Back to India: Land of Impenetrable Mystery

Back to India: Land of Impenetrable Mystery

Greetings from India!  The land of impenetrable ironies, ceaseless contradiction and mind-boggling juxtaposition.  The one country I keep coming back to because of it’s chaos, color, complete sensory overload and utter incomprehensibility.  And I’m a scientist so I keep puzzling over things that I don’t understand.  People learn how India continues to draw me back, they instantly ask “so you love it there?”…. Not necessarily.  With India, it’s a love-hate relationship.  I love the energy, over-the-top-ness and how everything is so exotic and unfamiliar.  However, while here, I’m usually frustrated by a complete lack of control- people say “one minute” but nothing happens on time, people shake their head “yes” (assuming I properly decoded their bobble head) and they mean no and it is the ultimate bureaucratic nightmare (Indians love piles of paper and sending you to see a million people who send you to see someone else, for example when registering with the FRRO). “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.” ―Keith Bellows  Like Keith Bellows so vividly expresses, of all my trips, India has revolutionized my world view the most but I still don’t claim to understand it.  It’s mysteries are impenetrable to wiser minds than mine.  Maybe the third time’s the charm and I’ll reach enlightenment.  Or at least, finally cross the Taj Mahal off my bucket list (for those of you who don’t know, I was in Delhi three years ago for a research fellowship at Miranda House College, got shingles and had to come home early without doing much sightseeing). Like last summer, I’m teaching Physics and Engineering to super-smart 7-8th graders for Duke University’s Talent Identification Program.  This time, we’re at OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, two hours North of Delhi, unfortunately in the middle of nowhere. Arrival in Delhi Walking towards immigration, a sense of dejavu overwhelmed me when I remembered statues from naively entering this country three years ago.  But what I encountered so far seemed infinitely more tame than last year.  We arrived at night but the outside temperature was a cozy 98 degrees Fahrenheit, not wall of heat and humidity that I remembered.  Last time, as soon as two twiggy men in a dilapidated van took me to leave the airport, I remember seeing humans and dogs strewn alongside the side of the road, wondering whether they were dead or alive.  This time, we hopped right on the highway and drove two miles past resort construction sites to a posh little Holiday Inn, without even a glimpse of poverty.  We feasted like kings at a gluttonous buffet, the boys swam in their infinity pool (I didn’t pack the “one-piece bathing costume” that was required at Infosys so I didn’t attempt entry) and we played with the dozens of buttons that controlled random things in the room.  I couldn’t help thinking that for some, royal treatment by the excessively-sized, eager-to-please staff and a sense of the slightly exotic  may be their only experience of this country.  What a same that would be! They’d miss out on passing through a scanner and being frisked by a security guard, just to enter McDonalds where they’d chose from meals like “McSpicy Paneer” and “Tikka Masala Burger”.  They’d miss the underlying scent of this country, which smells like something’s always on fire (and not the cozy campfire smell of Vermont).  They’d miss the customs officer who will only let you pass if you’re perfectly centered and smiling in front of their face (please, shift two centimeters that way, ma’am).  They’d miss the crazy way drivers swerve to avoid the nonchalant cow in the middle of the highway.  They’d miss the way the smog turns the sun into a giant tangerine.  They’d miss the sweet kiss of cardamom in the cup of chai that miraculously appears when you think you’re going to pull your hair out in frustration.   So I’m excited to be back and experiencing it all.  Life in Sonipat, at an air-conditioned university in the middle of a field, seems like a diluted version of the India I remember.  It’s hard to deal with the rules, regulations and schedules of teaching when I started this journey in Panama with complete independence and flexibility.  But it’s also nice to split up this...

