Big Island, Hawaii or…Feeling Out of Control

musing, travel

When deciding on where to take a vacation, I somewhat spontaneously chose Hawaii. Though, I wouldn’t be surprised if my subconscious was yearning for the ocean breeze and exposure to the sun. Almost all of my prior major travels were motivated by exploring a new urban area or foreign culture. The only exception, and a notable one at that, was my trip to New Zealand & Australia. When I visited Greece, I steeped in ancient history and feta cheese. South Africa was an immersion experience that made clear the virtue of frugality and that social change is much like most tectonic collisions: it’s a grand vibration. Southeast Asia reminded me of the frenetic energy of developing Asia and the impact of colonialism and war.

Big Island was different. To start, Big Island has a small resident population (187K) so the influence of nature is greater than that of its people. Big Island is surrounded from all directions by the Pacific Ocean, so even when you’re driving in-land, you’ll likely see the immensity of the ocean through your dashboard. The reason I picked Big Island rather than Mauai, Kauai, Oahu, or Honolulu, was because it’s the largest island (all of the other islands can fit inside it) and has 10 of the 14 climates that exist on earth, which means that I would get to have a diverse experience on the island by not going driving very far in any one particular direction. So, off I went…

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I saw lava bubbling in the crater of a live volcano in Kilauea

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Sulphur Dioxide steaming up from the rocks in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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Great waves crashing in Kona town

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Kua beach

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Green sand beach

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Beautiful bay of Green sand beach

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Majestic views at Waipeo Valley…you can do a steep hike down to the beach

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Lava remains in Hawaii Volanoes National Park

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Solidified lava and ash by Mauna Loa

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Black sand…lots of it, in Polua Valley

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Lush forests by Akaka falls

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And while all of it was beautiful, it was also terrifying at times. Many times, I felt like I had no control over my physical reality. The fact is that I don’t, really, even in San Francisco or New York. But, in densely populated cities you live among man-made structures and routines which make you feel like you’re in control. The police control your safety, work controls most of your time, routines between the gym, home, doctor’s visits, and restaurant dinners with friends control your well-being. All of these processes occupy your attention and give the impression that you are in control. But in Hawaii, though we had an itinerary to follow with sights to see, places to stay and eat in, my illusion of control was quickly dismantled. When an ocean wave hits your body, as it breaks on the beach, you’re weightless and being carried by the tide. Eventually, this became playful although initially, it felt frustrating. As a non-swimmer, I kept thinking, “why can’t I *just* stand-up??”. However, the point of playing with the ocean is not to replicate the circumstance that we enjoy on land: to walk, to keep your eyes and mouth open, to be *dry*. The point of playing with the ocean is to let it carry you through an alternative experience.

The ultimate test of my awareness of my futility in fighting the natural world and its chaos was administered during my last day on the island. While I was walking into a restaurant for breakfast, I received an alert from the Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency that said:

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It was like one of those moments in movies when the protagonist’s vision is fixed on a focal point with all else blurring and going mute. For the 38 minutes that followed the accidentally sent alert, I was grasping mostly for understanding.

Is this really happening? Am I about to die? What should I do about my family? Can I go somewhere for shelter? Is my consciousness about to end?

Maybe the desire for control is motivated by a lack of understanding about the consequences of a lack of control. Is my entire world held up in its current shape and state because of the effort that I exert? Some of my observable reality is a product of my effort but a significant share of it exists independent of me. This means that even when I am able to change the state of some variables, I have to operate within the bounds of my local environment. That is to say, I have little control, by design.

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Travel Guide to Athens and Santorini

travel

I really enjoyed my trip to Greece. I’ll write a reflection entry on it in the near future, as being around the most ancient ruins that I’ve ever seen in person and in the home of some of the most revolutionary Western thinkers was inspiring. I have bonus tips at the end for Old Town in Chania, on the wonderful island of Crete. I only got to spend a day in Chania, so I couldn’t come up with a longer guide for it.

 

Athens

Google Map for Athens

The best and dare I say, only, way to experience Athens is by foot. I went during the tail end of their winter season (in mid-March) and with the help of a fall coat, saw just about every street that I could. I’ve made a custom Google Map for Athens that you can open up and use to guide yourself around town. The map includes historical landmarks, hikes, walks, and neighborhoods that are interesting to see. (Sadly, the map is missing one of my favorite things about the city: a cozy, extremely well-stocked coffee and tea merchant’s shop and cafe that will give you complimentary WiFi and cookies to accompany the smooth cappuccino that you can buy there. The shop is called Queen’s Coffee and is on Ploutarchou Street by either Alopekis or Patriarchou Ioakim Street. Must, must, must go.)

