The Wolves

 

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of traveling to one of Spain’s finest national parks: Lago de Sanabria. Even though our program has 35 students, only a select 12 could go, given the awesome, peculiar nature of this trip. We were going to a place of natural solace, a place with distinct beauty, a place where we would need silence; we were going to track the Iberian wolf.

We made the two-hour-and-some trek to Lago de Sanabria where we eagerly unloaded all of our things into the homey, small, wooden cabins there in the mountains. The first thing I noticed was, lamentably, that I had not been in real, honest-to-God nature for such a long time. Finally, I was around pine trees, ancient moss covered oaks, clear lakes, and mountains. Whew, this was well needed! I am happy to report that my mental health improved by leagues as we stepped on to our first trail in the snow peaked mountains.

We spent the weekend in a natural paradise. The first morning we got to take a guided tour on the world’s first 100% ecological (motor) boat. It makes no sound, no waves, and is 100% powered by solar panels and wind power. As this is one of the most protected lakes in the country, the only way they would allow a boat on the water was, well, if they made one. Later, we went on another hike through the snow-frosted peaks of the area, passing through small mountainous villages as we went.

On the last day of the trip, we woke up early and headed to the wolf reservation. These animals, a species of grey wolf only native to the Iberian peninsula, used to roam most of Western Europe. Today about 2,000 remain. Needless to say, many of them live in protected environments in Lago de Sanabria. The problem is, however, they remains “undomesticated” and, consequently, extremely skittish. To see the wolves is to hide yourself entirely from their sight… and, even more challenging, out of their ear’s reach. We went at sunset, feeding time for the Iberian wolf. We hunkered down in a specialized camouflaged bunker, set on a tree line where the alphas are said to roam. Here, the rest would come. We just had to wait. So we waited, and waited, and then, out of the tree line came the wolves. They dominated the terrain. Inexplicably, they navigated so cautiously, so powerfully, so surely, that they had probably heard us before we had seen them. They had come to eat. It was if they had an internal clock. No sooner than it had turned exactly the hour, the wolves came. They knew. We were blown away by these animals and their intelligence. Most of all, we were amazed at how, in many ways, the wolf was more human than we were. Learning of their behaviours, family structures, and lifestyle, it became clear how special these animals were. We sat there in silence and awe as the beasts devoured their evening meal, and as the Spanish sunset put itself out on their backs.

Below is a poem I wrote (in Spanish) about the event. It was impactful in ways I couldn’t really sum up in a different way. I hope you all enjoy it, but be cautious of what you read on Google Translate. You can’t trust everything you see on the Internet.

Best,

El Lobo

Los bosques de España llaman a unas pocas personas

Que se atreven a responder

Entre la sombra caminan, sin camino, sin saber

Adónde van, qué quieren, qué van a hacer

Como todo el mundo, en su vida resulta igual,

los que con la voluntad de buscar

Les encontrarán menos mal

Pero en la compañía de los árboles, entre su ventosa conversación,

Tenemos claro lo que nos falta

Nos aparece nuestra aparición

Cómo suenan los ríos, qué bonitos son!

En su riqueza descansamos, su poder nos inspiró

Aunque son sencillos, sin vuelta, con patrón

Siempre hay mis pensamientos, allí, en montón   

Sobre todo vamos caminando, pase lo que pase

Por las lagunas, vamos, por las piedras y tal

Nos acuerda del pequeñez, la grandeza, de la vida real

Allí lo vimos, en su reino de robles y musgo,

Lo saludamos por su gracia

Viviendo escondido en sus tierras de vieja

One of the visitors centers that welcomed us at the park
This was one of the most beautiful animals I had seen. She was relaxing after her sunset meal.
Solar powered. Wind powered. Noiseless. Like a boat-Prius.
Just a couple of kids and a cliff, overlooking Lago de Sanabria, the largest glacial lake on the Iberian Peninsula.
I am debating with this guide about the efficiency of wearing 6 coats wrapped around my waist while hiking up hill. I did not win.
Here’s the group at the lake.
One of the “paths” up the mountain.
Here’s a wolf “hideout”. We had to view them through holes in camouflaged wood.
Here are two of the non-alpha females. As you can see, we were very close to the animals.

 

An Extra Early Alarm

That first sliver of sun emerging from behind the buildings reminds me of the way it feels when you’re holding a newborn baby in your arms.  You wonder how such a tiny human can even exist when suddenly an illuminating smile spreads across their precious little face.  It’s that awe-inspiring sense of hope that I am overwhelmed by every time I witness the sun rising.  There’s a certain promise that accompanies it.  “See,” says the sun, “I am here and I always will be.  Even on those gloomy days, I’m just behind the clouds waiting to meet you again.”

