May 2012 Archives

Play ball!

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Between goodbye parties and last minute packing, I had the chance to go to my very baseball game ever!

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Nagoya's baseball team is the Chunichi Dragons, and the city is very supportive of their baseball team. After spending an entire semester living close to Nagoya Dome and seeing fans everywhere, my interest in baseball was admittedly piqued. Baseball is a big deal in Japan, with roots dating back before World War II, so who was I to ignore tradition? I expressed an interest in going to my host parents this semester after seeing my host brother obsess over them (he knows all the starting batters and players. All of them.) and seeing merchandise around the house. As a gift to me, my host mother and sister and I all went to a game.

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We got pretty decent seats, not too into the crowd, so we weren't surrounded by screaming people or anything, but it was still insanely loud and noisy. We were in the bleachers that were closer to the opposing team, the Lions, and every time the Lions were at bat, we had crazy fans screaming around us, and then cursing loudly when the Dragons were at bat.

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I have only a vague understanding of baseball, but I pick up quite quickly. The beginning of the game was pretty uneventful and even disappointing, as the Lions managed to get in a good homerun, but the Dragons pulled in after the 7th inning and we left by the end of the 8th with Dragons pulling in 5 more runs, which was amazing. There was a lot of screaming and cheering at that point, from me included.

As baseball games go, that one was pretty fun. I got a grasp on some of the main players in the Dragons, and I'm definitely excited to see more, American or Japanese, regardless, though it was more fun here to see people bring out their bento boxes and sushi and buy Japanese beer. Baseball is a fun game to watch and the attitude of the crowd is infectious. Now all I need to do is learn all of the Dragon cheers and I'll be ready for another round.

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By the by, Dragons won 6-2! Good game!

Shoveling the bus out of...sand?

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G'day Mates

 

The next two days were spent at my favorite destination: Coral Bay and Ningaloo Reef. This area is home to one of the largest and most diverse reefs on the western coast of Australia. Coral bay offers a variety of activities such as riding ATV's along the coast and through the desert, snorkeling with diverse wildlife on a glass bottom boat, and even swimming with whale sharks. While some of our group chose the latter, I decided to take the glass bottom boat tour. Funny thing about choosing this tour is that I almost didn't get a chance to go on it.

 

Since our tour started at noon, our fearless leader Craig decided he wanted to take the bus out for an adventure on some ATV trails. He had never been out there so he wanted to take a look. Having plenty of time, a group of us went along for the ride. About 10 miles out we enter the course and it is pretty rough. The bus had to climb some large boulders and bounce along a bumpy, rocky road. The path took us to a deserted coastal access road. We round a corner and find ourselves sliding down a very steep sand dune toward the water. We are well short of the coast but we find ourselves stuck in about 2 feet of sand. For about two hours we try desperately to push the bus free but without any luck. In this situation we found out a very true Australian cultural value. When Australians are stuck in a situation where they need help, they would rather die than call someone to come and get them. And that's pretty much what we did. It was a searing 105 degree day and the flies were hungry. Eventually Craig did call but since it was Easter weekend, no one answered. After about a half hour, we finally got the bus out by ripping out bushes and placing them under the tires (sorry Mother Nature). With minutes to spare we made it to the boat for our afternoon trip. As Nick always says "It's not the times you are lounging around on the beach or eating a fancy meal that you remember, it's always the times that things go wrong which make which make the best stories."

 

Exhausted from pushing a bus all day, we finally got to relax, feel the cool breeze, and see some amazing things on our glass boat tour. Almost like watching TV, the glass bottom boat provided a clear image of the ocean below as turtles, sea cucumbers, and even a shark appeared beneath the glass. The boat had an upper deck which was perfect for getting a good view of the wild life. At one point we got to go snorkeling in an area known for sharks, and yes, I did swim with a shark! I don't think I will ever forget the feeling of swimming near something you know has the power to kill you and yet is so hard to take your eyes off of. It was an incredible experience that words cannot describe. This is the kind of thing I've always dreamed of doing and it was why I wanted to come to Australia. This day was one of the most action-packed days of my life, experiencing up and downs and sharks along the way. 


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Nurse Shark

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Sea Turtle

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Captain Andrew at the helm

Why's everybody always sittin' on me?

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G'day Mates

 

Day Three on my adventure was spent at Monkey Mia (I don't know where the name came from, there were no monkeys). Still weary from the previous day, I arrived at Monkey Mia, a local vacation destination with various activities. At Monkey Mia an amazing natural occurrence takes place every morning. Wild dolphins come to shore on their own free will and accept fish from the local zoologists. It was quite a site to see half a dozen or so dolphins glide up to shore and slowly swim back and forth, obviously showing off to gain everyone's attention. The zoologists made it clear that they could only feed the dolphins one fish a day and have minimal contact with them in order for the dolphins to remain self reliant in the wild.

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Dolphins at Monkey Mia

 

After the dolphin feeding there were many activities to choose from. I chose to take a boat cruise on the ARISTOCRAT 2 to view the aquatic life. After Nick and I helped raise the sail (kind of), we were able to see dugongs, sea turtles, and the crowd favorite dolphins. The Dolphins came right up to the front of the boat and swam in front of the bow like something out of a movie. There was also a net behind the boat which I road in. It had a tendency to knock off various items of swimwear and I'll have you know that I was a victim as well. After a freeing ride in the net, we docked back at Monkey Mia.

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Nick and I hard at work

 

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Titanic starring Jeff and Andrew

Later that afternoon we visited various landmarks such as Eagles Bluff and Shell beach. Eagles bluff provided an amazing view of the cliffs lining the Indian Ocean. Shell beach, as the name conveys, is a beach made completely of tiny shells. Our scare of the day is when we were greeted by a friendly water snake, which from what I've heard is one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. The funny thing is its teeth are so far down its throat, a bite would have no effect unless it swallowed your whole hand.

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A sand bar made entirely out of shells. It extended about 500 yards into the middle of the ocean.

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View from Eagle's Bluff

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The Men

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Our evening was finished off with cards, some delicious stir fry and an evening of star gazing out on the Jetty. 

Summer 2012 Cohort

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There will be 6 students GeoBlogging during the Summer 2012 semester. Below is a list of their names with links to their individual GeoBlog and the Education Abroad program in which they are enrolled.

Caribbean

Student GeoBlog Education Abroad Program
Ryan Brown Jamaica: Island Sustainability

Europe

Student GeoBlog Education Abroad Program
Nadine Gaynor Florence: The World of Business and Italian Culture
Abigail Hudak Marburg: Philipps University
Raquel Phillips HDFS: Rome
Anastasiya Shpakova Pforzheim University

North America

Student GeoBlog Education Abroad Program
Reva Baylets CIC: Quebec, Laval University

The Day of the Dinosaur/Dragon

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A personal dream and goal of mine has been to buy a kigurumi in Japan. Basically, it's like a huge costume of a stuffed animal toy, but warm, comfortable, and generally fun to waddle around in. Way back in Tokyo, my friend Steff and I both finally got to accomplish our goals; we chose tiger and dinosaur. Or dragon, as some people think that my costume could be either.

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A little while ago, we had the goodbye party for our Japanese class, and who were we to resist dressing up a little bit and causing general discomfort for Japan for the day? Riding the train and subway to school got me stares and general giggles. Being on campus in the outfit was another story altogether.

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It was basically as if Steff and I were walking to and from class naked, that was the amount of attention and stares we received. Students actually stopped in their tracks to watch us go past, others were bold enough to wave and tell us how cute we were. Another boy actually followed us from the cafeteria to the convenience store on campus to ask us what exactly we were up to (and ended the conversation by urging us to watch anime, of all things). The oddest occurrence of all, however, was being stopped by Nanzan's fashion club and being submitted to a tiny photoshoot because apparently, they saw our get-ups as "fashionable."

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I had also decided to top off my ridiculousness by being as outlandish as possible, toting around aviator sunglasses, bright yellow star headphones, and a robot bag. Some could potentially argue that I was being bold. I would answer by saying I was wearing pajamas and resembling a clown. As it turns out, we're going to be included in the next fashion magazine. Lucky us!

Despite it being generally far too warm to wear a fleece bodysuit and enduring far more attention than I thought was possible for an entire day, it was actually almost refreshing to finally have Japanese students find strength in our boldness to actually approach us. My host mother even showed me off to my host father because she thought I looked hilarious. I can now say that after parading around Japan dressed as a dinosaur, there's not much left for me to do that will potentially harm my dignity. I have done the ridiculous, and I did it with swagger.

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Bo-Kaap

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For our final group outing, our RA's took us to the region of Bo-Kaap in the city.

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 Its right up the street from the business district and as you can see it's pretty hard to miss.

Bo-Kaap houses

This area holds much historical value to South Africa. Bo-kaap is a Muslim community consisting of generations of descendents of former slaves brought from eastern Africa to serve the Portuguese rest stop in southern Africa. With their many interactions with different people and languages in Southern Africa, the slaves formed the language which is now known as Afrikaans.  I learned from the people of Bo-kaap that their ancestors were also imprisoned at Robben Island long before it was used as a prison during the time of Apartheid. I enjoyed their welcome and felt their sense of community and it shows through their day to day life. Food, music, and color are a big part of their community. Most of all I enjoyed all their spices and amazing SAMOSAS!!!!

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I have literally eaten my body weight in samosas and potato balls!!! I plan on buying about 6 packets of masala spices and samosas spices to bring home. Every year the people continue a tradition started by the slave ancestors where they put colorful cloth over their clothes to not be recognized and sing songs about their owners. Now it has become a huge competition in Bo-Kaap where hundreds of band collectively consisting of thousands of people come together and compete. 

Bo-Kaap Houses

Imani charnan and I

Tiramisu!

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Today my professor came over to our apartment for our first Italian cooking lesson & we made  chocolate tiramisu (which was DELICIOUS). At first I was a little apprehensive because we weren't using expresso or raw eggs like you're supposed to, but it ended up being great anyway so I didn't mind. We split into two groups of 7 and made two batches of tiramisu. (I think my group made the better batch! lol)We watched a movie about the Medici family from Florence after we finished making it so we could put it in the fridge for it to set  for a few hours. 

Here's the recipe we used!

Semi-Classic Tiramisu

 

Prep Time: 30 Minutes
Cook Time: 30 Minutes
Ready In: 2 Hours
Servings: 12


INGREDIENTS:
4 eggs, separated (eggs MUST be refrigerated)
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2/3 cup whole milk
2 packages mascarpone cheese (250 grams)
1 (300 grams) package ladyfingers (Savoiardi)
3 cups espresso (or chocolate milk)
 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder,
for dusting

DIRECTIONS:
1.Combine egg yolks, milk, and sugar in the top of a double boiler, over boiling water. Reduce heat to low, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and whip yolks until thick and lemon colored.
2.Add mascarpone to whipped yolks. Beat until combined. Put in the refrigerator to cool. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whip egg whites to stiff peaks. Gently fold into yolk mixture and set aside.
3.Dip the lady fingers in either the espresso or the chocolate milk, and line the bottom and sides of a large glass bowl. Spoon half of the egg filling over the lady fingers. Repeat ladyfingers and filling layers. Garnish with cocoa. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.

And here are some photos of the finished product!

My group's tiramisu
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Tiramisu showdown!
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Ciao for now!

Oh, but the pitter-patter of tiny feet...

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In Japan, it's fairly common to see huge packs of elementary school kids stomping about in waves of little matching yellow hats and loud yelling. The other day, my JR train was hit with such an attack, filling almost all 6 cars. Despite how adorable and precious kids are, I went out of my way to pick the one least swarming with the tiny little hooligans.

As luck would have it, I picked the train car with the bathroom, which is apparently a course of neverending amusement to kids that age who are on a fieldtrip, but still, only 15 or so kids were in the car, I assumed I could deal. I stood by the doors, reading away, but the second to last stop before my own ended up emptying out the seats nearby. The children rushed to grab them before I did, leaving me standing behind a seat of 4 kids attempting to get into a seat meant for two, and even more tiny bodies crowded around me. All of them were starting to give me curious looks.

