Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Who Let The Dogs Out?"


Kathleen's Week:

Sweat was streaming down my forehead. The sun was at the hottest point in the afternoon as we moved into position on opposite sides of the field moving slowly and stealthily. We did not have to wait long until we heard the Pfft-plunk sound of Khun Chai's blowdart going off followed by a quick yelp of the dog as it took off into the underbrush with a tranquilizer dart dangling out of its thigh. The trick at this point was to follow the dog but not to scare it in the process. Adrenaline causes the tranquilizer to not work as quickly but if the dog runs away too far before succumbing to the sedation it will not likely be captured. In this case the dog disappeared into some deep underbrush. As I traversed around the edge of the thicket I could see and hear brush rustling and moving. I expected a dog to come charging out at any moment but it turned out to be Maggie, one of the local residents, and a dedicated dog lover. She was smothered in leaves and covered with scratches and cuts all over her arms and shoulders. We filled the truck and returned to the shelter. In an afternoon of darting dogs we managed to catch 3 grown dogs and 2 puppies. One dog had a large laceration across its nose and the two puppies had such a heavy tick burden that they were anemic as a result. Blow darting isn't the first capturing method of choice, but in circumstances where the dogs are skittish and difficult to catch, it's the only way. The dogs were treated, vaccinated and sterilized; and after 1 week of recovery, they were released. This is how my week began.

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand and is estimated to have 60,000 stray dogs wandering the streets (Bangkok is estimated to have 300,000). Many are dumped at Buddhist temples where the monks won't turn them away but have limited capacity to care for them, some are beaten to death or poisoned, and some end up in the dog meat trade. The dog meat trade is perhaps the most frightening. Strays are rounded up and shipped to Vietnam, often multiple dogs in the same crate where many die en route. The ones that survive are then force tube fed to fatten up and then are boiled alive as there is a belief that the adrenaline tenderizes the meat and has beneficial effects when eaten. ( for more information and a video - viewer discretion strongly advised).

Care For Dogs Foundation (CFD) is where we spent a week helping out where we could. Their primary goal is to control the dog population in the most humane way possible via sterilization programs. This organization is doing a good job under tough conditions. Out of the several dog shelters we have toured they have the nicest and cleanest facility and their dogs appear to be in the best health. Their shelter sterilizations operate out of one small operating suite and their medical team compromises one full time vet and a 50% part-time vet; and whenever possible, international vet volunteers. Other volunteers fill their days by assisting with medical bathing, walking and socializing the dogs which is a huge help. Like all shelters in Thailand they are at maximum capacity or even over it.

The main yard at Care For Dogs

Last year CFD accomplished 635 spay/neuter sterilizations. The goal is to expand to 1000 this year. With the current surgical suite and the requisite in-house space it will be hard to reach that goal. That is where I was able to help. I spent the bulk of the week using my former grant writing skills from the University of Washington to apply for a grant from Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS) seeking funding for the design, orientation, implementation and start-up of a mobile veterinary clinic that would primarily function as a sterilization unit; but would also double as an aide vehicle for community outreach in times during disaster (floods or Tsunami) or crisis (dog meat trade). Naturally, the WVS grant application process is competitive, so irregardless of the announcement, I hope someday this concept can be realized. It's a shame to see such passion and dedication restrained by resources.

John's Week:

I spent the week spaying/neutering and helping out with some of the other sick and injured dogs. It was fun doing surgeries all day (yes vet friends, I did just call surgery fun) though my lower back would be screaming by the end of the day.


