San Blas Islands

Kuanidup Island

San Blas Islands, Panama

After visiting the Panama Canal  and several port facilities and fulfillment centers, we had an after-party retreat in the San Blas Islands, home to the semi-autonomous indigenous Kuna Indians.

Kuanidup Dock

Kuanidup Dock

Getting to the islands from Panama City was an adventure in itself: 2 hours speeding on the Pan-American Highway + 1 hour of stomach-churning windy mountain roads to Port Carti + 1 hour of slamming soaking-wet motor boating to the island of Kuanidup. Anything that wasn’t sealed in a plastic bag went straight to the laundry line.

Kuanidup Island

Kuanidup Island

Kuanidup is about 30 meters in diameter surrounded by reefs with good snorkeling. I can best describe the experience as going to the beach and not being able to leave, for better or worse. We also boated to neighboring islands inhabited by the Kuna, including a town with a school and their congress, a dirt-floored building with elders on hammocks.

Kuna Meal

Island Meal

The two Kuna hosts on our island provided us with 3 meals a day which were all variations on a plain carbohydrate, some veggies, a unique delicious fish or seafood stew, and fresh fruit for dessert.

Kuanidup Hut

Kuanidup Hut

The quaint wooden huts made for cozy dwellings amid the foreign grass that felt oddly similar to AstroTurf. It was a great place to relax and be isolated from mainland matters.

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Panama Canal Expansion Project

Bulk Carrier in Pacific

Ballasting Bulk Carrier on Pacific End of Canal

Why is the Panama Canal being expanded? Simply put, to keep itself relevant in the face of global trade growth and competition. With the addition of two new locks, one on each end, transiting cargo capacity is expected to double. The new locks will have larger parameters and thus be able to handle post-Panamax ships but ironically not the largest ships in the world. An engineer from the Panama Canal Authority hinted that another expansion may be forthcoming for the newly built Ultra Large Container Vessels (ULCV) which they were not aware of when they started the project.

The Panamanian President also promised that the expansion would turn Panama into a first-world country. In grade school, children are taught that while other nations have natural resources, Panama’s oil is its geography. While in Panama, I have seen multiple world map visuals that depict Panama as the center of the world with concentric circles emanating from the isthmus. With the ports of Balboa and Colon on the Pacific and Atlantic sides, respectively, Panama is well-situated to supply the rest of Latin America in addition to providing access for several global trade routes.

Port of Balboa, Panama

Container Cranes at Port of Balboa, Panama

A key driver of canal traffic is US container importation from China. For this trade route, there are currently two options – transiting the canal to East coast ports or shipping to West coast ports (typically Long Beach) followed by rail transshipment, the latter being faster by a few days but more expensive. The maritime community and more are hotly debating whether the expansion will push the line of indifference of Long Beach versus the East coast to the east as larger ships will be able to access the East coast. Optimistic ports are currently investing in infrastructure to handle greater sizes and capacities, but the future will lie in what carriers and shippers choose based on the rates and times.

Panama Canal Expansion 1/27

Panama Canal Expansion 1/27 – Pacific Ocean Terminus

We visited the canal expansion site at the Pacific terminus. The construction site is parallel to the existing locks, from the Pacific Ocean to Lake Gatun, and includes water reutilization basins to reduce water withdrawal from Lake Gatun. Currently, all pumped water is released from the lock chambers down to the oceans and there is concern regarding water supply during Panama’s dry season.

Panama Canal Expansion 1/27

Panama Canal Expansion 1/27 – Lake Gatun on the Pacific End

From the perspective of Lake Gatun’s Pacific end, the canal appears to be within only 20 meters of completion, but currently work is halted in a cost dispute between the Panama Canal Authority and Spanish construction consortium. The canal will likely not be completed until 2015.

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Miraflores Locks

Bulk carrier trailed by passenger ship at Miraflores

Bulk carrier trailed by passenger ship at Miraflores

The Panama Canal takes approximately 8 to 10 hours to cross with about 40 ships transiting per day. A sophisticated transit booking system provides ships with a choice between either a first-come first-served basis or a premium congestion fee to avoid the queue. The final slot each day is auctioned to the highest bidder.

Miraflores Locks

Miraflores Locks

We visited Miraflores Locks at the canal’s Pacific terminus which has higher gates than the Atlantic side to accommodate the Pacific’s more dramatic tidal variation. The current locks use miter gates that swing open to let ships pass, while the new locks will use rolling gates that are optimized to reduce loading and maintenance. The video of the first gates arriving from Italy is impressive, though the second set of gates is currently delayed.

Miraflores Visitor Center

Miraflores Visitor Center

Miraflores has a visitor center with a viewing deck where we watched a bulk carrier transiting the locks. There is also a simulator that makes you feel like you’re aboard a ship’s bridge transiting the entire canal in fast motion.

Panama Canal Authority aboard transiting vessel

Panama Canal Authority aboard transiting vessel

Panama Canal Authority workers dressed in blue uniforms with white hard hats are aboard during the canal crossing. On this vessel, digital device immersion and reading the paper seem to be in order.

Panama Canal Mule

Panama Canal Mule

Panama Canal “mules” are electric locomotives that run on tracks, powered by a third rail, and help guide ships along the lock chambers with winches.

Old dredge

Old dredge ship

The museum at Miraflores gives a detailed account of the canal’s history. What fascinated me the most was the documented evolution of technology over precisely the past century, from of the old lock construction in 1914 to the new in 2014. For instance, at both times of construction, dredgers were used to excavate material from the canal bottom. In the old dredge ship model, a conveyor belt of buckets mechanically scooped up sediment.

