Backpacks

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” 
― Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

My classmates, my professor, and a camel in the Empty Quarter

I never considered that I may be absolutely terrible at packing until this summer.  In high school I would show up for travel with only a backpack I’d had since fifth grade, and I used to pride myself on having the least amount of luggage of anyone on my teams.  When I started traveling cross-country to college this all changed. I couldn’t just sling a backpack with a few changes of clothes, my case binder, and my laptop onto my back; now I had to survive away from home for months.  There’s not a backpack big enough for that. I tried to keep some of my habits from high school and take only the bare minimum, but as time went on at Hopkins I found that things just would not fit in my bags anymore.  Coming back home for winter break I had difficulty trying to take the important things back to Vegas with me, and coming back to Hopkins after spring break I was finally faced with the possibility that I’d accumulated an awful lot of things since moving in nine months previously.  After finishing my final paper, I looked around my room and realized I couldn’t take it all with me.  Fast-forward two months, and I was sitting in my hotel room in Oman with my roommate looking at a pile of toiletries  candy, and clothing that was not making it back to the States with us.  Both times there was a mad rush to pack, saying goodbyes, and something inevitably got left behind.  The Muscat International Airport is now one five-pound Arabic dictionary richer due to my overweight luggage, and somewhere in Baltimore my giant stuffed triceratops has found another home.

My classmates and the US Ambassador to Oman.

Since graduating high school, I feel as though I have been constantly leaving places, taking things with me, and inevitably leaving things behind.  It’s been an incredible blessing and a curse.  Less than a century ago the odds were good that both myself and everyone reading this blog would have stayed within fifty miles of where they were born.  Less than twenty years ago the odds were good that both myself and everyone reading this blog wouldn’t have the ability to email people from around the world.  Less than a year ago the odds were good that I would have called you crazy if you told me that I was going to fly for twenty-five hours over the course of three days to get home from Oman.  I live in probably the most mobile and global period in history and I feel as though moving around is a fact of life I have to face sooner or later, especially in my given field of study.  I’m lucky to have been given the choice to leave, given how many people around the world lack the opportunities I have been presented and do not have a choice in the matter when they leave their homes, but it’s never easy.  Like my 15 year old self packing for a 45-minute flight to northern Nevada, I try to cram everything in my backpack so I can take it with me, but I always end up having to leave something behind and hope that I can get by without it and pick up something better in my next destination.  My Hopkins debate and mock trial teams replaced the ones I’d had in high school.  I replaced a book I’d brought with me to Oman for an Arabic version of A Tale of Two Cities.  I’ll switch out the greenery of the Hopkins campus with the urban campus of Columbia.

JHU Mock Trial freshman at our first tournament.

As everyone knows, though, there are certain things that are irreplaceable.  Certain things will never leave your backpack when you travel: the good luck charm, the Spring Fair picture where all your friends look sunburnt and full on fried food, the memory of that one time you sang Bohemian Rhapsody to a group of confused Omanis (immediately put this on your bucket list.)  In a Frank Sinatra song that I, of course, have never been made to listen to by the Italian New Yorker side of my family during Yankee games, there’s a line about the narrator making a “brand new start of it” in New York.  I don’t think this is a good idea.  You can’t wipe your past or erase your memories, Jim Carrey movies notwithstanding, and furthermore why would you want to do that?  Good, bad, or ugly, my past got me into Hopkins, to Oman, and now to Columbia.  Those reading the blog as admitted students can sit back this summer and know that what they did got them into one of the best universities in the world, and current students know it too.  Perhaps my history-loving side shows too much, or my nostalgia, but there are things that are too important to ever leave behind, mostly my friends and family, but also my experiences.  People, especially prefrosh, often talk about wanting a “clean state” before leaving for college, and I was always really unsure what that meant.  Is a “clean slate” simply not focusing too much on the kid you were before, in high school, or is it throwing what you did away in exchange for adopting some new cool “college kid” persona?  One is not focusing and the other is completely forgetting, and I know which route I would pick, I did pick, and I will pick.

JHU debate

The people I met at Hopkins are definitely part of the irreplaceable part of my backpack.  Certainly, Hopkins is an excellent school with excellent faculty and excellent classes, but the things that stick with me the most about my year here are things that happened outside of class.  It’s the people, and not the subject matter, that makes learning so interesting, and I think this applies inside and outside the classroom.  Staying up all night patrolling the hallways of a hotel isn’t a fun subject, but couple it with the people in Model UN and it becomes a night to remember.  Debating welfare reform is dull, but when that debate happens after a night spent driving in circles around New Jersey, missing your exit five times, and replacing a flat tire you’ll be sure to laugh whenever you think of it.  Coming back home, exhausted, after a mock trial tournament is nothing to write home about, unless you open your room to find two of your closest friends sitting on your floor having a Netflix marathon.  Group meetings can be dull, unless your group is SAAB and there are copious amounts of camaraderie and free Chipotle.

The videographers.

I could talk about the opportunities given to me at Hopkins, and there were so many of them, but I think if you’re reading this blog you know about the opportunities available to Hopkins students.  I think sometimes schools focus so much on all the incredible opportunities available to their students, like study abroad, internships, and research, that they sort of cover up the fact that the glue that holds a campus together and makes that school what it is isn’t the programs; it’s the people.  For those going off to college in the fall, you will probably be told that you can pick two out of the following three: sleep, grades, and social life.  Anyone who knows me or who read this blog can probably guess which two I picked, but when you’ve got a paper due tomorrow and you need to talk to someone, is your REM cycle going to answer back?  When you move to a new city, are you going to call up that B you got in orgo and ask it if it wants to grab Thai food?  When you’ve got limited space in your backpack, your friends and family are worth their weight in gold.  You can Facebook chat with your friend across the world while Skyping your brother across the country and texting your old roommate about her winter break plans.  Why waste that?

