Hujambo! A first glance at preparing for, and living in Tanzania

The two weeks leading up to my study abroad program were a complete whirl of excitement and anxiety. Preparing to leave the country for four months was one thing, but preparing to spend a significant amount of time in the wilderness of was a completely different challenge. Thirty-three nights of camping in the African bush is a part of my upcoming program, and that’s not exactly something I could slack on preparing for. However, between balancing time with friends and family, and taking care of numerous pre-departure tasks (vaccines, banking business, and the like), I had almost no time leftover for all the other things I needed to prepare for. My last days in California were spent racing around town buying tents, compact sleeping bags and sleeping pads, water purification tablets, and malaria medication. I was up until 3:30 in the morning the day before my flight, as I struggled to cram all of my gear into one 55 Liter pack (I ended up being unsuccessful at fitting everything in one pack and was forced to check that bag and add a second backpack…not the most ideal setup). I spent the rest of my night being nervous about adjusting to a new culture – at this point the excitement had yet to sink in.

Two full days of travel later, I stepped off my plane and into the warm night air at the Kilimanjaro airport. I finally met my fellow wildlife conservation program students. After our group went through customs, we are all shuffled into Safari trucks for a two hour drive to our campsite at the Ndarikwai ranch. We scramble to set up our tents in the midnight darkness, but soon found ourselves drifting off to a chorus of frogs and the low snort-grumbles of impala.AA1

I awoke at sunrise filled with excitement (which was surprising considering the terrible jet lag I was feeling), and was amazed as the real beauty of this area came into full view. The silhouette of Kilimanjaro loomed over us in the distance to one side, and mount Meru towered on the other. A troop of baboons played in the trees as fiesty infants jumped on their mothers to alert them of morning, and the birds provided a soundtrack to the start of the day, with hundreds of species announcing their presence.

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We were introduced to our program director Baba Jack and the rest of our Tanzanian staff before going on a long hike through the Ndarikwai area–a ranch turned conservation reserve, where Maasai herders live side by side with zebra, wildebeest, and many other wild animals. It is one of the few wildlife areas in the country where you are permitted to walk the area, instead of being forced to remain inside of your safari car. This made for a unique experience walking in the savannah under acacia trees and next to herds of grazing mammals.

 

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Camping in a secluded natural environment for one week was one of the best ways to welcome our group into beautiful Tanzania. We had a chance to connect with fellow students, get to know our director and staff members, and even chat a little Swahili with our camp cooks. It was certainly a great way to ease into being orientated to a new country and culture.

 

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Dear Google: My Flight’s On The 24th, If You Don’t Already Know

By the end of December– a full month before my flight to Amman, Jordan– YouTube was suggesting that I watch “How to Dabke” (Arab folk dance) and a video walkthrough of making Knafeh (Levantine pastry).  An advertisement on Facebook prompted me to sign up for traveler’s insurance which, it assured me, works “great for the Middle East!”

Google Chrome had figured out my itinerary.  Of course, I hadn’t exactly made it difficult.  Facebook and Netflix were stubbornly lodged in the display of most-visited tabs shown whenever I open a new browser window, but the Jordan Times, BBC Arabic, and Google Maps had joined them.  My search history included such gems as “Culture of Jordan” and “Are harissa sauce and harissa cake related?” (but actually, one is hot chili pepper paste and the other sweet semolina cake… what in the world do they have in common?)  I had watched videos of Jordanian dancing, Jordanian pop stars, and Jordanian comedy.  I’d zoomed in on Google maps satellite view until I got the closest, grainiest view of Amman available, and read through every entry by previous Gilman scholars in Jordan (thanks for the advice, guys).

It’s easy to chalk up my mildly obsessive internet research to nerves, but I don’t think that’s quite it; after all, I didn’t feel nervous.  I was confident I would be in a good program, surrounded by wonderful people.  I was downright eager to improve my Arabic fluency (which, despite a few semester of previous study, falls somewhere between “mediocre” and “passable”).  So why was I looking up the total land area of Jordan (34,495 mi2)?  The average hours of sunlight per day (almost 10)?  The national flower (black iris)?

