About Me

My photo
The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Whoosh" You Were in the Philippines

I'm studying abroad in Hong Kong, but took a few days over the weekend to visit the Philippines. I'd decided to visit the World Heritage sites up in Northern Luzon, which are basically massive terraces for rice farming (beautiful, and disappearing slowly from disrepair). After a six hour bus ride, a changeover on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and another three hour bus ride to Banaue, I'd arrived at the near edge of the terraces. To get to this particular photo point, I rode on the back of a motorcycle for an hour, and then hiked three more over some steeply mountainous terrain (made worth it by the amazing vistas I passed) to the smaller barangay - village - of Batad.

I met some locals, as well as some Ifugao elders (not photographed, because they charged on a per-picture basis, and I didn't have any bills that were small enough), and somehow ended up with the opportunity to try on some of the traditional hunting gear stored in one of the Ifugao huts - bark armor, bark-based cloth, a six foot long spear, and a machete. I learned some basic tribal dance forms, and suddenly realized that I just had to give a Whoosh! for the folks back home - so after a little explanation to everyone there, I walked away with this photo!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Trees, Sheep, and Time in New Zealand

It may seem like an odd title, but I planted 5,000 trees, saw around ten thousand of the (purported) 45 million sheep, and had no doubts whatsoever that I was (after twenty hours of flights, thirty hours of flight delays, and fifty hours of layovers) in New Zealand. Also, a small warning: from here on, I refer to anything New Zealand as Kiwi. And, a second small warning for you, should you visit New Zealand, what you eat is kiwi fruit. Not kiwi.

Kiwi grass - and you'll excuse me if I get this out of the way now - is green. And not the Texas-brown sort of green that I see after the occasional rainy week we get. Lush, wavy, and undeniably green. In fact, here's a picture:

You may also notice that I've chosen a picture that includes a number of sheep (actually, it's hard to find a picture without sheep). The sheep stick in my mind for two reasons: there are more sheep than people in New Zealand by a factor of about ten-point-two, and I've now heard more sheep jokes than knock-knock jokes (How do Kiwis find sheep in long grass? Quite well, actually.) I've even heard more than a few sheep knock-knock jokes.

Now, the conservation group I was with consisted of me, three Brits, and a Australian team leader. Our job was to plant around 5,000 trees to (re)create the natural environment and to build a wildlife corridor - this also means that the trees I planted are protected against damage by Kiwi federal law, forever. I definitely plan to return to New Zealand by means of Google Earth in about ten years to check on my trees. I have no doubts that the kauri trees will be massive. We also sanded and restored a small bit of a historic Portuguese tram that had been lovingly shipped all the way from Colorado, and to pot a number of tiny, ant-ridden plants for future conservation purposes on the volcanic island of Motutapu.

So, Andy, Andrew, Suzie and I dug holes, fertilized, and planted trees for about two weeks. And it was awesome. Besides the free 'Shoveling Today' magazine you get (I'm making this bit up), were able to help restore the original, natural environment in one of the last places we have the chance to do so. Some of the other work done by volunteers was focused on restoring native kiwi habitats to the islands by moving or eliminating the rat and stoat populations. Of course, I was also able to make some great friends, share music, learn an awful lot about the native flora and fauna, watch the truly bizarre Auckland AltTV channel, ride a horse over miles of empty beachfront with a Maori guide, learn about ancient and contemporary Maori culture, gape at astonishing vistas along the coast, and ride boats out around in the beautiful bays.

But I still wish I could have arrived a few weeks sooner: someone had the job of fitting hedgehogs with tiny radio collars.

Tour of Europe

Hello everyone! I’ve been having a blast travelling in Europe! My journey started in Rome, Italy where I learned that knowing some Spanish and French helped me get around the city. Beyond the vocabulary, my reasoning skills took over and getting around became simple enough. Walking around Rome over the next two days was a welcome, albeit tiring, break from my many days spent driving in Texas. The main thing that struck me as I walked around the Eternal City, was that it lived up to its name. Noisy cars and buses whizzed past each other on the streets in front of two millennia old buildings, with Latin inscriptions-timeless as well since people today can still read them. It was interesting to see archaeological digs takings place next to and often on top of construction zones for new streets and buildings. Over the two days I spent there, I was able to see the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus (now converted into a running track for locals), the Arch of Constantine, and dozens upon dozens of beautiful palaces, government buildings, and monuments from various periods in Rome’s massive history.

Ancient Rome and the Coliseum
Part of my travels also took me to Vatican City, where I was hoping to get to finally marvel
at the wonder of the beautiful Sistine Chapel, and attend Pope Benedict XVI’s public appearance and blessing in St. Peter’s Square. Unfortunately, August 15th is a major Roman holiday, Ferragosto, in honor of Caesar Augustus, so most museums (including the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum) were closed, and His Papal Authority was elsewhere occupied as the day is also the Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary- so if you’re planning to visit Rome in August, plan more wisely than I.

