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Powerless

In October 2012, I had $67.00 dollars in my bank account. It was the first time I had had less than $100 since I was 14 years old and had started working. It was not a good feeling. I had a choice to make; do I fill up my car or do I eat for a week? And what do I do after that? For the first time ever in my college career, I was a starving college student. I have never been the type to beg for money from my parents (for things like lunch) and so I decided that I really needed a job, and I applied to Target. I passed my interviews without a problem.

My first day was 2 weeks after I had told everyone I was going to get a job. The prospect of working at Target, for me, was pretty exciting. I liked Target. I thought Target was a good company. I did some research on their website, and thought they must treat their employees pretty well. Little did I know, this would be one of the hardest jobs I had ever had. Sometimes, when I say that, people think I’m kidding. I’m not. I have never worked so hard for $8.07 an hour in my life. In fact, I have never worked so hard, ever.  When I made  $15 dollars an hour managing swim lessons and a community pool I worked hard, but I had a voice and I was treated with dignity and respect, and if I spoke up, I was listened to and adjustments were made. Unreasonableness was not part of my prior work experience. The only thing that kept me going to work every day was the fact that I knew one day I would be getting out of there soon.

At Target, it starts with the fact that Target intentionally understaff their stores to keep payroll costs low. That means that even though I was hired for one department, I also had to back up be a back up cashier, clean spills, push re-stocks, push go-backs that people decided they didn’t want, assist guests, help with guest pulls, pick up calls, assist other departments as needed, collect carts from the parking lot, and make sure that at the end the night my zone looked perfect for the next day. However, it is kind of a trap, because with the high expectations they have for you, and the small amount of time they allot you; perfection is never going to happen.  We are always stressed that we will not finish everything we are supposed to do on time, and as a result get into trouble. But honestly, that was the easy part of this job. Yes, it was demanding, and my back hurt after work for a good six months before my muscles got strong enough to handle it, but that stuff ended there, in the store, at Target.

The hard part was learning about the people that work with you. This past year and a half, I have spent every single holiday with these people; 2 Halloweens, 2 Thanksgivings, 1 Christmas eve, 2 New year’s eves, 2 news year’s days, mother’s days, father’s days, birthdays, valentines days, memorial days, 4th of Julys, Easters, and everything in between. Together we all run around the store on these busy days hoping that we will be allowed to go home for the next holiday. The truth is, these retail workers that people tend to look down upon, probably only get one holiday off a year- and it’s not going to be Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, the day after Christmas, or Easter. In these days we spend together, we start to learn about families and their struggles, and the ways that big corporations like Target take advantage of these incredibly hard workers.  They especially do this with pay, benefits, and hours. Back when Target did offer benefits, unless you were at a higher position, they were kind of a joke. In addition, overtime at Target started at 32 hours a week (they would not pay you more for working over 32 hours, but it would go in the log as overtime and you could be written up for it), which means that no one in my position could ever hold a full time position and could never attain full time benefits.

One lady I worked with was however, was on Target’s health insurance plan for the part-time workers. In order to keep her insurance, she needed to work a minimum average of 25 hours a week. For target, that’s a lot of hours. Most people get about 20, tops. This woman though, has been with Target for 8 years and so she usually would get more hours than the average worker. However, at some point in the year, business slows down and therefore hours are cut. Well, the first week you are below 25 hours, that’s ok. And the second week, that’s ok. But after that, the average amount of hours you work starts to drop and you can lose health insurance. Since this woman was dependent on health insurance, she talked to my boss about her problem. My boss said she understood the problem, and would work on getting her more hours. Well, here’s what happened. My boss did give her more hours, from 20 hours up to 24 hours. However, she was scheduled 6 days a week at 4 hours a day, all “day” shifts. This meant a couple things; first and foremost, it made it impossible for her to pick up a longer shift from someone else because she can’t work 7 days in a row. Second, since the shifts are all during the day, the chances of her being able to extend her shift, to gain the one hour she needed, was very slim. She was going to lose her health insurance that she had through Target. I told this woman to look at my schedule and if there was a longer shift on my schedule, that she can have it, and I would switch her for the 4 hour shift. Also, if there were any other times that she needed extra hours to keep her insurance, she could have any of my shifts that she wanted. She almost cried, and told me that she would never do that because she knew I needed hours. I told her that I did not need the hours nearly as much as she did.

This is where the really hard part comes in, but also the really important part. As a part time worker for a company like Target, you are utterly powerless. I have never experienced that feeling in my life, but I am sure glad I did. This woman would lose her health insurance, and there was nothing that she or I could do about it. Nothing. In addition, if she were to do something that made our boss mad, she could lose more hours, and no one would be there to back her or anyone else up. We as bottom level retail workers are powerless. Once my boss told someone in the break room that she hates when employees request days off, and she docks them hours. Well, I had had a pretty regular schedule by this point. For an entire year, I closed (7pm-12midnight) Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This meant no karaoke nights, clubs, 21st birthday parties, movie nights, or any other kinds of hang outs. My social life virtually ended, but I was willing to deal with that because I needed money for food, gas, and bills. In other words, I was willing to accept that I had to grow up again, and do what I need to do to be a responsible adult. Well, long term, that schedule is completely unrealistic if you don’t get an occasional day off. Sometimes life happens and I want to go home for a Saturday night. Maybe it’s a birthday, or a baby shower, or a wedding, or the fact that I haven’t seen my family in 2-3 months. So, this particular time, I went ahead and requested the day off, knowing that my boss made that comment. For the next two weeks, I only got 9 hours. 9. At $8.07 an hour, that’s $72 dollars a week, before taxes. Everyone else had 21 or more. She knew it would hurt, and it did. Because when weeks like that happen with very few hours, you end up paying for them for weeks on end, trying to catch up with bills etc.

I was not the only one getting this treatment. That happened about 9 months ago. It did not stop me from requesting days off, but that powerless feeling really came into effect. I got through it because I knew that I would not have to deal with stuff like that forever. That one day, I might be able to get weekends off, and hey, maybe even Christmas eve off. But in my heart, I felt defeated because I knew that I was one of the few employees getting a college degree. The people that I spend all this time with, that I know intimate details about, that I love and care for, would have to put up with situations like that for their entire lives. This problem with requesting days off is still happening, and finally someone stood up to my boss and talked to her about the blatant punishment we were receiving when the inevitable “life” happened.  My boss slammed the door to the office that the girl was in, cussed her out with the door closed, and burst into tears saying that we had no idea what she (our boss) does for us. Well, she’s right. We have no idea what she has done FOR us, but we do know what she has done TO us. Later that day, a security guard told us that my boss had told him to keep an eye on this employee. She instructed the security guard to tell my boss when and if the employee is misbehaving so that she can sneak up on her and write her up.

No one should ever have to deal with retaliation like this. It’s not fair. The worst part is, at this level, you are totally replaceable. If one boss does not like you, then all the bosses (of all the departments) will look at you in a harsh light. If you put up too much of a fight, they will try and make working conditions tough for you so that you quit and they can just hire someone new. Once, I complained about my boss, in confidence to another leader, and said all I wanted was to move departments. I was not looking to start any kind of trouble or make a scene, the only thing I wanted was to move.  Word got back to her, and it was made pretty clear that I was not do that again, and I was given impossible workloads for a week (which if I did not finish, I could be written up for).  Luckily, I am a good worker. I have always been a good worker, and I can get the stuff done that needs to be done, even if it means I stayed at work 2 hours longer than I was scheduled (meaning I would leave at 1-2am). But some people do not have the luxury of open nights. They have kids at home, or a sick mother they take care of, or a second job that starts at 6am. They need to go home because they have other obligations; and those are the people that get let go. Those are the people that are not given another chance.

I want to end with the fact that I think everyone, as some point should work a minimum wage job. It will be incredibly hard, and incredibly stressful, but you gain so much insight from it. Everyone needs experiences like this, so that they can stand up for those who are still living it.

I never experienced poverty before, but when I look around me, I know that these women that surround me have. I learned that these women struggle everyday for every penny and have to put up with vindictive bosses and cruel scheduling because they have no other option. So next time you shop on Christmas Eve, think about the people that work in the store. Next time you encounter an employee that is less than helpful, consider what they might be going through. Consider the fact that the people who work for companies like Walmart and Target are manipulated and taken advantage of, and purposely made powerless so that they do not unionize. A lot of these employees may not be well educated, but they deserve respect, and they deserve a fighting chance.  At Target, they are not given a fighting chance. They are given inhumane employment scenarios and told to take it or leave it.  The employees I worked with were the hardest working group of individuals I have ever met, with a resilient attitude in them that I have yet to find in any other type of group of people.

Today, was my last day working at Target. The only thing I am sad about is that I will not see these amazing people every day. Their stories and struggles have touched my spirit, and I will do anything I can to fight for them. As I was leaving, one of the leaders told me that she liked having me work there because she always knew I would get my stuff done. My response was, you are going to find someone who is better at this job because he or she will not realize how much more they are worth and work really hard for you.

