Road trip

March 10 - 27: Malaysia

For this part of my “road trip,” I’m in Malaysia on a sampling trip with the Global Microbiome Conservancy, a really cool project started by two postdocs in Eric’s lab (and some others) which aims to preserve global microbial diversity by sampling stool from people all around the world, including indigenous communities often left out of traditional microbiome research. Scientifically, it’s also fascinating: industrialization and sanitation have radically changed our human-associated microbes, and many of the gut bacteria in people living traditional lifestyles have disappeared from the microbiomes of people living more industrialized lifestyles (like me!). I encourage you to take a look through their website, because their model is actually pretty cool and they’re actively trying to de-colonize the way they’re doing this science as much as possible.

You should also check out the project’s Instagram and Twitter pages for more info on the trip and some really beautiful photos.

I’m on this trip with Mathilde and Mathieu, two postdocs in the lab; Chris, a former postdoc and the photographer for this trip; and Eric, my advisor (but just for a week).

I’ll continue with my theme of writing the most recent post on top (which I’m just now realizing is nice to keep up with the latest, but must be very annoying to read. Sry.)

Kuala Lumpur: March 22-27

After a very long drive from Tasik Banding back to Kuala Lumpur, we got one rest day and then three days of urban sampling and outreach talks.

Our rest day started with a bit of “glandouillier” in the morning, and then we headed to the Petronas towers for some required photos and then Chow Kit market for a wander and some lunch. Next, we went to the National Mosque and walked about 10 minutes to a butterfly garden - so lovely! (Except for the insect exhibit with very active millipedes NIGHTMARE)

If you know me, you know how much I love market lunch… happy Claire!

The next few days will consist of us mostly processing stool from already-recruited participants and giving a couple of talks to the general community and to the university we’re collaborating with. (The overall project setup is that we get two rural/traditional lifestyle sites and one urban site per country). I’ll spare you the photos of the poop, it’s super gross. And, just, a terrible juxtaposition when I’m processing samples while also hungry. THE WORST.

Tasik Banding: March 18-21

Our second field site was near Tasik Banding, another four hours’ drive from Gua Musang and in the Royal Belum State Park. Here, we’re visiting the Jahai people. The village is about an hour or two’s boat ride from the jetty. We’re staying on a houseboat about 25 minutes from the village and taking speed boats to and from there.

Here, our sampling was organized a bit differently. After a few short setbacks, we set out to the village in the middle of the day to do a short talk about the project, give out lunch to the whole village, and provide donation bowls for interested potential participants. Luckily, we got about 9 samples returned to us on this first day, which is really exciting!

Yesterday was another sampling day, starting out pretty quick but dwindling in the afternoon. Rather than lug the dry shipper and processing materials in and out of the speed boat, we’re bringing back the samples and processing them on the houseboat. Truly a poop deck.

Photo courtesy of Chris, our “official” photographer.

Today was our last full sampling day, with an unfortunately small number of samples. Got a break from the long waiting near the end of the day, when we colored with lots of the village kids in the coloring books we brought. Two fascinating observations: (1) the kids knew that the Frozen and Mickey Mouse books were for the girls and the Spiderman and Hulk books were for the boys. I don’t think this was as engrained in the earlier village we visited, which was far more remote. These kids were super young, probably around 3 or 4. Amazing how infused these things are everywhere… (2) Almost all of the girls gave their princesses black hair. Refreshing! The crayons we had weren’t great, so verdict is still out on what skin color they were attempting to give these princesses… We definitely did our best at showing them how to think outside the box with our versions of the superheroes! Or should I say that we showed them how to color outside the lines? ;)

Since I’ve been mostly focusing on work, let me make sure to also talk about life: the food here is amazing and the weather is freaking perfect. Even in the days when we’ve done nothing, I’ve frequently caught myself thinking “man I’m so glad to just be existing.” I was not made for the Boston cold, it’s true.

Gua Musang: March 14-17

Our first sampling site was in Gua Musang, about a four hours’ drive away, to visit the Batek people.

