Blue Mountains and Australian Forests

Sydney is in a unique position geographically because it is surrounded by the ocean on one side, and national parks and mountains on the other. One of my friends, who is an Aussie native, lives in the Blue Mountains and this past weekend we decided to take a quick day trip out to the lower mountains. We headed to a place called Jellybean pools and we walked around swimming holes and we even walked down to a cave where an aboriginal tribe had painted their hands onto the side of the cave. It was amazing to see paintings which are so old and tell such a unique story with even the largest of hands being far smaller than my own.

Here is the hand paintings made by aboriginals from 1600-500 years ago

After walking around the Jellybean pools, my friends and I went to the park ranger’s station to ask about where we could go in order to see a big lookout onto the Blue Mountains. The ranger asked my Aussie friend where he’s from and he told her that he grew up in the Blue Mountains. She then said to him “well then you should know that there aren’t any big lookouts down here, you need to go to the upper mountains to see that!” My friend, who was quite embarrassed said that we were at least hoping to see a good lookout point. The ranger then told us that there were a number of trails and we could try our luck with any of them.

After a quick discussion my friends and I settled on taking a short drive around part of the park to a spot that we believed may lead to some great views. Along the way we passed a couple of kangaroos hopping around which always makes my day just a bit better. We finally arrived at the start of the trail and started walking only to quickly arrive at an incredible overlook and we shared a laugh that the park ranger didn’t consider this to be a “big” overlook. I’ve come to the conclusion that Australia, although it is not the most green country I have visited, has some of the most incredible rock formations I have ever seen. As we looked from atop the valley we watched a winding river cut through a forest as it goes through the mountain.

It seemed like a pretty big lookout to us

Too often when people think of Australia they think of the dangerous creatures that exist, the snakes and spiders amongst other things. Those dangers do exist and it is something that I have been quite aware of especially as the weather becomes warmer the longer that I live here. It is a different experience walking through the forests of Australia than it is walking through the forests of Michigan because there are next to no similarities. In Michigan, I am familiar with most types of trees. I know what berries are edible and which ones are not, and I know that in most of the lower peninsula, the biggest concerns that come with hiking include poison ivy and mosquitoes. I don’t have that same comfort level here which is a strange experience for me. It isn’t that I am in a constant state of fear walking through the forests, but rather a state of uncertainty. If I hear a rustling in the woods in Michigan, I like to stop and look for a frog, gardener snake, squirrel or whatever may have made the noise. In Australia I keep walking, knowing that the sound is most likely a lizard but not being entirely sure.

What strikes me is how different my experience is from that of native Aussies. As I talk to various Australians they are quite comfortable talking about the fact that there does exist a decent number of snakes and they aren’t difficult to find. For Aussies, however, that is simply a part of life. The snakes and spiders do their thing and the people do their own. Perhaps the closest comparison I could make would be the experience of driving in snow for an Australian in Sydney to that same experience for someone in Michigan. Many people from Sydney may have seen snow or been around it during their travels, but driving in snow would likely lead to a level of stress and uncertainty that Michiganders hardly think about. That’s been one of the most educational components of studying abroad for me so far, understanding how much our experience of where we live normalizes components of our lives that would be radical to another individual. I believe that’s one of those lessons that while you may know logically, it is often difficult to fully grasp.

 

   

 

 

 

 

Exploring Durban

After our Kruger excursion during spring break, we still had the rest of the week to travel, so my friend Noelle and I decided to go to Durban. This is a city on the eastern coast of South Africa known for its beaches, warm climate, and Miami-esque architecture.

We were able to spend a good amount of time on the beachfront. There’s a 5 kilometer promenade that connects several of the beaches to make it easy to walk or bike between them. Our first day we ate brunch at a restaurant right on the beach and walked along the promenade for a while, seeing the different beaches until we ended up at Ushaka Marine World. This beachfront area has an aquarium, water park, and lots of restaurants and shops. We decided to go to a restaurant at the end of the pier for a snack, admiring the view of the city.

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View from the restaurant on the pier

The next morning we came back to the beach nice and early to go stand up paddle boarding with one of our friends from UCT, Tristan, who is from Durban. We had to get there before the wind picked up and made it too difficult to balance on the water. It was fun paddle boarding with the waves and trying to keep our balance when waves swept under us. After an hour or so of paddle boarding (and falling off the paddle board) Tristan gave us a little tour of Durban. Our first stop was the Kings Park Soccer Stadium, which was built for the 2010 World Cup. It’s not used much anymore for sports because the field isn’t big enough for rugby, and that’s the main sport played here. However, it is used a lot for concerts and tourism. There’s even a giant free fall swing at one end of the stadium so people can swing through the stadium to get their fill of adrenaline.

