Aimlessly Wandering

Passing a previously unnoticed quirky little shop or marveling at a building usually overlooked along a daily route are common occurrences here.  Regardless of location, everyone typically recalls the perplexity of discovering something cool only blocks away from home after having settled in weeks, months, or even years ago.  Yesterday alone, it happened to me three different times.

In a halfhearted effort to be fit, I forced myself to go on a run around the city.  It turned out to be a little bit of jogging accompanied by a lot of walking and meandering. Getting lost here does not seem scary, especially with the comfort of knowing that the Czech Republic has been named the sixth safest country in the world.  While attempting to understand the map, I glanced up from my phone screen to realize I was standing directly next to the perfect combination of a street fair and a farmer’s market.  Underneath one tent I saw an extremely delicious-looking arrangement of berries.  The fact that I only needed to fork over 28 czk (1.38 usd) made them seem that much more appealing.  Unfortunately, I had no cash so I left without tortuously walking further. I later found out that “Havel’s” is open every week day from 8:00-16:30 so I’ll surely return. Also, yes, they use 24-hour time here which I love since I believe it’s more practical.  To my pleasant surprise, I walked away realizing I was hardly half a mile from my apartment.

A similar moment of bewilderment came when I explored the cemetery directly next to our study center in Vyšehrad.  I had decided to leave early for class to slowly walk and soak in the (slightly-warm-when-the-brisk-wind-stops) sunshine.  Right before I arrived, I noticed a gate propped open and curiously peaked in.  The enormity of the cemetery baffled me, mostly because I had passed its large walls almost every day without knowing.  The uniquely alluring aspect is due to the piles of green leaves pouring over the massive graves.  The intricate stones and flowing nature had drawn me in so much I almost walked in late to my first class of the semester.

The sunny day turned turned into a moonlit evening by the time I headed home.  A friend revealed an alternate path home that included a mesmerizing view of Prague’s twinkling lights across the river.  Having been thrown for a third loop, I quite understood the lesson of my day . . . Getting lost has benefits and we should all do it bit more, even if it has to be on purpose.

Fun Fact: The CIEE study center, the cemetery, and the church are all located in Vyšehrad, a historic fort built in Prague around the 10th century.

Sunday, Paella Day

Sundays in Spain, as they are traditionally known, are for making paella. For those of you unfamiliar with this Spanish dish, it is perhaps the most well-known and best tasting cuisine you could really ask for in Spain. It consists of a delicious mixture of seafood, rice, vegetables and sometimes (although not this time) rabbit. For those of you who have had paella, you certainly understand why it deserves a blog post of its own. This week my host mom asked me if I wanted to learn how to make this sea-food and rice wonder. I delightfully accepted. So, today, I intend to blog a step-by-step process of what I learned (for my memory’s sake as well as for you all). Although you can always find “recipes” online, my host-mom insists hers is the most authentic.

DISCLAIMER: All measurements are 100% eyeballed because according to my mom, “real cooking doesn’t have a recipe”. Let’s begin.

1.) We cut: onions, red peppers, and green peppers. Done.

2.) Heat up some olive oil in a saucepan (pictured below, the pan on the far right). Once the oil is hot, throw in all your veggies.

 

3.) The most important part of paella is the broth. This is where all the flavor comes from (there are no spices involved in paella). To make the broth you take basically all the stuff that the fish market throws away (fish bones, fish heads, skin, etc), and put it in water and boil it for 15-20 minutes (that’s what’s in the covered pot on the right). You’re welcome for forgetting to take a picture of this step.

4.) You take out the fish eye balls, bones, and guts, and, leaving the “broth”, throw them away. In the trash. My mom is depicted (above) picking the meat off the “trash items”. This step is optional. She really likes fish, I guess. Now we can get to the real cooking.

5.) Clean (slightly) some fresh mussels and put them into the broth. Boil them in the broth for 5 minutes or until they open up. Take them out, leave the broth. Set aside. Take off the side of the shell without any meat on it. Trash.

6.) Clean some fresh clams. Repeat step 5.

7.) By this time your veggies are probably ready. Take all that tasty fish/mussel/clam-broth you just made and pour it right into your veggie pan with a colander! The colander of course, to sift out the stray fish-eye here and there.

8.) Dump some rice into the mixture (about 1 cup per person) and boil it. You can’t really use basmati rice, or even long grain rice for that matter (the rice has to have no flavor to best absorb the fish flavor). Use round short-grain rice.

9.) Salt indiscriminately. I think my mom had her eyes shut for this part. Not sure. Like I said before, this is the ONLY SPICE/HERB/ANYTHING in this entire dish, and she barely put any in. Less is more, blah, blah, blah.

