Climbing the Mountain of Culture Shock

I’ve been in the Dominican Republic for 6 weeks now and it’s been nothing short of surprising, stretching, nurturing, and adventurous. The weather is gorgeous, and the hustle and bustle of the city have grown on me. One thing that I am still navigating is my interesting experience with culture shock while here, and I think the best way to describe it is through my experience climbing Pico Diego de Ocampo.

It started out rough. I was ambitious, though, and didn’t let the steep incline riddled with rocks deter me from embarking on this journey. After a few minutes, there was a plateau or flat piece of the trail where I could catch my breath and appreciate the scenery around me. (This is similar to the excitement and rush of arriving in a new country and jumping into a new education system.) This plateau gave me hope after starting out climbing on my tippy toes. But not long after I caught my breath, another incline appeared and I was determined not to stop. Winding back and forth, up and over rocks and roots, was a challenge, and fatigue began to set in. In hopes of not having to get my trusty inhaler out, I asked the group to stop for a moment so I could catch my breath. I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who benefited from taken a breather. (This was around the time I found my friends here in the D.R. who wanted to relax at a coffee shop and talk about our experiences so far.) We drank water, relaxed our breathing, and continued on our journey up.

A bit of a rough patch in the trail
A bit of a rough patch in the trail

The last incline to the top was the most treacherous. It seemed like it was going to be the death of me–I did happen to slip on the way down, but thankfully our guide, Juan, caught me. (At this point, I have gotten over the homesickness, and leaned into my family and friends here to get me through.) Knowing that this was the last stretch until the top, it motivated me to continue on slowly, but surely. The overwhelming feeling of joy and accomplishment flooded into our hearts and faces as we saw the glorious view of the mountains below. It was incredible, and it was unusually clear enough to see the ocean and the beach, Playa Sosúa, from the peak! Needless to say, I am proud of myself for getting through the difficult climb to see the well worth it view of what this world has to offer.

The view from the top of Pico Diego de Ocampo. The ocean is to the left, approx. 52 Km from the mountain.
The view from the top of Pico Diego de Ocampo. The ocean is to the left, approx. 52 Km from the mountain.

P.S. My boyfriend Caleb was also on the hike. He decided to visit for the weekend, and proposed last Friday! So, it helped to have my encouraging fiancé to cheer me on along the way. (In-person and on the phone throughout my trials here in the D.R.)

Reunion by the World’s Largest Pyramid!

One of the best aspects of being involved with the International and TCK (Third Culture Kids) students at Hope College is that you get to meet students from all over the world with different cultures. “A country” becomes “the country” and widens your perspectives and worldview. There are more than 80 students from all over the world at Hope College – probably in your classes, in your dorm, and maybe next to you. 

Gabriel came to Hope College as an exchange student from a university in Queretaro, Mexico, in the Fall of 2018. He not only enriched my experience at Hope College, but was involved with IMAGES (international cultural showcase that takes place in the Knickerbocker theater in the Fall) and became a wonderful friend to many Hope students. 

This weekend, Gabriel took his time to visit me in Puebla all the way from Queretaro which is about 4+ hours by bus. He arrived in the afternoon, on Friday, and spent the whole weekend in Puebla.

On Saturday, we visited a town called Cholula. 

Part of the world's largest base of the pyramid
Part of the world’s largest base of the pyramid

Have you been inside a Pyramid? …well, did you know you can go inside a pyramid? I didn’t. Here I am inside of the Great Pyramid of Cholula (Zone Arqueológica de Cholula) which was built more than 2000 years ago in order to honor an ancient god called Quetzalcoatl. It is the world’s largest pyramid, and it is four times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. 

The endless stairs
The endless stairs
Inside the pyramid, just enough space for one person
Inside the pyramid, just enough space for one person

Inside the Pyramid, it is dark and humid. It smells like the porch at my grandmother’s mountain cabin during the rainy season. The uncovered steps show the process of building the pyramids. The pyramid was made with 4 different processes of adding stages on top of the previous ones. The tunnel inside the pyramid is just a little taller than I am (5’2’’) and wide enough for one person. Maybe ancient people were about my size seeing that Gabriel has to bend his neck sometimes. 

Outside, the grass spreads out from the pyramid. 77 degrees Fahrenheit, just the right amount of wind and sun you cannot enjoy in Michigan during this time of the year. There are squirrels casually running up and down the pyramids. How peaceful can it be? 

Right outside of the pyramid
Right outside of the pyramid

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands ♪ There is a man clapping his hands like he is trying to get someones attention. Is he happy or what is he doing? I looked at Gabriel. 

