再见,昆明!(“See you again, Kunming!”)

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I’m still struggling to believe that this will be my last post during my semester abroad in China. The semester has been officially over for one week now, but it still hasn’t hit me that tomorrow, I’ll be leaving what has been my home for over four months now. With the semester over, I’ve had some time to explore the city one more time and reflect on my time here. With so much to be thankful for, I couldn’t possibly sum up these four months into one blog post, but I thought I’d dedicate this last post to explaining some of what I’ve learned here, and what I feel so grateful for having experienced.

I’m especially grateful for having had the opportunity to improve my Chinese as much as I have during these four months. Having the ability to comfortably communicate with native speakers was my most ambitious goal before my study abroad, and I’m happy to say I’ve achieved that. I’m nowhere near fluent, and I know that there’s much more to learn, but my Chinese has improved in ways it never could have at home. Prior to studying abroad, I rarely spoke voluntarily in Chinese class for fear of speaking incorrectly. I never willingly spoke Chinese outside of class, again for the same fear. Now, however, that fear rarely crosses my mind. It’s unusual for me to speak more English than Chinese on any given day. I want to practice speaking it every chance I get, knowing that every conversation allows me to learn something new. I may not have the same opportunities to practice after returning home, but I’m determined to make sure that my Chinese continues to improve. I feel so grateful for having had so many chances to work on my language skills, and for discovering how important that is to me.

Another aspect of Kunming that I’m so grateful for having experienced is the genuine friendliness of its people. I’ve always felt that in cities like Philadelphia or New York, it’s uncommon, and maybe a little strange, to have simple conversations with strangers. You can ask for directions when you’re lost, and if you happen to meet someone nice enough, you’ll have a pleasant conversation and end up where you need to go. However, for the most part, we keep up a guard when it comes to talking with people we don’t know. In Kunming, though, I’ve found that guard isn’t necessary. People are so willing and so happy to talk with someone new. Even when I can’t understand their 普通话 (“Putonghua” or standard Chinese), they are so happy to meet an unfamiliar face. Having a simple human-to-human connection, even just a smile for a stranger, goes a long way here, and I’ve appreciated that a lot.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned here, one that I hope I’ll remember to carry with me even after I’ve left this city, is something that is hard to name with just a few words. The best I can do to sum it up is, “慢慢走” (pronounced “manman zou”). The phrase translates literally as “walk slowly,” but means more than that. It’s a common phrase used more or less as a goodbye, especially when leaving shops or restaurants. To me, it reflects the pace of life at which people here like to live. People in Kunming never seem to be in a hurry, even when they’re late. I used to find myself rushing past others on the sidewalk, annoyed by how slowly everyone around me seemed to move. As I adapted more and more to living here, though, I realized that the city itself is just slow-paced, and that it isn’t a bad thing. It has its urbanized parts where you can go to feel a little more like you’re in a big city at home. For the most part, though, Kunming is a place a little less modern than most cities I’m familiar with, and I’ve become so comfortable with that. Wander through any of the city’s parks, and you’ll see people walking at what seems to be an especially slow pace with their arms crossed behind their backs, as is the Chinese way of walking. They’re usually walking not to arrive somewhere, but for the sake of walking. And when you walk simply for the sake of walking, you realize what you missed before when you were in such a rush. It’s so easy to get caught up in everything you want to accomplish in a day, but taking just a few minutes to slow down is often worth it.

These are just a few of the things living in Kunming has taught me, and they nowhere near sum up everything I’m grateful for this semester. I’m disappointed to see the end of my time in Kunming approaching so quickly, but I know that this won’t be the last time I see this city. This semester has, in some ways, made me even more unsure of what I want to do after graduation. Spending four months without any computer science work has made it difficult to see how everything I’ve studied this semester can fit in with my major. I do know, however, that speaking Chinese often is more important to me than ever, and that I want to see Kunming again some day. There’s still time for me to figure all of that out, and in the mean time, I have so much to remember and appreciate from my semester abroad.

谢谢你,昆明。再见!
(“xiexie ni, Kunming. zai jian!” – “Thank you, Kunming. See you again!”)

米线 ("mi xian"), one of Yunnan's noodle dishes.

Eating 米线 (“mi xian”), one of Yunnan’s noodle dishes, for the last time

At 大观公园 ("Daguan Gongyuan"), one of Kunming's bigger parks

A visit to 大观公园 (“Daguan Gongyuan”), one of Kunming’s bigger parks

The view from my dorm room at Yunnan University - one of the things I'll miss the most!

The view from my dorm room at Yunnan University – one of the things I’ll miss the most!

Victory Day

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This past Saturday, I watched a parade, navigated crowds of people waving red, white, and blue flags and sporting ribbons, and finished the day watching fireworks on a canal. Is it fourth of July already? It may seem like what I just described could be any old Independence Day celebration in the U.S., but it’s May, and I’m in Russia. That aside, the holiday we celebrated here on May 9th was much, much grander and more significant to Russians than U.S. Independence Day ever is to Americans. May 9th is День Победы (Den’ Pobedi) or Victory Day here in Russia, and it celebrates the Victory in Europe over the Axis Powers in WWII. I suppose you could think of it like Memorial Day, Arbor Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day all rolled into one, but truth be told, we simply don’t have a holiday in the U.S. that is anything like Victory Day.

The laser light show the day before Victory Day

The laser light show the day before Victory Day

Without getting on too much of a soapbox, I want to take a minute to explain why exactly Victory Day, and victory in WWII, is so important here in Russia. While I touched on the idea in my last blog post about Volgograd, I want to do the holiday more justice. The Soviet Union lost over 20 million people, both civilians and servicemen, from 1941-1945. To put that in perspective, the United States suffered about 400,000 casualties. Not a small number, but in comparison to the USSR it is literally a fraction. Additionally, during the war countless people were displaced, forcibly moved, or lost their homes in battle, such as the Battle of Stalingrad. The Siege of Leningrad alone, which lasted from September 1941-January 1944, saw the loss of over 3 million soldiers and 1 million civilians both during the siege itself and in evacuations. When the war finally ended in 1945, the USSR was a different place. Women were left without husbands, mothers without sons, sisters without brothers, and children without fathers. The trauma that reverberated across the nation as it fought on both the European and Eastern Fronts is unimaginable to those of us who come from a country that has simply never experienced anything on such a massive scale. The United States hasn’t had a war on its soil for over one hundred years and while we’ve had our share of bloody battles, they honestly just don’t compare to the way WWII played out for the Russians. That’s not to diminish what we’ve experienced in the U.S., just to put in perspective why this holiday is so important to the nation as a whole and on a personal level. It is emotional in a way that the Fourth of July is not. It is celebrated in a grandiose and all-consuming fashion completely unlike Veterans Day. It is simply put, Victory Day, and participating in the festivities, was something I will never forget.

Rehearsing for the parade

Rehearsing for the parade

For weeks beforehand, the whole country prepares for celebrations including parades, concerts, and events of all sorts. Especially this year, which marks the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ Victory, everyone went all out. Several of my friends and I went to a laser-light show the night before Victory Day, which chronicled the story of a soldier and then regaled us with classic Soviet tunes from the era, set to wonderful, themed projections. The morning of Victory Day itself, the whole city (and much of the country), gets up bright and early to watch the military parade on Red Square. Now, this parade is not your typical Macy’s-style affair with floats and dancers and beauty queens. This parade is a real, honest-to-goodness military demonstration at which armies from all over the world march on the square. We watched India, Serbia, and China march by (to name a few), before the Russian soldiers from all branches of the military entered the square in their dress blues. They were preceded, of course, by the heavy artillery and tanks, which drove down Leningradskiy Prospekt and settled themselves in next to the veterans and world leaders. Putin nodded approvingly from his podium while the Commander General of the Russian military drove to each of the regiments and saluted them. It was a solemn, impressive affair unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Although us “normal” people aren’t allowed on Red Square for the parade (it’s reserved for world leaders, military men, veterans, and the like), I understood completely why everyone stops what they’re doing to watch from home.
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After the parade, we Americans headed into the center of Moscow, attempting to navigate the crowds and closed subway stations. We finally made it to the park Muzeon, where there were concerts, food vendors, and general merriment as the entire population of the city turned out in droves to celebrate the holiday and enjoy the beautiful weather. We spent the day wandering through the park before settling in that night for the fireworks. From where we stood near the canal, fireworks glittered in every direction. When they were over, shouts of “S prazdnikom!” (Happy holidays!) filled the air as we exhaustedly stumbled to the metro.

Victory Day balloons illuminate the night sky

Victory Day balloons illuminate the night sky

Victory Day, which means so much to Russians, reminded me that although we often think this way, the U.S. did not march in and magically save the day in WWII. We helped, of course, but without the Soviet Union, things would have gone very differently. Every Russian I have met so far was in some way affected by the war. My host mother’s father fought, while my friend’s grandfather did the same and my professor’s grandmother was in a concentration camp. While many people in the U.S. can say the same, including me (my grandfather served in the South Pacific in the Navy), I’m not sure we’ll ever truly understand or remember the same way. For me, Victory Day was an inspiring, moving, and joyful day of both celebration and mourning those who were lost. As the song goes, “Victory Day: happiness, but with tears in our eyes.”

70 Years of Victory

70 Years of Victory

6 things that are different in Jordan

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Word of the Day: يلاّ (Yalla)

Translates to “Let’s go! Come on!”

Temple of Hercules, Citadel, Amman

Temple of Hercules, Citadel, Amman

The cliché is true: time goes by so fast.

I have grown to love Amman. Far from a typical tourist city, it is a city that does not reveal itself to you at first sight. Here I am afforded the opportunity to actively engage with my new community and encounter new experiences with each passing day. 

Living abroad always brings with it changes, challenges and differences. But after more than a month in Amman, I’ve acclimated to a new life here. A life which, in all honesty, was embraced quickly and easily.

Consequently I had trouble coming up with aspects of Jordanian life that were “different.”

I have discovered that, by traveling extensively and living abroad, our similarities (and not our differences) become all the more apparent. I will touch on this topic later, but for the purpose of this blog post I will highlight some of the differences I have encountered in Amman, the city I am glad to call home in the interim.

