Megann Becker


Leave a comment

My case for last minute packing

This post–like my method for packing–will be short and sweet.

You can’t overpack when you don’t actually have time to put too many clothes in your suitcase. Sometimes I pack the morning of a trip. Or the hour of a trip.

I used to pack insane amounts of clothes for long trips. My German host sister still makes fun of me for the first time we met—me, the American girl, lugging two humongous suitcases up three flights of stairs. (Hello Spain, my name is Over-prepared.) I was THAT girl. I thought I’d want to have a bunch of outfit changes in this new country, right? As if I was Beyonce herself…wardrobe change ya’ll.

What actually happened was I wore a hole through my ONE pair of boots, I threw my coat away at the end of the trip, and I remixed about five different looks. In six months, ha!

My mom and grandma lost their luggage when they came to Spain to visit. Keep in mind these women passed on their sense of humor to me. As well as the gift of how to “find the silver lining, damnit”! So what did they do when they lost their luggage? They wore the same shirt almost everyday, of course. And my mom’s thought was—“When I show people pictures from this trip, they’re just going to think I did a ton of stuff in one day!”

So, worst-case scenario it looks like you are one, active traveler, right?

Remember: If a destination doesn’t have something you “need”, then that means all the people there somehow live without it. Ask someone how they do it. Assimilate. Adapt. Travel freely.

 Image

The bag I take on my weekend jaunts. Thanks to Spirit airlines, this bad boy flies for free.

 


2 Comments

“Sit by the oldest black woman.”

This past weekend, my 14 hours in Milwaukee were blissful. There was delicious food, authentic conversation, genuine people, laughter, and a few drinks. I’m sure by now you’ve realized this is my recipe for any good experience–anywhere, anytime. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

When my gracious hosts went to drop me off at the bus station, we realized my bus wasn’t there quite yet. My friend’s dad chivalrously didn’t want to just leave me there until my bus arrived. To which my friend sarcastically remarked, “Well yeah it’s not like she’s a seasoned traveler or anything.” I laughed off the compliment, thanked them and got out of the car to wait for the bus.

As I sat inside the station, I was still thinking about being classified as a seasoned traveler. I definitely didn’t hate it. But did I deserve that label yet? (As if there’s an award show where host Amy Poehler declares, “Congrats, NOW you are officially a traveler.”)

Literally, as I sat there dismissing myself as a seasoned traveler, I watched a lady take out stacks of $20 dollar bills from the ATM…then run over to her daughter, who was about my age… and count out the cash. (Stacks on stacks on stacks.) This happened while myself and oh! also every other person in the station watched.

I couldn’t help it, I thought, “Well… I at least know not to do THAT.” And silently wished some good karma in the direction of the cash-laden girl.

The bus ride that followed prompted me to list out some tips (and tricks) I’ve learned just livin’.

Want to feel secure on public transportation? Sit by the oldest black woman on the bus. Yes, I said it. The oldest black woman. I wouldn’t include it if it hadn’t saved my butt on more than one occasion. Once I was in the ticket line at thee sketchiest Greyhound station—minding my damn business. When a guy pops into my peripheral vision and asks, “How much girl?” The strong, sassy, black woman in front of me proceeded to shame him—flat out of the line—with ONE, SINGLE look. (I then spent months practicing that exact look in the mirror. I’m getting better at it.)

Don’t feel super safe in a taxicab late at night? Snap a picture of the taxi driver’s identification plate on the back of the seat. For a extra amusement…make sure the sound is on loud, on your camera phone. Then the driver is fully aware. Sorry I’m not sorry. They ID plates are in the car for a reason, right?

Public transportation in a new city? Not sure where you’re going? (Or just want to people watch without shame?) I did this a lot in Europe where pick pocketing happened frequently. You don’t really want people to see you look at all the subway maps, to try and find your way. So, be a diva. Channel your inner P Diddy. Wear your sunglasses indoors, on the subway, train, etc. then people around you literally can’t see what you’re looking at. So you can keep an eye on what you need to (or want to, aka that adorable foreign guy).

Walking alone make you nervous? It started out as a joke with my dad in high school but my car keys have a TON of random things on the keychain. None of them necessary (except the Mace). If you’ve ever seen Mighty Joe Young…they are the poacher’s keys. One day in a hurry to lock my door, I smacked myself in the face with all that. A self-defense weapon was born. (Also the Mace is bright red, so sometimes I just go ahead and hold that boldly on the CTA. Isn’t it kind of like how cowboys wore their guns on visible display?)

