This summer I will backtrack a bit and write about my memories of studying in Oaxaca, México.
My story on the way to Oaxaca is an interesting one. In the spring of 2013 I decided that going abroad for May Term (an intensive short term that comes after the spring semester at Mary Baldwin College) would be my only chance to ever go abroad. It’s quite ironic considering my upcoming plans.
Anyway, I thought that this was my one and only chance, so I applied for scholarships in the fall of 2013 and crossed my fingers. In October, I received an tantilizing email that I was a finalist for the Melissa Mitchell Award. A few more days, and I found out that I had won the scholarship! Shortly after, I paid my deposit for the trip. That, my friends, is the moment that set me on my path to being a world traveller.
Over the spring semester I continued my Spanish courses with Dra. Patiño, who would later lead my trip. We had several sessions before leaving in which we talked about the places we would visit, the school we would attend, and the things we should pack.
I have to say, if there is anything I really learned with these predeparture sessions, it is that I need to pack carefully. In several ways, I should have packed better. Let me break it down for you into a few lists:
Top 3 Things I Packed Right:
Spanish dictionary. This was incredibly useful for doing my homework in the evenings. While it never actually left the home of my host family, I used it a lot. I would recommend that anyone studying a language intensively take a language dictionary at least for homework purposes.
Kindle Fire. I didn’t take my bulky laptop. Instead, I opted to just take my Kindle along for internet purposes, mostly to let people at home know I was still alive via Facebook. If you’re only traveling for a short period of time, don’t worry about a laptop. You won’t want to spend time in your room anyway!
Side Bag. Bringing a small side bag to hold all of my important things as I walked across the city and went on day excursions was incredibly useful!
Top 3 Things I Failed to Pack:
Motion sickness medicine. I hadn’t been motion sick for quite a while, and from what I could remember about flying, I thought I could handle it. Wrong. Flying for multiple hours at a time is much different from flying for just an hour. Not only that, but the turbulence going into Oaxaca was insane. If this isn’t enough to convince you, just think about the mountain roads you might drive for sight-seeing. Bring medication.
A Towel. This seems like a weird one, but our host mom did not supply towels. Thankfully, my roommate had brought two and allowed me to borrow one until I purchased my own. When I went to Northern Ireland, I brought two and was quite glad that I did.
A notebook. I did bring my journal to write down what I was doing each day, but I really needed a proper notebook for notes and homework during the day at the school. The first class I didn’t have anything and luckily the German next to me gave me a few sheets from his notebook. If you’re going to be taking classes, be prepared for the possibility that you may not have time to get a notebook before your first class, especially if said class is the day after you arrive.
Finally, with suitcases in hand, I waited at my dorm doors for the ride that would take the lot of us (six students and our professor) to Dulles International Airport. From there, we flew to La Ciudad de México (Mexico City), where we had our short layover (seems to me that airport delays are not as common in Mexico; we even had an early flight on the way home). In the next post I will pick up on our flight into Oaxaca.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been home for almost two months. During this time, I’ve done a lot of thinking and reflecting on my semester abroad. I can definitely say that coming back to the states is a lot harder than going to Northern Ireland was. Still, I learned a lot and I figured I’d share a little bit about what I learned and how my experiences are shaping my future.
Without further ado, I give you the top ten things I realized both in Northern Ireland and following my return.
No. 1: I don’t understand Americans.
Talking to other Americans is often hard. Since I’ve come back, I’ve realized how hard it is for me to communicate with Americans on certain issues, such as gun rights, health care and affordable higher education.
I’m not saying all Americans are horrible. In fact, some Americans are also quite liberal and agree wholeheartedly with me. The difference is that in Northern Ireland I felt like people understood my opinions, and here I feel like I am constantly having to explain and defend my opinions. I guess that there are some opinions that people will just never understand if they’ve never experienced another set of laws and policies.
No. 2: National pride is a strange thing.
Following my decreased tolerance for so-called “traditional American values,” I’ve also had to recognize what I really think about being an American. If you’ve ever had a conversation with me, you probably know that I am quite critical of “the system.” Specifically, the American system.
