Monday, March 31, 2008

Looking Back on India..

I spent my Spring Break in India- one week of sights, sounds, smells, colors, food, heat, sun, and pollution. India was my down-fall in updating this blog. I wrote four entries before I left for the airport and then next to nothing afterward. I think I was hesitant to put my true impressions of India out on the web but now I believe it's important to be honest and not rosey about the experience. I still have mixed reactions to the trip.

On the plus side,
I've been to Asia.
We were able to put it together less than a month before we traveled.
The tour provided a relatively tame introduction to India (even if Irmgard later wanted the spontaneity and freedom).
We went before the bombing in Jaipur (at the exact spot we visited!).
I rode an elephant and a tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw).
I met some cool Brits, South Africans, Kiwis, a Scot, a Mexicana, and of course- Indians.
I can say I've seen the Taj Mahal and also the Lotus Temple (Baha'i).
I have more of an appreciation for everything I have and more of an understanding how problems in a nation such as India are not solved easily or quickly.
I found and purchased the exact wood-block print blankets that my family had and used as beach-blankets during my childhood. I associate the smell of those blankets with the beach and play-forts.
The Delhi metro is quite nice.
India is cheap!
The food was good.
Color! Color! Everywhere and practically nothing left unpainted!
I normally sweat like it's my job and yes, it was hella warm, but my punjabi tops kept me relatively cool and sun-burn free.
I got my brother some sweet birthday presents (an Indian cricket jersey and a mock-turban).

However, there were parts I wasn't crazy about or at the time proved too much and left me perfectly willing to leave India..
I've never witnessed extreme poverty and it was startling and upsetting.
There are a lot of people in India, all with a different definition of personal space. (Immediately in the Delhi airport guys queuing up in line for immigration stood and stayed right (touching) next to me and didn't bat an eye.)
Traffic can crawl. I think it took us two hours to crawl back into Delhi at the end of our trip.
Squat toilets (could be fine any other time of the month...)
Toilet attendants who give you paper to dry your hands and give you pleading eyes for a tip. I understand it's crucial to give someone even that small job, but it feels like slightly fancier begging and hard to comply when it's very difficult to get small bills in the country (this also may be a tourist problem).
Roads can be bad and or they just drive slower (in general) The ~225 km during one of our legs of our journey took ~5-7 hours (with an hour stop for lunch).
It's pretty dusty/dirty most everywhere (I heard this attributed to Indians focus on the family not the community, which is how you have spotless homes with piles of trash outside).
We received lots of aggressive touts and sales pitches and 'very good price! Excuse me- excuse me! Kama sutra- kama sutra? Bangles? Book of Taj Mahal-Delhi-Agra-Jaipur?' It gets old. I don't know how bad it would be if we weren't in a group.
As Western tourists, we were overcharged on autorickshaws, bike rickshaws, taxis, horse carriages, camel rides, etc. But it's still fairly cheap.
People piss/crap in the street. Animals shit, sleep, and die on the street. Near the end of the trip I just got sick of intense smells everywhere I went (food included).
There is trash EVERYWHERE. In both big cities and small sleepy villages. Never before have I had such a strong compulsion to clean something...
You need to only drink bottled water and even brush your teeth with it. I thought I had an iron stomach at the beginning of the trip as nothing had come up but later realize other plumbing wasn't working as it should. I had a nasty last day and a half in India and was fairly ill and delirious upon my return to Qatar. Imodium later helped... I wonder if it was the Thali meal I had our third to last day in India. I haven't really had Indian food since...

And things that weren't bad or good but just interesting...
Cows wander the street. They are sacred and are left to fend for themselves after they've stopped producing milk. People might feed them- but mainly they just eat whatever- shit wherever- and some people might collect the dung to make fuel.
Literary rate in India used to be 30%, it's now doubled to roughly 60%.
Qatar like a variable melting pot compared to India, where all you saw were Indians, Indians, Indians, and the tourists at the hot spots.
'Masala' does not necessarily indicate 'spicy' as in 'hot' but rather it literally means it has a lot of spices and therefore can be very flavorful (and sometimes hot).
I saw more camels in India than in Qatar.

I could possibly go back to India- see the Northern mountains, the southern areas, and the party spots (Goa comes to mind). However, I certainly do not feel the need to race back there as soon as I can. I had a taste of India and for now, it was enough for me.

