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Month: April 2015

Bianca Zarrella | Bonaire, Netherlands Caribbean | Post 3

Bianca Zarrella | Bonaire, Netherlands Caribbean | Post 3

This third post just about wraps up my time here on Bonaire. I finished my final exams last Thursday and now my classmates and I are finishing our publication of the 17th edition of Physis: Journal of Marine Science. This is a scientific journal that the students of CIEE research station on Bonaire coordinates. Other than this journal, our schoolwork is completed, so I have had the chance to explore a lot more of the island this past week.

For the final week, two of my friends and I decided to rent scooters. This allowed us to travel to many parts on the island that would have taken too long to reach or had otherwise been inaccessible without bikes. On Saturday we ventured North to 1,000 Steps Beach and enjoyed the day in the water below the towering 100 foot cliffs.  Wherever I am on the island, I am always astounded by the water color. It begins as a turquoise blue until about twenty yards out over the reef, when it transcends into a deep blue. The water is always clear, with the visibility averaging nearly 100 feet.

We had to leave the beach quickly to find wifi so I could Skype my coach and the Vassar field hockey team before practice, as a surprise. We stopped at the first resort we came across and went into the restaurant to ask if they had free wifi. The bartender welcomed us in the usual Bonairean fashion, as if we were a guest at the hotel, and let us use their pool and their wifi.

Once the sun began to set, we headed into the second largest, and the most historical town on the island known as Rincón. Upon arriving, we realized that we could not drive through the town due to one of the large parades that frequently block off all of the streets to traffic. Instead of trying to figure out a detour, we stayed and enjoyed the Caribbean music and local food. Other exciting things that I have done since I last wrote include our night dive to watch ostracod spawning and our geological field trip.

Part of the reason why I enjoy this program so much is that most of the learning is done outside of the classroom, creating an awesome hands on experience. For my coral reef ecology class, we learned about life cycles and reproduction processes of underwater creatures during lecture. This information was transferred from the classroom to an outdoor activity in an underwater night dive to observe how ostracods mate. Ostracods are tiny organisms that belong to the class Crustacea, and employ bioluminescent mating techniques. For our dive, we entered the water just after sunset and descended to about 45 feet. Exactly 45 minutes after the sun had set, tiny ostracods began to glow an electric blue on the reef, and then rose up into the water column in mysterious, ladder-like columns. The little glowing dots ascended about ten feet, and then slowly disappeared into little glowing specs and vanished completely. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget.

The island of Bonaire is surrounded by fringing reefs, coral reefs that that lie close to the shore in finger-like and sloping patterns. As the island has risen farther out of the water due to receding water levels, the reef has become more exposed over time. Once the corals have ascended out of the water, they die and calcify, forming calcareous sedimentary deposits all over the island’s coast. Over time, rainwater and wind dissolved these limestone formations. This created over 400 caves on Bonaire that are open to exploration. We visited 12 of those caves on our geological field trip. Many of the caves were caverns with stalagmite and stalactite formations where bats made their homes. In one of the deeper caves, we were able to crawl all the way to the back into a three-foot tall area with freshwater springs. The springs brought us back to a time when ancient locals foraged for freshwater in the desert-like conditions. Standing in the same place where so many had stood before in past lives was an eerie and unsettling experience. It made me realize the true power fresh water has over us.

As I said before, some of the caves show signs of life from many years ago.  The first inhabitants of Bonaire were the Caiquetios, a branch of the Arawak Indians. Though they are no longer inhabitants of Bonaire today, they came to the island by boat from Venezuala around 1000 AD, and many of their writings and carvings have been preserved in the caves. Some of the paintings and petroglyphs were used to record important events, while others were used to keep track of the date. Some were used for sacred celebrations and coming of age ceremonies. Now they stand alone, deserted, and left to the elements. Amazingly, these petroglyphs have remained in tact for thousands of years.

My time on this island has proven to be life changing for me. Not only has this study abroad experience expanded my world view, but it has also increased my appreciation of a different culture.

 

Beautiful water.
Beautiful water.

 

Our favorite road on our way to 1,000 Steps!
Our favorite road on our way to 1,000 Steps!

 

1,000 Steps.
1,000 Steps.
Hannah Harp | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 3

Hannah Harp | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 3

With just two weeks of class left, the semester is winding down already, and I am about to depart on my last week-long adventure to Scotland, with the Misc-famous Chris Brown! This adventure begins the last month of my semester here in Copenhagen, which is turning out to be a little more bittersweet than I would have expected. Mostly because I really didn’t think I would miss being abroad, but I can feel myself beginning to miss it as I mentally prepare for returning to the States.

When I arrived here three months ago, it was cold. Not Vassar cold, but incessantly cold. And never sunny. Every time I returned from a week away, the sun emerged a little more, warming up the hearts and souls of Danes and Americans alike. Energy suddenly exploded in the city, and it became more bearable to be outside all day.

Nyhavn in the spring. Brighter and better than ever.
Nyhavn in the spring. Brighter and better than ever.

I recently returned from a class trip to Berlin, which would have been perfect, if not for six days of downpours. I don’t mind, though, as I returned to Copenhagen in the full swing of spring, and spent the long weekend of Easter exploring the city and anticipating even more beautiful weather.

On a stroll through Norrebro, the sun was having a field day.
On a stroll through Norrebro, the sun was having a field day.

My friend and I spent the day after getting back walking through the city, enjoying the new sounds and sights of spring. The walk got even better halfway through when we discovered a restaurant that makes milkshakes from Ben & Jerry’s flavors. My whole shake was a cookie dough pint. It was…divine.

Enjoying the beautiful weather while sipping on the not-pictured heavenly milkshake.
Enjoying the beautiful weather while sipping on the not-pictured heavenly milkshake.

On our agenda for the long weekend was a day trip to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The trip is about thirty minutes up the coast of the sea on a train, during which I stared out the window at the countryside, soaking in the greenery. I love living in a city, but it can be exhausting, especially without taking a break for a breath of sea air once in a while.

Along the seaside, at the Louisiana Museum. If you squint, you can see Sweden!
Along the seaside, at the Louisiana Museum. If you squint, you can see Sweden!

We didn’t have a lot of expectations for the museum, which is why we enjoyed it so much, I think. The museum is full of beautiful art and surrounded by it, too, in the sculpture gardens. Beyond comprehension, however, was the “Gleaming Lights of the Souls” installation by Yayoi Kusama.

“Gleaming Lights of the Souls,” Yayoi Kusama.
“Gleaming Lights of the Souls,” Yayoi Kusama.

You enter a room that is full of hanging lights, alternating colors. The ceiling and walls are mirrors, and you stand on a platform because the floor is covered in water. It feels like infinity. The lights continue forever, reflecting over and over again, across different surfaces. It was the most relaxing experience I’ve had in a tiny room. Definitely worth the wait.

To end our magical weekend of Copenhagen, we went to Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world! We’ve been waiting since Day 1 to get in, and the day finally came. It was everything we hoped for and more. We went in the evening, enjoying the last hours of daylight, and staying for the transition into the lighted paradise. My head is still spinning a little, and I’m even more terrified of heights after the incredibly tall swings, but it was magical.

Tivoli Gardens, at night, right before a massive ice cream cone.
Tivoli Gardens, at night, right before a massive ice cream cone.

In this last month of my life abroad, thinking about returning home, seeing my friends and family, eating Cheez-its, drinking real chocolate milk, and all of the other small things I miss about home has me dreaming about flying back across the ocean. As for now, I’ll be eating cheese on crackers, drinking Liebfraumilc (the sweetest, cheapest wine of Copenhagen), and holding on to the last month of abroad adventure.

