Archive for March, 2010
Just last week marked the year anniversary of the passing of my beloved grandpa. As his only granddaughter, I loved the unique bond we shared. I was accustomed to him addressing his emails to “MFGD” (My Favorite GrandDaughter), and I relished in being Grandpa’s princess.
In high school, I had to write a report on someone who had lived through World War II. I interviewed my grandpa to hear about his experiences as a radar man on a coast guard vessel in the Pacific. It wasn’t until after I wrote the report that I realized I barely knew the man behind the stories. Having lost other grandparents in the years prior, I was troubled by the inescapable reality that the elderly gems in my life weren’t going to be around forever.
This revelation sparked a new interest in me to get to know my grandpa, and I started meeting him halfway between our two houses for lunch whenever I could. I grilled him for war stories, love stories, childhood stories, and everything in between. From the excitement and anxiety he felt climbing the rope ladder to board the USS Howze to start his military service to falling in love with my grandmother when she sang “My Man” at a bar in New Orleans, I was always enthralled. I often sat in my car after our lunches to jot down the details of stories I swore I could never allow myself to forget. I painted pictures of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s through the eyes of my grandfather, and always felt lucky to have access to living history. In addition to his memories, I found that my grandpa’s amazing mind and seemingly boundless intelligence had countless points for discussion from the actual size of the universe to the debate between science and God. Our mutual intellectual curiosity sparked numerous discussions that left us both wondering, comparing his lifetime of knowledge with my perspective as a member of the young generation. As my grandfather got older over the years, I began driving the full two hours to his house. I became chauffeur to our self-proclaimed tradition of eating at the local New Orleans Restaurant, a taste of his hometown. We spent the next few years dining there at every opportunity, walking arm in arm to our seats, me ordering the shrimp etouffe and him, a double order of oysters bienville.
My grandfather, quiet and never one to talk about himself by nature, was flattered by my interest in his life, and in return, I shared with him the stories of my life from romantic interests to interesting classes. In college, my visits were less frequent, but were replaced with frequent phone calls. One of my most salient memories of my grandfather is the noticeable excitement in his voice when he would say “How ya doin’ darlin’!?” when he recognized my voice on the phone. The more I got to know him, the more I valued our relationship, feeling a closeness that we both cherished, but perhaps cannot be accurately conveyed in words. His lessons and advice are etched in my being, helping me along the way.
Grandpa always told me that he never feared death because he had lived such a full life. Aging to him was a beautiful process, he himself feeling lucky to have been able to experience it. He passed away while I was in Senegal last year. I flew home for the funeral, unable to miss out on my last goodbye to a man who had given me so much in the last few years when I could truly appreciate his knowledge and advice. My last meal at the New Orleans Restaurant was the lunch after his funeral. Ironically enough, not long after, the restaurant had new ownership and they completely changed the building and the menu. Better this way, I suppose, because that place was reserved for my grandpa and me.
I decided to review different books I read because 1) I always tend to forget details about books I read and 2) I forget why I liked or didn’t like a book. I’m no professional, but I figured if you’re trying to figure out what book to read next you can sift through my thoughts on books I’ve read.
Book Review: The Shack by William P. Young
I read The Shack from a recommendation from my step-mom, and overall, it was a good, relatively quick read. The book is about a man named Mack whose daughter is murdered and he, upon receiving a note from God, ventures to the shack where his daughter was murdered to rendezvous with the creator himself. Mack’s disenchanted outlook, further entrenched since the death of his daughter, has made him a hard-nosed skeptic, despite his wife’s particularly close relationship with God. I was able to engage in his thought processes and struggles throughout the book, and due to the common struggles of many humans who have endured tragedy and hardship, it was easy to relate to his inner turmoil.
I wasn’t sold on the premise right away and wasn’t sure if I’d like such a strongly religious themed book, as I was afraid it would turn into an attempt at religious conversion or support one line of thinking. However, I found that this book from chapter to chapter developed a rather fascinating perspective on religion, love, and spirituality that is relevant for the religious and non-religious alike. It was the first God-based book that I’ve read that put the emphasis on humanity and relationships over living based on religious doctrine whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or anything else. I found that the rationality and explanation of God as portrayed in the book is unique and thought-provoking, putting value on things that haven’t always seemed as prevalent. It questions the foundations of power and hierarchy from governments to organized religions, while challenging Mack to reconsider his view of the world and spirituality. It crafted an interesting story of hardship and redemption with a realistic interpretation of life as we know it.
