The Driest Place on Earth

I’m still trying to process all of the wonders that I experienced in the Atacama Desert.

Day 1: We arrived to our hostel and immediately went for a stroll through the small, desert town of San Pedro. The dirt roads are lined with companies offering tours to all of the attractions, ice cream shops, and rows and rows of small shops full of colorful, handmade souvenirs. We booked our tours for our 5-day trip, expectant of each place we would be able to visit.

Day 2: Tour of “Las Lagunas Escondidas”, the Hidden Lagoons. After about an hour and a half long drive into the middle of nowhere, with only sand dunes surrounding us, we arrived to the 7 magical hidden lagoons. Salt covered the surfaces around the lagoons, making it seem as if we were in the Arctic looking at snow and ice. We had the chance to swim in one of the lagoons, but it wasn’t a typical swim. This lagoon has such a high salt content that we were able to float. We relaxed in the lagoon as we escaped to cool down from the burning desert sun for awhile. It was a magical experience.

Day 3: Tour of “Piedras Rojas”, Red Rocks. A drive through the Atacama Desert with frequent stops at look-out points to observe lagoons and other beautiful and unique landscapes. This tour also included a stop to a salt flat with a special lagoon inhabited by three distinct species of flamingos. There are only 6 species in the entire world, and three of them live at this lagoon in Chile! We got to observe the elegant movements of the flamingos, although most of them were eating the entire time we were there (flamingos eat for 16 hours each day!). We learned that flamingos are actually born white/grey and only become pink due to their diet of shrimp and algae, which is high in carotenoid pigments and eventually change their color. Therefore, younger flamingos are practically entirely white/grey.

Day 4: During the day, we embarked on a self-guided tour to “Valle de la Luna”, Moon Valley. We biked a total of 18 miles to see the wonders that this place had to offer. A huge salt cave is the biggest attraction, and we wandered through and examined the crazy, intricate and unique formations of the salt particles in each part of this massive cave. Hiking ginormous sand dunes, more biking, and extreme sweat were also key parts of our journey.

In the evening we did an Astronomy Tour, because the Atacama Desert is the best place in the entire world for astronomy! Due to its extremely high elevation and its dryness (after all, it is the driest place on earth, with the exception of the poles), it is an ideal place to examine the huge night sky full of twinkling and flashing stars, and bright, steady planets. At one point, we were able to see three planets at the same time. It was the first time in my life that the song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” had meaning for me. I am still in awe of the miraculous canvas that is our night sky.

Day 5: Tour of the “Tatio Geysers”. A 4 a.m wake up was necessary for our trip to the third-largest field of geysers in the entire world, and it was so worth it. We watched the sunrise through the steam of these powerful, yet gentle geysers. One of the geysers is usually inactive and sits as a calm geyser until the land underneath heats to a certain level and it explodes, shooting a fountain of steady water into the air for a few seconds, and then becoming calm again, preparing to explode a few minutes later. The final part of this day was spent in a natural hot spring, relaxing and warming up after an extremely cold morning in the high altitude of these Tatio Geysers.

Being in the Atacama Desert for five days reminded me of the importance of finding beauty in bare things that might not initially seem exciting- to search for the hidden gems and the flowing water buried deep within the dry sand dunes of the desert — because the beauty does exist and it is pretty miraculous.

Nature at Home

Today I’m sharing a piece written by my good friend Will Lake who’s also here at the Oregon Extension. Earlier in the semester we read Annie Dillard, a nature writer, and were asked to copy her style of writing and observation. We each trundled outside and found a spot to sit as still as possible (not very still in my case) for an hour. Then we trundled on back and wrote about our experience.

I loved Will’s piece especially because he connected the idea of nature as home to our family homes. We forgot how well taken care of we are, how much nature does for us. Will’s piece captures well the guilt and remorse I think we should feel for ignoring the nature that takes such good care of us. Without further adieu, here it is:

I come down the valley on the path to the creek. I feel foreign here, alien, in a sense. I feel like a stranger coming into a house at dark, or better, like coming back home after too long away. I stumble, rumble, bumble and fall. I break bushes, I have no heading, I see no path, I make a ruckus. I fall into the creek. My pants are wet, and I sit up on a mossy rock while my socks dry.

