I updated wordpress today and took a stroll down memory lane at all my old posts. Deliberately all of them. I know a lot of folks who have known me over these 8 years have said I haven't aged a day, but reading through these posts I wanted to cry. I did cry a little. Mostly I cringed at that self-absorbed arrogant 20 something I once was. So much has happened. So much of it was hard. So many people. So many old friends, now all growing older, for better and worse. Some people define their lives by one point in their life that happened. I suppose this has now happened to me. Are wisdom and bitterness two sides of the same coin? I've been wondering recently when does experience become a hinderance? When it paralyzes, and keeps you from being young again, I guess. As with men and hairlines, youth is a 'use it then lose it' situation. I see the undergrads and new grad students these days, and I revile their foolishness and envy their enthusiasm.
I might not look like an old man, but my wrinkles are on the inside. Today I feel a million years old. I wonder if this is normal? This blog itself is now 9 years old. It's more than likely that no one will read this entry. But that's ok for me these days, this stuff is mostly for my own benefit. I don't publicize, and the robots don't crawl. When this blog is 18 years old, I'll still have something to look back onto.
It's rare when I post something positive about my time in the Peace Corps, even though there were many. I thought now that the world is ending that it might be a good time to share some lessons learned from that time that I hope I will carry for the rest of my life. In truth, my time in the Peace Corps has defined my life, and the things I've learned on how to be a Peace Corps have translated heavily in my post-service life. Indeed, I see myself not as a scientist, but as a Peace Corps volunteer who happens to do science.
Lesson one: Be positive! The first thing someone told me when I got in to the Peace Corps is that "In the end, everything will be alright." This has often not been the case, however, positivity can positively influence the outcome of your life. Believing in yourself, believing that things can change, is often the most important thing about changing a community. When I heard Barak Obama's "Change" message, I knew he had been a community organizer. Once a group of people believe they can do something, the work of a community organizer is minimal compared to having to carry the community by themselves. From my own service, I like to relate the story of two villages. One was a lowland village who basically just told me "Nothing will change, just give us money." While another was a village I had to hike hours to get to. Once I got there several english speaking students approached me to ask for help. When I asked what this was, they replied that they wanted power, but since they were so remote, they formed a committee to see how they could bring power to their village. They contacted some NGOs, procured a grant, and started a solar cooperative to provide each family who signed up a single solar panel on a pole for power. All over the village I saw these units, indeed, the only place I saw them in The Philippines for the most part. What help did they want? They wanted to know if they had done things right. I think I will forever be trying to figure out what the difference was between these two villages, but I do believe positivity has a big part of it. But positivity is a reward unto itself. When a person or a group of people fall into the trap of constantly focusing on negative thoughts, everyone is impacted. Performance falls, confidence deceases, and people are generally unhappy. But this is not a cheap touchy-feely hippie dream. This is a mantra. It is difficult to think positive, and much easier and more common for me to focus on the difficult things in life. However, we Peace Corps volunteers do difficult things. And doing difficult things will always mean you have lots of hard days, lots of sad days. There is enough bitterness and hate to go around. But positivity? It will carry it's own reward in body, life, and soul. You will need every ounce of it to be what you are.
Lesson two: Build communities. A fundamental purpose of the Peace Corps volunteer is to improve the community in which they live in. The reason Peace Corps volunteers are put in local communities and given local salaries involves the idea that in this way you can somehow interact on a more local level as equals with the community. In this way, the needs and desires of a community are given priority, rather than what the volunteer can do for them. From all these interactions I began to get the impression that if you want to improve the environment, if you want to improve the economy, if you want to get kids to go to school, everything involves interacting with people one on one. You build communities one person at a time with the people around you. Whether you're in a dirt road village, or in a high-tech DNA sequencing facility, all the interactions between people determine if they will collectively rise and fall. Wherever you are in whatever situation you are in, build a culture of constructive improvement and mentorship by engaging and inspiring people to address their own hopes and dreams, and you will build a society.
