Notes from Abroad

The overseas experiences of NC State University students

Vaarwel America!

BlogHeadersKatherineKristoffersen

In three days I will be jetting off to live in South Africa for four and a half months. What?! It’s rather hard for my mind to grasp this, even though I’ve been preparing for my study abroad semester for months.  As I’ve mentioned my plans to others, I’ve noticed that many ask my reason in choosing to study abroad in South Africa. I’m sure all students who are studying abroad get asked this a lot. As a student in International Relations, I wanted to go somewhere that would be new and completely foreign to me. When I saw Cape Town, South Africa on the list of places I could study I researched the region and programs offered at the university. It looked perfect! I have always wanted to go to South Africa and it is an IDEAL place for someone in my field of study. It is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the continent. It has an interesting history with apartheid and colonization, which makes it a good destination for people who want to learn and see how different cultures interact. The country has eleven official languages! In Cape Town, approximately 28% speak English, 36% speak Afrikaans, and 30% speak Xhosa. I think I’ll be able to get around without a problem by just speaking English (at least I hope so!)

Source: education.randmcnally.com

Source: education.randmcnally.com

Also, living in a developing country is appealing to me. I wanted a chance to volunteer in my community during my study abroad experience, and the University of Cape Town offers several opportunities to do this. As a place that is changing, it will be really cool to witness the nation’s development. The older you get the harder it may be to live or travel in developing countries where modern conveniences may not be as present. Whereas Cape Town is a modernized city, I’m looking forward to traveling “off the beaten path” as well. I’m looking forward to some hiking, safaris, and adventurous trips!

The University of Cape Town is listed as the highest ranked African university (according to QS World University Rankings), with over 24,000 students studying a variety of subjects ranging from engineering to jazz studies. The campus is located on the slope of Devil’s peak, which is part of the mountainous range that serves as a backdrop to the city of Cape Town. From the pictures, it looks absolutely beautiful! There are also over 100 student organizations that are possible to join, so I’m excited about getting involved in some of the student life!

The University of Cape Town  Source: www.ucttrust.org.uk

The University of Cape Town
Source: http://www.ucttrust.org.uk

As my days in Raleigh are dwindling to an end, I’m experiencing different thoughts and emotions. I am the happiest I have ever been in life, and leaving home means leaving a place of contentment. I’m surrounded by amazing people- my family, friends, boyfriend, and those who are part of the N.C. State Wolfpack. Here in the USA, I couldn’t ask for more. As of Wednesday, I’ll be entering a period of months where there are so many aspects of the unknown. If I had to sum all of my feelings into one, it would probably be a mix of “This is going to be phenomenal- the best experience of my life thus far” and “What have I gotten myself into?” There’s no doubt I will miss everyone here, but this new adventure will be something I will not regret.

There are five other N.C. State students studying abroad at the University of Cape Town, and they all are really cool! We’ve helped each other through the visa process, housing applications, and more. It’d be fun to have some N.C. State braais (South African term for an outdoor barbeque) in the near future! Since South Africa is located in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. So we will be arriving during their summertime. Leaving NC’s 20 degree weather for sunny 80 degree weather? Yes please!

Obviously, bringing shorts to Cape Town is a must. However, having an open mind and optimistic mentality are even more important for my trip. I’m an incredibly lucky gal to have this opportunity and I plan on making the most of every single minute that I’m there. Vaarwel America (‘Goodbye’ in Afrikaans), see you in June!

Coming Home

BlogHeadersFrankieJohnson

The much-anticipated day finally arrived- I touched down in Raleigh, NC about 3 weeks ago. Coming home in the holiday season certainly has led to a very busy few weeks- seeing all the family and friends, scrambling to find Christmas presents, going to all the family gatherings, settling in to life in America once again. It’s been a wild ride.

I so very much appreciate hot showers. I love seeing green vegetables on my plate and being able to communicate all my thoughts clearly (how quickly I’ve learned to take that for granted again). I love going to the gym and being able to freely say, “No, Mom, I don’t like sandwiches. I’ll eat a baked potato for lunch that I will make myself.” There’s nothing like the feelings of freedom and independence.

By far, seeing everyone again has been my favorite part- my boyfriend, my best friends, my roomies from freshman and sophomore year, my parents, my extended family. Getting to spend time with everyone I missed so badly while I was in Ecuador was everything I thought it would be. And coming home around Christmas time made it even easier to see everyone because everyone was gathering anyway.

