CollegeCulture & TravelExploreStudy Abroad

Yes, there’s nightlife and accents and atmosphere in London. There’s food and fair weather and incredible tourism in Rome. There’s beer and history and astounding diversity in Berlin. But there’s no fantastic games of charades that must be played in order to communicate with those around you, and there’s no air pollution to make city sunsets burst with auburn red. In Western Europe, the biggest challenge you’ll likely face as a foreigner is adding up your pocket change to buy a pretzel from that street vendor.

There’s a whole world of places where obtaining enough or adequate food is a challenge. Not only for the global poor because they can’t afford it, but also for tourists and foreign students who do not lack the financial means to acquire a wholesome meal but do lack the requisite Malagasy, Khmer, Lao, or Hindi words in their vocabulary.

To put things in perspective, this is by no means an accurate representation of all regions where the global poor live and certainly no reason to avoid studying abroad in these places. While studying abroad in Europe could result in some of the most cathartic and formative experiences in your life, studying abroad somewhere else offers greater challenges and potentially greater payoffs. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to just avoid Western Europe altogether and seek the unorthodox elsewhere. Here are just five of them.

You’re exposed to ways of life (significantly) different from your own.

Studying, living, or simply being abroad somewhere in post-industrial Europe is, frankly, quite similar to studying, living, or simply being anywhere else in the post-industrial Western world. So you switch the language on signs from English to another and convert to the metric system. Good one. That must’ve been challenging with your smartphone’s built-in translation and conversion features.

Traveling to someplace other than this select group of nations is a crash course in dealing with discomfort. You won’t always be uncomfortable physically, but you will certainly be an outsider – this is a good thing. Being the outsider is a lesson in understanding the life ways of “the other.” Not everyone looks, acts, talks, eats, drinks, loves, and lives the way you do, and that’s alright.

You’re humbled.

When you study abroad anywhere other than Western Europe, you’re humbled because the people you never encountered until now are the most incredible humans you’ve ever met. You’re humbled not because you’re self-centered and pretentious, but because the hard work that others do on a daily basis is inspiring.

You’re humbled by the truth that life can be hard, and, while your problems are difficult (don’t doubt that #firstworldproblems are real problems), others’ problems are difficult too. Your cab driver from ashen, polluted, industrial Hubei Province crossed half of China to build a life for herself and her family. She is proof that, collectively, humans struggle, and, in our struggle, we empathetically understand one another.

You recognize your own privilege.

In comparison, life back home is relatively easy. There are fewer immediate concerns about your physical well being, potable water comes out the tap, and supermarket shelves are stocked. For at least some things in your life, you’ve got choices. That might not mean you’re rich, but in some respects you’ve been given a lot more than others.

These things are privilege. Though you might not share in the material wealth of your country, the fact that you come from a country with choices is privilege. The ability to study abroad or study at all is privilege. You might feel guilty or ashamed to benefit so arbitrarily, but with these feelings comes a blurry but powerful recognition of injustice and inequality.

You have the potential to become more passionate, interesting, and any other adjective you’d like to be described as.

When you’ve exposed yourself to new ways of life, let yourself be vulnerable, humbled, and privileged, you will start to develop the traits you wish you had. Living outside of the hyper-commercialized post-industrial world will, in a broad sense, expose your weaknesses, which you can subsequently address and repair, and your strengths, which you can enjoy and fortify. In many ways, you will find what you seek.

You begin to understand beauty.

Mountain scenes and rainforests are just part of what is beautiful in this world. Unexpected things like a bamboo steamer full of pork dumplings wrapped in paper-thin rice flour dough is beautiful. Rusted old structures in the middle of grassy fields and getting slightly lost (anywhere, in general) are both beautiful in their own ways. Making friends is beautiful. Traveling alone is beautiful. Many things are beautiful for many different reasons.

When you seek the unorthodox, you will start to perceive and understand the beautiful value in the world around you.

Image by Joshua Earle

CultureTravel

“Hitting up the churches and museums in Winnipeg today + the Osborne village shopping district, which is apparently like a shorter version of Gastown. Wanna see the architecture and then relax along la rivière rouge sous le beau soleil.

The photograph is of the cathedral in the cemetery in the saint boniface area of Winnipeg. So cool. Two girls were making candles inside when the wax caught fire and destroyed everything (including the 5000-volume library, alas!). This was in 1860. They’ve rebuilt it since.”

Facebook post from Winnipeg, Canada; July 28th, 2012

Don’t lie. We’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another. You look over at a backpacker on the bus, busily typing into their phone, entering a new status update that proclaims their new destination along with the new photo (or two hundred) of the day. Your forehead wrinkles, your eyebrows crinkle, and you turn away, back to the open scenery rolling by outside your window, wondering how on earth another person could be so absorbed by technology and the maintenance of a superficial image when beauty strolls by so close and refined, if only you’d look.

Wait, you did mean guilty of checking Facebook on your travels, right? Well, no, I meant guilty of judging people who update and stay tuned to social media while traveling.

Yes, I know what most people think when they see someone on vacation just thumbing away on their phones. You’re supposed to be focusing on the new sights and sounds around you! or Why are you so conscious about your image that you have to brag about every new thing that you do? Those opinions are completely warranted in some cases; I won’t discount the arguments that technology is making people more distracted and pulling them away from the real world. Face it; we are the generation that relentlessly, obsessively documents ourselves. Nowadays, people are more interested in taking a selfie and proving that they’ve been to said place than actually taking in the experience. That being said, social media has its good points, and many annoyed looks are merely the result of misled impressions.

“There was no end in sight. Yearning plunged into the distance; frost caught in my hair. Rushing passage, as ona sleigh in space. An intoxicating feeling came over me: a burgeoning sense of life, the limitless, exuberant pleasure of being in the world. The freedom of an hour in the Russian winterland. I loved life.

Years charged by, death wheeled over the earth, God and his stars perished in the West, and there was war on earth. I was a soldier in danger and in pain, a wanderer, a traveler in space. But I loved life.

Willy Peter Reese, 1944. He never came home.”

Private Facebook post from Prague, Czech Republic; June 24th, 2014

The quote above would have escaped my memory had I not saved it online. Re-reading it brings back the same feelings that urged my hand to copy Reese’s words. His words were a mirror to the infinity, that toxic contradiction of invincibility teetering on the edge of a dark crevasse; this I feel when prancing in a winter wonderland, but also when just in flight, in motion, in travel.

It’s sad to say, but I have a memory lacking in depth, in courage. You could argue that I could have just kept my thoughts in a notebook, but I run out of pages. Or I lose the notebook. I probably have dozens of notebooks stored in boxes in the garage; I’ve always been a packrat. But until I find time and the will to venture out to the spiderwebs and dust, there they shall stay: still, closed, aching. Like a time capsule, treasured and waiting.

On the other hand, my Facebook page could run forever; it scrolls off the screen for miles. I can check my account when I’m seventy-six (assuming I live that long) and I’ll still be able to see the thoughts I thought important enough to immortalize, share with the world. Facebook automatically records the time, date and location of writing – which is why it’s so important for me to pen down my reflections of an event at the time and place. It’s like the journalist’s way of holding to the truth, adhering to the authenticity of the moment.

There’s something to be said about writing from the place of now. There’s an urgency to write in real time, to write and immortalize your feelings right in that moment and right before that and right afterwards, because we know that if we leave it till tomorrow, we won’t be able to recall the small details, and if we leave it till the next week, we’ll only remember the highlights. Also true: tomorrow, there will be something else to write; the week after, even more. If I don’t write it now, the great likelihood is that I won’t write it ever.

“Oh, the many shades of Ireland.

I’ve seen it at its most dramatic, the colours vibrant and popping, and its most serene, like you’re invading a private world of nature that isn’t meant for human eyes. You can never get a bad photo of Ireland, this vast, beloved land is just too photogenic, almost to a fault. 😉

Made lots of progress today. Caught an early ferry from Cape Clear Island to Schull, on the Mizen peninsula, and spent the hour-long journey singing and watching the waves and the grey skies – was the only passenger on the boat, total five-star treatment, haha. Biked a total of 70 km today, whoot! The most I’ve done so far in a day this trip, and it’s been among one of the most scenic stretches of the Wild Atlantic Way. Truly, some of the sights I’ve seen are so rugged it makes me feel like I’m facing off danger just being in its awesome presence.The world is just too goddamned beautiful.

Another soggy day, the third wet day of the trip so far, but at 5pm, just when I went down to Mizen Head to get a view of the cliffs and the ocean from the southernmost point of the peninsula, the sky opened up and the sun came through – oh, what a glorious, much-appreciated entrance that was!

West Cork, you’ve been simply stunning! I’m a lucky girl. Tomorrow – crossing the border into Kerry, and beginning leg 2 of the journey.”

Facebook post from the County of Cork, Ireland; August 27th, 2014

One of the most powerful things I find, as a writer, is that looking back at your past entries, you don’t just remember what you’ve seen and accomplished, felt and survived; you also see a different side of yourself, a different maturity or state of mind. Four months before the dated post above, I wrote something in complete juxtaposition:

“I’ve had the opportunity to bike twice in Europe – the first was with my host in Glasgow, if you’ll remember, and the second was alone through the gorgeous grasslands and along the fierce highways. It’s a bit of a fear of mine to cycle alone in a foreign country, but there were so many nice people who helped me along the way.”

