Tag Archives: travel

CHI Trip Report: Comparing Remote, Hybrid and In Person

I was one of those who asked for CHI to be fully remote. I intended to attend remotely. Due to my disability travel is difficult and attending the entire conference would not have been worth the cost physically. Additionally, I face higher personal and family risk with COVID; and caregiving responsibilities at home.

However, when I received the Social Impact award, I decided it was important to attend in person to make the most of the opportunity this represented to talk about social impact. I decided to avoid indoor meals if possible and limit overall exposure; did not attend any evening parties; attended most of the conference remotely even when I was in New Orleans and tried to socialize outside when possible (it was too warm some of the time).

I truly embraced the hybrid model for CHI as a result (and am very grateful to the organizers for working hard to make both virtual and in-person attendance possible). I spent Tuesday and Wednesday morning in person; the awards dinner in person; and everything else online, including some synchronous programming Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning and many hours watching talks asynchronously on Thursday and Friday. So far, I am still negative, but given recent events I attribute that as much to luck as my choices about what to attend.

It’s worth noting that others have already written excellent articles on this topic, including Michael Correll’s very thoughtful much more holistic commentary on the future of academic conferences; and Amy Ko’s detailed experiential trip report from CHI 2021, I encourage you to check those out as well if interested in this topic.


I attended two workshops. Both were at their heart about inclusion, and both worked hard to explore inclusion from multiple perspectives. One was focused on disability, the other on making. My main take away is the breadth of both of these communities and gratitude for my chance to get to know about researchers who I wasn’t aware of in both. I think workshops are particularly critical to networking in the era of remote participation because of the ways in which they bring people together with shared interests. Slack supported networking at both.

At the hybrid workshop we found ourselves in a “lunch break” with no virtual equivalent, we explicitly had a conversation about networking and what people were hoping to achieve. The sharing in this conversation was vulnerable and moving and highlighted how important it is to consciously make space for networking time when remote.

Virtual Only Events

My longest synchronous virtual-only segments were Wednesday after about 10:30am and all day Thursday. I attended from my hotel room. The town hall worked great virtually, as did the social justice event I attended, but being in person just before them highlighted how “dry” such events are in terms of interpersonal connection. I also struggle with remote question asking because it is so hard to change the contents of a question between when you ask it and it is read aloud (context can change in the interim).

One of the least dry/favorite events I attended was on data and design, where the session started out with an interactive multi-step Miro board activity. This is a screenshot showing a gestalt view of the thoughtful planning that went into this (names occluded for privacy). Over the course of an hour we worked our way through a combination of activities on this Miro board and breakout rooms.

A picture of a miro board. There is too much to visually process at detail, but it's clear that there are at least 3 sections to this, each with multiple activities within (reflected in multiple colored areas with labeled circles for putting badges into and responding within.
The Miro Board from the Data and Design SIG on Tuesday Morning

One unique aspect of having traveled to New Orleans was the “physicality” of the virtual experience. In one extreme example, I accidentally left my phone in the NOLA sun by mistake when attending a session from my hotel’s roof deck, and my network connection went down due to the phone overheating! I could not reconnect until I wet it down and blew on it. It didn’t affect much as I just increased the speed of the livestream until I caught up. Overall, though, being in my hotel room, ordering local food, having the chance to connect with a friend 1:1 in between things, and having the time to center the conference, all made the experience much better than any prior virtual experience.

I also spent many hours on what I might term “asynchronous virtual events” on Thursday and Friday. I watched live sessions (such as award talks) that I had missed, and watched, coded and wrote up all of the relevant talks that I had missed during the week (such as Monday when I was traveling, or during parallel sessions). Whenever I watched a talk that I had a question about, I made an effort to email the first and last author with my question and a compliment, just as I might have approached them after the session. I am still answering emails about this three days later, and have even been offered collaboration opportunities. This effort has been significant, and included a sort of qualitative coding to do my trip report. I don’t usually take the time to synthesize a conference like this, and at CHI’s current size in terms of the variety of papers I could select from, I found it an incredibly relevant and fruitful experience.

Hybrid Events

My first hybrid session (I was in person) was an interesting opportunity to see some of the unique challenges to hybrid sessions, from a missing session chair (turns out they were virtual) to no presenter (the talk is recorded after all) to unclear understanding of the backup plan if delay becomes an issue. I participated in a hybrid session remotely twice (including one of my workshops) and experienced some awkwardness in not knowing when I was expected/able to speak up as a virtual attendee.

Overall, though, I experienced something very similar to what others have said to me: being virtual, or hybrid, feels like a whole different conference than in person. You, and other remote people, are in your own social space even if you are looking at the same talks as in-person people.

