A Community in Mourning

When I first heard that three students had been murdered in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night I only connected with the tragedy through my personal relationship with the town (I lived there for several years and some of my family still lives there), frustration from what I assumed was a faith-targeted crime, and sadness at their violent deaths. It was not until the following day that I learned that all three students had attended my university. Two were NC State alumni and one was a sophomore in the College of Design.

On Thursday evening, I found my way to the center of campus life, the brickyard, where our Muslim Students’ Association had organized a candlelight vigil. The area was already filled with people because I was running late and the darkness that preceded the setting sun made it difficult to pick out my girlfriend from the crowd. When I caught up with her she told me that I had just missed the call to prayer. She described the call as being “intense and exotic” with a serene backdrop of leaves blowing in the breeze as the color faded from the sky. It was her first time hearing a muezzin reciting a call to prayer and I think for many present it may have been cause for a similar sense of awe.

Standing in a gathering of several hundred, I was struck most by the deafening silence. No one spoke during the prayer nor afterward. One speaker after another entered and exited the stage without sound or movement from the crowd. The Chancellor, the Governor, the Student Body President, the Vice Provost all spoke and gave their condolences but the huddled masses showed no sign of breaking the silence.

Then the mood changed. When Deah’s older brother Farris came to the microphone, the chilling winter wind faded from conscious thought and the crowd held up their lit cell phones in support. He spoke of his faith that all three were in a better place and of the incredible journey that transpired after their deaths. I was, at first, taken aback by his mention of their deaths led to this “amazing experience” but then I realized why I was there.

Both my girlfriend and I wanted to share our love and support for our grieving friends and for the targeted minority within our community. This is what he was referring to: thousands attended the vigil in Chapel Hill the night before, thousands attended the funeral, and hundreds within our own community showed up to carry on the legacy of support. If we, as a community can aid in the grieving process then I feel compelled to be a part of that. When Farris exited the stage he did so to a large supportive applause.

One of the most powerful moments during the vigil was when Deah’s older sister Suzanne Barakat spoke. She described herself as an alumni of UNC and a Tar Heel. Normally such an admission would draw jeers from State students but not tonight; respectful silence persisted. Suzanne then raised her hand and made the Wolfpack sign.

Suzanne Barakat giving wolfpack sign

The community responded in kind. She also excited to applause.

Wolpack giving the pack sign

I did not know Deah, Yusor, or Razan but I know that their deaths led to a beautiful communal gathering in support of their grieving friends, family, and the campus-wide Muslim community. I am proud of my Wolfpack today.

Photo credit: NC State and WNCN

I Regret this Already

Today I found out that there is a downside to living with your teacher. Apparently Hipatia took it to heart when I told her that I enjoyed challenging myself and taking the more difficult subjects in school. Instead of having to complete only one or two homework assignments tonight I somehow ended up obligated to work through six of them. Now I have to live with the consequence… regret.

I had a rough start in Spanish class this morning but after about 30 minutes I decided to relax. Once I stopped trying to process every word Hipatia was saying to me I started grasping entire sentences and topics. I am not to the point yet where I can discern the meaning of words from context but I hope that will come soon. As it turns out, understanding other people speaking a language does not give you a diploma in speaking it yourself. I stumble and fall continuously but I’m getting better.

Speaking of stumbling, you know how I said that I was dying to don my capoeira pants? Well, I almost died while wearing them or at least I thought as much. Yesterday, Katrin joined me for my first capoeira lesson in five years. Our instructor worked us so hard that I could hardly standup at the end, no joke. Today, my entire body is so sore and stiff that I can hardly move. Although, I still made it to my salsa class today and am headed back to capoeira tomorrow.

Today, we only had two hours of class before Hipatia, Katrin, and I walked with the owner of the school, Rosa, to a market about 45 minutes away. It was a great experience, I was introduced to parts of the city that I had never seen before. We walked through the Mariscal (appropriately called gringolandia by the locals) and the banking district before reaching the market. The market was teeming with activity, there were many vendors for fruits, vegetables, flowers, wood and clay products, and toys. There were even entire restaurants packed into the stalls. I bought some fresh coconut juice from a fruit juice vendor for 75¢, it was delicious.

