Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Talking IT in India

Welcome to India!

Phew! As those of you who read my last blog post know, I've been waiting to say those words for a long time now. (I'm actually entering my third week in Bangalore now, but lost several draft blog posts to wi-fi crashes). So I can tell you I've had time to settle in to work in Shell, figure out my housing, and start thinking about the paradox that is my Bangalore.

The one point that I'm trying to get across is my overwhelming initial experience:
Culture shock is not knowing what the difficult things are. It's asking yourself - what will be my biggest issue today? Is it climbing a mountain? Booking a cab? Meeting people? Using the bathroom? Eating breakfast? - and not being able to exclude a single item.

I should probably warn you that there is hiking involved (any surprises there?) ^_^ In the top photo, you can see my mountain - a monolithic slab of granite known as Savandurga - in the distance. It's about 33km outside of Bangalore. It should tell you something about the traffic and the roads that this makes for 2 hours driving each way.
Story 1: Catching a cab
We tried to leave at 6.30am in a pre-booked cab. 
At 6.29am the cab company called. 'Are you here?' we asked. 
'No ma'am... there is a problem with your booking.' 
'What do you mean, is the cab late?'
'Well ma'am you ask for five person car... car is too small for five persons. You want five persons, you need to have a bigger car.'
Why didn't you realize this until now? is not a helpful question. 'And how fast can you send it?'
'Let me check with my supervisor...' click.

Soon the phone rings. This time, it's the driver of the small cab, saying he's nearly here, not even five minutes away. Okay.

beepbedeedee 'Hello ma'am, we don't think we'll be able to send a cab until 1 hour'
'One more hour? If that's the case, we can wait that long.'
'Let me check, let me check again... You are in Whitefield? No sorry ma'am car will take four hour to get to you.'
'Well then, we can take the smaller cab and make it work.'
'Don't worry ma'am bigger car will be on its way'
'Sorry, did you mean on its way now? Or in four hours?'
'Yes on its way.'

The full conversation took a good fifteen minutes or so with multiple inconclusive calls to the supervisor. A little after 7 the small car showed up. It sounded like he'd never heard of the problem. Fortunately, we eventually found a simple solution: for one thousand rupees his car was a five-passenger car. We squeezed four people in the back seat and set off.
In case you're worrying about safety, no need - the seat belts had all been carefully wedged and disabled, so they weren't in the way.

This driver wasn't the type to mess about. This comes on top of the tangled two-to-twelve-lane mire of autorickshaw, motorcycle and occasional handcart that makes up a Bangalore highway. My heart practically jumped out the open window a couple times. We missed one concrete barrier by inches, and twice cruised on the wrong side of the road to avoid inconvenient intersections.

Story 2: Savandurga
Our car parked on a small dirt road at the base of Savandurga. A small Hindu temple stood on a raised platform. Stalls selling potato chips, mango juice and jackfruits looked out hopefully.

We soon found the trail leading to the monolith, which wound fifty meters or so through the forest. An intense smell of spice blew from an open-air restaurant. At a small house, water splashed while a woman in a blue sari washed her feet. A couple stray dogs ran past. From the bushes came a periodic waft of feces.

When we came out into the open, we met a familiar request. 'Photo please?'
I've decided that the most fun way to deal with this is to ask for a photo for myself to keep too :)
We spent a while getting snapped with every possible configuration of the family.

One of the fantastic things about this hike - and about the Bangalore area in general - has been the overwhelming friendliness of strangers here. Everywhere there were people calling out to their friends, or pointing out the best ways around the steep sections. Everyone seemed to be in groups of friends or family. Hardcore hikers, a common species in the US known for uphill with grim expressions, and exclaiming triumphantly over their stopwatches on the way down, were nowhere to be seen. It was quite clear that the business of the day was fun. 

We spent a large fraction of the walk up climbing alongside a pair of IT professionals, one of whom spoke good English and asked us many questions about the US.
In return, we asked him what he was doing in Bangalore.
'I'm working in the IT sector here, and doing work for a Master's degree and X University on the weekends.'
'Wow, that sounds like it would keep you busy!'
'Yes, it is difficult,' he told me, 'There is not much time for family. But it is necessary here because the market is saturated with IT and programming professionals.'

I was floored. Can you imagine walking around MIT and hearing that programmers are unemployable? I told him that US companies never have enough.
'Yes, that's why you send all your computing jobs over here!' He laughed. 'That, and we're cheaper.'
'Hah, well, I can't deny that'
'Ah well, the cost of living is so much better here. I had a cousin who went to New York once, and the prices he told me...'

The women of Savandurga
If you look at my photos, you'll notice me in my hiking pants. If you look a little closer, you'll notice the holes I've knocked in them climbing this kind of hill.

I was alone in them. Incredibly, all of the women I saw were wearing the brightly colored silk dresses and embroidered saris that seem to be casual 'day out' clothes here. It was as if there was nothing else to wear in the world. Perhaps for them there wasn't. 

I can't imagine anything less practical, and there have been many times these last few weeks when the opulence of such clothes seems to burn viciously against the poverty of the background.