I’m not one to ruin the ending or too much of the plot, but I will say I don’t think anyone who questions the true foundations of human life and wonders what it’s all about would not be disappointed in reading this book. If anything, it will give you a new way to consider many of the standards and norms we have come to accept in our daily lives.
If anyone has read this book or has something to share, I’d love to hear what you thought about it!
In starting my new job, I was thinking about new beginnings and I thought back on when I first arrived in Madagascar on December 27th, 2008.
I had received the Michael C. Rockefeller Fellowship from Harvard with the intention of working with disabilities. Infused with the spirit of adventure and independence from the fellowship, I decided to try life in Madagascar, a world completely unknown to me. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity that had been given to me and do something I otherwise might never do.
With these ideas in mind, I booked my tickets to Madagascar. I knew English wasn’t widely spoken, nor did I speak French or Malagasy (but I was eager to learn them!), and only knowing where I would be spending my first night. I didn’t have any disability contacts in the country, and only had two e-mail addresses of people in the country of distant contacts who I could try to meet.
When I think back on that first morning when I arrived at the airport, I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach that I felt on my first drive into the capitol called Antananarivo, and the reality check of this new beginning. I arrived without a hitch to my hotel that I had booked from the US, and breathed a sigh of relief in my new room, with a view over the city of my new home away from home.
It wasn’t long before my chest grew heavy with the weight of anxiety over my situation. What was I going to do from here? How did I start? Where was I going to sleep my second night? (I needed to find a cheaper option) I spent a while looking out my window down the street and observing my new surroundings before I mustered the courage to leave the room and explore.
I remember my first walk down that street, not sure what to make of it all and submerged in a completely new world. Immediately overwhelmed by my inability to communicate and struck by the attention I received as a “Faza” (white person). I realized that anonymity was not a realistic desire. You don’t realize how nice it is to sit in a coffee shop and blend in when you want some time to yourself until you know what it’s like to stand out like a sore thumb everywhere you turn.
I had attempted to memorize the map of Antananarivo from the Lonely Planet while still in the hotel, not wanting to pull out the book on the street and brand myself as a novice to the city. Despite a few wrong turns and accidentally walking into the restricted area in front of the presidential palace (oops!), I managed to find a cheap hostel just a short walk from the hotel. I moved there the next day after check out, and felt pride in the success of my first small but significant accomplishment.
I was struck by the beauty of Antananarivo, and the view from my new room was a constant reminder:
And here’s a view in motion:
A few days after I arrived, I watched fireworks from my hostel window to ring in 2009 and begin my yearlong post-college adventure. I was excited at the prospects of my journey and seeing how I could grow from it.
As I write this now, I can look back at the scenario I willingly put myself in when I left Pennsylvania and can understand why the majority of people in my family thought perhaps I was a little crazy. However, when I think about throwing my bag on my back and embarking on my completely autonomous adventure, I remember feeling invigorated by the vision of the fellowship, ready to test my comfort zones. I was ready to discover a new world and ultimately, a new me.
As the newest addition to the middle school faculty, I have assumed my role as “Miss Martin” or Ma Laoshi (it translates to ‘Teacher Ma’, Ma being my Chinese last name) and have begun shadowing the current Chinese teacher who will be relinquishing her duties and enjoying maternity leave once the kids leave on spring break. I spent two days with the kids, and am scheduled to shadow another four days before officially taking over the job on April 5th.
I really enjoyed my first two days, getting to know my students and co-workers and getting a feel of the vibe of the school. It’s a completely new environment for me; not only is this my first “real” job post-college, but it’s also my first experience in a private, all boys school. I teach a very introductory 5th grade class, 2 sections of 6th graders, a 7th grade and an 8th grade class. My students cover the full spectrum of puberty, with my pint-sized 6th graders and my I’m-not-in-high school-but-will-be-soon 8th graders that are an average a foot or two taller with voices a few octaves lower than my other sections. Overall, the kids seem incredibly enthusiastic for the language and have some real skills and in the relatively few instances that I’ve really gotten to work with them on Chinese, I feel this great excitement for the upcoming months.