The Snuggie Party when I got back from my first debate tournament

As I close this year of blogging and throw it into my overburdened backpack that I will be lugging to Broadway and 113th Street next year, I want to express how happy I was to have this opportunity to blog, interact with prospective students, and reflect on my freshman year.  The concept of the self-made man is one I’ve never subscribed to, as I know that I would be nowhere without numerous people believing in me, helping me, and supporting me the past few years.  I’d like to thank those people spread out around the world from the bottom of my heart, and know that whatever I type in this last paragraph cannot even begin to express my gratitude.  As I leave, I really don’t think there is a way to describe the feeling without using the cliche “a mixed bag of emotions.”  I’m happy, and just a tiny bit sad, but I am undoubtably very lucky to have had something at Hopkins that makes saying goodbye so hard.

When my group left Oman, one of my professors told us that they knew when we arrived that they would be saying goodbye to us in just a few short months.  ”But,” he said, as we all crowded around the hall of our hotel that had served as a combination lounge/film studio/library/dinning hall/soccer field for two months, “we will not say goodbye.  It is too hard.  Instead, we will say, ‘See you soon.””

See you soon, everyone.

 

SAAB Class of 2015 a year ago.

 

Oh, the Places You’ll Go

On the road again

Early on in the summer, I read about a study published in Science magazine in 2010 that analyzed customer location data from cell phone providers and used it to observe human movement and behavior. The results showed that human movement patterns and location can be predicted up to 93 percent of the time because most people tend to stay within the same six mile radius. Even people who travel frequently establish routines from which they rarely deviate. From a public health standpoint, this type of data could help anticipate the spread of viruses. From an urban planning perspective, it could inform models of traffic flow. But from a purely subjective standpoint, I was shocked at how interesting I found this blurb of information, especially since it reinforced that I already knew.

We’re all creatures of habit. Even our most jarring breaks in routine, our most unpredictable moments, can more or less be pinned down to individual tendency. Isn’t that weird? I’m not even saying that because I’m quite possibly (see: definitely) the biggest nerd within my own six-mile radius. Empirically, we’re all just really boring. We are no more than the paths we choose, the chance encounters, the occasional intersection in a plane of parallels and gridlines. Familiarity governs the majority of our daily decision-making. I, for one, cling to the familiar like Saran Wrap clings to everything but the thing you need it to.If you’re anything like me, your daily routine involves a waging an internal battle over whether or not I should go to the gym (my body says no but the entire men’s US Olympic swim team on T.V. says yes), reading, eating exorbitant amounts of food, and convincing customers to buy moderately-priced clothing items at work every other day.

In Baltimore with Joy a couple of weeks ago!

Clearly, I haven’t been jetting off to exotic locales on a whim or scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro. In order for that to happen, I’d have to fulfill my gold digging dream of marrying a Greek oil tycoon and conquer my fear of heights. Or, alternatively, I could switch to Geico and save 15% or more on car insurance. What I’m trying to say is that I haven’t exactly used these past summer months to become a well-traveled citizen of the world. I mean, there are 16-year-olds competing in the London Olympics and here I am wondering if going downstairs to get some hummus is worth the physical exertion (Answer: no).

But with that study in mind, I made it a goal to branch out, try new things, venture to places outside of my bubble of reality T.V. marathons and online shopping. So for the past month, my weekends have consisted of taking impromptu trips to the beach, visiting friends at Hopkins, James Madison University, and the University of Virginia, and spending lazy days on the Potomac River. I haven’t spent a weekend at home since June, and getting in touch with my inner nomad has made me realize that the biggest and most revelatory things that happen to people normally occur when they aim past those six miles.

That’s what college is, right? For some of us, going to college is just one in a series of major life upheavals. For others, it may be the first time they’ve lived in a place other than their hometown. The funny thing about being at Hopkins is that, despite being the epicenter of a thousand different radii – a thousand different trajectories, movements, patterns of behavior – we all eventually settle into the same modes of being. We retreat further into a certain group of friends, our classes get more and more concentrated, and the Hopkins version of “taking advantage of everything Baltimore has to offer” means running to CharMar for a Southwest Chicken sub.

That’s what I’m afraid of – I don’t ever want to stop meeting people or going to different places. I don’t want to be confined by my own geography. So even if I’m not flying first class (up in the sky, poppin’ champagne, livin’ the life – does anyone ever miss Fergie? Because I do) around the globe, I feel like I’m one step closer to the places I’ve been and the places I’m going.

I can’t wait to see everyone at Hopkins in the fall! (For those of you who will have me as your Peer Ambassador during Orientation, I apologize in advance.)

Wendy and the Lost Boys

Last Friday afternoon after work, I meandered to my mailbox and examined my camper list for the following week. My jaw almost hit the floor as I scanned the page: the list consisted of eleven adolescent boys. A lump of anxiety grew in my stomach as I considered the assortment of braces, acne, bad attitudes and raging testosterone that would approach me in two short days… How could I ever handle these  ”young men”? As far as I was concerned, 14-year old males were an entirely different species.

