Volunteering While Abroad

Making volunteer work part of your study abroad experience is a great opportunity to learn more about the culture you are living in. It allows you to see the country through a different lens that you don’t get to see when traveling as a tourist. It gives you the opportunity to understand the struggles that the country faces and how you can help with them.

I have had the opportunity to participate in a couple of volunteer activities mostly geared towards environmental conservation and farming, since that is related to my field of study. They were enriching experiences that made me more in touch with Thailand. Some of them touched me so much and expanded my knowledge of many of the struggles that people face that we never hear about or learn in a classroom. It also has given me the chance to then share what I learned with others through things like social media.

One of the experiences that really opened my eyes was when I got the opportunity to volunteer in an elephant sanctuary where they rescue elephants that are abused and exploited in rides and shows for tourists. For many tourists that come to Thailand, riding an elephant is on their top to do list, or going to shows where these elephants perform. What they don’t think about is the abuse that these animals go through to learn these tricks and the pain they have to go through when people ride them. I cried so much when I was learning about this and I hope that people educate themselves and instead of riding elephants, choose to instead learn about the many other ways they can connect with beautiful creatures.

Feeding rescued elephants from explotation and abuse by tourist treeking and shows

Feeding elephants rescued from exploitation and abuse by tourist trekking and shows.

Spending time with dogs rescued from the 2011 Bangkok flood

Spending time with dogs rescued from the 2011 Bangkok flood.

As an exchange student looking for volunteer opportunities, I found that the biggest challenges are the language barrier and the flexibility of the programs. The language barrier is something that is very difficult to work around, especially when you arrive in a country without knowing any of the language like I did. While there are many volunteer opportunities for foreigners, the majority revolve around teaching English to Thai people. Teaching English is a great way to give back to the community since this is a skill that is very useful for the people of Thailand, but if you are not a native English speaker (like me) it is difficult and requires a very strong commitment. This also brings me to my other piece of advice which is understanding the importance of flexibility. While studying abroad I believe that your utmost priority is to study, followed by learning from your travels and involvement in your community. What I found was that many volunteer programs in Thailand ask for a lot of time from their volunteers, something that is very difficult as a student since you can’t skip class. I understand the need for long-term volunteers because the organizations need responsible people who they can regularly count on to expand their mission. But as an exchange student this is not always possible.

Mangrove reforestation. Many areas are being lost to shirmp and salt farms.

Volunteering with mangrove reforestation. Many areas are being lost to shrimp and salt farms.

Visiting orquid farms in Bangkok for future work experience

Volunteering at the orchid farms in Bangkok.

To overcome this, I recommend talking to your host university about potential places you could volunteer as a student. This way you overcome the language barrier, since the host university has connections with different people and they can help you visit multiple organizations to learn more about different issues and needs in your host country. This method worked well for me, and I was blessed by the fact that the International Office of our university organizes entire trips for international students to volunteer and learn about the issues of the country, something that I hope many other universities implement and that I will suggest to my own university back  home.

Another thing that I wish I thought about more before coming here is the opportunity to participate in an internship as a volunteer. Since paid internships are rare and tricky with student visas, volunteer internships are a great way to build up your professional resume while simultaneously volunteering in an area of your choice. I can imagine this is a great way to earn credit while abroad, and it also allows you to have a set time during the week to work on something you are passionate about.

Apart from volunteering I strongly recommend learning about the minorities in your host country because you will learn a great deal about situations you probably didn’t know existed. I had the opportunity to visit a community center and mosque for Thai Muslims, the biggest minority in Thailand, and learned so many things I was very ignorant about before. One thing that really impacted me was learning how Thailand is affected by the global refugee crisis, in addition to the European and Middle Eastern countries you hear about in the news. Many Burmese and Chinese Muslims leave their country and come to Thailand to escape persecution from their governments and that is something I was very ignorant about before and glad I could learn about.

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Visiting and interacting with the kids at a Muslim community center.

It doesn’t matter what kind of volunteering you choose to get involved in. Every kind action matters and impacts at least one person. When you see the results of your efforts, it fills you with great pride and a deeper connection with your surroundings. After our final exams I will have some time before leaving Thailand, and I look forward to dedicating that time to visiting and volunteering at local farms for a couple of weeks. As I begin packing to return to Puerto Rico, I will also remember to donate everything I can’t take back home with me in my luggage.

