Monthly Archives: September 2012

Prepare for Landing

It’s funny how these things work. A year and a half ago, I was a travel writer with not a single science course under my belt. Nine college-level courses, a whole lot of hard work, some incredible new friends, and plenty of fun-sacrificing later, I’m hitting the “Submit” button on my grad school applications, the first of which is due Monday. What happens from here is somewhat beyond my control, but getting here… Well, I (somehow) did that (and it feels pretty cool!).

A little girl enjoys dancing in her pretty dress before a thunderstorm hits. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.

The thing about being a post-bacc pre-med student is, you’re generally older than most of the other students. But, what does that really mean? You look pretty much the same (for better or worse), your science is a little rustier, you’re less competitive with everyone around you, and you’re more sure of who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going. In some ways, you have much less to prove, and in other ways — much more.

I guess I just wanted to write a quick post to acknowledge this moment, because I have friends on every side of it (and some here, in their own similar moment, with me). I spent my early- to mid-twenties soul searching to get to this place where I just knew what I wanted. (If you’ve read this blog before 2011 at all, you know what I’m talking about!) The idea of “knowing ” — not just temporary “maybes” — was a lot more intimidating than I ever imagined it would be. Those first twenty-something birthdays out of college had my optimism mud-wrestling my expectations. Nothing was turning out how I expected, and every time I got close to touching what I wanted, it seemed to disappear right in front of me. The story I thought I was writing for myself had to be completely erased and re-written. For the first time ever, I had no idea what words to put on the first page. At some point, I would have to learn a whole new language to be able to write at all.

Street, man, walking uphill. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.

The fact that I am here hitting send, clicking submit, actually fulfilling all the pre-requisites required to apply to Doctor-level graduate school programs after beginning with NONE really is a reminder to me, and hopefully to you too, that anything (or, well, many things) really is (are) possible if you are willing to work your ass off for them. I know we’ve all heard this before, but look — it’s for real!

My journey certainly continues, with even more academic mountains (actually, mountain ranges) to climb. I guess at this point, I leave the sherpa behind and trek through the rest on my own. I just hope that, if nothing else, at least one person out there has been following this journey of mine and realizes that if I can do this, so can they. The scariest thing for me has never been failing; it’s always been not going for it. That said, going for it can be pretty freakin’ weird and terrifying at times, let me just be honest here. I’ve felt totally uncomfortable at many points along the way, but now… I’ve found my little spot in the big science couch, and I’m slowly sinking into it, asking grad school to pass me the remote.

Walking to an incredible brunch behind a cute little Ecuadorian woman. Tumbaco, Ecuador.

Right now, even though applications are WAY more intense than I ever imagined, I’m just so thrilled and excited about where this might take me next. It’s still scary — so much is uncertain, as it always has been. In a way, I can’t believe I’m really here. It’s like traveling, when the plane lands and a trip you’ve anticipated so long has both ended and just begun… Suddenly, you smell a new smell, you hear a new language being spoken, and no matter how exhausted you are from the flight, you know that, in a new way, it feels like anything is possible.

Paramo Hike. Papallacta, Ecuador.

Everything about this process has been intimidating — from the amount of school required to the amount of money (oh god, let’s just skip that conversation), and of course the amount of science everyone ELSE knows compared to me. I’ve never been in such a constantly competitive environment (well, besides my entire childhood… HA! Just kidding just kidding. One-of-five-kids Syndrome strike again!). But I’m telling you: nothing — NOTHING — feels better than being sure. It took my entire twenties to get here, so forgive me if I give myself a high-five.

Lying out on top of the catamaran, watching birds fly overhead as the boat cruised from one Galapagos Island to the next… One of those moments when life just feels right, and you never forget it. A picture tries to capture the feeling of freedom… Galapagos, Ecuador.

Maybe — even after so many world travels, and soul searching around the globe —  it took me way longer than I ever expected to feel sure about where I want to go, and maybe I’m the oldest kid in the classroom these days… But I’m here now, and despite everything I’ve learned, I’m still learning. The plane has finally touched-down on the runway. I’m not fully in that new place just yet — the door is still shut, but the flight is over, and the next adventure is closer than ever.

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Filed under Healthcare, Life Stuff, School, Travel

Sweet, Friendly, and Homemade

Last night, as the temperature dropped just past comfortable and I read my Anatomy & Physiology textbook in bed, I realized that it was time. I walked over to the window, contemplated the need for another set of hands, decided I could do it by myself, and I removed my AC unit. This moment is always bittersweet, as it represents The End (of summer, at least). By now we all know how I feel about summer…

Sea Lion basking in the sun. Galapagos, Ecuador.