Facebook post from Bratislava, Slovakia; May 19th, 2014

Funnily enough, I don’t remember being afraid of biking solo through a foreign country. The immediate thought that would come to mind if you asked me what one of my greatest bicycle journeys (or any journey, period) has been is Oh, the time I biked for ten days around Ireland.

I don’t know if it’s possible to relive moments that have passed, but when I view something I expressed, whether a photograph, a written thought or a drawing, something calls to a long-buried memory tucked between the grooves and ridges of my brain. It’s like a quick flash in front of my eyes, a glimpse of a portal into a different world. It may not play out like an indie film, but all of those glimpses represent hand-picked slides of my past that I would not have remembered without a trigger. For that, I have to thank Facebook.

During my travels, I typically use Facebook at least once a day, unless I’m out in the boonies camping or on some long-distance sea voyage (the latter has yet to happen, sadly). Facebook, for me, is like a virtual diary with the added benefits of automatically sharing the thoughts and images I accumulate on my journey with all the people I care about. I use it to store and share my photographs, the precious moments lucky enough to be caught on film – photographs of myself in situations I won’t remember in a couple of years. A photograph of myself with two guys, all wearing sombreros, in Vietnam?! Check.

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Facebook also lets me keep in contact with friends I meet along the way and friends back home. When I’m lonely on the road, I know I can talk to someone with the touch of a button. Facebook also lets everyone know I’m safe, that I’m still alive. If I don’t post something for a while, people will at least know where I last was, on which day. That’s really important.

But, to some degree, you only post stuff to Facebook to show off, don’t you? One might ask me, eyebrow raised in doubt.

Well, I won’t disagree with you. Travel is, to a degree, a privilege, and while it took me a while to admit it, I have to say that I do take it for granted at times. When I traveled around Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand earlier this year, I kept on thinking about how lucky I was to have simply been born in the ‘right’ country, to a middle-class family with the kind of opportunities we have. I kept on thinking how countries in Southeast Asia were so affordable for people in wealthier countries, but how people from Vietnam, for example, would have to work for a decade or more just to afford one family trip to North America. I’m even lucky to just have a Malaysian passport; my citizenship allows me to visit 166 countries without a visa, or with a visa-on-arrival. That’s a huge amount of mobility that, sadly, citizens of certain other countries aren’t afforded. Life dealt me a pretty good hand.

But I don’t post photographs to show off the fact that I travel. Some travel companies are now taking on the slogan, “Take the next selfie in an exotic location to make your friends jealous!” That literally repulses me. Travel isn’t a competition, and if you think that way, you’re not thinking about travel right. Travel isn’t about one-upping one another for the title of ‘Most Countries I’ve Ever Stepped Foot In’. Travel isn’t calculative. Travel is about an exchange of culture, language, scenery, friends. Travel is about expanding our worlds, showing us just how small we are, teaching ourselves humility and patience. When I put up photographs from my travels, yes, it’s to show everyone I’m having a good time, but it’s also to showcase the beauty of the world, to give them snapshots of what else is out there beyond our comfort zones. A few of my friends tell me they live vicariously through my photographs and travel notes. I can understand that, because when I’m not traveling, I love looking at my Facebook feed, full of photographs from my friends who are frequent travelers, exploring South America and Europe and Asia. It keeps me invigorated, anticipating the next time I can get out on the road again, feeding my inspiration.

There will always be skeptics. My original title for this piece was “Reflections from the Road: A Defense of Facebook on my Travels,” but then I realized that sounded like I was seeking someone’s approval, or needed to prove something. In reality, I don’t, and you don’t. Opinions on social media seem to be divided into two halves: either people reveal too much of their lives, sometimes obnoxiously, sometimes mistakenly, or people filter their lives so that their social media accounts reveal only the parts they want people to see: the happy, glorious, brave side of them. To a certain extent, social media has masked anything that suggests true sorrow, anger or ruthlessness, and so we can’t be blamed for therefore thinking that social media is just for face, for show. But that doesn’t mean it’s all superficial. If you were to look back at what I posted when I was 15, you’d see that it’s all gibberish between young teenage girls. But I think if you looked at my posts in recent years, you could see the rawness of my heart.

“I know where I started out: starry-eyed, idealistic, ambitious and naive. Had the drive and the passion to take it all the way even through the dangers. I still hope I’m that naked flame.

But I wonder what kind of bad habits I have as a traveler. Sure, carrying just one backpack all around Europe has helped me get really far, but what about the deeper issues at play? They say take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footsteps. Do I take too many photos? Am I living in the moment? What kind of mark do I leave on the countries and people that have so kindly hosted me? I hope it’s a footprint that bears my changing identity, that remains bona fide and dedicated to the soul no matter the number of experiences that try to cull it.

But one of my biggest questions – and one of my scariest – is: Can I actually call myself a traveler, instead of a tourist? We always look at tourists with some extent of derision, rolling our eyes at their ignorant antics… As much as I hate to admit it, I do have a bit of the tourist in me, as much as I try hard to avoid that stereotype. One thing I have learned is that the next time I take on a long backpacking journey such as my summer in Europe, I will slow down.”

Facebook post from Dublin, Ireland; August 21st, 2014

Without these posts, these diary entries, I wouldn’t have remembered these specific moments. I’d say we are the sum total of our feelings, thoughts and actions, and if I can’t remember what I felt – the admiration, the inspiration, the luck, the chance, the fight – I would be missing out on a grand part of an experience of a lifetime. Where I might have only remembered the aftermath and the highlights, the great peaks and the final conclusion, with these posts, I have a second chance. I can go back to the in-between.

Yes, social media has made people even more vain and self-absorbed as before – but it has made people more self-conscious and vulnerable too. Social media has people doing all they can for a glamorous selfie, even risking their lives for what they think is the next coolest image. People have died trying to take selfies on top of high buildings and bridges, and in front of oncoming trains. I personally think this is utterly ridiculous. I mean, who wants to be remembered for dying for a selfie? Who wants to be remembered for being vain and stupid? Selfies are symbolic for the wrong things.

Photographs, on the other hand, are symbolic and metaphorical, for all the right reasons. When you put your camera in a stranger’s hand, you’re saying, “I trust you enough. I trust you enough to not steal my camera, and I trust you enough to capture a good image of me.” There’s a touching of hands, a gentle, friendly exchange of human contact. It’s no longer that ‘me, me, me!’ that the selfie screams, but an enveloping of ‘we.’ Photographs are an expression of our souls, and Facebook, for all its downfalls, is a platform for an exchange between us. I launch my wandering thoughts into the universe, virtual or not, so that it might draw out other wandering thoughts and conceive a conversation. I’m inviting people to join in, make themselves a part of my journey, and me a part of theirs.

“I went out to celebrate my last night in the eternal city, wanting to see the famous Fontana di Trevi which I’d left until the last minute. As I approached the junction at which I would turn and marvel at the fountain, I prepared myself mentally for the beautiful sight I’d imagined in my head – clear blue water lit up from below, shadows and light dancing lightly on marble, grand statues perched regally above.

I laughed my head off when I saw that the fountain was being restored. The pool was drained, the building was covered in ugly scaffolding, and a platform had been set up so that throngs of tourists could wait in line to get up close to the statues. Oh my, oh my, too hilarious. It both made my night and didn’t.

My first thought was that, oh well, Rome just wasn’t ready for me. So many buildings and sites were undergoing reconstruction/restoration. But then I thought – Rome, this marvelous city, this grand cradle of civilization that is almost 3000 years old and still so well preserved till today, this giant that tolerates the millions of tourists that stomp on its grounds, cough in its face, that leave after a brief three-day, two-night stay and call it “seeing Rome”… It does not have to be ready for anyone. It’s us that have to be ready for it.”

Facebook post in Rome, Italy; July 21st, 2014

It’s us that have to be ready.

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Images by Alaska Rue and Flickr

CultureExploreTravel

Most people eventually graduate from a tourist into a traveler, and when they do, they realize that all they want to do is get under the skin of a city. At least, that’s what I want to do.

Getting under is no easy feat. When I first started traveling, I wanted to see everything. Every few days, I longed to see what the sky looked like from a different landscape, another city. Would it still look the same? Would it still feel the same? I loved the fast pace and the feeling of freedom, the idea that I never had to remain stuck in one place, that the very next day, I could be across fields and fences, through woods and over mountains, several lakes away, oceans even.

That’s all fine and dandy, but you get through to the city’s secrets as much as an elephant might be able to squeeze through a hobbit’s door. Upon reflection, I’ve come to see cities by their multi-layered personalities and identities. As I break through the layers and get to know each city like a person, I find that each new place has the epic possibility of becoming another home.

1. The Stranger

A city is a stranger when you’ve only seen it from above or through the airport windows. You’re so close, nearly touching, almost bumping into each other, but the only sorry you’ll mutter in its direction is an apology for not being able to see it, rather than for stepping on its toes (in fact, it’s utterly brilliant if you can manage to step on a city’s toes). It’s a city you haven’t been to yet, or have constantly missed, perhaps only ever experiencing through a book or a fellow traveler’s tales.

