Kayla Miron | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 5

Let me start the way you’re never supposed to start and the way that women always seem to. Let me start in the cliche of all cliches and the best way to make your reader remember their spinning laundry or burning toast. Let me start with an apology. I’m so sorry that what comes next is not an original idea and I’m sorry that I don’t have the words to tell it the way Joan Dideon or Alice Munro did, and the way John Green always tried to. What comes next is a love story, you see, a love story between a girl and herself.

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Leading up to my second semester at Vassar I had an amazing draw number and no idea what I wanted to study. I took Issues in Contemporary Education my second semester because a then-senior told me that with a draw number of seven, I had to take this incredibly popular class. That semester studying from Maria Hantzopoulos changed my college trajectory in ways I couldn’t imagine at the time, and in ways I’m still discovering. Her course was pure magic. I learned how to critically reflect on my own education and how to analyze the roles that schools play in society. That course spurred me to declare an Education major and to learn about the magic that is progressive education reform and about the super-humans who devote their lives to it.

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When you visit the Czech Republic you’re supposed to find magic in Prague—the City of a Thousand Spires, the Romantic City, the Fairytale City—but I found it in Nove Mesto pod Smrkem. Nove Mesto has fewer than 4,000 residents and they really love beekeeping. I came to Nove Mesto by myself for two and a half weeks to study the impact of recent special education reform in the Czech Republic. I observed the school there every day and participated in after school art and sport activities with a local NGO in the afternoons. At night I snuggled myself into the spare apartment of my real-life fairy godmother, Yveta, and read as many books as I could find online about special education.

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On my first day in Nove Mesto Yveta took me to the festival for the pigeons and the bees. No one gets why I think it’s funny to go to a festival for the literal birds and bees. Yveta and I woke up early to help prepare the hall housing dozens of paper bees and hundreds of live (caged) pigeons. I’ve grown up internalizing the truism that pigeons are rats with wings, but Nove Mesto adores them. There was a lengthy awards ceremony for the pigeons, including trophies distributed for the most beautiful pigeons within various age and sex subcategories. My translator for the day, an 18-year-old student named Pavel, tells me that last year some of the pigeons escaped and drunk men had to chase them with nets. I hope for such a mishap this year, but everything goes according to plan.

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After the festival Pavel goes back to school an hour away, and I am left alone again in the village. I spend the next few days feeling as graceful as a pigeon, which is to say not at all. I get sealed behind a language barrier and as hard as I try to engage in meaningful research, I’m terrified that I’ve stumbled into a volun-tourist trap. If it was earlier than midnight three days after this post was due or if I hadn’t just handed in a 36 page paper I would tell you about all of the ways I saw these fears assuaged. Suffice it to say that this village hides magic in every cranny. The people were super-human and the place’s charm unreal.

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But because women tend to attribute their victories to luck or help while men more often take credit for their own successes, let me also say that I am really proud of myself. Through interviews and structured observation I conducted ethnographic research that culminated in a paper that’s longer than any I’ve ever written and that I’m prouder of than I am of all my other writing combined. Over the course of this research I lived alone in a new place and immersed myself in a language I’d only scratched the surface of in three months of classroom study. I got to build cross-cultural relationships with amazing educators, activists, and children. I learned so much about Czech artistic and political history this semester and about the relationship between the Czech eugenics movement and special ed, but more than anything else, I learned that I can find magic on my own, and that I can even make it.

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Jennifer Pineda | Bremen, Germany | Post 5

It’s hard to believe that this semester is ending. As cliché as it sounds, it seems as though last week I had arrived in Germany, getting ready for orientation. And now, I have completed my finals and am packing to go home. It’s even harder to fathom that at one point I did not want to leave home. After meeting so many people and making so many memories, I’m glad that I decided to come.

 

dafsadreDecember sure has been a whirlwind of last minute traveling and cramming to study. After a lovely Thanksgiving with my fellow American students, we packed up to go to Geneva with our European Healthcare and Welfare class. The following weekend, a couple friends and I ventured to Milan. This weekend, I am traveling to Bristol and London to visit family. Then next weekend, I will be home for a week before returning to Vassar.

For our last excursion, we travelled by bus to Geneva, Switzerland for 15 hours. Thankfully, it was during the night which allowed us to sleep most of the way. However, 15 hours by bus is still a long time. Fortunately for me, we stayed at the back of the bus where the seats were facing each other, allowing me to fetch a decent night’s sleep.

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In Geneva, we had the opportunity to visit the WHO, the Palais des Nations, the Red Cross Museum, CERN, and the Christmas Market in Montreux. Though very beautiful, Geneva is hella expensive. I paid 10 euros for two egg rolls as an appetizer. In other places, 10 euros would fetch me a pretty decent meal. But luckily for the people of Geneva, their salaries are adjusted to the living costs of the city. Unfortunately, for tourists like me, it means forking over some serious cash.

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The WHO was very exciting; we were able to have a discussion in their very own conference room where health delegates from around the world convene to discuss various topics on health.

CERN was also cool. Though I’m not familiar with the work done there, we were able to learn about the particle accelerators housed there. We were even able to have a glimpse of the control room.

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One of the last stops we made in Geneva was to the other side of the lake to Montreux. Unexpectedly, Montreux was one of the highlights of this trip. At this time of the year, the annual Christmas market runs on the lake side. The view is breathtaking both in the day and during the night. #instaworthy

The three days I spent on campus included finishing my science poster for one class, a presentation for another, and a final for German. But after all the work, I was truly blessed to visit Milan. Italy had been one of my dream destinations and to be able to visit with my friends was a dream come true. A plus was being able to see the Alps for the first time when we landed.

