Category Archives: Travel

I Should Not Have an Education: or, Why I’m Moving to Rwanda

Quick announcement: I’m moving! Well, not in real life—not yet, anyway—but online. Follow me at elizabethsyson.wordpress.com to keep updated. All my content will be both here and there until the official move, but starting in August, this blog will no longer be active.


What would you think if I didn’t apply to grad school, I texted my mother, and instead moved to Africa to teach English?

I got her answer almost immediately: Can I call you?

To be fair, she handled the whole situation better than a lot of parents might have, and over the next several hours, I laid out my reasoning behind discarding applications to a handful of top-notch universities and banking on a long-shot application to the Peace Corps.

My main reason: I should not have an education.

Education is an interesting thing, when you sit down to think about it. For centuries, only the wealthy or religious were educated, and the working classes were kept in their place largely by a lack of education. In some times and places, it simply wasn’t available. In others, it was illegal—consider the way white Southerners kept black slaves under control by limiting their education. Today, we consider education a necessity, but millions of children worldwide either can’t go to school or have to drop out before finishing.

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According to UNESCO, 61 million primary school-age children were not enrolled in school in 2010. Of these children, 47% were never expected to enter school, 26% attended school but left, and the remaining 27% are expected to attend school in the future.
(DoSomething.org)

I say that I should not have had an education, and maybe that sounds odd. After all, I’m a white American living above the poverty line. I learned to read and write before kindergarten and maintained high grades from beginning to end of my education, and I never once questioned whether I would go to college (though, as I later learned, my parents did).

But the truth is, I’m only in my position because a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices. I succeeded in high school because my mother devoted time and energy to homeschool six children when the public school system failed us. My parents managed a tight budget to buy me books on my birthdays. I attended a fantastic college mostly on scholarships and work-study, and I studied abroad thanks to generous gifts from family and friends.

“In developing, low-income countries, every additional year of education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10%.”
(DoSomething.org)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/overseas-development-institute/2577909266/in/photolist-4VNsBu-8HVPCM-5SVQV1-nDu143-fzviyT-9W1vid-9SCSqn-a6EB2f-7VmTTi-ptXje-5yn99M-omJjSi-aiCeyy-8ntqHo-9LQWFw-4eVLyf-6ccQXV-fPTHeV-4eRN4n-miR75-4eVLxs-5rkbrw-4eRN3v-5G4HBz-9Xh8kF-9v2KdX-9v5KgN-efdcc9-9SFKsW-2UXZzH-zc9oU-C4aBt-ai57Xe-9SCSEg-88FiwB-9SFKGS-9SFKm9-9SCSwV-9SCSPR-9SCSMP-9SCSBF-9SCSGF-9SCSz8-9SFKqA-zYJWH-3q8BFc-7yXa4L-9rju35-9Kztfc-cXp2NS

Don’t get me wrong—I worked hard for my education—but I started from a position of privilege, and it was the sacrifices and gifts of other people that put me there. And suddenly, a year ago, wading through grad school applications, I stopped and asked myself, “Why?”

Why go to grad school? Why spent that much more money—someone else’s money, of course—to spend another two years revelling in a writing-centred world of my own? Why go on to a career, to make money to pay for a flat so I could live in a city with a job where I could make money to pay for a flat to…? That day, staring at the bright pictures of classrooms and successful grad students, I thought, What a waste.

Not that education is a waste of money. I think education is one of the most valuable things we have—the chance to broaden our worlds, learn new skills, open up opportunities. But taking an education I’d been essentially given and using it merely to make myself a lucrative life? It sounded thoroughly selfish.

“53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls and 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women.”
(DoSomething.org)

Literature cracked the world open for me. It gave me a place to hide, new thoughts to think, unexpected people to love. It taught me to understand and communicate with diverse groups of people, to consider every perspective, to grieve for every pain. Practically, communication skills make me more likely to get and keep a good job. Literacy gives me the chance to learn outside a formal educational structure, and writing gives me an effective self-therapy option when anxiety strikes.

And, faced with the option to spend two more years either enjoying my education or sharing it, I couldn’t fathom choosing the former.

This leads me to my official announcement: in September, I fly to Kigali, Rwanda to spend the next two years teaching high school English.

