30 January 2010


I did it!  I took two steps in a handstand on Friday at parkour practice.  Wahoo!  New Year's resolution #1 mission complete.  Still working on New Year's resolution #2: more awkward.

In other news, Abu Dhabi is expanding its public transportation offerings.

This is great.  I came back from winter break to find two new bus routes that could get me all the way down town without taking a taxi.  Awesome.  I had silently, fervently hoped in my wildest dreams that this might happen sometime during my stay here, but never did I imagine it would happen so quickly.

Abu Dhabi is also installing a ton of air-conditioned bus stop booths.  Okay, fine, it jumps up to 50 C (122 F) in the summer here, air-conditioned bus stops are probably necessary.


The weather here is lovely right now, 23 C (73 F).  I sat in one of those bus stops recently (the air conditioning was off) and it was SUPER HOT inside.  You know why?  The bus stops are big glass boxes, i.e. small green houses.  ARGH.  Perfect.  Trap heat inside a glass box and then air condition it cool again.  I bet any carbon saved by people riding the bus will be quickly gobbled up by the air-condition greenhouses scheme.  Did no one think of insulative glass?  Did no one test them out before they starting installing them everywhere?

23 January 2010

There is no spoon.

Jodie Wu and her team at Global Cycle Solutions are doing some pretty neat things in Arusha.  Jodie is a D-Lab alum who spearheaded the development of a mobile bicycle cornsheller for Tanzania, building from the work of Maya Pedal  in Guatemala. 

A couple of summers ago as a student volunteer in Tanzania, Jodie built a pedal-powered cornsheller, then made back the money spent on building materials in a week by renting out to people who biked it to farms to shell corn.  If you know D-lab, you've probably heard this story a thousand times, my apologies, skip the next paragraph.  If you don't know D-lab, you may be asking "What's corn shelling?"

Millions of people across the world eat maize as their primary staple food.  Usually, this maize is dried out in the sun, and then all the kernels are removed from the cob by hand. ("Shelling" is the process of removing corn from the cob.) It's a time-consuming, tough process.   Another common method is to put the corn in sacks on the ground and beat them with sticks until all the corn comes off.  Not very efficient. 

Turns out there's an antiquated and neat farm tool that uses rotational motion to shell maize pretty quickly.  It's super neat, I wish I had a video to show you.  At any rate, GCS is making it easy to power these shellers to normal bikes. It looks something like this:

Based on how popular the first one was, Jodie decided to move to Tanzania and start a business after she graduated from MIT. 

Another super awesome product GCS is developing is a cell phone charger, which Arusha resident inventor Bernard Kiwia designed completely from bike and radio parts.  (Well, in some models, he also uses part of a clothes hanger.)  It's a wicked elegant design, and it's meant to passively charge a cellphone while the rider is biking around.  Villagers are REALLY excited about this one.  (Mobile phones are a HUGE deal in emerging economies.)

Bernard shows off the charger he designed.

New Year's in Tanzania was fun.  Jodie made a New Year's resolution to learn to drive the GCS pickup truck, A very stubborn, finicky manual truck with no power steering.  In the words of Woon, "That truck handles like a corpse."  And Arusha roads/traffic aren't exactly the friendliest of places to learn.

So we all jumped in the truck, Jodie took the wheel, and Woon coached her driving all the way to Shaibu's house for his New Year's party.  Jodie had completed her first resolution within a few hours of the New Year.    Jodie is basically a rock star. 

Whereas the Christmas party at Jodie's place had been full of kids, cooking women, Maasai grandmothers, and a few local police, the New Year's day party at Shaibu's place was basically just young Tanzanian males feasting on goat, beer, and dancing the day away to loud music.  I figure Tanzania's got to be the most awesome place for being a bachelor. 

Shaibu's hardcore Tanzanian bachelor stove.  Food, soda, matchbox, side of goat.

Dancing the day away.

Shaibu really knows how to throw a party.  And you know what? He's a rockstar, too.  He knew that Woon and I don't eat meat, and he made a veggie dish just for us.  I was so impressed.  What a bro.

 Shaibu grilling goat.

Shaibu's also a manager at Tumaini Cycles.  That kid is going places, he's amazing.

We also attended the Mama Afrika circus in Arusha, it was outstanding.  Acrobats, contortionists, a polished female magician, it was all pretty nifty. The highlight was the last act: three young jugglers who did this mind-bending hip hop hat juggling routine.  I'm sure they broke several fundamental laws of physics. 

New Year's resolutions:  1) Be able take two steps in a handstand without falling down.  2) More awkward.

Resolution #1 is fairly self-explanatory.
Resolution #2 I've been thinking a lot about.

I ask a lot of people different types of questions.  One of my favorite is: "Would you rather know many languages or how to play many instruments?"

