Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in Cambodia

Friendly people, delicious food, warm sunshine, hours lounging by the pool, Christmas. Ahhhh vacation! I’ve had an absolutely wonderful time in Cambodia this past week. If I may be so bold to say it, I think it’s my favorite country so far.

The first bit of our stay here was not all smiles and relaxation though. The first thing on our agenda when we arrived into Phnom Penh was to visit the place where the Khmer Rouge murdered their prisoners during their revolutionary overthrow in the 70s. Brittle ivory white skulls, piled up in a stupa at least 50 feet high were the first things I saw. The remains of the millions of innocent people killed. There were mass graves with bones, teeth, and salvaged clothing. A tree marked with a placard indicated where babies and children were beaten to death. Next we visited Tuol Sleng, a high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and torture center. The cells and torture chambers were still set up. I walked through the rooms, looking at the rows and rows of pictures of prisoners’ faces displayed on boards. It was so hard for me to look into the eyes of the men, women, children, and even small babies that had been captured, tortured, and killed in that very place not too long ago. How could I never have learned about this in school? I was shocked and slightly infuriated that this genocide, which killed almost half of Cambodia’s population at the time, had been completely left out from my education. It was a pretty rough morning for me to say the least.

It’s very evident that the aftereffects of the revolution still abound here. Children on the street sell books about Pol Pot and the killing fields, and I fear that it’s even become a sort of tourist attraction. Case in point: our group. I think it’s a good thing that people are being made aware of the atrocities that happened here, however I hope that tourism and hype doesn’t make it seem any less severe.

We left Phnom Penh after three days and traveled by bus to Siem Reap. We had three day passes to the temples. The first day, we toured around by tuk tuk with a guide, who explained to us details about a few of the temples. My favorite was actually the temple the Tomb Raider was filmed at! The next morning, we woke up super early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. On the third day, I rented a bike and rode a loop around the temples. It was really beautiful to see all of the temples and scenery. And it was only one dollar for the whole day! I couldn’t believe it.

The rest of my time here has been spent relaxing. I alternate between jumping in the pool, reading in the sun, and exploring the city. Passing up the countless offers from the tuk tuk drivers—“want a tuk tuk lady?”—I like to walk into the cute downtown area. There are lots of restaurants and shops-- many of the restaurants advertise their use of organic and local foods! I have a hard time choosing where to go. But it doesn’t matter too much, because every one I’ve been to has been amazing. Another thing I was surprised about here were the “Dr. Fish Massages.” They’re everywhere on the streets. Basically, they’re a huge tank full of water and fish that, when you put your feet in, will eat your dead skin. I tried it with my hand for a few seconds, and it felt like little suction cups!

I’ve been amazed at the amount of English the Cambodians speak. I think it’s most likely due to the amount of tourism (lots from Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.) On the streets, people will barrage you with offers to buy anything from books to bracelets to drugs…Always the same offer: “Lady, you want a…” Walking to dinner one night, one boy came up to us to try to sell books. First, he chased us with a cooked tarantula (they sell them on the streets here.) He then proceeded to follow us to the restaurant and kept talking to us, even as we sat down. The whole time we were conversing with him English, and he seemed very fluent. They’re very dynamic and cheery, and it’s actually really fun to have conversations with all of the vendors.

We spent our Christmas here in Siem Reap! We celebrated by playing games, performing in a talent show, and revealing our secret santas. Kasha even had a small Christmas tree for us to put our gifts under. I really missed my family and Christmas celebrations at home, but it’s hard to be too down when you’re lying in the sun and swimming in the pool in Cambodia.

We’re flying out to India this afternoon! I’m really excited, but also a bit nervous. It’s going to be quite a trek to get there, complete with a 6 hour layover (from midnight to 6 am) in Mumbai. The book we’re reading to prepare for India is The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m really enjoying it. So at least I have that to keep me occupied!

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Media Project from China!

made by me, Mary, and Rachel.

Monday, December 13, 2010

To Shaxi and Beyond

Last Monday, we said our goodbyes to our host families in Kunming as we loaded up onto a bus bound for Shaxi, where we we’re spending the week in our “rural” homestay. We broke our trip up into two days: the first day we drove about 4 hours to a town called Dali. We walked around looking at the shops selling crafts and trinkets. Dali is known for its tiedye and almost every store had some variation of tiedyed clothing. It felt a little bit like I was transported to some sort of 60s-themed amusement park. We woke up the next day and completed our journey to Shaxi with a 5 hour jaunt on the bus.

When I was told that Shaxi was going to be a rural homestay, I thought it was going to be Los Naranjos rural. But compared to Los Naranjos, Shaxi is a bustling metropolis with its 23,000 people. Which I suppose is rural by China’s standards. There are cafes, restaurants, little markets, a bank, and even hair salons. The town is quaint and quiet. Cobblestone roads connect our woodframe houses and wind out through the fields, which extend out to the base of mountains in the distance.

When we arrived, our host parents met us in the parking lot to help us carry our bags through the old town to our houses. My house is located right next door to the Shaxi Cultural Center. Run by YCCLD (our partner organization in China), the cultural center is where our leaders are staying and where our seminar/discussion/hangout room is. It’s also where my bathroom is! When I first got to my homestay and asked for the bathroom, my host grandma led me to a public restroom. After that, I realized that the cultural center was much closer and much cleaner.

It’s been difficult trying to communicate with my family because they don’t know any English and my Chinese doesn’t really get me anywhere. There has been much hand gesturing on my part and confused looks on my host family’s part. I’m not quite sure they realize that I can’t understand Chinese because they try to talk to me and ask me questions in Chinese while I awkwardly stand there, not knowing what to say or do. I feel bad because I wish I could interact with them more, but sitting in their bedroom and watching Chinese TV at night only goes so far.

For the first few days, I had no idea who the members of my host family actually were. I knew that there was a grandma, because she was the one who met me when we first arrived. But other than that, I wasn’t too sure. As of now, I know there’s a mom, grandma, grandpa, and sister. I’m pretty sure there’s a dad who shows up to meals at times, and possibly a host brother. He does homework in the grandparents’ room, but he’s never eaten with us. My house, like many of the houses here, is comprised of rooms arranged around a courtyard. I think there’s another family living in our little complex, but of course I can’t be too sure. The kitchen is open-air, and there’s no running water (there’s a well in the kitchen) or refrigerator. Ironically, there are TVs. It never ceases to confuse me when I see these “luxury” items like TVs, DVD players, and cell phones when there isn’t even running water. But, as I’ve well learned, my values are not the values held by the rest of the world!

