A Trip to Consumerism (I mean NYC)

Last week, I went to NYC with my mother. She had spent about three weeks with me at Cornell and we decided to spend the last weekend of her trip in the city. I’ve lived in New York State for two years now, but I had never actually spent more than a few hours in NYC. I had only briefly been to Times Square and Central Park one summer afternoon. On this trip with my mom, we reserved an apartment through airbnb, bought a metro card and did all the touristy things in the city.

I was happy to spend time with my mother but I was disappointed with the city itself. I fail to see why this city attracts a large number of tourists. The museums and libraries are excellent and you could spend many days exploring them, but the average tourist doesn’t care about Ancient Greek art, Van Gogh exhibits and even less about modern art. How then, is NYC one of the top cities for tourism?

My mom and I went to see the empire state building. Once we were in the right location, I looked up and saw a tall building. I said, “Mom, that’s the empire state building”. We read about it in a book on the histories of Manhattan buildings. It was expensive to go up to the observation deck and it was too crowded. Then we went to Times Square. We waited for the sun to set, so we could see Times Square in all its glory.

We walked in and out of innumerable Times Square stores. The Hershey’s and M&M stores sell their chocolates in all shapes, colors and flavors you can imagine. They also sell everything from clothes to pillows and random souvenirs with their logos on them. I wondered who really wants to wear a Hershey’s dress or cuddle with an M&M pillow. A kids’ toy store had a whole section of iphones, ipads and ipods. There were many clothing stores that offered discounts, still the price for even the flimsiest piece of clothing was in three digits (in dollars). What made it worse were the “Made in India*” tags. (*replace with any developing, Asian country where textile workers continue to work in unsafe conditions and live in poverty.)

Tired and hungry, we looked for a place to get dinner. For a place that attracts thousands of people every night, there were surprisingly few dining options. It is difficult to be vegetarian, health conscious and bank balance conscious with food there. Every street had little cafes and bakeries, but I can’t call pizza, bagels, muffins or croissants a meal. Streets were dotted with delis but I can’t expect a deli to have good vegetarian food. My mom and I found Mexican restaurants diet and pocket friendly. Chipotle was the only Mexican place we found around us in Times Square but it was very crowded, so we ended up at an expensive, Indian restaurant. This pretty much summarizes our experience of food in NYC.

After a filling dinner, we returned to Times Square. It was dark above, light all around us, and there was a sea of people. As we sat down at one of the tables outdoors, I was overwhelmed by the larger than life ads. There were ad-people smiling and laughing and conveying that I could be like them if only I shared a Coke with friends, bought a new Apple product, wore Urban Outfitters clothes, watched some new Broadway show, used T-mobile service and drank Dunkin Donuts coffee. The consumerism was obscene. Why do so many people around the world spend their hard earned money to come to NYC and see advertisements on huge screens, feel obliged to buy random Hershey’s products and eat unhealthy, overpriced “food”? I don’t even see how it makes for meaningful time spent together for families on vacation since you can do pretty much the same at any local mall, thanks to globalisation.

While I was on my mental rant about materialism and vowing to avoid such sight-seeing again, my mother was amused by the advertisements and the myriad people around us. As she observed some older women in traditional Indian sarees, even Indian families we had no relation to seemed familiar to her. She was both fascinated and repelled by the women with American flags painted over their naked bodies and whom you could pay to take photos with; by people whose bodies were covered in colorful tattoos.She wanted to sit there a little longer, but it was over 10pm and our environment disgusted me.

A subway ride took us back to the apartment. NYC seems plagued with consumerism, which I most despise about the United States. It confounds me how a society can evolve to the point where it is more concerned with the quality of its material possessions than its food! In a place called the food capital of the world, I struggled to find moderately priced, healthy food. The saving grace of the city is its public transportation system, although decrepit. All of the United States seems built for cars, not people; NYC is a welcome exception here. However, I cannot argue that NYC is built for people either.

To Ecuador or Oxford?

Earlier this semester, I decided that I wanted to study abroad. Studying abroad with the CS major can be slightly problematic if you have particular electives in mind. I intend to do the programming languages specialization and the electives for it are offered only in alternate fall semesters. So I looked for Spring 2016 study abroad programs. My choices were limited to English speaking countries. After speaking to an academic adviser, I ended up applying to Oxford and Cambridge to study Philosophy and Logic. Since it’s closely related to computation and programming languages, I was able to put together a coherent application, although I have hardly taken any classes in those subjects.

