It’s around midnight that I land in Portland, Oregon. Normally, the first thing that I do on reaching a foreign destination is to change the time on my wristwatch in accordance with the local time. On this occasion, I don’t have to because the West Coast of the US is just on the opposite of the globe, so 12 midnight in Portland is 12 noon in Pakistan.
I was told that it wouldn’t be cold in Oregon but the weather, at least for the first four days of my week-long stay in Portland, is cooler than Karachi in January. The cold wind hits me in the face the moment I come out of the airport terminal. I had forgotten to pack my jacket in my handbag but fortunately the bus that is to take me to the hotel is parked not too far.
The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where I am a guest from my country, is to begin on Monday morning. So, I have the whole Sunday to get over my jet lag. Sunday evening I decide to go for a stroll. On the elevator I meet a middle-aged man and a young woman, who is carrying striking flowers. They were taking part in the Mother’s Day function. John Wene runs an art gallery, which is at a walking distance, while Oksanna, half-Russian and half-Ukrainian, helps in organising art exhibitions.
Wene takes me to his gallery and shows me the work of a multi-faceted painter – Charlie White, who once owned the same gallery. Wene rents out White’s paintings to banks and other commercial organisations at five per cent of the actual price for a period of three months, and replaces them with another set of painting in the next quarter, a novel idea indeed. I like her work and wish to meet her; she invites me, Wene, Oksanna and her husband Seth Tichenor over to dinner. Within an hour or so salmon and rice are ready. The food is refreshingly different and the surprise item is the cinnamon-rich chai (tea), which, as I am to discover later, is the new craze all over the US.
Seth (pronounced Teth) teaches philosophy and aesthetics in a college. He is quite familiar with the history and the different cultures of the subcontinent. He is not the only one to voice his anguish over the American government’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the next few days, I run into quite a few Americans who echo the same feeling. “Please tell our Pakistani friends that we are ashamed of what is being done in Iraq,” says Seth, “We have no business to be there.”
The following morning I take, what is referred to as the Max (Metropolitan Area Express), which runs slowly within the city limits like a tram but once it is on its way to the airport it gathers speed like an Express train. Travel within the city is free. The idea is to discourage people from using cars. There are large hooks in each compartment for cyclists to hang their bikes.
I get down from the Max at the huge Oregon Convention Centre, which is the venue of the largest pre-college science fair in the USA. In its 55th year the Intel Science and Engineering Fair has attracted the largest number of participants – 1,429 science students, who have qualified from 41 countries, where the company had had local competitions. Unfortunately, the three boys from Islamabad who qualified couldn’t get their visas on time, but Mahwish Noor, the only girl who succeeded in the qualifying round, made it.
I see her carrying the Pakistani flag at the impressive opening ceremony. It does my heart some good to realise that my country is not entirely unrepresented. Noor sets up her project in the microbiology section of the huge hall.
More than a thousand experts have volunteered to judge the projects. All of them have a PhD or equivalent in one of the 14 scientific disciplines or six years of professional experience in these fields.
The most interesting event in the five-day fair is the session where 10 noted researchers from various disciplines – six of whom are Nobel laureates – answer questions from participating students. Young confident students frame their questions in English, even though for quite a good number of them it is not their first language, and the members of the panel answer them in the simplest possible terms. For someone who has not seen even one Nobel laureate in flesh and blood, it’s a once in a life time opportunity to see six of them and shake hands with three. The other three are surrounded by children and are busy answering their questions even after the session is over.
The prizes are announced in two sessions but the grand prize, which means $50,000 in scholarship for three students, is left for the fifth day when children, their teachers and in some cases their parents, wait for the announcements with bated breath. A Chinese, an American girl from Florida and a German are declared winners amidst thunderous applause. Among the minor prize-winners, announced a day earlier, are kids of two Pakistani immigrants. Unfortunately, Mahwish Noor is unable to impress the judges but it is no small consolation that she is able to display her project at such a prestigious fair. Despite such large participation no discordant note is struck. Everything is so well planned and equally well executed.
The fair is so demanding in terms of time that I can’t get to see the city of Portland but the day after it is over, Seth