An Open Letter to Pre-Study-Abroad-Me

Hi Em,

I know you’re scared out of your wits right now, even though you’re too proud to admit it. As much as you want to put on a brave face for your mom, who will worry about you for the entirety of the time that you’re away from her, it’s okay that you’re scared. Believe me, a little fear keeps you on your toes.

Whatever they told you in the off-campus orientation, remember it, but don’t cling to it. Ultimately, this is your experience which is completely unique to you so don’t leave expecting that everything will be exactly like what people had told you it was going to be. I know it was fun to hear from other students who had studied in France before you, but you can’t always expect their highs and lows to be the same as yours. I know you want to speak French all the time with your classmates and have a really awesome professor, but you have to go in with an open mind. At the same time, what was difficult for others might not be difficult for you. Regardless, listen to other people’s stories, but don’t cling to them as your reality.

When you meet people who act and believe in ways different than what you’re used to, don’t shun them, befriend them. You wanted to get out and meet ALL different types of people so do it! These new friends are going to be your lifeline for the next four months. Be open and try to understand where they come from before you make up your mind about who they are and what they stand for.

FOMO is real, but believe me, you are not missing out. It’s really hard to say goodbye to all of your friends, knowing that you won’t see the majority of them until the fall. But, the journey that you’re about to embark on is far more important than worrying about what’s going on back home without you. Knowing that life is going on without you there is a hard pill to swallow, but you ultimately have to trust in the strength of the relationships you’ve formed and believe that what was meant to be will be. Your friends will not forget you.

For goodness’ sake don’t stop learning. Yes, you have accepted the task of attending school in a foreign country, but that’s only one of the environments in which you’re going to learn in. The whole of France is your classroom so get out and learn about it! Not everything can be learned from a teacher or a textbook. The other side of it is experience and you have the perfect opportunity right here to go and experience all that you can and grow from it.

Sit down and have a conversation with your host mom. She may tell you the same stories over and over again, but with each repeated story, she always has something different to say. I know it’s intimidating to speak more than you listen when using a foreign language, but the more effort you put into telling Katherine about yourself and what you think, the better she can get to know you. She might even learn a thing or two. You tend to rush through your meals at home, but in France we take them very seriously so make sure to dedicate time to them. A meal is the greatest opportunity you have to really get to know someone. Sit down and relax over mealtime instead of jumping immediately into the next task at hand.

Don’t be so stingy. It’s scary to look at your bank account and know that you only have x-amount to get you through the entire semester, but don’t skip out on the things you enjoy just so that you can have a little extra cash. Go out to the cafe, have lunch with your friends, take that weekend getaway you’ve been thinking about for a month. You and your wallet will make it through just fine.

Your parents miss you, call them!

People will try to tell you that, because you’re abroad, you have no excuse to feel unpleasant emotions. Don’t listen to them. Just because you are in an incredibly beautiful corner of the world doing what you’ve always dreamed of, it does not mean that any of your emotions are invalid. It’s perfectly acceptable to be down and upset. It’s okay to feel loss. Of course you want to be happy because of the amazing opportunity you’ve been granted, but that doesn’t mean you will always feel like that. Your emotions don’t have a GPS; you will feel how you feel regardless of your geography.

Lastly, when you get home you might feel overwhelmed with everything: a different environment, responsibilities you haven’t had to think about for months, and people who haven’t the slightest idea about what you just experienced. All of this, at once, is a lot to deal with and you are perfectly valid in feeling as if you don’t belong in the very place that you once called home. You’re different now and so is the way in which you see things. Give yourself time to process through these emotions. You were just living life at a million miles a minute, it’s okay to slow down and re-introduce yourself to this society.

These coming months will be quite arguably the most intense and incredible of your entire life. You will meet so many people; you can’t possibly remember all of their names. You will go to places you never thought you’d make it to so soon. You will make memories you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. Soak it all in and don’t regret even a second of it because it’s going to be amazing.

With love,

Emma

 

Hasta Luego, Ecuador

Dear Study Abroad Quito,

You’ve changed me and my story. Maybe rather than changed, you added to my story. 4.5 months is not a long time, but it is plenty of time to be transformed, renewed, and strengthened. You were a risky choice in my college career because I had to give up a semester at Hope to become someone open to the unknown. The opportunity you presented me gave me a new posture of standing with opened hands toward my Heavenly Father for whatever He had in this experience for me, and for the life He has in front of me.

Thank you study abroad for giving me confidence, independence, vulnerability and new strength. I am more self-assured because I escaped comparison and encountered contentment in the person the Lord created me to be. I am more independent because of my time spent alone in a place of adventure. I am willing to let down my guard, and to ask and receive help when it is needed. I have been granted new strength in the midst of identifying the lies the world would like me to believe.

You taught me that some things cannot be planned, but rather are to be figured out step-by-step as they come. You showed me a new perspective of the same world I live in and gave me a spirit of gratitude for the nation in which I was born. You placed me in a new culture to live for a semester that inspires me to change the way I live within my own culture when I return home.

Thank you for the opportunity to be immersed in a new language, culture, and landscape. It provided me with incredible travel opportunities to locations that most of the world have no idea exist. Thank you for a semester of lightened class work so that I could take the time to focus on learning to care for myself, and learning the importance of being still, daily. Thank you for taking away my comforts of having my family, friends, and regular activities always at my fingertips—for showing me that my strength, assurance, and joy can only come from the source of having the presence of the Lord as the first place I run to. Ultimately, you taught me to live where my feet are—not one step forward nor one step back through the lives of Ecuadorians.