Day 1:

  • Take a look at the Greek Parliament building next to Syntagma Square. Of the few days that I was there, there were events taking place right outside, for two of them. One morning there was a ceremony with Greek soldiers dressed in traditional clothing, marching in honor of something unbeknownst to me.
  • Stroll through the National Garden, walk through all of it and see the tiny pond, bridge, birdhouse, miniature zoo, and plethora of orange trees.
  • Power through your stroll with an ultra thin Greek sesame pretzel sold roadside by several vendors in Syntagma Square. Pick up a cappuccino, too.
  • At the end of the National Garden, there is Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus. While you are looking at the eroding columns of Zeus’s temple, you’ll catch sight of the Parthenon, teetering over the city and that’s when the age of this city will start to impress you.
  • I recommend getting dinner in the Anafiotika neighborhood, not too far from the neighborhood of Plaka. It several hilly streets that house full-service cafes. Most of them are touristic for meals, but great for coffee. I went to a cheap place full of locals, called Scholarxio.

20170312_133442_HDRThe Temple of Zeus

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The Odeon of Herodes (now used as a performance venue) in the Acropolis, at night. You can’t go in or to the top of the Acropolis at night, but can peer through the locked gates. It’s really cool to see.

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A view of Theatre of Dionysis from the top of the Acropolis

 

Day 2:

  • The Greeks start their days rather late. If you’re an early riser like me, you will have to grab a cappuccino and spanakopita breakfast from one of the small cafes on the inroads of Plaka or Anafiatika.
  • Start your day by climbing one of the two prominent hills in Athens. The Lofos hill is the highest point, further into Athens, and has a cable car that you can take up.  Do not take the cable car as it just goes through a tunnel and does not give you a view, instead walk up and walk down. On a clear day lets you see all the way down to the sea. The walk down took about 15 minutes and I think the walk up would take about 20 – 25. On the walk down, walk along Ploutarchou street, which crosses with two restaurant heavy streets, and has a few restaurants on it as well. Visit Queen’s Coffee, the cafe I describe at the top of this entry, on your way down.
  • The other hill has Socrates Prison at the base, and gives you a decent view of the Parthenon, but about a 15 – 20 minute walk up. But, beware as this hill is the HQ of the kingdom of centipedes. I was periodically terrorized.
  • Walk through Syntagma Square to the Monastiraki flea market. Don’t bother going towards the Central District as it’s grungy and boring.
  • At night, climb the large rock that is at the end of the Acropolis by the Anafiotika neighborhood to get a really lovely view of the Parthenon all lit up with glowing, yellow lighting.

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The big kahuna: the Parthenon. Really impressive to see in person.

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The Theatre of Dionysus from the inside

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A view of Athens from Lofos hill

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The acropolis at night as viewed from the  big rock. Highly, highly recommend.

Santorini:

Day 1:

I would say to stay in Fira over Oia because Oia is more touristy, though Fira is as well (no getting away from tourists in Santorini). But both towns are beautiful. There is one main road in Fira, parallel to the cliff-side, with shops and restaurants, that you want to stay by.

  • Do the boat tour that leaves from the Old Port over to a volcanic island and thermal hot springs. The walk down from cliff-side to the Old Port dock is also really nice, and takes about 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can take the cable car down, which we took back up from the Old Port to get in some views.

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A view of from the volcanic island that the boat tour takes you to. 

Day 2:

  • Do the 3 – 4 hour “cliff” hike from Fira to Oia (or the other way around). The hike is just a long walk, it requires no to little stamina. Take your time for the views and any detours. Take the 30 – 45 minute detour to Skaros Rock, which is not far from the start of the trail from Fira. Late morning to afternoon is the best time for this walk as it can get windy and chilly, at least right before high season.
  • Walk down to Amoudi Bay in Oia, takes about 20 minutes, and then walk back up. The walk back up will get your heart rate up – very worth it. Amoudi Bay itself is just a dock and uninteresting.
  • There’s a bus that takes 20 minutes to get from Oia to Fira, and runs about once every hour during the Winter season. It’s about three euros for two people one way.

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A view of the Santorini caldera and Fira in the distance, from the walk to Oia.

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I have about 20 more pictures like these two, that I took on the hike from Fira to Oia, and I probably could have taken 20 more. You just can’t get bored from staring into a beautiful, deep blue sea that stretches out until it meets the horizon.

Day 3:

  • Check out the archaeological site of Akroti in southern Crete. The ruins in the site are from 2500 B.C. and are well preserved because they were covered by the lava from a volcanic eruption that happened
  • Walk to the Red beach nearby, it’s very pretty, a slow walk there, around the beach, and back can take up an hour.

