Lost in Aotearoa, Part 1

Originally written in July of 2014, a school essay that I never got around to publishing until now.

‘I’m sorry Mansib,’ my aunt said in a sullen voice.

‘It’s alright,’ I replied. It’s NOT alright, I thought to myself, almost wishing it were in quotes.

‘Things are very protective in our country. Medicine is very sensitive here. Patient rights, human rights, very very delicate. If someone does not have Premed done, it’s not normally possible to sit in a doctor’s consultation. He can lose his job and things can get even more worse,’ she continued, trying to garner my sympathy.

“It’s okay, I understand,” I retorted mutedly. It’s NOT okay, what the fuck am I supposed to do now?

… Screw human rights.

For an awkward beat, we both sat looking down at the keyboards of the laptops with which we were Skyping with over 11000 kilometers of ocean and a few thousand more of land. Had this chat been face-to-face, this is the point at which I’d turn my glance towards a window to both show my displeasure and end the conversation.

“I’m really sorry Mansib. Maybe there’s something other than the internship you can do? It’s really not that bad. There’s a lot of fun things to do here. You get to see your cousins! Say, how’s your mom? Blah, blah, blah…

I wasn’t paying attention. Good stories don’t start with dialogue anyway.

*** 2 months later ***

I was running for my life.

Two rapacious dogs were only feet away from breathing down my hide – but I wasn’t the one being chased. In front of me, a dozen slick white hinds were butting up and down, spurting all about as I lay pursuit through a lush grove somewhere on New Zealand high country.

I’m so hungry, I thought to myself. I hadn’t eaten in 18 hours as I was fasting for Ramadan. I really am running for my life.

I scrambled furiously past a last few trees and onto a treacherous scree, where my red canvas sneakers emerged pocked from hundreds of little pebbles. Better let the hounds handle it from here. There was no way I was going to outrun a mountain goat… on a mountain.

My prey, the Kikos, or feral goats, were notable for being especially lean and meaty (and therefore, very delicious), a result of their completely natural diets. They were classified as a nuisance by the New Zealand government, as they damaged crops and rare flora and hunters were paid to kill them off. Now, I was no hunter, nor was I particularly sure of the legality of my enterprise, but did laws and social distinctions really matter when you were lost and all by yourself? Maybe the laws of physics. And they dictated that I was hungry.

A young straggler, due to either exhaustion or inexperience, made a faux pas on a rocky outcropping and fell to her knees. My ravenous canine Karl took notice. Alas, such is life. The strong prey on the weak. You grow up, have fun, fall in love, work hard, run and then die.

This young goat was going to live however. It hadn’t matured and therefore had more fat. It would have tasted bad. Even my pups knew this and hadn’t bothered stopping to apprehend her.

Finally trotting onto grass, I was now watching the action from afar. The dogs had the goats cornered. Working like a pair of magicians, they filed the horned beasts into a pen. A man in yellow rain pants and a straw hat came and almost closed the pen door, leaving it a few inches open. Moments later, a few more goats rushed around the bend to follow their brethren inside.

Why’d they do that? They clearly saw the two hungry guards drooling beside the pen entrance. Probably some mob mentality thing. The smartest and dumbest goats were now all going to share the same fate. Did animals really have so much less foresight than humans? Apparently, 1500 sheep once jumped off a cliff in Turkey and 27% of them died, each one following the rear of another. I guess we ought to consider ourselves lucky for having the mental faculties to not be so blind.

Minutes later, I made it to the fence of the pen and stood a yard away from the man in the yellow pants. I reached to fistbump the farmer. He put a hand forward and covered my clenched fist with his palm. I guess Kiwis don’t do props. With those same palms he’d go kill and bag a couple from my catch. My uncle soon arrived to package me and the goods into his car.

‘Did ya have fun?’ my uncle inquired while he drove us home.

‘Just had the greatest fucking time of my life!’ I didn’t say. I was still pissed.

That evening, I sat in my aunt and uncle’s dining room. Laid on the table were one of the roasted goats I had snagged earlier and 5 glasses of blood red beet juice.

Bloody hell.

My doctors couldn’t get enough of the bloody beet juice, which was actually more than just beets: green apples, orange carrots, all the antioxidants in the world – and then bloody red beets. I didn’t know it then, but the beets were responsible for what I had initially presumed to be extreme hemorrhaging from my bowels and bladder, perhaps signaling my impending doom. Turns out it was just the unmetabolized betanin pigments from the beets. They even have a medical term for it: beeturia.

