06 December 2009

National Day

On Tuesday 2 Dec, the United Arab Emirates turned 38 years old. Celebrations are still going on.  Local custom: decorate cars like crazy, drive down to the Corniche and honk jubilantly.  Makes sense that cars would play such a big part in the celebration of a country that has made such huge progress because of oil.

Car decorations get pretty creative.  Below are some illustrative random samples.

Can you see the passenger? He's wearing a red-checkered ghutra (traditional head wear), as many of the local males normally do here.  Car says: "EMARATY" "UAE."  I have no idea where all these huge decals come from.  The UAE flag is red, white, green, and black. 

Hearts! Red, white, and green hearts.  A very common theme.  I'm not accustomed to seeing young Emirati men driving around with their cars plastered in hearts, but apparently love for the UAE runs very deep here.  I also saw flower shapes.

Lots of cars went all out.  I wish I had photos of them for you here.  Huge pictures of the Sheikh everywhere.  This one has the Sheikh, the UAE colored lik the flag, and some nice sand dunes.  Other common themes included giant teddy bears tied to car roofs, and people leaning out of car windows spraying silly string everywhere.

Of course, if everyone jumps in their car and drives to the same place, it creates a jovial traffic jam.  As Brian later remarked when we tried to find a cab home, "What is this?  National traffic day?"

In other news, Sherry and I grew a TON of basil.  Here's Sherry hiding in our basil patch before we harvested it to make pesto for Thanksgiving:

23 November 2009


I've been training with a group of people who do parkour in downtown Abu Dhabi.  I'm probably the worst jumper they've ever seen, but it's still the highlight of my week to show up and sweat through their grueling conditioning routines.

I'm astounded how great I feel during and after exercise.  It was a tough week.  My time log says that I spent an average of 12 hours working every day.  On Friday, I drag myself to parkour, and after a few sets of push ups, suddenly the whole world is beautiful.  I notice the sky.  For the first time I see the birds soaring around the skyscrapers.  All my insides are smiling.  Yay, endorphins.

After parkour, we walked to the skate park (I knew there was a skate park somewhere Abu Dhabi, I just didn't know that it was that close.)  There was a competition going on -- skate boarding, roller blades, and bmx bikes.  Two things happened that were very interesting.

1) There was only one girl in the competition.  She was on roller blades and she was AWESOME.  She would fly up these high ramps, flip through the air and land on the other side, or she would float, dive into a hand stand, pose, then continue skating.  As a girl who is frustrated by her lack of innate ability to jump, it was really inspiring.

2) The skate park was full of teenagers, and fights kept breaking out in the audience.  Whoa.  It was really out-of-place.  Never seen anything like it in Abu Dhabi.  They keep stopping the competition to break up the fights. They called in the police, who arrived right when I was leaving.  Somehow the fights made Abu Dhabi seem more real.  It's not just a giant bubble of sterile skyscrapers and malls.  It has angsty teenage kids who get into fights.  One of the many parts of Abu Dhabi I know nothing about.

14 October 2009

Certified Abu Dhabi Ramble

After residing here for about 7 months, I present you with a compilation ofAbu Dhabi random facts.

Abu Dhabi literally translates to "Father of the Gazelle."  It is the name of both an Emirate and a City.  

United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a country.  An emirate is kind of like a state.  So, it's like the United States of America, just substitute "Emirates" for "States" and "Arab" for "America."

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi takes up something like 80% of the landmass of the UAE.  It's a big emirate.  Dubai is the next door emirate.  Dubai is the place with the tallest building in the world, the man-made islands in the shape of palm trees and countries, the indoor ski resort.  All the stuff you've probably heard of.  

Thus, Dubai is at the edge of everyone's tongue.  "How's Dubai?" They ask.  I say, "Abu Dhabi's great."  I don't think most people notice.  Dubai's the one that gets all the world press.  They have better PR.  

[Abu Dhabi/Dubai confusions don't bother me.  Just don't conflate them if you're arranging airplane transit...]

Besides having all the land, Abu Dhabi also has the large majority of the oil money. About 95% of the oil in all the UAE, which is about 9% of the world's oil reserves.  Crazy.

Abu Dhabi's economy is built on oil.  Dubai's economy is built on tourism, finance, and real estate.  Thus, Dubai screams louder for world attention, because the success of its economy depends on the world noticing it. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi relaxes in its pool of oil and money.  

To be fair, Abu Dhabi realizes that its pool of oil and money will not always be there.  They are working towards muscling up their tourist attractions and  also building a "knowledge economy" instead, like Boston (biotech central) or Silicon Valley.  Masdar (where I am) is a large part of this master plan.  

Abu Dhabi has the highest per capita energy use in the world.  And the highest per capita carbon footprint.  (Yes, they even beat the good ol' USA.) Not to mention the highest per capita water consumption.  (It's all linked, really.  All the water here needs to be desalinated, which requires lots of energy.)

I wonder if I get points for being a fuel locavore here--all the petro-fuel in the buses I ride around in was produced only a few miles away.  Local consumption, right?  Hahahaha...I'm just kidding...

You'll also be happy to know that the city of Abu Dhabi has over 2,000 mosques.  I swear there's one every block, which makes sense because the majority of the population prays 5 times a day.  (I really like hearing the call to prayer ring through the streets...)

Less than 20% of the population are local.  More than 80% are expatriates.  From the Filipino cashier to the Pakistani taxi driver, and the Ugandan security guard, it's quite apparent this is a major destination for people who want to make money to send back to their families.   

But perhaps the most fascinating facet of Abu Dhabi is that it didn't exist 40 years ago.  Rather, there was a village of grass huts and about 1,500 residents.  It became a ghost town during the oppressive summer heat - residents would ride for days by camel to Al Ain, a nearby town with cooler temperature and more shade.  (It takes an hour to drive to Al Ain today.)  

Today, Abu Dhabi is a gleaming city of skyscrapers thick with six-lane rivers of traffic.  

The fascinating part is that so much of the oil wealth was distributed throughout the local population During the early oil wealth years under Sheikh Zayed, bundles of money (literally) were given to locals to help infuse the local economy with the wealth rolling in.  Apparently, "it was not uncommon to see local people walking out of the banks carrying cardboard boxes full of cash on their heads," according to Mohammed Al-Fahim, who wrote an autobiography about growing up in pre-oil Abu Dhabi and the changes that came afterward.

 Actually, the giving away bundles of money thing happened more than once.

Al-Fahim notes that each time it led to a "frenzied buying spree fueled by the oil wealth."  Some people invested wisely - built a nice house -- others blew it all on few flashy cars that became worthless in a few years.  Some people were really smart and opened car dealerships.  In fact, Al-Fahim's dad was in the car business.  

To give you an idea of the kind of explosive growth Abu Dhabi has experienced, imagine this: in 1966 his father sold about 200 tires.  The next year he sold 10,000 tires.  A 5000% increase.  Al-Fahim himself took on the family business and described what it was like to import cars and have them snatched off his hands when they rolled off of barges onto the still undeveloped sandy coastline.  If a buyer wanted a vehicle, "they would stuff bundles of cash into my hands, slip into the driver's sear and drive away in their new car."

Between describing the hardships of living in the desert and how the locals worked hard to scratch out a living, Al-Fahim off-handedly mentions, "Naturally, there was no domestic help as there is today."

In what other country has the local population gone from walking miles for brackish water to hired help as the norm?  I would bet that in the overwhelming majority of countries that discover oil, the wealth only reaches the wealthiest, most powerful top sliver of the population.  In this case, it reached everyone, who then turned into the wealthiest, most powerful sliver as the population boomed when more people arrived.

