Oh The Places We Go

Last weekend, two of my friends and I went to Barcelona, which now qualifies as one of my favorite cities in Spain, despite the Universe trying to persuade me otherwise.

It all started on Thursday night. We had decided that the cheapest and most efficient way to get to Barcelona was to take the Thursday night train there (an 11-hour journey) and fly back on Sunday night. We were all a little nervous about this because we hadn’t booked beds, so it was not going to be easy to sleep, but we were prepared with our neck pillows, sleeping pills, and a good book. The problem was that when we arrived at the station, we soon discovered that there was a nation-wide strike that affected the trains, so ours was canceled. Our only option, after much debate, was to take the next one at noon the next day, losing an entire day of our trip. This was incredibly frustrating, but we were optimistic when we realized that we could change our tickets to those of the AVE, the speed train, and arrive by 8 pm on Friday. We trudged home and slept well in our beds before returning to the train station the following day.

The ride was actually quite nice. We had a chance to really see the Spanish countryside, learn more about each other, and catch up on Harry Potter- Spanish version. We arrived in Barcelona and took a taxi to our hostel, where we discovered problem number 2. It was closed for construction. We had put down a 15 euro deposit on the hostel and they hadn’t even notified us that they weren’t open! At this point, we began to get a little bit nervous, as we were three girls alone in a strange city at night without a place to stay. But we remained calm (something I never would have been able to do a year ago- thank you study abroad!) and found another hostel only a couple of blocks away that had an open room with three beds. Turns out, it was cheaper and more private than the one we had chosen originally, and we had our own bathroom. The owner was really nice, too. Maybe this was good luck after all. And then the fire alarm went off.

It wasn’t a big deal, the owner told us as we rushed out of the room. It’s only that people are smoking in their rooms. Great. We decided to get dinner somewhere close and inexpensive, so we wandered into a Turkish/Armenian restaurant and ordered something delicious. The waitress came over and gave us a plate of fries, and we were really excited because we hadn’t realized our food came with fries. (Little victories were necessary at this point.) After we ate a few, the waitress informed us that actually the fries belonged to the table next to us, so she took them and set them on the other table. An incredibly awkward situation avoided if they didn’t see us eat some. I’m pretty sure they saw us eat some. We finished our food and left quickly, almost knocking over their drinks on our way out.

We went to bed early in the hopes of waking up to a new day, a fresh start. After the strike, the closed hostel, the fire alarm, and the fries incident, we still were fairly positive about the experience. But then we woke up to a huge storm, with pouring rain and fierce winds. We decided to proceed with our plans. We went to Starbucks and bought tickets for the Hop On Hop Off bus for the Barcelona tour. It’s a cheap way to see the whole city without wasting time trying to get from place to place.We bought our tickets, I bought an umbrella, it broke after five minutes, and we got on the bus. It was a great idea, except that we could barely see anything because of the rain. It didn’t matter to us though- we had places we wanted to see and we were going to see them! A broken umbrella, an iPhone temporarily ruined by the rain, and boots that let all the water in weren’t going to stop us!

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First stop was the Sagrada Familia. It’s absolutely incredible. The architecture completely astounded me, and that was only from looking at it from the outside. We decided to wait to go in until the next day, so we hopped back on the bus and continued to Parc Guell. I was absolutely in love with this as well. The architect of both the Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell is Antoni Gaudi and the way he plays with geometry is completely unique and marvelous.

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We made a couple more stops before we arrived at the Plaza de Espana, my favorite part of the trip. I had never seen anything so breathtaking before in my life. There were levels of waterfalls leading up to a beautifully constructed museum, surrounded by red and orange and yellow trees. We arrived thirty minutes before dusk, so we had the opportunity to see it before, after, and during the sunset.IMG_3874

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When you get to the top and look at the museum, you can turn around and see the best view of the city.

Our last day, we spent an hour and a half standing in line and visiting the Sagrada Familia. It was as amazing as everyone had promised. The inside was like a forest and it was the most interesting church I’ve ever seen!

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There are other important details of the trip that I should mention, like the fact that we saw the Barcelona soccer stadium and that almost every meal we ate was bad, but somehow those details aren’t going to be remembered. What is important is that despite everything that could go wrong, we had an amazing time and saw some of the coolest architecture in Spain.