It wouldn’t be right for me to let summer go without acknowledging a few more of the places that made this summer post-Physics so sweet. And it’s not just the places; it’s the people I’ve been hanging out with here in Cambridge/Boston. I feel like I’ve made some really great new friends, and I’m kind of loving it. But who wants to read about that? BORING!

Praying in a church in Salta. Salta, Argentina.

SWEET CHEEKS Q: Let’s start with Sweet Cheeks Q. It was mid-August, and my roommates and I had yet to do a roommate dinner. Having an in-the-know food editor roommate has its perks in moments like this. Considering that it was already August and I had yet to consume anything drenched in BBQ sauce, I was delighted when she suggested this happenin’ spot (which, for those who don’t know, is owned by Tiffani Faison — the tough red-head from Boston who appeared in “Top Chef,” Season 1 — and almost won). Also, for those who don’t know, I was the PR Intern for Food & Wine (and Travel + Leisure) magazine when they were filming the first season of “Top Chef.” I helped when the PR team was media-training “Top Chef” judge, Gail Simmons and hung out with her quite a bit (she was awesome, btw). So anyways, yes, I was excited about this meal (can you tell yet?!). Fortunately, Sweet Cheeks Q delivered on all fronts.

I will start where every dining experience begins — the bread. Before delving into the stack of fried okra (which I’ll get to in a second), four oversized, warm biscuits arrived with a sprinkle of sugar and a dish of what I thought was butter. As soon as I put the first bite in my mouth, I was blown away. No, this was not just butter. This was HONEY butter. And holy crap, was it DELICIOUS! Tiffani, you had me at honey butter…

But then it kept going. We ordered the fried okra, which couldn’t have been cooked better, as well as a few solid Southern-inspired cocktails. By the time dinner arrived, I was already pretty satisfied… And then I tried the pulled chicken. Look, I’ve had my share of pulled chicken. It doesn’t sound very special, but let me tell ya — this was the BEST pulled chicken I have ever had. In fact, I’m not sure how you can make a better pulled chicken. It was smokey, salty (but not too salty), tender, soft, and straight-forward — no sauce slapped all over it, no anything-else sprinkled throughout it — just delicious, mouth-watering, well-made pulled chicken. Other notable standouts were the pork belly, the pulled pork, and the Cita’s Broccoli. I’ll forgive her for the brisket being a little dry because, when even the cole slaw is good, you know you’ve got a winner.

Eye contact with an Alpaca. Cotopaxi, Ecuador.

THE FRIENDLY TOAST: On a more casual note, let’s talk about brunch. In NYC, going to brunch isn’t a matter of IF but a question of WHERE? It is one of my absolute favorite things, yet brunch seems to be under-appreciated here in Boston. Sure, maybe it’s unnecessary to spend money on pancakes and eggs when they are so easy to make at home, but what better way to start a Saturday or Sunday than with BOTH, plus a side of friendship?! Well, The Friendly Toast had all the brunch items I could have wanted (pancakes, fruit, waffles, bagels (!!), eggs). The vibe is different from my usual NYC brunch spots — there were more tattoos, and it was sort of like a funky diner colliding with a hipster cafe, plus lots of kids. Our server was very friendly (like the toast!), and everything tasted just like I needed it too — with no surprises and no gimmicks. Brunch spot: found!

Baby. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

The rest of the places I want to mention — like Hawthorne’s, the classy bar-in-a-hotel (that had a zebra print couch, and represented a different Boston “scene” than I had experienced until then), where I got to taste some really special cocktails, or Yenching which, at the opposite end of the spectrum, was my first Cambridge Chinese restaurant, and surprisingly satisfying — will just have to slip under the radar for now.

Guy hanging out. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.

As fun as all these restaurants have been, one of my favorite things about being in Boston is spending time in people’s homes, and cooking together — something I did much less of in NYC, where the size of a kitchen was inversely proportional to the cost of having it.

One of my favorite nights thus far was spent at a new friend’s home in the North End. W invited me to his and his wife’s place for dinner, where we began by drinking whiskey sodas and wine while devouring the most incredible cheeses I’ve had in a long time (North End — I’m coming back for more!). But hang on… the night really began with a thunderstorm — and not just your average thunderstorm. This bad boy was RIDICULOUS. Low and behold — I did not have an umbrella. I arrived at W’s house soaked to the bone — the kind of wet that squishes when you walk and leaves soggy footprints behind you. While this may seem miserable, I was quickly given a pair of W’s finest sweatpants, as well as a sweatshirt. This “dinner party” became a sweatpants and pasta-making party very quickly, and ya know what? It couldn’t have been better. We spent the next few hours laughing while kneading and drying pasta dough. Meanwhile W — who is Italian (shocked?) — made an incredible pasta sauce. We finished things off with some homemade almond biscotti. Although I could barely move at the end of the night, sometimes getting home around 2am after a home cooked meal (in someone else’s sweatpants) is better than any nice restaurant experience.

