January 2009 Reflection

Ireland came to a standstill last week, and Cork was no exception despite being on the southern tip of the island. This country has struggled through a national famine, centuries of oppression, and in the face of every major challenge Ireland has persisted. But last week this country faced a truly formidable foe: snow.

On Sunday, January 10, approximately one inch of snow fell onto County Cork. Cork City shut down for two days, and University College Cork cancelled classes until Wednesday because road conditions were so poor. The transportation authority here isn’t equipped with the proper tools to clear roads and to make them safe enough for drivers who are plenty used to rain but not its frozen counterpart. Lauren Parnell Marino (NUI Galway); her husband Jon; Lauren’s good college friend, Ellen; my good college friend, Stephanie; and I went to Blarney Castle that day and were nearly stranded there. The woman at the gate to the castle grounds deemed the five of us “Officially Crazy,” and we gladly accepted that title out of anticipation for seeing Ireland’s most photographed castle covered in snow. An adventure well worth it….

It seems that my life has recently been full of adventures. At the end of the fall semester, I embarked upon a solo adventure through Europe and Northern Africa. I started on a Sunday by taking the train to Dublin. Sarang Shah (Trinity College) and I philosophized until the wee hours of the night, talking about the nature of time, the differences between and merits of Chinese and Western medicine, and the importance of communicating science to the public, among other things.

Then I had my first encounter with Ryanair. Not fun. Unaware that Ryanair requires non-EU passengers to have their passports checked before going through security, I attempted to board my flight to Paris to no avail. The next flight to Paris was twelve hours later, so I changed my flight (at a dear price), arrived in Paris late at night, and made it to the center of the city when the metro stopped running. Taking a taxi to my hostel seemed to be a bad idea because I was traveling on a budget, but I met a Sri Lankan man named Gobi, who helped me find my way. Gobi, you are a good man, and your shop makes a mean panini. Keep up the strong work, my friend.

Then I went to Malta for three days and spent Christmas hiking 18 miles through the northernmost Maltese island, Gozo. The scenery there is stunning, and there is something surreal about stumbling upon one ancient ruin after another. The Roman saltpans were unlike anything I had seen before, and Djwerja Bay – home of the Azure Window, Fungus Rock, and the Inland Sea – was an ideal place to perform a few yogic sun salutations as the sky turned pink. The next day I visited Mdina and the Tarxien Temples before flying to Bari, Italy and taking a night train to Rome. I spent my first day at the Vatican, and then I wandered aimlessly through the streets of Rome. The Coliseum and the Roman Forum were beautiful, but by far the best part of my trip to Rome was having lunch at the Irish Embassy to the Holy See. Noel Fahey, Ireland’s Ambassador to the Holy See, and his wife were gracious to invite me into their home, and in our conversations, I learned much about Irish culture and the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Experiences such as these are only made possible by the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, and each is a reminder of the great privilege it is to be a Mitchell Scholar.

To escape the hustle and bustle of Rome, I spent a day in Florence to see Michelangelo’s David and to have a fine Italian meal before departing for Morocco. I flew to Tangier and initially planned to spend three days there. But I made friends at the Tangier Airport and decided to cancel my hotel reservations to travel to Fes with them instead. I spent New Year’s Eve with Ana (Spain), Sylvia (Italy), Giovanni (Italy), and Michele (Italy) at a fine Moroccan hotel, although we stayed in a nearby hostel in a run-down area of Fes. We then spent two days walking through the Fes medina, which was one of the most unique places I have ever been. Every ten feet there was a new stimulus for each modality of sensation.

We then traveled to Mergouza, a small city in the Sahara Desert approximately 30 miles from the Algeria border. After a traditional Berber breakfast, we rode camels to an oasis tucked among some of the largest sand dunes in Morocco and enjoyed each others’ company while listening to Berber myths and riddles and to the sounds of the desert. In the middle of the night, we climbed to the top of a massive dune to watch the moon and stars, and then we sprinted down the side of the dune, laughing the entire way.

After camping in the desert for the night, I parted ways and took an overnight bus to Nador. The blaring Moroccan ballads and winding roads placed me into a trance that enabled me to ignore the smell of a very overcrowded bus (I was lucky to have a seat!). In a café I met a Moroccan fisherman, and we practiced speaking Spanish. That afternoon I flew to Madrid to meet an old college friend before returning to Cork.

Now that I have returned and settled, I have started to work diligently on my M.P.H. thesis and am excited about the project. I am conducting a case-control study on morbid obesity and underweight in order to identify environmental risk factors associated with these conditions in the Irish population. I am using the Survey of Lifestyle, Attitudes & Nutrition 2007 (SLÁN 2007), a comprehensive survey of more than 10,000 people residing in the Republic of Ireland, for my thesis. I am fortunate to have as my mentors Jan van den Broeck and Ivan Perry, both of whom are outstanding epidemiologists.

Prior to and after my travels, I spent much of my time working on Project Cork Underwater. My classmates and I have acquired full academic support from the UCC Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, but the economic status of the institution is such that no funding is currently available. Resource constraints are forcing us to downsize the scale of Project Cork Underwater, but we still plan to build a website that serves as a central hub of information on all available flood relief resources. We are also working on the development of a long-term needs assessment tool. Unfortunately, many people are still recovering from the flood, and we are currently focusing our efforts on fundraising to enable the development of our website and implementation of our needs assessment tool. Project Cork Underwater has the potential to facilitate the recovery of those who are still struggling with post-flood aftermath, and we hope to launch Project Cork Underwater as soon as possible.

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