If This is to End in Fire…

If This is to End in Fire…

Otis Otieno | Culture

Left to right: Tyler, Ahaan, Ai-Dan, Nat, Sophie, Maverick, Neev, Danela. On this day, they carved out the former president’s door and brought it to Hell as a prank.

I am a big believer in destiny, that commander of events that places people where they need to be exactly when they need to. It is that destiny that perhaps dictates me being at Caltech. Even though the work is hard, and I sometimes question my presence here, I still press on faithfully, embodying the Nietzsche ‘Amor Fati’ philosophy: that everything happens for a reason. That each action I take will lead to something more, something bigger than myself.

Therefore, when I was assigned to stay in Blacker Hovse pre-rotation, I knew there and then that it would be my Hovse for all my undergrad years at Caltech. After all, everything happens for a reason, right? I recall Laura from the International Students Office trying to help me find my room in Blacker. We stared at an empty Olive Walk for some minutes before a Mole creeped towards us. He had a victorious Conor McGregor cage walk and stroked his beard in the sun. Laura asked where Blacker Hovse was, and the Mole was like “Yeah! It’s my Hovse. I’ll walk you there and to your room.” So the match of a Mole and would-be-Mole was made. A three-minute walk with Ethan Labelson to room 212 was an immersion into stories of Blacker Hovse. I had seen bits of the houses’ cultures on former student Amy Wang’s YouTube vlogs, but only remembered one house which smashed wood with sledgehammers.

“We used to smash stuff for fun but not anymore,” Ethan commented.

“So you’re that Hovse?” I asked.

His eyes drew into mine, probably checking if this was a dude who could be trusted.

“Yeah, that’s us. Do you smash stuff?” he added.

“I played rugby in high school, so I used to smash people. It would be nice to add inanimate objects to that list,” I replied.

Even though at first he struggled to hear what I was saying due to my Kenyan accent, we quickly ended up bantering about how American football is just mechanical rugby. Of all the experiences pre-rotation, I liked waking up to Ethan and Jade building an ice slide. My roommate then, Eduardo, was a Waze in Maths. Anytime the mention of a topic in Maths was sniffed by his ears, he would light up, spitting concept after concept, idea after idea. I was elated when the same prowess in math was reflected in his soccer pitch. I defended him during an orientation match. He was a slimy and quick striker, so my only option was to make sure he never got the ball in the first place. That was the first occasion my smashing skills proved valuable (he didn’t score a goal once I came on the pitch).

Then came Rotation. Of all the events during Rotation, Blacker Olympics and Ricketts Open Mic Night stood out. An audacious announcement of mine during Blacker Rotation dinner, inspired by Gerard Butler’s ‘This is Sparta’, would ensure I rotated into Blacker. Except, I remade it into “This is Blacker!” (And all the moles shall say “Ahu! Ahu! Ahu!”)

During roompicks, I chose to be a Hellfrosh (the residents who live in “Hell”, an all-frosh alley). Coming from a Christian home, the term ‘Hell’ definitely scared my mum. When I told her the inspiration behind the name, she was intrigued, and pictures of the murals that consumed the walls calmed her anxiousness.

Why Hell? If it’s a question of murals, why not Vati-Kremlin alley? If it’s a question of access to seniors, why not Jungle alley?

Again, I can only point out destiny. My first two terms have definitely had their ups and downs, but one thing I have enjoyed most is the community of Hellfrosh and all the hell we have raised. I will speak of fourteen people, say something small about them, and then maybe we’ll all burn together.

Coming to Caltech, I definitely had to switch from the Swahili niaje to the American “what’s up?”. Like niaje, the greeting “what’s up?” is used for short conversations that typically end up heading everywhere. I meet you, you meet me, you wanna have a random conversation, say “what’s up.” If you ever use “good morning”, “good afternoon”, or any other official greeting, what will that be? A lecture? Are you my prof? Anyway, so I decided on “what’s up.” However, anytime I greet the Gatekeeper to Hell (the resident of the room that faces the kitchen) with “what’s up?”, her answer makes me want to switch to “good morning.” Other people reply with “Warrup, dawg?” or a simple “what’s up?”. The weirdest reply I ever got was “what’s up to you too” while hiking in the Ruwenzori. But there is just something about the Gatekeeper’s answer that makes me want to die for greeting her that way.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“The ceiling,” replies Ellie.

This is the typical reply when we’re in Hell. Catch her outside Browne Dining Hall and she’ll tell you, “the sky.” Oh, Ellie! Is replying by “what’s up” too hard? Anyway, Ellie is our Gatekeeper. She’s a Physics literati. She took Latin, so I joke that the only people who are gonna talk to her are all dead. Talk to her about anything and all her ears will be on whatever you have to say. But if she isn’t holding her hands together as you speak, she’s not listening hard enough.

The other Gatekeeper across the hall has an Uberman’s sleep schedule. Sleep two hours, wake up, get work done for four hours and go back to sleep for another two hours. Then the cycle repeats all over again. With such a schedule too, it’s hard to tell whether she is okay or sick. She just is. However, she still manages to get work done eventually. When I need a problem set collaborator three hours to the deadline, they have always been my guy. When we need somebody in Purgatory (the kitchen area) to teach us how to make Asian delicacies, particularly Vietnamese, they have always come through. Are you in need of an anime critic to tell you why Dracula’s tragedy in Castlevania is beautiful? The other Gatekeeper across the hall is your go-to.