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The World Cup Stadium (if you look closely you can see people near the top getting ready for the stadium swing)

After admiring the stadium, Tristan took us to a part of Durban called Umlhanga. This is a little beach town on the northern end of the city that’s much quieter than the central part of Durban. We walked along the beach here, which was pretty rocky and had a lot of crabs and coral growing along the rocks. It was a very pretty beach in a quieter, charming part of Durban.

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The rocky Umlhanga beachfront

We then went to get some bunny chow, which is curry served inside a half loaf of bread. Its a popular South African dish that’s supposedly the best in Durban, so of course we had to try some while we were there. You eat it by scooping the curry with the piece of bread that was cut from the middle of the loaf. Once that piece of bread is gone, you pick up the loaf with two hands and dig in. It was a pretty messy experience, but still good!

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The next day, Tristan invited us to go to the Hilton Art Festival, the second largest art festival in South Africa. It was held by his old boarding school, so he was super familiar with what it had to offer. There were plenty of food vendors, art stands, and art displays scattered around the campus. We walked around admiring all of the different crafts and artwork, and also saw a show. Shows are a unique part of this art festival, and there are dozens of live performances throughout the weekend. We saw one called James Cairns vs. Humanity, which was an improv show based on the popular card game Cards Against Humanity. It was very well done and really enjoyable!

We got to the festival pretty early, so we had a lot of time left to explore the surrounding area and drove to a few places nearby. The best place we stopped at was the Mandela capture sight, where Mandela was captured and arrested  in 1962 for encouraging workers’ strikes and leaving the country illegally without a passport. There was a long walk to freedom pathway which had markers spread along the way with significant events in Mandela’s political and personal life. At the end of the walkway there was a statue comprised of many irregularly shaped poles. When you stand in the right place, the poles lined up to form Nelson Mandela’s profile. It’s a magnificent piece of art with a lot of meaning as well. I{m glad we ended up at this very thoughtful and educational spot.

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Nelson Mandela capture site statue

We made the most of our short time in Durban and were able to see and experience a lot! And thanks to Tristan, we were able to see some places we wouldn’t have known about without a local Durbanite. What an amazing week it was, and now we are headed back to Cape Town and classes!

On Safari

We are halfway done with our semester here in Cape Town, and that means Spring Break! Here they refer to it as vac, short for vacation, and we get a week off of classes. So that means time to travel!

On Saturday we took an early flight to Kruger National Park and were met by three safari cars at the airport. The cars were trucks with raised rows of seats in the back with open sides so we could have the best views of the animals on the safari. We then went straight into the national park, the largest reserve in South Africa, and went on an afternoon game drive, hoping to spot the Big 5. The Big 5 include Elephants, Buffalo, Lions, Leopards, and Rhinos. Only a few minutes into the drive, one of the guides spotted two leopards up on a rock behind some bushes. It wasn’t easy to spot them, but after looking for a couple minutes I was able to see them moving around on the rocks. Our guide, David, told us that leopards are the most uncommon of the big 5 to spot, so it was pretty cool that we saw two right off of the bat!

Leopards on the rocks

After admiring the leopards we kept driving through the park and were able to see a herd of buffalo crossing in front of us, lots and lots of impalas (a type of antelope), a beautifully colored bird called known as the lilac breasted roller, some zebras, a hornbill (the type of bird Zazu in the Lion King is), a group of baboons, and some hyenas with their pups. It was crazy to see so many animals just in our first of four game drives and seeing each in their natural habitat and how they behaved was amazing. When observing the zebras, they were standing in pairs, side by side but facing opposite directions. David explained that it looks like they are trying to hug each other but they are actually protecting each other and watching out for predators. It was neat seeing them stand like this!

The next morning we got up before dawn and headed on our first game drive just after sunrise. Because it gets so hot during the day, the animals are more active early in the morning and later in the evening. So, people usually are luckier with animal spottings during these times. Despite starting our drive very early, the park was pretty quiet and it took a while to sight some animals. However, throughout the morning and early afternoon we got to see quite a lot. Some of the highlights were seeing a family of giraffes snacking on some trees just feet from our car. We stopped to watch them and they crossed the road right in front of us to start munching on a new set of trees. It was so cool being so up close to them and watching them interact with each other! Not much longer we encountered a rhino nearby the road, and stopped to look at him. David explained to us how serious of a problem rhino poaching is, even in Kruger. Poachers will come and remove the horns of the rhinos and leave them to die, which is bringing them closer and closer to extinction. This was only one of several rhinos we saw throughout the day though, so it was reassuring seeing so many in one day.

A little later on we spotted a couple of monkeys across the road from us. They then ran across the road and into a tree directly next to us. We were watching the handful of monkeys climb the tree when someone in our car noticed more across the road, and a few dozen monkeys started running from deep in the bush out across the street into the tree to meet up with the others. It was crazy to see so many monkeys running together at once; some of them were carrying babies on their backs and stomachs as well, which was a cute bonus. Another highlight was seeing a honey badger, which might not sound like it would be exciting, but they are one of the most rare species in Kruger! They are nocturnal, so seeing one during the day (seeing one at all!) was pretty neat.

A monkey and her baby in the tree

After a quick break back at the lodge for lunch, we got picked up for an evening game drive on our way to eat dinner in the bush. We headed out right before sunset, so it got dark pretty quickly. Since it was dark, the car came equipped with two heavy duty flash lights that we used to try and spot some animals. A little into the drive a couple of girls said they saw something in a tree, so the guide backed the car up to where we could see the tree and we shined the lights towards it. It turns out that there was a leopard sitting in the tree eating whatever prey it had just caught. Even the guide was amazed that we were able to see such a cool sighting at night. Seeing another leopard was crazy in itself, but seeing one in a tree at night was even crazier! We also saw a family of elephants a little later on, including two babies. One of the older elephants saw us and started to approach the vehicle and raise his trunk at us as a way of protecting the others, so we headed out to let the elephants be.

The elephant approaching our vehicle

We made our way to the middle of the bush where a traditional South African meal was being prepared for us. We got out and there were a couple of guards holding guns that were there to watch out for animals during our meal (we even had to have a guide walk us to the bathroom with a gun if we had to go). The food was delicious and the view of the stars from the middle of the bush was incredible. We could see them so clearly and were able to point out a few constellations. It was such a unique experience being able to be out in the bush and made for a great end to our safari experience! Even though we didn’t get to see all of the Big 5, since we didn’t spot a lion, being able to experience African wildlife so up close and in their natural habitat was one of the coolest experiences of this semester so far!

Singaporientation

Sunday, Aug 12: Settling In and Familiarization Tour

  • Touchdown at Changi Airport.
  • Met up with my Resident Director, Andrea, and one of the other visiting students, and took a taxi to my new apartment, Sunshine Plaza.
  • Familiarization Tour – Andrea showed us the surrounding area, places where we could grab some quick food, some general stores, and the MRT.
  • Took the MRT to Clarke Quay – The train stretches across almost all of the city and goes several stories down; it took us seven escalators to get to the blue line.
  • At Clarke Quay – Treated out to McGettigans for fish n’ chips by RD (thank you :D).
  • Time to chill at the apartment – We activated our SIM cards, discussed tomorrow’s schedule, and got to know one another. The rest of the time was spent unpacking.

Monday, Aug 13: Suntec City Mall, Haji Lane, and a short stop at SMU

  • Woke up at 6 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep so I watched some Youtube videos. The night before I was sneezing like crazy because we haven’t figured out how to control the room’s AC yet. Needless to say, I was tired.
  • We had the morning to ourselves, so I called with my parents. It was about 10 a.m. in SG but 10 p.m. in CA.
  • Breakfast (toast spread with a Singaporean coconut jam called Nonya Kaya and cereal).
  • Enter Andrea who brought us to Suntec City Mall.
    • In-door Hawker Center (tried chicken rice for the first time and iced calamansi tea).
    • Post Office/School Supplies.
    • Giant Mall (I appreciate how literal some of the names are. For instance, we saw a bag of chips that was called “Bag of Chips”).
    • The Fountain of Wealth.
  • Haji Lane.
    • Narrow walkways, street art, charming mom n pop shops selling a wide array of textiles and food.
  • Andrea dropped us off at SMU to get our Student Pass slips.
  • Self-tour around SMU (one of us had some trouble with the ID picture, so we missed the free official campus tour).
    • Because we haven’t gotten our student cards yet, we had to get into buildings using our passports. Even then, most buildings said no, so we were only able to get into the library.
    • At one of the vending machines, we tried a can of grass jelly which two of us hadn’t tried yet.
  • Hung out at the apartment and got to know one another some more before heading back to Suntec City Mall (with much confusion and discussion, we finally figured out the MRT system).
    • Bought some avocados, an extension cord, bread, onions, and a rice cooker.