Coming in as a newbie, in addition to being a young woman in a male dominated environment, has it’s perks and pitfalls. I’m one of three female teachers in the middle school, but I also have the element of surprise not being Chinese. No one quite expected someone who looks like me to be the new Chinese teacher and I’m trying to use that to my benefit. I’ve also caught wind of a few rather hysterical stories of some of the students’ excitement over the new “Miss” in town (we are apparently few and far between and these guys don’t get to see too many girls as it is). One of the more outgoing boys I sat with at our lunch table on Friday asked me how I was fairing in the ‘all boys’ atmosphere, and his question made me laugh. It’s definitely a new world, but I’m more and more happy each day that I’ve ended up with this job and can’t wait to see what happens over the next few months.
Since I was already up in the northeast after dropping off Katelyn, I had the opportunity to visit one of my closest friends (Sarah) Cramer (from rugby at Harvard) who I hadn’t seen since November 2008. Rather than go for a traditional visit, I decided to spice things up and surprise her in her hometown of Granville, NY (it’s probably even smaller than Bucktown).
Cramer just opened her own used book store, but she wasn’t open the day I planned on arriving, so I had to get creative in order to execute my surprise. I decided to lure her to her store posed as someone interested in making a book donation with a gmail address I made up just for the surprise and this message:
I found this e-mail address on your site and I wanted to get in touch
with you about making a donation to your store. I’ve been helping my
cousin move out of the area and we’ve needed to get rid of a lot of
her things. She read about your store in the Sentinel and wanted to
see if it’d be possible to drop off some of her books at your store
tomorrow before we leave. I know you don’t have any hours Thursday,
but if I could meet you at 11am that would be perfect.
Let me know, I’ll be checking my e-mail throughout the day.
Within hours, Cramer had responded to my fake request:
Any books your cousin has would be wonderful. The reason I don’t have store hours on Thursdays is that I work as a substitute teacher at the schools. Though I am not currently scheduled to work tomorrow, they sometimes call me early in the morning they want me to work. If I’m not working, I can meet you at the store at 11 tomorrow. If I am working, I will try and get someone else to meet you at the same time. Do you know where the store is located?
I was a little nervous that Cramer might get called in to work that day, but I had to roll with it. So I sealed the deal and got up the next morning to drive to Granville, feeling pretty good that Cramer seemed to have fallen for my trick.
Once I got close to my destination, I decided to capture the entry to the little gem of Granville on my way to finding her bookstore.
I didn’t realize then that I needed to start paying attention sooner…
I wasn’t expecting to have to so many problems navigating Granville’s Main Street strip (that’s about .25 miles long…)
Shortly after I took that last video, I decided I had to try finding it on foot. I parked my car at the end of the strip and started walking, still rather confused. My mom called and I was explaining my plight to her, only to look across the street and see what I began to recognize as the store front that I had seen in pictures before. Once I looked through the glass, I could see Cramer standing in the window laughing and shaking her head at me as I hung up with my mom and dashed into her store. I didn’t have my camera rolling because I was kind of caught of guard trying to execute my own surprise, but she was still very happy to see me.
On a side note, I showed these videos to Cramer’s mom later that evening, only to have her point out in 3 of the videos where the bookstore was in the background… Maybe I should have done a little more research before I drove! Despite everything, I still consider the surprise a success and had a wonderful visit with the Cramer clan!
We arrived in our final destination, West Chesterfield, New Hampshire to Katelyn’s house on Tuesday night after our last stretch from NYC. 24 days, 4098 miles, 16 states and 3 parking tickets later, we have concluded what has been a road trip to remember.