The government of Abu Dhabi certainly looks after its locals.  Sheikh Zayed was known for his generosity and compassion, and I think he's left an admirable legacy.  If you're local, and you get married, the government gives you a house.  If you want to study abroad, the government will pay for your tuition. (And it's common to hear people say, "There's no such thing as a poor Emirati.")

When I first arrived here, I resented a lot of the laws that favor the local Emiratis - double/triple salaries for locals over foreigners doing the same job, only locals can own land here, if you want to open a business, you need a local partner.  Not that I want to buy land or start a business here, -it just seemed like an uber elite high society making rules to maintain its own eliteness.

But now I'm impressed by how Sheikh Zayed set up regulations like these to ensure that the wealth benefited the locals, that the money from oil circulated in the local economy and didn't go straight to the pockets of foreign businessmen.  

It was really smart at the beginning, but these days, if Abu Dhabi really wants to become a "knowledge economy" they'd be wise to be more supportive of immigrants.  In my personal opinion, immigration is a huge plus for innovation.  The US is arguably the most innovative country in the world (the oil industry, electricity, the internet all have their roots in the US) and I think that a significant reason is because the US is a nation of immigrants.  

When different cultures mix, it becomes a more fertile ground for innovative ideas to break forth. (For more details, read The Medici Effect. Also, here's a Harvard paper that explores the links between immigrants to how innovative cities are--hat tip BoPreneur. "Immigrants are very important for US invention, representing 24% and 47% of the US scientist and engineer workforce," while the rest of the US workforce is only 12% immigrants...)

Finally, this ramble post wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention that robots are an important part of camel races in the UAE.  Once, camel jockeys were lightweight, starved children, but the UAE outlawed this practice and the children have been since replaced with robots that are essentially a remote-controlled hand drills attached to a riding crop. Technology to the rescue. 

13 October 2009

Tick tick tick

Huh.  There go my empty zen days.  Guess I'm a student again, grinding out problem sets.  I feel like a lower life form. 

I have no time for thesis research.  GROWL.

01 October 2009

Alternative Energy Myths

Tim recently sent me an awesome article from Foreign Policy: Seven Myths About Alternative Energy

Several points stood out for me...

Nuclear is super expensive and take a long time to implement. Amory Lovins estimates that nuclear costs 3 times what wind power does.

There's a lot of people running after developing sexy new technologies (sigh...biofuel...), while focusing on unglamorous efficiency has the potential to cut 20% to 30% of the world's energy consumption by using technology that's already widely available.

Efficiency also does not ask people to change their lifestyles -- it finds ways to do the same activities with less energy, as opposed to conservation, which asks people to cut back on activities to preserve energy.

For example, power companies make more money when consumers use more electricity and they need to build more power plants. However, California has implemented measures to decouple consumer electricity use from the energy company profits. Thus, companies have been enabled to work with consumers to reduce energy consumption.

As a result, electricity use per capita in California has remained flat over the past 3 decades, while in the rest of the US, it has jumped 50%.

Here at Masdar, there's lots of plans afoot to experiment with different techniques of enabling people in the city to use less energy. I think an important part is giving a clear signal to individuals about how much energy they are using. For example, imagine a small number display next to each appliance that displays the energy use/cost.

I think that most people want to use less energy, but there's a wide range of how far out of their way people are willing to go to use less energy. If the default option is "use less energy", if it's the easiest path, then the majority of people will take it.

The sustainability movement needs more persuasive technology, or rather, persuasive applications of the technology we already have.

28 September 2009


DOUBLE BACKFLIP AWESOME TRIP. We managed to check off quite a number of typical India experiences:
  • Filled out lots of paperwork. India sure likes paperwork for every occasion. And tea. Chai and paperwork at every turn.
  • Traveled by rickshaw, taxi, train, car, foot...dodged cows, goats, dogs, and monkeys
  • Leafed through dusty books at the IIT Delhi campus library
  • Visited Humayon's tomb (wow...), Qutb Minar [jaw hits floor] and the iron pillar (modern day mystery, it's been standing 1600 years and hasn't rusted...supposedly scientists have been unsuccessful in duplicating the alloy)

Humayun's Tomb - didn't have camera, image stolen from here

Qutb Minar, I took 7,000 photos, it's absolutely stunning. And apparently attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal
  • Talked shop with some incredible social entrepreneurs
  • Met a Bollywood Star (Shilpa Shukla from Chak De! India)
  • Ate lots of home-cooked Indian food
  • Ate lots of Indian food in roadside stalls (Chantar Mantar Dosa Wala in Delhi is fantastic)
  • Ate in an American Diner
  • Visited urban tuberculosis treatment micro centers in Muradabad
  • Journeyed north to visit villages in the Kumaon region - foothills of the Himalayas
  • Yoga (of course)
  • Saw grassroots silk worm farming in action
  • Received surprise aura healing by an Indian gentleman who earlier took two seconds to go from talking about uber-accounting to the importance of opening one's self like a flower to other people
  • Followed our Sikh rickshaw driver on a tour through a Sikh temple
  • Quested out to buy some tabla
  • Dropped in on a surprise birthday party
  • Swung through a night Bengali festival
  • Decided that airports are always the worst part of the trip

Our trip originally had three main purposes:

1) Meet up with Avani. Avani does great work. For my Master's thesis, I'm working to help them with their plans to use pine needles to create electricity and high quality cooking fuel to mountain villages.

2) Meet up with Envergent. Honeywell is developing a flash pyrolysis process to convert biomass to electricity. They're interested in rural applications.

3) Meet up with Operation Asha. My advisor, Scott, volunteers with a foundation that works on fighting tuberculosis and they recently partnered with Operation Asha, a fiesty, innovative new tuberculosis organization.

wow. wow. wow.

Avani is incredible. They do so many things right. Imagine a Barefoot College Campus in the foothills of the Himalayas, 100% powered by renewable energy. Water is collected from rain and stored in multi-thousand gallon tanks. Local women dye silk and wool with natural colors and weave them into breathtaking patterns that are marketed and sold to wealthy consumers. Avani workers "leave their caste at the gate" and live, work, eat together. Extraordinarily delicious local ingredient food for every meal. It has all my favorite elements:

1) AWESOME people
2) Cash flow from outside into a rural community (usually money only trickles out as the poor by products, it's hard to find good examples of good cash flow coming in)
3) Renewable energy, eco-conscious (goes straight to my eco-puritan heart)
4) Heart-stopping scenery
5) Great food

I'm way too excited about the pine needle gasification project to stop and type about it now. It has so much potential I think about it non-stop these days.

I feel so blissfully lucky -- I met Rajnish (co-founder) and Chanchal (lead technician) at IDDS this summer. Then everything fell into place, almost of its own accord. It felt like one day I was bubbling to Scott about how great it would be to work with Avani on their gasification project, I blinked and we were riding up the twisty roads into the mountains of Uttarankhand.

Beautiful lady - all the women I saw in the mountains were stunning, especially the old ladies

Rice paddies on steep slopes

Avani silk worm farmer. All the leaves inside are crawling with silk worms.

Operation Asha is also beyond words. We met Sandeep and Shelly, the founders, and friends of SK. Incredible, wonderful, determined people. Thought it was about time to take a common sense approach to tuberculosis (TB) and they're producing impressive results after only a few years. They build up a network of treatment micro-centers that are accessible and open for long hours so that it's easier for TB patients to come by and take their medicine every day. It could be in a shop, or someone's home. It makes it much easier to reach patients in a cost effective way -- other tuberculosis programs typically spend $300/patient while Asha does a better job for $15/patient. I'll describe the Operation Asha strategy more in depth in a future blog entry, it's quite fantastic. (Their website is a bit clunky at the moment, but trust me, they're phenomenal.)

