At the heart of Valparaiso is Cerro Rodelillo

parade!Pasta lunch in Plaza Renacer!a peek at the mural!kids help hang the sign for the new Plaza Renacer!me and one the kids takin a break from painting!

Hey everyone!

So  this past weekend, I had an amazing community service opportunity with my program here in Valparaiso, and could not wait to share it with you! I defiantly would say it is one of my favorite things I’ve done in these past five weeks in Chile!

SIT is a study abroad program that is sort of unique in that we are not directly enrolled in a university, but participate in tons of cultural excursions and community service opportunities. Our first community service project was this past weekend in Cerro Rodelillo (Cerros are the neighborhoods that make up Valparaiso.) This cerro in particular is home to  a largely lower-class population, where many of the houses are made from scrap metal and children play in streets glittering in glass. Its defiantly not where the city tour buses will take you. More recently, on feb 14th, 2013, Cerro Rodelillo was the site of one of the most massive fires in Valparaiso in fifty or so years. Hundreds of houses were completely burnt down, many losing all of their material possessions.

Our job in cerro Rodelillo was not to rebuild every demolished house nor solve its the economic hardships. It was much simpler…and larger than that. As a group we cleaned and re-purposed a tiny space, a “plaza” . This dusty plaza was not only where kids could play soccer and swing, but where the community could now come together and start anew.

On Friday, our group of 25 gringos split up in several groups;  some were assigned to clean and prepare the rock wall for mural painting the next day while others played with the kids that congregated there. When the work was finished we hopped on a “micro” (bus) and back to our homes where we showered with running water and ate the “once” * our Chilean moms had prepared for us.

Saturday, however, was the day I will never forget. The wall, we had cleaned the day before was ready to be painted. Together with the kids we painted flowers, rainbows, and even the local club soccer team logo (the Santiago Wanders) with a few paint brushed and lots of bare hands. Although the finished product lacked a theme which we had originally planned for, it turned out better than we could of hoped. Then came the fun part when the kids found even more fun if they painted their “tios/tias” (us!) than the wall. By the end of the painting session everyone was covered in paint (I sported a beard painted on by one of the boys!)

After the painting session, a few of us walked up to a house that had prepared food for the whole community as part of the celebration of the “opening” of the plaza. This “house” was partly burnt to the ground by the fire, tarp walls surrounded the small kitchen area, and a Chilean flag flying above. Inside, an aproned woman inside two huge pots full of spaghetti, lettuce, and tomatoes for us to bring to the plaza. And there we sat the new found plaza, eating, laughing with kids, and conversing with moms and holding their babies. After lunch, there was a mini parade with live music, face painting, and goody bags.  The community also decided on the plaza name: Plaza Renacer, which means “rebirth”, foreshadowing the new life this plaza would bring to the area after a huge tragedy.

It was hard leaving this community which we had now felt a part of the last two days, but it was a heartwarming, too. It was not that we looked at our work as our “good deed” of the week, or that we had given this neighborhood something they could not have done. Instead, we were honored that they welcomed us with open arms, shared their stories, and invited us to be part of a celebration of hope, joy, and renacer

Amor y paz

Leah 🙂


Living in German Dorm

Everyone who lives in a US college dorm know that the best way to get to know people is leaving your dorm doors open. In Germany however, people like to close their doors. This does not mean that they are trying to avoid you though. Every time I have needed anything I just go and knock on any of my flat mates door; the funny thing is they tell you that Germans like to close the doors and make you feel comfortable about the sudden cultural change simply related to the opening and closing of doors.

I really don’t know if it is a good thing or a bad thing that they don’t have meal plans here. On one side I get to cook for myself and feel that I am ready to take on the world outside college but everyone has those lazy days when they just want to go and get a sandwich from the Kletz or Phelps and not have to worry about doing the dishes. Personally, I have enjoyed cooking here especially when all the dishes and cooking tools are already provided in your dorms. I admit it, sometimes I really feel lazy and want something fast and that is when Doner Kebabs come into play; probably one of the things that I will miss a lot when I get back to the States.

Today I had one of the best interactions with one of my flat mate. They were playing some songs while we were all cooking food and most of what I have heard was in German; almost made me think that they did not listen to English songs that are very prevalent in United States. Then there was a change in playlist and I was surprised to listen to what started playing; they had some Doors, some Pink Floyd, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and even few country songs which is hardly even heard outside few states back in US. It is indeed a globalized world.

The picture quality of where I live did not come out that great due to the lack of light in the hallway but students here conserve energy in any way possible. 



And it starts with a snooze

11 Am- I wake up to the sound of alarm and react to it exactly like anyone else. I snooze it. That’s how my day starts. Everyone has their daily routines for their day and I have realized how they have differed from what I do back in Hope College.

11:30 Am- By the time I snooze and get ready to go to the bathroom I need to be make sure that I don’t interfere with any of my flat-mates’ daily schedule either. Germans are very punctual and I always feel bad if my slacking affects them.

11:59 Am- My tram always get by at 12:01 and if I want to make it to class after having lunch, I need to be at the stop by this time. This has drastically changed how I would sleep in for 10, 15, and 20 more minutes, put on cloths, get to class and have lunch “later on” in the Kletz. Being dependent on something else apart from my own body to get me to class in time makes has made me feel dependent on the public transportation. (Don’t take it the wrong way; I love the public transportation here.)

12:15 Pm- The Mensa. By this time I am at the student canteen ready to have some food. The Mensa reminds me a lot of Phelps. By that I mean, everyone complains about the food but in the end you know that it is healthy and efficient.

Till 1:30 PM I have some free time when I am able to do some leftover homework and just talk to the people in my program. Unlike Hope College where my classes and bedroom were less than 15 minutes apart, every time I got to class, I only intend on returning back home after my classes are done. Due to this, I haven’t had naps between classes in Germany yet.

6:00 Pm- The feeling of being done with classes for the day is the same in Germany and in the United States.

In America most people have dinner early due to which all the dining services are shut down super early. I have been used to eating late in Nepal and needing to cook has allowed me to have a flexible schedule not based on when I should eat. Even though the start of a weekday is very scheduled, it is up to me to make use of my time when I am not in classes. I have done a good job so far and always feel like I have a productive day. Today, it was a very lazy Sunday, and I felt that I accomplished something just because I did my laundry. 


Okay, perhaps this photo is a bit deceiving as today we got snow in Toulouse, but a few short days ago this was life after classes, sun-bathing on the banks of the Garrone. Such bliss!!!

I seem to have somehow entered a glorious place in my study abroad experience:  the demands of the language are not as exhausting as they once were!  When I first arrived listening and speaking French sucked the energy right out of me.  This would then lead to a vicious cycle of blank stares and quizzical looks as my exhausted mind tried and failed to find the French words for “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Of course I suppose I’ve been improving slightly everyday, but I know feel like I have finally come to a place where (hopefully) my progression will be more fluid.

And as it turns out, the ability to speak someone’s language makes friendships much more interesting and natural! This past weekend, a friend from the program and I went to a surprise birthday party.  It was a blast and full of French (read “better”) versions of American food!



We contributed these little guys to the party.  They were an all-around success considering we had to translate the recipe from French. Despite buying two cartons of milk when we needed two spoonfuls, we somehow managed to pull it off.

And in other random and wonderful news, I live right next to a veterinary school. Why is this exciting!? Because their grounds are open to the public!  This means I have a wonderful place to escape the city and bond with some French farm animals.  The random joys! 


Host Family and (Not) Burning Down the House

Being in a host family is a very unique social situation. You are automatically living in very close quarters with people you barely know and at the beginning could barely communicate with. Luckily, it only took one mis-communication for my host mom and I to start learning how to understand each other. My host mom, a very traditional Catholic but a very welcoming and fun person, is named Ascención, but everyone calls her Choni.  During the whirlwind first day, Choni had taught me how to make coffee on the stove using the small percolator she has. However, I didn’t fully understand how to turn it off. I thought, “its just a stove how hard can it be?” How wrong I was. 