And then I got sad. Because everyone who works at Target is worth more than Target. They are worth so much more, and I wish they knew it.

I am not done telling my stories about Target, there will be more to come.

miserable people

Last October, I got another life changing opportunity presented to me in an email that was forwarded to the entire biology department. A group of students on my campus formed a new club called “Medlife,” and they were looking for new members to join them on a trip to Peru. By this point, no one has to ask me twice; you invite me on a trip to another country and I am there. This trip though, was very different than any other trip I have ever been on, because the focus was on helping people. Medlife is an organization that is committed to helping communities in need in third world counties. They focus on addressing three main problems that these communities face; access to health care, access to education, and lack of a strong infrastructure. They have developed mobile clinics to help with access to health care, they build schools and donate supplies to help with access to education, and they build things like staircases to help with infrastructure short-comings. This organization focuses on working with the communities in order to provide long term help in all of these areas. They are pretty amazing. After traveling in Ghana, I decided that when traveling in a group, having one completely miserable person in your group is a good thing. This is because they have no problem complaining about all the things that everyone else in your group does not want to complain about. It gets it all out into the open, and you no longer feel like you are they only one suffering. In fact, that one person is often so miserable, that it makes you yourself feel much better. In fact, you may even find the ability to laugh about everything going on, and the group lightens up. That one miserable person may actually be the most important member of your group. However, when every single person in your group is miserable except yourself, there may be a bit of a problem. Upon arriving in Peru, I think the group I went with had some misconceptions about the experience we would be having. When we were in the middle of our plane travel, a girl in my group said that she was really looking forward to checking into our hotel and hanging out in the pool. Awkward. I turned to her and explained that we were not staying in a hotel, we were staying in a hostel. She asked me what the difference was. Well, I told her, in a hostel, you are lucky to have clean sheets on the bed and curtains on the window. She looked at me like I was crazy, then turned and went back to imagined the pool she thought she would be sitting by in a couple hours. Poor thing, she had no idea what was coming. After a drive through Lima, we arrived at a hostel in the middle of a very rich part of Lima, Peru called Mira Flores. If I did not know that I was in Peru, and if we had not just driven through a poorer part of Lima, I would have never known I was in a third world country. This place was gorgeous, pink flowers on every corner, mosaics that covered the sides of sky scrapers, and parks that were pristine. The contrast of this rich neighborhood with the neighborhoods we had passed through and the slums we were going to visit was deeply unsettling for me. The separation of the rich and the poor was so blatant but no one seemed to notice, or worse, care. Upon entering the hostel, memories of Ghana started to come back to me. This place was a very nice hostel, but a hostel none-the-less. The lady at the front took us up four very narrow flights of stairs to a couple rooms on the roof. It was extremely small, and there was one bathroom for 6 girls. There were clean sheets on the bed, and they provided us with lots of towels. Nice place. Better than most places in Ghana, and aside from the rooms being a little bit warm and humid, there was nothing that I could see, worth complaining about. Well, I apparently I was wrong…there was in fact, many things that could be complained about. I fell asleep on my bunk bed listening to the moaning and groaning going on around me. They said that the lady at the front desk clearly hated them because she gave us bleach stained towels (I tried to tell them that bleach stains are a good thing, it means they’ve been washed at least once). They said that the roof simply was not safe; people could break into the rooms and hurt us. And, don’t get me started on the fact that there was only a very weak wifi signal available. Ultimately they had decided that “10 days was a long time to be uncomfortable” and something must be done. Although I heard much of the discussion, I slept very happily for 2 hours. When I woke up, everyone had decided that we would be moving to a real hotel, and we would be asking for the money, that came from our program fees, for the hostel back. When they told me of this plan, I was the only one that seemed to think it was ridiculous. Awkward. They said it would only cost $200 each. Awkward, and Wow! To me, that is a lot of money. I almost feel bad for being frustrated, but I couldn’t believe I was with a group of such close-minded people. We are 20 year olds! We aren’t supposed to get stuck up about sleeping arrangements for at least another 10 years! I explained that, if you feel like you are going to be uncomfortable for 10 days, then remember, it is only 10 days. That’s it. I for one would not be moving. So instead, they sent me down stairs to ask the nice lady to change us to an inside room so that criminals do not break into our rooms at night to hurt us. Luckily, the let us move inside…but for some reason the bleach stained towels still seemed to be an issue, and they all went out and bought new ones. During the next 9 days, in that small hostel room, I learned a lot about girly girls. This may sound naïve, but when I watch movies that have women in them who take forever to get ready…I thought that was really only in movies….or for Weddings. Turns out, it’s not. Some people really do spend hours getting ready in the morning. Hours. I have never seen so many straighteners, hair driers, and make up choices. Did you know that they have things called foundation brushes? Yeah, the ones at Mac are supposed to be great and only like…..$34 dollars. And, there are other make-up brushes you can get too, for like….a mere $30-$50 each. I didn’t actually learn how many you need though…or what they are actually used for…. I think for this group, 10 days may have been a bit too long to start off in a third world country. However, I had an absolutely fabulous time, and I wish I had the money to go back. In addition to all the things I learned about being a girl, I also had 10 days full of some pretty extraordinary experiences. We spent time in Slum communities that were in great need of help. We learned a little bit of history about the people that lived there, and a lot about the hardships they faced. We got to see smiles on the faces of the locals when two new stair cases were built for their community, and a traditional dance they had prepared for us to see. I got to hold the hands of people who were in great need of health care. I got to teach little kids how to brush their teeth, and then run around and play games with them. I got to use the knowledge I had acquired about microbiology in school, to explain to my program buddies what was going with patients in the doctor’s tent. I got to really help people. It was truly amazing, and those stories are yet to come. Before I get myself into too much trouble, I want to end this by saying that the people I travelled with were a good bunch. They did end up having a sense of humor about a lot of things, and they were very adventurous. They were also hard-working, and given the hardships, they were in relatively good moods while we traveled from place to place. They really were dedicated to helping others, and they were very kind to everyone. I think that they may have been blind-sided by a couple things, but overall, we all had a great trip. Stay tuned for more!

Saying goodbye

When I was in high school, I was the totally cheesy, completely cliché, high school girl who just “didn’t belong” in San Jose. I felt San Jose was holding me back. San Jose had absolutely nothing to offer me. In fact, I felt like San Jose was the most boring place I could possibly be in that moment, yet I couldn’t leave it. When college application time came around, my mom made me apply to San Jose State as a safety school. She told me that I could still live in the dorms, and I could still have a college life. But, let’s face it, the only way I would have ever gone to San Jose State, was if someone dragged me through the doors while I was kicking and screaming. So, after getting accepted to CSU Stanislaus, I packed up my car and drove 1 hour and 45 minutes to……. the Central Valley.

I have no idea what my 18 year old self was thinking. How could an extremely conservative, dusty little town open up my eyes and make me feel the sense of belonging that I had so desired in high school? The closest mall was 30 minutes away, the obnoxious train would wake me up at all hours of night as it went by, there are more churches per square  mile than anywhere else in California, everything closes by 9 o’clock, and the summers are hotter than hell. However, there is something about this dusty little town that charmed me into accepting it as home. I fell completely in love it, and didn’t even realize it.

In Turlock, I found that there are days when life seemed so hard that all I wanted to do is sleep. However, I found more days that were so wonderful that I hated to think that I would have to sleep because I just wanted to be awake and soak up the happiness that surrounded me. For the first time here, I met people who deeply interested me. For the first time I learned how to be truly independent. I learned what it was like to work a minimum wage job, what it was like to do my own grocery shopping, sign my own papers, travel, stay out as late as I wanted, and do whatever pleased me. I got to be selfish. I got to go after my dreams, and nobody else’s. It was an amazing feeling. I made myself “belong”.

Today I turned in my 30 day notice. The time has come for me to graduate and say goodbye.  I have 29 days left in Turlock. 29 days left in my apartment. That’s it. Most people have told me I am lucky to be getting out of here, and honestly, I know they are right. I don’t think the life I imagine myself living in the future would ever be a possibility in Turlock.

However, between graduation and moving, my feelings get confused. On one side, I can’t wait for this last 29 days to be up, on the other side, I never want these last days to end. Somehow, the prospect of leaving this dusty place, my home, seems incredibly sad. I know that I am leaving Turlock to move on to bigger and better things in life. I know that even better years are coming my way. I know that no matter where I live, I will always have good days and bad days. But these last couple weeks went by very fast and I was not quite ready for it.

The life I found in Turlock was so much better than my high school self ever imagined. I don’t want my college years to end. That would mean a true end to study abroad possibilities, the end of college life, the end of my own apartment, the end of Turlock. No one ever told me this is what graduation really feels like. How incredibly hard it would be to leave school. To leave the life that I created for myself. How incredibly difficult it is to really grow up.