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This trip also was kind of a representation of my study abroad experience. There are a lot of things that are different, strange, and uncomfortable about studying abroad. There are days that are really hard. But when you look back on it, it was an incredible experience that you wouldn’t do anything differently. Plus, without the challenges and hardships, the good things may never have happened.

Chloe

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Hanging Bridges and Active Volcanos

This past weekend I went on a trip with my program to Volcan Arenal, which is active and always has picturesque steam drifting off the top of it’s peak.

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The hotel we stayed at was a collection of bungalows in the valley below the volcano, and while it was exciting to be staying so close to an active volcano all of us agreed one of the best parts of our trip was the fact our rooms had air conditioning. None of us have air conditioning in our host homes and while we have gotten used to living in the HOTTEST region of Costa Rica, it was a magical and forgotten feeling to wake up in the morning and not be sweating.
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We spent Saturday hiking through some of the surrounding forest on a trail that has these incredibly high hanging bridges. It is starting to finally sink in that I only have four weeks left here before I have to leave my life in paradise. This weekend is my 22nd birthday though and I couldn’t ask for a cooler place to spend it than in Costa Rica.
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-Allison

Madrid

Last weekend, we took our very last excursion as a program. It was the longest excursion, too- we spent 5 days in Madrid, Toledo, and Segovia. It was a lot of fun! Doing the historical tour of the city made me fall in love with it. It reminded me of a cross between San Francisco and Granada because it definitely has a metropolitan feel but it also is very Spanish. 
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We went to the Prado Museum the first day and the Reina Sofia Museum the next day, both of which were very cool because we had learned so much about the artists that were featured there. I saw the paintings of El Greco, Picasso, Velazquez, Miro, Salvador Dali and Goya. As someone who has not studied or understood art previously, it was really cool to get excited about the paintings that I recognized because I knew the significance and the stories behind them.
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We spent a day in Toledo and Segovia each, and both cities were quaint and beautiful. There is a castle in Segovia that Walt Disney used to create the castle in Snow White. It was so picturesque that it did not even look real! It almost looked photoshopped into the sky.

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In Toledo we spent the afternoon wandering around the city, exploring a church and a synagogue and sitting by the river enjoying the view. How gorgeous is that?

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In Madrid, we also decided to eat well. We had Italian food one night, Thai food another night, and Indian food a third night. The program paid for a few meals for us as well that were delicious. I experienced real paella, where one must break open the seafood to get to the meat. This was Sebastian: 999722_550792051667641_185637459_n

The trip to Madrid also coincided with Halloween, and since Madrid is infamous for its Halloween celebrations (at least according to the people who had been on the program previously), a bunch of us took a taxi to a 7-story discoteca called Kapital where we danced the night away. Halloween is definitely not the same here as in the United States- for example, people dress up in scary outfits rather than using it as a way to wear minimal clothing- but it was definitely fun! I also really enjoyed seeing all of the children dressed up as little witches and ghosts.
My favorite part of the trip may have been that we found fall! We had been told that Spain pretty much goes from summer to winter, and that is true for the most part in Granada. But in Madrid we found parks with fallen leaves and trees changing colors and it was magical.
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We arrived back in Granada on Sunday to find that the temperature had dropped considerably and that the city was beginning to put up Christmas decorations! I have heard that when Granada is lit up for Christmas, nothing is prettier. I’m very excited!

Now I need to study for midterms because- guess what- the program ends in 6 weeks!

