Another Kind of Holland: Amsterdam and Keukenhof Gardens

Visiting Amsterdam and the Tulip Fields has been on my bucket list for years. Before I left home, my dad asked me where I would choose to travel outside of Ireland and I told him London, Edinburgh, and Amsterdam. Honestly, I’m still in shock writing this. I never imagined that my dreams really could come true.

So, come along with me on my final trip!

A Day in Amsterdam

In true Ryanair fashion, I woke up at 3 am to get to the airport, etc. As glad as I am that I no longer need to plan such ridiculous travel arrangements, I’m honestly really sad that this era is coming to an end. That said, this was the most obnoxious flight I have ever been on. An Irish stag party yelled across the plane for the entire flight. Meeting up with Kylie and Kalysta on the ground, we all exchanged looks, shaking our heads and chuckling. What else were we supposed to do?

Making it through customs, we did the best we could with public transportation, buying train tickets and hoping we ended up on the right train. It took us a bit but, eventually, we made it to our hostel, stored our bags, and hit the road. Combined, we created the navigation trifecta: Google Maps, Apple Maps, and CityMapper.

Amsterdam is STUNNING! Genuinely, it was magical to see blue sky and green leaves, to walk around without jackets and still be warm. First, we went to the Van Gogh Museum–Kalysta’s favorite artist. While there, we saw Van Gogh’s famous self-portraits, some of his letters, and gallery after gallery. When Kylie saw Van Gogh’s iris painting, she said it reminded her of me. I really have become known as the flower girl and I’m not mad about it.

Leaving the museum, we set out to wander the city. As a guide, we set the Anne Frank Huis as our destination, hoping to see the outside of the building. Over a month prior, we tried to buy tickets but they had already sold out. If you’re ever going to Amsterdam and this is something you want to see, set an alarm for the ticket drop and get on the website as fast as possible.

On the way, Kylie added a stop on her map: the bench Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace sit at in The Fault in Our Stars. It was only about 500 m away from us so we took off. Weaving through the canals, we managed to find it quickly. It’s entirely unassuming–no markers or anything, only a pin drop on the map. It’s tucked in a little neighborhood along a tree-lined canal. Naturally, we stopped and took some pictures.

We continued exploring the streets and taking pictures for the afternoon. At five, we took a canal cruise because it seemed the quintessential thing to do. It was a great way to see more of the city than we would have otherwise and a nice break from all the walking we’d been doing.

A Bucket List Moment: Keukenhof Gardens

I woke up the next morning giddy with excitement. This was the day I’d been waiting for since we booked this trip in January. I was finally going to see “Tulip Time”! The likelihood that I see Holland’s is slim because I’m always home for summer before it officially starts, so I couldn’t wait to go to the original.

But first, we had to eat breakfast, had to eat something that felt authentically Dutch while also having gluten-free options. Naturally, I chose Pancakes! Amsterdam. We were all very original and unique in choosing our meals… Just kidding– we all got apple and bacon pancakes. The Dutch style is more crepe-like which I personally prefer and it was delicious.

And, after another wander around Amsterdam’s canals, it was time to go to Keukenhof Gardens!!

I have never been anywhere so beautiful in my life. Walking through the gates, my jaw dropped. The blooms were in perfect condition, color dancing in the wind like something out of a movie. Except, this was real life. I wish I could have bottled the perfume of the flowers, captured their color forever. For hours, I didn’t stop smiling. Each time I turned a corner, the gardens became more and more beautiful.

As we wandered, we joked that we were in a fairy garden or that we were princesses. Despite the crowds, that’s what it felt like. Although tickets to the garden were entirely sold out, the crowd never felt oppressive. It was quiet and respectful, everyone in awe of the surrounding beauty.

We grabbed smoothies for lunch, sipping them whilst sitting on the vibrant green grass next to a patch of brilliant red tulips. We could see the windmill in the background which we were able to climb. Looking back at pictures from Holland, it was wild to see how similar images of Holland’s Tulip Time are to Keukenhof. Plus, I have a knew appreciation for our windmill having been inside this one.

I wish I could think of a better way to describe the portion of the gardens I saw. It’s hard to put into words the beauty of the blooms and really there isn’t much of a story to tell. Still, it’s a day I will cherish forever and always.

In a way, it reminded me of where I was at this time last year. My first Michigan winter was really hard, especially as a girl used to mild Tennessee winters. I was desperate for green, tired of being cold, and ready to go home.

And then the tulips began to bloom.

With those specks of color, everything changed and I felt like I found myself again. A year later, standing across the world and surrounded by the same blooms, I realized how far I’ve come.

Truly, this was the most “Anna” day possible. The sun was shining, the air was warm without being hot, there were flowers literally everywhere, and we ended the day with French fries from a school bus.

I could have spent a hundred years in the gardens and I will return one day. For now, though, it’s time to make the most of Dublin and embrace the nostalgia I’m feeling. Flying home from Amsterdam, it hit me that this was my last Ryanair flight, my last time in Terminal 1, my last time telling Irish border control that I’m studying abroad, that I’m coming home. I think it particularly struck me this time around because it was exactly two weeks from the day I leave Dublin.

And there’s a piece of me that doesn’t want to leave, that can’t leave. There will always be a piece of my heart in Dublin. Studying abroad has changed me and I will forever value what Dublin has taught me.

A Weekend in Warsaw 

With the turning of the seasons, I decided it was finally warm enough to adventure into other areas of Eastern Europe and embarked on an independent travel trip to Warsaw, Poland over holy weekend (I’m a little behind in blogging).

