Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Packing for Travel Part 2 - The Checked Bag

My suitcase is my home and office while I’m on the go, and there’s a decent amount of redundancy, since my current work is team-based, and part of my job is to keep them functioning smoothly in the field. This is why 25% of my luggage weight is cliff bars and office supplies.

Items pictured, vertically right to left: Dress shoes, additional gallon zip-lock bags, folders and manila envelopes with additional documents, duct tape (black), masking tape, books, running shoes, oblique strategies deck, card game, business cards, cheap folding knife, head-lamp, bandanna, packing cube (socks, undershorts, and undershirts), zip-lock bag with secondary toiletries (comb, deodorant, assorted vitamins, hand sanitizer, Emergen-C,  lozenges, q-tips, soap, full-size toothbrush),  small travel cube (t-shirts, and misc. loose items), crushable hat, binoculars, large travel cube (dress shirts and dress slacks), spare notepads, gallon zip-lock bag with tertiary toiletries (electric razor, lotion, sunscreen, bug repellent, lint-roller), gallon zip-lock with office supplies (sharpies, highlighters, markers, pens, post-it notes, binder clips, scissors, voice recorder), gallon zip-lock (assorted cliff bars). Not pictured – suit jacket and hiking boots.

The most interesting and exciting discovery I’ve made in the course of getting better at travel is “travel-cubes.” Somehow these modular stuff sacks make packing insanely easy. That's a week's worth of clothes in the image below, except for my suit jacket, and footwear. A must-have from now on.

Some various comments on products above:

Books include “The Nature of Scientific Revolutions,” and a general history of Central America. Decks of  cards include the game "Flux" and Brian Eno's creative problem-solving deck, "Oblique Strategies"

Some reflection on what was and wasn't useful will come next week.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Packing for Travel Part 1 – The Carry-on

As I write this I’m travelling to Central America for a two week work trip. Although I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately, I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert traveler yet. I’m writing this in no small part to myself, so I can think about what my packing choices were and what I can learn from this retrospectively.

The travel I do is for work rather than tourism, and tends to be rather specific in its nature. I mostly stay in midrange hotels, and 80-90% of my time is spent in the capitals, or other larger cities, so although my packing choices will have limited relevance for backpackers, campers, and other types of adventurous tourists, there may be some useful ideas here.

When I pack I prefer to do a two-tiered approach: a light easy-to-carry backpack and a large suitcase. I sometimes also carry a separate laptop bag, but I’ve found that to be an annoyance, and I’m now working to integrate that into my backpack (which may need to be replaced with a slightly larger one to accommodate this easily). My operative philosophy is to be prepared for the chance that my checked bag may not get to the right place. It’s not a problem that I’ve run into, but I’d rather not take the chance.

My current backpack setup is pictured here:

Items pictured, starting top left, in vertical rows:

Backpack, books, flip-flops, cheap poncho, zip-lock bag of essential toiletries (toothpaste, travel toothbrush, deodorant, broad-spectrum antibiotics, advil, Emergen-C, etc.), flashlight, misc. pens, two folded garbage bags, hand sanitizer, bandanna, glasses/case, cliff bars, zip-lock bag of batteries (AA & AAA), digital camera, fitbit charger, phone quick-charger, notepads and essential documents, sunglasses, phone charger, cheap phone (for use with local SIM card upon arrival), zip-lock bag of nitrile gloves, shemagh, basic clothes (two pairs of socks, t-shirt, undershirt, synthetic/wrinkle-free dress shirt, running shorts light slacks,). 

Books include a pocket Spanish/English dictionary, a travel safety book, “The Fourth Way,” “Digital Humanitarians,” and “Tactical Reality Dictionary.” 

Most of these things are self-evident in their utility, but a few deserve extra mention:

Zip-lock bag (various contents): I use zip-lock bags for all sorts of things. They help with organization, but they also help prevent water damage and insect infiltration. I also keep a couple of garbage bags handy as well. They are essential for packing wet/dirty clothes in amongst the dry/clean ones when you’re on the move, or for wrapping shoes when you have to tuck them in a bag.

