About Me

My photo
The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Friday, November 07, 2008

“Pinch, me please!”

November 2008

The Archer Program in Washington, DC: An Unbelievable Experience

That thought has been running through my mind on a periodic basis for about two months now. It ran through my mind when I drove up to the Archer House on Constitution Avenue, one block away from where I work—at the Supreme Court of the United States. It ran through my mind the first day I walked into the courtroom of “the Highest Court in the Land,” a place I would later enter at least once a day to give lectures about the Court to the public. It ran through my mind on October 6, when I got to sit in on the first oral argument of the 2008 Term, and when I got to see the Robing Room where all the Justices pass before court sessions. It ran through my mind when I brushed past Justice Kennedy in the hallway; when I met and spoke to Chief Justice Roberts for a few brief minutes; when I met my role model, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; when I gave a tour to Supreme Court Justices from Guanajuato, Mexico (and spoke a little Spanish with them!); when I got to meet Supreme Court Justices from Ireland; and when I spent some after-hours time giving a tour for Renee Fleming, one of the premier opera singers of our time.

It seems that in this city that phrase will not stop running through my mind—ever! Whether I am awed at my proximity to the fascinating dealings of the Supreme Court, or the President of the United States is holding an event a few blocks away, or legislation like the Bailout Bill is being debated just across the street, or it is Election Day for a hugely historic race for which I am present in the capital of our country, I keep wondering whether I really might be having a very long and involved dream after all.

As you can probably tell, I love my life in Washington, DC as an Archer Fellow. As an Archer, I get to live in one of two houses with other students from all over Texas, take classes with those Fellows, and pursue the internship of my choice for four months.

The internship of my choice is in the Office of the Curator in the Supreme Court of the United States. It is absolutely stunning to go to work everyday in a building where the
most paramount judicial work in the nation is taking place constantly. As part of my job, I get to give private tours to guests of the Justices or employees of the Court (including foreign dignitaries that come to be briefed on our judicial system by the Supreme Court Fellow). I also get to speak to groups of up to 200 members of the public about the history and structure of the Court in the very courtroom where it all takes place. Of course there are some phone and information desk responsibilities involved, but those are minimal and my boss tries very hard to decrease the amount of typical intern responsibilities I have. The perks of my job include roaming around the marble hallways and red-carpeted floors of the Supreme Court, occasionally interacting with Justices, and getting to sit in on oral arguments pretty frequently, among other things.

Two nights a week after work I go to classes where I get to meet leaders of Washington who explain the political process in a way I would never get to experience elsewhere. I am challenged on my views of politics and democracy by my instructors and my peers, who all thankfully have a wide range of viewpoints. Needless to say, political discussion never gets boring among the Archers! They are kind, fun, smart people who truly care about the welfare of America and give me a lot of hope for the future of our nation. By some fluke of nature, we all get along wonderfully! I am certain I will make some lifetime friends here.

When I’m not in class or at work, I get to roam about and explore DC and the surrounding area. I saw my first real autumn in the leaves of the Shenandoah Valley when other Archers and I rented a car and drove to small-town Virginia for a day. I got to campaign in Virginia for the presidential election. I took a trip to New York and saw Broadway, Times Square, and the sweeping view of a breathtaking city from the Empire State Building at night. Life is certainly good here!

Although DC itself is a whirlwind of activity, my favorite experience thus far was meeting Sandra Day O’Connor. As I said, she’s basically my idol. I met her while giving a tour to some friends of hers from Arizona. She made me feel right at home. Her manner was all courtesy and warmth as she put her hand on my shoulder and showed her friends and me some pictures and paintings from Arizona. I sensed the Southwestern, down-to-earth, no nonsense personality in her that I know so well from my childhood in El Paso, Texas. I even got to tell her about my origins, to which she said, "Oh, I was born and raised in El Paso! Did you know that?" And I said, "Actually, yes I did! I wrote an essay about you for a scholarship I received." (The McDermott Scholarship, by the way!)

It was a mind-boggling encounter. I was wandering in a dream for the rest of the day! But that’s just DC. The nation’s capital is exciting, thriving, almost psychotically driven, and exploding with culture. Overall, it is a wonderful place to spend a semester!

Sweeping Salt in the Summer

June & July 2008

June 17- Metaphor for the 'Sacred Divide'

The afternoon lecture concerned the hijab, which serves as a physical, visual, and spatial boundary, and is a metaphor for the ‘sacred divide.’ Discussion mainly moved to how it fits in with the modernizing, global world. Surprisingly, the hijab isn’t considered a “reveiling” but rather a new movement, started in the Iranian revolution (though now has lost most of its political connotations) and continued in an Arabian feminine liberation movement. Four main points that the hijab serves: conforming wearers to hide social status (though with today’s fashion this seems to be broken), protection for women (including less street harassment) b/c wearers are less questioned on where/why they go wherever, wearers are taken more seriously, and lastly, more religious freedom as they no longer need permission to go to a mosque. We also talked about how fashion has taken over some head coverings, which aren’t necessary Hijab’s, and we spoke of the reaction to France’s forbidding of the covering (the head religious officials have given would-be wearers who can’t wear it pardon).