Un abrazo,

Chloe

We Don’t Believe In That

With Halloween and other seasonal holidays coming up, my host parents and I have been discussing a lot of what we do and do not believe. Personally I love Halloween as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas, but during breakfast a couple days ago while I was telling my host mother this she told me she does not believe in Halloween. There seems to be a lot changes happening in Costa Rica around commercial holidays from the United States. My host brother tells me that ten years ago there was no such thing as Halloween or even Santa Claus in Costa Rica. Only recently costumes, decorations and Halloween parties have become slightly popular with the younger generation. To my host mom Halloween is a ritual she just does not believe in; to the younger generation “if American farts, Costa Rica farts.” It is a crude way of commenting on how commercial holidays and consumerism from the United States has taken over Costa Rica’s mindset.
A majority of the Ticos I have talked to about celebrating Halloween celebrated this past weekend and about half of them did not know that Halloween is on the 31st of October. My host mother thinks of Halloween as similar to el Dia de Los Muertos – her family does not celebrate that either. However I learned that there is a large Chinese population in Costa Rica who do celebrate Dia de Los Muertos on November 2nd. Again about 10 years ago el Dia de Los Muertos used to be a national holiday and no one went to work, however now most Costa Ricans do not celebrate it and do not take the day off of work. Some even consider it strange that the Chinese population here brings food to the cemeteries to celebrate with their dead.
It is a little appalling to see how much American consumerism has influenced Costa Rican culture. My host family does not, and never has believed in Santa Claus because the consumer tradition surrounding him is also barely 10 years old in Costa Rica. Only now are Costa Rican parents having to tell their children about Santa Claus because even before October was half over Santa-themed decorations infiltrated local stores. While not every store in sight has Halloween or Christmas decorations there is still at least one store even in the smallest of towns that has some kind of Santa or spider web decoration. It is fascinating to see through the eyes of my host family who has been around to see this change and with every new holiday I mention I get the same hesitant answer: “We don’t believe in that.”

-Allison

Galap

The past week on the Galapagos was a whirlwind. I barely remember leaving the airport seven days ago! I guess my tan and the 500+ pictures that I managed to fit on my iPhone by deleting numerous infrequently used apps will have to serve as mementos to spark my memory.
Based on what I do remember, all in all, I’m very pleased with my activities where Charles Darwin and The Beagle had their ground-breaking adventures almost two centuries ago. I started off with a bit of a hiccup because my insanely cheap ticket ($160) unfortunately put me on the wrong island. I did get to meet up with a friend who is studying in San Cristobal to send her off on her programs’ tour of the islands. Unfortunately, because of their unusually large group, all the boats from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz were full- where I needed to be! Taking a page out of the book of a German friend of mine I thought, what the hell, why not just ask if I can join my friends already oversized group on their journey to Santa Cruz? Low and behold, the asking thing really worked! Not only did I get to hang out with a bunch of cool kids from the GIAS program, bum a free inter- island ride (usually $30), but their boat left an hour early so I even got to join up with my group in Santa Cruz to go to the Charles Darwin Center to see some giant tortoises and iguanas before dinnertime.
After the research center we took matters into our own hands and went looking for German Beach and Las Grietas (crevasses) for some potential cliff jumping. Unfortunately the water was pretty low so we only jumped from halfway up the cliffs, but the water was perfectly clear and all was well. As you might imagine, I considered my first day a success.

We started out the next day on another 2-hour island hopper towards Isla Isabela, the largest of the islands. From there we hopped on a chiva (an open-air bus) to check out a lagoon with some of the few flamingos that have blown over to the Galapagos. Dinner was delicious and we took a bit of a walk on the beach afterwards, although the guide told us that there were sharks at night so we couldn’t go skinny dipping 😦 The night came to a cozy ending with a beer in hand at a bonfire at the hostel across the way from ours where I made friends with Fernanda, a fashion designer from Brasil.
Our third day was dominated by a massive hike in the highlands to the Volcán Sierra Negra. The climate was a confusing mixture of wet/cold and extreme hot/dry. I believe that the walk was 18km (~12miles) round trip over a lava flat, exhausting! Here’s a shout out to my wonderful mother who bought me hiking shoes with a metal rock plate that made the trek infinitely better! The journey was a cruel sort of beautiful and we all came back with gnarly shoulder burns. Despite the high intensity of the hike we still had a full afternoon planned. Possibly my favorite part of the trip: we toured around the bay on Isabela to see the tintoreras (white-finned sharks) and marine iguanas. That was followed by some of the best snorkeling I have ever done. I saw three spotted eagle rays, some other kind of ray, an eel, a sea turtle, parrot fish, urchins, sea cucumbers, and so many other species that I don’t know the names!

