Trust the Locals

Travel is brutal. It pushes you to the very edge of your patience and then drags you back through the mud of homesickness and strange food. Throughout my travels this term I have been to the mountaintop and seen some of the most breath-taking sights I could ask for. I have met fantastic people and experienced an uncanny amount of awkward moments, most at my expense. But the unwritten rule to travel, at least here in Thailand, is to go with the flow.
Recently I traveled to a small village in the Isaan region of Thailand, the poorest region and the least visited by foreigners. To reach the village I relied on one local to personally drive me to the correct bus station, another to buy the right bus ticket, and a tuktuk driver to take me to the middle of nowhere. Once I wanted to leave the village I recognized that public transportation was far off and had a local drive me by motorcycle to the nearest bus station 30 minutes away.
This is the traveling spirit and what makes travel so brutal. Trusting complete strangers of a foreign tongue with your fate is both scary and exciting; however, it is the reality of the adventurer and the student abroad. At first it seems daunting to be in a strange land with little but the shirt on your back, but as you travel and have those awkward moments it becomes less like a chore and more like a journey. Every time I step into a taxi and struggle to get to even the closest market I can’t help but smile and know that it really doesn’t matter where I end up.
So I guess you could say traveling is a brutality but really I would say that traveling is an adventure in learning and patience.baanchiang2

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Traveling = Brutality?

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” -Cesare Pavese

I can identify with this statement completely. If I were to rewind my life back about three months, I never would have said that I could connect with the words of his quote. Until I studied abroad, I didn’t fully grasp this idea. I’d traveled some before, but mostly in my own country, and I’d certainly never lived in a foreign country by myself for four months.

Living abroad is a dream. It is. So many people want it, but I would say that only a small percentage of them achieve it. I am more than grateful for this absolutely life-changing experience I am having here in Ecuador. Every facet of my being has been touched by the past two months I’ve lived here. This traveling is shaping me, remaking me. I’ve definitely been forced time and time again to trust strangers. I’ve been forced every day to forget the comforts of home and to live off balance in this new world I’m in. It’s not a bad thing by any means, but it is unmistakeably different than the life I led before Ecuador. I think the brutality of it is actually the beauty of it. It makes you go take a chance. It makes you learn in ways that you never would have another way. It begins making you, you.

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A Little Bit of Everything – Dakar

I’m slowly learning my way around Dakar. The transportation here is crazy. As a health and safety precaution, my program’s studentswere instructed to only take taxis, yet taxis mean bartering for the price in Wolof! This is probably the thing that gives me the most stress in Senegal. The taxi men try to charge me two to three times the normal price. In retrospect it’s about $3 instead of $1.50 for a 15 minute taxi ride, but sometimes I still barter with 3 or 4 taxis before I either get a good price or I decide to walk.School is going well. The French education system is a lot more laid back without a definite plan for each class. I feel as though we go on tangents a lot and I’m never sure if I’m learning the right things. I decided that the key to school is to learn something, anything, and I feel like that is happening. Although, most of the time I wish I wasn’t confined to a classroom. Besides taking five classes, I have an internship helping out at orphanages and schools around Dakar, I’m teaching English two nights a week, and Ihave been involved with church activities for the two young women that live here. Side note about church– We have 3 baptisms this Saturday here in Senegal!!! Woot! My little group of 12 church members has become a home away from home!012

033Being involved in all of these activities leads to a very busy schedule, and I usually end up leaving my house around 7:30am and getting home around 8:00pm. When I get home, I make sure to talk to my host family for at least an hour or two to show that I appreciate them, and then I pass out under my mosquito net until my 6:30am alarm goes off or I hear the Muslim call to prayer from the mosque down the street at 5:30 in the morning.

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This past weekend the program took a vacation to a resort in Toubab Dilaow which is about an hour drive outside of Dakar, on the coast. When I was there, I was able to learn batik- a Senegalese art of dye-ing fabric and painting with hot wax to prevent parts of the fabric from dyeing. I also learned some traditional dancing. We had excellent food and had a great time swimming in the ocean. It was gorgeous!!

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Three days in Barcelona

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Hola y bon dia!

My first days in Barcelona have been nothing short of an exciting, yet exhausting, whirlwind. Adjusting to a nine hour time difference, jet-lag, and being in an unfamiliar place has taken its toll on my mind and body. I won’t bore you readers with too much right this second, but wanted to check-in with a picture update!

Originally a bull fighting ring, now converted into a shopping mall.

Many of Barcelona’s large intersections of main streets feature fountains, statues or green spaces.

The ‘block of disagreement’ is a place where tourists gather to marvel at the work of famous artists/architects such as Gaudi. These buildings were designed in a sort of rivalry to be the best.

The Metro, Empty.

Fountains in front of the palace. These have a full color and music accompaniment, similar to the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. Better view here in Barcelona.

The palace of Barcelona. It serves as a museum now.

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The old gothic style part of the library at my university (UPF). It serves mostly as an area for quiet study.

On Montjuic (Mountain of the Jews) you can stand at this lookout point and see the port of Barcelona along with much of downtown.

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My bedroom in Barcelona. Small? Indeed. However, it is sufficient for sleeping and homework!

The view from the apartment I live in.

 

 

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Brutality is MY Middle Name.

Time passes so quickly here in Africa. The way is very simple… And I love it. I’m finding my African rhythm, but there always some nuances in culture that I haven’t quite mastered. I finally feel part of my host family, well mostly. Not so comfortable to walk around the house in my underwear, but comfortable enough to express myself and not have to constantly double check that I’m sitting, eating, living, etc. in a manner of a guest.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to The Gambia- it’s the smallest country in continental Africa and just happens to be right in the middle of Senegal. Bottom line, traveling in Africa is CRAZY! You can’t make reservations ahead of time, you cross your fingers that roads and boarders are open, and your math skills are stretched with currency conversion. There is a quote that I feel finally rings true after going to The Gambia:

“Traveling is a brutality. it forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. you are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things– air, sleep, dreams, the sea, and the sky- all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” -Cesar Pavase

Through my limited experience in travel, I’ve always felt that the quote was half true, but that’s mainly because I had plenty of money, several options in case of an emergency, and lots of resources. While in The Gambia, the unthinkable happened many times and at several moments I had about $2 left (credit cards are not a form of payment used here), no form of communication (no cell service, no wifi, no comprehension of the local language), no idea where to go, and as luck would have it, there just happened to be a national transportation strike. I really felt like is was at mercy of the local. Luckily, African people are very nice and a great resource to help in these kinds of situations. So I would add to the quote that traveling is a brutality, but people are a strength.

I have learned to let go of pride and seek help. Ask for directions (which is taboo for an American male) and be flexible; and I’ve always found at least one person that is willing to help. My host family and the other students here in Senegal give me strength to continue on this brutal adventure which allows me to learn, expand, and develop into a more humble, more confident individual. The brutality of travel is what I crave. I love having to reassess where I am and who I am and build into a better person. At home, I feel that change is lethargic (very slow and lazy) but add a little bit of travel to the mix and its like adding baking soda to my 3rd grade volcano- MAGIC! I believe everyone needs to travel in order to get a better perspective of the world but more to get a better perspective of who they are. 

It’s nice to get back to the essentials.

 

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Amigos, Friends, Same Thing

One of the things I was most scared about for my study abroad trip was making friends. It sounds so first-grade sometimes, but I really didn’t know how I was going to do it. Especially in another language. However, I have managed to prove myself completely wrong. I have made friends in almost everything that I have done here. In class, playing sports, on the bus, at home, going out, traveling, you name it. It’s been the greatest part of living here. My Ecuadorian friends mean the world to me now. They have taught me way more than I’d ever learn inside a classroom and have begun to inhabit a very special place in my heart.

