Jeanette in Morocco: Bni Koulla Village

November 1, 2017

Last week, I spent ten days in Bni Koulla, a small Moroccan village located in the Rif Mountains. Despite the lack of running water, language barriers, and differing cultures, it has been one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had. Find some of my favorite moments below.

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The sun paints the sky burnt orange as it sets over the mountains and families gather along the dirt roads to share laughs and stories.

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Mourad, 10, smiles for the camera after herding sheep back into their pen.

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Jeanette means “paradise” in Arabic. This is little Jeanette and I. Our communication did not extend beyond counting to ten, playing hide and seek, and variations of concentration hand games but she made me smile every day even when it wasn’t easy to.

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This is the adobe tin-roof home I stayed in. Although my home-stay family and I could could only have minimal language exchange, it was hard to leave them at the end of the week. I had a humbling experience helping them get water from the well, cook, sweep, and perform farm work.

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On Friday, we all gathered together to make couscous, a staple food in Moroccan culture. It was a rewarding experience watching our hard work come to fruition, and not to mention, tasty!

 

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Jess en France: Working with Refugees

October 27, 2017

There is an amazing association at my university that is entirely student run and incredibly well organized. It’s called the Refugee Help Association. I went to their orientation, which was big enough to fill an entire lecture hall, and was impressed by how motivated and passionate the leading members were in making a difference in the lives of Paris’ refugee population. There are five main teams: Administration, Asylum Aid, Material Needs, French Lessons, and Social Activities. I am administrative coordinator for one of the five Material Needs teams.

Essentially, my team is composed of about ten people, and each week we have different tasks we have to complete. On the first week of the month, we have to email, call, or meet with different hotels or other businesses across Paris and ask for any toiletries they may be able to offer us. We put together care packages on the second week, and, on the third, we distribute these care packages at a place called “Porte de la Chapelle,” which is where many refugees congregate on the outskirts of the city.

I decided to join Refugee Help not just because it serves an important cause, but because I felt I needed to contribute more than simply give a few Euros to homeless refugees from time to time. It’s hardly satisfying to give out the spare change in your wallet knowing it’s only minimally helpful. The Refugee Help Association is systematic and organized so that each helping hand has a fundamental purpose in making sure plans are executed and refugees can get the essentials they need to subsist in a place as paradoxically difficult to live in as Paris.

Paris is a place where life happens in abundance, so it’s a provocative image seeing a family of refugees camping outside a place like Louis Vuitton to sleep for the night. The refugee camps in Paris are too full, so only women and children are prioritized. The rest of the refugees are generally men who are then often found roaming the streets. There’s almost a sense of guilt I feel having the life I have when someone who’s already traveled an enduring journey to escape persecution, in whatever manner, is being given the bare minimum, if not nothing, to establish their life in some place ostensibly better.

But this is what’s so rewarding and necessary about the association I’m a part of. Last Sunday, I went to the general weekly distribution where I served tea and coffee to a group of refugees. On occasion I’ll have the chance to ask for their names and where they’re from. Many, I’ve found, are from Afghanistan, Sudan, and sometimes Syria. Like any other group of people, you have the jokers, the shy ones, or the smiley ones, and quite often they only ask for half-full cups because they don’t want to take too much. Even after having lost their homes and likely all their possessions, they still don’t want to take more than what they think they need. Granted, this is my own experience, and I can’t speak for everyone. But at every distribution, I meet a normal yet all the more exceptional group of people; I just wish popular discourse could reflect that sentiment.

There’s another distribution coming up soon, and, despite it being midterm week and quite busy, I’m looking forward to taking a break and serving warm drinks to some familiar faces. It’s not always easy to communicate with the refugees, as there are a myriad of languages spoken in these camps. But when they can’t find the word for what they want, I always ask, “chai?” I’m not sure what language(s) I’m speaking, but I know it’s a more universal word for tea. A smile often spreads across their faces at the sound of the more familiar term. Maybe, it reminds them of home.


