December 3, 2012
It took explorers centuries of great effort to make the first crude sketches of the world and centuries more to polish and perfect them.
But in just ten years, sales demand for paper maps appears to have dipped markedly, and it seems these formerly essential tools of travel could be going the way of the sextant and chronometer as travelers rely increasingly on electronic navigation devices to get them where they want to go. In Pennsylvania, printers who once produced three million road maps a year now make just 750,000. AAA, too, has observed a decline in customer use of maps. And even print-out directions that lead from point A to point B—which I always thought was cheating, anyway—seem now to be a figment more of memory than of practice as that robot voice from the dashboard becomes an increasingly ubiquitous component of driving anywhere.
If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.
“Trying to see and understand the big picture on your phone or laptop usually isn’t possible,” said Harrison (who also noted that he has not observed a decline in sales of waterproof topographic maps via his website). “There’s too much zooming in, scrolling down, losing your bearings.” At best, hand-size GPS screens show one “the here and the now,” he said, while only paper maps can reliably “show us where we are and also what’s around us.”
Using real printed maps also demands—and can help users develop—critical thinking skills.
“You look at the map for a minute,” Harrison said. “Then you say, ‘I’m here, and I’m going there. What’s the easiest way?’ But with GPS in the car you don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
The shift to full reliance on navigational technology is happening at sea, too. Grant Headifen, the founder of the online sailing academy NauticEd, says sailors are increasingly relying on GPS systems while neglecting to learn what he calls “the fundamentals”—the basic skills of navigating only by charts, compass, sky and the mighty strengths of the human brain.
“You need to be able to say, ‘If north is straight ahead of me, then east is to my right,’ and ‘If point A is 50 miles ahead and we’re moving this fast, then this will be our estimated time of arrival,’” said Headifen.
Reliance on electronics, which operate under the guise of flawlessness, is “very dangerous,” Headifen says—mainly because navigation charts may themselves be drawn incorrectly. For instance, a GPS system may guide you with perfect accuracy past a treacherous seamount—but if that reef was originally mapped incorrectly, the GPS system could actually be guiding you into a million-dollar accident. Headifen cites a time that he was sailing off the coast of Croatia. Because of incorrectly drawn charts, his GPS system placed his location at roughly 300 meters inland among the coastal olive orchards. Another time, a sailing companion with his eyes glued to his iPhone muttered directions to Headifen. “In 50 meters we want to veer left,” the man said. Headifen replied, “Um, look away from your phone for a minute, and look ahead of us.” A rock stood precisely in the course the iPhone recommended.
Harrison, too, has noted previously to reporters an important difference between being “precise” and being “accurate,” both of which a GPS device can be at once by pointing a tech-tuned traveler straight to the wrong place.
In spite of the growing prevalence today of navigation technology, enough people remain interested in traditional navigation that Headifen offers a course on celestial navigation. This brilliant science has its roots in ancient Arabian cultures of the desert, where travelers long ago determined their location on Earth by watching the heavenly bodies above. For travelers in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, or Polaris, made determining latitude a piece of cake: The star’s distance above the horizon in degrees equals the viewer’s degree distance north of the Equator. Thus, when sailors left port in the old days, they often remained at a given latitude by watching Polaris and appropriately adjusting their course. They knew that by following that line, they would reach home again. (Determining longitude was a much more difficult endeavor, and would only become relatively easy with the invention of the chronometer in the late 1700s.)
Still, navigation remained challenging. Sailing expeditions often had a crew member whose specific job was to navigate—and these were among the most skilled people on the seas. They were familiar with the stars, the ecliptic of the Sun and also the orbital path of the Moon. They carried a variety of beautiful and ingenious tools over the years, like the astrolabe, octant and quadrant. But the sextant has remained the most used. It’s actually based on rather simple geometry, allowing one to sight a point in the sky—usually the Sun or a star—and measure its distance from the horizon. Combined with the chronometer and basic star charts, a good navigator could track a vessel’s location exactly—though this was a very difficult task. In fact, if executed correctly and accurately, celestial navigation is flawless—for our place on Earth is written in the stars; one must simply have the tools and skills to read the sky.
