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Blubbering Mess

No, the title of this post does not refer to me leaving Germany soon.  Rather, it is the name of an abandoned building in Berlin that, to me, is a representation of the spirit of the city.  Until February 2005 this structure was a swimming and leisure center.  It has since fallen into disrepair - smashed windows, colorful graffiti and abandoned beer bottles litter the property. The pools have long been empty and the lack of electricity make certain corners of the interior a bit too mysterious for me, but despite its raggedy appearance, Blubbering Mess is beautiful.

It exudes creativity.  Every inch is covered with graffiti or art. Since most of the glass has been smashed or broken over the years, walking outside is like walking over a beautiful mosaic (I would definitely suggest closed toe shoes for this particular adventure).  There are few places in this world I could walk into a building to find a girl with blue-green hair, a long gown and a blow up dolphin meant for a pool posing for pictures in a shattered courtyard visible to the street and no one takes excessive notice. It's cool to be weird and that's awesome.

Berlin is a place where beauty and inspiration can be found anywhere and in anything.  This city has become the master of reinvention - it's history demands it.  In the past century Berlin has been governed by four distinct governments or regimes.  It has been divided, it has been unified. It has been bankrupt and plagued with inflation, but it has also evolved into one of the most stable and wealthy economies in Europe.  It cannot ignore or reject its history, but Berliners also refuse to let their history hold them back and instead embrace the alternative way of life and thinking that they have become so well known for.

In Blubbering Mess I see this spirit: a resistance to letting destruction or disrepair categorize something as useless, a desire to make something many may see as ugly into something beautiful and different. It's creative. It's inventive. It's uniquely quirky and entirely Berlin.

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By practiceyogadistrict

I leave Khon Kaen tomorrow. I cannot believe how quickly these four months have sped by.

I have been blessed with the joys of lots of adventure and new experiences along with tough growing pains as I have been away from my community in DC. I have gotten to live in villages in the north of Thailand with the Karen people, in central Thailand in a fishing village on an island, then several in the Northeast, an organic farming village and a silk weaving village most recently. Beyond those phenomenal experiences witnessing little blimps of authentic life here in Thailand, I have had a few excursions of my own. I have had quite a few bus mishaps, getting stuck on the side of the road with a few travel companions, getting stuck in multiple storms, and even getting stuck on a broken down bus. All these were in pursuit of finding remarkable hikes in the jungles of Laos or national parks in Thailand. I have also made some pretty great friends along the way, and am able to carry on a conversation in Thai! Learning the language has been really fun.

I will miss the phenomenal Thai food. I will miss discovering fun coffee shops in Khon Kaen. I will miss sharing food. I will miss the moobans (villages). I will miss night markets. I will miss the sweet Thai friends I have made along the way. And most of all I will miss the joy of discovery.

By Ashlyn

It's difficult to believe that I've already spent two months in Copenhagen. It seems like only a few weeks ago that I was saying goodbye to my parents at the airport. "The time is going to go by so fast," my mother told me before I left her at the security checkpoint. "Make the most of every moment." I promised I would.

Two months later, I wonder if I have truly done what I promised that I would do. Lately, I have found myself falling victim to the tyranny of routine. I don't explore as much as I used to. I prefer to run from class to class, then curl up indoors with a cup of tea instead of walking around in the cold Copenhagen air. It has been weeks since I've visited the palaces, or walked along Nyhavn harbor, or had a pastry in a cafe and people-watched out the window.

Am I becoming bored? I began to wonder. Many of my friends from back home have told me, "You can't be bored in Europe! You're abroad!" But that, of course, is not true. You can be bored anywhere. You could probably be bored at the top of Mount Everest.

But boredom is more often a side-effect of comfort. I have been guilty of staying in my comfort zone lately -- of staying in when others are going out, of going to the same tried and true places and seeing the same tried and true sights. I have slept in instead of waking up early to see the sunrise; I have stayed in to watch Netflix when I could be exploring Copenhagen's nightlife.

