Los Nach Praha

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This weekend, the group and I traveled to Prague. Its antiquated center city is marked by castles and gilded Art Nouveau cafes at every corner.

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(The latter photo here, references Franz Kafka, Czech-born but German-using surrealist author)

It’s at most times an overpriced city, especially in the center, but father away one can find an absurd amount of cheap kebab diners and secondhand stores. Away from the medieval tourist traps, it seems normal to live on a dime. Much easier here than in Leipzig.

A few monuments here and there stand to honor the city’s past:

Since I don’t read Czech and the Wifi bandwidth here isn’t strong enough to do thorough research, I don’t know the meanings of these statues. But they sure look mighty.

I find myself mesmerized the most by the artistic culture here…

I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of it for the sheer awesomeness of the experience, but seeing an original Gustav Klimt at the state art museum has been the highlight of my stay here. Here are a few examples of some works I did stop for a photo though:

Ai Weiwei, famous contemporary Chinese artist with a political edge, had an exhibit open there offering statements over the experiences of refugees coming to Europe.

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The other night back in Leipzig, Germany, I got lost late at night in a city neighborhood called Dolitz/Connewitz. On my way home, frustrated that no late night kebab eating came out of my midnight expedition, I walked past a collection of shacks that I could only assume were inhabited by Germany’s migrants. There was obviously no city planning put into these ramshackle quarters. Since that’s been on my mind, this exhibit had an extra potent effect on me.

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(“Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me” – Carlos Fuetes)

This quote above particularly resonated with me as I’ve passed the glossiness of international travel and realized that… everyone is the same. In the videos shown to kids in high school German students, it’s easy to think that “Oh, wow – these people are so different! So cultured! So much ahead of the rest of the world! Their systems and governments are so much better!” Likewise with other international language classes. A lot of people get wrapped in the mysterium of a foreignness and get the idea that all is good in the far off land.

The reality of it is, is that the governments of Europe are messing up hard right now. There’s a gross misconduct in the treatment of these people who, to my point, are human just like you and me. Instead of fighting over space and the nonsensical idea of “borders,” we should use the little time we have on Earth to appreciate the fact that we get to live under the same sky as these beautiful souls.

We’re all upset with the political system, the absurdity of modernity, and how long it takes for the crosswalk sign to turn green for GO. When we are able to relate on the most humane, universal level, then we can start to work towards building a healthy world for everybody to live in.

(A mural attached to each side of the hall way on the path into Weiwei’s exhibition)

Body Positivity in Rabat: Part I

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Disclaimer: I use a lot of gender binary terms in this post, but it applies to everyone! Body positivity is for everyone whether you are male, female, trans, male/female dressing, gender fluid, etc! Everyone should just love their body!

So, what is body positivity? Body positivity is relatively new to me, so I’m going to put it in simple terms. Body positivity is the wild idea that our bodies were made for function and not for displaying (“Your body is an instrument, not an ornament”). Body positive happiness is like that feeling when you were a little kid, running around and playing, not really caring what you looked like, but just having fun. Body positivity has become increasingly important because body standards around the world are widely unattainable. Ideally, everyone would just love their body and not care what it looks like. Ideally, everyone would accept each other’s bodies as well as their own. Ideally, the world would be a body positive place. And before I begin, I want to give a quick thanks to my dear friend Libby Reiner – she taught me everything I know about body positivity, and before I met her, it never occurred to me that my body was something I could love.