Outside St. Peter’s Basilica
After my days in Rome, I trained on to Pisa to see the most famous example of poor foundation planning. From Pisa it was on to Florence and l’Accademia dell Galleria which is home to Michelangelo’s David. After basking in the shadow of the 18 foot tall masterpiece, and snapping a few photos I toured around the city to see the narrow walks, beautiful bridges, and massive open-air markets. Then one more train on to Venice where I had to catch a boat at one o’clock in the morning to get to the island where my hostel for the evening was located. The next morning I was up early to tour the city, mainly around St. Mark’s Square, bordered on three sides by a continuous line of three story shops and apartments, and on the final side by the massive, ornate, and beautiful St. Mark’s Basilica. I enjoyed an amazing pannini for lunch and then headed off to Milan to rest for the evening. Unfortunately, in Milan I didn’t get to see any of the sites I’d planned, but instead learned a fun lesson in planning. When I tried to book my ticket to Paris for the next evening, I discovered that there were no seats left on any train that day, or the next, or the one after… The first rude ticket officer told me to pick another city in Europe and shooed me away. Luckily the second, nicer officer spoke English very well and told me that Nice was lovely this time of year and that I might be able to get a ticket to Paris from there. So I was on the first train out of Milan the next morning to arrive in Nice, France. My luck changed when I arrived, and I was able to book a ticket to Paris for that evening. So what could I do with eight hours on a beautiful sunny day in the south of France on the coast of the Mediterranean I wondered?

On the Beach in Nice
That night I was on the Lunasa overnight train-Traveler’s Warning: This overnight train in France was one of the most cramped and unpleasant experiences in my travels, not to mention my two hour layover in the middle of nowhere..-but fortunately I arrived safely in Paris the next morning! That’s all for now, but look for the next update soon!
End of Part One of Austin in Europe

Friday, September 07, 2007

Volunteering in the Sudan

Detroit: an exotic destination, n'est-ce pas? Less than 24 hours after flying into Charleston, SC (my home base for the past twenty years) from an exhilarating time in Knoxville at Destination Imagination Global Finals, I am headed out again, a trip to Wal-Mart and unpack-repack session later. Michigan is the staging ground for my flight to Amsterdam, then Nairobi, then Sudan. All told, it's over two days of traveling time. Unfortunately, the man driving the luggage loader to my trans-Atlantic ferry accelerates into the plane, bashing a rather interesting hole into the side of it. Two hours later, I'm transferred to another plane and start praying I'll make my connection in Amsterdam.
There aren't terribly many flights to Nairobi, and if I miss mine, I'll also miss the flight to Sudan. It flies at most once a week to a USAID/NPA airstrip next to small village of Akot, where the clinic in which I'll be working is located. However, the flight arrives just in time, and since I didn't exactly wear heels to fly to Africa, I have no problem trotting across the airport to my next flight, which is far less eventful than the prior one.

Nairobi is an archetypal third-world metropolis, with copious pollution, gobs of traffic, and absolutely no regard for traffic conventions. There are red lights, but no stopping for them. I like it immediately despite all of this (those with allergies are less forgiving), but am anxious to get to the clinic in Akot. The plane we fly to Sudan is an old DC-3 of the World War II era. Africa is a graveyard for aircraft cast aside by the more developed world – but the DC-3 is a champion capable of carrying a great deal of weight (in this case, people and medicine) and, more importantly, landing on short dirt strips rife with potholes and cow dung.

My first few moments on the ground are an adrenaline rush until the heat seeps into my consciousness. It's extraordinarily oppressive, even to my South Carolina- and Texas-tuned senses, and the ward I'm sleeping in (part of the inpatient facility of Mustard Seed International's Akot Medical Clinic) raises the outdoors at least ten degrees. The clinic is the only accredited medical facility for about a two-hour drive – or day's walk – in any direction. Our compound neighbors that of the Norwegian People's Aid, which is a contractor with USAID and the UN World Food Programme and does their food drops in South Sudan. The clinic is independent, but receives some support from WHO and UNICEF, the former of which provides HIV and malaria test kits while the latter entrusts us with the distribution of mosquito nets impregnated with insecticides. The bednets add to the heat, but even though I have anti-malarial medication buddying up to my red blood cells, I'm grateful to be sleeping under one. Besides malaria there are yellow and dengue fevers – both hemorrhagic fevers mechanistically similar to Ebola in their more serious forms. The medical director of the facility, Dr. Jeff Deal, says that the creature he fears most here is the mosquito – and I see his point, but have a pretty healthy fear of snakes as well, especially after a green mamba is killed two feet from someone's head, another is found in our showers, two try to attack us while we are on a remote clinic in a refugee camp (one actually leapt twice its body length!) and I almost step on a cobra (little, and of the spitting variety, so my windshield sunglasses would have been useful.) But this fear, like the discomfort of the heat and pit latrines, fades as time passes and I fall in love with Southern Sudan and the Dinka.