Lesson Learned

I have several takeaways from this mix of experiences. Networking is better in person (no surprise) but I think that can be improved by going out of ones way to send emails and/or discord/slack messages to folks about their work (just as you might approach them on stage after a talk); and by creating synchronous and asynchronous opportunities to connect about goals and networking needs. Community building needs more attention, especially longitudinally. Visibility requires explicit attention for remote presenters. And Redundancy is critical to an accessible and reliable experience. Finally, Synthesis helped bring CHI together for me. I enjoyed most of CHI’s content remotely (see the other half of my trip report for more on that) — and more than any recent virtual experience: the trip was a lesson in the value of truly creating space for conferencing, even when remote.


Networking is one of the aspects of in-person conferencing that translates worst to virtual. However, my experiences this week showed me that with a concrete plan in place, it is possible to do much better even in virtual/hybrid settings. I also learned from how diverse networking needs are and that I definitely am glad I asked what folks were looking for.

I think asking about networking needs more often, and earlier, could better guide networking planning. Much more structure for this is needed than in person (though one might argue that even in person structure helps folks who are more marginalized within the community). For example, my best virtual networking experience last year was at an event that was clearly labeled in terms of purpose, and thus drew people who could support that purpose and/or sought it. It is possible to create small intimate gatherings even online, and we should try to find more opportunities to do so.

I also found myself regretting not planning ahead more. Several of us were in Seattle during one of my workshops — we could have made the effort to all be in the same room. I hope we can experiment more with such models for the next (small) conference I attend virtually. I think smaller conferences (workshops may be too small to have much co-location?) are the easier place to start with such efforts.

A word of advice to students: It really helps to have a web page of your own that describes your interests and highlights the most relevant work you do. One advantage of virtual networking is that I could google everyone I came in contact with to find common interests. Yet many of the people I googled only had a linked in page. You can use off the shelf blogging platforms for free to make a website and still have a nice look and feel (I use WordPress for my group, for example, and some of my students use their page on my site, while others have their own websites).

Building Lasting Communities.

I am by no means an expert on community building (for that, see Kraut & Resnick) However, one thing that occurs to me is that we can be more strategic about building virtual networks that last, and we especially need to do that in this era. For example, there is already a slack for the maker community in HCI++. Why not have a fabrication-related workshop invite people into a channel in that space rather than an entirely new slack that is likely to be shut down or die off shortly after the conference ends? I have the same thoughts about the CHI 22 specific discord. Are we doing these things to gatekeep access, and what do we gain (and lose) from those choices? How can we better ensure that people know about, and build on, existing virtual communities?


An important loss for remote presenters in particular is the visibility of giving a talk to a bunch of like minded folks and then engaging with them right afterwords. I’m not sure how to solve all of that, but I think small things help, like making sure that your face is visible throughout your recorded talk. I gained a lot from taking the time to send an email to a student or their advisor when I saw a talk I loved, this feedback is missing for many online presenters, and also resulted in conversations that were valuable to me.

Relatedly, I think that recorded talks create new opportunities for visibility (what Michael Correll calls history). I would love to see more of this freedom of access. For example, it would be interesting to consider a new model that allows more people to participate in workshops than submit position papers — more like a SIG model — so more people can benefit from the networking opportunity of even just knowing about each other. I understand that submitting something is an important way of showing interest, and I think this requires more thought, but I believe there are ways to work through these challenges (for example who presents versus who attends).


When technology failed, having redundant forms of access was really helpful. Discord & Hubb complemented each other; as did Zoom and Youtube. This was a prescient choice by the organizers as it was needed multiple times over. It also contributes to overall accessibility.

One area of redundancy that I only partly engaged with was timing. Being able to attend things asynchronously is part of this, but I had the advantage of always being in a time zone that worked for synchronous participation if I wanted / was healthy enough for it. I would love to see more of the multiple touchpoints that CHI introduced in 2021 in the future, to add networking redundancy to the existing emphasis on content redundancy.


CHI is a firehose, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Even more so when working from home and just “sampling” parts of CHI now and then. By traveling and/or canceling other activities (I did both), I was able to get much more out of the conference. Watching things I had missed, and synthesizing what I learned, really helped me to take lasting value from the non-networking aspects of it. It also helped with networking, as I connected with people by email, and even introduced my students to authors (by email) and content (by sending students links of interest).

Final Thoughts

In the end, was it worth attending in person? I absolutely benefited from the time away and the networking opportunities. Depending on whether I test positive, the scales may tip the other way, though. Even if I do not get COVID, my body has required 2 full days of rest after the travel home to be semi-functional today (3 days after my flight). This is a cost I can afford to bear on a sabbatical year, but it becomes increasingly less appealing as my career matures.

Regardless, my belief that CHI should not have been in person stands firm. My opposition to an in-person CHI was never about my personal gain, it was about equity for all of the people who would like to attend, and the risk to attendees. Both of those continue to be concerns. Particularly so if we move away from innovations that convey the benefits of in-person conferencing for remote attendees. I fear that the extra effort necessary to create an equitable experience online, due to current state of our technology and knowledge about how to effectively support remote networking, will suppress innovation in this space when it already takes so much out of those organizing events.

