Posted by: froldt | February 2, 2009

The Importance of Packing Light

“No one ever wished they packed heavier.”

Before heading out to Ireland, I re-packed my bag a number of times (as you can read about here). After much effort, my wife and I managed to narrow our luggage down to a carry-on and single suitcase apiece. This amount was enough to provide everything we needed while in Ireland for four and a half months, but was small enough that we could easily carry it ourselves. Fortunately so, it turned out, as we managed to get off the bus sooner than necessary and had to walk an extra mile through Dublin while carrying our stuff.

During our trip we ran into a fellow student who did not subscribe to our theory of packing light. Following him off the bus, we realized that he had 5 pieces of luggage: 2 suitcases, a gym bag, a carry-on and a guitar. How does one person manage all of this stuff? We still don’t know, as we volunteered to help carry since we were traveling to the same destination. He bravely carried all but the guitar. The carry-on was strapped around his shoulders, the gym bag was perched on top of a suitcase, and he rolled the suitcases behind him, one in each hand. While this arrangement would probably work fine on the smooth floors inside an airport, it was rather cumbersome on the uneven streets of the city. The gym bag kept falling off and getting drug on the ground, and the double suitcases were too wide and everyone had to walk around him. Not to mention the guitar, which I was carrying.

How did we do it? How did we manage to carry everything for four and a half months in a suitcase and carry-on each? I did have the advantage of not bringing my guitar along, so I automatically eliminated one item from my packing list. Otherwise, we realized that we generally wear the same clothes week to week anyway, and started with those. Instead of bringing bulky coats and a lot of extra sweaters, we packed based on the layering system (the backpacking background comes in handy sometimes!) We included a base-layer of thermals that can be worn underneath our jeans and shirts. With a sweater added on top, and a windproof rain-jacket over that, we will be toasty warm in some very cold temperatures, colder than it is likely to get while we are here. Just in case, we did add in a dressy outfit and pair of shoes to match.

There is more to packing than just clothes, though. What about all of the other stuff that we use on a daily basis? Since we were planning on finding a furnished apartment, we did not need to carry any bed linens or cooking gear. If needed, we could purchase a set of sheets upon arriving (we didn’t). We had the laptop and a couple of 3-ring binders with paper for school use, as well as the necessary plug-converters for the laptop and whatever writing instruments would be necessary. Entertainment-wise, we brought the knitting supplies that we thought would be needed during the time we were in Ireland, as well as the GPSr and Palm for GeoCaching. We threw in some books and a sketch pad for some additional entertainment. The only other things we could think that we use on a daily basis are toiletries. Just the basics: some soap, shampoo, and deodorant, q-tips, razor, toothbrush and toothpaste, a washcloth and our PackTowels. The only other items were a blanket or sleeping bag and a travel pillow for use on the plane and when traveling.

Have you ever really thought about what all you use in the course of an average day? You might be surprised how little it is. Hygiene products, clothes and some entertainment. Obviously we weren’t bringing our vehicle, we’ve seen all of our movies (and are not big TV watchers anyway), have our music saved on the laptop and will be using provided equipment to cook and eat from. Since the hairdryer would have needed a converter anyway, it was easier to purchase one after arriving here (this and the sheets were the only things we planned to purchase after arriving, and the sheets only if needed).

The small amount of stuff combined with some good packing techniques allowed us to fit everything inside our suitcases. We had enough room left-over that we managed to fit my wife’s bathrobe (which she was most thankful for), some snacks for the plane, an empty water bottle, and a spare duffel bag in case our luggage weighed too much.

Not only was our minimal luggage easy to carry while traipsing around town looking for the train station, but it came in handy a number of other times. While on the bus and the train, it was simple to find a place to store everything. The lift (elevator) was out at the hostel, so we had to carry our luggage up four flights of stairs. Repacking once we found a place to stay was a quick matter. Unpacking and moving into our flat was a quick matter that only took about 10 minutes.

If you’re getting ready to pack for a trip, here is the most useful advice that I can pass on. Take half as much as you think you will need, and twice as much money.




August 2008

When I returned to the United States after spending two months in Salalah, Oman, I went shopping with my best friend, Meaghan.  I knew I had been in the Gulf for too long when I looked at a shirt that was my size, and exclaimed with a combination of surprise and disgust, “This is my size?  This looks like a child’s shirt!”

