December 23, 2010

I have nine minutes. This post will be another memory jogger. The past few days have been insane. Jeff and I are lunatics. We took a bunch of local buses through Honduras and then to San Miguel, El Salvador. We spent the night at cheap hotel behind the main bus terminal. We ate at a fantastic and authentic papuseria. We caught a 5am bus the next morning north to San Salvador. We walked a few miles with our luggage through the center of town to the puerto bus station. We left our stuff at another cheap hotel and then set off to find the buses to La Libertad, the local port city. We made it over there, I had an excellent chicken soup and then we took local buses up to a famous beach, Sunzal. Jeff rented a surfboard and I also took it out for a bit. We caught a bus back into town and I bought some ceviche to bring to the Alvarez’ house. The Alvarez’ hosted me the last time I was in El Salvador, and they graciously agreed to meet up with us for dinner. Our bus went right by there house, so we navigated our way directly there. They gave Jeff a tour and then we went into town. I love this family. They are incredibly generous.

We woke up the next morning and caught the 5am bus to Guatemala City. We arrived in the city a bit before 10am and walked with our luggage for two hours in search of our next bus station. These long walks are intentional and force us to see parts of the city we otherwise wouldn’t. Adittionally, it is phenomenal exercise! We bought tickets on the 9:30pm overnight bus to Flores. With that out of the way, we found a bus to Antigua and explored that gorgeous colonial gem for a few hours. We caught a bus back into Guat City and had a couple hours to kill before meeting friends for dinner. We decided to walk to the restaurant four miles across town, still with all of our luggage! Dinner was nice. We caught our bus and woke up in Flores. We explored Tikal today. It was one of most spectacular places I have ever been. We then had an adventure and are now staying the night in San Ignacio, Belize! To Cancun tomorrow!


Blazing through Central America update — for posterity!

December 19, 2010

My buddy Jeff Marlow and I met in Panama City at 2:30am on December 16th, 2010. I made it there via DC, where I attended Caltech’s science policy trip. Something significant happened. My layover in Atlanta was a nightmare. We were grounded on the tarmack for five hours, first waiting in line to be de-iced. Then our vacuum pump broke and the lavatories stopped working. They wouldn’t let us of the *international* flight for security reasons while they fixed the problem. They didn’t serve water or food while we waited, for obvious reasons. I was super comfortable and elated from some DC encounters, so I sat back and watched as people self-destructed out of frustration and discomfort. Jeff and I met at Luna’s Castle hostel in Panama City. We spent the next day exploring the canal, casco viejo and old town. I described these areas in an older post. We used a seven hour overnight bus to the Costa Rican border as our dormitory. We then spent most of the next day transiting Costa Rica. We arrived in Puntarenas around 7pm and spent the night there. We woke up at 4:45am this morning and made our way north to the Nicaragua border via municipal buses. We made it to Granada around 2:30pm. Explored the markets and colonial buildings for the rest of the afternoon. We are waking up early again to catch buses north to Honduras and then ideally into El Salvador. The borders are INSANE right now as Central Americans travel around for the holidays. We are going to spend quite a bit of time in line.

Siempre Norte!

Intentional layover in Bahrain

September 1, 2010

This will be brief because I am in the airport, about to board my flight to Amman. Two weeks ago, while booking a ticket to visit my friend Boris in Israel, I came up with a crazy ploy to squeeze in a few extra sights. The resulting itinerary is a beast:

  1. Sept 1: Mumbai -> Bahrain (9 hours) -> Amman (2 days)
  2. Sept 3: Bus to Jerusalem
  3. Sept 6: Bus from Israel to Jordan
  4. Sept 8: Amman -> Qatar (8 hours) -> Muscat (24 hours)
  5. Sept 10: Bus from Muscat to Dubai (24 hours)
  6. Sept 11: Dubai -> SFO
  7. Sept 13-18: MSRI workshop on Random Matrix Theory (Berkeley)
  8. Sept 18: Oakland -> Home

