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Month: December 2015

Kelsey Quinn | York, England | Post 4

Kelsey Quinn | York, England | Post 4

As much as I’ve been trying to ignore the fact that study abroad is not forever, sitting down to write this last blog forces me to acknowledge that my time in England is drawing to a close. I still have about half a month left in the UK, but my school term ends next week. Today I had my last seminar, which means that I’m basically now in what I (and other U.S. college students) know as finals week. However, as opposed to usual, I will not be inhabiting the library for the next few days, primarily because the library here is always hot and crowded and too bright and I hate it.

Anyway, luckily the library probably won’t be necessary. All I have to do next week is write one 1500-word essay and one 3000-word essay—yet these are the only assignments I’ve had all term, and they will be worth 100% of my grades. I have another 3000-word essay to do, but it’s not due until the start of the university’s next term in January. I don’t really understand that either. I’m still ambivalent about if I think this system is better or not. Of course, I can only speak for what I’m studying, because experience here seems to vary based on major, but between American and British literature students, someone’s getting cheated here and I’m not sure who it is.

In addition to the education system, recently I’ve been struggling to reconcile a much more personally disturbing cultural difference: they don’t have Thanksgiving here. I mean, of course you know that, but it’s been a strange disconnect to actually experience. It’s the only time that I’ve really remembered that there’s an ocean between me and everything I’ve known up until now. This is only because Thanksgiving is one of my personal favorite days of the year, especially when considered in conjunction with the Black Friday that follows. I love warming my heart through a nice dinner with the whole family and then forgetting every ethical value I hold to indulge in raw consumerism and capitalism. For Thanksgiving this year, I attended the university’s attempt at an American Thanksgiving party, which was cute and thoughtful but made me horribly sad. Then I watched cartoons, Skyped with my family through a terrible internet connection, and went to bed. The UK makes an attempt at Black Friday, which, like the dinner, I found endearing but ultimately depressing. A country without Target is a country that could never give me a comparable Black Friday adrenaline rush to the one I know and love.

So here I am: a girl who’s just missed her first Thanksgiving about to wrap up a semester in Europe. It’s not such a bad tradeoff. I’m so glad that I chose to come to the beautiful, charming city of York.

A small part of the Christmas decorations in York.
A small part of the Christmas decorations in York.

In the weeks coming, I’ll be doing my final papers and as much traveling as I can around England. My recent trip to the nearby city of Leeds made me want to focus on where I am. Leeds is just as fun as York, but in a more modern and upbeat way. Flights over the weekend were exciting, but now I want to take advantage of being able to explore the amazing places close to me. I’ll be devastated to England, but I’m looking forward to enjoying the end of my trip, because hopefully it won’t be goodbye to this place forever.

Lizzie Bennett | Samoa | Post 6

Lizzie Bennett | Samoa | Post 6

Well, I’ve made it.

The program has officially ended, and pretty soon I’ll be getting to say fa soifua to Samoa. Our papers were turned in and presented, we said goodbye to our families in Lotofaga, and I’ve embarked on a quest for gifts. As I find ways to pack my life back into 23 kilograms of checked baggage, I reflect on the three months that have passed. I start by asking myself how I got here.

The night before I left for Hawai’i for orientation, I was busy rolling my clothes into little cylinders and haphazardly throwing them into my bag. I didn’t even have any expectations for the program, so it didn’t even feel like I was leaving for any reason. Once I had left Hawai’i for Apia, I didn’t realize how far away from home until the program was halfway over. I was so caught up in everything that was happening. I was so busy learning the fundamentals of a new language, doing work and making friends that I forgot what it was like to feel alone. One way to remember again is to lie in bed late at night, watching the geckos traverse the ceilings like ghosts, and realize that you are over 7,000 miles away from home.

I would remedy this feeling. I saw people constantly. There were always people coming in and out of my room, and I went in and out of others’ rooms. Save for some hours of work (thank God for headphones), I focused on cultivating relationships. I did this out of a genuine interest in my own cohort, but also in the Pacific island students we lived with. I knew that I was very lucky to be there, to have met the people I met, and that I should make every second with them count. One by one, they left for Fiji, for Tuvalu, for homes throughout Samoa. After that, our cohort bonded in ways I could never have imagined. We ran around town, toughed out a cyclone and shared frustration at the rain soaking our drying clothes. We’re still counting down the days until we leave and agonizing over how we’re going to keep in contact.

But as the sun sets on my time here, I realize that I must reconcile the parts of myself that Samoa brought out with the self I was when I scrambled onto that first Fiji Airways flight. I had to learn how to be with myself, and only myself, again. After we said goodbye to our families in the village, we went to a tourist attraction called To Sua Ocean Trench. It’s essentially a big hole in the ground that has water in it. This water ebbs and flows with the swells that batter the cliffs on the other side of the trench. I went into the hole once, scaling the ladder and nearly scaring myself to death, (I just so happen to be deathly afraid of heights) and, having gone once, I feel less enthusiastic about going down again.