 

Bonus: Old Town in Chania, Crete

I cannot wait to go back to Chania (pronounced ha-NYA) and explore the rest of the island of Crete. The way my flights worked out, I could only spend a day there. I made the most of my one day, and will be back for several more.

  • Walk the path along the water to the lighthouse. If you go slow and stop to take in the views, it can last you 30 minutes to an hour.
  • On a clear day, you will see the snow-capped mountains that are in Western Crete. A majestic backdrop that I was surprised to see. I didn’t think I would see snow in Crete! Apparently, even if you go in the summer, the mountain tops will appear white because they’re covered in limestone.
  • Walk the perimeter of all of Old Town, from the lighthouse to the Central Market.
  • There is a warehouse that’s been converted into a restaurant and bar that is BEAUTIFUL. It has a 30 to 40-foot ceiling and a glass and wood facade that opens onto the Old Town canal.
  • Lastly, make sure you eat some seafood. The restaurant where I had dinner served such fresh seafood that my waiter had me pick out the specific fish that I would eat for dinner from a freezer!

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The aforementioned fish; A delicious salad with avocado, lemon, olive oil, lettuce, and walnuts

 

 

Jakarta or…The Other Melting Pot

travel
Below is a reflection I wrote during an extended stay in Indonesia in January 2016. 


My second week in Jakarta has flown by. Only after writing that sentence did I realized that the second week of my project isn’t officially over. I have had something to do just about every hour of the day, and since we use activity for the passage of time, I feel like it’s much later than a Wednesday night.


Instead of traveling for a day trip to Borobodur this past weekend as initially planned, my team and I decided to stay in Jakarta and explore our temporary hometown. I visited some of the most popular cultural sites in Jakarta: the Grand Istiqlal Mosque (the biggest in all of Southeast Asia), the Grand Cathedral, and “Old Town” Jakarta.


Initially, I felt averse to visiting the big tourist attractions because my experience has been that the most popular attractions are often underwhelming and don’t convey the authentic character of a city. But, I’ve grown up a little and am skeptical of whether “authentic” characters even exist. A city has multiple narratives and what one native considers authentic is really just their individual viewpoint.


But, the mosque, cathedral, and old town each represent a part of Jakarta’s — Indonesia’s, history. The largesse of the mosque gave me a feel of the influence of Islam on this island nation. Indonesia has the largest country-level Muslim population in the world. The presence of Islam is ubiquitous, from the stamped “Halal” seal that almost every packaged food product dons to the sea of the hijab-wearing young girls that flood the sidewalk in front of an all girls school by one of our offices. I can hear the azaan throughout the day and it’s hard to drive more than five minutes without catching a minaret in your peripheral.


The fact that the Grand Cathedral is across the street from the biggest mosque in the region is representative of the diversity of values in Indonesia and the generally inclusive, multicultural attitude that most people here seem to hold. The people that I have worked with over the past two weeks are dedicated to their respective faiths and don’t seem to consider an alternative to a multicultural existence. I see some co-workers taking breaks for prayer in the middle of the day and those same people wait for their peers that run late to our weekend brunches because church service ran late. I love that.

Jakarta or…A City Made of Shopping Malls

travel
This is a reflection I wrote at the end of my first week in Jakarta, in early 2016. 

 

Jakarta in three words right now: malls, food, and cars. My team and I spend our days working on our car care products project for a small, family-owned manufacturing company and spend our evenings taking in the sights of urban Jakarta through Indonesian cuisine and the ubiquitous shopping mall…

 

When I’m bored in the States, my gut reaction is never to go to the mall. If I lived in middle America or the South, it might be, but I’ve always lived in a bustling city. When boredom hits, I might start reading online, go to the gym, go for a really long walk and call my mom, or reach out to a friend to spend some time together. But, in Jakarta, the thing to do is to go to a shopping mall – maybe even several. I’ve already been to three this week, from the ultra posh to the more casual, everyday mall. They’re all teeming with department stores, coffee shops, restaurants, groceries, shiny electronics stories, fun bubble tea vendors, and the people that shop at those businesses, meandering their way around. The difference between the ultra luxury and average shopping malls is striking. I’m not using the term “ultra luxury” as an assessment relative to what my expectations for a developing country are. These are ultra luxury malls by any country’s standard. I can’t afford to shop at any of these stories without taking out a loan! Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, and the likes are housed in slick, gold-hued, marble lined rooms. Pretty women stand next to handbags, watches, and extremely structured apparel that costs more than the average Indonesian’s income times two.

