Semester goals: a retrospective

I’ve got a piece of paper sitting in front of me that feels like it was written a lifetime ago. It is my old “Semester Goals” assignment for PGS, and it’s a study in changed plans.

My original travel goals were comprised almost entirely of places I did not get to visit. I did not spend Easter at the Vatican. I didn’t see the cliff monastaries of Meteora, take an overnight train anywhere, or order mint tea in Morocco as planned. I certainly didn’t become proficient in Italian, as my grammatically oblivious past self had hoped. If I’d based the success of this program off these original goals, this trip could easily have been classified as a failure.

However, I know, going in, that a loose outline of travel goals that were more “oh, that’d be nice” than “if I don’t go here I will cry” were actually more likely to lead to success.  I do not regret missing any of these places, because I substituted in an entirely different selection of amazing experiences for them instead. Who knew, for instance, that I’d find myself traveling through Eastern Europe for spring break? Or that I’d walk through a rainforest canopy in Ghana? Or that I’d tour a nuclear power plant — an impossible experience in the US due to security restrictions — that was the oldest facility of its kind in the world? I would never have been able to predict that I’d hike Mount Vesuvius, visit the LHC at CERN, or tour a Cold War fallout shelter in Budapest? A willingness to play along and be flexible with my plans did nothing but serve me well this semester.

Of the two things that were most important on this old list, I had a 50% success rate. I did make it back to Berlin, which I’d promised myself I’d do since my first visit two years ago. Come hell or high water, I was going to spend some time there again – and I did. (It was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped, although perhaps a little colder than anticipated.) I did not, to my thorough disappointment, make it up to Augsburg to see some of my relatives. It wasn’t for lack of effort. End-of-the-semester chaos and an illness meant that a trip that was already late in the term couldn’t be pushed back any further, and with a flight schedule that can’t be altered (thanks, StudentUniverse) I’ll have to head home before I get the chance to see them. There’s always next time. I certainly hope that next time will mean soon.

Here’s the thing about travel with PGS. No matter what you go in expecting, you will probably be wrong. And that’s okay. You’re gonna go places you couldn’t even dream about. It sounds hyperbolic, but whether it’s standing on the porch of your apartment watching the clouds roll down Mt. Tamoro, eating the best pizza of your life in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the shadow of a volcano, or watching a squadron of flying foxes take to the air and blot out the African sun, you’ve got a surreal and distinctly awesome time coming your way. To anyone looking to join this program in the future, try not to sweat the altered plans. They’re a necessary part of the process, and they’ll take you to amazing places too. Wherever it is that you wind up on your journey, , it is going to be the adventure of a lifetime.

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Rock Nerds in Space

…otherwise known as “that time I got to write a sci-fi short for my module essay.” This piece was written for Dr. Bodner’s assignment, but I had enough fun with it that I figured I’d go ahead and post it here, too. The assignment was to write a first-person narrative detailing some element of human/environmental interaction, using information we learned from our own volcanic adventures in Naples. So of course, being me, I had to figure out how to work space into the equation.

***

My name is Marta Camino, and I am having a somewhat disorienting morning. My comlink just woke me up with a news alert: Mount Vesuvius is in the middle of a spectacular eruption, and because I’m more than 140 million miles away, there’s even less that I can do about it than usual.

On any other day, I’d tell you I was living the dream – though the dream in question is a little peculiar. I’m currently working at the Tharsis Montes research station on Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in the solar system. Never thought I’d go for a job posting on Mars, but the new antimatter drives they came out with a few years back have cut travel time to less than a week, and adjusting to work in a spacesuit isn’t so difficult when you’re already used to the heavy protective gear you need to take lava samples back on Earth. I was accustomed to extreme environments, having worked on high-altitude sites in the Andes and cold-weather conditions on Mt. Erebus in Antarctica, and when I was offered the chance to be part of the first Martian volcanological survey, how could I say no?

The main difference between the volcanoes on Mars and Earth is their size. Volcanoes here in the Tharsis region are 10 to 100 times larger than those anywhere on Earth. Olympus Mons in particular is a study in mind-boggling scale: its shield-like base is the size of Arizona, and it could comfortably fit Mauna Loa, Earth’s largest volcano, inside itself more than 100 times. Olympus Mons is not active at the moment, which is good news for us. Martian lava flows are long-lasting and infinitely larger than anything found on Earth, due to their higher eruption rates and the planet’s lower surface gravity. One lava field in this region is roughly the size of Oregon, and was created over the course of only a few weeks!

