Friday, December 31, 2021

A few things that made my 2021 interesting..

Two Arctic seas meeting, a late midnight
2021 is still a pandemic year that often felt like 2020. However, overall, the year was more positive. It was not better than my pre-pandemic best years (2019, 2017, 2015, and 2013). But this post focuses on the happy moments.

1. The Alaskan Arctic, twice - in the peak summer and the peak winter!

Witnessed the Arctic transforming completely with seasons from 24 hours sunlight to no sunrise. Visit Alaska was my childhood dream since 2001. After two decades, visited twice this year, and experienced the taiga and tundra biomes of Alaska.

2. A "Polar Bear Plunge" in the Northernmost Point of Alaska in the North Slope Borough

On a fine summer day, I jumped into the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow (Nuvuk), where the Chukchi sea meets the Beaufort Sea. Nuvuk and Utqiagvik are now the northernmost and westernmost points I have ever been to. The water was not as cold as I anticipated. But I had to dry myself quickly and put my layers of clothes back on - as outside air in Utqiagvik was cold even in the peak summer, and water on skin makes it feel colder.

3. Witnessing Northern Lights two nights consecutively!

On New Year's Eve and the night of Jan 1st, 2022. The NYE had a magical feeling to it.

Valley of Fire State Park, NV

4.  Exploring the culinary scene of Northern Virginia (NOVA).

A calm Uzbek restaurant in Arlington and a seafood restaurant in Alexandria.

5. Getting stuck in Fairbanks in a historical "Icemageddon."

Canceled and delayed flights lengthened my stay from 4 nights to 6 nights. I handled an extremely volatile itinerary elegantly.

6. Long walks on cold Arctic winter temperatures of -34C, feels like -40C.

The weather app warned frostbites to exposed skin in 2 minutes and asked not to go outdoors. I did. I got a frostnip on my left thumb once too. 

7. Spencer Glacier and the blue glaciers of Whittier and surroundings

A scenic hike and standing in Spencer glaciers, and short walks in Whittier.

8. The view from Mount Evans, high at 4,348 m elevation

It is the highest I have ever been. And the scenic drive with mountain goats in the streets.

9. Arriving at Las Vegas, NV via long dark streets from Kanab, UT 

Slushies in Las Vegas was the weakest alcohol I have ever tried. 

10. The desert landscapes of NV and CA

Licked (!! because, why not?) some salt from the lowest elevations (-86 m) of death valley, and some hikes in the valley of fire, Joshua tree, and Mojave parks and forests.

11. The French Quarter of New Orleans

It has this genuine European charm and nightlife that I haven't felt elsewhere in the USA.

Mount Evans, a Fourteener of CO.
12. Witnessing the bore tides in real-time from the train ride

From Anchorage towards the south, magnificent views of mudflats and glacier-covered mountains of Chugach National Forest.

13. 20 km frequent weekend walks in Atlanta Beltline west and south and Stone mountain trail

More explorations of South and West Atlanta; leisure walks in roadsides of various neighborhoods such as Edgewood, Cabbage town,  and College Park; and interesting mini hikes such as Doll's Head Trail/Constitution Lakes Park.

14. Disconnecting from the world in Charlotte.

Long weekend brief trips are fun. I liked the 7th Street Public Market.

15. EmoryBMI Google Summer of Code - a successful summer as a mentor for two projects and the org admin

Our sister organization caMicroscope had a productive summer too, I learned from their mentors. 

16. The 2 Pfizer shots and the Moderna booster

They gave hope for a year that overwhelmingly felt like a twin of depressing 2020.

Spencer Glacier in summer
17. Crossing the bridge to Camden, NJ from Philadelphia, PA.

Almost summer - but it was rainy and cold. Thankfully, Philly had some nice cafes.

18. Getting soaked in a heavy thunderstorm in Bonita Lakes Park in Meridian, MS.

The town has some ghost vibes, like a haunted town. I won't recommend walking alone there at nights. It is a ghost paradise.

19. Burgers and CBD water outside the Illegal Burger restaurant, Denver downtown
Met some interesting strangers in Denver/Colfax, Idaho Springs, Boulder, and Littleton.