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Before heading into Milan, we decided to explore the town of Bergamo. In our short time there we were able to visit the Basilica and the Duomo. Italy does not play around with their churches for sure. Every inch of the Basilica was covered ornately. Everywhere you looked there were small details that you had missed before. And to think we just stumbled in after looking for food.

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Milan was everything I hoped it to be and more. It was beautiful, the food was great, and the wine didn’t burn. Each dinner we had out was better than the last. Also the weather was fantastic: the sun was out. It was nice to finally soak in some Vitamin D for the first time in weeks.

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In Milan, a must-visit is the Duomo. It is a magnificent architectural structure. If the Basilica in Bergamo made me feel unworthy, the Duomo made me feel insignificant. The inside is vastly different from the appearance outside. Outside, the church seems like a bright building, filled with light. On the inside, the gothic structure is very imposing and somewhat dark. I completely understand why it took a couple hundred of years to complete. The amount of detail like the Basilica are innumerable: everywhere you turn there is something to see if you look hard enough.

Other sites we visited were the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the Sforza Castle, the Torre Branca, and Brera.

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But like every trip, our time ended very quickly and we headed back to campus to face our finals.

Knowing that in a couple of days I will be returning home makes me feel like I’m not ready to leave just yet. Though the academics at my university were certainly subpar to what I experience at Vassar, I will definitely miss the people I have taken this adventure with. My experience would not have been so positive without them and I am grateful that we crossed paths. Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland! You the real MVP!

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Katie Nordstrom | Clifden, Ireland | Post 5

This past week, Jake and I had the awesome opportunity of taking a trip to Dublin with our professor. This semester we have being studying Irish history, specifically the fight for independence and the civil war as depicted by Irish writers. We focused on W.B Yeats, James Joyce and Seamus Heaney. We started off the day touring the museum at the National Post Office to commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916. This is a brand new museum that opened this year in honor of the 100th anniversary of the event, which sparked the Irish Revolution. Much of the building was destroyed by fire during the rising, but outside the post office stand the original, strong pillars that still bear bullet holes from that tragic and historic day. Next, we headed off to the Dublin Writer’s Museum. It pays tribute the deceased writers who significantly impacted Irish culture. I discovered that the iconic thriller Dracula was written by Irish author Bram Stoker in 1897. I saw original manuscripts of books by W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, all Nobel laureates. Upstairs, there was a special hall with James Joyce’s personal piano and portraits of many of the authors honored in the museum below. While we were walking, we stepped into a hotel depicted by James Joyce in his short story, The Dead. It was surreal to be standing in the exact location described in a story I had studied. Our final destination was a W. B. Yeats exhibition at the National Library. It was filled with original drafts of his poems with edits in the margins, tokens from his life and portraits of important people in his life. His Nobel Prize was even on display! Ireland gained its independence in 1922, so it was incredibly important to the international recognition of the country that Yeats received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. It was a significant step in solidifying and legitimizing the country.

Jake and I in front of James Joyce's piano

Jake and I in front of James Joyce’s piano

Jake and I with a portrait of Joyce

Jake and I with a portrait of Joyce

Jake and I with a portrait of Yeats

Jake and I with a portrait of Yeats

To finish the evening, our professor took us to a restaurant he claimed to have THE best steak in Ireland. I’m not a big steak eater, but with reviews like that, how could I turn it down? I had an 8oz fillet with pepper sauce, steamed Brussels sprouts and fries. It was delicious! The place had a fun atmosphere with many important looking people walking around in suits. It was a wonderful experience; so, if you are in Dublin and looking for the best steak around, the place to go is Le Bon Crubeen, as declared by a Dubliner himself.  The restaurant is right down the street from the historic Abbey Theatre, which had huge significance in the Gaelic Revival. This is the place where the nationalistic play written by Yeats, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, was performed.  In this play, Cathleen is supposed to be a symbol for Ireland, and she comes looking for young men to help fight for one of her four green fields that has been stolen. The stolen green field represents the province of Ulster, of which six counties make up the separate country of Northern Ireland. The play was supposed to encourage young boys to continue the fight for Ireland’s—all of Ireland’s—independence.

Jake and I in the famous reading room in the National Library

Jake and I in the famous reading room in the National Library

Jake and I at the Yeats-exhibit in the National Library

Jake and I at the Yeats-exhibit in the National Library

As my time in Clifden draws to a close, every experience is becoming sentimental. It’s bittersweet to think of my last class, my last day in the primary school, my last time in Dublin, and even my last bus ride to Galway for my Friday class. It has been an incredible semester with many experiences that have helped me to grow as a person. My knowledge on the history and culture of Ireland has grown exponentially on this trip, and I hope to engage in conversations to share this information when I return home.  Ireland has definitely made an impression on me, and sometimes, I even find myself using Irish lingo, such as cross (angry), jumper (sweatshirt), Wednesday week (a week from Wednesday), rubber (eraser), topper (pencil sharpener) and describing temperature in degrees Celsius. I am going to miss my apartment, and how convenient it is to live above a gas station. I am going to miss all of the students in my class, each of who have earned a special place in my heart with their unique personalities. The bus ride from Clifden to Galway has to be one of the most gorgeous drives in the world, and it is sad to realize that it will probably be many years before I travel it again. I am incredibly grateful to all of the kind people I have met while in Clifden, and how they graciously went out of their way to make sure I felt comfortable in their town. I will always hold this town, and the people that live here, dear to my heart. It has been one incredible semester!

