Wednesday, March 2, 2022

When the reality exceeds the hype

Utqiagvik airport, midwinter 2021, -35C
Some events in life - we anticipate those for a long time. Before they happen, they feel almost like a dream. Then it happens. Sometimes they disappoint, after all those hypes and hopes. Other times, they surprise us even beyond our expectations.
A few come to my mind. First, the Erasmus Mundus. Doing an MSc in Europe, not just in one country - but two! It felt like too good to be true. Then I got accepted and spent 2 years in Portugal and Sweden: 3 semesters in Lisboa and a semester in Stockholm, to be precise. I left Sri Lanka on the 20th August 2012, 10 years ago, and arrived in Lisboa on the 23rd August, after spending a few days in New Delhi. The Erasmus Mundus experience, especially as a masters student living alone for the first time, together with many similar students, felt special and it pleasantly surprised me.
Utqiagvik airport, summer 2021
When I was in my third semester of the MSc, I applied to the PhD program under the Erasmus Mundus (now discontinued and replaced by Marie Curie funding) funding again. It felt it is going to be a larger version of the Erasmus Mundus masters, spending time in 2 EU countries again - but for 4 - 5 years. More time for those pleasant encounters. Then it happened. I spent my PhD in not just 2 countries in 2 years - rather 5 countries in 5 years! In addition to my universities in Portugal and Belgium (the host universities of my PhD program), I spent a few months in other universities in Croatia (1 month), USA (7 months), and Saudi Arabia (2 months), with research internships. While my MSc started this mobility experience with Portugal -> Sweden -> Portugal, my PhD felt like my MSc experience on steroids. More diverse experience. Now, looking back, my MSc + PhD experience of 7 years, 2012 August - 2019 August (2 years of MSc followed by 5 years of PhD) feels like a sweet past birth. An ultimate nomad life. I surely want to go back to Portugal for those memories.
No sunrise in the midwinter in Arctic
My visit to the North Slope in Alaska in 2021 was a travel experience that exceeded my extremely high expectations. I visited Anchorage (and surrounding towns - Whittier and Spencer Glacier) and Utqiagvik (and Point Barrow) in the summer, after wanting to visit Alaska for 2 decades since 2001. Utqiagvik, the Arctic Alaska, felt other-worldly, despite being the USA. I had to visit Alaska again (!!!) within a few months, in the midwinter, as I was so mesmerized by Alaska - this time to Anchorage, Fairbanks (and College), and Utqiagvik. Again, Alaska exceeded my expectations, making me want to go there for the third time. I even like that tiny Utqiagvik Barrow Airport. It does not have restaurants or anything fancy. But it has a minimalist and home feeling to it. Love that.
I am happy for these memories. But that also means I also want to go back in time (i.e., visit these places again). Hope I will still love Alaska and Portugal the same when I visit them again.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The roads

Roadside in Birmingham, AL
Roaming the streets with a small backpack is fun. It does not highlight me as a tourist. I like when I can make a story in an uneventful purchase. My current backpack has a story.
My previous backpack's front pocket zip got damaged in Fairbanks as I was roaming the streets in blizzard conditions. It just froze while I opened it. I tried to pull it hard, and it broke. I thought of continuing my onward journey (to Utqiagvik and finally to return to Atlanta) with a broken front zip. But that means my backpack's usable compartments become less. Since my flight from Fairbanks was delayed, I had two additional days in Fairbanks. Close to the hotel where I stayed for the second segment of my Fairbanks trip, there was a Walmart. I found this backpack in that Walmart and immediately bought it - to avoid traveling further with a useless front pocket.