Figuring out Life, Love and Long-Term Travel… in 10 Days

Figuring out Life, Love and  Long-Term Travel… in 10 Days

Sorry for the hiatus but I can promise that there will be no shortage of things to write about in the coming months so check in regularly! For those of you who don’t know, tomorrow I’ll begin an epic journey into the unknown, bouncing between three continents in three months. I have a vague agenda: two weeks in Panama (one week for a yoga/surf/paddleboard retreat then ???), a month-ish teaching a Physics & Engineering course for talented youth in Delhi (India), ten days trekking in Annapurna region (Nepal), a day in Greece to make my arrival in Albania even more adventurous, a week in Albania with a friend then a month in Turkey (hopefully Georgia and maybe more) with my boyfriend. I’ll return to three days in Raleigh, four days in Minnesota for a conference, a week on the West Coast, less than 24 hours to pack up the rest of my stuff to drive to a wedding in DC and to my parents’ house in Connecticut. My mom’s reaction to this whole thing: “no grass is going to grow under your feet!”.  With all this long-term travel, I don’t think any lawns are in immediate danger since I won’t be standing on the same grass for long. This Gypsy Is Growing Up Last summer, I also traveled for three months but research and teaching obligations for all but a week keep that trip pretty structured. With an enormous amount of luggage- a backbreaking duffel bag and a large rolling suitcase hovering at 49.9 lbs. While the flashlight I packed saved Ken and I during the blackouts in Thailand, I’ve reduced my load significantly (and I still have a flashlight)… check it out! This summer, I’m venturing into the great unknown- purposefully visiting places that I don’t know much about and keeping my schedule flexible and open for discovery.  Yes, that is partially because I didn’t have time to plan every detail but in countries like India and (I assume) Albania, you could spend 5 hours planning a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C or just expect things to go wrong and get ready to problem solve.  Case in point: For a couple weeks, I’ve been talking to a couch surfer who planned to pick me up at the airport in Panama City tomorrow, entertain me all day and send me on my merry way on a night bus/ water taxi/ shuttle adventure to Bocas Del Toro for the retreat.  I planned to pick his brains about my second week in Panama and find out more about his friend’s place on a nearby Caribbean island.  Such a seamless plan seemed too good to be true… which it was since his father fell ill late this afternoon so we’ll see if I have time to scramble together an entertaining back-up plan for Easter Sunday in Panama City… the holiday doesn’t help matters. Even the retreat itself remains a mystery. I know I’m supposed to get to Palamar Tent Lodge before 3:00 on April 21st and leave after 11:00 on April 27th, that its run by a woman named Soyela who “breathes love” (according to her gmail address) and likes to send me kisses from Central America.  But doesn’t like to give me information and that’s about the extent of what I know. I’ve got some people that I may hang out with the second week but I haven’t even tried to plan that. Beyond This Summer In addition to this not-so-little adventure, within the past couple of weeks, I’ve chosen to embrace an uncertain, vagabond-ish future for the next year. I’m finishing up my dissertation and after a little negotiation, my advisor gave me free reign to finish up from anywhere in the world (and threw in a free trip to Japan! Stay posted for that… maybe late August?) so I turned down a job offer for an adjunct astronomy teaching position at the neighboring college and decided to follow my heart to be with a boy in Turkey or Austria or wherever we end up. When I told a friend about this crazy plan, which unfurled itself kind of chaotically over the past couple of days, she exhaled her amazement, “Katie… you’re so good at making decisions”. “Making decisions?”, I inquired, hesitant to check whether this compliment (?) said anything about the quality of my decision-making. For a type A scientist like me who barely believes in feelings, turning down the opportunity to be Ms. Frizzle in a city that I love for a guy I’ve only spent 14ish days in person with seems like a nose dive off the deep end. But, I’ll...