Not in the mood to talk? I love people, that’s half the point of this blog. But sometimes conversation—of the hitting-on-me type—is unwelcomed. I suggest you learn two quick phrases in another language. Basically enough to pretend you don’t understand a work they’re saying, and you’re really sorry (shrug).

**I don’t recommend this tactic in Europe… Because everyone speaks everything. I tried it with a guy who hit on me on the beach and he just switched languages right with me… Fail.

Want to use your direction app in public without looking like a newb? Put your headphones in like you’re listening to music and have Siri talk to you. 

Side note: Don’t have your phone broadcast it OUTLOUD. I once saw a girl at bar close use Siri to navigate her out loud…I obviously wanted to say ‘Siri, no, NO, reroute her to home.’

Worried about someone running off with your luggage? I get nervous traveling with bags too. If you’re sitting down on a train, or a chair, loop your foot through a strap. You could fall asleep… And if someone wants that bag, they’ll just have to take you with them.

Can’t afford the drinks at a specific bar? Order a water on the rocks with a citrus wedge. As far as people in the bar know, you’re sipping a Gin and Tonic. More times than not, I’ve arrived at some “great” bar and realized “Crap. I literally can’t afford/want to afford the cheapest drink here.” I lean in and ask for a water on the rocks with a citrus wedge.  The bartender never cares…. just leave him a few bucks for conspiring with me.  Then you don’t feel like the lame without a drink AND you can still afford to grocery shop that week.

*Should a man offer to replenish what you’re drinking, and should you accept… you should get a real Gin and Tonic. Clear liquor, with ice and a citrus wedge. See what I did there?

Unwanted attention at a bar? This was a happy accident. The background picture on my phone used to of the kids I nannied. Two little ones. I was ordering a drink (a nice water on the rocks, with a citrus wedge) and this man just wouldn’t quit. I had tried just about everything to get him to take the hint… uninterested. Then, light bulb! I kept up the conversation with him and then slyly set my phone on the bar. I hit a button so it would light up. Now, everyone within five feet of me could see the picture on the illuminated phone. The guy obviously glanced at it, and then asked if they were my kids. I enjoyed turning up the theatrics and began “over sharing” about “this super cute thing they did the other day”. 106 seconds later he suddenly had to run to the bathroom quick… never to return again. And the young girl at the bar lived happily ever after. The end.

Feeling stuck in a pretentious nightclub? Ask the bouncer where he’d go on his night off. Admittedly, this is a common occurrence in my life and I’ve never been led astray. I also recommend you find the cutest bouncer in the place. Because I mean c’mon… two birds, one stone.  

And finally:

Night out feeling kind of anticlimactic? Fake an accent. My roommates and I did British accents one time in downtown Chicago and it was hysterical. Create your own adventure. Although I don’t recommend speaking Spanish to the guy on your right, and using a British accent with the guy on your left. That was—I mean could potentially be— a hot mess. 


1 Comment

A Godson, in a Mexican Bordertown

Life truly begins at the edge of one’s comfort zone.

In the summer of 2008, my mom and I traveled precisely there–the edge of our comfort zones. A border town in Mexico. My mom hoped the week long mission trip would help give me some (much needed) perspective at the age of 16. I don’t think either one of us ever imagined the incredible effect it would have on our relationship, as well as the trajectory it would set me on.

DSC_0057

The homes in Piedras Negras had dirt floors, and more people than space.  Younger children slept in car seats, and few families had pictures of their loved ones. There were mothers who had no pictures of their children or even of their weddings.  But, I had a camera and it is through that lens that I share this story of my trip and my faith.

The organization we traveled with worked to build relationships in impoverished Mexican communities and improve living conditions. On this particular trip, I was with grouped with 20 volunteers from all over the country.  Our goal was to finish constructing a 10’ x 10’ cinder block room that would double the size of a family’s home and facilitate arts and crafts for neighborhood children at a retreat center.

DSC_0206_2

DSC_0092

DSC_0076

The retreat center was located in a poor neighborhood. When we entered our room, there was a 73-year old woman working in a corner – laying bricks and cement to create a wall where there was a small square opening. She had been working ten hours to repair the wall and install an air conditioning unit for us! I could hardly believe that this woman, who was older than my grandmother, had volunteered and worked tirelessly to improve and prepare living conditions for people she had never met. On my first day in Mexico, I had seen my first glimpse of the country’s poverty, and in the midst of it all… a glimpse of the country’s hospitality.