To kill time, I walked around the Trench’s gardens until I found a set of equally vertiginous stairs that led to a rocky platform by the ocean. The sea-spray hung in the air, standing still in spite of the strong winds. I wondered if that sea-spray would cling to me like some sort of salty miasma, even after I had left the country. I watched the ocean for a while, finally satisfied with my choice to go alone. Instead of spending that time planning how my time in Samoa will end, I sat on the rocks and just watched. It was a good way to say goodbye to the Pacific for the time being.

But now, I return to crossing off items on my lists, seeing if I have appropriate clothing  for coming home, confirming flights, and wrangling with a laptop that won’t start up. It’s been weird, and it’s been good, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Christa Ventresca | Glasgow, Scotland | Post 4

Christa Ventresca | Glasgow, Scotland | Post 4

The semester is starting to draw to a close. This is my final blog post for Far and Away, which is kind of funny because I do not actually leave Glasgow for good until December 20th. But it is starting to hit me that I am going to have to leave and return to the states eventually. Before I get into that though, I want to talk about my various adventures around Europe that I have been on the past few weeks.

My first big trip to outside the UK was to Amsterdam! I loved that city immensely, as much as I have come to adore Scotland and the UK, Amsterdam stole my heart a little. The streets are quaint with canals running through them and bikes chained to literally everything. It is the perfect place to wander around and absorb the scenery. Between the cars, bikes, and the tram, it can feel as though everyone is trying to run you over! There are several really nice street markets, such as the Bloemenmarkt, a floating flower market, and the Albert Cryup markt, which is mostly food and clothes. Speaking of the food, I would move to Amsterdam just to be able to eat there every day; the local specialties are really that delicious. Between the stroopwaffles (two waffles with caramel between them, sometimes coated in chocolate), poffertjes (bite sized pancakes), and the cheese I was incredibly satisfied with the local cuisine.

Amsterdam at night, still wonderful to walk around in.
Amsterdam at night, still wonderful to walk around in.

While I was there I visited the Anne Frank huis, an emotional but necessary visit. It was incredible to walk through the rooms that her family stayed in for months and realize how difficult and terrifying it must have been for them. They also had some interesting information about Anne, such as a video of her father talking about her diary, and the pages of the original. It was definitely a unique experience.

After Amsterdam came Munich, Germany. I was very nervous about this visit since I do not speak any German whatsoever, but it actually went pretty well. Most people know at least a little English, so it is possible to get by only knowing how to say “please” and “do you speak English?”. What was really fascinating was walking around and listening to the people around you speak another language, since until then I had been to cities that mainly speak English.

The inside of Asamkirche in Munich, visually stunning.
The inside of Asamkirche in Munich, visually stunning.

Munich was also gorgeous, and walking around was a ton of fun as well. One of my favorite parts was the Asamkirche, a small church just off of a main road. From the outside it almost blends in with the street, but when you enter there are ornate decorations and statues everywhere! It was gorgeous, and impressed me a little more than the Frauenkirche, Munich’s most famous church.

Marienplatz, or the main square in Munich. The central tower has a glockenspiel on it that goes off every day at 11 and 12.
Marienplatz, or the main square in Munich. The central tower has a glockenspiel on it that goes off every day at 11 and 12.

Another important part of Munich was the food, of course. I am not a huge beer fan, but I did not mind it so much in Germany (German beer does not taste anything like Natty Lite). The currywurst (essentially a hot dog with curry poured on it, served with fries) is a local favorite and was excellent, as well as the doner kebap (a sort of sandwich with middle East influences) and the schnitzel (basically a chicken cutlet).

Finally this past weekend my roommate and I ventured down to Belgium. We were staying in Brussels, but also travelled to Brugges as well. This was an adventure and a half since the entire city was at maximum security because of terrorist threats. They had closed both the museums and the metro. However we were both thinking along the lines of “screw the terrorists, we want waffles” so we went anyways.

Found: Tin Tin among the street art in Brussels.
Found: Tin Tin among the street art in Brussels.

Brussels itself is a neat place. It is the head of the European Union, so it is more political than touristy. There are a bunch of cool comic-themed wall murals around, which were fun to spot. The main parts of town are the Grand Place, which was in the process of being decorated for Christmas, and the Galleries St. Hubert, which is where you can spend a lot of money. Then there is a trio of peeing statues: Mannekin Pis (a little boy), Jeannette Pis (a little girl), and Zinneke Pis (a dog). They were pretty hilarious to find and take pictures of.

Bruges was a gorgeous place as well, and a good contrast to Brussels. It is known as the “Venice of the North” since it has canals and small streets. (Not as many canals as Amsterdam though.) It is a medieval and very historic city, so there are a lot of churches around. We arrived just in time for the Christmas market, so it was great to walk around and eat a ton of waffles and fries from the street vendors.

The Christmas market at Bruges with cute little buildings in the background.
The Christmas market at Bruges with cute little buildings in the background.

