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Interview with astros: Aisha Mahmoud-Perez

The Traveling Astronomer

Once, I was an astronomer, spending time thinking about and working on the formation and evolution of dwarf galaxies.

Astronomers lead busy lives, including teaching and mentoring, research-specific small- and large-scale data programming, and the near endless cycle of paperwork including research plans, funding proposals, budget reports, and paper manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals. Much of the time also involves travel – conferences, workshops, and collaboration meetings around the world, as well as visits to telescopes at observatories in remote locations around the world to collect data for projects.

I liked the travel part more than I enjoyed astronomy. When I’d said farewell to astronomy, I’d accumulated over one million miles with American Airlines, and countless more with Air Canada, the old Canadian Pacific, Lufthansa, the old Northwest (now Delta), and United Airlines. Weary feet and tired wings aren’t surprising outcomes; I know there are still many journeys and destinations left to come.

The best of Palestine and Puerto Rico

In September 2006, I moved to La Serena, Chile to work at the Gemini Observatory. The following January a number of undergraduate students from Chile, U.S., and Puerto Rico arrived at the neighbouring astronomical observatory to spend the Chilean summer on research experience. After meeting these students over the years, I’m happy to remain in contact with a number of them.

Aisha is one of the most unique people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and calling friend. With a Puerto Rican mother and Palestinian father, she successfully blends into her life the influences of two vibrant colourful cultures and two fiery independent dispositions. She loves meeting new people, learning new languages (she’s presently at five), and she loves food, travel, and knitting. She is presently a graduate student in astronomy and astrophysics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

I’m pleased to introduce Aisha Mahmoud-Perez. On Twitter, she tweets mostly about science, life in grad school, and the art of crafting.


I remember the hectic schedules as a former and recovering astronomer. How do you strike a balance between the professional “necessity” of traveling for research with the personal “necessity” of traveling for your own satisfaction?

AM: “As an astronomer in the making, I find it hard to reach that perfect balance between doing research and research related activities and simply taking a week off to travel, but it is certainly not impossible. In mid-June this year (2014), I traveled to Chile for a collaboration trip lasting almost 3 weeks. Most of that time was spent working, but I’d take afternoons off to walk around town and weekends off to wander around the country. I found I was more productive at work after I’d taken some time to discover places on my own.”


With your Palestinian and Puerto Rican heritage, and a large fraction of your time in America, you’ve been exposed to and influenced by a rich cross-section of different cultures. How do these influences inform your travels? What have you learned about the differences and similarities among people?

AM: “I feel very lucky to have been raised under two very different cultures. There was never a dull moment in my house. Every day I discovered how beautifully different my parents were from each other – the saga still continues today – and how much they learned from those differences. Those differences helped me to be more open and to embrace different cultures with passion and enthusiasm. I also learned that those differences I talk about are superficial – one prefers tea over coffee, prefers to dress in a specific way, or prefers Abdel Halim Hafez over Marc Anthony – and that deep down we really love and feel the same way, regardless of where we’re born.”


What and where in the Middle East would you recommend people see and experience for something that’s uniquely Middle East? What and where in Puerto Rico would you recommend people see and experience for something uniquely Puerto Rican?

AM: “As far as the Arab Middle East goes… GO NOW, ‘YALLA’! The Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq, is extremely diverse: the colours, the smells, the food, even the local dialect of Arabic is different. But there is one thing I believe unites the Arab World and that’s their hospitality. I’ve met some of the most welcoming and warmest people in these lands. I’d say a truly unique Middle Eastern experience is to “be yourself” and engage with locals. Perhaps what’s a bit closer to me is if you wander around Palestine, make sure to visit the city of Nablus and try their famous ‘knafeh’ – a delicious cake with a gooey cheese filling. No worries, you will find more many who’ll be more than glad to take you to a place to try ‘knafeh’!

Hebron, West Bank, Palestine - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Kunafeh”, in Hebron, West Bank, Palestine (AM)

Puerto Rico, on the other had, is a complex melting pot between North American and Latin American culture. Given our all-year-long summer, Puerto Rico is a constant party. But, perhaps, our biggest spectacle or where one can experience true ‘puerto-rican-ness’ is during Christmas. The streets fill with Christmas music all day long, moms and grandmas cook traditional dishes and you truly feel the happiness and the excitement of the people in the air. Do note however that Puerto Rican Christmas songs are not your typical Christmas song, e.g. “your guests come, eat, pig out, drink, and then they ask you if you have an aspirin” (No hay Cama Pa’ Tanta Gente by El Gran Combo). Also, Christmas starts right after Thanksgiving and ends the second week of January. Happy Island!”