After leaving the market, the four of us found our curiosity piqued by a large group of people protesting in a park. While there, I took some pictures of the assembled crowd and the police standing nearby. After that short stent in the park we trudged home our bags laden with tasty foods including fruits which I could not possibly identify. Hipatia has been trying to explain all of the varieties of bananas and plantains to me but I can only process so much alien information. I keep telling her that in the US there are only three kinds of bananas – green, yellow, and brown.

Hipatia invited me to cook dinner with her again tonight. I really enjoy spending time with her in the kitchen. She does a great job provoking me to speak by asking interesting questions and she has no reservations about politely critiquing my grammar and assisting me with new vocabulary. I am gaining a lot of information and practice from the 4 hours of classes per day but the educational value of my home stay is equally significant.

This trip has been incredible and it is only at the beginning.

Nails on a Chalkboard

Oh boy do I feel bad for Hipatia. Not only does she have to put up with me at home but I am also her student for 4-hour Spanish lessons 5 days a week. I’m kidding of course. Although at times (pretty often) my Spanish might sound like nails scraping against a chalkboard she responds well and does a good job interpreting me.

I am quite glad that Hipatia is my teacher this week as I feel she knows best what level I am speaking at. I have started at the DELE A1 level which is lower than I was hoping but I feel as though it is an adequate starting point for me. I still consider myself to have a large vocabulary however I often confuse or forget words and my grammar is in need of some work.

The class runs from 8:30am to 12:30pm and is taught completely in Spanish. Hipatia asks many questions and I respond as best as I can. When I don’t understand something, Hipatia takes the time to rephrase her explanation which is a method that works fairly well for me. She also uses visual aids like picture books and other objects around the classroom to help me understand new vocabulary or grammar concepts.

If anything, starting at such a low level has not discouraged me but rather has given me a further motivation to do well to progress quickly. I want to feel as though I can express myself easily and proficiently before the end of my four week stay. The most difficult part of speaking Spanish is that it does not flow naturally for me – I take too much time to construct what I want to say in my head before letting it out of my mouth.

After class I explored an area of Quito which was close to the school. Hipatia had given me directions to a vegetarian restaurant which I’m proud to say that I found without getting too turned around. My meal consisted of four side dishes surrounding a rounded pile of rice and accompanied by soup and warm soy milk. It was a large and delicious meal for a total cost of $2.50.

After lunch, I headed back home to bang out my homework and managed a 30 minute nap before it was time for Salsa class. Katrin introduced me to a Salsa studio in the Mariscal district, a popular area for tourists and the more affluent residents of Quito. Our class was an hour long and my instructor Angie was terrific. She was always patient when I made a misstep and I felt as though I was picking up the moves quickly. I think it came easily, in part, because of the similarity to some of the ballroom dance moves I learned practicing at Elite Ballroom in Morrisville last semester. I am liking the swiftness of the Salsa moves. The constant push and pull between myself and my partner makes it feel like I’m on a roller coaster ride.

As I was leaving the studio I saw pictures of men practicing Capoeira and I asked the instructor if they taught Capoeira at the studio as well. Of course they do, which is good because I’m dying to don my Capoeira pants which I made certain to pack. The last time I practiced Capoeira was before I left Boston in 2008. I know that the strength required to pull off the moves will be a renewed shock to my system. I remember being so utterly wiped after a class with Mestre Calango that I would down an entire super-sized Big Mac meal. Yuck, I can’t wait…

I now have a set schedule for after school activities. Monday, Wednesday and Friday I will dance Salsa then on Tuesdays and Thursdays I will play Capoeira. Now I’ll be looking for a nearby Yoga studio to fill my weekends!

After Salsa class, Katrin and I headed home to join Hipatia and her younger daughter Angie for dinner. I asked Hipatia to let me cook with her tomorrow. Learning how to cook Ecuadorian cuisine, yet another thing to be excited about.