About Me

My photo
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.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Exploring the Scottish Highlands

Last week was Reading Week here at St. Andrews University, a lovely town on the east coast of Scotland famous for being “The Home of Golf.” I’m spending two semesters here at the University where I’m continuing my studies of Physics. I am really enjoying the university, but I was glad when Reading Week came along as it is a whole week off of lectures, a wonderful tradition in my mind! The week is nominally used for revising and catching up with your lectures, but most students, particularly the young ones, travel. This is what I chose to do, and on the 6th of November, I set out for Edinburgh where a five-day tour of the Highlands began.

Interestingly enough, our first stop was none other than the quaint little village of… St. Andrews. Here, we had about an hour to “see the sights.” A fellow St. Andrews student and I played tour guide and even sampled the pseudo-Scottish pseudo-delicacy: the deep fried Mars Bar. Surprisingly, it was tasty enough, and I found myself wishing that I had delayed trying it until I was about to leave so I couldn’t eat more than one of these heart attacks in a bag.

From St. Andrews we ventured north, up towards the Highlands. I’ve received many questions regarding the difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands, so I’ll take a moment and explain that here. Geographically, the two regions are divided by the Highland Fault Line or the Highland Boundary Fault. Looking at any map will show you this line without difficulty; it is where the mountains start. The “high” in “Highland” is derived from the elevation not the latitude, after all! Culturally, the Highlands and Lowlands are very different, due in part to the isolation that the mountains produce. The Lowlands have been more influenced my England and Europe. For example, the “traditional” clothes worn in the Lowlands would have been the same as the current fashions in Europe and particularly France. Only in the Highlands was the plaid worn. Now, of course, the kilt -- the modernization of the plaid -- is worn by Highlanders and Lowlanders alike, and that’s a good thing!

After a stop at Dunkeld to see the amazing cathedral and some very unique trees (The Duke of Atholl who owned the land fired the seeds of many different species of tree out of a cannon to disperse them) we headed on to Pitlochery where we spent our first night in the youth hostel there.

The next day we headed north again. Our first stop was at a place called the Queen’s View. Queen Victoria, the site’s namesake, had good taste!

We also saw Killiekrankie pass, site of the first Jacobite uprising in 1689. The scenery was so lovely that I had a hard time paying attention to the history! I was very lucky in taking this tour right as the leaves were changing. It was amazing!
Then it was straight on to Loch Ness, were we saw everything except Nessie, the famous monster of this huge, dark, and -- it must be said -- rather mysterious loch. Three of us opted for a quick swimming dip in, and were relieved to have mugs of whisky-hot chocolate waiting for us on shore to help warm us up!

After heading to the hostel in Inverness for a hot shower and a change of clothes, we headed out for a night on the town. We found a great pub that had live music and a great atmosphere and spent most of the evening there. This place was great! It was lit mostly by large, serviceable candles, the floors and all the furniture was all wood and had clearly been there for some time. There was a group of people playing traditional music that were just sitting at a table in the centre of the room. There were three fiddles, a small set of bagpipes, and a wooden flute, quite the traditional ensemble!

The next morning it was up early again and we were off to Clava Cairns. (As the sun sets here around 4:00, you have to get up early to make the most of the daylight!) Clava Cairns is a Pictish site that has three large stone mounds each of which is surrounded by a circle of standing stones. It was really a neat place, and we were the only ones there.

We also stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, site of the filming of many famous movies such as Highlander and even scenes from The World is Not Enough, the 19th James Bond film. We were told that this is the most photographed castle in Britain, if not the world, so I figured I’d help them maintain their claim!

From there we drove on to Skye, an island off the west coast. We spent the night there and got up early, of course, to explore Skye the next day. The weather was really awful while we were there; we almost got blown off a cliff! It cleared up in the afternoon, though, and we went to the Farie Glen, an awesome place complete with miniature landscapes and a castle -- all natural, I hasten to add. The Little People have good taste in scenery!

From there, we drove back down to Edinburgh and the trip ended. I caught the train back to St. Andrews and was surprised that I was sad to come back to St. Andrews. I love this place, and didn’t think I would ever be sad to come back to it!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Trying to find the words to sum up Russia

It is difficult to say everything I want to say about so large a country as Russia in just a few short paragraphs, but for the sake of my friends back home who would like a nice little summary of my adventures, I'll try…

After spending two and a half months baking in the sweltering St. Petersburg summer, I decided it was high time for a change. Russia being the land of extremes that I have found it to be, it is no surprise that after all those tank-top days in St. Petersburg, I now find myself bundled-up in every possible way against the friggedness of Siberia.

While Irkutsk is one of the most southern of Siberia's cities (only one degree of latitude north of London), we still get our fair share of cold. September and October weren't bad – an occasional snow day here and there, but for the most part the weather was surprisingly good. I spent as much time as I could at Lake Baikal (THE lake – the one that holds 20% of the world's fresh water) and other outdoor destinations. I had this image in my head of huge snowdrifts and such. That may soon happen, but not yet. I'm still debating whether these trips will be repeated in the next two months – it'll be absolutely freezing, but you only see something that beautiful once in a great while, right?

Speaking of which, I've come to a conclusion in the past few days – a realization that is difficult for a photographer like me to accept. There are some things in this country (and this world) which simply cannot be translated to a photograph. What is hardest about this fact is that so many of my favorite moments on this trip cannot be preserved other than in my memory and in an occasional blog entry. For example, I was on a night train last night from Ulan Ude (capital of the neighboring Buryati Republic) back to Irkutsk when I was suddenly and for no particular reason awoken. I looked out the window (possible at this point only because all the lights in the cabin were off) and saw something quite miraculous – a full moon gave me a wonderful view of the snow-topped mountains surrounding Lake Baikal, while in the sky, framed perfectly in my window, was the constellation Orion. It was one of those "right-place-at-the-right-time" kind of moments, and one that I will probably never experience again. But I think I will always remember lying there, as the train slowly chugged along the lakeshore, staring in wonder at all the natural beauty that was passing by my window. While my studies are interesting and I'm learning a lot about Russian language and culture, I count these moments as the ones that make my trip halfway around the globe the most worthwhile – the moments for which it is worth it to put up with the -10˚C (and lower, as I suspect the temperature will yet drop before I return to the sunny Lone Star State).

