Fuji: Not Your Grandma’s Mountain

Posted by Jess Kim (RIKEN Brain Science Institute – Tokyo, Japan)

About two weeks ago, not too long after my 21st birthday, I climbed Mt. Fuji. I have to preface this story with a couple facts: 1) I am not a mountain climber in any form, shape, or capacity. I hike occasionally but the last full mountain I climbed was in 4th grade, when it was compulsory, and shortly after I wiped the sweat from my brow, re-Velcroed my shoes and vowed “never again.” 2) For some reason, I have been wanting to climb Mt. Fuji for the past few months, maybe because I don’t know when I will be in Japan next (and it’s only open two months out of the year), maybe because you can buy a cool stick that they brand at every station on the way up, but not for a particular reason any more palpable than the stick. 3) About two weeks ago, not too long after my 21st birthday, when I climbed Mt. Fuji, it was raining torrentially with gale force winds and 4) the guys we climbed with were my friend Chris ’10’s friends, whom I had never met before and he had met on Sunday, and they were hard core.

Oh, and 5) I did not know or fully realize all these facts until I was about halfway up the mountain, legs and throat on fire, clothes soaked through to my underwear, and ready to throw in the really, really wet towel I was wearing around my head.

Here are some other facts that I didn’t know – thanks, Wikipedia: Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776 m (12,388 ft). It is an active volcano and a well-known symbol of Japan that is frequently depicted in art and photographs, as well as visited by sightseers and climbers (okay, I kinda knew that part). The mountain is divided into stations; typically climbers will ascend from the 5th station to the 10th (the summit); as well as four main trails. Most climbers take the Fujinomiya trail – to the extent that it becomes very crowded during climbing season, and there is a line to the summit past the 8th or 9th station – but there are some other very steep and challenging trails, like the one we climbed. The one we climbed was called the Subashiri trail, which when I heard it I thought they were calling it the Samishii trail, or the Lonely Trail. Which made sense to me, because I was dead last in our group, and therefore pretty much climbed the damn thing myself.

Oh, and its sunrise is supposed to be legen – wait for it – dary. Awe-inspiring. Epic. Life-changing. LEGENDARY.

And so we started off at the fifth station, shortly after devouring bowls of chicken, eggs and rice, and buying a backpack cover that cost me my firstborn. Fuji may be a rather strenuous mountain to hike, but it’s also a tourist trap, even when it’s pitch black, windy, and wet – a fact I was to be reminded of when our trail merged with the most popular trail after the 8th station. (FORESHADOWING!) There were five of us: Yasu, our insane driver and leader who had hiked two weeks ago when it was still snowing, Takuya, Yasu’s friend from his university who took hiking PE classes for fun, Alexis, Yasu’s other friend and my fellow inexperienced climber, Chris ’10, who’s in pretty good shape, and me, who used to run like a 20 minute mile in school and probably still does.

We left at about 9 or 9:30 PM. The plan was to hike all night to see the sunrise at 4:30 AM, hang around at the top for seven hours or so, then watch the eclipse from the highest point in Japan at 11:30. Then we would head back down and hit up an onsen (hot springs) at the base of the mountain. It seemed flawless except for the weather, but there was no other night to do it because eclipses wait for no man. So we set off onto the dark and rainy path, Yasu and Takuya in their hardcore hiking gear, and Chris ’10 and I in really cheap rain suits we’d bought from a Walmart-like place near our work for $20. (FORESHADOWING!)

It wasn’t too bad at first. But then it started getting harder. And harder. And harder. There is something truly to be said about the masochism of MIT students, and as I was dragging myself up the tree-shrouded path between the 5th and 6th stations in the pouring rain, the main thought that crossed my mind was “how am I going to blog about this later??” And then it came to me: with a hugely cliched metaphor!

Kids, climbing Fuji is like going through MIT in a lot of ways. You have no idea what you’re about to put yourself through – and in some ways, this makes it easier, since I couldn’t see behind me or in front of me any further than where I was stepping. You’re tired a lot of the time. You think if I could just make it through to the next station, I can chill out for a little bit.. but you’re glad your friends are there with you. You don’t sleep. And you’re sweaty a lot of the time. Maybe that’s just me. Anyway.

