Gringos do Quito

Over a week in, and I finally got around to doing some touristy things.  Mia—a Princeton friend—flew up from Guayaquil, where she’s been working this summer.  If she had told me in September that we would next meet in Ecuador, I would have a hard time believing it, but there we were!

Quito at sunrise.

After a night that left me blissfully filled with knowledge of the latest marching band drama, we woke up this morning and headed to the Teleferiqo, a sweet trolly to the top of one of the mountains that looms over Quito.  My utter inability to catch my breath or walk a quarter mile without stopping was a big reminder that this was the highest altitude I’ve ever ascended to, at least outside of a pressurized cabin.  Like most places, Quito looks a bit better from a distance, but what was really fantastic was gazing out to snow-capped peaks and the sierra, criss crossed with rivers and farms and pueblos.  While the spectacular view itself made the whole thing vale la pena, it didn’t particularly hurt that, on our cable car down, I sat next to one of the chief negotiators of the Yasuní-ITT protocol, and scored his e-mail address.

Don't (can't) hold your breath.

In the afternoon, we elected to go to La Mitad del Mundo—the Equator—despite full-well knowing that it was going to be cheesy.  It turns out that, in Ecuador, the country’s namesake is not just celebrated with a monument, but an entire village with a planetarium, a daily faux-indigenous sun ceremony, karaoke, and, of course, an army of people selling curios.  We snapped a few obligatory pictures (much like in that terrible Mandy Moore movie, one has to commemorate being in TWO PLACES AT THE SAME TIME) and went back.  Once again, though, luck was on our side, as our bus was trapped for a half-hour by a sweet festival and parade, which—rather appropriately—included several marching bands.

Yeah, let's put this on myspace!!!

Saturday night we met up with some of Mia’s friends who had traveled up from Guayaquil.  It was nice to actually spend some time with locals outside of the context of badgering them about Yasuní—although apparently Guayaquil-ians speak a lot faster than Quito-ians (wow, those are both extremely awkward words), as I could hardly understand a word.  Speaking of awkward, Mia and I went to a discotec later in the evening, which, despite exposing us quite hopelessly as gringos, was nonetheless a hoot—I hadn’t had a chance to bust out my salsa moves since the summer after Freshman year, when Flagstaff’s “Salsa on the Square” was the place to be on Wednesday nights.

Buckingham Palace Guards, watch out.

Sunday found us in Quito’s Old Town, a fabulous expanse of narrow cobbled streets, open plazas filled with adorable old men and street performers, and about a church a block (those Spaniards really had religion).  We took photos with the Presidential Palace Guards, went to the Central Bank Museum—with presented a rather tragic/comic portrayal of Ecuador’s road to dollarization—and, of course, watched the World Cup, basking in the Pan-Latino enthusiasm for Spain’s victory.

Quito Old Town.

There are moments when I like to think that, by merit of the fact that I’m doing research, I am ‘different’ kind of extranjero here.  At the same time, though, it’s nice to occasionally admit that things that are touristy are often that way because they are actually really fun and cool.  I was definitely sad to see Mia go today, and it’s a bit of a jolt to be getting back to work.

Adventures Under the Midnight(ish) Sun

For all intents and purposes, I finished my term on Thursday—the day before my final exam—when I gave up on studying, unable to convince myself anymore that learning to do ANOVA statistical tests by hand or to ramble about epistemological approaches to ethnography had anything to do with, well, anything. Paul Willis, a Professor at Keele University, had invited me to lunch in Stoke-on-Trent, so I braved the English rail system for the first time.  It was a pleasant afternoon: Professor Willis is moving to the Princeton sociology department, and wanted to grill me on such mystical things as the Woodrow Wilson School, JPs, and departmental gossip.  These moments in which I feel like a part of the academic club—more colleague than student—are part of what keep me optimistic about the future.

A high point came when I tried to explain the eating club system.  I expected Willis’ first reaction to the street to be that of any good sociologist: indignation at its role in perpetuating racial / class / gender stratification.  His reaction, though, was quintisentially British: “So, do professors drink at these places too?”  Before I got on the train to go home, I asked him whether I should drink with the boat club or study for my exam that evening.  Under the advice of someone whose book has been cited 8,000 times, I passed the rest of the hours until sunset on the Thames, bidding fond farewell to my undergraduate friends before they disappeared into the summer.