Nablus, West Bank, Palestine - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Family”, in Nablus, West Bank, Palestine (AM)

What place or country has left the most lasting impact with you? What are those impressions?

AM: “For me, that place is Chile. Even if you love traveling, it is always challenging to go abroad either as a tourist or to stay there for a longer period. In Chile, I never had that feeling of being an “outsider”. Chileans welcomed me like one of them right away: very warm and friendly people! Their food is amazing as well!”

Valparaíso, Chile - by Aisha Mahmoud

“Barrios”, in Valparaíso, Chile (AM)

Where is one place or country in the world would you like to live or travel? What are your reasons?

AM: “I can’t pick just one. One of my travel goals is to visit the entire Arab world. Out of all the nations in the Arab world, I’ve visited five; only 17 more countries to go! I was mostly raised in Puerto Rico and was involuntarily away from the Arab World for a long time. I think that that’s why I find the Arab world so enchanting and I still want to visit and be charmed by all of it.”


Sunday TravelerThe photos above were made by and kindly provided by Aisha Mahmoud. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com, and also appears as part of the Sunday Traveler series.

His final sunset over the Salish Sea

Every day felt like a bonus, a sweet taste of daily magic.

Over the time he spent in the hospital, Dad charmed the staff by chatting with them in broken English; it was a way for him to express some measure of control. As expected with decreasing hemoglobin levels, his body continued the downward slide. His mind and spirit departed at the beginning of the third week; he had become unresponsive. Over the next five days, his body remained, the breathing steady, though shallow and sometimes laboured. He was calm, at peace, and thanks to the meds, without pain.

Sunset over the Salish Sea (English Bay), from St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, BC, Canada - 8 Aug 2014, fotoeins.com

From the top of St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada, I photographed this post-sunset scene on 8 August 2014, with fading light peeking up and over the cirrus, high over the Salish Sea (English Bay) and the downtown peninsula. I’m sure he sensed the daily change in light, even though he could no longer see by the end.

Hours later the following morning, Dad breathed his last and slipped away for good. He marked his 82nd birthday six weeks earlier.

The long road for him has ended; another chapter and another journey begins.


Warmest thanks to the staff at St. Paul’s Hospital, and particularly, the men and women who work enthusiastically and gracefully in the hospital’s Palliative Care Unit. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.

The forgotten’s fireworks from St. Paul’s

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

I’m in one of the city’s hospitals, visiting my father who’s in very bad shape.

I’ve helped feed him dinner of roast pork, peas, and gravy, a direct sensory reminder of his past as cook in a nearby downtown diner. He eats with great enthusiasm, the most I’ve seen him eat in weeks. Dinner’s done, and he’s worn out. I mention we can go “around the corner” with him in a wheelchair to watch the evening’s fireworks, but he gently declines. A twinge reflects the growing reality of him never seeing fireworks again, but the feeling is moderated with long resolved acceptance and mild resignation.

I go out into the corridor where people have already gathered by the windows next to the elevators. From the heights of the hospital, there are spectacular views of the downtown peninsula, towards Burrard Inlet and onto English Bay.

Waiting patiently to catch a brief glimpse of fireworks are other hospital patients, their family and friends, and various hospital staff taking breaks in their work schedule. It’s a four-day holiday weekend here in the province of British Columbia, and early August weather is summertime hot under clear blue skies.

Judging by the look in some people’s eyes, I empathize with the unspoken feelings: “I’d rather be outside, laughing and having a good time, surrounded by family and friends.”

I thought about making a few photographs of the fireworks through the large windows, but something pulls me back, and I decide not to shoot the fireworks directly.

The situation and my thinking quickly clarify. Instead, I’ll record the people watching the fireworks through the windows of the hospital’s upper floors.

They are not forgotten. It’s my promise to capture with the camera’s all-seeing eye an elemental and universal desire for something more, something approaching the above and beyond.

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

Celebration of Light, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, Canada, fotoeins.com

Over three separate summer evenings, the 2014 version of The Celebration of Light brings together hundreds of thousands into Vancouver’s West End for a fireworks festival with the participation of three countries: United States, France, and Japan.

I made the photos above on 2 August 2014 from St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.

