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.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Becoming a Jedi Knight pt. 2

Summer 2008

June 29, 2008 – Syria


In addition to Arabic, I have also decided to pursue studies in Jedi Knightism. Actually, this photo was taken at the Umayyaed Mosque, one of the holiest and largest in the world, and particularly breathtaking for a structure finished in the seventh century.

I have to say, I was a little nervous starting this trip (wasn’t Syria an original member of the Axis of evil?) but, once there, was relieved to find it totally safe. My hotel – get this – actually has air conditioning. The nice man running a pastry shop across the street from my hotel gave me a free kanafa when I said I was American. And the local wine is delightful.

Damascus is reminiscent of Cairo, particularly in the Souq El-Hamidiyeh. It’s crowded here, and the exchange rate actually works in my favor (1 dollar to roughly 50 Syrian pounds). There is, however, one important variation from Cairo: the food here is incredible, and (knock on wood) hasn’t made me sick. For my first meal, I had chicken fattah at Leila’s rooftop terrace in the Old City. This was perhaps one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, until dinner when I had my first taste of mohammerah (think salsa, but creamy, served with fry bread.)

Today, I spent a relaxing day wandering around the crowded markets and steaming in a Turkish bath. Meanwhile, my travel partner was off an hour outside Damascus visiting Sayida Zeinab, a shrine to the daughter of the founder of Shia Islam, where he stumbled upon a funeral for a Shia imam attended by literally thousands of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims. While this wasn’t the most welcoming environment in Syria, he was allowed to take several pictures of the shrine and go inside to view the body. Later, he slightly rattled, and me relaxed to the core, we finished the day with dinner on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Old City. I feel somewhat silly for being nervous about coming here; Damascus is a bustling city where I feel entirely safe. More exploring tomorrow….


July 10, 2008 – Petra and Aqaba


This is the hotel where I stayed in Aqaba. No, I’m not kidding. Really. Five to a room. No door, no electricity. Great view, though. Aqaba was unbelievable; from the water, there is a view of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. Under the water are miles of reefs and exotic fish. I snorkeled for five hours, and could have done more, if I wasn’t completely exhausted from hiking through Petra the day before. Petra was beautiful, but after five hours of hiking through the Jordanian desert, I was ready to hit the beach.














July 20, 2008 – Israel and Palestine


My friend Rachel is studying Hebrew at the aptly titled Hebrew University in Jerusalem, so thankfully I could crash her couch this weekend instead of getting an Israeli hostel. The exchange rate is not my friend right now – especially not in Israel, where a falafel sandwich (around 50 cents in Jordan) is 25 sheq, or 8 (8!) dollars. The first night, Rachel took me to a wine tasting on a hilltop overlooking the city – amazing! This goes right up there with climbing Mt. Sinai on my “coolest experiences ever” list. (This was also the perfect end to a long day of being detained at the Israeli border for six hours… a quick word about the Israel-Jordan border: it’s operated almost entirely by young women just out of high school. They have no sense of humor, and were none too pleased with my Syrian visa. I asked that they not stamp my passport, as many countries deny entries to anyone who has visited Israel, and they grudgingly obliged.)

Friday, Rachel and I walked all over the city, visiting the Wailing Wall, the Church of Mary Magdalene, the garden where Jesus was betrayed, and the gate where, according to some, Jesus will descend to the earth upon his return. That evening, we went to a Shabbat dinner held by an organization that serves free Shabbat dinners to students and visitors. I was a little unprepared for this experience. I’ve attended a number of Shabbat dinners, but this was by far the least welcoming. A number of people, Israeli citizens and others told me they hated America. Also, they believed all other countries in the region to be subject to Sharia, or Islamic Law, a huge misconception. I wondered how they could be so ill-informed about places just miles away. Also, of the now five countries I’ve visited in the Middle East, how is it that I’ve only seen anti-Americanism in Israel?

Surprisingly, the next day, my sixth country was a friendlier experience. On Saturday, I ventured to the Palestinian territory. For less than a dollar, I took an bus (clearly labeled “Arab Bus”) into Ramallah. First stop: Yasser Arafat’s grave, where a number of women were grieving. Later, I did what I always do in new cities: just wandered around with my camera. On the streets of Ramallah, a number of people implored me to take pictures of the area. “Show your friends,” they said. So I will.


















































July 23, 2008 – Syria, revisited



Not wanting my Syrian visa to go to waste, I decided to venture back this weekend, this time to see a little more of the countryside. On Thursday morning, my boyfriend, my best Jordanian friend, and two friends from Yale set off to Deir Mar Musa (the Monastery of Saint Moses). This required a taxi from Amman to the border, from the border to Damascus, from Damascus to Nebek, and from Nebek to the Monestary, where we then trekked up a quarter-mile of sandy stairs through the Syrian mountainside to finally reach the Monestary. I can say with complete sincerity that this is the most beautiful place I have ever been; the mountains are miles from “civilization,” and the night sky is clear enough to allow a clear view of the Milky Way. We stayed for two nights, and I had so much fun hiking and stargazing that I didn’t mind the absence of electricity or clean water, or even having to scrub dishes for two hours on Saturday (the Monastery doesn’t charge so guests must work for their stay). After my stint in the kitchen, I listened to Father Paolo, the head of Deir Mar Musa, deliver a lecture on Middle Eastern politics, focusing on Israeli-Palestinian relations and western involvement.

I’m really glad that I took this trip because I feel that you have to get out of the big cities to get a real feel for a country. I enjoyed Damascus for the food and the shopping and the cites, but had no idea how breathtakingly beautiful the rest of the country was.


August 15, 2008 – Amman

I finished my last final yesterday, and can’t believe my summer is almost over. I finished the semester with a 97, which hopefully serves as a testament to the fact that, between travels, I did a lot of studying.

I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to return to the Middle East, to explore more of the region, to improve my Arabic, and to grow up a little more. Another scholar once told me that you can learn a lot about yourself by plunging into a totally unfamiliar culture. That’s not what happened this summer; Amman no longer feels unfamiliar, it actually feels a little like home now. Granted, I’m thrilled to come back to Dallas and see my family and friends. At the same time, I feel like this summer was just the beginning, and I’ll be back as soon as possible. Until then….

Friday, November 07, 2008

“Pinch, me please!”






November 2008

The Archer Program in Washington, DC: An Unbelievable Experience


That thought has been running through my mind on a periodic basis for about two months now. It ran through my mind when I drove up to the Archer House on Constitution Avenue, one block away from where I work—at the Supreme Court of the United States. It ran through my mind the first day I walked into the courtroom of “the Highest Court in the Land,” a place I would later enter at least once a day to give lectures about the Court to the public. It ran through my mind on October 6, when I got to sit in on the first oral argument of the 2008 Term, and when I got to see the Robing Room where all the Justices pass before court sessions. It ran through my mind when I brushed past Justice Kennedy in the hallway; when I met and spoke to Chief Justice Roberts for a few brief minutes; when I met my role model, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; when I gave a tour to Supreme Court Justices from Guanajuato, Mexico (and spoke a little Spanish with them!); when I got to meet Supreme Court Justices from Ireland; and when I spent some after-hours time giving a tour for Renee Fleming, one of the premier opera singers of our time.

It seems that in this city that phrase will not stop running through my mind—ever! Whether I am awed at my proximity to the fascinating dealings of the Supreme Court, or the President of the United States is holding an event a few blocks away, or legislation like the Bailout Bill is being debated just across the street, or it is Election Day for a hugely historic race for which I am present in the capital of our country, I keep wondering whether I really might be having a very long and involved dream after all.

As you can probably tell, I love my life in Washington, DC as an Archer Fellow. As an Archer, I get to live in one of two houses with other students from all over Texas, take classes with those Fellows, and pursue the internship of my choice for four months.

The internship of my choice is in the Office of the Curator in the Supreme Court of the United States. It is absolutely stunning to go to work everyday in a building where the
most paramount judicial work in the nation is taking place constantly. As part of my job, I get to give private tours to guests of the Justices or employees of the Court (including foreign dignitaries that come to be briefed on our judicial system by the Supreme Court Fellow). I also get to speak to groups of up to 200 members of the public about the history and structure of the Court in the very courtroom where it all takes place. Of course there are some phone and information desk responsibilities involved, but those are minimal and my boss tries very hard to decrease the amount of typical intern responsibilities I have. The perks of my job include roaming around the marble hallways and red-carpeted floors of the Supreme Court, occasionally interacting with Justices, and getting to sit in on oral arguments pretty frequently, among other things.