Yes, I liked India a lot.

19 September 2009

Deviations on a theme

Today I woke, sat up, and found myself staring at ancient stone tombs, a wide lake and [gasp] greenry everywhere. I probably should not have accepted that drink from that weird guy by the boat docks last night...

Errrr, rather, Ramadan is ending soon, which means that there's a school break for Eid, the end of Ramadan. Scott Kennedy, a Masdar professor who's my thesis advisor, and I thought it would be a good time to travel out to India to set up some projects. Visas, tickets, paperwork all came together at the last moment and much earlier this morning we arrived in New Delhi (only a 3 hr flight from Abu Dhabi) jumped in a taxi, then managed to scramble on foot through some twisting alleyways to find the apartment of one of Scott's old friends. It was still dark, so we all fell asleep again, and woke up to one of the best apartment views I've ever seen.

Delhi has a talent for whirring modern traffic life around solemn ancient monuments. I suppose I expect ruins to be out in the jungle somewhere, not cosying up to apartment complexes.

02 September 2009

I chew fufu

IDDS 2009 is over. I can't believe we pulled that off. Definitely the craziest venture I've ever been a part of. More participants this year, more organizers, less funding, we moved to a foreign country for the first time, added in 3 sets ofvisits to 10 different villages, my hat is off to the people who were muscling the logistics this year.

This year's list of projects include:
  • Batteries made from aluminum cans, salt water, charcoal, and copper wire (they powered a 12 LED lantern or a radio from a six pack of batteries!)
  • A device for producing chlorine from table salt and water with pedal power (for clean drinking water)
  • Various tools for making it easier for rural women peanut farmers to remove peanuts from the roots of the plant
  • A rice threshing wheel of doom
  • A novel way to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by absorbing their rotting gases with corn cobs

I'm in charge of posting all the project reports on Appropedia. I'll post here when that's done if you feel like browsing.

Now I'm back again in Abu Dhabi, where it's quite clear Masdar and IDDS are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Abu Dhabi is empty. In Boston, every night there were at least 7 different tempting options to choose between - talks, dances, bike rides, late night meetings, music, theatre, capoeira, drumming. In contrast, there is little to do in here Abu Dhabi, I spend a lot of time alone in my room...which can be very pleasant, in a Zen way. Limited choices = happiness.

In Abu Dhabi there is more time for reflection, for thinking about where I've been and where I want to go. I'm better at keeping in touch with my parents, and I'm working more on my music-reading skills and learning bits of new languages like Arabic and French. At the Masdar Institute, I spend all day doing self-directed research on renewable energy in developing regions. I love it. My advisor is amazing, and I have a ton of control over which direction I go, which means I have tons of room to learn things I've always wanted to know. I also exercise nearly every day, which balances the zombied feeling caused by spending all my working hours staring at a laptop. I sleep well, I eat well, I breathe a lot. I suppose I have more time and space to balance myself overall.

IDDS is fullfullfull. Chaos, merriment, frustration, triumph, mad wild excitement, exhaustion. When I'm at IDDS, I don't have a self anymore, there is only IDDS.

No time to talk to parents, my eating habits are horrible, exercise is infrequent, and sleep comes in snatches where I can grab it. I also have very little control over what I do or where I go -- it's all determined by IDDS or what needs to be done to help IDDS happen. It's hard to take care of myself, but the tradeoff is working intensively with so many awesome people on amazing projects. IDDS people are incredible.

A random sampling: Patricia Tarwali started a school in Sierra Leone, and now she also teaches welding to girls. Bernard Kiwia is a bike mechanic-turned-inventor from Tanzania. Gago Cadan is a yak herder from Tibet, who has also started his own school for nomadic kids (and likes to sing Tibetan songs while wandering through the hall.) Benjamin Dankwa is a farmer from central Ghana. Carla Tennenbaum is an internationally recognized artist from Brazil who makes art with EVA waste. And of course, Suprio Das, an inventor from India who was my co-conspirator on our IDDS team this year, it was awesome to be able to work alongside him. (These photos taken by Nathan Cooke.)

Bernard, IDDS veteran

Suprio, as himself.

It is essential that I take a moment to share a few of my favorite Suprio quotes:

"Hello, my name is Suprio. I like animals. Humans, too."

"I look like a bacteria."

Even though this is the third year I've gone through IDDS, I'm still surprised by how much I've learned. Every year it becomes richer. After the first year, I was ecstatic. After the second year I was depressed and burnt out. (More responsibilities, more stress.) After this year, I feel burnt out, but content, and excited about the future of IDDS. In summer 2010, IDDS will be in Colorado, collaborating with Paul Hudnut and Brian Wilson at the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise program at Colorado State University. The focus will be to take technologies developed over the past 3 IDDS's and build business plans and strategies for dissemination to take them forward. In 2011, IDDS will likely return to Ghana.

Finally, a few more random stories about Ghana:

On the first village visit, the Offuman group arrived late at night, crawled out of the vans after a tightly-packed, bumpy, 4-hour ride, and was immediately attacked by army ants. Army ants like to run up your legs as high as they can before they bite you. Which is both hilarious and tragic. It's happened to me once before...when I was in the middle of presenting to Peace Corps Zambia volunteers about drip irrigation and standing in the wrong patch of grass.

The chief of Asampu said our IDDS group was "bringing fun to the village!" That is so cool. We spent a lot of time running around, trying to learn as much as we could by helping women pound fufu, or shell corn, or carry firewood. And playing with kids. Hopscotch, itsy bitsy spider, and learning neat things like this game that all the kids all over Ghana know that involves jumping, kicking, and clapping. I had a lot of practice carrying things on my head, but I'll never be as graceful as a Ghanaian woman.

Amy Smith named me as a co-founder of IDDS during the opening ceremony. That's very generous of her. I was mostly in the right place at the right time to help out when IDDS started forming in her mind. The incredible vision and talent to find the resources to make it happen were 100% Amy Smith. This summer I realized that Amy is an entrepreneur right down to her bones-- she builds these grand visions of what she wants to do, and then she has an incredible talent for exciting people to be passionate about building those visions with her. Amy also has a knack for convincing anyone to cheerfully do anything. "Hey guys, I know you want an opportunity to practice your hands-on skills, there's going to be a great easel-making party in the parking lot in 15 minutes!"

Ghana has a high degree of entrepreneurship. Seems like everyone and their grandma is selling something by the road or in the markets. There's also a high number of packaged products made in Ghana -- tomato paste, peanut butter, yogurt, water sachets, etc. I was also delighted to find that it's a Ghanaian practice to "dash" - add in something extra. For example, if you agree to buy a bag of tomatoes for 1 cedi, it's very likely that the vendor will also throw in a few extra free tomatoes after you close the deal.

Lady selling 7 different kinds of cooking oil made from palm nuts, ground nuts, coconuts, vegetable oil...

Everything is late in Ghana -- it's common for hired buses or catered meals to be 1-2 hours late. All the time "wasted" while waiting for things that should have happened hours ago has the unexpected benefit of tons of casual conversations with other IDDS folk. I feel like I met more people and know them a little better than I have in past years.

In the villages, I was quite surprised to see a high number of LED flashlights, powered by cheap Chinese batteries. I've always heard "The poor use a lot of kerosene. They should be using LED lighting, which is cheaper and has better quality light. But kerosene is more available and fits their cash flow better, so that's the most popular option." I actually saw very little kerosene use in villages, although it seemed to be a more common choice among street vendors in the city. Turns out 1 coke bottle worth of kerosene (300 mL) costs 1 cedi (about US $0.75) and lasts for about 3 days in a kerosene lantern. However, 4 cheap D-cell batteries cost 1.2 cedis and last for a month. Light for 3 days vs 30 days for roughly the same cost.