New Dredge

New dredge ship

In the new canal expansion project, cutter-suction dredgers loosen material from the bottom and then use suction to move the material. I wish they juxtaposed the two models to show what a century of engineering innovation for a specific function looks like – incremental but with drastic advancement.

Titan Crane

Titan Crane

Speaking of the history of technology, the Titan is a heavy-lift floating crane ordered by Adolf Hitler and taken by the US as war booty! It is currently in operation at the Panama Canal and is the only crane available that can lift the lock gates to a drydock for maintenance.

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MIT SCM Trek to Panama

Panama City Skyline

Panama City Skyline

I am joining the MIT Supply Chain Management Trek to Panama. Ever since studying naval architecture and marine engineering at Webb Institute, I have been curious about maritime shipping and the infrastructure and logistics that move cargo from origin to destination. And there are few better places to witness the impressive grandeur of global trade than the Panama Canal. For the trek, we visit the canal, including the current expansion project, as well as the Port of Balboa on the Pacific, Port of Colon on the Caribbean on the Atlantic, and various logistics hubs. Since I have been studying maritime shipping at MIT, I am also helping to run a Panama Canal port strategy exercise with the SCM students.

Recreational Boating on Late Gatun

Recreational Boating on Late Gatun

The canal uses a system of locks to raise ships 85 feet above sea level to Lake Gatun, an artificial body of water created to allow ships to navigate across the mountainous Panamanian interior, and then lower them through another set of locks back down to sea level. The two sets of locks lie at the Atlantic and Caribbean entrances to the canal.

A very brief history of the canal: The French originally attempted to create a sea-level canal, but it failed because of several issues, including their lack of understanding of the land and Panama’s mountains of solid rock. Legend has it that the French heard there were mountains and brought their snow shovels. After the French, the US took control over the region in 1904. Some call it an invasion, though the US was already in Panama supporting the revolt against Colombia that resulted in Panama’s independence. To construct the canal, the US created dams to flood the mountains with diverted streams and took advantage of natural rainfall. Fighting yellow fever also proved to be the most serious obstacle. By 1914, the canal was open for business.

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The Great Market Hall of Budapest

Nagycsarnok, The Great Market Hall

Nagycsarnok, The Great Market Hall

Walk to the southern end of the touristy pedestrian shopping street Váci utca and you reach the Great Market Hall, an immense indoor market with an intricate roof tiling job by the famous Hungarian manufacturer Zsolnay.

Two Stories of the Great Market Hall

Two Stories of the Great Market Hall

Shopkeepers sell produce and food products on the first floor and clothing, souvenirs, and delicious cooked meals on the second. Just strolling aimlessly around the market has a festive feel.

Market Stall

Market Stall

Tourists and locals alike shop at the market (usually locals on the first floor and tourists on the second for the view and cooked food). You can tell if you’ve reached a less touristy stall when it’s covered with price per kilogram paper signs instead of vaguely promised discounts (and you hear Magyar instead of Dutch or English). The first-floor stalls also have good prices on paprika.

Painted Dolls

Painted Dolls

The second floor sells trinkets that make good souvenirs like painted eggs, Russian dolls, and lace, though watch the high prices.

Hammer & Sickle Hats

Hammer & Sickle Soviet Hats

Why hello there hammer and sickle… I thought you were banned in Hungary?

This symbol is definitely forbidden to display in public, but policies on the red star are more controversial. Hungary bans it but the European Union does not, and the two sets of laws cannot be at odds by definition of membership status.

Anna's Stall

Anna’s Stall

Shopkeepers flat-out refused to haggle with me, which left me quite disappointed with the country’s business culture until I met Anna, the enthusiastic owner of the stall with my favorite merchandise. She went down on prices significantly and was a friendly conversationalist as well. If you visit and see her on the left side of the second bridge on the far side from the main entrance, please tell her that she and her stall are online and that the American tourist with the Hungarian deer leather case that Anna’s boyfriend measured to fit a harmonica says hello.

Central Market Food Stalls

Central Market Food Stalls

The main attraction at the Central Market is the row of food stalls selling sausages, goulash, and Lángos, a Hungarian deep-fried flat bread treat. Many tourists follow the smell of Lángos up the staircase on a direct route from their hop-on hop-off tour bus to the stall.

Lángos

Lángos (~ 20 cm in diameter)

Popular Lángos toppings include grated cheese, mushrooms, and sausage. Mandatory Lángos toppings include garlic oil and lots of sour cream.

Beef Goulash & Hungarian Beer

Beef Goulash & Hungarian Beer

I topped off the heavy Lángos with an even heavier but delicious beef goulash soup accompanied by a local Dreher beer. Fun fact: Hungarians traditionally don’t clink glasses together, supposedly because the Austrian Habsburgs clinked beers to celebrate their victory over a Hungarian rebellion in 1848, and the Hungarians vowed not to do the same. I didn’t get to try this out because I drank alone, which is an acceptable practice for beer blogging.

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A Walking Tour of Budapest

Budapest Overlooking Chain Bridge

View of Chain Bridge in Budapest

A few days ago, I arrived in Budapest (“boo-duh-pesht”), capital of Hungary, for a short vacation away from working in Israel and to get a taste of what summer backpacking across Europe is all about. I found a city full of beautiful dilapidated architecture, the most delicious unhealthy pastries, the refreshing sound of street violinists with talent levels all across the spectrum, cheap prices galore, and a uniquely devastating history culminating in the current slow transition from an era of postcommunism to eurozone member.

Free Walking Tour

Free Walking Tour

I started off with a free walking tour (with encouraged tips) that starts at Vörösmarty tér every morning at 10:30 am. I would highly recommend the tour as it’s a great way to get your bearings in a new city and meet fellow travelers. The tour guides are also local Hungarians with spiels that are both entertaining and informative.