Ecuador, I am going to miss your breathtaking landscapes that surround me daily. I am going to miss the tranquility of your lifestyle and living in a culture where people focus on people above their work. I am going to miss the simplicity of life you demonstrate. I am going to miss having free time to plan my own schedule and not have to worry about other demands. But, more than missing things from this semester, I feel forever thankful for the time you’ve given me to learn and experience this way of living. I feel rejuvenated and ready to see how I can modify my life in the United States to better reflect the life lessons I’ve learned this semester.

Hasta luego, Ecuador—gracias, gracias y gracias!

Morgan

The adventure begins…

The Adventure Begins…

Before I even left the country, trouble ensued. My mother and I were driving from our home in Grand Rapids to the Chicago O’Hare airport so I could catch my first flight to get to Oman.  Our drive began easily enough, but trust Michigan to throw a weather curveball when you most expect it, and least need it! We hit a wall of freezing rain and were stuck in traffic for roughly 90 minutes. Needless to say, I was not going to make my flight. Fortunately for me, the other student from Calvin had her GR to Chicago flight canceled, and the remaining four students from Northwestern college were also stranded. What had been a simple, interstate journey for all of us had developed to a full-blown winter disaster!

A day after we had initially planned, we were finally all in the Chicago airport ready for our semester together. The previous day’s weather may have thrown a wrench in our plans, but as I sat with my new classmates, housemates, and hopefully friends, I could tell that the delays had done nothing to our spirits! We were finally embarking on our three-month adventure together!

Our journey from then on was smooth and stress-free. We arrived in Oman safely, and effortlessly (at least as effortless as customs and immigration can get).  We were greeted and picked up by our program director Justin, and our program coordinators Lauren and Matias. Only at that point did it really start to click for me that I was actually in a different country and a completely different culture, and I was here for a while. However, pretty soon, that feeling of realization began to wear off. The new sounds, smells, and sights were so intriguing and different that it felt like a dream!

We finally arrived at the AL Amana center; our new home, classroom, and community space for the next few months. It was all so surreal. I was actually in Oman! Justin had a “quick” debriefing for the night (it lasted about an hour and a half), and sent us on our way to bed. We were all so excited and confused and overwhelmed that we didn’t even realize that the time was 2 AM when our meeting was over. Needless to say, we all went straight to bed; my roommate and I took quick, much-needed showers first. Despite the rocky start, it became clear that this semester was going to be a good one!

One Month Left Until Graduation!

Oh my stars have the last several weeks flown by with both joy of the happy and bittersweet kind.

Adventures have included exploration of the Chicago Natural History Museum, ’80 & ’90s-themed milkshake bars, the “World’s Best Fried Chicken”, the creamiest of ice creams, the Art Institute, green rivers, the Cheesecake Factory Experience, nostalgia of Broadway, and a magical view of the city.

Many of the sites to see in Chicago often involve the extensive history of the city, and remnants of the current culture to remind us where we’ve been and the direction in which we’re heading. As a classical studies student, I have come to greatly appreciate the various aspects of art as they exist to relay messages that otherwise could not be expressed through words. Storytelling is a valuable heirloom of the people that tell it. The older I get, the more I realize that I know nothing. Throughout my time in the city, I have come to desire a deeper understanding of things to which I had never even given thought.

It is unique how Chicago displays its character among its streets. Passing through various neighborhoods, I have seen in each one, at least, one mural that reveals the community’s feelings on social or civil matters. And, it is an outlet through which many individuals have the opportunity to speak their opinions in a constructive manner. Being a Holland native, I have not been exposed to the many definitions of hardship and adversity that Chicagoans have to endure. To see these experiences drawn, literally, on the streets of the city points to the profound struggle that a metropolis, like Chicago, has to reach a point of success. If I’ve learned anything in this internship and city experience, it is that listening to other people’s (both individual and as a community) stories is the first step toward social change. I have begun a new world of advocacy and affecting change to the things that are broken in this world.

This is a mural found underneath the highway near Chinatown.
Mural on the outside of Hyde Park Art Center

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For my roommate’s birthday, we decided to check out the grand opening of a business in the Loop, JoJo’s MilkBar. The milkshakes were expensive, but so incredibly tasty. The entire night, they played ’80s movies like Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and had a giant brite lite (you know, like the ones we used to play with?)

Thin Mint Milkshake


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No weekend in Chicago suffices if you don’t gorge yourself with delicious, fat-filled food. What better way than with Southern food at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken? Fulton Market in the West Loop offers plentiful food options for Chicagoans that represent the true melting pot the city is. The food was so delicious and just like what you’d get in the South.

(Left to right, top to bottom): fried okra, mac & cheese, fried chicken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you ever ask about the must-go-to places in Chicago, just about everyone will mention Jeni’s Ice Cream. Boy oh boy, is that the creamiest ice cream I’d ever tasted. Even creamier than Hudsonville Ice Cream, which (for those who are familiar with the local company) is a feat in itself. While there are several locations around the city, my favorite one is in Old Town (which is about a 15-minute walk away from my apartment). The neighborhood has a small-town feel to it while still retaining the charm of city life. Jeni’s absolutely lives up to its reputation! I’ve been told that Chicago summers are to-die-for, and Jenni’s ice cream would be the perfect middle-of-the-day respite from the Midwest (haha) heat.

