Travel Adventures

Getting there and Back

Warm welcome from Tibet in exile

View from atop the science center before the hustle and bustle begins. In the evenings, that yard is spread with tables and chairs and many glasses of lemon ginger tea are shared.

Living among the Tibetan community is full of wonder and joy. Though we are on the subcontinent, it’s slightly misleading to say I’m experiencing India in the Doeluging Settlement. This Tibetan community in exile feels insular from the surrounding Indian towns. Covering 4 acres in southern India, the settlement has grown tremendously in the last 30 years and is now home to 13k+ Tibetans, with 2 of the 3 “great monasteries,” a large nunnery, and 9 camps or towns.

The peace of the early mornings before breakfast

We are staying in the Gaden Monastery‘s education center, right on the main road through town. December 23 was the 600th death anniversary of its founder, Je Tsongkhapa, and what is usually an annual celebration of lights was an outright, citywide hootenanny! His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is in town, bringing with him thousands of devoted followers from around the world (many in traditional dress, wow!) along with vendors, musicians, and transient families pleading for money from those striving towards compassion. It’s a scene!

Adding to the light

We are here to assist the monastics in holding eclipse festivals for the community on the 26th. Needless to say, a celebration such as this is no time to teach astronomy. We’ve set up some loose times to start the activities after the celebrations, panels, and teachings, but until then, we are part of the magic and chaos. I am thrilled to visit some of the nuns I worked with on an earlier adventure. The first night we arrived, we had dinner at their nunnery, outside on the roof under a beautiful sky. My very tired kid couldn’t keep his eyes open and they whisked him into the kitchen and made him a little bed behind the sink. Their patience and kindness is contagious and already I am learning. Also, here’s a short album of some of the places that he’s slept so far with my pink scarf, including in a tuk tuk!

Categories: Monks in India, Travel Adventures | 1 Comment

Traveling with Child

It’s been too long since my last post, and not because the astronomy adventures have stopped. I’ve been to the Communicating Astronomy with the Public conference in Japan, to Brussels for the IAU centennial celebration, and even even Chile for a sunset eclipse. Perhaps the biggest change, and why I’ve had less time is that I’m now traveling as often as possible with my son. For the last two years, he’s been coming with me on any trips that I can swing and we’re both learning a lot.

His first international trip was just before his 7th bday, to Japan. There we soaked in onsens, traveled by high speed train, and he learned to use chopsticks while eating more udon than I thought humanly possible. His favorite story from that adventure is when I lost him on the Tokyo subway at 10pm on a Saturday night. Japan may be the best country in the world in which to lose things. I’m pretty sure I could leave my wallet on a park bench and come pick it up the next morning. We learned trust in each other and the world in the face of the unknown.

Europe saw us exploring streams and caves with dear friends in a small Welch village, studying shell-game players under the Eiffel Tower, and breaking the ice with laughter (as only a 7yo can) at experimental theater in Brussels. We relied on the kindness of strangers over and over again, especially when a young Parisian found us locked out of our apartment and so generously offered us his.

In Chile we traveled to the Atacama desert and saw our 3rd eclipse from the beautiful beaches of La Serena on an unseasonably warm and clear winter day. He has learned patience in line after custom line and finds particular joy in the bathroom variations, from holes in the ground to bidets.

I write this from a 20 hour layover in Shanghai, enroute to our latest adventure in India. (Our toilet in this hotel sings and lights up – winning!) We slept 10 glorious hours and woke up to the haze of a city with 14 million people (I think that’s what I remember – google doesn’t work here…). You can taste the air here, it’s so polluted. This morning, as we walked between a thick brown river and hundreds of community food gardens growing happily on an old dump, we talked of our impact in the world.* With all of the museums, heritage sites, and astronomical phenomena we get to see, it’s our walks that bring me the most joy, no matter where we are. He envisions a future where solar powered robots do the hard jobs and we all have enough to eat and clean air to breathe. I trust that we may still be able to make that happen. In the meantime we’re learning patience and trust as we work to bring it about.

