Madelyn In TCI: Sunset at Long Cay

January 3, 2020

Today is our last full day here (I swear I’m not freaking out about it). All morning was spent doing site and room clean-up, and maybe packing? We’re all in denial about leaving tomorrow, which is probably not very healthy. It’s been such an incredible time here and we’re all going to miss each other so much. Cleaning everything made me feel a bit better about it all, just because it gave my mind something else to focus on.

Sunrise

After lunch, we went on our long-promised trip to Long Cay. Long Cay is right in our view when we look out at the ocean from our center, and we’ve been excited to finally go there. They told us we would go to watch the sunset on the very last day of our trip, as long as we all were fairly well-behaved throughout the semester and didn’t do anything too atrocious. I’m not sure what would’ve constituted “too atrocious”, because we were all certainly menaces throughout the semester. We went out at 1:30, after lunch. There are many iguanas on the island who get fed by tourists, and so they are very friendly. When we started along the rocky path, one of them ran right at us, stopping about a foot away. If you’ve never seen an iguana run, you should definitely look it up – it’s a very strange movement that reminds me a bit of the way that Phoebe from Friends runs.

Long Cay has a high elevation and turns into cliffs on the far side. Standing along the edge was absolutely stunning, reminding me of New Zealand or Ireland. The limestone cliffs cut sharply down into the water, where waves beat against the rocks, spraying white foam into the air.

Long Cay Cliffs

My friends and I adventured around the cliffs, watching the water. There was a drastic gradient, with white and teal by the rocks. A bit farther out, there were patches of turquoise, indicating the sandy bottom. Other areas were dominated by dark blue waters that deepened to indigo in the distance. We watched a green turtle bobbing up and down on the waves for a long while, which was very cute. I stood on the edge of the cliff and spread my arms out to feel the wind, pretending I was an osprey. I could feel the spray from the ocean on my face. Even though I’ve not been looking forward to leaving, in that moment I couldn’t feel anything but happy.

Me On The Cliff

My Friends

Although it’s sad that the program is over, it feels so amazing that we did it!

When we got back on the boat, the sun was setting, casting a lavender glow over the clouds. A rain cloud was coming over South Caicos, casting a rainbow through half of the sky, while the full moon floated between the rainbow and the cliffs of Long Cay. It seemed as if South Caicos knew we were leaving, and gave us every bit of beauty it could offer for our last evening.


Camellia Travels the World: Himalayas High, Dead Sea Low

January 3, 2020

There are many ups and downs in the program, but the most dramatic one happened this week. A few days ago, I was appreciating the Himalayas right in front of my eyes, and this weekend, I was swimming in the Dead Sea, the low point on Earth. Yes, we have arrived in our last destination of this semester – Amman, Jordan.

On our first weekend, we took a group trip to the Dead Sea, which is an hour drive away from Amman. Because of the altitude difference, the Dead Sea is ten degrees warmer than Amman! Also, it was pouring in Amman when we got onto the bus, and then, it was sunny when we arrived at the Dead Sea (geography always surprises me)! We rushed out of the bus, heading straight into a resort. There are public beaches around the area, however, we were suggested to go to a private beach for a more pleasant experience (on the public beaches, there are crowds of Arab men, and thus, they are highly sensitive about women’s swim clothing).

View of the Dead Sea from the resort.

We walked down to the beach, everyone was so excited to jump in. The sand was smooth, but there were also rocks on the beach and seabed. I slowly dipped my toes into the water, carefully watching every step I took. Then, when I looked up, my friends were already sunbathing in the middle of the sea. Seeing everyone joyfully playing with the saltwater, I rushed and took a big step, and then suddenly, my feet could not touch the ground anymore!

There I floated, straight like a pencil in the water. To be honest, it felt so strange! I was scared to move, and so, Rafa, the fellow in our program, came to help me. She grabbed my hands, trying to turn me to float on my back. I slowly followed her lead, but it was so difficult to pull my legs up from the saltwater. Finally, two more friends came over and grabbed my thighs and brought them above the water. I was already disoriented by this point.

Dead Sea mud treatment! It was my first time to cover myself with mud, and it felt surprisingly great!

After I adjusted a little bit, Rafa held my hand and tried to lead me deeper into the Dead Sea. I tried to do a few strokes, but because I could not put my face down into the water, it was more challenging.  As I went farther from the beach, my fear came back to me, and then, I panicked! What if I drown in the Dead Sea? What if I cannot swim back to the shore?  What if I float all the way to the West Bank? I know, according to physics, no one will sink in the Dead Sea; but at that moment, science could not comfort me. It is like when people are walking on the glass bridge over a canyon; scientifically, we all know that the glass can support thousands of pounds, but we still imagine “what if it breaks?”

Anyway, I freaked out, making giant water splashes everywhere, and I felt even more insecure and out of control. Unfortunately, I got the saltwater into my eyes; and yes, it was so painful. I miraculously swam to the shallow seabed immediately and sprinted to my towel on the beach to wipe the salty tears pouring out of my eyes.

For the rest of the afternoon, I played in the shallow water, sunbathing on my back, while having one arm touching the ground. Even though I did not get to enjoy the magic of the Dead Sea like everyone else, it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience.

Disclaimer: please don’t be scared by my story, because I am a terrible swimmer!

It won’t be complete without a group photo at the sunset by the Dead Sea 🙂 


Madelyn In TCI: Black Spot Parasites

December 9, 2019

Time to talk about my research project here! There were many options of directed research, and I requested the one with my favorite professor here, even though it didn’t have a SCUBA component, only snorkel. Our project is analyzing how the presence and severity of a certain parasite that causes black spots on the body of its host might affect the Ocean Surgeonfish.

Field Work

The Ocean Surgeonfish eats a lot of algae on the coral reefs, which keeps the ecosystem healthy and allows the coral to grow further. But this parasite is one of those creepy ones that changes the behavior of its host. It basically hijacks the brain of the fish and makes it act very different. Our research is observing the Surgeonfish behavior and trying to determine a trend in the behavior changes of infected fish. We hypothesize that this parasite is causing the fish to behave more erratically and suppressing its anti-predator instincts, which would increase the likelihood of the fish getting eaten by an osprey, which is the next host of the parasite’s life cycle.

So, what does our actual field work look like? We go out every afternoon snorkeling for two hours and split up into buddy pairs. One of us videos the fish, while the other one records what the fish is doing exactly every 30 seconds when our timer goes off, and also records the number of bites every 30 seconds. We follow each fish for 10 minutes and record the number of black spots it has.

Recording Data

I really enjoy this type of field work because it forces me to focus on things that I typically wouldn’t notice. We are now well-acquainted with the typical behavior of the fish and notice when they do strange things. Then it’s easy to notice when the highly infected fish act strangely. We joke that they appear to be drunk, swimming erratically and running into rocks. We snorkel for about two hours each day collecting data, and usually by the end of it we’re all freezing cold and our hands are too numb to keep writing.

One day, after collecting behavioral data on many fish, we began to swim back to the boat. I dived down to swim along the sea grass upside down, looking up at the water surface. The change of perspective from doing this is always interesting- gazing at the waves distorting the sun rays that manage to filter through, I feel more as if I belong in this underwater reality. As I swam in this strange manner, I tilted my head back just a bit farther  to see where I was going, and realized that an eagle ray and I were swimming right towards each other!

A cute squid


Camellia Travels the World: Children and Youth First

December 5, 2019

On one of our last days in Nepal, we went to a very special school on the outskirts of Lalitpur. This school is called Life Vision Academy (LVA). As someone who is passionate about children’s education and quality of education, I found this place to be a safe haven for children.

LVA is a private boarding school for underprivileged children in Nepal. Some kids are from marginalized groups and lower castes, some are from remote areas that have no access to education, some have parents with economic challenges that cannot afford sending children to school. LVA caters to these families and offers them an opportunity for quality education.

Currently, there are 86 students in total, from pre-school to 10th grade (in Nepal, 10th grade is the end of secondary education). Each grade is about 8 to 10 students, though in 10th grade, there are only 4 students. Thanks to the small class sizes, all kids get the best care and attention from teachers. The children live in dorms with 6 didi (“elder sisters” in Nepali), have balanced diet plans, and most importantly, receive an excellent quality of education.

The Life Vision Academy in Lalitpur, Nepal. It is situated at the foot of a mountain. Thus, children often go on excursions to learn about the beauty of nature and get inspiration from nature. For example, they will look at caterpillars and learn that modern train structures is based on these tiny insects.