My younger campers completing nitro

It turns out that I wasn’t entirely wrong. The boys arrived on Monday morning, and after explaining some rules I took them to their first activity: a low element called “nitro.” The younger campers generally love nitro because of its simplicity; the goal is to get the entire group standing on a 3×3 ft wooden box by swinging over to it on a rope swing. When they are all on the box, they have to sing me a song to complete the element. Sounds easy, right? Nitro takes the younger kids about 30 minutes to complete, depending on their coordination. My boys were a different story. After half an hour of fruitless attempts (mostly because of their larger size), I aided them by allowing three hands to be on the ground in order to get everyone on the box. It wasn’t a pretty picture, but at least the boys were able to sing me a rendition of Call Me Maybe before we moved on.

Our first few moments as a group, I definitely felt like Wendy watching over a group of foreign lost boys. Yet as the days went on, our attitudes started changing. Inappropriate stories and cuss words began making their way into every conversation. Our schedule for each day soon became more like fluid guidelines for me and the boys. By Wednesday, I found myself rocking skater shorts and a backwards baseball cap while sprinting around the property playing an intense round of capture the flag. After the game, with my shirt soaked through with sweat, I came to a startling realization: Wendy had officially become one of the lost boys.

My boys' aided completion of nitro

There is something fascinating about the adjustability of leadership. On Friday, my sister came by to hang out with my group and commented: “How can you put up with them? They’re so crazy!” to which I responded “I actually think they’re pretty cool.” Though leadership is sometimes composed of strict enforcement and rules, it is more often than not reliant on fostering subtle connections so that people can have a good time. In other words, I think the week was more successful for me and the campers because we were buddies just playing around. After all, isn’t that the goal?

So, a couple of things I’ve learned in the past week: 1) adolescent men love Taco Bell more than anything on the planet, 2) high school nap time should definitely become a reality and 3) apparently I look like Justin Beiber when I wear a backwards baseball cap. I’d just like to thank those dudes for a really fun week and all of you readers too! I’ll be back in the fall with some more posts, but for now I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer!

 

Everyone is Weird and So Are You

My midterm in Modern Standard Arabic was a little over a week ago, and since that time I’ve been to a wedding, gone to a bowling alley on the 4th of July, and just got back from camping in the Empty Quarter.  I have a little over two weeks left in Oman before a period of 24 hours where I will be flying almost nonstop.  In my last post  I talked about the difficulties of identifying yourself and how from Hopkins to the Strait of Hormuz the way you choose to identify yourself will never tell the whole story.  As move-in day for the Class of 2016 draws ever closer, I remember one of the biggest worries on my mind this time last year was that I was really weird compared to my new classmates.  I wondered if I was going to leave my high school environment and come to a place where I wouldn’t fit in because I came from a weird town and I looked fourteen and I really, really liked watching dubbed Disney movies.   But as I met more and more of my fellow classmates, I noticed something: everyone was both very interesting and very interested in their new classmates.  There was never a quiet moment at meals or in our rooms as we tried to learn everything we could about our roommates, suite-mates, hall-mates, classmates, and de facto Chipotle-deliverers.  Things I thought would be considered strange were barely questioned, while things that were normal to me raised some eyebrows (and I’m not talking about “Vegas normal” here where slot machines in grocery stores make sense.)  I said that my family didn’t decorate with wreathes on Christmas, and my roommate confessed that she really loved opera.  There was a mutual respect in the fledgling Class of 2015 and the established Hopkins community that let you realize two things: 1. you did some things that other people thought were weird 2. everyone else did really weird stuff as well but it was just so interesting.

In a way this experience has repeated in Oman.  Even before we board our plane from D.C., thirty Americans ranging in age from 18 to mid-thirties had to quickly get to know each other.  Even within the same country we’re all so different, so weird, and so wonderful.  ”Why are you calling a soda a pop?”  ”You lived in Morocco for how long?”

When we landed in Oman and met the university students who would be speaking to us every day to improve our Arabic, the questions continued.  ”You live in Maryland?  Is that the same as New York?”  ”What is supposed to be fun about an Easter egg hunt?”  The questions always made you think about things you’d never thought about before, like why on Earth people hide eggs on Easter and make small children hunt for them in some strange Hunger Games-esque competition to win the egg hunt and eternal glory/a chocolate bunny.  We also got to ask our own questions, like “What do you do for fun?” “What’s the deal with all this frankincense?”  We were asked to describe things (in Arabic naturally) about ourselves, our hometowns, our families.  In turn, any questions we had about Oman were answered.  Things I’ve learned since coming here:

 

Camels are the leading cause of traffic accidents

There are no napkins, only tissues in boxes.

In Arabic you don’t play the drums, you knock on them.

There are two types of dates: young dates (called rutub and I’ve never seem them before in the States) and older dates (caller temer and better than any I’ve seen before in the States).

It is common to signal “Wait a minute” by pinching your thumb and other fingers together and beckoning by moving your wrist toward yourself repeatedly.  This is not at all the same gesture I’ve ever seen used in America (where you put  up a finger or a hand.)

Western pop music is huge here., which lead to an Adele sing-along en route to the Empty Quarter this past weekend.

 

"Spicy tomato sauce" is salsa. Also the tortilla chips were Doritos.

 

Things by Omani friends have found strange:

Peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches.  They do not even sell grape jelly in supermarkets (they do sell rose jelly, though!)

The concept of tortilla chips and salsa.  There is a sauce they serve with rice that is exactly like a thin salsa, but tortilla chips are pretty scarce.

Tanning.  In general Omanis find pale skin attractive, so much so that most beauty products have whitening agents built into them.  Several of the girls at the university were shocked to hear that Americans will use-self tanners and lay out on the beach in order to get darker.

British accents.

Maple syrup on pancakes.  They have honey but it’s just not the same.

Swag.  Swag certainly exists in Oman and is exhibited, most notably by one of our professors, but any attempt to accurately define “swag” is complex so we have taken to just saying “swag” at every applicable circumstance in the hopes that the word will be as etherial in meaning and as overused as it is in English.

