Learning the language of the porteños

¡Hola todos! Although it still seems surreal, in less than 24 hours, I will be boarding a plane to embark on my study abroad adventure in Buenos Aires with the CIEE program. During the five months that I am in Argentina, I will continue to take classes towards my International Politics major and International Law concentration, but with an exciting—and intimidating—twist: all of my classes will be in Spanish.

Interestingly, the most common response to my aforementioned abroad experience is “Wow, that is exciting!” quickly followed by “Oh, so you must be fluent, right?!”. Erm…not quite. While I did in fact pass my Spanish proficiency exam for the SFS this spring semester (woo!) and have been learning the language for seven years, my classroom-cultivated abilities pale in comparison to those of a native speaker.

While the whole having-classes-only-in-Spanish aspect is a bit daunting, I think what I am most anxious about is being able to communicate with the porteños, or people of the port, as the locals are called. So, in order to further my procrastination while packing my two massive suitcases over the past few weeks, I spent numerous hours scouring the web for “how to speak like an Argentine”.

Although Spanish is the official language in 20 individual countries, various regions have distinct accents, pronunciations, words, and colloquialisms. And, as it turns out, I have had absolutely zero exposure to Rioplatense Spanish, the dialect most commonly spoken around the Río de la Plata basin of Argentina and Uruguay.

For example, I had no idea that porteños use a different second-person pronoun than traditional Spanish speakers—luckily it is easier to conjugate. And to the annoyance of everyone else in my household, I also have been (shamelessly) practicing my “ll” sounds since in Argentina it is pronounced like “sh” instead of the conventional “y”.

Then yesterday, in the midst of my frantic attempts to learn how to speak somewhat like an Argentine, I finally received my letter via email from my host mother, Gabriela—in Spanish, of course. As someone who is passionate about writing and music, I was extremely excited to read that she is a writer herself—and even more so that she loves to sing around the house!

Reading her heartfelt words about our similarities definitely reduced my nervousness about living with a host family, and in general, amongst non-English speaking Argentines. I think that ultimately, a language barrier can easily be broken if you are willing to fully embrace not just the locals’ way of speaking, but also their way of life.

During my time in Buenos Aires, I will strive to transcend my conventional Spanish classroom experience to not only speak (and maybe even sing?) like a true porteño, but also to assimilate and appreciate the unique culture and people that characterize the country.

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Reflections on the British Royal Family

In the mid-1960s, writer and educator Grace Paley gave a lecture entitled “The Value of Not Understanding Anything”. Among the pieces of wisdom on writing that she inculcated on her audience was this: arguing against those who advise aspiring writers to write on what they already understand, she said “I would suggest something different… what are some of the things you don’t understand at all?”. Taking her advice to heart following my return from the UK, I chose to write about what seems to be an inseparable part of the British culture which I found inexplicable: the obsession with the royal family.

I began questioning this phenomenon first when Christmas photos of Prince George went viral on social media. My curiosity would have quickly dwindled had Prince George (or the royal family) not popped up again and again on newspaper stands that I passed by in London. But as British media outlets continued at length to idolize Prince George, label every item of clothing he wore “cute”, and monitor the size of Kate Middleton’s tummy before, during and after she gave birth to her daughter, I could not help but think there must be a reason why the royal family is so popular in Britain.

Of course, in questioning this phenomenon, I had personal reasons of which I am completely aware. First, as a keen observer of domestic and international politics, I am aware that the official British narrative on how the system works, as David Cameron would have us believe, is as follows: if you work hard, you will be rewarded. A nominally meritocratic system. Interestingly, the royal family is not incorporated into this system; monarchs rule by hereditary right, not hard work. Second, as a citizen from a Third World country that has suffered considerably under French and British imperial rule, I feel confused when I hear someone venerate the very system that did that. Third, examining statistics that appear in the news every now and then about the huge amount of British taxes that goes towards sustaining the royal family, I find it baffling that so few people complain about where their hard-earned money goes.

So ruling out meritocratic value, philanthropic contribution, and economic utility, I could lazily fall back to the easy explanation for many cultural idiosyncrasies, namely exceptionalism, British exceptionalism. Nineteenth-century British journalist Walter Bagehot would have undoubtedly agreed with me. In English Constitution, he perfectly sums up why the monarchy is central to the British identity:

“The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people … “People yield a deference to what we may call the theatrical show of society … The climax of the play is the Queen.”

The British monarchy is popular because of the sentiments of pride and uniqueness that it arouses in the hearts of the people it represents, sentiments that are nostalgic for an era in British history that is long gone.

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Missing Scotland

Now that I have been back in the US for a few weeks, I am really starting to miss Edinburgh. First and foremost, I miss the weather, which is something I never thought I would say. But the high humidity of DC summers is a stark contrast to the cool, blustery Scottish weather. I guess only a muggy DC summer can force me to appreciate the weather I left behind.

What I miss most, however, is the attitude I had while abroad. When I was in Edinburgh, it felt like anything was possible. I know that is very cliche, but for once I actually lived my life according to that sentiment. Instead of putting something off for another day, I would seize the moment.

Here, I so often get stuck in the Georgetown bubble. It is easier to remain in my comfort zone, and to find excuses to prevent myself from venturing out. There is always too much homework, or too many commitments, or just too many random and useless things to do. I have subconsciously become an expert at convincing myself that it is never the right time to have some sort of adventure.

In Scotland, I relaxed quite a bit. Instead of finding another assignment to keep me occupied, I would trek halfway across Edinburgh in the freezing wind to try a new bakery. I planned weekend trips just a few days in advance. And if I had nothing to do, I wouldn’t curl up with Netflix, but instead make elaborate dinners with my friends.

It is harder to maintain that attitude at Georgetown, likely because I have never cultivated it here. But I am trying to seize the moment more often. I’ll just need to remember that spending a Sunday morning at brunch in AdMo or a Wednesday evening at a concert at 9:30 club will not hinder my academic or social commitments, and will help me reclaim the sense of adventure that studying abroad taught me.

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Dakar Reflections

The program that I did in Morocco, IES, recently visited Dakar with their summer program students and asked me to help them out during their week here. This is from the talk that I gave the students as an introduction to Dakar/Senegalese culture:

 

On the blog that I started in Morocco, which I didn’t really keep up with, I wrote a post listing the things I was proud of during my first week in Rabat, after orientation in Meknes, when things started to get more real. I was excited about moving in with my host family, finding a surf school to take lessons at, and learning how to get to and from school. This was especially exciting after the time that I got lost in the medina and I had to stand outside of it and call my host mom to come get me. And if you haven’t been lost in a medina, trust me, it’s nearly impossible to tell someone where you are when everything is kind of the same or it’s in Arabic. I also noted that I’d only been to the café five times that week, which was less than we were used to during orientation. But looking back, I don’t think I’ve even been to a café five times in Dakar in these five months. Here, at least in my neighborhood, you won’t find the same level of development. There are fewer cafes, bars, supermarkets, generally convenient things. But the culture isn’t so different. Where I expected the overlaps to bring familiarity, like the French colonial history or the majority Islam populations, I didn’t find it. I found it instead in the slowness of life, the time spent sitting around, drinking tea, appreciating the moment and the people around you more than the money you’re making from work or the constant desire to gain more.

I spent a week during the semester in a rural village in central Senegal, where there was no electricity and the only way to get there was a 30 minute horse and cart ride from the closest town. I stayed with a PeaceCorps volunteer in her hut in a larger family compound and lived an incredibly slow week. When my PeaceCorps volunteer told me the first day that she loves coming to Dakar because there you can pretend you’re not even in Senegal, I didn’t agree. I felt like living in Dakar was very much Senegal, with all of the difficulties and differences that come with that. After the week in the village, where we ate rice or a slightly different version of it for every meal, I realized that she was right. If you really want, you can find anything here – Indian restaurants, Thai massages, even the American grocery store, where you might spend all of your money but you will at least have some familiar faces in your snack cabinet. You can take the Dakar Dem Dekk, which we called the “nice bus”, that are more like the buses in America. You can go see cool concerts, and if you were dropped in the middle of the club at 3am, you wouldn’t know you were in a developing country. If you needed to, you could pretend you’re not in Senegal. But more often in practice, you’ll live like you are. You will take the normal bus, where you’ll be lucky to get a seat or lucky to be hanging out the door, but not lucky if you’re stuck inside. Honestly the worst part of my time in Dakar, the thing that gave me the most anxiety, was bus #3, which for some reasons is always so crowded that there’s no space to hold onto anything but no need to because there’s also no space to fall. You’ll go to four different corner stores to find the thing you want, and you’ll pay more than you should because you’re a foreigner. You’ll have these struggles, but you’ll have the great parts that come with Dakar and Senegal as well. On your walk to those four boutiques, you’ll run into three people you know. You’ll pick up a perfectly ripe mango, and you’ll bargain in the little Wolof you know.

