I find it hard to believe that it’s been 17 years since I first set foot in Cambridge. Back then, it felt like I was entering an alien realm, full of weird rituals and traditions. Indeed, at one point, all I could think of was getting away from the place. That’s what six years of medical school will do to you, mmmkayyy kids?
Now, though, coming back to Cambridge feels like returning home after a long trip. Some of the characters have gone, never to return, but others have stepped up to take their place. A friend is now a Fellow and Director of Studies at my old college; how time flies!
COVID-19 made it more difficult to do all the things one would normally do when visiting Cambridge. Still, we were able to go punting along The Backs, an activity that brings back memories of peaceful afternoons spent on the River Cam.
Trying to enter Jesus College, I hit a snag; the porter insisted that no visitors were allowed into college (alumni included). Luckily for me, I knew the porter from my days as an undergraduate there, so in the end he only smiled and let us in. Apart from the new Porters’ Lodge, College looked exactly like it was when I left more than 10 years ago.
Before leaving, we stopped by to visit the new Cambridge Central Mosque. If you haven’t been there before, I would highly recommend going, even if you’re non-Muslim. The architecture is stunning, the setting peaceful, the people welcoming.
Many (most?) people start their PhDs with at least some element of impostor syndrome i.e. the feeling that you are not good enough, or don’t have the necessary competencies, to actually get this thing done. I certainly felt that way when I started my own journey. Mornings were no longer about hectic ward rounds; instead, I found myself staring at my computer screen, trying to figure out if I should read another scientific paper or just call it a day and go to Blackwell’s home.
Eventually though, things begin to fall into a natural rhythm.
In my case, getting started with neuropsychological testing, calling up participants for MRI scanning, all these helped me establish a routine so I could feel like I was doing something. Of course, everything changed drastically during the pandemic, but at least I knew then what I needed to do, even if it was difficult or impossible to do right then because of all the lockdowns.
Alhamdulillah, I am now in my third year of this DPhil programme. Things are beginning to fall into place. In fact, I can honestly say that I am beginning to enjoy myself. It feels strange to describe a PhD as a vacation, but compared to the hectic life of a clinician, it sure is nice to be able to set aside some time to think about how the brain works, how stuff like memory work etc. Don’t get me wrong, life as an academician is far from easy, but it cannot compare with the life-and-death decisions that one sometimes has to make as a clinician. If I have any regrets about this PhD, it’s the fact that it’s too short. Three years is just about enough to begin to appreciate the complexity of what you are studying, but such is the reality of modern life that you feel like you constantly have to rush from one thing to another just to keep up.
One thing I’ve learnt is that it is important to celebrate small victories around the way. This week, I gave a presentation during our weekly lab meeting and for the first time, I felt that my work met the high standards expected here. I shared with my lab-mates the results from one of my behavioural experiments, and also some work I’d done on probabilistic tractography using diffusion MRI data. Both are not finished yet, but I got some really good comments from the wonderful people in my research group.
Like I said…small victories.
Anyway, in case you are still reading this, I’d like to share with you a quote I got from God-knows-where. I absolutely love it because it reflects the hard work and dedication necessary to achieve big things in life. It goes like this:
Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability and that way you might change the world.
How do I even begin to describe an area like North Wales? Even now, looking at the vacation pictures I took in July this year, I struggle to find the words to convey how beautiful this region is, with its mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and walking trails. I’m not a city person, not by any means; a few hours in London is about as much as I can tolerate, but honestly, I could happily spend ages exploring a place like North Wales.
Upon arriving, we met up with my wife’s cousin Muhsin and his wonderful family who are lucky enough to call the area home. We couldn’t have asked for better hosts (or tour guides, for that matter). I’m not going to bore you with a rambling description of our trip, rather I would like to share with you some of my thoughts and observations about the places we visited that weekend.
Bala Lake was our first stop, although we didn’t do much apart from snapping a few pictures while the children splashed around excitedly on the shores of the lake. You can rent paddle boards, kayaks, yachts etc. if you had a day to spare.
Getting there was not easy, involving steep climbs up twisting roads, but it was well worth the effort in the end. Quite simply, this was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited in my life!
Located 785 feet above sea level, the lakes lie beneath the slopes of the Cader Idris mountain range. If ever there is a place you need to see in North Wales, this would be at the very top of my recommendation. When I said that I struggle to describe the view around me, this was what I had in mind.
I had to look up the pronunciation for this one; Welsh is such a unique language! It means ‘prayer house in the woods’, which reflects its roots as the location where a Celtic Christian community founded a monastery in the late 6th century CE. Nowadays, it has become a hugely popular tourist attraction, a must-stop for anyone visiting Snowdonia National Park.
Along the way to our next destination, we stopped at some random parking lot that turned out to provide some of the best views of the region. In the distance, occasionally shrouded by low-hanging clouds, was the peak of Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. I thought to myself “No wonder people like Muhsin don’t want to leave this place!”
Padarn Country Park
Home to Llyn Padarn, the Vivian Quarry, and the National Slate Museum. Apparently people can dive into Vivian Quarry (if they are crazy enough, naturally) but the path to the quarry was closed when we visited.
It was late evening when we got there, so I just did my wudhu’ (ablution) by Llyn Padarn and prayed with Muhsin next to the lake.
Afon Idwal is a waterfall carrying water from Llyn Idwal in Cwm Idwal. There are some steps leading up the mountain but I only went a short distance as my son had already fallen asleep by then. The views here were breathtaking, especially with the waterfall in the foreground and the cloud-topped mountain in the background. We saw a sheep stuck at the waterfall; a few brave souls tried to rescue it but the poor animal simply refused to budge.
Ty Mawr Country Park & Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
The first place we visited on Sunday morning, complete with a ‘Nasi Lemak’ breakfast courtesy of our host! In the background was Cefn Viaduct, and not far from the place was Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Those of you who are not afraid of heights can try walking across the aqueduct (see video below). Alternatively, you can also cross by boat if you are so inclined.
Coming away from this trip, I wish more people can see the majesty of places like Snowdonia National Park (and North Wales in general). Perhaps then, we will realise how inconsequential we are in comparison to God’s earth, and how we owe a duty to future generations to preserve what we have around us. In closing, I am reminded of the verses below from Surah Ali ‘Imran in the Quran:
There truly are signs in the creation of the heavens and earth, and in the alternation of night and day, for those with understanding, who remember God standing, sitting, and lying down, who reflect on the creation of the heavens and earth: ‘Our Lord! You have not created all this without purpose– You are far above that!– so protect us from the torment of the Fire.