Let’s start with the idea of representation. The images you see frequently become (a) the images you expect and (b) the images that society deems acceptable. Side note: Apart from bodies, this is why representation of all races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, religions, and so on is incredibly important. The more we see representation in media increasing on all fronts, the more accustomed we become to seeing a wider array of the human race and the more support we give to those who don’t always see their identities represented in mainstream media. This being said, the representation of all bodies is just as important. From a young age, we immediately understand body standards because of what we’re fed by media. As adults, imagine a world in which we saw all sorts of bodies in advertisements, TV shows, and movies. Imagine if those roles weren’t reduced to the “fat girl, but she’s funny!” trope. Just like all identities, if we’re going to make different body sizes seen as a good and important thing, we need to have better representation in the media and our everyday lives, and that’s where Morocco comes in.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall – mirror, mirror, not there at all! My body positivity journey in Morocco has begun with mirrors. In my experience thus far, there are very few mirrors in Morocco compared to the United States. In fact, there’s one mirror in my house, and it’s the one above the sink, meaning that you can’t see below chest level. The only time I’ve really seen my entire body reflected back at me is when I cross one specific building on my walk to school every morning. So even though I have gotten a full-body reflection, it’s not even a conventional mirror. The absence of mirrors was completely jarring at first. I immediately made a makeshift mirror by propping my phone against my desk, stepping back a few feet, and squinting to see my reflection. That’s how desperate I was to make sure that I looked okay. How I look had become so implicitly important to me that I couldn’t fathom the idea of leaving my room before I had seen what my whole body looked like in that outfit.

Luckily, I’ve progressed. Body positivity is a journey, and learning to live without mirrors has been part of mine. Now, before leaving the house, I really don’t know exactly how I look. And you know what? It doesn’t matter, because I probably look fine. Living without mirrors has given me a Popeye-ish outlook on my body image: I look how I look and that’s just how I look. I’m way more interested about how my day in MOROCCO is going to be than how I look.

There is definitely more to come about body positivity during my stay in Rabat. Expect a second post about body positivity coming soon to a blog near you! To continue the theme of relaxing my own standards and focusing more on my body’s function than its appearance, please enjoy some pictures of me below where I was having too much fun to care what my body looked like.

 

Morocco: Unplugged

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Morocco: Unplugged

Living in Morocco means living with less technology. At first, this transition was difficult, but I’ve learned that living a simpler life with less technology has been fairly rewarding. For example, I don’t watch a lot of TV while I’m here because all the channels are in Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and I can barely understand them. As someone who is typically glued to Netflix, I can actually say that I haven’t minded being separated from TV this summer.

There’s also not a ton of air conditioning here. The only place I’ve been to that has it is my school. For the most part, houses and cafes don’t have air conditioning. My house definitely doesn’t, but this makes the breeze mean more – I really take a moment to appreciate wind and sounds coming through my window, a window which I wouldn’t even have opened in the United States. Additionally, because air conditioning is limited but staying cool is a priority, the riyads (old houses) here are built with a huge open-air courtyard in the center of the home. This courtyard doesn’t have a roof so that the air can get in. Living in a house like this is a really cool experience, and it’s one that I wouldn’t have had if air conditioning was available!

For laundry, my house doesn’t have a dryer, but we sun-dry our clothes by a clothesline on the roof. Even though it’s a pain when my laundry takes two days instead of two hours, my host mom said that laundering in this way is actually better for your clothes and better for your skin!

The most radical change in unplugging myself and living simpler this summer has been detaching myself from my phone. I don’t have an international data plan and wifi here isn’t great, and it’s not available everywhere, so sometimes my phone doesn’t even function. All the students have Moroccan cell phones in case of emergency or for communicating while we’re not near wifi, but for the most part, cell phones are out of the question while away from our homes or school.

Sometimes unplugging makes my life a little harder than I’d like. It’s sometimes tough to adapt to a lifestyle where so many amenities are limited, and not having constant wifi/data makes communication with my friends and family hard.

Even though there are some hardships that accompany unplugging while abroad, I think they’re definitely worth it. I’ve learned a lot by separating myself from technology. Dinners with my friends are more meaningful because no one is sitting on their phone – we’re all engaged in conversation and our experience becomes more meaningful because of it. I’ve also had time to reflect on non-electronics activities that I love to do like writing and reading.