I appreciate this promise since sometimes we have so many dreary days in a row I begin to question if sunlight itself has permanently retired to some other part of the world.  I really can’t complain however, considering I’m still in an insanely cool city and my friends/family in Michigan are suffering through a spring snow.  Although a bit over-ambitious, a goal of mind this semester is to watch the sunrise once per week.  I decided to strive for this many because I speculate I am maximizing my chances of seeing the most impressive display of colors.  I’m waiting for the perfect cloud-to-sky ratio to dazzle me beyond belief.

Naturally, there are times I miss my weekly rendezvous with the sun.  There have also been a few unlucky mornings that one large meddlesome cloud looms exactly where I wish it wouldn’t and obstructs the view completely.  Even on the overcast days, I am glad to have forced myself to roll out of bed at such an anomalous hour.  I am given the opportunity to join the bustling swarm of people hurrying to work during morning rush hour.  Dark eye circles and heavy lids occupy the faces of every individual traveling by metro around 6:00AM.  Once the doors open, the half-asleep crowd pours onto the platform and wills itself towards the escalator as one unified entity.  Despite being separate and unrelated, each passerby seems to share the same objective . . . to live, to get by every day.  We may be complete strangers who speak different languages, but this is where our humanness communicates without words.

On a less existential note . . . the experience has some fun and simple aspects as well.  I truly feel like a local when I’m handed a newspaper with a warm “dobrý den” (meaning “hello” or “good day” in Czech).  My journey to the sunrise typically ends on the Charles Bridge.  It’s an ideal location for watching the sun come up over one side of the city and cast a serene glow upon the other.  Being there at this hour also provides the benefit of a substantially smaller number of tourists which cover every inch of the cobblestone on nice days.  Below you can see some of the stunning views I’ve captured from the bridge.  Stay tuned!

Click on the images to enlarge them.

Wonderful Limits

How do you find words to describe the Infinite? When I try to explain the beauty and majesty I saw this weekend, especially in Spanish, simplemente no hay palabras. I find myself struggling against my limits. And then the Voice inside me tells me to relax.

Tranquila,” it says. “We will have all eternity to discover that.” My mind is blown again.

I don’t understand the concept of eternity. But in my limits, I can wonder.

What I learned this weekend is that that’s enough.

Being in the most beautiful place we’d ever seen brought so much wonder to myself and my friends. The trip was filled with exclamations of “¡Guauu!“, “¡Mira!“, “¡Qué hermoso!“, “¡Es maravilloso!” and “¡No lo puedo creer!” We could only marvel at the beauty of the Atacama desert.

Take a look at my slideshow and marvel along with us! Fun fact: it’s the driest desert on earth.

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Being somewhere like this also makes you ponder deep questions like why we experience the sensation of beauty. My friend Erin had a very wise and interesting response.

“It’s the size of this place that makes us reflect on our own smallness and insignificance.” And that’s what wonder is.  It’s being surrounded by something that’s too big to understand. It’s recognizing our limits of size and understanding.

If we knew everything, nothing would amaze us. If we were bigger or stronger we might not be dwarfed by the majesty of mountains.

Riding around the valle on bikes made me realize how big that corner of the desert was. By the end of the day our butts were sore and legs were tired. I had pushed myself to the limit, for sure. But there was a lot of joy in recognizing my limit; it made room for appreciation of God’s creation.

I think often times we try to push our limits, or forget them. In the process, we lose sight of our place in the world. Truly, we are just one second in the span of history, smaller than one grain of sand in a desert.

We have a choice to recognize that insignificance, or not. Either we accept our place in the world or create a worldview that puts us in the very center. Though it takes a lot of humility to wonder, I can’t help but think it’s worth it.

I met two slightly unpleasant people on this trip. And I feel bad judging them on some short conversations, but I wanted to share what left a bad taste in my mouth– their lack of wonder. A Finnish boy and Australian girl were in one of the hostels I stayed at, and what both of them said was: “I’ve already seen something like that.  I didn’t think it was that cool.”

To me, who felt awestruck at the sights I saw this weekend, this attitude surprised me. Maybe I’m just less cultured and important than (they think) they are. But if that’s the price to recognize beauty and value in a place, I’m willing to pay it.

I’d much rather be like our Brazilian roommate, Sabrina, who told me, “pienso que cada lugar que visito es lo máximo”, or “I think that every place I see is the coolest.” I want her sense of wonder to see lo máximo everywhere I go.

Exploring New Slains Castle

My friends and I had the opportunity to take a trip to New Slains Castle, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula. It was nestled against the sea in the quaint Scottish town of Cruden Bay. We had an absolute blast climbing rocky cliffs and exploring the castle ruins, but instead of writing a long blog post about it, I thought, “Why not make a little picture gallery instead?” Therefore, here a few of the photos I snapped while playing explorer.

