Rhiannon in India: From Home

January 3, 2014

I have been back home for about a few weeks now, and I have to say it is a little strange to be back. I feel like after landing at the Raleigh airport, I haven’t had the chance to look back, swept away instantly by the happenings of everyday life back home. However, I’m excited to see how my experience abroad impacts my life going forward.

Back when I said I was going to India for 5 months, many people asked, ‘Why don’t you just study in Europe? India is the kind of place you want to spend two weeks, not five months.’ If I had visited for two weeks, I think I would have come home totally overwhelmed, having seen many things but understood very little. Even now, after spending five months in the wonderful country, I still find myself questioning what I truly understand from my experience, but I’m glad I spent a semester there so that I could integrate and meet many people.

When we first arrived in Hyderabad, our advisors asked us to write down five goals that we hoped to achieve during the semester. Some of mine were practical, like learning a few phrases in Hindi, and learning a few Indian recipes, but others were more theoretical. One of them was to live like a typical Indian in India by the end of the semester. I think that I really achieved that, and by the end of my stay, was able to blend in relatively well – despite the blonde hair. Living with Nivedita and Prerna, surrounded by friendly neighbors who took us in like family, was the best choice I could have made to begin living a more ‘normal’ lifestyle in Hyderabad. Spending time with them will remain some of my favorite memories for a lifetime

I want to thank my host family, my neighbors, and my friends in India who helped me acclimate to life in India. I also want to thank everyone who followed my blog, read about my experiences, and gave me tips or comments. I am so glad I decided to keep a blog about my trip, because sitting down to write it gave me some of the best time to reflect on my experiences abroad

Thanks for reading!

Namaskar.

Sunset from Apartment

The sun setting over Hyderabad from our apartment


Mel in Chile: Is it really over?

December 19, 2013

Is study abroad really over? Well I didn’t have time to ponder on this question for too long. I left Santiago early on a Saturday morning. About a month ago my parents bought me tickets to visit my family in Europe. You cannot imagine my excitement!

So the reason I didn’t have much time to be melancholy about leaving my beloved Santiago was because in five days I was going to board a plane to London to visit my family! What’s more, two weeks after that I would board another plane to Albania to see the rest of my family. You can imagine on our goodbye dinner my emotions were a bit confused. I was extremely sad to leave my life in Santiago behind. On the other hand, I was absolutely ecstatic to see my family. Now that I have arrived in England, and am sitting in this lovely café in Reading, I feel I finally realize that yes it really is over. I will go back to Richmond on January 11th, not Santiago. To be completely honest, I am looking forward to going back to Richmond more than I can express in words. I think after working abroad in the summer in the Dominican Republic, and later studying abroad in Chile, I am looking forward to going back to a familiar and comfortable setting.

I am also a bit anxious. Even though I am coming back to a “familiar place” I wonder if it will be hard to adjust, if I will miss life abroad. When I get back I will dive into a full course load of core business classes. Registration was not too kind to me this semester. I have 8 am classes Mon/Wed/Fri and 9 am classes Tues/Thurs. I sometimes get worried I will be overwhelmed. When I think of all of this I seriously criticize myself for denying myself the opportunity to study abroad another semester in Santiago. It is at this precise moment that I realize why I initially decided to come back to UR.

I came back for the academics, for the resources we have (career center, center for civic engagement, common ground, free tutoring), to have access to professors and other mentors I have at the University, to spend more time with my friends. Most importantly I came back because I am excited to look for the ways I can become more involved in the Richmond community at this point in my academic career. Studying abroad helped me understand who I am and what I care for. I am looking forward to re-entering the Richmond community (both UR and the city of Richmond) as someone a bit different than when I left.

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I will finish this blog the same way I started it. This is a picture of Santiago as seen from the top of Cerro San Cristobal


Mel in Chile: Everything you want is right outside your comfort zone.

December 15, 2013

This is the post we have all been waiting for!!! THE END OF STUDY ABROAD YAYYY! That is in fact true. Some days ago I finished my study abroad semester with an SIT program in Santiago, Chile. I imagine the following text will be suspiciously similar to other testimonies of study abroadlings but I’ll do my best to make it a bit different. I will be honest.

In my last entry I talked about how the topic I chose for my independent study project was outside of what I have chose to study at UR. I was a bit nervous about writing so much on something incredibly new but I thought, “ Well this is one of the best opportunities I will have. The grades don’t count as long as I don’t completely blow it. Might as well!” The project was one of the most enjoyable activities I have overtaken. It was refreshing to read things outside of what I am usually exposed to but I was also lucky because I had the opportunity to link traveling for my personal pleasure to my research. It was sort of a multitasking situation.