For some visuals to go with my commentary, check out my India photos.
Also- check out the video of our trip made by Tom, a freelance videographer who traveled with us to make the video for OnTheGo Tours. I'm a few of the shots. :)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Updates 4: Arabic

Since I'm thinking I may be around a little longer, I'd like to get better at Arabic. Especially if I might need to work with Arabs in the country/region on environmental work. I'd like to know that I'm communicating clearly (as my run-in (literally) with the Egyptian proved earlier this month). Also- I'd like to have another language under my belt so I don't feel like a stupid American when interacting with other nationalities.

I already take 2 Arabic classes here through Carnegie Mellon- but that's only 4 hours a week of so-so curriculum. One class is only devoted to learning the alphabet for pete's sake. So I'd like to learn more and try to practice when I can.

I tried in the souqs, asking the football scarf vendor 'how do I say, 'how much?'' and Darbi and I ended up getting a half-hour Arabic lesson. ('They were totally flirting with us' as Darbi would put it). I also took out my sketchbook to prove to them that I can write the letters and then promptly forgot my sketchbook in the shop. That sketchbook held almost a year's worth of thoughts/musings/doodles and travel notes. I was bummed and went back the next day to recover the book- which I swore must be in the shop. No luck but I left my business card anyway. I was bummed.

1 week later I get a call, saying that my book had been found in the shop. And since he had found the book, I was to bring some 'sweet books'. Huh? I feared that this was some sort of come-on or that he was requesting porn. :/ I asked others what should I do, especially if I wanted to show my thanks but not send the wrong-messages. Others (Qataris) deemed a monetary reward would be insulting/weird and a gift would be awkward/unnecessary and suggested I just offer extreme thanks.

I showed up and he did indeed have my sketchbook. However, he asked, 'where are the sweets?' and made an eating motion. Oh that's what he meant! I quickly ran out and returned with 2 scoops of rich gelato as a thanks. He was appreciative and promptly handed over my book- pointing out that there was a message for me in it in Arabic (and a mobile number). It may very well be an Arabic love letter (it does include drawings of hearts) but I'd rather not find out right now. I'll figure that out after break.

After recovering the sketchbook, I swung by the Technical Care Center (an electronics store with the worst type tracking and horizontal/vertical stretching I've ever seen in a sign) and lingered for a long while over the electronic speaking dictionaries/translators. I had been attempting to look up Arabic words during class in my little fat student Arabic/English-English/Arabic dictionary and things had not been going well. So now I have a funny orange Nintendo-DS looking dictionary that can speak the words and also gives conversational phrases and could recite the Quran if I wanted.

Why plunk down the dough for a talking dictionary? Because I'm that serious about learning (I already have Rosetta Stone Levels 1-3). But to learn a language- you really need dedicate time and teacher-student interaction. So I'm proposing to take advantage of CMU-tuition reimbursement/assistance benefits and study Arabic at the University of Chicago this summer. If I took all 3 sessions- that would be 6.5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 9 weeks. Whew! Hopefully I'd be as fluent as a kindergartner by that point! I'll also find out more details about that after break.

Speaking of break- I'd better get on that. Take care and Happy Easter!

Updates 3: Spring Break

I'll be in India in 12 hours!

Irmgard (CMU Math Post-doc) and I booked a tour online about 3 weeks ago- just a simple 8 day tour of the 'Golden Triangle'- Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. Yes, we'll get to see the Taj Mahal.
But other than that- we weren't too picky about where to go in India. "Just get us there" we said. And since neither of us had the time, energy, or knowhow to plan a trip to India, we ponied up the funds and simply booked our tour. We'll see how it goes.

So I will be MIA for the next week, as I am leaving my computer at home & setting up my automatic 'vacation response' within the hour. I'll post lots of pictures and stories when I get back. Happy Early Easter to the folks back home and I'm sorry to hear about the freak snow storm. (It was 88F here in Doha today. :) In India, it's suppose to be between 96-100 the entire time we're there- unseasonably warm.)

Updates 2: Design

The students wrapped up their designs for the LAS poster series last week and I've delayed in sharing some of their work with you. Below are a selection of the final posters. Their finished size is an A3 sheet of paper. Needless to say, I was please and pleasantly surprised with the results. (Dan Boyarski- who sat in on 3 of the crits, was also pretty impressed). Many of them went light years beyond their original design concepts or what they would typically see in the hallways here). I didn't have time to scan in the 'before' designs for you so I'll just have to press this upon you- these posters were designed by business, computer science, and information systems students. Some of the posters are pretty decent to begin with but when you realize these are not design students, and that many of these students have been working with the Adobe Creative Suite for less than 2 months- that's impressive.