We eventually made it up to the sixth station, which we thought was the seventh station because it took us more than an hour to get there from the fifth station. It was probably the longest distance between any two stations, and it took even longer because we kept stopping on the way to reflect on the beautiful view of Japan below us.

Not long after the sixth station it looked like we were about to reach another station, but we didn’t. Because they had this terrible thing called “Old Xth Station” in between every station to make you think you were reaching another station, but you weren’t. This is why when Yasu, Chris, and Alexis reached the Old 6th Station about a minute before Takuya (who was kind enough to wait for me) and I did, I heard Alexis yell, “nooooOOOOOOOOO!!!”

We stopped briefly at the Old 6th station to reflect on the world below and also how much our thighs hurt, then traipsed on. The 7th station was not too far off, but I was starting to feel the fact that it was a little past 1 in the morning and that we’d been hiking for about four hours straight at that point, so when we finally made it up to the 7th station I used my expertly honed-at-MIT abilities of being able to nap anywhere to promptly fall asleep.

When I woke up I found the rain was now going sideways and underneath my $20 plastic bodysuit, and that most of my extremities were rapidly transforming from waterlogged to icelogged – oh, how phase changes plague me even now, at 3,000 meters above sea level and really far away from thermodynamics – and since the hut was closed, the only place for me to stand was inside the bathroom. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the signs and about twenty seconds after I parked myself in the entrance, huddled against the side of the bathroom wall for warmth, a very large Japanese dude brushed past me and stormed into the urinal. Instead of a normal girl who hadn’t been hiking up a mountain in the rain and wind who might’ve taken this as their cue to leave, I took this as a good time to take another one minute nap. (Don’t judge me. Especially since this was not my first time accidentally hanging out in a men’s bathroom. What? Who said that?)

We’d almost made it up to the 8th station – and I’d almost gotten that manly bathroom smell off me – when the weather started to get really, really bad. Difficult to stand up, let alone walk, bad. So I don’t think I am exaggerating too much when I tell you hiking up to each station began to look like the Pearly Gates:

You can imagine our disappointment when we found that the 8th Station was nothing more than a closed hut with a bunch of lights and a huddled group of freezing hikers sucking on oxygen tanks. But despite its more irritating, earlier counterparts, the Old 8th Station was definitely my favorite. We stopped to get some of the best hot chocolate I have ever had in my life, probably because I was hallucinating hot springs everywhere at that point, and warmed up for a few minutes since we were a little ahead of schedule.

From the Old 8th Station to the summit, and the time we spent to the summit, the weather was so bad that I couldn’t take out my camera anymore, especially since my fingers wouldn’t permit me. At this point, however, our trail merged with the most popular trail, which meant we started seeing more and more people. It was pretty surprising considering I was two minutes away from turning into a snowman and was sure no one else could be as crazy as we were, but as I said, Fuji is only open for two months out of the year, so any time during that two months you can be sure there will be people. Even if it’s pouring and a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning and a bunch of the huts are closed – the moral of the story is that any day of the week, PEOPLE ARE CRAZY.

It got so bad past the 9th Station that we were literally standing in line to get to the top of the mountain, right about the same time the weather decided to take a turn for the worse. For about an hour we stood in lines of tourists, feeling the rain slam down our necks, every now and then taking a step, every now and then getting blasted with an angry gust of wind. For about an hour I stood almost but not quite at the top, shivering and hating myself for doing this, wondering why I would ever put myself through this, what was I trying to prove, when this was ever going to end.

I forgot to add that the majority of the time we we’d been hiking, besides all the times I wasn’t breathlessly trying to keep up with the guys or playing songs in my head over and over to keep my mind off things, I was counting the ways I was lucky. Lucky that I couldn’t see anything – because if I had been able to see how far up we were going, I probably would’ve turned around and gone home. (Alexis had headed back down shortly before the 7th station because of his fear of heights, and I knew at that point I had to keep going.) Lucky that I was so out of breath, because my body heat was keeping me from really feeling the cold most of the time. Lucky that I was so ridiculously unprepared and had no idea what was in store for me because that made it harder for me to psych myself out. Lucky that Takuya was nice enough to wait up for me, lucky that the wind kept me from getting too overheated, lucky that it was raining so I didn’t have to get out my water bottle. (You ever hear that song? If allll the rain drops were lemon drops and gum drops..)

