Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

July 13, 2016

Who you’re with

by Tabitha Kidwell

With the exception of DC, I know Paris better than any city in the world. Though I never lived there, for a year and a half I lived a short train ride away, which meant that I passed through the city almost every time I traveled or met a visitor. I have probably visited Paris 20 times, and every time I go, I do something new. Paris is surprising, delightful, and scented with perfume and baking bread. Anyone who tells you that they “didn’t care for Paris” did it wrong.

Still, one of the worst weekends of my life was on my second visit to the city. During the spring of my sophomore year of college, I studied in Le Mans, a sleepy industrial town on the TGV line an hour west of Paris, at the intersection of Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley, with none of the charm of any of those regions. One of my first weekends, two fellow Americans in the same program invited me to Paris for the weekend, and I eagerly accepted. I can’t remember, 15 years later, what went so wrong that weekend. I think it may have had something to do with them wanting to drink a lot, talk loudly, and generally fulfill stereotypes of American tourists, while I wanted to blend in and have people think I was French (which no one ever will). What I do remember about that weekend is the realization that where you are isn’t nearly as important as who you are with.

I still live by that principle when planning my trips today – for instance, on my whirlwind tour through the Midwest a few weeks ago. I was back in Paris last week, but I did not go to any museums, see any sights, or stroll along the Seine. No, this time my “something new” was seeing the suburbs, where my friend Mike Diamond has lived since being transferred to Pizza Hut’s European division earlier this year. Mike and I were actually friends beginning in middle school, when an unhealthy obsession with the X-Men and an innate disposition to try hard at school meant that we were profoundly uncool. We figured it out by senior year of high school, but there were some pretty awkward years in there. Incidentally, Mike Diamond was with me for my first trip to Paris, on a high school exchange trip that included three magical but packed days in Paris before we headed out to Brittany. This time was a little different – I met Mike’s wife and kids, accompanied them to the market, had lunch on the patio, and beat his 5-year-old in Blokus (beginner’s luck).

I took the train to Dijon that evening, where Suzi, my friend from the Peace Corps, lives.  Suzi was being visited by Meghan, our other friend from the Peace Corps, who lives in Mumbai. Actually, Suzi, her husband, and two sons were being visited by Meghan, her husband, and daughter. We went to the pool, played on the playground, watched France lose the Europe cup, had dinner on the patio, and lived normal life with Suzi and her family. At least as normal as life can be when there are eight people staying in a house made for four. Suzi told her colleagues about what we had done and they admonished her for not taking us to do anything “French.” But that wasn’t really the point. Suzi, Meghan, and I have been friends for 12 years. In the Peace Corps, we wrote weekly letters, went on beach vacations, helped each other through homesickness, met up to cook American food, and watched season 2 of The OC in an overnight binge.  In the Peace Corps, your friends become like family, so meeting their families and spending time together was more important than all the tourist locations in France (and there are a lot). I’ve been lucky to travel a lot of places, but the more places I go, the more firmly I believe what I learned all those years ago in Paris: who you are with is more important than where you are.

 

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June 23, 2016

The Passage of Time

by Tabitha Kidwell

Summer is a sentimental time for me because it is so often a time of transition. Five years ago, I was getting ready to leave for Indonesia. I spent the “summer of fun” visiting friends, playing pub trivia, and trying to calculate how much sunscreen I would need for a year in the tropics. I was excited to leave for Indonesia, but leaving my job teaching middle school French and Spanish was one of the hardest things I have ever done. After a couple of rough years (aren’t everyone’s first years of teaching rough?), I really hit the jackpot during my fourth year of teaching. I finally felt like an effective teacher, and I had great students who mispronounced “Mlle” to call me “Mel Kidwell” (which is totally incorrect, but endearing nonetheless) and who threw me a surprise going away party when I left. I made a “teacher facebook” so I could accept them as friends, and looking at it recently, I realized that the 7th graders I left in 2011 have now graduated from high school. I shut down my teacher facebook and posted that they could all be friends with the real “Mel Kidwell.” If anyone needs to worry about the content of their facebook pages, it’s probably the kids in college! Clicking through their photos from prom and graduation, I can’t believe how much time has passed, and how quickly. Five years is forever in middle school and high school, but it has felt like nothing to me.

