Thursday, May 1, 2008

Cell phone, MIT, and the freedom trail… tales from my MIT visit

Even though I would like to dive right in with a retelling of my adventure tales from Paris I would be remise not to go back and fill in the details of all that happened during my US trip. So let me start there… When I finally arrived at Logan International Airport in Boston I got my bags and made my way through customs as quickly as possible. I found the taxi stand area, but ducked into the bathroom for a moment to change my outfit into something more fresh and appropriate for the MIT reception I was heading to. I had the name of the building and directions on how to get there. I figured no problem, any cab should know what I am talking about. Well, that was a wrong assumption and I paid dearly for it. After getting a cab who would accept a credit card, which wasn’t too hard, I watched as the fare meter ticked higher and higher. I had planned on spending like $20-25 on cab fare to get to MIT, however, this ride cost me a whopping $33. Ouch. And to add insult to injury the cab driver didn’t know where he was going and kept asking where to go and I couldn’t answer him but simply repeat the directions I had already given him. So I finally had him drop me off at one of the nearby MIT dorms and went inside to ask. I ended up walking about 300m in the misting rain to actually arrive at my destination. Needless to say it was not most pleasant welcoming I home I have ever had. Oh, and to make you aware of the full extent of this cab drivers rudeness wait until you hear this. I gave him my credit card to pay. I was a bit frazzled at this point and forgot to write in a tip. No problem, though, I thought, I have two dollars in my wallet and I will tip him in cash. Well, the driver gets the receipt and flippantly says, “Thanks a lot, you know this will cost me 8% to cash.” “Excuse me” I reply. Is there a problem? “Oh, no, no problem…” he retorts. I tell him if the tip is the problem I was planning on tipping him in cash, if that would be okay with him. He seemed a bit ashamed and I continued to tell him, thankfully I had such clarity of mind, that he has made this trip extremely unpleasant for me. With that I got out of the cab, thankful to be done with that mess. You know in Burkina Faso I stop a taxi ask him how much the fare will be to such and such a place, he tells me and if it is a reasonable price I get in and that is how much I pay. And they generally don’t get lost. Even though I am sometimes squished in with 3 other people in the back seat I was never as uncomfortable as I was in the US taxi. Thanks buddy. Oh and cab fare in Burkina, on average, about $0.60, cab fare in the states lets not even go there…

Well, besides my storybook cab driver horror story, I did make it to the MIT reception in time to catch the end of the socializing and attend the dinner. I should have been a bit more intimidated, but I had just gotten off of a plane. It was freezing cold and wet outside and all I had to wear on my feet were flip flops. I was so happy to walk into the right building and see the crowd of people that I didn’t care about what entrance I would make. I asked the man at the desk to guard my bags, which he happily did, and then moseyed on over the large room bustling with a crowd of young and old people. The young people being the prospective students and the old people being the professors, sorry profs, no offense. I found a woman you looked kind of secretary-ish and introduced myself, bingo! She immediately remembered my name and warmly welcomed me. I got a name tag and she went to introduce me to several people. But as we were standing there, I looked over and who do I see but a familiar face from Princeton. A friend in the 2007 CEE program whom I knew from countless courses, ect was at the open house to check out MIT as well. What a joy to see someone I knew! You could not wipe the smile off my face. I met with other professors and was introduced to the students who were hosting me. Both girls were very kind and friendly, they didn’t fit the typical MIT student mold I had formed in my head which was refreshing. They had also just both been to Africa so we had great stories to share and they could totally relate to what I was saying! As the reception wound down, I got a chance to talk with Susan Murcott, the woman at MIT who works on the Point of Use water treatments. She and I clicked right away. She was lovely. We talked quite a bit and as we were leaving she proposed I come quickly to her office, a detour enroute to dinner, and she would show me some things from the presentation she gave earlier in the day. It was incredibly nice of her. I felt like the exchange of information and interests that followed was happening at light speed. There was so much I wanted to tell her about the work I have been doing and so much she wanted to tell me about the program. We ended sitting next to each other at dinner which was great. It was a wonderful chance to fill in the blanks left by our harried conversation from before.

