When you move to a different country you become immune to many “normal things” that at first you thought were weird. Here are some *prizes* for my favorite normal things from life abroad:
1. Dirty streets, dirty feet [Bolivia]
Yes, you can get used to your feet being constantly caked in dust. In fact, in some places you really don’t have a choice.
In Senegal my host mother always insisted I wash my feet to avoid microbes “getting me,” but after spending 8 hours a day like this, I bet the microbes still “got me.” Bolivia wins the prize on this though, because nobody there ever suggested I wash my feet.
2. Street animals [Turkey]
In some places it’s goats and sheep, in others its dogs.
Some have homes, others are wild.
At first you take pictures and ask what’s being done for them, but eventually you get used to their presence.
Turkey takes the prize because of its cats… they are literally everywhere.
3. One potato. Two carrots. [Spain]
I remember being very taken aback the first time I realized that I could buy only the singular fruits and veggies that I needed.
When I lived in Spain I had a fruit store on the corner, a bakery down the street and a small grocery store that saved all the weird-shaped tomatoes, like this one, just for me.
4. No silverware. Just your hand. [Senegal]
I cannot stress how much I LOVE eating with my hand.
It gives you intimacy and connection with your food.
Senegal wins the prize for teaching me to do it right. Even though I only lived in Senegal for 5 months, I still use my hand for rice dishes when I’m home alone.
5. Poor translations. [Czech Republic]
Every non-English speaking country gets credit for this one, but the Czech Republicwins this prize. I’ve seen many botched restaurant menus, but the Czech apparently dared to translate poetry at Gregor Mendel’s garden in Brno.
That said, the “30 Second Dispel Horniness” L’Oréal cream is my all-time favorite find. I found it in Turkey but since there was no Turkish on the packaging, it can’t qualify the country for a win.
6. Explaining Arkansas. [Wikipedia]
No matter where I go I always have to explain something about my state. That’s especially true when I gawk at funny-shaped tomatoes or my roommate comes home and I’m eating dinner with my hand.
What is life like in Arkansas? Thankfully, Wikipedia has always been there to help me find the words:
How did you get started traveling?
Why do you still travel?
For me, it boils down to this:
Film Studies and Genetics.
Yes, seriously. I’ve never made a film before in my life or taken a course on genetics, but as a high school senior these two areas of study intrigued me. I couldn’t decide between them. The problem? They both require significant university resources for a good program, and no US school has truly excellent programs in both.
My senior year of high school I was accepted to 11 different colleges.
But when my mother sat down with me to ask where I wanted to go, I couldn’t give her a straight answer.
“This school is supposed to be great for student life, but that school is more prestigious. And– this school is offering a great scholarship, but that school is next to the beach.”
That’s when my mother gave me her 2 cents, as mothers do best, and suggested I forgo undergraduate school altogether until I had more thoroughly explored my passions.
“What? Not go to college? What do you mean?” I asked.
So, my first trip abroad was thanks to my mom, who accurately identified something important:
My indecision wasn’t a character flaw, but a sign that I needed more time.
Time to explore my passions. Time to develop a clearer future vision. Time to think.
My teachers at the time were horrified.
They couldn’t believe that their — shock! — straight A student might not go to college!
My parents, though, never doubted my trajectory for a second. As ex-college professors themselves, they’d heard of students taking gap years before and they knew that a detour from the traditional path can often tremendously help, not hurt, one’s career. And they were right.
(Note: Actually, just a few years earlier my older sister had spent a successful year abroad in Thailand with Rotary. So, while my mother’s suggestion kickstarted my own travel, she was influenced by my sister’s successful year. Which in turn was influenced by a fellow church-goer’s son who had been to Russia… the line of dominos is long. When I initially called up Rotary, my district deadlines had passed, but the good impressions left behind by my sister led a few key people to help me find a nearby district with later deadlines.)
Rotary picks students based on their desire to go abroad and learn new things.
But they do not necessarily choose students based on a desire to go one specific place. When I explained that I wanted to go forth with learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, Rotary tried briefly to convince me out of it. After researching possibilities for learning Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malay, French, Czech, Polish, Slovak and German, though, I responded to my Rotary counsellor that:
“I still feel like my heart is set in South America.”
My heart, as it were, was dreaming not only of improving my high school level 3 Spanish, but also of seeing a colorful city with PALM TREES in a country with indigenous people. Yes, I actually looked up the percentage of indigenous people in Bolivia before deciding to go there — 62%, the highest in Latin America (UNDP 2006).
Seeing Europe was never a priority for me.
I thought life there would be too similar to life in the States.
I wanted something different, something shocking. I wanted something to make me run home full of passion saying “Yes, I have to make a film about this!” or “Yes, I have to discover genetic modifications to improve crop production for these farmers!” … or whatever it is that inspires geneticists.
But in 2008, Bolivia wasn’t known for inspiring film festivals or GMO research.
Rather, the country was plagued by civil unrest in response to the questionnable actions of Evo Morales— the indigenous president who I figured would be so cool.
Many of my fellow exchange students went home early, but I developed a sense of solidarity for my host country and stayed. I was far from able to understand the complexities of the political situation at the time, but I knew that I wanted to learn more:
Shouldn’t an indigenous, populist president be a good thing? What was land reform, anyways? Why was coca so restricted? What is so wrong with nationalizing resources?