One friend I’ve made here has taught me something huge about myself that I never knew before. I learned that I actually find so much joy in teaching others. I’ve always known I could be a teacher if I ever wanted to because my entire family consists of teachers, but I never thought I’d enjoy it. However, I’ve recently been shown otherwise. It is obvious that I am in Ecuador right now to learn Spanish; but, a lot of students my age also enjoy the fact that I can help them learn English. At the beginning of the semester, I became part of a diversity club on campus that partners up a native Spanish-speaker with a native English-speaker to have conversations every week. These talks are half in Spanish and half in English so that each partner can have an opportunity to practice their second language and learn from a fluent speaker of that language. It’s a great resource for practice. On top of this opportunity, my closest Ecuadorian friend, Santiago, and I have this friendship where we can ask each other anything and are both more than willing to help the other with whatever they need. For example, whenever I don’t understand a detail of why Ecuadorians use one word over another, I just ask him and he sits down to explain it to me. So, a few days ago, Santiago and I had our first conversation in English. He is a little bit shy, and he hasn’t ever asked me to talk in English with him before because he is still in the beginning stages of learning the language. But that day, we hung out for over an hour speaking in my language for once, and I found such joy in my heart in helping him figure out words he couldn’t understand or expressions he didn’t know; seeing his face light up when something finally clicked in his head was irreplaceable. Teaching him my own language was actually incredible, and I absolutely loved doing it. One of many things that I can add to my list of Things-That-I-Have-Learned-About-Myself-Abroad is my love for teaching those who genuinely want to learn. If it wasn’t for some of my Ecuadorian friendships, I never would have known about this part of me. How cool is that??

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First Impressions, Culture Shock, and Activities!

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I snapped this photo while walking around some of the less traveled side streets of Barcelona.

¡Hola Amigos!

In this blog entry I discuss pre-departure anxieties, first impressions, cultural differences and some of the things I’ve started doing here in Barcelona!

Pre-Departure Anxieties

The build up to leaving the country for the first time was a bit nerve-wracking. However, the anxiety was different because I wasn’t simply going away for a week or two, I was leaving for 3 months. I was going to live with people I don’t know, in a place I’ve never been and to function in a language and culture I barely understand.

Was I excited? Absolutely. But to say I had no reservations or doubts would be a lie. Even still, there is a certain level of anxiety. My Spanish has been improving at light speed compared to the progress I made in Idaho – but I’m still a novice. On top of that, my Catalan is even worse, which complicates matters in Barcelona, particularly with this uprising of independence from Spain – but I can talk about that another time.

First Impressions

Upon arriving in Barcelona, probably the first thing to hit me was how humid it was everywhere. The airport was hot and humid; outside was hot and humid, it was impossible to escape. I remember thinking that there was no way I could survive this for three months.

Luckily however, it turns out that I happened to arrive in a sort of unseasonable hot and humid week. The temperatures have since fallen a bit and the humidity has also subsided some. In general, I find the weather to now be most enjoyable day and night.

Somewhat related to weather conditions is the notion of fashion. Prior to departure I had read that in Spain, for the most part, men do not wear shorts. However, Barcelona is the outlier (probably because it so cosmopolitan and internationalized). Unfortunately, due to my pre-conceived notions based on what I read, I only brought one pair of shorts with me….and several pairs of pants.

Furthermore, my efforts to appear as little like a tourist as possible were futile because Barcelona is literally a tourist town. It receives eight million visitors a year, 70% of whom are from outside Spain. This does, however, make for interesting metro rides. I’m likely to hear Catalan, Mandarin, Spanish, Farsi, English and German in a single trip across town.

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There are many bus tours happening in Barcelona all the time.

Speaking of languages, my primary concern in Barcelona is the fact that while it is part of Spain, the region is known as Catalonia, and this region has its own distinct language that sounds and looks more like French than Spanish. Catalan is still a minority language compared to Spanish, but there has been significant momentum by the Catalan government and education system to re-instate it as the primary language. Most everywhere you could visit has Catalan listed first, Spanish second, and if you’re lucky, English.