At meals, we eat on tiny stools around a bowl of hot coals. I’ve eaten some interesting food here. Some dishes--like snap peas, lotus root, and seaweed salad--have been really tasty. But the mystery egg/chicken jello-type dish and the white and red poop-smelling dish haven’t been my favorites.

We finished up our teaching careers with four last classes at the middle school here in Shaxi. It was interesting to see the differences between the school in Kunming and the school here. The class I taught used the same textbook and was even on the same lesson as a class I taught in the city, yet the students here understood a significantly smaller amount of English. Shaxi schools have a high reputation compared to other schools in the county, so I wonder what other rural schools are like.

Besides teaching, our days here have been filled with seminars and LOTS of work on our media projects. This morning, Mary, Rachel, and I finally finished our movie, which explores the Chinese and American education systems and whether or not they are preparing their students for the world.

A lot has happened. But one of the highlights for me was our visit to the Shibaoshan temple on Saturday. Before we got there, we were warned about the wild monkeys and advised to not look them in the eyes or feed them. Sure enough, at the parking lot, we were greeted by a cute furry friend who then proceeded to steal Shannon’s bag of peanuts from her backpack and run off with it. When it got a few feet away, it sat down, broke open the bag, and started shelling and downing the peanuts. We then climbed stairs up the mountain to reach the temple. It was beautiful, surrounded by trees and backed up against a rock cliff. Monkeys were all over--crawling on the roof, hanging from the trees, running on the ground. There were trails up onto the rock behind the temple, so I climbed up to find more pagodas filled with Buddha figures. I kept going around the mountain and wound my way up to a nunnery near the top. I knew I was drawing near when I heard the chanting of a monk and ringing of bells. I was so content to be alone in nature, and for a moment forgot all the frustrations I’ve had with the loud, polluted cities in China.

We are in Shaxi for two more days. After that, we go back to Kunming to stay in dorms at the Yunnan Nationalities University before two nights before we’re off to Cambodia! I’m really excited for the sunny, warm weather and am curious about the food, which is supposedly like lesser-spiced Thai food. I hope that’s true!

I also hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season! We had a Hanukkah using some votive candles which we lined up as a makeshift menorah. We also have a secret Santa gift exchange arranged. I do miss eggnog though!

The sun is actually shining right now, so I think I’ll go out to de-thaw!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Paradise Found

This week flew by as we anticipated not only Thanksgiving, but also our Independent Student Travel Weekend. We started out with three days of teaching, seminars, lectures, and Chinese lessons. On Wednesday, we had our day-early Thanksgiving celebration. We ate at a westernized café located on the "foreigner street" of Kunming, which has a variety of restaurants that serve food other than Chinese. We were told that they were going to give us their best shot at making an American Thanksgiving dinner and staples to include turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. We had all three of those, along with gravy, sweet potatoes, chicken wraps, chicken kabobs, salad, pizza, and an eggplant lasagna dish. While I missed my Thanksgiving at home, how many times will I be able to have Thanksgiving in China? It wasn’t my normal tradition, but I like to think of it as something totally different.

On Thursday, we departed for a long IST weekend. Lauren, Rachel, Mary, and I decided to go to a town called Shangri-La, also called Zhongdian. Located in the Northwest corner of the Yunnan province, it’s about as close to Tibet as you can get. We decided to splurge and buy plane tickets to avoid the 12-hour, windy bus ride. The flight was an hour long, so we arrived in Shangri-La around 9 in the morning. I felt like I was flying in for a ski trip, especially when I walked outside and was blasted with cold air. Shangri-La is a small town, nestled into snow-dusted mountains. It felt like we were in a completely different country: the architecture was different, the people seemed nicer, the air was fresher. I felt like I could finally take a deep breath again. Because of its proximity to Tibet, there’s rich Tibetan culture here. The town is named after James Hilton’s book The Lost Horizon. Apparently, many towns used to call themselves Shangri-La, claiming to be the mythical paradise from the book. Eventually, they decided that Zhongdian would be the “real” Shangri-La.

The first thing we did was check into our hotel, the Gyalthang Dzong Hotel, to find we were the only people there! It was really nice, though. Lauren and I shared a comfortable room with a huge king bed, complete with electric blankets. We were so happy to find a little heater as well. It was definitely necessary. It’s so cold here; when I walk outside, I literally wear all of my layers—Underarmor, long sleeves, fleece jacket, raincoat, hat, and gloves. Everything feels so much colder without any indoor heating!

Our next order of business was exploring the town. Shangri-La is divided into Old Town and New Town. Old Town is the more culturally-rich, interesting section; New Town has nothing really too special. We walked along the cobblestone streets of Old Town, looking into the shops selling Tibetan handicrafts and trinkets. Taking a long set of stairs, we climbed up to a beautiful Buddhist temple and huge prayer wheel. It must have been at least 20 meters tall. We found a restaurant called The Compass Café, which served some western food. It was our hideaway from the cold, and became our go-to spot for the next few days. We went every day except Sunday (only because it was closed) and sat in the same chairs each time.

The next day was our relaxation/spa day. There was a spa at our hotel, so we all treated ourselves to massages. That night, we went out to dinner at a Tibetan restaurant. Mary and I split a yak and chicken hot pot, which is a soup of boiling broth, with meat and vegetables added to it. They bring it to your table and place it on a flame to it keeps boiling. So delicious, and it warms you right up. They eat yak everything here. From meat to yogurt to yak butter tea. I tried the tea at breakfast and it tastes exactly how you’d imagine butter tea to taste like—hot, watery, salty butter. I didn’t think it was bad, but I also didn’t think it was good. The meat, however, does taste good.

Saturday, we went to Podacuo National Park, the first national park in China. We took a taxi there and arrived at a lodge. We bought our entry tickets and then were shuttled onto a bus. We were waiting on the bus for about a half an hour and had no idea what to do because none of us speak Chinese and no one there spoke English. We really didn’t want to be sitting on us bus all day, either. Finally the bus started moving. We stopped first at Shudu Lake, where we got off to walk along the shore. It was a 2.7 km walk, all on a wooden boardwalk. It was so refreshing to be in nature, especially after being in a Chinese city for about three weeks. We got on another bus at the end of the walk, and were then taken to our next stop, which was a scenic viewpoint. We continued on the bus, periodically stopping. We were able to get off and walk again at Bita Lake. This trail was also all a wooden boardwalk. It must have taken them so long to construct the whole thing. It was a little bit touristy, and not really an “adventure” per se, but still very enjoyable. We were the only westerners I saw there, too.

