Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Phase two: Nepal

After an amazing 5-day interlude with Sneetches in Spain, I arrived in Kathmandu last week in one piece. Before arriving in Nepal, I was a little nervous to start in a new place again, and felt anxious for the impending language and cultural barriers. But, since arriving, I've had an amazing time, and every day has been filled with exploration, beauty and adventure.

First of all, Kathmandu is crazy. And by crazy I mean specifically the traffic and amount of people and noise and pollution. Where I'm staying is tourist ground zero, and the streets are filled with vendors selling anything from trekking gear to maps to turquoise jewelry to scarves and tapestries. Often times, the things for sale are more "what foreigners think Nepali things are like" than what Nepali things are actually like. Getting out of this neighborhood, clothing for sale becomes more Western, for example, and blue-jeans replace the outlandish hemp pants.

In my first few days, I did some exploring and got repeatedly lost on the confusing and unmarked winding streets. But, in the process, I saw some beautiful things and hints of Nepali life.

I arrived in Kathmandu at the end of Dasain, the largest festival in Nepal. Over the course of 15 days, people celebrate by visiting family, making animal sacrifices, eating a lot, putting tika (red paint made from rice and dye) on the forehead, and swinging on giant bamboo swings all over the country. At least, these are the things I witnessed and took part in.

viewing a Dasain parade from my hotel rooftop
Dasain swing! SO FUN, but absolutely devoid of any Western safety regulation.
Although there's much to explore and enjoy in Kathmandu, I decided to get out of the city for a few days, since I'll be in this area for the rest of my time here. Through Couch Surfing, I found Eric from Bowie, MD who is now working with an orphan home out in countryside town of Panauti. Staying with Eric, the kids and the other grown-ups in Panauti was like a dream (the swing picture above was actually taken there and not in Kathmandu). The scenery was so gorgeous, the kids were so fantastic, and my time there was so relaxing.
Panauti hillside 
View from the house's top floor
The kids! (And Uncle Himal in the back)
Looking through my telescope at the moon. The kids seemed to like it, although the Galilieoscope is really no VLT or even Strawbridge 12"....
Tomorrow is the start of my program orientation for my volunteer program. I'll be living for a month in a Buddhist monastery, teaching child-monks, ages 5-15 English and astronomy. I'm excited to be with the same kids every day and get to a deeper level with them than I could with the kids I met in Chile. However, I'm also feeling conflicted about taking part in the "Volun-Tourism" that's so trendy (and in my personal opinion, highly problematic) here in Nepal. I hope to approach the situation not from a charity or even volunteering approach, but instead more as a cultural exchange.

Today is also the last day of my first quarter of my Watson year! I need to submit my quarterly report to Watson HQ over the next few days, as one of my only requirements of this year. So much has happened in the past 3 months, and I can't imagine putting it all into words in a concise and personal way. I do feel that a lot of my outlook has changed already. In Chile, there were times that felt a little stagnant, where I was waiting for project-related things to fall into place, or for good adventuring to happen. But here, I feel like I've hit the ground running. After my time in Chile (especially the last my last few weeks there), I feel armed with a lot more confidence and initiative than I had before, which has allowed me to make the most out of my time so far. 

When my report is finalized, I'll be sure to post a copy of it here, so stay tuned!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Volando vengo, volando voy

(NOTE: this is my first post using my little smartphone, so I apologize in advance for any typos or formatting issues.)

I'm currently at the Antofagasta airport, preparing to embark on the 24+ hour journey to my next destination. It's been an amazing past few days, and I couldn't think of a better way to say goodbye to this wonderful country.

Saturday I joined the Baquedano kids and crew for their trip to Cerro Paranal, home to ESO's VLT (Very Large Telescope... I know, Europe has some creative naming schemes. Next ESO project: the ELT -- Extremely Large Telescope. I kid you not.)
At the VLT, ESOs Very Large Telescope, Cerro Paranal
The VLT is in fact four 8.2m diameter telescopes that either work individually or together as an interferometer. Their large size combined with cutting edge technology, including adaptive optics which correct for the atmospheric turbulence, make the VLT known as one of the best observatories in the world.And the kids seemed to enjoy it as well. We had the chance to stay past the normal tourtime and see the opening of the domes. It was kind of magical -- all of the students, for no apparent reason, were mostly silent as we all waited for the gears to turn and the telescope to rotate. As the giant mirror turned to look at us directly, it was like looking in the eye of a giant, powerful monster. I know I was amazed. I hope the kids were too.
Sunset at the VLT with Rocio, astro student and Baquedano activity organizer
The students in front of one of the 8.2m mirrors
Sunday I went back to San Pedro de Atacama for Noche Zero, an interdisciplinary conference about light pollution. The point of the conference was to discuss the issues of light and dark from all points of view: design, science, environmentalism, public health and public policy. I heard about the conference in late August and desperately wanted to go, but couldn't afford the $600 ticket price. After getting in touch with the organizers, though, I managed to get a volunteer position with the ESO astronomers running the conference's public outreach event.
My official conference badge

The conference was such a positive experience overall. Each speaker brought something different to the table, and I learned a lot about light, design and policy.
For the conference, I had the opportunity to stay here, at the dorms for APEX (ESOs submilimeter scope in the ALMA neighborhood). Really nice place with a beautiful view!
And the outreach event went wonderfully! There were activities for kids of all ages, including building solar system models, doing lunar phase and eclipse demonstrations, and taking a tour of some stunning ESO images. I had a blast being a part of it, and the students and teachers all seemed to enjoy it, too.
Building Solar System models. We also had pictures of the sizes and distances to scale, so as not to give misinformation about the scale of our Solar System.
After the conference, I had just enough time to go back to Antofagasta, pack, and have one more game night with my roommates before leaving for the airport this morning.
Roomies, Chilean flag, and Allie the Aly
It's been an excellent adventure in Chile and I'm proud of what I've  accomplished. I've talked with students from all kinds of educational backgrounds, visited most of the major observatories in Chile, and have had some adventures along the way. I feel so grateful for all of the people who made my time here so great and am feeling excited and confident about the next leg of my journey.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mega-upates from some busy weeks

A week from now I'll set off from Chile and move on to the next stage of my project in Nepal. Until then, I'm keeping busy with a lot of school visits and trips. This is a picture of my schedule for the last two weeks in Chile:
Since coming back from the holiday in San Pedro, it's been a whirlwind of activity, but it feels great to be doing my project everyday and also making time for adventures.

Basic summary of what I've been up to:
  1. Weekly trips to Escuela G130 in Baquedano, a town about an hour outside of Antofagasta. The school in Baquedano has an academy of astronomy, which basically functions as an after-school program for 12 students in grades 6-8. The school has its own observatory with two small telescopes. Every week, the students have an hour of lecture, a snack break, and then an hour of time with the telescope. The academy is led by astronomy professor Eduardo Unda-Sanzana, who works here in Antofagasta. Since arriving last month, he's the person I've been working with primarily. He's not only invited me to join the weekly academy, but I've also been helping plan and lead the lessons, as well as having short interviews with groups of students during the snack break. It's been terrific to see the same students every week and get the chance to talk with them individually about what they know and like about astronomy.
    Most of the Baquedano group, missing some students and Prof. Unda
    The Baquedano Observatory
    Interviewing students at once (snack/teatime)

    Students learning to use SalsaJ, a kid-friendly equivilent of DS9 for processing images. Students will use the observatory to take CCD photos of the moon and then use this program for post-processing.