We met with the local JAKOA officers when we arrived. JAKOA is the Malaysian organization charged with overseeing the affairs of the Orang Asli, the term used to refer to the indigenous peoples of Malaysia. Orang Asli itself means “original people.”

There were two main villages identified for sampling, and we set out to visit the first one the next day. We had to drive through a palm plantation to get to the villages, which was at first beautiful (palm trees look pretty good) but eventually quite depressing (monocultures are not good for the world).

The first village we sampled is still nomadic, and so even though a local team member had visited two weeks prior, the village had moved since then and we had trouble finding it!

After meeting with the village chief, we spent the first day here giving out questionnaires and buckets for people to poop in. And by “we”, I mean our team of local collaborators. Eric and I did pretty much nothing most of the day. (Not sure if it’s a bonus or a downside, but I think I spent as many hours with Eric in the last few weeks as I did during my entire PhD… XD)

The next day we came back to collect the samples, but found that very few people had donated. Some back-and-forth and a lot of waiting later, and we managed to get about 10 samples from this village.

The next day was also a lot of waiting, first at this village and then at another one closer to the paved road from the palm plantation. Still not as many samples as we’d hoped, but not to worry we kept ourselves busy:

This village obviously has a lot more outsider influence, and while there we saw two different groups coming to play with the children, give basic first aid “medical clinic” services, and give out food and clothes. Both of these groups were Muslim. It seems that many of the Orang Asli villages in Malaysia are being converted to Islam, so it’s pretty fascinating to have witnessed some of this firsthand and have some pretty nuanced conversations about it. Happy to discuss more offline, in a non-public non-internet forum.

Finally, our third day of sampling was again a lot of waiting around for samples. As a last-ditch effort, we also headed to a third village, even more developed than the other two and led by a local JAKOA collaborator, sort of a representative for the Orang Asli in the area (I think). We got a few more samples and got to walk around this village, even getting to see blowguns being made! (Which we bought and you will be able to see if you visit the Alm lab).

Kuala Lumpur: March 10-13

We arrived on March 10 to Kuala Lumpur and immediately headed to a mall to take care of some errands. There was an official signing ceremony on March 11, and we then spent the next few days finalizing logistics and getting things prepped for sampling. For this trip, there’s a pretty large team of local collaborators (three PIs total, and a field team of four grad students, one postdoc, and one research associate).

Kuala Lumpur seems like a super cool city, and I’m struck by how futuristic it feels: it builds vertically so that you never really know which is the ground floor, there are elevated highways weaving in and out of each other, and through it all there’s lush greenery and palm trees. I really dig it.

I also got to meet up with a former colleague from Cambodia who’s now working in KL for delicious dinner on a (touristy) street with lots of street restaurants. We got grilled sting ray, which was delicious!

March 5, 2019

After some much-needed (but still insufficient) rest, we got delicious vegan tacos in Philly and headed back out. Great music, conversations, and rest stops made it a very enjoyable experience, even though the temperature more than halved by the time we made it back to Boston.

March 4, 2019

Ben’s flight was supposed to leave today, but given Boston’s big snowstorm we woke up and got tea while waiting for updates on his flight. Turns out it was delayed, so we got lunch and decided that we could just drive to Charlotte together where he could hop on a later flight to Boston there. Here he is telling the Jet Blue agent to re-book him on a flight in a city 6 hours away from his original flight:

Got on the road, and in South Carolina found out his Charlotte flight was canceled. (OBVIOUSLY – of course a 3 am delayed flight out of Charlotte isn’t gonna happen! XD) “We could just drive back.”

Ben’s sister lives in Philly and has a heart of gold, so we were able to crash with her when we got there at 4 am.

March 3, 2019

Our final stop, Atlanta! Got amazing crepes when we arrived, checked into our airbnb (which was in an art gallery!), fell in love with the neighborhood we’re staying in (so much street art!), and headed to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library (omg I know nothing about Jimmy Carter!). What an amazing man, so committed to peace. Reminded me that in an alternate life, maybe I would have liked to be a professional mediator. Can you imagine facilitating peace talks? What an amazing contribution to the world, so impactful and yet so invisible.