When visitors come to Ghanaian villages, it's customary to greet the chief, who will always ask "What is your mission?"

Medase - the Twi word for thank you - literally means, "I lay myself before you."

11 July 2009

Crazy mind, able hands!

Holy cats. Back organizing IDDS again, and this year has new levels of insanity -- IDDS is running for 5 weeks in Kumasi, Ghana, instead of MIT.

I like this article on IDDS 2009 a ton: Crazy mind, able hands.

All the organizers are pulling 18+ hour days again, but somehow it feels much more cheerful and thrilling to me this time around. Third time's a charm? I feel completely alive, vibrant. I've never felt this charged before ever in my life, I think. It's as if the energy of the summit completely replaces the sleep and food I'm missing. Flow. Maybe I'm finally getting a handle on this stress management thing?

I'm collecting expressions of agreement. For example, Americans say "uh huh" or "yeah" to indicate that they understand or agree with the person they are talking to. Ghanaians say "ah Haaa" rather enthusiastically. Zambians say "ey ey" (which means "yes" in Nyanja, a common language in Zambia). My favorite may be the Tibetans who make a short sharp inhaling gasp. To my American ears it sounds like the noise I would make if I stepped off a stair that I didn't expect to be there.

I love the IDDS participants this year. So many good conversations, and some of them in Spanish! I'm fantastically excited to see that I've learned a ton of Spanish since the first IDDS when I could barely talk to Carlos. Aw man, if only my French were anywhere as functional. I really desperately want to learn it so I can travel and work in the French-speaking African countries.

I love Kumasi. It's home of the Suame Magazine, a region where roughly 1.3 million people crowd in small workshops, hammering, welding, cutting, casting, lathing, milling the day away. I think it's the largest informal manufacturing area in the world. Other things make me smile, like the Twi word for thank you, "medase", literally means "I lay myself before you." Eggplants are called garden eggs here. And I'm stunned that I've seen both men and women carrying huge 100 lb loads on their heads.

It is the 3rd official day of IDDS and it feels as though it began eons ago. Or, as we say, IDDS--a month of Fridays...because every day feels like it's a week long.

Thus, I have several hundred untold stories...which I'll hopefully be able to post sometime in this lifetime...

For better coverage of IDDS, check out Nathan and Niall's blogs.

23 June 2009

Looking glass

Masdar city opened its first 10 MW solar photovolatic plant and conncected it to the grid on June 1st, apparently on budget and on schedule. It's currently the largest PV plant in the Middle East right now.

We're all still living/working in temporary spaces, though. I think they've been pretty clever about finding space...which is incredibly scarce and expensive in Abu Dhabi city. Currently, the Masdar Institute is housed at the Petroleum Institute (PI)...in an old warehouse Masdar recently retrofitted. You might never know just by looking, though. Here's what it looks like inside:

I witnessed how they turned this room from a dark dusty corner of warehouse to a slick office space in about one week. Here's what the same room looks like from the top, you can still see some of the old warehouseness:

The white pizza boxes are actually the tops of the fluorescent lights in the first picture. There's other signs of the old warehouse, like this side door:

At the top, you can see how it was once one of those rolling sliding warehouse doors, and then they stuck another panel underneath with a double door. And here, where the ceiling isn't quite completed yet, you can look up and see the warehouse:

Actually, we're only in half of the warehouse. Apparently, the other half was empty until ADNOC (the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, they run the PI) saw what Masdar had done with the space and was so inspired they decided to retrofit the other half for ADNOC offices. There's also a rumor that once we leave this space, they're just going to tear down all our retro-fitting, which is quite a pity. Here's what the building looks like from the front:

Green things! Which are wonderful...even though the PI likes to water them in the middle of the day with great giant puddles that leak out onto the street, which is awesome because the UAE has one of the highest water consumption rates per capita in the world, which is even more awesome because all the water here is more energy intense because it needs to be desalinated.

Meanwhile, back at the city construction site, they have mods! Two-story office mods. (For non-Oliners, mods were temporary housing units for students when Olin was in the middle of construction.) Here's the Masdar version, complete with circus tent:

Isn't the tent neat? It shades the building so it doesn't need as much cooling. Here's the solar PV test site, where they have all sorts and brands of PV to test it in real world conditions with incredible heat and dust.

You would think that the desert would be an ideal place to have a solar plant (I did) but it turns out that dust is a huge problem. There's trade-offs between energy production and how often the panels should be washed. This site is how they chose which brand/type of solar to use in their 10 MW PV plant. And here's a solar cooling experiment:

See how seriously that dust has caked onto the panels?! The dust settles on the panels and then becomes cemented on when the air passes through the dew point at dawn and dusk. I think this pilot has largely run its course, so it's no longer being maintained. You can also see in the background how deserty it is around these parts.

Why is it that "deserted" sounds like "desserted" and not "desert-ed"?

Here's what our school looks like now:

Apparently, we'll be moving in, oh, 2 months. Right.

04 June 2009


Government-sponsored TED talks?!  This is cool.  What kind of alternate reality have I wandered into?  

03 June 2009


Also, the Coca-Cola distribution chain may soon be put to work for distributing medicines and supplies in Africa.  

Band Aid Kool Aid Marmal Aid

I just found Beyond Good Intentions, a series of short episodes about rethinking aid for the developing world.  I think it's super well done, it looks at a lot of issues like religious-based aid, social entrepreneurship, using randomized experiments to measure the effectiveness of aid (yeah, J-PAL!), the Peace Corps, and there's even a critical look at micro-finance and Kiva.org.

I also enjoyed looking at the bonus material for the episodes, and there's a good road map of what each episode is about at the Beyond Good Intentions Blog, where there is also extra commentary.

31 May 2009

Your mother should know

I MADE SOY YOGURT FROM SCRATCH.  and it worked.  I took dried soybeans and turned them into yogurt.  I feel so accomplished.  

By far the best set of directions I found comes from the i eat food blog.  Instead of using an incubator or leaving it in the oven, though, I read "110 degrees" and thought, "Perfect!" then left in in a cooking pot outside on the back porch for some hours.  The world is my incubator.

There were a few mishaps.  Soymilk likes to sneak up and overboil like mad when you're not looking.  Virtually my entire 2 L pot of soymilk disappeared over a 5 min period when I stepped out of the kitchen...I was puzzled that it could evaporate so quickly...but I later found the soymilk lake in the grease trap beneath the burners.  Good thing I made too much soybean mush to begin with, so it was easy to make another batch of soymilk, but I watched it like a hawk the second time around.

I'm really happy.  It's one of those open-up-the-black-box moments where I take something mysterious (yogurt) and figure out how it works.  Like opening up an old TV set. 

23 May 2009


In the Kalahari Desert, hunters still run antelopes to death.  It's called "persistence hunting" and it works because they run in the middle of the day.  Humans can sweat and cool down as they run, but the antelope needs to stop and pant.  So they run after it, keep it on the move until it collapses.  You must watch this video, it's incredible, probably the best youtube clip I've ever seen.   I cried the first time I watched it, no kidding.

How the devil did they film that?  (More info about persistance hunting here.)

Likewise, in sub-zero temperatures it's possible to run a half-marathon barefoot and shirtless. 

Yes, I've been thinking quite a lot about temperature.  I'm experimenting with adjusting to the heat here, it would just be so awesome to not be bothered by heat, since it promises to be a large part of life here. However, I could freeze ice cubes on my desk at work, because of the overly abundant AC, so becoming accustomed to the cold is still useful.

