The weirdest thing about coming to Monterrey is how easy it was. A 1.5 hour flight to Dallas, an hour layover, and another 1.5 hour flight, and I was there! It's in the same time zone as both Conway and St. Louis. I almost wish I had had more flying time, to get better adjusted to the idea that I was really, truly leaving again. But before I knew it, I was on the ground, passing through security.
As I stepped out from customs with my baggage, I looked around confusedly at the mass of people holding signs. “Estudiantes de Intercambio” one said, and I paused. “Are you an exchange student?” the sign-holder asked me in Spanish. “Yes, but I was expecting to take a taxi to the university …” I told her. “Oh, no no. There is a bus that will take you. Go stand with the group over there. They are all exchange students.”
And so I went and stood over there. I met a very nice Columbian girl named Catalina, who had just been to Hawaii and who was studying engineering. A rather odd guy from Wisconsin asked to bum a cigarette and then gave me his e-mail address and a wink. By the time the bus pulled up in front of the university, several potential friendships were budding. But it was not to last.
I looked out the window at the residence halls. A big sign announced “Beinvenidos al Tec de Monterrey!” Welcome to Monterrey Tech. My heart sank. I was in a foreign country, in a huge city, at the wrong university. Shit.
I enlisted the help of one of the Tech students, who called me a cab and called my “I-Buddy” – the person the University of Monterrey assigned to help me – to let her know that I was alive and well and to get directions to her house. I would have called her myself, except I was crying. One of the tragedies of my temperament is that I cry at the drop of a hat. Even when I know everything will be OK, if I am in a mess, I cry. Often for hours.
Once I arrived at my buddy Ana’s house, I got some water and some food and stopped crying. “Do you have siblings?” she asked. I cried. We watched a movie, Dances With Wolves, and I cried because my family used to watch it all the time when I was little. Later, I took a nap and cried. Honestly!
The funny thing is, compared to last summer I was actually quite relaxed this time. I didn’t cry when I left my family, I didn’t cry in the airport, and I didn’t cry on the planes. And since I arrived in Monterrey on Monday, I haven’t cried at all. That’s already a big head start over last year, when I cried almost every day for two months. (It speaks well of Hendrix’s Orientation program to note that I did not shed a single tear when I came to Hendrix.)
So, anyway, I stayed with Ana and her family for two days, until the dorms opened up. And now I am here, in an enormous and beautiful room on the first floor of Residencia Uno. I adore Couch Hall, where I have spent my three semesters on campus, but I didn’t even imagine that dorms could be as gorgeous or as clean as this one is.
Here's a picture of the dorms from the outside. The whole campus has really cool architecture. Also note the HUGE, amazing mountains in the background.
One of my favorite travel quotes is, “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” I guess the Mexicans and I must have similar tastes. Aside from the beautiful campus, I am in Mexican food heaven – quesadillas and salsas and avocados and taquitos and … everything! It’s a far cry from my time in Europe, when I would have killed for a good burrito.
Even the Spanish speaking isn’t making me too uncomfortable. I am steadily surpassing the level of awkward mumbling. I’m sure I frequently misconjugate verbs and use the wrong indirect object pronoun, but I get my point across. And increasingly, I understand other people, too. (An important detail, since four of my five classes will be taught in Spanish.)
As it stands today, I wish I could stay here for a full year. I know I can’t, because I need to finish up my American Studies major back at Hendrix, but it will be interesting to see if this infatuation with UDEM keeps growing.
Last summer, from Portugal to Poland, I really took for granted the ease of traveling Europe. No shots. No malaria pills. No threat of Japanese Encephalitis. Mexico and India are not that easy.
I spent yesterday afternoon at a travel health clinic, getting vaccines for polio and typhoid. And getting advice about everything from hard-core sunscreen to UV-powered water purification systems. And just maybe getting a little overwhelmed.
The plan: I leave for Mexico bright and early on Monday morning. I'll be there for four and a half months, then I'll come home to St. Louis for a week, and then I head off to India for two weeks. That's about five months without drinking tap water -- and in countries famous for their spicy foods! How do people do it? Tips welcome.
I met a group of Hendrix freshmen Sunday at a Hendrix Send-Off party. Aren't they cute?
Like them, and like so many incoming freshmen around the country, I will be enrolling in a new school this fall. We'll be meeting new people, living in new rooms and adjusting to new cafeteria food. The difference between the Hendrix freshmen and me is that they will get to see OK Go perform at Hendrix this fall and I won't!
OK Go will be the star act at this year's Welcome Week concert. It's hard to describe my jealousy. You might understand if you watch their music video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pv5zWaTEVkI. I mean, look at them go! I've never looked that good on a treadmill in my life!
I have found out, however, that the International Club at the University of Monterrey will be hosting lots of events throughout the semester, including several parties and trips. The most interesting: a "stoplight party," where you wear red if you're in a relationship, green if you're single, and yellow if you just want to hook up. If only real life were that easy! So I've been looking for the cutest green shirt I can find.