We then proceeded to go from amazing bar to amazing bar – Atlanta is so cool. First, great cocktails at the bar next door to our art gallery (did I mention we were staying in an art gallery?!) Next, a restaurant in an old warehouse converted into an upscale food court. Finally, sandwiches, amazing cocktails, and great people watching at Victory Sandwich bar (highly recommend!) Verdict: Atlanta is super nice, and definitely someplace that could be cool to live.

March 2, 2019

Explored what Talladega National Forest had to offer, which is mostly a lovely hike along a nice river to a weird swampy lake. We encountered two women, probably in their 60s, one of whom was training for her dream of doing part of the Appalachian Trail. One thing I’ve loved on this trip is getting to talk with older people who are out living their lives to its fullest. #goals

Arrived back at camp to an army of FSU EAPS students, putting up their tents and immediately proceeding to make a ruckus. No idea what they were there for (they didn’t seem to all know each other), but they were hilariously oblivious to our existence and very efficient at getting up and leaving early the next morning.

March 1, 2019

Woke up pretty late, so today was mostly driving to Talladega National Forest in Alabama, which is about 2 hours away from Atlanta.

Not much to report, except that we saw more accidents on this drive than I’ve seen in my entire trip so far, including multiple cars that ran off the highway into the grassy median separating the two highway directions. wtf Alabama.

Stayed at a nice campground, on the first open day of the season!

February 28, 2019

NOLA!

Started the day with beignets at Cafe du Monde, obviously.

We spent most of the rest of the day wandering the French Quarter, intermittently hiding from the rain.

Turns out Mardi Gras is on Tuesday so the festivities are already starting. Walked a lot of the parade route, with our Peet’s Coffee to-go daiquiri in hand (obvs), and saw the Knights of Babylon parade. Got lots of beads but somehow failed to take any photos of the parade!

Then, headed to Frenchmen Street, where every single bar had no cover live music: my heaven! Started with a great brass band (with a very effective “I feel like tippin’ the band” song), then a jazz band with an amazing drummer (with white lipstick and heart-shaped sunglasses), and finally a generic rock band in a cozy bar. Would recommend!

February 27, 2019

Another mostly driving day, which felt like a time warp: Google started out saying it would be about 6 hours, but 4 hours later I still had 4 hours left. Maybe my brain is bad at rounding or too optimistic, or maybe I’ve found an alternate dimension.

Today was the first day I got bored driving, which is pretty notable. (AKA - send me more playlists, y’all!)

Most exciting thing today was getting coffee at Honey’s Coffee in New Waverly, Texas – with the light pink Mary Kate car parked outside, and two professional-looking Southern women having a conversation I would have loved to eavesdrop on inside.

Picked up Ben at the airport (it’s our third date (!)), had a beer at the nearby beer garden (sitting outside (!!)), and spent the night at an airbnb (a real bed (!!!)).

February 26, 2019

And we’re back on the road!

Ran some more errands this morning, chopped off all my hair, squeezed a last trip to Amy’s, and went back on the road to get a head start to New Orleans.

Not much more to report than that. Tonight I’m in Sam Houston National Forest, my first national forest stop!

February 24 and 25, 2019

Austin, Texas

Friends.

Food.

Tacos.

Sunshine.

Miss this place, grateful for my longtime friends, and so happy anytime I get to come by.

Februrary 23, 2019

Big Bend National Park –> Austin, TX

Another long driving day today. Managed to stay off of I-10 for a while though, got to see some excellent Texas countryside.

Three excellent things happened today:

  1. I had lunch at the Oasis Cafe, where the staff talked to everybody like they knew each other so well. And where the border patrol lady from the checkpoint nearby (where I did stop this time!) came to pick up her milk shakes.

