Amazonian dugout canoes are very beautiful; elegant and functional, like most of the things Amazonians make. The production is fascinating to watch. The idea of a craft made from a single piece of wood adds romance. Whilst on fieldwork I practised whittling spoons, rings, net needles and such when I got the chance. My efforts were crude, but gave
me great pleasure. So upon returning home, I dreamed of continuing to make wooden objects, specifically a mask and one day, a dugout canoe. That day is a long way off. I have neither the skill, time, tools, nor raw material to accomplish that task. So I dreamed of other ways of soothing that desire.


widening in Uatuma

It turns out canoes can even be made from (thickly varnished) paper mache . An existing craft could even be used as a template. I wanted a method that would be relatively cheap and simple. In the end I settled on using the coracle method . The idea was to create a lashed frame of flexible willow sticks, then sew on calico canvas, then paint that with bitumen to waterproof and protect it. I intended to use that method to create something canoe-shaped rather than round like a traditional coracle.

I played a limited role in actually making the canoes. The majority of the work was done by many of my colleagues. I enticed them with limitless home-brewed wine and snacks. The process was therefore far less efficient and more fun. We made two canoes. The first was more solidly built and wider, but not very symmetrical. The second was lighter, narrower and more torpedo shaped.

Gathering Willow

I am a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Part of the management of the grounds includes coppicing riverside willows. I found abundant coppiced willow sticks left for months and apparently unused. I chose the straightest of these, in different thicknesses, bundled them up and carried them home. I neither peeled nor soaked these willow sticks and they were not freshly cut. This made them far less flexible and manageable than they otherwise would have been.

Making and Varnishing the Frame


We marked out an oval template on the ground to the length and width we thought appropriate (4.5 by 1.5m). This was to represent the gunwales of the canoe, which we were effectively making upside down. We staked willow poles symmetrically at even intervals (about 30cm if I remember correctly) around the oval.


The width-wise poles were parallel to one another, like lines of latitude, whereas the lengthwise poles converged at the ends like lines of longitude. Starting with the longest and thickest longitude pieces, we slowly bent these poles and lashed them to their opposite. Shorter latitude poles were planted in the ground by their opposite and lashed together. We bent them at an angle to make the deepest part of the canoes about 1m deep. Several snapped (especially near the ends where the angle was steepest) and had to be replaced. We then wove thin sticks at the gunwales. We lashed and cable-tied the structure together. The ends, where the many lengthwise poles came together, were securely lashed with bike inner tubes and trimmed.The wooden frame was varnished to help protect against water and insects


5IMG_3220Seats and Paddles

We experimented with forcing wooden beams between the woven gunwales, but eventually opted for a lighter option. We attached cheap metal carabiners to the frame and tied discarded bike inner tubes (provided by Dr bike) between them. These served to pull the canoe sides in, as they had a tendency to otherwise bow out. To the thinner canoe, we attached a wooden brace in the middle. This was attached by drilling four holes through the wood and cable tying it into the frame. We had no time to carve wooden paddles, so we created stick frames and gaffer taped on varnished cardboard.

Skin and Waterproofingsew2

We used heavyweight calico material. This was draped over the canoes. Then cut to length. Then sewed tight at the longest axis, then at the widest.The material was pulled taught and sewed in place, with excess fabric trimmed off. The skin was sewn back onto itself, so that it covered the gunwales. We used bitumen tar to waterproof the skin. Two layers were painted on both theinside and outside of the calico. We worried that this would not prove very durable or waterproof, but the bitumen impregnated calico exceeded our expectations in both respects. Each canoe could easily hold 2 adults. The entire process took perhaps 3 full days of labour for about 6 people, stretched out over several months whenever we had a free afternoon. We made many mistakes and corrections. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We just made it up as we went along. We ate and drank copiously throughout.