Me in an abaya and hijab after a traditional wedding we attended.

While my previous blog talked a lot about changing identity, I think it’s also important to realize that even if the way you identify yourself changes you’ll still run into situations where you think things might be strange.  Maybe it’s your first day at a new office, maybe you just moved, or maybe you mispronounced a word and ended up being driven to a post office instead of a beach.  It’s going to be awkward at first to try to interact with people when you think you might not have a lot in common, but I think everyone (not just the Class of 2016, although this advice will be helpful come Orientation) could benefit from both recognizing their own weirdness in the eyes of another person and being genuinely curious about the different habits of others.  In a diverse group like CLS Arabic or Johns Hopkins Class of 2016 it’s bound to be awkward at first, and there will inevitably come a time when you can’t wrap your head around something (like “swag” or being handed a box of Kleenex at a restaurant) but as long as you keep an open mind you’ll learn some interesting stuff and hopefully make a new friend or two in the process!

 

I was walking out of lunch when one of the students at the university approached me.  She’d been sitting at the table next to me and asking the American students about American colloquialisms because we’d been asking her about Omani dialect compared to Modern Standard Arabic.  As she drew level with me, she told me that one of the Americans had taught her Janoobi (Southern) American Dialect and that she thought it sounded awesome.  As a West Coaster descended from two New Yorkers, all I could do was tell her that it was very different from my accent/dialect (I didn’t want to get into an explanation of that beloved West Coast adjective known as hella) and I felt like I probably wouldn’t know enough about Southern accents to really understand what she was saying.

She smiled back, stuck out her hand, and said, “What a’ do?”

It was weird.  It was wonderful.

 

 

 

What Should We Call Me?

Since arriving for orientation in Washington, D.C. about a month ago the one phrase I have heard the most when describing what my summer would be like is “remember that you’re not in America anymore”.  It struck me as really self-obvious at first.  Well duh we weren’t going to be in America.  We were going to a place where everyone spoke Arabic (except not really) that was going to be quite conservative (except when this song was playing in the supermarket a block from our hotel)  and probably really hot (except when it wasn’t.)  In contrast, we were coming from America, where hardly anyone speaks Arabic, (except the roughly 1 million who do) women don’t wear hijab, (except for those who do) and Islam doesn’t have a huge presence (except for the 2.6 million Muslims in the United States).

I think the first problem with reminding our group that we weren’t in America anymore is that no one told us to be on the lookout for the similarities we’d see.  We hit the ground with some of us expecting something completely different and got air conditioning, KFC, and Wi-Fi along with the call to prayer, the smell of frankincense, and the Omani sweet called helwa (like a super super sweet jello-type thing but not really).  There are a lot of differences, certainly.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable rocking a v-neck and shorts but I’m also not required to cover my hair outside of holy sites or wear an abaya.   The eggs in the supermarket aren’t refrigerated, there are skin bleaching products instead of tanning ones, and my roommate is one of about three blondes in the entire town.  But I would argue that there have been more similarities than differences.  The day we learned a traditional Omani dance and one of my classmates found that it was identical to one her family does in Eritrea.  The time our professor confessed to having watched the Lord of the Rings movies a dozen times each and asked my roommate for a copy of the soundtracks.  The session where a classmate asked a speaking partner how to say, “Ouch” in Arabic and the speaking partner replied, “It’s very complicated.  You say ‘Ouch.’”

I think the second problem with the thought that Oman or any other country is defined as “not America” is that the definition of America depends completely on who you talk to.  I was asked what the American identity was in a class and knew that I couldn’t even begin to answer that in English, much less Arabic, only managing to get out that America is diverse because some people are of European descent, some from Africa, some from Asia, some live in the city, and some live in the country.  What I couldn’t say in Arabic was that for some classmates here Oman feels more comfortable than the United States, (one of my classmates is excited to go through a week of Ramadan and not be one of the few people she knows that is fasting) for some classmates going to different regions in America would be like traveling to another country, and for some classmates America was the single town they’d grown up in their whole life.

Then, if you make it past trying to wrap your head around another country as being a “not America” without having an existencial crisis, you end up getting asked The Question.  The Question is what you will be asked an awful lot if you don’t look like you know where you’re going, if you look out of place, or if you’re carrying a heavy bag (ie. any traveling situation or during Freshman Orientation.)  The Question seems very simple at first, and for some people maybe the answer is really easy, but as time goes on it’s getting harder and harder to answer succinctly.

The Question is “Where are you from?”

Exhibit A: Kindergarden.  I was frankly terrible at Kindergarden (is it possible for a child to not understand naps, Hooked on Phonics, or the proper way to hold a pencil and still turn out okay?  The answer is maybe not because that child was me.) Teacher asks The Question.  I say that I was born on Long Island.  It’s sufficiently exotic-sounding enough that I’m cool for like a day until everyone finds out that Long Island isn’t a tropical island but is basically New York but not the cool part.  No one says I look like anything but a mop of curly hair over Disney-themed clothing.

Exhibit B: High school.  I move from a public school to a Catholic one.  I get asked The Question and say that I’m from a public school.  My Spanish teacher asks The Question, I answer, and she says I look “Hispanic” (whatever that means).  My religion teacher asks only at the end of the year and adds that she thought I looked “Jewish” (whatever that means).  I start trying to figure out what on Earth I “look like” because everyone seems to think something different.  I go to Jordan and get mistaken for one of the Jordanian students traveling with the American group.  A kid at a debate tournament after a round about Iran sanctions swears that I must be part Persian.