But, I guess you never really are ready for the next step, you just take it, and hope for the best. These past 5 years have been full of some of the greatest experiences I will ever have. I can’t believe that it has come to be the time that I have to say goodbye to them. It makes my heart ache, and my eyes start to water. The only thing keeping my head up, is that now, I get to say hello to a whole new set of opportunities.

Turlock will always hold a special place in my heart.

Listen to Your Mother

When I was little, sickness scared me quite a bit. Once, on the news, I heard talk about a “serial killer”, so I ran to tell my mom, while she was in the shower, that we could  no longer buy or eat cereal. She claims that even after she had explained the difference to me, I didn’t eat cereal for a long, long time.

However, far far worse, than any sickness, were the shots. Yes, they may have kept me healthy, but honestly, I would have rather just gotten sick, because one shot in the beginning means a lifetime full of booster shots. Or in other words, a lifetime full of fear. However, if I just got sick, it would have been a one-time deal kind of thing, right? Unless it was something really deadly…. Then, I decided to myself, if it were a deadly disease, I would get the shot…but only if I were exposed.  For example, the tetanus shot. Not necessary unless I stepped on a rusty nail or something. Capuche? So, the declaration, in my mind, was made pretty clearly. NO SHOTS. Apparently my dear mother missed the memo.

It seemed like every time I went to the doctor I was due for some kind of shot. They always called me into the doctor’s office and took my blood pressure, and they always asked me if I was nervous (because it was always high). The truth is, I learned at a young age how to read the charts that tell you exactly when you are due for the next shot. I memorized the dates (they were printed on all the Kaiser appointment notices). I  knew exactly which shots were due and which shots I found to be necessary, and which ones I found to be not necessary but, for some reason, my opinion did not matter as much as I thought it should. So, yes of course I was nervous. All the demon nurses and doctors seemed to want to stab me with a needle every chance they got.  I did not voice this, but just nodded my head, and tried not to cry.  Somehow, the doctor seemed to have missed my NO SHOTS memo too. Every time I sat in that chair, I hoped from the bottom of my heart that the doctor would forget, and notkindly” suggest to my mother that I go get my shots up to date. Well, after several traumatic experiences, I decided that when I grow up, I will make shots that don’t hurt little girls.

My…..negative…feelings towards shots continued for a very long time. In fact, in high school, when I went to the doctor for my yearly check up, they told me once again, I need to go and get a chicken pox shot. Obviously, I felt this shot was not a necessary one. I would rather just get the chicken pox, and then never have to deal with this situation again. However, my mom did not feel the same way, and walked me to that dreaded office where I would get yet another stab in the arm.

First, she tried to be all nice about it, telling me I can get ice cream after or something. But, no. I would not have any of that. What she was doing to me was PURE EVIL, and you just can’t sweeten that up with ice cream. I mean, if she had just let me get the chicken pox when I was a kid, we would not be in this predicament.  How dare she want me to get a shot for something that was not really, really, really deadly? And then, my mother had the nerve to act like I was the one being unreasonable. Well, she never had to get a chicken pox booster shot, so she has no idea what she was talking about. If staying healthy means I have to get shots…pshhh, forget that. I’d rather be sick (assuming it’s nothing deadly). Well, despite the fact that I made it clear that serious harm was being forced upon me via a needle in my arm, no thanks to my mom, they still called me into the office and I had to sit in that chair like a big girl and get a shot. Abby, you are lucky my mom said, you only have to get one this time. Yeah, one shot of hell! I didn’t let my mom hear the end of it for weeks, despite the fact that she bought me ice cream after.

When it came time to pick a college major, my mom reminded me of my promise to make shots that did not hurt little girls, so I chose microbiology. Somewhere, in my obsession in finding which shots were necessary, and which weren’t, I also became fascinated with disease, viruses in particular. Unfortunately, my school does not offer a virology course.  However, while New Zealand I did have the opportunity to take a virology class. While there, I took a course called “genetics and microbiology of microbes”, and in that course, we got to do a whole month on viruses. I learned a lot about vaccines and why they are good. Well, I may have been wrong about that chicken pox shot.

As it turns out, the chicken pox virus is in the same family as the herpes virus. I don’t know how much you know about the herpes virus, but the best example of how it works would be cold sores. Someone that has had a cold sore before has, and will always have, the type I herpes virus in their system. This means that when the cold sore goes away they still have the virus, it’s just dormant. At times of high stress etc, the virus reemerges and boom,  another cold sore. Well chicken pox works the same. You get it once, but the virus never goes away. So, when you get older, and your immune system isn’t able to keep it in check any more, and it emerges as shingles. However, people that have never had chicken pox, do not have this virus in their system and therefore, will probably never get shingles.

After learning all this about chicken pox and shingles, I walked out of class admitting that I may have been a little bit unreasonable when it came to the fact that I had made myself out to be an innocent little girl, whose mother would not protect her, that is constantly under the attack of “life-saving” needles. I called my mom and apologized. You see, vaccines are never 100% effective. However, many are close, and if I keep up with the booster shots…I should be ok. So, now I know. Always listen to your mother. She knows what’s good for you!

Dream

As a part of the requirements for graduating (from my home university), every student must take a writing proficiency test and course. Last year, since my advisor told me to get it over with, I took the test. The prompt I was given was probably one of the most interesting prompts I have ever had, one that I continue to look back on and think about. It was simply; “Describe or talk about a minor incident that turned into a defining moment in your life”.

When I was in fifth grade I visited my Dad on three day weekends at his apartment in Citrus Heights. He spoiled us: buying sugar cereals we were never allowed at home, Chef Boy-ar-dee, a rare luxury, and always a can of chunky clam chowder for me because that was my favorite. As part of spending quality time together, we always rented a couple movies and played monopoly at the kitchen table. One of the movies we rented was “Mary-Kate and Ashley: Passport to Paris”. That was the minor incident.

It was that weekend that I decided I was going to go to Paris. Funny enough, I used to get homesick when I was at my dad’s house, but I still wanted to leave the country and get as far away from home as I could. I also knew that day was a long way away, but it lo-and-behold, I could not stop thinking about Paris, and it became somewhat of a dream.

During that same year, my sister’s friends were studying abroad in England. I thought that was one of the coolest things I had ever heard, and soon my dream developed. Study abroad; that was how I was going to get to Paris! That dream grew and expanded as my teacher, Mr. Park, told us that we should all, one day, travel alone- go to another country, see who we meet, and be independent. Well, the alone part scared me, but the seeing a new country part I found intriguing. I knew in fifth grade that I was going to leave home when I got to college.

In middle school, I got the opportunity to go to Costa Rica. I had opened up my first bank account when I was little when I had asked Santa for my life savings for Christmas, and got it. On Christmas morning, I opened a gold box and inside was one hundred, $1 bills. I started saving. I didn’t know for what- but by the time I was 12 years old, I had $730 dollars in my account. A couple of science teachers, Miss Carter and Miss Rivers, who taught at my school decided to take a group of twenty students to Costa Rica for a summer trip; 10 days long. When I heard about it, I lit up inside. I don’t ever remember being so excited for anything in my life up to that point. I went home and told my mom about the sea turtles, the white water rafting and the zip-lining over the rainforest. San Jose, California, to San Jose Costa Rica- what an opportunity. The only snag was that the trip cost over $2000. I only had $730. When I mentioned the price to my mom- she smiled and said “Abby, you’ve sold me on this trip- we’ll find a way to get you to Costa Rica.” I don’t think that spark of light in my heart ever went away. Through a little bit of hard work and determination, my mom and my dad and I were able to get me on that plane. That was when my dream changed. I wasn’t just going to go to and see Paris someday, I was going to go and see the world.

That idea of being a world traveler never left. I took every school trip I could, and traveled with the water polo team as much as possible. I told my mom once that I was going to study abroad; she asked me where I would spend that one semester if given the chance. One semester? Mom, I am going for a year. I told her like it was obvious- like one semester was hardly an option. When I got to senior year of high school, with Paris in mind, I only applied to schools that had a study abroad program on campus. That was the deciding factor for me. Not location, not class ratings, or what major programs they had, and not student population. Study abroad. I was going to do it.

When I got to college- the excitement put my dream on the backburner for a bit. I had hardly thought about study abroad at all- even though it had frequented my thoughts all through middle and high school. However, during my first winter term, I was waiting outside of and English class when I noticed a wall full of study abroad pamphlets- all for different countries, I took one of each- there were 27. I could not tell you what happened in class that day, but I can tell you that when I read the brochure on France, my heart fell. You needed to have 2 years of French in order to qualify for the program. My school didn’t offer French. However, there was another pamphlet in the stack that caught my attention in a very subtle but lingering way; Ghana. For weeks I tried to find summer courses at Junior Colleges where I could learn some French and qualify for the French program. No luck. French professors are hard to find, so French classes are hard to find. However, far from being heartbroken, my dream shifted; somewhere in my frustrating search for French classes, I became more and more drawn to and set on Ghana. Not France.

