Bryan in Taipei: Final Thoughts and Reflections

December 30, 2018

For my final post, I’ve decided to only include pictures from Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. since it was very close to my apartment in Taipei and I passed through it every day. On my last night in Taiwan, I went there to watch the sunset and the flag-lowering ceremony, which seemed a fitting ending to my semester abroad. Keeping that in mind, I wanted to use my final post to reflect on my experience and what it’s taught me.

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Palm Trees alongside the lake that’s within the memorial grounds

I ultimately decided to study abroad in Taiwan because I was drawn to the relative independence of the program and its allure towards Chinese learners who already had several years of language study under their belt. In these two regards, the program lived up to my expectations. Given the structure of the classes being once a week for 3 hour sessions, I found myself with a great deal of free time even when taking 5 classes overall. For this reason I would not recommend the program to those only at the basic or intermediate levels yet serious about learning Chinese, unless they opt for the Intensive Mandarin track and are willing to stay throughout the entirety of the semester (from September to mid-January). The vast majority of my learning came from immersion outside of the classroom, which is easier for higher levels. In fact, any study abroad program – especially one with as much autonomy as this – is as intensive and immersive as you make it (in terms of language learning). This became far more apparent to me during my time in Taiwan.

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The main memorial hall building. Inside is a large statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen somewhat reminiscent of the Lincoln memorial.

One thing I was surprised to find was just how different several aspects of living in Taiwan versus Mainland China were. Though China in the past two to three decades has undergone rapid modernization and development, it did not seem as widespread and, frankly, Westernized as Taiwan. This could be for any number of reasons, be it comparative size, governance and policies, etc., but Taipei was a city with all kinds of Western influences present. I was even more surprised by the pervasive Japanese influence. Having just studied in Northeast China the summer before, it was immediately apparent how markedly different the sentiment towards the Japanese was in that region versus in Taiwan. The latter seems to welcome cultural, technological, and other influences from Japan quite openly, while I noticed a bit of animosity still lingering in China in some regards. Learning about these distinctions and attempting to unwrap cultural identities within Taiwan, China, and Japan was a major part of my experience. I also learned far more about China than I had expected, which is invaluable for me as a Chinese Studies major.

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A scroll featuring ancient Chinese characters. Rotating art and culture exhibits are located inside the 2nd and 3rd floors of the memorial.

 

No matter where you go, studying abroad will place you in a new environment completely different from Richmond and teach you a lot about yourself in the process. I learned how to cook for myself and plan my meals entirely on my own, though in a grander sense I also learned how to navigate in unknown and unpredictable environments and became a far better traveler. This is my 3rd study abroad experience, and each one has taught me something different about the host country and about myself. On my first two trips, I was the only student from UR, and on this one there was only one classmate and close friend also in the program. While not being around many other students from UR is not at all necessary to have a meaningful and impactful experience, it nonetheless pushed me to further breach my comfort zone and establish new friendships and connections along the way that I otherwise might not have sought out as openly. Studying abroad isn’t all easy and things will undoubtedly be frustrating and difficult, but it’s something totally worth it if given the opportunity, regardless of it’s whether its for academic reasons or to experience a new culture.

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After sunset, I stumbled upon soldiers performing a ceremonial flag lowering ceremony. I am not sure if this is done daily, but it was a nice last-memory of the memorial.

I want to say thank you for reading my posts throughout the semester and allowing me to share different aspects of my abroad experience. I’d encourage people to look into Taipei and other less-mainstream study abroad options because living abroad for 3-4 months is not something most have the opportunity to do and choosing to immerse yourself in a completely different culture has lots of amazing benefits. I’m excited to take my perspective back to Richmond and hear all about others’ time abroad as well.

Bryan


Bryan (not) in Taipei: Borneo!

November 26, 2018

During an extended weekend in November, I had the chance to visit the island of Borneo. The island is shared by three countries – Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia – and is the third largest island in the world; I visited the Malaysian part in Sabah. This was easily one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been and it taught me a lot about this island’s unique history and fusion of peoples and cultures.

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Sabah City Mosque at dawn.

