Programming in Oslo – Part 2

After a few weeks of extensive traveling and working on school I am back on the SAGA Blog! Soon I will be posting about my travels across Europe, but for this post I will be talking about the other engineering class I am taking, Computational Physics.

You might say, that doesn’t sound like an engineering class, it’s physics! You are right, but at the core of Computational Physics is creating simulations to solve these complex physical equations. This makes it more of a programming course than actually learning all the concepts and theories in physics. This is most likely true for the majority of students in the class, since they are physics students, but I quickly learned that some of the concepts being discussed were well above Physics I / II at UAH. I should have expected it considering this is a senior level class in their physics curriculum and they have already taken Special Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Magnetism etc. However, thankfully the teacher, Morten Hjorth-Jensen, has been exceptional at explaining the theory to the class. Typically this instruction is meant as more of a layout guideline for discretizing or deriving the algorithmic process, but for me it was the baseline for actually learning the theory or method itself. I took this course from the recommendation of another former UAH student that studied abroad at UiO, Christopher Parker, who suggested it for a specific project in the course using Monte Carlo methods. I can say with confidence that finishing up the 4th project a few weeks ago with only one more to go, this course was incredible.

As always I try and get out whilst programming, this specific time I hammocked along the Akerselva river that runs through Oslo.

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Hammocking while Programming

I can say though that being suspended in the air literally over a river while holding your laptop can be scary. I usually prefer safer situations for my electronics, but it was one of the last gorgeous days in Oslo and I couldn’t resist the sound of a waterfall while working on the project. Also, this place is conveniently only a 7 min walk from my student house!

I would go into detail explaining each project, but they are fairly complicated and deep in Physics so I will summarize and provide links to view my final reports for each if you are interested in a topic. Also as always, all the code/results are listed in the Github repo.

The first two projects were not part of the final grade and the feedback was used for our own benefit to improve before the projects that actually counted for our grade. The first project was familiarizing the class with dynamic memory allocation and using matrix/vector operations in programming. This was pretty much review for me and a nice task to warm up my skills for the semester. The second project was the algorithmic development of a solution to Eigenvalue problems using the equations of a buckling beam coupled with Schroedinger’s equation. This project was definitely stepping up the physics knowledge, especially dabbling into Quantum dot theory. The feedback provided by the TAs/professor was exceptional in giving me a basis of how the physics department expects reports. I also learned how to format code beautifully using proper syntax highlighting in the text with crisp rendering. They also could tell my lack of theoretical knowledge translation when writing in project 2 and suggested routes of ensuring I had a firm foundation when writing my reports in the future. I am a big fan of this detailed feedback, especially being a TA at UAH for 3 previous semesters in ENG-101. On that note, if you’ll be taking ENG-101H this spring, I’ll see you then!

The third project was the first real graded project worth 33% of our grade. Even though this brought additional stress, I actually really enjoyed the problem being solved. We were tasked with creating a simulation that modeled the solar system. Several different solvers were used and lots of different planetary quantities were evaluated. This project really combined everything I had learned and it showed in the grade I received back today, a 95. I really worked hard for it and I think classes like MAE-311 really prepared me for the rigorous writing style, resulting in a comprehensive 22-page report. This is why I always stress to freshman that listening to feedback, going to office hours, and putting in the effort always makes the difference in college.

The fourth project simulated the Ising Model using the Monte Carlo method coupled with the Metropolis algorithm. This project was the reason I took the course and it lived up to my anticipations. This project was where the mathematical equations got intense really fast with constants and variables appearing out of thin air. Actually programming it was fairly short, but understanding the math took a lot of studying. Once it was all done though it was actually really interesting seeing how the model interacted.

The fifth project is due in a week and a half and I will be starting it this weekend. I just got done taking my Biologically Inspired Computing final today and I have been dedicating a lot of time towards it. Especially since it is worth 100% of my grade (the assignments were just pass/fail to even get the chance to take the final). With that out of the way, I now have the time to start and wrap up the last project in Computational Physics. Wow, that was a lot of text, I hope I didn’t lose you in the middle! If you are taking finals this week, I wish you the best of luck and remember, it’s almost winter break!

