Hakuna Matata, or: how to do Zanzibar on a Peace Corps budget

Hakuna matata!

No problem!

Apparently this phrase is more than just a catchy song from The Lion King. I just got back from a much-needed vacation in Zanzibar with a couple friends, and we were surrounded by friendly Tanzanians unironically saying “Hakuna matata!” every time we turned around.

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The thing is that we actually had a lot of problems on that trip.

First off, have you ever tried to plan an international holiday while living without internet? We had to make expensive trips into town specifically to do things like researching things to do, booking a place to stay, and buying plane tickets.

Next, we spent several hours wandering the winding streets of Stone Town trying and failing to find our AirBnB, despite the best efforts of Google Maps and a lot of asking strangers for help. (Turns out there are a million places called some variation of “Stone Town Zanzibar Hotel” and ours didn’t have a sign.)

One of us immediately developed some kind of infection from a seemingly innocuous bug bite, which turned into a painfully swollen ankle and foot and orders from Peace Corps Tanzania’s doctor not to put it in the ocean—so much for our plans of spending a solid week at the beach!

The booking website for the boating outing we wanted to do had some internal glitches that resulted in several days of customer service emails to get our booking straight, and, on top of that, it turns out our phones got terrible (or no) reception everywhere in Stone Town, leaving us reliant on restaurants far out of our price range—the only places we could find good WiFi.

We were harassed everywhere we went—honestly, I have never before in my life experienced such constant, intense, intentional harassment in my life. (Shoutout to Rwandan culture for, it turns out, being much more respectful than anything we encountered in Zanzibar.) None of the tourist blogs prepared us for this (hey, anyone planning to go to Zanzibar—if you’re white and a woman, heads up for lots of catcalling).

But that constant phrase—hakuna matata—turned out to be pretty true, once we averaged all our experiences. For every problem we ran into, there was someone (or, often, multiple someones) helping us out of it. By the end of two days, we were so overwhelmed by the number of people who had put themselves out to make our lives a little easier that we began keeping a running list of daily shoutouts.

So here you go: here’s the summary, complete with what we hated (so you don’t go do that) and what we loved (so you can go do that), and daily shoutouts to the people who made our holiday great.

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Day 1:

A frenzy of picking up necessary documentation (passports, WHO cards) and changing money into Tanzanian shillings.

You might want to know: you will need to show your WHO card (proving you have a yellow-fever shot) when you get to Tanzania, and you need 100USD for a tourist visa. These things are important to remember especially if, like us, you’re going to be flying from one in the morning and landing after a mostly sleepless night.

Shoutout to: Sarah, another Peace Corps Rwanda volunteer, who was already calling a taxi for herself and did all the talking to arrange for the taxi to come back and pick us up and drive us to the airport in the middle of the night.

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Day 2:

Navigating customs through a fog of exhaustion, finding a taxi, buying SIM cards, finding the ferry, navigating more customs, walking for several hours without finding our hotel… We never did find our hotel, but we found a place to wait and we finally got hold of AirBnB customer service, who managed to get hold of the host, who sent the receptionist to find us and lead us to the correct place—it turns out the place is a block down and across the street from where Google thinks it should be based on GPS coordinates. After all that, we finally set down our bags, did some touristy wandering, and had dinner at Lukmaan’s, a place the internet had recommended and which, it turned out, was within a couple minute’s walk of our hotel.

You might want to know: waiting for the ferry felt a lot like a hellish daymare (possibly due in part to exhaustion?) and we decided the extra money required to buy VIP tickets and wait for the ferry in air conditioned comfort was definitely worth it; also you have to go through a second customs queue in Zanzibar.

Shoutout to: Adam, our taxi driver extraordinaire who not only charged us what we later discovered to be a fair rate (30USD, not the cheapest but definitely not the most expensive) from the airport to the ferry company and then, voluntarily and without asking for extra pay, walked us to the ferry office to help buy our tickets and then walked us to a phone store and did all the talking to help us get our SIM cards sorted out. (If you need a taxi in Dar es Salaam, give him a call at +255 713 671 642.)
Also shoutout to the waitresses in Zanzibar Coffee House, who taught us some Swahili, chatted with us, and let us move all our baggage from table to table for several hours while two of us at a time went out to try to find our hotel.

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Day 3:

We went back to Zanzibar Coffee for breakfast, since we liked them so much—something that became a habit during our week in Stone Town; we never found a breakfast place we liked better in terms of either the food or the prices. Then we spent hours wandering the streets, poking through art shops and curio shops. We also splashed our way down the beachfront and had drinks at the Travellers Cafe while watching the sunset—we went back to Travellers Cafe several times in the evening, despite their staff being fairly unfriendly, because the location and the cider were both nice. And, of course, we (I, anyway) spent lots of time pausing to look at/chirp at/coo at all the cats that secretly own the town.

You might want to know: the shops get cheaper and cheaper as you get farther from the fancy, touristy parts of town near the beachfront hotels. Most shopkeepers are willing to haggle over prices, and you should assume they’re quoting you half again or even double the real price when you ask how much something costs. Don’t be afraid to tell them you want to pay a very low amount and then work your way up to what feels like a comfortable price range—also, ask prices in different shops to get a feel for how much people in general are selling for. Lots of shops sell exactly the same products.

Shoutout to: the owner of a local art shop (whose name I did not get, unfortunately) who voluntarily walked us around his street and taught us interesting history about the local art and the fancy doorframes, despite our having told him we couldn’t buy anything from his shop.
Also to the guy at Shebby’s (near the Catholic church) who was the only one during our whole trip to give us the correct price for spices on our first asking him.