It feels like coming home, sort of. Yet, I feel like I never quite lived here. It’s almost like I’m coming to visit my grandma after much time has passed. If I see it in this way, nature is my grandma and her house is wilderness, and today, I am visiting gram at her house: I’ve been away for too long; it’s probably been years. I overlook her house, passing it twice on the street. The lights are on, and the door is always unlocked. I walk right in like I own the place – I mean, I certainly wouldn’t think to knock. I stumble in, bumbling, tripping, slipping on knick-knacks and ancient rugs, knocking a glass bell off the bell shelf on the way in. It shatters, but I don’t care. Besides, there’s a million of them. I sit down at the table on her hard-wooden chair. I find tremendous comfort in the steadfastness of my grandma’s house, like I want to roll in the nostalgia that surrounds me, breathing in the comforts of old – the things here that always have been and probably always will be: the box of toys my mom had, the same kitchen table with water bottles filled with rocks so the dog wouldn’t jump. Don’t forget the smell, oh the smell! Had she bought the same air freshener for 70 years? I find it all deeply familiar. Yet, it is heartbreaking to see the things that have changed and died. No more laughing of grandchildren, no more Christmas mornings with the whole family, no more pierogi from the polish deli down the street. I find joy and sadness all the while. I realize how deeply my life is intertwined IN this very house. My mother, after all, was born here. Half of my genetic being lived here, toiled here, cried here, and yet, I am removed from it. Just a few, small memories are what have connecting me to this place, the place of my ancestry. Soon, grandma will move from the house, and when she does, we will sell it, her grandkids, that is. We will justify it for our college tuition, our needs unmet, and because that’s “the way of life”. After all, nothing lasts forever, not even grandma’s house.

Gram is at the table with all her wisdom and ancient beauty. I feel good here, full. I feel for a moment like I am a good grandson (for I have visited her, listened to her stories, acknowledged her teachings, and tried to preserve her in this way). And yet, my belly aches, and I know she has not a crumb I won’t have to rummage for. I start to feel like this is not my home. I feel separate. I get restless after an hour of pinochle. “This was fun,” I say. The sun is setting out her window and I feel even more uncomfortable now in her home. I long to leave. I love her, truly, I do, but night time here depresses me and chills me to my bone. At night mysteries fill her creaky corridors. I tell her I had a great time, and that I’ll be back again soon as I make up an excuse to leave. I stumble, again, towards the door, breaking more bells as I leave. “Never mind it,” she says. She is always giving. I leave with another “grandma check”. She has filled me up, sustained me. She does it, I suppose, because she wants to, or maybe because she wants me to come back. I feel guilty now. I stumble to my car and drive away in silence. I take for granted that she will be there next time I come, whenever I choose to return. I am comfortable again: my feet off the itchy shag, my butt off her hard, wooden chairs, and done tirelessly playing pinochle. I eat. I cash my check. Satisfied, I think of when I might go back.

I see the sun set over the creek. It is cold now, and I put on my jacket. I pick up my bag, put on my stiff-dried socks, and limp my way up the valley towards my cabin. I eat a warm dinner and crawl into bed. I am home.

Must’ve Been a Fairytale

A magical place. Massive green trees and extremely colorful flowers. A stone path leading to every building. Wooden cabins adorned with fire places and jacuzzis. The constant aroma of a campfire.

Our Cabin!

My program, CIEE, planned a trip for us to Pucón (I prefer to call it “Fairytale Town”) where we had the privilege to stay at a charming campsite just outside the city. Our first day there, we visited a Mapuche community (the indigenous people of Chile) and spent the day learning about the their simple lifestyle, their vision of the cosmos, and their deification of nature. The Mapuche women prepared a massive bonfire for us, a common tradition practiced with guests, inside one of their very important buildings. We listened as they shared about their culture and religious beliefs, which seem to be intertwined with each and every part of their daily lives. The experience was incredibly interesting and, as Chile’s roots lie in the Mapuche community, it helped us further value and understand the country, and its indigenous people, as a whole.

Mapuche Community!

