Saturday, December 31, 2005

So far from home. . . but not

With about 1 hour left of our flight from Amsterdam to Dubai, I sleepily looked up at the TV screen on the plane which was tracking the progress of our trip on a map. The little red line indicated where we'd flown over alread--including parts Europe and the Middle East, but what struck me was where the little white plane hovered at that very moment. Names of far-away places which we've all read about or heard about on the news became drastically more realistic as the little icon hovered over Baghdad and then Kuwait. Obviously, we did not actually pass over these chaos-ridden places, but they were the landmarks closest along the plane's path.

I also sat next to many soldiers both in the Minneapolis airport and then on the plane to Amsterdam who were on their way back to restart their service after spending holiday time at home. Two men sitting next to me on the plane discussed how their breaks had been too long--how they'd gotten bored and were ready to get back to a place that I could not imagine wanting to return to after seeing so many images of destruction and hearing so many stories of death. I still don't think I've completely digested some of these thoughts and experiences since there's so much to take in during our short time here, but the reality of what's going on in our country's activities around the world and their proximity so to where I sit this evening continue to resonate with me.

Conversely, I'm so much farther from home than I've ever been before, and I'm struck by how many American products and customs I've seen. We were at the grocery store yesterday and there in English and Arabic was a box of popcorn. JollyTime popcorn to be precise. Before moving to Clear Lake, IA I lived in Sioux City, IA and I still remember visiting the JollyTime popcorn "factory" to get popcorn in bulk for our May Day baskets, and there in Dubai was the logo and the packaging information for my former home. This is just one example of many.

Both of these "phenomena" are things that I've always known existed or happened, but it's different actually experiencing and seeing them, and I remain so thankful to have this opportunity to soak this all in, learn and grow from every aspect of this experience.

Taking it in...

The last few days have flown many new sights and experiences to take little sleep!

First, I must admit that despite the 7 hour layover in Amsterdam Molly and I never made it to the city. We moved in slow motion (my body thought it was 2am instead of the morning), and took the best advice I received about the trip: find the "comfortable chairs" in the Amsterdam airport and take a nap (courtesy of John L. and Rich C.). That was sort of the only sleep I had for a day. I'm telling time you're there, find the chair!

We made it to the hotel in Dubai by 3am on the 30th. I have a whole new respect for what international students go through to get to college after a 31 hour journey! Somehow we are all adjusting to the time change, and staying busy has helped a lot. The energy of our group has buoyed us as well...we're having an amazing, eye opening experience.

The highlight of yesterday for me was visiting friends - Seff, Zia, Samira, and Senai Sauders - our friends who moved from MHC to Dubai in 2001. Seff and I worked together in Student Programs, and hugging her in her own home in this land that has always seemed so far away brought tears to my eyes. Dinner was delicious...local fruits that look nothing like anything I've ever seen before, yummy Persian dishes of rice with lentils, lamb with carrots and celery, salmon and spices, and a big cake of rice (that I first thought was dessert), and a fantastic 'Lady Gray' tea later on. Several friends were at their home, a traveler passing through, another friend staying for a while, and two collegues of Zia's from the University. The MHC students had a great time with the kids (ages 10 and 7) and the night ended with me pulling them away from the kareoke machine so that we could get some sleep before our first big day. Zia said that this connection with students was what he missed most (among many things) about Mount Holyoke....when he worked in Res Life and lived on campus the kids had "unlimited Aunties." Zia was full of questions about MHC, and being at their home on the first day bridged the two worlds of MHC and Dubai. We'll see them again before we leave, hopefully at the beach tomorrow.

Today's first training day at Dubai Women's College was fantastic! The MHC students were articulate, calm, caring, and skilled. The DWC students were incredibly friendly, warm, conversational, and welcoming. Every person I passed by on the campus smiled and said hello, and I think this comforting welcome helped us to feel at ease. Today we learned about each other, the two Colleges, and the many differences and similarities between us. We laughed a lot, and shared personal stories and goals. By the end of the day the DWC students seemed pleased with the experience, and the MHC facilitators were very happy with how their first day of training flowed through. I can see that all of their hard work in preparing to come here has paid off, as they feel confident with the program they are presenting and have time to learn about themselves in this process as well.

I think everyone is taking a nap right now, hoping to experience some Dubai night life on New Year's Eve. I can't see how the sleepyheads who just left my room will make it out tonight (one is didn't even make it off my couch and is snoozing right next to me), but then again New Year's in Dubai doesn't happen often for us! Yes, we are VERY safe here and will have a happy and healthy holiday.

We're looking forward to sleeping late tomorrow morning, going to the beach or maybe the Global Village, and preparing for the rest of the training ahead. So far I have most enjoyed the warm welcome everywhere we go, and the new sights...the desert sand, different architecture, familiar product logos in arabic script (Dunkin Donuts, Subway) and many more. I'm struck by how quickly I am looking past unfamiliar styles of dress and seeing individual faces and life stories. I'm very glad to be here.