I'm not quite sure what to expect from the next month and a half. Exactly how cold is it going to get? How on Earth am I going to be able to pass all my exams (since all my classes are in Russian, including a literature class which covers Dostoevsky and Tolstoy)? And how am I going to handle things when I get back home? By now I've gotten used to hand washing all my clothes, riding the trolley or walking everywhere I need to go, and operating just about 24 hours a day in a foreign language. While I miss a lot of the conveniences of American life, I know I can get buy just fine without them.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


This is me outside of beautiful Hemu Village. Hemu is a small, self-contained Tuvan village in NW Xinjiang.

I got back last Sunday from our two week trip all around China. We started off going to Northwest Xinjiang (where China meets Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan). Talk about a mix of cultures! Haha! I never thought I would feel relieved to find a person who spoke Chinese, but everyone spoke Tuvan or Mongolian where we went. And then we worked our way back east going down the ancient Silk Road.

One of my favorite stops on our trip was Xiahe; seeing a large group of Buddhist monks all sit in an internet bar and play Counterstrike was pretty awesome. Xiahe is in northeastern Tibet, and has one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in the world. The Buddhists in Xiahe had such a faith and devotion to Buddhism; their faith was their lives. I only wish we Christians would show such devotion in our lives as I saw in these people; the world would then be a very different place indeed.

This is the western part of Xiahe.

And then we got back to Beijing just in time for National Day. October 1st is National Day - the day that the Chinese people celebrate the formation of the Communist Party of China. It's actually a week long holiday. I went down to Tian'anmen square to see the insane floral decorations and just the sheer amount of people. It was definitely something worth seeing. And then my friends and I celebrated this day of Chinese pride by eating dinner at a KFC on the south side of Tian'anmen. We thought it was only appropriate.

So now my week of rest and recovery from my intense trip is over and classes start again tomorrow. But all in all everything here is going very well. I am slowly becoming more accommodated to life in Beijing and the Chinese culture is growing on me.

Oh more good news; I think we are going to go to this place named Grandma's Kitchen soon, and they serve Dr Pepper!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Exploring China

'04 McDermott Scholars James Fickenscher (left) and Liam Skoyles are studying language and culture in China this fall. Here's a posting from Beijing:


Before I came to Beijing, I didn't really know all that much about Chinese culture or the Chinese way of life; all I had heard about pretty much was censorship and cheap food. Little did I know the great and wonderful culture into which I was about to be totally immersed. Since coming I have been completely taken away by the Chinese people and culture. The Chinese way of thinking is so completely different than that of Americans, and I feel that my time here will educate me both as a student and a worldly cultured person. The fact that the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program encourages this kind of experience shows its dedication to the well-rounded development of its scholars and demonstrates its desire to help motivated, great students like you become people who can truly change the world.


As I stepped off the plane in Hong Kong, it was like stepping into a fairytale vision in my dreams. I zipped across the harbor on the lightning-fast airport express train and reflected on the previous six weeks: I had just planed, trained, taxied, and rickshawed my way across the Indian subcontinent—convenience stores, air conditioning and sit-down toilets were a distant memory. I shelled out 100 Hong Kong Dollars at the end of the line, the same price as a full week's worth of lodging in Delhi. Hong Kong was everything I missed about the West and at the same time everything I was loath to remember. Well-groomed businessmen brushed past, teens bounced along with shopping bags and the streets were sterilized. However as the memory of thousands of colourful kites flying over Delhi against a fiery sunset waned, a new appreciation of the world's newest superpower dawned. Over ten days I wound my way to Beijing. As I finally walked into the Beijing Foreign Studies University dorm, my home for the next semester, I had fallen in love with this amazing new society. Not to mention the fact that a year of Chinese language study made the taxi ride infinitely more convenient.


Everything in Beijing is awesome still, and tomorrow we leave for a two week trip around Xinjiang and even get to go hiking up to the Russian/Chinese/Mongolian/Kazakhstani border!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wacky Amsterdam adventures

[Chris Affolter ('03) and Hannah Frank ('04) are both spending their fall 2006 semester abroad. While Chris has been studying microbiology and arms control in the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland, Hannah has been ... slightly more adventurous -- taking on Siberia in the winter. Instead of waiting for fate to make their paths cross, Chris and Hannah decided to both take the weekend off from their respective adventures and meet up in Amsterdam for a long weekend of great art, good food, and fun.]

Chris: Where is our hostel?

Hannah: You mean you don't have the directions? I don't either!

(An hour or two of searching later, we were in our dorm room at the Witte Tulp – in the Red Light District)

Chris: Holy ****, when they advertised a view, I didn't know that was what they meant. (Really deep in the Red Light District, the views can be...interesting).

(A little later, and still hungry)

Chris: I'm hungry -- let’s get lunch -- the evil Swiss people in the airport were taunting me with fresh croissants, but wouldn't sell them because it was too early in the morning.

Hannah: How about this cute little bakery ("De Bakkerswinkle")?

Chris: If only they had broodje harring!!!

Hannah: You can get some later. These are pretty good! (Little did we know that we would end up eating breakfast here every morning – it was really that good)

(After lunch and a run to the French fry stand...)

Chris: Where should we go now?

Hannah: How about the Rembrandt museum.

Chris: Grumble. I'm not such a fan of Rembrandt. And it’s not a museum, it's his house. It's a tourist trap.

Hannah: Neat, we get a discount. And this Rembrandt print exhibit is…extensive.

Chris: Yeah, that was really nice. I really like Rembrandt.

Hannah: Snap. Snap. Picture. Picture

Chris: Let’s go shopping at the flea market.

