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

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Whoosh from Accra!

Whoosh you were here from Accra!

After a little more than twenty-four hours of traveling, I step out of the airport and am greeted by the USAC program director... and about fifty taxi drivers offering a ride. For once my hours of procrastination and all nighters paid off and I fought jet-lag by considering the next day to be one of those.

Ghanaians are very friendly people -- though sometimes annoyingly so. A friendly introduction will often turn to some variation of asking for money. The traditional communal society where the success of one person must be shared with the community fosters this, in a way. In areas known to attract tourists, no matter how politely I refuse or give an excuse the conversation will only revolve around asking for money. The friendly atmosphere is not all annoyance though, it is customary to greet every person in a store or office before stating your business. This can become confusing in open markets where everyone is calling to you.

I am whooshing from Independence Square, where Kwame Nkruma declared independence for Ghana from the British in 1957. That park was the only place in Ghana where black Africans were not allowed, so the defiant gesture marked an independence with equality of color.

The presentation of the slave trade in both classes and tours emphasizes that though all of our ancestors may be guilty of participating in the slave trade, our task now is to come together to improve our world. This emphasis is remarkably different from much of the sentiment in the states, as the controversies over affirmative action, and other measures continue. Because the slave trade existed long before the Europeans came to the Gold Coast and all tribes participated in it, there is not very much pointing fingers of blame because it could backfire so easily. I did have the opportunity to tour the Cape Coast castle, which was built for the slave trade. The courtyard was nice, the dungeons were not.

Signing up for the weekend trips is great. I have visited Cape Coast, Kakum National Park (canopy bridges!) and Kumasi. Seeing towns other than Accra are interesting, though many of the cultural aspects are the same. Vendors line the roads, the telecom companies are advertised on most of the booths, and trash often litters the sides of the road. A small bit of culture shock occurred when I went to throw away an armful of water bottles, I could not find a place to recycle them! Then I remembered seeing trash beside the roads and in the gutters and realized the disposal of regular trash is still not always provided for. Traveling with the group is nice because we see great places like Cape Coast, downtown Accra, and Kumasi with the comfort of a tour guide and transportation pre-arranged. However, I feel as though I'm not learning how to get around on my own very quickly because of the pre-arranged trips. I still have time to learn, and it looks pretty intuitive.

Classes in the USAC program at the University of Ghana are small and relatively relaxed. The professors are excellent in answering questions and helping us understand the history and culture of both Ghana and all of Africa. The program also allows me to sit in on classes I am not signed up for, but are useful -- like Twi, the local language. Oh, the most humiliating and most fun part of my week is the traditional African music and dance class... let's just say I'm gradually learning how to move to some awesome percussion.

Ghanaian food is made up of rice, beans, and some type of meat. Of course, there are added spices and varieties of types of preparation, but the core allows me to hold off on some of the more daring food if my intestines ask me to.

Oh, for all of you sweating out the 100+ temperatures in Texas, I've been enjoying rather mild temperatures in the high eighties, low nineties.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The sights in Italy #2

Anastasia travelled the previous weekend to Florence, sitting on the plaza in front of the towering Duomo and walking inside the lavishly decorated Basilica next to it. On each side of the Basilica were beautiful relief doors depicting Biblical scenes. One of the doors was worked in gold and was not at all tarnished: it shone as though polished by the sun itself and was the most captivating aspect of the plaza. Inside were golden mosaics covering the entirety of its dome and beautiful ancient architecture. The next day, she visited the museums; the most memorable piece of art was Michelangelo’s David. At first it seemed as though there was no point in seeing it because of multiple illustrations and photos seen beforehand; but in reality the larger-than-life figure was breathtaking and nothing of its grandeur or vivacity had been conveyed in the textbook photos.
The next weekend, Anastasia spent back at Schloss Brunnenberg. She took time to walk through the vineyards in the morning, the plants a lively, bright green and covered with dew. All around the grape vines grew flowers – blue little bell-shaped flowers, pink and white clover, yellow bunches of flowers peeking through the long, matted straw. Jeans wet up to the knee from the night’s rain, she waded through the flora across the steep and lush slopes, a misty view of the mountains encircling the miniature of the city of Merano below. And on the way back she trekked up cobble stones covered with overripe cherries that had fallen from the dark green foliage above.
With fellow students, she spent time in both Dorf Tirol and in Merano relaxing on walks through the cities and eating at packed pizzerias in the afternoon. Everywhere, there are ice cream stands and little cafes, all along the riverside. There are boutiques on winding streets for the shopping-inclined, and one can always orient by the tall steeple of the city’s main church. The buses run mostly on schedule and the view from the vehicle window is picturesque.
Bryan enjoyed taking the gondola up one of the mountains and hiking around on the trails for several hours. Restaurants provided a lovely meal and place to sit with a spectacular view as one enjoyed the fresh air up upon the mountain and watched a thunderstorm roll into the valley. His cousin also managed to visit for a weekend, providing a change of company for a few days. He was rather surprised by the fact that many people have walking trails running through their vineyards or orchards.
There was another concert at Schloss Tirol, a wonderful quartet that played classical music from the sixteenth century. It was extremely interesting to see the instruments from a time long gone, which by themselves were arguably better than the singers. Nick, one of Mary’s grandsons, also led the group on a tour throughout the vineyard and over his wine-making operations. We all got to see how the grape vines were planted, cared for, differentiated, and harvested. He also highlighted many of the differences between each different kind of grape and what makes them unique, such as the amount of sunlight falling on the grapes and even the amount of wind they endure.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Adventure in Argentina

This past weekend I took a four day trip to Salta, a town in northwest Argentina. Salta is located in a beautiful valley with the Andes to the west and more mountains to the east. My first night I rented a car so that I could drive to a UNESCO World Heritage site, the oldest town in Argentina, and a few National Parks. I noticed that the breaks on the car were squeaky but I didn't think anything of it. On Friday, my first full day in the Andes I drove to Las Salinas Grandes on a 4-wheel drive road that was absolutely beautiful. I saw the sunrise between two mountains and then traveled through the brightly colored mountains into the desert. I passed by a few small towns located along the road that were tucked into the side of the mountains and then arrived at Salinas Grandes (the salt lakes). When I first saw them I was looking out my side window at them (and stupidly not looking ahead of the car) and I ran into a big chunk of soft sand. So of course the car got stuck in the sand and I had to get out and I started trying to dig the car out. I was calculating the amount of time that my water would last me and how long it would take for someone to find me when luckily a man drove by and got the car out for me. I continued on to a bridge that looked over Salinas Grandes and got out and tasted the salt. From there I drove over more mountains and along a beautiful canyon that led to the town of Pumarca. Pumarca is one of the towns in the UNESCO World Heritage site. It is located in "The Seven Color Hill" which is a mountain that is green, yellow, purple, pink, orange, red, and brown. After passing through Pumarca I went to through Quebrada de Hunahuaca, which is the valley with beautiful colored rock formations along the sides of it to the town of Hunahuaca. Hunahuaca is a town that has many native crafts and is great for shopping and experiencing local culture. The next day (Saturday) I drove through the jungle and then into the mountains on a windy road that was thousands of feet high to get to the National Park Los Cardones. Which is a National Park created to protect the Cardones cactus. After driving through the National Park (which had a beautiful view of the Andes Mountains) I went to the oldest town in Argentina, Cachi. I left Cachi and planned on continuing my journey and going to Cafayate. However, on my way down the mountain my breaks went out. I had noticed that they sounded like metal on metal all day but I figured I couldn't do anything about it out in the middle of nowhere. When my breaks went out I put the car into first gear and grabbed the emergency break. My car skidded to the side and one wheel went over the edge on the mountain. I was really really shaken up at this point and had to drive the car down the mountain in first gear. (It was a beautiful drive though). When I got to the bottom of the mountain my tire exploded. I wasn't strong enough to change it so finally a German man drove by and changed it for me. While he was changing it he looked at my breaks and told me that I didn't have any breaks left and that the tires on my car were so old that you could see the inner layer of the tire. At this point I was just plain mad. I couldn't go to Cafayate as I had planned and the company had sold me a car that had no breaks and bad tires knowing I was going into the mountains. I drove back to Salta and reported the company to the tourist police. The police accompanied me to the car company and I used all of my angry Spanish words that I knew on them. They apologized and refunded me all of my money. The next day I hired a guide to take me to Cafayate and we drove through a beautiful canyon and then went to a few vineyards and tasted some Torrontes wine (which is the famous wine of the region). It was a very relaxing day and quite nice after the adventurous days I had experienced before. Overall the weekend was absolutely amazing. I am very happy that I rented a car because I was able to stop whenever I wanted to explore and take pictures. It was really a very nice individual experience.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The sights in Italy

Anastasia arrived in Milan midday and thought she had lots of time to make it by rail to the small town of Dorf Tirol, Italy. If only she’d known of the railway system there, she’d have thought again! Anastasia made it to Merano, the city below Dorf Tirol, at around 11:00pm, when there were no more buses. (Yes, “below,” since there may be mountains in places away from Richardson!) Luckily, she ran into some friendly teenagers who offered to find her a cab, and not having found one gave her a lift in one’s car. Kaitlin had been worried out of her mind waiting for Anastasia to arrive that day. Bryan's arrival the day before was much less eventful, arriving in Milan early in the morning and managing to find his way to the castle after 10 hours of train rides and buses.

The castle “Schloss Brunnenberg” looks absolutely gorgeous, in all truthfulness: it’s situated in a valley on the side of a lushly planted hill, a vineyard covering the steep hills with vividly green, neat rows of grape bushes. The rooms in the students’ habitation, “The Croft,” are wooden with wooden stairs and wooden beds, ours being the smallest since we arrived late. The rooms are high up against the fold of the roof, with a slanted ceiling and box mattress bed. Gina, the donkey brays loudly in the mornings, and we go down to the kitchen for our breakfast supply of fresh bread, rich yogurt, eggs, and sweet juice. Gina wakes everyone up and can easily be heard echoing across the valley, so this weekend she's getting a companion which will hopefully keep her quiet and allow people to sleep more in the mornings. For those interested in accommodations, there is wireless Internet up across the courtyard, through the squeaky wood and metal door, and up the slippery, stone, spiral staircase in Ezra Pound’s personal library, a catwalk suspended above the museum room downstairs, which is open to the public.

Sizzo (Mary de Rachewiltz's son) and his wife, Brigitte, maintain the farm with their sons running the vineyard, and Brigitte cooks lunch for everyone at the castle each day during the week. These meals are lavish and filling, easily the highlight of each weekday. Everyone always is curious about what delights will be served to us, and what dessert will follow. The students have their own kitchen for cooking breakfast and dinner, though it is rarely used for large meals since everyone is always full from lunch. Laundry is provided as long as you can hang your own clothes on the clothes line.

Last weekend, Anastasia traveled with three other students to Venice, the city of bridges, canals, gondolas, and Carnival masks. For those with a weakness for souvenirs, there will be no end of lavishly artistic masks, beautiful and historically renowned colorful Venetian glass jewelry, and very expensive leather-bound blank books. For those more interested in the historical arts, Anastasia highly recommends the Piazzo di San Marco, which featured the most beautiful thing she saw in all of Venice – a view of the outside of the Basilica. Wading barefoot across a flooded ancient plaza towards a richly gilded church, which was decorated with mosaic and statues like an intricate lace napkin, was striking. For the more modern at heart, there may be the famous Biennale, an international festival of art inside a park reserved especially for that purpose, the Gardini Biennale.

Bryan, having been to Italy before, elected to spend his time studying the local region of Tyrol instead of seeing the same sights again in the famous museums. He has found no shortage of information. He and Anastasia also took a walk up one of the mountain trails, which for someone in shape takes about 4 hours. Being completely out of shape neither of us made it more than half way up, where we stopped to have lunch before heading back down, but there was still a gorgeous view of both Dorf Tirol and Meran along the way.

The class is interesting, though there is a lot of reading. We are in class for two hours each day, and one can spend anywhere from 4 to 6 hours reading for the next, depending on how fast you can read. Each day we have a group discussion over the reading to refresh the content in our memories and ensure that everyone is on the same page before a daily quiz.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lovin' China #2

The program took us on a day-trip of Suzhou, only 2 hours away from

Shanghai by bus. We tasted a bit of history with a boat tour of the

Grand Canal, and saw the xiaoqiaoliushui (quaint houses and scenic

views) depicted by famous paintings and newspaper articles we’ve read

in Chinese class. We strolled through the Suzhou Museum, a design of

I.M. Pei, and from there walked to the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

What I loved more than anything else was the visit to a silk factory

(it’s a little nerdy, I know, but you’re talking to the person who went

to Japan to see the Toyota plant and was awed by the efficiency of

conveyor sushi restaurants). The factory conducted a tour showing us

first the silk worms on their mulberry leaves, then their silk cocoons,

followed by the boiling process and finally the method by which

machines, with the aid of workers, plaited 8 silk stands to make silk

thread. Reflecting on the trip later, I was amazed that we are still

able to drift on a canal that has been functional for over a millennium

and witness the silk production, a process that has been continuously

refined since the BC’s.

Lovin' China #1

East China Normal University is absolutely gorgeous! There are two small creeks, inundated with lotus flowers in full blossom, that across campus with trees and benches lining both banks. Students often climb the low bush trees to pick waxberries that are just beginning to ripen.

There’s something about the university that is identifiably Chinese, that is, aside from the 20 feet statue of Chairman Mao keeping watch at the center of campus. It could be the stone bridges and stone tables, or the badminton players and the elderly practicing Taichi. The back gate comes alive at night. Both sides of the street is filled up with food vendors selling fried noodles, Chinese style BBQ and crawfish along with xiaotans (excuse the Chinglish) of sunglasses, hats and clothes. On weekends, the park that is close by also fills up with children flying kites, Chinese opera singers accompanied by erhu players and students attending all sorts of dance classes. Amidst the business and international atmosphere that stereotypes Shanghai, there is in fact, still many aspects of traditional culture that can be found.