Cold Brew, Cream Puff, and Gooey Butter Cake flavors

 

Famous for the 360-degree view of the city, the John Hancock Building also offers breathtaking views from their Signature Restaurant and Lounge. A few friends and I decided to get desserts from the Signature Lounge. As we looked out at the magnificent city below, we discussed the history, engineering and beauty of the creation before us. Although it is man-made, to think that God created beings intelligent enough to build something that elicits such awe…

From the beginning of the semester, I had my heart set on visiting the Ukrainian Village because of the interesting culture and food! How lucky was it that our Chicago Semester faculty lives right in the neighborhood and suggested trying Tryzub Restaurant?

 

My friend Caroline and I at Tryzub Restaurant

Let me just say, the wait was worth it! Even though the services did take a long time, the food was of the quality that you melt as soon as it touches your taste buds. I ordered a goulash and fried potatoes (not French fries!). It looked like a pot pie, with a crust covering the tomato-based beef-potato-vegetable insides.

                                                  The nursing gals of Chicago

Finally, the pit-stop of all dessert places, the Cheesecake Factory. Right along Michigan Ave., the restaurant is located in the “basement” of the John Hancock Building. The dean of the nursing department, Dr. Garrett, was in the city for a conference and invited all the nursing students to join her. While I got no picture, the mango key-lime pie that I ordered was “oh-so” tangy and sweet and every sort of goodness one could think of…sometimes I dream of that cheesecake. Overall, it was a nice evening out with an opportunity to catch up with a beloved professor. With all the new faces and experiences, it was a comfort to see a familiar one.

Nighttime view of Chicago’s Lake Michigan

In addition to filling up with food, I’ve been saturating myself with as much art and history as my introverted self allows. One fantastic thing about becoming a resident of Chicago is that there are many free museum days for residents. So, Tuesday nights are for the Chicago History Museum; everything from Al Capone to the original L-train cars. I could’ve easily spent several hours looking further into the details of the history. The whole purpose of museums is to increase the community and visitors’ awareness of historical mistakes and successes, right? Well, they certainly fulfilled that design. Another place that encourages original thought and creative inspiration is the Art Institute of Chicago. The four enormous floors of the museum makes it impossible to enjoy all the exhibits in one mere visit. Of the ones I did visit, there was much to appreciate. The artists harness their talents, no matter the medium or outlet, and offered a piece of insight into their thoughts, emotions, passions, and desires toward change. Below, I included a picture that depicts a jazz club (maybe) circa late 1940s. I love this because it captures the essence of African Culture during this era in Chicago. Booming with the smooth sounds of jazz and blues, the heart of the city can be found in the sounds and views of arts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caroline (my friend pictured in the Tryzub picture) joined us for St. Patrick’s Day. We started off the weekend watching the river turn green, and the remainder was spent mostly relaxing. While it was very chilly and windy on that Saturday (March 16th), it was fun to experience the energy and enthusiasm that native and visiting Chicagoans exude for the holiday. Irish pride is boasted!

Nederlander Stage

So far, just about everyone in the Chicago Semester program created a bucket list of things to do in the city. One of mine was to see (I know, super specific) Anastasia on Broadway. One of the other Chicago Semester students, Hannah, is a theatre major. Obviously, she was an avid Broadway aficionado. We snatched fairly inexpensive (we are college students after all) tickets and went to the play on April 2nd. As someone who grew up watching the movie, I anticipated the changes they would make to adapt it to the stage. Let me just say, people are so talented, beyond belief sometimes. From the lighting to the music to the singing, stage magic brought the story alive. And, that’s where I’ll leave that. Not much else to say, other than GO SEE ANASTASIA.

On the internship front, I have seen so much learning and mini/major-goal achievements. I have finally made my way through the four perioperative units: gastrointestinal laboratory, operating room, post-anesthesia recovery care unit, and pre/post-operative unit. In each, the nursing skills remain the same, and my nursing assessment is constantly being refined through the tips and tricks of the nurses mentoring me each day. Within the specialty units, I have been catching onto the procedures rather quickly and am eager to apply these skills to my first job. Over the past several months, I have been in the works of applying to graduate school and deciding which one to go to. After much careful thought, I have landed on Wayne State University in pursuit of my doctorate in nursing practice with an emphasis on adult-gerontological acute care nurse practitioner. I am more than eager to learn how to balance full-time work and graduate school, and to improve how I provide care even further.

With less than a month until graduation, I am becoming more and more restless to come back to Holland and graduate (serious senioritis kicking in!). Yet, I am eager to make the most of the rest of my time in Chicago. The weather is finally hitting above 40 degrees, where it’s finally bearable to wear a light spring jacket (I guess Midwest weather is the same no matter what state). I’m reminding myself to live in contentment as Paul instructed us to do, and relish each moment as it comes.

Language Fluency: How do you know when you have it?

“So, how do you think your Spanish is?” This is a question I’ve been asked recently, as I complete 3 of my 4.5 months abroad, by my host mom, my biological mom, and friends. This is another one of those questions that is hard to answer from my own perspective. Though I am not the one listening to myself speak each day, throughout my experience, it is incredible to look back on the first 3 months and see the growth that has occurred in my language ability!

