Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Moroccan Adventure

Hola todos,

 A few weeks ago, I took a ferry from Spain to Africa in forty five minutes. In the States, my family drives over ten hours to the beach in Florida. It's strange how traveling very short distances here can put you in an entirely new world and continent, where the language, religion, and culture is vastly different. De hecho, from Tangier, Morocco, you can see the coastline of Spain perfectly. I don't know exactly what I was expecting to find on my four day trip, but I imagined a lot of exotic animals and treks across the desert. While you would find that in Kenya, Morocco is an entirely different story. It lies on the western edge of Africa and has fought off conquerors and colonizers throughout its history to become an independent mix of European, African, Arabic influences. Our first walk through the streets revealed the deep ties of its people to Islam, strange chants out of a minaret called the men to prayer in the mosque, while women were covered with hijabs (headscarves.) We soon learned that women play a very subservient role in the culture, which made me a little uncomfortable, because I have grown up believing that gender doesn't define who you are, what you can wear or not wear, or what you can be. We were able to talk with local students over tea and pastries on our first day to see their viewpoints on their religion. One girl voluntarily wears a hijab, and the other one doesn't wear one at all, but both insisted its a personal choice. What struck me most about the students was how similar they seemed to us American teenagers. Yes, we practice different religions and live in different places, but we all struggle with trying to find meaning in our lives. We ask the same questions and face similar problems in our respective countries day to day. What I knew about Muslim countries before this trip, was limited to the horrors shown on television, sixty second news flashes that are meant to evoke fear. But what I found in Morocco were friendly, welcoming people who are eager to learn as much about my life as I am about theirs. I think that if I we all attempted to understand and accept the similarities between people around the world, instead of pointing out our differences, it would eliminate a lot of the ignorance that comes with fear of the unknown. 

On a happier note, we were surprised with camel rides along the beach on our first day. We got up close and personal with the animals, petting them and taking selfies with them. It was truly a unique experience. Then, we drove to a little seaside town to have couscous and admire the amazing view of the Mediterranean. It was in that quaint village that we discovered a place on a wall where you take your picture and then upload it to Instagram with a particular hashtag. That way, all of the people around the world that have been in that spot are connected with a push of button. It's strange to see the way technology impacts and enhances our lives, even in the oldest of places. Speaking of which, for the majority of the time, I had no phone service or wifi. It was probably the longest time I had gone without Internet since I was twelve. Though technology is good for so many things, it was refreshing to look at the views without Tweeting or Facebooking or texting. 

That night, we headed to the capital of Morocco, Rabat, where we met our host families and had dinner. Visitors are seen as gifts from God in Islamic tradition, so we were treated very well. The house I stayed in was very open, with curtains separating one room from another. The Moroccan household is a place of community and family. We were treated to large dinners with fruit, couscous, tea, pastries, and salad, while failing to communicate effectively with hand gestures. Mostly, I just smiled and everyone just smiled back. The thing I found particularly challenging was the shoe rule. If you walk on carpet, you take off your shoes. If you walk on tile, you put on your shoes. It proved to be a hassle to constantly switch between the two and found myself accidentally breaking the tradition often. There are modern conveniences in Morocco, like lights and running water, but its still a developing country. My particular family thankfully had a Western style toilet, while some others did not (think hole in the ground,) but our shower was a bucket of water and a loofah. After a day of exploring different sites in Rabat, we all had the opportunity to go to the public bath, called the Hammam. All the girls went to one of the many rooms of the bathhouse and filled buckets with warm water. We then washed and exfoliated our skin. Let's just say it was quite the memorable experience that made me very appreciative of my hot shower in Seville. 

My favorite part of the experience was going to a village in the Rif Mountains to meet with a family. It was a long drive by bus, with a police check in between. We learned that in the future, the government will start following the Moroccan Exchange students around this part of the country, to keep tabs on us. I say that only to communicate that it was no touristy trip-- we were seeing the real Morocco. We arrived and hiked for twenty minutes up to the house, seeing some incredible views along the way. We really were able to interact with the family-- understand their daily lives, learn about their work, and what makes them happy. The father wanted all of his children to have an education, however far they had to walk to school or whatever sacrifices had to be made. It made me cringe to think about all the times I complained about homework or going to class. Education is a gift, a tool, that shouldn't ever be taken for granted. These people understand that, they really understand the things that are important in life in better ways than we do.

