Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Barcelona, Spain, *Stephanie Stroud*

The Official Barcelona Guide
Dear whoever you are,
It may seem strange that a total stranger is writing you a multi page guide to the best city on earth, but Barcelona is very near and dear to my heart. I'm also doing it for several friends. I think everyone deserves a shot at attempting to even have a fraction of the fun that I did in BCN. I'm sure you have one of those little guide books with the goofy fold out map of the city, but living there for nearly half a year taught me a lot that those books can't tell you. A week isn't nearly enough to see the glory of Barcelona, but hopefully I can help you have a legit vacation!
Quick background info. Madrid may be the capitol of Spain, and a slightly larger city, but Barcelona is the heart of Spain. I think a good comparison for Madrid and Barcelona is like the difference between New York and New Orleans. Both cities are fun, and you will have a great time, but Madrid is very impersonal and stuck up like New York. There is amazing Spanish Baroque architecture everywhere, hundreds of years of history, world class museums and art galleries, and of course some sick clubs. But Madrid doesn't capture the passion of Spain. It is trying too hard to be a modern European capitalistic city. Barcelona is huge, but it is just small enough to where everyone is friendly, musicians play on every street corner, everyone you see is smiling and laughing in cafes, with all the aforementioned benefits of a major city. It is Madrid with some personality, plus amazing beaches. Barcelona also has the classic flamenco dancing and bullfights that most people think of when they hear Spain, which actually originated in the south (if you get a chance Seville is an amazing city that really shows that historic side of Spain), but I think Barcelona is a lot more fun.
I get carried away when people ask me about Barcelona, so I will try to stay on track. When I travelled to different places, I liked to see and do things that were unique to that culture and location. Therefore I will try and pick some experiences for you that define what makes Barcelona different, and so damn fun.
  • Las Ramblas – The main street of the city, famous for all its street performers and crazy vendors of all sorts of things. It has become very touristy, so watch your purse, and skip the restaurants on Las Ramblas. It is overpriced, and there are better places to eat anyways. But the music, the dancing, and all the life on Las Ramblas is very unique. Start at Placa Catalunya and take your time to walk all the way down to the waterfront and the statue of Columbus and Port Vell. Prostitution is legal, so at night Las Ramblas will be full of interesting people.
    • Mercat de la Boqueria – a must see of Barcelona! It is hidden on the side of Las Ramblas, but look for the stained glass and wrought iron entry near the Liceu metro stops. It is amazing to see so much amazing, beautiful, delicious food in such huge quantities. You can buy anything and everything, and the fruit is especially delicious. Look around the perimeter for good wine shops, and check out all the crazy butcher stands…
  • Port Vell and the Waterfront – Port Vell is at the bottom of Las Ramblas, and is touristy as well but worth going to visit. It even has a new mall, and aquarium, and lots of museums. This is one of the locations to take the Gondola ride up Montjuic. Lots of street vendors set up shop here as well. Once you have had your fill, I suggest that you take a walk along the water or better yet rent one of the bicycles. You can ride along all the artwork and yatchs down to Barceloneta Beach and Port Olympic, home of some nice clubs. There is a path along the beach just for riding bikes, and the beaches are fun as well but be informed that there is no dress code…
  • The Catalan Modernist Architecture of Barcelona
    • The entire history of Barcelona is a struggle for power and independence with Madrid. This is clearly reflected in the architecture of the city as well, when the modernist movement of the late 1800's broke the traditional model for what buildings and cities should look like. The heroes of this movement were Domenech i Montaner, Puig i Cadafalch, and of course the famous Antoni Gaudi. They sculpted the city with their revolutionary, and sometimes abstract forms. Check out these key buildings:
      • El Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia – more commonly known as the Sagrada Familia cathedral. In Spanish this literally means the Temple of Expiation of the Holy Family. It is an apt title, as Gaudi devoted the majority of his life to create this crowning work. He spent every last dime he had trying to get it constructed, and even died as an old man crossing a street while preoccupied with work. His life is very interesting, as he was rejected by a woman and consequently became celibate and zealously religious. Unfortunately he only lived to see the beginning of construction, which also paused for the Spanish Civil War, and continues today with private donations. Every square inch of the entire cathedral tells the story of the Bible and the life of Jesus through sculpture, architecture, and even music. The entire building was designed as one large organ. Gaudi wanted it to be a complete work of art, and his love for organic forms also shows through in much of the design – ex: palm forest nave and the shape of the towers themselves. The towers represent the Holy Family, and the 12 apostles, and it will be the tallest cathedral in the world when finished. The sheer size and verticality of the building is enough to take your breath, not to mention the insane amount of detail in the ornamentation. It is worth the wait in line to climb the towers for the view. I hate to ramble, but I could talk for hours on each building, and it is so hard to condense that into a paragraph…
      • Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau – often overlooked by guide books, this place rocks! It is right down the street from the Sagrada Familia, and is a must see for architecture fans. This was designed by Domenech i Montaner, and totally breaks the mold for what a hospital can be. It is aesthetically beautiful, and spatially interesting with its plazas and underground tunnels. Lots of fun, check it out. You can even see it from Sagrada.
      • La Illa/Manzana de Discordia – the "block of discord" is a unique block of the Passeig de Gracia that shows the work of all three of the great modernist architects. Casa Batallo by Gaudi is the most famous and radical, but the works by Domenech and Puig are awesome in their own right. These were houses commissioned by the social elite at the time who were trying to out-do one another on the most posh street in town. As much as I want to talk about them, I'll leave the long history lesson to your guide books.
      • Casa Mila – one of Gaudi's more famous works, shows off his organic design philosophy. There is a story behind every shape and form of the building. I'll let the guide books fill you in because it is so famous, but don't miss the view from the roof, you can see Sagrada, the city, and the ocean.
      • Park Guell – Pronounced "Park Goo-Waaay" Gaudi's spectacular park has great view of the entire city, and lots of cool features within. It was designed to be a new housing development, but never took off. Make sure to kiss the salamander, and hang out on the world's longest bench. A must-do is to watch the sun set over the hills and ocean from the "three crosses" at the end of the park.
      • Palau de la Musica Catalana – Domenech's finest work, in my opinion. Gorgeous. Inside and out. It is a functioning concert hall, so if you get the chance go see the symphony, choir, or some band play there! Located in between Born and Gothic, near Plaza Urquinouna.
      • Universitat de Barcelona – this is the University where I went to school. It is beautiful architecture for a school. I recommend stopping by even for a minute to just walk through the campus once. It isn't that big for a University, it looks more like a palace! Check out the main entrance hall, go upstairs and see the very ornate rooms, and enjoy the gardens.
      • There are hundreds more, but those are the major ones that you shouldn't miss!
  • Santa Maria del Mar – one of my favorite cathedrals in the world. It is not the most ostentatious, largest, or famous cathedrals, but it has meaning to the people of the city and its interior is gorgeous. It was built by the poor workers of the city in the Middle Ages to have their own place of worship. The main Cathedral of Barcelona is a completely different place, and was built for the rich by the powerful and oppressive church leaders of the time. Santa Maria del Mar might not be too impressive outside, but the purity of the arches, columns, and bare architectural forms inside has me sold. It doesn't need all the decoration to be beautiful, it's pure design does all the talking. Take a minute to just sit in the nave and enjoy. There is also a legit ice cream shop outside the South entrance. This entire Born district is beautiful and has great food.
  • Cathedral of Barcelona, La Seu – the main cathedral of the city. Built by the corrupt clergy on the backs of the citizens, it is nonetheless gorgeous. My favorite part is the courtyard accessed from Carrer Bisbe. It is filled with swans, fountains, and chapels where locals literally light thousands of candles for their loved ones. Also, if you walk down Carrer Bisbe from the Cathedral to Placa Jaume, there is a very pretty bridge that I liked. Ask around to find Ryan's bar/pub, which has the best hamburgers in Spain (hard to find anything but pork and seafood in Spain).
  • Montjuic – this huge park features a gorgeous palace, and all the facilities used for the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. The palace houses a historic museum, and out front they have big water shows at night called the Magic Fountain. Lots of lush gardens and cool hiking as well. You can choose to take the Gondola ride up to the top instead, where there is a cool castle to explore. It also has an area called Poble Espanyol, which is a replica of monuments from all over Spain. Tourist attraction, but it is filled with restaurants and awesome artisan stores and shops like glass blowing, guitar making, and sword smithing.
