Yuma Mega

Since my spontaneous visit of Pima Air & Space Museum on my 2015 birthday, I started a tradition of having a little road trip for every birthday. I rode a bike to Sweetwater Wetlands Park to see some birds with Tucson Audubon Society on my 2016 birthday. When my 2017 birthday came close, I planned something big: I wanted to attend the Yuma Mega, the biggest geocaching event in the Southwest region.

Finding the Event

I started geocaching as a hobby in 2013. Geocaching for me is mostly an individual sport: I rode bikes all over Tucson metro area, lift up lamp post covers and poke my hand into guardrails to find mint containers hidden within. Event Caches, on the other hand, are special geocaches that allow geocachers to gather and socialize. I browse Geocaching.com's event listing from time to time, and attend those events regularly. Normally, 15~30 people would show up in a local restaurant or city park. People would tell their stories, and plan out-of-state trips to search for large number of geocaches.

Yuma Mega is not just any event, but a "Mega-Event Cache". Geocaching HQ awards Mega status to events attracting more than 500 geocachers. I heard about Yuma Mega in 2015, but the date was adjacent to a conference trip so I wasn't able to arrange it. 2017's Yuma Mega event falls on Sunday Feb 12, which happens to be my birthday. 2017 is also my last year living in Arizona. It was "now or never", so I have to attend Yuma Mega!

I made up my mind on Nov 24, 2016, and booked a rental car and a motel room for the trip. Both reservations were cancelable in case there's a paper deadline on that weekend, but thankfully there wasn't one, so I'm greenlighted for the trip.

PO Box 3943

PO Box, or post-office box, is a uniquely addressable lockable box located on the premises of a post office station. There is a wall of PO Boxes in the University of Arizona's Student Union Memorial Center, where it costs $25 to rent one for a semester. I found them interesting, although I didn't use one because I could receive mail in my apartment, and the Tucson heat did a good job to keep the grounds dry so I didn't have to worry about packages.

When I first came to Maryland, I rented a room in Orchard Place neighborhood. It rains often, and the house does not have a porch. Seeing the post office right outside the neighborhood, I thought it would be the perfect chance to try a PO Box.

Opening My PO Box

Rental fee for a small PO Box at Diamond Farms post office is $54 for six months, or $30 for three month. I would live at Orchard Place for two or three months, so the 3-month option seems more reasonable. However, it is cheaper to choose the 6-month option, because the post office offers a ½ refund if I close the PO Box within three months, so the final price is only $27.

PO Boxes at this location include "premium service": every PO Box comes with a street address, and can accept deliveries from non-postal carriers. This is an important factor for me, because most items I buy online are not shipped via USPS, and having a street address allows me to receive them at the PO Box.

Orchard Place (2)

I moved into Mr Argoti's house on the afternoon of Oct 29, 2017, and became a resident of Orchard Place neighborhood.

The Tiny Bedroom

My assigned bedroom is incredibly small. There are five pieces of furniture: a BED that later turns out to be a sofa, a four-drawer DRESSER, a big glass DESK, a nice office CHAIR, and a small wooden end TABLE. My room also includes a small FRIDGE and a MICROWave. The following diagram shows their placement.

Orchard Place (1)

I moved to Gaithersburg Maryland to start a research job at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). As I exited Washington Union Station on Oct 26, 2017 after enjoying an epic 4-day Amtrak train journey, I felt lost immediately: this is no longer Tucson, the toasty city that I know and love, but a completely different place. Nevertheless, Cortana's voice guided me along Interstate 270, and my rental car arrived at Extended Stay America Gaithersburg South, where I was greeted by James and received a spacious and comfortable room.

Before I first came to Tucson, I signed up for a student housing apartment online. Unlike six years ago, I did not select an apartment before traveling to Maryland. Gaithersburg is not a college town, and I am no longer a student, so that I couldn't get a fairly straightforward "student housing" option. Instead, I am facing a much larger and complex apartment rental market. I want to see the apartments myself before committing to sign a lease.

Oct 26 is a Thursday, so there was only one weekday remaining before the weekend when most leasing offices would be closed. I browsed online apartment listings, and selected four apartment complexes to visit on Friday. I still wanted to avoid owning a vehicle, so location was the most important factor in my consideration. I also preferred a furnished apartment, to avoid the hassle of buying and selling furniture.

Spring Ridge apartments model room

My Epic Cross-Country Move on Amtrak

I recently moved across the United States from Tucson, Arizona to Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1940 miles apart. Tucson is in the southwest; Gaithersburg is on the east coast just north of Washington, DC. The move was a long and complicated process, as well as an epic journey.

Choosing the Train

Most Americans would drive across the country. When my uncle graduated from University of Maryland, he spent two weeks driving from Maryland to California, and visited Yellowstone National Park and many other places during his trip. Driving across the country would allow me to have a good look at the country, and seek geocaches in many states. All my clothes, computers, and other toys can be packed in the car.

While this option was attractive, I decided against it because of its high cost. Unlike my uncle, I did not purchase a vehicle during college, but relied on rental cars. Renting a car is inexpensive, but only if you return the vehicle to the same place. If I rent a car in Arizona and return it in Maryland, they are going to charge a "one way fee" that is approximately $1000, on top of the normal rental and insurance charges. Additionally, I have to spend on motels and meals. In total, the driving option would cost me between $2000 and $3000.