Chris Brown | Brighton, England | Post 3

Chris Brown | Brighton, England | Post 3

The theme of this blog is (cue the dramatic music) trying to survive in another country with not a lot of money! YAY! Recently, as the term has been winding down to somewhat of an end, I’ve been noticing the dollar amount in my bank account slowly creeping its way closer and closer to zero. It’s definitely a scary thought, but it’s taught me (sort of) how to be more responsible with my money, which is a skill I’m sure I’ll need once I enter the, gulp, real world. I’m gonna try and share some secret tips and tricks to going abroad on a budget so that anyone who is worried about finances still pursues the idea of studying abroad for a term, because honestly, it has been the best semester of college ever.

The first thing is food. I’m in England, so the food is already pretty subpar, as sad as it is to say. As a Filipino-American, I need some flavor in my life, and a lot of the food here kind of tastes like cardboard. Sorry England! I’ve been eating a lot healthier as a result, so it’s a positive? Anyways, the key here to is to find the local chain markets and grocery stores. For me, the lower end grocery store in my region is called ALDI. You would not believe how cheap some of the food is here. You can get a whole loaf of bread for less than a dollar, it’s kind of amazing. Yes, it’s not going to be the high quality food that you would find at a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but it is just as good and even better for your wallet. I can spend about 20 pounds in one visit and that food will last me about three weeks to a month. Go for your longer lasting carbs, like rice and pasta. Just a little bit of butter and salt added to some boiled pasta and you’ve got a nice dish with a butter sauce. It did take getting used to, but it really is such a viable option. You won’t have the time to cook fancy meals anyway, so save yourself the stress. Of course, treat yourself to that steak dinner every once in a while to keep your sanity.

One essential part of going abroad is the travel. Most American students that go abroad really put academics second and travel first, me included. Traveling can be very expensive, it’s quite daunting. However, if you know what to look for, you can get around for relatively cheap and still have an amazing experience. Make sure you plan out your travel plans pretty early, because last minute travel will almost always cost way too much more money than it’s worth. When you make a trip plan, try to either take the bus or a plane. Buses are usually the cheapest option. They can get a bit uncomfortable, but if you’re willing to sit through a long ride to save some money, you’ll be golden. Plane rides are actually a lot cheaper in this continent. A flight from England to Poland if bought early enough is only about 100 dollars round trip. DO NOT take the trains unless you have the funds for it. Train rides get ridiculously expensive quickly, and you’ll be thinking “wow, I’m out of money” a month into your term.

There is a lot of stuff to do specifically in Europe that are really cheap. A lot of the museums in England and Europe are free for students, so bring your student ID everywhere! And there are so many castles, churches, and other amazing pieces of architecture that you can just wander around for free. The landscape is a lot more open, so there’s ample opportunity to take hikes and see amazing sites. Definitely save up some money to do a few of those cliché touristy things if that’s what you’re into, just don’t make it a priority. My advice is to plan to take one or two big trips to dream spots, and then look into what can explored in your general area. There’s a lot more stuff to do than you probably thought!

My final advice deals with having a social life on a budget. You’re going to be meeting so many new friends and trying to do as much as you can with them in your daily routine. Going out every night can be a little difficult to do, but you also want to make sure you stay relevant in the circle of friends you’ve made. My advice is to budget enough money to go out twice a week, and don’t go over that budget. Going out can either be really cheap if you’re responsible or really expensive if you’re reckless. Don’t spend all your money in one sitting. If you spend it wisely and spread it our over the course of the term, you will be able to have more fun throughout the whole semester.

And that’s just some basic how to’s from a fellow struggling soul in another country. Being abroad has been one of the best experiences of my life, and I would do it all over again if I had the chance. It’s just a matter of being smart with your money and your time that will help you have the best semester ever.

Bianca Zarrella | Bonaire, Netherlands Caribbean | Post 2

Bianca Zarrella | Bonaire, Netherlands Caribbean | Post 2

Bon dia!!