Aside from the gorgeous 76-degree weather and sunshine, Warsaw offered me a glimpse into deep troughs of history, culture, and resilience. I also experienced personal growth, cultivated travel skills, realized the importance of checking calendars before planning a trip, and learned that I am capable of pulling two all-nighters traveling and coming out the other side grateful for the experience. So, without further ado, I hope you will enjoy a brief look at my adventures through Warsaw!

My excitement as I toppled out of the bus at 4:30 am at Warsaw Central Station was tempered slightly when I realized nothing was open. After a full night’s travel, I wished for nothing more than a bathroom, some coffee, and a cute little place to plan out the rest of my trip. As it was, these needs were satisfied not in the idyllic way I had imagined, but through the one place that opened at 5:00 am on a Saturday: McDonald’s. After spending an hour refreshing and planning, I came to realize that many museums and shops in Warsaw closed down for the celebration of holy weekend. Nevertheless, it still held many gems to uncover.

By the time I boarded my next overnight bus to take me home, I had experienced many firsts. As I traversed the vast city of Warsaw, I experienced gorgeous parks, architectural marvels, and monuments to history both lost and gained.

I bought my first new book and read it on the first warm, sunny day I have experienced since studying abroad; I observed the whole city of Warsaw from a viewing platform; I saw my first live hippopotamus; I explored Historic Old Town; I tried Polish ice cream; I participated in an international church service; I crossed the busiest (and longest) pedestrian bridge I have ever seen; I stayed in my first hostel; I ate my first tiramisu; I viewed numerous churches; and I learned how to navigate all aspects of Warsaw public transit from metro to tram! I also discovered that I would not want to backpack across Europe and should consider luggage lockers for future trips.

And that’s it for now! I hope you enjoyed hearing about some of my adventures in Warsaw! Until my next weekend trip, iki!

My Friends Waiting for the Bus to Take Us Back to Lithuania

A Solo Day in St Andrews, Scotland

If you know much about me, you’ll know that I have long held a fascination with St Andrews, Scotland, and have been desperate to visit since 2020 during my freshman year of high school. I am fully aware that this is a strange fixation but here me out. I was bit by the travel bug at a very early age. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to move abroad. Studying abroad is the first step in that goal.

Here’s where it gets interesting. When Covid shut the world down, the world moved online. At this point, I had already been researching St Andrews University and considering going abroad for my undergraduate degree. Specifically, I was interested in St Andrews’ Comparative Literature degree. Naturally, I signed up for multiple information sessions, watching livestreams from my living room.

Ultimately, I decided that 17 was a bit too young to move across the world but that didn’t mean I forgot about St Andrews. Not in the slightest. As soon as I booked my trip to Edinburgh, I made it clear that I would do everything I could to go to St Andrews. After all, when else would I be closer or in a position to just hop on a train and go?

I did my research and booked my train tickets just before bed from the comfort of my hostel. Really, I had no idea what I was doing. The next morning, I got breakfast, stored my bag, and made my way across the street to Waverly Station. My train departed at 9:10 from platform 19. To be quite honest, I was scared to take public transportation alone (something I tend to avoid) but I was also excited to have a solo travel moment.

Unsurprisingly, I fell in love with train travel. The views out my window were stunning and it was honestly very easy. I crossed over the Firth of Forth, through seaside towns, past farmland… Seriously, it was amazing. Arriving at Leuchars Station, I took the bus into St Andrews and was blown away.

St Andrews and its university are blended into each other, bound by cobblestone streets and confined by the sea. Wind whipped through the buildings, flinging sand and spray through the air. Sun beamed down and clouds floated in the semblance of sheep. I popped in and out of numerous bookstores, some chains like Waterstones but most independent shops with towering shelves and library ladders.

Making my way toward the cathedral ruins, I found myself in a graveyard. Classic Anna, I know. Still, it was beautiful, names and dates filling in every space available on many of the stones. Most of the graves were old, some marking the fallen of the World Wars. One marker was commemorative, honoring a family member buried at Ypres. Some were the graves of children, aged three or four. The span was remarkable, both striking and sobering.

From there, I made my way down to the first of three beaches. Once again, I dipped my fingers in the water, feeling the cold salt as it rushed over the sand, the stones and shells marking the shore. Near one of the benches overlooking the beach, I saw a bundle of wilted tulips tied together with string. They looked to be placed gently but I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what it meant.

I climbed back up the hill and made my way to the second beach, this one below the castle. It’s a small stretch of sand, but a popular one. People gathered there to picnic and sun themselves on the rocks. The wind was clearly something to be ignored on a sunny day.

Eventually, I moved on and continued exploring, walking up and down cobblestone paths and looking at the buildings around me. I’m convinced that they’ve seen incredible amounts of history and I wish I knew their stories, however mundane they may be.

Popping into the Wardlaw Museum, I wandered the small collection of exhibits, viewing the papal bull that granted St Andrews university status in 1413 (making St Andrews University Scotland’s first) and the Peter Pan statue gifted by J. M. Barrie who was the Rector of St Andrews University from 1919 to 1922. They also had an exhibit on the University traditions and I was surprised to see how many of them I remembered from four years early.

Leaving the museum, I continued exploring, walking up and down streets and honestly just feeling at home. I tried to go to another museum but it was closed on Sundays. I also tried to go to the Botanic Gardens but they were closed due to the high winds. Still, walking to these locations allowed me to explore the town even further so it wasn’t a total loss. Plus, the more I walked, the more I glimpsed students and, yes, they do in fact walk around in their red undergraduate robes. (Look it up; it’s fantastic).

