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The Heart of an Adventurer

It has been a while since I last posted, but I finally returned to the United States from Japan exactly two weeks ago today. These eleven months passed by extremely quickly, and I am still in sort of a state of disbelief – adjusting back to life in the States hasn’t been as difficult as I imagined it would be (though we’ll see how that changes once I move back into Georgetown!), though it feels somewhat odd now that I’ve been away for almost a year. As a final post, I’ll take a look back at two of my final journeys around Japan.

Japan is beautiful. Urban life in Tokyo has its own charm, but one of the things that I enjoyed a lot was exploring scenic spots outside of major cities. Lakes, forests, mountains, beaches, rivers, small towns – adventuring around was convenient and always brought out a new perspective with which to view Japan. Since my spring semester ended up more lax, I had more time to go out and explore on weekends and breaks. I spent one of these weekends in July hiking Mount Fuji, home to Japan’s highest point. Reaching the summit at sunrise and looking off into the distance was astounding. The moment the sun broke through the clouds, the sky glowed beautifully, illuminating all of the nature around the base of the mountain. Although the hike itself was fairly exhausting, and I didn’t get any sleep in the hut the night before, seeing the sunrise made me feel completely awake. The hike to the top felt completely rewarding, and the views during the descent made everything worthwhile as well – I couldn’t have asked for a better way to signal the end of my year-long study abroad journey.

Mount Fuji

Sunrise from the summit of Mount Fuji.

Tottori Sand Dunes

Tottori Sand Dunes

On a completely separate trip, I made my way over to Tottori Prefecture, a mainly coastal region in the center-north-west of Japan. Tottori contains the only desert region in Japan – the Tottori Sand Dunes – which atmosphere-wise felt like the complete antithesis of Mount Fuji. The sun was blazing down from above, and although a cool breeze emanated from the sea, it failed to offer much respite from the heat. Nevertheless, the coastal scenery was still breathtaking, as was the vastness, height, and sheer immensity of the dunes themselves. Nearby, a museum exhibited amazing sculptures made from the sand from the dunes. This year, the exhibition centered around the United States, and it was cool to see the representation of American icons, settings, and symbols.

Other than the dunes, at the suggestion of one of my friends, I visited the port town of Iwami, which offered its own quaint image of a quiet Japanese setting. It utterly amazes me just how many beautiful scenes are hidden away in isolated areas. Although there were a few other places that I couldn’t visit this year (namely Hiroshima and the Kansai area), overall, I’m extremely satisfied with the amount of exploring I’ve gotten to do this year. Travelling has perhaps been the best part of this year for me, allowing me to get a breath of fresh air and enjoy the views Japan has to offer.

Iwami

Iwami – a beautiful port town.

Studying abroad has offered one of the best times of my life so far. In addition to instilling the spirit of adventure within me, I’ve gained new insight, achieved greater self-confidence, and learned a lot more about the world. I look forward to bringing my experiences back with me to the Hilltop, and I can’t wait to return to Japan and continue exploring new places in the future. For anyone who’s considering studying abroad (especially to Japan!), I highly encourage it – a new adventure awaits every day. Thanks for reading!

それでは、また次の冒険!

Until the next adventure!

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A Farewell to a Friend

Anyone who knows me can confirm that I live my life in a pair of black Converse. If I were to have a signature look, black Chucks would be it. That were what I was wearing when I touched down at the Brussels airport, but they won’t be coming back with me.

I am never kind to my Converse. From the day they leave the box, I wear them hard until they’re beaten down and broken in. When it comes to the black ones, I burn through a pair about every 8 months, and it’s time for a new pair. When it rains (and it rains here often), water seeps in through the ratty soles of my pair quicker than through the canvas. The rubber sidewalls have cracked and ribbed off, and honestly, it’s just time.

This is a goodbye and a thank you to the pair of shoes that have walked me through it all (pun intended). I’m excited to go home, but I’m a little sad to leave them behind. Although I already ordered a new pair that are waiting for me back in the States, I’d like to remember this pair a little more fondly than its predecessors. They were there as I grew confident in my French and as I grew into myself as an independent adult. Whenever I traveled, they were the only pair of shoes I brought with me. These shoes have hiked the hills of Budapest, biked the backroads of Utrecht, and had high tea in London. In these shoes, I turned Brussels into my stomping ground.