Lesson three: Work hard, play hard, and care much. As Americans and as engineers we are known for working hard, and playing (drinking) hard. However, I would say empathy is also important. It is ok to care. It is ok to cry when you see something bad happening to someone or something. It is ok to say something when you see someone in trouble. It is ok to listen to someone talk about their lives, and to learn something about them. As I've said, reason makes us better than animals, but empathy makes us human. Be passionate! Be passionate about your friends and their lives. Be passionate about what you do, and love the beauty of it. Be passionate about living and being alive! And never stop being friendly to others. Care about your friends, care about your work, but also care about yourself. You cannot help others when you cannot even help yourself. If you are sick, in debt, or over-worked, you cannot do good in this world. When you do not respect even yourself, you cannot have empathy for others. If you are cynical and say nothing good can ever happen by human hands, or that those good things are worthless, keep this in mind. One day you will say something and realize people are actually listening to you. Someone will actually change their thinking based on yours, more often in a negative way, you will then begin to change your tone. Everyone of us touches each others' lives with each interaction we make. These touches are so subtle as to be imperceptible, but each interaction has a life time of impact. You could make it a lifetime of negative impact. A lifetime of self-centered impact. Or you could dream of something more. What would it be?
10 days of utter intensity and no secure internet connection left me no room to write, so I must suffice to write one month after the fact, after the colors and smells have faded and washed out. Still, it helps the memory to rethink recent events, to stand apart and re-evaluate things once again, and in doing so making it more a work of art than true travelogue. Call it the Bill Bryson method of writing.
On June 23 Hicham picked me up on a roasting Colorado's summer day and dropped me off for the quick (2.5 hour) hop from Denver to Houston. Of course, I had totally forgotten how utterly hot Houston is this time of year and appeared wearing long pants in the 5pm heat (having intentionally not brought shorts since I was going to the Southern hemisphere). As always, my amazing dad picked me up without any complaints despite the years and years of arrivals and departures, some at the oddest hours. We caught up on the way back home and I spent the day at home packing and getting ready. Unfortunately, the next evening as we left about the same heat of the day to get to IAH, about an hour away, my dad's AC died in the car, and we had no choice but to silently suffer the heat, me in my long pants again.
A trick from endurance hiking that I've picked up over the years. I mentally split each trip up in to legs, based on continuity. For example, in The Philippines the Tuguegarao City to Manila trip was in 8 parts, Home to departure, Departure to Santiago City (first bathroom break of 20 min), Santiago City over the pass to Solano, Solano through the Nueva Vizcaya valley over Dalton's Pass, Dalton's pass to San Jose, San Jose to the outskirts of Manila traffic, and finally the early morning light of arriving into Manila, the last leg of getting off the bus and into my guesthouse. Door to door 15 hours for about 180 miles. This method seems to make long duration trips much more bearable, if only mentally. On this trip I had 8 legs, going from Houston, to waiting for the flight, to landing in Doha, overnighting in Doha, and continuing on to Johannesburg and to the friends who were waiting for me. 36 hours total, my longest. On leg one (going to the airport) I was already soaked with sweat! On these kinds of trips minor annoyances tend to seem graver than they actually are. I distinctly remember the check-in lady telling me that my 'carry on' was over 7 kilos and therefore had to be checked. In hindsight, given how annoying the layover was at Doha this was a blessing in disguise. During these times though you just get so incredibly angry or annoyed, you really have to force yourself to stay calm, pretend you have a crazy buzz going on and not let anything touch you. That's the hard work of travel, after all.
I coped by telling myself I had much to look forward to. Qatar Air flys the best planes (777s) and I had the most luxurious seats that economy tickets can buy, complete with headrest entertainment system. Settling into the flight I attempted to start my pre-acclimatization trick to reduce jet lag. The second you step on the plane you switch to the landing time zone. Force yourself to sleep, force yourself awake, and before you know it, the jet lag is gone, leaving you more time for fun at your destination! In theory. I have to say, after 3 years of trying this the results aren't that great. Mostly because it's so hard to no sleep on an airplane when you've been sitting for 8 hours straight and the lights are off! The sad thing is, I can't help from doing it now. As soon as I get on a plane, I find it completely useless to keep the old day-night cycle going in my head. Best way to leave a place is to forget it, a little bit slowly, in your mind, I suppose. Suffice it to say, after this flight I faced a loud bright and uncomfortable 12 hours overnight at Doha (I highly UN-recommend it) I watched the sunrise through the large terminal skywindows overlooking the hazy red dawn desert and got on another plane towards OR Tambo International airport. On the flight I had the delicious luxury of having no one sitting next to me, and I a nice talk with a Kenyan Indian (and Canadian naturalized citizen) who had left with his daughter from Winnipeg and come on the same flights through Houston just to see the World Cup. He was a pest-control specialist. Always try to talk to a pest-control specialist if you can, they tend to have very interesting stories. He and his daughter would travel 48 hours total. Just goes to show that there's always someone worse off than you!