As we were walking into the school, many young children ran to meet us. “Hello!” I waved at a little boy in the Grade-1 classroom. “Hello,” he put down his toy and gave me a big smile, “nice to meet you!” Seeing his innocent face, I felt pure happiness from the bottom of my heart.

Radha came to guide us. She is one of the first graduates from LVA and has stayed to educate younger ones. Radha led us walking around the campus, visiting classrooms, dorms, the dining room, and patiently answered our endless questions. The classrooms were all set up differently and decorated creatively. Colorful posters were hanging on the walls, introducing different religions in the world. Radha introduced that every week, they have a competition of classroom decoration among all grades; this week’s theme was world religion. These children are from different religious backgrounds: Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. Thus, they learned from each other about different values and traditions in different religions.

On the pathway to dorms, there were some little squares of gardens. “These are gardens for different classes,” she explained, “we teach our kids how to care for plants.” At the back of the school building, we also found a small farm. The school has been growing vegetables itself to be more self-sustainable. All these aspects of learning beyond the traditional curriculum expand the horizon of school education.

Meet the school mascot – TIGON.

Finally, Haushala finished another busy day and came to meet us. She is the founder-director of Children & Youth First (CYF), an NGO that has been support LVA for over 10 years. We sat in the dining room, and she started recounting the story behind the foundation of CYF and its connection with LVA.

In 2008, Haushala and her friend were volunteering at an orphanage in Kathmandu. After working with the children for a couple months, they brought gifts for the kids, such as stationery, blankets, toys, etc. However, when they went back to visit the children, these gifts were nowhere to be found. The children told the two girls that the workers took away everything and said that it was all kept in closets. The girls realized that this orphanage is just another corrupt and exploitative institution. Immersed in fury, they contacted the local government to shut it down overnight and rescued all 14 young children. Suddenly, two 21-year-old young women with 14 homeless children, what should they do next?

They looked for schools that would be able to take the kids in, yet it seemed that everywhere was a dead end until they found LVA, a school founded in 1997 for underprivileged children. The founder Prema Zimba accepted the kids with open arms, under only one condition: Haushala has to provide food for the children. Thus, she founded Children & Youth First (CYF) and committed to fundraising for these children and others alike.

I quietly sat there listening to her incredible story, and then, I started reflecting on myself: as a 21-year-old young adult, would I ever have the courage to do what Haushala had done? I fantasize that I could be a hero like her; yet, the real answer is I don’t know. It is such great responsibility and dedication that even Haushala joked that as a 31-year-old woman now, she would probably have second thoughts in that situation. Well, the point of the story is not to hunt down abusive institutions or burn the system down, but to see how individuals and grassroots organizations can bring wonderful changes to people’s lives.

Throughout my program, I have been learning about and contemplating “Human Rights vs human rights”. And to be bluntly honest, I used to dream for a job at the United Nations, researching and making proposals to states to promote and protect Human Rights. In my mind, those giant international organizations were the ultimate resolutions for the world’s problems. Yet, after learning about many grassroots organizations like CYF, I started to see the ignored contribution from the bottom-up. CYF believes that every child has the right to quality education, thus, the organization dedicates itself to sustain and prosper LVA and directly works with young children. What if, I keep pondering, social change is more effective from the bottom-up? What if the people are the resolution instead? Or maybe, the institution and the people can work together to tackle human rights issues. Well, that is the question.

(To learn more about CYF, please check out: http://cyfnepal.org/ )


Madelyn In TCI: Final Exams

December 4, 2019

This week was a bit of a marathon with our final exams. Our classes on this program end early, and the last few weeks are entirely focused on our directed research projects, which is exciting! But it also means that there is a lot of information squished into a small amount of time for our classes, and that can be a bit stressful and intense. On Tuesday we had our Environmental Policy test, which was open note… so easy, right? WRONG! It was 17 open-ended questions and four essay questions, and we had four hours. Needless to say, it was not my best writing. It was rather frustrating because I knew the information, but I didn’t have enough time to write properly and demonstrate my knowledge. In the afternoon we had our final for Marine Resource Management, which was a presentation we had been working on for several weeks. My group’s task was to develop a proposal for mass market tourism on the island of South Caicos, redesigning the protected areas of the island and explaining how we will feasibly develop the island to sustain 4,000 tourists per week. The irony of the entire project was that absolutely none of us would ever want to do that. South Caicos, in its rural, undeveloped state, has stolen a piece of all of our hearts. We’ve made friends with the locals and would never want to ruin their private paradise by introducing an influx of so many visitors on the island. Regardless, we made a presentation on it, and tried to create hypothetical policies to mitigate the effects. I think that we did well, but we haven’t gotten grades back yet!

