Tag Archives: Connecticut

Chronicles of a Writer in USA: Second Rising Action

DAY 2:

Friday, 8 April, 2016

My alarm went off at 10 am. I still can’t believe I’m actually at the US, all alone. It felt weird and exciting, all at once. After the extremely long day I went through yesterday, as elaborated in my previous blog post, I decided not to wake up for breakfast at the hotel and eat anywhere else because I needed some sleep.

I got dressed and went down to the lobby to ask about a nearby diner and arrange for a ride to Southern Connecticut State University, where the conference would be held. The desk clerk, Christopher, was very helpful and said that the hotel’s driver can take me to the university, which is supposedly like 15 minutes away, at 11:30 am. He then directed me to a nearby restaurant just around the corner. I went in and people looked at me for a while, as I was the only veiled girl in the place, then everyone went back to what they were doing. I sat at the counter and ordered some Italian omelette with a side of potatoes, minus the bacon of course. The waiter was very friendly and served me with a smile, which soothed my tension a great deal.

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It was absolutely delicious and the portion was very big. Taken by: Shaza Walid

I went back to the hotel and took the hotel shuttle to the university. The driver got a bit lost but we finally arrived. It was time. I entered the university with no hassle at all and people directed me to where the conference was held. I went to the reception desk where I had to register. It took them some time to find my name. I was then given the name tag, welcome bag, and the schedule for the conference. I was so excited to be a part of this. Proud as hell as well. There was also several kinds of cookies and knickknacks on the table, yum. The sessions were today were to run from 12 pm to 5 pm. The weather was chilly in a good way, not too cold. The sky was clear. Their campus is huge. But my American University in Cairo is much more beautiful and authentic ūüėČ

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This was the view from the hallway window. Taken by: Shaza Walid
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Making connections indeed. Taken by: Shaza Walid

Despite what I expected, I was feeling proud that I was the only international student there, and only veiled girl. Oh wait, there was one at the reception desk, but I did not get a chance to talk with her. The conference ran as a series of concurrent sessions. The sessions were quite informative. They were lots of interesting professors and professionals who were keen on benefiting the students and delivering worthwhile information. I wanted to take all the details in, to benefit from every word I heard. I took notes and did my best to ask meaningful questions.

There was a session about student journalism and how it’s perceived. During this session, I had the guts to tell them about AUC Times and the incident with our issue about sexuality and how the university students perceived it. I told them about our fight and how we persisted in the face of disdain and criticism from society. They applauded my efforts and advised me to keep going. As for the controversial issue with AUC Times, review this link here and here, in addition to this video to know the whole story.

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Photo from the session on student journalism and how it shapes history. Taken by: Shaza Walid

As incredibly interesting as the sessions were, the day went by with me going from session to session but I did not really make any acquaintances (yet). I couldn’t wait till the awards ceremony tomorrow!

Before I leave the university, I had to take a selfie to commemorate the unique moment.

 

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Would you look at me now? I looked all giddy.  Taken by: Shaza Walid (obviously)

I called the hotel to send me the shuttle bus to pick me up. The woman who picked up was the first clerk I met while checking in, whom I cannot her name. To remember my incident with her, check my previous blog post about my trip.

I went back to the hotel to put my stuff then, it was time for lunch. I was starving. I asked the reception about nearby restaurants, ones that were a walking distance. She recommended several ones, one of which was Italian. When my mouth started to water in hunger, I decided that this was the one I was going to head to.

Connecticut is such a quiet state, at least the area I was staying at. It was not like the busy, metropolitan America we saw at the movies. It was more suburban and local. The typical two-story houses with the mail boxes and all. No sight of international brands or well-known retail stores. I enjoyed taking a walk down the streets of the city. This is really happening. I, Shaza Walid, at the United States of America, solo. Even though I so wanted to explore the city, I tried to avoid taking many detours so I don’t get lost on my way back. Before travelling, I did some research about the state and the interesting places to go, and I found a bunch of museums and sightseeing places. Unfortunately, the conference finishes late on the two days and most of these places close at 4 pm. I wish I had more time to explore the city.

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A government building that I cannot recall its name… Taken by: Shaza Walid
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More from my walks. Taken by: Shaza Walid

I arrived at the Italian restaurant after about about 20 minutes of walking. Fortunately, it wasn’t crowded. The waitress welcomed with a smile and directed me to my table. I was having lunch solo in a foreign city. How grand! I ordered a mushroom ravioli, which comes with a side of green salad with vinaigrette dressing, in addition to a cup of apple juice.

