Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Alaska... there could be nothing more!

Just left Seattle and am on my flight to Chicago, will eventually reach New York tomorrow.

View of Anchorage as I leave... very reflective moments :-)
It has been an exhausting and a fleeting fortnight. As I think back, I remember beyond the last fifteen days... the time when I first decided to come to the mission, the long period in between meant for fundraising, the numerous times I felt that it would be impossible to raise the funds, the immense generosity of the donors and benefactors... their faith that God would work something out my presence in the mission. I am remembering my family and for some reason am very sentimental. I decide against sleeping, get my notepad and start writing a letter. Something that had actually began on a whim has turned out to be a life changing experience for me and hopefully for many others. I am overwhelmed.

The Toksook Mission group with Fr. Tom, Maggie and Katie John
 It reminds me of the first day in the bush village ... the village kids all excited, I could sense the longing for love within them and could connect to it too. The kids would sit outside our house for hours at a time. Knocking on the door as though it was a drum set and eventually breaking it. It did not take long for me to realize that I was in a new place, it did not take long to get used to it too.

Alaska! Ganesh and Somesh had infected mind about its beauty... though they themselves never saw it. I am pretty sure their enthusiasm was based on the story of Chris McCandless, the protagonist in the book and movie 'Into the Wild'. That was the seed of my longing to go to Alaska. A mission trip was the perfect way to see it outright raw in all its primitiveness. 
Alaska besides being the 49th and the largest of the United States of America is home to some of the most priceless treasures of the world in terms of natural resources, natural beauty and exotic human civilizations and cultures.  

View of Tosook Bay as we leave
Our mission was based in Toksook Bay, a town/village far west of Alaska. The geography of the region is quite interesting. There are small hills and beyond the village it is the open Tundra. Beneath the soil there is a thick layer of permafrost which makes it impossible for vegetation with long roots to grow. Hence one only finds bushes- this is probably why the villages are aptly called 'bush villages'. Most settlements are quite isolated and self sufficient. Most people hunt Seal, Walrus, Moose and other wildlife for their food. In the summer fishing Salmon and Herring is big. There is a supermart in the village and a couple of other stores which makes visitors like us comfortable. This place is a typical example of a culture in transition.

Michele, working her back hard! one can see
Julie doing the same !
The native tribes, here they are called Yup'ik, follow a matriarchal system where the grandmothers form the village council and the eldest daughters heads the  family. The natives are divided into two major clans -The Eagles and the Ravens. To every person there are four clans associated, which are stated when the native makes a formal introduction. Something that impressed me was that unlike many other social systems (like the caste system in India) one is not allowed to marry people in the four clans associated to you. The reason was clear, to keep the blood pure (this means to avoid congenital diseases). It is quite amazing that the natives knew of this scientific fact. Children, as they grow were expected to learn both skills - of homemaking and hunting, irrespective of sex. The idea being that in an event of catastrophe one should be self reliant. Also, the children are left to themselves, having all the freedom to learn whatever they wanted to learn, though the pursuit for survival made it quite clear what they should be learning.
Fun activities with the kids

Having this background, the mission trip was put into the correct perspective. What makes the culture difficult is the cultural transition. Most of the kids had access to the internet and gadgets like ipods and touch-screen phones. The village was semi-modern with all the appurtenances of western living. Poverty was visible but at the same time there was an increasing tendency towards materialism. Most of the young girls had Bieber infatuation. There was a stark contrast, some kids hoped they could leave the place for good while others swore that they would never leave. There were other reasons why many of the village elders were concerned - the growing problem of drugs and alcohol. Live-in relationships seemed to be common, the priest had to announce during the sunday service that such couples should not take communion. There was a gloom of a culture fast evolving into something different.

We like to play too :-)
Our role as missionaries was to share the hope that we have in Jesus. To this end, we would have sessions with the kids (ages ranging from six to twenty) catechizing them about the teachings of the church and the hope that it entails to all those who believe. It was amazing how the kids responded to our sessions. They would come of their own volition, participate in all the group activities and even pray with us during holy hours. We had a bible study for the older people in the village and a couple of praise and worship sessions. The people of the village responded very well.

 In the evenings, I would walk up the hills with the kids. It was nice talking to them, getting to know them and developing confidence. We would talk about our favorite things and other times the ones which make our lives as difficult as it be. As time past, I got to know that some of the kids did have an innate tendency towards faith ( I think it this very natural, it takes a lot to genuinely not believe (and that is not necessarily bad!)). During one such walks we sat together in the midst of nature and meditated and prayed. It was gratifying to see their desire, longing for love and their pursuit to find it. Believe me, it is not easy to live in a bush village yet the people work towards keeping their hope alive. Their continuing effort, though challenged, was very inspiring to me.