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Day 4:

We did more wandering, took the most unimpressive walking tour of our lives (note for next time: get a recommendation of a guide beforehand?), swam, walked the beaches, tried local street food that we don’t have in Rwanda, and had dinner at Forodhani Gardens. In the evening, it becomes a food market filled with vendors, fresh seafood, and tourists. This came highly recommended from every tourist blog we read, but we were extremely underwhelmed. We get enough brochette in Rwanda that we weren’t excited by the opportunity to try different kinds of brochette, and there wasn’t much else on offer besides shawarma—which was delicious, but didn’t make up for the lack of variety after the glowing blog reviews we’d read. In addition, we were sold a coconut that tasted rancid and were harassed and catcalled beyond our ability to handle diplomatically. Overall we came away with the impression that Forodhani caters to tourists who don’t know any better than to pay too much for street food and to accept harassment as a compliment.

You might want to know: Stone Town is by far the cheapest place to stay in Zanzibar. It’s possible to make day trips to other parts of the island from there by taxi or by public buses/dala-dala, but we mostly didn’t. While people talked up the pristine white beaches in the north and east, we were perfectly content with the beaches in Stone Town, which had the benefit of being nearly empty during the day. Shade is hard to come by after noon, since the beaches face west, but you can find shady nooks near hotel stairways. But find someone to watch your belongings, since “beach boys” often pass by looking to steal unattended stuff.

Shoutout to: the lady who sold us street food and patiently taught us the names and contents of unfamiliar foods without making us feel stupid.
Also to Samson, the security guard at Serena, who was super nice, offered to watch our stuff while we swam, and let us sit on the hotel veranda despite our being wet and clearly outclassed by all the actual hotel patrons.

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Day 5:

We got up early with the purpose of hitting the beaches while there was still some shade and spent hours swimming and reading on the sand. We all got much more sunburnt than we had hoped, but it was a successful morning nevertheless. In the afternoon, we toured the Old Dispensary, which the internet had told us was the most beautiful building in Stone Town. We decided we agreed with the internet. We also spent a long time admiring paintings in the Conservation Centre and walked along the walls of the Old Fort.

You might want to know: the Conservation Centre features art that is different from the touristy paintings that are the same in every shop. According to literature we saw there, it’s run by a group that works with local youth and artists to preserve culture. It also had signs suggesting they have live music every week (we meant to go to that and didn’t, so no review, but it looked hopeful).

Shoutout to: the white man carrying a baby on the beach who was walking by, saw some local men stopping to harass us, paused to watch pointedly until the local guys went away, and then moved on up the beach—thanks for using your position as a white male to make us feel safe.
Also shoutout to the guide at the Old Dispensary, who walked around with us, answered our questions, and took lots of photos of us when we asked him to.

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Day 6:

We had booked a trip through Safari Blue, so we got up early, had instant coffee in our room, and headed out to meet the shuttle, which took us to Fumba, where the tour began. We spent a wonderful day with a handful of other tourists (only a handful, which was great) out on a traditional boat, a dhow. We enjoyed snorkelling, lots of snacks, a delicious lunch on an island where we saw and climbed massive baobab trees, and dolphin watching.

You might want to know: I know I previously said we had trouble with booking, but the customer service was quick and friendly and extremely effective, and the shuttle was very cheap. We loved everything about the trip and thought it was a low price for great quality. Definitely do this.

Shoutout to: our hotel’s cleaning ladies, who cleaned our entire room in under ten minutes when we told them we needed to be somewhere soon and were taking the room key with us.
Also shoutout to the waiter at Lukmaan’s who initially gave us the wrong takeaway order but replaced it immediately without charging us for the (more expensive) correct order.

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Day 7:

We knew we all had specific souvenirs we wanted and also that we wanted to get the best prices possible for them, so we set out with a list and walked through just about every shop in Stone Town. After that, we had lunch at Sforno, a great place we went back to several times for their delicious pizza, ice cream, and shakes, and went swimming.

Shoutout to: the woodworker at Zanzibar Crafts Garden who happily taught us how to say teacher/teachers (walimu/mwalimu) in Swahili and was genuinely interested in our being teachers from Rwanda, despite our not buying anything from him.
Also shoutout to the salesman across from our hotel, who gave us an incredible opening price on trousers with no haggling
Also shoutout Amour Aziz at Zanzibar Souvenir Shop in Hamamni Street who quoted us a fair price from the outset, did not harass us, spoke great English, had a business card, and eventually gave us a discount on what we purchased (give him a call at +255 24 223 0930 or +255 777 432 612 if you’re looking for Zanzibar boxes).

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Day 8:

The internet told us to go to Jozani Forest and see the monkeys, so we did. This involved a bus to someplace and then a dala-dala to the forest. The bus was okay. The dala-dala was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in that we all hope never to experience it a second time. It was exactly the sort of colourful African experience we all thought we were signing up for when we moved here: a brightly-painted truck with a covered bed packed full of men and women and children and bags and, of course, us. We couldn’t so much as shift our feet or shoulders thanks to being packed in so tight. We moved down the road incredibly slowly, stopping for a solid ten or more minutes at one point to have a load of lumber put onto the top of the truck, and the ride lasted an aeon or more, in our estimation. Still, we’re glad to have tried it once. The forest was a much better experience. We had a great guide who walked us beneath creaking mahogany trees, and we saw lots and lots of red colobus monkeys. They’re used to people and at times came so close we could have touched them (we didn’t, because you’re not supposed to). We particularly liked watching the babies playing—mostly running, jumping, and knocking each other off branches.

You might want to know: the internet told us Jozani had no entrance fee and that the guides were paid on a tip basis. This, it turns out, is not true (anymore? Maybe it used to be?). We paid 10USD apiece to enter (which is cheap if you’re getting your paycheck in USD but fairly expensive when you’re being paid in RWF). We thought it was worth it, but we were not expecting it.

Shoutout to: our guide, who drove us back to Stone Town himself when we asked him to help us find a taxi.
Also to the ladies at Al Jabry restaurant, who were nice to us and served us really delicious food. Definitely go there and buy their rice.

