5 ways to stay connected

With the whole world in lock down and almost everyone encouraged to stay home, it’s easy to feel disconnected from one another. The physical barriers separating us may feel daunting, but if you’re privileged enough to access the internet, there are lots of ways to reach out to those you love.

Whether you’re teaching elderly relatives how to use Zoom, or dialling in for video calls with your coworkers only dressed from the waist up, we’re all adapting to this new landscape. WiFi is allowing us to stay with our families, whether we’re isolating from down the street or across continents.

Perhaps you’re now juggling a job, childcare and looking after the vulnerable members of your family. Maybe, like me, you’re having to explore other ways to make a living and volunteering in the meantime. Or, you might be working in a key role to keep your community ticking over, looking after others throughout this pandemic.

Whatever your story, I hope you stay safe and can find some moments of calm in this strange, paused existence. It might feel as though the sky is falling down, but we’ll make it through.

Here are some of the things brightening my days at the moment:

1. Birdsong of the Day with Lucy Hodson
If you’re feeling cooped up and miss those long walks outside, this self-confessed ‘nature nerd’ is the perfect remedy. There is nothing more satisfying than watching her poke a puffball mushroom. Not only are her captions entertaining (‘flirty butts’), but you’ll learn a lot from this kooky conservationist. Although her outdoor explorations have become more localised as the restrictions have tightened, she’s still finding plenty of wildlife on her doorstep. Follow her if you’d like to get into the spirit of Spring and identify those whistles outside your window.

Follow: Lucy_Lapwing on Instagram

2. The High Low podcast with Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes
The joyous duo are back from a hiatus with a bumper edition (1hr 51mins), discussing the revival of the baked potato and how to embrace ‘full ferality.’ They are proactively helping the NHS charity’s Covid-19 appeal by donating 90% of their merch sales to the cause. However, expect their usual eloquence and silliness, putting a delightful spin on the lockdown by describing it as a ‘lock-in,’ and making a trivial but oddly touching list of all the things they’ll do when life returns to normal.

Follow: The High Low on Twitter
Listen to: The High Low podcast

3. The Scummy Mummies aka Helen Thorn and Ellie Gibson
You don’t have to be a mum to enjoy the antics of these two. The comedy pair regularly make me snort, with a parody of Joe Wicks’ daily PE lesson (hello Joan Wicks), jumping on the bandwagon on a hot cross bun recipe, and daily updates of ‘blissful’ family life. Their playful skits, which sold out at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Fest, reveal a less-than-perfect reality to make us feel better about not writing a novel in our ‘incubation’ period. Expect sweet moments like the panting Spiderman cheering up the neighbours stuck indoors.

Follow: Scummy Mummies on Instagram
Listen to: Scummy Mummies podcast

4. For Fox Sake Pub Quiz by Sophia Pavelle
Another one for the animal-lovers, this weekly quiz on Instagram Live is becoming a bit of a sensation. If you want to test out your knowledge, tune in on Wednesdays at 8pm (British Summertime is GMT +1). With competitors such as legendary naturalist Chris Packham, you’ll need to bring your ‘A-Game,’ and then some. She is also making her own bee-friendly DIY projects for the garden and posting glorious wildlife photos which will add a splash of colour to your feed.

Follow: SophiePavs on Instagram
Quiz: Every Wednesday at 8pm (BST) on her Instagram

5. How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, featuring Mo Gawdat
This particular episode gave me a boost when I needed it most. I had just discovered I’d been laid off, my twin’s wedding was cancelled and we were agonizing over whether we should/could travel back to the UK as the borders closed (we didn’t). Mo Gawdat, former chief business officer at Google X, developed an algorithm for finding happiness so it’s fitting I found some after listening to him. His perspective of discovering ‘committed acceptance’ before taking action made me feel a bit less woozy in the face of all this uncertainty.

Follow: Elizabday on Instagram
Listen to: Special episode of How to Fail
Read: Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy, by Mo Gawdat
Read: How to Fail, by Elizabeth Day

There are loads more rays of sunshine, such as the No Such Thing as a Fish podcast by the witty QI elves, the free 30-day Yoga with Adriene, and of course, Desert Island Discs with Lauren Laverne. On my Netflix wishlist, I have Mae Martin’s Feel Good, Ozark and La Casa de Papel (aka Money Heist) to watch.