My best hope is that the experience of attending in person can be of value in guiding us toward a better future. I believe that the future must include virtual only events that center community and connection. I also see room for innovation. I’ll end with some questions and ideas rather than answers. Answers will only come with time.

What if every journal paper was released with the same 8 minute videos as CHI talks? Could we organize safe regional in-person networking events that coincide with conferences? Could we form a truly active discord community that featured topical office hours and networking events similar to the equity talks the EC organized in structure, advertising, and participation? How could SIGCHI benefit from and foster community around speaker series such as the Future of Work conversations and the Web Series on Computational Fabrication? Could the SIGCHI EC financially sponsor young faculty invested in and in need of innovation in this space, to do experiments this year in ways that would meaningfully create space for them to organize and try out satellite and networking events? Will the CHI SC commit now to adding a virtual conference to their sequence, as an experiment if not as a promised ongoing event?

Things we wish we’d know when planning a trip to Zürich

Welcome to Zürich ☺. If you are moving here there are a few things you might want to know, in no particular order :). This is especially geared towards folks living in ETH university housing.


(most of these things take around 30 mins – 60 mins once you find the right place)

  • To register, you will need to go to Kreisburo 6 first, then Berninerplatz (a stop on the 10 tram, the Kreisburo will give you an appointment there)
  • To leave, you will need to go to the migrationsamt (in the city hall, next to the fraumünster church) and register to leave
  • To get a half-pass (half off all tram and train travel) you can go to Bellevue (on the 9) and go into the office in the building that’s right at the center of the stop OR go to the main train station and go into the “travel agency” (take a ticket and be prepared to wait a bit
  • To get a monthly pass (free travel all month long) with your half pass you can go to the train station or use any of the newer (“fancy”) electronic machines (like the one at the Winkleriedstr. Tram stop). The “fancy” machines have an English button. There is no “fancy” machine at the airport, so don’t expect to renew your monthly pass at the end of a trip back and forth to Zürich

Money & Phones

  • I would get a Bank account at the post finance (in the post office, if you walk from Winkleried str Tram stop to Rigiblick Tram stop, you’ll see it on the left).
  • When you get bills, you typically get a “pink slip” – bring it with some cash to the post office, and you can pay it there.
  • The post office is closed over lunch
  • ETH pay can be picked up between 11 and 2 in the back right corner of the 2nd floor (I think) of the main ETH building
  • Sunrise pre-pay is the simplest mobile phone plan. You can “top it up” at any Co-op grocery store (just ask for, say “50 CHF on my sunrise)
  • Sunrise pre-pay charges you 1 CHF on each day that you make a call, text or use internet (up to 3 CHF per day total). You can get an add-on plan for unlimited internet if you use it a lot, for about 10 CHF a month.


We’re not big shoppers, so this is just the basics.

  • H&M has reasonable clothing. The big Co-op and Migro stores have inexpensive clothing options too. There are also lots of sales in the “mall” under the main train station
  • There are a number of farmer’s markets worth checking out.

Things to check out that you might otherwise miss

  • Feminist Zürich: The labrynth and Feminist Tours of Zürich
  • The rooftop swimming pool & spa (“Thermalbad Zürich”)
  • Dolder ice rink 
  • Swimming in the clear cool clean lake of Zürich (‘nough said)
  • Tour the archeological ruins of Zürich (register at City Hall to get a “key to the city” and a map). Takes time to get the key, so this is really only for folks living here.
  • Lots of wonderful places to walk in the Züriberg (Look for the life-sized elephant fountain in the woods) and the Jütliberg. Enjoy them.
  • There’s lots of festivals in Zürich and Switzerland worth checking out. Basel Fasnacht in the spring, independence day parade in mid August, etc. etc. Google to find them. Don’t necessarily confine yourself to Switzerland – for example Austria has numerous “balls” in dance season (winter).

English speakers

  • The expat forums are a great place to find advice about all sorts of stuff
  • There’s some great meetup groups for childless expats – they do all sorts of sporty stuff in the mountains, if you’re into that. They tend to hold separate from the swiss
  • If you prefer to mix with the locals, try a yoga class, join an orchestra, etc. Downside is you have to speak some german and it helps if you’re working on understanding swiss german.
  • The ETH has a tandem-partner program. You can sign up to practice german and offer to help someone with English. We had great experiences with it. They also offer German classes (1x week)
  • If you have kids, the public school has an amazing program for helping them to learn german before shifting them to “regular” school. The teachers are wonderful and for my kids at least, the class worked wonders. Just register with the school system.
  • Be prepared for younger (even 1-3 grade) kids being done with school at noon two days a week or more, and having no school from 12-2. Don’t worry though, Hort will feed them a warm meal and let them play/do crafts during lunch, and as late as you need on weekdays.