Lessons learned from 13 countries in 2013

Lessons learned from 13 countries in 2013

What a year for travel!  Pretty unbelievable when you’re getting a PhD in physics.  In wrapping up the Europe trip and starting a new year, I thought I’d reflect on lessons learned from 13 countries (Brazil, India, Thailand, (Laos), Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Spain, Portugal and US) and 10 states (NC, TN, CT, MD, DC, VA, MA, CA, OR, WA, NY) in 2013.  All this travel makes me realize how little I actually know but my globe trotting has taught me a few things: (Warning: this post is long. You have my enthusiastic permission to read it over multiple occasions but it should be the last one until Turkey in February) 1. Technology makes traveling easy! There’s no way I would have been able to pull off a transatlantic trip with two days of planning 10 years ago.  Being able to research/ book flights, accommodations and other activities online makes it easy and quick to do yourself.  Exchanging money used to be a pain but ATMs solve that problem. Even if reading maps is a struggle, following the blue dot on my ipad has helped me navigate out of unchartered territory countless times.  I don’t even have a smartphone, for heaven’s sake- with Whatsapp, Mapswithme… I don’t know the details but the sky’s the limit when it comes to travelapps. 2. Travel light Especially if you’re city hopping, it doesn’t make sense to be dragged down by large luggage with failing wheels.  A hand towel can sufficiently dry you off.  Braids tame wildabeast hair better than straighteners and anti-frizz products.  I brought 5 outfits to Spain and I’m wearing the same cheap scarf, blue coat and clown boots in every picture.  Who are you trying to impress anyway?  For the same trip, I lugged around a sizeable first aid kit  but the only medicine I needed (for my cold), wasn’t there.  I know I complained about not having my laptop, but I survived. In civilized countries, you can usually get what you need when you need it.  And if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.  Your feet, your back and your hosts will thank you! Not much room for luggage on one of these things! 3. Keep an eye out for opportunities People are always amazed how much I’ve been able to travel when a graduate student salary barely keeps you above the poverty line.  I’m lucky that specializing in science and science education, opportunities for fellowships and travel grants exist but I’m convinced that with some searching, you can find ways to fund yourself too.  When airline companies overbook planes, volunteer to postpone your trip a few hours and you’ll get a free flight somewhere else (I’ve earned approximately $1000 in flight vouchers this year).  There are countless blogs about ways to travel cheap/for free- when there’s a will, there’s a way! 4.  Doing your job is the easiest part of working in another country That being said, be prepared since getting things done in foreign countries can be a challenge.  Undergoing research projects in Brazil, Singapore and India and teaching in India has revealed what may be written in your job description (collecting data, educating/assessing students) is the easy part.  Getting used to how another country works (and having your salary depend on it), is much more difficult, especially since they don’t write instruction manuals for this type of thing.  Who would have guessed that cooties are still a very serious issue for Indian 7th graders?  That staircases in Singapore lock behind you, causing you to miss meetings as you hunt down a way to bust out?   That a working voice recorder with batteries is essentially too much to ask for in India?  If you are making presentations abroad, have some one from that culture preview it- when I was invited to speak at the “Republic of China” physics conference, I almost used statistics from the “People’s Republic of China” which would have made me look like an ignorant American, assuming Taiwan and China were equivalent.  I already looked a little ridiculous, bragging about how 66% of American students go to college right after high school, when nearly 100% of their population gets a college education right after secondary school. Some of my class in India- boys in front, girls in back 5. Don’t let traveling alone hold you back Yes traveling alone can be scary, inconvenient (having my huge backpack follow me everywhere I go drives me nuts, especially in dirty bathrooms) and sometimes more expensive.  More than half my international travel has been mostly independent and it’s incredibly liberating to do what you want, when you want to...

Singapore gardens and a night at the Marina Bay Sands

Singapore gardens and a night at the Marina Bay Sands

Final countdown begins!  Only three full days left in Singapore.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to cross off all the last major things off my Singapore bucket list. Last Tuesday, Jen, Dawn, Marie and I finally made it to the famous Gardens by the Bay, which impressed even the flower-illiterate me.  En route, our cab driver raved about the famous Singapore garden with over 70,000 types of vegetation.  Jen and I focused on redeeming our Groupon to see the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories.  The Flower Dome featured gardens from around the world, including some crazy Baobab trees (from Australia, if I recall correctly) that inspired the Supertrees that they illuminated each night.  The Cloud Forest was undisputedly my favorite- despite the humid moistness was frizzing my hair beneath its braids.  It featured a 35 meter high man made waterfall covered with a variety of orchards and ferns, which you could explore from the inside on multiple levels- I’ve never seen anything like it. Waterfall at the cloud forest We finished those gardens just in time for the simultaneously futuristic and tribal Supertree sound and light show- it felt like a cross between the Lion King and Star Trek.  Tomorrow, I’m meeting Lauren, Daly (my dumpling friend) and some fellowship people for wine and cheese inside one of the Supertrees!  So pumped- Lauren went last month and said she felt like she was inside a James Bond movie. Supertree Grove Speaking of fun Wednesdays, I think Wednesdays are favorite day of the week in Singapore.  Last Wednesday was particularly amazeballs because Ken got the EAPSI gang a room at Marina Bay Sands.  AND we got upgraded to a premiere room on the 47th floor with a ginormous bathtub.  I’m not used to staying places so nice- we called down to order some ice and ask for extra cups.  They called back, what kind of cups we would need.  Sure enough, when we opened the cubard, we found at least a dozen cups: coffee mugs, wine glasses, beer mugs, tumblers, highball glasses… more glassware than I know how to name! Alissa jumping up and down- blur of excitement! We didn’t linger too long because fellow fellows were flooding in and we didn’t want to miss out on our Ladies Night free drinks.  Almost everyone showed up and it was a fun way to celebrate a successful and truly unforgettable summer. Katie, Dawn and Alissa in the infinity pool Once Alissa and I stopped jumping for joy over the spacious epicness of the room, we donned bathrobes and headed to the infinity pool on the 57th floor. Nothing can beat the viewing experience of peering over the edge of the pool to see the illuminated city, spilling out before you.  It’s where the musical genius B.o.b. shot his “Livin’ the high life” music video (I think I shared it in an earlier post), rapping to life changing lyrics, including those in the title of this post (just kidding, it’s an awful song but we like it for nostalgic reasons). Most of the Marina Bay Sands crowd Work has been going well too.  Last Monday, I gave a successful talk at NUS high school, despite being bleary-eyed after stepping off my Sri Lanka flight at 5 AM.  All of the physics teachers came and most stayed an hour and a half after my talk to chat (and eat yummy snacks).  Prior to my talk, I got a private tour of the impressive facilities.  Singapore definitely is doing some extremely innovative things with their education system.  NUS high school is exempt from national exams and they exploit that freedom to get students engaged in high level research opportunities, machine shop classes and electronics labs.  One student independently constructed Tesla Coils (a project beyond the capabilities of his teachers- they just gave him space to work).  Pretty impressive for 7-12th graders! Today, I gave my final educational outreach “talk” to NUS-Yale college, which I was a little nervous about because the professors there were by far my most educated audience.  The acceptance rate for students was only 4% (in the first year of operation!) and students turned down Stanford and Yale to attend this brand-new school.  Dr. Adams, who I had met with before, was born in Kenya, earned degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Cornell, earned the prestigious National Research Fellowship scholarship in Singapore and helped set up a S$225 million educational initiative as a graduate student! He encouraged me to read the faculty bios of the RSVPed attendees and everyone was Ivy League educated, innovative and adventurous.  And he wanted me to provide a ten-minute introduction to SCALE-UP then lead...

