Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Travel Log: Don't Worry, It's a Tourist Town

La Serena, Chile
August 2004

It was the summer of 2004: I had graduated college, was on my way to graduate school in New York City, and feeling pretty good. Seemingly out of the blue, I received an email from a sort of advisor in my astrophysics career. He was the PI (principle investigator) on a project that included my own advisor and me. As a chance to get more telescope observing experience, he wanted to send me on a two-week telescope run at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. And a pretty great summer had just gotten even better.

CTIO, as it is more commonly known, sits in the Andes mountains in the north of Chile. There are a number of increasingly growing observatories in the area as it is perhaps the single best place on the planet to put a telescope. Tall mountains, dry climate--it really doesn't get much better than that. The nearest town, where the base operations for the telescopes are located, is the coastal town of La Serena. I would stay there a few days, and spend most of my time up on the mountain at the telescope.

There was the problem of timing, however. I was due to fly to Chile on the same day I was scheduled to move into my new graduate student apartment at Columbia University, and I had only a couple of weeks to prepare for the telescope, and I didn't speak a word of Spanish, and I didn't have a passport (in those days, I could travel to Canada and Mexico with only a driver's license). So it was a busy couple of weeks quickly preparing, rushing the passport, and, well, not learning any Spanish.

"Don't worry," some other astronomers who had been to CTIO told me, "La Serena is a tourist town. You'll have no problems finding people who speak English." I bought a phrase book, you know, just in case. (I later learned that La Serena is in fact a very popular tourist town--lots of Argentinians travel there for vacation. If I'd known that in advance, I'd have probably cracked open that phrase book a little earlier.)

So on the first day of August I drove across to New York City, dumped all of my earthly possessions into my new bedroom, and grabbed a few hours of sleep by nesting in the pile of all my clothes. Then it was off to the airport.

The next day I arrived in La Serena, Chile--my first trip to a country that required a passport for entry, my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere, and my first trip to a foreign land completely alone. I had been told that a taxi driver familiar with the observatory would pick me up from the airport, as he's apparently the one who always handles the American astronomers on account of his excellent English skills.

He was the nicest man I met in all of Chile, and to this day I don't know a single word he spoke to me.

Quickly realizing that words weren't going to be of much use, we devised a set of gestures, symbols, cognates, and grunting in the car as we left the airport and headed into town. He would take me to the observatory's base of operations, where I'd find a room to stay in, and he'd come back to pick me up for dinner.

Sure enough, just as I was getting hungry after settling into my room, the nicest taxi driver in all of Chile came knocking. His friend had a restaurant, we'd go there. But it was only 7pm, and there's so much to do first! (Chilenos eat dinner around 10pm, I later learned, though it was of little consolation to my stomach that first night.)

First up, he assumed I'd need some provisions. So he took me to the grocery store. Not just drove me to the grocery store, like a taxi driver might, but actually took me into the grocery store. He showed me what was good, helped me find things and check out, and even bought me a bottle of wine by way of welcoming me to his town. Did I mention he's the nicest man in Chile? Oh, good.

Fully stocked for my two weeks on the mountain top, we jumped back in the car. Oh, but it was so early, and I hadn't met his mother yet! So we drove round to his mother's house for introductions and freshly-squeezed lemonade. We--by which I mean they--chatted for a while while we--by which I mean they--discussed something very interesting and fairly amusing, too. Then it was time for dinner, and we were back in the car.

The restaurant was right on the ocean, and my driver-friend couldn't recommend it highly enough. Upon arriving, I learned that he had to go pick up some other people, so he'd come back for me after I'd eaten. I'd be in good hands, he seemed to say, his friend owned the place. Introductions were made, and  I was shown to a table by the windows overlooking the ocean. The menu, my phrasebook being still in my suitcase back in my room, meant very little to me. So I sort of shrugged at my waiter, he and the owner conferred briefly and asked me if they could just bring me things. Sounded good to me, I smiled back.

I wish I could say what it was that I ate, but I'm sure I couldn't do it justice. It was delicious, all three courses and the personal bottle of local wine. The owner also brought me my very first pisco sour--and I will always be eternally grateful for that. After dinner, the owner cheerily showed me around his restaurant and introduced me to everyone else dining there. I shook a lot of hands, smiled and laughed along with the locals....and had no idea any of it was about.

