Janus in Singapore: Kuala Lumpur

April 17, 2017

Finally got around to a trip to Malaysia. I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t happen – all but 1 of my flat mates had been before, and the rest of my friends in Singapore were already busy reviewing for finals at SMU, which apparently is a bit of a colossal affair. My roommate Loic and I sat down one day and found a three-day period that we were both free of obligations, though, and decided to take a rather spontaneous trip to Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital. In hindsight, given that I have four finals in a five days as opposed to the usual two week spread, it probably wasn’t a great time to go. But I wasn’t about to go back home after spending a semester in Singapore without a Malaysian immigration stamp on my passport.

A view from the bottom of the Petronas Towers. Inside are a series of malls full of luxury brands, like fifth avenue or orchard road compressed inside a city block.

The trip was absurdly cheap. I spent just under $120 or 3 days without really worrying too much about my budget, either. Roundtrip bus tickets cost about $30, two nights at a nice hostel were another $30, and the remaining $60 afforded me the opportunity to try anything I wanted from the famous Jalan Alor Street Food Night Market, a 90-minute massage, uber/grab transportation, and a few drinks at the local bar.

A view of Kuala Lumpur from the top of the KL Tower. It’s no New York, but it’s impressive that you can still see tall buildings in what seems to be miles away from the city center.

The hostel was probably the price that shocked me the most, as I expected something much cheaper. My classmates who had taken trips to other Southeast Asian counties like Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia, found similar quality or better lodging for around $5-10 a night, whereas even the luxury villa we booked on our earlier trip to Bali cost about $50 for 4 nights for much more extravagant lodging. But it was ultimately worth it – the hostel was right in the middle of the food street, and was at most a half hour cab ride away from the sights we wanted to see.

One of the many food stalls in the Jalan Alor Food Street. Like in Beijing and Xian food streets, nothing beats the lamb skewers in both taste and value.

When Loic and I found ourselves complaining about the price of the hostel as we sat outside the hostel eating lamb skewers and drinking sugar cane juice, we stopped for a moment and laughed at the absurdity of it. Back home, $15 a night for housing, especially of this quality, was nothing. We felt like living in Asia had given us a different conception of cheap and money. It was a realization that my classmates from the first semester and I had, too, towards the end of our stay in China. It’s probably one of the things I appreciate the most from spending so much time abroad – you get a better appreciation of money. If people can live off of x amount, it’s harder to justify spending at the rate you do when you’re back home in the U.S. on luxurious things.
There were five big places that we experienced – the Petronas Towers, the KL Tower, the Batu Caves, and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, and of course the Alor food street. If TripAdvisor and my flatmates’ advice were to be heeded, these were the must see spots in Kuala Lumpur.

The outside of the Batu Caves. There are about 250 steps to get to the caves, with perhaps just as many wild monkeys to greet you on the way up.

The towers were absolutely gorgeous, though to be honest it felt like they didn’t fit in their surroundings. What I liked about Kuala Lumpur was that that there was a very nice and not too stark contrast between the old and the new. Like Manila, there were many worn down and dirty buildings, and interspersed among them were newer, cleaner, taller buildings that served a variety of purposes, from government buildings to corporate headquarters to residential areas. But they were never TOO clean, TOO new, TOO tall, so as to be strange – it just seemed like a city that, like many others, was growing up. Like Singapore, there was a lot of greenery in the metropolis that helped smooth out the edges of old and new, too. Parks flowed seamlessly into untamed jungle, and this somehow made the abandoned shacks or construction sites next to bank buildings seem natural, too.

We were wondering where the lights came from as the inside of the cave was well lit, and we were treated to this view after about a minute or two of walking inside.