After returning from the lecture ‘the guys’ (my brother and dad and I) went down to the hammam, the public bathhouse. Wow! This will definitely be one of the highlights of the entire trip. Before entering, we stopped by a souk and bought a Kif for me, which is a rough-ish washcloth that fits over your hand. This has been the second time that Hemsa has helped me get a 10 DH item for less, this time it was 7.5 DH, about $1 (I bought a green one, as it is the only color I know how to say) . We turned left down a small alley after the sausage salesman, and right down a smaller alley at the “FAR” graffiti (Force Army of Rabat, Morocco's first official national army, and the self-proclaimed name of the soccer team). Walking by the door I would never have guessed there was an entire bathhouse inside. Hemsa called in, and the last remnants of the females left. Apparently, women use the hammam from 10AM-6PM (it was around 7:20), and men use the same one from 6-10PM. Walking in, the hammam seemed just like a house, except with tiles completely on the floor and shoulder high. But the house kept opening up. We walked down a short passage to an open cashier booth. We stripped down to our undergarments in the gelsa, which was separated from direct view by a wall stretching halfway across. The cashier room had cubbies to put our bags in as we went inside. The lecture on the hammam was only last week, but already I was surprised at what I saw.

First of all, to enter I opened the large wooden door and was welcomed with a hug of warm air. Thanks to a heavy wood block on a rope leveraging it back, the door closed on its own as I entered. The hammam is separated into three rooms, each room with small cylindric vents opening to an attic about a foot higher, which I assume opened to the sky at some point. Each room itself was arched up so as to trap the hot air, and was cut off from the other rooms by walls on either side around a middle walkway. Arches also separated the rooms, and the entire nexus gradually sloped upward with a drain at the bottom. As I walked up to each successive room, the temperature got successively hotter, with the first just slightly humid, the second slightly higher than lukewarm, and the last sweatingly hot. Each room had pipes which provided cold water, and the last room had a fountain pool of hot water, warmed by coals unseen. We left our stuff in the middle room, and I helped Hemsa fill 6 buckets with warm water (after rinsing them) for the 3 of us. We then topped off each bucket with cold water to reach the perfect temp. Meanwhile Mohamed rinsed an edge of the last room for us to sit and lie. We did so, the two doing ‘guy talk’ and me asking questions. I can see how this would be one of the greatest traditions, especially when it comes to male bonding. We lay in the sauna for at least an hour, stretching, relaxing, and pouring water from the hot water to drench ourselves.

The hammam also offers a massager, kessala, who for 30 DH will rub you down. I’m told the male massages are rougher than the women, and I think he rubbed off my sunburn, but I survived, as well as stayed in the hottest room for just as long as the locals! After laying for the front and back rubdown (neck, arms, trunk, legs, and buttocks) I started tingling like the needles you feel when circulation returns to areas where it was shut off before. I guess that’s how hard the massage was. But it all felt great. Afterwards, we scrubbed down, shampooing, and my klutz self christening the whole process by getting soap in my eye at the very beginning. Partially blinded, I somehow managed, and washed down while the kessala visited everyone else. Hemsa and I practiced the “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” principle, and afterwards we cleaned off our kis’ and went back out to change.

We came back from the Hammam to catch the end of the Italy-France game, which every male adult seemed to be watching (no women though) along all the café’s we passed. Even the men in the Hammam were talking about it. I think everyone else in the SIT program is getting a little sick of watching soccer, but I love the European Cup like a local!

June 19- How it was meant to be played…

After returning from the beach, I grabbed Hemsa and returned. This time, we played soccer for almost 2 hours. Playing soccer at the beach consisted of the same variable rotations as before. We would start out passing and juggling amongst ourselves, and while doing a kid joined in. For a while then, Hemsa and the child practiced playing goalie, this time between two paper rolls (like those found at the core of wrapping paper) stuck in the sand for posts. With set boundaries it was easy to score, which gave me some credibility with the locals. After we returned to juggling, gaining one more, before our assembled team decided to challenge another. A field dragged in the sand had already been marked out, and we used mini-metal goals (which didn’t stop a goalie from sitting to block it when times got rough).

Playing on the beach there I realized this was how the game was meant to be played. The game ran smoothly, with everyone trying to keep the play going. Players came off and on the field to join as their schedules allowed, and everyone was cool about everything. Each called there own fouls, it’s make-it take-it, and when the ball was kicked off the court, others would kick it back on the field. These onlookers would even stop mid-conversation and walk to where the ball was, almost as if they were going out of their way just to be a part of the game. Also, there was one occasion where the other team basically cherry picked a goal, but instead of shooting it in, the forward stopped the ball short, turned around, and kicked it back to his side to restart a run. I’m still getting used to playing in sand, though Hemsa and I made some awesome assists to each other and consistently split their defense. I’ve noticed Hemsa is more of a peacekeeper, as when disputes arise he would always go over and settle them in the humblest manner (usually by giving the offended party the ball). After the game everyone slapped hands and said good game (in Darija), and we all went our separate ways. Note to self – Soccer is a universal language.

4th of July - !عيد استقلال سعيد

After class today we all head to TGI Friday’s! It was probably the greatest mid-program pit stop we could ever have, and as American we could get for Independence Day. Most of the group all has plans to travel this weekend, so we part ways, as I’m staying in Rabat this weekend. Mely and I catch a cab to Chelah a bird sanctuary built on Roman ruins that just two weeks ago hosted a jazz festival. During the ride, we make small talk in French with the nice driver and other lady passenger, and the latter invites us to her house for tea. She worked in a hospital with sick children, and spoke only of how she cared for them, so previous comments on hospital corruption and greed are certainly not the steadfast rule here. When she leaves we continue conversing with the cabdriver, who is Amazigh (what used to be classified as Berber) and shows off his many languages.