Exhibit C: Freshman Move-In Day.  I meet all three criteria for being asked The Question and my RA is nice so of course it’s a nice icebreaker.  I chirp, “Las Vegas”, get the expected “What’s it like over there?”, and everything’s cool.  There is a weird period where I feel the need to add “But I was born in New York!” to this explanation but I quickly drop that.  Then there are certain people who ask me The Question after I’ve known them for a while and I add that I’m Puerto Rican and Italian so they don’t have to guess.

Exhibit D: Oman.  My choice to not wear abaya or headscarf automatically pegs me as an outsider, someone who isn’t from around here and for better or worse isn’t going to try to hide it, and The Question pops up often.  ”I was a student at Johns Hopkins,”  I reply, because I haven’t been in Las Vegas for more than five consecutive days since December.  I grew up there, but I don’t know if I’m from there anymore.  ”I’m studying at Columbia University next semester.”  School affiliations have trumped geographical location, and now country of origin speculations run wild.  ”I’m American” I insist.  ”But you look Persian/Syrian/Greek/Jordanian/Egyptian!  You do not look American!  Where are you from?”

“لا, لا أنا من أصل الايطالية و بورتوريكو و أعيش في أمريكا”

“No, no I’m of Italian and Puerto Rican descent and I live in America.”

I think that’s probably the most succinct, and thus most inaccurate, way to answer The Question. Because 1) it’s way too broad and makes me sound like I’m in West Side Story and 2) it tells you nothing about me, just like saying that Oman is not America tells you nothing about what it’s like.  It makes you stay on high alert for even minute differences instead of focusing on the similarities between people, and what you consider to be Italian-American or Puerto Rican-American or Las Vegan or Baltimorean culture is extremely subjective.  Lumping people into groups is a great way to draw borders around groups instead of letting people cross those borders on the basis of a common dance or dish or idiom.  Identities are fickle things, I know I’ve changed mine an awful lot for someone under the age of twenty, and I really hope that I’m not the only one that’s done this because it would make me feel like I wasn’t doing something important if it didn’t make me question a lot of preconceived notions I had.

I was speaking to one of my professors after giving a presentation about the origins and traditions of Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day.  I tried to explain to him in Arabic what a leprechaun was, and he said it was like a jinn.  I tried to not think of the genie from Aladdin (because apparently that’s not an accurate portrayal of a jinn)  and nodded.  I said goodbye in Arabic, and he said something I didn’t understand.

“Could you repeat that?”

“Legen….” he looked up at me expectantly.  My mind scrambled to remember what “legen” ment in Arabic and how I was supposed to answer.

“I don’t know that word,” I finally said.

“Of course you do.  Legen. . . ”  I just looked at him blankly.  ”Legen. . .wait for it. . . .”

“. . .dary?”  I finished weakly.

He beamed.  ”I love How I Met Your Mother!  Do you watch it?  Challenge accepted!”

I definitely think that when I get asked about the people of Oman, I’ll have a lot to say in Arabic, and I’ll know how to say that I don’t know what to call them because there’s no way to sum them up.  What should we call them?  I’ll wonder.  What should we call me?  I can’t call them one simple name, so I’ll just have to use stories.  A lot of them will be about Eritrean-esque traditional Omani dances, authentic Lebanese food served by Egyptians, and my professor watching Neil Patrick Harris suit up in the house near his date farm.


 

Adventures at the Valley

Me and some fellow counselors (after showering...)

Imagine this: you are on a lacrosse field overlooking a beautiful valley at dusk, armed with a pool noodle. Your group of campers is behind you eagerly (and rather unsuccessfully…) erecting a tent. Soon, you see a few silhouettes crest the hill on the opposite side of the field. Their faces are stained with mulberry juice as they approach you and  your campers– arms outstretched and moaning like zombies. Your fellow counselors are honing in on your campers quickly, and your heart rate increases as you chase after them and whack them with your noodle.

Such is a typical experience at the valley. My first week of counseling summer camp is over, and though my legs are bumpy with mosquito bites and I have reached a level of exhaustion unknown to me, I cannot wait for Monday to come again. For though we are “in charge” of these kids, it is quite the opposite that makes me come back each morning with a smile on my face. As evidenced by my enthusiasm running all over the property reenacting a zombie apocalypse, I am just as much of a kid as the campers I am watching over.

But there is more to this job than playing games and goofing off, which I have learned from how much I have grown as a leader over the past five days. Most of you know I am a ferocious planner and a perfectionist. However, this past Monday I began co-leading with a counselor who is the polar opposite of me: in the moment, willing to bend the rules, and completely free in spirit. As the days went on, his style of leadership wore off on me and culminated in one specific moment: the day when I pushed a kid off the big zip and dip.

The big Zip and Dip; the red circle is the sending platform!

I waited on a platform 40 feet in the air as one of my campers ascended the tree staples to join me. His anxiety was apparent as he sat down next to me and I explained some rules of zipping into the water. I unclipped him from the tree and told him he was free to scoot off whenever he was ready. No movement. I crouched next to him and tried to coax him into going for it. Still nothing. Minutes turned into more minutes, and the kids on the ground awaiting their turn began chanting his name. Soon my co-lead shouted up to the platform, “Just tell Zoe she has permission to give you some help!” I knew what it meant. Everyone knew what it meant. The camper’s wide eyes looked at me in fear. A few minutes later, with one hand on his tether and the other death-gripping the platform, the camper closed his eyes and said in the shakiest voice I have ever heard, “I give you permission, Zoe.” And that was that. I pushed the kid off the platform, and he had the best ride of his life.