Antibiotics: In much of the developing world it is possible to buy antibiotics without a prescription. It’s always a good idea to pick some up when you arrive, just in case. That said, the quality and strength of those antibiotics cannot always be known, so it’s good to keep a backup stash of something potent and fast, especially if you don’t have a lot of extra time to spend regretting your dietary habits.

Phone quick-charger: It’s a horrible waste of batteries, but sometimes your phone is your lifeline, and a dead phone is a crappy lifeline. It's possible to buy much better ones (e.g. something like this), but AA batteries can be found almost anywhere.

Cheap phone: mobile phones are dirt cheap in most places around the world, and once you have one, switching out SIM cards is easy. I’m putting together a pill container with SIM cards from different countries that I can travel to regularly.

Nitrile gloves: sometimes you have no choice but to touch something disgusting. The gloves help.

Shemagh: Also known as a kefyya this is an incredibly useful thing to have. Aside from doubling as a head covering and scarf, it can also be used to wrap fragile items, serve as a makeshift carrying sack, swaddle a newborn baby that you just delivered in the back of a taxi, flag down a passing freighter from a deserted isle, you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta, and...well, you get the idea.

Clothes: Though I’ve never needed to use them, it’s reassuring to know that they’re there.
Once packed, this bag weighs about 15 lbs. Adding a laptop and charger can very easily push that up to 20, and a water bottle adds another 2-3 as well. That’s really a bit more than I’d prefer, and some of this weight could be saved by switching from books to a kindle or other e-reader, but I’m not quite ready to make that jump yet.

Part two - suitcase contents - coming next.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Kukri-makers of Nepal

This past November I traveled to Kathmandu as part of a work project. This was my first time in Nepal but my schedule was a rather breakneck one that provided little opportunity for sightseeing. On top of that, I came down with some sort of virus that left me wiped out after just a few hours of activity, and prone to evening cycles of shuddering chills and sheet drenching night-sweats.

A week into the trip I finally drove the bug from my system with cheap over-the-counter antibiotics (fortified by chloroquinine in case it was malaria) and I was finally able to take a little time to myself.

Earlier in the week, I had stopped into a kukri shop in Thamel, the heavily tourist-oriented district of Kathmandu. Kukris are the famous leaf-bladed combat knives of the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers, and something of a hot tourist item for visitors to Kathmandu. The shopkeeper and I had a pleasant conversation about the origin of his knives, which came from two small workshops that he also owned. Intrigued, I asked if it was possible to visit one of the workshops, and he said he would be happy to take me to the nearer of the two as long as I gave him a little notice.

On Saturday took him up on the offer, and a friend of his drove us out to a small blacksmith shop in Biratnagar. Blacksmiths hold a rather unenviable position in the Nepali caste system – they (along with goldsmiths) belong to the Kami caste, one of the lowest-status groups in the country. Although caste distinctions have been somewhat diminished since the 1962 constitution, they are still a powerful and unavoidable fact of life in most parts of the country, particularly for those who come from the lower castes and especially those living outside urban areas. As we were leaving the city, we passed a street rally for increased Dalit rights. From my limited knowledge of India social structure, Dalits (sometimes called untouchables or Hijaran) are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to social strata, and I asked if that was also the case in Nepal. My host waved dismissively at the marchers, “Their situation is very good. They have legal protections and unions. Blacksmiths are at the bottom.”
Dalit Women March for Public Respect
He went on to explain that despite legal formalities to the contrary, blacksmiths are social pariahs in the communities where they work. “Parents to not want their children to play with the children of blacksmiths, and they would never invite a blacksmith into their home.” Although they cannot be excluded from community governance activities (like town meetings), and they are invited to family events such as birth and marriage celebrations they are not given equal status in most matters. Ironically, many blacksmiths, despite few opportunities to escape their social strictures, are financially successful, as their trade is one with limited competition and their services are vital to the rural communities that they serve.