The Dinka are a people torn by war for the past 50 years. They are tall and very dark-skinned – so even with the beginnings of a marvelous farmer's tan, I stand out. I find that my blondish pigtails are a novelty and thus a good distraction for babies I am vaccinating since everyone keeps his or her hair quite short, in part due to tradition, in part because of nutrition, and partly to discourage lice. My first day, we vaccinate a couple hundred people at a well about five miles from the clinic. My second day in Sudan, one of the Med students and I trudge about two hours with needles, syringes, gloves, sharps containers and vaccine coolers on our backs and give vaccinations for several hours, then hike back. I have learned to maintain sterility (or as close to it as is possible under the conditions) while joining needle to 1-mL syringe, to reconstitute the vaccine with a saline-buffer solution, draw up half a cc into the syringe, plunge the needle into either arm musculature for adults and bigger children or derriere for babies, aspirate to make sure I haven't hit a blood vessel, depress the plunger, remove the needle and deposit it straightaway into the sharps container. Aspirating is necessary because it's impossible otherwise to make sure one doesn't hit a vein or artery, and the vaccine has to be injected intramuscularly; if it gets into the bloodstream the liver will filter it out before the immune system gets the chance to develop antibodies. I will aspirate blood only once the entire time – but every time I draw back the plunger to check, I hold my breath, hoping I won't have to stick my patient a second time. Most of the time, our patients don't bleed from their shots, but when they do, we have to change gloves, disposing of the dirty ones as carefully as we do the dirty needles. Although all of us have had every hepatitis shot available, not every HIV test we do on patients is negative, and we can't be too careful. Full sharps boxes are banished to the depths of the latrines each evening.

Our vaccination plan calls for us to hit locations where people congregate regularly, so we visit school after school, churches, prisons, army barracks, wells and even an IDP ("Internal Displaced Persons" – ie, refugees) camp.
Meningitis spreads by fluid contact, so the risk of contracting it is highest in groups of people, and although no census has been done with any accuracy in the region we are working in, we hope that our strategy will confer a degree of herd immunity. Soldiers and released prisoners are very mobile and prime spreaders of disease. Schoolchildren are not only more vulnerable because of younger immune systems, but also come into contact with many more people than their parents simply because they are at school while their parents work the fields. Wells are points of contact for all the people of the surrounding area – a day at the well ensures that most people within two-three mile radius are vaccinated.

I receive a marriage proposal accompanied by a dowry of a hundred cows. Cattle are currency among the Dinka – 100 cows translates to roughly US$80,000 – and despite efforts by the government to enforce use of the Sudanese pound, it falls a distant third to the Kenyan shilling and the glorious cow. Most of the cows appear to have a bovine version of dysentery based on the liquidity of their patties, but that doesn't stop the Dinka from combining the dung with weeds to fashion tobacco. It's quite a generous offer, 100 cows, since I'm very short and wouldn't guarantee tall sons, but it comes on the heels of my victory in a dance-off with some Sudanese women at a remote clinic. Sudanese dancing consists of jumping up and down, neck bobbing and feet tapping precisely with drumbeats. I am tired long before my opponent, but have a streak of stubbornness that keeps me going even though I am wheezing and my dueling partner's mother keeps trying to push me over when I land between hops. Plus, it is entirely possible that she let me win. I wisely choose not to mention the nuptial offer to my father in my emails home – 100 cows is powerful temptation!

Neither do I tell him about the signs that warn of land mines. I just stay on paths and try to understand the context of ever-present war that permeates every aspect of the lives of my friends here – South Sudan was the victim of atrocities like those now being committed in Darfur. I know I can’t even begin to comprehend the impact the conflict has had in shaping their psyches, but it makes me ache a little for them, especially since they’ve told me they don’t think the fragile peace with the North will last. Most of the people I talk to say that they expect Khartoum to rig the independence referendum scheduled in 2011. Whether it does or not, if people suspect that and the South doesn’t gain independence, there is a lot of fear that war will break out again. Southerners point to Darfur and to recent drops in their share of oil revenues that they feel have been inadequately explained in order to raise questions about Khartoum. I don’t know what’s really true, but it’s scary and at the same time exhilarating to feel in the middle of it – scary because it seems like anywhere I look there is a boy who is younger than I am brandishing a Kalashnikov, and exhilarating, because here I am in the bush, at a hand-pumped well, discussing UN policy and competing national interests when I’ve finished with vaccinating. I feel like we’re doing something that matters, and I’m certainly gaining a new perspective.

One day we feast on beef from a cow killed by the local dignitaries in honor of the clinic’s recently constructed new facility. The sacrifice is an elaborate ritual – it takes most of the day and involves chasing the doomed bull all around the clinic compound and baking loaves of bread in pits in the ground covered with burning coals. I struggle to accept the cultural differences that prevent any of the women from eating with the men, who are served first. The women, who have been slaving over hot fires and serving the men tea sweetened by 100 kilos of sugar specially and expensively purchased for the occasion, eat hours later – the cooking pots are only large enough to cook three-quarters of the cow, perhaps a calculated move as the men consume everything from the first batch. The women are left with the cow’s insides and least choice cuts of meat, and the whole day are essentially ignored by the men. It bothers me so much I have trouble going to sleep until one of the female medical students and I have a murmured discussion about it back in the ward.