When my Morocco program first approached me about helping them around Dakar, I realized that I didn’t really know Dakar very well, and still don’t. I became so content in my own neighborhood, drinking attaya under the Acoustic Tree and hanging out at the beach, that I actively didn’t explore Dakar. Instead, I offered my help through the connections that I have with people here. I may not have the ins and outs of Dakar down, but I have my family and friends. While that’s made my experience very different and much slower than in Morocco, it’s also made my time very meaningful.

Of course, I can’t generalize and outline one type of Senegalese person, but Senegalese people are usually sassy, and they love to joke around. Like Moroccans, they watch a lot of TV and they’re often late to planned events. They might not have completed university or even high school, but they’re not scared of getting into debates and arguing their opinions on anything, from religion to the economy to terrorism. What really struck me the most was the ease with which conversations turned into deeper discussions about the meaning of life or the measures of success or big topics like that. And it always came down to the basics of living in harmony with others. It was the importance of giving, the lack of importance of money, the emphasis on friends and family and on being content and à l’aise in all of our interactions with others and with what we have, and sharing even when it’s not a lot. You’ll see that even when 12 people get together to drink tea, they use two tea glasses. Unlike Morocco, where you can sit and spend hours drinking one drink, chitchatting and people watching, here you have to drink quickly and pass it to the next person and chitchat when it’s not your turn to drink. Another really cool instance of sharing is the religious holidays. I was here for Easter, and although Christians make up a small minority of the population, the holiday was felt throughout. Everyone was wishing everyone else a happy holiday. Christian families made their traditional Easter food, a peanut butter-yogurty thing called Ngalax, by the buckets and shared it with the whole neighborhood. I spent the day house-hopping and eating Ngalax with my American and Muslim Senegalese friends. And on Tabaski, known as Eid El-Kbir in Morocco, when the Muslim families eat their sheep they share generously with the Christian families. The generosity among Senegalese definitely extends to foreign visitors, and it’s no surprise that Senegal’s hospitality is pretty famous.

Senegal is known as the land of Teranga, the Wolof word for hospitality. And for me, it’s lived up to that name in every sense. I always joked that even if I forgot all of the Arabic I learned last semester in Morocco, I will never forget the word “Koolee” for “eat, eat”. The same thing applies here, where you will be fed until you burst. If you enter someone’s home within an hour or two of meal time, either before or after, they will insist that you stay to eat. Despite the fact that there’s not a lot of money here or a lot of jobs and opportunities, and they know that, Senegalese people are incredibly proud of their country and their culture and many would never want to leave. Rather, they want to share this with you, with visitors. Each person feels individually responsible for making the idea of Teranga a reality, whether that’s through inviting you to meals or to watch soccer games or taking you on a trip to see a piece of their city. Besides that I can give you some general descriptions that you can expect here: greetings are incredibly important. When you enter a room, it’s normal to go around and shake every person’s hand, exchanging a quick, how are you? How’s the family? How are your affairs? Peaceful alhamdulilah, before moving to the next person. If you want to ask someone a question, you must greet them first.  There is a fascination with Toubabs, or foreigners. Kids may come up to you just to shake your hand and then run away. There are also lots of child beggars, just to warn you, that are students of the Islamic marabouts “learning a lesson about humility”. To them, it’s best to say “ba benoon yoon” and continue walking without giving money. Guys may call out to you on the street and a sadly high proportion of males you talk to will try to get your number or your hand in marriage, but it’s perfectly okay and easy enough to ignore them, pretend you’re married, or turn it into a joke and tell them they’re ugly or shut them down. Like I said earlier, people love to joke. So most importantly, don’t take anything too seriously or personally. At the internship that I did this semester, my favorite relationships were not with the people at my office or other interns that I worked with. What made my day each time was when I left the office and the security guards and I would joke around about how I should take them to America or leave my boyfriend for them. I got to practice my Wolof, laugh with them, and eventually was invited to each lunch with them and their family, which was really nice. As a foreigner, you will also be charged a higher price at the market. Try to bargain in French, and go for probably a third of the original price you’re given. You’ll see lots of unfinished buildings, political graffiti, and trash on the ground.

You’ll also see lots of brightly colored fabrics and maybe see women carrying baskets or buckets on their heads and babies on their backs tied on with a scarf. You’ll see shacks that claim to be modern restaurants, supported by wooden poles, and you’ll see women selling fried goods, which you should try and not pay more than 25 or 50 francs for.  You’ll hear traditional Senegalese music with all of its weird drumming patterns and for me at least, it’s hard to hear the rhythm but it’s awesome to watch the dancers that do. Overall, you’ll see a mix of things that are both good and bad, some that are wonderful and some that might be hard to process or understand. I encourage you to remain open-minded and ask questions. It’s the best way to learn and you can even practice your French. So, with that, welcome to Dakar.

