Archive for the ‘Summer Study Abroad’ Category

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Ben’s first adventure: Caracas, El Vigia and Mérida

June 8, 2009

During a quick chat from the Houston airport, I received some sage advice from my wife; take everything one day at a time and things will start getting better. I married a very smart girl, and at that point it was exactly what I needed to hear. Especially since I still had more than half of a very long journey ahead of me.

Little things started to go my way the moment I got on the plane to Caracas. I found my seat and there was a woman sitting in it. Now I normally like to have a window seat, but I saw that she was taking her shoes off… this meant that I was free to take my shoes off, and I knew that would help me relax a little. So I sat down in one of the other two seats. We smiled at each other, and then both began to look expectantly towards the front of the plane. Boarding was almost complete, and although most of the flight was filled, there was still an empty seat between us. It was almost five long minutes before the cabin door was sealed shut, and we both breathed a slightly less than discreet sigh of relief; the extra seat was ours!

With the seating arrangements out of the way, and with my shoes off, I leaned over to ask the woman next to me if she spoke English. She did not. However, between the two of us we were able to discuss briefly who we were, where we lived, and why we were going to Caracas; one of us was headed home while I was leaving mine.

A sleepless flight, a small bite to eat, and we were on the ground in Caracas. Now, the directions I received on checking in for the Santa Barbera flight to El Vigia did not mention the gentlemen that I met immediatley on the other side of the door into the National Airport. I was immediately accosted. “Where are you going señor?” “Welcome to Venezuela señor!” I tried to reject their services, but what can I say, they were very good at their jobs. Before I knew what was happening I was being quickly whisked away by a team of two, one tall skinny guy with a great smile, and his portly counter part who reminded me of a Venezuelan version of someone out of the Sopranos. I think the large wad of bills that he carried helped make that association… or it could have been the tinted sunglasses and the fact that he never smiled.

I had to show them my ticket to explain where I was going, and from the moment I did that it was all that I could do to hang on to an edge of it! The tall skinny guy grabbed the paper and walked away, me clinging nervously to my only proof that I had a reserved seat of the flight to El Vigia, and I have to say that I was not overly reassured by his constant assurances that “it will be okay, I work here!” I am fairly certain that he did not.

When all was said and done, these gentleman helped me get my ticket from the Santa Barbera counter, helped me get my bag checked, helped me over to pay exit taxes, and exchanged money with me for higher than the “official rate.” Now, this of course all comes for a price: 100,000 Bolivares. Based on the exchange rate I had just received from the mafioso, that meant about $35. Yes, I know that I got taken… to some extent. But in hindsight I am glad that they were there. Their services really did help me. The price is exorbitant, but it basically erradicated (well, at least expidited) a very stressful situation. I had been in Venezuela less than 30 minutes and I could already tell that things worked very differently here. With smiling faces, as much as the mafioso could smile, that sent me on my way with cries of “Enjoy Venezuela!” I of course needed to remind skinny that I had paid him 100,000 B. for his services, but that he had also grabbed the change from the tax counter. With a good natured grin he immediately handed me the change. I laughed and went on my way.

Now, the 11 hour layover seemed ridicuously daunting. The flight had landed before 5 am, and by 6:30 I was sitting in the terminal trying to kill time. There was a T.V. hanging over one of the gates, but I realized incredibly quickly that it only played the same 4 music videos over and over, with something like 8 different commericials randomly interspersed. Definitely not enough to kill 11 hours.

I started to look for the other student who was supposed to be arriving in Mérida at the same time. I have heard that his name is Benjamin Kline. Every time I saw a single twenty-something guy seated at the gate with a bored or distraught look on his face, I was certain that was him. Of course, every time I had gathered up enough courage to go over and introduce myself, a traveling companion would sit down next to him. I felt like I was waiting to meet a blind date. I have still not met him.

The 11 hours eventually passed, and except for a last minute gate change, I boarded the plane to El Vigia without incident.

Here is where the real adventure begins… Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ben: A rough beginning…

June 7, 2009

I am sitting in the Houston airport, literally in a state of shock. So much has happened in the last couple of days that my head is spinning. It is still going to be 24 hours before I reach the place I will call home for 3 months… and although it has only been 6 hours since I was dropped off at the airport, the effect is staggering.

I suppose I should preface this entire entry by saying that I am still looking forward to my adventure. On the flight from Minneapolis to Houston there was a small Mexican boy in the row next to me, and I loved listening to him speak. Some words I understood, some I didn’t, but I kept thinking about how different it would in three months. How different I would be in three months.

