Category Archives: MIT

Humans of Soweto On Sea and the Larger Struggle: South Africa (Day 2, Part 1)

Monday morning.

But unlike most Mondays at MIT, my alarm rang not for a 9 a.m. class but an 8 a.m. briefing with NMMU faculty on their Missionvale campus, Development Studies students and Port Elizabeth community workers.  We were preparing for a transect walk through several communities near Missionvale.  The idea we were all operating on was that without understanding the social environment and historical context of the communities facing water crises on the ground, there was no way a sustainable solution could be implemented.  Together with the community workers who had been through the area and the NMMU students, we began our walk through Soweto On Sea, a township outside of the Missionvale campus.  We were told that whenever we wanted to approach someone we could ask them for help with translation, though most of the people there were comfortable with at least understanding English.  We were also told that this was a relatively poor district and unemployment was extremely high, so though the people of the community were known for being extremely welcoming, we should still be careful of our material possessions.

The streets of Soweto.
The streets of Soweto.
MIT/NMMU students and community workers walking down a hill of trash into the Soweto community.
MIT/NMMU students and community workers walking down a hill of trash into the Soweto community.

As we walked through the community and asked various people if we could take pictures for our project, I was struck by their observations and their warmth, which often starkly contrasted with their destitute surroundings.  Here are some of the Humans of Soweto On Sea, Brandon-Stanton-style:

 ***

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The little girl had been standing by the door for quite some time with an ecstatic smile on her face, much like the one in this picture.  When we approached, she ran off giggling to get her mother.  Even as her mother told us about the traditional community gatherings, full of songs, dance, “plenty of meat, and African beer,”  the little girl continued to smile, mesmerized by the microphone. 

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“I collect the plastic bottles thrown here and bring them to a woman.  Sometimes she weighs them and tells me they are not enough, so she only gives me 20 Rand.  Other days she may give me 30 Rand.  I have to live that day with whatever she gives me.” [translated]

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When we asked her for a picture, this woman ran into her house, and suddenly emerged with a broom to began to dance around the front of the house and mock-sweeping the ground. 

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“Hi, what’s your name?”

“My Xhosa name is ‘Noh-mah-soh-mee.’  But my English name is Princess.”

“Princess?  That’s a pretty name.”

She laughs.  “A pretty name? Well, thank you, my baby.”

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“What are you here for?  I want a new roof like that one!  Please!” (jumping up and down)

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“Do you see those horns on that stick?  This is the traditional, sacred place in the house.  If someone in the family is having problems, with their job, with their marriage, they will get up early and come and hope for a solution.  When there’s a new baby, they might slaughter a goat, or for a big function they might slaughter a cow.  I guess it’s pretty difficult to be vegetarian here.”

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“Can I count for you?”

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“You take picture of my car wash?  Please? Come here, I show you.  My car wash.  You have to tell everyone about my car wash please!  We get 45 Rand washing 2 cars per day for both of us.  Please tell everyone about the car wash.”

***

These were a few of the many people who stopped to ask us what we were doing, who excitedly flocked to take pictures with us, or who were willing to tell us about their lives in Soweto On Sea. A couple of the community workers later told us that everyone wanted to know what we were going to help change.  They called us a “beacon of hope.”  It would have been really easy for them to face us with hostility for being “privileged,” for questioning what our presence there could do given that things hadn’t changed for years.  But they didn’t.  And they believed our presence could create that change.

 

And Then There Was 2014.

This blog has been a bit quiet recently.  This past semester had me wrapped around its little finger and I faced what was probably my most challenging several months, academically and personally.  But it’s over, and with a finished semester and a holiday vacation comes time for reflection. Google did a fantastic job recapping the year for the world in Zeitgeist 2013.  What has this year meant for me?
  • Big Ben, Feb 2013
    Big Ben, Feb 2013

    2 new countries on my passport (UK and Mexico)

  • Finishing a year-long endeavor to watch all of the FRIENDS episodes with two of the besties
  • Traveling to 4 new states, 2 new national parks, and many more of this country’s geological wonders
  • Experiencing the strength of a community after the Boston Marathon bombings
  • Dolphin Kiss, Cancun, Dec 2013
    Dolphin Kiss, Cancun, Dec 2013

    Para-sailing and swimming with dolphins in the first ever Gururaj-Hukeri-Kanmadhikar 17-person-vacation “big family” vacation (more on this to come!)