Serendipity?

Serendipity?

I just spent over two hours talking to Peter about the development at TEAL (Technology Enriched Active Learning) at MIT (we still need to talk about bring TEAL to SUTD (Singapore University of Technology and Design) but we’re saving that for another conversation)- we talked about the grants, the politics, the administrative figures and the scholarly collaborations that made it happen.  As we were wrapping up, Peter asked if I knew the real reason John designed the reform and fought so hard to make it a permanent part of MIT physics.  I replied, “he said there was a lot of money floating around and he had been working with Dr. Beichner on another project to develop computer based educational simulations”.  Peter raised an eyebrow and asked again, “No, that’s not the real reason he got into this physics education stuff in the first place”.  I replied more tentatively, “he told me he felt that he felt future projects couldn’t beat putting the voyager space craft in orbit so he wanted to end on a high note and switch gears”.  Peter looked at me and said “he fell in love”.  And it’s true.  He married the director of MIT’s educational technology initiative and she “opened his eyes.  He had an epiphany and she made he knew nothing about teaching physics”.  And so it began. Serendipity was actually Peter’s word for the whole situation.  His own story was equally as interesting and unconvential.  Arriving at MIT to finish his PhD with a professor in the math department, he was lucky enough to take advantage of an interesting string of opportunities that perfectly prepared him for his current role managing all the curriculum for TEAL at MIT and SUTD (along with some side projects like ‘misty Italy’ and some physics programs in South America… I’m hoping he can hook me up haha).  He wasn’t specifically interested in education but he was enlisted lot help out with some experimental courses that sound amazing.  In 8.01x, students would receive a red box filled with random supplies that could be purchased at a hardware store.   When the integrated studies program talked about time, they built watches, when they talked about food, they cooked chinese food, when they talked about automobiles, they built engines. He reflected “The point is serendipity is a critical factor.  I realize this in my case- things that happen almost by accident.  There’s a moment in time where something happens- it could be by chance, it could be an accident but then after awhile, you realize that there’s a process- these opportunities kind of open up and you can start to anticipate when the opportunity is there…” Peter said he’s not religious and I don’t know if I’d attribute all this to serendipity or something greater but it’s truly amazeballs how this wacky world works.  Most of the time, I feel like I’m blindly bumping around this world.  I have an idea of where I want to end up but especially this summer, I’ve been trying to wake up with an open mind and see where each day takes me.  And so far, things couldn’t have worked out better.  Who knows why i turned down working with a science education department to work with Reddy, the random Indian man from the National University of Singapore homepage who specializes in solid-state electronics and batteries.  But now I live walking distance of SUTD.  If I waited until next year, SUTD would be in their new campus on the other side of the country.  What are the chances that the 14 nerds selected to go to Singapore are all awesome, adventurous people?  I never even met Deb at orientation and it turns out she’s more like me than probably anyone I’ve ever met (and that’s not easy… Couchsurfers tell me all the time that they’ve never met anyone like me but after readsing my blog, even deb’s brother admitted “she sounds like a perfect friend for you”).  Ken hadn’t even heard about the EAPSI fellowship until the deadline was extended.  He wanted to go to Japan but they told them they wanted him in Singapore.  After re-writing his proposal twice, he ended up here and decided to spend a week with a relatively random girl in Thailand.  And we had the best trip ever.  I’m a physicist and a believer in quantum mechanics so I know that there’s some inherent, unavoidable randomness in the universe we live in.  But life is too beautiful for me to deny that there are greater forces at work that arrange the probability densities in our favor. 😉 For example, why did those two...