What is making your days brighter? Comment below and let’s connect!

Meeting a mummy

We were led into the final dark room, and I felt her presence before my eyes found her. The air in her glass chamber was chilled to -20C in order to preserve the bundle that crouched before us. Juanita, the young Incan girl who was sacrificed to appease the Gods, sat in a foetal position with her face turned upwards.

Approaching her clear coffin, you could feel the cold pressing against the glass. Staring into her face, a wash of unease settled in the crooks of my elbows and knees – it was uncomfortable studying her as it felt like she belonged to the mountain, and another time. I kept my eyes fixed on her, expecting she would move and resettle her shawl, or uncross her stiff arms that had cradled her for more than 500 years.


Arequipa is shaken by 8-10 tremors a day, and the gaping crack in the bell tower of the white-stoned Catholic cathedral stands testament to this fact. The city is surrounded by volcanoes, including the active El Misti. In late 1995, Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing assistant Miguel Zarate made a discovery that made reverberations of its own around the world, revealing new light on the former Inca empire that had ruled there half a millennia before.

Juanita, otherwise known as ‘La Niña de los Hielo’ (‘The Girl of Ice’) was found on Mount Ampato. Her mummified body was extremely well-preserved due to the fact she had completely frozen – her skin, hair, nails and organs were all intact. Only her face showed signs of deterioration. When volcanic ash from nearby Sabancaya melted the ice she was encased in, it caused her body to slide down the mountain into a gulley where her face was temporarily exposed to the sun.

The discovery was so significant because it allowed us a rare glimpse into one of the great lost empires – the Incas. She is estimated to be one of hundreds of children sacrificed high up in the Andean peaks, with over 115 sites sacred sites excavated so far. Each site contains rich textiles, ornate wooden utensils and small statues of silver and gold. The purpose for these sacrifices, or ‘capacocha’ was to appease the gods and mountain deities, and to ensure rain and abundant crops. Some scholars also cite that the rituals were in order to protect the Incas, or provide escorts for the emperor in the afterlife. Others who are more cynical believe children were offered so that their parents could increase their links with the emperor and become more influential in society. Most sacrifices were children between the ages of 6 and 15 years old since children were regarded as ‘pure’; Juanita is estimated to have been around 14 at the time of her death.

It was considered a great privilege to be selected for sacrifice, and Incan priests would even offer their own children to the emperor. The chosen children were lavishly treated in the months leading up to their pilgrimage into the mountains, and were fed on high protein diets consisting of maize. Beforehand, a feast was thrown in Cuzco by the emperor, where the children and their families would be honoured. Their hair was braided and they wore the finest clothes, made from rich vicuña wool (known as the fibre of the Gods), and jewellery made from precious metals, beads and feathers.

The journey to the icy summits was led by priests, and it was arduous with a great risk of dying from exposure given the low temperatures and high altitudes of over 20,000ft. If they reached the top, which was considered to be closest to the Gods, the children were given an intoxicating drink containing coca. Once the effects of the drink had dulled their senses, they were killed with either a blunt blow to the head or strangulation. The child sacrifices were then buried with statues of llamas and other precious items. Priests would revisit the sacred site, or ‘huaca,’ with coca leaves and food as offerings to the gods.

I tried to imagine how it must have felt to be chosen and revered by the emperor, enjoying celebrations in your honour, but still knowing that you would have to die once the pilgrimage was over. Despite this practice, the Incas were believed to exhibit more ‘humane’ sacrifices than the Aztecs and other pre-Colombian cultures.

Last year, 227 skeletons of children aged from just four to fourteen were uncovered in northern Peru in the Huanchaco site. These sacrifices were uncovered from the period prior to the Incas, the Chimú culture. It is thought that the sheer volume of sacrifices was a desperate attempt to appease the gods from the devastating floods and rainfall that the coast had experienced. Now, thankfully, we know that the change in weather patterns is down to the El Niño phenomenon, and not the wrath of the gods.


‘Peru: Skeletons of 227 victims unearthed at world’s largest child sacrifice site,’ by Sam Jones, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/29/peru-huanchaco-sacrificial-site-skeletons

‘Ice Mummies of the Inca,’ by Liesl Clark, NOVA Beta, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/ice-mummies-inca.html

‘The secrets of Incan sacrifice,’ http://mathwiz2001.tripod.com/theicemaiden/id9.html

‘The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes,’ by Johan Reinhard, http://www.amazon.com/dp/0792268385?tag=mummytombs&link_code=as3&creativeASIN=0792268385&creative=373489&camp=211189

Title picture: ‘Mummy Juanita: The Sacrifice of the Inca Ice Maiden,’ by Dhwty, Ancient Origins: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/mummy-juanita-sacrifice-inca-ice-maiden-009800

Article picture: ‘Meeting a 500-Year-Old Peruvian Mummy,’ by Margie Goldsmith, HuffPost: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/visiting-a-500yearold-per_b_1146363

Go with the flow

“Have you ever dived in currents before?” the instructor asked. We were in Komodo National Park, where the warm Indian and cooler Pacific Ocean collide. The conditions here make for epic dives, with bountiful corals housing a diverse range of reef fish, and the nutrient rich water attracting larger open sea species such as giant manta rays, white tip sharks and even dugongs.

From the boat, we could see a faint dark strip parting the water in the faint light of dawn. It was smoother than the water either side of it, and seemed to flow differently. It signalled that below the surface, a strong current was moving.

We had never dived in currents before, but my friend described it as riding an ‘underwater roller coaster.’ Once you were in the jet stream, all you could do was go with it. They move fast and can carry you for miles. However, divers have been known to end up far from their boat, so you must enter drift dives with care and have some prior diving experience.

We had our morning briefing, put on our kits and did our buddy checks. The small islands changed from dusky hues to become more solid as the sun rose. We were the only boat there, deep in the National Park and close to Rinca Island where the dragons live. One of the advantages of living aboard is that you don’t have to travel from the mainland for every dive, and the captain can avoid the other boats by navigating the dive sites depending on the tides or recent sightings of marine life.

The view from the Mastro Aldo boat

Tatawa Besar
We were heading to Tatawa Besar (Big Island) for our first drift dive. This site is shallower and during rainy season, there’s a good chance you’ll catch the manta ray coming through. We entered the dive site from the island’s small beach. This is a shallow dive, and ideal for those new to drift diving. The currents here are less powerful compared to Tatawa Kecil (Small Island) or Batu Balong.

The coral garden is located on a gentle slope that encircles the island, and is an ideal spot to see a dizzying collection of tropical reef fish. On our dive, we spotted a psychedelic Napoleon wrasse, the goofy but territorial Titan triggerfish, and a mystical horned unicorn fish.

Don’t mess with a triggerfish

The current was gentle and swept us slowly across the pastel shades of coral reef. We glimpsed both Nemo and Dory, with clownfish hiding in their soft anemone beds and Pacific blue tangs zipping back and forth. Cornet fish glided by with their long thin bodies, and a spotted porcupine fish with bulbous eyes followed our bubbles.

Looking out into the almost misty depths of the open water, a shadow formed into a shape. It was the first shark I’d ever seen on a dive. Two black tip reef sharks and one white tip patrolled the edges, then faded back into the water beyond.

A black tip reef shark

Batu Balong
The second drift dive was at Batu Balong, a site considered one of the best in Komodo National Park with rip currents pushing shoals of giant trevally, dazzling rainbow runners and dogtooth tuna. The strong currents and steep rocky outcrop of this site pose a challenge for divers, but the rewards are worth it.

From the boat, the rock pinnacle seemed small. The north side is shallower at around 27m, but once we rolled in, we found ourselves inside a glittering school of giant trevallies. As we descended further, silver changed to blue as tuna encircled us in a hypnotic display of flashing scales.

We continued round to the south side and found ourselves staring down the plunging rockface. Here, we saw giant sweetlips, dancing mantis shrimp and the unnerving stare of a moray eel. The fusiliers were painted in an assortment of pigments so vivid they could not be replicated on land. Beyond the shelf, it descends to a whopping 75m. Staring over the edge felt like gazing off the edge of the earth.

In my dive log, I nicknamed this site ‘The Aquarium’ for the sheer volume of tropical fish we saw.

A healthy reef with thousands of fish

Tatawar Kecil
Another site renowned for its strong currents, Tatawa Kecil offers divers with the chance to drift dive over soft coral and anemones to spot the resident pygmy seahorses.

We entered on a falling tide, aiming to exit on a rising tide. Two reef sharks emerged from the blue as we zigzagged down the rock face, fighting the current that tried to sweep us into the deep. They crossed our path a few times before disappearing into the haze.

The coral garden was abundant with pockets of life. Nudibranches with spots and stripes waved their funky frills. Moray eels poked their monstrous heads from cavernous rocks, their unseen bodies twisting beneath them. A grouper, almost as large as me, kept an eye on us as we floated on by.

More giant trevally shimmered past, riding the currents as they huddled together.

Makassar Reef
This site offered us a slow and gentle drift, but conditions can change quickly. Known as a shelving site, the shallow sea bed of Makassar Reef offers an almost martian landscape of craters and coral rubble. Here lies the ‘cleaning stations’ of the manta rays, and it is an ideal location to see these flying acrobats up close.

A giant manta ray chaperoned by a giant trevally

Although seemingly barren with mostly broken coral, you can find some larger clumps of coral heads (or brommies) with reef fish sheltering inside. We saw a white tip reef shark, so they were wise to find a hiding spot. Flitting between the surviving coral, we clocked Zap-coloured parrotfish, a deflated pufferfish and some punky batfish outlined in neon.

Then, the main event. Our dive master saw two manta rays flapping towards us and used a metal rod to twang her tank. Kneeling in the broken shards of coral, we gazed upwards as the manta rays flew over our heads. When you spot a giant manta ray, it can be a challenge to stay in one place before the current shuffles you away. With reef hooks, it is possible to hold yourself to a rock, but finding something to grip on to can be a difficult task. My divemaster ended up holding me as I threatened to skid off on my own.

Circling back, the manta rays were inquisitive and swam into our bubble streams. Two more joined the party, and flapped effortlessly against the current that was still edging us forwards. As their wings rose and fell, they twisted their bodies. Their lower flanks lit up as they flew towards the surface.

Dive Package Information
Company: Komodo Dive Center
Boat: Mastro Aldo
Website: https://www.komododivecenter.com/
Package: 4 days, 3 nights (other stays are available) with food and board
Diving equipment: Included, but dive computers available for extra
Group sizes: Small. We lucked out and had one divemaster for two divers!

Have you ever been on a drift dive? Where is your favourite place to catch a current? Let me know in the comments.

Four reasons to buy local

With empty shelves and a flurry of shoppers stockpiling seeds, the global pandemic has made many of us confront where our food comes from. With limited ingredients, trying out new recipes and making use of the scraps that we would have discarded before is not just a hobby, it’s a necessity. ‘Rationing’ has reentered our vernacular and it seems more important than ever to decrease our food waste and be more economical.

Have you become a dab hand in the kitchen and learned how to make pastry or pasta from scratch? Maybe you’re being extra resourceful and making some interesting new dishes – barbecued banana skins anyone? Perhaps the only batch of eggs you could buy was a tray of 30, so you’re doling some out to your neighbours. However you’re dealing with it, here are four reasons why you should buy local:

  1. Reconnect with your local community

With job uncertainty rife, supporting your neighbours and buying local produce will mean you’re helping to keep small businesses alive. If you live near any farms, there are likely to be egg and milk deliveries available. On your daily exercise route, maybe you pass a stall selling honey, jam, pickles or flowers. Perhaps your friends are brewers and can help stock up your supplies. Bakers will need help shifting their freshly baked goods too, so keep them in business and buy yourself a loaf or a sweet treat if you can afford it.

Here in Monteverde, we regularly have farmers on bikes coming by with fresh vegetables, seafood and meat. It may cost slightly more than the supermarket discounts, but building connections with the local producers around us is worth it, not to mention the free delivery to our door!

2. Try something new

If your usual staples such as pasta and flour are missing from the supermarket aisles, why not see this as an opportunity to discover new ways of shopping? Although most of us are limited to one shopping trip a week, perhaps there are smaller shops nearby that would benefit from your custom. They might even have those ingredients that you are after!

With a little bit of research beforehand, you could try shopping at places that cater for different cuisines. Online recipes can show you how to cook with a variety of ingredients, so you could learn how to make Pad Thai from scratch, or rustle up an authentic Indian curry. Use this time to get creative!

I’ve been enjoying Nadiya Hussain’s resourceful recipes on her Instagram, and can vouch for her scrap soup and barbecued banana peel. The BBC Good Food site is great for those with bare cupboards, sharing recipes for flour-free cakes, egg-free desserts and easy to cook breads. Their 3-ingredient peanut butter cookies are a winner. Jack Monroe is a life-saver if you’re counting pennies or have some tin cans knocking about in your larder. If you’re new to cooking or need some inspiration, they’ll help you find your way in the kitchen.

3. Better for you and the environment

One of the benefits of buying locally sourced produce is that will be fresher since it hasn’t travelled as far, and doesn’t need to be wrapped in excessive plastic. If there is a small greengrocers open near you with fresh fruit and vegetables, you can stock up on your greens to help boost your immune system. Only buy as much as you need for a week so that others can buy their five-a-day too. There have been reports of increased food waste from people panic-buying and hoarding perishables – don’t be that person.

Remember to maintain your distance from other shoppers, especially when queuing up to pay. You’re more likely to contract the virus from the people around you than you are from touching produce in the store, so try to stay 2m apart. That said, always make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before eating. For more advice, check out the WHO website.

4. Learn more about the process

For many consumers, the food industry is a bit of a mystery. With modern life so fast and food so available, it is sometimes easy to overlook the steps in getting the food to your plate. The recent boom in buying seeds in the UK suggests that people are willing to grow their own food when faced with a crisis, and getting back in touch with nature is something positive. However, you’re unlikely to be able to grow everything you need right away, so in the meantime, help those on your doorstep that do this for a living.

As local farmers wait for their crops to be ready for harvest, perhaps you can volunteer to help them (respecting social distancing of course). If physically helping isn’t possible, buying produce directly or through local outlets will also support your local farmers.

Despite our school closing down for the rest of the term, we’re planting a mixture of vegetables that will take between one and three months to grow. The exercise and fresh air is something to break our quarantine, and it will provide food down the line for us to share with the community.

Let me know what foodie creations you’ve been making recently, or if you’ve rediscovered some local sellers in your community.

Look for the little things

Now more than ever, it’s important to find some rays of sunshine in your day. The restrictions have meant most of us are staying at home, and rather than gloomily mulling over things yet to pass, I’ve found it’s better to remain positive. Losing my job was a blow, but I have more time to appreciate the things that would only receive a cursory glance before.

With less people moving around, nature is already extending its boundaries. Our school, which closed three weeks ago, has reported jaguar paw prints 10m away from my now empty classroom. At home, the turkey vultures that circle this valley have started flying much lower. So low, in fact, their wrinkled pink heads and two-tone feathers are clearly visible.

Swallow-tailed kites, usually soaring on the thermals way above us, have started flyovers in groups of three. Their iconic split tails and monochrome colouring is striking, and for such large birds they are surprisingly graceful.

One day, Tom saw the swoop of a long tail outside as we were cooking together. The brilliant colours and red eyes were unmistakably that of a blue-crowned motmot. Sitting in the wind and trying to position its long tail comfortably, its feather sprayed upwards, showing a paintbox of mustard, turquoise and electric blue.

As I was washing up, some birdsong drifted through the open window that I’d not heard before. It wasn’t the harsh rasps and clicks of the grackles, whose black feathers shine like oil spills in the sunlight. It wasn’t the catcall of the tanned squirrel cuckoo. It was delicate, and spilled in phrases that gave the illusion of multiple birds singing together. Rather than running for my camera, I closed my eyes. I was content just hearing it.

Over breakfast, the sporadic lopsided flight of a giant Morpho butterfly caught my eye. It was about the same size as my bowl. Blue then brown, blue then brown, until it was out of sight.

Another day, I heard three emerald toucanets croaking nearby. Scanning the treeline, I could see boughs shaking in the breeze. Then, a sudden flash of a yellow beak and royal blue, followed by green feathers that burst into umber at the tail. Three of them hopped around hesitantly, until they disappeared back into the forest.

Although all the white flowers from December had blown away, some fuchsia ones recently popped up on the trees. Our resident tri-coloured squirrel, with plumper cheeks than when I saw him last, rustled the leaves before perching and gobbling up the remaining petals.

The capuchin monkeys that used to visit us, sometimes in a small group of three, or a large troop of around twenty, swung by earlier this week. The dogs barked at the pair of intruders, and they stopped to study us by our high windows before jumping away down the valley, using their long tails to balance on impossibly thin branches.

The small banana tree that sits above our house has sprouted mini green fingers. The waxy flower, once a rich purple, has faded to lilac and is peeling to the ground. There must be forty or so tiny bananas growing quietly, and I had never noticed them before.

Wild flowers, white and flushed with soft pink, sprung up out of the ground seemingly overnight. After just three days in the relentless sun, they began to dry up, curling their petals that were now fringed with brown.

The rhythm of nature continues, regardless. I’m finding solace in the fact that there is happiness to be found, if you only stop and look.

Weasel coffee

If you are travelling around Southeast Asia, chances are that you will visit a coffee plantation at some point. Supporting local farmers is important, but there is a dark side to the roasting process.

In Vietnam, coffee is a serious business. Second only to Brazil, it exports the most grounded coffee of any country in the world. The most expensive coffee you can buy is called Kopi Luwak, otherwise known as ‘weasel coffee’ which retails at around $40-$100 a cup. This coffee is touted as ‘exclusive’ since the way it is harvested means that there is a limited supply.

A man slow roasts coffee beans in Bali

Wild luwaks are palm civet cats that select the ripest coffee cherries as part of their diet. The beans are not fully digestible, so they pass out almost intact, but with an added ‘musky’ flavour. Through partly digesting the beans using enzymes in its stomach, the acidity is changed and the resulting flavour is supposedly less bitter. Once cleaned, the beans are processed in the same way, but the selling point is that a wild animal has chosen only the best beans for your morning cup.

Coffee does really grow on trees

The problem is that wild luwaks are poached to maintain this story. Caged and force fed a restricted diet of coffee cherries, they are kept in squalid conditions in order to harvest their droppings. Without eating other important foods such as fruit, the animals inevitably become sick. Their naturally shy demeanour means that being on constant display and positioned next to other luwaks causes them further suffering.

Tony Wild, who has been credited with introducing this ‘poop coffee’ to the West, is now championing more sustainable ways to farm. His campaign in 2013 Kopi Luwak – Cut the Crap has garnered over 50,000 signatures to put an end to the practice of capturing palm civet cats for this process. He has called on retailers, including Harrods where he worked, to stop stocking this type of coffee. His book, Coffee: A Dark History, delves into the uncomfortable truths about coffee production, from animal cruelty to colonisation.

Despite the 2013/2014 movement fuelled by Wild that highlighted the plight of palm civet cats in making coffee, the persistent demand for Kopi Luwak means that the farmers have not stopped this practice. When I visited Bali in late 2018, I was surprised to see many road signs still promoting luwak coffee. Despite the backlash against this exploitative method, many coffee plantations still use confined civet cats and even showcase them as part of their tours.

Coffee cherries with visible beans

The thought of eating something derived from dung gives it a queasy appeal for those wishing to try something novel. It is still possible to buy pounds of weasel coffee online, and the influx of fake versions further attests to its popularity. Be wary of any farms that claims to have a ‘sustainable’ method of producing weasel coffee, since any method that inhibits a wild animal or breeds them in captivity is not ethical. Putting profit over the well-being of wildlife is not a sustainable practice.

Since 2014, new legislation and certification has been introduced to reduce the number of caged luwaks. The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is used by the Rainforest Alliance to help consumers choose coffee that has been farmed responsibly, and the UTZ also provides a certificate for sustainable coffee production. However, getting your hands on a legitimate bag of weasel coffee can be a challenge since the high retail price attracts many imitators who claim to be certified.

Although awareness of these civet cat farms has increased over the past decade, many tourists may not realise the true price of this coffee. If you are looking for a way to experience culture in Southeast Asia, trying weasel coffee may just leave a bitter taste in your mouth.