What’s different in Germany?

Hallo Leute! So…it’s been a little over a month now since I arrived in Berlin and during my time here, I’ve noticed some differences between living in Germany, specifically Berlin and the United States.

Grocery Shopping

  • Smaller supermarkets – The supermarkets here are way smaller than in the U.S. (About 8-10 times smaller than the Meijer on 16th Street!)
  • Smaller packaging – The packaging of products such as yoghurt, cereal, and milk are much smaller. You can hardly find family-size packaging here!
  • More sweet snacks – There are more chocolates/sweets than salty snacks.
  • Reusable bags – People here usually bring their own bags to buy groceries. Even when it comes to buying vegetables and fruits, they opt not to put it in the transparent plastic bags that are available.
  • BIO/organic products – In Berlin, one can find a wide variety of organic products. BIO/organic supermarkets and bakeries are commonly found here!
  • Specialized stores – There are more specialized stores here (e.g. butcher shop, bakery).

Food and Beverages

  • Classic mineral water = sparkling water – I didn’t know this until after buying a bottle of classic mineral water thinking it was just plain mineral water. 🙁
Different kinds of sparkling water that I thought were just normal water.
Different kinds of sparkling water that I thought were just normal water.
  • Turkish and Vietnamese restaurants  – There are many of them here! You might wonder, why is that? In 1961, many Turkish people came to Germany when the West German government signed a labor recruitment agreement with Turkey. The reason why there is a huge Vietnamese population here is because many of them fled their country after the Vietnam war. Another reason is because they were invited to East Berlin as temporary contract workers.
  • Vegan and vegetarian cuisines –  There are many vegan and vegetarian restaurants and cafes here. It’s almost like a trend.

Restaurants

  • Tipping – If you want to tip, you have to tell the waiter how much you want to tip before they bring you the bill. Unlike in the U.S., where you write how much you want to tip after the waiter charged your card.
  • Beers cost less – Beers are usually cheaper than water and soda in restaurants. Isn’t that bizarre? Also, I once ordered a coke at a restaurant and it came in a tiny cup! I had to pay 2.5 euros for it too! 🙁
In comparison with Yea Rang's hand
In comparison with Yea Rang’s hand

Everyday Life

  • No dryers – There are no dryers in most German homes! However, I’m used to that since I don’t have a dryer back home in Malaysia.
  • Shower – Not everyone here showers everyday. I feel bad for showering everyday 🙁
  • No shower curtains – German showers usually do not come with a shower curtain 🙁 It was quite hard for me to shower without having the water splashing all over the place.
  • Smoking – A lot of people in Berlin smoke. I was quite surprised to see people of all ages smoking while walking on the streets!
  • 1 hour commute is normal?! – Germans walk, bike, or take the public transport almost anywhere. I complained that I needed to take a 25 minute subway ride to get to the IES center, but a 30 mins – 1 hour commute is normal for people here!
The amount of time it takes for me to get to the IES center from my house!
The amount of time it takes for me to get to the IES center from my house!
  • CASH over credit cards – Many stores and shops here prefer cash over credit cards.

Loire Valley: A Weekend of Castles

One of the cool parts about studying abroad are the class trips. They’re not your typical field trips most of us remember from high school–they’re historical, wonderful, beautiful weekends in places like Loire Valley, Normandy or Versailles.

This past weekend, we went to Loire Valley. It’s a stretch on the Loire River in the center of France, about two-to-three hours south of Paris. We visited three castles: Chenonceau, Castle of Blois, and Chambord. In between castles, we ate French-style meals (so, three courses including dessert) and explored the city we stayed in.

I had never been inside castles before, so I didn’t know what to expect. A friend and I stuck together through them all, and explored every nook and cranny of the mansions. They were regal, and it sparked my sense of childhood wonder. I don’t know anything about princesses. I never wanted to be one, and I still don’t. But, there was something about wandering through endless gardens, winding staircases, small doorways, and queens’ bedrooms that felt truly magical.