New Zealand anthems in Māori: Pokarekare Ana, E Ihowa Atua

Mount Tasman, Mount Cook, Southern Alps, Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand (HL)

I know I’d like to sing … : last light on Horokoau & Aoraki (Mount Tasman & Mount Cook) | HL

New Zealand inspires fully with her magnificent scenery and the easy friendly warmth displayed by her people. These continue to provide insights, leading me deeper into her lands, her languages, and her culture. An appropriate choice of music evokes a grand sense of longing and isolation, especially true among the Southern Alps.

Memories remain sharp and fresh, as seeing for the first time the Southern Alps across Cook Strait. Multiple visits to Wellington and Auckland, combined with three weeks in and around the South Island have left me in an undeniable state …

“I’m beached, bru … I’m beached az …”

I am hopelessly in love with New Zealand.

New Zealand has three official languages: English, Māori, and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). Along with definitive images of the country, there are two songs which sung in Māori always bring me back to this beautiful land. “Pokarekare Ana” and “E Ihowa Atua” are, respectively, the unofficial and official anthems for the nation.


Pokarekare Ana

“Pokareare Ana” began as a love song on New Zealand’s North Island in the second decade of the 20th-century. The song is identified widely as uniquely New Zealand.

“Pokarekare Ana”, by Wanda

“Pokarekare Ana” (a cappella), by Front Row Chorus

Pōkarekare ana (They are agitated)
ngā wai o Rotorua/Waiapu (the waters of Rotorua/Waiapu)
Whiti atu koe hine (But when you cross over girl)
marino ana e (they will be calm)

E hine e 
(Oh girl)
hoki mai ra 
(return to me)
Ka mate ahau
 (I could die)
I te aroha e (of love for you)

Tuhituhi taku reta 
(I have written my letter)
tuku atu taku rīngi 
(I have sent my ring)
Kia kite tō iwi (so your people can see)

raru raru ana e (that I am troubled)

Whati whati taku pene 
(My pen is shattered)
ka pau aku pepa (I have no more paper)

Ko taku aroha 
(But my love)
mau tonu ana e (is still steadfast)


E Ihowa Atua (Aotearoa)

“E Ihowa Atua” is a Māori adaption in 1878 of the poem “God Defend New Zealand” which was published two years earlier. Also known as “Aotearoa”, the Māori version of the song is an approximate translation of the English version. Royal assent in 1977 finally confirmed the song’s status as one of the nation’s two official national anthems, including “God Save the Queen.” Presently, the official national anthem is performed with the first verse of “E Ihowa Atua”, followed by the first verse of “God Defend New Zealand”.

“E Ihowa Atua” (Aotearoa) & “God Defend New Zealand”, by Hayley Westenra

Performed in 3 official languages, by Deaf Aotearoa NZ – Tangata Turi

E Ihowā Atua (Oh Lord, God)
O ngā iwi mātou rā (Of nations and of us too)
Āta whakarangona (Listen to us)

Me aroha noa (Cherish us)
Kia hua ko te pai (Let goodness flourish)
Kia tau tō atawhai (May your blessings flow)
Manaakitia mai (Defend)
Aotearoa (Land of the long white cloud)

God of nations at thy feet
In the bonds of love we meet
Hear our voices, we entreat
God defend our free land
Guard Pacific’s triple star
From the shafts of strife and war
Make her praises heard afar
God defend New Zealand


How do I love New Zealand’s South Island? Let me show the ways …

•   Akaroa: Akaroa’s Long Harbour with special guests
•   Akaroa: La petite ville française de Akaroa
•   Christchurch: Christchurch’s changing Red Zone
•   Christchurch: Christchurch’s Art Gallery: glass and light
•   Dunedin: Baldwin Street, steepest in the world
•   Fiordland: Cruising up and down Milford Sound
•   Fox Glacier: The slow forest walk up to Fox Glacier
•   Franz Josef Glacier: The slow approach to Franz Josef Glacier
•   Interislander Ferry: On the ferry between the North and South Islands
•   Lake Matheson: What are the sounds of a New Zealand sunset?
•   Southern Alps: Flying over the South Island’s Southern Alps
•   Southern Alps: The Southern Alps at sunset, from Lake Matheson
•   Train: Coastal Pacific train, from Picton to Christchurch
•   Train: TranzAlpine train, from Christchurch to Greymouth

Have you visited New Zealand? Where are your favourite places and memories? Please leave your comments below!

This post marks Māori Language Week (Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori), celebrated annually in New Zealand since 1975. Māori Language Week in 2014 takes place 21 to 27 July inclusive. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com, and also appears as part of the Sunday Traveler series.