It was a thought-provoking final stretch, with both of us considering what these last few weeks have given us and where we will go from here. During the drive, a thought came to my mind: “The trip may be over, but the journey never ends.” It made me think back on the Lao Tzu quote we came upon serendipitously on Day 1. “A good traveler is has no fixed plans, and is never intent on arriving.” Katelyn and I are both individuals who find peace in discovering new things and exploring the unknown, and this trip has been no different. Not only have we explored new areas of the country and new people, but we have also had time to reflect on our past, present and future paths, which is what I think of as the ongoing journey.
I feel like there are parts of this trip, emotions, feelings and depth that can’t be accurately conveyed in words, but have been experienced. All of our serious life contemplations have been balanced by spontaneity, creativity and goofiness. I’m so grateful for this interlude that has given me the chance to reconnect with people I love, think about my life’s course, and just let loose and have a good time. I wouldn’t have survived without Katelyn to share it with me for its ups and downs and for being each other’s sounding board for all our life debates, freak out sessions and hilarious episodes. All the conversations that have kept me up til early hours and entertained hours of monotonous driving, and the laughing sessions that came to dominate our exhausted, sleep deprived moments, have left me feeling re-energized and complete.
I had a wise friend in high school who coined the term “pure life moments”, a phrase that so entirely encapsulates the experiences I’ve had over the past few weeks, and reminds me of what I truly value in life.
I woke up in the morning after the rest of New York had entered the Monday morning rush. Everyone in this city (at least everyone I know) is incredibly busy and everything is really fast-paced. With Katelyn busy with a morning meeting, I had to tackle the problem of where to park my car. I was NOT interested in driving or parking in Manhattan again, nor was I interested in paying for a garage in Brooklyn. I decided to get creative and to google “non-metered parking in Brooklyn” and found a random message board posting that listed two cross streets with parking, got google directions to that area, and drove over there. I found a residential area with parking and felt a wave of relief to be released of my obligation to constantly worry about parking my car. With no street cleaning restrictions until Thursday, I could breathe easy.
I love public transportation and was happy to be able to use it once I parked to go to Manhattan. I met up with my step-cousin Jillian near her work for some delicious Cuban food. She’s a busy working girl, but I was very grateful she could take an hour to introduce me to a great little restaurant and catch up. Monday was an absolutely beautiful day, blue skies were a welcome contrast to the gray/white tones we’ve been getting used to for the last few weeks. After lunch, I went on a 30+ block leisurely walk uptown to meet up with Katelyn and her friend, David and just enjoyed the nice weather, people watching and the bustle of NYC. I eventually met up with Katelyn and David and enjoyed a late afternoon of chatting and bargain shopping in midtown. We wanted to get out in NYC, so we met up with my friend Sade (from Harvard) downtown who had discovered an almost too good to be true happy hour where we could enjoy a low-key New York evening. It was awesome to see Sade again and our hodge-podge group of mixed friends and social groups turned out to be entertaining as always.
And a picture of Katelyn and I with David.
The next morning was another lazy one for me. Katelyn had another meeting downtown for future professional pursuits. Our re-entry to the east coast has been a reminder of impending reality of non-road trip life with meetings for both of us in DC and NYC and trying to piece together our next steps.
I had to recover my car from Brooklyn, which to be honest was a little nerve-wracking. I am already jaded about my Car-ma after some of the issues we’ve encountered thus far and I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do if perhaps my car was not there when I got there. Thankfully, my worrying was not necessary, and I found my car in perfect shape and breathed a sigh of relief.
Once I got my car, I had to drive back to the upper west side to meet Katelyn where she had been staying with her friend to pick her up, but I had some time to kill so I decided to make a pit-stop in Harlem’s “Little Senegal” and see what I could find. I’ve been back in the US for just about 5 months (it’s hard to believe so much time has gone by), but I’ve spoken Wolof maybe 3 times since I’ve been back, so I was hoping for some practice. I immediately came upon a dollar store called “Thies”, which is the name of the city where I learned Wolof, so I went in to check it out. I entered the store and was immediately thrown back to Senegal with Wolof conversations all around me, prayer rugs folded in the corner, and beautifully bright Senegalese printed fabrics. I chatted a bit with the woman behind the counter, and continued on to a restaurant I had found online before I went. I wanted to have some Senegalese food, and I ordered myself Chebbu gannar (Chicken with rice) to go.