Last week, chances are that I would have had that camper belayed back down the tree and he wouldn’t have conquered his fear. And neither would I! For though this child went rushing down a zip line from a tree two stories in the air, I also did something crazy: I adjusted my outlook on leadership and learned so much in the process.

I cannot wait for next week because of the fun games, the challenges, and the beautiful outdoors. As my fellow staff members and I constantly say, we have the best job in the world. But maybe the real lesson here is to not feel that I “cannot wait,” but rather to enjoy this cup of coffee in my breakfast room as I write this blog. Because maybe what the valley is really teaching me is about truly being present while calmly moving on to whatever life’s next adventures will be.

In the mean time while I learn this lesson, I am thrilled for my next foray into zombie survival or opportunity to help someone (or myself!) out of their comfort zone. I hope you are all enjoying whatever adventures this summer is throwing your way. Until next time!

 

Summer Kind of Wonderful

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. (Nelson Mandela)

Virginia Beach!

There’s something about spending the summer in a place called Mechanicsville that makes everything seem both hopelessly boring and oddly soothing. It’s a small town (actually, according to Wikipedia we’re technically a township – whatever that means) where front porches and colonial-style shutters reign supreme in each subdivision, where the humidity comes at you in blasts from cracks in the sidewalk after a thunderstorm, where deer and TEA Party signs sprinkle the roadside, and where you have to make your own kind of fun because everything closes by 9 p.m.

Having moved several times throughout elementary and middle school, I don’t really feel a deep sense of connection or belonging to any particular place. I miss people more so than places; geography is just kind of a technicality. So for me, summer means being rooted to a place that I haven’t ever really considered home.

On one hand, I don’t mind it at all. It’s a nice break from the intense schoolwork, and having plenty of downtime means taking day trips to Virginia Beach with old friends, spending a lazy weekend on the Potomac at my friend Taylor’s river house, re-visiting local eateries in Richmond, tackling my summer reading list (I just finished Bossypants by Tina Fey and The Hunger Games Trilogy, and want to read Toni Morrison’s new book, Home!), and working part-time to save up some money.

On the other hand, I can already feel myself getting restless. This is the kind of place where the Southern charm and ridiculously low crime rate can lull you into a sense of complacency – which I suspect is part of the reason why most people don’t go out-of-state for college and why, around this time last year, I was itching to get out. A good number of people here have never even heard of Johns Hopkins – and I’m not trying to condemn or ridicule them, because that’s just the way it is.

What? It was Cinco de Mayo

Now that I’ve been back for almost a month, I’ve been able to suspend the general feeling of disbelief that accompanied the end of freshman year. Going from a quiet, conservative town to the eclectic city of Baltimore and back has made me realize how lucky I am just to be able to do so. My freshman year at Hopkins has taught me so many things – how to get a 4.0 (yes, it really is possible), join a sorority, find internships, make cookies in the microwave (again – you can do anything if you set your mind to it), and live with four random people (five, including my suitemate’s boyfriend – Hi John Doyle!) who you not only get along with but will genuinely miss.

When I look back at freshman year, I remember late-night talks with my lovable and brilliant roommate Jane, who always left the light on for me after a night out, spending a ridiculous amount of time in Sonu’s room and stealing coffee from Julia’s Keurig (hehe sorry!), propping open my window to talk (see: shout) to Joy across the open alcove in Wolman (I could see her room from my window, and vice versa), and running around Homewood with JHU_Tess and my bigbig Annie in sombreros.

Jetskiing!

I know these are very specific moments that apply to an even more specific circle of people at Hopkins. But these are also the moments that point to something even bigger and broader about Hopkins – like looking around during one of your lectures and realizing that every single one of your classmates is going to do something amazing someday. Hopkins fosters a community of people that makes you want to aspire to bigger and better things, simply by being your friend, professor, roommate, or teammate. There’s a healthy social pressure that compels us to live up to others’ expectations of who we are and who we could be.

In high school, I had a teacher who tried to impart some wisdom. He told me never to think that I was irreplaceable, because I wasn’t. He said that nobody is really irreplaceable. To a certain extent, I guess it’s kind of true – maybe in the corporate world, or maybe in Mechanicsville. Then I think back to my personal experiences, and it’s also blatantly false. Not about me, per se, but about everyone I’ve met in the past year. In my mind at least all of those people – all of those moments – are irreplaceable.

Hopkins hasn’t given me any more of a sense of belonging than Mechanicsville has – I stick out in both places for different reasons. I still miss my high school friends while I’m in Baltimore just as much as I miss my Hopkins friends when I’m home for the summer. But if I had to sum up my freshman year in one sentence (or blog post…oopz), I’d say that it’s taught me to embrace that feeling, because it means that I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone, carving a space for myself in this network of irreplaceable people.

Memorial Day Weekend on the Potomac River

Happy (Belated) Fathers Day!

 

 

The View from Salalah

Picture of the beach at night.

 

It’s the end of my first full week in Salalah and just two days ago I found out that I have a four day weekend!  In addition to the normal weekend in Oman (Thursday and Friday, dubbed “Emotional Saturday” and “Emotional Sunday” by my classmates) this weekend is extra long because Oman, like many other Muslim countries, celebrates al-Isra’aa wa al-Mi’raj, the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to Heaven.  So for this week I have both the Omani weekend (Thursday and Friday) and normal Western weekend (Saturday and Sunday) off!  It’s a nice way to end a jam-packed week in Salalah.

A beach in Salalah (no swimming allowed, though!)