What was it about Ghana that caught my attention? My mom had a friend that was from Ghana, and she had given Hannah some really cool designer evening gowns. I liked her, and I loved hanging out with their family when I was little. Ghana was a country that I had heard of, and even if it was distant, I had some kind of connection to it. All of a sudden, Ghana was all I could think about. I read the program description about power sometimes being out, Malaria being somewhat of a problem, and personal theft being more likely there than in other countries, and I was sold. ‘What an adventure,’ I thought. Ghana would be drastically different than the states; when would I ever have a chance to immerse myself in a culture for such a long time? When would I ever have an opportunity like “Ghana” again? The “extremely different lifestyle than in the states” clause got my heart pumping, fast.

However, the “alone” part of the trip started to sink in. I had never traveled alone. I was scared to take local transportation alone…what would I do in Africa alone? The alone part scared me when I was 10- the alone part was still just as scary to a college sophomore. I tried to get my friends to apply with me-but they decided against it for various reasons. The being gone part was starting to scare me too. Zade hadn’t been born all that long ago; I was going to miss him so much. And my new college friends; what if they didn’t like me when I got home- I couldn’t fathom losing them- especially on top of losing Zade who would surely forget me. Suddenly, this dream that had been developing since I was 10 was starting to frighten me, more than I could have foreseen. Was this really what I wanted?

I am lucky to have the Mom that I do. She told me to just do it. To stop being ridiculous. Go ahead and apply, She and Zade, and all of my friends will still be there when I got home, and that should be the least of my worries. There was no reason to pass up this opportunity for that. It still took me six months to fill out the application…for the semester program. My mom, being as wonderful as she is, said “Abby, why are you only going for a semester? Go for a year.”

This brought up even more questions. Zade would definitely forget me if I left for a year; there was only a chance that he would forget me if I left for a semester. My friends really wouldn’t want to hang out with me after I had been gone that long. What about Christmas? Thanksgiving? No, I know I said I would go for a year when I was younger- but I didn’t know what that really meant, and now I think it would be too long. Too much. Too…unbelievably scary. Then she told me to stop questioning everything- I of course would still be able to come home for Christmas; but leave while I still can.

After that, I started looking into a second semester in a different country. New Zealand sang to me in a different way than Ghana; I heard it was gorgeous, and friendly, and not to mention the number of extreme sports they have. I was sold once again. I was going to go to Ghana for the culture, and New Zealand for the adrenaline rush. Despite my wanting to become a world traveler, I did hold off on New Zealand for a while. I liked the idea of New Zealand, but gosh an entire year? Packing up and leaving for that long? That’s a long time.

When I finally got my acceptance for the Ghana program, I cried. The only other time I had cried out of happiness was when I held Zade for the first time. Not much can compare to that. But Ghana? Ghana almost did. I decided when I was 10 that I would study abroad, and now it was happening. I made it happen. It was the first long term dream that I ever had, and I acted on it. I worked for it. With my Mom’s help, I went against everything my head tried to tell me could go wrong, and followed my heart. My semester in Ghana was 10 years in the making.

At this point, I still didn’t know if New Zealand would ever happen. It wasn’t until I was in Ghana that I decided to actually apply- but whether I would get there was another matter. A whole year. It still weighed heavy on my mind. I loved Ghana, but it was so far away from home, and not just in distance. I questioned it- I told friends in Ghana about it. I am not lying when I say; the decision to go to New Zealand took just as much courage as the one to leave in the first place. When I got my acceptance to the New Zealand program- that spell of happiness went over me again; I wasn’t in tears- but I knew I had been given quite the opportunity. I bought my plane tickets about five minutes later. I was going. I really was going for a year.

Little did I know, the year of being abroad goes by really fast, and now will be up soon. I can’t believe that a year ago now I was sending in visa applications. I can’t believe I was nervous about leaving. My mom was right- Zade didn’t forget me. He ran right up to me and gave me a huge hug when I got off that first plane; and now, in New Zealand, he skypes me regularly. And my college friends- they were all there to welcome me home from Ghana, and Alyssa has made plans to come see me the night I get back from New Zealand. We’re going to live together next year. She still loves me.

This story, to me, kind of feels like a fairy tale. Maybe not one with a prince, and fancy balls, and horse drawn carriages; but, my dream came true- isn’t that what fairy tales are really about? Following your heart, and accomplishing its deepest desires? In the last year, I have been to 5 countries; 7 if you include airports, and 8 if you include the states. I have finally seen a small part of the world.  I even got my happy ending- going home to a family that still loves me, and friends that still want me. I will never again complain that I am not a part of a Disney fairy tale- because I’m living one, and it’s even better because it’s my own; and it is not by any means over. I still intend on making it to Paris; and a few other places as well.

The best part was; I was never alone. I may have boarded the plane alone, but my mom was still there; she still had my back. She would be there in an instant if I needed her. And there were times when I did need her; and she really was always there for me. I also made tons of friends who were there, and my home friends were just a click of the mouse away. It was silly to ever think I would be truly alone.

Today I leave. This chapter is over. This dream fulfilled, and it’s time for a new one. A part of me does not want it to end- who would? Its been a good dream. When I travel; I feel independent, I feel like I am a part of something important, I am learning more than school could ever teach me- and every step is a little less frightening and a little more inspiring.

My mom has suggested that I apply for an internship in Uganda, where I can write about the incredible women that were benefited by an organization called Bead for Life. The idea still scares me- but I am going to apply; and I am not sure a year ago, I would have believed that I had it in me. Now, I feel like this could be my new dream. My way to go back to Africa, and to be a part of something big. Something important. Something worthwhile. Something that could make a difference. But for now, I’m coming home.

I’m coming home.

Memorable Moments

This is what we looked like at the end of our very long walk =), we ended up at a beach

In front of the science tower where I spend most of my time

At my desk inside my dorm at city. Notice not vomit stains, broken doors, or damaged windows… in my room at least.

About to go jump off bridge!

This trip went by a lot faster than Ghana did. I can’t decide if it is because the second half of a trip always feels faster than the first, or if New Zealand was so much less challenging than Ghana was so time just flew right by…there was no 11th minute to remind me that sometimes time can stop and frustrate me for a bit. Maybe it’s a mixture of both. Regardless, as it turns out, my year of study abroad is coming to an end- I have 2 full days left in good old Palmy. So, I think now would be the best time to share the most memorable moments that I have had here.

1. Traveling was not always smooth sailing. When we got to Christchurch, there were so many detours that we had to take, and closed roads that we had to avoid (because of the tragic earthquake) that we ended up walking a lot. A LOT. I am talking 8 hours of just walking, seeing the tragic sites of the city because we could not figure out the local buses. It was miserable. Our feet were covered in blisters, our legs were sore, we were hot, we were hungry (virtually all the restaurants were closed due to the quake), and we were lost, only to be surrounded with hopelessness and despair. At this point, I looked at Liz and said “Gosh, If I knew that this is what the day was going to be…..imagine if we were traveling with some real complainers.” Liz looked at me with pure frustration in her eyes, then shouted- with a voice like gravel “THIS IS FUN!” without a trace of a smile on her face, and quickly looked away like she was trying really hard to believe it. After that- the day really did seem fun.

2. The dorm I live in has….quite a reputation. We are the trouble makers. We are notorious for being the drunks, the partiers, and ultimately the ones that are going to end up dropping out in the first semester. However, I have been through my first year of college…and I am kind of past the point where I feel like I need to be a part of classic freshman stuff all over again. So, how I ended up here is beyond me. I keep getting charged for stuff like “carpet clean vomit stain”, “damaged window” and “broken down door” that no one has owned up to, but that I would obviously never have been a part of (if no one owns up to it, it becomes a communal charge). I would have moved, but this is the cheapest housing they offer (even after the damage charges), because the other halls can be double, so I chose to stick it out. Little did I know, that it could have ruined my one chance of a kiwi marriage…

True story! I was sitting in my microbiology lab, talking to a cute lab assistant who happened to also be doing the lab for me.  I really am a good student, I really do work hard, but when it comes to math…and there’s a cute lab assistant, who is really smart and is going to study at Oxford next semester, and who remembers my name, and who is asking questions about myself….yeah, he can do the lab for me while I sit and talk to him. Well, as it turns out, he is an RA for one of the other halls, and had seen me around. He asked if I lived on campus, and I promptly replied “Uh, yeah, I live in City.” He looked up from my nearly completed–but still unfinished–lab and said “OH GOD.” And then handed the lab back to me. I tried to promise him that I was one of the good ones, but…no luck. I was back to doing my own work again. All alone.

