Got Water?

One of Jordan’s biggest industries is travel and tourism because it is replete with amazing historical sites and scenery. Fortunately, I have been able to relish in the natural beauty Jordan has to offer. From the Red Sea in the South to the lush olive groves in the North and the desert all in between, Jordan is truly breathtaking. Because tourism is so popular here, there are a number of initiatives to protect and preserve the ancient ruins as well as the natural beauty of many areas.

One such place is the Wadi Mujib Nature Preserve whichis located Southwest of Amman in the vast range of slot canyons that empty into the Dead Sea. We went soon after our arrival in Jordan because once the rainy season starts in the fall they close down until the next summer in order to avoid possible problems with flash flooding. We hiked up one of the slot canyons in about two-three feet of water, up to a big waterfall surrounded by the beautiful sandstone walls of the canyon, which strangely resembled the slot canyons in my home state of Utah. It was surreal. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a waterproof camera, so for a glimpse just Google it.

Despite that image of rivers of water flowing through the slot canyons, the single biggest problem in Jordan is their lack of water resources. They have one of the lowest rates of water per capita in the world. They draw most of their water from the Yarmouk River, the Jordan River (which are shared with Syria and Israel), and an underground non-renewable aquifer. These will be supplemented by the planned water pipeline bringing water from the Red Sea and pumping it into the Dead Sea. This will help replenish the Dead Sea, whose water level has been receding steadily, and also provide potable water to the public. Water is a very serious issue in Jordan and only intensifying with the constant waves of refugees from neighboring countries.
To give an idea of how bad the water situation is in Amman, water is only pumped to your neighborhood once a week. One day per week water is pumped to your neighborhood and fills your water tank on the roof. That precious supply is all you have until the next week. Showers are intermittent and quick, toilets are flushed sparingly, and washing dishes is done with absolute minimal water. Even observing these strict water-usage guidelines, it is not uncommon for the water tank to run dry. When that happens it is very expensive to have a water truck drive out and refill it, and, in reality, many do not have the resources to pay for it. Water conservation is a very conscious part of daily life, which differs drastically with most places in the US where water is more than abundant and relatively inexpensive. This is one of the most salient aspects of my experience in Jordan and it has made me question my own history of blatant water overuse and made me profoundly grateful for the abundant supply of natural resources in the U.S.

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Guinea Pig and the Peruvian Approach to Food

Peru is famous for cuy, which Americans call guinea pig.  At the high altitudes in the mountains large animals can be difficult to maintain, so guinea pigs fill diets with protein.  The first question any good Peruvian asks a foreigner is “Have you tried cuy?”  I didn’t think my trip to Peru would be complete without eating this famous dish, so I communicated to my family that I wanted to try it.  One day, I came home from work to find a full guinea pig on my plate.  I must say, cuy does not taste like chicken.  The flavor is difficult to describe, although perhaps the even more interesting part was prying meat off the bones of a guinea pig; that is not a behavior I was accustomed to.  I did enjoy it, although there are other foods whose flavor I prefer.  I have also had the privilege of visiting guinea pig farms, which is a stark contrast to the cute cages for our pets in the United States.

Peruvian Guinea Pigs

Peruvian Guinea Pigs

Overall, the food in Peru has been fantastic.  Breakfast consists of eggs, white rice, occasionally vegetables like avocado and tomato, and fresh bread from a local oven.  This bread is made in round, individual pieces instead of loaves.  The mountainous region of Peru is known for its soups, and almost every lunch begins with one of these delicious dishes.  Lunch will also have rice or potatoes and some type of meat.  Dinner is often a repeat of lunch, since it tends to be a smaller meal that is warmed up individually.  My taste buds have yet to be disappointed by a Peruvian meal.

The largest meal in Peru is lunch.  Accordingly, almost all working people go home from 1 to 3 PM every day.  Everyone eats lunch together.  This is the primary time to meet each other and reminisce about the day.  Because of this long lunch break, many Peruvians don’t return home until 8 or 9 at night.  In the US, lunch is typically more of an individual affair.  Dinner is our primary meal, and working people almost always eat lunch apart from family.  We often will eat dinner as a family around 6 or 7 in the evening, when Peruvians would still be working.  Our structure is probably a reflection of the mobility of our society.  Since we often hold jobs very far from home, it could be both difficult and expensive for us to transport ourselves home and back twice a day.  The Peruvian work structure is different, since jobs are almost always geographically close to home.  A break in the middle of the day is not a major inconvenience for them, and I know they value time with family between stressful times at work.  Overall, the Peruvian system is different, but I am seeing how it is very consistent with the values of Peruvian culture.

