Part II; Portland seminar

03 June 2014 travel fulbright

The plane landed, as there was no more land. There was Frisco, the blue Pacific, the softest breeze, and also the fog beyond the bay, clam chowder, and warmth, a lot of warmth, certainly more warmth than I am used to. The chowder was still warm in my stomach as I stepped to the northbound airplane.

Mike was not a gregarious guy. Neither was he thin, not fat, nor exceptionally tall, nor exceptionally quiet for that matter. He was exceptional for his distinct similarity to a certain captain you see in the Tin-Tin cartoons - having the roughest beard, and an anchor tattoo. Mike - the sailor of the West - and a seat mate of mine for the shortest while.

Then the pines took over, and the low clouds, and the moist air; typical of the American North West - exactly what I imagined it to be. The green carpet floor of the airport made you think that you were walking on newly cut grass. I felt like laying down on this perfectly wonderful carpet; a delightful thing really. I dug it, I dug all of it - people are so franticly enthusiastic about California all the time; I like it also, but I the upper part of the West is pretty decent too, and so fresh.

Alright, tram. Where is the tram? I followed the crowd. Found it. Payed my ticket with a Jackson in the machine; it spat out $17.5: 17 $1 coins and 2 quarter dollars. My pocket grew heavier, and clinked while I walked towards the tram.

The people of Portland started to pour in as we got closer to the city in the light rain, most of them young; effectively lowering the mean age of the people riding the tram from the airport. There was one older guy - a spike in the age population - with a beard, and the toughest hands you've ever seen, they were black, like he had just stepped out of a coal mine. He had a dog, a corgi; wearing a black sweater with a few red stripes. The dog in the sweater lay beneath his tram seat, his head resting on the floor between his owner's legs, perfectly calm; they had known each other a while; they were tried travel buddies. The dog had the hugest regard for everybody, and took a look at all of the people riding the tram with a big smile for all and everything. I did the same, smiling at the dog, the rainclouds, the rain on the windows, and the people riding the tram with me. Some of them gave me the distinct feeling that we were here and now for the same reason as me. I was right.

We got off, close to the hotel; The Nines. I met my roommate for the next days: a Electrical Engineering major from Islamabad; he had arrived a bit earlier, and was battling with a circuit problem in Matlab - (in my experience that is what many EE majors do) in our room when I met him. I tried helping him; little luck. "Don't worry my friend - just go downstairs to the reception and register!".

"Welcome to the Fulbright enrichment seminar. What is your name?", the friendly girl in the reception asked. I answered promptly, anticipating the same face people make when I tell them my name for the first time. And yes, there it was - I would be seeing it a few times during the next couple of days. "Wait, you are the one from Iceland, right? - I saw your name earlier! Let me get you set up right away!" She set me up right away.

I got a schedule of the events, and a list of all of the participants: a mixture of people from 70 countries. I noticed that I recognized some of the names; I had met some of them before. The World was smaller than I thought. The seminar was one of nine enrichment seminars hosted across the US, and this one focused on social entrepreneurship and innovation. The event schedule included interactive panel discussions with leading social entrepreneurs, community service projects, cultural activities, and eating dinner with local families.

First off: cultural exposure, art gallery. Intriguing paintings, murals, and sculptures, but all those dead, inanimate objects felt dwarfed by the persons watching them, because there it all was, a mixture of people from all over the world with different backgrounds, here and now for three days, all able to communicate in at least one common language - and some in many more. What was their adventure? Where are you from? What do you do, or more importantly: what do you hope to get done? I met so many that were so tremendously excited with life and so into what they were doing and going to do: startups, entrepreneurship, new medicine, exploring earthquake engineering, looking for chemical signals in space, composing symphonies, telling stories through photography and films, studying the policies of drug abuse in Asia, photojournalism in the distraught places of the globe. There was the videographer, half Italian, half Argentinian; who said she had difficulties with her two passports sometimes at the airport as they had two different names, who originally thought I was just another Swedish marketing major. Then there were the two Norwegians, both sharply dressed and with carefully trimmed haircuts; who studied at the opposite coasts of the US continent, one of which liked Iceland's hot springs, but didn't care at all for the smell of sulfur in the showers. Then there was the girl from Thailand who "tended to make life a bit harder for people" (lawyer - haha!). Then there was the girl from Pakistan who invited me to her wedding right after saying her name; another friend who had climbed K2 and told me how the stars looked up there, closer to space. Then there was the South-Korean girl that studied linguistics, that told me that when strangers meet they usually ask for each other's age quickly, as the level of formality changes according to your age. There was the Latvian girl who liked to eat smoked pig-ears (no hairs), and the Japanese girl that said sea urchins had the texture of thick yellow toothpaste, and the Peruvians that ate guinea pigs and whose nationality I acquired for a while for knowing already new some of the colloquial slang from that part of the world. And there were so many more. We were all from somewhere else, from some faraway corner, valley, fjord, bay, cliff, plain, hill, yet we all took to each other at the drop of a hat. Networks of the virtual world were formed instantly, second nature: Facebook, gmail, Twitter. We were there to contribute to a more connected world. We did.