Today (Sunday) is our last day here. Mary and Rachel decided to take the bus back, so they left this morning. Lauren and I are spending our last day of relaxation doing just that; we’re trying to embrace our last day of freedom before we fly back tonight. It’s a bit strange thinking about how we’ll be back in the city in a few hours. I much prefer the calmer, less hectic life here in this place that, in my opinion, lives up to its name.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ecuador Media Project

Here is my media project with Kasha, Mary and Alex on traditional medicines used by the Tsa'chia people in Los Naranjos, Ecuador.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

American Music Meets China

What has America done to the world's taste in music? I never expected my Chinese students' list of favorite American artists to include Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Michael Jackson. They absolutely love them. Okay, so I can understand Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson (because I not-so-secretly love them too). But Justin Bieber—really?

After starting our teaching assignments early last week, it's a little hard to tell how it went. But I think, overall, it went well. It was a little concerning at times, talking to a sea of blank faces. After certain words, however, the sea would come to life saying “Yes! Yes!” So who knows? We taught two classes on Monday. On Tuesday, we served as teaching assistants and mainly helped with dictations. On Wednesday, we taught one period and were TAs for one period. Thursday morning, instead of teaching, we went to the school’s opening ceremony for their Winter Games. Each class lined up along the track and marched in by groups. When they reached us, they performed some sort of dance or routine or got into a formation. One class had a girl dressed up and do crazy sword twirling/ninja moves. Other classes danced to (guess who?) Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. After that was all done, the games began. It was like a track meet with high jump, long jump, and running events (when I was there it was the 100m.) We left after only a few minutes of the actual events began, though. Every middle school has these games. A country that wants more Olympic medals? I think yes.

At the moment, our daily schedule is shaping up like this:

In the morning, we teach. My classes are at different times—some days they start at 8, some days they start at 10:40. We’ll teach for two 40-minute periods. When that’s done, we’ll head back to the university. We then have a lunch break until 2 in the afternoon. We can go to lunch at either the university’s cafeteria or out to whatever restaurant we feel like. There’s a “western” street fairly close to the university that has a bunch of choices. Some of them aren’t all that western though—like Thai, Indian, and Korean. There are also cafes with more American food and Italian places as well. I’ve gone to the cafeteria everyday except once when I went to a Thai restaurant. I have to say that I actually like the food at the cafeteria. It’s nothing like the ones I've experienced in the U.S. You pay per dish, but everything’s really cheap. Rice is .30 yuan (there’s about 6.80 yuan to one dollar,) meat dishes are around 2.50 yuan, and vegetable dishes are probably anywhere from .50 to 2 yuan. Pretty much two whole walls of a big room are lined with different dishes. We bring our steel eating bowls every day and go around the room, pointing at whatever we’d like. Usually I get three or four dishes, plus rice, for about 5 yuan. And it’s a ton of food! We have Chinese class for an hour after our lunch break. In theory, I know a few more words and phrases now, but I have such a hard time remembering them. After class, we have our seminars or lectures. I get home around 6:15.

The bike lanes here are really big—about the size of a car lane. It’s for bikers and people on motorbikes. On my way home, there are so many people that it will turn into a traffic jam. Literally, we are at a standstill. It’s crazy. Sometimes when I get home, my host family has already eaten! It’s a much earlier dinner time than I’m used to. At night, I do my Chinese homework and readings for seminar. We have a library of books and movies here, so if I have time, I’ll watch a movie. I checked out a book with the intention of starting it this weekend, but I haven’t had the time!

We eat SO much pork in my homestay—we’ve had it at every single meal. I look forward to meals that feature an alternative source of protein. So far, we’ve had two meals with fish accompanying the pork, and two meals with beef. I guess I'm making up for my strict avoidance of eating pork during the last 10 or so years of my life.

Besides looking forward to different kinds of meat at meals, I get really excited when the sun shines. Not only because that means the sun is out and it’s warm and sunny, but because then I get to have warm water to shower. It’s a major buzzkill, though, when I turn on the faucet and think the water’s warm enough, but find out it isn't after I'm already in the shower. I end up wet and freezing and not all that clean because I just want to get out.

It’s funny just how different life is here compared to Los Naranjos—in so many ways. We can do things in the city on weekends and communicate when we’re not with each other. I do miss the simplicity and tranquility of life in Los Naranjos. But it’s fun to be able to do things like go see Harry Potter! Its opening night was a major event, which we anxiously awaited all week. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go to the midnight premiere because we weren’t sure if it was in English. So we toughed it out the extra 19 hours and went to a 7 pm showing Friday night. IT WAS AWESOME. Truly.

I’m getting a little more used to noticeably sticking out as a foreigner. People’s reactions fill a wide spectrum. Some people will say "hello," a few will even ask us to take pictures with them. Others, though, simply stare. I’ll hear my homestay family say “wai guo ren,” which means "foreigner," at meals. Then I know they’re talking about me, but I don’t have a clue what they’re saying. It’s like being a strange mixture of movie star/alien.

It was a nice, sunny day today. Good Sunday weather. Hopefully that means there’s hot water!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It feels more like winter in the Spring City

Last Wednesday, we came back to Kunming and moved into our homestays. We were all a little nervous because we’d been on our own for quite some time. The language barrier wasn't really calming our anxieties, either. None of us can speak Chinese, and we were told that some of the families don’t speak any English. When the moment finally came, we were all waiting in a room at the university we’ll be having our seminars and lectures at. One by one, our host parents would walk in the room to greet us. It was really adorable to see how excited they all looked as they came in.

I’m very happy with my homestay so far. My host mother is an English teacher and my host father is a police man. I have a nine-year-old host brother, too. I was only told his English name—Leo. He doesn’t speak any English. My host father’s mother also lives with us and does all of the cooking. I’m lucky to have an English speaker in the family. She can speak it pretty well, although not fluently, but enough to be able to say everything we need to say to each other. I think she understands what I'm telling her, at least. I don’t know anything about my host father, though. I literally have not seem him once since he left the house after dinner the first night I arrived.

I live in an apartment in the university area. In Kunming, there are several universities in close proximity to one another. I walk through different universities to get to different places. My bedroom in the apartment also functions as my hos family's study and computer room, so Leo does his homework in here. My host mom uses the computer to prepare her lessons. So far, I’ve been fine with the lack of privacy. Although I felt a little awkward last night because my host mom was working on a powerpoint while I was lying in bed reading. I wanted to go to sleep, but didn’t want to be rude or make her feel like she needed to leave. So I just decided to quietly put my things away and close my eyes without her noticing. It ended up working out just fine.