  • Shh… pay attention to the sound
  • Huh? ….oh

I soon realized that every time the man claps his hands, I can hear a sound that resembles that of a bird. It is not a normal echo. The crazy thing is that the phenomenon is not a coincidence. The ancient Aztecs calculated the sound wave and built the pyramid so that you can enjoy the echo. How crazy is that? (Gabriel said that’s because they didn’t have Netflix). 

Listen to it carefully, you would be able to hear the bird-like echo

Looking up at the pyramid, there is a very noticeable cathedral on top of the pyramid. It is not only huge but is yellow, and stands out as if it is claiming their presence – which is not too far from the history behind this sight. 

The great base of the pyramid and a cathedral on top
The great base of the pyramid and a cathedral on top
  • Manna, we have a decision to make. An adventurous path, or less adventurous path?
  • We came all the way here, of course, we can do the adventurous path!

In the afternoon, in Cholula, where the sun is shining, Gabriel and I chose the less adventurous route to finish our hike to the top of the pyramid – or to the huge cathedral. I don’t know how much energy we saved by choosing the less adventurous route for the last 20 steps, but we were both sweating when we finally got to the top. 

The view is just amazing. I can try to come up with a description with my poor vocabulary knowledge, but the picture will give you a better description. You can see the entire city of Puebla. Around the cathedral, there are souvenir stores where they sell ice cream and cold beverages. There are couples taking cute pictures, groups of girls taking Instagram pictures, and many tourists just enjoying the view from the wall – including us.

The view from the pyramid
The view from the pyramid

Who thought about building this huge yellow cathedral, which is covered in the best quality of art and architecture on top of a pyramid? Well, yes, the Spaniards. It feels very different seeing the beautiful cathedral knowing some history. Some local Mexicans called this a “gift” of the Spaniards while some of them saw it as a symbol of the conquest. I am just amazed to be able to see part of the Mexican history from this sight. 

Walking out of the pyramid park, we stopped at an open area where there were food trucks and souvenir shops. 3:00 pm in the afternoon, the sun is shining. Gabriel and I sat down by one of the food trucks. 

Souvenir shops right by the pyramid
Souvenir shops right by the pyramid
Mezcal truck
Mezcal truck
Mezcal in a cute base (you can bring it home)
Mezcal in a cute base (you can bring it home)

After trying a Mexican drink called Mezcal, which is an agave-based liquor similar to Tequila, we walked around downtown Cholula and explored the city. 

Colorful buildings with some artworks
Colorful buildings with some artworks

After exploring downtown, we arrived at a small diner where they sell cemitas – very typical food from Puebla. I have been surprised by the big food portion since I arrived in Mexico, but the cemita was way bigger than any of the sandwiches I have ever tried. My first cemita was amazing and was added to my famous Mexican food list, even though I had to take half of it to-go.

A drawing of a famous Mexican legend on the wall in the diner
A drawing of a famous Mexican legend on the wall in the diner
Cemita!
Cemita!

And that concluded our day 2 reunion by the great pyramid. How amazing it is to be able to reunite with a friend I met at Hope College all the way in Mexico.

Pre-departure Emotions

Time passes so fast. In no time, I’ll be in the capital city of Germany, Berlin! There are so many emotions going through me all at once. I’m excited, but nervous and sad at the same time. It was the same exact feeling I had when I left home for the States. This time, it is even more nerve-wrecking because I will be taking classes in German, instead of English. I have not mastered the German language and I’m not confident in speaking German so it will definitely be a huge challenge for me. “What if I’m not good enough? What if my classmates are better in German than I am? What if I get a bad grade? How do I buy groceries when my German is not that good?” These questions kept spinning around my head. I know I need to stop worrying and focus on my goals for my semester abroad. After all, I chose to study abroad in Germany to improve my German!

Leaving home is never easy no matter how many times I’ve done it before. I’m about to leave what is familiar to me and head into the unknown. It is like doing college all over again — meeting new friends, getting used to the new environment, and adapting to a new culture, etc. “Will I be able to fit in? What if my classmates do not like me? Will my host family like me? What if I offend people with the things I say?”

Saying goodbye is also never easy. I had such an amazing time back home in Penang, Malaysia, where I spent my Christmas break. That one and a half month seemed so short. It felt like it was only yesterday when I first arrived in Penang. I couldn’t believe it when it was time to say goodbye again. I thought it would be easier because I’ve done it a couple of times before but truth is, it is still very difficult when it comes to saying goodbye. I was not ready to leave my friends and family. However, holding on to the fact that I will see them again has kept me going when I was studying in the U.S. and I believe it will also keep me going when I’m in Germany.

