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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A DC experience

After receiving the Archer Fellowship for Fall of 2005, I followed my heart and its sincere distaste towards hardcore partisan politics and applied to neutral bureaucracies and think tanks, such as the AMA, the Department of Public Health, and the EPA. Once I actually settled into the 19th century New England townhouse with my ten roommates and began haunting the district's doorsteps, resume in tow, my repugnance was transformed into intense curiosity, and I took one of the most politically-charged jobs imaginable: as an assistant to David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation magazine.

Finding its origin during the abolitionist movement (where it was of course in favor of ending the institution of slavery), the magazine hails itself as one of the only true muckraking periodicals left in the world. David Corn, my boss, was the first journalist to sound the alarm that connecting Valerie Plame to the CIA may indicate that someone in the administration violated federal law (Don't believe me? He is mentioned by name in the New York Times timeline). The people at The Nation were true liberal bolsheviks, and since I fancied myself an aspiring political journalist, I vigorously pursued the job and was hired.

I was instantly terrified of the most irate pundit I had ever seen. David had books, papers, magazines, and government documents mounded around the office and took to them frantically with a red pen muttering about lies and inconsistencies. He was crazy, but he didn't hesitate to give me a ton of work--copy editing, researching, and even composing blog entries. It was a lot for a first week, but I appreciated the vote of confidence, albeit my warm fuzzy feelings were often split by flying papers and fits of swearing.

David took some getting used to, but my admiration of his sharp eye and keen knowledge of politics continued to grow. He knew everyone in DC, and even though he was unshakable in his liberal values, his meticulous, cautious fact checking and willingness to concede on principle made him one of the most respected pundits in the country. He trusted me more and more as the months passed, and I can tout several once in a lifetime opportunities as a result -- an interview with Senators Barack Obama and Tom Coburn on private security funds, getting harassed by Howard Stern, snarky phone banter with Ann Coulter, an article posted in a national publication, and, my personal favorite, stampeding down a courtroom hallway with several dozen reporters to grab the first copy of the Libby indictments.

My experience in DC was nothing short of amazing. Outside of a very successful tenure at The Nation, I made great friends, fell in love with the district, and found a calling in punditing and public policy.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A trek with the llamas in Peru

This weekend was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After a lot of going back and forth between being concerned about the altitude (and the fact that Leslie compared the trip to giving birth -- terribly difficult but worth the pain) and being super excited, I decided there was no way that I was going to miss the opportunity to do a two day llama trek in the Peruvian Andes. And as usual, as soon as I started the trek I forgot my concerns and I'm so glad I made the trip.

We started at the house at around 8 (an hour late, but on time by Peruvian standards) -- Terry, Susan, Adam, and I left with Teodoro, our driver. Along the way, we stopped at a trout farm that had about a million rainbow trout of all sizes, a few of which we brought along with us in the car, flopping around the whole way, to have for dinner.

As soon as we met up with Pancho, my friend/the guide for all CCS trips who took us to Quinua and the Wari ruins last week and is helping me with my trip to MaPi next weekend, he handed me a pill for altitude sickness. At that point, I figured why not and popped the pill -- still not quite sure what it was but between that and the coca leaves I chewed along the way, the altitude didn't bother me a bit.

We met with the group of llameros who were on ponies and the llamas who all have their ears pierced with big bright colored pom-poms for earrings, which tell which llamas belong to which llamero. The climb was from 13,000 feet to 14,500 feet and back down to a little village. Pancho said that the trip we took was harder than hiking the Inca Trail! Good thing he told me after we finished, or I would have convinced myself I couldn't do it. The trip was breathtaking. That is, it was gorgeous, and also quite difficult to breathe so high up, but in the end, I had a great time and didn't even notice how tired I was! Our llameros included a girl named Lelia who was about 16, all in traditional dress, and I couldn't help but think about how it is completely luck that I was born in the US and she here, and that we are not in each other's shoes. Being here makes me think that a lot -- I wouldn't say it makes me feel guilty for being so privileged, but it does make you think. The llamas only spit a little. Pancho had brought a lunch so we had a picnic at about 14,000 feet overlooking a lagoon with the sharp peaks of the Andes for a backdrop. I was so glad to stop for lunch to rest, eat, and get the bitter taste of coca out of my mouth!

When we arrived to the first village, no one was around. There were a lot of tiny houses about my height made of stones just stacked one on top of the other with straw roofs and lots of wild dogs but no people -- it was almost spooky to come up over a mountain into a deserted looking valley full of houses after having seen no sign of people since we had left. Pancho said that between 7 and 4 the people are in the mountains with the herds of llamas and alpacas, of which there are 1 and 3 million here in Peru, respectively. We crossed to another little village where we stayed the night in a one room school house. We had some coca tea and crossed through a pasture full of llamas to talk with a family.

I had brought them some cookies, Pancho brought candy, and Susan brought them some hand cream and they were so grateful. To bend over to get in the house was reminiscent of getting on that tiny plane a week ago -- it was only about half my height. The house was about 15 by 8 feet and supposedly accommodated a family of ten at one point, but now some of the kids have moved out because they have their own families. It was completely dark inside and full of smoke because they cook inside but don't have a chimney or lights or candles. Since there is no light, when it gets dark around six they are stuck -- no one in the village has candles and there are absolutely no trees anywhere, so firewood is impossible to come by. To cook, they burn little patches of grass and llama dung. One of the little girls had a bad cough and they asked us if we had any medications for bronchitis, but Terry asked a few questions via Pancho because the women only speak Quechua, and said that her symptoms sounded more like TB. Pancho told the father that she needed to go to the hospital, but he said he didn't have the money. Before we left, Terry gave Pancho the money for the girl to go to the hospital and you could just see how much it meant to them. To see them cooking barley soup that they have for every meal was heart breaking, and I felt really conflicted about leaving to go have our dinner of trout. They asked us for money to buy soap and rice, but Pancho said it would be better if he brought them the products the next time he came, along with the copies of the pictures that we promised we'd give them after we took photos together. We said good bye and walked back as it started to snow to the school where we all tucked in our sleeping bags, and it made me so sad to think that they will probably never have a night that comfortable in their lives. But the thing is that yes, they are poor, but they are happy, and Pancho said that things are getting better for them.