Another 16-hour Canada Day marathon in Vancouver

The forecast called for a hot mostly sunny day to celebrate Canada’s national holiday on the 1st of July. It’s another invitation to continue exploring my birthplace here in Vancouver, British Columbia. Spanning a period of 16-plus hours including sunrise and sunset, I’ve collected 20 photographs among 100 kilometres (60 miles) of travel throughout the region. This year’s marathon follows last year’s debut effort.


1.   542am, 1st light from Vancouver Convention Centre

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

I knew from last year’s experience first light occurs to the northeast. Aside from early risers and joggers, there are few others around. There’s something magical about the harbour with the serenity found at sunrise. The “sail” roof from Canada Place and the cranes at the CenTerm port facility appear to reach up into the sky, clearing the sky of wispy cirrus for the morning sun.

Vancouver Convention Centre


2 and 3.   601-700am, Coal Harbour

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

A great deal of activity in Vancouver’s harbour is defined by the seaplanes flying in and out of Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre. At this early hour, it’s an unusual yet sensible sight to see these seaplanes parked, ready to go. Over on the right is a Harbour Patrol vessel.

Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

Condominium towers and commercial high rises hug and hover over the southern shoreline of Burrard Inlet. In the summer, this entire area including Coal Harbour is illuminated by the morning sun. Reach up and seek out the opportunity to make the ever-present selfie … click.

Coal Harbour


4.   701-800am, Coal Harbour

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

Early morning also brings out the rowers from the Rowing Club: the singles, pairs, fours, and sixes. There’s very little traffic on the water, except for the occasional tugboat and pleasure craft. Clearly evident are the light breeze, still waters, soaring peaks, and big skies for company. The description “morning row, uncontested” seems appropriate.

Vancouver Rowing Club


5.   801-900am, Stanley Park

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

This area began as intertidal mud flats connected with the waters of Burrard Inlet via Coal Harbour. The 1916 construction of the causeway through Stanley Park cut off the “lost lagoon” (Pauline Johnson), and became a freshwater lake supplied by runoff from neighbouring creeks in the park. The Jubilee Fountain was constructed in 1936 to celebrate Vancouver’s 50th anniversary. Important to visitors and residents, Lost Lagoon is essential for wildlife diversity.

Stanley Park’s landmarks | Lost Lagoon


6.   901-1000am, West Vancouver

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

In rediscovering West Vancouver, I knew I had to photograph this beautiful structure, a smartly constructed glass and concrete building with optimized minimal footprint and whose heating and cooling system draws upon the underlying geothermal mass. It can be no accident that the smooth rooflines mirror the shape of the mountain ridge in the background. Beauty, form, and function in harmony …

West Vancouver Community Centre


7.   1001-1100am: Dundarave, West Vancouver

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

Dundarave Village is a short walk west along Marine Drive from the Community Centre. Having been here before, local favourite Delany’s Coffee is my choice for morning coffee in the area: great coffee, friendly folks at the counter. These folks are clearly prepared for Canada Day. What’s even better? Suspended from the ceiling is a miniature railway to delight kids of all ages.

Delany’s Coffee (Dundarave)


8 and 9.   1101am-1200pm: Ambleside, West Vancouver

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

In West Vancouver’s Ambleside, the sculpture “Overflow IV”, by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, is a sitting faceless figure, consisting entirely of alphabet letters. To complement the wispy patchy cirrus cloud overhead, a clever change in orientation forces the viewer to consider whether or not the sculpture is truly “overflowing”, trying to speak for itself after all.

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

Designated as West Vancouver’s first designated heritage building, the former ferry building reopened as an art gallery in 1990. But at the beginning of the 20th-century, the small village of West Vancouver was once a cottage and summer getaway from the commotion that was young Vancouver. Until 1947, ferry service to Vancouver began and ended here at Ambleside Landing.

Ferry Building Art Gallery


10.   1201-100pm, Ambleside Park

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

The Welcome Figure is a landmark for West Vancouver, honouring the people, creatures, and land upon which people now inhabit. Made with old growth cedar from nearby Hollyburn Mountain, the figure is a gift from the Squamish Nation and dedicated to the city in 2001. “With open arms to all who pass our shores, this Welcoming Figure was raised at the first K’aya’chtn (gathering of ocean canoes).”

