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

 

Travel

There are endless ways to explore the world: solo, with family, as a volunteer, or with a program. No doubt each method offers its own unique perks and setbacks. Having the opportunity to travel more independently with family and friends and with larger organizations like People to People Student Ambassadors and Global Visions International (GVI), I’ve experienced a bit of what these various types of travel have to offer. If you’re considering signing-up with a traveling program, hopefully this little list of pros and cons of traveling in large groups will help you make your decision!

Pros

  1. Meeting people from all over the world is ten times easier in an organized setting. When you think about it, everyone is likely there for the same purpose – to gain invaluable experience in a foreign location and build relationships – so you already have something in common! Many times programs have semi-organized free time or group activities that promote casual socializing. Afterwards you will hopefully have great friends to visit (and who will let you crash on their couches) in other countries!
  1. Access to special deals, promotions, and events are common perks as organizations usually have deals with popular tourist sites and great relationships with the local community. I’m talking private tours, discounted tickets, and behind-the-scenes information that you would never have known about had you traveled independently. When I went on a three week South Pacific tour with People to People the summer of 2011, all of us students had a chance to meet the mayor of Rotorua, New Zealand, and enjoyed a night dancing our hearts out on a boat overlooking the Sydney Opera House. Could we have done this on our own? Maybe, but definitely not for free like we did!
  1. You’re going to learn so much. Most large travel organizations have a platform, activity, or issue they are addressing through their program – it could be education, sports, poverty, hunger, health, politics, or cross-cultural understanding, just to name a few. The program I volunteered with through GVI was focused on education. Had I never participated, I would know nothing about injustices that exist in the South African primary school system. The entire experience opens eyes to issues you know little about or, like me, never knew existed.

Cons

  1. Early mornings are part of the packaged deal when traveling with a large group. Depending on the type of program you travel with, schedules vary slightly, but more than likely participants are required to follow a schedule that starts early in the morning. It’s not always terrible, but when jet lag combined with simple travel exhaustion are combined, waking up could be a struggle.
  1. Yes, there will be some people you don’t care for in your program. But the good news is, there are many other people to focus on and you will not be with them forever. You never know, after your travels you may even miss that one annoying personality.

There are so many positives than negatives that come from traveling with a larger group or organization. I dare you to give it a shot!

Image: Flickr

Travel

Airports: we love them for their usefulness, but hate them for the stress they cause. Growing up as an airport frequenter, I want to share a few useful tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way that make navigating even the maddest airports a breeze. Follow theses tips and, who knows, you may begin looking forward to – and even enjoying! – the airport rather than dreading it:

  1. Check-in before the flight.

Most airlines now allow you to check-in online, 24 hours before your flight. This means you can completely avoid ridiculously long lines at the check-in counters. Not only does this option allow you to (sometimes) pick your own seats (window, please!), but it also gives you wiggle room to show up a few minutes behind schedule and still make the flight in perfect time.

  1. Keep accessories minimal and shoes open.

Taking off loads of rings, bracelets, a watch, a belt, and your favorite sports hat can seriously slow going through airport security. No one wants to be that person who is continuous beeping and holding up the already annoying process. To avoid this, be sure to keep accessories, especially metal one, to a minimum. Also, try and wear open-toes shoes like sandals or flip-flops. Most times, TSA will not request these types of shoes be taken off through security. This saves both time and your feet from walking on the cold dirty airport floor.

  1. Ask if there are any first class seats available.

This might sound silly, but you truly never know until you ask! When there are those luxurious, first class seats available, airlines do not always announce it. Make sure to speak kindly and smile wide to the worker at your gate because sometimes airlines will update you for a reasonable price or even for free. Along with this, occasionally airlines overbook and need volunteers to switch flights in exchange for a stipend, free flight, or other perk. Be sure to take advantage of these opportunities if your travel plans are flexible.