For dinner we went to a Chinese restaurant, yum. I should mention I borrowed a girls phone to call my Mom to let her know I was safely in the US and she was so happy. She pretty much wouldn’t stop giggling and saying oh yeah. Finally she calmed down and I assured her I would call again to talk tomorrow once I figured out the phone business. After dinner I walked back to my host’s room with another girl who was staying there. Logic told me to go to bed, but I was too hyped up and so instead I went online and checked out stuff for paris, things to do in Boston and prices for phone plans. The pay as go stuff was going to cost me an arm and a leg and I really wanted to be able to catch up with my friends while I was here so I started seriously considering instead a one month plan which comes with the benefits of nights and weekends, ect. When I did finally turn in I slept quite soundly. I just didn’t think about the time zone changes or what I would normally been doing at any given point in time and that seemed to work pretty well.

Saturday morning I got up and met another prospective student for breakfast. She and I by happenstance stumbled upon a fantastic breakfast place. I can’t remember the name, but it was on a side street off of Massachusetts Ave across from a Middle Eastern place. I had an amazing meal of chocolate chip pancakes! They were even better than the ones I used to get at Frist, so that is saying something… We talked about grad schools and it was really nice to hear her perspective on things as well. She was pretty sure she was going to go to MIT, but thought I would really like Stanford. Interesting. After lunch, I went to investigate the phone situation. After consulting a Radioshack about the pay as go plans I ventured over to a T-mobile dealer. He also recommended their pay as you go plan because I would only be here for two weeks, but then I explained how much I wanted to use my phone and he finally came around to the idea of a month-by-month plan. Those are usually for people with bad credit, but whatever, it was suiting my needs. I would get 300 anytime minutes, unlimited nights and weekends, and unlimited calling to 5 people I chose. The package would put me back $40, but the guy wanted $20 for the SIM card. I was like, what!? So I start talking to him about how my family has T-mobile and if there are any customer loyalty plans, ect. And it finally comes up that he might be able to sell me the SIM card for $10. Now that is more like it. I tell him nonchalantly, trying to hide me extreme feeling of satisfaction, that I will take it. Unfortunately he asks his coworker if he thinks the $10 thing would be okay. The kid says that the store buys them for $10 and so maybe I could pay $15. To this I replied, well, since we already discussed and I agreed to $10, I would rather pay $10. The guy working with me obviously didn’t want to get in trouble with his boss, so even though I point out that although they wouldn’t be making a profit on the card, they would be getting my contract signed in the store and that should be something, he wasn’t going to budge. Honestly, I think he would have let me walk out without buying anything which would have been terrible salesmanship, but just my luck, at that moment, the manager walks in and saves the day. He okays the $10 SIM card sale and I am soon, after signing several papers and swiping my long dormant credit card through the machine, the proud owner of a T-mobile plan that will allow me all the joys of cell phone usage for the next 10 days. I guess all that bargaining I am doing in Africa has really paid off already!

As I left the store, I immediately called my house and talked with my Mom and brother. It was so great to hear their voices over a clear connection. Unfortunately, my battery was not holding up under the cold weather so after regaling them with story of cell phone victory, I said goodbye and promised to call later when I recharged my battery. Upon ending the call, to my delight, I spotted a Goodwill store across the street. In need of some warm clothes and starved for real thrift store shopping I gleefully entered the mecca of used goods. This place had two major things going for it; one, they take credit cards, and two, they have a ton of brand name clothes that appear nearly untouched. I spent about an hour combing through the racks endlessly impressed and in awe of the bounty which exists in this country. I had a similar moment of awe earlier, as well, as I walked through Walgreen’s and was met by an impressive display of every color flip flop imaginable and a cosmetics selection which spanned the length of the store. The thought of, “Is this all really necessary?” crossed my mind, but was fleetingly beat out by my happy acceptance to be back in the land of plenty. Enjoy life where you are at. If that is Burkina and you have nothing, or America where you have too much at times, make the best of it and stop being all philosophical about it. I took my own advice and happily soaked in as much as I could of the society I had been absent from for six months. Anyway, my goodwill shopping trip was a huge success. I acquired a cashmere sweater, black pants, a long sleeve gap shirt, a running top, khaki adventure style capris, and two very classy dress shirts all for the low price of thirty-nine dollars. What a deal!

High off my latest purchases and not ready to call it a day I struck out in search of the other thrift store whose address I looked up online. It was a place called the Garment District. The clothes were a bit pricier, but the selection was much better and whole experience much more upscale. Unlike the goodwill store, there were no singing homeless men wandering the aisles. Not that that bothered me, in fact, it made me feel kind of at home as such odd behavior is rather common place in Burkina Faso… After taking my time and trying on countless jeans, skirts, tops and shoes I settled on buying a pair of jeans, two skirts, two tops and two pairs of shoes, one pair of black prada dress shoes, oh yes I went there, and one pair of white strappy designer sandals. With my plunder in hand I headed back for the dorm where I was staying. As I walked along the river I was happily imagining myself living in Boston, sailing on the Charles, promenading through Boston Commons. The dorm was a good 25 minute walk back. But thankfully the sun had come out and made it a pleasant stroll. I got back to the dorm and called my friend Robbie to set up dinner. I had contacted him the night before, but we hadn’t firmed up any particular plans. I wanted to go running so we settled that I would run, shower, and then call him when I was on my way up to Harvard Square. I ended up running with one of the girls who was hosting me. She was really nice and it was great to get to ask her all sorts of questions… we also kept a similar pace which made running nice. We ran up and down the Charles River. It was very picturesque.

We finished up running I showered and put on some of the spoils from my earlier shopping trip. I wore my new black pants, blue cashmere sweater and prada dress shoes. My friend is at Harvard law and I wanted to play the part appropriately. I think I did okay :) We ended up a tavern called John Harvards. I had requested either something authentically American, or deliciously Mexican. American it was and I got a fantastic hamburger with a side of excellent soup instead of fries, as is my normal preference. Following dinner we headed over the local Mexican place for some margaritas. It was a nice idea, but I forgot to bring my ID, (why would I need that silly old thing… oh right there is a drinking age in the states. doah!) and I was carded, denied a drink, the first time in my adult life actually. I guess there is a first for everything and so we changed plans and found a swinging tea joint and ordered tea infused hot chocolate. Sounds gross, but let me tell you it will knock your socks off. At about 10pm I decided the best way to get back given the hour and my lack of familiarity with Cambridge streets, was to take a taxi. Ten minutes and eleven dollars later I was back at the dorm. Since it was the weekend I picked up my phone and called my friend Annie, Katha and then my Mom. It was great to hear their voices and reconnect :) I went to bed about 1:30am planning to get up at 8:00 to meet my friend Sandy for church and brunch in the morning on Sunday.

The 8:00am plan was ambitious, probably too ambitious as I look back upon it in hindsight. I hit snooze one too many times and ended up having to call my friend and we arranged to go to the later service at the church. Instead of going to the early service and getting brunch afterwards, we would eat before church and then part ways after the service. I made my way over to Newberry Street where she lived and we found a very nice Italian place that served up some very impressive waffles. Expensive yes, delicious, you bet! However, more important than the food was the excellent conversation. It was so great getting to see Sandy and talk to her about Africa, she had worked in Botswana for the summer and we were able to discuss some very critical issues that are important to both of us. She seems to be doing really well and enjoying life which is such an encouragement to see. After the morning meal, we went to Trinity Church. It was a lovely service and just nice to be back in an English speaking church.
Following the service Sandy went back to get some work done for classes and I wandered over to Boston Commons. It so much reminded me of Hyde Park in London, always a welcomed recollection, indeed. I made it to the information center just in time to pay my $10 and join the tour of the freedom trail. The tour guide was great, but the group was so big it was slow in going. AND it was freezing outside! We didn’t walk all that far, but ended at Quincy Market. I went inside to warm up before I voyaged back to the dorm. I took the T, the Boston subway, to get back since the thought of walking for an hour in the biting wind honestly made me a bit queasy. Back at the dorm I got online and wasted away my time as usual doing who knows what… For dinner Kelly, one of my hosts, was making omelets and offered to make me one too :) They were really good! We had a nice talk about MIT which was really helpful for me in gathering more information. I again talked to people on the phone until the wee hours of the night and hit the hay exhausted.