Makin’ pasta in the North End. Boston, MA.

What I like about being in Boston is that life doesn’t revolve around where you go to eat and what neighborhood you grab drinks in. Not that NYC is all about that (please, I am NOT hating on NYC — I LOVE NYC! So there), but my life here in Boston has been much more about the people I’ve met than the places I’ve been. As much as I love going to new restaurants and new bars, and experiencing new neighborhoods (and yes, I am loving the explorations! Keep the restaurants coming!), what I like even more is the new people with whom I’m exploring all these places…

So, that’s kind of where it’s at.

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Filed under Boston, Food, Life Stuff, Massachusetts

Wanderlust Like Whoa

This is going to be a post about wanderlust.

Elephant. Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by MJ.

My Kansan friend just got back from a dream trip to Tanzania and Kenya. Listening to her describe her trip made me feel like a recovering cocaine addict listening to someone describe the intricacies of a recent high. I’m painfully jealous, and yearning for an adventure.

For the first time in years, I’ve had to live through my friends’ trips as I keep my mind focused on science and school. When I moved back from Ecuador, I went off my travel addiction cold-turkey — it hasn’t been easy. As we caught up and she told me all about the colorful textiles she saw, the giraffes she fed, and fun facts about the size of an elephant’s reproductive organs, she also mentioned a moment she had while visiting Serengeti National Park. It’s a moment I know all too well, but have gone too long without…

As she stood, looking over the landscape of the Serengeti, impossibly far away from home, she found herself suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. It was one of those experiences that comes unexpectedly while traveling, when an intense, pure sense of appreciation for the world just hits you like a charging rhino, and everything around you becomes insanely beautiful. In these moments, you just feel lucky. Grateful. Small in a great big, mysterious world. If you’ve ever traveled and had one of these moments, you know what I’m talking about. I miss that feeling. I crave that feeling. It is, all bundled up into one moment, what traveling is all about.

Sunset in Serengeti. Tanzania. Photo by MJ.

With less than a week before my 29th birthday, I realize that this was the first year of my life (at least since I’ve been able to walk) during which I did not even board an airplane. Yes, folks, Travels with Tavel has not left the country in over a year and it doesn’t feel right at all. I don’t even want to admit it, but it’s true. I almost feel ashamed, like I haven’t been true to a major piece of who I am. But, I know this is a temporary withdrawal. Needless to say, my wanderlust meter is binging loudly, and something’s gotta give. (My “Places” Board on Pinterest is NOT helping!) I don’t think my soul can take this much wanderlust for much longer! So, what am I going to do about it?

The bus I took from Tumbaco, Ecuador to Quito, Ecuador, hours before ending up in the hospital with a parasite. Trust me: with the stomach ache I had that day, this was NOT an ideal form of transportation!

Well, I don’t have many options. My funds are low, applications are due soon, and my priorities have matured in such a way that I feel guilty even contemplating throwing the money down for a travel escape — but is the guilt that much greater than the wanderlust? Nope. Never!

Wild horses with Cotopaxi Volcano in the background. Cotopaxi Province, Ecuador.

Luckily, there is one form of escapism that I can afford right now, and that’s daydreaming. For $0.00 I can take a day-trip anywhere in the world… in my mind. Trust me, I know this will only get me so far (technically, 0 miles away from where I am now), but I’ll take it.

29 won’t be like 28. I WILL go somewhere – mark my words. Right now, I’m trying to weigh my options and figure out where — if I can only afford one trip in two years — WHERE I should go. How does one choose?! My soul is craving the usual spots I’ve been craving for years — Southern Spain, Morocco, Thailand, Tanzania  — but life always influences the wanderlust list, and new people, friends’ Facebook photo albums, or random conversations often lead to new travel cravings. Suddenly, I find myself craving the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey and Kenya more than ever before.

Wildebeests. Tanzania. Photo by MJ.

So, I need your help. If you are experiencing wanderlust right now (and I KNOW you are!), please share your wanderlust list. Where, if anywhere in the world, would you want to go right now? If you want to suggest a place for me to go, or recommend a place you’ve been, please do so as a comment. This blog might be all I have for a few more months, so wherever it is you want to go, please take TwT with you.

