African Connection links are now in the sidebar to the right, just below the My Travel section.

Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Far Away Places #5

Perhaps this is cheating, but just a little. London is the far away place I have visited most often; I am not sure how many times, but it's likely more than the number of fingers and toes I have to count with. A few years ago, I wrote an account of one of those visits. The one on September 11, 2001. It fits the theme of the Far Away Places series so I thought I would just offer it again, exactly as it appeared for the first time.

"We've just heard news from the States; apparently something dreadful has happened." And indeed it had.

We walked across the little park with the gazebo, an oasis in front of the engineering building at City University London. It was, and still is, all the campus there is at this university that is more scattered than sprawling, buildings hither and yon in this area on the east side of London. I was here to participate in the biannual International Conference on Compressors and Their Systems; Shirley, as she had been at previous conferences, was with me. As we mounted the stairs in front of the classroom building to greet the conference chairman and his wife, we were met with the pronouncement of dreadful goings on back home.

A tour and dinner were on the agenda for this evening, starting with a boat trip on the Thames and a visit to the London Eye before gathering at the headquarters building of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) at One Birdcage Walk. The architect for the London Eye project was to give an informal accounting of his experiences during its design and construction before we gathered for a light meal.

We did in fact take the boat tour; a few of our British hosts were making calls on their cell phones, but details of what had happened across the Atlantic were hard to come by. The London Eye had closed out of security concerns. The skies over downtown London, normally busy with planes approaching Heathrow from the east, were quiet. Our guest speaker sent his regrets, but informed us he had friends in New York City and was trying desperately to reach them.

It was only when we retired to the reception area of the IMechE offices that we saw in the horrific detail made possible by modern video technology the terror that was visited upon the people of New York and Washington; the tragic story of heroism aboard United Airlines flight 93 would unfold later.

Later, Shirley and I got in touch with our daughters to discover that they had thought we were planning to be flying home on this day. We were mutually relieved to be able to confirm that all were well.

I called American Airlines about our September 13th flight. Not surprisingly, there was little information to be had. The next day I was told it would probably be Tuesday, Sept. 18, before we would be able to return home. The agents I talked to were noticeably and understandably upset. The agent I spoke to on Thursday broke down in tears. I talked to her a bit, told her I honestly could not fully appreciate the pressure under which she was working, and thanked her for just being there for those of us trying to get back home. It was this call that convinced me to accept the Tuesday departure. I did not call again. It just seemed unfair to the agents who were struggling so mightily with the task of getting everyone back while trying to deal with their loss as well. Also, I knew from the news that many of the stranded were far worse off than we were, having as we did a hotel to sleep in and no shortage of places to eat.

The people of London treated us kindly. Our hotel offered us the reduced rate arranged for conference guests for the duration of our stay. The Turkish family who ran the tiny cafĂ© across the street where we had most of our breakfasts provided coffee at no extra charge. A more upscale fish restaurant offered free appetizers. One young man stopped us on the street and said, “Hey Yank. We’re behind you all the way. Hope you get the b------s that did it!”

We discovered a small restaurant in Embankment Park, a short walk from the tube stop through a flower-bedecked green space. Sitting outside under a glorious tree that sheltered the entire patio area, one could escape, briefly, the unthinkable awfulness of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. And, at the same time, reflect on the fact that you know you would never forget it.

Wouldn't it be nice if no one ever had to the hear the words, "Something dreadful has happened in..." again?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Far Away Places #4

Osaka, Japan

As it so happened, it was on a business trip to Japan that I was able to demonstrate Bushu-suru. Let me explain…

In the way of many businesses, leaders where I worked and at a company in Japan decided it would make sense to enter into some sort of cooperative agreement. My role was to work with Hiroyuki, an engineer working in Osaka. Our task was to evaluate each other's compressors and render opinions as to the possibility of each company manufacturing and/or using the other's in their products.