Eventually, two girls in the seat were bold enough to catch my eye. Both bowed their head in greeting, and I returned the gesture with a smile. They continue staring, leaning in as close as the back of a train seat would allow. Finally, I say hello, earning a gasp from both of them, the shyer one muttering "Oh, she can speak Japanese...?"

The tide was broken. The unspoken rule of not speaking to the foreigner smashed. The gaggle of boys joined in the conversation, as did the students seated across from me. Where are you from? How long have you been here? They threw out all the American phrases they knew (which, for I'm sorry, thank you, hello, how are you, and it's nice to meet you, wasn't half bad. I told them as such.) I threw some back: what year are you guys, are you guys going to school? How're your English studies coming along?

The rest of the passengers of the train are actually watching me, listening and half-smiling to themselves as I'm bantering with the kids. I still can't tell if they were testing me or simply amused.

One particular boy was particularly sure of himself, walking up to me to ask me my favorite and least favorite foods.

"Ramen."
"Hmm. And least favorite?"
"Natto." "Natto?! I. Love. Natto."

To which I protested that it was terrible amongst the laughter of his friends. They were excited when we reach the final station and I tell them I'm getting off as well. As I finally turn, they see some of the One Piece keychains on my bag. The same Nattoboy is apparently a fan as well. As his peers start tugging curiously at parts of my bag, he asks me who my favorite character is. Turns out we like the same guy; he was pretty excited about that.

As we walked through the ticket booths at Kozoji, I turned to go my own way, seeing the childrens' teachers and not wanting to be a bother. Immediately, a roar of "BYE BYE" washes over me as I walk off. I'm half-way down the station and they're still yelling my way. It seemed that everyone wanted me to turn around and wave at them. I certainly gave it my best.

It was this sort of curious, inquisitive attitude of children that, in all honesty, is saving Japan. You see many older folks glare foreigners down, half-wishing you weren't there. Then you have kids, who are bursting with questions, wondering where you're from, excited to use the handful of English they know on you.

If they can keep that sort of attitude into the next generation, and the next, then Japan surely has a chance of finally opening up and remembering that the rest of the world is not as monogamous as theirs. While at the same time, with a smile and a friendly conversation, one can see that perhaps we're not so different after all.

Do you have a story to tell?

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The Penn State Education Abroad Office, in partnership with State College magazine, is excited to announce the inaugural Penn State Study Abroad Writing Contest. The winner of this contest will be published in the October 2012 issue of State College magazine. This is an excellent opportunity to communicate your experiences to a broad audience and be published in a professional magazine.

As GeoBloggers, I know that you all have an interest in expressing yourselves and your time abroad through writing. This contest is a chance for you to channel your international experience into a creative outlet. 

Click here for more details and to find out how to enter!

Pictures from the Countries I've Visited

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Hello everyone! Since my pictures on my last posting didn't work. Here is a post of just pictures I've had from the countries I've visited! Enjoy!

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Florence, Italy

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Rome, Italy
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Amalfi Coast, Italy

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Barcelona, Spain

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

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London, Great Britain

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Munich, Germany

Two Months Until Germany!

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Hi Readers!

My name is Abby Hudak, and I am an upcoming Junior at Penn State University. I'm majoring in Secondary Education English, with a minor in German.... which is why I will be studying abroad to Germany in July! I am sooo excited to travel to Phillips University in Marburg, Germany - I've never been out of the country before!

With every new experience, however, comes the nerves. Although I studied German all through high school and throughout 4 semesters of college, I would still not say that I am entirely confident with my speaking abilities. I can understand what is said if they speak somewhat slowly, but I'm always worried I won't say the right thing back. I'm nervous to speak the language, and I really hope I can overcome that during my stay in Germany - especially because almost all Germans know English, it would be way too tempting to take the easy way out and use English.

Another goal I'd like to accomplish would be trying new foods. I've always thought German foods were gross, but I would like to be open-minded while abroad. Along with beer. Haha my dad told me I have to go buy a beer from McDonald's while I'm there. He thinks it's funny they sell it there.

Until then, I'm just counting down the days!


Some good advice: Don't get injured while abroad.

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My advice for your time abroad? Don't get injured... and use your time efficiently!

I currently have 9 days left in Wollongong. I had plans to go to Sydney this weekend or to hike Royal National Park. I'd hoped to go see the sunrise during my last week here. I'd planned to walk around town taking pictures so I could have visuals of Wollongong to show my family and friends as I told them stories. I was going to get out and check things off my bucket list that I'd left for the last minute.

Then I fell down. Hard.

What happened is embarrassing, I'll admit it. I've never been one to engage in physical activity and running has never been my favorite way to keep in shape, but I didn't think I was that bad at it. I was just casually running in town on my way to the gym and I had just been contemplating how uneven the sidewalk was. "It'd be pretty easy to trip," I told myself. 30 seconds I was flat on the ground iPod and water bottle scattered around me wondering what just happened. Sure enough, I'd tripped on some uneven pavement and made contact with the hard ground not only with my knees and palms but also my face. I suffered two horribly bloody knees and some rock splinters in my hands. Thankfully, I only slightly bruised my right cheek and it's not noticeable. I accepted a ride from a strange man in a beat up truck because I was unable to make the walk back to my dorm. I think he was silently praying the whole way that I didn't bleed on his seat.

I didn't have to go to the hospital and my RA's first aid kit was sufficient for bandaging up my knees, but walking is still a challenge even 3 days later (it's more like a waddle). I wasn't able to make it to class the next day as the bus stop is just way too far away and the pain was unbearable. I had a final essay due today, but thanks to my understanding and sympathetic teacher, I was granted a three day extension. Unfortunately, I have another essay due next Friday as well so I've been having to suck it up and force myself to focus.

All in all, it's just been really disappointing to have this happen. This weekend was my last weekend to really do fun things before the final exams/essays and packing take over my life. I wish I'd gone out and explored while it was warmer and I was more agile. I'm thankful nothing more horrible happened in my time abroad, though it'd be great if everything had gone just peachy the entire time.

Overall, I'd just like to offer this lesson learned:
  • Utilize every second and don't waste time. Do what you want to do and do it early. You never know what might happen and the you don't want to leave your semester feeling like you didn't achieve all that you wanted to.
  • Bad things really can happen. My injury wasn't the worst thing that could have happened to me while I was in Wollongong, but it did happen.
  • Always keep your phone on you. Or at least memorize people's numbers. Or hope there are some really kind strangers around.
  • STAY SAFE!

Oh Italy!

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As of today I have been in Italy for 17 days (Wow! It doesn't even seem like it's been that long). I am staying in a neighborhood called Trastevere in Rome where I live with 14 other girls at the Santa Maria in Capella apartments. So much has happened in the past two and a half weeks, I don't even know where to begin! 

When I first got to Rome, so many places reminded me of New York City, and it didn't really feel like I was in Italy for a while. I'm still not exactly sure when it hit me, but now I have fallen in love with this country. During the second week of my program, we had a field trip to Venice and Florence. After Florence, I went to Cinque Terre with two of the other girls in the program. That was probably one of the best weeks of my life. In Venice, we rode on a gondola across the Grand Canal and bought Venetian paper mache' carnival masks. In Florence we bought leather purses and bags from the leather markets, saw the David at the Accademia and visited the Duomo during our walking tour of the city. In Cinque Terre (which means "five lands") we hiked through the 5 towns on the coast and watched the sun set as we lay out on the rocks by the water. At the end of the week, I couldn't wait to get back to Rome because I truly missed it.

The third week of my program is coming to an end already and before you know it I'll be back at home in the Bronx. I'm trying to enjoy this experience as much as I can while still managing to stay on top of my work. This past week the work load was pretty heavy, but I've gotten through it. Our readings and papers for class coincide with our many field trips, so it's really interesting to be able to apply what we've learned from our readings when we see the historic monuments in person. Last night we had a reading about the Di Veroli family, who lived in Rome's Jewish ghetto and today we took a field trip to visit the Jewish ghetto. While we were there, we actually saw the site where Umberto Di Veroli had his shop in Italy sho many years ago.

Rome has become my home away from home. I will continue to gorge myself on pizza, pasta and gelato as much as I can until it's time for me to say arrivederci to this place. Here are some of the amazing pictures I've taken so far.

Sunset in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

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Hiking in Cinque Terre

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Water in Cinque Terre

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Color replica of the David

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The Duomo

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Florence

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Grand Canal

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Venetian Carnival Masks

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Inside the Colosseum

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Home Sick

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As the semester is coming to an end I am starting to realize how much I miss the states and my family and how much more I think about them. I guess this is normal because looking back at the two weeks before coming to Cape Town I was so excited to leave the states and start my adventures abroad. Now I am so excited to go home to my life back home. I think I'm more excited to see how I've changed and how Cape Town has changed me. I can see a little bit of it but I feel like I will see the full effect of it back home. Also it's weird how my love for America and home has grown since being here and it's nothing again here but I guess I just appreciate more what I have back at home. I've grown to accept and appreciate cape town but I doing that I have grown in appreciation for the states as well. I'm trying to continue to enjoy the short time I have here but it's becoming harder to focus on Cape Town the closer I get to the end.I've planned some events in the last two weeks that I still want to do in Cape Town so I can have no regrets about not doing as much as I wanted to do because this is an amazing experience.

Career Day

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It's funny how the things that we take for granted and think is mundane can be life changing and innovative to others. The career day we put together for the children at the Ark was just that. So many children expressed what they wanted to become but didn't know what to do to get there so we decided to bring together a few professionals (radio presenters, opera singer, teacher, lawyer, veterinarian and news reporter) to tell them about their stories and what it took and takes to become a professional in their field. 

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For an event we thought was so simple and small, it had a big impact on the children more than we all could have ever thought possible.  At the end of my trip I can honestly say that this was the best time I have had in Cape Town because my time with those children changed my life. It was the best gift I could have gotten from this Trip.

NINJA フェスタ

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More on a whim than anything else, a friend and I made our way down to Mie prefecture a while ago to a small city/town of Iga. It truly was the backwoods of Japan, but we weren't there to sight-see, we came for the Ninja Festival! 

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Ninja Festa is a month-long event held in the town whose citizens believe their ancestors are ninjas. We toured a ninja house, complete with secret doors and booby traps, wandered a bamboo forest, and even saw a beautiful castle that had wonderful sakura in bloom.

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On top of everything, the cost of the entrance into the festival came included with full ninja-garb! Needless to say, that was truly the highlight and big draw of the event. We also got to see a full demonstration of ninja weapons and a showcase of some fighting techniques. Pretty cool.

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It was a lot of fun to just wander about a small city dressed as a ninja, even if, due to some of the rain that day, participation of other Japanese people was quite scarce. Truly, it seemed that us and a small group of other foreigners were the only ones dressed up. More than one person stopped to take a picture of us out of amusement.

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Getting there and back wasn't nearly as fun, however. JR and Kintetsu lines run to where we wanted to go, but not all the trains came as often as what i'm used to, nor were some of the trains as new and well-kept as Nagoya. It was quite a change and an interesting experience to finally get out and travel the less populated, more rural Japan. That being said, I was happy to be back in Nagoya at the end of the day, albeit in regular clothes.

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It was bound to happen

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Japan is known for it's high suicide rates. For people jumping from buildings to the point that suicide nets are installed, to shoulder-high railings being installed at stations to prevent jumpers. To the point that they have a word for "death by overwork" called Karoshi, or 過労死.

While many of my courses have touched on this, including my politics and culture class, I've never really heard about anything of the sort in recent news or from actual Japanese people.

Cue me attempting to go home one night around 11:30 PM. The usual ticker for train times was empty. All we had instead was a brief message reporting a delay, showing a map of where the delay was, and that a single person had had a "train accident." The accident had occurred at 3:40 PM. No trains had been running to Nagoya from that station all day, and the trains taking people the other way (the way I was going) came perhaps once an hour, if not less. 

I was lucky and managed to catch the very last train of the night, having only waited 15 minutes or so. My friend, going home around 5:00 the same day, was not so lucky, and ended up waiting an hour for a single, extremely packed train to take her home.

As I waited, people paid the information ticker little mind. They didn't even seem affected by it. They called friends, they perhaps left to arrange another means of returning home, but all in all, it was a fairly relaxed atmosphere. It wasn't until I finally got home that my host mother confirmed what I had been thinking all the while. Or rather, what she didn't say and didn't feel comfortable discussing.

While the death may have been put under "accident," the likelihood that it was someone jumping in front of a train were extremely likely. Earlier that day, a single nameless person most likely committed suicide on the tracks. And the result was delays for hours and a tiny blip on an information ticker.

It's been a while since I had such a sobering moment. This sort of thing would have made headlines at home; here, it's just a snag in the daily routine. Just as it's been a while since I had that even subtle reminder that Japan, beneath its salary-men and heavily organized way of life, can be just as flawed as any other country.

Pre-birthday party party

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A little under 2 weeks from now it will be my 20th birthday. Since I can remember my family has always done cake and icecream for birthdays. No matter where we are, from my parents in Iraq to my older brother at school we always find a way to sing happy birthday and get them a little treat to show how much we love them. It's a family tradition.

Even when you know it's coming you are always excited, you always smile and you occasionally laugh if the fire alarm gets set off because of the number of candles on the cake.

This year I thought I was going to miss that, the off key singing, the silly gifts and reading the cards out loud. All of it. 

But my mum was having none of that. So a few days ago (just a little early) I opened an unexpected box from home containing a homemade, shrink wrapped cake, a can of icing, party hats and cards.

My mum had sent me my birthday all the way from the U.S. A little ahead of schedule because she thought it would take much longer to get here. But it had to be the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me for my birthday.

So I iced it up with my friends, who were quite excited for some homemade cake, and had a mini pre-birthday party party.


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Best early birthday gift ever. 

Back to nature

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Three other IES trips were a bit more oriented towards nature. After Hiroshima, our next stop was Miyajima, an island not too far from the city.

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And here is the red gate in low tide:

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In addition to being able to recreate some Tony Stark action while on top of the mountains, I also got to see the world's largest rice paddle!

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Hands down, it was one of my favorite trips with IES so far. It's a secluded island, mountainous, with plenty of wild deer, a rope-way up the mountains and a beautiful red gate and Itsukushima shrine. Since the trip was 3 days, we got to spend a night on the island, indulge in some onsens, and eat the snack of the region, momiji, which are insanely addicting and extremely delicious.

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With nice sunny weather and beautiful Japanese nature around us, it was a fun trip!

A little later, just in time for cherry blossom season, we headed out to Nara! Nara is mostly known for having massive amounts of deer, which are wild and roam free wherever they like. Deer are considered messengers of the god, so they are not allowed to be harmed or killed.

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There was also Todai-ji, the biggest wooden Buddhist temple complex in Japan, which houses the world's largest Buddha. Pretty cool!

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The next day, we went to Yoshino, which is another mountainous area known for its huge area of cherry blossom trees. Unfortunately, due to recent chill, none of the trees had bloomed yet, which was disappointing, but there was plenty of sights to see and cherry blossom (sakura) themed souvenirs and food products as well! This included sakura noodles, alcohol, and even ice cream!

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And thus ended our IES trips. They were all a blast, and definitely worth going to every single one! They really let us explore the side of traditional Japan, rather than the world of high-tech gadgets and such. Truly a breath of fresh air, metaphorically and physically.


The Beginning Of My 6 Weeks In Florence

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I have now officially been in Italy for 11 days and it honestly feels like a dream.  I flew into Venice a week before my program started with mom and we stayed there for 4 days before coming to Florence where I will stay for the rest of the summer. 


Venice was absolutely beautiful. Not just because of the river roads with gondolas and water taxis, but all of the architecture is so different from what we have in America. Our room at the quaint bed and breakfast that we stayed at was small but had beautiful wall paper and furnishings. 


IMG_2605.JPGThere are a lot of tourists in both cities and I've found that the people in Venice and Florence so far have mostly been friendly.  It seems like almost everybody speaks at least a little bit of English. I hoped that I would be able to speak Italian a lot while here because I have been taking Italian classes for the last 3 semesters at Penn State and I was hoping to improve.  Now that I'm here though I've found that it's very intimidating to try to speak Italian when the locals who either speak too fast or recognize that you're American and just answer you in English. 

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Now that I've been here for a little over a week I feel like I really am starting to learn my way around the city. It was especially helpful arriving before the other students because I was able to lead some of them around  to different places. I was nervous that I would get lost but it is already starting to feel like home here and all of my roommates are very nice. We did not find out who we would be living with or what our classes are until we arrived here but I ended up living in a building that houses only students from my school which is a lot of fun.

I start classes this week and I'm looking forward to meeting my professors and seeing how my classes are going to be in another country.

 

Ciao!

Waiting Anticipation

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When I begin packing for a trip, whether it's for a summer long job or an extended weekend at a friend's house, I always forget either toothpaste, contact solution, or sunscreen. Generally, I'm a highly organized person, but there's just something about the frantic (yet fabulous) fray surrounding an anticipated trip that makes me absent-minded enough to forget at least one key item. However, I'm determined to not leave for Québec City without having everything I need for a successful trip (while still leaving plenty of space to bring a few souvenirs back).

"Why Canada?" you might ask. Well, for starters, I've never been to Canada and I think it's time I get around to visiting our neighbors up North! I'm excited to see other parts of North America and hopefully get to experience some of the Canadian countryside as well.

            Secondly, I have a passion for learning French; however, even after 18 college credits and several years in high school, I still am not fluent in the language. As a Comparative Literature major in an integrated five year B.A./M.A. program, French is my secondary language and one of my minors so I'm really eager to gain fluency.  In comparative literature, we talk a lot about differences in global contacts in regards to culture, language, literature, and society. My major interests in comparative literature focus on power dynamics and normative systems within cultural contexts as well as the different ways individuals can positively transgress these boundaries. I hope to gain a better global understanding while abroad in addition to expanding on my ability to effectively communicate in French.

I'm also pursuing a B.A. in Women's Studies with a minor in Gender & Sexuality Studies so I have interests in understanding different cultural understandings of gender and sexuality. My undergraduate thesis was titled: "Rethinking Rigidity: Fluid Genders, Liquid Identities," and I'm invested in expanding my knowledge in this area of study. While abroad, I want to learn more about gender and sexuality, either by exploring the educational resources available or finding the groups that are supportive of sexually diverse peoples. It's interesting how culture can influence those parts of our identities so much; I want to see firsthand how Canadian gender dynamics function and the different expressions of sexuality that exist outside of American contexts. 

I leave for Canada on June 28. Roughly five weeks away and already, my stomach is full of anticipation! My excitement has manifested in daydreaming and excessive planning: I've booked my flight, paid for my tuition, and bought tickets for the epic 10 day music festival in July.

Just today, I began to make a list of things I want to bring:

        • Toothpaste: Check.
        • Contact solution: Check.

And yes, I even remembered to order sunscreen online.

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Always, Reva

 

We shall not repeat the evil

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Let me say this now; Japan's bullet train is amazing. Super fast, super high-tech, and moving like an airplane attached to the ground. We took a shinkansen up to Hiroshima, passing through Osaka and Kyoto. What would have taken over 5 hours by car took only 2 hours by bullet train. One of those things that you absolutely have to experience in Japan. Check!

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The biggest purpose of our trip was to visit the various peace and war memorials in Hiroshima. That included the Peace Memorial Museum, the A-Bomb Dome, the Children's memorial, the eternal flame, and various memorials dedicated to others affected by the bomb dropped on the city years ago.

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It was a devastating day. We all walked quietly in the rain to the museum. I walked the exhibits alone, and was brought to tears twice. Seeing watches stopped on 8:15 AM, rusted tricycles, pictures of burnt bodies, maps of an utterly destroyed and torn apart city, tattered and scorched clothes, a lunch box with the un-eaten, charred food still inside. Seeing the tiny paper cranes made from cellophane folded by Sadako, who died of leukemia early in life. Visiting the huge urn filled with ashes of unidentified people who died in the blast.

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It was appalling. To see how so many people suffered needlessly, to see the sick, cruel reasonings behind why Hiroshima was chosen over other cities in Japan, how its fate was sealed when the day Enola Gay flew was bright, sunny, and cloudless. And over everything, letters of Hiroshima mayors to countries still testing nuclear weapons, calling for peace, calling for the destruction of the weapons.

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I've never been in a place like this museum before. Even after visiting war sites, after going to the DC Holocaust museum, nothing could have prepared me for the utter grief that Hiroshima held. You can feel the sorrow of the Japanese people within the very walls, you can hear the pleading for peace, and the very strength of their calls for reform and a need to spread the word sinks into your skin and stays there after you leave.

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You don't just hear about the masses that died. You meet individuals that suffered at the hands of a single destructive force. You are put into their tattered clothes and made to walk the burning streets and feel the heat of radiation.

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That museum made me feel something I have never truly been made to feel before, and in a way, I am grateful for it. But I do not think I could enter that place ever again.

We had 2 hours of free time after the museum, but no one in the group had strength or heart to explore Hiroshima, feeling rather sick to our stomachs and depressed. We went back to our hotel to wait until dinner instead.

Not exactly an ideal way to start a trip, but it was a place that, in my opinion, needed to be visited, and an event that needed to be understood more properly, especially from the viewpoint of the people who had suffered the most.

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Tent Wars!

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G'day Mates!

After a two week period of exams, I was off to the outback. Our group was made of 12 Americans, a German, and an Alaskan (a joke made on our trip). Craige, our fearless leader, was the tour guide for Australian Adventure Travel and knew just about anything about Australia and the outback.

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Our Ride

The trip lasted 10 days where for the first 5 days we stopped at various landmarks along the coast and the second 5 days we traveled inland to visit the true outback and national parks. Each day we made delicious sandwiches for lunch with the traditional Australian ingredients of corn, beans, and beets. Every night we would set up camp and start in on dinner. It was really a cool experience because everyone would jump in to help every night, so it was almost like a family dinner. 

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Meal Preparation

At night we would set up our tents.  Dave, Nick, and I were the best at making tents so it was only natural for us to shack up together. Each morning we woke up at 6:30 and began our day over again.

 

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A Perfect Tent

On our first day we drove through Geraldton en route to our campsite at Northampton. Our first stop was at a World War II memorial for the HMAS Sydney II that was sunk off the coast of Australia by a German cruiser.

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 We set up camp at Northbrook Farmstay where we threw some steaks and sausages on the bar-b for dinner. Day two we headed for Shark Bay Heritage area and on the way we stopped at a few beautiful cliffs and gorges including the natural arch rock formation in Kalbarri National Park and Murchison River Gorge. 

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Natural Arch, Kalbarri National Park


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Murchison River Gorge

The flies here were almost unbearable as they ate our lunch as fast as we could prepare it. We ended the day at Hamlin Pool where we saw our first wild kangaroos after an evening stroll. Also near this camp were the Hamlin Pool stromatolites.

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The stromatolites didn't look like anything more than rocks to me but apparently they are the oldest living things on earth.

Touristy in Tokyo

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To continue to trend of Tokyo (it was a busy vacation), Monday of Tokyo weekend was Disney Sea!

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There's not really much to say about the park. It was a ton of fun. The general tourist-y, filled with children and grandparents sort of business. I got myself a postcard and some gifts for my host family. We rode 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Tower of Terror, and a few other rides. I rode Genie at the merry go round at Agrabah, held a bust of Harrison Ford, and ate a churro in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head!

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The park itself is only 10 years old, and it shows. The workers are happy and dedicated to their jobs. The park's decorations and design are flawless and impressive, especially the portion of Ariel's Grotto, which actually looked like we were underwater.

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There were fireworks. And the show of the night, Fantasmico, made me tear up, which was unsurprising, but it was truly very impressive; misted water was used as a screen for images, there was a huge electronic Maleficent Dragon, and a lot of singing. As per usual, Disney truly wasn't my thing, but it was still a ton of fun and i'm glad we got to go. Many thanks to Steffany's host mother for paying for my ticket!

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Tuesday was the last day in Tokyo, and basically the day to wrap up our affairs. We went early to Harajuku to explore it in proper weather, spent an hour and a half at karaoke, then finished up the night at Shinjuku again before taking the night bus again back to Nagoya.