We had open panel discussions about diverse entrepreneurial and sustainability topics. There was Amelia, a young woman around my age that spoke with infectious enthusiasm, who founded a company which attacks the Fresh Food Access for All idea in a novel and holistic way, and answered the question: Eating food is a tremendous social act, then why not break bread together; or eat a fresh vegetable or fruit together in the sun? Don't we all belong to the special interest group PWEF: People Who Eat Food? And there was Ed, the director of Central City Concern, which tries to end the homelessness problem in an effective non-profit way (not enough to just provide housing, but also education, and job seeking opportunities; build their self esteem). And there was Deena, the founder of a company that helps marginalized children and children in minority groups to learn in groups with technology and science. They gave us advice:

  • Don't be flexible about your mission, but be flexible about the way you get there.

  • Ask yourself what drives you? And more importantly why? Why? Push, push, - embrace the why!

  • Surround yourself with people that know more than you.

  • Don't intend to ever leave the learning-phase; keep asking questions!

  • Everybody has the potential to make a change, a paradigm shift.

We talked about Oregon, the atmosphere, and the history. It rains; but it is fresh; it has always attracts people - people who like art and beauty and nature and studio apartments, but it also attracts companies and firms. Facebook's and Amazon's (and soon Apple's) main data-centers are there, and in fact a lot of tech companies make outposts in Oregon - hardly nobody makes silicon wafers in Silicon Valley anymore. And with the Dot-com era - when the muscle became less important and the mind grew - a lot of freelance coders and ".. Linus Torvalds came here, all of them, just to focus, and get away from it all."

We talked a lot about telling stories. What does humanity do, but make and tell stories? And how do you tell your story? Blogs, videos, facebook messages, emails, instagrams, tweeting; technology makes it easier than ever to share what you have to say. We went to Mercy Corps - an international development organization - that focuses on market based methods in what they do: giving away things for free can have a lot of negative impacts.

Later, as the sun began to grow red and late, we went and examined the night. There were stores, bars, gay bars, strip clubs, nail saloons, bridges, trams, a river, Montessori schools - the type of school you would send your kid if you call your sons name is Legolas, trees, bikes - and a lot of them, and that inverse auditorium spot, book shops, coffee shops, sandwich shops. Location now: bar, with red, dim lights; Hard rock/punk band; loud. We sat there, drank, spoke about everything, but also listened. The singer, looked like the Nyan-cat; face paint whiskers, and long black gloves, tiptoeing on the stage on high heels. The drummer wearing pink and black, she kept the beat rock steady. They all looked very young; might as well have been a high-school or college band; but they could play, tremendously. The people in the audience were even harder to describe; roughly two groups of hipsters: the international spanning the whole global spectrum, and the local juxtaposition.

Close by was Vodoo Doughnut, a cash only doughnut shop, just behind the bar with the dim red lights, and where it says Keep Portland Weird in plain big yellow letters on a hard brown background. This place is so popular that I never saw less than about 50 people standing in line for their interesting pastry, and you see people walking with pink "Good Things Come in Pink Boxes"-boxes all over downtown. What makes the place interesting is that they are not afraid to experiment, their signature product being a doughnut with strips of bacon and maple glaze. If I were to point at Portland's heart, I would point to this place; the essence of it all; the streams of people with pink boxes originated from there - the only thing you had to do was trace it back to the source. The crew: a chemist from New Zealand, an MBA from Mexico, and music compositor from Turkey, decided to tackle the line in the grey, rainy Portland night; believing that then would be the perfect time for it - the lines couldn't be shorter than then, could they?

We were wrong, the line was long; just as long as anytime. Waiting. It was our turn. No idea what to ask for. We didn't know where this was leading; we didn't care. They told me to ask for a doughnut that represented Iceland - I liked the idea and went ahead. The girl at the cash register was wearing a green robe of the sort that professor McGonnagall might have worn, and glasses, and a big smile. She grinned even more at my question, repeated it and thought for a brief moment. Then a bigger smile broke over here face: she offered me a "Dirty Old Bastard".