My guide (who also comes from a Kami family) said that his own suppliers earn more money making knives for him than they do from making and repairing farming and household implements for their neighbors. Unfortunately, they must set aside time to forge sickles and hoes, or they face the threat of further ostracizing or even violence from the community.
This is actually a different Nepali village that I visited earlier that week, but it's a better picture.
A 45 minute drive brings us to the town where the workshop is located. Like most things in this part of Nepal, the town is perched on the slope of high hills overlooking terraced fields that look like they’re just waiting for a talented photographer to show up and make them look good at sunset.

This is where the magic happens
The workshop is in the back of what can best be called a one-room storefront packed with sharp things and hammers. Some are clearly factory made, and some more evidently the handiwork of the friendly balding man in a blue jumpsuit and bandanna who greets us as we enter.

His setup is a simple one, and aside from the incorporation of an electric blower to replace the human-powered bellows, the setup is much like it would have been a century ago or longer. The process, too, is straightforward: a scoop of charcoal is placed on top of a small glowing fire in a shallow depression in the ground that serves as a forge, at which point the blower is turned on, forcing air up through the embers, and rapidly raising the temperature of the fire. The metal to be worked (usually a piece of spring steel from a busted automobile leaf spring) is laid on top of the coals until it is glowing red, at which point the smith grabs it by the cool end with an ungloved hand, and works the metal with steady hammer strokes until it has cooled too much to be malleable. As seen in picture here, the anvil itself is just two sledgehammer heads imbedded in a large log. The top face of one of the hammer heads is flattened in a way that suggests decades of use.
Kukri knives with 10" and 7" blades laid out on an unmade bed

Each knife takes about a day of work, which includes fitting the wood for the handle, sharpening the edge, and buffing the blade to a bright shine. No two knives are exactly alike, so every sheath is custom-fitted for an individual blade. Every blade is accompanied by two additional blade-like implements. I've heard several descriptions regarding the purpose of these two mini-knives, most commonly that they're held in the clenched left hand with points protruding from between the ring/pinky fingers and the index/middle fingers so they can be used to punch or gouge an enemy's eyes in battle. Although this is not entirely implausible, according to the blacksmith their purposes are much more mundane. Both are made from a high-carbon steel that is harder than the blade of the kukri itself. One has a dull edge, and is intended to be used for sharpening the kukri by running it down the length of the blade on both sides like a butcher's steel. The other has a squared-off flat edge and is used for striking fire-making sparks off of flint or other spark-producing stones.
The blacksmith. Note automobile leaf spring mid-photo.

As the blacksmith shapes the end of another blade, I stand and watch with the shopkeeper and the blacksmith's nephew - a teenager in a track suit. The nephew doesn't understand why I'm there; this is not a tourist destination and I'm not talking business with anyone. I'm just standing around asking questions about the tempering process and the random household implements in the front room.

After a bit of that, the shopkeeper goes through the standing inventory of new stock and loads much of it into the back of the car as we prepare to leave. Ordinarily he makes the trip on a scooter, which limits how much he can bring back to his store in Kathmandu in a single trip. Fortunately for him, I'm footing the bill for a car, which saves him a trip or two.

Once we're ready to go, the blacksmith and his nephew wave good-by and return to the anvil.


For more information on the Kami blacksmiths of Nepal, some additional reading can be found here:

Monday, January 26, 2015

Retooling and refocusing

Back in October of 2013 I stopped putting up new posts on this page. Between a new job and a major death in the family I had other things in my life that were taking precedence. Mouth shut, eyes and ears open, that was the rule for the year that followed...

...and the year that followed  has been a pretty amazing one.