Do me a favor: tell me where you’re living next semester.  Go on.  Picture it.  Tell me, will you need warm clothing in March, or will it be sunny and mild?  What will you eat for breakfast?  How will you get to school– bus, taxi, drive, walk?  What will you do for fun, to fill your nights and weekends?

You probably know all of that.  I don’t.

I don’t know if I’ll be taking a taxi to school… if I will, I don’t know how much it will cost, or how I’ll hail one, or how to talk to the driver, or even what currency I’ll be paying in!  Well, okay, I do know the currency, but that’s only because I’ve visited the Wikipedia article for the Jordanian Dinar a time or two.  Or ten.

And that, I think is the reason for learning about the history of Queen Rania, looking at articles about Jordan’s decision to recently reinstate the death penalty, and learning how kadaif noodles are made.  Everything– from my daily commute to their judicial system– is new and completely unknown.  I still don’t know where my residence will be; I’m going to get on a plane in a little over a week, and fly to a country I’ve never seen on a continent I’ve never visited, and show up without a clue where I’ll be sleeping that night.  Or how I’ll get coffee the next morning, which, let’s face it, is probably higher priority.

I am so incredibly-indescribably-amazingly-exorbitantly excited.  Incredidescribablamazibitantly excited.  See?  I had to make a new adverb, because I didn’t have one to sufficiently convey how excited I am.  I can’t wait to meet other students, to learn about the city, to have terribly awkward attempts at conversation in Arabic (scratch “passable,” my Arabic skills are definitely more “mediocre”), to try knafeh in real life.  I’m incredidescribablamazibitantly excited for the whole semester, even though I have no idea what’s waiting for me beyond the airport.

What I do know: the national bird is the Sinai Rosefinch; the national football team (soccer, my American friends) is called Al-Nashaamaa (“the Chivalrous”); a qirsh and piastre are equal and both 1/100 of a dinar.  And I know that this semester is going to be amazing beyond belief.

And so, armed with these facts, these few small certainties, I feel better facing all of the grand uncertainties awaiting me… except for not knowing how harissa sauce and harissa cake are related; that one’s really annoying me.  Seriously, anybody have a clue?  Even Google didn’t know.

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Gilman Scholar Dustin Ellis’ Daily Life – Homestay

Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Dustin Ellis. Dustin is serving as a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent during the academic year 2014-2015 studying in Barcelona, Spain. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.

 

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Ba Beenen Yoon! (“Until next time” in Wolof)

Life back in America! I can’t believe I’m home already. The last four months flew by and were filled with many memorable and life changing experiences. It’s difficult to put into word the mark that Africa and Senegal has left on my heart.  It’s been a rougher adjustment than I planned.

Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal… “Reverse culture shock” is the proper name. And it’s just another opportunity to take my experience and apply it in terms of normal life. G.K. Chester said, “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.” America is foreign to me right now, yet this is why I love to travel! I feel that my adventure to Africa makes me a better American and permits me to live life and be more aware of my surroundings. Traveling is what brings life- no wonder most humans enjoy traveling.

So now what!?!? In five short months I will graduate with my undergraduate degree. I will have some big life changes- graduate school, work, travel? Such big decisions, but my dream is to combine all three. I am applying to three graduate programs and working hard to achieve my dream of becoming a foreign service officer. And Africa? I WILL go back. I have to because it means so much to me.  It has taught me valuable lessons that I hope to integrate, particularly the power in community, the value of creating long lasting relationships, and understanding the precious truth that people are what matter most, not material things.