Another reason for the massive size of Martian volcanoes is because plate tectonics on Mars don’t match those on Earth. Hot spots on Earth remain stationary while crustal plates are constantly on the move above them, leading to chains of volcanic activity like the one that formed the Hawaiian Islands. As the plate moves over the hotspot, old volcanoes become extinct while new ones are formed in front of them. This means the lava is distributed between a number of volcanoes rather than just one. Here on Mars, however, the planet’s crust remains stationary, which means that the lava has a chance to pile up on itself to form a single, unbelievably huge volcano. Olympus Mons is so big that it’s impossible to see its whole form from the planet’s surface, even from beyond the horizon. The best way to appreciate it is from orbit: here on its flank the gradual slope is deceptive, and seems like a shallow but somehow endless hill rising steadily into the orange sky.

We’ve spent close to a year taking measurements and collecting data on the volcano’s massive slopes. It’s thrilling to be among the first people to geologically date the basalt deposits and map the flow patterns of lava channels on another world, but it’s also exhausting work. After months of recycled air and freeze-dried protein bars and fine red dust that gets into everything, I have to confess that I’m about ready to head home. Everybody is, to be honest. Living and working with the same group in close quarters and a high-stress environment is enough to
drain even the most enthusiastic scientist, given enough time. Our shuttle will get here in two weeks, and here’s the funny thing: I’d planned on taking a vacation in Naples upon my return.

My grandparents were Neapolitan, and I spent quite a few summers in my childhood hiking near Mount Somma with my nonna, a retired geologist herself. She lived well outside the Red Zone around Vesuvius, but always cautioned me to keep an eye on the activity level for future visits.

You don’t want to be here when the mountain finally goes up again, cara mia, she used to tell me, only half-joking. If the pyroclastic flow doesn’t get you, the traffic here certainly will.

I wasn’t so sure. So long as I was observing from a safe distance, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to see a genuine Plinian-style eruption at the site that gave it its name. The atomic-looking ash cloud would have been a sight to behold. And now that regulations were stricter (and actually enforced – a genuine miracle in Italy) regarding construction near the volcano’s base, many of my moral qualms had been rendered obsolete. Far fewer people were likely to get caught in the inevitable blast of boiling ash and gases than in the infamous eruption that froze Pompeii and Hercolano in time.

Nonetheless, any eruption will mean the possibility of serious damage in Naples all the same. I’m torn between distress over the thought of all the property damage and personal injury that is undoubtedly happening right now, and a peculiar breed of warped, giddy glee only volcanologists and demolition experts can truly understand. It looks like I’m going to have to figure out some new travel plans very shortly: trying to clean up an entire city post- volcano is going to take a while.

I’m jerked out of my thoughts by a frantic knocking at the door. I lean out of my bunk and whack the button beside the doorframe to allow entry. My partner Jackson barrels in, grinning and out of breath.

“Oh, good, you’re awake. Did you hear?”

“Yeah. I can’t even believe –”

“Come on, a bunch of us have got a feed going in the common room. There’s the usual transmission delay, but it’s as close to a livestream as we can get.”

I pull on a jacket and follow Jackson down the hall. The team has a projection grid set up in the common area, and nearly a dozen of my colleagues are piled on the couches and floor, watching a three-dimensional rendering of the exploding mountain overlaid by data streams provided by the Pan-European Geological Survey. The ash cloud is still rising, a dark atmospheric plume now the height of the volcano itself and continuing to grow before our eyes.

“I’m trying not to take this personally,” one of my teammates says, “but did this thing really have to erupt when some of Earth’s leading volcanologists are literally as far away from it as we could possibly get?”

The group laughs. We’ve all been varying degrees of homesick for the past several weeks, and tensions have nearly reached their breaking point on several occasions. What’s funny is that this international crew would be scrambling over one another if we’d been back on Earth today, probably offering contradictory advice and vying for the greatest number of sound bites in the media spotlight. But here, insulated from the point of interest by millions of miles of space, what would have normally resulted in months of academic sniping is bringing us together.

The newsfeed has reported zero casualties so far. As luck would have it, prevailing winds have pushed the ash fall towards the side of the mountain with the lowest population density. The evacuation routes installed two decades ago have proved to be remarkably efficient, and the engineers and scientific advisors will be receiving commendations for their work. A round of applause goes up from the team when one of Tanaka’s postdoc mentors is referenced as a hero whose foresight helped save many lives across the city.

“Hang on,” says Jackson. “I’ll go make us some popcorn.”