When I arrived in Ecuador, I had just finished a summer and semester without taking any Spanish classes. I knew the vocabulary, and speaking would come back to me, but I felt apprehensive about academically using my Spanish. I knew my grammar would need a great deal of help, and let’s face it, my vocabulary was really quite small. Since I have had some shorter experiences abroad in the past, I was in an awkward in between stage of needing to try to translate things in my head before speaking, and just starting to talk out loud. I was confident that I would be able to get my point across and talk with anyone I needed to conversationally, but I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect.

Throughout the course of the semester, I have improved in every area of using the Spanish language! This brings up the question once again, “So, are you fluent?” While I am obviously not a native speaker, it is universally recognized that I can’t become a native speaker. Yes, I am fluent in Spanish, and this semester has helped me accomplish my primary goals I have for using the language. As a business major, my goal is to use Spanish as a supplemental skill to my future professional life. Most importantly, I want to have the conversational capacity to develop meaningful relationships.

The fact of the matter is that there is always more to learn, whether I am speaking English or Spanish (honestly, my Spanish grammar is probably better than my English). In a world where we are never done learning, we will continue to learn and grow and strengthen our skills. As I explained to my mom just this past week, it is sometimes hard to gauge how I am doing when I am not listening to myself. However, I am thankful for the confidence that I have gained to be able to use the language wherever I am, knowing that I will be understood and respected in a colloquial or professional manner.

I feel so blessed to have this experience abroad; for an entire semester to be immersed! Dominating another language is something that requires taking the time to be fully immersed, and it is an opportunity foreign to the United States in comparison to the rest of the world. I don’t know where my professional life will take me, but I am thankful for the acquired skill of Spanish that I am ready and capable to use in the future!

 

The Start of my Journey

People say to trust your instincts because they’re usually right. Instincts, it turns out, aren’t as good when you’ve just arrived in a foreign country, sleep deprived, and in desperate need of food and a shower.

I took a flight from Minneapolis to Cincinnati on Sunday, January 6 and from there I took an overnight flight to Paris. Once the sun set it was hard to see anything from the window of the plane, although every once in a while we would fly over a city and get just a glimpse of what was happening down below. Just twenty minutes before we were to land in Paris, the sun peeked above the clouds and I watched the most beautiful sunrise from 30,000 feet which is most definitely a great way to start the day.

As soon as I was out of customs I was tasked with getting from where I was to where I needed to be, a feat that is greatly complicated when you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. After consulting a map I determined that I needed to go down a level; that was wrong. I ended up hauling my suitcases around for about five or ten minutes before I realized I was going the wrong direction, that and I definitely was not supposed to be in a parking garage. That aside, I went back upstairs into the airport which was definitely a step in the right direction and decided to go the other way since clearly my first instinct was wrong. This turned out to be a good idea because eventually I found myself at the airport door where I was supposed to meet up with other people from my program.

Here was where I found my second great obstacle: there was this massive group of people just standing around exactly where I needed to be. My instincts told me that this was not my group of people, there were far too many and I didn’t recognize anyone from my group chat of the ten total students in my program. So I did exactly what any other person my age would do: I checked my phone. I found that I was in the right place, but if that was true then why was there nobody else from my program?! I took one last look around and spotted my savior, it was someone I knew! Well, not really, but I recognized him from my program’s group chat so I walked right up to him and introduced myself and immediately explained my confusion. Turns out, he (his name is Nat) was extremely confused as well. We waited together for a few more minutes, looking around occasionally until Nat asked “isn’t that Brent Keever?” He pointed to a man, Brent Keever, who is the director of our program standing directly at the center of the large group. I sighed in relief.

Turns out, Brent was going to be meeting students from our program at the same time that he was meeting students from a different, larger program that he was running as well. We hauled our luggage over to Brent and introduced ourselves and within minutes we were handed lunch bags with baguette sandwiches and other orientation materials. Eventually everyone from our program arrived and we all got to know each other while eating baguette sandwiches and waiting for our taxis.

I got put in a taxi with three other students from the other program and none of them spoke any French which left it to me to communicate to the driver where everyone was supposed to go. At first I was quite apprehensive to start any kind of conversation with him because I’d always heard that Parisians were rude, but our driver turned out to be nothing like what I’d anticipated. Once he realized that I could understand and speak French he struck up a conversation with me about where and for how long I studied French, what I was doing in Paris, what I thought of Macron and the Gilets Jaunes (working class protesters who wear yellow safety vests to protest diesel gas tax and now other social issues). In turn I learned that he is actually originally from Algeria and knows French as a second language, that he’s visited his sisters in the United States multiple times, and that I should learn important grammar rules sooner rather than later. By the time he had dropped everyone off at their apartments and arrived at my homestay we’d covered so many subjects that it felt as if we were old friends. Even my preconceived notions about my taxi driver were wrong.

I exited the taxi and the driver, who never told me his name, left me and my suitcases to face my next task: my host mom. I was just a little proud of myself for making it all the way to her apartment with my French skills but I would be glad to speak at least a little English; after all, I’d heard that most Parisians knew the language. As I was approaching her apartment building she popped her head out of a window on the first floor and shouted down to me  “Emma, ma chère! Bienvenue chez moi!”

I smiled up at her and she disappeared from the window only to reappear at the door of the building to help me with my suitcases. She pointed out the elevator with pride and somehow fit both of us and my suitcases inside, though it still remains a mystery to me how she managed to do it. All the while she was speaking to me in rapid-fire French that made my head spin, but I was able to understand one essential piece of information: she doesn’t know any English.