I guess after spending a summer in an abaya, my thoughts on modesty had been slightly skewed…

Posted by: j | December 27, 2008

Girls vs. Boys

October 2008

After participating in two organized study abroad programs in Egypt and Oman, I’ve come to understand that there is a significant difference between the young women who study abroad in the Middle East and the young men who do the same.

Generally, I’ve found that girls who study Arabic in the Middle East are more outgoing and socially adept than their male counterparts. I noticed on both of my study abroad programs that the female participants were typically well rounded; they had equally prosperous academic and social lives. When I looked at the guys, I couldn’t draw the same conclusion. That’s not to say that all of the men were incapable of social function; there were plenty of guys who were just as gregarious as the girls. It’s just a generalization.

I think that this male-dorkiness/female-awesomeness must be due to the Middle East’s social environment. I think I can safely say that living here is much harder for foreign women that it is for foreign men. Think about it for a second. In Egypt, foreign women (as well as Egyptian women) are constantly harassed on the streets, groped, and followed by uncouth men. Getting into a taxi or asking an officer for directions even presents challenges.

I know that when I first moved here last year, getting used to the never ending verbal sexual harassment was the toughest th

ing I dealt with. I can handle it now; I almost feel like I’ve developed an immunity to it. I rarely notice it anymore. But I don’t think that everyone could do the same. It takes a strong individual to let disgusting, inapproriate remarks and actions roll of her back.

Men just don’t have to deal with these things. They aren’t bothered when they walk down the street. They don’t have to lower their eyes and pick up their pace when they walk by a group of Egyptian men. They never have to deal with the embarrassing and humiliating treatment that is accorded to foreign women here. They can get in a taxi without immediately being asked if they are married. They can ask for directions without being leered at. No one assumes that they are promiscuous. They aren’t catcalled, no one makes obscene gestures at them, because they aren’t sexualized the way that women are here. I feel like no matter how I dress, I can’t prevent people from perceiving me as a sex object.

That being said, I really believe that women face difficult and troublesome challenges when traveling here. Girls who live and study in the Middle East are stronger than men who study there because they have to be. Otherwise they just couldn’t make it.

Me and one of my incredible friends, who I met on my trip to Oman.

Posted by: j | December 8, 2008

An American Girl in the Middle East

Like most cultures, the Middle East is often stereotyped and misunderstood. But perhaps the subject which receives the most attention, besides the issue of terrorism, is the question of women in Arab society. Western critics often chastise the Arab world for its treatment of women. And although the American media has flooded the press with sensationalist pictures and stories of oppressed and brutalized Middle Eastern women, in reality, most women in the Arab world are highly respected and revered. In fact, it is not difficult to argue that women here are treated better than women in the West.

While much has been written on the question on Arab women, little has been said of Western women who find themselves in the Middle East. The level of discomfort varies from country to country, but in general, Western women face harassment. It isn’t the fact that Middle Eastern men disrespect Western women that disturbs me so deeply; this happens in many cultures. Travel to Italy or Spain, and the degree of harassment there will rival the harassment in the Middle East. What does bother me is the bigotry that Western women are forced to deal with in the Arab world. Seemingly without explanation, men here assume that white women are willing to hop into bed at a moment’s notice. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have been propositioned since I’ve been here. The sick fact of the matter is that these requests aren’t even subtle or private; men blatantly ask these women to go home with them in public.

There is a reason for this bad behavior, however. An overlooked but relevant pitfall of American hegemony is the exportation of our relatively liberal culture. In conservative cultures like the Middle East, where premarital sex is especially taboo, seeing American movies and television which include sexual promiscuity has left a less-than-respectable impression of western women, and American women in particular.

This is not to say that I in any way am opposed to the liberal values of the United States, in fact, I am a Democrat who will die before I vote Republican. But while America experienced somewhat of a sexual revolution in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Middle East has yet to go through something of that nature. Even in America, female sexuality is still plagued with double standards and intense scrutiny. I’ve sat around and watched the television hit, “Sex and the City,” with friends who have commented that the female actors on the program are “skanks,” and who say nothing of the male actors. For a region like the Middle East to see American women behaving this way on television and not find them scandalous is absurd.

Still, I cannot express how much I despise the assumption that because I am foreign, I therefore must be promiscuous. Despite the fact that I dress to meet cultural norms, avoid talking to or even being physically proximate to strange men, I am still met with dirty stares and unwanted advances. It’s almost as if my efforts are completely futile.