I’ll rearrange those travel plans later. I might be tired, far from home, and still covered in a layer of red dust, but for now I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

Posted in PGS

F5

[Content warning: talk of the events in Boston.]

***

You’re curled in a heavy duvet in a clean white hotel room, watching history play out under your hands as you refresh the page again. It is not a conscious decision. Your fingers drift towards the f5 button like iron filings to a magnet, and the screen of the tablet goes blank for a moment as the page tries again to load.

The hotel room is in northern Switzerland, but it could just as easily be in Budapest or Shanghai or on a lunar colony. The entire room is neutral-toned: dark wooden furniture, pale walls, the sheets and pillows a snowfall of pristine white. Nothing about it indicates a sense of place: there’s a deliberate, soothing anonymity to these surroundings. With the rain drumming steadily against the skylights and obscuring telltale architecture outside, you could imagine this was anywhere. Well, anywhere except America.

The tablet in your hands displays a dozen different tabs of news reports, transcribed conversations from police scanners, and live feeds. An entire city has gone on lockdown. This is the world’s first crowdsourced manhunt, sources say. The internet has banded together in the wake of the Marathon to sift through countless photos, looking for white hats and black jackets and duffel bags where duffel bags should not be. Twitter users post pictures of armored vehicles rolling past their living room windows. The police have asked the people transcribing their conversations if they would please stop giving away the officers’ positions.

If this were one of your action movies, it would be very exciting. You deliberately sidestep another conversation with yourself about blurring lines between reality and fiction. Now is not the time.

It’s just that you’ve never been so far from home during a disaster before. America is reeling and you’re all the way across the Atlantic in a comfortable, safe place. You feel simultaneously homesick and guiltily grateful that you’re somewhere else. Hitting F5 is the least you can do.

You’ve been at this for a while. Your eyes have started to ache a little from the bright screen in the otherwise softly lit room, and your head has started to ache from the information. There may have been reports of a jumper. There may have been reports of a woman taken hostage. There may have been reports of an old guy with a dead man’s switch. The sources are not entirely sure. You recall an article you read just the other day about news being bad for you, and perhaps it’s no wonder you feel like you’re starting to come down with something. Most of the talk online right now is sick.

In a little while, you tell yourself, you’ll get up to take a walk. You’ll go down to the fourth floor where the electric kettle is and make yourself a cup of tea. You’ll go explore the rest of the hotel with its weight room and pool table and infrared sauna. You’ll go find somebody to talk to and maybe watch a movie with. You’ll power down the tablet for the night and put it somewhere out of reach.

In a moment. First, refresh the page.

The rain continues to fall.

Posted in PGS

(and a pharmaceutical addendum)

Even the most reportedly benign malaria drugs may have unexpected side effects. Remember this while you are taking them. The entire universe will suddenly get spectacularly more irritating, but keep in mind that it’s your perception of it, not the universe itself, that has changed. Except for the parts of the universe that consist of your companions who are also on malaria meds, because they are experiencing the same thing. Pissing matches and some shouting may occur. Don’t take it personally. Remember that it’s the drugs talking. Remind one another of this periodically.

Quarantining yourself when you are feeling particularly aggressive is a good option and will be appreciated by the group as well. Again, don’t take it personally. You may have non-scary but very vivid, exceptionally detail-oriented dreams. Try bonding with your companions over them instead of snarling at each other over literally the most irrelevant things imaginable. It’s better for morale.

Thank your lucky stars that tomorrow is everyone’s last dose of Malarone, and you’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming shortly.

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Things they don’t tell you about going to Ghana:

+ The Sahara Desert is bigger than you can possibly imagine and will take several hours to fly over, moving north to south. There are landforms down there that you don’t even know how to describe, and if they’re that dramatic from 34,000 feet… Unsurprisingly, you will resolve to go to North Africa at some point in the indeterminate future.

+ Everything you eat will be delicious in spite of somewhat questionable appearances. That reddish slurry? Smoky hot pepper sauce. Unidentified meat product? Spicy and fantastic regardless of what animal it came from. Bowl of unknown fruit chunks, some of it white and some dark pink? Pineapple and papaya grown just down the road, which taste like nothing you’ve ever had in the States and which will make you want to cry over how good it is. You will eat massive quantities of jollof rice at every meal and suspect that you could eat nothing else for the rest of your life and be perfectly content.