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Some delicious greens. Taken by: Shaza Walid
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This was the most mouthwatering mushroom ravioli I’ve tasted. For real. Taken by: Shaza Walid

There was free wifi at the restaurant, so I sent mom some photos of my lunch and assured her that I was doing great. For a moment, I marveled at how means of communications have advanced to the extent that two people can share the same moment, even if they’re thousands of miles apart.

I took the rest of my lunch as takeaway and started walking back to the hotel. The thing about Connecticut is that it can quiet at night, which is not the safest thing, especially for a veiled, girl strolling down the streets of the state. On this whole trip, my motto was, “better safe than sorry” and it was so spot-on. Because think about it, if anything happened to me, whether I lost my money or my phone was stolen, for instance, no one would be able to reach me. I was alone in a big city. I know no one and no one knew me. That was thrilling and frightening at the same time. I loved the feeling of independence and freedom, but these come with a price. So that’s why I was extra careful.

As the sun set, I decided to head back to the hotel. The city was getting quieter. When I arrived at the hotel, I found an email from my professor checking on me and making sure everything went well. How sweet of her! She gave me the idea of live tweeting the event and using their hashtag, which I thought was a great idea. She’s truly amazing.

On a side note, one of the other cautionary measures I took was not allowing room service at my room. I was only staying for three nights, so there was no need for someone to get into my room and go over my stuff, especially with the hotel staff seeing that I’m here alone. You might think this is me being a bit paranoid, but cautious is better than reckless.

I spend the last couple of hours of the day chilling at my room. I turned on the TV to watch some local channels. I had plenty of knickknacks with me, cookies, biscuits, juices, and others. Tomorrow is the big day, the awards ceremony. Can’t wait.

Wanna know what this next obviously remarkable day entails? Stay tuned for my next blog post.

Р All images are hyperlinked to their original sources unless otherwise stated.

 

Chronicles Of A Writer In USA: First Rising Action

DAY 1:

Thursday, 7 April, 2016

Yup, seems like I would be stuck in Newark for a while, as you have probably read in my previous post about my first solo trip to USA, Chronicles Of A Writer In USA: Exposition. After I got off the turbulent plane and collected my luggage, I had to find the Amtrak train to get to Connecticut. Supposedly, it was prepaid by the GAPP school, but for some reason, the train info and number was not written, and I did not have an identification card (specifically a credit card) to be able to check my name on the system and print my ticket, so I had problems printing my train ticket…

I went around trying to find the a place to verify my train reservation, and then around again to find the proper platform. All this while dragging a big luggage bag, carrying a backpack, and holding a cross bag and my papers at hand. After several trials, one of the personnel told me to just wait for the train as usual and maybe the conductor will have my ticket number on her list. So I dragged my heavy luggage down almost 30 stairs to reach the platform. I cannot believe how they do not have a slope for people with luggage! Anyway, I kept waiting and waiting then I had doubts if the train will ever come. So I dragged all of my belongings up and down the stairs AGAIN to make sure I was on the right platform. This was my first time to smell the USA air. The weather was a bit chilly, but not too cold.

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Here comes the train. Place: Amtrak station, Newark Airport.

When I went down again, I saw an Arab veiled woman with her husband and children. She looked maybe Syrian or Iraqi. For some unknown reasons, we both smiled at each other without saying a word, then she hopped on her train and left. I don’t know if it was because of my veil or my Arab-looking self, but I felt this bond of solidarity that made this long, long day a bit easier.

The train finally came and I hopped on. I told the woman conductor the whole story. She tried looking for my name but in vain. She apologetically told me that I’d have to get off at the next stop, since we cannot document the payment of my ticket. I began to be a bit worried because it was getting dark, I was exhausted from the long trip, and I didn’t know what the hell I’ll be doing in New York Station.

I got off the train with all my luggage and I was incredibly overwhelmed. Masses of people running around in every corner to get to their trains. Wide diversity of individuals: those wearing casual, those wearing formal, those wearing Hindi, young people, old people, middle-aged people, those with luggage, those without, simply every kind of person you can imagine. I felt that I was the only person who did not know where to go. And the station was huge. I was stupefied for some moments.

I struggled until I found the Amtrak desk. I tried asking the clerk for my ticket number again but no luck, so I had to buy a new one. It was almost 6 pm then. My train was to depart at 6:45 pm so I had some time to spare. I walked around the station to get a sense of where I was. Again, I am in complete awe by the tremendous diversity of people there. I kept wondering about what people thought when they saw me, a solo veiled Arab young lady. Were they afraid? Were they curious? Who knows?