0071

The House

Our group was assigned to work at a house on Juan Alvarez Street for a family of seven. The house was made of plywood and was about ten feet by ten feet – a typical size of a small bedroom in an American home. Inside was a queen and twin-sized bed, along with a small gas stove. The house had dirt floors and only a few pictures on the walls. Behind the house, was an outhouse and a clothesline. After seeing the condition and size of their current house, I realized how helpful a sturdy cement room would be.

The air temperature in August in Mexico often exceeded 100 degrees.  Due to the heat and cramped conditions of the room we were building, we worked four hours every morning – mixing and laying cement.  There, of course, was no air conditioning … and you could forget about there being an electric.

When our group first met the family, they were very quiet.  I got especially bashful and curious looks from the children. I’m sure they were nervous. So was I! But, I wanted to connect with the children so I had learned the Spanish word for candy (“dulce”) – which I also had with me. I went over to a little girl and asked her, “dulce?” She grinned and said, “gracias.” Soon all the kids were smiling and giggling and wanting candy. As the kids began to comfortably play with our group, you could see the parents begin to relax, too.

Our work team really started to bond with the children. In the street we played soccer and had piggyback races. Later in the week, it seemed as if all the kids on that street had come out to play. I asked one little boy if all these kids were his friends. He said, “No, mis primos. Tengo vientiuno.” Translation: “No, they are my cousins. I have twenty one.” The boy told me they all lived on his street. There were eight or nine houses on that street, and he was related to all of them! It gave me an incredible sense of their community. They shared everything they had!  Whenever the workers needed something, like a pen, a child would immediately run down the street and find it. Sometimes the entire community only had one pen, but they all shared it and knew exactly where it was.

One other thing my mom and I noticed during the week was that none of the people on Juan Alvarez Street had pictures of their loved ones. The mothers didn’t have pictures of their children or even of their wedding. Since, I had a camera I decided to get the family together and take a picture. I printed it out that night at the retreat center and brought it back to them the next day.  The mother of the house we worked in was very thankful that she now had a picture of her family.

DSC_0232_2

DSC_0137

DSC_0141
 DSC_0198

DSC_0645

DSC_0680

Then, everyone wanted pictures. Mothers wanted pictures with their babies… brothers and sisters wanted pictures of their families…friends wanted pictures with their friends… and some children just wanted a picture of themselves. So, every night I would print off more pictures. At the end of the week, we had completed the cinder block addition (including a roof!) and gathered all 21 grandkids at the end of the street to give the grandmother the gift of a family picture. And it was through my camera that I began to see my life… the things I have… the things I take for granted… through a completely different lens. I also learned that no matter what communication barriers may exist among people, there is a universal symbol everyone can understand–a smile.

DSC_0763

DSC_0717

DSC_0385

 

 

The Retreat Center

Every afternoon, neighborhood children came to the retreat center where we facilitated different activities. One day, I noticed a little boy named Luis who introduced me to his siblings. The minute I met them I felt a unique connection.

Luis drew me a picture, then excitedly tried to tell me something. He repeated the word “abuelita,” but I couldn’t understand. So, Luis motioned me to follow him to an older lady he identified as “Abuelita,” who was his grandmother. Because of the quickness of her speech, communication was difficult. From what I understood at the time, the children stayed at their grandmother’s house during the day, while their mother worked.

DSC_0102
DSC_0119

Toward the end of the week, Luis’ family invited me to their home. They shared what few family pictures they had. Knowing how much family means in Mexican culture, I was honored they wanted to share such special memories. Margarita, the oldest girl, even brought out a picture of her First Communion. I could tell by the way she carried the picture how much it meant to her. Their Catholic faith was strong. They showered me with gifts of homemade rosaries and cross bracelets made of string. As the evening wound down, I helped with bedtime. With only three rooms in the house, there wasn’t much room to sleep. The two younger children slept in their car seats.  The older ones shared a room.