Native food... dried herring, moose, seal ...
The welcoming nature of the people was evident right from day one, when we got a ride from the airstrip with a villager who was not supposed to pick us. One of the villagers sent us dried seal meat with one of the kids. There was another family that invited us to their house and treated us to an entire assortment of their native food. They even arranged for a steam bath ( a very cultural activity!)  for all the girls in our group!

The natural beauty of Alaska was the catalyst in making this a positive experience. Alaska, with all its glaciers, mountains, trees, animals, ... kept us in awe all the time. On our final day, we went on a boat trip around Resurrection Bay in Seward and what a rewarding experience that was! Something that really hit me was the beauty of this world, how it exists even if we don't and the need to preserve it.


As we were having our final discussions  about our mission experiences, a point was made as to how the problems of the bush villages are in fact the problems that we face in our own communities. This meant that once back from Toksook, our mission does not end. It begins!

P.S. We went to Alaska as a group of sixteen FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries. This post corresponds to my personal experiences and findings. These might not necessarily be the views of the people who accompanied me. If anything that I mention is not true please inform and I shall correct immediately.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Off to a flying start!!!

Its been a long time since my last post however here I am back. I lot has transpired over the last two months- my visa interview, my masters thesis defence, senti farewells at IISc, the interview for the Goa Scholars scholarship… and I can’t really believe that I am already in the USA. It happened so fast that I couldn’t even have a farewell get-together with friends in Goa. Guys I will make up for that when I am back .  For various reasons, economical included, domestic travel by air was never possible so here I was on my first travel by air, which had to be international ;-)… it turned out to be quite an experience.

The clouds on my way to Doha... can see the air plane wing in one of the corners
I was scheduled to leave from Goa at 4:30 AM on the 3rd of August and to be frank I was packing until I got to the airport. At the airport, they told me to lighten my bags by 7 kilos. I had the option to either empty some books or some of the homemade goodies my mother had prepared… you could guess what I did ;-). I next got to know that my flight has been delayed by two hours and hence I would miss my connecting flight at Doha… I was given the option of going upto Doha and then spending the day at a hotel there and then moving on to the US the next day. This was not an option so I tried to haggle a way out of this predicament. By now my entire family was inside the airport ( I had thought that they had left … I guess they knew my first trip would not be uneventful). I had a small mini-conference with my mom and dad and we decided that I should tell them that I have a conference to attend and a days delay would be just too useless. My itenary was finally changed to a new route which would get me to the US at the same time as the original one. I somehow managed not to cry in the final moments as I parted from my family, this time they went back.

View of Houston moments before landing
I then had to wait in the lobby for almost 2 hours, it was raining heavily outside. At 6:30 we were finally led to the plane. This was the first time I saw the inside of Dabolim airport and it somehow felt big however when I landed at Doha, I realized how miniscule the airport at Dabolim is!

This was my first experience on a plane - the first experience happens only once - so I video recorded the take—off! What an feeling! Absolutely loved the way we hit the skies, to see the coast below and behind and then the clouds. I had been looking forward for this moment for a long time and here it was manifesting itself before  me. I was lucky to have got the window seat and despite being dead tired I decided to stay awake and watch the sky outside. This was one of the few moments when the clouds and may be the ‘sky’ was beneath me! The view of the coastline of Quatar was beautiful… beyond the coast the only things visible were buildings, straight roads and the dry dessert! Not a tree in sight. 

The route my flight took from Doha to Houston
The transit at Doha was smooth and in no time I was on my flight to Houston. I would be flying for almost 15 hours straight this time which is why probably many faces seemed bored and worried. I was neither bored nor worried, I even felt fresh, after all it was my first long distance flight and I had to make the best of the experience. After fiddling with my chair for quite sometime I figured out how to get the LCD screen adjusted, how to push back the seat, how to open the tray holder and so on. The tray holder would fit into the arm-rest in a true James Bond style ;-). So much for the seat… then the food, it was kinda good. A full three course meal served twice (about 5 hours apart). Most of the journey was then spent watching movies—I watched Dhobhi ghat, Fast five and Kungfu Panda 2. There was a screen which showed the route the flight was taking and periodically updating our position. It is well known ( I guess) that flight routes are chosen along great circles passing through the source and the destination. This route then flattened out on a map is then is not a straight line but a curve (like a semicircle). It was interesting to know that we flew over Iraq, most of western Europe, England, Greenland, Canada and then entered the US from the north.