20. Accepted journal papers - a productive year for research.

Niffler at Journal of Digital Imaging (JDI), NEXUS at IEEE Access, and Viseu at Elsevier Computer Networks (COMNET).

21. Regular dentist visits after a decade. It was expensive.

Since I did not spend considerable time with humans this year, my dentist became the person I most interacted with this year.

22. Exploring Washington DC with my former colleague.

It reminded our Atlanta walks pre-pandemic in 2020.

New Orleans French Quarter
23. Discovering Chungha's music and becoming a fan.

INNA, my all-time favorite since 2013 from Romania, also had some great music this year.

24. A colorful view from the apartment in central Portland.

It was a trip-inside-a-trip from Seattle in a serial trip. In such backpacking trips, especially including flights, packing-unpacking-and-repacking, ensuring not to mix the still-clean clothes with dirty/used ones, is an art.

25. Up and downhills of Seattle on rainy Thanksgiving days.

The Chinatown / International District was nice for a good walk, despite the bad weather.

26. Software-Defined Systems SDS 2021 Conference.

Nice to meet my peers, although it was virtual. I was also the technical program committee (TPC) chair.

27. Snow covered Christmas Eve in Anchorage

This was my first white Christmas, everything covered in heaps of snow and snowflakes falling occasionally. Loved that feeling. I used icicles to write Happy New Year on snow. 2021 was easily my most favorite and unique Christmas.

Walking across the frozen Chena River
28. Crossing Chena River on foot from Pike's Landing, College, AK.

To get a selfie with the "Love Alaska" sign on Christmas day. In the winter, this "path" is also known as "Ice Bridge" but becomes an actively flowing river when it gets warmer in spring to autumn.

29. Reading a book outside in the snow by the fireside in Fairbanks.

Thanks to the hotel's library and the beautiful view that the snow had crafted.

30. Dangerously slippery roads of downtown Fairbanks

Walked across the entire downtown Fairbanks on various types of snow, ice, and slush - The good traction for my long boots prevented me from slipping on the heaps of snow with ice layers.

Every year, I have one new year's resolution - to outperform my previous years. :) 2021 was not a bad year, and comparing it with my pre-pandemic years is unfair. It was better than 2020, and it was the best I could achieve solo in a pandemic. I expect 2022 to bring an end to this crisis and bring back happiness to the 2019 pre-pandemic level. I wish you a happy new year. Thanks for reading my list until the end. You may read the blog posts of all the previous years as well.

Northern lights (aurora borealis) in Utqiagvik

Utqiagvik gives an easy access
Northern lights have an 11-year cycle like a sine curve with a maximum and minimum. The last maximum was in 2014, and the next maximum will be in 2025. The minimum was in 2019. In 2021/2022, we are still slightly closer to the minimum than the maximum. When it is at the maximum, the displays will be stronger. But then there is also a 27-day cycle of repeating patterns, showing displays from September to March in the northern hemisphere. Other days of the year will be too bright with the late-night sun for the lights to be visible. 
The 27-day forecast, with updates every Monday at 7 am Eastern Time, comes in handy.

Aurora views until NYE Fireworks
Although the common wisdom is, further north gives better views, that is not always true. The magnetic pole is slightly tilted from the north pole. Consequently, you see the lights more in the south in Canada compared to Alaska. Also, it is a ring known as Auroral Oval. A few places such as Iqaluit, the rest of the northern Nunavut, and north Greenland are too far north to be ideal. However, the darkness of Iqaluit and the rest of Nunavut is an advantage. But heading way too north such as Grise Fiord or Alert in Nunavut will hurt and ruin your chances of seeing those lights. Yellowknife would be better. Even Iqaluit will be okay. Every city will of course try to advertise itself as the best place to view the northern lights, due to the tourist potential. Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow. The northernmost town of the USA in Alaska. Utqiaġvik also has the northernmost point of the USA, known as Nuvuk or Point Barrow) is not particularly touristic for northern lights, although summer gets more visitors for the 24 hours Sun and an Arctic plunge in Barrow Point, the literal northernmost point of the USA.