After a few days of directed research work, we also had our Marine Ecology final. The final was scheduled from 9am-5pm, which seemed pretty daunting, but none of us thought it would actually take that long. The first half of the exam was closed-book and I had studied well. I was able to regurgitate all the information about the effects of hurricanes on coral reefs, the root structure of sea grass, and the different effects of parasites on fish behavior. I finished that part within an hour and began the open-note section. Our task was to design a 20-minute presentation on Mangrove Soil, a topic never covered in our course. Since the internet was down all week, our professor provided us with a folder of scientific papers on a variety of subjects to do with mangroves and relevant pictures. While reading through the papers, I learned a lot! I learned that some crabs love to eat mangrove leaves and will actually store leaves in their dens until they become rotten. Apparently, the tannin in fresh leaves are too bitter, and the crabs like the taste after they’ve decayed. I learned that mangroves can save lives by blocking the majority of the destruction from tsunamis, essentially sacrificing themselves. What I found particularly frustrating though, was that I didn’t have enough time to put everything that I learned into the presentation, and it certainly didn’t look nice. At 4:59 I added a theme to my slides and threw in two pictures, then submitted it.

Jumping off the dock at Regatta.

By 5:10 I was running out of the center with a bunch of my fellow students. We ranted our way to the nearest beach, all of us venting the same frustrations from our finals. When we arrived at the beach, we ran/fell into the water and collectively screamed under water, then swam over and climbed onto the dock. Jumping off the dock was exactly what I needed in that moment, and it just seemed to entirely release all of the stress and frustration from the entire week. Regardless of how our finals had gone, at least they were over now and we knew we had done as best as possible. Now we just have directed research to look forward to!

Sunset on the boats.


Camellia Travels the World: Mid-Semester Break!

November 22, 2019

After two months of learning, we finally had a break! We were so lucky to enjoy our mid-semester break in Nepal. Some students decided to stay in Pokhara and relax with serenity; some took an adventure, going trekking and reveling in beautiful scenery; I, on the other hand, invited my parents to Nepal and explored the country with them.

As you may know, Nepal is a very diverse country. It has 126 ethnicities and more than 100 indigenous languages. It is the origin of Buddhism and predominated by Hinduism. Nepal is situated between China and India, and its geographic diversity is also a main reason to attract world travelers. Because of our limited time, we planed to visit three major places: Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Chitwan.

Kathmandu

In Nepal, especially in Kathmandu, you can find “a temple every 5 steps and a stupa every 10 steps”. Kathmandu, as the capital of Nepal, has such a rich history and culture. There are numerous places to visit in Kathmandu, and some top attractions are Boudhanath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple, Monkey Temple, and Kathmandu Durbar Square. Besides visiting these sites, I find it also fun to wander in neighborhoods, observing people’s routine rituals, appreciating community worshipping temples, and enjoying exclusive street art.

Family photo at the Kathmandu Durbar Square. Unfortunately, a large portion of buildings was damaged by the 2015 earthquake, but reparation work is in active process. I sincerely hope to see the Durbar Square in its original beauty soon!

 

Street art in Patan. Graffiti is such a beautiful way to express opinions and appreciate cultures. In Kathmandu, one can find incredible artworks on walls anywhere. Stop and look at them!

 

Pokhara

Another popular destination is Pokhara, for its magnificent view of the Himalayas and the natural beauty of mountains and lakes. On Saturday morning, we went kayaking in Fewa Lake, which used to be a part of the royal summer palace. In the midst of the lake, there is a Hindu temple on a tiny isle, where villagers row boats to the temple and perform rituals. We went to the island without knowing about Saturday practice, and we are so fortunate to see many believers come to the temple to worship.

My mom and I in the middle of Fewa Lake.