Though I traveled to the island during rainy season (which is not too different from Taipei’s), I lucked-out with the weather since it only rained the first day and second night I was there, giving me plenty of time to explore the city of Kota Kinabalu and the nearby islands, jungle, river, etc. As soon as I arrived, I realized how great a deal of multiculturalism was present, with a mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese, local indigenous, and other groups all present in the city and living together, eating together, and so on and so forth. I also saw the profound Muslim influence in Malaysia, with the Islamic Call to Prayer played publicly multiple times a day, wide array of halal food available in restaurants, and other cultural markers such as dress, though also saw many Catholic churches and other religious representation. Food was a brilliant mix of different cultures and local ingredients. The baozi 包子 I tried in a local Chinese restaurant easily rivaled and in my opinion surpassed those I’ve had in both Northern China and Taiwan.

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A local home located on a hillside in an indigenous village in the jungle, about a 90 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu.

As a student of Linguistics, I was quite impressed by the level of multilingualism on the island. I was told that in Sabah alone there were 72 languages spoken (likely including dialects) and most people living there could speak at least 2-3 languages fluently. At Chinese restaurants and stores, I ordered in Mandarin and no one batted an eye. British historical influence was also quite present. Cars drove on the left side of the road and English was very widely spoken, even among the older generations. Beyond the city, I was also able to travel to the more remote countryside areas of Sabah and see local life and industry. Coffee and tea – two of my favorite things arguably – were both locally grown and quite good. I heard several different opinions on Malaysia’s place in the world and learned of the rivalry between East and West Malaysia.

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Whitewater rafting on the Kiulu River in Sabah.

Borneo seemed to offer it all in terms of things to do, with outdoor activities ranging from snorkeling in the crystal-clear oceans to rafting in the river to hiking in the vast swath of jungle landscape, though it still did not seem overrun by tourists (yet?) or otherwise inauthentic in any way. Malaysia itself is a relatively large country that varies so much from places like Kuala Lumpur to Penang, so any one thing shouldn’t be expected, but this trip offered me a much deeper insight into this cultural melting pot that admittedly I wasn’t fully expecting. In my case, leaving Taiwan helped me see it in a slightly different light upon returning, which is something everyone should keep in mind when studying abroad.

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Zipline from Gaya island to Sapi island, which is the longest island-to-island zipline in the world.

Bryan


Brooke Goes Global: South Africa’s Fight for Land

October 29, 2018

For the past few weeks, I have wandered between realms of ignorance and reality. My role as a tourist, as a student, and as a local, has immersed me into one sphere, then forcefully dragged me into another. Each sphere lives its own separate life, yet social and political consequences successfully transcend these borders. As a tourist, I have gasped and awed at the picturesque South Africa. The mountains have been climbed. The restaurants have been visited. The tickets for adventure have been paid for. As a tourist, I have the money and the time to experience the luxurious — and predominately white populated — areas of South Africa. Here, I live in a sphere of ignorance.

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The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront — a popular tourist destination.

As a student, I have been awestruck by the powerful history of this powerful country. I learned of the racism, the inequality, the systems of oppression of the past and the present. I listened to lectures on colonialism. I read journal articles on the nation’s economic inequality. “South Africa has one of the highest Gini Coefficients in the world,” they tell me. It enters one ear and goes out the other. Surface level knowledge and surface level comprehension of a life in South Africa. Here, I live in a sphere of awareness.

Living in a homestay, I have been pushed into the life of a local — to a life beyond beautiful pictures. I have lived with families who have very real struggles with gentrification, land rights, and economic opportunity. These struggles are no longer ignored. They are no longer just a written fact. These struggles are real and immediate. As a local, I see how the oppressed overcome hardships to find dignity and humanity. Here, I live in a sphere of reality.

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My homestay mom is on the left, Mama Thembsi, with one of her best friends, Elizabeth.

 

From 1948 to 1991, South African citizens lived under an oppressive Apartheid regime — apartheid literally meaning “apart.” In an attempt to make Cape Town an all-whites city, people were categorized according to their race. These classifications, including Indian/Asian, Colored, Black, or White, determined everything. If you were not white, you were forced to live in the outskirts of the city. If you were not white, your daily movement was restricted and monitored. If you were not white, manual labor jobs were your only economic opportunity. You did not vote. You did not own land. This was the law. And if you did not obey the law, you were subject to brutal whippings or execution. Children included. The oppressive and racist Apartheid government focused on protecting the population minority and repressing the majority.

The African National Congress (ANC), a protest grassroots organization, gained popularity in the latter part of the Apartheid government through promotion of its core principles. After people of color were stripped of their land and homes and herded into segregated areas outside the city, the right for land became a main pillar of their political platform. In 1991, the Apartheid government “peacefully” ceased power after years of protest from the ANC. I simplify this cession that includes stories of brave South Africans, powerful and peaceful protests, violence, and international relations. Instead, I wish to concentrate on a less popular topic — South Africa’s expectation of democracy versus its reality.

In 1994, the African National Congress came to power with something as simple yet as influential as the right to vote. Nelson Mandela, backed by the ANC, was elected President of the newly formed South African democracy. The ANC created a progressive and powerful constitution, granting its citizens the right to health, education, water, and housing. And land — its redistribution was mentioned in the constitution. Though to this day, land redistribution still has no explicit plans for change.

This brings me to where I am today, the rural community of Zweletemba. I went from center city Cape Town, known as the Europe of Africa, to a former blacks only township created during Apartheid. The 200,000 people population in Zweletemba are unique in their stories but not in their struggles.

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A main road in the neighborhood.

In the center of the neighborhood, most roads are paved and houses are constructed in neat, straight lines. Electricity poles stand erect at block corners. Hidden pipes bring water to homes. Children jump rope on the dusty roads. Dogs roam looking for attention. But as you move to the outskirts of the town, electricity poles become more and more rare, eventually going extinct. Public toilets become the street’s only source of sanitary plumbing. And houses take the form of four walls constructed of sheet metal.

Zweletemba is a neighborhood of subsidized housing. People, families move in because they can’t afford housing anywhere else. They construct a house out of the supplies they have, apply for government housing, and wait. After many years and much citizen advocacy, the government finally constructs the housing it so plainly labels as a human right in the nation’s constitution.

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An informal settlement in the outskirts of Zweletemba.

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Zweletemba is in the district of Worcester. Three families own over 70% of the land in Worcester. This land was attained during Apartheid when it was stolen from people of color and distributed to whites for farming. Most of this private property today is unused and vacant. Much of this land surrounds Zweletemba. Families are desperate for land and desperate for houses, so they build informal settlements on this vacant, privately owned land. The desperation of poverty is forgotten by the rich, white land owners. In an attempt to remove families from their unused land, they call the police to enforce eviction. Barbed wire barricades are put up so the land cannot be further infiltrated. And lawsuits are filed against the families.  And so goes another fight for the land, as there are merciless efforts by the rich to push impoverished families out of their homes.  Yet the actions of these families are hardly affecting the everyday lives of the rich.

Currently, the government is trying to buy this privately owned land for its people. The land, after purchase, would be public land. Houses would be built on the government owned land and given to families in need — this of course is an extremely simplified version of the process. One of the main bureaucratic dilemmas is the task of negotiations. The government has very little leverage power. They, the government and the people, are desperate for the land while the rich land owners are not desperate for the sale. The last sale of land, bought for the townspeople of Zweletemba, was valued at 6 million Rand. The government purchased it for 17 times its worth at 102 million Rand. The wealth gap keeps growing. And the profit of stolen land seems to be contributing to this exponentially growing gap.

