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

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

¡Pura Vida! says Alice!

Some education takes long hours of study and sleepless nights before an exam, another kind feels as easy as breathing. Learning Spanish in Costa Rica is most certainly the latter. My classes teach me the mechanics and vocabulary of Spanish, but living, traveling, and socializing with Ticos (Costa Ricans) allows my brain to breath in Spanish.

The majority of my time is spent in San Jose where I study at Veritas University (the exact opposite of UTD: art, language, and architecture are this school's strengths and it is common to see classes painting outside). I also live with a wonderful host family a short, though hilly walk from the university. Like any big city, San Jose is crowded with people and traffic and most Costa Ricans don't really like it. I enjoy calling San Jose my home base because there are buses to every part of the country. Since the entire country of Costa Rica can fit within Texas seven times, most beaches and volcanoes are within a five hour bus ride.

For my first three weekends the program I am in arranged excursions to Tamarindo, Arenal, and Manuel Antonio. These two beaches on the Pacific, Tamarindo and Manuel Antonio, are beautiful and have nearby national parks that protect some of the abundant wildlife of the country. Volcano Arenal is the most active volcano in Costa Rica and I was able to hike as close as people are allowed in order to take a Woosh picture. The clouds cover most of the volcano, but you can make out a faint outline. By the way the country is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and I felt my first earth tremor during my first week abroad. The area around Arenal has spectacular waterfalls and hot springs that were quite enjoyable.

After my first month of Spanish classes came to a close I traveled around the country for a week making a slingshot route from the Caribbean Sea to the mountains of Monteverde to the Pacific of Playa Sámara.

On the Caribbean coast the language Patwa, a Creole English-based language, is widely spoken. One vendor in Puerto Viejo explained how some of the words are formed from a mix of English words. It is really fun to listen to, but is incomprehensible even to an English speaker.

Making my way back through the volcanoes outside of San Jose, I enjoyed a tour of a coffee company called Cafe Britt. Much of the monetary system of Costa Rica was formed from coffee trade, and after independence the government directly subsidized farmers to grow the college students' fuel. Illegal drugs may be smuggled through Costa Rica, but there is plenty of caffeine here to supply my legal addiction. The high altitude and volcanic minerals make this coffee delicious.

Traveling to the mountains of Monteverde and hiking the cloud forest of Santa Elena and then catching some waves (yes, this Texan has learned the basics of surfing!) in the most tranquil beach town of Playa Sámara was super fun because I could travel on the public buses and get away from the gringos of the group in the officially planned excursions.

Now that I am comfortable with traveling around the country (which was much easier to learn than in Ghana) I am excited about my upcoming month of continuing Spanish at Veritas University and then taking my knowledge on the road to some other beautiful places in Costa Rica.

Hola from the Amazon Basin! ~ Emily

I just got back from five days of exploring the amazon rainforest in the northern part of Peru around the city of Iquitos. I had an absolutely amazing time and learned tons about the culture of the indigenous people in the rainforest and the habitat itself. I saw a bunch of different animals, including five different species of monkeys, a sloth, a tarantula, a huge bull frog, parrots, and gray and pink dolphins. The natives are scared of the pink dolphins because they think that if you swim alone with them the dolphins will take you and turn you into a dolphin. They also have an ancient legend about the pink dolphins which involves the dolphins turning into men at night and impregnating all of the virgin women. One of my favorite activities that I participated in while in the jungle is parana fishing. I caught two paranas and then cooked them and ate them with dinner. While fishing we also found an anaconda and with the guide´s help we were able to hold it!

Erich gains insights into self discovery!

So far so good. That was the prevailing mentality that I had during my three week long travels in Europe as it was usually one of the first thoughts to enter my head. It was not that I was convinced that something terrible was going to befall me, but I was definitely concerned with the possibility. Fortunately nothing bad would occur and the entire trip was the experience of a lifetime. During my eight country journey I have been fortunate enough to walk where giants have, witnessed the view from what used to be the top of the world, and even seen the most famous woman that has ever graced this planet. Also I have witnessed the less appealing aspects of history that include the remains of our own destructive bombs, an entire camp entirely devoted to torture and death, and a wall that once divided not only a nation, but a world.