Yet watching these women - a pair in bright green and burgundy dresses dangling their feet in a small pool and grinning; a young woman whose anklets glinted above me as her husband led her up the rocks - made beauty seem inevitable, unquestionable. I'm not sure if I've ever seen such unpretentious grace as I did on Savandurga. In the middle of the small crowd on the summit was a grey-haired woman, barefoot, standing silent as her white and gold silk sari rustled in the wind.

Summit Photos!
A group of friends added me as a novelty to their photos.
Our happy MIT group (left to write: Kelly K, Kai P, Jayson L, Andrea L, Jade P)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bleu, blanc, rouge - la fête nationale in Grenoble!

This Monday, I celebrated La fête nationale, the July 4th of France. Contrary to popular American belief, this is not Bastille day here. Even though it takes place on the day the Bastille was stormed in the beginning of the original revolution of 1789, it also marks the day that the first Fête de la Fédération was held by the general assembly in 1790. This event marked a new order, the beginning of a Republican regime... and the holiday itself now stands to symbolize the values of the country of France and to commemorate the soldiers from all eras who have fought for this values. In particular, the fireworks this Monday were accompanied by somber music and accounts of the soldiers of the resistance during WWII. 

This is somewhat similar to 4th of July, with a military parade, fireworks, and food stands serving somewhat Western food. 

The parade began at 6:30PM (here it's 18:30, I get used to this everytime!) in front of the government building Verdun Prefecture; the ministry. A procession of marching bands, veterans, tanks, and the mayor followed. Cute little paper flags were given out to all. 

Place Victor Hugo
 After the parade, we headed off to search for the best places to watch the fireworks. The fireworks would be made from the tower in the middle of Parc Minstral, and conveniently there was some space available at the very top of the bleachers in an open stadium area with a concert stage. We were smart to get seated at around 7:40pm, almost 3 hours before the start of the fireworks: by about 8:30pm, there were no seats left on the highest stair.  Until the concert began at 9pm, Alexis '16 read Brian Green's Fabric of the Cosmos and I was left to read The Masterpieces of English Poetry because I forgot my books. =(  Thankfully, the festivities began soon!

The fireworks were accompanied by both music and the first-hand stories and accounts of the soldiers of the French resistance... The day was dedicated not just to the Revolution of 1789 but to the freedom of the people in general. Very mesmerizing.

I was a lot closer to the lights (and the smoke) than I was when I watched the same celebration in Paris, and it made a much greater impression this time around. :) I was also able to get my friends on the top of the bleachers with me even though some mean security guards would not let people exit and enter after a certain time for safety's sake. The key was to find somewhat of a nice guard who would let you pass when no one was looking. We were proud of this achievement!  (Yes, Europe is weird in this way...)

Our group, Alexis '16, Niwa, David '14 and Ellie '16 at the fireworks
Before the celebration, I went to the Musée Dauphinois (the museum of the Dauphin, or prince?) to see some exhibitions which I have missed last time, such as the amazing WWI anniversary memorial. It was truly touching to read the first-hand accounts of soldiers at the front, or the letters and journal entries of the veterans at home, and see some real relics, posters like this: 

'Day of the infantrymen' 
The view from the museum's garden

Of course there would be a ski exhibit in Grenoble! :)

Okay, I have really been behind on this blogging business. I still need to tell you about my trip to Geneva (and my stay across the French-Swiss border near CERN) as well as an awesome theater festival in Avignon... stay tuned for accounts of more fearless adventures in la France! :) 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Grizzly Bear, a Jehovah's Witness, and Textbook Kleptomania

I’m at Missoula International Airport, where by “International” they mean “Canada” and where it took all of 10 minutes to get from the check-in counter to my gate. The woman across the aisle from me just looked at her friend and said (disapprovingly) that “yeah, Preston hasn’t shaved since he’s been out of the military.”

Anyway, two stories: one about a bear encounter, one about a day full of horribly embarrassing failures.

1) Bear encounter

Last weekend, I went to Glacier National Park with Raphael and Raphael’s friend Gus.

We hiked to a lake called Grinnell Lake. On the way, we picked up a solo hiker, who asked to join us because he was nervous about hiking alone in the evening. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember that he’s from Colorado, loves mountain biking, and is a Jehovah’s Witness.

On the way back, we were walking on a trail along the side of another lake. We had just swatted our way through enormous clouds of gnats (SO GROSS -- we could feel them hitting our faces and going up our noses) and there were very tall bushes on either side. Raphael was in front. Suddenly, there was a rustle. He sprang back, whispered “bear spray,” and grabbed the can out of my backpack. “There’s something big there,” he said.

We starting making a lot of noise, clapping our hands and yelling. You’re supposed to do that in order to alert bears to your presence: you don’t want to surprise a bear. Our Jehovah's Witness – mountain biker - Colorado friend offered to go first, holding his own bear spray. Raphael went second, holding our bear spray. Gus and I gallantly took up the rear. Right as we got to the same bushes, there was another rustle, and the two guys in front turned around and shoved us back down the path. We obediently turned around and walked back through the gnat cloud (gross) yelling and clapping.