But now, aimless, killing time in an airport, those three months seem like an eternity. Even the next 24 hours seem daunting. I miss Jess. There is no other way to put it. Saying goodbye to her was difficult, and as the time slowly ticks by I ache to be able to talk to her. We have been best friends for a long time, but when did it become something so much more? When did we go from just doing everything together to needing to be with each other through everything that we do?

Sitting here, I still half expect to look over and see her coming out of the airport bathroom smiling at me. After all, I am traveling, and I always travel with Jess. One of us watches the bags while the other goes to the bathroom. We talk about our expectations of the upcoming trip, or we talk about the experiences we just had. Can it be less than a year ago that we were in Russia? I believe that I am experiencing the old adage… “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Who knew that it also hurt?

As I mentioned, a lot has happened in the last couple of days. I found out on three days ago that there was not going to be school representative to help me through the Caracas airport, or to help me get from El Vigia to Mérida. El Vigia is the town I will be flying into. It is about an hour away from Mérida, and I will need to take a taxi or a bus. I also found out that, unlike students that went down earlier this summer, I will not be going to the school to meet my homestay family. Instead, I will need to go directly to their home, knock on the door, and when they answer, introduce myself. This may not seem all that difficult while you are reading this, except I failed to mention… on Wednesday I still did not have my homestay address. Does that make it sound more exciting? Nor did I have their address on Thursday. In fact, it was Friday afternoon before I actually got the address. But I have it now, and I am looking forward to meeting them.

Interruption: I mentioned that this trip was still a bit surreal, but as I was writing this blog entry I was paged in the Houston airport. After finding a courtesy phone I contacted the switchboard and they relayed a message to me from Jess… I forgot the camera. It was still sitting on the bed along with the small Flip video camera, and maybe I should buy a new one before I leave the States. Wow.

Well, I did manage to get a camera, and I was able to call Jess from a payphone. Then we decided that we would try skype and I was able to hear her voice. It made things a little better, and a little worse. If I could hop on a plane and head home right now I would.

I am boarding for Caracas in about 10 minutes. Hopefully tomorrow will be a little better.

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Erica: Merida Zoo

June 5, 2009
Like always, I went to the zoo excited and left depressed. I did get to see some interesting animals, though.

Yes, we were really that close to the lion. It was breathtaking, frightening, and exhilarating all at the same time. I snapped a video of him pacing back and forth, and if I figure out how to post it on here I will. It was really sad to see what small cages they kept their Big Cats in, though. Really, really sad. I also soaw one of the big cats… I think it’s a jaguar… doing its cat-like thing. I needed most of my willpower to stop myself from touching it (it was rubbing its face against the bars, just like a Little Cat would do). But I decided I liked my fingers too much, and respected the animal too much to touch it.

This animal totally cracked me up as well.  It’s called a Tapir and lives in tropical rainforest areas.  Glorious.


This is the only species of bear that lives in Venezuela, and it hangs out in the Andes mountains.



This bird just cracked me up. And it was in the cage with some parrots who kept saying “Ola!! Ola!!” to us.

And I had to take a picture of the Toucan, just because it’s a Toucan. It was really bizarre, though, they had these really exotic tropical birds in the same cage as a deer, and something that looked like a deer but was smaller and red-ish colored.
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Alyssa: Class, to work, to play… with no breaks

May 30, 2009

Thursday was a total whirlwind! It started out with a tour of Southwest London with my Pop-Culture class where we began in Covent Garden and walked and walked and walked all over learning about little shops with unique histories. It was really interesting to hear about the hippie and punk subcultures. I had no idea the hippies were so prevalent in London. Our teacher was walking really really quickly but I managed to keep up.

Immediately after class, I hopped on the tube to my internship. My class had gotten dismissed a bit early so I ended up getting to Connaught about an hour early. This was perfect considering the project one of my supervisors had planned for me.

I had not even set down my heavy bag when I heard, “I’ve got a project for you,” which of course got me immediately excited. He hands me five vials of face cream and gives me the task of creating packaging with a magnetic closure that suggests high-end quality while still appropriate if one, two, or all five vials are packaged. He also gave me a box of their current packaging as a starting point.

I began brainstorming solutions to the problem and sketching out ideas. After coming up with about six I called my supervisor over to get his opinion. He selected two options, one holding the vials with ribbon, the other a sort of Roman arch/toe separator design.

We then drove to a small design shop to pick up supplies for the mock-ups. I went to get into the car and completely went to the other side of the vehicle. He simply said with a laugh, “That’s my side,” which queued me to get in on the other. It was a bit unnerving essentially being in the driver’s seat with no steering wheel on the wrong side of the road. Then he said, “Just don’t scream when you see cars coming at you.” I appreciated the heads up as I was pretty freaked out.