Chelah is beautiful. We start off by straying off the path, taking some countryside photos before returning to the bird side of the paradise. There are seriously birds singing everywhere, and somehow we make it through without any nasty bombings from our upstairs neighbors. The ruins contrast a snapshot of nature surviving man’s self-destruction with nature’s beauty draping the entire hillside. We explore the entire bird-town, and even find the cat-ghetto, where I’m pretty sure a family lives. The edge of Chelah overlooks a sort of vineyard, and our feathered singing companions serenade us throughout.

After a cab ride back and a quick nap, I go out with Hemsa for soccer at 7. At the beach, we play past the sunset for at least two hours. I’m solidifying more of the unstated rules, such as the sidelines extending from the hot part of the sand, to literally the ocean (even, as in our case, when it is a soccer field length away). You have to call your own fouls, and your team claps if you get really close on a shot or do any sort of slide or bicycle kick. Also, if you even tip the sandcastle goalposts it’s considered not a goal, which keeps the contestations to a minimum. I start off playing horrible, but soon pick up my game with an assist and goal. Once again, score, and gain your team’s immediate trust. We play for hours, even wearing out Hemsa, who sits for a while on the sidelines to rest. As players get tired, more cycle in, and when you need a water break, you need only to go to the ocean for a quick dip before returning. Also, there’s isn’t much of a focus on the score, and conversely no one really cares if a team has one person extra, as the focus is on everyone playing. Seriously, soccer here is more like a dance. I’ve noticed even if I’m open I won’t get a pass if I’m just standing there forever waiting, and goal scoring opportunities are often foregone if its too slow and easy. Instead the forward will pass back to the defense, and the team will try to set up another run. Shinguards aren’t needed as everyone is controlled enough to almost never hit, though this group plays more like soccer in highschool, meaning you have to play the man as much as the ball (which is more my style too).

We wear ourselves out and Hemsa and I dribble down the streets on our way home, just like Paul Ingram and I used to do returning from the field. We stop to play with the neighborhood gang (in the Little Rascal sense), and there’s no difference in treatment between me and any other local kid, as we mess around with soccer moves and fake-outs in the lamplight.

July 14- Brikcha

We were warned many things before coming to Brikcha. Heat, no running water, hikes to our host families, non nearby hospital, heat… I suppose those were there. But in general the village was pretty well off. There was a small walk to the center, but it was on a gravel road – not exactly the mountain climbing I was picturing. At their center, we waited to find our host families, and we would be split up (mostly) by twos. After an hour, I found out that I would be living with Kacey at the cooperative leader’s house. I don’t remember her name exactly, but it means ‘dream’ in Arabic, and I remember it was pretty. Apparently we were waiting because some families were being switched around last minute. Life in such a rural setting is very laid back, and our SIT program was often rushing behind the scenes to try to make all the hiccups work. We took a walk down mountain paths to the various houses with adobe facades roofed by metal sheets. Entering ours, we noticed walls of nailed up plastic sheeting mimicking tiles (which I later found out were hiding a chickenwire mesh holding the wall materials standing), and a typical style of couch wrapping around the walls of the main room, all facing a TV. I wasn’t even expecting electricity, let alone a TV, which was quite an interesting juxtaposition for a village with no running water. We dropped off our bags, and learned our house would have an infestation of teachers – it was nice having them to translate, but then again each conversation was a popquiz (every silver lining has a much larger dark cloud that wants to drench on your life). Nevertheless, I get the feeling our family is one of the better off ones in the village.

With lighter loads Kacey and I went back outside to greet the family. While doing so, we were greeted by an entourage of children with a soccer ball on its last leg. I think I prefer it that way, the half flat, worn to patches ball stripped everything commercial from our games. All that was left, was soccer. We had a grand time watching the kids show off their moves, while showing them some new ones and making sure everyone got their turns. For about an hour we just passed around with some quick bouts of juggling, and when Kacey and I teased them with keep away it turned into “get the guy with the ball” (or when it started rolling down the mountain, just “get the ball”). At dusk the father took Kacey and I to the café. We learned some new Arabic words along the way (star, moon, sheep), as we walked to the top of the mountain where the café was. Of course, while there I couldn’t miss an opportunity to try out the banana juice (for you who haven’t caught on yet, I have become a banana juice connoisseur), which was mainly just the fruit (fresh, but nothing has yet beat the malted shake of Rabat). Matt met us there with one from his family (the age spread is very encompassing amongst the members – he didn’t know whether this was his father, brother, uncle, or family-friend). We finish our drinks and play each other in billiards, unnumbered yellow and red balls slightly smaller than in America but still good. All around us were village males playing Parcheesi with metrical regularity. While waiting for Kacey and Matt to finish their game, I watched a group of older gentlemen play cards, in what seemed like Shanghai Rummy best I could tell. We left the café after about an hour and walked home drenched in moonlight.