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Day 9:

On our last full day in Stone Town, we decided to buy cheap street food and spend our money on expensive drinks. We went swimming and then bought overpriced (but delicious) coffee at Serena and drank it while reading books. We bought our last-minute souvenirs and had drinks on the rooftop at Africa House Hotel.

You might want to know: Africa House Hotel was our least favourite place in Zanzibar. We did not think the view made up for the atmosphere, which was boring, loud, and overpriced. We recommend you watch the sunset over the ocean from Travellers Cafe or one of the expensive beachfront hotels, which are at least quiet and comfortable.

Shoutout to: the woodworker at Zanzibar Craft Garden—yes, the same one—who gave us a key chain even though he said he couldn’t make the box we wanted.
Also to the woodworkers in Hamamni Street who, instead of harassing us, showed us how they make the brass decorations on the boxes.
Also to the Indian saleswoman near the touristy parts of town who gave us her personal incense and incense holder because we bought incense from her and she didn’t sell holders for it.
Also to the Indian antiques salesman who sold us a brass Aladdin lamp at half his original price (which was, honestly, a fair price to start with) and made a minimum profit off it and actually tried to convince his son, who had originally bought it, to sell it at cost, and also showed us how to polish it.
Also shoutout to the man we stopped in the street to ask directions, who was interrupted in his vague directions by a woman, who gave us very exact, precise directions—he let her interrupt him and then actually said, “Excellent,” and affirmed her, which is something we see as a rarity in general and especially in East Africa.

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Day 10:

We had to catch a noon ferry, so we didn’t do much in town besides have breakfast one last time at Zanzibar Coffee. Then we made our way through customs, took the ferry back to Dar es Salaam, had lunch at a little Indian place, and waited for our taxi at a great coffee shop called Impresso Espresso. Then it was back through customs, airplanes, airports, and taxis until we were back to familiar ground in Kigali.

Shoutout to: all the employees at our hotel who went out of their way to make our stay comfortable and help answer our questions about Stone Town.
Also to the lady running Impresso Espresso in Dar es Salaam, who did not judge us for trudging into her coffee shop laden with bags, crashing in a corner, and staying there for several hours.
Also, again, to our taxi driver, Adam, who came to pick us up, helped us decide what time we needed him to come in order to get to the airport on time, and actually got us there early despite massive traffic jams.

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So the tl;dr version: We loved Zanzibar. We had problems with it. Stuff went wrong. Stuff annoyed us. Stuff drove us crazy. But we got to take a break from being Peace Corps Volunteers, take a break from being teachers, take a break from having to try to speak a second language. We swam in the ocean and saw really cool fish and said hello to monkeys. We ate some great food and saw some cute cats and made some really nice, if very temporary, friends. And in the end, hakuna matata!

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An Open Letter to Freshmen

Dear Freshmen,

Welcome to this world of late-night study sessions, early-morning panic attacks, coffee addiction, and registration confusion. This is your home now. I know the furniture is strange, its blocky shape designed to let a hundred different people stack it into a hundred different temporary arrangements. I know your new sheets smell wrong and you miss your dog and all you want is to go home, away from this place where strangers pass you in the bathroom and nobody gets your in-jokes—but give it a few weeks, a few months.

This will become home.

It will become home as you sit in the suite with the reflection essay you don’t understand and the new friends whose names you can’t remember; as you ask dumb questions and make bad jokes; as you laugh with people because they forgive your quirky humour. It’s okay if your laughter shakes and wobbles to begin with. Those midnight giggles will turn to sobs sometimes. That’s normal. Cry on your new friend’s shoulder and let yourself notice that this stranger is growing familiar. Tell stupid stories about that time you were ten and you thought you wanted to be a doctor even though you hated needles. Admire your suitemate’s new tattoo. Eat ramen at three in the morning while you wonder whether you can call your mother without looking uncool. Call your mother whether it’s cool or not. Tell her you miss her.

Then hang up.

Hang up on that home and immerse yourself in this new one. Take part in celebrations of school traditions whose beginnings are buried in grainy black and white photos of people you’ve never met. Let the hodgepodge culture of a thousand people from a thousand places wash over you until you cheer instinctively when a plate shatters in the dining commons or shout, “Pantsless o’clock!” with the rest of the floor when open-house hours end and the boys traipse out. Eat Nutella from a spoon while commiserating with your roommate over midterms. Feel the bittersweet grief of your first birthday away from home. Thank the friends who remembered to make you cards, blow up balloons, and surprise you with gifts of chocolate. You won’t notice it at the time, but they’re becoming family.

Let them.

Let them take root in your heart as you memorise their faces and voices. Notice as you begin to instinctively guard against one’s tree-nut allergy and another’s acrophobia. Realise you miss them when they leave for weekends. I know you’re counting down the days, the months, the years, eyeing the deadline, wondering if a four-year friendship is worth the pain of yet another goodbye. There are times to keep your heart safe, but this is not the time. At this place that will be home, hold your heart open. Let friendships bury themselves in your soul. Let memories twist subtle chains. Leave pieces of yourself in corners of the music building and the writing lounge. At this temporary home, let friends become permanent. Let them catch you when you fall. Let them hold you when you crumble.

And savour the moments.

Savour the happy moments and the sad ones; the happy moments feel better, but the sad ones—those are the moments that make you. The times you think you’re drowning and your roommate sits and drowns with you, the nights of crying into tea as you stare at yet another registration email, the hysterical laughter and tears as you try to pack a year’s worth of life into suitcases grown too small by the end of finals week—these are the things your new home is built of. And when it’s over, when you’ve blinked too many times and four years have passed, these are the things you’ll know for certainty. Not the content of that last class, not your plans for the future, but the content of that last conversation as you packed your room into cardboard boxes, the plans you carried out with strangers who became family in this temporary home.

It’s like nothing else you’ve ever done. It’s scary and wonderful, eternally long and infinitesimally short all at once. Plan it, experience it, tell it, live it—just don’t waste it.