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These signs are all over the underground metro system. No fumeu is Catalan, No fumar is Spanish.

I bring this up because my pre-departure research suggested that Catalan was only spoken by 45%of the population and even less of the population knew how to read and write it. So I didn’t expect it to be as predominant as it actually is.

Cultural Differences

Being over five thousand miles away from home, in a place with many more millenniums of history and culture, there are bound to be a few things different from Lewiston, Idaho.

First and foremost, water usage. Here in Barcelona, water is conserved at a great level. People are greener than in the States. People here take shorter showers and they never let the water run. For example, in the States when you shower, it’s typical to be in the shower for 10-15 minutes with the water running the entire time. In Spain, not only do showers not exceed 7 minutes, you actually turn the water off while you’re soaping your hair and body, only turning it back on to rinse (which actually makes more sense than leaving it running if you think about it). Furthermore, all toilets are equipped with the big and small flush option. I don’t think I need to elaborate much more than that.

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Another cultural difference is the general wealth equality and social system. Spain is a capitalist liberal democracy just like the United States; however, they have addressed some issues of wealth inequality differently, such as having nationalized healthcare. Additionally, their ‘service’ sector jobs pay significantly better than their American counterparts. As a consequence, the idea of tipping is almost non-existent. In the states, tipping has become so ubiquitous and expected, the service can be terrible and they still tack 20% in gratuity just because. Not so in Spain. In fact, there isn’t even a tip section on receipts at restaurants. And if you do tip, it need not be more than a euro or two for even a tab of 40 euros. The same goes for taxi rides. But perhaps what is most perplexing is that the food, drink and taxi rides are not any more expensive than in the states, and indeed are often times cheaper because there is little or no tipping.

Perhaps the most obvious cultural difference, however, is the issue of health & wellness and more specifically; obesity. I’m not exaggerating when I say there are no overly obese people in Barcelona. Indeed, I have yet to encounter many people who could even be considered overweight. Don’t get me wrong, the Spanish aren’t all well-shaped gym rats, either. However, due to intelligent city design and planning (mixed-zoning) and sustainability efforts, people here walk and use bicycles much more than in the States. As a result, their healthcare costs are significantly lower, and their lives are generally less expensive, and I would argue, more enjoyable.

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Here you can dozens of mopeds and bicycles locked up. This is a common sight in Barcelona.

BIKES

This is the public bike system. You will see racks like this all over Barcelona. Basically locals can check a bike out, ride it to another rack somewhere else and drop it off.

 

Getting Involved

Part of the study abroad experience, maybe the most important part, is the immersion aspect. This means more than just living with a host family or going to school. It helps to just wander the city, get lost, and talk to locals when you can.

More specific ways that I’ve been getting involved begin with what is called the intercambio exchange. Essentially this is a program that matches local residents with international visitors. The purpose of this program is for each person to have the opportunity to practice their new language, such as English for them and Spanish for me. I actually meet my first partner on Monday, so stay tuned for that update.

The second activity I am getting involved in has been made possible by being a Gilman Scholar. The volunteer program is with the U.S. State Department. Essentially, I prepare a presentation and then visit under-served and low-income high schools around Barcelona to talk about a variety of topics – in English. The purpose of this is to expose school students to Americans and give them a chance to use their English with a real native speaker. I just had my meeting at the U.S. Consulate, so I haven’t given a presentation yet, but I plan to develop that over the next few days and begin my Barcelona lecture circuit as soon as possible.

I’m already thinking of opening up with a little exercise I picked up from some professors back at Lewis-Clark State College. I will give the class a blank sheet of paper and ask them to draw a map of the world as best they can. This will serve as a way of gauging their geographical awareness, but also get them to think about how they conceive the world in their minds and in their life.

Well amigos, that’s it for this installment. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more. The next video comes out in a couple of weeks and will be about my daily life – where I go, what I see, etc.

¡Hasta Luego!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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