Well, putting all the negative emotions aside, I’m really excited for what my semester abroad in Berlin has in store for me! I’m excited to explore and immerse myself in a new culture. I’ve only seen Germany through books, videos, and movies, and now, I finally get to experience it first-hand! I can’t wait to travel around Europe, and study in a big and international city like Berlin, a much-needed change from Holland, Michigan. I’m also really excited to meet my host family, and get to know them better! I hope to form long-lasting friendships and gain a deeper understanding of myself.

Berlin, here I come!

The First Hike of Many

Today was the day I finally got to hike up a mountain. To be fair, I have only been in Cape Town for about a week and a half. However, the second I stepped out of the airport I saw mountains and immediately wanted to be on top of them.

The view of Table Mountain from the street I live on
The view of Table Mountain from the street I live on

The city of Cape Town is built around Table Mountain. Table Mountain a flat-top mountain that is one of multiple mountains comprising Table Mountain National Park. It officially became one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2012 (“It’s Official”). The two main peaks on either end of Table Mountain are called Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head. Lion’s Head is the peak known for good sunrises and sunsets. It is also the shortest and easiest hike, so the locals advised us to start with it. So, with maybe a little too much pride, I, along with three other friends, decided to hike Lion’s Head to see the sunrise.

It is summer in Cape Town, so the days are long, and the sun rises early. To be precise, the sun rises at 6:10 am. This meant we needed to start hiking before 5 am. We woke up around 4:00 am, were in an Uber at 4:30 am, and began hiking at 4:54 am.

About five minutes into the hike all four of us started complaining about something. It is a lot of work to walk up a steep hill, especially so early in the morning. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.

hiking down the mountain
hiking down the mountain

We assumed we were making good time when we stopped behind a long queue (line) of tourists along a narrow path with a drop off to one side and tall, intimidating rocks to the other side. They informed us that they went the wrong way, but the satellite map on my friends’ phone appeared to show us on the right path. They backtracked, and we moved forward, quickly to find a dead end. Luckily as we shamefully began following the narrow path back, we found the correct path. At the top of a ladder we climbed, we were supposed to turn left instead of right. It really is hard to see in the dark. This was our first humbling experience.

Next, we made it to a fork with a sign that said “alternative route” or “scaling”. It was emphasized that scaling was at our own risk, but we proceeded up the path, nonetheless. Rungs were somehow drilled into the rocks to help us climb. Near the top of about a 20 foot climb, the rungs disappeared and a heavy metal chain was along one side of the rocks. That is what we used to get up the remaining few feet of rock.

The most challenging part of this experience was doing it in the dark. A sunrise hike meant hike up in the dark in order to see the sun rise at the top. None of us owned head torches (headlamps) so we were using the flashlight on our phones to light the way. However, when scaling rocks, both hands are needed, so the phone flashlights were turned off and put away.

After we made it through the scaling portion, feeling pretty proud of ourselves, we could see the top of the mountain. However, it still seemed so far away and what was between us and the top of the mountain was more rocks! So, we climbed. There was another ladder, more rungs, and a lot of careful stepping up rocks.

The view of the top of Lion's Head from hike down
The view of the top of Lion’s Head from hike down

As my friends and I talked about the unexpected intensity of this hike while climbing, a few locals passed us. One woman asked us if we had done Devil’s Peak or Table Mountain. We admittingly denied our hiking experience in Cape Town. With a friendly smirk, she explained that Lion’s Head is nothing compared to the other hikes. Apparently both Devil’s Peak and the top of Table Mountain include longer, steeper, harder climbs. More information on that to come soon.

However, in good timing, we made it! I’m not going to lie, standing on top of a mountain before 6 o’clock felt accomplishing. Also, the view from the top of the mountain was breathtaking. I saw the ocean, different beaches, the city, and other mountains all from one point. And I can’t forget the sun, of course. Or did we miss it?

"cloud clearing! quick--let's get a picture!"
“cloud clearing! quick–let’s get a picture!”

We were standing on top of the mountains for 15 minutes with colorless clouds. The clouds would engulf the top of the mountain and limit our visibility, then blow away so we had a clear, gorgeous view, only to quickly return. The colors in the sky were not meeting my expectations because they were completely lacking. It was light enough outside that I thought the sun had already risen without colors. But all of a sudden, the sun popped out behind a mountain in the distance. Within seconds, colors of pink and orange were painted across the sky so vibrant I thought I was dreaming. I thought to myself THIS is why I woke up at 4am.

A view of the sunrise as the colors start pushing through the clouds
A view of the sunrise as the colors start pushing through the clouds
Just sitting on a rock, admiring the view!
Just sitting on a rock, admiring the view!

 God’s majesty and beauty was shining right in my face, and I could not help but be in total awe. I am so thankful to be in a city and country that has a variety of activities, and a melting pot of people where I can learn from others and constantly be reminded of God’s majesty that surrounds me—and all of us—every day, even if we don’t think we can see it.

Sources:

“It’s Official – Table Mountain Is a New7Wonder of Nature.” TableMountain Aerial Cableway | Official Website, www.tablemountain.net/blog/entry/its_official_-_table_mountain_is_a_new7wonder_of_nature.

The Exhilarating (and Scary!) Onboarding of My Dream Internship

As some of you may know, my off-campus study experience in D.C. was primarily motivated by my life-long dream to work with the non-profit International Justice Mission. International Justice Mission is the largest anti-human trafficking non-profit, existing with the singular mission of protecting the poor from violence. It beautifully and effectively works by building relationships with communities and local law enforcement, training and guiding people into becoming more aware of sexual violence or trafficking. It has transformed justice systems and walked with them into rescue missions for people forced into slavery all around the world. Best of all, it helps victims of trafficking or other forms of violence get justice and sensitive aftercare. This both helps victims start a better life and reduces impunity, preventing these crimes from happening again.

Being one of the most well-known and influential non-profits, I never expected an internship. In fact, I’ve been told that I competed against around 500 or so other qualified applicants for my spot. But by God’s amazing grace, I connected with my interviewer and remembered to put “proficient in Spanish” on my resume, landing me the Latin American Regional Operations intern position. Of course, I cried a lot when I received the acceptance email.

Joining IJM wasn’t any less emotional or exhilarating. On the first day of orientation, I heard many of my heroes give tear-jerking speeches. During the gourmet (and, shockingly, mostly vegan!) lunch of grilled vegetables and freshly baked bread, the CEO, Gary Haugen himself, shook my hand, thanking me for being there. The IJM president of Latin America and I shared life stories, and I got to hear about his time as a protester back in law school in Guatemala. I met some of the most inspiring, intelligent, and gracious people I’ve ever known–and this was just day one. Once stepping out of the prestigious law firm that donated their space to IJM for the day, my fellow Hope student and I immediately blurted, “…was that a dream?”

Me talking to the CEO of IJM... and freaking out inside
Me talking to the CEO of IJM… and freaking out inside

While adjusting to the IJM schedule helped calm my nerves, the overwhelming intimidation stayed. Most interns either attended Ivy-League schools, had graduated, or were working on masters degrees. Being nineteen years old, I was by far the youngest–shocking employees with my inability to drink wine with them at happy hour. When I thought I would just be answering phones or filing, my supervisor immediately gave me important research and writing work that affects major organizational decisions. Scariest of all, every time I shared my position with people, they would proclaim: “Oh, Latin America! So you’re fluent in Spanish!” No, I am not.

This intimidation certainly freaked me out the first week–turning me into a sleep-deprived, overthinking mess. But with prayer and community, I realized that not only am I meant to be where I am, but I have been granted a fantastic opportunity. The scariness, while valid, can be turned into exhilarating energy. My Spanish or my work might not be perfect, but I do know that I will dedicatedly and excitedly try my best.

Ireland: Myth and Magic

“Do you see that over there, up on the wall next to the driver?” I ask my friend as we slide into our seats on the bus. A line of IES students file their way in behind us. I point to a wooden design the driver must have put up on the wall. “Remember when we were talking about Saint Brigid in Celtic Myth? That’s called Saint Brigid’s cross.” 

“Well would you look at that,” She smiled. “There’s just little bits of folklore everywhere!” We talked about the issue further as the rest of our class fills the tour bus. Soon it’s filled with the animated buzz of restless students about to embark on an adventure. And, since most of the trip is taken up by the IES Writer’s Program, there’s also the sound of digging books out from bags and flipping to the right page.    

Saint Brigid is a rather curious figure, both in Irish history and mythology. Alongside Patrick and Columba, Brigid of Kildare is a patron saint of Ireland, and is one of the most well-known Christian figures in the country. Tomorrow, February 1st, is coincidentally her feast day. It’s written that she established several churches and monasteries, including the Church of the Oak in Kildare. What’s curious to note is that this church was built above a shrine to a Celtic Goddess who also shares the name of Brigid. Brigid is a goddess of (among many things) fire, poetry, and metalwork. She is associated with the nature festival of Imbolc, which also happens to fall on February 1st. “Imbolc” roughly translates to “Milking,” and is a holiday to celebrate the lactating of cows and sheep. 