I’ve been frustrated for a long time, but now I feel more distant from my fellow citizens than ever. It’s a strange feeling, but one I’m coming to terms with pretty willingly.
No. 3: I actually like bigger cities.
I never really lived in a big city. My home town doesn’t even have a population of 300 people. The next town over, where I worked and attended high school, has less than 4,000 people. The town in which I am currently living and attending college is just under 24,500 people. In contrast, there are over 280,000 people living in Belfast.
To me, Belfast was huge. Now that I’m back, I feel like everything is just so tiny. I find myself feeling a bit lonely when I don’t see quite so many people out and about.
No. 4: Plans are overrated (most of the time).
I tend to stress out about what exactly it is I’m doing tomorrow, next week, in the next year, etc. One thing I learned while abroad is that I need to chill out. There were multiple trips that were not well-defined. We made sure that we had key places, travel routes, transportation and a time frame figured out, but we didn’t have detailed plans of what we were doing. Honestly, I think that worked out better. We did a lot of random things off the beaten path that we never would have found by sticking to a strict plan. Life is better when you go with the flow.
No. 5: Be flexible and ready for disaster.
There were a lot of things that didn’t work out on my trip. For example, the weekend we went to Scotland there was a major mudslide which created an impassible roadblock. We had to restructure our entire next day on the fly. Yes, it was frustrating, but we had to take things in stride.
Even when the car took a detour to the ditch on the west coast, we kept calm (okay, I panicked a little) and got the car unstuck. Forrest Gump is always right. “Life is a box of chocolates,” and sometimes you get ones that you don’t like.
No. 6: Be enthusiastic and spontaneous.
Enthusiasm goes a long way. Trying new things and doing every random thing you come across… It’s pretty amazing. I was a lot less reserved while I was abroad because I wanted to have as many experiences as possible.
What I learned from this is that there’s a pretty big world out there. Surprisingly, you’ll still find things that are the same, no matter where you are, and that’s pretty spectacular, too.
No. 7: Living with less is better, not to mention cheaper.
This one was the most difficult upon arriving in Northern Ireland. All I took with me was one bag of checked luggage, one carry-on, and my backpack. The first night there I didn’t even have bedding.
I remember the first day realizing that the main things to concern myself with were food and water. I didn’t get to go shopping for bedding, kitchen items, and general things that I needed for school and my room in the flat until the next day.
Throughout the semester I often found that I didn’t always have everything I needed and often I would have to borrow something from other international students or go out and buy it. However, upon my return to the U.S. I suddenly feel smothered by stuff.
I’ve been doing my best to shove everything away into the basement (at home) and closet (in the apartment). I’ve found that a more minimalist lifestyle is comfortable for me, especially if I’m traveling.
No. 8: Remember what matters most.
One thing that I’m finding incredibly important is to preserve memories. I did so much in such a short amount of time and while I remember the general things I did, like visiting Edinburgh and hiking at Giant’s Causeway, there were also a lot of little things that were important to me, like remembering how the layers of paint looked on a special piece of graffiti art, or how I stayed up late into the night talking to other international students about politics over some wine.
Part of what I’ve done in response to this is print off the photos that meant the most to me. Each photo has a story to it. Maybe there was a particular joke or conversation, or maybe one of us did something stupid at that place. Maybe I had a realization there.
My photo album contains a unique collection of memories that mean something to me but is also a medium for me to show others some of the things that I saw and experienced.
No. 9: Friends made abroad are some of the best friends you’ll have.
This one is pretty special, but it’s not quite the most important thing I learned. I made some amazing friends (and found a twin!) in Northern Ireland despite the short amount of time we had together. I feel very privileged to have had the time to both meet and get to know people from all over the world. I hope I have the pleasure of crossing paths with everyone again!
No. 10: I have the confidence to live abroad.
The most important thing I learned while abroad is to that I am confident in new places. I didn’t know anyone the day I arrived. Everyone I met was brand new to me. Everywhere I went was different. Simple things, like figuring out how the electrical outlets worked, were different enough that I had to alter my everyday routine, if ever so slightly.
