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Is Pakistan safe for tourists?

Security for travelers in Pakistan is intense.

There are rifle-wielding guards everywhere.

When you approach the airport in Karachi, you have to pass through a couple of check-points before you ever get to the airport. At the checkpoint, there will be a guard with a rifle pointed straight at you a little ways away. Then beyond him is another guard with a pointed rifle. Past him is a third, and past him is a fourth. That way if the first misses, there’s back-up.

The university where Jassim was at hires lots of security escorts, and they tag along, whether you’re going around town or visiting a historic site.

If you’re a man, at least, they are willing to take a selfie with you, dressed in their camouflage and beards.

One time, Jassim and a party of people from the university wanted to visit some ruin. The university security escorts approved the trip, so everyone set out. Halfway there, however, they came upon a security checkpoint. That checkpoint declared that after all, the party could not pass because there was a person with an American passport (Jassim) and another person with a Swedish passport in the group. It’s not that they don’t want Americans and Swedes to visit this place, but apparently there’s psychos in the region, and if someone lets it slip that foreigners are coming, they try to blow everyone up. They don’t just try to blow up the person with the foreign passport, but all the Pakistanis who are also on the trip with them. Apparently, a bus was blown up in that way a few years ago, and ever since, they’ve been taking extra precautions. The fear is that an evil person working at the hotel where the foreigners are staying will tip off his psycho buddies on the road, who will wait for the coming caravan and welcome it with explosions. Or maybe, it’s a person in the security forces themselves who tip off the psycho buddies down the road.

After a one hour discussion between the security checkpoint people and the security escort, Jassim and the man with the Swedish passport decided they would come back to their hotel alone, so at least the rest of the party could be allowed to continue.

Stuck in Pakistan

I wasn’t stuck in Pakistan; but someone I knew was. Let’s call him Jassim.

Jassim went to Pakistan for two weeks to attend conferences at two different universities. Just so you are aware, purchasing a regular tourist visa to Pakistan, at least for Americans, costs almost $200, but because Jassim was going for conferences, it was considered a “business” trip and that bumped the price up to $350ish. He applied for the visa two weeks before his (already-purchased) ticket was set to depart. The visa arrived from the Pakistani embassy one day before he left, and I think that was only because he spent about four hours on the phone trying to get someone at the embassy to expedite things. He wasn’t talking to anyone; he was waiting hours while the “ding-ding-ding” on-hold music played until someone would pick up. Then as soon as someone picked up, the lined dropped; so he had to call again and listen to the “ding-ding-ding” music another hour until someone answered.

Right around as Jassim was arriving in Pakistan, a big explosion occurred that killed 40 Indian soldiers. India bombed Pakistan in retaliation; and then Pakistan shot down an Indian plane and took the pilot prisoner. We texted Jassim during all the commotion to ask, “are things tense?” and he goes, “no, not at all!” But next thing we know, all the internal flights were grounded in Pakistan. Jassim had just finished up the last items on his business agenda in a city called Rahim Yar Khan, and he was supposed to be in Karachi the next day to catch his plane out of the country. It is almost 400 miles (about 620 km) …

rahim yar khan to karachi

and he no longer had a flight to get there! Luckily, there’s a train. Google Maps says there is no train, but there is. It takes 10 hours, and it’s an overnighter. Jassim found out at 4:00 pm that the planes were canceled; and this overnight train was leaving at 4:30! He rushed to his hotel; he still had to pack up all his things. He grabbed everything, helter-skelter, ran down to the lobby, and made to get on his way. At least he wasn’t alone. All his university professor hosts, plus an entourage of about 10 students, were trying to make sure Jassim made the train. In the lobby, there was a hold-up. The rifle-carrying guards who apparently man all of Pakistan informed Jassim that his journey to the train station, seeing as it had been decided upon just minutes before, wasn’t registered and therefore they couldn’t give him permission to go. A big discussion ensued. The university professors were saying, “just get out of the way and let us go!” After a conference of about 5 minutes, the security police relented, and everyone rushed to the station. Three minutes after they got there, the train came chugging through: choo choo. The entourage of students grabbed all of Jassim’s bags and hurried him and his stuff onto the train. The train departed.

So he just barely made it, but unfortunately all the rush was for nothing, because by the next day, all the international flights were grounded, too, and Jassim’s flight out of Karachi, at whose insistence all the fuss with the train had occurred, was canceled.

