Monday, November 21, 2011

Is there a doctor on board?

It finally happened. In 30 years of flying, including many intercontinental flights, I've never been a passenger on a plane where the flight crew asked for medical personnel. But while our plane was delayed on the ground in Brussels, the announcement came over the PA. (This has happened to Dr. N before, but it was the first time since she's been a doctor.) The flight attendants looked a little surprised when the two of us stood up, and we were overkill anyway: two other medical folks were already at the patient's side. Looked like wooziness after low blood sugar, normal vitals, and the patient walked back to her seat. So, no dramatic improvised chest tube at 40,000 feet -- this time....

(Historical note: long-timers at this blog may remember that one of the earliest ben-bob comment threads was on this very topic.)

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

The fires of creation

We're in Kigali, Rwanda at the moment, getting ready to start flying back to the US tonight. You may have seen images of Mt Nyamulagira erupting near Goma on Lake Kivu in eastern DR Congo, where we've been working. Although the eruption posed no threat to the city or to the gorillas in the nearby national park, it did inspire us to go see a very rare volcanic phenomenon.

Mt Nyiragongo is the tallest volcano near Goma and dominates the northern skyline. Its crater has the distinction of containing one of the world's very few lava lakes. So, a few days ago we set off with an expedition of 8 other volcano tourists, a guide, three armed park rangers, and a crew of porters, to ascend to the rim of the crater, over 11,000 feet high.

The trail winds through dense jungle, over profusions of jumbled volcanic rock, through areas mostly denuded and still recovering from the eruption nine years ago, and various other ecosystems.

At each stopping point, we were higher and higher: above nearby small volcanic cones, faraway major volcanoes, and finally above the propeller planes coming in to land at Goma's airfield. It was a demanding climb; one of the other hikers developed altitude sickness, and by the last scramble up 45-degree rock fields above the vegetation line, it was all I could do to keep hauling myself up step by step.

But arriving at the summit made it all worth it. Standing on the rim of the caldera, you can look down into a seething lake of magma almost a kilometer across and over 500 meters (1600 feet) below the rim. It's a truly profound experience, seeing the forces that have shaped the surface of the earth since before there was life on this planet.


From our vantage point a couple of kilometers away, the lake generates a sound almost like a heavy surf. The surface of the lake is a pattern of darker, slightly cooler plates that are constantly changing shape and occasionally subsumed into hundred-foot-high lava plumes. Overhead, the glow from the lake turns the column of smoke and steam orange.

We spent the night at the summit in little shelters and awoke to a brilliant sunrise over another nearby volcano. The climb down was also challenging, but it's hard to imagine a more moving sight as the goal of a two-day trek.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday morning

The first few days of data collection were very productive. I came in to the hospital for Saturday morning rounds, and now am spending a quiet morning here working on analyzing the data.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Update from the Congo

The trip from Kigali to the border was very smooth, on a well-maintained road with spectacular views (that is, when we weren't in the middle of thick fog). The hillsides are checkerboards of terraces in many shades of green, and laterite-stained waterfalls jump out over rocky cliffs when you least expect it. Just before getting to the border we got a view of a pair of volcanoes (active, naturally) with their tops obscured by clouds.

We had been warned to expect having to cough up some bribes at the border, but the officials just smiled, stamped our passports, and waved us through. Goma itself is a pretty singular place. It's on the north shore of Lake Kivu, one of the Great Lakes of Africa. The city has a beautiful setting, with lush green hills marching up to the shoreline and fishing boats out in the deeper waters.

To the northeast are more active volcanoes, including Mt Nyiragongo (described as one of the most active in the world, and home to one of the world's few lava lakes). Lava from an eruption in 2002 flowed through -- and devastated -- central Goma, and now the city is strewn with piles of volcanic rock and gravel that are being used for (re)building materials. Its neighbor Mt Nyamulagira started erupting again a few days ago (news story here), but fortunately for us the lava is flowing away from Goma. However, the heat from the crater seems to be generating a big thunderhead cloud sitting over the mountain.

We've spent three days at the hospital here now and have already gotten a lot accomplished on our research project. We're staying at a guesthouse right on the shore of the lake, surrounded by riots of flowers and guarded by our faithful new canine friend, Poupé. There was a tropical thunderstorm with lightning over the lake tonight: welcome weather geek entertainment for us thunderstorm-deprived Bay Areans.

I was thinking of taking a shower tonight, but the enormous insect in the shower stall at the moment is obviously the dominant critter in our ecosystem, so maybe I'll just wait until tomorrow morning....

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A night in Kigali

We just got to Rwanda where we're spending the night in a sweet hotel with wireless. Tomorrow we head out overland to cross into DR Congo.

On the flight in watched the sun set over a bend of the Nile in the middle of the deep, deep desert -- very impressive.