While abroad I learned to cook, use (some) public transportation and (sort of) drive a manual car among other things.There was always something different, but somehow I loved every moment of it (well… maybe not Dublin). In response to this, I’ve been thinking pretty seriously about where I want to be after I graduate. In the past I’ve been very confused by this question. Now I’ve realized the answer is simple: Europe.
That’s right! I’ve decided to get lost all over again by the end of 2015. I’m currently looking at graduate schools in Germany. That time spent in Mexico made me pretty confident that I can be outgoing enough to immerse myself in a new language comfortably. Also, Germany has tuition-free programs in English that will help me continue along my path to becoming a changemaker.
This may be the end of my story in Northern Ireland, but it’s not the end of my travels. I’ll keep you all posted on my graduate school status as well as sharing a few mini-adventures along the way.
Alright. I think it’s about time to get something straight. Contrary to popular belief, I haven’t spent the past three months in Ireland. Yes, I did travel to Ireland, but I’ve actually been living in Northern Ireland. What’s the difference?
Before I explain, I’d like to point out that I’m not an expert. I can only relay what I learned in my politics class and what I learned through personal experience. I hereby make the disclaimer that anything I say is what I observed, and not an attack on or defense of anything that has happened in the region. With that out of the way, let’s get started.
Northern Ireland is a part of the island of Ireland. You can see it is the dark part shown below. Even though it’s on the island, it’s technically a part of the United Kingdom. In case you didn’t know, the official name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In all, the UK has four parts: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
So that means I was really living on British territory the whole time? Yes! But what about the rest of the island? The rest of the island is what we commonly think of as “Ireland.” It is officially called the Republic of Ireland.
Now you’re probably wondering how on Earth Northern Ireland came to be a part of the UK. Let me give you a brief history.
In the beginning, of this history lesson at least, Ireland was an island ruled by various clans and families. There was no centralized government and Ireland wasn’t really a country; however, across the Irish Sea was England, a powerful neighbor.
So do you remember that crazy English king that had all those wives? King Henry VIII was his name. If you’ll recall, he was desperate for the same thing all kings wanted: a male heir. The problem was, his wife, Catherine of Aragon, didn’t give him one. So, Henry VIII asked the pope for a divorce which was denied. Obviously, that didn’t make the king happy and led to England’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church.
As a result of the separation, England is a Protestant country. You probably remember a certain saint, St. Patrick, who was one of many missionaries in Ireland. So by this time, most of Ireland had been converted to Catholicism.
At the beginning of Henry VIII’s time on the throne, England had already established their rule in some parts of Ireland, including Ulster where I was studying. Henry made the decision to conquer all the rest of Ireland during his rule. Like I said, there wasn’t a central Irish government and there certainly wasn’t an Irish Army, so after some fighting Henry actually did manage to conquer all of Ireland.
Now, add colonialism. At the same time that Jamestown was being established in America, a plantation was also being established in Ulster. In Ulster, there was a strong loyalty to England, so some declared themselves Protestants as a show of loyalty. Being Catholic was to be against the king (you know, especially since the king was still mad about that divorce-rejection thing).
As you have probably figured out, this leads to the concentration of Protestants with British loyalty in the northeast part of Ireland with the rest of Ireland remaining solidly Roman Catholic and against British rule.
Fast forward through history a little and we arrive at World War I. The Irish, who were still ruled by the British, were sent to fight in the war. Fighting side-by-side resulted in a temporary stabilizing effect for the duration of the war. After the war, especially with all of Woodrow Wilson’s talk about national self-determination, the Irish wanted more than ever to address the issue of their nationality once and for all.
Britain took a look at the island of Ireland and thought, well, overall the majority of the island wants to be their own nation. In six of the northern counties, however, the majorities wanted to remain a part of Britain. Thus, we have partition in 1920 with the Government of Ireland Act. This effectively said there will be a Northern Ireland and a Southern Ireland, each to be governed separately with their own Home Rule, but still a part of British territory.
As you can imagine, the Irish in the South still weren’t happy, and they launched an Irish War of Independence. This eventually led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty which made the South their own Irish nation in 1922. In 1949, it officially declared itself the Republic of Ireland, which is what we are familiar with today.
But… What about Northern Ireland? Like I said, they were majority Protestant, loyalists, unionists. (Okay, majority by gerrymandering.) Most of them wanted to be ruled by Britain instead of this Home Rule stuff they were being given. So no, they weren’t happy either. But it wasn’t just that simple.
The minority was Catholic (this “side” was also referred to as nationalists and republicans), and they wanted a united Ireland. In reality, though it seems like the problem was solved, it was really just being managed and ignored with some easy solution that neither side was really happy with.
Enter Northern Irish Conflict, otherwise known as “The Troubles.”
There was a lot of turmoil and unrest, and in Londonderry / Derry on 5 October 1968 tensions finally boiled over at a civil rights march. Marches and parades were common during this time, and the riots and violence they caused eventually led to the British Army coming to Northern Ireland in 1969. With things getting ever worse, in 1972 Northern Ireland returned to Direct Rule by the British.
At this point the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a nationalist paramilitary, was in for “the long war,” willing to accept nothing other than British withdrawal and a united Ireland. So, a period of several decades of violence ensued. There were bombings, open warfare in the streets, and other horrible acts of violence.
I won’t sugar coat it. This time of roughly thirty years (up to 1998) was awful. If you don’t know anything about the history of the conflict, I would encourage you to do some reading on it, watch some videos, and be ever mindful of the prejudices from both sides while doing so.
This period of conflict was a horrible cycle of “you bombed us so now we will bomb you” on both sides. Paramilitary organizations were often the local “protectors,” acting as police, jury, and executioner all at once. Parades continued, as did the riots.
A couple of stabs at peace were made, including the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. In this, the British government and the Irish government agreed to work together on containing the situation in Northern Ireland, work on issues of reconciliation, and provide international support for the region. It held up, but it didn’t bring peace.
It wasn’t until the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) in 1998 that the peace, or at least a framework for it, seemed to have arrived. Even with the agreement, there were still considerable issues to be addressed, including rights and equality, policing, parades, prisoners, victims, and decommissioning of weapons.
There are some successes here. Decommissioning is complete and the permanent disbanding of the paramilitaries has occurred. A police force, called the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI), is functioning fully today. Many prisoners have been released, with limitations. And in 2007, Northern Ireland was able to finally have a devolved government again.
However, many questions still remain. Who counts as a victim? What about the prisoners who were treated unfairly? Is the PSNI actually better, or is it just the same people who were active in paramilitaries performing the same discrimination as before? Which flags do you fly, and when, and where? Who can have parades, and is it okay to do them along the historical routes, even if they go through areas that aren’t of the same community? Should the peace walls come down? How should issues of housing be addressed? Should the school system be integrated?
Yeah, Northern Ireland isn’t perfect. But as a foreigner who lived there for several months, I can tell you that it’s gorgeous, the people are the nicest I’ve ever met, it’s safe and it’s recovering. It hasn’t even been ten years since Northern Ireland got a devolved government, and not yet twenty since the Good Friday Agreement, but I would definitely say it’s healing and well worth a visit.
Which side was ultimately right? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.
As you all probably noticed, I’ve taken a month-long break from my blog. In that time I’ve taken a great final trip (which I will get to in just a minute), finished all of my assignments, taken one of my final exams on campus, and started working on studying for the final pieces in my other two classes. I’ve also returned to the States, readjusted to the time (my friend who studied in India was right; coming back is worse!), and spent some time with my family and friends.
Like I said, I took one last trip for a grand finale travel weekend. The sixth of December was my birthday, so I thought, why not travel? Since I had not yet been to the Cliffs of Moher, I made seeing them my goal. My usual travel partner agreed to go with me provided I did a good chunk of the driving. (And yes, that means that I do have some sort of ability to drive a manual!)
We left after classes on a Thursday night, heading to Sligo where we would stay that night. This took quite a while as the only way out of Belfast was through considerable traffic. Belfast is big compared to what I’m used to, but it’s not that big. Where on Earth did all the cars suddenly come from?
Anyway, after we escaped the traffic, we ran into rain. My favorite. Not. Eventually, we did make it to Sligo, to a hostel which clearly had no heat. The weekend wasn’t starting off well, but that’s okay. What was coming made up for it.
