Monday, August 1, 2016

The Drs. Rynearson

Our lives seem to be in approximately 4-year chunks. Undergrad was five years, Japan was 3.5, and then came grad school.

Four years ago, we moved to West Lafayette, Indiana, and started working at Purdue. The first semester was rough, with a lot of reading, a lot of working, and undiagnosed Lyme disease. We chose research areas, applied for major grants, and Lee received an Honorable Mention from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. 

By the end of the first year, both our advisers left for another university. Our work responsibilities evolved, our intended research focuses changed, and the reading load stayed high. While it wasn't our plan, we wound up with the same adviser. Lee earned all possible graduate student teaching awards while at Purdue, and even had almost 30 of his first-year undergraduate students attend his doctoral defense, a first in our program. Ana won a dissertation fellowship and the departmental service award for her work.

We eventually zeroed in on PhD topic areas. Ana had some problems getting research subjects, and wound up restarting her dissertation in March 2016, when intending to graduate in May 2016 (or at least by August). She managed to get it done, but it was rough. Meanwhile, Lee was already working in a new job, trying to finish his dissertation while setting up a new engineering undergraduate program halfway across the country.

So what exactly did we do for four years? If you're not sure what getting a PhD means, take a look at the Illustrated Guide to a PhD. Lee studied how to help student groups in first-year engineering courses work better, and Ana followed seven elementary school students through three years of learning about engineering and technology to see how they learned. Combined, our PhDs are over 500 pages of work.

Wine and humor got us through our PhD years - we enjoyed classics like Grad Student Deconstructs Take-Out Menu, What Should We Call Grad School, and finally made it through the Snake Fight. We both defeated the snake.

After all, the best dissertation defense is a good offense.

Along with grad school came home ownership, pet ownership, and Midwest living. We're keeping the cats, but we'll be renting for now and moving back east, though more south than we've been before.

Here's to the next four years!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Adventures in India 19: The Summary

In sum: We were glad we were able to take this trip. We weren't sure what exactly to expect going in, but were still surprised at what we encountered.

Our encounters with and understanding of other cultures is of course colored by the fact that we come from the Northeastern United States. Having grown up in states that were part of the original 13 colonies and living near historical sites, we've been on field trips and family trips to some of the oldest places of interest when it comes to United States history. There were settlers and settlements before Europeans colonized the Americas, and there are many sites of interest in Central and South America from original peoples, but the United States itself isn't even 250 years old yet. In India, many of the places we visited were much, much older. In the US, the history that we learn and the science that we prize comes from Europe and then the United States. While we, too, created an independent country after years of British rule, I don't think I've ever heard any discussions or comparisons of India and the US in post-British years. We've heard of Gandhi, but don't really know that much about the Mughals or other notable Indians or eras in Indian history (beyond what one might learn in empire-building video games).

Seeing actual artifacts of resistance against the British...

and walking into the Imperial palace for a subcontinent...

...and find British barracks inside, the history gets a little more real.

India is old. Beyond that, many of the people we saw still survive in old ways. It is always strange to be visibly a minority when you come from a place where you are a member of the majority; you stand out, and as a tourist in a country like India, you carry a lot of privilege. Your money goes very far, so that you can afford what many consider luxuries even if you're a graduate student. If you're not staying strictly in luxury resorts, taking vans from one tourist attraction or designed-for-tourists restaurant to the next, you can see the kinds of poverty that are nearly unthinkable to a middle-class American. You become a target for beggars and shopkeepers trying to make as much money as they can off of you, while also knowing that even the steep tourist prices or some cash to a young mother or two in the street aren't really hurting your wallet.

They spent longer building this castle than the US has been in business.  In fact, they spent long enough building it that it was more like the time between the Roanoke colony being founded and the current date than the length of time the US has been around.

We literally stayed in former palaces on multiple occasions on a grad student budget.  This particular palace has a tent city in front of it.  We felt shitty to be staying in a palace in front of a tent city.

The spice market part of the bike tour was interesting and lead to good views, but also felt like intruding into where these folks are actually living.

