Writing a Graphics Text While Traveling or How We Spent Our Advance on Royalties

We love to travel. So with a sabbatical coming up, Rose Mary and I were more concerned with where we would like to visit than with issues such as how did I intend to write a technical book while visiting a number of developing countries. Of course, we were happy to have negotiated a modest advance on royalties so we could pay for our plane tickets. But we didn't imagine all the things that could--and often did--happen.

We first went to the Universidad de los Andes (ULA) in Merida, Venezuela. Merida is a lovely place in the foothills of the Andes at 5400'. Being close to the equator, Merida is semitropical but the mountains enclosing the valley go up to 16,000' and even have some small glaciers. Unfortunately, the cable car to the top has been broken for a number of years and it's a long way up by foot. We nevertheless managed to get in some good hikes on the paramo.

This part of our trip almost never happened. We were in the middle of finalizing our arrangements over the internet (it's great when it's there) when Venezuela disappeared from the net. After not hearing from them for a couple of weeks, a colleague, who was supposed to go down there before me, called. Turned out AT & T had pulled the plug because the government hadn't paid the bill in a year. The problem was traced to a minister who was out of the country on what appeared to be a very long expensive vacation. Not only were all the universities off the net, but so were all the companies, because by law in Venezuela you cannot get your own internet provider. Eventually most of the companies bought services illegally on the open market and the embarrassed government ignored it. The government finally paid the bill and the universities were back on line. For a week. Then someone who was burning out bees' nests managed to burn down the telecommunications lines in Merida. Fortunately that problem only lasted a week and we were able to get our plane tickets in the nick of time (we had rented our house and had to leave).

I visited the Computer Science department at ULA, where I was to work with the faculty and students, and teach a postgraduate course in computer graphics and visualization. One of the attractions of ULA was that the CS department had Sun workstations and a couple of SGI's.

Merida is a long narrow town, about 1/2 mile wide, between two rivers. There is a difference of a couple of thousand feet of altitude between the top and bottom of town. Consequently, there are enormous climatic differences between the top and bottom. Being so narrow, there are only two main up/down streets, a fact that had great importance, as we were to discover. We rented an apartment opposite the engineering college at the bottom of campus and I settled in to write. Apple Computer was helpful in getting me a powerbook seed unit before the 5300's were released.

The first thing that happened was there was a transportation strike that was triggered by the government trying to raise the gas price from $0.10/gallon. After the bus drivers got an increase they went back to work, but some of the students kept on strike because they didn't want to pay the increase (even though the student rate was only around $0.04/ride).

In South America, the police are not allowed on campus. Good idea there. However, this fact enables a small group of students to shut down the university and the whole town. Every day after lunch and siesta--no one wanted to miss lunch--a small group of students would gather outside the engineering building. The police would gather on the other side of the fence with shields. The students would then start throwing rocks which the police would throw back. This all occurred on one of the two main streets so business came to a halt--almost every afternoon. In fact, I had a UPS package sent to me that arrived from the US overnight, but it took UPS a week to get the last mile from their office to my apartment due to the demonstrations. So all afternoon classes, including mine, were cancelled. Around five or so everyone wanted to go home, have a beer and think about dinner; so the police would start shooting some tear gas at the demonstrators. Usually that was sufficient for everyone to go home but about once a week--remember we lived across the street--the wind would be such that the tear gas would fill our apartment. Not fun. Worst time was when an enraged wasp flew in the window, stung Rose Mary, and she couldn't get to the pharmacy with the streets full of tear gas.

One day, somehow, a tear gas cannister went off in the computer lab. Points out the dangers of sealed rooms. No one could enter for days. I acquired reputation for machismo (or craziness) by going into the lab for ten minutes at time, coming out with tears streaming. But I had draft deadlines and had to ftp files to Addison-Wesley.

The demonstrations were ended by the beginning of the national professors' strike. The strike was triggered by inflation cutting salaries in half and the government reneging on their contract to increase salaries with inflation. The major effect of the strike was to return life to normal, at least for graduate students and most faculty. The undergraduates went home, but because the strike was a legal strike, faculty continued to be paid. Everyone came to work every day and did their research. Because graduate students paid their own tuition, everyone felt it was unfair to penalize them for the strike, so graduate classes were taught and life was normal. At least as normal as we ever saw there.

The book was going along well. However, Apple recalled the lithium batteries on my Powerbook. Unfortunately, due to a shipping error, I didn't get the replacement batteries for over a month. For a while, I was able to work off the wall current but the rainy season had begun. There were some great lighting and thunder storms that led to a lot of power outages. A couple of times I had trouble restarting my computer. We were about to leave for Ecuador so I sent the computer back to Apple in US with a friend and arranged for another friend to carry it to Ecuador the following week when it was to be fixed. Great idea but a huge mistake. I was able to finish the first draft in Venezuela on the Suns and ftp it to the US for review before moving to Ecuador.

Apple missed my friends traveling to Ecuador by a day and sent the computer to Quito via DHL. DHL brings everything through Guayaquil where my computer was seized by customs. It took me 5 weeks and considerable expense to get it released. And lots of time. Every day required at least one trip to DHL. The intervention of the presidents of two universities and the Fulbright commission couldn't budge customs. In the end, the university had to guarantee I would remove the computer from the country or pay some ridiculous amount of money. The only explanation I could figure as to why this process took five weeks was that no one in Guayaquil will speak to anyone in Quito. But then why should they, when Quitenos call residents of Guayaquil "monos"--Spanish for monkeys.

