Friday, 26 October 2007
Monday, 22 October 2007
If you've never heard of the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, don't worry. Neither have most Mexicans. That includes people in the tourist industry and work just a few hours away. It also includes the people who set up the otherwise excellent Mayan museum at Chetumal, the state capital of Quintana Roo and at 3.5 hours away, the nearest large town to Calakmul.
But back in the day, Calakmul was the local city-state; 'the day' being roughly in the middle of the seventh century. Calakmul was the Snake Kingdom, vying for power with the huge city-state of Tikal (now in Guatemala).
The ruins of Calakmul are not what you'd call particularly accessible - even now when there's a paved road which takes you all through the 50km of surrounding bioreserve . Until quite recently though it really was lost in the jungle. Archaeologists are only starting to uncover the history of the region. A major breakthrough came with the decipherment by Mayanist David Stuart of an inscription on a staircase at Dos Pilas. (See Maya Hieroglyphs Recount "Giant War" in National Geographic).
(There's a recent issue of National Geographic with several great articles about recent findings in Mayan archaeology.)
Visiting the ruins at Calakmul, as well as those at nearby Chicanna and Becan, gave me the biggest 'discovery' buzz I've ever had at an archaeological site. Unlike other sites such as Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, El Tajin, Teotihuacan and Tula, the ruins at these three Campeche sites have been left relatively uncleared. The trees have been left growing between the main excavated structures, and in many cases, left growing out of the actual temples, as in the photo above.
There are howler monkeys and spider monkeys in the woods. They swing through the trees watching you progress along the trail.
That, plus the fact that in all these places we were practically the only people visiting the sites, gave us the feeling of what it must have been to discover these places...kind of like John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, the latter was the artist who produced such evocative pictures as the one shown below.
The downside is the mosquitoes, and the heat. The ruins of Calakmul and Chicanna are accessed by walking down a jungle trail, during which a cloud of vicious mosquitoes surround you and munch on every scrap of exposed flesh. Insect repellent may cut your bites down to twenty or so. Stop moving and they'll settle for a good, steady drink of your blood.
But heck. It's worth it.
Friday, 19 October 2007
Originally uploaded by mgharris
We visited Becan yesterday, a ruined Mayan city in the state of Campeche. Readers of The Joshua Files will know the significance of this place - no spoilers please!!!
After the carnival of Tulum, Becan was a wonderful experience. Can you believe that we were the only people visiting this amazing monument? Yes, for the two hours we were there we had the whole place to ourselves. No other tourists, no tour guides, no vendors hassling us. Just the sounds of the surrounding jungle. And the racket we made - two children can't be silent after all.
You catch a glimpse the summit of the tallest pyramid, Structure IX, over the tops of surroundings trees as you approach from the main road, Highway 186.
Closer though everything is shrouded in dense jungle, so you walk through trees and then notice stones and steps from the base of the temples, cool grey in the midst of green; leaves, creepers and a mossy ground. At Becan the temples really do appear to rise up out of the jungle.
Becan has four really huge structures which are quite well restored; Structures II, VIII, IX and X. There are a large number of other buildings too, but many are still swallowed by the jungle. I wonder why the place isn't more well-known. I suspect it's only recently been restored to this level. I saw photos of Structure IX years ago and the staircase was a pile of rubble. Now though, as you can see, this side of the temple is quite well restored, with the staircase good and sharp all the way to the top.
We didn't climb this one - there was a helpful rope but also a note saying 'please don't climb the pyramid'.
We did however climb Structure VIII, from where we took this photo. And my cousin Oscar and daughter couldn't resist crawling into a tunnel on Structure X, where they found a chamber with bats...
My valiant husband tried again to take some non-hideous photos of me for the publishers. About 90% were gruesome, but we do have some usable candidates now, especially if Photoshop can help out. The sun was beating down on us most of the time, and I was the only one allowed to use the brow-mopping cloth, so this 'photo shoot' was none too comfortable.