Davi, Rodrigo and myself carried the canoes down to the bridge over a small river by the UEA campus. They are light enough that both can be carried quite a distance by two
people. On putting the canoes in water, we discovered them to be extremely buoyant, too deep, not wide enough and therefore unbalanced. One also had to be careful not to lean too far back or the back end would tip in and sink the canoe. For a single person to sit in one canoe, we had to pour a load of water into the bottom to make it sit lower and more stable in the water.12IMG_7695 We also decided to sit right into the bottom of the canoes, ignoring the seats entirely. We nicknamed them the soggy bottom boats. The wider canoe was more stable, but also harder to paddle. Speaking of which, the paddles themselves wetted out extremely quickly and became useless, so we ordered some cheap plastic paddles. We decided to connect the canoes into a catamaran by tying sticks across them. The made them far more stable, to the point that we no longer needed to add water.

The Big Day


Finally, after months of waiting, a big group of us assembled and carried the canoe-catamaran to the river Wensum. There was much trepidation at first, but it soon became clear that the canoe-catamaran could comfortably hold four adults. Jo brought his own beautiful wooden canoe.

tiredWe took turns paddling and cycling from place to place. For the first leg I chucked on a wetsuit and fins and paddled/steered along behind, which was great fun, but really hot and tiring. It was a beautiful day. We greeted families of swans, ate watercress and generally made the most of it. We paddled all the way through the centre of Norwich, carrying the crafty over the weir. We made very slow progress as the canoes were neither very symmetrical, ergonomic, nor easy to steer straight.

At Norwich1820150816_115359 Canoe Hire Company, we hired an additional canoe. The owner commented that in our design, the bottom of the canoes curved up away from the water too quickly, leaving too little of the craft in contact with the water and increasing instability. We paddled on to the Ribs of Beef pub where we had lunch. Half the group had to leave by this point, so Jo, Rodrigo and myself continued on towards Postwick.

We were an odd sight. Jo in his sleek wooden canoe. Rodrigo and I in a lashed bunch of tarred sticks that looked as if it had been built by orcs. Many people started at us, greeted jocanoeus, questioned us and wished us well as we passed. Generally older men chatted excitedly with us. Rodrigo and I cheated by hitching a lift at one point. A nice chap threw us a rope and towed us along behind for a while. We stopped off at the River Garden pub for a pint and a chat before completing the last leg of the journey in the glorious fading evening sun. Unbelievably we made it! The frame and skin of the canoes made it totally undamaged and with no leaks. I was suitably impressed.

Of course, the whole group buzzed with ideas for improved designs and more outings and perhaps predictably none of these happened. For me, the pleasure was in the conception IMG_0995and execution of the idea and the wonderful time working and playing with friends. The process reassured me that water-worthy crafts can be made cheaply by amateurs, and if so, what else? One of the lasting impressions that Amazonian fieldwork made on me was that humans are capable of using cheap materials and limited tools to make for themselves the necessities of life. It seems inconceivable in our intensely specialised, mechanised, technocratic society, so it’s nice to be reminded.




Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Field Diseases 1, The Tripple Whammy

Let’s get gruesome. I’ll run through some of the diseases, parasites and minor injuries I accumulated during a year’s fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazon, and perhaps how to avoid/deal with them.  I’ve done fieldwork elsewhere and picked up various other nasties, but a year really gave the forest a chance to sink its teeth into me.  This post will start with three hospital-worthy ones that happened in succession in my second field season. I’ll come back to the other ones in a separate post.

I’d like to note that I am incredibly fortunate. I had the money and opportunity to repeatedly access high quality treatment for the various ailments I acquired. Most people around the world are less fortunate. Even transportation to a hospital is beyond the means of many. What were uncomfortable experiences for me would be agonising, debilitating, or life threatening for many.


I’m pretty sure I remember the mosquito that gave me vivax malaria. I was in the Jurua region, sitting in a large community in the house of an Amazonian colleague  who was telling me how this had been a terrible year for malaria; his whole family had been infected. As he said this I felt a slap on my arm and looked over to see his grinning daughter with a squished mosquito on her palm. It was then I regretted forgetting to stock up my Larium.

Camera deployment is far more challenging than removal (for reasons I will explain in another post), and we (myself and my field assistant, let’s call him Iney) had deployed 10 transects all in different communities in 12 days virtually without a hitch. So I confidently assumed removal would be easy. I should have known not to be smug.