There’s an English speaking doctor’s office that has long hours at the main train station. There’s also a 24 hour pharmacy there. You should receive accident insurance through ETH, and you know better than I where you get your health insurance.


  •  For ETH folks, you just buy regular garbage bags. For everyone else, there’s special taxed bags
  • Recycling: plastic goes inside the co-op in their wall collection unit. Metal and glass you can find bins for around the city 2-4 times a year (unsure how often) you will find a garbage bag in your mailbox for clothing and shoes. Anything else of quality, if you put it outside, someone is likely to take it.


  • The climate makes gardening easy. The abundance of green space also makes foxes quite common. As a result, you can’t eat greens raw: they can leave a parasite on plants that is deadly in the rare case you catch it.
  • There is a community farm that you can help out at near the botanical gardens, if you want more than that. I’m sure there’s other options if you want an actual garden bed, but a year is short.
  • We were able to get permission to garden in the non-grassy areas of our yard.
  • We went to a Tot Shabbat service at a local liberal temple, the Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde. It’s a bit out of the way in what looks like an apartment building, but the people we met were wonderful and very welcoming. Be prepared for swiss german though :).

Have fun!

Leaving India (the hard way!)

It started when we realized we had far too much stuff. Even after giving away boxes and boxes of it, we still had to buy three large suitcases, at which point we had eight suitcases, a cello, a carry on suitcase, and our backpacks and briefcases, and one large picture.  Where did it all come from? Perhaps a topic for another post, but the focus today is the impact that had on our travels.

On Tuesday night, we called the airline to check that this many bags would not be a problem. We were told that  our bags would be checked through. We called back again Wednesday to check on the number of bags allowed and overage fees. At that time, we were told that in fact the tickets were not joined, and our bags would not be checked through, which would mean difficult times in the Mumbai airport. As a result, late Wednesday night (11pm and later), a day before leaving india, we found ourselves exploring shipping options. We went online and found many descriptions of the complications involved in shipping through the postal office, the cost of shipping through companies such as DSL, and so on. They all seemed very extravagant or complicated. But we had too many bags. We kept packing (hoping it would at least all fit in our suitcases) and discussed what to do for too many hours.

The next morning we heard that there might be an inexpensive boat shipment option from a neighbor. Turns out this wasn’t true, but it prompted us to ask IIIT for help, which worked out well. They arranged for someone to come and weigh our bags and we were quoted a price of around $600 for 100 kg of shipping. We decided to take it, since we were expecting to have to pay around $200 in extra luggage fees in any case to take those things. We schlepped the other six bags and the cello to the airport.

We loaded all of our things in one car and drove behind in the other. We left super early for the airport, which was a good idea. We got there at 3:15 for a 6pm flight.

When we tried to check in, we were told that Mom and kids were supposed to be on a 7am flight, which we had obviously missed. Apparently our travel agent [1] had booked us on the 6pm flight, then changed the ticket without telling us! Would we be able to get to Mumbai in time to catch our flight home? How much would it cost us? How long would it take to find out? We could see things were going to be difficult for us and the kids, so it was clearly game time!  We started working out the rules for points: -5 for asking when we would arrive, -10 for whining, +500 if we could get the bags checked through, and 55 for doing something you wouldn’t normally do. We decided on 1000 for getting on the plane (since we now needed new tickets) and -50 for quarreling, -20 for yelling at someone.

My son started us out on the right foot by earning 5 points when he allowed my daughter to be the calculator even though he had been planning on doing it, in a very polite voice.

Mom worked magic on the ticket desk, by pointing out that we had confirmed the flight and not been told we had the time wrong (and it was obvious it was the travel agent’s fault [1] and not ours) and they agreed to try to resolve the fees for a new ticket. After an about 1.5 hours wait (during which the kids behaved perfectly, even though some of their food fell on the ground and they were starving), we were given tickets on the 6pm flight for only 1500 Rs each (the change fee, no ticketing fee).

The next challenge was getting all the luggage on and checked through. We were told that the bags were too heavy, but after rearranging we managed to get by with a wink and only 1 bag that was too heavy. Point hit though — the extra 5 kg in that bag cost us $200. Also we lost 20 when one person got to the yelling point (happily, this happened only twice in our entire trip).

All bags checked, all fees paid, we headed through security, and went to buy food, only to discover that we were down to 605 Rs, only enough for one Pizza. Daddy worked magic and got two squeezed out of it by a nice teller (20 pts), and sent Kavi looking for supplementary coins for water. Lo and behold, we discovered 300 Rs more. We settled in and ate, and now are on the airplane.

Our last feat was getting the picture stowed, Mommy did it without a problem. We’re on the airplane now, with a total of 2815 points (and our entire remaining Indian bank account spent!). Even so, excellent score for level 1 :). We will level up to two when we land in Mumbai.