 

DREADLOCKS!

I love dreadlocks!

Loc Style 1              Loc Style 2

I wanted to lock my hair since I went natural four years ago. So when I arrived in South Africa and saw all the people with dreadlocks I figured why not get locks in Durban. Therefore on Saturday November 14, 2015 I woke up at 6am to make my dream come true.

Photo on 11-14-15 at 6.55 AM           Photo on 11-14-15 at 6.56 AM #2

Dreadlocks are a permanent style so I was filled with anxiety as I rode the bus to XTLS salon. I knew that I wanted to lock my hair but I did not know if I could explain to the stylist the size I wanted my locks to be or if my hair’s uneven length would be a problem. Also, there’s the language barrier with me not knowing fluent Zulu yet everyone assuming I know Zulu because I’m Black. So, I was just preparing my mind and heart for this interesting experience.

I arrived at XTLS at 7:45am. I told them I wanted my hair twisted and styled. My name was taken down and I was shown to chair. While I sat in the chair for ten minutes all my feelings of hesitation surfaced. I thought, is this really what I want to do? Then as the stylist picked my hair out I thought, will I miss my afro? I won’t be able to straighten my hair for graduation? Is this the right decision for me? Well when I went to the back of the salon so she could wash my hair I knew there was no turning back because I was not leaving the salon with wet hair. Despite the fact that it was raining outside and my hair was going to be wet anyway, I was still not leaving the salon without my hair styled on principle. So I calmed my nerves and enjoyed the experience. And it was fantastic!

My stylist washed, deep conditioned and blow-dried my hair before 9:30am. Then came time to actually lock my hair. Now if you look at the picture above you will see that I have a lot of hair. So I told my stylist, “You are either going to really love me or hate me after this,” she laughed and explained that she locked someone else’s hair that was longer than mine last week so she was not intimidated. Then I tried to explain my concerns to her in regards to the size of my locks and my various hair lengths to which she responded, “Ok.” In Zulu “Ok” can be the response to “Thank you”, a sign of confusion or a reassurance that everything will be fine. I took it as the latter and watched her start locking my hair. When she finished the back I looked up to see that my locks were perfect. In my mind I was screaming with glee because I could not believe I was getting my hair locked in South Africa. I did it! By the time she finished locking and styling my hair, I knew that I made the right decision.

Photo on 11-14-15 at 2.07 PM #3 Photo on 11-14-15 at 2.07 PM Photo on 11-14-15 at 2.08 PM Photo on 11-14-15 at 2.08 PM #3 Photo on 11-14-15 at 2.08 PM #4

Locking my hair is the gift to myself from South Africa that will keep on giving. Now I can always say I locked my hair in Durban. I’m so excited for the many styles to come.

Day Trip to Dinan!

One of the nicest things about France is the dirt cheap transportation around the region. Last weekend, my friends and I decided to visit one of the most beautiful towns in Bretagne. Dinan has a rich medieval history, so the historic district is full of buildings, walls, and towers from the middle ages. We spent the day exploring! As nice as it is to have the official CIEE excursions to look forward to (Mont St. Michel, St. Malo, and lots of castles), it felt great to figure out how to travel someplace else independently. We ended up taking a bus and it only cost about 8 euros round trip. The bus line also goes to Dinard, a city on the coast, and through Bécherel, an adorable old town known for its bookstores.

We were so lucky that the sun was shining all day! Our pictures turned out beautifully. Since we basically went to Dinan solely to admire its gorgeous architecture, I think it’s best to let the photos speak for themselves:

The old medieval wall
The old medieval wall.
At the top of the tower
At the top of the tower!
A view of lower Dinan from Upper Dinan
A view of lower Dinan from Upper Dinan.
This church was one of my favorites, but it might have had to do with the unusual day of sunshine. The light filtering in through the stained-glass windows filled the entire cathedral with rainbows!
This church was one of my favorites, but it might have had to do with the unusual day of sunshine. The light filtering in through the stained-glass windows filled the entire cathedral with rainbows!
One of the aforementioned rainbows
One of the aforementioned rainbows.

We walked off the side of the road and found old stone walls and steps. We stopped to rest on the side of the road and found old stone walls and steps built into the hillside. The deteriorated state of the structure helped make the age of the town much more real to me. Sadly, it’s easy to get used to pretty walls all over the place. But when you see ruins, your brain instantly registers the amount of time it must have taken for that building to crumble, and you end up standing in the grass with the sun and wind on your face, honored to be where you are.

Tour de Catherine