Today we woke up and I learned how to shear alpaca wool with a dull knife. Then we took a horseback ride to the black lagoon. One of the girls, Eugenia, who was leading the horses and I talked a lot. Eugenia is 21 and has 3 kids, the oldest is 7 and the youngest is just a baby that she was carrying on her back. She asked me if I had any babies and I said no, and she said why not? I told her that in the US people don't have babies as early as they do in Peru, and she replied that she wished that it was like that in Peru because it was very hard for her to find food and work and she couldn't feed her kids. Then I explained to her about the different kinds of birth control and how it's free here in the health clinics and she was so excited to hear about it and promised me that she would use it. She told me she had never seen a gringo in her village before and asked me all about the US and Argentina, but I could tell there was something else she wanted to ask. She kept turning around to look at me and when I would look at her she would look away. Finally she asked me, "Why are your eyes blue?" I told her that it was because my parents have blue eyes and that's just how I was born, and she said it was very strange to her. I asked her all kinds of things about her life, and it was all heartbreaking to me but she seemed just fine with it all. For example, when I saw that she had blisters all over her feet I asked if it was hurting her a lot to not have socks and I loved her reply. She said, "Oh it is much better than without shoes!" So when we returned I gave her a pair of my socks and she and her sister Eduarda wanted their pictures taken. We said goodbye and headed back to home sweet home in Huamanga, or Ayacucho where I had a real shower (freezing cold, but still...) and where there is a real bathroom (even though you cant put toilet paper in the toilet). Here I am at an internet cafe just hours after having been in the middle of nowhere. It just amazes me how our world is.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Studying in Belfast

Telling people that I planned to spend the fall studying in Belfast was an entertaining task. Would my listener respond with unrestrained excitement, cautious encouragement, or a simple, “Belfast? Is that safe?”? Unfortunately, much of what America knows about Belfast and Northern Ireland in general has its roots in the tragic images of violence that haunted our televisions and newspapers for much of the late twentieth century. In fact, it is these very preconceptions that compelled me to study abroad in Belfast. I wanted to discover for myself the real stories behind the myths and half-truths surrounding the conflict, and for the past two months I have been studying Northern Irish politics, along with Irish literature, at Queen's University in Belfast.

In preparation for putting down my own thoughts about Belfast, I asked an American friend of mine here how she would describe the city: "Not as bad as the media portrays it and not as good as the Belfast City Council might want you to believe." I have to agree.

Let me begin by saying that I have seen no tanks, no army, no guns, and no explosions. Northern Ireland is a changed place and the old images from the TV and newspapers are just that: old. This is not to say that violence no longer exists in any form anywhere. In fact, even our university orientation programme subtly advised us to stay out of certain areas of the city alone or after dark. However, huge strides have been made in the last few months alone. In July, the Provisional IRA announced an end to its armed campaign, and in September, they completed the decommissioning of their weapons. The latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), a watchdog for paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, gave cautiously encouraging news about the status of criminal activity of some paramilitary groups, especially the PIRA. Currently, the British and Irish governments, along with many major political parties of Northern Ireland, are awaiting the IMC's more comprehensive report in January. A positive report could be the push needed to get Northern Ireland's political parties back on the road to open discourse and a government that seeks to include all communities.

The major question I had before coming here was, How do people function on a daily basis in a society that has been so haunted by war and remains divided on so many levels? I've found the answer is, no differently from you or I. It is true that there are still certain taboo topics and unspoken understandings. Enquiring about subjects as seemingly innocuous as someone's high school, church, hometown or address, or surname can occasionally raise eyebrows here, as it can be interpreted (though often it is not) as an attempt to discover a person's religion and/or politics. Referring to the name of the place can even be a tricky business. One is fine with Northern Ireland, but referring to the region as Ulster, the Province, The Six Counties, The North, or Ireland can imply or reveal a political bias. However, for the majority of people, these issues don't intrude on everyday life. All people in Belfast and Northern Ireland in general may not be ready to completely abandon the old ideology of Catholic versus Protestant or Nationalist/Republican versus Unionist/Loyalist, but to me many seem ready to attempt a move beyond the violence and political intolerance that has impeded genuine advancements in Northern Ireland. Issues like healthcare, education, housing and the economy are as much front page headlines here as are paramilitary decommissioning, policing and justice reforms, and a possible return to a government in which the major parties agree to share power. Especially hopeful is the desire I've observed in most people my age to forgive the sins of the past on both sides of the conflict and finally create a truly peaceful and just society.

As I close in on my last few weeks here, I've been asking myself what I am going to remember most distinctly about Belfast. Many memories come to mind—the daily glimpses of the green hills surrounding the city, the taste of an Ulster fry on a Sunday morning, the way Queen's University looks like Hogwarts at first glance, the sound of any Belfastian saying "What 'bout ye, luv?" (How are you, dear?), carving a turnip for Halloween in the old Celtic tradition and more. Though one of my most important lessons is that, contrary to widespread opinions, Northern Ireland is not all about politics, I'd be lying to say that the political developments, along with a new understanding of the communities here, have not been an important part of my experience. I truly believe that, whatever happens next with the government of Northern Ireland, many of the developments I have witnessed in the past few months will be key in writing the next chapter of this land's history. I hope it proves to be a positive one, for the opportunity of getting to know this city, its people, and its culture has increased my appreciation for all the traditions represented here and increased my hopes, like so many young people here, that the future holds something better for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Taking on St. Andrews in Scotland

Here I am in front of the ruins of the old castle in St. Andrews. It sits right on the water and is an impressive sight.

