It’s About the Journey, not the Destination

After so much uncertainty and anticipation — I am in Morocco. This semester, I will be studying in Al Akhawayn University, AUI, a school tucked away in the Middle Atlas Mountains of North Africa.

My journey began on January 14th at 5 a.m. in Miami, Florida. After 4 or 5 hours of sleep (I am a habitual late packer) I was both nervous and excited for what laid ahead. My mom came to check on me to make sure I was awake and kindly made me two sandwiches: one for breakfast and one for lunch for when I landed in New York. Without delay, we drove 40 minutes to Fort Lauderdale to catch my 8 a.m. flight to JFK Airport. I embarked on the plane and slept from take-off to landing.

(Travel tip: Whenever you are traveling to or from Miami, fly from Fort Lauderdale Airport. Not only are prices a lot cheaper, but the airport is usually on time, and if you are from South Florida, you know that is a blessing).

I had a 7 hour layover at JFK so I reread ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, one of my favorite books that coincidentally takes place in Tangier, Morocco. While I waited for the Moroccan booth to open, 104 Peace Corps volunteers showed up and were all in the same flight as me to Casablanca!

And so, our plane took off at 6 p.m.– a 7 hour flight across 5 time zones and one Atlantic ocean. As faith would have it, the two people sitting next to me were also headed to AUI. Thomas, a graduate student was returning for his second semester and Sasha was doing her first study abroad semester.

When we arrived at Casablanca at around 6 a.m. (1 a.m. Eastern Time) Sasha and I decided to stick together since we both had the same flight to Fes at 10:35 p.m. later that night. We bought a train ticket for 40 dirhams (around $5) to get closer to the center of Casablanca which conveniently departed from within the airport.  We planned on booking a hotel for the afternoon so that we could do some quick sight-seeing before heading back to the airport.

The train station at the airport.

Most people here speak Moroccan Darija, which is a combination of Arabic and French with some words in Berber, Spanish and English. Surprisingly I managed to communicate with our taxi driver– he spoke French and I spoke Spanish but I added ‘eh’ at the end of every word to make it sound a little more French.

Once at the hotel, we had a complementary breakfast of bread, yogurt, and my first delicious encounter with a staple of Moroccan cuisine — Moroccan Mint tea.  Up until this point, I can’t say I had experienced culture shock, but as Sasha and I waited for the elevator to head back to our room, I had my first experience of culture shock. Culture shock in the sense that my core, the foundation that I felt was stable enough to endure anything, was literally shaken and crumbled underneath my weight.

A dark, ghastly figured appeared from the corner of my eyes as she walked down the stairs behind her husband. She was completely covered in black cloth– not a square inch of skin exposed. I thought I was prepared– the streets, the crowd, the traffic, was nothing unlike what you would find in any major city in a developing country. But nothing in my life could have prepared me for that moment: the first time I saw a woman in a burqa. It was right then and there that it finally hit me — I am in Morocco.

We went back to our room with a newly discovered perspective and took a quick nap before going out to see the city. We grabbed lunch at a local café and headed to the Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in the country and the 7th largest in the world.

The Hassan II

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We toured around the mosque, took our touristy pictures and head back to the hotel before sunset to make our way back to the airport for our final flight to Fes, the Spiritual Capital of Morocco.

The Mosque borders the Atlantic Ocean.

Back at the Casablanca Airport, we met with three other students that were also studying abroad at AUI: Paloma, Toz, and Ayla. With our newly formed crew, all five of us embarked on a 40 minute flight to Fes.  Once at Fes, we were greeted by two student ambassadors from AUI — Ijlal and Sofia, two incredibly friendly Moroccan girls that would soon enough become two of my best friends here.  However, the journey wasn’t over, not yet. We still had an hour car ride to get to Ifrane. We had to wait for the AUI van to pick up a sixth exchange student that had decided to take the train from Fes to Ifrane. After some fact checking, Ijlal realized that we were waiting for me! We all laughed it off and the van eventually came to pick us up.