With these shoes on my feet, I flourished abroad. Part of me thinks it’s fitting that Brussels becomes their final resting place.

The other thinks I’m reading waaaay too far into all of this.

Gros bisous,

Monica

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Tchau and See You Soon

Two weeks ago yesterday, I was in the Rio international airport saying tearful goodbyes to some of my closest friends in Brazil. I probably looked pretty pitiful to the airport security as I was still sniffling taking out my laptop and liquids for the x-ray belt. Unfortunately, the goodbyes didn’t start there but had been a slow, painful process for the past month.

I was one of the last exchange students to leave Brazil so I attended many “last” dinners and beach days. Everyone had different ways of saying goodbye to Rio and Brazil. Some people just enjoyed their normal routines of Rio life while others made sure to make every hour of those last nights count at Lapa. Others, like me, tried to both finish up last minute bucket list items, soak up the rare winter beach days as well as do all the souvenir shopping we had put off for the past six months. Our goodbyes amongst ourselves weren’t as difficult because we relied on the hope that we would meet up somewhere in the States, a mini Rio reunion.

A sunrise hike on Dois Irmãos

Other goodbyes hurt a little more as I closed the doors on some real fun opportunities. I said “tchau” to the school where I taught English and the fifty kids that had both made me laugh and go a little crazy. The staff there always made us feel welcome and appreciated and I was grateful to have been able to volunteer under them. I also said goodbye to the two amazing ladies I worked with at the Museu da Maré, an awesome little-known community museum where I had the chance to do some Portuguese-English translations. If you’re ever in Rio, make a trip out to that museum because you won’t regret it. Leaving these places made me grateful of the time that I spent with them, learning and growing in Portuguese and relationships in Rio.

Cláudia, Yasmine and I at Museu da Maré

My host mom and her grandson was another tearful parting. Because of the overlap, I actually met her new exchange student and lived with her for about a week. It was a little strange knowing that I wouldn’t be her only American daughter anymore and that the room I spent the last six months in making my own, was someone else’s now. That home was just one of the many things I felt blessed to have during my time in Rio. I loved having someone to talk to when I came home and share the day with. I was able to relieve some of the sadness of being away from my own nephew by playing and laughing with my little host nephew. It is difficult to make a place feel like home after such a short time, but I consider it one of my “homes” now.

And my last goodbyes were to the dear Brazilian friends I made over the short period of six months. I can’t imagine my study abroad without them a part of it now and owe it to them for many of the great memories I have of Rio. I met most of them through the church I attended near my house. They graciously helped me out with my Portuguese (with only a little bit of laughter), took me to amazing places and restaurants around the city, and let me ask millions of questions ranging from soccer to politics to best açai places.

Picnic by Sugarloaf Mountain

But these goodbyes were different as well, they were more of an “até logo” or “see you soon.” I know I will be back in the future and these friendships are ones that will continue until then. And I have a strong feeling that I may end up back in Rio after graduation (who knows?). My time in Brazil isn’t over yet.

Goodbye to all the people who have kept up with me over these past six months on my blog. I hope that my posts will aid some future Rio exchange student and if you are trying to decide right now whether to study in São Paulo or Rio, choose Rio;)

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Ta ta for Now

Well, its June 25th and I am finally back on American soil for good. I cannot believe it has been a year. Honestly, it has flown by, and made me realize all my fears about leaving for a year were unfounded. As I dealt with the the emotions of leaving Oxford after a year, I realized I am lucky to have the emotions at all: the deep relationships I was able to develop, the independence I fostered, and the fond memories I will have of my “second home” in the United Kingdom are things I will cherish for the rest of my life. I am ready to return to my senior year at Georgetown with a newfound appreciation for the Hilltop, and I am certain that it is not a goodbye to London in the scheme of my life, but rather a “see you later.” Thanks for following along this year, and I hope this helps prospective abroad students to better understand and feel comfortable taking the risk that a year abroad entails!