‘So how was your day Mansib?’ my aunt asked. Déjà vu.

I continued to pile mashed potato onto my plate. I don’t even like potato.

Okay, I just emptied the entire saucer of mashed potatoes. Awkward. I didn’t want to seem like I was paying attention, but I glanced up slyly to confirm a hypothesis: indeed, my aunt was staring straight at my temple. According to books on body language, that meant that someone was mad.

Two could play at this game. I shot my eyes up. I had just nonverbally communicated ‘What?’

My aunt took the bait, ‘Mansib, I already told you. We did our best to try and get you that internship. It’s just not possible here. I know you want to be a doctor, I just don’t understand why you’re being so immature about it.”

‘Yeah, well, ‘cause it’s competitive? All my friends are doing some humanitarian trip or another. Meanwhile I’m stuck here farting beets.’

‘Is this why you want to be a doctor? To be rude and impractical? Being a doctor is about being honourable and selfless in your endeavor to help others.’

Of course I wanted to do all that helping others crap. That wasn’t the point though. My grades didn’t hold a stick to those of my classmates and I needed something truly exceptional to make myself stand out. I could just imagine the admissions officer dismissing me for one of my friends. Maybe someone Bangladeshi. That’d be the worse.

‘This kid who’s like a year older than me got to do mastectomies at his uncle’s practice in Bolivia and now he’s in premed’

My aunt sighed. ‘I’ve never had to do a mastectomy to be a doctor.’

‘Me neither!” chirped in my uncle. And who asked you?

We spent a few more minutes twiddling our forks before I figured that I had softened them up enough.

‘Pay for my first aid courses’


I couldn’t help but crack a grin. The goat was really too good.

Early morning a week later, I walked 9 miles to the nearest Red Cross office (well, it was actually 8 miles, but I threw in 1 for good measure since there were so many hills). The building was rather dilapidated, especially for a downtown office, but I guess that was part of the New Zealand charm. The roof was adorably painted red and the rest of the structure was white, reminiscent of Pokémon centers from Pokémon. The inside was quaint. Artefacts from the Red Cross’ endeavors in Rwanda, Australia and Antarctica, dating back to the 2nd World War were displayed in glass cases. A smiling receptionist gestured me to the back offices where everyone was waiting for the course to start.

Time to sum up the competition. There was as an old man with greying white hair drinking coffee. A boy my age was sitting next to him, around a large brown table (two long brown tables, forming a large square). A couple of women, both old enough to have been my mother, were crowding around the kitchenette which encompassed the other half of the room. They were searching for coffee. Beside them, a box filled with chocolates being sold for charity. I had a penchant for candy.

I quickly forgot about the others and headed for the candy box. Emblazoned on a white coin envelop was a plea for two dollars. I had committed to spend less than $4500 CAD on my 3 month trip including airfare, even if only so I’d be able to brag about it to all my other friends who were traveling around the Americas and dropping 10 grand in 2 weeks. This meant that I had almost no money for small treats like candy, especially not overpriced charity candy. No problem. I submitted a couple of 10 cent coins then took a pack of M&Ms and a chocolate bar. I’d come to do this a few more times in the coming days, occasionally dropping a couple of dollars so as to not render anyone suspicious. No one was the wiser. Of course I felt bad, but it was more like the sorry for swatting an insect bad.

People trickled in and soon the room was filled by New Zealand standards. We waited a short while before a young woman with a large (but not fat) frame and red hair entered the room and called everyone to attention ‘Oy everyone, seems like we’re all here so let us begun. Enter the course room and take a seat. Make sure there’s a form on yer desk, you must fill it out and drop it with Lise on yer way out.’

We all took a seat and proceeded to fill the forms out and play with various first aid paraphernalia. A boy my age sat next to me and turned to me.

‘Hey, I’m Matt’

‘Mansib’ I said, shaking his hand.

Matt was a pretty cool guy. He was homeschooled. He wanted to be an engineer and like me he had a knack for building things. We chatted for a short while until the instructor came into the room and gave us the next set of instructions. We were going to play the name game she said.

One by one, we proceeded to say our name and occupation. After half the cohort had passed, it was my turn. I always enjoyed these games because I could make myself as whatever I wanted. But what should I say? I travelled thousands of miles to be here. No doubt I was going to take every opportunity to advertise it. For all I knew/cared, I was the only Canadian in this town.