Originally, my own answer was many languages.  It just seemed so useful, I could travel more places, be eligible for more jobs, understand more people.  But then I thought about it some more, and realized that even in English-speaking places, I'm a pretty awkward person.  Knowing more languages would just enable me to be multi-culturally awkward in different dialects.  When I framed the options that way, it suddenly became much more appealing to know many instruments.

Several hundred turns of thought later, I believe that being comfortable with awkward is loads more useful than being multi-lingual.  In a way, being "awkwardable"  can be substituted for language fluency.  

And the more I travel, the more I realize that it's often not about language fluency, it's about being comfortable in awkward situations.  If I'm comfortable in awkward situations, then it doesn't matter if I need to make funny hand gestures to communicate what kind of food I want.  It doesn't matter if I don't immediately understand what's going on, as long as I can go with the flow. 

Yes, learning other languages is still very useful.  But actually, being awkwardable is a prerequisite to achieving language fluency.  It's fairly straightforward to learn a language in a classroom or from language tapes, but fluency doesn't come unless the learner practices a lot with native speakers.  This involves making all sorts of embarrassing mistakes over and over again.  The more open a person is to awkward situations, the easier it will be for her to practice, and thus the faster she'll learn a language.  (This is why it's easier for kids to pick up languages - the have a social pass to make mistakes, while making the same mistakes is much more embarrassing for adults.)

Easier said than done.  But at any rate, I think it's worth working on...

16 January 2010

Beware the tangawizis

So much stuff on my mind, I'll try to spit it out a little at a time.

A few days ago I was in Arusha, Tanzania for winter break, visiting and trying to be helpful to Jodie Wu, co-founder extraordinaire of Global Cycle Solutions.

Here's a a few highlights:

Christmas - Jodie threw a proper Tanzanian feast, goat and all. I tried to make it through watching Joseph Kisoky and a few other locals perform the goat slaughter...I nearly passed out instead.  Wrapped up a long day by dancing the night away with some tipsy Maasai grandmothers.

Jodie's neighbors - Jodie lives in a small house off a dirt path from a dirt road that is not exactly the pinacle of modernization or security.  When she said she had a couple young Tanzanian males as neighbors  I'll admit I was a bit wary.

But hey, it turns out her neighbors, Mic and Mas, are really great guys.  And break dancing semi-celebrities.  They're members of Contagious, the Arusha bboy crew.  Went to one of their shows, very impressive. When they're not performing or practicing, they get together and...roller blade around town.  Oh, and they're completely sober.  What upstanding young role models.  Jodie basically has the best neighbors ever.

Woon opened the new year with a new haircut.  We waited patiently for 5 Tanzanian grade school boys ahead of us to get their heads shaved.  Then, after some confusion and mangled Kiswahili, he paid the full haircut price of $.75 to the barber, put the clippers in my hand, and I shaved a mohawk. "No, it's really a very old haircut," he explained to Matayo. "Hundreds of years ago in America, there was this tribe..."  Walking down the street, he got tons of smiles, laughs, and various call-outs, including "Hey Mr. T!"  But the most common definitely was "Jogoo!" aka rooster in Swahili.

The Christmas goat slaughter was a religious experience.  Intellectually, it was something I really wanted to do.  Humans kill animals all the time for eating.  It's a process I should know something about.  I tried to watch, to be logical, I really did, but my body had other plans. My mind started swimming, my stomach fell into a black hole, I almost passed out, so I sat down instead.  Logically tried to reason myself through why I shouldn't be on the verge of fainting, stood up after 5 minutes and nearly passed out again. Continued the process throughout the morning -- went to watch the preparations for as long as I could until I got too dizzy to stand.  Turned away and sat down until I could stand up again, went back to watch.  

I was really quite surprised my body had such a strong reaction.  One of those interesting paradoxes where one part of my mind very clearly wants to do something, but another part clearly does not.

If my genes had made me a carnivore, there would not have been a problem.  It's pretty funny that I'm a creature who clearly has some difficulties watching another creature die, but acknowledges that other dead creatures are tasty. (Just because I'm vegan doesn't mean that I deny meat tastes good...and oh, wow, there's a whole other can of worms to discuss there about botched vegan attempts in Tanzania, but maybe for later.)

Anyway, the whole experience put me in another plane of existence for a day, pretty hard to describe.

Mic and Mas took us to the church (aka club) to listen to the pastor (aka DJ) preach.  Three of the crew and three of us jammed into a taxi for a few minutes on the rutted dirt road. Masaai camp.  Saturday night, where everyone in Arusha goes.  Good mix of wazungu and Tanzanians. And so much dancing. I felt like I could go on forever...but oddly only when I was surrounded by dancing strangers...then just felt limitless, like I had escaped myself, very trippy. I swear I was stone cold sober.  Yay mob psychology?

Oh, also, Mas has a new name.  Bboy Babu.  Babu = grandfather.  According to Mas, when he was in middle school in Dar Es Salaam, he was among the first 3 people to break dance in Tanzania.  You should see his crazy freezes.