 

The more casual malls are more or less the same as what I see in Boston / NYC / SF. I see familiar brands like the GAP, Zara, and H&M. The wonders of branding and global marketing… But, the casual malls here definitely have better food than what one finds in American malls. Mall food in the U.S. is…mall food. You don’t eat it for pleasure – you don’t tell your friends to meet at the mall (after college, at latest) to grab dinner, you don’t eat mall food because you want a healthy, filling meal. If you can afford to spend a little more money navigating to another neighborhood for a decent meal. (Fun fact: I had my first piece of “sushi”, a California roll, at a mall in suburban Queens.)

 

But, in Jakarta, and Indonesia more broadly, malls are centers of social activity as well as commerce. Competition within malls is fierce and the restaurant market is well developed – catering to a range of tastes and budgets. In fact, My top two favorite meals here so far have been at a classy, expat-heavy Indian restaurant that wasn’t inside a mall and at a Japanese restaurant, Ootaya, which was in a mall.
I’m excited to try more food in Jakarta and really hope I can find dishes that are more vegetable-heavy, most dishes seem to be some combination of fried rice/noodle + fried egg + a protein. I’ve reasoned that given Indonesia’s hot climate and largely rural state, fried and hot foods are sanitized (and delicious), but I’m surprised that a tropical country doesn’t make better use of its vegetation.
Bubble tea is commonplace in Jakarta. During my two days here so far, I've run into several locations of the Chatime franchise. My favorite order: bubbles and red bean, slightly sweetened, with milk, medium ice. SO good.

Bubble tea is commonplace in Jakarta. During my two days here so far, I’ve run into several locations of the Chatime franchise. My favorite order: bubbles and red bean, slightly sweetened, with milk, medium ice. SO good.

McDonald's localizing its flavors to the region! I never go to McD's in the States but there's one right around the corner from our hotel, and it's the nearest source for an iced latte.

McDonald’s localizing its flavors to the region! I never go to McD’s in the States but there’s one right around the corner from our hotel, and it’s the nearest source for an iced latte.

I've been enthusiastically trying local fruits (yes, this has led to a few stomachaches). The pears in this picture, are ever so lightly sweet and a refreshing break from the 3 fried meals that we seem to be unable to avoid.

I’ve been enthusiastically trying local fruits (yes, this has led to a few stomachaches). The pears in this picture, are ever so lightly sweet and a refreshing break from the 3 fried meals that we seem to be unable to avoid.

One of the many humorously named baked goods...this one is called "chicken floss".

One of the many humorously named baked goods…this one is called “chicken floss”.

The healthiest snack that I can find here - 80 calories of fried peanuts.

The healthiest snack that I can find here – 80 calories of fried peanuts.

great dinner @ Ootaya Japanese restaurant., inside the Plaza Mall. Tofu miso soup + lettuce with a ginger sesame dressing + pickled cabbage + salmon. Consumed with a side of toasted matcha green tea.

great dinner @ Ootaya Japanese restaurant., inside the Plaza Mall. Tofu miso soup + lettuce with a ginger sesame dressing + pickled cabbage + salmon. Consumed with a side of toasted matcha green tea.

Indonesia tapas, string bean and stir fried tofu, extra spicy cabbage, rice.

Indonesia tapas, string bean and stir fried tofu, extra spicy cabbage, rice.

I ate about a pound of rambutans while waiting for the 3 cars my team and I hand-washed (for research...) to dry

I ate about a pound of rambutans while waiting for the 3 cars my team and I hand-washed (for research…) to dry

Indonesia has a huge Indian influence and it manifests most clearly in their cuisine. This is a peanut-y, Indonesian play on my most favorite South Asian dessert: soan papdi.

Indonesia has a huge Indian influence and it manifests most clearly in their cuisine. This is a peanut-y, Indonesian play on my most favorite South Asian dessert: soan papdi.

Jakarta's Skye Bar - a must stop for all foreigners. We stepped in for a few minutes to take in the view of the city skyline.

Jakarta’s Skye Bar – a must stop for all foreigners. We stepped in for a few minutes to take in the view of the city skyline.

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Cambodia…or Living Heart and Grace

travel

this post is about my travel to Cambodia in early 2016

While in Cambodia, I spent all of our time in Siem Reap. The best way for me to describe how I feel about Siem Reap and what I learned about Cambodia while there is that i think it’s a place and people with heart and grace.

I saw more prostitution than I wished I had while in Siem Reap, and at times, those glimpses that I caught took stage in front of whatever else I was experiencing. The duos of overweight Western men with local women were abundant. It wasn’t as prevalent as what I saw in Bangkok, but that could just be because there are more people in Bangkok. I have a lot of empathy for the women that have to do sex work to make a living. Their conditions are not fair and ultimately, the drive for self-preservation might just be the strongest one that we all have. Most of these women are trying to make ends meet, for either just themselves or their family units.