I ended up choosing The University of Texas at Dallas because they offered me a full scholarship (through the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program), in large part because they were impressed by my decision to spend a year in Bolivia.
The Bolivians told me that I would be stupid to pass up free college (and seeing what they went through to afford lesser quality schools made me understand their reasoning). So, the only thing left was to figure out what I’d study.
My first day on campus I asked professor Jennifer Holmes for help.
I wanted to know which program would help me find the answers to my lingering questions about Bolivia… and which program would let me travel the most. She didn’t hesitate a second:
International Political Economy.
And just like that, in one year, I found a university, a degree program, and a passion for travel. And now, I’m #BloggingAbroad
Because it can help you discover a passion and a direction in life. At least, it certainly did for me.
The Salar de Uyuni in Uyuni, Bolivia, is the most beautiful place I have ever visited in my life.
It is the largest salt desert in the entire world, measuring 12,000 square kilometers and containing around 90% of the world’s salt– a resource that is still pretty much untouched. One of the best things about it is that it is difficult to get to, making it a rare gem for travelers.
I visited the Salar de Uyuni during January of my one year stay in Bolivia as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. The Rotary Youth Exchange is a program through Rotary International that provides summer or year-long stays in foreign countries for students up to the age of 18. Luckily, this meant that I was able to take this trip with a member of Rotary as a tour guide. For those who do not have this connection, tour guides can be found throughout the cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz. A few can be found online, but the best deals must be searched out upon arrival in the country.
There is no airport in Uyuni, so the only way to get there is by bus.
We took a plane from Santa Cruz to Sucre, and then took the bus from there to Potosí. We spent one night in Potosí at the Hotel Avenida and then continued on to Uyuni and the Salar with our guide.
For me, the gem of the Salar de Uyuni began even before we arrived at our destination. On the outskirts of the salar we saw llamas running around and stopped to see if we could get close to them. I had never seen a llama so close to me in my life! They were everywhere; they were even walking around at a gas station!
As we came upon the salar, it seemed like we were driving through dirty snow.
However, the longer we drove, the whiter the “snow” became until, eventually, looking around the desert becomes absolutely blinding without sunglasses. Of course, the white blanket covering the ground is actually salt! After a short while I realized that the white brilliance surrounded me in every direction! The only other colors I could see were in the cloudy blue sky.
Since the ground is white and Uyuni is at a high altitude of almost 12,000 ft, the sun’s intense UV rays reflect easily off the ground. Thus, they can burn skin from both above and below. After the trip, I would sincerely regret having forgotten my sunscreen. On a positive note, however, since everything is white as far as the eye can see, it makes for great trick-photography. I tried to take several pictures with my friends, and even though we are amateur photographers, we at least enjoyed the challenge.
Throughout the salt flats there are tons of little mounds of salt. I soon learned that these are created so that the salt can dry before being refined. We visited a salt refinery on the edge of the salt flats and learned about how they collect, dry, iodize, and bag the salt.
The entire process is very rudimentary and the salt is bagged by hand—one bag at a time. Each bag is even sealed by hand using a hot flame.
We drove across the salt desert for a few hours before stopping at the Hotel de Sal Playa Blanca– a hotel made out of bricks formed from the surrounding salt.
Although we did not spend the night, we did have a chance to look at the beautiful building and the international flags flying outside of it before moving on to the Isla del Pescado.
The Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) is a fish-shaped island within the “lake” of the salt desert. Since the perfect white salt had a resemblance of snow, it was spectacular to see right next to the giant 1000-year-old cacti on the island. A naturally formed coral arc can also be found on the island, and we had a great time climbing around it.
We ate llama for lunch, and when we left the island, I sat on top of the 4-wheeler as we drove across the desert.
It was absolutely gorgeous! The wind and watery salt blew in my face as we drove, coating my hair and entire body with a layer of salt. Little did I know at the time, the salt would make my sunburn hurt much worse later on.
When we finally left Uyuni, we headed to a train cemetery where tons of rusted out old train parts lay in the middle of the desert. As of yet there is no museum or guide to explain why these trains stopped their trip into Bolivia. Certainly, though, they make for a beautiful sight.
We headed back to Potosí for the night in what should have been a long (but bearable) bus ride. However, thanks to mechanical problems, the bus had to stop twice so the driver could do emergency repairs. It turned into an 11-hour long painful bus adventure, complete with sore sunburns, a lack of aloe vera, and a completely filled bus—topped off with hitchhikers who slept in the aisles between the seats using our feet as pillows. I finally drifted off to sleep around 2:00 am in the morning while we were stopped for the second time, and a few hours later we finally managed to reach Potosí for the night.
Although Salar de Uyuni is undoubtedly the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life, the fact that it is so remote makes it difficult for travelers to visit. It is difficult if not impossible to book hotels and buses online, and one must be willing and able to “go with the flow” in case the bus needs emergency repairs while on the road, as ours did.
While this does make Bolivia’s salt desert a particularly difficult trip to pre-plan, it also makes it an even rarer gem.
Those who are willing to take the risk of last minute plans and an 11-hour bus ride are in for a real treat! Hopefully, though, they will plan ahead and bring sunscreen!