July 15- Salt Dancing

Awakened to the singing of roosters (at 4:30), I laugh to myself the parallels to my experience waking up to prayer calls during my first day in Rabat. I return to interrupted sleep bouts until 8, but regardless wake up refreshed. After a breakfast of that fried bread with jam and instant coffee mix (just add milk), I head to the salt fields for the day. Before going to the fields, we make a stop at the well, filling up our donkey (Barbara, whose colt we nicknamed Eeyore) with bottles to the brim. Packed and ready, we trudge over a mountain cut road worn by footprints long-past. The road winds to overlook the beautiful surroundings, mountains crown the horizon, and distant villages peak out in spurts. Above we see Katrina and Steph picking Humus [chick peas] with their host sister. We wave as we continue to various fields seemingly haphazardly planted and shrubs framing our trail. The trek reminds me of scouting hikes, and every so often a guava plant will pop up here and a cactus will there – I’m a blink away from El Rancho Cima back in Texas. To top off the deja-vu, rural villagers traditionally wear wide brimmed straw hats (which we also totted today, gifts from the villagers), so the countryside is dispersed among wandering sombreros. Clefts of rocks and iffy footholds lead us down the mountain to the heart, a valley where tarped “fields” of puddles await us. We first see a gaggle of 20 or so of these pools maybe 10’x20’, with a brick structure overlooking the field. This, apparently, is the old/traditional field, we will be working elsewhere. We continue on to a slightly smaller set of black tarps divided by half-foot high dirt walls. The tarps house maybe 15 pools, each glittering with various amounts of white diamonds. These are the salt pools, and as the water evaporates off crystal sheets of salt flakes are left. We take off our shoes, roll up our jeans, and wash our feet before walking around these ladies’ “pastures.” Our learning style is ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’, though we do have some upper levels to translate certain specifics. As the women mainly spoke Darhija, we had a grand time at charades throughout the day.

Three of us grab brooms and start sweeping the salt in selected pools to their most downhill corners. Meanwhile, the rest of us “dance” on the salt, breaking up the crystals to more bite-size pieces. Once the salt piles have been accumulated and ground down, we all jump down to scoop up the salt with small buckets and small hands, dumping each full load into large sacks. These scoops still carry some water with them, which either evaporates off or drains out from the barley sack. We pretty much fill up an entire sack with one pool; we resweep and rescoop each one down to its tarp, before sweeping off the leftover water to the nearby pools. Then, we move to the next pool, doing about 6 in all. All the while, we crack jokes and sing and dance, Rachel stopped by and teaches a group to Salsa, and Mely and I teach another to line dance. After making the obvious pun possible concerning Julia’s falling skirt being a-salt-ed (somewhere Benedict Voit is smiling), I move on to give each of the SIT group salt nicknames:
Sam – Kosher Salt, Naomi – Saltine, Mat – Saltan, Mely – Crusty (self imposed), Geoffrey – Basalt, Katrina – Salt Spice (referencing her Moroccan nickname, Barbie), Steph – Salt Lake (first to fall into the salt pools), Rachel – Saltza (thank Mely for that name), Fadoua (our “baby sitter”) – Melikat Milhe (queen of the salt), Hanan – Oustaitha Milhe, Fraisa – See-salt (or Sea-salt, whichever you prefer), Kacey – Ninja Assault, Bradley – Salt Lick.

Around 1 we break for an hour, and are taken by the group to a large shady tree next to our stuff, and pegged donkeys. The villagers provide a wonderful meal for us: eggplant, meat, rice, etc. but the highlight were the fries, which we could hilariously eat with our salt-stained fingers for the perfect taste. We lounge about for another good 30 minutes or so, some students nap, while others joke and laugh about various knickknacks. But the village star is by far Rachel. During her stay here she has obtained an extremely impressive command of Darhija, and the village ladies and children absolutely adore every word in their conversations.

We return to the fields for another hour, but as work depends on evaporation rates, we are pretty much done for the day (I learn later that we pretty much finished all the work for both days). Back home, the family heats a bucket of water for us, so we could take a “shower,” before lounging about for another peaceful Arabian night.

Guten Tag!

Summer 2008

Ah, Berlin. I arrived to find it is my favorite city in Europe thus far (ok, ok, so I’ve said that about at least 3 cities before Berlin, but I really think Berlin might be it). The city is vibrantly alive and there is so much history here! I’m staying at a hostel in East Berlin, which a little over 18 years ago was a communist section of the city. Now East Berlin seems to have replaced West Berlin as the more active portion since it’s been in constant change and motion since the wall came down. Today, just10 minutes from my hostel, I stumbled

 upon a gem of this capitalist boom. Potsdamer Platz is a gem of glittering blue glass buildings which are huddled together around a neon-and-sunshine radiant circular plaza. The fountain in the center trickles musically along as people flock to and from the surrounding cafes and cinemas. Aside from its modern treasures though, Berlin is a fascinating place where monumental historical events happened fairly recently! (I say recently after my explorations of historical Paris or Rome…)

So far, I saw pieces of the old wall which separated East and West Berlin. It was actually very thin, with a piece of circular plastic piping on top. The plastic pipes were donated to East Berlin by West Berlin, who was duped into thinking East Berlin needed them desperately for a plumbing problem. Instead, they were mounted on the wall to keep people from gripping onto the top. Apparently the piping was the most effective method of keeping people from climbing the wall, because otherwise they just used the installed barbed wire and razors to hoist themselves up--regardless of the pain. West Berlin was quite the place to be! There were also checkpoints where people attempted to cross the iron curtain—legally or illegally. I visited the American checkpoint--called the Charlie Checkpoint (because it was the third checkpoint and thus called C, or Charlie in military garble). The checkpoint is still standing, although it has no function today. On a tour I heard stories about how people custom-built cars to go under the first gate that marked the Charlie Checkpoint until the eastern government made it more secure. It then became a series of 90 degree turns. At that point a western man sewed his gymnast, eastern girlfriend into the seat of his car and had his friend sit on her as they drove through the checkpoint (they replaced the seat stuffing with her). Another (unsuccessful) man wanted to bring his girlfriend over from East to West, so he looked around West Berlin until he found someone that looked just like her. He dated the lookalike, took her across for a picnic, stole all her documents, ditched her, and brought his real girlfriend across. Unfortunately, the castaway’s father was a high ranking politician, so the con man and his real girlfriend went to jail for 11 years.

