Dear Internet, I’ve been horrible, saying I’m going to write and then rarely following through. And it’s not for lack of noteworthy developments; this was an unbelievably unpredictable and diverse 2011, with certain promise of continuation in 2012.
Upon returning to Indiana this holiday season, to a world so different from my working one, I managed to find only one word that adequately describes my baffled reflection on the year’s events: weird. How did I experience the myriad twists, obstacles, and accomplishments that plopped me into the role I'm in now? Did that all really just happen? And I didn't even really get to tell you about it...
2011 was a weird year, and I don’t consider that word to be derogatory – for the most part. Here, Internet, let me fill you in on the tidbits worth noting.
Throughout childhood, New Year’s Eve was always an event I celebrated with gusto. Though I acknowledge it’s overrated nature today, it still feels like a beautiful night where the mind receives a flushing and a chance to redirect its thoughts at something more meaningful. Landmarks in time are meant to be celebrated, for they represent the act of highlighting the realities of our present.
Balls dropping, confetti clotting up my local sewage system, fireworks speckling the famous skyline - regardless of my surrounding atmosphere, I celebrated this widely observed holiday by sitting in my first apartment in my first real residence post-graduation, writing the previous observation and feeling pretty content to be warm, well-fed, and with a clean bathroom nearby. I braced for a big year in a conservative manner, apparently feeling the necessity for taking it easy when I could. It was on track to escalate quickly.
For months, I read books, studied Creole flashcards, and followed the news to develop an informed awareness of Haiti, my February destination for documentary work for The Haiti Project. Prior, the country seemed an inaccessible shell of a nation in my mind's eye, an unfair judgement based on insufficient exposure. It also seemed a destination only frequented by journalists, politicians, and celebrities seeking humanitarian glory.
After landing in Port-au-Prince, my silver dollar eyes focused behind a camera lens at both the headline-worthy and unexpectedly average. First conversations with this traveling crew - an investment banker, a doctor, and a politician - made my research immediately relevant. Smells, rocky rides, colors, and penetrating glances brought me back to Africa. The downtown area was the front page of the New York Times, the residential acres overlooking the city representing a side of Haiti I hadn't at all conceptualized - the affluent one. The stark contrast of my documentary subjects and nightly accommodations made for a racing brain, one that saw the nation as a whole - its past and present, the potential for its future.
Haiti is small, mountainous, and in possession of more culture than many countries exponentially larger. In pursuit of stories from Project Medishare, Hollywood Unites for Haiti, Edeyo, and the Cine Institute, we traversed the capital, the central plateau, and the coastal region of the south, also managing to witness a long-awaited Kanaval, fueled by pent-up emotion and necessary release from the earthquake thirteen months prior. Intensity, aggression, jubilation, and passion were on display from a hopeful and resilient crowd. Deep layers of humanity exposed put me in awe.
With the flavors of fried platanos and unmatched rice and beans still making my own cooking taste vastly inadequate, I stewed in New York City, contemplating Haiti and all that occurred on the whirlwind trip, including the unplanned encounter with then-candidate and current president of Haiti, Michel Martelly. As if that experience wasn't shocking enough, the dude started following me on Twitter a few days later. Still follows today. Is he messing with me?
Yes, that was odd to have a then-presidential candidate following my tweets about flying with cats and traveler's diarrhea, but what really defined the month was an impromptu visit by my favorite trail-blazing lumberjack, Alexis Reller. Together, we took advantage of Astoria's open spaces and Greek delicacies, free yoga and unseasonably warm St. Patrick's Day afternoons at beer gardens.
Qatar Airways plopped me at the Bangkok airport for production in Thailand, a project I witnessed from its conception. I found myself a girl in possession of $5 pants staying at the Shangri-La Hotel (or similar accommodations), where laundry services are clearly in proportion to my wardrobe value. The mission: to distill a country down to its identifying culture for use as academic resources in global education worldwide. My additional mission: to engage in a place I've pined to have an extended visit, absorbing all things food, massage, language, and culture-related.
Swirling a camera around a Muay Thai fighter, photographing behind the scenes of a Nang Yai shadow puppet performance, devouring multi-course tasting menus - I was fortunate to enter and exit Thailand with enough absorbed information as to get the country's cultural and historical significance on the world's stage. Getting cracked in half with Thai massages, mowing $1 pad thai from popular street vendors, meeting local restauranteurs down the beach from our hotel, hearing the story of a tsunami wrecking her family - I let myself be melted and molded by surrounding experiences in a more personal fashion.