Second Class students

Second Class students

Kids in Second Class

Kids in Second Class

Ngoc Duong | Beijing, China | Post 2

I want to dedicate my second and last post to my feelings for the beautiful city of Beijing and how this exchange program has changed me as a person.

A public outdoor performance of Peking Opera.

A public outdoor performance of Peking Opera.

While I have mixed feelings about the program during the first few weeks after I arrived, I gradually came to appreciate my experience here more. I have become more mature and adaptive. Living by myself without a support system or someone to check up on me regularly would have once been a scary thought to me. However, after this program, I am glad I learned to properly take care of myself, both physically and mentally, familiarize myself with the new environment, and most importantly, not struggle to survive every day but enjoy myself and make the best out of my journey here.

There are always healthier dining options such as this Ninjia Bowl.

There are always healthier dining options such as this Ninjia Bowl.

As an exchange student, I have been taking classes with domestic students, and I must say that Chinese students, or at least students at Peking University, have admirable attitudes towards the pursuit of knowledge, a.k.a. studying. They always seem to be interested in learning new things and challenging themselves. As a result, professors would raise their expectations, so I usually find the assignments challenging and the grading harsh. After a while, I discovered that the competition among students at Peking University is real, at least in the Economics Department, as only one-third of the class can walk away with an A. Chinese students, normally with pressure from their parents and teachers and high expectations they set for themselves, tend to be overachievers. Having had a chance to work with them on a class project, I have to admit it was eye-opening how much effort and time they put in our project. In such an environment, I had no choice but force myself to try harder every single day to keep up with all these bright students. For the first time in my life I could dare (or be obligated) to accomplish something I once thought was impossible. In fact, I have just prepared for one midterm and finished a report (probably the longest in my entire student career yet) with 39 pages all in less than one week. Although I once incessantly ranted about how ridiculously demanding some classes at Vassar were, I now cannot express how thankful I am for them to have prepared me well for this semester abroad.

Would you dare to try these scorpions?

Would you dare to try these scorpions?

My experience in China has certainly been different from that of a white student. In this country, as long as your skin is yellow, everyone will automatically assume you are Chinese and speak to you in Chinese. Even though my command of Chinese is decent enough to handle most conversations, at first I still found it overwhelming and draining to function in Chinese 100% of the time and to be expected to know all the Chinese common knowledge. I could not remember how many times I have embarrassed myself in front of other Chinese students for my misunderstanding of their references. That being said, I have also learned many more things about Chinese people’s lives that are not significant or “Chinese politically correct” enough to be included in classrooms’ materials.

The beautty of fall at Peking University

The beauty of fall at Peking University

Traditional Chinese architecture at Peking Unversity

Traditional Chinese architecture at Peking University

It has definitely been a rewarding experience as an exchange student. The fun part, though, is all about discovering the gorgeous Peking University campus and the historical and cultural city of Beijing.

Me at Gongwangfu Prince Gong Mansion.

Me at Gongwangfu Prince Gong Mansion.

West Gate the signature gate of Peking University where incoming students and tourists usually take pictures with

West Gate the signature gate of Peking University where incoming students and tourists usually take pictures with

The library at Peking Unversity

The library at Peking Unversity

While Shanghai is a modern and bustling city, Beijing is a clash between the old and the new, the calm and the spirited. Some historical places I have visited such as Tian’anmen Square (where the 1989 massacre incident happened), The Forbidden City, Nanluoguxiang (a famous and touristy traditional Beijing alley) are all in close proximity to modern malls, fancy restaurants and bars.

I particularly enjoy window shopping in Sanlitun area on the weekends. The area is very popular among tourists and expats living in Beijing for its bar culture, food and arts. It has almost all of the popular American and European stores on top of awesome Chinese boutique shops, restaurants and bars that can satiate one’s cravings for any cuisine (from Mediterranean to Mexican, from Indian to Southeast Asian). The area also showcases the innovative contemporary-traditional Chinese architecture.

Architecture at Sanlitun

Architecture at Sanlitun

Architecture at Sanlitun

Architecture at Sanlitun

Delectable peking duck pizza at a restaurant in Sanlitun

Delectable peking duck pizza at a restaurant in Sanlitun

My honorable mention would be The Great Wall of China. Of course how can I miss The Great Wall when in Beijing? The whole architecture is colossal and parts of it are as steep and treacherous as they can be without actually killing climbers. Falls and even injuries are very likely if you are not careful and hold on tight to the wall or the safety hand bars. As physically demanding as the wall is, every Chinese national is expected to climb it at least once in their lifetime, as one Chinese saying goes “If you don’t climb the Great Wall, you are not a true Chinese.” Unsurprisingly, my constant impression of all of these places is the sheer amount of people. They are mostly Chinese people from other provinces who come to visit their country’s capital (usually for the first time), and, as a result, they were just as lost as I was. There have been quite a few times when I got mistaken as a Beijing local and was approached with questions about how to navigate around.

Yes, that's The Great Wall!

Yes, that’s The Great Wall!

Despite a rough start, I now find my experience here in Beijing a fun and rewarding one. For the moment I still have one and a half months to enjoy this lovely city before heading back to the States, but after that I will definitely come back soon for more.