In Bonaire, that’s how I would say hello to you during the daylight hours. It is literally translated “good day” in Papiamentu, the native language here. People here are extremely friendly, and love explaining their favorite spots on the island and teaching their language and culture. By far, the most frequently used word is dushi, which means an array of things. You could say, pasa dushi wikent, meaning “have a nice weekend.” But dushi can also be used to describe food as being delicious, and people as being good looking. In addition to Papiamentu, people here are usually fluent in Spanish, Dutch and English.

The island of Bonaire is beautiful. It’s a constant 85 degrees and sunny every day — even when it rains the sun is still out. And the academic program is busy; our day is schedule from about 8am to 8pm. We usually have a bit of class in the morning and then a little more after lunch. But, some days we just skip the class part and scuba dive, snorkel, hike, or swim. Other days we go on day trips, and we have had overnights in Curacao and camped on the North part of Bonaire that is conservation land.

My most time consuming class at this point in the semester is my independent research experiment. Each student in my program came up with an individual research question to study throughout our time in Bonaire. I decided to investigate the filter feeding mechanism of marine sponges, which exposes them to water-borne toxins. This forces them to evolve immune systems effective in fighting these pathogens. Therefore, antibacterial properties of the sponge’s defense system are effective tools that can be used in medicinal therapies. By modeling sponges’ response to pathogens, advances can be made in human medicine. My study analyzes how the pumping efficiency of the species Aplysina archeri and Aplysina lacunosa affects the antibacterial properties of the sponge. I measure the pumping efficiency of each sponge by using inhale-exhale water sampling (In-Ex), determined by comparing the turbidity of water before it enters and as it exits the sponge. I test the variation in antibacterial properties by assembling antibiotic assays from sponge extracts. Sponges with high pumping efficiencies may have greater antibacterial properties because the increased filtering rates will expose the sponge to more pathogens. As a result, the sponge must produce effective resistances to the toxins in order to remain healthy. I’m still collecting my preliminary research, but I will be getting results soon.

When I’m not in the lab, my leisure time here on Bonaire has proven to be exciting and adventurous. I’ve done many activities here, such as windsurfing, hiking, and of course, scuba diving. My favorite experiences so far have been my trips up north.

On Saturday afternoon, we slid into the bench seats in the back of the truck. Our voyage north involved a thin, one-way road to Rincón, the oldest village on Bonaire. The town itself is located in a valley, and to get there we followed a winding path along the ocean. We finally cut inland along a road that led through the flamingo sanctuary and brought us into the mountains.

From there, we continued along desolate dirt roads until we stumbled upon what looked like a small ranch. Upon pulling into the driveway, we realized it was a restaurant, Posada Para Mira. There we ate local cuisine, a choice of chicken, fish, goat stew, or iguana stew. My decision was made easily — I mean, where else can you get iguana stew?! This was served with white rice, plantains, some kind of orange squash, and another type of vegetable that was fried.

After we ate dinner, we found the roof. Every cool place on Bonaire has a roof overlooking a nice view.

My next trip to the north of the island was to the Washington Slagbaai National Park. We began our day in the trucks, driving to the park and touring it. We had a very cool experience lounging in the back of the trucks on bean bags as we watched the beautiful desert island scenery pass us by. It was just past midday by the time we reached our camp site. We used the rest of the time to snorkel and explore the area, while enjoying the Bonairean sun. Later that night, a barbeque was cooked as we watched the sunset on the crest of a coral dune. Once the sun went down, we strapped on night vision goggles and went on a hike with blue lights to see scorpions fluoresce bright yellow. That night we fell asleep under the stars. We woke up with the sunrise, then set out to hike Brandaris, one of the highest peaks on Bonaire. Though the hike was extremely hot and strenuous, the views at the top of the peak were unbeatable.

Pictures from the trip to Rincón:

Overlooking the Flamingo Sanctuary.