3. When I was working in the library on some homework, I noticed a flyer calling for female participants to do a nutrition study. They would give 3, $30 gift cards for a grocery store in return for our time. It would work out to about $10 an hour. Excellent I thought. A great way to get some extra money without doing anything that would earn me a rightful place among the other people living in my dorm. I told Liz about it, and together we went to the screening. I fit every single requirement they needed. All that was left was to take my height and weight. After that, I started filling out the final piece of paper work, and the lead tester walked in and told me I am not qualified. As it turns out, my BMI works out to my being obese. Not overweight, obese. Oh my god. So, that night Liz and I went to Burger King and shared a meal that came with two fries, two drinks, a Whopper and a Whopper Jr. I told her I could eat the whole thing by myself, there was no reason to share- I’m obese. Eventually, we just decided that I should be the one to eat the big Whopper instead. After that day, I did end up  joining a different study that paid more and was perfectly happy to have obese people as a part of their team. =D

4. Public transportation can be a great thing. Most of the time. However, it seems like most days, Liz and I are always late trying to catch a bus, and running to the stop last minute. One particular day, we were exiting the mall- running a bit late because I decided I absolutely needed some chocolate before we left. Low and behold, when we left the mall, our bus was already at the light at the intersection, the light after the stop that we normally get on the bus. So, we ran to the next stop as fast as we could, in hopes of making it there before the light turned green. Bags were flying everywhere, people were looking at us funny, and our hearts were beating fast. We made it. In fact we made it with time to spare. For someone who can’t run (probably be cause I am so obese) it was impressive, I must say. The light turned green and the bus came our way, we stepped forward bags all ready, bus card in our hand. The bus pulled over. And then the bus left. It left us standing with our arms out at the stop like the driver had not just seen us run to make the bus. That bus driver must have thought I was that obese girl who lives in City and breaks down doors for fun or else vomits all over the floor because I am having too much fun, and then asks other people to pay to clean it up. Why else would he have left? We laugh about it now…a little bit.

5. When we were in Queenstown, I finally got to try bungee jumping. I have been wanting to try bungee jumping ever since my 18th birthday when I went sky diving, and I have not had the chance until this trip. I was so pumped. I wasn’t the least bit nervous. I was smiling cracking jokes, laughing at the guide’s silly remarks that involved putting our harnesses on after they claimed they had never done a tandem jump before, and that if it worked out it would be really cool. Liz kept asking me how I could not be nervous. All I could say was- Liz this is going to be great.

Then I stepped up to the edge…and then I looked down. All of a sudden, all I could think was, “wait….you want me to do what?…you want me to jump…down there…?” It was so high. I don’t know if I will ever think of the phrase “Go jump off a bridge” the same again. I have a bad habit of not thinking these things all the way through- first, only imagining the plane before I went to West Africa, now jumping of a perfectly good bridge. Needless to say, I loved it.

Overall, New Zealand has been full of some pretty good laughs…and ok, maybe a few 11th minutes. But, I’m almost home now! Two more days!! Then I get to go back to reality. It really is kind of a bummer that it has to end so soon. If only I could work my way to getting a plane ticket for China. Humph. One day.

Living ‘Kiwi’ Style

I always tell my mom going to school here is exactly like going to school at home, just farther away. However, now that the end in nearing, I have realized that it hasn’t been exactly the same living here, just much closer to home than Ghana was. Gosh, I miss Ghana. Anyway, I thought, since my year abroad is coming to an end rather faster than I ever thought it would, I will write about how different New Zealand is.

1. On the first day of arrival, they told us shoes are optional. Not just on beaches and parks and pools, but inside cafeterias, grocery stores, and anywhere else you can think of. This isn’t just a summer thing either- It can be close to freezing here and pouring down rain, and I still see people running across the street with no shoes on. To think- I used to get in trouble for wearing sandals in the rain all the time. I think Zade would do well here.

2. Sometimes I think that kiwis are more California than Californians are. I mean, in the middle of winter, when I am bundled up and freezing with multiple layers, the guy next to me is shorts and a tank top…and bare feet- and that’s common. It’s not just one person- it’s loads of people. I have yet to see something like that in California.

3. The seasons are switched, so right now, June 19, 2012, it is the beginning of winter. To say the least, I am in full blown Christmas spirit. I want to drink hot chocolate, sit in front of the fire, and decorate Christmas cookies while watching Elf. It’s horrible to think that when I get home, I am going to be placing a chair over the air vent and then sitting in it, in hopes of staying  cool. My heart is in a totally different season. Liz told me that when Christmas does come around- there are hardly any houses with lights up, and it is not nearly as big of a holiday as in the states.

4. Men do not buy you drinks when you go out. I’m not still sure how I feel about that… I mean, I’m cute- buy me stuff. Just kidding. Sort of. How cute do I have to be to get someone to buy me Disneyland passes? Also- high heal shoes with a really really thin heal, are not necessarily catching on here- in fact many of the high heal shoes I have seen would be considered a bit “clunky” at home. However- I think they are brilliant- have you ever tried walking in shoes that have a tiny heal? That’s not to say thin heals are non existent- but you don’t have to wear them to be fashionable.

5. Textbooks here are not too expensive. I don’t mean they are cheap- but the only physically painful part about buying them is the walk home when you have to carry them all. And- they are all “International versions”. We aren’t usually allowed to use those at home….what’s the big difference anyway?

6.The concept of time is different here as well as it was in Ghana. Here, it’s more of a matter of “everything will get worked out in a matter of time.” I kind of like that- it’s much less stressful than having to solve something very quickly in the states. I think the concept of time is mirrored by the fact that automatic doors open very slowly here. Sometimes I have to stop and wait for it to open….I never even knew that was an option in the states.

7. Friday is not a “party” day. The real party days are Thursday and Saturday, on Fridays everyone stays home and watches movies, or else hangs out in the hall. Whoda thunk? Kind of smart I suppose- a day to recover, and then a day to do it all over again.

8. Then, even if the people in my hall are out to 4am, which I know they are because they always wake me up they walk in, they are up no later than 8:30am, which I know because they always wake me up when they walk out. I think on a day when I go to bed early, I’m not even up by then. Sometimes, when they wake up before 8, I want to remind them that they are not at their mother’s house, and that they can go back to sleep for as long as they want, and no one would know/care.

9. There are giant windmills here to generate electricity…and it’s an attraction. We have them in the states as well, but no one would drive up the hill just to see one. I have though. They really are bigger than they look.

10.People do not wear their PJs to class, or even in the hallway of the dorm. Can you imagine having to get dressed before you put toast in the toaster? I find it bizarre that not one college student I have seen here has worn Pajama pants and a sweatshirt to an 8am class. I guess that’s an American thing?

11. Movies here either come out before they do in the states, or months after. And, when you go and see a movie, the theater is not booming with noise like they do in the states- in fact the first time I went, I thought there was something wrong- but I guess kiwis just don’t like feeling their bodies shake because of the speakers during car chases and such.

12. We are living in the future. The time difference in 19 hours, or in the summer, 21 hours. Get this- my flight leaves at 6:55pm on Monday June 25th, and I arrive at 6:43pm on Monday June 25th. Seriously cool if you ask me. I am also still working on getting the winning lottery numbers, but no luck so far.

13. Hot dogs here are what we call corn dogs. If you want a traditional hot dog, it’s called an “American Hotdog”. And while on the subject of food, I have yet to see mayonnaise anywhere (thank goodness). Also- hamburgers traditionally come with a fried egg, and sandwiches almost always have hard boiled eggs in them. Turkey is also really expensive…it was in Ghana too- why is that?

14. Cake also takes on a new personality here. If you went to look for a tub of frosting in the grocery store, you would come out empty handed. Cakes are more often then not, smothered in a custard or topped with homemade whipped cream. If there is frosting- it’s icing, and tastes a lot like the royal icing that we decorate our gingerbread houses with.

15. Everyone drives on the other side of the road. It’s been 4 months and I still look the wrong way before I cross the street.

16. They don’t celebrate Christopher Columbus day- which is obvious, but there is a very similar holiday called “Anzac day”. From what I understand it celebrates the day that people first landed in New Zealand….and killed the native people, destroyed the environment, and made the country virtually unrecognizable. That was according to my physics professor at least- and he is pretty bitter in general- but to me it sounds a lot like the reasons why celebrate good ol’ Christopher Columbus.

17. Converse and Vans are considered brand names, which means they are outrageously expensive. I feel like all things are expensive here. I mean, a subway sandwich can cost $14.00. Plane tickets for getting around the country aren’t too bad though. I hope no one is expecting super ultra cool gifts when I get home….I am pretty broke from buying things like food.

