These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
I apologize for the lack of attention I've been giving to this blog, but I've been running around so much it feels like I haven't had much time to sit down and record some of my adventures.
Last weekend however, I was invited to spend the weekend in Taranaki with a friend of mine from University. Taranaki is the region that makes up the western peninsula of New Zealand's North Island. The defining characteristic, being Mt. Egmont (Taranaki being the Maori name) which is a massive cinder cone in the center of the peninsula. The national park surrounding the mountain is almost a perfect circle, and the mountain is considered to be one of the most cylindrical volcanoes in the world!
Aside from the mountain, Taranaki is a relatively flat region given that most all of New Zealand is built into some sort of hill or incline. The region is known for it's farms and off shore oiling rigs. There's even a heated debate underway over the use of fracking within the region and the country as a whole.
While I was there, I stayed in the coastal town of Opunake, called "Ops" by the locals. Opunake has a population of about 1,500 and an even smaller feel to it. Farms run right up to the shore line and meet drastic cliffs that drop off into the ocean.
While I was there, I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the mountain as well as some other cool geological features that resulted from it's most recent eruption.
What truly made this a great weekend though, aside from the scenery was the hospitality I received. If you or anyone you know is planning on traveling to New Zealand anytime soon, I highly reccommend looking into farm stays. Staying on a farm is become a much more popular and accessible form of accommodation in New Zealand and really is a great way to connect with the country. My friend's farm was relaxing, clean and had an irreplaceable homey feel to it, something any traveler would appreciate.
We were even able to enjoy some roast sheep that was, to say it discreetly, fresh?
We also got to explore the larger city in Taranaki; New Plymouth. New Plymouth is a great hub for outdoor adventure and architecture that is very reflective of the region. A 12 km coastal walkway surrounds the town, with great views of the ocean, and if you're their at sunset, the colors are astounding. A highlight of our trek, and worth going out of the way for, was the Te Rewa Rewa bridge. Built to frame the mountain, it reflects the strong surfing culture of the region, and resembles a wave breaking over Taranaki.
As always, if you ever find yourself on the west coast of any landmass, take some time to watch the sunset.
One of my favorite parts of our program here in Beijing has been all of the Chinese students I've gotten the chance to become friends with. Here's a profile of one of them.
“I don’t think she has any fun at all! I’ve known her three years now, and not once has she stayed out anywhere past 8 pm. Not even the library!” Li You is gesturing emphatically as she describes a roommate who she finds particularly boring, laughing at how dull the girl is.
Li talks rapidly in perfect, unaccented English, with no trace of hesitation or uncertainty. Her silver Tiffany’s bracelet jangles as she adjusts her green flannel shirt; both are souvenirs from her recent trip to America. Her black hair is cut in a sleek, stylish bob that sways with her as she explains how different she is from her roommates at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics.
“I’m not normal, I don’t want you to think all Chinese students are like me or that they all think like I do,” she said. “I’m different from most UIBE students.” It’s true that Li seems to have little in common with some of her classmates. They’re majoring in engineering while she dreams of being a journalist; they are homesick for their parents while she longs for American adventures; they refuse to even go out to a bar for one drink while Li loves going clubbing on occasion.
Even at birth, Li was already different from her future classmates. In a country of only children, she was born in the Fujian province as the second daughter to a Xiamen businessman and his wife. “My parents really wanted a son, so they had to pay large fines for violating the one-child policy when both my younger brother and I were born,” Li explained. She spent much of her childhood fighting with her older sister and younger brother, an experience very different from her northern roommates’ solitary upbringing.
Once she started school, Li’s gift for academics continued to differentiate her from others. Even in elementary school, her teachers recognized her exceptional intelligence and eagerness to learn; she was constantly being encouraged to consider more advanced classes. She was only in primary school her father gave her a biography of a Chinese girl who had traveled all the way to America to study at Harvard. Even as a child, Li was a voracious reader and finished the book in a matter of days. From then on, she said, America was her dream.
Knowing that she would need top grades to do all that she wanted to, Li continued to impress her teachers. She tested into her province’s most prestigious middle school and high school, which was more than an hour away from her family’s house. Because she lived on a boarding school campus from the age of 13, she said she became used to being away from her family at a young age.
Neither of her parents went to college, because they grew up during the Cultural Revolution when all schools were shut down. Though her father became a successful businessman even without university training, Li said, “My parents made it a priority to give me and my siblings the opportunity to attend university.”