Anyways, the chaos started today in Bahrain. My 7 hours outside the airport exceeded all expectations. I must note that Gulf Air offered to bump me onto an earlier flight this morning, where I would have only had an hour layover. The convenience and certainty tempted me for a few seconds, but I am incredibly glad I thought about the regrets. I painlessly got my on-arrival visa and went to grab a taxi. I hate paying for taxis, so before doing so, I looked for expats with whom I could finagle my way into a ride, or other options. I ended up negotiating a STEAL with the owner of an empty rent-a-car place. I got a six-hour rental for the same price as the fixed one-way taxi fare into the city center! FREEEEDDOMMM!!!! I racked up 150km on my circuit around the island and through downtown. I broke many rules when I *MIGHT* have skinny-dipped at an abandoned beach. I went to the national museum. Walked around a massive mall. Watched the lunch prayer service at the Grand Mosque. I should also note that I am playing by the rules of the land today, and therefore fasting for Ramadan — all restaurants are closed anyways.

Some observations. This entire country is under construction. Much of which seems to be halted. I am not sure of the extent to which each of these factors contribute: Ramadan, the mid-day heat and global economic issues. Bahrain is known as being a very tolerant and modern country. This is evidenced by the many expats who now call it home. It was 110 degrees. The ocean is incredibly salty. I would guess this is because the air is so dry here, that the water would evaporate if the salt content were less — it has therefore reached some type of equilibrium between regional inflows and evaporation. On the same topic, it is so damn hot that I am astonished anywhere else on Earth can be cold — I thought the heat equation was more efficient — weather is crazy. As with everywhere else I have been in the Middle East, this place is driven by consumerism. Malls everywhere. So much in common with America and Americans, but we just can’t see it.

I am learning a lot and loving life. Amman in 3 hours.

August 31, 2010

The sleeper train was pleasant. I was in 3AC, which means each air-conditioned cabin wall had three bunks layered on top of each other. It also had the benefit of assigned seating. I didn’t experience “sleeper” on this trip, but it is allegedly a mad egalitarian free-for-all where the bunks are not air-conditioned. There are obviously grades above my class, but 3AC was perfectly sufficient. I should also note that I had fabulous cabin mates. This was a very different train experience.

Our train arrived ON-TIME at 5:30am. Raj, the owner of the guest-house where I am staying, was waiting for me outside the station. Man, this was much smoother than many experiences I have had. However, don’t get the wrong impression, India personifies chaos and its infrastructure is an absolute disaster. It is substantially worse than anything in South America and the poor bits remind me of Laos. Horendous. I might write some type of India prospectus later, but more likely, I will save my thoughts for conversation. Anyways, right after meeting Raj, he suggestively said that “today is an important day for his sect of Hinduism.” He explained that he had to go to a temple before sunrise in order to pay respects to his favorite god, Ganesha, who happens to be an elephant. Anyways, he wanted me to give him permission to do this on the way home. I one-upped him and asked if I could accompany him into the temple. He loved the idea and I therefore started my sightseeing before the sun rose. After, in accordance with the Indian ethos, he suggestively said that there is a nice breakfast place by the temple. I wasn’t hungry but couldn’t turn down the opportunity for another authentic meal. We were each served chai and two little light and puffy rice cakes that were accompanied by two dipping sauces: a peanut based milky one and a mildly spiced tomato based chutney. It was a perfect light breakfast.

Anyways, we arrived at his guesthouse (apartment) by 7am, and I was out the door and on my way into the center of old Mumbai by 7:30am. I took the commuter train which was an absolute circus. I had heard stories, so I was mentally and physically prepared, with my little day backpack strapped securely around my chest, and both hands free. This was madness. I forgot to mention that the city probably got 20 inches of rain today — this is not an exaggeration. It was a crazy day, but I made the most of it. I knew I was going to get drenched, so I wore sandals, a bathing suit and my backpack under a rain coat. The rain barely affected my itinerary. In fact, it made for a couple amusing observations. First, I thought of a reason why it is right to drive on the right. Indians drive on the left-hand side of the road and you would therefore think Indians would also walk on the left. This does not happen in reality — Indians walk wherever the hell they damn please. This morning, when I was walking on the left side of the road towards the train station, I reached a point where there was a narrow foot bridge over an impromptu river. Straight ahead, there was a steady stream of umbrella wielding Indians coming in my direction, the foot deep river next to it, and a highway blocking me in. Screw it, there was no way I was getting through the Indians, so I trudged through the river. While trudging, I thought to myself, “you bastards, I am walking on the RIGHT side of the road!” Then I realized that I was actually on the LEFT side of the road. Ding ding ding — logical inconsistency — English language fail. Thus, to preserve the consistency of our language it ONLY makes sense to drive on the RIGHT! Half-joke. The other observation was manifold and dealt with Indian umbrella etiquette. Pretty interesting. Almost got my eye poked out a few times.

I don’t have time to write much more, but suffice to say, I walked in the pouring rain all day and saw tons. The architecture in old town is quite unique and dilapidated, but still stunningly beautiful. I had fresh squeezed carrot juice, orange juice and two plates of mixed fruit for less than a dollar. I explored an alley in search of a hidden gem restaurant and found a packed open air tent that was serving veg pulau. I beat the rain by watching the chef make a couple iterations of the stuff. I got the recipe down. There is a rice component and a curry component. The ingredients are: rice, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, green herb, garlic, ginger, potatoes, large peas, many spices, salt, oil, red chillies and water. Photos of my meal, the ingredients, and the chef are attached, along with one showing the waiting game people played during the worst bits of downpour.

Waiting out torential downpour.

Incoming storm!

Incoming storm!

Veg Pulau

Veg Pulau


Chef man

Chef man

August 30, 2010

I popped into an internet cafe to dodge the downpour! After it lets up, I will pack up in my guesthouse and make my way to the train station. That was quick…

August 29, 2010

I arrived in Goa yesterday morning. I brought good weather with me and broke up the week long monsoon they had been struck by. The weather has been 80% sunny and 20% POURING! I was exhausted yesterday and spent

most of the day walking around in a stupor. I woke up this morning feeling great and rented a scooter. This was my first time with my own scooter and I therefore spent the entire day cruising around with an uncontrollable smile on my face.  The beaches here are nice. Food is good. Life is pretty decent. I am taking an overnight train to Mumbai tomorrow evening.

Scooter money shot in lush Goa

Getting petrol

So you don’t think I can?

August 29, 2010

The positive feedback from my last post gave me the momentum to continue writing — maybe even for the next two weeks! People have especially enjoyed the photos, which I have sincerely neglected in the past, and did again last night during another moderately interesting experience. Thus, no photos to accompany this post. I will be better.

The ICM normally ends for the evening at 6pm, and buses depart for hotels around 6:30pm. However, last night was one of three where they had a special engagement. Lectures went an hour longer and then some famous Hindustani soloist gave a beautiful performance, rocking the vocals for an hour. Buses were supposed to start departing at 8:15pm. Combine this with the end of the conference and our daily pick-up time of 8:15am, to imagine that people were pretty drained. Anyways, as is pretty standard in the rainy season of tropical Hyderabad, there was quite a storm going on outside. This was the first time we had weather of this sort while trying to load the buses, and so the organizers tried something different from their standard orderly procedure. CHAOS ensued. They tried to load thousands of exhausted mathematicians through the hourglass sieve of double doors, amidst a backdrop of thunder and lightning. Each bus was destined for one of approximately 20 hotels, and they tried to load them one at a time. It was an absolute disaster. People were getting soaked while people from all over the world — running the gamut of the queuing style spectrum — couldn’t figure out how to load the buses in a civilized way. I was waiting for my bus for over an hour, and mine was one of the first. Their system was an absolute failure. We packed the bus so full that we couldn’t close its collapsing door. Anyways, at least we were on the bus, and on our way back to the University of Hyderabad!…

We moved well for a couple of kilometers but the downpour had decimated the road, and there were parts covered by at least nine inches of water. After a few minutes, traffic  stopped with the rain. I had been standing and therefore didn’t know where we were. I probed my fellow passengers, all of whom were Indian, about how far we were from the UoH and how likely it was to start raining again. I received a range of answers, but people unanimously deterred me from walking. Actually, this has been a common theme in India — people consistently underestimate me. Even more than usual. They were telling me stories of dangerous people, that there was nowhere to walk, blah blah. I couldn’t take the negativity on the bus and calmly exited. It appears many others had done the same, because the street was filled with pedestrians. I walked through a sea of stopped traffic for about two kilometers before finding the issue — a bus was stuck in an improvised lake, straddling both lanes. I paid 10 rupees, or about a quarter, to share a rickshaw the rest of the way. One of the main advantages of doing so was that I was able to grab a disgustingly greasy dinner by the main gate. I got back to my dorm around 10:30pm, after an interesting walk and a filling meal. I don’t even want to know when the others got back. I wish I would have taken photos of the foot-traffic on the road, the puddle the bus was stuck in and the shack where I ate dinner. I should mention that my dinner cost 15 rupees (33 cents.)

Hyderabad hooligan

August 25, 2010

The following took place on Monday August 23, 2010 during the 2010 International Congress of Mathematicans (ICM) in Hyderabad, India.

Today was our only day off during the nine-day congress. I ate a healthy breakfast, laced-up my shoes tight, packed an umbrella and embarked on what I thought would be a stimulating but standard day of sightseeing.  I took the hour-long bus into the old city, and started walking towards Charminar — a four hundred year-old mosque whose history explains much of Hyderabad’s existence. Everything was going according to plan. After about 3km of walking, a dude on a scooter pulled up next to me, from behind, and asked where I was from. This guy had a RED BEARD and long hair! “Red” flags were obviously set off. I told him the USA and turned around to start walking again. I am a seasoned backpacker and have lot’s of experience brushing-off crazies. However, this guy spoke perfect accent-less English and asked me what I do for a living. The question struck me as odd so I told him I am a mathematician. He asked if I was in Hyderabad for the ICM. Okay, he obviously wasn’t completely insane. We talked for a bit and despite the fact that he was nerve-rackingly attracted to me and undeniably sketchy, he posed an interesting proposition. He invited me to spend the day teaching mathematics to schoolchildren in the area. I have spontaneously done similar things in the past, and I consider myself to be a talented judge of character so I vetted him for a few minutes and became confident his proposition was legitimate. I asked him how often he does this, where the last person he picked-up was from, which school we will go to first, the name of the principle there, where he lives, how he makes money, etc. I used to play poker, so I applied the tricks I learned for reading people’s honesty and checked for common tells, such as momentarily glancing away before telling a lie. Furthermore, he was quite small and his scooter had at most a 50cc engine, so I felt confident that I could either tackle him or roll off the back of his bike if things got out of hand. Anyways, some of the best days of my life started similarly and teaching mathematics is always rewarding, so I set off with him around 9:45am.

I just got back after 13 hours with this creep — my first impression was solidified over the course of the day. However, I spoke to over 200 students in half a dozen classes at three schools. The kids ran the gamut in every sense of the word. One school was incredibly poor and in the boondocks an hour out of Hyderabad, one was a rich international school and the other was somewhere in between. At one point,  my new friend “VV” drove his scooter through a mountain of cow dung while he was looking over his shoulder to tell me a disturbingly profane story. I got SPLATTERED! With regards to the story, this was not the only one of this kind that he told me, but I didn’t want to offend him while sitting on the back of his scooter in rural India. We ate a delicious south Indian feast for lunch at one of the schools. We had the Hyderabad Ramadan special cuisine of Haleem for an afternoon snack. Feasted on the equally famous Hyderabad Biryani for dinner. The latter two didn’t live up to the hype, but were still enjoyable. I was the main attraction in a Hindi prayer session accompanied by about 300 people, including over a hundred dancing children. I was given countless trinkets. I gave a high-five to a guy while we were each speeding along on scooters because he had an awesome custom scooter horn. Speaking of scooters, I spent at least four hours on the back of VV’s. I saw more than I ever could have hoped to. The roads are a disaster for daily driving, but have a nice scooter party vibe going on — a nightmare for residents, but amusing for tourists.