The next morning we got started straight away after breakfast. The weather was still rainy, but the sun was making a valiant fight to come out. And it did. And then it rained. And then it was sunny, again. Repeat. Though, at the time, I was quite irritated with this annoying and unpredictable weather pattern, it made for an amazing day (well, weekend) of rainbows. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many rainbows we saw over Friday and Saturday.
Yes, we had seen rainbows in Ireland before, but we had never seen them like this. I remember remarking at the first rainbow that I had never seen one so vibrant and clear. Well, I’m happy to say that first rainbow was a weakling!
It became an enjoyable hunt for rainbows, trying to find places to photograph them, and doing so as quickly as possible before they faded away. The rainbow above is the best one we got all weekend at a beach down a tiny one lane road. It was gone not even a minute after I snapped the picture.
I should point out that we weren’t just looking for rainbows the entire first day. We were actually traveling down to the city of Galway and stopping any time we saw something interesting, including random beach signs. One which we followed led us to a gorgeous beach where the sun became our best friend for some truly amazing photographs. I’ll share just a few with you….
Some other things we stumbled upon that day were one of St. Patrick’s churches, a Dark Hedges look-alike, many sheep (it is Ireland, after all), and some pretty intense Irish mountains.
I suppose I also can’t get away without mentioning that I also learned how not to drive a manual. We were okay, and the car was too. It just wanted to slide around the wet road and eat a little grass.
I’m just glad that, in the moment of this chaos, for once no pictures were taken of this extremely embarrassing event. I also admit that yes, looking back it’s kind of funny that I tried to go off-roading in a little Mazda.
Moving on… We got to Galway unharmed and sought out our B&B. Since it was my birthday, we decided to splurge a little, and boy am I glad we did! The B&B we stayed at was gorgeous. The beds were comfortable and the home was incredibly warm. The woman who owned the place was so sweet and welcoming. We stayed two nights and the other guests were very quiet and courteous. The breakfast they served was delicious and completely made up for the fact that we had no access to a kitchen as we would at a hostel. I really can’t find a single thing to complain about at this place.
We found the city centre of Galway to be equally as lovely as the B&B. That first night we took a walk around past the Christmas market and all the little shops. We visited a bar which was decorated “American style.” Apparently their definition of America is Texas country, cowgirls, New York city lights, and 80’s rock mixed with 90’s grunge. It was my type of music for the most part so I can’t complain, but the band playing wasn’t all that great.
I did have fun looking at all the license plates and finding Missouri’s state plate as well as Virginia’s. After the band at the first bar finished we went to another bar, which at midnight started playing live music. This band was definitely better. It was a great way to ring in my birthday.
The next morning we took a little trip around Galway and visited the markets and shops. When we had finished looking around we grabbed the car and headed off toward Moher making a little stop along the way.
I had looked up Corcomroe Abbey and it seemed like a nice little place. It wasn’t too far off the way to the cliffs, and when we got there we saw, you guessed it, another rainbow. Unfortunately, I failed to get a photo of this one.
The place is well maintained and it even seems that the cemetery is still in use. I really enjoyed that it was so large originally but still quite intact despite the years and weather.
Moving on along, we finally got to the Cliffs of Moher. Shortly before we arrived, a dense cloud of fog descended on us. We bought our tickets anyway and decided to have a lunch in the car before we ventured out.
Luckily enough, it was windy, so there were periods during which the weather cleared enough that we could at least take some pictures and see the cliffs. Unfortunately, it was windy as I said, so every time we were getting some good photos, the fog would obscure the view again. I guess the wind proved it was both good and evil that day.
When you first arrive there is a pretty decent view of the cliffs going off into the distance… which you can view behind some safety barriers which are quite a way back from the edge. However, if you keep walking the barriers disappear.
We hiked along this direction until it started to get dark. You see, I was very concerned about falling off the cliffs in the dark. Obviously, falling off a cliff in the daylight is much better. For this very concern, we walked back before it got too dark. I’m glad we did because it started to rain heavily.
We got back to Galway safely and dried off before we went into the city centre for an amazing dinner at a pasta house. I’ve never had pasta made fresh like that before, and it was a meal made in heaven. The next day we headed back across Ireland to the university. We stopped along the way at a castle in Trim.
It was a really great three-day weekend adventure. This was also my final adventure away from Belfast. It was bittersweet and, despite the finicky weather, I’m glad we went.
After that weekend I only had one more week of classes, a weekend to say my goodbyes to all my friends and do a few last-minute things in Belfast before flying back to the States. So I guess that’s it. That was the end of my trip.
But that’s not the end of the blog! I’ve got a few more things that I want to say in a few more posts, so keep checking back in the future to hear more. Eventually, I’ll also share which international adventure I’m planning next!
Before I forget, I need to say a very special thank you to my travel partner. He put up with my incessant talking, strange eating habits, an unintended car accident, and so much more all while recovering from having his appendix out the weekend before. So, thank you, A, for a fantastic weekend and the truly unforgettable memories!
Last weekend my friend and I decided to take a last-minute trip to Dublin. That’s fine, but only if there isn’t a really important game and a Passenger concert that same night.
I’ll be honest with you all. I really didn’t like Dublin. It just wasn’t my type of city, I wasn’t impressed, and it did not live up to its reputation in my mind.
Besides the horrible traffic and copious amounts of taxis, I was disenchanted with the architecture, unappealing bridges, and chaotic mix of modern and historic buildings that seemed more of an eye sore to me than a harmonious mixture.
I’ll try to keep it light, and tell you the few good things about the city followed by a much better second day for the weekend.
When we arrived, the city was super crowded. After finally settling in, we went straight to the Temple Bar District for some sorely-needed food. After eating we took a look around at some of the iconic bars in town.
They look nice from the outside, but inside, the Temple Bar wasn’t that exciting. In fact, I think that the Crown Bar in Belfast is much more gorgeous. Even Lavery’s and Filthy McNasty’s bars in Belfast are more tasteful. Needless to say, if this is the best the Republic of Ireland has to offer, I’m disappointed.
So now I’ll tell you something I did like: The Old Library at Trinity College. I love to read and I was especially excited to see all the old books and the lovely interior.
We walked around the city some more and happened upon Dublin Castle. I was expecting something massive and old with a beauty to rival the Edinburgh Castle. But no, it wasn’t like that. Only a very small part was those things and a lot of the castle seemed to be pained over in weird colors.
The garden wasn’t exactly what I would call a garden either, so I was further disappointed in that. The brick snakes in a Celtic pattern were interesting, but did not make up for the fact that the castle grounds fell so short of my expectations.
Moving on… We ran into Twin and another international student while in Dublin and had dinner with them. The rest of that night we were wandering around town trying to find a place to stay. We failed at this which put me in a very bad mood. My bad mood was not at all helped by the rude people in the city either…
So, no, I didn’t like Dublin. You couldn’t pay me to go back there. I felt very uncomfortable for some reason from the moment we got there, and the things I saw didn’t really make it better. I also felt like the city was completely disorganized.
No, I didn’t have the best experience considering we slept in the car that night, but I also wasn’t too happy before we realized there was not a single place in the city to stay. But hey, I’m human, and I don’t have to love every place I visit. Also, cities aren’t really my thing. I’m happier surrounded by trees any day. Which brings me to day two of our trip: Wicklow County.
We went to the Wicklow Mountains National Park and hiked 11 kilometers. That’s 6.8 miles. I was exhausted to say the least but the views were stunning. The first half of the hike was a bit slow but it really picked up later.
We hiked past a few loughs, past a small waterfall, and up a mountain onto a boardwalk. Here are a few highlights of the natural beauty:
On the way back, we also checked out some eerie ruins which I have since learned make up Glendalough, St. Kevin’s monastic retreat. The graveyard there had headstones dating back hundreds of years and there were even some recent ones, suggesting that the cemetery was still in use today. I was most attracted by the round tower from the 10th century. Really though, the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul were the most awe-inspiring.
All in all, our day outdoors was much better than our day and night in Dublin. The best part: the weather was clear. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and although it was cold enough that I saw ice for the first time here, I can’t really complain. Moral of the story: Always skip the big cities you aren’t sure about and head straight for the wilderness, if that’s your thing that is.