One problem we faced was not really knowing what money was actually worth. What's actually a good price for a meal, a souvenir, a taxi ride? Should I haggle? How much should I tip? What is considered reasonable, and how much is too much? A percentage? A flat increase? A different percentage at a different type of establishment? No idea. Prices varied wildly, to the point where a delicious dinner for four at a local place in New Delhi cost less than a single person's simple (and bland) lunch at a tourist-focused restaurant. The same bottle of water could cost ten times more at a different stand or restaurant.

This entire delicious dinner for four was about $4, much, much less than US prices. 

...But this small plate of fries was about $2 (they were pretty good though).

The sights were amazing. The manpower that went into creating buildings like the forts and the famous Taj Mahal is unthinkable, and yet craftspeople today are still spending hours using the same techniques to carefully craft stone inlays like they did at the Taj Mahal or paint in miniature as seen on multiple structures. We did not spend enough time there to really meet the people and understand the culture, but we were able to get a taste of it, and we're glad we did.  India is a beautiful place, and our friend/guide did an excellent job planning our travels. We were able to take home some beautiful souvenirs that will remind us of our trip. The world is a big place, and we may never get to India again, so we appreciate the opportunity we had to experience it.  Any time you really see something different than you have before, your picture of the world expands.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Adventures in India 18: The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was a fitting destination for our last tourist day in India. We had been told we definitely wanted to get there before the buses from New Delhi arrived around 11AM, but that the haze was so strong first thing in the morning that it was difficult to see anything.  Therefore, we met up with our guide at the hotel around 9:00.  I irritatingly left my glasses in the car and the guide declined my request to call the car back for them, which was a major point against him in our book. When the shuttle bus to the Taj wasn't showing up, he asked us if we wanted to walk, so we hoofed it past a long line of shops to the gate. Having paid the 10x extra for tourist passes, we got into the tourist line, which was about 10x shorter. There is a significant security examination before going in (I suspect mostly to weed out implements with which assholes could mark their names into the marble) but the guide won some points back by talking the security supervisor into letting us in with only a quick check from him. My LensPen was an item of interest but when they actually got a look at the soft bristles on the inside everyone agreed it was not going to be capable of damaging the monument.

After clearing security, there were still some lines and gates before being able to see the Taj itself. There are an impressive amount of pictures over on Flickr.

Gate into the Taj inner compound.

 Significant haze was still present, making the edges fuzzy even from inside the compound. 

More lines lead up to the base of the monument itself, where booties were provided by the guide (required) before stepping onto the marble itself. Having seen pictures of the Taj for years, I (maybe this isn't usual) had always thought the Taj was pure white, but in real life it turns out to be intricately inlaid with writing and decoration and it is much more impressive than I expected.

The scaffold around the column is for cleaning - temporary.

You're not allowed to take pictures inside - but what was humorous is that while this entire edifice is intended to commemorate a specific empress (bore the emperor 14 children then died of TB) after the emperor died they also interred him here and made his tomb a lot bigger than hers.

Out the back, the haze over the river was so thick you could hardly see the other bank.

The detail work was pretty incredible.

The inlay is chiseled into the marble, then filled with smoothed semi-precious stones.

Apparently not much room for slips of the chisel when you have to do hundreds of square meters of this kind of stuff.  Guide said it took 50,000 workers 22 years to complete.

Overall I would say this one lived up to its global renown and then some. It's amazing.

After the Taj, the guide suggested a place where they do demonstrations of the inlay process and of course have such goods for sale. While tour guides in India sell you stuff like it's their job, at least in this case the quality was very high. The demonstration included chiseling out the marble for the inlay, shaping stones with a hand wheel to fit the cavity, and the resin used to fix the stones in place. We were initially not feeling the need to buy any for ourselves, but looking at what was for sale we were quite impressed by the quality of the work and ended up buying some (we saw much crappier stuff elsewhere). The marble is actually translucent and if viewed through light the colors of all the stones change - while while not very practical is a neat trick. Didn't really feel like haggling, but this was fairly expensive stuff - basically told the guy if he messed with me too much I was going to walk, gave him a really really low number and then came up a bit to make the deal. As with the weaving from earlier in the trip, I am confident that a US-based producer of such work would have to charge thousands of dollars per piece for comparable work.