Five years before I left those 7th grade students, I was returning home from Madagascar. Somehow, the five years that passed between Madagascar and Indonesia seem longer than the five years between Indonesia and now. One of those years was spent teaching in France, but it was clear to me then that that year, along with my two years in the Peace Corps, were temporary interludes –rumschprega of sorts – before returning home and “becoming an adult.” And that is what I tried to do – I moved back to Columbus, Ohio, and taught in the district I had graduated from for four years. Those years feel solid, grounded, connected to my youth. I lived with my sister, in the same city as my family. I worked with some of my former teachers. I had a strong community and my life was incredibly full.

The last five years feel different. I spent two years in Indonesia, one year selling Christmas sweaters, living in India, and hiking the Camino de Santiago (in succession, not concurrently), and then two years in grad school. My life is still full, but I’ve spent a lot more time alone. I’ve spent more time lonely. A lot of my relationships have been one-on-one rather than in interconnected communities. I’ve lived away from my family and a lot of my closest friends, and haven’t seen them more than every few months or years. The past five years feel unmoored, astray. Whatever they’re connected to hasn’t yet manifested itself, but I think they’re connected to something. That summer five years ago, was a turning point in my life. I think I had realized that becoming an adult wasn’t a simple process of settling down. At least not for me. For me, it was about letting go, accepting uncertainty, being open to surprises. Sometimes that has been hard, but mostly it has been thrilling. It’s scary to not be sure of the path your life is taking. But even scarier, for me, is not starting the journey. I know what is behind me. It was good, and it will always be there. But I believe that whatever is ahead of me will outstrip my wildest imaginings.

 

 

June 10, 2016

Dream Vacation: June 2016

by Tabitha Kidwell

I spent my two weeks off between spring and summer vacation on an exciting trip through… (wait for it)… the Midwest! Since moving to DC, I have become a shameless promoter of Ohio, the Great Lakes, and all things Midwest, but if I’m really pressed, I’ll admit that the reason I love it so much is that my friends and family are there.

I started my trip by meeting my family in Erie, Pennsylvania for my brother and his fiancée’s graduation from med school. From there, I drove to Cleveland to visit Tess and Michelle, two of my college roommates. They both have new houses, 3-year old sons, and newborns. Or at least they do now – Tess gave birth to baby Millie the week before I arrived, and Michelle had baby Jonathan the day after I left. I saw both houses, blew bubbles with both toddlers, cuddled one baby, and yelled at the one still in utero to remember me the next time I visited.

From there, I drove to Detroit to visit my friend Erin, another former college roommate who also has a new house and a newborn – but no three year old. I met baby Henrik and had lunch while he napped (kinda). Despite a suspicious rattle in my car, I drove out of Detroit to go to visit my dad in Lansing. Luckily, the rattle stopped halfway to Lansing. Unluckily, my car stopped with it. It started again, but the battery light was on. By some miracle, I drove the remaining 40 minutes (apparently) on battery power because my alternator had died. This was a less-than-ideal development at the mid-point of a road trip through the Midwest, but after spending $1000 and a morning at Capitol Honda, I was good to go. They even gave me a free car wash and oil change, which helped me feel (slightly) less depressed.

I spend a couple of days in Lansing visiting my dad and my friend Jessica, who had been a fellow in Indonesia with me, then headed to Chicago to visit my step-brother Josh, sister-in-law Prutha, and their son and daughter. Arya is 18 months, and Aiden is 6 months old. I hadn’t seen Arya since her baptism last September, and hadn’t seen Aiden since he was a newborn – it was incredible to see how much both have changed! I went with Prutha, her mom, and the two kids to a Cubs day game, which mostly involved snacks and napping for the kids, and snacks and beer for the grown-ups. Then, I went with Josh and the two kids to music class, which mostly consisted of hitting drums, blowing bubbles, and clapping – for both kids and grown ups.

From Chicago, I drove 5 hours to Columbus, Ohio, the city recently described as “like living and working on Sesame Street.” Normally, I take a week or so to visit Columbus, and see different friends throughout the week, but I had to get back to Maryland for a meeting two days later. I packed in lunch, dinner, and happy hour with a few friends, but to really maximize my time, I invited all my friends with kids (and some without) over for a cookout. One baby, 3 three-year-olds, 2 kindergarteners, 5 adults, and 2 senior citizens ate hot dogs, made s’mores, and searched for crayfish in the creek behind my parents house. Actually, the baby and senior citizens didn’t do much crayfish hunting, but they made up for it by being cute and cooking, respectively.