It can feel pretty awesome to exercise at high temps.  Once upon a time, I tried out Bikram yoga, which is basically yoga in a super hot room, and I was suprised at how awesome I felt after sweating profusely and grunting in difficult stretches for an hour.  I would walk out and feel like a million bucks.  Yay, endorphins.  

In Abu Dhabi, I've recreated that feeling a couple of times after exercising in the heat.  Sometimes it's as though the heat gives me extra energy - I feel like I can run farther, and it certainly makes stretching easier.  Thank goodness my ancestors ran antelope to death.  

However, if I'm stressed out, I just can't deal with extreme temperatures.  I get grumpy fast and switch on the AC or retreat indoors.  If I'm happy (and hydrated) heat's not usually a big deal.

Even still, I have a hard time imagining back breaking labor in the sun all day, like the migrant construction workers here do.  

Apparently it's common to see temps of 50 C (122 F) in the middle of the summer here.

Took a short trip to Oman recently.  It definitely got up to at least 48 C (118 F).  I was surprised to find that it was still possible to walk around outside and people weren't bursting into flames or gasping for breath (Honestly, it never occurred to me that humans could function at those temperatures...a 105 F fever is dangerous, right?) All the water that came out of faucets was pretty warm.  Makes sense, just hadn't ever thought of it in Boston where tap water is freezing cold in winter.  Upon investigating the much higher than predicted temperatures in Oman, I found this interesting article that suggests the Omani government isn't quite truthful about their published temperatures.

It's really quite impressive what a human body is capable of.  I think most of us never have the chance to see this potential because we have grocery stores now instead of antelope, and they stay put.  And it's not just those hardcore African bushmen who can do it - at least one white guy has kept up on runs too, Louis Liebenberg, an anthropologist.  (Okay, on his first run he nearly died of dehydration, but even for this untrained runner, the antelope died first.) ...which makes me think that all humans have the hidden potential to run an antelope to death.  Take Dean Karnazes, for example, who started as Joe Schmoe, but then metamorphosed into ultra super athlete man.  Among other things, he's run 50 marathons in 50 days and then decided to run from New York to San Francisco. 


The best thing to ever happen in Abu Dhabi was the WOMAD festival.  I keep thinking about it and wishing it were happening every weekend.  Free entrance, three glorious nights of music from around the world, dancing away the night on the cool sandy beach.  My personal favorites to watch were the Dhol Foundation (for their awesometastic beats and their ability to work a crowd) and Sa Dingding (for her theatricality.)  

Robert Plant was there, too.  At the end, he sang a song in Arabic and the crowd went wild.  

21 April 2009

Cabbages and kings

I finally bought a bike and last night I BIKED TO THE GROCERY STORE and bought groceries ON MY OWN.  This improved my general well-being by 10,000 points.  

A momentous victory. We all live in villas which are pretty far from town, and we have drivers that will take us where we want to go, but the vehicle options are 1) mini bus and 2) large bus.  Either bus is normally 90% vacant, which is great for needlessly wasting carbon. We must first arrange with the driver where we want to go and schedule the bus. If we want boys and girls on the same bus, must obtain prior permission or call the director of General Services.  Public buses don't come out this far, and taxis can't find our villas (no road names, no address numbers...not that they would help that much...taxi drivers typically navigate by landmarks, not street names.)

Thus, it was AWESOME to just jump on my bike and go.  I can't describe the sense of freedom that has returned.  (Although I very much miss my fixed-gear beast in Boston.)

Life is filling up fast. I'm taking an hour or two of Arabic every day now (I can read like a kindergartener!), plus various other activities.  I'm also sitting in on one of the coolest classes EVER: the History and Politics of Oil in the Middle East.

It began as something I thought I "should" do, a topic I "ought" to know more about, so I dragged myself into it.  And it's orders of magnitude more fascinating than I ever imagined.  The course text is The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, by Daniel Yergin and it's SUPER.  The book does an awesome job weaving an off-the-wall story complete with outrageous characters and all their quirks.  

For example, take Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia.  He was the Saudi king who united the warring tribes of Saudi Arabia- a desert adventurer, roaming the sand dunes with his camel caravan, conquering tribes, and wedding desert princesses to forge alliances.  (He fathered 50 kids in his lifetime!) Before oil was discovered, he could carry all his wealth with him on a camel. 

When the Middle Eastern oil craze was just beginning, he was initially not interested offers from companies that wanted to prospect for oil, he wanted to drill for water instead, which makes a ton of sense when you think about how much value water has in a desert. 

From all accounts, Ibn Saud was incredible.  Six foot four, charismatic, dashing, everything a king should be. Later in life (after oil discoveries) when he met Roosevelt on the USS Quincy, all the Westerners slept in the cabins at night, but Ibn Saud and his entourage insisted on sleeping in bedouin tents pitched on the deck.  That is so cool.

Saud had an advisor/friend named Jack Philby, aka Sheikh Abdullah, a British expatriot who converted to Islam. He was fluent in Arabic, as well as Persian, Urdu, and Punjabi.  It seems like any time anything important happened between the British and Saudi Arabia, Philby was there, swaying things one way or another. And when the American relations with Saudi Arabia started growing and Britain was fading away, Philby was there, facilitating that change too. (Britain thought there was no oil in Saudi Arabia.  They advised Ibn Saud to take the Americans' money and sell them an oil concession the Brits thought was useless. Boy, they regretted that.)

Philby was an avid bird watcher, a desert explorer, and his son is famous in his own right for being a spy for the Soviet Union. His second wife was a Saudi slave girl. After Ibn Saud died, Philby began openly criticizing King Saud, the next ruler of Saudi Arabia for his wild spending, among other things.  Philby was exiled.  On his deathbed in Beirut, he spoke his last words: "God, I'm bored."

I've learned a ton about World War II, oil companies, OPEC, Iran, and some about the Palestine/Israeli conflict, Egypt, and the evil oil company stereotype (which is both true and false, quite a change from my previous stance of "oil companies are evil, die, die, die.") 

I also learned more about the energy crisis in the 1970's when for the second time Americans had to wait for hours in long queues to buy gas.  President Carter's approval rating dropped to 25%, comparable to Nixon's rating during the Watergate Scandal. For various reasons, Americans viciously blamed Carter for the frustration of waiting in gas lines.  It made me think that when Bush invaded Iraq, it wasn't just for "those evil oil companies." He was also doing it because we Americans, as individuals, demand a reliable oil supply through our actions and habits, and if anything happens to the supply, there's hell to pay.  Yes, I know, gross oversimplification, but the point is that my entire view of how oil works is now vastly altered, and I feel about 100 times more informed than before, which means I'm about a millionth as informed as I should be.


The Prize was also turned into a PBS documentary series, and we watch some of these films in class, which are also super great.  It's absolutely wild to see black and white footage of old classic cars driving up and down sand dunes.  Which reminds me of a story...

There's a highway that runs north-south called the Desert Highway in Jordan, and according to Husam's dad, it was once literally just a swath of desert that people drove on.  Thus, you'd be driving along on the sand/dirt and you might look to your right and see another car driving alongside you, but maybe 100 meters away.  At any rate, back in the day, Husam's dad was driving from Maan to Aman in the north.  He ate lunch, then jumped in his car and started driving on the Desert Highway.  About midway there, he meets another car headed the opposite direction.  

They stop and chat and his dad asks this other fellow where he's going.  "Aman," he said. "No way," Husam's dad replies, "I'm going to Aman, you're clearly lost."  They argued for a few minutes, but in the end, they both continue driving opposite ways.  ...several hours later, Husam's dad ends up (you guessed it) back at the restaurant where he ate lunch earlier in Ma'an.  