 

John Ammdonson | Cochabamba, Bolivia | Post 7

This might be the most cliché way possible to begin my last blog post, but I really can’t believe this is my last blog post. I have a few more weeks in Bolivia but will be returning stateside before Christmas, concluding this crazy adventure. Before waxing philosophical about the virtues of study abroad and all the ways it’s changed me, however, I have to talk about what I’ve been up to! At the end of my last blog post, I was in La Paz (Bolivia), about to head to Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America. As our bus drove up and out of the valley that La Paz is located in, we were all awed by the sight of Illimani, the 21,000-foot, snowcapped mountain that towers over La Paz. After arriving at our hotel on the lake, our group piled into a motorboat for an hour-long boat ride to Isla del Sol, which holds an important place in the origin story of the Incas as the birthplace of the sun. On our way to the island, we passed the headquarters of the Bolivian Navy, which I thought was kind of strange when I remembered that Bolivia is entirely landlocked. Lunch on Isla del Sol was rather unbelievable; the food was delicious and the view was even better. After lunch, our tour boat took us to Isla de la Luna, a smaller island that has both Incan and Tiwanakan ruins (and a surprising number of sheep), before returning to our hotel.

View of Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol

View of Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol

Incan ruins on Isla de la Luna

Incan ruins on Isla de la Luna

Sunrise over Lake Titicaca

Sunrise over Lake Titicaca

After trying unsuccessfully to get my fellow classmates to join me, I rose early the next morning to catch the sunrise over the lake, and was absolutely not disappointed. I had to wrap myself in a huge blanket to prevent turning into a popsicle, but it was definitely an unforgettable sight. After returning to La Paz, I spent the next two days mainly FaceTiming family/friends and sleeping, but I did have the chance to take a ride on a cable car. Since many people work in El Alto (a city on the rim of the canyon above La Paz) and commute down into the city for work, a cable car system was designed for easier access, and a few of our group members decided to take a ride. The view from the cable car is breathtaking, and riding above the city was an absolutely unique experience.

View of La Paz (and Illimani) from above

View of La Paz (and Illimani) from above

The day before Thanksgiving, we flew from La Paz to Cochabamba, taking in a view of Illimani and the Andes Mountains from above, and arrived at our homestays. My homestay family is wonderful and welcoming, and Cochabamba is a beautiful city. I get to play soccer in the yard with a golden retriever and a five-year-old! Thanksgiving was my first I’ve spent away from home, which was tough, but our entire program and two traveling faculty got together for a potluck “friendsgiving” that was really wonderful. I’ll be with my Cochabamba host family for a week and a half before heading to the Amazon for a final debrief, and flying home after that!

The Andes Mountains from above

The Andes Mountains from above

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Cochabamba and surrounding mountains

Since this is my last blog post, I guess I should spend some time reflecting on my time abroad and everything I’ve learned. Looking back, it was definitely a bold move for me to choose a program that would take me to three countries and five total continents, considering I don’t speak a foreign language and that the furthest abroad I had previously been was Montreal, within driving distance of my house. However, at the (almost) end of my journey now, I have to say that it was absolutely the right move. From an academic perspective, I have learned an incredible amount about environmental studies and climate change. There’s such a concrete difference between reading about concepts like climate change impacts in foreign countries and actually going and seeing those concepts firsthand. It’s also been extremely important for me personally to see so many new and different cultures and people. I don’t consider myself particularly sheltered, but I’ve definitely inhabited a bubble for most of my life just by living in suburbia and attending an elite liberal arts college; to use another tired cliche, that bubble has been burst on my journey. I’ve learned the currency exchange rate for Vietnamese dong, Moroccan dirhams, and Bolivianos (three guesses which country uses those), as well as how to say “sorry” and “thank you” in all three languages. I’ve seen some pretty unbelievable sights and made some unforgettable memories, and I can’t wait to see more of the great wide world soon. The main theme of my abroad experience, strange as it sounds, has been an overwhelming sense of gratitude and thankfulness. I’m thankful for the hard work of SIT’s support staff that has made so many of my memories possible, and thankful for the patient and enlightening instruction of all of our professors and guest lecturers. I’m thankful for the other members of my program for being a source of support and love in good times as well as bad, and making my abroad experience everything I had hoped for. They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder, and being away from my friends and family in the States has made me incredibly grateful for their presence in my life.

It’s not a particularly fun time to be an environmental studies major and environmental activist; everywhere we turned on this program there was another present or future impact of climate change and environmental degradation, and Trump’s election isn’t exactly great news on the climate front. Strangely enough, then, my abroad experience has left me really excited and happy about life in general. Though it certainly sounds corny, my abroad experience has shown me that there’s so much joy to be found in even the small things in life, and so many incredible things to see and learn about everywhere you look. I honestly have no idea if I have any consistent “readers,” but if you are reading this or have read any of my other posts thank you so much for taking the time to check out this blog!

Sincerely,

John Ammondson

P.S. I really had no idea how to end this whole thing; apologies if “sincerely” sounds strange. 🙂

Jennifer Williams | Cairo, Egypt | Post 5

Memory and time are capricious subjects. As this semester comes to a close, I find myself grappling with conceptions of time. I still have another semester and potentially a summer here in Egypt, but I feel as if time is slipping through my fingers and memories are flowing like hair in the wind behind me. In total I have now spent the majority of six months in the Middle East (specifically Jordan and Egypt), and it astounds me the amount I have experienced, learned and grown. I find myself sometimes reaching out at the intangible memories flowing behind me, trying with all my power not to forget the details. It has been difficult understanding that for my summer experience in Amman, everything is now memory, just as Egypt will be sometime soon.