  • Seeing old friends graduate and move on
  • The MIT Brass Rat, companion for life
Brass Rat, Jun 2013
MIT Ring Delivery, May 2013
  • The first time I’ve ever lived truly on my own
  • Falling in love with Pentatonix
  • A new family in Southern California
  • Putting on the best a cappella concert at MIT this fall (alright I’m a bit biased) with my favorite singers on campus.
MIT Ohms, Nov 2013
  • The sweetest of friendship
  • Sweat, tears, success, failure… and so much more.
And now it’s time to welcome the New Year with some of my closest friends and family.  Decorations? Check. Dance playlist? Check. Fondue? Check. Champagne/sparkling cider? Check.  Anderson Cooper in Times Square? Check.  2014, we’re ready.

MIT De-Techified: A Different Good-Bye

This past semester has involved a lot of time for reflection.  It’s hard to believe that I’ve been at MIT for two years now.  I’ve walked down the Infinite Corridor, de-stressed by the Charles River, watched the Boston skyline from the McCormick penthouses, and midnight-snacked on mozzarella sticks from the student center already for half of the time I will be here in this unique, incomparable part of my life.

But this semester there was also the looming realization that there were people above me, people who I have come to know in all sorts of times, who would soon complete this part of their journey.  When the video commemorating the seniors was played at our annual South Asian Culture Show, my reaction was much stronger than I expected.  Sure, there was a graduating class last year too, but my interaction with them was more of a freshman looking up in awe at accomplished seniors.  And I was pretty close to many in the high school graduating year before mine, but it was still high school.  College represents a different level of friendship that comes with not only interactions in an academic/work environment but also with living next to them, eating with them in dining halls, waking up at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning to practice with them in a dance studio.  MIT also doesn’t separate residences by class, which means that over my four years here I will live with and come to know the 2012’s all the way to the 2018’s (that number just sounds scary).

Drew Houston ’05 delivers the Commencement Address.
[from http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/commencement-address-houston-0607.html ]
Yesterday, Friday, June 7, 2013, the 147th graduating class of MIT received their degrees in the beautifully green Killian court with the famous dome for a backdrop.  The students heard commencement speaker Drew Houston, MIT alum and CEO of Dropbox, give an inspiring speech to the graduates, telling them to seek out the challenging experiences, the new “fire hoses,” and go “ever upward.”  They sat with the friends they’ve made over the past few years, took plenty of pictures, and I’m sure, shed a few tears.

Any MIT alum you talk to will always say that the most valuable part of their MIT experience was the people they met.  And undoubtedly, the 2013’s I know are people whom I hope to never actually have to say good-bye.  Almost before I even made close friends in my own year, I got to know 2013’s, who were juniors then, first through my a cappella group and a few other dance groups I performed in.  Over time in various classes, clubs, and experiences like LeaderShape, I got to know a lot of 2013’s.  They were crazy.  They were hilarious.  They all had strong, independent personalities, but you always knew you could come to them with anything.  They were involved in everything from social get-togethers to campus initiatives to performance groups, but they always made plenty of time for pure goofing-off.  They achieved everything they set out to do but were never oblivious to their faults, their humanness.

One of the biggest sources of my interactions with the current seniors was through my South Asian a cappella group, called the MIT Ohms (which should tell you something about the personality of this group).  These 2013’s were actually the ones who founded the group when they were sophomores, the year before I came. In them I immediately found close friends and a family of older brothers and sisters.  I will never forget preparing for our fall concert that semester–the hours of filming ridiculous skits that ended in fits of giggles, corny punch lines, ripped-pants and singing/rapping sessions.  In fact, my first “all-nighter” at MIT (term applied loosely because I still slept 1.5 hours) was born out of editing those videos the night before my concert.  And yes, I definitely learned from all of them that it’s never too late to pull off something amazing.

My beloved Ohmies.
[poster and photo credit: Rik Sengupta, Divya Panchanathan]
But they also showed me and the rest of us how to lead a group.   How to delegate.  How to organize.  How to bullshit your way through almost anything.  How to make connections.  And most importantly, how achieving everything we wanted and having pure, silly, everyday fun are never mutually exclusive.  Arun, Divya, Aditya, Swetha and Arvind, thank you for what will always be some of my favorite memories at MIT.

