Here and There and Everywhere

Who are my people, who are my brothers and sisters?

I am back home after more than a month of travel through Peru and India.  I now have a break in the travels. I am finally in a position to start preparing for my bike ride in July.  The training has started in earnest.  Here are some pictures from the last three days of bike rides.  It is great to be back in a familiar place!

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Pennyfield Lock
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Four Mile Run in Virginia
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The turtle on the towpath

Visiting a lot of places in different parts of the world in a short period of time can be a jarring experience.  People and their circumstances are different everywhere. Life in relative isolation in suburbia in the USA is very different from life in a big city in India with the constant human interaction, which is again different from the life of a farmer or miner living on the Altiplano (high plains) of Peru.

Most “common” people in the world are busy every day dealing with their own life circumstances, basically dealing with their day-to-day needs.  I think that people try find some kind of comfort, and maybe happiness, in their own life circumstances, without necessarily trying to compare themselves to their better-off counterparts in some other part of the world.  The only kind of world they really know and understand is the one that they have experienced during their lifetime.

Many of us are products of our circumstances in life that were beyond our control – where we were born, who our parents were, our family background, our friends, the culture around us, our religion, where we ended up in due to various circumstances not entirely in our control, etc..  We have developed a sense of values and morals that came out of our upbringing and experiences.  We developed our own philosophy for living our lives based on our experiences.  Perhaps we even find ourselves comfortable in life without too much struggle.  It takes guts and determination to break out of a place that we find ourselves in “naturally”.

People in different parts of the world are going through similar adventures in their lives, but they do so in different environments primarily because of life circumstances outside their control.  I do not think there can be one formula that works for all of us when it comes to determining how we should all live our lives.  The question I have for myself is if I have the ability to be comfortable outside our own comfort zone in life? Am I able to understand what somebody else living in another part of the world is going through when I interact with that person?  Can I find a way to empathize with people whom I am unfamiliar with – people from a different land?  I think we can all learn, but perhaps it is easier to not take the trouble, and perhaps even find a way to condemn.

We may be ready to condemn people who are different from us, even when it is very likely that we would act the way they do if we happened to have been born in their shoes.  It may be best not to judge other people blindly without getting to better understand where they come from and what drives them.

Riding with Dan Q (1/30/3005)

It is not that I have run out of ideas, but I find myself recently unable to find some quiet time for the mind.  I have become quite distracted in recent days.   So, I am resorting to posting an old email that I had sent to family and friends a long time ago when I used to volunteer in the furniture program at our church.  We used to pick up furniture that people wanted to give away and deliver it to the homes of needy people.  I wrote the following.
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I am sorry folks, but I have gotten the bug! I cannot stop writing, even if there is not much to say. I wake up on the weekends with the neurons clicking in my brain, with phrases forming in the head that I want to put down. What is one supposed to do? The good thing is that you can always trash my e-mails, electronically speaking that is, if they are full of junk.

Woke up today, Sunday morning, to the white of winter and the sight of snow gently falling all around the house. Truth be told, my first instinct was that this whole winter business was getting old, it was getting to be a big pain in the rear rend – this was getting me down, making me sick (middle of last week), and also getting in the way of things that one wanted to do. I have not been able to run for three weekends already (but then again, what is three weekends in a year, or a year in a lifetime). Although one is missing the quietening and balancing effects of the outdoors, one will definitely survive, although in a crabbier mood than usual, with the crabbiness factor increasing exponentially as time passes. I was also supposed to go out to perform at a music show this afternoon – that’s right, innocent people were going to pay to hear me sing, and I was thinking of the pain of driving in these conditions. (That show has since been cancelled because of the weather.)