18 April 2009


Heard of Maker Faire? (Think catapults, flame throwers, knitting, circuits, DIY, artistic soda explosions, hackers, geeks...kind of like Burning Man, but less drugs and more building cool stuff?).  It's growing an African branch! Maker Faire Africa, 13-15 August 2009 in Accra, Ghana (oh-so-conveniently scheduled to happen at the end of IDDS, also happening in Ghana this year, July-August.) I think this idea came from the founder of AfriGadget.  This event has so much potential to be the coolest thing ever.

13 April 2009

Time Machine

I was pretty shaken by some articles published recently.

(The following article is particularly alarmist and depressing, brace yourself...and make sure to read the comments...)

And some responses:

06 April 2009


Dearly beloved, pay close attention, there's a magical land you should travel to, and it's called JORDAN.  [insert adventure music: dun dunnnn dun dunnn dunndunn AAAAHHHH ahhhh AAAAAHhh ahhh]

Okay, here's a sneak peek through the seeq...and the same bloody picture that a billion other people have taken. 

Petra!  Remember it Indiana Jones?  Well it's sooooooooooooo much cooler than I ever possibly imagined.  First, take a long winding walk through the seeq (canyon) or hire a horse carriage if you're not feeling plucky.

Then, [dun dun DUUUUNNNN], the Treasury of Petra!

Congratulations, you've made it as far as 99.9% of the tourists.  But don't stop now, it gets even MORE AWESOME.

There's tombs carved into rock (some of them are HUGE), Bedouin caves, a Roman ampitheater, ruins of a Roman town, it's such a completely awesome mix of cultures and it's all set in some of the best hiking scenery I've ever seen. Okay, 50% of tourists make it this far, but wait, IT GETS BETTER.  Climb higher (or hire a donkey) until you find the [aahh ahhh AAAAHHHH] monastery!  

Okay, it's tiny in this photo because we climbed above it, but it's huge and arguably cooler than the more famous rose red Treasury at the end of the siq.  Look, here are our intrepid explorers!

Can you see vertical black line just below the dark doorway?  That's a person standing up.  The monastery is HUGE.  Congrats, only 10% of the tourists make it up here.

Also, I would like to officially declare my deep love for camels.

Ahhh...what devastatingly gorgeous creatures.  Awkward yet graceful, elegant yet beastly.

Ok, don't stop now, hop back on the road and venture farther south to Wadi Rum!

Hire a Bedouin guide, camp out overnight in the desert!

Red sand dunes, craggy canyons, rock arches, breathtaking landscapes, it's incredible.  

And Husam finally had a chance to show off his raw brute strength:

Speaking of brute strength, did I mention how much I love camels?

Ah, Jordan, land of wonders...Where else can you visit places like Mt. Nebo, where Moses first viewed the promised land? (You mean all those places in the Bible actually exist?  Galilee? River of Jordan? They didn't just make up all those names I learned in Sunday school?) 

And you know what? We didn't even see half of what Jordan has to offer!  There's some awesome Roman ruins in the north we didn't have time for, and I'd really like to spend some time living in the capital city of Amman - full of twisty hilly streets where everyone stops you just to say, "Welcome to Jordan!", and the most gorgeous otherworldly prayer chanting blasts/echoes through the streets at 5 am every morning.  

If you're thinking about going, definitely take a look at this website: Ruth's Jordan Jubilee.

The other side of the story? A few weeks ago, I joined some friends and  impulsively bought a plane ticket to visit Jordan.  I had a lot of reservations about it.  I've been growing away from one-night-stand tourism where I drop into a place, look at all the sights with the other hordes of one-night-stand tourists and then leave again.  It's started feeling kind of hollow, especially after seeing what kind of changes rampant tourism can bring to a place.  I mean, I suppose it's good for local economies, but at the cost of becoming trashier when they start catering to all those one-night-stands. I've also noticed that I have a ton more fun during travel like D-Lab Zambia, where we don't see any sights but just live and work in communities.  It feels more connected. And full. And real.  

I've been making quiet promises to give up my wasteful, carbon-spewing, one-night-stand tourist ways, so I nearly passed on this Jordan opportunity.  ...but Husam is a native Jordanian, and he was coming too...and we were meeting up with Sheena's friend, S.J., who's been living in Jordan for a few years...and those pictures of Petra just looked so wicked cool...and I wasn't likely to make this trip on my own... 

Ha.  So, in short, I came up with a list of excuses and justified it to myself.  And I'm glad I went. It was kind of like a scouting expedition--Jordan is definitely on my list of places I'd like to live.   

Okay, so my no one-night-stand tourism goal isn't working out.  But I have a new goal to work towards now: spend more on donations to my favorite groups than I spend on airplane flights in the same year.  I'm pretty durned far from reaching this one right now, but it seems to be a better framed goal than STOP TRAVEL.  I think it will serve the double purpose of making me think twice before jumping on a plane, and stretching me to give more freely of my money to groups who use it better than I will.

Aaron:  "I think Laura and I have the same hair style."
"Yeah, we both go to the same salon."
Aaron: "That's right...the salon of riding on a camel in the desert."

15 March 2009

Drift would

Top 10 list of Things that are really great right now:

10. Air drying my clothes.  No more excuses.  I'm in the middle of the desert, there's no rain, it's not too cold outside, there's plenty of space, finally for the first time in my life I'm boycotting the clothes drier.  Yeah, I know, it doesn't really make a dent in the fact that I'm living in Abu Dhabi, which I'm sure has the largest carbon footprint per capita in the world, but I'll take small victories where I can find them. And enjoy simple pleasures like the massive

9. Time shift. I'm constantly eight hours ahead of everyone else in Boston and since the work week starts on Sunday, I get an extra jumpstart on the week, and the weekend starts earlier on Friday.  I never thought a time shift would make work flow better, but it sure does. It definitely gives the appealing illusion that I have extra time that other people don't, and that I should work a little harder to stay ahead because I have this advantage.  Weird, huh?  Also,

8. Music is great.  I'd forgotten how AWESOME music is.  I just read papers and listen to music all day, it's quite fantastic. I dance all the time in my office chair and grin as I comb through reports. And even more super because

7. Songbird version 1.1 is now out.  Songbird is like the Mozilla Firefox of music players, which makes me happy because I just don't like using iTunes...it feels slimy.  Speaking of spiffy computer apps, another program that is totally sweet is 

6. Zotero.  YESSSS!!! I love Zotero.  It helps me keep organize all the papers I read, takes all the work out of creating citations, and keeps track of all the random tangents and themes and ideas I'm finding.  If you are doing any sort of research at all, definitely definitely check out the powers of Zotero, because it's amazing and free.  And you know what else is amazing and free?