Hiroyuki came to La Crosse and we spent time together in the office and the laboratory, discussing features of the compressors we were comparing and making plans for operational tests and other engineering evaluations. During his stay, he came down with a bad cold and we explored the local Walgreen's. This was a foreshadowing of things to come during my subsequent visit to Osaka, as it would turn out.

So, some months after Hiroyuki left La Crosse, I made the long trip to Osaka, my first and only visit to Asia. The plan was for me to visit the offices and factory, getting an introduction to the company; a few others who had visited the facilities before, would come a couple of days later.

Getting to the hotel from the airport was a breeze as all of the signs in the airport and on the train I took were in English as well as Japanese. Same at the hotel. For example, I encountered this warning in the bathroom in my room: "Avoid contact with water. Danger of electric shock." This advice was, mind you, on the combination toilet/bidet seat. Nonetheless, I appreciated the fact that the warning was provided in my native language so I could… OK, that's another story altogether.

The next morning, Hiroyuki met me at the hotel and led me to the nearest subway stop for the ride out to his office. As we went down into the station it became obvious that the coddling of non-Japanese speaking tourists was over. As far as I could tell, all signs were in Japanese only. Like this one:

Now what essential advice do you suppose we are being provided here? Right, I don't know either. I'm sure some of the signs said "Exit," "To the Trains" and "Tickets." Or perhaps there were things here that I should not allow to get wet lest I suffer some dire consequences which were described on the warning. I'll never know. What I did was grab ahold of Hiroyuki's coat. Tightly. For the duration of the ride.

The factory tour was interesting, but I was feeling progressively less well as the morning wore on. When we returned to the office, my stomach was in full protest to the effects of the long flight and 13 hour time difference. Coffee, water and light refreshments were offered in the conference room set aside for the meetings, but there was no way. Rather, I suddenly became very ill, right there in the meeting room. A few things were demonstrated by this. One was that it is not possible for embarrassment to be fatal. I am sure of that, since I am, after all, writing this account many years after the fact.

But more to the point, I got to see first hand just how kind and considerate my hosts were. Several people came to my aid, expressing great concern over my well-being and insisting that I not concern myself with cleaning up as they were already on the task. In fact, they escorted me to the director's office where I was able to use his private washroom then lie down on the sofa in one part of the large room.

It was only a short time later when I began to feel a little better and volunteered to continue with the meetings. They had other plans, however. Hiroyuki escorted me to the office of the on site company doctor who prescribed some medications which I picked up at the on site company pharmacy adjacent to his office. I was then escorted to the reception area where a company car was waiting to take me back to the hotel.

Every hour that passed found me feeling better and that evening I was even able to confront an appetizer of octopus and other seafood delights at the hotel restaurant. I didn’t order it, of course, but just being able to consider it represented significant improvement.

So, I hung in and the rest of the trip went well. There was, in the end, no agreement for the kind of cooperation envisioned early on and I have not seen Hiroyuki since those few days in Osaka.

As you might remember, much the same thing happened to President George H. W. Bush in 1992 at a banquet at the home of the Japanese Prime Minister. Accounts of this event include references to the fun that late night comedians had with it. It was even a joke in an episode of The Simpsons. Years later, there were references to what became known as Bushu-suru, meaning "to do the Bush thing."

It's too bad that humor (and ridicule) are what seem to have been the primary reactions to that unfortunate event. Because my experience showed me the kindness and concern of the people I was with that day.

During his stay in La Crosse, Hiroyuki told me about "Yamato Damashii," which he said meant "Never Give Up Spirits!" It was the idea that you should not give up in the face of adversity. He had a headband with the words written on it and he wrote out the characters on a paper napkin. You know, in case I wanted to get a tattoo someday.

Seriously, it has not been an easy time for the people of Japan. I can only guess, but perhaps the concept of Yamato Damashii is an encouragement as they struggle to rebuild and I would also guess Hiroyuki would offer it as such. So, here it is, in his hand: