Where I Have Been Map

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Merida - More than a check mark

I believe there are two types of traveling. One type is purely for tourism and adventure. Most people use this type of traveling to go to places just to satisfy your own wants and needs and check off a new place/county/city on their list. Don't get me wrong sometimes this type of traveling is exactly what I need after a hard semester - some time in the sun just soaking it all in. But you don't really get to know the place, just the comfortable amenities at your disposal.

Then there is the other form of traveling - traveling to truly get to know a place, the people, and the culture within it. This type of traveling can, at times, be the most frustrating and internally challenging experience of your life. It is far from a vacation, yet at the same time absolutely inspiring. This is the type of traveling where you come back home a different person. This traveling, I believe, my entire group is experiencing here in Merida. And after three months, will all come home being able to honestly say we know this place.

What have I learned so far? Well, first off - I was shocked to see how similar Merida is to any normal city back in the United States. I was expecting to come to a little village, live in pueblos, and listen to Marachi bands in the plaza. Driving into a big city complete with Wal-Mart and McDonald's just down the road is not at all what I expected.

However, the shock of similarities began to diminish the more I began to learn about the uniqueness of this city. For such a large city, everything is so close. I can walk to every one of my friends in my study abroad group's houses (although some are a bit more of a hike than others). I can walk to get groceries, walk to classes, and there is even a mall and a starbucks a few streets down. The fact that everything is so close makes this huge city seem cozy and comfortable.

Also, I can walk without feeling endangered of being robbed or bothered. Sure you hear the "cat calls" every once and awhile, but I have yet to feel truly scared in Merida. In fact, more times than not, I feel more creeped out from the tranquility and quietness walking through the calm streets at night - almost wanting a car to honk or a dog to bark to break the silence.

But instead the only thing that breaks the silence is the beautiful sunrise breaking over the horizon and spreading light on the elegant city. What makes it elegant, you ask? Well picture this - you could be walking on the road of Paseo Montejo, passing Wal-mart and some pretty typical commercial buildings on your left and right... when out of nowhere pops up this huge, colorful, elegant house with the most intricate architecture perfectly preserved for years and years. As you keep walking you begin to realize there are not just one, but many, many buildings with every brick and detailed column filled to the brim with culture and elegance.  

 Elegant, cozy, tranquil big city. So far those are the adjectives I have used to describe this one of a kind place in the world - however there is one more quality that truly sets it over the edge... friendly beyond belief.

Not too long ago, our adventures on the bus were no more successful than a chickens running around with their heads cut off. Trying to balance learning the basics public transportation while learning the geography of the city was not a good combination. However, it seemed like every time we would get lost or confused - a random stranger would go out of their way to help us out. One time a lady led our entire group all the way (it had to be at least 5 blocks out of her way) to the bus station in the Centro. Leading our group, holding her child's hand all the way... we all knew she had really gone out of her way to help out a group of random, lost Americans.

But why? Why have so many people here been patient with our lack of Spanish. Why have it been so easy to make friends. Why do I already feel as if my home stay family has become my own family.

A part of me feels as if it is sad to have to ask "why". I have seen too many times people lack the patients of foreigners visiting our country. But here it is so different. And instead of feeling out of place and an outsider everyday... I feel so welcomed.

At some point in our lives, we all feel like outsiders. Consider what it is like to have that feeling, be thousands of miles away from your home without friends or family, and not speak the language. Next time you see a confused Chinese family walking the streets of Tampa, or a Mexican family trying hard to translate an order at McDonalds.... give them a hand. Get to know them! You would be surprised what you can learn from them by seeing your own country through their eyes.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Mayan "kiss" from me to you

My whole life, I have felt as if the Mexican half of me has always taken a back seat. My mom’s side of the family is Mexican, my grandma was born in San Luis Potosi and my mother and Tia were born in a Hispanic-influenced town of East Chicago, Indiana.  I always recognized my Hispanic heritage, but growing up in the South, away from my mom’s family, I never felt the need to make the effort to truly get to know the culture or the language. In fact, when I was little and my mom would speak to me in Spanish, I would say, “Speak right, Mommy!”