Now, with only two months left to go before I return home to the United States, I am realizing once more that there is too much to accomplish here to sit on my laurels and let time slip by. I need to push myself. It can be difficult, especially in a school setting, to find the energy and time to force yourself to leave the house or library and search for adventure. But with time so short, and the days going by so quickly, it is important to remember that every moment is precious. (That sounds pretty cheesy. It's true though. A lot of cheesy things are true when you're studying abroad.)

So I'm going to try to regain my sense of adventure now, halfway through my time in Copenhagen. I want to explore, to see things that I've never seen before, and to meet new people. This week I will be touring a local brewery and going to a Danish family's birthday party -- two exciting events that I am hoping will jump-start my plan of action!

For those of you planning on studying abroad in the future, don't feel guilty if you begin to get "bored" in the city that you choose. If you don't want to go out every weekend, don't. If you feel tired some nights, stay in. Just make sure you keep track of time -- the months go by quickly when you're away from home, and one morning you might wake up next to your packed suitcase and wonder why you didn't accomplish more while you had the chance!

There is so much a blog can never tell you. Even if I were to sit with you in Panera Bread and tell you the entire thing, taking four hours and losing my voice and being kicked out by the staff at 9pm for closing (as one of my friends made me do), I could never fully make you understand. Maybe this is true for any experience. This is something one has to understand, and especially after an abroad experience. Especially after an abroad experience in Rwanda.

I wish you could have felt both the fear and exhilaration of taking a moto, racing past the stars and hills in Kigali. I wish I could I introduce you to the friends I made, to my host family, to Miguel and Ganza, who would hide behind their mother’s legs due to shyness. I wish it were mandatory for all people to go to the genocide memorials and not just see the past, but feel it, feel it in their gut and let it break them. I wish I could say things like, “ntakibazo” and “amatunda” without people asking me to explain, (ntakibazo is ‘no problem’ and amatunda is ‘passion fruit’ in Kinyarwanda). I wish people wouldn’t look at me with so much sympathy when I tell them our house rarely had running water or that I lived on a dirt road.

Being home is hard. It’s hard because some people want (like my friend in Panera) to know every single detail, and other people just want me to get on with my life. One of the hardest questions is, “How was Africa?!?” Well-meaning, but overwhelming and infuriating all at once. I can’t speak for a continent, nor can I speak for an entire country. I can only tell you about my personal experience in Rwanda. It began with living with my host family and going to school and ended with interning at an NGO and living in a house with eight of my classmates. It was a semester of standing out as “muzungu” everywhere I went, a semester of taking two small van-buses home from school, making a ten-minute drive a two-hour commute. It was a semester of living in a society built upon a tragic and horrific past and watching that society reconcile itself. It was a semester of learning something so much more than me or anything I could ever imagine.

Now that it’s over, I don’t know how to maintain the changes in me without being angry with American society, which isn’t fair to anyone. I can’t be angry with people for not sharing my experience and for not understanding it and in some cases, not wanting to. Upon my return, I’ve had to learn that this experience can live within me, and I can be changed, but I can still be the person I was before. What I want for the future has never been clearer, and there is not a doubt in my mind I will return to Kigali. That’s the thing about study abroad; yes you learn more than you could ever fathom, but you also build another life, another home elsewhere. That home can exist within you forever and can always be revisited.

By anuhyabobba

As soon as my program finished, I traveled for another month. For the first three weeks, I visited Patagonia -- the southern parts of Chile and Argentina. It had been the first time I traveled alone, and after my time in Buenos Aires had come to an end, it was exactly what I needed to recollect my thoughts and center myself. Starting from Santiago, my journey ended in the southernmost city of the world of Ushuaia. It brought me to the beautiful town of San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, where I biked 25 kilometers through some of the most breathtaking views of sapphire and emerald toned lakes and snow capped mountains backdrop. I swam in a glacier lake, which was fun but horribly freezing as one could gather. I also trekked on a glacier -- the Perito Moreno glacier to be exact. I made camp in the windiest town I have ever visited -- El Chaltén. If you have seen the logo for the Patagonia outdoors brand, that rugged mountain silhouette found inspiration from Mt. Fitz Roy and the surrounding peaks in El Chaltén. Mt. Fitz Roy, the highest of the peaks, would be hidden by clouds and when it did come out, it was stunning. I went next to Torres del Paine National Park, which is the place I most connected with during this journey. The Torres range and Lake Pehoé set the background for the campsite, and weather had been on our side the five days I was there. The last day up to the iconic Torres peaks was the most memorable. It first brought me through a forest that had this perfect symbiosis, and then to the most grueling part -- a 1000 foot ascension in the matter of a kilometer. This meant just direct uphill, and my knee had given out a day ago. The reason I wanted to visit Patagonia though was for the Torres peaks and so despite being in pain, I made it. I immediately collapsed on the ground, leaning against a rock that directly faced the peaks -- this moment brought incomparable peace to me.