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The Little Differences

Study Abroad is about exchanging the environment of your native culture for a new one. It’s about living and noticing differences between your daily life back home to the daily life you live abroad. I don’t think that they are drastic cultural differences (usually) but the small cultural tendencies that we overlook in our own countries as universal or normal.

Since I focused on lists in my last blog, I thought that I would continue the trend in compiling a list of the differences I have personally found between my life in Rio and DC in no particular order nor particular importance.  

  1. Breakfast

U.S has two extremes with breakfast, either we don’t eat it at all or we have three different types of meat, two egg options and various options of morning beverages. Pancakes, waffles, french toast will be forever associated to the American breakfast. In Brazil, breakfast consists of a tiny cup of coffee and a bread option: a small baguette (pão francês), a grilled cheese (misto quente) or cheese bread balls (pão de queijo). Unlike the US, I rarely see breakfast items taken on the go. To-go cups of coffee aren’t all that common and I feel pretty weird when I run out of the house with a piece of toast because I have never seen anyone eating breakfast on the streets.

  1. Sports

Spoiler: soccer is Brazil’s thing. Soccer jerseys are everywhere and anywhere. There are games almost every night of the week and different leagues, championships, rounds going on always. There are different teams within cities. For example, Rio has four teams: Flamengo, Botafogo, Fluminense and Vasco. As confusing as soccer culture can be, I think that it has been so much easier to keep track of than American sports culture. We have so many sports, leagues, teams. When someone asks me here “what’s my team?,” I know to respond with a soccer team (my answer is always the non-committal “Brazil”). But in the States, if asked the same questions, I need to know if you are talking about football, basketball or baseball, if you are talking about college or national, etc. Brazil soccer can be overwhelming but at least they’ve decided on a sport as a country.

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  1. Handling of Food

I don’t have much to say on this but this is a pretty big difference that I’ve noticed since I was a child between Brazil and the US. If my Brazilian cousin and I are both eating pizza, I’m picking it up and stuffing my face while she’s eating it with a fork and knife. Hamburgers are the same way. Typical Brazilian will use a napkin to pick up the burger. Americans, on the other hand, pick up nearly every food with their hands. We literally have a whole category of food called “finger food.”

  1. Elevator/Metro/Other Commute Spaces

In the US, I believe there is an unspoken rule that in these spaces, people are in their own little worlds. I am totally guilty of it. When I am on the bus in DC, I expect it to be a quiet trip with no interruptions of any sort by my fellow passengers. Don’t be THAT guy and talk on the phone, eat/drink loudly or start small-talk. It seems like as we travel from one social space to another, we want to shut down and close off. I have had quite the different experience in Brazil where I have many conversations with people on the metro, the bus, the elevator, the cable car and even the cross walk. The conversations are always very different, rarely just the normal small talk. I’ve swapped numbers with a lady who runs a hot dog cart in Ipanema, been asked for directions as if I was actually from here and even offered a job teaching English twice.

  1. Greetings

To this day, six months in, I am still not used to Carioca greetings. I have been told its two kisses on the cheek but then sometimes it’s just a hug or one kiss then a hug or a handshake then hug. Whatever it is though, you have a lot more body contact than any American greeting. I can say for a fact that I have never given any friend back home a kiss on the cheek and for a majority of my friends, my normal greeting to them is a wave, smile, “hey!” combo. Despite some of the embarrassing moments here where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, I think you definitely feel closer to friends with an affectionate greeting like a kiss on the cheek. I have a feeling that I might freak out some friends in the States during the first couple weeks back.

  1. Time

I was reading a guide to American culture in the study abroad office here and it said to be aware that Americans are obsessed with time. I thought it was hilarious until I read on and realized how true it was. We look at our watches, phones, clocks all the time and schedule our lives down to 15 minute intervals (looking at you Georgetown). Here, time feels very relative and flexible. Classes rarely start on time, buses come when they come and being 15 minutes late sometimes is showing up early. For some of my international friends, this goes against every punctual instinct they have. I’ve grown to enjoy the flexibility though, and not being tied down to time.

These are just a few observations that I’ve had while being here.