St. Stephen's Basilica

St. Stephen’s Basilica

Budapest is a composition of Buda and Pest, two cities on opposite sides of the Danube River that were united in 1873. The tour starts in Pest with a brief history lesson in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, named after the first king of Hungary whose right hand is preserved as a relic inside. In a nutshell, the history of the Hungarian people started with the unification of nomadic Magyar tribes (via blood covenant) who conquered the Carpathian Basin around 900 CE. Note that the Magyar are not descended from the Huns, as the country’s name may suggest, though the Huns conquered the same area in the 5th century CE. Fast forward one millennium past Mongol attacks, Turkish rule, and the Habsburg monarchy, and Hungary winds up on the losing side in both world wars, followed by Soviet occupation. Or, as Hungarians put it, the Soviets liberated them from the Germans and then forgot to leave for another 50 years.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building

Climbing the hills in Buda affords an excellent view of the Hungarian Parliament Building, the seat of the National Assembly, built in 1896 to commemorate one millennium of Hungarian history. Book indoor tours in advance, as they were sold out by the time I arrived.

Free Water Filling Stations

Free Water Filling Stations

The guides gave some useful tips, such as where to find potable water fountains, which are not all obvious. Some are actuated by hidden sensors, so they will only spout liquid if you are facing the pump from a certain angle. They also review how to avoid tourist traps. Basically, read the fine print at the bottom of menus in case they state that the first drink or meal is actually around 10 x greater than what the regular menu states. Also, fix all taxi prices in advance and don’t take volunteered suggestions for bars or restaurants from anyone on the street, because conning is common. And definitely don’t say thank you when you pay your bill unless you mean, “keep the change no matter how much I am handing you.” After all, Hungary ranked 46th in the world on the 2012 corruption perception index published by Transparency International.

Matthias Church

Matthias Church

Behold Matthias Church, one of the religious institutions left untouched during Soviet occupation.

Architecture in Budapest

Pest Architecture

A good number of Budapest’s historic buildings have avoided neglect by being sold to foreign hotel chains, banks, and other institutions.

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The Israel Saga

Jerusalem

Jerusalem Rooftop Promenade

In seek of a new twist on my background in naval architecture and marine engineering, I stumbled upon the “water industry,” a world of venture capitalists and public utilities alike, global water resources, and cutting-edge technologies currently being developed at MIT’s Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy among other research institutions. With a growing 7+ billion population and with dwindling and polluted water reserves, resource production and management is as crucial a topic as ever. And as scarcity drives innovation, Israel in particular is a world leader in drip irrigation, desalination membranes, and other technologies now used worldwide in the municipal, industrial, and agricultural sectors. To learn from the experts and explore a fascinating foreign land, I am working for the summer as a business development analyst at IDE Technologies, an Israeli-based global leader in water desalination projects.

Hebrew University - View of the Wall

Hebrew University – View of the Wall

I started off my trip staying in Jerusalem with a friend working at Hebrew University’s business school on the Mt. Scopus campus. After arrival, I looked at Google maps to find my bearings and realized that I was in the West Bank behind the 1949 Armistice Agreement Line! Hebrew University is like a walled-in enclave within East Jerusalem. Confused about where Israel ends and the West Bank begins, my first thought was “where is the wall?” It does not exist on the border between West and East Jerusalem, but you can see it bordering a distant road from the viewpoint of the campus entrance (above). I have come to appreciate how impossible it is to understand how various pieces of land in Israel and the West Bank are situated, divided, and juxtaposed unless you are standing right in the middle of it.

Einstein Display

Einstein Display

There are numerous artistic renderings of Einstein throughout campus, from dignified stone engravings to tacky displays, such as the one above. Since Einstein was a founding member of Hebrew University, the academic institution supposedly gets more funds every time they install a new likeness of Einstein.

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Valle de Angeles

Horses in the Valley

A view of Valle de Angeles on our hilly commute

Valle de Angeles, known colloquially as “the valley,” is a municipality in the Honduran department (country division) of Francisco Morazán. At an elevation of 4200 feet and located between Honduras’s mountain ranges, it has the coolest climate in the whole country and is truly the one real retreat from the dangerous capital of Tegucigalpa, which is less than an hour’s drive south-southwest of the valley. There is literally only one road into the town from the south, and none of the streets have names or are even recognized on Google Maps, though someone has made a somewhat interactive map of the town. We pass by the field above every day on our 15-minute walking commute to the downtown where La Finca is.

Downtown Valle De Angeles

Downtown Valle De Angeles

Valle de Angeles has many tourist souvenir shops and restaurants, though you have to watch what you eat. Safe precautions for food preparation at home include cooking only with purified water, vegetables that have been soaked in chlorine water, and dishes that need to be rewashed with boiled chlorine water since taps don’t have hot water. The local water isn’t even safe enough to brush teeth with.

Town Center, Valle de Angeles

Town Center, Valle de Angeles

Most stores don’t open until 10a.m. and everyone takes siestas. A pretty park at the center of town highlights the laid back attitude of the locals who spend plenty of time relaxing. Youngsters hang out in the park, mothers watch their children play, and men chat after work. On Sundays, the park is flooded with tourists from Tegucigalpa. Once, I happily sighted a woman reading a book in the park. Aside from her, I have seen no one in the town reading anything. There are no newspapers or bookstores, only one low-key souvenir shop with a short stack of over-used over-priced Honduran short story books.

Honduran HSBC ATM

Honduran HSBC ATM

Considering there are no HSBC ATM’s in Boston, I was surprised to find one in the corner of Valle de Angeles’s park under a tree. However it does not accept MasterCard, and there is only one other ATM in the whole town.