In other news: I made it back safely from Hendrix to St. Louis, and my little sub-compact Mitsubishi Mirage was absolutely packed to the gills with my stuff. None of the windows were obscured, thank goodness, but my huge laundry hamper and several boxes were riding shotgun. I've mostly unpacked, now, and I'm about halfway re-packed for Mexico.
Something I apparently won't need to bring is condoms. I somehow just realized that the school I'll be attending is a Catholic university. That means that "intimidad sexual" is strictly prohibited in the dormitories, with the threat of expulsion from the university! Which makes me wonder where all the girls in yellow shirts are planning to get down. On that and so many other important issues, I'll keep you updated.
I have finally made use of the huge jug of bubbles I received in return for my years of service on the Hendrix Experience Ambassadors Team. That's bad, because the summer is almost over and I must still have a gallon of bubbles left. But at least I got a start.
I'm currently trying to pack up or pass on the huge load of stuff I have accumulated at my apartment. I went a little crazy at the Free Box at the end of the year, picking up a free printer, phone, nightstand, mixer, and more. Now I have to fit all that, plus my TV, bookshelves, wardrobe, bedding, etc., into my sub-compact car. So the bubbles, at least, will be bequeathed to my roommates.
Said roommates and I just spent the past hour outside, at the table behind our apartment, smoking hookah and/or blowing bubbles. Sometimes -- best of all -- blowing smoke into the bubbles! When they finally popped on the grass, beautiful little puffs of smoke were emitted. Awesome.
Today I wrote a story about my fellow blogger Rachel DeCuir. I mention her blog in the article. She mentioned the article -- and me -- in her last post. I commented on that post, twice, with links to this site. That, my friends, is synergy!
I'm pretty sure this article, called "Je Me Souviens: Senior makes memories of a lifetime in Quebec," is the best one I've written this summer. I try to model my work after the best features in the New York Times, especially the NYT magazine, which have a really confident tone to them. Rick Bragg and Michael Pollan -- ooh, and Natalie Angier -- are my personal idols. (When I found out my brother's wife was pregnant with a girl, I suggested they name her "Natalie" in Angier's honor. This from the girl who wants to name her own hypothetical future daugter after the capital of Slovenia. I digress.) Using adjectives, adverbs and metaphors as freely and as astutely as those writers do requires an assurance that I am fully understanding and accurately portraying the story. Depending on the nature of the story, that's a lot of pressure.
DeCuir was a good subject to practice on, because her character is so very likeable. It's a lot easier on one's conscience to characterize someone as a bubbly Francophile than it is to insinuate that he or she is pompous, greedy or mean-spirited. I'd have a hard time as a politics reporter, I guess.
I am always proud of my stories after I finish them, but I think they have improved significantly since the beginning of the summer -- especially my leads. (Headlines, maybe not so much.) I haven't put the article up on the Hendrix site yet, since I just posted another one (Rwandan student makes quantum leap at Hendrix) earlier today. So here, just for you, is a taste of the new article:
Senior Rachel DeCuir has to grasp for English words, now.
"My metaphors have gone down the drain; I'm so sorry," she said a few days after her return from the French-speaking province of Quebec, Canada. "Oh dear, oh dear. And all my big words … oh, not big words – curse words? Swear words. They're coming out in French."
DeCuir's linguistic confusion is perfectly normal for someone who has just spent ten days in Quebec … after spending nine months in France. DeCuir, a French major, spent her junior year at the Université de Lille in northern France and returned to the U.S. in late June. After a week-long breather in her hometown of Lafayette, La., she returned to the French-speaking world for an Odyssey project.
Officially, it should be noted, Louisiana itself is part of the French-speaking world. The state's French roots go deep, given its long tenure as a colony of France. That shared history is what brought DeCuir to Quebec.
Her project, titled "Je me Souveins" ("I Remember"), is named after the provincial motto of Quebec. The province has been much more successful in "remembering" and maintaining its French heritage than Louisiana has, and DeCuir planned to interview as many French-speakers as she could while she was there. Her timing – early July, during the peak of Quebec City's enormous and world-famous 400th anniversary celebrations – would allow her to meet Francophone folks from around the globe.
"I really wanted to get a feel, via interviews and just being there, for the role that a language plays in someone's identity – specifically a Francophone identity," she said. "That was the original plan."
DeCuir deviated from her original proposal when she received the chance of a lifetime:
Oh! The suspense! You'll just have to keep an eye on the Hendrix homepage to read the rest.
Right now in Monterrey, Mexico, it feels like 102 degrees. The UV index is 10+ -- "Extreme". Compare that to Conway, Arkansas, where it feels like 85 and the UV index is a "Moderate" 4.