Now I will change gears and describe a bit about my teaching. As things turned out, I met with the principals of each of the schools before entering their classrooms. I asked them what they would like me to lecture about and for any advice they could share. They each immediately mentioned their student’s fear of math and unanimously requested that I try to dispel this bugaboo. Obviously, this is an impossible task on the whole — I still regularly fear math — but I decided my best approach was to talk about the relevance of math through modern applications. Also, I am a firm believer in the Socratic method, so I questioned the kids as much as possible. I started by introducing myself in a self-deprecating way and with a big smile, I wanted the students to feel at ease. I then challenged the students with a question: “why does society pay mathematicians — what service do they provide?” No one answered, so I asked: “do you pay me because I am good at adding up really big numbers?” A couple of kids smiled, but the room was cold. I then asked similar questions about doctors. I refused to move on until someone answered. The ice was broken and I queried the room about rickshaw drivers and engineers. The point of this exercise was to stoke the student’s curiosity. At least a couple were now engaged — they had the question running through their minds: “why DO we pay mathematicians?” As an aside, I sincerely believe that our lot would be well served by increasing the number of people able to answer this question. Anyways, I proceeded differently depending upon the age group,  but I generally described a couple modern applications of math. I told the students I wanted to draw a picture and asked them for suggestions. Again, no one would answer, but I refused to move on. I believe these types of exercises re-engage the audience. I then described how you could break up my pathetically drawn mountain landscape, that we settled upon, into a grid, where each entry has a gray-scale value. I then tried to explain how you could detect the boundary between sky and mountains by finding the largest vertical differences. Obviously I explained this more carefully to the students. I asked them what music they like and then told them about recommendation algorithms. I tried my luck at describing SLE through a pool analogy: “Imagine there is a big swimming pool filled with water. There is a freezing pump on one side. The pool freezes on this side, but has not yet frozen all the way across. What will the boundary look like between liquid water and ice?” This type of understanding allows us to make computer monitors and plasma TVs. With the oldest students, who were 14-15, I even attempted to explain the significance of the prime number theorem, and that in some sense it shows that “Shiva did not play games with us when creating the numbers.” (This school was administered by Hindu priests, so I felt the religious metaphor was appropriate. ) To do so, I talked about how many years ago people only used “small” numbers. There were no millionaires or computers. People were concerned with simple quantities. Most would not have intuition for the differences between millions and billions. Similarly, today, we do not have intuition for the differences between 10^100 and 10^103 — but someday people might. To conclude the analogy, the prime number theorem astonishingly says that numbers too big for us to ever encounter are somehow well-behaved. I am sure very little of this math stuck, but I believe I sparked at least a couple of kid’s imaginations. All-in-all, I believe the kids enjoyed themselves and have stories of a crazy American to bond over. Importantly, I also managed to depart from VV in an untraceable way.

I have a new home!

September 7, 2009

I moved to Pasadena today 🙂

May 17, 2009

I am cruising through the Stockholm archipelago, on my way to Helsinki. My word selection in the previous sentence was deliberate — I am on a Viking Line cruise ship! My EUrail pass covers a shipping line from Stockholm to Finland, but it also gives massive discounts on this cruise. I only paid $40 for a bed in a cabin I am sharing with a French dude. Also, I just booked my ticket to Beijing — I had many choices for my layover and I went with Cairo. It is a longer and more expensive ticket than the one via Brussels, but the people watching will be much more interesting. Also, I selected the ‘Muslim’ special option for my meals. I am hoping they reward me for this with something tasty! Regardless, it will be interesting.

I had a spectacular time with my Swedish friends from Stanford: Robert, Erik and Andrea. Highlights included the vasa museum and homemade elk burgers. The Stockholm archipelago is gorgeous.