There are two bathrooms in the apartment—a squatter and a non-squatter. The showering situation has been a little unfortunate. The first time I tried to shower, the drain didn’t work and I ended up flooding the bathroom. Also, the water here is heated by solar and it hasn’t been sunny or warm enough to heat it up. Apparently we have a gas heater, but my host mom doesn’t know how to work it. So I haven’t been able to shower for a few days. Until today, when I decided that it was past necessary.

Food is very much a part of the culture here. It’s definitely different than American Chinese food. At most meals (except breakfast), each person gets a bowl for rice; the main dishes are placed in the middle of the table. You take individual bites from each dish with your chopsticks, and keep refilling your bowl of rice. When my rice bowl gets below the halfway line, more is shoved in. There is no asking, only feeding. But I’m not complaining—every meal is all-you-can-eat!

The weather has been in the 50s and cloudy pretty much everyday. It wouldn’t be bad, except there is no heating anywhere. Often, it’s colder inside than outside. I wear my fleece jacket basically all the time. Even so, my host mom will always tell me to put on more layers. My host family gave me a pair of wool slippers to borrow, too. Sometimes when I forget to wear them, my host mom will tell me “I’m worried that your feet are cold, please wear your slippers.”

I’m excited to see more of the city. We had some time to explore it yesterday, but there’s a lot to see in a place that five million people call home. Today was a free day, so I rode around on the bike my host family is letting me borrow. I was looking for a water bottle, sweater, and dental floss and struck out on all three fronts. I know water bottles and sweaters exist here, but I’m convinced that they don’t sell dental floss in this country.

We begin our English teaching assignments tomorrow. I’ll be teaching classes of 8th graders, sophomores, and juniors with Mary and John. Classes are 40 minutes each, and we teach two each morning. We developed our lesson plan for our first week and we’re going to talk about different regions of the US, trying to incorporate the grammar lessons from the students' textbooks. It’ll be really interesting. I’m excited to meet the kids!

It’s only 7:45, but I’m ready for bed. That seems to be the way things are working on this trip: I feel like an old person. The rest of the family is doing work on the computer about three feet away, though; so it looks like I’ll be up for at least a little while longer. Tomorrow morning, I’ve got another noodle bowl to look forward to and hopefully we’ll have the spicy stir-fried vegetables and bean curd tofu to add. They’re both growing on me.

For now, I think I’ll go fill up my hot water bottle and snuggle into the Donald Duck comforter on my rock hard bed. Sweet dreams!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Welcome to China

We FINALLY arrived in China last Saturday after three straight days of flying. We were all only half conscious when we learned that we weren’t actually staying in Kunming until our homestays began. Instead, when we landed, we had another three-hour bus ride to a town called Tonghai before we were done with our travels. The whole ride, the bus was dead silent and we were all passed out.

In Tonghai, we began our Chinese lessons! It hurts my brain so much. I really think that I was born without the ability to make these sounds. So far, I know how to say hello (ni hao), bathroom (ce suo), and a few foods. We’ve found that if we try to speak the little Chinese we know to real Chinese speakers, they don’t even understand us anyway. We have lessons almost everyday the whole time we’re here, so hopefully I’ll get better. Regardless, I’m going to get really good at speaking through gestures.

Unfortunately, for me the big event in Tonghai was an emergency trip to the hospital. Disclaimer: if you tend to get queasy, do not read any further.

My stomach had been unhappy ever since the food poisoning, and I had been having strange digestive issues from the time we arrived in China. Some vomiting and weird saliva and burping, but nothing that was too major. Then Tuesday night, I got a stomachache, so I decided to stay in bed while everyone else went to dinner and asked Lauren to bring me back some food. Pretty much the minute they all left, my stomachache turned into a vicious monster sent to torture me to my death. All I could do was lie on my side in fetal position. On top of that, I was getting strange acid reflux symptoms—it felt like I had a pill stuck in my throat and there was acid burning my chest and esophagus. First I started throwing up. Then I got diarrhea. Walking to the toilet was horrible. Well, I don’t think you can even call it walking. It was more of a fast shuffle, my head and torso bent over between my knees. Between some of my heaves, I remember looking into the mirror. My face and lips were pale white, my mouth was chalky, and I was shaking and convulsing. When I blew my nose, chunks of food and throw up would come out. Between throw up sessions, I’d go lie back down on the bed and moan. But then the throw up that was still stuck in my sinuses would mix with snot and form this horridly disgusting ball, which would come down into my mouth. Then I’d have to get up, hobble to the bathroom to spit it out, and repeat, all the while not being able to breathe because it hurt my stomach too badly.

I honestly thought I was having a reaction to the medicine I was taking for my food poisoning, like an OD or something. I had no idea what was happening to me and I was actually pretty scared because NOTHING I did provided relief. We were given a 24-hour emergency number where we could reach someone from TBB back in the states so I tried to call that a few times, but it wouldn’t go through. I reverted back to fetal position and writhing. It was one of those times where you know what’s happening, but just can’t really control what you’re doing. I kept saying “help me, please help me” over and over again. Even though I knew no one was there. I just was not my normal self.

Finally, everyone else returned around 7:30—an hour and a half after the whole fiasco started. The leaders took action right away. Jessie and Loren stayed with me while Scott went to get a doctor and Chinese speakers. It seemed like ages before anything actually happened though. Waiting is the worst. Finally some random doctors came up to my room and quickly checked me. I’m not really sure where the doctors came from, lbut a few minutes later I found out that they had called an ambulance. I got tired of waiting in bed for the stretcher to come up, so I ended up running down to the lobby. Then they rolled me out to the ambulance. It was my first ambulance ride ever. When we got to the hospital yard, the ambulance suddenly stopped. Apparently, there was some back up, so they took me out, lifted up the stretcher, and carried me to the entrance. I was conscious enough to look around at the hospital. It was probably four rooms—actually, they were more covered medical areas than rooms. I don’t think there were doors and you had to walk outside to get between each. The walls and floors were crumbling cement. I sort of felt like I was in an opium or some other sort of drug den, especially when they told me to go to the IV room, where people were just lying silently, hooked up to tubes.

I got a shot in my butt, then an IV. My stomach kept hurting, but I managed to fall asleep about halfway through. When I woke up, the pain was mostly gone. Shannon and Charles (who work for our partner organization) had come along to help us out. They were so great. Shannon bought me a hot water bottle while I was hooked up to the IV, and they helped translate my medicines and talk to the doctors. Shannon also went out to buy me some rice congee, some of which I was able to shovel down.

When we got back to the hotel, I found all of my things (which had been strewn everywhere before I left) packed into my bags by Lauren, Hannah, and McKinley. It was the sweetest thing ever.

It was definitely an adventure, to say the least. Let’s hope things become—and stay—more mellow!

