When I applied for the World Press Institute fellowship, I knew I would travel through the United States alongside nine other journalists from different countries to meet policy makers, politicians, journalists and media executives. I also knew we would be immersing ourselves into the American culture and learning about the First Amendment – America’s superlative law for freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It was an exciting opportunity to learn, share ideas and meet new people in a new environment. For me, it was an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and challenge my social anxiety.
But not even in my wildest dreams did I ever think that while in the United States I’d travel in a blizzard or snowshoe on a frozen lake. In fact, before this trip I had never heard the word “snowshoeing.” And… (drumroll) go into an American prison in a tet-a-tet with a convicted murderer!
Blizzard, icy grounds and a potluck dinner
A trip to the idyllic, snowy town of Grand Marais in northern Minnesota sounds fascinating for an African who can count the number of times she had seen snow. And with the WPI director breaking into a romantic smile everytime he spoke about this historic town made me all the more eager to see what the rave was all about. I also didn’t know what to expect, except that Grand Marais was on the shores of Lake Superior.
The drive from St. Paul in Minnesota kicked off reasonably well, but about an hour into the trip the weather turned horrid. At 32 degrees fahrentheit, the road was icy thus slippery. Visibility was low as the snow continued to fall with soft, effortless grace. There were warning signs of a snowstorm in neon-colored digital signboards along the road. But we carried on for almost six hours, passing through the picturesque port city of Duluth and arriving at Grand Marais. A quick stop for a photo on the snow-covered road as the wind blew snowflakes in all directions was not a good idea. I simply could not feel my fingers after a few seconds. It was the coldest I have ever felt in my entire life. My host family was welcoming, cranking up the heat in their home and serving me a hot bowl of chili. It was the first time I had chili and it was delicious.
But there were many firsts for me in Grand Marais: Slipping and falling on ice. My shoulder and hip were sore for days after. Honestly, they are almost always sore anyway as I am no spring chicken, but that still hurt. Next was snowshoeing on a frozen lake on the Gunflint Trail. One of the most exciting and fun things I did in a long while. I felt like a six-year-old all over again and didn’t want to go back on land. And it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be on the lake!
I had my first potluck dinner with the members of the Grand Marais community. There I had another chili, an American’s version of West African peanut soup (I gave him a C for effort) and lasagna.
Bagels, Stock Markets and Nicholas Cage
In New York, I had bagels for the first time. In case you’re wondering: No, they do not taste like donuts, they just have a striking resemblance. I wasn’t prepared for what they would taste like and I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed. But that isn’t to say they weren’t good.
I viewed the closing bell of the Nasdaq stock market live in its marketsite in New York’s Times Square. It is the second largest stock exchange in the world after the New York Stock Exchange. It was a fascinating experience.
And then, I saw Nicholas Cage! Notice I didn’t say meet Nicholas Cage? That’s because I didn’t. I saw him from afar when we were a part of the audience on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and he was the guest that night. He was there to promote his new movie “Reinfield.” It was my first time seeing a Hollywood star in real life and also my first time seeing a talk show. Definitly an experience I won’t forget in a long time.
Back home in Nigeria, fish was either fried, stewed, roasted or smoked. The idea of eating fish raw repulsed me and many Nigerians I know. But I had raw fish for the first time and didn’t realize it, until I was halfway through the meal. It was that good. I can already imagine the look on my mum’s face when I tell her I ate raw fish, ha!
This fellowship proves to be much more than a journalism fellowship, it is a “finishing school,” a rite of passage, especially for foreign journalists like me visiting the United States for the first time. Now, I know to walk carefully on ice and to eat raw fish with zero disgust. But most importantly, I now know that an indigenous group of Americans exist – including the Ojibwe people – with a rich history of trade, a language that isn’t English and a strong determination to keep their history intact.