The tail of the plane I flew in from Doha to Houston ;-)
The first thing that is obviously noticed once one enters the US is the size of almost anything. Its huge! Talk about anything… the airport, the restrooms, the trolleys, the queues and even the people! My previous notions of being fat were completely shattered! On my flight from Houston to Miami, there was this guy sitting in front of me with his leg hanging from above the seat… I went in front to check what was up with him, it turned out that it was his hand! Don’t get me wrong though, not everybody is obese but the frequency of finding someone extremely obese is exceptionally high as compared to that in India… I landed in Miami at 11:30 PM local time, on the 3rd of August. The other thing that one notices immediately is the amount of screening one has to go through at the immigration depot at the airport... it is quite a tense moment until the immigration officer says ' Welcome to the USA!' :-).

Miami on my way up!

Miami from above...

My sister came to receive me at the airport. We walked around Miami beach then chatted by the poolside of our hotel and then finally went to sleep at 3AM. We flew to Ann Arbor, Michigan on the 4th of August. So here I was, finally in the US at my sister’s house… what a feeling it was! Will write more soon... it has been quite an adventure here :-).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Pedal Yatra to Goa

Well the time is here until I finally have my final adventure at IISc executed (that leaves the Masters thesis defense, but that is hardly an adventure) . We will be cycling to Goa tomorrow morning (i.e. 3rd June). Those of you who wish to see us off (you wont get this opportunity very often) could come over to the Gymkhana at 3am ;-).

In a coffee shop in Kanchepuram, on our way to Chennai.
It has been quite a run up to this day. We finalized dates and then revised them and then revised them again and it would be revised yet again if I had not to get a VISA appointment fixed today morning.

All said and done, let me introduce my co-adventurer. After meeting a lot of hopefuls it has come down to just Ganesh and me. We have gone on almost all our cycle trails together. Our  cycling enthusiasm took root when Amita mentioned to Ganesh on chat that I was planning a trip to Goa on cycle... and Lo and behold Ganesh is here in IISc to discuss the prospect. After that first planning there was really no looking back. I researched and got myself a new funky bike (after convincing myself that it was worth the money given the fact that I might not have so much free time to spare anytime in the near future... time is money they say ;-)). We then planned a preliminary trip to Savantdurga where we wonderfully got lost... travelling 150kms instead of the intended 110kms and the last 40km being in the hot sun. We then cycled to Chennai over 28 hours... it was a cool trip where we cycled only in the nights. Recently we cycled to Nandi Hills where I climbed the hill in about 35mins and what a climb it was!

With Ganesh outside IMSc, Chennai. Mission completed ;-)
We had other small rides besides these. However the Goa trip is going to be mother of all the rides that we had so far. At 625kms, the distance sweeps the ground off ones feet and climbing the Western Ghats makes it even more daunting. What is there in a human if not the will to challenge and move beyond set limits... we plan to accomplish this feat solely on this philosophy.
Have we prepared ourselves well enough? Well no preparation is sufficient given that we will be at the mercy of nature during the next 6 days or so. However the Nandi climb was quite a trailer as to what we might encounter.

We have however taken necessary precautions. We will carry a first aid kit and a lot of supplies of food. Besides our cycles are equipped with lights and we will be wearing helmets. We will be wearing a reflector jerseys in the night and carry raincoats and suns creams to protect ourselves from the sun and the rain. We have been provided with a carrier and pannier bags which will transfer the load off our backs to the bicycle, by Pedals and Wheels, which is one of the most reliable cycle renting stores I have come across. Sachin, the proprietor of P&W wanted to join us but for some last minute appointments. But he did his part by helping and guiding us :-). dSo much for the preparation!

With kids at Ramakrishna Mutt... on our way to Chennai
Having said this, we hope that our enthusiasm in cycling transfers to a lot many people around. People usually tell me that "at that price you could have got a second hand motorbike" when I tell them the cost of my bicycle. This very philosophy we want to kill... The benefits of cycling are manifold. Firstly you get yourself into good shape (and with a good cycle commuting 20kms can be effortless) and then you save the world and your wallet by not spending unnecessarily on petrol.

I started planning for the Goa trip about a year and a half back. Since I had decided to apply to universities in the US for my PhD I had decided that I would leave Bangalore on cycle if I get into a PhD program. An early admit from the University of Maryland meant that I needed to stick to my promise with enough time at hand. I am not sure if I can complete it on a high but this post will remind me that I definitely left Bangalore on a high!!!
My cycle... Schwinn Sporterra Sport 2011 :-)

Pedal O Pedal on we cycle,
leaving the land of flowers,
on our bicycles.
Pedal O Pedal on we cycle,
O Pearl of the Orient,
behold our arrival!