I am not living the summer moments any more. I am no longer laughing with my fellow Critical Language Scholars before the language partner hour. I am no longer immersed so wholly in Arabic, even though I am in an Arabic-speaking country. The magic I experienced in Jordan is no longer a daily component of my life. This summer in Amman, I fell in love with people and places. I left part of my heart in Jordan and willingly gifted another part to some of my friends. There are not words in Arabic, English or any other language to describe everything that happened and its effects. Something about the experience has resonated with me on a level like no other in my life. I cannot explain the reasons for this. While there were numerous challenges, I would not trade any second. Upon return to America in the brief time before I left for Egypt, I acutely felt post-trip depression (along with reverse culture shock). My ideas of home were challenged. My heart was aching for Jordan and my friends. After two weeks, the feelings started to subside and I tried to focus on my upcoming adventure—living in Egypt.

I have lived in Egypt for longer than I spent in Jordan. However, if I am being completely honest, I still feel more attached to Amman. Perhaps this is because I am currently still in Egypt and am not leaving soon. Perhaps this is because in Jordan every weekend my friends and I would attempt to explore as much as possible. We had the luxury of trotting about the country, camping in Wadi Rum and Dana nature reserve, canyoning in three different wadis, scuba diving in Aqaba, swimming in the Dead Sea, going to a concert in ancient ruins, and gallivanting up and down Rainbow Street (not to mention the plenty of other excursions). We studied constantly and school was extremely intense, but we also made sure to make the most of our time in any way we could. I mainly stay around my neighborhood on the weekends and study here in Egypt. I will probably not see Alexandria before the end of the semester. I will not have even explored the various sites in Cairo. Each weekend I make the excuse that I need to study and I will explore later. I rely on the extended time I have in this country. Although, in doing so, I have found myself at the end of the semester wondering how I have not connected with Egypt in the same intense capacity as I did with Jordan. This begs the question of, do I need constant travel to connect? Was it just the perfect combination of things in Jordan that made my experience so phenomenal? Am I just not removed enough from my time here in Egypt to understand its full impact?

That all being said, I have definitely connected with Egypt. Cairo has become my home. While not traveling every weekend, I have had the amazing (and very privileged) opportunity to travel to Luxor, Aswan, Dahab and a couple of archeological sites. My time here has been filled with great memories with fantastic people. My Arabic has progressed, my appreciation for different ideologies and lifestyles has gained a deeper comprehension, and my confidence and self-understanding has increased. My fond memories of Egypt are intermingling with the memories of Amman and adding to the tangled mess of laughter and adventure. I am astonished at how my time here in Egypt has flown. I know it will continue to do so, and I hope to have a firmer grasp on making the most of my time. I hope to do more research, get more involved and explore more next semester in order to fulfill this desire. I do not want my hands to be reaching behind me trying for naught to relive the past. Likewise, I do not wish to be pining for the future. I strive to find a way to embrace the present and live for the moments I will never have the chance to relive again. While I find reflection an integral part of learning, I equally value a full clasp of the contemporary period, both the happiness and the pain.

I hope to never forget the last six months. I know the emotions have left tattoos on my spirit. My heart is covered with the times of joy and friendship, fights with misery and loneliness, and an overall life of adventure.

Until next semester, Cairo!

Antigone Delton | Paris, France | Post 5

Here we are: my last post of the semester, and, at the time of writing, exactly four weeks until I leave Paris and head back to the USA. The country I left in May 2016 is not the same one I will be returning to in December. Being a dual citizen, a skeptic of the static conception of nationality, and a relatively critical thinker who is mildly politically informed, it’s never been easy for me to fully embrace the designation “American.” The more time I spend abroad, however, the more I’ve come to realize that the United States is truly home. I find myself missing and even identifying with elements of American life I thought I could do without, such as the relative lack of social mores when it comes to dress (e.g. widespread acceptance of sweatpants in public), and our preoccupation with hyper-efficiency. This nostalgic appreciation of what I had just started to call “my country” came to a halt all at once on November 9. Now, I’d rather no one here know where I’m from.

At the watch party I attended election night, the rooms were packed with smiling Americans and non-Americans alike, hot dogs in hand, posing with a drunkenly defaced cut-out of Donald Trump and erupting in spontaneous fits of joy over our first woman president as CNN streamed live on a massive TV screen. I went to sleep around 4 a.m., just before they started announcing the swing states, thinking there was no harm in leaving early since we all knew the result anyway. Then I woke up.

The day after the elections can only be described as surreal. Paris went about its business as usual, the only acknowledgement of disaster away from the TV screens coming from nature: an unrelenting rain from a dark gray sky. I wanted to grab every person who sped by me on the street by the shoulders and shake them and ask if they knew what had happened, what is at stake for my country, what is at stake for the entire world order, and how can they just continue their tunnel-visioned, headphone-bound walk to work like this? Aside from mourning compatriots, Trump’s election as a topic of conversation in the following days usually surfaced in jest, with condolences, or in comparison to the far-right’s similar ascent in France, where Marine Le Pen’s success is feared in upcoming presidential elections. Still now, I’m not sure what to say when a French person asks me “my thoughts” on the election. It’s hard enough to translate such shock, anger and anxiety into English.

The day after the elections, American photographer Andres Serrano closed his talk at the Mona Bismarck American Center, where I'm a volunteer, with his photo of Donald Trump from his series America.

The day after the elections, American photographer Andres Serrano closed his talk at the Mona Bismarck American Center, where I’m a volunteer, with his photo of Donald Trump from his series America.

Thus la vie quotidienne continues an ocean away from the political catastrophe unfolding in the U.S., a distance at once a welcome buffer and a frustrating barrier. Facilitating this exercise in mental compartmentalization, I’ve been lucky to travel a bit more around Europe before my time here is over. In November, a 45-euro roundtrip ticket on Ryanair and a 3.5-hour ride on the TGV (train à grande vitesse, or high-speed train) took me to visit family in Thessaloniki, Greece and Frankfurt, Germany, respectively. Time-space compression continues to astound me.