As we arrived, the gates of AUI opened in front of us — around 1 a.m. GMT at this point — and I had absolutely no idea of what lay ahead. I looked out the window, a full moon illuminating the road, the stars, brighter than I ever seen them before, and I thought to myself: this is only the beginning.

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From a small town community college to a London University

My name is Abigail Six and I’m currently 20 years old.  I am studying abroad in London, England for the Spring 2014 semester. I am a small town girl from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where I attended Harrisburg Area Community College.   I am currently attending the London South Bank University, which is directly in the heart of London. I’m within a 20 minute walk to Big Ben, The London Eye, Westminster Abbey and of course the Queen! It was a roller coaster ride to get to this point, filled with countless meetings with my community college advisor, many doubtful days where I never thought I’d ever be able to do this, and constant worry about my financial situation. I’ll be honest, studying abroad costs money and that is something that you cannot avoid. Without being a Gilman Scholarship recipient, I would not have been able to study in London this semester. The Gilman International Scholarship Program gave me the chance to follow my dreams and realize the diverse cultures in the world as a community college student. This opportunity is not one that comes along everyday, it something you have to seize and cherish.

Before I studied abroad,  I spent my entire life in the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I’ve traveled the east coast but never set foot outside of the USA. When  I was 19, I worked full-time and attended community college on my off days. This was so I could get a degree while making sure my bills still got paid. I’d always had a love affair with London and I’m pretty sure Harry Potter had something to with that, but studying abroad as a community college student sounded like an impossible myth. It was a nice thought to have, but one that would never happen. It all changed the summer of 2013 when I found myself at a cross-road, I needed to be able to break out from my small town and see the world. I wanted to experience something other than farm land and working the front desk at a campground. After countless hours of researching how to study abroad, searching for scholarship opportunities, watching hours of study abroad videos on YouTube and many sleepless nights wrestling with the idea in my head, I made the choice that it was now or never.  I needed to prove to myself that I could break out of Gettysburg, that I could see the world, experience new things, meet new people, understand new cultures, and most importantly do it as a community college student. I wanted to break open new doors for any student who never thought they could study abroad. At the time, I had no idea how much my life would change within the next 6 months or how one small decision to make my dream a reality could impact my life.

I’ve been in London for a little over a month now and I’m still finding new and exciting things about the city every day. Things that I have encountered are the small cute boutiques, street-side fruit markets, finding the best fish n’ chips in the city (which is Master Super Fish on Waterloo Road), and experiencing the history and different cultures and backgrounds of Londoners. The most amazing experience is walking from street to street and hearing English, French, Chinese, Russian and many other languages being spoken. London is a true melting pot of people from all over the world. It is eye-opening to come to another country and find yourself submerged in new foods and restaurants and the beauty of new people.

While I have found my way here in London, I still find myself missing home and the people I love, everyday. I miss being able to drive my car to places, it’s so odd to catch a bus or jump on the tube whenever you want to go somewhere. I also miss the convenience of having places open 24/7. Most things shut down in London at 1 am at the latest and don’t re-open until 6 am, including the buses and tube station. It’s always important to be home before they stop running or otherwise you are left with the taxi or walking option.

It amazing to think that last summer I was a small town girl working a full-time job, trying to make the most of my days off, and now here I am living in London, making friends from Spain, Italy and Germany, navigating the tube like a professional and studying at a posh London University. I cannot wait to see what the next 4 months have in store for me. New adventures, new friendships, and new experiences that will stick with me for the rest of my life. When I get home in June, I get to say that I have joined a group of young people in the United States who have been lucky enough to see new parts of the world. I will be able to bring back everything I have learned to my community college and pass it on to others who may just now be dreaming of studying abroad.

Until next time…cheers from London!