I wish I could say I’ve been to Tokyo, but I can’t, not with any sincerity. I’ve flown into Tokyo six or seven times – and then flown out on the same day, never leaving the airport. Maybe you get a flavor of Japan from browsing the airport’s duty-free shops. Even then, I’ve only seen Tokyo as much as I’ve seen a silhouette out of the corner of my eye: a stranger I’ve let pass by.

2. The Coffee Server

This is a city you only interact with long enough to fulfill some orders, a list of things you wanted to see and do. You stay only long enough to see what the city wants you to see – its tall skyscrapers, its famous monuments, maybe a glimpse of its transportation system, a cafe or two, the main square. You see what’s staring at you straight. You stay long enough to not really form a concrete opinion, and know only enough to say, “Well, it was fantastic!” or “It was nice.”

I spent only an afternoon in Warsaw during the spare time I had between traveling from Krakow to Vilnius. Warsaw – and other cities I’ve spent too short a time in –  is like a person that serves you coffee. Although indubitably rich in history, I only remember walking along the river, seeing the oldest apothecary, sending postcards from the post office in the main square, and wandering the cobblestone streets. You know they had a life’s worth of history before the moment you briefly crossed paths, but all you know of them is their name tag (your server today was Mary), their handwriting on your cup, and perhaps their smile (if they smiled).

3. The Acquaintance

You might consider a city an acquaintance when you’ve been there enough times to recognize its cityscape in magazines and posters, even when not identified. You might remember your way around parts of the downtown core, maybe one or two suburban neighbourhoods. You can take their metro system with complete ease. You know a couple of cool places off the radar of most tourists; maybe you’ve made some local friends.

Seattle is a neighbour to Vancouver (the one in British Columbia), a city I’ve been lucky to live in for the last four years. Just three hours south on the highway, I’ve made it the destination of an obligatory annual trip, just because.

Seattle – or any city you’ve been to repeatedly or spent a little more time getting to know – is like the guy in your college that you keep seeing in different classes because he’s completing the same major. I’ve been to Seattle enough times to remember my way around parts of the downtown core, to know about the cool (or gross) Bubblegum wall in Post Alley, the epic Pinball Museum in Chinatown, and the Fremont Troll permanently living under Aurora Bridge. Similarly, I’ve spent enough time around this guy-also-majoring-in-English (his name is Bob, for simplicity) to know that he only writes with blue ballpoint pens, speaks up frequently in class, occasionally replaces his glasses with contacts, and walks with a four-count rhythm.

But you’ve only said a few words to him, if any at all, and you’re not even sure he knows your name. I don’t know if Seattle knows me. Do you know I’ve walked your streets, Seattle?

(Doesn’t that sound like an Owl City song?)

4. That Friend from Third Grade

At this point, the city has started to drill a layer into you, leaving little dents and impressions. You might have been staying in the city for a couple of weeks, walking the same streets at least a hundred times, and finding several new streets every day. You have a favorite cafe that you always find yourself headed to when you can’t sleep. The city has started to become much more familiar to you now.

A city like this for me was Prague, Czech Republic. I lived in a dorm on Tržište on the west side of the Vltava river for seven weeks, reading Kafka and Kundera, studying Czech and other good things at Charles University. My friends and I crossed Charles Bridge (or Karlův Most) on a near-daily basis to get to class. I regularly got a chicken panini from this one cafe behind the school. Because I studied in Prague, I learned about the history that had happened right on its streets, about Prague Spring and the self-immolation of Jan Palach right in the middle of Wenceslas Square.

With that extra behind-the-scenes knowledge, a city feels more intimate somehow. You can look at a building and feel sorrow at the previous fires that tore it down, imagine the different hands that laid on it to put up new skeletons and new faces. You can sit inside the Elephant House and let your eyes roam over the dedicated Harry Potter quotes scribbled all over the walls, even those of the toilet stall, feeling the same inspiration J. K. Rowling got from just being in the glowing city of Edinburgh.

Cities like these, that you met like a friend in the third grade (her name was Maris, if you’re curious), start to let you in. Maris told me the major events in her past (like how her parents divorced when she was five), and the random moments too (like the time she hollered at the universe when she got to the top of a Douglas Fir, or the time she practically cackled as she drew a moustache on her sister’s face). So did Prague – she seemed unbothered when talking about the long drawn-out separation, and finally divorce, of Czechoslovakia; she said it had been rather peaceful and mutual. Prague giggled when we saw the magnificent albino peacock in the palace gardens, like a little kid gleeful at revealing its star prize, and positively skipped when we indulged in one of her black light theatre shows (Faust: Between God and the Devil, thankfully with a student discount ‘cause we’re such cheapos).

You may have eventually moved to California and lost contact with Maris, or left Prague to see what else Europe had to offer, but the memory lives on, two, five, eight years later, and if you ever went back, you’d recollect and reconnect in a heartbeat. Until then, if there is a then, what you’ll remember most about the city and that friend from the third grade are their smiles and how they made you feel.

5. The Best Friend

If this city is your best friend, you’ve been past the ‘restricted access’ sign, gone where few have ever been, would ever dare to go. You’ve gone completely underground, where no natural light exists, and found yourself crawling through the sewage system. You can hear the subway roaring past somewhere above you.

At this point, you’ve seen the deeper problems entrenched within the city. You’ve seen the buggers that start the acne on the city’s face, the viruses that make the city sweat and shiver. You’ve spent enough time not only living in the city but studying the city, reading in the parks, people-watching in cafes, movie theatres, shops, and ice rinks. You’ve been able to put a magnifying glass to the culture, scrutinize it, and not only understand it but also praise or criticize it. You’re deeply enfolded by the city, you walk the streets with greater purpose and focus. Because you have the luxury of more time here, you’re trying to unlock the doors in the endless labyrinth, seeking routes towards the Minotaur, and you’ve been retracing your steps so often there are parts of the labyrinth you know by heart.

Vancouver is my base, one of the few places in the world I can run back to, to rest my head. Whenever I return from trips, I’m instantly comforted just knowing I’m now in a place where I can find my way without getting lost. When I get tired of running away, this is the place I run to.

It’s like the best friend, the person you know inside out, the one you go to when you have news to tell or need a shoulder to cry on. Vancouver and I have made memories; like two girls staying up all night, laughing, gossiping, listening to music, we’ve grown to recognize each other’s poker face (Vancouver grinds its teeth when people tell her she’s boring), live with each other’s flaws (she’s seen me at my worst and I’ve never seen her capable of going below zero degrees Celsius – or is that actually a compliment?), celebrate each other’s high notes (I heard Vancouver clap the loudest when I walked on stage to get my university degree). Vancouver and I have private jokes. We whisper secrets in each other’s ears. What are those secrets, you may ask. Well, they’re our secrets for a reason; you shall have to make your own.

Vancouver and I have routines: the Richmond Night Market in the summer (no matter the stupid new entrance fees and the increasing prices every year), reading books on Kitsilano beach when it’s sunny, and Japadog or Sushi California when I need a pick-me-up. Like with best friends, I feel inspired by Vancouver’s unique skyline, the twinkling lights of Science World and BC Place at night, the elegant dame that is Canada Place. I feel proud of Vancouver’s accepting nature (Vancouver is so LGBTQ-friendly, it even has its own gay nightclub scene dominating Davie Street).

Like a best friend, I know that no matter where I am in the world, I can always come back to Vancouver and trust that it will be there for me, maybe slightly changed, but more or less the same. Vancouver is a city I choose, over and over again, to come back to.

6. The Family Member

At this ultimate level, you’re completely aware of the city’s limits, how it ticks and what makes it pulse. You’re acutely aware of its residents and how they make the city the city it is. Maybe you’ve joined several groups within the community, volunteering at the retro cinema, the animal shelter, the crisis call centre. Maybe you’re part of the work culture or the student culture or both.

You’ve snatched bits of reality from a multitude of people living within the city, making it breathe and heave and sigh. You’ve got your hand on its heart and when the city sneezes, it shakes you like a hungry hurricane. You’ve tapped even further into the city’s secrets, and you walk the city’s streets not like a labyrinth but like the blood vessels under your own skin, all directed towards your heart.

Cities you’ve gotten to know at this level are like family: annoying, infuriating at times, but in the end, home. The city has seen you through your teenage phase where you hated the world and felt like the world hated you, where you tested your parents’ patience, trying your hardest to push them away (this only made them pull harder to get you back).

Singapore is this city for me. When I was living there, I didn’t really appreciate it. I’d been spoiled by my years in the States and all I wanted was to return to North America. What an impatient, arrogant child I was (still am at times), but Singapore was patient with me. It taught me, shaped me, disciplined me. Even though I’d never go back to live there, I’d rarely turn down a chance to visit it again. Hah, what do you know, it’s exactly like family.

I couldn’t live according to the fast pace of Singapore. As a small country, the greatest investment is in its people and that’s why there’s such an emphasis on a stellar education. From a young age, students are told studies are the most important focus; there’s an almost military-like system to the education. I’m not sure I’d ever study in Singapore again if I could get a do-over of my life, but I’m still proud to hail from this tiny island nation.

Singapore will always live within me. Even though I am not Singaporean (I’m Malaysian), when people ask me where I’m from, I instinctively say, “Singapore,” hesitate, and then correct myself, “Uh, actually, I’m not really sure.”