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Culture Shock

You hear a lot about culture shock when preparing to go abroad. Ranging from a short trip to a permanent move, culture shock is something that all travelers will experience at some point. Studying abroad is probably one of the most direct ways to encounter culture shock in my opinion, and I’ve definitely had my fair share of it since going abroad for the first time five years ago while I was in high school.

I find myself comparing my bouts with culture shock here in Japan to my high school experience in Thailand, and while there are quite a few similarities there are also quite a few differences. For one, I feel that when I lived with a host family in Thailand I had to confront my language inability and misunderstandings of the culture much more quickly than I’ve had to do here, living in an apartment. Also, having studied abroad before gave me a lot more tools to prepare for the first initial lows of culture shock and how to get myself through that phase with more ease. However even with my previous knowledge and preparations that I tried to make for this experience in Japan, I still found myself getting hit extremely hard with homesickness, something I still struggle with with only approximately ninety days left of my exchange.

 

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These photos are from a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in Nikko. You wear traditional Japanese yukata and use the onsen (the public baths, although they also have some private ones at this ryokan).

 

However at this point I’m getting into the more exciting phase of my study abroad experience by starting to accept the cultural differences that I’ve learned here and starting to see Japan as not just my home, but a place where I understand the culture and am starting to be able to say that I’m a part of – even if it’s not in the traditional way. Just a couple days ago, I was showing some of my roommate’s friends from Canada around Tokyo and I realized that I’m much more integrated into the culture than I see myself sometimes. To further elaborate, this week in Japan is a celebration called “Golden Week” which is basically a term that encompasses several holidays that all happen within a very short time span. So I suggested to my roommate’s friends that we go to Meiji Jingu to see if there were any activities going on at the shrine. Sure enough, there were a ton of things to see — several wedding processions, traditional performances, and markets. I found that I was able to answer all the questions asked of me. I could explain why something was happening a certain way or translate what was being said. It felt, in a way, that I was explaining things that happen in the culture that I’m in and apart of, even though I’m not Japanese and it’s not my nation’s history, but just because I’ve gotten so used to being here and have started to get a deeper connection to the people around me.

 

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This can be seen at many shrines in Japan. It is the water used to purify yourself before prayer by washing your hands and mouth. 

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This is another common aspect of the shrine culture in Japan: If you go to get your fortune read and have a bad fortune, you tie it on these in hopes of getting rid of the bad luck.

 

With only ninety days left of my time in Tokyo, I feel quite conflicted about the idea of going back to the United States. On one hand, I’m excited to be returning to see my friends and family and to start back with my traditional studies. But I still feel like I haven’t had enough time here to fully grasp my surroundings and the language and cultural understanding that I was desiring before setting out on this experience. I think I’m starting to realize that maybe that’s one of the saddest things about studying abroad. It’s such a rare occurrence to be able to live in a different country in the way that you do when you’re studying abroad, and in the end it feels like the time goes too fast. Yet in the end, even if you do feel sad, you would never change the experience for anything else in the world. In my opinion, the ultimate bittersweet moment.

 

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This photo is from Ueno Park during sakura (cherry blossom) viewing time. People usually have picnics together and walk around the parks with their friends and family to look at the iconic trees.

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Feeling Off Balance

“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 definitely identify with the statement above in different ways. I think Cesare Pavese was trying to say that traveling can be a brutality when you’re unwilling to adapt to your new environment. My host university, BOKU (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences) recently had an Easter break, and in a matter of three weeks I traveled to 12 cities in 6 countries. No, of course not alone! I traveled with two other girlfriends, and in order we traveled to: Bratislava, Slovakia; London, England; Paris, France (my favorite city in the world), Bergamo, Milan, Verona, Venice, Florence, Pisa in Italy, to the Vatican City and Rome in Italy, and finally Chania on the Crete Islands of Greece.

 

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Lots of colorful buildings in Venice!

 

Essentially, nothing was ours. We had the luxury of hostels and everything that was provided to us, but since we weren’t staying in each place for a long period of time, the only thing we could call our own were the adventures we had, the laughs we shared, and the foods we ate. Not necessarily the material things, but the essential things. Nothing actually felt like our own until we were compelled to visit a McDonald’s during our stay in Verona. We called it a safe haven. We didn’t know the hostel we chose to stay at didn’t have WiFi, and we still had assignments to complete for online classes and the need to communicate with our families which required internet access. Situations like this definitely threw me off balance and required that I become resilient, and recognize that life isn’t going to fall apart because I don’t have something I’ve had all of my life. I know I was a bit melodramatic when we were told that were going to be without WiFi for three days. Veritably, I got to know my two friends better than I expected during that time. Side note: don’t take internet access for granted!