[2 hours later]

Mumbai was crazy mainly for the reasons that Mumbai is always crazy for international passengers – 5 security checks, a long bus ride, and so on. To make things extra fun, we added in an upset stomach (long bathroom visit required) and a request by Continental that we pay a missing fee for an extra bag (eventually they waived it after we said we’d carry the bag on and they couldn’t find it). In the end we got to our plane as they were loading passengers, i.e. with no time to spare, but not late either. Score!

The trip from Mumbai to home was 17 hours long, but uneventful. However, our day wasn’t done when we landed. Customs was complicated by the immigration officer only citing 3 passengers on our forms (we were 4), and then we had to track down our ride (the grandparents). We gave each child 500 points for making it through this last level without a melt down, and 1000 for making it through with no whining. They were, after all, exhausted. Score again!

Once we had all found each other, the kids went home, but we still had to submit paperwork for our swiss visas! On to NY city to the consulate, which opened at 8:30am. We quickly learned that we were missing important information (photos of the kids, photocopies of our passports, filled applications). After visiting 4 separate shops we managed to collect all the needed information, and get the applications submitted. If all goes smoothly, we will pick up the visas next week.

Points mean absolutely nothing after the trip, but the kids still love collecting them. And they allow us to adjust and set expectations. For example, at one point when my daughter (only 6) was clearly losing it from exhaustion, I told her that she could no longer lose points (by bad behavior), only earn them (by good behavior). With the pressure off, she rose to the occasion. Not only that, but I think it got the adults on better behavior, both by making it more fun (and thus more bearable) and by making concrete the example that needed to be set. It also helped relieve tension: For example, when an adult did begin to lose it, a ready response was “Ok, 20 points off” without escalating things. I expect this is a game we will use and re-use as long as possible :).

I’m beginning to feel home, even if for a short while. It was interesting to observe the conversations among store keepers and customers outside the visa office and think about how different things would have been back in Hyderabad (and how the same). Breakfast at a diner vs a roadside stall. Cold weather. Hopefully soon, a bathtub full of hot water (both luxuries I couldn’t have in India). For now, I’m sitting in the car minutes from home at 12pm EST. It’s 10:30pm in India, on Friday, over 32 hours after I left India.

[1] http://www.vijaywarty.com/ — NEVER USE HIM!

Indian Bureaucracy

The scream, Edvard Munch
The scream, Edvard Munch

I hesitated to post this for a few days (not least because I can never seem to spell the word bureaucracy correctly), but I’ve decided this story is worth sharing, if only so that it prepares other travelers for what they might face. As an added bonus, a usability bug made the experience about 10 times as bad as it might otherwise have been.

I and my children are in India on an entry visa (accompanying my husband). Due to an error on the part of our travel agent, my visa expires in a few weeks (November 18th), more than a month before I am due to leave India. This is because (unlike what our travel agent told us), our 6 month visas began on the date they were issued, not the date that we entered India. As a result, I needed to visit the FRRO (Foreign Regional Registration Offices), at the old airport about one hour from my home, in order to request a visa extension. According to what little information I could find online, we would need to submit a request, and if accepted, we would then wait up to two months for the visa to actually be extended.

Being somewhat familiar with the difficulties of interacting with this office, I prepared as well as I could (printed out the official government form, filled it out, gathered the necessary photos; a copy of my husband’s employment letter; a new letter stating that IIIT Hyderabad wished us to stay until the end of may (carefully written to include the passport and visa numbers for each of us), a copy of my husband’s registration (he was required to register when he arrived, as a resident of Hyderabad, in addition to having a valid visa), and all of our passports. I also requested the help of the IIIT Hyderabad employee who has experience with the FRRO (and can speak Telugu, Hindi, and English) and arranged for our driver to be available. I left the children behind, because I knew that the chances of success were about 0.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the office, I was told that I had filled out the wrong form. Additionally, I was told that I and the children all needed to register as Hyderabadi residents in addition to my husband (news to us!) and that I would have to pay a late fee ($30 each), and bring a letter verifying my residence at IIIT Hyderabad. I filled out a new form, which they provided, with the same information as the old, and was then sent home to get bank checks ($30 each, plus $80 each for the visa extension) and fill out an additional web form for registration. This meant going back to campus to collect my paycheck in cash, and then to the bank to get the bank checks. I was unfortunately sick with the flu, so the day blurred by, but the whole effort took from about 9am to 5pm.  I was given a 10am appointment the next day when I could complete the process.

That night, my husband and I both struggled to fill out the web form, with no success. After completing the whole form, we repeatedly ran into a bug in which it requested an exit date, but claimed that each date we entered was invalid (either because it was before the arrival date, or after it). We tried every possible combination of exit and arrival dates with no success, and were stumped as to how to complete the visa extension process.