Jassim’s train pulled into Karachi on February 28, in the morning. He called the American embassy, but they weren’t ready yet to haul in the military and evacuate all American citizens. They told him: call your airlines and keep updated.

On March 1, the airline Etihad announced that all flights had returned to normal operations. Jassim spent hours on the phone to get a spot, but you know that there were two or three days’ worth of missed flights full of passengers trying to do the same, and the earliest anyone would put him on a flight out was March 6. But he kept calling, and by some miracle, eventually a guy got him a seat on the flight leaving in less than 6 hours. Ta-da!

There were so many checkpoints and security lines around the airport that after all that hassle, he still nearly missed his flight. But he made it in the end. Now he was un-stuck from Pakistan.

Me and Anne Shirley teaching: Animations with Kids

I just finished re-reading Anne of Avonlea (the sequel to Anne of Green Gables.) In that book, Anne is sixteen-and-a-half years old and starts teaching, and of course, she becomes the best teacher the kids ever had.

I always liked reading this book. I loved reading about Anne as a teacher. Except this time when I read it, I realized how little it actually focuses on the teaching itself. Most of it is about everything else going on in Anne’s life.

But as far as the teaching parts go – it was good for me to re-read about that, because it is imbued with Anne’s philosophies as far as teaching go. And her philosophy is to be very kind and inspiring.

If you’ve been reading about my challenges as I run my “Science Animations with Kids” program, then you will know that no matter how inspiring I try to be, I still don’t always reach the kids. My foundational philosophy with this program is that all kids love to be creative; and all kids especially love Disney films and animated films. And if they are given a chance to make a computer animated film about science, then they will learn the value of teamwork, computers, taking care of the earth, reading, creativity, and science careers all at once. I mean, how can you get more inspirational than that?!

And yet, I had second-graders laughing at the work other second-graders did; and I had the girl Anna who I snapped at when she leaned back; and I had the other girl, Leah, who just up and turned her back and nearly started to cry when it was her turn. Those have been some rough moments.

Reading about Anne’s philosophy of kindness, I realized that I just not the kind of person who can live up to that. I am not patient enough, I’m not tactful enough, not soothing enough. When I get the attitudes of different kids flung in my face, my instinct is not always to try to “understand” and be gentle and mothering; rather, I want to fling their attitude back in their face.

I had a pretty bad day with the fifth-graders at Wolf Meadow two weeks ago. When I walked into the class, Anna – who I sadly correctly predicted I had lost the trust and respect of – gave one glance my way and immediately ripped out a groan: oh, she’s here again?

That’s a nice entrance to have when you’re volunteering, of course. The teacher told her right away: Anna! That was very rude. Apologize!

I honestly don’t know whether Anna apologized or not. I am sometimes slow to take in what is happening. I might not even have noticed what Anna said had not the teacher commented on it, or realized that Anna’s outburst was directed towards me. But as soon as my brain caught up, I simply decided I didn’t want Anna’s apology; I just didn’t want to work with Anna at all.

During that same class period, I managed to work with 3 kids in total; that’s pretty slow progress. It wasn’t because the kids were being slow, they were just being careful. But the slow progress was starting to frustrate me nevertheless, plus at this school I don’t have the luxury of having hours of time allotted when I can pull kids to animate with; all the time is kind of on a strict diet, if you will. The last kid I worked with that day, “Evan”, ended by making me really mad. After he was done animating, he told me: because I animated with you, now I won’t have time to build me connect-a-Lego! (some sort of construction building-block game.) I thought to myself: hello! This might be the only time in your life that you get to make a computer animation, and you’re complaining that you didn’t get to build your connect-a-Lego that you can access in class any old day? That’s gratitude for you! Out-loud I just told him curtly: then you should have told me from the start you didn’t want to do this, and I could have gotten another kid to animate your page.

Evan stayed still for a while as he wrapped his brain around this thought; and I did feel a little bit bad! I remember being his age, and feeling like when a grown-up told you to do something, not realizing that you have an option to say ‘no’; because so often you actually don’t have an option to refuse. How was Evan to know that he could have refused me?