But the Petronas Towers were just… too different. It wasn’t just the fact that the Towers (and the 30m shorter KL towers) were over 100m taller than the next tallest buildings, though that definitely played a big role. There was something about how the towers looked that made it seem distinctly not-so Kuala Lumpur. Its metallic silver color and the layered outside texture gives it an almost violent feeling that makes it seem like a ripple in the much more relaxed and low-key set-up of the rest of the city. Maybe that’s why it’s such a famous building – not just for its size, but for the emotions you get when you look up from the earth in Kuala Lumpur and see something so alien.
The KL Towers, unfortunately, didn’t impress quite as much. It wasn’t so much the fault of the building – it, too, is quite tall, standing at 420 meters, though aesthetically it’s quite plain outside of the sphere-like structure at the top of the tower. It was the fault of the view, really. The sky and observation decks of the the tower, which are its main attractions, offered a great vantage point to view the rest of the city. But that was just the problem – there really wasn’t that much to see. Besides the Petronas Towers, most of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline is quite unimpressive, though it was surprising to see just how far out the city stretched. The view, though, did cement the contrast that I talked about previously – sometimes you would see two buildings next to each other that looked identical, only one was a cleaner, newer, and taller version of the other.
The Batu Caves were the the highlight of the trip, for sure. The site’s main attraction is the series of cave and Hindu temples inside. When my flatmates who had been before talked about it, it sounded like they weren’t too impressed: they said they didn’t really understand the religious significance or what was so impressive about a bunch of caves. To be honest, I don’t either – it seemed just like any other Hindu temple that I’d seen. But it’s one of those things where once you walk up the stairs, past all the wild monkeys eating fruit and drinking from bottles left behind, and into the damp, naturally light caves and see the monuments and altars scattered around, as if they were just left behind by their creators, there’s a really strange and almost magical feeling you get inside you. This place just seemed so remote, so far away from society, so serene – and especially in contrast with the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, the moment of quiet is special.

The Sultan Abdul Samad Building. Currently under renovation, so we couldn’t go inside – but the outside served for a good enough background photo.

The Sultan Abdul Samad building was just a pretty thing to look at, to be honest. We didn’t spend much time there at all, but my flatmate and I did end up relaxing in the green just across from it. It had a very country club feel to it – there were a few fancy restaurants and a beautiful white marble forum right next to it – but somehow, there were very few people in the green itself, even though we were there during what I would imagine to be peak hours, just after people would start getting out of school or work and just before it got dark.
A really interesting place. I don’t think Kuala Lumpur is a must-visit by any means, but I’m really happy I made the trip out .


Olivia in Scotland: How Far I’ll Go

January 12, 2017

Hello everyone!

I’m back in the United States now. There are times when that’s still not real to me yet; you could say that my head carried some of the fog home from Edinburgh and it hasn’t quite cleared yet. In the midst of the readjustment and the holiday season, however, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned from my past few months abroad. Here are ten things I’ve learned about travel, about myself, and about life, in no particular order!

  1. I love discovering new places more than I ever realized I did. I found out that the walking and navigating aspect of travel is really fun for me; I like learning where things are and feeling like I’ve at least sort of figured out how to get around a city before I leave it. I never traveled to a place I didn’t like while I was abroad. There were things to enjoy everywhere I went.
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    Here’s a picture from one trip that I didn’t get to talk much about in my blog posts— I took a day trip to Stirling, which is about an hour away from Edinburgh. It’s a pretty small city, but it has an amazing castle and is surrounded by beautiful hills. It actually reminded me of a mountain town where some of my family lives back in the States.

    Like other study abroad students, I feel that this time away has given me the travel bug. It will be hard not traveling as much in the spring, but I also think it has expanded my horizons as I think about my future. Seeing new places helped me see new possibilities for my own life and helped me see how much I like traveling.

  2. I would always rather travel with other people than travel alone. My 4-day sojourn in London taught me that. I love being along for shorter periods of time, like my last morning in Paris, for instance, but I do not enjoy being alone for extended trips. It shaped how I traveled for the remainder of my time abroad and I’m glad of that.
  3. I love living near hills. This is a bit of a random one, but it’s true! To me, living near a big hill or a mountain feels like having something to rest your back against. I might feel connected to hilly places this way because my family has roots in the mountains. Ideally, though, I would love to live in a city like Edinburgh that has both hills and sea so close together.