Though Thailand is close to the counterpoint of Indiana, I found myself in close proximity of a fellow Wabashian also in the country for production. Cassie was in Phuket while I was in Bangkok, in Chiang Mai while I sat on a beach near Phuket, flying elsewhere while I was coincidentally getting trucked around by her former driver in Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, I couldn't meet up with her to chat on our polar opposing experiences in production (mine being a team of five, hers well over 100 for a hit ABC show) or reminisce about our childhood home. I'm happy we grew aware of the others coordinates and subsequently recognized the shared tendency to combine travel and film.
Post-Thailand was a much-needed personal trip to Vietnam and Laos. Joined by co-worker and friend Vijaya, we floated in the mist of Ha Long Bay, found an incredibly authentic bun thit nuong in a no-sign establishment, drank the blackest and most flavorful coffee from a makeshift street diner, and were surprised by the serenity of a Laotian night market. The trip was gritty. It was active. There were terrifying moments punctuated by relief and laughter. It was a trip that reminded me of RTW joy, though that desire for long-term travel has somewhat left my being, making space for the unexplainable urge to nest.
I returned to a mild New York City and emerged in the marketplace as a freelancer of all things content. I did things I never thought I'd get the opportunity to do. I unknowingly pitched an art magazine, exhibiting my photographic portfolio and leaving with affirmation that had me bouncing through Chelsea. I began writing features for Matador, for the first time really sensing journalistic accomplishment. I also did the unthinkable and flew my cat from Indianapolis to New York City. She hyperventilated to the point of drooling a fu manchu.
And things just kept happening. It was unsolicited confirmation that without direction to do work, I still do work - feverishly - so much so that I neglect my own writing and fulfillment projects. Within two weeks of this mad hustle, I obtained a job interview with a concept previously unfathomable to me: a traveling high school. It felt like travel, education, media, and youth combined to create my ideal activity. I had a long interview and a short lapse of time between the subsequent offer to visit the school in China.
And the cherry on top, my nephew was born.
I flew to China, met this traveling high school, and my mind was blown. Previously conceived notions of education were combined in a bag, shaken not stirred, and tossed like Yahtzee! dice onto my table of consciousness.
The offer came on the table to be the media specialist for THINK Global School - a full-time content creator, manager, and occasional instructor. In the meantime, before I began this first foray into salaried employment, I wrote like a fiend, took my portrait photography to new depths, celebrated a friend's marriage as a bridesmaid, and took advantage of my location by traveling to Boston.
And within months of the big relocation, I was organizing my departure, sad to leave the city but following a job worth the sacrifice. The feline went back in flight, and a subletter was en route. I accepted my return to the nomadic lifestyle with hesitance but eventual enthusiasm.
Just as I had done in May of 2008, I filled bags with my worthwhile earthly belongings and began living out of a bag. I had a bed thanks to cat-sitting in Brooklyn and started performing my new job tasks from every Asian restaurant in its vicinity - trying to consume every food I would miss in Ecuador. In preparation for my work as a one-woman production house, I investigated the art of the film title and reflected on my trajectory sans film school experience.
With a flight to the southern hemisphere looming a week away, I frantically tackled the goal of seeing New England - one of the reasons I moved to New York initially. Inspired by my trip to Boston the month prior, I rented a car to explore the coastline. Driving directions sat in my passenger seat but were never really utilized. It was usually dark outside before I knew where I was stopping or staying, but even with this seat-of-my-pants itinerary, it was refreshing, calm, and perfectly timed to see friends en route. Van Morrison serenaded me through five states, and my camera operated for no one but myself. For the first real time in maybe years, I was documenting my own adventures just for me.
Hurricane Irene did cut my road trip a bit short, but because of this highly-publicized natural disaster, I ended up driving around Brooklyn and Queens (an experience I always considered to scary to attempt) and meeting a long-time internet friend, Sierra Anderson; thankfully before her TLC reality show aired and she became an unattainable, high-rollin' television star.
This is me leaving New York City to Ecuador. Coincidentally, every taxi I took from the moment I signed my contract was operated by a chatty Ecuadorian. From the moment I hailed this cab until December 7th, my life never paused. After shooting back to Indiana for yet another great wedding of a great friend, September eased me into my future hectic schedule surrounded by international teens and ever-stacking responsibilities, which included:
Visiting the Amazon rainforest as the first high school group at Tiputini Biodiversity Station
Standing on an emergent atop the canopy, watching spider monkeys and killer ants
Floating down a piraña/anaconda/caiman/electric eel/vampire fish-invested river in nothing but a life vest for two hours
Spending my 26th birthday flying past three active volcanoes and taking six different types of transportation through the rainforest
Straddling the Equator, both the tourist line and the GPS-specific line, watching water swirl in opposite ways on both sides of the line
Taking over the creative arts teaching position for 26 students from 15 countries
Did you notice that last bullet point? Teaching. Not occasional instruction of the digital arts but all-out educating a classroom on the entire field of creative arts. Though had I gone for my Masters in Studio Art I would have taught more complex classes than this, I had to juggle my already-intensive job with learning how to manage a classroom of 26 international and inquisitive kids. I thought I was cognizant of the difficulty in a teacher's job, but it became screamingly clear of why it's full-time and worthy of at least four years of intensive study.