 

Amman is the

The “original” Philadelphia

  1. Weekend: The work week here runs from Sunday to Thursday. Friday is the official day of rest, where most shops close for noon prayers.
  2. Call to prayer: Adhan occurs five times a day and is called out by the muezzin in the mosque via loudspeaker. The adhan here starts at 4AM (right around the time I go to bed).
  3. Street Addresses and Mail: Having a residential street address is still a relatively new concept in Jordanian culture. It’s common to give directions based on the nearest landmark. E.g., when I opened a bank account here and had to give them my address, I put down Mukhtar Mall in Sport City as the closest landmark.Regular mail does not reach a residential/business street address and can instead be picked up at the post office. When sending important documents, courier service is your best bet.
  4. Water: Jordan is one of the five driest countries in the world. Annual consumption per capita is about 170 cubic meters. To put things in perspective: the average Jordanian consumes about 100 liters a day, whereas Israelis on the other side of the border consume 900 liters – similar to the average American.Water is a scarce resource and has consequently been rationed as such.  Water is delivered every week; if a family were to use it all up before the next “water day” they would have to pay around $35 (for six cubic meters) to refill the tank on the roof. That being said, many Jordanians do not consider the water to be safe for consumption and drink bottled water instead. IMAG1057 (1)

     

  5. Getting around: In Amman, traffic laws are mere suggestions. And it seems as though there is traffic no matter the time of day.Public transport is almost non-existent. There are a few buses, but there is no readily available schedule and the locations of the stops are ambiguous. There are also white mini-vans that depart once the vehicles are full, but there are no set routes and, as a (foreign) woman, I attract some unwanted attention when I walk by.  As such, I have been advised to only take taxis. I take them every day; they’re cheap (for Western standards) and they’re a great way to chat with the taxi drivers and practice my Arabic!
  6. Recreation: In Amman, you have to go and make your own entertainment. I live in a residential neighborhood called Al-Madina Al-Riyadiya (Sport City), which tends to be on the conservative side and offers little in terms of entertainment. On the other hand, neighborhoods such as Abdoun and Weibdeh offer numerous restaurants, cafes and bars.I play soccer every week with a local club and go kickboxing three times a week. When our busy schedule allows for it, my friends and I explore the restaurant scene in Amman and frequent shisha cafes.
Celebrating my British roommate's last night!

Celebrating my British roommate’s last night!

Southeast Asia Part 2: Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Returning to Kunming

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The rest of our time in Southeast Asia was filled with traveling and sightseeing, and so I’m finding it hard to condense everything we experienced into one blog post. I’ll elaborate on some of my experiences while skimming over others, and offer some reflection on the end of my semester in Kunming.

Ho Chi Minh City

After departing from Hanoi, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to spend the next several days. One of the highlights of our time in Ho Chi Minh for me was the War Museum. With several floors and various rooms, the museum focuses on the American phase of the Vietnam War. I had learned about the war in high school and college, but learning about it in one of the war’s major cities was an entirely different experience. After arriving at the museum, we all split up and wandered on our own. The images portrayed and stories told were so emotionally powerful; I couldn’t help but be silent for my walk through all of the rooms. One of the exhibits showed photographs and firsthand accounts of the American phase, while another showed the after-effects, still present today, of Agent Orange. Seeing the photographs made me feel repulsed, but that showed me how powerful a story the museum portrayed. It wasn’t just a history lesson, but a solid reminder of what humans are capable of.

Phnom Penh

After our time in Ho Chi Minh City, we made our way down to the Mekong Delta. We spent several days in the delta performing research in a small commune called Vinh Long. After some time in the commune and in Can Tho, our last stop in Vietnam, we took a six-hour boat ride up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My first impression of Phnom Penh was how unbelievably hot and humid it was. Vietnam’s weather was hot enough for me, so adjusting to Cambodia’s heat took some time. Despite the heat, though, we did plenty of sightseeing in Phnom Penh. The architecture in this city was unlike anything I’d seen before. Because Buddhism is Cambodia’s national religion, and a significant part of its history, much of the capital city’s architecture reflects that of religious temples. Two of the more memorable sites we visited here were the killing fields and Tuol Sleng Prison, two of the country’s most infamous places under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. These sites were the two most well known execution sites during this period (1975-1979), when a communist party came out of hiding and claimed rule over the country. During this period, the party executed nearly a third of its population at sites such as the killing fields, imprisoning them before death at Tuol Sleng and other prisons. Cambodia has seen repeated violence and political struggle, especially during the 20th century, but its ability to recover amazes me. Phnom Penh and other cities lost so much of their culture during the 1970s, but they have become beautiful cities once again. You can see some of what remains from prior to the Khmer Rouge, mixed along with what had to be rebuilt. Phnom Penh has made progress and continues to recover from its past, and is today an interesting place to explore with such an eventful history.

At Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace

Architecture of the Royal Palace

Architecture of the Royal Palace

Siem Reap

Our next stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap and the surrounding area. Siem Reap is a smaller city than Phnom Penh, and much less modernized. The surrounding area of the city center is rural, which we got to see firsthand in our two-day trip to Kampong Kleang Village. This is one of the villages that sit along the Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest lake and a major source of livelihood for many in Cambodia. I wasn’t sure what to expect on our bus ride to the rural village, so I was a little taken aback when we arrived. I’d never seen a community like this one, and I think the people of Kampong Kleang were equally as surprised to see us foreigners walking through the main road of their village. One of the families was kind enough to let all twenty of us stay with them for our one night there. We went on a boat ride on the river before all eating dinner together. The next morning, our earliest day of the entire trip (and my 21st birthday!), we woke up at 4:00am for a fishing trip on the lake. We were able to see the sunrise over the lake – one of the most beautiful sites on the entire trip. I don’t know that any other birthday will top that one. I may never get to spend more time along the Tonle Sap in a rural village in Cambodia, let alone on my birthday.

Although I enjoyed our time in Kampong Kleang, I couldn’t help but feel saddened, and maybe a little guilty. I felt as though we shouldn’t have been there unless it was to benefit the village in some way. I was saddened to see the level of poverty in the village, probably the poorest place I have ever been. During the country’s wet season, the lake’s water level rises significantly, so the homes sit on ten-meter tall stilts. Flooding is still a problem occasionally, however. A majority of the families here make a living fishing in the lake or growing rice, but with an average family size of 7 or 8, most don’t make enough to live comfortably. The children don’t have much to play with at a young age, but they’ve learned to be entertained with what they have. Pollution and overfishing in the village are major problems, but with many families struggling to support themselves, environmental issues aren’t the most pressing concern. With spending such a short period of time there, I was disappointed to leave feeling as though we hadn’t made a contribution that was meaningful to them. Although I may never return to that specific village, I hope that the work I do some day will help people in similar situations.

Fish massages in Siem Reap

Fish massages in Siem Reap

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Kampong Kleang Village, along the Tonle Sap River

Kampong Kleang Village, along the Tonle Sap River

Sunrise on the Tonle Sap Lake

Sunrise on the Tonle Sap Lake

Returning to Kunming

After a few days in Siem Reap, we flew to Bangkok, where we stayed for one night before flying back to Kunming. We learned a lot during our 19 days in Southeast Asia; I saw so much more than I ever thought I would have in a semester abroad. After almost three weeks of travel, I was ready to return to Kunming. When we returned, we spent the last two days of the semester working on our regional symposium, the largest project in the program. Those last two days flew by, and I’m still a little in disbelief that the program is officially over with now. Most of the students have returned home, so I’ve had to say goodbye to some incredible people. I’m so grateful for having shared this experience with all of them. I’m also grateful for this last week or so that I have to spend in Kunming. This city has become home for me; I’m so happy to be back. With the last of my time (for now) here in Kunming, I want to travel, unwind from a hectic semester, and prepare myself to leave this special place and return home.

Volgograd and Saratov: “Russia Most Russians Never See”

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The last week of April, my group went on a study trip to Volgograd and Saratov, two cities in the south of Russia on the Volga River. We boarded our first train, from Moscow to Volgograd, on Saturday around 1pm and arrived in Volgograd a solid twenty hours later.
Our first day in Volgograd was whirlwind. As soon as we arrived at the station, still groggy from sleeping on the train, we were whisked away on a city tour. Our guide knew a lot, maybe a little too much, about Volgograd and talked at length about each monument, statue, and landmark, and what they meant. He proudly explained that the history of Volgograd was the subject of his dissertation, and felt the need to remind us at virtually every stop who he was. I will never forget the ringing sound of his voice, amplified by his microphone: “увежаемые гости, меня зовут Максим Анатольевич, ваш экскурсовод,» (respected guests, my name is Maxim Anatolevich, your tourguide). We saw more monuments than I thought possible that day, including the famous Soviet statue Rodina-Mat Zovyeot, or The Motherland Calls. Built after World War II, this statue, taller than the Statue of Liberty from the base to the tip of her sword, is the physical representation of the Motherland calling her children to war. She stands on top of a hill in Volgograd that, while innocuously covered in lush green grass, is a huge mass grave for the people who died during the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII.

It's really difficult to explain how impressive this is. Just remember that all those specks at the base are people.

It’s really difficult to explain how impressive this is. Just remember that all those specks at the base are people.

I suppose I should go back and explain for a second. Volgograd is filled to the brim with monuments, most of which relate to World War II or, more specifically, the Battle of Stalingrad. That’s because during the war (and all of Stalin’s rule until deStalinization during the Khrushchev period), Volgograd was known as Stalingrad, and suffered through what is considered the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. The battle was marked by consistent air raids and close-quarters combat, and lasted from August 1942-February 1943. It is considered a major turning point in the war, as the Germans never quite regained their hold on the Eastern European front and although the Soviets won the battle, the city itself was practically leveled. On the tour, we saw Dom Pavlova, which was preserved after the war as the most complete building in the entire city. It’s a bombed-out shell. While I have a lot I want to (and probably will) say about World War II and what it means to the people of Russia, I’m going to try to put that on hold for right now. Victory Day is May 9th and I want to talk about it all concurrently, so bear with me.

Dom Pavlova, the most intact building left in Stalingrad after the battle. They haven't changed it, or fixed it up or dramatized it to look worse. This was really the most intact building in the entire city.

Dom Pavlova, the most intact building left in Stalingrad after the battle. They haven’t changed it, or fixed it up or dramatized it to look worse. This was really the most intact building in the entire city.

By the end of the first day in Volgograd, we exhaustedly stumbled back to the hostel and collapsed into bed. The next day was spent once again touring around—this time to see the Volga-Don Canal, and then a memorial cemetery about an hour outside the city. On one side of the road stood the memorial to the Russian soldiers and it shook me, when I looked at the tombstones, to notice how many of the soldiers who died were not even 21 years old yet. On the other side of the road stood a cemetery and memorial for the Germans who lost their lives in the battle—all completely funded by the German government. Though interesting, by the time we headed back to the hostel we were all in a daze of information overload and exhaustion. Thankfully we spent most of the next day relaxing, and were able to enjoy the beautiful weather and views of the river before getting on the train to Saratov that night.

