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)