Expresso Americano

Expresso Americano

A Central American take on Starbucks, Expresso Americano is a chain from Tegucigalpa and the only cafe in the traditional sense in Valle de Angeles. I became addicted to their Mochaccino Supreme, but the pastries always tasted a little stale.

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The Band at La Finca

La Finca Band

La Finca Band

Alonso, the director of La Finca, loves music and leads a Christian music band comprised of a select few La Finca kids who play drums, base, guitar, keyboard, and sing. Note the kid in jammies in the foreground listening to the band. The rehearsals are held at night in La Finca’s church, so kids show up in pajamas to get their bedtime music three times a week.

I played with the band during this week’s rehearsals and got to improvise solos as well. I found the music to be very expressive with choruses repeated several times. Uploading is slow, but I will post better videos later.

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Dayana

Duyana and Jamie

Dayana and Jamie

A few years ago, Jamie’s family met Jose, an old Catholic man who hikes the mountains giving aid to the poor, elderly, and anyone in need. Through him, they were introduced to Dayana, a now fifteen-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who lives in a poor quarter of Valle de Angeles. Dayana was crawling on the ground when they first met her, so Jamie’s family tried to get her a surgery. A long story short, Jamie’s Dad happened to get a ride from Tegucigalpa with a physical therapist who introduced him to a beneficent local doctor who performed the operation on her legs completely for free. Afterwards, Jamie’s family brought the Catholic and Evangelical congregations together, who usually do not communicate with each other, for a celebration of Dayana’s advancement.

Duyana Writing

Duyana Writing

All her life, Dayana said she had dreamed of having the ability to walk. After her surgery, two physical therapists, a boyfriend and girlfriend, walked to her house twice a week to help her recover and teach her to walk. She now uses a walker to move, but she can take steps on her own as well. She can also write, though her fingers are crooked and the process is difficult and time-consuming. Her drawings are excellent, though, and she draws landscapes from memory without having to look at anything.

Duyana's Mom

Dayana’s Mom

Before Dayana’s surgery, her mother used to carry her to school every day. The mother is wonderful to all her children and was very grateful for the help Jamie gave. When we brought food for her family, she offered to cook. I noticed that she wore the same shirt both days we visited, which was probably her best one. Their house only has one door, curtains to separate “rooms,” and open rectangular holes with no glass or shades for windows.

Duyana's Education in Frames

Dayana’s Education in Frames

Dayana’s family not only views education seriously, but also takes great pride in their educational accomplishments. Above the family’s bed are her diplomas and pictures from school. I was astonished at how intelligent and mature Dayana is. She saw my notebook with English-Spanish translations and expressed interest in learning, so we went over a few English phrases, some of which she already knew. We communicated well, and she looked up words in a dictionary when we couldn’t understand each other.

School Supplies For Anthony

School Supplies For Anthony

On the first day we visited, Jamie brought personalized baggies of school supplies for Dayana, her sister, and her two brothers. Jamie says that erasers and pencil sharpeners are like gold in Honduras.

Honduran Stove

Honduran Stove

Their stove consists of what I assume is a metal surface, a stove pipe, and tiles with cement packed around a hole for firewood. Jamie and Lilly noticed there was no food on their stove for dinner the first day, so Jamie decided we would return the next day with food.

Banasupro

Banasupro

We went to a local store to buy the family rice, beans, eggs, flour, cheese, bread, milk, corn flour, nenteca (shortening), butter, soup, spaghetti, tomato sauce, sardines, toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, paper towels, and dish detergent.

Duyana's Yard

Dayana’s Yard

The family was very grateful for the food and supplies. We learned that the father is very sick and has not been able to provide for the family lately. While Jamie talked with the family, the sister gave me a little tour of their property. There are many fruit trees on their slope (papaya, banana, orange, and some unidentifiable ones), so thankfully the family can be somewhat self-sustaining while the fruit is in season.

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La Finca – Introduction

Daisy, La Finca

Daisy, La Finca

La Finca is a home for abandoned children. It houses about 100 children from ages 2 to 18, only one of which is actually an orphan. Every day when I return to Jamie’s home, I try to write about the children, but it’s been difficult to know where to start. I could list my observations of the children, but no collection of descriptions accurately documents how well they children deal with their tough life situations, how much less they have than others in terms of family and wealth, and how, after all, they are just kids. Daisy, an ever-smiling two-year old, is among a group of children recently transferred from a state orphanage. It’s easy to tell the new kids apart from the rest, since they typically have not yet learned to share toys and people’s attention. Also, at the state orphanage, hitting is needed to survive, but a few weeks after arriving at La Finca they learn to adapt and look out for each other.

Natalie and Me

Natalie and Me

As a newcomer and non-English speaker, I do get special treatment. When I arrived with my backpack a little more stuffed than the previous day, the children were saying to each other “mochila, mochila” (backpack, backpack) while asking me to lift them up so that they could reach around and unzip my backpack. They wouldn’t take anything from me, but their curiosity and collaboration are stunning.

Yossenia

Yossenia Howls

Yossenia, whom we guess is a little above two years old, arrived at La Finca with a large stomach and adult appetite. The caretakers think she has parasites and have put her on antibiotics. When she cries, she howls and won’t let anyone touch her. Above, the other kids try to calm her down while amusing themselves with her cute mannerisms.

The Heights Game

The Heights Game

The kids creatively vie for attention sometimes by standing two feet off the ground and yelling “Seeeeeeee-meeeeeeee” with their arms outstretched to entice me to rescue them.