Celestial navigation made easy: Even if we’re too lazy to read maps anymore, reading the stars can be fun. Measuring latitude is a basic calculation and an engaging way to track your progress should you decide to tackle a long-distance north-to-south hiking or cycling route. Before your next trip, try this: Fix a sturdy plastic straw to the straight edge of a protractor. This device, familiar, I hope, from high-school geometry classes, should have a pinhole at the center of the baseline. To this point, tie off 12 inches of string and fix a heavy nut or bolt to the other end. Pack the contraption along. On your first night out, hold the device with the protractor facing down, look through the straw and aim it at Polaris. When you are able to see this conveniently located star, pinch the string to the side of the protractor. If the string is crossing, say, the 53-degree mark, subtract that number from 90. The answer, 37, is your latitude. If the next night you get a reading of 54, meaning 36 degrees latitude, that means you have traveled 69 miles (the distance between latitude lines) toward the Equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no equivalent of Polaris, and celestial navigators may need to rely on a measurement of the Sun at its zenith to determine latitude. This website describes how.
Navigation of tomorrow: While no-brainer navigation systems currently dictate directions to drivers, tech companies are busy designing the next step in the road to laziness: automated vehicles. Nevada, Florida and California have already legalized driverless cars. While these marvels of technology aren’t yet publicly available, they do exist. Google has been testing one that reportedly had gone 300,000 miles, and counting, without an accident. What’s astonishing is that the machines seem to work perfectly well. What’s scary is the thought of them failing—of missing an offramp by ten feet, of not recognizing a pedestrian, of misinterpreting an obstacle in the road, or otherwise failing where a human mind might not.
November 28, 2012
What would you want to eat if you were starving on a dinghy lost at sea? In the 2001 novel Life of Pi, adapted as a movie now in theaters, the castaway protagonist, a 16-year-old Indian boy nicknamed Pi, spends the better part of a year on a lifeboat—and one day as he reaches a near-death pinnacle of hunger, suffering and delirium, he envisions a tree full of ripe figs. “‘The branches…are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs,’” Pi drones to himself in reverie. “‘There must be over three hundred figs in that tree.’” Readers are convinced: Perhaps nothing beats a fig for a starving man.
Life of Pi is fiction, but daydreaming of food is a real-life tradition as old as the saga of man against the elements. If we scour the pages of the many books about grueling expeditions across land and sea, we find an impassioned menu of sweet and savory delights to make the mouth water. In his 1986 memoir Adrift, author Steve Callahan—a sailor who was lost at sea for 76 days in 1982—sets a lavish table of dreams on page 108: “I spend an increasing amount of time thinking about food. Fantasies about an inn-restaurant [I dream of opening] become very detailed. I know how the chairs will be arranged and what the menu will offer. Steaming sherried crab overflows flaky pie shells bedded on rice pilaf and toasted almonds. Fresh muffins puff out of pans. Melted butter drools down the sides of warm, broken bread. The aroma of baking pies and brownies wafts through the air. Chilly mounds of ice cream stand firm in my mind’s eye. I try to make the visions melt away, but hunger keeps me awake for hours at night. I am angry with the pain of hunger, but even as I eat [the fish I caught] it will not stop.” (Film director Ang Lee consulted Callahan during the making of Life of Pi for accuracy in portraying the hardships of being lost at sea.)
Men Against the Sea, the historical fiction account of the sailors cast away on a lifeboat by the mutineers of HMS Bounty, is a novella steeped in stomach-scraping hunger. At one point, a man named Lawrence Lebogue exclaims after a failed skirmish with a huge sea turtle he had nearly pulled into the boat, “‘A monster…all of two hundredweight! … To think of the grub we’ve lost! Did ‘ee ever taste a bit of calipee?’” (Calipee is a main ingredient in turtle soup.) Moments later, Capt. William Bligh tells the crew’s botanist, David Nelson, of the feasts he sat in on in the West Indies. Bligh describes “‘their stuffing and swilling of wine. Sangaree and rum punch and Madeira till one marveled they could hold it all. And the food! Pepper pot, turtle soup, turtle steaks, grilled calipee; on my word, I’ve seen enough, at a dinner for six, to feed us from here to Timor!’”