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Tokyo was fun, absolutely. I am happy that I finally went, and finally experienced the city that Japan is known for most of all. But there was no fanfare, no awe and amazement. The city was full of bright lights and people, clubs and restaurants, karaoke and interesting characters, and lots and lots and lots of foreign tourists. To be sure, it's a huge city. The transportation is difficult to wrap your head around and the maps difficult to understand. It was strange to finally experience Japanese people forcing themselves to speak English to me, assuming I cannot speak Japanese, rather than giving me a chance. It was unsettling to see so many tourists, and we all agreed that while Tokyo was amusing, we missed Nagoya.

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And it's true. Nagoya is a perfect city for me. I cannot see myself living in Tokyo. I cannot even see myself going back to Tokyo anytime soon. I felt alienated and small in Tokyo. Truly like the American in Japan that has no business being in Japan whatsoever. By all means, I was treated politely in Tokyo, but it felt temporary and rushed, while Nagoya citizens are more interested in my study abroad status, my studies, rather than just my American citizenship.

It was good to be back in Nagoya. Thanks for the good time, Tokyo. It was been fun.


Amsterdam (was stuck in my head)

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                From the air, Holland looks like a very colorful patchwork quilt.

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During my April break, I also visited Amsterdam, or, as I call it, the city of bikes and canals. They were everywhere! Almost every street/square looked the same to me, as each followed a canal and contained similar earth-tone, rectangle buildings facing the water. In factThumbnail image for IMG_2438 - Copy.JPG, Amsterdam, the capital of The Netherlands, originally began as a Dutch trading post which relied exclusively on the maze of canals and rivers for its transportation. The city slowly grew to become as it's known today, where, in addition to water taxis and boats, bicycles are chained to all the bridges and railings; many Amsterdamians ride them as their main form of transportation, which makes a lot of sense because the city is very flat. Andy and I considered renting bikes for a day, but the busy traffic and the tram dents in the road (scary!) dissuaded us, and we walked around the city instead--probably the safer choice.

 Thumbnail image for IMG_2460.JPG     At one point, we did do a Blue Boat Canal Tour, which was a really nice way to see a lot of the city and the canals in little time. Although the boat had commentary about the city's history, we preferred to sit in the back of the boat, outside the glass, so we could be outside and see the buildings better. The weather was nice: windy and brisk but sunny. As we rode IMG_1586.JPGdown the river, I really got to experience the vibe of the city, along with catching a glimpse of many of its main attractions: one of the IAMsterdam signs (yes, there are multiple ones!), the Anne Frank house, a few of the museums, and The Jordaan. I don't think I saw The Van Gogh Museum from the boat tour, but it was another highlight of the trip. In fact, the museums in Amsterdam are supposed to be amazing, although I only got to see The Van Gogh Museum (the Rijksmuseum looked impressive but I just didn't have time). I wouldn't describe myself as an avid Van Gogh fan, but I do like his paintings, especially the ones with heavy impasto, and I loved going through the four-story museum to learn more about the famous Dutch painter.

                 We also visited the famous Jordaan district--a center of arts and culture in Amsterdam. It's full of cafes, comedy clubs, and busyness. (Although, to me, it seemed much the same as the other parts of the city, albeit with a few more offbeat shops.) 

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 As far as Dutch food went, here's what I found:

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A Ben & Jerry's! Actually, Ben & Jerry's seems to be all over Europe, with ice cream vending machines on Kent campus and stores in almost every city we went to in Europe. Even though the duo learned their ice cream making trade at PSU, I haven't really tried their ice cream, so we decided to duck in. I had a decent chocolate mint bowl, and Andy got a crepe which looked amazing, but apparently tasted terrible? (I kind of don't believe him.)

 

 Later that night, we went to a famous comedy club--Boom Chicago--which actually wasn't as good as some improve I saw in New York last year. Still, it was a nice change to touristy sightseeing, and I had a good time there. Walking around the city at night, too, revealed lots more bicycles, lights, and people going their ways. The city definitely had a young, busy vibe, though it seemed rather quiet and quaint, in a way, at the same time. Only around 2 million people live in Amsterdam, and the lack of tall buildings made me keep reminding myself I was in a capital city--but perhaps that reveals more about my ideas of cities than a fault of Amsterdam's. Ultimately, I really did like Amsterdam, a lot more than I expected. I'm not sure what I would have done if I had stayed longer, but I really enjoyed soaking in the vibe and simply watching all the people on bikes and all the canals reflecting in the building windows.

                And you should probably listen to this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAppS5HalR4. It's true.

 

Ronda- Wine tour

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Yesterday my friends and I took about an hour and a half bus ride to Ronda. We walked around the city for a while and it was truly a beautiful city. There were really breathtaking views of Spain throughout the city.
IMG_2452.JPGWe took a trolley ride to the Feria of Ronda. Their feria is for animals so there were chickens and donkeys and horses. It was not like the Feria of Sevilla (I don't think anything could ever measure up to the Feria of Sevilla).

Then we did our wine tour. First we walked around the old wine house that is now a museum. During this we had three different wines we could help ourselves to. After, we sat at a table with three different red wines in glasses in front of us. Our guide explained to us how to first look at, then smell and finally taste our wine. First you want to tilt the glass to see how transparent the wine is. Next, you swish the wine around the glass to see how quickly the wine falls back down. This is to see how thick or thin the wine is. After, you move to the next sense. At first, you just smell the wine to see what the primary flavors are. Then you swish the wine around in the glass and smell again to see the secondary flavors. Finally, you move to the final sense-taste. First you just take a sip and see how it tastes. Next you can swish it around in your mouth a bit and breathe out through your nose. This will show you the third flavor in the wine.

We tasted a 2006, a 2007 and 2008 wine. She explained that 2006 and 2007 were years with a lot of rain where as 2008 was not. The different climates the grapes were grown in makes the difference in the flavor of the wine.

After the guided tour of wine tasting, we were able to taste a few more wines. The wines that were saved for last were all of the "sweet wines."

This was something I definitely wanted to do while I was in Spain and I had a great time doing it. We shared a lot of laughs and really enjoyed ourselves in Ronda.
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Un fin de semana de pueblo y playa

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The title means "A weekend of town and beach." Pueblos are the small towns on the outside of the cities in Spain.

Last weekend, I went and stayed with my host mom's brother's family in a pueblo outside of Seville. I had been to his house before and loved it. I met his 20 year old daughter a few moths ago. Her name is Ana and she invited me to stay over for the weekend.
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It was a really cool weekend. I was able to stay with another Spanish family. This family has a completely different dynamic. There is a mom and a dad and to me they seem like an amazing couple. They have both a son and a daughter- 17 and 20 years old. It was nice to sit on the couch and be a part of their family and to eat meals with them.

During the days, Ana and I went to the beach with her friends. On Saturday we went with three of her close friends and then on Sunday we went with her one friend and her friend's little 4 year old girl. Both days were a lot of fun.
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On the way back to Ana's house on Sunday we stopped in El Rocio to see a famous church.
elrocio.JPGOne of the best parts of the weekend was that I got to speak and hear only Spanish for three entire days. I also loved spending time with Ana, she is a sweetheart and we had a great weekend together. I hope that I have another opportunity to go back in my last month here.



Whirlwind Weekend

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IMG_2415.JPGMy boyfriend joined the navy and left for boot camp about two weeks ago. A few weeks before my David came to visit, I decided I was going to go home for the weekend to surprise him for his going away party. I knew I had to be there for this huge step in his life and I was so excited and happy to be heading back to the States.

So I did it, I booked my ticket! And one day I boarded a plane and I knew that I was going home...but only for the weekend. Mentally preparing for this was not easy. I knew none of this was going to be easy.

After a short layover in Madrid, I boarded my plane to New York City. I was really excited but my emotions were kind of muted by the fact that I couldn't even believe that this was real life and that I was actually doing this.

I was crying on the plane just thinking about seeing my family and how amazing it was going to be after so long. Finally I saw my mom on the other side of customs and in that second it literally felt like I had never left. We got in the car and drove home and it was such an amazing feeling to walk through the door. Everything in my house was the same as I had left it. My grandmother was there waiting to see me and my sisters were all sitting around on our couch watching the Flyers. It was very close to being perfect.

The only thing that was missing was the one who I was coming home to surprise. I had decided that since David had just spent two weeks straight with me in Spain I didn't want him to know I was home because I wanted him to be able to spend his last few days in PA with his family and friends and getting done what he needed to do before heading off to Great Lakes. It was SO hard to be home and not tell him. As I was sitting there watching the Flyers with my family, he was texting me updates thinking that I was in Spain and unable to watch it. One of the texts he sent me also said "I wish I was watching it with you." It was really hard not to say "Come over! I'm home!"

What's really funny to mention is the things that I've gotten so used to in Spain that are now weird to me back in the United States. For example, when I went to flush the toilet for the first time I went to press the button on the top of the toilet bowl. That was something that was hard to get accustomed to in Spain and now it comes naturally! Also, as I was getting my phone charger out of my bag I was looking and looking for my adapter so I could plug it in. Suddenly, I realized I could simply plug it into the wall! It's really strange how things become second nature in just a few months!

The next morning I couldn't sleep, so I woke up and decided to run some errands. I went to the bank to figure some things out. On the way, I saw a gas station and even though I had half tank I decided to fill up because it was just something I haven't done in forever and I wanted to try it. Then I went to the bank and the teller asked how my morning was going. I said "It's great! It's my first morning back in the States in three and a half months!" I spent a while explaining my situation to the teller before getting in my car and heading back home.

As I was stopping at a stop sign right before my street, in my rear view I see David behind me on his motorcycle. I could not believe it! I started shaking and freaking out! How could this possibly be?! I try to make a turn to throw him off, but he knew it was me so he pulled up beside me. Even though I didn't get to surprise him the way I intended, it was a great surprise and seeing the happiness and shock in his eyes was everything I had imagined.
IMG_2385.JPGIt was actually such a blessing that he happened to "find" me the way he did. This gave us so much more time together over the weekend. We were able to do some of the things that we always do together one last time before he headed to boot camp.

Since I knew I was only home for the weekend, I knew I had to appreciate every single second before heading back to Spain. I enjoyed the things that I usually loathe back at home. Even sitting in traffic I didn't mind. Because I was in my hometown and nothing else mattered.

Being with my family was fantastic. Not seeing them for so long really makes you appreciate every single one of them. I was able to spend time at both of my parents' houses and with both of my parents. It really meant the world to me to be able to be with them again after three and a half months.

I am really excited to return home for the summer and spend a few months at home with my family before heading back up to school in the fall. I absolutely love my study abroad experience but I think it is definitely true that home is where my heart is.

I almost forgot the mention the FOOD! It was so great to have American food-something I've really felt deprived of this entire time! Even though the weekend was insane and I didn't have that much time to enjoy all the food America has to offer, when I did eat it was really delicious. Especially the breakfast my dad and I had at Cracker Barrel before we headed to JFK airport for my flight back to Spain.
IMG_2411.JPGOf course it was hard to watch David leave. I miss him every second. However, I know that he is doing exactly what he wanted to do and I am so proud of him. I look back on the time we got to spend together in Spain and the fact that I was able to come home and spend one last weekend with him. Being grateful for the time we have had together and all of the wonderful memories are what helped me make it through. We didn't say goodbye, just see you soon.
IMG_2409.JPGA HUGE thank you from the bottom of my heart to every single person who made this weekend possible for me. I loved every second I spent with every one of you. It meant the world to me.

Seville with my sweetheart

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My boyfriend came to Seville to visit me for two weeks. It was incredible to spend this experience with him.
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He loved Spain and was really interested in learning the culture. David was such a good sport trying all the food and he even spent time getting to know my host family. It was amazing to see him make them laugh even though he doesn't speak Spanish at all. His genuine humor was not lost in translation. We got along so well and it made me so happy to see my worlds combine in this way.

One of the greatest parts of our time together was the fact that we rented a scooter. We had so much fun on this little 50 cc scooter. We were able to see parts of Seville that I never would have found without it. It gave us the freedom to drive around and around as much as we wanted and wherever we wanted. It was a new thing to be driving around this town that I've only been walking around for the last four months. I learned the traffic laws in Spain (there aren't any, in case you were wondering!) and how gas stations work. Some of the gas stations are like pit stops along the road. You just take a little jug handle, have the attendant pump your gas and continue on down the road.