Ecuador is a wonderful country but doesn't have the resources that Venezuela does. However people are very helpful. The Universidad Tecnologica Equinoccial let me use their Sun when it was available and even loaned me a PC. Unfortunately, there was only one Sun for the entire university. There was an X terminal, but no mouse. A Sun mouse cost almost as much as its weight in gold in Ecuador. Finally I had a friend ship me a mouse from the US which fortunately was not seized by customs, an act that let me get some work done and earned me the eternal gratitude of my colleagues there, who now could make use the terminal that had previously been unusable without the mouse.

These events put me a fair way behind my schedule, so when I got my Powerbook back I was working constantly. So when we went to the Galapagos (great trip), I was working nights in the boat's library. People thought I was pretty strange. The Galapagos trip was almost a bigger adventure. We heard a month or so after returning to Quito that our boat (and it was a big boat) hit a submerged rock and they were forced to abandon ship at 2 AM. Kind of hard to figure when they do the same route every week. But then the captain and the engineer did seem to enjoy the nightly parties.

There was a severe drought while we were in Ecuador. Being a small country, most of the electricity is generated from a single dam that had no water. Every day the country got to use only was generated by the day's glacial run off. So there was power rationing that was a disaster for the country's industry. For us, it meant 8 hours a day with no power. That was tolerable most of the time. Our apartment and the university were in different districts. so I was usually able to find some place to work. Classes could be a problem. Some of my classes were for the Escuela Polytecnic Nacional which didn't have a generator and the classes there tended to be on the 10th floor. We wound up moving classes to universities with their own generators. Around town, people bought portable gas generators. In front of all the new glass and metal high-rise office buildings would be a row of generators with their cords running up the front of the building, sometimes ten or fifteen floors up.

At home, I was usually able to get some work done using my new Powerbook batteries. However, if we got the 3 PM to 11 PM shift without power, it was a pain. After a while candle light looses its charm and my batteries were good for only a few hours anyway. The movies had their own generators. We must have seen every Sylvester Stallone movie ever made. They love him in South America and that was all that was available near us. Going was a sign of real desperation.

When we returned for a brief visit in the US in February I was a good way through the second draft and had seen a full set of reviews. It was then on to Asia.

Having traveled a lot in Asia I thought we would have more difficulties there than in South America, but it turned out not to be the case. First, we visited National Tsing Hua University in Hchinsu, Taiwan where one of my former PhD students is a professor. I gave a short course there on visualization. They have better facilities than we have in New Mexico so it was pretty easy to continue work on the book. Our visit coincided with the first free presidential election in Taiwan. You might remember that there were numerous threats from the Chinese government with regard to these elections and a number of Chinese military exercises around Taiwan. Although no one in Taiwan took any of this very seriously (after all trade between China and Taiwan is around $50 billion), our families were in a panic from watching CNN. Couldn't convince them that the Taiwanese were going about business as usual. Although the Taiwanese newspapers were filled with stories about the Chinese "threat," the only change I could find reported in the papers was a report that there had been a large influx of prostitutes from other parts of Asia because of increased business attributed to the threats.

After Taiwan, we went to Hong Kong were I lectured at the Chinese University and the University of Science and Technology. If I thought Taiwan was booming, it was nothing compared to Hong Kong. Besides wonderful physical facilities and good faculty, Hong Kong has the best communications facilities in the world. Consequently, I was able to get a lot done on the book. My last day there I ftped the final draft to Addison-Wesley and sent in a physical copy overnight by Fedex.

Having written a book since July and done a number of classes and lectures in four countries, it was time for a break. So it was off to Nepal and Tibet. Of course, Addison-Wesley, via UPS, was able to track me down everywhere. So in between three treks, I would be in the garden of our guest house making corrections to chapters that would mysteriously appear every day or so.

Although trekking may seem mildly dangerous to some, my most life-threatening experience was sending my corrected proofs back by UPS. UPS showed up to pick up my (large) package on a motorcycle. I wanted to charge the bill to my Mastercard but the courier doesn't carry the little machine to print the charge slip. No problem. He put me on the back of his motorcycle. I managed to hold on to him with one hand and balanced the package with the other as we took a wild ride through the alleys of Kathmandu. When we got to the UPS office, they ran my card through and put me back on the motorcycle for the return adventure. I envisioned a book cover of me splatted on the streets of Kathmandu after running into a bicycle or a cow.

Tibet was the only place Addison-Wesley never found me. Maybe a 5 day 600 mile bus trip from Kathmandu to Lhasa was slower than UPS or Fedex could deal with. The bus trip was tougher than trekking, going over 17,000' passes, at times having to be pulled out of ditches, to being served every variety of yak. Actually, being vegetarians, we tried to pass on yak (wind dried raw yak is pretty easy to pass on), but we were tricked on yak tartar (another raw yak dish). It looked like a tomato dish. I was eating away when someone told me what it was.

It all worked out though and I did the final corrections on the beaches of Thailand (UPS even reaches Phuket, Ko Samui and Chang Mai). Thanks to you potential purchasers, we had a great trip. But remember we were living on the advance, not the real thing. Buy lots of copies and maybe I can travel somewhere to do a second book on advanced computer graphics with OpenGL.

Ed Angel (at home in New Mexico)

Ed Angel
Mon Sep 9 08:16:54 MDT 1996