He then bounded off to play with connect-a-Lego; but class ended shortly thereafter. As the kids filed out for lunch, someone called out, Evan’s crying. And indeed he was; he was squatting on the floor, over his beloved Connect-a-Lego, crying his heart out because class was over and he had to put everything away. “But I was almost done!” he wailed. His teacher, who has a heart of gold, tried to sooth him. But I did not! I did not feel bad or sorry for him; I felt mad. Like what am I doing with this project if Evan’s going to cry about it, and Anna’s going to groan?

I went home that day to an email inbox full of job rejections; oh, I was in a state, let me tell you!

The next day, I yelled at some people and felt better. I went back to Wolf Meadow, and luckily, no kid started crying when they had to animate with me.

The next week, when I was back at Wolf Meadow again, Evan came up to talk to me, all normal. I guess he has forgiven me for stealing his connect-a-Lego time. And I hope he will enjoy watching his part of the animated film when it’s all over. Anna is apparently a lost cause for me. But something surprising happened with the other girl with whom I’d had a hard time, Leah.

Ever since she’d gotten into a huff with me, she’s been hanging around when I animate with other kids. She’ll throw glances my way. Last Friday, a girl called “Miya” – who maybe is friends with Leah – did a very cool thing. She got the scientist in the program to walk across the screen. Miya did a great job, so I was squealing in praise of her. Leah showed up next to us! “Is that fun?” she asked in a very kind and very humble way to Miya. I pretended not to notice. Miya kept on making the scientist walk, and by the time she was done, we had a little audience behind us. Everyone was clapping Miya on. This is, by the way, one of the moments that does make me feel good about this program; because I don’t think Miya is someone who gets a lot of praise for accomplishments on the regular. But now she was having this special moment.

Suddenly, who should sidle up next to me but Leah? She dropped onto her knees so her head was level with mine (I was seated) and she said: Dr. Mejs, I’m sorry I was rude the other day.

And just like that, we made up. We talked a bit, and shook hands, and I can’t wait to animate with her now!

The teacher saw our interaction, and after the class had left for lunch, she asked: “so you’re good now with Leah?”

“Yep!” I answered. “She apologized.”

“What?!” The teacher was very surprised, which in turn made me surprised.

“I thought you’d told her to apologize,” I said.

“Not me! When she walked into class today, Leah told me, ‘I still haven’t animated my page. And I don’t want to, either!'”

You’ve got to love the defiance! I’m glad she changed her mind, and I think it speaks volumes that she apologized off her own bat, without any prompting. It was a good ending to this particular episode. So I’m not at Anne Shirley-levels of greatness in teaching; but I hope that I am doing more good than harm.

Amtrak’s clever plan for getting from Houston to Chicago

Let us first examine the map, so we know what we’re talking about:

amtrak houston chicago

See that, Houston to Chicago, a straight shot north across the United States.

Here’s Amtrak’s proposal:

Step 1: take the Sunset Limited train from Houston to Los Angeles.

Step 2: take the Coastal Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon.

Step 3: take the Empire Builder from Portland to Chicago.

amtrak houston chicago long way

In all, it takes you 117 hours (5 days) and you take a real scenic route through two thirds of the US. So what are you waiting for?!

Note: In Amtrak’s defense, that was their second suggestion.

 

“We fell in love in a hopeless place”

This was my third article for The Daily Tar Heel: “We fell in love in a hopeless place.”

If you go to my “writing” page, you will see that it’s one of my favorite articles that I wrote.

I wrote it during a pretty stressful time; and I wrote and re-wrote and crafted every word as carefully as I could.

And I always thought I must have succeeded in what I was trying to say, because afterwards, some people came up to me and told me in person they’d liked it; others wrote Facebook messages. Sometimes it was messages from strangers. It meant a lot. I was always very happy with that article.

I just re-read it for the first time in over a year, and now I’m not so sure! Is it too jumpy? I mean, I had a 500 word limit, so things had to be kept tight, but I seem to zig and zag from topic to topic without ceremony, and even though I wrote it, and it’s my own experience, I got a little confused – wait a second, what are you (am I) talking about!

The last of the mohicans

I’m reading the “Last of the Mohicans”. I’m reading it because Lucy Maud Montgomery read it and mentioned it in her journal. However, I checked it out 2 months ago and I am still on page 45. In the meantime, I finished reading “How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents” and started and am over halfway through “The Mill on the Floss,” which is 550 massive, small-print pages. So you may infer from that what I think of “The last of the Mohicans.”