Sincerely,

A University Senior

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Internships: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do

Summer hit me like a belly-flop from the high dive this year. I interviewed for my internship eight days before I flew home from school. I got the “Congratulations! You got the job!” call two days before I flew home. I found an apartment and ordered a plane ticket a week before I flew to New York, and I had one day to make sure I knew which train to get on before I started.

I was scared to death. I had no idea what to expect. I considered quitting before I started

The end of summer is hitting me a little less like a belly-flop and a little more like a cannonball—still insane impact and a lot of mess, but much less pain.

I’m glad I didn’t quit, because I had a fantastic summer. It flew by. Working an internship is the difference between practicing a stroke on dry land and trying it in water; you’re submerged in the experience, and I discovered that I love being submerged in publishing. I also like to think I learned a thing or two about what you should and should not do in an internship.

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1. Do: Take your work seriously.
This sounds really “duh,” I know, but it’s tempting to think, “I’m just an intern. I’m temporary. It won’t matter.” But it will. An internship is one of the easiest ways to get a job out of college. Probably half the people I met or worked for this summer had been hired after interning. Even if you don’t plan to go back and work for the company, the work you do is only temporary for you. Any given task and its ramifications may only last till the end of summer for me, but for the supervisor I turn it in to, for the production department who have to work with it, for the book it winds up affecting in the end—even for the consumers who read that book—my work is long-term. It carries permanent weight.

2. Don’t: Take yourself seriously.
People will respect you for the work you do, but they’ll like you for how you make them feel. Be friendly. Chat with people, smile, laugh, listen. Try to see other people’s perspectives and don’t get too hung up on yourself. Remember that you’re an intern, not a full-time employee—meet your deadlines, but take advantage of the flexibility offered, make friends with people who can teach you things, accept that you will fail and that the easiest way to deal with that is with honesty, good humour, and humility. Apologise. Fix the problem. Laugh at yourself. You’ll go far.

3. Do: Show your enthusiasm.
In a world full of stressed people running on the hamster wheel of corporate life, nothing stands out more than someone who genuinely enjoys being there. I’m not saying to pretend to love something you hate, but even the worst job has its perks. I’m fortunate enough to have found an internship I absolutely loved (nearly) every minute of; you might not be—but still keep an eye out for the things you enjoy. Look for the aspects that you gravitate toward and let your supervisors know you enjoy them. Tell people which tasks you could do all day or what about your work is meaningful to you. Your supervisor isn’t there just to hand out work, and he or she will be gratified to hear that you love the idea of helping create a better product for the consumer or that you get excited about brainstorming creative ways to market. Plus your enthusiasm differentiates you from the hundreds of other interns who will be looking for a job soon.

4. Don’t: Say no.
Don’t say no to anything. Get invited to a meeting that seems unrelated to your job? Go anyway. Learn about whatever they’re discussing. I’ve been to sales meetings and question-and-answer sessions for an office move that I won’t be here for. I’ve listened to global executives discuss budgets and artists discuss cover designs. Vital to my particular job? Absolutely not—but they gave me a more complete picture of how the company works, what the different people do, how various departments interact. I’ve done spreadsheets, made phone calls, and scanned cheque request forms. Related in any way to writing or copyediting? Absolutely not—but being willing to do anything makes your supervisors like you and lets you see what other people’s jobs entail, again giving you a more holistic view of the company. The point of an internship is not to make money or to simply survive it—it’s to learn, so don’t ever say no to any opportunity to learn anything.

5. Do: Ask questions.
“Ask questions” is a common piece of advice that people don’t follow much. Don’t just ask questions when you need information in order to complete a task; ask questions about everything. Ask what part your small piece of work plays in the bigger picture. Find out who a job came from and where it’s going. Find out what that guy in the cubical down the hall does and how it relates to what you’re doing. Email people and ask for informational interviews—they’ll be happy to do them, and you’ll learn about jobs you never knew existed or insider secrets of how or where to apply if you want to get to a certain position, and you’ll meet someone who might become a valuable contact in getting to an interview. If nothing else, you might make a friend.

6. Don’t: Just float.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options, the uncertainties, and your growing recognition of how little you really know about your chosen field. Feeling so at sea, it can be easy to just bob around, taking whatever opportunities you get but setting no definite goals. Don’t just float. Pick a goal and work toward it. Remember that goals can change; that’s okay—but pick a milestone or you’ll never get anywhere. Even if you’re taking whatever job you can get without being picky, set yourself goals. Decide what you want to learn or what job you want to transition into. Don’t let yourself float aimlessly when you could be getting somewhere.

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Beyond all that, enjoy yourself. An internship is a fantastic opportunity to try a career out and see how you feel about it. If you discover you hate your chosen path, search for the humour in it. If you discover you love it, savour every moment. The important thing to remember is that it’s a temporary adventure, so appreciate it before it ends.

On Sightseeing: Lessons from New York City

“So what do you want to see while you’re in New York?”

I got this question from everyone my first week in the city—from my flatemates, my coworkers, my mother, the barista at the coffee shop… Okay, I’m lying about the barista; but he probably would’ve asked if he’d thought of it.

My answer was the same every time: “Well, uh, I don’t really know…what are you supposed to see in New York City?”

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So I googled “what to do in NYC” and, overwhelmed by so many suggestions, shut the whole thing down and drank a few cups of coffee. For a few weeks, I forced myself out of my flat every weekend. I dutifully visited the Museum of Natural History and got lost in Central Park. Then I stopped sightseeing, overwhelmed by the number of options, exhausted by the constant movement, depressed by seeing sights alone.

And then Emily came. I picked her up at the airport, escorted her onto the wrong bus, course corrected half an hour later, and helped carry her suitcase up four flights of stairs to my apartment.

I like to think we saw the entirety of New York City in one week of meandering down sidewalks and up subway station stairs. And I think our adventures translate into good sightseeing advice no matter where you’re visiting.