Later in the afternoon, we went to the park across the river from the Taj Mahal.

You getting the feeling they don't want people fooling around here?

It was actually possible to get the whole structure in-frame from over here, and it was nice as sunset closed in.

These ladies asked to take a picture with Ana, but she didn't seem to like the fact that I was taking a picture of her taking a picture of them together. I still don't understand the allure of pictures with random foreigners - happened to both of us many times.

Garden itself not particularly spectacular - mostly just plants in lines, few things blossoming, not particularly interesting to look at.

We also observed people gathering reeds and herding animals on the riverbanks. As with other places we'd been, it was clear that very different lifestyles are being lived here.

For dinner, we decided to really mix it up and asked the driver to take us to McDonald's. Now, you might think that McDonald's is not a natural fit for a country that almost never eats beef (and in some places you can get mobs outside for that kind of thing). We were interested to see what was for sale and also to try something we hadn't tried in India so far.

Various veggie, chicken, and fish burgers - note these prices are pretty high for India - you could have a good meal in a non-tourist restaurant for the price of a 'burger' here. Place was jammed with people though - may have been marketed as a high-status place to eat in India? Or else city folk have enough money to pay these prices and don't care?

Vegetarian and meat dishes very clearly segregated in production and sales - makes sense.

The large drinks were American smalls, as might be expected. I got a 'Chicken Maharaja Mac' and Ana got a 'McAloo Tikki Burger', which we took back to the hotel to eat. We watched a heavily censored episode of "Whose Line Is It Anyway" on TV - there were definite cuts within and between skits, and any time tobacco use was mentioned, "SMOKING KILLS" flashed on the screen.

Chicken burger was flavorless. Should have bought one of everything to test.

Ana's potato burger was actually pretty good.

This pretty much wrapped up our tourism - all that was left was the long trip home. We slept in, made liberal use of the hot water and internet at the hotel - our flight wasn't until the middle of the night. The drive to the airport took forever, almost seemed like the driver was dawdling. For once, he didn't know where the tourist eating spots were and as we got close to the airport he was getting kind of desperate and we wound up eating at a local rest stop that actually served up pretty good hot fresh dhosas. When we arrived at the airport we realized why the driver had been dawdling - you can't actually get in until 6 hours before your flight and we were still 10 hours early. We'd known you couldn't go through security that early but didn't think they'd enforce it at the front door. They had a lounge area for people trapped by their flight time, but it looked to be a long several hours. 

Airport purgatory lounge

We sent Ana exploring and she found an in-airport short-term hotel which sounded fantastic to us - for long international travel we really like them as chances to get out of the public eye, get clean, and get sleep. The rest of the trip home was uneventful until we learned that Chicago had changed their parking layout and prices and we'd parked in a lot that used to be cheap but we had to pay a FORTUNE for three week's parking there this trip.

The next and final blog entry on this sequence will do some overall and summing up comments, since there are a lot of individual blog entries here which may have more or less context present.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Adventures in India 17: Transit to Agra

For the first time, we'd be operating in India without the umbrella of our more experienced and Hindi-speaking friend. After a few weeks doing tourism though, and still with dedicated drivers and guides, we knew pretty much what to expect. Our friends were bound for the airport - originally supposed to be with our main driver but apparently he'd gotten sick after going home and they were also with a new driver. We were in a new, smaller car, the 'ETIOS' I think? We didn't need the big one for only two and it felt more spacious than the Innova with four. We headed out on a long drive, past New Delhi, towards Agra and the Taj Mahal. Traffic was pretty heavy and progress was slow. Pictures are on Flickr.

Sign for tourist grade lunch stop - thinking they meant 'cuisine'? We saw neither lakes, nor hotels. 