Is this book considered offensive towards American Indians? I’m going to do some digging into that.

In the meantime, though, the book is describing an utter wilderness of what is now upstate New York, way back in the 1700s. An untouched forest where you easily can lose your way in between two different forts: Fort Edward and Fort William Henry.

last of the mohican map
Fort Edward is at the bottom, and Fort William Henry is just over the tip of the screenshot (couldn’t fit)

Now look. That whole wild forest where the main characters got lost has just vanished. It’s kind of sad. Lucy Maud Montgomery writing about Prince Edward Island helped preserve nearly all the natural beauty there, it seems like; it’s sad Last of the Mohicans couldn’t do the same for this area. Maybe because the book really is bad.

Can’t understand fifth-graders

I’m working with fifth-graders, and they are quite beyond my comprehension.

There was this girl called … well, let’s call her Anna. She’s a goofy girl. She spent the first class I was with them with her head down or in her arms the whole time nearly. Now she’s opened up a bit and she can’t go two seconds without whispering and giggling and making some sort of reaction to every thing I say as I stand before the class and teach. And how am I supposed to know if her reaction is in sympathy or in hostility? Her guffaws and giggles leave a lot of room for interpretation. Is she really bored? Is she testing my (non-existent) discipline? Does she like me and she felt comfortable enough to joke around, not realizing that doesn’t work when you’re trying to teach a whole group something (obviously, I hope for the latter.)

Except now she really doesn’t like me. This particular classroom has very bad lighting. The other schools I’ve been in must have way newer technology: even when the room is lit, the kids and I can see see my laptop, with Blender open on it, projected onto the SmartBoard with no difficulty. In this new school, even when all the lights are OFF, my screen of Blender on the SmartBoard nevertheless persists in being gray-tinted and dull. So we decided that instead of me teaching all 25 or so kids about animation basics at once, we instead would split the class up into two. I’d only teach about 10 at a time, and there would be enough room for them to sit on the carpet up close to the board to see. The other half of the class was to sit quietly (ahahahahahahahaha) in the back and build stuff with Legos until it was time to switch.

They were not quiet in the least, and I’m the sort of person who can’t really hear myself think if I’m trying to teach and there’s lots of distractions. I mean, it was really noisy. And me getting flustered, I kept getting messed up in my lesson and explaining things the wrong way. My 10 kids on the carpet before me, all of them too were whispering and giggling, and Anna was the worst. Or was she? She was the only black girl sitting up front. And she’s unfortunately really good at drawing attention to herself, and I spent the whole time wondering – is my perception even true, or is it just because she’s a black girl who won’t sit still that I’m singling her out as the worst? My lesson was going to the dogs, and I was exhausted trying to manage with all the noise in the background plus the fidgets right in front of me – yes, exhausted, I tell you, after 10 minutes! Plus, the room being all dark except for the glaring glow of the SmartBoard made me feel claustrophobic. Plus, I’m teaching them computer animation for crying out loud! Can’t they sit still for that?

Then Anna slung herself over. She actually just slung herself back on her elbows, but I reacted before that, during a split second when I actually thought she was going to lie down.

“Anna!” I said very sharply. “Sit up.”

She did not. I waited a second. I suspected that she was in that confused spot where she doesn’t want to be the “bad kid” but neither does she want to acquiesce and allow herself to be bossed around by me. So I kept moving with the lesson. She sat up as soon as I moved on. But you know, any hope I could have had of building trust with her or inspiring her into anything is probably over.

Shortly thereafter, so exhausted was I that I just plopped myself into a chair and declared I couldn’t go on. The kids looked both confused and nonchalant.

Today when I went back to teach the second class of fifth-graders, we did the whole class all at once. Ten kids sat on the carpet, the rest sat on the nearest chairs. I think most of them could see, after all. We got through the lesson. Still quite a lot of fidgets starting around 20 minutes in! But more manageable because there wasn’t all the background noise to distract us, I could hear myself think, and we had the whole class time, rather than just half of it, to do a thorough and proper lesson on using Blender.

Next week, I’ll go back and try to teach the first classroom, again. Whole group this time. I’m kind of nervous what happens with Anna.

Update: it was a great lesson! but Anna was absent!