It was only when I came home that I saw an article circulating around the Facebook community addressing college students who study abroad. It was an article from The Onion hinting, through their infamous satire, the message that study abroad was an excuse to party in Europe or meet cute Latinos in South America. Even more off putting than the article were the responses from fellow study abroaders affirming the overall message of the article! Now I will not make myself the “responsible” student who studied abroad only for the educational opportunities and the broadening of my perspective by living in another culture. I will be honest in saying some of the comments were funny but true. Like all articles form The Onion, it was genius.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but remember all the times I had Skyped with friends and family and talked to them about how much I was learning during my study abroad semester. So when I read the article from The Onion I of course laughed but I also couldn’t stop this strange feeling of “Well that isn’t entirely true. Maybe not even the slightest bit true!” As I said before, I will not deny the Shenanigans, the traveling, the going out with other travelers that were passing by on their way to Patagonia, making new friends with my group, the salsa classes, enjoying the fiestas patrias…and well everything else that comes with study abroad. But…is that so bad? In my opinion, study abroad works best when students take complete advantage of what your city has to offer. We are used to learning only coming from academic spheres, everything from lectures, articles, classes, and books. If you are willing to accept it, an opportunity to study abroad is an opportunity to learn. To learn from people, the culture, other foreign exchange students, the host family, street performers, and everyone around you.  I would highly recommend taking an opportunity to study abroad. But it does not end there. Learning takes initiative and requires a person to be proactive and to be open to new concepts. You will be uncomfortable; you will miss UR, your friends, your professors and the resources offered at our university. The point is to see beyond your previous accommodations, stop comparing between your home and host institution and simply allow yourself to grow from the experience.

“Everything you want is right outside your comfort zone.”

– Robert Allen

The following are images of Chile:

gran torre

This is an image of the Gran Torre de Santiago- the tallest building in Latin America.

indomita vineyard

Old wine bottles at Indomita

isla negra

View from Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra.

valledelaluna

We watched the sunset at Valle de la Luna. One of the most beautiful places on Earth.


Diego in Brazil: PUC and Rio’s social movements

December 12, 2013

For the past couple of months I’ve been writing this blog to share some of my thoughts and feelings about studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro. When I chose to study at PUC-Rio, Brazil was witnessing some of the largest protests the country has experienced since the early 1990s. The country’s middle-class went out to the streets to demand cheaper public transportation, better public services, less corruption, and an end to excessive spending on international mega-projects.

As soon as I came to Rio de Janeiro people back home and in Richmond began asking me about the protests – especially whether I was attending some of them. My major, focusing on social justice and political movements in Latin America, strongly influenced my decision to move to Rio de Janeiro during such an important period in the country’s recent history. I suppose friends and family expected me to attend these protests, but as a matter of safety and based on some personal ideas on social movements I decided not to attend.

I still wanted to find a space to interact with some of the political actors in these protests. I’ve been studying Brazilian politics and I could not ignore the largest socio-political movement that has impacted the country since the severe political crises of the 1990s. My host mother was not particularly interested in anything related to politics, so I turned to my host University.

Early in the semester I met some people studying Political Science, Philosophy, and Social Work. I joined them several times for lunch and asked countless questions about the protests, political movements at PUC-Rio, and suggestions to learn more about the current political situation. They were all really interested in the movements and most of them had already participated in at least one protest.

I was really surprised that all of them were frustrated at how little political activity and organizing goes on at PUC-Rio. According to them, most student-led political movements originate and develop at public universities. They told me that students’ apathy is a combination of the university’s attitude towards political protests and the socio-economic level of most students at PUC-Rio.

I must admit I was disappointed with how things developed in the beginning. I attended some meetings of different student groups on campus but I didn’t come across much information about the protests. Luckily, this all began to change when PUC-Rio held elections for several student governments (each major sector of the university has its own student government.)

I approached some people campaigning inside and outside the university and found several students who were active members of different social movements in the city. From members of the communist party to members of the Catholic Church, the people I met quickly showed me how diverse and little coherent the protests in Rio de Janeiro were. I was truly happy that I had finally found a way to learn about the protests without putting aside my decision of not joining them.

I obviously can’t claim that I know much about these social movements. It’s been only some weeks since I began meeting students who participate in these protests. One of the most positive aspects of all of this has been the number of invitations I’ve received to attend several events related to the protests and other political movements.

