Tag Archives: travel

What Constitutes a Home?

Last week my study abroad program, made up of 10 students, went on a tour to Kerala. Kerala neighbors Tamil Nadu and a lot of Indians call the state by its nickname, ‘God’s Own Country.’ If I had to compare Kerala to a specific location in the United States I would say it’s similar to the Outer Banks because it seems to be where a lot of Indians and foreigners flock to for their vacation. Kerala was beautiful! The temperatures were much cooler (about 85 degrees Fahrenheit) and there was very little humidity.

Our first stop was Thekkady, a very popular tourist destination. Trees and greenery surrounded Thekkady; I felt like I was in the jungle. One of the highlights of my stay in Thekkady was visiting an organic spice farm, which was also a mini animal farm. On the spice farm tour I learned that almost 78 percent of the world’s pepper is grown in Kerala! Crazy! I’ll never look at black pepper the same. Another highlight of Thekkady was being able to run outside. I woke up early in the morning to take a long jog up the mountain and it was beyond fantastic! The morning fog was still lingering amongst the trees and the sun had yet to fully rise. The air was cool against my face and I could actually see my breath when I exhaled. The best part about my run in Thekkady was the peace and quiet that surrounded me. It had been a very long time since I was provided with a space and time to be consumed in my thoughts.

 

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I saw an emu for the first time in my life…at the spice farm….

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All of us were able to take a leisurely walk in the tranquil tea plantation.

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My friend Nora and I befriended an elephant!

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We were terrified of getting on an elephant (as you can tell from our facial expressions). Never again will I get on the back of an elephant.

 

Thekkady was filled with luscious greenery and calming, cool air. The visit to the spice farm was a stark realization of where my food came from. The visit to the tea farm helped me understand why my friend Hunter is in love and obsessed with tea. Tealeaves are planted in a way that it looks visually appealing. All the shrubs are evenly spaced out and grow along the side of the mountain; therefore, from afar the tea farm looks like a wall of green. In Thekkady I was one with nature (which is hard to come by in Madurai); however, in Cochin my experience was the complete opposite. We visited Cochin for the last 2 days of our tour. It was a bustling, hustling city. It felt like Madurai but on a greater scale. The streets were filled with automobiles, the nightlife was exciting, there was a humongous mall. I visited the Centre Square Mall a couple of times and for a split second it felt like I was back in the United States. The mall had stores that I was familiar with: Nike, Puma, The Body Shop, Levi, and so many more; however, I wasn’t interested in shopping. The real reason I visited the mall? It had a Baskin Robbins! Finally, an ice cream shop that I recognized! To be fair, I’ve had my fair share of ice cream in Madurai. Ice cream at iBaco is mediocre; they always have waffle cones, which helps make up for the lack of depth to the flavor of the ice creams. The mall around the corner from where I study has Coldstone ice cream but I find that they mash the ice cream one too many times. Therefore, finding a Baskin Robbins stand on the first floor of Centre Square Mall was a sign from the world that I needed to consume as much ice cream as possible. What are vacations for if you can’t eat whatever you want in huge quantities? I estimate that I had at least 7 scoops of ice cream during my 2-day stay in Cochin. In other words, the Baskin Robbins employee got to know me very well.

Although the existence of a Baskin Robbins could have probably convinced me to set up camp at the mall for the rest of my time in South India, I wanted to return to Madurai. I remember saying to myself, “I want to go back home now.” Regardless of Madurai being drastically different than my home in the United States, I have made Madurai my home. For the past couple of weeks I have struggled with establishing personal space and finding my niche in Madurai. Regardless, I call it home.

 

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Chocolate exotica from Puppy’s Bakery. It definitely satisfies my chocolate craving.

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Dark chocolate dessert jar from Puppy’s Bakery. I’ve bought so many I now have a growing jar collection in my closet.

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My mango milkshake from Zaitoon, an Arabian restaurant. Sometimes I wonder if I’m eating my stress away via sugar….