Google Maps estimated a driving distance of 2290 miles, or 33 hours non-stop. I am not accustomed to long drives. I felt exhausting on the 3-hour drive from Tucson to Yuma, and I couldn't imagine a 11x longer drive. This is another important factor for me to decide not to drive.

My Last Month in Tucson

I began my life as a Tucsonan on Aug 04, 2011, spent six years as a PhD student at The University of Arizona. However, everything has an end, and my life in Tucson ended on Aug 31, 2017, after I accepted a research job in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Move to Sahara Apartments

My apartment lease at University Arms Apartments ended on Aug 01, 2017. I needed one more month in order to finish editing my dissertation. I chose Sahara Apartments for my short-term accommodation.

On Jul 15, I went to Sahara Apartments to "apply for a room". I received a tour promptly, but I was told to apply online, because they do everything online. Despite being a small community, Sahara had a complicated website for all the business procedures, including new resident application, rent payment, maintenance requests, shuttle reservation, and policy violation reporting.

I put in my online application a day later, and received an invoice within a few hours. The invoice indicates that paying by credit card would incur a 4% convenience fee, and paying by personal check would incur a five-day delay to make sure the check clears. WTF?

Chinese Gym vs American Gym

After graduating from University of Arizona, I went back to China for six weeks to apply for a new U.S. visa. Since weightlifting has become a part of me, I continued my workouts in a Chinese gym. The experience there is significantly different from American gyms.

Annual Membership, Please

Most gyms in China only sell annual memberships. Gym managers are secretly wishing that you would give up your ambitious exercise plan after several weeks, so that they could profit off you without devoting resources. My stay in China was six weeks, so an annual membership would be overkill and prohibitively expensive. I had to find a gym that offers single tickets. My gym of choice was "Fitness Club" (菲特妮斯健身会所) located in the basement of a grocery store. They agreed to offer me single tickets at ¥50 per visit.

In United States, most gyms are happy to sell you a day pass. Some gyms even offers a few free tickets so that a potential customer can experience the facility; this is also perfect for short-term visitors.

In terms of price, ¥50 per visit is about as much as $8 charged by University of Arizona Campus Recreation Center. However, personal income in China is much lower than the United States, which means a Chinese gym costs more than an American gym for local people.

Shocking Changes in China

After six years in Arizona, I graduated from The University of Arizona, and returned to China on Sep 01, 2017. My previous returning to China was in 2014, and China has changed greatly during my three years of absence.

Swipe Your Face

Fraud is a serious problem in China. The "standard" countermeasure is two-factor authentication, i.e. a random code sent to your phone. However, fraudsters have been able to convince the victim to reveal the random code on their phone. A stronger countermeasure is doing all transaction in person: you have to show up at the bank or phone company, and present your ID card. However, there are usually long lines in those places and thus it's not a pleasant experience.

The regulators invented a new way: "swipe your face". I bought a SIM card for my smartphone online. To activate my account, I must upload a picture of my ID card, and record a video of me acting according to a series of random instructions. The instructions could be: "blink your eyes, open your mouth, rotate your head to the left". The system would then analyze the video to confirm that I am alive and am the same person as shown on the ID card.

I believe video authentication provides much stronger authentication than asking for "mother's maiden name" and "last four digits of social security number" as most companies do in the United States. It is surely less convenient than answering a few questions, but this is a trade-off for China where fraud is more common.

Tucson's Museums

Visiting museums is a good way to learn about the culture of a region. During my six years living in Tucson, I found and visited many museums in this city, and here are some of my favorites.

5. Arizona State Museum

Arizona State Museum is located on University of Arizona campus. I knew about this museum since the beginning when I participated in ISA's very first campus race event, but I never paid a visit because I thought it is literally steps away from my office so I can visit "some time". In August 2017, when I'm days away from graduation, I finally visited this museum. My visit spanned two afternoons due to the rich content in this museum.

Paths of Life exhibit in Arizona State Museum

The main exhibit at Arizona State Museum, Paths of Life, presents the origins, histories, and contemporary lifeways of ten Native American cultures in Southwest America. While I have interacted with members of Tohono O'odham and Yaqui tribes through their presentations at Tucson Meet Yourself, I gained better understanding at this Paths of Life exhibit about their culture, religious beliefs, and struggles. I also learned about eight other indigenous tribes in the Southwest region but further from Tucson.

Hiking in Arizona

I was a couch potato before I came to the United States six years ago. There aren't many outdoor adventures in my hometown Shanghai, because Shanghai is located on a flat peninsula, and the only place that resembles a mountain is the 97-meter Sheshan Hill. In contrast, Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges, and it is a hiking paradise.

My First Hike

Among the grad students in computer science department, there is an organization called the Graduate Student Council (GSC). On the same week as orientations, I attended the first GSC meeting, and learned about various activities organized by GSC. One of them is a "hiking club". I joined their mailing list, although I did not know what I was signing up for.

The first hike was on Oct 01, 2011 going to Butterfly Trail. I took an early morning bus to school, and brought "plenty of water for yourself, sturdy hiking shoes, lunch, warm cloth" as instructed by the trip leader. We departed shortly after 09:15, and it was a long ride in Jeremy Wright's car.

Butterfly Trail, 01OCT2011