From there, I headed back to DC, with my heart very, very full of love. For those of you keeping score at home, that makes:

1 expensive car repair
2 kindergarteners
4 toddlers
5 babies
Lots of wonderful friends and family members
1700 miles
1 very happy Tabitha

May 28, 2016

Cleaning House

by Tabitha Kidwell

After finishing the long, busy, stressful spring semester, I spent the next week doing something that would bring me incredible joy: cleaning my apartment! I realize some people would, I don’t know, relax or read a book or something. But I had been so busy all semester that I was just gradually living in more and more filth, so it was incredibly gratifying to get everything back in shape. And I didn’t just clean this time – I deep cleaned. I cleaned out the refrigerator, moved the oven to mop, vacuumed under the couch cushions, and generally got serious about eliminating grime and dust bunnies.

And I didn’t just deep clean – I also did a through sorting through of all my belongings. Even after just one year living in my apartment, and two years back in the States, I feel like I have accumulated too much stuff. I’m basically the opposite of a hoarder – I love getting rid of things, not keeping them. Last summer, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese organizational guru Marie Kondo, and was so inspired that I took notes! The idea that you could magically change your life through organization is very appealing to me. Marie Kondo suggests the “Kon-Mari” method of sorting through your things. You follow a prescribed order, first starting with the easy things like clothes (tops, bottoms, hanging clothes, etc.), then papers, then books, then household goods, etc..  You gradually increase the difficulty of parting with the items until you finally arrive at mementos. For every new category, you start by finding every item in the house and piling it on the floor. So, for tops, you take your t-shirts out of the drawers, blouses off of their hangars, sweaters off the shelf, and make a giant pile on the floor. It’s fun to see everything in a pile, but this is also important for two reasons. First, it lets you see just how many of this item you actually have.  For instance, I had a stupid number of shoes:

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Seeing all the shoes you own, for instance, shows you that you can definitely afford to part with a few. Second, you have to actually put the item back in its spot, so you have to actively make the decision to keep it, rather than just glancing through your closet, pulling out a few things to give away, and calling it a day. To decide if you want to keep something, you first pick it up and hold it. Then you ask “Does this top bring me joy?” If it does, you keep it. If not, you thank it for its service and set it free to bring joy to someone else. (Meaning, you throw it away, recycle it, or put it in a box to lug to Goodwill.) The idea is that you shouldn’t keep things that don’t bring you joy, but the system broke down a bit when you come to categories like “socks” or “credit card statements.” Do these running socks bring me joy? Well, maybe not, but I really enjoy running, and I really don’t enjoy blisters, so maybe indirectly. Maybe this means I should be buying running socks that bring me joy, like really fun, fluorescent running socks. But I am brought more joy by the idea of not getting rid of perfectly serviceable running socks. The socks went back in the drawer.

So I repeated this process for literally every item in my house. Well, that isn’t true. Three separate people have asked me “Did you do it with your scarves?” I should have, in the “accessories” category, but I already knew that my scarves brought me joy. In fact, the only thing in the world that could bring me more joy than the scarves I own is the possibility of owning more scarves. It would have been foolish to pile all the scarves on the floor, then immediately hang them all up again. So the scarves got a bye.

I got rid of quite a few things, including a box of books, huge plastic tub of clothes, and quite a few trash bags of random crap. I got rid of DVDs I have kept since I was in the Peace Corps, and have never watched. I got rid of a coat with 3/4-length sleeves I have always felt silly wearing, because, what is the point of a coat with 3/4-legnth sleeves? I got rid of books from college that I have moved from apartment to apartment because you never know when I will want to read Sartre’s La Nausée again (Answer: never). I got rid of a lot of things, and I don’t think I will regret it. I thought back to all the things in my life that I have gotten rid of, and could only come up with a handful of things I regret letting go of:

First, this red dress I bought at a road-side stall in Madagascar and proceeded to wear everyday on Christmas vacation 2004:

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Please disregard the back-up dancers.

Also, this Buckeye costume I sewed for my sister on Halloween 2007:

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Please disregard the woman dressed as a smurf.

