Alastair Cameron's Letter from America

News, views and opinions from the one kiwi expat sent to New York University on a Fulbright Scholarship to study his masters of law.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Getting around a bit

Since there's less than half the semester left, I thought perhaps it was appropriate to post what I've been up to in the first half.

Most importantly I suppose, I'm still enjoying university life. My courses are all really interesting, dealing with a range of subjects: environmental values, ethnocultural diversity, economic and social rights and international economic transactions. Sounds like a bit of a dog's breakfast I know, but believe it or not they actually form quite a coherent programme, even when matched with the courses I completed last semester.

In addition to my courses, I've picked up some interesting research as part of the Global Administrative Law Project here at NYU, and am still doing graduate editor work for the Journal. And every week there's a wide range of talks on offer, some of which I attend. This week included John Brutton, the current European Union Ambassador to the United States and former Irish Prime Minister. He was great - very frank as only an ex-politician now diplomat can be. I'd relay his best musings except that the forum is supposed to be chatham house rules. Michael McCloskey, former long-time head of the Sierra Club (a major US environmental group) spoke later in the week and offered many insightful reflections about his involvement in the environmental movement from its inception in the 1960s until the present.

But school hasn't been the be-all and end-all of this semester. An early highlight was a visit from my very good friend Louise, whom having just completed her LLM at the London School of Economics, I hadn't seen for 18 months. It was tremendous seeing her again, and we had a great time together walking around the best parts of New York, going to my favourite places to eat as well as trying a few new ones, and checking out some of New York's cultural offerings. The play we saw was indescribably dreadful, but the Puccini concert in Carnegie Hall was fantastic. If you haven't already viewed them from two posts ago, click here to see some photos.

In fact, New York hasn't even been the be-all and end-all of this semester. Brief trips away to Washington DC, Miami and Costa Rica have proven fun little diversions. Take a look at the photos to see why.


No prizes for guessing where this is. Jacinda and I took the bus down to DC one Thursday night (I have no classes on a Friday, you see), and while we were supposed to come back Sunday night (as I do have classes on a Monday), the snow-storm that weekend delayed our return by a day. Special thanks to Fiona Hutchinson who put me up for the entire weekend, and the both of us when we suddenly found ourselves stranded in the City for another night. Fiona and I worked together in Wellington and it was great seeing her again in DC. We had some fun times, including Italian brunch in Georgetown, excellent frozen magueritas at a very popular Mexican joint in Dupont Circle, and sampling the local Ethiopian cuisine (Washington DC is evidently the largest Ethiopian city outside of Addis Abiba - who knew?)

Fiona, me and Jacinda enjoying authentic Ethopian food in the traditional style, ie. communal dishes and using our hands, along with rather grey, flannel like crepes. Sounds weird, but actually very nice. One word to the wise: avoid the honey wine...

As you'd expect, Jacinda and I spent a day doing notable places, monuments and memorials: the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court, various bits of the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Roosevelt Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. We did a lot of walking that day, but got a real feel for the "public" part of the City. Very much a capital city with large public buildings (all in the classical style to evoke the ancient republics), monuments of all kinds, and statues wherever a space could be found. There was very definitely a "public service vibe" and certain infusion of politics. I liked the City because of this, but also because it was a nice change of pace from crazy New York. Still a big city, but a lot less frenetic.

We also paid a visit to the US National Archives to view the original US Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. Quite mixed feelings about this one, actually. Tremendously symbolic of the law's power to bind successive generations under enduring values, but also highlights the potential absurdity of attempting to govern people using words written over 200 years ago by men with no ability to comprehend how those people would be living today. The Holocaust Museum was equally thought provoking, although hardly a joyous affair. The exhibit was quite scathing of the US's failure to take more Jewish immigrants from Europe before the war broke out, and forn not acting earlier to prevent the final solution from progressing as far as it did, which was not a view I had seen represented in other holocaust museums.

A slightly different affair was Miami, Florida. This wasn't a self-initiated trip like DC, but in fact a "Fulbright Enrichment Seminar". In other words, 180 foreigners studying in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship were flown to Miami for a conference on "Civic Participation in a Diverse Society", ie. how to cope better with mass immigration, as has occurred in Miami where the white population is now a minority next to the Latino communities, the largest of which consists of Cuban exiles.