  2. Drove right through Fredericksburg without even once thinking about stopping in antique shops. Felt so good. (As a kid, we were often dragged to Fredericksburg to go antique shopping and it was SO BORING OMG)

  3. Had a Fast Dryer reunion because Lauren was also in town tonight! Lots of fun reminiscing about high school, realizing all the people (but not names!) that we’ve forgotten, and being fiercely reminded by Shelby that even if we weren’t the greatest musicians, being in an all-girl punk rock band in 8th grade was awesome and brave and we should be proud.

February 22, 2019

Big Bend National Park

I’m actually writing this on the 23rd, and I’m glad I waited a day to do so because now I can paint you a full landscape of solitude.

Most of the day was full of excellent solo hiking. Big Bend is weird because there’s a lot of driving to lots of different short hikes, which is especially nice to do alone because it avoids decision fatigue. You just do what you want.

Hiked to the Santa Elena canyon, which my friend-with-the-two-thumbs-up from the other day told me about and added, with a scoff, “build a wall”.

Did a few other hikes as well on the drive back, loved the feeling of going at exactly my own pace at every moment. Nobody but me and the desert.

Got back to camp, my head hurt and I was feeling very lazy so I decided not to cook a full-on dinner and instead just ate some leftover pasta. Picture the scene: one girl sitting next to her car in the desert in the dark, slicing of some swiss cheese and putting it in her mouth at the same time as cold pasta to make like she was eating pasta with cheese, alone and doing exactly what she felt like doing even if some part of her felt like she should be less lazy and make real food, or like this scene should somehow be sad. In the experience of it: just neutral.

Then I headed to sleep fairly early because of the headache and the long drive ahead of me. It was super windy, so after an hour of feeling like the tent was going to fly away, I decided to pack up and just sleep in my car. Turns out the wind had slid my phone under my mattress and I shattered the screen (big ol’ bummer). It was also pretty difficult and nerve-wrecking to pack up the tent in gale force winds without it flying away. Not the greatest. Also not the worst.

February 21, 2019

Big Bend National Park

Did two hikes today in Big Bend, both were supposed to be 3 hours but ended up being more like 1 or 1.5 – I think Big Bend is tailored more toward the RV crowd than the live-out-of-your-car crowd!

So far, pros of traveling alone:

  • You can sleep in exactly how much you want.
  • Packing up camp or moving onto something new can be super fast.
  • You can say your internal monologue out loud and no one has to know.

Cons of traveling alone:

  • No one to help you navigate, change the playlist, or look stuff up on the drive.
  • Don’t have anyone to outsource making decisions to.
  • Sometimes you can’t open your cayenne pepper to remove the protective seal for your avocado toast.

BUT THAT’S OKAY I don’t need no man I’m an independent woman and I figure it out!

Had a good chat with a Polish man at the top of Lost Mines trail (so beautiful!) and then headed to my new campsite for a stupendous sunset.

Sitting in the back of the car, warm weather and beer in hand – life doesn’t get better than this.

February 20, 2019

Madera Canyon Trail –> Big Bend National Park!

Attention everybody, we have had our first bluebonnet sighting!!!

We are indeed truly in Texas.

I drove the ~3 hours left to Big Bend today, and was lucky to find a camping spot in the backcountry for the next few days. I thought Big Bend was supposed to be quiet, but it’s basically all full right now - partly due to the nice weather, partly due to the shutdown.

The reason I’m here is that (1) I grew up in Texas and never came here, which is a shame and (2) when people asked me where I wanted to go on my post-PhD roadtrip Big Bend was the first thing that came to mind, and so after a while of repeating it I figured I might as well go for it. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, I suppose.

Hung out at some hot springs, got two thumbs up from a retired guy when I told him I was traveling by myself, did a very short hike, and made it to my campsite before dark (for the first time this trip)! Also pretty pumped to be sleeping in my tent, where I can actually sit up straight and starfish all I want! :D

Feburary 19, 2019

Indian Bread Rocks –> El Paso, TX –> somewhere between El Paso and Big Bend (Madera Canyon Trail roadside camp)

Today was a big driving day.

blurry but beautiful

Today’s thoughts: I-10 is an amazing beast, New Mexico is amazingly way less amazing than Arizona, highway signs don’t fuck around. I now know what to do in case of a dust storm (pull over, turn off car, foot off brake pedal, wait till dust settles). New Mexico does not mess with dust storms. A bit bummed I didn’t experience one, tbh.