On the other hand, I think often about the other students in my program who I came to know so well throughout the semester. They were so different from me, and in the beginning I thought I wouldn’t get along with any of them. But by the end, they were some good friends. I also miss my home-stay family in Quito. I got so close to my brother and sister. It makes me sad to think of the very real possibility of never seeing them again.

I don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten my feet back under me yet. I sometimes find myself disoriented by the pace of life here. Someone will make a comment like, “You simply can’t drive a small car when you have a baby in the back seat for safety reasons.” And they’ll say it with a completely confident this-is-a-fact tone of voice, and I’ll respond in my head, “But that’s just an American attitude. It’s not a fact. People in other countries drive smaller cars.” But I don’t say it out loud- they would look at me funny. People talk about a house in the suburbs as if it’s the main goal of their lives. And it pains me because I think of the energy it will cost to maintain that lifestyle and the pain the production of that energy causes in Ecuador and I wonder if I can make my life different without being a stranger in my own land.

At times I feel alienated and uncertain. Other times I feel like the luckiest girl alive to have gone to Ecuador and back. But I’ve decided that going abroad came with a unique and sometimes unforeseen set of challenges, so it makes sense that coming home is the same way.

Folks, it’s been a pleasure blogging for you this semester, and I hope you enjoyed reading. Feel free to comment if you have any last questions.

Chau!

Return

BlogHeadersKeithCouncil

My last night in Cork was a Monday. I and some friends went to all of our favorite pubs. I ate a Turkish kebab for the last time, and I walked down Saint Patrick’s street for the last time. That afternoon, I had made one big loop around campus for some final pictures. That was my last day. I think perhaps I may see Cork again, but there are so many towns and villages and scenic country side in Ireland that I may never lay eyes on again. That’s a very sad thought. I expressed this thought to my mother, and she told me, be happy that you were lucky enough to have seen in once than to never have seen it at all. Haha, typical mom advice, but as always it’s as true as it can be.

Tuesday was a different affair. The apartment had to be cleaned, and I had to pack. About midday, Niklas knocked on my door. We said our farewells, but I know that our paths will cross again some day. Still, it’s not easy saying goodbye, especially to the other places and people I will never see again. I went and grabbed Subway for dinner. My first and last meal in Ireland ironically, and probably half my meals in between. Four euros for a six inch and a water, and that’s about as cheap a meal you can find, even in a grocery store. Needless to say, I probably won’t eat subway for a year or two. Eight o’clock, I roll my two suitcases into the hall way and take one last look at my room and then close the door. I took a bus to the bus station and then was whisked away in the dark to the airport. I actually think it was best that way, it was too dark to see anything which made leaving easier. I arrived at Shannon airport at midnight. It was deserted in that post apocalyptic kinda way. I made camp on a bench next to an outlet and woke up when the airport started to stir around five. I checked in early and had no lines. At nine I left Ireland headed for Heathrow. Heathrow is massive, absolutely massive. By the time I left the plane, bussed to the other side of the airport, checked in, and went through TSA again, I was almost late for my next flight which was two hours after I landed. Then it was an eight and a half hour flight to Philadelphia, of which I slept none. I did watch three movies from the on demand flight screen, so it could have been worse. Five hours and a flight to Raleigh later, I was home. My girlfriend of four years greeted me with a giant hug and a kiss, very cinematic and everything, all I needed were some doves flying around. My parents gave me a huge squeeze. Now I really felt home. Well, I did force them to immediately drive me to a Bojangles, but after a huge gulp of that sweet nectar of the gods, southern ice tea, I was officially home.

So I am writing this about two weeks after the fact so that I can give you some insight on re-entry shock. The first three to four days back felt really weird for two reasons. One, I was acclimatizing to the change in time zones (which by the way was a hundred times easier coming east to west as opposed to west to east). Two, I had the strangest sensation that life was too easy. I don’t mean that in some sort of cerebral sense, just every day tasks felt like they were going to slow for me. I attribute this to the state of mind that I grew accustomed to while abroad. I was constantly in a heightened state of awareness because I was trying to absorb everything, but your mind is also constantly adjusting for differences. Accents, languages, money, transit, food, hygiene, all the stuff that is so mundane that you never think of, you have to make adjustments for. When that’s suddenly gone, life feels like, easy mode. The best way I know how to compare it is imagine training to run by running with weights on your legs for three months, and then taking them off. You would feel like a god among ants so to speak.

After that wears off is when it starts to hit you. I have heard it said that re-entry shock can actually be worse than culture shock on arrival. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with this. I loved my time in Ireland and I enjoyed every second, but I was ready to be home. I think that that readiness to be home really helps. On the other hand, thinking about it is a strange sensation. It’s a tattoo on my memories forever, and I know that the experience changed me. My friends and family have even commented. I know that the way I look at the world is so different that I don’t think I could describe that in a hundred posts. I know that Ireland will always represent something special to me, and that a piece of me will always be there. I miss it most in the mornings, right after I wake up. I don’t know why, but this is when it hits me the most that I am really back. It is a polite melancholia, and that is the best way I know to describe it. I think that for students who spend six months to a year abroad, they will experience a separation depression much more severe, and after leaving may in some ways feel like they are gaining a scar rather than a tattoo.

The last thing I would like to talk about is for anyone who reads this that is thinking about studying abroad. It is not for everyone. There are some people that are home bodies. That is most certainly not a bad thing. Everyone is an individual, and people who would not fair well on a study abroad typically have a love and relationship with their surroundings that most people will never know. That’s perfectly fine, and if you are one of those people, usually by the mid point in college when you would most likely study abroad, you already know this about yourself, so an abroad experience isn’t even on the table. That being said, if you are even like the tiniest bit interested, please please, make that leap to do it. I know all the reasons to say no, and chief among those are usually loved ones and money. Your loved ones will be there when you get back, and being away for a few months won’t change that. Money is difficult, and for some it makes it impossible, and that is a sad reality that State’s program does its best to assuage with need based scholarships. But, if there is anyway to fund the trip, any way at all, I guarantee that the opportunity to study abroad in college is the only way to really gain more than a tourist’s impression of another culture and country for the price. If you were to look at all the costs associated with trying to go live in another country for three months outside of college, the difference would be astronomical. And for everything else that could possibly hold you back, the benefits so greatly outweigh them that you won’t even remember why you considered not doing it. Study abroad. Please, I envy anyone who has the opportunity, because it is truly a once in a lifetime experience. STUDY ABROAD!

Peace out, and thanks to everyone who followed me.

Keith Alexander Council

UCC Motorcycle Club

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Being an abroad student, the people that I tend to brush shoulders with the most are other abroad students. We have the same housing. We share some classes. And in general, the other abroad students are the ones participating in the tours and site seeing excursions. This has been great for meeting people from all over the world. But it hasn’t quite been so easy to develop relationships with locals. UCC has a myriad of clubs though, and motorcycle club has been a great way to bridge cultural differences and develope relationships through a shared interest.

I have a growing fascination with motorcycles. I’m currently licensed, but I have no bike of my own, and I will definitely not attempt to ride in a country where they drive on the left side of the road! But that didn’t matter to this small group of guys. They welcomed me and anyone with interest and respect for bikes.

In a little shed turned shop, eight or nine guys meet every Wednesday. They talk and joke. “Craic and banter” as they say. We talk about bikes and they bring up news. They also talk about politics and current events. This has really been a place for me to see a very relaxed, un-filtered take on Irish culture. Not a tour or scholastic endeavor, just natural conversation.

But we have been productive as well! The club is in the process of building a custom café racer. This is a bike that was popular in the UK in the 60s and 70s. They are a sort of bare bones bike enthusiasts would race between cafés and coffee shops. They died out, but have had a resurgence of interest for collectors and artistic custom detailing. The club stripped a bike completely, all the way down to the engine block. In helping rebuild the engine, they have taught me more about bikes and small engines than I ever knew before. And when we aren’t on the café racer we are doing common maintenance work on member’s bikes. This information and experience is invaluable if I ever have the opportunity to own my own bike.

But by far my favorite event was the club’s outing. Once a semester, the club likes to do something fun outside the shop. We went Karting! Irish go-karts essentially, but the place we went to isn’t your run of the mill go-kart track. The track is about a kilometer long, with hair-pin turns and blazing straight aways. I knew this was going to be different when we dawned jump suits, gloves and motorcycle grade helmets. The karts do 50 to 60 km/h on a straight away. I found out pretty quick on the three practice laps that unlike most go-karts where you lay on the gas around a little figure eight track, these take a lot more skill to drive. Add in the fact that the track is super slick because it’s always raining or has just rained in Ireland, and you have a sense of what a massively good time this was.

After our practice laps, we line up for a thirty minute gran prix. The driver who completes the most laps wins a plastic trophy and bragging rights for life. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun Karting in my life.

I got 9th out of 15. Not shabby for my first time! But I need some practice on turn 3.

