The Uyghur are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia. Today Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China. An estimated 80% of Xinjiang's Uyghurs live in the southwestern portion of the region, the Tarim Basin.We held two meetings in Urumqi, and this last one was held in 2005. It was not easy getting people from around the world into Urumqi, but I found that the people we worked with were incredibly accommodating and willing to go the extra mile to help me. I learned also most Chinese people never travel to this part of China. They think of this region in the northwest of their vast country as being the way we Americans must have felt about the "wild west" a century ago.
There were two reasons my boss wanted to hold these meetings in faraway places: first, to show scientists what different environmental problems exist around the world, and also to tempt them to take the time out of their busy lives to come to these places, funded by the United Nations or other similar groups. As the "worker bee" who arranged these visits, I spent months getting everything ready, working long hours making sure nothing was overlooked (although inevitably there were glitches), and then traveling to the place a day or two beforehand and staying a day after, getting everybody back out of the country.
For a long time, I loved this part of my job. It started in 1997 and continued until I retired in 2008. During that time, we held meetings in Budapest, Bangkok, Paris, Geneva, Havana, the Galapagos, Moscow, Macao, Saigon, Hanoi, Shanghai, Beijing, and Macedonia. They were held mostly in Europe and Asia, and I was enchanted to learn how different the world is, how different and alike people are, in these myriad places.
What I took for granted as being normal or usual, I found to be a conceit of my American bias. I was often reminded of my provincialism when checking to a hotel room, to find unfamiliar beds, or bathrooms, and mysterious instructions in foreign languages. One thing my boss Mickey refused to do was to stay in an upscale hotel that caters to foreigners, which basically are the same in whatever country you are in. When we were in Moscow during a heat wave, we had no air conditioning and the windows had no screens. The outdoors came in while I slept.
Each country was always both hard to navigate, and exciting to experience. I would set up these meetings and travel to these places usually once a year, and sometimes twice. China became my most visited place: six trips over the years, once for an entire month. Many people envied my job, but I have to say it was stressful and demanding, and by the time I got ready to retire, I was ready to stop. International travel became much harder after 9/11, and sometimes I would spend two full days traveling to get from one place to another. Jet lag is very real, although Mickey never seemed to be bothered by it as much as I was.
Because of these travels, though, I think I am much more tolerant of the differences that exist between people. Some of my favorite memories entail "conversations" with people who spoke no English and I spoke not a word of their language. The desire and ability to reach across the cultural divide to the humanity that unites us now permeates my world view.
I am now content to stay in my new home here in the Pacific Northwest and get to know it better. Canada is just a few miles away, and if I want to visit Vancouver it's only an hour away. Being a large international city, Vancouver has vibrant ethnic communities, which I intend to explore over the next few years. That will be enough for me.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I am a changed person because of my international travels. These experiences are now a part of me, part of the way I experience my everyday life.