I already had a funny experience with my new “Africanized” self. In Brussels, I had a long layover, so my friend Nobi and I decide to go downtown and check out the Christmas market. We stopped at a waffle shop (because how could you go to Belgium and not get a waffle???), and I started talking with the waffle lady. “How are you?” “How is your family?”  She gave the strangest look and sheepishly muttered “OK.” I realized that we don’t ask people about their personal life in western culture. She was probably thinking that I was a stalker or I was trying to get a favor from her. I hope to be more open because of my study abroad time in Senegal. I believe deep down people enjoy this little piece of Africa, even though their culture might be screaming “Stranger Danger!” I’m grateful that my cultural blindfold has been lifted up for a few months to better enjoy the world around me.

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“Setting Foot on One’s Own Country as a Foreign Land”

Nearly every day of my semester abroad my colleagues and I would long for something we missed about the States, whether it be something as seemingly trivial as “real” ketchup, or something as abstract as the subtle pleasure of public anonymity. Now that I am back in the States, I am struck by the truth of the fact that we human beings never seem to be able to be content with the things we have in front of us—the grass is indeed greener on the other side of the fence, or in this case, on the other side of “the pond”.Xiahe

Right away, standing at the baggage claim at O’Hare airport in Chicago, I felt the pangs of reverse culture shock. Everything was in English! The intercom announcements, the signs, the chatter of the people around me. I had become so used to having to strain to understand even the most simple intercom announcement, and eavesdropping had become a learning activity rather than an automatic reflex. But the strongest shock of all was the overt physical difference of the people. There were people of all different shapes, sizes, skin-colors, and languages being spoken. I had become so used to the ostensible homogeneity of the appearances of the Chinese public. As superficial as this observation may be, it leaves a strong impression upon any “foreigner” who has spent time in China and does not fit this physical mold. Returning to the United States reminded me of the unique quality of our nation, which brings together people from diverse nations, language-groups, ethnicities, religions, and political ideologies. For that reason, it felt good to be back. Despite the long journey home, I waited for my bags with a big grin on my face.

A few days later, I found myself sitting alone in my apartment, eating Chinese takeout with chopsticks. It was only then that I became aware of how much I missed life in China, and how much of an impact my time there had on me on so many levels. I miss the cheap food, the snack carts that can be found on any given corner at any given hour, the fresh produce markets, the hot soymilk for fifty cents, no tipping, the men and women gathered in mornings and evenings in the local park, square, or parking lot, practicing tai-chi, ball-room dancing, roller-blading, or playing the Chinese version of hackey-sack (and the sense of community these scenes express). I miss the novelty of each new day’s experience, and the challenge that was sure to present itself in struggling to accomplishing even the most basic tasks. I miss the camaraderie of my colleagues and the intensity of my Chinese language course. And possibly most of all, I miss the WeChat stickers.

On the other hand, it is great to be back. It is hard to do justice to the joy of switching on my phone, and being able to open youtube, facebook, gmail, or perform a google search in a matter of seconds. Not to mention the ease of going online in general—I can actually upload photos and stream movies without having to connect to a VPN!! At times the Great Firewall was beyond enraging, particularly around mid-terms and finals when all I needed was to quickly access my email or look something up, but it takes over an hour for your VPN to connect, or the internet is operating slower than the speed of molasses and nothing will load.

The first time I went out to dinner with my family after getting back, I just could not decide what to order. Everything sounded amazing, and for the life of me I could not pull the trigger. Only in retrospect did I realize that this was in part due to the fact that for the first time in five months I could actually read and understand everything that was on the menu—no wonder I had trouble: there were so many options!! It’s also very nice to have hot water at any hour of the day, and to be able to drink water out of the tap without a second thought. And though it is so quickly taken for granted, I am so happy not to have to worry about checking the air quality index on a day-to-day basis, or whether or not I should wear a mask. The air here in Chicago may be freezing cold, but hey—at least it is clean.DSC_0524

At least for me, China is a place that you can’t have a fling with. Even a short period of time spent living there changes you. The cultural differences, the language, the food, the way of life—all of it gets under your skin and becomes a part of you. Its influence envelopes you and beckons you back. After I graduate this spring, I want to return for a longer period of time. I want to make more progress in speaking Mandarin. I want to continue to travel within China in order to experience first-hand its complexity and diversity. I would like to live in a city other than Beijing, just to get a feel for a different city with a different feel than the capital. I plan to take at least a year to travel and work there, before continuing on to graduate school. I am confident that the progress in language skill in addition to the experiences gained from traveling in a foreign land will become defining life-long assets. I can say that this semester study abroad, though it seemed to fly by, has definitively shaped my future goals and the course of my life’s path. I am infinitely grateful to have had the opportunity to study abroad, and encourage anyone with a similar opportunity to jump on it. You will not be disappointed.