  1.  From the Statue of Liberty: Live beyond a lens.
    My camera phone is generally great, but skylines and statues aren’t really its thing. So I tucked the phone away and spent the ride to Staten Island and back leaning on the top railing of the ferry, breathing in salty air, and taking in the surprisingly diminutive Lady Liberty dwarfed by the city’s skyscrapers, marvelling at the waves and the seagulls and the glints of gold on sailboats. Instead a two- by five-inch screen, I saw the water and sunset stretching as far as I could see, the colours more vivid and real than my phone will ever show me. Don’t be so concerned about getting a photo that you miss an experience.
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  2. From the Museum of Natural History: Call it quits.
    Museums are fantastic, and New York City has more than its fair share. I’m thrilled that they’re here and that people enjoy them, but I don’t. Once I’ve seen one stuffed lion or unearthed pottery shard, I figure I’ve seen them all. And I refuse to feel guilty for that; I can always read a book or watch the history channel, and there are dozens of alternative things to do. I gain far more by doing something I actually care about than by trudging through a museum just to say I did it. Don’t visit a place out of obligation; spend your time on what matters to you.
  3. From Mezzrow and Smalls: Empty your pockets.
    I’m skint and stingy, so $60 for drinks and a show chokes me. But I spent the money, and I spent the evening listening to truly fantastic jazz piano and one of the best quartets I’ve ever heard. I packed in with people wearing evening formal and people wearing shorts and t-shirts, and we all had nothing in common except for the blue chords and smooth saxophone, and I’ve yet to regret it. A year from now, I’ll remember not the rent or the groceries but the memories. Shell out your money where it counts.
  4. From the Brooklyn Bridge: We came, we saw, we conquered left.
    We took the subway to Brooklyn and wandered through the park, along the pier, under the bridge. Then we got back on the subway and left. Most things besides museums don’t take as long to see as people seem to think. It’s important to pause and marvel; we all need a little wonder in our lives. But pausing and marvelling can be done quickly if that’s what you want. Don’t be afraid to stop, stare, snap a photo, and then leave.
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  5. From Piano in Bryant Park: Improvise.
    We put off our afternoon plans to walk the Highline in favour of sitting on rickety chairs in Bryant Park, eating sandwiches, and listening to a ragtime piano concert. A free concert in the park is nowhere in the “must do in NYC” blogs I skimmed, but to us, an hour or two of rag tops a half hour of walking along a repurposed train track any day. Yes, the Highline is more famous, but we prefer Scott Joplin to a different view of the same skyscrapers. Decide what matters most—not what will impress your friends, but what you’ll look back on with a smile. It might not be the most celebrated experience, but what matters is that you celebrate it.
    Bonus: From Gilmore Girls: Put your feet up.
    Don’t get so caught up in the tourist scene that you forget to rest. We spent two evenings lying on the couch eating ice cream and scones and shouting at watching The Gilmore Girls. If you need to bum it with smoothies and Netflix…that’s okay. Let’s face it: if you’re too tired to care, you’re not going to enjoy seeing the sights anyway.

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I know there’s a ton of New York City I still haven’t seen, but I’m satisfied, and that’s what matters. Seeing the world isn’t about crossing items off lists but about adding them—adding the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, that little street where I got lost and never did find the museum I were looking for or the tiny cafe where I had a cheap coffee because the famous restaurant was too expensive. In the end, any sight is worth seeing if I look for the novelty, the history, or the beauty in it.

Pizza: Free. Advice: Priceless.

Every Thursday, I stand outside a locked door and wait for someone to let me in. I think I hate it more than anything else I’ve had to do since coming to New York (and that’s saying a lot; this morning I took all the subway stairs in one embarrassing, painful step).

Why put myself through it? The quick answer is, “Free food!” Because, let’s face it, I’ll do a lot for free food. The more honest answer is complicated. It’s all tied up with scary words like “networking” and “career opportunities,” but I guess it comes down to this: people who made it to the top are telling their stories and answering questions, and I want to know what they’re saying.

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So every Thursday, I wait outside that locked door for someone to let me in. I walk into a small conference room crowded with summer interns all hoping these few months will give them the boost they need to start climbing that ladder. I queue for free pizza, and I find a seat as near the door as possible, and then I listen to a professional talk about publishing, or editing, or whatever they do, and I try to hear something relevant.

A couple weeks ago, in one of those crowded intern luncheons, Will Schwalbe said something I love: “You can’t make money doing anything cynically.”

This came in answer my question about striking a balance between doing what you like and doing what pays. And his answer has stuck with me. I see it as presenting an ultimatum: either you do something, or you don’t. But if you decide to do it, do it the right way.

Don’t be mercenary. Don’t do things because you think they’ll pay off. There are so many reasons to do things—you should be able to come up with something more creative than money. Do it for the experience. Do it for the challenge. Do it because someone has to, and you’re willing to be that responsible person.

Or don’t do it.

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If you have to do it, find a way to value it. There’s a 300-name spreadsheet I’m filling in at work. I have the choice of how to do it, and if I’m doing it cynically, I’m missing out. Some things don’t slap you upside the face with how meaningful they are; you have to dig, imagine, get outside your box.

Experience, as I’ve mentioned, is a good motivator for me. The story I’ll tell about it later often makes up for what I’m doing at the moment. Or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of a job well done: 300 names in neatly formatted columns? Sign me up! Maybe it’s the perspective I gain along the way—I’m seeing a broad comparison of psych professors and schools across the country in a way I would never have known otherwise, and I’m getting insight into what the sales departments deal with.

So no, walking across the park to wait for someone to let me into a crowded room full of strangers is not my favourite thing. But I do it every week. Why? Because I think I’ll make valuable connections that will pay off in the future? I did the first day. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is not about the pay rate it might secure me later on. This is about learning about something I love, from someone who’s loved it longer, surrounded by other people who love it too.

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…but the free pizza doesn’t hurt.