And lastly, this t-shirt with puffy sleeves. And the reversible shorts. And that tiny house. Actually, pretty much everything in the picture:

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Don’t disregard anything here!  This is pure childhood bliss!  That wagon!  That sandbox!  That teeter-totter!

Otherwise, over the course of my life, I have worked my way through countless belongings, passed them on, and have never thought about it again. I acknowledge that it’s a first-world problem to own so many belongings that you feel stressed out about owning so many belongings. I try to combat this by buying very little to begin with, and buying used when I can (sometimes I cannot, like when I accidentally go to Target and spend my entire graduate assistant paycheck). It’s a luxury to get rid of things you may someday need because you know that you will be able to go out and buy them again. I’m really lucky to be able to buy things, not use them, and then feel joy through the act of getting rid of them. That’s a really strange thing to do, when you think about it. Nevertheless, having just the correct amount of belongings somehow makes me very happy. Its comforting to know that I have what I need, that I can keep what I love, and that I can let go of everything else. It gave me a feeling of lightness to get rid of things I don’t really need anymore. Was it life-changing magic? Probably not. Was it a fun way to spend the first week of summer break? Absolutely.

May 21, 2016

PhD: Year Two Finished!

by Tabitha Kidwell

It’s funny, isn’t it, how I haven’t posted much between the months of September and May since I started grad school two years ago? Hopefully that will change soon, because I am almost done with course work! Two years ago, 48 credit hours seemed like a huge number, but taking 10 hours a semester will get you there before you know it. I just have two online courses this summer, and that will be it! I’ll never again have to shuffle the demands of taking four classes (and teaching one). I think things will be a little easier next fall, but I am almost certainly wrong about that. Throughout the past two years, I have often thought that life would be easier – and that my to-do list would be shorter – after I finished a certain paper, got back from a conference, ended the semester, etc. It did get easier – nothing will compare to the misery of my first semester of coursework – but it never got any less busy, and my to-do list just seemed to get longer and longer.

Nevertheless, I am really looking forward to the end of coursework. More senior grad students tell me that they miss the days when classes gave more shape to their lives, but I’m really excited to be able to read what I want to read rather than what my professors assign. Coursework has given me basic research skills and a foundation in the field that I now feel able to build on independently. I’ve been focusing so much energy on finishing coursework, however, that I feel a bit like this:

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I have almost made it to the end without giving much thought to what happens next. Finishing coursework simultaneously gives me a feeling of accomplishment (because now I just have to write a dissertation) and and a strong sense of impending doom (because now I just have to write a dissertation). I have been so caught up in the last four semesters of coursework that I feel like I have done nothing prepare myself for the bottomless pit that is dissertation research.

Of course, I have done more than I realize to to prepare. The whole PhD sequence is designed to prepare you and to help you take one step at a time. Once I finish coursework, I will have enough of a grounding in the field to direct my own further reading so I can write my comprehensive exams (which, in our department aren’t so much exams, as really long papers) next fall and winter. Then I’ll propose my dissertation next spring. I’ll spend the 2017-2018 school year collecting data, then the 2018-2019 school year analyzing it and writing, and then I’ll defend the dissertation in about three years. It seems like a lot to do, but so did 48 hours of coursework, and the past two years flew by. If I think about all those steps at once, it feels overwhelming, but if I think about starting to read for my comps, that seems like something I can do. Just like finishing coursework, all those milestones will pass by before I know it. Then I will feel like this:

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I would say that things will be better then – less stressful, less busy – but I have learned enough from coursework to realize that that will never happen. At least, in three years, I will have a PhD to prove that I am qualified to handle all that stress!

September 22, 2014

PhD Culture Shock

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’ve been here in DC about two months now, and have finished 3 weeks of the semester as a doctoral student. I realize that it’s going to be super annoying if I overshare about #gradschoolproblems like “my schedule is so flexible, I don’t know what to do when I wake up,” or “I was so tired after that super cognitively-demanding class that I just had beer and oreos for dinner.” I really don’t deserve much sympathy from all of you who, you know, go to work everyday and then make dinner for your entire family. But, hey, everyone’s on their own path, and mine has felt rocky lately.