P.S. I can’t actually post any blogs from China because the government blocked blogspot along with Facebook, Youtube, and other similar sites. So I emailed this home and had my parents post it. Thanks Mom and Dad J

Friday, November 5, 2010

In the Footsteps of the Incas

Last Friday we embarked on our four day hike on the Inca Trail. Our group was comprised of the fifteen students, Scott (on of our program leaders—one got sick the day before and the other had this enrichment week off,) three guides, and 24 porters including a chef and assistant chef. But before I say much more, I feel it’s necessary to clarify that this was as close to luxury camping as you can get. I’ll explain.

In the morning, we were woken up when hot coca tea was brought to our tents. A few minutes later, a hot bowl of water was placed outside our tent door. Then we’d have breakfast. The first day we had hot quinoa cereal and pancakes with fruit and chocolate sauce, the second day was a spinach pancake with chicken sausage, the third day was omelettes. After breakfast, we’d pack up (although I don’t even know if I can call it that because the porters even took down our tents and rolled up our pads) and hit the trail. We were given snacks for our breaks, which were mostly cookies, fruit, and candy. When we arrived at our lunch spot each day, we’d find a tent set up with tables and chairs. Then we were served a three course meal. First was an appetizer, then soup, then a main dish. After each meal we had tea as well. After lunch, if we had more mileage to cover, we’d finish our day’s hike. Arriving at our campsite, our tents would already be set up with sleeping pads placed inside. At 5:30, we had teatime, which consisted of hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and more snacks. Then around 7 we had dinner. I don’t know if you can get any less rustic than that. Having said that, it was definitely nice after a long day of hiking to be somewhat pampered. I feel a little bit whimpy for saying that now.

The first day, we took a bus out to kilometer 82 of the railway that takes the non-hikers out to Machu Picchu. After passing through a checkpoint (the first of many along the way), we began our trek. That day’s hike was a fairly mild , mostly flat 11 kilometers. I was surprised to see places along the trail selling drinks and snacks. I guess I didn’t realize how touristy the Inca Trail was. Day 2 was by far the hardest day—nine kilometers with a 1200 m elevation gain up to Dead Woman’s Pass. What was harder for me though, was the downhill that came after that. After we reached the top, we had to descend down steep stone stairs. Not fun on the joints. We were all really tired when we reached our campsite, and most of us just lied around in our tents for the rest of the day. Well, we came out for meals and of course, our Halloween celebration! We all wore costumes and trick-or-treated at each other’s tents. As much as we missed having our Halloween back at home, I think I speak for everyone when I say that it was definitely a Halloween we’ll remember for quite some time. Our hike on day three was 16 kilometers long. We went over two more passes, but they weren’t nearly as hard as the first. Then we descended about 1000 meters to our last campsite. We walked past many Incan ruins, and got to learn about their architecture and history of the Incas. Our fourth day began bright and early when we were woken up at 3:30 in the morning. The porters had to pack up our tents and gear so they could make their train at 5:30. We waited in a little lodge until 5:30, which was when the checkpoint opened. After that, we hiked the last 6 km past the sungate and down to Machu Picchu. It was a bummer because the third and fourth days were rainy and cloudy, so we missed out on a lot of views and scenery. When we got to the sungate, we couldn’t even see famous view of Machu Picchu. Luckily, it cleared out a little later on in the day, so we were still able to see it from a bit further down.

It was pretty incredible seeing Machu Picchu. All of the building and temples and water fountains that are still standing today amazed me. It was crowded with lots of people though, which personally I didn’t find appealing. The mountains were breathtaking. I can’t even explain their beauty. I was surround by these giants, and it made me feel so tiny.

We all went out to a buffet lunch after. Turns out that was NOT a good decision. That night, eight people, including me, got food poisoning. And we all went to the hospital the next day. It was miserable. And to make things worse, it was the day before our crazy long trip to China. I’m still not feeling great. Let’s just say I’ve been eating lots of bread and crackers. Hopefully it’ll pass soon.

I have custody of one of four program computers during our time in China and Cambodia, so I’m actually typing this on our flight from El Salvador to LA. We woke up this morning at 5 for our flight from Cusco to Lima. The plane got delayed and hour for mechanical failure, so in Lima we had to sprint through the departure tax and security. Adrenaline rush. Then we flew from Lima to El Salvador. Our next leg will be from LA to Hong Kong, and then we’ll fly from Hong Kong to Kunming, China. I could be done flying already. But we aren’t even halfway done.

I’m really excited though because my family is meeting me in the LA airport! Knock on wood everything goes well. I can’t wait.

I guess I should conserve the battery on this computer. Unfortunately I signed up for this computer before I knew it was the computer with the charger that doesn’t actually charge.

Wish for no more flight trouble!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Adios, Los Naranjos

It’s been nine hours since we loaded up into trucks and out of Los Naranjos, and I already miss it. The last two weeks we were there, I had really started to become accustomed and to appreciate the way of life there. Surrounded by jungle and nature, supported by a close community, with no real stresses or worries, the daily routine became a meditation of sorts. Every night, I would walk the dirt road home as the sun set behind my back, finally reaching my house a few minutes after dark. Kiara, my host sister, would then run out to greet me and follow me into my room, where she’d proceed to go through—and sometimes lick and bite—all of my belongings. After dinner, we would all sit around the rickety plastic table and have conversations that lasted up to an hour. We (and when I say we I mean Connor translating) would talk about things ranging from politics to movies to environmental degradation. I learned so much, not only about Ecuadorian culture, but about my host parents individually. For example, my host father is a DJ on the weekends at a local radio station. Both of my host parents finished high school, a feat that is extremely rare in the community.

Our conversations almost always ended with Manuel´s line of “Bueno chicos...,” which was our cue for bedtime. With no light in our room, we’d read or listen to music in the light of our headlamp and fall asleep to a soundtrack of roosters, barking dogs, or, when we were lucky, random cats fighting in our kitchen.

I got a cold/flu type thing this past week, so I didn’t work on Wednesday or Thursday, but I think those two days were among my favorites during our time in the village. Each morning, I walked with my host mother and sister to a tiny store inside another family´s home. On the way there, my host mother picked a cacao fruit for me to eat, showed me a plant that closed up on itself when touched, and pointed out pineapple fields and papaya trees. One day at the store she bought me cookies and a frozen milk popsicle. Another day she bought me potato chips. And because Ecuadorians love their mayonaise so much, it came with a pack inside the bag of chips. I have to say though, the combination wasn’t actually that bad. After our stop at the store one day, we went next door to Lister’s grandmother’s house. Her house is very new, still under construction in fact. It has running water, two bathrooms with flushing toilets and showers, a digital photo frame, computer, and probably at least six rooms. They have to be the richest family in the entire community, if not the entire surround area. It was strange for me that these things that I consider “normal” appeared so out of place.