We spent the night in Blois, a curious little town that’s been around since the 6th century. The city’s name is pronounced a lot like “blah”, so naturally, that’s what I called it all weekend. It’s survived a lot, and the small cobblestone streets carry its past poetry. The town wasn’t very big, but it had shops, restaurants and old churches (not to mention a castle right in the center!). I loved seeing another part of France and the lifestyle lived there.

The cool part about exploring new towns is also exploring their coffee shops. Whenever I go somewhere, I try to get one cup of local coffee or tea. That way, even if I’m only in a city for three hours, I’ve still experienced a piece of local life (and have talked to one local person…the barista). My friend and I woke up early, ate breakfast, and snuck out for a bit to have an introvert moment with morning tea and reads before heading back to the class trip and castles.

My weekend was filled with wandering, wondering, and fresh air (bye, bye Paris pollution!) through castles in central France. I saw the past in the present, and my only task was to walk through history. I’d definitely do that again.

Chapter 4: The People

The people here in Sevilla will forever be the most memorable part of my time studying abroad. The culture here in Spain is so different than in the United States. It has taken some time getting used to, but these past weeks, I have finally begun to understand how Spaniards think, and how it effects their daily lives.

The first and most accurate way I can describe the people here is much like the phrase: fire and ice. People here are so polar opposites in their actions, emotions and habits, and it creates a pretty unpredictable atmosphere. Even with a weekly routine, I cannot go on living without having a day that is full of surprises.

Spaniards are known for having an active lifestyle. They walk to work, school, and then throughout the city every day and night. They’re always on the move. And, they always look like they’re in a hurry. Emotionally, they are very active too. Their words, body language and lifestyle emit passion and purpose. It was at first intimidating and even overwhelming. But after a while, you learn to respect the emotional outbursts, the fast, intense talking, wild hand gestures and overly affectionate PDA in the park. Life here seems to be cranked up to one hundred, and then doubled for good measure.

All of that being said, the number one motto in Sevilla is, “No pasa nada.” This is essentially the Spanish equivalent of Hakuna Matata. Petty inconveniences and even things that might be perceived as a big deal in the US completely roll off their shoulders. One can get mad in the street for five seconds, only to stop what they’re doing, sit down and enjoy a glass of wine in the warmth of the midday sun. Everybody is late to everything, and nobody seems to mind. Nobody is in a hurry with their careers. They seem to just live a life almost anxiety-free. Their calm and collected attitudes are welcomed counterparts to their fiery and otherwise energetic lifestyle.

A second way to describe the people here is friendly. You can interact and communicate with complete strangers here without issue. They will help you with anything and will treat you like a long-lost friend you haven’t seen in years. They will sit down and get to know you. It does not matter who they are. More importantly, it does not matter who you are. It seems as though social circles were never invented here. Going out at night, the streets are usually packed with people who all speak and interact with one another.

You can learn a lot about life when living in a different culture. You’re looking at the same picture, just from a different angle. It lends new perspective. The people here will forever and always be the best part about Spain. Their patriotism, fiery attitude and love for others is contagious, and I know it will be very hard to say goodbye to them.

WeLoveSpain group picture in Morocco. Trip included study abroad students and Spaniards alike!
WeLoveSpain group picture in Morocco. Trip included study abroad students and Spaniards alike!

Balancing Travel

One thing that has been really different being in Europe compared to being in South America is the travel opportunities. In Europe, it is really easy (and pretty cheap) to travel to a variety of countries within a pretty short timespan. For example, I just returned from being in Istanbul for a long weekend. While I was in Ecuador, the travel was not quite so convenient, often taking a bus was the best option, but could last 7 or 8 hours in travel time, making it less feasible. I also think I was not quite so good at planning while I was in Ecuador, which limited my travel as well.

The Hagia Sophia church.
The Hagia Sophia was definitely worth traveling to see!

This has been a wonderful thing! I love being able to travel to a variety of different places and cultures with only an hour on a plane. However, I think it’s important to note that traveling needs to be balanced with spending time in my host city. After all – I chose to be in Athens for a reason! It’s a beautiful city full of museums, sites, and “hole in the wall” spots to explore. Since I traveled less while staying in Quito, I spent more time in the city, exploring the city center and the surroundings. I am hoping to have the same opportunity in Athens, but realistically I know it will be a little more limited.