Swimming in the North Sea. Sounds fun, right? Well, it would sound especially appealing when you come to St. Andrews after one of our lovely but scorching Texas summers. Granted, I have been wearing a wetsuit, but it is an interesting bragging rite. Especially since I lately have ended up swimming in the North Sea after I have capsized out of my kayak when surfing on some of the lovely waves. Can't do something like that in Dallas!

This is the building where the economics and management classes are held. Looks a bit different from the one we have back at UTD!

St. Andrews is quite different from Dallas. For one, I still haven't quite gotten used to which side of the road the cars will come at you from while I'm walking to class. Or walking anywhere in town for that matter, being that from just about anywhere in town it takes no more than twenty minutes to walk to the center. The town is small and beautiful. On my daily walk to classes, I pass the beach, the old cathedral, and the lovely St. Leonard's College. My psychology classes take place in the Old Library in the Psychology building in St. Mary's Quad, which had a tree that is said to have been planted by Mary Queen of Scots. The Quad itself is a square of striking old buildings. My Russian lectures are held in the other quad, St. Salvator's Quad. It's a bit smaller and newer (the current buildings are only from the 18th century) than St. Mary's, but events often occur in the big grass square in the middle. Last week, I participated in a student protest led by the Ethical Investment group against some of the university's business affiliations. And on Raisin Monday, a university tradition, all the first year students (the freshers) participate in a huge foam fight while dressed up in costumes that older students, their "academic parents," dressed them in.

The lovely building I am blinking in front of is St. Salvator's Hall (nicknamed Sallies), or at least the back of it. It's one of the dormitories at St. Andrews.

There's also a thriving campus life. In the Student's Association, a.k.a. the Union, they have "bops" where you can dance the night away. There are lots of student societies and sports clubs as well. I personally belong to the Canoe Club, Psych Soc (the psychology society), J-Soc (the Jewish society), and Knitting Society, along with others. With the Canoe Club, as I mentioned earlier, we practice twice a week in the pool and go out to the shore once a week to surf in our kayaks. Psych Soc sponsors weekly talks by various professionals about many different facets of the field. The last speaker was a prison psychologist and spoke about the programs she is involved with for rehabilitation of prisoners. The one before that worked for social services and talked about the many career opportunities in the field of social work. In J-Soc Friday night dinners are held for Shabbat about twice a month that the students cook themselves. I've helped with the cooking and it's always been fun. The Knitting Society not only helps teach people to knit but is going to be participating in "Afghans for Afghans," a program where people send items like blankets, mittens, and sweaters to Afghanistan.

Behind me is a view of one of the famous golf courses in St. Andrews. I'm pretty sure this one is the Old Course. It's huge.

St. Andrews is also famous, other than for the university of course, for its golf. Early in the semester Dunhill Links had a celebrity golf tournament and we all kept our eyes peeled that weekend for celebrities walking around town. The golf courses are picturesque and on Sundays they let non-golfers walk around the course. They are exquisite to see and fun to explore.

This is one of the university's buildings. It does not hold any classes, but the administration building looks neat. Imagine if our Multipurpose Building looked like that!

The history surrounding you in St. Andrews is amazing. Not only are there the old golf courses, but just about everywhere you walk you can see a sign denoting some event that occurred there. Every time I go to my Russian lecture, right outside the main entry to the St. Salvator's Quad in front of St. Salvator Chapel, I pass the initials P.H. marked out in cobblestones. These denote the spot where Patrick Hamilton, a Protestant martyr, was executed. Superstition states that if you step on the initials you will fail your degree at St. Andrews. The way to fix the error of stepping is the May Dip, where freshers jump in the North Sea. Hearing about the May Dip tradition makes me happy that I will be able to avoid such a feat since I come back to Dallas in January. I prefer the aid of a wetsuit before swimming in the North Sea.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Participating in Team Sessions

For the better part of June and July I was a quasi-intern in Pete Sessions' (TX-32) office. When I say quasi-intern, I mean that though I did help in the office a couple of days, I was first and foremost a participant in Team Sessions.

Team Sessions was something like a "camp DC" experience. Imagine the freshman year McDermott trip to DC with less friends of the University speaking to you and more friends of the state of Texas. All in all it was a terrific way to launch my six-month tenure in the Capital.

We toured many of the monuments and museums, heard from several locals (including Congressmen, lobbyists, and judges) and schmoozed with Texans and Washingtonians alike at a few of the countless DC cocktail parties. All in all I think it was the perfect way to get acclimated to living on the Potomac.

Pete's race last year, you might recall, proved quite divisive on the UTD campus (in more ways than one). For the half of the students on-campus who didn't live in Sam Johnson's (TX-3) district, it was a bitter fight between incumbents (thank you redistricting) Pete Sessions and Martin Frost.

