Sept. 3, 2019
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I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.
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I spent most of August traveling in Indonesia. I’d never been to Asia before, and we were gone for 21 days. I thought it was a long time, but as soon as we got to Jakarta I realized that it was laughably inadequate to see this massive country.
Indonesia is the fourth-most-populous country in the world; most people live on the island of Java, which is home to the country’s current capital, Jakarta. (There are plans to move the capital to Borneo, another island. Jakarta is 18 million people crowded and sinking, due to too much groundwater use.)
In our three weeks, we visited Jakarta, Yogyakarta (both in Java), Bali, Lombok, Satonda Island, Sumbawa Island, Komodo Island, and Flores, traveling west to east and then flying back to Jakarta. For a US comparison, it was kind of like traveling from the top of Florida to maybe Maine, in terms of ground covered.
I can’t overstate how huge and wonderful the country was. In addition to all the lessons I learned about traveling and teamwork, I learned so much from our trip, knowing fully well that we just scratched the surface of what Indonesia has to offer.
Puppeteering in Indonesia is one of the most distinct, cherished story-telling methods in the world.
One of my unexpected favorite museums we visited in Jakarta was the Wayang Museum. This museum was filled with all kinds of puppets. Specifically, it had a ton of wayang kulit puppets, which are made of buffalo hide, bamboo, and horn. In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated wayang kulit as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
These puppets are incredibly intricate; their carving is designed to allow light to shine through and cast shadows that make them appear to be alive. A puppeteer, or dalang, manipulates the puppets and provides all the voices for all the characters in a story. These stories often revolve around characters from Hindu mythology, but are reportedly adapted to tell modern Indonesian stories, too. A single show may take all night.
Image description: a close up of the face of a two-dimensional puppet with a pink and red face and blue headpiece. The body of the puppet is gold, and there are hundreds of tiny cutouts as detail throughout the figure.
I took this photo at the museum (apologies for the quality). There weren’t a lot of placards in English, so I’m not sure who this puppet represented or what kind of story it’d be used to tell. The puppets we got to see in action were decorated like this one, and had six joints—one at each shoulder, elbow, and wrist. With the light coming through they while they move, they’re mesmerizing.
Komodo dragon are cannibals.
One of the highlights of this trip was going to see Komodo dragons. These lizards are the largest in the world. Males can reach up to 10 feet and 300 pounds. Their venom stops their prey’s blood from clotting, meaning they only have to strike once and then watch and wait while their meal dies a slow, grisly death before feasting. (Yum!)
These dragons live on a handful of islands in Indonesia, including one aptly named Komodo Island. On the island, there is literally just a park service, a few trails, a coffee shop, and about 1,200 dragons. Most of them are male. Like sea turtles, their sex depends on the temperature in which their eggs incubate.
We went during mating season, which sounds pretty unpleasant for everyone involved. Males fight each other sumo-wrestling style, but not before they prep by emptying their bowels by vomiting and defecating. The winner gets to move on to mate with the female in question, who will also put up a fight before the process.
Once a female dragon is pregnant, she’ll do her best to guard and incubate her 30 or eggs for several months. When they hatch, though, she is done.
Adult komodos eat their babies, forcing newly hatched and adolescent dragons to live in trees out of harm’s way. The guides at the island we visited told us that about 10% of eggs make it to adulthood. They weren’t worried about the population—or at least not in a way they expressed to us. But it still seems like an odd way for a species to keep itself afloat.
Image description: a portrait shot of a komodo dragon laying down calmly. He’s facing the right side of the frame, and his claws are several inches long.
Not all traveler’s diarrhea is created equally.
Diarrhea is not one syndrome, but rather an umbrella term for unpleasant, watery poops. It has hundreds of types of causes, many (but not all!) of which are related to pathogens.
Traveler’s diarrhea is also a vague term that generally refers to any kind of diarrhea you pick up while on the road, usually through food or water that contains bacteria your body isn’t prepared for.
There are a bunch of different types of bacteria that cause diarrhea, and they all do so in different ways. As I’ve written previously in this newsletter, some microbes, like bacteria from the shingilla and campylobacter family, slice open your intestinal cell walls, causing their fluids to spill out. Others, like the bacteria that causes cholera and some strains of E. Coli, release chemicals that trick your gut cells to pump out their water instead of holding it in.
The most common causes of traveler’s diarrhea are forms of E. coli that are called “enteroaggregative E. coli.” These strains of E. coli attach themselves to your mucus-lined intestines and neatly clump together to form little walls of bacteria reminiscent of “stacked bricks.” They may release some proteins that end up messing with your cells themselves, or they may just cause extreme immune reactions (like telling your cells to make more slippery mucus) that lead to your watery stool—the science is unclear.
The other main culprit behind traveler’s diarrhea is called campylobacter. These bacteria look like little corkscrews that drill their way into your intestinal cell walls. They release specific toxins to mess with your gut’s ability to suck water out of your waste, but exactly how is also unclear.
In most cases, the body can get rid of the infection that causes the diarrhea on its own. You just need plenty of rehydration fluids and patience.
But reader, let me tell you: patience is hard to come by when you’ve got liquids spewing out both ends and you’re supposed to be getting on a boat for several hours of travel. Fortunately, I had picked up some antibiotics ahead of time (a small bottle of azithromycin) before heading on this trip. Even though I spent 48 hours feeling lousy, these pills nipped my (likely E. coli, but who knows?) infection in the butt, so to speak, and I was able to enjoy the rest of our trip free of sinister poops.
Bonus fact: Jet lag is a deeply physical challenge.
Like traveler’s diarrhea, I vastly underestimated jet lag. Portions of this newsletter, in fact, were written at 4 am US eastern time, after I had been laying awake for a few hours and finally decided to just get up and do something.
Jet lag is the result of time-keeping cells in the part of your brain called the hypothalamus. Every day, they look for cues from your environment, like sunlight, to tell the rest of the cells in your body “Okay, folks, up and at ‘em!” When you travel across timezones, those usual cues may be missing, and these cells, called pacemaker cells, are confused, and essentially panic. (Tip of the hat to friend of the newsletter JoAnna Klein for her work explaining that concept ($))
There’s another hypothesis that jet lag affects our microbiome, too. Like us, the bacteria that inhabit our gut have their own natural rhythms. When our cells’ rhythms are screwed up, it messes with our bacterias’s, too. Jet lag can also change the composition of these microbes, killing some and allowing others to thrive, which can make us more susceptible to getting sick or changes in weight.
Obviously, traveling across more time zones messes with your body’s rhythms more. We were 11 and 12 hours ahead of US eastern time, where I am now. I spent a lot of time frustrated with my jet lag at first—I know that a 4 am wake up is going to make for a rough day, so why can’t I just sleep in?
But then I figured keeping time must be a tough job—my conscious self can’t do it without a watch or clock. Being frustrated was only stressing me out and making sleep harder to come by, so I may as well accept that I am going through an adjustment.
There’s a life lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure.
That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3 regularly programmed story Scrap Facts will be back in a couple of weeks!
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Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.