Thursday, 18 October 2007
Originally uploaded by mgharris
Finally a chance to swim in the biggest and bluest freshwater lake I've ever seen. In southern Quintana Roo state, this lake was known by the Maya, apparently, as the Lake of Seven Hues. The aqua coloured parts are where the base is shallow and sandy.
We ate fish fajitas, ceviche and Mexican beer in a lovely little garden restaurant on the edge of the vast lake, which stretches for miles. Hardly anyone around and nortenos playing on the loud stereo. It felt really nice and properly Mexican. I thought of my uncles in Mexico City and felt a bit guilty that we weren't sharing this with any of them.
Still - cousin Oscar Raul arrives tomorrow! And then it's off down Highway 186 to Becan.
There have been a lot of blue Nissan Tsurus around, ooer. Readers of Joshua Files will know what I mean...
Wednesday, 17 October 2007
No Internet access here, but my BlackBerry is working so I've been sitting on the beach outside our room (about 30 meters from the sea) exchanging emails with my agent and the desk editor at Scholastic re some final touches for the book.
Tulum has changed a lot since I was here with my husband and fellow biochemistry student, Becs, almost 20 years ago. Back then we hired a taxi for $80 US dollars and the taxi guy drove us down from Cancun, hung around the makeshift car park while we traipsed around the ruins, carefree as you like. On the tiny but gorgeous beach by the ruins we met some people from Didsbury, Manchester of all places (where I grew up). The sea was rough that day. The whole area was experiencing the beginning of what would become a tropical storm. We drove back along the coastal road with the windows down - no aircon and stopped en route for a swim at the blue, blue lagoon of Xel-Ha. (pronounced shell-ha)
Around 3 weeks later the storm became Hurricane Gilbert and devastated Tulum.
These days Tulum is a BIG tourist trap, Xel-Ha too. Big car park, coach loads arriving all day long, massive arts and crafts shops and restaurants. Official tourist guides take you round and give you a terrific spiel, all the latest findings. No more free wandering around the ruins, no more clambering over the pyramids.
Ernie, our Mayan guide explained how all 52 structures in Tulum played their part in a ceremonial centre which also functioned as an astronomical and weather calculator. He showed us the place where at around 5am on 13 November the light from the rising sun passes though a small window in one temple and lights up the door in the surrounding wall - to the west. This would be the signal to harvest the last of the crops before winter. Another portal would trap light to signal the time to sow. And by an amazing feat of engineering,the Temple of the Wind God uses a pole and a temple window to raise the alarm of an approaching hurricane, whistling like a flute when the wind speeds start to get dangerous.
Tulum is a city with natural protection from invaders - mangrove swamps to the west, the Caribbean to the east and offshore, a long reef which prevented Spanish from landing anywhere close. So why did they need to build a 6ft high wall all the way around the ceremonial centre? It's the only example of such a wall in a Mayan city.
Ernie gave us the latest explanation - and it's ingenious. "Tulum's biggest danger was always the hurricane" he said. "Where do you put 2000 people in a place like this, to protect them from the hurricane?" The buildings held at most 600 people - and they were in danger of having their palm rooftops ripped away. The answer was this: the wall. It was long enough for all 2000 people to line up behind the wall as a shelter.
Ernie is a bona fide Mayan - comes from a tiny place deep in the interior of the Yucatan peninsula. "If you want to see the real Mayan people," he chuckled, "get a guide to take you in a 4x4, and tell him you want to go where the tourists don't go. He'll take you where you won't hear a word of Spanish - only Maya."
Well maybe next time. Our kids are way too whingey for that right now. The heat and crowds of Tulum got to them. Chances are that Becan and Calakmul - in the Campeche jungle to the south - is going to be too much.
All the way down from Playa del Carmen, the highway cuts through the jungle. I peered into the trees. Poor Josh Garcia - in "Invisible City" he spends hours lost in there. Me - I wouldn't dare to step 20 meters into that place.