Graviola, Mark Ilan Abrahams

We started working along the Anaxiqui river. An off graviola gave us an upset stomach,so the next day when I had a headache and was fatigued I assumed I was dehydrated. I drank rehydration salts and rested after work. The headache, fatigue and nausea steadily worsened. I was assured I had a virus (as I wasn’t shivering uncontrollably), so took paracetamol and rested a couple of days. Next time we went to remove cameras, I couldn’t complete the hike. I heartily vomited the little food I could stomach half way through a trail and had to rest whilst Iney collected the furthest camera and returned for me. I was loathe to postpone camera collection, but a sensible Amazonian colleague suggested that I was not getting better, so it was time to return to Carauari (the nearest city) and get treatment . There was also concern that I may pass whatever illness I had to the many people currently gathered at Bauana studying a Natural Resource Management course. In the hospital a malaria test came up negative, but I was positive for three intestinal and one urinary infection that I hadn’t noticed, so they treated me for those and sent me off.


Public Hospital, Carauari, Mark Ilan Abrahams

I rested for several more days, constantly expecting to get better and go back to work, but I didn’t. Eventually a Colombian medic staying at the same pousada made the same sensible suggestion that I wasn’t recovering, so I headed to the Tropical Hospital in Manaus where the malaria test came up positive and after two weeks since symptoms started, I got treatment.

It was my only experience of malaria and it knocked me back. I was thin and weak, with little appetite and painful muscles for weeks after. Also I couldn’t drink alcohol for the next few months.

Incidentally, all of the medics I encountered be they in Carauari, Itamarati or Manaus, in free public hospitals, drug-stores etc., were extremely competent, helpful and caring. When in Carauari, before I had been diagnosed with malaria, there was a family-run churasceria (barbecue restaurant) near my pousada that I often ate at.


Churasco, Carauari, Mark Ilan Abrahams

The mother of the family got concerned one evening at my extreme listlessness and lack of appetite, so came and took me from my room. A trained nurse, she gave me some medication and I slept in her daughters’ bed (who was away). Similarly when back in Carauari with an apparent recurrence, I lay shivering on a hospital bed and a nurse, who I had met long before when working in a nearby community stroked my back as if I were her child. I have much to thank for Amazonian kindness.


Dad in the Manaus Opera House, Mark Ilan Abrahams

A bizarre thing happened during malaria treatment. My dad turned up in Manaus out of the blue! I had called my parents to let them know that I was totally fine, had malaria, but was receiving first rate treatment. When I called back the next day, dad had left Israel on a 48 hour journey to look after me. Proof if it was ever needed of how caring/neurotic my parents are. It thoroughly shattered my illusions of being an independent badass tropical fieldworker and taught me not to be so honest with my parents about my illnesses.


My weakened immune system is probably why I was so badly affected by the next disease I developed working in Uatuma. I noticed the glands at the back of my neck were swollen during the malaria and that my muscles ached for weeks after, but thought nothing of it. Neither are symptoms of malaria however. I didn’t realise I had contracted toxoplasmosis, probably from contaminated water or meat. As a rule I eat and drink whatever my hosts do, so it’s not surprising.


Farinha and caldeirada de peixe, Mark Ilan Abrahams

Toxoplasmosis is a common and usually harmless disease. In my case though, I eventually noticed an odd blurry spot in the centre of the vision of my right eye. I assumed I had hit a branch whilst hiking, but when the spot didn’t go away I worried. Back in Manaus again I saw an ophthalmologist, had numerous tests and started treatment. The treatment itself was a pretty nasty cocktail of pyrimethamine, sulfadiazine, corticosteroids, folinic acid and an antacid. Treatment gave me very shaky hands, bouts of diarrhoea and general weakness….and I couldn’t drink alcohol for the next several months. Unfortunately the toxoplasmosis had caused an ocular infection.


Toxoplasmosis infection, Mark Ilan Abrahams

More unfortunately, it was sitting right in the centre of my retina, arguably the most important area of vision. Even more unfortunately, though the infection cleared up with treatment, it left a large, permanent scar. I don’t so much mind painful but temporary illness, but the permanent effect on my vision upset me for some time.