Daisy & Indira

Daisy & Indira

Older kids take care of younger ones all the time, whether they’ve been assigned a care-taking chore or just want to play. Above, Indira carries Daisy over to a Christmas tree to show her the hanging ornaments.

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Carmelo Neighborhood

Machine Gun Patrol

Machine Gun Patrol

If you leave downtown Valle de Angeles in a southernly direction (no street names around here), walk a mile through pastures past the cemetery and church, maybe take a left, cross a river, and climb a hill, you will find yourself in the neighborhood of Carmelo. Above, soldiers in uniform with machine guns patrol the neighborhood. They are also always present while trucks unload goods in the valley, even if the protected cargoes are Doritos.

Homes in Carmelo

Home Design in Carmelo

Almost all homes in Carmelo were constructed in the same manner after a forest was leveled and a lottery created to select new homeowners. The pastors of the local church and their families live on our block. Notice the uninhabited grey home on the right. The houses in Carmelo start out unfinished and are personalized by the homeowner with pastel paint jobs, colorful tiles, porch columns, ornate iron gratings over the windows, etc. Only the tin roofs and the size appear to be similar in the end.

Carmelo Home

Carmelo Home

Barbed wire surrounds the richer families’ homes, but most homes in Carmelo use towers for their primary source of water. For drinking and brushing teeth, however, we use bottled water. Thankfully, the new service on the block is a trash container at the bottom of the hill to enclose the trash. Dogs are everywhere, and you can hear them throughout the night. They compete with the megaphone-toting vegetable vendor for waking me up in the morning. Surprisingly, the neighbor’s rooster has his times mixed up and crows at night instead.

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Tegucigalpa, La Capital de Honduras

Jacky, Me, Kelly, and Lillian at the Airport

Jacky, Me, Kelly, and Lillian at the Airport

To gain the stamp of what was missing the previous day (see 6:30PM from yesterday’s post), we set out for Tegucigalpa the next morning with Jamie and her friends Lillian, Kelly, and Jacky. At the airport, after a customs official was profuse in his deflection of blame, the matter was cleared up. The official, who only spoke Spanish, seemed to know everyone in the airport and called “olaolaola” every time we passed one of his friends. At one point, we had to stop for a five-minute conversation with an American who just landed and had brought a “special DVD” for the official and his friend with Delta airlines who was securing the deal.

Tegucigalpa's Main Drag

Tegucigalpa’s Main Drag

Tegucigalpa has no discernible city center from what I could tell. A lack of urban planning, zoning, and utilities has generated kaleidoscope style sprawl with a water tower business across from the airport adjacent to a family restaurant which is a stone’s throw from a block of residences, etc.  Two-lane boulevards connect the city’s various districts. The visual result closely resembles an overgrown Long Island with lots of dirt.

Tegucigalpa's Amorphous Downtown

Tegucigalpa’s Amorphous Downtown

The city’s infrastructure is peculiar with little evidence of any piping or other utilities run underground. Wires haphazardly run everywhere. Note the spools of wire tied off at the telephone poles.

The role of American fast food in Honduras is similar to what I observed in China. American chains are treated as fancy sit-down style restaurants with somewhat jacked up prices. It was a treat for Jamie’s friends to eat at Pizza Hut, and though the atmosphere and music was from “American culture,” you could tell you were in Honduras when the waitress counted out exactly the same number of napkins as there were people.

Tegucigalpa Taxi Rides

Tegucigalpa Taxi Rides

It costs about 100 Lempiras (5 USD) to take a taxi from the airport to our bus stop in Tegucigalpa. The first driver quoted 125 Lempiras, so we declined. When the second one said cien (100), we agreed. They knew that the driver would not overcharge because he was blasting a Christian radio station.

The first thing to note about the taxis is that they have no meters – you fix the price before you get in. Second, there are no operable seat belts except perhaps for the driver’s seat. Third, there will always be something dysfunctional with the doors or windows. In the taxi pictured above, a smashed windshield was covered up with tape. Moreover, there was no window glass in the passenger window, which was of particular concern since rolling up all windows at intersections is the most convenient way to not be accosted by persistent vendors.

Back to the Valley

Back to the Valley

Before leaving the city, we shopped for real butter, peanut butter, chicken breast, cereal and other gustatory luxuries in an western-style grocery store that did not stock too differently from a store in American except that milk was sold in bags and there were less options overall. After taking the bus back to Valle de Angeles, we walked with our groceries through the hills to get home.

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Voyage to Honduras

El Salvadorean Coast Sighted from Turboprop

Since events became increasingly more peculiar and fantastic as the day of my voyage to Honduras progressed, I can’t help but give a detailed account in the time domain. If you want the quick sensational version, skip to 3:30PM or 6:30PM.

06:00AM EST – Departed snow-covered Pleasantville NY for the airport.

07:30AM EST – Snuck into the first class security line and felt a tad triumphant until I saw that the line took just as long since everyone in first class ended up being part of a senior citizen travel club carrying lots and lots of meds and with no idea as to what you’re allowed to take on an airplane.

08:30AM EST – Terminal 4 of JFK was packed with Spanish-speaking travelers. My cultural immersion had already commenced.

09:30AM EST – Departed JFK, NY for San Salvador, capital of El Salvador. Since I flew with TACA airlines, everything was spoken and written in Spanish. I soon realized that I looked Latina to the flight crew and had to explain repeatedly, no entiendo (I don’t understand) or no hablo espagnol (I don’t speak Spanish) or just jugo (juice) to make things simple.