Tuesday, Aug 14: SMU Orientation

  • Showed a friend from Hope who was visiting for a few days around the school and the apartment (s/o to my roomie, Yeji).
  • Met up with the other three at the SMU Admin building for SMU Orientation.
  • After signing in, we got goodie bags filled with SMU swag and were served delicious Singaporean food including laksa, a spicy noodle soup.
  • We had to sit on the floor because of the lack of tables, but as a result we were able to meet a few kind Canadian transfer students.
  • The actual SMU Orientation.
    • Ice breakers (What’s an orientation without ice breakers?).
    • Introduction to the different student organizations, tips on how to get around SMU and what to do when traveling abroad.
  • Naptime (I’m an introvert, I needed to recover).
  • Meeting with Yeji and her family at Makansutra Gluttons by the Bay: chili crab, carrot cake (it’s not actually made of carrot or cake; it tastes more like pork belly), cereal prawn, and iced barley.

Wednesday, Aug 15: Botanical Gardens and Riverboat Tour

  • Morning at the pool.
  • Orientation presentation by Andrea: Cultural lessons.
    • Don’t clean up after yourself when eating out, because the workers will see it as rude. Leave your leftovers neatly on the tray and let the workers do their thing.
    • For some elder Chinese vendors, use both hands to give and accept money.
    • The same thing goes when handing out/receiving business cards.
  • Trip to the Botanical Gardens.
    • Lunch at the Bee’s Knees at the heart of the Gardens.
    • Trails through the Learning Forest.
      • Saw some wild chickens and monitor lizards.
  • Suntec Mall again (I know, we go a lot).
  • Recharge at home.
  • Riverboat tour at Clarke Quay.
  • Back on boardwalk for dinner at Ras, a stellar Indian restaurant: paneer, chicken tikka, daal mahkni, rice and naan, and iced tea.
  • Music and chill at home.

Thursday, Aug 16: Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands

  • Morning at the pool.
  • Meomi Cat Cafe on Haji Lane.
    • They take stray cats from the streets and those who are fit for cafe life spend time around doting visitors.
  • Quick stop by Suntec Mall.
  • Gardens by the Bay.
    • Took a self-driving car to…
    • Satay by the Bay: Prawn, pork, beef, fish, and a lot of different meats with a peanut dip.
    • The Cloud Forest/Flower Dome.
    • The Supertree Grove.
    • Marina Bay Sands Observation deck.
  • Andrea treated us to Din Tai Fung: Xialongbao (Chinese steamed buns) and other side dishes.

Friday, Aug 17: Free Day

  • Morning at the pool.
  • Suntec Mall with roommate, ate at McDonald’s and had a Durian McFlurry and a breakfast curry burger, shopping at H&M and Cotton On.
  • A short stop by SMU Vivace, the university’s student organizations fair.
  • Chilling out at the house, bonding with housemates.
  • Got Dominos delivered to the apartment and watched The Italian Job with an HDMI cable.

 

Connected Travel

There is something magical about the combination of adventure and strangers. We let people in we normally wouldn’t, bond over details which would normally be meaningless, and in my case, are forced to unplug by the stunning lack of service in the Western US.

On my way to Oregon, I did a lot of traveling. Instead of taking a flight out like a normal person, I wanted to see the US. So I took the train. For 68 hours. Which left me a lot of time to get to know a diverse set of new friends.

I met Allen, who plundered Whole Foods with me on our brief stop in Denver. He’s a former Navy man who spent most of the ride hammered, but still managed to talk down his friend the conspiracy theorist (who ended up sounding more sane as he was sober).

Then there’s the conspiracy man himself, who gave his name as Strawberry Santa and spun tales of Burning Man and USO’s (unidentified submersible objects). Whoever he is, he was a great storyteller and entertained me for hours during my second day of the journey.

Next is a nameless woman who calmed drunk and sad Allen and who reminded me of my mother, sweet and kind and genuine. She told me about her son, a freshman in college and I attempted to give advice and reassure her he’d be fine (she’s a worrier like my mom). In turn, she told me of the plight of immigrants in the US (her parents came legally from Mexico before it was so damn hard) and how to calm a worrying mother (you can’t).

I mistook Tom as the son of a friend from Kentucky (she hooked me up with snacks – the second person to do so). He sat quietly with headphones till he was pulled over by Allen to discuss conspiracy theories and weird physics with Strawberry Santa. Once you got Tom going he was a hoot, a New Zealander who loves sailing and is planning to do fancy robotics in Switzerland but decided to travel around the US for a bit and help with a summer camp.