Bligh and the loyal men of the Bounty lived like princes compared with those of the Essex, the Nantucket whaling ship rammed and sunk by an angry bull sperm whale in 1820. In Owen Chase’s autobiographical account of the ordeal, part of the book The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, the first mate holds a mostly dry and colorless course: He tells of how the 20 men journeyed for weeks in their small open boats, racing time, dehydration and starvation. They attempt in vain to kill sharks and porpoises, they land on an island and quickly exhaust its thin resources of bird eggs, and they continue across the open Pacific, hoping always to see a sail while growing ever weaker and emaciated. Through it all, the New Englanders essentially never eat or drink. Finally, Chase pauses in his chronology of dates and coordinates to tell of a moment in which he dozed off: “I dreamt of being placed near a splendid and rich repast, where there was every thing that the most dainty appetite could desire; and of contemplating the moment in which we were to commence to eat with enraptured feelings of delight; and just as I was about to partake of it, I suddenly awoke….” Chase leaves us with our eager forks aloft—and we never learn just what it was that he hoped to eat. Turtle soup, likely. In the following days as the anguished men expired one by one, Chase and his companions resorted to cannibalism. Just eight of the lot were rescued.
While stranded for the austral winter of 1916 on the barren Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, after escaping from Antarctica in three tiny lifeboats, the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition passed the time reading through a Penny Cookbook that one of the men had kept dry through many months of dire tribulations. And how that book made them dream! The men had been living for months on seal (and sled dog) meat, and Thomas Ordes-Lee, the expedition’s ski expert and storekeeper, wrote in his journal, “[W]e want to be overfed, grossly overfed, yes, very grossly overfed on nothing but porridge and sugar, black currant and apple pudding and cream, cake, milk, eggs, jam, honey and bread and butter till we burst, and we’ll shoot the man who offers us meat. We don’t want to see or hear of any more meat as long as we live.” Their carb cravings were more apparent when one man—the surgeon James McIlroy—conducted a poll to see what each sailor would have to eat if he could choose anything. Their answers included apple pudding, Devonshire dumpling, porridge, Christmas dumpling, dough and syrup and a fruit tart—with most of these dolloped with cream. Just two men wished for meat (pork was their choice), while one with a bleaker imagination said he just wanted bread and butter. For three more months until their rescue, they ate seal and rehydrated milk.
Author Jon Krakauer tells us in his 1990 Eiger Dreams of the time 15 years before that he and a climber friend named Nate Zinsser were holed up during a storm while ascending a new route up the 10,335-foot peak Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska. Dreaming of food, Zinsser said, “If we had some ham, we could make ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.” In The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an expedition member on Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic voyage of 1901-1903 on the Discovery, recalls one frigid winter’s day, saying, “And I wanted peaches and syrup—badly.” And Felicity Aston, a modern explorer from Britain whom I interviewed last January about her solo ski trip across Antarctica, recalled as a highlight of her journey receiving a gift of a nectarine and an apple upon reaching the South Pole research station.
There was no food shortage on the Norwegian research vessel Fram, which Fridtjof Nansen captained into the Arctic Ocean in 1893. His sturdy boat was built with a fortified hull under the plan that she would become frozen in the sea ice and thereby allow Nansen to track the drift of the ice layer by watching the stars—classic, rock solid science in the golden age of discovery. It was a planned “disaster” voyage—and the men went prepared. Nansen, who finally stumbled home again in 1896 caked in campfire soot and seal grease, wrote in his 1897 memoir Farthest North that the expedition carried at the outset several years’ worth of canned and dried foods of numerous sorts. Only during foot or skiff expeditions away from the boat—such as Nansen’s long hike home—did the team members experience great monotony of diet. On one outing, they forgot butter to slab on their biscuits and so named the nearest land “Cape Butterless.” They lived during longer forays on seal, walrus and polar bear—pinniped and bear for breakfast, lunch and dinner; so much pinniped and bear that the reader feels an itch to floss his teeth and scrub down with dish detergent. Meanwhile, Nansen stops to take depth soundings, sketch fossils, study rock strata and express interest in every piece of possible data—and though the pragmatic scientist never does slip into a shameless food fantasy, we know he had them.