Graves of soldiers who died during the Battle of Stalingrad

Graves of soldiers who died during the Battle of Stalingrad

Our time in Saratov was much less chaotic and busy. The first day we went on the standard city tour, and in the afternoon met with students from Saratov State University. We participated in a sort of question and answer session with them, exchanging cultural info and opinions, before meeting up with them in the evening to walk along Saratov’s beautiful boardwalk. The next day was thankfully all free time, and we wandered through the city sightseeing, exploring, and blissfully relaxing after our packed days in Volgograd. It was so bright that I managed to get sunburned, something I didn’t expect in Russia, and I ate more ice cream cones than most people do in a lifetime.

The war memorial in Saratov, on the top of a hill with a beautiful view. The steps list cities where battles took place.

The war memorial in Saratov, on the top of a hill with a beautiful view. The steps list cities where battles took place.

 

The girls of Moscow with girls from Saratov State University

The girls of Moscow with girls from Saratov State University

Though our program coordinator told us we were going to see the “Russia most Russians never get a chance to see,” and almost every Muscovite we told about the trip responded with a vaguely disgusted “Why would you go there?”, I have nothing but good things to say about both cities, as different as they were. Relaxed Saratov, about the size of Boston, stood in stark contrast to monument-filled Volgograd, one of the largest cities in the country and a center for industry. Regardless, I haven’t been to a place in Russia so far that I didn’t like, and although many rave about European St. Petersburg, the cities I’ve enjoyed the most have been the most “Russian.” I may have been feeling the culture shock two months ago, but now, the “Russian soul” people talk so much about has taken hold of me completely and the more I see of this vast and beautiful nation, the more I love it.

Ultimate Travel Tips

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At the University of East Anglia, we are lucky enough to get spring break that is three weeks long! Knowing I would have all that free time, I booked tons of travel throughout the United Kingdom and Europe for those weeks. I travelled for nearly three weeks straight and learned a lot about myself but also about travelling itself. In this blog post I want to compile and convey a few travel tips I have learned over my spring break of travelling.

  1. Collect experiences, not souvenirs.

Souvenirs will weigh you down in more ways than you think! Obviously, if you buy souvenirs everywhere you go (for yourself, friends, and family) you will be so ‘weighed down’ you won’t even be able to fit it all in your luggage back to the United States. Additionally, spending money on trinkets and t-shirts everywhere you go adds up a lot quicker than you think. Mementos do not need to be expensive or bulky! Postcards, receipts, photographs, brochures, and leftover coins are inexpensive, physically small keepsakes that are easily obtained for all travel destinations. For family and friends, I suggest that you send postcards. Postcards can perhaps seem a little dated, but they are the perfect gift from a travel destination. It is easy on the pockets and more heartfelt than a keychain or t-shirt. The stamps on them are neat too, because those are specific to the location. Important historical figures and landmarks are common on them. Money saved in this way can be spent on making more memories and travelling to more places while travelling.

  1. Stay in hostels, not hotels.

Hostels get a bad rap! However, as a college student (of course, always trying to save money) they enable you to visit more locations for a longer amount of time. If you aren’t sure exactly what a hostel is it is simply an inexpensive lodging option in many big cities. Instead of private rooms and private bathrooms, hostels are usually dorm-style with shared bathrooms. It is reasonable to understand why people avoid hostels (i.e., the horror films, the general idea of being surrounded by strangers while you sleep). Regardless, I have found that the benefits greatly outweigh the deterrents. Firstly, all hostels I have been in have been safe. There has always been safes to store my valuables overnight and while I was adventuring during the day. Many hostels also have restrictions on age, and keep the accommodations for young people only. There are always ‘house rules’ and practices in place to respect all guest and keep everyone safe. All male or female rooms are sometimes available too! Secondly, the cost of hostels is ridiculously low and by itself inspires my wanderlust. Places I have stayed have been as cheap as 9 Euros a night! For less than a meal out at a restaurant, you get a nice place to stay and shower up. Finally, one of the best parts about staying in a hostel is that they allow you to meet people from all around the world. Being in close proximity allows for conversations to flourish, sometimes even into friendships! Overall, all you really need is a safe, friendly place to sleep, shower and for as cheap as 9 Euros a night…hostels are perfect!

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  1. There are many other options besides flying from designation to destination.

Flying gets very expensive; luckily, there are many international bus services and train routes throughout Europe. These, particularly buses, are inexpensive travel solutions. (For more on awesomely, cheap buses read my previous blog post https://templeuabroad.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/the-joys-of-megabus/ )

  1. Drinking should not be a main activity on your travel itinerary.

The drinking age in many European countries is 18. Since this will be the first time that many American students can drink legally, they go overboard. Being in a foreign country can be expensive and daunting enough without getting drunk on top of that. Drinks are expensive, especially in cities with many tourists! Aside from the monetary loss, you are endangering yourself and even your ability to remain in that country. A student who is intoxicated in a foreign city runs the risk of: getting lost, breaking a country’s laws, being a victim of a crime, losing important documents and being involved in other compromising situations. I suggest you avoid getting drunk while travelling, because it is expensive and dangerous. Moreover, when you return home family and friends will want to know all the awesome adventures you have while travelling and the answer of ‘got drunk in a bar every night’ is certainly not ideal. Ultimately, for your own enjoyment of new places do not rely on drinking for entertainment.