Two days before I was to leave, Luis and his grandma gave me a beautiful cross. It looked hand painted and had a little girl praying with a guardian angel watching over her. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I glanced down at Luis, only to see a puzzled look. I suddenly realized Luis thought I was upset. I quickly explained I was, “muy feliz” or “very happy”. As soon as he understood, he broke into a smile. It was that moment when I realized God must have intended for me to meet Luis and his family. The Almonza’s taught me to love the simple things in life and I had shown the Almonza’s how quickly a stranger can sincerely care.

On the last day of our trip, Catholic Heart took us to a local market and I wanted to find something to show the Almonza’s how much they meant to me.  I bought fun, festive dresses for the girls and soccer jerseys for the boys. I bought a beautiful lace tablecloth with dark burgundy flowers, and a large, hand-painted pot for the grandmother.  It was an amazing feeling to give them things they would not otherwise have.

On our last night of the trip, we had devotional time where there was “open mic” for anyone who wanted to share how they had seen God that week. I took all the Almonza children to the front of the chapel, to show how I’d seen God all week. I had an immeasurable amount of joy in my heart because of this family.

DSC_0028

Shortly after I returned from this trip, Luis’ mother (whom I had never met) sent me a letter asking me to be Luis’ godmother. Obviously, I was flattered and today—five years later, I’m still able to communicate with them.

 As you read my stories on this blog, you will be able to see that a lot of key moments in my life can be directly traced back to what I believe was my catalyst—this trip to Mexico.


9 Comments

This one time… at a train station

With my train ticket all set for Milwaukee this weekend—it made me think about my last train ride.

Which was a whopping seven days ago.

Last weekend I hopped a train in pursuit of all things soulful: good wine, authentic conversation, and of course, homemade jambalaya. It was freezing. I actually thought I was hallucinating when I saw the tracks had flames on them. I was not. It was THAT cold, that they needed to keep the tracks warmed up.

I completely missed the train. Off to a good start. So I’m sitting in this tiny train station on the West side. No one, but me and this other girl. Then a rare thing occurred. We talked to one another! I guess we mutually decided we’d reached our Candy Crush quota for the day. In the short time we talked—we laughed, I discovered a new musical artist, she taught me a few Hindi words and the kicker…she offered me a taco. (I politely declined… because, well, remember the jambalaya.) The human connection had me in a good mood, because had I kept my eyes locked on my screen I would have missed all of that.

As we are talking, four cops come into the station. Note: Their forced conversation happened to be about how everyone nowadays has smartphones. The irony here slays me. Wait for it…

Less than 83 seconds later, a man comes into the station—boots, cowboy hat, random food in a bag, and an “I’m freezing my butt off” look on his face. With a trusting face he walks up to a cop and struggles to ask him in English if he can use a phone to call his wife. He’s asking if anyone speaks Spanish. He’s borderline frantic about letting his wife know what time exactly his train will arrive in Elgin.

He even attempts to mime a phone with his hand. That’s a pretty universal thing, right? Remember when you were a toddler and your mom would pretend Grandma was calling you on her hand? Yea don’t tell me you didn’t understand that sir.

The cop—with maybe the most indifferent face I’ve ever seen, says, “Sorry buddy, I don’t have one.”

My brain: Ummm, you don’t have one?! But I just heard you… I… I’m so confused.

My face: those of you who know me are already picturing it.

Part of me gets the worry—there has been a huge epidemic in big cities of people swiping smartphones.

But worst-case scenario, this man runs out of this station with my month old phone and then… we chase him. The four cops, and myself. Imagine for a moment. I mean it WAS freezing cold, and I’ve heard there’s nothing like a brisk jog to help warm you up.

I just couldn’t help myself people. I walk over to the man and the gaggle of cops, taking out my iPhone. I threw what some might classify as a sassy look to the cops, before turning to the man.

I rip off in Spanish. “Por supuesto, puedes utilizar mi móvil para llamar a tu mujer. Pero, escúchame si tu corres… Señor, yo voy a perseguirte. Créeme.”

(Of course you can use my phone, to call your wife. But listen to me; if you run…Sir, I’m going to chase you. Believe me.)

He looked at my wide-eyed, blinked, and said “No hay problema.” (No, no there’s no problem.)

Then you’ll never guess what he did. HE CALLED HIS WIFE. Just like the human being said he would. Astounding.

This entire time, the cops said nothing. Except for one comment volunteered, “Whoa… she speaks Spanish, that is so cool.” Silence.