There was a bear in those bushes, just off the trail, literally four or five feet away from us. Raphael and the other guy saw brown fuzz and its ears poking out from the top of the bush, which means that it was a VERY large bear (those bushes were just as tall as I was, if not more.) It was probably a grizzly given the size and the fact that Glacier National Park has a lot of grizzlies. It didn't seem bothered by us at all...phew!

2) Day full of horribly embarrassing failures

Raphael left yesterday for a field trip, and sadly won’t be back in town until after I’m gone. He and I went out to breakfast at our (his originally, but mine too now!) favorite pastry place, where they have excellent chai tea lattes (my weakness when it comes to coffee shops). Then he drove away. I walked home, then realized that my wallet was in his car.



Cue the WORST AFTERNOON EVER. I called Raphael, and he said that his car *might* just be unlocked. So I biked to the university campus, only to discover that his car was in fact locked. I biked back home and learned from the Internet that I could get emergency cash by bringing my checkbook and government ID to the nearest Bank of America. I looked up the nearest Bank of America: Idaho.


Then I spent half an hour on the phone, navigating the automated menu system in order to speak to a human being. The human being I found told me that I could wire money to myself using Western Union, and pick it up from there. I did. I then biked to Western Union, where I waited for half an hour before being told that my transfer did not exist. I biked home, called Western Union, and was told that the transfer had been cancelled because they had phoned me to confirm the transfer and “hadn’t been able to reach me.”

That’s because my cell phone doesn’t get signal in Montana. They couldn’t warn me they were going to do that?

So, I gave up and called Gus. I wrote him a check, and he gave me cash. Infinitely easier than anything my bank advised me to do – ugh.

Gus and I went out to dinner then chatted and played poker (I won :P – woohoo, pocket kings!) After that, he subjected me to two episodes of a TV show called Squidbillies, before observing that I didn’t like it (at all) and switching over to Top Gear. That’s an awesome show. In this particular episode, they interviewed Rowan Atkinson (I love that man) and hitched an Audi and a Jaguar up to carriages in order to drive them as trains. The Audi train caught on fire.

Gus drove me home, and en route I realized that I had left my purse at his house. We drove back, I grabbed the purse, and THEN he drove me home. I peeked into my purse and confirmed that my passport was in fact in there. Then, after cleaning up Raphael’s room and packing up my stuff, I found my passport on the couch.


I opened my purse, and there was in fact a passport in there. I opened it. It was Gus’s passport.


I Facebook messaged Gus, who said: “Textbook kleptomania.”

I swear that I have NO idea how that happened. At all. I also have no idea how long it’s been in there; I’ve had *a* passport in my purse for a long time.

Anyway, it’s time to board my flight. I’ll be in New York for the next two days, staying with my Grandma. After that, it’s onto London (Elizabeth will be out of town – BOOOOOOO!) and then onto a EuroAdventure: France, Switzerland, Northern Italy, maybe Slovenia, and five-ish days in Croatia. More stories to come!

Monday, July 14, 2014


Hihi, I hope everyone's been having a fantastic summer!

I've spent the last month with my parents in upstate NY. It's surprisingly hot and humid here, with quite a number of thunderstorms -- perhaps this summer is an anomaly, since I'm pretty sure summers here are supposed to be relatively not-hot and low in humidity.

The majority of the last month was spent watching the World Cup and Wimbledon while looking for a job and a place to live, with some exercise, watching Korean TV shows (not K-dramas though; the variety/funny kinds only), and cooking/baking. My mom and I've been trying to master the art of asian pastry and cake making, and while we've more-or-less mastered the art of dough that uses yeast, we're still working on mastering the techniques involved in cake making. We first started by making cake rolls, then tried to make a genoise cake. Everything has tasted really great, but they're definitely not rising as much as we want them to, so I've been studying the meringue folding techniques (These cakes use whipped eggs to rise instead of the chemical alternatives like baking soda/powder). Hopefully the one we're going to make today will rise a bit more, now that I've seen how Julia Child folds her meringue.... (does that sound odd to anyone else? welp.)

I'm moving back to Boston on Sunday to start working in a lab in the Longwood area, where I'll be working on proteins/enzymes involved in the synthesis of amyloid beta peptides. Oligomers of amyloid beta peptides form plaques in brain tissues, and these are commonly found in brain tissues of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's (the observation of plaques is used to diagnose the disease, apparently). There are three enzymes (alpha, beta, and gamma secretase) that are involved in the production of amyloid beta from the precursor protein, and I'm going to work on one of them. I don't know much about the brain, so hopefully I'll learn a lot during the next couple years. This also means I get to live in Boston longer, which is nice -- there are still a lot of food places in Brookline and Allston I have yet to visit :P

Lastly, I went to the Niagara falls with my family for the weekend of 7/4. We got to see the fourth of July fireworks over the falls, but the Boston fireworks are much, much better in my opinion. Regardless, the falls were beautiful, so here are some pictures!

American falls and fireworks, viewed from a bridge that is truncated in the middle
(the Canada-US border is in the middle of the water)

Horseshoe falls, viewed from Canada

American falls viewed from Canada

Both falls because panorama option