Friday, January 29, 2016

Getting some work done

Been hard at work here, with some accomplishments to show for it.  Ingrid and I wrote and submitted a new pre-proposal for an NSF grant "Phylogenetic ecology of plant disease" that builds on work that we published in the Nature paper last year.  We are really excited about how those ideas developed, and the potential for that work, if it is funded.  It was great working together so intensely on developing the new ideas.  It was a ton of intense work over the last month - and then a server glitch made us start the long submission process over from scratch just a few hours before deadline.  But we made it, and I made brownies to celebrate the submission!  Now just need to forget it for a few months until it is reviewed. 

We each were also part of developing and submitting two other separate NSF pre-proposals, where we are senior personnel.  Fortunately our collaborators had the lead on those proposals, so that wasn't quite as much heavy lifting.

We heard that our Annual Review of Phytopathology chapter was accepted (although we still have some work on revising that), and now we are on to an article on invasions and disease for TREE with a couple new collaborators.    I've also be going back and forth over two articles with collaborators from China -- one submitted today, and another should be done in another round or two of revisions.   And I managed to submit the 120-page final report on my collaborative work with USDA APHIS. 

Right after we got back from Morocco I took the AVE to Barcelona to be part of a Doctoral Defense.  Quite a different process from what I'm used to.  The three of us on the Tribunal were not involved in his dissertation work except reading the final product.  He gave a 45 talk summarizing his work, with a public audience (including his family) while the Tribunal sat on a small elevated stage to the side.  After the talk, we each took about 30 min to grill him with questions about his dissertation (again, with mom, the aunts, and other family groupies listening in), then retreated to a separate room to discuss and write three separate reports while he waited.  Then back to the main room, read out the results, then head to a different place for a huge spread of food, cider, beer, and wine.  So glad he had done a really great job on the dissertation and the talk -- seems like a lot of potential for an uncomfortable situation.

After the exam I headed to Zaragoza to the Institute of Pyrenees Ecology, where Begoña García (the professor of the doctoral student) and her lab are doing great work in montane plant ecology and citizen science.  I gave a seminar there -- this time in Spanish -- about a combination of my work with Ingrid and the work in Panama.  Had a great time there and have continued conversations about potential collaborations.

Then the week after returning I gave a similar departmental seminar in Sevilla at the EBD, but this time in English because a number of visitors to the Estacíon don't speak Spanish.  It was fun giving the same talk in the two languages just a week apart.

Once we finish the TREE manuscript, due in a couple weeks, we'll be free of big deadlines and can get back to the data papers we really want to write! 

We've had some good personal things too.   The Danes came to visit -- for less than 24 h -- and we did some touristing and eating with them, including going back to the Flamenco Museum for another spectacular show.

We continue to explore new places to tapear;  Eli really loved his first frog legs at the Sol y Sombra!

We've made a few fun new foods at home, including the spiny predatory marine snails called cañaillas (Bolinus brandaris) (ok, but not as good as other mollusks) and roast partridges (definitely will do that again).  Eli and Ingrid also had venison patties (=bambi burgers).

For those following the Bartonella saga, I've reached a great milestone.  Thursday was my last day of mycobutin, and I'll be winding down the other antibiotic, enzymes, supplements, and meds over the coming 6 weeks -- and should be completely done with treatments then!  Long haul since first symptoms from the infection in April 2014...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Moroccan excursion

One place we wanted to make sure to visit during this sabbatical was Morocco.  We managed to arrange for travel and tour on relatively short notice, and spent a week visiting souks, kasbahs, and the Saraha desert, and eating wonderful food.

We started in Marrakech in southern Morocco, spending the night in a beautiful renovated riad down a long, narrow alley in the old medina.  But early the next morning we drove east, passing through the Tizi n'Tichka pass (2260m)  across the High Atlas mountains to Ouarzazate, stopping at the Aït Benhaddou kasbah on the way.  They have had an unusually dry year, so rivers that should be running wildly were dry or trickles.

Still, the dry, rocky landscape was interspersed with  have lush agricultural production, with crops planted in sunken sections that could be flooded for irrigation.  Brassicas, wheat, vegetables, alfalfa, olives, citrus, and everywhere date palms.

Fresh produce was impressively available in the souks, with abundant legumes, grains, spices, and vegetables.

Goats were equally abundant, still herded by rapidly vanishing populations of nomads.  We spent the night in a lovely French riad in the oasis of Skoura, but saw little of the oasis because we arrived and left in the dark.

On 31 December, we drove south-east from Skoura for a long day through the Dades Valley, through Berber Villages, and the impressive Todra Gorge, stopping for stuffed Berber pizza in Rissani (medfouna tafilalt) and to buy indigo-dyed desert scarves, until arriving at Merzouga just before sunset.  There we  hustled to get our warm clothes, scarves, cameras, and us to where camels waited to take us out to a Tuareg Berber camp in the Erg Chebbi, the vast sea of shifting sand dunes.

The colors and shadows are impossible to describe.  The abundance of animal tracks in the sand contrasted with what seemed so empty.
We were surprised to find some cucurbits that had grown in basins that collect water from the rains, and occasional clumps of grasses.  But overall it was quiet; even the camels made little noise as they walked through the sand.  

Riding the camels was easier than expected - more motion than a horse, but smoother.  We only rode a little over an hour, and a very long day of riding might have been tough, but we arrived happy and with no complaints.    There we spent a lovely New Year's Eve in nomadic tents, the Mali-derived drum circle around a small campfire. 

We rode out of the dunes during the sunrise the next day, then began a very long drive north to the cultural capital of Fes.   Here we wandered, sometimes with guide, sometimes without, through the 9000 narrow alley ways that make up the city.

We browsed the shops and artisan stands, with their arrays of meats, spices, copper, ceramics, weavings, and leather, and dodged the donkeys, mules, carts, and motorcycles that speed down passages just wide enough to walk.

Many of the artisans produced goods for every day use, although some produced primarily for tourists.  The quality of the handcrafts was spectacular.  Elias and I watched the silk (from Agave) and wool weaving on the loom for a long time. 
We spent two nights in Fes, and could easily have spent more time wandering about. But this was also a place where a guide was needed.

We also saw lots of storks on minarets and roofs, and had that difficult talk with Elias about how babies are really delivered by storks.
The foods in the shops were not for tourists.  Interestingly, this camel shop sold only meat of the camels;  a separate shop sold the entrails.  We asked about the brains on display in one shop, and where it was served, but were told "We only eat brain for breakfast."

 Our last day we drove back south with a stop in Casablanca for a visit to the Hassan II Mosque, the 3rd largest in the world, and one of only two in Morocco that permits non-Muslims to visit.  A spectacular work of engineering, capable of holding 20,000 worshipers inside and another 80,000 outside.  The giant titanium doors (from Russia) made me think of what the environmental impact of the construction must have been.  But the space felt very special and sacred, and more so because it was built specifically to be open to visitors to help increase understanding of Islam among visitors. 

We shared a great meal of fried fish, squid, and shrimp with our guide and driver, and then headed back for our last evening in Marrakech.  We were so full from the fish lunch that we just wandered the Jemaa el Fna square (with the sister mosque to Sevilla's Giralda!), enjoyed the street performers and eating interesting foods from the stands.  The snails - served in a bowl with broth and toothpicks to each them - were amazingly delicious. Elias loved a sausage sandwich, and the fruit juices and pastries were great.

It was hard to say goodbye to our driver Hassan and our extremely talented guide Aziz from Moroccan Sun Tours (TripAdvisor  or directly at  I can't recommend Aziz highly enough - for trekking or visiting cities and for a special talent in making Moroccan culture accessible to outsiders.  I hope we can return some day for more serious trekking with Aziz!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A brief visit to California

We had a busy two week visit to California.  First, a stop in Santa Cruz for a week to spend time with our Double Family Fiona-Kerstin-Bruce (plusScout and Houdini), and for a lot of UCSC activities as well.  We did a delayed Eli-birthday Segway tour along Westcliff on a day with spectacular surf; such a  perfect Santa Cruz activity. 

While we were in Santa Cruz my student Sharifa gave her Ph.D. exit seminar, with lots of family in attendance, and Juniper passed her Qualifying Exam.  I also got to spend some time with students Jessica and Shaneece, as well as an assortment of faculty and other colleagues.  It was a whirlwind, but great to see everyone doing so well.

Then we headed to southern California to split a week between my family in Claremont and Ingrid's family in Mission Viejo. 
It has been great that the families are all so close together, although that is changing, with my family moving to the Arizona desert soon.  We got to spend lots of quality family time, and snuck in a Christmas bird counts and a half-day in the field with my student Shannon chasing polyphagous shothole borers. 

Then two short weeks in California were gone, and we flew back to Sevilla, for a brief stopover before heading on to Morocco.