This morning I congratulated another one of my close friends, Nikita, who just graduated.  She immediately responded with her usual loving, big-sister personality, and told me that MIT flies by after sophomore year so I should make sure to “live it up and meet tons of people.”  I smiled a little to myself at how fitting her statement was—Nikki had been introducing me to people since the beginning of my freshman year.  It was from dancing with her in groups that she led that I learned what it meant to be friends with someone whom you also held accountable, and how to do what you knew and felt was right without worrying too much about what others think.  Thank you, Nikki, for listening to my complaints, worries, and fears, for always watching out for me, and for being an amazing role model.

And to all the MIT 2013’s—I’ve come to know and love many of you and I wish I could have spent more time with each of you.  I wish I hadn’t taken so many moments for granted.  And I wish I could have gotten to know even more of you.  I’ve only named a few of you here but I’ve crossed paths with so many more of you, and it always left me for the better.  Thank you for living up to the MIT spirit and leaving this community better and richer than when you came.

I know I shouldn’t be too sad or worried.  The connections that MIT forms are too strong for even graduation to break, and I know that all of you will always be there for fun, support, and laughter.  This is a different sort of good-bye, and hopefully much more of a see-you-soon.

But most importantly, thank you for showing me the importance of forming bonds that cross boundaries of age, class, residence, and interests, how to pass on the knowledge and experience you’ve learned to those younger than you, and how to make a sophomore at MIT realize she’s made some of the best friends of her life.  I only hope that I can inspire and support someone in the same way you guys did for me.  Congratulations, and don’t forget the rest of us here at your first home-away-from-home.  🙂

The Dome
[photo credit: Rik Sengupta]

 

A Love Affair with Green: American Southwest (Day 5-6)

Standing in the open pit of the Borax mine.
Standing in the open pit of the Borax mine.
The smoke clears after the scheduled blast in one of the pit's benches.
The smoke clears after the scheduled blast in one of the pit’s benches.

After adventures in Trona, we stayed in a hotel in Mojave and woke up to drive to Boron, California.  True to its name, Boron is home to the world’s largest Borax mine, which produces almost half of the world’s borates (referring to compounds consisting of boron and oxygen).  For the freshmen, many of whom spent an entire semester researching the process of mining minerals like these, it’s often easier to make demands and manipulate these processes when thinking about them in the abstract.  But when you put names and faces to these endeavors, it becomes a completely different story.  Mining to me has always represented a significant toll on the environment that is taking a nonrenewable resource and making it scarcer.  Not that I have a significant solution to the problem, but it’s not something I respect.  But at the mine, I met a recent graduate from my home state Missouri, who let us see a blast that was happening in one of the benches of the mine.  To find someone from Missouri in California, or pretty much anywhere outside of Missouri, is pretty rare.  (Also, if any of you are from Missouri, and especially St. Louis, you will appreciate the fact that the traditional conversation after you find out someone else is from Missouri happened: my follow-up question was, “What high school did you go to?” 🙂 )  Regardless, this guy had been an environmental engineer until he found out that the geological engineering department would sponsor a trip to Peru for him, at which he promptly switched, interned at a mine, realized he loved the intersection between geological engineering and mining, and minored in explosives engineering.  Listening to him speak with such passion for the mine forced a lot of us to think about our views more critically than before.

We were led around the open pit for a while and shown a variety of minerals similar to the ones that they might mine for.  Afterwards, like every day, we spread out the lunch table in the parking lot, took out the bread, sliced cheese, purple cabbage, peanut butter, jam, four different types of mustard, horseradish sauce, a variety of packaged meats (no idea what they were, I’m vegetarian), bags of fruit, and different combinations of chips and cookies.  Simple and satisfying.  With full stomachs, we began our drive to Temecula, and the last I heard before drifting off into an afternoon nap, leaning my head against the window that looked out into the grayish-brown sandy desert, was that we might be stopping at the San Andreas fault.

I think it must have been about an hour later when I began to wake up to other’s voices in the van.  I had fallen asleep to music in my ears, and I sat up, took the headphones out of my ears, and rubbed my eyes, when suddenly, I froze.  I took my hands off my eyes, and yelled at an ungodly decibel level: “OH MY GOD, IT’S SO GREEN!”