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    It somehow felt comforting that Arthur’s Seat and the Crags were so close to where I lived this semester (those are the hills you can see behind the buildings). I don’t totally know why, but ut made it feel even more like home. 

  4. Sometimes bad things happen, maybe even your worst nightmare, but it’s not the end of the world. When I think about the tickets I messed up, the things I forgot, the transatlantic flight I missed, and so many other things, I am surprised that I made it home. More often than not, though, I found that there were things I could do to clean up the mess I made. That doesn’t mean that my mistakes didn’t cause me trouble, but I think that I learned more about being a responsible adult through my mistakes. When you’re on your own, you do have to clean up your mess yourself—but it’s more doable than you might think.
  5. Sometimes bad things happen, maybe even your worst nightmare, but you survive. Nope, I didn’t accidentally make the same point twice. This is about the things that happen that you can’t control. So many things happened that were abroad that were beyond my control, whether that had to do with sickness, relationships, or deaths. Life hit me hard while I was away. But, every day, the sun came up. I saw over and over again that the circumstances of my life do not stop the world from spinning. They make life painful, they make it a struggle, but they don’t have to define everything about you. For me, this meant giving each day to God and asking Him to help me through. Today, by the grace of God, I’m still here.
  6. You can go through the most difficult time you’ve ever gone through and still come out of it with amazing memories. Even as I look back through my various journal entries and blog posts and clearly see how much pain I went through, I also know that I legitimately enjoyed so much about this past semester. I know that it was absolutely worth it for me to go abroad. The people I met and the places I got to explore were truly unforgettable, and I feel so privileged to have gotten to experience all of this.
  7. Travel means encountering the unexpected. Sometimes you’ll be happy with the results, and sometimes you won’t be. For example, I was pleasantly surprised when I hardly ran into any rain during my travels through the stereotypically rainy U.K., but a little disappointed when my trips to Italy and France weren’t much warmer than Edinburgh (and sometimes substantially colder!). You might enjoy some major tourist sites more or less than you expected to. That’s all okay—it’s part of what transforms your travel from a mere trip into an adventure.

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    I didn’t enjoy learning about Loch Ness as much as I expected to and I didn’t like the ultra-touristy atmosphere there. However, I also didn’t expect the loch to be quite so beautiful! I ended up getting one of my favorite pictures from the trip there. 

  8. You can find family all over the world. These might be people with whom you share a common background or interest, or it might just be people who are going through something similar to you with whom you find understanding. Either way, these people are the ones who bring warmth and light to your journey once you find them.

 

 

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Here are two of those people for me! My Friends Gianna and Tyler and I share similar faith backgrounds. As brothers and sisters in Christ, that gave us a strong bond and helped us be there for each other when we needed it. It makes saying goodbye harder, which is what we were doing in this picture, but it’s still a treasure to know that I have these family members praying for me in their own corners of the world.

9. Feel what you’re feeling and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for that. I’ve talked a lot about this, but I’m still learning the importance of this now as I go through culture shock returning to the US. Wherever you might be, don’t tell yourself what you’re supposed to be feeling or not feeling; think, talk, create, whatever helps you to process and understand what you’re feeling, rather than become desensitized or let emotions build up. That will only hurt you and keep you from growing!

10. Travel makes some things less scary than they were before and does the reverse with other things. Before studying abroad, I was much more scared of traveling alone or living in a city where I didn’t know anyone than I am now. So many of the logistical things that intimidated me so much before no longer do so. To explain the scarier things, though, I’ll tell you a story.

On my last morning of my trip to Paris, I realized something. I had decided to go to Notre Dame before flying back to Edinburgh. I had already been inside once, but it was just so beautiful, and it seemed like a good place for sorting through all the things I was feeling on that particular morning. I walked alone through the streets, over the bridges, past the cotton candy clouds, until I got to the imposing cathedral. As I sat inside, it hit me: I’m less scared of staying here, in a country where I don’t even speak their language, than I am of going back home.