Then the driver came back, and couldn't be more happy that I enjoyed the meal. I thanked him the entire ride back to the observatory base, where I promptly collapsed into my bed. The next day I'd be heading up the mountain to the telescope. It was an incredible two weeks, and I'll never forget it, but the memory that stands out the most is of my best friend in Chile, who took care of a stranger as if I were his oldest friend.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Travel Log: On a Train Platform in Germany

October, 2011

It was a brisk but wholly sunny day in October in Germany, and Lynn and I are standing on a train platform in Nuremburg. We were traveling between Munich and Frankfurt, at the end of a 10-day trip across much of southern Germany, on our way to the airport to head home. We're standing on the platform because the super-fast, super-fancy high-speed train that shoots between the capitol of Bavaria and the capitol of the Euro is quite expensive. The local trains, that connect all the smaller towns and cities in between, are slow but much more affordable. We're switching from one local train to another.

When I was in high school, I took classes in the German language. My school offered four languages: Spanish, French, German, and Russian. Many of my friends took Spanish. One in particular tried in vain to get me to take Spanish as well. It's the most widely-spoken language on the planet, she would say, it will certainly be the most useful to you in the future. Ah, but German, I would invariably reply, is so much more fun--and then proceed to shout something in the language just to demonstrate how intimidating it could sound.

When I finally did travel abroad for the first time (Canada doesn't count), it was to Mexico. Then another trip to Mexico. Then my first inter-continental jaunt took me to Chile. In more recent trips, I've gone back to Mexico, then Peru and Bolivia. My next big trip takes me through Argentina. Seeing a pattern? My friend was right about Spanish being more useful.

Nonetheless, I took German in school, and loved it. It was a language that made sense to me; every sentence part had its place. There are rules, and those rules are not broken. The German language is so very...well, German. It was great. I thoroughly enjoyed learning and speaking the language, and my few friends who ventured into those classes with me kept me practicing often.

For a while, at least. In college I was too wrapped up in classes for my major to play with languages. And though I did have a close friend who also spoke German, we found that we did so less and less. So it was nearly eleven years after my last German class that I finally made it to Germany. I found that the rules still made sense, and I could still build basic sentences. My vocabulary, however, left much to be desired. Perhaps not too surprisingly, I met an alarmingly small number of Germans who sounded like my teacher, or my high-school native-English-speaking classmates. I struggled through the trip, being able to make simple sentences, and to understand more than I could speak--but not able to have very meaningful conversations. Sure, I got my general point across, but the person I was speaking with tended to mercifully switched to English when, if not before, I exhausted my abilities.

But on this beautiful, sunny, and only a little chilly in the shade day, my need for German language skills was nearly at an end. In 24 hours' time I'd be back on a plane home. I was standing on the platform, luggage in hand, with all the other people who were waiting for the next train.

Then, the train pulled up the platform, and we all shuffled with our luggage and families over toward the doors. "Sorry," said a middle-aged woman near me who must have bumped into me or my bag, though I didn't feel it. "No problem," I replied. Germans are so polite, I love that too. The doors of the train cars didn't open. Instead, the train started to back up slowly. "Strange!" the woman next to me remarked, as we all started chasing the doors down the platform a ways. The train stopped, we arranged ourselves in front of the doors, and I said to her, "This spot is better anyway!" Then the train pulled forward again, just a little. "Here we go again," she said to me, laughing. "We must go back and forth a few times so they know we really want it," I joked, and we both laughed and boarded the train.

It was about this time that Lynn asked me what we were talking about. I realized, only then, that our entire exchange had not been in English. I had a little conversation,  shared a joke and laughter with someone in their language, and she never felt the need to switch to mine. And I couldn't have been happier for this simple, light-hearted exchange. I could have hugged that woman right in doorway of the train car. Ah, but that would not have been very German at all.


(Note: This isn't current, but I find I'm just not writing as much as I used to--and I'd like to change that. So while I often sit with a blank page and ponder what to write about only to give up and go surf Facebook, I am instead going to try and get myself to recount past stories. Just to, as they say, get the juices flowing.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Mr. Andrew Fleming, Traveling

Ask me what I love to do, and I'm likely to answer (among other things): travel. I love to travel, to see new places, to meet new people, to just go somewhere. Anywhere. Everywhere. Well, eventually. And so it is that I look back at the ol' blog, see that I haven't written in over six months, and realize that I have a great excuse--the best excuse--I've been traveling. A lot.

Let's see, where to begin? The last post was in March, and shortly thereafter I was in Roanoke, Virginia for Mu Beta Psi's National Convention. Lynn was ill, so I was on my own. It was a good time, as usual, and I even managed to get myself appointed Chairman of the Board of Trustees....whoops. And while I didn't write about it in this blog, I did manage to write a post for the Psi officers' blog over here.

Then suddenly it was April, and Lynn and I were off to exciting Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Typically when we travel to Wisconsin, it's to spend time with her family out on the family farm in Janesville. This time, though, it was a pleasant trip to spend time were her cousins who live in Milwaukee, and just catch up. Of all the trips this summer, this one was probably the most relaxing.

In May, I turned 30. And knowing she would be doing the same later this year, Lynn suggested we celebrate by running off to Disney World. Who could argue? We spent a whirlwind long weekend in Orlando, Florida and hit up all four major Disney Parks, and of course the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Even I have to admit, that was cool. We even ran into some good friends along the way--one who was there for a bachelorette party, and one who works at Hollywood Studios and was able to hang out with us in the parks before going to work. Spending a great weekend at Disney was sort of eye-opening--not just that we had such a good time, but that it was so easy to pop down there for a weekend. Could be dangerous...

May ended with a quick trip with friends up to Killington, Vermont. And June was a much-needed rest. Instead of us traveling, a few friends came to visit us in New York. Then in July, it was back to Killington where we hosted Psi's Alumni Association mid-year meeting.

August was the biggest travel month. Lynn's brother got married, and we joined them in La Paz, Bolivia for a second wedding reception in the bride's hometown with all of her family. On the way, we traveled through Peru and saw Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca. These are deserving of posts of their own, so hopefully I'll get to that.

Finally, that brings us up to September. Not long after returning from South America, we made a quick trip to Janesville, Wisconsin and then a trip to Austin, Texas for a swing dance event: The Hot Rhythm Holiday. Along with several of our dancer-friends, we'd been working on a piece of group choreography in collegiate shag. Although I had a fever and spent much of the time being generally ill, it was still a good weekend.

And now, we are home, and plan to be home--for a while at least. The holidays are coming up soon, which means Detroit, Michigan and probably back to Killington. And then 2013 kicks off with what promises to be a truly unforgettable trip, Antarctica.

Bon voyage!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

First Date with Siri

So I got an iPhone. Two years on Blackberry, then two years on Android, and finally I've admitted that it really is just a great interface. There are still a few things I miss from my ol' Droid, but even after one day I'm rapidly getting used to it.

A colleague came with me to the store to get it, and on the way back to work he asked a question the magnitude of which had not previously occurred to me:

Have you used Siri yet?

Of course I've heard and read about Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface), the "intelligent" software that acts as a sort of personal assistant and voice-activated search engine. Mostly, I'd read the funny responses Apple engineers had pre-programmed in to certain questions like: "What are you wearing?" (Answer: Aluminum body with glass front and back), or "What's the meaning of life?" (Answer varies, I got: "I don't know, but I think there's an app for that."). Sometimes Siri needs extra information to help you out, as in when you say "I need to hide a body." Siri responds, "What kind of place are you looking for?" with options to search for nearby reservoirs, metal foundries, mines, dumps, or swamps.

But there's a bit more to Siri than that. I've heard several people commenting on "her" personality. Around Christmastime, even my mom talked about Siri as if she were an old friend who helps her out--and just happens to hang out in her purse.

So, walking down the street with my colleague, new iPhone in hand, I considered what my first interaction with Siri would be. I admit, I was a little nervous. What should I ask first? How do I introduce myself? What if she doesn't understand me? What if she doesn't like me? I held my finger over the button that activated Siri for a moment, then:


"Hello, Andrew."

"Um, how are you today?"

"I am well. What can I help you with?"

"Um, nothing right now, thank you."


It seems Siri and I are off to a polite, if a little cool, start. We're still working a bit on our rapport, but I'm sure we'll get there. Even this morning I asked Siri to remind me to do something later, and was surprised at the accuracy of the dictation. I was a little skeptical, but I think I might be coming around.

Then I discovered Siri's Australian accent in the settings. Oh my, I think I'm in love.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Shag Now or Shag Later?

Shagging in public--the scandal!
I expected this post to be about shagging. In Ottawa. It's cold up there, you see, so one of the more enjoyable ways of keeping warm is to shag long into the night. I'm speaking, of course, of the annual Shag Explosion dance event and competition.

Alas, it was not to be. Lynn had unfortunately taken ill, and the weekend was instead spent watching movies at home.

But, that's not going to stop us from shagging as much as possible. In public, no less.

Collegiate Shag, like all of the swing dances that arose in the early part of the twentieth century, has a somewhat hazy history. Terms like "shag," "swing," and "jitterbug" were used more broadly to label any of the swing dances being danced in those days. (People from that time period would laugh at how specifically we label our dances today; to them Swing, Charleston and all the rest were interchangeable and determined only by the tempo and style of the music.) It's thought that Collegiate Shag as a distinct style arose out of New York City in the 1930s. From the ferver of fast-tempo dances this particular style of shag was adopted by the younger--you might say, collegiate--set of dancers.

It looks a little something like this:

Lynn and I have been learning shag from Tony Fraser, who is an awesome, energetic teacher. He and his partner Jamie Shannon are pushing the limits of the style and really having fun with the dance. What I enjoy most about them is that they really emphasize the playfulness of the dance, always encouraging everyone to put their own spin on the style. There aren't a lot of shaggers in NYC these days, so we're building on the small community here. And I'm happy to say that those who did make it to Ottawa, like Eryck and Liz shown in the picture above, did exceptionally well.

Here's Tony and Jamie:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Writing More

I'm hoping to write more. There's no big secret strategy here, just the good old brute-force method. I'll make some time regularly to site and write.

The good news is, I actually have been writing a very little bit more lately.  Just before the holidays, I wrote a post for concerning the recent announcements out of CERN. Two research teams on different detectors are narrowing in on the infamous Higgs Boson, completing our understanding of the Standard Model of subatomic particles. Fascinating stuff.

Painting a giant movie poster.
More recently, I wrote an article on the very site I work for. Outside my office window I can see a 14-story-tall advert for movies, and every six weeks or so they paint over it for a new movie. It's fascinating to watch, and I've always wondered how it works. So I documented it with pictures and did some research to find out the process. Yes, they actually are painting--by hand--the entire side of a building. The article can be found here.

So yes, I've been writing a bit. Now to keep it going.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Never Too Late for a Resolution

2011 was not a great year for this blog. It's not that nothing happened worth writing about, or that so much was happening I just didn't have the time. No, I simply didn't write.

2011 was not a great year for me. It's not that I didn't go on amazing trips, or that it was terrible from start to finish. No, but it was a succession of highs and lows.

The year began with frequent trips to Michigan. I don't often feel the need to "go home" or visit much outside of holidays or the occasional friend's wedding. I know my mom misses me, but I also know how much she supports me and my living wherever my life takes me. But when she was in an awful car accident, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than Michigan.

In the days after the accident, I spent days in the hospital, and nights at a diner nearby. I heard things from doctors about how bones break, fracture, and shatter, and how permanently damaging these things can be. I learned all about Michigan's no-fault auto accident insurance laws. My mom, meanwhile, simply decided to get better.

Within days she was on her feet. Within weeks, home from the hospital. Within months, walking, driving, and living a normal life. My mom is the most amazing person I know. I don't call her often enough.

Acapulco Bay
With winter's low on it's way out, spring brought a new high. Lynn, her brother, his girlfriend, and I all took a trip to Acapulco together. How does one describe a week in paradise? Sun, yes. Beach, yes. Relaxing? Definitely. And the food, oh, the food.

Summer began with frequent trips to Michigan--and other places around the Midwest. The grand Midwestern tour began again in Michigan, celebrating my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary. It was soon off to Wisconsin for Lynn's family gathering. Then over to Minneapolis for Mu Beta Psi's Alumni Association annual meeting. Back again to Michigan for a friend's wedding. And the pendulum, as all the best pendulums do, swung back.

Summer ended, and autumn began, with frequent trips to Michigan. My grandfather's health was failing, and I found myself once again drawn to the place I once called home. Hospital trips, family gatherings, the constant fear of a fundamental change in my world.

I love Strasbourg.
Somewhere in there, Lynn and I took our second amazing trip of the year, through Strasbourg, France and Bavaria. It was perfect. As I so often hope to do, maybe I can back-date some posts on it. For now, these pictures will have to suffice.

Somewhere in there, Lynn and I spent a quiet weekend with my grandpa and grandma filled with stories and discoveries. My grandpa meant more to me than I know how to express, even now. Thanksgiving night, he passed away. He was the most amazing person I knew. I never called him often enough.

And so 2011 came and went. I traveled more. I danced more. I cried more. This year, I will write more, take more pictures, and learn more. (And travel. And dance. Maybe less crying.)