 

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Memories from Fall Break

It’s hard for me to believe, but it has been a month since my fall semester break! I guess time really does fly when you are having a blast… I’d like to take a minute to share some memories from my trip up the east coast of Australia.

For my week-long uni break in April, I booked a 10-day guided tour with a company called G Adventures. (G is an abbreviation of GAP, which stands for Great Adventure People… so the whole name is really Great Adventure People Adventures – confusing, I know.) G Adventures specializes in small group adventure travel, and there were only about twenty young people travelling on my east coast trip, including our fearless group leader, Josh.

I met up with the group in Brisbane, which is a city about 1,000 kilometers north of Sydney, and from there, we made our way up the coast to the city of Cairns by bus, train, and yacht. Over the next ten days, we saw some of the most beautiful places in the world, including Fraser Island – the world’s largest sand island, Whitehaven beach in the Whitsunday Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef.

What really made this trip the most incredible week of my life, though, was getting to experience these places with my group-mates. We were complete strangers on day one; most of us were traveling alone, and we came from all over the world – England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, and the United States. But after spending ten days together, we became a little family of sorts, and I’m so glad that I got to spend my break with my G Adventures family.

My favorite moment of the whole trip happened on the third night. We had spent the day sailing in the Whitsunday Islands, and we were anchored for the night in a small channel. I was lying on the top deck of our maxi yacht, surrounded by my new friends, and we had just enjoyed a blazing orange sunset over the tropical waters. The light was fading, and we were settling in to start stargazing.

Because there was little light pollution out in the islands, the stars were brilliantly bright, and the Milky Way lit up the night sky. I had just been talking and laughing with my English friend – listening to stories about the stupid things he had done in his life and sharing some of my own, but for a few minutes, we fell silent. The other people around us were quiet too. No one needed to say anything. We all simply gazed up at the sky in wonder, taking in the moment together.

Laying on that yacht under the stars in the company of my friends, I felt incredible. Seeing the stars and the Milky Way helped me to appreciate how small we all are in comparison to the universe, but at the same time, being with my group-mates helped me to realise that our small lives can be filled with great meaning. They each had different experiences and perspectives to share, and I loved hearing about all the places that they had visited around the world and the things they had already accomplished with their lives. They helped me to realize that there is so much that we can see and do in life.

My group-mates came from very different backgrounds, but one thing that they all had in common was their positive energy. It seemed like nothing could get them down on the trip – even when we had to get up at 4am the morning after a night out in order to catch a train, we all managed to have a good laugh as we collapsed onto the platform. As one of our drivers from Fraser Island put it, the group had a “passion for living”. And this passion was contagious.

I feel so lucky to have been able to spend my fall break with such amazing people. At the beginning of the trip, I wasn’t expecting that they would have a significant impact on my life in any way, but they helped me appreciate how beautiful life can be if you approach it with the right attitude. And that isn’t a lesson that you can learn inside a classroom. (So yes, mom, my fall break was educational.)

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How much would you pay for the environment? What would it cost you not to?

What would you pay to protect the Great Barrier Reef? …the rainforests of the Amazon? … the glaciers of New Zealand?

The environment offers us aesthetic beauty, scientific knowledge, natural resources, and ecosystem services. Living in Australia has motivated me to question how we truly value the environment. It is helpful to quantify its value in terms of dollars, although this is not a simple task.

In Australia, many people are dedicated to decreasing their ecological footprint. It is not common for households to use clothing dryers. In addition, air conditioning, even in the summer, is not excessively used. In the United States, air conditioning is expected, demanded, and definitely used in excess. Could an increase in the price of electricity drive more Americans to reconsider when to turn on the air conditioning?

The ecotourism industry can help us form an idea about what we are willing to pay to access the beauty of the environment. This would be interesting to compare to what we currently pay for the comfort of our air-conditioned homes, for example.

According to the Australian Minister for the Environment, about 2 million people visit the Great Barrier Reef every year, which offers $5.6 billion to the economy in Australia with nearly 70,000 jobs. These numbers seem to justify the preservation of the reef for very practical reasons. They are also an underestimate of the actual value because they do not include the monetary value of the reef in relation to scientific research and ecosystem services.