Sunset on the Mediterranean in Thessaloniki, Greece

Sunset on the Mediterranean in Thessaloniki, Greece

View of the Rhine river valley from Niederwald park in Germany

View of the Rhine river valley from Niederwald park in Germany

It feels silly to make concluding remarks on my semester in Paris when I still have a month left to savor in this city full of possibility and self-discovery. However, there are little reminders here and there that I am, consciously or unconsciously, political devastation or not, at least somewhat ready to go home. For example: the alarmingly potent wave of nostalgia upon finding a twig-like object in my beef bourguignon at the Parisian student cafeteria which fondly reminded me of similar flora I often encounter in my frozen berries at the deece. I couldn’t hold back a smile, and captured the moment for posterity on my phone while my fellow international student diners looked on in horror. Additionally, the visceral urge I’ve had to make my host parents a pumpkin pie in honor of Thanksgiving this week, a holiday barely commemorated by my family at home, and the ensuing search throughout all Paris for canned pumpkin. And this afternoon, as I sat facing the back of the 21 bus and watched out the rear window as the Rue de Rivoli extended farther and farther into the gray, haussmannien distance in front of me, I remained unfazed by the Louvre and fixated only on my film paper due next week. Finals are finals, even in Paris.

Encountered on a walk through la Butte-aux-Cailles, a less-trodden neighborhood of Paris

Encountered on a walk through la Butte-aux-Cailles, a less-trodden neighborhood of Paris

The list of things I’ll miss about Paris is too long to even begin. It will become even longer once I’m back in the U.S. and complaining once again about how everyone drives SUVs and no one makes time for the theater. Reflecting on an experience is difficult when you are still in its midst, and my feelings about this city and about France are certainly conflicting. But regardless of the ambivalence, of the lowest of lows and highest of highs, of the times when I felt the most alone in a city of millions and the times when I felt the most unexplainably grateful just to breathe the air, I’m happy I came. Calling Paris home has been my dream for as long as I can remember, and now, albeit for only four months, the dream has been lived.

The view I'll miss the most

The view I’ll miss the most

Caleb Zachary | Amsterdam, The Netherlands | Post 5

In the Netherlands, December 5th is a much more important date than the 25th. That’s because the 5th is Sinterklaasdag (Sinterklaas Day), which is more widely celebrated here than Christmas. According to lore, Sinterklaas is a royal-looking elderly fellow with a huge white beard, dressed in red and white. He carries a large staff and rides around on horseback, always leaving Spain and arriving in the Netherlands in early November. The traditional story is he freed a Moroccan slave named Piet, who travels with him as a helper, listening at windows and keyholes to see which children have been good as well as slipping down the chimney to deliver presents. This role is generally performed by a host of men and women dressed in colorful pageantry and blackface, in plural known as Zwarte Pieten.

Upon arriving in Amsterdam, the program I’m with gave a briefing on cultural conflicts American students might encounter here, and then again in mid-October they sent out an email regarding Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Despite these notices, I don’t interact with many young children here and heard very little about Sinterklaasdag in the weeks leading up to it. The only other news was emailed notifications about coming anti-Zwarte Piet protests in Utrecht, Rotterdam, and the Hague—part of the annual cycle of public outcry against the celebration of a figure in blackface. The anti-Piet protests first gained major media traction about a decade ago, and every year since there has been a continuous conflict about the role and depiction of Zwarte Piet. The first changes to be made were to remove the gold hoop earrings and bright red lipstick that were traditionally part of the costume, though most Pieten still wear afro-like wigs. There has been a movement toward making the Pieten different colors, and a variety of rainbow faces have replaced the standard black face paint in recent Sinterklaas celebrations. This year, one of the main Sinterklaas specials on television opted to use a smear of charcoal instead of complete blackface, which was considered a major step.

On November 6th I was playing cards in a friend’s room, when we noticed there was a crowd of children outside with lanterns, running from one apartment building to the next. For several hours, small children trick-or-treated from tables that had been set up on a route, picking up small gingerbread cookies (kruidnoten) that are traditional Dutch holiday treats—something we hadn’t seen the previous weekend of Halloween. This was the intocht van sinterklaas, a celebration of Sinterklaas’s arrival in the Netherlands. He wouldn’t be arriving in Amsterdam until five days later, since he arrives by boat in a designated coastal town and generally takes the train throughout the country.

On November 11th, several American friends and I biked to Dam Square, where the Sinterklaas celebration was taking place. We were all fairly nervous about what we were going to see after months of being prepped for it. In front of the Royal Palace was a tall tower structure spewing fog, meant to represent the chimney that Zwarte Piet would climb down. Two Pieten swung around the top of the tower, watching over and calling out to the crowd below. The parade route snaked around the square, and the metal rails constraining the crowd were bending inward with the weight of children standing on them, reaching out for the kruidnoten and sweets that the Pieten were handing out. The smaller children rode on shoulders so they could see and wave at the performers passing by. There was a stronger police presence than I’ve seen anywhere in Amsterdam before, watching from raised platforms and wandering through the crowd. Though I was tense already from the uncomfortable situation we were walking into, the police were laughing and joking with the crowd, obviously there to enjoy the show as well.