 

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Peru’s Natural Beauty and Conservation

 

Michael exploring the Inca Trail

Michael exploring the Inca Trail

Peru is blessed with more than its fair share of natural splendor.  There are 3 distinct ecological regions of the country: the desert coast, the mountainous highlands, and the Amazon Jungle.  My personal experience can only speak to the breathtaking beauty of the first two.  In the desert, I first visited Huacachina; it is an oasis straight out of a Hollywood film.  The massive dunes surrounding the water and palm trees are used for sand-boarding, an experience unlike any other.  My next visit was the Islas Ballestas, which are commonly called the “Poor man’s Galapagos Islands.”  Birds filled the sky above the rocky and photogenic crags of the islands.  Moving inland, I have experienced the beauty of Puno and Lake Titicaca.  Lake Titicaca has an area of 3,200 square miles and is over 12,500 feet above sea level.  It is an incredible sight to see such a large freshwater lake surrounded by mountains.  Because of the altitude, clouds barely hover over the lake and often touch the peaks of the surrounding mountains.  The culminating and most significant of my outdoor experiences was the Inca Trail, the iconic 4 day trek to Machu Picchu.  Around every turn and through every pass, my gasps for air were accompanied by gasps of wonder and awe.  Paired with nature’s magnificence were intact Incan Ruins that were never found and destroyed by the Spanish.   These ruins somehow feel more authentic and pure than those near Cuzco, for there are few people and the preservation is superior.  Of course, I must mention the natural and man-made beauty of Machu Picchu, Peru’s own wonder of the world.

Pelicans at Islas Ballestas

Pelicans at Islas Ballestas

Huacachina

Huacachina

The Peruvian government acknowledges the ecological and archaeological riches within its borders, and therefore has taken a great deal of caution to preserve them.  However, in Peruvian daily life environmental cautiousness is often not a concern.  In the towns surrounding Cuzco, it is common for trash to be strewn throughout the land and the streets.  When only organic materials were consumed in these towns there were less problems with this habit, but the commonality of plastic and glass became difficult.  Instead of using trash bins like in the US, people in Cuzco leave uncontained trash out by the street.  When I was engulfed by the black fumes of a bus while waiting to cross the street, it literally hit me that vehicle pollution is also a significant problem.  There are not any enforced regulations about vehicle pollution here.  The most commonly practiced environmentally friendly habit I have witnessed in the city is the use of public transport; that is something we could often use more of in the U.S.  Even if the vehicles are dirty, there are less of them on the road than there would be if people all drove themselves.  The people will need more education about environmental concerns before the populated areas can match cleanliness of the more well-known tourist attractions.

Ruins along the Inca Trail

Ruins along the Inca Trail

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Keeping a Level Head Throughout Ambiguity

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

 This statement certainly sums up much of my experience in Peru.  It has been a fantastic month and a half, but “easy” or “comfortable” are certainly not words I would use to describe my experience.  I have entrusted all my valuables (camera, computer, etc.) to a family I had never interacted with prior to my arrival.  I came here without companions, so everyone I now spend time with was unknown to me when I arrived.  Everything here is different; even if I find something disguised as American like a McDonald’s or a mall, I am always surprised by Peruvian cultural differences.  The perpetual struggle to understand what is going on around me makes every day more tiring.

While every day is filled with examples of the “brutality” of being in another country, there are a few examples from my trip to Puno that specifically attest to the need to trust strangers while traveling.  I followed my family’s suggestion to set up the trip to Puno through a travel agent who is a friend of my host family.  In Peru, it is absolutely essential to know people for the best deals.  However, I was not entirely confident during the scheduling process.  I gave her the money, but even though I asked many times, I never received a receipt.  We were told that everything would be taken care of for us; someone would pick us up at the bus station and take us everywhere we needed to go for the trips we had already paid for.  After a 7 hour bus ride, we arrived at the bus station at 4:45 AM and looked for someone with a sign that had our name on it.  We gave up after 30 minutes and took a taxi to the hotel, that I was told we would be staying in.  However, the hotel had no reservation with our name on it.  Even though it was 5:30 AM, I called the woman who planned our trip, to no avail.  Through a complex series of events we finally got in touch with the travel agent and the people who came to pick us up and we learned that they had transferred us to another hotel because of last-minute pricing changes at the original hotel.  Everything worked out perfectly well in the end, but it was a terrifying morning.  My only option was to believe that the agent’s word was true even though all aspects of my experience pointed to the contrary.  The first lesson I learned through this experience was to trust relationships when I have a deeper connection with them.  Without that, I will always be certain to not hand over any money until I have an official confirmation in my hands.  Second, I learned a valuable lesson about how to handle stressful and ambiguous situations.  The essentials are keeping a level head and reasoning through options until one finally works.

All-in-all, my time in Peru has largely been spent off balance and confused.  This high level of discomfort has also contributed to my learning; I am more alert and observant when I experience hardship.  Looking back at everything I have experienced, my primary emotion is gratefulness for it all.  I have not enjoyed every moment, but I can see the applicable, deep lessons I have learned through each episode.

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Adapting to the Mediterranean diet

Since in arriving in Spain, I have certainly had to learn to adapt and change my eating patterns, ranging from what I eat to when I eat it. Before coming to Spain, I made sure to look online and ask a few teachers and friends what some of the major differences between here and the US are, food wise. The first thing I quickly learned is that the time of certain is drastically different from the US. I was happy to see that breakfast was at 9:30am with cereal, toast, tea or coffee, maybe some fruit and a croissant. I even recognized a few of the cereals, such as Cookie Crisp, which did remind me of home a bit. Lunch, however, is a little different. The Mediterranean diet, which is what they tend to follow in Spain, is very big on seafood and fish. Typically, for lunch then, we’ll have some kind of seafood or pasta, normally served around 2:30pm, which was a little later than what I was used to. Along with this, lunch is typically a larger meal, consisting of three courses (an appetizer, main course, and dessert). For example, when I came home for lunch yesterday, my host mom surprised me by saying that we were having clams as an appetizer! Clams! I’m normally up to try anything new, but for some reason, I’d never tried clams, and I had no desire to. However, I did not want to be rude, and she insisted that I try one. Reluctantly, I took one, pulled it apart, and sucked out the meat. Surprisingly, I liked it, and ate several more. For the main course, we had fish, and dessert was a banana with pudding. At first, I wasn’t sure why we’d have such a big meal in the middle day. Then, I realized that the Spanish don’t eat dinner until around 9:30pm. According to the Mediterranean diet, it’s unhealthy to eat a big meal at the end of the day, so dinner is usually smaller. Snacking is also ok here, if you want a few chips or a piece of fruit, which helps you get adjusted to the new eating schedule.

There are two other things here that have surprised me since coming here in January. In the US, olive oil is just something used to cook something in; nothing more. Here, it’s like a way of life, food-wise! I never realized how much such a small thing can change the taste of something so dramatically! For example, one day in lunch, the appetizer was just mashed potatoes with green beans and olive oil. It was such a simple dish, but the olive oil sort of accentuated the taste of everything; it turned that simple dish into one with complex and interesting. The same thing has happened with similar dishes, and I definitely think that I will continue to use olive oil in my diet when I return to the US. The second thing, which I learned about the food here, is that everything is so fresh; all the food lacks preservatives. I remember two instances where this apparent to me. My Spanish professor was commenting on ham, and how she’d looked at a package of ham from the US, seen all the ingredients and exclaimed, “Where is the pig!?!” The other time happened to me when I was in a restaurant in Barcelona! The restaurant had just opened and the owner proclaimed that all the food was homemade, and should we not like anything, we would get our money back. The entire meal was delicious, but I think my favorite part was the appetizer– melon (cantaloupe) with ham! Unlike the cantaloupe from the US, this one was white, not orange. I cut into it and put a small piece in my mouth. I had never tasted a sweeter, more juicy or more delightful piece of fruit than I had that night. It was, by far, my favorite thing from Spain (so far!)