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Celebrating the Holidays in Istanbul

This year’s holiday season was different for two reasons. The first being that Turkey does not share the same national holidays with the United States, such as Thanksgiving. The second reason involves religion. Since the majority of Turkish people are Muslims, they do not actively celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas. However, having friends from all over the world means we get to share our holiday traditions with each other!

Thanksgiving was the first of the big holidays I missed while abroad. My fellow Americans and I were definitely longing for some our favorite family dishes, so we decided to make our own Thanksgiving dinner with some of our new international friends. We talked about why Thanksgiving is an American holiday and even shared what we were all thankful for. I think I can say that my non-American friends thoroughly enjoyed the holiday; I know I did!

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Yes, we ate turkey in Turkey!

Since the big holidays celebrated in the US are not celebrated here, there is no reason for the university to have breaks. Therefor, when I should have been celebrating Christmas Eve, I was in the library studying for my first final, which was on Christmas day. Thankfully, this didn’t bother me all that much because it didn’t even feel like Christmas. Although we had studying to do, my friends and I still managed to go to a neighborhood near our university to have a nice dinner.

Christmas is definitely a well known holiday, being the subject in many famous movies and songs.  People from all different spectrums enjoy the idea of giving, so although people may not celebrate it for religious reasons, they enjoy the idea of it. This is why in certain neighborhoods in Istanbul the Christmas spirit was very much alive. Lights were strung through out the streets and Christmas trees were even put up in some places. Walking these streets after my final made me feel right at home.

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Who doesn’t like Christmas lights anyway?

The holidays are best spent with family. Obviously I missed my family in the States, but I had made a new family in Istanbul and I was so happy to celebrate the holidays with them. The best part of this year’s holiday was not the food or the finishing of classes, but learning about other people’s traditions and customs that accompany the holidays. Listening to all the different traditions really put a true meaning to the holidays. It doesn’t matter which holidays you celebrate, just as long as you are with the ones that mean the most to you.

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Don’t Add Sugar (Nate’s Travel Tips)

Traveling isn’t brutality; it’s a skill you develop with experience. Visiting tens of cities and countries over a short span of time, or even visiting one for that matter, can be at once exhilarating and exhausting; I’m by no means an expert, but I have picked up some knowledge over the three week-long travel breaks we get for the DIS program in Denmark. I was lucky enough to travel through Germany, Austria, Italy during the first break, visit doctors in Stockholm, Sweden and Tallinn, Estonia during the second, and explore the United Kingdom on the third. I learned that if I prepared properly and kept the right attitude, the journey definitely strained a lot less and thrilled a lot more. If you read nothing else in this post, definitely read the tips!

Preparing keeps you sane – you can rely on the fact that you’ve brought what you need. Your pack becomes your best friend and source of comfort. It simply feels better to be walking around in a foreign place if you have the familiarity of your pack literally anchoring you down to the path. This also means that packing right is packing light – I found that with a light backpack I could avoid paying for lockers and save the time some people spend on going to their accommodation first. I also discovered a kind of “survival” kit of times I had to pack. Like Adams tells us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, having a towel is strangely reassuring (as if you’re saying to yourself “I’ve come through all this crazy traveling and yet I managed to keep my towel, so I must have done something right”) and it’s wicked useful – I used it as a blanket one night I got to my hostel too late, a soft cushion for some Venetian glass I bought as a gift, and even as a tool to dry myself off after showering. Other items I wouldn’t usually think of like ziplock bags, locks (yes, multiple), tape and a notecard box (helps keep small items safe) came in very handy as well. The final and most important aspect of preparing I discovered was researching where I was headed. With this you have to strike a tricky balance – you have to know enough to have historical and cultural literacy of the place (Don’t go to Estonia not knowing it was a country like I did, it makes for very awkward conversations), but without over-saturating yourself. You want to have enough background to know what, who, and where to be interested in but still retain enough ignorance to enjoy learning about and experiencing the place. Being a boy scout about travel (“Always be prepared”) can earn you some derisive laughs from inexperienced friends, but you’ll have a much better experience if you are.