When it came time to pick a university to attend, she knew she wanted to go even farther away from home than her high school. She had originally wanted to go to a university in America, but her dad deemed that to be a bit too far, so she settled on Beijing instead. Li loves her family, but like many 21 year-olds, she appreciates the freedom that being so far from home gave her. “If I had stayed by my family, I still would’ve had a curfew,” she said. “They would have their own opinions about people I was dating and everything else I was doing.”
Out of the realm of her parents’ supervision, freshman year of college was a time of exploration for Li. “That was my first taste of freedom, so I did a lot of rebellious things I would never have done in high school,” she said. “I even learned how to smoke cigarettes, though I only do that every once in a while. I enjoy my life here in Beijing, I can do what I want.”
It was her junior year of college when Li finally got to fulfill her dreams of visiting America. She spent half a year doing a study abroad program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale that broadened her views of the world. It didn’t take her long to adjust to American culture. Shortly after her arrival in Illinois, Li was learning American idioms, partying with American friends, and even dating an American boy. She said she found that some of her views changed during her time in America.
Li said, “I began to question small parts of Chinese life that I’d never thought of before.” In China, it’s fairly common to see a guy walking around carrying his girlfriend’s purse; it’s simply considered the polite thing to do, similar to the American tradition of men holding doors open for women. Li was confused at first when the American boy she was dating didn’t carry her purse, but her roommate explained to her that American boys didn’t really do that. Li said, “I got used to it, and now I just think it’s so weird when I see boys carrying their girlfriend’s purses here in China. I never would have thought that before.”
That was a minor example, but Li found her perspective on bigger issues changing as well. Her whole life, she was taught that proper Chinese girls follow certain societal rules. In America though, Li discovered that it’s hard to have any fun if you follow all of those rules. Her face flushed and she became visibly irritated as she lists off things her roommates and most Chinese girls consider taboo. “They won’t drink any alcohol, not even one drink,” she explained. “They would never ever get drunk. They don’t dance. They don’t wear makeup. They don’t stay out late. They don’t have sex before marriage. They won’t do anything fun!”
Although she had been starting to feel annoyed with her “boring” roommates even before she went to America, Li’s time in Illinois solidified any doubt she had. “I want to continue to travel and learn more about the world outside of China now,” Li said. She is currently studying for the GRE and plans on applying to American schools for graduate programs in journalism. Her father was hoping that she would use her accounting major to move back home to Xiamen and get a job there after graduation, but that is not what Li has in mind.
“He didn’t want me to pursue journalism because he doesn’t think I can make money in that,” she said, but Li said she told him that she was determined to do it and wouldn’t change her mind. Finally, her father relented, saying that if she was set on doing it, he wanted her to “try her best” at it.
Although she wants to go to graduate school in America, Li says that she plans on returning to China after graduating. Unless of course, “I fall in love with an American or something crazy like that.” Then for a moment, Li’s perpetual cheer turned serious and she said, “China will always be my home. I want to see the world, but I know I’ll still want to come home in the end.”
*Note: The student's name has been changed to protect her privacy.
On the next chapter of my adventure I arrive in Vienna by train. The ride here was quite pleasant; much more enjoyable than riding the trains in France. I find the hostel very easily using the emailed directions, and I am greeted at the front desk by a kind woman speaking fluent English. She checks me in, and I'm given the keycard for my room. It's a nifty little card that works on a radio frequency, so no need to insert it into the door. She says this also works for the locker in my room. It's cool to only have one thing to keep track of.
After a quick shower I crave some exploring. There is still plenty of light left in the day and I intend to use every second of it. I grab a map from the front desk and then walk out of the hostel and take a right turn. With no real destination I just walk in the direction that interests me at the time, and keep walking until another interests turns me.
The first place I come across is the Vienna Opera House. It is made from tan-colored stone and has a beautiful copper roof that has turned green over the years. I next pass a couple of wonderful parks that are filled with lush, green grass and plenty of picnickers. They look to be fantastic areas to spend a warm afternoon. Vienna seems to be filled with beautiful parks. Soon after I walk through the Hapsburg winter palace without even realizing it. The palace itself is so large that it seems to be just a normal city block of buildings. In truth though it is one large palace that the royal family used for living during the winter months. It amazes me that the Austrian monarchy was in power until the end of World War 1, and these wonderful old palaces are still kept in good condition. I continue walking, passing a couple of Gothic cathedrals, some wonderful buildings, and the town hall. At the town hall I stop for a while. An entire ice skating area has been set up outside the building, so I watch the skaters glide through the winding courses of ice. I notice they are selling tickets and rental skates, but I decide to pass this time. The sun is going down now, and I am so tired from the train rides and the walking. I make my way back to the hostel and immediately go to my room to fall asleep.