Even more privileged than the men in the village are the soldiers. Even though the dearth of resources dictates that each man is assigned only one bullet, an assault rifle as an accessory lends a certain spirit of power and arrogance. Chalky lines encircle trees, reserving their shade for members of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Still, my Dinka friends are very gung-ho about the SPLA. A rally is held in Akot village so the surrounding populace can register as members of the party and receive surprisingly high-tech identification cards with holograms and bar codes that remind me of my driver’s license. That day, wary of trouble from so many men with guns collected together, we stay on the clinic compound and keep a low profile.

The days start to run together, as we vaccinate, draw blood to test for malaria and HIV, treat cases of typhoid fever, tuberculosis, tetanus, meningitis, guinea worm, leprosy, and many other tropical diseases. I work in the pharmacy, see patients, give shots and help in efforts to coax babies into swallowing oral rehydration salts, which I agree taste nasty, but also save lives as supportive care not only for cholera but with far more minor diarrheas. I stupidly, but intentionally, dehydrate myself one day to avoid having to go to the bathroom while we're at an IDP camp and suffer a headache and dizziness quickly ameliorated by rest and gallons of fluid. Lesson learned. My most precious commodities – the Gatorade powder and Nutella spread I brought from home to give my taste buds a vacation from lukewarm but thankfully-filtered water and the staple rice and beans, are disappearing quickly, especially since I share the chocolate spread (less vulnerable to melting than a Hershey’s bar.) Punctuating the routine is a trip to the nearest surgical unit, a Catholic hospital in the town of Montpardit. There is a large school there, so in an exhausting day we give almost 1,000 shots – by far the most of any day. We also pick up a man who needs a procedure too complicated for the primitive conditions of the Montpardit surgical unit to be airlifted from our airstrip to a hospital in Khartoum. He bounces up and down, prostrate in the back of our truck, for over three hours of excruciating pain.

I grow used to being in Sudan – taking my turn filling up the barrels with water to start filtering, scrubbing down the pit latrines with bleach, becoming used to the heat and familiar with the medicines prescribed for the more common ailments we see in remote clinics – and even more accustomed to vaccinating. One day, we travel to Rumbek to vaccinate children at the two large schools and prison there and I have my worst toilet experience of the trip: a pile of feces surround the pit in addition to being in it, with maggots crawling around (although some friends had an even worse experience.) My stomach squirms a little, but my tolerance for inconvenience has expanded just as my waistline has shrunk with all of the walking and the fairly basic diet.

9,000 vaccinations later, I’m packing the trinkets I’ve acquired – a bracelet cast from spent AK-47 shells left over from the half-century of conflict, a ceremonial dagger and shea butter – made from the avocado-like pits of Sudan’s ubiquitous lulu fruits and the South’s only considerable export; it is the product of a cottage industry run by Sudanese women with support from Catholic missionaries who provide sites and presses for extraction of the butter. The DC-3 flies us back to Kenya, and security in Nairobi is so lax that all the passengers are detained for questioning at our connection in Amsterdam and my bags are re-screened. Since the Southern Sudanese government doesn’t have the infrastructure necessary to stamp passports, I have to bring out my separate SPLA visa and explain why I seem to have disappeared by exiting Kenya and not having an entrance visa in my passport again until reentering Kenya in transit to fly out of Nairobi. It’s strange to see so many people, but not be greeted with cries of “Kawadja, Kawadja!” (Foreigner, Foreigner!) everywhere I go, and even stranger to use a flush toilet in a sanitized stall. Immigration in America is not exactly welcoming, as my Customs official interrogates me after seeing I’ve been in Sudan, but I enjoy a huge burger at Fuddruckers in the Detroit airport, finish a book and walk through each of the airport’s terminals with a new appreciation for air conditioning as I wait 10 hours for my connection back to Charleston. Somehow, when I get home to the bed I grew up in, I can’t sleep, even though it is far more comfortable than the cot made from PVC pipes I’m used to. I’m jet-lagged, of course, and I feel immeasurably older. I have Africa in my veins, and now, almost two months after I have returned, I cannot wait to go back. I didn’t catch malaria, but I did catch a very persistent fever: work like I did this summer is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’ve never felt so significant as when helping others. I’m good at science, and I actually liked Organic Chemistry – but serving people is the reason I stay up late to learn the habits of electrons and importance of protein tertiary structures, why I memorize amino-acid characteristics and hormones secreted by the endocrine system. I’ve been searching for the most meaningful way to maximize my application of both the molecular biology knowledge The University of Texas at Dallas imparts to me and the leadership experience of the McDermott Scholars Program.