  1. Don’t skimp on snacks and water.

I always have three things with me while traveling – granola or Chex mix, a fruit, and water. Because you cannot bring any outside food through security, pick up a few healthy, filling snacks from your gate that will last you for at least 12 hours. Usually I will leave these items in my carry-on and make them last until I reach my final destination. It is important to travel with some sustenance in case you do not have time later to pick snacks up or you’re like me and need to eat every few hours to function properly!

  1. Make the most out of a long layover.

Like I said in another article, “why not turn an inconvenient few hours into an opportunity to explore?” Layovers can be pleasant if you plan them wisely. Quickly explore the city if you have a long layover, get a massage, browse the bookstore, or eat a good meal in the gate during a short one. Regardless of how long your hiatus is, if you start to look at your layover as an opportunity you’re bound to enjoy it.

  1. Strategize your carry-on essentials.

It is important to pack your carry-on lightly and cleverly while traveling. Make sure everything you need is there, and necessities are all you have. Along with typical necessities like boarding passes and passports, I always pack a thick pair of socks and over-the-ear headphones. Both of these items keep me feeling calm and comfortable in the airport and on the plane. Pick a few items that keep you level headed, whatever they may be, and remember to pack them on your carry-on. You’d be surprised how much a few familiar objects can lower stress and anxiety levels.

I hope these airport hacks serve you as well as they’ve served me throughout the years. Happy traveling!

Image: Flickr

Travel

Many people love to travel. Yet some complain that they don’t have the time or money to do so. The truth is that there’s always a reason not to travel. We need to find some way to make it all work. A weekend trip could be the answer to all these problems. Here are some reasons why a weekend trip might work for you:

1. It’s Less Expensive

When you go on a week long trip for Christmas vacation or spring break, the costs can add up. However, if you are only traveling for a couple of days, you are also spending a lot less on food, hotels, and shopping.

2. It Takes Less Time Away From Your Regular Schedule

It’s hard to take off work or school to travel. You might miss something important or it might take you awhile to save up vacation days. With a weekend trip you can leave right after class. You might not need to take any time off, depending on your schedule. It may seem too short to be a good trip but frequent travelers say we must use every spare day we can. You can get a great experience in very little time.

3. It Forces You To Explore

Instead of saving up for popular destinations like Hawaii, New York, or California, weekend trips are convenient if you stay close. You could book a flight to parts unknown, but you could also take a train or a long drive to a neighboring state. Even if you are not at the most popular destinations, you are seeing a little more of the world.

4. It Takes Virtually No Planning

There are 52 weekends a year. That gives you plenty of opportunities to take off on an adventure. You may want to have a couple of sites in mind so that you can make the most of your time. Either way, the journey can often be the best part of traveling.

Take the time for a weekend trip. There are so many things out there to do. Make the effort to take a trip. You will be rewarded with an adventure and all the great memories that go with it.

What is your dream weekend trip destination? Let us know in the comments below!

Image: Joe Lodge

CultureEducationTravel

Followed by some, distorted by a few, and misconceived by many…what is Hinduism, after all? While explaining what it is would take an encyclopedia’s length, I’m here today to tell you what it is not. Western media and translators have misinterpreted the religion due to many cultural and linguistic barriers, but I’m here to break those stereotypes. You may be shocked but you will definitely learn, even if you are Hindu. Ready? Let’s start.

Misconception #1: Hindus worship cows.

Hindus do not worship cows, but respect them. Before copious amounts of industrialization hit India, the cow was used in a simple system that I like to call a resource triangle, as depicted below:

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Agricultural benefits came from the fact that cows were used for plowing fields efficiently. Essentially, they acted as tractors before modern technology. This allowed a farmer’s harvest to be plentiful. Also, the manure produced by these bovine beauties was quite useful. We all are cognizant that homes must have this: food. You need to feed a family, and cows take care of that need too. Cheese (or paneer as many Indians prefer), milk, and butter could easily be provided to run a household. For this reason, many Hindus are vegetarians and abstain from eating beef as cattle provide them with what is basically an unlimited supply of food. Energy is produced by cow dung. It can be used to light fires and insulate homes in rural areas because it is easily flammable and can retain heat. Cows are respected because they act as a sustainability system for early Indian society. For fostering society, the cow is even seen as a maternal figure. As far as worship goes, Hindus regard all forms of life as sacred and venerate them, as they believe that no harm should be done upon to others—be it a human, a cow, or even an insect.

Misconception #2: Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.

This is perhaps the most common misconception. Hinduism is actually not a polytheistic religion. It’s rumored that Hindus worship 330 million gods or so, but that’s simply not true. Western interpreters of the religion misinterpreted this part, as one Hindu text states there are 330-million devas, or spiritual beings. Therefore, there are not millions of gods in Hinduism, making it not polytheistic. Rather, Hinduism is pluralistic. This means that there are multiple ways to connect, think, and relate to God. It’s believed that God can come in many different manifestations, and that God exists in all forms of life and in the universe.

Misconception #3: India is a poor country…of course generations of proletariat, uneducated beings would believe in such a silly religion.

Actually, India was a rich country until it was plundered and pillaged by centuries of Mughal rule followed by decades of British colonization. Indians discovered the Hindu number system (an early ancestor of the Arabic number system we use today), the concept of zero, various trigonometric functions, ayurvedic medicine, cataract surgery, plastic surgery (this happened as early as 2000 BCE, actually), shampoo (derived from the Hindustani word champo), and even the game of snakes and ladders (now also played as chutes and ladders). Hinduism has also been called a scientific religion in its teachings by several religious observers and analysts. So, while uneducated and illiterate people may be bountiful in India (just like anywhere else), that does not equate to stupidity or silliness.

Misconception #4: Hinduism endorses the caste system.

Way back when, a group of rich, upper-class priests decided to make a social hierarchy system: the caste system. What must be noted here is that the caste system was a cultural brainchild, not a religious rule. Tragically, the advent has been associated with the religion, when in reality it is a mishap of people, not divine rule

Misconception #5: Hindus use the swastika. They totally endorse Nazism.

The swastika existed in South Asian culture long before World War II, roughly about 4,000 years ago. However, the meaning of the symbol was not meant to be a social stigma towards a certain group of people. Unfortunately, during the 1930s and 1940s, a man decided to rise to power and propagandize, pervert, and misuse the swastika to accomplish a mission so murderous and heinous. The swastika actually represents the beginning of life and its swirling out into all the ends of the universe. It is meant to promote life, not destroy it.

Misconception #6: Hinduism isn’t relevant. No one really practices it and it has no influence in the world.

Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion, just behind Christianity and Islam. There are one billion believers and counting. It is also the world’s oldest religion, believed to have been founded nearly 8,000 years ago. With being the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism has had some effects on other beliefs. Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama, was of Indian origin and a Hindu himself. Many of Buddhism’s principles are rooted in Hinduism’s teachings. Christianity’s story of the birth and childhood of Jesus Christ is analogous to that of Lord Krishna’s. Though Christians believe that Hindus “stole” that idea, the story of Lord Krishna came before that of Christ’s. Concepts of eternal truth and accounts of divinity were first recorded by Hindus. All in all, Hinduism has had an impact on the world as it has shaped policies of various mediums of spirituality.

Misconception #7: Hinduism is only practiced in India.

To be frank, with one billion followers, one country cannot contain all of Hinduism and its adherents. While most of the followers of this faith reside in India, large communities have been established in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States of America. Hinduism has truly proven to be a global religion, spreading its ideas to a myriad of people.

I hope you had the opportunity to learn a few things from this article. Hinduism isn’t the only misconceived religion, as all faiths have had their fair share of misinterpretation, stereotypes, and misunderstandings. I want you to depart with one idea in mind: educate yourself. Educate yourself about other beliefs and cultures. I say this a lot nowadays, but only because it’s true. Twenty-first century illiteracy does not come from those who cannot read, but rather from those who remain ignorant and refuse to learn. So go ahead, learn something new during your youth. Seize the chances you have and don’t miss a single one!

Image: Nicolas Raymond, Flickr