I headed then to Ushuaia, where I only had a few hours. I remember the sun shining in those hours, even though the city usually sees only rain. I got my passport stamped to say that I had been in Ushuaia and went to the airport to catch my flight to Buenos Aires -- where I had seven hours from midnight to seven in the morning to gather my luggage from my host mom's and say my final bye to the city (for now). I flew into AEP, the inner city airport, and the runway and where the flight landed was a few miles to the right of Plaza Intendente Alvear, which was a block away from where I lived and which held an overwhelming feeling of comfort for me. The taxi ride to my host mom's went through all the places that held the sweetest memories of the adventures my friends and I had embarked on, and I started to tear up because it was a perfect way of saying this final bye to Buenos Aires.

My next week was in Peru, where my best friend joined me to go to Machu Picchu. We traveled to Lima and Cusco, where we largely explored on our own. When we went to Machu Picchu, it was early morning, or a time where there are a lot of tourists. We went down for an early lunch, and we revisited the site toward the late afternoon where there was barely a soul. In the absence of so many people, the site had this eerie but breathtaking vibe to it. I loved being there, and that too being able to share the moment with a person I hold so close to me. It had been the best ending to my time in South America.

I sadly returned home with a sprained ankle, but the healing period has allowed me time to reflect on studying abroad. Because I had the talk of adjusting back to being in DC in Buenos Aires, I am prepared but I also understand as Robert Frost said, "The best way out is always through."  I will experience this readjustment day by day, and through doing that, I will be gentle to myself and reach out to my support system when I do need the help.

Thank you to everyone who has read my posts for following this five month journey of mine! Hope you all have a beautiful new year ahead.

By clairemac93

I pour out the contents of the folder that perched in my cabinet for the duration of my year in Stellenbosch. Not once sifted through. I cast my memories into this folder- ticket stubs, notes from friends and roommates, pictures, and brochures. On day one, I started with my plane tickets; this being my longest journey to a new country. However past that, it’s blurry where this odd assortment can be placed in the space and time of my year. Concert wrist bands from that Afrikaans festival where we dogpiled in public and danced to music not even on-par with the worst of wedding bands. One labeled “Balkan dance rave” where, unsurprisingly, I lost my phone and from what I can remember, there was a dead pig hanging from the ceiling. A receipt from the Cape Town city tour bus, where in the pouring rain, alone, I spent an entire day seeing everything I’d put off the previous semester. Stormers tickets. A recipe for Fettkook. Knicknacks from an off-season Karnival hosted by the German Society. A secret note passed to me in class by my best friend in Stellies during the first week we met, “Hoe gaan dit mit jou Afrikaans?” Each item turning my brain a new direction, making me think of different people, making me remember how I felt at that moment.

I’m aware that most of the reason that I kept these things, mostly pieces of paper, is to remind myself that this year happened. As much as I now have moments which so influenced me in how free, or happy, or moved I was that I have a clear, still-frame image in my mind of that moment…I fear that given enough time that image will fade, or be forgotten. And scarier still, I fear that I’ll forget the feeling I had along with its image. These items consequently help me physically and mentally piece together where I was and where I am now.