I’m grateful to have found it.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Gastronomical extravaganza

Although Mexico is about learning the language and learning about the culture, it is also about the food. Everyday we would gather around the lunch table to taste the next delicacy that our Senora would lay down in front of us. Everything from mole (a type of spicy sauce made with chocolate, pronounced mole-eh) con pollo to flautas, milanesa to chile relleno luch time was truly a sampling of Mexican culture. Not only was food amazing but during these lunches was when we would learn about our Senora's take on Mexican culture and how it has changed throughout her 81 (now 82) years. Lunch time was a combination of our conversation, grammar, and history class all rolled into one. She really was a wealth of information, and a damn good cook too.

A Mexico adventure

Mexico is a colorful country. Summers in Mexico are festive, filled with the sights, sounds and smells of a culture that loves life and all it entails. Walking down the streets during the day, the smells of delectable foods greet your nostrils as the sounds of mariachis (traditional bands) and people yelling, whistling, and laughing envelop the scene. What is the scene, you might ask? The scene changes from day to day, and street to street. The main streets are lined by cafes, restaurants, and shops where the social life of Guanajuato thrives. The restaurants have colorful umbrellas, delicious aromas, and live mariachi bands to take in for any person strolling down the colonial-era cobblestone streets of El Centro, or downtown Guanajuato. Geometrically shaped trees accentuate a triangular central plaza called El Jardín which boasts marble tiles, gazebos, live music, pricey restaurants, a huge Gothic-style church, the Teatro Juarez (a beautiful building of Grecian architecture), and finally my favorite Italian restaurant with the famous $12.00 out-of-this-world filet mignion -- Frascattis. El Jardin is the gathering place of the city of Guanajuato at night, with streets so crowded and boisterous it is reminiscent of Disney World.

Taking a walk down any of the winding streets or callejones (alleyways) that lead away from the center leads to a million different discoveries. The Plaza de San Fernando is lined with shops and cafes, and hosts an adorable dance night once a week in the evenings, in which older couples dance a specific Mexican number (which I have been told is very difficult, but they make it look easy). Avenida Juarez, one of two main streets of the city, leads from El Jardín to a main bus stop, winding along sometimes narrow sidewalks that force pedestrians into doorways as buses zoom haphazardly along. Avenida Juarez also leads to El Mercado, a warehouse-like building with numerous shops, and the Plaza de la Paz, where the landmark gargantuan yellow Basilica gathers wedding parties and quinceñeras, spouting organ music at all times of the day. Speaking of church bells, beware! They chime the hour, half hour, and sometimes even the quarter hour at all times of the day and night, and when there is mass, they emit such an alarming peal that the city seems to be under attack! Nevertheless, I learned to rely on them for the time, and was actually at a loss when I returned to the U.S. and actually had to look at a watch.

The other main street, Positos, leads from the Alhóndiga (a granary where a significant battle of the Mexican revolution against Spain was won) to the University (a huge gothic-style building with a million stairs and a castle quality). Along the way, speeding taxis are a danger as sidewalks occasionally disappear around corners, and numerous steep hills must be traversed—helping to keep food-happy students in shape in the high altitude.

More about the people: they are energetic, friendly, affectionate (especially the young couples!), and delightfully patient and helpful when confronted with broken Spanish. The males are expressive, and any female that has been to Mexico will be familiar with the chh-chh, whistles, and even dog barks that she encounters numerous times daily. As my roommates and I took fifteen-minute bus rides to and from the city every day, we were in direct contact with wonderful people who helped us find our stops on the frantic first few days (¿Bajamos aquí por El Centro? -- No, no el próximo parrada -- ¿Aquí? Todavía no.). On the way back home at night, the taxi drivers showed interest and patience as we told them about America and studying Spanish and they shared information about their families and lives. Our teachers were funny and engaging, making the Spanish learning process much easier, and the students in class with us became great friends over the course of a month.

During my month in Mexico, several wonderful things happened. First, my Spanish improved enough to communicate with the people of another culture (although I did occasionally have to ask them to Habla más despacio, por favor! -- speak more slowly). Second, I learned to dance salsa, meringue, and cumbia in some great dance classes offered by the university, as well as learning the valuable skill of cooking real Mexican food -- which I have already utilized, I have to admit. Most importantly though, through my struggles with navigating a foreign land, my exposure to a people and a culture so different from my own, and the act of taking this journey with friends, I have changed in the best way possible. I have gained closer friends as we discovered, individually and collectively, a different way of life. This discovery has enlightened our view of our lives, our country, and indeed the world.

Writing from Melbourne

This past weekend I went with some of the other guys in my study abroad program to the Great Ocean Road, which runs for about 150 miles along the coast of Australia south of Melbourne. We saw a ton of cool stuff, including the beach where they filmed Point Break, a Eucalyptus forest full of wild koalas, a rainforest walk, and some incredible cliff views. The highlight of the trip was the Twelve Apostles, a series of huge rocks that stand in the ocean just off of the shore. Between the cliffs and the waves, they're a pretty awesome sight.