  1. Always have a back-up plan!

In case something does go wrong while you are travelling, having a backup plan in place saves yourself from a lot of stress. I would suggest to always have a stash of money set aside for in case of an emergency. In case your wallet gets stolen, you need to buy medicine or a taxi ride unexpectedly, that cash stash will save you from anymore panic and stress than what you already have! Also, preemptively photocopy important documents in case that they get lost or stolen (e.g., your passport, visa, insurance cards etc.). Always think about the “what ifs” while travelling, because sometimes they happen!

  1. Finally, make sure you take loads of photos.

You never know when you will be back to a travel destination and it is awesome to have photos to look back on when you are elsewhere. Here’s just a few from my travels over spring break:

"The Spire" in Dublin, Ireland

“The Spire” in Dublin, Ireland.

Entrance to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

Entrance to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

The Norman shell keep inside of Cardiff Castle in Wales.

The Norman shell keep inside of Cardiff Castle in Wales.

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“Jump here on the world’s largest floating trampoline”. I saw this in Vienna, Austria and I most definitely did jump on the world’s largest floating trampoline!

Start of the Alps seen from Salzburg, Austria.

Start of the Alps seen taken in Salzburg, Austria.

Hungarian Parliament in Budapest!

Hungarian Parliament in Budapest!

I hope that with these tips I could help other students with how to get the most out of travelling while abroad! Beautiful moments come from going to new places, even more so when you are prepared and not spending a fortune. Thanks for reading!

Domes and Minarets: Tolerance in Kazan

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I spent last weekend sleeping on trains first to Kazan, and then to Nizhniy Novgorod, two popular tourist cities in Russia with beautiful, old kremlins and quaint pedestrian streets. I left Moscow with two of my friends last Thursday evening on the train and woke up in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. We stumbled off the train at 7 am, bleary-eyed and exhausted, and found our way to our hostel. After some brief freshening up we headed back into the cold, gray weather to begin a day of sightseeing.

What is the Republic of Tatarstan?

Now, I’m assuming most of you have not heard of Kazan or the Republic of Tatarstan before, so I want to explain that a little bit. Tatarstan is a federal subject of Russia that has its own president and governmental system, but still ultimately answers to Putin and the Moscow Kremlin. Tatars, one of the many ethnic minority groups within Russia, are a Muslim people who currently make up a little over half the population of Tatarstan and have their own language, customs, foods, and beliefs. All the street signs in Kazan are written in both Tatar and Russian, the republic’s official languages, and you’re just as likely to see people heading to church on Sunday morning or to their afternoon prayer at the local mosque.

Kazan’s kremlin

The first thing we did in Kazan was brave the wind and rain to find the kremlin. While it had less gold-domed churches than Moscow’s, Kazan’s kremlin boasted beautiful government buildings, rows and rows of souvenir shops, and both an Orthodox church and a Mosque, not 1000 feet from each other. While I’ve at this point seen my fair share of Orthodox churches and have now been in three different kremlins, Kazan’s might have been my favorite. Where else in Russia (or in the world, possibly), am I going to be able to look up and see crescent moon-topped minarets next to cross-embellished onion domes in the official government center?

Kazan’s mosque & religious tolerance

We arrived at the mosque just in time for prayer, so we waited at a nearby café until it ended and tourists were allowed back in. I then wrapped my head in my newly purchased scarf and went inside. As someone with a strong interest in different religions and customs of the world, this experience meant a lot to me. I’ve been in cathedrals all over the place. I went in Japanese temples and lit incense. But I always vaguely assumed for some reason that mosques were off-limits.

Being inside the mosque—seeing beautiful Arabic script curl its way across the blue and gold domed ceiling, visiting the attached Islamic culture museum, all while remembering that I was in Russia—made an impact on me in a way I’m not sure I can explain. Although Russia is not necessarily known as the most tolerant or accepting of countries, and in a lot of ways I’ve most certainly observed that to be true, Tatarstan has found a way, perhaps because of history, to look past religious differences and provide a place for people to live side by side. The culture museum explained the repression the Islamic community in Russia has faced over the years, especially during Stalin’s time, but now, life seems different. The xenophobia, or should I say Islamophobia, that the United States tends to experience and propagate as a whole was absent in Kazan. People go about their daily lives next to each other. Shopkeepers assumed my Greek friend was Muslim, but not in a way that evoked anything other than mild interest, if anything at all.

Perhaps the ethnic history of the region has fostered this acceptance. Perhaps the fact that it’s so ingrained in the culture, and has always existed as such, allows it to be just another facet of life and existence as either a Russian or a Tatar in Kazan. I’m not blind to the injustices that take place here, but at least in one small pocket of the country something that looms so large in the collective American consciousness does not exist, at least in the same way. Perhaps it might in Moscow, where things certainly operate differently. As Americans, we tend to think we are the pinnacle of freedom, tolerance, and acceptance, which anyone who reads the news can see is still far from true. And while Russia certainly has problems of its own, perhaps we can take pages out of each other’s books to build a more tolerant society across the world.
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The Kremlin. Photo courtesy of kazan-kremlin.ru, as none of my pictures really captured it well

Southeast Asia Part 1: Hekou, Sa Pa, and Hanoi

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The last time I sat down to write a blog post, I was stressing, along with the rest of the IES Abroad students, about four final essays and a Chinese exam. That stress is over now, though, and I’m so relieved to say that we’re on our end-of-the-semester trip in Southeast Asia!