At this point in my life, I really regret the attitude I had when I was younger. Now, graduating college and having the opportunity and freedom to head down any path I choose, I decided to go on this trip before venturing on any career path. I wanted to be able to go to family reunions and be able to understand my Tios’ jokes in Spanish.  I wanted to have an in depth conversation with my Grandma that didn’t involve broken Spanglish. But most of all, I wanted to have a deeper understanding of who I am - and I am a big believer that cannot happen unless you know where you come from.

In just the first week of being here, I felt just that - a familiarity of where I come from. My host mother and all of her friends reminded me so much of my family back at home. Little phrases would pop up that I would remember my mother saying to me, “Que te pasa, Callabasa?” Songs that my mother would sing me to sleep would start playing at local restaurants. The Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgin Mary) statues and pictures would appear in every local business, marketplace, on tops of cars… reminding me of all the Virgin of Guadalupe pictures and statues in our own house.

I had absolutely no culture shock coming to this place, because a part of me felt like I was home.
What I did not expect, however, was how much Mayan culture I would be learning as well.  Yucatan is deeply influenced by their Mayan heritage; this came as a bit of a shock because in the United States, our Native American heritage is not used as a daily part of our lives.  But in the Yucatan, a number of people even speak Mayan.
I have enjoyed learning a few words here and there.

Cancun – Liar of snakes
Chi Chi – grandma
Ko-oosh – Let’s go

But my absolute favorite Mayan words learned thus far, were taught to me by our tourguide Luis. The words are prounounced “Kiss” and “Wish”. “Kiss” in Mayan translates into “releasing bodily gas” … or tooting.  And “Wish” translates to, simply,  going pee. He said this brings a whole new meaning to the song, “We wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Xumal are the Mayan ruin sites we have visited on this trip. Each site had very distinct qualities about them. For example, Chichen Itza is one of the largest ruins site in Yucatan. It is so vast, that it is even one of the 7 new wonders of the world.

Tulum is a beautiful beach side Mayan ruin. Its contrasting stone temples with the deep blue ocean and various exotic plants is just breathtaking. 

And Xumal is smaller than Chichen Itza, but they allow you to climb on top of the pyramids and feel like Mayan rulers.

Some of the more disturbing, but still equally interesting facts about Mayan life were the stories of sacrifices during that time. Human sacrifices were a part of the Mayan culture, and built in the civilizations were various stages to perform these sacrifices. Some platforms were to display the decapitated heads of enemies in war. 

Others were set up for an audience to watch, in the middle of the civilizations. We passed by one statue that our tour guide told us was where they would put the heart of the person sacrificed in order to offer it to the Gods.

Another common place for sacrifices were Cenotes, or underground waterholes. They don’t exist in many places in the world, but are prevalent all over Yucatan. The Mayans use to believe the Cenotes were the gateway to the underworld, which is why they assumed sacrifices into the Cenotes were holy and a direct way to the Gods.  The Mayans did not associate the “underworld” with evil, only just the heavens below the ground.

I had this in the back of my mind only a few weeks later as I was climbing down a ladder into a narrow, dark hole to a Cenote. As I climbed down, darkness followed every footstep and the sunlight above gradually became more and more distant until finally my foot touched a rocky surface.

After jumping down from the ladder, it took a minute or so for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. When they finally did, my eyes gazed upon an underground lake of crystal clear, true blue water.

The water almost didn’t look real surrounded by the stalactites of the underground cave, like a turquoise gem in the midst of grey rocks. But we knew it was no mirage after cannon-balling off the edge of a protruding rock submersing ourselves in the refreshing, clean water. As we swam around, eyes wide open trying to take in all the beauty and make a forever mental picture; we could not help but feel as if we had discovered the fountain of youth or some equally hidden treasure.

We rode back in style from the Cenote adventure, on horse pulled carts rolling on railroad tracks. It was as confusing to me as it sounds; But surprisingly fun with every bump and swift turn along the way, shifting us harshly to our left and our right – at times coming dangerously close to flipping off the tracks and into the brush around us.  I feel like this mode of transportation was designed for the experience more so than the efficiency however, because every time we would come up on a cart on the same track heading the opposite way, the other people would have to hoist up their cart off the tracks, let us pass, then line it back up again.

However some things here that may seem not as efficient, are well worth the extra effort. On our last excursion, we got to watch a traditional Mayan restaurant cook meat. As we walked to the backyard of the restaurant to see the ovens, we were confused to only see a pile of dirt on the ground.