Apparently all the drivers have the memo to take tourists only to places they're intended to go. The owner or head waiter gave us a little trouble for ordering the cheapest thing on the menu (basically lentils and rice) and splitting it but that's actually what we felt like and it probably still cost 20x what it would at a place for locals. The lentils were a bit odd, they had clovers in them.

Met up with our guide at Fatepur Sikri, one of the older palaces we toured in India. This guide was one of the best on the trip in terms of speaking loudly, clearly

This one didn't have the water running either - nice day though.

Muslim rulers had the faces removed from animals carved into the walls, think there was an issue with idolatry there.

Elaborate stone chambers.

The palace had been built with separate areas for the ruler's three wives, one of whom was Portuguese Catholic up from Goa hundreds of years ago. Paintings from the era were still visible, if degraded, in her chambers.

After the palace there was a major mosque right down the road, which we also visited. The guide thoughtfully gave us options in terms of observing the local religious rituals or patronizing any vendors. In terms of views - these places are nice but not as nice as some other things we'd seen, but the guide was spot on.

A few modern amenities like the electric clocks and lights had been added, which probably could have been done less intrusively or destructively.

Leaving the complex, we stopped at some of the shops - I'd been looking for a rhino carved in a particular style. Found a rhino in a different style - not many rhinos, mostly camels and elephants. There were some other neat things but the guy was kind of annoying me with the prices he was asking so after talking him down for a while I bailed - he followed me out into the street still haggling and gave more ground, eventually got him down to something I was willing to pay. I honestly don't love the figurine, but it is associated with the only time I saw pain in an Indian shopkeeper's eyes when we finished negotiating. For that reason, the rhino is very pleasing to me. I think the guide gave me a 'not bad' look also.

We got into Agra after dark and were a bit disappointed to be staying at a hotel off the main strip, since the center of town visibly had restaurants and shops that could be walked to. Ours was off on a country side road (the driver couldn't find it, we actually picked up a travel agency rep to help us get there and check in) and we did not feel like wandering out into the dark to eat anywhere but a hotel restaurant. The hotel itself was middle of the road for Indian tourist place standards but our room was a bit too close to the smoking area and so smelled like cigarettes and it was pretty loud with the dining room and kitchen beneath us. The hotel food was actually pretty good - figured we should have butter chicken in India at least once, as it is a common dish we make at home, and it was juicy and flavorful. There were musicians at dinner but they didn't harass us while we were eating so we tipped them for that. The next morning we were heading out to see the Taj Mahal as our last major tourist item in India.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Adventures in India 16: Jaipur

We left early headed for Jaipur as our driver would be getting a break to see his family when we were there and the earlier we arrived, the more time he had - recall he'd been on the road with us for most of two weeks. Driving in, it was clear that Jaipur was a much larger and more modern city than others on the tour so far (excluding some parts of New Delhi) and our hotel lived up to that as international-grade accommodations. Hot water 24/7!

After a tasty lunch in the more casual of the two hotel restaurants we followed up with a nap - if we were scheduling this trip again, we'd probably schedule a bit more down-time into it.

After napping, and knowing we were getting close to the end of the trip and in a city with a lot of shopping, we all went out looking for things on our lists. Our friend was looking for anklets, I bought a t-shirt, picked up more scarves and also three silver bracelets for Ana from a more upscale place that had nice things. Our friend had been giving us a hard time about not negotiating enough and we didn't much feel like it, so we simply sent her in to do the haggling when we wanted something - no hassle for us, saved money, works for me. We were thinking, since we were in town, that we might go see The Force Awakens, since that had just come out in theaters, but we couldn't find an un-dubbed (into Hindi) one in time. Were mostly wanted do to this just for the experience of seeing something in a theater in India, but no special loss.

Being in a big city, we didn't have to rely on the hotel or driver for food recommendations and went to a restaurant recommended in the guidebook that was sort of a diner/coffeehouse.  I think we paid all together for dinner for four what a single entree for one of us at a tourist place would cost (so, about $3). Ana ordered something called 'rose milk' which I believe was flavored with actual roses and she reports it as 'interesting, but wouldn't order again'.