I bought myself an iced macchiato from Dunkin’ Donuts to calm myself down a bit. I got my drink and stood in front of this huge black screen where platform numbers and train destinations appear. Apparently, the platform number only presents itself just 10 minutes before the train departures. So people are just gawking at the screen until the number is shown, then they rush to the gate as quickly as they can. I decided to do the same.

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You just cannot take your eyes off the big black screen, or your train will leave.

I FINALLY got on the train heading to Connecticut. The trip was to take approximately two hours. The train was very neat and clean. Chairs was spacious and comfortable.  Everything was organized. I really wished we had such amazing public transportation. It would save so much effort, money, and petrol. The times I used public transportation in Egypt are almost close to null, which is unfortunate indeed.

Anyway, the tranquil train ride gave me a chance to relax a bit. A great advantage was finding free WiFi almost everywhere I go. I was able to research anything I wanted at the blink of an eye and call and text my mother to assure her that I am doing okay. The minute you get on the Amtrak and open your browser to connect to the internet, you will find a detailed schedule of the train’s route, with the exact time at which you will arrive at each station. Fascinating!

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The iced macchiato wasn’t the best thing I tasted but it was okay. Taken by: Shaza Walid.
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America, you have your unique ways of impressing me. Taken by: Shaza Walid.

I finally arrived at Connecticut at 8:15 pm after almost 24 hours of travelling. I was dying to to change my clothes, take a shower, and lie on a bed. Simple demands, eh? I had read there would be a hotel shuttle bus with specific timings, so I waited for 15 minutes before realizing that I had to order it beforehand. It was getting late, streets were getting emptier, and I was getting a bit worried, so I took a cab to the hotel. The driver seemed quite nice but I was on the edge of my seat. I tried to memorize the licence number just in case. I also paid great attention to my surroundings and the roads we took. I’m not gonna lie to you, I was a bit paranoid riding a taxi in a foreign country alone at night. But I finally made it to the hotel, Clarion Hotel & Suites Hamden-New Haven (notice how many ‘finally’ I said so far, I was dying to reach the hotel after such a long day).

The hotel’s main entrance was under renovations so I had to enter from the back door. I was so looking forward to checking in and throwing myself at the bed. But another bump on the road was waiting for me. I had booked my hotel through Booking.com with no prepayment. I put my dad’s credit card as a prerequisite in case I do not pay at the property at the designated date I chose.¬†This is pretty much the dialogue that took place between us:

Hotel Clerk: Could you please give me the credit card you entered on our system?

Shaza: I’m sorry, I do not have it with me.¬†

HC: Do you have your credit card?

Shaza: Sorry, I only have cash. 

HC: Sorry, the hotel’s new policies state that we only accept credit cards and never cash. I cannot check you in.¬†

Her words were like sharp poles thrown in my face. What was I to do now? It was 10 pm already. I did not know any other place to go. There was absolutely no one to call. Even if I tried going to another hotel, they’d still want a credit card. Since it was almost 4 am in Egyp, mom’s worried because she wants me to call her from my hotel room to make sure I arrived safely. Oh my God, this was so unexpected and uncalled for…

I had to think fast. I flipped through my printed reservation to see if there was any hotel policy I missed about only accepting credit cards. Then I read my savior line, “Cash deposit or credit cards accepted.” When I showed it to the hotel clerk, she told me they changed the policies. I told her it was not my problem and that I should have been informed beforehand. She kept apologizing and telling me that there was nothing she could do. I thankfully stood my ground and told her that I came all the way from abroad, that I’m on my own, and that I’m here to attend the journalism conference nearby. A really nice lady sitting behind me offered to pay my hotel room using her credit card and then I pay her n cash. But the hotel clerk refused saying that it was not possible because the card’s info would be different from the one I put on the system. After several negotiations back and forth, and calling the hotel manager twice (I talked to him on the first time and explained my situation), she finally agreed to make an exception, as supervised by the manager, and accept my cash this time only. I breathed a sigh of utmost relief as I paid her the money and received my room keys. This utterly exhausting day is finally coming to an end.

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HALLELUJAH! A BED AT LAST. Taken by: Shaza Walid.

Being in a physically stable place (given that I’ve ridden two planes, two trains, and a taxi in one day) made me quite happy. The room was great for a short stay. All the essentials were available in the bathroom. The bed was comfy. The room was warm enough. No proper kettle, a bummer. Other than that, it was just right for a person staying for three nights. The room did not have a balcony, but rather a huge glass window overlooking the hallway. Given that I’m travelling solo, I had to be careful. I closed the curtains really well so no one could see through the window. I locked the door well. I took a shower and FINALLY changed my clothes to PJ’s after 24 hours of travelling.