To be perfectly honest, I was waiting to write this last entry until some morning that I woke up after coming home, when the lessons I learned in South Africa would suddenly be made clear and I would write my feelings down and feel satisfied for an easy summarization of my time. And yet, 3 weeks in, and I’m yet to have that moment. South African culture was much harder to pin down or understand than other countries I’ve visited. Each family I stayed with, each town I visited, was so starkly different that each time I walked away with even the basic facts I thought I’d learned about the country shattered. So often did this happen that eventually I gave up on trying to draw any generalizations across people. In many ways this was part of the excitement- always questioning, always confused, always open. But in other ways it made living in Stellenbosch frustrating, as a town relatively monochromatic and privileged, as I had to make a concerted effort to put myself into the unfamiliar.

This being said, I left my year as exactly who I wanted to be. I saw Johannesburg, jumped off the highest bridge in Africa, did two homestays in local townships, traveled to Namibia and along the Garden Route, met my South African relatives, and hiked my fair share of mountains. But at the moment, to be frank, I hardly need to factor those bits into my year. I walked away from South Africa a much better, and purer version of myself, than who had left. I learned to stand up for myself, to focus on others, to live in the moment, and how to verbalize my feelings to those who made me feel used or hurt. I found that life is as simple or complicated as you make it. And I learned to address, via the behaviors of others and myself, the person I want to be and how to honor that via my actions and inactions. And that, is what I’m most proud of from my year.

I am of the opinion that a year abroad is in the end just another 12 months in your life, which is made spectacular and life-changing by the fact that there is a clear start and end date, as opposed to other years in which that blurs. Though I continue to struggle to figure out what this year meant to me, while simultaneously having to evaluate where my life goes in 6 months when I graduate, I am thankful for having had a year to gear all my energy towards shamelessly questioning, exploring, laughing, and wondering - things I often lose sight of in the bustle of the city.

Thank you to everyone who read my blog, to the friends from home who kept me consistently motivated and giggling, to my grandma for always being my most avid and engaged reader and my always inspiration for traveling, to the families who let me into their homes, and most importantly, to my parents for dealing with my visa problems and tendency to wander.

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

~Leonardo di Vinci

By clairemac93

Having lived in two locations abroad for a year each, one time in high school (Germany) and the other in college (South Africa), I can’t help but think of what I would change or tweak if I could do them over again. Though I would never regret anything I’ve done, most of the advice that I would give my younger self, or anyone studying abroad, are things TO do, rather than NOT TO do.

As such, I’ve compiled a list of tips or suggestions as to how to get the most out of your study abroad experience!