In the US I juggle what needs to be done (ideally) with what owners can afford. Here it was balancing what needed to be done with what was available for diagnostics, medications, and equipment. I realized how spoiled I have gotten over the years with pretty much everything I needed available. The hospitals I have worked at have MRI's and CT scanners. Now I was reduced a lot of the time to history, signalment, physical exam, and best guess. No imaging was available and just some very basic blood work. A blood parasite called Ehrlichia is rampant so low platelets are almost "normal" here which helped make some of the surgeries a little more exciting. A lot of the time I had help from a volunteer vet from Russia but there were times I would pre-med, induce, prep, do surgery, and monitor the anesthesia all by myself. Not like the small army of vet nurses I have helping me at home. For those of you that know Monty Python, all I really wanted was the machine that goes "ping". Any type of device that beeped to tell me the heart was beating (pulse ox, EKG, doppler, etc). Instead it was more just watching the chest to see if breathes were being taken. The week showed me that at some level all the fancy gadgets are not necessary (but they sure are nice). 

Besides the surgery it was interesting to see some types of cases that I had never seen before. I had seen pictures of Transmissible Venereal Tumors (TVT) before but was now able to help treat some cases. This is a strange type of cancer that is actually contagious and is treated with chemotherapy.

TVT case undergoing treatment

I also saw a case of Trypanosoma which does not exist in North America and is the same type of parasite that causes African Sleeping Sickness in humans. The other success case was a dog whose history and physical exam was classic for Myasthenia Gravis - a disease that causes the the neurotransmitter between the nerves and muscle to not function properly which causes them to get weak after a short bout of exercise. To my surprise Care For Dogs just happened to have had a donation of the drug that treats this problem and the dog responded wonderfully.

It was a great week working with some amazing dedicated people trying to make a dent into a huge problem. We are hoping that this will not be the last time we cross paths with these folks. to see more on the excellent work they do and how to help out.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Raw Side of Laos: How 5 miles might as well be 50

     John and I try as much as possible to be do-it-yourselfers.  We feel like we get a better appreciation of the culture by taking the local bus with the chickens and cargo in the aisles, by going to the restaurant full of locals, and by meandering through the markets and parts of town off of the beaten track.  Some of our richest experiences have happened this way.
     Nestled in the jungle covered mountains of Northwest Laos near the border of China and Myanmar is the Nam Ha National Protected area.  One of the first and largest national parks in Laos.  Perfect countryside for biking, rafting/kayaking, and trekking.  We decided to go out of our usual routine and hire a local Lao hill tribe guide for one day of kayaking followed by a two day trek.  Here we discovered that to have the deepest cultural experience it was best to be part of the tourist infrastructure for a variety of reasons: 
  • The only way a National Park can stay viable and protected is if it has the support of the local people.  Many hill tribe villages had to be relocated out of the park when it was created.  By seeing an income stream from the tourists visiting, the villagers have incentive not to illegally poach and log.
Lantan hill tribe traditional dress- from growing cotton to natural dies, entirely made within the village                                

  • The jungle is crossed by a network of trails that the hill tribes have used for centuries.  However, there are no maps or signs marking the way so without local knowledge it is impossible to know where to go.
Trekking in the Nam Ha NPA                        

  • This area of Laos (even though it was nowhere near Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail) was pounded with bombs during America's Secret War (1964-1973) so the area still has unexploded ordinance.  It is best not to go wandering off on your own in some places.
  • But most important of all, (besides #1) having a local with us gave us the connection we were really seeking-- to better understand the culture. I'm fascinated by hill tribe people and their ancient culture and roots.  
   Ouan (from the Khmu tribe) was our local hire and his 14 year old friend Phonsee (from the Lantan tribe) joined us. As we trekked Ouan showed us different plants that were used for food, medicine, and building.  He found wild cardamom from which he made a tea later.  He showed us a seed that is a test for malaria.  If it tastes sweet then it implies you have malaria; luckily it tasted bitter to both of us.  On the second day we were attacked by a swarm of bees receiving about 25 stings between the four of us.  I tend to have severe localized reactions and swelling, but he put a tincture of natural tiger balm (from a tree bark) and whiskey that stopped the swelling almost immediately.
   Ouan explained some of the animistic beliefs and religion that most of the hill tribe people believe in.  He showed us spirit trees and explained how sacrifices are performed to ensure the favor of the spirits.  Ghosts and spirits are a very real element in their lives.  Both the use of jungle medicine and animistic beliefs helped us understand what would happen later as you will see below. 
One of several spirit trees we passed                        