The other, probably more, important lesson I learned is to have a very certain attitude while you’re traveling. Being overly optimistic is foolish – things are going to go wrong, and not recognizing that before you leave will only leave you worse off when they happen. At the same time, you obviously have to enjoy the experience! That’s the key idea right there. Traveling is experiencing, and experiences in themselves are neither positive nor negative things. The effort, curiosity, and openness you put into them and the friendliness, helpfulness, and interest of strangers (yes, they can in fact be nice!) can come together to make the journey fun and rewarding. So, some tips:

 

  1. “Don’t Panic” (Again from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, which I read after my second break and found oddly accurate). Although I faced numerous, often daily, times that I wanted to give up in frustration and just lie down, having a constant faith that no matter how long it took, or in what way, I would get to the destination I had in mind. Just be patient! Taking a breath, mentally removing myself from the situation, when I felt myself starting to panic helped immensely.
  2. Open yourself to experience (Or learn to). Of course this is largely a personality trait but everyone has some leniency – I’m actually a fairly shy, closed person but I managed to open myself to talking with random strangers, meeting people (especially welcoming hosts), and I slowly but surely became more comfortable with it. In this is a willingness to not do just the touristy things, but to go further and to explore the “real” place, or at least less commercialized version of it. The people who live in a place make it unique, give it culture unlike anywhere else. Ask them what they think you should do! Maybe you’ll even get invited to do something with them!
  3. Accept your mistakes. During my first trip to Germany, Austria, and Italy, I had some really fun experiences as well, but my mistakes overshadowed them. And unfortunately humans have this horrible tendency to forecast how they feel in the moment into the future (ever tried to cheer someone up after a bad breakup? “But I’m always going to feel this miserable!”). But then I had this wonderful realization that I had to forgive myself. Picking myself up, healing over the two week course-period, and leaping into the next travel break made it so much more enjoyable than the first. And the best part? I’d learned what not to do from the first trip.

 

So I guess I’d like to revise how I started this post. Travel can be brutality, I see traveling like how I imagine many captains have described the ocean over the years: arg mate, ‘she’s a wild and beauty but ye need to tame ‘er, ride ‘er or shell toss ye overboard quick as that.’ (Sorry for being corny, haha). Travel will whip you around and kick you until you’re bruised washed up and close to crying on the side of a road in Rome at 2:15 am if you let it (true story). But it can also be an extraordinary experience through which you grow. Your Choice…

I’d like to finish with a connection to my interest in psychology. We panic when we perceive something as a threat. One of my professors described something he called the “Zone of Proximal Growth,” which can be thought of as the extent to which anything we experience can help us grow (literally, personally, professionally, etc.). Basically, we perceive everything inside this metaphoric “zone” as a challenge to be overcome and everything outside as a threat to be avoided. One of the main goals of travelling, for many people, is to expand their zone of proximal growth by being open to new unforeseen experiences and, as a result, grow from them rather than fear them and panic. As Floyd Skloot (2003) profoundly said: “It’s not so much a matter of making lemonade out of life’s lemons, but rather of learning to savor the shock, taste, texture and aftereffects of a mouthful of unadulterated citrus” (In the Shadow of Memory, p.197). Although he’s talking about learning to live with the loss of memory in dementia, potential travelers can learn a lot from his positive, but candid, acceptance and even joy in experience, no matter its quality. So, fellow traveler, don’t add sugar. 

 

 

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