Unplugging is also nice because I can become more integrated within Moroccan life. Instead of hanging out on my phone or watching Netflix on my laptop, I can just go downstairs and chat with my host mom while she makes dinner or play with my host brother. With the time that I might have spent online, I can also free up time to explore Morocco! We spent the weekend in Fes, and the wifi at the hotel wasn’t great, so we headed into the city to explore the medina! This isn’t to say that we would have just sat there online if the wifi was great, but I think the fact that we didn’t have that option made the decision to explore Fes a little easier.

Overall, transitioning to a life with less technology has been a little tough, but I think it’s a good change to make. By unplugging, I’ve had more opportunities to build relationships, become familiar with my new surroundings, and immerse myself completely in the culture here.

Postscript: If you study abroad and you feel like technology makes your experience better, please use it! Technology is great and if you love it, then embrace it during your experience – it’s just that the absence of technology has enriched mine.

Leipzig: The Political City

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(Champagne For All”)

In perhaps a less savory part of Leipzig’s inner city, a friend and I stumbled upon this graffiti while wandering a bit aimlessly. In an alcove, this message grabbed our attention mostly because of its use of the “A” symbol representing Anarchism. The message here is simple, but remarkable. Fresh spray paint indicates fresh sentiment, even though such ideas go far back…

Leipzig knows and honors its past well. With many Germans still alive today who can recount the reality of living in the DDR, there’s a healthy amount of those who appreciate the peacefulness of a unified Germany while recognizing there is still space for improvement.

 

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(Mural by Neo Rauch)

The above photo was taken on one of Leipzig’s traffic-heavy streets, right outside the central train and tram station. Heavy political imagery in a crowded area serves as a reminder to all those of the struggles of the past. Painted on the side of a Mariott Hotel, it also promotes the work of Leipzig’s most important contemporary artist. Neo Rauch, a figurehead in the “New Leipzig School” art movement, creates art that depicts realities of East German life. This mural tells the story of a people who wanted a better future for themselves, and made it happen.

That doesn’t mean the fight has been given up quite yet, though. Besides the graffiti I photographed, there are also neighborhoods such as Lindenau where punk rock music still blares from bars painted completely black. ANTIFA and Anarchist symbols fit in between street artists’ tags in this area.

Communists aren’t hard to find either, even down the street from where I’m studying German this month!

 

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(“No to NATO-Aggression! Peace with Russia! DKP – German Communist Party)

Utilizing the anti-war imagery of artist Käthe Kollwitz’s famous piece ‘Nie Wieder Krieg’ (“Never Again War”), this random sticker is a testament to the survival of ideology and political activism. Germans haven’t stopped fighting since their monumental victory over the division of mankind in 1989. Thankfully, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the highly political conscious of this country’s people.

Oh, and then there’s this cool sight I was shown by my student tour guide in the city’s middle streets:

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(Bronze statues of Faust and Mephisto outside the Auerbach Keller)

… They’re, like, members of Kraftwerk, or something.

Berlin Yesterday, Leipzig Today

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My international experience began in Berlin, the capital city of Germany, in which I accidentally arrived a day early. Despite my parents’ worries that I was going to be kidnapped, I enjoyed this extra day with a sense of independence I never have before.

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(A photo of my hostel for this first night – Sehr hip!)

One taxi cab ride, some misguided wandering, and many cups of coffee later, I had adjusted to my new environment and set out to experience one of the most exciting cities in Europe.

Much to my tastes, Berlin is very Dada, and I don’t mean that in reference to the high volume of antiquated artist cafes. Rather, the city is incongruous. It’s nearly absurd, the mix of classical styles next to modern tones. These competing aesthetics and attitudes are what defines the city’s beat: a rapid tempo moving from one idea to the next. Its citizens move at a similar speed. I garnered some odd looks as I strutted down Kantstrasse, gazing wildly at everything around me. When I got cursed at by a passing bicyclist, I knew it was time to pick up the pace and move.