What then has changed my mood? I was looking out into the backyard through the patio doors, just watching the white stuff come down – it was a steady fall, not the big thick flakes that float around and make people go “Ooooh” and “Aaaah”! The snow was heavy and wet – it made the work of shoveling the driveway later more difficult. A white layer had formed on the branches of the trees and the nets that I have around the plants, and you could see that some of the smaller branches were bending over with the weight of the water. I caught sight of a squirrel scurrying across the snow – a black figure bouncing about on a pure white background. It was hopping along, occasionally stopping to look around, and then heading off in a new direction. Soon after, I saw another squirrel. It did not seem to mind the snow either. Then, there was the red breasted bird sitting on one of the leafless trees behind our property. Even though it was small, the bright red on the grey and white background could not be missed. As I became more aware, I noticed that there was another small bird with a head of black (black capped Chickadee???) on the tree just next to the house. Looking up into the sky I could sight a couple of birds headed southwest, gliding through the sky and through the falling snow (how does that feel, I wonder?). Life is still going on as usual all around us….

The next part of this e-mail is not meant for the faint of heart, or for the children who may be misled by the misdeeds of supposedly mature adults. Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. This was one of these occasions!

I helped with the furniture program yesterday. Pat Byrnes sent me out with Dan Q., in Dan’s pickup truck. The mission was to pick up a sofa and a love seat. This was the first time I was meeting Dan Q. – a young white man, clean shaven and thin lipped, hair on the head completely shaved off, wearing wraparound sunglasses, and speaking with a strange accent that I could not place – looked tough! We arrive at this home and pick up a really nice sofa and love-seat set. These are loaded into the back of the open pickup truck, and we pull ropes over from one side to the other over the furniture to make sure everything is securely in place. The cushions are stuffed into crevices to make sure that they do not fly off, and the throws (smaller cushions that you throw over the sofa) have been secured in garbage bags which have been shoved under the ropes. Dan says that he will drive carefully. I did not realize then that “carefully” was a relative term. About half a mile into the trip back to the storage area, Dan informs me that one of the garbage bags has fallen off. Luckily there is no traffic since we have not hit the main road yet. I pop out of the passenger seat, run back, grab the bag, and stuff it back more securely into the back (or so I thought). Off we go once again. We are now on a busier road, Route 118, and Dan is driving “carefully” once again. As we pull up to the traffic light just after the Interstate 270 overpass, we hear desperate honking behind us. A van pulls up beside us – you lost one of your bags, we are informed by the driver. So Dan makes a U-turn (carefully!) at the light and we head back. There, in the middle of the busy road, on one of the lanes carrying traffic in the opposite direction, is our garbage bag. As we prepare to make the next U-turn to pick up the bag, I notice that our second bag is also on the road, further along the way. We have lost all our throws! It was just amazing that nobody had yet driven over the garbage bags. Further defensive (or perhaps, in the opinion of some people, offensive) moves are made. Dan pulls up in the middle of the road, and Mr. Joseph has to get out of the truck to pick up the bags. Timing was critical in these maneuvers, and Mr. Joseph performed admirably. The passenger door of the truck had to be pulled open with perfect timing to make sure that it was not taken apart by traffic in the next lane. Mr. Joseph proceeded quickly, and with surprising dexterity, to carry out his mission and make sure that both he and the garbage bags returned to the truck in one piece. The throws made it back to the storage center in the cab of the truck and on my lap – I would not have needed an air bag if Dan Q. had gotten us into a pickle (which would not have been surprising considering the way he was driving). That was my adventure for the day – risking life and limb for a noble cause!! Actually, I have spiced this write up a bit – the traffic was rather light and it was not really that dangerous. Do not worry…..

It turns out that Dan Q is an armed security guard. It is a job he was forced to take after he lost his original job with Verizon many years ago. He is trying to get top secret clearance so that he can get a better job in the government. He intends to complete his master’s degree along the way. He has ambitions. Meanwhile he is also investing in real estate and selling mortgages. He has formed a Limited Liability Company with his wife (now, where have I heard a similar story?). His father was a Chemical Engineer who worked for the government. Dan is from Eastern Maryland – hence his accent. He thinks that the war in Iraq is a big mistake. (There is still hope for America!) That is one more memorable person/character I have met through the furniture program. I do not know if I will get to ride with him again.

