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By rbhargava

Continuing from my last post….after a full day and two nights at Port Shepstone, we drove 2 hours north to Durban in the morning. As typical of our entire trip thus far, the weather was cloudy and a bit chilly…so the beautiful beaches of Durban were a bit underwhelming. We spent the day walking up the main coastline in the city from our backpackers in the south of the city center to the Moses Mabida stadium (where several World Cup games were held) on the north side of the city center. Ever since seeing the stadium during World Cup games in 2010, I’ve always wanted to see the Mabida stadium up close…so I insisted we all take a tour of it in the afternoon. Following the tour we returned back to our backpackers, rested up for a bit, and then headed to a popular restaurant that served Durban’s most famous Indian dish – Bunny Chow…which is hollowed out bread filled with curry. I had been looking forward to eating Indian food in Durban since arriving in South Africa, but unfortunately the food was a disappointment. South Africa is said to have the largest diaspora of Indians in the world, and Durban is at the epicenter of that. More so than the Western Cape, Durban really represents South Africa’s reputation as the “rainbow nation.”

On our second day in Durban, we visited the famous Victoria Street Market. This indoor market caters specifically to tourists and reminded me much of what many markets I have seen in India look like. After wandering around the market for a bit, we drove to the King Shaka airport to return our two rental cars and drop of Jonas at the airport as he had a flight back to Stellenbosch (he still had exams to take!). When we returned to Durban the remaining five of us decided to take an city bus tour…which also was more of a disappointment than anything else. At the end of the day, Durban was a very interesting city that we all enjoyed…but I came to appreciate what everyone back in Stellenbosch kept telling me – besides beautiful beaches – there’s not much to do or see in Durban. As the next morning, our group was splitting for good…we enjoyed a nice homemade meal at our backpackers and reminisced about our great trip.

In the morning, Rita and I left Maren, Clara, and Daniela for a full day bus ride from Durban to Johannesburg…to meet up with two other friends – Hunter and Jannis. It was only fitting that it rained the entire day as I was quite sad that the first leg of my journey had come to an end. Not only that, although I was to see Maren and Jonas again in Stellenbosch before heading home…this was my final goodbye to Clara and Daniela! By far the most amazing part of my study abroad experience was the friends I was able to make, so I was very sad to say goodbye to two of my closest that morning. I’m keeping my fingers crossed I’ll be able to visit both of them in Germany soon though!

Luckily though, having learned from our mistake the first time, Rita and I booked a comfortable Greyhound bus for our journey to Joburg, and were able to relax before beginning another epic trip the next day.

When we arrived at our backpackers in Joburg, we were happily greeted by Jannis…who had been in Joburg for a few days waiting for our arrival. Having just said goodbye to two of my favorite Germans in the morning…it was great to be able to say hi to another after a long bus ride in the evening. As we shared our travel stories, we patiently waited for Hunter to arrive. He had been traveling with his parents and sister…but with no cell phone…we were worried we might never be able to find him. But no worries…he arrived later in the night and we all got ready to leave early in the morning the next day. Funny enough, this was the second of four times I would be in Joburg (although the other three were just in the airport) during my time abroad…but I would see none of the city…besides the drive back and forth from the bus terminal to our backpackers. Although I wish I had time to spend in the country’s largest city – since arriving in July I had been bombarded and brainwashed by students at Stellies about the fact that there was nothing to do there. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the city, but in the words of many of my South African friends…”Why would you ever want to go to Joburg? The only thing to do there is go to the mall. They have lots of malls.”

Anyway, our plans for the next few days would take us north to Polokwane, south to the beautiful Blyde River Canyon, back north to Polokwane again, further north into Zimbabwe, and then up to our final destination (or at least where Hunter and I would leave to return back to Stellies from) – the majestic Victoria Falls. We were in for quite an adventure!

I've been writing for GW Blog Abroad for nearly three months now, and I think it's about time I confess something: I am physically limited.