At 9:15am (15 minutes late), my driver showed up without his helper (who apparently did not want to come and/or had assumed things would go smoothly from here on out, which I doubted highly). No one on campus could explain what I should do about the broken form, but finally a friend suggested I simply print out each page of the form in the hope they would accept them (a long shot). And hour and 40 minutes after we were supposed to leave, and a full 40 minutes after our appointment should have begun, the kids and I (all still sick) began the journey to the FRRO. When we got there, they would not accept the printouts. Luckily, I had my laptop and a 3G modem with me, so they assigned a technical support person to help me fill out the form (a laborious process given the network speed we had over the modem). He made a few adjustments, and we ended up with the very same bug. However, through some miracle unexplained to me, the piece of paper we needed to proceed magically appeared on the printers of the FRRO.

At this point, things got very strange. The man whose desk I was near (and who had been yelling at people left and right all morning) tore into me for wasting their time when clearly I knew how to print the form. He told me to go to an Internet cafe and fill it out again for the kids when I tried to explain that I had no idea where the printout had come from and ask for further help. He did not seem to understand that I already had an Internet connection. I went ahead and filled out the form again on my own (for about the 10th time in the last 24 hours), got the same error, and went to find the person who had magically appeared with the missing piece of paper. In doing so, I apparently entered forbidden space, and this time the angry yelling man tore into me so loudly, and so threateningly, that the children were in tears. He told me he would revoke my ability to stay in Hyderabad if I did not go to an Internet Cafe and refused to let me seek help from the tech support person. Everyone assumed that I was at fault for the form’s problems (classic!).

I hate to admit it, but at this point I was in tears too. I don’t handle being yelled at well. No one seemed willing or able to help us, and I was ready to leave India in November when my visa expired rather than continue this process. I sat down and tried to collect myself, and at that moment, I was reminded about the other side of India. A complete stranger walked up to us and handed the kids candy with a smile, telling them to cheer up. The IIIT helper accompanying me suddenly got moving and found a way to bring the tech support person back. Suddenly, I had all of the forms I needed.

You might think that at this point things would proceed smoothly. You would be wrong. I won’t go into as much detail about what happened next, but a few highlights: I was in trouble for not having registered within 2 weeks (or at least 3 months) of arriving despite never having been told to register; I was only going to get a visa until December 8th (still too early) because my husband’s registration (not his visa) expired then; I was kicked out for engaging the kids in a card game (they were miserable, and needed entertainment, but the people in the waiting room are not allowed to enjoy themselves because the FRRO folks are working!); I was stranded outside on a curb for about 30 minutes because my driver and helper had absconded to get themselves lunch (not thinking of us); I had to cancel my 3:30pm talk because all of this took until 5pm to be complete (despite my original appointment being at 10am); and finally I was told to return (without the children, thank goodness) next Tuesday to complete the process.

As it happens, I am simultaneously applying for my swiss visa (which requires birth certificates for the kids for some reason, which I have had to request from the states they were born in as they have vanished from my house in Pittsburgh). Even with those bumps, it is a far easier process!

Wish me luck finishing all this off! I still don’t know whether my new visa will expire on Dec 8th (in which case I will cut my trip short rather than face all of this again!) or in May.

Visit to China

Getting anywhere required photos since we could not pronounce or write the language
Getting anywhere required photos since we could not pronounce or write the language

We began our two weeks in China on the outskirts of the city of Xi’an. China came across to me as much more western (in terms of cleanliness, architecture, goods for sale, fashion, and so on) than India does. However, it is also clearly an ancient country with a rich and very different culture from the West. One big difference was immediately obvious on arriving in China: Unlike every other country I’ve visited in recent memory, English was not going to be of much use. Since I couldn’t read the writing, this meant that a great deal of preparation was required, something I don’t excel at with travel. Luckily, we had a printout with the hotel name on it, and were able to procure a taxi (though we were charged twice the normal rate, we later learned). Later in the trip we would discover that Taxi drivers mostly didn’t like us — one time Anind was forced to hail 42 cabs before one took pite on him and brought him home.

Our hotel in Xi’an was situated near a mountain near a natural hot spring, among fields of ripe pomegranates. The hotel had a spa, with 40 or 50 separate stone pools of hot water containing diverse “soup” and “tea” concoctions such as lemon, cucumber, aloe, jasmine, carrots, marbles, and many I

Pomegranates ripening
Pomegranates ripening

could not recognize spread out among peaceful walkways surrounded by greenery, flowers, and ripening fruit. Unlike spas in the US, this one welcomed children (for free), and had a special larger pool intended for a play space. The kids loved the spa, and we spent several half days bathing in pools,
playing, resting on hot stones (heated from underneath), and eating snacks at the spa’s small snack house. Afterwards, we would go to the hotel’s excellent restaurant and fill ourselves with delicious chinese specialties. Since it was raining most of the time we were in Xi’an, this was a perfect way to pass our first few days in China.