In 1991, whites were greatly advantaged politically, economically, and socially. They had been given almost everything for over 40 years while the people of color had almost everything taken from them. In 1994, all races were granted political, economic, and social equality. Opportunity was now available to all. But, there is a tragic flaw in this logic. When someone starts a marathon 10 miles ahead of you, how are you expected to finish at the same time, let alone within the same hour? This illustrates the historic effects of inequality that still manifest today in South Africa. Linda Norling, a freelance journalist in Cape Town, writes “although political power has been in the hands of the black majority since the dawn of South African democracy 24 years years ago, economic power remains with white people: white households in 2015 earned 4.5 times as much as black households, and whites hold more than 60% of top management positions, despite accounting for only 10% of the working population. In universities, black people account for not quite 35% of academics, despite making up about 80% of the population.” This is the reality for many. As a tourist, student, and local, I have the privilege to move out of this sphere of reality. With this privilege, it is my responsibility to speak up and make a change.

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Here to make a change for this adorable generation of South African citizens.


Bryan in Taipei: 7/11 and an Unexpected Culture Shock

October 18, 2018

 

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A really crowded 7-Eleven store during a music festival in Taipei last week

Though it might seem unorthodox, I wanted to dedicate this entire post to 7-Eleven because of how iconic and different it is in Taiwan compared with the chains in the United States. Because of localization, it actually makes for a pretty decent case study into the habits, tastes, and needs of Taiwanese consumers versus American ones. For starters, 7-Elevens are simply everywhere in Taipei and are seldom if ever attached to gas stations. In many areas, you can look down one major street and see multiple of this chain, then turn down another street and see even more. Its major competitor here is FamilyMart, with some Hi-Life stores sprinkled in as well.

Many Taiwanese describe the island as “方便” (convenient), and 7-Eleven certainly contributes to this sense of convenience. In 7-Elevens, you can: refill your bus/metro card, buy train tickets, print passport photos, microwave frozen or refrigerated food, send packages, and pay bills/tickets, just to name a few. Like much of Taiwan, the Japanese influence is evident, this time in the food: items like bento-boxes, instant noodles, and sushi rolls are widely available and quite popular with locals. It’s also worth mentioning that items like the Slurpee are not found here, which is surprising given their popularity in the US but unsurprising given how different the stores in Taiwan and the US are.

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7-Eleven X-Store in Taipei

One store I ran into here in Taipei (funnily enough, right next to another 7-Eleven) was a concept store called “7-Eleven X.” This futuristic store without cashiers had a larger availability of specialty items (e.g. a cold brew coffee machine and imported chocolate) that could all be purchased using a certain type of card. It was very cool to see how 7-Eleven is innovating here and using its established preeminence to try new ideas and see how they work on the local Taiwanese consumers. Other people seemed as excited and curious about the store as I did, and it was nice to get the opportunity to go inside and check it out. Overall, Taiwan’s 7-Elevens are more similar to and have more influence from those in Japan than those found throughout the US, which was something I wasn’t expecting to learn studying abroad here.


Brooke Goes Global: South Africa

October 18, 2018

The birds sang their morning song as I began to wake.  I blinked my eyes continuously and rubbed last night’s sleep from their lids.  I slipped on long pants, a cozy sweatshirt, and some warm socks.  I tiptoed out of the room and headed up the stairs.  I crossed the lawn to the metal staircase, twirling and winding up the side of the building.  Quickly, I ascended the stairs and struggled to catch my breath at the top.  The hostel roof, unmistakably, offers its best views before 6:30am.  I sat close to the edge so as to not miss a single wave produced by the vast blue ocean.  My cheeks burned as the salty ocean breeze brushed them red.  The morning mist dotted my hair in a layer of damp cold.  The weather invited families of clouds to scatter across the sky.  But the waking sun was not to be silenced.  Finding the only break in the clouds, the sun peaked its way into existence.  Sun beams slowly reached their arms out of the dark clouds and spread across the sea.  I smiled and turned my head to what I once ignored.  To my surprise, the green luscious mountain, standing close behind, applauded the performance.  I closed my eyes tightly to fathom this moment, this experience, this life.

Muizenberg, Cape Town sunrises became my first friend on the continent of Africa.  After the third day at the beautiful ocean town, I reluctantly waved goodbye to the hostel and said hello to a new homestay, in a new country, in a new continent.

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The morning’s view from our hostel in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

Here I am, in South Africa.