I’ll miss these guys and the craic and banter we had. But I’m happy for the experience and all they have taught me!

Cheers!

Final (very disorganized) thoughts

BlogHeadersFrankieJohnson

I have just realized this will be my last post from Ecuador, and I am slightly sad about it. However, I will soldier on with a stiff upper lip and a slightly cracking though still whole heart.

My final week in Ecuador has been busy, busy, busy. Considering that the professors kept saying we would be on a “retreat” the last week, I was envisioning a week filled with frolicking through flowery meadows, late-night conversations about our personal growth during the semester, a few cheesy yet heartfelt lines about how we’ll miss Ecuador, etc. And there has been a bit of that stuff, but mostly it’s been a surprisingly busy and emotional time.

So, to back up, after a frantic few days of finishing my paper on the spectacled bears (21 pages excluding appendices- score for Frankie), we left Yunguilla and found ourselves back in Quito. I bade goodbye to my Yunguilla host family perhaps a bit overly enthusiastically, but my mom cried when I left, so she couldn’t have disliked me too much, right?

Unfortunately, through a series of ill-fated events, we found ourselves in Quito at 6 am when the group meeting was at 8, lacking my cell phone, my USB, and Lucia’s USB which has the only recent digital copy of her ISP. And it was drizzling and nothing was open because it was 6 am on a Sunday. I have had more triumphant moments.

Eventually, we found a very expensive café that was open and settled in with the simplest and cheapest breakfast they offered (American prices- how will I adjust?). After a month working on our individual projects, everyone was about to reunite and it felt a little weird. But when I looked up and saw Alde, my favorite of our teachers, smiling at me as he paid for his coffee, I immediately felt better. It turned out about 10 of the students also found this tiny coffee place, since it was the only thing open around. And it felt great to get back with the group. You don’t realize how much you miss people until you see them again.

Our final excursion to La Hesperia, a reserve in the north in the cloud forest, consisted mainly of us all presenting our projects. They were incredible. Alexa did a preliminary study on a recently discovered plant species. Sarah and Megan did social studies in the Amazon on the peoples’ opinions about petroleum. Gene studied a huge geological formation never previously studied. Several worked with an Ecuadorian non-profit to gather information regarding a wildlife corridor they’re trying to build in the south. They were incredibly varied and all pretty useful. It was cool to see how a class of undergrads can go out and do projects that really help conservation in Ecuador.

We got back to Quito a few days ago, and I have started to be mopey to leave everyone. Mostly, though, I will miss my Quito host family. I spent the evening with my sister and brother last night and it felt great. We played cards, chatted and caught up, ate a little dinner, and took a bunch of pictures. When I got into the taxi to leave, my host sister told the driver, “Take good care of this cargo; she is very special,” and I was sad, sad, sad.

Xavier (our professor) told us at the beginning of this week that the days would start to pass even more quickly now, and I didn’t believe him. But considering I’ll be leaving for the airport in about 18 hours, I honestly am shocked how fast this week flew by. I expected to have so much more time with the other people of the program, more time to do fun tourist stuff in Quito, just more time in general to say goodbye.

On the other hand, I am very excited to go home. At times, I think I have never been more excited for anything in my whole life. I have missed my family, my friends. I’ve missed vegetables, meals with portion sizes of my own choosing, knowing where everything is so I can complete daily chores easily, being able to navigate social situations by knowing the language well, feeling safe basically everywhere, Zaxby’s. And all of these wonderful things will be waiting for me when I get home. Along with that excitement-of-all-excitements- CHRISTMAS! And when I think about all those things, I say to myself, “Let’s get this plane off the ground!”

Northern Ireland, Part II

BlogHeadersKeithCouncil

DSC_0498Funky decided that taking the highway would be a little too mundane. So he chose a route that would be a little more fun, the A2. This is a very small road that traces the coast from Belfast almost all the way to Giant’s Causeway. I say trace because the land rises quite sharply from the coast, so you are essentially driving on the edge of a cliff for a good ways. At first, I was a little nauseous, winding in and out with the coast line. My fellow companions at the very back of the bus weren’t too happy either. But that’s until we started to see the views. It was a beautiful sunny day and the ocean was a deep, deep blue. I am writing this blog much after the fact, but I can still say with confidence that I have never been so entranced by Ireland’s raw natural beauty. We made a pit stop for lunch in the very small town of Ballycastle. I grabbed a cold cut sandwich from the local shop and a bag of crisps. We all sat outside along the edge of a little harbor. It was so beautiful, and looking back at the pictures I don’t think that I could really capture it. If for some reason I ever decided to become a hermit and write or paint for a living, I think this is where I would go live. But our time here was short, we still had a ways to go. 