18. There are a couple different vocabulary words that are used quite often:

  1. “Sweet as”= awesome often used in the context of “That’s sweet as bro”
  2. “Choice”= perfect, often used as “Man, that’s choice bro”
  3. “Papers”= classes. When I got here people asked me what papers I was taking, who my lecturer is and when my exams are. That translates to: What classes are you taking, who’s your professor, and when are you finals?

19 During “exams” they walk around the room with cell phone detectors, or at least I heard they do, to make sure that you don’t have a cell phone with you. I never actually saw one because I was preoccupied with explaining things like how your body combats a virus, but I kind of picture them like the metal detectors that people use on beaches and stuff- and I definitely never saw one of those.

20. The cop-resident culture is somewhat different here. For one- they don’t carry guns…but that’s pretty common I suppose. For another, the dogs that we use to sniff out drugs at home, are used to sniff out fruit here, or other invasive creatures. New Zealand is very protective of their natural habitat, and therefore, very strict on bringing foreign things into the country. My friend Liz told me that even the cop shows show dogs sniffing out “forbidden fruits”. When we went to Wellington to Zelandia (the sanctuary of a restoration project to turn the habitat back to its original state), they actually asked us to pat our bags to make sure there were no cats or rats that jumped out.

Overall, I did generally feel like I was going to school at home, just a bit farther away. There were no cold showers, obruni traps, and men still have hairy armpits. However, looking back, it’s been a fabulous year of differences, and I have truly enjoyed being a part of them. This won’t be my last post, but thanks everyone for sticking with me.

The Worst Meals of My Life

If I ever consciously thought that the food in New Zealand would be better than the food in Ghana, I was wrong. It’s true- the food in Ghana was a lot of the same- a lot of rice, a lot of beans, a lot of fried chicken. On the other hand, the food  tasted good- in fact, the first time I tried those signature dishes of Ghana- they tasted great, and different than any other rice and beans I have ever had. I craved them for days to come- even if eventually they did get a little old. Remember the book about the girl that would eat nothing but jam and bread? Then, one night she finally decided that she had too much jam and bread, and spaghetti sounded better? Ghana was kind of like that. I still liked the food- I just wanted something new. I guess that’s what growing up with a fabulous cook for a Mom does to you.

Please understand before you read further, that I am a spoiled rotten brat when it comes to food (especially). I grew up in a house of terrific breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, served daily, and before Africa- I didn’t really know what being hungry meant aside from the dictionary definition.

Nowadays, I am also totally willing to cook for myself, and of course I don’t depend on others to feed my unusually high maintenance needs when it comes to food (how could I- I’d be seen nothing as a pain in the ass). To get an idea of how high maintenance I am, here’s an example;  my go to quick meal is brie and fancy bakery bread and blue cheese stuffed olives (not things like hot pockets and frozen pizzas). I know… I have some real problems in the high maintenance expensive food area, but food should not be joked about.

Well, New Zealand is another case. The food that I was obligated to buy (through the meal plan) that I now force myself to eat every night is horrible. H-O-R-R-I-B-L-E.  Part of it may be that I never thought I would be going back to eating dorm food- but here I am standing in line for ever (sometimes up to 45 minutes) to get a horrendous meal that I then have to choke down while the freshmen around me throw bread rolls at each other (I don’t know why they waste the bread rolls- it’s the only consistently edible thing in that cafeteria).

When you finally get to the front of the line- you have to hand the lady your card and grab a plate. The first section you get to choose a drink: water or juice. The juice isn’t even real juice- it’s a powdered juice that varies in strength from day to day depending on who makes it. One of the head ladies once told me to make sure I get the juice that day because she made it, therefore it was actually good. I declined to comment on that one.

Next, you get a choice of salads. Often there is one lettuce salad and either two potato salads OR two pasta salads to choose from. I say lettuce salad because it quite literally is just lettuce…and carrot shavings (on lucky days there is a tomato cube in there). There is no salad dressing- that would be found in the foreign food isle of the expensive grocery store in town- good luck. And, if there is a choice of potato salads, the potatoes are never completely cooked. Never. They are hard- borderline crunchy on most days. Finally, if you have a choice of pasta salads, they are usually covered with so much pepper, it’s hard to eat (I’m thinking they must have gotten a complaint for lack of spice in their food and this is how they responded).  So, what would you choose- lettuce, crunchy potatoes, or a scoop of pepper with some pasta on it? Next to the salads there are bread rolls- make sure you pick one of those up- it might save you an empty stomach when you go home (unless of course they run out of bread rolls and just put out slices of cheap bread…).

Next is your choice of veggies. I always get all the veggies, and often, I am sorry to say, I don’t eat them. First up is mushy green beans, under cooked cauliflower, or roasted potatoes- (are you keeping track of the potatoes?), none of these items have any salt on them (including the roasted veggies). Then, starches. If the potatoes aren’t with the veggies, they are with the starches (sometimes you can get potato salad as your salad, roasted potatoes for as your veggie, and mashed potatoes as your starch- I don’t make this stuff up). If you decide against another form of cooked potato- white rice is also available.

Liz and I have an ongoing joke about dinners now. We always say, “what do you think they have for dinner?” We always respond “Rice and sauce.” On days when we are feeling optimistic, we may respond “sauce and rice.” The truth is that you have a choice between two main dishes, and one of them is almost always a brothy sauce (often referred to as a “curry”) with some form of very over cooked meat and mushy vegetables in it. Whether it’s chicken, lamb, or beef, the sauce always tastes about the same. The other choice is often a chicken wing, another form of sauce, or a slice of pork or ham that is more fat than meat. Is your tummy grumbling yet? Even worse is- you don’t get to serve yourself- it is downright good luck if you end up with a good piece of meat…or a good anything in this dinner line- it has nothing to do with those awesome buffet skills acquired while growing up in America- in New Zealand at Massy University it’s all about your place in line and the kindness of the server.

Dessert is usually good, although nothing like what we whip up in the states. Most of the time there is a base cake and it is covered in a creamy custard. Funny enough- it is rare to find cake here with frosting, and the ones I did find were called “Texas Muffins”. I’m still not sure what to make of that. Twice I have seen them serve American pancakes (tiny bite sized ones) with berries and cream. I have been asked if Maple syrup is a real thing. No joke. Sometimes you also get the choice of melted ice cream to go with your meal! But, if you are not there in the first hour of the dinner service- dessert is already gone (the dinner service is only 2 hours).

I read an article the other day that was called “Top 10 foods Americans Miss Most When They Go Abroad”. I found the list to be extremely accurate. Number one was Mexican food. What I would not do for a good burrito right now…  A can of refried beans here costs $5.09. I know; I bought two. I dream about having gourmet nachos for lunch, but even regular corn chips are hard to find, and tortillas are in the foreign food section (since when?). One day in the cafeteria, the server asked me if I wanted nachos or chicken- not chicken nachos- nachos or chicken. I got nachos, which I guess is the code for chili beans (not refried) on chips. No cheese, no meat, no sour cream, no avocado, tomatoes, no salsa; nothing but chili beans and chips. Yum. At least they had something other than rice and sauce.

Pizza was another thing that people miss. In New Zealand, I can see why. The last time I got pizza, I opened the lid and it smelled very funny…I am still not sure what the source of that distinct funny smell was…and, the pizza was not what I would call pizza. It was covered in a sweet chili sauce that kiwis seem to use in the same way that Americans use ranch dressing. When I bit into it, I discovered not only did it smell funny, but it was soggy, and honestly, just tasted vile. I was tempted to order a Round Table pizza from California to show them what pizza is  supposed to look like, smell like, and taste like…but I think by the time it got here they magic of the pizza would have worn off. Oh well, when I get home, I am expecting someone to take me out for good pizza. It’s funny though, I don’t even like pizza that much!

On that list there was also free ketchup- but I think that is not accurate- just ketchup in general is hard to come by, and Americans will moan and groan about it all day long. Oh, and cereal. A regular box of cereal here (like corn flakes) will cost you 6 dollars…on sale. Ice was another top runner- and it’s true- I have not had a drink with ice in a long time, but I don’t really miss that one. However, I do miss soda. Here, drinking soda can be an expensive habit- a 20 oz. bottle of Diet Coke is $4.00. Now I only get it as a treat…usually for long study nights (better than Redbull, right?). But I guess soda is supposed to be only a treat anyway- so I can let that one go.  Another thing that not on the list was cherries- today when I was in the grocery store one kilogram of cherries was $29.00- product of the USA. I skipped that purchase, but I do enjoy my occasional bowl of cherries.

Anyway- onto more interesting things.