And here's the part where we finally make landfall. The relief! Both physically and mentally as you touch ground, as you successfully clear customs and collect your baggage. As you check off, leg 7 out of 8 over! I walk out of the terminal absent-mindedly mentally checking all the errands I had to run before meeting my ride, and Sunny and Yono pop out from nowhere! And with the news I'd been secretly hoping would arrive. Sunny, on passing through Lisbon, met groups of Brits bitter at having bought the wrong game tickets erroneously thinking that England would win the group. Instead, Landon Donovan scored a deciding goal after 91 minutes of nailbiting, eliminating Slovenia and winning the group. Sunny got 6 tickets to the game that night, 3 hours away, in Rustenburg, to see the USA play Ghana. Yono asks, do you have your jersey ready? And I'm like "Yes. No, hell yes." I barely had time to wolf down some food, dizzyingly jet-lagged, and we hopped on Greg's (our Joberg contact) 4Runner and zipped away on a harrowing and confusing drive through the rural unlit South African countryside searching for this town and stadium without good directions. Thankfully the traffic lit the way. This stadium is a tiny little thing (by soccer standards) set in the Bafaokung nation, an indigenous group that sits on much of the world's platinum supply. This place is so remote the entire valley was covered with smoke from subsistance farming agricultural fires. We got to see the US lose spectacularly for the second World Cup in a row to Ghana, smack in the middle of a Ghanian cheering section. And it was cold. And there was only Bud to drink. Over the course of the next two weeks I could often be heard saying "I came halfway around the world to drink Bud Light?" By the time we dumped my bags down at Greg's place in Johannesburg, I wasn't even forming coherent sentences anymore. Greg's place was an older house in the nice Melville district of the city. Like every other, the house was ringed by a high wall and electric wiring. Over the course of the trip I would be continually amazed at the obsession South Africans have with security and crime.
The next morning we all woke up late and explored the main Melvilile drag, with it's host of shops and cafes. After running errands we sat down and proceeded to watch another game, eat at an amazing restaurant appropriately called Wish!, and tried to get a ride to the game. Haha, screw you tourists, turns out nobody wants to take you to the game because everyone is already going! Greg eventually hatched a plan where he talked his way through parking security at a park and ride, dropped us off, and we took the "Free" park and ride which wasn't, to and back from the stadium. We saw el-tri go down in style, playing hard against Argentina. It was during this game I noticed a disturbing trend. Its always easy to get beer, but try to get food you have to stand in line for a while, and both times I tried, I never even got any. Service was slow, if operating. It seems like there were a lot more tourists in the country than they were expecting. People were serving up some of the most basic foods poorly cooked and with long waits. I sure hope the price of basic stables didn't go up on account of us tourists, it almost seemed like we were locusts eating them out of house and home! Still, most South Africans were polite to a fault with us. The next night someone even drove us back home from the game! (notice how I'm skipping over the silly SAB World of Beer amusement park). Sunny struck up a conversation with a couple of Portuguese descent who had gone to see the Brazil game (which they handily one over out-matched Chile). This couple, and about 5 others, told us never to walk around at night as it was dangerous. Even though all our forays out we rarely saw anyone. It was hard to tell if fear-mongering was the rule of the day, or if things were actually that dangerous! By this point things were getting pretty exhausting. I saw 4 games in 4 days, and watched 4 more on television. The Japan- Paraguay game wasn't even worth mentioning, really. Some of the most boring soccer on earth. By this time, Sunny and Yono and I were joined by Benno and Julie and Vivek. Benno, Julie and Vivek and I went to Pretoria for the 4th game, ate at a really interesting upscale pancake place near the stadium in the embassy district, and got whisked back to Joberg to catch the second game of the day (Spain-Portugal) at Melrose Arch, an upscale shopping district in central Joberg. There we saw ecstatic young rich fans of both teams oohing and ahhing in front of the largest jumbo-tron in the nation, with live music, and no readily available street food. Again, we ate late and poorly.