*It’s an uncomfortable reality that experiencing new cultures reminds us of our interconnection and at the same time airplane travel accounts for about 2% of the carbon emissions, no small sliver. We made some resolutions for the new decade – reducing our plastic and single-use consumption. Also rethinking how we adventure and what alternatives we can choose on a daily basis. He thought of biking every time we go somewhere downhill. We still have some details to work out…

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Equity Gone South

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 9.47.13 AMI kicked off the 42nd meeting of the Brazilian Astronomical Society (SAB) by making connections between that lush South American country and the US – our immigration atrocities, subjugation of native culture, and brutal history of slavery with its present-day implications. And then I took the gloves off.

I argued that these voices are not represented proportionately (or at all) among us and that it is our responsibility as the people in the room to change that. I made the case that the more diverse our collaborations are, the more innovative we become. Because that’s what the science tells us. They invited me to speak on the current state of astronomy education so I used the opportunity to speak about privilege, equity, and how to be more inclusive as we bring new people into our favorite science.

IMG_1366I’ve never before given a talk like this on purpose. (Once a speaker didn’t show at an ASP meeting and Linda Shore and I improvised some activities on privilege and being an ally, in about 15 minutes.) I didn’t give the best talk I’ve ever heard on educational equity. But I thought a lot about it and I gave this talk that introduced privilege to the people in the room in a way I thought they might hear. I used it as an example of how we will stumble as we have these conversations, cultivating the growth mindset I encouraged them to try on (new skills and language thanks to my work with Theresa Summer and the Girl Scouts). That talking about racism and sexism and the -isms can be uncomfortable but that it’s necessary if we want to make changes.

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 9.45.10 AMI had the most amazing and sometimes hard conversations (also, apparently I talk with my hands a lot…). Two students thanked me for giving the talk I did because their professor was in the audience and “needed to hear this.” A young professor lamented her struggles changing a system where professors boast failing students as a badge of honor. I talked with students who came from privilege and whose reactions to my talk ranged from ashamed to irate and we talked about how to use our place in the world to make sure everyone gets the same treatment that we have the sheer luck to be born with. The members of the SAB were ready to have this conversation, some of them for the first time.

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The attendees at this conference were younger and more diverse than at any astronomy conference I’ve ever attended in the US. We have so much to learn from them. I learned more about the Brazilian educational system, and by all counts they are making huge strides in the right direction. A six year old today from the lowest economic quarter will complete twice the years of education of her parents. Federal universities have implemented a complicated system of affirmative action to combat the predominantly white, affluent student majority in this predominantly Pardo/black country. And it’s working. The people in that room were proof.

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First Day of Memphis Integration, 1961. Photo credit: Dr. Ernest C. Withers / Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Next to my bathroom mirror there is this postcard of three 6-year-old children. They are three of the first students to integrate Memphis public schools. Whenever I do something that scares me, I think of the bravery these three tiny humans displayed in the face of generations of bigotry and hate and I know that talks like these are the very least I can do. It is my obligation.

This has been reinforced by a young black PhD student, the first in his family to attend college. When I did an exercise with the audience about privilege, his face lit up that someone was finally talking about his experience. He later approached me, “When someday I am invited to speak at a national meeting, this is the presentation I will give.”

 

Post script, you know you made an impression when they parody your privilege exercise in the informal roast on the last day. “Sit down if you’re too drunk to stand up…” And also this classic picture with (l-r) the president of the SAB, me with the awesome placement of the bathroom sign, the back of an innovative Brazilian solar researcher, and the great laugh of one of my astronomy sheroes, Natalie Batalha!

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All images, including that last one, thanks to Universidade Cruzeiro do Sul – Unidade Anália Franco

 

Categories: Astronomy Musings, Travel Adventures | 4 Comments

Settling in with the nuns

In what is usually the most serene of settings, tonight there’s a buzz the air. I am staying in a small guest room in Domaling nunnery in the Indian Himalayas. The setting is so different from my time with the monks a few years ago, just up the road. Some 260 women have chosen a 16-year course of study of Buddhist philosophy. Their deep dedication and focus are palpable. So is the joy. There is a dairy and a greenhouse, a temple and a large open area for debate, all carefully tended by the nurturing hands of these women.