Meghann in Argentina: Weekend in Uruguay

October 24, 2017

This weekend, after almost four whole months in Argentina, I finally left the country to spend the weekend in Uruguay. It’s funny to see other friends that are studying abroad leave their home country nearly every weekend to travel to other countries; while Argentina is so expansive and has so much diversity within its own borders that I definitely have not had a lack of things to see or do, it was nice to get a new stamp in my passport. I went with sixteen other students from my university to rent a house in the countryside of Colonia, a small colonial town located right on the water. Colonia is just a short one-hour ferry ride away from Buenos Aires—in fact, if the weather is nice, you can faintly make out part of the skyline near where I live.

 

We started by taking advantage of the beautiful weather by heading to a small, hidden beach that the owner of our rental house told us about. You could walk out almost a quarter mile with the waves only going up to your waist, which was peaceful to do under the sunset with no one but our group around. Being totally alone in the water and seeing my friends on the beach as tiny, ant-like figures, it was crazy to think that Buenos Aires was less than fifty miles away from where I stood.

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Our own “private” beach outside of Colonia. In the distance, you can see a small island that many of us swam out to.

The next day a few of us ventured two hours southeast to the capital city of Montevideo. While my host parents have told me that Montevideo is “un Buenos Aires chiquito,” or “a tiny Buenos Aires,” there was still a lot to see in the city. We explored markets, plazas, and the Ramblas, which is the longest sidewalk in the world that stretches across the entirety of the beautiful coastline of Montevideo.

 

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The architecture of Montevideo did not fail to impress—this building in Plaza de Independencia towered as tall as many of the structures in Buenos Aires.

Our final day was spent in the city of Colonia, which was definitely my favorite place in Uruguay. We walked around the historic quarter (a UNESCO World Heritage sight) by an old lighthouse and convent ruins, relaxed in the sun on a dock by the waterfront, and explored the cute cobblestoned streets where the Portuguese and Spanish influences were inescapable. I can’t say I ever imagined that I would be sitting on top of 17th century ruins while eating gelato as the sun set on the water in Uruguay, of all places, but sharing that experience with some of the great friends I’ve made here is something that I’ll never forget.

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Everywhere you look in Colonia, you see cobblestone streets and palm trees.

 

 

 

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Spending our last couple of hours in Uruguay in the historic quarter.


Jess en France: Visiting a Concentration Camp

October 20, 2017

I made my way down to Germany last weekend with the goal of making it to some cultural landmarks. Because I’ve always been interested in 20th century European history, and because I only had a few days to explore, I decided to take a train to Dachau to visit the Nazi concentration camp.

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Needless to say the visit was difficult. It was surreal stepping into the physical manifestation of one of the most tragic human atrocities committed in modern history. The camp itself is configured in such a way that you always are in sight of a lookout tower or one of the large, daunting buildings that enclose the camp. Upon walking into the camp, the infamous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei,” “Work Sets You Free,” is constructed out of metal and worked into the gate that “welcomes” you into the camp itself.

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Unfortunately the pictures I took didn’t come out too well, so I took this one offline. If the phrase is familiar to you, you might recognize it as the same one that brandishes the entrance of the Auschwitz camp as well. 

 

Throughout the camp, there were sign posts that described the history of particular points of interest. The first one I came across was one about the rows and rows of barracks that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were packed into during the Second World War. The barracks were constructed in rows with a long path from one end of the camp to the other splitting the rows down the middle. In the picture on the sign, there were small, newly planted trees lining this path. I’m not sure why of all things this is what I remember most, but those trees are now fifty feet high. They’re a reminder of the passage of time between then and now, time enough to mature a tree but not long enough to think of this war as a distant memory.

