Thursday, May 1, 2008

Weidenfeld, Oxford, and a side order of bread... What?!

My time in Oxford was, in a word, magical. I don’t know how one can walk the streets of those hallowed halls and not feel a tingle in their fingers and toes. It is beautiful. I wasn’t sure I made the right decision applying to Christ Church College, but in fact I did. Walking the grounds I know I would be happy there. I am actually on the bus on the way to the airport! (It is 4:22am) They have outlet plugins on the bus, which is amazing :) Boy am I a far way from Africa. It is kinda of crazy to go from of the absolute poorest places in the world to one of the richest!

So my flight from Burkina to London was uneventful. Leanna picked me up at 5:30pm and dropped me off at the airport. I was there and just waited around for two hours. When I first arrived I decided to check out the VIP Salon which was conspicuously located in one corner of the single room waiting area. I didn’t know who it was for and figured, hey, maybe there is no one checking and I can just do whatever I want. Well, that wasn’t quite the case. You are supposed to have a business class ticket, something I did not have. However, I learned that I could pay 5000CFA to use the room and you just two drinks and some snacks. I debated it, and if I truly was in a place to call myself VIP I probably would have plunked down the cash and enjoyed the comfortable chairs and table bowls of peanuts. But, since I am on a budget and need to not be frivolous at this point in time, I opted to sit in the layman’s area. It is nice to know though that you can buy your way in the VIP area…

I tried to sleep as best as I could. There was the infernal layover in Niamey as before… I really hate that. It just feels like we are sitting there for no reason. I know, I know they are refueling, adding luggage, adding passengers, ect. but it is still annoying. I ended up watching the National Treasure sequel which was interesting, but in hindsight I probably should have simply slept.

I arrived in Paris and the hour and a half I had to make my connection proved to be just enough time. At Charles de Gaulle you have to go through customs in and out just to change planes it is really a terrible system. Anyway, I made my connection and the flight from Paris to London was a whopping forty-five minutes which doesn’t give one anytime really to use your electronic devices, not that I have one anymore since I lost my ipod… sad. I slept the whole time I was on the connection. Once my bum hit the seat bottom and I put my earplugs in and covered my eyes, I didn’t wake back up until I could look out my window and longingly look at London from my window seat on the right side of the plane, strategically picked so I could have a sweet view during the descent. At Heathrow I got through customs, picked up my bag, and was at the bus loading point in less than forty minutes. That should be a new record. I got the 8:30 bus to Oxford and met two other Weidenfeld Scholars taking the same bus. Both of them were very nice; one American and the other from Jordan. We talked quite a bit during the hour plus journey.

When we pulled into Oxford, it was a beautiful sunny Friday morning. It was a rarity I am told. I was afraid my memories and fond feelings of awe and splendor would fade the second time I saw the University. However, that was not the case. I was equally as enchanted this second time around. The first order of business before going to the business school that would serve as the base camp for the weekend, I popped into the post office and mailed all the Paris postcards I had been saving. I also had to mail several packages for Rosie and Anna, two English girls living in Burkina who help me with bible study :) Can I just mention I actually enjoy the English postal system, some people may disagree, but I think it is quite organized and logically run. AND, my grandparents received their postcard 3 days after I posted it. That is impressive! From the post office I caught the 35A bus to Templeton College/Said Business School/Egrove Park. I met one of the program representatives, got my name tag, folder of information and my room key. I found my room and boy was I glad to ditch my bags! At this point I haven’t really slept yet, but there also isn’t much time for such an expendable activity. In my room by 11:00am I had about 2 hours before lunch. I should have napped. But I couldn’t. I had all sorts of stuff to figure out with the extra day I had to spend and finalize arrangements to visit with professors. I was lucky enough to get in touch with my Mom online. I just had to talk through everything so I could make a clear decision about what to do! Not having heard from the family I had stayed with before, I booked a room at a hostel for Monday night. I wouldn’t end up using the room and am yet to know if I lost only the seven dollar deposit or if I had to pay the whole price of the room.