Hannah: These wallets look nice.

Chris: These wallets look used.

Hannah: These wallets look stolen.

Hannah and Chris: ***checking pockets***

Chris: I can’t believe how cheap everything is here compared to Switzerland.

Hannah: I can’t believe how expensive everything is here compared to Russia.

Chris: Of course, the French fries are definitely worth their weight in gold. Let's get some more.

(A few thousand calories later...)

Chris: How about some coffee?

Hannah: The coffee is wonderful here.

Chris: So are the baked goods! This is an amazing brownie.

Hannah: Now it's time for some van Gogh.

Chris: This coll…

Hannah: This collection is fantastic.

Chris: Go-Van-Gogh (DMA reference)

Hannah: I think van Gogh went.

Chris: Did he go get a bike?

Hannah: No, but we should.

Chris: I haven't been on a bike in a long time.

Hannah: That's OK – they'll rent them to anybody. (speeding off through the pedestrian crowd)

Chris: This is fun!

(Once we'd worked off all the French fry fat by riding all over Amsterdam...)

Hannah: Aafke (Hannah's Dutch friend) said to hang out in Vondelpark.

(pedal, pedal, pedal)

Chris: I'm tired, how about a nap in Vondelpark?

Hannah: ***snore***

Chris: ***watches crazy old woman drink a whole bottle of wine and have a conversation (in Dutch) with herself***

Hannah: (Suddenly awake and ravenous) Lunch?

Chris: I want a broodjie harring!

Hannah: You're obsessed with that stupid herring.

(Post-broodjie harring...)

Chris: That broodjie harring wasn't so tasty. I don't feel so well.

Hannah: Your fault. You should have just had more vlaames frites (French fries with mayonnaise).

Chris: I think we need some more coffee.

Hannah: Indeed. Coffee rocks!

Chris: And more vlaames frites.

Hannah: This is the best. Postcard. Ever.

Chris: We have got to send it to the McDermott Office.

Chris: And these fries are fantastic.


Chris: Reijksmuseum?

Hannah: Of course!

Chris: Our Lord in the Attic?

Hannah: What?

Chris: The 17th century Dutch Protestant government wasn't so keen on public Catholicism…so they built a fabulous Roman Catholic church in the attic.

Hannah: Fabulous. Snap Snap. Picture Picture.

Chris: I wonder how often people fall into the canals?

Hannah: I don't know, but they smell like the Trinity "River."

(later that night)

Chris: This place reminds me of New Orleans.

Hannah: Only it’s more chill -- not so many drunk frat boys.

Chris: And there's no Lelia. (Gowland, '04)

(on the last day)

Hannah: One last cone of Vlammese Frites?

Chris: Of course! They're FANTASTIC!

Hannah: Did you remember to mail the postcard?

Chris: Crap, I left it on the train...maybe that's for the best.

Hannah: It was so good to see you! Have fun in Switzerland.

Chris: It was so good to see you too! Don't freeze in Siberia! If you die, I'll never forgive you -- wear that long underwear.

Hannah: (Only a good friend would bring Swiss chocolates and REI underwear when you're truly in need of both).

Friday, August 18, 2006

A recap of a summer in Washington, DC

This summer I decided to trade the Texas heat for the even more vicious humidity of Washington, DC, where I studied with the Fund for American Studies’ Engalitcheff Institute on Political and Economic Systems at Georgetown University. The program’s slogan of “Live. Learn. Intern,” although a little hokey, perfectly encompassed my DC experience, surprising me with exactly how much fun and how little sleep that these three simple words could entail.

I lived on Georgetown’s campus with other students from the program that came from across the country and throughout the world, making for lots of jokes about each others’ accents which ranged from Mid-Western to Middle Eastern, many interesting political debates, and the enjoyment of some great international cooking. Also as part of the program, I took two classes in politics and economics, which were great and managed to keep me quite busy. This summer however, I found that the most valuable learning experiences occurred outside of class.

I was able to attend lectures and small lunches with ambassadors, congressmen, and leaders of NGOs. Hearing such a range of people talk about their backgrounds and their work helped me to get a sense of the opportunities that DC has to offer and made this summer a truly unique experience. I also learned from the experiences of friends in the program. Although I only did one internship this summer, I feel like I have done dozens through their daily reports of failures (non-stop copying, faxing, and/or errand running) and triumphs (almost anything other than non-stop copying, faxing and/or errand running).
My internship, where I worked with the Chief Counsel’s Office of the American Red Cross National Headquarters, was easily the best part of my summer. The Chief Counsel’s office handles all of the legal issues for the American Red Cross, including everything from the real estate purchases of the individual chapters to the organization’s efforts internationally. Instead of being assigned to one person, I rotated among the different attorneys in the office, allowing me to get a glimpse of a variety of different legal issues and learn a lot about the Red Cross as an organization. With my internship, my classes, and the simple satisfaction of having the Metro map committed to memory, my DC experience has been invaluable. If you ever have a chance to live, learn, and intern in DC, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A summer in Mexico

Inside the university on the first day of classes

Jessie writes:

When I went to Guanajuato with my fellow ’05 McDermott Scholars in December, I had to depend on the Spanish-speaking scholars to get around in the city. Being able to say “I play volleyball” in Spanish may have gotten me through high school, but was of little help when I needed to order food, give directions to a taxi driver, or barter the price of something on the street.

As my plane descended upon Guanajuato on June 3rd, 2006, my excitement about studying in Mexico began to turn into apprehension. How was I supposed to survive in a country when I don’t know the language? Yes, I would be taking Spanish classes, but didn’t I do that from 7th to 10th grade without learning much more than “hola”?

The first week in Guanajuato was overwhelming. Even without my cd player to relax me at night, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow that first week because the immersion wore me out. Every class was taught entirely in Spanish, which demanded intense concentration. Something as straightforward as eating at a café or taking a taxi was no longer simple because it required communication in Spanish.

At the top of Guanajuato - Pipila statue

Sometime during the second week, something changed. I realized the difference when my roommates, Juliann and Molly, and I were taking a taxi back to our house. Juliann told the driver that we were students at the University of Guanajuato, and thus began a conversation. Soon the three of us were talking with him about Texas, the weather, and how nice it is to be in Guanajuato. Being able to converse with a complete stranger in Spanish was exhilarating.

Ever since that taxi ride, everything seemed a little easier. I began to understand the professors and to be able to translate what they were saying without concentrating so hard. I was able to barter when we were shopping in San Miguel and talk to store owners when we were in Barra de Navidad. During a bus ride, I spoke with a teenage boy for twenty minutes about sudoku puzzles, Texas, the University, and other things. The conversation may not have been entirely smooth and while I did need him to repeat himself several times, it was uplifting to know that there did not have to be a language barrier dividing us.

We experienced so much in Mexico from amazing food to interesting cultural differences. We saw beautiful sunsets and exciting football—err, soccer games—that were replayed on every television whenever a live game wasn’t being aired. Being completely absorbed in an atmosphere that forced us to change our lifestyle and our way of thinking made those four weeks more valuable than years spent studying in a classroom.

To be completely absorbed in Mexican culture and to be forced to change my lifestyle and way of thinking made those four weeks far more valuable than years spent studying in a classroom.

In the Plazuela de San Fernando

Molly writes:

After arriving at my señora’s house in Guanajuato, Mexico, late on Saturday evening, I was awoken at 6:30 Sunday morning to the tolling of the church bells calling people to mass. Like any good Catholic, I rolled over and went back to sleep until the bells rang once again at 7:00, then 7:30, then 8:00. By this time, there was no returning to sleep, so my roommates and I stumbled out of bed, got dressed, and were sent down to the tortilla stand. Thirty minutes later, we were sitting in the garden eating an authentic Mexican breakfast of beans, tortillas, eggs, and salsa. Yum!

Thus began our first day in Guanajuato, Mexico. We hit the ground running with a quick tour of the city, and then were left to fend for ourselves on the first day before classes started on Monday. We voyaged up to the Pipila statue overlooking the valley of Guanajuato, where the fusion of the multicolored buildings presents an awesome sight. From this view, I could see the entire city, and I knew that my month in Guanajuato would be full of adventure and fun.

At Barra de Navidad - Beach in Mexico!

Alas, I was not destined for a purely frivolous month in Guanajuato. The classes at the Escuela de Idiomas at the Universidad de Guanajuato were challenging! After only two semesters of Spanish grammar at UTD and very little speaking experience, I was apprehensive about the classes but confidently enrolled in the Intermediate level. When I walked out at the end of the first day, after an hour each of Spanish Grammar, Spanish Conversation, Mexican Literature and Early Mexican History (entirely in Spanish, not a word in good old English), my head was swimming. Not only was it overwhelming, I wasn’t quite sure that I’d understood even half of what the literature teacher had said. Luckily, though, this phase didn’t last long. By the end of June, not only did I understand almost all of what the teachers said, I also successfully wrote a four page paper on the importance and legacy of colonial art in Mexican history.

I used the weekends in Guanajuato to my advantage. For our first full weekend, the entire UTD group when to the hot springs (called balnearios), then spent the afternoon shopping in San Miguel de Allende, where we spent the night. The next day, we took the bus to Dolores Hidalgo, the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, where we experienced the odd ice cream flavors (guacamole, tequila, mole, shrimp). While these exotic flavors were certainly exciting to sample, I finally settled on traditional montecado: a delicious butter pecan and raisin ice cream. My second weekend was spent exploring Guanajuato beginning with a French-Mexican meal with the visiting UTD representatives (Dean Coleman and Dr. Jenkins), a trip to the Guanajuato Symphony in the newly renovated Teatro Juarez (temporarily interrupted when the lights went out), an American teenybopper movie dubbed over in Spanish at the movie theater (hilarious!), and mass in the Basilica (quite different than American masses but very beautiful). On the final weekend, the rest of the UTD group went to Mexico City and Teotihuacan. Since we McDermott Scholars had been there in December, we decided to explore another classic part of Mexico: the beach! I admit, the nine hour bus ride was a bit grueling, but the smell of the ocean and the sight of the beach when we arrived at 1 a.m. made it worth it. Barra de Navidad, a small beach on the Pacific Coast with very few foreign tourists, was quiet and peaceful. My hotel room looked directly out on the beach, and I got up and went swimming in the ocean in the mornings. The afternoons were spent reading, walking along the beach looking at washed up puffer fish and scuttling crabs, or watching the World Cup in restaurants along the beach. It was sad to return to Guanajuato for my final week of classes.

Ready for the World Cup!

My last week in Guanajuato passed too fast. Before I knew it, it was 4:45 in the morning on Saturday, July 1, and I was on my way to the airport to return to Dallas. In retrospect, I learned more than I ever expected, not only about the Spanish language, but also about Guanajuato, the Mexican culture, traveling in a foreign country, and even about myself. While I am hardly fluent in Spanish, this month gave me a sound foundation in the language, which will help me communicate here in Texas and upon which I can continue to build. I can only hope that my adventures during my next three years as a McDermott Scholar will be so exciting!

Juliann writes:

In preparation for our journey to this lovely city, a few experienced people had instructed us to “allow ourselves to get lost in Guanajuato.” I must admit the peace I enjoyed from simply following my feet, wandering around the crooked, anything-but-systematically-designed streets. You may try to guess which roads will take you back to where you started, but this city’s old, brick streets skillfully trick the non-native into taking a longer stroll and becoming immersed, if not completely lost in the richness of Guanajuato.