The last building I went to was the gas chamber. And to be quite honest, if I didn’t know otherwise, I would have thought I was walking into a summer camp. The area of the camp with the gas chamber was in a nicely wooded area with a brook running through it. There were two rather small buildings that didn’t meet the expectations I had of an overwhelming, factory-like set of buildings. I walked into the first building from the wrong side and didn’t read the plaques describing the purpose of the rooms until I walked out of them. I had walked into the last room—it was entirely empty. I wasn’t sure what to think until I read the sign in the adjacent room that stated it was used to pile corpses. I immediately looked down at the floor and my feet and felt almost dazed that I had set foot in a room as normal looking as this one, one that could have been someone’s bedroom or home office but in reality was once a site of death. Following this room, I walked into the gas chamber itself. I saw the gas spouts on the ceiling and walked right out. I had had enough.

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The caption above the door to the gas chamber misleadingly reads “SHOWERS”. 

 

I know this post was a heavy, believe me I left the camp hardly able to talk, but I always think it’s important to pay respect to a real and recent history that continues to have personal and political implications. It teaches us about the collective capacity of humans to commit crimes against humanity, but it also shows us our own progress in recognizing when and why to stop and intervene. It also shows us the power of the human spirit—there were many stories I read of individuals harboring Jews at their own danger or concentration camp survivors who learned to reclaim their power by finding forgiveness for those who subject them to years of life in extreme hardship and torture. But most importantly it’s important to continue to remember the six million Jews and thousands of others who lost their lives in the Holocaust.


Meghann in Argentina: The “Study” in Study Abroad

October 10, 2017

Based on all of the stories and pictures from my adventures around the city that I share with my family and friends from back home, many of them have joked that I don’t even go to school here—contrary to popular belief, however, I am indeed fully enrolled at la Universidad Católica Argentina (better known as UCA). UCA is a private university with an enrollment of around 18,000 students, located in a very modern neighborhood called Puerto Madero, which translates to “wooden port.” This name is fitting, as UCA is situated right on the water—the views of the river from a few of my classrooms are beautiful (albeit distracting), especially during my evening class when the sun sets over the water.

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My morning view of the river and city skyline while walking to school.

I chose to enroll in four classes in the Latin American Studies Program, which is a group of classes taught primarily for study abroad students. All of my classes meet once a week for three hours and are taught in rapid-fire Spanish. By the end of such long class periods my brain is always fried, but hearing so much Spanish (especially about specific academic themes as opposed to regular conversational Spanish) has definitely been a huge help to my language skills. I am enrolled in Peronist Argentina (Peronism is a political movement/ideology that is highly relevant in Argentine politics), Latin American Art and Architecture, Political and Social Processes in South America, and Argentine Civil Society, and so far I have really enjoyed all four classes. Argentine Civil Society, which is about Argentine Non-Governmental Organizations and their comparative efficacy, is definitely my favorite class. The professors bring in a lot of guest speakers that work for local NGOs, and it is interesting to hear how such organizations (and the problems that they seek to address) differ from those in the United States. We also did a class trip to Plaza de Mayo, a famous plaza outside of la Casa Rosada (the Argentine equivalent of the White House), where unfortunately many homeless people gather to sleep at night. There, we helped cook dinner and distribute clothing with a group that aids the homeless population in this area every week. It has been awesome to have the ability to be engaged in and learn more about the community through my schoolwork.

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Friends from my Latin American Art and Architecture class. Like Richmond, classes here in the Latin American Studies Program tend to be very small!

While sports teams, clubs, and activities in general associated with the university are not common here like they are at Richmond (which is something I definitely miss!), I have also had a couple of fun experiences through UCA outside of the classroom. A few weeks ago, classes were cancelled for a daylong tradition called las Olimpiadas de UCA, or the “UCA Olympics.” The different majors/schools at UCA form teams for a variety of sports and activities that take place in a massive sports club on the outskirts of the city. I played volleyball for UCA’s team of international students—although it was difficult to understand volleyball terms in Spanish, it was still a very enjoyable experience. In typical Argentine fashion, at the end of the day, everyone gathered for a huge asado (barbeque).

