Category Archives: External Programs

Abel Tasman and New Zealand Backpacking Psychology

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What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word “backpacking?” My mind immediately wanders to the Gilmore Girls revival, in which Lorelai Gilmore abandons her attempt to do the Pacific Crest Trail after realizing that she can’t fit freeze-dried mac n’ cheese into her pack. Maybe you think of adventure, campfires, and fresh air. Or perhaps you cringe at the thought of spending even one night in a tent. In New Zealand, backpacking culture is everywhere. Tourists come from all over the globe to explore New Zealand’s national parks and live for a week in the bush. Much like the other international students at University of Otago, I arrived in New Zealand with the intention of hiking, camping, and adventuring all over the country as frequently as possible. Although I had a good amount of experience car camping, I had never been backpacking before, but knew that my first backpacking adventure should absolutely take place in New Zealand.

A few weeks ago, I made the decision to do the Abel Tasman National Park coastal track with several friends. Our plan was to conquer a total of 60 kilometers (37.5 miles) in four days, with three nights of camping. To be honest, I didn’t think much of our trip until the morning of our departure arrived- I was an experienced camper and hiker, and didn’t see how backpacking could be much different. After cramming bug spray, cooking gas, and a sleeping bag into my already bulging pack, I felt ready to conquer Abel Tasman.

During the first day of our trek, I felt tranquil and completely at ease. Although we arrived at Te Pukatea, our first campsite, a bit later than expected, our first meal and night in the tent went smoothly. However, the hours that ensued were much more challenging than I anticipated. After about 3 miles into the day, my head began to hurt from dehydration. Unlike much of New Zealand, the water at Abel Tasman has to be treated before consumption, so I was unable to fill my bottle at a stream nearby. My pack, which weighed about 25kg, dug into my shoulders and made it harder to march along the path. After hiking, driving, and being slightly uncomfortable during my first night on the ground, I felt exhausted. However, we had a total of eight hiking hours to catch up with friends who started the track a day earlier, and I had to find ways to entertain my mind- otherwise time would pass excruciatingly slowly.

At first, all I could think about was my own discomfort, but I gradually became appreciative of the fact that my body was physically capable of hiking so far while carrying such weight. I noticed the way that my feet softened to the contours of the track, the way that my lungs filled with air as I stopped and took a look at the view, the manner in which the muscles in my legs hardened as I clambered uphill. This consciousness reminded me of the self-consciousness that I struggle with in my daily life- specifically how others perceive my personality and intentions. I started to wonder how and why this personal discomfort came to be, and tried to focus on my own experience and thoughts rather than what others were seeing in me. This led me to take in my surroundings more deeply. I examined the changing landscape of the trail- from tropical forest to sandy coast- and inhaled the scent of fresh growth. As I approached the six-hour mark of our hike, I realized that I had entertained my mind with a constant cycle of self-examination that I had never accomplished before in my life.

Unfortunately, the last two hours proved to be much more of a challenge than the rest of the day. As my toes began to blister and my legs weakened, my psychological thought cycle was punctuated by thoughts of discomfort. Eventually, pain consumed me psychologically, and I had to concentrate solely on forcing myself to complete the hike.

Every day of Abel Tasman that followed led to hours of sleep lost, increased dehydration, and exhaustion. Although my psychological musings continued each morning, they were broken increasingly rapidly by thoughts of discomfort.  On the last morning, I awoke with a fever, and had to resort to sheer psychological willpower to get myself to our final destination. After exiting the trail, driving home to Dunedin for 10 hours, and finally laying in my bed, I gained a profound sense of gratitude for civilization.

What did I learn from Abel Tasman? I have thought about this question thoroughly since my trip, and compiled the following list of lessons:

  1. Backpacking, like many other things in life is NOT a race, but a journey. Rather than going as fast as possible, it is so important to take things slowly and enjoy the experience.
  2. Isolation leads to self-discovery. Along the trail, I was able to identify things about my life that bother me that I am usually unable to pinpoint in daily life. After backpacking, I am committed to identifying those problems and erasing them.
  3. Things will go wrong! The best way to handle any adverse situation is staying calm, not jumping to extreme conclusions, and allowing a solution to slowly materialize.
  4. I want to be a vegetarian! This one is super random, but I have been thinking about going veggie for a while now for environmental reasons. After spending 4 days eating only dried fruit, nuts, beans, and rice and being perfectly satisfied, I’m doing it! Hello veggie life!
  5. Life is too short to surround yourself with negative people. Shed the ones who bring you down, and gather those who make you feel happiest.
  6. There’s nothing like a challenge to make you appreciate your life. After spending 4 days in the wilderness, I have never cherished running water, hot showers, my bed, or my laptop more.

On a final note, nothing fuels my passion for environmental conservation like a backpacking trip. Being totally immersed in the natural environment makes a person so much more aware of the intricate biological, chemical, and geological systems that drive life on our planet. I’d like to think that the current American administration would stop whining about how climate change is a hoax if they were all forced to backpack for a week. At a time in history when unprecedented sea level rise, global temperature increase, and environmental degradation are wreaking havoc around the globe, it is imperative for individuals to gain greater understanding of the natural world that serves as our home. As we attack the natural environment with increasing force, she will only come back with a more powerful vengeance.