In March, a housemate emailed our list-serve with information about a class titled “Student Community Partnerships in Latin America”. The class involves learning about and working with a community in Intag, Ecuador, on projects related to sustainable economic development. Intag is a “cloud forest”, with extremely rich biodiversity. Faced with the threat of copper mining which might contaminate the pristine water in the area, the community is developing alternative economic practices. So far, that’s all I know about the class. The class also involves a trip to Ecuador during Winter break, when can students collaborate with their community partners on particular projects. I was strongly attracted to this class for two reasons:

1) It pays a lot of attention to the topic, “What does it mean to help?”. In the past, I have found that a lot of service learning programs underplay the learning aspect and there tends to be an unequal power dynamic. The Intag program seemed to be exactly how I envisioned an ideal engaged-learning program.

2) I learnt Spanish at Cornell and absolutely loved the language. Traveling to a Spanish speaking country would fulfill a long-time wish. Previous participants said that the trip to Ecuador was not very touristy, although they did visit some tourist spots towards the end. That sounded perfect.

So I ended up writing a very enthusiastic application for the class as well. By mid April, I learnt that I was accepted to the Ecuador class. I couldn’t contain my excitement, until I read that I wouldn’t be able to take the trip to Ecuador if I will be studying abroad in the Spring. But I hadn’t heard back about my study abroad applications yet, so I postponed thinking about it. This week, I received an acceptance letter from an Oxford college’s visiting student program for Spring 2016. While I was glad about the acceptance and the prospect of spending a semester at Oxford, I knew I might decline the offer.

I didn’t have to think long to decide which one might be a better learning experience for me. While Oxford would be a fantastic environment to be in, I felt that the Ecuador program would widen my worldview far more than Oxford could. Although there are great cultural and historical differences between Oxford and Cornell, essentially, both are elite universities. So the people I meet and know at Cornell are more likely to similar to those I might meet at Oxford than in Ecuador. The Ecuador class/trip seems like the more enriching life experience at this point in my life.

In addition, a required class for the programming languages vector – the infamous Compilers, is being offered in the Spring instead of the Fall this following year. Staying at Cornell in Spring 2016 makes my academic decisions much easier! So I’ve decided to decline the visiting student offer from St.Catherine’s at Oxford and take the “Student Community Partnership in Ecuador” class instead. I’m already looking forward to next semester!

Intag! :D


Spring Break in Ithaca

I stayed in Ithaca for all of Spring Break. A few other friends, who are also international students, also stayed. The primary concern for undergraduates who stay over breaks is food. All the dining halls and most BRB eateries are closed. Most students survive the breaks by stocking up on ready-to-eat/microwaveable food. Fortunately, I live in a co-op. So I always have access to a full kitchen (with all the utensils I might need) and staple food items like oil,flour,grain,pasta salt, spices, milk ,onions, potatoes.. (it’s a long list). With most basic ingredients readily available, I only had to buy some vegetables and special ingredients for particular recipes.

Since I had the time and resources to make elaborate dinners, a few friends and I made our own meals during break. Each meal took us a few hours to make, consume and clean up. But it was absolutely worth it!

Omelette and veggies

Omelette and veggies

Eggs, fruit salads and soups were as complex as our brunches were. We were too hungry to really cook in the mornings.

Mushroom Paneer Masala

Mushroom Paneer Masala

Having bought paneer from the Indian store in collegetown, we struggled to cook it. Once we simply fried and ate them, another time, we tried adding them to a rice dish (which ended in a disaster and hence no photos of it). But finally, we created this dish with tomato sauce which was meant for pasta. I tried really hard to mask the flavor of basil and other italian seasoning with garam masala and cumin!

Penne in Tomato Sauce

Penne in Tomato Sauce

A can of olives, a jar of seasoned tomato sauce, and some mushrooms found in my house’s pantry warranted this delicious, free meal.

Thai Curry

Thai Curry

We found some red thai curry paste in the pantry. So we bought some frozen vegetables, some coconut milk and paid a lot for a handful of bell peppers and baby corn at the salad bar in Atrium Cafe. The result was delicious. That evening, I also cooked the rice perfectly and was finally declared a true South Indian.