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View of the Great Barrier Reef from the top deck of the boat

The diversity of the Great Barrier Reef is impressive. During my dive, I was able to swim with schools of bright yellow fish, encounter a few sharks, and look into the eyes of a couple sea turtles. How much did I pay for that opportunity? Well certainly, several hundred dollars when you consider the flight up to Cairns and the price of the dive itself. The cost was worth it to me, and to save the reef for my children would be worth much more.

The Great Barrier Reef is currently a World Heritage sight, but its health is rapidly declining. It could soon find itself on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Tourism will suffer as nobody wants to travel thousands of miles to swim in polluted waters through bleached coral. Already, backpackers have told me that I should have skipped my dive there, in favor of the less polluted reef sites off the coast of Malaysia.

Climate change is one of the most prominent causes for the decline in health. Coral bleaching was the most visible effect I saw during my dive. Overfishing, seabed dredging, deforestation, and agricultural nutrient pollution all contribute to the degradation of the reef. The purpose of seabed dredging is for coal ports, which will further exacerbate the problem by accelerating climate change with the additional release of greenhouse gases.

While many Australians value the environment, evidently some Australians value coal more. Coal burning may provide an immediate economic benefit, but the long-term harm caused to the reef will certainly outweigh this benefit.

It is not possible to convince all people to protect the environment for altruistic reasons. This is even true in the case of a country that I admire for its progressive and active work to protect the environment. Ultimately, the economic argument will always win. If we can calculate the economic value, then perhaps there is still a chance for the Great Barrier Reef.

 

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Rural Visit

This month, my program organized a weeklong rural visit, sending students out into the bush to stay with host families and PeaceCorps volunteers. During my rural tour, I visited Toune, a small village near Kaffrine in central Senegal. I stayed with a volunteer from the Peace Corps who worked on health education. The Peace Corps is something that I have always considered as a possible choice for my life after college. Since my childhood, and even now, my future was always open. I do not know what I want to do as a career but I know I’m going to travel, and as soon as I learned about the Peace Corps, I kept it in my mind as an option. More recently, I’ve decided I want to live in developing countries and help people there in any way I can, and the Peace Corps is exactly that. This week was the perfect opportunity for me to see how the PeaceCorps really works. More than just talk with a volunteer about his or her experience, I had the chance to experience it myself. I am pleased to say that the week has not changed my plans and the Peace Corps remains in my possible plans for after college.

Although the days passed slowly, I could not believe it when the week ended. Each day developed a routine, which made the week kind of a blur, as hours passed seamlessly into days. I woke up to the sounds of the village – first, the muezzin at 5am, closer and longer than the muezzin in Dakar. If I could catch a few more hours of sleep, I would wake up again to the calls of donkeys and the responses of goats around 7am. Finally, the sun and birds would infiltrate my ears and eyes at 8am. When I could no longer snooze the alarm clock of nature, I would get up and start the day with coffee and a breakfast sandwich.

The second day we decided to start a mural at the school, but when we finished breakfast, it was too hot to do anything. We spent all day reading and resting in the hut or under the shade of a big tree just outside the camp. We began a voluntary program of ten ‘waxtaans’ or ‘chats’ for village mothers about health, with topics such as nutrition and malaria. The second day, after the afternoon muezzin, we went to the health center for the second ‘waxtaan’. Unfortunately, only one mother came, so we did not do the ‘waxtaan.’ It was difficult for the volunteer because she had prepared and worked to help these mothers, but they were not grateful and didn’t even show up.

The third and fourth days followed the same pattern, but with more success. We ate breakfast in the same hut. We had the same conversation about our foreign coffee (Starbucks, a gift from the volunteer’s parents). The Senegalese woman who made sandwiches thought it was ‘neexul dara’ (not good at all) compared to her Senegal coffee which was ‘neexna torop’, ‘very good’. But for us, even though I like Senegal’s coffee, the Starbucks coffee was a luxury, a memory of the United States. After breakfast, we went to school to work on murals for an hour or two.

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To avoid the heat and exhaustion, we would return to the compound to rest. Every afternoon I needed to choose between sleep, read, write, or think as ways to pass the time. It was so relaxing. I noted the slow pace of rural life, and decided that I loved it for a week but I would be too bored after a long time. But I also saw patterns of life in Dakar, when every time I talked with friends there, they were also doing the same things. Yes, I was always in the middle of reading, but one friend was always playing football and the other was always drinking attaya. I realized that it’s not just rural life works like that, and if I’m not careful, I can fall into a boring routine anywhere.