Thoughts on Leaving Australia

Recently I thought, how will it feel to leave Australia? This isn’t the first time that I have reflected on the idea of going home, but I realized that in the past, I had always been focused on the returning rather than the leaving. I would think about seeing my family and friends who I haven’t been able to see for a couple of months and I would feel excited about the new stories they would have or the stories that I have to tell them. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that returning home means leaving Australia. I heard stories before leaving the States about students who have tried to extend their stay in whatever country they had been studying in, and I had even heard a couple of stories in which students decided to transfer schools to complete their studies in this other country. I knew that wouldn’t be me, there’s too much back home that I would miss if I stayed but I also can appreciate the feelings of those other study abroad students a bit better now.

Here’s a pic from the inside of the famous Opera House

Upon first arriving to Australia I fell into the classic wanderlust of experiencing a new country for the first time where everything seemed new and exotic and interesting. This feeling was particularly strong during orientation when I was going on excursions and didn’t need to worry about food or classes or planning. But when I arrived in Sydney life did become more difficult. Suddenly I needed to cook and clean for myself, and although I can make mac & cheese with the best of them, my experience in both cooking and cleaning have been limited up until this point. I also had no sense of direction, I felt as though I was getting lost everywhere I went, and I felt far away from the city where most of the people in my program who attended different schools lived. There would be times where I felt a bit guilty writing blog posts or posting pictures on Instagram or Facebook because for every day that was filled with adventure and traveling, there were four or five other days which consisted of mostly cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, schoolwork and other mundane activities not typically associated with studying abroad.

Luna Park: where I accidently ran into all of the athletes from the Invictus Games

This seems likely to be the second stage of traveling to a new country, when suddenly the new country doesn’t seem so perfect or amazing as it was when you first arrived but this felt different from the culture shock I was expecting. Typically when I thought of culture shock I actually projected my stereotypes instead of realizing that the shock arises from what’s unexpected. I thought the culture shock that I would deal with would mostly consist of trying to understand the slang or eating more seafood as I lived near the ocean but that isn’t what my life in Australia has been like at all. Instead, the shock was spurred by the fact that a good deal of what I imagined Sydney to be like wasn’t true. The strangest part about living in Australia I think has been that where I live now isn’t radically different from back home, but it’s just different enough so that I would notice these differences consistently. The food is in many ways similar to the States, but the brands are different, there are far fewer item options, and at times items that I am used to aren’t available such as breakfast sausage, biscuits, or Cool Ranch Doritos. I also perceived Australians as small differentiations of Steve Irwin or the surfer archetype but of course that isn’t true either. Occasionally I’ll come across an Aussie who may be similar to either of those descriptions but in the big city of Sydney, many Aussies don’t act like either of those stereotypes. I suppose that would be comparable to expecting to see people who look like the guys in the TV show Duck Dynasty while walking around New York City, it’s simply a different culture in the city. But these differences certainly haven’t been bad, in fact I feel as though I have learned a lot as a result of this shattering of my expectations.

Darling Harbour on a cloudy day

While these changes at first felt strange and uncomfortable, slowly the differences started to feel natural. I know the names of different train stops and know certain areas of the city fairly well, I know how to use the bus and how to get off at the right stop properly, and even looking the correct directions when crossing the street has become second nature. Perhaps some of the most rewarding times are when I have been asked for help by Aussies themselves. When I returned to Sydney from New Zealand, I was getting on the train to go back home and an Aussie couple asked me how to get train tickets and how to get on the right train to get where they needed to go. It felt amazing to know the answer to their question and be able to help them out, suddenly Sydney was starting to feel more like home.

Royal National Park on a perfect day

The feelings of missing Australia became even more pronounced when I remembered some of the problems that I will be returning to in the States. While studying abroad I’ve felt very, very far away from a variety of socio-political problems that the US faces and it is honestly difficult to think that I will be returning to these problems. This isn’t to say that Australia is without its own set of socio-political problems, while I have been studying there the Prime Minister changed for goodness sake, but by studying on exchange I didn’t feel the weight of those problems the way I sometimes do back home. I found it particularly funny when I would come across an Aussie student in one of my classes who would bash Australian politics or say that Australia had all sorts of problems because I personally didn’t see these problems nearly as much. I suppose that when you grow up in a country, you’re privy to all of the issues or concerns that country may have. Meanwhile when you travel to a new country for a short period of time, you tend to be blissfully ignorant for at least a little while.

The Grounds of Alexandria which is a marketplace and coffeeshop all in one

So when I thought about what it will mean to leave Sydney, I considered all of this. I thought of how scared and out of place I felt when I first arrived, how awestruck I was by some of the differences such as the Opera House or kangaroos, and how much Sydney has started to feel a bit like home. It’s sad to think that I’m going to leave this place. I realized that at some point of studying abroad there’s a transition from being a tourist to being something else. I’m certainly not a native and there is plenty about Sydney that I don’t know, but I also feel as though I have played a role as an active member of Sydney rather than somebody who has just passed through the city. A popular caption on posts by bloggers is something along the lines of “this city will always have a piece of my heart,” and while that phrase is a bit of a cliché and it makes me roll my eyes, it’s a cliché because it speaks of a truth. I know that when I return home, I’ll be different. Not in any major dramatic way, but I have been influenced by living in a new city, a new culture, and a new country on the other end of the world. But I also would like to think that I changed Sydney a bit as well, once again not in any major way whatsoever, but to the friends I have made and classmates that I talked with, I have been able to share who I am with others as well.