In particular, I've had the opportunity to travel to places I've always wanted to go, and places it never even occurred to me to want to go. Ironically enough, given my prior focus on the greater Middle East, almost none of the work or travel that I've done has been in any way connected to that region.

Instead, I have spent the past year working on projects that apply GIS and geospatial data to thorny but mundane problems of day-to-day life. I alternate between an intimately close village-level perspective of far-flung places around the world, and (almost literally) the broader view from space.

Although my interests still lie within the greater Middle East, my work no longer does, so although I intend to restart my posting activities, my attention will be broadening to a wider range of topics.

What topics? Well, pretty much whatever appeals to me at the moment, but with upcoming trips to Central America, the Levant, South Asia, and East Africa, I'll definitely be able to throw some pictures up for your edification, along with whatever meanderings and monologues I see fit to transcribe for your entertainment and interest. Maybe some travel tips, music reviews, cooking experiments, literary musings, artistic exploits, and straight up rants as well.

Let's do this!

“Walk tall, kick ass, learn to speak Arabic, love music and never forget you come from a long line of truth seekers, lovers and warriors.” 
 -Hunter S. Thompson

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Save yourself the trouble of reading about Syria...

Many years ago, while working as a waiter, I was taught the secret to carrying a tray full of overfull drinks across a crowded room without spilling. It's simple: don't look at the tray.

The problem is this: if you're looking at the drinks while you're walking, you'll try to compensate for the movement of the liquid in the glass based on what you see. And it won't work. Because all you're seeing is the liquid moving in response to things that have already happened. To avoid this, you simply look away – focus on where you're headed, and your hand will automatically compensate for whatever's happening on the tray.

I've been repeatedly reminded of this over the last few days as the pundit class (professional and amateur) have continuously tried to reanalyze the constantly changing calculus surrounding Syrian use of chemical weapons and the world's response. Every event, large or small, prompts a new wave of analysis that, interestingly enough, always seems to confirm whatever they said previously.

But I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

Confirmation bias aside, thanks to cable news, the internet, twitter, text messaging, Skype, and everything else, most of these pundits think they're looking at what's happening, but all they're looking at is what has already happened. I'm reminded of Walter Benjamin's description of the Angel of History (famously quoted in Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities”)
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
As the pundits seek to analyze the continuous flow of chaos and information, their inevitable fallback is the certainty of their own deeply held positions.

So, towards that end let me save you the trouble of reading any analysis of the US and its actions in relationship to Syria today (and possibly tomorrow). Here are most of your possible op-eds and analysis pieces:

1. Obama is terrible and everything he does is terrible! (a.k.a. "this is bad for Obama”). It's a nice, easy, and convenient approach that always has a guaranteed audience. The articles practically write themselves. All you need to do is look at whatever happened yesterday and explain: Whatever Obama did was the absolute worst possible thing he could've done and/or Whatever happened is the final step in Obama’s inevitable failure as a president

2. Obama is great and everything he does is great! This has two basic variations:
(2a.) Everyone else is playing checkers and Obama is playing 10 dimensional chess - he is always ahead of the curve and always has his next dozen moves plotted out in advance.
(2b.) In a chaotic situation where no one has control and none of the choices are good, Obama is such a genius that he always picks the best possible option

3. War is never the answer! This has two subcategories:
(3a.) Obama hates war and is trying to avoid it
(3b.) Obama is just like Bush and desperately wants us to go to war

4. Violence is the only language these guys understand! We must intervene because of (choose any or all of the following)
(4a.) Iran
(4b.) Israel
(4c.) Chemical Weapons

Additional elements that can be included as needed:

  • The rebels are really Al-Qaeda/cannibals
  • The rebels were the ones who did the gassing
  • Oil pipeline across Syria

So there you have it. Pick one and stick with it no matter what anyone else tells you.
(Keep in mind; it’s much more important to know what a schmuck at CNN, Fox News, the Washington Post, or Politico thinks about this than…say…a Syrian.)