After talking to Uncle Jim for a couple of hours on a tiny plane (part 1 and part 2 of the story are here), I landed in Mississippi late on Monday, 12th August 2008. It was a dark and rainy night and the only thought in my head was, “my grandma’s house is bigger than this airport, [insert expletive of choice]!”
I was comforted to find my supervisor waiting for me at the airport, as agreed, even though I didn’t know the woman. In all my correspondences with her (let’s call her… Sheila!), I didn’t picture her as a tallllll, no-nonsense African-American woman in her late 40’s (early 50’s?). Pantsuits. Big glasses. She was not impressed with the size or weight of my suitcase, so I didn’t tell her I had shipped the rest of my bags (Khaleeji-style, yo!) and that they’d be arriving in a week. I practically had to run to keep up with her long strides as she we made our across the parking lot to her car.
Despite the awful flight and weather, I was excited. I wanted to know about everything! I asked about the university, my apartment, my classes, the schedule. She was not impressed and made these small, noncommittal noises at the end of my sentences. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “So what’s the weather like here?”
Me: “Does often rain in the summer?”
Me: “Yeah, we don’t get much rain in Kuwait – especially not in August!”
Me: “So… my roommate arrived? Is she settled?”
Me: “I met her already, she seems really sweet!”
And so our conversation went until I naively asked, “And how do I get around in Jackson? I couldn’t find anything online about buses… should I get a bike?”
Sheila guffawed. “A BIKE?” She couldn’t stop laughing at me. I later found out why she thought that was funny. Nobody rides a bike around Jackson State University: because it’s in the ghetto. Not only would I be endangering my life (because some teenager might think it’s funny to pull a knife on me and grab my bike) but there’s nowhere to go! Not on a bike that is.
Yet that profound realization came later – much later. That night, all I saw was a city enveloped in darkness. No real buildings in the vicinity, no sign of life. We arrived at the compound where I was to share an apartment with a Chinese Fulbright Teaching Assistant. I lugged my heavy suitcase up the stairs. The rain was still falling in soft sheets and clinging to my clothes, soaking my bags. I was ready to collapse on a warm bed with a cup of tea.
Sheila and I knocked on the door and just as she was fumbling with her keys, we were greeted by my sleepy roommate (it was not even 9 PM, mind you) and I took my first steps into the filthy apartment. See the building in the center of the picture? Top floor, apartment on the left (lit window), that’s our apartment.
I set my bags down on the stained beige carpet and gulped. The place looked like it was occupied for years, but never cleaned. The kitchen was greasy, from the cheap floors to the cupboard walls. Cockroaches were scurrying around, insects were crawling out of the kitchen sink. I was too horrified to scream. I was shown to my room: a dreary space with a tired-looking single bed with a plastic mattress, a plain desk, an ancient computer and a small phone. I wanted to cry.
I wasn’t in the mood to take a picture (this is before Instagram, kids), but on my dresser was the saddest little basket with snacks: a bag of Goldfish crackers and two small Mott’s apple juice boxes. A welcoming gift from the International Office. “This is in case you’re hungry,” my supervisor said. I felt abandoned. I had no one to talk to, no functioning phone at this point and no internet. I was convinced that this was THE worst day of my life.
Eventually, I fell asleep on the suspect-looking sheets I was given. I was exhausted, I tried making mental notes of all that I needed to buy but I didn’t know where to start. I tried composing e-mails in my head but words failed me. My last thought as I drifted to sleep was, “I hope no bug finds its way from the kitchen and into my ears.”