On our second day in Pucón, we embarked on a tour of various lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and nature reserves. The most fascinating part of this day, for many reasons, was the Mapocho River. It’s original Mapuche name is Mapu chuco, which means water that penetrates the land. With aggressive rapids and water as clear as glass, this unique river flows in the opposite direction of every other river in Chile. We also toured the Futaleufú River, one of the premier whitewater rivers in the world, where I fulfilled a dream of mine that I will discuss later. It is fed by glacial snow and is often referred to as “a landscape painted by God”. The source of this turquoise river is located across the border in Argentina, but nearly the entire river runs through Chilean land. For years, the two countries have debated about which country owns the river. It once belonged to the Chileans, backed by the argument that it runs primarily through their land and ends in a lake on their side, but it now belongs to the Argentinians because the river’s source is within the borders of their land. (I’m going to be honest, I’m still trying to decide if it is fully valid to say that I was in Argentina because I entered the river… I think I’ll say yes).

In the Futaleufú River, I fulfilled a dream of mine… I went white water rafting! It was exhilarating, terrifying, freezing, and life-changing all at the same time. Despite the freezing rain that decided to make a guest appearance on our journey, it was an unforgettable afternoon. I was slightly nervous due to the fact that all safety procedures were given in Spanish, and I was almost positive that at least one person in my group didn’t understand some crucial part of the explanation. However, no one fell out of the raft, no paddles were lost, and no instances of getting stuck between rocks or trees occurred. We did run into approximately four large rocks and had to assume our emergency position, all the while hoping we wouldn’t die, twice… Yet, we conquered the challenge and it felt incredible. Now I can say that I went rafting in an extremely beautiful and clear river, with powerfully strong rapids, flowing in the opposite direction of all other rivers, located in Chile but belonging to Argentina… I’d say that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

As I said, the trip was magical. Even strolling through Pucón was enchanting. We walked streets full of large ice cream shops and vendors selling handmade crafts. We observed families congregated at the lake with their sweet treats in hand. We saw wooden street signs bearing images of volcanoes and gazed at the city’s backdrop of snowy mountains. As the sun shone down and the scent of bonfire lingered, I couldn’t help but question if I was dreaming. I could live in Pucón, without a doubt. Who knows? Maybe I will…

First Program Trip – Berlin and Warsaw

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that you did not get to bed before 10 pm on your 21st birthday, and I am probably right. I, however, had a slightly different experience. For one, the only thing you get in Germany for turning 21 is the ability to legally rent a car, so it is not nearly as significant as in the U.S. In addition, I had to be ready to leave for the Freiburg train station by 5:45 am for our first week-long trip with our program.

Germany has a large Turkish minority, and one of their major contributions to German culture is the introduction of numerous döner kebab places, the best of which is Mustafa’s

The train ride to Berlin took about 6 hours, during which many of us got to get to know each other better, listen to music and read, or (the most popular choice) sleep. After arrival, we were confronted by the extensive public transportation network in Berlin and managed to locate two very important things. 1) Our hostel and 2) The best döner kebab place in town.

The contrast between the base structure and the glass dome on top of the famous parliament building is very representative of the combination of old and new throughout the city.

We then were taken on a two hour walking tour of Berlin which started at the Reichstag, the German parliament building. Our tour guide then took us to see many famous sights in the area including the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As we made our way through the city, our tour guide stated that during WWII, roughly 80% of Berlin was destroyed. In fact, much of Berlin is filled with modern-looking buildings and looking back, I would argue that it was more similar to most big cities in the US than it was to Freiburg.

We had to go back to check out the Brandenburg Gate again to see it at night. Very impressive.

This line of cobblestones marks where the Berlin Wall once stood. Behind is the Brandenburg Gate.

Checkpoint Charlie. Featuring me.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews, a very powerful monument.

The next day we took a visit to the former Stasi prison, where the GDR (former East Germany) held many political prisoners and dissenters for interrogations. This ruthless prison was hidden from the public and many forms of psychological torture were used by the Stasi to get what they wanted from their prisoners.

The basement of the Stasi prison nicknamed The Submarine because it was all underground and prisoners never knew what time it was. Prisoners were crammed so tight into these cells that they had to stand to have enough space.

After eating another kebab for lunch, we heard from a political analyst on Germany’s role in the European Union and went to the East Side Gallery to check out the artwork displayed along a long stretch of a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. The following are some of the highlights I saw

In English: “You have learned what freedom is, never again forget it”
The famous picture of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev giving the East Germany President Erich Honecker a massive smooch.
This section in particular seemed to be very popular amongst the instagrammers…

After hearing from a German professor from Stanford University about the German perspective on the migration crisis, we had plenty of free time to spend around the city. Another aspect of Berlin’s rich history is the plethora of fantastic museums located right in the city.  Though it has been going through major renovations, the Pergamon Museum has incredible displays of historical architecture and artifacts from the times of ancient Babylon to the Roman Empire. The Neues Museum was another museum I visited, and it is the home of the famous bust of Nefertiti.