However, even with the enormous amount of new experiences I was having, I still was learning as much about myself as the outside world. Just like learning new things about other people, it is exciting learning aspects about yourself that you did not know, but at the same time it is disturbing to realize how little you know about someone you have spent every second of your entire life with. It may be funny to learn something about myself such as the fact that I have trouble sleeping with other people snoring even though I snore extremely loud myself. Other things, such as my discomfort with spending time with only myself for company, are a little more revealing about the shallow depth in which I have explored my own person. So while my physical journey has now ended as I have arrived in Salamanca, I will continue to explore the beautiful and foreign culture all around me, as well as the one within me. I may not be far, but so far so good.

Jake goes to Europe!

Check out Jake's Travels at his blog!

Lessons learned from Mac

A few months ago the last Canadian veteran from the First World War passed away and this will soon be the case with all the veterans from the Second World War. As these living testaments to the war effort continue to disappear it is growing more important to investigate the ways in which we memorialize the sacrifices of all those who fought for freedom. I have seen how the Canadian war effort is memorialized in Canada, where almost every small town has a monument dedicated to those who did not come back from their time in the war. What I had no idea about is how these soldiers are remember in the place where they died fighting for their country. As such have been travelling for the last month from memorial site to memorial site and documenting how these young men are remembered overseas.

Throughout this trip I have been finding the graves of each of the 120 men from my hometown who served in the Army during WWII and who died in the war. I have also been leaving a small poppy, which is a symbol of remembrance in Canada, at the grave of each of these men. This has been an intense journey so far and I have been to over 20 different memorial locations. In this location I have not only found over 100 of the men from my hometown who died but saw over 50,000 graves and memorials to those who fell in the war. It would be impossible to recount everything that I have experienced but here are a few snapshots from my trip so far.
Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery

Well today was the worst day of the trip so far, until the last 3 hours, which have made it the best day so far, or at least countered all the bad to bring it back to a neutral day.

So I began the day in Bielefeld, and took 3 trains to get to Arnhem. The second and longest train I had to stand the entire way because there was no other spot for me.Okay, standing for an hour and a half with 45 pounds on my back sounds awful, but it was only mildly uncomfortable due to the epic awesomeness that is my back pack. So then the train from Arnhem to Nijmegen is cancelled for the next few weeks so I have to take a bus. A bus that takes 2 hours to go the 20 km to Nijmegen. Okay I can deal with that I have some nice scenery to look at.

But then I get to Nijmegen and there is some sort of convention going on, and so every hotel is booked. Believe me, I checked, which means walking for an hour and a half all over town (with my backpack) to talk to every hotel, even bed in breakfasts.

So I resign myself to just visiting the memorial location and then taking a train to another city to stay the night. After getting information from the tourist information booth, I get on another bus, for another hour, as it winds it way through small towns and eventually dumps me near a museum. So I take a guess based on my impeccable sense of direction, which has served me remarkably well so far, and start walking. Nearly 10 minutes later, I find my first sign. Aha! I guessed right. Well then I continue walking and it turns out this sign deals with distances a car would be experiencing. Half an hour later, and I am still walking. Keep in mind this is the fifth or sixth hour with my backpack on and kilometer 15 or 20 that I have walked, and the charm is starting to wear off.

And now for the good part. I arrive at Groesbeek and this is the largest and nicest memorial I have been to thus far. All of a sudden I remembered the reason I was here. It wasn’t to get angry at trains or hotels, it was to visit these sites and see how the soldiers from my hometown are remembered.