It’s rewarding to accidentally come across a group of small kids playing soccer in a narrow, deserted street, a quaint as of yet undiscovered plaza with accompanying fountain, or the beautiful park you had previously only seen on the bus ride coming back from a delicious cooking class held in the home of a kind, Guanajuatense Señora. In fact, in terms of favorite Guanajuato activities, street-wandering comes second only to studying in a café in the Plazuela de San Fernando while listening to the sounds of birds, distant Spanish conversations, and water from the fountain and sipping a cold fruit drink, as we had the pleasure to do during many an afternoon.

In addition to fun exploration of the city, there was also much navigation to be done in order to get to classes and other meetings on time. The morning after our arrival, my roommates, Molly and Jessie, and I already felt overwhelmed with the challenge of finding our way from the suburb of Marfil by bus to the Plazuela downtown. From there we had a walking orientation of the city and only became more confused, darting from bank to bank, plaza to plaza, and asking ourselves, “Have we seen that statue before?”

Thankfully there is truth behind the running joke about Mexican punctuality (or the lack thereof). We had the opportunity to experience this first-hand on several occasions, so needless to say we never worried excessively about being late to a class. By the second week we had figured out which buses from Marfil would drop us off in which parts of Guanajuato, when it would be beneficial to take the next bus, despite the wait, and which route from each bus stop in Guanajuato would get us to the Universidad the fastest with the least hills. We even dared a couple of weekend bus trips outside the city, including a 12-hour bus ride to Barra de Navidad, a quaint beach on the Mexican Pacific.

During our four weeks in Mexico, we stayed with an American woman who had lived in Guanajuato for the last fourteen or so years and spoke fluent Spanish (and Chinese!). Though at times we listened to schoolmate’s stories of their Mexican host families with envy, it was truly interesting to hear opinions on both Mexico and the United States from an outsider. She was able to explain to us elements of Mexican culture and politics in American terms, and she also gave us unique insight on American politics and problems because of her removed situation.

Upon arriving back in the United States (after experiencing the refreshing surprise of being greeted by the customs officer in English and suppressing the urge to say “Buenas tardes” and “Gracias”), what I noticed most, that is, besides the sensation that many more English-Spanish signs had appeared since I left, was a feeling that I knew a special secret that the people I interacted with from day to day did not. In becoming familiar with such a different, friendly culture I had gained access to a valuable secret, and though it didn’t elicit obvious life changes, I could tell that I was somehow different than these people who had not shared my experiences. I can only imagine all the secrets in the world that I have yet to learn!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Waxing poetic on the charms of Monterrey

Wall art on the side of a building

I like how everyone plays soccer here,
But for variety’s sake, I don’t like how everyone plays soccer here.
I like how Mexican food is made of tortillas, meat, and cheese,
But for variety’s sake, I don’t like how Mexican food is made of tortillas, meat, and cheese.

Poseidon fountain

I like how you take a taxi everywhere,
But for safety’s sake, I don’t like how you take a taxi everywhere.
I like how the hot dog vender across the street sells weed,
But for safety’s sake, I don’t like how the hot dog vender across the street sells weed.

Soon to be angry taxi driver (really not my fault)

I like how nightclubs blanket the city,
But for my liver’s sake, I don’t like how nightclubs blanket the city.
I like how alcohol is sold at every store,
But for my liver’s sake, I don’t like how alcohol is sold at every store.

Façade of the “Iron Palace” mall

I like how there are many gift and souvenir shops,
But for solvency’s sake, I don’t like how there are many gift and souvenir shops.
I like how there are several gentlemen’s clubs,
But for solvency’s sake, I don’t like how there are several gentlemen’s clubs.

Used to be an outdoor theater downtown

I like how the atmosphere is so dry in Monterrey,
But for my throat’s sake, I don’t like how the atmosphere is so dry in Monterrey.
I like how all foods are served spicy,
But for my throat’s sake, I don’t like how all foods are served spicy.

A mother re-hydrating a daughter

I like how we live in dorms at Tec de Monterrey,
But for privacy’s sake, I don’t like how we live in dorms at Tec de Monterrey.
I like how the maid cleans our rooms each morning,
But for privacy’s sake, I don’t like how the maid cleans our rooms each morning.

Hawaii 5-0 restaurant

I like how restaurants are open late into the night,
But for my stomach’s sake, I don’t like how restaurants are open late into the night.
I like how tacos are sold at every street corner,
But for my stomach’s sake, I don’t like how tacos are sold at every street corner.

Some weird Americans
Left to right: Ramiro, Julie, & Chris

I like how many students are fluent in both Spanish and English,
But for my ego’s sake, I don’t like how many students are fluent in both Spanish and English.
I like how all the girls here are incredibly attractive,
But for my ego’s sake, I don’t like how all the girls here are incredibly attractive.

Charlie and his girlfriend

I like how I learned a lot of Spanish.
I like how juice is made from fresh fruit.
I like how the Spanish rock station plays awesome music.
I love how I’ve made friends for life.

Stuffed into the backseat of a taxi – Mexican style
Left to Right: me, Stacie, Heather, & Mila

Attending a baseball game in Taiwan

Nothing says summer like a hot dog and a baseball game, even if it's being played on the other side of the world. In Taiwan the baseball teams don't have home fields, instead they rotate between all of the major cities. So when my coworkers' favorite team, the Elephants, was in town to take on the Whales, it was not to be missed. Plus, the tickets were only about eight dollars or 240 TWD to sit along the first base line. My attempts to explain how much equivalent seats would cost for a Rangers game were met with such disbelief that I had to convince them I knew the exchange rate.

I never thought fans in the US were apathetic until I went to that game. The fans lived and died on every pitch from the first inning until the final out. After a while I had heard enough to join in their chants, even though I couldn't understand a word they were saying. Their fervor was all the more impressive because the Elephants are, to put it nicely, terrible. They rank near the bottom of the standings, and were trailing by 5 or more runs most of the game. Despite this they had still drawn twice as many fans and those fans were still cheering for the final strike thrown by their closer. For the fans the loss wasn't important, instead it really was all about how they played the game.

Granada, Spain

Plaza Nueva in Granada, on the way to see a Flamenco performance.