Tomorrow, Chetumal, the state capital of Quintana Roo and the place where Josh's Mayan adventure begins...
Monday, 15 October 2007
Originally uploaded by mgharris
Here’s one of the things I really miss about Mexico; food!
Yesterday cousin Rodrigo explained how come he left Manchester so suddenly last year.
“I missed my Mexican food, and my mum. I’d had enough of sandwiches, pizzas and kebabs. So I bought a ticket and surprised everyone.”
The photo shows chilaquiles (fried corn tortillas cooked in stock and green tomato and chili sauce, with onions and optional sour cream), refried beans and fried potatoes and peppers.
The relief of eating this after 3 years…
Cancun was a fairly newish resort with about fifteen (big) hotels when I first visited in 1981. The airport was one small terminal and a strip cut into the forest of coconut palms.
It doesn't feel much like the rest of Mexico. Everything is charged in dollars and pesos also. It all feels a bit too organised and tidy to be real Mexico. I'm not wild about Cancun, but it this hotel is very comfortable.
It’s my fourth visit since then. Much has changed. We arrived to a Cancun airport that looks as big as Mexico City’s. At the car rental office a blue-eyed guy in a white cap began to chat with me in typical friendly Mexican fashion. My daughter growled at me for telling our life story to the first person who asked. But that’s how Cancun is. We want to know your life story, thanks very much. How else can we know which of the various services we have on offer to sell you? And my daughter is right, I’m probably way too friendly.
This guy and I had discussed: 1) the lack of a Mexican community in the UK, 2) the shocking state of our native Mexico City (I’m from Coyoacan, he’s from nearby neighbourhood Colonia del Valle), 3) the lamentable record of Mexico’s most corrupt former presidents and their responsibility for the disintegration of Mexican society, 4) the growing influence of Columbian drug lords on Mexico (he reckons plane after plane lands in Cancun loaded with Colombian cocaine, with airport air officials bribed/threatened into turning a blind eye); all this before he finally tried in a very relaxed fashion to sell us a tour or a time share apartment. “I can’t exactly buy a time-share from you, not when my sister sells time-shares, “ I told him. He blinked and nodded in agreement. “But come and have a day at the resort, drinks, watersports, as my guest anyway, no pressure, any time you like.”
This morning the sea is rough but already looks turquoise, the sky is filled with bunched clouds, the pools at this hotel seem infinite (and there’s a huge infinity pool), people are out training.
My lovely cousin Rodrigo just happens to work at the hotel we booked into. He’s studying International Tourism at Uni. Classes from 7am, and works reception in the evenings. A tough life, he admitted, but he loves it. He upgraded our rooms and breakfasts, and left us a delicious chocolate truffle cake in the room…
Thursday, 11 October 2007
There'll be a few more scientists I used to know gnashing their teeth this week as more of their friends win the Nobel prize and they don't.
(I once heard of one guy who would get wildly depressed with jealousy every year that one of his friends and not him joined the Nobel prize-winners club. I wrote a short story about it...which shall remain unpublished or because I named actual real scientists I know, to make it funnier... This story is handwritten in a drawer and I show it to me special science friends once in a while, for a giggle. The coda to this tale is that the guy in question finally did win. Obviously I can't name any names...)
This year the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to the Sir Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies, the guys who developed the technologies for creating a mouse with a gene 'knocked out'. This means that you could look at the effect, in theory, of a single gene in a mouse, by creating a mouse that was normal in every way except that it lacked, say, the haemoglobin gene.
The early days of any new technique are always fraught with difficulties. I came into the gene targeting game in 1993, early-ish, but quite a few mouse knockouts had already been done. It still wasn't easy though. Nowadays I bet rich labs just order a knockout mouse via the Web...
I was put on a project to knockout a gene called the FGFR3 - fibroblast growth factor receptor 3. It's an interesting gene because a single mutation - one tiny change in the DNA code - results in the condition known as achondroplasia - aka dwarfism.