 

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Holding the tower up.

 

I have more stories to share about my life experiences than I’ve ever had before. Each story is shocking, funny, and some, unbelievable. Our adventures include: eating a traditional English breakfast, visiting Kensington Palace, home of Prince William and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, riding a train underwater from London to Paris, going to the very top of the Eiffel Tower, eating a crepe every day in Paris because it felt like the Parisian thing to do, dancing in front of Le Louvre museum, seeing the Mona Lisa herself, spending Easter in Milan, rubbing the statue of Juliet from Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet for good luck (an Italian tradition), exploring different parts of the beautiful city of Venice, discovering my love for spaghetti with clams, holding the leaning Tower of Pisa upright, eating pasta and gelato every day because it felt like the Italian thing to do, visiting the smallest country in the world (Vatican City) and sitting through the hottest communion service just to see Pope Francis, having a beach for a backyard in Chania, and experiencing European humility like none other from the locals there.

 

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Gelato fever.

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After traveling to ten different cities and getting a feel of their different cultures, I can definitely say that Paris is my favorite city in the entire world. I’m not sure if it’s because my three years of high school French was finally useful, but I felt right at home from the second we arrived. I’m appreciative to have shared this unforgettable experience with now two lifelong friends.

 

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Beautiful views of Chania, Greece.

 

 

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Expectations vs. Reality: FOOD, Part I

If my brain had an equivalent of Google’s most frequently asked questions, I believe my top 3 would look something like this:

  1. Is that a really a job? (Something I ask myself when I witness yet another five people handing out flyers on the street for restaurants, or a women stationed at the bathroom to hand me a piece of toilet paper.)
  2.  Do I  eat this? (Synonymous with “What is this?”)
  3. What is Chilean food?

I do not believe that any of these questions have specific answers. This post aims to explore the realm of possibilities for question #3 of my FAQs.

The question “what do the inhabitants of [insert country here] eat?” is tricky no matter the geographical coordinates. It’s a question of great importance, but requires you to acknowledge that a country is not one homogeneous culture, but a group of individuals with different tastes and interests. Inhabitants of the United States may eat pizza, french fries, and hamburgers, but that answers also veers towards over-generalization. One must trod on the topic of food and gastronomy with careful feet and a conscious mind!

I can admit with some amount of shame that my idea of Chilean food before leaving the United States was based on what I found at local Mexican restaurants and the inaccurate correlation of Spanish-speaking individuals and rice and beans. I briefly looked up images on Google before I departed for my semester abroad. I arrived on the Chilean food scene with a mix of ignorance, naivety, and a big case of never-been-out-of-the-country. Fortunately, I’ve tried enough food in the last two months to share a bit of my observations.

Fast Food

I’ve been living with a host family who provides me with a lot of my meals, however this post is focused on the food I’ve eaten outside of my house which I’ve deemed here as “fast food” for a lack of a better term. I mean no negative connotations.

While Vina Del Mar does yield a surprising amount of mainstream fast food joints such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Popeye’s Chicken, I believe that Chilean fast food is something different altogether. I’ve tried both McDonald’s and Pizza Hut out of curiosity and an insatiable urge to eat pizza. Though the McDonald’s here in Chile is gigantic– containing a large playland, a separate cafe for their coffee-related drinks, two stories of seating area, and the occasional weekend DJ– the menu was limited, my burger was lukewarm, my french fries uncharacteristically under cooked, and the bill was a reflection of the trend rather than the cheap.

My experience with Pizza Hut was slightly better. I had a personal veggie pizza that cost way too much money and included corn as a topping. I’ve learned now to expect corn on pizza here and have become quite fond of it. Also my friends and I ordered the cinnamon dessert sticks to treat our homesickness, dreaming about the creamy icing, however when they arrived at our table they were presented without icing and instead accompanied by a small bowl of jelly.

The real treasure of fast food in Chile is the underwhelming, often overlooked tiny “diners” that are numerous and often offer what appears to be a continuous cycle of similar specials. Here you will find completos, chorillana, empanada, and all sorts of variation on the sandwich that will probably come with a bebida y papas fritas (beverage and fries).

While none of these fast food joints immediately seem to be blue ribbon options, I’ve learned that Chileans know what they’re good at, and they stick to it. They don’t need to wow your socks off because they already have loyal followers.

Completo

 

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My friend Brittany and the famed giant completo. Yes, she ate the whole thing.