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Dancing Kizomba in Bordeaux, France

One of the most exciting subcultures that I have encountered while in France is the dance subculture, particularly the large group of individuals who love to dance Kizomba. I learned about this type of dance through a Senegalese guy named Mahomed, who I met at the park while watching football.  He related to me that there were dance lessons at Punta Cana – a neighboring club – for five euros per lesson, and that I would have fun learning it. I therefore took him up on the offer and upon my arrival I was given a warm welcome and introduced to everyone.  Subsequently, Mahomed and I became very good friends and together we frequent local venues to practice Kizomba.

Kizomba is a very sensual dance that originated in Angola.  One must be very comfortable with physical contact from the opposite sex in order to participate.  In fact, one of the basic instructions given by the teacher is that, “one must remain very close to their partner.”  And if someone is having trouble with a technique, the instructor usually blames it on the two people not sticking close together.  Another difficult aspect of the dance is that it requires the male to be the lead, while the female merely shadows what he does and follows his direction.  Therefore, if the male is a beginner, as I am, the dance can be tedious and frustrating for both participants.  Still further, since my French is not so great, more problems arise when I need to tell my partner something or when she needs to tell me something. But as time has went on, I have learned to simply have fun.

Learning Kizomba is something I would have never ventured into while in the United States.  However, being in a different country and trying to make new friends, I have been forced to adapt to the French culture and do what they do, in order to fit in.  This has proved a great benefit for me; I have met a lot of people, my French is improving, I am exploring new facets of the world which in turn is presenting me with new opportunities and making me more curious.  I am now eager to learn more dances like the Salsa, for example, and I owe it all to the diversity which I have encountered while studying abroad.

Below is a clip of my first experience with Kizomba:

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Return to the Rural

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

-          G.K. Chesterton

 

Now that I have been back in New Hampshire for a little more than three weeks, I feel like I can finally write about my experience of readjusting to the United States. I have heard of reverse culture shock and the effects it has on people who return to their country after a long absence. I find it interesting, though, that I do not feel any major reverse culture shock. You would think that a place as foreign as China would make culture shock and reverse culture shock worse than, say, if one went to England. However, at least in my case, I have slipped in and out of China quite smoothly.

This is not to say that I do not notice differences between China and the US, or sometimes miss China or feel happy about something in the US. I often chat with Chinese students and others at my college about life in Beijing, the places I traveled, and when people ask me to tell them all the best parts about my trip I cannot help but remember fondly those experiences. I would not say I have had any major heartache, though, because I have this strong feeling in my heart that I will definitely return. And this feeling has made me content, as well as allowing me to focus on my current studies back here in America.

If I were to say the thing I miss the most about China, I would tell you that there are many things I miss: affordable travel, the delicious food, the language and classes, the people – I miss them all. I am also happy to be back in the States because now I can always find American foods, like good hamburgers and ice cream (yes, all unhealthy, I know!), and it is always comfortable to use your native tongue. I also enjoy how I am now studying multiple subjects, because in China I studied only Chinese. It feels nice to get a break from intensive language study, and the language study served as a quality break from all these other subjects.

I think the oddest thing now that I am back at my small liberal arts college in rural New Hampshire is just how different life is. Not only is the culture in America a mountain across the valley from Chinese, but living in Beijing, one of the largest cities in the world, and then returning to live in a town with less than 5,000 residents has been a drastic change. In Beijing, I would bike every morning along with countless other itinerants – whether they were driving cars, riding bikes, or taking a taxi or public bus – to Tsinghua University. On my way, I would stop at a food peddler and buy a chicken and egg fried sandwich and stop at a street side vendor who sold milk tea. In the small town of New London, I live off campus and make breakfast every morning, then catch a ride to campus. There are no bikers, there is snow everywhere, and you only see some cars on the road. The way of life is so different that I am actually surprised I have not had more difficultly readjusting than I have.

My semester in Beijing has definitely changed me. I feel confident about living in cities, and I also know that I would love to return to China and continue my study of Chinese language and culture. Studying abroad was definitely a highlight – if not the highlight – of my college experience!

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