It seemed so strange. I could never have seen myself saying something like that just a few short months ago, and why should I be so scared to go home? Well, there were a lot of reasons for that—I was terrified of how I might feel while readjusting to life at home—but so much of that fear was because I’m not the same person I was when I left the United States back in September. I have become someone new. This new person is more independent while simultaneously knowing how much she needs people; she’s not afraid of traveling alone, she’s experienced so many new things, and she’s been through the refining fire of heartbreak. That morning, much of what weighed on my mind was how to be this new person in the old, familiar places, around people I already know. Would I be able to be a new person and still keep the friendships I had before? I knew that this was something many study abroad students face, but in that moment it still felt impossible.

I sat in the cathedral for a few more minutes, soaking in the atmosphere of the sacred space. I pulled out my phone to read a little bit of Psalm 84, which talks about the sanctuary of God’s presence and how blessed those people are who trust in Him even through the difficult times of their journey. What came to me then was a glimmer of peace: a sense that, while it would be difficult, I wouldn’t be alone. I recalled my belief that the same God to whom this awe-inspiring cathedral was built would actually be with me all the way across the ocean. If anyone can handle the impossible, it would be Him. As I walked back out into the rosy morning, I felt the strength I had drawn from what I believed to be God’s presence in that place stay with me, pushing me forward and into the unknown. With Him beside me, I can face the old and the new, and there’s no telling how far I’ll go.

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Beautiful Paris Morning, walking into a hopeful future 🙂

That’s all for my life lessons, folks! We’re coming to the end of this final blog post. If you want to hear a playlist of all the songs from my blog post titles this semester—because all but one of my titles were from songs—you can listen to that here! (Good on you if you caught on to the song titles trope already.)And now, I’ll close this post with a few pictures from my last days in Edinburgh, where I took pictures of some things I would miss about the city. I loved living here so much and will definitely be back someday soon.

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Bustling Princes Street and the majestic Scott Monument, with or without the Christmas Market

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The colorful door to my flat!

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The Georgian architecture and general feel of New Town, where I spent a lot of time with my church.

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Lovely Old Town and the lights on Edinburgh Castle at night!

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Possibly most important: THE TEA!

Thank you for being a part of my journey this semester! I hope you’ve been encouraged to explore, to feel, and to appreciate the people and places around you, whether you’re at home or abroad.

As the Scots would say—cheers!


Emily in Samoa: Return to Return to Paradise

March 24, 2016

This weekend, my friend got married.

We got a call from a Peace Corps volunteer, formerly in SIT, telling us that the Return to Paradise resort was looking for “travel-savvy, foreign-looking people” to feature in its new website and advertising campaign. They offered a free night, all expenses paid, at the resort as a perk. We were curious about what we might be getting ourselves into, and a group of us agreed to go.

 

Mastering the spontaneous smile over cocktails

Mastering the spontaneous smile over cocktails

 

We were told to expect bikini photos on the beach. However, when we arrived, the photographer told us that the clouds made that plan impossible, and that we would instead have a wedding. We started by shooting photos of the bar, sipping specialty cocktails and showing the camera how much we were enjoying ourselves. Next, we moved to romantic dinner photos, and the chosen couple sat out in a private fale on the rocks as a drone flew around them taking candids. The rest of us were supposed to be continuing our background bar banter, but were peeking out at the couple and the photographer.

 

Spying on the newlyweds

Spying on the newlyweds

 

Things really heated up the next day, when we shot the wedding. Our poor friend who was picked for the bride spent the whole morning posing for photos: sitting, standing, looking at a wedding dress, getting makeup done, having a head massage (only enough for photos), and…getting married. Barefoot on the beach, we surrounded her and the Peace Corps volunteer, looking down at a heart made from hibiscus flowers.