 

The completo is what I thought to be a glorified hot dog upon first arrival to Chile. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it’s not even about the meat, but everything that comes with it. The completo, generally coming in both a normal size and a giant size, is a hot dog on a bun with mayonnaise, avocado, tomatoes, and usually a form of sauerkraut. Completos are consumed for lunch, for dinner, at 3 am, on your way to class, when you want to grab a snack with your friend, etc. Many are prepared with a bit of variation but one consistent factor is there are never enough napkins and generally a lack of plate. Extra points if the bun is toasted.

Chorillana

 

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This plate feeds 2-3 people. Look at the flavor.

 

Imagine french fries. Imagine french fries topped with sauteed onions. Imagine french fries topped with sauteed onions, chopped hot dog, and cuts of beef. Now imagine this in large portions. You’ve got the chorillana. I visited the christened birth place of the chorillana, a restaurant in Valparaiso by the name of Jota Cruz. It’s located at the end of a long skinny alley and the walls of the restaurant are collaged with passport photos and customers’ words of thank you and other really random but exciting junk. The restaurant is not large and when you sit down at the wooden tables with table cloths littered with previous customers’ scribbles, you feel as if you are sitting down to eat dinner in the center of the local flea market. The only thing the waiter asks is if you want the large sized chorillanas or the extra large sized, which may be an inaccurate recount of the sizes because I only remember the way he motioned his hands to demonstrate the monstrous plate sizes.

 

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The interior of the famed Jota Cruz is part of the perfect dining experience.

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Impossible to be bored while eating.

 

Sandwiches

I cannot say too much about the sandwiches here in Chile because I am still working my way through trying several. I can only say that the common factors of all types of sandwiches, no matter the meat, are a lot of cheese and even more avocado. And of course good ol’ Chilean bread. Yum. I’ve discovered a restaurant that serves giant sandwiches that I want to try. The buns are about the size of a dinner plate and they are grilled to perfection.

Empanadas

 

empanada love

Pictured here is one Chilean ID, one happy human (me), and two empanadas.

 

While the empanada is found in many Latin American countries and also parts of Europe, Chile is a major player in empanada consumption just as well. Recently I took a trip to the small town of Pomaire, home of many artisans and also the 1/2 kilo empanada. The empanada is a stuffed bread or pastry and the possibilities of fillings are endless. My favorite is the cheesy, scrumptious shrimp empanada I occasionally buy from a small family run shop half way up one of Valparaiso’s hills. The typical Chilean empanada would be the empanada de pino which includes beef, hard boiled eggs, onions, olives, and sometimes raisins. The best part about empanadas being in abundance is that you can get a fantastic empanada for less than $1.

 

I’ve found that navigating restaurant menus and trying foreign foods is one of the most painless ways to dive into a new culture. It’s also a reasonable excuse to spend too much time at bakeries. Nonetheless, consider this a brief, surface introduction to the world of Chilean culinary arts. Expect more to come!

 

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Learning to Say Yes

I think I have changed quite a bit since the start of my study abroad experience in Morocco, but in a good way. The core of myself is the same, and I still have similar hopes and ambitions, but the way I look at and make decisions is a bit different. Looking back on my life before study abroad, I can remember that I was lacking some self sufficiency. I was open to having new experiences, but within a certain range. I didn’t have much confidence in doing things alone in a country where I did not speak the language. Taking taxis, trains, and renting apartments all seemed like hurdles I would struggle with. And they were when I first came to Morocco, but at this point in my semester, they are simple, painless, and sometimes exciting everyday tasks.

 

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A taxi driving past a protest in Marrakesh.

 

Although I have not improved my Arabic as much as I had hoped, I have learned enough to have simple conversations with taxi drivers who light up whenever I ask them how they are doing in Darija (Moroccan Arabic). My negotiating skills in Arabic have improved quite a bit. Sliding in a bit of Darija, and calling the taxi driver or merchant “brother” usually softens them up a bit, or at least puts a smile on their face.