In between spa visits, we also did some sightseeing. We spent a half day in Xi’an, biking around the top of the city’s large old wall. We also had the unexpected opportunity to view a concert in the city’s bell tower, where women danced to the sound of traditional chinese instruments. The instruments included bells, a flute, a bowed single string, and a plucked string instrument. The children were entranced. We also spent half a day at the Terra Cotta warriors, tromping from building to building in the pouring rain to see one of the greatest archeological finds of the last century. The detailed carvings of the warriors and their sheer number were both impressive.

Steep steps (but not as long as our biggest climb!)
Steep steps (but not as long as our biggest climb!)

After about four days in Xi’an we headed by overnight train (always an adventure) to Beijing. Our goal there was to attend parts of the Ubicomp 2011 conference, but we also had a great deal of sightseeing planned. These plans were waylaid in part because every one of us got the flu, one after another, during this trip (ending with my husband having it on the flight home). However, as there were a few days where no one was sick, we still managed to do some sight seeing.

My favorite thing by far was the great wall of china. We went to the MuTianYu section of the wall. Our driver encouraged us to arrive there early (it was over a 1 hour drive), so at 7:30, when the shops were just opening, we found ourselves eating freshly made dumplings for breakfast at the base of the wall. I somehow never realized this, but the wall is built along the peaks of a mountain chain, so we had to take a cable car up to the wall itself. We were the only people on the wall for the first few hours of our hike, which made it a very special, peaceful experience. We had intended to walk toward the flatter section of the wall and head down after an hour or two, but the children saw the wall rise along the side of a a nearby mountain through the mist in the other direction and insisted that they wanted to scale that peak. After passing turret after turret, we finally reached the section of

What a view! We have to travel to the end of the visible wall and beyond to get home.
What a view! We have to travel to the end of the visible wall and beyond to get home.

Looking back over the mountains
Looking back over the mountains

the wall that rose to the peak, and we worked our way up the stairs. My son was especially brave, alternating between hugging the ground and forcing past his fear of heights to scale the next few steps. At times, when we encountered stairs that were especially steep, he clung to my back, eyes closed, as I walked up (or, earlier in the walk, down them). The view from the top was beautiful, as was the sense of accomplishment that we all felt. Amazingly, my son had no trouble at all going back down, his fear conquered by his own success. Following this, we retraced the route and began to walk toward our original goal. My daughter ended up scraping her knee and we carried her much of this way. Finally, we reached the way down: A toboggan with a brake lever and room for one adult/child combination that traveled down a metal track to the bottom. We ended with more dumplings for lunch, and a purchase of the obligate tourist trinkets.

Carved ramp in the Forbidden City
Carved ramp in the Forbidden City

Although the wall was my favorite, we did see some other beautiful sights. We spent a day wandering around the Forbidden City (prelude: A bicycle rickshaw ride and an attempt to change the price from 6 yuan to 600 yuan at the end of it!), followed by the notorious 42 taxi refusals and a visit to one of the top acrobatics companies in China. The feats we saw on stage were impressive, including bike acrobatics, a ballet dancer who danced point upon the shoulders and arms of her partner, tumblers, balancing acts, juggling of balls by foot, and more. We also visited the summer palace, during the evening reception of Ubicomp, which included a series of performances, including a sampling of the Beijing Opera and a mask dance that ended with firebreathing.

More bike magic Bowl dance

We topped off the trip with a special visit to the musical instrument sales district of Beijing, promised to my son who was missing having a cello. We took a 45 minute taxi ride to an obscure section of Beijing, and found ourself on a street filled with stringed instruments of all kinds, both western instruments (cello, violin, even viola) and traditional chinese instruments (a ceramic type of whistle with finger holes, a reeded bamboo instrument with a drone and fingered section called a Hulusi, a bowed string instrument, and more). Our first goal being a cello, we stopped at the first store that had child-sized instruments and I encouraged my son to try more than one. It was an eye-opening experience for him to compare the sound and feel of more than one instrument and see how much they differed. However, the price was high and the instruments out of town and badly made, so we kept looking. We quickly discovered that the highest quality instruments (both traditional and western) were found at shops where skilled musician played music to attract customers and display their wares. One shop even specialized in baroque instruments, including an (unfortunately out of tune) 6-stringed Arpeggione, which they let me try. In the end we settled on a beautiful, well-made 1/4-sized cello with a nice sound, and a Hulusi for my daughter. After a comedic visit to about 10 banks with no success in retrieving money, we ended up having to go back to the hotel and purchase the instruments the following day.

In the end, our time in China, despite having many “wasted” hours waiting out sickness in hotel room, was a wonderful success. In between spa visits, we were lucky to enjoy much music, acrobatics, and dancing. We ate a huge variety of food in dinners both in Xi’An, at our hotel in Beijing, and thanks to the conference at two separate conference events. We saw palaces, nature, and city walls. We bought blatantly overpriced tourist tchochkas, paintings, and even a chess set. And to top it off, I had the opportunity to attend a conference I rarely can (though I often submit to it and read its papers). The day I spent at Ubicomp 2011 was intellectually stimulating and full of wonderful discussions with friends and colleagues.

