern world. That’s a question that can be debated for hours.

This little girl was another that I photographed quite a lot during the day as she had a cheeky smile and was happy to be photographed.
These children (they looked to be between 4 and 7 years old) were paddling a large dugout canoe across the lake to feed some monkeys living on a island in the lake. They were doing it without any adult supervision. Parents in western countries would probably freak out at kids so young doing something like that, but I guess in the Embera culture this is how kids have fun.

The medicine man told us about some of the many medicinal plants that they grow in the village. Illnesses are treated almost entirely with herbal remedies. All of the villagers looked very healthy, so I guess his remedies must be effective.

He also told us that he is alive because of this tree. He said his mother drank a tea made from the leaves when she was 60 years old – way past menopause – after which she gave birth to him.

If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took at the Embera Indian village, please follow this link:

Friday, October 08, 2010

The fascinating Uros islands

After settling into the Intiqa Hotel after our arrival from Copacabana, we strolled down the street and had a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant that the hotel had recommended in the town square. The lunch was excellent – probably the best food we had eaten for about 10 days – and there was an interesting array of shops along the street between our hotel and the town square. Puno looked to be a much more interesting town than it appeared from what I had read on the Internet, so we were somewhat disappointed that we had planned the itinerary to spend less than 24 hours here. On the way back to the hotel I bought a knitted Alpaca wool sweater from an old woman on the street. It was less than US$20 and a good fit for me.

In the afternoon we took a boat with a guide out onto Lake Titicaca to visit the famous Uros Islands – a group of about 40 floating islands in the northern section of the lake.

The islands are made of totora reeds. The roots of the reeds are used to construct the base of the islands – several metres thick – and cut reeds are used for the surface which is soft and spongy to walk on. The islands are anchored to the lake bottom by ropes tied to sticks.

The Uros are descendants of pre-Inca people and they still live a traditional lifestyle – although these days they have modern technology such as solar panels and motor boats (the traditional reed boats with the puma heads that you see in some of these photographs are now used just for giving rides to tourists).

Between three and 10 families live on each island. Children go to school on the mainland by boat. Tourism provides additional income for the Uros, but it is a challenge for them maintaining a traditional lifestyle in the face of rising tourist numbers.

It was a most interesting afternoon. We had hired a private boat so there was just the four of us and our guide, so the visit was more intimate (I don't think I would have enjoyed it so much joining an organised tour). There were five families living on the island that we visited and they took us around a few of the other islands in one of the reed boats.

If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took on the Uros islands, please follow this link: