Saturday, 30 April 2011

Turkish Hospitality

April 30, 2009

After work, a Turkish girl that I work with invited me over to her house, what a great experience! After we walked the “close” distance from the bus stop to her house, we were greeted by her entire, rather large, family.  

I couldn't believe how much they were smoking!! Every five minutes another cigarette. I could feel my throat starting to hurt. Dinner was amazing: large portions of "pilaf", salad, mushrooms, yogurt, bread, and an orange desert. Despite their knowing very, very little English, there was a multitude of questions and discussion: I was the interesting foreign object which they had to know everything about in the course of the evening and late into the night

As the night progressed, more and more family poured in and enthusiastically, with large gestures, greeted me. I ended up sleeping over in a heavenly bed they prepared and in the morning my friend's mom woke me up (my friend had already gone to work) and made me a delicious breakfast with a Turkish grilled cheese sandwich, eggs and jam among other things, and she even brought me to the bus stop, through the rallies of protestors that began to create chaos and disruption in the city on account of May Day. 

What an amazing couple of days! It’s wonderful to connect with people with whom you can share very few spoken words. It’s exhilarating to be in a completely new environment where the smallest activities are new and exotic. 

Little did I know that this was just the beginning of what was to be a life-changing couple of months!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Culture shock in Constantinople known as Istanbul, Turkey.  The following are passages from my first few days in this incredible city where I taught English for two months through AIESEC, had a fascinating cultural experience and built beautiful friendships.

April 26, 2009 – Arrival in Istanbul

Upon arrival, Sami, an AIESEC member picked me up from the airport and we took the shuttle back to the AIESEC Office. I can't believe how nice it is here. It's raining but the city is so green and alive, and I love the small streets and old buildings. It was surprising to see some of the same ads that we have in Canada (Lacoste, iPhone) and to see that so many things are similar - it's an interesting mix between old and new. Another thing that I found surprising is just how big the city is. It's HUGE!! Just taking the shuttle back all I could see were buildings and more buildings on many hills extending in very direction.

First culture shock: Taking the taxi to our flat. We were continuously winding through the small streets and missing other cars by inches, literally. It was terrifying.

I'm staying in an apartment with 5 other interns, and the first thing we did: get Baklava. On the way back I realized something else: Istanbul is so big, that when they say "it's close" they mean at least 1 or 2 kilometres. Our street is very busy and filled with little shops and fruit stand on both sides and our apartment is on the 6th floor of a building with a hidden entrance (nice view but imagine carrying up the suitcases with no elevators).

April 29, 2009 – Orientation Day at the School

I hear that in Turkish culture, time is a little bit more flexible (not such a bad thing for me). However, I was still surprised when we left the apartment 2 hours later than we had planned. Then we went (slowly and casually) to a nice little restaurant and got a traditional Turkish sandwich: spicy salami, pickles, melted cheese, and a few other things toasted to perfection.

We took the bus, then the ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul, crossing the Bosphorus. We passed so many diverse neighborhoods, each with very different architecture. The Ferry is quite big and it's going to be a very nice trip to take everyday, regardless of the its being an hour and a half both ways. I’ll have more of a chance to visit the city. We also saw a pair of dolphins on the way and the waters are filled with Jelly Fish.

When we got to Marla Language Academy (the school I work at), I met the teachers and the students. I went into each of the classes as an object of intense fascination for the students. Overcoming their shyness, and in broken English, they began to ask me questions like “what is your favourite football team? Why do you think will win EuroVision this year?”  Euro-what? I had no idea what they were talking about. Despite my profound embarrassment, I think they forgave me. Leaving the school Sami and I walked along the Bosphorus while waiting for the ferry. What a view! Just looking across you can see the towers of Mosques scattered along the skyline among endless buildings.

Another culture shock: A woman dressed as a gypsy selling Roses and other flowers approached and harassed us. When I say harassed, I mean aggressively and rudely pursued and ‘persuaded’ us to buy a flower for at least 50 metres as we walked along and tried to brush her off.  When I say she pursued ‘us’, I mean Sami, my AIESEC friend who is a guy and should have been a ‘gentleman’ and bought me one. When we finally got rid of her by giving her a Lira (Turkish money), another one approached us.

