Tag Archives: USA

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.

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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.