I needed to rest as soundly as possible. Tomorrow is a big day. Tomorrow the first day of the Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards and journalism conference at Southern Connecticut State University. It is supposed to run for two days, Friday 8th and Saturday 9th. I leave on Sunday 10th. Crazy, right? But I hope it will be worth it insha’Allah. I need a good night’s sleep now. Can’t wait for tomorrow and after!!

Wanna know what went down during that conference and whether it was worth this hubbub? Look out for my next post to find out.

-All images are hyperlinked to their original sources unless otherwise stated.

Chronicles Of A Writer In USA: Exposition

DAY 1:

Thursday, 7 April, 2016

It really hit me when I found myself dragging my luggage, papers and passport in hand, backpack on my back, and waving goodbye to my parents then disappearing into the airport without them. I am travelling solo (for the first time) to the United States of America (for the first time) to attend a journalism conference I was invited to (for the first time as well) and receive an award in my name (you guessed it, for the first time). Too much information to handle at once, right? Now allow me to tell you the story from the beginning.

This is how it all started.

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“Placed what and invited where?” That is what I said when I received this email.

Oh my! My audio documentary has received a second place on the category of Radio In-Depth Reporting for the Mark of Excellence Awards and I am invited to attend a journalism conference at Connecticut to receive my award, organized by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). This is something I would have never dreamed about. EVER. Even in my wildest dreams. But it is true and I need to do something about it.

So what about this documentary, you might ask? It was the final project for an Audio Production course at university, just one of the toughest and roughest courses I have ever taken. It used to consume all my energy, time, and ideas. I used to skip other classes and submit late assignments just to finish work for this one. Nevertheless, I got introduced to the fascinating world of radio and how captivating and powerful it is. I found a part of me behind the mic. It allowed me to talk and express myself minus the awkward social interactions and pressures, what could be better?

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Behind that mic is one of my favorite places.

I produced my audio documentary as¬†an attempt to shed light on the sentiments of Egyptian youth after the revolution. The youth talk about their fears, aspirations, and doubts about the current state of Egypt in addition to their reminisces about the revolution. You know what? I’ll let my documentary speak for itself.

Now back to the award, my dearest professor Kim Fox was the one who encouraged me to apply and saw my work capable of competing at international competitions. When I first saw the email, I was dumbfounded. I did not know what to do. I even left it lying in my inbox for a couple of days. I emailed Professor Fox and she sent out an announcement to the entire department informing them about my award and asking them about possible funding opportunities. That was when my journey starting unfolding.

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This email was sent me less than a month before the conference date. During this very short and hectic period, I was supposed to finish my US visa requirements, apply for funding, actually acquire funding, make flight and hotel reservations, finish college work before leaving, and inform my professors about my trip and adjust my deadlines accordingly.

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Yeah, I probably looked something like this.

All these aforementioned tasks took out much effort, time, organization, and thought on my side. I wanted this opportunity so bad. It is a once-in-a-lifetime thing that cannot be missed. I am not gonna bore you with the details of how I got through all this at such a short notice, but to sum it up, I thankfully managed to get them done on time (and by on time I mean 2 days before my departure date).

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (GAPP) at AUC and the Office of Undergraduate Research Fund for agreeing to graciously fund my trip.

And here I am, at the airport alone for the very first time, at 2 am sitting at the airport lounge, waiting for my departure. I was having mixed feelings about this. I was excited yet afraid. I kept thinking about all the possible negative scenarios that could happen to me while alone abroad. But then I reminded myself that mishaps are inevitable. That every trip has both its glorious and upsetting moments. And this was part of the whole experience. I also reminded myself that I am strong and savvy enough to deal with any problem that comes my way insha’Allah (and Oh I will face plenty!).

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I can and I will do it, insha’Allah.

My trip was¬†supposedly going to be as follows: Cairo to Frankfurt to Newark to Connecticut. The trip to Frankfurt was pretty smooth. Travelling on Lufthansa was very comfortable and seamless. Frankfurt International Airport was quite huge. I had to take trains inside the airport to get to my terminal. As soon as I arrived, I asked about whether I’ll take my luggage and check it in again for my next trip. The attendant told me that since mine was a connecting flight, it will automatically be on the next trip to Newark. Good, less bags for me to carry around, I thought.

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They have quite a huge airport. Place: Frankfurt International Airport.