April 29, 2009 – First Day of Work, also known as the day of Murphy’s Law

Time to go to work alone. To start off the day, I got on the first bus and got off at the ferry.  I lost the piece of paper with all of the information (which bus to take, which ferry, etc.) to get to work. Naturally, I started laughing… Working from memory I got to the other side, but I couldn't find the bus. The bus stations are crazy packed with people and have many, many platforms. It started raining (and it was cold and windy) and I was running from one platform to another.  

By this time I was already late, and I didn't get on the right bus. There are two buses 3A and 3B.  3A goes directly to the school and 3B takes a rather large detour.  I got on 3B. Finally I got to the school and I was already 40 minutes late and I missed my first class.

On the way back it continued to rain and I got soaked again. Wonderful. Then, I took the wrong bus, again.  Then, I missed my stop and had to walk through a couple of dark and deserted alleys to get back to the right place, which is a bit difficult to discern by night… Finally, soaked and cold, I got home and my key didn't work.  Oh boy! Luckily my roommates were home and it was over, woohoo!    

 Ah… the adventures of being in a new country.  

Jessie McCahill is the Student Abroad Advisor at Laurier International. Read more from her adventures in Turkey in our next post. 

A Year Working Abroad in Colombia

“You’re going to be living WHERE?!” was usually the response I received when I told people I was going to be living and working in Colombia for a year. Yes, I have moved to Medellín, Colombia… yes, Medellín was once the central hub of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel… but NO, Colombia is certainly not the same place it was 20 years ago.

A lot of people might be wondering why, of all the places in the world, I chose to go to Colombia. Well, I did two study exchanges while in university, one in Mexico and the other in Spain, so my next logical step was to discover South America. I applied to jobs within different South American countries, but I found my “dream job” in Medellín. 

The reason I have such an attraction to Hispanic countries is because of the passion I have for of the Spanish language. I began taking Spanish classes in my first year at Laurier, and ever since then I’ve been hooked. I love everything about the language, how it sounds, the countries, culture, music, and foods associated with it. So as I became more fluent in the language, I started to discover where my language skills could take me. 

Currently, I am working in the city of Medellín (north of Bogotá) as an International Business Consultant within El Centro para la Innovación, Consultoria y Empresarismo (CICE) (or in English, the Center for Innovation, Consulting and Entrepreneurship). I’m really enjoying my job because as it is in Spanish and due to the nature of consulting, every day is different. 

In the four weeks I’ve been working here I’ve had the chance to work with clients and discuss issues they currently face, do research and translation projects, have videoconferencing meetings with clients in Bogotá, attend conferences and meetings with international investors.  

I was able to find my job abroad through AIESEC. For those of you that don't know, AIESEC is the largest student-run organization in the world, which facilitates global internships for undergraduate and graduate students. The organization has been around for over 50 years and is comprised of young individuals from 1,600 universities in over 107 different countries. The global internship program is just part of the overall AIESEC experience. AIESEC also provides its members with an integrated development experience comprised of leadership opportunities, local and international conferences and the ability to partake in a global learning environment. I had been a member of AIESEC Laurier for four years, and decided, upon graduating from the Honours Business Administration program, to take advantage of its job opportunities abroad.

The one thing I love about living and working in Colombia, is that every day is a learning experience. I’m constantly exposed to an all-Spanish environment, whether I’m at work, communicating with my roommates, or interacting with people in the community. I’m always learning new vocabulary, or about the culture and country of Colombia. My job here is about 90% in Spanish, which, at times challenging but it’s an experience I am going to benefit from immensely. The other 10% is when my coworkers want to practice English or I don’t quite understand a concept, and they help me by explaining it in English.
An interesting aspect of the culture here in Colombia, is that people take two hours for lunch - yes you read that correctly, two hours! 
Here, lunch is the largest meal of the day, so the eating schedule is the exact opposite of Canada (lunches are large, and dinners are quite small). Since I still follow the Canadian schedule of eating, I have a lot of time during my lunches. So some days if I’m feeling tired, I will walk to my apartment (which is across the street from where I work) and have a 90 minute nap, then eat lunch and walk back. However, most days I use my time wisely and go to the gym which is also located next to my work, this allows me to have my nights free when I get home.