It’s the end of monsoon season, with billowy, blustery storms whipping down the hallways. Robes and prayer flags flutter in every direction. Hail coats the cobblestones and streams everywhere gurgle in fulfillment. Tonight we caught a break in the storms and I set up my telescope in the debate courtyard to show tiny ringed Saturn and later the cragged gibbous moon whose brilliance blinded us for the walk home. They giggled as if they’d peeked at the moon disrobed, incredulous that the auntie they knew so well had craters covering her face!

Tomorrow many of the nuns will take a test of some sort and I passed them up late in the dining hall, cramming in the universal pre-test panic. I feel for them, because the buzz is not coming from the nunnery. We are at the end of the road in a tiny town. Perhaps in celebration of the newly cemented sink hole two houses down, or the break in the rain, or some other occasion there is a big old dance party reverberating up the hillside. Once again I am thankful for one deaf ear as I turn in for the night. More soon!

Categories: Monks in India, Travel Adventures | 1 Comment

The White House – Wow!

IMG_9225I was honored to be one of a handful of amateur and professional astronomers invited to bring our telescopes to the second White House Astronomy Night on the front lawn last Monday, October 19th (the first was held in 2009). Exhibitors were given 3 hours in the afternoon to set up, leaving us plenty of extra time for wandering the beautiful gardens and seeing the other displays. The crew responsible for growing salad on the International Space Station arranged their garden box under red lights, SpaceX and Occulus showed off cutting edge technology both visceral and virtual, and a huge planetarium was set up to give city visitors a peak at truly dark sky.

IMG_9230We arrived back that evening alongside 5 astronauts decked out in their flight suits. Congressmen and dignitaries flocked in next to local school children and teachers being honored for their ingenuity in Science Technology Engineering and Math. Ahmed the clockmaker from Texas was there with his family. President Obama gave a moving speech on the importance of innovation and why science is crucial to the future. A high school student gave the president a look through her telescope and he noticed that the Moon appeared backwards. For a moment he was just another visitor to the eyepiece, marveling at the wonders we share with everyone.

IMG_9236In the cold clear night, under the bright city lights our telescopes showed off colorful Albireo, Neptune, the backwards first quarter Moon, and the fuzzy Andromeda galaxy. When all you can see of our nearest galaxy is a faint smudge, it takes a good story to bring out the wonder: “The light that you just saw traveled over 2 million years unhindered through the vast emptiness of space to land on your eyeball and nowhere else. When those photons left the huge swirling Andromeda galaxy, our early ancestors were just moving out of trees. In the 2.5 million years it took that light to get from there to here we developed tools, language, control of fire, and eventually and even these telescopes to be able to look back and see it.”

IMG_9283There we were – dignitaries and watchmakers – excited that a smudge of light had traveled such distances just to inspire us. The thrill of the encounter connected us and we looked with hope towards the next generation of explorers. At the end of the night I was able to give away the 8” Dobsonian telescope I’d assembled only that morning, thanks to a generous donation by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. An enthusiastic DC schoolteacher told me of her plans to share it with her community and I knew it was going to a good home. I left with high expectations for our future in the hands of the students and educators I met there.

This article was originally published by the incredible Astronomers Without Borders.

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Packing and Wrapping

Packing light is my superpower. For weeks ahead of a trip, I think about what the bare minimum is that I need to be able to pack and still have all the basics covered. Climbing a mountain? I’ve got the boots for that – stylish enough to double as my dancing shoes, already broken in. Unexpected trip the the embassy? No problem. Four days on the beach? Well, a bathing suit takes up no space. Binoculars, business cards, laundry soap and a clothesline – check. I get these powers from my grandmother, the nurse and fashion model, who taught me how to roll my clothes to avoid wrinkles and to always carry a scarf. I have my whole trip in one small carry-on backpack.