Granada, the fruit of Spain, the pomegranate of pithy flesh and thousands of tiny seeds, cultivates a trifold history of Arabic, Christian and Jewish influence. The gypsies, Arabians and Castillians contribute unique flavors to the savory picture that flows over all senses. Flamenco, the dance of Andalucia, with the backdrop of La Alhambra brings passion and meaning to lives filled with tradition and modern urbanity. The ancient songs of undulating voices decry times of war and of first loves. The wild stamp of feet and the rustle of many-layered skirts beat the rhythm of a simulateneously raging and trickling river.

Granada is a medium-sized sprawl of urbanity. Never before have I experienced the urban life in such vivid color. The people live in high rise apartment buildings. Few homes are within the city. Shops on lower levels with apartments above belie the intermingling of residential and commercial zones.

Beautiful parks with running trails and benches beneath beckoning branches of shady trees provide respite from the congested air. The city has wonderful treasures in remote locations with intricate networks of streets that begin and terminate at seemingly random intervals. Such is the paradise of an avid Spanish student. Small enough to allow glimpses of friendly faces on the street with an urbanity that reflects the character of New York.

The Sierra Nevadas provide a breathtaking backdrop to the skyline of the city. The ancient Moorish palace, La Alhambra, winds along a slope over looking the city, reminding the populace of several hundred years of Moorish rule. Andalucia prays upon the heart and awakens the deepest desires to dance with abandon.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reporting on a European adventure

The main train station in Helsinki

Let's start off this incredibly long post with a little recap of my last night of soloing in Helsinki and my first 24 hours in St. Petersburg. I decided that successfully complete my first major solo adventure through Europe required at least a small celebration. So I treated myself (and “Frog”, my little green traveling companion) to a nice dinner (when I say nice, I am speaking in relative terms - remember that I am a student traveler). So I consulted my handy-dandy map-o-Helsinki, which also had a bunch of restaurant ads. It turns out there is Western-themed restaurant just down the street from the train station - a little place called “Santa Fe”. According to the ad it had been voted best food in Helsinki for three years running. The menu out front didn't look have bad and the prices were decent, so I figured I'd go for it. It was just the kind of place I needed to relieve my slight case of homesickness. There were a bunch of kitschy knick-knacks all over the walls, and they had old tequila bottles for candlestick holders. It was so much fun! And I seriously had the best meal of my trip so far. I ordered the "avocado grilled chicken salad" - which had every imaginable salad item on it, plus some. And it was probably enough for about two people rather than just a little American girl (even with a Texas appetite). The best part about it, other than the avocadoes, was how spicy the chicken was. It was fabulous! The Dutch guy sitting next to me ordered the same thing and agreed with me.

Frog and I having a delicious lunch of potatoes and "small white fish". The Finns call these fish "muikut", and that's also the word they use instead of cheese when posing for pictures. Yummy.

After the wonderous meal, I headed back and packed my things, then took some time to do everything that I could possibly think of doing on the internet, because this was probably my last chance for free wireless before returning to the US. [It's a good thing I did that too - I have take a bus to get to anywhere with internet access from my dorm. And forget wireless.]

The train to St. Petersburg was a bit of an adventure. The whole trip took about 6 hours, but I think we were only moving for about 4 and a half of those hours. When we got to the border, the train stopped and an announcement was made - "The WCs and restaurant car are closed until we finish border formalities. Please return to your seats. Leaving the train is prohibited with out permission of the customs agents." So we sat there. And sat some more. Finally these burly border guards got to our car, took everyone's passport, and left. And we waited some more. Eventually the Finnish Railways people came back with our passports, all stamped and ready to go, and the train began to move. Then the "portable bank" trolley came by so that we could change our euros into rubles and get our tax refund cheques from our EU purchases. I almost forgot about that! I rummaged around and found my form from my camera purchase in Budapest. The Finnish guy was completely perplexed by this - he had never seen the Hungarian version of the form, and had no idea what the exchange rate of the Hungarian Forint was. I think it was the fact that I was owed a few thousand forints that was throwing him off. He made a few phone calls and eventually came back with about 45 euros changed into rubles.

I'm glad that I did this when I did, because as soon as I got off the train, I was swept away by my Russian driver, who spoke no English and had the single goal of getting me to the dormitory - there was no time for a pit stop or ATM run. I was a bit scared (with good reason, it turns out) when he said something along the lines of "no seatbelt necessary" when I got into the van and discovered that there was no seatbelt. I think that was the scariest part of the entire trip - zooming through the crowded streets of St. Petersburg (home to around 5 million people), going 70 miles an hour down two lane streets with cars parked haphazardly on both sides. But we got there in one piece. He dropped me off in some random office on the sixth floor with a lady who didn't speak English and left before I could even say thank you.

I eventually figured out that the lady needed a deposit to give me my key, but other than that I had no idea what she wanted me to do next. Luckily a Chinese girl came in after me, and she spoke English in addition to Russian, and took me down to the other office where I got my smartcard to get into the building. What luck!

I finally got to my room a bit later, to discover that two of my three roommates speak English pretty well. They are all very nice. A few days later we were joined by another American student – a girl from Chicago. It took me a bit longer to figure out where I was supposed to be the next day and how to get there. Eventually I found a phone card so that I could call home, and I got the cell phone number for my contact here in St. Petersburg, who told me to meet them at the Hermitage at 11 the next morning. But how to get there? I figured I'd get up early and figure it out in the morning, so I went to sleep (I thought it was early, since the sun was still up, but it was about 1.30 at that point).

At 8.45, a woman came knocking at the door. "Frank Hannah, Frank Hannah!" Apparently she was delivering a message that I was to wait for a driver to take me to the University at 9.30. Okay. I waited, and was delivered promptly. But there must have been some confusion - I was supposed to be at the Hermitage. I told the University people I would have to come back in the afternoon, as my first class at the museum was starting at 11. Luckily it's only about a 20 minute walk, so I hauled over there and met Elena and the other six people in the program - who are all from the same school, Rhode Island School of Design (except for Gleb – he’s from Cooper Union, in NY, but he came through their school). Hmmm. I guess I'm special. There should be other people from the RSL program in my language classes, but in the art classes, I'm doing my own thing. As if that's any different from my normal place in life.