   We stayed in homestays in the two villages we slept at - Ban Sopsinh and Ban Nam Kon. 
Ban Sopsinh                                            

   After we arrived at each village the villagers would discuss whose turn it was.  It is an easy way for the villagers to make supplemental income and we had the satisfaction of knowing the money is going directly to a family that needs it. 
Our first homestay house 

We lived like they do.  The accommodations are basically a mat on the floor with some blankets and a mosquito net.  Cooking is done over an open fire, often within the house. A very smoky affair!
Downstairs cooking area at 2nd homestay

   We found the villagers to be very welcoming, and having Ouan translate helped us better explain to them who we were and to learn more about them.  At the first village we were invited to drink rice whiskey with them. 
Sipping rice whiskey with the locals
 Kids trying on our Ultraspire Fastpacks
Lantan family. The little ones have no crotch in their pants; diapers are not used      

   The second village was a little more sobering as we saw how difficult their lives can be.  The Lantan tribe is entirely self sufficient.  They make all their own cloth and clothes, grow and raise all their food, and build their houses of natural materials from the jungle. 
These plants are turned into brooms which are sold in China

   Phonsee was excited to take us to his village of Ban Nam Kon where he had been born and raised.  He was very proud to show us his house and to introduce us to his Aunt and Uncle (his parents died when he was 8).  The house was bamboo with a thatched roof.  It had a dirt floor with a campfire in one corner.  There was a small raised wooden platform for sleeping, a few low stools for sitting around the fire, and in a corner was a curtained off spirit house.  Both John and I got misty eyed from how poor and simple it was, yet Phonsee was so proud. It was moving.
Trying to spin yarn at Phonsee's house with corn drying above and bags of rice behind

   That night at 2am Phonsee came to the house we were at and asked Ouan if he could borrow 50,000 kip ($6.25) to buy a chicken for a sacrifice.  His Uncle had started to have a nosebleed so once he got the chicken he hiked into the forest to a spirit tree and did this.  By morning though, his Uncle was still bleeding and both Ouan and Phonsee looked worried.  John is a veterinarian so they asked him to look.  It turned out to not just be a nosebleed.  He was hemorrhaging.  His nose was packed with a herb that stops bleeding which had the worst of the nostril flow stopped but he was spitting out large amounts of blood constantly.  It was enough blood that Ouan got sick to his stomach and had to leave.  They had also wrapped cotton strings around his forehead to help with the spirits.  We went and found two French doctors we had met the night before to get them to have a look.  Everyone agreed that with that amount of blood and no medical supplies that he needed to go to the hospital.  However, it had rained for 2 hours that morning which had turned the clay mud road into a skating rink.  Despite being only 5 miles from the hospital there was no way to get him there.  We were dumbfounded to think that someone could potentially die from a nosebleed due to lack of access to medical care.  Luckily it is the dry season and the sun came out at 11am and they were able to get him to town on a tractor later that day.  During the rainy season that may have not been the case.  Without having Ouan with us translating we would never have seen the Lao life in such a true and raw form.  These 3 days are the heart of why we are on this voyage.  To experience, learn, and hopefully grow from it. 
Phonsee and Ouan with us

   John and I have loved Laos but the area in the north around Luang Namtha has been our favorite.  We would encourage anyone interested in this part of the world to come visit Luang Namtha Province.  Beautiful landscape, incredibly hospitable people, culturally rich, and an eye opening experience on several different levels. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

FidEgan's Fastpacks - Episode 5 - Hash Running in Thailand

John and I are currently on a world trip where we plan to pursue our passion of trail running through the various landscapes and environments of the world. As we pass through each country we want to post our top pick for a trail run that we did. This does not mean that this is the best trail to run in that country. It just means that it was our favorite that we did. We are both using Ultraspire Fastpacks to carry our gear, hence the name of the column.