  • Arc de Triumf – Did you know that most cities in the world have their own Arc de Triumf, not just Paris? This one is all brick, a symbol of the people of Barcelona and the Catalan Nationalist/Modernist movement. Right next to the park, see below.
  • Ciutadella Park – Huge park created for the world's fair of 1888. I suggest seeing the Arc de Triumf and walking down the promenade to the park. The park has lots of cool museums, nice architecture, water features, its own zoo, etc. It is also next to Born district, which has great food.
  • Born District – Next to Ciutadella Park, has the best food in the city, next to Passeig de Gracia. Lots of cool architecture, like Santa Maria del Mar and the Mercat del Born. Fun to wander the narrow streets and shops, but watch your pockets and belongings as pickpockets are everywhere.
  • Gothic District – Next to Las Ramblas on the other side of the Born district. Has tons of little churches and plazas to visit, cathedrals, amazing stores, and decent food. Fun to wander around, but watch for pickpockets! It is a more popular area than Born, but they are both awesome to hang out around. Home to the Picasso museum, it houses some great examples of his early work when he was a realist, and the building is beautiful as well.
  • Placa Reial – Off of Las Ramblas, in Gothic District. Beautiful, full of sun, people, and palm trees. There are clubs here, but they are more like cool jazz clubs to visit on a mellow night and listen to music. The best restaurant in Barcelona is in the corner of the plaza. I forget the name, but it won't be hard to find – sometimes the line is hundreds of people long. It has amazing food for ridiculously cheap prices, which is why everyone and their uncle go there.
  • CAMP NOU! - This is the soccer stadium for FC Barcelona, the more popular of Barcelona's two teams. They are one of the best teams in Europe, and one of my favorites. They have a ton of superstars, so their games are always exciting. It is quite an experience, and on big games the streets are packed wall to wall with fans. I highly recommend getting tickets to a game! Even the back rows have a good view, and those tickets are pretty cheap.
  • More things to try:
    • Shopping on Passeig de Gracia and Diagonal – top fashion designer names, as well as some stores with reasonable prices. Also lots of great restaurants.
    • Flamenco Show! – Great idea for a dinner show. There are a couple places in town that do great shows.
    • Festivals – talk to visitor information to find out what is going on while you are there. There is always some kind of celebration going on. La Merce in September is absolutely amazing! It has fire runs, free concerts, dancing in the streets, fireworks, water shows, etc. There is literally almost always something to go celebrate in Barcelona.
    • Get a massage on the beach for a couple bucks from the old ladies that walk around. Glorious hands. There are also vendors that walk around selling beer and temporary tattoos. Barceloneta Beach is full of cool art and sculptures. The big copper fish at Port Olympic was designed by Frank Ghery.
    • Food to try:
      • Paella - classic dish, rice mixed with all kinds of seafood or chicken or vegetables
      • Buy and eat a roasted sweet potato from one of the street vendors all over Barcelona!
      • Tapas! These are hors de oeuvres of all types, from the common piece of bread with tomatoes, oil, and vinegar to all kinds of unimaginable extremes! Go big or go home, they might look funny but they taste great.
      • Galician Octopus or Squid – tastes amazing if you aren't offended by the name itself.
      • Patatas Bravas! My favorite tapa of all time. It is like french fries, only in wedges with a special tangy marinara type sauce. Some put mayonnaise in it as well. Delicious. Each restaurant does their own variation, and it is a good indication to how good the rest of their food is.
      • Jamon Iberico – The staple of the Spanish diet is pork. Since the Spanish Inquisition, everyone in Spain has eaten primarily pig to avoid persecution. It is a lot like prosciutto, or smoked bacon. These are the pigs' legs that you see hanging absolutely everywhere! They come in a bazillion varieties. Goes great on a loaf of bread with olive oil and tomato for a sandwich.
      • Doner Kebab – I almost don't want to put it on here because it isn't authentic Spanish food. These places are dirty little holes in the wall that shave meat off a huge rotating spindle and put that in pitas or wraps. It is Middle Eastern food, usually run by immigrants who were extremely nice. Usually pretty cheap and easy when you are low on time.
