Wednesday, November 5, 2008

JENNIFER RABOLD - Travel, Work, and Politics

1. Can you describe a favorite travel memory? It doesn’t have to be extraordinary - simple is good, too – but what is a memory of some travel experience that you treasure?

My favorite place to travel is a place where I spend a longish time. I suppose the longest time I spent out of my own country was when my Up With People cast traveled to Mexico. I have so many fond and scary and interesting and eye-opening memories of Mexico. But I suppose my favorite memory of Mexico was spending three weeks in Saltillo as part of the advance team. I was the only Spanish speaker on the team (and that wasn’t saying much), so I had to learn to be confident in the language as quickly as I could. Fortunately, we were staying with the parents of a current student, and they were so good to us and helped us out a lot.

My favorite memory in Saltillo was Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which falls on November 1-2 (November 1 is actually called Dia de los Angelitos, to remember children who have died). In this very Catholic country, the ceremonies and rituals of Day of the Dead could not be further from the Catholic traditions… they come straight from indigenous practices.

Eduardo can probably correct some of my mistakes in my description of the holiday, but I’ll relate what I remember. On this day, families go to the cemeteries and spend time washing the graves, decorating them with flowers and tequila and other ofrendas (offerings), and then partying all night long right there in the cemetery (drinking the tequila, of course). What a celebration of life and acknowledgement of how present death – and the dead – are in life. And for the entire month before November 1, families erect quite elaborate altars or ofrendas in their homes dedicated to those family members who have died. They decorate them with photos of the deceased, the favorite foods or drinks or clothing items or other mementos that belonged to the deceased, and several ritualistic items, like candles to light their way home, a glass of oil to ease their way, a glass of water, calaveras (little sugar skulls), pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and other religious symbols (usually a cross is displayed). The items on the ofrenda are not meant to be wasted, however. I can’t tell you how many times I was offered items from the ofrenda when I visited a home… including an entire bottle of tequila once!

My favorite ofrenda was one we experienced when we visited a school. It was a living altar, and the students were impersonating the students and soldiers of the Student Massacre in Mexico City in 1968. They were frozen in their places, soldiers with guns, students dead or dying on the ground, as a narrator told the story. On the altar were school books and pencils and all the things that students would need. Even though I was translating the whole thing from the Spanish, it brought me to tears, it was so powerful.

2. What is something you’ve learned from traveling - a lesson that you’ve tried to carry with you in the rest of your life?

I think something I’ve learned to do when I travel is to spend my money wisely. I’ll stay in cheap places, crash with friends, trade houses, travel on trains, pack peanut butter so we don’t have to spend money on lunches. But I’ll spare no expense when it comes to really experiencing the place. My in-laws took all their children and their families on a cruise to Alaska a few years ago. On this cruise, you could just stay on the boat, you could just get dropped off in the towns, OR you could sign up for expeditions to really experience Alaska. We signed up for the expeditions. We went on a crabbing trip, we visited Mendenhall Glacier, we took a train ride up the mountains, we panned for gold, we went on a whale watching trip (where we were treated to a pod of about 20 whales bubble-feeding, where they all dive down simultaneously and blow bubbles in a circle, so the air lifts the fish up, followed by their enormous open mouths… man, that was awesome!). It cost a fortune, and I did it all with an 8-week-old baby carried on my chest, but how many times does one get to travel to Alaska?!

I’ve also learned to do my research, but to stay open to serendipity. I planned a trip for my family to visit France for three weeks last year, and truly, the only mistakes I made were taking the 3-year-old to the Louvre and going to Euro Disney on a summer day. In Paris alone, we visited the Eiffel Tower, L’Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the Rodin Museum, Versailles, Luxembourg Gardens, Bois de Bologne, and Notre Dame. We took a ride on the Bateaux Mouches, we traveled by Metro, we saw a Guignol Marionettes show (humor that even my non-French-speaking children could figure out), we ate lots of crepes and omelettes, we attempted grocery shopping and tried out some wonderful restaurants. My sister-in-law, who lived in Normandy with her family, planned the most amazing itinerary for us there, including a pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel, a visit to see the medieval Tapestry in Bayeux, and road trips to some little known chateaus and abbeys.