When I awake the next day I remember being told that Vienna has some excellent museums. After I eat breakfast I leave the hostel and head for the Natural History Museum. The admission is cheap, so I grab a site map and head in. The museum is laid out in a winding spiral from bottom to top, so it is very easy to make sure you have seen everything.
The exhibits start out with minerals and stones. I believe there is nearly every variety of mineral and stone in these first six halls. Once done with the mineral halls I move onto the fossils and bones section which I find much more interesting. They have ancient fossils and skeletons from present day animals as well as long extinct ones. The one bone that stood out to me the most was the portion they had of a blue whale. It was only one bone. Just half of the lower jaw. It was propped up in a corner, for good reason, and went from the floor to the ceiling. It must have been at least 25 feet long. I was really impressed by the size, and I wish I could see a whole skeleton. I walk through the rest of the exhibits that mainly contain stuffed versions of animals, extinct and present day, and make my way to the end of the museum. I grab my coat from the coat room, leave a couple of coins in the dish, and walk out and go back to the hostel. The museum was really worth the money, and I am happy as I took the time to enjoy it.
The following day I decide to visit another one of the iconic tourist attractions of Vienna, the Schönbrunn Palace of the Hapsburg family. It is very easy to get to and even has its own metro line station. When I get there I am astounded by this monstrosity of a palace. It must take up at least ten city blocks, and it's four stories high. The intricate details on the outer walls are beautiful. I pay my entrance fee and start my tour of the palace. The audio guide playing through my iPod headphones describes to me all of the different rooms that the tour goes through. All together the palace is amazing, but I also find it somewhat boring to look at gold and family treasures. I don't stay for long in any of the rooms and finish the tour. The real attraction for me here is the Vienna Zoo in the backyard of the palace.
Since I bought the winter ticket at the palace I was given access to the zoo for no additional charge. Lucky for me it was not very busy either. Also it was feeding time, so that meant plenty of opportunities to watch cute animals eat. I spend at least 30 minutes alone at the red panda exhibit watching the staff feed them pieces of apples and pears. Too bad you can't have one as a pet. The rest of the zoo is amazing. It is situated on the palace land. There are plenty of forests and hills containing different exhibits within the zoo as well. In the forest there is even a suspended walkway where I was able to walk from tree to tree and look down on the wildlife underneath. When I get to the end of the suspended bridge I find myself in front of the rainforest exhibit. As I walk in I am immediately stunned by the heat and humidity compared to the chill air outside. My glasses fog up completely and render me near blind. Once my vision returns to normal I follow the path in the exhibit and come across a vast assortment of really awesome animals. There is even a python exhibit that has the python's sleeping quarters situated, including a glass floor, right above the walkway so you can see it as you go by. This is quite freaky as it looks like there is an enormous snake that is going to drop on you if you look up. My favorite place though is the otter exhibit. There are two lively otters that have made their home here. Both seem very hungry, and when I come close to the barrier they run towards me thinking I have food. I grab a small leaf and toss it over the fence. They promptly grab it and wrestle with each other for a short while until they realize it isn't edible. Reluctantly I leave the otters and wander through the rest of the zoo. Nothing really tops the otters as far as entertainment goes though, and I leave the zoo soon after.
By this time I am getting pretty hungry. I've heard so many good stories about the food in Vienna, especially the schnitzel, so I must have some. After a quick search on the Internet I find out that there is a famous restaurant for serving schnitzel close by called Figi-Mueller's. They are supposed to be one of the first places to start selling the schnitzel, so they have to be good. The line is long when I get there, but with me only needing a table for one it doesn't take long to get seated. I order a schnitzel with a side of their potato salad and some white wine. The food arrives quickly, but I am still drooling at this point. The reviews were right. This is absolutely spectacular. The bread crumbs on the meat is wonderful. It has just the right amount of salt to add to the flavor of the meat. And the potato salad is downright delicious. They add a corn oil sauce to the potatoes that gives it just the right amount of flavor. Washed down with a sip of white wine, this is one of the best meals I've had in a while. It's really filling too!
After the meal, and with my stomach thoroughly stuffed, I walked back to the hostel. There I laid down and relaxed in the common area. I met one of the guys that I was sharing a room with named Unai. He was from Spain and traveling in the same way that I am. We had some good conversation about the differences between Spain and the States. Soon after my full stomach started taking its toll on me and my body was telling me to get some sleep to digest. I kindly obliged the commands and walked back to my room and climbed into bed. As I lay there waiting for sleep I played over in my head the things that I experienced these few days in Vienna. It put a smile on my face as I drifted off.