 Only one person was allowed to take pictures of and with the family, and I was happy to be the one to get that opportunity. I spent a lot of time photographing the little children, who were fascinated by the images of themselves. These villagers don't have cameras, but my photos will be hand-delivered back to them so that they will have memories of the visit. I was glad to use technology for someone other than myself. 

Our final stop was Chefchaouen, the blue city, where we spent time bartering in the markets, buying super cool pants, and getting authentic Henna tattoos. Our night was spent reflecting on our time in Africa and the ways in which the trip had impacted us. I remembered that the girl on the first day said that her truth may be different from my truth, but that doesn't make one better than the other. I left Morocco wanting to travel more, to see more of the world, and to stop judging. So far, so good. 

P.S. Watch my video of the trip if you haven't: Moroccan Video

More updates soon,


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Ugly Truth: Independence Abroad.

The temperature was dropping quickly as the sky darkened with the ominous approach of night and right. The rural street was deserted-- except for two girls standing under the shelter of a bus stop. Despite a crumpled schedule's promise of a shuttle to the train station, it did not appear as 5:15, 5:25, and 5:35 flashed on the screen of an out-of-service Iphone. They walked out by the side of the road, but few cars passed by. On the verge of a disaster and missing their train back to Paris....

Okay, so that was a bit dramatic. But when Paige and I were in that situation this past week, it seemed like the end of the world. And so begins the back story. One day, out of our weeklong journey in the City of Light, we decided to visit the house and gardens of Claude Monet (fabulous painter of waterlilies) in Giverny, France. It's a tiny village, about an hour and fifteen minutes from Paris by train. Simple enough, right? The first problem arose before we even left, in the St. Lazare train station. We were right on schedule to catch the 12:20pm train until we exited the metro and discovered that we had no idea where or how (because we don't speak French and I mean NONE) to buy tickets, or which of four floors the trains departed from. In short, we ended up sprinting from the first floor to the third only to miss the train by by about two minutes. We finally had the courage to actually go to the information desk, where we received second class tickets and a valuable schedule. Fifty minutes later, we were on our way to Vernon, with picturesque views of the countryside. At one point, we switched trains and ending up meeting a Brazilian girl who speaks French who was also headed to Monet's gardens. This leads me to  the most complicated part of the process of getting to our destination: the shuttles. Now, I suppose these shuttles from the train station in Vernon to the museum in Giverny exist in real life, but I can't be certain. We assumed that we had missed the last one of the day, so we split a BMW taxi with the Brazilian-who-speaks-French for the ten-minute ride. It was smooth sailing once we found ourselves amongst the auburn leaves in the quaint village and we spent about two hours exploring Monet's wonderland, walking through his house, seeing the famous waterlilies, and soaking all of the nature in. Though primetime is in the spring, it was still beautiful in the fall and not crowded at all--which may have been the cause of our next problem. We took our time leaving the museum and then stopped at cafe for pastries and tea, thinking we had all the time in the world to catch the shuttle back. And we did, because there was no shuttle (refer to dramatic intro above.) I've concluded that there was no shuttle for one of three reasons: a) It was the last day the gardens were open until April and therefore there weren't many people and therefore the shuttle service stopped early, b) we were in the wrong place to catch it, or c) my schedule was wrong. I would like to choose option A, but I will never be entirely sure. Now, we ended up waving down a taxi that already had people inside, but they were nice enough to let us share with them back to the station. The last and probably most stressful event of the day happened on the way back, when we switched trains somewhere in France. One would naturally think that if you switch trains on the way there, you should switch trains on the way back. So, without glancing at our tickets, we hop off the warm, cozy train TO PARIS,and then discover that it really would have taken us to all the way back. By the time we were fully aware of this mistake, the train had already left and we were standing on the dark platform looking incredibly dejected, confused, and hungry. Fortunately, a little French boy, who spoke English, helped us out and even led us to another train back. When we finally saw the glittering lights of Paris, we were simply exhausted. It was quite the day.