The first thing I had to do was to 'restriction map' the DNA in the chromosome - i.e. make a map of all the sites where 'restriction' enzymes could specifically cut into the DNA. Since DNA is too tiny to cut with scissors, molecular biologists use these naturally occuring enzymes to snip DNA into pieces. It's just a matter of knowing which enzymes cut where and then picking your tools; the enzymes which will cut you out a nice chunk of precisely tailored DNA.
The mouse FGFR3 gene was spread over quite a large region of DNA so I used this delish and elegant new method that I'd read about. It worked like you wouldn't believe, first time too!
I'd just mapped the FGFR3 gene and got partway into making the 'knockout construct' - the DNA molecule that you use to inject into mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells - a first stage towards the knockout mouse (the stage that Smithies contributed to the whole process).
And then a Big Hot Lab in the USA published the FGFR3 knockout mouse in a Damn Hot Journal.
Bah. So that was several months of my work down the drain! I went to see my boss. Did he know that Big Hot Lab had a couple of postdocs and a techie or two on the same project as little me?Hmmm, he said and peered hard at his computer screen, as if something rather canny had just occurred to him. "I may have heard a rumour or two..."
And that's why I didn't develop the FGFR3 knockout mouse and get a Cell paper and why I ultimately gave up science and had to do other things. Yes, but for that I might never have written a single novel.
Meanwhile, Oliver Smithies. I heard him talk once. What a character! He's a Brit - a Yorkshireman I think (I may have remembered that wrong). but lives in North Carolina now. He flew in to talk at the Dunn School of Pathology, Oxford when I was a grad student. I mean that quite literally - Smithies has a pilot's license and like John Travolta, flies himself to all his engagements.
This is rare for a scientist.
Smithies gave a fascinating talk, one of the best I ever saw in my whole time as a scientist. It featured lots of photos of his lab and his makeshift equipment. This guy is one of those rare, rare things - a scientist who is also a natural engineer.
Check out Smithies' homemade electroporator - known by scientists as a 'zapper' for hitting cells with an electric current so that DNA goes in.
Years before Perkin-Elmer had patented the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and made a machine which allowed people to amplify DNA molecules by basically just sticking some DNA and Taq polymerase enzyme in a test tube and putting it into a Perkin-Elmer thermal cycler, Smithies was doing early ground-breaking PCR using bits of washing machine timers to do the thermal cycling. He showed us photos of stuff that you wouldn't believe could be used to do proper science, equipment literally cobbled together from bits and bobs and stuck together with sticky tape. He was an elderly man even then but brimming with enthusiasm. I remember being quite inspired.
I'm chuffed he's won. Best Nobel Prize news since Paul Nurse won for the yeast cell cycle genes.
Tuesday, 9 October 2007
"Maybe you'll finally mention me on your blog" DB remarked. I pointed out that I recently devoted an entire post to her, with a photo and everything, that her comment showed just how little she reads it. "Well I'm very busy," DB said carefully. But her tone said: I have responsibilities, people to see, places to go, millions of pounds to raise for Keble College, and I can't be sitting on the Web all day fiffing and faffing.
Quite right too...
So on DB's insistence we saw the University's improvisational comedy troupe, known as the Oxford Imps. They play every Monday night in term-time, at the Wheatsheaf pub in Oxford. They improvise sketches and songs based on daft and random audience shout-outs.
For example, yesterday featured a rap set in the underworld of the Bodleian library stacks, a musical about ghostbusters (ending in a harmonised quartet), a musical about hats (including a murderous milliner who rhymed 'milliner' with 'killin' 'er'), a really impressive feat of memory in which dialogue is improvised and then delivered forwards, backwards, inside out...and more; two hours worth of entertainment for £3! Bargain!
The troupe are amazingly professional, they know how to get laughs and impress the audience, how to get the whole room joining in, willing them along to succeed. The show is like the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway" with three times the energy and goodwill.