I should stop here. This has gotten longer than I wished it to be.

later
kuria

Stories of Our Lives

Each one of us comes with our own life story.  I believe that every story is unique, and that this story is strongly influenced by where we come from, and the circumstances that we grew up in.  I was more conscious of the existence of such stories when encountering people during our recent road trip out west.  It was not just about experiencing the places, it was also about trying to get to get to know a little bit about the people in any little way possible, with the faint possibility of even understanding something a little more substantial about individual lives.  Others’ stories are as important as our own, regardless of what you think of their achievements, or yours.  And many people are, for the most part, just trying to get by and make a living without hurting somebody else, and trying to find some happiness in their lives.  That is universal.  Life is not necessarily about becoming powerful, famous, and well-known, even though that would not be very obvious from what we are used to hearing in the news.

In my mind, most of the interesting interactions with people took place when we were in some of the smaller places, and mostly when we met people associated with the smaller mom-and-pop establishments, like some of the motels we stayed in, or some of the  restaurants we ate at.   Thankfully, there are still places that have not been overtaken by the big hotel chains and other “name brand” commercial establishments. There are places where you can find things that seem more genuine.  In some of the smaller places that we visited, there were even people we encountered who ran multiple establishments or operations of different kinds – like the hotel, the country store, and maybe even the town’s gas station and/or a restaurant.  Life could be about making a living and being happy. It does not necessarily have to be about defining a always rising career.

In the places we were visiting, you could try to imagine the background of the people you were interacting with or talking to (hopefully without romanticizing it unnecessarily), and if things turned in that direction, you could even strike up a conversation with them and get to know something specific about them.

In circumstances like this, when one did get a chance to interact with people, they usually tended to be open and friendly.  There was no reaction that would indicate discomfort because of how dissimilar or out of place tourists like us might have seemed be in the particular situation.  I say that because you typically do not see a large number of Indian tourists at the kinds of places we visited.   That having been said, I am not sure if the people we were meeting were as curious about us as we were about them.  Nevertheless…

Here are some of the folks that I remember from our travels, folks who in many cases were from the little towns that we were passing through:

The waitress at Doug’s Steak and BBQ in  Monticello, UT;  the waitress at The Broken Spur Steakhouse in Torrey who went out her way to customize a dessert for us – she looked busy but she did not ignore us;  the waitress with a east European accent  at Rustler’s restaurant in the town of Tropic, UT,  – we did not have the conversation to figure out how she ended up in Tropic, but she appeared to be bringing up her daughter there; the friendly waitress at Mango’s in Red Cliff, CO, who was cheerfully also serving the noisy crowd at the bar, but nevertheless talked to us a little bit.  (If you do go to Red Cliff, ask about the many dollar bills you will find attached to the ceiling in Mango’s using tacks).

I remember the girl at the hotel front desk at the Green Bridge Inn in Red Cliff, CO.  She clued me in on what there was to do in and around her little town.  The lady who checked us in at the Blue Mountain Horsehead Inn in Monticello cheerfully talked to us about the few eateries in her small town and gave us a sense about how small it was.  They have one traffic light in town, where the two main roads of the town intersect.

The owner of the Peak-to-Peak motel at Estes Park, CO, was manning the front desk of the motel himself.  I got the impression that he took also care of a lot of the things in the motel by himself.  It felt like that kind of an operation. I think he lived in the little house I could see outside the window of our motel room.  He helped us look for a place for dinner and even chatted a little bit about stuff.  His accent did not seem to be of the place.

The lady who was taking care of the Country Store at Cannonville, UT, when we checked in also owned and ran the Grand Staircase Inn.  When we did not have the change with us to pay for what we had bought from the store, she asked us to pay her whenever we were back down at the store, even if it was the next day.   We met her cousin the next morning when we went down for breakfast. She told us that the only two commercial activities in town were the motel and a cement factory.  Apparently, the place always had a small feel to it.