This war cemetery has over 2000 graves and is home to 16 fallen soldiers from my hometown. At first I had the impression that there was a lot of graves, but I didn’t really get a sense of it before I began walking around and finding each individual. There are an incredible amount of graves, and even walking amongst them doesn’t give you the sense of scale. It isn’t until you start going through and trying to find certain people that you realize just how many grave you are walking past. For each person that I found, I was walking past over a hundred other graves. The sheer number of graves was astounding, and I know that this isn’t the largest commonwealth grave location nor is it the only. Saying the words “there are 2000 people in this cemetery” doesn’t really convey how many people that is.

As I was leaving, an older man with two children asked me what I was placing on the graves. I explained what the poppy symbolizes to the people of Canada, and gave a poppy to him and each of his daughters. We got to talking about what I was doing (his English was very limited but we eventually got it figured out) and he was so impressed he offered me a ride back to town rather than take the bus. I took it a while and while we were driving we talked about why he came to the memorial and why he brought his daughters each year. He ended up even offering me a place to stay for the night, which I declined, but it meant a lot to me to see just how much it meant to this Dutch man what I was doing. He spoke about how grateful everyone in the town still was and the celebrations they have at the beginning of May to commemorate the end of the war and the sacrifices made.

I then got on a train and arrived in ‘s-Hertogenbosch( I have no idea how to say that) and found the only hotel in the entire town. It was a bit expensive, but it was the last room in town, and there is an incredible jazz festival going on here all night long. Did I mention it was named the best hotel in Europe in 2000. That’s pretty amazing for the price I got.

I learned an important lesson today: know when to plan ahead. I went into this with the idea that I would just wing it and find places to sleep and things to do right then and there. But I know realize that there is a time and place to plan ahead, particularly weekends, but that you still shouldn’t block out each timeslot of the entire trip. If I had planned everything to a T, I never would be here listening to dueling saxophones while drinking cappuchino and a ball of whipped cream, and chocolate.

Juno Beach D-Day Remembrance Ceremony
The Juno Center is a private museum that is run independent of the Canadian government, but it is the only monument to Juno beach. The building itself is spectacular. It is designed in a very modern style and really stands out against the rest of the scenery without being garish or awkward looking. The exhibits and museum itself are also incredible. Even though I have spent a while studying WWII history, and from a Canadian perspective too, I learned a ton by visiting this museum. I suppose one of the greatest benefits of the museum forming so recently is it has a very modern take on the war and its effects. Yes there are the original documents, uniform and pictures on display, but a major part of the museum is describing how the war impacted the Canada we live in today, and even a large section to teach non-Canadians(and even some Canadians, I’m looking at you Toronto People) what Canada is like today.

One surprising part of the ceremony was how few veterans there were present. Only 3 or 4 veterans from Canada and maybe 10 veterans from France were in attendance. Now I know that it is a long way to come just for a ceremony, but I would have thought that more would be here. Still, though we honor them, the important part is that the current generation remembers the sacrifice they made, and in terms of that this ceremony was a huge success, with maybe 200 or more “young people” in attendance.

The highlight of today was being in attendance for the 61st anniversary of the D-Day landings. There were moving speeches and the laying of wreaths in remembrance, but the most important part of the whole ceremony was the fact that we were standing right on the beach where 1200 soldiers lost their lives on this day, and that was only on this one beachhead. Until this point I had only been to memorial locations which commemorated those who lost their lives, not to the actual location they lost their lives. Most people have seen Hollywood depictions of D-Day or have read historical accounts of what happened here, but it is entirely different actually being in the place where these men lost their lives. It is one this to hear “The water was read with blood” and visualize it but is an entirely different experience to walk in that water and on the beach that these men gave their lives to take.

Brady sends greetings from Singapore!

Greetings from Singapore, to all my McDermott family!

I've only been here in Singapore one night, but I think I'm going to love it here -- they seem to have an appreciation for the finer things in life, namely free WiFi, cheap homemade food, and Toy Story 3. I just had a S$2.20 homemade Chinese supper -- that's about $1.57 USD!

Before Singapore, I spent 16 days in Tokyo, 13 of which with the UTD class Lang 2342 with Dr. Yuki Watanabe. It was amazing. Watanabe-Sensei knows Tokyo very well, and had some exclusive connections. We got to meet Dai Sato at his home in Tokyo, who wrote the story for several anime and video games, such as Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex, Samurai Champloo, and contributed to Halo: Legends. We also viewed the taping of an episode of Science Zero, a science talk show on NHK Educational Network, a show that doesn't usually allow an audience.

I've had a lot of fun, but my main goal was to learn about the differences in communication technology in the countries I'm visiting. In Tokyo, for instance, I learned that two popular technologies in America, public WiFi and SMS (text service) just aren't as important in Japan. At first I thought this was breaking the American perception of Japan -- aren't they technologically superior? It turns out they're just technologically different in this sense -- 3G is so widespread and reliable, even in the subway tunnels, that if a Japanese person wants to access the internet while outside of their home, they'll just use their phone (since virtually every active phone is internet enabled). And instead of using the SMS system we're used to, every Japanese cell phone has its own email address, and since the internet is enabled on just about every phone anyway, everyone just emails each other's phones. The students we met had no distinction between emailing a phone and "texting" a friend.

I miss everyone, and hope everyone's travels, studies, and work are going as well as my trip has so far. Here are a couple pictures of me in Tokyo.

Here I am at Tsukiji Shijo, the largest seafood market in the world, standing next to possibly the largest seafood knife in the world. To be sure, that blade is touching the ground, and I'm 6'0". They use that knife to cut through the 650 lb tunas that frequently come through the market.

This is most of our class (there were 7 of us total, one girl was fighting with a finicky ATM at the moment) in front of the famous Kaminarimon, the torii gate that leads to Sensoji, one of the most popular temples in Japan. The lantern in the background weighs roughly 1,500 lbs. I did not know that before I took my time walking under it.

Dionna's favorite museum...so far...

With exterior of a castle that hasn’t been kept in the best condition, at first glance the Family of Man Museum seems like an attempt to attract tourists to the small quiet town of Clervaux. Entering the corridor that functions as a lobby as well as the museum store does not eliminate the doubts the viewer has about this museum. Then, once inside the exhibition it begins to make sense why over nine million people have viewed this exhibition and why thirty-eight countries have showcased this collection of art. The exhibition not only shows “the universality of the human experience” as the curator, Edward Steichen, had intended, but it takes the viewer into the lives of each and every person in the photographs. At least, that was the experience I had. If anyone travels to Europe, I feel like this exhibition is a must see. It really just shows life as it applies to every being on this earth. I can’t even truly explain in words the way this exhibition made me feel. Family of Man is my favorite museum in my trip so far.

>>Can you spot 2 of her travel mates and fellow McDermotts in the picture?

Christina in Canterbury, England!

I can't believe it's been over a month since I arrived in Canterbury, England. The time has passed so quickly and I am already dreading the
end of my stay here, even though it is another nearly six weeks away.
Living in Canterbury is amazing. I am staying in the top flat of what used to be an old wool mill right near the Westgate Towers of the City Centre. From my balcony I can see the famous Canterbury Cathedral and the medieval West Gate, reminding me every day that I'm not in Texas anymore. Traveling around Kent, I have gotten to walk through country fields (recreating Pride and Prejudice in my mind and fancying myself Elizabeth Bennett), visit the seaside at Whitstable, visit the beautiful grounds of Leeds Castle, and go to a barbecue at a country cottage while dozens of sheep looked on.

It's really neat to be immersed in so much history and tradition.
Visiting the Cathedral or a castle and hearing stories of what has taken place here over the centuries is a bit different from my surroundings in Richardson. Being here during the World Cup has also been fun because everyone is so passionate about it. Listening to a cab driver complain about the teams performance and a woman bartender at a pub yelling at a falling player to get up and stop whining were amusing peeks into the culture here. Now it's time for me to get back to work, but at least I will be able to enjoy the beautiful view of Canterbury from the University!

Greatings from Sevilla!

I have been in Europe now for about a month and a half, and it has been so much fun! Getting here was a challenge, since I chose to fly in and out of Dublin, even though my final destination was Spain. Ash cloud, you ask? Surprisingly, I didn't have any issue with the ash cloud, but instead with flights being cancelled over wind-shear in Houston. It took 2 extra days to get on a flight, but I finally made it to Dublin and began a two-and-a-half week whirlwind tour through Europe. Starting in Dublin, I then went to London, Prague, Karlsruhe (where a friend of mine lives), Munich, Berlin and Copenhagen. I spent a max of 3 days in each city, and, due to lost time because of the flight delay, a minimum of a day and a half. Still, each place I visited had some amazing things to enjoy! My favorites were the historic streets of Prague and then renting a bike and riding on the extensive bike-lane network of Copenhagen! A tip for anyone traveling to the more Northern parts of Europe during the summer--just because it's summer doesn't mean it won't be both cold and rainy! I learned the hard way that having a warm, water-proof jacket (or at the very least an umbrella) is vital to being able to enjoy the late-spring/early-summer months.

After the European tour, part I, I ended up in Sevilla. I've finished my first session of classes, during which I took a medical Spanish class and got to visit a local hospital. I'm doing a program with the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies which is only for American students, but we have contact with locals through "intercambios", people who take English classes at the center and want to get to know some American students. I absolutely love the city--it has the feel of an old city while still being metropolitan, as well as being home to the 2nd largest cathedral in all of Europe. Probably the best part about it is to get to be here during the World Cup! Nothing is quite like sitting in a pub with hundreds of locals when Spain wins a game. It's also very lucky that they are doing as well as they are-- they've made it to the quarter finals! Other than that, I've gone on several day or weekend trips around Spain, to Málaga, Córdoba, Doñana to ride horses on the beach, and then a long weekend trip to the Algarve coast of Portugal. I still have another month to go in Spain, then I'll be doing my European tour part II through France and Italy! I definitely recommend that anyone who studies abroad in Europe to plan some extra time into their schedule for travel. Each country, or even city, that I've visited has had a different feel that has been really cool to experience. So far, its been a great trip! I hope everyone back in Dallas and around the world is having as much fun as I am.

A Protestant in a Catholic's World

Spending 5 days in Italy was a phenomenal experience. I could write three paragraphs about the Coliseum or the Pantheon alone. It was the collective experience of the three major Italian cities I visited, Rome, Florence, and Venice that was most interesting. In all three places I had the experience of being a Protestant in a Catholic’s world.

I was raised a Southern Baptist, and still attend an SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) church. My church’s history dates back only a couple of hundred years, and the architecture is even newer. Having attended a Protestant Christian school I learned well my denomination’s criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church. I could recite ten errors in as many seconds that have been engrained in my way of thinking. I couldn’t gain a full appreciation for the Catholic Church, however, until I visited its birthplace.

From opulent cathedrals to statues of saints and mosaics of Christ and the Virgin Mary, Italy has Catholicism covered. The gold and grandeur drove home for me the power that the church wields, and its historical importance in Europe. Despite growing up in a very different Christian denomination, I have begun to appreciate the role Catholicism played historically in the Christian faith. For a thousand years Christian Emperors and Kings not only defended the faith, but guided art and music through the dark ages, until they emerged triumphant during the Renaissance.

The church patronized great artists whose works are on display in Florence, like Botticelli and Michelangelo. They commissioned cathedrals that stand as the best examples of a multitude architectural styles, like the Byzantine Style embodied in Saint Mark’s in Venice. The Vatican also contributed significantly to maintaining order and stability in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, while Constantinople in the East defended the Christian West from a myriad of invaders for hundreds of years. Without these and many more contributions, Europe and the rest of the world would look very different today.

While I still disagree with some practices of the Catholic Church, I have a renewed respect and gratitude for their tireless effort in defending the Christian Faith, and much of Western Culture as it exists today. I will never forget Italy’s magnificence, nor forget the impact that the Catholic Church has had in shaping that magnificence.