Each language class starts with one basic principle: conjugation. Verbs are the building blocks of a sentence, and in order to make any sense at all you must know how to conjugate them. I started taking Spanish in third grade and to this day I still have those six boxes that make up the basic conjugation table burned on my brain. You take notes, you learn, you memorize but then something happens in the third box down: the formal you. I’m sorry, the formal what? What is this nonsense?
The idea of formality in language is something I have been faced with more than once during my travels as I have struggled to switch through plenty of dialects including Dutch, Spanish, and Italian. Now, thinking of being polite is not a new concept to me being that I come from the very state that is known for its kindness, and have a Grandmother from Alabama who has ingrained manners in me since I was little. But then I encountered two separate situations that got me thinking.
Within the first month of living in Italy I had an awesome talk with the housing coordinator of my program about the differences between Italy and the United States, and she was quick to open discussion about formality. She mentioned how using the formal “tu” in Italian creates a space between you and the person you are talking to, which consequently makes it much more difficult for conflict to arise. Usually this form is used in the office or when a person is talking to an elder or professor. It all started as a way of maintaining a sense of social separation but it is now just considered poor manners if you pass an older woman by saying “scusa”(informal “excuse me”) instead of “scusi”(formal). I sat opposite from my housing director trying to think of an equivalent separation in English but could only come up with “sir” and “ma’am” which are rarely used in the mid-west. It was an interesting concept to me—can we establish this verbal separation in English? Or are we losing our formality?
A few weeks later I had the amazing privilege of staying with my friend at her aunt and uncle’s home in Utrecht, Holland. Our ultimate destination for the weekend was Amsterdam, but I gained so much in Utrecht just through simple dinner conversations with her family. The second night of our stay we got into a discussion on the formal you in Dutch—“u”. Once again I was faced with another exchange where my conversation partner was confused with how we convey politeness in English without a formal form. Having a bit more experience under my belt (and wine in my system) at this point I launched into a sermon about how my generation is losing its formality because of the internet. Now why am I openly admitting this on that very medium? Because my trip to Holland was a month ago and, as niave as it sounds, I have changed a lot since then.
So here I am again, pondering how we establish formality in English, and it clicked: it is through the structure of our sentences and the way in which we carry them out. Now stay with me, because though that sounds like a concept that is going to take me a while to explain, it is something we are all aware of. When you run into your friend after class you say: “oh hey girl, what’s up? That psych lecture was cray, am I right?” as you simultaneously stare down at your smartphone trying to think up a word loaded with points for your Words With Friends game (my apologies for assuming all of you are as annoying as I am). But this scene plays out much differently when you walk into your professor. You yank your headphones out of your ears, maintain eye-contact to the point of a staring contest, and formulate a sentence fit for a presentation: “Professor Smith, what a fascinating lecture on attachment and how integrated it is in family systems theory. I definitely want to read up more on Mary Ainsworth’s work—do you happen to have any of her books?”. Communication is 20% words, 80% body language and it is the combination of the two that separate the way in which you talk to all your bros that go by their last names from the astounding educators that populate college campuses like my own. But I have to admit, it is going to be hard to go back and address a professor after lecture without conjugating up as many formal verbs in my head as I can beforehand: "Professoressa--scusi, I mean scusa, I mean excuse me."
Part of the nature of traveling while studying abroad is that many of my vacations tend to be weekend trips, meaning that I am not normally longer in a foreign city for longer than three or four days—I mean, I have to go to school on occasion… Hence, when I am able to spend any longer amount of time in a city I absolutely love it. I love finding the less touristy restaurants and neighborhoods, I love escaping the massively crowded tourist attractions and finding any place off the beaten path because those are the places I will really remember.
If you’re going to have an extra few weeks to explore a city thoroughly, you just will not find a better place to do so than London. I was lucky enough to be staying with the most wonderful family who was willing to drag an
annoying picture taking tourist me around their home city for a week and a half, showing me some of their favorite places as well as the tourist attractions that I would not be able to find time to see in just a few days! Although I could talk about London for years, here are a few of my absolute favorites from this trip. Obviously you just won’t want to be in London without traveling the almost obligatory route of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, etc. but if you ever have a spare day or two to explore a little further: this list is a good place to begin.
1. The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A): All of London’s awesome museums are FOR FREE so let’s give a big gold star to London for that, am I right? Your first inclinations will be to hit the British Museum and the National Gallery, but if you are in the least bit interested in anything regarding theatre, art, or design, you just cannot miss the V&A. Located by the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, it is chock full of awesome jewelry, theatre, tapestry, fashion, and literary exhibits that will blow your mind. Make sure to check out the reading room (filled with original Charles Dickens manuscripts) and the cast courts from when the English were in a phase where they copied Roman monuments in plaster—useful? Not particularly, but still awesome.