I tell you this whole story because I think of it as a defining experience: a first taste of the real world. Yes, I'm in Spain "by myself" but I have advisors, a host family, and friends that support me daily. But that day (and all week) we were two, naive 18 year-old girls trying to figure things out on our own and it didn't always go smoothly. Independent travel is so much harder than I first thought, because you have to plan everything down to the exact detail and prepare for the worst. Two things that we failed to do. We also relied on the hope that people would speak English to us, which did end up happening, and probably was the reason we made it to Giverny and back to Paris that night. But what if that little boy wasn't able to communicate with us? Where would we have ended up? My point is that we were traveling selfishly, with the idea that the world was looking out for us. To get the most of out a trip, we need to be looking after ourselves and looking out at the world around us. That means that next time, I vow to learn a decent amount of the language of my destination before I travel independently, not expect people to adapt for me. I also vow to arrive to the train station a little bit earlier and to leave before dark, maybe that way I can enjoy the ride. 

Our week as a whole was a spectacular mix of fall, croissants, landmarks, history, new friends, and French. We stayed in an upbeat hostel, had Paige's friend from Toulouse come and stay for a few days, did the typical touristy Parisian things, and spent a lot of time drinking tea. For Halloween, our hostel threw a party, and since Paige and I have adjusted to the Spanish nightlife, we were the last ones to go to bed that morning. Paige and I made friends with the hostel staff and waiters, which really made our stay that much more fun. On our final days, we met a group of girls who are teaching in Dijon, France, who invited us to visit sometime, and of course, we returned the invitation. Hostels have their advantages-- you meet young people from all different places on all sorts of journeys, as long as you don't mind sharing a bedroom with eleven of them. I think I'm one step closer to becoming a global citizen. 

In other news, I'm off to Morocco, Africa on Friday with CIEE, where we'll stay with host families, speak with college students about global issues, and really get to experience the exotic culture there. You can visit for details of my trip, but I'm sure I'll have a blog post about it soon.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Baby Steps.

Dear family, friends, strangers, Facebook friends, and anyone that is reading this right now, 

         I've been in the most amazing place in the world for six whole weeks. I could try to write everything that I've done in the past month but that would take about three hours. It may be a gap year, but I sure don't seem to have much time on my hands. My days have been filled with new friends, experiences, travels, and a lot of Spanish. 

         I think I underestimated how difficult learning a foreign language is, even when you're fully immersed in it. In a normal day, I speak about as much English as I do Spanish, because people from all over the world speak my language. For instance, I have a very good friend here named Freddie (actually, Frederique) who is from the Netherlands, and who has invited me to stay with her during the Christmas holidays! Her English is practically perfect and our Spanish is equally pre-intermediate, so naturally we speak in the language that is easiest for both of us. It's both a blessing and a curse. We usually sit next to each other in class, in fact, we've been together since the very first, very confusing day. When we first went to class, I remember our professor asking me the equivalent of "what's up" in Spanish (of course.) I looked at him with horror and turned to Freddie to ask her what I was supposed to say back to him. Little by little, I began to understand a word here or there. After two weeks, basic greetings became familiar. Three weeks, four weeks, I could understand most of what my host mom said to me as long as she spoke slowly. Six weeks later and I've begun dreaming in this language. I really do understand what goes on around me now, for the most part. Starting from the bottom, Freddie and I have worked our way up to the third level at our language school. For four intense hours a day, we learn grammar, practice conversation, listen to native speakers, and play games. The professor chastises us if we speak even a little bit of English, or French, or Dutch, or German, or Chinese or anything other than what we're here to learn. It's often very difficult to say what we want to say, but we have to try.
      A few months ago, I would have been nervous to have a formal conversation on the phone or to accomplish some sort of task that required me to rely on strangers to help; I've always been timid in public situations. Now, I have to do everything for myself in a language that I don't speak with fluency, from buying necessities to asking for vitamins at a pharmacy (it's harder than it sounds), to recharging my bus card, to inquiring why I had to pay 40 euros to pick up a package from the post office. Separately, these things are quite difficult and 78% of the time, someone laughs at my accent or my inability to understand certain words. But together, the blend of all of these experiences that force me to get outside of my comfort zone, is making me into a fearless person. What I'm trying to say is that being away from familiarity, in a foreign country, is simply hard. There are days when you want to hop on a plane back to Arkansas to hear a few "y'alls" and eat at your favorite restaurant. But there are also those days that are just so magical that you can't imagine yourself any happier than you are at that exact moment, eating tapas with your friends from three different countries while the moon shines over the ancient Cathedral that you have the chance to marvel at every day. As I sat in the lotus position this past Wednesday at my yoga/meditation class, while the teacher hit a gong and made strange humming noises, I looked up to see a small figurine of Buddha. I thought how strange and wonderful it is that I'm getting to see other mindsets and religions that I would never in a million years see back home. This is why I'm here. This experience is far from easy, but it's completely, one hundred percent, changing me for the better. 