If you’d been in Nansen’s boots, what would you have piled on your plate?
October 3, 2012
Where would we be without snakes? Rodent populations might boom, the native bird assemblage of Guam would probably remain mostly intact today and 100,000 people every year would not die of venomous bites. As we can see, snakes bring both good and bad to the world we share with them. But mostly, these reptiles have been cast in the role of evil.
It’s easy to see why, if we just take a glance at the scariest of the lot—the venomous snakes. Indeed, it might take a very persuasive herpetologist on field sabbatical in Ecuador to convince the locals that the pit viper of his thesis focus is anything but a device of the devil. Throughout the New World tropics, roughly 2,000 people die every year from the bite of the pit viper (Bothrops atrox), known also as the fer-de-lance. Its close cousin, B. asper, goes by the same common names and is comparably devastating and said to be so aggressive it will chase people, bent on sharing some of its powerful venom. And in Africa, the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) seems so wicked it’s absurd: It is the fastest snake in the world and can slither more swiftly than the average city cyclist pedals to work; it is the second-longest venomous snake, growing to 14 feet; it may strike a single victim repeatedly like a psycho with a butcher knife; its venom is so potent it can kill a horse—and a person in just 30 minutes; and, in bite victims who go untreated, the mortality rate is—get this—100 percent. In other words, nobody—that’s nobody—on a trek in the wilderness of tropical Africa, hours from the nearest doctor and without antivenin, survives the bite of the black mamba. As locals say, this snake delivers the “kiss of death.”
Stories of such creatures can leave indelible impressions on the tender minds of men—so indelible that no matter how plain and obvious it is that the harmless gopher snake—or king snake, or rat snake—is a peaceful friend of society that wants little more than to eat a rat (a job that somebody’s got to do, and how grateful we should be that snakes have volunteered), many people still call snake control and removal experts when one appears on their property. Forgive them, Mother Nature, for they know not what they do. Now, whether you love them or hate them, here are a few iconic species to watch for when traveling, from those wickedly venomous to those worth learning more about before you cast your judgment.
Reticulated python (Python reticulatus). Probably the longest snake in the world (if not the heaviest), the reticulated python of Southeast Asia is also an occasional man-eater and a popular pet. (Go figure that one. I’ll stick with my yellow Lab.) Recently, a 25-footer weighing 350 pounds was named the largest snake in captivity—but just how big the largest “retic” ever to have lived might never be known. In 2003, one snake was reported to be 49 feet long and weigh more than 900 pounds. Only when journalist John Aglionby of The Guardian made a trip to see and measure the creature, being kept in a cage in a village in Java, was its real size revealed: 23 feet. Why should we believe an English journalist and not the keeper of the snake, you ask? Come on. Forty-nine feet? Anyway, read Aglionby’s article, which explains the difficulty in measuring large, coiled-up snakes. Worthy to note when discussing the biggest snakes is that between 1997 and 2002, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could produce a 30-foot snake. The prize was never collected.
Ashe’s spitting cobra (Naja ashei). And you thought camels were nasty for spitting in strangers’ faces (they’re actually belching up their cud). Well, the spitting cobra doesn’t just spit; it spits venom. And since the venom is harmless to intact skin, the mean evolutionary tactic behind this nasty habit seems to be, precisely, to hit the victim in the eye, which can cause permanent blindness. Ashe’s spitting cobra is the largest of the dozen or so spitting cobra species, which live in Africa and Asia. N. ashei, first named only in 2007, reaches nine feet in length, has been seen eating five-foot-long puff adders (another deadly venomous snake) and, like all the spitting cobras, can also inject venom by biting. And while we’re discussing cobras, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) can grow to twice the length of the Ashe’s spitting cobra and may administer, in one bite, two-tenths of an ounce of venom to its unfortunate victim—enough to kill an elephant. The species acts aggressively when cornered or when guarding a nest, in which the females lay their eggs, but does not commonly attack humans.
Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). It is the biggest of the boas and perhaps the bulkiest of all snakes, but the South American green anaconda’s pop culture reputation as a killer may be entirely undeserved. The snake, which gives live birth to 20-inch babies and can reportedly grow to 28 feet and 280 pounds (according to the San Diego Zoo), is relatively sluggish and does not, with any regularity, attack humans.Yet people hate the creatures. Just check out the comments following this blog post about a pregnant anaconda killed by South American villagers. The author of the post questions why the animal was killed. Scores of readers responded like raving idiots at a public hanging. One argued that with 70 baby snakes inside her, the big snake was a population bomb about to go off and would have left the village crawling with hungry anacondas. And another reader said, “[W]e don t need snakes on this world.they are dangerous. i hate the snakes it s the animal of the devil…” Well spoken. Thank you. Next! “[T]hat thing could kill a horse.” No, it probably couldn’t. Next! “How could it possibly have been pregnant? It’s a SNAKE, snakes are REPTILES, and reptiles LAY EGGS!!!” Obviously not a herpetologist. Next! “[S]nake’s aren’t nice animals…there more like monsters who just wanna eat.” Brilliant. Next! “Either you eat the Anaconda, or the Anaconda eats YOU !” All right, all right! Order! In fact, there is no documented case of an anaconda killing a human.
Beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa). Though the Australian inland taipan tops the list of the world’s most venomous snakes, the beaked sea snake isn’t far behind. Rated as the world’s sixth most venomous snake, it is considered the most dangerous sea snake. Its fangs may measure just four millimeters, and surfers and divers wearing wetsuits may be protected, though just barely, from this animal’s bite. Yet nine of every ten people killed by sea snakes are killed by the beaked sea snake, which is said to be easily provoked and very aggressive. It inhabits shallow, murky waters in Australia and much of the Indian Ocean, often among mangrove roots. Wading fishermen are frequent victims.
Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinesis). If the flared hood of a cobra is the icon of danger in the heat of Africa and Asia, then the sound of a rattlesnake giving its warning might be that of the American desert. Which makes the rattlesnake without a rattle a riddle of evolution—though scientists have supposed that its rattleless tail may be a result of evolving on an island mostly absent of other creatures to communicate with. Otherwise, the Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake is a rattlesnake in every way—from head almost to tail. It is a dwarf among rattlesnakes, however, reaching a maximum size of just 28 inches long. It is also endemic to (that is, entirely limited to) the single Sea of Cortez island on which it lives, and—with just 100 square kilometers to call its own—the species is critically endangered. Predation by feral cats is a considerable threat.
Sobering facts about snakebites: In 2011, the BBC reported that snakes bite as many as 5.5 million people every year, killing at least 100,000. In India alone, the article stated, a million people may suffer snakebites every year. The Indian cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait are the main perpetrators in India, while the king cobra tends often to be wrongly blamed. In sub-Saharan Africa, carpet vipers, black mambas, puff adders and boomslangs are snakes to be feared. In Australia, the snake blacklist is long and frightening, while in Europe vipers are the main culprit, and in North America, rattlesnakes. What to do if bitten by a snake? Antivenin is said to be the only reliable treatment, unfortunately. According to the 2011 revision of Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook, the wound of a snakebite victim should be firmly wrapped in a bandage before the person is carried on a makeshift stretcher to the nearest doctor. “If you can, also take the snake,” the authors advise, as identifying the needed antivenin can otherwise be difficult. And things not to do after receiving a snakebite? Cutting the flesh near the wound, applying ice, trying to suck the venom out of the bite and having a beer (as alcohol can reportedly make symptoms worse).
September 28, 2012
If you’re frustrated with medical care in the United States, try getting appendicitis in Antarctica. This potentially deadly condition can strike essentially anyone at any time—and no time was less opportune for Leonid Rogozov than April 30, 1961, at Novolavarezskaya Station, when the 27-year-old Russian scientist was the only doctor within 1,000 miles. After several days of pain, Rogozov concluded he had appendicitis and might die unless he did something. So he lay down in a hospital cot, had assistants tilt a mirror just above his lower belly, administered a shot of Novocain and called for a scalpel. In an epic feat of bravery and anatomical mastery, Rogozov sliced himself open, found his appendix, removed it, sutured himself shut again and proceeded with the finer things in life at the bottom of the world. A similar episode occurred on February 13, 1984, when Dr. Igor Mogirev removed his companion Valentin Gorbachev’s appendix during a tractor journey between an Antarctic landmark known as Dome C and Mirny Station, from which the team was about 600 miles away. The operation was successful—and conducted in the blistering cold after the diesel heater was shut off to keep the fumes from entering the tent and Gorbachev’s abdominal cavity.
