Wednesday, February 28, 2007

SEPA, Or "Fear and Loathing In New Orleans."

(note: I've taken the liberty of assigning nicknames to everyone, just so's I can write about them without their permission and get away with it. And yes, it did take me a day and a half to finish this entry. Warning: this post is long, so beware of frequent digressions into nothing of great importance.)

The trip actually started when we left Mac Circle at 1:30 (eastern) Wednesday afternoon, but the bus ride was so uneventful that even taking pictures of the sleeping people lost its interest. Everything became much more interesting for us when we arrived in Louisiana.

It was 9:30 (central) when our bus slowed to a stop in front of the Sheraton on Canal Street. It was normally a very busy street, what with it being just a stone's throw from the heart of New Orleans, but with the exception of a car or two and very few people, it felt desolate and dormant. It was quite dark for a city, despite the orange security lights and white streetlights that illumined splotches of the sidewalk and even less of the street, but the last two trips I had made to New Orleans had been in the broad daylight. The darkness and the desolation combined only made the city all the more eerie to me.

We found out to our delight that we were all staying on the twelfth floor, and with our room assignments and luggage in hand, group after group went up the elevator to get settled for the evening. Keep in mind, dear reader, that everyone getting on these elevators lives at Covenant and with the Covenant elevators; and if you are unfamiliar with the significance of Covenant elevators, then, well... to just call them "slow" is an understatement. I'm fairly certain that every Covenant student spends 25% of a semester waiting for or standing in an elevator. So when I say that the elevator at the Sheraton positively flew up and down the shaft, I want you to know exactly what it felt like. I'd never ridden the Tower of Terror until I rode the elevator in that hotel. And I wasn't the only one -- stomachs lurched, hands gripped for support on handrails (or the nearest person who was already holding a handrail), and guys and girls alike let out grunts of discomfort at feeling their entrails being squashed down by the force of the G's. Twelve floors and 0.2 seconds later, we staggered out and found our rooms.

We'd already had Adventure #1, and we hadn't even spent five minutes in the hotel. Oh, my.

There was a mandatory meeting at 10:00, after which some of the group decided to explore the hotel and find the conference rooms where we would all need to be tomorrow. I brought my map, conveniently printed on the back of the conference program, and followed one of my roommates for the weekend, who I will from here on refer to as Cassie, and a couple of the guys down to the third floor. As it turns out, going down in the Mach Five is even worse than going up had been, and I felt I had to hold onto the handrails to keep from feeling like most of me was still up on the twelfth floor. But we arrived safely and started to look around, following the map that was not only not drawn to scale, but also more of an artistic interpretation of the hotel layout than an actual map. We walked up and down the long hall several times before we got our bearings, and soon after we had found most of what we were looking for, our small exploration was joined by another group consisting of Cyclops, Beagle, Rockstar, Wings, and a few upperclassmen, including Captain, who was the senior SEPA-attendee in my room. And when we helped them find the same rooms we had already found, Cassie and I learned that they were all planning to go walking around the French Quarter, and we jumped on the elevator with them and zoomed down to the lobby without a second thought.

If Canal Street had looked desolate when we had pulled up in front of the hotel an hour ago, it was all but abandoned now. Hardly anyone was walking around except our group of college kids, and thanks mostly to Cyclops, we were a slightly rowdy group for that time of night. As we walked, we noticed bits and pieces of broken Mardi Gras necklaces lying on the sidewalk and in the street: "Oh, Mardi Gras was yesterday, wasn't it?" Someone mused. Now reminded of that, the guys got the idea that if there were still some unbroken necklaces around, they would find them and take them home as souvineers... so the first leg of the trip consisted of the girls watching the guys climb fences, trees, and each other to get beads from ridiculously high places. Cyclops and Rockstar were even yelled at by some bouncers at a club across the street for their climbing antics. As the trip went on, the rest of the group got tired when one or two of us would stop to retrieve yet another necklace, so the stragglers eventually started to be left behind until the necklace gathering was put on the back-burner for a while. Instead, we scaled the stairs of a little semi-circular performance area (where I remembered I had seen a magician/comedian perform when I had been in New Orleans for my first time), found a little area up above that overlooked the nearby train tracks, and we all were entertained by watching a drunk guy stagger across the tracks and off into the night.

We eventually found ourselves in front of Cafe du Monde, home of the famous dougnut creation "the beignet", which is actually quite like a funnel cake on steroids. I'm telling you now, dear reader, you MUST have a beignet before you die. Yes, it's just deep-fried dough and mountains of powdered sugar... but eating a plate of beignets is something that must be experienced. And my finely-tuned pastry sense (thank you, Nii-san!) was going off like crazy when we found that the Cafe was open all night, but there were no late-night beignet stops in our plans, seeing as how more than half of us had blindly followed the party-goers without stopping to think about fetching wallets or purses. Sigh.

On the way back, we almost got arrested.

...okay, I exaggerate. The cop didn't even get out of his car, so it doesn't really count as even an "almost".

Alright, it isn't even that exciting in retrospect, but at the time it was a little scary. The full story is, as we had finally turned around to head for the hotel for the night, Rockstar spotted some beads in a tree that he deemed within reach, so he climbed the fence below them and started to try to get them down. The rest of the group didn't seem to notice he'd stopped, so I stayed behind with him since I didn't know what else to do. Unfortunately, in his rush to get the beads and in my mild panic about being left behind, neither of us noticed that the fence he was climbing was one of the fences of Jackson Square (at least, I think it was Jackson Square...), which had been locked up for the night to keep our mischievous imps like us. And when the police car that happened to be driving by slowed to a stop on the street behind me to see if we were trying to break the law, I panicked even more, and all I could think to say to Rockstar was, "Um... there's a cop behind me..."
"Are you serious?"
Rockstar looked at the police car, gave the necklace one last obvious look, and jumped down. We started after the rest of the group at a brisk walk, but it escaladed to a jog. And he had a little too much fun relaying the story to everyone else when we caught up with them...

After our first night of awesome adventures, we made it back to the hotel and turned in for the night sometime around 12:30 or 1:00... only to wake up the next morning at seven and be late for breakfast at Cafe du Monde (Pastry senses... tingling...!) with the rest of the team. Three out of four girls in my room and a few others who had been left behind all power-walked down the the French Quarter, which in the morning light looked very normal and considerably less eventful -- a huge contrast from the sleepy, kinda shady downtown we had seen the night before. The clubs that had been thriving with nightlife and slightly intimidating in the dark were now dead, abandoned, and the buildings themselves seemed to have hangovers. All the small alleyways we walked by no dead bodies or passed-out drunk people, much to the dismay of the CSI fan in me. It was all almost as disappointing as discovering that the monster in your closet is actually the family cat tearing up a cardboard box at two in the morning.

But I digress.

After breakfast (hooray, beignets!) and registration for the conference back at the hotel, we spent the entire day sitting in paper sessions and lectures, wandering around the poster displays, and asking questions of a lot of people who were far older and much smarter than we. We all had so much information crammed into our brains in just one day, but I shan't bore you with the details, because I think the only thing I learned that I could easily communicate to a mass audience is, "I really DO need to take Statistics."

For the sake of brevity, I will skip ahead to the next adventure: dinner. Now, keep in mind that the group I hang out with could make anything into an adventure; dinner just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a manner of speaking. All thirty of us hiked down and around New Orleans until we came to Acme Oyster House (and you are not a true Looney Toons fan if this neither sounds suspicious nor makes you snicker), marched in the front door only to be shooed back out because of the size of our group, filed up the side stairway only to come back down because of a failure in communication, until we were finally standing outside while the servers played rock-paper-scissors to decide who would lose and have to work the tables of twenty-nine college students and their professor. And we all proved to be quite an ordeal after all -- even though there were repeated attempts by some of the "of-age" students to get permission to break contract, we were quite the rowdy crowd, rather messy, and when the oyster and crawfish plates were passed around... well... the simplest explanation to it all is that boredom begets creativity. It was the most entertaining night I'd had in a long, long time.

After dinner, there was nothing left but to resign ourselves to our fate: the notebooks. Since we SEPA-goers were all getting two credit hours to take the conference as a class, we all had to show our "process of learning" for a class that had no tests. These notebook assignments asked us to journal our "new learning", some ideas we wished to remember from the SEPA convention, the summary of each day we were at SEPA, a summary of our "new learning", a summary of what we had discovered about our major because of SEPA, a lot of other random notes and such, and things like five favorite memories of going to/being at the convention with everyone, five issues that stuck out in our minds, five ideas we wanted to apply to our daily lives after the convention... as you can see, it was a lot of writing. least, a lot more than we thought it to be. And looking at this mostly empty notebook on Thursday night with the promise of "Oh, I can do some of this tomorrow night...", a lot of us put off the majority of the notebook writing until the beautifully indefinite Later and went downstairs to watch the SEPA presentation of Crash (brief summary: an intense and powerful movie, but definitely not for the kiddies...).

This "Later" turned out to be the next night, when a lot of us ended up writing 'til well past three in the morning to finish those dern-blasted things. We took over the hall of the twelfth floor and sat and wrote until we could write no more, and even then some of us were still rushing in the last few hours Saturday afternoon to get finished before the deadline of 2:00. So, as the deadline drew nearer, more and more students found themselves suffering through symptoms of carpal tunnel as they scribbled furiously in their notebooks, desperately praying for a miracle to slow down time itself, willing their hands to write just a little faster...

In retrospect, the convention was just one big rush-around chaotic trip; it was amazing fun, but absolutely insane. We were all so stressed and sleep-deprived that we could barely walk a straight line Saturday afternoon, and it was a long ten-hour bus ride later that put us back at Covenant after one in the morning on Sunday. We staggered out, went our separate ways for the night, and collapsed into bed; by Monday, we were barely back on our feet in time to tackle the last week of school before Spring Break.

If given the chance, I would do it all over again.

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