The people with whom I am deeply disappointed is the men who enable this industry. There are other ways to empower the women of Cambodia and fulfill your own sexual needs that don’t reduce the integrity of others. I understand that sexuality is complicated, and that these men might not even think that they are being derogatory or they might be too wrapped up in their own personal state to even consider the impact they might be having on others, but their psychic state does not absolve them in my eyes. They are doing something terrible by engaging in sex tourism. Prostitution is usually a last resort profession for those in poverty.

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world (it ranks in the bottom 80, many countries at the bottom are tied to each other) and among the very poorest in East Asia (on a per capita basis). Much of its poverty can be explained by its recent history. The Khmer Rouge ran the country from the 1970’s through 1997. the leader of that dictatorship was Pol Pot, who subjugated the people of Cambodia through systematic and ruthless killings. He killed anyone that he felt was too intellectual, too skilled, too outspoken, etc. and that could be a threat to him and his vision for Cambodia. Pol Pot wanted everyone in Cambodia to become a farmer and live through the land. Some estimate that he killed nearly a quarter for the Cambodian people. He supposedly passed away in his sleep due to heart failure, which seems too soft a death for someone so cruel. It is almost poetic that he died of heart failure as it is clear that he failed to ever use his heart when he was alive.

It is incredible that the people of Cambodia are where they are after enduring a generation of genocide. 1997 was also the year that my family permanently settled in the United States. In some  ways, we are still in a period of adjustment. I am so impressed that the Cambodian people have progressed to the extent that they have over the same time period. And, that it is a relatively peaceful country with low rates of crime. According to the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime, Cambodia has an intentional murder rate of 6.5 / 100K (which is less than the Americas (~16), Africa (13) and just about the world average of 6.2), which is high for Asia (~3) but still not bad, all things considered. And, they’re persevering with such grace.
Some pictures from the highlights of the trip below:

 

we went to see the angkor wat complex at sunrise- very ancient and grand

We went to see the angkor wat complex at sunrise- very ancient and grand

a view from within the main courtyard

A view from within the main courtyard

A sunrise almost too soft and pink against this jagged structure

A sunrise almost too soft and pink against this jagged structure

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The yard at the back of the complex.. Angkor Wat is the largest religious site across all faiths, in the world

My favorite picture from this trip. I found this pretty amusing. but I'm sure the monks were not amused by my amusement.

My favorite picture from this trip. I found this pretty amusing. but I’m not sure the monks were amused by my amusement.

The night market in Siem Reap is quite vibrant-- though the selection is quite limited. Most vendors sell the *exact same* things and there is little room for price arbitrage. I wonder whether they pool their earnings as they can maximize individual earnings if they do not compete and instead, pool

The night market in Siem Reap is quite vibrant– though the selection is quite limited. Most vendors sell the *exact same* things and there is little room for price arbitrage. I wonder whether they pool their earnings as they can maximize individual earnings if they do not compete and instead, pool

One of the out of commission helicopters used by the Khmer Rouge at the war museum of Cambodia. This museum was an incredible institution. It was very tiny, but absolutely a must-go to learn more about the country and I encourage all visitors to support its work. They employ ex-soldiers and those displaced/hurt/affected by the Khmer Rouge in their facilities.

One of the out of commission helicopters used by the Khmer Rouge at the war museum of Cambodia. This museum was an incredible institution. It was very tiny, but absolutely a must-go to learn more about the country and I encourage all visitors to support its work. They employ ex-soldiers and those displaced/hurt/affected by the Khmer Rouge in their facilities.

 

Johannesburg or…Be Willing to Evolve!

musing, travel

This entry is a reflection I wrote during the summer of 2016, when I was teaching entrepreneurship in an MIT start-up incubator.

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting from Johannesburg, but I have been captivated by the richness of the city’s character. There is a refreshing, unabashed honesty about the issues plaguing the people and shortfall of the state, both in anecdotal observation and conversation, a survival-driven persistence and hope, racial tension, and intrinsic beauty from the history and various indigenous cultures that makes JoBurg and broader South Africa a stimulating and just plain fun place to visit.

I’ve been in Johannesburg for just about three weeks now, working for an MIT start-up incubator called MISTI GSL. I’m working with 3 other MIT students / graduates to teach fundamental business principles and software development. I’m the lead on the business side and have been teaching the students how / why to identify, select, and size markets, interview customers, prioritize sales, create marketing content, work together effectively as a team, and research competition…all in 3 weeks! HA! The other MIT instructors have been teaching software development and helping build out the teams’ products,  and organizing our finale Demo Day event in which the students will pitch and demo their products to investors and other stakeholders (MIT’s partner university, local government officials, local entrepreneurs).