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Programming in Oslo

It feels good to be back and posting on the UAH Honors SAGA blog. This post I will be focusing on one of my passions consuming a lot of my time in Oslo. On the academic side, I have been challenged with Senior level programming courses in Biologically Inspired Computing and Computational Physics. Coding has always been a passion for me and through my ME degree at UAH I have constantly felt the desire to learn advanced ML, AI, and randomization methods (Monte Carlo), and the University of Oslo gave me the chance. I have been able to keep my coding skills up by TA’ng ENG101 for three semesters (including the first Honors section!) but I felt it was time to further my skill set.

One aspect of programming Oslo that is like no other is the free wifi absolutely everywhere in public places and it’s super fast. This allows me to work on my projects with views like you can see below.

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Aker Brigge, Oslo Bay

It is amazing what a relaxing environment does for productivity. I try and do this at UAH, but Oslo has definitely inspired me to come back and spend more time studying in places like Monte Sano.

Biologically Inspired Computing focuses on Neural Networks and Machine Learning techniques. There have been two mandatory assignments so far and they have definitely challenged my programming skills. This is mainly because I had to receive special permission to take them, due to the fact that they are Senior level Computer Science classes.

The first assignment involved using a genetic algorithm (GA) to solve the traveling salesman problem. By essentially breaking the problem into genotypes and phenotypes, you can use a genetic-based reproduction structure to develop your family bloodline. The GA then produces new generations of children to optimize the results towards the optimal solution.

The second project I just turned in last week was a Machine Learning classifier for EMG signals. The assignment explores supervised learning with the implementation of a multilayer perceptron (MLP). The task at hand was to analyze data from electromyographic (EMG) signals to learn eight hand gestures from a robotic prosthetic hand controller. The algorithm used backpropagation to fill the neural nodes to refine a weighting system for the dynamic classification process. The confusion matrixes are filled with the results allowing for analysis.

Both of these assignments allowed me to learn in-demand algorithm knowledge, as AI / ML is the future of all computing. You can view my work for the course on my Github course page and there are reports included in both for an easy to read summary. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to experience this world-class course that is recognized for it’s rigorous but exceptional content. The applications in the field of robotics (my future career path) are endless and provide a solid foundation for future growth in programming. This is all I have for this week and in my next post, I plan on talking about Computational Physics!

Updates coming soon!

I will be updating this blog more in the coming weeks but I have had an incredibly busy two months finishing up my internship and moving to Bremen with some traveling in between!

One quick thing to say though now that I am about to begin my studies at a German University: They say when you first get to high school in the United States that your hand won’t be held like it was in middle school. When you arrive to your American College they tell you it will again be more difficult because no one will hold your hand like in high school. Well so far my perspective of the German University system is that no one will even tell you your hand won’t be held, because no one is even present to tell you! It goes without saying that I am a huge fan of the independence here, yet a little frightened as I try to get everything settled to begin my semester.

That is all for now!

Part IV – Ayahuasca Ceremonies

Note: This blog is a part of a series on my journey to the Ecuadorean Amazon and it is a sequel to this blog – Part III Journey to Lagarto Cocha. I highly recommend reading that before you read this post below.

In this blog, I am going to share some details about the ceremonies I had the chance to participate in under the guidance of the elder shamans from the Secoya tribe in the Ecuadorean Amazon. Some of the content may sound unreal but I only request you to be open-minded while reading this. I gain nothing by lying to you and I report these experiences exactly as I experienced them.

Before I get into further details, here is a brief description of the sacred medicine. Ayahuasca is actually a forest vine whose name translates to ‘vine of the soul’. The sacred vine is concocted into a completely plant-based medicine used in different ways by various indigenous groups of the Amazon. The medicine is created from a combination of the ayahuasca vine (Banistereopsis Caapi) and chacruna or amiruka (Psychotria Viridis). The latter contains N-N DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) which naturally occurs in various plants and animals. Ayahuasca is used as a hallucinogenic medicine to undergo spiritual journeys as well as heal certain diseases!
Ayahuasca is NOT something to be taken for fun and it is absolutely NOT ‘just another drug’. It is a very serious medicine and has proper ceremonies and rituals done by experienced shamans who have undergone tremendous hardships. The vine medicine is taken for spiritual growth. If you ever consider participating in ceremonies, please read as much as you can about the practices and gain knowledge on ayahuasca. Please do this with experienced shamans in proper settings such as known retreat centers. Here is a great resource on Ayahuasca by the person who led this trip to the Amazon.