Day four we were all exhausted. Luckily we were headed back to Santa Cruz and we got to spend the morning resting before our bay tour. On the tour, we took a small boat and looked at birds along the rocks, including blue-footed boobies, did some first class snorkeling, and attempted to swim with sea lions in the loberia (pretty much a fail that ended with some major scraped knees and sea lions laughing at us from the shore).
Halfway through the week we decided it was time to splurge and take ourselves out for lobster. Four lobster-virgins tried the seasonal rock lobster of the Galapagos at a fancy restaurant called Garrapatas (fleas). They were exceptionally large and even more expensive, so we decided to share two. We also tried some of the best shrimp. Ever. It was cooked with coconut and passion fruit. Yum!
On our fifth day, we adventured inland to visit the twin volcano craters, Los Gemelos. It is shocking how much the climate and vegetation change as you go towards the center of the islands. The coastal zone is mostly rocks and mangroves, the arid zone is all brush, cactus, and succulents. The transition zone. Next up the scalesia zone is very moist and full of lichens and scalesia trees (that’s where the Gemelos were). The last three zones weren’t very clear, and the dominant vegetation found there classifies them. Most of the islands don’t have a high enough altitude for them anyways.

The Gemelos were some pretty awesome collapsed craters. Everything was misty, covered with lichen, and quite chilly. On the way back down, we stopped by a tortoise ranch where giant tortoises hang out so tourists can pass by and pirates won’t pack them on board as nonperishable, low maintenance food stuffs like the used to back in the day. In general the turtles are pretty low key and even boring, but I really love watching them eat! Next we hiked through a lava tunnel (not for the faint of heart or claustrophobic). It was a good way to geek out a bit on geology though. It also went well with our week-long motif of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (there were 8 of us, and only one guy)
The afternoon activity didn’t go quite as smoothly, for me at least. We went to Tortuga Bay, the notorious, white sand beach on Santa Cruz. The biggest setback was the weather: pure clouds and wind the whole time! We were shivering on the glistening beach. Besides the weather, I went and got all sorts of sick and I’m honestly surprised that I made it all the way back on the 30-45 minute walk. I barely made it to the hotel, and passed out at 6 pm and slept until 7 am the next day. I definitely had a fever and was tossing and turning all night.
Fortunately, I came around to the land of the living once again by the next morning. This was our last full day without anything planned for the tour (free day) and I decided to check-out one more island. I took an all day tour to Isla Floreana (previously Santa Maria or Charles). I ended up sleeping on the boat ride over there, the chiva up the mountain, on the beach, and finally on the boat ride home. The things that I was awake for included: a tour of another tortoise reserve, a historic site where we learned about the pirates that used to run the island, a bit of snorkeling with a sea turtle, a super cool post office where people can leave post cards for others to pick up an take home to their home country and send, and some penguin sightings along the rocks. Even though no one else from my group came, I had a good time getting to know the Polish/Spanish newlyweds, the old guy from Germany, the two Scotsmen, two fellow Washingtonians, and the journalist from Beijing on my tour.
We ate out on the local vendor street to celebrate our last night on the Galapagos and save what little money we had left. Annie and I bought 2L of sprite and drank almost the whole bottle between the two of us! The street food wasn’t quite the same as the lobster we ate a few nights before but it did the trick. And try as we might, no one had any energy to go out or even hang out upstairs on the terraza because we were all so wiped out from a long, eventful week.
The seventh day, last day, día de salida, was not quite a day of rest. I had to get up nice and early once again to catch my last island hopper back to San Cristobal. A huge pod of dolphins stopped by to send me off and they were jumping all around our boat. On San Cristobal I made a beeline for Playa Mann to catch a few more rays of sun before calling it quits. I was pleasantly surprised by the clear skies and the beach full of playful sea lions. They came so close that they were nipping at my feet in the waves, which was a bit unsettling because I was in their element. Fortunately it was all fun and games and I thoroughly enjoyed my last minutes on the beach. On my way to the airport, I stopped for an obligatory ice cream- my last after a week of snagging sweet treats at every opportunity. Even though my flight was delayed about an hour, all I could think about was how much I wanted to spend just a few more hours on the beach or a few more days in the archipelago. I realize that this might be my only trip to the Galapagos and it sure was amazing, by I also hope that I will come back someday and get to know even more of these lively islands. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to take this trip- best birthday present ever!

Alora