Nasreen Zahan

Nida Ilahi

Noor Al-Maadeed

Rana El Sakhawy
Amna Jassim
Bayan Yousef Taha

Eatidal Al-Qatami

Hanoof Al-Thani

Maryam Khalil

Amal Badar Al-Barwani

Updates 1: Sustainability

Spring Break started today- so that of course meant students were scrambling this week to get things done. And if there was a class to miss, unfortunately my courses were often the courses to skip. I don't take it personally; I recognize the situation.

For the students that did show up Wednesday (the afternoon before the big 'Professional Day' and the day before the huge 'regression' exam), I gave them a bit of a break. I had planned to show "The Story of Stuff" and then make concept maps of the systems mentioned in the video. However, with half of the first section missing, I didn't very well want to re-teach the material later, so instead I slashed my lesson in half, created a new assignment (1 page response paper to the video) and allowed the students present to orally give their responses rather than having to write them. (As many of the students are non-native English speakers/writers, they tend to abhor writing assignments. Their oral presentation skills tend to be much better than their writing skills). We actually had some good discussions, as it was nice to see a glimmer of comprehension and emotional response in even the quietest and more distant students.

Also on the sustainability front, I recently submitted a proposal to CMU-Q Dean Chuck Thorpe for the creation of a 'Sustainability Coordinator' position and to consider me for the job. Yep- that means I'm thinking of another year (or two. or...) The following excerpt is from my proposal:

"Sustainability Coordinator:
This individual would be responsible for spearheading new sustainability initiatives in operations and academics, support and monitor current environmental enterprises, and coordinate efforts both internal and external to the campus community. The SC’s duties and influence would break down into four main categories; academics, operations, outreach, and visioning. "

I go on to list possible duties, such as teaching a few course, advising the student environmental group LiveGreen, act as liaison to Pittsburgh, work with faculty to incorporate and foster environmental learning in other courses, and generally coordinate all the environmental activity of CMU-Q.

Hopefully I'll have some sort of response waiting for me after Spring Break.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Urban Myths

On Sunday, I emailed the students the details for a short 24-hour design charrette assignment. I challenged them to come up with an engaging story using only 3 images and no words. The first image was to be an object, the second image was to be an action, and the third image was to be the effect/result, arranged in some way on an A3 sheet of paper. They could take their own images or find them on the Internet.

The results varied in complexity, readability, jumps in logic/comprehension, and one or two presented cultural discussion opportunities (one included a rotting brain, a protester holding a sign of Bush & Hitler and the words 'Kill People', and then a dead Arab child in his mother's arms).

However the one that struck me the most was an image of Starbucks, then people holding a Starbucks coffee cup, and then a bloodied, wounded crying child with a bandage around his head. I was thoroughly perplexed and asked another student to explain this image story to the class. Without hesitation, she explained that the image was an injured Palestinian child, pointing out a faded image of a Palestinian flag imposed on the corner of the image. The class explained to me that the Starbucks CEO is Jewish and Zionist, and a portion of Starbucks profits go to support the war against Palestine. (The British-based Marks & Spencers' support of Israel also came up.) So- did everyone see that story in this series of images? Of a class of 18, only 3 people (myself included) did not see that story in the images. Some students reported that they do not purchase Starbucks coffee (of which there is a location in our building) because of this story. 'Why do other Arab students purchase the coffee then?' Perhaps it doesn't bother them as much was the answer.

Instead of focusing on the legitimacy of the story (because I had never heard this before and could not comment on its validity), I focused on the jumps of logic the image story required of the viewer and what the images actually conveyed. Later, I mentioned this incident to Darbi who works in Carnegie Mellon Student Affairs. She sighed and said that story was the result of a hoaxed email forwarded by another student last semester. The email was a hoax but many students saw it out of context and had strong responses to it.

This morning I did a bit of my own research on the topic and sent the following email to my students:

"Because it intrigued me- I did an Internet search on the issue of Israel and Starbucks and found the following links suggesting that the story appears to be an urban legend of sorts:

Also- interesting enough- Starbucks does not have coffeehouses in Israel any more...

So the particular picture story using Starbucks and an injured Palestinian child could reflect a spoof of a story, rather than a story itself."

I'll be curious to see how this image story gets revised for tomorrow's class.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What are the issues?

Before I began my two sections of 51-276: 'Examining Sustainability in the Gulf' last week, I gave the students a questionnaire, asking basic details about their background, expectations, and whatnot. However I also asked them to list what they perceive as the top 3 issues/problems/challenges facing 1) the world? 2) the region (or their home county)? 3) Qatar? 4) themselves? It was enlightening to see the answers and gives me hope that their interest will be sustained in the course.