And of course, the best for last: Nightlife in Barcelona. The clubs in Barcelona were so fun that sometimes we would go a few days without ever seeing the sun. The schedule is very different, as dinner starts at 9pm, bars get good around 12am, and the clubs get going by 2-3am. You go home at 6-8am when the metro opens again (metros go until midnight on weekdays, 2am on Friday, and all night on Saturday, open around 5-6am) and salute the sunrise as you drag ass back home. You can tell who is a local and who is a tourist every morning, because the locals are the ones stumbling the streets drunk as hell and just going to bed. House parties are non-existent, due to the high density housing (noise) and the great bars and clubs. Like Vegas, you can have a great time just showing up and standing in line at clubs, but it is all about who you know. Promoters are legitimate businesspeople in Barcelona, and make bank doing their job well. Venues/clubs are different from night to night, as the quality of the party depends on which promoter is working which venue on a given night. Some nights it is fun to just go salsa dancing with locals at some hole in the wall, but there are some big clubs you should visit that will rock your socks off. I'll give you a list of some sick clubs, as well as contact information for some promoters that can get you on guest lists to great events.
  • Razzmatazz – where my ashes will be scattered when I die. I love this place. It is a huge wearhouse-style club that is mostly Euro-rave and hip-hop. They have five different rooms though that play all styles of music. Open Thurs-Sun, the only place that is so legit it doesn’t even need promoters. $15 cover to get in, but it comes with a drink and well worth it. Clubs in Spain are expensive, get over it. Take out a loan, sell your car, whatever you have to do it is worth it for the experience. Have a good time and try not to worry about the gaping hole in your bank account.
  • Sutton – the Ritz Carlton of Barcelona clubs. Full of gorgeous people, superficial and posh. The bouncers are seven foot ex-Russian military and won't hesitate to punch a girl in the face. Don't eff around. Need to be on a guest list or a supermodel to get in. Dress extremely well or you will get kicked to the curb. Don't be discouraged by these drawbacks though, they throw awesome parties and it is always an epic night. Very nice VIP lounge but pricey.
  • Otto Zutz – another favorite. I spent many a night there. Multi level, crazy dance parties. Again, it depends on the promoter, but they often have some free drinks and great DJ's. More Americans and students than locals. Thursday nights were great here when I was abroad.
  • Lotus – up and coming in the club world, it really took off recently. Great setup with a huge bar, good dance floor, stage full of scantily clad dancers. Lots of fun, used to be our default for Wednesday night but I hear Saturdays are getting pretty good there as well. Has some intimate seating areas as well as a good VIP.
  • Catwalk – this is one of the Port Olympic clubs, a hotspot for nightlife. It is a two story purely dancing club. This is where you go to get hammered and grind away on some sweaty Spaniard all night long. Be ready to rage, expensive bar.
  • Carpe Diem – one of the three beach clubs at Port Olympic. Very chill environment with a dance floor to rage, verandas and lounge areas full of pillows to hang out on, and an overall very cool semi-Eastern design. Has an outside patio to cool off on some pillows with a friend, overlooking the beach.
  • Opium – next to Carpe Diem on the beach at Port Olympic. More technoish than the other clubs. All white inside, usually with an older (late 20's) rich crowd. They throw some sick concerts too, like DJ Tiesto.
  • Shoko – the third beach club at Port Olympic. This one is all Asian in design, sometimes has an older crowd as well (20's-30's), but it a lot of fun. Several good dance floors, with a whole VIP lounge area.
  • Bikini – great place to go salsa dancing!
  • There are lots more, these just came to mind first…
  • George Payne – my main man. There are lots of Irish Pubs in Barcelona, but this one is the biggest and the best. Great happy hour, great food, and they even have karaoke nights. Placa Urquinouna.
  • Marselle – the original absinthe bar. Ernest Hemmingway, among many other famous historical figures frequented this place. Very old fashioned inside, hidden on a back alley in Raval/Poble Sec area.
  • Ice Bar – this entire place is literally made of ice. It is pretty cool. They give you a coat, gloves, hat, and cups made of ice. Legit. Right next to Carpe Diem, good place to start the night.
  • Port Olympic has an area with like 30 bars in a row. First drink is usually free. Those of you who are good at math just figured out how to get 30 free shots.
  • So many others…
Concluding Tips:
  • Pickpockets are everywhere. Watch your stuff, hold purses and packs closely!
  • Spanish men are ridiculously aggressive. Go to clubs with guy friends. It can get ugly.
  • Roll in packs when walking home at night. Use common sense. There are lots of African vendors, drug dealers, and pimps illegally in Spain with nothing to lose.
  • Drink prices increase as the night goes on.
  • Have a blast!
Club Promoters in Barcelona – Here is the contact info for the promoters. Join their Facebook groups and you will get tons of info on upcoming parties, and they can put your name on guest lists. Just shoot them a message, tell them your friend Ryan knew them during study abroad, and that Ryan says hi. They will hook you up like it is their job. Oh wait…it is. And don't get the Kyke's mixed up! They are different people.
Kyke Navarro Gimenez
Oliver Moon De Navas
Kike Barcelona
Alex Barcelona