Well, kind of. I'm in the grey area of disability: it's not bad enough that I need to declare it on any forms, but it is severe enough that I require surgery and physical therapy. I have scoliosis - a curvature of the spine - and it prevents me from doing certain things (like run or wear corsets) without my lungs being ironically impinged by my rib cage. I can't stand for more than an hour at a time without incurring nerve pain, and my limbs will occasionally go numb for no apparent reason. It's unfortunate, but I don't let my issues impinge upon my ability to participate in life, pain or no pain. 

Essentially, my plight isn't bad enough to require a handicapped sticker on my license plate, but if the US army ever returned to a draft system, I'd be declared unfit for duty.

So how is it that I've been backpacking around Europe for the past three weekends when simply wearing a backpack makes me limp? How have I been staying in hostels, hurrying to catch trains, hiking in Prague? For that matter, how can any student with consistent physical pain partake in the GW study abroad student-rite-of-passage of traveling cheaply? For that matter, how can anyone other than the strongest athlete manage to carry around their belongings from city to city?

Simple. You pay attention. Stepping on mismatched cobblestone and the mile-wide gap of grout in-between causes my vertebrae to grind together, so I actively seek out the smoothest sections of the street. A six hour train ride into Nantes makes my muscles ache and spasm, so I get up and wander the train every hour or so. Carrying my backpack through a crowded airport for the two hours before my flight takes off makes my head light and my sciatic shudder, so I set my bag down (my leg looped though the strap to protect against theft) whenever I can. Most importantly, I always do these things before I have pain, not after or during.

The number one tip I can give is to be preventative by paying attention to both your body and the world around you.

It does you no good to tough it out - keep your pack on your back - until your legs are shaking and you're ready to cry. Any moment you have the chance, set your bag down. Lean against the wall, stretch your body, and pay attention. By giving your body breaks whenever you can, you'll last longer and be able to keep up with more able-bodied people.

My other favorite thing is to spread out my belongings. Obviously, if I'm traveling anywhere long-term I bathe in the luxury of a rolling suitcase. However, for older cities like Prague (in which a paved road is essentially a tourist attraction in and of itself), a rolling suitcase is not a possibility. My trick? I place anything fragile or heavy in my backpack, and then carry a lightweight tote filled with toiletries or clothing. Having a second, easy-to-maneuver bag let's me rearrange how I carry things if my back starts to hurt or things get too heavy for me.

The old adage is "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." It's a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason, as people like me know. Recovering from a day of intense pain is a harrowing experience, and it can easily kill an entire vacation day. It's better to not put yourself in that position at all. So watch the world around you - pay attention to your body - and cheat. Find the ways of standing, sitting, and backpacking that don't bother your body, and work them into your travel as often as you can. If you stretch and pay attention, there's no reason you can't travel like everyone else.

By rbhargava

Continuing on from my last post… after a memorable night in Chintsa, the six of us left for Coffee Bay – much further up the East coast of the country. The several hour-long drive was possibly one of the most memorable as we left the “developed” part of South Africa and entered into the Transkei, which was a Xhosa homeland during the apartheid era – and thus was left out and neglected from the western development of much of the rest of the country. It was an interesting scene to cross from one side to the other – and we were pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the Transkei and the circular huts that were seen across the landscape as far as the eye could see. During our drive, we stopped in a town to eat lunch and buy groceries, and found ourselves the only non-black people in the entire town. It was an experience like no other – as for the first time – all of us really felt out of place and in the minority.

Moving on, after a flat tire in Qunu (Nelson Mandela’s hometown) and a mostly cloudy day on the road – we arrived in the evening in Coffee Bay at the Coffee Shack backpackers. The next day we went on a beautiful hike along the coast to the underwhelming “Hole in the Wall” – which is a small island just off the coast with a hole in it in which water crashes through. Although our 3 hour hike to the Hole in the Wall was not the most exhausting, we decided that the overcast weather was a little too much and we were able to ride on the back of a pick-up truck back to our backpackers. That evening was a full moon, and the backpackers arranged a nice little party for all the backpackers there. Talking to people at backpackers, one will find the most interesting people – and I was treated with great conversations with a French man traveling around the world for 2 years, a British consultant working in Joburg, Danish high school graduates traveling before university, and many more people.

After Coffee Bay, we drove almost all day to get to Port Shepstone, a town 2 hours south of Durban. Here, we stayed a the Spot Backpackers where the Britisch couple managing the hostel told us about how they traveled across the world on motorcycle. Starting in the UK, they had motorbiked all the way down to South Africa, shipped their bikes to Southeast Asia, biked there, then did the same in Australia and South America. Fascinating!

The next day we all woke up for the sunrise at 5am – but were greeted with a cloudy horizon on the beach. Nonetheless, the sunrise was beautiful and it was quite the treat to be able to walk out of our backpackers directly onto the beach to watch it. Later on we went to the nearby Oribi gorge where three of us went zip-lining across the gorge on 15 or so different lines. It was quite the experience and we were lucky enough that the weather kept sunny the whole day. In the afternoon we enjoyed the beach and went kayaking up a stream near the beach. As another fun day came to an end, we prepared to head to Durban the next day – our last stop on the trip before all of us would go on our different ways.

By rbhargava

This past Friday, Nov 21st, I arrived back home to New Jersey after my 17 day  trip backpacking through South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. As you may of noticed, I was not able to post anything during the trip due to a complete lack of access to computers! So through this post and the next few I hope to share some of my memories during a very enjoyable trip traveling through southern Africa with some amazing friends.

On the evening Nov 2nd, 6 of us left Stellenbosch by bus to travel to Port Elizabeth. Although only six of us were leaving, a group of 10-16 people came to send us off at the bus stop - as some close friends wanted to give us one last goodbye! Our group was composed of 4 Germans, one girl from Hong Kong, and of course me. The overnight bus to PE was quite the experience, as we later found out we had taken the cheapest "budget" option bus available. Sitting next to my friend Maren, we tried to keep ourselves entertained while cockroaches  crawled up and down the window and South African Christian gospel music played overhead the entire night. We survived the journey though - and arrived in Port Elizabeth around 5am in the morning.

On our first day of the trip, we rented two tiny Polo cars to drive all the way up to coast to Durban with over the next several days. We went to the beautiful Sardinia Bay just outside PE before relaxing a bit at our cozy backpackers - Lungile Backpackers. In the evening we met a friend of a friend in downtown PE, who gave us a nice walking tour of the city as well as the Casino and joined us for dinner on the beachfront.

The second day of our trip was an obvious highlight for all of us as we took our two Polos to the famous Addo Elephant Park and were treated close encounters with countless elephants as well as buffalo, warthogs, eland, kudu, and several other animals. At more times than we would have liked we found ourselves stuck with elephants blocking the road. There was once when a very territorial elephant event drew a line in the road with his front foot, placed a large stick along the line, and waved its ears at us - clearly indicating that we should not come any closer. Driving through the park and encountering wild animals the entire day was a true joy, and we all enjoyed some adrenaline pumping moments.

On the 3rd day we left Port Elizabeth for Chintsa - a small town on the Wild Coast. Stopping in Port Alfred and East London, we spent the majority of the day on the road. Unfortunately the weather was overcast and rainy - something that would define the majority of our rip along the coastline that is world famous for beautiful sunny days year round. At Chintsa we stayed at the gorgeous Buccaneers Backpackers where we were treated with a well deserved homemade meal by the kitchen staff there. In the evening one of the managers of the backpackers took some of us to a dam to enjoy the sounds of wildlife in the approaching full moon night. Sitting along the dam with a small group of backpackers from all around the world and listening to the sounds of frogs burping in the middle of the forest was an experience I won't forget. Just like many moments during my Spring Break, I felt quite apart from the rest of the world and thoroughly enjoyed the company of the random other backpackers who were with us. And with that, I knew my trip was off to a success!

By Jess Yacovelle

One of the beautiful things about studying abroad in England is that London is one of the biggest centers of travel in Europe. People from all over the world journey to London in relatively large numbers, and the transportation systems within and surrounding the London area are superb. You have a myriad of different choices each and every time you wish to travel, no matter where you want to go. You can travel by bus, train, plane... In fact, it's almost overwhelming.

My grandfather's brother and his wife have recently moved to Paris from the states, and my family has mutually decided that we should check up on each other whilst I'm studying abroad. As a result, I had the rather interesting experience of single-handedly planning my travel from London to Paris. To make my life more difficult, I also arbitrarily decided to stop off in Nantes along the way to visit a GW friend.