Moving here, I thought, “If I can move to Madagascar or Indonesia, surely I can move a couple of states away!” But it has been surprisingly difficult – I’ve never actually moved anywhere else in America. I think it might have been easier for me to move to Saudi Arabia than to DC! When you move to another country, it’s exotic, people are interested in “this new foreigner,” and you’re expected to need some time to learn the local customs and language. I realize now how much I took for granted living in Columbus: I knew how to get around; I had people to help me move furniture; I knew that “O-H” is followed by “I-O.” Things that were easy in Ohio are not easy here. In fact, almost nothing has felt easy here. The main challenge is that everything is new all at once – I’ve moved to a new city, got a new apartment, and started grad school, all of which are stressful enough just on their own.

The biggest source of stress, though, is school. I think I had an abstract understanding of the fact that getting a Ph.D. would be “difficult,” but I didn’t really think it through. Um… so… it turns out, it’s pretty difficult. The “core courses” I’m taking as a first year doctoral students are intended to develop a comprehensive understanding of the field of educational research. That seems like a reasonable enough proposition, until you consider the fact that the “field of educational research” is so broad that no one has a comprehensive understanding of it. Or at least that’s how it feels right now. I’m trying to digest so much new information that I feel totally overloaded and can’t begin to process it all. I was actually worried I had a degenerative brain disease that was interfering with my reading comprehension until a reading entitled “Terrorized by the Literature” informed me that many graduate students come to that conclusion. Am I so predictable? For my first assignment, I dutifully wrote what would have been a great master’s level paper – I pulled together citations from all of the readings, showed understanding of the concepts, and effectively synthesized the research. And then I got back feedback and realized that this approach ain’t gonna cut it anymore – apparently, I am expected to have my own ideas and use the literature to support my arguments. Ugh, why is thinking so hard?!?!

In conclusion, it’s been a rough transition. The biggest help has been talking to my friends who either have PhDs or are in grad school right now (thanks Jess and Liz!). They helped me realize that moving to another city in America is not all that different from moving abroad. In fact, if I look at everything I’m experiencing right now as culture shock, it all starts to make sense. If I were moving to another country, I would be patient and let myself understand the new culture gradually. I would look for friendly natives to show me around. I wouldn’t expect to be able to speak the language fluently or use the right lingo right away. And I wouldn’t feel like a failure if I wasn’t perfectly happy or comfortable at first. The times in my life that were especially challenging – freshman year of college, those first few months in Madagascar, my first year of teaching – preceded and prepared me for some of the happiest times of my life. Before I could get to the fun times (and there were some really fun times!), I had to get through the rough spots, the times when I learning and experiencing so much I couldn’t even understand what was going on. Starting a Ph.D program and moving to a new city may be hard, but that’s because it’s worth the effort, and I know that one day I’ll be able to look back and see that. I just hope that day comes soon!

June 3, 2014

Fear of Emptiness

by Tabitha Kidwell

You know that experiment with the jar and the rocks? Like, a guy puts a bunch of big rocks in a jar, and he can’t fit another rock in, so you say the jar is full. Except, then he adds gravel, and it fills in around the big rocks, and when it reaches the top, you say the jar is full again. But then he does the same with sand, and then with water, and then, finally, the jar is truly full This is supposed to point out that you can fit many things into your life, but only if you get the big rocks in first. So, if you fill your life with watery things like facebook or television, you won’t have time for the big rock-type things like friends, family, or faith.

Well, the Camino is like the opposite of that experiment – it’s just a giant, empty jar, with nothing to put in it. You don’t have to go to work, meet up with friends, clean the house, make dinner. You can’t check facebook or watch tv or waste time. You just walk – you and your vast, echoing soul.

I toured the stunning cathedral in Burgos yesterday. In one intricately detailed Rococo chapel, the audioguide pointed out that there was no place left undecorated. It said this was because of horror vacui – the fear of emptiness.

I’m not especially afraid of emptiness – I’m no stranger to either solitude or silence. I lived in a village in Madagascar alone; I spent a week in silence in Taizé; I’ve traveled all over the world on my own. But still, it is scary when the building blocks of your life are removed. I experienced this (and blogged about it) last fall, when, for the first time in my life, I didn’t go back to school. I was confronted with the reality of spending a year without a job, and I didn’t know what to make of it. Now, I’ve also had all the other other elements of my life removed – no friends to meet up with, no volunteering, no Nana Bets to take care of. It’s just me, walking, everyday.

