Monday, October 17, 2011

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times

As part of my role as a long tenured senior member of the application group I have had to travel. This aspect of my employment is a unique dichotomy. One of the most rewarding things about my position is meeting interesting and intelligent people, seeing new places, and interacting with new and different cultures. This involves eating different foods, trying to speak a few broken words in a language I don’t really know, and generally doing things I wouldn’t ordinarily do; essentially moving out of my comfort zone as a typical American. Yet at the same time one of the least rewarding things about my employment is getting to go to those very same places that are so rewarding. So to quote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” as this aptly describes my world travels as an application scientist for BioTek Instruments.

Travel provides the opportunity to experience all sorts of crisis like events. However when one looks back on many of them they seem pretty hilarious. When I was in Africa I stayed in a tree house made of thatched twigs. While it was pretty cool to think I was staying in a tree house, it happened that when I was there it was also Winter-time and the hut was not heated, so not only was it “cool” it was also cold. While I was there I took hundreds of photos, only to find out my camera had been damaged and not a single one came out. Fortunately I doubt I’ll forget the wildlife and sunsets that I saw while visiting a local game preserve. Oh and did you know that with the in-flight snack on some regional African airlines you have your choice of beef or chicken jerky?

On a trip to Asia, my luggage was known to be lost even before I completed my flight. A message arrived while I was in the “in transit” limbo of the Hong Kong airport required me to file a lost luggage claim before my connecting flight carried me into Shanghai. As the luggage claims offices were on the other side of customs, this required that I enter China one more time than my visa allowed. In the end I had to essentially not enter into China, but rather be escorted by an airline agent and two armed guards to the lost luggage claims office on the far side of the airport. I guess they thought I might invade the country. As the Hong Kong airport is one of the largest airports in the world, I had an entourage that followed me for about 90 minutes in total. During the same trip I was fortunate enough to visit the Forbidden City in Beijing, as well as walk the Great Wall of China. Not to worry most of my luggage arrived two days later in a cardboard box.

I have just recently returned from a trip to Colombia in South America, where the coffee was the best I’ve ever tasted. For the most part I stayed in Bogota, which has an elevation of 8,600 feet above sea level. For the first couple of days I had a head ache and the urge to continually yawn as a result of the altitude. Making a tram ride up the mountains outside the city to 10,500 feet didn’t help much either. But the views from the mountains were amazing. What made that day however was the cab ride from the tram station to the center of Bogota. The curvy streets and roads, rapid lane changes by the cab, squealing tires and the utter disregard for traffic signals made me understand how Juan Pablo Montoya must have gotten his auto racing start…. Then there was the plane ride to Manizales located in the mountains of Colombia. Because the runway is located on the top of a mountain the plane really doesn’t “descend” as much as it just flies into the mountain. The wheels drop at 7500 feet and seconds later you land. To make things more interesting the runway is not level. You land going uphill and take off downhill. One minute you are 50 feet off the ground seconds later you are 8000 feet up. By the way, and my checked luggage also arrived…

Bogota, Colombia

Travel will always have its challenges, but meeting and working with people is by far the best part and more than makes up for its inconveniences. The scientists, students and technicians that use BioTek instrumentation are some of the most intelligent and creative people I have ever encountered. It has been my pleasure to interact with them on their terms in their home country. I am always amazed by the warm welcome I have received everywhere I have gone. Despite my lack of language skills, it has been my good fortune to have them show me around their county or town, translate things into English and generally be concerned for my well-being. Having a job that requires travel, particularly global travel has sent me to places that I never could have afforded to travel to or had the courage to visit. I’ve eaten foods that looked horrible yet tasted awesome, foods that looked appealing, but did not agree with my palate, as well as foods that did not look appealing and tasted even worse. Missed and delayed airline flights, time zone changes and jet lag are all part of the deal. In the end it is the people that you remember, not the trials and tribulations. So far I have visited five different continents, but I’ve not yet been to Australia or Antarctica. As we have products in both of those places there is still hope that I might yet achieve them all at some point. Antarctica might require some personal travel however…

By, BioTek Instruments, Paul Held PhD, Laboratory Manager

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