But I think that says it all. I was born in Singapore and lived there for ten years of my life (that’s half my life!); that kind of time leaves a mark on you. When people stare at me and follow up, “Singapore… That’s in China, right?” I can’t help but get defensive.

No, it’s a highly-developed country blazing the path in Southeast Asia. It may be small, but it’s made up of some of the most patriotic citizens and is on the technological and financial forefronts of the world.” When Lee Kuan Yew died earlier this year, the whole country was crying, millions lining the streets to pay their respectful farewells. The whole country was in mourning for months.

I am proud to be from Singapore. And simultaneously, I have a love-hate relationship with Singapore. It was my disciplinary yet loving parent. It was my annoying little brother that constantly asked too much attention of me when all I wanted was independence. Singapore is my birthplace, a city and country I have an irrevocable bond with, which, for better or worse, through rain or shine, whether I hate it or love it, has chosen me. It’s my family.

The more I travel and think about how to put cities and new places into words, the more I personify them, thinking of them less and less as the settings for great stories and more as full-blown characters that have their own epic stories. They have identities and, like people, they get sleepy and hazy in the hot midday sun, and romantic in the midnight air. They have moments of shyness and there are times when they’re bold. And eventually, when you’ve gotten under the skin of a city, you realize that the city has gotten under your skin too.

Image: Image

CultureTravel

I visited Iceland in May and I can’t lie— it’s the most fascinating country I’ve ever been to. Iceland is a land of lava and ice where geysers burst, glaciers glimmer, and valleys of all colors stretch into the horizon. Here is a list of some fascinating things about Iceland:

1. American and European Influence 

Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the underwater border where the tectonic plates of America and Eurasia are slowly spreading apart. Iceland is geographically part of Europe (not part of EU), but half of it lies on the American plate, which is gradually moving westward (estimated 1-2cm a year). Due to its geographical location, the country is culturally influenced both by the United States and Europe. Icelanders say that the cars, music, and television are more American, but fashion and architecture more European.

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2. One of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe

Almost four-fifths of the country is uninhabited. The population is only 320,000 and 200,000 of the people live in and around the capital, Reykjavik. The country’s size is disproportionally large given its small population. Iceland is 103,000 square km or 40,000 square mi. It’s approximately 25% larger than Ireland, or about the size of the state of Ohio.

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3. The world’s most eco-friendly country in terms of energy

Because Iceland has a substantial amount of volcanic activity, about 85% of the country’s energy comes from renewable resources. 30% of Iceland’s electricity is geothermal – the highest percentage worldwide. The rest of the nation’s electricity is generated by hydropower, making Iceland the world’s most eco-friendly country in terms of energy. Iceland has over 150 public swimming pools and most of them are heated by all-natural volcanic heat. 

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4. Swimming is a hobby

Icelanders go to the heated outdoor swimming pools, where the water either comes from the hot springs or the geothermal power plant, at least once a week. It’s a place for social interaction, where they discuss weather and politics with strangers. You must always take a shower before going into the pool — they have strict policies about this. Everyone highly recommends visiting the Blue Lagoon, a huge outdoor geothermal spa. 

Harpa- a concert hall and conference centre in Reykjavík

5. It’s not that cold

Despite the name suggesting otherwise, the coastal climate in Iceland is mild. Even though summers in Iceland don’t get hot, the winters don’t get cold either. The average temperature in the summer in Reykjavik is 10 – 13 °C (50–55 °F). The average temperature in the winter is about 0 °C (32 °F).

6. Bright or Dark All Day

During the peak of summer, the sun stays out for 24 hours.  During the middle of winter, there are only a few hours of daylight, but the northern lights fill the sky.  The best season to see the northern lights is from September to mid-April – the nights are darkest during these months.

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7. Icelanders Eat Puffins 

Puffins are small birds with black and white feathers, and they’re absolutely adorable. The puffin population in Iceland is around 8-10 million. Icelanders eat puffins all the time and a raw puffin heart is considered a delicacy. You can find a meal similar to this on a restaurant menu: “smoked puffin with blueberry sauce.”

There couldn’t have been a better advertisement for Iceland’s tourism industry than the volcano eruption in 2010 that resulted in the cancelation of thousands of flights. The number of visitors to Iceland more than doubled between 2010 and 2014. Tourism is currently country’s biggest source of export revenue, surpassing even fishing, which has dominated the nation’s economy since the Vikings first arrived in the ninth century. 

Icelandair has been crucial to this tourism boom because it offers travellers the option of stopping over in Iceland for up to seven days for no extra airfare. So next time you’re flying across the Atlantic, have a layover in Iceland for at least 24 hours— you won’t regret it and will collect memories for a lifetime. Every time I look at the photo I took of the Gullfoss Waterfall, it reminds me what it felt like to stand at the edge of the earth.

Images: Courtesy of Demi Vitkute

 

SkillsTravel

After living in Washington, D.C. for the past five years, I am a convert. A convert to public transportation, that is. Until I moved to this city, my gold ’95 Honda Accord (please, don’t laugh) was the preferred method of getting from point A to point B in my suburban town. I was pretty unfamiliar with how city commuting worked. I imagined confusing maps with too many colors, a lot of random numbers, accidentally going the wrong direction, and always being a few cents too short. I admit it took me a period of trial and error to get D.C.’s transportation system down pat, but once I did, I never looked back. In this article I want to tell all city-visitors and those city slickers who are still skeptical about all the great reasons to make public transportation your main method of getting around. Here are my tips on how to use public transportation like a true pro.

1. Download the app. It will absolutely become your best friend. Most metropolitan areas with public transportation systems have an accompanying app for smartphones that are equipped with maps, schedules, and a real time schedule that allow you to see exactly when a bus or metro will arrive. This means no more looking at scribbled-on posters or fading signs, just look at your handy personal guide via your phone anytime, anywhere. This is the app I use for Washington, D.C. – it’s great!

2. Buy a rechargeable card. Getting a permanent card you can reload with money is useful if you are going to be using public transportation frequently. Not only does this mean you can have a nice plastic card, as opposed to a flimsy paper card or coins, but it allows you to get right on your bus/metro quickly without stopping to add money.

3. Minimize train transfers to save money and time. Transferring can sometimes lead to extra waiting time and fees, so I do my best to avoid it completely. I like to do this by walking a few extra blocks to the line that takes me directly to my destination. Not to mention getting a few more steps in the day is always beneficial for your health!

4. Follow the unspoken courtesy rules. Sometimes these rules are written (“Save these seats for disabled and elderly passengers.”), but sometimes they are not. For example, be that kind person to give up your seat to a pregnant woman or someone with lots of groceries. Try to help someone with his or her bags and make sure to keep the seat next to you empty so someone else can sit down. Public transportation karma is real, people.

5. Keep your wallet in order. Or your pockets, or your purse, or wherever you store your card/ticket/coins for your journey. Putting these items in the same place every time you commute will help eliminate headaches and minimize impatient groans from passengers behind you as you board and depart.

6. Always travel with water & a granola bar. We don’t live in a perfect world, so sadly public transportation is sometimes unpredictable. Since you can’t predict when a delay may happen or do anything about it when it does, the least you can do is be prepared. I like to always have a drink and small snack on hand at all times because that way, I may be late and annoyed, but at least not thirsty or hungry!

I hope these tips bring you some good ideas and clarity on how to utilize public transportation and enjoy its services. Happy traveling!

Image: Flickr

Book PostsTravel

There’s no shortage of activities and sites to see in Washington, D.C. Our nation’s capital is an energetic hub of history and progress. Whether you’re attending school, interning on The Hill, or landmark hopping, D.C. is an exciting place to be. The last time we were in D.C., we were earning our Congressional Award Gold Medals. Before and after the ceremony, however, we took advantage of being in close proximity to iconic memorials and landmarks.

You likely won’t be able to fit in all that the city has to offer in one trip, so we narrowed down our list into the top 10 must-see places, both popular and off the beaten path.

1.  The White House

2. The Lincoln Memorial

3. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial

4. National Gallery of Art

5. Smithsonian Museums

6. The Roof of the Kennedy Center

7. Arlington National Cemetery

8. Visit the Library of Congress

9. Hike or bike along the Potomac River

10. Explore Dumbarton Oaks

What are your favorite things to do in Washington, D.C.?

Image: Vadim Sherbakov

CultureExploreTravel

Dearest Northeast,

Someone wise once told me to always be honest with how you feel about something. So, I just wanted to take a bit of time to thank you for being you. I admit, I have never written a love letter before and I’m a little nervous. Words often pale in comparison to true feelings, but I will give this my best shot.

Since my earliest memories as a shy Kindergartener, you have been there to comfort me. From the way your rain elicits that calming dewy scent to how icy snow mesmerizingly blows across hills with a gust of wind, your temperament has always had this uncanny way of reflecting exactly how I feel on the inside.

I love how optimistic and energetic you are. As us millennials crave a fresh outlook on life, your cities provide us with an overflow of inspiration and likeminded individuals. Between the powerful minds among my beloved D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, there is no groundbreaking idea that couldn’t be born here. Something about you keeps me excited to keep on plugging forward… and quickly, at that.