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In all of the ceremonies, I consumed yage which is slightly different from Ayahuasca because it is a combination of the Ayahuasca vine and yage-oco instead of chacruna.  Ayahuasca can induce more vomiting but yage is meant to be ingested after a vomiting ceremony so the experience is generally more primal. I have used Ayahuasca and yage interchangeably but they are not exactly the same substance.

So now that the disclaimer is over, let’s dive into what happened during these magical journeys. For each ceremony, we had to fast (no food and water) for 24 hours.

All three ceremonies had the same procedure without the sunrise renewal ceremony so I’ll explain what we did for the first and it’s the same for the other two. A small lodge was constructed just for the ceremony a little far from the tents. Sticks were arranged in a rectangle with even spaces to hold the tarp above the ground. The hammocks were tied to them in a neat horizontal arrangement. In the evening, all of us participants dressed up nicely to emulate the celestial beings seen by the elder shamans in their visions on ayahuasca.  Some of us had face painting from a plant pigment too! Here is a picture of the ceremonial lodge with hammocks taken by my friend and mentor, Jonathan Miller Weisberger, in the morning after a ceremony! Every ceremony was conducted at night.

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The First Ceremony

Before each ceremony, we had to lie in our hammocks and just meditate quietly until it was time for us to be called for drinking the brew. In this duration, we had to set an intention for what we wanted to see or learn in the journey. As I learned from experience later on, these intentions had a significant effect on whether the ‘trip’ was going to be challenging or not. You may have heard that set and setting are the keys to having pleasant experiences with psychedelics. In this case, the setting was flawless as we were in a protected part of the Amazon, Lagarto Cocha, which was several hours (by canoe) away from any signs of civilization. The set in this situation was the internal mindset which had to be positive for a pleasant journey before consuming ayahuasca. I set an intention to increase personal growth and become a better person for this ceremony.

The shaman sat in the hammock nearest to the fire. The forest sounds were absolutely enchanting. The extravagant chirping of the myriad of insects is still imprinted in my memory. Mosquitoes were buzzing around me so I had sprayed a lot of eucalyptus oil repellant on my clothes. After lying on my hammock for about an hour, the brew was fully prepared and we were being called by name one at a time to drink it. I felt nervous and excited at the same time as this was my first time with any psychedelic (I had not even tried cannabis). My name was called and I walked towards the fire where I bowed to the shaman to receive a small cup of the medicine. I drank it very quickly as the taste was very bitter. Here is a picture which is similar to the cup I drank from.

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I slowly walked back to my hammock and waited for the effects to come. After about 40 minutes or so, I could literally feel a rush of blood to my head. Thoughts started coming to my mind faster than ever before. I was entering an altered state of consciousness. I could listen intensely to the forest sounds and they were multiplied in magnitude. The forest became a living being now. While I was not able to directly communicate with the non-human life that surrounded me, I felt at peace and thought of the great forest as a protector. I had no sense of time during this and any of the mind journeys.  In the Secoya tradition, the chanting and singing to invite forest spirits begin at 3 am during the ceremonies. So when Don Cesareo began to hum beautiful tunes and chant in the Secoya language, Paicoca, I realized it was 3 am. These songs of healing are called icaros and you can find a beautiful example of one here: Ayahuasca Icaro. The effects had worn off by then but I was just amazed at the experience I had. Some of my fellow participants took more cups of ayahuasca but one was enough for me at that time. Then I just rested for the night in my hammock and listened to the life in the great forest until the sun’s rays shone on my face. I was absolutely starving and was so grateful to have a bowl of oatmeal and watermelon for breakfast. Starvation greatly increased the gratitude I expressed for food.

The Second Journey

My intention for the second ceremony was centered on finding out whether my loved ones were doing alright. Since I had no way of contacting them from the deep jungle, I was worried if everything in the life I had temporarily left was fine.