This picture is of the "London Bridge", another natural rock formation just off the coast. It might be hard to tell from the picture, but it's at least a couple hundred feet long and over a hundred feet outof the water. It used to have another natural arch that connected it to the coast, but that collapsed a few years ago, and it left people stranded on top of the remaining rock until they could be rescued by helicopter.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Recounting a semester in Geneva

The Broken Chair, symbolizing the victims of anti-personnel landmines, was placed at the entrance to the United Nations in Geneva to commemorate the work that has been done with the Mine Ban Treaty.

Would it be wrong to choose to study abroad somewhere entirely because of their chocolate? Okay, okay, so maybe that wasn’t the only reason. This spring I spent a semester abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. It was an incredibly intense but incredibly fulfilling five months, where I experienced Geneva and Europe to its fullest through courses, an internship, and a lot of travel.

My main reason for choosing Geneva was because of its important role in international relations. I was able to not only study this work but to personally contribute to it through an internship with the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD). GICHD serves as the effective secretariat for the Ottawa Convention or Mine Ban Treaty, an international arms control instrument that has led 153 states to completely ban anti-personnel landmines and end the humanitarian harms that they cause. Working with GICHD was easily the coolest thing that I have gotten to do as an undergraduate. My main work was researched based, where I compiled reports on universalization of the treaty to Middle Eastern states, standards for landmine victim assistance, and the implications of newly discovered stockpiles of AP mines. I also got the opportunity to serve as the head of my own major research project. The focus of this project was to counter claims made by states not party to the treaty that landmines were needed for border security. My job was to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of landmines in the first place, how other states employ successful border security systems without landmines, and how new states could access these alternative technologies and accede to the treaty. The best part of the internship was seeing my research actually used. My boss was great about including me in all of his work, and I was able to participate in meetings with the treaty’s president, the Co-Chairs of the Standing Committees established by the treaty (diplomats from the various state parties), the Landmine Survivors Network, and the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Another important part of my job was helping the Center prepare and host two major sets of meetings: the 10th annual meeting of the United Nations Mine Action Programme Directors and Advisors and the 2007 Standing Committee Meetings of States Parties. This was sort of the culmination of my internship experience, where I was able to actually take part in the work of more than a hundred states, NGOs, and individuals coming together from throughout the world to implement plans of disarmament, development and humanitarian assistance.

Courses were also great. They focused on Geneva’s important work in the fields of disarmament and human rights, incorporating meetings and briefings at interesting organizations such as the UN Human Rights Council, UNCTAD, the World Health Organization, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. As interesting as classes and work were, the real adventures of my semester came on the weekends. The program that I studied with included a two month Eurail Pass, so every Thursday night myself and all of the other students in my program set out to explore Europe by train and see all that we could before Monday morning. All in all, I was able to visit Bern, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna, Zermatt, Milan, Athens, the Greek Isles, Rome, Luxembourg, Brussels, Nice, Monte Carlo, Paris, Prague, Torino, Berlin, Dresden, Venice, Dublin, Budapest, Florence, and Bratislava. I would start telling you about all of these adventures, but I am afraid that if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop. Suffice to say that it was absolutely amazing, and I wouldn‘t trade it for anything. I collected tons of great photos, friends, and random bits of foreign language vocabulary that I will never forget.

Really interesting classes in international relations, working with the secretariat for an international arms control instrument and doing my own small part to eliminate the humanitarian threat of anti-personnel landmines, and traveling to many of the major cities in Europe. Not bad for a semester abroad. Not bad at all. Especially when you factor in the chocolate.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Working in Argentinian radio

For the last month or so I've been working at Radio Revés (88.7 FM) in Córdoba. The station is run by students in the communication school at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, and does its best to give a voice to workers, women, students, and other groups underrepresented in the media.

My work there is usually doing production and editing. Most mornings we'll interview a couple of people on-air, and my job will be to take the 10-15 minute live, on-air interview and cut it into a 30-45 second clip for rebroadcast later in the program. It's really helping me with my Spanish because I have to be able to completely understand the whole interview in order to be able to pick out the salient parts for the soundbite. Plus, it's a fun game--cutting and pasting phrases together to help the interviewee say what they were trying to say more effectively than they actually did. Oh, and cutting out muletillas, throw-away words like digamos, equivalent to like or you see? in English.

On Tuesday, following the Virginia Tech incident, they had me on the air for a short segment during the morning show to talk about the difference in breaking media coverage of the event between U.S. and international media outlets. We were recording the live stream onto the second computer in the studio but it crashed while I was on the air, so I don't have a copy. If I go back on the air this week, I'll try again.

Because it's a university station, the operation is somewhat low-budget. The weak link in the whole process (as I found out Thursday) is not the rat's nest of wires that feeds into the mixer, nor the Windows 98 computer running two instances of Winamp and five of Firefox, nor even the poor little circuit breaker that supports this load for 16 hours a day.