Tom is like my other 4 friends in that they all come from abroad to help at summer camps in the US (and watched a bunch of rich kids for a summer). The 4 girls were from England, New Zealand, and Australia. We stayed up late talking of weird phrases and restaurants that are different (McDonald’s is apparently Mackers). Along the way I learned that Aussies don’t say anything fully – they can’t even do Converses – they call em Connie’s.

My 4 friends were bothered a bit on the way out by the man I call Sweater. He’s always got 3 or 4 sweaters on and talks to himself. He makes me uncomfortable, but he mostly just nods at nothing and stares. He took a liking to the girls though, and got very chatty with them. I’m keeping an eye on him. Some folks you just don’t trust and sometimes it’s best to trust the gut.

Jamaican man has treated us all to great songs along the ride – mixed in with randomly yelling what I took to be another language (it’s just very Jamaican English) into his phone. He’s going to see a “shorty” in Cali and stated pretty frankly his intentions there.

Random woman #2 stole my seat. My friend Allen tried to hold down the fort, but RW2 just plopped down in my beautiful window seat. After a little digging I found out she hunted deer and elk and other large animals. I let her have the window seat. Her grandson plays for Notre Dame hockey and won player of the year, so that’s cool, too.

Then there’s Vincent, who is the kindredest soul I’ve met in a long time. I’m trying to convince him he’s not lazy. I had the same mentality maybe a month or two ago until I worked myself to death and realized my problem wasn’t that I was lazy, it was that I did too much useless work. Anyhow, Vincent is a philosophy and politics major at a small school in Oregon. He and I shared a trip to Sacremento and spoke with an interesting Russian homeless dude at the train station, as well as our friend Sarah, who went to Oberlin but took a year off to travel.

There were some experiences along the way that heightened the sense of togetherness inherent in traveling. The Rockies brought everyone together. Something about the views, the awe, connected us. Stories about moose and elk were exchanged. Hometowns were discovered and described. It was magical.

The non-magical thing is the way I describe my study “abroad” trip. I still haven’t found a good way to do it. Well I have but it’s less than ideal. My family calls the program a cult, since you don’t go home and don’t get your cell phone most of the week.

It’s out in the woods and I’ve found that comparing it to Thoreau works for Americans, but not for international folks – they had no idea who that was. But I tend to ramble about questions of life and figuring it out and thinking and reading in the woods. People find the cult more compelling for some reason. It’s funny how people would rather something fake but weird and interesting than something deeply meaningful and thought out.

A quick update: I made it and I am loving it. I will write more about it, but there is a sense of peace and home here. I’m not sure if it’s the people or the landscape, or both.

The Flight

Twenty hours. That’s fourteen hours from San Francisco to Taipei, about an hour at the terminal, then another five till Singapore.

If you’re like me and haven’t ever flown for this long, then twenty hours seems impossible. I’ve been flying back and forth from California to Michigan and can’t even stomach four-hour flights. This is also the first time I flew out of the States alone. For some reason, I decided my first transcontinental flight was going to be to the other side of the world. So you could imagine my mental state when I hugged my parents goodbye and made my way through the security checkpoint.

Everything went smoothly, at first. Like always, found a seat with a charger at my gate, filled my water bottle, went to the restroom, and so forth. The line slowly inched forwarded as my fellow fliers boarded the plane. My seatmates were two middle-aged, kind gentlemen. I settled in.

T-10 hours:

The plane seat cushion was pushing my head forward. I tried my best to scoot to the side so that my head rested next to the window, but now my neck was tilted at an awkward angle. The characters on my phone screen yelled at each other and ran away from an explosion. I rubbed at my neck. The man beside me snored and tilted precariously closer. I shifted in my seat again. He swayed and landed on the other passenger who snorted in his sleep.

The flight attendants carried in plates of food. I picked the braised chicken and potato, which was delicious, and stored the fruit and dessert under my chair for later. A few minutes after I had finished, the yellow seatbelt sign flashed and ticked above us as the plane trembled against the wind. My stomach turned. I sat straighter, looked up, and prayed that I wouldn’t be that one passenger who had to use the small paper bag.

Once the nausea subsided, I popped some pills for motion sickness.

T-8 hours:

I woke up and checked my phone. Perhaps we were close to Taiwan by now? Two hours! I had only slept for two hours; there were still eight to go. I turned on my phone and pressed play. On cue, the characters jumped and punched and dodged. After a while, the image blurred so I put my phone down. At least I wasn’t getting motion sick anymore, but I was getting bored and needed to go use the restroom. To my right, both men were still asleep but I decided to bother them later when they were awake. I wondered how they could sleep so comfortably for so long.