Two nights a week after work I go to classes where I get to meet leaders of Washington who explain the political process in a way I would never get to experience elsewhere. I am challenged on my views of politics and democracy by my instructors and my peers, who all thankfully have a wide range of viewpoints. Needless to say, political discussion never gets boring among the Archers! They are kind, fun, smart people who truly care about the welfare of America and give me a lot of hope for the future of our nation. By some fluke of nature, we all get along wonderfully! I am certain I will make some lifetime friends here.

When I’m not in class or at work, I get to roam about and explore DC and the surrounding area. I saw my first real autumn in the leaves of the Shenandoah Valley when other Archers and I rented a car and drove to small-town Virginia for a day. I got to campaign in Virginia for the presidential election. I took a trip to New York and saw Broadway, Times Square, and the sweeping view of a breathtaking city from the Empire State Building at night. Life is certainly good here!

Although DC itself is a whirlwind of activity, my favorite experience thus far was meeting Sandra Day O’Connor. As I said, she’s basically my idol. I met her while giving a tour to some friends of hers from Arizona. She made me feel right at home. Her manner was all courtesy and warmth as she put her hand on my shoulder and showed her friends and me some pictures and paintings from Arizona. I sensed the Southwestern, down-to-earth, no nonsense personality in her that I know so well from my childhood in El Paso, Texas. I even got to tell her about my origins, to which she said, "Oh, I was born and raised in El Paso! Did you know that?" And I said, "Actually, yes I did! I wrote an essay about you for a scholarship I received." (The McDermott Scholarship, by the way!)

It was a mind-boggling encounter. I was wandering in a dream for the rest of the day! But that’s just DC. The nation’s capital is exciting, thriving, almost psychotically driven, and exploding with culture. Overall, it is a wonderful place to spend a semester!

Sweeping Salt in the Summer


June & July 2008


June 17- Metaphor for the 'Sacred Divide'

The afternoon lecture concerned the hijab, which serves as a physical, visual, and spatial boundary, and is a metaphor for the ‘sacred divide.’ Discussion mainly moved to how it fits in with the modernizing, global world. Surprisingly, the hijab isn’t considered a “reveiling” but rather a new movement, started in the Iranian revolution (though now has lost most of its political connotations) and continued in an Arabian feminine liberation movement. Four main points that the hijab serves: conforming wearers to hide social status (though with today’s fashion this seems to be broken), protection for women (including less street harassment) b/c wearers are less questioned on where/why they go wherever, wearers are taken more seriously, and lastly, more religious freedom as they no longer need permission to go to a mosque. We also talked about how fashion has taken over some head coverings, which aren’t necessary Hijab’s, and we spoke of the reaction to France’s forbidding of the covering (the head religious officials have given would-be wearers who can’t wear it pardon).

After returning from the lecture ‘the guys’ (my brother and dad and I) went down to the hammam, the public bathhouse. Wow! This will definitely be one of the highlights of the entire trip. Before entering, we stopped by a souk and bought a Kif for me, which is a rough-ish washcloth that fits over your hand. This has been the second time that Hemsa has helped me get a 10 DH item for less, this time it was 7.5 DH, about $1 (I bought a green one, as it is the only color I know how to say) . We turned left down a small alley after the sausage salesman, and right down a smaller alley at the “FAR” graffiti (Force Army of Rabat, Morocco's first official national army, and the self-proclaimed name of the soccer team). Walking by the door I would never have guessed there was an entire bathhouse inside. Hemsa called in, and the last remnants of the females left. Apparently, women use the hammam from 10AM-6PM (it was around 7:20), and men use the same one from 6-10PM. Walking in, the hammam seemed just like a house, except with tiles completely on the floor and shoulder high. But the house kept opening up. We walked down a short passage to an open cashier booth. We stripped down to our undergarments in the gelsa, which was separated from direct view by a wall stretching halfway across. The cashier room had cubbies to put our bags in as we went inside. The lecture on the hammam was only last week, but already I was surprised at what I saw.

First of all, to enter I opened the large wooden door and was welcomed with a hug of warm air. Thanks to a heavy wood block on a rope leveraging it back, the door closed on its own as I entered. The hammam is separated into three rooms, each room with small cylindric vents opening to an attic about a foot higher, which I assume opened to the sky at some point. Each room itself was arched up so as to trap the hot air, and was cut off from the other rooms by walls on either side around a middle walkway. Arches also separated the rooms, and the entire nexus gradually sloped upward with a drain at the bottom. As I walked up to each successive room, the temperature got successively hotter, with the first just slightly humid, the second slightly higher than lukewarm, and the last sweatingly hot. Each room had pipes which provided cold water, and the last room had a fountain pool of hot water, warmed by coals unseen. We left our stuff in the middle room, and I helped Hemsa fill 6 buckets with warm water (after rinsing them) for the 3 of us. We then topped off each bucket with cold water to reach the perfect temp. Meanwhile Mohamed rinsed an edge of the last room for us to sit and lie. We did so, the two doing ‘guy talk’ and me asking questions. I can see how this would be one of the greatest traditions, especially when it comes to male bonding. We lay in the sauna for at least an hour, stretching, relaxing, and pouring water from the hot water to drench ourselves.

The hammam also offers a massager, kessala, who for 30 DH will rub you down. I’m told the male massages are rougher than the women, and I think he rubbed off my sunburn, but I survived, as well as stayed in the hottest room for just as long as the locals! After laying for the front and back rubdown (neck, arms, trunk, legs, and buttocks) I started tingling like the needles you feel when circulation returns to areas where it was shut off before. I guess that’s how hard the massage was. But it all felt great. Afterwards, we scrubbed down, shampooing, and my klutz self christening the whole process by getting soap in my eye at the very beginning. Partially blinded, I somehow managed, and washed down while the kessala visited everyone else. Hemsa and I practiced the “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” principle, and afterwards we cleaned off our kis’ and went back out to change.

We came back from the Hammam to catch the end of the Italy-France game, which every male adult seemed to be watching (no women though) along all the café’s we passed. Even the men in the Hammam were talking about it. I think everyone else in the SIT program is getting a little sick of watching soccer, but I love the European Cup like a local!


June 19- How it was meant to be played…

After returning from the beach, I grabbed Hemsa and returned. This time, we played soccer for almost 2 hours. Playing soccer at the beach consisted of the same variable rotations as before. We would start out passing and juggling amongst ourselves, and while doing a kid joined in. For a while then, Hemsa and the child practiced playing goalie, this time between two paper rolls (like those found at the core of wrapping paper) stuck in the sand for posts. With set boundaries it was easy to score, which gave me some credibility with the locals. After we returned to juggling, gaining one more, before our assembled team decided to challenge another. A field dragged in the sand had already been marked out, and we used mini-metal goals (which didn’t stop a goalie from sitting to block it when times got rough).

Playing on the beach there I realized this was how the game was meant to be played. The game ran smoothly, with everyone trying to keep the play going. Players came off and on the field to join as their schedules allowed, and everyone was cool about everything. Each called there own fouls, it’s make-it take-it, and when the ball was kicked off the court, others would kick it back on the field. These onlookers would even stop mid-conversation and walk to where the ball was, almost as if they were going out of their way just to be a part of the game. Also, there was one occasion where the other team basically cherry picked a goal, but instead of shooting it in, the forward stopped the ball short, turned around, and kicked it back to his side to restart a run. I’m still getting used to playing in sand, though Hemsa and I made some awesome assists to each other and consistently split their defense. I’ve noticed Hemsa is more of a peacekeeper, as when disputes arise he would always go over and settle them in the humblest manner (usually by giving the offended party the ball). After the game everyone slapped hands and said good game (in Darija), and we all went our separate ways. Note to self – Soccer is a universal language.


4th of July - !عيد استقلال سعيد

After class today we all head to TGI Friday’s! It was probably the greatest mid-program pit stop we could ever have, and as American we could get for Independence Day. Most of the group all has plans to travel this weekend, so we part ways, as I’m staying in Rabat this weekend. Mely and I catch a cab to Chelah a bird sanctuary built on Roman ruins that just two weeks ago hosted a jazz festival. During the ride, we make small talk in French with the nice driver and other lady passenger, and the latter invites us to her house for tea. She worked in a hospital with sick children, and spoke only of how she cared for them, so previous comments on hospital corruption and greed are certainly not the steadfast rule here. When she leaves we continue conversing with the cabdriver, who is Amazigh (what used to be classified as Berber) and shows off his many languages.

Chelah is beautiful. We start off by straying off the path, taking some countryside photos before returning to the bird side of the paradise. There are seriously birds singing everywhere, and somehow we make it through without any nasty bombings from our upstairs neighbors. The ruins contrast a snapshot of nature surviving man’s self-destruction with nature’s beauty draping the entire hillside. We explore the entire bird-town, and even find the cat-ghetto, where I’m pretty sure a family lives. The edge of Chelah overlooks a sort of vineyard, and our feathered singing companions serenade us throughout.

After a cab ride back and a quick nap, I go out with Hemsa for soccer at 7. At the beach, we play past the sunset for at least two hours. I’m solidifying more of the unstated rules, such as the sidelines extending from the hot part of the sand, to literally the ocean (even, as in our case, when it is a soccer field length away). You have to call your own fouls, and your team claps if you get really close on a shot or do any sort of slide or bicycle kick. Also, if you even tip the sandcastle goalposts it’s considered not a goal, which keeps the contestations to a minimum. I start off playing horrible, but soon pick up my game with an assist and goal. Once again, score, and gain your team’s immediate trust. We play for hours, even wearing out Hemsa, who sits for a while on the sidelines to rest. As players get tired, more cycle in, and when you need a water break, you need only to go to the ocean for a quick dip before returning. Also, there’s isn’t much of a focus on the score, and conversely no one really cares if a team has one person extra, as the focus is on everyone playing. Seriously, soccer here is more like a dance. I’ve noticed even if I’m open I won’t get a pass if I’m just standing there forever waiting, and goal scoring opportunities are often foregone if its too slow and easy. Instead the forward will pass back to the defense, and the team will try to set up another run. Shinguards aren’t needed as everyone is controlled enough to almost never hit, though this group plays more like soccer in highschool, meaning you have to play the man as much as the ball (which is more my style too).

We wear ourselves out and Hemsa and I dribble down the streets on our way home, just like Paul Ingram and I used to do returning from the field. We stop to play with the neighborhood gang (in the Little Rascal sense), and there’s no difference in treatment between me and any other local kid, as we mess around with soccer moves and fake-outs in the lamplight.


July 14- Brikcha

We were warned many things before coming to Brikcha. Heat, no running water, hikes to our host families, non nearby hospital, heat… I suppose those were there. But in general the village was pretty well off. There was a small walk to the center, but it was on a gravel road – not exactly the mountain climbing I was picturing. At their center, we waited to find our host families, and we would be split up (mostly) by twos. After an hour, I found out that I would be living with Kacey at the cooperative leader’s house. I don’t remember her name exactly, but it means ‘dream’ in Arabic, and I remember it was pretty. Apparently we were waiting because some families were being switched around last minute. Life in such a rural setting is very laid back, and our SIT program was often rushing behind the scenes to try to make all the hiccups work. We took a walk down mountain paths to the various houses with adobe facades roofed by metal sheets. Entering ours, we noticed walls of nailed up plastic sheeting mimicking tiles (which I later found out were hiding a chickenwire mesh holding the wall materials standing), and a typical style of couch wrapping around the walls of the main room, all facing a TV. I wasn’t even expecting electricity, let alone a TV, which was quite an interesting juxtaposition for a village with no running water. We dropped off our bags, and learned our house would have an infestation of teachers – it was nice having them to translate, but then again each conversation was a popquiz (every silver lining has a much larger dark cloud that wants to drench on your life). Nevertheless, I get the feeling our family is one of the better off ones in the village.

With lighter loads Kacey and I went back outside to greet the family. While doing so, we were greeted by an entourage of children with a soccer ball on its last leg. I think I prefer it that way, the half flat, worn to patches ball stripped everything commercial from our games. All that was left, was soccer. We had a grand time watching the kids show off their moves, while showing them some new ones and making sure everyone got their turns. For about an hour we just passed around with some quick bouts of juggling, and when Kacey and I teased them with keep away it turned into “get the guy with the ball” (or when it started rolling down the mountain, just “get the ball”). At dusk the father took Kacey and I to the café. We learned some new Arabic words along the way (star, moon, sheep), as we walked to the top of the mountain where the café was. Of course, while there I couldn’t miss an opportunity to try out the banana juice (for you who haven’t caught on yet, I have become a banana juice connoisseur), which was mainly just the fruit (fresh, but nothing has yet beat the malted shake of Rabat). Matt met us there with one from his family (the age spread is very encompassing amongst the members – he didn’t know whether this was his father, brother, uncle, or family-friend). We finish our drinks and play each other in billiards, unnumbered yellow and red balls slightly smaller than in America but still good. All around us were village males playing Parcheesi with metrical regularity. While waiting for Kacey and Matt to finish their game, I watched a group of older gentlemen play cards, in what seemed like Shanghai Rummy best I could tell. We left the café after about an hour and walked home drenched in moonlight.


July 15- Salt Dancing

Awakened to the singing of roosters (at 4:30), I laugh to myself the parallels to my experience waking up to prayer calls during my first day in Rabat. I return to interrupted sleep bouts until 8, but regardless wake up refreshed. After a breakfast of that fried bread with jam and instant coffee mix (just add milk), I head to the salt fields for the day. Before going to the fields, we make a stop at the well, filling up our donkey (Barbara, whose colt we nicknamed Eeyore) with bottles to the brim. Packed and ready, we trudge over a mountain cut road worn by footprints long-past. The road winds to overlook the beautiful surroundings, mountains crown the horizon, and distant villages peak out in spurts. Above we see Katrina and Steph picking Humus [chick peas] with their host sister. We wave as we continue to various fields seemingly haphazardly planted and shrubs framing our trail. The trek reminds me of scouting hikes, and every so often a guava plant will pop up here and a cactus will there – I’m a blink away from El Rancho Cima back in Texas. To top off the deja-vu, rural villagers traditionally wear wide brimmed straw hats (which we also totted today, gifts from the villagers), so the countryside is dispersed among wandering sombreros. Clefts of rocks and iffy footholds lead us down the mountain to the heart, a valley where tarped “fields” of puddles await us. We first see a gaggle of 20 or so of these pools maybe 10’x20’, with a brick structure overlooking the field. This, apparently, is the old/traditional field, we will be working elsewhere. We continue on to a slightly smaller set of black tarps divided by half-foot high dirt walls. The tarps house maybe 15 pools, each glittering with various amounts of white diamonds. These are the salt pools, and as the water evaporates off crystal sheets of salt flakes are left. We take off our shoes, roll up our jeans, and wash our feet before walking around these ladies’ “pastures.” Our learning style is ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’, though we do have some upper levels to translate certain specifics. As the women mainly spoke Darhija, we had a grand time at charades throughout the day.

Three of us grab brooms and start sweeping the salt in selected pools to their most downhill corners. Meanwhile, the rest of us “dance” on the salt, breaking up the crystals to more bite-size pieces. Once the salt piles have been accumulated and ground down, we all jump down to scoop up the salt with small buckets and small hands, dumping each full load into large sacks. These scoops still carry some water with them, which either evaporates off or drains out from the barley sack. We pretty much fill up an entire sack with one pool; we resweep and rescoop each one down to its tarp, before sweeping off the leftover water to the nearby pools. Then, we move to the next pool, doing about 6 in all. All the while, we crack jokes and sing and dance, Rachel stopped by and teaches a group to Salsa, and Mely and I teach another to line dance. After making the obvious pun possible concerning Julia’s falling skirt being a-salt-ed (somewhere Benedict Voit is smiling), I move on to give each of the SIT group salt nicknames:
Sam – Kosher Salt, Naomi – Saltine, Mat – Saltan, Mely – Crusty (self imposed), Geoffrey – Basalt, Katrina – Salt Spice (referencing her Moroccan nickname, Barbie), Steph – Salt Lake (first to fall into the salt pools), Rachel – Saltza (thank Mely for that name), Fadoua (our “baby sitter”) – Melikat Milhe (queen of the salt), Hanan – Oustaitha Milhe, Fraisa – See-salt (or Sea-salt, whichever you prefer), Kacey – Ninja Assault, Bradley – Salt Lick.

Around 1 we break for an hour, and are taken by the group to a large shady tree next to our stuff, and pegged donkeys. The villagers provide a wonderful meal for us: eggplant, meat, rice, etc. but the highlight were the fries, which we could hilariously eat with our salt-stained fingers for the perfect taste. We lounge about for another good 30 minutes or so, some students nap, while others joke and laugh about various knickknacks. But the village star is by far Rachel. During her stay here she has obtained an extremely impressive command of Darhija, and the village ladies and children absolutely adore every word in their conversations.

We return to the fields for another hour, but as work depends on evaporation rates, we are pretty much done for the day (I learn later that we pretty much finished all the work for both days). Back home, the family heats a bucket of water for us, so we could take a “shower,” before lounging about for another peaceful Arabian night.

Guten Tag!


Summer 2008

Ah, Berlin. I arrived to find it is my favorite city in Europe thus far (ok, ok, so I’ve said that about at least 3 cities before Berlin, but I really think Berlin might be it). The city is vibrantly alive and there is so much history here! I’m staying at a hostel in East Berlin, which a little over 18 years ago was a communist section of the city. Now East Berlin seems to have replaced West Berlin as the more active portion since it’s been in constant change and motion since the wall came down. Today, just10 minutes from my hostel, I stumbled

 upon a gem of this capitalist boom. Potsdamer Platz is a gem of glittering blue glass buildings which are huddled together around a neon-and-sunshine radiant circular plaza. The fountain in the center trickles musically along as people flock to and from the surrounding cafes and cinemas. Aside from its modern treasures though, Berlin is a fascinating place where monumental historical events happened fairly recently! (I say recently after my explorations of historical Paris or Rome…)

So far, I saw pieces of the old wall which separated East and West Berlin. It was actually very thin, with a piece of circular plastic piping on top. The plastic pipes were donated to East Berlin by West Berlin, who was duped into thinking East Berlin needed them desperately for a plumbing problem. Instead, they were mounted on the wall to keep people from gripping onto the top. Apparently the piping was the most effective method of keeping people from climbing the wall, because otherwise they just used the installed barbed wire and razors to hoist themselves up--regardless of the pain. West Berlin was quite the place to be! There were also checkpoints where people attempted to cross the iron curtain—legally or illegally. I visited the American checkpoint--called the Charlie Checkpoint (because it was the third checkpoint and thus called C, or Charlie in military garble). The checkpoint is still standing, although it has no function today. On a tour I heard stories about how people custom-built cars to go under the first gate that marked the Charlie Checkpoint until the eastern government made it more secure. It then became a series of 90 degree turns. At that point a western man sewed his gymnast, eastern girlfriend into the seat of his car and had his friend sit on her as they drove through the checkpoint (they replaced the seat stuffing with her). Another (unsuccessful) man wanted to bring his girlfriend over from East to West, so he looked around West Berlin until he found someone that looked just like her. He dated the lookalike, took her across for a picnic, stole all her documents, ditched her, and brought his real girlfriend across. Unfortunately, the castaway’s father was a high ranking politician, so the con man and his real girlfriend went to jail for 11 years.

All of the stories of the past were swirling about my mind as I stepped on each well-known but evolving piece of ground in the thriving German capital. I noted the stark harshness of the German Ministry of Finance (say taxes!) and later learned that it was once the headquarters of the Nazi Air Force. During the Soviet occupation the building even gained an idealistic mural reflecting communist life, with happy uniformed workers and women dancing and smiling together. Nowadays there is also a blown-up photograph of the reality of communism on the ground opposite that mural. In it workers have linked arms in protest and are all frowns and worry.

Later I stood on an unmarked spot of ground, covered in packed-down measly grass and dirt. It is the spot exactly above the underground bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Unintentionally, Hitler’s old bunker stands really close to a memorial built for the Jews killed during WWII. The Jewish memorial is an obsidian, abstract series of rectangular columns that is not supposed to have one specific meaning, but many. They are arranged in rows that visitors can walk through. It’s quiet inside the columns, which start at ankle level and vary throughout, sometimes reaching over six feet in height. The ground slopes randomly, which is disorienting. The monument is reminiscent of anything from the Jewish Cemetery in Prague (where graves are stacked so densely that they created an artificial hill in the centuries-old graveyard) to the skyline of a city. Hitler’s spot, on the other hand, is a parking lot.

Berlin is a history major’s paradise. Everywhere I roamed I stepped on the sites of a powerful past, filled with intense suffering, striving, and hope. Even more stunning was the beautiful juxtaposition of the present and modern with that past. Berlin is beautiful, sparkling, alive because it is rich in history and savvy in form.

My Life in Tunis


June & July 2008

My Daily Life
June 12, 2008
I thought I would give everyone a brief overview of my day-to-day life in Tunis.

I get up and have breakfast at the Carlton Hotel, where we are staying for the next 2 months. It is on Avenue Habib Bourgiba, the main avenue of Tunis, named after the first president.

I am currently in the afternoon session classes, so we have tutoring in the morning from 10:12:45. I have been taking my time getting to school, often doing some homework in the hotel before I leave. My roommate has morning classes, so she usually leaves by about 8, so I have time to be lazy and organize things by myself in the morning.

Walking to school is always an adventure. It is about a 15 minute walk that is usually quite pleasant. It is almost always very sunny, but not hot yet - in the upper 70's in the morning. Like most of the girls, I wear large sunglasses to detract unwanted attention. Getting to class involves crossing Avenue Habib Bourgiba, which is quite large. The classic arcade game Frogger is probably the best way to describe the experience. Crosswalks are seldom used. You pick somewhere along the street, crossing lane by lane, darting among cars. Once you make up your decision to go, you've got to keep going. People who suffer from indecision will probably never make it across the street! Yes, it is dangerous, but yes, that seems the only way to do it.

The school is down an alley that often has a pretty vile smell. However, once you get through the blue doors of the school, it opens into a pretty Italian villa. I sit outside in the morning under the fig trees finishing my homework and checking my email. The fig trees contain quite a few trees, and the morning is interspersed with splats from the figs falling. So far, none have landed on my head, although I have been attacked by fig juice falling from ripe figs still in the trees.

Lunch is from 12:45 to 1:45. I usually go to the market down the street for fresh bread, cheese, and fruit. If I spend over 2 dollars on lunch, it's a problem. Even spending 2 dollars, I often have lots to share. One of my friends accidentally bought four bags of blackberries the other day because she didn't realize how cheap they were.

Class is from 1:45 to 6:15 with a 30 minute break in the middle. During the break, we have a snack of fresh fruit (including figs from the fig trees outside), juice, and mint tea. Mint tea is a popular drink in Tunisia. It is made from green tea, mint, and lots and lots of sugar.

By the time I get out of class in the evening, I am exhausted. I usually go back to the hotel for a while. People eat dinner late in Tunisia, so if I have an actual dinner (chicken couscous seems to be my favorite), I don't usually go out until 7:30 or 8. Sometimes, I just have a gelato or quiche or something (everything in Tunisia comes with tuna and/or egg, which can get quite tiring).

Evenings involve homework and hanging out with friends. There is not a whole lot to do in Tunisia at night, especially for women. We usually just take it easy and relax after a day of sooo much Arabic class!


Travels to the South
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What I did this weekend:

1) I slept on the ground outside of a bus station in Tozeur - a town in southern Tunisia.
2) I crossed from one side of Tunisian to the other (north to south, then west to east).
3) I went off-roading in the Sahara Desert.
4) I saw Star Wars movie sets in the Sahara.
5) I rode a camel along the Tunisian-Algerian border.
6) I visited the troglodyte rock houses in Tatouine.

We left Tunis on the 9 pm bus to Tozeur, in southern Tunisia. It was a 7-hour bus ride. I was sitting in the back so my seat didn't decline. It also happened to be broken, so the seat kept falling off. I was also sitting near the window, or what used to be the window. It had broken at some point and been replaced with aluminum siding. The Tunisians in front of us were also playing music on their cell phones - different songs at the same time. Needless to say, it was an adventurous bus ride.

We arrived in Tozeur at about 4:15 am, just before the call to prayer. We spent the next couple of hours sleeping outside the bus station (see picture). Yes, we look like hobos.
We wandered around searching for a tour. We found one and the six of us headed out to the Sahara. We ended up off-roading in a 4x4. It was a lot of fun, once our guide fixed my seatbelt and I no longer feared for my life. We went zooming over sand dunes and around rock formations. It felt like a rollercoaster.