Monday morning I got up and went running with Robbie. We ran along the Charles River and around the MIT campus because even though it is less than a mile from Harvard he had never seen it! After the run I grabbed an amazing Boston bagel from a shop in Harvard Square and took the bus back to MIT. I quickly showered and headed over the office buildings to meet with Professor Adams. He was very amiable and answered all my questions. We also grabbed lunch in the student center which was nice because the run made me quite hungry and the bagel wasn’t holding me over for long…

After talking with Professor Adams I was able to see a couple of PhD students, one of whom recommended I stop over and talk with the director of the technology and policy program since my interests have a wide range reaching all the way to policy. She was wonderful and we were able to work out the program of my doing a double major master’s degree and possibly working towards a PhD. However, I hadn’t applied to that program and there would have to be a lot of maneuvering in the next few days for it to be a possibility. Because I really liked the idea of being in Boston and just the East Coast in general where most of my friends are, I wrote the necessary emails to get the ball rolling. Things were looking promising, but it just felt like the whole time I would be fighting the system. And as technical as MIT is, they seem surprisingly unorganized! You tell me…?

My official visit day finished up with my using the computer in one of the Sloan Business School buildings to reserve a shuttle to Stanford the next day, confirm subway, train, and bus times to get to the Providence airport and finalize plans for where I was going to sleep that night. After spending 3 nights with the MIT girls, I felt like it was time to go. So I contacted two of my crew teammates and was able to stay at Devan’s apartment. The only hassle was porting my bags about a mile plus from the dorm to her apartment. My bags were not packed well and were getting pretty heavy. However, the pain was worth it. I had so much fun and Margaret, the other teammate, came over for dinner and cookie baking as well. It turns out Princeton was racing Radcliff the next weekend and it is customary for former teammates to indulge the current team members with all sorts of treats for after the race. Devan made an awesome roast, with veggies and an outstanding beet salad. It was really quite gourmet, and she makes it all look so easy! She had a super cool fold out chair that I slept in and I said goodbye that night before we turned in for the night because I was leaving at 5:15 in the morning to start making my way to Providence.

My alarm went off and the only thing getting me out of bed was horror that coursed through my veins at the thought of missing my flight to San Francisco. So I walked the 7 minutes from Devan’s apartment to the T station, and caught a subway train to South Central Station. There I bought my ticket to Providence and got on the train in time to relax a little before we pulled out of the station. 45 minutes later the train pulled into providence and loading up my bags in the least awkward way possible walked across the commons to find the bus station. I got there in time to take the 7:15 bus that stopped at T.F. Green airport. The fare was only $1.50 and I was pleased as punch that all the transfers went as well as they did. I got the airport, checked in and went through security. I was at the gate my 8:15am, approximately 3 hours after I left Devan’s place and over two hours before my flight was going to leave. The reason why getting to the airport was such a challenge was that the first direct bus from Boston left at 8:30 getting me to the airport at 9:30 which was cutting it too close for my liking for a 10:25 flight. Regardless, everything worked out and I was able to get online, after paying an exorbitant fee, and reserve my Paris hostel, get Sarah Moore’s contact information for Stanford and email my parents to let them know I was okay… The flight was fine. I slept most of the way to Chicago fading in and out of consciousness. The layover in Chicago was a bit trippy. To be there and not be going home felt odd. I did, however, get lunch at PotBelly’s subs which made my day. The flight to San Francisco was great. I had a row to myself so I stretched out and slept slept for 4 hours. Exactly what I needed to make sure I made a good impression at Stanford when I finally got there.