Squamish Nation Welcome Figure


11.   101-200pm, downtown Vancouver

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

I’m waiting for a crosstown bus across from the Vancouver Club in downtown Vancouver. I see a woman in red on the other side of the street, and her path takes her across the front entrance from left to right. She seems to be in a hurry. Where is she going? Is she meeting friends to have fun today? What does Canada Day represent to her? The end of a four-day weekend? Or something more?


12.   201-300pm, Port Moody

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

A callback to history: “Occupy the Trench”. Built in time for Canada Day, a small trench named the McKnight Trench was built next to the Port Moody Station Museum to honour the memory of Port Moody engineer Augustus McKnight who was killed in Belgium at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. These beautiful folks are a part of the present commemoration activity.

“Occupy the Trench”


13.   301-400pm, Port Moody

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

Port Moody Station Museum marks an important historical element in Canada and British Columbia. The province of BC joined Canadian confederation upon the promise and construction of a national railway. Constructed in 1908, the building housed the second rail station in Port Moody, until passenger rail service stopped in 1976. The building was moved to its present location in 1978, and reopened as Port Moody’s historical museum in 1983.

Port Moody Station Museum


14.   401-500pm, Port Moody

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

At the north end of Rocky Point Park, the pier sees a number of boat launches, and pleasure boats large and small are out and about on a breezy afternoon along this eastern edge of Burrard Inlet. Visible on the other side of the Inlet is the town of Ioco, an abbreviation for the Imperial Oil Corporation. Imperial built an oil refinery across from Port Moody in 1914, and began construction of the Ioco Townsite next to the refinery in 1921. Ioco was incorporated into Port Moody in 1992, and declared a Heritage Conservation Area in 2002.

Rocky Point Park | Port Moody Arm, Burrard Inlet


15.   501-600pm, Waterfront Station

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

This building and area marks the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), a vital transportation link in the late-19th and early-20th century contributing to the growth of the city of Vancouver and the economic development of the young Canadian nation. Constructed in 1914, the building housed the third CPR station in Vancouver. The building is now home to Waterfront Station, a major intermodal public transport hub for city and suburbs. With proximity to Canada Place, holiday crowds in downtown Vancouver stream in and out of the building.

Waterfront Station


16.   601-700pm, YVR Airport

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

At Vancouver’s international airport (YVR), this sign greets travelers as they enter the airport from the Skytrain station. That is, if they’re paying any attention and looking up at the sign, and beyond to the figures and shapes suspended from above. But the sign represents something more with its message in the nation’s two official languages (English, French) and the Chinese language representing the largest ethnic minority in the region. “Welcome to the airport; you all have a good trip …”


17.   701-800pm, YVR Airport

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

Many companies offer virtual or call-in “help desks” for customers to call for help and ask questions. This “help desk” is on the departures level of the international terminal at YVR Airport. It’s by accident you see here in this photo two “faceless” staff; the only faces visible are of passengers.


18.   801-900pm, YVR Airport: international arrivals

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

I’ve made this photo at the arrivals level in the international terminal at YVR Airport. One flight from London and another from China have just landed. It’s poignant, at least to me, to see streams of people arriving in Vancouver on Canada Day. No doubt some are going to see Vancouver and Canada in entirely new light; no doubt some will want to stay. “Welcome to Canada, and welcome to Vancouver …”

YVR Vancouver Airport


19.   915pm, final rays from Kitsilano

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

Overcast skies make beautiful sunsets, but subsequent overnight skies are awful for any kind of observing. But that’s of little importance to the crowds gathered here at Kitsilano Beach; all they’d like is a beautiful colourful end to a very hot summer day. Those emerging rays are actually parallel, and they’re called “crepuscular (twilight) rays” which by a trick of optics appear to radiate outward from the location of the sun in the sky.

Kitsilano Beach


20.   901-1000pm, Kitsilano Beach

Vancouver, BC, Canada - 1 July 2014, Canada Day

With this final photograph, I bear witness to the final light of the day, and witness to others who are also observers of the very same thing. Happy Canada Day!


Every photo above is marked with a location pin in the first map below. All trips with TransLink public transport are indicated in the second map below. I traveled to all of the locations with a $9.75 DayPass, and covered 100 kilometres (62 miles) in a total of 10 trips with bus and SkyTrain.


Oh Canada!

•   The National Anthem with Heritage Horns, daily at noon in Vancouver
•   The National Flag, since 1965
•   Canada Day: Vancouver 2013

I made all of the photos above with a Canon 6D camera on a hot & sunny Canada Day, 1 July 2014. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com, and also appears as part of the Sunday Traveler series.
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