The great shaman, Don Cesareo, led this ceremony too. After I drank the first cup, the same effects began again after about an hour. Initially, it felt great as I was happy and surrendering to the sacred vine. However, the trip took a turn and it was challenging. I felt like I was going to die soon after the effects began. My mind entered a state of anxiety and paranoia. I was afraid to die early and my energy levels were also low. Since we had to refrain from food and water for the whole day before the night ceremony, I was dehydrated so the feeling of impending death was all too real to me. This part of the trip was a struggle as I thought I was holding on to life. I was too afraid to surrender to and accept death so soon. Memories of my past were flashing in my mind. The people who are extremely important in life such as my parents and some close friends also came to me in those flashes. Finally, my friend, Jonathan, who was assisting the shaman came over to check if everyone was doing fine. I admitted that I was feeling dehydrated and he blew some copal incense smoke on my face and gave me a drop of Rescue Remedy. A few minutes after that, my anxiety was significantly reduced and I was calmer.

My name was called for another round of drinking the medicine and I went for my second cup. The forest felt more alive than ever. I experienced the grandest cognitive dissonance I had ever had. The main thought in my mind was the fact that ‘there is so much I do not know’ which is still true. It is incredibly difficult to describe such a beautiful experience in words but I will try my best. Don Cesareo started singing around 3 am. He was vocalizing sounds of many different animals such as cicadas, crickets, snakes, and jaguars. My respect for the amazing man was greatly increased and so many thoughts of appreciation were racing through my brain. The whole forest was filled with such amazing music and it really felt as if I was connecting with the animals of the great Amazon through their music. I was thinking of how mainstream culture has (for the most part) discarded the teachings and cultures of indigenous forest-dwelling people. They have such a vast body of ecological and spiritual knowledge which is only transmitted orally so once the elders such as Don Cesareo are gone, the loss would be akin to burning libraries. I will return to this topic in my final blog (Part V). Here is a picture of me with Don Cesareo after the second ceremony.

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At the end of the second trip, I felt truly elated. Never before in my entire life had I been so grateful just to be alive in the moment. I felt as if I was absolutely in the present moment! I remember looking at my hands and just thanking the universe that I was alive. This was also a result of me holding on tightly to life during the first part of the ceremony. Gratefulness for everything that had happened in my life and the people that have supported me, especially my parents, was magnified like never before. The feeling of love and compassion for the existence of all life grew inside me and tears of joy were trickling down my cheek. I cannot express in words how this felt but all I can say is the feeling was the most beautiful sensation I had felt in my life. This quote summarizes my second trip better than my own words.

“I feel part of the environment, not separate from it, as though I’m at home rather than visiting—as though I’m tapped into some eternal omnipresence beyond the transient physical forms.”
― Michael Sanders, Ayahuasca: An Executive’s Enlightenment

The Final Ceremony

The last ceremony was conducted by an 80-year-old shaman named Don Basilio. I was extremely excited to participate in this one. I had mentally prepared myself to drink three cups beforehand. I made an attempt to realize my purpose in life on the last mind journey of my Amazon visit. Here is a picture of Don Basilio (on the right) in a conversation with Don Cesareo. 21016068_1308858985889974_1362955796133245835_o

This time, I actually had a mosquito net over my hammock to prevent any insects from biting me. Once I drank my first cup and was settled in my hammock, I closed the zipper of the net and I found out a few minutes later that there were three mosquitoes inside the net! The universe has a strange sense of humor indeed. I was hesitant to open the net to let them out because more insects would enter. So I waited for the medicine to kick in while the ‘three mosquitoes’ were buzzing around my ears. While I was waiting, I thought of killing the mosquitoes but I resisted the temptation because the act of killing any life would possibly have an impact on the trip. I wanted my mind to be filled with love and kindness. As naive as that sounds, I tried to make peace with the mosquitoes. I told myself that I had nothing against them and hoped that they would not bite me.

Then the mind trip began and I started mildly hallucinating. My mind was still focused on not getting bit by my insect friends. My thoughts were racing again and the forest was a grandiose being once again. Mother Earth was speaking to me through the music of the birds and the insects.