Lunch was incredible. I would soon learn all the food was going to be stellar quality! The assortment of cheeses as really quite impressive… Anyway, I really enjoyed lunch, but couldn’t linger all that long after the meal because I needed to get to the science area to meet with one of the professors. I donned my running gear and headed to the bus stop. I saw the bus go past on my way to the stop and consequently had to wait another 15 minutes for the next bus, ugh! I figured I was going to be super late for my meeting and was getting pretty anxious. Turns out, the bus was really speedy, once it came, and the walk to the building from the stop wasn’t too terrible. I got there at like 2:33pm. I walk in and tell the receptionist I was waiting for so and so and she said he wasn’t in yet and wouldn’t be in for another half hour or so. It was 45 minutes before he came. I was luckily able to rest my eyes while reclining on padded window seat. The only discomforting thing about the whole situation was there was a warning sign that the panels behind the bench contained asbestos. That bit of information was a bit disconcerting! Anyway, the professor finally arrived and I had a very nice meeting with him. It lasted longer than I had predicted, but it wasn’t a problem. From the Science Area I ventured to run back to Templeton. It was a lovely run. Very relaxing… My favorite part was the discovery that the main bridge you have to cross is called Folly Bridge. If that isn’t a fated name, I don’t know what is…

The run back took me less time than expected, but longer than I had allocated since I got distracted by the shops along High Street. Back at the room, which was really really nice by the way; internet, a nice work area, private bathroom, cable and a plush bed, I took a shower and then took a nice little nap. It was only like 30 minutes, but it felt like hours had passed. I love it when that happens!

That night was the formal dinner. At first it was a bit awkward as everyone was trying to get to know one another. We had to repeat ourselves about a million times answering the questions, where are you from, what do you want to study, ect. At the dinner, there were several speakers. It was great to observe their different styles. After being in toastmasters, I am always interested in seeing how people speak in front of groups. The dinner lasted until 11pm and I was really tired. I had met a ton of new people, hadn’t really slept on Thursday night at all and knew I had a written test in the morning. So I went to bed.

Saturday’s breakfast was great. The only not so great thing was the written test that was looming over the morning. At 9:00am, we all assembled in a room and had one hour to write an essay response to the prompt “What are the virtues and vices of democracy? Answer in relationship to your country of origin.” Well, great. I am not a political scientist nor do I pretend to be. But I answered the question as best as I could. I put together a pretty coherent essay with three virtues and three vices which come as a result of the virtues being twisted by the imperfections of the system. I had given it my best effort and that was all I could be asked to do. I was grateful I didn’t freak out, and was able to sort through my thoughts and plan something I was proud of creating.

The interviews started right after the exam. My interview, however, wasn’t scheduled until Sunday at 1:45pm, the last possible interview time. I could have let that upset me, but I didn’t. Instead, I took a nap after the exam on Saturday. I woke up to go to lunch. As I mentioned the food was something I didn’t want to miss out on. And actually Lord Weidenfled sat down at our table near the end of time and so I got to say hi and ask my Lolita question. Score. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I needed to get the 2:03 bus. I politely slipped away and then headed into Oxford to attend part of an apologetics conference my friend Vince was helping out with at his church. His church is right across from Christ Church College where I would be if I got the scholarship. I sat in for the last 10 minutes of a planned talk and then got to be there for all of the very interesting Question and Answer session. I got to meet a bunch of really nice people at the church! It seems like it would be a nice fit for me… Anyway, after that I wanted to go get some Ben’s cookies so Vince and I headed over to the covered market and partook of the best cookies you will ever find! From there we walked to Christ Church College, because I wanted to have another look around. We tried calling our other friend Christian, but he didn’t pick up his phone. Then, as fate would have it, we literally ran into him as he was leaving the gardens with his friends. So he said goodbye to his friends and joined Vince and I in the master’s gardens. The amazing thing about Oxford is that it looks very old, which is it, and somewhat foreboding, which it is… But behind these stone walls there are all these hidden secret gardens! They are so pretty. I think it also helped that the weekend I was in Oxford, there was wonderful weather. So the three of us just kind of sat around in the gardens and caught up on how life was going. I got to ask a bunch of questions about Oxford which was very helpful. Vince and Christian both went to Princeton which is how I know them :)

We parted ways about 6:00pm. I had to get back for the second dinner, this time informal… Lovely. It didn’t last nearly as long which was great! The only downside was there was no assigned seating so it felt a bit like junior high in the lunchroom on the first day of school. Not pleasant, let me remind you. After dinner they had tea and coffee and chocolates. Yum! I got to bed much earlier and was nice and refreshed on Sunday morning.

Sunday I had a great breakfast and tried to keep myself busy and not thinking about the interview. I read for a while in the morning. Still trying to finish up Lolita. I went for a run at 11:00am. It was great. I brought my not-ipod mp3 player and was able to listen to a very timely sermon and inspiring music as I ran along the Thames. I think I may broken the mp3 player though… it doesn’t respond when I press the buttons. I wonder if some sweat got inside and messed up the controls. Again, I would just like to point out I feel like I am cursed when it comes to music, and by that I mean cursed in using portable music players! After my run I showered up and ironed my black jacket. I got dressed for my interview and headed downstairs. I had to wait a good 30 minutes, but that was okay. I was expecting it.

I walked into the interview room and was surprisingly at ease. I was able to answer their questions to the best of my ability. I had prepared as best as I could. I was not totally at a loss except for the stupid weaknesses question. People were coming out of the interviews traumatized, but I didn’t feel that way at all. I gave it my best shot and would probably do the same thing again if I had the chance. The interview didn’t last as long as I had expected which was somewhat troubling. I was getting all sorts of smiles and what felt like positive responses. I left feeling pretty good about things…

I sat down for lunch, by this time it was well past 2:15pm and I was starved. I couldn’t eat much right before my interview as I didn’t feel like I was hungry and didn’t want to mess anything up. Lunch was great, and afterwards I packed up my stuff in ten minutes and walked to the bus stop so I could go on the walking tour of Oxford. I wanted to stay in my room at Templeton another night, but they said that wasn’t possible. Instead, I would crash at Vince’s place on the extra couch they have in the basement. I didn’t want to come back and get my stuff so I would have to have my bags with me for the tour, but I didn’t really care. I was planning to stash them at the church since I was going to go to the 6:00pm service there anyway.

Well, turns out that the church was locked. My plan was foiled and instead I had to lug my luggage through Oxford as we learned all about how old the colleges were, how so and so went to this college and how many books are in the library, ect. It was tiring and I was glad when it was over. I was also quite dehydrated. During the church service I felt a bit light headed. Luckily they had drinks and donuts for sale in the foyer after the service so I paid my 1 pound and felt much better after refueling a little bit. After the service a group of people went out a place called All Bar One. It was really cool. Most of the people only ordered drinks, but I hadn’t had dinner and was again, need I point out, starved! I ordered a wrap which was a great choice :) We stayed until about 10:30pm and then called it a night. Back at Vince’s place, I cancelled my hostel reservation planning to stay in Oxford for Monday and not deal with the hassle of getting into London for a less than 24 hour stay. I was also thinking the Oxford was looking pretty promising and was banking on being able to head into London on the weekends next year… Anyway, I slept like a rock and morning came all too soon!

Monday morning I walked to the science park and met with the professor at Oxford who knows the professor I will be working with at Stanford. He helps run the Water Science, Policy and Management Program. It was great to connect up and learn more about the program. After the brief meeting I stopped at a gift shop and bought a magnet and a bookmark; a wise use of 1.80 pounds if you ask me. From there I walked the 20 minutes back to Vince’s place and headed out for a run. My legs were done for before I even started! It wasn’t a long route, but it took me forever because I was running so slowly. But how could I stop? And the surroundings were so beautiful I couldn’t help but enjoy myself even though I was in a non-negligible amount of pain.

Once back, I showered quickly and walked into the center of Oxford and met up with Christian for lunch. This time the journey took about ten minutes longer because I couldn’t walk as fast due to the fact I was exhausted! I would also like to point out that the weather all day was really schizophrenic. It would rain then be super sunny. Cloudy and the sunny, then rain. Anyway, Christian is in St John’s College and it was great to have a meal at a real college in Oxford.

After lunch I ran some errands picking up random things people had requested I bring back for them. I got a 1GB flash drive, a map of Southern England, a London guidebook, some red tissue paper, and some pens to give to my coworkers as gifts. Turns out they were fountain pens… yikes. But what can I do, so I am going to give them to them anyway, even though they may be entirely useless. At least they look pretty! I also took some photos and found a couple of neat pieces of clothing and a necklace at a great second hand shop I had been eyeing since I first drove past it on the initial bus ride from Heathrow to Oxford… From there I walked to the ice cream place on St. Aldate’s. Wow. That is all I can say. The ice cream was phenomenal. And, was able to taste the flavor before I bought it. Score.