No, the slow step is the baby-boomer air conditioner running full-blast that's stuffed into a 4-foot by 4-foot closet with the radio transmitter. Without the help of the little window unit, the transmitter generates enough heat to fry itself completely (they told me this was determined empirically). On Thursday the studio felt a little warmer than normal, we discovered that the air conditioner had quit. So about two minutes later, after a hasty on-air explanation of the circumstances, we went off the air for the morning.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A visit to Barcelona

After completing a gruelling course of final exams here at the University of St. Andrews in January, I got a two week break before the next semester started. I, like most of my fellow students, chose to go travelling. By throwing darts at a map, err, consulting with maps, Lonely Planet, and friends, I selected Barcelona as my destination! With a couple clicks of the mouse, I was all set!

I was in Barcelona for just over five days, and I could have stayed longer. I had heard nothing but good things about Barcelona, so much so that I was thinking that I was in for a bit of a let-down. Once arriving, though, I saw that Barcelona really was as nice as I had heard.

This was my first time travelling alone, and it was fun and exciting to try and muddle through in a language I’m only marginally familiar with in a country I hadn’t been to in six or seven years. I did have, however, a very long itinerary created from the recommendations of the numerous friends who were anxious to share their enthusiasm for Barcelona.

Perhaps the most prominent items on this itinerary were those designed by a Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi worked in the 1880s through around 1910. His work, though, looks later, as is the case with many great innovators. His style is reminiscent of art nouveau, but is less complicated and “fiddly.” His emphasis is on curving shapes reminiscent of those found in nature. While he doesn’t cram his works with loads of detailed ornamentation, every detail is considered. Everything I’m saying here, though, is just my opinion and what I learned from the many exhibitions I went to about him. I’ve never taken an art class, or anything, so I guess if you want reality, you’ll just have to go yourself! Be sure to take LOTS of film, though, because his buildings make great pictures!

As I said, Gaudi got a lot of his inspiration from nature, and natural shapes. Perhaps my favourite of Gaudi’s creations was Park Guell, a park on what used to be the outskirts of Barcelona that Gaudi salted with goodies such as winding paths, serpentine benches, columned marketplaces, and colourful, tiled sculptures. Around every turn in the path, there was an interesting feature. Really, it was quite a nice place to spend a couple hours.

Outside of Barcelona there were also some lovely things to do. I walked along the beach and spent some time by the harbour eyeing the sailing ships, but the main tourist attraction outside of Barcelona’s city limits is Montserrat, a monastery on a mountain about an hour from Barcelona. The monastery is located high on a steep mountain, and the only way up is by cable car. The views were stunning! Not only were there wonderful views out over the surrounding (fairly flat) countryside, glimpses of a shady river winding around the foot of the mountain, and a view out to the sea in the far distance, but the mountain itself was lovely as well! From the foot of the mountain, the buildings of the monastery and the more recent museums seem to be perched on the very top of the mountain. Once reaching these buildings, though, it’s surprising to learn that there’s still another half of the mountain above you! I satisfied a bit of my desire to hike by walking around the mountain for several hours which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Despite the lovely scenery and the interesting architecture, perhaps the most interesting thing about Barcelona was the people I met. The last time I had travelled in Europe was this summer when I had come straight off the plane from the states and had spent two weeks in Italy. While there, I met lots of people who seemed to me veterans of travel, young people who had spent weeks, even months in foreign countries learning about different cultures and languages. I respected these long-term travellers, and wondered what experiences they had had that differentiated them from other travellers, because they were noticeably different from newer travellers. In Barcelona, however, I was suddenly the veteran traveller, having been in Europe for nearly five months. This difference was really made clear to me one night when I went out to dinner with a group of three American law students just starting a semester abroad in Ireland. Although I was three or more years younger than they were, I was able to teach them things about travelling. It was interesting!

I must say that although January probably isn’t an ideal time for a visit (brrrr) it’s still a very nice city! The tapas are great, and the Spanish seem to take their hot chocolate very seriously, and there’s nothing better to warm you up!

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Mexico photo essay

I. Hotel Tuna. This is the hotel I stayed at for the first two nights while I searched for an apartment. I still haven’t figured out why they paint the tree trunks white in Mexico. I’ve been told everything from “the paint protects the trees from tree-eating ants” to “it keeps dogs from peeing on them.”

II. ¡Arriba, Abajo, al Centro, por Dentro! The first day we arrived also happened to be Giovanna’s birthday, so an ad hoc party was thrown in Benito’s apartment accordingly. Giovanna’s the one with red curly hair just to my left. This turned out to be the first of an endless string of partying. At some point I got tired of going to so many parties, so I stopped going. I got in trouble when one of my teachers found out though. “Mexico = fiesta,” I was told. She then made it homework for me to party myself silly and ... something else that won’t be repeated here. All of my teachers check homework on a regular basis. Attendance is mandatory and automatically taken, as we have to pass our ID cards in front of scanners by the doors before we enter for class.