I’m thrilled. I’m terrified. I’d love to answer your questions, and I hope you’ll stick around and let me virtually take you with me on this journey.

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*This is a scary announcement because the Peace Corps gives volunteers no guarantee that they won’t be cut from the programme before arrival. My status as a volunteer could change between now and September, although obviously I don’t anticipate that happening.


Her Name Is Ramah

Her name is Ramah. She stands on the edge of our circle too shy to join in, clutching her younger brother’s hand. When I look over, her dark eyes meet mine, and when I smile, she smiles back. I tell her my name and hold out a hand, and she grips my fingers tightly and tells me her name and her brother’s, and then giggles when I try to pronounce them.

In her perhaps seven years of life, she has already seen more suffering than I can imagine.

She lives in a tiny, shoulder-high enclosure, one of many, a crude blanket fort inside a concrete building like an abandoned parking garage. She plays on dirt and cement behind a chain-link fence guarded by Greek police, and if I am cold in a coat, she must be freezing in her thin shirt.

Earlier in the morning, I stood in the ruins of Philippi, and it did not feel real.

I touched the stones where Paul walked, saw the city square where he was beaten, sang in the theatre where Christians were martyred. I wondered, as I ran my fingers along the doorframe of an ancient temple to Caesar, why I was taught to be willing to die like an ancient Christian martyr but not to live like one—why my upbringing included dedication to defending my faith, but not unrelenting dedication to loving the needy.

And now in the evening, I stand in the refugee camp, and it feels too real.

I touch the dirt where they walk, see the shelters where they sleep, sing in the building where they live. I wonder, as I hold Ramah’s tiny fingers in my hand, why my country sends money to insurgent groups, but not to these desperate ones—why we fill other countries with our military, but don’t fill our own country with refugees.

Photo by Flickr user mehmet bilgin

Photo by Flickr user mehmet bilgin

We sang, and they cheered, and even as I laughed with the little girl who threw her ball higher and higher until I couldn’t catch it anymore, and even as I admired the little boys’ soccer skills, and even as I held a mother’s hand and repeated her name—I felt tears behind my eyes.

A man told us, “It’s good you came here. The children needed—” and here he pressed his hands to his heart and then raised them heavenward.

And I felt all the guilt of knowing I can walk in and out of their prison on holiday. I felt the shame of lifting their spirits only to leave without providing any material help. Hope is a powerful thing, but songs are not enough. Laughter will not keep out the darkness.

The children chased our bus out, waving and calling thank you’s, and we left behind people with no certain future. What I saw for ten or twenty minutes, they will see for ten or twenty months, years even.

We argue about economies, politics, immigration laws, while hundreds of thousands of people crowd into already struggling countries. We talk about statistics. We argue about “political issues” as if they were a hot potato in a game we hoped to win, but I have looked into their eyes, held their hands, and learned their names.

They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They are sons and daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers.

And one of them is a little girl named Ramah.


Love is Blindness (or is it?)

I didn’t come to New York City expecting to fall in love. I’m a country girl through and through; I like dirt roads under my bare feet and brilliant stars above mountain ranges’ evening silhouettes. But as I near the end, I realise I’ve come to love the endless kaleidoscope, the constant change and yet sameness of the people on the streets, the subways running like (broken) clockwork, the engines and sirens sweeping the streets day and night.

NYC rooftops

I binge-watched Daredevil this weekend, and out of the muddled hours of flashing guns, impressive ninja moves, and dramatically-whispered conversations, one line stuck in my mind:

Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.

Wow. What a hit-and-miss theory of love. If you happen to stop noticing the bad things, that’s love, and if you happen to keep noticing them—sorry, not for you. It sounds pretty, but this version of love removes all intentionality and turns love into partial blindness. I would argue that love is a choice, not to forget what you dislike, but to emphasise what you like—to acknowledge the imperfections but focus on the perfections.