Our class destination; doesn't seem to impressive, but stay tuned
Our class destination; doesn’t seem to impressive, but stay tuned

Brigid is a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a race of gods who ruled Ireland before modern humans. Now (if you believe the legends, of course) they live as an underground fairy race. Bridges between our world and theirs were built in the form of passage tombs, also called fairy mounds, which are spread across Ireland. Our Celtic Myths and Legends of Early Ireland class is boarding this bus to travel to Brú na Bóinne, a region in County Meath around the Boyne River that contains the most well-known of the passage tombs; Newgrange (cue celtic music sounding in the distance). 

Sign leading us to Newgrange!
Sign leading us to Newgrange!

Once our professor climbs on the coach bus- a short, elegant woman, who goes by “Mich,” has a curious accent amalgamated from Irish and New York, and always wears fashionable black layers (and who we’ve already decided is a sort of trickster fairy spirit), we begin on our way. Our bus meanders the small streets of Dublin, eventually leaving the city behind and starting out towards central Ireland. For the first part of our journey, the fields and houses alongside the highways reminded me of rural Indiana and Michigan. Long bus rides have a universal power of putting me to sleep, so I was content to sit back and stare out the window as rural Ireland slowly took over the landscape. 

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get various explanations for “the Brigid conflation.” Many believe they were separate entities, who just happened to have the same name. Some people believe they are versions of the same person, that Saint Brigid is just a Christianized pagan goddess. Others believe Saint Brigid actually predates the goddess, as the saint is first mentioned in the 5th Century. It’s difficult to tell for certain, even for serious academics. Early Christians didn’t just bring their religion to Ireland in 432 AD; they also brought written language. Monks were the first to record the histories and legends of the native people. They would write down stories, but then change them to their fancy. With the flick of a quill pagan heroes became baptized and powerful gods turned to saints. Saint Brigid and the goddess Brigid’s stories and identities are wound tightly around each other, like the reeds used to form their distinctive cruciform symbol. 

Can you spot Newgrange?
Can you spot Newgrange?

Soon, the views outside the bus begin to resemble the Midwest less and less. The land begins to roll, hunching to large hills and then stretching to small valleys like the back of a verdant cat. Plant life creeps into every recess, filling out the land with deep green foliage. We turn off the main road, and find ourselves in thin, curving streets winding around moss-embellished stone walls and thickets of old dense trees. Houses become sparse, until all we were passing are old cottages solitary in farmland. We begin to spot horses, cows, donkeys, and of course the all-famous sheep. In Celtic mythology, black and white animals are considered to be “of the otherworld.” They would be revered and cherished by families, and at the right time appointed by the seasons be ritually slaughtered as an offering to the gods. My friends and I have quickly gotten into a habit of declaring that every black-and-white animal we come across is a spirit of the fairies. It stands to reason we saw many spirit cows today. This ride was one of the many instances where I once again realized for the umpteenth time that I was in fact in Ireland. Wow. 

Our first view of Newgrange presented itself when we broke through a wall of trees, and the entirety of the Boyne valley spread out around us. Miles of hills, patchworked with grass and farmlands bordered with thin lines of shrubbery. The Boyne flowed pure and blue through the middle, and just past the river atop the tallest hill in the valley was a broad mound, with a wall of white stone around the perimeter. The sprawling valley made the massive burial mound look miniscule in comparison. I found myself open-mouthed, staring at the holy grail of archeological sites. 

“Zach! Look!” My friend directed my attention out the other direction. “Lambs!” 

View out from Newgrange
View out from Newgrange

We couldn’t reach Newgrange from the visitor’s center; we would have to take another bus on another ten-minute drive to reach the actual site. Even though it was late January, it was nearly sixty degrees (Fahrenheit) and the sun shone bright and warm. All around us, the birds talked, and in their calls were innocent hopes for summer. 

Exhibit signs getting us hyped
Exhibit signs getting us hyped

“Class!” Mich called, on our walk to our second bus. “We’re about to cross the Boyne River! Remember what we talked about in class.” We single-filed over the bridge passing over it, a swirling gray mirror with banks of vibrant green. In class, we’d talked about the goddesses of the land, one of which was named Boann (“the bright cow”). She’s the mother of Aengus Óg, the Irish equivalent of Cupid who is said to inhabit Newgrange. Boann bore Aengus Óg via the classic affair-with-a-god, and her husband in anger had prohibited her from visiting his own private spring, in Boyne valley. 