Friday was examination time, which meant sub-fusc and red carnation.  I can’t say much about the actual examination, because as tends to be the case, I basically blacked out for three hours and came to having written 24 pages of keyword-laden theoretical non-sense (the graders will probably love it).  Before my first year of graduate school could be officially laid to rest, however, there was one last Oxford tradition: trashing.  While finalists have been known to be doused in baked-beans and hit by rotten fish upon emerging for exams, I got away with a bit of glitter thrown by my wonderful housemate, Nicola.  She, I, and another friend, Evan, retired to a pub, as a good chunk of stress rapidly fell off my shoulders.

Early Saturday morning, I was off to go narrow boating with a fellow PUBandie, Josephine, and her family.  Narrow-boating strikes me as perhaps the quintessentially quaint English activity, in that nothing really happens.  We puttered along at two miles-per-hour and stopped every couple hundred meters to go through a lock.  Apparently, this was sufficiently exciting, though, to bring lots of locals out to watch us, and despite the fact that my house in Arizona was further from the airport than Oxford is from Manchester, the regional variation in accents is ridiculous. I basically couldn’t understand anything the passer-byes said, until Josephine pointed out that they were probably always talking about football and I started focusing on catching a few critical words (in this sense, it was good practice for being in Ecuador).  The relaxed pace gave me lots of opportunities to take in a new city, eat some amazing vegan food, and catch up—it was, all-in-all, a pretty fantastic weekend.

Back in Oxford, I’ve been trying to adapt to the idea of being here and not being stressed out of my mind.  Sticking with the boating theme of my week, I watched the drawn-out solstice nea-midnight sunset from a ferry in the Thames.  Today, I completed the circle, watching the sun rise at three-thirty a.m., having spent all night around a bonfire in Port Meadows, roasting pita bread and drinking cheap wine among good company.

I try not to treat experiences like these as belt notches.  The fact that I have done X and seen Y reflects little on the richness of my life or my appreciation for it.  Even as I sit at my desk—reading about political ecology, writing questionnaires, and stuying Spanish, como siempre—though, I can feel a different sort of optimism and appreciation for life that’s been missing for too long.  Despite the redundancy, I don’t think I can ever remind myself too much of what a ridiculously privileged life I lead.

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Jukebox: Against Me! – Wagon Wheel

Some aimless reminiscing

Reunions with fellow marching-bandies are inevitably the catalyst for endless reminiscing, and Bagdis’ recent provided opportunities aplenty.  We were skyping with a friend back at Princeton—who, dare say, I predate—and, as usual, I started subjecting her to tales from my orange-plaid glory days (I think being forced to listen to stories from alumni is something of a Princeton Band right-of-passage).  Talking about it inspired me to write some of these moments down—before I completely forget them—and, of course, to take stock of the way I view my own life-history nearly one year after graduation.

To be fair, as band road trips go, our visit to Dartmouth in 2007 was pretty legendary.  The Dartmouth Band at the time was at a membership low, and so the four Drillmasters—Lucas, Concepcion, Justin, and I—went home with some tangential friends-of-friends of the band president.  They took us into what was unequivocally the most disgusting dorm room I’ve ever seen, pushed a mountain of pizza boxes and loose papers off their tiny futon onto the last remaining clear spot of the floor, and fled out the door to a frat party.  As soon as the door closed, we all looked at each other and burst out laughing at the absurdity of our accommodations.  After snapping a few pictures for posterity, we grabbed our bags and walked out the door.

Somehow, we wound up wandering Dartmouth’s frat row, until we realized that at the end of a row of Animal House-lookalikes was the University President’s house.  We spent a few minutes cavorting on the lawn before ringing the doorbell and running off.  I don’t quite remember how it happened, but we definitely wound up sleeping on a fraternity tap-room floor.  While we slept, Dan Jaffe managed to get himself arrested for drinking from a hip flask in an on-campus party.

It’s been too long for me to remember what happened on Saturday, except for a few snippets.  I was almost decapitated by a flying pumpkin after ding-dong-ditching a frat house during the 8:00 a.m. march around.  I passed an hour between field rehearsal and kick-off by trying to build a bonfire in a highway median, until President Greg got mad at me.  During half-time, I opted not to participate in the formations and instead systematically dismember the plastic pumpkin—on which I broke my foot at the beginning of the season—with one of my crutches.  At some point, RW slide-tackled the Dartmouth drum major.  I obviously have no clue who won the game (on the one hand, Princeton lost most of the games I watched… on the other hand, Dartmouth is terrible…), but I do know that before we got back onto the bus, I tried to take the “set the conductor on fire” tradition to a new level and chased Matt Rich around with a hairspray flamethrower.

A few days ago, I tried to cheer up a housemate-in-distress by showing her some pictures of my “youth” in Flagstaff: of river trips with barely contained bonfires (are you sensing a theme?), joke cult rituals after cross country meets, anarchy pancakes and punk rock shows, homemade potato guns and rocket powered sleds.  The pictures did the trick—watching me almost blow myself up 100 times over definitely provided momentary distraction for my housemate—but also sent me into a paroxysm of nostalgia.

I look at these pictures and see a past of creativity and chaos that is beyond recreating: all I’m left with stories that I rehash over and over again to try to convince the people around me, “I used to be interesting, I swear.”  Part of it, I suppose, is simply context: I know that, in large part, all my best stories come from being around friends more reckless and impulsive than I, and now they have graduated and acquired jobs and significant others and, quite frankly, have better things to do than play with fire.  Another chunk of it is just imagination – a tendency to look backwards and only see the exciting moments.  But at the same time, I also feel like in the post-mohawk, post-Princeton band, post-Cult of Elk period of my life, I’ve simply gotten boring.

I suppose if I looked back at my time in Oxford so far, I could find plenty of indications that I haven’t entirely sold old and fallen in line.  I have, after all, gotten in a fight with a neo-Nazi, done an erg in a tuxedo, popped champagne in our department reception area, eaten falafel from a sidewalk, and—as of last weekend—joined in teaching a few Germans to play robo with sawed-off water bottles (not to mention showed them the joy of those hair-spray torches).  In reality, though, this is probably not anything to be proud of.  In terms of things I should be worried about falling into decline—such as my academic performance, or my political activism—my identity as a raving lunatic ought to be low on the list.  And, in the depths of this self-over-analysis, it occurs to me that maybe what I should really be worried about is not about growing up, but not growing up fast enough.

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Jukebox: Pennywise – Homesick



Ties That Bind

Young Ones.

Back in my day, the only press we received was hate mail.

The initial glow of Oxford has started to wear off.  While I’m still enjoying it here, I am coming to a point where I have to confront the reality of being a semi-grown up.  The existential and absurd questions that occupied me when I arrived—ranging from “How am I going to save the world?” to “Is that building featured in Harry Potter?”—are being overtaken by a bit more practical considerations.  I need to figure out a thesis topic.  I need to have some sort of career path.  And, at some point, I need to make some new friends and round out the non-academic side of my life.

It is, after all, a bit isolating being a graduate student in a new country.  It’s crazy to say this, given how desperate I was to get out of Princeton just four weeks ago, but to that effect I really miss the band.  When my screensaver pops up, displaying four years of band photos, I almost reflexively wind up on facebook, trying to figure out where in the library the band got to on its last march around or what exactly our field formation was supposed to be.  Football season is in full swing, and well Princeton football really sucks, that doesn’t stop me from remembering the last four years of watching Princeton lose as some of the best times of my life.  While I’m sure I will discover something equally great in my time at Oxford, at this point, the comparison is between a known wonderful thing that is happening right now and some unknown something I hope to discover in the future.  It’s a recipe for nostalgia.

This is all a very long lead in for something that ought to need no introduction.  Last night, I brought Kevin Smith (’07 OCx2A), Ben Elias (’05 PExDMxLLxFLL), and Dave Casazza (’10), all friendly faces and current and former members of the band, to Worcester for formal hall.  It was a wonderful evening: I really loved the idea of being able to bring friends to “my” college, “my” formal hall, and “my” college bar.  It was equally nice to be able to bring us together in a place that is very far from Powers Field.

Of course, despite our best efforts to show that, when not wearing orange plaid, we are in fact normal people, our conversation drifted to the band.  Dave started talking about the freshman—the class of ’13, that is—and that evoked some stories from Ben about some members of the class of ’01, who graduated his freshman year.  While that is a pretty wide age range—Mark Pescatore ’01 graduated when the ‘13ers were entering the second half of elementary school—the connections between them didn’t seem strange.  I’ve never quite understood the supposed spiritual connection that is the Princeton alumni network, but in the band, the bond still feels incredibly strong, even with people I barely know.

As I evolve from band leader in the thick of things to crusty alum on the sidelines, it’s nice to know that I share experiences with everyone who has graduated from the band before me and everyone who will join it in the future, and that these experiences provide, at the very least, a bit of camaraderie and friendship.  I miss the band—but so do a lot of people, and when we get together, we can collectively commiserate about how back in our day, we played in every library, wrote funnier shows, were the scourge of athletics, and knew how to lobster correctly.  And then we can talk about how, despite it all, we still love the band, whatever and wherever it is.  Beat Penn.

If I book now, a flight to reunions is only three hundred quid.