 

What constitutes a home? For me, home is closely related to familiarity. In Madurai, I can hop onto any ‘share auto’ at the end of my street because the drivers always go the same route. I can walk to Nila, a local grocery store, and pick up a carton of curd to eat with my oatmeal. Every evening my patti (grandmother) greets me with a huge smile as she hands over the house key. While it can be relaxing to get away from the city of Madurai, being able to come home to a welcoming host family at the end of the day is much more satisfying. After 2 months of being in India I feel like I’m settling in; I’m finally starting to call Madurai my home. With only 30 days left in Madurai (I have a short study abroad program) I hope to make the most of my time by spending more evenings watching movies with my ammaa (mother), getting to know the employees at Puppy’s Bakery, and whatever else Madurai has to offer.

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Filed under Michelle in India, South & Central Asia

Tempus Fugit

Life is like a roller-coaster; the following is a peak-and-trough analysis of the past two weeks. My least favorite moment in Shanghai came when I said goodbye to some good friends I had made throughout the last two months. I am relocating to a second internship in Beijing. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and sure enough, the next high would present itself with the long awaited arrival of my hén hǎo de péngyou, Terry. When I met Terry in Calculus class, I never would have expected that three years later I would be waiting for him at the airport in his native country.

 

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My best friend Terry.

 

In my previous posts, I talked about the meaning of food and how excited I was to try authentic Chinese cuisine. I did not fully comprehend how dangerous it would be to order my own meals. Most of the time it was hit or miss but more often than not I would regret it later when nature called. Eventually, I learned my lesson and started cooking my own meals, always alternating between McDonald’s and KFC for lunch, much to Terry’s dismay. Over a span of four days, Terry restored my faith in Chinese food as I tasted Shanghai with virgin lips.

Finally, it was time for us to leave for Chongqing where we would meet Terry’s family. Terry’s father and mother were very welcoming and showed incredible hospitality. They arranged superb accommodations and placed reservations at the finest restaurants in Chongqing. China’s economy has seen tremendous growth over the last few decades and as a self-made business man, Terry’s father offered me practical life advice. He asked me to call him shūshu (uncle) and showed me a glimpse of the luxurious life of the Chinese elite.

 

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Chongqing hotpot.

 

We toured the city, enjoyed bubble tea drinks at an exotic zoo-themed café and went to the most famous hot pot restaurant in the city. Chongqing is near Sichuan and boasts the spiciest food in the country. Naturally, they thought I couldn’t keep up. Dish after dish came and I proved I had a stomach of steel. At the culmination of the meal, Shūshu’s friend, who is the president of a university, presented a nice gift that featured original postage stamps from all over China.

Later we went to a famous night club and watched a performance from the number one DJ in China. This was one of the most memorable nights of my life. Chinese people are not known for being liberal dancers and I saw this an opportunity to share my culture. I jumped on the empty stage when the DJ started playing hip-hop music and soon I was lost in my own world. I opened my eyes only to be blinded by the spotlight. As I looked across the sea of people, I realized they were all frozen; a thousand eyes fixated on the Egyptian-American dancing wildly before them. At first, I was intimidated, but then I encouraged the spectators to come on stage and dance with me. One by one they came until the stage was filled with Chinese people dancing around Terry and myself.

The next morning, I felt excruciating pain as my stomach fought the side effects of the hot pot. I mustered up the last of my strength to attend the home cooked meal that Shūshu had prepared. Although I could not eat much, the food looked and smelled delicious. Afterward, we enjoyed a scenic view from his company office overlooking the famous Yangtze River. The following morning, they arranged a “goodbye” dinner with an assortment of Shūshu’s acquaintances. I did not know it at the time but I was sitting next to one of the most powerful men in China. We laughed and shared stories using Terry as a translator to overcome the language barrier. At the end of the meal, they poured their drinks into their baijiu wells, which is the highest honor you can give someone.