All of the stories of the past were swirling about my mind as I stepped on each well-known but evolving piece of ground in the thriving German capital. I noted the stark harshness of the German Ministry of Finance (say taxes!) and later learned that it was once the headquarters of the Nazi Air Force. During the Soviet occupation the building even gained an idealistic mural reflecting communist life, with happy uniformed workers and women dancing and smiling together. Nowadays there is also a blown-up photograph of the reality of communism on the ground opposite that mural. In it workers have linked arms in protest and are all frowns and worry.

Later I stood on an unmarked spot of ground, covered in packed-down measly grass and dirt. It is the spot exactly above the underground bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Unintentionally, Hitler’s old bunker stands really close to a memorial built for the Jews killed during WWII. The Jewish memorial is an obsidian, abstract series of rectangular columns that is not supposed to have one specific meaning, but many. They are arranged in rows that visitors can walk through. It’s quiet inside the columns, which start at ankle level and vary throughout, sometimes reaching over six feet in height. The ground slopes randomly, which is disorienting. The monument is reminiscent of anything from the Jewish Cemetery in Prague (where graves are stacked so densely that they created an artificial hill in the centuries-old graveyard) to the skyline of a city. Hitler’s spot, on the other hand, is a parking lot.

Berlin is a history major’s paradise. Everywhere I roamed I stepped on the sites of a powerful past, filled with intense suffering, striving, and hope. Even more stunning was the beautiful juxtaposition of the present and modern with that past. Berlin is beautiful, sparkling, alive because it is rich in history and savvy in form.

My Life in Tunis

June & July 2008

My Daily Life
June 12, 2008
I thought I would give everyone a brief overview of my day-to-day life in Tunis.

I get up and have breakfast at the Carlton Hotel, where we are staying for the next 2 months. It is on Avenue Habib Bourgiba, the main avenue of Tunis, named after the first president.

I am currently in the afternoon session classes, so we have tutoring in the morning from 10:12:45. I have been taking my time getting to school, often doing some homework in the hotel before I leave. My roommate has morning classes, so she usually leaves by about 8, so I have time to be lazy and organize things by myself in the morning.

Walking to school is always an adventure. It is about a 15 minute walk that is usually quite pleasant. It is almost always very sunny, but not hot yet - in the upper 70's in the morning. Like most of the girls, I wear large sunglasses to detract unwanted attention. Getting to class involves crossing Avenue Habib Bourgiba, which is quite large. The classic arcade game Frogger is probably the best way to describe the experience. Crosswalks are seldom used. You pick somewhere along the street, crossing lane by lane, darting among cars. Once you make up your decision to go, you've got to keep going. People who suffer from indecision will probably never make it across the street! Yes, it is dangerous, but yes, that seems the only way to do it.

The school is down an alley that often has a pretty vile smell. However, once you get through the blue doors of the school, it opens into a pretty Italian villa. I sit outside in the morning under the fig trees finishing my homework and checking my email. The fig trees contain quite a few trees, and the morning is interspersed with splats from the figs falling. So far, none have landed on my head, although I have been attacked by fig juice falling from ripe figs still in the trees.

Lunch is from 12:45 to 1:45. I usually go to the market down the street for fresh bread, cheese, and fruit. If I spend over 2 dollars on lunch, it's a problem. Even spending 2 dollars, I often have lots to share. One of my friends accidentally bought four bags of blackberries the other day because she didn't realize how cheap they were.

Class is from 1:45 to 6:15 with a 30 minute break in the middle. During the break, we have a snack of fresh fruit (including figs from the fig trees outside), juice, and mint tea. Mint tea is a popular drink in Tunisia. It is made from green tea, mint, and lots and lots of sugar.

By the time I get out of class in the evening, I am exhausted. I usually go back to the hotel for a while. People eat dinner late in Tunisia, so if I have an actual dinner (chicken couscous seems to be my favorite), I don't usually go out until 7:30 or 8. Sometimes, I just have a gelato or quiche or something (everything in Tunisia comes with tuna and/or egg, which can get quite tiring).

Evenings involve homework and hanging out with friends. There is not a whole lot to do in Tunisia at night, especially for women. We usually just take it easy and relax after a day of sooo much Arabic class!

Travels to the South
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What I did this weekend:

1) I slept on the ground outside of a bus station in Tozeur - a town in southern Tunisia.
2) I crossed from one side of Tunisian to the other (north to south, then west to east).
3) I went off-roading in the Sahara Desert.
4) I saw Star Wars movie sets in the Sahara.
5) I rode a camel along the Tunisian-Algerian border.
6) I visited the troglodyte rock houses in Tatouine.