I reached down for my bag to pull out a pad of paper to draw or write on – and nope, my stomach churned angrily. Okay, so I wasn’t feeling up to par yet. Maybe I should wait it out. I pressed play on the phone and let my eyes glaze over.

T-5 hours:

Somehow I managed to sleep again, which was a blessing. Another three hours shaved off and now I was more than halfway there.

Somewhere along the way, I had lost the tiny pillow they had given us. I checked under my seat and noticed the food that I had stored for later was also missing. Great. I tested reaching for my bag and my stomach stayed silent. I had some vitamin gummies and checked the time again. It was an automatic motion. Every few minutes I would take a peek at the screen and slowly the dread in me was building. What was I going to do for five more hours?

I didn’t need to go to the restroom anymore, almost like my body was slowly realizing its reality and started adapting. Rummaging around my bag, I pulled out my pad of paper and sketched my seatmate, who was of course still sleeping. I wondered if he ever woke up this whole flight.

T-2 hours:

They brought out the food again: an omelette with sausage and broccoli and raisin bread, yogurt, and fruits for side dishes. I wasn’t aware of how hungry I was until I peeled off the foil and the smell of fried egg hit my face. I scarfed it all down and, as scheduled, the plane shook from turbulence and the nausea set in. I popped some more pills and checked the time. Two hours is manageable.

For the first time on the flight, I cracked the window open and looked out. It never got old. The vast expanse of ocean that met the sky, spotted with white rippled reflections from the sun and dark shadows from the clouds floating beneath us. In the distance, a silhouetted stretch of land.

Taipei:

At last, I had made it on the other side of the world. My first order of business? Restroom.

After I relieved myself of fourteen-hours’ worth, I joined the line at the security checkpoint and entered the terminal. The Taipei Airport was amazing. There were tiny museums and displays, a flower garden, themed gates, and even a tea ceremony area. I pulled out my camera to take it all in.

To Singapore:

The plane was the famous Hello Kitty plane. Everything from the screen animations to the pillows to even the puke bag was Hello Kitty-themed. Needless to say, I was impressed and dying from the cuteness of it all.

Compared to the fourteen-hour flight, this five-hour was nothing. I had my nap. Ate just enough. When the plane trembled, I took my pills. I also played around with the screen in front of me. Tetris, bowling, chess. I settled on Monsters University, which I had seen before, but nothing beats a classic.

At last the plane swooped onto the track and slowed to a stop. I looked out the window and met Singapore face-to-face.

Peninsula Tour

Another weekend, another IES trip! This time we traveled down the Cape Peninsula towards Cape Point, the most southwestern tip of Africa. We started our day by heading to Hout Bay, a neighborhood south of Table Mountain and along the Atlantic Ocean that is home to the Hout Bay Market. Along the dock at the bay, there were some street stands and a couple cafés that we peaked into before boarding a boat taking us to Seal Island. About 20 minutes out to sea are some large rocks that jet out of the water just enough for seals to have a nice place to rest and lay out in the sun. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many seals at once! There were tons of seals laying out on the rocks, as well as some flopping around in the water putting on a show for us.

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The seals at Seal Island

After being entertained by the seals for a while, we made our way back to shore and on the bus to our next stop. As we drove away from Hout Bay, up on the mountainside, we passed several viewpoint stops along the highway, until we got to the best one. We hopped of the bus to snap a few photos of the beautiful view. It seems like no matter where you go in Cape Town, there’s always a breathtaking view of a mountain!

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The view of Hout Bay from the highway
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My friend, Noelle, and I at the highway viewpoint

The next stop was Boulder Beach, which is famous for its wild penguins! The African Penguin can only be found on the southwestern coast of South Africa and mainly Boulder Beach. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go onto the beach with the penguins, but we were able to walk along a boardwalk and get pretty close to them! Winter is when a lot of the babies hatch, so we saw quite a few feathery penguins. Their feathers don’t become water proof until they’re about 3 months old, so it was easy to spot which ones were the babies. Definitely a highlight of the day!

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The penguins at Boulder Beach

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Even though I could probably sit and watch the penguins waddle around and dive into the water for hours, we left Boulder Beach to grab lunch and head to our final destination: Cape Point. The most southwestern tip of Africa is at the tip of the Cape of Good Hope within the Table Mountain National Park. We spent a few minutes at Cape Point on the beach taking in the views and capturing some quick photos of the edge. But, the better views came once we started an hour hike up to the Old Cape Point Lighthouse which is at the highest peak. Along the hike and at the top by the lighthouse, we looked out over the ocean and at beautiful mountain landscapes. Every direction you turned was a spectacular view and once we got to the top, it almost felt like we were in a cloud.

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Cape Point
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Views along the hike towards Old Cape Point Lighthouse
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Views from the Old Cape Point Lighthouse

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This trip was full of incredible sights and fun excursions and made me ready to explore more of South Africa!

Paris Reflections!

   

Since I arrived back in Michigan, I have been thinking and reflecting on my summer semester in Paris. I kept a journal from the first day I arrived in Paris, and detailed every moment and funny memory. Looking back, I am so glad I did this because I was able to better understand what I learned and see how I adapted to a foreign culture. Studying abroad in Paris was undoubtedly the best adventure in my life so far. I met the most incredible group of people through IES, who became my close friends I am blessed to have lived in France over the summer. If I typed out everything I learned about living in a foreign country, we would be here for hours. So to save the trouble, here is a short list of the best lessons I learned while living and studying in Paris:

  1. “So much of who we are is where we have been.” -William Langewiesche. I found this quote written in graffiti on a wall in Paris near the Seine River, and it resonated with me as I progressed through studying abroad. I felt myself becoming more adventurous, where I traveled by myself to Belgium, Luxembourg, and Stonehenge. I felt myself becoming more comfortable speaking a language I had never studied before, where I was not afraid speaking French with locals. I felt myself falling in love with Paris. So much of who I am will remain in Paris.
  2. Bread will never be the same. When it comes to bakeries, the French have this perfected to an art. I probably ate my weight in croissants and baguettes, but French bread is incredibly delicious. My favorite dessert, and what I will miss the most about French food, is Pan du Chocolat (chocolate-filled croissant). Hopefully I can find an authentic French bakery in Michigan!
  3. Travel. Travel. Travel. Traveling within Europe is incredibly cheap and easy. When are you ever going to live in a foreign country again in your life? Take advantage of every opportunity and leave no stone unturned. My group and I went to London, England together, and I went to Brussels, Belgium and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg by myself. My group was more interested in exploring Paris than traveling far, but I didn’t let that falter my plans. Even if you have to go alone, don’t regret not going somewhere. I had a blast both on my own and with my group. Also, I learned how to book travel accommodations and research places to go all on my own. When my flights were delayed and trains became cancelled due to strikes, I figured out alternate routes on my own last minute. How cool is that? Travel, and travel far.
  4. The Eiffel Tower never gets old. From the first time I saw the Iron Lady to the last night under the sparkling lights, I never grew tired of looking at how beautiful the tower is. Every Wednesday, my friends and I had a picnic under the tower to watch the sunset and sparkling lights. I always looked forward to every Wednesday, and could not get enough of the Eiffel Tower. The view from the top of the tower isn’t bad either, but I’d much rather watch the lights sparkle with a baguette and wine from our secret terrace we found.
  5. Take the leap and study abroad. I have to admit, I was a little nervous just before I left. I had never traveled on my own before and had never been to Europe. I would have to learn a new language and learn to navigate a foreign country. Luckily, the nerves went away the second I got to my apartment. I fell in love with Paris and made incredible friends in my study abroad group. I learned a ton in my classes that I know will take me far in the rest of my studies. I created internship connections through my professors. I tried food I never thought I would dare eat. I traveled alone to other countries. I saw Stonehenge. Nothing will ever compare to what I experienced, and most importantly, I learned that a classroom is much more than four white walls.

Take the leap and study abroad; you just might learn something about the world around you.

À bientôt, et je t’aime Paris!

-Alissa Smith

The Garden Route

Last weekend was full of crossing things off the South Africa bucket list! IES organized a road trip for us along the Garden Route, a stretch of southern South Africa that is made up of farmland and some incredible sights. We had an early morning Friday to drive to our first destination, Wilderness. Wilderness is home to the Touw River, where we got to canoe and look at the mountains and hills surrounding the water. It was a bit chilly to be canoeing, but still a fun way to experience Wilderness and do some sight-seeing.

The IES group on the beach of the Touw River after canoeing!

On Saturday we made our way to Tsitsikamma National Park and hiked to the suspension bridge that overlooks the Indian Ocean. Despite the pouring rains, this hike was amazing. The views were spectacular and full of beautiful plant life and animals. Once we made it to the suspension bridge we were able to walk across and see down the river between the mountains on one side and out into the ocean on the other. It stopped raining right after we crossed the bridge, so we were able to walk back to the beach rain free which was a nice break, even though we were all already drenched.