01:30PM CST – Volcanoes, tropical forests, and cows were all in sight as we land in San Salvador. The airport is by far the most interesting I have ever explored, abundant with local food and cultural trinkets. Communication was repeatedly a problem, but I managed to get by with hand motions. I nearly missed my plane on account of a dulce de leche candy purchase with way more dulce de leche in the bag than I thought I asked for.

02:30PM CST – Departed San Salvador for San Pedro Sula, Honduras near the Guatemalan border. I realized that choosing the cheapest ticket available with the disincentive of 3 flights in one day was not a bad idea after all – I felt like I was getting a personal tour of Central America by turboprop. We flew at a low altitude over mountainous regions with the occasional small village burrowed in the hillsides.

03:30PM CST – Landed in San Pedro Sula. Our flight to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras was delayed, so I connected to the free DigiCel Wi-Fi network. A quick search informed me that San Pedro Sula recently replaced Ciudad Juarez, Mexico as THE MOST VIOLENT CITY in the western hemisphere by homicide count. I sat in the corner by the vending machines eating my dulce de leche candy and minding my own business, when I heard a man yell behind me followed by several other shouts. I turned around just in time … to catch the replay of a soccer goal being scored on the TV monitor in the waiting room.

05:30PM CST – We finally left San Pedro Sula for Tegucigalpa. Everyone was hooked on Blackberry’s and simultaneously able to keep up an impressive level of chatter. I couldn’t tell if the passengers all knew each other, or they were just friendly to strangers while traveling.

06:30PM CST – Our plane landed in Tegucigalpa and the more gregarious of the travelers clapped, cheered, and raised their arms as if another soccer goal had been scored. I heard from Jamie later that Tegucigalpa is the third most dangerous airport to fly into because if the plane does not stop within the span of the runway, it will crash into the base of a mountain…?

06:35PM CST – I stepped off the plane, walked through the airport of Tegucigalpa, grabbed my bags, and met Jamie and her friend Lilliana. One person checked my baggage ticket without taking it, and another asked where I came from, to which I replied San Pedro Sula. I was then free to enter Honduras… (will explain the whole story more later, including what’s missing from this situation and why)

6:45PM CST – The Tegucigalpa taxi drivers prefer not to drive out of town in the dark, but we were lucky enough to convince one to take us to Valle de Angeles, a 45-minute ride from the airport. It was a wild ride – no seat belts, no blinkers, no posted speed limits.

7:30PM CST – We arrived in the downtown of Valle de Angeles and carried my luggage on rocky dirt roads for about a mile until we reached Jamie’s home. I could just barely make out the faint outline of mountains in the distance. Dogs barked at us as we hiked by. Unique houses were built out of the hillsides in a scattered layout.

8:30PM CST – We reached Jamie’s quaint home and rested for the night. Below is a picture I took of Jamie’s block the next day.

Our Neighborhood in Valle de Angeles

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The Honduras Saga

Suitcase of Art Supplies

Ever since my relatives spoke of an orphanage hidden in the forested mountains of Honduras full of abandoned but happy children yearning to meet people and learn, I knew I would someday travel to the children’s home and try to give what I had to offer. I am ecstatic to declare that I am finally here visiting my second cousin Jamie, who is incredibly inspiring and has dedicated a year to being a missionary and teacher in Honduras. My plan is to give the kids their first musical instrument lessons on flutophones I brought from Los Estados Unidos. Chris also donated tons of art supplies to distribute to the home and the local schools. Subscribe to the blog for future posts!

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Making Music at MIT

This past Tuesday, I performed at MIT’s graduate student open-mic. Gaston and I had only one day to rehearse. Within one hour of posting the Led Zeppelin cover of Thank You, I received an email from YouTube notifying me that Warner/Chappell Music owns the content of my video, but this warning has not had any effect on the uploaded video. Exploring the Boston music scene, experimenting with blues violin improvisation, and learning about Indian Classical music will be among my musical and cultural pursuits at MIT.

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Olympic National Park – Hoh Rainforest

Traipsing Through the Rainforest

As you walk through evergreens shrouded in club moss and witness elk munching on the low-lying branches of century-old trees, the Hoh Rainforest may feel otherworldly. Avatar or Tolkien’s Middle Earth come to mind. Within the diverse patchwork of Olympic National Park’s ecosystems, the Hoh Rainforest is recognized as a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage site. Annual precipitation ranges from 140 to 167 inches. The competitive environment is abundant with epiphytes, multi-layered canopies, and undergrowth that ensures the covering of every square inch with vegetation (with the exception of human trampling evidenced by the picture above).

Elk Herd

Roosevelt Elk Herd

On our way into the park we spotted a wilk herd of Roosevelt Elk.

Nurse Log

Nurse Log

I was previously unaware of the nurse log phenomenon. As a fallen log in the Hoh decays over a span of up to 300 years, the weight of living organic matter actually increases with time. Seedlings vie for space on the log, their roots grow around the log, and a row of trees results, as if planted by humans. In the image above, for instance, three sitka spruce are perched on the remains of a nurse log. Eventually, when the nurse log completely decays, a colonnade of trees will remain.

Ranger Walk

We attended a guided hike led by a ranger knowledgeable of every species we spotted. Prevalent tree species include Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Big Leaf Maple, and Vine Maple.

Hoh Rain Forest

Hoh Rain Forest

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Salt Creek Recreation Area

Intertidal Zone

Intertidal Zone

The tidal pools of Tongue Point Marine Life Sanctuary at Salt Creek Recreation Area are among the best in the Pacific Northwest. When you stand beneath the Douglas firs on the coastal edge at low tide, acres of intertidal pools lie between you and the Straits of Juan de Fuca. If the fog isn’t obscuring your vision, you can discern the outlines of passing cruise ships and Vancouver Island in Canada. We camped at Salt Creek for four days while exploring the local marine life and the abandoned fort and pillboxes nearby. Chris’s parents joined us on this first leg of our trip.