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(A view of the Berlin Wall’s east side, sadly obstructed)

I found the city to be hospitable to English-speakers such as myself. Unlike in Norway, where I was scolded for asking to use a restaurant’s bathroom without eating there, the locals here offered help when asked for it. Weird thing to mention, I know. But it’s in this little detail that my impression of Europe has already began to improve.

The next few days, spent with students also attending the program in Leipzig, proved to be a bit more tourist-y but still enjoyable.

Leipzig’s layout is far more segmented than Berlin’s, its neighborhoods more distinct. One can clearly define where the buzzing, consumerist center of the city ends and where the quiet, gray industrial quarter begins. Or where the suburbs that I’ve dubbed the ‘Student Line’ stretches on for miles of super markets and dormitories. This latter area is where the other Temple Owls and I reside, and where the most tranquility lies. Like I said, the city zentrum has buzz. It’s exciting, modern, and crowded with all sorts of life.

Good WiFi is hard to find here. Good WiFi is what sends pictures taken on my phone to my laptop, so this article will go devoid of any good snapshots. Next time, I promise to make this a bit more colorful with pictures of my urban activities. Until then, auf wiedersehen!

Kuva-no-Ker

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Well performance with Bhavai troupe (still from video by Barrett Griffin)

 

There’s no such thing as being a “fly on the wall” visiting a community that rarely meets outsiders. This is especially apparent when your professor is a prince. In anthropology, it is important to consider this when situating oneself within a field site so that the novelty and subsequent centering of the anthropologist does not take away from the observation or interview processes. Here in Dhrangadhra, we have found the avoidance of being centered to be nearly impossible. Wherever we go, we are treated like celebrities. People don’t just stare at us; they follow us, tap us and grab us, and constantly implore us for “selfies.” While this can be annoying, especially when we have work to do or we can’t understand what they are saying about us or why they giggle, their behavior makes sense. In the ‘melting pot’ of the United States, even the most sparsely populated areas have exposure to a number of different cultures. In towns like Kankavati and Jesada, meeting people from other countries is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Our scarves may not be tied correctly, our hairstyles and textures might seem strange, and our conscious and unconscious behaviors may be vastly different from their own. Furthermore, our professor, Dr. Jhala (Bapa) is a prince, which makes our presence all the more noteworthy. It is very difficult to convince people not to hold you in such high regard in a society in which social status is so fixed and paramount, especially with the language barrier. Most of the time, we don’t have a choice but to go with the flow, accepting this privilege in order to go where we need to go, see what we need to see, and talk to who we need to talk to. The best we can do is simple gestures of kindness such as smiling, waving to people, and taking pictures of or with them. One of the photographers brought a polaroid camera, which really helps in terms of being able to give something tangible back. Sometimes with kids, I’ll cross my eyes, stick my tongue out, or generally act goofy just to break the barrier of intimidation and bring out a smile or laugh. Most kids seem to respond very well to that.

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Kankavati woman insisting on a photo with Sam following the Rajput sword dancing performances

When we attended the revival event at the Well of Sorrow, we had a slightly different experience. Though we were greeted like celebrities, by the time the ceremony began the attention was no longer centered on us. The rituals and presence of the royal family became paramount, and we were able, for the first time, to observe these people without being a focal point. This event was in remembrance of the Jhala clan’s Eight Ranis (queens) who in 1486 jumped into the Well of Sorrow with their maidservants and subsequently drowned during Sultan Mohamed Begawa’s siege of Kuwa. This historical event is known as Kuva-no-Ker, the destruction of Kuwa, and people still use the term to refer to any great calamity.