Cliffs at the San Andreas Fault

And it was.  Everywhere all around me were not the harsh, gray-brown mountains that I had exclusively seen for the past 5 days, but green all over the mountains and grass on the side of the highway.  Trees, actual brown bark with branches and green leaves, had never looked more beautiful.  My van-mates were amused and told me that this had happened about thirty minutes ago, and I wondered how there hadn’t been an absolute uproar over this that should have woken me up when we entered this lush world of life.

I truly am a creature of my environment, and my enthusiasm level at this point spiked through the roof.  When we stopped at the San Andreas fault, I just stood on rocks and stared around me, still in slight disbelief at how beautiful green grass can look against a blue sky.  And how a flower could be so yellow.

Yellow Flowers in San Andreas

Entrance to the "town" of Temecula.
Entrance to the “town” of Temecula.

We stayed the night in Temecula, right outside the extremely fake, contrived “Old West” tourist town (which nonetheless provided for an excellent morning walk and breakfast hashbrowns), and in the morning drove up to Pala, the location of the Oceanview Gem Mine, high in the mountains.  I was staring out the window, thinking about how I had no idea what a gem mine looked like, when suddenly the perfect scene from a classic English novel appeared to my left.  It was the definition of green, rolling hills bathed in a sparkling mist looking back at me.  The occasional abandoned wooden house structure, far in the distance, with just an endless sea of green– it was so beautiful that my stomach actually ached.

Ready to sift through detritus from the mine to find precious stones and minerals.
Ready to sift through detritus from the mine to find precious stones and minerals.

At the top of the mountain in the gem mine, the workers would take us into the underground mine and show us where they would blast through the rock and find huge pockets of quartz.  They would let each of us learn how to sift through the material from the pegmatite in the mine to find a variety of precious stones and gems.  But after five or six buckets of rock and clay and enough pink and black tourmalines, crystal-clear spodumenes, and sparkling purple lepidolites to fill my shelves back home, I realized there was no way I could continue this knowing the scenery that was literally right behind my back.

So while others continued to head back to the pile in the center, I washed my muddy hands and grabbed my camera.  A light mist had settled on the land below me, creating a lush beauty that seemed to be brimming with life.  Near my feet were orange and yellow blooms that stood bright against the perfectly ordered rows of orange trees, far in the distance.  Peeking through the branches of trees, I found a house which I imagined to belong to a family with a girl and boy.  I stood, crouched, and leaned taking pictures for so long that soon one of the workers walked up behind me and said, “What are you taking pictures of?  Anything and everything?”  I took that as a compliment.

Hills and Flowers

Oceanview Roses

The Last of the DesertGreen, Green EverywhereI realized that day that the desert is certainly beautiful– it’s strong, tough, and as I have said before, holds a sort of untouchable beauty.  Yet it’s just that–distant and otherworldly.  And I discovered that as much as I appreciate the desert’s unique beauty, I have a love affair with green.  I need the earthiness of life, the palette of colors, the desire to breathe deeply and savor the moisture in the air.  There’s a certain tenderness, a vulnerability woven through a landscape of green hills and fruit trees that the strong, beautifully harsh desert will never have.

I respect and admire the desert.  But I cherish the green.  Like a love of my life, it steals its way into my heart and becomes home.

Silence in the Trona Pinnacles: American Southwest (Day 4)

Desert Mornings- Ridgecrest

Mornings in the desert belong to a different world altogether.  We had stayed the night before in Ridgecrest, a military town, and as we pulled out of the hotel parking lot, to my left was a beautiful orange-pink sunrise above the mountains far in the horizon.  It was a gorgeous way to start a day that as far as I knew, would not be full of naturally beautiful sites like the previous day in Death Valley.

Pools of brine at Searles Valley Minerals
Pools of brine at Searles Valley Minerals
Snow? Nope-- salt in the mine.
Snow? Nope– salt in the mine.

This day was supposed to bring us to Searles Valley Minerals, a mining company that does solution mining.  Like the lithium mine from the second day in Clayton Valley, this mine isn’t the typical underground coal mine that usually comes to mind.  Brine (saltwater) deposits that originated from a lake that once existed are pumped from below ground, and they’re full of all sorts of dissolved minerals.  At the mine we were met by an elderly man named Jim, who began his presentation by saying he was a new man on the block.  He had only been at the company for about 50 years.  Jim instantly gained my respect and attention– I can’t even imagine doing the same thing for that long.  And when he said he was a chemical engineer by education, my head snapped up.  Sure enough, the process diagrams that made up most of the presentation were full of the heat exchangers, turbines, distillation columns, and recycle flow streams that I’ve been learning about for the past year.  Then to see these pieces of equipment that I normally draw as black boxes on a piece of paper was pretty grounding.  But even though Jim himself was a pretty charismatic guy, the talks were pretty dense, the drive out into the mine not particularly interesting, and the video about the history of the mine long and irrelevant.  And we weren’t allowed to take pictures through most of it.