Blue Mountain Waterfalls

It will be strange leaving Australia, particularly because I feel as though I have grown so much while I have been here but the end of my time is coming soon. I will leave knowing that I made the most of my time academically, socially, and adventurously but I will also know that there is so much of this country that I didn’t see and experience. I have also been reminded of just how much of the US I haven’t seen or experienced yet either, and I intend to see more of my home country when I return as well. This is such a big, beautiful, amazing world. And I cannot express how grateful I am that God has allowed me to experience this part of it.

 

 

 

Knowing Your Nature

Branches whip madly above my head as we walk along a mountainside that’s alternately damp, earthy forest and golden-haired meadows. With his growth potion (aka me – he’s on my shoulders) my young friend Kylan is among the trees. Kylan, when not making the most of his childhood, is an alchemist, who happens to make magic potions in lieu of gold. Today, he and I are working on a growth potion, presumably so he can be tall even without me around, which I guess means I’m making my replacement. Regardless, after seeing the results of his speed potion, which left me realizing how badly I’ve let myself go, I asked Kylan to teach me some alchemy. In the meantime, newly an apprentice, I scoured the forest floor for duckweed and pine needles and mysterious white berries.

As I worked, shuffling along the damp ground, I found out how much I normally missed, little duckweed (which I found out later wasn’t really duck weed) hid below shrubs and among moss, wolf lichen clung desperately to trees, and frail spiderwebs tied themselves to fragrant pine. This newfound attention to nature intrigued me and, eager to learn more about the alchemy that inspired this attentiveness, I checked out Gillot de Givry’s tome about the science called the Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy. Upon leafing through musty pages right out of a Harry Potter movie, I was surprised to find a science deeply respectful of nature, a science which echoed my lessons from Kylan. The goal of alchemy was, “to penetrate the mystery of life” by looking to nature and imitating (De Givry 1973). What I learned from De Givry sounded more mystical than I’d previously imagined, not at all what usually comes to mind when I think of alchemy: “man’s vain endeavor to make artificial gold” (De Givry 1973). Alchemy of old, respected nature as teacher: “all the alchemists stubbornly repeat so often that their sole master is Nature,” says De Givry (De Givry 1973). Alchemists even went so far as to say that books aren’t necessary for learning from alchemy, one merely needs an upright soul and ears open to nature (De Givry 1973). Far from hermits crouched over bubbling pots with dreams of riches beyond belief, it seems alchemists respected and knew nature in a deep, almost spiritual way. After my time as an apprentice alchemist, I started asking this question over and over again: How can I get to know nature? What follows are a collection of stories that attempt to answer that question.

Back in the day, alchemists claimed to use ‘A single substance, a single vase’ to plumb the secrets of the natural world. In my time as a computer “alchemist”, things were a tad more extravagant. As modern-day Puffers (alchemists name for chemists), we used supercomputers and the buzzword of all buzzwords ‘machine learning’ to pick at the secrets held so jealously by the material world. The goal of our project was to predict what material combos were most promising for research, saving material scientists the work (and cost) of getting to know nature’s materials first hand. That was the goal. The reality was that we were a bunch of undergrads who barely knew what machine learning was and ran random models with data we didn’t collect about materials we’d never seen. Our models appeared to be predictive of something in the end, but none of us knew what, other than the fact a line followed a curve pretty damn well. We thought that computers could make our work fast and “know” nature for us, but it turns out they only disconnected us from the nature the alchemists imitated.

My experience as a computer alchemist shouldn’t be surprising. In our culture we glorify experimentation as the way of all ways and machine learning is the holy grail of experimentation. Computers can try so many hypotheses so fast, they guarantee a golden ticket to understanding. After all, the scientific method can solve everything right? I don’t think we verbalize this belief – nor the underlying belief that all our experimentation comes without consequences. The great experiments of our time – social media, cell phones, fossil fuels – have bit us hard and it makes me wonder whether the scientific method couldn’t use some of the funky reverence of the alchemists. If alchemists were lovers of nature, us Puffers were creepy weirdos who watched her from a distance with a calculator, converting our “love” into numbers we could easily understand from behind the safety of a screen. In our disconnection from nature, we hurt ourselves. In my case, we not only wasted time staring at screens and crunching numbers, we missed out on what Kylan and I discovered in the forest that day: a sense of wonder and the care that is listening. After all this, I can’t help but think our time wouldn’t have been better spent out picking what we thought was duckweed to make a fragrant potion, whose magic would teach us to notice the world around us. In that class we might have discovered less, but more worthwhile things.

I’m checking over the gray, cold body when I see he has a tiny penis, I think. I’m serious, it’s like the size of my thumb. Which I guess might actually be big for a poor little squirrel. Right above his tiny appendage, I grab a chunk of skin and saw away with my knife. This little dude’s life left him just a few hours ago. A big truck clocked him and his friend as they tried to cross the road. My friend here came out ok other than his head, which suffice to say, did not come out ok. His bushy tail jitters with false life as I slice up his gray abdomen to slip still warm organs out. With them gone, I start skinning him, laboriously pulling pelt away from muscle and bone. As his skin slips off like a well fit suit, I see an eerie resemblance between myself and him. We both have puny biceps and are sewn together with tendons and muscles which cover lungs and a heart, which precariously beats along. With the skin nearly off now I have to break off hands and feet and head and again I’m struck with a sense of déjà vu. My fingers search along the knee for tendons, tendons I later absentmindedly touch on my own leg, that is until I remember his. With all his appendages gone and clean, the pink headless squirrel does not look so different than I. I’m chilled by how accurate a picture of my own body I see below me. In this little life there is an odd resonance between my mortality and his. Annie Dillard once said, “You see the creatures die, and you know you will die.” I didn’t see this guy die, but I saw him dead and I knew him. More, I saw me in him. I am spooked.