The picture I’m attaching to this entry is from a student-led debate on police brutality. For privacy reasons I’m not describing each participant in the panel but I wanted to show you how PUC-Rio can be a useful space to learn about Rio’s politics. I’m not entirely sure what the future of today’s social movements in Rio de Janeiro will be. For now, I’m incredibly glad I met several students who were willing to teach me about the recent protests and to share with me some of their hopes for the near future.

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An incredibly interesting debate at PUC-Rio on social protests.


Rhiannon in India: A South Indian Adventure

December 12, 2013

As I wrote in my last post, I have been traveling around South India for the past two weeks on a lightening-speed tour of Kerala and Karnataka. Kerala, one of the southern-most states in India, is often considered a country apart from the rest of India, and better yet, “God’s Own Country.” In Kerala, my friend and I visited Kochi, the seaside state capital; Munnar, a chilly hill station among the Western Ghats; and Alleppey, the go-to town for boat rides on the backwaters. After two overnight bus rides north to Karnataka, we visited Udupi, home to many Hindu temples and the birth place of the dosa; Hampi, a tourist haven surrounded by beautiful landscapes and ancient ruins; Bangalore, the bustling business hub of the south; and Mysore, a smaller city known for its palace and yoga ashrams. The whole experience has been a whirlwind of historical sites, markets, beaches, and mountains, and I am already having trouble keeping everything straight in my memory. However, there are a few exceptional experiences that I am confident will stand out in my mind for years to come, and those are the ones I would like to share here.

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The tea plantations in Munnar

One of our first stops in Kerala was Munnar, a bumpy, nauseous five-hour bus ride from Kochi, tucked within the Western Ghats. As we approached Munnar on the summit of a hill, the air quickly got cooler, the scenery got greener, and I was immediately happier. Tata, a multibillion-dollar Indian corporation, owns most of the land surrounding Munnar and has turned it into profit by covering the land with tea plantations. From the road, the tea fields look like a rolling, rippling, sea of perfectly manicured green hills, occasionally peaked by a rocky summit. We spent two days touring the beautiful tea plantations and other areas around Munnar, including waterfalls and a wildlife sanctuary where we saw the rare grizzled giant squirrel, but sadly missed out on the rumored mountain goats and wild elephants. The whole time we were in the mountains, I was in awe at how many different foods are grown there – tea, coffee, bananas, sugar cane, black pepper, papaya, coconuts, and many more.

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A village near Munnar

We left Munnar in the hopes of catching a once-daily direct bus to Alleppey, but when we got to the bus station, we were informed that the bus had been cancelled that day. Instead, we took three separate buses, zigzagging our way in the general direction of our destination, finally giving up in a small town and sharing a taxi with a nice Canadian couple for the last hour. When we finally got to our hotel late in the evening, the hotel owner told us that the cheaper room that we had reserved was actually taken, but graciously gave us a more expensive room for the same price. Little did we know at the time that it was an off-site cabin in the middle of a rice field that took 30 minutes in an auto and a boat ride to get to! Despite our confusion getting to our “room” after a long day of bus riding, staying in the cabin was an awesome experience. We were right on the edge of a backwater canal in a long row of village houses, right across the water from a man named Babu who had a canoe and would take us on canoe rides for 200 rupees an hour. We spent a lazy morning canoeing through the village with Babu, who knew everyone and had to stop every 15 minutes to talk to his friends along the water. That afternoon, we rented kayaks and toured some of the most beautiful areas of the Alleppey backwaters.

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Canoeing in the backwaters near Alleppey

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Sunset over the Arabian Sea at Alleppey Beach

Traveling through South India these past two weeks has been one of the most exciting and interesting times of my life, and I am amazed at how much I have learned in such a short time. As my return home quickly approaches, I hope that I will be able to make the most of my experiences here – especially what I have learned about how different cultures can be, but at the same time how similar we are as people. It continually surprises me that, although the details of daily life may be different from country to country or even region to region in India, we have much more in common than what may be seen on the surface. Now that these two weeks are over, I can’t wait to see my friends and family once more in Hyderabad, then head back to Raleigh, North Carolina!


Diego in Brazil: My host family

December 10, 2013

As the time to leave Brazil approaches I have been thinking about writing about my host family. To give you some background information, PUC-Rio offers its exchange students the option of living with a host family during their time in Rio de Janeiro. You apply to the program and about 10 days before your arrival to Brazil the University sends you an email with information on where and with whom you will be living. To be fully honest, it made me somewhat nervous not knowing where I was going to be living during my study abroad time. PUC-Rio does not guarantee that everyone who applies to the program will be placed in a host family.