The Ishtar Gate was a gate to the inner city of Babylon built during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II.

 

You are not allowed to take pictures of the Nefertiti bust from any closer than I was, but this artist found a loophole by making a beautiful drawing instead. Unfortunately he didn’t leave the room while I was there, so I could not take a picture of his art either.

After our time in Berlin came to a close, we took another train out to Warsaw, where we would be for the next two days. Upon our arrival, we made a quick stop at our hotel and headed straight to the city center for a walking tour with our hilarious Polish tour guide who went by the name Jack. For some reason I had a hard time believing that this was his given name, but he was funny so we just went along with it.

If you walk to the front of this tower you will be in the main city center of Warsaw where you can find a statue of a significant figure in the city’s history above a fountain.

By the time we finished our city tour it was dark outside, and we made our way to another beautiful square for dinner. Most of the city was destroyed in WWII, so almost all of the buildings around us had been built (or rebuilt) in the last 70 or so years. Thanks to some precise artwork from an artist before the war, the buildings in this square were intricately repaired to appear almost identical to what they were before. In the center of this square, you will also find a statue of a mermaid who was said to have lived in the waters of the Vistula river that runs through the city. Some claim that this same mermaid is also the inspiration for the story of the Little Mermaid, though the mermaid statue in Copenhagen generally gets credit for being the true source of the tale. Unfortunately this is the extent of my mermaid knowledge, so I’ll leave you to re-watch the Little Mermaid and decide for yourself…

The old town market square – the mermaid statue is slightly visible in the bottom left of the photo.
A classic Polish dish of pierogies and a local beer was a delicious way to finish off our first day in Warsaw.

Much of the next day and a half in Poland was spent doing class-related activities, like meeting with experts on Poland and it’s relations with the European Union. One of the most common topics was the ‘immigration crisis,’ and we heard from both sides about why Poland should or should not be doing more to help refugees looking for help. We heard the Polish perspective from representatives from The Polish Institute of International Affairs, who supported a very strict immigration policy for their extremely homogeneous nation, and for the first time in our program were confronted with lots of ideas that went against the EU’s opinions and goals.

We also got to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Rising Museum, which was about a resistance uprising led by the local citizens in Warsaw to try to oust the Nazi troops near the end of the war. The idea was for them to revolt in time to take the city just before the Russians arrived to ease the Russian push west, but the plan failed. Allies managed to send in bombers with care packages, but the Russians never got there in time and after a month or two of Polish resistance members controlling parts of the city, the rebellion was suppressed.

The center attraction of the Warsaw Rising Museum was this RAF Liberator – one of the types of bombers used during the dangerous missions the Allies sent out to supply Polish resistance members.

Just like in Berlin, there was not enough time to see everything I would have liked to, but both museums were fantastic. On our last day we made sure to eat even more pierogies, capping off a full week of incredible food. By the end, however, we were all looking forward to getting back to Freiburg and sleep in our beds again.

A group of IES students I got to explore the city with during our time in Warsaw.

Weekend in the Whitsundays

Upon arriving in Australia I had made it a priority to ask Aussies that I came across for places they would recommend for a weekend trip. From my own research I had considered Melbourne, Uluru, and Tasmania, and while the Aussies agreed that those would be fantastic spots, the suggestion I heard time and time again was the Whitsunday Islands. To be completely honest, I had never even heard of the Whitsundays. I was skeptical, to say the least. So much so, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t have gone had it not been for a friend of mine. I knew from budgeting for trips that I could probably afford to take one of these weekend trips and I had pretty much decided on Melbourne. He then pointed out that I had made the decision about a couple of bigger trips we would be making and that the Whitsundays was what he wanted to see the most. I conceded and we booked our flights.

We left Sydney in grey skies and 50 degree weather; we landed to clear blue skies, 80 degrees, and a slight breeze, which continued for the entire weekend. The van ride from the airport to Airlie Beach, where we were staying, took about forty minutes or so, and as we drove, I was surprised how similar to the Midwest this part of Australia seemed. We passed a lot of farmland — fields of sugar cane rather than corn, and we drove through a small town or two with not much more than a gas station and general store. Then, upon turning up a hill and around a corner, the driver said “Everyone, welcome to paradise.” As I alluded to earlier, Aussies are proud of the Whitsundays and Whitehaven beach… as they should be! I quickly decided that while Melbourne would have been an incredible experience, I certainly could not consider this trip to be a ‘bad decision.’