6 Things I Tell Myself Daily

Last Monday morning, I walked into the Flatiron Building twenty minutes early (because my nerves woke me before my alarm), wearing four-inch heels (for confidence), trying desperately for a smile on my face despite my trembling insides. This Monday morning, I walked into 41 Madison on time, wearing flats, pausing to smile at the security man on my way to the lift.

I had no idea what to expect when I accepted this internship. Now, with one week’s experience in New York City, I feel qualified to share a few things I’ve taken to telling myself daily.

  1. Wear flats on the subway.
    FeetHeels are fantastic. I love my four-inch spikes. But rush hour means you’re liable to stand for forty minutes, and even if you don’t, you’re going to push your way through crowds in doorways, up stairways, and along walkways. You don’t want to do that in heels. Plus, if you make a spontaneous outing (or get lost and walk twenty a few extra blocks), you want comfy shoes. Give yourself a break. Keep a pair of flats in your bag.
  2. Smile.
    If you’re nervous, smile; it tricks your brain into releasing happy chemicals, and you’ll feel better. If you’re not nervous, smile; people like you better when you smile. It brightens everyone’s day a little. Don’t be the grouchy person who ruins the morning for someone else. Engage those muscles. Put a sparkle in your eye.
  3. Step out. Literally.
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    I knew maybe two people in the entirety of New York City when I got here. But now I know more than two, because I told myself, “Self, your coworkers are your community this summer. Don’t be a recluse.” So when the editors I work for invited me out for a spontaneous Broadway show, I stepped out and had a fantastic evening and made friends. We chatted. We laughed. They made sure I got on the right train home. When they invited me to a department happy hour and trivia night, I stepped out, even though crowds and party games aren’t my thing. I shook hands and learned names. I laughed and drank and offered wrong answers, and I made friends. Doing stuff that scares you is good. If nothing else, you’ll have a great story.
  4. Do the details right the first time.
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    No, I don’t love scouring websites for professors’ contact info to solicit textbook reviews. I don’t love checking every citation against the original source so we don’t get sued for reprinting a graph. But any job comes with perks and downsides, and if you want the fun stuff (yes, I’m geeking out about copyediting psych textbooks!), you have to do the not-so-fun stuff. Do it well. Realise the little details you work on in your cubicle in the headachy last few minutes of work are little details that matters in creating the big picture. Maybe nobody sees your little detail specifically, but they’ll see if you do it wrong. Take pride in your work, even if it’s scanning last year’s check requests for five solid hours (yes, I did that).
  5. If you don’t know, ask.
    Nobody expects you to remember every name the first day. Nobody expects you to know the secret of working the finicky scanner keyboard, opening those reports, or memorising the last year’s ISBNs. They’ll help you. They’ll tell you their tips and tricks, walk you through the process, tell you how to find the answers. Humility goes a lot further than fumbling attempts to do it alone. Just ask.
  6. Enjoy the scenery.
    SceneryI’m in the city that supposedly never sleeps. (Spoiler alert: people sleep in New York.) Here, amidst the express trains and honking taxis, I’m learning to slow down. No matter how impatient you are, you can’t make the subway go faster. Instead of worrying, smile at the kid trying to climb to the top of the pole. Marvel at the diversity of language around you. Read; you can’t be responsible, because cell phone service dies on the subway, so let yourself relax. Stop rushing to get there—to graduate, to find a job, to get promoted. Stop. Look around. See where you’re at and appreciate it. Stop thinking about the doors this will open, because where you go doesn’t matter if you don’t know where you are. I’m trying to stop watching the clock and appreciate that I get to sit in the office of a well-known publishing company and work on books that will influence students across the world. That I get to learn while I work. That I love my work. That I even have work. I have so much to be thankful for; why rush?

I remind myself of these things daily, moment by moment, because I still feel nervous when I step off the train and can’t remember which exit to take. I still eye the dragging minute hand on the clock and consider pitching textbooks out the window when I come across yet another table that might need copyright permissions. I tell myself these things because I have an opportunity that not many people have, and if I end this summer with only a fatter resume and four practicum credits on my college transcript, it’s nobody’s fault but my own.

So tomorrow morning, no matter how my nerves feel, no matter what’s waiting, I will walk into 41 Madison on time, wearing flats and a smile.

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5 Rules (because it’s social media, not personal media)

I hate self promotion.

My version of self promotion is, “Hey, um…so…I did this thing…It’s kinda cool—I mean, I think it’s kinda cool, y’know, but you might not…but if you wanted…maybe…you could sorta…take a look at it some time? If you want? I mean, no pressure. I’ll just…leave it here…in case you want to see it…”

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Unfortunately, I’ve been informed that my version of self promotion is not effective. And that if I intend to ever publish anything novel-y, I need to get on top of this whole platform-building thing.

So this week I did something supremely scary: I made a Twitter. And a Facebook page.

I struggle with social media. I hardcore judge certain types of posts—the whiney ones, the cryptic ones, the grammatically challenged ones. At the same time, I know my natural tendency is to use social media for venting frustration or posting photos I later can’t remember the purpose of.

So, in order to avoid being That Person, I’ve made myself five rules.

1. No fishing allowed.
If you can’t tell what I’m talking about by reading my post, I’m doing it wrong. If I’m hoping for a slew of “But you’re beautiful!” or “Oh no! What’s wrong?!” comments, I’m doing it wrong. Posting is about giving, not getting. Giving entertainment. Giving insight. Giving information. It’s not bait to catch personal affirmation or snag extra attention.

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2. No complaining…unless it’s funny.
Hard truth: nobody cares about your lack of sleep, grouchy boss, or bruised knee. But if you phrase your complaint in words that make them laugh, they’re okay with you whining a little.

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For example, I sometimes always complain about the weather.

 3. Beware the “share” button.
When you like stuff, your name shows up in a list of people who like that stuff. No big deal. When you share it, it shows up on your feed forever. I remind myself to think before I click. If it’s an opinion, I want to be willing to stand behind it, to explain why I feel it’s both valid and worth sharing with the world. If it’s humour, I want to be okay with my diverse group of friends and family knowing that I think it’s funny–meaning I have to consider whether it’s offensive, hurtful, or unnecessarily crass.