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After forty five minutes it was time to get back on the bus and make for Giant’s Causeway. Giant’s Causeway is a very unique place. We arrived and started a trek up along the cliff line. A steep hike down will bring you to a narrow beach and and outcropping of very peculiar rocks. According to Funky, geologists will tell you that these basalt columns were formed by special volcanic activity. But that isn’t true. They were actually formed by a giant in Ireland and a giant in Scotland who were having a bit of a row. The giant of Ireland, Finn McCool, built this bridge to Scotland. But when he reached Scotland, he realized he could not win the fight and ran back. He destroyed the bridge, and these are the remains of said bridge. This of course is the truth according to the man named ‘Funky’. The hexagonal columns appear in an array of strange formations in the area. The look like garden stepping stones and they extend up to twelve meters into the earth. I snapped lots of pictures and after a couple hours trekked back to the bus.

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We arrived at Londonderry very late in the afternoon.

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Derry is always referred to on maps as Londonderry/Derry, because this city, like Belfast, has been a central point of the feud between the Catholic and Protestant peoples. The River Foyle flows right through center of the city. This river had served as the line of demarcation between Northern and Southern Ireland. But as this was an important port city, the entire city was drawn within Northern Ireland’s borders by the British, hence Londonderry. It has since been contested. The hostel we stayed at here was an entirely different experience. It was a big house, and the rooms had been outfitted with bunk beds. There was a normal kitchen and living room downstairs, and different sexes were on each floor. It was decorated with a very eclectic sort of pan religious/hippie feel. It was so awesome. One of the rooms had instruments on the walls, and at night people picked up different ones and started playing. I laugh now thinking about, what an experience, meeting and talking to people from all over Europe!

The next morning we woke up for an early tour of the city. We visited the site where the shootings of Bloody Sunday 1972 occurred. (The one that the U2 song is referring to.) It was a very tragic event in which Catholic protesters were perceived by the British Military to be getting out of hand. Guns were fired and 13 males were killed, 7 of whom were only teenagers. Murals adorn the walls of nearby buildings, and it is a crime to deface these works of art commemorating this time in history.

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A quick breakfast and back on the bus. I had enjoyed the trip and learned so much. I was so happy to get a chance to meet all of these people and see other cultures through them. But I must admit, I was quite exhausted and ready to be home at this point. It would take some eight hours of windy bumpy Irish roads to reach Cork again. We did stop at the burial site of the famous poet W.B. Yeats. A small church in an apparently smaller town was the final resting place of the poet. Yeats spent much of his childhood in this secluded landscape of north western Ireland, and is said to have drawn upon it for his poetry. He was so fond of the place that it was his wish to have his remains moved back here.

When we arrived at Cork, I said goodbye to many of my new friends. It is a strange feeling, to share and experience with someone you will probably never meet again. I have had to do that many times here, and I am always a little sad to say goodbye. But I think it has made me appreciate the time I share with individuals more so, and to relish memories made together.

Las Cascadas Verdes

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We looked around on Friday afternoon and decided that since our time in Yunguilla is coming to an end (we leave Tuesday), we should have at least one day of adventuring on our own. After consulting the Bird Tourism Guide of the Northwest of Pichincha (our county), we decided the pictures of a gorgeous waterfall only two hours away were calling to us.

So Saturday morning, we woke up and walked down the Yunguilla road to the highway (about a 45-min. walk) and waited until a bus came by. We asked where it was going and hopped on. When we saw Kilometer 122 about 2 hours later, we descended. We found ourselves in a tiny run-down village with two stores by the side of the highway and a group of kids playing soccer. We asked for directions to the “Cascadas Verdes” (Green Waterfalls) and set off. We found the trail and walked about 20 minutes through a gorgeous tropical forest (and some fields full of cows) until we turned a corner onto the prettiest waterfall I’ve ever seen. It looked straight out of “South Pacific”- blue-green still water pooling at the bottom, boulders and vines lining the edges, a small recess under the waterfall, and the waterfall itself, about two feet wide, falling down a sheer rock face. We were stunned by the beauty and spent a few hours swimming and jumping off the top. It was probably a 30 foot drop, and I know I’ve never jumped from so high before. I’ve jumped from bridges, I’ve jumped from other cliffs, but I know from how hard I hit the water I’ve never been going that fast before. The only other time in my life I’ve been free-falling that fast was at the Free Fall ride at the State Fair. Those are the only two times I’ve been falling so fast it went from fun to terrifying. I only jumped once. The pictures are epic. Unfortunately, they’re on Lucia’s camera and need some sort of doohickey to do it- I didn’t really understand what she was saying. But don’t worry, folks, they’re coming!

After we walked back to the top of the trail, the man who owns the waterfall and charges people to see it ($3.50/person) made us juice from sugar cane. We pushed a wooden bar in a circle in order to crush the cane (I’m pretty sure that job is usually done by oxen). He mixed the juice with lemon juice and the flavor was very unique, but nice and refreshing.

The bus dropped us off at Calacali, the nearest town to Yunguilla, at 7:00 and pitch dark. We thought, “7:00 on a Saturday? It’ll be easy to find a taxi to take us the 5-min. drive to Yunguilla.” Incorrect. There wasn’t a single taxi in the main square where they usually wait for passengers. We saw one parked taxi and asked around for the owner, but after a small wild goose chase discovered he wasn’t around. Just as we were starting to consider walking the 2 hours back to Yunguilla in the dark on the highway, we saw a taxi creep into his garage. We ran across the square to get to him before the door closed us out and got there just in time. He charged us an extra dollar ($4 instead of $5) to take us to Yunguilla so late, but we thought it was worth the extra quarter each.

I got to my house at 8:30, very late in Yunguilla and felt terrible that my parents were still waiting up for me. We had called Diana, one of the girls who organizes all the tourist stuff for the town, when we realized we were going to be home much later than expected, but apparently she hadn’t passed the message on to my family. Considering they had just given me a little lecture about how I need to tell them more about what I’m doing and where I’m going, I doubt this little experience improved their opinion of me. The problem is that I often don’t know what my plans are since I’m dependent of Santiago’s plans (and he changes his plans often and isn’t particularly inclined to tell us about the changes). And in the beginning I told my plans to my mom, who nodded but couldn’t actually hear a word of what I was saying. In the past three weeks, I have accidentally effectively snuck out of the house without telling them, then woken them up in the middle of the night by banging on the window to let me back in the house, sent my dad searching all over the town for me because I told them I would be at the school, but had gone for a swing when the school was closed, sent them into a panic one morning when I suddenly needed a packed lunch for a day with Santiago instead of being able to come home for lunch, and accidentally refused to teach my mom about computers because I didn’t understand what she was saying. It’s been going well. Luckily, tomorrow is my last day so I can just leave behind my home-stay failures in Yunguilla.

After we leave Yunguilla tomorrow, we will spend a few days in the area with Santiago checking on camera traps, then have the final week of the program, which consists of presenting our projects and a trip that seems to be something like a final retreat, and then I go back to the good ole U.S. of A. The end is coming quickly, folks!

Northern Ireland, Part I

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Ireland is a giant island. At one point in time, it was a country all on its own. The British, as they were apt to do at that time, invaded and sparked conflicts that still persist to this day. More on this later, but for now, Ireland is split into two parts: the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland’s borders take up most of the land on this island. This is where I have been this semester. The Republic of Ireland is its own country, where people pay in euros, Guinness is brewed, and 95% of the population claim Catholicism. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and they pay in British Pound Sterling.

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There was a trip, three days two nights and as much of northern Ireland as you can see for 125 euros. That was for everything but food, so when Niklas showed me, it took about five seconds to decide that this was going to happen. So, I crammed a towel and a change of clothes in my book bag, along with the trusty camera, and we made our way down to the bus at six in the morning. We arrived to find one nice big tour bus full of people, and an old small bus with tires the size of donuts and stone age suspension. Guess which one had seats left!

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We boarded and a friendly, spunky dude who insisted on going by his nick-name ‘Funky’ came over the intercom with a voice loaded with way more energy than the other thirty people on the bus had put together at this hour. He proceeded to give us a run down of events and tried to get people talking. There was on the bus people from Germany, Turkey, Italy, Spain, France, England, China, and Canada. There was also one other nation represented. There was one American. Me. Which has never happened to me before, ever. And I thought that was pretty cool. But didn’t raise my hand on that one, as this was right when the NSA milk was spilt. Am I proud to be an American? Yes. But why rock the boat, I will let it come up organically in conversation, try to save a little face.

Ireland has been undergoing some massive infrastructure overhauls over the past decade. So the ride to Belfast was long but comfortable highways. Got to know some of the people around me, and dozed in an out to catch up on lost sleep from the early morning.