Loving a city is a little like loving a person. You begin as strangers, every corner and angle a surprise, and you slowly explore, growing more and more familiar until you don’t have to ask directions or read signs. You know what you can say and do and when you should go home and close the door. And as your acquaintance continues, you have the choice: will you focus on that bag of rotting rubbish on the corner, or will you look past it and see the windows glistening like jewels in the sun? It isn’t a matter of chance—it’s not sitting around hoping you’ll notice something positive before you see the negative—it’s a matter of choice, of looking for the positive and keeping your eyes on the good when the bad crowds in.

I’ve come to love New York, not because I’ve stopped noticing the dirty streets and jam-packed subways, but because in the midst of those I notice rooftops gleaming under the setting sun and ancient elms rustling in hot afternoon breezes.

You can’t love on condition; “I’ll love you when your faults stop bothering me” is not love. You have to love unconditionally, the dirty with the clean, the broken parts with the whole. You don’t love someone by not seeing what’s ugly; you love by choosing to look past to what’s beautiful.


On Sightseeing: Lessons from New York City

“So what do you want to see while you’re in New York?”

I got this question from everyone my first week in the city—from my flatemates, my coworkers, my mother, the barista at the coffee shop… Okay, I’m lying about the barista; but he probably would’ve asked if he’d thought of it.

My answer was the same every time: “Well, uh, I don’t really know…what are you supposed to see in New York City?”

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So I googled “what to do in NYC” and, overwhelmed by so many suggestions, shut the whole thing down and drank a few cups of coffee. For a few weeks, I forced myself out of my flat every weekend. I dutifully visited the Museum of Natural History and got lost in Central Park. Then I stopped sightseeing, overwhelmed by the number of options, exhausted by the constant movement, depressed by seeing sights alone.

And then Emily came. I picked her up at the airport, escorted her onto the wrong bus, course corrected half an hour later, and helped carry her suitcase up four flights of stairs to my apartment.

I like to think we saw the entirety of New York City in one week of meandering down sidewalks and up subway station stairs. And I think our adventures translate into good sightseeing advice no matter where you’re visiting.

  1.  From the Statue of Liberty: Live beyond a lens.
    My camera phone is generally great, but skylines and statues aren’t really its thing. So I tucked the phone away and spent the ride to Staten Island and back leaning on the top railing of the ferry, breathing in salty air, and taking in the surprisingly diminutive Lady Liberty dwarfed by the city’s skyscrapers, marvelling at the waves and the seagulls and the glints of gold on sailboats. Instead a two- by five-inch screen, I saw the water and sunset stretching as far as I could see, the colours more vivid and real than my phone will ever show me. Don’t be so concerned about getting a photo that you miss an experience.
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  2. From the Museum of Natural History: Call it quits.
    Museums are fantastic, and New York City has more than its fair share. I’m thrilled that they’re here and that people enjoy them, but I don’t. Once I’ve seen one stuffed lion or unearthed pottery shard, I figure I’ve seen them all. And I refuse to feel guilty for that; I can always read a book or watch the history channel, and there are dozens of alternative things to do. I gain far more by doing something I actually care about than by trudging through a museum just to say I did it. Don’t visit a place out of obligation; spend your time on what matters to you.
  3. From Mezzrow and Smalls: Empty your pockets.
    I’m skint and stingy, so $60 for drinks and a show chokes me. But I spent the money, and I spent the evening listening to truly fantastic jazz piano and one of the best quartets I’ve ever heard. I packed in with people wearing evening formal and people wearing shorts and t-shirts, and we all had nothing in common except for the blue chords and smooth saxophone, and I’ve yet to regret it. A year from now, I’ll remember not the rent or the groceries but the memories. Shell out your money where it counts.
  4. From the Brooklyn Bridge: We came, we saw, we conquered left.
    We took the subway to Brooklyn and wandered through the park, along the pier, under the bridge. Then we got back on the subway and left. Most things besides museums don’t take as long to see as people seem to think. It’s important to pause and marvel; we all need a little wonder in our lives. But pausing and marvelling can be done quickly if that’s what you want. Don’t be afraid to stop, stare, snap a photo, and then leave.
    piano
  5. From Piano in Bryant Park: Improvise.
    We put off our afternoon plans to walk the Highline in favour of sitting on rickety chairs in Bryant Park, eating sandwiches, and listening to a ragtime piano concert. A free concert in the park is nowhere in the “must do in NYC” blogs I skimmed, but to us, an hour or two of rag tops a half hour of walking along a repurposed train track any day. Yes, the Highline is more famous, but we prefer Scott Joplin to a different view of the same skyscrapers. Decide what matters most—not what will impress your friends, but what you’ll look back on with a smile. It might not be the most celebrated experience, but what matters is that you celebrate it.
    Bonus: From Gilmore Girls: Put your feet up.
    Don’t get so caught up in the tourist scene that you forget to rest. We spent two evenings lying on the couch eating ice cream and scones and shouting at watching The Gilmore Girls. If you need to bum it with smoothies and Netflix…that’s okay. Let’s face it: if you’re too tired to care, you’re not going to enjoy seeing the sights anyway.