At the last minute, the photographer realized he’d forgotten to find a pastor, and snagged a nearby gardener. “Here,” he said. “Open the bible and pretend you’re reading.” Various romantic photos were taken, but my favorite is the one of the kiss, chiefly because of our gardener/pastor, who has his eyebrows raised and mouth open.

 

Capturing the wedding vows

Capturing the wedding vows

 

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After the wedding, the photographer ordered us to go out to the rocks, and we danced as the drone flew above us. I think these are some of our best photos, though also our strangest.

This was one of the most unexpected, bizarre experiences I’ve had in Samoa, but it isn’t the first time that SIT students have done something like this. Samoa’s foreign tourism is not big yet, numbering only around 20,000 non-Samoan tourists per year. And young, foreign-looking people are few and far-between; besides Peace Corps, SIT, and actual honeymooners, options are minimal.

But the biggest question arising out of this whole ordeal, for me, is “is this culturally OK?” Overall, I have my doubts, but I’ve decided to try to argue for a yes for this specific case. The Return to Paradise is owned partly by locals (not part of Hilton, Marriot, and friends), and has a policy of hiring two members from each household in surrounding villages. These higher hotel wages are a huge stimulant for the local economy, since minimum wage in other job venues is a dismal $2.33 per hour, under $1 US. And because of low wages and little surplus other than that sent in remittances, it makes sense that the hotel would be catering to wealthier New Zealanders and Australians, a population that is largely white and “foreign-looking” to the Samoans.

 

The coastline by the Return to Paradise

The coastline by the Return to Paradise

 

The next factor that leads me to a “yes” is the movie Return to Paradise, which was filmed on the site and which gave rise to the hotel. This film starred Gary Cooper, and was shot in the 1950s. Return to Paradise marked the first instance in which local indigenous people played leading roles, and parts were not filled by white people in blackface. The female lead was played by a bank teller from Apia, and if you watch the film with people in nearby villages, most will point out a number of aunts and uncles. So, the film is looked upon positively by locals, as it promoted their culture more positively than other films would have, and encouraged local involvement.

Finally, there is Us. Were we right to do this? The hotel probably spent over $600 Samoan on each of us, so the owners really wanted our pictures. And afterward, they plan to put my friends’ wedding photos on billboards and foreign advertisements. So there was definitely a lot of people-using-people going on here. But, if we had not come, they probably would have found someone else, someone who would not reflect back on the experience, taking the perks and moving on with life. I think that is the most dangerous scenario, and so I am glad that a group of students studying cultural issues in the Pacific agreed to the shoot.

The conversation about this should continue, since I’m still not sure what to think. I certainly enjoyed my first beach wedding, and will never look at the people in hotel photos the same way again. And I hope that this weekend of cheesy photos and questionable ethics will do something positive for locals in the end.

 

Our bride mentally prepares for her ceremony

Our bride mentally prepares for her ceremony

 


Layla in Australia: Canberra

September 17, 2015

One of the things I was warned about before coming to study in Australia was that certain times of the semester are extremely busy, while others are relatively light. I’m here to report back that this is definitely true! My past few weeks have been chock-full of exams and assignments, but for the next few weeks I haven’t got much going on. Now after recovering from my past few weeks (and the delightful disease my mates and I have dubbed the ‘Canberra plague’), I can recount what I’ve been up to!

Like I mentioned in my last blog post, last weekend I travelled to Canberra, the capital of Australia, with the Sydney University Quidditch Society. While in Canberra, we played a tournament against other teams in New South Wales. Technically, Canberra isn’t in New South Wales but in the Australian Capital Territory, like how Washington isn’t in Virginia or Maryland but the District of Columbia, but it’s grouped with NSW for geographic reasons.

 

The USYD Quidditch Society at the September Triwizard Tournament at Australian National University! Our team name is the Unspeakables, and so we take this picture after every tournament. We may have gone 1-3, but we looked pretty fierce doing so.