We had a nice introductory tour of the museum, then found where we can go for our free lunches. :-D. I haven't had a free meal in so long! Then we made it over to the Hermitage Youth Center - our HQ for the program. That's where I am right now - because we get free internet! (They won't let me hook up my laptop though). There we met a few of the other teachers, and I parted ways from the others for the weekend (they were on their way to buy art supplies, and we had free time until Tuesday after that). I managed to find my way home from the museum without any major incidents, though it took a bit of time.

Peterhoff Palace

I have done so much since those first 24 hours in St. Petersburg that it’s hard to believe only a couple of weeks have gone by. It took me awhile to straighten out my schedule, as there was some confusion at the University – they put me in a group language class that was at the same time as my art history classes at the museum. But I am now in an individual class with a nice lady name Elena. Once the art program is over, I will spend another month in an intensive group class. But until then, I’ve got it pretty easy as far as language instruction.

The art classes are ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! So far, we’ve seen some rare lithographs by Manet, the restoration department, the vast storage building . . . the list goes on and on. The sad thing is, I am realizing that I could stay here for a year and still not see all there is to see. St. Petersburg is just to cool.

Since I was constantly moving about for a month before coming to St. Petersburg, it has been nice to unpack and get settled in one place. I’ve even managed to complete a few routine tasks. I was able to buy a Russian SIM card for my cellphone so that I can communicate with my new friends over here. I also had the courage to go get a haircut. I’m glad that mission was a success – especially since the lady cutting it didn’t speak any English. I just told her, “Make me look beautiful” and let her go. I think it worked.

I’ve also had a few very Russian experiences. I went to the banya (bathhouse) with my classmates. It wasn't the tradition "naked-old-ladies-beating-each-other-with-sticks" kind - it was this little place that Nastya found where you can reserve the whole place for a group. It only cost us 200 rubles each (that’s about 8 dollars). Well worth the small price - it was so relaxing! Gleb, Drew, and I were the only ones who did the full submersion in the cold water after the sauna. It was really cold, but felt really nice (especially getting out). And it was a nice little introduction to what awaited me back at the dorm...
I hesitate to mention this, for fear that I might receive an onslaught of "I-told-you-so's". But when I got home from the banya, my roommates informed me that there would be no hot water for the next month. "Why?" I asked. Katya's reply - "Because Russia is a great country." Har har har. Apparently it is not unusual for buildings to shut down the hot water in the summer to "fix the pipes for the winter." I guess it's better that I didn't know about this ahead of time - otherwise I would have been dreading this day. But I'll live - I guess I'll just be going to the banya a bit more often. And Katya told me a story that assures me it could be worse - apparently they recently had a year with NO WATER in Vladivostock (where she's from). Hmmm. Sounds delightful.

A view of St. Petersburg from my bedroom at the dorm. If you'll look at the picture details, this photograph was taken rather late in the evening.

I think I’ll wrap up this update by sharing one of my favorite thing about the city – that has got to be the “White Nights”. Seeing as how the summer solstice was this week, making this weekend the longest of the year, my friends and I decided that it was the perfect Saturday to put our plan into action. Meaning we stayed out all night to experience St. Petersburg "by night." It was gorgeous. Some of you back home have heard me talk about how the sun never really goes down here. What happens is there is about a four-hour sunset followed pretty much immediately by a four-hour sunrise. So basically it's really pretty for about 8 hours - the 8 hours during which I am usually asleep. Which is why I wanted to go exploring at that time. I never get to see the museum and the cathedrals and the bridges at that time of "night." We even got to see the raising and lowering of the palace bridge. They print the schedule for all the bridges, so that people don't get stuck on a different island.

I have about two more months here in St. Petersburg, then I need to prepare for an even larger portion of culture shock – taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Irkutsk, where I’ll spend the fall semester. I think I need a warmer coat.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Checking in from Frankfurt

Two pictures for the record, and one not worth the send -- a great piece of translation fun at the Frankfurt airport: The construction sign reads "Great Prospects! We will modernize this level for you until 2007." I just hope they finish in time, because they obviously aren't going to work in 2008 ...

As for the pictures, the first is me in front of the Frankfurt skyline. The prize, however, is the world renowned Comet Cleaners. Yeah, I'll whoosh for that. Seriously. The Comet Cleaners here in Frankfurt. I was really pleased.

Now that the weather has reached a perfect 77 degrees, things are going very well. Class continues onward, and we are amidst the major portion of our class, the World Cup (merely joking!). A good group of other students from multiple countries and continents, and two fun teachers. They weren't kidding with Super Intensive, but hey, neither was I. Anyway, wherever in the world you may be, all the best for your work and studies and travels.

Reporting from a trip to Europe

I have been in Europe now since May 7th. I am currently studying photography and painting in Paris, but I have also been blessed with the opportunities to visit other countries around France. The picture is me on the top of the Schynige Platte in Interlaken, Switzerland. I have classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We have photo lecture in the morning and every week we are given a photographer to photograph like. We have painting class in the afternoon and instead of painting in a studio, Paris is our studio! We meet every time at a new location and we paint the different landscapes and memorials that we see. It has been a blast and it is all winding down now.

Much thanks to Mrs. McDermott and the McDermott program for sending me here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Writing from Monterrey

Armed with only clumsy and sluggish Spanish, I tried to convince the Mexican guard at the airport to give me a six week visa. After awkwardly repeating what I believed to mean “me like six week” several times to him in Spanish and getting nowhere, I settled for the ten days he was willing to grant.