Ready to hear about my worst meal? It was so bad I can actually remember it. Think about it- can you remember the worst meal you ever had? It’s hard. I know that I hate split pea soup, but I don’t remember at what meal I decided that… There was always something good in my mom’s meals that event of finding a food I truly do not like did not leave a lasting impression in my mind- because the other elements of the meal I loved. Well- now I know- if anyone ever asked me what my worst meal is I can say “Calamari Stir-fry with Assorted Salads.” It smelled and tasted like bad seafood. I knew the moment I got it that I had made a very bad decision. When I opened my to-go box, I took one small bite and threw it all in the trash, and just ate dessert for dinner that night. Not even the salads could be saved because the flavor got into them as well- and the bread roll that saved me on so many nights from an empty stomach,  had soaked up some of the nauseating juice the stir fry was cooked in. Never again.*cringe*.

A close second was the “Lamb Stroganoff.” That was a joke. The night before they had served Cream of Mushroom soup  and apparently they had tons of leftovers (ya think?). The next day, they cooked some lamb and put it in the soup and called it Stroganoff. I love my dad’s stroganoff, and even though this meal looked rather grey in color, I had to try it. I was even excited for it. I haven’t had Stroganoff in ages. But, if I thought that taste of my Dad’s Stroganoff was going to come back to me, I was sadly mistaken. That meal was a disaster. It didn’t even come on noodles,  it came on rice (rice with sauce), and under the natural light- it was a color of grey that I have never seen in food before, and a color I don’t think food is mean to be….like the color of cement…or dirty grey sweatpants. Yuck. Kind of tasted like it too. I think I took 4-5 bites of that one before I decided it wasn’t edible.  Needless to say, I still haven’t had Stroganoff in ages.

Despite 90% of the food being something less than what I have grown up with and what I have been accustomed to, some of it is good. Every day at lunch, they sell “Wedges” (what we call home fries) with sour cream and sweet chili sauce. It may sound weird, but it’s great. I now limit myself to one order a week- always on Friday afternoons before my last physics class of the week- it’s the only way I can get myself to sit in a physics lecture on a Friday afternoon.

The yogurt is also to die for. I don’t think Americans understand how good a natural, full fat, yogurt can be. It’s fantastic.  I have to buy the small containers, otherwise I will eat the large one with 8 servings in 2 sittings. I have also found a candy bar that is incredible- Moro bars. They are like a twix bar, but with more caramel and covered in better chocolate.

Needless to day- these few things have made up most of my diet, and I sometimes I feel like I am hungry for weeks at a time- occasionally getting a good meal in for my lunch. It would be fine if I was getting skinny- but….I don’t think that’s the case- too much studying can do that to you. I told my mom once that the problem with studying is that it makes you fat- she told me I better not be using that as an excuse to stop.

Anyway, sorry about the length of the post. One should not to get me started on food haha. Hmmm, maybe it’s not the studying….See you all in five weeks! I am already planning a grand feast!

If you want to read that top 10 food article here you go! http://www.cnngo.com/explorations/eat/best-usa-travel/10-foods-and-beverages-americans-miss-most-while-abroad-164890

Ghost Stories

A view of the grave yard as we were leaving, I think those are just our footprints.....

Northern Cemetery, Dunedin New Zealand

Half my head is missing.....paranormal activity?

I have never been a particularly superstitious person. When I watch TV shows about ghost hunters and paranormal activity and any other forms of “madness”, I never hesitate to question how fake it is. Admittedly, when people begin to explain to me their ghost encounters, I usually try to figure out in my head how it could have happened without it being a ghost. Imagination? Light refraction? Simply a cool breeze that passed you while you were in a creepy place? Then again, I do not claim to have any paranormal experiences- and apparently it takes having one to really be a believer. I know what you’re thinking- this girl who was more excited to take a Magic and Witchcraft class than any other class ever, this girl who is dying to have her palm read, and this girl who reads and tries to relate her life to horoscopes whenever she finds them,  is trying to explain ghosts away? Great way to become a witch, huh? Second guess everything that happens in the paranormal world and try to explain away it with physics.  Although, I’m also not doing so well with the physics…(so, maybe I am meant for Hogwarts?)

Just to set those things straight, I am a firm believer in magic- I mean, how could the world of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, and the Burrow not be real? I have pictured it to be real since the long days I spent in the garden, wishing I had a wand that would pull up the weeds for me while I awaited my Hogwarts letter. But the other things I look at merely for a source of entertainment. I would love to learn about tarot card readings just because it’s fun, I would love to have my palm read, just to see how accurate it is. But as far as those things and ghosts go, I’m not really convinced… as some people would say- I’m not completely crazy. This all kept in mind, I would love to tell you about some stories I heard during my night in the cemetery.

At the start of Spring break, Liz and I decided to take a trip around the south island. After a ferry ride and a couple bus stops we ended up in a city called Dunedin. It was as hilly and as lively as San Francisco on a sunny day. Ironically- we stayed at a hostel called Hogwartz. One of the things that Liz wanted to do most was go on a ghost walk- a walk throughout the city while a guide showed you sites and told you stories of ghost activity. Even though I’m not superstitious- the idea was still a little creepy, but of course I went. A strange man in a cape and a top hat greeted us at the top of this hill and off we went. Overall, the walk was interesting, we ended up in a basement that happened to be very underground, called (even more ironically) “the chamber of Secrets”. This chamber was apparently known to be haunted due to its scary past, and is now where the citizens of Dunedin go to hold Pagan rituals…even though I had paid this man, I was questioning  some of my decisions about who I trust to take me to dark rooms and tell me ghost stories.

After the tour was over, the guide apparently liked us so much that he wanted to take us on a walk around a cemetery in the middle of the night- this cemetery supposedly made it to the top 10 most haunted cemeteries in the world. Naturally, we could not think of any reason we should not go. Needless to say, it happened to be much creepier than our ghost walk of the city, and the stories much more convincing.

When we arrived, the guide started by telling us that despite the fact that he knew the cemetery like the back of his hand and he spent about 3 nights a week walking among the headstones, he would never ever go to the cemetery alone. Sitting in front of a computer screen it sounds like a good scare tactic- but honestly- I wouldn’t go back to that cemetery alone either- the air itself seemed….lifeless. Liz and I linked arms and didn’t let go until we were back to safety.

Next he told us that if he says “let’s get out of here”…don’t hesitate- just run.

Now, conveniently, as you walk through the cemetery, he does not tell the group where you are headed or any stories about the next site until you are there. In this case, we were headed to the “haunted corner”.  It’s this really hidden place in the cemetery-you have to walk down a hill and around a thin trail to get there. It’s as dark as dark can get because the stars are not visible there and the moon is stuck on the other side of the hill.

One night he took a group out there, and they did not finish the tour because something truly frightening happened. This is where the “run” comes in. The guide was leading the group to this dark, haunted corner, and at the top of the hill, a woman in the group started frantically screaming without reason, without warning. She said they had to stop, that they had to get out of the cemetery, that “it” was coming. The guide, who was slightly ahead of the group, walked back up the hill and tried to calm her down- not knowing what she was talking about or why she was screaming, or what she thought was going to happen. She did not relax. She screamed again and said that they could not go down there- that they were in danger, and that they had to leave.

By then, the whole group was getting a bit antsy. What was this lady talking about? And why did everything suddenly get a little creepier, a little darker, a little stiller, even a little colder? Aside from the women in hysterics, the group was quiet- ultimately speechless, trying to figure this woman out. That’s when our guide claimed he heard it. There was a rustling of leaves that seemed to be coming from down the hill, from this haunted corner.  It seemed to sound like footsteps. The guide slowly turned around, and whether it was that he was imagining things because this was the creepiest situation he had ever been in, or if it was a trick of light- he saw something coming up the hill. He jumped to his feet and yelled “Run!” and the entire group bolted to the gates in a terrorized rush because the guide wasn’t the only one who heard it or the only one that saw it.

When they got to the gates the woman finally calmed down and was able to explain what happened. The important thing to remember about this story is that the guide does not tell you where you are or what you are doing until you are actually in the haunted corner. This woman could not have known what they were heading to.

The woman explained first, that she was half Moari. She was on the tour for her birthday, and when they got to the top of the hill she claims and ancestor was coming up the hill to stop them. That he was angry that she was there, and that he was going to make it impossible for them to see the burial site, one way or another. The guide never said they were headed to a Moari burial site.

At this point, the guide told us that we could take the story for whatever value we wanted, that several people in that group asked if he had paid this woman to put on a show, but it happened 100% as he told it. It was the scariest night of his life, and he questioned whether he should continue taking tours there.

The “haunted corner” which is supposed to be the scariest part and most haunted spot of the entire cemetery, is a Moari burial site. It was there that a bunch of the native Moari people thrown without ceremony or burial when they died after the Europeans came to colonize. This was a huge insult to the Moari people because anywhere their dead were buried was to be considered sacred and not to be disturbed- it was even worse that they were not covered, but all placed in open graves. The Europeans had effectively insulted the entire Moari people by not only disrespecting their dead but by disregarding culture and customs of the people. According to the guide, it is much scarier during the day because you can see the open grave sites and you can see why the souls that are stuck there are restless. They have no idea how many people were buried there.