Much of my previous entry on my summer in the Gulf was a reflection on how I ended up sitting on a tarmac in Saudi Arabia, but since that time there’s been little time to dwell on the past as we’ve gone straight into our classes.  The CLS Salalah group is made up of 30 students from all over the United States and at different educational levels (this specific Arabic site is for intermediate and advanced beginning students, but we still have everything from freshman to Ph.D candidates in our classes.)  One thing I’m very happy about is that both the CLS program and Hopkins really do their best to create a very diverse class to expose students to a lot of different opinions, strengths, people, etc.  If I wanted to surround myself with people just like me I’d live in a room full of mirrors, but it’s really nice to learn so many interesting things just from sitting down and talking to your classmates.  I learned how to wash my own laundry from a Peace Corps member here on this trip, similar to the way I learned to do laundry at Hopkins by going to the basement of AMR I with a group of my friends, acting very nonchalant because we were now adults who did their laundry, and finally getting help from a friend who’d done laundry before and took pity on us .

Salalah is the second largest city in Oman after the capital, Muscat, and is known for being a very popular tourist destination in the Gulf.  Why?  Because it’s just so darn hot in a desert and no one seems to do desert quite like the Gulf.  Salalah is on the coast and very close to the equator, but from mid-June until late in the summer a very nice cooling mist cloaks the entire region.  This mist is made possible by something known locally as Al-Khareef, which is sort of a rain-bearing fog (two words I still have to wrap my head around when I’m outside Vegas) that is so beloved by desert-dwellers that there’s an entire festival celebrating the moisture.  While the town’s population swells to include citizens of other Gulf states during the festival, Salalah is quite diverse in general as a former trading city on the ancient frankincense trading route with links to India, the Middle East, the Gulf, and Africa.  Walk a block from the hotel our group is staying at and you’ll pass by Turkish food, Indian clinics, Urdu-speaking shopkeepers, and a place selling chicken fingers and pizzas called “Chick Hut” next to a supermarket where music from the Black Eyed Peas blasts late at night.

The pillars of the ruins of a mosque.

I’m in class from nine until four daily, with classes split into Modern Standard Arabic, (the written and formal form of Arabic) Media Arabic, (where we learn words to talk about politics and current events)  and Omani Dialect Arabic.  There are an awful lot of Arabic dialects, and speakers of Arabic will often easily switch from the more standard and formalized Modern Standard when writing a letter or giving a speech to talking in a dialect when speaking with their friends, so many institutions are now requiring that students studying Arabic study both MSA and a dialect of their choice (major ones include Egyptian and Levantine, which are taught in the textbook used for Arabic at Hopkins.)  In addition to a traditional small class setting (there are about 13 people in my class, which is a little more than were in both my Persian and Arabic classes at Hopkins) I’m also assigned a language partner to speak with during lunch, in special conversation time periods, and on cultural excursions in and around Salalah (we went to a market, or souq, the other day to learn about traditional clothes and perfumes.)

A set of stairs in the ruins. This used to be a citadel.

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot of work, but before we left from D.C. there was an alumni panel of past Oman travelers who stressed the importance of getting out and seeing the city while we were there, (do I sense an Omani version of Learn More, See More, B’More on the way?) so my group of friends has made a promise to go sightseeing every weekend while we’re here.  This past week the group went to a beach resort (no swimming allowed due to super rough waves during this time of the year) and the ruins of a city near Salalah that was once a massive port for the frankincense trade and was visited by Ibn Battuta.  We’ve spent a lot of time in various restaurants and souqs as well, and a few of my friends have picked up some nice souvenirs for back home like frankincense, daggers, abayas, perfumes, etc.  There’s an excursion planned for this weekend as well, so hopefully my trusty iPhone camera carries me through this trip!

 

People are wonderful.

HOLTing it up!

Hello again! I will start out this out by apologizing for my wrap-up blog from a month ago (I wasn’t aware at the time that we would be writing throughout the summer!). But at the same time, no apology is necessary because I get to chronicle my summer for you wonderful readers! In fact, that brings me to my next point and my main appreciation from the past month: people are wonderful.

I know you won’t believe me if a) you just got off of the highway at rush hour, b) you couldn’t get a refund for a product you were convinced would work or c) your child got a meager role in the school play. However, I will remind you of something that I am sure you already know: on the whole, people are generally quite amazing.

You may be wondering, “what brings you to this conclusion, Zoe?” and I will happily answer this question by detailing the following four experiences that have occurred in the past month. I hope your admiration for other people will be rejuvenated as you travel with me through my first month of summer.

Constructing the fountain (with trash bag pants)

1) HOLT: Picture this: You are about to begin a 10 day backpacking trip through West Virginia. You will be reliant on and isolated with 10 other people. They told you to bring 3 pairs of underwear. You will not have access to a shower. Egads! The fear! However, HOLT (Hopkins Outdoor Leadership Training) was a wild and wonderful ride. There is nothing like being in the middle of nowhere with others and reaching the point of woods crazy. Never been there? Woods crazy is like fifteen Diet Cokes (each!) and a surreal lack of inhibition. When people start crying with laughter while discussing the burial of pre-packaged chicken, you know you have connected with some funky and awesome people.

2) The Fountain: A few days after returning from HOLT, I went to the Jersey shore to visit some friends and observed a feat of epic strength: the assembling of a great fountain in my friend’s front yard. Not only was the determination and teamwork something to marvel at, but my friends’ ingenuity of using trash bags to avoid the fountain muck was something else entirely. The scene made a hilarious memory and photo simultaneously.