One of the first sights we got of the Whitsundays water

Airlie Beach simply exuded a laid back energy

Airlie Beach, like Cairns, and to be frank, a large portion of Australia, is catered towards two types of people: wealthy vacationers, and backpackers. Housing options at Airlie were essentially a choice of about four or five hostels, or renting a nice cottage overlooking a harbor. It’s been incredible as I have started to feel a bit more at home with the ‘backpacker culture’ that I have come across in Australia simply due to the exposure that I have had with this group. Although I’m not sure I can picture myself living as a full time backpacker like many of the people I have met are, I can’t help but admire the lives that they lead and feel cool about the fact that I am experiencing a small part of that life for myself. That also increased my excitement for New Zealand where I’ll be backing for about two weeks and living with other backpackers for the entirety of that trip!

The day after flying in was the day trip onto the Whitsunday Islands and Whitehaven beach. The Whitsundays are an archipelago of 74 islands, yet only eight of these are actually inhabited since the rest have been deemed a part of a national park. As a result, island after island we passed were entirely covered in forest, brush, and amazing rock outcroppings. The Whitsundays are also at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef so naturally the water is filled with wildlife as well. As we were on our way to our snorkeling stop, we passed a massive sea turtle as it breached, and although we didn’t see any, the captain also told us that whales are quite common to find around the islands during this time of the year. We first did a bit of snorkeling over a small reef which was as beautiful as always. Plenty of fish were swimming under us and an Aussie even got my attention and showed me that after swimming down beneath a bit of reef we could see a black tipped reef shark! The shark was about six feet in length and our guides told us that’s about as large as they tend to get.

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Above is a link to see a bit of the coral and fish

Below is a short video where you can see part of the shark. Unfortunately he was a little shy to show his face

After we finished our snorkeling, the boat took us to a different island where we could take a short hike up to see the Hill Inlet. The Hill Inlet is now the second most photographed piece of Australia, just behind Uluru/Ayers Rock. To try to describe the Hill Inlet is really impossible so I will just include pictures so that you can see the indescribable beauty of the Whitsundays. The reason why the water is so blue and the sand is so white is because the sand is very special. While most sand around the world is made of quartz, the Whitsundays sand is made of 98% silica, and while scientists aren’t certain, they believe it originated from an underwater volcano that erupted long ago. The silica in the water then changes how light reflects off of it creating the indescribable views that you will see from the pictures. The guides also told us that we were very lucky as the view we got was about as good as it gets. Due to the water levels changing and sand shifting, the view from Hill Inlet actually changes every forty-five minutes.

Here is the Hill Inlet lookout

After getting our pictures at Hill Inlet we took the boat to Whitsunday Island where we got off to enjoy Whitehaven beach. Once again, this experience was almost indescribable as the sand felt entirely different from any sand I’ve felt before. Since it is made of silica the sand does not get hot from the sun, is incredibly soft, and can be used to exfoliate skin. No more sand is being produced, however, making the Whitehaven beach sand incredibly valuable. To protect the sand there is a no-questions-asked fine of $7,123 USD if you are caught taking sand from the Whitsundays. Needless to say, I didn’t think a small souvenir would be worth that cost so I left the sand where it belongs.

On Whitehaven beach is where my tour group also ate our lunch and I was surprised to find lizards all around our dining area. These were not small lizards either, rather, they were lace monitors which are the second largest lizards in Australia and among the largest in the world. The ones that surrounded us were around four to five feet long, and they do have razor sharp claws, teeth, and are venomous, although our guides assured us that they wouldn’t actually bother us as long as we tried to ignore them. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to ignore a four foot lizard licking your foot while you eat food they are wanting but it isn’t easy. After a getting licked a couple of times while I was sitting down I extended my leg to raise it into the air. The monitor then darted underneath the bench I was sitting on and smacked my leg with its tail. I was a bit shocked by what had just happened while the guide laughed at me and said “she’s got a bit of an attitude, doesn’t she?”