With the city view, some light pollution
For the same reason, I heard that Fairbanks and slightly north of Fairbanks is better than Utqiagvik for the displays as Utqiagvik is almost at the northern end of the ring whereas slightly north of Fairbanks is right under the oval. However, a dark sky with less light pollution (far from city centers) and clear cloudless skies are even more critical. I stayed in a hotel in College, AK, right next to the frozen Chena River. It is supposed to be better than staying in central downtown Fairbanks. It is also more convenient than heading towards a destination for the view - although having a dedicated viewpoint makes the views more pleasant. But, we could cross the frozen river by walking on it and going to the Love Alaska sign on the opposite side. Having such access helps with the potential to sleep in your room until an alarm sounds from your Aurora app or the hotel reception (the hotel reception can wake you up for sightings - but do not rely on them entirely).

Stars were visible too.
 Unfortunately, the eight nights I spent in Fairbanks had 100% cloud coverage due to continuous blizzards. But luckily enough, when I landed in Utqiagvik, it had a fully clear sky. Then I saw the northern lights on both nights (new year's eve night and the night after new year) I stayed there. The temperature was dropping to -34C at the two nights, and that was enough to kill my iPhone within a couple of seconds when I took it out and drained my camera battery in 5 minutes. I also kept a spare battery in my winter parka's inner pocket. That gave me a total of 10 minutes and a need to rush with photos rather than carefully focus. Also, it was a solo self-managed trip, and I was taking photos from the street rather than in a campsite with some fire to warm up. Although my photos do not give the show the justice it deserves, it was a magnificent display.

The Interior Alaska Icemageddon 2021

Ice and snow everywhere in Fairbanks
It was a historical record-breaking blizzard, dubbed "Icemageddon." Due to that, unfortunately, the northern lights were not visible in Fairbanks, although predicted high as Kp=4 during the stay. Otherwise, it would have been a sure thing. Chena River was frozen just in the backside of the hotel I stayed. Just walk across the frozen river to the "Love Alaska" sign and enough darkness to witness the northern lights in peace.

Luckily, I went further north and spent two nights in Utqiaġvik, where I saw the northern lights on both nights. I was also well prepared with warm clothes and traction for my boots. Therefore, the cold Alaskan and Arctic climate did not bother me.

There were some mini power issues and long queues in the hotel. It was a bit annoying in the beginning. But later, I stayed two nights in another place in Fairbanks and realized it was a widespread issue across Fairbanks due to the blizzard. Power issues were all over Fairbanks. Roads were in horrible condition, and many were closed. The flight was delayed by two days - although Alaska Airlines tried their best to accommodate every request to their best. Most restaurants and establishments downtown were closed for a couple of days.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Watch local

Anchorage, Alaska

YouTube algorithm and the English-speaking media have biased us to watch more American (primarily white) content. Even when we travel to a remote location, a simple YouTube search yields mainly videos by travel influencers rather than locals and natives. That steals the locals the opportunity to showcase and monetize their content. These days, whenever and wherever I travel, I make it a point to search and find content made by locals rather than western/white/American tourists.

Some local content on Yakutia, Russia.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021


Seattle skyline in the night
Everyone has a certain level of randomness in spending their free time. On any weekday, 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, and two additional hours for basic tasks, leave us with free 6 hours. This is assuming a 40 hours work week, with weekends off. That means we also have the weekends, long weekends, and vacations, all for us. I like traveling during my long weekends, doing random walks on the weekends, and spending my free time on workdays with music videos. I get my inspiration from those random cities. I have been to the USA's northernmost point in Alaska and the southernmost point of the USA in Florida. I see patterns in my trips. But I also see differences. 2021 is the first year since 2010 I did not leave the country. Since 2013, I have been to at least two new countries every year. The pandemic has put things in a different dimension. But we are hopeful. We are flying on faith~

Friday, November 12, 2021

ASUS WebStorage: A 0-star cloud storage service that you should NOT try

A comical expectation
ASUS has been offering some too-good-to-be-true storage offers such as 16.99$ for 1 TB of storage for a year, a discounted rate. Since it is really cheap, I decided to purchase it. It is my bad that I bought it without checking the reviews. Turned out, this service is a scam. You must never purchase it. It simply does not work. They are probably in their alpha-testing stage. In this stage, the service is unlikely to sustain and they must pay you to use their crappy product.

It literally took 24 hours to upload 8 GB of data and it got stuck there. The service indexes all the files that must be uploaded first. This indexing takes quite several hours. Then it starts uploading - at literally a speed of 800 kbps. Yay, welcome the days of late 1990s and the slow Internet. (To clarify, my Internet is quite strong - with upload speeds of at least 20 Mbps always, as per Then, it decides to randomly fail some files here and there without a reason. They were just like 5 MB files. You could ask their interface to retry. It will retry. And some files would still fail even after several tries. You have to literally babysit the app - and it would still fail for no reason. I guess, it caches some local failed version somewhere in their site and hence failing subsequent attempts.
Bot says I could get a refund

I asked for a refund in a day

Now, this is a simple browser-based upload of files. The binary they provide for Linux drops a segmentation fault and does not work at all. However, if just a simple upload is failing, how can you trust their app to auto-sync the files? Interestingly though, they were aiming high. They were asking you all to ditch Google and move your files to their service.

ASUS WebStorage performs poorer than the MSc projects we did in performance and usability. I cannot believe a professional company thought it is okay to release this as a public software. I have asked for a refund since their chatbot said they will refund if it was applied within 7 days since purchase. I asked for the refund in a day after purchasing this shitty service. But I am yet to hear from them. 

Trying to submit a customer complaint leaves me with this page:






Their web chat help is even more awful.

"there is nothing that can be done on our end."
The reply I received was, "My apologies, there is nothing that can be done on our end." This getting more and more interesting, day by day. From not providing the refund - to help departments being completely dismissive - asking everyone to contact using that unresponsive instead!

Is ASUS WebStorage a scam?

Verdict: Yes. ASUS WebStorage is a total scam.


Update as of December 1st: I eventually received the refund, after several communications back-and-forth. It was a bizarre experience, to put mildly.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Giridih, a scam city?

Scammer forgot to mask their number
I keep getting scam calls, claiming to be from various US entities. Almost all the time the number appeared to be from Atlanta. They have just masked their original number to appear to be from Atlanta. Once a scammer called me and I asked him whether he is from Mumbai. He replied, "No Sirrr, Not Mumbai, I am from the IRS." Sometimes the scammers distort their voice with some software to sound like an automated message or a bot (to make us believe they are calling from a big organization and perhaps to prevent us from judging their accent). I asked the person, "are you a bot?" The bot laughed and replied, "No Sir, I am not a bot. I am from IRS." So yes, a human with a distorted voice to sound like a bot, with a fake/masked number to appear to be from IRS or whatever a US entity.

Today I received the same scam call. But this time, most likely due to a software failure, they had forgotten to mask their actual number. The number is from Giridih, a city popular for such cyberscams.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Meaningless and comedic reviews on Google Maps

Google Maps is full of meaningless and comedic reviews. Especially, the remote regions such as Arctic lands are filled with such jokes. They undermines the usefulness of the reviews, by flooding with these jokes. These are annoying especially when these remote regions are hard to reach and these reviews mask the legit reviews with their comedy.

If you have not been to a place, why are you reviewing it? It just skews the correct ratings. Reviews are meant to be from those who have already experienced the place. Not from those who cheat the system to become a "Local Guide" for Google.

Here, this person has apparently landed on this remote Arctic island on Google map and decided to leave this review. Unfortunately, this useless review has received more positive reviews than the legit reviews from those who took the pain to visit this totally amazing remote land.

An idiotic review that claims this Arctic island, easily one of the coldest in the world year around, to be hot and humid. Then people be up-voting it as a joke. Hope Google also introduces a down-vote. Then people like me can down-vote such stupid reviews.

And more irrelevant reviews.