‘Hi, my name is Mansib and I’m from Montreal, Canada–‘

‘Oh Josh, the other instructor’s from Canada!’

I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. ‘Oh yeah? Which part?’

‘From Vancouver or sumthin’

That’s not the same Canada. ‘Oh… that’s cool… Umm so yeah, I’m studying Health Sciences and I intern at Microsoft.’

‘Dhat’s very nice!’

No one was particularly impressed. The Microsoft thing wasn’t even entirely true. I wonder if they would have preferred it had I just feigned being a clerk at Lowe’s. I stopped feeling bad when I remembered where everyone else worked: the supermarket, farms, Lowe’s New Zealand equivalent (heck I’ve never seen a Lowe’s in my life), nail salons, retired and the like. Apparently you needed to have extensive first aid certification to run a nail salon in New Zealand[1].

Soon enough, we proceeded to cover swaths of first aid lore. Alcohol intoxication, allergies, asthma attacks featured prominently. We did little practice except for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. There was the question of whether Matt or I would have to do CPR on the other, but they handily provided us a dummy to work with. Regardless, I already had my CPR training and took little from it.

‘Alright everyone, now we’re going to cover bleeding.’


The whole day had been spent covering relatively menial things. I had read it all in manuals and on the internet. I was excited to finally get to the meat of the course. The life and death gory stuff and how to treat it.

‘So when it comes to an emergency situation, der are three main types of bleeding. Let’s start with de most benign of dem, abrasions.’

The instructor pressed the clicker and on the screen appeared the depiction of a pale hand dotted with small crevasses oozing creamy red. Suddenly, I started to feel a bit warm.

‘Abrasions are fairly common in New Zealand, yer bound to get a handful every year. They usually pose no threat, howeva…’

I was very queasy at this point. Glistening red blood…

I stood up from my seat and raised my hand. Or at least I thought I did. Only a few seconds had passed, but I was sprawled on the ground and I was in fact fresh out of a momentary coma. The instructor was over me, ordaining me to stay sprawled out. I had just undergone what textbooks, doctors and pretentious teens call a ‘vasovagal syncope’[2]. The instructor said I fainted.

‘Don’t worry, it’s just because I’m fasting and I’m hypoglycemic. I’m fine really.’ I said, calmly enough for someone that had just passed out. It was my standard excuse. I knew me being hypoglycemic had little to do with it. An attendant duly went to fetch treats from the charity chocolate box. I didn’t want them.

An hour passed and I received compliments for being ‘a brave young lad’ and ‘tenacious’, in addition to niceties such as ‘hey, I looove your red sneakers!’ Being treated like a kid always made me feel really nice and warm inside. I missed quite a bit of the course as I was recuperating in the back room, but eventually I headed back inside for the rest of the afternoon. We called it a day before supper and we left the classroom. My uncle had asked me to wait at the Pokemon center so I loitered around the Red Cross relics. Matt was there too.

‘Waiting Matt?’

Matt was keenly looking at pair of defibrillator paddles, the ones from the TV doctor archetypes where they shock a flatlined patient back into existence. Defibrillators were useless once a patient’s pulse went flat.

‘Yeah, waiting for my dad.’

I pretended to look around at the ancient Red Cross helmets and kits as well, if only because I spoke to Matt all day and had nothing better to say to him. Matt moved to the window and gazed into the distance, the Tasman Sea and the eve of what would be a beautiful sunset lay before him. Undoubtedly, he was looking for his dad.

Without looking at me, Matt begun ‘So why do a first aid course all the way here?’

If there was such a thing as a reverse or opposite sigh, I’d do it here. What a loaded question.

‘I want to become a doctor’ I said.

‘You’re spending your winter break–’

‘It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere.’

‘–doing a first aid course in a foreign country?’

He had me in our mini-debate, one with only three sentences. Why would I travel an ocean to do… a first aid course? Should I have taken solace in the fact that I was probably the first to do such? Irrelevant thoughts, because I was certain that I chose right.

‘The world’s just one big place, I’m not in a foreign land” I mandated.

Mocking Matt, albeit playfully, I chose to stand a couple of meters from Matt and gaze into the distance as well. Identically like him, except I was staring in the opposite direction, towards the receptionist’s counter.

‘You’ve come far. You should enjoy yourself’ Matt says.

The sun had not set yet, there was still some time left.

[1] I’m not even being sarcastic here.