4. Please don’t feed the animals.
You can watch them fight to the death in the comment boxes, but don’t get involved. You will say angry things you regret. You will look like an idiot. You will offend someone. This isn’t to say I never stand up for what I believe, but I choose my battles, and I don’t jump into petty arguments.

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5. If you wouldn’t do it in person…
Social interactions work because we follow some basic rules of courtesy. Social media interactions should be the same. If I wouldn’t do it in person, I don’t do it online. Would I smack you upside the head? No? Then I shouldn’t send that crushing comment. If it’s still social, it still demands respect.

Am I saying I do everything right? Absolutely not.

Am I saying you should follow all my rules? Absolutely not.

Am I suggesting you think about making up your own rules? …maybe, yeah.

See, here’s the thing about social media: yes, it’s my profile. It’s my page. It’s my blog. But that doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want.

It’s called social media, not personal media, and that means I take a moment to think before I hit that button.

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On Meeting People

My comfort zone is a lot like a wool jumper–cozy, hard to get out of, and liable to shrink without warning. So last week I stretched it a bit.

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Last week, I stayed with family friends who live the kind of farming lifestyle that involves butchering pigs in the spring.

Pig butchering, believe it or not, is actually inside my comfort zone, nestled between cooking from scratch and hunting rabbits with a BB gun. What’s not in my comfort zone is meeting new people. And pig butchering involved a lot of people. Four families, to be precise: some twenty-ish children. About thirty voices. Around a hundred and twenty arms and legs.

Now, I like people. I can handle two at a time for a couple of hours, with a few days of solitude before my next exposure to humanity.

…okay, slight exaggeration, but I do have reclusive tendencies, and meeting new people is on my list of most terrifying experiences ever.

So last week, I stretched my wool comfort zone, put on a smile, and met new people. For those of you who are, like me, introverted or prone to social anxiety, here are some ideas for your next comfort-zone-stretching situation.

Smile. My mother always told me to smile when I was a kid, and apparently mothers know everything, because it works. You smile, and your brain shoots off chemicals that say, “Hey, it’s cool, I’m happy.” Plus you look nice, not creepy, so people like you better. Win-win situation!

Ask questions. People like answering questions. If you’re doing something (like pig butchering) that you aren’t familiar with, ask how to do things or why things get done certain ways. People in general like sharing information and tips. Let’s be honest–we all like feeling like the expert for a few minutes, and everyone wants to feel needed.

Keep small-talk small. The weather happens to everyone, so it’s a nice starting point if you need one, but we all see it out the windows, or else we all walked through it to get here. We know what the weather is. Move on. Don’t immediately dive into divulging dark secrets, and don’t start asking for creepy amounts of information, but talk human to human. Ask people where they’re from or why they’re butchering a pig in the first place. Compliment them on their adorable children–people love talking about their children.

Jump in. People like you better if you don’t just sit on the sidelines. So there are ten small children with knives already taking care of all the meat. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a job. Probably something needs to be washed, or someone could use another hand in some aspect of the job. Maybe you can find your own niche–I earned the official parsley-chopper designation, which was kind of cool. (And, if you’re not into social-ness, like me, having a specific niche gives you a safe place. You can make friends from behind the cutting board, with your chef’s knife tight in one hand for protection.)

Use names. People like you if you use their names. Introduce yourself, try to remember people’s names, and then be willing to use direct address. For some reason, I find it hard to use people’s names until I know them well. No idea why; maybe names just feel more intimate than I’m comfortable with–but if I can recognise that discomfort and then put it aside and use people’s names, everything goes smoother.

Fake confidence. I know, I know, genuineness is important. But in uncomfortable situations, people will mirror your discomfort. If you act confident, pretend you’re comfortable even when you’re not, people will react with confidence and comfort, and everyone will slowly help everyone else feel more comfortable. Trust me; it works. Stop crossing your arms, straighten your shoulders, look people in the eye, and smile. Turns out those strangers in the room are mostly just normal, nice humans who also feel a little uncomfortable and who want to make a good impression just as much as you do.

So actually, once I got past myself and started being friendly, I discovered all those other humans were pretty great. I got to hold one of the world’s top ten cutest babies (it’s not official, but I’m pretty sure she’s in the top ten). They shared humour and good food, welcomed me into their homes, and hugged me when I left. And my “wash cold to avoid shrinking” comfort zone managed to stretch far enough to include four families: some twenty-ish children, about thirty voices, around a hundred and twenty arms and legs…and more smiles than I could count.

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How to Make Writers Hate You (in 3 easy steps)

During high school, I realised I should not be a teacher.

For one thing, my mind jumps from step one to step three in most subjects, making any sort of linear teaching a struggle.
For another, I lack patience–I like finding a few different ways to explain a thing, but once I’ve used those few different ways, if you still don’t get it, I prefer to give up rather than find one more way.

Also, I dislike mornings, rules, and rooms full of people–especially air-conditioned rooms full of people.

Despite these considerations, I am a consultant in my university’s writing centre–a position requiring me to work with students of varying skill level on pieces ranging from personal creative works to 40-page research papers on topics I didn’t know existed.

I’m also in several classes this semester that involve editing and critiquing. After getting back a few pieces scarred over with the kind of editing that we try to avoid in the writing centre, I feel more or less adequately experienced to expound on some things that will make writers despise you as an editor.