Some reviewing on behalf of their siblings and friends who have actually visited the place.

Others reviewing after spotting the place on Google maps.

Unless Google fixes its review system, Google reviews will remain the most useless reviews we ever have had.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Niffler: A DICOM Framework for Machine Learning and Processing Pipelines

Niffler is an open source DICOM framework for machine learning and processing pipelines. This is an introductory presentation for Niffler.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Heating and hot water diaries

Begich Towers, Whittier, AK
Lisboa's winters were cold indoors. We did not have proper heating in most of the apartments and hostels that we stayed. The hot water was okay - but not too stable. It got cold when we opened the kitchen water simultaneously. On the other hand, Stockholm and Louvain-la-Neuve had a better but central heating. That means, it was cold in autumn until they turned the heating on. Once they turned it on, it was warm enough always, as in the summer - quite comfortable. In Atlanta, we have a better personal heating. So we have a better control of the heating. Hot water in Stockholm, Louvain-la-Neuve, and Atlanta are quite stable too.

We never had to worry about heating in Colombo. It was always hot. Whenever it got "cold," it was a pleasant surprise that was to be cherished - not something we needed heater. But still, taking a cold shower was fun. Most apartments did not have proper water heating. We used to boil water in pans to fill a huge containers for warm showers. Not as convenient - but it worked.

I did not enjoy the Lisboa winters as much as I enjoy Lisboa summers. Indoors got colder than the outdoors in winters. But still, the foggy days of winters were a magical feeling. Nothing to complain about.

Friday, September 24, 2021

The inevitable evil now known as the Zoom

Alexandria, VA
Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Most people do not realize how it can affect the productivity and overall employee health.

If a zoom meeting ends at 11 am, can you all please:
a1) avoid extending it to 11:05 am? (another meeting starts at 11 am).
a2) avoid crashing many things from 10:55 - 11 am? (yes, your presentation timing was bad - you need to work on that).

a3) end at 10:57 am instead? (a short bathroom break before the next 11 am meet).

It is important to finish on time, or rather 3 minutes early - especially those with more than 2 people. If it is just 2 people, we could inform each other and end earlier in case of another meeting coming up right after. But with more people, we are left to:

b1) suffer back-to-back meetings with no breaks for eye strains or washroom.

b2) get late to the following meeting, either missing part of that meeting - or pushing it to start later, making a snowball effect on losing track of time for all the subsequent meetings.

b3) leave the meeting in "the middle" at 10:58 when the meeting goes on 10 minutes out of the schedule, eventually making us lose 12 minutes of the meeting which could contain the crucial aspects of the meeting if you are going crash important things during those last few minutes (refer to: a1).

Wednesday, August 4, 2021


Where the Chuckchi Sea meets the Beaufort Sea
My whaler friend pointed to two whales in distance and told me that those whales do a threesome in the Arctic, where a wingman whale helps the male lead whale to mate with his female. It sounded evolutionally impossible. Why would a whale help another to mate, losing his chance? I did not question him, as I do not usually challenge the experts unless I am an expert myself. Who am I to question one who has the wisdom of the land and has come from a generation of whalers for millennia? Today I decided to look it up. This article concludes that that is false information. Now, who should I trust - the one who had his entire life revolve around whales or these scientists with domain expertise? These could also be local wisdom that scientists are yet to discover. Now I don't really know. 
Iñupiat Heritage Center, Utqiagvik