Up at the crack of dawn. Packing and in a rush. Trying to catch our cab, "Wait he's already here!" We flew out of Joberg in a rush and landed in Capetown, and drove our rented cars (rather humorously) to our tiny lipstick-red old town style rented flat in De Waterkant, an area just off the main waterfront district. The place was tiny, but also filled with the junk of an old lady's life. It had the musty smell of an old lady too, and we debated as to what might have befallen this woman, since she was clearly gone for a while, but all of her stuff was still there under lock and key. There were so many singing angel dolls, crosses, bibles, and paintings of grandchildren as well as smelly old embroidered tablecloths and antique furniture that it was physically difficult to fit inside that place! Coupled with the fact that the second full bath was actually a child's sized full bath fully visible from the construction site off the street and you really got the feeling you weren't getting your money's worth. Oh well, at least they weren't picky about the parking and we could walk all around the waterfront and downtown Capetown. We explored the area for the evening and tried to enjoy our first day without games in the trip. I resolved to spend as little time in the dead lady's house as possible. Sad to say, on the off days, downtown Capetown wasn't that fun to be around. Everything seemed to shutdown after dusk, and the streets would clear out except for the few wandering tourists. After pubbing around a little we went to sleep as best we could in the tiny place.
The second day in Capetown Julie Benno and I took a wonderful side trip to Hermanus to go whale watching! The drive down the coast was spectacular and interesting, complete with hills, vineyards, rocky wave lapping coasts, and for the first time I saw a whale! We made the last trip at the last second, and essentially stalked the dorsal fin of a lone shy humpback whale for about 2 hours. Still, it was a nice sunny green detour from the drab brown dryness of Johannesburg, and I loved every second of the long forgotten coasts. We even ate kingklip at a local seafood restaurant and took a wild night drive back along the shore to Capetown, arriving late in the evening. Keep in mind that it's still cold and wintery.
This is when my old friend the travel flu hit. In Colorado I never seem to get sick, which probably means as soon as I leave I get exposed to all this crazy stuff with my immune system out of shape, and my poorly executed jet-lag acclimatization routine stressing my body out already. This time I went down pretty hard. By the third day in Capetown I was basically bedridden. I spent a day inside and watched the Netherlands take down Brazil at a fan zone, but that was all I could muster. The next day wasn't much better. Me, Sunny, and Yono drove around the city a bit, but I was getting worse. At least my fever broke that night. The next morning I tried to walk around with Yono and Brita, who had arrived with Sonal and Emily the previous night, but I just couldn't move. Staying in, I two games, the very contentious handball of the Uruguay Ghana game, which saw the last African team lose, and the German victory against the self-destructive Argentina. The day after we took the day to climb to the top of Table Mountain overlooking the city. It was a steep hike, but completely flat on top with some amazing views. I was feeling better by now, but not much. I don't even recall what we did afterwards. An ethnic dinner place I think. The next day in Capetown we all went on a winery tour to Stellenbach, just south of the city. I crashed hard. I'm also tired of writing this blog entry. Rusten Verde, De Vriers, etc etc, I can't remember half their names. I basically spent the next two days in bed, going out briefly, coughing and sneezing constantly in that horrible house. There's an outing to Cape point somewhere here with good seafood and penguins. When we left I was so relieved. I ended up visiting Xanthe's place for a day. I met her family and she took me on a mock safari where they shelter animals. Finally I got on the plane, still sweating from the safari, and began the long road home.
Tissue paper, check. Ciprofloxin, check. Money, check. pasu-poruto, checku. All the old memories and lessons-learned come flooding back. For the first time in 2 years, Jackson is on travel baby!
This page is active again! I'll be checking out the World cup in wintery South Africa, with stops in Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Capetown. The night we get in the US will be playing Ghana for advancement to the semi-finals. On Sunday we'll be watching Argentina vs. Mexico. Paraguay just won so we'll be seeing them next week, but the remaining competitors are still fighting it out today and tomorrow. The playing is getting intense and finally reaching world class level. The France team has already self-destructed. Italy sank in dismal performance. England squeeked out with second in Group C and will play Germany (what a game!). And just now, Japan scored on Denmark 1-0. If they win they'll advance. It's a fight to the Round of 16!
Now that I'm 30, I realize I have never actually considered life after 30. I figured I'd be dead or fabulously wealthy by now. Unfortunately, neither has happened so I'm left with trying to figure out what the heck will leave me satisfied over the next few years. Thankfully, Colorado is a great place to learn about what I don't like in humankind. Hopefully within a year my search can begin again to find peace and happiness. To that end, based on a series of failures and trials here in Colorado, I decided I needed to draw up a few guidelines on how I should move my life in the coming years.