My name was called again for a second round and I had mentally decided to drink at least 3 cups in this final ceremony. I got up, drank the medicine, and waited in my hammock. Don Basilio started chanting calmly so it was around 3 am. Very soon, I was in another world altogether. I received very strong visions which led me to question reality. This experience confirmed some of what I had read in Jonathan’s book, ‘Rainforest Medicine’. I cannot share the details of these visions but I will say that they opened my mind to so many possibilities. I still remember many of the details so they were very different from any dream I ever had. I still have not completely understood what exactly they meant so I hope to in the future as my life goes on. My perception of reality was drastically changed.

An amazing quote by Aldous Huxley, author of ‘A Brave New World’, describes what I learned from the third trip.

“It’s a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is. I think it’s healthy that people should have this experience.”
― Aldous Huxley, Moksha: Writings on Psychedelics & the Visionary Experience

I finally went for my third cup after this exhilarating experience. No visions came but just like the second trip, my gratitude for existence and connection to the environment was enhanced. I thought of what I wanted to accomplish in my life and how I have the desire to help in making our world more sustainable and just leave the world much better than I found it. I was feeling excited about the life ahead of me and also thinking of how difficult it will be to achieve some of my goals. Morning came like a saviour as I was extremely hungry. I was still hearing the mosquitoes buzzing but surprisingly, I did not get a single mosquito bite! I had somehow successfully avoided being bitten by my friends.

To summarize, these experiences allowed me to take a deeper look at who I am, what I need (not want) in life, and peek at other ways of living a life. I will write more on the topic of indigenous knowledge, cultural beliefs, and interaction with our planet in the next and final blog of this series. Thank you so much for reading.

Food & Hammocking

Welcome back to my Norwegian experience! It has been a beautiful two weeks here in Oslo and on one of the few bleak rainy days (today) I am here sharing a few highlights.

I have always enjoyed entertaining and with Oslo being one of the most expensive places in the world to eat out, making homemade food for friends is much cheaper. Thus far I have held waffle, smoothie, and tropical dessert parties for everyone. I have also made quiches, mango cheesecake, and banana nut bread to share. A few pictures can be seen below of my culinary adventures in Oslo:

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Smoothie Night with Jordan (center) and Genissis (right)

 

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Jordan’s Birthday Party

 

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The supplies for creating the 9-layer pina colada parfait for tropical night

 

In addition to enjoying good food & friends, I have started all my classes and am getting used to the education format here. It tends to be more project-based with a large amount of weight placed on the final (>80% typically). Once I have a few projects to talk about, I will be sure to write a blog post on them, since two of the courses I am taking are internationally recognized for their academic learning outcomes. When I am not in the classroom I have found time to enjoy hammocking while the weather was still warm and sunny in Oslo.

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Matching hammocks after a hike to Vettakollen overlooking the city

 

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Went back to Ekebergparken (from my first blog post), but this time explored and found a spot overlooking the bay

 

That should just about wrap it up for this week’s blog post. Stay tuned, Oktoberfest Oslo is happening this weekend and I am sure there will be lots of great pictures from it. I think there might be homemade Bavarian pretzels in my future. Until then, stay safe and keep on adventuring.

 

Initial Experience in Oslo, Norway

The past few days have been an absolute whirlwind. I cannot even begin to tell you the adventures and friendships I have already made while here in Oslo. I will do my best to give you a synopsis of the beginning of my fall semester in Norway!

It all started with a total of 24 hours of flights including delays, layovers, gate running, lost luggage, and time changes. I was thankfully able to have a few relaxing moments on the journey, including meeting up with an old friend during a layover from the National Youth Science Camp I attended a few years back.

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Alexandra and I in ATL

Once I arrived in Oslo, Norway and waited a few hours for my baggage I was finally able to start my journey. One huge benefit when it comes to Oslo is the incredibly diverse transit systems that are implemented throughout the city. I would come to find out later that this is invaluable, however just coming off 24 hours of flights, it was difficult to navigate the city properly. After much trial and error, I was finally able to pick up my keys, and head to my apartment for the semester!

I chose to live in an area called Grünerløkka in the central part of Oslo. The area was once an industrial mecha in Oslo that has recently been turned into a desirable modern part of the city. The student house is actually inside of an old grain silo that was converted into apartments.

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Grünerløkka studenthus

I will go into detail about the rooms in a later post once I have finished decorating the apartment!