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Paris, France, *Trevor Felch*

at Roland Garros in Paris seeing the French Open

I studied with the Sarah Lawrence College semester program in Paris. It's a semester long which seemed right. A year would mean missing too much back on campus, though I probably would've done a year with a semester elsewhere if I had not transferred after my freshman year. I went for Spring 2010- like January 3rd to May 15th (stayed until mid June for extra traveling). 

My preparations were pretty typical, had to do the pesky visa stuff. I am an avid traveler/restaurant lover so my preparation was more where to go, where to eat, museums, theatre, and such in Paris and cities I want to visit. I had to buy some winter gear, though I had no idea just how cold and dreadful the weather is in Paris through April.
I immediately didn't hit it off with my host-mom. She had a lovely apartment in a beautiful area but it just didn't work. She was classic formal, unapproachable French, and her meals were repetitive and boring which drove me nuts in such a food culture like France. The host-dad was a lot kinder and very anxious to help me, though he worked and was very busy.

Upon arrival it was freezing and my program had a mostly useless, way too long 2 week orientation. The program's weak suit is its not impressive academic classes but this orientation was pathetic.
I luckily knew most people on my program from the Claremont Consortium and one who I went to Oberlin with. It was like 10 girls and me the only guy, plus 10 or so girls who had chosen to the full year program, but we rarely were with them.
The program's classes were useless. We could take classes at other Parisian universities, a very wise choice. The program also dealt very poorly with my friend who got in an argument with her roomate and they ended up fighting and my friend was wrongfully blamed and had to move out. Really poor that the program found her guilty. The program is not rigorous but likes to think it is, making students sit in class and work more than any other program. The kids at Middlebury and Cornell were far more happy and better at French than us.
The three biggest problems I encountered were homestay, my friend's lack of interest in spending money, and the fact that I had to go to these useless classes instead of being productive and savoring one of the great cities in the world.
Oktoberfest in Munich

The homestay just didn't work, I wouldn't do it again.
I wanted to sample some great restaurants and do day trips and go to friends just stayed near home and rarely wanted to spend money besides on beers and cheap wine. Paris is a city that must be experienced and they never want to go sit in cafes and explore. I had to do way too much on my own. I didn't get too homesick but this made me get homesick from time to time.
And it is just so hard to sit in class or even worse, convince yourself to do homework, while you have Paris in front of you.

Advice on Paris, in general...
Explore! Explore Europe, explore your city! Don't just do the same thing every week, do something special every day whether it's a cafe or a museum because you will never have more freedom to do things in your life!
Travel! Take advantage of being young and having the energy to do lots of travel in short times. Europe has excellent rail passes for under 25 year olds, so take advantage! If you have to fly, use easyjet. Ryan Air is not the worst but not worth it when you factor in they fly to out of the way airports requiring lots of time and money just to go to the city. Easyjet flies to real airports.

I could make a huge list of all the cities in Europe to visit...but if you're in Asia or another continent I'm guessing it's harder to visit lots of cities since they're more spaced apart. Still, travel is such a key part of the experience.
That being said, be a tourist in your own city too! Be a tourist sometimes, be a local other. Blending both is so much fun and a rare thing you get to do.

Instead of hostels, look apartments if traveling in a group. Often you can find great ones at less than 100 euros and they're spacious and private! I am no hostel fan...had a few not good experiences.
If you're homesick, know that it's a small world. Every city has an American bar. Go to a cafe. Do not go on skype because that just makes you even more sad when seeing parents and friends. Know that this is only a semester and it goes faster than you think.

In have to hit the tourist stuff (Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Notre Dame, Montmartre). Make sure to take advantage of your French citizenship/under 25 honors given on your visa, often it's free or reduced price.

Take advantage of the Seine, Jardin des Tuileries, and Jardin du Luxembourg for walks, jogs, reading, relaxing. 
Spend lots of times in cafes, you do have to try the classics Cafe de Flore and Deux Magots just to say you've done it. Get macarons and pastries at Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, amazing ice cream at Berthillon (best is caramel au beurre salé). Lots of the leading chocolatiers like Christian Constant and Jean Paul Hevin makes amazing ice creams in the summer. Hot chocolate at Angelina is must but the service is a must. Even better is the tiny Charlotte Ile St. Louis near Berthillon for great hot chocolate in a friendly, cute tea salon. Bars- make sure to get the Andy Wahloo Special at Andy Wahloo in the Marais (they have weird door policies, go early or late), the canadian pub The Moose by Odéon, mango mojitos at La Rhumerie on St. Germain. I love strolling thru the markets of Rue Mouffetard and Rue Cler. Make sure to get cheese at Rue Cler's Fromagerie Marie-Anne Cantin. There are so many great places to buy fresh bread, look for "boulangerie artisinale." I love the bread most at Bruno Solques in the 5th and Bazin near Bastille. Be sure to sample some ethnic cuisines. Moroccan to Paris is like Mexican to L.A., lots of great places like 404 and L'Atlas for couscous and tagine. Visit the African neighborhoods of the 18th and 19th and have lunch or dinner at our beloved Mama Africa. Hacienda del Sol makes shockingly good and innovative Mexican near Montparnasse. The best crepes are at Breizh Cafe in the Marais, L'Avant Comptoir by Odéon, and a nutella-banana one from the restaurant Le Goutte d'Or's stand across from Notre Dame on Ile de la Cité.
at my beloved ice cream maker Berthillon in Paris

Homesick? Go to the Moose or Breakfast in America makes great pancakes and burgers. 
My favorite cute bistros are both on the left bank--Le Timbre in the 6th and Itineraires in the 15th. Be daring and try classic French dishes like escargots, pied de cochon, foie gras, pâté, and steak tartare. Best steak tartare is on Ave. Montaigne at Bar aux Théatres, unbelievably good. Speak in French and they'll be really nice to you. For sure get falafel at L'as du Falafel in the Marais and Jewish pastries and bagels at Sacha Finkelsztajn.
Drink lots of wine, so much cheaper and the cheaper wines are better than they are in the U.S. Franprix has the best cheap selection. Try to learn a lot about French wines and French food.