And it’s not clear to me yet what will come of this experience. One of the most frequently asked questions on the Camino is “Why are you here?”, and I don’t know yet how to answer. As I approach the halfway point, my thoughts are all mixed up. I feel disconnected from reality. The truth is, I am disconnected from reality – I’m thousands of miles away from everyone and everything I know, doing something I’ve never done before and will never do again. And I also feel disconnected from time. I am walking in the footsteps of a millennia of Pilgrims, and, blogging and iPhones aside, there is an aspect of this expereince that is timeless, that transcends reality. Throughout history, even while feeling the need to fill the emptiness in our lives, people have felt called to do this Camino. I think the reason why comes back to that jar: to fill it well, to have a life that is not only full, but fulfilling, you have to start with an empty jar.

May 26, 2014

Camino co-competitors

by Tabitha Kidwell

One of the best things about the Camino is all the other people walking. As you walk, you pass and chat with interesting people from all over the world – a lot of Americans and Spanish, but also British, French, Germans, Dutch, Italians, Japanese, Koreans, and more. It’s a great opportunity to meet and learn from people from all over the world!

One of the worst things about the Camino is… all the other people walking. The Camino Francés seems to have grown in popularity over the past few years, and even though it isn’t yet the highest season (July and August), it is pretty crowded. A couple of times, I’ve arrived in town mid-afternoon and found that the hostels I had hoped to stay at were already full. I’ve been able to find other hostels, and there are also more expensive hotels where I could stay, but it makes for a stressful arrival at the end of a tiring day.

I hoped to find some solitude and quiet along the way, and it can be found, but it takes work to find
it. As you walk, there are people ahead and behind you, and there are people going faster and slower than you. It’s easy to get drawn into looking at it as a race, trying to pass or keep ahead of others, especially at the end of the day when you are imagining that last bed at the hostel being taken by the speedster who just blew by.

I really hate this competitive spirit that makes me see other pilgrims as competition rather than fellow travelers. I hate that I wake with a start at the first rustle of a plastic bag in the bunk rooms and feel like I need to get up and moving so I’m not behind the crowd. I hate sitting in a plaza eating a sandwich and feeling stressed as I see pilgrim after pilgrim power by.

The truth is, it’s not a race whatsoever. There are hostels every 5 kilometers or so, and when you see someone on the camino, you have no way of knowing where they started or what their goal for the day is. You don’t know how heavy their burdens are or what pains they are working through. You don’t really know anything about your “competitors” unless you slow down enough to listen to their story. And by the time you’ve done that, they are no longer competition – they are friends, team members on this journey we’re all taking, together and alone at the same time.

May 22, 2014

Camino de Santiago

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’ve just finished my third day on the Camino de Santiago, and so far, I’m feeling pretty good! Soon, I’ll start posting lots of blogs about the experience, which will probably all boil down to “life is a pilgrimage.” But first, I wanted to explain exactly what this adventure is.

The Camino de Santiago is a medieval pilgrimage trail leading to the church in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (northwestern Spain), where the remains of St. James are believed to be. Traditionally, people would begin the camino from their own doorstep, but walking at least the final 100 kilometers was deemed sufficient to absolve you of your sins. People have continued walking The Waysince the middle ages, but it has grown in popularity in recent years thanks to appearences in popular culture, like Paolo Coehlo’s The Pilgrimage, and the filmThe Way, starring Martin Sheen. Now, as you walk, there is almost always another pilgrim within eyesight, usually more like 20. Some people do still start from their own doorsteps, but many more start at the beginning of an established route. The Camino Francés, which I am on, runs from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, in southwest France, continues to Santiago, and takes about a month. I only have 29 days, so I skipped the first few days and started from Pamplona.

In every town along the way, there are albuergues (pilgrim’s hostels) where you can pay 5-15 euros for a bed for the night. Some also serve a communal dinner, but if not, there are restaurants that offer “pilgrim’s menus,” a three-course, carb-heavy meal, for about 10 euros. The camino is well marked with yellow arrows and seashells, the symbol of St. James. The pilgrims also wear seashells to identify themselves, but the hiking boots, backpacks, and walking poles make it pretty clear if you happen to miss the shell. I’ll walk 20-30 kilometers everyday, through forests, over mountains, and along rivers. When I get to Santiago, I’ll go to the pilgrim’s mass at the church and hear my name read along with all the others who finished with me. Then, if I have enough time and energy, I’ll continue my trek three more days to Finesterre, once the end of the known world. Or, since my sins will be absolved and my feet will be tired, I might just take the bus. 700 kilometers might be enough for the month!