Do I care about how whales mate? Certainly not. Do I respect how the native whalers treat whales when they hunt for meat? ABSOLUTELY. It was nice to see how the cultures respect the animals that become their food. There are policies (both international and native) in place
on how many whales each community can hunt per season. It is a quota. No one is strictly observing - but the hunters respect that. It is a community. Your catch belongs to the whole village. There is a pride. The one who hunts the whale is respected. The whales who "sacrificed" (yes, it is believed that the whales willingly "offered" themselves) their life to sustain the community for one more season are respected. After all, whales are considered the most sacred animals.
In the Nuvuk peninsula, we walked passing whale bones and several tree logs floating from far regions pushed to the Arctic in summer. More concerning were artifacts. My friend said, as a kid, he collected "treasures," all coming from China, Japan, Russia, and EU on the shore. Ocean pollution is a global problem, but Arctic is explicitly impacted that it can be observed by anyone who lives there beyond doubt. n a community sustained by whaling, whale bones are expected. But the Arctic tundra has no trees. The logs and artifacts are foreign. The Northwest Passage is clearing up with the Arctic completely melting in the summer. Governments are even preparing for a Transpolar Passage that cuts through the north pole by 2050 summer or even as early as 2040 summer. The Nuvuk peninsula now has a serious tide problem, which the locals try to mitigate by placing large bags of sand along the shoreline. There used to be a thriving community in Nuvuk, which does not exist anymore. But Utqiagvik has this lovely Iñupiat community that has been living there for 10 millenniums.

No wonder Alaska has become my most favorite state in the USA. I always loved traveling and finding myself in new places, especially with new cultures. When I was young, going on an annual school trip was so exciting. We would go on a day trip in March every year - but it was enough for the young me to get all excited for weeks in advance, starting from January. As I grow old, to get the same level of excitement, I have to go to random corners of the world. Each new place adds something to my identity. Memories make my identity. It is like searching for something I have no clue of. Regardless of the scale and the distance, I see travels as searching for myself. With my continuous migrations since 2012, the lines of traveling and migrations are blurred in me. Although I have not moved since June 2018, I still feel the same nomadic self I was between 2012 August - 2018 June. The pandemic has clipped our wings. Yet with the vaccines, there is some hope, and we may live again.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

2021, one isolated year.

2020 had the first 3 months that were quite active and filled with life. 2021 is the year I made the least amount of human interaction: The service industry (waiters, cashiers, ...) and strangers in the streets made nearly 100% of my interaction. Amid the pandemic, these workers provide a human aspect to the isolated humanity. The employers should pay them well. Since everything in the USA is about tipping, when will we start tipping Trader Joe's cashiers? They are the best. I wish Trader Joe's treated them with respect.
I don't know. But this really makes me feel sad.


COVID19 uncertainty - when you feel you are not in control of things. Pre-pandemic, the world changed slowly. Nothing fundamentally changed within a few months to years. We moved faster while the world moved relatively slower. That made us feel safe. The pandemic has turned the tables. Now with the pandemic, the world seems to be evolving rapidly than we. We are closer to 2022 than 2020 now as we have past the mid-mark of 2021. It is a one weird year, perhaps less weird compared to 2020. 3 years in Atlanta continuously. I am not sure where and how will this year end and what is next, and is there even a next?

Friday, July 2, 2021

Grad studies and destinations

Flights, a major part of our life!
One of my juniors asked my opinion on going for higher studies in Europe. I have blogged about Erasmus Mundus a few times. But I decided to make yet another blog post based off of our discussion.
Erasmus Mundus used to have both MSc and PhD programs - I did Erasmus Mundus MSc and Erasmus Mundus PhD. With the program restructuring, the Erasmus Mundus PhDs are discontinued. We have the Marie Curie scholarships for PhD instead. 
He was planning to apply for a PhD with just a BSc. But EU PhDs almost always (there could be exceptions) require you to have an MSc unlike USA or Australia. So, if you want to do a PhD in EU, you are mostly going to do what we I did - do an MSc (go for Erasmus Mundus - it was a dream come true for me) first. Then apply for a PhD.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The immigrants and the trolls of Sri Lanka Twitter

It is not rare that every time an immigrant raises an opinion or comment on Sri Lanka on Twitter, there is always a set of users who try to assume themselves to be the patriots - and shut any opinion from the immigrants down. "After all, you all ran away from the country." I am someone who prefers his opponents to be smarter. So some hints why you should avoid the typical insult, "Is an NGO paying your visa fees?" at Sri Lankans living abroad:
Scenic Byway to Mount Evans

