Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Favorite Student?

Since April, I have been e-mailing back and forth with a student who has a particularly passionate way of writing e-mails.  One of these e-mails was featured in an earlier post, but I feel the need to pursue this character sketch.  The first thing I noticed about her was the subject lines of her e-mails, which read like this: ( I'll change her name and call her Lola.)

Kuwaiti Lola
Urgent/Kuwaiti Lola
Lola/ HELP!
Lola/hi again

She starting e-mailing me in April, five months before her scheduled arrival in the US.  As you'll see, she's not one that likes uncertainty, and a forward-thinker.  She's been in English courses since the fall and is hoping to start her studies at a university next academic year.  We have been working together on finding admission for her.  I suspect she encounters difficulty because of her English.  It's certainly not for want of earnestness.  I love how she starts out identifying her nationality.  These subject lines are what first started my exasperation, and then gave way to her endearment.

I would like to share with you some of the e-mails I have received over the course of our correspondence.  The ones that I've been getting recently are so fantastic I almost look forward to seeing her name in my inbox.  This first one came early on in our relationship.

Notice the "babay" which makes me laugh so much because I imagine a very reserved, polite Gulf Arab singing this highly inappropriate rap song by Hurricane.  It is also the only e-mail I've ever received from her that doesn't have her own name in the subject line.  

It was around September that I got the first e-mail that started like this:

Aw, shucks.  One Friday afternoon I got a call from Lola, distraught, in tears, saying that she had lost her passport.  I gave her the number for Consular Services, which was the extent to which I could be of service, unfortunately.  She sniffled, said okay, and hung up to call them.  Then I got this: 

NO WAY.  I would definitely call people crying if I lost my passport in a foreign country and I certainly would not apologize for it afterwards.  

So then I started getting the weekly freak-out e-mails about PhD admission.  But her plaintive tone and slightly scattered English make it quite impossible to be annoyed.

At this point we had about a month of back and forth e-mails regarding the payment of day care fees.  She wasn't reading the invoices right and kept paying too much.  I think now the problem has been remedied but for a while there I got to know the provider's accountant pretty well over the discussion of invoices and how to best communicate the actual charges with Lola.

But really, the episode that makes for the most hilarious e-mails is the one I posted before, about her search for a PhD. She applied to 44 schools! I did a support letter for every single one of them, that's how I know. This is not a laughing matter of course, and it's very serious that she wants to badly to complete her studies in the US and be able to continue on.  I'm invested in her academic success, sure.  But the e-mail that won my heart definitively:

And then a few days later after I had written her forwarding the responses I had received from a few schools after writing to them for her:

Oh Lola.  I love you too.  You represent why I come to work every day.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Everglades Recap

Hi Friends.   I come before you humbly on the other side of my Florida vacation. I have to confess that I did not get to meet Darryl.  I did meet his father, Captain Steve, and about seven other Floridians out hunting wild turkeys.  But I'll get to that.

Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start...).

I landed in Miami and immediately discovered it is OK to wear sunglasses indoors here.  COOL! Corey Hart would have a field day (and perhaps find inspiration for another hit single?).  I drove to Davie, FL to visit my long-lost cousin and her family.  I hadn't seen her in, we think, almost 20 years.  Her three sweet children and genial husband provided laughs and delicious Florida food a-plenty.  What a fun visit.  I then headed to Jupiter to see my beautiful Sam, former small-groupie from Williamsburg.  We walked around her quiet neighborhood catching up for hours.  I stayed with her family that night and then got up Sunday morning and headed to the swamp on the opposite coast of Florida.  Leaving at 6am on the day that Daylight Savings ends, driving west across completely flat terrain affords the opportunity to see the sunrise in one's rear view mirror, I found.  Had a wonderful drive thanks to some great recommendations for tunes to accompany me. Thanks, guys!

I arrived at approximately the location of Captain Steve's Swamp Buggy Adventures, which was approximately a dirt road in the middle of the Everglades and nothing else for 7 miles in any direction.  So there was nothing where the map told me to go, no cars, just a long canal running parallel to the road with shallow water and sawgrass borders.   Petrified I was about to miss out on the opportunity to get my swamp buggy ride and possibly meet my future husband, I wanted to call and verify the location.  Sadly, I didn't have the number and since I have long resisted the smartphone, I had to get creative.

First, I tried 4-1-1.  But as I wasn't even sure what city I was in (me: "ummmm... the Everglades? Is that a city?" Operator: "No. It is not a city.") and there was no listing for "Captain Steve's Swamp Buggy Adventures", I had to start going through my phone book calling people (at 9am on a Sunday, mind you) to see if they could look up the phone number for me.  Thank God for the parents of the bride-to-be (my whole reason for being in Florida at all) who were awake and found the number for me.  More on their outrageous hospitality later.  I dial.

CSSBA Employee/Seasoned Florida Gladesman:  Yello?
Me: (Resisting laughter) Hi.  I have a tour scheduled for this morning.  I'm pretty sure I'm on the right road, but I don't see anything.
CSSBA: OH! Hi there, little lady.  Yeah we got our guide out there, just called 'im.  So you're on the dirt road right? You jes' keep goin' there about six, sev'n miles and you'll see a big ol' red Ford F-150 and a swamp buggy on the side of the road.  Cain't miss 'em.

There are several things about this exchange that are awesome: 1) he assumes I know what a Ford F-150 is, and what it looks like.  That is excellent because I love cars and, in fact, DO know what Ford F-150s look like.  A huge pride point for me.  But I love how he assumes this is common knowledge.  2) He also assumes I know what a swamp buggy looks like and will be able to recognize it, as if it is a mailbox or other common roadside occurrence.  3) He "little lady"-ed me.