I was sad to leave but at the same time, I was ecstatic to see my sister, Mel. I arrived in Beijing on my birthday and had dinner with Mel. Afterward, we met Val, my Russian friend, for a night on the town and celebrated my birthday in style. We made many new friends. My new co-workers here in Beijing are very kind and have gone to great lengths to welcome me to their city. I am excited to experience the rich history that Beijing has to offer. From the Great Wall to the Forbidden City, and the terracotta warriors in Xian—I want to see it all. With just under twenty days left in China, I cannot wait for the new adventures that await!

 

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Reunion with my sister.

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Filed under East Asia, Khalid in China

Highs and Lows

It’s really hard to believe that I’ve already lived in another country for almost 5 weeks now. I’d say time is flying but then again I really don’t want time to go any faster. It is truly amazing here. I feel as though every day I am learning something new. Not just in the classrooms but through the culture as well because there are just so many things to learn about and discover. Sometimes I take walks throughout the city and just relish in the moment, thinking about my first days here and where I am now. My experience here has definitely had a great number of highs, but there definitely are some lows too… Though they may not be considered lows for people not in Italy for a semester.

I’ll start with the lows .Water isn’t free. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve walked into a diner or a restaurant and sat down waiting for a glass of water. And with that, each restaurant has their own price of water, it’s not a standard amount. I’ve paid 2 euros for a pitcher of water at some places, and other places I’ve paid 6 euros. Also, the water in the apartments isn’t the cleanest and takes a long time to filter.

I wouldn’t really consider this a low, but one thing I haven’t gotten used to yet is the street signs. I tend to get lost more often than I would like, and the buildings honestly look a lot alike, so it’s hard to remember which direction I came from. I have an 8 am class on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays that is about 20-25 minutes away from my house, so getting lost sometimes on the way there is definitely a hassle. I am also trying to work on my Italian the best that I can, but when I can’t remember certain words, I resort to English for directions, and let’s say not everyone knows what I am talking about.

If I really had a true low, it would be the fact that I am not able to experience this with any of my close friends from back home. Yes, I am making new friends here who are really cool and interesting people. Yes, I am making new memories with people from around the whole world. But when I go to sleep at night, I can’t help but feel like sharing these experiences and memories with people who have been in my life for numerous years would make my time here 100x better. My time here has definitely made me value the friendships I have back home a whole lot more. I have been here for only a month, but I think I am starting to get a little homesick. But I am sure that will wear off sooner than later.

Now my highs certainly outweigh my lows.

I think I’ll start my highs off with this one: I spent and celebrated my 21st birthday in Munich, Germany, at the grand German festival known as Oktoberfest. The reason why I put this at the top of my list of highs is because how many people can say they spent their 21st birthday at Oktoberfest, surrounded by millions of different types of people, and when in my life would I be able to do this again? Chances are not so many, which is why it’s been one of my best and most exciting times here. Oh. Let’s not forget to mention that me and a friend who is studying in Spain this semester met up and wore dashikis to the festival. Yes. Out of the thousands and thousands of people there, we were probably the only two black students at the entire event, and we wore dashikis… and we got a lot of compliments on them too! The people there were so kind and giving, and the atmosphere was just full of life and joy. A table of lively Germans even invited us to sit with them at their table and just share laughs and music.

 

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Celebrating my birthday at Oktoberfest.

 

Another one of my highs here would all the different foods I have eaten and made. I have never cooked this much in my life. It doesn’t hurt that my roommate is a really good cook so I have learned a lot of different things from him as well. I’ve had a bunch of variations of pasta, different types and forms of chicken and other types of meat. One thing that is different is that here the food is not processed, which means I’m putting good things into my body. However at home I could leave chicken in the fridge or freezer for a few days to a week, and here the food, chicken especially, goes bad really fast. So if I spent my money on it, I’m going to cook it. And whenever I’m feeling a little homesick in terms of food, I have found a great place to get amazing pancakes or a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. The food at restaurants and diners is also really good and different. They are really big on sandwiches here! There are lines as long as the whole block to try sandwiches at a lot of different spots. I’ve gotten really cool with the sandwich-maker at a spot really close to my apartment so he lets me skip the line all the time, another high for me.