If that person is a citizen in that country, they don't need a visa or pay fees to live there. That means a French citizen of Lankan origin does not need to pay "visa fees" to live in France. Also, thanks to visa-free entries, they don't need visa fees for many other countries either.
I am not a citizen of any nation other than Sri Lanka. But I don't need an NGO to pay my visa fees. Mostly employers/universities paid that for most of the countries that I have lived in. When they did not, the visa fee was something I could afford.
Not every Sri Lankan abroad is the same. We are all different. We all have stories. Often, humble ones. Unique ones. I am open to talk to anyone. I am someone who (still) takes the crowded public buses 154 or 155 every time I return to Sri Lanka. I believe Portugal significantly influenced my life - and made me who I am today. But underneath everything, I am still the same villager who left Moratuwa 9 years ago. I didn't "run away" from my problems. That is not my style. I move on my own, primarily searching for something that I do not know.

In summary, please try to avoid that "who is paying for your visa" insult. It's boring and repetitive. Not creative.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Interstates, freeways, and failed towns

Urban decay in Meridian, MS
I started walking from the Meridian train station towards my hotel, following Google Map suggestions. I was almost there I thought. I even saw the destination! But a problem. Between me and the hotel was I-20/I-59 interstate with no underpass, bridge, or an alternative way to cross. I had to call an Uber just to cross this street. I came to the conclusion that these Interstate roads and freeways are the new rivers. Rivers used to be the major transportation medium to travel inland. But rivers also segment a village, or naturally become the border of a village. Now, these freeways and interstates are doing the same. You drive fast on them. But they segment an otherwise decent town.

Most of the US cities have notoriously horrible public transport. I can walk a long distance in flat lands, especially when I am not in a high elevation (I am not acclimatized to elevation). 18 km is my usual weekend walk. Now, what irritates me is, USA does not have a public transport in many towns such as Meridian - but it also has ruined those towns - making them impossible to walk, by segmenting them with streets that cannot be crossed by pedestrians. My hotel was surrounded by I-20/I-59 and MS19. None of them had a way to cross. Essentially it felt like living in an island. Even Google Maps was suggesting me to cross the I-20 by feet to reach the hotel. Apparently, Google wants me killed by speeding vehicles or arrested for jaywalking in a major interstate. How did even these locals agree to let an interstate ruin their town like this? I get it everyone drives in the USA. But isn't walkability an important feature of a town? It is dystopian. As an animal, humans should be able to walk and run freely, without relying on vehicles for everything. Driving just to cross the street or go to a shop a few meters to a couple of kilometers away - isn't it sad?

Meridian was a textbook example of a failed down. Almost everything was decaying there. The two Uber drivers (yes, had to get them just because I cannot cross the I-20 between my hotel and the train station) - both told me there is nothing actually to do in their town, "Sorry, I don't think we have much to see. Maybe go hike Bonita Lakes Park." But they were happy that other notable cities (such as New Orleans) are a quick drive from there!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Immigrant Diaries

Philadelphia Chinatown
I moved out of my country on the 20th August 2012. I have a selective memory. I remember things that I want to remember, most of the time. However, I vividly remember 19th August 2012 Sunday. The night I was leaving my home to fly to New Delhi. My final destination was of course Lisboa. But first I had to go to New Delhi to get my visa stamp from the Portuguese embassy in New Delhi. We don't have a Portuguese Embassy in Sri Lanka. I was flying to Portugal to do my MSc. It was an Erasmus Mundus that I chose Portugal and Sweden, as it is a double degree. Of course, an MSc is just a 2-years degree. I never thought of anything beyond the 2 years. 

There was always a competition in Sri Lanka. I did that competition thing - but only until I entered the university (you need to get high scores in A/L to enter the good programs in a good state/public university in Sri Lanka. Not much different from China's Gaokao). By the 2nd year of my BSc, once I entered the Computer Science and Engineering program, I kind of avoided this competition mentality. I just want to be happy. In fact, I want everyone to be happy. My only benchmark, I do annually, by the year end. I judge my year against my previous years. Then I write an annual post (a habit since 2010), comparing my current year to the previous years, in metrics of happiness. I list 30 things that made the year interesting, i.e., that made me happy. It is all personal. I compare myself to my past self. Not against anyone else. I am on my own path that I carefully crafted. Not planning to follow another one's trajectory.