My favorite nieghborhoods were the Marais, the Canal St. Martin, the Odéon, the Rue Mouffetard.
For sure stroll through Boie de Boulogne and look at the transvestite prostitutes. Take advantage of Paris's great public pools, cheap for students. Piscine Keller in the 15th is my favorite. Lap swimming is as chaotic as New York traffic but worth it.
Don't waste money on Moulin Rouge or the Lido. Do go to a latin quarter jazz club, an opera at Opera Bastille, a ballet at Garnier, Cantatrice Chauve at the Huchette, and an old cabaret like Lapin Agile.
Do lots of picnics!

Lastly, stay optimistic when times are tough, it's all an adventure and you're such a better person for going abroad. It's so important for all of us to learn other cultures and be open-minded. Try to meet people in your city, meet the actual Parisians in Paris. It's scary and hard to do, which is why my American friends and I just stuck together. That's fun but I do regret not meeting more Parisians.

Egypt, *Tori*

Egypt Maymester

I traveled with Vanderbilt University to Egypt during May of 2010. We traveled from Cairo to Aswan to Luxor to Sharm el Sheikh to Alexandria and back to Cairo to fly home.

During the trip, we were fortunate to stay at nice hotels which I would definitely recommend as it is a somewhat unsafe country (although I never once felt unsafe). We went with a travel/tour agency that scheduled our days and provided a charter bus that we visited all of the sites with. As per Egyptian governmental rules, we had an armed guard with us at all times (again, he never had to do anything except save us from the solicitors at Giza.) We visited many churches and mosques as that was the main reason for our class and the highlights of the trip included:

  • Cairo
    • Statues of Memphis
    • The Step Pyramid
    • Carpet making factory
    • Felucca sailing on the Nile (dinner included)
    • Giza Pyramids and the Solar Boat museum
    • The Sphinx
    • Cairo Museum
    • Muhammed Ali Mosque
    • Dinner cruise on the Nile
  • Luxor
    • Market
    • Temple of Karnak
    • Temple of Queen Hapshepsut
    • Valley of the Kings
  • Sharm el Sheikh
    • Climbed Mt. Sinai
  • Alexandria
    • The Library
    • Royal Gardens

We took a Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor, which was really cool and wonderful. The food on it, however, was not the best. The food throughout Egypt was mostly Mediterranean- hummus, babaganoush, gyros, etc. and a lot of the locals also smoke hookah nightly.  

As for dress, I would recommend breathable clothing that is modest as it is a Muslim country. The only city where you absolutely should wear long pants and shirts is Alexandria. Also, as in any Muslim country, be prepared for the Call to Prayer to be announced from all of the mosques multiple times a day. Another tip is for girls to wear their hair back, especially blondes- many Saudis visit Egypt and our professor had us stay very modest in their presence in the hotel.

Although I only spent a few weeks there, I really feel that I saw all of the sites of Egypt that I’d wanted to. We took classes in the hotel conference room and traveled a lot, but it was well worth it. It is important to note that I probably would not have felt near as safe if I wasn’t with such a formal group. That being said, most Egyptians are very nice and friendly.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chiang Mai and Nong Khai, Thailand, *Arielle Gout*

My study Abroad Trip in Thailand –Chiang Mai and Nong Khai

I always knew that I wanted to travel abroad in college. Having moved around my whole life, I am a huge supporter and a huge promoter of traveling to as many countries and to as many places as possible. Every country has such a distinct culture. Traveling opens your mind and enables you to learn from others. And as you learn from others, you are also able to take on and to understand different perspectives. If everyone in this world was well traveled, there probably would be greater understanding and fewer conflicts.
Being able to understand different perspectives is probably one of the most important characteristic a person should have—a person must WANT to have. Or else, who are you kidding—you are not fully appreciating some of the best stuff this earth has to offer: diversity at its core.

Originally I thought that for my junior year study abroad, I would to move to Paris for a year. However, then I remembered that although I have moved many times, I am terrible at adapting to new places. Therefore I decided that leaving for a quarter would be sufficient. Also, I decided against Paris, because as I am French and lived in France, I felt a sense of “been there, done that”. I wanted to go live somewhere REALLY different. Then I found out about a study abroad program going to Thailand through Cal Poly. Perfect. The classes would transfer easily, the program is very, very affordable, and I would be going to Thailand—a place that I would have never even considered had it not been for this program—with a bunch of Cal Poly students—that I would actually be able to see and hangout with back in San Luis Obispo. Also I knew that a couple of my friends were considering the study abroad program too. We went in and talked to the program adviser and were immediately sold on the idea.