As we rounded a sand dune, we suddenly saw a bunch of huts in the middle of the desert. What is that, we wondered? Our guide informed us (or rather me, since I was the only one who spoke French) that it was the Star Wars movie set. We got out of the car and took the obligatory Jedi pictures. (hehe I'm whoosing).

Afterwards, we drove around a bit more, stopping to see a herd of wild camels and a well that the desert people used. Then, our guide took us past border security, explaining that the only reason we were allowed past was because we were with a guide. He took us to some guides who were going to give us a tour on camels. It was very very very hot and the sun was incredibly intense, but it was amazing to ride camels. Also, we're pretty sure that we crossed the Algerian border, which is technically illegal without a visa. However, since we were in the desert, the border is rather negotiable. We had some trouble crossing the border guard/Sahara police in the other direction, who didn't want to let us in without our actual passports (which were left for safekeeping at school in Tunis). It was the same officer who had let us through 2 hours before, so I'm pretty sure that he was just giving us a hard time because all he has to do all day is sit at this guard post in the Sahara and wait for people to come by. Still, it was a bit frightening.

Upon returning to Tozeur, we had lunch and grabbed a louage (a long distance taxi) to Gabes, on the other side of the country, where we were spending the night.

We left the hotel at 6 am Sunday morning to grab another louage to Tatouine. Yes, the planet on Star War was named after it. There is not much of touristy interest in Tatouine itself, however, the surrounding villages served as sites for the Star Wars films. Remember the troglodyte houses in the films and the Cantina? We visited Chenini and Douari. More historically, people lived in these villages until recently. A recent storm washed out one of the villages so all the people moved out, although there is reconstruction being done to preserve these beautiful dwellings. In Chennini, the homes were the dwellings of the ancient Coptic Christians, and their cross could be found over the doors.

After Tatouine, we grabbed lunch. Easier said than done. Our cab drivers took us back to the bus station, where we learned that there was a two km walk to the center of town to find the nearest restaurant. We went to the nearest salon de thé and ordered drinks. They offered to make us sandwiches. They went and bought bread, chopped up vegetables, and mixed it with tuna (I swear it’s the national dish of Tunisia). They even gave us free water (and didn't overcharge us). They were sooo nice.

We then arranged a louage back to Tunis - 8 hours. And our trip was over!
This was definitely my favorite weekend in Tunisia. The people were so incredibly nice. We had no stalkers or vulgar comments. Everyone went out of our way to be friendly and help us get where we were going. I have found that everyone in Tunisia seems to genuinely like Americans. We may get comments about our government, but it seems that they have a good opinion about the people themselves and admire and envy the freedom and prosperity that we have.

The weekend was also a great opportunity for me to practice my French. I was the only person in the group who could speak a large amount of French. I was the go-to person for translations and negotiations and all that good stuff. I also learned that it's not just my French that's bad - it's often the Tunisians. Less educated Tunisians often don't speak French as well. French is also less common in the south, which is much more conservative and a lot less European. It made me feel better about my ability to understand French!

Unfortunately, the weekend passed so fast. There was so much more I wish I could have seen. I like the south a lot better than Tunis and wish I had a chance to go back.

Mi Grande Aventura Gringo



Summer 2008

So it turns out that I have done something I swore long ago never to do—go to a foreign country without learning at least the basics of the language. For a grammar-nazi like me, it was especially difficult to be unable to understand or correct anyone’s grammar. I kept thinking, “what did I get myself into?” Armed only with my knowledge of Latin and Japanese, the Spanish vocabulary I’d learned in 3rd grade (a few colors, some numbers, and random animals), and a Spanish dictionary from 1994 (It still lists ll and ch as separate letters), the situation seemed rather hopeless. Even the walking orientation was difficult, despite the everlasting pep and pizzazz of our program coordinator Maria Demello, because everything was in Spanish. Fortunately, Alice lent me her magical grammar book, Barron’s Spanish Grammar, and I started reading right away. That night all kinds of strange and interesting aspects of Spanish were revealed to me. Did you know Spanish has a different set of pronouns for the subject, the direct object, the indirect object, use with prepositions—and that those and the reflexive pronouns come before most conjugated forms of verbs, but should be attached to the infinitive or the imperative to make one word (Don’t forget the accent on the verb if you attach two of them!)? I didn’t. As the trip continued, I read that lovely book cover to cover, and it helped a lot. However, I still had a vocabulary problem that was crippling my ability to communicate with my non-English-speaking host family. They thought I was very serious because I didn’t say anything for the first few days!

Speaking of my host family, they were two of the nicest women I’ve ever met. Magdalena, a soon-to-be-83-year-old woman, was a bit of a firecracker, and said some of the funniest and most interesting things. She usually spoke in absolutes. The gems are probably “Todas las correanas son gorditas.” and—well I can’t remember what she said, partially because I couldn’t understand it at the time, but when we asked her about politicians and the police she always made this motion where she placed her hand on the table and moved it into her pocket. She also always cracked jokes, which I unfortunately also can’t remember. Lydia, her fifty-something-year-old niece, was always trying to tone down what Magdalena said or explain it in a kindler, gentler way. They were both quite patient with repeating themselves, speaking slowly, or explaining Spanish words to us (Lydia more so than Magdalena, or as many affectionately call her, Madga). And man could they cook. Actually, Magda couldn’t cook because she had an eye operation, and her doctor told her not to have her eye around heat, but her mole is famous for being delicious. Lydia made us all kinds of egg dishes with beans and tortillas for breakfast, and had a seemingly never-ending supply of different waters and juices for lunchtime. Lunch is a big meal in Mexico, and she always had a soup, rice, or pasta course in addition to the main course. It’ll be hard to go back to Tex-Mex, but what’s a guy to do?

The city of Guanajuato itself is somewhat different from many other cities in Mexico because it’s a colonial town. That means that the streets and buildings have been there for hundreds of years. Well, that’s only half true because they rebuild the streets and restore some of the buildings every so often, but the city comes complete with extravagant old churches and cathedrals, fancy stone streets (not cobblestone fancy mind you, but fancy nonetheless), and historical sites. The must-see places of interest would have to be the Museo Mommias (apparently some of the graveyards around Guanajuato are natural mummification locations), the Museo Iconographico (dedicated to artwork about Don Quixote), the Museo Casa De Diego Rivera (the house of Frida Kahlo’s husband), the Museo Alhondiga (former granary and site of an important battle of the Mexican Revolution), and the statue of El Pipila. The Pipila statue sits in a high part of the city and has a wonderful view, especially at night. In fact Alice and I went up there one night in the rain to get some cool pictures (and because the rain was raining on our panaderia [bread shop/bakery] parade, oh how I’ll miss those fantastic stores where I could buy a huge bag of bread and pastries for 3 or 4 dollars). You’ll be happy to know the city has great drainage, with the water just cascading down the city’s steps like waterfalls into the streets (There are sidewalks on both sides of the streets several inches above the street.). The only complaint I have about the city is that because some of the streets are very narrow, car exhaust/fumes tend to hang in the air if too many cars or buses drive by in a short period of time.

During the day and on some nights, the streets are full of vendors. It’s very different from the states because everybody actually walks around town. It’s also very strange and interesting to see really modern shops and merchandise (like internet café’s and hair salons) in such old buildings. Because the entire economy and way of life for many places in America is based around owning a car, it was especially intriguing to be in a city not designed around cars. Since many people don’t own or can’t afford cars—and some people are old, sick, etc—everything a household needs has to be within reasonable walking distance in Guanajuato. There are grociery stores, Oxxos (convenience stores kind of like the Kwik-e-Mart, but with reasonable prices), internet and paper places every few blocks. The existence of a cheap and well connected bus system make it possible to get to basically any part of the city with ease. If that isn’t enough there are many taxis that don’t cost much to use in operation for all or most hours of the day. It made me think about how cities and people can be affected by issues such as poverty and transportation, reminding me of how the Dart system just restored service to a certain area of Dallas and how difficult it must have been for those residents while they didn’t have easy access to public transportation.

The classes, while challenging, were very enjoyable. Our History and Literature Professor Hilda’s frequent drawings and hand motions made it much easier for me to understand what was going on in the beginning, and I think all of us have been affected in some way by our Grammar and Conversation Professor Martin’s phrases, jokes, and stories. Taking the intermediate level of Spanish classes was made easier because the teachers had considerable skill in teaching to a group of non-native speakers. Hilda in particular was very good at scoping out whether or not the class knew the words she used and whether we understood what she was saying, in addition to being able to choose more understandable vocabulary on the fly. Other McD’s have recommended taking the intermediate level if you have even the least bit of Spanish knowledge, and I totally agree. While I don’t have personal experience with the beginner level, it would probably be soul-crushingly boring, and I feel that my experience was much stronger and more enjoyable because I took the more challenging classes.

We also had the opportunity to take two large trips on the weekends, one to Mexico City, and the other hiking around La Bufa, a mountain just outside of Guanajuato. In Mexico City we toured through Teotihuacan, an ancient Toltecan city and birthplace of the worship of Quetzalcoatl, all of which we had been discussing in our classes. We also saw Frida Kahlo’s blue house, SoCaLo (the main plaza), and the Basilica de Guadalupe. During the visit, we decided to ride the Mexico City subway, and did it ever put the D.C. subway to shame. The entire facility was more or less immaculately clean, and a ticket (which allowed you to ride any number of trains, as long as you didn’t leave the metro) only cost 2 pesos! It’s subsidized by the government, but impressive nonetheless. The hike through La Bufa and other mountains in the area was incredible. It was a beautiful day with beautiful scenery, and I even got to do a little bit of somewhat user-friendly rock climbing.

Now I’m studying at CIMAT, the center for investigation of mathematics, and it’s a little sad now that everyone else has left Mexico. But the people at CIMAT are all very nice and the work is interesting. I started out learning about genetic algorithms (misleading name), which use the concepts of evolution and genetics to solve problems. They usually operate on sets of randomly-generated binary strings, randomly selecting several data members for reproduction, and then randomly performing mutation on the bits of the data members. Children are produced by performing genetic crossover (trading sets of bits). Add in a function to evaluate the bit sets and select the better solutions, rinse, wash, and repeat (many times) and you have yourself a pretty good answer. However, now I am learning about and implementing an algorithm called Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO). It started out as a simulation to model patterns of bird flocks, when lo and behold someone discovered that it could be used for optimization problems.several research projects later it has evolved into a very simple base algorithm with many variants. Basically, a set particles (called a swarm) that represent randomly chosen/created vectors containing input for a multidimensional function are created that can remember the best place they’ve been and communicate with other particles. The simulation is run for many timesteps, and each timestep each particle’s velocity is changed, giving some weight to the current direction and adding two vectors multiplied by two random numbers between 0 and 1. One of the two vectors is aimed back toward the best point to which the particle has been, and the other is aimed toward the best point of the particles with which that particle communicates. After many timesteps, the particles converge on a certain zone of the function, which is hopefully the global optimum. Now research is done to experiment with particle communication patterns and/or to add other algorithms or strategies to the mix (such as the genetic algorithm ideas of crossover and mutation) to improve the optimization performance of the algorithm. This work has been very interesting because I have never seen an effective non-deterministic algorithm before (These algorithms are probabilistic because so much of them is based on random numbers and chance).

Anyway, I’m having lots of fun and hope to see everybody in Dallas soon!

Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento, and Siena

June 2008

6/13/08
These past two days of my trip have been really awesome!

Yesterday we went to the Vatican, which was just an amazing experience. One of the best advantages of going with a program like this: we got to skip all of the lines, which looked to be an hour long or so, and we had a guided tour of the whole thing. First we went through the Vatican museum which is chock full of simply amazing works of art. A lot of them are very famous and I studied in my art classes and I was just so happy to see them in person, like the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere. One thing that surprised me was that they let us take pictures everywhere if we didn't use a flash, excluding only the Sistine chapel. Thus it wouldn't surprise me if I took a hundred pictures. The Sistine chapel ceiling and Michelangelo's Last Judgement over the altar were wonderful and definitely different than seeing prints of them. To see the ceiling above you so enormously you are absolutely absorbed in the art. I was so awestruck and excited to be in there I was quite literally trembling.

Japan: Sushi & Other Small Things

Summer 2008

Everything here is miniature. Because of a premium on space, the elevator can fit five people at most, bowls are half the size of those at home and blow dryers fold into two for easy storage. The food and gifts I brought for my host family appear to be on steroids sitting on their low dining table next to tiny packages of chips and nuts. When I brought out these oversized packages, my host family laughed and commented about big, easy, and casual American living. The culture here is so different. People always talk in polite and hushed tones. It is rude for girls to step out of the house without makeup and to talk on cell phones in the metro. I bow and say “sumimasen” (excuse me or sorry) quite frequently. No one wears regular t-shirts. Instead, fashion is filled with patterns, frills, layers and colors. On the first day here, I decided to abandon the free UTD convocation T-shirts to avoid standing out like a sore thumb, so much for school pride.

Work ethic is strict. Commutes of three hours per day are not unusual for workers or students. Leaving work at five is simply not done. Female participation in the labor force is very low. Students go to private tutoring and classes after school and on weekends especially when preparing for entrance exams.

Shinto beliefs are inseparable from society and culture. The respect for nature, a core belief of Shinto, manifests itself in green policies and in everyday life. Public bathrooms have a button next to the toilet labeled “flushing noise” that, in fact, makes the noise of a flushing toilet. After pressing the button a few times out of curiosity, I finally asked Sensei its purpose. Sensei told me it is a water saving measure to prevent people from actually flushing the toilet to mask embarrassing noises. All public bathrooms also have high-powered hand dryers that work much more efficiently than those in the US. About a million other things are done by ordinary citizens, companies and government for the conservation and recycling of valuable resources.

I am finally back in the US. My trip to Japan was glorious. I ate plenty of good sushi, sashimi, tempura, udon, soba, kare(curry), rice, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and bento items. Being an economics major and a lover of efficiency, my favorite of all restaurants had to be the conveyor sushi place, which really was the epitome of efficiency. It was like an itemized buffet without ever getting up from your seat. Ask me for details sometime! Highlights of the trip include two weeks in Tokyo visiting Meiji Jingu, Yasukuni, Asakusa, Akihabara, Tokyo Tower, the Ghibli Museum, Shinjuku, Tsukiji Fish Market and Mount Fuji. The city was so alive and full of local flavor. There were always people out and about, a few were even dressed in yukata(the traditional summer robe). Different parts of the city showed a different aspect of Japanese culture, whether traditional, popular or a comfortable mix of the two. Also, by the end of my stay in Tokyo, I vowed to become an otaku starting with Miyazaki’s films. Then came another two weeks in Osaka for Panasonic, Nagoya for the Toyota factory and Kyoto for historical and scenic sites. Traveling by Shinkansen (the bullet train) was very convenient and public transportation in each city was easy to navigate. My favorite part of the trip was sitting in the grounds of a gorgeous Zen temple, jinja, or café, watching people and reflecting on conversations with host families. Greatest gain from this trip- I’ve finally experienced what Twain meant when he said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Monday, September 08, 2008

Artsy in Amsterdam


The Rijksmuseum was fantastic! I absolutely loved seeing some of the
finest oil paintings in the world, particularly Johannes Vermeer's
'The kitchen maid' and Willem Claesz Heda's picture-perfect 'Still
life with gilt goblet'. And, of course, Rembrant's 'The Night Watch'
was more impressive in real life than I could have imagined. I was
intrigued by the amount of movement Rembrant incorporated into the
group portrait.

Liz

Providing Healthcare in the Dominican Republic

A short while ago I arrived home from spending two weeks in the Dominican Republic, where I worked with a team from International Service Learning to provide healthcare for three of the nation's poorest communities. At the same time I learned basic triage medical skills, practiced prescribing and distributing a variety of pharmaceutical drugs, and solidified the medical Spanish and tropical medicine I had picked up during the past seven weeks in Costa Rica. I also helped host a small educational camp for children in the community, where we played games and taught good hygiene such as flossing, washing hands, and wearing shoes.

Our team of five American students, one Dominican medical doctor, and a Costa Rican team leader made house visits and hosted health clinics for three poor communities in the Santo Domingo area. Our complaints about cold showers, dirty restrooms, lack of air conditioning, and uncomfortable beds were silenced as we visited homes in Mangular, conversing with residents about their health and living conditions. The first family we interviewed consisted of five members living in a house hardly bigger than my dorm room at the seminary in Santo Domingo. The family was fortunate enough to have a latrine, though they could only afford to buy a five-gallon jug of clean drinking water for the five of them to share per week. We invited ill community members to the clinic we would host the next day, broken-hearted that we could not include everyone in need due to lack of equipment, supplies, people, and time.

Each two-day community clinic was eye opening yet encouraging. We welcomed community members ranging from 6 months to 80 years in age and learned to diagnose and treat parasites, bacterial and fungal infections, rashes due to poor water quality, dangerously high blood pressure, gastritis, etc. More importantly, we learned to give compassion and comfort to our patients, and I clarified my future career path as I discovered that I enjoy relating to patients more as a pharmacist than as a physician. As I noticed the dwindling supply of medications toward the end of each day and remembered the thankful smiles of our guests, I became confident that we had made a difference.

To rest ourselves physically and emotionally, we relaxed (and whooshed!) at a couple Dominican beaches: Playa Bayahibe on the southern coast, and Samaná on the northern coast. We enjoyed home-cooked Dominican food as well as Dominican restaurant cuisine, and we experienced some of the local city culture on the streets and at nightclubs. I even danced merengue with a local TV comedian!

I am happy to be back after a long summer away from my own bed, and I now appreciate my many blessings more than ever. But I certainly will not forget the Dominican people and what I learned about similar suffering taking place in Haiti, Costa Rica, and a number of developing countries around the world. I have decided to start a campaign to encourage my peers to join me in reallocating some of our expendable income away from personal luxuries in favor of providing necessities for the impoverished, especially in poor countries. Even the smallest sacrifices accomplish much. I invite you to join us!

(Contact: juliann.peterson@student.utdallas.edu)





Discovering Malaysia Part 2

Greetings from Borneo, Bangkok, and Hong Kong

As part of my program studying governance and politics in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, we spent a week in East Malaysia, which consists of two states, Sabah and Sarawak, encompassing the northern third of the island of Borneo. Academically, we were to take note of differences between the level of development and the culture we'd experienced in Peninsular Malaysia. The difference was apparent from when we first stepped out of the airport. The air quality is a million times better and rich greenery had replaced the tall buildings I had grown accustomed to. Our cab drivers from the airport to Bako National Rainforest Park, where we planned to stay for two nights, were all Chinese instead of Indian or Malay, as is common in Peninsular. Also, the indigenous people of Borneo are not ethnic Malays, but come from a variety of tribes, including Iban, Kelabit, Penan, and others. Because none of the ethnic groups in East Malaysia make up a large minority, inter-cultural mixing is common and accepted. For this reason, people on Borneo look very different from those in Peninsular Malaysia. Our stay in Bako was definitely the highlight of my abroad experience; we spent three days hiking through the forest, seeing hundreds of new species of plantlife, birds, and insects…one of the tribesmen at the park pointed out a viper in a tree right across from our cabin and later, I even managed to get attacked by a pack of monkeys. I hiked to some gorgeous beaches and viewed some really grand rock formations and waterfalls – basically, Borneo was everything I dreamed it would be. After our stay in Bako, we spent three nights in the city of Kuching, which is the capital of Sarawak. "Kuching" means cat in Malay, so there are really kitschy cat statues everywhere – which will never cease to be hilarious. Interestingly, Sarawak was a privately owned colony belonging to James Brooke, known as the First White Rajah of Sarawak. We visited his fort, toured various museums, and shopped (a lot) for various Sarawakean handicrafts. While in Kuching, we also attending the Rainforest World Music Festival, which is an award winning show sponsored by the Malaysian government that invites performers from around the world. Another fun excursion was to the Semenggoh Orangutan Rehab Centre, where we watched orangutans (which means "jungle people" in Malay) come out for feeding time. As a perfect example of Malaysian friendliness and hospitality, two students in my group and our group leader had met a Malaysian couple in Bako. Our group leader wanted to know of a good place to get a taste of authentic Sarawakean cuisine, and the couple just invited all 12 of us over to their home. The experience was fantastic – we had a home cooked meal of delicacies including snails, dried fish, and stingray, while listening to family stories.

BORNEO


The courses I took in Kuala Lumpur allowed me two free weekends to do some traveling of my own, the first of which I spent in Bangkok. The city is a really vibrant mix of big city life and traditional temples and hawker stalls. We (I went with some friends I'd made in my study abroad program) arrived late on a Friday night and after getting lost on the way to the guest house, finally found it and were pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness and good service (if you're ever in Bangkok, stay at the Tae Wez Guesthouse). The next morning, I woke up to the sound of chickens clucking and the smell of fresh incense burning in front of a small Buddha shrine. That first day, we toured the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace, which was incredible. The Thais love their king – the ruling family has been in power for over 4 centuries – which is evident from the huge pictures of him along every street. Highlights of the day included getting gypped by a tuk-tuk driver, watching a couple release a pair of birds for good luck at the top of a huge standing Buddha, boating along the canal to several temples (each prettier than the last), taking pictures next to the gigantic reclining Buddha, meeting a nice German man on the metro (who was just as lost as we were), and eating pad thai, tom yum soup, chicken satay, pineapple fried rice, and fresh juice (my favorites!). At night, we had a good time eating dinner and people-watching on Khaosan Road and shopping in the night market. The next day, I walked along our street, which was in a very local side of town, and watched fruit stallers chop up fresh mangos and jicama, vendors begin grilling satay skewers, and butchers hanging up fresh meat. We spent the day shopping for trinkets in Chatuchak Market (the largest open-air market in the world), visiting Erawan Shrine, the Giant Swing, and Lumpini Park. After resting and packing up our things, we headed to dinner on the pier. Halfway through our delicious tom yam dinner, I realized I had read the itinerary wrong and that our flight would be leaving in one hour – eek! Luckily, after running to get a taxi and running through the airport gates Home Alone-style, we made it onto the plane back to KL – phew!

THAILAND


As for my second free weekend, I visited my uncle and his family in Hong Kong. My aunt, stationed with her husband (who is an officer in the Bangladeshi Navy) in Nanjing, also came down for the weekend on her way back to Bangladesh. Needless to say, I had a great time – Hong Kong was definitely full of surprises. We visited Disneyland, which was a bit surreal for me – I felt like I was in California, except that there were more Asians in the lines than I remembered. The people I spoke with in Hong Kong were not as fluent in English as I'd expected but everyone knew the words to the Disney tunes and danced along to High School Musical without problems. After touring the city a bit, we took the Star Ferry to the other side of the harbor where we watched the Hong Kong Symphony of Lights laser show, where the entire skyline lights up in line with music – very cool. The next day, we took a two-story bus to Stanley Market, which has a mall, restaurants (where we had dim sum), and family activities all along the pier. A short bus ride also took us to the beach. When I pictured Hong Kong in my head, I did not expect the city to be so green, but green hills and mountains come into view at every turn. The city is incredibly modern and clean – the metro stations are like airports and my uncle told me that the janitors in his office clean the crevices in the escalators every night! Because the course I'd been taking in Kuala Lumpur was covering the rise of China, I looked for symbols of authoritarianism since the liberalization of the economy was obvious everywhere. Perhaps because of the British influence or because I was there for such a short time, but I didn't find many examples of this, save signs everywhere that say things like "observe sick regulations." Overall, a great city and a true example of China's economic might!

HONG KONG

Discovering Malaysia


Selemat Pagi fellow Scholars!

I just arrived back from Kuala Lumpur a few nights ago, and don't even know where to begin in recounting my vibrant and exciting experiences. I suppose the city itself is a good start…KL is a bustling metropolitan city and provides an interesting - and sometimes surreal - mix of a fully developed state (I had my Starbucks next door, a metro line around the corner, and was taking classes at a top-rated university) and a developing state that constantly reminded me of family trips to Bangladesh – the pollution was pretty overwhelming, government corruption is rampant, and KL is the only city in Malaysia that has reached a modern level of development. The Malaysian people are incredibly friendly and open – I was pretty much always mistaken as a Malaysian, so I was able to fully immerse myself into the culture and get to know some really interesting people and sometimes their families. The greatest interactions I had in KL were with cab drivers – not only can these men (and occasionally women) carry on a long conversation on Malaysian politics, they can easily debate the pros and cons of Barack Obama's potential rise as the next US president (not too surprisingly, not one person I met during these five weeks had any interest in another Republican president…), and discuss any number of foreign affairs issues without question.

Speaking of politics, I took two courses during my stint in Kuala Lumpur, both through American University in Washington, DC. The first course dealt with globalization, governance, and human security in Malaysia and Indonesia; the second covered regional issues in ASEAN, and the effect of the rise of China on Southeast Asia. The classes' set-up was seminar-style discussion from 10 am to 1 pm, and then following lunch upstairs in the various Indian, Chinese, and Malay food stalls, we'd meet a speaker at 2 pm. Both classes were incredibly engaging – my professor is one of the foremost scholars on Malaysian politics and Southeast Asian relations. She is a Malaysian herself and met her husband while he was working for the Foreign Service; essentially, she knows everyone there is to know in Malaysia, so our speakers ranged from women's rights, human rights, and foreign labor activists to the Prime Minister's advisor (who we met in the equivalent of the Malaysian White House) and the former Deputy Prime Minister (who we met in his multi-million dollar mansion for tea) to students from both the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization and the Malaysian Military Staff College. We took classes at HELP University, which is a private institution that provides a stepping stone for those wishing to get their degrees abroad and improve their English, making HELP an international institution with students we met from all over Africa, East Asia, and the Near East.



The political climate of Malaysia is very intricate and complicated. Upon Malaysian independence from the British in 1957, the majority Malays, of which a small class were brought up as ruling elites by the Brits but were mostly still living in rural, poverty-stricken areas, rallied against a constitution that held the three major ethnic groups of the country – Malays, Chinese, and Indians – as having equal rights. The British colonial power had recruited the Chinese and Indians to tin and rubber plantations, respectively. The Chinese experienced growth and wealth in the prosperous tin industry, and at the time of independence held a greater percentage of the country's wealth than did the majority Malays, who held less than the Indian population as well. In holding onto the reaps and rewards of what they believed to be their country, the Malays secured a preferred status in the constitution and Islam as the state religion, but with religious freedom for all non-Malays. (Malays can convert out of Islam, but face a very long bureaucratic process and social ills.) The political climate since independence was peaceful and the economy was growing rapidly until the watershed moment in Malaysian political history: the race riots of 1969 when the majority United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party lost their majority in Parliament to the opposition Democratic Action Party and Gerakan, predominantly Chinese parties. Shortly thereafter the New Economic Policy was enacted, requiring that the economy would be divided evenly between the three ethnic groups. The motive behind this was to pull up the Malays from their status as rural farmers to have equal footing and investment in the country's economy to quell any future outrage. While the NEP has visibly improved Malay holding in the Malaysian economy, it has created animosity within the Chinese and Indian groups because the NEP is essentially affirmative action measures – quota systems in public schools, cheaper loans and housing rates for Malays, and greater ease at securing a job – all for the majority population, marginalizing minority groups to a greater extent.

Despite the ethinic tug-of-war, Malaysia is a beautiful and prospering country. I woke up every morning to a great view of the KL skyline from my window, including the Petronas twin towers, which were the world's tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004 and a symbol of Malaysian oil wealth. The religious diversity is apparent on every corner; ornate mosques stand next to Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist temples. Malaysian food is perhaps the best testament to a united Malaysia; Chinese, Indian, and Malay all enjoy each other's culinary offerings, a popular conversation area being the "Mamak" stalls (Mamaks are Indian Muslims, mainly from South India – roti cenai, basically paratha with curries and veggies, is a favorite dish). Food is very cheap – a meal rarely cost me more than $2 – and the mix of rich Asian flavors and exotic proteins (shark, crab eggs, squid tentacles) definitely helped me put on a few pounds. The tropical fruits are really delicious; I loved to snack on rambutan, dragonfruit, starfruit, mangosteen, and really sweet Asian pineapples.
We travelled to several cities outside of KL as a group. Putrajaya, the country's administrative center, was built by former PM Mahathir Mohammad in only 10 years time, right before the Asian Financial Crisis of '97 – this is where we visited Zaki, one of the current PM's controversial advisors. We also visited the city of Melacca, a few hours outside of KL. Melacca has a culture of its own, a mix of Portuguese, Dutch, Malay, and Chinese influences – "Baba Nyonya" cuisine is exquisite, and only found in this part of the world. During the last weekend of our stay, our group was sponsored by the US Embassy to take a trip to the east coast of peninsular Malaysia to a city called Kuantan where we met with 100 Malaysian university students and went through several dialogue sessions on our impressions of each others' countries, campus life, and pop culture to learn more about the US and Malaysia. Lucky for us, US tax dollars allowed us to stay in a gorgeous resort right on the beach – Malaysia's dense forests, rich wildlife, and beautiful beaches are to die for. Needless to say, it was the perfect ending to a fascinating and life-changing experience for me.

Greece Part 2


(This picture was taken at the top of the Delion Temple of Apollo on the island of Paros in Greece.)

Hey Everyone,

Since I wrote last time, a lot has happened. I recently finished my internship on the island of Sifnos, and have been working mostly on the documentary. I have done some traveling to other islands, and have found some really interesting local stories for the documentary. On the island of Paros, for example, there is a cave that was inhabited by THE first lyrical poet Archilochos, when he self-exhiled himself because he caused his parents-in-law to kill themselves (he had a twisted sense of humor). Anyway, there is a fisherman on the island who will gladly take you to his cave, at the very top of the highest point near the shore and watch you climb up to the top, and when you stop to think about it, there is no way he would have ever chosen that cave to live in...so you go back to town and find out the fisherman just picked the first cave he saw. Heh. If you want to see the real cave, you will just have to see the documentary when I get home.

Along with the documentary, I've found time to chill out on the many beautiful beaches in Greece and meet some pretty interesting people along the way. I am getting a little homesick, and will not miss certain things all-too-European (i.e. bathrooms, showers, ketchup, exchange rates, etc.) Anyway, I hope everyone had just as awesome of a summer as I have had, and I will see everyone soon!

Holly

¿Qué onda? de México - Guanajuato

Well, actually this is not from Mexico. I am safely back in the States (with all my fingers and vital organs) and have enjoyed a nice full glass of tap water. However, my memories are still fresh, so if you choose to read this then yay for retrospective blogging!

I arrive at the airport with the partial group from UTD to be greeted by our uber-hyper link to the University of Gto. Maria Demello. After we were distributed to our respective host families I realized I scored the best one. Señora Lupita Zepeda was my Mexico Mother and she could talk about anything in depth and with simple enough vocabulary to where I understood what she was saying. She has an advantage talking to those with limited vocabularies because she is a child psychologist. The rest of the family was very friendly and the three kids all spoke excellent English, so vital logistics could be communicated. The location of the house was a good forty-minute walk from the University that was too short to justify a bus, so needless to say I toned up with over an hour of walking a day.

The classes at the University of Guanajuato are divided into Intermediate and Advanced. I was stuck in the funky limbo area between the two. The classes themselves are taught in all Spanish, but the professors talk clearly and slowly so there is pretty much 100% understanding among the class. A really friendly and fun professor taught grammar and conversation classes, but there were some major gaps in the organization and the material taught. The history and literature professor explained everything at least three times in different words, which is great for vocabulary increase and insured that we all understood the material. Grading on the whole is very forgiving.

The extra classes that I took included art history, cooking, and dance. Dance is great because you meet helping instructors that then you see at Salsa clubs, yay for instant partners that know what they’re doing! The cooking class is taught by a French woman at her house and the food is super delicious.

Maria Demello introduced us during the second week to her friend Guillermo Chávez who organizes excursions. His prices for his excursions are incredibly expensive for Mexico, but the experience is excellent. Our first excursion was to Teotihucan, Mexico City, Frida Kahlo’s house, Zócalo, and the Basilica de Guadelupe. That was all in one day, four AM to midnight. The second excursion was a hike that we all could have done on our own, but it was good that the guide knew where to go.

Don’t let anyone tell you that learning a language is easy. The plasticity of my brain has definitely decreased since I learned my first language. Understanding others comes rather easily, the tricky part is speaking fluently, with a bearable accent, and without too many false English cognates.

Well, I now have over five hundred pictures to sort through and relive my experience with. All of them are colorful and with excellent memories behind them.