Chicken was a rare treat in Senegal, but they didn’t have the more common fish option that day. It was the first time I have eaten Senegalese food outside of Senegal, and it was really fun to reconnect with such a familiar taste (plus I love Senegalese food).
One thing that stood out to me yesterday is even when I spoke in Wolof to the people I met, they barely even blinked. I might have gotten a mildly surprised smile or two, but there was no reaction such as, “did this white girl just walk into my restaurant in Harlem and start talking to me in my native African language?” I guess I have a little bit of a bias based on the reactions I’ve gotten when I’ve spoken Chinese to a Chinese person. They are usually surprised, curious and appreciative of my efforts to learn their language, which has often lead to interesting conversations in the past. From my experiences in Senegal, I didn’t expect anyone to be excited by my language ability in Harlem. I was just content to practice a language I had been using all day every day to 3 times over 5 months and reconnect with a culture that despite its challenges was my base of familiarity for the majority of 2009.
Once I picked up Katelyn from her friend’s house, we swung back through Harlem to give Katelyn a taste of West Africa because both of us wanted to share different cultures we had explored with each other. We walked around a bit and ate some fried plantains in a new West African cafe where we soaked in the mixture of heavily accented French fused with a wide variety of African languages from countries like Mali, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. Spending more time in that area only reminded me of more cultural norms and situations like the prevalence of males compared to females in public and the style and mannerisms of greetings and interactions. Katelyn and I were definitely the minority, but it was a nice way to feel like we had traveled to a new place without leaving the confines of Manhattan.
On Saturday, Katelyn and I got ourselves organized before heading out for the second-half of my homecoming in Bucktown. As we approached “downtown” Bucktown’s main slash only intersection, I felt another nice wave of familiarity.
In the afternoon, we went out to see Shutter Island with my dad, which was fun. After that, we hung out at my dad’s house too. Alex played electric guitar and piano for us (he’s getting really good!), and we introduced Katelyn to the Martin Family Specialty that are Nerf Battles. These are a common occurrence at our house once we discovered that Dad could use the guns perfectly fine without moving his fingers. Usually it’s Alex and I against Dad, Alex and I crouching behind the recliner in the family room and Dad in the kitchen, firing as fast as possible until we’ve expended all of our darts. With Katelyn in the mix, we split boys versus girls and needless to say, Katelyn (despite being a novice) and I were victorious. We a picture was necessary to capture the real “tough” nature of these battles.
After staying at my dad’s, Katelyn and I headed to Philly to get Indonesian food (Katelyn’s birthday was the 28th, but we celebrated Saturday night). We had a great, long meal with some of our friends, then headed out to Old City Philadelphia. I called some friends from home and we pieced together a big group of people, which was a lot of fun. Once the clock struck midnight, we got a large group to sing happy birthday to our birthday girl.
On Sunday we started our trek to NYC, planning on making a pit stop in New Jersey to take my grandma to lunch. Our time schedule was a bit thrown off because yesterday was a very rough “Gee I miss my GPS” day. Thank goodness for patience and persistence otherwise we might still be crying somewhere in no man’s land Philadelphia having given up on our quest. Thank goodness also for Grandmas because once we actually did make it to our lunch turned early dinner, we had a wonderful afternoon eating delicious food and having some good old fashioned girl time. The restaurant even brought out a candle for Katelyn’s birthday with our dessert and I was glad we had such a nice afternoon to brighten our day.
After lunch, we continued to NYC and had a little more luck with directions than the first leg of the journey. With only minor complications, we reached our destination. Katelyn stayed with a friend of hers in Manhattan and I made my adventurous solo journey by car to Brooklyn to hang out with Khary (friend from Harvard). Driving in New York might have been added to my top 10 list of things I hate last night, but once I got there I was happy to have a low-key, enjoyable night getting to catch up and re-connect with a good friend. The last few fast paced days eventually caught up with me though, and I was grateful for a good night’s sleep.
Sunday marked 3 weeks since we’ve begun our adventure, it seems very hard to believe. We’re going to make the most out of our last few days.