+ It will take the toilet tank 45 minutes to refill. The shower, when it works, will have such low pressure that it can’t come through the hose and you will have to crouch with your head under the tap to try and wash the sweat out of your hair. You will realize that it’s one thing to read about water scarcity and quite another to experience it firsthand.

+ It’s not heat-induced delirium: there actually are thousands upon thousands of giant fruit bats in the trees out the window. Those other hanging things? Weaver bird nests. Your companions will find your tendency to flip out over zoological matters extremely entertaining.

+ There are few things funnier than watching a busload of Americans purchase coconuts from one very happy roadside vendor and then have absolutely no idea what to do with them.

+ Markets are not for those averse to confined spaces, verbal sparring, or being touched by strangers. You will be able to cope relatively well, all things considered, and get a couple of very good deals until the end, when the heat and people physically trying to haul you into their shops will very suddenly become way, way too much. Resist the urge to bolt, screaming, for the exit. Your heart rate will drop eventually, I promise. It may take an hour or two.

+ If you are a somewhat androgynous kid with short hair, you will be consistently read as male. This will be unexpectedly useful when negotiating prices, because if you manage to keep your voice at the lower end of its register the male shopkeepers will tend to take you more seriously, although they’ll keep asking jovially why you don’t have a girlfriend or wife back home yet. It will not be useful when you startle two women in the airport bathroom and will lead to exceptionally awkward apologies from all parties involved.

+ You may somehow wind up purchasing rather more fabric than you’d intended. 12 yards of it, in fact. It was lightweight and repeatedly folded, so you had no idea, but you quickly realize you’ve got enough to wallpaper a dining hall if you wanted. Hope you like orange and blue batik: you’re gonna be seeing a lot of it for a while.

+ You will realize, a few days after the fact, that you have just traveled to Africa, and that nothing, aside from funding, is preventing you from going back. Money is obviously the limiting factor in this situation, but it will occur to you that you had this list of places you would probably never go set up in your head, which had previously written off this entire continent for no real reason. You’ll be doing some re-evaluation of that list in the near future, you think.

Sky Blue

One of the oldest songs on my iPod is this slightly otherworldly Peter Gabriel track. It’s about being on the road for a long time, and perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s been stuck in my head for a while now.

That last breathless, earnest blog entry about seeing the world and getting good at living out of suitcases? It was true, but it wasn’t the whole story.

For the first time in my life, I’m tired of traveling, and I really don’t know how to process that.

See, one of my defining characteristics — in my own mind, at least — is my love of travel. New places and people and experiences bring me to life. I’m frequently at my best when I’m on the road, because I am actively engaging with the world. My personality’s brighter, I’m more playful and willing to take risks, and my observational skills are sharper due to the constant influx of new information. Taking notes on all this novelty is a necessary part of the process, and some of my best writing has come from what I’ve scrawled in my travel notebooks through the years. Hell, look at my blog title — it’s a grammatically-incorrect family shorthand for “wandering off in search of adventure.”

But I sort of…don’t want to do that right now. I’ve barely had time to read through all those notes I’ve taken. My own thoughts have seemed to be the sort of middle school teachers criticize in book reports: all summary, no analysis. I’ve not had much time for depth, lately — I’m so focused on absorbing all the details I can that sifting through them has had to be postponed. It’s exhausting, and I’m exhausted. It’s a natural part of a semester-long program like this, I should imagine, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be countered.

So the next free weekend I get, I am very deliberately going to do nothing. And by nothing, I mean refuse to go anywhere that isn’t Riva San Vitale. I’d like to camp out in the garden for a while (the weather’s finally turning warm and the buds on the trees are all going pink) and sort through this arsenal of travel notes, and just be quiet and calm for a while. With all the travel to these spectacularly beautiful places we’ve been doing (the famous ruins in Greece, the rush of big cities over spring break, the raw beauty of volcanoes in Naples) it’ll be good to spend some time with the lower-key but lovely aspects of life here in Ticino.

I’m sure I’ll be ready for my next adventure shortly. Travel is in my blood, and I expect to recover my enthusiasm for taxis and trains and tall buildings very soon. But for the time being, I think I’ll just stick to checking out the gelato shop on the corner. I understand their stracciatella can’t be beat.

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Life in transit

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written on the Berlin Wall, toured a Soviet nuclear bunker, haggled for a pocketwatch at a flea market in Budapest, taken a day-long train trip through Slovakia, climbed Mt. Vesuvius, collected sulfur samples from the world’s only privately-owned active volcano, eaten at the pizza place from Eat, Pray, Love, and had coffee inside the world’s oldest operational nuclear power plant.