Several large tents were set up around the well, and many people came from surrounding villages to witness the ceremony. We were given chairs to sit near the royal family to watch the ritual. Then we were invited, along with members of the royal family and female Rajputs (warrior caste) to pour water into the well as a symbolic gesture of remembrance. The Jhala clan is part of the Rajput caste. We then moved to a tent where we witnessed Rajput girls from one village, dressed in turbans and jeans, then young men from another village, perform sword dances. These were possibly one of the most exhilarating performances I have ever witnessed. They were swinging swords feet away from us, close to each other, sometimes climbing on each other’s backs or even blindfolded. We were not allowed to take footage out of respect, but it was an unforgettable experience. Afterwards we enjoyed dinner in the garden with the royal family.

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Rajput women and girls (sword dancers wearing turbans)

A couple of days later, we filmed a dance around the well with some of the Bhavai (male) performers, who were dressed like the Ranis. We had been rehearsing this performance for two weeks in addition to getting henna tattoos, buying costumes, and making masks. We each represented an animal deity representative of each Rani and her descendents. I was a tiger. The other animals included a parrot, horse, cobra, magical bird, crocodile, and a lion. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anyone to perform the role of the rooster. We developed movement to represent these creatures and performed our individual one-minute dances, with our homemade masks, around and near the well. Many people from the village came to watch. After that, we changed into our “queen costumes” which included elaborate saris and large skirts. We kind of just followed what the Bhavai performers were doing, dancing around the well, and standing with them as they reenacted the Ranis deciding to jump in the well. Although the rehearsal process had been time-consuming and frustrating for some of us, it was a rewarding experience and an honor to take part in an event that held so much significance for these people. Though it can be very difficult to navigate the issue of privilege, it felt good to be included in this event in a way that showed the people that we recognize and honor their heritage.

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Me in my tiger mask (photo by Camilla Martinelli)

Lost in Translation: Barriers and Breakthroughs

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I’ve mentioned this before, but I pretty much decided to study Arabic because, like any nerd, I love a good academic challenge. And boy, did I get one. I’m sure everyone knows this already, but Arabic is hard. Like, really hard.

At Temple, the Arabic program centers around “FusHa” or “Modern Standard Arabic” (MSA for short). MSA is the best way to learn Arabic because it’s relatively universal (it’s the style used in the Quran and in Arab media like newspapers and broadcasts) but it’s also the hardest version to learn. Although MSA is understood by most Arabic speakers, it sounds a little strange when spoken. My IES professor put it like this: Speaking MSA instead of a dialect is a little like if someone walked up to a modern American speaking like Shakespeare. It’s very formal and rarely spoken in lieu of dialects.

So here I am, in an Arabic-speaking country, knowing MSA and not the Moroccan dialect. I can have conversations with Moroccans, but they are definitely a little strange because I’m not speaking Darija (the Moroccan dialect) yet. I’m taking a class on the dialect while I’m here, but as of right now I can only string together a couple of words and phrases in Darija, which makes day-to-day interactions a little difficult. I’m learning more everyday, though.

Arabic is pretty tough. I encounter a lot of barriers throughout my day, but I can overcome most of them with my knowledge of MSA (side note: if there was a country that only spoke MSA, I think I’d be more than fine right now, but unfortunately this is not the case). Moroccans learn Darija first, then study MSA in school, and then learn French – most of them don’t get around to learning English. Sometimes my struggles are when the 4-year old I live with is rattling off sentence after sentence at the speed of light, and he just ends up yelling “La! La! La!” (“No! No! No!”) at me. Other times, it’s when I realize my vocabulary just isn’t extensive enough to express a particular thought, which can be frustrating because I have such good ones! (:

However, for every difficulty I encounter, there’s some sort of equal reward. They’re often small, but they encourage me to persist in the language. I like playing with the babies in my house because I can speak to them in very simple sentences and not worry about them judging me. Similarly, my host parents speak to the four year old with a lot of commonly-used commands and phrases (“Give me that,” “Bring me…,” “Come here,” etc) that I can now pick up on and use for myself. Today I had maybe the most successful lingual accomplishment yet – I bought water from a vendor and spoke only Darija! It sounds so small, but being able to converse with him and make a little small talk while he counted change really made me feel like I belong here and that all my hard work with Arabic is starting to pay off.