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Acquiring Acquaintances Abroad: An Arduous Assignment

For me, as a devastatingly taciturn individual, it is difficult to develop friendships, regardless of where I am in the world.  I have this horrible tendency towards silence—the more people gathered in a room, the quieter I become.  It is not a conscious choice either.  I do not stand there and think, “Well, I’m just not going to talk.”  My lack of loquacity is really something that just happens to me.  My brain, it seems, decides on its own to take a short vacation.  Words escape me.  And while I stand there, not quite (but almost) literally lacking mental functioning, a person comes up to me and makes the attempt.  They try to engage me in conversation (read: small talk), and whatever small bits of thinking ability remained before have now disappeared entirely.  My mouth produces words instinctively while a red light in my brain flashes and blares incessantly; it is a warning—Get yourself out of this dangerous situation, immediately!

I know, of course, that my social anxiety isn’t something that many people reading this blog will endure themselves.  However, it is something very real for me, and indeed something that has played a very large role in my study abroad experiences.  In a lot of ways (and certainly the most obvious), it hinders me.  Friendships are gained by means of social interactions, and often they are begun by the dreaded small talk. Unfortunately, I go through this horrendous process of 1) not knowing what to say, and 2) not being able to say it anyway. For whatever reason, in social situations, I become a completely different person. The voice, thoughts, and opinions that come out of my mouth are never my own. They are filler words, phrases chosen not conscientiously, but accidentally, spur of the moment. This is true even in English, so you can imagine my ability to converse in Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, or Lithuanian.

Even I, though, have managed to find friendships while living abroad. In Costa Rica, I worked with a small NGO dedicated to protecting the rights of HIV/AIDS-infected persons. Much of my time was spent at La Casa de Paz, a shelter for drug addicted women, and oddly enough, these people—the employees and the women themselves—became my closest friends. It’s because of them that I learned to speak Spanish and really it’s because of them that I understood Costa Rica as something more than a popular tourist destination.

In India, my greatest friendships came in the form of my host family, an ironic twist of fate. You see, I’d had two host families in Costa Rica too, and though they certainly had their merits, I did not want to repeat the experience in future travels abroad. Being my socially awkward, naturally introverted self, host families are a less than ideal setup. After a full day of classes and conversations and public outings, the last thing my brain wants to do is return home for a few hours of “obligatory chitchat.” Is it great for language learning? Absolutely. Is it great for my sanity? Probably not.

When I learned that I was to have a host family in India, then, I was less than pleased. And it’s not that I worried my new family would be particularly mean or disagreeable either. Honestly, I was more worried that they would be too nice. Yes, I recognize how strange that sounds. How could I possibly have that concern? Well, like I mentioned above, after a full day of social interaction, I prefer to return home and be alone. Without those few hours of almost total isolation, I feel exhausted in such a way that I struggle to convey accurately in words. It’s not a physical exhaustion I feel, but rather a mental and emotional one. Few people understand this personality quirk of mine, and I expected that my Indian host family would fall into this category. After all, hosting a study abroad student is an exciting opportunity. It’s as much an opportunity for the hosts to learn about American culture as it is for the guests to learn about the hosts’ culture. I feared that I would be a disappointment for my host family.

I was fortunate, though, in that the woman and her daughter (my Indian family) never made me feel out of place. They offered their home to me entirely. They taught me how to eat like an Indian, demonstrating the proper scooping hand motion, something that took a good two weeks to perfect. They told me what they thought of the Indian government, the education system, and the media. For some reason, the three of us (and our personalities) worked well together. Over time, our relationship deepened—first from roommates to acquaintances, and then from acquaintances to friends, and finally from friends to a makeshift family.

China was an altogether different experience from Costa Rica and India. For one thing, I lived in a dorm room on the campus of Zhejiang University. My days consisted almost exclusively of two things: attending Chinese class and studying for Chinese class. It’s difficult to incorporate friendships in your life when you’re immersed in the Chinese style of education. As it turned out, my professors and classmates became my best friends. I should tell you that I didn’t recognize this at first. In the beginning, my mind distinctly demarcated the words classmate and friend. But it’s quite difficult for them not to overlap when class feels like your life. In fact, the forced Chinese conversation homework proved to be an excellent way to avoid small talk. I learned about my classmates’ lives in the most raw, simplest form because, well, I could only understand Chinese in its most raw and simplest form.

Now onto my friendships in Lithuania, where I am to “study” for the next three months. Note the quotation marks around the work study. They’re there to indicate the uniqueness of my study abroad program in Lithuania. It feels insufficient, the phrase study abroad, because I don’t really feel like a student here. Much of my time is spent as an intern at the American Embassy in Vilnius, or participating in activities and attending outreach events that are in some way affiliated with the U.S. Department of State. Evenings and weekends here are my schooldays.

So much of this blog entry has concentrated on my shyness and introversion. You’re likely wondering how I fare as an intern in the Public Affairs Section of the American mission to Lithuania (responsible for all embassy outreach activities, public events, social gatherings, media, etc.). Well, I can assure you, it has been adjustment. Small talk is no longer that unfortunate thing I must endure every now and again; it is my life. And truthfully, even months into my internship, I’m just as dreadful at it as I was in the beginning. Here’s the deal: I’m no suave, debonair diplomat, and I never will be.

Unlike many of those with whom I work, I don’t have the natural ability to talk about anything and everything, and successfully feign interest. You can talk to me about your yarn factory as much as you want, but I can only think of so many questions about it before you realize I really couldn’t care any less. You might think of this as a weakness in a world where “stage presence” is a must at all times, but I’ve not found that to be the case. In my short time here, I have already found my fair share of friends (both Lithuanian and American and almost every other nationality you can imagine), and  it’s really because of my poor acting ability that I’ve done so. Guess what? Hating social functions is actually a reliable ice breaker because, for the most part, nobody enjoys them. They are simply a necessary evil. Thus has been my experience here anyway.

Before ending this blog post, I do want to make it clear that making friends abroad is difficult, more so even than in the U.S. The language barrier is one difficulty, of course. But so is finding common interest. Sometimes it’s even a struggle to find someone with a similar sense of humor. In the end, though, the struggle is worth it. When people tell me, “You’re not like the Americans on TV” and I tell them, “Well, you’re not like the [enter nationality here] I see on TV either,” a bond forms. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. Perhaps it’s something one must experience for themselves.

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Environmental Protection in Germany

During my time in Germany I have definitely had the opportunity to see a lot of the great outdoors. The University of Freiburg is situated in a valley in the Black Forest, so hiking, skiing and mountain biking are pretty normal weekend activities here. The area around Freiburg is paved with expansive well kept hiking and bike paths to make the outdoors accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Germany keeps the Black Forest and the rest of its natural resources beautiful by keeping very environmentally conscious. Recycling programs are commonplace here and most homes participate in a recycling technique called “Mülltrennung” or waste separation. Basically what they do here is that each home has several different trash cans into which the trash is sorted. For example, our apartment has three: One for plastic packaging, one for paper and one for the rest of the trash, which mostly comprises of food waste. Glass is also separated by color (brown, green and clear) into another set of cans outside of our building. This is something I truly wish to take back to the US with me when I leave. At first it is a little tedious, but once you get used to what goes where (the helpful signs many apartments hang over their trash cans help) it is really easy and it feels good to be doing something environmentally conscious.

Germany is also in the process of shutting down all of its nuclear power plants and switching to renewable, green energies, with wind energy and solar energy being a large part of the production. This decision came about after the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan in 2011, but protests against nuclear energy (and weapons) have been happening in Germany since the 1960s and especially since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Many cities in Germany already use solar or wind energy as a large part of their power supply. For example, Vauban, a part of Freiburg, is famous for being completely powered by solar energy and being a car-free neighborhood. The world’s first house which produces more energy than it creates, called the Heliotrope, was built in by Rolf Disch in Freiburg in 1994. (It looks really awesome, too: It even physically rotates so that its solar panels face the sun for optimum energy production. How cool!

Although Germany is known for its car companies, such as BMW, many Germans commute to work and school via public transportation such as buses or street cars or by bike. Many parts of large cities, such as Freiburg, are pedestrian only zones, encouraging the people to walk or bike. When driving long distances Germans often opt for bus or train travel over driving a car, as the prices of owning a car, gas and even getting a drivers license are much higher than in the US. The train system in Germany, and even most of Europe, is fairly well connected and relatively cheap, making it a great, green travel option. Many of my German friends here opt to walk, bike or take public transportation instead of driving their cars.

Go Green!


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Traveling in Europe

The great thing about being in Europe is the close proximity of neighboring European countries.  Not only are they close, but it is relatively cheap to visit them.  For example, I decided to fly to England and then to Italy and the total trip only cost me $250.  This included plane tickets with RyanAir and a bed and breakfast in each country, which I found on AirBNB.  For the frugal students in Europe like myself, I think these are the best choices.  One could opt to use blabla car or take the TGV, but the former is very time-consuming and the latter costs a lot more money.

If I had to choose which city and people I enjoyed most on this trip, I would have to give the edge to Rome and the Italians.  I chose a bed and breakfast in Vatican City and walked around the city for three days.  Of course, the two things on the top of my list to see were the Coliseum and the Sistine Chapel; the coliseum was nice but the Sistine Chapel is the crowning jewel of Rome.  To finally stare up at that breathtaking ceiling is a memory that I will cherish for the rest of my life.  No video or photos are allowed in that holy place, but you better believe that this heathen snuck a few.

While in Rome, certain parts felt like it was still the first century.  There are so many ruins and old architecture that it is easy to forget the modern world.  Nevertheless, while I walked down Via Del Corso, the stark contrast of the modern world became evident, as it was filled with shops such as Fendi and an Apple store.  All in all, I got the best of both worlds in Rome.

I love to visit places for the history and old man-made structures and artifacts.  I remember when I first arrived in France and I saw a cathedral that was built in the 11th century.  I was so amazed, but my landlord wondered why.  I had to explain to him that America is a young country compared to European countries, so it’s not often that we see one thousand year old buildings.  And that is why I loved Rome.  Not only did I visit the Coliseum and Sistine Chapel, but also the Pantheon, Vatican Gardens, St. Peter’s Basilica and Fontana Di Trevi.  I even went to the movies in Italy, which was a unique experience, as the movie, Hunger Games, was in Italian and there was a five minute intermission halfway through, during which the movie stopped, the lights came on, people left to use the bathroom or stood to converse with one another and venders walked the isles offering food and beverages; this was definitely a country which I will revisit.

My experience in England was not as favorable as Italy, but I still enjoyed myself.  The great thing about England was that I did not have to look up any foreign phrases or worry about fumbling through and messing up someone else’s language.  My mind was at ease whilst approaching the citizens of our mother country and that was a thing that I appreciated much.

However, I personally was not aware that the currency in England – the pound – had so much more value than the Euro.  Therefore, for us Americans whose dollar is only worth thirty cents in England, the trip can quickly become very expensive if one does not spend cautiously.  So, I did a lot of walking in England and ate light meals.  I chose a bed and breakfast in Central London that costs me $40 a night and I walked the River Thames, visiting every single tourist site along the way.  It was raining the whole two days that I was there, but I still had fun and loved that I was able to take a lot of pictures and video.

Because this is my first time out of the country, everything overseas is exciting for me.  I have resolved to encourage all of my friends and family to come overseas, and these trips to neighboring countries have left me wanting more.  I now hope one day to visit countries in Africa, but for now, the cheap trips in Europe will do.

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Adapting to Life in the Clouds

When I signed up to spend four months in Peru, I knew the first few weeks would be a challenge for me.  I knew no one in Cuzco, the city which I now inhabit.  I had only taken one formal Spanish course in the university, which is far less than most who study abroad in a country that does not speak their native language.  I was able to converse on a basic level with Spanish-speaking friends back home, but whenever my vocabulary faltered we could just switch to English.  No one speaks English in neither the clinic where I intern nor my host home, so that safety net was left in the U.S.  I knew this was exactly what I had signed up for, but I began to realize that all my thoughts couldn’t adequately prepare me for setting foot in another country for the first time.  Excitement and nervousness churned together in a maelström that consumed my thoughts for several weeks before departure.

Upon arrival, everything started coming together.  Cuzco is a beautiful city, full of  rich history and exquisite natural beauty.  I have adored mountains, since taking up rock climbing after a visit to Yosemite, CA.  At an elevation over 11,000 feet, which is about one-third the cruising altitude of many commercial jets, mountains are inescapable.  Awe washed over my exhausted body as I stepped off the plane and looked at the spectacular green peaks around me.  When my host family came to pick me up, I was relieved that my Spanish was sufficient to communicate with them.  Life would not entirely become a game of charades for the next four months.  Female Peruvians greet men and women by touching cheeks and kissing the air.  I knew these greetings were coming, but I still had some apprehension about putting them into practice.  I quickly learned that going with the flow is the optimal protocol for figuring out cultural differences like that one.  Additionally, I was fortunate enough to evade altitude sickness upon my arrival to this city in this clouds.  Within a day or two, my previous apprehensions had settled.