Chrysler

I know there’s a ton of New York City I still haven’t seen, but I’m satisfied, and that’s what matters. Seeing the world isn’t about crossing items off lists but about adding them—adding the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, that little street where I got lost and never did find the museum I were looking for or the tiny cafe where I had a cheap coffee because the famous restaurant was too expensive. In the end, any sight is worth seeing if I look for the novelty, the history, or the beauty in it.


The 99% Cliché

“There is a mean-spiritedness to this place,” a coworker told me on Friday.

building

I could only stare at her, speechless. In the nearly two months I have worked for Worth Publishers, I have seen I’ve seen coworkers do each other’s jobs to be helpful and supervisors provide time off without question. People have taken time to teach me and to laugh with me, to forgive my mistakes graciously and encourage my successes unstintingly. The doors are always open and the walls are thin. I’ve overheard casual conversations and business meetings, one woman swearing at her computer when it crashed and and another calling a plumber for her mother. I’ve overheard nothing to hint at pervasive mean-spiritedness.

I don’t write this to complain about a coworker or to rant about how much I love my workplace, but to point out the practical relevance of a cliché that we all know but seldom consider: life is 99% attitude.

I walked into that building on the first day terrified—but also excited, eager, and anticipatory. However, I walked in without expectations. I knew the company owed me nothing. Grateful to even be making an hourly wage as an intern, I planned to perform my duties as well as I could and ask no favours.

It turns out I didn’t have to ask; supervisors and coworkers handed out favours like free lollies at the bank from the moment I stepped in the door—but if they hadn’t, if they’d been cool and demanding and cut me no slack, I would not have been disappointed. I certainly wouldn’t have called them mean-spirited. I hoped for the best, but expecting nothing beyond civility, and thus I left no room for disappointment, only pleasant surprises.

I don’t know this woman. All I know of her is contained in brief “good morning”s, the blur of motion when she walks past, her voice coming through walls or over cubicle partitions when she’s on the phone or in someone’s office. She may not be as demanding as I perceive, expecting to be given what she sees as her dues, with no patience for anyone who falls short. It’s not my place to criticise. Perhaps she is due much more than I know, and her standards are high because she believes people capable high levels of growth and success. I don’t know.

What I do know is she is constantly dissatisfied with the people around her, and I am constantly encouraged by the people around me, and I don’t think the people around us are different—I think our attitudes are.

doubles

I’m not saying, “Set your sights low so you can never be disappointed.” I’m saying, “Don’t assume people owe you anything.” Usually they don’t.

Life isn’t about paying and collecting debts, playing some abstract King of the Mountain. It’s about give and take. It’s about bringing doughnuts to the office or about doing a half hour of work for someone who’s swamped in deadlines. It’s about smiling and saying, “Good morning!” and actually listening to that girl across the hallway tell her saga of miscommunication with her realtor. It’s about about accepting with gratefulness and forgiving with grace and, in the end, realising that loving people is more important than running people.

My office is imperfect. If I searched for mean-spiritedness, I might find it.

But I don’t search.


Small Joys

I sat on the windowsill and blew bubbles out onto the evening breeze, because this week, the full weight of my aloneness settled on me.

Over the weekend, I walked alone through Central Park and passed couples jogging, children playing, and dogs walking their people. I wanted to point out the way the air smelt unaccountably of cinnamon, but I had nobody to notice it with me. I wanted to marvel at how unfamiliar grass and trees and mulch seemed already, after so short a time living in the city, but I had nobody to sigh with me. Every morning and evening, I walked alone through Madison Square Park and passed coworkers chatting on benches, mothers tugging toddlers along, and friends waving across the square. I wanted to see a friend and smile in recognition, but I had nobody to greet.