5. Google.  YEEEESSSSSS!!! I am a Google slave.  My Gmail account is tricked out with 13 different Google labs features, I can keep track of email from 5 different accounts and a gazillion different email lists (spam free!), as well as appointments and task items on the same simple page.  And organization effort for email is so minimal because labels and filters are great, and it's so frickin easy to find anything I need with a Gmail search.  Not to mention my copious use of Google Docs, Google Scholar, Google Books, and, of course, plain old Google searching. Yes, it's pathetic and I love it.  All of these tools, in fact items 9 through 5 plus the tabbed lightning speed internet browsing wonders of Mozilla Firefox have made my 

4. Workflow AWESOME. I've never been this productive before. I'm so excited to arrive for work every morning, it's bizarre. I've had summer research jobs before, and this work is kind of like that - lots of self-pacing, which can be tough (and was much more tough before), but thanks to free software and the power of music and time shifts, it's incredibly enjoyable.  I'm sailing through papers, learning faster than ever before.  The only problem is that I spend a ton of time sitting and staring at my laptop, so it's great that I can
3. Work out.  Never really had the time to do it regularly before. Weight training is a lot of fun. Better muscles, stronger bones, I think my body is going to be pretty happy here because I'm also

2. Eating great.  Definitely the healthiest I've ever eaten in my life.  I'm a full fledged vegan now (it's been about a year) and I'm eating tons of veggies and lentils (there's  like 14 different kinds here!) and hummus and it's all fantastically scrumptious.  I love buying tons of produce at the super market, my favorites of the moment are pomegranates and tomatoes.  But really, the number one thing that is going really really great is

1. Years of brainwashing are going down the drain. I'm one of five non-Muslim Masdar students here now, all the other students are Muslim.  I really really don't like admitting it, but when I lived in the US, the first word that came to mind when I heard "Muslim" was "terrorist."  I knew better, but I found it devilishly difficult to erase that gut reaction when the media screamed it back into place every second.  It is FANTASTIC to be here, finding so many other better words to associate, to learn first hand about so many different shades and hues of Islam.  I feel like I'm healing a huge scar on my brain. I'm pretty sad that scar has been there so long, so it feels great to stitch it back to health, one piece at a time. And if you want to cry at what a horrible place America was under the Bush Administration, just listen to Habeas Schmabeas episode of This American Life.  (It's really well done, won a Peabody award.)  Guantanamo Bay is basically another form of the Japanese Internment camps from WWII.  The USA gets scared and we torture very innocent people. Nothing has ever made me feel so ashamed to be American than Guantanamo Bay.  And I think a large reason why the public put up with it is the utter complete brainwashing that Abu Dhabi is now SAND BLASTING out of my brain. It's a wonderful wonderful wonderful feeling.   

06 March 2009

Empty Full

Abu Dhabi is very empty and very full.

Long empty 8-lane high ways lined meticulously with palm trees, filled with the shiniest fleet of cars you’ve ever seen. It’s like a car commercial.

Tall hotels and malls loom over wide empty streets teeming with traffic. People of every skin tone, face structure, height, width, wearing dishdashas, abayas,  t-shirts,  jeans  bustle through the malls, but they seem scarce outside. Engulfed, dwarfed by the looming steel glass structures.

The street where we live is empty, sandy, flat flat flat. Lots of huge, expensive-looking, multi-story residences, lots of empty skeletal construction sites that will soon be huge, expensive-looking, multi-story residences. Dust. Walls. Pavement. Dirt lots. A colony of dry mini-mansions.

My life is the same every day. Wake up at 4 or 5 am. It’s still dark. I cook breakfast. There’s a Muslim prayer chanted over loudspeakers that echoes through the streets at 5:20 am. It’s beautiful. Eat, slowly. Feed my internet cravings. Leave the villa at 8:15, step into a private mini-bus hired for Masdar students. Mousa is the morning driver, he’s from Sudan. Twenty minutes of long straight highways, lots of roundabouts. We arrive at the offices, I walk past all the other cubicles to my cubicle in the cubicle farm. Open my laptop, start reading. I’m reading everything I can find about renewable energy projects in the developing world. It’s exhilarating. One paper leads to 5 more, I’ve never been so excited about reading papers before. I’m learning so much, I’m learning so fast, I can tell because my awareness of how much I don’t know is growing exponentially. 12:15 eat lunch with the same 8 or so people, we walk over to the cafeteria at the Petroleum Institute. I usually eat hummus and baba ganoush and tons of leafy green salad and vegetables. Lunch is always amazing. Maybe we talk for an hour. Walk back to cubicle land, open laptop, commence reading. At 5:20, walk over to the gym. The women’s gym is full of shiny new machines, and usually deserted. 6:30 bus back home. Bashir is the evening driver, he’s from Kerala, India. Dinner, I’m usually asleep by 9 pm.

Empty. Full.

Strangely, I feel intensely content at the moment. There’s so much time here. Quite a contrast to Boston where there were so many options, I filled my life full full full because I couldn’t bear not to. Here, I have time, I have space. I have time to write my mom decent replies to her emails. I have time to work on my handstands, to practice capoeira. If you asked me, I would say this is not my ideal living situation. In the land of sand, oil, and malls, another variation of the isolated bubble. …but…I feel so balanced.

I know I would not feel this way if I wasn’t excited about my research. I know I don’t want to live here forever. But at the moment, everything is grand.

26 February 2009

Fade in

Ok. I’m here. A 48-hour impression:

Haven’t seen a single bike, but the piles of shiny cars are nauseating.
Yes, a land of sky scrapers and shopping malls. And sand. It feels empty.

But Abu Dhabi is also surprisingly mixed. Ethiopians, Jordanians, Indians, Pakistanis, Philippinos, Palestines, Europeans, and all sorts mingle in every place. It’s quite extraordinary. I don’t stick out at all, which is wonderful, and there’s a quiet sense of wonder, sort of like I’ve wandered into a Star Wars world full of people and cultures I’ve never encountered up close before.

Clothing ranges from jeans and t-shirts to traditional dishdasha. I think the strangest combination I’ve seen is a dishdasha with a baseball cap, which is actually pretty common. Women range from tank tops to veils, scarves, and coverings of all sorts. I try not to stare at the women with complete face veils that only reveal their eyes. These women are so elegant, mysterious, and striking it makes me think that they seem like much more of a temptation than if they were wearing mini-skirts.

Women wearing niqabs in photographs can look stifled, but to me, they look powerful when they move, when they walk.

Last night, I was at the grocery store in the pads aisle (I accidentally left my cup in the states…grrr…) and one of those elegant women with a niqab rolled her shopping cart up, grabbed a package of pads and rolled away again. It was a very “I guess we’re all human” moment. I’m sorry, I know it’s not that extraordinary, but what do I know, I’m just a boorish American…

Random fact: The Arabic weekend is Friday-Saturday, so the workweek here is Sun-Thurs.

Right, so I’m here for Masdar, and while they build the university, we’re ironically housed at the Petroleum Institute. All the Masdar folk have their own corner in one of the buildings. But when we go to the cafeteria for lunch and walk through other Petroleum Institute buildings bustling with PI students and faculty, I really feel like we should start snapping and break into a West Side Story scuffle complete with singing and dancing.

11 February 2009

Alien Orphan

When I returned from Zambia--worn out, exhausted, but content--I crawled to my bike to ride home, and found that Woon had transformed it into a beastly fixed gear while I was away. I was so excited I got stuck somewhere between crying and laughing. Best gift I've ever received.

So...I had this master plan to quietly wrap up my business in Boston and then clandestinely steal away to the UAE. And, then, last week (oh man, I can't believe this) Amy Smith and Ben Linder (and other suspect folk) organized a suprise going away party. It was TRIPLE BACKFLIP FANTASTIC. Using all sorts of very clever deception, Amy managed to take me (completely unsuspecting) to the Museum of Bad Art where dozens of my favorite people lay stealthily in wait to shock the buhjeezus out of me. There were so many awesome people there, I nearly exploded and imploded at the same time (good thing F=0...you know, the forces balanced out?) A ton of good food, ten megatons of good company, it was glorious. When I set out to work for Amy Smith a couple years ago, I never in my wildest dreams imagined she'd eventually throw a surprise party for me. I'm still pretty stunned. And glowing. Thank you thank you thank you to everyone who made it possible.

But the happiness in general isn't really the super sweet jagged roller coaster kind that pops up for a few moments. No, this happiness is the sustained, quiet kind that sloshes contentedly inside my ribcage. I don't recall ever being this content before. Life is very good.