For our last night the community put on a despedida, or farewall party, for us. It started off with our media project presentations. All of the groups´projects turned out excellently. One group focused on monoculture and made a cookbook of plantain recipes, another ´s was centered on traditional garments, and my group’s was on traditional medicine. After that, the first item on the party agenda was for the men to dye their hair the traditional red color. We also used a dye found in a plant to paint lines and designs on our bodies. Right now, I’m rocking a sun and some other tribal designs on my arms. As this was going on, some Tsa’chilas started to bring out pitchers of chicha, a drink of fermented corn and sugar cane, and served some to us in gourds. To follow this up, Alejandro and the shaman, Andres, performed a cleansing ritual on us. Then the games began. We had tug of war, a game involving a banana being passed down a line, a chicha drinking competition, spearthrowing, and of course music and dancing. Not to brag or anything, but I was the winner of the chicha drinking competition. Well, I beat the other TBB girls, but was outdone by a Tsa’chila women. I still won a prize of two aluminum plates though! I also won a prize in the spearthrowing competition because I was the only woman to hit the tree that we were aiming for. That prize was arguably even better than the plates: roll-on antiperspirant and a pair of nylon socks. When we were all finished with dinner, which consisted of beef, salad, and a toasted plantain served on a large leaf, we all sat around to watch a fireworks show. The fireworks were lit off probably about 20 yards from where we were sitting. I definitely had ash falling on me. Easy to see them at least! Our host families presented us all with gifts after that. Mine was an awesome rainbow striped purse. When all of that was over, we cranked up the music on the stereo for a dance party.

My night didn’t end when the party was over though. I got a ride partway home in the back of a truck. I’m surprised we all made it out alive. There were probably 15 people in the bed of the truck, hanging out the sides and off the edges. It sounded like it was about to break down at any moment and barely made it up the hills. And to top it all off, there were no headlights so we had to shine our headlamps out in front for the driver to see.

This morning we all had to say our goodbyes. A few of the host parents even started crying. I was sad to leave our bubble of safety and comfort, not to mention the fresh avocados and bananas. But I know that I have a standing invitation for a place to stay if I ever return to Ecuador. The people I’ve met and things I’ve experienced have been so amazing. When I think back to how I was feeling before I went into this homestay I can’t help but laugh. I was dreading the weeks I was going to have to spend with the snakes and spiders and mosquitoes. But now I wish I were back in my wooden house, attempting to converse in broken spanish to my host parents, with Kiara hanging by my side.

But for now, I’m going to get my laundry together and rest up before we go out to dinner. There are certain things that are nice about being back in the “real world...”


Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Week in the Bubble

Last Friday marked the one-month mark in the journey. It’s like I’ve been living in some strange, warped time zone; it feels like it’s at least been two, maybe even three months. Then again, I’ve had it in my head for so long that this is an eight month trip. And now it’s down to seven. Crazy.

Our past weekend in Bahia was filled with some of the best and some of the worst moments on the trip. One of the highlights was visiting an eco-village named Bella Vista. This 500 person community is focused on environmental sustainability and education, especially with their kids. As we were being led on a tour of their community, we were invited to their clean up and party the following day. Even though we were scheduled to return to Los Naranjos, luckily the program leaders were able to work it out to make it possible for us to stay the extra day! And I’m so glad we did. We ended up painting a mural on one of the walls in their town and got to join in their party. Definitely one of the best days so far. We also celebrated Hannah’s birthday with some chocolate cake, nutella brownies, pizza, and a piñata.

And the bad of Bahia…
Eight people got sick. Three went to the doctor. People were literally dropping by the hour. All of a sudden, another person would just be out. There was also lots of drama, as we were faced with the question of whether or not two of our group members had to be sent home for breaking an alleged zero-tolerance rule. After many group talks, late nights, and emotions, the two were allowed to stay.

The week back in Los Naranjos has been filled with lots of work, seminars, reading, and of course walking. Things are settling into a routine. We’re learning about environmental issues of all sorts, and it’s all really interesting for me. This is the portion of the trip that I was most looking forward to when it comes to the learning subject, and I’m excited about the seminars we have coming up. We’ve started working on our media projects. I’m in a group with Kasha, Mckinley, Mary, and Alex. We decided to focus our project on the subject of traditional medicine to make a video and book. Alejandro and the other shaman here took us on a walk through the jungle and showed us lots of different medicinal plants. We are starting to go through it all to create a storyline for our video. We only have two weeks to make it, so we’ll definitely need to be efficient.

We celebrated Montana’s birthday last night with a community party. It was also Faith and Rachel’s host mom’s birthday, so the Tsa’Chilas were there too. Thanks to Roberto’s fancy new speakers, we were able to have a dance party in the community center.

Tomorrow (well I guess it’s today as I have to post this from there) we’re heading into Santo Domingo. There’s a store there where you can find all of the traditional Tsa’Chila clothing and souvenirs that we’re going to. I feel a little uneasy about it because it seems almost like they’ve sold out, but I need to see it before I really make a judgment. We’re also going to a mall to find some internet cafes as well as load up on snacks and other necessary goods. A few of the lingering sickies are making a trip to the hospital too. It’ll be a little day trip out of the Los Naranjos bubble.

My host mom has pulled out the wood board that only means only thing: for dinner we’re getting the log. Boiled plantains, mashed up and rolled into a dense, tasteless cylinder of mush. And I’ve just been called to the table. Can’t wait!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Into the Jungle

I’m having a hard time starting this blog post, because I honestly don’t know how to begin. So much has happened in the last week and a half that we’ve been in Ecuador. I’ll try to get it all out as best as I can.

We arrived in Quito last Monday, and spent the following days exploring the city and attending lectures and orientations at Yanapuma, our partner non-governmental organization. They aid indigenous tribes in Ecuador, focusing on health, agriculture, and sustainable development and really emphasize the sustainability of their work, making sure that the aid they give can be perpetuated by the people they are helping, using a “help them help themselves” method. We learned about Ecuadorian culture, current issues, and politics; got some insight into the community we’d be living with; and even had a few Spanish lessons (Yanapuma also is a Spanish school). Since I know absolutely no Spanish, I was put into the basics class with about six other people. None of us knew Spanish and our teacher didn’t know English. It was humorous to say the least. I actually feel like I did get something out of it though.