There are several National Parks in Thailand and there are many trails that weave through them but they aren't marked or on any map. They are trails that the hill tribes have used for 100's of years or more. This makes it hard to try to explore trail running on your own without the high risk of getting lost. The Hash runs helped solve some of this problem. Plus it's a great way to get to know the locals.

History of the Hash: Hash running began in 1938 by some Brits living in Malaysia.

Its goal was to: 1) Promote fitness 2) Get rid of weekend hangovers 3) To acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it with beer (which directly counteracts goal #2) 4) To persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel. It is often called "a drinking club with a running problem". There are now 2000 chapters around the world including 2 on Antarctica.

How it works: A "hare" sets the trail by marking it with paper and/or chalk. Intersections are marked with "checks" where decisions have to be made about the correct trail. False trails are often part of these checks. The runners call to each other as they search for and then find the correct trail.

The end of the run involves the social part or "circle". Various people are called up to sit on a block of ice (some do it bare-bummed) as they are commended, ridiculed, or otherwise called out for some action or behavior that occurred during the run. The groups we were with knew each other quite well so the ribbing that they gave each other was quite humorous. A cup (half full) of beer is downed by the person after they sit on the ice. Raunchy songs were sung by the group. In Chiang Mai a large group went out to dinner together and in Chiang Rai a delicious Thai buffet was served.

Hash runners all have their "hash names" that have been given to them by their peers. They tend to be on the inappropriate/gross side. You are named after going to the same Hash three times.

Where: Chiang Mai ( and Chiang Rai (, Thailand

Facilities/Trailhead: Depends on the site of the Hash run. Usually minimal facilities, but there is always the nearby bush. There is plenty of water and beer at the finish along with a nice big block of ice to cool your bum on. See the local website for the meeting place of the run.

Fees: Around 250 baht (~$8)

Terrain/Trails: Distance: 6-7 miles (~10 km) plus additional mileage for any false trails followed

Description: Both trails were in rural farmland near their respective towns. The running went past and through rice paddies, corn fields, through forest, jungle, over grassy fields and hills using a combination of dirt roads and single track. Sometimes the single track would be fast and smooth running, sometimes it was partial bush wacking.

Various additional obstacles were encountered including thorns, prickers, cows, and barbed wire fences.

The people in the lead would be the ones that would investigate the possible trails when checks would come so they ran most of the additional distance. The slightly slower people would wait at the check until the trail had been figured out. The checks tend to keep the fast and slow people together so there is not a big gap between the first and last at the finish line. The "Circles" held after each Hash were quite funny, though the Chiang Mai group is a bit more in the gutter while the Chiang Rai group is a little more family friendly. The best part of doing these Hashes was that it let us meet local runners. The Hash and the Hash runners we met would introduce us to the trails in the area and then John and I felt a little more comfortable about exploring further on our own.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thailand - A first taste of Asia

        In Baja I had a schedule. I had to kayak to the next town before I ran out of water. In Europe we had a schedule. Relatives and friends of the family were expecting us to visit during certain weeks. Now our traveling has taken on a much more leisurely speed. The pace of life is slower. We are not interested in rushing around and trying to see "everything" there is to be seen. It has been more our style to pick a town and settle down for a bit, exploring the trails and countryside around the town, seeing some of the sites, and meeting some of the people that live there. 

      Once everyone had left Koh Samui after the wedding we hung out there for a few days with our friend Seth discussing plans for Nepal in the spring (see for all the crazy stuff he has been and will be up to).

View from Sarocha Villas, Koh Samui

We then flew up to Chiang Mai which is the big city in Northern Thailand. It is a town of about 175,000 people and its biggest drawback is that the air quality can get REALLY poor there since the pollution gets trapped within the mountains. Otherwise there is a lot going on in Chiang Mai. It is the gate way to the northern mountains and very much on the backpacker/tourist circuit. In most of Thailand there are temples everywhere but there are even a higher density here. Over 700 was the number I believe I read somewhere. They all have very similar features but are each unique at the same time, much like the cathedrals in Europe. At Wat (Temple) Srisuphan they have a "monk chat" three nights a week where the monks get to practice their English and the farang (Westerners) get to ask the monks questions about their life.