A day of firsts

Today was a day of firsts in India (and in some cases ever) for me. A wonderful day of firsts. I had my first motorcycle ride (without a helmet, no less, as I don’t expect to do this often and don’t own one). It was an unexpected feeling. The power of the machine underneath is inescapable, and the seat is wide and comfortable so it requires little concentration to stay on board. Yet there’s a sense of balance that engages similar to a bike, and a need to stay seated as speed changes and over bumps. Then as a passenger there’s a lack of warning or control that adds to the overall need to stay focused. Throw in the Indian traffic, and the ride gets quite interesting at times (video below). Speaking of Indian traffic, I’m pretty sure I observed traffic stopping at a red light for the first time every today. I suppose a day I’m on a motorcycle without a helmet is a good day to see traffic laws obeyed (sort of) though.

The reason for my ride was a trip far out of the city to take a first aid class thanks to the GHAC (updating my knowledge from the baby-focused class I took when my son was born). My driver was unavailable and a GHAC member kindly volunteered to give me a ride. Have I mentioned how much I love this club and the people in it? Ok first aid is more of a pun than a first, but it still fits the theme.

Another first — first violin in India. After the class we stopped by a music shop that had violins in Secunderabad. I put one together (bridge was down, bow needed rosin) and played my squeaky heart out for a good 30 minutes before the owner had to close up. I didn’t realize how much I missed my viola until I saw that instrument and set bow to string. It was glorious, even with the cheap ingredients and need for transposition.

Final first, which I will enjoy with the kids tomorrow: I saw a pork shop on the way to the music shop, and bought bacon. A whole kilo. With a huge smile on my face, thinking of how happy it would make the whole family.

A reminder that when far from home, sometimes a mix of totally new and totally familiar can be exactly what one needs.

Traveling to RGUKT

One week ago we all got in a car and spent 7 or 8 hours traveling cross country from our location. Although the trip was difficult (especially for my son, who woke up vomiting an hour before we were supposed to leave, and continued to do so throughout the drive), it was also beautiful and full of fascinating sights. Here are a sampling of the pictures we took, more can be found on flickr.

Mountains on the road to RGUKT 

This doesn’t really capture the craziness of the driving, but… we shared the road and beeped horns as needed …

  Sharing the road

Pretty much everything looked overloaded!
Perhaps its in this enormous basket
Poor oxen -- out of focus and overburdened

Memories of France…
Grandma and Grandpa eat your heart out -- echoes of france (but much shorter!)

Doing the laundry
Doing the laundry

We had hoped to take the train (and it sure might have helped my son!) but we ended the trip like this instead.
Thank goodness we've moved from vomiting to sleeping

On the road!

It’s official — I’ve left my home city, not to return for a year. The house is cleansed of years of clutter (most of it went to donation), packed and polished. The children, the dog, the gerbils, myself, and two 6 month trips worth of clothing (to accomodate the different cultural and climate conditions of the two halves of the sabbatical) all caravanned to our first  destination (New York) yesterday. Today is the first day of … well summer vacation for the children, and “using my last week wisely!” for me.

I have colleagues who claim that travel of this sort can help to clear the todo list. Not for me. I am teaching up until the day I leave, and trying to finish up a number of other obligations at the same time. My most urgent todos include NSF reports, a grant submission, expiring IRBs, and students who still need attention and support regardless of where I am in the world. Still, my load feels lighter, de-cluttered, like my home.

During the last week, I was reminded how lucky I and my family are to have many close friends, colleagues, and family members. The visits by friends, our goodbye party, the help our parents gave us with the move, and all the other small and large gestures were a reminder of how much we are leaving behind. Knowing we will be back in a year made it much easier to go — goodbyes became gestures of friendship rather than sadness. Still, things will change before we return, friends will move, children will grow.

I hope to change too. One of the most interesting questions I was asked in the past week was “What do you hope to get out of your sabbatical?” Personally, I have not been able to travel much due to health and family obligations. Seeing a new part of the world, in a style my body can handle, is something I’ve looked forward to for months now. Additionally, it is my hope that the children will learn about their language and culture, and get a chance to be away from some of the more toxic aspects of our home for long enough that I can learn whether they are affected by such things. My professional hopes for the sabbatical start with learning. Even after all these years, one of the joys of my position is the ability to learn new things, and I plan on making the time to study machine learning and hardware. I have packed an inventor’s kit  and related supplies, along with a set of lectures on machine learning (in case there is no local course I can take). I am also hoping to finish a number of exciting projects I currently have no students for, and start new collaborations and projects for the future. Finally, I am hoping to gain insight into the new cultures I will be entering and their relationships with sustainability and health, partly through my teaching the ever evolving environmental hackfest  course.

So yesterday marked the fresh beginning of a journey that in some ways I’ve been on my whole life. I look forward with excitement and curiosity to what will come next!