My first day of class comes and, of course, I am running late. Everyone else in my host family had already left the house. I pour out my coffee and go to turn off the stove. After 5 minutes, I can get it to turn off except for one upside down four on one of the displays. After 10 minutes, I just had to leave. After class, I go running to the student life office to talk to one of the advisers and also a recent friend Estrella. I try to tell her in Spanish, but an emotional Evelyn attempting to explain in Spanish was just not going to cut it so I quickly switch to English. “I’m sure I’m going to burn the apartment down!” I exclaimed. She ensured me that everything would be alright and that she would give Choni a call. I went back to class and after lingering to talk to my new friends, heading back home for lunch. I was sure I would be greeted with a strict lecture when I arrived back home. However, I was greeted with an enthusiastic “Buenas dias, guapa!” (Hi, cutie) and a delicious. Later that day, she explained it once more and I realized that the upside down four was actually an h for hot.

Since then, we’ve been getting along very well, including attending a kids club and church together and some very interesting discussions during lunch. I’m looking forward to getting to know her even better in the coming 3 months! 

A Day in the Life

8:00- Wake up, eat Chinese breakfast. This usually consists of zhou or rice porridge, a hard boiled egg, and usually something else. Sometimes I have dumplings for breakfast, I never know until I walk into the kitchen!

8:30- catch the bus to school. The time of my commute changes drastically depending on the amount of traffic that morning and how long I have to wait for a bus, but it usually takes me about 25 minutes to get to Bei Wai. It’s a great time to people watch though! If I have enough time before class, I might pop into the bakery right next to campus and chat with a few friends who also make this a custom. It feels like the LJ’s of JP’s of my China experience!

9:30- class. Right now I’m taking Chinese Literature, but my area studies courses are broken into blocks, so we take one class for about three weeks at a time, but at a very intense pace. I actually really like this method, because I can really focus on the material that we’re learning at the time. My Lit class has seven students, so we all have to contribute to the discussion! This has given me the opportunity to really get to know the material and get to know my classmates and their ideas. I absolutely love it though, to see China from the perspective of its authors, and what this creative outlet can teach us about the culture.

12:00- lunch. There are a multitude of options from the cafeteria on campus that has meals for one US dollar, to baozi or dumplings of the street, to more formal restaurants. I could go to every food place within walking distance of campus and never run out of options! I’ll probably do a post solely devoted to food sometime. This time might also be spent finishing homework or cramming for a Chinese quiz.

1:00- Chinese class. I’m in a class with two other students, so we all get lots of chances to talk and practice Chinese. I’ve already seen myself improve in a month of being here, so I can’t wait to see where I am by the time the program is done! After class I have my one on one session with a Chinese teacher, and I’m currently doing some extra learning about restaurant words, so that I can learn to order for myself here.

4:00- the language pledge lifts, so I’ll usually hang around and catch up with friends before heading home. Its been interesting having to think and speak Chinese only during the day. In a week, the language pledge will go to 24-7 on campus. With my language level, the language pledge has felt more like a vow of silence than anything else, because I just don’t have the vocabulary for the things I want to say yet. However, gesturing, pointing, grunting, and inserting English words when needed can be more effective than it seems! This is the time I might go on random food adventures or catch up emails (I never thought I would appreciate email until I’m 8-11 hours away from the people I love). Today we had our first Chinese test (and I think it went pretty well), so afterwards some friends and I went to the bakery and had a wonderful laughter filled conversation.  Below is hot milk tea, an afternoon favorite of mine- its basically like chai (served hot) with taro bubbles!  So good!Image

5:30- go home. While in the morning everyone (including me) is tired and bustling off to work, the evenings are an interesting time to be out and about. I love hearing the Chinese language around me even though I want more than anything to understand what people are saying, I love the way Beijing lights up with neon as night falls, I love the little street food and bootleg DVD stands that are open as I walk home from the bus stop. I don’t love climbing five flights of stairs to get to my apartment quite so much, but I guess its getting me in shape for Tibet later in the semester.

6:30- dinner. This is one of my favorite parts of the day. Chinese food is awesome. Definitely not for the picky eater, but I’ll eat anything that’s placed in front of me unless it has an unnecessary amount of spice. For example, fish here is served totally whole with the eyes, head, tail, etc. still intact. I’m also improving my chopstick skills, though I still drop things a lot, it’s starting to feel natural to me. Tonight we had a dish with shrimp in it and that includes the shell, legs, and head. They’re fried to be crispy, and man are they delicious!

7:00+- I usually start homework at this point, or maybe watch some tv with my host dad first. Its interesting how much you can pick up from a show with only knowing a few words of the language. Later in the night is a time when friends in Holland start waking up and coming online so I’ve had a few surprise late night Skype chats, which fill me with so much joy. One challenge I’ve had here is adjusting to not having the Christian community at Hope. I’ve gone to some different churches and I’m praying for a group that I feel like I fit with!

I’m headed to the city of Harbin to see their famous ice sculptures this weekend, so I’ll have lots of pictures and stories from that next week!

La Ville Rose


Yesterday for the first time in my life, I experienced mountains with snow! I had the chance to snow shoe in the Pyrenees and after that day visit, it’s fair to say I’ve fallen in love with those beautiful mounds of earth!  It was also my first time out of the city since I’ve been here making the experience even more cherished. 


I am thankful to now feel more settled into life in Toulouse; the language barrier becomes a little less imposing everyday, I love my homestay, and I’m now in a routine with classes. For my volunteer project, I’ve been placed in an afterschool program called Alliances et Cultures.  This past Friday we made pancakes (being the only American I was considered the expert on this subject).  It was essentially chaos, but very much welcomed.  Something I’ve found here is that people are generally quieter, so the noise and energy of the kids felt familiar (despite not understanding what they were yelling about). 


Amidst the foreign and the familiar, each day I find myself deeper into a beautiful predicament:  I fall more in love with France, and more in love with America with every uncovered nuance.  The particularities of French culture further define the uniqueness of life in America.  I suppose only time will tell how this quandary will play out, but for now I am thoroughly enjoying what I’ve discovered thus far, and I am very much ready to see more!


Already a month?

It really does not seem that long but apparently it’s been a little over a month since I have been in Freiburg, Germany. Since this is not the first time I am studying abroad, saying bye to Hope College was not as hard as I thought it would be (compared to 18 years in Nepal). Just like I was open to adventures when I got off at USA a year and half ago, landing in Frankfurt gave me a similar sensation. My first quest was not that great as I had to survive in a totally new country without knowing any German, without knowing how to get to my center, and not having my luggage for 4 days; the not having my luggage is something everyone will remember for a while.

It been a month so far and being in Europe was something I only imagined last year while I filled my study abroad application. I have heard so many speculations about European culture and trying to see if they are actually right or not have been fascinating. Germans do drink a lot of beer, they do have very good public transportation systems, they definitely do not hate the Americans, and many of them do not know the Super Bowl. Apart from me, one of the only non-American when Super Bowl was discussed, everyone was utterly shocked. It was a good thing that Freiburg is a college town because due to requests from college students, a lot of places in town were screening the game till 5 in the morning.


Compared to Holland, Freiburg is a huge college down. With trams running from one side of town to the other, every one who rode it were mostly college students. Being in Freiburg, I was in the same situation as them so I had to survive just the way they did in Freiburg which meant I had to cook a lot. As much as I enjoy cooking, I realized that over a year of convenient meal plan and Burger King had made me SUPER lazy. My parents always told me that I would have a hard time when I had to cook, I always said I would not and when I started cooking, I realized I was right. From mixing spices here and there and cooking things that I would never even see in Meijers, I was very glad to know that I would not starve or go broke soon.


 Just when I was getting used to being in this entirely new feeling of independence (more than I ever felt in Hope College) we had to leave for our course trip. Don’t get me wrong, I did not really bother me especially since we were going to Berlin and Prague. Now that I had wrote down so much, I realize that I have done a lot so I will post about my trip to the capital and Czech Republic next week. From not being able to sleep in a new bed to passing out so easily in the same one, this one month has been quiet enlightening one. Not going to lie, but I am pretty excited to see how the rest of the semester will be like.