A carved marble boat with three figures. It is a headstone in a cemetery, and other graves can be seen in the background.
Exploring your host city is important – in Athens I would say must-see is the cemetery. Headstones are elaborate and marble, like the boat seen here.

The advice given to me by every professor here has been: enjoy traveling, but don’t miss out on Athens. I have friends who are planning to travel every weekend, hoping to see as much of Europe as they can. I respect that, but it’s so important to get to know the city you’re living in.

And, of course, traveling needs to be balanced with work. Study abroad (despite what my family might think when I send them photos) is based on the “study” portion just as much as the “abroad” portion. It can be tempting not to write that essay when the alternative is seeing the Hagia Sofia (that might be the voice of experience), but at the end of the day I still need those credits to graduate.

Orientation

Those of you who are thinking of studying abroad may be wondering the structure of orientation. Personally, I was very nervous about attending the orientation. I was worried about understanding Spanish instructions, making new friends, and actually getting ready for the semester. It has been more than a month since I attended this orientation, but I am going to reflect on one of the first memories I have in Mexico. 

Orientation Day 1 

7am – I am not used to waking up this early, but the rich smell of coffee makes me happy and spoiled. My first breakfast in Mexico was a quesadilla made by my host mother.

Quesadilla with cheese from Oaxaca
Quesadilla with cheese from Oaxaca

8am – Some of the host moms that are hosting students in the same neighborhood had us meet each other so that we can go to the university together. There are six girls – two from Oklahoma, one from Austria, one from South Korea, and another student from Hope! 

The UPAEP Gastronomy Department
The UPAEP Gastronomy Department

After being welcomed by orientation leaders (including Jose Espinosa who came to Hope as an exchange student in the Spring of 2019!), we were in a big room full of exchange students. This is actually my second time attending international orientation (the first one as an international student at Hope), but it is always amazing to see people from all over the world in one place.

Gifts from UPAEP: "I AM UPAEP" t-shirt, sunglasses, and a cute notebook
Gifts from UPAEP: “I AM UPAEP” t-shirt, sunglasses, and a cute notebook
The big room full of exchange students from all over the world
The big room full of exchange students from all over the world

12pm – We were distributed into more than 15 groups of about 5 students with a few orientation leaders in each group with a sacked lunch – a sandwich, an apple juice, potato chips, water, and an apple. Under the beautiful sun, we sat on the grass and tried to get to know each other. 

The beautiful weather
The beautiful weather

12:30pm – A campus tour led by the orientation leaders. The main buildings are named A, B, C, and T, but the buildings are not in order. It is going to take me a while to get used to this campus. 

As you can see, T is next to A and B

1pm – Fun activities! We had multiple activity choices to choose from. I chose Latin Dance Class where we learned a little bit of Salsa. (I wish I took a video or picture, but I was too focused on dancing and following the steps that I forgot my job…) 

The schedule for orientation.
The schedule for orientation.
One of the activities was an electric bull
One of the activities was an electric bull

2:00 pm – One of the leaders said “vamos a comer!” (“let’s go eat!”). I had been wondering why it said “Welcome Lunch” in the schedule when we already ate sacked lunch, but I guess they really meant it. This was probably one of the first culture shocks. People here eat lunch twice! I asked my orientation leader why we are eating twice and he was confused about why I was asking that question.

We were treated so well from the first day
We were treated so well from the first day

I went back home and had an amazing dinner made by my host mother. The delicious dinner was the curry of green pipian (paste of pumpkin seeds) and zucchini.

curry of green pipian (paste of pumpkin seeds) and zucchini.

And this concluded the first day of orientation. So far, I have been eating a lot, enjoying the beautiful weather, and getting excited for the new experiences.

Orientation Day 2 

Again, orientation started at 8:00 am and I am still not used to waking up this early. The neighborhood girls got together (of course, the first thing we did yesterday was to create a group chat) and tried to get to the university without google map. Walking to the metro station, getting on the metro bus, getting off at the 5th station and walking 20 minutes to the university. As a lazy college student being used to waking up just a little bit before classes started at Hope College, this is a pretty big adjustment. But the rich smell of coffee and Tamales for breakfast made my day going.

Feeling very spoiled eating Tamales for breakfast
Feeling very spoiled eating Tamales for breakfast

3:00 pm- After all the information sessions were done, I got invited to visit downtown and explore the city. One of the orientation leaders, Nacho, was being very sweet and entertaining us even though he could have gone home and rest.

Food truck area very close to the university
Food truck area very close to the university
My lunch was chilaquiles with avocado!
My lunch was chilaquiles with avocado!
The downtown area of Puebla
The downtown area of Puebla
Some artsy shops in the downtown area
Some artsy shops in the downtown area
The orientation leader, Nacho, and some of the neighborhood girls in a Ferris wheel
The orientation leader, Nacho, and some of the neighborhood girls in a Ferris wheel

Orientation Day 3

The last day of orientation. All the students who have host families met at 9:00 am (which felt so nice sleeping in for an hour) and learned about how to be in a Mexican family. Then we learned some cultural differences. Here are some of the cultural differences that we learned:

  • In Mexican households, moms are the strongest. You better listen to the mom if she commands you to do something. 
  • Mexican moms like to feed their children. A LOT. It is okay to say you are full. 
  • Personal space does not exist in Mexico.
When Mexican says something is not spicy, do not trust that
When Mexican says something is not spicy, do not trust that

After signing some documents, the orientation was officially done. Well… that was all on the schedule.

What I did not know was that this was when the fun time started. There were two buses parked in front of the university for the exchange students. The buses took us to a city next to Puebla where we saw the world’s largest pyramid, and so many churches. We climbed up the pyramid, went inside the church, and walked around downtown Cholula. 

Only half of the exchange students in one of the two buses
Only half of the exchange students in one of the two buses
A small part of the great pyramid of Cholula
A small part of the great pyramid of Cholula
We met some Mongolian professional dancers and took pictures together on top of the Pyramid
We met some Mongolian professional dancers and took pictures together on top of the Pyramid
Dance of the Flyers – a traditional Mexican ceremony
After the trip to Cholula, all the exchange students were invited to a Night Club
After the trip to Cholula, all the exchange students were invited to a Night Club

And that concluded the international orientation of UPAEP. Regardless of all my worries at the beginning of the orientation, I am actually excited to start classes next week, and am ready for more adventures. Important information was repeated in English, there were multiple activities for us to make friends, and opportunities to experience some cultures of Mexico.

Halfway Point thoughts

I’m sitting on the train, eating one of Joanne’s Bagged 24-hour Baked Scones (4 for 2 euro, how could I have resisted that?) and staring at my screen. It’s 16:25 and the sun has already disappeared, dark purple flowing over the sky to fill the empty space. Past the reflection of myself and the Irish Rail cart, I can see rapidly moving black trees in front of large low hills like the back of a great mythological beast. 

Greenland white-fronted geese
Greenland white-fronted geese

I’m on my way back from Wexford Town, and I have about a two-hour journey ahead of me until the train comes into Connolly Station in Dublin City. I’d just spent the day birding at Wexford National Wildfowl reserve (since I couldn’t see my mom on her birthday, I decided to do her favorite activity instead), watching the wintering Greenland white-fronted geese, and hiking Raven’s Point forest which ended in a West-Michigan-esque view of sand dunes and waves. Of course, I’m listening to an Irish music playlist, and the last refrain of Danny Boy dies away into the constant growl of the train. 

I’m not really sure what to say, so I take another bite of scone instead. 

I’m at the halfway point? No, I don’t think so. I can’t be. 

Grey Heron
Grey Heron

The intercom comes on, and a recorded voice speaks Gaelic. Then in English says, “We will shortly be arriving at Enniscorthy. Please, mind the gap. Thank you for traveling with Iarnród Éireann.” I stare as artificial lights disconnected from anything in the dark come into sight, the landscape no longer dominated by primal black-upon-black. People get on, people get off. I hope no one sits next to me, and no one does; it’s a Wednesday night, who would be traveling into the city right now?

I arrived in Ireland the morning of Tuesday, January 7th. As of today, I’ve been in Ireland seven weeks and a day. Seven weeks of class remain. It’s true, I’m really halfway done. 

I feel exhausted; I spent the last few hours either traveling place to place via taxi or quickly hiking through beautiful Southern Ireland natural land so I could make it back in time for the last train back; I had just enough time upon arriving back in Wexford to see Selksar Abbey, and rapidly scourge through the nearest supermarket for a good deal on peanut butter (alas, none to be found) before hopping on and collapsing into my seat, my legs sobbing in relief as pressure lessened. I’m dying to order something, but the only place I’ll pay 3 or more euro for tea is at the Queen of Tarts Bakery in Cows Lane, Dublin City. I finish the fourth and final scone of the day. 

Killarney National Park

I’m no stranger to time’s curious pace; ever since I stepped foot on Hope’s campus in August 2017, life has been at warp speed, leaving me dazed and confused and wanting to sleep. But these last seven weeks…I’ve blinked, and suddenly I’ve missed it all. I’ve gotten a ticket at a movie theatre, for the sole purpose of one scene in the very middle and have spent the last hour waiting eagerly for it to start. But now the scene is almost finished, and I’m realizing as I scrape the butter-encrusted bottom of the popcorn bowl with my fingers, looking for something other than a seed, I looked forward so much to that one scene that I didn’t prepare at all for its ending. 

The Parting Glass begins to play in my earphones and this does nothing to assuage the trickle of casual panic dripping through my mind. This panic began with a conversation with fellow Hope College Writer’s Program member Morgan, as we hiked in Killarney National Park earlier this week. She said something along the lines of; 

“After Midterm break we’ll only have forty-ish days left.” 

And that got lodged in me. 

I gaze out the window into complete and utter blankness, and I think we must be looking out to the sea; I’d had such an amazing view of it on the train in. There’s no movement, nothing passing by; just infringing night. 

View on the mountain path
View on the mountain path

What have I done? It doesn’t feel like enough. But, in my defense, I doubt anything would feel like enough. Even in small, Indiana-size Ireland, there is so much to see, to do, to learn. I’ve seen the provinces of Leinster, Munster, and Connacht; only Ulster left. Been to quite a few counties, so many left unexplored. I didn’t go off and travel the first few weekends of the semester; a few friends and I decided to get to know Dublin and take it slow. I don’t regret that decision; everyone approaches studying abroad with different hopes, fears, and motivations. I needed to feel a sense of comfort and could only achieve that by centering myself in Dublin. But I am at times a little jealous of everyone who’s already been all around Ireland and are now setting sights on what’s beyond the little island. 

We will shortly be arriving at Rathdrum. Please, mind the gap. Thank you for traveling with Iarnród Éireann.” I look out, unfortunately catch a glimpse of my reflection, and brush the hair out of my face. 

I don’t really understand how to process everything. One of the, surprisingly, several good habits I’ve picked up while abroad has been daily journaling. Each night, I’ll fill pages upon pages with my impatient scrawl, noting the meals I’ve had, the conversations I’ve engaged in, the topics we’ve discussed in class. I thought this would help process my experiences, and to an extent I think it has, but I still am sitting here warming my cold fingers, without a clue for how I got from A to B or C or maybe it’s N at this point. 

Torc's waterfall, Killarney
Torc’s waterfall, Killarney

I’m finding it difficult to focus on classwork, though this isn’t a surprise in the least. Things are moving too fast, the thought of sitting down at my desk and reading some sort of history seems aggravating and unbearable. The only moments where time seems to slow just a little are these ones, on trains, buses and coffeeshops, where I can sip my (hypothetical) tea and watch the world around me. It’s times like these when I feel like I can focus and streamline my thoughts into a coherent form. It’s partly why I love the experience of riding the train. It’s almost like reverse psychology; my brain, seeing the physical world blur by, relaxes, allowing the metaphysical one to take some leisure. 

We will shortly be arriving at Greystones. Please, mind the Gap. Thank you for traveling with Iarnród Éireann.” I can barely see anything now, except when we pass by a streetlight and I catch a glimpse of someone bundled in a winter coat, giving the train a harried glance or smoking a cigarette. These seem like intimate snapshots of a life I’ll never live, enclosed in a warm gold halo. 

I’m trying, I really am, to milk every moment that passes for what it’s worth, to live in the moment. But it’s a lot of effort, to live life to the fullest; maybe that’s why few people ever do it successfully. One thing I look forward to when I’m home (which isn’t some far point in the future any more) is the release of pressure, the lessening desire to be constantly traveling, exploring, experiencing. 

I was about 90% certain I'd find a fairy at the end of this path; unfortunately, no mystical beings to be seen
I was about 90% certain I’d find a fairy at the end of this path; unfortunately, no mystical beings to be seen

That being said, the desire is currently still there and still very much present. Being in Ireland has- I like to believe- imbued me with an energy and motivation I can’t remember every possessing. Not only physically, but creatively as well; I’ve never been so inspired to write, and I’ve never written as much as I have here (we’re just hoping at least a little bit of it is good). So many seconds of my day is spent wondering how I could turn this experience or emotion into written word. The tragedy of this is that very little of what I write is for school despite the fact that all my classes are writing classes. Oh well. 

We will shortly be arriving at Dún Laoghaire. Please, mind the Gap. Thank you for traveling with Iarnród Éireann.

Raven’s Point forest and beach, Wexford

I think that, if you’re planning on studying abroad, accept the inevitability of time’s passing. I had been so anxious about leaving, I hadn’t given a thought to the idea that at some point I’d be right where I am right now. Accept the fact that you will leave, before you arrive. It will save you a lot of stress. Realize that you only have a limited time in the place you are at. Also realize that this isn’t a curse (or a blessing, depending on how your study abroad is going); it’s just a fact of life. The shortness of your time abroad is what makes it so sweet. My last semester at hope was the best so far because it was all coming to a momentary end. Likewise, this semester has been the best few weeks of my life, partly because I know that time is shortening day by day. Don’t let time be your enemy, let it be your aid. Allow the transience of your time abroad sweeten the moments and preserve the memories. Let it focus your mind, and to teach it to only focus on the present moment. So much of what I’ve done so far, it’s because time has urged me to be more brave, exploratory, and open to experience. I still have quite a ways to go in those extents, don’t get me wrong. I’m getting better though, and that wouldn’t be happening unless time wasn’t always standing beside me, checking his watch. 

But of course, I’m being unnecessarily dramatic; I’m at the halfway point, I’m not quite home yet. There’s still so much time to go, so many experiences to have, before I arrive at my seat on the plane heading to Chicago O’Hare. I’m eager for everything planned and everything unplanned. If the last half of my semester is partially as amazing as the first half, then I’ll have had a successful experience abroad. I feel as if I’m going into this next part of my journey just a tad bit wiser, and really that’s all I can ask for.

We will shortly be arriving at Connolly. Please, mind the Gap. Thank you for traveling with Iarnród Éireann.”

Just like that, my journey is over, and I join the horde of people exiting the train and entering onto the freezing city streets. The night is a theatre stage of lights; I feel illuminated the entire way home. 

Me watching this semester fly by...
Me watching this semester fly by…

Ravioli with Claudia and Truco with Pullulo

Alright, folks. It’s honesty time. I have never felt further outside of my comfort zone. I have been in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for 5 days now, yet since my arrival it feels as though I’ve lived 10 lifetimes. This description may be a little graphic, but I have felt as though someone stuck a metal rod in my brain and mixed it up a little, like they used to do to frogs before dissecting them.

My program with SIT began very late in the semester. We didn’t arrive and begin orientation until February 25th, when everyone at Hope was already approaching midterms. This means that I flew into Buenos Aires after three months at home with my family in the small town of Crawfordsville, Indiana, working a job where I made my own hours and living my life at whatever pace I desired. Then I arrived in one of the largest cities in South America and was thrown into a group of 20 students from all over the Americas, full of ambition and excitement for the upcoming semester. I was very quickly overwhelmed and slightly intimidated by these peers of mine who came from prestigious schools in New York City or Los Angeles and had grown up speaking Spanish in their home countries of Peru or Mexico. For me, coming from the very small, very English-speaking city of Holland, the intersection of learning how to navigate a huge city in which I also need to speak Spanish is a lot to process.

However slowly, I believe I am beginning to adjust. There’s something uniquely empowering about finding your way around a new city alone, which I luckily have been able to do multiple times since arriving. My host mom, Claudia, has been an angel sent from above, and will repeat herself however many times I need to understand; which is often an excessive amount of times, I might add. She also makes a mad ravioli dish. 

SIT’s orientation for this program was just a little bit different than I had been expecting… Our group traveled five hours south of the city to a sustainable school organization called Quinta Esencia. After some presentations and discussions with our academic director about the program, we were given the opportunity to learn about bioconstruction. By learning, I mean mixing mud and straw in a pit with our bare feet and then hanging it on horizontal strips of bamboo to make a wall. Just your average Friday afternoon activity, I know. Things got even more interesting when 10 of us packed in the bed of a truck to explore a local pub down the road, where we watched the locals in their trendy berets play pool while a man named Pullulo from the school taught us how to play the card game Truco, which is regionally specific to Argentina. The game was wildly confusing and required lots of deception and memorization. I wasn’t able to pull it off, but it was fascinating to watch those who knew what they were doing, laughing with them the whole way through.

While my first few days have been a somewhat overwhelming whirlwind, I have learned already how important it is to be flexible at all times. Whether it be sitting for two hours at a gas station while our bus is repaired or running across the coolest coffee shop while trying not to look as lost as I am, my experience is bound to continue in unexpected yet fulfilling ways each day.


Week One: Nerves and Excitement

Hola, and welcome to my first blog post here in Peru! 

Since my arrival on Monday, it has been a whirlwind of meeting new people, learning new things, and beginning to adapt to a new culture. I’m not going to lie, I’m a little intimidated by it all. Being pushed to rely on my semi-rusty Spanish skills for communication has been a challenge for my mind, and adapting to an altitude that’s roughly 11,000 feet above what I’m used to has been a challenge for my body. I often find myself a little confused with what exactly our assignment is for class, or needing a siesta after lunch due to the physical and mental challenges the day has brought.

A rainbow we saw over the mountain after a day of orientation classes with intermittent pauses for group games of Frisbee and fútbol.
A rainbow we saw over the mountain after a day of orientation classes with intermittent pauses for group games of Frisbee and fútbol.

However, in spite of the challenges this first week has brought, I find that my experience has been a little like the weather here in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Sometimes it’s sunny and warm, and you can see the one snow-capped mountain in the distance, signifying how excited we all are for this opportunity and the adventures we know we will have over the semester. Usually, in the middle of the day, there will be a thunderstorm or it will rain for a while. We all go inside and wait for the sun to return because we know it will, eventually. Even though all these new adaptations that the first week of the semester has brought have been a challenge, I am beginning to find comfort in the new friends I have made already on this trip. And, more often than not, the anxiety or nerves I feel about my Spanish skills or meeting my host family (which I am on my way to do right now!) turns into excitement. As I’m writing this, we are on our way to Cuzco to officially begin the semester, and I can’t wait to share more of my adventures with you along the way!

Me on a small group trip to Urubamba, a small puebla about 10 minutes away from the hotel we stayed at for orientation.
Me on a small group trip to Urubamba, a small puebla about 10 minutes away from the hotel we stayed at for orientation.

Coffee in the Mountains

This past weekend, my program took us on a weekend retreat to the mountains, and it was one of the most reflective and inspirational weekends I’ve had here in the DR. Communities in the countryside often have some agricultural component that employs some of the people who live there. In Bonao, some of the locals work at Rancho Don José, a ranch owned by Esteban Polanco that produces and sells their own coffee. It also contains a bamboo plantation that supplies their custom furniture business.

Young coffee plants
Young coffee plants

Bonao is absolutely breathtaking, and everywhere you look is green. I even saw a green butterfly! While hiking through Rancho Don José, it was evident that the land is flourishing and the animals have lots to feed on. However, in neighboring communities, there are lands that have been exploited for their minerals and natural resources by international companies and are no longer able to produce vegetation. This leads to many of the locals being forced to live elsewhere to support their families.

An organization developed by Estaban Polanco and other local farmers called La Asociación de Campesinos hacia el Progreso (Farmer’s Association for Progress) has fought to preserve and protect the community, and its land from mining companies and other businesses that want to exploit what their community has to offer. Their goal is to improve the quality of life in their communities, and that is what they’ve been successfully doing for over 30 years. This has inspired me to fight for what I believe in back in Michigan, and band together with others to make the changes we want to see in our community.

What?! I’m in Germany?!

Yes, I still can’t believe I’m actually in Germany. It has been a crazy 2 weeks! I’ve been learning how to take the German public transport, buy groceries at a German supermarket, and communicate in German with my host mum and teachers. I’m not going to lie, it feels quite overwhelming with everything hitting me all at once. I’m sure it will get better as time goes by. For now, here is a timeline and some highlights of my first two weeks in Germany.

After travelling for close to 20 hours, I met Yea Rang, who is also a Hope student, at the airport. We took a taxi and headed to the IES Center in Berlin! We arrived around 10:30 a.m. and had a short tour of the IES Center bulding.

Then, we sat in a lounge and socialized with other students until 4:00 pm which was when our host families were scheduled to pick us up. It was quite a long wait since we arrived in the morning. We were very tired as you can see below.

Day 1 in Berlin

My host mum picked me up in a car and we headed back to the apartment. On the way home, she pointed out many famous buildings and told me more about herself. Before heading back to the apartment, she had to drop off the car in a garage close by because it was a part of a car-sharing service. I didn’t know what car-sharing was until she explained it to me. Car-sharing is something like car rental except, one can rent a car for a short period of time. In a big city like Berlin, it is always hard to find street parking so many people often opt for car-sharing. We then walked back to the apartment. I was shocked by the flight of stairs I had to climb to get to her apartment. It was on the 4th floor! In the U.S., it would be the 5th floor! (The first floor is, technically, considered the 0 floor.) It was an old building which was why there wasn’t an elevator. I had to carry my heavy suitcase which weighed about 50 lbs. up 8 flights of stairs! It was definitely a workout! 

When I walked into the apartment, I was welcomed by a really cute Labrador! My host mum quickly showed me to my room, and I started to unpack. Later that night, my host mum cooked dinner and we ate together. It was a really nice meal after all that travelling!

The next day, we had orientation sessions followed by a guided walking tour of central Berlin. It was a fantastic tour because we got to see some of the famous tourist spots and historical buildings!

On Friday, right after more orientation sessions, we had a scanvenger hunt around the city! The main purpose was to show us different parts of the city and to learn how to use the different public transports in Berlin. The Berlin public transportation system is quite outstanding, but it can be really complicated in the beginning. Here, they have many different means of transportation, which includes trains, subways, commuter rails, trams, and buses! 

The weekend passed by quickly and it was already time to start my two-week German intensive course. It was tiring because it was a 3 hours and 15 mins class, every day, from Monday to Friday. It was a good thing that it started in the morning and ended before 1:00 pm. I was also quite surprised that we weren’t given much homework! 🙂

Fast forward to Friday, I went on a movie date with Yea Rang and watched my first movie in a movie theater in Berlin! The movie ticket was quite cheap compared to the U.S. because it was only 5 euros for everyone under 25! 

The next day, I met up with Yea Rang around noon and went to Markthalle Neun (Market Hall Nine) — an indoor market with many different stalls that sell food, drinks, desserts, vegetables, fruits, and many more! It even has a small Aldi inside the market! We walked around and decided to get like a platter of meat with veggies for lunch! We had a €1.60 ice cream later on, which was the perfect finish to our meal!

After that, we took the bus and headed to our next destination, which was the Berlin East side gallery! It was an open-air gallery with murals painted on it. It is also a remnant of the Berlin Wall. The sun was out and it was such a beautiful day! At this time of the year, Berlin is always so gloomy and grey so having the sun out felt really nice!

The weekend ended, and it was time to continue my second week of intensive class. So far, Berlin has been really nice to me. I am slowly getting used to some things here and am learning new things everyday! It still feels overwhelming, but if I take it one step at a time, I’m sure I will be fine. Thank you for reading! Till’ the next blog!