Sarah, another Hope student, and me on the suspension bridge at Tsitsikamma National Park.
View of the mountains from the suspension bridge.
View of the suspension bridge and the outlook of the Indian Ocean.

After we dried off a bit we had the choice of going to four different animal encounters: monkeys, birds, big cats, or elephants. The majority of people chose the same as me and went to the elephant reservation where they save elephants from zoos and trafficking to put them in a natural and safe environment. We were able to get up close with the elephants and meet them which was one of the most exciting parts of this trip! We got to walk with the elephants while holding their trunks, pet them, feel their ears and tails, and hug their trunks. I also got to feed them chunks of cantaloupe and they grabbed it right out of my hand with their trunks and tried to take it from my hand even if they weren’t the elephant I was trying to feed. It was a really fun way to encounter elephants and learn more about them!

Walking with an elephant!
Learning about the elephants from our guide, Charlie.
Giving the elephant a hug!

Sunday, our last day of the Garden Route trip, we headed to Congo. In Congo we went to the famous caves that were discovered by a Dutch farmer who was looking for a lost sheep. We did the adventure tour, which meant that we had to crawl through tight spaces to get to some of the caverns. The rocks and formations inside the caves were really cool and took hundreds of thousands of years to form. Even though some of the crevices we had to fit through were tight and a little nerve-racking, it was definitely worth it to see what the caves had to offer.

Our final stop on the trip was to an African ostrich farm. Ostriches in South Africa are farmed for their meat and leather and are also used to herd and protect sheep. There was a handful of ostriches that they let us interact with. The first ostrich we saw was a dwarf ostrich who had a mutation causing him to be significantly shorter than the typical ostrich. We were able to feed him pellets out of our hands, and he had a surprisingly powerful bite and sharp beak. We then met Betsy, a full grown ostrich that the farm rescued. The tour guide said that Betsy is an unusually friendly ostrich, whereas typical ostriches are very aggressive and protective. Since Betsy is friendly and enjoys being around people, everyone got a chance to pet her and get an ostrich hug! The tour guide then asked us if we wanted to get an ostrich neck massage. We figured this meant standing with your back to a bunch of ostriches while holding a bucket of food. The ostriches reached over my head and around my neck in order to eat from the bucket. They were going at the food pretty hard and I definitely got hit in the face by an ostrich head a couple times, but it was worth it.

The dwarf ostrich – significantly shorter than the average ostrich.
Getting a hug from Betsy!
Getting a neck massage from the other ostriches by feeding them!

It was a really fun trip and a neat way to see more of South Africa other than Cape Town, but I am definitely excited to be back in Cape Town and become more familiar with the city I will be living in for the next four months!

Brussels, Belgium and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg!

For a weekend trip, I decided to take the train from Paris into Brussels and Luxembourg City. Immediately entering the Grand Place city square of Brussels, I was greeted with intense smells of chocolate. I bought authentic Belgian chocolate from Mary’s, who are the chocolate suppliers of the Belgian royal family, and it was 100% the best chocolate I have ever tasted! I also had Belgian street waffles, which were piled high with tons of toppings. Later on, I stopped for frites (fries), and there is a huge feud between France and Belgium over where frites originated. I personally think Belgium had the better tasting frites!

Brussels is the most famous for the Manneken Pis statue, which occasionally gets dressed up in costumes for special events. I was lucky enough to be in Brussels on a national holiday dedicated to Manneken Pis, so I was able to watch a parade dedicated to the statue and see Manneken Pis in two different outfits!

After Brussels, I headed to Luxembourg City, Luxembourg for another day trip. Luxembourg City is full of history and castles. I toured the Bock Casemates, which is a fortress carved into the Luxembourg cliffs dating back to 963. This was one of the most interesting places I have seen in Europe. The fortress is entirely carved into caves and tunnels throughout the cliff side. The cave system is so large that I walked through for hours and did not see any other people. Bock Casemates border the city of Luxembourg, and it was beautiful to look out over the entire city from the fortress.

   

 

   

After touring Bock Casemates, I followed a hiking trail along the cliffs and forest of the city. The trail leads to a point called Chemin de la Corniche, also known as “the most beautiful balcony in Europe”. I can definitely agree that this view is the most beautiful balcony in Europe, as I have never seen anything like it! Luxembourg was my favorite country I visited in Europe, and I hope to visit again soon!

Ciao!

-Alissa Smith