But I couldn’t find much information about our other destination, Pontarlier, a tiny little town in the foothills of the Alps, so we waited until we got there to see what we could do. We were told that we weren’t far from Switzerland and that if we walked “up there” (with a vague wave of the arm), we could reach Switzerland. So, we packed a lunch, a camera, and a whiffle ball and bat (you know, the essentials when traveling with young boys), and just started walking up. And up. And up. And along country roads and down dirt paths and around corners until… around the corner, we came upon a ruins… a Fort Mahler, according to a rusty sign, an immense edifice built into the side of the mountain we had just climbed. It had grass growing out of the great rock blocks and was clearly uninhabited except by birds, and we were just amazed… until we walked around the narrow edge to the back of the fort and gazed upon the most breathtaking castle, also built into a mountain a few miles away… oh, and Switzerland. When we finally got home, we googled our journey and discovered that we had walked 8 miles and discovered the Chateau de Joux, a medieval castle we might never have found had we relied only on the research.

3. I’ve been doing a bit of reading about work and careers lately, and came across this quote: “Jump, and a net will appear.” What does that say to you, if anything, and does it apply in any way to your own life?

Well, it happens to me all the time… Dan loses his job, ends up working at home to his great satisfaction and financial gain; I apply to grad school, don’t get into my first choice, but end up getting a full fellowship I didn’t even apply for. Where will I jump next? I have no idea, but I’ve learned not to worry so much. I love the line from The Sound of Music: “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” BTW, I’d highly recommend Zen and the Art of Making a Living. It’s full of wonderful suggestions like this.

4. Here is another quote about work and life choices that I recently discovered: “I must simplify my life, and whittle down what I do to the things that I am absolutely the most passionate about, or else I risk being stuck in mediocrity.” Similarly, what does that say to you, if anything, and does it apply to your own life?

I’m torn on this one. I certainly don’t follow the advice, although sometimes I wish I could. I just don’t seem to have been born this way. I never suffered from too few ideas about what job I wanted to have, rather that I have too few lifetimes to try them all. I did cut down on a bunch of activities when I went back to school (first and foremost, my job!), which allowed me to really focus in on one thing, which was nice as long as it lasted. But now I’ve got all these other opportunities, like some classes I’ve been offered to teach and research projects I’m working on and grants to write for. And although there are stressful moments, I love it. I’m passionate about life, and I don’t do anything with mediocrity.

5. The U.S presidential election is on Tuesday. By the time you have to answer this question, we’ll know the outcome of the vote. How do you think the result of this election affects how the world views the U.S.? (Or, if you prefer, how you personally view the U.S., or how the U.S. might view itself?)

This morning, I was observing some classes in a middle school in Dorchester, Massachusetts, part of the Boston Public Schools system. Only 10% of the school is white. And I have to say, I am so glad I visited today. The energy in the school was just contagious! The students (and teachers!) were just bursting with pride, with their Obama t-shirts and stickers. And it was so great to hear them all talking about politics! I think this election inspired a whole new generation of voters.

I’ve also spent much of the day reading e-mails from all my international friends, who write “Congratulations, America!” and I am so glad that we will have a president who will represent America responsibly and humbly to the rest of the world, a president who is intelligent and isn’t afraid to hide it because he’ll certainly need it, a president who can actually string a coherent sentence together (these last 8 years have been hard on my English teacher self). Perhaps we’ve gotten beyond the anti-intellectual movement, the belief that you should elect a president you’d like to have a beer with, the wish to feel smarter than your president. Perhaps we’ve swung back from the “me, me, me” and started to realize that we’re all in this together, that when the poorest among us loses his house, it will affect the portfolio of the wealthiest. But maybe I’m still dreaming…


Anonymous said...

Dear Jennifer, I am a very close friend of Eduardo and I loved your description of 'Dia de Muertos'.

At the moment I am in a visit to the University of Siena in Italy, and I have been here not long, but I have missed some birthdays (my dad's and others), friends parties (but my friends called me up to my mobile! ;)), Independence day (Oh, I missed Tequila soooo bad), and the Dia de Muertos.

From those all, I can tell you the one I missed the most was the later. I struggled with my new italian friends to try to communicate them how big and meaningful was this day for us, with no luck at all. They tought it was 'weird' for saying the least.

If you return to Mexico (or any of you -blog writters-) on Dia de Muertos, use your days in Patzcuaro in Michoacan (South of Mexico), yo will get the very best of this tradition...

I send you all a huge hug. Congratulations on this project.

Best!, Guillermo

Jennifer Rabold said...

I'm glad you liked my posting. And thank you for the suggestion for when (not if) I return to Mexico... it's been too long!