My favorite highway sign so far: there’s a prison in the area, “please” don’t pick up hitchhikers. It’s the only one that’s not yelling at you, like it’s reasoning with you and making sure you’re both on the same side of the issue.

Turns out Big Bend is really far from things. Also turns out there isn’t much BLM land in Texas. Given my lack of preparation, ended the day a bit earlier than the past few days (i.e. around 8 pm instead of 10) at one of the few campgrounds I saw on the app I’m using (FreeRoam) between here and there.

Tomorrow, off to Big Bend!

February 18, 2019

Sonoran Desert –> Mesa, AZ –> Indian Bread Rocks camp

Spent most of today in an extremely suburban coffee shop in Mesa, AZ getting some work done. I thought I was in an apartment complex (I might have been).

Paid homage to my birthplace before leaving:

Some thoughts. Wow Mesa is so flat and expansive. I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents, two Frenchies with two kids, to move here from France. The desert is beautiful though, and I love when Arizona looks like its license plate (which is not that infrequently, as far as I can tell). Must be in my blood.

Had dinner in Tucson, where I realized that it takes an accumulation of 3-4 independent things to get my sketchiness/poverty alarm bells ringing. Today, this was:

  1. A man and a woman in a fight on the street, the man yelling after her, as she’s walking away from him.
  2. The security guard at the gas station, right by the entrance.
  3. The two security guards at the grocery store, right by the entrance.
  4. There being more Dollar Generals than actual grocery stores. (This was the one that clinched it for me)

Am trying to get to Big Bend soon, but my timing isn’t great and there doesn’t seem to be too many BLM campsites between here and there that aren’t huge detours.

Because I left Mesa so late, just made it to Indian Bread Rocks BLM campsite tonight, a bit over two hours outside of Tucson. It started raining/snowing on the drive; driving into oncoming rain with your headlights on in the dark feels like being in a wormhole.

February 17, 2019

San Diego, CA –> Sonoran Desert National Monument

It begins!

I flew to San Diego on Wednesday. I finished up some reviewer comments, got everything I need for my trip (except all the things I forgot), and now I’m off.

To catch everybody up: I’m borrowing my parents’ car (Subaru Forester XT, 4-wheel drive woop woop) and road tripping around the US.

The plan so far:

  • February: Leave from San Diego, head straight to Big Bend. Then Austin, New Orleans, and anywhere else on the way back to Boston that’s interesting and warm-ish in February.
  • March: Go to Malaysia on a sampling trip with the Global Microbiome Conservancy.
  • Early April: Head to New York for the Microbiome Center’s workshop and spend a week there visiting friends. Go back to Boston for my Lasik appointment on April 7th.
  • April – May: Drive back to San Diego, this time via Nashville, Memphis, maybe St. Louis, and all the Southwestern and Western parks I can do. Definitely on the list are Badlands, Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone. (Are those even possible to do all on the same trip? No idea. Haven’t gotten that far yet). Also Seattle and SF, of course.
  • June: Be back in Boston in time for Commencement. Then, probably head off to Europe to see Carolyn, my family, and my friends’ wedding in Greece!

I’m hoping to keep this updated during my road trip parts, at least with a photo of where I slept the night before. Maybe I’ll also include a selection of thoughts I’ve had on the road or experiences I had that day. We’ll see.

For today, one lulz for you: I accidentally “blew right through” a stop sign at a border patrol checkpoint. Thought it was like at the Mexican border where you just slowly inch your way through but nope, the dude thought I was legit trying to get away from them. “Good thing you stopped,” he said, “or there would have been a chase.” Good thing I’m a harmless-looking white girl, I thought, though I probably shouldn’t push it by taking this moment to put more eye drops in my eyeballs.

Here’s where I slept tonight: