Last weekend, my girlfriend and I took a trip to Pittsburgh. She had lived there before and we stayed with her friends “C” and “H”. On Friday I was fortunate to meet one of the Statistics PhD students at Carnegie-Mellon who showed me around the campus. I chatted with the amiable department secretary who explained that Pittsburgh folks are mostly from Eastern Europe, while the Scots-Irish people settled closer to Cumberland, MD. “H” took us to the top of the University of Pittsburgh “Cathedral of Learning”, the second tallest academic building in the world, and explained that peregrine falcons nest on its spires. We saw evidence of this in the form of a bluejay carcass in one of the window sills.
On Saturday, we parked near an imposing, multi-story jail building and walked around the downtown area. We saw the confluence of the three rivers that surround the city, and passed by the famous Heinz Stadium. We ate lunch at former Steelers halfback Jerome Bettis’s “Grille 36” sports bar, which was excellent (if you go, be sure to try the Turkey Burger!). I was impressed by the tall skyscrapers everywhere, and H explained that at one point in history, Pittsburgh was one of the largest and most economically dominant city in the United States due to the importance of coal and the steel industry. Now, however, the health and technology industries dominate, and the former headquarters of US Steel is inhabited by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which is one of the best places in the country for organ transplants. I rented a bike and rode up and down the Monongahela River, observing giant cauldrons that once poured molten iron, and long barges filled with coal coming down the river from West Virginia. It’s amazing that a barge could navigate all the way from there to New Orleans uninterrupted by whitewater rapids, while merely 20 miles or so from DC, the Potomac is blocked off to river traffic by Great Falls.
Later that night, we took the Duquesne (pronounced “Doo-kayn”) Incline to the top of Mt. Washington to get a night time view of the city. “H” explained to us that the inclines were constructed in the early 1800s and would transport steel workers back to their homes at mid-day for lunch with their families. We were extremely fortunate to meet one of the engineers, “L”, who had spent 40 years working in a gear factory. While gleefully expounding on the relative merits of plastic versus wooden cog teeth, he showed us the underground system of cables and enormous spools that was running the incline car up and down the steep mountain. In one of the rooms, a wide area was fenced off with a “high voltage” sign. He said sometimes the wall of fuses and switches throws off showers of sparks, and to him that is “when the fun starts”.
On our final day, we tossed a frisbee in the vast and verdant Schenley Park and had lunch at the one of the famous Primanti Brothers restaurants. Their sandwiches are notable for having coleslaw and french fries BETWEEN (rather than beside) the bread. We also stopped by the Conflict Kitchen, a stall serving food from different countries in opposition to the US (to raise awareness, I suppose?). On our way back to DC, we took a detour and drove up to Mt. Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania. There was a spectacular view from the observation tower at the summit. On the road down the mountain, we passed by numerous Amish folk driving around in horse-and-buggies. I am continually amazed at the wonderful diversity of the people of the United States. We are truly fortunate to live in a land where one can choose to live with however much technology they wish. Whether I find myself seeking solitude or cheery companionship, I am sure I will find myself drawn again in the future to Pittsburgh and the beautiful Allegheny Mountains.

March/April 2008 (corresponding photo album here)

I took the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, where I spent the night with Ken, a Malaysian Chinese guy working in advertising, who it turns out was familiar with North Carolina because he had studied at Warren-Wilson College in Asheville. Ken organized a CS gathering at a food pavilion where I got to try many different kinds of delicious Malay food and meet some new friends. One of the guys there had recently graduated from Duke, and had ridden his bike all the way around the world! Also, I stopped by the Petronas twin towers (a childhood dream ever since I saw Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Entrapment”). It was also great to attend church with Ken. The pastor was from New Zealand, and I sat next to some guys from Africa, but the sermon would have been familiar to anyone from North Carolina! I found out later that even though Malaysia is largely a Muslim country, there are substantial numbers of Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists as well.

My next stop, Kota Kinabalu, reminded me a lot of Wilkesboro (my hometown). As the capital of Sabah (aka East Borneo), a largely agricultural/forestry driven economy, there were tractors and pickup trucks everywhere in KK. After recovering from a brief bout of intestinal drama, I caught the bus to the base of nearby Mt. Kinabalu, which is actually the tallest peak in Borneo (13,400 feet, about 4,000 meters). I joined a couple of British guys and a Swedish fellow to make the two day ascent. We had a great time swapping Monty Python jokes and I was amazed by the diversity of rare plants such as orchids and Nepenthes pitcher plants along the slope. After a night in a chilly mountain hut, we woke up early the next morning to climb up above the treeline and watch the sunrise from the rocky summit. It was definitely a “mountaintop experience” and one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever climbed.

After the steep descent from Kinabalu’s summit, my legs were about as functional as jello and we all headed over to the town of Ranau for some rest and relaxation. This sleepy little village surprised me in so many ways. First, I had to get my watch battery replaced. With rudimentary Malay, I asked a guy to do it, and he fixed it in 2 minutes and only charged about $1 equivalent (3 Ringgit). Beat that, Walmart! Secondly, when I went into a restaurant to get some “Roti Telur” (egg bread) and “Nasi Lemak” (spicy rice and sardines, tastier than it sounds), all of the local men were sitting around watching a grainy TV set. When I examined it more closely, I started laughing because it was playing a professional wrestling match with “Stone Cold” Steve Austen, who was really popular with kids in my old middle school. Finally, at the bakery, I tried to chat with the two girls behind the counter, and they explained that they were surprised I would take the time to ask about their lives, because they had never had an actual conversation with an American before. Wow, I hope I made a favorable impression! (CONTINUED in Part 2)

26 March 2008 (click here for photos)

Singapore lived up to its reputation for cleanliness and efficiency. After taking the stunningly modern metrorail from the spotless airport, I got off in “Little India” and stayed at a hostel surrounded by Tamil (South Indian) businesses. My first dinner at a Tamil restaurant was so spicy, the sweat was pouring down my face, but it was delicious, with curried lamb and many unusual vegetables. One highlight of visiting Singapore was meeting Dixi, a brilliant Filipina friend recommended by AM in Manila who was studying environmental engineering at Nanyang Tech. We met for dinner (I tried stingray for the first time!) and walked over to take photos with the Mer-Lion, the mascot of Singapore. It was great to share a conversation ranging from Biblical exegesis to carbon sequestration and the burgeoning local water engineering industry. We were joined later by the intriguing Shahirah, who shared stories about her work in public relations (did you know Singapore has the world’s largest Ferris Wheel?), and her Muslim faith. On another day, an enthusiastic Singaporean couchsurfer named Geraldine showed me around the city. I was very impressed by her encyclopedic knowledge of her city, and she was particularly fond of the wide variety of architectural styles found here. For example, within a one mile walk, we passed a Hindu Temple adjacent to a Chinese one, behind which a massive skyscraper was under construction. Further along, a shiny bronze hotel with an Ayn Rand theme abutted a Mosque. Finally, we passed by the fortress-like central police office; the courthouse, which looked like a UFO was landing on top; and the spiky, irregular, durian-shaped convention center. In fact, the durian, a pungent, creamy fruit resembling a spiny green basketball, is a great metaphor for Singapore’s two salient features:  cultural diversity and authoritarian governance. While ethnic “Straits Chinese” make up 75% of the population, they manage to coexist with sizable Malay and Tamil minorities, as well as more recent immigrants from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Europe. While racial tensions did spur Singapore’s secession from the Malay Federation in 1965, they have since abated, although as Geraldine explained it is still rare to see intermarriage between different ethnic groups (in this way, it reminded me a lot of the United States. We are still more of a “patchwork quilt” society than a “melting pot” society). Despite their cultural differences, almost everyone in Singapore loves durians, and it has been incorporated into all kinds of fascinating culinary creations unique to each neighborhood, from ice cream to fish curry. Similarly, the durian fruit illustrates the draconian force of law in this city-state: carrying one on a subway car or metrorail is banned, and carries a hefty fine!

After a long day of walking, Geraldine, whose hospitality was as expansive as it was spontaneous, invited me to join her family for dinner, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Her Mom was an excellent cook, and her Dad an engaging interlocutor; he encouraged me to return to my family “by hook or by crook” because it’s not good to be far away from home for too long. I found this strong, traditional emphasis on “family-first” to be a widespread ideal in many Asian nations. Geraldine’s younger brother Aloysius was very curious about US History, and I tried to objectively describe the conquest of the Native Americans, and the shame of the slave trade, as well as our ideals of free enterprise and individual freedom. While Singapore is probably an even greater exemplar of capitalism than America, it starkly differs in personal liberty. As Aloysius explained, most middle-class Singaporeans such as his family cannot afford to own or drive a car due to onerous taxes. When I replied that they have an excellent public transportation system, and that taxes on cars and automobile fuel reduce congestion and pollution, he elaborated that personal mobility has an important, almost spiritual significance for a young person, no matter which country they live in. Indeed, one of the favorite pastimes among guys his age is to go over the border to Johor Baru (Malaysia), where the laws are laxer, and drive a fast car on a back road. Furthermore, Formula-1 racing is as popular in Singapore as NASCAR is in North Carolina! Finally, discussing the sub-prime crisis in the economy, we all agreed that it was caused by people borrowing too much to finance excessive consumption. Both Geraldine and Aloysius expressed concern that despite Singapore’s current economic strength (2nd busiest container port in the world), younger generations may become decadent and less pragmatic. Aloysius even compared Singapore to Venice, fearing that it too may someday sink into the water and become a relic of past glory. Nevertheless, my own impression of this bustling, diligent citadel on the tip of Asia was a refreshing departure from the organic chaos that marks so many other Southeast Asian cities. While I don’t think I could live in a city that bans chewing gum (indeed, I even found myself missing the acrid fumes of the streets of friendly Manila at times amid the sterile Singaporean causeways), it was very pleasant to visit, and I can see why so many people find it a great place to do business, receive medical care, or get a world-class education. I suppose in the end there is a trade-off between stability, efficiency, and safety versus individual freedom to engage in “creative destruction”, and one has to simply decide which spot on the continuum is most satisfying. Hopping on the bus to Kuala Lumpur, I felt fortunate to have experienced both ends of the spectrum in one lifetime.

21 March 2008. (click here for photos) After finishing my Fulbright period in the Philippines, I spent a month independently traveling around Southeast Asia. My first stop was Hong Kong, where I visited my friend Sonia Siu, who was a Rotary Scholar at Hong Kong University studying their welfare system. My first impression was delight at the efficiency of the train I took from the airport to Central station on Hong Kong Island, and the glistening, modern shopping mall with a free (!) internet cafe in the International Financial Center above the terminus. I later discovered, however, that this was the most expensive possible way I could have taken! I wandered the Blade Runner-esque streets toward Lan Kwai Fong, the popular expatriate hang-out, where I met Sonia and grabbed a cab to HKU. When I mentioned that I had just arrived from the Philippines, I was taken aback when the driver reacted by expressing his fear of “dangerous” Muslims in that country. The next day the air was foggy, and somewhat polluted (from the vast number of factories in nearby Guangdong, China). We joined several local rotarians for a dimsum (dumpling) breakfast that included eel, squid, chicken feet, lotus paste, and many other tasty but unidentifiable Cantonese delicacies. Having consumed a massive amount of green tea, and minimal water to dilute it, my head was spinning! I spent the day riding around on the almost century old trolleys and memorizing Chinese characters. I enjoyed identifying some of the plants in the Conservatory in the Hong Kong Park, and randomly made the acquaintance of an amicable business school professor from Brigham Young University, who cautioned that not all finance professionals strike it rich. In the shadow of the Citigroup tower, an Indian man accosted me. Brandishing a picture of his (apparently levitating) guru, he offered to predict my future. Without waiting for my reply, he did so and immediately offered a chart of how I might repay him (in American or Hong Kong dollars, of course!). When I explained I had no cash, he stormed away angrily. Hong Kong also has an abundance of Filipino workers, many of them house maids. I chuckled upon observing, at city hall, signs in English, Chinese, AND TAGALOG warning would-be picnickers to stay off the grass!
The next day, Letitia, a couchsurfing host and nurse, was gracious enough to take me on the tram ride to Victoria Peak, a promontory behind the city in the center of Hong Kong Island. From the top, we gained an excellent vista of Kowloon and the many ships traversing the narrow strait between that peninsula and our island. As we hiked through the surprisingly lush vegetation down the back (Southwest) side of the mountain. Letitia related her experience working in the hospital during the deadly SARS outbreak, which even claimed the lives of some of her colleagues. The virus apparently came to Hong Kong by a man infected in Guangdong while hunting wild game. In the distance, we could see a large coal fired power plant on a smaller adjacent island, a power source for the bustling metropolis of 7 million people. Later, Letitia introduced me to a crunchy, spicy local variety of seafood, and congee,  a creamy rice porridge that reminded me of grits.
Another interesting experience was joining Sonia’s rotary colleague Brad and others for an Indian meal in the menacingly labyrinthine Chungking Mansions on Kowloon. Brad explained that, while widely acknowledged as the most affordable place to live in the city, it had a history of fires and crime. Most of the residents appeared to be import/export businesspeople from South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. I was disoriented when I arrived, because I had just caught the last sky tram down to Tung Chung after climbing Lantau Peak (second highest in Hong Kong) earlier that day. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Hong Kong and would love to go back. It’s hard to imagine any other cosmopolitan city (it really is the “New York of Asia”) with so much natural beauty in close proximity. On my final day, I rode the ferry to Macau (home of the world’s largest casino, and a former Portuguese colony!) and spent the night in a hostel owned by a Bangladeshi man next to two Chinese Malaysians and a Filipina. As I closed my eyes I knew that I would have colorful dreams after living in such a fascinating, heterogeneous microcosm for a brief but exhilarating five days.