So I drive back down the dirt road.  I had started heading out because after about 5 miles, I was pretty sure I was on a road to nowhere and had turned around.   I go even FURTHER down this road, and then, up in the distance I see, oh indeed I see it, a red Ford F-150 and something very large beside it.  Swamp buggy, ho!  My excitement at this point is through the friggin' roof.

I step out of my boxy little rental car and walk towards the large open vehicle and an older gentleman in a cowboy hat who has clearly been smoking three packs of Marlboros a day for most of his life.  I am greeted with a warm, but shy hello and invited to climb aboard this big machine.  I realize that it is just me and my guide,  no other participants.  He introduces himself as Otis and tells me that "I'm the boss."  I'm not really sure how much bossing I can do since I know little to nothing about the swamp, but sure.  So he starts off with a canned spiel about what we're heading into and I appreciated there were no safety warnings and not a lot of cheesy stuff.

What I learned over the next four hours is that the Everglades look incredibly different from Rainy to Dry season and I was there just at the end of the dry season.  The vegetation is different and the roads we traversed would normally have about 18 inches of standing water on them.  But Otis knew every tree root, every name (both colloquial and scientific) and could spot even the tiniest bud from 100 yards away.  I took a particular shine to the bromeliads or "air plants".  They came in so many different shapes and sizes, some with blooms, some without.  Otis could talk me through them all, how they grew, their life cycle, I couldn't stump him!

At one point we were driving through a particularly lovely grove of Cypress trees and Otis just gets down and walks around for a moment, then says, "You wan' drive this thing?"


So I get in the driver's seat, am given a 5 second lesson ("There are no brakes and the steering's a little loose") on how to drive a swamp buggy, and off we went.  It was great fun to drive. I think Otis enjoyed his time in the passenger's seat, relaxing.  Though he always kept his eye out because a few times he had me stop and he'd get down and look at the ground because he found panther footprints or "cat track" as he called it.  He told good stories about living in the swamp and funny ones about the names of trees.  One tree is known as the Yankee Tree or the Tourist Tree because its bark is red and peeling -- how most Yankees leave the Keys after not being prepared for the more intense sun so far south.

So we are about 3 hours into the tour when I hear a rumbling in the distance and a lot of dust from the trail being kicked up.  A caravan of small ATVs rolls up and 4 gentlemen covered in blood and wearing  head to toe camouflage wave their greeting to Otis.  I immediately recognize Captain Steve from his photos online.  I am having a small heart palpitation.  It's like meeting a celebrity!  Of course, I wonder why they are bloody, then I see the back of their vehicles have several dead birds on the back and that Otis had mentioned it was wild turkey season.  These guys, I learned from their conversation, had been in the 'glades for about 3 days and were just now emerging at the end of their victorious hunt.  Captain Steve, having ignored me to this point, then turned  his attention my way, saying, "Boy little lady, you don't know how lucky you are to be out here this morning. We 'bout canceled this here tour because we didn't have anyone else goin'."  I expressed my deep appreciation for their willingness to take me out anyway.  Captain Steve said, "Boy, I wish I coulda taken you out m'self. Next time you come back, you come out durin' the rains and I'll show you the REAL tour." Then quickly added, "but I know Otis here does a great job too."   I agreed heartily and nodded and two other tourists who were riding with Steve who had been out hunting with him, apparently.  They were both holding rifles but looked much more urban than their guide.

Later Otis had me creep through some sawgrass back to a creek and we found a huge alligator sunning back from the trail a bit.  Otis is apparently very familiar with this alligator and knew its habits and where it likes to hang out at other times of day.  This particular spot was a regular for him.

I saw deer, hawk, panther tracks, frogs, gators, bromeliads, and lots of other fantastic flora, including a carnivorous flower which bares its teeth (in the form of a sticky bladder that devours tadpoles whole with enzymes!) only in the rainy season.

Otis and I were old friends by the end of the tour.  He gave me marriage advice, seeing as how he's had three shots at it**.  I enjoyed that Otis didn't feel the need to be a regular tour guide and use his prepared spiels. This is a person who is much more at home in the swamp than anywhere else.  He considers himself a gladesman, and does not take kindly to the term "swamp rat" which northern Floridians regularly ascribe to their southern brethren.  Gladesman it is, Otis.  And you are the gladesman that has set the bar for me.

I wasn't too sad about not meeting Darryl, since I did get to meet his Dad.  Darryl, wherever you are, the 7th generation Florida gold will have to keep until my next trip to Big Cypress.

The rest of my day seems like an afterthought.  I drove to the Gulf and took a tour of the mangrove "islands" directly off the coast of Everglades City.  I've included a short video of the highlight of this tour which was the dolphins who were playing in the wake of the boat.

After my boat tour I had a 4 hour drive from the Western Gulf Coast of Florida in a large crescent shape down to Key West.  Interestingly, on the boat tour, I was only about 60 miles from Key West.  I told the boat dudes that they should have told me and I would have brought my suitcase.

After disembarking, I stretched, cued up a few of my favorite open road albums, hopped in my ride, and headed out of the swamp. I hit some bad traffic on the way down to Key West but I had a pretty good drive.  I just wish that it wasn't a two-lane highway and that I could have driven faster.  I always think of Bono's words: "a highway with no one on it, a treasure just to look upon it".  I did get to watch the sun set while driving U.S. 1.  It's no PCH, but it's a pretty good road all the same when it affords such gorgeous vistas.

I arrived at the beautiful tropical hideaway that would be my home for the next week, settled in with the Felizes in their outdoor cabana over wine and a warm welcome, and looked forward to the marriage of Lauren and Ike.

**Sidenote: he decided it's not really for him.  So he set up a nice spot deep in the Fakahatchee, goes hunting and fishing out there, and doesn't worry too much about us womenfolk.  He did say it's important to be honest.  

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