I’m so excited to see where the teams will end up on Demo Day and keep in touch with them post this incubator. The most gratifying part of working in this incubator has been reinforcing the lessons I learned during my time in business school on entrepreneurship, and, watching the teams grow. I so enjoy instructing and then watching the teams apply the lessons. But, the learning that takes place in this incubator is different than the sort that takes place in a school.

Every single lesson that they are taught in GSL has to be applied right away and customized to the issues their products are facing and in accordance with the abilities of their teams. I think the learning that takes place in GSL is more challenging and requires more effort than in a traditional school because not only do students have to process the high-level principles that I’ve taught, they have to use their own judgment to administer the concepts to their particular situation. They have to know how to bend the rules for them to become relevant and that requires experience… which they don’t have (much of). The challenge and gratification for me comes almost entirely from the teams that actually do apply themselves and adapt.

That last part, adapting, is what has distinguished the strongest teams from the pack. A willingness to evolve their business ideas and learn new skills has proven to be critical to succeeding in this program. The most challenging aspect of adapting for the teams has been recognizing when to adapt. Because many of them are inexperienced entrepreneurs and new to the principles that I’ve been teaching, they have to know when to relinquish their attachment to their understanding of how to proceed and instead incorporate mine or try some other alternative altogether. that is where the iterative approach becomes a critical enabler. This process of working with the teams as a mentor and an instructor has been so insightful and productive that I’ve made it a goal to participate in a program like this again in the near future (in the next 2 years). I think working at my full-time job will add to my qualifications and make me a better candidate for what are probably hyper-competitive incubators / accelerators in the Bay area. YAYAY!

I feel so much gratitude and excitement when I think about all the opportunities to learn and make an impact out there. More than anything, the promise for output has been at the forefront of my mind lately. I noticed that starting in my last semester at MIT I became much more product and output oriented in the way that I approach my work and prioritize my time. I suppose that is what I went to business school for, aligning my time spent with what I actually want so that I can make the most impact. I now have less tolerance for spending my time on non-product related activities. Most tasks now seem bureaucratic.

I’ll have to write another entry on JoBurg and South Africa since this one turned into a personal reflection. I have a lot to say about the Rainbow Nation because of its rich character and because of the multiple vantage points that I have into the society because of my American citizenship, female gender, “coloured” status, and objectively more privileged existence.

Pictures of some of the highlights so far below:

One of the many street murals and artwork that I've seen in JoBurg. This one is definitely government sponsored, many of the murals that we see are. There's a great one of Mandela near where our office that I'll upload in a follow-up entry. there are markers of the government promoting a national identity all over the city.

One of the many street murals and artwork that I’ve seen in JoBurg. This one is definitely government sponsored, many of the murals that we see are. There’s a great one of Mandela near where our office that I’ll upload in a follow-up entry. there are markers of the government promoting a national identity all over the city.

Our classroom and students. I'm in the all black in the front of the room teaching during our first session!

Our classroom and students. I’m in the all black in the front of the room teaching during our first session!

We did a walking tour during the first day that we had off (we only get Sundays off) through the Central Business District, during which I came across this sign. The CBD is one of the most unsafe neighborhoods and even locals don't walk through the area if they can avoid it. It was absolutely deserted on the Sunday that we visited, which I think worked out for the better because I had yet to acclimate to JoBurg back then. The sight that I remember most from the walk was the row of empty buildings that were either boarded up or occupied by squaters.

We did a walking tour during the first day that we had off (we only get Sundays off) through the Central Business District, during which I came across this sign. The CBD is one of the most unsafe neighborhoods and even locals don’t walk through the area if they can avoid it. It was absolutely deserted on the Sunday that we visited, which I think worked out for the better because I had yet to acclimate to JoBurg back then. The sight that I remember most from the walk was the row of empty buildings that were either boarded up or occupied by squaters.

a view of the CBD (the tall buildings in the distance) and the train depot from our classroom. Our classroom is very, very cold.

a view of the CBD (the tall buildings in the distance) and the train depot from our classroom. Our classroom is very, very cold.

 

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This is going to be the hardest entry I’ll ever make on this site (maybe not, if I’m lucky), because I don’t know how I can describe the sensory explosion I repeatedly experienced on the South Island with words. I’m just not a particular and fine-tuned enough of a writer. also, I am lazy. I might come back to this entry in the future during one of my insomniac episodes during which i develop a temporary, but strong, skilled command of words to wordsmith this post. Until I experience otherwise, I am convinced that South Island is the most beautiful place on earth.