Whether you agree with his policies or not, Pete was really nice and Team Sessions was a fantastic experience.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Visiting Buenos Aires and Puerto Iguazu

The weekend before last, I went to see the capital, and I'm glad to say that Buenos Aires and I have reconciled after our rough start. I loved the city, and the place we stayed was incredible. It was an apartment of a couple who rents out rooms, and they were some of the most interesting and kind people I've met! Damian is a carpenter and his wife is an artist, so they had redone their whole apartment themselves. It was in San Telmo, the oldest part of Buenos Aires, where tango was born. If anyone ever plans to go to Buenos Aires, I highly recommend staying there - it really made my trip. I took a tour of Buenos Aires to see all the must-see places like La Boca, Palermo, Puerto Madero, La Recoleta, and of course Avenida 9 de Julio, one of the 3 widest streets in the world. I also went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the fine arts museum, several markets that are world-famous, and had some excellent steak! But the highlight of the trip was meeting up with Mom for a day when she arrived to study in Buenos Aires. We had a great time together, but I was still glad to return to Cordoba on Monday, which has really begun to feel like my home here in Argentina.

Last weekend was unbelievable. I went to Puerto Iguazu, a town in the province of Misiones at the borders of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brasil. I met up with Mom in Buenos Aires and we flew to Iguazu, and as we approached the airport in Iguazu (which has only 2 gates and looks more like a little hostel from Europe than an airport in the middle of the rainforest) I saw the a dense jungle of the most intense green color that I could have ever imagined. On the ride to our residencia, Mom pointed out that if you walked 10 meters from the road you'd be completely lost - that's how thick the trees and plants were. We spent the whole day Saturday in el Parque Nacional de Iguazu, the national park on the Argentinean side of Iguazu falls. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I had looked at a lot of pictures of the falls before going, but my imagination didn't even begin to do them justice. In addition to the falls, there were more butterflies there than I have seen in all my life put together. We saw coatis, which are animals that look like a cross between a racoon and an anteater. They were not shy at all, those little guys will steal food out of your purse while you are holding it! We also saw enormous iguanas and even a toucan! On Sunday we went to the park on the Brazilian side, which we weren't sure if we would be able to do, since Brasil requires a visa from Americans, which we did not have. However, there weren't any problems, although my passport now has a stamp that says I left Argentina and returned but doesn't say where I went, since you can't technically enter without a visa. So according to that, I disappeared for one day... my teacher is now calling me an illegal immigrant. The falls were amazing, though, and if you ever get the chance to go, it's a must see. Apparently when Eleanor Roosevelt saw them, the first thing she said was, "Poor Niagara."

Monday, September 26, 2005

Reporting from Cordoba, Argentina

Que aventura ayer!

At 6:30 yesterday morning, as most Argentineans were just coming home from their Saturday night out, I sat on the curb outside the residence with Thursten - a German software engineer who goes to my school here - waiting for our guide Martin to pick us up in a van headed for Las Sierras Grandes de Cordoba. At 7 (right on time, if you're from Argentina), the van pulled up and I hopped in, still under the impression that the day I was about to spend trekking would be reminiscent of all those hikes I've done in the Smokies over the years.

Wrong. Way wrong.

You'd think after almost a month of living in a country where it's not unusual to see dogs walking on roofs of stores or restaurants, where the men hiss at women instead of whistle, where some phone numbers are given with 6 digits, some with 5,7,9, or 10 (still haven't quite figured that one out yet...) -- you'd think I'd have realized that everything is different here.

Trekking is NOT the same as hiking. Trekking does not involve trails or signs that say "Rainbow Falls: 5 miles," or even plans to get from the start to the finish, apparently. It does, however, involve holding onto a tree limb or rock or pampas grass or whatever you can manage to grab before you slip and roll down the face of the mountain. I'm not talking about one really tricky part of the trip - that was the majority of it.

So there I was, in the middle of the most gorgeous landscape I can remember having seen, complete with cascades, rivers, and ravines with unforgiving cliffs. During the day we spotted falcons, eagles, and even a condor. Our group of about 15 was being led by a ruggedly good-looking cliché of a trekking guide, who didn't seem to have that great of a sense of direction, as we had to retrace our steps several times when we were pointed in the wrong way. And every time we came to another cliff or peak and I thought there was no way we could be going forward - that we had no choice but to go back - there was no way we could be going that way! - I would watch as Martin skillfully maneuvered his way down the mountainside.

Just when I thought I had the hang of things (literally...I was hanging from things), one of the women in our group fell and broke or maybe dislocated her ankle. The "first aid kit" was fully equipped with Band-Aids and aspirin, but luckily two nurses happened to be in our group and skillfully crafted a splint out of two water bottles and my Italian scarf/wrap thing. There was no way the woman could go anywhere - it was nearly impossible with two good ankles! So while a few people waited for help to arrive, the rest of us climbed to the nearest road - two hours and three peaks away. Several firemen and federal police (the CAP, they're called here) came to carry her back up the mountain on a stretcher. I'm not sure how they did it, but it took more than three and a half hours. Luckily, she made it to the hospital just fine.

All in all, it was a very exciting day. Beautiful weather, amazing views, interesting people from all over the world. I'm not sure if I'll elect to go on another trekking excursion, but it certainly was an experience!!

Tango and horseback riding is still really fun. Next week I'll start my Argentinean art history class - in Spanish!

Monday, September 12, 2005

Four McDermotts study in Guanajuato, Mexico

Four members of the 2004 class of McDermott Scholars (Zac Cox, James Fickenscher, Rachel Markowitz. and Jordan Youngblood) spent this summer studying in Guanajuato, Mexico. Here they all are having a fancy dinner above the city, where the food was spectacular and there was always tons of it to eat. Guanajuato, nestled in the mountains, was particularly magical if watched from up in the hills while night fell and the lights began to twinkle.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Recounting a Greek experience

An overview of Santorini, Greece.

Υποδοχή στην Αθήνα, Ελλάδα or Welcome to Athens, Greece. Those were the words that excited me the most on may 25th after traveling for more than 20 hours to one of the most fascinating and beautiful countries of the old continent. Along with other UTD students and faculty, I spent two weeks sailing across the waters of the Aegean Sea and visiting the Islands of Kea, Serifos, Sifnos, Folegandros, Santorini, Astipalia, Nisiros, Symi, Rodhos and finishing in Kos right next to the Turkish border.