In a few days, I'm off to Paris for a week with my friend Paige for fall break (how many 18 year-old American can say this?!) Morocco is in a two and a half weeks and Christmas break is coming up soon. I'm really getting to see Spain (more details on Ronda and Granada later) and the world. To say that I'm lucky is an understatement. I promise to blog more often. 

Your global citizen,

Sunday, September 22, 2013


      Hola! Yesterday we got the chance to visit the ruins of the Roman city of Italica. Though it was mostly, well, ruined, the weather was perfect and it's always fascinating to see where and how ancient people lived. It's beyond crazy that places like this are only a short bus ride from my new city, I'll have so many opportunities to learn in new ways this year.

      Since my last post, I've started school at the beautiful CLIC (Monday through Friday, 9:15am-1:00pm), which is a twenty-five minute walk from my apartment, filled with breathtaking views of the Guadalquvir river. I knew that I would meet new people on this program.  I knew that I would be studying at an international school. But if you had told me two weeks ago that I would already have friends from several different countries, I wouldn't have believed you. In my class of ten people at school, I'm the only American. Throughout the class I hear tidbits of German, English, Dutch, Japanese, French, and Mandarin being spoken, though we're all here to learn Spanish. I'm particularly inspired by an elderly Japanese man who sits near me. I often wonder what the place he calls home is like, how old his children are, how he ended up in Seville... but we can only communicate with gestures and smiles and occasional basic Spanish phrases. We're at such different places in our lives and yet we're here in the same room and both very far from home. I think this is one of the wonders of travel-- you meet people from cultures that you might not even acknowledge otherwise, out of either ignorance or egocentrism. I've fallen prey to both. The other day, I talked to my host sister, Lucia, about how culturally aware young people tend to be in Europe and how unaware young Americans tend to be. The teenagers in my class are all bilingual, some even trilingual, and all of them are fluent in English. In our defense, the rest of the world does tend to focus on America as the center of fashion, music, and food-- adopting much of it into their cultures. And so, because other countries try to think like Americans, we young Americans are stuck thinking mostly about ourselves. I wish that I'd been required to take a language throughout elementary and secondary school. I wish I had been taught more about other cultures. I wish we, as a new generation, had been taught how to respect other customs when traveling-- because most of the time we come across as loud, rude, and disrespectful-- and we are, because we don't know better. This year I've made it my mission to be as un-American as possible so that I can soak up Spanish culture for what it is. I'm stowing away my Nike shorts, love for sweet tea, and all of my preconceptions. I think that I'll get more out of this gap year if I'm less attached to where I come from and more open to change; something I wish I'd been at a younger age. Now, I'm sporting some fuzzy pink slippers (no bare-feet in Spain) and eating all the tapas I can get my hands on, which, okay, I would've done anyway. 

 So, to the Japanese man who sits across from me in Spanish class, thank you for opening my eyes to what lies beyond Arkansas and America and English and McDonalds. Maybe one day I can visit your country. 