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Filed under Africa, Life Stuff, School, Travel, wanderlust

The Morning After (Election Day 2008)


After tonight’s DNC excitement, I’ve decided to re-post what I wrote the morning after election day, 2008. This is the first time I’ve felt those political goosebumps in a long time. Remember the hope, remember where we were, and think about where you want us to be next. Enjoy.

America is Ba(ra)ck (written on Nov. 7, 2008)

How can I not respond to what has happened, what is happening? The streets of New York are ELECTRIC! Last night was magical (oh yeah, I said magical, and I meant it).

YES, WE DID IT. Can you believe that a man named Barack Hussein Obama is the next President of the UNITED STATES? And it is because of us, the little people who voted and voted and voted, and canvassed and canvassed and canvassed, and believed and believed and BELIEVED!! (Did you bring your barf-bag? Because this entry is about to get even cheesier!)

Yesterday [Election Day], the excitement began when I walked outside. The air felt unseasonably warm and damp, with a cool bite to it. I could tell that there was a little tingle in the breeze, a contagious hope that seemed to bounce back-and-forth between people as I passed by each stranger on the street. I noticed a spring in everyone’s step.

The NYC polls were open from 6am to 9pm. I decided to try and beat the 9-5 rush and go around 7:30am. My walk was brisk. When I turned on the radio, John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” was playing. I let the song play all the way through as I started my day, feeling like I had woken up on a new and different planet.

I arrived at my voting station, a public school on the Upper West Side, to find a line beginning to form around the block. In my voting history, I’ve never seen anything like this in NYC. Even though I beat the rush, there was a hold up at District 86’s voting booth (that would be mine). Eventually, they fixed it, but it contributed to my 1hr 45min wait. I would have waited double that if necessary.

While we waited, the line began to wrap around the block, hooking itself around a Barnes & Noble and past a newsstand where people anticipated their vote appearing on every front page come morning. I’ve never felt so many people glowing at the same time. We were being photographed in line and everyone was absolutely beaming. I overheard people saying “as long as I can vote Obama, I’ll wait all day!” and the overall energy was positive and hopeful. There we were, a bunch of strangers (of all ages), fighting for the same cause, the same embodiment of our future. The weather seemed appropriately spring-like perfumed with optimism and hope.

I entered the voting booth, quickly switched all my choices to x, stood there for a second to double and triple check that I had voted for Barack Obama. Then I cranked a big red lever all the way to the right. It made the most satisfying clicking and locking sound, making me feel like my vote was real – I could hear it. Then, I breezed by the crowd trying to hide the grin on my face, put my iPod back on, and booked it to work.

On my way, every two blocks, I saw voting lines longer than I had ever seen. I saw Obama pins on every jacket. I heard people yelling “Obama!!” as they passed the lines. I even witnessed “The Obama Truck,” a truck full of Obama supporters blasting music and screaming Obama cheers, which apparently drove around the city all day! I saw a map after the election, and learned that over 85% of Manhattan voted for Obama. No wonder. I had to keep telling myself not to get false hope from the scene I was surrounded by, knowing full-well that the rest of the country had its say as well, but I couldn’t help it: the atmosphere in Manhattan on Election Day was undeniably saturated in the anticipation of change, of success, of an Obama victory. How could he not win when all these people cared SO much? How could he not?! Still, I refused to believe it was real until I saw the front page of The New York Times the next morning.

There were several election-watching parties, most of which were in Brooklyn, but I decided to watch with my family. My parents were having a party, and this election has been a journey I shared mostly with them; it only felt right to finish the journey with my family. Plus, I wanted to see the look on my parents’ faces if/when Obama won.

The party was perfect. On his way home from another disastrous day at work – a reminder of the country’s desperation – my dad picked up Chinese food. They invited four of my brother’s best friends, along with their parents, me, my sister and her girlfriend. Everyone – the ninth graders, the parents, and I – was excited and nervous. We had the TVs on from 530pm until midnight… We ate Chinese, drank wine (I was too superstitious to bring champagne), talked politics (yes, even the ninth graders had perfectly appropriate things to say) ,and one parent brought three boxes of Obama-themed cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery (some chocolate, some vanilla cupcakes, each with red white or blue-tinted vanilla icing, complete with a sugar donkey on each, and confetti – MMMM!).

We sat in suspense in our living, watching each state turn red or blue, affected deeply by each projection, watching history get made one state at a time. They kept saying “this is exactly what happened in 2000… in 2004…” They kept making us feel like this intangible dream was just out of reach…again. I was starting to feel scared, as if I was living in a bubble of this country that had no relationship with the rest of it. I felt the harsh reality check I’m always forced to feel; maybe the thought of vindication was too good to be true. I’ve been smacked with the “too-good-to-be-true” card many times. Maybe this was just another let-down.