Our home in the Aegean, the Arethousa yacht.

Visiting a country with so many similarities to mine (Mexico) made me felt like I was right at my homeland. We sailed during the day for about 4 or 5 hours, and around dinner time, we gathered together to discuss a topic that each of us selected, ranging from mythology to geology and politics. I researched the importance and influence of Greek in the romance languages. As well, sailing techniques were part of our daily routine so I got to learn a little bit more about this fascinating activity (after dropping one or two fenders and a couple of mistakes trying to tie a rope…)

A panoramic view of Αθήνα (Athens) from the top of the Parthenon.

Having such a unique opportunity going around the islands and getting to know remote places with an incomparable beauty has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The breathtaking views, the friendliness of the people and the richness of the ancient Greek culture (and did I mention the food?) are some of the factors that made of this summer an unforgettable journey. And by the way, if you get the chance to get a little bit closer to the Greek Pop Culture of nowadays, try to listen to the song “My Number One” by Elena Paparizou. I am sure you will enjoy it, as many of us did wherever we went.

Approaching to the Island of Symi, the Aegean Sea.

Recounting an Italian experience

Me in front of the Pisa Tower, Pisa.

Ciao tutti!

After my three week experience across beautiful Greece, I spent the following month in Florence, Italy as part of a study abroad program (API) at the Istituto Lorenzo dei’Medici. I took a class about Florentine Renaissance and an Italian language course as well. Soon I got to realize that I was living right in front of the place where Michelangelo used to paint for the Medici family. Florence has so many things to offer to art fans, that you will find in need of more time to explore and get lost in the numerous churches, palaces and even across the city wondering around. Botticelli, Michelangelo and Rafaello’s most renowned works are all in display at the different museums of the once called Republicca Fiorentina.

Regione Toscana (San Gimignano)

My experience began in Rome with an orientation weekend, visiting the highlights of this fascinating and ancient city. During the weekends, I got the opportunity to explore amazing places such as Venezia, Pisa, Cinque Terre, and Regione Toscana (Siena, San Gimignano, Montepulciano)

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

As I mentioned before, this past summer made me think of the lifestyles and differences existing between the two continents. I felt like I was right at home, but at the same time, many differences can be found between both the old and new worlds (as historians used to called our continents) Daily activities such as going to the mercato centrale (market) every morning to pick breakfast, or even the aperitivo time during the afternoons allowed me to feel much more like a local. There is neither need for cars nor any transportation system at all since everything is within walking distance. In so many ways, it is so similar to my hometown (Guanajuato, Mexico) but at the same time there were countless things to discover and enjoy. Every day there was something new to do or to see.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Another thing that made this summer such a wonderful journey is related to the friendships I made and all the people I met. Everybody enjoyed this time in many different ways, but in the end all of us coincided that Italy is a magic place, where time has stopped but allowing modernity to come and cherish the magnificent works of art created. It has been one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had; I learned so much about myself and a new host culture that opened its doors allowing me to explore all it has to offer. It was hard to say goodbye to Florence, but I keep so many good memories from it that it seems like yesterday when everything happened.

Firenze (Florence), a view from the top of the city.

Grazie mille per tutto e ciao!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Exploring China

As you can tell by these pictures, I fit in here in China about as well as infamous Survivor nude Richard Hatch at a clothing market. But that's been part of this experience that I've enjoyed the most -- stepping completely out of my comfort zone and being thrown into a completely different culture. After one year of studying Mandarin at UTD, I took the plunge so to speak and came to China for the summer. I spent the first month traveling all over the Eastern part of China, all the way from Guangzhou in the south, up the Yangtze River and past the Three Gorges Dam, through Shanghai and Xi'an (home of the Terracotta Warriors, the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World) and then to Beijing.

I spent the next two months studying at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, or BeiWai to the locals. Everyday Monday through Friday, I spent four hours a day in class, met with a Chinese tutor for an hour and spent about 3 hours studying or doing homework. Throughout the course of my stay, I've lived in a dorm, with a Chinese roommate and with a Chinese host family. I spent the weekends exploring the city and taking trips to the Great Wall and to ride horses on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

>> See more pictures at Richard's web site

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Reflections on death in Zambia

Sophie and her guide Martin standing on top of a kopje –- a rock outcropping -- with a view of Zambia's Kafue National Park stretching off behind them

It's subtle, but death in Zambia is closer than in the US. The only times in my life I've had deaths that touch me were my grandfather, my great-grandfather, and my aunt, and the first two died when I was really young. I can't imagine how difficult it will be for me when someone close to me dies for the first time in my adult life.

But here in Zambia, I hear talk about death on a daily basis. For example, the sister-in-law of my proprietress is staying at the lodge right now to help her get over her grief at the death of her one-year-old, firstborn child from malaria. The news carries notices several times a week of the deaths of prominent people. Rarely is their cause of death mentioned - the stigma of AIDS is still too great. And several times people have asked me about my family, but they always start off with the question, "Are your parents still alive?", which wouldn't occur to us in the US. And I hear about funerals often - my favorite cab driver, Linius, couldn't take me to church this morning because he was attending the funeral of a friend's mother. That's all anecdotal evidence, but it's obvious from my experiences here that there's something wrong. Death before old age should be a terrible rarity; instead, here the average life expectancy at birth is just under 40 years.