The heaviest thing I carry is what I leave behind. My son is in good hands, the same brave and patient ones that raised me. I don’t worry any more for his safety than I always do, only now I’m worrying from 24 hours away. Leaving him is still the hardest part of traveling. I learned some things from my last trip. We talk a lot about it before I leave. I tell him things he can understand like mountains, flamingos, telescopes. We look at Chile on the map. At almost 4 years old, his sense of time extends from about yesterday to tomorrow, so I wrap a small gift for him each day. He and his Gigi spread them out and he opens one each afternoon – marbles, gum, sparklers. When they are gone, I’ll be back. He asked me to bring him a flamingo egg…

My passport expires in 2018. I’ve decided that when I renew it, I will also get him one and we will go on an adventure. He will be 7 by then and hopefully up for seeing some of the world. I wish he could see all of the amazing sights on my trip. Instead, in my pocket is a small, smooth, heart-shaped stone he found for me on one of our walks. I carry him with me everywhere.

The heart rock in the navel of the world!

The heart rock in the navel of the world!

Categories: Chile, Travel Adventures | 3 Comments

The Taj

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The crowning jewel on a magical journey. It really is as lovely as everyone promised. The Taj Mahal is a monument to love and it inspires at every rounded, symmetrical corner. The Emperor Shahjahan built it in mourning for his favorite wife, who died while giving birth to their 14th kid. She deserves a monument of this scale for making it through the first 13.

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You don’t have to be very far up the ladder of privilege to recognize how good you have it. The last 4 days in urban India were tough for me in ways both expected and not. The disregard for human life and the environment were truly shocking and painful even from the outside. Being a foreigner means it’s hard to speak up about injustices without knowing the culture. I’m glad I experienced it and am so glad to be heading home now too.

Thank you all for following along this adventure with me. I am writing this last post from the London airport where I am absolutely thrilled to find fancy pear lemon muffins, sparkling water, and refreshingly little groping beyond the airport security.

I am excited to be on my way home to my family. I’m missing that kid something fierce and can’t wait to hold him tight. I am thankful for so much, especially my mom who has been taking such good care of him while I’ve had this amazing adventure. It allowed me peace of mind and the space to grow. I can’t wait to have traveling adventures with Ace and am making that a priority as he gets bigger and can begin to understand more. I want him to feel just how very lucky we are. Beyond words.

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Del-hi-di-ho

Ending this adventure with a trip to Delhi was a rookie choice. After two weeks of peaceful contemplation, I arrived unprepared to put my city face back on. And what a city this is – more crowed than NYC, more lawless than Managua, more burocracy than Geneva, and more schiesters and monuments than Rome. I am dizzy and amused after wandering this beautiful, strange city for 2 days.

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Sundial at Jantat Mantar - wow!

Some things I’ve noticed:

* There are sidewalks on many streets but no one uses them and I can’t figure out why. We all walk in the street with the heavy, honking traffic. I think the name of the game is to only look forward and avoid sleeping dogs. Working so far anyway.
* If someone approaches me, the answer is no. (good advice from Ethan and Bryce) I forgot once and ended up in a taxi and a strange travel agency which thankfully I realized was a scam before I bought any bridges. Embarrassed because I knew better… However, rule does not apply when riding the subway, where I’ve met some genuinely helpful folks. Also, I stick to the grandmothers like glue.
* No process here is simple. To get a train ticket as a foreigner, you really do have to walk a mile from the main train station, fill out a form in triplicate, and include your passport number. And this must be done 4+ hours before your train leaves. (that’s how you know its legit…) You need stamps? Only at the main post office where the processing center (where you mail the letter) is a half a mile away from where I bought the stamps, an office intuitively called “Philatelic Concessions.” Huh?
* The sexism and mysogeny here are palpable. There is a (wonderful!) Ladies Only train at the front of every subway. That’s because the hassling by guys is endless and exhausting. Right now I’m sitting in a fancy hotel having a cup of coffee just to take a breather from the constant bombardment and groping.
* It’s fascinating walking a city where I stand out so clearly as foreign. People stare unabashedly. I have not seen one other woman with short hair, but I’m sure that’s just the start of it.