Our guide was a hilarious middle-aged guy who with some aboriginal background, and while we ate he kept reminding the lizards of that fact. He would tell the lizards “If you bite me, I’ll bite you and I can legally do it too!” Not everyone was phased by the lizards though; in fact, the same Aussie guy who showed me the shark walked up from behind one lizard and gave it a quick pet. The lizard did not like that one bit and as a shiver ran down its whole body and its head whipped around towards the Aussie guy, I was feeling quite sure that our trip was about to be cut short. Fortunately the guy backed up a few steps and walked away leaving my friend and I sitting two feet away from an angry monitor, but we all made it back to shore unscathed.

Here’s one of the lace monitors

In the end, the Whitsundays turned out to be a paradise unlike anything I have experienced before. From the water to the sand to the wildlife, the Whitsundays felt surreal throughout the entire trip. I may not be able to afford to see Melbourne, but I certainly cannot pretend that I made the wrong choice by going to the Whitsundays. As I left Airlie Beach and flew back into Sydney I caught myself sighing as our plane touched down. Airlie’s temperature was so perfect that returning to the grey skies and rain of Sydney led me to think to myself “Well, back to dreary ole Sydney, I guess!” I then had to laugh at myself since never in my life would I have considered myself having that thought. It’s amazing how quickly new places can begin to feel typical and not quite as extraordinary as they once were. Then, as my train passed the Opera House I felt that magic return once again — I’m in Sydney.

 

A World Wonder

Nowadays there are quite a few lists of different world wonders. One of these lists is of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. I had the incredible opportunity to go and experience one of them a couple of weekends ago. My friend, Noelle, and I took a quick trip to Livingstone, Zambia, to see Victoria Falls, the largest (widest) waterfall in the world!!

We flew out to Zambia Friday night, checked into our Backpackers, our accommodation for the weekend, then headed to a local café for some Zambian dinner. It had a nice atmosphere with outdoor seating and there was a live band playing outside (featuring lots of Ed Sheeran covers). We tried some crocodile bites and a barbecue pizza with bananas on it! It was a fun way to start off our time in a new country.

The next morning we got up and left to head to the falls! Victoria falls is part of the Zambezi River, which marks the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. We were staying on the Zambian side but decided to start off by visiting the Zimbabwe side of the falls since this is supposedly where the best views are. In order to do so, we had to go through customs, walk across the bridge between the countries, and enter Zimbabwe. It was crazy to just be able to walk from one country to the other so easily.

Crossing into Zimbabwe
The bridge connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe

Once in Zimbabwe, we walked to the park entrance. We could already hear the roaring of the falls, so we followed the sound. The falls are so large that there are several different viewpoints to see them from; so we hopped from one to the next, trying to soak in as much as we could! At each viewpoint, you couldn’t help but get a little wet from all the mist spraying up from the force of the falls, but it was refreshing since it was almost 100 degrees that day! The falls were absolutely amazing and even bigger than I expected.

(Click on first photo to view as slide show!)

After watching the falls for a little while, we trekked back over to Zambia to see what the falls looked like from the other side. Although not as big as they were on the Zimbabwe side, the falls were still incredible. There is a section called the Rainbow Falls because rainbows are commonly found near the bottom of the falls there. We were able to see a couple of rainbows while on that side of the park.

(Click on first photo to view as slide show!)

After wandering around this side of the park, we headed to our next adventure: Devil’s Pool. Devil’s pool is a part at the top of the Falls where with a natural rock pool and natural rock barrier that weakens the current and prevents you from going over the edge. We met up with a tour group who led us to Livingstone Island, a small patch of land at the top of the falls, where we then began our walk/swim to Devil’s Pool. When we got there, the guides told us how to safely enter the pool and where to go. Getting in and swimming at the top of the largest waterfall in the world was probably one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life! Not only being at the top of the Falls, but also viewing them from this perspective was so humbling and a unique reminder of how awesome God’s creation is and how thankful I am to be able to experience it in such unique ways while abroad. It was definitely a highlight of the trip!

(Click on first photo to view as slide show!)

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to take a weekend to visit Zambia and Zimbabwe and experience this amazing wonder! Victoria Falls did not disappoint and was an incredible sight to see in person! Now I just have to make it to the other six natural wonders 🙂

P.S. Our pilot on the flight back to Cape Town was super great and made sure to fly over the falls for us so we could spot it from an aerial view! Here’s what it looks like from a bird’s eye!

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Victoria Falls from above!

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.