This was all just weighing on my heart because the sermon today was about "our heavenly hope" and being raised bodily from the dead on Judgment Day. It would have been nothing more than a pleasant reminder for me in the US, but here in Zambia, surrounded by people who'd lost children and family members, knowing their grief and how much the sermon would mean to them, it had much more meaning.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A summer in Ireland

To sum up my experience so far: Ireland is awesome!!! I have had such an incredible time since I've been here. I'm studying abroad with an organization called Academic Programs International. I, along with nineteen other API students, have joined over one hundred other US students at the National University of Ireland, Galway in a summer Irish studies program. We have classes during the week, I'm taking History and Society, and on the weekends we fly off to various parts of Ireland. My classes are so interesting. Professors here at NUIG teach the lectures and lead the seminars. I've learned so much about Ireland in just a week.

This past weekend, we visited the Cliffs of Moher, a long line of cliffs plunging into the ocean in the west coast of Ireland on Saturday. The cliffs stand 700 feet above the water and it is an awesome sight to see. You feel so insignificant when faced with the immensity of nature, standing on the edge, looking down at the tiny waves below. The ocean stretches out in front of you, disappearing on the horizon. Sunday, we visited the Aran Island, an island off the west coast of Ireland, and hired bikes to ride to Dun Aoghasa, a three thousand year old fort on the edge of the island. The fort ends in three hundred foot cliffs standing over the ocean. It was an incredible experience to bike across the island, seeing the scenery and breathing in the crisp, ocean air. Large, stone walls stood around the fort, made even more amazing by the fact that they had been built over three thousand years ago.

As it seems that time is flying by, at the same time I feel like I've been here forever. I am loving my time here, I'm surrounded by the friendliest people, and the island is rich in ancient history and culture.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Travel Diary

I have decided to more thoroughly document my study abroad experience, as well as day to day adventures as a McDermott Scholar. It is still a work in progress, but I hope to have it fully up and functional within the next few weeks. The URL is http://kmclean.salet.org. Come check it out, kick the tires, etc. The updates will be almost daily for the first two weeks or so, as I bring the site up to speed. After that, updates will occur as the adventures do.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Zambia: interning with a non-governmental organization called Pact, describes Lusaka

I'm staying in a standard-hotel-type room in a small guesthouse, which, though expensive, gets me a clean room everyday and a kitchen in which I can make all my own food. It's in one of the nicest areas of Lusaka, where lots of government workers, diplomats, and business people live, and in fact the Zambian State House, the equivalent of the American White House, is the halfway point in my twenty-five minute morning walk to work. The State House is right across the street from Lusaka's main army base, and everytime I walk past I can't help but ponder that ironic metaphor for the power dynamics in so many African countries past and, though much lessened, present.

I work in a colonial-style compound house that looks more like it should be hosting embassy parties than the staff of an NGO. It's the middle of the dry season now, and if you drive out away from these suburban streets into the bush that surrounds Lusaka you'll find fields of dry brown grass dotted with still-lush green trees. By the cusp of the wet season in October or November, as the people hold their breath for the new planting season, even those trees will have lost their leaves. But for now I get a taste of the magnificence of the wet season in the colorful flower bushes that hang over the compound walls or sprout up along the sides of the streets. The neighborhood reminds me a bit of Plano, in fact, though they've substituted thick, high concrete or brick walls for chainlink or slat fences and each compound has the blazon of its particular security guard company posted on the metal gate. I suppose it's ironic that I feel so safe here when I'm surrounded by such an ominous vigilance, but I walk everywhere - to the supermarket, to the Internet cafe, to the pharmacy, feeling a bit as if I'd been transported to a tropical Dallas.

The rest of Lusaka is less prosperous. Neighborhoods range from the middle class, which have their own, smaller houses and walls but usually lack a security guard, to the compounds - Zambia's word for the slums. Stone and building materials are cheap here due to the leftovers from all the mines nearby, so at least there aren't the makeshift wood shacks so notorious in other large-city ghettos. But a neatly-built stone house with a tin roof might be bare inside. A family's possession's in the compounds are the real measure of their wealth, which is why Robert Mugabe's resettlement efforts just to the south, discussed here by the New York Times, are so devastating.

There's also another terrible secret - AIDS. The disease officially infects about 15% of the population, which is much less than some other nearby countries, but it's still having a devastating effect on the populace, particularly, and illogically, on the educated classes, whose power and comparative wealth is a strong temptation. Things have gotten bad enough among the teaching corps, for example, that public school students here often go to school in shifts; three sets of students receive instruction for only about three to four hours each day. And though I often see televised public service announcements targeting stigmatization, it'll take a bit of time before there's really a sea change in how people think here about abstinence, fidelity, the stigma of HIV, and the status of women here.

And just a bit about the nation itself: Zambia is about the size of Texas, with half the population - only about ten or eleven million - of which a million alone live in the capital, Lusaka. It's mostly flat and covered by bushlands, though there are several major rivers, including the Zambezi, which provide some of the continents' most exceptional game reserves. The major tourist attraction, though, is Victoria Falls, the magnificent Zambezi waterfall that Zambia shares with Zimbabwe. I'll try to get some pictures up here of that when I visit later on in the summer, because it's truly a sight not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Reflections on a semester in Spain and outlooks on a summer in Mexico

Annie in front of King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein (Cinderella's castle) in Fussen, Germany

By plane, train, and foot, I uprooted myself from Dallas, Texas and relocated to Salamanca, Spain leaving behind all the comforts of home and security of my daily life to live in a foreign environment. The city of Salamanca provided a multi-cultural backdrop due to the renowned Universidad de Salamanca which houses students from all over the world. Salamanca provided the perfect opportunity to learn and interact with both native and non-native speakers all united by the appreciation for the Spanish culture. With such a strong bond, it did not take long for this foreign city to become my new home away from home.