I ended my day by popping into the University bookstore and buying a sweatshirt and t-shirt combo pack. It was a bit of a splurge, but, for four years of dreaming, it was worth it to me. I took my bag and some crisps and made my way to West Sands Beach, fighting the wind every step of the way. You think Lake Michigan winds are bad? Try the coast of Scotland.

But seriously, full sun, sand dunes, pristine beaches, and a cobblestone town crammed with learning and bookstores made for my dream day. One day, I am certain I will return to St Andrews. Maybe it will be as a student. Who knows? But that’s all in the future, a dream that may take four more years.

Here’s my advice: don’t let anything stop you from embracing your ‘saying yes era.’ Yes, it’s scary to step outside your comfort zone but if you stay you may never grow. Make your dreams a reality rather than a fantasy. Go forth and live your life to the fullest!

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9.

In Love with Hairy Coos: Edinburgh and the Highlands

I spent the past weekend in Scotland, a trip I had been looking forward to since I booked travel back in January. One thing’s for sure–I will miss cheap Ryanair flights when I am back home. I spent the weekend with one of my roommates, Kalysta, exploring as much of Scotland as possible. Get ready for a crazy ride through rainy Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands!

For starters, Kalysta and I “girl-mathed” our way into leaving on Thursday night because the flight was cheaper despite the cost of an extra night in our hostel. Unfortunately for us, our flight was delayed for at least an hour and a half. Finally, though, we made it to Scotland after a quick forty-five-minute flight. Much to my annoyance, yet again the border control was essentially non-existent and my passport was not stamped. It’s actually been really weird–so far, Ireland is the only place I’ve been this semester that consistently stamps my passport.

At any rate, our day in Edinburgh began bright and early despite the rain. We’d known in advance that the forecast called for a 100% chance of rain but, in the long run, being wet is a temporary matter when you’re in a place you’ve dreamed of for years. At least, that was my philosophy.

Kalysta and I accomplished quite the list. We spent a few hours in the National Gallery before doing some shopping and exploring Victoria Street and the Royal Mile. These streets are quintessential Edinburgh, shops and stunning facades lining cobblestone streets. Through the rain and mist, the buildings were especially haunting, appearing as if out of the set of a historical film. Over the noise of the crowd, the song of a lone bagpiper wove through the air, playing the notes to ‘Amazing Grace.’ At 13:00, we made our way up the steep hill to Edinburgh Castle. Mist obscured the city, water pooled in puddles on the ground, flowers and greenery contrasted the brown of the stones. Although we explored multiple dungeons, we were not able to see the Scottish jewels–the line was out the door and the rain coming down in sheets. Plus, we were hungry.

Because I am gluten-free, I was in charge of organizing dining locations and reservations, a task that gave me peace of mind. It was actually an easier task in Edinburgh than in many of the places I’ve traveled across America and Ireland. I’ve actually heard Edinburgh is one of the best places in the UK to be gluten-free, if not the best.

Following the reviews on my favorite app in the entire world–Find Me Gluten-Free–we ate lunch at L’Etoile Salon de Tea. There were so many cakes and goodies and the staff were quite knowledgeable. For an anxious girlie, it was perfect.

After lunch, Kalysta and I walked to The Writer’s Museum which is located in Lady Stair’s House at the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile. The small museum features three famous Scottish writers: Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. We didn’t spend much time here; the museum is quite small.

Moving on, Kalysta and I walked to the National Portrait Gallery. I don’t personally care much for portraits but the Great Hall was beautiful. (It was also lacking in portraits, but that’s beside the point.) The walls were covered in intricate medieval artwork, the wood framing dark, and the navy ceiling of the two-story room covered in stars. If it was socially acceptable, I would have laid on the floor and just stared up. Of course, I couldn’t do that, so I went to the second floor and walked around the balcony of the Great Hall. While there, I stumbled across a painting of St Columba coming to the Picts–a painting I had researched while doing a project on St Columba a few weeks ago. It was so cool to see it in person.

When the museum closed, I struck out on my own, heading up Princes Street in search of Dean Village. Pictures had been all over my social media, so I figured it was worth the trek. To be honest, Dean Village was a lot smaller than I thought it would be given its hype. It was still beautiful though.

Of course, by this point, I was soaked so I figured I might as well fully commit. Rather than going back to the hostel to dry off, I walked to Greyfriars Kirkyard which is where the Harry Potter graves are located. I didn’t particularly care about these graves but I did want to find them to send pictures to some friends from home. In a downpour and with mist circling about, the vibes were immaculate. I seriously love exploring graveyards; they’re moody, mysterious places full of stories both known and forgotten.

Dinner was fish and chips at Bertie’s Proper Fish and Chips which was insanely good. The restaurant had some of the highest gluten-free ratings I have ever seen and was absolutely packed. If you ever find yourself in Edinburgh, definitely make a reservation!

After an early night, Kalysta and I woke up quite early because we had booked a day trip up to Loch Ness. Specifically, we booked The Hairy Coo’s Loch Ness, Glencoe, and Scottish Highlands Tour which lasted about 12 hours. Much of our time was spent on the bus but it was worth it to see as much of Scotland as possible–I think we traveled around 300 miles. Plus, our bus driver provided commentary and stories of the places we passed as well as their relation to historical figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots, William Wallace, and Robert the Bruce.

On the trip, we were able to see a town called Callander, a village at the foot of the Trossachs, hairy coos (highland cows), the majestic beauty of the highlands, national monuments, the highest mountain peak in the UK, snow, sun, and rainbows. We drove through Glencoe Valley and through both of Scotland’s national parks: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and the Cairngorms. I don’t think I will ever get over the rugged beauty of Scotland, the wind-blown plains and lochs scattered across the landscape.

The goal of the tour was to reach Loch Ness in the middle of the day, spending about two hours in the town of Fort Augustus and taking a cruise on the Loch for an hour. Unfortunately, due to high winds, the cruise was canceled and we were unable to properly look for Nessie, the legendary Loch Ness Monster. That said, my glimpse of the Loch was pure magic.

Walking up the side of the canal that flows into the Loch, the water spread out before me, encapsulated by trees and hills. At the far end, a rainbow stretched across the narrowest point of my view. As I watched, the colors became stronger and stronger. Genuinely, I have been so blessed to see so many rainbows while I’ve been abroad. It’s a beauty I will never take for granted.

In these two days, I fell in love with Scotland. Stay tuned for the story of my final day in Scotland and for my adventures in Amsterdam next week! Until then, I’ll be doing my homework and preparing for finals (I swear, sometimes school does not feel real whilst abroad). Somehow, I only have a few weeks left and I’ll be trying to make the most of them while I can.

Until next time! 🙂

New Adventures in Oaxaca!

Bienvenidos!

It’s been a minute since my last blog post – these past few weeks have been crazy. Amidst classwork, excursions, and exploring Oaxaca, I haven’t found much time to breathe! My program consists of nine weeks of classes, followed by a short break, and then a month of an internship or an ISP (independent study project). Because of that, the first nine weeks are very academically rigorous. While the classwork itself hasn’t necessarily been more challenging than what I’m used to, the real challenge has been establishing a routine that works for me. Sometimes I feel like I am going through freshman year of college all over again!

However, I have now completed nine weeks of classes! For me, my time abroad feels like it is flying. How am I already over halfway done? In honor of finishing my classes and reaching the halfway point, I thought I’d reflect on some of the highlights of being abroad.

Excursions

Some of my favorite memories so far have been during our excursions, which most recently have included trips to Puebla, Mexico, and the Mixteca region of Oaxaca.

In Puebla, we spent time with an organization called “Los Pueblos Unidos de la Región Cholulteca y de los Volcanes.” There, we learned about how corporations exploit the land and water of the community and how indigenous communities are fighting back. We also explored the beautiful city! I can now say that I’ve visited Puebla, and one day I hope to return.

In the Mixteca region, we spent time with a different indigenous community. We worked in the fields and learned about sustainable practices that are used to care for the land. The Mixteca is a very dry region, and it was interesting to learn about the ways they conserve the little water they have access to.

Afterward, we visited a town in the Mixteca called Tlaxiaco, where there is little tourism. Because of that, we definitely stood out (or at least more than we already do as foreigners). However, I really enjoyed experiencing a city without the heavy influence of tourism.

Many times during our excursions, I found myself thinking, “If I wasn’t studying through a program, what are the chances that I would see/experience this?” Honestly, the chances are slim. Studying abroad has given me an abundance of new opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I know that many of the lessons and ideas I learn abroad will stick with me for a lifetime.

The Food

As a Mexican-American, I have grown up eating Mexican food. However, Oaxaca has made me realize how diverse Mexican cuisine is, in the best way possible. My host mom is very passionate about cooking and is eager to share her knowledge about food with me and my housemate. I often note down recipes, tips, or tricks with the hopes of recreating them when I return home, and I currently have a “meal log” where I can keep track of all my favorite meals!

While I eat the majority of my meals in my house (no complaints here), sometimes I eat lunch or dinner in the town. I have really enjoyed trying traditional and cultural foods, such as memelas, tlayudas, and mole (I’ve tried 4/7 different moles of Oaxaca). As a foodie, one of my goals abroad was to try as much as possible, and the possibilities are endless. 3 months have passed, and I don’t think I’ve eaten the same meal twice!

Homesickness

Surprise! I am 3 months in and yes, I still get homesick at times. Studying abroad has been new, exciting, and incredible, but there have also been moments of anxiety, sadness, and discomfort. In my experience, being abroad means that I am constantly adapting, and while at times that is exciting, it can also be exhausting. When I decided to study abroad, I thought that homesickness would disappear after the first few weeks. While that might happen for some people, there are still moments where I miss my family, friends, and environment back at home.

However, I have found that the best way to cope with homesickness is to just push through it. While I usually take time to text a friend or write in my journal, the best cure has been just going out and doing something. Some of my most memorable nights have started with me sitting in my room, wishing I could be home!

Above all, I try to remind myself to stay present during all moments, both good and bad. Studying abroad is such a unique opportunity, and while I have been challenged immensely, I’ve also grown just as much, if not more.

Now that I am done with classes, I will officially start my internship for the remaining month of my program. While I am nervous, I am excited to begin a new journey within my journey abroad. Thank you for being here, and I hope you’ll continue to tag along!

Exploring Geneva & Embracing Ramadan Traditions

The last month has been filled with a whirlwind of travel, new experiences, and so much good food! All within the last few weeks, I have had the incredible opportunity to visit Switzerland, participate in my first Ramadan, finish my classes, and begin an internship. There has certainly been an abundance of new schedules and routines to get accustomed to in the last month or so, but it has been filled with much beauty and joy, making a lasting impact.

Field Visits in Geneva

The month began with my program’s long-anticipated international excursion to Geneva, Switzerland. Because of the thematic focus on refugees, health, and humanitarian access, the main reason drawing us to Geneva was the prevalence of many international aid organizations. We have been intently studying many of the global policies for refugee protection, and having the opportunity to gain a more macro-perspective on the creation of these policies was incredibly eye-opening.

Leaving Amman after spending about two complete months in the Middle East and arriving in a European country caused a bit of a shock to my system. I was becoming increasingly familiar with many customs, cultural expectations, and my daily life in Amman, so spending just over a week in a more Westernized context was slightly disarming as I tried to adjust to some of the more subtle differences in the day-to-day. While Geneva had incredible food, I found myself missing my daily breakfast of bread, hummus, labneh, and beets, which had become a sweet, quiet time to talk with my host mom every morning.

Access to widespread public transportation in Switzerland was a welcome change, however. As my main form of transportation in Jordan is Uber, I am fairly limited in how easily I can get around the city at times. Being able to get on a train and quickly go to the countryside with a breathtaking view of the Alps was a much-needed respite from the congested norm in the city.

The United Nations

Exploring cafes, beautiful churches, incredible museums, and hiking occupied much of my time in Switzerland. Still, I was most excited for the chance to visit the United Nations, The Red Cross/Red Crescent, and The World Health Organization. Each visit was starkly different from one another but immensely valuable in their own right. Our guided tour of the UN was conducted entirely in French due to a scheduling mishap, which created a different atmosphere than the one we were all expecting. However, listening to some of the ongoing meetings and walking around the expansive campus provided a unique look into an international entity.

ICRC & W.H.O

We also had the chance to visit the Geneva headquarters of the Red Cross/Red Crescent. I spent hours exploring their thought-provoking museum. I especially enjoyed their temporary photography exhibit on ‘humanitarian aid,’ which featured almost a dozen artists’ perspectives.

At the ICRC
Walking through one of the exhibits

Our last N.G.O. field visit was to the W.H.O. in Geneva, which proved a stark contrast from the other visits as we not only got to tour the facilities but also got to sit and hear from a few staff members and their perspectives on emergency aid interventions. One senior staff member, who had just returned from a two-month assignment in Gaza, was able to share his personal stories and answer any questions the group posed. In all, these visits and lectures painted the reality of international aid organizations in a very tangible light, reinforcing my studies in Amman and contributing to my ever-developing worldview as I seek to discern my calling and role as a global citizen.

Cheese, Chocolate, and Hikes

My time in Switzerland was filled with more than academic trips to international organizations. Serving as a pseudo spring break, S.I.T. organized for the group to do a few fun excursions as well! We spent one day traveling to Gruyères, where we went on a cheese and chocolate-tasting tour!

Watching the cheeses being produced
Part of the chocolate tour which had some interactive rooms throughout the museum

On some of our allotted free days, a few friends and I explored some of the smaller towns around Lake Geneva. We also took a lengthy hike through the pre-Alps, giving us incredible views as we summited.

Beginning of Ramadan

The day we flew back to Amman was the first official day of Ramadan! Now, nearing the end of the Holy month, I can attest to the incredible food, celebrations, and community that I have experienced thus far. My whole schedule has changed to accommodate fasting and Iftar, bringing me closer to my incredible host family, as the kids always encourage me when I fast. I have loved learning to make new dishes with my host mom and exploring cafes late at night after Iftar with some of my friends in the neighborhood.

Helping my host mom prepare the mint for one of my favorite drinks – limonana
One of our many incredible Iftar meals

A New Normal

My modified school schedule for Ramadan has given me much more time at home, meaning I have more time to interact with my host siblings. My room quickly became the new ‘hang out’ spot for the five of us. After school, they all pile in my room, finding seats on the beds or floor as we catch up about our days, study, and take a quick nap before Iftar. They even learned the “Cotton Eye Joe” dance a few days ago, and we performed it for their cousins!

About a week ago, one of my host brothers found newly born kittens in the apartment building. We found the mother and reunited the family, which provided a lot of excitement for an otherwise uneventful day.

As my classes have ended and my month-long internship begins, I am sure my daily routine will yet again shift. It has been a semester of inextricable grace, and I am anxious to see what the remaining month holds.

Above are many pictures of the “highs” from the past few weeks. They have been filled with so much joy and beauty, but know that there is a lot not pictured. Not included are visits to Syrian refugee camps and local N.G.O.s, late nights watching the news with my Palestinian host family, and the many conversations about culture, identity, and resistance with those around me. While the fun experiences certainly make a mark on this trip for me, these quiet moments of mourning, sorrow, and persistence of faith are equally important, if not more important. For what it’s worth, I am immensely thankful for both and am constantly reminded of the sustaining glimmers of hope.

This semester continues to reflect deep emotion and pull me into spaces I never dared to dream. I am clinging to unwavering hope and basking in the immense joy prevalent in this beautiful country in which I have been so graciously welcomed. Follow along for the last month of my semester, as I hope you have gained a small window into my life in Amman.

A Trip to Sakartvelo!

მოგესალმებით საქართველოდან! Mogesalmebit sakartvelodan! Greetings from Georgia! Welcome to Georgia, a country laden with history, churches, diverse climates, awe-inspiring geography, and the best FOOD. As you might have already guessed, I spent my spring break in Georgia, known to Georgians as Sakartvelo or, more correctly, საქართველო.

Starting in Kutaisi, we journeyed across Georgia to the capital, Tbilisi, made a day trip into the mountains, and came full circle, returning to Kutaisi on an eight-day snapshot of this marvelous country. Due to the sheer amount of information, locations, adventures (and misadventures), and lessons acquired, I have chosen to make this more of a non-traditional blog post, relying heavily on photos to tell a story that words would not do justice. Therefore, without further ado, I introduce a brief visual journey through Georgia.

Kutaisi

Starting in Kutaisi gave me a taste of the vast array of experiences Georgia had to offer, from the humid depths of Prometheus caves to the cliff edge retreats of Motsameta monastery and the hilltop wonder of Bagrati cathedral.

Tbilisi

Welcome to Georgia’s bustling capital, hosting anywhere from 30,000-50,000 stray dogs (depending on who you ask) and 1.1 million people.

It’s ancient, modern, and heavily dotted with churches, history, and phenomenal food. Some highlights include seeing Mother Georgia (with a fun little trip up the mountain that made me confront my fear of funiculars), witnessing philosophical thought in architectural form (the Leaning Clock Tower), visiting the sulfur baths that assuage my aching feet, and experiencing a massive church that I was surprisingly older than (Holy Trinity Chapel)!

Caucasus Mountains

A journey that is not for the faint of heart. With winding switchbacks, occasional snowstorms, slightly dilapidated roads, soaring heights, and foothills that sprawl for miles, the Caucasus Mountains truly inspire awe and a healthy level of fear.

In my seven-hour journey through them, I got to experience it all – including Gergeti Trinity Church located at an impressive elevation of 2,170 meters and only accessible through hiking or a journey in 4x4s driven by fearless drivers. It was truly a memorable experience, especially when we got stuck in the mountains due to a stalled truck in the tunnels.

Georgian Food

I had been told for weeks about how amazing Georgian food was, but I did not actually understand how good it was until I tried it. From khinkali (dumplings) and nigvziani badrijani (eggplant rolls) to khachapuri (filled bread, the best one was with cheese and egg), Georgia had something for every palate.

Some of my friends making traditional Georgian bread!!

Much to the delight of other members of my trip, they also had more traditional American fast-food places like Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s, though their offerings and tastes are unique from their counterparts in the United States.

US returaunts at the mall!
(Including KFC, Wendy’s, McDonalds, and Burger King)

I hope you enjoyed that brief look at the beautiful country of Sakartvelo! Until the next adventure, iki (Lithuanian for come again)!

A Long Awaited Mystery: The Writers Retreat

If you look up anything about the Dublin Writers Program, you’ll start hearing about the Writers Retreat. You’ll learn that the location is kept secret until you arrive, that it changes from year to year to keep the mystery alive. If you’re curious, keep reading and you’ll find out where I ended up. 🙂

Before leaving Dublin at 8 am on Friday morning all I knew was the objective for the weekend: Eat well, sleep well, read well, write well. I seriously couldn’t imagine anything better.

Weirdly enough, I didn’t care that I had no idea where I was going. I’m a pretty Type A person. I like to be prepared and have a plan. This weekend, though, I was simply along for the ride. It was nice to let go of expectations and plans, to simply look out the window and wonder where I would end up.

As the bus started, I realized we were going north. We went through the street I drove with my parents (the one that reminds me of the Dark Hedges or a Victorian parkway). We got on the highway and it was strange to be driving the same route I traveled three weeks earlier. The road was so much greener, truly coming to life in these few short weeks.

Eventually, we stopped at the same rest station my family stopped at. At this point, I was intrigued because I knew where I was the entire time rather than being completely lost in a mystery.

Back on the bus, we crossed into Northern Ireland. Funnily enough, I hadn’t even realized that the North was a possibility even though the border is basically nonexistent. At this point, I decided to hedge my bets and lock in a guess of where we were going: Portrush, Northern Ireland. I desperately wanted to be right–not just to win but to return to the only town I wanted to go back to from my family’s road trip around the island.

We passed through Belfast, through Ballymena, and I was feeling weird. I still knew exactly where I was. As the miles passed, I became more and more convinced that we had to be going to Portrush but I didn’t want to disappoint myself. I tried to convince myself of Antrim but we passed that sign. I tried to convince myself of Coleraine but we didn’t take that exit either.

There was only one exit left: the exit for Giant’s Causeway and Portrush. It was then that I knew for certain that I was right. I was going back to Portrush. A grin spread over my face. I could not imagine a more beautiful place to spend the weekend.

After getting some lunch, I set out to explore the beach. When I was here a few weeks ago, I was only able to walk around the tip of the peninsula with my mom before we continued on our way. The beach was sandy, dunes rising in the background. As I explored, the wind was actually insane, whipping the waves into a frenzy, tossing spray into the air, and picking up sand and driving it along the strand.

Of course, this was fine until I turned around to make my way back into town. The wind hit me full in the face, catching me in its icy grip. Grains of sand were flung into my face. I wrapped my scarf around my nose, squinting to see while my eyes watered. And then it started raining. The shower was a brief one but I still managed to get drenched from the combination of wind and rain.

Later in the afternoon, I sat on the rocks by the shore watching the waves crash down, foaming bubbling up. As they rose, I could see tangles of seaweed swirling green before the water curled again. Wind whipped my hair and salt spray dusted my skin. It was wild and free and magical. Peaceful too. Slipping and sliding on the rocks, I searched for sea glass, filling my pockets. Naturally, a wave snuck up on me. I thought I could outrun it, but no. My feet were soaked for hours. I only brought one pair of shoes for the weekend.

Spoiler alert: this became the theme of the weekend. If anyone asks why I keep getting sick… just don’t.

The next morning, I woke up for the magical sunrise. Droplets of rain still fell and the wind was howling past my window. I went downstairs all the same and I am so glad I did. The waves were actually insane–foamy and crashing over the rocks, tossing spray into the air, over the railings, onto us. I could have watched for hours and I did return to the ocean many times that day. As we walked, my feet got soaked again. Similar to my sea glass hunt, a wave snuck up on me that I thought I could outrun. Naturally, I couldn’t.

Later, after warming up, reading, and working on a few projects, I set out to explore again. The sun came out and I needed to feel it on my skin. Plus, we were on the edge of the Atlantic, and staring out across all the empty space is such a fascinating perspective. It makes me feel small in this world. I did some more sea glass hunting and found so many beautiful fragments. From there, I set out on my walk, repeating the steps I took with my mom.

I went around the peninsula, the very tip of this stretch of land. Although the cliff isn’t particularly high, it’s somehow more striking than part of the Cliffs of Moher because there is no barricade. I was literally on the edge of the world, fighting the wind for my footing. The waves were wild and spray was just crashing over me. I swear, I have never been happier or felt more free than standing on the edge of that cliff.

Next morning, I woke up for the sunrise again. This time, I wore a swimsuit under my clothes because why not jump in? Plus, salt air, sunrises, wind on my skin, and rainbows make for the most beautiful morning.

We got down to the beach and this morning I was the only one wearing a swimsuit. Feeling self-conscious, I almost didn’t get in the water. That said, I wanted to go into the sea, wanted the rush of cold and adrenaline.

So I did. Alone, I ran into the sea and again it was the freest I have ever felt. It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be–I’m convinced jumping into Lake Michigan on Easter last year was colder. To be honest, I felt like I could have stayed in the waves longer, but I knew I shouldn’t.

I came out of the water and was so happy and refreshed. Walking out of the ocean, the biggest smile spread across my face.

And, of course, it got better, confirming my decision to do that polar plunge. A rainbow spread across the sky, transforming from a wee pillar to a full arch. A second arch spread over the top, dim at first but quickly growing in strength.

Soggy and chilled, I ran across the peninsula because I knew the rainbow was going to come down into the sea. It’s the strangest thing here in Ireland–I can almost always see the end of the rainbow. Sometimes I wish the Pot of Gold myth was true. But, of course, it’s not and it doesn’t need to be. Personally, I think the real gold is the memories made and the beauty that lingers, waiting to be found.

I see God most clearly in rainbows and for this one to come as I rose out of the water… I’ll let you find your own symbolism in that.

The Art of Being Alone: A Solo Date to Malahide Beach

They say studying abroad changes you, makes you more independent, teaches you about yourself, and broadens your perspective on the world. All of these things are true, yes, but they are also abstract. Nothing prepares you for what you will see, what you will do, what you will take away. 

If I’m being honest, I thought I would have it easy. I’d already moved away from home for college and, really, how different could a ten-hour car ride and an eight-hour plane ride be? I was used to being alone, used to making friends out of strangers however long that process may take. In this respect, nothing really changed. 

Still, I am a different girl than I was when I moved to Dublin. I’ve learned to shop for my food and cook my own meals. On my morning walk to class, I pass now familiar sights and watch as flowers grow and bloom in radiant colors. 

I’ve settled into a routine quickly and, to be honest, that’s a dangerous thing. If I do the same thing every day, what’s the point of moving halfway across the world? 

So. 

Today I decided to step outside my comfort zone. I took the train to Malahide alone, reading my book as my body swayed to the gentle rocking motion. Making my way to the beach, I dipped my fingers into the Irish Sea, hunted for rainbows, and searched for extravagant shells. I sat alone and watched the world go by, people walking past and waves washing everything new. I even took myself out for fish and chips. 

Even now, writing this blog post a month later, the few hours I spent in Malahide are still some of my favorites. Towards the end of the day, before I walked back to the train station, I remember an older couple walking along the sand below me as I sat, swinging my feet, on a wall above the shore.

“She’s probably laughing at us slipping in the mud,” the woman below me said.

Sitting up on the wall, I thought, “No, I’m not. Don’t you see how beautiful it is out here with the sun sparkling on the shore?”

Her husband laughed, holding the dog’s leash. They continued on across the sand, moving out of my periphery. I stayed still, feet swinging, knocking against the stone. My Converse were damp and dirty, my leggings splattered with muddy sand, splashed as I jumped from rock to rock. My shirt’s discolored too from the puppy that ran to me, bouncing with the joy of being alive. I didn’t speak to his owner, but I am grateful for the interaction–the soft fur beneath my fingertips, the simple giving of love that asked for nothing in return.

If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be studying abroad in Dublin, I wouldn’t have believed them. But here I am, making my childhood self proud, living out my dreams. 

I’ve always been scared to go on a solo date, thinking people would judge me or I would judge myself and ruin the experience. But, that didn’t happen. Don’t let anyone else–or your own fears–get in the way of living life. Looking back, I’d tell myself I made it. At the beginning of 2023, I decided I was in my “saying yes” era and here I am. Consider this your sign to take the chance, to say yes. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

P.S.: If you want to see a bit more of this day, click on the link below and you’ll be able to see my solo date in video form. 🙂

Exploring the South of Jordan

It has been a while since my last post, but it has been a busy and joy-filled month or so and I wanted to share some of my recent adventures!

The Dead Sea

A few weeks ago, SIT arranged for my program to take a week-long trip to the south of Jordan. We began our week with a short day trip to the Dead Sea, which is only about a 45-minute drive from our school in Amman. This was a ‘bucket list’ location for me, which filled the early morning drive out of the congested city with anticipation as we approached the lowest point on Earth. While I have been loving my time in Amman, I had not realized how much I missed being in the quiet of nature. The sounds and fast-paced energy of the city prove quite a stark contrast from my quiet life at Hope College, but it was a nice refresh to find myself in more rural areas with some peaceful moments of stillness.

As we checked in for our beach day passes, the hotel informed us that there was a double red flag warning on the beach, meaning we would not be able to actually float in the Dead Sea. As the 16 20-some-year-olds trudged to the beach with an air of disappointment, we were met with the reality of a beautiful view. We spent our morning wading on the banks and leisurely reading and napping as the air warmed up. After a few hours of simply relaxing, we found out the hotel we were at had a “Dead Sea experience pool,” which was a pool so highly concentrated with salt that it simulated the weightless feeling of the actual sea. We were explicitly warned not to get any water from the pool in our eyes or mouth. However, this proved incredibly challenging as this small pool continued to fill with fellow tourists over the course of about half an hour. Overall, the pool was an incredible experience, but we were all still clinging to the hope that we would be able to float in the sea later that day.

After the pool, a few of us walked across the hotel and noticed that one of the red flags had been taken down, meaning we could get into the sea! We spent the rest of the day floating in the sea until we had to make our drive back to Amman.

Floating in the Dead Sea
Looking out on the incredible view

A Very Fast Week

Once we returned from the Dead Sea, we had only a few days before we left for our week-long excursion to Mt. Nebo, Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba. The week of classes flew by! Our Arabic class became increasingly intensive, and the many assignments from other courses made it a very challenging week to stay on top of. We visited King Abdullah I Mosque for an Arabic field trip to learn more about Islam and prepare for Ramadan. It was such a beautiful mosque, and our Arabic teacher was so excited to share her experience of Ramadan with my class.

Not only was I consumed with academics and studying, but we also had a few birthdays to celebrate over the coming weeks! It might sound silly, but I often hear that birthdays are a considerable concern for some who want to study abroad. It can be unsettling to spend your birthday in an unfamiliar city with unfamiliar people, but being able to celebrate one another has been a highlight of the semester so far!

The view from my balcony
Visiting King Abdullah I Mosque
Celebrating a fellow Hope student, Kaylee’s, birthday!

Kissed by a Camel

Following a short stop at Mt. Nebo, we caravanned in our vans down to the Old Village resort, an ancient city near Petra renovated into a beautiful hotel! After a much-needed night of sleep, we woke up early to begin exploring the ancient city of Petra. Filled with many Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia jokes and references, the day consisted of us walking down to the Treasury in Petra, which is generally the structure most people think of when they hear ‘Petra.’ After taking an abundance of pictures and getting unexpectedly kissed by a camel, our guide offered to take us about 2 hours past the Treasury, where we got to see the painted caves and ate lunch over an ancient amphitheater. 

Eating lunch looking out onto the amphitheater
Getting kissed by a camel
Standing in front of the Treasury at Petra
Exploring more of Petra!

Wadi Rum

Our two-night stay in the Old Village at Petra was followed by a couple-hour road trip further south to Wadi Rum – a protected desert in Jordan. Upon arrival, we were given the keys to our accommodations, a beautiful structure built to resemble traditional Bedouin lodging. The village-like hotel sat in the middle of the desert, which provided a perfect spot for star gazing later that night. After a quick nap and some time to rest, we all got ready for the long-awaited camel rides. Only eight of us could ride at a time, meaning our sixteen-person group had to split up. I was lucky enough to be ready in time for the first group and was brought to meet my camel for the next 45 minutes, Hasif. Once everyone got a chance to explore the desert on their camel, we took a jeep tour of the surrounding areas, which brought us to some of the filming sites of Dune, a Bedouin tent where we drank incredible tea and took a small hike, and cartwheeled through the red sand. 

Cartwheeling through the desert
Camel riding!
Watching the sunrise outside my tent in Wadi Rum
Exploring some cool looking rocks on our jeep tour

That night, we ate a delicious meal, Zarb, a traditional meal prepared in the ground. After our dinner, we danced Dabke with some other guests and found some rocks to star gaze on.

Watching our meal (Zarb) getting pulled out of the ground and brought to the dining room

Aqaba

After a short rest stop to see the fifth tallest flagpole in the world, we arrived at our most southern location – Aqaba. As Aqaba is a gulf city right on the Red Sea, we were all very excited to swim but were met with cold weather when we arrived. However, the town we stayed in has beautiful restaurants and shops, which we explored all day. Because all the students in the program live with different host families, we don’t often see much of each other outside of school and studying. However, all of us staying in the same hotel meant we could have a few movie nights over the excursion, which was a fun time to relax after a few busy days!

The view from an early morning walk around Aqaba
A few boats close to the 5th tallest flagpole in the world

Back to Amman

The southern excursion was one of the things that drew me to this particular SIT program. Seeing many of these long-awaited locations certainly met my expectations, and the memories will undoubtedly last a lifetime. While enjoying my time exploring the new sights, I missed my host family immensely. I was so happy to be met with many hugs and stories from their week when I returned.

Once we returned to our busy lives back in Amman, we had a lot of work waiting for us. As we were preparing to embark on another excursion to Geneva, Switzerland, in just a couple weeks, we had ample homework, exams, and projects commanding our time. The change in pace was welcome, however, as I realized how much I had become acquainted with my daily routine in Amman.

I have many updates and stories to share from the last couple of months, and I will be sure to post again soon. Thank you for keeping up with my journey, and I hope these small glimpses of life in Jordan have proved encouraging and served as a sweet reminder of the immense beauty in this world we share.