But at this point, we had essentially stopped hiking, and I’d really begun to feel the cold. I was no longer warmed by being sweaty or out of breath, and the plastic bags I’d tied over my shoes (did I mention we were REALLY unprepared?) had torn completely off so that my socks were soaked through. In fact, everything I was wearing was completely soaked through – my gloves, my sweatshirt, my fleece, my jeans, my hair – oh, yes, ALL of my hair – and I was reminded of particularly cold mornings in Cambridge when I’d run to class – late, of course – just out of the shower, and my hair would freeze over or break off. I imagined the same thing happening to my fingers, one by one, like icicles that would be left on the ground to melt into Fuji’s rocks forever.

And then Takuya, loyally trudging behind me in line, yelled “200 m to 10th station!”
“200 m left! Yatta ne!”
“We did it!” I yelled, flailing my arms around and almost knocking Takuya back down the mountain.

Those last 200 m were the longest of my life, but the sky had started to lighten as day began to break and I slowly began to feel lucky again. I looked up and started to see dozens of other hikers, all drudging slowly and patiently up to the peak, and I felt that same sense of warmth spread through my chest like when you find someone in the lounge up at 3 in the morning doing the same pset you are. Finally, FINALLY, we stumbled up the final stairs and jumped around the summit of Mt. Fuji, pumping our fists in victory and in the desperate hope that feeling might return to our fingers.

Takuya and I had been long separated from Chris and Yasu at that point, so we wandered around for a bit trying to find them before succumbing to the internally heated temptation of the huts at the top. These huts sold ramen and curry and hot drinks at ridiculous prices and offered all the comforts of the men’s bathroom at the 7th station without any of the smell. Except for the smell of VICTORY. (In case you were wondering, victory kinda smells like burned rice.)

We didn’t get to see the sunrise. The sky was too cloudy and it was still raining by 4:30, so there were no legendary skies for us, despite all extra grief we’d been through to get there. And at around 7:30, one of the hut workers told us we were going to get altitude sickness if we stayed up there any longer and advised us to go down – so we didn’t get to see the eclipse, either.

But the view on the way down was spectacular.

Two weeks later back at sea level, I’m not sure if it was worth it. It was worth it in the sense that I wanted to climb Mt. Fuji, and I wanted to prove I was just as hardcore as the boys I climbed with, and the view on the way down was really something else. It wasn’t worth it in that I had really wanted to see the sunrise and the eclipse, but if I keep thinking about all the regrets I have about the things I have no control over I’d miss out on the chance to think about how lucky we were – especially since there were two climbers that went missing a few nights before we climbed Fuji.

But we conquered Mt. Fuji, and now I feel like I can do anything.

“GREAT!” my mom said, when I’d finished telling her this story (not in so many words) over Skype. “So now you can do it again when we get there?”

Uh, no.

It’s time for some イケメン (IKEMEN) watching!

Posted by Carmel Mercado (Foundation for Biomedical Research and Innovation–Kobe, Japan)

This one is for the ladies.

Lab Mate #1: Carmel-san, you are now “ikemen judge.”

Me: 何それ?!違う!違う! (What’s that?! No, no!)

Lab Mate #2: Carmel-san’s friends all ikemen. So ikemen judge. Let’s go to ramen shop in Sannomiya and go ikemen watching! You tell us if there are ikemen there.

Me: へ〜??!たぶんいないでしょう。(Whaaat?! There PROBABLY aren’t any…)

Lab Mate #1: 行きましょう!(Let’s go!)

In the end, it didn’t matter what I said the other evening. The girls working in my lab convinced me to go out with them to eat ramen in Sannomiya; they promised to take me to a macaron shop afterwards and of course, I succumbed. Macarons.. I haven’t tasted good macarons since Paris so it’s been heaven since moving to Kobe, where foreign desserts are a specialty of the city.

Now you may be wondering, okay… so what is an ikemen? I didn’t know either until I started working in this lab. One of the great advantages about being the only foreigner in the lab, and the youngest one at that, is that you have the chance to learn some interesting vocabulary from your co-workers that you probably wouldn’t ever learn in a Japanese class. My co-workers thought it was ESSENTIAL that I knew what an “ikemen” was because I was still “young” and should be looking for one….