From Hekou to Sa Pa

Before heading to Vietnam, we stayed overnight in one of China’s border cities – Hekou (河口). We took a six-hour train ride from Kunming to Hekou (河口), which sits along the Red River. Hekou is as Border Economic Cooperation Zone, meaning that special policies are implemented in the city to promote trade between China and Vietnam. On the morning after arriving in Hekou, we observed the opening of the bridge that connects with Lao Cai, the Vietnamese city directly across the river. Each morning at 8:00 am, Chinese military officials raise the Chinese flag before opening the bridge. After the gate has been opened, sellers from both countries cross with their goods, usually carried on their backs, to sell on the other side. The opening of the bridge was an interesting site, especially since I’d never seen anything like it before. It was a chance to see in person what we’ve learned this semester about trade between China and Vietnam.

Every morning, military officers open the border crossing so that Chinese and Vietnamese merchants can cross so buy and sell goods.

After spending the morning in Hekou, we crossed the border to meet our tour guide who would be with us throughout our stay in northern Vietnam. He first took us to Sa Pa, a small town about an hour’s drive from Lao Cai. In Sa Pa, we hiked down a mountain and into the valley region where different minority groups live and work in rice terraces. We walked with a group of Black Hmong people for a few hours before reaching the bottom to have lunch with them. The scenery during this hike was some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The weather was warm – much warmer than we’re used to in Kunming – but the sunny weather was perfect for a hike. After lunch, we hiked back up to our bus to head on our way to Hanoi.

Sa Pa scenery

Sa Pa scenery

On our way to lunch in a Black Hmong village

On our way to lunch in a Black Hmong village

Hanoi

Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital city, with a population of around 7 million. My biggest first reaction to this city was how incredibly different it is from Kunming. The city is over 1,000 years old, so it’s hard to imagine how historically significant it is. Aside from its age, the European, particularly French, influence seen in its architecture was another feature of the city that stood out to me. Many of the government buildings still have the French design built during colonial rule, which is something Kunming lacks completely. The biggest difference I was able to see, however, was how many foreigners there were in Hanoi. We were all so used to being the only foreigners in Kunming; we’re still getting used to having other Americans around. Perhaps because of how popular it is for foreigners, many of the Vietnamese living in this city can speak English. Vietnamese who can speak Chinese here, however, are more rare than I was expecting. It’s been a challenge, switching off my Chinese completely and shifting back to conversations in English. I’ll admit that I’ve missed being able to have conversations with strangers in Chinese during my time here.

We spent much of our time in Hanoi seeing historical sites. One of the more interesting places for me was the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, because I’ve never seen a memorial quite like this before. Ho Chi Minh is such an important figure in Vietnam’s history, and I enjoyed seeing how the city continues to honor him today.

Ha Long Bay

One of the best parts of our Southeast Asia trip thus far has been our day-trip to Ha Long Bay. Located about three hours east of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s more scenic coastal areas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It opens up to the South China Sea, and contains nearly 2,000 islets. Along with our Vietnamese tour guide, we rode a boat out into the bay, ate lunch, swam, kayaked, and explored the scenery. The weather was beautiful and hot (it’s been around 90 degrees nearly every day we’ve been here), so we all loved having the chance to go swimming. We didn’t do much classwork that day because we were on a boat for most of it, which was a nice break for us all.

Our daytrip on a boat in Ha Long Bay

Our daytrip on a boat in Ha Long Bay

A view from the deck

We have some time left in Hanoi before heading first to Ho Chi Minh City, and then to southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta Region. After finishing up our time in Vietnam, we’re headed to Cambodia; with lots ahead of us, I’ll have more blog posts to come soon!

Kremlin and Kulich: Spring is (almost?) Here

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I finally went to the Kremlin. That’s right, I’ve been here since January and I just went to the Kremlin last weekend. That’s three solid months of Kremlin-less life in Moscow. Three solid months of hoping that I’d just so happen to run into Putin on the street. Three solid months of being able to SEE the white and gold Ivan the Great Bell Tower from my HOUSE and not “having time” to go see it in person. I mean, I have been busy, sure. I’ve been busy studying, and eating, and hanging out in coffee shops, and sleeping in on the weekends and going to the myriad and endless supply of malls that Moscow has to offer. Okay, that’s a joke of course, I’ve done and seen plenty since I’ve been here, but when I told my mom a couple weeks ago that I had yet to see the Kremlin, THE number one tourist destination in Moscow, her shock was not unfounded.