Kidney Stones

The prolonged cocktail of drugs may have been partly responsible for my next ailment. Thankfully I was in Manaus for an eye check. It started with a repeated need to pee, which got ever more irritating until it was eventually a quite gut-wrenching pain. A nearby hospital diagnosed a kidney stone too large to pass by itself, so I was dosed up on pain killers and told I’d have surgery in the morning. The painkillers weren’t really strong enough so I spent the day pacing back and forth for relief. Next morning though they said they didn’t have space, so shunted me off to another hospital (I suspect they didn’t think I would be able to pay for the treatment). It was a blessing in disguise, because the doctor at the new hospital determined that the kidney stone was smaller than initially suspected and in fact I had probably passed it already (as I was no longer in agony). So I was saved from unnecessary surgery. As an aside, I noticed that pretty much the first thing that each Brazilian hospital did to me, no matter what my ailment, was to put me on a drip. I’m not quite sure why, but it’s a real shame given that I hate needles so much.


Cashew fruit, Mark Ilan Abrahams

I had never had a kidney stone in my life, but the unpleasant experience repeated twice more over the coming weeks. In each case I was working deep in the forest and all I could do was drink copious amounts of water, endure the agony and hike slowly back to my equipment where a couple of painkillers soothed me enough to ride out the pain until the stones passed. I remember in a community (we nicknamed Mirizaal, because of the abundance of delicious tiny blue-purple fruit. They taste like a cross between banana and prunes), curling up in a moaning ball on the floor of my hosts’ porch in near tears as successive jolts tore at my innards. Incidentally the wonderfully succulent and astringent cashew fruit I had been eagerly eating may bear some responsibility for the stones.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Little Minimalism

My family and friends would laugh if I suggested that I shop too much. I am a scruff, doggedly wearing decades-old clothes. I dumpster-dived my way through my MSc and am virtually allergic to fashion. Nonetheless, an odd process happened to me in the last few months.

I was getting frustrated writing the first PhD chapter, about large-scale patterns of forest disturbance along cul-de-sac rivers in Brazilian Amazonia. It seemed to never end. Every time I made painful progress, something would set me back virtually to the beginning. Simultaneously, I was missing fieldwork so badly (I had been out of the forest for about a year), that I was having recurring fieldwork dreams. An odd thing happened. I started buying stuff. Not just any stuff. I meticulously researched camping equipment. Sleeping bags, water filters, camping mats, pots etc. My housemates commented that they had never known anyone to receive so many parcels. People call it retail therapy.

I visited my siblings and new-born nieces in New York and managed a brief hike on part of the Apalachian trail


Sages Ravine, Markilan Abrahams

, but it barely scratched the itch. If anything, it exposed me to the craze of “ultralight backpacking”, which has a lot of merit, but often seems entwined with ludicrously expensive lightweight equipment. I noticed with dismay, that I was acting obsessively. I spent far too much of my free time, and a fair bit of money, obsessing over the minutiae of camping equipment. I’m a good enough hiker (in my arrogant opinion), that I can get by fine with basic equipment. Furthermore, I wasn’t even using the stuff! I found the process somehow soothing, but only in the short term. It didn’t end when I purchased something, the cycle just repeated itself with a new item. The Buddhist idea that feeding craving (tanha) only increases it, came to mind.

Several factors brought this to a head. First I finished the chapter, bringing me great relief. Second, I had other things in my free time like my girlfriend and creative projects like the canoe-building (about which more anon). Third, I looked at the minimalist movement, which started with me reading this impressive blog and seeing funny things like this These helped me recognise that I was acting obsessively and I started to understand why.

The work anxiety, mixed with missing fieldwork, made me seek an outlet. Researching camping equipment was the closest thing I had, to returning to the rainforest. It was as if I was preparing myself for fieldwork, because it was the next best thing to actually doing it. Also it’s satisfying to give yourself a list of things to do/buy, and then progressively tick things off the list. A big contrast to the lack of progress in my research.

So….I went through all of my stuff in Norwich where I live, and at my parents’ house in Manchester. I took a critical look at my stuff and listed things that I could get rid of. I thought quite carefully about the things that I actually really love using. For example, though a down sleeping bag is far lighter and less bulky for the same warmth, it’s not for me. I mistreat my equipment with reckless abandon. I am far less likely to use a piece of delicate and expensive equipment. I prefer something cheap, easy to wash and unattractive to thieves, like a synthetic sleeping bag.