Improvisation comedy is a real test of acting and wit, in my opinion. The Oxford Imps are natural born entertainers and comedians.
Monday, 8 October 2007
Sunday, 7 October 2007
MG with a classic Daiquiri
Originally uploaded by mgharris
Finally, I get to have my daiquiri en La Floridita*.
In honour of...oh who needs a reason...we went to celebrate, dinner & dancing with friends at London's La Floridita.
It's a fancy restaurant/bar/dance club that features the finest examples of Cuban music, and a big variety of rum-based cocktails, including my favourite, the delicious daiquiri. I tried three different ones and they were pretty, pretty, pretty good.
The band was El Guayabero, an excellent son group from Holguin on the eastern side of the island. They played 30-min sets of up-tempo son numbers with some boleros and cha-cha-chas mixed in. No one danced for the first two sets - maybe the people at the bar were shy? Others like us were scoffing down food yummier and more luxurious than you'll find anywhere but in the very fanciest restaurants in Cuba.
The first time we ever went to Floridita was in January, for my friend Becs's birthday. That was before we'd been to Cuba (Becs had been many times), before we realised that Floridita is like an idealised, fantasy version of Cuba. In reality I didn't see anywhere in Cuba that looked anything like this. It's the levels of consumption - no-where we went in Cuba looked this fancy, certainly not the type of places bands like this play (excluding Varadero - the tourist-only enclave, which I didn't visit.) In our experience bands like Guayabero play to sweltering, smoky rooms with ineffective celing fans, and the dance floor heaves with expert Cuba couples and salsa tourists being taken for a spin by their Cuban insrtuctors.
During the third set, when we were moved off the table (you only get a 2-hour sitting on busy nights) and back to the bar, we decided to go for it on the dance floor. One couple had just taken the floor. Within seconds of us joining them the dance floor filled. The musicians looked utterly delighted. It must be a drag for a dance band to play to a motionless audience.
However, salseros, whilst the music and atmosphere are romantic and evocative (if not authentic), the drinks are wonderful and the food delish, it is not a cheap night out... And like us, you will probably still need to factor in a visit to a salsa club for a proper dance fix.
We went on to Salsa Republic@Club Colosseum, where the music of Maikel Blanco, Manolito, Issac Delgado, Adalberto and Los Van Van was as ever, wall-to-wall and sizzling hot.
P.S. Inexplicably, a photo of Becs and I dancing at the Manolito concert has rapidly risen to become one of my most viewed photos on Flickr. Is this blog to blame?
Let's do the experiment. Here's another MG & Becs dancing salsa photo - better quality, taken last night at Club Colosseum.
* the reference is to Hemingway's habit of drinking "my daiquiri in La Floridita and my moijto in La Bodeguita" - two of Havana's most famous bars. The line is quoted in one of Los Van Van's most popular songs, "Tim Pop con Birdland", a timba riff on the 1970s jazz classic "Birdland". For those who are interested in such things, I reckon "Tim Pop con Birdland" may well be my keeper on a Desert island Disc selection...
Saturday, 6 October 2007
Gosh I'm looking forward to it. The family are taking a break to do a Joshua Files Roadtrip. We had planned to follow in Josh's footsteps from Chetumal all the way to Catemaco but honestly the driving would just be too tiring.
So we're doing a cut down version. I will be posting much more about this, so stay tuned.
Meanwhile, especially for Lucas, I dug out this TV ad for Josh's favourite cupcakes, which he eats on his bus journey through Yucatan in 'Invisible City'.
The are called 'Pinguinos' and are like Hostess cupcakes - white vanilla cream inside a chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting and a squiggle of white icing on top. And a childhood favourite of mine.
Friday, 5 October 2007
Heck, I'm pretty sure it's okay to let you see this now. After all there's an image on Amazon.co.uk now, and when the lovely people at Scholastic videoed a promotional clip of me talking about the book, they had a whole bunch of the book mockups in the background.
