Apunado [1]

I am well aware that one of my numerous weaknesses is not being able to handle heights. I am not talking about vertigo here but high altitude and the absence of O2. During our five years spent in the Bolivian highlands we realized that our family has two clear gene lines when it comes to live in high places. While I am pathetic, my wife does not bat an eyelid when it comes to highness.

While there we also had ample time to discern that the genes ruling altitude resistance are passed independently to your offspring. Our son inherited his mother’s altitude resilience while our daughter had the bad fortune of getting, among several of my bad traits, the one of very low altitude tolerance!

We were of course oblivious to this pairing until we arrived to La Paz in 2001. While my wife and son enjoyed a quasi-normal daily life, my daughter and I acquired a greenish skin tinge and felt sick most of the time until we reached a kind of equilibrium at 3,400-3,800 m in La Paz where we spent most of our time. The situation improved remarkably when we discovered that sleeping with a window opened increased the oxygen content of our bedroom although the temperatures decreased dramatically.

However, as soon as our travels took us to higher places such as Potosí at 4,070m our precarious balance got tilted in favour of the altitude and our discomfort would come back. It was enough for us to see the “Cerro Rico [2]” in the distance to start feeling unwell! Conversely and to our great annoyance, wife and son continued with their usual unresponsiveness to altitude!

During our recent trip to the Calchaqui valleys in Salta I had a “reliving” of that experience. We drove from our farm in the Gallinato (1,300m) to Cachi. This meant a climb to areas of higher altitude that crosses a really picturesque area and the road goes through a number of mountain passes and climbs to finally reach the Puna. On the way we passed through the Los Cardones National Park [3] (3,350m) to finally reach Cachi, a nice village in the confluence of the Cachi and Calchaqui rivers, located at 2,300m and framed by mountains, including the “Nevado de Cachi” [4] above 5,000m.

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Going through Los Cardones National Park.

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The Nevado de Cachi from the distance.

It was after the 180km drive, and parking the car at the hotel that I felt the start of my predicament and I had difficulties reaching the reception! The headache came without warning, suddenly and, although it was not the worst I had suffered, it was bad enough. Together with a general feeling of malaise comparable to that of a strong cold, it lingered on for the rest of the day and you could not ignore it. The combination was not conducive to enjoying my stay and by dinner time I felt truly dreadful!

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I was already apunado when I arrived at the hotel entrance in Cachi.

It was time to consider the options at my disposal. Remembering old advice from Bolivia I decided to have a light dinner in the shape of a garlic soup (I could refrain from kissing my wife good night for once!). In addition, I discussed my predicament with the locals and they advised me to chew coca leaves -legal in these parts- as this would make me feel much better.

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Coca leaves for chewing.

Of course I knew of coca, having supervised alternative development projects in Bolivia aiming at substituting coca growing for other forest-related activities. I am also aware of the controversy that surrounds the issue of coca and cocaine so I was reluctant at first. However, I had already seen large number of people “coqueando”[5] in Salta so I decided to take the plunge and chewed the dose I was recommended to take: about four leaves! Regrettably, the only clear effect I noticed was that my tongue went to sleep before the rest of my body and I could not detect or see any advantage in the chewing!

Disappointed by the lack of reaction of my organism to the “hoja milenaria”[6] I decided to cut my losses and retire to bed well before my companions. While walking to my room I went through the ABC of altitude sickness control: sleep alone, eat little, walk slowly and drink lots of water. It was then that I realized that the latter was the obvious cause of my trouble as, during the long drive I had –for some reason- not drank the water amount that I normally take.

I reached he room and drank as much water as I could hold. I also took one gramme of paracetamol for the now splitting headache and went to bed. Sleep came immediately and –luckily- the following morning I was as good as new. I returned the remaining coca leaves to the hotel management with thanks and I managed to feel well for the rest of the holiday and explore the attractions of the area in good health while drinking profusely to avoid being apunado again!


[1] In Spanish, someone with altitude sickness.

[2] Rich hill in Spanish. Potosí‘s landmark from where the Spaniards extracted tons of silver, activity that continues today.

[3] The park is named after the cardon cactus, Echinopsis atacamensis.

[4] Snowy mountain of Cachi in Spanish.

[5] Chewing coca leaves.

[6] Millenary leaves in Spanish, another name for coca leaves.


Black tea in Maasailand

There are incidents in life that have a strong influence in the future and although the improper use of a microhaematocrit centrifuge may not be the commonest of examples, it had an impact on mine.

In short, while working at a colleague’s laboratory in Muguga, I forgot to place the inner lid over the blood-filled capillaries. The result of a short spin -I switched the machine off immediately- was a bloodstain at tummy height all around, including the people present! Basil, the Head of the Laboratory while watching his own red mark at waist level, made only one comment in the best British understated style: “Julio, you need a PhD” and abandoned the room leaving me alone to clean up the mess!


My usual “laboratory”, quite far from Basil’s!

Basil’s words sunk in my mind and I decided to attempt a PhD as, clearly, I needed more scientific training, in addition to learn how to properly use a microhaematocrit centrifuge! Through a Muguga colleague I managed to get in touch with Cambridge University in the UK where I was -to my surprise- accepted. Unfortunately my initial enthusiasm got quickly dampened when I learnt about the university fees and the option was quickly discarded.

After more enquiries I learnt that I could do a PhD as an external student at my former Department of Applied Zoology of the University of Wales. So, very soon, I had organized the study at a small fraction of the cost. Luckily Ian, a Lecturer and friend from the Department, agreed to be my external supervisor while my ICIPE colleague Robin kindly agreed -apart from being my tick ecology teacher- to take on the day-to-day supervision of my work.

The rules of the PhD were very strict and they included a visit by the external supervisor to Kenya. Fortunately, Ian planned to present a scientific paper at an International Protozoology Conference[1] held in Nairobi in 1985 and the time was very suitable for the review of my work.


Ian, right, and a smart Bushsnob attending the Conference.

Most of my fieldwork was carried out at Intona ranch[2] in the Transmara. So, when the time for Ian to come to oversee my work, apart from the more routine visits to the main ICIPE office in Nairobi and to our Muguga laboratory, the exciting part was a trip to Intona itself. In those days, the Transmara area was an uncommon and rather exciting destination in Kenya.

As usual, the trip required some organizing, particularly as I did not wish to give a bad impression to my Supervisor during his only review of my work! I got authorization from the always kind Murumbis to stay at the main house at the ranch and to get their staff to look after us.


The main house at Intona ranch.

The one-day journey to Intona was an enjoyable one as we drove by the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where animales were always very abundant and then crossed the bridge over the Mara river to climb the Oloololo escarpment through Lolgorian to, finally, get to the ranch where we settled down and spent the next three days looking at our trials and analyzing my data.

Images of the journey, above and, below, some of the work we reviewed at Intona ranch.

The afternoon of the day after arriving, knowing that Ian was a great tea drinker[3], I decided to treat him to some five o’clock tea at the house’s back verandah where there was not only a beautiful view of the parkland and wildlife surrounding the house but also some very snug chairs.

I asked the cook to use some good Kenya tea I had brought for the occasion and we sat to chat, waiting for the fresh brew to arrive. We did not wait for long before the teapot came with the necessary milk and sugar. Tea was served while we contemplated the various art objects that decorated the verandah while the cook -trained by Sheila- discreetly withdrew.

I poured the tea and the milk and drank it while enjoying the both the taste as well as the view while Ian drank his. We talked about the journey and the animals we had seen, particularly during our stopover at the Maasai Mara but also during our trip when close to Intona. Seeing that Ian had finished his cup, I offered him more. To my great surprise, he politely declined!

When I insisted, making a comment about the tea being good, Ian mentioned that he found it with smoky flavour that he found rather unusual and too strong to his liking. Then I realized that our milk supplier was a Maasai lady from a manyatta nearby and, when I had a look at the milk, I confirmed that I had overlooked a detail: the milk was grey with a rim of dark froth!

With my apologies, I confessed to Ian that, in my enthusiasm to treat him to a proper “cuppa”, I had overlooked that our milk came from the Maasai who added a few pieces of charcoal to the milk gourd! Although Ian did not change his mind regarding drinking a second cup, he was very amused about the reason for the smoky flavour.

Although I knew that a few drops of cow urine were also added as a preservative to the milk, I did not mention it to Ian!



[1] The VII International Congress of Protozoology Held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, 22-29 June 1985.

[2] See: and

[3] His favourite saying was: “Whenever there is a crisis, have a cup of tea. Many times the problem goes away after that”.

Secret plans in Scotland

It was a rather short visit to attend our son’s graduation with a MEng in Chemical Engineering with Environmental Engineering at the University of Edinburgh as mentioned in the earlier post. Despite my severe reservations on the weather, Edinburgh is actually a nice city, dominated by its central feature: the Edinburgh Castle. We were fortunate to rent a flat very close to it that offered great diurnal and nocturnal views of the impressive building.

Edinburgh's castle, unmissable!

Edinburgh’s castle, unmissable!

Our flat building at Grassmarket.

Our flat building at Grassmarket.

The main event of the visit (for the rest of the family anyway), the graduation, was enjoyable for proud parents and attending friends. Once the celebrations and all university-related matters (packing personal effects, returning accommodation to University and tying of other lose ends) were concluded, it was time for the family to do some sightseeing and shopping in Edinburgh itself.

The Bushsnob however had different plans. The main reason for my visit to Scotland was not actually my son’s graduation but rather the prospect of searching for two of the world’s most famous mythical creatures: the haggis and Nessie. Unfortunately, due to a combination of economic constraints and a lack of kilts in the Bushsnob’s size, it was not possible to mount a proper expedition to search for both these creatures. As a result some compromises had to be made…

For the haggis, against my will, I had to settle for tasting it rather than finding it. This took place in a local pub and, frankly, it failed to impress!

For Nessie, a trip to Loch Ness in a rented car appeared to be our best option as at the time we began organizing the expedition the only day available for the activity was in fact the next day! Predictably, we failed to rent a car because although both proposed drivers, my son and I, had valid driving licenses, the latter was considered too old and the former too young! This issue with age resulted in substantially higher rental costs that we (read my family) could not justify.

This was a severe blow to the expedition’s hopes and it seemed that our only -very slim- chance was to try and find an organized tour to the Loch at the last minute. Despite our skepticism –which was shared by the agent attempting to find us a tour- we found four places in one leaving early the following morning! We booked our places and the expedition was back on! I was very excited as I thought I was sure to catch a glimpse of Nessie, given my usual luck with rare animals…

The trip took us through the evergreen and rather wet Scottish highlands although we were lucky that it only rained while in the bus! “A good omen”, I thought hoping that the good luck would last until the end of the tour.

The Highlands on the way to Loch Ness.

The Highlands on the way to Loch Ness.

After about six hours of travelling which included stopping at various landmarks (i.e. distractions) we arrived at our destination: Loch Ness. Lunch was waiting for us there in the shape of various types of sandwiches and pies ordered in advance by our entertaining and knowledgeable driver.

Openly displaying my anxiety I was on my feet before the bus had even stopped and even forgot my lunch as I hurriedly walked towards the lakeshore. I expected a cold and uninhabited place where, with enough attention, Nessie could be spotted hiding in plain sight. What I was met with however was totally unexpected: there was a town with several petrol stations and souvenir shops and the lake was nowhere to be seen! That is unless it was the pathetic narrow cove with several yachts and sailing boats moored in it that we had driven over with the bus? It was. I decided that lunch was a good idea after all, my deep disappointment clear for all to see.

First view of Loch Ness. Not what I expected!

First view of Loch Ness. Not what I expected!

Loch Ness. People oblivious to the monster lurking in its depths!

Loch Ness. People oblivious to the monster lurking in its depths!

Luckily over lunch my thoughts readjusted to reality and gradually my enthusiasm grew again. I fantasized that Nessie might enjoy a visit to the cove to have a look at human development. Surely I would be able to catch of glimpse of it then? I decided to give it a go despite the odds and walked a couple of hundred meters deeper into the cove carefully watching the water’s surface. I saw nothing apart from a few American ladies taking a dip in the loch that not even I could pretend looked like “Nessies”…

False alarm...

False alarm…

Just as I was about to give up on Nessie for a second time, I turned a corner and I saw her! She showed briefly above the waves created by one of the sightseeing launches that were ferrying tourists around the loch. The tourists on board were of course too busy having lunch and completely missed the mythical beast in the wake of their boat. Luckily, however, the Bushsnob had his camera handy and was able to take-two rather poor quality-pictures that will no doubt be enough for all of you, given my general trustworthiness and reputability.

The confirmation that Nessie exists.

The sharp confirmation that Nessie exists.

In addition, I also present to you Nessie’s passport photograph as a reference for you if you ever visit Loch Ness and do not have the Bushsnob’s luck!