Later I’m in the woods again, trying to wrap my head around another way of knowing nature, this time in the “sit and observe” way Dillard is so fond of. I try to sit and observe, I really do, but shortly after the sitting part begins an uprooted tree catches my eye and I’m drawn to it like a moth. The upturned roots speak of a hidden world below, a dark mirror of the one above. Tendrils of wood grasp vainly at the sky and a mass of little roots tumble from the tendrils like thick hair. I step into the hollow below and look up. I’m not used to looking up, being 6’ 4’’. It always comes as a shock, but here it’s extra bizarre because I’m used to looking up to tree tops, not tree bottoms. These roots feel like the underwear of trees, they tell you tons about them but it’s really not your business to know what goes on down there. I just kind of stare at the roots for a while, lost in wonder and feeling lucky and sad the tree had to fall.

Then I ask a rather obvious question: What the hell could topple a tree like this? Whatever it was I’m glad it’s gone. In another part of the forest I saw trees missing tops and imagined an immature giant running around with a sword, leveling trees in a tantrum. In reality, it was probably the wind, but that’s rather boring. Being a bit bored myself, I climb out of the hollow and onto the trunk of the tree where I decide to meditate. I slow my breathing and feel foolish for doing this standing up, but that thought flees in the fright of another one. I can feel breath on my face, though I’m alone. A breeze from roots long dead, cold and moist, mirrors my own breath. I know it’s probably just old wind at it once again, but I can’t help but feel spooked. As is usually the case when I try to meditate, I’m quickly bored, and the tree changes tones and beckons me down its length, which hangs suspended above the ground. With a shoelace hanging precariously untied, I make my way across in fits and starts. My terrible balance feeds grotesque visions of impalement on the many branches shooting up from below. Mercifully, I forgot these visions as I begin to bounce. Well, not at first do I forget. My first reaction is cold fear as I think the tree is trying to throw me off to be stabbed by his friends below. After I realize this isn’t what’s happening, I start to lean into this bounce. Slowly, a rhythm begins to reverberate between me and the tree. Before long the tree and I are in sync and what looked long dead seems to have new life. It’s like my bounces are a CPR that animates the tree for a moment, returning it to vibrant, exuberant life. It’s whole hundred-foot length is vibrating now, looking like a plucked string. My friend comes over and joins the rhythm and now we are really bouncing, shivering up and down with this tree we thought was dead but was actually slumbering, waiting to be awoken. The soles of my feet seemed to connect with that tree and I felt sure it was having fun, too. Life multiplied between us in a beautiful resonance. Here, with this tree, I felt a sense of life, even in death.

A day after my time as an apprentice to Kylan and a few days before I met my tree friend, our potion had sat overnight and finished. Walking to the back porch where it lay, Kylan was a wonderful mix of excited and serious and I was just plain curious. I’m shocked back into the childhood wonder I lost when I grew tall after I get a whiff of the pungent lemony potion. All those ingredients distilled into a smell to savor. It’s not gold, but it’s still remarkable. These plants, a random mishmash of things incorrectly named or nameless, came together to form an experience I will treasure. I can never look at the forest floor the same and while that also isn’t gold, it is priceless. Just as valuable are the lessons I learned: to listen and keep it simple. Through said lessons I heard a lively dead tree with fun on offer, a deadly resonance in roadkill, and the true sound of that artificial buzz of screens. Knowing nature is not easy, but important. Now I ask you: How do you get to know nature? I hope for your sake it doesn’t involve male roadkill.

 

It’s the Climb… or Three

Being surrounded by mountains is something new for me, but here in Cape Town, I have caught the hiking bug. I have really enjoyed spending a morning or a day climbing up one of the mountains here and being rewarded with beautiful views of the city. There are three mountains that are the most well known here and that sit right in the middle of the city. They are Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head. Table Mountain is the most well known of the three due to its unique flat top. The three mountains together, famous for making up Cape Town’s cityscape.

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The three peaks (from left to right: Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head)

Throughout the semester, I have climbed both Table Mountain and Lion’s Head a few times each. Last weekend, however, my friend, Noelle, and I wanted to take the next step. We decided to take on the three peaks challenge. This involves hiking all three mountains in one day. The official challenge requires participants to start in the city center and go back to the starting point to check in between each mountain. Noelle and I took the easy route and did the unofficial version, though, just hiking each mountain back to back.

Our day started early at 6:30am when we got to the Devil’s Peak trail. We had never hiked Devil’s Peak before, so we weren’t sure what was in store, but it was a beautiful hike. There were lots of flowers and bushes along the trail, and once we got closer to the peak they got thicker and the path got narrower, so we had to carefully navigate. It was not as long of a hike as we expected, which meant we got to see the beautiful view quicker than expected. From the top we could see the view of the front of Table Mountain, and if we turned around we looked down to see UCT campus with all of its orange-roofed buildings and rugby fields.