I was scheduled in the group to go to help out in The Food Bank. Other places were planned as well: going to the library, and tree planting. I had a split second opportunity to go to the tree planting bus - I seized it, and off we went to the Oregonian outdoors. On the ride back I met a lawyer from Japan - a tomodachi - Japaneese for friend. He had switched to studying the public policies of drug abuse in Japan, as his clients who sometimes were drug addicts, used to defended themselves all the time saying that they had diabetes. He also told me that although very secular in general, the Japanese are sometimes very superstitious: they often don't have fourth floors, as 4 can mean death (ich, ni, san, shi). We conversed on whaling, and the situation of our nations in it: whale watching and whaling seldom goes together - my family is in the business, I told him. "We are emotional people" he told me, who like to keep to our customs; they didn't like being told what to do; nobody does.

"Everybody from anywhere is invited to the party tonight." - it was the last night, the big night, when The Party was on hand, and we were all going. We all resolved to go to the same club, a crew of people from crazier countires roaring to the wild sounds of the electronic music. International hipsters, contemplating not jazz, but the thick and steady beat of new age electronica, dancing, smiling, not having a care in the world, but the biggest regard for everything.

I remember standing in the longest of lines in the Oregonian Spring rain to try to get there. I shared an umbrella with an Argentinian girl, who had the biggest interest in Iceland, and similarly I was interested in her country, and I told her what Borges’ grave looks like. And the German girl was there too - who just plainly refused to pronounce my name, and gave me an easier one instead - and the guy from the Middle East who spoke jazz English while he complained about the cold. It was the right line to be, to talk, to share, to learn; but it was the wrong bar; it was “The Loser Line”.

I remember the the after party in the hotel in the last hours of the day. By that time everybody knew everybody else; we were just old friends spending time together. I remember the wobbly Swiss guy, wearing round glasses and peered out of them with delight; he brought the beer, and accepted donations, and I had the odd sensation that I recognized him from somewhere, not that I had met him before, but from a cartoon that I had seen in the television as a kid. I remember the Mexican that said: "Me encanta estar contigo, y contigo, y contigo, y contigo", that told stories from his backpacking trips. I remember the two entrepreneurs that founded WeTravel ( - check it out, its cool - I plan to use it!), while trying to say "Cheers!" in as many languages as possible. And then there was the guy that kept saying: "One more selfie, one more selfie!" at roughly 15 minute intervals, with the biggest smile you have ever seen. Some of us found this curious and kept laughing at all these suggestions and everything else that was happening at the time, but we saw later that this documentation game gave a brilliantly accurate description of who held it out and who had to leave when: the group gradually getting smaller and smaller as people had flights to catch, and perhaps those couple of hours of sleep before it first as well.

It was a sad night; it was also a merry night. It was one of those moments when you find yourself totally and absolutely in sync with life, immersed in the perpetual flow of time, and you feel that you can slow it down, by increasing the frequency of new experiences, and meeting new people, and you dig them as you try to remember them and their faces as best as you can. You didn't want to forget.

So really, if you have the chance, go visit Portland, I resonated with it. You feel like something is going on everywhere, in every corner, in every street. You want to meet and talk to everybody; you have that strange feeling of comradeship, the feeling I only find in a few places outside of Reykjavík, the only city in my country, but I have been looking. Many places in Portland reminded me of parts of Reykjavík - particularly those places back home that are scheduled to be “cleaned up”; cleaned up to make way for more of those generic glass office buildings that we like to lit up like jewels or the big hotels so they can accommodate more visitors and bill them for it, but at the same time take away the character the place once had and there is less to do. It was something about the outdoorsy way of life, the bikes, the many faces on the sidewalks, the moist freshness of the trees, the salty air, the hip espresso houses, the numerous microbreweries, the 'right-ons', the beards, the hats, the girls wearing summer dresses in the rain close to the goat park, and the beatest characters of the US who line the sidewalks - who complain about the weather, but came here because they like beauty and would like to share it; who do not leave until they find that special someone and have kids; and realize that they don’t fit all in that small studio apartment they have and find the need to relocate. And the cycle repeats.

Contact Info

Guðmundur Kári Stefánsson
NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow
Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics
The Pennsylvania State University
421 Davey Lab
University Park, PA, 16802

Email: gudmundur [at]
Twitter: @gummiks

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