Bernice, the young Navajo girl who was our tour guide at Upper Antelope Slot canyon near Page, AZ, was a whiz with any camera that came here way.  She would take the pictures for the people in her tour with their own cameras.  The pickup truck that she was driving made all kinds of sounds as we traversed the sandy wash, but it made it.  It did not seem to be in the best of shape.  I suspected that the pickup truck was hers, but never found out.  If there had been some spare time, I might have tried to find out more about the life experiences of a young Navajo girl.  When I asked, she said that she did not own a real camera, but muttered something about getting one.  How affordable would something like that be for somebody who earned a living the way she did?

I remember the kindly old native American lady we met at the pullout at Monument Valley.  She was selling trinkets that she had made, and she was willing to talk about herself, where she lived, the circumstances under which she grew up, the life of the Navajo people in general, etc.  She told us that the young Navajo went to college outside the reservation so that they could find jobs.    There were not many jobs in the reservation.

Torrey, UT, is a very small place.  There are small number of private hotels just outside town on the way from Torrey to Capital Reef National park.  One of them was the Noor Hotel.  On our way out of town we stopped at the gas station connected to the hotel.  I had to go into the store to get a receipt.  I could have sworn that the lady behind the counter looked middle eastern.  Unfortunately, it was not the right time to start a conversation and find out.  I did find out that the hotel had changed hands in the last couple of years.

The ranger at the Interagency Visitor Center for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was very friendly.  She took the time to engage with us and to talk about the place, at one point even looking up a book to try to find out information about some plant that Teresa was interested in.  I do not know if she was actually from the local area.  I do not know what the hiring process is for folks who do these kinds of jobs.   In general, the rangers we interacted with were young and enthusiastic, and tried to be helpful.

The circumstances under which we saw the cowboys was not geared towards any meaningful interaction, but I have to wonder about the life of a cowboy these days.  I tried to take a good look at the face of one of these cowboys, but I could not gather a decent impression because I had to concentrate on driving.  Of course, he was wearing a cowboy hat!

Many of the employees in the restaurants that we went to in the very touristy town of Moab appeared to be of Hispanic background, whereas, we did not see many Hispanics on the streets.  It seemed like there was a story somewhere there.

Everyone has his (or her) own story to tell.

 

A Bridge in Montgomery County in Maryland and the African American Experience

Some people think of systemic racism as a thing of the distant past, especially if they happen to live in a part of the country which in the 19th century fought for freeing the slaves.  But institutional racism was alive even in the later half of the 20th century, and in some senses is alive even today.  I would bet that there are some practices today that future generations will look at and say – how could we have accepted that?  The current state of the national education system comes to mind in this regard.   The video below presents life experiences of people who lived, and are living, some of these experiences, told through the story of the bridge.  Not all stories make it to the limelight.

Talbot Avenue Bridge will eventually be demolished and replaced by a new bridge that is a part of the Purple Line project for light commuter rail.  I understand that parts of the original bridge will be saved and moved to locations where they can be used as memorials to remind us of our history.

P.S.  I biked across the Talbot Avenue bridge last year as part of training for my long ride.  The bridge is a part of the Georgetown Branch trail, which is an extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.

Jesus was Here

It was the morning after the wedding.  Some of us were still on east coast time.  I woke up very early (but not early enough to see one of my siblings off to the airport, it seems).  Daylight was breaking and I could hear the sounds of the birds outside the window of our cabin at the Fern River Resort.  The rest of the folks seemed to be safely asleep in their cabins.  They were probably recovering from the festivities of the previous night.  It was a quiet time.

The resort lay among tall redwood trees,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAon a hillside overlooking a point where a little stream met the San Lorenzo river down below us.  (The name of the resort seems to be a misnomer.  Perhaps the little stream used to be called the Fern River, but I could not find any confirmation of this anywhere.) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun had not risen high enough to break through the hills, the tall redwoods, and the early morning clouds.  P5120158.jpgI decided to enjoy my moment of quiet down by the river side.