The waiters took a shovel and started digging into dirt until hitting a metal plate. They proceeded to lift the plate, which we realized was a actually a deep dish pan, and place it on the table.  He opened it up to reveal delicious chicken cooked to perfection. Apparently cooking the meat underground with coals, savors the flavor on a whole new level… literally.

There are so many cultural aspects about Mexico that I am familiar with, and yet even more that are brand new and exciting. Everyday has been an adventure. No matter if we are touring the ancient civilization of Chichen Itza, or trying to catch a bus to Wal-Mart (which has proved to be a whole different type of adventure).   But no matter what adventure is to come for the next couple months, I welcome it with an open mind and an eager hope for growth.
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Beyond the Blur

It was all a blur. Packing the night before, jamming things into my suitcase only guessing what things I might need for the next 3 months of my life in Mexico. Half of my face was swollen and numb from getting nine fillings just a few hours earlier. After sitting on my suitcase and forcing the zipper shut, I went to bed. I felt as if I had just shut my eyes when I heard the alarm go off at 4 AM, and thus I was on my way to the Tampa airport with my sister.

Still in a daze and still with a swollen face, I could hardly enjoy being switched to first class for my flight. The complimentary nuts and crackers felt like bricks to the raw side of my mouth, but sleeping came all too easy.

When I woke up… I was in Mexico.

Walking off the plane, I was a little apprehensive about finding the group. I had never traveled alone to a country that doesn’t speak English before, and my Spanish was very rusty. It had been 2 years since I had taken my last Spanish Class, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough with speaking to even ask where to find the bathroom. When I finally did conjugate the verbs in my head and conjure up the courage to ask, all that came out was Portuguese.  Oh lord…. This was going to be harder than I thought.

I must have been doing a good job of looking lost and confused, because an airport worker came up to me and asked me where I was going (in Spanish of course). I managed to get out the flight number of my group, and that I needed to meet up with them at the end of the terminal. He then proceeded to lead me outside; apparently I was on the complete opposite side of the airport.

When I finally arrived to the right terminal, they wouldn’t let me go back inside. So I called my program director and met up with her while we waited for the rest of the group. When we found the group, we all piled into a van and made our way on a weekend adventure that would eventually led to Merida, Mexcio – our new home city for the semester!  

I was very excited and felt like I could take a deep breath and enjoy the company of my fellow American students, who were going through the same language shock as I was.  But wait. The first words that came out of a student’s mouth, were in Spanish. And… huh, interesting… the response was in Spanish as well. The entire conversation among the students during our hour drive to our hotel was in Spanish, and with every word spoken… I wondered how difficult it would be to run home, brush up on a few more years of Spanish, then come back when I was good and ready.  I didn’t have this choice, however, as we pulled into our hotel in the sleepy town of Puerto Morellos.

The next day, I was still fairly intimidated with how amazing the other student’s Spanish were. My roommate helped me go over some simple conjugations, and some new vocabulary words in the morning, but I still felt like I had a few years review to catch up on.  At breakfast I learned all of the students learned Spanish on their own will. Sure, Spanish classes help – but it takes a truly determined person to discipline themselves enough to become comfortable speaking a new language. I felt disappointed in myself. Here I was, 22 years old, with all the resources in the world – yet I never took advantage of them. My grandmother was born in Mexico, my mother a native speaker, my father and sister learned it in college… and I never cared, until now, to truly learn. I was amazed how these students just up and decided one day to learn Spanish. Most of them continued learning even outside of classes, with jobs in translating or tutoring Spanish speaking children.  I was so impressed. And even more than that, I was motivated. No matter what happens in these next 3 months, learning Spanish was going to be on the top of my priority list.

The next day we were surprised with a free snorkeling excursion! Although the town of Puerto Morellos was relaxing and very much a tranquil “sleepy town”, I was pumped for some excitement and adventure!  We strapped on our goggles, waddled out in our flippers to the boat, and headed towards the 2nd biggest reef in the world. As we speed through the ocean, the instructor went over the safety instructions in Spanish.  The only words I picked up were “dangerous”, “lost”, and “follow the instructor”… so I felt pretty confident!