So I was not in a particularly exciting mood when we left the mine to head to the Trona Pinnacles.  I’d never heard or seen them before, but my mind felt a bit numb, and I figured it would just be an interesting geological formation that we would visit for a few minutes.  but I immediately understood what we were looking at from several miles away.  As our entourage of sketchy white vans were bumped and bruised by the rocky roads, everyone in my car started exclaiming at the weird structures.  One of them looked like an old man hunched over in a cloak.  And then there was the couple hugging with their heads resting on each other’s shoulders.  I jumped out of the van into a cloudy, suffocating heat.

The Trona Pinnacles coming into view.
The Trona Pinnacles coming into view.
The huggers!
The huggers!

“Thirty minutes,” said our professor.  “Don’t get lost, don’t break anything, and don’t come home with your pockets full of rocks.  And don’t be stupid.”  Ah, the subtle sophistication of Terrascope philosophy.

Within a few minutes, something kind of clicked in my mind.  I wandered off a bit, stopping every once in a while when the angle on a particular structure caught my eye, or when a person’s figure starkly contrasted to the tan, sandy rocks behind them, trying to capture it all through a lens.

A few members of the Terrascope family.
A few members of the Terrascope family.

I reached the base of a particularly tall formation, and only hesitated for a moment, before beginning the climb up.  It was almost as steep as the volcano from a few days before, and a few times I wondered why I was so adamantly rock climbing.  But at the top, I found this small nook that was so enclosed from everything but from which I could still see everything.  It was so perfectly sized for me that I crawled inside.  The nook faced away from where everyone else had been exploring, and I couldn’t hear anyone or anything other than the occasional rock that tumbled down the slope of the structure.

Introspection-- TronaTrona Lizard BuddyThere’s something almost therapeutic about photography.  Perhaps it’s the satisfaction of capturing a moment as it was, still and perfect, a sense of proof of your presence in this moment, made explicit only by the fact that the picture itself exists.  Sitting there in that nook, those moments were everywhere around me, as I leaned back into the rock, content in solitude, surrounded in silence.

A view from the nook.
A view from the nook.

“Hike or Die”- Death Valley: American Southwest (Day 3)

“How could rocks and sand and silence make us so afraid and yet be so wonderful?”  –Edna Brush Perkins, The White Heart of Mojave, 1922

Even though I struggle every morning at MIT to wake up at 9 a.m. for class, I woke up without any trouble at exactly 6 a.m. on Sunday morning in the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort.  We had arrived the previous night in a two-hour drive from Clayton Valley at the only hotel in Death Valley, which was set up as a resort with separate residence blocks.  Our rooms opened onto a patio with two rocking chairs that overlooked a lush, green courtyard (just as out-of-place in Death Valley as the palm trees) with one solitary tree in the middle.  The evening winds were gorgeously pleasant, and while we waited for dinner, I sat on one of the chairs with my legs crossed and just rocked back and forth.  One of my fellow sophomore UTFs, Ana, was quietly sitting on the lawn a few doors down.  It was one of the most peaceful ten minutes I have spent in a long time.

I forgot to mention yesterday that the reason I can come on this trip despite the fact that I’ve completed the freshman program is that I became a UTF (Undergraduate Teaching Fellow) during the fall.  It’s basically an undergrad teaching assistant position, but true to the philosophy of the class we don’t really teach– we’re just there for guidance, questions, and as some like to say, the occasional kick-in-the-rear.

Sunrise and Pink Mountains Planes Across the Morning SkyAfter dinner it was too dark to explore, so a bunch of us decided instead that we would wake up early to see the sunrise, which according to Google, happens in Death Valley at 6:45 a.m.  Armed with cameras and the solemnity of the morning, we walked across the road from the premises into a large, open rocky plain surrounded by mountains.  Even at 6:45, the sun was still hidden behind the mountains, but at one point I turned around to see the tips of the mountains opposite of the rising sun bathed in a pinkish glow.  Over time that stripe of pink spread down though slowly a pinkish glow began to spread vertically on the mountains opposite of the rising sun.  Because the day ahead of us was packed with the sites around Death Valley, we couldn’t stay to watch the sun actually peek out from behind the mountains, but I almost feel that the moments before that where it lay hidden but still made its presence known were the calmest, happiest moments– when the air is filled with an expectation of the burst of light to come.