Before I answer the question of “what is an ikemen?” let me rewind. Starting last Wednesday I have been working in a somatic stem cell therapy lab. As part of my internship, I have been “rotating” through different stem cell labs and learning different methodologies for maintaining, differentiating, and using stem cells for various medical treatments. For my last two weeks, I am working in this lab where, to put it briefly, we take fat (adipocytes), extract the stem cells, and harvest them for therapies that involve liver regeneration and the creation of pancreatic islets. Yes, what an odd concept, but we are indeed making fat useful! The interesting thing about this lab, aside from the work, is that everyone but the P.I. is female. Let me tell you that I’m not used to this scenario because in all my time at MIT, I was often in the minority when working in the lab. So here we are, boyish me, the youngest in the group, working in a lab full of Japanese women, and they call me the ikemen judge. How ironic.

SO.. what is an ikemen? I will get to that! When I first arrived in the lab, the ladies all wanted to get to know me and know what I’ve been up to since arriving in Japan, and instead of telling them stories in my Japanglish (my fusion of Japanese with broken English), I decided instead to show them pictures of all the places I’ve been to. That’s when all this ikemen business started. I got to a picture I took with Omar (another MIT-Japan Intern living nearby in Osaka) and two Japanese friends we made over the course of the summer, and as if by magic, my lab mates all began chiming in unison “IKEMEN! IKEMEN!”


This wasn’t the picture that my lab mates were looking at, but just so you get a sense of what an “ikemen” is. Here, Omar and I are posing on Mt. Shosha (Himeji, Japan). We were inspired to do a jump shot after just visiting the temple where “The Last Samurai” was filmed. Yes, my lab mates all thought Omar-san was “ikemen.”

Me: i…ke…men??

Lab Mate: Your friends, all ikemen!

I stared at the picture.

Me: You mean my friends are… boys? どういう意味?(What do you mean?)

Lab Mate: うん!うん!イケメンはかっこい男のかたです〜! (Yes! Yes! An ikemen is a “hot”/super-awesome/ worth getting his attention-sort of guy!) *My apologies, I still don’t quite have the best understanding of the word.

Me: Oh! だから、イケメン? (so they’re ikemen?) *pointing at the picture of my friends*

Lab Mate: うん!うん!たといば… (Yes! Yes! For example…) and they started naming guys from the office.

I didn’t realize how much my face gives away my thoughts because with each person they named, I scrunched my face up in disapproval, thus, why I’ve become the “ikemen judge.” Apparently the others think I have high standards, but really, it’s because they were naming people who were my bosses… what was I expected to say.

The ladies all tell me to go find them ikemen. My P.I., too, now asks me whether I think a guy is an ikemen whenever we have a visitor to the lab.

I love Japan.


*posted by request of the MIT-Japan Coordinator, Michelle, who can understand what it’s like to be considered an “ikemen” judge in Japan :]

Kansai Interns rule.
This year’s MIT-Japan Kansai Interns enjoying parfaits in Namba, Osaka with two MIT interns visiting from Yokohama. Kansai rules.

Scanning my brain in Germany

Posted by Tony Kim (Siemens Medical-Erlangen, Germany)

Hi all! My name is Tony Kim. Last June, I finished up my undergraduate work in electrical engineering and physics at MIT. Following graduation and a few weeks of goofing off in Boston, I decided to come to Germany for a short-term internship in order to put my language preparation to use, which is something that I started my freshman year of high school. It works just fine.

I’m working at Siemens Healthcare in Erlangen, a small town not so far away from Nuremberg. Here, I’m working on MRI (magnetic resonance) image processing work, and it’s really a wonderful fit for me. The origin of image distortions is physical — namely, eddy currents arising from high current switching — so that I really go back and forth between basic physics and higher-level image correction algorithms. Although I’m working at a totally engineering, “product development”-type of group, all of my colleagues have a deep background with MR physics; so, the generally high level of technical knowledge makes it very fun to work here. As it turns out, I’m doing quite well here, and have been given pretty much full independence to pursue the project in whatever way I like, with regular updates to my supervisor. But I like consulting with my colleagues; like I mentioned, they know NMR extremely well.

In fact, my work here reminds me a lot of my experience in Junior lab. But instead of the intense two-week turnover deadline (as many of you may know), I have the entire summer to investigate a particular subject. So, I have the opportunity to go the extra distance and do things the “right way”, which I often talked about in my Junior lab presentations, but never did, because of the time constraints.

MRI machines are really modern atomic physics labs enclosed in a huge “black box” (actually, more like a room-sized cabinet). There’s a more-or-less attractive computer control center, which is connected to that “black box” in some hidden-away room. This room contains all the hardware that one would expect in an atomic physics experiment, not a medical clinic. Lots of wires coming out of the back room then connect to the patient room, where the donut-shaped MRI machine sits. Obviously, it’s donut-shaped because it’s a solenoid.

One of the things that I’m currently trying to do is to come up with evidence that the image distortions actually show the structure one would expect if they were tied to eddy-current physics in the machine. We needed more data, so just last week, I volunteered to go in the machine to collect a lot more. I was forced to sign a few forms that said something (among others) like: I know that these scans are being conducted for research purposes, and by scientific personnel rather than medical doctors… so that even if there is something wrong with my head, it might go unnoticed anyway… or something like that. It’s pretty surreal to explore internally a 3D model of your head. I attached a few photos to give an impression.

 Going into the machine
Here I am, going into the solenoid. It’s surprisingly loud. When the machine is collecting data, it sounds like you’re under machine gun fire.

MRI side profile 1
MRI side profile 2
MRI side profile 3
Various cutaways of my head. When I asked my supervisor if everything looked normal, he replied: “I dunno, there’s a brain in there though.”

Diffusion tracts
My work specifically has to do with the preprocessing needed to draw these tracts in the brain.

A few days ago, we wanted to make sure that the machine software was giving us values in the same coordinate system that we were using for our image analysis. We went to the machine, turning up and down specific current coils, and measured the corresponding changes in the magnetic field. We (me and my supervisor) were there with our notebooks, taking measurements. Just like at MIT.

So, work is wonderful here. The main difficulty has been the food, although I’m getting used to it. Every morning, I grab a small hard-crust roll — a “Kaiserbrötchen” — and for the last few days I’ve been having croissants (“Bamberger”) and pretzels (“Laugenbreze”) for dinner. Ja, as I found out by living at a student dorm, German dinners are outrageously meager. Luckily there are a few students from Spain who eat more appropriate amounts and also at a more appropriate time (at least, according to MIT standards).

On the weekends I’ve been able to travel a bit. For instance, Salzburg and Berchtesgaden with a friend from high school, which was extremely cool, since the last clear memory I have of him is 12th grade math class in Edmonds, WA. Now we were eating lunch at some outrageously expensive restaurant in Nuremberg. I also went up to the Ruhr region some time ago to visit a former professor. Bamberg was also super pretty.

Pic at Mirabell palace in Salzburg.

Coming up this week is a second tour of duty in the MRI machine, return to Berchtesgaden for a certain hike, and a medieval festival in Nuremberg. Awesome.

Something international and exciting and new

Posted by Wendi Zhang (CETI and DFJ Dragon Fund-Shanghai, China)

I recently graduated from MIT with a double major in management science and mathematics. Although I was born in China, I spent most of my life to date in a Houston suburb called Pearland, which, despite its name, actually does not have pears. I came to MIT wanting to do something international and business-related and exciting and new.

A month into my life at MIT, when I walked into the presentation for the MIT China Educational Technology Initiative (CETI), little did I know that I was about to immerse myself in what was to become the most meaningful summer of my life. I was so touched by the pictures and stories of previous CETI participants; images of them interacting gracefully with the villagers of ShanXi’s beautiful karst peaks area, and funny accounts of them being interviewed and filmed for the local TV station while eating in a street-side eatery in southern China.

CETI brought new knowledge, perspectives, and direction to my life. I was given the chance to work with three MIT students from the MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department. We worked together to develop a three-week, mixed curriculum of technical, communications, and fun content for students at two prestigious Chinese universities, Tsinghua University and Xi’an Jiaotong University. Although we were the teachers, I felt like our students taught us just as much as we taught them, if not more. I learned not only about the closeness of the Chinese university community and the unique eating culture among close friends, but also the thoughts, motivations, and hopes of our students; and, moreover, why Chinese students do certain things differently than those of us from the U.S.

I remember listening to some of the bright-eyed and energetic students in our Tsinghua class talk about their grand goals of eventually founding the next Microsofts of China. Just two years earlier, when I asked computer science undergraduates in Beijing about what they wanted to do, the most popular answer was to work for Microsoft. This change highlighted to me the increasingly entrepreneurial mindset of the Chinese population. It made me very excited to potentially be involved in the changing business environment in China.