Once we got back with the supplies I set to work. I had two hours to mock-up both options. I was so worried I wouldn’t get done. After creating the boxes I had to create the holders. I managed to get everything done just in time to head to the tube for the play we had planned to go to.

On my way to the tube station—with the huge bag and computer—I tried to contact one of my roommates to see how to get to the theater. My phone froze and I was left to just wing it. Once I got off the tube at Covent Garden, I wandered around until finally asking directions. The directions I got were terrible; however, she did tell me I was going in the complete opposite direction. By some incredible chance, or miracle, I happened to turn to my left to see the theater two blocks down the street. Even more interesting my phone decided to unfreeze! I was able to contact my roommate and get in on time.

The show was great! We saw Spring Awakening, which looked at the relationships and boundaries between parents and children and its influence on sex and love. It was incredible and fascinating to see the juxtaposition of rock ‘n’ roll music set to Victorian prose. If you ever get a chance to go see it—GO, you will not be disappointed. I laughed and cried even though that is so cliché to say.

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Erica: Merida Botanical Garden

May 29, 2009

So, today was interesting. We visited the Merida Botanical Garden for my tropical ecology class. See the photos below. ( In the third one there’s an awesome tree. I forgot the name but one of the theories of why it has spikes on its truck was to protect itself from the giant sloths that used to be present in South America before humans came.)






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Erica: Classes so far

May 28, 2009

Sitting in class now, waiting for my spanish Prof to come back. Hopefully we’ll finish early today. The other girl in my class isn’t here, so it’s been a very interactive class thus far. I think there is a cold going around to all the Americans. I’m pretty positive I have an ear infection, but I’ll continue to take pain relievers and trust that my body will take care of it (I was reading online, and it said that 80% of ear infections heal themselves after a few days, with or without antibacterial medication).

Last night we had a Venezuelan cooking night. Although the dough was pre-made, the Americans got to flatten our own arepas. It was very similar to the beginning stages of making lefse, so I was already a near-expert on flattening them, making them nice and round, and making sure I have just enough flour to make sure they don’t stick to the griddle. Along with those, we had some sort of egg soup (which I always thought would be kinda gross, but it’s actually really, really good. Simple, too.)
Alright, one class down and one to go. I’m really enjoying my Tropical Ecology class, and tomorrow we’re taking a field trip to the Merida Botanical Garden. I’m excited, and I’ll make sure to take a lot of pictures. Spanish class is going fairly well. Much of it is review from last semester (and for me, a necessary review) but the other girl in my class might switch to a more advanced class. That would be fine by me, it was fun being the only student in the class for a while, gave me more of an opportunity to converse directly with my professora. And I’d much rather have her be challenged in a different class than complain to me about having to review things. I’m here for 12 weeks, and I have absolutely no problem with taking it slow (I already feel like I’m beginning to operate on “Venezuelan time”, which means I’m late for everything… but everyone is late, so I’m on time. It’s a pretty good system.)
My spanish professor was telling me about this are northwest of here called the “relampago del Catatumbo” which is roughly translated as the “lightning of the Catatumbo”. It sounds magical, check out the Wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catatumbo_lightning I’d like to go see it, hopefully I can find some interested Americans to come with me. It would be my tribute to Thor if I could make it out there.
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Alyssa: First full week in London

May 27, 2009
Sunday was beautiful so we decided to go out to Hyde Park and wander around. Unfortunately, we missed Speaker’s corner, but we have plans to go this weekend. It was a gorgeous day and the park was the perfect idea. We then walked around Kensington High Street and peeked into Harvey Nicholswith its elaborate shop windows, and Harrod’s, two world famous department stores.

Monday was a bank holiday which meant virtually everything is closed (even the banks!). We made a run to our sponsor school to drop off some paper work then went through our internship commutes again just to be sure we knew what we were doing for our internship interviews the next day. Once we got home we all just spent the evening relaxing and prepping for questions we could be asked. I reworked my resume and internship samples just in case he wanted to see them.

Tuesday was my internship “interview” and by interview I mean first day of work. I walked in all ready to sell my work and my work ethic when I was surprised to see my work station all ready prepared for me. My site instructor introduced himself and immediately set me to work. It was so exciting to see how things work in the UK from a designer’s standpoint. I also had my first cup of English tea—which was amazing!
Wednesday consisted of more work within my internship (which I did not want to leave) and classes. My first class is called Post-War British Pop Culture and is really interesting with almost every class consisting of a field trip to somewhere significant in London. The instructor is pretty eclectic too which is entertaining.
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