After he gets off the phone, this man—with his food in a random grocery bag— tries to hand me a $20 bill as thanks for letting him use my phone.

Yeah, couldn’t accept that. Instead I just said a really animated “No pasa nada”. (Don’t even worry about it.) Then the train arrived and I was on my way to that home cooked jambalaya.

I don’t ever want this story to come off as “holier than thou”— instead view it as a call to participate in life happening around you. Whatever that looks like for you.

Not sure if my train experience tonight will top last weekend’s, but you better believe I’ll have my eyes and ears open.


Leave a comment

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Before I get into stories of my adventures–I think it’s only fitting to talk about the various modes of transportation that got me there.

Plane- you will hear mannnny an airline story on this blog… they give me too much material to work with.

Train- I forget how crappy airline service can be, until I take a train. Guys…they greet you, wake you up gently when it’s your stop, AND help you with your luggage.

Car- the essential piece to a road trip, the getaway car for my grounded best friend in high school, and my lifesaver during this joke of a winter in Chicago

Taxi- Highlight: bonded with a driver when I identified which African dialect he was speaking.                       

         Low (but also high?): when a taxi driver was a jerk as he dropped me off, a random gentleman waiting for a taxi refused to give him his business–and instead made him drive off without a fare. Chivalry was resuscitated that night.

City bus- my all time favorite was when I rode the Halsted #8 last summer. A little boy made googley eyes at my roommate and I for about 23 seconds. When in the 24th second passed he declared very loudly to the bus, “Grandma, I LOVE those girls over there”. Her response was a calm, simple, “Ima tell your dad on you.”

Greyhound bus- I sat next to a truck driver named DC Cameron– I’ll never forget his name. And for two hours straight he told me about his life. Mind blown.

Short bus- our entire basketball team in high school, driven by our coach. (God bless him, that must have been obnoxious.)

Ambulance- once with a broken arm, once after a car crash. Not a fan either time.

Chicago El- juuuust people-watching central, never a dull moment. Two weeks ago, in the SAME trip,

a)    a homeless man cackled to himself as he mimed choking me with my own scarf

b)   a young guy made about six seat switches, before moving past me to the next tram car. But no worries, he DID turn around and make the “I’m watching you” signal with his finger under his eye. Perfect. (I also see YOU sir, and so does Mr. Mace in my pocket.)Kayak- in pitch black, through hundreds of mangrove trees, to see THE most mind blowing, glow-in-the-dark body of water.

Catamaran- unlimited rum with the final destination being the island where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed… need I say more?

Sail boat- In Seattle with the family, when the captain tried to stay casual while my three-year-old brother almost slid off the side of the boat.

Cruise ship- Disney cruise ship in the prime of my childhood…’nuff said.

Raft- when my sister and I got carried away on a windy day…to what felt like the middle of Lake Michigan.

Motorcycle- not the worst way to leave the beach, to go grab a bite to eat. But as romantic as you think it’ll be to wear a dress…just don’t. You’ll burn the shit out of your leg on the exhaust pipe. And there’s nothing romantic about that.

Speedboat- racing from the houseboat where I broke my arm to the hospital where they casted it. An hour of hitting the waves at 70mph—with a sweatshirt splint. Ouch.

A sheep- this one was actually my brother. He rode a sheep with a belt when he was 3. Can you see now why I felt it was worth mentioning?

Horse- simultaneously the most tranquil and most terrifying of experiences. Everything is cool until you realize that at any point this animal could just decide he’s over you. And then buh-bye you go.

Limo- a stretch hummer for senior prom (of course I stuck my head the top window, like it was a damn ‘90s teen movie)

Bike- I wish I could do this in Chicago, but it terrifies me. I did bike through Barcelona though… highlight: the prostitute’s district. Translating the piropos as I tried to navigate was almost too much altogether for my balance.

A big ole Escalade- I’m sorry this gets its own category. You can’t blare music and roll around town like this in a Prius.

And lastly, the most reliable:

Walking- it’s been taking me places since I was 9 months old and I’ve covered a lot of ground since then.

It’s cliché, but we often forget the journey is half the fun. So next time you’re on your way to wherever… remember to stop and smell the roses, even if you have to climb through a thorn bush or two.

This weekend I’m hoppin’ a train for Milwaukee and my motto is: I’ll stop eavesdropping when you stop being so fascinating.

Tune in next week for the inevitable stories.