Wat Srisuphan, Chiang Mai

For many of them, being a monk is a way for them to get an education. The monk we talked to planned on being a monk for 10 years and hoped to get a masters degree. He said that many of the laypeople don't truly understand Buddhism but just go through the motions. We remarked that we thought at some level all religions are like that. For example I was raised a Christian but don't really understand the holy trinity - Father (God), Son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost - where did the ghost come from? I thought ghosts were pagan? Ghosts or spirits are a real belief here and there is a spirit house (altar) in most houses and businesses with daily offerings of food, water, and incense. While in Chiang Mai we also met some local runners through a Hash House Harrier run (see FidEgan's Fastpacks - Epidsode 5 - Hash Running In Thailand). We did some running with them and then spent some days exploring the hills above town in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.

Doi Suthep Park with Square Rooter and Brown Finger

View toward Chiang Mai
     Next stop was Chiang Dao where the mountains become more rugged as they get close to the Myanmar border. These hills are considered to be the very beginning (or end) of the Himalaya. We played tourist and rode elephants bareback. We laughed since we rode camels when we got engaged in Tunisia and now elephants on our "honeymoon" but we have never ridden horses together. We spent 2 days trekking the mountains and spent the night in a Hmong village.
Tarzan? - nope, just John

Hiking into Hmong village
Tarzan? - nope, just John

The other place we spent a chunk of time in was Chiang Rai which is smaller and much less polluted than Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai had some of the worst air quality I have ever been in though it did improve while we were there after it rained. Chiang Rai is a great place to relax. We rented a motor bike one day and explored the countryside.
The White Temple, Chiang Rai
Mae Korn Waterfall, Chiang Rai

We ran with some locals that our Chiang Mai friends had put us in touch with. We did a visa run to the Myanmar border one day which was interesting. That part of Myanmar we were told is run by two warlords (there used to be 3 but one was killed) and that area produces over 600 tons of heroin which is second only to Afghanistan. The border town of Tachileik was a fairly dreary place with a bit of a wild west feel to it. To truly enter Myanmar you have to fly in. Crossing the land border you are limited to that area and only for a day (or 14 days with special permission). We wandered the town for an hour before deciding the food options were more appealing in Thailand so we crossed back across the Mai Nam Sai River which reset our Thai visas to allow us to stay for another 30 days.
Mai Nam Sai River into Myanmar
We then went back to Bangkok for Christmas with the Fiddlers. We stopped at Sukhothai on the way which is an archaeological World Heritage Site. It was originally a Khmer city but was then the place where the first kings of Thailand began to develop their empire in the 1200s. There were spectacular ruins with influences from India, China, and Indonesia scattered over a wide area and we spent the day riding bikes around the area.
Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai

Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai

Impressions of Thailand - it was the perfect place to start a trip around SE Asia. Not many people speak English (beyond a few words) yet it has been really easy to travel in. People have been friendly and helpful. The food is amazing and we have had no gastrointestinal issues (so far). It is crazy affordable, especially after being in Europe last summer. The guesthouses we have been staying in have been between $10-25 a night. Entrees at a restaurant are $3-4 but you can eat street food (choosing carefully) for even less. Transportation costs are also very low. Sometimes when we are haggling over a fare for a tuk tuk or sorngtaaou (pickup truck taxi) we realize that it is over 30 cents and just decide to pay the "tourist price". Combined we have been living off of about $50 a day. We met a few expats that are retired and living here off of nothing but their social security. That said, if you want a western lifestyle in the east, you will pay for it. It's really a matter of choice. We prefer to live simply and are able to do it so cheaply here.

Next stop: Laos (though we will be back in Thailand at the end of January to do some veterinary work).