Did you know you can get from England to France by using four different modes of transportation? I didn't either. You can take a train, a plane, a bus, or a boat (though the latter option is ill-advised).  Picking a mode of transportation sounds intuitive; just book the cheapest tickets. But, as I've discovered, there's more to it than that, especially when you're leaving from London.

To begin with, there's the element of time to consider. Planes may technically offer the shortest amount of travel time, but you also have to pass through airport security before you fly and customs after you land. Recently, England has also decided to start screening for Ebola at all of their airports, so that now adds another time constraint to airport travel. And, if you're leaving from London, the cheapest flights leave from well outside of the city, meaning you have to pay cab or train fairs to get to the airport.

Trains are a little more expensive and they take longer, but they're generally more comfortable, and you only need to be at the train station half an hour or so before your train departs. The bus is obviously the cheapest (seven pounds from London to Cardiff!), but it can take forever. A Megabus journey from London to Amsterdam can take half a day, especially if the bus has to make stops along the way.

So what's the cheapest, easiest, and fastest way to travel around Europe from London? Honestly... it depends on where you're going. For me, I use the bus to travel from London to the rest of the UK, the train to travel from London to the far west of Europe, and a plane to go to countries as far away as Italy. In the end, I suppose saving some money by taking a bus is nice, but it isn't always the answer.

By makenadingwell

image (2)After five strenuous midterms I packed my backpack and met the group before dawn on Friday for our long bus ride to Galicia. I can’t sleep on buses, mostly because I don’t want to miss anything along the way. In Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux said he, “hated parachuting into a place. I needed to be able to link one place to another.” I believed in this principle wholeheartedly, and therefore saw the dry grass grow green and full in a dreamy daze.

We first stopped in Léon, a small, misty city founded in the 1st century BC, to see the Basilica of San Isidoro. Full of beautiful stained glass, a gothic design, and a crisp coldness, the Basilica was vast and impressive. The stop was concluded by a quick walk through the historic area of Léon and a hearty lunch, during which we discovered that a customary Spanish steak was barely cooked. image (3)

Finally we crossed into Galicia and arrived in Santiago de Compostela at sunset. Our excursion was filled with unique, yet refreshing plans for the rest of the weekend. On Saturday morning we arrived in O Grove, a quiet coastal town, for a small cruise around the fjord. We ate mussels along the way, occasionally feeding one or two to curious seagulls after our professor demonstrated how to do so. After a peaceful picnic by the water, we returned back to a walking tour of Santiago.

Before leaving for Spain, I hadn’t heard much about the Camino de Santiago besides a few musings from my friends. However we learned plenty during our tour of the famous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, hearing all about the pilgrimage to the Cathedral and the religious significance behind it. We finally climbed the old steps to the roof to peer over the stretch of red rooftops in the historic part of the city and the ornately sculpted stone towers.

image (4)The most refreshing and unexpected stop was the visit to Las Médulas, the site of an old gold mine of the Roman Empire, on the way home on Sunday afternoon. After a quick stroll to the viewpoint we gasped at the remarkably colossal rich towers of red rock scattered along the landscape. We sloppily scuttled down the hillside trail through a blanket of fallen leaves and tall barren trees to draw closer to the towers and preserved caves.

While the previous excursion to Barcelona was glitzy and exciting, the visit to Galicia was unparalleled. Perhaps it was the relaxation after the stress of exams or the lack of expectations, but the break from Madrid and the escape to green hillsides and a sea breeze has been my favorite stop by far.image (1)image (5)

Cathedral in Lille

This weekend was the first of several that I'm anticipating this semester. Although I could have traveled to another country (which is absolutely mind boggling, still), I was very fortunate to be able to visit my friend, who lives in Lille (in the north of France). I can't wait to tell you about it!

Upon arrival, I explored downtown by myself for a bit. At the heart of the city is Le Grand Place, a huge, bustling square with restaurants, hotels, and shops lining its edges. There, you'll find the Opera, the Vieille Bourse (or the Old Stock Exchange), and the city's bell tower. Just a few minutes' walking will take you to their cathedral, which is called Notre Dame de la Treille, or to their arm museum, Le Palais des Beaux Arts. I also fell in love with a bookstore there called Le Furet du Nord - basically eight floors of any book you'll ever need!

After exploring, I met up with my friend for lunch at a place near her campus. She studies at Lille 2, a university specifically for law. I also got to attend one of her law classes, which was basically two hours of the professor lecturing at 300 students... with zero interaction from the class. This teaching style is typical of French university classes, and I'm very glad that I don't have to deal with it at GW!

Palais des Beaux Arts

To get around Lille, we either walked or used the metro system. In contrast with the Parisian metro (or even the one in DC), this one only had two lines! Furthermore, each metro only had two cars for passengers. Despite being France's 5th largest city, this kind of illustrates how small the city actually is by American standards (of a large city, that is). There are a large number of students who live there, and my friend described it as the best French city for students. In fact, the university I'm at in Paris - SciencesPo - has a campus in Lille, as well.

Overall, Lille was a wonderful break from the fast city life in Paris. Tomorrow it's back to classes though, so we'll see where this next week goes!

By bevvy2212

Since my roommate left me for the weekend to go travel with her mom, I was feeling quite lonely all by myself in Paris. Hard to imagine, right? Paris is great and everything, but sometimes it gets a little bit routine-ish. I think I’ve gotten quite lazy recently as the hype of being in Paris finally dissipated. Sure, it’s cool to visit Musée D’Orsay or the Louvre on a casual afternoon but they get old eventually. So on Friday night, I was on the phone with a friend and he suggested that we should go to Le Havre at 8am the next morning. It sounded crazy to me at the time, and super exciting.

So we took the train from Paris Saint-Lazzare station to Le Havre. Round trip was around 34 euros with my carte de jeune. It’s funny because the trains don’t have a physical barrier that bar passengers from entering the platform unless they have the tickets so it seemed totally possible for someone to just sneak on the train and not buy the ticket. As I was commenting about this loophole in the transportation system (because the previous times I have taken trains, no one checked my ticket), the conductor came around to do the ticket inspection. The guy sitting behind us actually didn’t have his ticket and he was fined.

It took approximately three hours to go from Paris to Le Havre. Le Havre used to be one of the biggest sea ports in France before tradings increased in the Mediterranean and Marseilles over took Le Havre’s importance.

After living in Paris for a while, Le Havre was a nice change because it was such a quiet, cute, little town. Sciences Po actually has a regional campus in Le Havre. I wondered if I made the right choice of going to the Paris campus as I was sitting on the beach, watching the sun set, because it was just so peaceful and the people there were so nice and genuine. But I think, at least for me, who grew up in the city, I’d be really bored in Le Havre if I’m actually studying here so, I guess we can’t always get what we wanted.

Most tourists come to Le Havre to visit étretat. They are a set of cliffs that are shaped like elephant trunks because of wind and sea erosions. Because we got to Le Havre around 12pm, we missed the bus that goes from Le Havre to Etretat at 10 in the morning. Make sure to check the bus schedule because buses to Etretat are rare during off-seasons (after summer). So we decided to go to Etretat on Sunday morning and go to Honfleur, a really small town nearby, instead.

To be honest Honfleur is the cutest French town I’ve seen by far. It felt like a typical European town with its old buildings and hanging flowers from the balcony. Honfleur used to be a sea port as well and it has the largest wooden church in France as well. It was my first time being inside a wooden church and I liked it a lot more than the usual stone churches because it was very quaint and also quite warm inside. (stone churches are usually colder because of the texture)

Another thing about Le Havre is that it’s in the Normandie Region and it’s known to be really rainy out there. Make sure to bring your umbrella and footgear that’s somewhat water proof because the rain and the cold does not make a good combination for traveling. We were lucky enough that Sunday was a sunny day, the only sunny day in fact, for the following week. I highly recommend going to Etretat because you can hike up the cliff and have an incredible view of the area, kinda like the Scottish highlands actually. After being cooped up in the city scene for a while, the cliffs, the sea shores, and the horizon were very liberating.

Also, AMAZING sea food! Especially the oysters (“huitres” in french) and whelks (“boulots”)!