  1. Try all of the nomz. I’m a firm believer that food tells you a lot about a culture, and also gains you respect with locals who see you branching out. Though some cringe at my having eaten a sheep’s face in South Africa, it can’t be any grosser than a hotdog from the United States or McNuggets at McDonalds, of which I have no idea what the origins of the food are. At least with the sheep’s face I knew it came from a real animal as I was looking at its face, and I shook hands with the man who cooked it in front of me. Just take a deep breath, remember this may be the only time you can try this, and eat it. As a caveat to this- do not, under any circumstance, reject food from someone. If someone is making the effort and spending the time and money to cook a meal for you, they are trying to show they care. So please, if I can eat chunky sour apple and carrot purée to show my respect for someone’s mom trying to feed me, you can eat the unfamiliar food too.
  2. Do a homestay, or create a homestay. I know, I know, some friend of yours told you some story about her sister’s boyfriend’s uncle who had a weird host family who locked him in a closet or something. However, 99.99% of actual host families are volunteers and nice, welcoming people who are eager to learn about your culture as well as share theirs. Homestays mean home-cooked meals and an intimate look at the everyday lives of locals. You can be a cultural authority on everything from a traditional family holiday meal to what type of toothpaste locals buy. If you can’t stay the entire time with a host family, ask a friend if you could go home with them for a weekend. Then do it with another friend. This will help you to gain a more representative picture of the culture and also potentially free food and a comfortable bed for a weekend.
  3. Put your camera/Smartphone down. Now, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I don’t mean you shouldn’t take any photos. But a lot of times I find that people are so focused on capturing the moment that they end up missing it. Forgetting a memory is not the most horrible thing to ever happen- and the events that most moved you will remain in your memory, whether they have a picture of them or not.
  4. Make a concerted effort to stay away from your countrymen. I hate to say it, but it’s a comfort blanket. I couldn’t tell you how many students abroad I’ve seen whose pictures from their entire stay are not only just with other Americans, but only with Americans from their home university. But I totally get it- a lot of programs house everyone from the program together, sometimes you don’t speak the local language, and it takes some time to make local friends. But whether it be joining a rec soccer team, a choir, getting a job as a waitress or bartender, or just hitting up a study buddy for a drink—make sure that when you look back at your week, you can pinpoint times when you put yourself out of your comfort zone and reached out to locals [As a side note to this: traveling in large groups of Americans is a surefire way of preventing locals from talking to you. Big groups are unapproachable and scary. Try going to a café on your own or going to a bar with just one other person]
  5. Make your own opportunity. This is a new one for me, but one I’m hoping to bring home in full-force. I’m used to being the person who waits anxiously until another person asks me to do something with them, and sometimes, that means I never become friends with that person because they never ask. So instead, you create your own event. For example, hosting a dinner. You can cook the first time and ask people to bring refreshments or snacks, and then to continue it, you can ask if someone’s willing to host it the next time. This way, at least the first time it gets people to come over, incentivized by the free meal, and hopefully by the end they’ll think you’re awesome. Or host a movie night with hot chocolate. My French friend hosted a wine and cheese event in her room. I suggest these things as someone (and I know I’m not rare) who has been very comfortable in their friend group back home that I’d forgotten how to make new friends and had to relearn. So stop waiting, and create the opportunity!
  6. Don’t accept it’s the end, until it is the end. I’ll explain this, as I’m guilty of it myself. You get to the last month or two of your program, and you can see the end in sight, but you still have a fair amount of time left. Instead of spending it like your first month when you bounced around doing everything, you get wrapped up in the idea that you don’t have the time for things, or become sad over leaving. But there’s no reason to be sad until you are actually leaving, or back in your country. You’ll end up regretting time spent not making new friends or having new experiences or being sad about something that hadn’t even happened yet.
  7. Take your lessons home. Again, this is something new for me but one of my biggest take-aways from South Africa. I often did things, such as stay in a township or try new restaurants or go exploring an area that I wasn’t yet acquainted with, and I caught myself wondering why I didn’t do these things at home. Additionally, when meeting new people in South Africa or their families, I found myself asking them about their parents, grandparents, where they grew up, what their house growing up was like, etc. Then I returned home and realized I’d never even asked my Dad what his grandparents were like. Why am I so curious abroad and yet so complacent in the familiar back home? So as a challenge to yourself, try to explore your home town like you did the town you studied abroad in. Haven’t eaten at that restaurant? Go eat there. Haven’t ever been down that street? Go there. Pretend you are an exchange student in your own town and see what you can find.

And my last piece of advice, is just to have no regrets. Accepting that not every part of your study abroad experience is going to be positive is part of the deal. You never know when you’ll get to travel like this again. So when things start to suck, which is as common to happen abroad as in 6 months months back home, reach out and get out of it as fast as you can. You are so lucky to live abroad- an opportunity that many don’t get. So have fun, do equal amounts of smart and less smart things, branch out, and enjoy!

Things That Come to Mind When I Try to Sit Down and Blog About Our Two Week Excursion to Uganda:

  1. The psychological and physical stages of being on a bus for hours on end, which break down into the following:
  • -initial socializing, then silent contemplation
  • -music listening/ reading
  • -then breaking of silence with socializing and a pee break
  • -then more quiet time
  • -and then utter stir-crazy chaos, during which Clara makes a jingle for a popular  Rwandan water bottle brand (Inyange [en-yawn-gay]) and everyone is standing and singing songs from varied musicals
  • -finally, we reach our destination and Nastia sheds literal tears of relief
  1. Feeling disoriented and irrationally angry for the first few days of the trip, given that everything felt like it was occurring in a non-existing time-space continuum
  1. Visiting a refugee camp for Rwandans who denied the genocide, telling us, “You white people believe everything you hear, but today, we will tell you the truth,” and learning there are many different truths, sides, perspectives, and stories
  1. Peeing in many holes, which then became a sport for the group: giving a critique and review of how the holes compared to other ones (“We have a luxury hole this time guys. Soap, too” or “Rough one today. Prepare to angle yourself in ways you never have before”)
  1. Gulu, the town we stayed in for the majority of the trip, for a week, which could produce a whole other list of things that come to mind, but a few of them are: spirits, Acholi culture, darkness, ghosts, children taken in the night, Joseph Kony, “Northern Ugandan Conflict”, Invisible Children, vivid dreams and nightmares, pasta with meat sauce, drug-store lollipops, vandalized village schools, psychology, a sun that left me blonder and tanner and in constant need of sunglasses, treacherous roads, thievery, and a general vibe of disturbia
  1. Safaris, giraffes, elephants, boat ride on the Nile, warthogs sneezing on Nastia and getting quite aggressive when trying to steal our veggie sandwiches, hippos at a campsite, said hippos almost charging and attacking us
  1. Chapatti, chapatti, chapatti (which is like a tortilla Ugandans serve with everything and on its own, being made at random chapatti stands)

But I think what stands out to me the most when reflecting upon the two weeks we spent there, it has to be Gulu. Because I have never in my life been anywhere like Gulu before, and I doubt I will ever be somewhere like that again, unless I am revisiting Gulu itself. Gulu was where we were for the majority of the time. The focus of going was in comparing the post-conflict resolution style there to that of Rwanda. And the conflict, had been a very famous one. It was that of Joseph Kony. It was the Kony 2012. The Invisible Children. I remember senior year of high school my friend and I had printed out Kony 2012 signs and spread them among the school: slipped under bathroom stalls, pinned on cork boards, and slapped on car windshields, thinking we were some kind of vigilantes. Three years later, I stood in the very town where children were snatched from their homes and forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Gulu is a small gridded town with no paved roads and no street lights and generally, no electricity after 8pm. When walking in the dark to go to one of our staple restaurants, (The Ethiopian Restaurant, which served spaghetti I had a strange obsession with, or The Indian Restaurant, that took three hours to get your food ready, or The Coffee Hut, which was the decided white-people hang out), everyone who passed by looked like a Harry Potter death eater. Dark, sauntering figures, only able to detect our own or fellow muzungu figures by identifying who was tripping over all the potholes. It was creepy. But what was creepier, what was sinister, was knowing what had happened there and seeing the aftermath. Children taken in the dark. Children told to commit unfathomable atrocities. We were told that the suicide rate was exceedingly high in Gulu: people tied with weights found in the river, people with obvious mental disorders rambling and flinching in the street. Even after the many cultural traditions of forgiveness and reconciliation after children were returned home, the Acholi people couldn't get the war out of their psyches. The LRA was built from a disturbing religion, one which is still practiced in a church that is located across from the hotel we stayed in. Two people from our group went and told us of the spirits, exorcisms, and other troubling things. The challenging part came in trying to understand Acholi culture without your western-tinted glasses on. We discussed very much how the culture may impede on development, given that Gulu is very poor. And it was hard to ignore the sense of unease, the growing unsettlement of this belief in spirits. Spirits that led to something like the LRA.

Learning about these things and being where they had happened had been like a slow-moving nightmare, terrifying with its undercurrent of sinister unease. I can’t say that I would have been able to stay in Gulu any longer than I had. It truly felt like something out of “American Horror Story”, like I might have gone insane, truly lost it, had I been there much longer. However, I am so grateful we had gone. There were important lessons demanded to be learned, and between some of the more scary stuff, we had a lot of fun and met very kind people. It’s a confusing jumble of the good things, the culture, and past tragedy and spirits and haunted-ness, all composing one surreal nightmare that makes no sense. Even when we were miles away, all going through the stages of being on the bus, even when we found our way to a safari and camera-flashing boat ride, I could think about our time there and feel it again, the kind of unease so similar to a chill: unshakable.