I listed in great detail all of the things that I still had a desire to buy and I categorised them by their usefulness/importance. This allowed me to see that most of them were either unnecessary, or merely a distraction for the time being (that being said, I had already bought so much stuff that there was little left in the lists). I drastically reduced buying things. I recycled/threw away a load of junk, gave a load of stuff to charity and sold a load more stuff on Ebay. I wrote some general principles about buying things (which I’ll write up here later). It was a process. Even after starting, I still had a couple of buying sessions, but these fizzled out. I felt very liberated and much more myself.

The next, important step, was to avoid going the other way. Being too obsessed with getting rid of stuff, is still an obsession with stuff. This article gives an opinion on that.

I currently feel more balanced. I neither have a burning desire to buy a load of stuff, nor do I feel the horrible weight of all the stuff I own. I have more time after work to read the books I love or watch The RSA  and The School of Life channels on Youtube. This is just one of the many little struggles in life; seemingly insignificant. I have six months to knuckle down and write three more thesis chapters. I hope I am now better equipped to cope with that.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

thoughts on intersolar 2010 munich

This is my first ever blog…and i’m afraid it’s a bit dry. oh well. i’ll get into the swing of it i’m sure.

I was at Intersolar in Munich  recently, looking for consumer products for the gogreenertoday site. Just thought I’d share my thoughts. It’s the biggest trade fair for the solar industry. There were 12 halls and an outdoor area packed with panels, inverters, mounting, consumer products; the lot. Though I covered the entire area, I was focused on consumer products.

Of most interest to me were portable solar panels. Thin film technology allows thinner, lighter panels (the reduction in material used supposedly reduces the impact of manufacturing and speeds up the energy return on energy invested) that can be incorporated into foldable or flexible materials. For hiking, biking, sailing, caravanning, these are ideal. The lower wattage (6w) versions are good for small personal electronics, phones, GPS, mp3 etc. The larger (60w) can handle laptops and even car batteries. I think/hope in future that humanitarian operations and NGOs will be using panels like these for example in field centres, to power fridges for medication. The panels are only as useful as what they can charge, and the range of batteries and connectors is also developing. Shame the  chargers thought up by electronics manufacturers are proliferating just as fast; here’s hoping for universal chargers.

There’s been lots of interest in solar powered bikes ( and you’ll be pleased to know that there are some developments. Orange Bike Concept had a range of electric bikes, though I wasn’t able to get anyone to explain to me where the solar element comes into the picture. Solar Mobil,en/. Showed something similar and their website shows a solar station. In my opinion, the solar bike concepts I’ve seen online  are not good enough. Solar panels are a) valuable, so you don’t want them somewhere like on the side of a bike where they get damaged and b) by nature flat’ish, so a potential source of drag. What you want in my opinion is a bike with a low profile electric motor that is easily charged by a solar panel or backpack.

On that note, there were a variety of solar briefcases, bags and backpacks. Some seemed shoddily made. Of the better ones, Neuber’s sun-bags were more reasonably priced, but low powered (integrating Konarka power plastic). Quantys’ laptop bag is higher powered and priced (using I think, a monocrystalline panel, but don’t quote me on that). This is where the trade off between the pricier, more efficient rigid mono/poly panels meets the cheaper, but less efficient thin film ones.

There were also a variety of solar toys and crappy chargers, which, because of their inherent disposability and associated e-waste issues, I will not mention further here. There were a few solar torches, but I didn’t see anything great. Like bikes, I think the way forward is an LED torch with a good rechargeable battery, along with a good separate solar charger. Sometimes it’s best if a product does only one thing, but does it well.

As you know, the UK now boasts a feed in tariff for renewables. I was on the lookout for complete grid-ready kits that meet the UK legislative requirements (namely MSC approved panels and fitters and G83 inverters). The range of panels on show was staggering, and in short, I’m still looking. Of special interest however, were the Sanyo HIT panels. These are a hybrid of monochrystalline and amorphous technology, and supposedly deliver excellent efficiency . The UK is a densely populated nation on a frequently cloudy island, so a panel that works well in cloudy and shady conditions is a must. These seem to be an expensive, but worthwhile solution.

I’ve been in touch with a few of the people i’ve met, so it was very worthwhile.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment