I have known Alena since I was 10 years old through a sports competition called Steel man and steel lady organized among others by my father. She always seemed to be an interesting personality, with whom I loved to speak about her adventurous jungle expeditions. This year I met her again and decided to interview her for my blog. Her stories about travels to the furthest parts of the globe, research in Antarctica and passion for sports are captivating.
Alena, what motivates you to participate in sports competitions?
I like to take part in this very competition, because it requires versatility and stamina in running, biking and three power disciplines. Apart from that I like to run ultra marathons. The ambience there is wonderful. We are all in the same boat. We suffer from pain, but we support each other. I like to set new challenges for myself and overcome them. Every year, I participate in approximately 30 – 40 races, out of which 4 are ultra marathons.
Wow. You must train quite a lot then.
Yes, I do. I run five times a week. Earlier I used to run 17 kilometers daily to office, but then I moved closer. When I wake up, I do 200-300 sit-ups. After I send my child off to school, I run 4 kilometers before going to work. In the afternoon, I go to the gym or I swim. I am a very active person. I take rest only when I attend some cultural event, which happens quite rarely.
What is it about sports that you love so much?
Sport is my greatest hobby! It gives me energy, positive emotions, and keeps me healthy and fit for my travels. Staying in shape is important for women, especially when they get older. The way people see my body makes me feel self-confident.
Sports is not the only interesting thing you do. Can you tell us more about your job?
I am an Associate Professor at the Department of Experimental Biology at the Faculty of Science of the Masaryk University in Brno. I am concerned with the issue of Lyme disease and also with burden of extremely demanding sports competitions on human’s body. Apart from the laboratory and field research, I also give lectures, publish academic articles and supervise student’s works.
What intrigues you about these two very different topics?
I myself suffered from the disease, whose treatment lasted practically 20 years until full recovery. That is why I became interested in this issue. This serious disease appears more frequently in our country, especially due to proliferation of ticks as a result of climate change. We should find a way to protect ourselves. Since I am a sportswoman, I want to know more about the impact of burden. With my team I compare physiological, hematological and immunological parameters before and after race and observe what happens in the body. We also focus on athletes participating in ultra marathons. We are the only team in the Czech Republic exploring this phenomenon. Similar studies are undertaken abroad, for example in Switzerland, Germany and the US.
One would say that doing research is not a cup of tea for an adventurous lady like you.
That’s a good point. I’m full of energy, and I generally do not enjoy sitting for long time, but I also do many sports. I see a great deal of sense in my work. We publish articles in national and local newspapers warning people about the state of ticks, which helps them avoid them, and I also advise people how to treat the disease.
Being a researcher opens you new horizons, like going to Antarctica, right?
Yes, I was sent to Antarctica by the university. I collected worms from vegetation for scientific analysis and I took blood samples from penguins to determine where they come from. Furthermore, I took blood samples of people to see how the cold weather conditions influence their health. I discovered that short stays in cold yet sunny weather (from -5°C to 5°C) have positive impacts. There is not much stress, since people are isolated from civilization and technology. There are also very few bacteria and viruses in Antarctica. Low temperature is better for humans than high one. Even animals live longer in cold areas than at the equator. Long stays are not beneficial, since people can develop cabin fever and have other problems.
What other research is done in Antarctica and how is the research carried out?
Scientists study plants and animals, as well as disappearance of glaciers and their impact on the expansion of some species. Countries have their own research stations. Big countries like the US, Russia and UK have many stations and their research is ongoing throughout the year. Smaller countries that acceded to the Antarctic Treaty later own small stations and come for a short period. The Czech Republic built its station 10 years ago and scientists only spend summer there.
Can research of Antarctica be compared to nuclear arms race during the Cold War?
Yes, there is a rivalry among countries. Prior to the creation of the Antarctic Treaty, major powers divided continent into parts. Even today, when Antarctica belongs to everyone, we can still see that some states feel more dominant than others. Such a mammonism. Come quickly, let’s take a piece of land, before anyone else steals it from us. Countries would be willing to wage wars. It’s simply a desire to possess land.
But now Antarctica should only be there for research purposes.
Well, let us see. Hopefully, yes.
Besides Antarctica you have also visited many other interesting places. Tell us about them.
Every year I go for expeditions to see indigenous peoples with my partner Dany. So far we have gone for 15 expeditions. Travels usually last between 3-4 weeks. We want to see how these people adapt to the modern civilization. We visited tribal peoples in the Andaman Islands (these people are among the first descendants of Homo sapiens, who left Africa 160 000 years ago), Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Tuva in Russia, northern Finland, Borneo, Malaysia, Thailand and Laos. We have also visited West Guinea four times already.
Why were you so attracted to the indigenous population of the West Guinea?
We are interested in the transformation of their society. Only 40 years ago these people lived in conditions reminding us of the Stone Age, using stone tools and practicing cannibalism. With creation of the state Papua New Guinea in 1975, the people jumped into civilization of the 20th century. Literally from stone axe to the PC.
Why did cannibalism evolve in their society?
Previously, they lived isolated in remote villages, which competed in providing food. Not only traditions but also lack of food contributed to the practice of cannibalism. Unlike in continents such as Africa, South America or Europe, there are no large animals living on the island and collecting roots, fruit and nuts could not feed the population. That is why people ate their dead ancestors and enemies. Essentially, they consumed human flesh until the mid-20th century.
That sounds dangerous. Did you not feel threatened?
Yes. I was on the brink of life and death situation, when we visited tribe Korovai-Kombai. We were accompanied by two rural guides, when tribesmen stole my backpack and papers. The situation escalated, when we asked them to return our thing and guides warned us: “Run else they will eat you.” Somehow we managed to get our things back and quickly left. We were lucky unlike some previous adventurers and missionaries who were eaten there.
How do these expeditions work?
We trek in the jungle, mostly without any map or GPS, because they don’t work there. We hire a local person, who knows well his neighborhood, to lead us to the tribal people. Sometimes it is hard because they do not trust foreigners, but we have developed our own strategy. I play the flute and my friend shows them a book of photographs, which describes their tribe. They become curious and slowly start to communicate. We try to stay with them for a few days and see how their life works.
How do you use this information?
I organize 8 to 10 lectures yearly about our trips. Dany writes articles and he has also published one book. Our goal is to show the world that there are indigenous peoples who are fighting for their existence. The question is will they survive or not? And if yes, then how?
That is the question. What do you think?
It is extremely difficult to jump from prehistorical period to the age of cell phones and computers. Especially young people want to be modern, but they are frustrated. They do not have resources to afford the standards of modern living. One day we will all be in the same boat, but some are still at a lower level.
Speaking of the civilization, many people criticize our consumer society. What do you think about it?
We always return from severe conditions, so we are looking forward to coming home. Compared to many countries in Africa and Asia, Czech Republic is a heaven on earth. When we returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo, we kissed the ground that we have survived the war unscathed. Many people complain about the system, but we are part of it. If someone is dissatisfied, then he should start doing something about it.
Which other places do you want to visit?
We’ve already seen a lot, but there are definitely still many interesting places out there. I am afraid to go to Africa because of all the wars and corruption, so most probably we will go to some Asian or South American countries. The places we are interested in are disappearing. Nowadays, only harsh conditions such as remnants of rainforests, isolated islands, the Nordic environment and Antarctica are virgin.
Is it related to destruction of the environment?
Yes. We have seen destruction of rainforests in developing countries. It hurts me so much to see it. We did not see any rapid deforestation in Papua New Guinea after 13 years. Sadly, situation is very different in Borneo, Latin America and Africa. Cutting down forests brings miners wads of cash and gives locals hope to come closer to the civilization, but people do not realize that they are losing by cutting down the forests. It is sad. All for the sake of money and comfort of modern living.
Is it possible to live in close connection to nature and help the tribes?
Partially, yes. At weekends, one can go to the nature and sleep in a tent. During your vacation you can visit tribes and you can advocate for preservation of national parks and nature. People should fight.
What else do you like apart from science, sports and travel?
People. I am a very sociable person.
Do you have any personal motto?
Be satisfied in your life. When you are happy with yourself and your life, you can help others. If you are not, then you have to worry about your problems.
Thank you, Alena. I wish you all the best.
Copyright: Alena Žákovská