The onset of appendicitis, which involves an organ that we don’t even need to begin with, often causes pain around the belly button that then “moves” to the lower right corner of the abdomen, according to this medical advice website. Such a pattern of pain is a flaming red flag, and if nausea, constipation, swelling of the abdomen and fever follow, one should seek aid promptly. May you not be the only doctor on the continent. And if you are, here’s hoping you brought the Novocain. Of course, the human body is a complex piece of living geography, and ailments may strike in many forms, in many hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. Following are a few illnesses and conditions to be wary of when far away from home.
Giardia. How often have you wished during a hot hike in the mountains that you could step to the edge of a stream, kneel and have yourself a bellyful of cold, clear snowmelt? Of course, most of us know better than to drink the water—because nearly everywhere, in waters still or moving, Giardia lamblia lurks. This bacterium is not a killer—just a nuisance, really, that causes diarrhea and other digestive problems within seven to 14 days of infection, and which may remain in a person’s body for years. Wild and domesticated animals are generally blamed as the source of local Giardia populations in lakes and streams, though in much of New Zealand—home to tens of millions of sheep, cows and other nonnative mammals—locals swear their water is safe to drink. During my time there in January and February, I drank directly from streams and lakes almost every day during several backcountry outings. I never got sick, though that isn’t proof that the waters were clean. You should bring a pump, or at least water purification tablets.
Montezuma’s Revenge. In case you need to be told again, don’t drink the water. In fact, if you’re in parts of Latin America, keep your mouth shut in the shower and drink only bottled water—even when just brushing your teeth. Because Montezuma’s Revenge will spoil your trip to Mexico if you give this bugger a chance. Caused by Salmonella, E. coli and other little critters, Montezuma’s Revenge is itself not a disease but, rather, just a collection of symptoms like stomach upset and diarrhea. In other parts of the world, similar illnesses strike tourists, who may be told they’ve got Delhi Belly or the Turkey Trots. Fortunately, this condition only lasts a few days in most cases and is an annoyance more than a danger—though surely few travelers’ tales can be more gripping than that of Montezuma’s Revenge kicking in on the airplane.
Dehydration: So you’re damned if you drink the water—but you’re also damned if you don’t. A seemingly simple condition with a simple cause and a simple fix, dehydration can kill when water is simply not to be had. The first of its signs may be bright yellow urine. Hours may still pass before one actually feels thirsty, at which point the mouth grows sticky and a person may grow sluggish and lethargic. In advanced stages, the skin may seem to retract in super-slow motion, like bread dough, when pinched between two fingers, and if you feel confused and dizzy and notice that you are no longer able to sweat, it’s official: You need a drink of water. NOTE: Dehydration may occur as a result of another illness that has caused vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Chondromalacia. Say goodbye to your plans to spend three months bicycle touring through Southeast Asia if this nasty condition appears in your knee. Chondromalacia occurs when the cartilage protecting the ball-and-socket joint of the knee becomes inflamed. In severe cases of continued use even after symptoms begin, the cartilage can be worn down to the bone. Chondromalacia causes a dull, throbbing pain inside the knee, with difficulty walking down stairs a distinct symptom. You may even hear cracking and scraping. Icing the joint helps, as does—unfortunately—long periods of rest. Chondromalacia may be caused by the knee-cap beginning to travel off-center in its recurring path over the bone of the knee, causing irritating rubbing. Doctors like to say that treatment is simple—just rest the knee for several months, keeping it elevated and iced every day, while practicing a variety of awkward and seemingly futile leg raises and quad-building exercises. Other overuse conditions that can end a long, body-powered voyage include iliotibial band syndrome, tendonitis and a strained or torn Achilles tendon. Inquire at a bike shop before your next tour to see that your seat height is appropriate, your pedal cranks the right length and your clip-in shoe cleats are properly set.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The virus that infected some 8,000 people, killing more than 900 of them, in 2002 and ’03—when it was first identified—has caused a small scare after the second man within months was recently infected in England. The 49-year-old is alive and now being treated, though a 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man died earlier this year of the disease. Scientists have reported that both men were infected by what seems to be a new, or at least previously unknown, strain of the virus (which the World Health Organization has reported is, fortunately, not easily transmitted). SARS symptoms are initially similar to those of a common cold—but with a notable difficulty in breathing. Helpful treatments, including antibiotics, can be administered in patients who suspect they are infected, even if tests later prove negative. The World Health Organization has not issued any formal travel warnings—just a global alert—in response to the latest SARS case, but this is a story worth following.