I ate my ice cream on the way to attending the first Weidenfeld Speaker’s Series event. The title was something like “Are Revolutions Contagious?”. It was very fascinating. It lasted like 2 hours, plus another 1 hour of question and answer. I took a ton of notes, not because it was especially interesting. It was good, but not enthralling… I took notes because if I didn’t I would have been fast asleep and that was not something I wished to have happen. I didn’t know too much about Central and Eastern European history so I was lost in some of it, but still enjoyed what I learned and it made we want to go Google a ton of different topics which I think is a good thing.

After the talk there was nice little reception. I ate a bunch of cookies, again quite hungry. From there I went to dinner with a couple of the other candidates. I didn’t want to spend a ton of money so I ordered the soup, that and as I mentioned I had just eaten a bunch of cookies. However, when I ordered the soup and bread, the server thought I meant a side order of bread and brought me more bread than I wanted. The bread was as much as the soup and had to end playing 7pounds for my dinner of soup and bread… That is like 14 dollars. I was ticked off. If I had wanted to spend 7 pounds I would have ordered a pizza or something legitimate. Not good. Anyway, I left the dinner earlier than everybody else because I had to walk back to Vince’s place. It was 10:20pm when I left the restaurant and 10:45pm when I finally made it back. I had said I would be back by 10pm so I felt kind of bad, but it wasn’t a big deal. Next time, one, I will not order the soup, two, I will just go home. I learn new things everyday. I just thought it would be nice to hang out with the Weidenfeld people some more. It was nice, but I think I had hit my limit and the bread fiasco did not help the situation.

Back at Vince’s I packed up my stuff, yet again, and made plans for the morning. I got to sleep all of 3.5 hours from midnight to 3:30am, when I had to get up and walk to the bus stop to get bus to get to Heathrow for a 7:40 flight. I got there in no time, but spent 40 minutes in line at the Air France counter. It was ridiculous. And I would like to point at this point my body officially hates me. I haven’t had regular meals for two days and the food I have been eating hasn’t been all that great for me… I was a bit queasy. I finally checked my bags in and got through security. I tried to track down something for breakfast, but was only mildly successful. I didn’t have a long wait at the gate which was nice, and the flight from London to Paris is a brisk 45 minutes. However, my plane touched down in Paris at 10:10 local time, leaving me 50 minutes before my flight was scheduled to leave. I have the Paris airport. I think I have mentioned that before, but let me reiterate. Thankfully, I didn’t have to go in and out of customs as I had on the way over. After a good twenty minute walk from one terminal to the next, and a short delay at security, I made it to my gate as the plane was boarding. Thankfully, it wasn’t the last call like my time through Paris. But still. Once, just once, I would like to feel like I have things under control as I am flying through Paris.

The godsend of the whole trip was that I was able to sleep on both of my flights. I was done for. I did wake up for the meal and after the meal watched I Am Legend before falling asleep again. The plane made a stopover in Niamey, Niger. I hate just having to sit and wait on planes like that. But alas, there wasn’t much I could do about it was there. So I dosed in and out of consciousness. I was so happy to be parked in Ouagadougou. After the landing we taxied for what seemed like forever. I was not doing well and really needed to get some fresh air off of the plane. I had a similar feeling getting off of the bus that morning. My poor body had been through a lot of flights in the last month and wasn’t too happy about it… I went through customs without a hitch this time. Last time I had filled out my landing card in pencil and had to redo it. I wanted to yell at them that if they wanted it in pen they needed to indicate it somewhere on the card. BUT it is Africa. It wouldn’t have made a stinking difference.

Leanna picked me up from the airport and we went back to her house. I had offered to help her decorate the cakes for prom and was happy to spend some time with her. She Skyped with her sister and I emailed my parents and took a shower before we got down to business on the cake. The theme for the dance was Fire and Ice so we made flames and icicles growing from opposite corners of the cake. It turned out very well. Afterwards we invited Ben over to share a smaller leftover cake that I had decorated to look like an Easter egg. Go figure. Leanna drove me home and I wanted to sleep so badly. However, I had to greet the new lady who was staying at my house. Things just keep getting more and more complicated, eh? Anyway, to my relief she is very kind and I was able to talk to her for just a few minutes before politely excusing myself for the evening.

So that is it. My travels have officially come to a halt. It is a bit of a let down and I wonder how I will readjust to life in Africa. I feel it will be as hard as I first imagined it would be. With only two months left I feel like it will be struggle to concentrate, but I am going to pray it all works out. Somehow it usually does…