1.  Make arbitrary changes.
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     Imagine ordering a burger, extra pickles, no cheese. You probably ordered that for a reason. Maybe you love pickles and have a dairy allergy. Maybe you just don’t like cheese. Now imagine the server brings you something you didn’t order. Best case scenario, the burger has the normal amount of pickles and a big slice of cheese. Worst case scenario, the thing on your plate isn’t even a burger–you take a big bite, expecting a juicy burger, extra pickles, no cheese–and you taste a fish sandwich complete with relish and tartar sauce. And the server points out that there’s even extra relish–which is sort of like extra pickles–and there’s no cheese, which is, after all, what you asked for.
     “But this isn’t what I ordered!” you say.
     “No, but it’s better,” the server explains.
     Then the server bills you for improving your order.
     Making arbitrary changes to someone else’s writing is like bringing someone the wrong sandwich at a restaurant. No matter how much better you think the thing is, it’s not what the author asked for.
     This doesn’t mean don’t make changes. It means suggest changes. If the change you’re suggesting isn’t mechanical–“you forgot a comma here” or “this is grammatically incorrect”–instead of just scratching out the author’s words and inking in your version of better phrasing or, heaven forbid, a completely different (but better!) plot, make a suggestion. Say, “I’m confused here. Could you clarify? Perhaps you could…” If you feel really strongly about your change, write it in–but make sure you still write it in as a suggestion, and give your reasoning, because if the author is anything like me, he or she is unlikely to just take your suggestion–but explaining your reasoning ensures that the author can come up with a fix for the problem you see.

2.  Expect the author to make every change you suggest.

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     Imagine ordering another burger. You know every burger place is different, so before finalising your order, you ask the server’s advice. You fancy your burgers with extra pickles and no cheese–does the server think this particular burger would taste better that way, or should you consider trying it with cheese? Which sauce does the server suggest to best complement the signature burger flavour at this establishment? Does the server think the burgers here are any good, or should you scrap the burger idea entirely and try a fish sandwich instead?
The server makes a lot of suggestions, explains that the cheese here is a particularly delicious variety chosen specifically for these burgers, and the standard serving of pickles on burgers here is much larger than the standard serving in other burger joints. However, the truth is that the fish sandwiches in this restaurant are much better than the burgers.
At this point, you decide the server is a truly useful individual, and you consider your options carefully. Although you acknowledge that the server’s experience leads to astute observations on the quality of the food, you do not care for fish and would still like a burger–however, thanks to the server’s suggestions, you agree to try the burger without extra pickles and with the cheese. As long as the server brings you the burger (with normal pickles and cheese) you will be grateful for the server’s advice. However, if the server then calls you a nincompoop for not ordering the recommended fish sandwich, you may become irate. If the server follows that insult by referring to your mother as a hamster and your father as having smelt of elderberries, you will probably file a complaint and refuse to visit this restaurant in the future.

     As an editor, you are free to make as many suggestions and recommendations as you would like, and you have the option of making them lightly and vaguely or strongly and specifically. As long as you are useful and polite, the author will probably be quite grateful for your assistance. However, if you try to force the author to take your suggestions, or if you follow up your recommendations by insinuating that the author is a writer on the level of your parakeet if he or she does not adhere to your advice, the author will be extremely annoyed and offended and may retaliate by suggesting that you are an editor on the level of a baboon and refusing to use your services ever again.
     The author may do this in a public way, causing other writers to avoid your services.
     Unless you’re the one publishing the piece, you don’t have a right to expect your advice to be followed explicitly.

3.  Insult the piece.

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     Imagine you truly love burgers, especially with extra pickles and no cheese. Upon entering yet another restaurant, you order your beloved favourite: a burger with extra pickles and no cheese. The server proceeds to recommend a burger without extra pickles and with cheese, goes so far as to suggest that you switch your order entirely to a fish sandwich, and then leaves off menu suggestions entirely and expresses the opinion that your burger choice displays insipid ignorance and the poorest of perceptive skills. In fact, this audacious server even suggests that with such an egregious lack of taste in food choice, you ought not to be eating at all.
You are mildly surprised at the number of servers who favour fish sandwiches over burgers, but this feeling is secondary to one of offence and outrage. Your taste in burgers is the result of years of dedicated burger tasting, and you never make your food choices lightly. Both wounded and furious, you tear the menu in half and storm out of the restaurant.

     When editing, you can say almost anything you want about a piece, as long as you say it in the form of a helpful suggestion. No matter how tempted you are to scribble, “STOP BORING ME TO DEATH I NEED MY BRAIN CELLS FUNCTIONAL!” across entire paragraphs of drivel, you have a responsibility to write criticism only in the context of constructive suggestions. Instead of offensive phrases, try, “This section is a little slow. Some specific action might help.” or “This part is a bit heavy. Could we get some dialogue to break it up?” Not only is this less likely to bring down upon you the wrath of a writer scorned, like whose fury hell hath no–but it also involves actually doing your job, which is to help make a piece better, not simply to haemorrhage red ink over its 12-point Times New Roman bones.
     No matter how bad a piece is, you have to remember that you’re communicating with another human being with feelings and a strong attachment to this piece–an attachment rather analogous to that of a mother grizzly bear to her cubs. Be honest. Be tactful. Be useful.

Here’s the thing: if you’re the one ordering the burger, you order your burger for you. If you want extra pickles–great. If you want to smother the thing in horseradish–great. Nobody else has to like it if you like it. Don’t be surprised if all your dinner guests refuse to eat your special wasabi and anchovy burger, but don’t let that stop you eating it yourself.

If you’re the one serving the burger, unless you have to serve it to more than just the person who ordered it, you have to serve what they ordered. Make suggestions all you want, but in the end, the customer is always right. Even when the customer wants extra pickles or whatever else.

There’s a weird balance to editing. You have to realise that you’ve been entrusted with something precious–something created out of another human being’s experiences, interpretations, hopes, and writer’s cramp. You have an opportunity to comment on it, help smooth the rough edges away, offer insights, share your own experience. That’s a pretty awesome opportunity, actually. It’s not quite like being a writer or a reader. You’re not just communicating; you’re helping someone else communicate.

If you think about it, you’re being offered a little piece of a writer’s soul. So recognise its individuality, respect its uniqueness, and, as your mother always told you, return it in better condition than you received it.