Hantavirus. Fear has crept through Yosemite National Park—as quietly as a mouse. For nine people were infected this summer by the deadly rodent-carried Hantavirus. Three people have died, and the park’s staff is now being served by a voluntary testing plan (even though, mysteriously, not a single employee of Yosemite’s 3,000 annual workers has been infected—yet). The disease, which can take six weeks to incubate in a person before taking effect, usually involves flu-like symptoms at first, like nausea, headache and aching joints, which escalate into organ failure. Hantavirus is carried by deer mice and other like vermin and can be spread via rodent feces, saliva and urine, and it can go airborne via dust particles. Fortunately, the disease is rare, infecting just 30-some people in an average year in America. The death rate, though, among victims averages about 30 percent.
Mushroom poisoning. Mushrooms don’t bite, and the most poisonous of them are only dangerous if eaten (myths abound that just touching a “toadstool” can kill you). Indeed, the only reason mushroom poisonings happen is that some hikers can’t resist taking unidentified mushrooms home, sautéing them in olive oil and serving them at potlucks. The mushrooms involved in many, if not most, serious poisonings are two species of the Amanita genus—A. phalloides, usually called the Death Cap, and A. bisporigera, commonly known as the Destroying Angel. Both reportedly taste quite nice, and guests at the dinner table will likely praise their host’s prowess in garnering dinner from the wild, wild woods—until the stomach ache hits. That’s your liver failing. Go get help. Two to three people have died of mushroom poisoning in America every year for the past 30 years. Note that the death rate runs between 10 and 50 percent of all poisonings—and just getting sick from a Death Cap isn’t fun, a liver transplant often being the only cure. Some people may experience frightening but nonfatal allergic reactions to otherwise coveted edible fungi, like the chicken of the woods, the shaggy parasol and the inky cap (which can cause poisoning if alcohol is consumed within days on either end). Know your mushrooms, and—when eating at a party—know your host. Mushroom rookies should not host mushroom dinners. And, keep your dog leashed in mushroom country. Every year, dogs die when they eat Death Caps.
Learn more about maladies and science-based remedies in Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook. Available here for sale (or as an online PDF via this website), the handbook is hundreds of pages long, bulky as a Bible, and describes everything from treatment for snakebites to witchcraft cures that don’t work to identifying appendicitis to the threats of mosquitoes, and so on and so on. First published decades ago, the book was revised and updated for its 2011 reprinting.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not meant to be used as a medical guide, and anyone who suspects they may be seriously ill should visit a qualified doctor.
Next week: In detail on snakes. No, I didn’t forget about snakebites. Rather, I’m saving this giant topic for next week. For a quick preview, snakes bite as many as 5.5 million people every year, killing at least 100,000, according to the BBC. In India alone, a million people may suffer snakebites every year. Clearly, this is a topic that deserves a blog post all its own.
Do you have any overseas medical stories to share? Tell us in the comment box below.
August 22, 2012
Cyclists become aware that they have landed in a special place as soon as they enter the terminal at the Portland International Airport. Here, a bike assembly station awaits those who have traveled to Oregon’s biggest city with their best two-wheeled friend in a box—an amenity I have encountered nowhere else.