What infuriates me the most are the double standards. Recently, a member of our hotel staff offered a very indecent proposal to one of the young ladies on our program. Of course, she immediately refused and got herself out of that unfortunate situation. But when the hotel management was informed, they did nothing but scold the employee. If the man had propositioned an Omani woman, or any Arab woman, he would have been immediately fired. I wouldn’t even want to know what the woman’s family and/or husband would have done. The fact that society here “looks the other way” when foreign women are harassed is despicable. I get the feeling that in their minds, foreign women are “asking for it,” simply because they are foreign.

The fact of the matter is that I do make a huge effort respect the cultural norms of the Middle East, and should be offered the same level of respect.

Posted by: Ashley Smith | November 21, 2008

Koninginnedag– Queen’s Day in Amsterdam

Netherlands, May 2008

It’s Koninginnedag in Amsterdam, and the usually muted colors of the streets and canals have come alive in a vivid sea of orange!  Koninginnedag– or Queen’s Day– is an annual celebration that takes place on April 30th in the Netherlands, marking the birthday of the beloved monarch.  Although these celebrations are held in cities throughout Holland, the most famous one by far takes place in Amsterdam, where over a million visitors join the city’s 750,000 residents to form what many call the world’s largest street party.

I had looked forward to Queen’s Day ever since I read about it in planning my semester-long stay in Amsterdam.  All I really knew about it was that it would probably involve lots of people and lots of orange (the Dutch royal color).  Both of these predictions held true. 

All oranged-out

All oranged-out

In true Amsterdam style, the party actually begins the night before, on Koninginnenacht, when locals and visitors alike pour into the city center for concerts, dancing, and general mingling.  My friends and I visited one tent after another, checking out the various bands, DJ’s and comedy shows going on well into the night.  The sun had already begun to rise by the time we made our way back to our student residence, and I wondered where we’d get the energy for another entire day of this!

On the morning of Queen’s Day, we left our residence only to find that the trams (our usual means of transport into the city) were not running due to the massive amounts of people in the streets, so we were in for a long walk.  Not to worry though, because there was plenty to see and do along the way.  Queen’s Day is the one day of the year when Amsterdam residents can sell things in the street without licenses, and so an enormous flea market (“vrijmarkt”) springs up, in which you can find used clothing, books, electronics, or anything in between. 

Once we finally make it into the city center a few hours later, I’m truly astonished by the number of people who have managed to cram in! In the streets, parks and plazas, there are wall-to-wall people, all decked out in bright orange, of course, which makes for a pretty surreal sight.  There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different concerts, dance tents, and street performers throughout the city– truly something to appeal to everyone. 

One of the most striking aspects of the festivities is that while they are certainly a celebration of national pride, they also reflect Amsterdam’s truly multi-cultural nature.  While wandering around the city, I ate Indonesian loempia (spring rolls), watched Brazilian capoeria performances, and listened to Caribbean reggae music, all while mingling with people from all over the world.  At the same time, this celebration also provided me with a good picture of Dutch culture, which had so far been hard to pin down.  Between the crowds’ spontaneous bursts into folk songs, the floating parties cruising down the canals on houseboats, and all the tasty deep-fried food (kaassoufflé, anyone?) this party was unmistakably Dutch.

Floating party

Floating party

Predictably, the celebrations continued on into the night, but even the seemingly-boundless energy of an exchange student has its limits, so we decided to call it a night and and finally get some sleep before heading out to Germany the next day.  Now, if only I could figure out what to do with all this orange clothing…

Posted by: Ashley Smith | November 12, 2008

Surviving the World’s Most Dangerous Road

Bolivia, November 2007

I’m drenched in rain and sweat, gasping for breath at high altitude, and six inches away from plummeting to my death over the side of a cliff. Can someone please tell me again why I signed up for this?!

The route from La Cumbre to Coroico, in the heart of the Bolivian Andes, is widely known as the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” and for good reason. The infamous stretch has claimed hundreds of lives over the years, as its blind curves and crumbling gravel send trucks and buses tumbling down into foggy ravines. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—its reputation, this road has become a hotspot for thrill-seeking travelers from around the world, who defy all reason by attempting to bike it. And I was about to become one of them.

Just a few weeks earlier, I was in a dorm room in Buenos Aires, Argentina dreaming of the perfect way to end my semester-long study abroad experience. I had read about biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road in my Lonely Planet guide and thought it might be a fun thing to try, since my travel plans were already taking me to Bolivia. So I signed up for the trip, along with two of my friends and travel companions, Ben and Rocío. None of us quite knew what an adventure we were in for.