Goa  here we come!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sunday morning... wake up with Cricket

The sky was clear and the sun shone brightly... twenty four youngsters assembled together early today morning on the dusty gymkhana cricket field to test their mettle.
My hostel room was a cozy place, so by the time I was ready and reached the field our team had almost finished with a some bit of hard hitting with the bat. In my absence(favourably) we won the toss and decided to bat.

Dheeraj and Prahallad at the crease
As I was parking my bicycle I saw Prahallad getting caught out... but lucky for him and the rest of the team, it was a no- ball. At that time Prahallad and Dheeraj were at the crease and we saw some wonderful shots, with good use of power. The funny part was that we sought Santanu's services for the last ball of the innings and unfortunately he was at the runners end ;-)... Nonetheless he started our bowling attack with a wide ball, which, I assume was a deliberate good luck charm.
We put up a target of 94 runs in 12 overs... which is pretty formidable and the opponents dismal performance with the bat reaffirmed the fact.

In my opinion except for a few mis-fields, the field placement was excellent and the team seemed to gell pretty well. All the bowlers had one wicket to their credit with Arpan bagging two. Shubhamouy was the first to actually get somebody bowled, middle wicket!!!. Santanu, Dheeraj, Manoj, Arpan, Ramiz and Vikram did an excellent job with the ball. The fielding to was pretty tight with Prahallad, on the covers, saving quite a few shots and Sayan adding his part of experise. Tapan did a great job as the wicket-keeper,  Bapaditya made his presence felt when he replaced Shyam in the 7th over.
Captains briefing

As the game progressed the opponents realized that they were losing so there was this guy... who would call out for two runs even when one was not possible. We played against the 'Centre for atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences' - CAOS for short. They did stand up to their acronym, as towards the end there was just so much 'Chaos' between the wickets ;-).

The team was in great form... with everybody doing their bit to contribute to a spectacular finish. I had carried my copy of Hardy's ' A Mathematician's apology', just in case it got boring... but I was so engrossed in the match that at one point did not know where my bag was...
The team
There were very few spectators, a majority of the ladies were involved in the Saraswati puja I guesss( and hence their absence). Given the final outcome, the goddess of knowledge definitely seemed pleased with the fact that the math researchers were playing  ... She must have said  "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" .

Friday, February 11, 2011

For Cricket and a Cricket mad department

Back after a long time. With a purpose though. I had written a post on a cricket tournament that our departmental team had participated in last March or so. We are back into the tournament this time too, and hoping to strike big. So whats my role here? I will cover the event for the guys who actually miss the action. With students and ex-students of the department spread out all over the world I believe such an initiative is imperative. Having attached a philanthropic tag to my blabbering I should get down to business.

Today we are going to meet the team!!! The team comprises of the following ( I got this inside information from a reliable source, but not yet confirmed by the 'official' selectors) Ramiz, Dheeraj, Tapan, Sayan, Vikram, Santanu, Pranav, Arpan, Prahallad, Shubhamay, Sumit, Avijit and Bappaditya. Apparently we had some IPL style auctions where we bought players from the TIFR CAM franchise. Shyam and Manoj from TIFR have agreed to lend their expertise (this was a peculiar auction where the money comes after the results ;-)).  I should make mention of the coach, that is Saurav, amicably called 'dada' who has spent his evening fine-tuning the abundant talent in the department. If I have missed anybody else, who should have been mentioned out here... dont feel bad... I should make up for that in the next post... but please do inform me.

 Having done my bit of introducing, I hope you guys madly cheer them so that they can put a great show... and the rest of the department can find a fitting excuse to stay away from what they are supposed to be doing at IISc.

The first match is at 7:30 AM, 13th February (that is this coming Sunday). Hope to see you there ;-)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just begun: totally tamil.

It is been a long time since Blogspot has seen life in me. I was busy pandering to academic pressures and as a result lost track of my new found hobby.  All said and done, the good news is that Bond is back, so you got to be happy. The past few months have be pretty eventful. I have been travelling all across the south. Was in Kerala in June, in Goa in July, in Bangalore in August in Hyderabad in August, back to Bangalore and now I am here in Chennai.
That covers all the four southern states and Goa as complementary. It has been fun all through. 