As my mind has been wrapping around Arabic for the past week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about second languages. This morning, it occurred to me that I will be incredibly relieved to go back home and not worry about how to communicate during my next interaction, or even to just understand every sign I see. At the same exact time, it occurred to me that many people (namely immigrants and refugees) are unable to experience such relief because they are unable to return to their home country. At home, I’m privileged in many ways, but having English as my first language is not a privilege I often thought about, and my study abroad experience is deeply impacting my views on language in the U.S. In Morocco, I can’t describe how relieving it is to see English, whether written on a sign, menu, advertisement, or other (although I don’t see it often). I don’t see why we shouldn’t do the same for lingual minorities in the U.S. It wouldn’t kill us to add Spanish to maps or signs, and it would certainly make life easier for those who are ESL (English Second Language) speakers. When I return to Temple in the fall, I’ll be interning for Nationalities Service Center’s English as a Second Language Team, so hopefully I can make a real impact on this issue by helping immigrants and refugees learn English. I’m glad that, for now, I’m getting a taste of what their language experience will be like.

This weekend, my program is taking us on a field trip to the cities of Fez and Meknes, so hopefully I’ll return with some good stories from my visit! Maa Salaama! (Goodbye!)

My First Days in Rabat: Impressions

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My First Days in Rabat: Impressions

Here I am! After a spring and summer of preparation, I have finally made it to Rabat. My last two days here have been filled with excitement and exhaustion alike, but before I get into the nitty-gritty, here are some of my smaller observations thus far:

  • Cats are everywhere, and 99% of them are sleeping.
  • It’s hot as heck! The dress code for women here is particularly cumbersome when you have sweat running from head to toe.
  • Being here for Ramadan is really special because iftar (literally “break-fast,” when Muslims break their day-long fast) is a HUGE and DELICIOUS meal. A paradise for a food lover such as myself.
  • Can’t understand the 4-year-old you’re living with? No problem, high-fives are a universal language.
  • Apparently two-handed high-fives are also a universal language.

Those are just some little things I’ve noted throughout my two days here. More will surely come, but now for some bigger picture stuff:

We did a Greatest Hits of Rabat-esque tour today and saw some really beautiful sights. We got to see the Moroccan equivalent of the Washington Mall and the White House (except it’s very private here – only tourists and employees are allowed on the grounds). We also visited the Hassan II Mosque, one of Rabat’s most famous landmarks. Apparently during Ramadan, the king visits the Mohammed V Mausoleum across from it every day, but we had to leave before he came. The views were still incredible without royalty. After that, we went to the Kasbah des Oudayas (has someone already made the “Morocck the Kasbah” joke?), which was probably my favorite part of the tour. Although it’s mainly residential, “Kasbah” means “fortress,” so we ended up standing over a powerful view of the ocean and Rabat’s neighboring city, Sale. I’ll definitely be back to the Kasbah soon with my DSLR camera to take some better photos!

After our tour, we all met and were sent off with our host families. I’m with a lovely couple which has a four-year-old son and two one-year-old twins. My host mother and father are both incredibly sweet and their rapport reminds me a lot of my own parents (Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, don’t get jealous!). Their son is an absolute riot – although I don’t understand much of what he’s saying because Moroccan Arabic (Darija) is so different from the Modern Standard (FusHa) I’ve been learning, I do understand how to play with a little kid. We had some fun once his mom explained that he was asking me to pretend to be Godzilla and chase him around! I’m very lucky that both of my host parents know English pretty well because Darija is turning out to be a lot different than I had thought it would be. For now, it’s a little awkward when I don’t know how to ask for simple things or I’m blankly staring at one of my host parents, who has repeated the same word slowly five times, but once Darija classes start I should get the hang of things.