After enjoying the views and taking a quick snack break, we began our descent. About two thirds of the way down Devil’s Peak there is a path, which connects Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain. We turned onto this path and made our way towards Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge. We had hiked along this path before, so we knew the route to reach Table Mountain, and once we got here, up we went.

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Hiking from Devil’s Peak to Table Mountain

The climb up Platteklip Gorge is not nearly as enjoyable, as the views from the top. It’s a zig-zag path all the way up with big stair-like rocks. It is also a popular trail, making it crowded and congested at times. Nevertheless, we powered through with a positive attitude and reached the flat top of Table Mountain. The top of Table Mountain is beautiful, with lots of rock formations and various plants. Table Mountain has its own ecosystem of plants living atop it, with flowers, bushes, and other species that are unique just to Table Mountain. Isn’t that neat?

We roamed around the top of the mountain for a bit, admiring what is considered one of the new seven wonders of nature, before sitting down and eating our packed lunches to sustain us for the remainder of our hike. We had more one walk around before starting the trek down the gorge. You would think that climbing down would be a bit faster because you have gravity and momentum on your side, but the steep rocks and their smoothed surfaces from so many hikers make going down a slippery adventure. It took us just as long to hike down as it did to get up there, surprisingly only slipping once.

We then headed over to Lion’s Head to hike the final peak of the challenge. Lion’s Head is the easiest and shortest mountain to climb of the three peaks. Well, that’s if you don’t hike the two other peaks beforehand 🙂 We took the climb slow and steady, taking a long break to have another snack and watch other hikers go bye, cheering them on as they passed. After we had caught our breaths and given our legs a needed break, we continued our climb. A fun part about Lion’s Head is about two thirds of the way up is a fork in the road. You can either take a longer footpath route, or a shorter climbing route that involves chains and staples that have been installed in the rocks. We were feeling adventurous, so we opted for the shorter route, and lifted ourselves up the rocks with the help of the staples. A short while after climbing up and hiking along a bit more of the path, we reached the final peak!

Lion’s Head has one of my favorite views. Because of its location, a little bit separated from Table Mountain and closer to the coast, you get an amazing 360 degree view of Cape Town. On one side you see Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak. On another you get a clear view of the strip of beaches and the water. And in yet another area you get a great view of the city centre. We walked around the perimeter of the top, soaking in the beauty of each view while giving our legs some rest before making the final descent.

We then headed down, steadily and carefully, until we reached the bottom of Lion’s Head to complete the three peaks challenge! After a total of 9 hours out on the mountains, we finally made it. Our legs had turned to jello by the end, but it was definitely worth the great experience and accomplishment. It’ll be a big switch going from this mountainous city back to the flat lands of the Midwest, so it was good to get a full day of hiking in before heading back home!

Lo Logramos!

Four hours up and five hours down…

An exhaustingly magnificent hike up La Campana, a beautiful mountain situated 2000 meters above sea level.

The guides say that it takes the average person 5 hours to reach the top, so why did it only take us 4? Well, please, let me explain.

Our incredibly exhausting journey began at 10:00 in the morning when we started to hike. They notified us that the first part, 3.2 miles, should take about two and a half hours to complete, but then they broke the news… “You must arrive to La Mina, the end of part one, before 12:00 p.m if you would like to continue and trek to the top”. They wished us luck, chuckled, and we doubtfully began our journey.

  

Here’s the thing. They say that the first part is the “easy” part, so when we were dying on our way to La Mina, we had no idea what was waiting for us on the second “actually hard” part. My legs began to feel like they were on fire as I took step after step, up the “easy” steep hills of dirt and jumped over the occasional large rocks blocking my path.

The “easy” part

There was no stopping us. We had our minds set on getting to the top, so we only had one choice – we were going to do this two and half hour “easy” part of the hike in two hours. No problem at all. With essentially no rest breaks, little time to chat, and no opportunities to eat, we made our way to La Mina! And guess what time we arrived?

11:57 a.m.!

Three whole minutes to spare.

We were so proud of ourselves and so excited to sit, rest, breathe, drink some water, and eat a snack… but then came the next messenger of bad news (the park guards) to tell us that if we wanted to go to the top, we had to depart in that very moment. He also let us know that it typically takes two and a half hours to conquer this part, 1.25 miles, however we must begin to descend at 2:00 p.m, regardless of whether or not we make it to the top. So what did we do? We took one look at each other and in unison shouted “Vamos!” and we continued on. I looked up and began to tremble in fear, unsure of how I would ever make it to the top. The activity quickly changed from hiking to full on rock climbing, arms and all, folks.

We continued on.

Jumping onto huge rocks and pulling our entire body weight up with our arms. Dripping with enough sweat to fill a bathtub. Balancing with our arms out like an eagle. Laughing every few seconds at how impossible the task in front of us seemed. But we persevered.

After what I thought was a broken ankle, many tears, a ton of laughter, loads of sweat, a bit of frustration, and a whole lot of perseverance, together, fashionably late (Chilean style), at 2:05 p.m we arrived at the tippy top of this 2000-meter mountain. I was greeted with an astounding panoramic view of the ginormous Andes Mountains and the glistening Pacific Ocean. I was speechless – partially because I could no longer breathe, and partially because the view I was soaking in was truly astonishing and overwhelming.

Lo logramos! (We did it!) and it was definitely worth the blood, sweat, and tears (there surprisingly wasn’t actually any blood, but sweat and tears just doesn’t sound as good). I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the beauty of this country, and my view from the top of La Campana really helped me to do just that.  Viva Chile!