So last Saturday, I gathered two of my friends, both of whom had already been there, and ventured over the red-walled complex for an afternoon of sightseeing and many, many beautiful churches. There a lot of different things to do and see at the Kremlin, some of which are free or cheap, and some of which cost upwards of 750 rubles (That’s 15 bucks right now). As poor college students, we went with the free or cheap option and scored admission to the Kremlin complex itself and all the churches inside for the equivalent of five dollars. The Armoury, which houses various collections of tsar-era artifacts, as well as the Diamond Fund which houses the Faberge eggs, and the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, all cost extra money and have fixed entrance times. Since we’d all heard the bell tower was overrated and didn’t feel comfortable dropping up to thirty bucks extra to go in the Armoury and the Diamond Fund, we decided to simply enjoy the first day of beautiful weather in Moscow by wandering around the various old churches inside the wall and then strolling along the road nearest to the river. We reveled in the sunshine that glinted off the golden domes and whitewashed church walls for several hours before getting too hungry and retreating to a nearby underground shopping center. I would have to say it was a most certainly worth the price of admission and while of course part of me wants to go see the jeweled Faberge eggs and shining armor in the separate exhibits, I’ll just have to save that for my next trip to Moscow.

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I can’t believe how little time we have left here, and the number of things I still want to do, see, and visit is just mind-boggling. Sunday was a gorgeous 65-degree Easter Day, and I met up with my friends after they finished church to walk around. Easter is the biggest holiday in the Orthodox calendar and the festivities here did not disappoint. In the center of the city, small, Easter-themed huts popped up, selling icons, eggs, pastries, and a variety of other Easter and spring-themed merchandise. Large and beautiful painted faux-eggs stand in the squares next to quaint, egg-shaped light displays, forming a sort of Easter wonderland. While my host family didn’t have much in the way of Easter dinner, we did eat Kulich, the traditional Russian Easter cake, and I’ve eaten more hard-boiled eggs than I know what to do with in the past week. Spring is slowly but surely coming here in Moscow, and although the temperature dropped to the 40s again on Tuesday, I can’t help but hope that by May I’ll be able to head outside sans boots or jacket. Easter, the symbolic start of spring is over, and while the weather has yet to catch up with the public consciousness, the mountains of snow that welcomed me in January are already a distant memory. I only have a month left in this wonderful city, and I plan to make the most of it, whether I need to wear my parka or not.
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Kulich, picture courtesy of russianseason.net

Hello to a new adventure

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Hello to a new adventure
Aerial view of the city lights prior to landing

Aerial view of the city lights prior to landing

Word of the Day: السلام عليكم (As-salamu alaykum)

Translates to “peace be upon you (plural),” often used as a greeting and parting that is equivalent to “hello” and “goodbye” in English.

It was three years ago when I came to the realization that I wanted to study abroad in the Middle East. In a period of uncertainty amidst ever-changing plans (re: college), my desire to study Arabic overseas remained the one constant.

Three years is a long time. Yet as I was waiting at the boarding gate in Athens, on my way to Amman at last, none of it seemed real. Perhaps it was because I spent the past month making my way through Europe, and Amman seemed to be yet another transient stop. Or perhaps, having studied abroad twice before, I was wary of being confronted with my expectations vis-à-vis reality. I limited my assumptions and did little research on the city itself, opting to be in a constant state of surprise and discovery instead.

Little did I know I would face my first “surprise” within an hour of landing in Amman. I arrived at my apartment around 3AM to find that my bathroom was partially flooded due to a ceiling leak. And in the other bathroom, I discovered that I also had a broken shower head. It was an inconvenience, but none of that honestly mattered; I was just happy to have a bed and a tangible place to call home in the interim.

G'morning. The view from my balcony window

Sabah al-khayr! The view from my balcony window.

It is now my third day here in Amman, and the past few days have gone by in a blur. I had orientation the morning after my arrival and language placement testing later that day, which consisted of a 13-page written exam and a brief oral interview.

Thankfully the second day, a trip to Ajloun, was less strenuous and far more enjoyable than the first. Ajloun Castle was built in the 12th century under the orders of Saladin (founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Sultan of Egypt and Syria) to protect the territory from the Crusaders in present-day northern Jordan. The castle served as part of an important communication system that connected major cities in the region, including Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo through the use of fire beacons and pigeon posts. I climbed through various levels of the castle to get to the roof and was afforded a stunning view of Syria and Lebanon to the north and Israel to the west. On a clear evening, I was told, one could even see the lights from Palestine. It was a beautiful day well-spent.

Ajloun Castle (known as Qala'at al-Rabadh)

Ajloun Castle (known as Qala’at al-Rabadh)

View from the pigeon post. My camera doesn't do this gorgeous view justice.

This photo doesn’t do the view justice.

Tomorrow I officially begin class at Qasid Arabic Institute. I will be taking only Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) courses and will pick up from where I left off at Temple. However, if possible, I would ideally like to also take ‘Ammiyyah Arabic. It is the local dialect of Jordan and therefore the primary spoken form of Arabic here. To be considered fluent in Arabic, one would have to master both MSA and ‘Ammiyyah. It is a daunting prospect to be sure, and one which I clearly cannot expect to achieve in just the short period of time here, but it is certainly a step I can take.

In the next few days, I look forward to doing some exploring of Amman, particularly before things start to pick up. My internship officially begins next week, and I will be assuming the position of Research Associate for CSR-Watch Jordan, a stakeholder organization focused on corporate social reform through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). My primary responsibility is to publish research addressing NGO operations with regard to sustainable development in Jordan. I look forward to this exciting opportunity to engage with my new community and conduct interviews with members of organizations doing incredible work.

Goals for the rest of the week (by no means an exhaustive list): 1. Discover the “best” shawarma and falafel. 2. Open a bank account. 3. Get a Jordanian SIM. 4. Enroll in kickboxing classes.

All this will be attempted in my best broken Arabic, Insha’allah!