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At the beginning of the week, my volunteer said she likes to go to Dakar sometimes because she can pretend she’s not in Senegal. When she said that, I did not agree. I really feel that I’m in Senegal in Dakar, with all the differences and difficulties that come with it. But when I came back after the week there, I saw what she means. In Kaolack, I went to a small market to buy a snack for the long ride back to Dakar. The market was not special or great, but I was overwhelmed by all the choices I had. When I talked with my Dakaroise friends, I complained that I ate ‘ceebu jeen’ (the national plate of rice and fish) and sometimes only rice for each meal. They responded that life in Dakar is better because you can eat anything you want. That is something I would never say before going to the village, because there are many times when the Senegalese cuisine needs more variety and I have many times when I miss American or Asian cuisine. But now I agree. Maybe it’s not the same as in the US, but if you want it enough, it is possible to find almost everything or do almost everything in Dakar. In this way, we can pretend we’re somewhere besides Senegal. Through my visit to the village, I gained a new perspective and appreciation of Senegal as a whole but also the city  where I lived for two months. It was an experience that opened my eyes.

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Scottish Folklore

It is a Saturday morning, and I am sitting in the back of a wee red tour bus on the Isle of Skye. Our guide, an engaging and hilarious man named Danny, is telling us about the incredible geology and natural beauty of the island. In the distance, almost obscured by the pervasive mist covering the Scottish highlands, is the Old Man of Storr, a freestanding pillar of stone atop a cliff. In a few minutes, we will all climb out of the bus and attempt to get a picture amidst the blustery winds and freezing rain, but for now we are content to avoid the gales and listen to Danny. He introduces the rock, and continues with his two most common phrases. The first is, of course, “I wish the weather was better for photos.” And the second: “There’s a story about this.”

You can see The Old Man of Storr in the distance.

You can see The Old Man of Storr in the distance.

These words began almost every stop on our tour through the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. There is a stereotype of the Scots as exceptional storytellers and it is no wonder why; there are so many stories to tell! Many of these tales simply retell the dramatic history of Scotland, but just as many involve fantastical creatures in wondrous environments. The latter comprise the varied folklore of the Highlands, and it was these legends that Danny often told us.

So, what is the story of the Old Man of Storr? It is rather long, and I certainly cannot do Danny’s telling of it justice, but I want to share it with you, to give you an idea of the types of tales I heard throughout the trip.

A crofter named O’Sheen once owned the land surrounding the Old Man of Storr. One day, he heard a noise from a collapsed rock and, thinking one of his sheep was trapped, he went to investigate. Upon removing the rocks, he found a tiny brownie (pronounced brew-knees), a small creature somewhat similar to a leprechaun, which can live for a few thousand years. The brownie was so grateful to O’Sheen for freeing him, he promised to use his magic to grant the crofter anything he desired. However, O’Sheen was a very happy man, and he could not think of anything to ask the brownie. The brownie thus told O’Sheen that he would work with him on his land, and maybe discover something O’Sheen needed. O’Sheen agreed, but reminded the brownie that he must do everything without magic, so he could understand how humans did it.

The brownie spent many years working with O’Sheen. He was a hard-worker, but because he was so small, he was not particularly good at catching and shearing the sheep. However, he never used magic, just like he had promised O’Sheen. Eventually, O’Sheen married a bonnie lass and had an incredible wedding party, in which the little brownie and his friends played music and danced through the night. But after the wedding, the brownie told O’Sheen that he must leave for many years, to take care of some things in the brownie world. Although sad to see his friend go, O’Sheen bid him farewell.

After those years had passed, the brownie returned to O’Sheen’s lands, only to find them unkempt and O’Sheen gone. The brownie asked another landowner where the crofter was, and was devastated to learn that O’Sheen and his wife had died while he was away. The brownie wanted to do something to commemorate his friend, but he was too small to restore the land to its former glory without the crofter’s help. So he climbed the tallest cliff in the area and decided to carve it away and build a monument to his friend. He could have simply cast a spell over the land and the rock and created anything he desired, but he remembered O’Sheen’s words about doing everything without magic. Thus, he gathered his tiny brownie tools, and dedicated the rest of his life to chiseling away the rock in the shape of O’Sheen looking out over the land, with his wife sitting behind him. The present Old Man of Storr is as far as he got.

The brownie is just one of the mythical creatures I was introduced to on my trip. Now I can also tell you about the kelpies (nasty water-dwelling creatures who often venture up to land as white stallions), fairies (wee people who live in the hills and crevices of the fairy glens), and selkies (mermaid-like creatures without a fishy tail, who are beautiful on the outside and inside). While I knew that Scottish folklore existed, I had not expected how rich and prevalent it was. We may dismiss these creatures as ridiculous, but many people do believe in them. And the stories they tell are not just entertaining; they connect you to the land and people in an almost spiritual way. My trip to the Isle of Skye would have been amazing if I had just admired the land, but it was the folklore that endowed the land with a special charm, and made it absolutely incredible.