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Comfort in Isolation: Unravelling Ease and Examining Expectations

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As of September 27th, I have been in New Zealand for three entire months. Despite this relatively lengthy portion of time spent abroad, I’m not quite sure that, psychologically, I have accepted that I am living in New Zealand. Rather than feeling like my American accent sticks out like a sore thumb, I tend to forget that my voice sounds different at all. I walk to class surrounded by seagulls and the occasional palm plant, unfazed by the fact that I am currently thousands of miles from my permanent home. Without blinking, I digest Kiwi colloquialisms and respond in my own American slang. I am used to spending my weekends underneath the stars at some gorgeous national park on the South Island with a hoard of international friends. This is NORMAL to me now. To be honest, the level of comfort that I have attained in New Zealand is startling. To reference the unbelievable and frankly profound Lizzie McGuire Movie, I have reached a level of abroad-chill that only Ethan Craft can speak to.

How does any person, completely isolated from everything that they know, cope with solitude? When I was little, I wanted more than anything to be older and living on my own. I used to build leaf forts in my parents’ backyard and pretend that I was a research scientist camping in the Amazon rainforest. I imagined that my bedroom was an apartment, that I was an adult professional living my best life in a beautiful city. The older and more independent that I become, the more comfortable that I feel. Truthfully, I think that my most blissful moments of happiness have been spent completely alone, fully aware of my of self-reliance. In this way, I believe that solitude is something that I have never needed to cope with, but an experience that I crave. Perhaps the ease with which I conquer daily life in New Zealand is simply due to the fact that I have, for the entirety of my life, desired to experience total independence.

Sometimes, when I talk to my family members or close friends from home, I wonder what it will feel like when I return to the US. Will I slide again comfortably into the niche that I abandoned in June? Or will I carve new spaces for myself as a result of my foreign travels? I think that I will slip rapidly back into my life in Philadelphia, hopefully armed with some wisdom from my international meanderings. If I can quickly adapt to life in New Zealand, I have full confidence that my transition back into American life should be just as simple. What I am not prepared for, however, is the emotional aftermath of my Kiwi life.

At Aoraki National Park, I gazed upon enormous glaciers and pristine blue pools. I hiked through shrublands and up volcanoes at Tongariro; I conquered fields of frozen wheat in Queenstown. And what did I feel upon completion? Exhaustion, hunger and sleep. I was terrified and humbled by the marvels that I encountered, yet this was broken by the conscious thought that I had to continue on my designated trail. In order to complete the journey at hand, it was crucial that I briefly indulged in my surroundings before moving on.

Am I as tough and independent as I’d like to believe? Or is my relative ease in New Zealand due to the fact that I know, subconsciously, that I cannot be homesick because that would prevent my own psychological stability and general happiness from flourishing in Dunedin? Who knows. I may still not by the time that I depart for LAX. What I do know is that eventually, perhaps several weeks after I return to Philadelphia, my life in New Zealand will hit hard. At certain random moments in my life, it seems that I have a ridiculous sense of clarity- like everything around me is suddenly so real and tangible and makes life seem utterly glorious. When one of these moments hits back in the US, I am positive that I will immediately think of my life in New Zealand and be brought to tears. In just a month’s time, I will dream of the Otago peninsula with its bird-infested piers and deep gray waters and feel lucky to have lived such an incredible life. Despite each day that I pass the Otago University clocktower without so much as a glance of appreciation, Dirty Dunners is slowly, and without conscious detection weaving its way into my heart.

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Taking in New Zealand and all of her glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Culture of Eating: A Literal Interpretation of “Food For Thought”

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Scenario One:

It is a Monday morning, and I have not gotten enough sleep. Outside, a miserable sheet of rain is unleashing its wrath on the few students who have summoned enough courage to venture outside. I am not this brave. In fact, I doubt that I will drag myself out of bed for another hour or two. However, I suddenly remember that I can’t miss my 1 pm geology lab, making fruitless attempts to find my hairbrush and put together a normal outfit. Food is less that an afterthought; if I had to rank my daily priorities on a scale from one to ten, eating would be a negative number. Instead, I stop by the coffee cart outside of Paley Library, gulp down the last milky dregs, and rush to the lab.

 

Scenario Two: Dunedin

It is a Monday morning, and I have not gotten enough sleep. Outside, a miserable sheet of rain is unleashing its wrath on the few students who have summoned enough courage to venture outside. I do not have a morning class, but I should really mobilize and work on a few essays that will be due in the upcoming weeks. However, the constant grey-ness of Dunedin has really been bumming me out, so my motivation for work is low. I decide to have a treat-yo-self kind of morning to raise personal morale, throw on a sweater, and head to Good Earth, a really awesome local café by my flat. One thing that New Zealanders seem to have down is the art of egg-making; whereas Americans seem to be constantly scrambling theirs, Kiwis enjoy a wide range of fancy egg preparation, from frying to poaching to boiling. I decide to embrace fancy egg culture and order two poached eggs in Hollandaise sauce with a layered potato cake. As I wait for my breakfast to arrive at my table, I crack open “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens and sip a flat white. When my meal arrives, it is piping hot; everything tastes amazing and I spend more than an hour just relaxing, munching, and reading. With a full belly and caffeinated brain, I eventually depart, fueled and ready to work on essays at the central library.