My team also took many side trips in between our CETI teaching days. Through these trips, I realized how complicated China was – that it’s not just a country with a simple, homogenous culture, but it is a hotpot of many different groups with different traditions living in different places. My group was able to visit ethnic minority concentrated communities and it took our appreciation of China’s diversity to a new level. I remember on a train to Tai Shan, my teammates Mike Klein and Silvia Robles, who looked anything but typical Chinese, were mistaken by the Chinese locals as people from the Hui Muslim minority group. I also had my experiences being mistaken for someone else. I debated with a small shop owner in Beijing about whether I am from the Korean minority group or not. He insisted that I was, even though I kept on telling him I was not.

Wendi Zhang

By the end of that summer, I gained a better understanding of how China and Chinese people work and formed new ideas of how to achieve potential synergies between U.S. and China for my future career.

Since my experience in CETI, I craved for another summer in China, except this time – I wanted to explore the professional opportunities there. I found the perfect internship through MIT-China that blended both of my interests in international travel and business. The internship site was at a U.S.-China joint venture capital firm in Shanghai called DFJ Dragon Fund. From my interactions with students from the CETI program and classes I have taken as part of my MIT Applied International Studies minor, I have learned that both the venture capital and entrepreneurship environment in China is extremely active at the moment. To experience this before I graduated was really a dream come true.

During my ten-week internship, I had the chance to work on investment projects related to innovative Chinese wireless technology startups, participate in fundraising activities for the firm, improve my language skills through conducting countless interviews and meetings in Chinese, attend large investment conferences and game exhibitions, and meet many prominent venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. It was quite an amazing experience. I came to MIT wanting to do something international and business-related and exciting and new – and thanks to MIT’s MISTI international programs, I have found that something…more than just once.

Hiking in the Alps!

Posted by Jason Chan (Politecnico di Torino-Turin, Italy)
For millions of years, the African continent has been drifting towards Europe. The result of this gradual friction – the Alps, rising as high as 15,000 feet above sea level. One of the workers at our lab, Pietro, says he much prefers hiking in the mountains over going to the beach. Kristen (a fellow MIT student interning here in Torino) and I thought he was a little crazy at first, until we tried it out ourselves. While a day on the beach can be relaxing (though more often than not the crowds get uncomfortable), we learned that nothing, and I mean nothing beats a day in the mountains.
Our journey starts from the town of Bardonecchia, which is a somewhat small city at the very northwest of Italy, and is popular as a hiking and skiing resort. While the 2006 Olympics were “held” in Torino, it was actually in Bardonecchia that a good amount of the alpine events took place, since the town is almost completely surrounded by mountains.
As soon as we got out of the train station, we were already in awe. The Alps rise thousands of feet above the city, forming a kind of wall that indicates the Italian-French border.  Here at the train station, you can get a good view of the mountain that Kristen and I were to tackle – the Punta Melmise.
The walk to the foot of the mountain took us through the heart of town, which has a cool atmosphere of its own. The main street of Bardonecchia is both lively and peaceful at the same time. There are a lot of people, but it definitely has that medium-sized town feeling to it. On this “large” avenue, most people just walk on the street. This is for two main reasons: first, there are not that many cars that pass through, and the ones that do go slowly; second, the sidewalks are so badly designed that it’s too much of a hassle to try to walk on them. The sidewalks themselves are actually quite nice, but it looked like each building decided to make its own individual portion of the sidewalk, which resulted in sidewalks of all shapes, sizes, and positions. To follow the sidewalk, you have to zigzag, go up and down stairs, and really use a lot of effort – so you just walk on the flat street instead.
A cute small river flows right by the town, but more importantly for us, this river indicated the bottom of our climb.
After attempts at decoding our map and asking help from locals, we found the beginning of the trail for the mountain we were set on climing – the Punta Melmise.  The city itself is already at 4300 feet above sea level, and our climb took us up another 3300 feet. Needless to say, this was tiring, but it was well worth it! The beginning of the climb was really steep, so it seemed like the mountain may have been trying to send us a message.
Fortunately about halfway up the mountain, the path changed from a straight one to a serpentine one that made the climb much less steep… and better for our tiring legs.  Soon enough, though, we got above the tree line and were offered spectacular views of the city and surrounding mountains.
The highlight photo of the trip – a 360º panorama from the peak!  You should be able to zoom in on it by clicking.
The trip back down the mountain was much less fun than the trip up. Here, I am hanging for dear life (well, at least trying to avoid injury) while taking a really unnecessary shortcut.  You definitely don’t want to slide down and land your butt on one of those sharp rocks!  It seemed like a good idea to me at the time, until I realized that the descent was much longer than my depth perception had told me, and much more technical as well. I should say that I blame this adrenaline-filled experience on Kristen, as she had drifted off onto a different path from the one we came from and I needed to rejoin her.
Actually, most of the paths down the mountain are tame, but that doesn’t mean we can always stay on our feet. Let’s just say my shoes are not the best for hiking – how was I supposed to expect before coming here that this was what I’d be doing on the weekends? Anyway, Kristen – who is much more adept at walking downhill than I am – had a feeling that I would hit the deck right about here.
And she was right. That dirt was slippery!
After we got down, we had some gelato. An old man was able to basically cut everyone in line by kind of drifting off in front of people and then politely asking “Excuse me, I’m sorry, but did you get here before I did?  I don’t really remember.” It’s hard not to let him ahead after that, and that’s basically what everyone did! Still, over here in Italy, we should be thankful that there was a line for gelato in the first place – the concept of the queue has not really worked its way into common use here.
Anyway, it was easy falling asleep on the train ride home, and it was easy falling asleep early that night. The trip was exhausting but well worth it!
It’s been awesome here in Italy, but I’m also excited to return to the US.  Hope everyone’s summer has been great!