3) The Valley: My newest adventure brings me to Genesee Valley– a ropes course and outdoor learning center just two miles from my house. During training, I have encountered a wonderfully strange assortment of characters who are all committed to learning as much as possible while having fun (easier said than done!). In four days, our group of nine trainees and two leaders have climbed a twenty foot cargo net, robbed a bank, escaped from a chicken nugget farm and Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory (in the same morning!), and zip-lined a hundred feet in the air (to mention a few…). How can you not see the good in people after all of that?! (Though I suppose robbing a bank could detract from your opinion of someone…)

Chilling in the valley

4) Returning to Roland Park: Finally, this morning I was invited back to my high school to participate in a college search panel. When I returned, my friends at the valley asked me how it was and I had trouble conveying the amazingness of the moment. I ran cross country and track with some of these girls; I sang complex choral arrangements with some of these girls; I studied with some of these girls. Hopefully, some of them looked up to me, and there is nothing like returning to the place that truly made you who you are. I will give a shout out to them now (since they did say they stalk my blog!) and let them know that they have changed me and instructed me as much as I have (hopefully!) inspired them.

So that’s it for now! This summer is shaping up beautifully, and I can honestly say I have never felt more free and confident in my life. What’s the secret? I guess a few more months of reflection and experience will help me find out.

Some of my XC buddies (and coach on the right!) after the panel

Summer in the Gulf

After moving myself out of my dorm (which is a nice way to say “give away half your possessions because no human being was supposed to move out using airplane baggage limits”) and spending a few days back home, I’m now typing this blog from my beddroom in Salalah, Oman!  I hadn’t even heard of the country before I was chosen for intensive language study there with the US Department of State, but after a few days of orientation in Washington, D.C. and Muscat, Oman I’ve learned a few things:

http://images.nationmaster.com/images/motw/middle_east_and_asia/oman_rel96.jpg

1. Oman is one of the most stable and well-developed countries in the Middle East

2. Oman is located in the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula and is bordered by the United Arab Emerites, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

3. Oman is a Sultanate under the leadership of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who has ruled as the country has rapidly modernized beginning in the 1970′s.  Unlike many Middle Eastern countries, Oman has never been colonized (certain powers held onto costal forts, but the country as a whole has never been colonized.)

This is never a good idea.

4. I’ve finally learned how to sleep on planes!

 

In-flight entertainment includes roommate Stephanie and future Columbia classmate Shamm reading an Arabic newspaper.

I’ve been on seven flights and flown over 24 hours in the last two weeks, so needless to say I am a little tired, out of shape, and cranky. I actually hate flying but it’s the price you pay when you live on the West Coast, go to college on the East Coast, and happen to be an international relations major.  Until they invent teleportation, I have to make due with packing a dozen DVDs to distract me during flights.  Thankfully the international flights we took to get to Oman, one from D.C. to Germany and the next from Germany to the capital of Oman, Muscat, with a stopover in Saudi Arabia, had excellent in-flight entertainment.  I was able to catch up on some movies that I’d always wanted to see, made the Benadryl-influenced decision to watch Alvin and the Chipmunks Three: Chipwrecked, and wondered how a kid from Las Vegas had ended up sitting on a tarmac in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia waiting for the plane taking her to Oman to receive clearance for takeoff.

Saudi Arabia from the plane.

I guess like a lot of things it all starts with high school debate.  My debate coach near the end of my junior year told me about a program called Four Star Debate, a debate and leadership program with General Tommy Franks that paired American debaters from across the country and had them discuss and debate an important issue. That year, King Abdullah II of Jordan decided to repay Tommy Franks for allowing several Jordanian students to come to Four Star Debate in America by inviting 24 American students for a debate tournament in Jordan.  I applied for the program and got in.  That’s the end of a story in which I met a king and listened to the Indiana Jones theme song while riding a Jeep in Wadi Rum and the beginning of all the other crazy stories about adventures in Arabic, Persian, international relations…everything.   I’ve never been a huge believer in one day waking up and knowing exactly what you want to do, mostly because whenever I wake up I always know that exactly what I want to do is to sleep more and eat and career prospects for both are quite limited unless you nab a job as a professional food taster or bed tester.  However, that trip was the beginning of the general direction of my studies.  That trip, weirdly, enough was also the first time I’d ever been outside the country.  Oman will be only my second time outside the country.

 

So, as I’ve touched upon in previous blogs, I took Arabic and Persian this year and decided on the third day of school to head down to the study abroad office and ask about applying for the Critical Language Scholarship, a program sponsored by the US Department of State and designed to increase the number of Americans who know a critical language such as Arabic, Persian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Urdu, etc.  I’m not trying to humble-brag when I say I was sure I wasn’t going to get in to the program, but considering that I didn’t even have a college transcript at that time and was up against grad students I was certain that this was not going to happen.  Then it did.  It didn’t really hit me until I was on the plane heading to orientation in Washington, D.C. that in the span of less than three weeks I’d have wrapped up a year at college with a 4.0, transferred, and flown over 8,000 miles.  It would be disingenuous of me to say that it was all luck, (there were a lot of stressful nights) and I would also be lying if I said that I didn’t have perhaps a bit of sheer dumb luck this whole year.

Reflections aside, now I’m in Oman.  It was extremely hot in the capital, Muscat, with weather very similar to that of Las Vegas, but since we’ve arrived in the smaller southern city of Salalah the weather has been very humid and significantly cooler.  Since arriving the 30 other students studying Arabic with me have spent a lot of time exploring the cities and going on tours, and I guess the best way to try to showcase this country is to stop typing and just let the pictures speak for themselves.  Here’s to a summer in the Gulf!

The view from my hotel room in Muscat.

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat

The mosque from the outside.

 

*The views expressed in this blog are my own and are not endorsed by the US Department of State, CAORC, etc.