Cut to this chilly day in November, and the three of us are on a bus making our way to the start of the road in La Cumbre, a windswept and desolate site that appears to be the last outpost of civilization in this part of the Andes. We will begin our journey here, at over 15,400 feet. At this elevation, the air is cold and unbelievably thin; every breath feels labored. Before setting out, we make a ritual offering to Pachamama, the Aymara earth goddess, asking for her protection on our journey. As part of the ritual we pass around a bottle of what could only be pure grain alcohol, splashing a bit over the front tires of our bikes, and each taking a tiny sip. It does little to calm our nerves or fight the cold. As it begins to snow, our guides fill us in on the last-minute details and offer their wisdom for how to stay alive. I hope I don’t let them down.

The journey down the road takes us on a 3,500 meter vertical drop over the course of 64 kilometers. Because of the extreme drop in elevation, the changes in scenery along the way are dramatic. Not long after we set out, the dense fog has lifted, revealing a breathtaking landscape of rugged mountain peaks. During the course of our ride, the scenery changes gradually until we find ourselves in a sub-tropical rainforest. It rains intermittently throughout the ride, and we occasionally come across portions of the gravel road washed out by waterfalls. Along the way, the road is filled with reminders of the very-real danger its travelers face. There are dozens of makeshift memorials to the people who have lost their lives on it over the years. We come across one elderly man who keeps vigil over the spot where he lost his family many years ago, directing vehicles around the blind curve in the road. I have a pang of guilt in this moment as I realize how lucky I am to be taking this amazing journey, not out of necessity, but purely for the sake of adventure.

After nearly six hours on our bikes, we come within sight of Coroico, a sleepy town nestled into the forests of the sub-tropical lowlands. Judging from the monkeys and coatis roaming around, it’s obvious that we’re in a completely different world than the frozen, barren mountaintop where we began just a few hours ago. Little children who are lined up along the side of the road try to grab high-fives from us as we ride by. I can only imagine what they think of the daily influx of tourists who are crazy—and probably foolish—enough to willingly make this journey. At several heart-stopping moments on the trip, like when an oncoming truck would force me uncomfortably close to the edge of the cliff, I questioned my own sanity for doing this. But in the end, the sense of accomplishment was totally worth it; I’m sure if I could survive the World’s Most Dangerous Road, I could make it through anything.

Posted by: rachelschoen | November 10, 2008

!Fería de Abril!

Fería is a week long cultural and traditional festival held in April every year in Sevilla. It was going on all this past week but we traveled for the first part of the week because everyone says the first part of the week is very private and only locals are really allowed in the tents. So basically imagine a gi-normous fairground with thousands of colorful(green red, yellow) striped tents in lines and rows that went on forever. The tents were either private or public(but mostly private) and if they were private they were still open so you could see inside but there was some guard at the front of it. The tents belonged to different political parties, businesses, or even wealthier friends and families had private tents. Each tent was decorated differently inside- some were in fact very fancy and elaborate with nice tables and bars set up inside too. Almost all of them had live spanish music and people dancing, and a bar with food.

My favorite part of Feria is the Spanish dress. All the women had on bright, colorful spanish dresses- usually fitted at the top and then they poof out in ruffles at the bottom. They almost all wore flowers in their hair too. The men were dressed mostly in suits and a lot of them were riding around on horses through the Feria grounds with their wife or girlfriend riding sideways on the back!

Anyway Fería had more than just tents too. At one end of Fería there was an amusement park basically that they had brought in. They had all the rides you would see at a regular fair- two huge feris wheels, bungee jump, boomerang, etc. Also, they had all your regular fair games and you play to win those huge stuffed animals. They even had cotton candy and caramel apple stands too! I was quite impressed with Feria.

ALL these things went on the entire week pretty much 24 hours a day. When we went there at night we would lose track of time and look at our watches and all of a sudden realize it was incredibly late because the fairgrounds were still packed and no one even realized it was that late! But also I would go there during the day around noon and one oclock and there was still a large number of people there. When do they sleep?

This festival in Sevilla is a HUGE deal obviously in Spain and it very well known here. Spaniards from all over the country come to Sevilla during this week. Therefore it was jam-packed thursday friday saturday and last night. It was incredible though and a great example of spanish culture to see.

Posted by: Ashley Smith | November 10, 2008

Hello world!

EA students in Granada, Spain

EA students in Granada, Spain

Welcome to the official Education Abroad at UK blog! This is a place for current Education Abroad students to keep in touch and share their unique experiences from across the globe!

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