Since arriving in Medellín at the end of February, I have spent each weekend outside of it, visiting other cities and towns. So this past weekend I was determined to stay in the city and do some exploring. In the center of the city there is a famous plaza, called La Plazoleta de las Esculturas which has over 20 different Botero statues. Fernando Botero is a famous Colombian artist (still alive today) that is known for his "voluminous" figures in his works of art. I was able to see more works of art by Botero, specifically paintings, that same day in the Museum of Antioquia.

After appreciating a little artistic culture, my Guatemalan friend and I bought some Guarapo off the street, which is a drink made from raw sugar cane. It is very sweet, but refreshing and is normally served with lime. Something else you can buy off the street is fresh fruit, anything from pineapple to mango to strawberries. The taste of fruit in Colombia is a whole other experience, something you can’t really appreciate until you try it here.

Later that day, I was able to take one of the gondolas, called the MetroCable – which connects the city to the poorer neighborhoods, to the top of a mountain where you can see the entire city. The views are stunning, as Medellín is a city located in a valley surrounded by mountains.
It's unfortunate that Colombia has a bad reputation around the world, because it has pleasantly surprised me. 
I feel very safe within the city, the people here are incredibly kind as well as proud of their country, and the city of Medellín is quite modern (it has the only subway system in Colombia). Just like the old saying, one should never judge a book by its cover. Colombia is a beautiful and wonderful country; people should have an open mind and consider discovering it.

Katie Hudson is a recent HBBA Graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Best hidden spot in South Africa

Sunrise over the Indian Ocean in St. Lucia, South Africa
A few hours south of Swaziland and Mozambique on the eastern shore of South Africa is a tiny little beach town called St. Lucia. 

It’s a relaxed and safe spot with a ton of options to keep you busy: walk to the beach and take a surf lesson, hang out on the little boardwalk and watch the wild hippos and crocs, or take a Big 5 Safari at nearby Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, one of the oldest in Africa.

You can also take part in guided walks along the estuary, go whale-watching, snorkeling, kayaking, ride horses on the beach, or take a night “turtle tour” to see huge turtles up close. 

It was my favourite place to get away, and it’s also a celebrity hot spot: Sandra Bullock was in town at the same time.

There is a little souvenir market and great artwork to bring home as gifts (remember to bargain for prices). The BazBus stops there, so you get door-to-door transportation and don’t need to worry. Just remember to drink bottled water and bring your sunscreen.

Food as culture

When I think of my time abroad, I think about food. Delectable, mouthwatering, and scrumptious food. Through travelling and living in Sweden, transcending boundaries by making friends with people from many different parts of the world, I had the opportunity to explore culture through food.

As I have matured, my taste buds have also, and along with this has come a longing to always try different tastes. This longing was answered in Sweden, of all places.

While studying abroad, within my core group of friends, we cooked for each other, introducing different ingredients, tastes, and ways of preparing our dishes. As our group of friends got larger and acquaintances became closer, we started holding potluck dinners. Everyone was to prepare something, be it a main course, dessert, or drink. The result was an amazing array of different flavours, textures, and aromas. Think Dutch-made pancakes, Italian-made gnocchi, German-made wurst, Romanian-made soup, and Korean-made rice dishes.

Not only did I ingest a form of culture during these potluck dinners, but often these dishes were the starting point of some very interesting conversation and ‘googling’ sessions. I’ve come away from my exploration of culture through food in Sweden with a deeper understand of the friends I made there, where they come from, what they value, how they approach life, and not to mention some pretty awesome recipes.

- Sarah Matheson studied abroad from January - June 2010 at Linneaus University in Sweden

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Simeon in Europe

Last year was the best year of my life because when I came back from Mexico I flew off to London for a summer of "work-vacation" in Europe. 