My homestay in Cape Town is in the historic neighborhood of Bo Kaap.  Houses stand side by side in organized, bright, colorful rows.  People are neighbors streets away.  Neighbors are friends and friends are family.  The Bo Kaap is the epitome of a community that cares for one another.

We had just arrived to the Bo Kaap, when we starting following the lead of my homestay mother, Omi Mia.  She led us through the streets, pointing out houses and pairing them with her many friends’ names.  All conversation in that moment was ignored as my brain concentrated on what the eyes were sensing — beautiful, bright rainbow houses.  All connected.  All so inviting and radiating.  My daydream was abruptly ended when Omi stopped us in front of a bright yellow home.  We emerged into a quaint and cozy living room filled with family photos and memorabilia.

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One of the beautiful streets of the Bo Kaap neighborhood. I live in the very last yellow colored house you can see in the photo.

Dinner after dinner, I excitedly sat at the table and listened as Omi shared her life story with us.  Omi is an intelligent, witty, and incredibly caring woman.  She is the oldest of four children.  At 72 years old, she is the hub of social gatherings among her family and friends.  On the night of our arrival, the table was set for seven.  She apologized for the small gathering that night, and I chuckled thinking back to normal family dinners with just my mom and me.

The Omi Mia household is one of 24 other households in the Bo Kaap housing IHP students.  The families hosting us students all know one another.  They adventure together.  They vacation together.  They eat together.  This is a community.  This is a neighborhood that cares for one another.

From 1948 to 1991, the Apartheid government attempted to make the city of Cape Town a whites only city.  This resulted in the Group Areas Act of 1950 forcing the segregation of different ethnic and racial groups.  Families were forced from their homes, told they only had minutes to put their belongings in a truck that would drive them to their new government issued house.  During this era of segregation, the Bo Kaap was, by law, deemed a Muslim only area.  The neighborhood’s history shapes its present.  Today, the Bo Kaap is a community of mostly Muslim families.

Unfortunately, gentrification and greedy politics are forcing families out of their Bo Kaap homes — homes that have been in their families for generations.  With the growing popularity of South African property, the Bo Kaap has become a hotspot for development.  It is in the central part of the city.  The waterfront harbor, museums, and countless amenities are all within a short distance’s walk.  As a result of this perfect storm, the demand for Bo Kaap property has exponentially grown.  This increase in property value causes taxes to soar.  New city regulations require monthly fees never charged to families before but are now deemed required and necessary.  Older generations pass and their children are unable to afford the adjusted finances of the now million dollar homes.  In turn, families who’ve grown up in the area are priced out of the Bo Kaap.

Gentrification is pushing history out of the neighborhood.  People move in for the convenient location while ignoring the community’s culture and individuality.  South Africa’s oldest mosque, over 200 years old, is located on the streets of Bo Kaap.  In practice with the Islam religion, the mosque plays a call to prayer at certain times of the day.  Within the past few years, an individual from Europe bought a house in the Bo Kaap.  Annoyed by the daily 5am wakeup from the call to prayer, he complained at a community meeting.  He demanded for the call to prayer to be stopped.  He believed as a foreigner, an outsider, and a non-Muslim that his needs should come before everyone else’s.  He willingly bought the house in the Bo Kaap.  He willingly moved in to this historically Muslim neighborhood.  But now, he is unwilling to accept the community he moved himself into.  Thankfully, his request was denied.  And at 5am, I happily lay in my bed listening to South Africa’s oldest mosque’s call to prayer.   

Another problem within the Bo Kaap is the consequences of tourism.  The Bo Kaap is deemed a must-see destination for South African vacations.  Tour buses park at the entrance of the neighborhood so their customers can get out and take photos.  Tourists ignore the privacy and property of the street’s natives and climb on their porches to snap the perfect photo.  Tour guides lead groups through the community’s sidewalks, spewing ignorant and downright wrong information about the neighborhood.  Omi has overheard tour guides tell groups the houses were painted different colors as a solution to them not being able to identify their own home when they come home drunk.  Yet, as a predominately Muslim neighborhood, most individuals do not drink in their town.  Tour guides still continue to share inaccurate and disrespectful rumors about real people, living in this very real place.  Tours of the Bo Kaap are advancing tourist companies, the city, and the outsiders.  Those living in the Bo Kaap are not reaping any benefits from tourism.  Instead their reputation is tarnished and their property is trespassed.