After jumping into the water, I plopped my head into the ocean and let my eyes focus as a beautiful word of colorful fish and coral reef came into view. As I swam over the reefs, I was amazed at the beauty. As many times as I had swam in the ocean, I could never phantom what just below me under the water. All the underwater plants were swaying in unison to the ocean current, and every now and then little critters would pop their heads out of the reef. At one point I looked right below me and saw a little Nemo fish stop mid swim and stare up at me utterly confused. We also saw some not as innocent creatures. Our guide motioned for us to come closer and peer into a dark area of the reef.  I thought I saw a triangular shaped fin poking out of the area, but surely he wasn’t showing us a shark. He then proceeded to poke at the fin with his snorkel… and sure enough out swims this 3 or 4 foot cat shark. I suddenly wish I had understood more than 3 phrases in the safety instruction lecture as the cat shark slowly glided right past me.
(photo from google)
After it disappeared into the blue distance, I smiled at the thought of being within reach of my first shark. But the smiling only caused my googles to fill up with water – so I had to retreat back above the water. As I dumped out my goggles, I looked back down and tried to focus on the reef through the water, but all I could see was a brown blob that looked like mud below the surface.

How could something so beautiful be so unclear to see just above the water? It boggled my mind!

I realized this is similar to my situation with Spanish. I jumped into Mexico, but was currently treading water above the surface – trying to focus on the words and try to makes sense out of them.  I could either give up and sink… or put my fears aside and work hard at it, make mistakes, get frustrated, and recognize the little accomplishments until I could finally dip my head below the water to see a new world of being able to understand Spanish, and thus opening my eyes to learning about a whole new culture.  

Let the Spanish Snorkeling begin!

Friday, April 15, 2011

The King Tut's Experience - Knoxville,TN

As erie as this picture above looks, was only half as erie as I felt as I slowly drove into the gravel lot behind this tiny, rundown building on the "wrong" side of Knoxville. I was barely pressing the gas as I inched towards the back lot. I caught a glimpse of an Egpytian man to the right of me, huddled behind an abandoned building smoking a cigarette and starring at me with cryptic eyes. I put my car in park and locked the doors as I contemplated how quickly I could put my car in reverse if an Egyptian mummy suddenly arose and jumped on the hood of my car.

You always hear stories about King Tut's Egyptian restaurant in Knoxville. Everyone either raves about it or jokes on how sketchy it must be, but you rarely ever talk to someone who has actually GONE to this restaurant to experienced the stories first hand. So leave it to our friend Haden to decide to try out this mystic place for his birthday dinner. Party of 9 at King Tut's.

When the Party of 9 finally arrived to the restaurant - (late of course, but  still safe and intact... I may had to restrain myself from SPRINTING to them from the safety of my locked car) - we opened the dusty door of King Tut's... and the eerie atmosphere competely changed... what we saw in front of us was hard to discribe in words...

We stepped into a main dining area about half the size of my apartment living room. Considering the lack of space, the owners miraculously had crammed in tons of decorations. And these decorations where nothing short of INCREDIBLE in the most random meaning of the word. For example, on just one wall of the room, there was a giant buck head (which we later realized was plastic and sang when you pressed a button), swinging next to the buck head was a hanging Greek statue of a Greek Goddess in a cage, and sitting next to the Greek Goddess was good old Santa Claus - who appeared randomly throughout the entire room along with his friends frosty and roudolph.

Instead of wall paper or paint, the owners decided that covering every inch of the wall with bumper stickers and street signs was the best route to go. In fact as we were seated, we found it hard not to get lost into reading the "dry humor" bumper stickers that aligned the walls. Someof my favorites were, "Be nice to your kids, they will pick your nursing home," and  "Dog and wife missing... reward for the dog".

But the most interesting decorations of them all were the sparatically placed disco and party lights hanging from the cieling - as well as a karaoke machine in the corner, complete with small stage and microphone. The lights stayed on during our entire meal, even though it was still daylight outside. Those owners must like to party.

The owners (waitors, cooking, and cleaning staff) only consisted of a husband and wife from Cairo, Egypt. The wife was very friendly and had a family warmth about her - but was a bit shy and mainly stayed in the back kitchen and cooked. The husband, on the other hand, was nothing short of social and loved the attention our group of 9 gave him. He would come to our table every 5 minutes to see how we were doing.
As well as the friendly service, something to note about King Tut's is that you are allowed to bring your own beverages, this includes alcoholic beverages if you chose. It being Haden's birthday and all, the group thought it appropriate to celebrate in this fashion.

The BYOB style is all good and fun - but the real epicness of this has to be the glasses they provide you with. On our table, variety of glasses ranged from (all slightly clean) champagne glasses from the opening of the Knoxville Convention Center, snow man mugs, and giant vases. Yes... giant flower vases.

Now, it may have taken over an hour for our food to actually be served to us - but none of us seemed to notice. We were completely engaged by the atmosphere, as well as the owner. He would come to our table and preform magic tricks - At one point he came out with a balloon in his hand.

"If I make a needle go through this without popping" he said with a slight accent, "You buy 5 desserts."

After negotiating back and fourth, we finally decided on 3 desserts IF he was able to complete this challenge.

.... He did.

Right before our meal came, another challenge presented itself. Katie and I realized we had to use the bathroom. Being at the very end of our long, crowded table - the only thing to do was to hop over the back of my booth and walk around everyone.

However, Katie was on the other side - Pinned between the bumper sticker covered wall and the table.
After about a 2 second conversation... we knew what had to be done. Katie successfully "limbo'd" herself under her side of the table and crepted her way out the other side and over the booth. The owners said nothing, as if they see this sort of thing on a daily basis.

An hour since we had first arrived - our meal was finally served. Five giant plates of Egyptian meats and vegetables, pieda bread and dipping sauce, grape leaves filled with exotic spices and meats covered every inch of our tiny table. We tried EVERYTHING. The flavors were all equally delicious and surprisingly spicy. I remember biting into a piece of sausage that turned out to be the spicest thing on our table. My mouth burned for a good 10 minutes - but it was oh so worth it.

All in all - I would have to say King Tut's in a one of a kind experience every University of Tennessee student must experience before they graduate. But I will say this, don't go expecting quick service and food that may or may not meet regulation health code. However, if you bring a good group of people and an open mind - you will be welcomed into a restaurant where the service feels more like someone inviting you into their home. You will be entertained throughout the night. And you will go home completely satisfied.

Friday, April 8, 2011

CNN coverage of Middle East.... or Glee??

I've seen it first hand while studying abroad, how often it feels like people all over the world know more about my country's government and political status than I do. I've had multiple experiences where European, Brazilian, Cypriot students my age often times want to sit down and discuss my thoughts on President Obama's election, the War in Iraq, and other pivital moments in our countries history... and I find myself learning from them. I can't remember the last time I sat down with my group of friends at home and discussed issues such as the Middle East unrest. But why is that?

Just the other night I found myself grabbing my laptop to catch up on online TV - and hesitating on whether to watch CNN videos on the protests in Cario, or watch the latest episode of Glee.
Let's review the thought process...

Should I watch one the most historical occurance in the World that could potentially change the entire dictatorship of corrupt leaders and the possiblity of self obtained democracy for Middle Eastern countries? .... ooooor teenage kids dancing and singing about their horomones?

 ... I chose Glee.

But why is it that our nation's youth doesn't have regular conversations on world politics and issues? Why is it that I cannot tell you which countries in Middle East are currently protesting? Why is it that something historically monumental is going on, and I can't focus long enough to get even the most basic details? 

It's difficult. It's difficult to sit down and watch the news - It's difficult to hear facts from a 60-year-old Middle Eastern expert and try to comprehend the situation in the Middle East. It's hard to relate to that man and to be interested in what he has to say no matter how important the issue is. It's the same scenerio as if you had a professor with a monotone voice, slowly stating facts and dragging out sentences that at times you wonder if the glazed eyes and droll coming slowly creeping out of your mouth are noticable. He could be lecturing out the winning lottery numbers to next weeks Powerball and you JUST. WOULDN'T. CARE.

I wish you could just google "Middle East Unrest" and be linked to things other than news stories. I want to be linked to videos, personal stories, and opinions from people around the world. People that have an interesting tale to tell. People you could relate to. How interesting would it be if there was a talk show on real world issues... done by a panel of college students. What would American students views be compared to students in Egypt? Or Yemen? ... what is it like going to classes and hearing bombs and gun shots go off in the background? What is it like to have the upmost pride in your country to stand in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people and demand freedoms? That is what I would like to know.

So I search and searched on various websites for these types of stories and information on the web - and I did find some interesting things that might make it a little easier for those of us that want to know what's going on in the world... but might get a bit distracted at times.

1. A basic summary on CNN
Summary of which countries are in protest, new developments, dictators and why the country protested. A great place to start.