I can't take any credit for this amazing package so I don't feel AT ALL bashful about praising it.
See how it glows at the edges? See how there's lots of lovely edges? See how you slip the book right into a splashproof jacket so that you can take the book to the pool, to the beach? See how the actual cover (under the dayglo-orange plastic) is mostly white, black and orange?
I dreamed of having a book design that was minimalist, graphic and mainly white and black but I didn't even dream of asking for that, cos I assumed they'd say - "A kids' book? White? It'd get grubby...and hey that's a bit dull..."
I want one. I can't wait to see what they look like when lots of them are stacked up, that orange glow reinforced in every copy.
How much would you pay for a book like this? Would you pay £6.99?
Sold! (In fact you can get it quite a bit cheaper, I found one online retailer selling it at less than a fiver. No, I'm not saying where!)
Never let anyone say I'm not a huckster for my books. Buy one! Buy them for your sons and daughters and nephews and nieces.
Go on, make me happy. Pre-order, why don't you?
Forgive the giddiness. I'm still happy about finishing my latest manuscript. I just asked my husband to nip out to buy a box of chocolates to eat while watching TV. Tomorrow we'll celebrate properly with un daiquiri en La Floridita.
(It's not counting my chickens. Milestone celebrations are important, esp for scientists and writers who can work on one thing for years. If you've finished a ms recently, good onyer. It's no small achievement, for anyone.)
Thursday, 4 October 2007
Some dear friends of ours from my days in the Nuffield Department of Medicine were over from Melbourne. (That's where the UK bioscience brain drain has been for the past ten years, or so it seems to me; if I count up all my best friends from doctorate and post-doc years about half have ended up in Oz. Okay, most of those were originally Australian, but hey...)
They'd always talked about taking us to their favourite haunt in Cornwall, where they'd rent a cottage almost every year when they lived in the UK. We hadn't seen them for years, so this it was wonderful that this time, we could join them there.
I've been to Cornwall once before, North Cornwall, which is gorgeous but this place was even better! It has the Lizard on one side and Lands End on the other (both far in the distance); old smugglers caves, gorgeous little coves as well as wide, sandy beaches with all the stuff kids like (e.g. rock pools, pebbles, shells), amazing clifftop walks with views out to St Michael's Mount.
So after a gorgeous weekend eating Cornish pasties (veggie and yummy!), visiting ice-cream parlours and eating cake, I've probably gained a pound or three, despite the exercise of walking.
My friend Magda gave me a lovely scientist flashback moment when she went through the slides for a talk she gave last week at a conference in London; a fantastically effective new way to use nano-particles as part of a new vaccine for diseases like malaria. My very first research job was with a team developing one of the UK's earliest candidates for an AIDS vaccine, so it was vaguely familiar territory. I'm so proud of Magda, of all my scientist friends she's the first to be made a full Professor. Professor Magda!
In other news, someone is selling a bound proof of The Joshua Files: Invisible City on ebay. There are only a few hundred in circulation, I believe...
It should go for a very, very reasonable sum, i.e. cheap-as-chips, given that at this point in time i) almost no-one has heard of the title and ii) almost no-one has heard of the author...
Tuesday, 2 October 2007
Jibacoa Beach at Night
Originally uploaded by heyjohngreen
Well, the first draft at least...typed the final sentence.
The polishing comes next but compared to the original act of writing, that's easy.
The final scene is set on Jibacoa beach, east of Havana, at sundown as our hero struggles for his last chance to escape...
And that's all I'm going to say about 'Jaguar's Realm' for quite a while. It's taken over a year to write, what with one thing and another. I feel quite drained now, actually. Need a good break to get the creative juices going again.
Now to read the ms aloud to my teenage daughter and see if it's hitting all the right buttons. (I can't recommend this enough for polishing a ms. You get an immediate audience reaction, and when something doesn't work you get that puzzled look...Huhhhh?)