I only have 2 more weeks left in Rio and I am having a real hard time dealing with that fact. Rio has become home to me. It has changed my plans for the future and the only thing that gives me hope as I wind down my time here is that I will be back again, for longer.

Beijos,

Katie

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P.S I just turned 21!

 

 

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Democracy or … ?

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A billboard in Accra 

In the countless passionate conversations I’ve had with peers in Ghana, one particular topic has come up quite often: democracy, and Africa’s relationship with it. Because I am an African Studies certificate at Georgetown, my courses had given me a good amount exposure to Ghanian politics before arrival. In African Studies, Ghana is often hailed as a beacon of hope for democracy in Africa and is a favorite for Western scholars, donors, and investors. The country has witnessed peaceful elections and transitions and has experienced a general stability and peace in the midst of other African nations which are still struggling with mutinies and coups. Thus, I came to Ghana with this narrow understanding: Ghana has been successful because it has been implementing democracy and its peer-nations have been struggling with development because they haven’t.

I quickly came to learn from local Ghanians that this view of western democracy as the best political system was not shared by everyone. I have even met Africans from other countries who contrary to common thought in the US and to western scholars, adore Paul Kagame and admire the development he has managed to bring to his country. Then there was one friend who tried to explain to me why he had no problem with Mugabe and his decades of rule. “I would rather have a president for 100 years who is good for my country than a different one every few years with no development and with instability” he explained. Leadership, not democracy, is what’s important he stressed. Another friend, a Ghanian student studying sociology, questioned my rush to commend Ghana’s peaceful elections. “What if both parties were in on some deal to hold peaceful elections and get more money from international organizations and then split the funds? What if that’s why so much of rural Ghana is still poor?” Granted he was playing devil’s advocate, but his questions got me thinking.

Since being in Ghana and speaking with Africans I have become more aware of my biases from growing up and attending university in the West. Democracy is emphasized to the point where you become an ambassador for this system without fully understanding what it means for people around the world. Lesson number three hundred something from Ghana, stop telling Africans what political system is best for them. Listen to what they want and consider the fact that successful political systems existed before colonialism and there are alternatives to democracy. Be willing to hear and understand that for some, democracy has and continues to be an absolute nightmare. This doesn’t mean being completely and utterly against democracy or any and all ideals which come from the West, but it does means thinking critically about them and what they look like in African contexts.

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When French Fails

The other week I had a friend visiting me in Brussels, so we went downtown to find a bar that a housemate had recommended. And because I’m denser than a rock, I didn’t even realize I had lead us into the wrong bar until after we had made ourselves comfortable at a table. That said, we decided that we liked the bar and its atmosphere well enough to just stick around.

I went up to the bar and ordered our drinks in French, and when I fumbled over the word “margarita” (I always struggle with pronouncing words that are the same in French as they are in English), the bartender chuckled and asked if I was Australian. He told me, in English, that it was a good try and “very French.” I was left feeling confused, because wasn’t that the whole point?

As I was waiting for our drinks, an older man came up to me and asked me something in Dutch. I completely fished gaped, because I honestly can’t recall if there’s ever been a time when someone’s approached me with Dutch first in Brussels. He then said “You speak English?” We chatted for a bit in English, and when the bartender interrupted to ask me a question, I responded instinctually with a “oui!”

The man I was talked to frowned a little and waggled his finger at me “You know this is a Flemish bar, don’t you?”

And it was then that I noticed that all the signs on the walls and menus were written in English and not French, and that should have been a dead giveaway.

By political correctness, in a Flemish institution, or in Flanders itself, it’s considered much politer to speak English over French. And I’m not going to lie, when I realized it was a Flemish bar, I felt a little mortified at my mistake.

Although Brussels is by law a bilingual city, in practice, it’s a French speaking city. It’s illegal to run polls asking people what language they speak, but the general consensus is that Brussels has more French-speakers than Dutch speakers, but that the majority of the population lives in Flanders, the Dutch region of Belgium (where, confusingly enough, Brussels is located). So although French is the main language of Brussels, just outside the city is all Dutch-speaking.

French has never let me down in Brussels before this, but I took this experience as a “Hey! Don’t forget we exist too!” from the Dutch side of Brussels to keep me on my toes!

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Bucket Lists

I am terrible at bucket lists. Not at making them though. I can fill up at least 20 spots on any bucket list I make. I’m a dreamer. But when it comes to fulfilling them, I usually forget about taking the time to start the goals or even lose the list sometimes. It has come to the point where my roommate, with whom I make a bucket list every year with, has refused to continue the tradition because we fail to ever do them.

In conclusion, I suck at the follow-through.

But at the beginning of my study abroad, CIEE (the study abroad program I am traveling through) had us create a list of goals we wanted to achieve here. It wasn’t supposed to be bucket list style though, where you could easily check things off after a day. These were goals that you hoped to accomplish over the course of the six months in Rio. I thought it would have been easy but it is actually quite hard to put into words all of your expectations and desires for what is supposed to be some of the best months of your life.

So I made the list. And five months later, I finally remembered it.

I was adding a few new pictures to my bulletin board last week when I noticed one of my first additions to it: my bucket list! I had not stopped to read it since I first put it up way back in January. Looking back on it now, I have to chuckle at a few of my goals since I had some super high expectations of myself (going to a gym). But I was largely surprised by the amount of goals that I feel that I have “accomplished” here. I don’t really like the word accomplish since it makes it seems like I worked for these goals when many of them happened just naturally.

So here they are for the world to see…

  1. Walk around Copacabana (my neighborhood) without a map
  2. Visit at least 7 metro stops (do something at each)
  3. Join an athletic class (on the beach)
  4. Volunteer/Intern in Rio
  5. Speak Portuguese without being afraid of messing up
  6. Join a local church
  7. Make friends with students here
  8. Learn how to samba
  9. Visit 3 other states and/or cities
  10. Learn the bus system
  11. Go surfing
  12. Build relationships in my neighborhood (businesses, neighbors, etc)

Sidenote: I have a separate list of things to see and do in Rio, so don’t be disappointed that the Christ the Redeemer statue wasn’t on my original list.

When coming to Rio, I hoped that I wouldn’t just play tourist in the city. I love exploring Rio and checking out its cool beaches but I could do that at any point in my life. Being a tourist is easy and I didn’t want that for my six months here.

Most of my goals surrounded building a life here, or at least the start. I wanted to be comfortable in my environment (walk around without a map), to be confident in navigating the city (learn the bus system) and to feel at home where I live (build relationships in my neighborhood). Volunteering and find a church were goals of mine for personal growth as well as building relationships outside of my exchange program. I am very grateful to have found both of those here. I currently attend a church only a few blocks away from my homestay where I have met many of my closest friends here. My volunteering takes me to two different parts of the city where I have the opportunity to teach English at one and translate Portuguese at the other.

All of these goals help me out with my big goal of speaking Portuguese without being afraid of messing up. After meeting so many new people, finding my way around new parts of the city and asking for help way too much, I can proudly say that I no longer am afraid of messing up. I may have some terrible Portuguese but I am overall confident that I can get by here with what I have.

So I am only missing three goals on my list. I am ashamed that they are probably supposed to be the “easy” ones. Numbers 3, 8 and 11. But, since looking at this list, I have decided that I really want to finish it so I’m already looking into ways to cross those ones off. I have my first surfing lesson in a couple days! You have to start somewhere.  

pedra

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Part of the Family

Before arriving in Brazil, I had some anxiety about living with a host family, which is pretty understandable. You just arrive at someone’s house whom you have never met and move into not only a room but their life. It is worse than the first day of college because you are the ONLY new person in the house. I also had not lived in a family setting in three years, used to the student lifestyle that consists of odd hours, unhealthy food choices and disorganized desks. My fear was that I wouldn’t be able to adjust back to living with people who weren’t my age. Overall, I was super nervous about the host family thing.

The program here in Rio must have known that we would be nervous when we arrived back in January, or so I thought. We were picked up from the airport and then left at the doorsteps of our new families. No introduction, no background information, no chance to freak out. I both hated and appreciated this tactic.

Riding up the elevator with my two suitcases, tired and disheveled from 12 hours of traveling, I tried to sum up all my energy and Portuguese for this first meeting with my new family. First impressions are everything, you know?


Flash forward to Mother’s Day just this past weekend. After giving my host mom a Mother’s Day card, her and her one year old grandson and I headed out to the metro to meet the extended family for a Sunday lunch. We ate a mix of delicious Brazilian and Indian food (long story). We chatted and watched some sports. We stayed until the sun went down and I decided that it was probably best for me to get home. It was simple. It was chill. It was family time.

Four months after I first walked into my fifth floor Copacabana apartment, I could not imagine living anywhere else or with anyone else. When traveling sometimes on the weekends, I miss being at my house in Rio because it has become a home for me. I feel so loved and relaxed in my building, in my room and with my host mom.

By no means do we have a mother-daughter relationship but more like a cool aunt-niece relationship. I get to play with her grandson when I am feeling homesick for my own little nephew. Sometimes, we even go out in the city to do a hike or hit up some yummy pastry shops. We chat about our days when we are both home but also respect the alone time that each of us needs. She allows me to be independent in my time here, whether it be in the house or exploring the city.

However, I know that I can always count on her to help me out when I am lost or confused. One time, I came home in near tears after searching almost every grocery store for dehydrated mushrooms (again long story). After explaining the situation to her, she stopped what she was working on and started calling family to try to get the intel on where they would sell these dehydrated mushrooms. It was times like those where I felt lucky to have someone here to rely on.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones though. There are of course the host family horror stories that the other exchange students will share. I am very grateful for my host family situation and know that I will always have a home to return to in Rio.

Até Próxima!

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(part of my little home)

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Four Days in Lomé

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Last weekend, five friends and I took a road trip to neighboring Togo. Navigating any transportation system in a foreign country can be confusing but with the working french two of us knew, and the help of some good samaritans, we managed to get in, around, and out of Togo with little trouble. First, we took a tro-tro (min-vans which are the popular mode of transportation in Accra) to Toudou station in downtown Accra at 6am on a Sunday morning. At Toudou station, we were swarmed by several tro-tro mates each hustling to quickly fill up their tro-tro with passengers. The three hour ride to Aflao, the town at the Ghana-Togo border, was smoother than we expected and when it began raining hard about halfway through the trip we were thankful for a sane driver who knew to slow down during a storm.

We spent three nights at a hotel in Lomé that had been highly recommended to us by friends who had visited Togo the week before us. It was owned by a French family and ended up being in a touristy neighborhood with very expensive food. During the four days we spent there, we were the only people of color at the hotel (besides the Togolese waiters and housekeepers of course) and for a second I almost forgot that I was still in West Africa. I was disturbed by how even on the continent, I could be made to feel hyper-aware of my skin color in certain spaces. It was a feeling that I had not experienced since I left the U.S. for Guinea in December. What a wake-up call.

On a lighter note, everything else in Lomé felt homey and reminded me so much of Conakry. The beaches, the palm trees, the motorbikes, the food and the music—it was all familiar. On our first full day in Lomé we soaked up some sun on the 20-minute walk to the Independence Circle and then visited La Grande Marché, the biggest market in Togo. West African markets can already be a bit overwhelming but imagine asking for directions and bargaining in French. “Anyone know how to say Shea butter in French?!” Thankfully, we met a vendor who spoke a bit of English and kindly offered to help us get around.

After a late lunch, we spent the evening on Lomé Beach, conveniently situated across the street from our hotel. We sat on the beach and watched the sunset with two of the Togolese friends we made at the market. They played the drums as we sang and talked until dark.

“Anywhere you go,
New York, Chicago,
Nowhere be like Africa,
Nowhere be like home.”

We spent the rest of our time in Lomé discovering other landmarks and historic streets. One of the main takeaways from this trip and just from living in West Africa for the past semester, is that people truly are resources. If you are lost, confused, or have a question, you need to be comfortable asking and relying on people for help. Not everything can be planned or Googled but things still end up working themselves out. One just has to put faith in strangers and trust that people don’t always need something in return for their help. By the end of our journey, we were grateful for the kind strangers we met along the way and knew we couldn’t have done it alone despite all the planning and googling we had done.

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