2. Video footage of the most recent protest in Cairo, where it all started.
Note how many people are involved in this protest. I don't know if I have ever seen that many people gathered together for a cause. It almsot reminds me of our own countries March On Washington during the Civil Rights Movement- people gathering together to fight for their freedoms. Truly inspiring.

Anthony Bourdain's blog on this website discusses how he felt when he was in Egypt for a shoot - and his thoughts on the situation today. 
4. Unrest forces family to evacuate from Egypt intoTampa
Honestly I would be terrified to be there as well. But it's interesting to compare that to those people who live in Egypt and either can't leave do to financial limitations - or don't want to because of their pride in their country and efforts towards fighting for freedom.

5.  Egypt unrest affects USA student's family
A student from Alabama discusses how he feels about his parents (diplomats for Egypt) who are currently living in Egypt. I REALLY found this one interesting.

  6. Local student flown out of Egypt
 A study abroad student who was in Egypt during the protests discusses her experience.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Growing Appreciation for Country

As a new Corporate Communications Intern at Scripps Networks, I get the opportunity to work with HGTV, DIY, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel, and Great American Country (GAC). As my internship continues I am learning so much about the country music industry and what it means to its fans and singers. I wanted to share my journey of finding an appreciation for country music, which helped lead to this internship. This channel might stand for Great American Country, but for someone like me who had to find out what was so great about country, I took GAC as Growing Appreciation for Country. Because that’s what I have found working with Scripps Networks.

There is something about country music that brings us home. Maybe it’s the soothing voices and country twang. Maybe it’s the simplicity of a banjo that can make you tap your foot to a catchy country song. Maybe it’s even the southern gentlemen ideal that comes with every sweet word sung that gives us women hope. All of these traits bring me back to my Country I-Pod Playlist when I’m searching for something more, or something familiar. But looking back, I realize I found something greater in these songs that drew me to this genre. I found stories. I found stories about love, happiness, losing faith, gaining faith, memories, and future goals… stories about life. In times of trouble the singer found meaning in their life. In times of trouble, they helped me find meaning in mine.

Living in the South for over 17 years… my culture, my taste in foods, and every now and then even my accent is soaked with southern influence. But I was not always a country music fan. Sure, I’ve lived in the south the majority of my life, but my family heritage was as far away from sweet tea and grits as you can get. Being raised by a Hispanic mom and an anthropological dad, I wasn’t really sure where I fit in this Country Music City.

I remember riding in my friends’ cars and rolling my eyes as they turned the dial and the voices of Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire rang out through the speakers. All I could hear back then was the crying of the steel guitar that, coupled with the sad, slow voices, made every song seem like the singer was complaining. I heard no meaning, I heard only repetition... Repetition of the instruments and melodies that didn’t move anything inside me except my gag reflexes.

As life would have it I never appreciated a country song until I traveled thousands of miles away from the Music City. While lying in a hammock by the Amazon River, wooden hut with a palm leaf roof blocking the shade of the intense sun, and the mighty rainforest hiding hundreds of chirping parrots and chattering monkeys, I was experiencing one of the most defining moments of my life. However, at the time all I could think about was being home. I was enduring intense culture shock. Depression overwhelmed me and I was lost in confusion, confronted with a different language, poverty, and culture. I could not grasp the Amazonians way of life because I, in fact, did not have a concrete way of life back home to relate to.

At what could have been the breaking point on my adventure in the Amazon jungle, one of my best friends sent me a playlist. When the first song started playing, all the chirping and chattering of the jungle drew silent for just a moment, and was overcome by the strumming banjo. I grew silent with the rest of the animals in the jungle and together we all learned just how Eric Church goes about “Livin’ Part Of Life”.

“Tomorrow I’m takin me fishing. Hang a sign on the door of my life. Tell the world that I’ve gone missing and I won’t be back for awhile.”

The more I listened to that playlist, the more comfort I found from it. I found a little piece of home in every song. I realized just how much the southern lifestyle, including country music, was a part of my life and who I am. I found something to relate to. And through that I began to relate to where I was, and appreciate the people who live there… who were not so unlike me as I thought. I truly realized this as I sat on the bank of the Amazon River with new Brazilian friends, water bottle in hand, fish line tied around the middle and a hook at the end… taking a break from life to sit down and go fishing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Land of the Free

On the first day of my African Students class, I was given an assignment to define what freedom means to me. My first thought was, a paper assigned on the first day is not my idea of an "easy A" senior semester, what had I gotten myself into? My next thought was, well wiki-pedia... looks like you will come to my rescue again! But then when I put all laziness aside and actually wrote how I feel about the country we live in an the opportunities we are given, this is what came out.

Freedom, to me, is both a great opportunity and an extraneous challenge. As Spider-man once said, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Although we do not have really cool tights and webs that shoot out of our wrists (However AWESOME that would be), I believe each one of us as an American citizen was given a great power of freedom, and have a great responsibility to uphold what that means. Living in a land of freedom, and being brave enough to take the challenge and responsibility that comes with it.

Our nation is split in almost every controversial issue. We are racially diverse, and religiously divided. To most people, this would sound like a negative trait, as if we are not a united country. But in reality it is the opportunity for us to learn how to be the person we want to be. It is the opportunity to learn from those different than us. It is an opportunity to exercise an open mind, which I truly believe in the only way to truly understand your own beliefs and yourself.

However, that freedom comes with responsibility. Think back to your freshman year. The year of confusion, nocturnal behaviors, excitement, freedom, and so much fun you never want to have again. When you attend a school like ours, the University of Tennessee, you are greeted with so many opportunities… the Greek Community, Honors College, Service Groups, Intramural Sports, Religious Groups, and Student Activities Organizations. Your opportunities to succeed and grow in this school are endless. However, at a school our size, no professor is going to hold your hand through your transition. No one is going to tell you what path you need to take and how to get there. At our school we have the opportunities of a lifetime, but the risk of failure. We decide which path we take. You make your own way, and if you succeed, you are rewarded an ultimate form of accomplishment that you can say you earned completely on your own… a diploma.

But college is just a practice for life. A place where we can grow, and take what we learn in the real world. And once again, no one is going to hold your hand through this journey. Once in the real world, the gift of freedom comes with learning to accept that everyone is different, that is the beauty of freedom. And to understand that you can learn something from every single, different person in the world.

So next time you get in a political argument, religious debate, or racial struggle....  Don't try to change anyone's believes. Because the most beautiful thing about our country and that we HAVE our own beliefs. What works for us. And through that idea, no matter what you believe, everyone is right.

An open mind will lead you to the ultimate reward of freedom… the diploma of life.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Foreign Land of Tennessee

When I travel, I get inspired to write. Being confronted with different ideas, cultures, and people opens my mind and allows thoughts to enter that never would have if I had kept the door closed.

But then I realized, you don't have to travel to get inspired in this way. All you need is a door stop on the entrance of your mind to keep it open and a constant awareness of what is different, and how you can learn from it.

Just in our University, there are plenty of opportunities to learn about another culture. Last semester I befriended an exchange student from South Korea. Through the semester I'd like to think I taught him about the ways of American life, but somehow I feel I got the better end of the deal. I learned so much about a place I couldn't even point out on a map 6 months ago.Through him I learned I could have turned 21 a whole 7 months earlier and celebrated two Valentines Days in one year.

In Korea you are born 1 years old, and birthday does not dictate how old you are. If you are born in the year 1989.... you are 21 years old for the entire year of 2010. On New Years day of 2011, you turn 22.

As for Valentines Day... Koreans, not living in a Christian based country, celebrate the holiday very differently. Instead of religious, Christmas is celebrated as a day to spend with your significant other.

                                          (Taking Ram and friends hiking in Gatlinburg)

There are so many opportunities to learn something new about another culture on this campus, and the International House is one very easy way to get involved. Their facebook page is a convient way to find out what events are going on. Every week they have cultural events which are hosted by international students. They also have a program called, "The Friendship Program" in which you are paired with a foreign exchange student for the semester to be their American guide and their new friend. A group of my sorority sisters decided to join the program together this semester.

Through these discoveries this past year in college, I realized I have been a bit bias in my blog. How can I write about traveling and learning how differences can be inspiring, if I cannot find those differences and inspiring moments in my own hometown?

I get inspired everyday by people I have known for years, talked to for only a few minutes, or maybe have never even met. So I thought it was about time I start sharing my experiences.

After all, what is our home of Tennessee but a foreign adventure for everyone else in the world.

So, friends... start exploring.