And now we have come to the end of the majority of my adventures. Finals are starting up, so I will not be travelling much more until the very end of the semester. I would not want to anyways, there are too many people here that I want to spend time with before returning. Scotland has, in so many ways, impressed and welcomed me much more than I expected. The people here are of a friendly and hearty breed, and I would love to spend more time getting to know them, and the country as a whole, much more. This semester has provided me with so many opportunities that I would never have gotten at Vassar, including the chance to see more of Europe, but also to get to know and spend time with people that I would never have met otherwise. It is sad to think that after December I will not be able to see many of them again, as some of us are returning home to other countries, but since we are all travelers at heart, I know that eventually we will probably meet up on some adventure!

A canal in Amsterdam with all the cute houses, boats, and bicycles.
A canal in Amsterdam with all the cute houses, boats, and bicycles.

Prepare yourself Vassar, I will be among you once again in January!

James Falino | Bolivia | Post 4

James Falino | Bolivia | Post 4

Greetings from Bolivia! I am writing to you from the airport in La Paz, on our way to Cochabamba where we will meet our homestay families and spend the majority of our remaining time. Speaking Spanish has been so rewarding, and I am excited for a new city and a chance to immerse myself with the language in my new home. But first, let me take a few steps back from where I left off – on the train ride to Fes, Morocco.

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We stayed in the Fes Médina, a UNESCO World Heritage site and among the largest carless urban areas in the world. It felt similar to Rabat, but with more distinct neighborhoods and an immensity that was difficult to grasp. We wandered around markets of textiles, endless produce, and homes. On our last day, we sought out the leather tanneries, a famed destination. We asked for directions along the way and heard from many that the main area was under construction but we carried on regardless. A young man on the street said he could take us to see the tanneries, and after some hesitation we paid him a small fee for his unofficial tour. We walked across a bridge and waded through workers knee deep in dyes, coloring the leather in circular tanks. We stepped over obstacles of leather, wastewater, and cinderblocks as we made our way to a stairway. Atop, there was a view of the tannery below and a smattering of leather hides drying on rooftops.

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The next morning, a smaller group of us embarked on an eight-hour drive to the Sahara desert. We stopped along the way and remained giddy with anticipation as the mountains slowly disappeared making way for flat terrain, and dunes began to appear in the distance. They dropped us off at our hotel and as we gathered our things for the night they urged us to hurry, as sunset was approaching. We mounted a row of camels that jolted up and we began our bumpy ride towards the dunes. We took in the landscape, laughed, named our respective camels, and held on for our dear lives as we rode off into the sunset. We settled into open-air tents and our guide introduced himself to us as Mubarak or Black Stars. He brought out tea and one of the best tagines during my time in Morocco. After, he set us up with a campfire and we stared in awe at the sky undisturbed by light pollution, remarking on shooting stars intermittently.

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We reconvened with a larger group of students and made our way by train to Asilah, a beach town close to Tangier in the north. We spent the remaining nights of our vacation there and enjoyed some rest and relaxation. The weather didn’t treat us well, but the view, quality time, and meals cooked together more than made up for it.

After vacation, we met back up with the whole class in Rabat. We had a few days of program synthesis where we presented the progress on our final research papers and completed midterm projects. We flew from Casablanca to Barcelona with a 24-hour layover where we weren’t allowed to leave the hotel. After, there was a 12-hour flight with an additional 3-hour connection to arrive in La Paz, Bolivia.

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The picture above is the sunrise that greeted us at our at 5am arrival. Despite our exhaustion, we stared in awe of the snow-capped mountain, Illimani, the highest peak in Bolivia. At 13,000ft, the travel time and altitude of La Paz took its toll on me. For the first few days I was bedridden other than class time, but as I adjusted climbing up the stairs didn’t tire me  so quickly.

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For our first excursion in Bolivia, we set out for the ruins of the Tiwanaku civilization. Osvaldo Rivera, an archaeologist who assisted in excavating this site, was our guide and he got more excited with each site and facts he was able to share with us. He toured us around the Sukakollos, vast planes in the Altiplano region that utilizes canal systems to protect crops from frost and was part of the success of the Tiwanaku civilization. The Tiwanaku were the longest lasting civilization in South America and based on core samples, their extinction followed major climatic shifts. Although based on natural cycles of the planet and not anthropogenic, a common defense used to reject climate legislation, this example reinforced the belief that climate change has the ability to effect even the most advanced civilizations – adaptation and mitigation are required regardless of the cause.

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Next, we headed to Copacabana along Lake Titicaca. Among the most breathtaking places I have seen on this program, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. Tectonic shifts pushed the lake up for centuries leading to the isolated evolution of the giant Titicaca water frog and freshwater seahorses.

The Isla del Sol, home of the Inca origin myth, is an isolated island in Lake Titicaca. During a day trip, we hiked the hilly terrain and Osvaldo Rivera told us of the origin myth. According to his story, the island is the source of both the Sun and the Moon and is a location for pilgrimage in South America.

I am looking forward to Cochabamba where I will meet up with my freshman roommate Joey Weiman ’17. With less than a month left on this program, my remaining goals are to get to the city, share experiences with my homestay family, and get a whole lot of work done.