I stayed for a couple weeks in "Soufeast London" with family, which has a lot of British-Jamaicans. I then took the train to Paris and then the TGV to the middle of nowhere in the southeast where I worked a kibbutz-style collective in the kitchen (there was also a Montessori school and a very environmentally friendly construction project). I showered with "watery environmentally friendly soap" and used which was pretty much "mud" for toothpaste; it was lovely, a very earthy tone and flavour! 

We cooked pure vegetarian food every day and I enjoyed my 10-hour days as a dishwasher and prep cook. I had to pay around 3 Euros a day because everybody pools money to support the initiative, but for me my involvement was all about French practice. 

I enjoyed philosophizing with the French hippies; I felt soo good when they thought I was from Paris, apparently I can put on a good French accent! I ended up losing my passport there though and had to go to the Paris Embassy to get a new one. This was kind of stressful but I ended up staying for 3 days at a friends apartment who was finishing up her exchange there; she showed me all the sights and I had a good low-cost vacation so it ended up working out. 

I then took the train to Villars-sur-Ollons, Switzerland for my official summer camp job, which I was late for but didn't matter. I spent a month there, had the time of my life with people from all over the world, using all my languages (even the Portuguese that my Angolan and Brazilian "brothers of colour" taught me in Mexico) and can't wait to go back this next summer. 

After I took the train to Paris and then a LONG overnight train ride down to Spain to work at my old summer camp that I worked the year before outside of Burgos. I had a great two weeks there, lots of crazy Spanish-style unorganization, parties, and long hikes to little villages. After two Brits and an American colleague and I went back to Madrid, another two-day vacation (walking around the hot city, picnics and hostel laziness). 

I then flew up to Amsterdam to stay with a buddy of mine for a week. It was my first time in the Netherlands and the highlight was a floating concert on one of the canals. At the end of the concert, they sang a traditional patriotic Dutch song and everybody sang together in streetlight-lit night, it was touching. Afterwards, I went back to London, spent some more time with the family and then back to Waterloo in time for school starting. 
Throughout my travels, I was surprised at the kindness of strangers where people gave me money, rides and even free hats and other blessings. Canadians have a great reputation abroad; therefore being personable and friendly, not judging certain people who may seem poor or "sketchy" by Canadian standards has great rewards for those who travel.

Simeon Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico

Last winter semester, I received the NAFTA Mobility Grant (through the International Office), which was approximately $4,200, to study in another North American country. I chose Mexico because I study French/Spanish and I lived for five months in Hermosillo, which is in the northern Sonoran desert. 

These northern parts of Mexico have been recently deemed by the Mexican and foreign media as the centre of a numerous drug wars and since Pres. Calderon has invested large amounts of money into destroying the cartels, we've all heard the stories. However, I wasn't too worried because my friend had studied there before and she told me that Hermosillo isn't one of the particularly violent parts. 

I lived with a Senora Lopez in a homestay which was a pricier option at approximately $300 CAN a month. The cost included all meals and a nice little apartment that I shared with another student named Esteban from Santa Ana two hours north. I studied French, Spanish, Portuguese and Spanish composition and linguistics classes; they were a lot of fun. I made great friends that I still keep in touch with today. 

The other exchange students were from Argentina, Spain, Brazil and other parts of Mexico; there was a student group called Punto Enlace that picked me up from the bus station, partied with us, went on trips, etc. I was really impressed with the BBQs that we would have; in Canada we get together and maybe some hot dogs. In Hermosillo, we would have a "carne asada" because Sonora is known all around Mexico for its high quality beef. We would go to the grocery store to buy tomatoes, avocados, beef, tortillas, peppers, onions, Mexican beer called Tecate and we then would go home, start a fire and roast our beef and green onions (the men, because its a macho thing to do). 

Las senoritas would be in the kitchen making fresh salsa and guacamole and then we would have a guitar and sing beautiful canciones tradicionales and eat. We would pool money and each paid around $3 CAN. Good times, I miss them so much. 

I'd like to add my experience in Mexico was different because I have Jamaican background; no Mexican ever thought I was Canadian or "gringo" thank God but always thought I was either Brazilian or Cuban which was really funny. I would walk down the street and people would stare and even some little girls from la prepa (high school) would follow me around.