This is the first time I am visiting Chennai and the Tamilians did not spare the opportunity to make it as eventful as possible as soon as I reached. Besides a few stray incidents it was a pretty smooth entry into the state. A friend had told me to be careful about the autowala's, about how they can fleece your dearness. Nonetheless I thought I could still give it a try, I asked one of them the cost of travelling to CMI, the dude gives me a blank look as though CMI does not exists in Chennai. Luckily the 'C' stands for 'Chennai'. Having no idea of where CMI is located, he decides to think for sometime and then after some deliberation blurts out "450 lagega!!!"- like if you dont know where to go just charge the maximum. Luckily I had just 200 in my wallet so I told him that it was too much and scurried away to the nearest bus-stop. The bus fares in Chennai are exorbitantly low... you could travel from one end to the other with just 10 ruppees. The crazy thing was that I boarded the right bus twice and was told that it is the wrong one, it was frustrating with all the luggage. I finally manged to reach CMI after about three hours of travelling. It took me five hours to reach Chennai and 3 hours to find CMI in Chennai, tragedy of sorts.

As of now I am kinda having fun. The food is pretty tasty. I finally managed to meet old friends after a long time. I haven't got the opportunity to travel around yet. Hope to go to Loyola College tomorrow, so will write more later. Bye for now and have fun!!!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A presentation and some introduction.....

Yesterday we had our MS project presentations, thats the last requirement for one to officially be a 'Master of something ' at IISc, I am still trying to find that out! Thought I would write about something that I said...
I studied some algebraic number theory as part of my Masters project, and proved a series of exercises that lead to the proof of what is know as the 'Kronecker-Weber theorem'.
It was a wonderful morning, in fact, it hardly dawned on me that it was morning when I went to sleep!!! So I got myself ready, and cycled to the department. It was 6:45 am, this was the first time that I reached the department so early (I have gone back to my room at this time from the department many a times though :P).
And then did the last minute preparations- check my slides, read my notes and blah blah blah.
My talk was scheduled at 10:10 am. The department had played it safe to ensure that there was a sizable audience, in that it had promised a delicious lunch to all those who attended the talks.
I made my last minute calls back home(with the number of exams that I have to answer reducing drastically, I do not miss an opportunity to let folks at home wish me 'best of luck').
So finally the moment arrived. I motioned to the screen, and began the jargon...
I mentioned before, I spoke on algebraic number theory. Here is some part of the my introduction -

The subject developed due to a rather silly comment of mathematician Pierre Fermat in the margin of Arithmetica by Diophantus as follows -I have discovered a truly marvelous proof that it is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second into two like powers. This margin is too narrow to contain it.
 Fermat claimed that he had an elegant proof to prove the above fact. Unfortunately he was dead before one could publish books with fatter margins!!! The search for this coveted proof has lasted lifetimes of some of the best mathematicians in the past. This was notoriously labeled as the 'Fermats last theorem'(FLT). It was proved in 1994 by Prof Andrew Wiles at Princeton university. The proof is hardly elementary, it is about 290 pages long and uses some of the most sophisticated modern algebraic number theory. It definitely needs a lot more than a margin of a book.

However the alarming simplicity of the statement generated the most number of 'wrong proofs' for this problem in the history of mathematics( my attempt included-my undergraduate professor almost fainted when I told him that I was trying to prove the 'Fermats last theorem'!!!). In fact it was this theorem that in a way got me exited about mathematics. Very often it is difficult to prove some of the most simple questions in our lives. By simple I mean, ones with really simple statements, so simple that even a five year kid could understand them. Mathematics is flooded with such questions, and the FLT is a prime example.
The basic reason why many of the earlier proofs collapsed for due to the assumption of unique  factorization in certain domains. Mathematics in general, and number theory in particular has a predominant inductive reasoning, in that I mean that, one proves something for something small and finite, and then extrapolates it  to something much larger. A similar reasoning was applied to the set of integers. Integers have this marvelous property called the 'Fundamental theorem of arithmetic', which asserts that every integer can be written as a unique product of prime powers. One should note that this theorem(like many other useful theorems) has a dual nature, that is it not only talks about an existence of factorization but also guarantees its uniqueness. Uniqueness is a very important property, if something can be done uniquely, it means that it is independent of who does it. It also helps one to come up with important formulas(by computing something in two different ways and then equating them). This general principle was assumed for domains containing the integers, and this assumption was wrong. The moral of the story is that whilst proving something, check that the assumptions are proved to be correct-otherwise you might end up with absolute non-sense.

Algebraic number theory was developed to answer questions which generalize properties of integers to bigger and general domains... from here on the talk becomes a little technical and hence cannot write it up here...
I have still got to write out the report though, so will pushoff for now, till then all the best...may be you could start writing out conjectures in your textbooks, who know we might soon have a 'last theorem' after your name!!!