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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.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Christina savors the French! Experience, Family and Food

I passed three McDonald’s on my way to school this morning. In one of the oldest cities in France, home to Joan of Arc’s miraculous triumph during the Hundred Years’ War, and a Gothic cathedral, I still cannot escape America and our global influence. Yet, upon visiting at the Golden Arches (which yes, I have done a few times… just for the free Wi-Fi, naturally!) I realize it’s not the same as home. Whereas I would consider McDonald’s at home a cheap, quick, guilty meal on the go, that’s not its place in France. For one thing, everything is twice as expensive. Most of the customers are thin, come with friends, and sit down for a leisurely meal. As I have spent nearly four months here I have realized that some things are universal, even if they do not appear so on the surface, while others look the same but reveal slight differences upon closer inspection.

Living with a family has been the best decision I made for my time in France. At school I am studying French with other foreign students, which has been an awesome experience, but it’s important to speak on a daily basis with natives as well. Observing the family dynamics, eating typical meals, and being able to ask questions to my heart’s content has definitely been a huge aid to my understanding and cultural immersion. And if you’ve ever had a six-year-old French girl come up and knock on your door to say “umm… dinner!” you know how absolutely adorable and irreplaceable it is.

Swimming with Sharks

I have been in South Africa for almost 4 weeks, most of which have been spent working with great white sharks. I was in Cape Town for the first week, exploring the city and adjusting to the country, and then traveled to Gansbaai, where I have been for the past three weeks. So far I’ve done everything from watching the sunset from Table Mountain to visiting the point where two oceans meet to hand feeding giant bull rays to cage diving with great whites. Overall, my time in South Africa has been great. In fact, I’m already planning when I’m coming back. I’m hoping to go cage diving again next summer (the South African winter), which is when the shark activity is the best. There’s also a lot in Cape Town and the surrounding area that I didn’t get to do because I ran out of time.

South Africa is very different from what I imagined it to be but not in a bad way. The atmosphere in the Western Cape is very laidback, especially in the small fishing villages. Things have to get done, but there’s not the extreme pressure you find in the States. Ever since I arrived in Gansbaai, I’ve practically lived without a schedule. The only time commitments I’ve had are preparing the boat and launching. Otherwise, I can’t tell you what day or time it is. If I get back to the house in the afternoon and decide I’m tired, I take a nap. Yet, I don’t set an alarm; I just wake up when I feel like it. To be fair, though, I do have to get up at 5:30 every morning, including weekends.

However, I would get up at any time of day if it meant being out on the boat with the sharks. They’re such amazing creatures. Whatever myths have been created over the years, whether from the movie JAWS or the media, are so far from the truth, it’s ridiculous. My very first day on the boat, I could already tell they weren’t the mindless killers most people believe them to be. In fact, they’re extremely intelligent and graceful, and each has its own personality. Some will cautiously circle the boat and then disappear, showing absolutely no interest in the bait or cage. Others are very curious, coming right up to the boat, and will pop their heads out of the water to look at the people onboard or bite the cage and motors to try to determine what they are. And when the shark looks you in the eye, you can tell it sees you. There was one particular time where I was sitting at the back of the boat, leaning over the side, when a small great white stuck its head out and looked me straight in the eye. I was so memorized by it that I completely forgot about my camera in my pocket. Besides them poking out their heads, the other way to get that personal interaction is to get into the cage. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about getting in. Like everyone else, I’ve seen the videos of the sharks breaking the cage, and you can’t watch something like that and not have a bit of fear in the back of your mind. But, once I got over my apprehension, I absolutely loved being in it. Seeing the sharks swimming in their natural environment and knowing that at any point you can literally be surrounded by great whites is exhilarating. When they swim by the cage, you see them looking at you, trying to decipher what you are. Occasionally, they do bump and bite the cage, but it’s not an attack, more like an investigation. They really are quite fascinating!

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the beauty of these creatures. Most focus on the negative aspects, particularly the media. A few weeks ago there was a fatal shark attack in Fish Hoek, a small village about 30 minutes from Cape Town. I happened to have been there that day, but I left before the attack occurred. While I was there, though, I stopped to talk with one of the shark spotters, and mid-conversation he received a call saying a 4-5 meter shark had been seen in the area. It is believed that same shark later killed and devoured a swimmer in chest deep water. I’m not saying that the attack was a good thing; on the contrary, I wish the attack hadn’t happened. However, it was the media’s response that was brutal. At first, they focused on the facts, stating how the attack occurred and what responses were executed. Yet, papers weren’t selling as much as was preferred, so they began exaggerating the attack, claiming it was a coldblooded, 5 ton, dinosaur-size killer who launched the man up in the air before dragging him down to his death. For starters, great whites don’t weigh more than 2 tons and they definitely aren’t dinosaur-size. Moreover, if the man was chest deep in the water, it’s not physically possible for the shark to have launched him in the air. That only happens when they breach, and the sharks have to be in much deeper water to do that. Yet, the media doesn’t care; they’re more concerned with obtaining attention grabbing headlines than presenting the facts. As a result, the already damaged reputation of the great white shark and all sharks in general, faces the possibility of even more destruction.

Sadly, I only have two days left in Gansbaai; I leave for Nice, France on Saturday. If I could do my study abroad planning all over again, I would spend at least another month here, maybe two. I really enjoy being with the sharks, and my time here has been well above my expectations. Yet, I still have one goal left…touch a great white shark. Guess I have two more days to try!

Gansbaai, South Africa
Thursday, February 04, 2010

Samia experiences Egypt!

Day Two: January 4, 2010
Sitting on the sleeper train to Aswan, about to go to bed
Today was my second day in Egypt, but the first day I was able to really see anything since I spent yesterday driving in from the airport, unpacking, and meeting the others in my group. I’m participating in a 2-week program through George Mason University, taking a class entitled “Representing Egypt: Tradition, Modernity, and Globalization”. We are going to be traveling through Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, Sharm El-Sheikh, and other cities – I’m so excited! I’ve heard so much about Egypt and its rich history and culture from my friends who have studied here. Today was a great first day. After eating breakfast and checking out of the Amarante Pyramids hotel, we went straight to visit the Great Pyramids – the last of the remaining Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. From there, we visited the largest and oldest sphinx in Egypt, a papyrus workshop, and the Egyptian Museum to view King Tutankhamen’s treasures and the Royal Mummies. We’re now on the 8-hour sleeper train to Aswan.

Every experience here seems to take me back to my time in Jordan last summer. Seeing the sings in Arabic along the roads and watching women bustle about in hijabs has again given me that feeling of belonging in a place I’ve never been to. Though I am South Asian, I immediately feel at home in Arab culture – or at least I feel a different sense of belonging than I do at home in the U.S. Having an Egyptian name and skin tone helps as well when I am relating with locals – though they have mainly been relentless and flirty souvenir vendors.
Our tour guide, Rody, is an amiable and clever Egyptian man who is quick to quip about his wife and how skinny he is to make us laugh and have a good time. All along, people have told me Egyptians are the “best” Arabs because of their easy charm, which I am finding a fair amount of evidence for.

I am not sure what I expected to see or feel when I visited the pyramids and the sphinx, but I was left with an unsatisfied feeling for some reason. While seeing these wonders and learning of their histories from Rody’s extensive knowledge was special, I feel the hype behind these structures made me expect something even more breathtaking. Now that I have seen them in person, I find myself noticing how camera angles depict the pyramids and the sphinx in billboards and advertisements, and how these angles add to the seeming grandeur and perhaps inflate expectations. Regardless, these structures are obviously very impressive – and now I can check something big off my life’s to-do list!
The Egyptian Museum was filled with innumerable treasures, which both heightened my senses and made me feel that something was lost. The artifacts were not well taken care of, with shabby glass cases and very low lighting, let alone temperature control or careful retouching. The pieces I found most interesting were Tutankhamun’s gold and jewel clothing, as well as his condom made of chicken skin. The latter object will likely be a point of discussion once I return to the states!

An Evening in the City

After leaving the beaches, we left to explore the rest of the city center and the surrounding area. Although the consistent tone of grey was soothing, the occasional display of color was truly vibrant and beautiful, as with the trees lining the street below.

An amusing oddity we found while walking the streets. Indeed, the city had a quality of timelessness.

We walked northward out of the historical center and into the city proper. We found another beach (a sandy one) and explored it for a while, enjoying the trees and vegetation of the area that was lacking at the previous rocky beaches. After exploring some mostly bland government buildings, we stopped to relax at a park we found that had a crafts fair and nearby playground. We explored the various souvenirs and trinkets offered at the crafts fair, but had much more fun releasing our inner children and playing on the playground equipment that was much more fun than playground equipment found in the United States (probably due to looser safety regulations).
Finally, the sun began to set, and we headed back towards the Buquebus. But first, we stopped again at the rocky beaches we so enjoyed earlier in the day. The wind was even stronger and the cold more frigid, but the grey had been penetrated by a slight pink that darkened to red along the horizon, the departing light of the setting sun. We again sat and reflected on our very peaceful and relaxing day in Colonia, Uruguay. Whatever personal revelations we extracted from the solitude of the rocks and waves were unknown, but it was unspoken and agreed that the day had been well spent.

The charming cobblestone streets at dusk.

We explored the now darkened and completely empty historic center before heading back towards the Buquebus. The walls of the city were dark and ominous and the sky and ocean now melded into black. We explored the actual city streets on the way back to the ferry and found them populated with many people, brimming with a strange vitality that had been missing during the day. After buying some good ice cream (although not as good as Argentine ice cream), we boarded the Buquebus, just in time before heavy storms began to pound our ship, and headed back towards the lights and noises of Buenos Aires.

This blog post was written by Martin Huynh, Thomas Krenik, and Brian Van Eimeren. Fellow UTD and Collegium V Honors students Lisa Keylon and Angie Johnston graciously donated some of the photos.

Control of the Wall!

At last, we had control of the wall and its powerful artillery systems, such as the plugged and unloaded cannon along the wall near the gate.

The (unloaded) cannon actually pointed in the general direction of the Buquebus ferry, so the ferry’s destruction would have prevented us from getting home in time for dinner, which would have been most inconvenient.

Nevertheless, we had an excellent view of the historic city center and planned our next objectives.

From the view which we had from the top of the city wall, we observed that most the buildings were built in a very picturesque and rustic colonial style. Trees were plentiful and the cobblestone streets were calm. But, the lighthouse was immediately distinctive and became our next objective.

After wandering the lovely streets of our new city and paying the heavy price of a dozen or pesos to conquer the lighthouse, we ascended our cold, windy, and now rainy, tower of power.

After descending the lighthouse, we wandered over the rocky beaches of the city. It was there that the wind was most powerful and the light rain was augmented by the flying mist from the crashing waves. It was there that we most enjoyed ourselves, playing around on the rocks, or just sitting in tranquility and reflecting peacefully. It was here that the monochromatic beauty of the city and weather was most visible. The city behind us was slightly faded and the fog dampened its relative abundance of colors. It was here on the rocks that we spent a significant portion of our time in the morning and later in the evening, playing among the rocks and waves as the grey sky and ocean melded into infinity behind us.

Brian stepping between the rocks in the many tidal pools like a god crossing continents.

Thomas relaxing on the rocks with a primal scream.
The island in the background remained unconquered.

Martin, Thomas, and Brian bravely scale the ruined and gently inclined walls of Colonia

We were not able to scale the walls, but it was still morning and we were still envigored with our noble goal of conquering a peaceful historic town center in the most inefficient manner possible.

Still outside of the city, we noticed that the wall of the city was not entirely flat into the moat, but had a ledge that surrounded the wall along the moat. Stealthily journeying across the perilously dry and moss-covered moat, we walked along the edge of the city wall to a portion of the ledge that faced the ocean. Conveniently, this portion of the wall had been destroyed and was replaced two park benches (clearly meant for city guards but instead occupied by resting tourists) that faced the grey ocean. With the wall damaged, the city was open for us to enter as conquering tourists. Nevertheless, we decided to climb the wall anyways to gain critical information about our surroundings that multiple brochures, maps, and large information boards were unable to provide.

McDermotts conquer Colonia

After experiencing and channeling the frenzied fervor of the match, and returning home to a particularly welcome midnight meal of spaghetti with vodka cream sauce (I had four bowls), the rest of the weekend was a peaceful sojourn across the Rio de la Plata to Argentina’s neighbor Uruguay.
On Saturday morning, we awoke to fog, cloud, and mist and made our way to the Buquebus ferry terminal, armed with tickets bought from the previous day, and a desire to have a relaxing weekend after a week of class and the aforementioned football match. The ferry terminal was a beautiful modern building of a blue and yellow interior with modern fixtures that, in conjunction with the sleek enclosed gangway, augmented the terminal’s resemblance to a futuristic spaceport that put most airports to shame. Indeed, once onboard, our collective desire to sleep was repeatedly denied by the incessant Buquebus jingle that vaguely resembled the theme song of Futurama.
After a smooth and fast hour-long journey across the Rio de La Plata, we arrived in Uruguay at the creatively named colonial town of Colonia. Its complete name is Colonia del Sacramento, but we all found the directness of the name amusing. Our main goal was to visit the historic town center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its picturesque cobblestone streets and historic buildings surrounded by the remains of the old fort that defended the city.
Walking towards the town center, we couldn’t help but notice the tranquility of the surrounding atmosphere. It was windy and cloudy, but gentle and not oppressive. There was a calm beauty within the tone of grey that seemed to cover all that we could see. True, the ferry had just unloaded a horde of tourists looking to escape the bustle of Buenos Aires, but they all slowly spread throughout the historic center and the surrounding city, so we were not alone in our relaxing exploration, but neither were we overwhelmed by the typical crowds.
With the help of the many convenient information boards scattered throughout the city, we learned that Colonia was originally founded by the Portuguese. But Colonia was then conquered by the Spanish and then wrestled back and forth repeatedly between the hands of the Portuguese, the Spanish, and even the Brazilians for a few years, before finally ending up in the ownership of an independent Uruguay.
Eyeing the well preserved gate and wall that once defended the city, we naturally saw ourselves, the Eugene McDermott Scholars, as worthy successors in the long lineage of those who conquered the fort of Colonia.
The gate was already lowered – clearly, this city didn’t take its defense very seriously – for less valiant tourists, but we decided that the best route to enter the city was to scale the walls…of the lowered gate.

A Flag Among Many (after Goal)

The loyal followers of this blog may be aware that a sizeable group of the eternally intrepid 2008 Scholars spent this past June in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Aside from the daily language and culture classes, weekends were reserved for personal travel and exploration, for exploring the constant vibrancy of Buenos Aires, or for adventurous excursions beyond the Paris of the South.
The weekend of June 19th through the 21st was of particular contrast. After classes ended for the week on Thursday, we attended a football match in the nearby city of La Plata between Los Estudiantes de La Plata and Uruguay’s Defensor Sporting club, and experienced (and at times participated in) an ardent passion that’s better depicted with sight and sound than with words.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdQHirOycqs Somewhere in that video was a bunch of crazy American college students assimilated into the fiercely joyous mob.