Then, we won Pennsylvania. HOLY shit. Then, we won Virginia. And Florida. And Ohio. At 11pm, when the West Coast projection came through… that is when they announced that Barack Obama was the projected winner and most likely our next President. That is when the tears started rolling across the television screen. Our first African American President was named. BAM – history.

We cheered for every state that lit up – New York, of course, and Michigan (where my brother has been working so hard as a field manager for the Obama Campaign), held special significance for us. At the time, I had friends on the ground in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and New Hampshire. My friend, Hawaii Heather, texted me from Hawaii: “WE DID IT! I LOVE YOU TAVEL!” My New York City friend living in London texted me “THANK YOU AMERICA!!! You all did it! Congrats!” My Dutch/Caribbean special friend texted me from The Netherlands… The texts just kept on flying. I could feel cheering from around the world. I heard screaming and honking and yelling from every corner of my neighborhood. I’ve never felt such an equally personal and global victory. After watching McCain’s gracious speech, I decided to get back to my apartment so I could watch Obama accept and then go to sleep (it was about 1145pm, I was a bit sick, my knee ached, and I had to get up at 6:30 for physical therapy).

Well, my walk home was one of the highlights of that night. The first couple of blocks, the streets were dead silent – not a car, not a pedestrian, only me. Then, I hit Broadway. Two homeless women wrapped in blankets outside of my bank were listening to Obama’s speech on an old radio. I hit Amsterdam Avenue. Four Mexican guys at my local bodega were huddled under the red awning of their flower shop watching a tiny television above bunches of 2-dozen roses and lilies, discussing, in Spanish, what they liked about Obama. I continued up Amsterdam Ave, towards my apartment. Every bar was full of screaming, Obama cheers, excitement, electricity, singing, CELEBRATION. Cars were honking and people were yelling our new president’s name. Strangers high-fived me, I could hear excited people celebrating in their apartments high above the sidewalk. When I got home, I quickly got ready for bed. It was ok now, I could sleep.

Well, I couldn’t sleep. I was too happy, too relieved, too shocked. And the streets were so loud, so excited. The whole evening, the moment, it was all so surreal – and yet, finally real, not just a pipe-dream. As I was about to fall asleep, I heard about 20 people start singing “God Bless America” outside my window. I let go, I let it takeover. I admit, I cried (I’m sorry, but the cheesiness of the moment overpowered me!). And then, I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke to a new America – the one we wanted back. I was glowing, and so was everyone around me. This whole week has been so full of optimism and pride. I will always remember it.

But now comes the reality of the situation: Obama is inheriting a gigantic mess of American problems. He has to try and untie an impossible knot, and he will be given impossible standards. He has the challenge of his lifetime – of ANYONE’S lifetime – and he is the only person I believe who can step up to it and face our deepest, darkest problems. Not many people have the cajones to take on a job that is as daunting as the one he now has, but it seems fitting that the impossible candidate has become the man for the impossible job — and yet we still believe in him.

Speaking of impossible, he couldn’t have made it without us. Because of the way his supporters came together, he was able to run three quarters of this race on his own, but it was up to us to carry him across the finish line. And we did; the race is over, and we ALL won! The world won, I like to think.

I have witnessed many forms of excitement for his victory, so far. There was the man on a bicycle who rode by while I was waiting to vote and yelled “Get the FUCKERS out of Washington and elect OBAAAMMMAAAAA!!!!!!!!” to our line of smiling/laughing voters, the two homeless women huddled outside my bank on my way home that were listening to the election on an old school radio, the four Mexican guys talking about Obama as they watched a tiny television above the colorful roses and lilies they sell every day at my corner bodega, the “God Bless America” I heard being sung by at least 20 people at the bar downstairs while I closed my eyes and tried to drift off to sleep, the emails, the Facebook messages, and the conversations I have gotten/had with people from all over the world who are proud of America’s choice and excited for not just our, but their future as well…

The extent of excitement about Obama has reminded us of what it means to be American, and what America means to the rest of the world. The American Dream is alive and well. The America that “CAN” is back. Barack. We have stepped up, forgotten our wallets, forgotten our flaws (just briefly), and remembered our DIGNITY, our identity, our ability to dream, our PRIDE.

The election of Barack Obama is a victory for much of the world – Europe, Asia, Africa (Kenya). He must bare the weight of the world and stand up to the Herculean challenges that await him, but he has the support of so many, and the hope that HE inspired in millions. Can he succeed? Can we heal this country? Yes we can, yes we did, and man, I hope we WILL.

[Remember this?:]

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