Boann didn’t like this. She visited the spring anyway and caused it to fountain upwards and flood the valley, thus creating the Boyne river. Boann was caught up in the flood, and it physically tore her apart. According to legend, when one looks down the Boyne River, they can see the remnants of Boann; an arm here, an eye there, etc.; where the river meets the sea, there’s a small formation called Rockabill island, and this is said to be her unfortunate dog.

We did not see any mutilated body parts as we crossed the river; maybe we’d need an aerial view. 

The River Boyne
The River Boyne

We were dropped off at the base of Newgrange’s hill. The weather had been perfect most of the morning, but as we neared the mound it altered. Gray clouds clustered in, smothering the sky, and wind began whipping up hair and chilling skin. We passed by The Great Circle, a ring of standing stones surrounding the mound. A large black crow, perched on one of the fallen stones, gazed unflinchingly at our group as we passed. Seeing the bird stare straight at me sent a fatalistic shiver through my body. 

A trinity of death goddesses, collectively referred to as the Morrígan, takes the form of the iconic Battle Crow and chooses who shall live and who shall die. I’m reminded that we are heading toward our own deaths, in a sense. Brú na Bóinne can be translated to “mansion of the bright cow,” but the word brú can also mean “womb.” These mounds, where fairy folk cross between our world and theirs, are burial chambers. The cremated remains of the Neolithic people would be lain to rest here, in a sense returning to the darkness before birth. The travel from entrance to the inner chamber was said to signify the passing from one world to the next. The death of your old self and the birth of a new one. 

Newgrange
Newgrange
Lisa (in the purple coat)
Lisa (in the purple coat)

We meet our tour guide Lisa, whose voice managed to carry over the sudden wind. She informs us that the main chamber is laid out in cruciform shape, even though this structure long predates Christianity (personally this is a fascinating concept, and I’m reminded of “The Brigid situation,” and how the cross was likely a nature symbol related to Brigid the goddess before it it became associated with Jesus Christ). The cross might possibly belong to the long list of icons adapted from early religions. Lisa explains how Newgrange was lost for several hundred years, until 1699 when a farmer transporting rocks found the beautiful entrance stone. The Neolithic art that decorates Newgrange is what primarily has gained it its status as a World Heritage Site. Newgrange is where we first see the triple spiral design referred to as a triskelion, which has become symbolic of Ireland and Celtic identity. 

A guide telling us to watch our heads and to not worry, "the spirits are good."
A guide telling us to watch our heads and to not worry, “the spirits are good.”

“Art isn’t just for art’s sake,” Lisa says. “What they did here, they did for a reason. Stone and wood tools, that’s all they had. Newgrange was built over generations; that shows just how much these people believed in life after death.” 

Our class lines up to enter the tomb, Lisa reminding us to take off our backpacks as the tunnel is rather cramped. One by one we enter. I watch as my classmates disappear into the black tunnel. At last it’s my turn. As I step over the entrance stone, a line from a poem comes to mind;

Step into the otherworld,

Into the womb

Where centuries pass like a day

Entrance to the interior chamber
Entrance to the interior chamber

I stare into the low labyrinthian tunnel, my breath already caught in my chest. Sunlight disappears and I am left in a small corridor of darkness. I feel my way through, hands searching the startlingly cold, smooth boulders, rolled into place in 3200 BC. Roughly five hundred years before the pyramids at Giza were constructed. A thousand years before Stonehenge. My fingers explore the ancient architecture spreading and curving before me, leading me in an aimless direction to a time before measurement. 

Quartz mined from the Wicklow mountains, intermixed with smooth river stones from the Boyne
Quartz mined from the Wicklow mountains, intermixed with smooth river stones from the Boyne

The temperature drops, and the tang of wet stone envelopes me. My feet scrape slowly across a thin gravel path. Small bulbs let out yellow, artificial light, angling out weakly through the passage. I shuffle along, the form of the walkway making me crouch down and squeeze through narrow crevices. The path bends slightly, the large round facet of a boulder occasionally bulging into the walkway. Letting my mind wander, I imagine early people congregating here for worship, watching as the Winter Solstice sun aligns perfectly with the rooftop window, letting in a blade of light shine in the middle of the burial chamber. And suddenly I feel small, in more than just a physical sense. So many hands have touched these same stones, have stumbled their way through following a small, flickering light. 

I’m retracing the steps of history. 

I hunch down, in an almost fetal-like position, and I find this oddly eloquent; just as a newborn feels the need to curl into a ball as it leaves the womb, so should I feel that same need as I re-enter it. And just as it’s started, it’s finished, and I stand, limbs extended, in the burial chamber. 

***

Class meets at the gift shop afterwards before getting back on the bus that will return us to Dublin. Wandering through, I hold a bronze necklace in my hand, feeling the grooves where it resemble reeds wound into Brigid’s cross. I find it’s a fitting symbol, of this experience and also of Ireland’s mystical storybook. I bring it to the counter and pay 19.95€. 

 Even more proof that I appearently cannot take a good picture abroad. Oh well.
Even more proof that I appearently cannot take a good picture abroad. Oh well.

The Greenest Campus on Earth

Finding My Place of Peace in Santiago

Whenever I miss home or am frustrated or just need some air I go for a walk. The campus of PUCMM has got to be the best place to soothe the soul because of its plentiful greenery that facilitates oxygen-rich air. So, here’s a compilation of pictures and videos I’ve taken throughout the last month of walking on campus.

Travel Day!

Rabat, Morocco

As I write this, I’m halfway to Rabat, Morocco! I’m sitting in the Paris airport waiting for my last flight. When I get to Rabat, I will have been traveling for 28 hours. At this point, the travel is definitely starting to exhaust me.

I could have booked my flights differently, making a shorter travel day. I decided to go for a long travel day with lengthy layovers because I left from Chicago. I wanted to have plenty of time in case there were any delays. After all, January in Chicago can be quite the winter mess. I’ve known a few people who have gotten stuck in the Chicago Airport because of the bad winter weather. Thankfully, my travel has been a breeze with no delays, no bad weather, and no lost luggage.

Yesterday, after I said most of my goodbyes, my fiancé drove me to Chicago. I stayed the night in Chicago, before my flight, so that my drive to the airport was only 5 minutes (instead of 3 hours!). This also meant Nathan (my fiancé) and I got to celebrate my last night in the US with yummy Chicago style pizza.

My Last Dinner in the US: Chicago Style Pizza
My Last Dinner in the US: Chicago Style Pizza

This morning, Nathan dropped me off to catch my flight. Saying this goodbye was particularly hard and I avoided going through security for as long as possible. Eventually, I said goodbye and disappeared through security. I traveled from Chicago to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to Paris.

Airport Goodbye!
Airport Goodbye!

As I sit here waiting for my flight to Rabat, I keep thinking about how surreal everything feels right now. There were so many moments when I wasn’t sure going abroad would fit into my four year plan. I’m majoring in Chemistry and on the pre-med track, so the classes I had to take were very specific and some of them couldn’t be taken outside of the US. Thankfully, I managed to squeeze in all my pre-med and Chemistry classes in the last 3.5 years so I could spend one semester abroad without any science classes!

Still, it’s hard to believe that my last semester “at Hope” will be spent in Morocco. I don’t speak French or Arabic, which are the primary languages spoken in Morocco. Honestly, it is nerve-wracking to move to a country where I do not speak the language. But I’m super excited to learn the languages. 

I’m looking forward to seeing what this upcoming semester holds. Throughout the semester, my goals are to learn as much as possible about Morocco, get outside of my comfort zone, and build a solid foundation to continue learning Arabic.

I’m excited to share my adventures with all of you!

P.S. The first photo is a picture I took the day after I arrived in Rabat. This view alone made the long travel day 100% worth it.

Chapter 1: Setting Roots

So far, my time in this wonderful city has been nothing short of amazing. In the two weeks that I have been here, I have had the pleasure of experiencing a lot for the first time. My favorite by far is la Plaza de España which is one of Spain’s largest and most beautiful attractions in the city. The immense size of it alone will blow you away. But every square inch of that place has been painted and designed with such intricate detail. The colors and pictures painted so delicately were amazing. There have also been many new friends made, and lessons learned. Speaking Spanish is getting easier, day by day.

La Plaza de España
La Plaza de España

I remember my first day meeting all of the women in Isabel’s (my host mother) community – el barrio – and somehow being able to avoid the awkward language barrier. They were waiting for me on a balcony and were all speaking, and shouting at me all at once. I was able to throw in a couple jokes, which to my good fortune they all thought were hilarious. It is safe to say I survived the encounter. But now, my Spanish is much better. Isabel and almost everyone else in the city have been very patient with me. I feel as though I’m not just surviving anymore. At lunch and dinner, I can actually carry very good conversations, and give in great input as well as listen effectively.

The view of my housing complex.
The view of my housing complex.

Our Intensive Spanish class has begun as well. This is, in a way, a preamble to the rest of our semester. We have one class a day, for 3 hours. After two weeks, we start our real courses. I am one week in, and it is fairly straightforward with business vocabulary and grammar review. The school itself is beautiful, but freezing cold (as most buildings here are). With just a 20-minute speed walk from the house and 5 stories of stairs, you can settle into your classroom shamefully out of shape and ready to learn.

I have also started my internship process. It was intimidating to conduct six interviews in Spanish with various employers from around the city. However, I feel as though they went fairly well, and I am still waiting on their response.

Overall, these first couple of weeks have gone fairly well. I am now oriented with the city and have met some amazing people. The only speed bumps have been the five-day long rainstorm (accompanied by cold weather), and me contracting Spain’s version of the seasonal flu. But with luck, I can shake off this sickness in a few days, and the sun can shine again.

Arrival

– Nos vemos mañana! (“see you tomorrow”)

– Nos vemos!

I am finally in my new bed at my host family’s house in Puebla, Mexico. Lying on the bed and charging my dead phone, I am reflecting on my eventful day. 

The view from the sky as I make my way to Mexico for a semester!
The view from the sky as I make my way to Mexico for a semester!

11:46 am. My flight departed from Bentonville, Arkansas, where I spent an amazing winter break with one of my friends from high school, and her family. Compared to the 15-hour plane ride with several layovers from the U.S. to Japan – where I am originally from – a 5 hour trip with a layover in Texas was not long enough for me to get mentally prepared for this adventure. When I felt the turbulence and heard a flight attendant making an announcement that we are about to arrive in Mexico, I was very nervous. And, on top of this, CDMX airport in Mexico City was not my final destination. I had to find a bus that would take me to the town I am living in for the next 5 months – Puebla. What do I do when I first get off the plane? My Spanish is nowhere close to being fluent. What if I get lost? What if my host family doesn’t like me? 

Welcome sign in the airport.
Welcome sign in the airport.

“Bienvenidos a Mexico” (Welcome to Mexico)

4:45 pm. I am officially in Mexico! I hear Spanish everywhere and everyone seems to know what they are doing. I, on the other hand, am pretending that I know where to go by just following the person in front of me. I got my luggage and now, I just have to get out of this airport and find the person I am supposed to meet, a friend of Pako ( Jose Francisco Rivera) – Hope’s own Spanish Native Assistant and a great friend of mine. 

Exiting the airport and realizing that I... Am... In... MEXICO!
Exiting the airport and realizing that I… Am… In… MEXICO!

This is the first view I saw in Mexico, right outside of the CDMX airport in Mexico City. A beautiful sunset, continuous cars, and crossed highways that indicate how big the city is. I got to meet Pako’s friend, Jacobo – who welcomed me with sweet gifts and a paper with my name on it (both in English and in Japanese!)

– Hungry?

– Yesss! 

Subway in Mexico City
Subway in Mexico City
A street in Mexico City
A street in Mexico City

After being on a subway for about 10 minutes, Jacobo and I arrived at a station. Almost 6 pm in the evening in Mexico City, there are so many street vendors selling food, snacks, drinks, ice cream, chile…etc. Not just because I am hungry, but everything looks amazing and smells so good. 

Let the food searching begin
Let the food searching begin
Tacos are great, but pair them with the right salsa and they become... phenomenal!
Tacos are great, but pair them with the right salsa and they become… phenomenal!
"Taco Gringa"
“Taco Gringa”

My first meal in Mexico was, of course, a taco! The real one! With cucumbers and sweet onions on the side, and red salsa and green salsa. Not too spicy, but definitely has a kick to it.

Settled in my bus to Puebla
Settled in my bus to Puebla

Almost 8:30 pm, I am on the bus to Puebla. The seat is actually several times better than the domestic flight I took from Arkansas to Houston this morning. There are a few outlets to charge phones, and even a bathroom. And yes, there was a TV with a Mexican movie on for us to enjoy. (I probably should have paid attention so that I could get used to listening Spanish, but I chose to sleep). 

10:30 pm. I arrived at a station in Puebla called CAPU and I see two people who seem to be my host mother and host sister. 

– Manna? 

– Si! (“Yes!”)

This was probably the most nervous moment in the whole trip, but my soon-to-be Mexcian family welcomed me with open arms, even though I arrived late at night and at a further station from their house. By the end of the 30 minutes in the taxi to their house, I was feeling less nervous and more excited for the next 5 months with them.  

When we arrived at their house, we sat down at a table and had some tea and snack. I cannot believe I am having this peaceful time in a different country after the longest day in a while.  

The bed I will be sleeping on for the next 5 months. It is big!
The bed I will be sleeping on for the next 5 months. It is big!

… and here I am on the bed, ready to sleep and ready for orientation Day 1.