I love how you have taught me acceptance. Living here has surrounded me with people and situations from all walks of life. From different shades to beliefs to lifestyles, you have taught me first hand that exposure to differences makes me a more well-rounded person. Because your cities are diverse and conveniently only a few hours apart from each other, I’m always fascinated by how easy it is to be in a new environment.

I love how festive you are. Each of your well-defined seasons truly makes every holiday feel special. You have convinced me that warm holiday seasons or cool summers are simply not right. On Easter I can count on a brisk, sunny April day; perfect for my pastel clothing and a little outdoor egg hunt. Come my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving; I know outside the auburn leaves will fall and the chilly air will smell like cinnamon and pumpkin. During holiday time, I am sure quaint stone houses will be delicately covered with twinkly lights and fake Santas. I’ve come to depend on the way you make each holiday feel so nostalgic. For that, I am thankful.

Last but never least, I love how stunning you are. What other area has such variety in so small an area? Tan beaches, rugged mountains, babbling streams, rich forests, bustling cities, cozy suburbs… you are a sight for everyone’s sore eyes. These gorgeous landscapes combined with the Victorian and Colonial architecture — it doesn’t get any prettier than that.

So many people have a love-hate relationship with the place they call home; half glad to see family, half miserable feeling trapped, but I always felt lucky that I grew up in this area. You are home whenever I feel lost.

Northeast, you are wonderful. Please, never change.

Love,
Aysia

Image: Gratisography

CultureEducation

Studying abroad was the absolute best decision I made in college. The idea popped into my head during my third year, and I headed for England just four months later. At 21 years old, I packed my bags and sat alone at the airport, excited and scared of what I (sort of) impulsively got myself into. I went to the University of Worcester in England for the Spring 2011 semester, where I stayed in a dorm with other international students. At the time, I thought the best part of it all was the absolute freedom to travel.

Flash-forward to almost five years later, I look back and realize that my experiences shaped exactly who and where I am today. It wasn’t just about the places I visited or the pictures I took; it was about growing up and learning from my mistakes. Here are three life lessons I learned from studying abroad, and reasons why I will always be grateful to have gone.

Ride the wave. You can try to plan and strategize everything you do, but often times, it won’t work out that way. We hear this all the time but it’s hard to conceptualize it until you’re out of college and living in the real world. When I was traveling abroad, there were flights I missed, things I forgot to pack, and money that I lost – and it all felt like the worst thing ever. I went nuts trying to figure my way out around problems, but ultimately I learned to be more flexible, innovative, and adaptive with my solutions. In your personal and professional life, many unexpected things happen and it makes no difference whether you can control them or not. It’s important to be willing to adapt to a new company, boss, or change the relationships you’re in and the career you are set on having. While it’s good to have a blueprint the next ten years, the truth is that good luck happens just as much as bad luck. Just keep moving forward.

You are a little freckle on the face of the earth. We always get told that everyone’s different and we shouldn’t judge anyone. But exposing yourself to different cultures makes you realize that your judgments and assumptions of others are only based on social standards that you grew up with. Whether they were instilled by your parents or friends, it’s all you know. Traveling and interacting with people that are totally different allows you to understand that the ideals you’ve been taught are not the only ones that exist – and you may not agree with them. What you always thought was “right” perhaps isn’t. Once you truly internalize what all of that means, the more you’ll be able to think for yourself. Opening your mind to the reality that people, many people, exist outside your bubble (your friends/town/country), the better you’ll be at accepting others despite your opinions of them. This characteristic is not only crucial to your personal development, but in your professional growth as well. No matter what industry you’re in, you’ll be exposed to people from all sorts of backgrounds. It’s not a matter of knowing everything about them, but a matter of having a respect for their differences.

Everything has a deadline. When you’re young, it’s easy to feel invincible and think everything lasts forever. This is because the transition between grammar school, high school, and college aren’t really that drastic; they all consist of classrooms, textbooks, summer vacations – the list goes on. You go through the motions with your friends and it seems like your 30th birthday is literally never going to happen. When I headed home from the U.K., I realized how quickly life passes by. One week I was at the Cliffs of Moher, the next I was camping out for Will and Kate’s royal wedding, and then suddenly I was just sitting on my couch watching TV in New Jersey. Now, at 26 years old, I can’t even process the fact that my early twenties are gone. Though it’s common to want to fast-forward to a future event (whether it’s graduating or turning 21), it’s important to stop and appreciate the here and now. One day, you might be wishing you were right where you are at this moment.

As someone who is all about making mistakes and experiencing things on my own, I am the first to say that reading about life lessons isn’t even close to learning them. But if there’s anything I hope people will gain by reading this, it’s to look for something to take a chance on while there’s time (and to obviously study abroad if you can). It’s not just about making new memories, it’s about changing yourself for the better, too.

Image: Flickr

Professional SpotlightSpotlight

Katie Brimm, Food Sovereignty Tours Program Director at Food First and Activist, is well-spoken, thoughtful, and passionate about her work. From studying Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to leading an international education program building food sovereignty, Katie works hard every day to end the injustices that cause hunger. Katie encourages young people to “keep asking questions” and to travel “alone at least once in your life.”

Read on to learn more about what a day in Katie’s life looks like, her top three travel tips, and how traveling around the world has influenced her.

Name: Katie Brimm
Education: B.A. in Global and International Studies from University of California, Santa Barbara
Follow: foodfirst.org
Location: Oakland, California

Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?

Katie Brimm: Doesn’t youth seize you?

CJ: You majored in Global and International Studies from University of California, Santa Barbara. How did you decide what to major in?

KB: I’ve never been a linear person, so choosing a major was complicated. I allowed myself the first year to take lots of different courses, though mostly I was interested in social and environmental science. Honestly, I started looking at the course book and read the descriptions of each class and paid attention to those that made me light up, intellectually and emotionally, and realized that Global Studies allowed me not only to take those courses with incredible professors, but also to craft my own learning and leverage my education to fit the needs of communities and issues I wanted to serve.

I don’t think anyone should be in positions of influence (from politicians, scientists and writers to engineers) without a broad understanding of the interdisciplinary effects of their decisions on our world – ecologically, socially, politically, and culturally. Global Studies demanded that type of nexus thinking that is so central to what I do in my work now.

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CJ: You worked as a communications intern at Un Techo Para Mi País (A Roof for my Country) in Santiago, Chile, and collaborated on a project to create Chile’s first recycling program in slums (Campamientos). That’s amazing! What were your biggest takeaways from this experience?

KB: That experience gave me a deep look into relationships of power and foreign interests, no matter how well intentioned they may be. I quickly realized that the rhetoric I had for environmentalism was very US-centric – “Green” didn’t even make sense there at that time. Our first proposals came from our own desires that prioritized more of an environmentalist development agenda, and we had little support. It wasn’t until we gave over decision-making to the matriarchs in the community that the project started to take root – while the communities were not excited about “green living,” what they were excited about was meeting their actual needs: clean water and clean streets.

It was decided that money from the recycling program would go towards building water towers under the direction of these women leaders and the nonprofit would help with logistical concerns. Without meaning to, I got my first induction into the complexities of community-based development.

CJ: You have also had experiences as a 5Point Film Festival Dream Project Coordinator and interning as a policy analyst for Food First. What skills did you learn from these experiences and how do they apply to your work now?

KB: Through both of those experiences I learned a lot of about setting my own deadlines, the importance of creating my own work-plans and goals, and how to work independently while also part of an overarching team. I learned the value of being organized to the point where a third party can easily follow your work and know what they need to do to fill in. I learned how to stand up for the interest and mission of the programs I was in charge of first and foremost.

Most importantly, I learned how to zero in on what inspired me most in the work and let it illuminate the rest of the tasks – all work is going to have parts of it you find tedious or boring so it’s important to sustain yourself with the passion you hopefully feel for the mission. At 5Point, I loved working directly with the young students – their dreams and energy helped fuel me in making the program stronger.

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CJ: You now work as the Program Director at Food Sovereignty Tours, Food First’s first educational travel program. Please tell us more about this great travel program and what your role as Program Director entails.

KB: In 2010, on the heels of a global food, financial and climate crisis, Food First launched Food Sovereignty Tours (FST), an educational program focused on helping activists, researchers and concerned citizens to understand an increasingly complex global food system and engage in informed activism upon their return home, while also magnifying the voices of those struggling to carve out alternative, people-centered food systems around the world.

With a firm commitment to sustainability and justice, the tours connect participants to the farmers, consumers, NGOs, policy-makers and experts working to transform the global food system. On each tour, local hosts also provide an overview of their country’s history, culture, politics, ecology and agriculture. We now go to Bolivia, Cuba, Italy, Mexico, South Korea, Hawaii, and the Basque Country. Drawing lessons from the benefits and pitfalls of ecotourism, agritourism and justice tourism, our program works to emphasize and strengthen social movements as the main force for transformative change.

I work with a team that shifts throughout the year depending on the region I’m working with, so my role is to act as the US “headquarters” for this program: I design our public interface, market and promote each tour to potential participants, handle communications with participants, fundraise for the scholarship program, collaborate to create educational content published through our newsletter, oversee the development of the tour with our in-country Tour Operators, coordinate with Food First Researchers who create the tour focus, itinerary, and act as guides, and I occasionally help lead different delegations. Each tour has a focus that relates to food sovereignty (a social movement centered on people’s right to define their own food systems). For instance, we take delegations to Cuba to learn how the nation converted almost exclusively and successfully to organic agriculture, or to Bolivia to look at how the US demand for quinoa has impacted traditional farming.

We believe that alternative, educational travel is a way to replace feelings of apathy and hopelessness with deeper understanding and empowerment, and we hope that leads to action post-tour.

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CJ: Food First is an organization that works hard to end the injustices that cause hunger. Why does this issue matter to you and what can young people who are interested in this cause do to make a difference?

KB: At Food First, we believe food is political, so something as quotidian as lunch can actually be seen as a political act that has broad implications. So just by asking questions about the food, the people who make/serve/pick/produce your food, and where it’s coming from, young people can already be on the verge of making big differences. Keep asking questions, and sharing what you learn. That’s a lot of what we do at Food First!

It’s important to remember though that along with small acts and questioning, what we need is larger, systemic transformation, which takes time and people power! What we do as individuals in this lifetime needs to be seen as part of a historic movement and future trajectory – many small radical acts done by many people working together may someday change everything for the better.

Everyone needs food to survive – yet it is treated just like any other commodity traded on the free market. Food and agriculture are a part of every single person’s life, and by using it as a lens at Food First, we are able to also connect to many other important issues from climate change to racism. Working to understand the complexity behind our food system is liberating – change the rules, and we might just end hunger and injustice. Continue with our current system? Well, we can see that’s just not an option.

CJ: You have traveled extensively throughout Europe and Latin America. How has traveling around the world influenced you?

KB: Travel is a complicated beast. On one hand, I feel critical of tourism in general, though my current work is a form of it. On the other hand, traveling at a young age undid my little structured box of reality, making me realize that those walls were made up of assumptions and myths about how the world can work and how people have to relate to each other. I don’t know if I would be doing the same work I am today had I not had those experiences.

This world is also so highly globalized, and so many of our actions (and our governments’ actions) affect communities across the globe. Meals shared with people outside your worldview have the chance to be revolutionary – they can foster a deep connection beyond your own life that can also contribute to solidarity.

Of course, I should note that on a personal/professional level, travel also taught me independence, courage, strength and stick-to-itiveness. But more selfishly and simply, travel has always just brought a lot of joy, rejuvenation, and a deep richness to my life that goes beyond any words.

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CJ: What are your top three traveling tips?

KB: 1.) Take public transportation as much as possible. Not only is it cheaper, you can also tell a lot about a place by its transportation, and you end up seeing what life is really like in the region for the people who actually live there. You also end up seeing parts of the city/region you wouldn’t normally have access to. It always took away my ‘traveler fear’ once I’d figured out how to get myself places on public transportation.

2.) Before you go, learn about the history and culture of the region, and chart out at least a skeletal idea of where you’d like to be and things you want to see. Once you’re there, don’t check your social media or emails, don’t search the internet or use an app to get you around. Just ask. If you don’t know the language (which, if you’re going to travel somewhere, at least learn a few words!) use props and pantomime – you’ll get a whole different experience.

3.) Try traveling alone at least once in your life.

CJ: Every day in your life must look different depending on your projects and the time of year, but what does a Monday look like for you?

KB: I usually get treated to a beautiful breakfast from my partner early on Monday, even though he is in a Ph.D. program (I’m very lucky, but it’s also a good reminder that work-life balance can be achieved in small ways).

Then, I try to do some writing and reading to start off to keep me informed of the different issues we work on as well as give me fodder for social media or future blogs. I’m working on a piece now about food justice and militarization in Hawai’i, so I have to carve out time in the mornings to write. I also always create a work plan on Monday for the week to keep me focused and moving on different projects despite the ‘fires’ that might rear themselves that I can’t plan for.

Then I check and respond to urgent emails. I’ll usually have a Skype call with someone in another country to go over itineraries or updates about anything from logistical to political changes in-country that might affect the tour. At the Food First office we have a garden and a kitchen, so depending on the week I may cook lunch for staff and interns, but we trade off.

I will then prep marketing materials and content to go out Tuesday morning (press releases, flyers, contact sheets). Afternoons are usually meetings and participant communications. Evenings we often have local events – the Oakland community is alive with community actions and events around the issues we focus on, and we do our best to help facilitate by co-hosting, organizing, or just showing up in support.

CJ: How do you stay organized and manage your time?

KB: I find it helpful to always imagine someone else will be looking at my work – even if it’s just my to-do list, calendar, or Dropbox folders. That way, I have to keep things logically organized. I also try to make daily plans that will be down to the hour and minute with tasks, then weekly work plans to keep me on track, and monthly days devoted to certain aspects of my job.

I wear many hats in my position, as many people do in small nonprofits, so I actually set days like “be an accountant, be a marketer, be a researcher” so that I can shift to different areas of my brain rather than try to keep jumping around all day. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it helps to keep me focused.

I have been also working to understand the difference between ‘important’ and ‘urgent.’ I prioritize things that are both, but make sure that I carve time out for work that may not have a deadline attached to it or can be checked of a list, but that relates to our overall mission. This helps decrease the feeling of being too busy or always putting out fires, and helps keep me moving forward on larger goals for the program, like building our scholarship program for young activists, people of color, and farmers.

Katie Brimm - artichoke

CJ: What are some books, resources, and websites that have influenced you – either personally or professionally (or both)?

KB: Well, of course Food First’s website and many of our publications – most notably Food Rebellions. I’m currently reading Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver and am so impressed how she weaves critical analysis, creative voice, and ecology into her stories – I’d love to write like that! I’m a part of many different LISTSERVs as well – comfood (through Tufts University) being one of them – it always helps bring to attention what others are working on or concerned/excited about it my field. There are so many awesome people and organizations working on important issues with resources – too many to list here!

CJ: When you’re having a bad day, what do you do to reset?

KB: I go for a walk around the block and try to find a dog to pet. But really, everyone has bad days, and I think rather than focus on resetting, it’s better to just accept that you’re having a bad day and leave it at that, or name what it is that made it bad, voice it (to yourself or to your people), and then let it go and move forward.

CJ: What are you working to improve upon – either personally or professionally – and how are you doing so?

KB: Not to be a perfectionist. There is something to be said about attention to detail, drive, and producing brilliant work. But there is a sinister side to perfectionism that I think is tied to so much of the stress and anxiety and self-exploitation I see in young professionals. I’m working on this more through making sure I practice self-care and listening to the advice of “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

KB: You are enough.

Katie Brimm Qs

Images by Katie Brimm

CultureEducation

“I honestly believe if people traveled more often, there would be less conflict because there would be more understanding.” I said this in my Youth Spotlight last week, and I meant it with all my heart. Traveling is a powerful educational tool for everyone and, I believe, is especially eye opening for minority youth like myself. Let me tell you why.

With cultural tensions spewed across the news and social media platforms as of late, people seem quick to grab onto fear before attempting to peacefully resolve a misunderstanding. We are all guilty of being fearful sometimes, but let’s remember, fear is only a result of unfamiliarity. For example, you may be terrified of insects until you watch the Discovery Channel and learn the many ways they help protect us from even scarier things like low crop yields and a massive buildup of animal waste (no, thank you!). Suddenly, you’ll think twice before stepping on the little creatures that are more helpful than we think, and this is all thanks to a bit of new knowledge.

The same concept goes for people. In my personal experiences as a young minority woman traveling, I have often found myself in places where no one looks like me. For some of you, whether Black, Asian, Hispanic, a lovely mix and so on, this might sound familiar. It can be awkward at times, but always eye-opening and beneficial for all parties involved. Travel is absolutely transformative for minority youth in three major ways.

First, it allows those unfamiliar with your culture to become more familiar. When I traveled to New Zealand a few years ago, I never saw another black person during the trip, aside from the few traveling with me in the tour group. This doesn’t mean black people don’t exist in New Zealand; I just never crossed paths with any. During my home stay with a Kiwi family (the native minority population in the country), they told me they’d never had any black friends before and I said I’d never had any Kiwi friends before. At first they were timid to ask pressing questions about my culture, but eventually conversation began flowing as I told them about ridiculous stereotypes that exist in America, the daily struggles faced, and about my personal family history. They reciprocated by telling me about theirs. As native New Zealanders, many of their experiences were similar to mine, as a black American. Who would have known? By the end of the conversation, we could all say we were friends. Pretty good ones, at that. Just think about it – if discussions like this would happen more frequently, there would be much more respect than conflict.

Not only does traveling teach others about you, but it can also teach you about your own culture. Every time you go to a new location, you unlock a part of yourself you didn’t know existed. For example, when I went to Paris for the first time in high school, I learned about how many black Americans in the 1920’s hopped the Atlantic and settled in the City of Lights. Many did this because they felt race was not as much of a hindrance to living a happy life in Paris as it was in America. There were more job opportunities, a booming arts industry, and less violent racism. I found it so interesting to learn about how people like me lived in other countries in the past, and are still living there today. Traveling to Paris expanded my mindset and, in a sense, gave me a newfound sense of my own identity within the world and its history.

Last but surely not least, travel has the power to make the variety of race seem minuscule compared to the unity of humanness. What I mean by this is that through exploring new areas, speaking to new people, immersing yourself in a different society, and catching a glimpse into how others live, similarities across cultures are more evident than any differences could ever be. We all struggle to find ourselves. We all get lazy, grumpy, giggly, frustrated, happy, and jealous at times. We all laugh at our own jokes, have secret crushes on people who don’t know who we are, and have blood flowing through our veins. You get the point. But mostly, we all want to just be happy.

So, whether you are thinking about traveling to another country, a new town, or a new school, I want to encourage you to go for it… for yourself, and for all of us.

Image: Jay Mantri

SpotlightYouth Spotlight

We’re very excited to introduce you to our Travel and Culture Columnist, Aysia Woods. You’ve likely seen her work all over our website (and if not, check them all out here). Currently a graduate student at The George Washington University, Aysia has a passion for all things travel. She has explored many corners of the globe, and we’re lucky enough to get a peek into her adventures through her articles.

We are inspired by Aysia’s honesty, optimism, and determination. Passionate about helping others and living a balanced life, Aysia is someone who 100% seizes her youth. Get to know Aysia, her top travel tips, and how she overcomes struggles below!

Name: Aysia Woods
Education: Graduate student at The George Washington University studying Anthropology and Journalism 
Follow: Twitter: @AysiaWoods | Instagram: @FloralGumbo
Location: Washington, D.C.

Carpe Juvenis: How do you define “Seizing Your Youth”?

Aysia Woods: I define it as taking advantage of all youthfulness has to offer – energy, creativity, and adaptability. These characteristics are at their peak in our early years, so I think it is extremely important to nurture them now, rather than later.

CJ: As the travel columnist for Carpe Juvenis, you share your insights and explorations with our community. What inspires you to travel?

AW: I think it’s just in my blood. My parents and the majority of my family grew up all over the world because they were in the military, and they’ve definitely taught me the value of travel at young age. I get restless very easily and exploring is the only thing that quenches that sensation. The fascinating people I meet along the way and those moments where you think, “I can’t believe this is my life,” are what inspire me the most. For example (true story), walking at 1 a.m. along a boardwalk near Cape Town, South Africa, with three European friends, and then happily stumbling upon a club full of Australian tourists hosting their “Latin Fiesta night.” Perfectly random, uniting moments like this are so priceless and inexplicable. I honestly believe if people traveled more often, there would be less conflict because there would be more understanding. The world would be a happier place.

CJ: You recently graduated from college. What has been one of the most surprising changes you’ve dealt with so far being in the “real world”?

AW: I can’t say it was surprising, but I’m still learning just how much self-motivation it takes being the “real world.” Going from being told what to do from teachers the past 18 years with rigid daily schedules to complete independence is definitely a learning curve. Because no one is forcing you to do anything, I think the key to curbing complacency is forcing yourself to stick to a strict agenda and maintain those short-term goals.

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CJ: If you could give yourself a piece of advice the day before you started college as a freshman, what would it be?

AW: Start networking long before you graduate. Connections are everything.

CJ: You just started graduate school at the George Washington University – congratulations!  What factors influenced you in your decision to both apply to and attend graduate school directly out of college?

AW: Thank you! I am actually in a combined 5-year B.A./M.A. program for Anthropology, so I started my first graduate classes during my senior undergraduate year and now I have just a year left. Because my major had this option, I decided applying to its 5-year program would be a logical choice because it would allow me to save money and time getting a master’s degree elsewhere. Working on a master’s thesis right after graduation isn’t so easy when all you want is the typical post-college Euro trip, but I know it will be so worth it!

CJ: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received so far?

AW: “Treat everyone like they are special,” which is from my dad. The best advice I get is always from him.

CJ: How do you measure success?

AW: I measure success in positive influence and overcoming challenges. I like to say this rather than something like “100% pure happiness” or “supporting my family” because I think a lot of the time, those are not realistic. It doesn’t matter if someone is a middle school teacher, trash man, CEO, or unemployed. The most successful people, in my eyes, are those who spread joy to others and are resilient.

CJ: You were part of the college club George Washington Women in Business (GWWIB). What was an important lesson you learned through participation in that group?

AW: GWWIB taught me so much about teamwork and the importance of personal branding, which I am forever grateful for. I was mostly involved in their Annual Spring Conferences, which was a great way to learn how to work with a large group, and also an opportunity to learn from and interact with successful professional women. The opportunities that exist in this organization are wonderful and should be taken advantage of. For anyone reading this, I urge you to get involved with GWWIB (men are welcome, too)!

CJ: What is your dream job?

AW: Having a massive family-owned company that publishes a travel magazine and has an accompanying travel agency, opening a few trendy lounges around the world, and eventually opening a retail store. That would be amazing.

CJ: You dedicate a lot of your time to community service. Why is this and would you recommend other young adults get involved in volunteerism as well?

AW: I believe giving back is an integral part of being a good citizen and overall person. If all we do is take from the world, we are leaving behind a void, rather than a legacy. I absolutely recommend other young people get involved in volunteerism. Two organizations I am familiar with are Global Vision International and D.C. Central Kitchen; they both do amazing work in their local communities. There are so many amazing programs – you just have to find one with a cause you are passionate about.

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CJ: Where did your interest in food justice and sustainable living come from? What advice would you give to someone new to developing on a healthier lifestyle?

AW: I always knew I was interested in food, but it was my Introduction to Sustainability class I took as a sophomore that truly opened my eyes. In one of the classes, I learned about food deserts for the first time and remember feeling so upset. I couldn’t image growing up with such limited access to fresh produce and not having the power to change it.

From that point, I quickly declared a sustainability minor and loved learning about the relationship between humans and our environment. I feel like the topics covered in this discourse should be taught to everyone! For someone new to developing a healthier lifestyle, I would say try to live a balanced life. To me, healthy living is equal parts nutritious food, physical activity, and mindfulness of your lifestyle.

CJ: How do you deal with difficult days and move past them? What have you learned about overcoming struggles?

AW: This is an embarrassing question for me, but I’ll answer honestly. My first response to a difficult situation is to get a moment to myself and cry it out. At this point in my life, I have learned to just accept shedding some tears as my natural reaction and not fight it. I think that is what overcoming struggles is all about – letting yourself be momentarily upset, de-stressing however works best for you, then finding a solution. Overcoming struggles is a constant in life, so figuring out how you deal with them early on gives you the upper hand for the difficult days in your future.

CJ: What are a few travel tips you always use?

AW: I like to always bring a fuzzy pair of socks in my carry-on for those freezing flights, keep chew-able Pepto Bismol in my pocket at all times (you just never know), and take notes. It’s so sad when you’re back home and trying to remember that song you heard on the radio or that cool shop you are meaning to go back too, but can’t. So, I always type little notes on my phone or whatever scrap of paper I have lying around.

CJ: What is your favorite book?

AW: The Big Sea: An Autobiography by Langston Hughes.

CJ: What advice would you give your 14 year-old-self?

AW: You are on the right path, so don’t try and follow behind anyone else telling you otherwise!

Aysia Woods Qs

Images by Aysia Woods

Travel

Now that we’re far enough into summer, you may have exciting trips planned for the next couple of months. As you research fun activities to do, pack your bags, and prepare for the adventures ahead, remember the words of wisdom from these five professionals. These people have traveled the world and learned from their mistakes, and they know what to keep in mind when it comes to exploring new territory. To read each professional’s full Spotlight, simply click on their photo.

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Image: Jose Martin with graphics by Carpe Juvenis

CultureEducationExploreWellness

If you’re anything like me, you’ve read a ton of articles about finding the right career path or how to pursue your goals. You know the articles I’m talking about right? The ones that list pointers and ask you to write down what you’re good at (you have no idea), your interests (Netflix?), and visualize your ideal work environment (wherever you get paid). Then they tell you to “go for it” and “have courage” because the future is yours! It all sounds dramatic and you write down a solid to-do list, and you’re like heck yes. You take a second to check Facebook, text some friends, and a few hours later, your roadmap to success has transformed into another scrap of paper. You’re over it.

For some people, finding their passion came naturally. They sang in talent shows before they could even walk and now they’re on Broadway. Meanwhile, you’re having a quarter-life crisis wondering why you haven’t figured it out yet. Deep down, you do want to have those sleepless nights with bags under your eyes, working toward something you love. The issue isn’t your willingness for grit, it’s that you don’t even know where to start.

The truth is, it’s easy to get caught up in what you think you’re supposed to do or where to be – especially when your parents have expectations or when the goal is based on the size of your paycheck. On top of that, social media makes you painfully aware of the differences between your life and the lives of others. But it’s okay to be unsure of where you’re going. It’s okay that you don’t want the same things other people do. In fact, not all dreams should be pursued, and not all passions should be made into a career. On the flip side, just because something isn’t a career path doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it for the sake of pure enjoyment. The best part of not knowing exactly where to go or what to do, is just that – you don’t know where to go! It doesn’t have to be dreadful or frustrating, it should make you excited about life.

Fortunately, there are a million ways to stumble upon your dreams. Personally, I’m a big fan of wandering. This doesn’t mean you have to travel the world because let’s be honest, that’s pretty unrealistic. You’re not Julia Roberts in Eat.Pray.Love. What I mean by wandering is simply being open to what’s new and interesting, whatever that may be. If you’re in school, check out some new clubs. Not in school? Join Groupon & try new activities! Pick a non-profit that you believe in and volunteer! I think one of the best things you can do is to conduct as many informational interviews as possible. Expand your network. Not only can you gain mentors this way, but it will help you learn (without experiencing it firsthand) if the path could be right for you.

Think of this as a deductive process: keep checking things off that you don’t like, and as a result, you’ll be many steps closer to finding what you’re looking for. Safe to say, this is not a passive kind of wandering. You have to make sure that you wander honestly and unapologetically.

By that, I mean it’s not always fun or easy. Many times when people talk about pursuing dreams, they paint a pretty picture: Follow your heart, work hard, and you’ll live happily ever after. Yeah, sure. What I never read about is the emotional toll it takes on you and your relationships. You may find yourself feeling guilty, anxious, or even wrong when making decisions that are for you, and not anyone else. It’s the scariest thing on earth, but that comes with the territory. You can’t find your passion by lying to yourself.

While you are beginning to change and finding your place in the world, the people you love may not be down for the ride. You can’t blame them – they didn’t sign up for it, they didn’t agree to it, and it’s not their path. Because of that, their opinions can hold you back despite their best intentions. The more you grow, mature, and learn more about yourself, the more you may realize that some people around you aren’t meant to stick around. Brace yourself for the possibility that you may have to go through the journey without their blessing, but it’s only meant to make room for new people who deserve to be in your present and future. That’s not a comfortable idea, especially when “where you are” isn’t even bad at all. But if you want to be 80-years-old and in awe of the life you’ve lived, settling won’t get you there.

I can’t say there’s a “right” or “better” way to handle those situations, because the solution lies in your own personality, values, and what you can handle. All I can say is try to make the right decisions for you and be prepared to trust them wholeheartedly when they are questioned. Trust that they will lead you to where you belong. Trust that they will cultivate a life filled with love and genuine happiness in whatever path they take you. Trust that by being yourself, you will naturally attract others similar to you, and will push you to be better at whatever it is you embark upon. Success and happiness is different for everyone, so define yours. Just look at that girl who quit her $95k job to live on an island.

There’s a famous saying, “If you don’t write your own story, someone else will.” So make some big decisions and make some small ones that feel purposeful and fulfilling to you. Learn to take one fearful step in front of the other, and I promise the next step will be less wobbly than the last.

Image: Unsplash

Travel

Calling all the music obsessed, Francophile, people-watching lovers out there – you have until July 5th to get to Montreal, Canada for the International Jazz Festival. Trust me, it’s an event you don’t want to miss! A few years ago, I had the opportunity to experience some of what this nine day, nonstop celebration had to offer. I’ve been dreaming of going back ever since. Starting to pique your interest? Let me give you four reasons why you should absolutely make the Montreal International Jazz fest your next adventure.

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  1. Enjoy the perks of Europe without actually going there. Montreal was colonized by the French, so as expected, French is spoken throughout the city by over 50% of its population, with English being the other official language. Traveling to this city is the perfect way to practice your French without having to spend as much money or time traveling to France. Not only will Montreal fulfill your desire for some French culture, but you can also visit its Little Italy and Greektown. Walking through the quaint, cobblestone street, you will hardly believe you didn’t cross any oceans to get there.
  1. Revel in the awesome mix of old and new music. The International Jazz Fest has featured some of the greats such as BB King, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald, and also showcases lesser-known, up-and-coming artists like Gogo Penguin, Illa J, and Florence K. With that said, you can be sure the audience is packed with people of all ages and interests. Additionally, the festival hosts more than just jazz artists. You will also hear world music, reggae, and slightly electronic beats. There is truly something for everyone.
  1. Soak up the eclectic vibes. As its name suggests, the festival is just so, well, international. With Montreal already such a diverse city, the festival brings even more styles, people, and cultures together. I remember sitting on the outdoor steps by the main stage in a massive city square amazed at the many languages I heard passing me. It was so refreshing to feel peaceful (as opposed to the usual slight nervous feeling I get in large crowds) surrounded by people who were genuinely enjoying each other’s company.
  1. Enjoy a variety of food. We know an amazing festival is never complete without it. Don’t you worry – the festival is fully stocked with food from around the globe. The Montreal International Jazz Festivals goes above and beyond the typical hotdog stand with an entire waffle kiosk, mangues en fleur (mangos carved like flowers, anyone?) kiosk, and even a Mexican food kiosk. It’s perfect.

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At this point, you have no reason not to head to Montreal for the festival. Bonne journée!

Images: Flickr and Aysia Woods

Travel

No matter where you live, we’ve all seen them… those people wielding cameras with maps tucked into their fanny packs, possibly wearing destination paraphernalia. Okay, hopefully not the last part few parts, but you never know. Tourists – the near curse word to travelers and locals alike. For some reason, people love to hate tourists’ naivety and childlike excitement, even though they should be applauded for their adventurous spirits. But still, I admittedly never want to appear like one because it’s sometimes embarrassing, it could mark you as an easy target for theft or crime, and is simply not cool. So from my wandering heart to yours, here are my four top tips I use while traveling to minimize being that tourist.

1. “When in Rome” everywhere. I like to think of this as the biggest display of respect to another culture because it shows your willingness to try and understand something new. For example, if you are in Australia and someone proudly offers you their restaurants kangaroo dish, eat it like it’s your favorite food even if it’s not (yes, this really happened to me and turns out, it was actually delicious). If you are somewhere that has many social customs unfamiliar to you, say in an Asian country, don’t be embarrassed to try bowing when it is appropriate. I have noticed people are more receptive to you as a traveler when they can see you are putting forth effort to cross cultural differences.

2. In unfamiliar situations, wear your poker face. It is bound to happen – you make a wrong turn to find yourself lost, get yelled at in a foreign language, or are caught in a weird situation and just don’t know how to react. No matter how frazzled you are, try to remain calm and collected for your safety.

3. Speak the language. Of course you won’t always be able to do this fluently, but it is possible to learn a few useful greetings and phrases in the country’s language. You might have noticed Americans do not have the best traveling reputation. Time and time again my foreign friends have told me that we tend to speak English before even attempting a simple greeting in the local language and this is offensive. Even if you butcher a few words in another language, people will likely just giggle and appreciate your attempt.

4. Finally, pay attention to how people dress. Unless you are actually hiking in the jungle or going on an Archeological dig, your favorite hiking hat might not be necessary for this trip. But, little jokes aside, I have found clothing to be important in some cases. For example, if you want to go to a religious service, make sure you ask a local or research how you are expected to dress. The last thing you want to do is accidentally disrespect anyone or anything.

Hopefully you can try out some of these tips and see how your next journey unfolds. If you have any other tips you use, I would love to hear them. Happy travels!

Image: Gratisography

CultureTravel

I saw the stars in New Zealand. The kind of stars you read about, but have never really seen living in a metropolis your whole life. Swirling white, blues, and purples of the Milky Way looked just like what old middle school science textbooks showed. After gazing up at the stars out of the small car window in silence for nearly 10 minutes, my new house-dad said to me in his soft New Zealand accent, “Are you tired?”

“No,” I said, “I’ve just never seen stars like this in my entire life.”

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I went on to describe that where I was from in the United States, the lights from the developed area makes it hard to see the sky in such glorious detail. From this, we began to chat about air pollution, environmental issues, and a bunch of other random topics. Moments of bonding between such different cultures, like this one, were characteristic of the unforgettable three days I spent living with a Kiwi family in Te Awamutu, New Zealand.

In high school, I traveled throughout the South Pacific for nearly a month with an organization now called called People to People Student Travel. In New Zealand, each of us were set up to stay with a family for a few days to learn about the country from a new, more authentic perspective. I stayed with the lovely Awhimai family—made up of a teenage daughter, Shaani, her older sister Jo and her two small children, and their parents. They were a Maori family, meaning they are descent of indigenous New Zealanders, and referred to themselves as “Kiwi.” Their quaint, pink house was situated on a small farm with a few cows and chickens.

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The three days I spent with them were challenging at times (it was winter and the house had no heat… cue endless shivering), but also extremely rewarding as I gained insight into New Zealand living, culture, and politics that I would have never learned elsewhere. Surely I could write for pages about everything that happened during my homestay, but I’ll boil down a few takeaway points from my whirlwind experience:

  • I didn’t know the real meaning of “farm to table” until I realized my favorite chicken with the brightest feathers went missing one day. Many New Zealanders raise their own animals and grow their own produce, a process that makes eating feel much more intimate… but also delicious.
  • The Kiwi people value old traditions. One day, I had the opportunity to go with the Awhimais to their family’s wharenui, a meeting house where ceremonies from gatherings to weddings to parties occur. There was signing, dancing, and an obvious passion for keeping old Kiwi practices alive. Shaani told me that “it was all they had that was truly theirs.”
  • New Zealand, like many other nations, is also troubled with tension between native people and the majority. It was interesting for me, as a young black woman, to draw parallels between the struggles of Kiwi people and minorities in the United States. Even across oceans, we are more alike than we are different.

The time I spent and conversations I had during my homestay were simply priceless. I was proud of myself for going into it with an open mind, and more importantly, and open heart ready to absorb all it could. So, thank you again Awhimai family and thank you New Zealand! Hopefully, I’ll see you both soon.