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Tuk tuk ride through the shopping district

* Traveling alone at 40ish is quite different than traveling alone at 20ish, I tell ya! See bullets 2 and 4 and how much funnier they’d be if there were someone to laugh at them with. I am ready for a fun travel partner.
* I’ve tried out as many forms of transportation as time allowed – a very cool black and yellow taxi, tuktuks, pedicabs (3 wheel bikes, see photo), and mostly the metro because its the cheapest and easiest for folks like me who don’t like to haggle.

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On the tracks again!

And I did finally get a train ticket, and have made it to Agra to hopefully admire the Taj Mahal at sunrise! Oh boy. What was that I said earlier? I take it back. I do love traveling alone. Made some sweet friends on this 3 hour trip and found the greatest hotel ever by just walking in. They asked me what I thought the room was worth and when I said 750 rupees ($15), they said 700 would be good and would I like some dinner, bottled water, and the WiFi password with that? Awwww, man! I’m in heaven.

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McLeod Ganj

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Today was my day off and a few of us went into McLeod Ganj, the city where the Dalai Lama resides and the administrative capitol of the Tibetan government in exile. I think I need another day off after all that excitement!

It takes about 45 minutes to get there. They only have 1-lane roads here and they all carry 2-way traffic – busses with people hanging off, cargo trucks, motorcycles with people hanging off, dogs, throngs of people walking, and cows who are in no hurry. The bovines are clearly at the top of this hierarchy, with everyone else left to fend for themselves. Honking, hollering, and stopping randomly are common. Turn signals and traffic lights are nonexistent. Did I mention we were headed up a very tall mountain? It was thrilling!

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We visited the Tibetan Museum and I followed the heartbreaking chronicle of the loss of the Tibetan homeland and the threat to an entire culture. Tomden kindly escorted me through the main temple, dedicated to the Buddha who was alive during the time of Aristotle (his words). He patiently explained the deities and customs of visiting a temple – only circle a shrine clockwise, place an offering of a thin white scarf on the statues, and eat a sweet cake on your way out. We ran into two of his brothers in our time there. One is a monk with great ideas about where to bring the telescope and the other had been a translator for the Dalai Lama. We visited a monastery where one of the monks in the class studies. The paintings and view were divine!

His Holiness is in town and I hear that the place is even more packed than usual. There are no sidewalks and streets are lined in shops and stalls filled with beautiful jewelry, bowls, clothes, and chai. After a week in the peaceful institute, it was rattling to be among such hustle and bustle. But the food and company were extraordinary. I was lucky to be introduced to this new and swirling city by Ethan, a young man from Vermont who had lived there before and who knows a lot about practically everything. We ate delicious Indian food twice, once on a rooftop where we occasionally got glimpses of the wall of mountains peeking out between the clouds that surrounded us. When the chaos of the street became tiring, I took the kora, a (clockwise) walk around the Dalai Lama’s temple and residence. It was filled with breathtaking sights and hundreds of prayer wheels to spin. Here is one of my favorite stops:

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We’re going back at 6am with the hopes of hearing His Holiness speak. To be continued…

Categories: Monks in India, Travel Adventures | 1 Comment

Second post from a short stop

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Of course she was here! And we took the town by storm, in the way only 2 middle aged single moms on holiday together for 15 hours can. That is, we sprawled out in the park telling stories of our misadventures in work, love, motherhood, and community. We picked up the conversation right where we left off at the ferry in Wales 5 years ago. We ate and drank and danced our way through Soho and Chinatown, mesmerized by the sparkly tights on the teenagers and curious at the abundance of bubble tea shops.

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As instantly as she appeared, she was gone again at dawn – off towards a train back to her hamlet in time to pick her kids up from school. I slept gloriously, horizontally late and woke up to indulge in my favorite pastime – wandering!

Coffee and homemade crumpets savored, the skies opened and I ducked into British Museum to wander among the ancient explorers and crafts folk. Walls of travelogs from virgin artic voyages and other dubious firsts. Pots that bear a striking resemblance to my space bowls were discovered in a first century shipwreck. I was even able to touch one thanks to a knowledgeable docent.

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The astrolabes and orreries gave me inspiration for my first lesson – the history of astronomy! And now for the featured attraction. Boarding a flight to India in a few minutes. Hoping to make that connecting flight to Dharamsala.

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