After a visit to Weather.com, I have just added "sunscreen" to my mental packing list. I have two weeks to figure out what else needs to be on that list. I know my poor, pale skin will not be prepared for Mexico. I just hope the rest of me will.
I have spent the weekend reading The Rough Guide to Mexico and Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish. I've also been desperately attempting to finish Guns, Germs, and Steel, a non-fiction book that has been on my to-read list since -- literally -- sophomore year of high school. Added to that list are the three books my older brother just sent: El Viejo y el mar by Hemingway, Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia by Rigoberta Menchú, and A Journey of One's Own: Uncommon Advice for the Independent Woman Traveler by Thalia Zepatos.
I'm also trying to prepare for a trip to India this winter, so I'm about to order another handful of books from Barnes and Noble. That list -- like the other dozens of lists I've written in the past week -- is located in the little black notebook I bought for that purpose.
A little story: while I stood in the stationery aisle at Wal-Mart a week or two ago, trying to decide which size notebook I should select, a mid-30s Mexican man stopped and asked me where he could find the magazine aisle. After I pointed and explained, he paused. "You have beautiful eyes," he said. "Where are you from?" And thus began a 30-minute conversation, half in Spanish, about everything from bicycles to divorces -- all in the middle of the stationery aisle.
All my other stories from the past few weeks run along that theme: nice little happenings set within the calm and friendly environment of this summer. Yesterday, I made a fantastic spinach salad with mandarin oranges, almonds, dried cranberries, gorgonzola cheese, and a homemade vinaigrette, which I brought to a reunion dinner with several of my London companions. Today I "ran" five miles on the elliptical -- the farthest I've ever run in my life, by far -- and I had a nice converation with the weight room supervisor. I watched seven movies in the past week, in an attempt to become literate in American pop culture. It's little things like these that have made my summer really charming, but boring to tell other people about.
It's been even more mundane to move through the to-do lists I've made. "Make doctor's appointment; check if vaccinations are up-to-date; read up on safety in Mexico; FINISH THE BOOKS!"
One odd item was #9 on the list: "eat some meat." I have it on good authority that it would be dumb, if not impossible, to live in Mexico for five months as a vegetarian. Unfortunately, I've barely eaten meat in the past three years. A recent foray with ground beef left me feeling quite ill. So I've been taking it slowly, starting with a little chicken here and there. Trying beef again will be on the to-do list soon.
Other upcoming list items:
- post pictures of my Spring Break trip,
- write another two or three stories for the website,
- pack up all my stuff and clean my apartment,
- say goodbye to Hendrix and go home to St. Louis, and
- try not to cry as much this time as I did last year.
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is something I've never been terribly good at. I was a pitiable workaholic in high school, which is how I got such a good scholarship to come here. Since coming to Hendrix I've learned how to relax and let loose a little bit, making time to go to cool poetry readings or just hang out in the Burrow. To compensate, I also learned how to get by on four hours of sleep per night, supplemented by the occasional post-lunch nap.
There were weeks, at least three last semester, when I walked around like a hollow-eyed zombie, my fingernails chewed to nubs and my neck muscles intertwined into a permanent knot. Those weeks are not these weeks!
Picking a fun, resume-building, $6.25-an-hour-paying summer job was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I genuinely enjoy going to work, which is important because I spend one-third of my day there. I spend another full third of my day sleeping, which is deliciously awesome.
During that other third, when I am awake and totally free to do as I wish, I try to conserve my hard-earned dollars. Rather than dine out all the time, one of my roommates is teaching me how to cook. Rather than spending my free time shopping or driving aimlessly, I am finally reading all the books I've always wanted to read. That means I'll finally finish Guns, Germs, and Steel and return it to the guy who let me borrow it three years ago.
My roomies and I were too cheap to buy cable for the summer -- even though we have two TVs -- so whenever I need my CNN fix I have to trek over to the WAC and burn my buns on the elliptical while I watch. Gas is ungodly expensive, so I walk to and from work. It's the win-winningest situation I've ever been in! My backside hasn't looked this good since I lived on the fifth floor of a British apartment building with no elevator!
Although it's unfolding quite differently than I expected, this summer could well be my most enjoyable one yet. ¡Viva Conway! ¡Viva summer!
As promised: the inspirational story of a young lady working on an urban farm in downtown St. Louis. It may or may not be 1,050 words long. It may or may not take you several minutes to peruse. But it is definitely worth your time. (The best thing about blogs, compared to real journalism, is that I don't have to be balanced, accurate or fair!)
Emily happens to have been my roommate for the past two years, so I'd like to send her my personal congratulations for a life well done. Also: happy almost-birthday! With no further ado: Peas and Prosperity: Junior helps homeless learn life skills through farming.
(Side note: I got most of my journalism skills from my three years of working for my high school newspaper, The Kirkwood Call. They would never let me write pun-tastic headlines like that. See, college is all about freedom. Love it.)