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Belfast! The capital of Northern Ireland, the second largest city on the island, birth place of the Titanic and the place where they film GAME OF THRONES. Brace yourselves, Belfast is coming. This place was superb. The Titanic museum looks awesome on the outside, but just like the iceberg that sunk the ship, tons more can’t be seen from the surface. I don’t have many pictures from inside, but you walk through what Belfast was like at the time, how the ship was built and how it sank, and then the finding of the wreckage. Belfast was a boom town when the ships were being built, and people flooded from all over the world to get work here, and there was plenty to go around. We road past the Titanic studios where they film HBO’s Game of Thrones. I did not see any dragons unfortunately, but it was interesting to know that the show is filmed either here at the giant sound stage, or in some of the empty country side of Northern Ireland. This is due in part to tax breaks the government gives the studio for using their country, which in turn promotes tourism.

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Then we road into the city center, and had a few hours to explore on our own. Even in the rain, it was beautiful. After a few hours, we checked into the hostel. My first hostel! I know now that they vary greatly, but this hostel was more like a dorm room that mated with a shady hotel. It’s bare bones and dirt cheap. This place slept four to a room on twin bunks. There was a sink, and then a shared shower and toilet on the hall. But it was great, I made friends very quickly, and we all headed out for a night on the town. I will definitely never forget that night. The night in Belfast City!

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The next morning we woke up, and we were taken to the parts of the city where there are still peace walls. So, Ireland was conquered by the British, and when it was ready to regain independence, not everyone wanted to. This is what lead to the civil war that split the country. Then in the later half of the twentieth century, political strife boiled over again, primarily between the Catholics who wanted to reunite the country, and the Protestants who wanted to remain part of the UK. (I am simplifying much here, and there is really a lot of interesting history on the subject which is worth reading) But these political struggles resulted in riots and murders on both sides, and this period of time and these conflicts became known as The Troubles. During the height of The Troubles, huge peace walls were erected to separate neighborhoods and stem some of the violence. While many of these have since been torn down, some still stand. Partly to mark that time and history, and partly to serve their original purpose, as it is still a very sore subject, and one which the tour company advised us to avoid talking about if ever approached. The walls are now covered with graffiti; everything from John loves Jane, phallic humor, and I was here, to beautiful works of art that are political statements on the conflicts.

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Settling In

BlogHeadersFrankieJohnson

My days have fallen into a pattern, which is fine by me since routine makes me feel more settled. Santiago is guiding in the Amazon, so we’re left alone to work on our papers. I get up at 6:45, have my breakfast, which usually consists of rice, a fried egg, potatoes, radishes, and lettuce. Some days we shake things up and have soup or potatoes and pasta for breakfast. As far as I can tell, the only way most breakfasts here pay homage to the concept of “breakfast foods” is by the addition of the fried egg. And occasionally, on mornings in which I send a fervent prayer of thanks up to God, we have these delicious fried plantains. One of my favorite Ecuadorian foods.

Brooks, Lucia, and I head over to the community building which I finally learned the name of (Tahuallullo) and work on our papers. My paper is coming along quite well- I have 8.5 pages out of 20. Unfortunately, if the paper didn’t have a length requirement, I think it would naturally fill about 15 pages, so I’m going to have to do some work to get it up to the minimum requirement of 20. I think I can do it, though. Though I feel really bad for Brooks whose results, through no fault of his own, are working out to say pretty much absolutely nothing. But I think he’ll be able to work it out, too.

We head back to our respective houses for lunch, usually rice and lettuce, with beans, or yucca, or potatoes, depending on the day.

We go back to Tahuallullo, supposedly to work more, but after lunch we usually only get an hour or two of real work in. By that time, our focus has derailed and we spend a lot of time talking until about 4:00, when we put on the “Friends” DVDs we bought on our day-trip to Quito and veg until dinner.

Dinner is soup. Usually of the potato and rice variety. I could stand not to eat potatoes for a while.
After dinner, I usually read a bit and turn in early. It’s a very quiet life, and at first I missed the hustle and bustle of Quito. About a week into our stay here, we had to go back to Quito for the day to use fast Internet (Internet here is very slow or non-existent, depending on the day). Actually, we didn’t have to go to Quito (we could have just gone one town over to the Internet café there), but you live and learn. The day in Quito was long, we got pretty lost, everything was expensive (by Ecuadorian standards), the air was polluted, and you had to watch your stuff all the time. We were all happy to get back to our quiet little town where everyone is friendly and you have no worries. My host dad agreed heartily. “I am afraid of Quito”, he says frequently, “There are lots of Colombians there.”