Even though I’m still fighting culture shock jitters, I think this is shaping up to be one of my best summers ever. I can’t wait to share the rest with you all – hopefully by the next time you tune in, I’ll have a couple of good stories! Maa Salaama! (Goodbye!)

 

The Negotiation Phase

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Desert Sunrise (Photo by Shaniece Maldonado)

Addiction is a subject most people try to avoid. The reality is, however, we are all addicts. We live in a world in which we are increasingly being alienated from our most basic sources of sustenance, so we fill those voids with other things. Maybe it’s something obvious like drinking, smoking, drugs, or prescription pills. Maybe it’s the internet, TV, or video games. Maybe it’s work. Maybe it’s school. Maybe it’s never simply allowing oneself to be alone in silence. Whatever it is, it is very hard to break away from this pattern of constant stimulation. When you travel, however, you are forced to adapt your defenses and coping mechanisms.
When I was eighteen, I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety disorders. Basically, I had a complete mental breakdown and could no longer deal with any of my obligations. It took several years of therapy and antidepressants to get to a point where I was somewhat emotionally stable and reliable. These treatments were not especially effective for me after a few years, and I discontinued them once I felt stable enough to manage my issues. Since I have managed to do very well academically, I wasn’t worried about coming to India without consulting a therapist. Gujarat is a “dry” state, which means alcohol is prohibited, and since I don’t drink very much I didn’t consider that to be an issue either. I figured the stimulation and opportunities available here would be manageable enough without the aid of medication or other ways to “take the edge off.”

I certainly didn’t anticipate the difficulty I would have regulating my emotions in frustrating situations. That is not to say I wasn’t warned. In the manual, it specifically says that after the initial “honeymoon” phase where everything is new and exciting, a second “negotiation” phase would follow in which simple things become extremely frustrating. For one, there were technical issues such as the water not working and the power (and thus air conditioning) going off during the hottest parts of the day. Another issue that really bothered me was the obliviousness of some of our photographers, whose equipment and copious photo-taking, in my view, often proved disruptive to our explorations. The people we were visiting were often so wrapped up in wanting to get their pictures taken that we were not able to properly observe their activities. Of course, our presence itself was inherently disruptive to a degree. What made it worse was the fact that, for example, when we attended the wedding, people were more interested in getting their pictures taken than the event that was taking place. This angered the priest and the bride’s father, and we had to leave early.
What set me over the edge was when we went to the desert to meditate. First of all, I was grumpy, as we had to wake up at 3:00am after being asked to stay up until 10:00pm the previous night to rehearse for a performance at the end of the month. So when one of our photographers decided to fly a loud buzzing drone overhead during the entirety of our meditation session, I was enraged. I tried not to be, but at that moment I realized with all the stimulation and lack of alone time, I needed a moment to connect to myself in silence and appreciate the magical moment of the sunrise and the whispering wind. After that point, I lost control emotionally. When we got to the next stop and some of us were told we weren’t covered enough to go into the temple, I burst into tears. For most of the day, I felt like an overflowing well. The water just kept on coming. That upset me even more because I felt myself slipping and was terrified I would have another serious breakdown. Thoughts started surfacing in my mind that I didn’t realize I was still capable of having. I watched as everyone else enjoyed themselves, wishing I could partake in their happiness but feeling incapable of doing so. At the end of the day, I was solely responsible for my misery.
I took the next day off to process what had happened, and I realized that being in this vulnerable position was bringing up lots of old feelings that the busyness and comforts of home had allowed me to avoid dealing with. The fact is, the people taking all the photographs and flying drones were coping too. To engage deeply is not easy. It feels safer to be behind a screen or camera lens, especially if that is a skill one has confidence in. In fact, for some people like the photographer with the drone, it is easier to engage deeply from behind the lens. Additionally, the photographers were not usually able to capture authentic, candid moments as the attention was so centered on their equipment. We all have to deal with our own challenges and obstacles. One photographer dropped her hard drive, and another dropped an important lens. We are all human and vulnerable, which is not a comfortable feeling, and we deal with it in different ways, some of which are at odds with each other. As we have gotten to know each other, many of us have revealed tragic losses and difficult experiences which we haven’t dealt with emotionally yet or in a long time. I feel so grateful for all of these amazing people, even if we occasionally drive each other crazy. They say that you learn as much about yourself as you do about these places on study abroad, and I wholeheartedly concur. Although this experience has been emotionally challenging, I’m so glad I have this opportunity to challenge myself to feel things I haven’t let myself feel in ages. I’m grateful for the realization that I needed to connect with myself without the distracting comforts of home.