I crossed over the rocks and little sand dunes beside the river (probably a part of of the river bed itself when the waters were high) and arrived at a little open stretch of land beside the water itself.  It was quite narrow at this point, and the river was possibly crossable on foot if the water had not been flowing swiftly. P5120165.jpgUpstream, just behind an overhang of leaves, I noticed a family of mergansers. They had been floating downstream and had abruptly stopped in the water, having sighted me in the open space on the river bank.  They seemed to be considering their options to proceed downstream.  I had my camera in hand.

All of a sudden, they were moving downstream, effortlessly.  They had simply moved into a position to be caught by the swift current, to let it take them forward.  I pulled up my camera to take pictures, but I was unsuccessful because of the speed and the light.   They floated by, with mamma and papa duck leading the way, and the little one trailing behind, trying to keep pace.  The moment passed by quickly and I stayed by the riverside for a few more minutes to simply absorb the soothing sounds of its flow.   What a peaceful and glorious morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am so happy to have met some of young people who were present at the wedding.  We will certainly not forget the ones who went out of their way to quietly serve the people and help make the event happen. Remarkable human beings, and good examples for all of us to follow!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was this other time when we were talking about how we were planning to get to church in the nearby town of Felton for Sunday services, and they offered up their car keys without hesitation, and without even being asked.  Their minds had jumped one step ahead to how they could help us in any way. It is not as if we even knew them well.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Zuckerberg Strategy for Technology Development

I think I actually understand the Mark Zuckerberg strategy for developing technology and making a business of it.   It is an approach based on placing a product or a feature out there for the public with a limited understanding of its broad impact.  You learn from the responses to the features.  If changes or fixes are to be made they will be made based on feedback, and as the problems arise.  You experiment with new features.  If indeed problems arise for customers, you can respond by apologizing, and it would be an apology that could be sincere since you did not take the trouble to dig more deeply into possible problem scenarios itself.

I think this is a valid approach in some business scenarios and applications, especially if the problems that can arise are most likely to have limited impact on the customer and can be contained, and mostly if the service is free.  But Facebook has become too big for this kind of a strategy to continue to work.  If too many people are impacted, the government gets involved.

If I were to fault Facebook with regards to the problems they have been having recently, it would be for not recognizing the serious nature of the misuse of the system promptly and responding to it.  They seem to have a policy strategy of trying to buy time while not promptly addressing issues that are becoming obvious.   They allowed their system to be co-opted by others to spread misinformation as if it was the truth.  However, in this context, I am not sure what the authorities can hold them liable for.  I am not sure there is any legal basis in current law to prosecute with.

The above problem should be separated from a second one that should not have happened.  There seems to have been a breakdown in Facebook’s security process that led to private data being exposed, a breakdown that should have legal repercussions.

Meanwhile, I am highly amused at all the outrage that is being directed Facebook’s way – as if people did not understand the risks they were taking by participating on this platform.  Any sensible person should realize that when you place your life story on the Internet, and when you do so with a free service, you are taking a big risk.  It is a free service only because your information is being sold to advertisers.   You signed away your privacy.  And Facebook in particular has pushed the boundaries on how to take advantage of the information you provide.  And the platform also seems to be designed to draw out more information about you from you than you might first have been inclined to provide.  Also realize that even when you are given options for privacy from a vendor, you are still at the mercy of the vendor.  You don’t know what goes on behind the button that you have just pressed, or the data you have entered, on the screen.  You could logically believe that they will not take the risk of breaking the law, but anything beyond that is a matter of “trust”.

Would you not be naturally suspicious of a non-philanthropic private organization that provides a free service, and ask yourself how they intend to make money?  Would you not read and understand more carefully the User’s Agreement that you have with a company that is offering you the free service?

In this context, we are our own worst enemies.  We should be protecting ourselves better even without new regulations from government.  People are being manipulated very easily.