 

Notice a difference? In terms of activities that are imperative to human existence, eating is one of the most significant. Eating culture varies from country to country, with each state, province, or territory exhibiting its own unique subset of foods or eating traditions. When I was younger, I was reminded of this constantly by my grandmother, a cooking enthusiast who understands that the process of eating is one to be celebrated. In the mornings at my grandmother’s apartment, I would always sit at the same spot at her dining room table, laden with a beautiful fabric placement, different glasses for juice and tea, perfectly arranged silverware, and my favorite plate- one that showed four chubby chefs preparing a meal. With unmatched grace and agility, my grandmother would lay out our breakfast bounty: crisp toast, eggs, fresh fruit and yogurt, and the occasional bacon. I think that when I am preparing to die and reflecting on my own human experience, these breakfasts with my grandmother will go down in the top-ten best memories from my existence, though they may seem inconsequential.  Nothing to think about but the complexity of the music accompanying our food, the process of eating, and the pleasure of one another’s company. My grandmother is the sole person that I credit with teaching me to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate a really good meal.

 

It makes me sad to think about, but eating culture in the United States is trash. This sounds harsh, but compared to many places around the world, it’s kind of true. America has been the ultimate proponent of worldwide fast food grab-and-go culture. Nothing says “I don’t have time to enjoy or care about what I’m putting into my body” like a $2 Whopper special from MacDonalds or an enormous, extra sugary Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to go. The purpose of FAST food is to spend as little time as possible savoring the food that one eats, enjoying the time spent eating, or reflecting on the physical act of consumption. As a result, the quality of prepared foods in the United States has fallen miserably to the point where we barely care if we’re putting wholesome ingredients or absolute garbage into our bodies. This has led to reduction in price of high-demand, terrible cheap foods and an exponentially expensive cost of eating well.

 

Living in New Zealand has given me a heightened respect for both the process of preparing foods, the origins of the food that I purchase, and the activities surrounding consumption. Almost the food that I eat comes from the local farmer’s market or Veggie Boys, a tiny shop that sells beautiful veggies for cheap. Instead of blindly walking into a supermarket and picking up items, I have started to contemplate various facets of production that occurred between development my food item and the incident of purchase. Did my kale from a farm that uses sustainable growing practices? Did this piece of salmon come for a large-scale fishery that doesn’t consider the ecological impact of irresponsible mass fishing? What type of lives do the goats that produce my cheese experience? New Zealanders are so big at sustainability, limited wastefulness, and conservation that these questions will now inevitably pop up as I grocery shop. Now, the process of cooking a meal has derived new meaning as well. After a stressful day, I like to turn on some peaceful music, carefully lay out all of my ingredients, and being lovingly arranging them into a meal. Cooking reminds me of the careful, precise techniques that I employ for research at my lab at home. The practiced motions of each activity bring me a kind of numbing, happy peace. To the subconscious mind, is there a difference between measuring out a graduated cylinder of 1M HCl and pouring vegetable oil into a measuring cup? For meditative purposes, I would argue that there is not. In New Zealand, I also have the pleasure of enjoying nightly flat meals with all of my flat mates, which is refreshing as I normally eat quickly and alone. Through these dinners, I have really bonded with the people that I live with, and have had the pleasure of trying typical Kiwi meals that my New Zealander flat mates prepare.

 

It would be ridiculous to say that I’ll never participate in “grab and go” food culture again in the United States. Let’s be honest: some fast foods (hello pizza) are amazing in their own greasy, delicious ways. To say that I won’t hit the Mexican burrito stand at least twice during my first week back in Philadelphia would be a lie. However, I want to extend my newfound appreciation food preparation and enjoyment to my friends and family back at home. Instead of munching on pasta in my room as I churn out my latest assignment, I will force my roommates to put down their work, sit down together, and eat some good food. Of all of the best relationships, moments, and memories of my life thus far, most of them revolve around consuming, preparing, or gathering around amazing meals.

An Ode To Mom: Personal Values and Studying Abroad

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A few days ago, I was sitting at a cafe in Tongariro National Park in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. My friends Claire, Clara and I had just finished a massive, day-long hike to Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom to those Lord of the Rings fans reading this) and were sitting in silence, too tired to say much of anything. I decided to crack open a book that I recently bought from a really nice used book shop near my flat when I noticed a very tiny, fluffy-haired girl toddling around next to us. We made eye contact, so I smiled and waved. She cackled and waddled back over to her mom, who smiled and scooped her up into her lap. The girl continued to wriggle around and do lots of annoying little-kid things that parents hate (eat crayons, point out inappropriate things loudly, generally ignore the indoor voice/outdoor voice idea), but her mom continued to smooth her hair and pat her back. This immediately reminded me of another very tiny and energetic blond girl who, over 18 years ago, was probably annoying her adoring mother in the very same way.

This probably sounds lame, but my mom is one of my best friends in the entire world. She has always been my real-life Lorelai Gilmore. When I’m sick of my friends or the smell of North Philly or classwork, I take a 20-minute train ride to my mom’s apartment to be showered in gluten-free snacks, Keeping Up With The Kardashians references, and new succulent plants. My mom wears clogs non-ironically and can rock a mean pair of cat-eye sunglasses. She is probably the most patient person alive, and has been for the entirety of my life.  This is the first time in my entire life that I’ve established permanent residence more than 20 minutes away from where my mom lives, and let me tell ya, it is hard. I find myself frequently thinking about how lucky I am to have a parent that I miss so horribly. More recently, I’ve been having random flashbacks to things that my mom used to do for me when I was a little kid, like make hot chocolate on snowy days, or feed ducks bread with me in the park, or braid my hair in the mornings before elementary school.

In the United States, I take a lot of things for granted. My apartment building is automatically heated and cooled depending on the temperature outside. If I’m ever out too late somewhere in Philly, I can call Uber to get home almost immediately. My dad will reliably treat me to free Vietnamese food once or twice a month. If I run out of vitamins, deodorant, or almond butter, I can run to Trader Joe’s and reliably pick up the exact products that I want. And- given that time differences are irrelevant- I can call my mom whenever to say hello or pop by for a visit. In New Zealand, everything that I do is so much more calculated. Most foods here are prepared differently than in the US, so I always have to check menus thoroughly before ordering because of allergies. If I’m having a rough day, I have to wait until either late at night or early in the morning to call my friends or family because of the 16 hour time difference. I’m careful not to get sick or break any bones because of international health insurance hassles. I use my favorite Roses’ Lip Balm liberally because there is no Urban Outfitters to stop by in case I run out. A chronic victim of clumsiness, I try to avoid spilling things on the few clothing items that I have here in NZ because I know they’d be expensive to replace.

This might sound stupid, but I hate the string of apathy that follows mass consumerism in the United States. Things that you buy are cheap and disposable, and immediately available when their predecessors are used up or broken. This “buy/throw away/replace” culture makes it so much easier for Americans to devalue personal relationships and belongings. We’re constantly looking for the next best item to buy, or significant other to pursue, or friend to hang out with and we don’t appreciate the things that we already have. Being isolated in New Zealand, far from many of the people and things that I love, has made me truly value the people, things, and experiences that I do have here. I feel like I’m living a much fuller, more valuable existence because I appreciate my life more. My morning cup of coffee is not just a drink, it’s a delicious boost of caffeine that will enhance my mood, help me settle into my morning routine, and taste awesome! My boots are not just boots, they are warm, comfortable foot-hugs that help me to easily traverse the planet! My bag is not just a bag, but a beautiful, leather container that guards my passport and money from the world and keeps my beloved sunglasses safe! So meta, New Zealand!!

That last part may be a joke, but it’s kind of true- for the rest of my life, I want to own, become close with, and seriously value a select number of personal belongings and people. I think that it’s so important to get rid of bad relationships and unnecessary belongings in order to truly value the ones that you need or love. So long are the days of buying 10 pairs of moderately cute and cheap shoes from Buffalo Exchange- I want to own the pair of my dreams, cherish them forever, and wear them to my grave! Goodbye wastefulness and apathy! Hello appreciation and love!

 

 

 

 

A long way from Quito

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17th August: Quito, Ecuador

I am currently sitting in the auditorium of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito listening to an orientation the university has prepared for us. It has been such an intricate adventure getting here and I am still recovering from it all. When I finally arrived at the Quito airport, 24 hours after I was supposed to, Juan Carlos (one of the program coordinators) picked me up and we got on an $8 bus to make our way to the old airport. We drove for about 45 minutes during the sunset through the most beautiful and grand mountain ranges I had ever seen.

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over the river and through the mountains to Quito

“Maybe all the struggles of the last day and a half were worth it for this beautiful view,” I thought to myself as the bus pulled up to the half-abandoned building. That thought was cut short when I was quickly embraced and taken by the arm to an awaiting taxi by a flustered Ecuadorian woman, my host mother.

We arrived to her house and she gave me rice and chicken (a South American staple) while I explained the events that had unfolded over the course of the last two days.

14th August: Philadelphia, United States

It all began on Monday the 14th when I started my day in Philadelphia International Airport at 6 in the morning. I was supposed to have two flights that day, which I didn’t mind much because it was cheaper and I could spend the day mentally preparing for my time abroad.

From PHL I flew to Tampa, and from Tampa I flew to Miami. I arrived in Miami ready to board my flight to Quito, Ecuador and was happy to have an hour to relax before boarding at 2:50. Unfortunately, I would learn shortly that there were different plans for myself and the other ~130 passengers.

The first curve ball that got thrown at us was that there was to be maintenance done on our first plane, so they moved us to a new gate. However, since there were no planes ready to take us where we needed to go, we had to wait a couple hours. I understand that American Airlines doesn’t just have extra planes waiting around to take people to Ecuador on a moment’s notice, so I didn’t let it get to me.

We were supposed to board the flight at 2:50, but were not able to get on the plane until 4:50.  I sat down, ready for my third and final flight to begin when the pilot announced that two people decided to get off and that we would have to wait for their luggage to be removed. I didn’t want to be bothered just yet, so instead of focusing on the setbacks I let myself fall asleep.

I was woken up by screams and flight attendants running up and down the aisle. From the angle my seat was at, I could only see the people crowding around the emergency. At one point, a crew member lifted up a blanket to give the person privacy in whatever was happening, but in my sleepy state, I really thought someone had died and they had to cover a body. Luckily that was not the case, we found out after a short while that one of the crew members was having what appeared to be a seizure or a heart attack.

I had no idea where we were, but I knew we were going to have to land to get the flight attendant to a hospital as soon as possible. We landed around 8:30 pm and learned that the crew member had a heart attack and would be taken to the hospital. We also learned that we were now in Jamaica and, after an hour of decision making, the crew began handing out customs forms. The staff had been aboard that plane since 4 am and due to certain laws, they would not be able to work any longer. We were going to stay the night in Jamaica. We were taken to a hotel near the airport and had to wait in line to get a room. Another setback was that American Airlines did not send a representative with us to help us get our rooms and most of the passengers were Ecuadorian and did not speak English. I finally got a room around 2 am and I had never been as happy to rest in an unfamiliar bed as I did that night.

We got our flight to Quito around noon and I surprisingly felt more prepared to arrive than I did the day before. If I can handle all the setbacks, twists, and turns that my first day had to offer, I feel like I can handle anything. Taking the leap to study abroad is scary and full of surprises, but I am so grateful to be where I am now. All the uncertainty I carried with me seems so irrelevant because I am living, learning, and loving my time in a new culture.

waking up in Montejo Bay, Jamaica


informing my mom that I’m a long way from Quito

Breathing Easy: Mental Health and the Kiwi Academic System

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For the entirety of my academic career, I have been a die-hard nerd. When I was little, I used to petition my dad to borrow extensive encyclopedias on animal biology for me from the library. In elementary and middle school, I took enrichment classes to plan my own independent research projects. Up until freshman year of high school, my interest in learning was just that – my own. Sadly, this changed drastically in high school when impending SAT exams and college applications began to loom. Suddenly, my interests were reduced to single items on resumes that could be cruelly analyzed by administrators; the devotion to academic toil limited to one deceivingly innocent GPA. During junior and senior year, I struggled with mental health issues and sleep deprivation, both of which were driven by the insane level of academic competitiveness of my peers and the ever-present terror of colleges that had yet to accept me. I wish that starting as a freshman at Temple helped to alleviate this ridiculous push to be a “perfect” student, but it really only worsened the situation. Immediately after accepting a position in Temple Honors, I began browsing the multitudes of courses available, challenging myself to cram a schedule with advanced material. The quest for “academic perfection” was (thankfully) thwarted spring semester of my sophomore year after suffering for weeks from study-induced anxiety attacks.

Prior to moving to New Zealand, I assumed that this crippling need for academic perfection was just the way of life for all hardworking college students. Most of my American friends at home are also guilty of over-pressuring themselves academically, so my study-induced mental health issues seemed like the norm. After two months of being a student at the University of Otago, I can confidently say that I was completely wrong. The method of study in New Zealand universities is completely different than in the United States. Rather than spending my entire day in class, rushing to extracurricular activities, and then drowning myself in studies at the library, my average day at Otago consists of one or two classes with the occasional evening or weekend extracurricular excursion. I am not expected to produce a constant supply of essays, assignments, or homeworks; my final grades for my classes are based on one or two major essays and a final exam. Instead of freaking out about what marks I’m getting on assignments, I actually enjoy the material that is presented in class and can engage in discussion. In fact, the limited length and frequency of classes encourage me to pursue course topics on my own outside of class and start essays/assignments way ahead of their due dates. Apart from attending courses and completing independent work, I have copious amounts of time for developing the types of interests that I had as a child – ones cultivated purely for the sake of enjoying something new. So far, I have taken up painting (pointilist-style, and inspired by photos from incredible hikes I’ve done on the South Island) and bikram yoga, two things that I’ve always wanted to improve at but never had the time. This relaxed schedule has essentially eliminated the mental health issues that I struggle with in the United States, as well as produced a sub-conscious motivation for me to stabilize my new found sense of inner peace and good health. Rather than scarfing down quick lunches from food trucks (no matter how tasty they are), I cook all of my own meals and spend at least a half hour eating with my flatmates. Although I ran regularly in the United States, I could never exceed past a certain level physically due to time constraints or stress. Now, I’ve been able to improve my running times and conquer farther distances.