Cocktails with the ambassador and more interesting Singapore meetings

Cocktails with the ambassador and more interesting Singapore meetings

It’s hard to believe our time in Singapore is halfway over but as Alissa said last week “we’re about to embark on the CRAZIEST MONTH OF OUR LIVES”.  With all these trips and the awesome things that keep happening, July is going to be pretty epic. Fortunately, July seems promising research-wise.  I’ve been able to do some interviews this week and Peter arrived from MIT and he’s going to be a great resource for advice, information and good connections.  I’ve had lunch with MIT/SUTD people every day this week and I love hearing their stories.  One of my favorites is when the SUTD students did a summer study in Boston, some of them 3-D printed a ring.  They figured out how to remove the magstrip from their Charlie Card so they only have to flash their ring at the turnstile to hop on the T.  They’ve been in communication with Massachusetts Transport Authority about potentially mass producing their product- so cool! Today I ate with Max, a young italian physics professor who Reddy used to know at NUS and who taught in Australia for 10 years.  He’s going to provide a pizza bribe for his students to be interviewed by me in a couple weeks.  We were joined at lunch by other young male professors who really exemplified the young, creative energy of SUTD- another Italian (frisbee coach), guy from the UK and a smiley silent guy.  It was interesting to hear about their perceived cultural differences working with Asian students here and they also had some interesting expectations of Americans and their education. Walking up to Lou’s mammoth mansion Yesterday, we went to Lou’s house for happy hour.  He’s the C.O.O. (Chief Operating Officer at the US embassy, one step down from the ambassador), he talked to us at the embassy then talked more extensive to some of us at Saturday’s Fourth of July celebration which scored us this invite.  His house was absolutely beautiful- supposedly worth S80 million and he moved into it fully furnished with a full fridge.  They added decorations and wall hangings from around the world so we got a tour, met their cats and enjoyed story time.  Their Indian chef cooked us up some delicious samosas, Mexican mini-tacos and brownies- we were all in heaven.  His wife, Didi, is really cool too- she was a high school math teacher that he met in Malaysia.  She volunteers to help handicapped kids through horse therapy and she’s into triathlons.  They’re both so adventurous and down to earth.  Supposedly, Lou is the only American governmental employee who took the train into Mali.  The people at the embassy freaked out and tried to bribe him to take a plane using every technique possible but he refused and arrived to Mali on a train, after a very crazy ride.  They love trying street food and they impressed Anthony Bourdain with all the foods they had tried.  They gave us advice about Cambodia, since Marie, Deb and I leave tomorrow and they just reinforced my excitement!  Apparently, US is the preferred currency, which is surprising and convenient.  Marie read that the people from whom you buy a Visa on arrival request “crisp bills” and have refused wrinkly ones so we might have to bust out Deb’s iron depending on the state of our cash. Kevin, Dawn, Ken, Alissa, me, Didi and Lou Front: Marie, Dave, Deb After happy hour, Ken, Alissa and I decided to take advantage of girl’s night, partially because we were supposed to meet up with some couchsurfers who never ended up materializing.  We tried to find Ken a suit for the embassy shindig (more details later) but his arms were wayyyy too long for Singaporean suits so we gave up pretty quickly and enjoyed walking around the Bay and on the DNA bridge to see the city lights.  On August 9th, Singapore has their national day and they’ve been preparing all year.  People on campus have been making floats and practicing various performances.  We got to see people at the stadium do a performance to music where they held up colored papers and created a dynamic ship that moved.  So that was pretty cool- it’s too bad that we have to leave the country a week before this celebration. Flashing peace signs on the DNA bridge Eventually, we hit up Ku de Ta and Avalon at Marina Bay Sands to get our weekly dose of dancing.  We met this awesome group of guys from all over (Germany, Sweden, India and Indonesia) who are currently studying at James Cook University.  They were especially jubilant, re-united after a month-long break.  They had ridiculous...