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On a stage under the palace were two young hosts introducing the various carts of Pieten that went by, most pulled by horses or tractors. The hosts seemed to be some kind of media personality, but since their Dutch was fast and punctuated with frequent outbursts of singing, we had no idea who they were. When we first arrived, the parade had seemed to just be starting, but by the time we walked into the centre of the square there were Pieten everywhere — hanging off of the buildings around us, walking through the crowd on stilts, biking and skipping through the parade route and leaning off the side of floats. They were of all ages, but seemed to be exclusively Caucasian. The crowd too seemed primarily white, but there were also a number of non-white children calling out to the children as their parents stood by, some dressed in costume. The Pieten, following the new standard, were dusted with charcoal rather than fully painted, but some seemed to have tried to cover their whole faces anyway. It was deeply unsettling to watch the casualness of this mummery, and the way in which children had their cheeks liberally daubed with charcoal. Despite the clear enjoyment of the crowd, the whole experience was disturbing to me, as someone who has been taught that this kind of celebration was antiquated and inherently racist.

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Right before Sinterklaas’s white steed trotted onto the square, the first group of protestors appeared in the middle of the crowd. There were only about twelve at first, mostly black and Dutch quietly holding signs and videotaping the crowd. After some time they were joined by a number of other people, seemingly to have come right out of the crowd—but the group was still no more than twenty-five, but more racially mixed than before. The police had moved directly into the crowd at this point, circling the protestors in pairs while a captain stood next to them, looking outward into the crowd. As Sinterklaas appeared in the square the whole crowd moved toward the palace and the protestors were lost in the swell as children began to scream. Sinterklaas, like a celebrity greeting his fans, waved and leaned down to pat the heads of children along the way. He trotted off the route behind the stage and appeared a couple moments later, carried by several Pieten into a throne onstage. A series of holiday songs were sung, that everyone around us seemed to know, and the event dragged to an end. Done with the spectacle, my friends and I retreated to our bikes and made our way out of the dispersing crowd, in disbelief of what we had just witnessed.

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Claire Harper | New Delhi, India | Post 5

Hello, everyone!

I feel like I have to address the election, as it was quite a surreal experience hearing the news from so far away.

The election results started coming in as we were having breakfast. We all sat around the table in our guest house in Varanasi messaging friends and family. We had an event scheduled right after breakfast—a retired professor was going to walk us around our little section of Varanasi and talk about all the religious sights and the Ganges. We all left with phones in hand and mounting anxiety. We walked around in a daze; we tried to be respectful of the professor, but I don’t think anyone heard a word he said. I watched holy men with long hair and beards and painted faces paying their respects in various places of worship, stepped around cows in narrow alleys, and spotted a pile of little puppies sleeping near a temple. I looked around at the faces of the girls. Everyone was on the verge of tears. This wasn’t how we thought the world worked. Our—perhaps naive and untested—hopes and beliefs were being shaken in ways we weren’t prepared for.

The view from our guest house of the Ganges in Varanasi.

The view from our guest house of the Ganges in Varanasi

Yet, out of all of this bad came a little good. We all found that our little family was strong enough to support each other. Classes were canceled for the rest of the day and we all got apple pie and ice cream for lunch at a little restaurant that appears unremarkable but somehow serves the best pie, pizza and pasta ever. Some of us turned off our phones, not wanting to have to process the initial shock all over again when our family and friends woke up back home. I sat out on the balcony looking out over the smoggy view of the river with two of the other girls. Our future seemed so much more immediate than ever before. We talked about becoming teachers, working for the Peace Corps, and how we needed to have done something about climate change a long time ago. How there are consequences of this election we cannot begin to understand.

I’m sure I will have to process the events all over again when I am in the U.S. again. Yet, it is a topic of conversation even all the way across the world. I was walking out of a temple in Bodh Gaya the other day, and a man, who I assumed was from the area, asked us where we were from and what we were doing in India. He asked how things were in the U.S. now that Trump was there “even though everyone wanted Clinton.” We said things were not good; he replied, “Yes, very bad.” We didn’t say much else, but the general sentiment was clear even across the language barrier.

Anyway, life goes on. We had a wonderful day in Bodh Gaya.  It was the first place we had been that wasn’t a bustling city, and I loved being able to walk around more easily. There were lots of baby chicks and baby goats. The goats all got sweaters because they get cold, which doesn’t seem fair to the dogs and cows who don’t get any clothing. I was very proud of myself for waking up at 5:45 a.m. to walk to meditate. Three other girls and I walked to the Root Institute, which is a ashram-like place/dharma center. I was surprised to find myself in a situation that felt very much like home—sitting in a room full of white people who have come to discover themselves through the wisdom of the Buddha. I am still trying to find where I fit into this stereotype. I guess I should be grateful that people of all backgrounds and ethnicities are united under one religion, but it did seem a little funny to come all the way to India to meditate with people who looked just like me. We walked back through the crisp morning, passing children in little uniforms on their way to school and monks with wool hats riding their bikes to the temple.

A mom and baby goat in Bodh Gaya

A mom and baby goat in Bodh Gaya

After a breakfast we all went to the Mahabodhi temple. I like Buddhist temples much more than the Hindu sites we have been to. Everything feels very calm, and there are beautiful flowers everywhere left as offerings. There were many people on pilgrimages from Tibet and Nepal. On our way back from the temple we helped one of the girls in our group conduct some interviews for her thesis. I talked to a shopkeeper selling jewelry about how the tourist industry has affected her business. She is from Ladakh and comes only for the winter months to sell jewelry near the temple. The prices for housing, food and transportation have gone up exponentially since she started coming six years ago, because the temple is now declared a world heritage site.