I slide into lonely self-pity with the same ease I slump down into my seat on the subway. But a wise man once remarked that, “The world is so full of a number of things…” So this week, I reminded myself of the small joys that soften my isolation.

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Small joys of soft rain caressing my face in the park. Of the sparrows fluttering in dust-baths, so tiny and yet so bold. Of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice drifting down the street out some open window, and of flashes of my childhood rushing in and out of my room as cars pass by at night, radios blaring.

Small joys of twisted tree roots breaking up the synthetic structure of the sidewalk, and of the cactus someone set in its pot on the first-storey windowsill outside my door. Of the man who greets me in Spanish at the tienda on the corner and sells me queso fresco for hojaldres that taste like home. Of hour-long, rambling conversations with my mother as I pace my flat—seven steps to the door and seven back to the bed, pivot, step again.

Guitar

Small joys of free books and hour-long subway rides to read them. Of the boy humming with his guitar in the Times Square station, eyes closed and mouth smiling, and of the man growling jazz on his saxophone by the fountain, dancing with the force of his syncopation.

Small joys of the post—of letters in elegant calligraphy swirls and heartfelt scrawls, and of boxes filled with homemade cookies, Nutella, and Sharpies.

And small joys of bubbles, floating like transient jewels on the evening breeze, dancing between high rises and lighting on fire escapes, escaping into the lowering dusk from my seat on the windowsill.

Bubbles


Pizza: Free. Advice: Priceless.

Every Thursday, I stand outside a locked door and wait for someone to let me in. I think I hate it more than anything else I’ve had to do since coming to New York (and that’s saying a lot; this morning I took all the subway stairs in one embarrassing, painful step).

Why put myself through it? The quick answer is, “Free food!” Because, let’s face it, I’ll do a lot for free food. The more honest answer is complicated. It’s all tied up with scary words like “networking” and “career opportunities,” but I guess it comes down to this: people who made it to the top are telling their stories and answering questions, and I want to know what they’re saying.

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So every Thursday, I wait outside that locked door for someone to let me in. I walk into a small conference room crowded with summer interns all hoping these few months will give them the boost they need to start climbing that ladder. I queue for free pizza, and I find a seat as near the door as possible, and then I listen to a professional talk about publishing, or editing, or whatever they do, and I try to hear something relevant.

A couple weeks ago, in one of those crowded intern luncheons, Will Schwalbe said something I love: “You can’t make money doing anything cynically.”

This came in answer my question about striking a balance between doing what you like and doing what pays. And his answer has stuck with me. I see it as presenting an ultimatum: either you do something, or you don’t. But if you decide to do it, do it the right way.

Don’t be mercenary. Don’t do things because you think they’ll pay off. There are so many reasons to do things—you should be able to come up with something more creative than money. Do it for the experience. Do it for the challenge. Do it because someone has to, and you’re willing to be that responsible person.

Or don’t do it.

Time

If you have to do it, find a way to value it. There’s a 300-name spreadsheet I’m filling in at work. I have the choice of how to do it, and if I’m doing it cynically, I’m missing out. Some things don’t slap you upside the face with how meaningful they are; you have to dig, imagine, get outside your box.

Experience, as I’ve mentioned, is a good motivator for me. The story I’ll tell about it later often makes up for what I’m doing at the moment. Or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of a job well done: 300 names in neatly formatted columns? Sign me up! Maybe it’s the perspective I gain along the way—I’m seeing a broad comparison of psych professors and schools across the country in a way I would never have known otherwise, and I’m getting insight into what the sales departments deal with.

So no, walking across the park to wait for someone to let me into a crowded room full of strangers is not my favourite thing. But I do it every week. Why? Because I think I’ll make valuable connections that will pay off in the future? I did the first day. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is not about the pay rate it might secure me later on. This is about learning about something I love, from someone who’s loved it longer, surrounded by other people who love it too.

scribbling

…but the free pizza doesn’t hurt.


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