Today we got up at 4 a.m. to walk to the viewpoint everyone has been telling us we should go see. The goal was to see the sunrise. It was too cloudy to see the sunrise, but it was still a beautiful view of the mountains and valleys.

We carried eggs, bread, and Brooks’ stove to the top to have breakfast there. Only two of the eggs broke (which I thought was pretty good) and they just spilled out in the plastic bag, which we then poured into the pan, so nothing was wasted. I love the simplicity of outdoor cooking and it always tastes better than indoor cooking, anyway.

Francois, a new volunteer here, joined us for the walk. He’s from Belgium and has been teaching French in Quito for a few years. He speaks English, but his Spanish is much better (I would definitely call him fluent), so we speak in Spanish around him. That sort of situation makes me realize how much better my Spanish has gotten here. We spoke in Spanish the whole morning and I didn’t think anything about it. I remember on some of my first nights here being afraid of eating dinner with Ecuadorians because I would have to speak in Spanish the whole meal. Now it’s nowhere near as hard. But then, as soon as I get pretty happy with my Spanish, I have some complete failures of interactions with my host family that bring me back down to Earth. On the other hand, at least Brooks is having similar communication difficulties with his family. The other day he asked his dad at dinner, “How was your day?”. The dad said, “These are potatoes.” So at least I’m not alone :)

Unfortunately, I wrote this post as a way of procrastinating from working on my paper, so I’d better get back to it. Just over two weeks ‘til I head home!

Photos

BlogHeadersFrankieJohnson

Well, we’ve had a crazy few days. We walked all day with Santiago, our advisor, up and down very steep slopes to set two traps. It was beautiful and at the end Santiago started asking us some questions about our boyfriends/girlfriends and started joking around with us, so I felt like we made a little progress with getting to know him. Yet he still remains a mystery. He’s a soon-to-be PhD candidate with a tattoo on his arm and a gangsta bandana on his cropped hair when hiking. He’s a vegetarian because of the “poor little animals”, has a daughter out of wedlock who goes to a Montessori school, dislikes abstract questions, and has the most intense conservation jobs and stories ever (climbing huge trees in the Amazon to count eggs in harpy eagle nests, hiking all over the country to count bears, falling down landslides, etc.). Oh, and he is single- handedly convincing the Quito government to build a corridor for the spectacled bears. And kind of looks like a bear himself. So, to summarize, a super well-educated hippie who looks like he would be a motorcycle dude in the States. I cannot wrap my brain around him. I think he’s trying to be super-friendly, but not knowing a language perfectly can make people seem short and he seems pretty intimidating to me. But I’m hoping that will fade over time.

Brooks, Santiago, Lulu (one of Santiago’s friends), and I set off to Puluagua, a huge volcanic crater to set a camera trap and go camping. After almost getting lost in the clouds (literally) and not being able to find the camera for a long time, we finally located it and did all our work. We clambered back in the car and continued up the mountain for a bit. Eventually, Santiago stopped his old truck with 1000 problems in the middle of this one-track dirt road and said, “We’ve arrived!” Where? Apparently at our campsite.

We sat around a fire we worked hard to build with wet wood and half my notebook (luckily, I’ve already taken the exam) and talked about Lulu’s adventures biking and snowboarding. It was a fun night and a great bit of relaxation.

I do love the work I’m doing. We have some time outside, hiking to set the cameras, but only when Santiago is around. The rest of the time I’m going through all the photos from the first part of this year and noting that we saw this bear here, on this day, at this time, etc. We ID the bears by the varying marks on their faces, which sounds great and is great for the bears with a lot of facial marks. It’s when I am comparing one blurry picture of a bear with one line between his eyes with the 5 bears we have records of with that exact same line between their eyes that it starts to get confusing and we all argue for hours whether its I25M or I30. But I am enjoying the work and actually feeling like my work is contributing to the project, which is what’s important.

We all thought today was Thanksgiving, but apparently we’re a week off. Oops.

I’ve started to get quite homesick. I think it’s because so much has changed for me in the past few weeks (from Quito to an isolated, small town, from one host family to another, from school every day to working on the project) and change always makes me feel out of place. My home stay here is also very difficult for me because they have very strong country accents, don’t wear their dentures, and can’t hear very well. For all that I have loved Ecuador, I think I will be happy to head home when the time comes.

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