What are the 3 biggest issues/problems/challenges facing...
the world?
peace; poverty; illness; hunger; global warming; terrorism; animal extinction; pollution; energy; World War III; America; self-interests & self-disputes; pharmaceutical companies; democracy; modern economic framework; world politics & corruption; inequity of wealth distribution; starvation in Southern African countries

the region? (or your home country?)
education; oil/petrol; America; labor rights; wars in Iraq/Palestine; population increase; unemployment; politics; money allocation; poverty; ethnic/social integration; goods smuggling; global warming; pollution; inflation; dust; traffic; illiteracy; development; economy; civil war; international intervention; high cost of living; religious intolerance; corruption; immigrants; ignorance

environment; education; labor rights; expats; roads/traffic; public transit; obesity; uncivilized behavior; global warming; pollution; population; cost of living; planning & development; liquid natural gas production; developing the economy; immigrants; health care; Qatarization; oil; ignorance; inflation

programming; time management; laziness; pressure to study; lack of sleep; surviving CMU; shyness; desire to succeed; future career; Dean's List; low self-confidence; family pressure; finding like-minded people; losing weight; high grades; speaking problems; procrastination;

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Film! Passion! Controversy!

We're now in week 3 of the LAS Faculty Film Series. My design students are working through the complexities of designing an engaging movie poster for the remaining movies and I extended the deadline to this Wednesday. However, the architecture professors are showing 'Blade Runner' this Wednesday, so we needed to get something up for 'Blade Runner' soon. A very driven student, Mena Assad, dedicated himself to finishing a poster ahead of time and completed it today. We edited some details, discussed the colors, and printed/trimmed 35 copies. At least 15 of them are up in the building right now. (The image here is the near-final, as I do not have the final PDF yet).

I just received an email that the poster appears to be creating some controversy. The part in question is the yellow bar containing the word 'Passion' and a obscured image of a kiss. Apparently it's been deemed 'inappropriate' by some students. I wondered what is the main objection- the word, the image, or both? We've determined that it's probably the image and jokingly said we could put 'censor' bars over their 'lips' (?) if things become really controversial. However all this 'controversy' could fuel increased awareness about the event and possibly boast attendance. We'll see.

The thing that strikes me about this are the conflicting messages within the culture. As I mentioned before, kisses  or embraces can't be shown but we can play songs about a woman's anatomy in the grocery store? We can't show a very stylized still from a movie but students can watch 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Sex and the City'? Movies and TV shows are censored here (downloaded ones probably are not)- so you don't see sex or kisses or nudity on TV or in the theaters- but that doesn't change the fundamental moral message of a show like 'Desperate Housewives'. With this poster- one could argue that it's a very obscured 'kiss' and also that if a student objects- then he/she doesn't have to see the movie.

I have never seen 'Blade Runner' or another future LAS Faculty Film Series film, 'Cold Mountain'. However, someone marveled that we would show 'Cold Mountain', given that there are some very suggestive scenes in it. Curious to see how 'Blade Runner' compared to 'Cold Mountain', I looked up the sex/nudity rating of both films online. 

The result? 
Blade Runner-5
Cold Mountain- 7

However the posters currently in development for 'Cold Mountain' are much tamer, while 'Blade Runner' host Professor Kelly Hutzell described these posters as an "accurate portrayal of the movie." So will it be ok to hide the sex/nudity/gore of one movie while honestly expressing the extent of it in another? We shall see.

Friday, March 7, 2008

My Brother's Visit to Qatar- the abridged version

Feb. 29- Lunch with Dan Boyarski at the City Center Mall. My brother Henry arrives that evening in Doha. We unsuccessfully try to find a BBQ at Qatar Foundation Housing and then pass out.

Mar. 1- Bill Brown Memorial Ride early AM. I bike 46 km in total from Doha Golf Club to Simaisma Bridge. My brother- on the small loaner bike, rides 26 km to Lusail. See some pics from the event. Henry passes out and then goes to see 'Vantage Point' at the City Center Mall. I help LiveGreen (CMU-Q's student environmental group) prepare for the next day. I stay up too late preparing for my own speech.

Mar. 2- I give a ~20 minute presentation ('The Opportunities of Sustainability") 2 times at Qatar University's " Go Green. Change Our Future" كن صديقاً للبيئة. غير مستقبلنا Conference (Women only). I'm in at least 2 English papers and apparently some Arabic papers the next day (See The Gulf Times & The Peninsula). My brother heads back to City Center Mall with a student of mine, only to accidentally have my car keys in his pocket. We sort it out, do some food shopping, cook a veggie dinner and call it another early night.

Mar. 3- I give my presentation twice again (Males Only), teach my communication design class, teach my first section of 'Examining Sustainability in the Gulf', add another section of it, discover CMU-Q accidentally sent my textbooks back and we've now ordered them to arrive with the Pittsburgh students this Saturday. Henry and I play volleyball with the students, faculty, & staff. We then head to the souqs, Henry purchases souvenirs, and we have Iraqi food.

Mar. 4- I go to Arabic class, do some work at school, & swap my sedan with Darbi/Greg's SUV so my brother and I can go find the 'Singing Dunes'. I tell Henry I'm on my way home (we communicated via email, 2 American cell phones, 1 Qatari cell phone with mixed results). I leave Education City and pull into traffic too soon, getting slammed in the back, smashing up a little blue car driven by two Egyptians that don't speak English. We wait ~3 hours for the police to come to file a report. One tank of gas, one traffic department, 2 reports, 12 riyals, and 1.5 hours later and I'm finally back home to my stranded (and ill-informed) brother. In the fading light we attempt to find the Singing Dunes but no luck. Henry and I go with Greg and his visiting girlfriend Sophie to pick up Turkey Central. We eat at Greg's and then they watch movies at Greg's place. I work.

Mar. 5- We plan to get my brother to the Qatar National Museum for the morning and have him join me in the afternoon (after my classes). We have conflicting reports of whether the museum is open, closed, partially-open and can't confirm any details. We find the place deserted and later learn it won't be open to the public until November. After some phone calls- we learn the Weapons Museum is now open to the public and will be open until noon. We call, confirm, and then unsuccessfully try to find the place. Back at campus, we're given exact directions of how to get there- we head back out again and Henry books a cab for the ride back. We arrive- it looks nice- clean- legit. I bid Henry farewell and then he runs back, saying it's closed. I throw my hands up. At this point Henry begins to truly realize what it means to live in Doha and that while a decent place to live, Doha is not primed for tourists yet. I teach 3 classes (my sustainability course now has 20 students in two sections)- Henry relaxes. I secure a GPS from Justin & Marjorie and in the fading light Henry and I set out for the Singing Dunes again. 45 km from the city, we find the dunes and by flashlight we hike towards them on foot (as I have my sedan again and it would have not been happy on the rocks). It was eerie to make the dunes hum and vibrate at our footsteps and even eerier that we only had a flash-light at this point. We did see some fantastic stars.

Mar. 6- I skip out on Arabic class and Henry and I do tourist shopping. We purchase a photo book for Grammy and Henry picks up some foodstuffs at the Carrefour (as well as some helpful new sandals). We head back to City Center and pick up some carmel and stuffed dates at Bateel. We find time running short and Henry cheerfully suggests trying the 'McArabian' chicken pita-sandwich at McDonald's. I agreed because yes- technically it's a cultural experience. Like many McDonald's products- while initially tasty, the meal leaves us feeling disgusting. I'm done with McDonald's in Qatar. We're signed up with 5 others for an 8-hour desert cruise with QIA. Two others not from CMU-Q would also join us. We set up the night before for them to pick the CMU-Q folks up a little later due to other's time conflicts. The driver calls us up 45 minutes early demanding to know where we were. After some semi-heated phone calls and calls to the company, we clear it up and the 2 other tourists don't appear mad at us. We drive off, ride camels (20QAR each), bash dunes, feel like we're about to tip the car (it was our driver's first time- greeeeeeeeeaaat), collect sea shells, attempt to sand board (sounds like a better idea than it actually is) , hear a helicopter air-lifting someone who flipped their quad-bike on the dunes, have a BBQ on the beach, and then drive back in the dark.

Mar. 7- We got Henry to the airport (almost the wrong airport- Qatar is building a new airport and they already have signs up for it. Thanks Qatar.) by 6:30 am. I see him checked in, bid him farewell, drive home, and sleep for another couple hours. I think I plan to use this weekend to recover from his vacation.

Lessons learned:
-Very few of the students have environmental exposure.
-Give your expat host more than a week to plan.
-The tourist experience here leaves something to be desired.
-GPS in the desert is good.
-Wear sunscreen.
-Avoid McDonald's (my stomach still isn't very happy).
-Call. Confirm. But don't be surprised if things change.
-Always check your pockets.
-If you have to teach a difficult/boring/unpopular subject, offer it as a 4th quarter mini course so that students who fail other courses, drop those classes and then desperately need units pack your course.