We left Tunis on the 9 pm bus to Tozeur, in southern Tunisia. It was a 7-hour bus ride. I was sitting in the back so my seat didn't decline. It also happened to be broken, so the seat kept falling off. I was also sitting near the window, or what used to be the window. It had broken at some point and been replaced with aluminum siding. The Tunisians in front of us were also playing music on their cell phones - different songs at the same time. Needless to say, it was an adventurous bus ride.

We arrived in Tozeur at about 4:15 am, just before the call to prayer. We spent the next couple of hours sleeping outside the bus station (see picture). Yes, we look like hobos.
We wandered around searching for a tour. We found one and the six of us headed out to the Sahara. We ended up off-roading in a 4x4. It was a lot of fun, once our guide fixed my seatbelt and I no longer feared for my life. We went zooming over sand dunes and around rock formations. It felt like a rollercoaster.

As we rounded a sand dune, we suddenly saw a bunch of huts in the middle of the desert. What is that, we wondered? Our guide informed us (or rather me, since I was the only one who spoke French) that it was the Star Wars movie set. We got out of the car and took the obligatory Jedi pictures. (hehe I'm whoosing).

Afterwards, we drove around a bit more, stopping to see a herd of wild camels and a well that the desert people used. Then, our guide took us past border security, explaining that the only reason we were allowed past was because we were with a guide. He took us to some guides who were going to give us a tour on camels. It was very very very hot and the sun was incredibly intense, but it was amazing to ride camels. Also, we're pretty sure that we crossed the Algerian border, which is technically illegal without a visa. However, since we were in the desert, the border is rather negotiable. We had some trouble crossing the border guard/Sahara police in the other direction, who didn't want to let us in without our actual passports (which were left for safekeeping at school in Tunis). It was the same officer who had let us through 2 hours before, so I'm pretty sure that he was just giving us a hard time because all he has to do all day is sit at this guard post in the Sahara and wait for people to come by. Still, it was a bit frightening.

Upon returning to Tozeur, we had lunch and grabbed a louage (a long distance taxi) to Gabes, on the other side of the country, where we were spending the night.

We left the hotel at 6 am Sunday morning to grab another louage to Tatouine. Yes, the planet on Star War was named after it. There is not much of touristy interest in Tatouine itself, however, the surrounding villages served as sites for the Star Wars films. Remember the troglodyte houses in the films and the Cantina? We visited Chenini and Douari. More historically, people lived in these villages until recently. A recent storm washed out one of the villages so all the people moved out, although there is reconstruction being done to preserve these beautiful dwellings. In Chennini, the homes were the dwellings of the ancient Coptic Christians, and their cross could be found over the doors.

After Tatouine, we grabbed lunch. Easier said than done. Our cab drivers took us back to the bus station, where we learned that there was a two km walk to the center of town to find the nearest restaurant. We went to the nearest salon de thé and ordered drinks. They offered to make us sandwiches. They went and bought bread, chopped up vegetables, and mixed it with tuna (I swear it’s the national dish of Tunisia). They even gave us free water (and didn't overcharge us). They were sooo nice.

We then arranged a louage back to Tunis - 8 hours. And our trip was over!
This was definitely my favorite weekend in Tunisia. The people were so incredibly nice. We had no stalkers or vulgar comments. Everyone went out of our way to be friendly and help us get where we were going. I have found that everyone in Tunisia seems to genuinely like Americans. We may get comments about our government, but it seems that they have a good opinion about the people themselves and admire and envy the freedom and prosperity that we have.

The weekend was also a great opportunity for me to practice my French. I was the only person in the group who could speak a large amount of French. I was the go-to person for translations and negotiations and all that good stuff. I also learned that it's not just my French that's bad - it's often the Tunisians. Less educated Tunisians often don't speak French as well. French is also less common in the south, which is much more conservative and a lot less European. It made me feel better about my ability to understand French!

Unfortunately, the weekend passed so fast. There was so much more I wish I could have seen. I like the south a lot better than Tunis and wish I had a chance to go back.

Mi Grande Aventura Gringo

Summer 2008

So it turns out that I have done something I swore long ago never to do—go to a foreign country without learning at least the basics of the language. For a grammar-nazi like me, it was especially difficult to be unable to understand or correct anyone’s grammar. I kept thinking, “what did I get myself into?” Armed only with my knowledge of Latin and Japanese, the Spanish vocabulary I’d learned in 3rd grade (a few colors, some numbers, and random animals), and a Spanish dictionary from 1994 (It still lists ll and ch as separate letters), the situation seemed rather hopeless. Even the walking orientation was difficult, despite the everlasting pep and pizzazz of our program coordinator Maria Demello, because everything was in Spanish. Fortunately, Alice lent me her magical grammar book, Barron’s Spanish Grammar, and I started reading right away. That night all kinds of strange and interesting aspects of Spanish were revealed to me. Did you know Spanish has a different set of pronouns for the subject, the direct object, the indirect object, use with prepositions—and that those and the reflexive pronouns come before most conjugated forms of verbs, but should be attached to the infinitive or the imperative to make one word (Don’t forget the accent on the verb if you attach two of them!)? I didn’t. As the trip continued, I read that lovely book cover to cover, and it helped a lot. However, I still had a vocabulary problem that was crippling my ability to communicate with my non-English-speaking host family. They thought I was very serious because I didn’t say anything for the first few days!