I felt perpetually satisfied while on the South Island. We usually started our day very early, with a filling breakfast and hot coffee, and then took a short drive or a long drive, which always led to hiking. After the hike we would take in amazing views and on our walk down, we left feeling like we fully spent the energy we were capable of generating for the day.

It was a simple existence.

It was adventurous but still familiar.

It was adventurous because each road, vista, cliff top was new to us but the manner by which we made our discoveries were through actions that we took every day. To make our way through our hikes, we had to move one leg in front of the other, breathe in and out with just a bit more effort than usual and that’s it.

It was our environment that gave us the opportunity to do something exceptional, with means that were otherwise ordinary. Our context (the majestic views, sense of physical accomplishment) made me acutely aware of how powerful my “ordinary tools” can be. I walk to the T / subway / BART all the time, but I don’t consider those mechanical actions anything other than that. And they inherently aren’t out of the ordinary, but they do deserve some daily appreciation. at the least, we should acknowledge that we don’t actually need much else to be at peace. South Island showed me how small my existence is and why that is a good thing for me, because the bigger the world is outside of me, the more there is for me to explore and learn.  And learning really isn’t that hard.  I can do it using the tools I usually take for granted, one foot in front of the other.

If we pay attention, we can observe the extraordinary without going very far.

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sunset at a random (meaning it’s not listed as a tourist must-see) lake we came across during one of our many, many long drives across the Island

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view from atop a mountain, at the end of a 5 hour hike. we did this hike right after the sunrise that we caught in the picture below

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no filter! NO FILTER!! none of these photos have any filters on them. this was sunrise by Lake Wanaka

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one of the more boring drives – yep.

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this is a 180 view from the same mountain as the first picture here

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view of Queenstown from a hilly road

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gray pebbles for miles

travel

“i feel better at home, i want to go home”

travel
this post is from a night that i spent in a hostel after a day long hike on the South Island of New Zealand.
“i feel better at home, i want to go home”
is what i thought when i confirmed that the hot itching on my arm was in fact caused by bug bites. i’m also pretty sure i saw the tiny bug that caused those bites after i started flashing my phone’s light all over my bed in the dark. The next thought was to get my laptop, cell phone, and chargers and make my way downstairs to the kitchen/lounge area. I did that, and I still felt uncomfortable. I felt dumb for getting the bites on my arm, slightly cold sitting in the chilly kitchen, annoyed that this happened at all and that i wouldn’t be in a bed, my bed, in the U.S., that I feel excited about, for another week and a half.
And I saw myself feeling all this. I sympathized with myself for having those feelings and also recognized that while suffering, I was simultaneously telling myself that it is too early (in this trip) to become miserable or annoyed. I had to continue to make the most of my time away from Cambridge for several reasons:
  • I did spend money on this trip, which is a form of commitment.  At some point, I felt that this trip was the best use of my resources and I had good reason to believe that, so I should follow through even if another feeling is taking the foreground to my all of my previous thought. And, I knew that when I one day looked back at this trip, I will have want to made the most of my time there.
  • I also went on that trip to strengthen my friendship with my co-traveler, my friend. I knew that I should not let temporal annoyances get in the way to the extent that he notices my sour mood and remembers it.
  • This is really not that bad in the grand scheme of things. I got bit. I chose to stay in a hostel. I need to suck it up because I value keeping perspective and staying grounded.
I notice that I miss home particularly so whenever I have an unpleasant experience like this one. Which makes me wonder: do I really miss home for home’s sake or because it makes me feel safe? It’s analogous to the skepticism that I develop whenever I have feelings for a new romantic interest and I start to wonder whether I like that person for who they are or for how they make me feel. I can (and probably have spent) spend hour upon excruciating hour trying to grind away at those two similar questions in my mind, bouncing between yes and no. But really, now I think the question I need to address if I want to keep perspective, is, whether loving or wanting something most noticeably in a moment of vulnerability means that that love isn’t pure.  And by pure, i literally mean unadulterated and intrinsically desirable.
My gut tells me that isn’t the case.
I believe that people love others because to love is in our natures because it IS a need. It is an act of self-preservation that might just come from our animal past, but that does not make it un-beautiful. The part of love that I think is beautiful is the choice that precedes it. My home in NYC is lovable because it is always warm, safe, full of nourishing food, and the people that are dearest to me. But I don’t have to love it.
In fact, I don’t think we are ever compelled to love anything- we can only be compelled to be open to the possibility of loving something. Those extra charming people that seem to drag trails of attached souls around them are just effective at getting others to be open to the possibility of loving them by showing their lovable parts, I now think. The noble, loyal, pure, admirable thing about a loving feeling towards something or someone is that we made a choice to dedicate our mental and tangible resources to loving that thing or person. The thing that makes the act of love self-less is that we give away our irrecoverable time to someone / something by choice. And even if that choice further protects our own individual state of comfort, it’s still an expenditure of our most precious resource: time.
Even by the end of my philosophizing, I felt awful looking at my arm. But, it was worth it. I continued to enjoy the time away and am proud that I honored the commitment to travel that I made. And I continue to love my home- and look forward to plopping down onto the couch right by our apartment entrance as soon as I return to town. It is love, unadulterated, pure love.