Main Street in Cuzco, Peru

Main Street in Cuzco, Peru

Despite the lessening of this initial apprehension, there have been difficult situations to navigate and days that were hard to endure.  For example, Peruvian public transport system is very different from the car-dominated area where I live in the states.  I need to ride the bus 30 minutes every day to arrive at Clínica Belenpampa, where my internship is held.  The bus system here is not organized the same was as in the U.S.  Instead of having a list of when each bus route will arrive at my stop, buses come and go as they please.  Each bus has a designated advertiser that shouts the stops and tries to convince people to get on.  Buses navigating the same route under the same name are not an identical set; my inability to recognize this in homogeneity has caused me to wait for extended periods of time at bus stops on numerous occasions.  Additionally, to get off the bus, there is no string to pull to let the driver know that you would like to get off at the next stop.  Instead, the advertiser shouts the stop names so that everyone can hear, then listens to hear if anyone requests to get off.  When sitting in the back of a packed bus with all seats filled and two rows of people in the aisle, communication with the front is difficult.  More than once I have realized I was going to be late to my next destination as the bus flew by my stop.

That said, minor frustrations such as buses or the language barrier cannot stop me from loving this place.  What I most appreciate and want to make sure I integrate into my life is the Peruvian approach to relationships.  For example, when a Peruvian walks into a room full of family, they greet every person individually.  A broad “hello” is not enough, because you are not showing your appreciation for each individual.  I was invited to a family reunion with my host family this weekend in a nearby town, and I got to see the Peruvian value of family and relationships first hand.  I did not time how long it took my host father to say goodbye to everyone, but I promise that everyone left that gathering knowing they were part of a loving family that cherished them.  There are certainly cases of tight families in United States, but Peruvian culture seems to be a system that fosters care and value to all who partake in it.

Overall, my experience suggests that the most critical component of adjusting to a new culture is staying engaged.  Getting frustrated should not lead to retracting and pulling away; it should nurture a new understanding that will inform the future.  Every day I learn how to better navigate the bus system.  Every day I learn a more of the medical Spanish that is rattled off at break-neck speed in the clinic.  This ability to learn and grow in a new culture is often dependent on our ability to continue to pursue understanding and friendship even in the midst of miscommunication and frustration.

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Here’s to Growing Up

It would be a terrible lie if I dared say China has not changed me. It has, and what I have learned here will guide my path in the future. Not only will the knowledge of the Chinese language help me, but the general insights into a country so vital to America’s and the world’s future will be exceptionally invaluable.

Since I have arrived in China, I have learned a lot about what it means to be Chinese. Beijing has been good to me, since it is the cultural hub of China, a place that has long been the capital, and along those lines has famous buildings to accompany a profound history. By visiting the Great Wall 长城 and the Forbidden City 故宫, I get to witness the strength of imperial China and observe a culture distinct in the world’s collage. It has humbled me and expanded my knowledge beyond the typical Western history most know in the United States; I get to put into perspective modernity and the shifting dynamics of East and West interactions.

I had the opportunity to travel in China to see just how big the country is. I stayed for a weekend at an oasis in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia 内蒙古, a province in China that borders Mongolia. I also took an overnight train to Xi’an and back, lending me the chance to see the world-famous Terra-Cotta Army 兵马俑. Every journey I get the chance to make only further embellishes the depth of history and culture in China. When riding a camel in the Gobi, I could not help but wonder who might have come before me in China’s 5,000 year history, or when I finally saw the Terra-Cotta Army and realized that it was 2,200 years old – that is simply unfathomable!

Additionally, I have learned what I want to do in the future, from my study abroad experience. I am from a rural town in Maine that no one knows of outside the state, a town so small I had never heard of it until I moved there, yet I have survived in one of the largest metropolises in the world, Beijing. I feel like I could live anywhere in the world after this and be happy there, too. I have also met some great people from all over the world, forging some bonds that will never die. Life, success, money – what would it matter without companionship? It is something I realize now that having companionship is an integral part to achieve a happy life.

It is indubitable that my career path post-degree will be impacted by my experience here. The Gilman Scholarship provided me with a positive mark on my résumé, which will help towards future employment in study abroad field. Additionally, if I choose to continue studying literature or philosophy, I will have to look at China’s contribution to the fields. I have already taken an interest in the philosophies of Confucius, Mencius, and Lao Tzu, and why would I end this interest?

There are still many more days here in China, but I can already confidently say that this country has bettered me, perhaps even more than I an aware. With every milestone I achieve, I am able to self reflect and I will always be grateful for this experience and how it has impacted me.

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