As one leaves the airport, signs complete with distances and average pedaling times down to the minute point the way along the best bike routes to the city center and other areas. In the major boulevards, green-painted asphalt marks bike lanes from which motor vehicles are excluded, and stop lights at some busy intersections include bicycle signals, which allow cyclists to cross while the lines of cars patiently wait. And while streetcar tracks are among the most serious hazards to moving bikes in every city, Portland is one of the few that post street signs reminding cyclists of the danger of a wheel slipping into a track. Bike shops are everywhere, thriving in a community where approximately 6 percent (from a 2010 census) of the roughly 600,000 residents commute by biking—the fourth-highest rate in the nation. And even he who lives and bikes in San Francisco, another heavily pedaled city, may easily believe upon rolling out of the Portland airport that he has arrived in the best biking town in America.
But after three days and perhaps 70 miles of cycling around town, I failed to find the main arteries of Portland’s cycling culture. I detected it faintly, but I never found the main pulse. I saw a few other urban cyclists and enjoyed several red-carpet rides along the city’s acclaimed bicycle boulevards—entire roads essentially reserved for bikes. But I also battled traffic on loud, gridlocked boulevards that could have been the main drag of any American town, and I crossed and recrossed the Willamette River via the snarling, bumper-to-bumper, almost-a-freeway Ross Island Bridge—no fun at all. And I was appalled at the freeways and concrete overpasses that crisscross parts of Portland like giant, tangled braids of electrical wiring. In fact, I felt less and less each day that this city was any more remarkable a cycling haven than San Francisco or Santa Barbara or New York or London.
It turns out I totally overlooked the heart of Portland’s biking culture, which is very much alive and welcoming. After leaving town, I spoke with local cycling advocate Ellie Thalheimer, who is also the author of Cycling Sojourner, a guide to cycle touring in Oregon, and co-author with Lucy Burningham of a new book called Hop in the Saddle, a guide to Portland’s craft beer scene as seen and tasted from a bicycle. Thalheimer told me that no cyclists except those in a mad hurry to cross the river use the Ross Island Bridge. Several other bridges, like the Broadway, the St. Johns and the Burnside, have bike lanes and, as Thalheimer described, actually sound pleasant and fun to cross. The Hawthorne Bridge even features a new cyclist counter, which detects passing bicycles while excluding autos and displays a daily count as well as the total number of cyclists who have crossed the bridge since the counter was installed about two weeks ago by Cycle Oregon. On its first day in operation, the counter detected 7,432 passing bicycles.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Portland don’t ride bicycles, and the stream of bike commuters in town is but a wispy breeze of air in the greater cyclone of howling traffic, billowing carbon emissions and rush-hour gridlock. Yet more people per hundred commute to work by bike in Portland than in almost every other American town. In some neighborhoods, bike commute rates may run as high as 25 percent of the population, according to unofficial counts, and serving all these pedal-empowered people are approximately 60 bike shops. Other businesses incorporate and serve bicycle-based lifestyles—like Apex Beer Bar, where numerous bike racks are filled each evening by pedaling patrons, a bike shop called Velo Cult that serves beer (and which recently held a workshop teaching the yin-yang relationship of yoga and cycling), a pizza place that delivers by bike and a smoothie vendor called Raw Potential that operates out of a bicycle trailer.
Sound eccentric? Wacky? Just another example of locals’ self-aware modus operandi of “keeping Portland weird”? No way. Drive-through fast-food outlets have been a loved component of American culture for decades, and how loudly did anyone question the relevance of motor vehicles in our dining culture? Now, in Portland and other like-minded cities, people recognize the merits of encouraging bicycles in the mainstream of work and play, economy and recreation. Among the many people, places and things that bolster and validate Portland’s reputation as one of America’s top cycling cities is A Better Cycle, a worker-owned bike shop offering all the usual parts and repairs as well as a free work station with public use tools and a bike stand. I encountered this little glory hole of socialism on Southeast Division Street several days ago as I cruised into town from the airport. It so happened that my bike needed an overhaul, and I was able to use specialized tools to replace my chain rings, chain and cassette—a repair job that cost me only a few bucks into the tip jar and which would have required days of waiting and 40 bucks of labor elsewhere.
Stay tuned for travel updates from rural Oregon as I pedal my way home to San Francisco.