Sunrise in the Valley

The cracked dry earth on a Death Valley morning.
The cracked dry earth on a Death Valley morning.

I had 10 minutes until I had to be in the vans– exactly enough time to run to the gift shop general store and buy a shotglass for my travel collection. 🙂  The first one I picked up had an animal skull on it.  Each one seemed more dark and gruesome than the first– finally I came to one with a skeleton in hiking boots with cartoonish font: “Death Valley: Hike or Die.”  I shuddered involuntarily, and finally settled on a tamer, prettier dark blue one with silver-painted cacti and mountains.  Hike or Die.  This was right before the visitor’s center where a display told me that Death Valley was “a place of superlatives”: hottest, lowest, driest.

Walking down the canyon near Zabriskie's Point.
Walking down the canyon near Zabriskie’s Point.

As we drove we began to pass large geological formations called alluvial fans.  Eventually we stopped on the side of the road next to a deep canyon.  There our professor told us yet another classic story of the place that ended as all stories of hubris do.  It turns out that the alluvial fans span about a 400 square mile area, and when it rains up in the mountains, the water washes a lot of the rock debris down with it, flowing and draining in this vast space of land.  However, a fancy hotel was built in the path of the water flow, and the owners of the hotel didn’t like that all of this lovely material arrived in front of their doorstep whenever it rained.  So they contracted engineers to divert the path of the flow into a space which they created by blowing up rock to form a canyon, in the hopes that the water and rocks would just avoid the hotel altogether.  Which it did.  However, the space which they had created for the water was only about 40 square miles.  So water had ten times less space to drain in, and in one particularly horrible storm, the rocks and water mixture built up so high that it broke through the canyon and flooded over the parking lot in front of Zabriskie Point.  It came with so much force that it ripped off the bathroom and people were buried alive in their cars by the crashing rocks.  As one of my classmates said, Death Valley is a national park which means that technically, nothing can be taken out or changed in the valley.  But when it has to do with the business of fancy hotels, people are all for breaking out the dynamite.  Sometimes nature has its own way of settling the score.

Ubehebe CraterDeath Valley is the geologist’s dream-come-true.  Our next stop was the Ubehebe Crater, which is basically an explosion crater.  The crater formed several thousand years ago by rising magma which converted the groundwater to steam.  This built up an intense pressure underground until the rock exploded, forming a crater that is a half-mile across and 500 feet deep.

An attempt at defining scale-- see the white vans on the left?
An attempt at defining scale– see the white vans on the left?

It was impossible by any means to capture the staggering size of the crater on camera, as much as I tried.  A few signs near the edge displayed horrifying images of stick figures rolling down the sharp, rocky sides of the crater, though despite that there was a trail leading down to the bottom of the crater.  Instead, we hiked around the entire crater, which was by no means an easy hike (the slogan from the morning started coming back to me).  But every few minutes I would look up with a slightly new viewpoint, and every time the new visual perspective held me speechless.

Other amazing sights:

Fossil Falls
Fossil Falls
Mosaic Canyon
Mosaic Canyon
Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point
Rep-ing MIT in the Little Hebe Crater.

 

Be sure to check out the freshmen blog of the trip!

Introductions to the Desert: American Southwest (Day 1-2)

As an avid international traveler, my first instinctive reaction to hearing that the Terrascope spring break trip was to the American Southwest was one of slight of disappointment.  I’ve described Terrascope briefly before, but it was a long time ago, so I think a quick recap is in order.  Terrascope is a freshman learning community at MIT based on self-driven problem solving.  In the fall, a group of about sixty freshmen is given some large, immensely complex, impossible problem to solve.  This year’s freshman were charged with creating a global resource management plan in response to the depletion of rare-earth metals.  When I was a freshman, it was the biodiversity crisis, and previous years have seen problems like carbon dioxide capture, world hunger, and the loss of global fisheries.  With little to no professional/adult guidance, the freshman have to parse out the problem, create a solution, build a website for it, and put together a presentation for a panel of experts.  In the spring semester, there are classes that involve solving a specific design/engineering problem related to the topic and creating a radio program.  Throughout all of the all-nighters, debates, and drama, you begin to find yourself in the middle of a quirky, entertaining, strong, and supportive community.