January 15, 2014

Access Camps 2014

by Tabitha Kidwell

Some of my happiest memories of childhood are from camp: milkshakes in the craft cabin; canoeing across the lake; watching the sunset while roasting marshmellows. For me, and for many American children, summers at camp were a time to be in nature, make new friends, and learn about ourselves. I went to camp every summer from 1991-2002, spending my final two summers there as a counselor. The time I spent making friendship bracelets, playing tag, and telling ghost stories had an influence on my life that can’t be measured.

Because of all that, I was thrilled to be invited back to Indonesia to help lead English camps this January. The campers were participants in the State Department’s Access Microscholarship program, which provides extra-curricular English classes to talented but underprivileged high school students. In America, bright high schoolers are overbooked with swim meets, music lessons, community service, student council, and other activities that build their confidence and shape them as future leaders; these Indonesian students have comparatively few opportunities. That made the camp experience even more meaningful for them!

Our first camp was the National camp just outside of Jakarta. It involved about 50 students from Jakarta, and 70 from 7 locations across Indonesia. For many of those students, this was the first time they had been to the capital, or even on an airplane! As they arrived at the airport, they were bussed into town to the @America cultural center at a mall in central Jakarta. They were split into teams named after national parks (Yosemite, Glacier, Everglades, etc.) and asked to create a “yell-yell” to perform for the Ambassador, who was in attendance to open the camp and judge their enthusiastic cheers. Then we climbed back on the bus to get a photo op at Monas, the National Monument, before heading out to a retreat center at Sentul, the closest we could get to wilderness in the outskirts of urban Jakarta. We spent the next three days out there singing campfire songs, playing games, and spending time with a remarkable group of young people. Indonesian people are unfailingly positive and happy, and these high schoolers were no exception. There wasn’t even a hint of the attitude and sarcasm you would expect from American teenagers; no slouching or rolling of eyes! In fact, they were easy to please and pretty much loved everything we did. To get feedback at the end of each day, we passed out post-its and asked students to write “old-fashioned tweets” about their opinion of camp activities. To be perfectly clear, this was basically just writing. On paper. With pens. But the kids loved it – they ran all over the room sticking “tweets” on the posters, the counselors, and each other. They begged for more post-its. Some of their comments:
“When I go home, I’ll tell my friends about how fun the national camp was.”
“I’ll never forget sleeping in a tent.”
“Today I learned how to make a teamwork.”
“Today I learned we must protect our planet… go green!”
“Because of Access Camp, I will be someone better than before.”
“Because of Access Camp, I will make my dreams come true.”
“Because of Access Camp, I will have a girlfriend.”

Even though we were all together for less than 72 hours, the intense nature of camp meant that relationships formed quickly. Muslim kids from Madura made inside jokes with Christian kids from Papua that were indecipherable to any of the adult leaders, Indonesian or American. Kids put up facebook pictures of them with their counselors and new friends. Tears were shed as the kids boarded the busses in the early hours of the final day. The campers left with the message that they are important, talented, powerful people, and we all left with happy memories.

Now, we’re taking the show on the road. Less than half of the students from the remote sites were able to come to Jakarta, so we are leading a series of regional camps. I, along with a rotating crew of counselors, will lead the first three camps – first in Manokwari, almost as far east as you can go in Indonesia, on the island of Papua New Guinea; then in Ambon, a little island in the Malukus that is still recovering from a period of Christian-Muslim violence; and then in Kendari, a city perched on one of the four arms of Sulawesi, the funniest shaped island in the world. After that, my tenure as an English Language Specialist will come to an end, and I’ll pass off camp leadership to the English Language Fellows for camps in Banda Aceh, the city at the top of Sumatra that was struck by the tsunami in 2004, Pekanbaru, a city in central Sumatra, and Kupang, which shares an island with newly independent East Timor in southeast Indonesia, far closer to Australia than Jakarta. The diversity of the camp sites is incredible, but the diversity of the individual campers is even greater. Each one is talented in their own way, and I hope that, by sharing a little bit of American culture through the camp program, we can help them to grow into leaders who will shape Indonesia’s future.