We went back to the Root Institute for a tour. A woman from Russia who volunteers at the institute gave us a tour of the health clinic where free care is provided for the local people. Women are educated on how to take care of their babies, teenagers are taught about hygiene and reproductive health, and doctors are sent into the villages to help in any way they can. We then got a tour of the school where children ages 5-13 receive a well rounded education. We didn’t get to meet any of the children, though, as their school day was already over.

We then took an overnight train back to Delhi. It was quite an experience sleeping in a little bunk high up near the ceiling as we traveled across India all night. I am enjoying the last couple weeks with these girls who I have come to mean so much to me, as we have been through a lot together. The people I’ve met through this experience mean the most to me—the people that have been randomly brought into my life from near and far.

Love,

Claire

John Ammondson | Agadir and Marrakech, Morocco | Post 6

Well, it’s certainly been an eventful two weeks since the last time I wrote! As planned, our group ventured on Sunday the 6th from Marrakech to Agadir, a beach town on the coast of Morocco. While driving around trying to find our hotel, I joked that we should stay at a pizzeria I could see out the window; our van promptly turned left into the parking lot of the pizzeria, which was in fact the restaurant section of our hotel. Our stay in Agadir was very relaxing and enjoyable (at least until election night); I got the chance to play more soccer on the beach with our bus drivers, program staff and fellow students while the sun set, which was definitely an unforgettable memory. We visited a fruit packaging plant to see how fruits are prepared for export to Europe; though this doesn’t necessarily sound that interesting, it was super cool to see all of the machinery for shorting and I’ve never seen so many tomatoes in my entire life. Agadir is also home to a collective/collaborative space for youth called the CONNECT institute, and our group joined the college-age youth there for an afternoon of hanging out and talking about our studies, followed by an open mic session. The one member of our group who can actually sing had taken the afternoon off, so we were thoroughly outshone by our superbly talented Moroccan counterparts, but it was a ton of fun nonetheless.

Beautiful skies on the way to Agadir

Beautiful skies on the way to Agadir

Funnily enough, the most defining aspect of our Agadir visit was certainly the U.S. elections. Due to the time difference, the election results were due to come in starting at 12 A.M. Morocco time on the 9th, and the election was predicted to be called around 5 or 6 A.M. A decent portion of my abroad group decided to stay up and watch CNN’s coverage online, equipped with fries, mentos, water and not nearly enough coffee. Needless to say, it was not a particularly enjoyable night for us. I slept for an hour on the floor when I grew tired of swing states turning red, and awoke to a group stunned by disbelief and slowly beginning to accept the likely result of the election. At 6 A.M., our professor and some students, myself included, walked to the beach to watch the sun rise. As we stuck our toes in the sand and tried to comprehend what a Trump presidency would mean for our loved ones back home and climate change (the focus of my abroad program), the sun’s light was mostly diffused behind clouds and we were pestered by a stray dog; go figure. The election results presented me with the biggest challenge of my abroad program so far, because I felt as though I couldn’t be present as a source of love and support for the people I care about at Vassar and at home. In a very weird way, the fears for the future that came along with the election results made me feel even more connected to my country and the people there. However, I couldn’t be more thankful for the mutual support of my abroad group, students and staff alike; though the election made me really miss being in my communities in the US, it also made me appreciate more deeply my community abroad.

Sunset in Marrakech

Sunset in Marrakech

After returning to Marrakech, we had the opportunity to visit COP 22 for a few days. COP stands for Conference of Parties, and it is the international forum for climate change negotiations; the 22nd iteration was being held in Marrakech at the same time we were staying there. Though we of course had no stake in the negotiations, we were able to attend a bunch of fascinating lectures and discussions and see different people’s ideas for combating and dealing with climate change. I also visited the main square in Marrakech, which was an almost overwhelming whirlwind of activity. After grabbing an incredibly delicious and cheap burrito, I ventured further into the maze of shops off of the square to try and find some final souvenirs to remember my time in Morocco!

March for climate change action at COP 22

March for climate change action at COP 22

Shops near the center of Marrakech

Shops near the center of Marrakech

Sunset on the bus to Casablanca

Sunset on the bus to Casablanca

After packing our bags at our hotel in Marrakech (turns out it was a German hotel that we got rooms at because all of the other hotels were booked solid), we drove up to Casablanca to complete our circular tour of the country. Most of our time in Casablanca was spent debriefing and saying goodbye to the Morocco country staff, which was actually really sad because we had grown so close over the past month. The next country on our list was Bolivia, but we flew to Madrid from Casablanca since there are no flights directly from Morocco to Bolivia. We had a one-day layover in Madrid before our flight left for La Paz, but were confined to our hotel due to the lack of support staff in Spain. It was certainly a bummer to not be able to explore Madrid, but our hotel was absolutely massive (the largest in Europe apparently) so we had plenty to keep ourselves occupied with, along with a ton of work due before our flight. The next day we finally boarded our plane to Bogota, Colombia, with a connecting flight to La Paz in Bolivia, which is one of the highest cities in the world elevation-wise. I watched four movies on the first leg and slept on the second leg, and our group finally staggered into our hotel in La Paz at 4 in the morning and fell straight to bed. I woke the next morning to discover that our hotel had pancakes, which certainly made for a great start to the day! Though the last couple weeks have been a crazy time, I’m looking forward to the last month of my abroad experience in Bolivia, which is probably the most visually arresting place we’ve been so far. The next blog post will be my last, so definitely check in for pictures of Lake Titicaca and the Andes mountains as well as some reminiscing and reflecting on this wild ride.