And a crucial component of the program is the Spring Break trip, where students get to see and experience a real-world scenario that exemplifies the problem they studied.  Last year for biodiversity, we went to Costa Rica, and previous years have gone to India, Abu Dhabi, Iceland, Arizona, and the Galapagos.  So when this year’s trip was declared as a domestic one to southern California, I’m sure many freshmen, like myself, felt a certain sense of being cheated out of their first Terrascope trip.  However, unlike the current freshmen, I do have the experience of one trip to know that it’s not so much where you go on a Terrascope trip that matters– it’s the Terrascope community itself.  When the entire founding principle of a group of people is self-motivated learning it makes for an unforgettable experience regardless of where you go or what you do.

It also turns out I had no need to worry– America itself could probably be several different countries simply based on the drastically varying land, climate, culture, and people across its 3000 mile stretch.  I have never been to this part of the country before, other than San Diego and LA, and already flying from snowy Boston over mountainous deserts into bright, flashing Las Vegas, was enough of a change that I could have plausibly landed in another country.  Though the fact that the first thing we did after getting off the plane and into vans to drive to Clayton Valley, Nevada (the lithium capital of the country!) was eat ever-so-exotic Chipotle burritos served to partially ground any of those imaginations.

A dredge in the lithium brine.
A dredge in the lithium brine.

I know it’s supposed to be an established fact that the desert gets really cold at night, but I don’t think I actually internalized that fact until someone opened the door of the van at midnight in front of the Best Western Hotel, letting in a blast of cold air that set my teeth chattering for the next 15 minutes.  Even the next morning when we all piled into 5 sketchy white vans to head to Clayton Valley’s lithium mine, it didn’t seem like we had really left Boston weather.  The land, however, told a completely different story.

Sittin' on a Rock

The Desert MoodThere’s something about the ruggedness of the desert that I wouldn’t exactly call beautiful, but certainly untouchable.  I’m not one to normally appreciate things without bright, deep colors and the desert is mostly shades of brown, gray and yellow-green, but for some reason it made the entire view sublimely harsh.  As I watched the land roll by the window, I felt a real, earthy, and a sense of grounding–that it was natural to the full extent of the word.  At one point, little cacti-like trees suddenly appeared out of the ground.  Hearing me gasp at how adorable they were, our professor told us that they were called Joshua trees.  They were spread far apart from each other and seemed to pop out of the ground as if they were peeking out to stake their claims to the land.

Adorable Joshua Trees!
Adorable Joshua Trees!

In the beginning of the day, we had been told that if we had time after the mine tour, we might climb a cinder cone volcano in the area, and though I didn’t want to raise my expectations (I climbed Mt. Vesuvius in Italy for a class trip), I found myself extremely excited at the prospect.  Climbing the volcano was probably the most physical activity I had in a while, but the fact that we had geologists with us who could explain so much of its formation and structure made it completely worth it.

Beginning the trek up the volcano
Beginning the trek up the volcano
Looking into the crater from the top of the volcano
Looking into the crater from the top of the volcano
View from the top of the volcano.
View from the top of the volcano.

I came back down to the car and grabbed my journal, as we drove to back to the hotel and wrote this:

Wow.  Nothing like Vesuvius.  For one it was much smaller (it doesn’t even have a name), but as a result, there wasn’t really a path.  Which meant that I literally scaled up the side of the volcano. With my breath shortening as I took each step, my feet slipped and slid, and I was definitely glad for the hiking boots.  At one point, I looked up and realized how much farther I had to climb, looked behind and realized how far I could fall, and decided instead I should continue looking at the rocks in front of me.  

And when we reached the top, the view into the deep crater was staggering.  For me though, coming down came much easier than climbing up so I was able to look up every once in a while.  At one point, I suddenly stopped, because at that particular time and space, everything was perfect– the line of people struggling to climb down below me, the vast dusty land spread out in front of me with mountains in the distance.  And the wind– it kind of just wrapped around my body and danced around my hair, which made me involuntarily raise my arms a bit and smile.  I could’ve stood there forever.  

Canyon in Clayton ValleyRock on the Volcano Loving it All. Cactus