We did take a day trip to the beach in Cádiz. I was happy that he got to see this city while he was here. It is a really pretty and traditional part of Spain with all of the white houses. And the beach was really pretty- the water was sparkling blue.

While David was here it was Feria. This "fair" exceeded my expectations in every way. Not only was it the most incredible carnival we had ever seen, a city basically pops up and everyone is dressed in their very best Flameno attire. This little city is made of "casetas" which translates as "tents" but they are so much more than tents. They are these little constructions (with plumbing) where the party of Feria takes place. There is streets and streets of them. Everyone is having fun and everyone is in the best mood. The food at the fair was great. We had some warm waffles with chocolate and whipped cream, buñeulos (little donut shaped, funnel cake like bites), chicken, sandwiches (we ate a lot!). There were a ton of games (just like at our carnivals back home). We thought it was really funny when we saw the traditional Spanish jamón being raffled off as a prize! Being a part of Feria was incredible and we loved every second we spent there.
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My boyfriend is a firefighter and an EMT. He is really interested in all emergency services. While he was in Seville we toured fire stations and he loved learning about how things work over here and sharing with the Spanish firefighters how things are done at his station back home. It was great (but a huge challenge) for me to translate for David and the firefighters. It was so worth it though, because he really loved this. He bought a bunch of souvenirs from the Seville fire station and they even had some free merchandise to give to a fellow bombero!

Overall, being able to share this experience meant everything to me. It was the little things like sitting by the river and walking through this beautiful city together that I've lived in for the past four months. Not only was I able to show him the Seville that I've gotten to know, but we were also able to discover new things together and make the most of the time that we were given before he headed home.





Portugal Beach Weekend

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Even though the weather was not 100% cooperative, I still had a great weekend in Portugal. We stayed in an "aparthotel" so it was really great to have our own little apartments that we shared with a couple of friends. The best part was that we were able to cook!

The beaches in Portugal are absolutely gorgeous. They are like nothing I have ever seen before. Not only is the water crystal clear and a beautiful blue, but the scenery on and around the beaches make it even better.

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This relaxing weekend was much needed and it was almost a dream! We just got to be at the beach all day then get ready and go out to have fun at night. I wish it would have lasted longer!



Deutschland !!!

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Oui oui, we went to Paris

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Taking the Eurostar train between London and Paris was definitely worth it. Highly recommended. We got right into the city into a subway station. The woman selling the tickets to the subway had a sign posted right in her window that said "I don't spek English." Welcome to France! This was going to be the first time that I was in a country where I didn't speak the language. A completely new experience.

Somehow Jessica figured out which train we needed to get on and we found it. It was late at night so we were just heading back to our hostel that way we could get an early start in the morning. Once we walked up the steps from the metro station Blanche, we found ourselves in the Red Light District. Straight ahead of us was the famous Moulin Rouge. We were a little scared to be in this area this late at night, but we made our way to our hostel (which was 10000x better than the one we stayed in in London).

We met our roommates who had been in Paris for some time. They were able to give us some tips- one being the 3 1/2 hour walking tour through the city. We decided we'd do that in the morning.

When we woke up we went downstairs for the free breakfast that our hostel provided. It was actually an unexpectedly incredible breakfast! There was this incredible chocolate granola cereal that had chocolate chips and white chocolate chips. It was more like a dessert, but it was delicious. (And of course no French breakfast would be complete without croissants.)

Then we made our way to the meeting point at St. Michele's fountain. The fountain was beautiful and as we stood there waiting we saw a model and a photographer doing a photo shoot. That was pretty cool!

Our tour guide was named Arnaud (R NO) and even though he had a French name he told us that he was from California (his parents just happened to name him that). He's been living in Paris for a long time with his Parisian wife and child and has been a tour guide for a while, too.

He gave a great tour of all the most important parts of Paris. We saw the Notre Dame cathedral, the great bridges, the Louvre, L'Orangerie, Museau D'Orssay all of the monuments, Champs de Lise and much more. Even though we didn't go into anything, it was a great over view of the city. It was just what we needed since we would not be spending much time in Paris.

That night we decided to go on a second walking tour with the same tour guide. This time we toured Monmarte (which is where we happened to be staying). This section of Paris is so full of culture and history. We saw where Van Gough lived, where Picasso lived and even different restaurants that the famous artists frequented. Also, in Monmarte is the Sacred Heart Church which we went inside of. It was one of my most favorite churches of all the ones that I have seen so far in Europe. The artists square that still exists today seemed to take us back in time. This part of Paris was really incredible.

That night we went out to dinner with some friends that we had met on the tour. Afterward, we decided to go to Monteparsse (the only skyscraper in the city) to go to the top and see the view of the Eiffel Tower. We didn't end up making it on time, but we still had a great night around the city with our new friends.

The next morning my sister and I went to the Louvre because she really wanted to see the Mona Lisa. Although we were warned that we would be disappointed, having this low expectation made us appreciate the artwork more. The Louvre is HUGE and very overwhelming! There are so many pieces of art it is amazing.

After this, we met up with our neighbors who happened to be in Paris at the same time we were! (Strange but great!) We went out to lunch together and tried escargot! I did not think I was going to try this EVER in my life, but it actually was not too bad.

It was awesome to see my neighbors, just another great piece of home to spend time with in Europe.

That night Jess and I actually made it to Monteparsse on time. We went up there when it was dark so we could see the famous Eiffel Tower light show. It was really beautiful and it really felt like a dream come true for us to see this. Since we were little girls we had these little Eiffel Tower statues that our grandmother brought back as souvenirs for us from her Paris trip. To see this infamous statue now in person was really something for us.

Unfortunately we did not have very much time in Paris. There was so much more we wanted to do but did not have time. I hope one day to go back and explore this amazing city again. One woman we met while we were in Paris was there for her seventh time. She told us she keeps coming back because she loves it and there is still so much more to see. Paris really is that great of a city. And I'm so happy that I was able to share an amazing experience like this with my sister.


Los geht's!

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Hello Everybody!


My name is Anastasiya Shpakova. I am an international student @ Penn State. Initially, I come from Russia. I love to travel and feel like a global citizen already! So far, I have visited more than 20 countries, and  this summer I am going to Study Abroad in Germany! After finishing the spring semester at Penn State and surviving the finals week,  we are ready to set off! Even though I have already been to Germany, I can't wait to come back! It will be great to see the same places from a different perspective and notice the changes. It is challenging for me to speak German again after a break in my practice. Hopefully, I can still "Deutsch reden". 

 Our plane departures to Frankfurt very soon, and I am excited for the adventure lying ahead! After our 8-hour flight we have to take a train with multiple switches to the little "City of the Gold", Pforzheim where our host University is located. 

Liebe Gruesse, 

-Anastasiya

Let's Eat Chocolate...in Switzerland.

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                As the University of Kent school system includes a month-long Easter break with no classes and a campus that empties, most students either go home or, if they're internationals, go traveling. My boyfriend, Andy, and I had been planning a three-week Europe trip for a while, so it felt almost surreal when the time came for me to pick him up at the airport. We visited London, Ireland, Amsterdam, Paris, and Switzerland, each location for about three days, and now that I'm back in Canterbury, I'm sorting through pictures and feeling a bit nostalgic. The trip was so interesting, and I got to experience so many places that I'd never been before (anywhere outside the U.K.). Blogging about it all together would be a disaster though, so I'm going to skip to my favorite parts and do those first.

                Besides London, which will probably always hold a special place in my heart, I loved either Switzerland or Ireland the most. (I blogged about Ireland before, when I visited Galway, but this time I got to spend more time in different locations and travel across the country more.) The country is just so beautiful, raw, and comforting in subtle ways. Even though some of the towns are run-down or industrial, the landscape is always breathtaking, and the slow pace of life away from a city appealed to me, especially after long days walking around. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed Switzerland too: once again, the landscape was unbelievable, like screen-savers that are actually real. (I always assumed the Swiss Alps photos you see in picture frames are photoshopped, but the mountains looked even better than the pictures.) In fact, after walking out of a pub one night, we thought the sky in front of us was really dark, but it was actually just the giant mountain looming in front of us and obscuring all the starlight.

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We stayed in the resort town, Interlaken, which means "between two lakes" in German, at the best hostel in the world--for all you considering a visit, Backpackers Villa SonnenIMG_2077.JPGhof is a must-stay hostel. It had a home-y feel and a cappuccino maker that was free. In contrast to the go-go-go lifestyle of touring cities such as Paris or Amsterdam, life in Interlaken moved at a slower pace--as most people staying there were on vacation themselves--and we spent many hours just sitting on couches and watching live footage of skiers on the Jungfrau. Although we considered taking a Flying Wheels motorbike tour of the Alps, the steep price and the possibility of rain convinced us to take a leisurely hike on our own instead: we found a local trail that went around one of the lakes, so we got to see the town of Thun across the water. It did start pouring halfway through our hike though, so we returned to our hostel drenched and ready to eat Lindt chocolate (which we did...a lot).

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                The rest of the time, we walked around the town, which was full of tourist shops selling the quintessential Swiss trinkets: watches, clocks, knives, cheese, and chocolate abound, although to get quality stuff you have to spend more money than I was willing to. In fact, everything was really expensive in Interlaken: even though the exchange rate between IMG_2148.JPGthe U.S. dollar and the Swiss Frank is roughly the same, a Caesar salad at McDonald's costs 12 Swiss Franks...it was the cheapest dinner we could find. Needless to say, we lived out of grocery stores that weekend and bought few souvenirs. The view of the mountains and the gorgeousness of the town, however, made up for it all. Although the town was pretty touristy, it was also a haven--with people paragliding and flying kites, mini-golfing (which we did too!), and biking around. My favorite part of Interlaken was definitely getting off the beaten path a bit to walk the paths around the mountains and glacier-water rivers: nothing can beat Switzerland for raw beauty. Even now, back at home, I find myself thinking of Switzerland most when I recall my trip, and I'd definitely recommend the trek to get through the mountains to a small Swiss town--the landscape is stunning and the relaxation is a nice break. The chocolate isn't that bad either.

 

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Melbourne & The Great Ocean Road

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Melbourne is a town 30 minutes north of my hometown in Florida. It's also the coolest city in Australia. And pronounced funny: Mel-BIN not Mel-BORN. There are lots of airline deals in Australia and we were able to get $50 flights each way on Tiger Airlines. I have heard that Tiger Airlines is unreliable and some warned to avoid it completely. However, it was cheap and the flights were nonstop. In the three years I've been at Penn State (and the trips I took to visit my senior year of high school), I have experienced more cancelled and delayed flights thanks to the Philadelphia and State College airports than most people will experience in their life. Needless to say, Tiger didn't scare me and all in all my flights went smoothly (minus a frightening landing on the runway in Sydney). I wouldn't have wanted to spend my entire semester in Melbourne since it's further south and therefore colder, but I'd highly recommend it for a visit... or the entire semester if you'd consider yourself a hipster.

Day 1: St. Kilda. We arrived in Melbourne at 1:30pm. By the time we were picked up by the shuttle bus to take us to our hostel and weaved in and out of the city traffic, it was already 3:30pm. We stayed at Hotel Discovery (though it's a hostel, not hotel), which was clean, cheap, centrally located and not too rowdy. Once settled, we took the city tram ($4 each way) to St. Kilda where we saw a beautiful sunset. After walking along the boardwalk and finding some delicious fish and chips along the main road in St. Kilda, we down the pier to find a small penguin colony. The penguins were adorable and made the funniest noises. It's very rare to have wild penguins in such a populated area, so they're colony is closely monitored by a local organization. There is a day trip from Melbourne to Phillips Island, which advertises wild penguin sightings, but we were able to see penguins for free in St. Kilda... so neat!

penguins.jpg Day 2: Street Art and Carlton United Brewers. Melbourne is famous for it's street art. Some of the "art" is just your everyday graffiti, but if you find the right alley, you can stumble upon real creativity! One of my friends found a map of street art locations online and we used this as our guide. The map led us through some cute alleys that were lined with shops and boutiques - so trendy! We also took a stroll through Fitzroy Gardens. The gardens are a step above most city parks and reminded me of a garden I visited in San Francisco. After the gardens, we took a tram to the Carlton United Brewers factory. With a 2-for-1 coupon and a student discount, the factory tour only cost $10 a person. I love factories tours (especially ones with free tastings) so I had a lot of fun here, even though the factory operations had already shut down for the weekend. Carlton is one of the most common beers in Australia, but the CUB also makes other brews, including Fosters. Though most Americans would think Foster's is super popular over here (after all, "Fosters is Australian for beer"), it's actually not. After the tour, each guests was allowed to sample four beers out of a selection of ten, including two ciders. Even better was the opportunity to play dress up in a giant beer costume while standing behind the bar. Later on, we found some more street art and ate dinner at Trippy Taco in Fitzroy near Brunswick St. The $9 burritos were a steal for Mexican food in Australia and they were real tasty.

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carlton.jpgDay 3: Great Ocean Road. No trip to Melbourne is complete without a day trip along the Great Ocean Road. This is known as one of the most scenic drives in the world. The whole drive would take two days (to get to Adelaide), but the most popular route is from Melbourne to the Twelve Apostles. My friend Bone was feeling adventurous and decided that he wanted to drive the road himself. Since tours of the Great Ocean Road leave you stuck on a big bus with no control of your day and they cost about $100 a person, we obliged to let Bone drive. The drive is frightening and I felt like I might throw up a couple times, but when I did have my eyes open looking over the side of the windy cliff, it was beautiful. We set out about 8:30am from Melbourne and saw our last sight at about 4:45pm. greatoceanarch.jpg

Our stops included:

  • Bells Beach - One of the best surf beaches in Australia. The ways were HUGE!
  • Split Point Lighthouse - This is a good alternative to the Otway Lighthouse if you don't mind not climbing. The Otway Lighthouse is a pretty far detour and costs money to climb, but most tour groups go there.
  • Great Ocean Road Arch and Diggers Statue
  • Kennett River - There's a campground and a small mini mart here. Just off the road you can see koalas up in the trees. It was unfortunately raining when we were here, but I did get to see a koala chowing down on some eucalyptus and then go hopping through the tree!

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  • Apollo Bay - This is the last town before the 12 Apostles so stop here if you're hungry!
  • Gibson Steps
  • 12 Apostles - The main attraction along the Great Ocean Road. There were a million people here and it was so windy everyone was blowing around, but the 12 Apostles really are an impressive sight!

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  • Loch Arch and Gorge - Not a far walk from the car park so worth the stop. You can even walk down to the water here.
  • The Arch
  • London Bridge - It was so rainy I didn't get out of the car here.
  • The Grotto - The Arch, London Bridge, and the Grotto are all very close to each other once you've past the 12 Apostles. Not all the tour groups stop at these places.
  • Timboon - This is a random small town on the road back east to Melbourne. We had some great pizza at the only open food shop there. From here it was an hour and 40-minute drive back to Melbourne along dark forest roads and highway.

Uluru, the Outback, & Camels

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Everyone's seen a picture of Uluru. The big red rock in the Australian Outback is one of the most recognized natural landmarks in the world. It's a popular destination for people visiting Australia, but many students studying abroad don't make the trip because it's not very cost effective staring at a big rock isn't the #1 thing on many college students agendas. I have no idea if I'll ever return to Australia, so I figured why not make a trip out to Uluru to see what all the hype is about. Just like the trip to Cairns, I'd have a lot of recommendations for someone making this same trip, but this trip was incredible and a must do for anyone who appreciates nature. At the University of Wollongong I am taking two classes in Indigenous Studies so my new found appreciation for the Aboriginal culture also influenced my decision to make the trip.

IMG_4147.JPGTo clarify, Uluru is the traditional Ananju name for the rock. It is located in Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park. Kata Tjuta is a second rock formation with religious significance to the Ananju people and mostly closed off from visitors. Ayers Rocks is the name given to Uluru by the first whitemen to travel through the area. The tourist area outside of Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park is known as Ayers Rock Resort. We flew into Ayers Rock Airport and stayed at the Outback Pioneer Lodge (a YHA hostel), but many people make the trip to the national park from Alice Springs. There are many overnight tour options that leave from Alice Springs to see Uluru, but the cost of flying from Syndey to Alice Springs was twice that of the cost to fly into Ayers Rock Resort.

On our first night in the area, we took a sunset camel tour. This is one of my top two Australian experiences (the other being holding a koala) and no trip to Uluru should be without a camel ride. After being picked up at our hostel, we were taken to the camel farm and given a briefing about how to ride. I was riding Hercules, the largest camel at the farm (did they really think I needed the biggest camel?). There were about 15 other camels in the caravan and for the ride, the camels were all attached to each other at the nose. A little strange, but this has been the way camel caravans have worked for centuries. As we trotted through the outback, the tour guides gave us some information about camels and the area. After about 45 minutes of walking, we stopped to watch the colors change over Uluru as the sun set in the distance. This was not as stunningly beautiful as some postcards may make it out to seem, but who cares because I got to watch the sunset while riding a camel! To top off a great night, we were treated to homemade bread and sparkling Australian wine after our hour ride.

IMG_5397.jpgThe next day we woke up early (5am) and  took the Uluru Express to Uluru. This shuttle bus is $60 and the cheapest way to get from Ayers Rock Resort to Uluru. After watching the sunrise from a viewing area with a million other tour groups and attempting not to freeze, we were dropped off right next to Uluru. We joined the 8am guided ranger walk which took us along the Mala Walk. The ranger told us the Anangu traditions of the area (though she was not an Aboriginal person herself) and pointed out some of the significant sights along the trail. After this hour walk, we continued our way around Uluru along the Base Walk. This 10km walk takes 3-4 hours but is the best way to see Uluru. Each step you take gives you a different perspective of Uluru. It seemed that from every angle you were looking at a different rock! I have never been so in awe of a natural structure. Let me tell you, Uluru cannot be done justice by a simple picture!! After our walk, we went to the Cultural Center to view some Aboriginal artwork and learn a little more information about the park. Surprisingly, there are very few Aboriginal Australians who work in the park and nearly zero who work in the Ayers Rock Resort. This is an example of the continued power struggle between Aboriginal Australians and the Australian government.

ulurusunrise042912.jpgOn day 3 we took a tour of Kata Tjuta with the SEIT Outback tour company. You can visit Kata Tjuta with the Uluru Express (about $80 for a shuttle), though we chose to do a tour for a little more money in hopes that it would be educational - and it was! We learned about the formation of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, why they are red (they're made of iron), and what it's like to live in Ayers Rock Resort with only 800 other people (a little boring). Our tour took us through the Wapa Gorge after we saw the most incredible sunrise over Uluru. While I was not near as impressed with Kata Tjuta as I was with Uluru, the sunrise was the 2nd best highlight of the trip (not much can top a camel ride). We flew out of Ayers Rock Airport the next day after lounging by the pool all morning.

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My recommendations:
  • Do not climb Uluru - it's dangerous (people fall off the rock and die), disrespectful to the local Aboriginal people, and harmful to the environment (your presence pollutes the water at the top of Uluru and you are causing physical damage to the rock).
  • Do a sunset camel ride. You HAVE to. The farm also offers 15 minute rides around the farm or a sunrise ride, but I'd recommend the sunset one as it's warmer than sunrise and would give you a longer ride during while the sun is out.
  • Stay two nights. We stayed three and this was too long. You could do the camel tour in the same day as Uluru or Kata Tjuta.
  • Wake up early. Even though it was freezing in the mornings as we watched the sunrise, the sunrises were beautiful and you'll be happy you're not out walking in the peak heat of the day.
  • Do the Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta. We did not do this because we didn't want two long walks in two days, but I regret not seeing this part of Kata Tjuta as some people consider it more incredible than Uluru.
  • Go to the Cultural Center near Uluru and learn something!
  • Research/book your tours before you go.
  • Uluru is located in the desert which means it can get very cold in the autumn/winter. In April, the temperatures in the morning were 40 degrees. I wish I'd had gloves and a hat. I wore three t-shirts, a jacket, scarf, and leggings and even I was still cold. You can take off layers as you walk, but until the sun is fully up around 11, it's chilly!!!!



Semester Break in Cairns

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The top two semester break destinations for American students studying in Eastern Australia tends to be Cairns or New Zealand. Cairns, home to the Great Barrier Reef, is located in northern Queensland and is a 3-hour flight from Sydney. While I'm sure New Zealand is beautiful and just as amazing as everyone says it, I was hoping to jam in as many uniquely Australian adventures as I could into my semester so Cairns was my destination of choice. Cairns is extremely popular for its endless amount of activities: snorkeling, rafting, skydiving, bungee jumping, and rainforest trekking, to name a few. I'd say it's hard to beat just how "Australian" my trip was, and though I'd have a lot of recommendations for someone making a trip to the area (feel free to contact me if you're reading this and headed to Cairns!), overall I definitely had a memorable and successful trip.

schreyerlionGBR.jpgDay 1: The Lagoon. Cairns does not have a beach, so the city created "The Lagoon" located on The Esplanade (boardwalk) that is a large, shallow pool with a small stretch of makeshift beach and lots of picnic areas. The weather in Cairns was a hot and sunny 85 degrees, perfect pool and sun-baking weather. We also strolled around the shops of Cairns (mostly tourist gift shops) before returning to our hostel for a BBQ dinner.


IMG_3938.JPGDay 2: The Reef. I could not have asked for a more perfect day for snorkeling. The trip out to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns takes about 2 hours and the sea was completely flat. One day later and our trip would have been bumpy seas and partly cloudy skies, factors that would have changed the experience entirely. I could have spent all day lying out on the front of our big catamaran. We were on the Passions of Paradise boat. There are a million different reef tour operators in Cairns, some of which have HUGE boats with elevator lifts that drop you straight into the water (no jumping in or climbing up a ladder required), but this just seemed a little too commercialized for my taste. The first reef we snorkelled was actually surrounding a sandbar that doubled as a bird sanctuary. I was extremely impressed with the health of the reef here and I loved getting to see new reef creatures (like the guitarfish pictured below) as well as some of my Florida Keys favorites like the parrot fish. The second reef we visited was not near as healthy and a little bit deeper. As an ocean lover and lifelong snorkeler, I was disappointed with the lack of care shown by the tour operators for the reef - not once did they tell people to not stand on the reef or inform them of the threats currently jeopardizing the existence of coral reefs. However, with the amount of visitors the Great Barrier Reef sees every year, I suppose the damage to the reefs could be even greater. 

F1000004.JPGDay 3: Driving on the Left & Platypus Spotting. Since Cairns does not have any beaches, my friends and I rented a car to take us to the beaches north of Cairns. You could also take a $5 bus, but I wanted the experience of driving on the "wrong" side of the road, as well as the freedom to travel between beaches. We chose to go to Palm Cove and Trinity Beach, both of which were beautiful and lined with Palm Trees. I'd recommend Palm Cove for anyone taking the bus up to the beaches, but if you're renting a car, go a little further up the Captain Cook Highway and explore some of the beaches right of the road that have amazing views. They aren't lifeguarded or protected from jellyfish, so don't go to these if you want to swim! After spending time at the beaches, we drove an hour to Yungaburra, a tiny town known for its platypuses. At dusk and dawn, you can sometimes see them swimming in the creek. We stopped in the visitor's center before it closed at 5 to find out where was the best place for a sighting. We then spent an hour sitting in silence, not moving, slightly freezing, waiting to see an elusive platypus. Thankfully, we finally saw one (they're SO small!) swimming in the creek. Spotting a platypus is not too common, so we definitely got lucky. The drive home was through the windiest and darkest roads I've ever driven (definitely frightening when you're on the wrong side of the road) but halfway home we pulled over to look at the stars and it was truly incredible. Never have I seen so many stars in the sky - you could even see the Milky Way! While renting a car and going to Yungaburra aren't two things you need to do in Cairns, they were two of the highlights of my trip.