The next morning (our last as a tourist group with our friends before splitting up at the end of the trip) we headed out to the Amber Fort, which originally was part of the protection of the city and is perched on a hill nearby. We were originally scheduled to ride an elephant up to the front gate, but there was a line an hour long and we didn't really feel the need to partake so we simply drove up to the parking lot below the entrance. Our main driver was still with his family so we had a new driver for the day, who skipped the place where you can take pictures of the whole fort both coming and going, despite requests.

The fortifications extended far beyond the fort itself.

Looking down over some of the oldest parts of the city.

Elephant ride up to the main gate. We were told the elephants make a specific limited number of trips per day and are treated well.

Mirrored inlay in the walls of the fort - more attractive than some other places we've seen such work.

We didn't get to explore the one up on the hill - believe it is closed to the public.

Wished that the water had been going - there were dedicated fountains and channels cut into the gardens and surrounding structures that were not turned on.

Maintenance work was ongoing but the garden couldn't be called well-maintained - note the green lagoon and no flowing water.

We were eventually turned loose to explore the open areas of the fort.  This is probably where the water used to come up

The parking lot was a bit more full when we came out.

More shopping was next - went to a place where the driver probably gets a kickback, enjoyed this pro-wrestler public elementary school event billboard. We didn't find a lot we wanted though our friends found more.  Did blow a guy's mind by telling him how much a custom suit costs in the US, though the fabrics this particular place had were not that exciting and we wouldn't have time for shirts or suits to get made anyway. However, one of our friends had had 6 shirts made in Mumbai for cheap and liked them a lot. Ana tore strips off a salesman who tried to make nice about her knitting and suggested that women were better at some crafts and men at others. Did not go the way he wanted it to. I think he also asked for one of the socks she was working on as a gift and said he'd gift her something back, which, uh, no?

Went to the current / active city palace (the flag on top means the ruler is at home, I think).  The palace itself isn't open for tours but the grounds around it have plenty.

Including giant solid silver pots (the biggest in the world according to signage) used by a former ruler to transport Indian water to England on a trip.  There was also a Rolls Royce on display, which was given as a freebie to one of the local rulers. However, the story before that freebie was more interesting - the ruler while in England had gone to a dealership dressed in rather ordinary clothes and was turned away rudely, presumably for being Indian.  He then sent someone to buy every car in that showroom and set them to work hauling trash in Jaipur, never saying a word to Rolls about it. When they eventually found/figured it out, they sent the freebie over to make up for it.

There was an artists' workshop and store in the palace area - you aren't supposed to take pictures in there but we got permission from this gentleman when we bought one of his metal-inlay boxes.

Another major observatory on site, and in better shape with better signs than the one in New Delhi.  If you can see this one, skip that one.

After all that we returned to the hotel. It was New Year's Eve, and our booked tour included a 'Gala' at the hotel that night starting at 7:30. Thankfully no dress code, as we had nothing fancy. We went on time / a little late and the party was absolutely dead. There was music painfully loud (truly honestly actually, loud like a rock concert and maybe a bit beyond) in one room and a thankfully much quieter area with food and an open bar. We needed to eat and drink A LOT to get our money's worth for this event, fortunately the food was pretty good buffet with crispy fried fish and decent chicken and veggies. Since alcohol is expensive in India, that was the way to go in terms of costing them money - tried a few more local whiskeys, some of which were adequate for drinking and some of which were clearly intended for mixing. People started showing up and it got a little crowded given the limited number of tables, and kids started dancing inside which was cute (I would not expose small children to those volumes but at least someone enjoyed it), though the event was supposed to be adults  / couples only according to the tickets and ads. 

Pretty sure they re-used the 2015 sign and put more lights across the bottom of the 5.

We ate and drank and hung out chatting for a while trying to get our money's worth - pretty sure we accomplished it at tourist prices. We didn't bother staying up for midnight itself and there didn't seem to be major fireworks or anything, which was fine with us. The next day, we'd be splitting from our friends and they'd be headed back to the US and we'd go out to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, which they'd visited before we arrived in India. As always, more pictures on Flickr.