Reflections on Study Abroad

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It’s hard to reflect on studying abroad in a concise, understandable way–there’s just too much to say, too many of them things that you won’t understand until you do it yourself.

I’ll start with the most important and obvious part: this has been the best experience of my life. I didn’t have any expectations going in because I knew that I couldn’t possibly have a concept for what it was going to be like until I did, but if I would have had expectations, they would have been surpassed. I can see the differences in myself so much more clearly now that I’m home; I am more direct and confident and optimistic, my priorities are aligned and clear, and the world feels so much smaller.

Some things are specific to my experience, and don’t necessarily apply to everyone who studies abroad. I had a language barrier, with a language that I literally knew one (useless) word in. I cannot emphasize how incredibly strange this feels, how alienating it can be, and how much of an idiot it can make you feel like. You learn to avoid the need to speak to people, you pick up on the cultural mannerisms and behavior, you learn the necessary phrases: what people are going to ask you and where, how to answer, how not to appear lost and confused and stupid. Another important, specific factor: cultural attitude. Czech people, at least in public situations, are not conversational or friendly or welcoming. I have met some of the best individuals, who are warm and kind and talkative, but as a whole, in public, the cultural attitude is individualistic and independent, pessimistic, and very quiet. I learned this quickly, and adjusted my behavior without even realizing it (making eye contact with people in public feels foreign to me now, let alone having conversations with strangers). This actually made it easier for me as someone who didn’t understand Czech–I didn’t need to speak nearly as much as I would have had to in America. The point is: you learn. When you are completely immersed, you learn quickly. And, even though it can be difficult, this is an invaluable experience. I emphatically believe that if everyone experienced this first hand, the world would be a kinder, more tolerant, and more empathetic place. It is without a doubt one of the most fundamentally important and formative things I’ve experienced.

Another amazing aspect of studying abroad is the ability to travel. Personally, I traveled a lot–you could travel less than I did (or more!), or just explore your home country; whatever approach you take, traveling is not just really, really, fun, but makes you better at dealing with problems in life by expanding your perspective. Some problems are urgent, and when they are, you deal with them. Some aren’t. And you still deal with them. But learning how to deal with high stress situations not only equips you to deal with other high stress situations–it gives you the perspective to determine what actually is a high stress situation and what isn’t. Plus, the more sights you see and people you meet and languages you hear and food you eat and ambiances you absorb, the better off you’ll be for the rest of your life.

To sign off what has the potential to be a much longer reflection, I’ll just say this: if you are considering studying abroad, do it. If you are not considering studying abroad, do it. If you’re nervous or scared or hesitant, do it (do not ever make a decision based on fear, especially the decision not to do something). You are stunting your own growth and preventing indescribable amounts of future happiness by staying in the safe lane. I’ve spoken about how much living across an ocean helps you grow and learn, but the most important thing, to me, is how much happiness it brought to my life. If your experience is anything like mine or the dozens of people I’ve spoken to who’ve done the same, you will feel more happiness than you even knew you could feel. It will enrich your life with so much joy that  you won’t even be able to put it into words. So please, please just do it.

(Me, at the beginning)

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(& the end)

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