Brujos y Manos y Tierra en todos lados

Posted by Dorian Dargan ( Tecnológico de Monterrey-Monterrey, Mexico)

My internship in México has truly been a great experience.

I was doing strategic consulting in Ozolco, México, for a small business that wants to sell corn-husk muñecas (dolls). As consultant to the growing business, I conducted research in local markets to analyze their competition and determine the business’s market niche. I also created a business plan, designed their logo, facilitated the selection of their business name, helped with product development, and created a product sales strategy. The name of the business is Mahuatlalli, which is Nahuatl for “Manos de la tierra” – which is Spanish for (LOL) “Hands of the Earth.” It represents both the community, and their product, which comes from the outer sheaths of the corn that they use so much here. I thought it was amazing how they can turn something that could be deemed worthless into veritable art… and are making money off of it too!

All in all, it’s been great getting to help the women involved in this project – as I’ve given them my advice, and as their trust in me has grown, they have developed an even greater desire to start this business. I believe they have come to value their work, whereas before this endeavor was merely a hobby to them. They now see themselves as entrepreneurs, and for me it is truly a beautiful thing to feel like you have empowered someone to achieve something they’ve always had the potential to do, but had been lacking the necessary guidance and reassurance. Since I’ve been working on this project, I’ve learned a lot about the community’s culture in particular, how things work, and (don’t work), and about the process of starting a business, informally and formally.

The project was fun, but I definitely had a crazier experience outside of the workplace.

One weekend my work group and I went to Catemaco, this town known for its brujos (wizards) – wasn’t really feeling that from the get-go. Catemaco was also the place where Mel Gibson filmed much of Apocalypto. If you’ve seen the movie, then you can imagine how beautiful it is. We were able to tour through some of La Selva where the movie took place. That was really cool… however some weird stuff went down too. Well, for one… the beginning of my problems happened. While playing some ball game with my coworkers on the trip, I dove onto the ground, and accidentally smashed the screen on my camera that was in my pocket. So now, my camera screen is currently adorned with purple, yellow, green, and blue cracks. I can take pictures, apparently, but i can’t see NUFFIN, lol.😦

Anyways… Catemaco era impresionante… we went kayaking, and hiking through the rainforest. The only suspect part for me was the interaction with the “brujos.” We did this bathing ritual called Temazcal. It’s an ancient “cleansing,” that has been turned into a commercial attraction. Basically, they cover you in mud/clay, which is healthy for your skin, and then you dance around next to a fire to dry the clay. After the bonfire… you go into this sauna where they bring in hot molten rocks, the sheer heat and steam from the rocks nearly suffocates you, while the mud on your skin liquifies and falls to the ground.  We stayed in the sauna/igloo for a really long time, longer than most people would stay in a sauna. I left a little early, however because mud started getting in my eyes, and i had my contacts in – not a good combination. After all that… we jumped into Lake Catemaco to clean everything off. It was very refreshing…