Intense language classes at Cursos Internacionales were complemented by a culture course. Not surprisingly, I learned more about the culture outside of the classroom walls, experiencing it firsthand. I enjoyed teaching curious four and five year olds English as they taught me Spanish at the YMCA, and meeting other volunteers at the Spanish Red Cross. Certainly, being a “guiri” had its major benefits as well. Without asking, proud Spaniards would approach foreigners waiting beneath the giant “reloj” of the Plaza Mayor and share the Spanish secrets of everything from paella and sangria to corrida de toros and flamenco.

In addition to Spain, I was able to travel the rest of Europe. Europeans have the luxury of hopping on a train and entering a whole new world in a couple of hours. Euro-railing taught me independence and allowed me to appreciate the uniqueness of each nation. Lands and cultures I only knew through textbooks came to life. My traveling time was divided between reflecting in my journal and having friendly, sometimes heated, conversations with other travelers. I was fortunate enough to befriend people from all over the world: Japan, Australia, Germany, Italy, Korea, Greece, and none other than Texas. As different as we all were, we were united by our passion and genuine curiosity to learn about other nations.

I leave for Guadalajara, Mexico in less than a week. Guadalajara will provide yet another exciting backdrop for me to appreciate a different culture rich with its own history and colonial flare. Before my semester abroad, I read as many Rick Steve travel guides as I could possibly find. I was warned of the “emotional rollercoaster” that would follow the shock of new people, places, and things. Thinking about all the new experiences was both exciting and daunting. Once I arrived in Spain, I realized that no amount of preparation could have taught me how to capture and enjoy all the nuances of the Spanish life.

With that in mind, I know the advice from fellow scholar, Abraham Rivera, will be a useful tool; however, it will ultimately be my job and pleasure to turn Guadalajara into my new summer home. If I am lucky, with the aid of more intense Spanish classes, by the end of the summer I will be able to wean myself off of the Castillian lisp and graciously thank all the natives by saying, “gracias” instead of “grathias.”

The old Puente Romano (Roman Bridge) and towering Old and New Cathedral that can be seen from every part of Salamanca

Almost all visitors search the facade of the Universidad Civil in Salamanca in hopes of finding the lucky "rana" or frog

A typical afternoon in arguably the most beautiful Plaza Mayor in all of Spain.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Impressions of Paris

My experience in Paris has been invaluable, though by no means what I expected. I am currently studying at the Sorbonne University in Paris, in an intensive language program for foreign students. Other than two hours of grammar every day, every other week I have an hour a day of phonetics. The phonetics class has yet to present a flaw, and the time is used more efficiently than in just about any other class I have ever taken. In addition to the French, I have just finished a class on black and white photography.

When I applied to study in Paris, and even when I first arrived, I expected an opportunity to learn French at the world famous Sorbonne University and experience Parisian culture. I expected to go to photography class and take pictures of fabulous and well know sights. In comparison to regular life at UTD, I expected a vacation (a vacation with a purpose, but a vacation nonetheless).

In orientation sessions upon my arrival, I was warned about culture shock. I was told that I would first be awed by the city and the experience. I would then go through a phase where I would probably be more tired than usual, would complain about Paris, would miss home, and would exhibit any other elements of dissatisfaction. Eventually, and towards the end of the trip, I would grow to love Paris and be sad to leave, even to the point of experiencing greater culture shock upon returning home.

I would love to say that I did not experience culture shock. At the beginning of my trip, almost three months ago, I thought that there would be no way I would go through those phases. I was sure that I would be different. I certainly entered with a different attitude than most. When I arrived in Paris, I was not as starry eyed with the culture and mythology of the place as other students in the program. Perhaps my attitude came from the general unease between the US and Paris, but I think more so, I simply came to the situation with what seems now to be a flippant attitude. I wanted to have an open mind to new experiences, but was not going to cut the culture any slack or be blind to the flaws in the situation.

And there are flaws. But more interesting than the flaws are the differences between the US and French cultures. Even more interesting are the dichotomies that exist within the French people themselves. One of the first really bizarre differences I noticed and inquired about is the parallel parking situation in Paris. There is almost no parking at all in the city, and the parking that is available is on the side of some streets. When the French park, they leave their cars in neutral. This allows the cars on either side, whether entering or exiting the parking place, to bump around and have a little contact. Every bumper in Paris, from the nicest Rolls Royce to the tiniest Smart Car, has dents, dings, chipped paint and scratches from parallel parking.

A more major difference between the cultures is the idea of time. In Paris, everyone is in a rush, but one can never appear to be pressed for time when dealing with a one on one situation. When I entered the tenth bookstore in a row looking for an out of print book, I rushed to the counter and asked where the grammar section was located. The man behind the counter took his time and finished stamping the book he was working on, placed it on a stack of books, looked up at me, and said “hello, how may I help you?” I wanted to scream, but then remembered where I was, that I was entering his store, that was his guest and was requesting his permission to look around. I gathered my thoughts and, composed, returned the hello, said I was sorry to disturb him but wandered if he could help me with something. He said yes, and only then did I have permission to actually repose the question I had asked more than two minutes before.

The French also put more of a priority on leisure time, as I have seen with the massive number of cafes around the city, and in discussions of the thirty-five hour workweek. In France, by law, no one is allowed to work more than thirty-five hours a week, to theoretically create more jobs. In reality, less gets done.

In seeing these and many more differences, I have realized why I came to Paris, and why studying abroad is so important. The experience I have had has not really been fun. I have seen museum after museum, lost myself in the Louvre many times, but do not feel more cultured. I have sat in cafes drinking espresso and café-au-lait’s while surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke from neighboring tables, but do not feel more Parisian. I have eaten an innumerable number of crepes, both meal and dessert crepes, but do not feel more French. I have spent days speaking only in French, reading only in French, hearing very little English at all, and I do not feel closer to the new language and farther away from my native tongue. I have ridden every line of the metro, waited in lines, stood shoulder to shoulder with crowds of people, and walked for hours each day through ancient stone buildings, but do not feel more a part of the city.