I left for Thailand at the end of March 2010. I stayed for 9 weeks. The program itself was only 8 weeks long. To be honest, I should have stayed longer.
I traveled to Thailand with a group of four. We packed lightly. Luggage-wise, a couple of weeks prior to our departure, I bought a huge Northface duffel bag with straps I could use as a gigantic backpack. The great thing about traveling to a tropical country is that you don’t have to worry about bringing winter clothes! I filled my bag with shorts and tank tops and swimming suits…and that is pretty much all I needed.

The flight took forever—especially since we have to change planes in Taiwan. Eventually we arrived to the Bangkok International Airport, found the shuffle to the hotel we had booked prior to leaving, and before we knew it, we were riding in the back of shuttle through the streets of Bangkok. I never felt more excited. We left for Thailand a week prior to the program actually beginning. We decided that we would travel around Bangkok before figuring out a way to the Uniserf in Chiang Mai—where our program would begin.
I will always remember our first hotel. It had green walls. There was no internet. It had a pool that looked over Bangkok. And the breakfast consisted of one egg and one piece of white bread. AND everyone spoke Thai. The next morning, as we floated in the pool and read through our handy travel guide (Lonely Planet) we decided to make the most of the week we had, and impulsively decided to go another town several hours away and hike a seven pier waterfall. Our adventure began that day.

We made it to Kanchanaburi (after several taxi and bus rides), and hung out in one of the least touristy places of Thailand. We were literally one of the only white people there. I will never forget when we got caught up in the initiation of a monk, and started dancing in the middle of the parade. Or when one woman insisted on us (me and another girl with our huge bags) getting into her Tuk Tuk, and she biked us to our hotel 20 minutes away in the scorching sun—so she could make the equivalent of $5. These experiences are unforgettable.

I could go on and go with my Thailand stories. I cannot stress enough how amazing it was. Once the program began, we spent 5 weeks taking classes in Chiang Mai. We then spent 3 weeks in Nong Khai (north of Thailand right by Laos). We had to opportunity to do lots of traveling during our study abroad.. We saw the ocean, we saw national parks, we saw Laos, we saw Cambodia… We were there during the Songkram festival (when everyone celebrates water by literally having a huge water fight in the entire city of Chiang Mai), we were there during the riots in Bangkok (red shirt/yellow shirt fiasco), we ran by the Mekong river, we saw monkeys on a regular basis, we were attacked by mosquitoes, we got used to eating rice for breakfast and mango smoothies for lunch…

Of course, I did get home sick. I missed my boyfriend and my friends a lot. I hated skype because it would never work. It was very, very humid and I got sick of literally going outside for 5 seconds and being drenched with sweat, or waking up in the morning being drenched with sweat. I hated the cockroaches and the mosquitoes. And I definitely did not like being stuck in Chiang Mai for 5 weeks because of a couple of insanely easy classes, instead of having the freedom to travel around non-stop. And I missed being able to eat sandwiches. And peanut butter.

The Thais were very good to us. However, you must know how to haggle, that is for sure. It is very easy to be ripped off, ESPECIALLY in the towns or cities where the inhabitants are used to travelers. In fact, I would suggest avoiding the highly touristy places. I whole-heatedly believe that in order to get an authentic experience, you have to travel to the obscure, remote places. Places with hardly any whites. Also, it was fairly easy going around speaking English. I hardly spoke Thai and managed quite well.
Of course, as whites, we would stick out as sore thumbs. And people do steal (one of my friends on the trip got her mac computer stolen out of her own hotel room in one of the bigger island in south Thailand). Also, another group of my friends were sold fake visas when they wanted to cross the border into Cambodia. In fact, the Cambodians at the border were much more aggressive than the Thais and, in my experience, did not seem to like English speaking tourists very much.

I want to go back to Thailand. In fact, I am planning to do so next year. The best part about traveling to Thailand is that is it so close to so many other countries! I would recommend going to Vietnam (or so I have heard—one of the places I want to visit), to Vang Vieng in Laos, and DEFINITELY to Anchor Wat in Cambodia which has to be one of my favorite places ON THIS EARTH.

Studying in Thailand taught me to appreciate everything I have here in the United States. It taught me how to adapt. It taught me how to be resistant. And the beauty…is unbelievable. Pictures do not do justice the view I had of the pink bungalow nesting in the green, green jungle right by the blue ocean. Also, I learned how to drive a scoot!