Fairy Glen: home of the fairies. The Fairy King's (or Queen's) Castle is on the right, and the spiral rock shape underneath it is the entrance to the fairy world.

Fairy Glen: home of the fairies. The Fairy King’s (or Queen’s) Castle is on the right, and the spiral rock shape underneath it is the entrance to the fairy world.

Kilt Rock: home of the selkies. You can actually hear a low drone that is supposedly the selkie's singing.

Kilt Rock: home of the selkies. You can actually hear a low drone that is supposedly the selkie’s singing.

The Quiraing. According to Danny (and a local friend of his) this place needs no story to be amazing.

The Quiraing. According to Danny (and a local friend of his) this place needs no story, it’s simply amazing.

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University College London vs Georgetown in Qatar: Differences in Course Structure and Class Spirit

I am spending the Spring 2015 semester studying at University College London (UCL), presumably one of the most prestigious universities in the UK. Majoring in International Politics, I chose to pick all my courses from the course list offered by UCL’s Political Science department. Strangely but interestingly, UCL does not offer a “Political Science” Bachelor’s degree per se. The closest the Bachelor’s degree programs can get to Political Science is through a degree offered by the European Social and Political Science (ESPS), a degree that, according to my fellow ESPS colleagues, you can obtain without ever enrolling in a Political Science course (let alone a Europe-oriented Political Science course), as long as you study a European language and take a random assortment of humanities courses.

If the Political Science department doesn’t exist to serve ESPS students, then why is it there? To serve affiliate students—that is, study-abroad students—, the head of the department said during Orientation Week. As if to emphasize the apolitical nature of the undergraduate program, he continued on stating that all UCL Political Science professors are used to teaching graduate courses, and so we, study-abroad students, should expect the difficulty of their courses is higher than the UCL average. I will touch on the implications of the lack of compulsory Political Science courses on the intellectual development of UCL students in the second part of the blog post. For now, let me explain the structural and content difference between UCL courses and those of my home university, Georgetown in Qatar.

The first noticeable difference between UCL and Georgetown in Qatar is the structure of lectures. At Georgetown, with the exception of seminar courses, class meets twice a week. And except for Economics courses, there is no requirement to attend an extra “recitation” or “practical” session. In all courses, participation is a must—and you’ll find it almost impossible to earn a grade above B if you don’t ask interesting questions, discuss your fellow colleague’s questions, or voice an (enlightened) opinion every now and then. At UCL—at least in my courses—it’s quite different. All classes meet once a week for a lecture, all courses have complementary practical sessions where the class is divided into groups to discuss lecture topics with “light” supervision from the professor, and, finally, participation does not count towards the final grade. Although practical sessions provide students with some discussion spaces, the quality of discussion they produce is not as good as one would wish. This is most probably due to the lack of the grade incentive and the absence of the continuous watchful eye of a professor I am used to at Georgetown in UCL seminars.

What I mean above by “quality” of discussion is based on a twofold (completely subjective) measurement. The first is the depth of analysis and degree of knowledge of the subject that students demonstrate. Performance is usually low in this regard due to, in all likelihood, the students’ awareness that they will be neither penalized for lack of participation, nor rewarded for meaningful engagement.

The second meaning I hold for “quality” is cultural sensitivity and the ability to engage in discussions with an unbiased attitude and an open mind. On average, UCL students in my courses rank lower than Georgetown students in that respect. Many Political Science students at UCL engage in what one could call unintentional Orientalism. In the context of class discussion, this involves the use of a discourse that stereotypes the “other,” usually a developing country or a section of its citizens, and explicitly or implicitly dehumanizes them, overemphasizes their differences or implies their “natural” inferiority.

This discourse could be adopted by both Western and non-Western student. It was clearly demonstrated during one of the seminar sessions I attended for a course entitled “International Development and Public Policy.” Reflecting on whether foreign aid should be given exclusively to “moral” governments in the developing world, an American student confidently stated “It doesn’t matter if the government’s “good” or not. What matters is that we give them the money to develop themselves” (emphasis mine). Coming from a country that is the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid, and fully aware of the “imperfect” allocation of financial resources that results from it, I can find a thousand reasons to poke holes in this argument. However, what struck me the most was the implicitly derogatory way in which my fellow colleague employed the pronouns “us” and “them,” which I found to be quite Orientalist. Not only does it personify an issue that should be approached in non-personal, objective terms, but it also gives the impression that the two countries—donor and recipient—exist in as part of some “natural” hierarchy, whether the latter cannot “develop” (whatever that means) unless the former “gives” it help. These messages are not visible immediately, but they do exert psychological pressure on students from Third World countries in class, whose voices and opinions—which may differ from those of this particular American colleague—could be potentially silenced by her Orientalist discourse. In fact, I have witnessed another colleague from a Middle Eastern country, enrolled in the same course, internalizing this discourse and engaging in a discussion that dehumanizes people from her own country, in all likelihood in an attempt to “go with the flow”.