But I feel more a part of the world.

My experience here has provided me with an invaluable level of inconvenience. My lifestyle has been forcibly changed and, though not necessarily pleasant, I feel that I understand the culture and lifestyle at home more now than I ever have before. By living in a different place, I feel that I appreciate much more what our culture at UTD, in Texas, and in the United States has to offer (I will avoid details here, because that gets more personal than necessary). And I also know that things are not set in stone and that I have a broader experience with which to question some aspects of our culture that I may have overlooked before. And for these things, I feel that my trip has already been a success.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Beginning of a semester in Orleans, France

I am currently staying in Orleans, France. I arrived on January 15th. Since that time I have been working in a GREMI laboratory as part of an internship in which I am researching a cryogenic etching process for wide aperture masks. Although this consumes the majority of my time, on weekends I have found time to visit various sites in Paris and castles around the countryside. Tomorrow, I travel to Dublin, Ireland for a few days.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Impressions of Mexico

My first impression of Mexico was surely of the severity of the poverty. Leaving the airport, it looked like downtown New Orleans, my home town, at its worst. Numbers and statistics couldn’t possibly have prepared me for the sheer quantity of people living in those conditions. I now realize that over 40% of the population works in the informal sector, a relatively low figure in comparison to the rest of Latin America. The most painful image I can fathom came when we were in the Zocalo yesterday. A very young boy lay on a piece of cardboard. Kerri almost tripped on him. He looked like he should have been able to walk by his age, but he was lying completely contorted and seemingly abandoned. There was no way to tell if his parent(s) were nearby, or if anyone was caring for him. This was so distressing. There seems to be no safety net for these people. We then saw the cathedral right on the side of the square. The opulence and ornate detail of the architecture was quite impressive. I could definitely sympathize with the efforts to keep it from sinking. What most stood out was the comparison of the child and the cathedral; it is so exemplary of the contrasts within this country…

We met with officials from the US embassy today. That was the highlight of my day for sure. There was a woman involved with public relations for the embassy in Mexico. She was fascinating explaining her experience in Albania and the way the foreign service affected her family situation. I spoke to her for a while; I would be interested to know how the poverty she has witnessed has affected her outlook on this country and the world.

Being here has made me think about the environment a lot. The smog at dusk is horrifying. At the same time, it’s completely unrealistic to hold developing countries to the same standards that developed countries are held. To realize that the US was polluting horribly during the industrial revolution, and that developing countries are just passing that stage, makes it very clear that these standards cannot be applied across the board. This makes the US policy on the environment all the more important. Our regulations must prevent our own emissions, as well as counteract the emissions of developing nations…

Dr. Hernandez talked in class about absorbing the sounds, colors, smells, and flavor of Mexico. Unfortunately, what has struck me the most throughout Mexico City has been the poverty and environmental degradation.

On another topic entirely, it’s been so refreshing to see the way people interact with each other here. Affection is much more public. It’s interesting to see how the social norms differ between the US and Mexico; people in the US are far more prudish by comparison. Men seem much more comfortable putting their arms around one another and speaking in close proximity to one another. There doesn’t seem to be the level of homophobia that exists in US culture, although maybe it’s expressed here in a different way. Couples seem to all be holding hands, and I’ve seen many kissing in public. It’s nice to see that sexuality does not need to be something to be ashamed of or kept hush-hush and private. I would be very interested to further understand the dynamic of sexuality here and how sexual orientation plays a part in this traditionally very Catholic culture.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

First three weeks in Spain

¡Bien venidos desde Salamanca, España! As the home of Spain's oldest university, Salamanca is a city full of culture and college life. Among the 35,000 students in attendance, more than 2,000 hail from throughout Europe, Asia, and of course the foreign country of Texas -- providing a rich exchange of cultures and languages. As a part of the University's Cursos Internacionales, I am currently taking advanced classes in Spanish grammar, communications, and business. My language skills continue to improve steadily, though I have to work diligently to avoid using the Spanish "theta." While I do have many things to learn while I'm here, a Spanish lisp is not one of them.

When I am not in class, Salamanca's magnificent architecture provides a beautiful backdrop for enjoying the many historical sites hidden throughout the city. When I need to warm up, a café con leche and a churro from one of the numerous eclectic cafés that line the city's stone streets always hit the spot. I am especially impressed by the city center Plaza Mayor pictured below. Though this picture did come at great cost, for while Spaniards do not use the Mexican term "gringo," you can bet that any goofy-looking American asking a stranger to take his picture in front of the pretty building is aptly labeled the Spanish equivalent: "un guiri."

In the end, my time as a guiri has made me grateful that English has no subjunctive or vosotros forms and thankful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the rich culture and history of Salamanca, Spain. ¡Te vaya bien!

Monday, January 17, 2005

Settling in in Glasgow

Greetings from slightly gloomy Glasgow. All the pictures above were taken on the same day. The city got two hours of sunshine on Sunday and the locals were awed at the site of blue skies in the winter. It snowed heavily today, but only briefly and during the 35 minutes I was walking home. The strangest part of the weather is something all Dallasites (is that a word?) and even Americans and lower latitude Canadians take for granted: daylight. It only gets light at about 8-8:30 and it starts to get really dark at 4:30. At noon the sun is already half set in the sky and with the high latitude it is weak all day long. The flip side is that I bet the summer daylight is really nice and long here (I went to Edmonton once during the peak of summer. When we landed at 11:00 at night it was still bright outside).