Speaking of my host family, they were two of the nicest women I’ve ever met. Magdalena, a soon-to-be-83-year-old woman, was a bit of a firecracker, and said some of the funniest and most interesting things. She usually spoke in absolutes. The gems are probably “Todas las correanas son gorditas.” and—well I can’t remember what she said, partially because I couldn’t understand it at the time, but when we asked her about politicians and the police she always made this motion where she placed her hand on the table and moved it into her pocket. She also always cracked jokes, which I unfortunately also can’t remember. Lydia, her fifty-something-year-old niece, was always trying to tone down what Magdalena said or explain it in a kindler, gentler way. They were both quite patient with repeating themselves, speaking slowly, or explaining Spanish words to us (Lydia more so than Magdalena, or as many affectionately call her, Madga). And man could they cook. Actually, Magda couldn’t cook because she had an eye operation, and her doctor told her not to have her eye around heat, but her mole is famous for being delicious. Lydia made us all kinds of egg dishes with beans and tortillas for breakfast, and had a seemingly never-ending supply of different waters and juices for lunchtime. Lunch is a big meal in Mexico, and she always had a soup, rice, or pasta course in addition to the main course. It’ll be hard to go back to Tex-Mex, but what’s a guy to do?

The city of Guanajuato itself is somewhat different from many other cities in Mexico because it’s a colonial town. That means that the streets and buildings have been there for hundreds of years. Well, that’s only half true because they rebuild the streets and restore some of the buildings every so often, but the city comes complete with extravagant old churches and cathedrals, fancy stone streets (not cobblestone fancy mind you, but fancy nonetheless), and historical sites. The must-see places of interest would have to be the Museo Mommias (apparently some of the graveyards around Guanajuato are natural mummification locations), the Museo Iconographico (dedicated to artwork about Don Quixote), the Museo Casa De Diego Rivera (the house of Frida Kahlo’s husband), the Museo Alhondiga (former granary and site of an important battle of the Mexican Revolution), and the statue of El Pipila. The Pipila statue sits in a high part of the city and has a wonderful view, especially at night. In fact Alice and I went up there one night in the rain to get some cool pictures (and because the rain was raining on our panaderia [bread shop/bakery] parade, oh how I’ll miss those fantastic stores where I could buy a huge bag of bread and pastries for 3 or 4 dollars). You’ll be happy to know the city has great drainage, with the water just cascading down the city’s steps like waterfalls into the streets (There are sidewalks on both sides of the streets several inches above the street.). The only complaint I have about the city is that because some of the streets are very narrow, car exhaust/fumes tend to hang in the air if too many cars or buses drive by in a short period of time.

During the day and on some nights, the streets are full of vendors. It’s very different from the states because everybody actually walks around town. It’s also very strange and interesting to see really modern shops and merchandise (like internet café’s and hair salons) in such old buildings. Because the entire economy and way of life for many places in America is based around owning a car, it was especially intriguing to be in a city not designed around cars. Since many people don’t own or can’t afford cars—and some people are old, sick, etc—everything a household needs has to be within reasonable walking distance in Guanajuato. There are grociery stores, Oxxos (convenience stores kind of like the Kwik-e-Mart, but with reasonable prices), internet and paper places every few blocks. The existence of a cheap and well connected bus system make it possible to get to basically any part of the city with ease. If that isn’t enough there are many taxis that don’t cost much to use in operation for all or most hours of the day. It made me think about how cities and people can be affected by issues such as poverty and transportation, reminding me of how the Dart system just restored service to a certain area of Dallas and how difficult it must have been for those residents while they didn’t have easy access to public transportation.

The classes, while challenging, were very enjoyable. Our History and Literature Professor Hilda’s frequent drawings and hand motions made it much easier for me to understand what was going on in the beginning, and I think all of us have been affected in some way by our Grammar and Conversation Professor Martin’s phrases, jokes, and stories. Taking the intermediate level of Spanish classes was made easier because the teachers had considerable skill in teaching to a group of non-native speakers. Hilda in particular was very good at scoping out whether or not the class knew the words she used and whether we understood what she was saying, in addition to being able to choose more understandable vocabulary on the fly. Other McD’s have recommended taking the intermediate level if you have even the least bit of Spanish knowledge, and I totally agree. While I don’t have personal experience with the beginner level, it would probably be soul-crushingly boring, and I feel that my experience was much stronger and more enjoyable because I took the more challenging classes.

We also had the opportunity to take two large trips on the weekends, one to Mexico City, and the other hiking around La Bufa, a mountain just outside of Guanajuato. In Mexico City we toured through Teotihuacan, an ancient Toltecan city and birthplace of the worship of Quetzalcoatl, all of which we had been discussing in our classes. We also saw Frida Kahlo’s blue house, SoCaLo (the main plaza), and the Basilica de Guadalupe. During the visit, we decided to ride the Mexico City subway, and did it ever put the D.C. subway to shame. The entire facility was more or less immaculately clean, and a ticket (which allowed you to ride any number of trains, as long as you didn’t leave the metro) only cost 2 pesos! It’s subsidized by the government, but impressive nonetheless. The hike through La Bufa and other mountains in the area was incredible. It was a beautiful day with beautiful scenery, and I even got to do a little bit of somewhat user-friendly rock climbing.