If you get a chance, please go to Thailand. But be respectful of their culture. Do not be an obnoxious, loud tourist. Also, apart from the touristy areas, Thailand is does not have a night life. Be warned. The Thais work hard to make their country beautiful. Thailand is the “country of smiles”. I can confirm this saying: it is true.

I am not going to lie, after writing this, I feel especially nostalgic.

Florence, Italy, *Nora Boyd*

- I met amazing people, both in Florence and in my program. With a scholl-run program like mine, it's easy to assume it will feel like summer camp or boarding school, with name games and all the embarrassing stuff, but the people I met who were cool and were in Italy for the right reasons: to see some more of the world, to become familiar with a new city, to eat good food, to take advantage of classes abroad, and to travel.

- Italy is not so much the huge culture shock that one could find in other parts of the world, as in Asia, Africa, or South America, but it is definitely an experience! It's important to be flexible, and to try to understand the other culture. On the good side, for example, if there is an old lady cutting you in line at the grocery store, it is totally appropriate to cut her back, and it's considered part of the culture.

- Traveling is fun and more convenient for us while we're in Europe already, but it's nice to spend some weekend exploring the city you're in. Going every weekend to Berlin and Paris and Madrid and Amsterdam (and I actually know people who did this) is exciting, but it's totally exhausting and it gets extremely expensive. I tried to focus on getting to know Florence and traveling within Italy, and only went to different countries during Spring Break and Easter break when I had more time.

- Try every food! Italy is not really a place where you can find the weirdest food, but stomach and liver was not something I was eating all the time at home. I did try it. It doesn't mean I liked it. But I did decided I liked anchovies and fennel, and that was a step forward. On a related note, I really enjoyed cooking for myself, because produce is cheaper than in the US and so much fresher than in New York. It's interesting to see how grocery stores work in other countries, and it gets you more familiar with the kinds of foods people actually eat there (and it's less expensive than going out all the time).

San Luis Obispo, CA, *Pablo Allouard*

Pablo Allouard
Rouen Business School, Normandie, France
Where did you study abroad? 
San Luis Obispo, CA.
For how long?
10 Months.

Pre-departure preparations? 
Just basic things such as searching apartments, money, transportation etc…

Beginning experiences and feelings upon arrival?
It was my first time in the USA and far away from my roots (at least for a year). The first thing was Los Angeles. I arrived in a sunny afternoon, in this huge American city. I spend the first night in a Hotel downtown, because there wasn’t a train for SLO after 3pm. I was excited to discover this new world (and 10 months after, I still discover new things every day). I saw many cultural differences when I arrived: the Amtrak (generally, public transportation), cars, architecture, the coastline with mountains, streets etc… I noticed all the visible differences between California and France, but there are also similarities.
I was surprised to see all these beautiful cars, trucks and houses, compared to a period of economic recession. The opulent way of life was my culture shock, especially the “car society”(everything is easier with a car, compare to public transportation).
After I realized that I was going to spend one year without coming back to France, which was difficult at some point, when you start missing your family, friends, roots etc…

Overall experience
I definitely want to come back, I loved my experience abroad. So many road-trips!  
I discovered a lot about myself, California changed me.
I realized that the French have so much to learn from California:
  • First, an optimistic way of thinking. The French are pessimistic, like tradition and see change as a danger. They always complaining about everything. That’s why I want to come back!
  • Americans are more open to change.  We talk a lot about changing, but when it is time to take actions...
  • A friendly attitude towards people. SLO life seems to be a little bit cooler than the rest of California, but it is still different than in France, where people are a lot more distant, sometimes unfriendly.
  • A lot of sports amenities here. Things changed in France, but it’s not comparable to here: so much sports equipment! Compare to French campus, it’s a lot different. I would say that Californian seem to enjoy take care of their body and health, towards sports activities. A way of life that I’m going to miss for sure!
I’m 100% sure I’m going to have a reverse culture shock when I’ll come back: I’ll miss Californian people, way of life and landscapes (so beautiful).

Any advice you’d give to a prospective study abroad student?
Moving to France:
I think that you will face some barriers such as language: In France, people speak French. If you have the opportunity to learn French in your university (at least some simple “everyday life expressions”), that would help you to meet people and discover the culture (or just to survive ^^).
Unfriendly attitudes: Generally, I would say that French are open-minded and always want to discover more about you. But unfortunately, some people are not open-minded at all. To compare, I’ve always meet friendly and open-minded people in California. French are more distant.
Well, at the beginning, I guess it could be hard to understand the French culture and how French organize their lives. If you’re interested by learning the French culture, there is a class in Cal Poly where the French teacher explains few things to know about France.  
Well, I would definitely recommend you to move abroad as soon as you can! It will change your vision of the world and makes you more open-minded to new cultures. I’m almost sure that coming back in the USA will be hard after a year in France!