Perhaps the best part of the weekend was going into one of the local Miami high schools to give a talk about New Zealand. The school was enormous - about 5000 students - and very diverse. Most of the kids in my class were Latino, with some African American and a couple of whities, although every one of them spoke Spanish. They knew a bit about New Zealand - like that it is off the coast of Australia, grrr - but were interested to hear more, and asked clever questions. One guy asked what the food was like in NZ compared to the food in the US...I was diplomatic about American food but waxed lyrical about the wonderful food we have back home. Just doing my bit for tourism and the elimination of agricultural subsidies...

Apart from the academic content of the conference itself, which was genuinely eye-opening and stimulating, the really cool part of the weekend was the people I met. All dynamic, smart and engaged, as well as willing and able to have a good time. I've already had a coffee with one of the women - Kate - a Canadian studying at Yale who came to New York recently for a meeting at the UN. Plans are afoot to visit another Canadian - David - in Boston if possible, and I'm hoping some of the others might come through New York at some point (Moritz, Laura etc - that is your cue!).

Laura (US), me, David (Canada), Thembela (South Africa) and Michael (Germany) on the final day (we'd just been caught in a tropical rain storm)

Another blessing of Miami was that it was warm, which meant relief from this long, cold New York winter. Of course three days of warmth was scarcely enough, so it was lucky that two weeks later I left for Costa Rica. There was warm and sunny, with fabulous beaches, all of which means I now have a sun-tan! That is my usual state of being in March given the New Zealand summer, so it was bliss to lie in the sun long enough to restore that norm.

The beach at Zancudo: black sand, palm trees down to the high tide mark, warm water (about 25 degrees) - that is the Pacific I love.

Apart from the sun and warmth, Costa Rica really provided a fun Spring Break vacation. We (Karlis, Kevin and I) spent half the time in the mountains around Turrialba, and the other half down on the Pacific coast, mostly in a little town called Zancudo. The mountains were more temperate and offered activities such as white-water rafting through beautiful river gorges and hiking up the Volcan Turrialba. The coast provided beach relaxation, rain-forest and the odd bit of wild-life. It also involved delicious fresh mahi mahi cooked to perfection - if you're in Costa Rica and you want good restaurants, go to Zancudo.

White-water rafting near Turrialba. We stopped for a rest in front of this beautiful waterfall. Karlis and Kevin are in the yellow.

Splitting our time between both meant we got to see and do quite different things, which was great since we only had eight days. We even got a night in San Jose (the capital city), which in spite of being a bit of a dump overall, managed to put-on a fun night for the three of us. The locals - "Ticos" in their own lingo - were friendly on the whole and often had enough English to mean we (with little to no Espanol) could get through a reasonably complex conversation.

One thing definitely deserving of a mention is the roads. There are three kinds - paved as we know them, paved but with unavoidable, axel-breaking pot-holes, and unpaved bone-jarring dirt and gravel. One lane bridges featured prominently, and occasionally we had to drive through rivers or get ferried across them on a barge. Our little rental coped admirably, with no break-downs or even flat-tires, as did our driver Karlis, who managed not to lose his nerve as cars passed trucks going around blind-corners on single lane mountain highways. All good fun. In the end, I just lay down and closed my eyes so I didn't have to see, which I found a most satisfactory approach.

Rush hour at the river crossing...we are just watching at this point to see how it's done.

And just to emphasise that I am a kiwi and such things happen, I spent the final night with Kate Lee, a friend from Wellington. She is doing her masters at Brighton University in the UK, so the two of us - originally from Wellington but now one in New York and the other in Brighton - got together in San Jose to drink local Costa Rican beer (Imperial) and eat the national dish, Gallo Pinto (ie. beans and rice). It wasn't a complete coincidence in the sense that we unexpectedly bumped into each other, as Kate is doing her development studies project in Costa Rica so we realised we'd be there at the same time, but it is still somewhat surprising and a quintessentially kiwi travel experience.

Kate and me after our delicious beans and rice (the food was actually pretty good on the whole - Ticos know how to do beans and rice, and their plantain chips are so good!)

But now I am back in New York City, back to the cold, although there are small signs that things are getting warmer. And daylight savings starts in a week, so that should buoy the mood somewhat.

The thing I can hardly believe is that I only have two more months here. There are still a few things I want to do, but I feel I've given New York a pretty good go so far, meaning I don't need to go into a frenzy doing all the things I haven't yet done. Which is just as well since I do actually have to write a seminar paper and pass my exams...

Still, things are certainly wrapping up here. What happens next is nearly settled, so keep an eye out here for a formal announcement.