III. Ludivina y los Gallos. I was informed that I had to take the route-20 bus to get from my apartment to Tecnológico de Monterrey, but there was actually more to taking the bus than just knowing the route. The first time I tried taking the bus, none of them stopped for me, and I had to take a taxi to Tec instead. The next day, Ludivina showed me how to hurl myself into the street in front of an approaching bus to force it to stop. I didn’t have any more trouble after that.

IV. La Parada de Autobús. This is me with my roommate, Maxim, waiting for the bus. Even though Maxim will tell you that it was incredibly cold that morning, you shouldn’t believe him. Just because you can see your breath every time you exhale doesn’t mean it’s cold.

V. Nuestro Apartamento. This is our apartment in all of its glory. As I mentioned before the students here like to party hard, and sometimes the festivities are held in our apartment. I’m glad I took this picture when I did because our apartment would never look this good again. Our apartment has three bedrooms: two small and one large. Since we naturally all wanted the large room, we decided to draw rooms from a hat. Bruno got the large-room, I got the middle small-room, and Maxim got the end small-room. This picture shows the kitchen on the left and the window (why in the world is there a window?) between the main room and Maxim’s room, on the right.

VI. Nuevas Llaves. We were only given one set of keys for the three of us, so our first task was to make copies. Fortunately we were able to achieve this at the plaza located within walking distance from our apartment. Our friend here actually copied our keys so quickly that I didn’t have time to get my camera out; he’s only pretending to be working in this picture. It looks like he’s doing a good job nonetheless.

VII. Perrito. Pets are really well trained here in San Luis Potosí. Sometimes when their owners are tired of driving, they let their dogs drive for awhile. Here, we see a crafty Schnauzer parking his owner’s vehicle at the Soriana supermarket.

VIII. Una Calle. This is one of the streets we walk along to get to the Tangamanga Park from our apartment. All of the street signs here are affixed to buildings instead of being on a pole, so they’re often hard to find amidst all of the city clutter. This, in addition to the names all sounding the same to me, makes it difficult to learn the street names. Most of the people here seem to have trouble as well. Every time I get lost and ask someone where Tatanacho (my street) is, they say they’ve never heard of it. As long as you’re not lost though, not knowing the street names isn’t a big deal since you can easily navigate by utilizing the many landmarks.

IX. Escultura. As I mentioned previously, there are many landmarks in San Luis Potosí which decorate the city. Here I am in the middle of a roundabout standing in front of a sculpture of four Charros who appear to be at war with the oncoming traffic.

X. Entrada del Parque Tangamanga I. This is the entrance to the Tangamanga Park; it’s actually Tangamanga Park I, of two. I’ve been told that this one is bigger and better than Tangamanga II. In fact, this park is so big that you would need a car to traverse all of it within a single day. Though I’ve visited it on several occasions, most of the park remains undiscovered to me.

XI. Jugo de Naranja. This woman is making fresh orange juice for Bruno. Her shop is located at what I believe to be the center of Tangamanga.

XII. Bicicletas. When you feel like your puny little legs can’t stand any more walking through the park, the opportunity exists for you to be free of your primitive-walking-self in the form of hourly-rated bicycle rentals.

XIII. Bruno y el Nopal. Bruno, apparently having never seen a cactus before, ponders this one deeply. Bruno’s from Belgium. Make of these two statements what you will (syllogism not intended). As a side note, there are seven international students this semester at Tec: Bruno and Max (my roommates) from Belgium; Suvi, Markus, Juha, and Ahmed from Finland; and, me from Dallas. The “Finnish Guys,” as they are known—Suvi is the only female among the seven of us, live in a house on the opposite side of the city. Busses don’t pass by that area so they have to take a taxi everywhere they go.

XIV. Carro con las Plantas. One of many decorations in Tangamanga Park.

XV. Estatua. One of countless statues in Tangamanga.

XVI. ¿Dónde está el fuego? We tried to have a barbeque one of the times we were at the park. Unfortunately we remembered to bring everything except for the lighter fluid. Here, Ahmed and Edna work together to prepare a mushroom, while Arturo and Maxim try to ignite the fire by staring intensely at the charcoal and thinking only happy thoughts. The rest of us, being so hungry that we were looking yearningly at the trash cans, were ready to give up and go out for dinner instead. However, Ahmed said his only goal was to be able to eat his mushroom at an acceptably warm temperature, and then we could go. After two and a half hours, Arturo and Maxim’s efforts paid off, and we had Fire. Just as the fire began to create a detectable amount of heat, a park policeman came by to tell us the park was closing. Geraldo pleaded for fifteen minutes more (along with cunningly bribing him with a taste of our uncooked food), which the officer sympathetically granted, and the face-stuffing of lukewarm foods commenced. By the way, there’s a huge rock on the grill because it was holding down the small piece of foil we had placed there. The foil is no longer visible in this picture because the wind still got the best of us.

Just so you know, kind reader, it’s not all just party-and-park here. We go to school and do school things, too. I will upload pictures of Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus San Luis Potosí with the next posting. Right now though, the weather’s been uncharacteristically gloomy, so I haven’t been able to take a decent picture of Tec yet.