Thai Curry with Rice

Thai Curry with Rice

Other nights, we made sweet potato and spinach quesadillas and also resorted to some ready-to-eat meals a couple times. At one point, I had the surprising realization that we had cooked Thai, Italian,Mexican and Indian food over the course of a few days. I guess that’s how you know that you live in the U.S. – by the ridiculous variety of cuisines in regular meals.

I also developed a great appreciation for the people who cook my meals. At home, my mother cooked all three meals, every day, from scratch, in addition to having a full time job. I have come to the belief that she must have superpowers, because cooking two meals for myself left barely enough time for other activities (like trying to go the gym, compelling a friend to teach me to play the ukulele and sleeping 10 hours a day). So I’m glad that I can get my dinner tonight at a dining hall, although I did really enjoy cooking during the break.


An Encounter with Speed Reading

At any point, I have two or three library books in my room. They aren’t textbooks; some of them are not even remotely related to my classes. Right now, I have “Logicomix – An Epic Search for Truth”, Graham Priest’s “Beyond The Limits of Thought” and “My Life in My Words” – a composed autobiography of Rabindranath Tagore. The list of books to be read is even longer. Yesterday, I read an excerpt of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and felt compelled to borrow the book from the library. When I finished reading Logicomix, I decided I had to read the author’s other book – “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture”.

Although I keep borrowing these books, hardly do I find the time to read them. Two weeks ago, I found “Logicomix” , a graphic novel on Bertrand Russell’s life and work, in the Mathematics library. I spent the next four hours curled in bed, holding the book open next to me. When I finished reading, it was 8:30PM. I had a homework due for my algorithms class in 3 hours and I hadn’t completed it. I ended up taking a late day and devoting all of my Friday evening to completing that homework.

Making time for leisure reading during a semester is difficult, and mostly happens at the expense of academic or social pursuits. It’s hard to decide which to prioritize. I can’t neglect coursework because it’s my primary job here. I can’t shut myself in my room and read forever either, but probably never again in my life will I have access to a library like Cornell’s.

So when I saw a poster advertising a speed reading program at Cornell, I thought I had found a solution. If only I could read faster, I could read my books without sacrificing the time spent on academics or friends. I attended the first session for speed reading last week. A peer tutor introduced me to spreedr and some techniques for reading faster. I tried a couple passages with it. I didn’t understand all the details, but I got a good gist of what I was reading. The tutor said that it was normal; the idea was to absorb as much as possible in a shorter period of time.

Later that night, I tried spreedr with a passage I had to read for my philosophy class. I got a general sense of the author’s ideas but I didn’t catch the details of his arguments. I didn’t understand enough to form my own opinion on the topic. Still, it was enough to help me get through philosophy lecture the next morning. It seemed like a great tool if I needed to cram for an exam or skim through some reading for class. But I realized that it beats the purpose of leisure reading.

When reading for yourself, the concept of speed makes no sense because time doesn’t exist there. I can dwell on a particular paragraph I find beautiful or turn the pages back because I missed a minor detail there. It’s a break from the days of rushing from one commitment to another, of micro-planning my time to finish routine homework and other tasks. It’s liberating to simply be in one place and give my complete attention to the present experience, without worrying about a deadline for it.

Introducing the concepts of speed and productivity to this experience felt like a violation of a sacred space. I decided to allow the books to rest on my desk; there was no hurry to finish reading them. In the short time that my schedule allows me, the experience of reading with presence is more important to me than the quantity of information I absorb. I ended up cancelling the next session of speed reading.

Earlier tonight, I read two chapters from “My Life in My Words”. In it, Tagore’s poem “Where The Mind is Without Fear” was printed alongside its original title in Bengali “Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo”. It struck me that I’d heard these words several times in the song “Jagao Mera Des”, without knowing its meaning. I spent the next hour carefully listening to that song by A.R.Rahman. It starts with the original poem, as written in Bengali and then a Hindi interpretation follows. I memorized some lines in Bengali just because they sounded beautiful.

Although I could have read two more chapters of the book in that time, I am certain that the joy of reading the book is not derived from the target of finishing it, but from the experiences along the way.