Underlooked fact: Adele is better than Taylor Swift. Salud to all those who agree with me on this. If you don’t, well, it’s my opinion. How does one judge if they are in the upper echelons of society? Well, there are a lot of factors to consider here. For me, one would be attending a concert by Adele, to have her melt my heart with her vocals until it’s no more. Before I achieve this, by my calculation, it’ll take ten years and Adele will then be forty-five. Maybe her vocals won’t be as good in ten years. But destiny was like, “There you go my boy, Adele’s voice in Hell” in the form of Nat. If Hell was the typical Hell twenty years ago, raging in California heat with no air conditioning in sight, then her voice would be a cold breeze, giving the heat a slow death. We would be lifted off the ground, as if her voice had the power to give us wings and raise us from our miseries.

Speaking of greetings, my neighbor next door has been giving me Spanish classes.

“What’s up?” I say.

¿Mande?” comes the enthusiastic reply.

From her excellent mastery of Spanish cuisines to her unending ‘sorrys’ whenever something is up, Danela is one to rock with. Sometimes, I think even if somebody hit her car she would be the one to say sorry. What else? She’s your go-to fanatic on anything ‘Narcos’.

Though officially living in Bechtel, this next man’s loyalty to Hell has to go unquestioned. From his fringy hair style to his well-forged arguments, BechtelBro is quite a figure to observe. Warning, though: don’t argue with him. His arguments are bulletproof and baptized by fire. I’m certain that humanities profs watch him argue and fear they’ll lose their jobs. When he runs his hands through his hair, that’s a thought in process. Ladies and gentlemen: Neev Mangal.

“What are these deodorants? For who? CS majors?” Amina walks in, and jokes follow her like a shadow. She sits, it’s hysterical laughs. Hell definitely needs somebody with the jokes, even though her jokes might sometimes be drier than Nevada. Sitting close to her in a lecture, the lecturer wrote theorem 8.0 and Amina started laughing. I was curious.

“What did zero tell eight?” she asks, and I wave my head ignorantly.

“Nice belt,” she laughs off. 

Suleiman: Though only a social Mole, what to say about this man, except his enthusiasm, his interest in knowing how people are, and his laughs. This energy I have learnt to reciprocate by only saying ‘Yalla Habibi’. Fun fact: I’ve never seen him in socks. What to say about Suleiman, except he is the incarnation of ‘Vibes and Inshallah’.

What is Hell without the angel of death, or rather chaos? This is the next Hellfrosh. Hand him a screwdriver and he will carve out your door, only to return it fixed vertically instead of laterally. I once sat next to him for dinner. My only regret is that I ended up getting dumped because he threw bread, and the waiter thought it was me. On that day, I saw a Boston Red Sox pitcher in him. Baseball team, where are you? He is always cooking something. Don’t let his calm demeanor in select circumstances fool you. Maverick is our angel of chaos.

Wherever Maverick is, Brain is also. The thing with Brain though, you gotta let him think. Just let him be. He is probably our best shot at a resurrected Isaac Newton. What do they say: you don’t know what’s going on in my mind, or is it Brain? When he is with Maverick, I usually call them the ‘Brain and Braun’ combo.

The best hangout spot in Hell, apart from Purg, would probably be the Hell double. Tyler with Ahaan is probably the best room combo I’ve seen on campus. Ahaan, with his usual philosophical background, might give you an endless immersion into a discussion of your choosing. He is the ‘What if….?’, or ‘Look at it this way…’, or ‘But then again…’ type of guy. Tyler can be characterized by his cartoon noises. Coupled with his dense voice, he just spits noises and jokes, unless you have an academic question and he knows the answer to that. It took time, but I got used to his noises and jokes. I like the energy he and Ahaan bring to Hell.

Thank God for no blackouts at Caltech. “Hey, Siri, what do you need to survive in case of a blackout?” “A back-up generator.” Nope, ah, pause! You need Alex’s and Miina’s smiles, along with Eloise’s enthusiasm. Together, their smiles would probably produce a hundred thousand megawatts. You want to laugh without hearing a joke? Sit next to Asher. His frenzied laughs are so infectious. Who has the coolest pajamas in Hell? Alexis’ cow pajamas win according to me. Her work ethic is out of this world. She is always ahead in sets and class. And of course, where two or more are gathered, there must be a way of entertaining our taste palates with snacks and food. When anyone isn’t cooking, Sophie’s snacks keep us going. She is the most generous person I’ve seen in a while. You ask for her hustle, she’ll give you her heart.

It is these people that make Hell great. To be honest, our murals aren’t that fire (Haha! Though it’s Hell) and Purg is a mess. However, these people are just so great, so unique and so funny, that you just keep coming back for more and more hangouts. As we draw near to the end of our pass/fail terms, everybody is like “I got to start grinding real hard,” or “I’m going to get lost in SFL” or “I need to go to office hours more.” Well, that’s valid. We’ve had our fair share of fun, chaos and stories. So, grind we must all the way. What to say, apart from “Thank you for all the fun.” How to end all this? Probably, since it’s Hell, why not end with fire? Drawing from Ed Sheeran in ‘The Hobbit’, I would sing, not with Ed Sheeran’s voice or Nat’s (they’re too good), but on my own. I’d sing: “If this is to end in fire, then we should all burn together. Watch the flames climb high into the night. Callin’ out, Father, oh, stand by and we will. Watch the flames burn auburn on the mountainside high.”