Throughout the week, anticipation built as we awaited the day that we’d head out to Los Naranjos for our first homestay. Los Naranjos is one of only seven Tsa’ Chila villages. In fact, there are only 2,500 Tsa’ Chila left in total. We heard it was going to be very rural, and had heard a few horror stories from past years’ students about various things—bugs, food, snakes, bathing in the river, etc. Needless to say, we were all very nervous and excited. We took a bus from Quito to Santo Domingo, where we then loaded into two trucks. Yes, we fit 21 people into two trucks. Definitely not legal or safe or comfortable. All in all, the journey took about five hours. We were welcomed at the Cultural Center by all of the host families and Alejandro, the cultural leader, and then made our ways toward our houses.

My host family consists of two parents—Manuel, who is 25, and Listel, 22, (not sure about the spelling on that...)—and a three-year-old girl named Kiara. We live in a compound of sorts. Manuel’s father, seven siblings, and cousins all live in houses surrounding us. There are also TONS of chickens, ducks, and dogs, a donkey, and also a pig. There’s no running water, although there is electricity. There’s an outhouse out back for our bathroom needs, and a stream for bathing and laundry.

The homestay started out really tough, for a few different reasons. The language barrier is one of them. My homestay partner, Connor, has Spanish down pretty well, so that helps a lot. But when it comes to one-on-one situations, things get a bit choppy. On top of that, it’s been very interesting being paired up with a boy. Ecuadorian culture is quite male-centered, and I’ve definitely felt that first-hand. The first night we were here, rarely anyone in the family talked to me or asked me questions. All were directed at Connor. I’m sure part of that was the language barrier, but they didn’t really care if they got an answer from me or not. It’s gotten better as I’ve been here more, but it’s definitely a strange feeling.

The tribal culture here is not as prevalent as I had imagined. Alejandro dies his hair red in the traditional manner, and many women wear traditional striped skirts, but other than that, I feel that it’s quite modern. Most families even have TVs, cell phones, and motorcycles. My host parents told us that they love American movies and music (James Bond, The Titanic, and Rambo are some of their favorites.) There are cultural differences though, for sure. I have eaten so many variations of plantains and rice over the past few days. We’ve had boiled green plantains; plantains fried like fritters; plantains with cheese; plantains boiled, mashed up, and then rolled into what we call “the log”; plantain juice; and plantain chip-type things. Last night we had some excitement when my host parents came home with a big bag. Inside was a live chicken which, as Manuel told us, was to be our dinner. Then they took the bird out of the bag, put it on the counter in the kitchen, and slit its throat. We all thought it was dead. Until it started flapping its wings and sqwuaking. Blood and feathers were flying. It was crazy. Eventually, it was all taken care of though, and later we sipped our chicken soup. OH, I also ate a grub. Yes. They used an axe to cut open a log, then we picked the grubs out and ate them. They were pretty juicy, and I thought they tasted like a mix of chicken and fish. Not too bad really. I also ate raw cacao fruit and seed!

Our work project here deals with reforestation. With Yanapuma’s coordination, our goal is to plant 8,000 trees along three different rivers’ banks. We work from 8:30 to 12:30 every morning, hauling the tree seedlings in baskets, digging holes, and planting the trees in the jungle. And when I say jungle, I mean jungle—vines, snakes, big spiders, and everything. We were all a little bit confused at first as to why we were planting more trees here, because it seemed so full of life already. But as we found out, the trees we are planting will not only be of use to the Tsa’Chila, but will help prevent erosion from the river. It’s tiring work! So far, we’re three days down, 14 to go.

My house is about a thirty minute walk away from the cultural center, which is where we meet every afternoon for discussions. We’re by far the farthest away from everything. We've had to walk 30-50 minutes to get to our work sites, too. We tried to guess our daily mileage of walking, and came up with 10 miles. I’ve only been on one run here so far because it seems like we’re always moving!

That doesn’t even begin to cover everything, but I have to stop somewhere. We’re now in the beach town of Bahia de Carraquez for the weekend. We’re all excited to have hot showers, internet (although it barely works), and restaurants.

And for anyone who has heard about the situation in Ecuador, here’s all that I know: apparently the whole police force has decided not to work, resulting in bank robberies and a rise in other crimes too. There are riots in Quito and other cities, the president was injured, and Ecuador is in a “state of emergency” for a week. We’re safe though! And taking many precautions. So no worries.

I’m off for my first run in a while now. And looking forward to a hot shower when I get back. Yay!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pura vida, tuanis maje!

Meaning, “Life’s good, cool dude.” Which is how you’re supposed to respond in Costa Rica when asked “¿Cómo estás? It’s also a direct parallel to the way I’ve seen that life is lived down here. The people are friendly, relaxed, and laid back. They enjoy the beauty of the beaches are forests around them, and take care of these places in return. There’s so much adventure to be had and nature to appreciate here, how can they afford not to?

While I expected that sort of slow pace and the nature, Costa Rica is not exactly how I imagined it. It is very much a “developing” country. I had heard of all of the eco-villages and communities found around the country—places where rich Americans come to retire or own second homes—so I imagined Costa Rica as touristy, resorty, upscale. From what I’ve seen, though, that is not so. The town of Bahia de Ballena, where our hotel is located, has a population of only 850. The local elementary school, which goes through 6th grade, is as far as the majority of the children here make it through the education system. Electricity was installed in the year 2000. Hotels tout signs advertising hot water and air conditioning (both of which our hotel lacks.) And I know this is far more developed and advanced than many, many other places. We can still walk to a grocery store, post office, or restaurant to get things we need. These are luxuries which we’ll soon be losing.

We’re located near the Osa Peninsula, which boasts a biodiversity of animals. So far, I’ve glimpsed alligators and toucans from a bus; ziplined over a sloth; watched dolphins, whales, and sea turtles from a boat; nearly stepped on a giant iguana during a run; snorkeled above vibrantly colored fish; and seen countless geckos, spiders, crabs, horses, and more. We’ve gotten to do a lot of fun things outside in the natural playground. Some turn out better than others…while kayaking, Loren and Luisa flipped into the murky water. Jessie and I both had to urgently use the restroom, and so we somehow found a way to go off the sides of our kayak. Today on our boat trip out to Caño Island, I think three people got seasick and threw up overboard.

We’ve been learning too. The last week and a half has seemed like a month, at least. Each day is so packed with seminars, discussions, and other activities, that they seem to last forever. Not only about safety and culture, but about development, foreign aid, and economics as well. We debated about our summer reading books, finished another book, and are expected to read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, written by John Perkins, in the next week. There hasn’t been one moment where I have not had something I’ve needed to do.

The group is getting to know one another better, and we’re becoming more comfortable with each other. Everyone’s really supportive and open to talk, which is a great thing to have from the beginning.