I was very concerned about being able to cook for myself while completing the independent study portion of my study abroad. I had never really cooked much before, aside from breakfast and a sandwich here and there. The two other American students I was staying with are gluten intolerant and vegetarian. The food they made was not my cup of tea, to be honest. So I had to dive in, and try my hand at the easiest things I saw my dad make at home: pasta, pizza, and calzone. Yes, I know, stereotypical Italian, but it’s supposed to be easy, so I thought I should give it a shot. The pasta went by without a hitch, easy enough. Next was the calzone. We went to the grocery store to look for pre-made dough and they didn’t have it. I was going to have to make dough from scratch. I used the ever useful internet to find the ingredients and followed the recipe step by step. I made dough, with my own hands, and it was good. The filling of spinach, olives, and mushrooms was perfect, if I must say so myself. Now, when I go back home to the United States, the kitchen will no longer be just a place for my dad and his culinary expertise. There is a new cook in town, and he learned how to make pizza and calzone in Marrakesh.

 

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My first successful calzone.

 

Generally, I think I have become much more relaxed and willing to say yes to things I probably would not have before, and I am so glad I did. Do I want to stay at an Algerian film student’s house in Marrakesh for a week and a half? Why, certainly. Do I want to wake up at 6:00 am to watch the sun rise over the Sahara? Don’t mind if I do. Do I want to go with my friend to bear witness to Moroccan bureaucracy as he pays his traffic ticket and unwittingly get snuck into a Moroccan-only courthouse. Uh, yeah, sure, okay, why not. Probably don’t want to do the last one again, but it was an interesting experience. These experiences have, I believe, made me a more open person: someone who can see the benefit in experiences that might seem a bit uncomfortable, but that yield rewards that are worth it. If I had not done these things, I would not have seen things, or met people that have made my experience what it has been. Although it can be a bit uncomfortable to be pushed outside your comfort zone, you can come out a better, more experienced person.

 

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The view from Rami’s apartment in Marrakesh.

 

 

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Robert Goes Kayaking

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An Inside Look at the Refugee Crisis

I think that throughout this blog, I’ve made it clear how much I have come to love my host country. Greek culture, tradition, and people fascinate me, and my gradual assimilation into the ways of this country (albeit far from complete) has granted me the experience of a lifetime. Inherent in this culture is a love of people, and a general respect for all humanity. With the crisis at hand, refugees have been pouring into Greece from many different countries, most known, Syria and Turkey. While many other European countries have closed their borders to the refugees or set a cap on how many they will accept, Greece continues to aid those who are able to make it here, even in this period of economic hardship for themselves. Knowing this before I studied abroad attracted me to Greece, and now that I am here I have had the unique opportunity to volunteer with some refugees first hand.

 

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A group of refugees in their tents at Piraeus Port.

 

There are several organizations here to help the refugees, from assisting with food and clothing to playing with the children and helping them become familiar with English. I chose to work with Caritas Hellas, a non-governmental organization located in Omonia not far from my home in Pangrati. Caritas Hellas has a soup kitchen and distributes clothing, toys, and medical information about women’s health. The area I work in depends on the day. When there are many volunteers I may end up in the clothing room, distributing clothes to those who need it. When there are few, the clothing room is closed and everyone helps in the soup kitchen. The managing volunteers do most of the cooking, and my job may be to help slice bread, fill up glasses of water, or when the refugees are let in, distribute the food or help to clean as they leave.

When there are many volunteers, we spill over into the next section, the clothing room. The problem with this is that when volunteers fail to come, those in need are unable to get clothing. When in the clothing room we go through bags of donations, sorting them into different racks by the ages of the children who can wear them. This makes things a little difficult, because ages can range for people within the same clothing size. When the clock hits 12 and mothers start to come in with their children, it can become very confusing and very crowded very quickly. This may be the most challenging part of my volunteering, besides the language barrier. At this point, I can get by with my Greek, but Arabic and the various other languages spoken by the refugees are beyond foreign to me. When helping a mother find clothes for her daughter she was trying to explain that she needed the shoulders covered. In hindsight I should have known this, but I didn’t understand. It took several minutes and a lot of gesturing for me to understand exactly what it was she was asking.

 

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Me in the clothing room at Caritas.

 

Nevertheless, the appreciation and kindness of most of the people there who receive help is astounding. To see people so grateful for the bare necessities they need just to survive is a great reminder of how luck works in the world–the opportunities you have are greatly correlated to the circumstances you’re born into. As someone from a first world, power country where human rights are guaranteed, realizing that others have to fight, flee, or die for what I take for granted is incredibly humbling. It’s easy too, to feel guilty when looking back on the things I worry about–my classes, future, etc.– when watching people who have left everything behind, carrying their tents on their backs with their children, asking for help wherever they can get it. It’s been a great realization though, and a reminder to count my blessings that I will forever appreciate. Although my impact is small, I’m glad to be in a position where I can offer a helping hand when needed.

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