IMG_4024.JPGDay 4: Go Wild! Tour. The Go Wild! jungle tour can be done as a day tour or overnight tour. If you're interested in snorkeling in Port Douglas (less visited than the reefs off Cairns), horseback riding, or zip lining, look into the overnight tours! This day felt very "Australian" as we started off at the Wildlife Habitat where I got to HOLD A KOALA. It was so soft and cuddly, but boy did it have sharp claws! Koala "cuddling" is only legal in Queensland and will set you back about $16, but it was one of my top 3 Australian experiences. Our bus drove us along the beautiful and scenic Captain Cook Highway (known as one of the best drives in Australia) to the Daintree River. Here we took a river cruise to spot some wild crocodiles. The river reminded me of home in Florida with so many mangroves. Afterwards, we took a stroll through the Daintree Rainforest to see big spiders and poisonous plants, all while trying to avoid getting drenched. The last stop before our drive back to Cairns was Cape Tribulation where Cook first landed in Australia. It was too rainy and cloudy for sun baking which was quite a bummer.

sarakoala.jpgDay 5/6: Just Chillen. The last two days we were in Cairns, we wandered around the town some more, spent what little sunshine time there was at the Lagoon, and ate the best fajitas any of us had ever tasted. A restaurant called Cactus Jacks has a $20 fajita and margarita deal on Thursday nights and if you're reading this and ever find yourself in Cairns on a Thursday, you MUST go. The fajitas were cooked with a little bit of BBQ sauce which made them so amazingly delicious. It would have been great to add in another day trip or some fun activity, but with the not so great weather, I don't think rafting/bungee jumping/more snorkelling would have been as enjoyable. 

IMG_7036.jpgCrocodiles, platypus, and koalas... snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef... getting rained on in a rainforest... driving on the left side of the road... sunbaking... Could I have had a more "Aussie" Easter Break experience??

A few recommendations:

  • Njoy is a fine hostel but a little far away from town and with a very unreliable shuttle bus.
  • Gilligan's is the most popular hostel in the area and a non stop party... seriously people who stay there said the place was never quiet. If you're looking for no sleep and lots of fun, it's probably the place for you.
  • Don't be afraid to wait until you're in Cairns to book trips - you aren't going to get amazing last minute deals, but there are a million travel agencies in town with unending tour options.
  • Ask your hostel where the cheapest traveler meals are - it's possible to have dinner for $5!
  • Look into Port Douglas and other reef towns - many places have shuttles from the airport.
  • Cactus Jack's on for Thursday night fajitas!!
  • Rent a high quality digital camera in town for $40 (includes all your pictures put on a DVD) instead of buying a $20 disposable camera that only let's you take 20 pictures and then costs $15 to get developed (and they're crappy pictures!!)

 

Ohhh, Change ...

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If you are a bit confused and disoriented upon visiting the GeoBlog, not to worry: the site is changing, and you are not, in fact, losing your mind. The style and layout you are now viewing is the first of many (I hope) changes. Please be patient through this period of transformation, as the site may not always look and feel quite right. It has been said, "All great changes are preceded by chaos" [Deepak Chopra]. Ok, so renovating a blog site may not be exactly the "great changes" Mr. Chopra was referring to. At any rate, the sentiment is suitable to this situation.

Thank you all for your continued time and dedication to the GeoBlog. I hope that you will find the new look and feel of the blog to be an improvement!

~Andy

Preparing for Jamaica

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Well it is safe to say that I am both excited and nervous about heading to Jamaica this July. After years of financial struggles I'll finally be able to study abroad somewhere. I'm truly looking forward to the overall experience of living in a sustainable community. As a native born American we take so much for granted and through the years I have noticed it. I want to see if I can really live off the land and not be wasteful with the things that have been made accessible to me and the many citizens of the USA. 

This 4-5 weeks session in Jamaica will be something I've looked forward to since the beginning of the Spring semester and maybe even longer than that. I look forward to writing about my experiences and the adventures the courses will take us on. Time is winding down and I will be in Jamaica soon. until next time.

Blessings,

Best Countries/Cities I Visited

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So I figured that after my abroad experience I would write a blog about the best countries/cities I have visited and why they were amazing and interesting. Every city I visited had something to offer me and I was never not learning something. Whether it was trying the local cuisine, or meeting the locals with different culture, there was never a dull moment.

Rome, Italy:

Yes, Rome can be clichéd at first. Yes, Rome is a very touristy city and many people speak English, but I fell in love with Rome from the moment our plane landed. Rome is such an amazing and historical city. In every turn, there is something ancient to see. Obviously there is the coliseum, which was absolutely amazing, but just walking down streets offered something new to see. Trevi fountain was my favorite, and my first wish came true. I got to return to Rome twice during my abroad experience! Rome also houses the Vatican, the Spanish steps, and the pantheon. Also, Rome is in Italy, obviously, so the cuisine is amazing and of course, writing about the Italian food is making me hungry! 

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Amalfi Coast, Italy:

Ever see pictures of a mountainside with houses situated on the mountain overlooking an amazingly blue ocean? That's what the Amalfi Coast has to offer. The view of the city was probably the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. But just a warning, I feel the best time to go to Amalfi would be in late April early May. My friends and I went in early March and although it was warm, it wasn't nearly warm enough to go lay on the beach!

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Barcelona, Spain:

If you want a weekend of non-stop clubbing and barely any sleep, then go to Barcelona. It was by far one of the craziest weekends of my life. Barcelona is right by the ocean so during the day, take a bike ride or a walk on the boardwalk, it's so much fun! Go see the the sagrada familia cathedral and gaudi park. During the night, go see an FC Barcelona game (So exciting!) and then go clubbing late at night! It is truly an amazing city with so many things to do.

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London, Great Britain:

This was my 2nd favorite city to visit (#1 city is  Paris, obviously!) London is most comparable to Paris. It is a huge city with lots to see and it helps enormously that everyone speaks English. The best things to see are Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, I especially enjoyed this one because I was obsessed with the Royal Wedding, and take a trip on the London Eye (Go around as the sun is setting, it is such an amazing site to see.) Everyone in London is so friendly and personable. The only downfall is that it is really expensive, but it most definitely worth it to visit!

Munich, Germany:

For anyone studying abroad during the Fall, go to Munich for Oktoberfest. For anyone studying abroad in the Spring, go to Munich for Springfest. Munich, by itself, is a beautiful city but seeing the locals at Springfest, and how they like to entertain and have a good time, made this trip 100x better. This was my last trip during my stay overseas and it was one of my favorites. Along with enjoying the festivities at either festival, make sure you grab a pretzel along the way!


*Sorry if none of these photos work. My computer has been acting up for months now!*

 

 

We fell in love with London!

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Arriving in London late? No problem. Arriving in London late then waiting in line for passport checks for over an hour before taking an hour and a half bus ride into the city? Without having any clue where the hostel you're staying at is located...? Slight problem.
We grabbed a map at the airport and used this once the bus dropped us off in the city center. It was around 2-3 am but London was still so charming. The only vehicles on the road at this hour were the red double buses and London's classic black taxis.
We were walking for a long time. We were on the road that our hostel was supposed to be on but we didn't know how much longer we would have to keep walking. Finally, we gave in and hailed a cab. Within minutes we were outside of our hostel. The meter in the cab said that we owed £4.50 but as I handed him the money the driver said not to worry about it! It was the sweetest thing!
Eventually we got to our hostel. We walked into the room we were supposed to stay in which was a 20 person shared dorm. Very fortunately for us, every bed was already full so we got put into a 4 person room for the night without an extra charge.
The next day we decided there was no way we wanted to stay in that crazy 20 person room in the shady hostel so we upgraded to what they had available which was an 8 person room.
When we woke up in London, we knew what we wanted to do. A double decker tour bus!! We bought our tickets and got on a bus right away. Our first stop was to take a Harry Potter walking tour. Before the tour started we went looking for something to eat. We found this quaint little diner with the best breakfast sandwiches. We took them to go (or in London- "to take away") and then met up for the tour. It was really cool to see the different places in London where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed (nerdy I know but this was one of my favorite parts!) We stopped in a classic London sweet shop- one that sells many candies (muggle-version) of the ones in the movies. I got a chocolate frog and it was delicious.
We hopped back on the bus and toured the rest of the day (both bus and boat). That night we went on the London Eye. We went at the perfect time- right around sunset. This way we got a great view of the city in the light and also at dusk with all the pretty lights.
That night we headed to a pub for  dinner. I ordered the classic fish and chips which was delicious.
After dinner we decided to take the tube for the first time to get back to our hostel. To purchase the oyster card (many people recommended this option) the machine needed us to pay all in coins. A kind employee was working with us and decided to let me pass through without a card and buy one from the station on the other side. At the next station, we explained the situation and I was let through by the employee. They were so understanding and sweet and made our lives a lot easier.
Monday morning we got back on the tour bus since we bought two day passes. The traffic was insane, however, so we got off of the bus as soon as we could and took the tube over to Buckingham Palace.
Luckily we got there in time for the Change of Guard ceremony. It was really cool to see this happen in front of the palace. The guards are all very talented and the ceremony was great.
We spent the rest of the day making our way around London. We saw Westminster Abbey, shopped a little at Regeant's and Oxford street and went in Hamley's toy store
I loved London for all the charm and I was upset that our time passed so quickly. I was so glad, however, for all we saw during our short stay.
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Barcelona: a vacation from our vacation

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Landing in Barcelona was a different story. At this point the strikes were in full effect and there were no buses running from the airport to the city center. What did this mean for us? Get ripped off by a taxi.
We got in a cab that took us "close" to our hostel. He charged us €40 which is not that bad considering the circumstances.
We had  walking directions to get to the hostel we were staying in. Following them did not lead to where we needed to be. Eventually (somehow) we found our way. Our hostel was situated RIGHT on the beach in Barcelona. We were thrilled by this. It seemed like a dream come true.
We were tired from wearing ourselves out in Seville so when we saw how amazing and relaxing the beach looked, Jess said this was like "the vacation from our vacation."
We didn't spend too much idle time on the beach, however. While in Barcelona we saw the Cathedral, walked to for over an hour then toured the Sagrada Familia, walked through Gaudi's Parc Güell and toured Gaudi's house, saw the major fountain show in Monjüic, and even went salsa dancing.
One of my favorite things about Barcelona was that my sister and I figured out the metro system. It felt so cool to be able to figure out and get where you need to go. This is something I would have never thought we would be able to do, but we did it. And we did it well!
One of the most annoying things about Barcelona is the constant selling of things up and down the beach. Women walking around offering massages non stop. Men waking around selling "agua, beer, coca cola, water, cerveza..." amoung other things like mojitos, blankets... Really anything you can think of. I'll never forget this. Jess and I were thinking "Whatever happened to the ice cream man on the beach?!" We prefer that much more.
Eventually, it was time to leave Barcelona. But before we said goodbye, we stopped for a huge and delicious lunch at the Hard Rock Café compliments of our grandmother (thanks gmom!). The Hard Rock brought back memories from home both because of times we had went before (Annie!) and because of the delicious American food.
Off to another airport. Onto another plane. Off to our next destination!!!!

My sister comes to Sevilla!

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I couldn't believe it when I saw my sister walk through the doors of the Sevilla airport after claiming her baggage. I teared up because I was so happy she made it without a problem. We got on the bus to head into the city and we were laughing and joking all the way about the most random stuff. I missed my sister so much.
We got off the bus and we were in Spain! Together! I loved witnessing her see everything for the first time. The orange trees that I walk by everyday- I was once amazed by them, too. It helped me take a step back and realize this wasn't always so comfortable to me. It took me back to before I knew my way around- before I could really call Seville my home.
We walked through the city, dragging her suitcases all the way to our hostel. She chose our hostel and she did a great job of it. We stayed in Triana, one of the oldest and prettiest parts of Sevilla. It's also a very convienent location because it was close enough to my homestay, the university and all of the tourist attractions we were going to see.
After we checked in we went out in search of food. Jess was starving after all of her traveling so she knew she wanted something she was sure she would like. So....we went to McDonald's. It was delicious (of course) but afterward we pledged not to eat at McDonald's again for the rest of her trip.
Jess took a nap because she had some jet lag. I couldn't sleep because I was too excited that she was finally in Seville with me. I couldn't wait for her to wake up.
Eventually, she did wake up and we went to the river to sit at an outside bar and enjoy some sangria- Jess's favorite.
The rest of the days in Seville we spent touring. We saw the Cathedral, Alcazar, and Bull fighting arena and museum. We even took a little row through the river in Plaza de España. Who knew we were so great with oars!?! (haha!)
During her time here, she was able to meet my host family. My host mom and sister took us out to coffee to get to know Jess. It was really nice and kind of crazy to have my two worlds meet.
Jess also came to a bunch of my classes with me during the week which was really nice.
Our time in Seville ended, however, on the same day as the General Strike throughout Spain. We were worried about getting the bus to the airport and then catching our plane. We were really lucky to catch an early bus to the airport and we didn't have any problems getting to our next destination. It was a huge relief!