The USYD Quidditch Society at the September Triwizard Tournament at Australian National University! Our team name is the Unspeakables, and so we take this picture after every tournament. We may have gone 1 in 3, but we looked pretty fierce doing so.

 

Speaking of Washington, D.C., comparisons between it and Canberra were on my mind for most of the trip. Unlike DC, Canberra is almost an embarrassment to Australians — it’s a small city in the bush lacking in grandeur. My Australian friends who don’t play quidditch were a bit perplexed as to why I was bothering going to Canberra. However, Canberra’s similarities to DC were pretty interesting to this American. It’s got the cherry trees, a big body of water in the middle, a “Capital Hill” with the Parliament House at the top, and very confusing roundabouts. Like DC, it was a planned city, a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne. However, while DC feels very lively, Canberra feels more like someone built a city and then forgot to put people in it. Driving from Sydney to Canberra is a bit eerie — you’re in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden, a small city appears, seemingly out of thin air. It’s so remote that half an hour before we got to Canberra, my mates and I got out of the car and did a bit of stargazing because the light pollution was so noticeably absent. Anyone who’s driven the cesspool that is I-95 into DC knows this is the exact opposite of that experience.

Due to the prevalent belief among Australians that there’s not much to do in Canberra, we spent a lot of our time in the cabin we rented for the weekend, hanging out and playing mafia, the signature card game of the Quidditch Society. So naturally, I don’t have many pictures documenting my weekend in Canberra. The one downside I’ve found of having mostly local friends is that they aren’t particularly interested in doing touristy things like visiting monuments or museums, so I didn’t visit anywhere that really warranted picture-taking. Perfectly understandable, if a little disappointing! Luckily, one of my quidditch friends is a newcomer to Australia and just as keen as I to be unashamedly touristy, so we’ve been doing fun things in Sydney like going to the aquarium together. While I’ve loved my experience so far being fully immersed into Australian life, it is good every now and then to take a step back. I have to keep it all in perspective and remember that I’m not here permanently, and I need to take advantage of my time here. Right now, I’m finding that the best mixture is having a set routine during the week of school and going to the pub with my quidditch mates, and dedicating one day of the weekend to freedom and touristy exploration. Balance is key!

I also learned from this trip how to better go with the flow. I’m naturally pretty controlling — I like to be in charge and make decisions. It’s not the best part of my personality. But during this trip, I wasn’t the one driving and therefore had no control over where we went or what we did. It was frustrating, but also a necessary experience for me. Being more flexible was something that I needed to work on, and I think this trip was a really good exercise for me in learning to let go of the need to obsessively plan out a trip. Especially when traveling, things don’t always go according to plan, and it’s good to be prepared to handle it.

 

The one touristy thing I did convince my friends to do! Canberra has recently become famous for this tiny cafe called Pâtissez, which makes these ridiculously large and decadent milkshakes that they have dubbed "freakshakes." I had the Pretzella freakshake, which probably had half a jar of Nutella in it and was absolutely delicious (and deserved after a day of quidditch!)

The one touristy thing I did convince my friends to do! Canberra has recently become famous for this tiny cafe called Pâtissez, which makes these ridiculously large and decadent milkshakes that they have dubbed “freakshakes.” I had the Pretzella freakshake, which probably had half a jar of Nutella in it and was absolutely delicious (and deserved after a day of quidditch!)


Diego in Brazil: A day in Ipanema

November 8, 2013

It’s been exactly three months since I first came to Rio de Janeiro. Before starting my study abroad program I had spent the last half of July working in Lima and the Peruvian Amazon. On August 5th I finally took a bus to Lima’s airport and flew during the night to the Galeão International Airport in Rio. Just yesterday I was having dinner with my host family and we talked about that first day when I moved into their apartment.