People were amazingly friendly and everybody is interested in talking to extranjeros (foreigners) because Mexicans have this incredible curiosity of foreign people. The money was worth around 50,000 pesos, which was a lot and was more than enough to last me for a year I would say. I even went to the Cayman Islands for spring break to visit more extended family there. 

Everybody, especially if you are a minority, GO ON AN EXCHANGE! Do not be scared of any media rubbish, Mexico will always have a special place in my heart. I also volunteered with a government after-school program after I finished my studies; it was a different experience and I got to meet children who had previously worked on the streets I still keep in touch with some of them as well. All in all, I got to really experience Mexico, spoke Spanish all the time and learned so much about myself.

Simeon Young is a 4th year French/Spanish major at WLU.

Teaching in South Korea

I began teaching English at an elementary school in South Korea in November of 2008. What struck me immediately was just how foreign and intriguing I really was to such young students. 

I taught in a city of 400,000. However, it was a little outside Seoul and so the locals were not used to having many foreign English teachers around. Students were amazed to have a foreigner in their school every day and dozens flocked to the English office every recess just to catch a glimpse of me and my two fellow foreign co-workers. It was staggering how many students ran at me at full speed just to scream ‘HELLO’ as loud as possible. 

But I felt an appreciation from parents as much as I did an interest from students. After having taught for about a month, I had an eleven-year-old student ask me if she was allowed to bring her six-year-old cousin into class one day. I was caught off guard by the request but it was then that I began to understand just how much Korean parents valued ESL teachers. 

So the next day this six-year-old boy, Seok Hyun, comes to my class — his parents had obviously made him ‘dress up,’ as he sported a white-collared shirt underneath a rather dapper sweater vest. As soon as he nervously entered the room he silently bowed to me and offered me a can of green apple flavoured pop as a gift — it was nothing short of the cutest thing I’d ever seen. This little guy spoke absolutely zero English but he sat intently through my entire lesson.

By ‘break time’ (ninety minutes in), Seok Hyun had become much more comfortable and saw that I was not going to punish him for playing around. Within thirty seconds of the uproarious commencement of break time, he was laughing while chasing me around the room and stopping every so often to throw punches into the air and show off his Taekwondo


The way he became so comfortable so quickly, coupled with his intent willingness to listen and learn, was a truncated version of the kind of teacher-student relationship I developed with so many kids over the course of my year in Korea. Students like Seok Hyun are why I will always remember my time there.

Top five list of places I visited in Asia:
1. Siem Reap, Cambodia
2. Busan, Korea
3. Phuket, Thailand
4. Vang Vieng, Laos
5. Tokyo, Japan

Wade Fleming is a Laurier student who taught ESL in South Korea

Monday, 28 February 2011

Transit in Europe

Steve shares his unique transit experiences.
Europe does transportation very, very well. Trains, parallel roads covered in tramlines above subway stops. The amount of tourist and travel traffic means that they’re always crowded. The European pension to strike over just about anything makes them even more so.

Sew a big Canadian flag on your backpack and you’re bound to meet people. Mostly other Canadians. There’s some atavistic urge in us to escape our giant, empty country for the exotic hustle-bustle of Europe. You meet people in hostels, but you also meet going to hostels.

Europe is a hub of tourists. Even the small, quaint villages usually have exchange students or backpackers getting off the beaten trail. Everyone goes everywhere and they all speak English, or at least broken English that isn’t as good as your French but they’ll insist on speaking it anyway. Meeting new people while travelling gives a sense of moving forward, of exploring toward a destination. A feeling of accomplishment and possibility at the same time. At the destination you get lost in the crowd. But on the way there, you’re a part of it.