Bali + Lombok or…Earning is not Deserving

musing, travel

As I write this, it’s hard to believe that I have only been away from my family’s home in NYC for six days. After 48 hours of flying and layover-ing, a small panic attack that I might have DVT brought on by my swollen ankles (which itself was brought on by sitting for 10+ hours at a time in a seat far too constricting for my 5’9 frame), walking through every corner of the Dubai airport during an overnight layover, breathing in the swollen, humid air that only exists in tropical regions for the first time since I left Pakistan as a child, converting prices in Indonesian Rupiah to USD using the 13,600=1USD spot rate over and over, watching my G-Lab teammates slowly acclimate to Indonesia, slowly acclimating to the constant company of my G-Lab teammates, celebrating New Year’s with 10 other Sloanies in an infinity pool overlooking the Lombok Strait, tasting fruits and cooked food native to Indonesia, trying to speak broken, basic beginner Bahasa (Indonesian), I feel that I’ve already learned and grown very quickly.

I’ve never been to Indonesia before, so just about everything that I am seeing is stimulating and has led to me learning something.

There are some photos at the bottom of this post that will give you a sense of what I have seen and done, but what I have seen and done make up a small share of what I’ve been thinking about. What i find myself thinking about, over and over again is: what the hell did I do to deserve this?

Since starting at MIT, I’ve felt an enormous amount of gratitude for the vocational, educational, and social opportunities that I can now access. But, the gratitude does not come unaccompanied- gratitude brings its buzzkill second cousin: guilt. Guilt and gratitude don’t always manifest together, but sometimes, they do, usually when my mind throws an unexpected endorphin-filled party. I’ll explain why.

I’ve been working since I was 16. I worked nearly full-time during college, while maintaining a nearly perfect GPA, founding and running a student club, and becoming financially independent. After my college graduation, I felt an overzealous sense of responsibility to improve the world around me and took my work and my interactions with the people around me very seriously. I worked hard…at work, got the early promotions I wanted and also met my personal goal of moving my family to a better neighborhood. Then, i got into MIT. My mind created a causal link between the sequence of events in my personal timeline. I saw that I earned my acceptance through my accomplishments and somewhere in our minds I think that we often use “earned” synonymous-ly with “deserved”. So, I started hearing from myself and others that I deserved my Sloan acceptance. Which then implied that I also deserved the opportunities I had access to. After a lot of reflecting, I have finally come up with words that fully capture why I need to break this earn = deserve equivalency.

“Deserve” implies a right, an entitlement, uniquely held by me for a thing (relationship, job, money, health, whatever) that I have. “Earning” simply says that through a series of actions that I took, I was able to render a desired outcome. For example: I worked hard and displayed the characteristics that the Sloan admissions committee looks for in its students, so I got into Sloan. I earned my Sloan acceptance. I do not deserve my Sloan acceptance.  I am certain that there are millions of people around the world that, if placed in the same circumstances as me, could have rendered similar results and achievements. And, it is by the accident of geography that I was born and raised in NYC and then afforded the privileges that led to my being in the circumstances that I was in that led to my rendering the outcomes that earned me my Sloan acceptance. It was because of those privileges that i am now able to type this entry on a Dell that costs nearly a quarter of the average Indonesian’s annual household disposable income, while sitting next to an infinity pool overlooking a pristine bay while locals the same age, or older, than me, do not have access to the same vocational, educational, and social opportunities as me. (That’s not to say that the locals I’m surrounded by have a life or being that is any less than me, but they do have access to less opportunities.) This articulation is not just semantical play, it is a long sought after grip on the way that i see myself in relation to the world.

With the opportunities that I have earned access to, through both my own work and accidental privilege, I now have responsibility to enable others to also have increased access. In summary, I don’t think that I deserve what I have, but I do have these things, experiences, and opportunities, and the best that I can do is now create more of these opportunities for others.