Sunday, September 15, 2013


Hola, I'M IN SEVILLA! But I'll rewind back to Wednesday, the day that I flew to Spain. After my parents dropped me off at the airport and we said our goodbyes, I dragged my bags across the LR airport and flew to Chicago. I had a four hour layover there, which consisted of some more dragging of my bags. And then I realized that I had committed the worst crime of a student studying abroad: I overpacked. I'll just say that by the time I found my gate in Madrid with my new friends, Paige and Dru, my right shoulder was raw from the weight of my backpack and duffel bag and I wished I hadn't thrown in eight pairs of shoes, a converter, four books, a tote bag, and so on... Because anything I could ever need is probably within a ten minute walk from my apartment here..

     Anyway, after we arrived at the airport in Seville, we took separate taxis to our new homes. I was greeted outside by Lucia, my 21 year old Spanish sister, and Elvira, my host mom. Instead of a hug, I was greeted with two air kisses on either cheek by my new family, and so I encountered the first of the many cultural differences between the US and Spain. After explaining that I speak incredibly poor Spanish, I learned that Lucia speaks fluent English, which made my first day a lot easier. They showed me around their beautiful and pristine (oops, I'm really messy) apartment and then after lunch, I rested in my incredibly cute room for the afternoon. Honestly, the first day left me feeling overwhelmed. Here I was, with other students I didn't know, living with strangers in a foreign country, where they speak a different language. What in the world have I gotten myself into...

    After I took the first of what will be many siestas and slept off some of my jet lag, I joined the rest of the gap year students from CIEE for dinner near my apartment in my neighborhood at about 8pm, which is a very early time to eat dinner in Spain. Another huge difference in culture is the eating schedule here. A normal day consists of breakfast about 8 or 9am, lunch between 2 and 3, and dinner between 9 and 10:30. After dinner on weekend nights, the young people here go out until about 3 or 4 in the morning. But even young children and families are out in the street or eating at cafes until about midnight or later: the city seems to never sleep! This is one part of the culture that I really, really like because I'm a night owl. Even though I've only been here for four days (only?!) I already feel adjusted to the new schedule. The rest of my time has been filled up with getting to know the other students, getting to know my really cool host family and city, participating in various orientation activities, and working on improving my terrible Spanish. Last night, a few of the other students and I went out to a discoteca, which is similar to a club in America. Everyone in Spain seems to know how to have a good time and I spent the night dancing to a mix of American and Spanish pop music with my new amigas. 

    This afternoon, I spent time with Lucia and she took me to a local park to meet some of her friends. And even though I understood absolutely nothing, I managed to hold my own in badminton and a game of cards. Later, the gap year group took a tour of Parque de Maria Luisa, which is a gorgeous   public park here. The tour ended at the Plaza de Espana, built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition World's Fair, and is what you usually see on a post card of Sevilla. The sun was setting, it was breezy, and the sight was absolutely beautiful.

In other words, I love Sevilla, my host mom is a fabulous cook, my host sister wears cool pants, my new friends are great, and a year here may not be enough. It's midnight and tomorrow I start my Spanish classes, so I'm done blogging for now. 

Sending love back home,


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Beginning.

I'm about to depart on the biggest adventure of my life, where I'll spend 8 months living with a host family, taking Spanish classes, volunteering, traveling, and immersing myself in the vibrant culture of southern Spain. You could say that "the beginning" of my journey starts tomorrow, September 11th at 10:15am, in the Little Rock Airport. Or you could say that it began six months ago, when I mailed in my application to CIEE. But I think it started about ten years ago, when I discovered that I would rather watch Samantha Brown traipse around the world on the Travel Channel than watch cartoons. I've been fascinated with other cultures and places for as long as I can remember. You see, choosing to take this gap year wasn't an act of spontaneity or an attempt to put off college work. This journey has been in the making for many years. I've known I wanted to live abroad for as long as I can remember. I hope to use this year to get out of my Arkansas bubble, to open my eyes to other traditions and cultures, to really, truly see the world, and in turn, to learn more about myself.


Thank you to anyone and everyone who has sparked my love of traveling. Thank you best friends, for encouraging me to always be myself and for supporting me, even though it means we'll be very far apart this year. And mostly, thank you Mom and Dad, for letting me travel halfway around the world to conquer my enormous dreams. I'll update this blog regularly over the next year from Seville. Watch out Spain, I'm coming. 

Follow me on journey.
Love, Elizabeth