Italian Market, Philadelphia
I arrived in Portugal with an open mind on the 23rd of August 2012. I had never been to Portugal before. For reasons unknown, Emirates randomly upgraded my flight from DXB to LIS into a business class and treated me well. The border control agent in Portugal was extremely nice. I expected questions from him. He just gave me a smile and "have a good day." Portugal impressed me on the day-1. I met many people in Portugal. I made friends and family in Portugal. People I met in Portugal would change my life drastically. I often tell that I found myself in Portugal.

We were master students, especially from Erasmus Mundus - a prestigious mobility program under the Erasmus+ umbrella. We all had a story to share. We were also attending ULisboa / Instituto Superior Técnico, arguably the most prestigious university of the country. We all had a story to share. Portuguese people are also friendly and usually extroverts (at least compared to all the other 45 nations I have been). I was expecting to be lonely in Portugal as I left my parents and friends in Sri Lanka. But quickly, Portugal proved me wrong. I was surrounded by lovely people. Portugal also quickly made me into an extrovert. I started loving people more!

Most immigrants bring a piece of their home country with them. I usually remind everyone though that an immigrant or a tourist you meet in your country may not be the ideal representative of their home country. Some adopt themselves to fit the host country's culture. Others double down on their home country's culture. For them, they get stuck in a time when they left their country. For instance, I have met Sri Lankans who moved abroad in the 1980s have maintained their traditions sometimes more vigorously than those at home. It is like the time stopping to move. Some of them had not gone back to Sri Lanka in ages. Even if they did, that was too short of a time to observe the country sufficiently. Forget others - even myself - my Sri Lanka moments and memories largely stop at 2012 August. Even though I had been to Sri Lanka after during vacations in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2020, those were just 2 - 3 weeks of vacations - too little to do anything beyond spending time with family, visiting relatives and friends, and to handle some other important matters at home.

Camden, NJ
For us - whether nomads or immigrants, often our country stops evolving ever since we left the country. We remember the songs of the country (bus songs!) up until the day we left the country. After that, even if we watch/listen to new songs online, the feeling is not the same as listening them from the bus or at home in Sri Lanka. Many immigrant towns such as Chinatowns and India towns in several western cities give the taste of home away home for many immigrants. As such, new waves of immigrants too often end up settling in the same areas.

Not all the immigrants are the same. Some had a great experience in their host country, whereas others just survived. Some were fleeing brutal regimes back at home whereas others were living a comfortable life in their home country. An immigrant's experience in the home country depends on several factors such as their life back at home and how the humans in the host country treats them. Luckily for me, everyone I met in Portugal were nice and friendly (with time, I might have met some not-so-nice-people - but by then I had already met hundreds to thousands of great ones - so that I could ignore any bad apples). It also depends on the factor who I am. I was in Portugal as part of the Erasmus Mundus double degree program. We had a clique of international students, and also very friendly local students too. When we introduced ourselves as we are from Tecnico Lisboa, we instantly got some respect due to the name of the university (arguably the best in the nation). May not be the same for everyone. I am not sure whether I will be able to replicate the same experience if I arrive there now for the very first time - 9 years later - say, as an employee rather than a student. Student life always brings the friendships quite easily. It is also often meeting the right people at the right time vs meeting the wrong people at the wrong time. Regardless of the hypothetical scenarios where I arrive first in Portugal in 2020 or 2021, what indeed happened in the real world in Portugal left me with exciting and positive memories.

I rarely have considered myself an immigrant. Rather, I liked to label myself a nomad. It made sense. With the mandatory mobility of Erasmus Mundus MSc and PhD, together with the internships, I had lived in 7 countries by the time I arrived in Atlanta in 2018 June. But, now it is 3 years since I came to Atlanta and I haven't moved ever since. Although H1B holders are legally not considered immigrants (I guess ?), I know I fall somewhere in the immigrant-nomad spectrum - but I am not sure where exactly. I am curious to see where time will place me next.