 

View from the Restaurant.
View from the Restaurant.

 

Iguana Stew.
Lily Elbaum | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 7

Lily Elbaum | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 7

It’s been a busy couple of months, but it’s finally the last week of classes here. My last class is on Friday, and then I’m free for a whole month before the exam session begins. Even though it’s been a long time, this semester seems to have flown by. In less than two months I’ll be going back to the States, leaving Edinburgh – the city which has become my home. It feels weird, being around students who are only halfway through their time abroad, while I am at the end of my time. They feel like they have a lot of time, and I’m wondering where it’s gone. I start a three-week backpacking trip on Saturday, and I know the time then will go even faster. Even though I’m ready to come home in a lot of ways, I still want time to slow down. I want to remember each day, and savor it because I know that every day brings a new experience. Even if I watch that experience through my window because it’s pouring rain and I can’t be bothered to go grocery shopping. 

I suppose that’s what they don’t tell you about studying abroad for a year. I suppose you get the feeling a bit during one semester, but for a year it’s definitely true. Living abroad gets to be…routine. It’s not all jetsetting and seeing sites every weekend. It’s going to class, watching Netflix, grocery shopping, cooking, doing laundry, complaining about the weather. All the things that you know you have to do, but seem like you shouldn’t have to do because you’re abroad and you’re here for the experience, not to do laundry. And all the classes that seemed so exciting at first become work, and suddenly you can’t take a trip to London because you have a paper due the week you want to go. All the things that are fun and new the first two months are the same things that seem normal and routine by month six. Walking through Old Town is still beautiful, but I don’t feel the need to stop and take pictures, or linger in front of the old buildings, and I forget to appreciate the city I’m in and things I’m getting to do. But then I remember, and everything becomes new and special again. It becomes an experience again.

I recently took a trip to the Isle of Skye, and I was reminded of why I chose to study abroad in Scotland. It’s an amazing country, but in the winter it’s cold, and dark, and a bit colorless. Everything is brown and gray and cold and wet. Not that the Isle of Skye was warm, but it’s one of those places that really is magical any time of year. It’s out on the west coast of Scotland, connected to the mainland by a bridge. Despite being an island, it’s still part of the Highlands, and the mountains are proof of that – they hardly look like they belong in Scotland at all. I was only there for a weekend, but in that time I was able to see a lot of the island, and it’s easy to see why Skye is such a popular tourist destination. There is a lot of hiking, and there are some really scenic drives along the coast. There are little hidden places, like one called the Faerie Glen, that are gems in the countryside. Even with the landscape still in the drab winter colors of olive green, brown, and gray, it was stunning. The mountains even still had snow on them. It’s a place that I can imagine going back to more than once. There’s so much to explore, even though the island isn’t that big. Even Portree, the main town on Skye, is charming.

My most recent trip was to Copenhagen, which was an amazing experience. It’s so different from any other European city, with a surprising amount of bikes. According to the Danish girl I stayed with, there are more bikes than people. Besides the usual tourist stops, I also visited Christiania, which is an old military base that was taken over by hippies and has become an independent commune tolerated by the government. No one there pays taxes, but no new supplies to build are ever brought in, and there is an application process to live there. It’s most famous for its ‘Green Light District’ (no photos allowed), but it’s so much more than that. It’s a place where people live – there are children growing up there. It’s amazing what the residents have created. A place unlike any other. And the attitude is best summed up by the words on the back of the welcoming sign, seen as you leave Christiania: ‘Now entering the EU.’ 

It’s been a whirlwind couple of months, and it’s only going to get busier, with traveling and exams eating up the rest of my time here in Edinburgh. But it’s been a great ride so far, and I’m looking forward to a great last two months.

A highland cow on the Isle of Skye.
A highland cow on the Isle of Skye.

 

The Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye.
The Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye.

 

Nyhavn (New Harbor) in Copenhagen.
Nyhavn (New Harbor) in Copenhagen.