In New Zealand, the pace of life is much slower. The “city” where I live, Dunedin, is much smaller than Philadelphia. The entire “city center” of Dunners could probably fit within Rittenhouse Square. People aren’t breaking their necks to walk to their next appointments. Shops close by 4 or 5 at the latest, and there is no threat of danger for a young person walking around alone at night. Most oddly, there is a sense of quiet throughout Dunedin – not a literal absence of sound, but lack of chaos – the type that permeates North Philadelphia so intensely. New Zealanders value mental health, personal wellbeing, and leisure time. I am a city-lover at heart, and in the United States, this seems to require a certain degree of neuroticism that is not present in New Zealand. I miss jay-walking in Center City with a piping hot La Colombe coffee in tow. I miss stuffing my face with Halal before hopping on the subway to show up mid-opener to a concert at the TLA. I oddly miss opening my windows to honking horns, shouting, and chattering neighbors- I miss the ever-pulsing heartbeat of huge East Coast cities that refuse to sleep. What I don’t miss is crying in my bedroom at 3 am because I still have a French paper to write, or hyperventilating to my mom on the phone because my anxiety is out of control. Or sleep deprivation. Or feeling like my life is completely out of control because I have stretched myself too thin.

When I leave New Zealand, I am determined to carry this newfound peace and mental stability back to the United States. Now that I am living the Kiwi lifestyle – one of increased attention to happiness, health, and peace – I refuse to let my own fixations on academic perfection and overcommitment take over my life. My new mantra is as follows: breathe deeply, sleep well, do what you love, and stay happy.

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Thursday nights, fall semester, sophomore year: stressful late-night organic chemistry study sessions

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Thursday nights in Dunedin: more free time in the evenings to do the things I love most, including Lord of the Rings movie nights with my pals.

The Soft Pretzel That Brought Me To Tears: A Tragedy

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Kia ora, friends- hello from beautiful, cold, and rainy Dunedin, New Zealand! This past weekend marked my one-month anniversary of arriving at the University of Otago, where I will be studying for the next three months. After several disastrous attempts to locate my classes during the first week, one awful bout of the flu, and much exploration of the Dunedin area, I finally feel (relatively) settled in here.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting human phenomena is memory through smell. Everyone should understand what this means: you’re casually minding your own business and enjoying your day when suddenly you’re hit with a smell (sometimes great, sometimes terrible) that reminds you of an incredibly specific occasion. Interestingly, I haven’t been experiencing homesickness in New Zealand, unless I suddenly catch a whiff of a Philadelphia-esque scent. This probably sounds bizarre, but it’s true! Here are a few scent-induced episodes of homesickness that I’ve encountered in Kiwiland:

  1. Homesickness by pretzel: a few days ago, I was on a hiking trip in Queenstown, a popular skiing village in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island. After a long day of trekking, I stopped in a bakery with a few friends to peruse the treats available and came across a beautiful SOFT PRETZEL! In all honesty, it was a lame soft pretzel compared to some of the luscious, salty, Philly-style ones at home, but it still had that incredible, pretzel-y smell that we Philadelphians adore so much. Oddly, the pretzel scent immediately caused me to recall happy memories from home and my eyes started to well up. I looked like an absolute freak and may have scared some small children out of the shop.
  2. Homesickness by melted cheese: back home, my all-time favorite Philadelphia restaurant is Parc, a French-Belgian eatery located on Rittenhouse Square. Without a doubt, the best dish there is French onion soup, which is loaded with layers of delicious, melted gruyere cheese. Last week, my flatmates and I decided to have a flat dinner of shepherd’s pie (a very common Kiwi meal), which consists of mince (ground beef), cheese, potato, and other yummy items baked in a large pan. After the shepherd’s pie came out of the oven, the layer of cheese baked onto the top smelled exactly the cheese in Parc’s soup and gave me some very nostalgic vibes.
  3. Homesickness by old books: one of my favorite childhood memories is accompanying my Dad to lots of local Philadelphia thrift shops to hunt for books and cool art. The smell associated with this experience is not particularly pleasant- it’s a combination of moldy paper, dust, and general mustiness. During my art history class this morning, we visited the Hocken Collection at the University of Otago, where many old books, paintings, and illustrations are housed. As soon as I caught a whiff of that musty old book scent, I immediately thought about my dad and started to feel pretty down.

Luckily, there are several things that I’ve discovered in New Zealand that remind me of how much I love my new home and help to reduce any homesickness I experience! Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Pineapple lumps. By far the best New Zealand candy that I have discovered so far! These consist of squishy, pineapple-flavored marshmallow coated in a thin layer of milk chocolate. Be warned Americans- most of my friends from the US who have also tried pineapple lumps think that they’re disgusting. I, however, strongly disagree!
  2. Ravensbourne track. This is a small running/walking/biking track a mile from my flat in Dunedin. It runs about 10 km down the Otago coastline, is generally empty, and has incredible views of the Otago harbor. When I run here, I feel like I am basically in a Baby Einstein “ocean sounds” video- nothing is more soothing than fresh breeze and flowing water!
  3. Ginger slice. Right by the old Dunedin railway station, there is an awesome coffee shop called “Morning Magpie” that sells all sorts of tasty coffees and pastries. However, my total favorite pastry to buy is the “ginger slice,” which is a thick, cookie base covered in ginger cream and topped with crystallized ginger chunks. Something that I definitely want to incorporate into my US snacking habits is ginger! Why don’t Americans eat more ginger?!

Although this blog post has taken several unusual turns (tears by pretzel; Baby Einstein), the general message rings true: study abroad, while filled with many excellent moments, also has its fair share of unpleasant incidents, including illness and homesickness. There was one day last week that I couldn’t drag myself out of bed because I was missing my family so much. However, these incidents are most definitely outweighed by the day-to-day discoveries and excitement that I encounter in New Zealand.

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Enjoying a caramel slice (the cousin of ginger slice) at Morning Magpie.

Missing Moroccanisms

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Missing Moroccanisms

Naturally, language was a big part of my experience studying abroad in Morocco. In Morocco, people usually learn Darija (colloquial Arabic), FusHa (classical Arabic), and French before they consider learning English. It’s for this reason that not a lot of Moroccans speak English – many have caught onto little words and phrases in English, but for the most part, my interactions with the Moroccan people were in Arabic.

Going home to an English-speaking country has been relieving in ways I cannot describe. I love the English language (obviously, as an English major), but I have never appreciated it in the way I do now. Sure, it’s tedious and its grammar rules are shoddy at best, but it’s my mother tongue, and I’ve never loved it more than I do now.

However, I also love Arabic. It’s another tough language, and there were moments in Morocco when I was too mentally exhausted to even get the words بغيت النعاس “Beghiit ann3as” (“I want to sleep”) out to my host mom. That being said, the moments where I had truly successful exchanges with Moroccans in Arabic brought me joy that would overpower this exhaustion every time. Even though I still struggle with Darija, my speaking skills in any Arabic have increased drastically since Morocco, and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to practice those skills in a real-life context.

Learning Darija was a difficult transition from FusHa, but there are a lot of expressions which I know I’ll miss using as I re-acclimate to an English-speaking country. Some of the words and expressions below exist in other dialects, but here’s some of the Arabic I’ll miss the most:

  • ساهل ماهل بحل ماء” (sahil mahil bahl maa’): This is the Moroccan equivalent of “easy peasy lemon squeezy,” but translates directly to “easy measy like water.” My host mom and I loved using these phrases with each other every day, and she often accidentally said “easy peasy lemon crazy,” which I actually prefer and plan to integrate into my English vocabulary.
  • زانزان” (zanzan): This word just means “crazy.” It’s not particularly important to Moroccan culture or language, but it’s a really fun word to say, and my classmates and I have definitely become accustomed to pointing at each other and saying “zanzan!”
  • “!يلا” (yalla!): Anyone who has studied or grown up with Arabic knows “Yalla!” It’s a pretty versatile word, but its main meaning is “let’s go!” – The connotation can vary, though. Sometimes it’s out of frustration, like when my host mom is prodding my host brother to hurry up and eat. Sometimes it’s out of camaraderie, like when someone asks the students in my program to go somewhere together.
  • لابس؟ لابس” (labess? labess.): This by far my favorite Moroccan expression. “Labess?” means “Are you fine?” and the response, “Labess,” means “I’m fine.” I like this a lot because it’s a good way to check in with people, but I like it even more because it forces me to give myself a reality check. On rough days, when someone asks me “Labess?” I check myself and realize that ultimately, I’m fine. Even if I’m not feeling 100%, I’m still fine. It’s a reminder that even when I’m not feeling my best, everything is okay.

I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to learn Arabic, stay with a host family, and explore Morocco this summer – and I’m even happier that you all followed me along by reading this blog. Next time you see me, feel free to ask me: Labess?

!شكراً بزاف وبسلامة (Shukran bzaaf lqra’a wabslaama!) Thanks for reading and goodbye!

Saharan Existentialism

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Saharan Existentialism

This past weekend, some of the students in my program took a trip out to the Sahara Desert. This trip was the singular thing I was most looking forward to during my time in Morocco, and it completely surpassed my expectations. I have never seen anything so strange and so beautiful.

I could write for hours about the beauty of the Sahara, but I’m more interested in the impressions it gave me about my role (and the human race’s role) in this world. I know I’m getting into some lofty philosophy, but spending time in the desert really caused me to reflect.

After we had dismounted our camels, our guides led us up one of the taller dunes so that we had a nice view for the oncoming sunset. As we were walking up, one guide suggested that we write our names in the sand and take a picture. We did, then continued walking and sat down at the peak, settling in for the sunset.

As we sat on the peak, we took pictures and enjoyed the gorgeous landscape around us, but I constantly found myself returning to look for my name in the distance – was it still there? Once it had completely disappeared, I started monitoring our footprints up the dune. How long would it take the wind to wipe them away?