There was still about two hours until the next flight. So I had some coffee and a sandwich and sat there observing what was around me. It is always¬†really interesting to watch people in airports, all gathered in one place for various different purposes. Some dread their trips because they are going to a place they’d rather not be, while others have been waiting so long for theirs. And don’t commit the mistake of thinking that people who travel alone are lonely, for you could be around people who make you feel the loneliest.

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Drinking coffee at a different country is always endearing. Place: Frankfurt International Airport. Taken by: Shaza Walid.

Honestly, I was afraid I would be stopped or questioned at the airport because of my veil. But thankfully, none of that happened, only some routine questions about the reason for my trip and accommodation and a casual check, nothing more.

Now it was time for my next flight to Newark, which would yet take eight hours! I bought myself one of those comfy travel pillows so I can sleep whenever I want to. This time, I was flying on United Airlines, which was amazing. Chairs were very comfortable and spacious, even though I booked an Economy class. The plane was not very crowded so I had an empty chair beside me to place my bags.

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Cool ride, huh?

The food was also great. And the flight attendants never left us to be hungry, giving us food and knickknacks every two hours or so. There were many Indians on the plane and it was interesting to see the flight attendants handing them vegetable dishes and fruits as snacks. How considerate of them!

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Cheese and crackers as appetizers. Taken by: Shaza Walid.
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Sorry for the blurry picture but the pasta was great. Taken by: Shaza Walid.
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This ice cream was heaven in a cup. P.S: It was dark because they had turned off the lights for people to sleep. Taken by: Shaza Walid.

Apparently, I am not the kind of person who can sleep soundly on planes. I actually sleep better in a car or a bus, a moving vehicle. Anyway, the flight was incredibly long and I was starting to get tired of flying. I had some Anthropology readings to do, in addition to The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which was such an exquisite and eloquently written book. One of the few books that touched me to the core.

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They also had a wide variety of movies to watch. Yay! Taken by: Shaza Walid.
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This pretzel roll was everything. Or maybe this was what got me nauseous towards the end of the flight. Taken by: Shaza Walid.

Near the end of the flight, I started to get really dizzy. Because of traffic at the airport, landing took an extra hour. I usually get nauseous during landing so this delay was not to my best interest. I could really feel my stomach turning. I was afraid to throw up because I was alone. If I got tired, I would not find my beloved ones to my side. This thought was terrifying. However, I tried to distract myself by reading in my book, which to my fortunate luck, was at a part where Amir was vividly describing how he suffers from motion sickness and he knows for sure when he is going to vomit. What a timing! Moreover, I started hearing one or two people throwing up in bags because of the terrible landing. A baby to a Jewish couple also started crying nonstop the whole hour! Again, I exerted a tremendous degree of self control to prevent myself from vomiting, but I still kept the bag at hand in case I could not help it anymore. After an hour of dizziness and stomach-churning, I finally landed at the United States of America (particularly Newark Liberty International Airport).

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This is the sign I saw the minute I landed. It sent a shiver down my spine that I was actually at the States now.

Stepping foot at the United States of America felt enthralling. I was at the country that is considered one of, if not the, most powerful countries of the world. I was at the country which influences several aspects of our daily lives, restaurant chains, clothes, music, movies, series, politics, and more. I was at the country which my school and university, and thus my education, is affiliated with. It was a glorious moment, to be honest.

On a side note, it felt quite weird that I started my trip at 4 am from Cairo, a four-hour flight to Frankfurt, two-hour transit, then an eight-hour trip to Newark, and it was STILL noon. The day felt soooo long.

We stood in long lines for the passport check. No cell phone use was allowed, as you can see in the previous picture. When it was my turn, the airport personnel asked about many details that I was starting to get nervous. He asked about the reason behind my trip, where I was staying, how long I will be staying, how did I fund my trip, my parents’ occupation, and my invitation to the conference. He also asked me to take off my eyeglasses to match my visa picture. I was getting anxious and started to doubt if something was wrong with my papers. But then he gave me a warm smile and said, “Welcome to our country.” That was amazing.

I received my luggage and now it was time to take a 2-hour train to New Haven, Connecticut. Luckily, the Amtrak station was inside the airport and it was already paid as part of the flight ticket by the GAPP school. All I needed to do was print my ticket and catch my train. Boy, I was tired now. However, apparently Newark loved me so much it did not want me to take off until the evening…

Wanna know what delayed me so much? Wait for my next post to find out.

-All images are hyperlinked to their original sources, unless otherwise stated.