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Enjoying the asado after volleyball!


Jess en France: Oh, Italy.

October 6, 2017

 

It’s Thursday evening, and I’m on a plane to Italy. The flight is only an hour and fifteen minutes (which, by plane, won’t get you much farther from somewhere like San Diego than spitting-distance north of LA), so I’m not accustomed to how close in proximity major European cities generally are to each other. Geographically speaking, Virginia is equivalent in total land mass to Iceland, and the US as a whole is quite a lot larger than Europe but is inhabited by twice as many people. So there certainly are “empty,” “fly-over” states because everything is packed in pretty tight. But, luckily, this also means that making it to your friend’s house a few countries over for the weekend is completely do-able.

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I’m visiting one of my good friends, Elena, in Milan and exploring the city—which is my first European city I will have been to outside France.  I was roommates with Elena when she did her exchange at UR and had the pleasure of introducing her to some American cultural dynamics. We had talked about me coming to Milan about a year ago, so it’s a bit surreal that the time has finally come around that I’m visiting her, and I get to learn a bit more about the city she grew up in. After I landed in Milan and walked out into the receiving area, I heard a familiar voice yell “Jess!” and was immediately enveloped in a long-overdue hug.

We first ventured to the Duomo Cathedral, which is one of the largest churches in Europe. I didn’t get a chance to snap any pictures of the interior, but it was nearly incomprehensible in size and just as impressively detailed. There are over three thousand statues situated on the façade surrounding the entirety of the church. If you take a look at some of the statues that are closer to the ground, you can tell that they’re not in the least bit basic but carved with great attention to detail. It’s hard to imagine that a church of this magnitude could be both conceived and constructed so long ago— the construction of the building began in 1386 and took over six decades to complete. It’s a testament not only to how incredible humans are in their capacity to create but also to how powerful human spirituality is in its similar capacity to invoke such realizations of grandeur. There’s nothing like churches or religious monuments that are as architecturally awe-inspiring.   

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This post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about the food. Oh, the food. I met up with a group of six other Italian friends, who had studied abroad at UR the year before with Elena, and tried real pizza for the first time. Unlike American pizza, the crust is thin and the toppings are generally fresh ingredients not piled but sprinkled on. And no need to dab the oil with a napkin; you’re going to want to taste the olive oil drizzled on top. It was an entire operation trying to finish that thing—first you have to cut each individual slice and try your best to grasp and fold the pizza properly lest it falls apart. Although the most difficult pizza I’ve ever eaten, it was in no equal measure one of the best.

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Sorry for the blurry-ness– I’m typically not one to take pictures of food because inevitably I get too excited and dive right in: so this was all I could manage!

Fortunately this is only the first of several trips I’ve planned to go to Italy not only to visit Elena but also to further explore the peninsula as a whole. But fino alla prossima volta (until next time), Milan has a pizza my heart. Sorry—had to do it. 

Here are some more photos!

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Just another beautiful walk down Milan’s picturesque streets

just narrowly missed Milan fashion week, but you can still easily find bold fashion statements–like this (euro) 45,000 jacket thing

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I just narrowly missed Milan fashion week, but you can still easily find bold fashion statements–like this (euro) 45,000 jacket thing

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And yet another captivating castle


Jeanette in Morocco: Southern Excursion

October 6, 2017

Last week, my SIT cohort embarked on an excursion through the south of Morocco. We traveled through the diverse cities of Fez, Azrou, Merzouga, Ouerzazte, and Marrakech. We saw the behind the scenes of local tanneries and tile factories, visited women’s education non-profit organizations, saw wild monkeys in the Cedar forest, rode camels in the Sahara desert, spent a night at a girls dormitory, and explored the tourism hub of Morocco.

Check out our adventures in the short film below!


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