2. Oxford University: If you are in the mood for a day trip, head up to Oxford for the day to check out a gorgeous, ancient town housing one of the oldest universities in England. Even if you cannot go into any of the colleges, it is still worth a wander around! I was lucky enough to have a see into Exeter College with a friend who is a current student; it is a little glimpse of history and prowess that will inspire you for months to come. The Oxford Tube runs from London straight to Oxford and is a comfortable, cost-efficient way to travel plus the bus has wifi…so…
3. Portobello Market: For an antique and vintage freak like me, Portobello Market in Notting Hill was HEAVEN. Not only is it in the gorgeous West London neighborhood, there are stands and stands filled with antique cameras, vintage jewelry, and cute restaurants. Take note of the Notting Hill bookstore, featured in the popular movie with Hugh Grant and Julia Robert and for a snack, try a crepe or a cupcake from the famous Hummingbird bakery. Some of my other favorite London markets are found in the winding alleys of Camden Town and the delicious fresh and international foods found at the Borough Market (the latter is open on weekends only).
4. Windsor Castle: If you’re all ‘been there, done that’ when you hear the words Buckingham Palace, take a few steps outside the city to see Queen Elizabeth’s weekend home and reportedly favorite residence. The chapel, holding the tombs of King Henry VIII and several of his wives was completely gorgeous and the room containing the elaborate royal doll-houses was also a standout. Make sure to have your ticket stamped at the end of your visit, as you can then come back for free anytime in the next year—not a bad deal!
If you have even more time, do stop by the National Portrait Gallery (just behind the National Gallery) for some really amazing artwork. And for relatively inexpensive and healthy meals, step into one of the numerous Pret a Mangers, marked by their trademark burgundy sign marking practically every block! I can’t wait to go back and explore even more.
Have a happy St. Patrick’s Day this Saturday! I’ll be sending the most Irish of wishes over the sea from Dublin.
A few weeks ago, there was an article written in the Star Tribune about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I was lucky enough to be able to hike the crossing this past weekend, and this is how it went.
On Friday, a group of us rented a car and drove up from school in Palmy to Tongariro National Park. The park is the oldest national park in New Zealand, and the fifth oldest national park in the world. Within the park are three active(barely) volcanoes: Mt. Ruapehu, a large snow covered mountain with a ski field for snow sports. Mt. Ngauruhoe, a smaller stratovolcano (and the mountain that was set as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings triology), and finally Mt. Tongariro, a longer volcanoe with multiple craters.
We drove up and got supplies in the nearby town of Turangi, a tourist town geared towards fishing on nearby Lake Taupo (a great place for anyone who likes the north woods and all they have to offer). A friend of mine has a Holiday Home (cabin) in a township called Omori on the southern banks of Lake Taupo, and conveniently 30 minutes from the mountains. We settled in, and set our alarms for bright and early.
We got up the next morning and headed for the park. After struggling for about an hour to find the correct car park, we were finally on our way up the crossing. The crossing itself is a 19.4 km (about 12 mile) hike and is estimated to take between 6 and 7 hours.
As we ascended, the terrain quickly changed from flat plains to a slow ascension until we reached the base of the junction between Ngaurahoe and Tongariro. From there it became a twisted steep ascension around hardened lava flows and volcanic rocks. After 2 hours we reached the south crater, which gave us some level ground to walk on, as one of my friends pointed out, if you didn't know better it would've looked like we were on Mars.
From the south crater the path becomes rather intense. As an aside, we were originally told that this hike was of relatively low difficulty and other than bringing something to eat and a rain coat you really had nothing to worry about. Once we past the south crater, we began to seriously question the credability of these sources. The ascent quickly becomes verticle and loose. Gravel, ash and loose rocks make climbing less of a leisurely experience. However, the view can't be beat. We were lucky enough to reach Red Crater, the highest point on the crossing itself before clouds rolled in. We were able to see Mt. Taranaki (another volcano on the western side of the North Island) and most of the North Islands landscape as well. Past Red Crater, the next scenic stop is the Emerald Lakes, craters formed from quick rapid explosions and filled with water that has since leached it's color from the unique minerals found here.
Once we passed the lakes, we crossed the central crater to Blue Lake, again another crater (Tongariro has erupted a lot in its lifetime) filled with water. Once the crater was past there was a quick descent to the final car park. When I say quick descent, I mean we dropped altitude, fast. The actual majority of our hike didn't even begin until this point, and while it was incredibly beautiful and scenic, we had started to feel a little winded. Once we reached the bottom, we celebrated with what little energy we had left and headed back to Omori. Needless to say, we all slept like rocks that night.
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