 

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Pizza made with love.

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The BEST gelato ever.

 

One of the best parts about being here is just the ability to travel, and it is very inexpensive which makes it a high for me. When I think about how I was in the ancient city of Pompeii not so long ago, I almost don’t believe myself.  I’ve already booked trips this month to London, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. Next month I’m going to be going to Austria to visit a friend on a basketball team there and catch one of his games. I am also planning on visiting Greece, Paris, and Switzerland.  I booked my flight to London 3 weeks ago, and in the blink of an eye, I will be going there next weekend. It really is crazy how quickly time goes when you are exploring the world. I am just really excited to see new places and find new highs to add to my list.

 

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The ancient city of Pompeii.

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Filed under Christopher in Italy, Western Europe

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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Filed under Elizabeth in Vienna, Western Europe

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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Filed under middle east, Savin in Morocco

Robert Goes Kayaking

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Filed under Robert in Argentina, south america, Video Bloggers

Goodbye and Hello

I’ve been stateside now, back in Idaho, for one week. It’s really great to be back at home with my family and friends. But there’s also a feeling of sadness or emptiness too, as I’ve left my other home and family.

Goodbye is such a trite expression. But when we actually have to say it, and really mean it, it’s profound. It hurts. Saying goodbye to Barcelona, my host-family, and the new friends, it’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But that’s the bittersweet moment of study abroad I suppose. To know that you’ve done something incredible.

So onto the topic at hand, reverse-culture shock.

As I stepped off the plane, the first thing I see are the rolling barren hills of the surrounding horizon. Not more than a hundred yards from my town’s tiny airport is the familiar site of rundown trailer parks and uninspiring housing. There is no architecture. There is no art. There really is no culture to speak of in that regard. Because where I’m from is a simple place. Its history is brief compared to that of Barcelona. So it’s not really fair to even compare the two. But I would be lying if I said if I wasn’t just a tad shocked to remember that I was just in one of the most bustling and beautiful cities on the planet and now here I am in something so mundane and simple.

I was also surprised to see enormous vehicles again, and not a moto-scooter in sight. I suppose what adds to the emptiness of my home is that there are no people just walking about or casually sitting at street-side food and bar establishments. The culture here in the States, even in our largest cities, is for everyone to own a vehicle and drive it. So despite my city of 35,000 being literally 1/20th the size of Barcelona, the traffic felt just as bad.

The day after I got back, I went to the grocery store with my girlfriend. It wasn’t my usual street-front fresh produce stand, but instead a big box store, another icon of American culture. As we perused the isles, I was awe-struck for just a moment that I could understand every single conversation happening around me. No longer was I bombarded with Catalan, Spanish, Chinese, German, etc.. just English. I haven’t decided if I like that or not — but at least now I can be certain I’m not being teased in a language I don’t understand! 🙂

My girlfriend and I are hosting a little dinner with Spanish and Catalan style cuisine at our house, in an effort to maybe bring some of what I experienced abroad, home with us. That’s all we or anyone can do really. By bringing some of it back with you, using it in your life, you can hold on to some of those memories.

In the coming weeks I am applying for graduate school. I definitely believe this study abroad experience will benefit my application and make me standout from others. This truly is a unique and life-changing experience. I look forward to encouraging others as I go on in my studies and career to study abroad — take advantage of opportunities like the Gilman or the Fulbright and a host of others.

A sincere thanks comes from my heart to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Gilman Scholarship Program, and to my family and friends (wherever they are in the world).

Be excellent to each other.

¡Salud!

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Filed under Dustin in Spain, Western Europe