[2] Of course, had you asked me then I would have said neurocardiogenic syncope.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is – 7 Habits of Highly Effective Aspiring Programmers (Part 2)

If being an aspiring programmer was something akin to a fundraiser, this is what you’d call a stretch goal. In other words, this isn’t going to be absolutely essential advice that will invalidate all your efforts should you choose to ignore it.

But it will make a HUGE difference.

The primary reason people are able to take-up a new hobby, profession or career in a given era which was not possible in the prior is because the barrier to entry has been lowered. How does this happen? Well pretty much by making the job to easier do. This is achieved through better resources, such as technology and education infrastructure. This more or less translates to better tools and better education about these tools. The reason every 7 year old can learn to code these days is because it’s so ridiculously easy: you can drag a puzzle piece onto another and boom, you have a walking talking cat. Such a feat would be unfathomable in my father’s generation. Go back further, and you have a team of 20 scientists feeding paper into a monster praying to dear God that today’s work wouldn’t be tomorrow’s. Think about it, this is what it took just to compile back then. Now my sister can conflate compiling with running a program.

Fortran Coding Form

If you say you’d still code if you had to punch a stack of these, you’re full of shit

So how do you make learning to program easier? You make the actual physical experience of programming as easy as caressing a kitten. No one can deny it when I say it’s just such a pleasure to code on a newer, faster machine. If your computer is slow in any way, run the standard optimization procedures and if that doesn’t cut it, just face the truth, you need a new machine. If you have a laptop, spend the money for a good mouse (get Microsoft’s Bluetooth arc mouse, if it doesn’t boost your productivity by 200%, I’ll offer you my hand in marriage). Don’t scrounge on internet. Get a bloody second monitor and any necessary cables.

Now, not having the right resources fosters ingenuity and a handful of other skills that are hard to get elsewhere. I’ll admit that more than anyone; the reason I learned to code in the first place was to create games that could run on the crappy outdated machines my papa would buy me so that I wouldn’t be able to play games (not to mention he wouldn’t buy me games either). Another great example of this is my friend Christian, who began his computing journey by trying to configure an Italian copy of Windows out of pure necessity. But that’s the catch. Pure necessity. Are you coding with a piece of junk because there’s something you really want and you have no other option? Or is it because you’re ordering too much takeout?

My heart just goes out to all those individuals that come to me with programming questions whilst lugging the conceptual equivalent of CRT monitor stapled to a keyboard, which has to be tethered to a socket just as much as the real thing. You have to wonder why so many developers pay premium for a MacBook Pro. After all, it’s just a pretty preassembled shell on standard internals (both software and hardware wise). Why do that when they can build a machine and stick Mint (Linux) on it for pennies? Because the ROI on getting actual work done is orders higher than on trying to save $100 bucks.

If you think this stops at buying toys for yourself, you might want to reconsider. You’re going to have to consider opportunity costs every day. The hardware and software is only the initial cost. Day to day, you’re going to have to wonder: do I skip school today and spend $200 to go to New York for Y Combinator’s startup school? Do I turn down a $1000 WordPress plugin install gig to focus on your side project? Do you bomb a midterm to attend a hackathon? The answer has always been yes for me. This has been incredibly taxing on me academically, physically and financially, but I truly believe this has put me ahead of my peers. It’s my passion for developing and creating technology that allows me to come up with the time and money for whatever endeavour. Ultimately, this is why I can build a website from scratch or hack a drone and why they can’t.

The suckiest situation programmers get into as they get older is that they end up working on things they hate, when they’d actually like to work on something else. You hear about this all the time, especially because of all the popularity startups and tech companies have been garnering recently (which face it, is the equivalent of people heading West for the gold rush, too late and too useless to earn anything big). People always say they’re going to take a job here or there to get experience and get established financially, y’know just for a “while”, but then they get comfortable, fall in patterns and never move out considerably until the day they die.

If you want to become that great programmer who creates something great, you’re going to have to consider probably the largest opportunity cost of them all. Do you leave your well-paying but intellectually devoid job? If the answer is no, congratulations, you’re no longer an aspiring programmer… and that’s completely fine. Some people are just content with good money, which they can then use to focus on things like family or travel or volunteering, which are all equally desirable endeavours. Don’t feel like you have to be the greatest programmer ever to get places. But if you want to be at the helm of your discipline and create, then expect to pay the price.

The prior article in this series: Procure More Mentors