Nonetheless, I am thankful to say I am part of the SIT/IHP abroad program.  As a student of IHP, I am contributing to the preservation of the Bo Kaap and its stories.  Our homestays are compensated for housing students.  These working class families are paid generously by our program for kindly inviting strangers into their house.  Students learn from the families.  They learn the truth, the facts, the reality from citizens of the Bo Kaap.  But also we share our experiences, lives, and stories with the families too.  It is important to remember reciprocity when you’re abroad.  As much as we take from a foreign country as American students, it is just as important to leave a compassionate legacy behind.  I am honored to share the stories born and cultivated from Bo Kaap history.  I do not take this task lightly.  To have the opportunity to share someone else’s story, through my eyes, is truly a powerful adventure.  I am grateful to have this platform as an occasion to share the stories of these beautiful people in Bo Kaap, Cape Town.  

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The sea and the mountains — what more could you ask for?


Bryan in Taipei: Pre-Departure & The Calm Before the Storm

August 31, 2018

To be clear, this title isn’t exactly accurate given how hectic my last few days in the U.S. were, but I thought it would be fitting since it’s rainy season in Taiwan right now.

My name’s Bryan, I’m a History and Chinese Studies double major from Philadelphia, PA. This Fall will be my 3rd abroad experience in East Asia since coming to UR, following two summers of intensive language study with China Studies Institute in Beijing in 2017 and with State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship program in Dalian this past summer. After some careful consideration, I chose the Taipei program for a number of reasons, the most notable being my geopolitical interest in the region as well as the relative independence the program offers. I’m very excited to see how this semester unfolds.

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View of the Empire State Building from the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

A word of advice to future study abroad applicants: apply for the visa as soon as possible, and make sure to read all of the details closely. I mailed in my visa application in August after returning from two months in China, and I almost didn’t receive it in time. It turns out the office was understaffed and the application volumes were higher than usual. I had to go to the consulate in New York and spent the whole day getting it, but on the bright side I got to visit the United Nations headquarters there! This was a really great experience that got me even more excited to go abroad and learn more about the island of Taiwan and its fascinating history and fusion of cultures. Also, I happened to see an exhibit in Times Square by Taiwanese artist Kang Muxiang, so I recommend checking that out and learning more.

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Instead of being partial to a single work, I decided to show the plaque that explains the exhibit and its intentions.

Looking forward to sharing more!

Bryan In Taipei


Ella in Buenos Aires: A Weekend in Salta

June 25, 2018

Hello!

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Things have been getting kind of crazy here since finals are coming up! This week I wanted to write about my amazing trip to the provinces of Salta and Jujuy, Argentina. I went with four of my good friends that I met here in Buenos Aires at the Universidad Católica Argentina.

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First we traveled to the cities of Humahuaca and Tilcara, which were absolutely incredible. The mountains were breathtaking.

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Next, we went to Purmamarca, and to the Salinas Grandes, or salt flats, which went on as far as the eye could see. We learned that the government harvests the salt to sell! I had never seen anything like it in my life. We thought our car looked cool against the barren landscape.

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Last, we went to the city of Cafayate, which is kind of off the beaten path. None of our friends had been there before, so we weren’t sure exactly what to expect but we ended up having such a great time. The bodegas weren’t all open since it is the low season in terms of tourism, but the ones that we found were so cute and nice. I think this is my favorite city I’ve been to in Argentina outside of Buenos Aires. I can’t tell you how calm and relaxing it was! Also, the people we met were so nice and friendly.

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The whole trip was an incredible experience, but the highlight was definitely the hike that we went on in Cafayate. Our guide took us all the way to the top of steep mountain, where we could see the whole city below us. On our way up we saw five different waterfalls, and a whole herd of wild mountain goats!

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Now that I’m back in BA, I really have to hit the books this week so that I’m ready for finals!

Chau for now!

Ella


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