I already have a list of things that I wish I had brought! I guess it’s impossible to know exactly what I’d need before I came on the trip, though. Tomorrow, we leave for San Jose, where we’ve been told we’ll be visiting a mall. Everyone is pretty excited to stock up on much-needed supplies for Ecuador. Then Monday, we fly to Quito where we’ll stay for a few days before we head to Los Naranjos for our first homestay.

Tonight, we’re having some sort of “closing activity” for our orientation. Rumor is that there is some sort of ritual involved…we’ll see. Rachel and I splurged and purchased the first episode of the new season of Gossip Girl online, so watching that is also on our agenda for tonight. Technology is amazing.

I’ll keep updating as the adventure continues!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Hola from Costa Rica

This is my first post from abroad!

Hola from Costa Rica! We arrived in San Jose Wednesday night after our flight from Miami via San Salvador. We stayed at a hostel overnight before loading up on a bus for a four and a half hour bus ride South to Uvita, a small town on the Pacific coast. In Uvita, we're staying at Hotel Canto de Ballenas (translation is call of the whale.) We're in little bungalows arranged around a nice grassy lawn and pool. There were surprise centipedes waiting for us in the bathroom and some pretty big spiders as well. We avoided these, got settled, and changed into our bathing suits for a walk to the beach. Usually it's a mile walk away, but they hadn't cut the trail yet, so it took us about 40 minutes to walk by road. The waves were HUGE and the water was almost bath temperature. So pretty. After dinner, we had our first discussion. The topic: what is development? Everyone seemed to really have thought about it and contributed a lot of really good ideas, so it was very interesting. And we have work to do already! We received a packet with excerpts from the book
Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, which we have to read by next Thursday.

This morning, I woke up to run with Lauren (another runner on the trip) before breakfast. Even at 7 am, we could feel the humidity and heat. Our adventure of the day was a hike to a gorgeous waterfall and swimming hole. We picked up burritos along the way and ate them on top of rocks in the middle of the stream. The sun definitely left its mark on my shoulders and arms though.

We have lots of other fun things coming up in our ten days in Costa Rica. Tomorrow we're taking surfing lessons, the next day we have a yoga session, then there's ziplining, a kayak trip, and a boat trip to Caño Island. We also have more discussions and briefings over the program awaiting. And I'm sure there will be more gallos pintos (rice and beans) to be eaten. So far, I've had it at every meal but one! But there are lots of yummy juices to look forward to. Last night it was from a guanabana fruit. Who knows what other new fruits I'll find while I'm here.

Adios for now!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is this actually real?

It's August 28th. Wait, what? What happened to summer? The two and a half months since graduation have flown by. It's been a whirlwind. Fall is starting to peak its head out now, though. Many of my friends have left for college, there's a chill in the air, and the leaves are even starting to change. But it still hasn't fully hit me that, in less than two weeks, I'll be leaving for EIGHT months. I'll say goodbye to my family, friends, house, pets, bed, cell phone, and laptop and embark on an incredible journey around the world. What lies ahead for me still seems like a fantastical dream, but reality is slowly starting to kick in. Primarily when it comes to that dreaded P word...packing.

For the last few weeks I've been attempting to accumulate the equipment and clothes I'll need: a backpack, water filter, new camera, first aid supplies, etc. But now I can't ignore the fact that it's crunch time. Today, I pulled out everything that I want to take with me and made sure it fit in my backpack...I'm actually quite proud of myself for this. Even having done that, I still wonder if I'm bringing the "right" things. There is a delicate balance when it comes to packing, and I envy those who possess the skill to obtain that elusive paragon. I want to get by on as little as necessary, but then again, I don't want to be missing things that I'll need. It's helped so much that alumni from last year's program have been answering our questions on a facebook discussion thread. I've picked up some really helpful tips, and have concluded that there are a few things I need to get still-- stuff sacks, casual shoes that look nice but are good for walking (do they even make those?), a light jacket. Other than that, I think I'm pretty set. I'm trying not to worry too much though, because I can always send things home or have things sent to me.

I've also been trying to squeeze in as much home as I can into my last few weeks. I'm eating my way through a list of my favorite homemade meals and restaurants, trying to spend as much time with family and friends as I can, and doing other various things that I know I won't be able to do for a very long while. It's hard for me to even imagine being away from home for so long. My parents, brother, friends, dogs, cats, sea monkeys, bed. Frankly, I'm nervous and a little bit scared. Having said that, I am-- to put it bluntly-- freakin' excited for what's to come. I looked back over the country briefings and program overview, and cannot wait to immerse myself in every vibrant culture and meet countless amazing people the way. My goal is to use this blog to post updates so I can share all of these experiences. I hope I don't disappoint.

Until next time!


Sunday, June 6, 2010

My Mission

As the end of the school year—and long-awaited graduations— draws near, high school seniors like myself have the future on their minds. Most are occupied with thoughts of college, dorm life, and next year’s classes. I, however, have decided to take an alternate route this coming fall. After graduating, I am deferring my admission from Williams College for one year to participate in Thinking Beyond Borders—an international gap year program.

Along with fifteen other gap year students who have applied and been accepted to the program, I will be travelling the globe for eight months, learning about social issues, discovering other cultures, and becoming more aware of the world around me. With Thinking Beyond Borders, I will travel to Cambodia, Costa Rica, and Peru; study environmental conservation in Ecuador, sustainable agriculture in India, public education in China, as well as public health and the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. I will accomplish this through service learning projects, homestays with families, work with grassroots organizations, seminars, and discussions. On my return to the United States, I will then a compose a presentation of my experience to share with various educational and philanthropic groups while spending time in Washington D.C. and New York City, meeting with representatives from organizations such as the UN and the World Bank. This, hopefully, will allow me to comprehend the greater scheme of things around me—to understand the economic and political issues that are hindering parts of our world from developing and causing so much conflict and despair.

I believe that this opportunity will prepare me for college and every other experience that lies ahead of me like nothing else could. Having the chance to help the world and its people, while at the same time discovering what truly interests me, is simply invaluable. As a result of my year abroad, I will become a more alert, more aware citizen of the world.

So far, I have obtained $20,000 for this program through scholarship funds, but I need to raise an additional $20,000 in order to participate. However you can help—donations, travel tips and advice, positive thoughts, or a referral to anyone you think may be interested in assisting—would be tremendously appreciated. Thinking Beyond Borders is a non-profit organization, and all donations are tax-deductable. Keep in mind that any investment you make will contribute to an experience that will change not only my life, but the lives of others as well.

If you have any questions or would like to know how to donate, please let me know. For more information about the Thinking Beyond Borders program, please visit their website at

Thank you!