In my case, luckily PUC-Rio did place me in a host family. There are many stories I could write today, but I think there is only one way to truly transmit what my experience living with a host family has been.

Throughout this semester I’ve sometimes written about my “host family” in this blog. But the reality is that I live in the apartment of a single woman (I’m not mentioning anyone’s name in this post) who now rents two rooms to students. When I first moved into her apartment two other exchange students at PUC-Rio (one from Germany and one from Morocco) also moved in with us. After about a month they both decided to move to a new apartment so it was now only my host mother and me. We had an empty room in the apartment for about two weeks until a new Brazilian student doing a Master’s degree at PUC-Rio came to live with us. Since then it’s been the three of us.

Up until a month ago when friends or family back home asked me about my host family I used to say that I didn’t really live with one. I had some great conversations with my host mother but that was about it. I rarely saw the other Brazilian student. This has been the third time in the past five years that I have had the opportunity to be hosted by a family in a foreign country, so probably my expectations were too rigid already.

But this all began to change a month ago. My schedule at the university changed and I now had more time to be home. The Brazilian student finished the first half of his thesis and he decided to take a two-week break from work. My host mother quickly realized that we were both going to be spending much more time at the apartment, so she proposed to have dinner together at least some days during the week.

By the second dinner we were all sharing incredibly personal stories. Put two young students who live far away from home and a friendly older woman who loves to talk together and you just created a great conversation. We talked about everything from food and the World Cup to work and love. But there was one particular topic that always seemed to dominate the most intimate moments of our conversations: family.

Maybe my “host family” experience in Brazil was not what I expected. Personal situations in each of our lives deeply impacted the atmosphere in our apartment. Sometimes we became three strangers living in the same apartment, and sometimes we became a small family: three people from incredibly different paths of life who gradually moved closer to each other. And even if I were to leave Brazil and never talk to them again, our conversations about family were a true gift.

For one reason or another, we all found ourselves far away from our families. Our dinners became a space to share memories, frustrations, dreams, and hopes about those who were either waiting for us back home or had left home already. The other student and I projected our current family situation to the future and imagined perfect scenarios. We also laughed at how my host mother’s ideas of family had changed throughout her life.

I’m still not sure what to answer when someone asks about my host family. But for many reasons, my time in Rio de Janeiro ended up being strictly connected to the idea of a family. And that, I would like to believe, is what I will take with me once I return to Richmond and Guatemala.

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I took this picture about a week ago when we received a guest (my host mom’s sister) for one of our dinners. Main topic of the night? Family, of course.


Mel in Chile: The Final Project

December 10, 2013

Some days ago we closed our SIT Chile: Political Systems and Economic Development study abroad semester. During November I had been working hard (or hardly working?) towards the thirty-page research paper that we submit at the end of a semester abroad with SIT. I have to admit the month of research was an incredible opportunity to test out my ability to work independently. The only deadline to keep in mind was December 4th.

November was full of activities and my schedule looked busy even though I did not have classes. I needed interviews for my research and when you are in Latin America scheduling interviews/any meeting situations with people will prove to be a difficult process. I also chose a topic for my research that I had not studied through classes at Richmond or study abroad. It was a critical analysis of community-based tourism in Valle de Elikura within a mix of post-colonial/anthropological/orientalist theoretical frameworks. I spent half of the month simply looking for articles and reading as much material as I could so I developed a strong background before I started the actual writing.

I sometimes wonder what will happen with the thirty-three-page research paper I wrote in Spanish. It is difficult to convince myself that it will be useful for a class in Richmond since I know the rest of my time will be devoted to fulfilling business class requirements. If I want to use the paper anywhere in the US I would need to translate the entire thing to Spanish. So I sometimes ask myself “Why did you chose to do something ‘irrelevant’? Why didn’t you choose something that is more related to what you study at UR? Chile is would have been a fantastic country for research in any neoliberal related topic.” I am lucky I do not have to think very far to find my reasons. The truth is that I absolutely loved my topic. More importantly I enjoyed the journey of learning something entirely new, processing it, and then applying it as analysis to my fieldwork. I realized I was also wrong to refer to my work as “irrelevant”. This may sound cliché but I understood from personal experience how seemingly distinct areas of study are actually not as unrelated as we sometimes imagine. My research project gave me an opportunity to relate tourism, anthropology, orientalist theory, post colonial theory, Foucault’s notions of relations of power, and basic demand-supply relations within a capitalism economic structure. My study abroad experience allowed me to step back and explore the relationships between different disciplines. I would strongly argue that a study abroad experience is essential to a liberal arts education.

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My certificate from Universidad de Santiago de Chile!


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