I'm going to share with you the things that you may or may not experience while in transit in Europe.
  • During the French train strike when we got on the only train leaving Geneva for Lyon that day, there was standing room only and a crush of other young kids. A few sang traveling songs, more broke out booze and a few joined our card game which didn’t work at all due to the train’s jostling.
  • You’d take the metro in a new city and someone would shout out, “Hey, Canadian?” and they’d be beaming and usually from the Maritimes. 
  • They’d usually know a better hostel than the one you were going to. Then when you were taking the tram or the bus to the bar later there would be someone speaking English with a large suitcase or bag and you’d get to talking to them too.
  • They’d know a great bar or a party some Spanish guy invited them to that’s at a strange club with photographs tiling the walls and people wearing strange, extravagant clothing. And you could get there because you can get anywhere on public transport in those tiny countries.

Steven Parker is in his fourth year at Wilfrid Laurier University. He studies languages and during the winter term of 2010 he studied for a semester at l'Universite Jean Monnet in St. Etienne, France.

You don't know, 'til you know!

Alex visits the Great Wall during his studies in China.

My first haircut in Asia. What an experience. After receiving odd looks as I walked into the barber's shop on campus I was ushered to have my hair washed. 

I'm pretty sure I counted four intervals of wash and rinse. Maybe she was just collecting herself for what was about to happen, I don’t know because the language barriers prevented us from the typical friendly chit-chat that so often accompanies a haircut. 

Once sitting me down she gave me a magazine of haircuts and perms, none of these looking like anything I wanted but it was too late too turn back. I made my best effort to describe what I was looking for using a combination of hand gestures and visual aids but soon I would find out it would not be enough. 

As hard as it is to believe that there is a haircut out there that would make me any less beautiful I think I had found it! But if there's anything my parents have told me, “it's what's on the inside that counts.”

Alex Boot is a fourth-year business student at Wilfrid Laurier University. He attended the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology during the fall term of 2010. 

Detour, Bozi Dar

Joseph and Matt battle the elements in the Czech Republic.

In between my two semesters of study in Marburg Germany, my good friend Mike came to visit me for three weeks of gallivanting across Europe during which one of our more memorable stops was Bozi Dar in the Czech Republic. Bozi Dar is a tiny hamlet on the border of Germany and the Czech Republic that revolves around its ski resort and promised a cheap alternative to the crowded slopes of the Alps. Mike and I had been in Prague for a couple days before and then headed off to Bozi Dar, which meant a train, then a bus, followed by local transport. 

Being so small, English wasn’t widely spoken, and upon our arrival I asked the bus driver if he knew where the town was. He responded with a puzzled look. I then tried again in German with a similar result, after which he shrugged his shoulders, closed the door and drove off. Great.

Finding ourselves outside a small B&B we decided to see if there was anyone we could communicate with inside. After a semi-coherent conversation in German, Mike and I had some idea of where to go, we were told it would only be about a two kilometre walk to the ski village. We set off in the -20 degree weather with winds whipping in our faces and backpacks strapped to our fronts and backs. 

After about an hour and half trudging uphill in ankle deep snow we found the hotel at the top of the ski hill we were under the impression was ours. Of course this was not the case and yet again no one spoke English or German. Just as we were about to throw in the towel and give up a maintenance worker on the lifts overheard us and approached us asking if we needed some help, in English. At last! 
Unfortunately we were then informed that in fact the village we wanted was back at the base of the hill, about twenty minutes away from where we had started. 

So nearly three hours later we finally were in the right place and proceeded to try and find a decent place to stay, and that’s when we found out it was a holiday weekend in the Czech Republic and just about everywhere was fully booked. After wandering the village for another half hour and ready to collapse from cold and exhaustion we found somewhere to stay where we promptly cracked a beer, collapsed in our beds and proceeded to watch some terrible Czech TV and a movie about Werewolves in German which I attempted (quite poorly) to translate for Mike’s benefit. 

Though probably the most difficult/frustrating destination the skiing made up for our trials and tribulations. Though we both vowed that next time we decided to go to an off the beaten path town with a population under 1,000 perhaps learning a few key words like “Where is the...” might save us some sore muscles and cursing, but it ended up being one of those experiences I’ll always remember.

Joseph White is a history major in his fourth year at Laurier. He minors in political science and German and spent the Fall and Winter semesters of 2009/2010 in Marburg, Germany.