The other international students and I were kindly picked up at the airport and brought to the university, Tecnológico de Monterrey, which was nothing short of a high-class petting zoo. Peacocks, deer, ducks, and all were peacefully strolling about the campus grounds. “Neat!” I thought, until I discovered what peacock dung smeared between the soul of my shoe and the ceramic-tiled ground looked like.

Our first week at Monterrey was filled with fun activities, orientation sessions, and excursions galore. Nightlife was dominated by crazy and wild inebriation followed by some drunk dancing that varied from gentle swaying to violent convulsions. There was music involved too. Distracted by the flurry of excitement, we quickly forgot about our visas. It was not too long, however, until hell broke loose among the ten-dayers (some were fortunate enough to get 30 day visas) as we scrambled to fill out and turn in all of the necessary paperwork. Traveling tip: always get your visa before your trip. Or, don’t be a ten-dayer.

Though I’ve visited other parts of Mexico before, I have only seen the insane driving style that has, to me, become one of Mexico’s defining characteristics. Daily use of Monterrey’s taxi and bus service was a novel experience for me. I found out how to hurl myself off a bus and land running when it approached my stop, since the bus never truly came to a halt unless someone was getting on. Equally important was jumping onto a taxi within fractions of seconds, unless I wanted to feel for a second time what being dragged across the street while hanging out of a cab was like. My “friends” who were already in the taxi thought it quite amusing, but my still scraped and bruised leg tell a different story. I’m glad the school required us to have health coverage.

One night as I was crossing the only street between the residence and the Oxxo, I was forced into a game of chicken. My rival? Three steely teenagers in a rusted sedan. Now I’m not one to back down from a good game of chicken, but when it’s human versus gigantic metal car and I’m the human, I’m out. Almost being run over simply highlighted the fact that pedestrians do not have right of way here. Also, traffic laws are more like suggestions than they are laws. I’ve gotten used to the fact that red lights equal stop signs and stop signs equal green lights. Despite the prevalence of police here, traffic control is nonexistent.

Rather than waste precious time on something as frivolous as traffic safety, the police concentrate their efforts on preventing foreigners from taking pictures; and on several occasions, I was curtly asked to put my camera away. Becoming irritated with such unnecessary stringency, I snuck in a picture of the policía themselves and then ran for it.

One of the things that I love about Mexico is the friendliness of the people. They are always more than willing to help and have a disturbing abundance of patience and caring. Whether I am attempting to learn a new Salsa move or trying to purchase a strange-looking food item from the local street vendor, interactions here are unbelievably pleasant. It is this friendliness that I will miss most when I return to the States, and this, among many other reasons, is what makes me want to return to Mexico. I sincerely hope that I will have another chance to study at Tecnológico de Monterrey in the future.

The picture below shows a night scene that frames my friends and myself. From left to right: the in-the-know fashion buff, the multilingual Canadian goddess, the hip-and-happenin’ local, and the shorts-wearing extranjero (me). Mexico is a human oven and how people wear anything but shorts is beyond me.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Writing from Costa Rica

Today I went with 3 friends from Canada to Playa Buena Vista, which my mama tica told me was one kilometer away. After walking for half an hour, we met a woman on the way who told us we were still about a mile away, so the estimating was a little off, but it was a great walk. On the way, we saw (and heard) a lot of howler monkeys hanging from trees (and power lines too, which was a little disturbing. It looked like an anachronism... if that's the right word for that). We saw some newborn calves and horses on the way too, one of which ran up next to Jacklyn as if to pose for a picture and as soon as the shutter closed he ran off.

We had to cross a river before we could get to the actual ocean, which by the way, was bright orange. I guess it's from the silt in the river that flows out into the ocean, but it looked extremely bizarre. We had all been told separately, by Tyrone at the school and our respective Tico parents that if the river was over our knees, we shouldn't cross because of the crocodiles. I just kind of hoped they were exaggerating or joking, but when we got to the river (which was also bright orange and you couldnt see the bottom of it), we all hesitated before we crossed it. All of a sudden some random Tico comes out from the trees and we asked him if it was dangerous to cross, but he didn't answer because he had a place for a trachea tube and couldn't talk, but he led us across the river, so we assumed it was okay.

Once on the other side, we were the only ones on the whole beach which is about 4 kilometers long except for a few people who were on the other end who camp out to volunteer with the turtles that come there to keep them safe from poachers. We ate the sandwiches we brought with us, and before we finished lunch, the tide had come in so much that we had to move way back on the beach. It was at that point that we realized that the river was rising with the tide, and so we went to ask one of the volunteers about crossing the river to get back home. The conversation went something like this:

"What time is high tide?"
"Does the river get really high then?"
"But can we still cross it?"
"Should we still cross it?"
"No." (Notice that he didn't volunteer that information.)
"Is it dangerous to cross the river?"
"Are there really crocodiles?"
"Yes, they are 2-3 meters in size."
"Ok thanks bye!"

So there are 2-3 meter crocodiles, the tide is coming in, but it's not dangerous? Peculiar. Anyway, when we saw all the volunteers leaving we just followed them across, hoping that the crocs would eat them first if there were any hanging around. Don't worry - we all survived and caught a ride back to Samara. I'm really glad I stayed here this weekend -- I've had so much fun with my Tico family and friends. I'm going to miss them a lot!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Reporting from Salzburg

The sun came out today (probably just for today if the weatherman is right), so I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and go hiking.

I hoped on Bus 25 to the Untersberg, and ran into one of the girls from the hostel on the way. We both road up the cable car to the "top" of the mountain, then took off on a little adventure of our own. We walked up and down the ridge, and all the way to where you can start to see the Bavarian Alps. It was ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS!!! And of course, I was wearing a tank top and my keens, which was alright because it was about 60 degrees up there. But there was still a lot of snow, and I walked through a bunch of it in my sandals I know, I'm crazy, but it was a lot of fun.

I did get a bit of a sunburn, but that and the cold feet were a small price to pay for such a beautiful day. I wish I could live up there -- I didn't want to come back down.

But the pizza at the hostel was calling my name...