The Ark

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So I've been volunteering at the ARK for a couple of months now and it has been an amazing experience. The Ark is a refuge for individuals battling addiction and families without homes. Every Friday afternoon a couple of my friends (CIEE students) and I go to the Ark and play with the kids.

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What I find most amazing about these children is their ability to see the good and the silver lining in life in spite of all that they have gone through and are going through. This Saturday we decided to throw a braii (BBQ) for some of the young adults. We are going to have it at our RES in Liesbeek by the pool and the basket ball court just to give them a day to relax and hang out with some college students and pick our brains. The Friday before we are planning a career day for them just to let them see the wide range of opportunities and professions out there.  (Pics to come soon)

Bali Adventure Part 4

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My final two days in Bali were planned around the Balinese New Year or the Day of Silence. On their New Years Eve, there is a large festival with a parade to celebrate the Hindu Gods. Each village creates a hand carried float of a certain god. Each float is very unique and most of them tell a story with vibrant colors and figures. At dusk, each village marches toward the capital of Denpasar and a huge parade line is started. After the parade, everyone parties until 6 a.m.  On the actual Day of Silence, people are not allowed to have lights or fires, all types of work are banned, and there is no travel. The day is to be a day of meditation; reflecting on the past year, forgiving others, and planning for the future. I was told the reason everyone stays inside is because the Hindu equivalent to the devil goes out during this day and walks the streets looking for people. If he doesn't find anyone, he goes away and doesn't return until next year. From this explanation, I can definitely see why people stay inside. As outsiders, we were forced to stay in the hotel. This made for a very quiet ending to an amazing trip.


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Bali Adventure Part 3

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G'day Mates,

After an exciting experience with elephants and rapids, my next few days in Bali were more of a cultural experience. Our group signed up for a guided tour which lasted the entire day. Our first stop was at a small village community of silver workers. Each village in Bali specialized in a certain craft or service and these family communities lived and worked together for generations. This particular village created fine jewelry out of silver and jewels. Our next stop was to the Royal Family Temple which was located near the town of Ubud. Like other temples, it is common to see a sign that says "no menstruating women" outside.

 

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Royal Family Temple

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 Afterwards we tromped through some rice patties on our way to try some Balinese foods. I'm not exactly sure what each treat was but the first was a sort of deep fried sweet potato fries and the second was breaded honey balls which tasted uncannily like honey comb.

 

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Next stop was to the Sacred Monkey Forest. This was a sanctuary for the wild monkeys live in and it consists of a small village and a temple. Here we could feed monkeys and even though we weren't allowed to touch the monkeys, they had no problem climbing all over us, searching our pockets, and in Nick's case, slapping us across the face.

 

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Our final stop of the day was a marvelous one. The temple of Tanah Lot is built on a volcanic rock formation just off the coast. During high tide, the island is cut off from land but at low tide a land bridge is revealed and people can walk back and forth. Just my luck, just as I started walking out the tide came in but it was still an amazing seeing it from a distance.

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Tanah Lot


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I have internet so now I want to upload more pictures!

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This was one of our first nights in South Africa.
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Hiking with Wayne at the Conservation Academy
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Food!

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I figured I should dedicate an entire blog on food around Europe.  Let's be real, it's one of our favorite things about traveling.  I didn't get pictures of everything I ate, though I wish I did so I could show you all of them.  But, to be honest half the time I was so hungry or so excited to ear that taking the time to get a picture did not even cross my mind.  But anyways, here are some of my favorite foods.

 

Florence/ Italy: 


Of course, most people think of Italy as the "food capital of the world."  I'd have to agree considering the first thing you associate with Italy is bread, olive oil, cheese, pizza, pasta, etc.  I figured I'd give some advice for people who are planning to study or at least visit.  The overall favorite panini place of us study abroad students is I Due Fratellini. It's the best whole-in-the-wall panini place and it only costs 2.50-3 euro.  It is also on the same street as the "Jersey Shore Pizza Place" which is also good.  You may also be wondering where on earth  to get gelato considering there are hundreds in Florence.  My favorite is "Gelateria di Neri" on Via dei Neri.  If you want a not-so-typical gelato flavor, get Pistachio.  For some reason they are big on pistachio flavored things here.  It is GOOD. 

 

 

London:

London isn't really known for its cuisine, but they are big on fish and chips.  I am generally not a seafood person whatsoever, but fish n chips is my exception.  We went to the "Sherlock Holmes Restaurant" near Trafalgar Square. Also, if you are visiting London and crave a little sense of home, there are in fact 2 Chipoltles in London.  Of course, we took advantage of that.

 

 

Spain:

Spain is known for its "Paella."  If you don't know what it is, Paella is essentially a dish of rice and either seafood, vegetables, or chicken. Also, their concept of tapas is pretty interesting.  It is basically a bunch of smaller dishes that you share between your table.

 

 

Portugal: 

Believe it or not, the two best pasta dishes I have had were in Portugal.  Just want to give them credit, because you would probably generally not think that Portugal would master pasta dishes.

 

 

France:

Let's just say, being abroad made me go out of my comfort zone.  This was no different when it came to the food.  In France I tried duck, one of its specialties.  I'm glad I did because it was actually really good.  It was just like steak just a little more tender.  For dessert, you must try Macaroons.  They are hard to describe, but they are more like a pastry with a sugary filling in between the two layers.  They kind of look like colored hamburgers.  My favorite is of course, Pistachio. 

 

 

Germany (Munich):

Of course, Germans are really into the thick meats like Bratwurst and things like that.  I am not a read thick meat type of person, so I got Spaetzel noodles.  They are basically macaroni and cheese with fried onion bits in it.  It was soooo good. I'm not sure if it's a common German dish or just a Hofbrauhaus thing.  Regardless, you have to make it to the famous Hofbrauhaus brewery in Munich.

Waikato: Hamilton, NZ

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The Netherlands

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The next stop on our trip after Bruges, Belgium, was Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

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I don't know what I expected...but it wasn't quite what I found. Amsterdam was a big city, but not that big. It was small enough to nearly walk around the whole thing in a day. I didn't really take any pictures of the touristy, crowded, city-like areas - instead more of the pretty canals and quiet areas.

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We went on a walking tour of Amsterdam where we learned a lot about the history and culture of the city. (Seriously, if you're in Europe, check out the free New Sandeman tours!) Our guide told us about some of the politics around what the city is known for - namely drugs and its red light district.  He said that the new government wants to make it so you have to be a Dutch citizen to purchase from the "coffeeshops", which would have radical implications on its tourism, from which everyone in the city benefits.  Interesting changes happening!

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We went to the Van Gogh Museum, which was cool.  There were a lot of other museums we wanted to go to (for instance, the Anne Frank Museum or a museum of artwork with cats in it), but Amsterdam was really expensive, so unfortunately we didn't go everywhere.

IMG_2429.jpgFood I will never forget - pancakes (which is what they call crepes)! Yumm. I got this enormous ham and cheese one... twice.

IMG_2480.jpg Finally, we took a day trip to Keukenhof Gardens.  It was a landscaped park that showed off probably hundreds of different types of flowers that are grown in the Netherlands. Surrounding the huge park were fields of tulips also. It was really pretty!

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Belgium

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Dan and I flew into Brussels, Belgium after classes finished for the semester on March 30.  Tired from our early flight and carrying all of our stuff, we wandered around the city for the day.

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We were taken in by the old Main Square and its ornate buildings.  Statues carved into the stone and gold leafing were our first glimpses of continental Europe.

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This is Manneken Pis, a statue and fountain of a little boy peeing. It is a huge tourist attraction (who knows why!).  He is dressed up in a costume that is changed regularly; when we saw him he was dressed up like Dracula.

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We went to the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM).  None of the plaques were in English, so we simply enjoyed looking at all the different instruments and plugging our headphones into all the listening stations. 

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And, of course, we got some Belgium waffles before leaving the capital city of the European Union.  Yum!

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That evening, we took our first train ride of the trip to Bruges. We had gotten a Eurail pass - which I would highly recommend, though it does depend on your trip.  The specific one we got gave us 5 "Travel Days" (unlimited number of trains in 24 hours) over 2 months through Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Germany.  Perfect!  It definitely saved us money instead of buying the tickets individually - it paid for itself through Germany alone.

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But anyway, Bruges is a sort of small port city in Belgium.  It's absolutely beautiful, charming, and fun.  It was one of my favorite places on the trip!  We went to the Diamond Museum where we saw a cutting and polishing demonstration.  We were mostly impressed by the presenter's ability to switch between English, French, and Dutch!  We also hit the Chocolate Museum, where we saw some more demonstrations and ate some samples.

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We took an eventful tour of the city one afternoon, but mostly we walked around and explored on our own.  Above are pictures of the Belfry tower.  We woke up early on our last day in Bruges with the intentions of climbing the steps inside to the top, but were surprised to see this when we got to the main square:

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A stage that had been used for a concert the night before now hosted what we think was the region's cycling team! Despite not knowing exactly what was going on, it was a fun surprise.


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Our tour guide had recommended instead of climbing the tower to take a tour of a brewery in town, which not only included an awesome view over the city that rivals the Belfry's but a free beer at the end of the tour. So we did this instead, where I learned that in the olden days, Belgians used to preserve the summer fruits by leaving them in alcohol.  This results in delicious cherry flavored beer.

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This is another one of Bruges' squares. The first building is the town hall and the grey building on the left in the second picture is a church that has a vial of Christ's blood.

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We saw a lot of the sights from the movie In Bruges which was cool--including the park in the picture above!

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Along the river there are several windmills. On our last day, we walked around the park and went back through town a different way, seeing a different part. In general, it was the perfect place to just wander around and find interesting places and pretty sights.

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Kaikoura on a whim

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It was a Tuesday like any other, except that it was a field trip day and that no one has any classes on Wednesday. Thus, a particular group of people, 5 to be exact, decided at dinner (at 6:30 pm) that they were going to take a spontaneous trip. So by 7:30 pm we loaded up the car and headed off to Kaikoura a mere 2 hours away.

Being well aware that the best part of heading to Kaikoura was the drive to the town, so we thought it best stop and camp somewhere outside of the area so we could get the full experience in the sunlight. Our token kiwi Claire, our RA, knew just the place. That happened to be Gore Bay, some 30 minutes outside of Kaikoura. With a little difficulty we managed to find a legal spot to camp on a bluff above the beach. It was less then fun pitching the tent in the rain and cold, it was surprisingly comfortable to pile into a 3 person tent. We spent the night talking and eating snacks until we fall fell asleep...

And woke up to this lovely sight first thing in the morning.

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It was completely breath taking and we were lucky to find such a great place to watch the sun rise. We hung out for a while on the sands of Gore Bay while the outside of our tent dried. We found a crab which we dubbed Mr. Krabs (from Spongbob) and drew him a house in the sand.

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We also took some token jumping pictures and lazed in the sun until we decided to head the rest of the way to Kaikoura.

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The drive was just as beautiful as we had hoped. On one side of the road are hills but to the other is nothing but the purest blue water.

Once in town we filled out bellies with breakfast and ducked into a few shops for fun we headed down to the water. It was a little rockier and less sand so we spelled things with the white rocks we found and watched the tide come in.

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One of the coolest parts had to be on our way home. We wanted to stop and take pictures of the view from the road and maybe find some seals. Of course we were lucky enough to do just that. We found several seals lounging about on rocks sunning themselves and got some pretty nice shots of them. They were rather interested in us as well. 

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Despite the chilly air it was such a good time. In order to have the most fun sometimes you just have to go with the moment.

Until next time, cheers. 

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  • NICHOLAS ANDREW DYSZEL: Wow, Emily! Sounds like you had an incredible trip! It's read more
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