Jackson's rules to live by for the next 10 years:
1. Find a community that actually has talent in it. AKA Find a community where I respect the people and the talents in it.
2. Live in a community where the people respect my talents, background, and personality, or that respects a multitude of talents, backgrounds, and personalities.
3. Find a job that I enjoy doing and that helps people.
4. Find a job that I can do well where my work skills, my heritage, and inter-disciplinary background is not seen as a lack of experience or the wrong experience.
5. Find a girl who is independent/mature, multi-cultural/ multi-lingual / multi- SOMETHING, and loves to travel and live abroad, and appreciate her for that. It would help greatly if she wasn't excessively overweight or excessively skinny or excessively nuts.
6. Never become too insulated or comfortable from what is going on in the world around me, for the world is a dynamo - figuratively and literally! Not everything I experienced yesterday might apply tomorrow.
Most of all, Jackson's number 1 rule for living life (or perhaps rule A?):
1. Always find your center and live there.
Center, what? Well, your center, a combination of knowing your place in the frame reference of the universe, knowing yourself (in the Socratic sense, you dirty bastard), knowing where you belong, and never living at an excess or an extreme to what your center of gravity is (not in a Newtonian sense). A big part of this is the Confucian and Buddhist idea of the Middle Way. Never too much pain, never too much joy, never too much stuff, never too little. At heart is the idea that when you are at your center, you are at rest. I definitely do believe that seeking the center is a natural human tendency. A big problem is that when a person feels that they are living their life at an extreme, they go to the other extreme. In this way we live our lives flitting from one extreme to another, never achieving true peace or happiness. Finding your center is the journey that could consume your entire life.
Simple, 'di ba? We'll see how silly these thoughts might be in a few years!
I've upgraded this page to WP 2.9 with a new look and will be messing around with the features for a while. The hope is I'll be writing alot more in the near future and turning this blog into a non-travel personal journal of sorts.
This is an excellent article in nature magazine about the current needs and efforts in fish aquaculture. Large fractions of our native fish populations will not outlive the next few decades. To compensate, aquaculture has ramped up massively, but there are consequences, particularly pertaining to the environment. Can we manage our fisheries to provide protein for the 10 billion world?
I'm posting this here since it is in fact copyrighted.
Back in Shanghai now. I had an interesting ride back to Lhasa. On my way out I discovered I was missing some money, about 500 RMB (70 USD). I told my guide and he immediately suspected the porters. I was hesitant to say. Farmers are poor, but not dumb or desperate. He and hte cook discussed it and decided to go to their village and confront them directly. So we met up again with the two porters, who of course denied everything. However, after some sharp questioning one of them, a 26 year old with a shady look about him admitted taking the money and offered to return two crisp 100's, having spent the rest. I was dumbstruck. Never in the Tibetian conversation did he look my way or show guilt or hesitancy in his voice. I couldn't read him at all. All the while he wore the same dumb expression.
The guides wanted to press charges, but I hoped that the shame of stealing would be enoguh (How do you spend 300 RMB in the Tibetian countryside? Hopefully in useful stuff, and not in beer and women!) We headed back home in the minivan in need of a physical and spiritual cleansing and renewal. On our way back about 100 km from Lhasa in the middle of nowhere we saw some pilgrams heading to Lhasa. Thubten mentioned that they probably had come from far eastern Tibet, prostrating one body length at a time. First raising the arms above the head, kneeling, falling flat on forehead and hands, sweeping the arms above the head and back, and then standing back up, and advancing one body length. They carried nothing but the clothes on their backs and heavy aprons and wooden blocks on their hands to protect themselves. Charity and religion sustained them, their ashes would be enshrined if they fell. Man, I thought. This place is tough. I imagine myself living as a Tibetian monk, early rising, prayers, bad food, bad weather, chores, labor, then early bed, day after day until all the years go by. No wonder they have so many festivals. I also imagine my life as a nomad. Never bathing, yaks, goats, yak butter tea, boiled food, high altitude, horrible life threatening weather, sharing wives. The pinnacle of life to prostrate all the way to Lhasa. I couldn't do it. It's not surprising that Tibetians get out of that life when they can. After this, I'm done with high altitude and winter for a while!