Maybe six days after returning from the Amazon rainforest, I marked off a Bucket List item and flew to the Galapagos islands. My class field trips were to the zoo an hour away, but here I was filming and photography 26 kids who got to cash in on a lucky life experience at age 15.
For one week, we lived on San Cristobál island, housing classes in a local university directly opposite a white and blue beach. It was here that I stood in front of two grade levels, wrote my first non-hypothetical lesson plan, and used advanced technology to engage students on some artistic concepts. I had what the profession calls a 'teaching moment' within first three days.
Following what some would already consider an immersive and whole experience in the Galapagos, we got on a boat and went island hopping. I photographed from the top of a truck up an unpaved road, hiked the rim of the second largest crater in the world, and saw tortoises bigger than a mini fridge. By the end of this entirely satisfying journey, I was wiped out and in need of a break after 37 days on the job straight.
I began teaching a medium I never even studied in school but only self-taught and learned through experience. But, of all the courses I've taken in my life, this area is surprisingly the one I feel most confident and qualified speaking about. For three weeks, I taught cinematic storytelling and film production, a unit which concluded with a film festival of original work by the students. It was a reminder of much we can construct for ourselves instead of waiting for a structure to provide life experiences.
What seemed previously like an infinity pool of time to utilize soon became a countdown clock drawing all of us away from Ecuador. I had to squeeze in another unit on social commentary, grade an intimidating stack of written critiques, continue to film, photograph, and edit the content reflecting our experiences, and simultaneously have my 'human being' time where I enjoyed the temporary coordinates of my employment.
With time quickly unraveling, we hopped in an SUV with our eyes set on summiting a magnificent hill: Barabon. It was one of the few moments we stopped to travel and enjoy each other's company in an environment of our own choosing. It was a refreshing morning.
Two terabytes of footage were beginning to burn a hole in my desk, impatiently awaiting their eventual coagulation into films for viewing. And so I grasped my week, squeezed it like a tube of paste for any excess time, and made an iMovie teaser for a trimester unseen.
Starting from our 3-month home of Cuenca, Ecuador, we took a bus and an SUV through the foothills of the Andes en route to Chimborazo province. The kids hammered into concrete, dug the foundation for a school, and shivered happily in a highland community for three days on a volunteer trip. This was our final Ecuadorian experience, other than a farewell party that had many of us in tears by morning's end. I was a mess, saying goodbye to a woman that shares many of my oddities and knowledge of northern Indiana 'culture': María del Mar, our host city specialist and Notre Dame graduate.
I've traveled alone for school, work, or play and returned home to the threat of reverse culture shock over ten times, and this one was (relatively) an absolute piece of cake. My longest duration in one place abroad; it didn't affect me adversely. I had some domestic hiccups, and at times I was inexplicably anxious to do anything. In the first 24 hours, I snuggled with my niece and nephew, drank cold ones with my brother, and got used to English interactions with strangers and driving everywhere. It wasn't until I visited my hometown that I realized the ride 2011 took me on.
Are you still working for that one company? Or is it now that other company? Where in the world are you these days? What do you do...I can't even keep up!
I attended a family wedding with hundreds of people I grew up with and answered my work question differently every time. I'm finding it exceedingly difficult to explain myself as I continue this organically-paved career path, and the further I move away from a 'travel phase' to a lifestyle choice, the harder it is for me not to brush it off as a weird and fleeting situation, for the sake of being relatable.
This all is weird. These opportunities all happen before I'm ready, and they defy the limits of this supposedly impossible job market. I've been learning how to swim by getting tossed in the deep end, and thankfully (so far), I've managed to adapt my strokes to stay afloat and keep swimming upstream. The only way 2011 could have accomplished a more elevated status of weird - edging into surreal - would have been if National Geographic called to fulfill the quintessential travel documentarian's dream. At least that would be a relatable job description that wouldn't leave me hungering for the right words for my self-definition.
More weird on the radar?
I rang in the new year with my lumberjack, mixing drinks behind the bar and enjoying our limited but valuable time together. Shortly after that stroke of 2012, I flew to Thailand, roughly my hometown's counterpoint. This year is already bound to be off course from the expected and normal. I've got my floaties on in preparation.
The opinions stated in this post are mine and do not reflect the positions, strategies, or opinions of THINK Global School.