Another weekend, I went to D.F. (Mexico City) for the 4th of July. It was cool… we visited La Cathedral, El Museo de Antropología, Zócalo, etc. However, while on my way to a 4th of July party… something happened that kind of ruined the rest of my night. When I was getting on the metro, a pickpocket jacked my wallet, unbeknownst to me… WHAT!? I noticed like 10 seconds later that it had happened, after I got on the train, but I had no idea who it was… there were so many people. I couldn’t stop regretting that I hadn’t been able to see who it was. While in shock that I had been pickpocketed, I was mainly upset that I didn’t have the chance to fight back for my wallet… because I know I would have won. :)  I had to cancel my cards, and I lost all of my ID’s and about $70 worth of cash. WOMP WOMP. So as you can imagine, I was money-less for quite a while… but I persevered, and the countless other amazing experiences made up for it.:)

I love México… haha!

Berlin, bikes and bridges

Posted by Haseeb Ahmed (ifau-Berlin, Germany)

Just wanted to say a few words about my time here in Berlin. Perhaps some background. I am in the Visual Arts Program at MIT and spending my time here in Berlin working for an Architect Jesko Fezer, who is highly involved with issues of urban conditions and opportunities of open use. In a very rigorous way they practice what’s often called user-centered design and their interventions are minimal but highly adaptable. So I am helping them with the designs for a museum in Stuttgart and a gallery in NYC.

Aside from that I have a studio in the Turkish neighborhood of Neukolln and I spend a lot of my time developing a new body of work dealing with the way in which history is made available, critiqued, or celebrated through architecture. It’s really impressive how advanced the understanding of the relationship of architecture and ideology is here in Berlin.

Specifically I am working with three very different sites here. The first is Tempelhof Airport- the first modern airport in which planes could roll straight into terminals was built by the Nazis, later used by the US in the Berlin Airlift, and now is a site of contention between the state and Left groups that want to claim it as public domain. It’s a massive curved building with underground passages and huge hangars. The site is sealed so my interventions consist of finding my way in, exploring it, documenting my paths and encounters, and eventually a minimal installation.

The site that I am working with most is the Teufelsberg Tower in Grunwald Forest. It’s the main listening post for the US in West Berlin when it was an Island in East Germany. Everything is interesting about this site. It was built on one of Berlin’s two mountains- both created by piling rubble from WWII bombings. This one buries Hitler’s military college which was too massive to blow up. After following a winding road up the “mountain” you arrive at the gates of the complex filled with holes, and that is when you get your first glimpse of the tower with its 4 massive geodesic ra-domes. You can actually hear it before you see it. The wind is very strong up there and the teflon canvas that skinned the structure has been cut loose creating some eerie curtains. Its the best place to see the city and espcially sunsets. It sits somewhere between its future as a museum and its past as a military outpost. I think it can really only be experienced in all its complexity in this intermediate state and I’ve been going there with random assortments of tools to figure out how this site can be activated.

After trying quite a few experiments and exploring and documenting the site I’ve found that actually repairing it seems to be the most effective. I’ve been cleaning and painting in ways that pull out the strange structure of this place created from an unconcious architecture of functionality. Perhaps more on this later. Im planning an informal opening the week before I leave-which is getting close!

Briefly the third site is the former site of the Palace of the Republic- the Capital of the GDR (east Berlin). It sits in the Museum Island and was supposed to be the finest building produced by the GDR. It was torn down to rebuild an old and minor Prussian Castle that was torn down by the GDR to build the Palace. It’s this interesting trend to try and reconsititute a continuity between the 1920s and earlier into the present and supersede the intervening years of catastrophic war and division.

In general this kind of building style of monumental housing blocks and iconic geometrical form is something I’ve been thinking about and living amongst since I arrived. I live on Karl Marx Allee (former Stalin Allee)- the grandest parade boulevard this side of Moscow. Its the ideological interpretation of what a society based on the principles of the Left would look like. All over East Berlin its leaders are cast into concrete-rendering that history and its potentiality even more opaque.

There is far too much to do here in Berlin and I often find myself plotting my return. Thanks for reading!

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