Three months and today is the first day I post an entry about a trip in Rio! As I have written several times before, one of my main goals for my program was to avoid becoming yet another tourist in this city. I understand why many friends tend to disagree with my goal, but having this objective in mind was a mix of previous experiences in other regions of Brazil, some geography and sociology classes, and the desire to have a different approach towards one of the world’s most dynamic metropolis.

After countless conversations with my host family, classmates, professors, and many people I have met so far, I finally felt ready to visit and write about some of Rio’s neighborhoods. So here it goes.

Last weekend I packed a backpack and left my apartment early in the morning. I took a bike (every month I pay about $4.00 to have access to one of Rio’s biking programs) and began my trip to a neighborhood in Rio’s southern area: Ipanema. I had planned to visit a number of places that my host family had suggested, but I mainly wanted to spend a day walking around Ipanema’s streets without a set destination.

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A small market with great fruit in Ipanema.

You may recognize the name Ipanema. The song “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), written and composed by João Gilberto and Stan Getz in 1962, made the name of this neighborhood widely known (here’s a version of the song for you to enjoy:

I biked for about 25 minutes before reaching Ipanema and left my bike to start walking. My host family truly wanted me to visit the Praça Nossa Senhora da Paz and the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Paz, so that is where I went first. Thinking about this entry I stopped to look for “good” pictures but in the end decided to submit the ones with cars, buses, and people walking through the church and park. In my experience, contrasting images of nature, people, and culture is one of Rio’s main characteristics.

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Not a great picture of the Nossa Senhora da Paz church, but the contrast is certainly common in Rio’s streets.

I bought two oranges from a street market and sat in the park to read “Perto do Coração Selvagem” (Near to the Wild Heart) by Clarice Lispector – a fantastic writer. Unfortunately it was a rainy day so reading outside was not a great plan. I entered a small shop to buy water and asked if they had any suggestions for my trip. The guy in the shop sent me to visit the theater Rubens Correa and the cultural center Laura Alvim, and of course I followed his instructions. As I visited these and other places I kept asking people if they had any suggestions for my day in Ipanema. I ended up having lunch in a sandwich-shop with incredible natural juices and a nice couch to read.

I finished Lispector’s book in the afternoon and kept walking. The weather had not improved much but several people were now in the beach (my guess is that the temperature never dropped below 70 degrees.) I knew friends and family would appreciate a picture or two from Ipanema’s beach so I walked by the beach for about forty minutes. When I finally reached the end of Ipanema (where Copacabana starts) I took another bike and began my trip back to my apartment.

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And of course, Ipanema’s beach on a cloudy day.

As I walked through this neighborhood I kept thinking about my “don’t be a tourist” goal. Was it worth it? Did it make any sense to wait some time before going on these trips? Would reading Lispector’s book in a sandwich-shop have been any different two months ago? Well, I suppose any “evaluation” of my goal will have to come from my overall experience in Rio de Janeiro. Two months ago I wouldn’t have known that, following a common cultural dynamic in the country, Lispector’s modern language had been widely criticized throughout Brazil as an attempt to move away from other more traditional styles. It may seem as small detail, but understanding why different literary circles in Brazil reacted differently to “Perto do Coração Selvagem” is the result of countless conversations during these three months.


Mel in Chile: The South Part 2

November 6, 2013

For those of you who have been following (don’t worry, I don’t have high expectations. Kidding- I actually suspect hundreds of thousands of people read my blog. Wow this must be the world’s biggest parenthetical insert) this post “The South Part 2” is the second of a three part series that reflects on the ten day excursion I took with my program in the South of Chile.  I apologize to readers who do not like long sentences.

We left Ralco after three days and two nights of relaxation as well as an hour long research methods class sitting on grass, in a circle, with a mountain split three ways as the background.