So why is this discourse more prevalent in UCL than Georgetown? My guess is that the apolitical character of UCL Bachelor degrees highly contributes to such attitudes. As mentioned earlier, ESPS students are not required to take Political Science courses, but only to study a European language and some humanities courses. The lack of politics-related courses in their course plans deprives many students of the opportunity to examine the complexity of political processes, and the contingent, shifting nature of cultures. Instead, it breeds ethnocentrism and encourages the essentialization of cultures, which can potentially lead to cultural insensitivity. This is further intensified by the highly Eurocentric nature and focus of the ESPS degree. Having had this experience, I began to appreciate the quality of discussions I am used to having at Georgetown. Although not immune to Orientalism, class discussions at Georgetown have a sort of self-regulatory mechanism, where signs of racism/Orientalism are automatically undone by the abundance flow of informed participation of a mostly culturally sensitive student body. Of course, this cultural sensitivity is not innate, but seems to have come from the diverse nature of courses offered there, and the inclusion of global and intercultural political issues in almost all course syllabi.

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Do you travel or vacation?

“You have to be brave… because that’s what travelling is all about.”- Claire

On our recent trip to Cairns, a town located up the east coast in Queensland, I came upon the realization that there is no “correct” way to live as I started to understand a phrase that my father always told me; “your way of doing something is simply a way, not the way”.

When we travel we often learn more from the people we meet; not necessarily the places we see. I would make a clear distinction between “vacationing” and “travelling”. If one were to stay in hotels and resorts every time they visited a new country the experience would be limited, to say the least.

Our trip to Cairns was the first time I had stayed in a hostel abroad. I learned more from that weekend experience than I could have learned in a few days of class. While the trip was not without its difficulties (a cyclone interrupted many of our plans); I soon realized that some of the best plans are the unexpected, spontaneous ones.

One backpacker in my hostel, Claire, had been travelling throughout Australia for a year, and she now must complete a few months of regional work to qualify for her second year visa. In the course of one day, her plan changed many times. In the morning before I left for my scuba diving adventure, she had planned to fly to Tasmania to work. When I came home, sunburnt and exhausted, she was considering an offer to pick chestnuts as her regional work. A few phone calls later she had booked a flight to Perth to work on a farm delivering hay! She tells me, “You have to be brave… because that’s what travelling is all about.”

That evening one of the girls, Alex, casually mentions that she has just booked a ticket to Bali.

In the United States there is strict expectation for many of us to follow a plan. It is expected that you will graduate high school, study at university for four years, and then move on to graduate school or find a job worthy of the career you have been working to obtain. It is unusual for a student to take time off to travel or simply work and save money.

With some exceptions, a “gap” year is highly discouraged. You would be a year behind in the plan! A young adult who chose to travel instead of study would be questioned. Many would simply not understand.

In sharp contrast to the US, many young people from other countries value travel as an experience essential to the growth and maturity of an individual. Some students in my classes are a few years older as they have taken time to have this experience. One friend I met is from Sweden, 24 years old, and yet just starting university.

While we may think that deviating from the US plan is simply unquestionable or wrong; there are so many benefits that I can see. If you spend your whole life moving from one schooling system to another, options to self discovery and knowledge of the world around you are simply inaccessible. You can only learn so much from a classroom.

Other backpackers have told me stories about their experiences travelling throughout Asia and their incredible, cultural home stays. So that weekend in Cairns, I decided to stay by myself for a few more days as my friend returned to Melbourne. And then I realized that in reality I was not by myself as I had met a few new friends who taught me a great deal about the value of travel.

In Cairns I swam in cyclonic weather, jumped into a water-filled volcano, explored the rainforest, and scuba dived with Nigel, the Maori Wrasse fish, in the Great Barrier Reef.  But what I will remember most is the meaning of travel from the people I met.

To be brave is to deviate from the plan or make an unexpected one. It is clear to me that after Georgetown I will travel. It will be a time to learn from experiences, not only from books.

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