The first week was filled with nonstop orientation activities. I could go on forever about the friends that I made during the week, although it would fill a short novella. I think the following two photos sum up the week beautifully.

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Welcome Ceremony at the Old University of Oslo Campus

 

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Ekebergparken Park Overlooking the Bay (Only a 15-minute tram ride from where I live)

 

This past weekend I decided to go with some friends to Göteborg, Sweden for a quick Saturday excursion. We took the bus for only $35 roundtrip and a quick 3-hour ride to spend the day. It just so happened that the cultural festival was that weekend along with EuroPride 2018, which provided a lot of activities to complete during our visit! Here are some highlights from the trip:

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Enjoying the Nautical History of Sweden

 

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Appreciating the overcast 60-degree day with Jack (left) & Austin (center)

 

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Relaxing after a long day of walking the city

 

Well, that about concludes it for this weeks blog post! I have lots more to share, but I plan on saving certain experiences for themed posts in the future. Also, keep a watch out for my more technical side, as my courses have started this week and I plan on doing some photography magic with the advanced programming skills I will be learning. Until then, have a great week!

 

How to get to Hamburg (or really anywhere) on a budget

When I decided to study abroad in Germany I of course wanted to be able to have time to travel and see more of the country and continent. Currently, that is tough to do with a full time job and not much money. However, it is very possible. Here is one example of a weekend trip done right!

First of all, you need to actually be able to get to your destination and luckily Europe has got this figured out! You have a few options:

  1. Buses (budget friendly and wide range of destinations)
  2. Trains (usually faster, but a little pricier)
  3. Planes (budget airlines are great, but you can only go where they’ll take you)
  4. Cars (for absolute freedom)

Of course, in the US your only “real” option is a car unless you’re made of money or in a place that actually has buses and trains. But here, I can (and have) used every option on this list except for number 4 (because cars are completely unnecessary on a continent that actually has reasonable prices and time schedules for options 1 through 3).

So, to get to Hamburg I could have paid 39 Euros each way for a train ride that would have had one connection and taken 2 hours and 31 minutes. But I chose the direct bus- it costed 12 Euros each way and took 2 hours 30 minutes (savings of a minute and 27 Euros).

Next, you need somewhere to stay. For accommodation you also have several options:

  1. Couchsurfing (free but requires at least a week of prior planning)
  2. Hostels (cheap and for the young, adventurous types)
  3. Hotels (for those with deeper pockets than most)

I of course, chose option 2. I have read plenty of travel blogs discussing hostels and how great they are so I was honestly really excited to try one out. I booked a night in a backpacker youth hostel in Hamburg for 30 Euros for the night and had a great experience!

So there it is! A weekend in Hamburg for 54 Euros. Not too shabby. Stay tuned to hear about my adventures there!

See you later, Japan!

I spent four weeks in Japan and had the adventure of a lifetime. From meeting many new people to eating traditional Japanese dishes, Japan was everything I expected and more!

During my art class, a mangaka, Junya Inoue came to visit and talk about the industry and drawing techniques. Mr. Inoue is the author of a manga called Btooom! which has also been adapted into an anime. The class was divided into three parts. For the first part, he introduced himself and answered some questions we had about the industry. Second, he drew one of his characters for us and taught us about the different pens and paper used. Third, he had each of the students draw our own character and come up with some backstory. IMG_3679.jpg

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He was very nice and got a selfie with me!

I also made it to the Ghibli Museum. It’s very tricky to get into the museum, so I hardly got in. One of the professors knew some people living in Tokyo who got us tickets (locals are allowed a certain number of tickets per month they can purchase). Studio Ghibli is the animation studio behind many famous animated movies such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and PonyoIMG_3836.jpg

One of the field trips with Saitama University was to Kawagoe, a small town often known as “Little Kyoto.” It had a very small town feel and there were many historical sights. IMG_4053.jpg

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I also got to experience wearing a yukata, which is a summer kimono.

The most memorable historical landmark would have to be the Daibutsu (Big Buddha), found in Kamakura.

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The environment in Japan is so different from the US. The streets are much cleaner, even in big cities like Tokyo. The trains are on time to the minute and it’s very easy to get around once you get the hang of it.