We headed for Valle Elikura. This valley, located close to the Pacific Ocean, between Contulmo and Cañete, has a population of about two thousand. Valle Elikura is historically territory that belongs to the Mapuche indigenous peoples. While there continues to be a strong Mapuche population, many of the families are also mixed with one of the parents being Chilean. Here we participated in a homestay for five days.

lake

A lake in Valle Elikura

During the day we had several planned events as a group; lectures, hikes through native forest, discussions with community members, community work, and most importantly time to be with our host family. Many families in the community have built cabins on their own property where they receive tourists. We were broken up into groups of two or three and each group lived in the cabins. The cabins are separate from the main house, but all we spent a lot of time with the family during meals and free time.

An important reason we traveled to Valle Elikura was to learn about the concept of community tourism. Many of us have traveled outside of the country. In these instances we have all participated in tourism where we experienced a different culture. At first glance, tourism seems as nothing more than exciting new adventures. Through this program, I have studied the legacies and implications of tourism and came to realize some unsettling characteristics.

Many times tourism, especially showcasing “other” ethnicities, resonates with colonial legacies. I will give some clearer examples.

1. Recently wed US couples travel to Fiji and are greeted by locals dressed in “traditional attire” and presented exotic drinks.

2. Twenty something young women step out of their comfort zone and take a much deserved vacation in India where they ride an elephant and get henna tattoos

3. Bold backpackers arrive to the desert village of San Pedro de Atacama and walk around the dirt streets of the village center passing through stores with “hand made/local” products, touring agencies, restaurants, and hostels made of adobe. Meanwhile Atacameño people, whose culture is being replicated for consumption, are nowhere to be seen.

I hope you get my point. Most times, the purpose of tourism is to explore, or more directly, consume, a different culture. The colonial legacy comes mainly from two circumstances. The first is that many times tourism is imposed on communities. The decision to welcome tourists in particular territories originates from higher political or economic agencies. Touring agencies offer services, companies build nice hotels, and the local people in the stores selling “artisanal products”. Tourists are not aware that the “local” people selling artisanal souvenirs are simply hired to sell. They do not own the store and they did not make the product. The souvenirs may not even come from the culture. The overwhelming majority of profits generated from tourist related activities are channeled to national or multinational companies. Another source of the colonial legacy in tourism becomes apparent when we look at the characteristics of the tourists and of the people in the regions they tour.  It will not take long to realize many tourist are from western and/or ex colonizing countries while the destination is usually an exotic country that also most likely an ex colony.

In Valle Elikura, the practice of community tourism is trying to break this relationship. Through community tourism, the Mapuche community appropriates tourism as an instrument through which they assert agency. Tourists who stop in Valle Elikura stay in a cabin that directly belongs to a family. The tourist will buy food from families in Valle Elikura. If they want to purchase artisanal items, there are a few people  in the valley who make the items from start to finish.

Take Rosa for example. She has a store in front of her house where she mainly sells knitted items. Rosa shaves her sheep to get the wool. She washes the wools, spins it and prepares the thread so it is ready to be died. Rosa takes plants of different colors from the garden in front of her house and boils them to produce the color for the wool. She takes the threads and leaves it in the die so the wool absorbs the color. Rosa takes the dies wool and begins knitting apparel to sell in her store. The prices are incredibly reasonable.

The objective for community tourism is to decolonize both the local community and the tourist. The tourism has control over how tourism of their culture and in their territories will happen. The money generated over tourist activities is channeled directly to the families of Valle Elikura.

In my opinion, the tourist still consumes a vision of the “other” culture they traveled to see. However, in the case of community tourism, the community “shows” its own culture. More importantly the local community can directly communicate with the tourist. The communication can be a way of educating visitors on issues that may be misrepresented by the media.

The distinctive characteristic of community tourism is that the community voluntarily decides to receive tourists and how they will administrate tourism.

During our trip, we also learned about Mapuche history, their struggle for autonomy, and their effort to maintain unity within a now diverse indigenous group (diverse in terms of political views, religion, way of living, etcetera). The community was not only welcoming, but also incredibly patient in discussions with a group of young students from the United States like us.

Running

I went on a run to the river and sat down a bit to take in the scenery and a quick photo!


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