Whether what happened was real or not, it was enough to give me the heebee geebies, and I was about ready to hightail it out of there. I didn’t want to disrespect anyone, or cause any harm to restless souls. I am totally happy to leave everyone in peace. Why did I even think it was a good idea to come here? But we couldn’t leave before he told us one more story.

A long time ago, a woman was put on trial for stabbing and murdering her husband. In the trial, she explained that he was extremely abusive her whole life, and she could not handle it anymore. She needed to escape, so she killed him. This woman was 60 years old, had put up with endless suffering at the hand of her husband, and then was sentenced to life in prison. Back then, there was no separation of men and women in prison, and life in prison for a woman was virtually a death sentence. Her husband was buried in this cemetery- a real honor because only those who were of high class were permitted to be buried there. Remarkably, the woman survived for ten years in prison before she died. But, when her time came, the officials decided to bury her next to her husband in the cemetery because that was the custom (despite the fact that she had committed a crime, declared her hatred against her grave partner, and had been the one that killed him). Soon after she was buried next to her abusive husband, a visitor came back to visit her grave. It was cracked open. I could not help but be proud of this woman.

At the end of the tour, the night seemed a little crisper- and pictures I needed to prove I was there reached a questionable necessity. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing straight up. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it was hard in the middle of the night in the pitch dark not to think that the breeze blowing in your hair might be a little more. That the crackle of your footsteps might not just be from your footsteps, and that these stories might have some truth to them. Spend a night in a cemetery if you have the chance, and see what you come out believing.

My friend alyssa’s encounter with a ghost our freshman year!

Missing Ghana

I never really thought that the day would come when I had a longing to go back to Ghana. I thought it was great while it lasted, I was really glad I went, but I mean I am sitting in the middle of New Zealand. I have hot water, electricity, reliable public transport, good classes, great professors, good internet, what could make me possibly miss Ghana- a place where all those things were scarce? I have no idea.

All I know is that right now, I would give up all those things again to be sitting in a hot damp room with what were only semi clean clothes in the first place, sticking to my back, a bag of rice with some spicy sauce, no running water, surrounded by friends playing an intense game of Uno while mosquitos buzzed around our heads.

I miss everything. Even the hard stuff. For some reason looking back, the hard stuff made me feel…capable, strong, and smart- in a totally different way than school or swimming ever did. I didn’t realize it then, but the hard stuff is the stuff that got under my skin- the stuff that made me want to do something for and in this world. It makes me realize what I am capable of, what i can endure, and a whole new realm of possibilities opened to me. That’s the stuff that changed me as a person, realizing that despite everything going wrong that could possibly go wrong, I can still laugh, dance, and smile, and at some point, fix the situation. In the end I didn’t remember the frustrated feelings that came with the amazing adventure- all I remember is laughing about them.  The hard stuff is what makes life after Ghana different in every way.

Life became about the people I surrounded myself with. It became about being happy despite the potential for misery. I learned to laugh at myself, at my situation, and feel sympathy for those who were not able to see the humor in it- and I realized that the fact that I didn’t have water today, is not going to matter in 20 years, or even in 20 days. What did matter is how I dealt with that situation and the people that shared that situation with me. What really matters is that I was laughing (even if I was also complaining), and that I was a part of something great, that I can do and endure things other people would not dare to dream about- and still smile about it.

 In the months after those hard times, I can’t remember ever feeling miserable- I know they happened, I know it was hard, I know that I complained a lot, but misery is nowhere in my memory.  But I do remember joking about it with Mie and Tara, Michelle and Keri over a bowl of fried rice from the lady that always made our lunch with a smile. The funniest part is, when you come back and tell people all the hard stuff that happened- they look at you and say “so, it was awful?” and then consider you a little bit crazy after you respond “no, I have never had so much fun in my life.” Ghana changed me.

The truth is; I didn’t have to have pretty crown, sparkly shoes, smooth hair, and perfect makeup to have a good time and become friends with some of the best people I have ever met. In fact, I think the best way to meet people is for you to both to be a little smelly, a little dirty, a little sweaty, and maybe a bit miserable, and then to talk about it all over a friendly game of Uno or Madlibs and a good serving of Red-Red and plantains while the flies circle you all.  I miss every single person that was in my program, and it wasn’t until now that I realized how much they meant to me.

The other day, a guy told me that all “us girls” have ridiculous problems and we don’t understand what a “real” problem is. Quite frankly, I couldn’t help but be offended even though he had no idea what I had just done for the last 6 months of my life. I also knew that he had no way of knowing that I probably had a better understanding of what a “real” problem was than he did. But still, I was offended by the mere suggestion of the fact that I look like someone who only has “ridiculous girl problems”. I responded by saying, I have no problems. Something, that may not be true every second, and will not be true every second, but at that moment, and at this moment, I have no ridiculous girl problems. He responded by saying that if I have no problems, then I have a problem. Idiot.  I am in New Zealand. I am in school. I have a room to stay in and nice people surrounding me, things to eat and people that support me. The only problem I have is I miss Africa. I don’t see how that being my only problem means that I have a problem.

I always say, it takes a certain kind of person to go to Africa. And looking back, I knew that was true….but I wasn’t sure what kind of person that was, I wasn’t even sure if I was that kind of person. It took going to New Zealand and trying to blend in with a whole new crowd to figure it out. The friends I met in Africa were strong, independent, extremely down to earth, driven, happy, and capable, funny, friendly, and a thousand other great things. They were awesome (not that the people I am meeting in New Zealand are not). They could turn any negative into a positive. Any bad day was something to laugh about. Any awkward situation could become a comfortable one. We were a part of a bond that only a place like Ghana could bring out in people, and one that I am not sure I will ever experience it again.  We faced some hardships, some hunger, weird smells, sickness, market places, taxis, creepy men, pick pocketing, dangerous situations, bad classes, and anything that, that guy may call real problems together. And we laughed about it. We were happy, and found a way to love Ghana despite what it threw at us.

The hardest part about New Zealand is, I find myself getting frustrated with the mundane. Who cares that blush in New Zealand costs you triple what it would at home. Don’t wear blush. Problem solved. And who cares if you had to pay $25 to come home after a night of drinking. Walk. It’s free. And if you are in a position where you can’t walk….I have less sympathy for you than before. Manicures, cute jewelry, perfume, and a bottle of good ketchup are all extras in life. There is no reason to get worked up about not having it, and I find it hard to relate to the people who do. Seriously though, you’d be amazed at how much people talk about ketchup when they go abroad.

 I guess this is what some people refer to as “Reverse culture shock”. The things that matter to me seem to be very different than then things that matter to some of the people around me. I mean, I like blush and nail polish, and going out, but being able to wear it or have a quality drink is not going to make a lick of difference to my overall happiness- and I am not sure that is completely true for everyone.

 I won’t be embarrassed if I don’t have makeup on, I won’t be outraged if I have to get my hands dirty, I won’t be livid if a friend can’t meet me for a coffee date. Those days won’t stay in my mind nearly as well as the days that I was that I spent in Africa without those things. As far as I am concerned, there will be other days I can wear makeup, other days when I won’t have to clean the dirt from under my fingernails, and other days that I can go out for coffee; but not every day will I be a part of something great, something more meaningful than looking pretty and drinking a caramel frap.

I also find myself being grateful for things I wasn’t grateful for before and also things I didn’t consider before. Some are small things like….being able to run at night, being able to drink tap water, warm running water, electricity. Some are big things- the realization that no matter what happens, everything will work out, that I am lucky enough to always have something to smile about, and that I have had one of the most incredible opportunities I will ever be offered- one that a lot of people don’t get to have, and that I have an incredible family- Mom, Dad, Sister and James, Brother, and even Zade,( because he didn’t forget me), and Blaze (because she welcomed me home) and friends that supported me the whole way.

One day, I hope that I can make a difference to someone like all those people have made for me.

 And if any of you have the chance to go to Africa, just do it. Don’t be afraid, don’t think twice, don’t reconsider it…actually it’s probably better not to think at all. Just go. Do what I did, and picture nothing past the airplane. You’ll be glad you went. You are capable of far more than you believe.

So to end this, I want to say thank you everyone. Thank you mom for getting me to and through Ghana, and to Dad and Virginia for helping finance and supporting this incredible year of my life. To Alyssa, Tamara, Jasmine, Enia, Maria and Ana, thank you for not trying to stop me even though you knew what I was getting myself into, and to Hannah and Evan for being excited for me too, and to everyone I met in Ghana for making Ghana the best thing I have ever done. And thanks to Francis and the rest of your family for helping me once I arrived, and Tony and Katherine for relating to my situations- it really did make me feel better.  And lastly, thanks to you for reading all my blog posts, I get such a good feeling in my heart when I see the number of views go up. It’s thanks to you guys that I have this blog to look back at.

If the world were to end today, I am lucky that I made it this far.