While my time in Japan has come to an end, these memories will always be with me. I am so thankful to Saitama University and all of the wonderful people I met for making my dream come true. I will certainly be going back one day. Until then, my Japanese language studies will continue!

I’ll see you soon, Japan.

Thanks for the unforgettable experience,

ジェイダ

Top 10 Cultural Differences

I have not uploaded a blog post in a while and I have not done anything interesting lately (unless you consider my day job to be interesting). So I have decided to write about the top 10 (in absolutely no specific order) cultural differences between the United States and Germany that I have noticed so far!

Without further adieu:

10) Do you have no manners? Knock!

In the office and at home, your door remains shut. No one wants to walk down the hall and see what you are doing and you sure don’t want anyone to be able to see you while they walk by! In the United States, most offices are open spaces or people leave their doors open- not here. Everyone loves their privacy and the closed door policy is everywhere.

9) Lunch time!

In the United States, workers are generally required to take their lunch as quickly as possible and get back to work. Here, it is not uncommon to take over an hour! My office has a cantine where you go to get lunch (very much like the Caf) and sit with your colleagues. This builds comradary within the office and gives you a much needed break from your hard work. In the United States a lot of workers bring their lunch from home and eat at their desks, but here, we eat together and talk about non work-related things.

8) Is hydration really that important?

When you go out to eat in America, the first thing they bring you is a free glass of ice water. Not only is ice nonexistent here (a topic for a point all of its own), there’s no such thing as “free”. My first day in Berlin I ordered water and I was asked if I wanted still or sparkling (tap water is not to be consumed- ever!), I requested still assuming they would bring me a free glass of water. Nope! I paid 2,99€ for a 200 mL (tiny) glass of plain, bottled, lukewarm water!

7) On the topic of water…..

There’s this thing here called Minealwasser (mineral water) and the Germans cannot get enough of it! It is regular water, just with more carbonation in it than you could imagine. Let that bottle sit still all day thinking it is safe to open and you’ll be in for a wet surprise! I always have a towel on hand when I am opening my daily 1.5L bottle of the stuff. At first, I was scared to try it (why would you carbonate WATER?), but it’s actually pretty good! You can buy a huge bottle at Aldi for 0,19€ plus your 0,25€ deposite on the bottle (you get a quarter back when you return your empty bottle to the recycling center).

6) ICE-ICE Baby

I said I would get to it, Germans do not know what ice is (except when the whole counry freezes over in the winter time). The refridgerators do not have an ice maker, and they would never, ever take up the valuable real estate in their tiny glasses with frozen water. I guess when you are paying 4,50€ for a soft drink (without refills) you want to get every last drop of soda possible. The German word, Eis, pronounced as we say “ice” actually means Ice Cream, because that’s the only frozen concoction they want.

5) The bill, please?

When you go out to eat and are ready to go home YOU are responsible for asking for the check. The waiter will never bring it to you, because to Germans, that would be rude. When you seat yourself at a table (you always seat yourself), you get to keep that table for as long as you want. If you need something (drinks, food, etc) make eye contact with a waiter (who will HOPEFULLY be somewhere nearby) and beckon them. They will not check in on you, and they will not ask you to pay. I have grown to like this seemingly poor service as I often find it annoying in America when waiters come by every 5 minutes and interrupt my conversation to ask if I need more free ice water.

4) You mean we aren’t here to make new friends?

The first time I went out with some colleagues for drinks, we went to a pretty casual bar in Braunscwheig. By the time we got there, it was past midnight (prime party time in the US of A) but the dance floor was empty, and every group sat at their table, with their friends, not interacting with anyone else. Having never been “of age” in America, I can only go off what I have heard- but that is that going out to bars is a great place to meet new people and even dance a little if you want to. Not here! You go to the bar with your group of friends, and sit and try to scream at them to have a conversation (the music is very loud).

3) You are 30 and don’t have a driver’s license?

Cars exist here. Germany manufactures some of the best cars in the world, but because public transportation is so advanced and efficient, a lot of Germans never bother getting a car- or even taking driver’s ed to get their license! The streets all have bike lanes, and thats how everyone gets around on a nice day. The buses, trams, S-Bahns, U-Bahns, and long distance trains all have regular schedules- usually in intervals of 15 minutes or less. In fact, even the scheduled train between Berlin and Munich (hundreds of miles) operates several times per day. Gas is also very expensive- around 1,50€ for a liter- so it is no wonder that most folks bike or take the bus.