Now I’m studying at CIMAT, the center for investigation of mathematics, and it’s a little sad now that everyone else has left Mexico. But the people at CIMAT are all very nice and the work is interesting. I started out learning about genetic algorithms (misleading name), which use the concepts of evolution and genetics to solve problems. They usually operate on sets of randomly-generated binary strings, randomly selecting several data members for reproduction, and then randomly performing mutation on the bits of the data members. Children are produced by performing genetic crossover (trading sets of bits). Add in a function to evaluate the bit sets and select the better solutions, rinse, wash, and repeat (many times) and you have yourself a pretty good answer. However, now I am learning about and implementing an algorithm called Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO). It started out as a simulation to model patterns of bird flocks, when lo and behold someone discovered that it could be used for optimization problems.several research projects later it has evolved into a very simple base algorithm with many variants. Basically, a set particles (called a swarm) that represent randomly chosen/created vectors containing input for a multidimensional function are created that can remember the best place they’ve been and communicate with other particles. The simulation is run for many timesteps, and each timestep each particle’s velocity is changed, giving some weight to the current direction and adding two vectors multiplied by two random numbers between 0 and 1. One of the two vectors is aimed back toward the best point to which the particle has been, and the other is aimed toward the best point of the particles with which that particle communicates. After many timesteps, the particles converge on a certain zone of the function, which is hopefully the global optimum. Now research is done to experiment with particle communication patterns and/or to add other algorithms or strategies to the mix (such as the genetic algorithm ideas of crossover and mutation) to improve the optimization performance of the algorithm. This work has been very interesting because I have never seen an effective non-deterministic algorithm before (These algorithms are probabilistic because so much of them is based on random numbers and chance).

Anyway, I’m having lots of fun and hope to see everybody in Dallas soon!

Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento, and Siena

June 2008

These past two days of my trip have been really awesome!

Yesterday we went to the Vatican, which was just an amazing experience. One of the best advantages of going with a program like this: we got to skip all of the lines, which looked to be an hour long or so, and we had a guided tour of the whole thing. First we went through the Vatican museum which is chock full of simply amazing works of art. A lot of them are very famous and I studied in my art classes and I was just so happy to see them in person, like the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere. One thing that surprised me was that they let us take pictures everywhere if we didn't use a flash, excluding only the Sistine chapel. Thus it wouldn't surprise me if I took a hundred pictures. The Sistine chapel ceiling and Michelangelo's Last Judgement over the altar were wonderful and definitely different than seeing prints of them. To see the ceiling above you so enormously you are absolutely absorbed in the art. I was so awestruck and excited to be in there I was quite literally trembling.

Japan: Sushi & Other Small Things

Summer 2008

Everything here is miniature. Because of a premium on space, the elevator can fit five people at most, bowls are half the size of those at home and blow dryers fold into two for easy storage. The food and gifts I brought for my host family appear to be on steroids sitting on their low dining table next to tiny packages of chips and nuts. When I brought out these oversized packages, my host family laughed and commented about big, easy, and casual American living. The culture here is so different. People always talk in polite and hushed tones. It is rude for girls to step out of the house without makeup and to talk on cell phones in the metro. I bow and say “sumimasen” (excuse me or sorry) quite frequently. No one wears regular t-shirts. Instead, fashion is filled with patterns, frills, layers and colors. On the first day here, I decided to abandon the free UTD convocation T-shirts to avoid standing out like a sore thumb, so much for school pride.

Work ethic is strict. Commutes of three hours per day are not unusual for workers or students. Leaving work at five is simply not done. Female participation in the labor force is very low. Students go to private tutoring and classes after school and on weekends especially when preparing for entrance exams.

Shinto beliefs are inseparable from society and culture. The respect for nature, a core belief of Shinto, manifests itself in green policies and in everyday life. Public bathrooms have a button next to the toilet labeled “flushing noise” that, in fact, makes the noise of a flushing toilet. After pressing the button a few times out of curiosity, I finally asked Sensei its purpose. Sensei told me it is a water saving measure to prevent people from actually flushing the toilet to mask embarrassing noises. All public bathrooms also have high-powered hand dryers that work much more efficiently than those in the US. About a million other things are done by ordinary citizens, companies and government for the conservation and recycling of valuable resources.

I am finally back in the US. My trip to Japan was glorious. I ate plenty of good sushi, sashimi, tempura, udon, soba, kare(curry), rice, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and bento items. Being an economics major and a lover of efficiency, my favorite of all restaurants had to be the conveyor sushi place, which really was the epitome of efficiency. It was like an itemized buffet without ever getting up from your seat. Ask me for details sometime! Highlights of the trip include two weeks in Tokyo visiting Meiji Jingu, Yasukuni, Asakusa, Akihabara, Tokyo Tower, the Ghibli Museum, Shinjuku, Tsukiji Fish Market and Mount Fuji. The city was so alive and full of local flavor. There were always people out and about, a few were even dressed in yukata(the traditional summer robe). Different parts of the city showed a different aspect of Japanese culture, whether traditional, popular or a comfortable mix of the two. Also, by the end of my stay in Tokyo, I vowed to become an otaku starting with Miyazaki’s films. Then came another two weeks in Osaka for Panasonic, Nagoya for the Toyota factory and Kyoto for historical and scenic sites. Traveling by Shinkansen (the bullet train) was very convenient and public transportation in each city was easy to navigate. My favorite part of the trip was sitting in the grounds of a gorgeous Zen temple, jinja, or café, watching people and reflecting on conversations with host families. Greatest gain from this trip- I’ve finally experienced what Twain meant when he said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”