Low Tide

Intertidal Zone

Accompanied by two marine biologists, Chris’s parents, we set out every morning to Tongue Point to explore the nearby intertidal zone at one of the lowest tides of the year.

Zone 4 Tidal Pool

Zone 4 Tidal Pool

We started at the low tide fringe where the waves were breaking as the tide rose. The range of marine critters within the tidal pools varies from the littoral to subidal zones. In the zone 4 tidal pool above, you can see purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), green sea anenomes (Anthopleura xanthogrammica), and kelp. The anenomes recoil upon human touch and blossom beautifully when submerged.

Sea Life

Sea Life

Limpets, horse barnacles, and red encrusted algae can be seen in this tidal pool. We also found tide pool sculpen, clingfish, sea cucumbers, gumboot chiton, and various species of starfish nearby.

Goose Neck Barnacles

Gooseneck Barnacles

When you pass by the gooseneck barnacles, you can sometimes hear them whistling.

Island at Salt Creek Campground

Island at Salt Creek Campground

This island is accessible at low tide only. We explored its perimeter for octupus in vain but instead found robin eggs among the island’s ferns.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

From the island, we sighted a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) being harassed by a throng of shorebirds.

Lugworm

Lugworm

Lugworms (Arenicola marina) are responsible for the coiled sand castings that surround the colorful kelp.

VIDEO

Red Sea Urchin Walking

In the video, a red sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) uses its spines to crawl across Chris’s hands. One of the longest-lived species, the red sea urchin has radial  symmetry along five planes.

*Special thanks to friends Anne and Dave for securing a much sought after campsite at Salt Creek and offering invaluable advice for our southbound journey.

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The Olympic Peninsula – Intro

Salt Creek Campground

Salt Creek Campground

Before heading south, we explored the tidal zones and old growth forests of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.

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Olympia


Rainy Day Records

Rainy Day Records

If you wish to find where the 1960′s hippies settled down, Vashon Island is supposedly the resting ground. But if you ever wondered where the hippies are still being grown, Olympia is the happening place. Amplifying the relaxing Seattle cafe attitude, Olympia has an eccentric kick to its culture emanating from the local art and music scene and Evergreen State College’s youth with KAOS Radio. Alongside the mainstream political and business culture of Washington State’s Capitol, the eclectic but niche downtown Olympia skate shop pictured above features custom skateboards, converse high-tops, incense, and album and film collections rivaling the trendiest vinyl shops of NYC.

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West Coast Road Trip


Ford Econoline 350

Ford Econoline 350

This summer, Chris Hooper (Webb Class 2011) and I are journeying on a road trip from Olympia, WA to southern California. My objective in blogging is to convey what it is like to travel by RV down the West Coast. I will be posting infrequently due to limited internet access. Above is our 27′ C-class Bravo Econoline 350 under preparation to leave.

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Beijing – Jonathan Shaller

Forbidden Palace

Forbidden Palace

Jonathan Shaller, a fellow traveler from the Red Lantern Hostel in Beijing, rendered this pavilion using Autodesk Maya. Jonathan is a professional 3D Environmental Artist with an impressive background. Notably, he’s worked on the graphics for The Chronicles of Narnia, Madagascar, and Transformers. He modeled this pavilion after visiting the Forbidden City’s Imperial Garden, where the Emperor once chose women for his harem.

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Back to the States

Sparrows in Qibao

Sparrows in Qibao

I must admit that I am now back in New York with my parents and Chris. I will continue to post occasionally, as I still have many places, foods, and cultural oddities to share. Above are impaled sparrows being sold in the Qibao marketplace in Shanghai. It was disturbing to watch children ravenously gnaw these popular snacks off the wooden skewers.

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Shanghai Violin – Recital Piece

AUDIO

Recital Replay

During the Spring Festival, only one music store near the Shanghai Music Conservatory was open. It had the floorspace of a typical shop window display with about 20 violins crammed inside. A teacher clapped expressionlessly to a practicing student’s rhythm. The student was excellent for a ten-year-old and practiced five hours a day, according to the teacher. One quirk about this dealer was that all his violins seemed to have excessive resonance built into them. I played this piece four years ago at my last recital with my violin teacher, Esther Slonczewski. The resonance problem can especially be heard every time I hit the A.  Again, sorry for the lack of practice.

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Beijing – Forbidden City – Museum

Emperor's Bedroom

Emperor’s Bedroom

The Imperial bedroom was the most popular scene in the Forbidden City. Crowds of tourists pressed their lenses up to the glass and peered in to see where the Emperor slept. The symbol on the far wall is “double happiness,” literally comprised of two happiness characters strung together. Many translations of Chinese into English happen to sound like Orwell’s 1984 “Newspeak.”

Bridal Palaquin

Bridal Palaquin

The exhibits were well curated with labels and often explanations for each artifact. Paintings or photographs served as the backdrop, artistically illustrating the objects in action. The largest exhibit was devoted to imperial marriages. This gold palanquin carried the bride into the Forbidden City. Before the marriage, a formal proposal event took place involving three phases: stating the proposal, requesting the woman’s full name and lineage to ensure there were no blood relatives in common, and an astrological process to check compatibility.

Forbidden City Art

Forbidden City Art

Many pages from the Emperor’s “wedding albums” were displayed on the museum walls. It was fascinating to recognize the architecture portrayed in the paintings from a few minutes prior to viewing them.