Most people know this, but the desert is vast. From our little dune, we could see hundreds more, and hundreds exist beyond the ones that we could see. I felt so small on that peak, and I felt so frustrated that I couldn’t view the desert from every other dune I saw – there’s not enough time to climb them all. And the Sahara isn’t even the only desert. There’s hundreds more like the Gobi, Namib, and Mojave. There’s even deserts on Mars. No singular person could ever explore every desert so thoroughly.

And this brings me to the existentialism I encountered during my time in the desert. I have always been someone who wants to do big things, see all there is to see, and go down in the history books. Although I still retain these desires, I realized their futility in the grand scheme of things while sitting on that peak. Chasing my goals is something I love, but the usual crushing pressure of achieving success slipped away.

I want to do what I can do and see what I can see while I’m here, but I think it’s healthy to remember that success is not the end-all-be-all. Ultimately, whatever we do on this planet will gradually wear away, just like my name in the sand and our footsteps up the dune. In the scheme of the universe, the human race will likely do very little to affect change on a scale past ourselves. We are all sitting together on one tiny dune in a vast desert.

Sometimes, this kind of meaninglessness can be crushing, but I see it as freeing. Some people live their whole lives trying to make a mark that the winds will blow away not long after it’s made. So forget the mark. Forget your legacy. Instead, spend your time doing things that you love. Help others. Explore what interests you. Don’t spend your time trying to carve your name so deeply into the sand that it won’t disappear – spend your time enjoying the view, laughing with friends, and exploring your world.

Head-First and Hands-On

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Head-First and Hands-On

I have a lot to say in favor of trying new things. When I was little, I often succumbed to the “If I haven’t tried it, I don’t like it” mentality, which is totally bananas and doesn’t make any sense. Luckily, I’ve grown a lot since then, and trying new things is my favorite thing. My program organizes a lot of excursions and programs in which we have the opportunity to explore Moroccan culture through participation, and I’m usually one of the first to volunteer when it comes time to try it ourselves. I always get this dumb, slack-jawed grin on my face when trying a new activity, and my classmates think it’s absolutely hilarious, but it’s truly just because I’m having a great time.

Let’s start with a good old fashioned flashback: I mentioned that when I was little, I didn’t try a lot. What I didn’t mention is that when it came to manners, I was polite to a fault. My best friend lived next door, and I would go over her house constantly. Her parents would often offer me food that I would typically refuse at my house – but this wasn’t my house. These weren’t my parents! I couldn’t just say no! I vividly remember my most adventurous moment as trying sushi and regretting it later when I felt sick, but no matter what, I always tried new things next door.

A lot of things in my life have changed since, but this is by no means one of them. If you offer me food and you’re not blood-related, odds are that I’ll eat that food no matter what. This has been especially true in Morocco, where my host mom sometimes serves dishes with names I can’t pronounce, never mind ingredients that I can’t recognize. But true to form, I’ll never say no. So this summer, I’ve eaten some new things like fish roe patties, shark, and snails. Among the tamer things I’ve tried have been figs, apricots, dates, olives, and tomatoes. I mention tomatoes in particular because I’ve hated them all my life – they’re just evil, seedy juice machines waiting to ruin my burger. But because my politeness has translated into adventurousness, I’ve actually found that they’re pretty good!

In my program, we’ve tried a lot of new activities so far: throwing pottery, playing a gimbrie (a rectangular bass lute) in traditional Gnawa music, bellydancing, calligraphy, and more. Everything has been a blast, and I’m so glad that I have the opportunity to embrace these experiences. I’ve jumped head-first into Moroccan culture and am exploring it in a very hands-on way, which has been incredible. I could tell you about the history of Gnawa music, the composition of a gimbrie, or how long it takes to make a tajine all because I’ve had the chance to participate in this culture.

That being said, there’s a lot to consider about comfort. It’s taken me over a month to learn that study abroad, particularly in a non-Western country, is not a non-stop rainbow fun joy ride. There are some really hard days where I would kill for any of the following:

  • not to wear shoes in the bathroom
  • to see one sign in English
  • a burger
  • to wear shorts and a tank top
  • air conditioning
  • a hug from my mom

If you’re studying abroad, no one’s going to tell you about missing the familiarity of home. Everyone will just be excited for you and tell you that you’ll have a great time, and you’ll believe it. You might be like me, and believe that every single moment of studying abroad will be perfect. It won’t be. Sometimes I feel like I’ll be sick if I see another olive. There will be days when pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone isn’t fun, but exhausting. There will be days when nothing is familiar. There will be days where you feel guilty because isn’t everything about studying abroad supposed to be perfect?

Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is hard, for sure, but it’s definitely worth it. By doing so, I have learned so much. On a hard day, a good friend reminded me: growth doesn’t come from comfort. So push yourself. Explore more, do more. You’ll never grow if you’re never uncomfortable.

Below are some pictures of me and the students in my program learning about the Moroccan culture and trying new things like cooking classes, calligraphy, and throwing pottery!