10.) Clean some fresh fish filet, and throw them right on top. I think you also have to say, “Ole!”, when you do it for it to be effective. (Remember, clean as little as possible in order to leave the flavor of the fish). Choose a fish you like. My mom chose her favorite (and Spain’s most popular paella fish), Monkfish. This fish is perhaps the ugliest living thing I’ve ever seen, but tasted magical.

11.) Cut up some fresh calamari, and throw it on top of this magical boiling Spanish stew. Keep a light boil going throughout this whole thing.

12.) Time for some gambas. Er, I mean, shrimp! Whole shrimp. Head, eyes, and all. My mom used krill instead, but shrimp is most common. Remember, fresh!

13.) Remember those mussels and clams? They’re already cooked, so go ahead and toss them on top of everything too. (Pictured below, you will start to notice you’re running out of room in the pot, and it becomes like playing Tetris, fitting in all the seafood!)

14.) Let the mussels and clams heat back up (face down, of course), let the rice finish its last few minutes, and remove from heat.

15.) Put the pot on the table next to a couple of lemons cut in half. Feel free to douse your rice with some lemon juice. This, so they say, is they authentic way to eat paella.

16.) (Below) Serve in giant heaps on your plate and dig in! Make sure you have a communal “trash plate”, where you can throw your shrimp tails, mussel shells, etc.

17.) A glass of white wine is MOST typical, but my host brother is 17 (sorry, man), and also my host mom forgot to pick some up, so water works fine too!

Note*** “Old style” paella typically contained saffron, a herb/spice that gave the traditional dish a yellow color. Saffron got too expensive to say the least. Buying enough saffron to make our dish today would have costed us about $50 USD. Since the flavor of saffron “really doesn’t matter or change the dish that much”, we didn’t use it today. I commented on the lack of color (I’ve seen pictures in textbooks, okay?) so my mom added some yellow food coloring at the very end just for me, so I could feel like my paella experience was more “authentic”. The things we do for our guests, I guess.

Enjoy!

Back to Business

Friends, I’ve moved! The city lights and seaside views are no more in this small, interior town called Ibri. The desert dust seeps into my apartment and my sense of direction is all turned around – although if you know me, it may not have been there in the first place. I know that Saudi Arabia is one way, and Yemen the other. Needless to say, shifting from Muscat has been a bit of a challenge. But, the prayer call remains the same and I am more certain I will have more and more conversations with Omanis and others who have settled in this rocky, traditional town because of the language skills I will be learning here.

Side of the bus I take to school in the mornings

The next six weeks I will be studying Arabic at an institute about a forty-five-minute walk away. I’m sharing an apartment with three other students from the United States and a wonderful Irish woman who has just spent the last seven weeks in India. We are all so passionate about learning the ancient language, and as we walk from place to place with our hair flowing wild, it is painfully obvious that we don’t necessarily belong here. Yet, having a bit of a crew has been refreshing.

On the first day of school, we were picked up at 8:00am and driven by bus to the institute. We had some Omani style Cardamom coffee and Karak tea (sort of tastes like sweet chai—yum!) and settled into the space before those who have some experience with Arabic took a placement exam. David, another Hope student, Éabha, my Irish roommate, and I skipped out because we had too little or zero (me) Arabic experience and decided to venture about outside.

We marched down the road and came across a group of Omani men standing in a circle under a roofed ring. As we approached, the bleeting of goats and the booming shouts in Arabic revealed we had entered an auction. Goats of all sizes were being dragged, tugged and carried about by men of all ages. One man welcomed us in with a crooked-toothed smile and invited us to take a picture of his prized goat. I was distracted by the baby goats running after their mothers and whining for their morning snack. Older men smiled and joked with their neighbors, while the man in charge of it all recorded prices and names in his book.

Goats watching the madness

Every morning this business goes about in Ibri. These goats aren’t pets, rather the next meal, but it is remarkable to think that this trade has been going on for centuries. Maybe, it has been happening in this same spot near my school. I think one of the highlights of living here will be to walk through the community near the school and remember how old the world truly is. We are surrounded by mountains that were once flooded with sea water. Now, they boast beautiful layers of color from oranges to purples and greens. A geologist’s paradise—and now my new home! I cannot wait to soak up the details of it all, although it’s going to be pretty dry for the next six weeks in Ibri.

How’s Spain?

Today marks the end of my third week in Salamanca, Spain. Over the course of the last three weeks, I have been in touch with many of my friends and family from home, talking, texting, or video-chatting, and each time, understandably, they all  ask the same thing: “How’s Spain?” What a question! Loaded, without a doubt. Knowing that the person who has asked me this question probably doesn’t have 12 hours to talk on the phone, one must be prepared to condense; that’s to say, you’ve got to come up with a script: “Things are good”, “I’m making friends”, “I’m having fun”, or my personal favorite, simply, “Good”. The truth is that although some things have been difficult, each day has brought innumerable surprises, joys, and most importantly, “firsts”, that could not possibly be entirely articulated in any phone call, text message, or work of art. But we have to do something, right? After all, people want to see at the very least the highlight reel.

Therefore, in order to best characterize my abroad experience so far (a truly impossible and frustrating task), it would be necessary to speak of the firsts. So, in an effort to give you all a three-week run down of “How’s Spain?”, living in a new country, with a new language, with a new family, I decided to write down some of the firsts – some of the things, no matter how big or seemingly small, that will have marked my entire stay in Spain:

 

  1. I went to Seville, Spain. A couple of friends and I took a 7 hour bus and stayed the long weekend in Seville. It was a marvelous city that I could best describe as being like Disney World – orange and palm trees every ten feet, castles filling the sky, smell of churros filling the air, thousands of people from all ethnicities crowding the cobblestone streets, and everybody speaking in English. It was a surreal town with a lot to offer.    
  2. I had my first lecture and “office hours” with a Spanish professor. I never really considered that I would be integrated into the Spanish academic institution. To my surprise, instead of being a tourist visitor in classes at the local university, I was a name, a person, a real student, sitting among a hundred local Spaniards learning about the psychology of groups.
  3. I watched my first “real football” game in a Spanish soccer bar with five spanish friends. Not only do I never watch soccer, but they don’t teach you soccer vocabulary in class, or proper soccer etiquette (of which there seems to be none). For the first time in my life, I felt like a true outsider, barely understanding a word being shouted across the table as the owner of the bar played Barcelona’s victory song over the loudspeakers for the third time.
  4. I went to a Spanish play. My mom invited me to watch her brother perform in a play. I accepted. I shocked myself at how much I enjoyed it – all three hours of it- accompanied only by two middle aged spanish women.
  5. I volunteer weekly at an Oxfam outlet (a fair-trade store). I sit there for three hours at a time selling fair-trade coffee and chocolates to passerbys and listen to (typical) Salmantino gossip of the town. It has been quite a “first” experience for me.
  6. I went to an eye doctor who didn’t speak English. Since I left my glasses at home, I had to get a new prescription (my eyes aren’t that bad, I just like to have them for class to read the board). I was so thankful for my 6th grade Spanish class as I was reciting the Spanish alphabet to the doctor, who was covering my left eye with a spoon.
  7. I visited a bull-fighting ring: La Plaza de Toros. Regardless of how you feel about this controversial sport, the history is just plain cool.

 

I think these very few “firsts” (and you can be sure I’m leaving out many) paint the most accurate depiction of my life over the last three weeks. It’s been pretty hard to tell about my “daily life” or “routine” here simply for the fact that every day has been a new adventure. There have surely been rough patches of adjustment, of cultural clashes, misunderstandings, and homesickness, but they have all been made insignificant by the beauty of each new day, filled with new and brilliant experiences that I am so privileged to unwrap.

All this being said, it can get pretty easy to adopt an egotistical perspective here. “Let me tell you all about my crazy awesome life, oh and by the way, your life has been probably on pause since I left home, right?” Well, to those of you who feel like us “abroaders” are ignorant to the challenges and joys of your daily life at home in the U.S., I apologize on our behalf. Truly. Although I want to continue to talk, text, and video-chat about my new and exciting adventures- my firsts – with people back home, I also want to hear about yours; because the truth is that life doesn’t stop just because we’re not there. I have learned over the past few weeks that it is just as hard to describe my experiences here as it is for my friends and family to tell me about their experiences at home – and thus is the abroad experience – people trying desperately, and often failing, to share with one another. I hope that with these small lines, I have shared something of my experience – and I await to hear of yours.

Best,

 

No Cash

I’ve never cursed out an ATM before, but you travel abroad to try new things, right? For the past week, the ATM by my hostel has been marred with a hand-drawn “No Cash” sign. Back home this wouldn’t be an issue; I can’t even remember the last time I paid for something in cash in the States. But when you are living in a cash-based society like India, bills are very important.

You might think:

“Wait, isn’t it extremely frustrating to have inconsistent access to cash in a cash society?”

Yes. Yes, it is. Everybody, not just visitors like myself, struggles to get their hands on cash (especially small, usable bills). I once went to three different ATMs and was unable to find cash in any of them. And when there actually is cash, very long lines begin to form around the machines. It’s counter-intuitive—if your buying market depends on cash, cash should be readily available.

Now I know you’re supposed to “keep an open mind” and “not judge things too quickly” when you experience cultural differences. I tried to do that. I really did. But everything about the situation just seemed off to me. The paradox that is India’s relationship to cash was too confusing to be normal. So, I did a little digging, and it turns out that paradox isn’t a cultural thing at all—it’s a relatively new problem called demonetization.

In a very small nutshell, demonetization is basically when a government strips a currency unit of it’s legal tender (ie: money stops being money). Last year, India’s Prime Minister attempted this with some of their largest bills and there has been significant issues as a result (some info at the following links:  1 , 2 ); my personal struggles with the ATM being the absolute least of those problems.

Obviously, the whole situation is WAY more complex than I can explain. I’ve been in India for barely a month, I am not an economist, and my understanding of the local politics is relatively lacking. And yet, here I am, operating as a part of a delicate political situation that I don’t fully understand. I do my best to educate myself but, in the meantime, I have to accept the fact that there will be times when I am painfully ignorant of my surroundings here.

I think it’s important to remember that not everything you experience abroad is normal for your host country. When so much of day-to-day life is different from home, it’s easy to play things off as “just the way things are in [insert country here]”. But doing that reduces your host country to one thing and one thing only: different. Personally, I look forward to learning more about the nuances of Indian life; it is already reshaping the way I see both American and global politics.

Examples of INR (Indian Rupee) bills.

 

FOMO

Fear of Missing Out. It’s an expression you will hear pretty frequently if you are considering studying abroad. It is also the reason most of my peers at home have given for why they are choosing not to study abroad. Now, the intention of this blog IS NOT to criticize choosing not to study abroad or to discredit FOMO as a legitimate reason for staying on campus for all of your college career. The truth is that if you choose to go abroad, you will surely miss out on things at home. And, if you choose to stay home, you will surely miss out on experiences you could have had abroad. The intention of this blog IS to make you think about the REAL FOMO and the way you go about your daily life, regardless of where you are.

Since the second I arrived here, I have been actively seeking out things to do in and around the city of Aberdeen. I have gone to museums, tried new food and new restaurants, joined clubs for sports I have never played, and travelled around the area. I have already created a pretty close group of friends with some other students studying here from the U.S., Canada, and Switzerland. All of these students are doing the same thing as me: going out and trying to see as much as they can while they are here. It is nice to have a group like this, because we can travel together, making it cheaper and more fun.

The first excursion we took was to a city just south of Aberdeen named Stonehaven, home of Dunnottar Castle and The Bay—a delicious fish and chips shop. It’s about a three mile walk from the train station to Dunnottar castle, but it feels a lot shorter because of the beautiful view of the Stonehaven bay and lush green cliffs scattered with nesting sea birds. The next weekend, we headed even further south to a town named St. Cyrus with the University of Aberdeen’s Conservation Society. We hiked a couple of miles from the bus station to a trail that wound back and forth down the face of a cliff leading to the beach. We made our way down the coast to an estuary filled with all different kinds of ducks and birds before walking back to the cliff-side trail. On the way back we spotted a couple of seals poking their heads out of the water not too far from shore and stopped to climb some coastal rock formations where we found a few star fish and crabs.

Me on a cliff with Dunnottar in the background
My girlfriend Gabbi (also from Hope and studying at Aberdeen) and me at Dunnottar Castle
Stonehaven Bay
Cliff with nesting seabirds at Stonehaven
The walk to the coast at St. Cyrus

Last week, my flatmate showed us around “Fittie” or Footdee as it is now known, a historic fisherman district in Aberdeen. Then, we were all able to catch a free tour of the Aberdeen Maritime Museum. Both of these experiences were helpful in understanding the history of the area we live in, which I will be sure to include more about in a future blog.

Fittie

This past week I went to visit Loch Kinord in the Cairngorms. The Cairngorms is a mountain range and nature reserve east of Aberdeen. A couple of my friends and I made a fairly last second decision to catch a bus and head out to hike the area. Unsure of exactly where the trail that we were supposed to be hiking was, we walked 2 miles north along the side of the road and cut through a cold, wet bog to stumble upon a path toward the visitor center. As we later found out, the bus stop is no more than 100 feet from the start of the Loch Kinord trail, but none of us minded emptying out our boots and wringing out our socks too much. After picking up a couple of maps from the visitor center, we hiked west on a trail to see the Burn O’Vat, which is essentially a really large hole in a rock formation formed by running water. We climbed up the side of the waterfall that poured into the stone canyon and hiked a ways down the stream that ran underneath fallen trees and dodged between moss-covered rocks before spilling out into the Burn O’Vat. Then, we doubled back and sat on the rocks at the base of the waterfall to enjoy the lunches we’d packed before continuing our hike out and around Loch Kinord. Remnants of a church and of village hut circles marked the path around the loch which wove in and out between a woodland landscape, a bog, grassland, and some surrounding farmland.

Loch Kinord
Celtic cross (relic from old church at Loch Kinord)
Stream running to Burn O’Vat
Burn O’Vat cascading water

I am amazed at how much northeast Scotland has had to offer so far, and I am excited to continue exploring until the end of the semester. However, all of these little excursions and adventures have also made me think about the way that I go about daily life at home. What all would West Michigan have to offer if I were to bring home the same adventurous mindset I have here? How many gems of natural beauty and preserved history have I been surrounded by for the past three years and not taken advantage of? That’s my real FOMO—the fear of unknowingly missing out on opportunities every day. As a result, when I come back home I will be challenging myself (and would encourage anyone who reads this) to be more aware of and to take better advantage of the opportunities around me.

 

Another Semester, Another Campus

My morning began with a beautiful hike through the tropical dry forest here in Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica. It’s surprising how quickly that became a normal part of my routine; between the nature walk lectures, the field research, and the insect identification assignments that force you far afield in the name of homework, my days have become linked to the outdoors from start to finish.

       My morning ended with me winded and massaging sore muscles after wildly sprinting away from an angry horde of white-faced capuchin monkeys. Twice. That’s not exactly a normal part of the routine, but in retrospect it was as delightful an encounter as it was hazardous. It certainly revitalized my prayer life for a few seconds.

       To put it mildly, this semester isn’t quite like any I’ve experienced before. On a typical day, I emerge at 6:00am from my bed’s mosquito net (my new favorite possession), take a bracingly cold shower, wade through the swarms of black iguanas on my way to the dining hall, and devour a delicious plate of rice and beans. After that 6:30am breakfast, my classmates and I attend lectures on biodiversity, local research, local culture, and participate in other scheduled program materials which integrate the classroom experience with the Great Outdoors (believe me, the capitalization is due here). Even on the days when we remain inside, classes are frequently interrupted by the little house geckos that somehow sneak inside and run up and down the walls behind the lecturer. Nature is thoroughly inescapable, and I could not be happier.

       I sleep and wake with the sun, eat healthy and locally grown food, limit computer and internet use, and generally find myself keeping a more responsible schedule here than I ever have at Hope. I expected a semester abroad to be stressful and different, and while it is certainly the latter, I think I will emerge with a better appreciation for natural rhythms and simple living (i.e., I am embracing my inner hippie: fear my return).

       Returning to the academic side of things, this semester is highly research-focused, and we’ve started off strong with a couple of studies already having been designed, executed in the field, analyzed, and written up. I will be (co-)designing and leading a project with my own group in a few weeks, and – spoiler alert – I hope to write a rather extensive post about the research aspect of this program. The work is hard, but rewarding.

       Now that I have this routine down, it’s time for a change. In the morning we’re off to Estación Biológica Cuericí for a week, where the páramo is and the internet isn’t. ¡Hasta luego!

Note on the video below:
The male iguanas here are hilariously full of themselves. They swagger around and do little lizard push ups and emphatic head bobbles to demonstrate dominance to all the beautiful ladyguanas, or anyone else who bothers to watch. One fellow decided to put on a private show for me. I’m mostly flattered, but also a bit concerned that I’m attractive by lizard standards.

Though it’s the dry season and many trees have begun leaf drop, something beautiful is in bloom everywhere I turn.
Sometimes the science escapes.
This is a flower produced by Pachira quinata, a large tropical tree. The wacky multistaminate design is perfect for smearing pollen all over bats’ faces when they lap at the nectar sacs in the ovary at the flower’s base. The scent is more pungent than floral, as bats tend to prefer mushroom-like scents.
The TA wasn’t kidding about the sunsets here. They’re pretty spectacular over the marsh.
Check out my filthy hands! And when you grow bored of staring at those, take a look at that little anole in them. I think I’ve found heaven. Photo credit: the incomparable Emily Arendsen.
Black iguanas are the local black squirrels. These skittery little (or sometimes quite big) critters scatter before you in droves wherever you go. Their claws dragging across the metal roof at night are quite the lullaby, too. This one is part of a long-term behavioral study, so he’s been given a house name by the local researchers.
This is a Crescentia alata flower exhibiting cauliflory, a fancy botanical term for when the flowers and fruits shoot right off the trunk. It’s pretty neato.