Forbidden City Lantern

Forbidden City Lantern

Lanterns such as the one above were lit for the arrival of the Empress-to-be through the gates of the Forbidden City at midnight. Once the Empress stepped over a saddle to enter the bridal chamber and the Emperor formally joined her, they proceeded to the bed and … ate underdone dumplings, literally. This special food was consumed on their marriage day to provide them with good male heirs. Drinking the nuptial cup was then the climax of the marriage.

Forbidden City Pathway

Forbidden City Pathway

Emerging from an indoor museum at the Forbidden City can best be described as walking out of the Medieval Art exhibit at the MET in NYC and unexpectedly finding yourself strolling through the corridors of a European castle. The more I wandered around this landmark, the more realistic it felt to my senses. The museum closed at 16:20, meaning there was an exodus of Chinese tourists moving toward the gates at 16:15, escaping the possibility of experiencing the palace after dark. At that time, crows came out to perch on the ornate eaves alongside the ceramic animals, and the palace really started to feel alive.

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Beijing – Forbidden City (Gu Gong)

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City served as the Emperor’s Palace in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1644, 1644-1911). It’s the most impressive place I’ve seen in China and happens to be the world’s largest palace complex.

Crossing the Moat

Crossing the Moat

To enter the Forbidden City, you must first cross a 6-meter deep moat.

Palace Blueprint

Palace Blueprint

The southern half of the palace, where the Emperor ruled, is devoted to prominent buildings on the central axis, large open spaces, and a royal obsession with symmetry. The northern half, where the Emperor and his family lived, is a maze of smaller buildings that are unfortunately not open to the public.

Bronze Lion Statue

Lion Statue A

Bronze and copper statues guard the entrances to the central axis buildings, which have very impressive architecture.

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Lion Statue B

Perhaps this lion was meant to be so fierce that it was clawing one of its own kin…

Painted Wood

Painted Wood

In addition to gold, all the primary and secondary colors are on display except for purple, which is nowhere to be found on the intricately painted wood underneath the eaves. Orange is rare and looks like white paint that was mistakenly mixed with red paint when it is used.

Fire Protection Vessels

Fire Protection Vessels

When the palace was inhabited, these bronze vessels were filled with water in case of fire. During the winter, they were covered with quilts to keep the water warm or heated with coal.

Grain Measure Vessels

Grain Measure Vessels

These grain measure vessels were placed outside the palace to credit the Emperor with establishing a grain measuring standard that unified the nation.

American Express Translations

American Express Translations

Outside each central axis building, there was a sufficiently well-translated sign noting the parameters of the structure – one auspicious bay number times another auspicious bay number – and describing what function the building had for the emperor. Note the line at the bottom indicating that the sign was translated by American Express, the only piece of advertising in the whole palace.

Changing Clothes Throne

Changing Clothes Throne, Bao He Dian

Though one structure was for meeting dignitaries and another for resting, they all looked similar on the inside: a mainly empty hall with a carpeted throne , statues, and vases. These interiors were also not open to the public. Instead, tourists swarmed at the front rail, and pushing was necessary to get a view of the throne.

Ceilings

Ceilings

Most of the buildings had gable roofs and beautiful panelled ceilings.

Non-Axial Buildings

Non-Axial Buildings

The continuous structures lining the sides of the palace have been converted into museums that house artifacts from weddings and wars. Of course there was no mention of servants’ lives or the role of anyone below royalty.

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Beijing – Days 2 & 3

Forbidden City

Forbidden City

Pictures & videos coming soon. I’ve spent the past two days at The Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, Zhongshan Park, Silk Street Market, and a family music shop.

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Beijing – Day 1

In addition to the traveling,  hostel life is very interesting. I room with a Frenchman who was originally here to study calligraphy, an Englishman in the video game industry, an American w0man who volunteers for the Peace Core as an English teacher in western China, and a Zhōnggúorén (person from China) who speaks no English and has been kind enough to offer me small packaged pieces of unidentifiable food from his province. In a conversation about the food, I knew only enough Chinese to understand that it was not sweet, a little spicy, not chicken, not pork, not beef, not lamb, and not fruit. Once I exhausted my Chinese culinary vocabulary, I had little else to do than eat it. I enjoyed it. When I told him it was “hao chir” (good to eat), he piled more into my hand and pointed to the bottom of his bag that was swimming with the little packets. I enjoy sharing a room.

Today, I visited the largest lamasery, where Tibetan temple architecture is framed by figures of tourists lighting incense in fire bins. I hope to get pictures up soon, though the biggest role of monks at the temple – from what I, a westerner, could tell – was getting in front of tourists’ cameras and requesting, “no photo.” I wonder if they realize that angry monks make good tourist pictures too.

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Beijing – Landing

I just arrived in Beijing and will be here until Feb 21. The only trouble I had was at security. The airport staff unloaded my backpack while asking me if I had an “organ.” Wondering if they really thought I was carrying animal parts, I watched them curiously go through my possessions until they found my harmonica, exclaimed “mouth organ,” and let me repack.

I’m now sharing a room with 3 other people at a hostel near the center of the city for 50 Yuan a night ($7.32). If you have suggestions for where to go or requests for pictures, please let me know via comment or email.

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Chinese New Year's Eve, Shanghai – Fireworks

VIDEO

Fireworks From the Street

Fireworks From Apartment

In the first video, note the proximity of the fireworks to us, to the apartment complex, and to the car with the alarm. In the second video, note what’s happening next door. Such chaos and danger is very common during this week, the Spring Festival. The slow trail of cars below us is the response. Yesterday, I was walking on the sidewalk outside my apartment when I saw a few guys sprinting away from me and realized they had just lit fireworks near my feet. I sprinted too, passing the cops smoking nearby waiting for the show to begin. The fireworks will continue for the whole week.

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