2) The yellow form! The other lady told me it was the blue one!

Ah, bureaucracy. In the United States you deal with those grumpy folks only at the DMV and the Passport Office. In Germany, bureaucracy is in every aspect of your life. Need to change your address with the bank? You have to go to the city office to get a form verifying where you live. Moving? Go tell the city that your are leaving. Need to get on payroll at work? Go get a NEW tax ID number for your new job from the state. Nothing is simple here, but on the bright side it is almost impossible to slip through the cracks or mess something up.

1) Drinking? You haven’t even had breakfast yet! And you have work in an hour!

Germany has about the most relaxed alcohol laws of any country. The other day I biked past some dude holding onto the handle bar with one hand with a beer in the other- at 8:30 am! Drinking in public is fine- no brown bags here. In fact, I have never even been carded and I barely look like I am above the 16 years old limit. People here are very responsible though, and rates of alcoholism are actually far lower than in America.

I hope these little tidbits were interesting! I will probably do more posts like this soon as I had a lot of fun listing out my ideas.

Cheers from Braunscwheig!

British Isles – Part 2

Ok. So, it’s been a crazy month and a half since I got back to the states, so I am just now getting around to posting pics.

Ireland was incredible. I loved the places, the cities, the accents, the people, etc. The air is so much cleaner than the air in the US. You notice it. It was the first thing I noticed after we landed. I breathed, and it was clean and clear, as if I had just gotten my first breath of fresh air after being underwater so long I forgot what it was like to breathe. The food was better, too. All of the ingredients are fresher and mostly grown or raised locally, so the meat was higher quality, the vegetables tasted more natural, and even the beverages were better. I loved the place.

First Castle in Ireland
This is the first castle we got to explore after a jaunted carriage ride through the country out in Kilarney.
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Bagpipes!
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Trinity College, home to the book of Kells, and free tuition, just like all colleges in Ireland.
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This is called Dublin’s Viking Pub, because it was actually established by vikings. The food was pretty good.

Wales was an unexpected gem on the trip. I never thought that Wales would be a place I would want to visit again, but it is now near the top of my travel list. We drove through Snowdonia National park which has some of the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. I didn’t get any good pics of the park, but I did climb to the top of a mountain behind our hotel right as the sun was setting, and the views were spectacular. Pics are below, but they don’t do it justice. You could see green for miles. I definitely need to go back and visit so I can hike in Snowdonia.

Holyhead ferry
This was our ferry from Ireland to Wales. It’s huge, and felt like a luxury cruise.
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A nice tea party at a small restaurant in Wales.
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That’s me. At the top of a mountain. Amid the ruins of an old castle. Yep.
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Top of this mountain. The castle ruins are so old, that only pillars of rocks were left and a couple structures.
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Just look at that view.
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Sunset is the best time to climb a mountain.
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Some more structures during sunset.
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The path up the mountain
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Just wow.

England was nice. I got to see some incredible places, like Stonehenge, Buckingham Palace, and so on. I didn’t get to see Big Ben because it is under repair and will be so for the next few years, so the entire tower was encased in scaffolding. Still, The tour of London was worthwhile. There’s so much history everywhere you look.

 

The best part of England, however, was the natural history museum. I could spend a week in there. As it was, we spend nearly five hours, and were only just able to see every exhibit almost at a run. The place is huge! The fossils were incredible. I almost cried. I grew up loving paleontology and natural history, which is why I am now studying biology, so this place was like heaven on earth. The research going on there is amazing. I spent a long time on their website learning about their efforts to digitize 20 million specimens by 2020. They are creating 2D and 3D models of these specimens, both wet and dry, and providing open access to anyone around the world with a computer and internet. The best part, that’s only 1/4 of their specimens! There’s so much research going on, from fossils to conservation biology, to genetics, to molecular biology. I might consider this place for my post-doc, because it was awesome!

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That’s a real blue whale skeleton. 

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That’s the blue whale skeleton from below. 

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