In addition to the landscape in Pokhara, one can also visit the Shanti Stupa on Anadu Hill. Shanti is a Sanskrit word meaning peace, and thus, the stupa is also known as the World Peace Pagoda in Nepal. It is a symbol of collaboration among Nepal, Japan, Thailand, and Myanmar. When one enters the space, one can find a sign requesting to keep silent and enjoy the tranquility. I walked in, taking off my shoes and going up to the second tier. The white pagoda has two tiers for tourists and religious visitors to circumambulate (a little tip: when circumambulating a stupa, walk clockwise). As I was strolling down, I stopped here and there to examine statues given from all parts of the world as well as the Annapurna mountain line across from the pagoda. Standing still in the midst of everything, I felt the ultimate peace and transcendent grace of nature and humanity.

Chitwan

On the India-Nepal border, there is a preserved area for wildlife. Chitwan National Park is famous for its biodiversity, for rare mammals like Bengal tigers and one-horned rhinos. I especially enjoyed the options of ecotourism. We went canoeing in the river and walking in the jungle. When the guides were preparing us for the jungle walk, they taught us techniques to protect ourselves from rhinos. (They really got me nervous for a moment 😂😂) Following the guides, we started meandering in grasslands. Slowly, we approached a small pool, where a mommy rhino and her baby were chilling. They looked at us for a few seconds and then turned their heads away, and we took some photos silently and continued our journey. The route was not so exciting for a long while, and suddenly, a giant rhino was right in front of us chewing (actually devouring) grass. This was a truly intense moment; the guides whispered to us to freeze, and they held the bamboo sticks tightly. The rhino spotted us yet did not move at all. After a minute or two, we quietly rushed behind his back and left. One little regret was that we only found tigers’ footprints; nevertheless, it was such an extraordinary adventure.

Another choice of touring is to take a jeep safari ride. The National Park is massive, and thus, this is a popular choice for exploration.

We spent a whole week touring in Nepal, yet, I still felt that I have seen too little. Luckily, Nepal is a neighbor of China, and I will definitely find a chance to return and experience more. I hope this blog can pique your interest in visiting this treasure of a place. And if you do, I wish you the best of luck to spot a Bengal tiger 😉


A Deep Dive

November 21, 2019

This morning I had a deep dive with just one other girl and a waterfront staff. It was lovely to dive with only two people, especially because we were all friends. Communication underwater is sometimes very difficult, since words can’t be used and it can be hard to get somebody’s attention without the ability to yell out their name. For small groups though, it gets much easier to understand everybody and know where all dive members are throughout the dive. Quite shortly after descent, I grabbed my dive buddy and excitedly put the side of my hand against my forehead to sign “Shark!” Sometimes I get a little too excited with this signal and end up wacking my head repeatedly with my hand. A black tip reef shark was swimming along the drop-off in front of us.

We watched as it swam away, and then looked at each other and danced underwater. Seeing sharks never seems to get old. Then we descended along the wall of the drop-off. Seeing the corals at these depths was absolutely amazing. At shallower depths, corals tend to form in mounds or boulders, but at deeper depths, they grow in flat plates to maximize the light they receive from the surface. As we were swimming along the wall, the distinct line of difference was so fascinating! The wall turned into a slight overhang and corals of various fluorescent colors covered the surface in strange patterns. Bright purple sponges hung down like alien stalactites, and a lionfish was tucked inside one of the corners of the rocks, its black and white striped fins drifting slowly with the current. Looking down, I saw two humongous orange and black crabs, at least two feet across! I wanted to swim down to look at them closer, but remembered to check my depth. The perfectly clear water of the Caribbean makes it difficult to remember just how deep we actually are, and I was shocked to realize I was already at 100 feet, the maximum depth for recreational diving.

Diving

As we swam along further, we noticed a nurse shark swimming along the wall towards us. I always enjoy seeing nurse sharks – they seem so sweet and harmless. Sharks really get a bad reputation in general. Here, we are a bunch of environmental nerds and seeing a shark usually makes our day!

Being relaxed for the dive made it a lot easier, and my air consumption was very low: I still had a third of a tank left when we ascended! Having such a good dive always puts me in a great mood for the rest of the day, and I feel very fortunate to be able to get in the water every day here.


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