30 January 2009


On my last day in Zambia, I had the pure joy of riding an infamous double top tube black mamba bike on a red dirt rutted Zambia road one more time. As I passed a group of children walking, they gleefully shouted out, "How are you?!" and laughed when I shouted back "Fine!" Still laughing, they starting to run alongside my soaring bike, pounding the red earth with bare feet and flip flops. They ran with me for a long time, smiling and laughing between the deep blue sky, the rich green fields, and the muddy red road. I don't think I've ever seen anything so beautiful in my life.

I will also miss theway Zambian men (just friends, mind you) hold hands when they walk down the street, the way dragonflies float over the grass and through the razorwire into vast skies, and eating a mango under an umbrella watching thunderstorms.

Not to mention the AWESOME team I worked with in Zambia this year.

"Why are you smiting us?" -- Trys

24 January 2009


My Zambian grandmother is sick.

Last year, I was adopted by Ambuya Theresa, a widow, one of the strongest women I've met, full of life, mischief, constantly caring for other people, one of the most devoted Light of Hope volunteers.

I went to her familiar two-room concrete shack to visit her, and found a frail-looking young woman lying on the couch. Must be one of her daughters, I started walking to the back room. But when she sat up and looked at me--a very sad, empty face--she spoke a few words and I instantly recognized her voice. It was like being hit with a sack of bricks.

TB. Tuberculosis. In the olden days, it was called "consumption" because victims wasted away--night sweats, fever, weight loss, coughing up blood. Her friends tell me Ambuya is recovering now with medication, she was much worse. She's lost so much body weight she's nearly unrecognizable, but worse her spirit is gone. Her face was so empty I had to fight hard not to burst into tears as we talked in broken English and Nyanja.

Last year, I loved living with her. In the doldrums of Boston (not that all of Boston is doldrums) I often thought back to the early mornings, washing dishes, sitting on her front step in the evening, watching all the children play in her front yard.

(From last year...not the best clip ever...I was shooting this from the hip, it was getting dark, but I think you get some sense of what watching these kids play is like. If you listen closely, you'll hear Ambuya say "imwe," which means "you" and in this case she's scolding one of the kids.)

It really made me think about what it feels like to lose someone. I've never lost anyone before. People wander in and out of my life, but there's always an assumption that they're carrying on wherever they are. Even when my grandfather died, I didn't go to the funeral, so I hadn't lost him. He's still carrying on somewhere. Ambuya, too, was carrying on somewhere, until I met her again and saw that she was gone, and it felt like someone had torn her out of my chest. When she summoned the strength to stand up and escort me down the road a few meters*, it was all I could do to hold back the tears until she turned around and shuffled back to her home. I've lost her.

I went back a second time, to face my fears. Her sister was there, helping to care for her, they were having dinner. They handed me a generous plate of nshima and chiwawa (pumpkin leaves), my favorite. I nearly choked with awkwardness. I should be the one cooking dinner for you, Ambuya! This makes no sense! I said nothing out loud--in Zambia, it's an honor to feed a guest, and it would have been incredibly rude to refuse the food. There were two framed photos in that room. One of them was a picture of us together from last year--an awkward white girl grinning next to a proud, laughing Zambian woman. She pulled it off the shelf to explain to her sister who I was.

The last time I went back, she seemed more herself. Still complaining of pain in her legs (a side effect of the medication) and other problems, but every now and then a glimmer of a smile would flicker on her face. She asked her sister to pull a duffle bag of papers out of her back room, then she determinedly dug through it, until she triumphantly pulled out a small notebook. A project she had volunteered to help me with last year, to keep daily records when the team had left. Each page was meticulously filled out. My jaw hit the ground and I thanked her profusely. When I left for the last time, she again summoned the strength to rise and escort me down the muddy dirt road a few paces. She stopped. "I'm tired," she said. "Go well. See you later," and she grinned.

*In Zambia, when friends leave, the host often walks with them down the road a ways to see them off.

I was cutting through hectic downtown Lusaka when someone behind me grabbed my wrist. I whirled around, half expecting to find someone I knew, but instead found a complete stranger, a tall African man. I ripped my wrist from his hand and gave my best "fuck off" scowl, be he grabbed my wrist again more tightly and started talking angrily in a tribal language I don't know. (There are 72 languages in Zambia, not to mention all the Zimbabweans who are now flooding Lusaka. This year, the streets are teeming with vendors who sit on the streets, everyone says they're all from Zimbabwe.) I scowled harder, ripped my wrist out again, and scrammed, my heart beating in my throat.


Another woman in Linda Compound who amazes me is a single mother, raising her children in a two room concrete shack. She earns $1.60/day working in the morning. In the afternoon, she farms her own maize, sweet potatoes, and beans in her front yard. Moreover, she's by far one of the most active people in her community. It seems like she spends half of her day volunteering, advising young mothers, counseling at-risk teenage female HIV orphans. And yet she still finds the time to wash all her family's laundry by hand and keep her house spotless. Not to mention that she's a phenomenally cheerful, friendly, optimistic, wonderful wonderful person.

And she's HIV positive. I had no idea until yesterday when we had an awesome conversation. She used to drink a lot and go out to bars with her friends, but then her husband died and everything changed. She wanted a new life, she wanted to be a good role model for her kids. She stopped drinking and got to work. She began to notice that she was getting very tired easily, so she went in for testing and the results were HIV positive. She started taking the free ARV medication offered by the Zambian government, and her health improved. Last year, she had another child. She quit her job, just so she could take care of her new child and make sure it stayed HIV free. For 6 months, she breastfed, then carefully weaned her child to orange juice and maheu before the baby started teething, which leaves open cracks in the gums where HIV from the breastmilk can infect the baby. Today, the child is HIV free and healthy, and the mother has started her job again added counseling other HIV positive mothers to her long list of accomplishments.

I also spent some time shadowing some of the caretakers at Light of Hope that visit patients in their homes. By and large, the free ARVs seem to be working wonders in Linda Compound. Every person we visited was HIV positive, but they all looked healthy and most said they were feeling fine. However, I'm a bit worried, because even through treatment seems to be working wonderfully here, prevention is lagging far behind. For example, Light of Hope peer educators only spread news of A and B (Abstinence and Be faithful) but leave out C (Condoms). As Elizabeth Pisani notes in The Wisdom of Whores: bureaucrats, brothels, and the business of AIDS:
  • People are more likely to transmit AIDS when their viral load is high.
  • It goes down while they're on medication, but they're still going to have spikes every now and then.
  • A person on medication is going to be healthy enough to continuing having sex.
  • A sexually active person with occasional spikes is going to spread more AIDS than a dead person.
  • ARVs must also be provided for a person for the rest of their life, which adds up fast as patients accumulate.
  • Thus, while effective prevention programs decrease needed treatment, just increasing treatment alone leads to a greater need for treatment and prevention in the future.

Also, "Treatment makes HIV much, much less scary, beacuse it makes it less fatal. Thee are fewer cadaverous people around, fewer funerals to go to. With treatment, people who were at death's door leap up and march back to the office and the nightclub...As people get less scared of AIDS, they get sloppier about prevention."

Wisdom of Whores was an excellent book to read on this trip. If you ever wanted to know anything about AIDS, read this book, it's fantastically lucid, irreverent, insightful, and doesn't beat around the bush. For example:
  • A schoolgirl in Suth Africa is ten times more likely to be infected with HIV than a prostitute in Beijing.
  • The most common risk for HIV among youth men in Southern Africa is getting married.
  • The US Congress earmarked $1.1 billion for overseas HIV prevention programs that have been proven not to work, even in the US.

Over and out.