What.

I am intensely aware that I’ve seen more of the world in three months than most people will get to see in their entire lives, and I’m still trying to figure out what to do with all this accumulated experience. I’ve been devout about taking notes — I’ve recorded everything from the color of paint inside a reactor’s control room (seafoam green where it’s not white panels covered in cartoonish mockups of circuitry) to snack foods in Eastern Europe (stay away from a Hungarian candy called Zizi-Love, which are fruity puffed rice grains in neon candy coating — in spite of their charming appearance, they taste like cough syrup-flavored tootsie pops). My little grey notebook is running low on pages, and we’ve still got two more big trips to go.

I’ve gotten good at living out of suitcases, writing essays while in transit, rationing snacks and battery life, and recording everything as part of the process. I’ve even begun to learn the mysterious and previously unattainable art of napping on public transportation. It will be very weird, I suspect, trying to readjust to not constantly being on the move. Maybe then I’ll actually have a chance to start piecing together all the stuff I’ve written this semester into some larger coherent form — all those notes have got to lead somewhere. While I’m having the time of my life over here, I’m looking forward more and more to the downtime that will allow me to sort them out.

Posted in PGS

The opposite of cyberpunk

I am not writing this entry from a computer. This fact has caused me more than a little consternation over the past several weeks.

At the end of last semester, I unexpectedly became a sort of iPad beta tester on behalf of the Department of Learning Technologies. In keeping with my tradition of naming electronic devices, I called my new companion Jensen (after the protagonist of a certain futuristic video game you may have heard me talk about before) because it represents a sudden technological upgrade I never specifically asked for. Like all Apple products, it’s glossy and minimalistic and a certain aura of life in the future seems to hover over its glowing screen. As somebody who grew up on science fiction but has never owned much of the real-world technology that seems to be evolving to match it, the novelty of a device like this is slow to wear off.

I’d been facing a computing conundrum prior to leaving for Switzerland: my laptop is an ailing 6-year-old contraption that would not have survived getting dragged across an entire continent for half a year.  What better excuse, I thought, to take this new iPad out for a test drive?

Jensen and I were going to be unstoppable, I thought. I could take the iPad with me throughout my travels to run translation apps so I could talk to anyone, anywhere. A GPS function would be infinitely more convenient than paper maps, and could point out hotels, restaurants and espresso stands no matter where I wound up. I’d be able to chat with strangers, research local attractions, and keep myself entertained in transit (all while keeping up with my classwork, of course.) And I could record the entire experience in real-time. The possibilities were infinite: I’d become a sort of wandering techno-god, powered by prosthetic knowledge and existing in perfect symbiosis of human and machine –

Except I’d failed to consider the wireless.

See, internet access is a thing we take for granted in the States. Free wi-fi’s practically a right, with entire cities like Seattle and Denver making it accessible to the public, and 4G networks powering smartphones in the most remote locations.

Not so in Europe. Anywhere in Europe, it would seem. Our apartment here in Riva has no wi-fi, meaning I have to make pilgrimages to the villa just to check my email and wind up staying in the building for most of the day for convenience’s sake. The nearest business I can think of with publicly-accessible wi-fi is the McDonald’s in Lugano, several train stations away. Wireless has been hit-or-miss in most of the places we’ve traveled, too — it’s expensive, impractically slow (frequently the two go hand-in-hand) or not available at all.

iPads don’t work so well without the internet. Needless to say, I’ve had to make some alterations to my original tech-fueled schemes. I need to learn to read maps and timetables rather than relying on websites. I need to learn — actually learn, or at the very least write down phonetically — how to ask for directions in a variety of languages. I need to learn to manage my time and internet access when I have it — it’s application season and emails from back home don’t stop rolling in, so taking responsibility for communications is a priority. And I need to re-learn how to take notes by hand.

If the cyberpunk genre is categorized as “high-tech and low-life,” I’m living the opposite. The process has forced me to go slow, be flexible, and reaquaint myself with storing data in my head rather than keeping it a couple of clicks away. It’s been as good an excuse as any to unplug for a while and try doing things by hand again. I’m not sure I would have attempted anything of the sort if it weren’t out of necessity, and I’m curious to see if my relationship with technology will be a little different when I get home.

For now, I am going to finish copying the notes for this entry from my travel notebook into the iPad and hit Publish. It’s time-consuming, sure, but kind of funny — I am starting to get used to it, and I don’t mind nearly as much as I thought I would.

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