Thursday, August 25, 2016

Travels in the second half of the summer

Salut la Maison!

Since the summer is coming to a close soon, I thought I ought to make a final post to tell about some trips and other things I’ve done lately.

To begin, outside of weekend travels, my times has been spent doing math work mostly, which is great.  I probably described my work a bit before, so it’s a continuation of that.  Progress has been slow, which is sort of to be expected, but I have learned many things.

I just got back from a wonderful visit to Heidelberg, Germany where Lotta has just started her PhD work!  It was great to see Lotta, and SamSasha’sJLabPartner was also able to come down from Hamburg to sightsee with us.  So Lotta guided us around the old part of town (Heidelberg is one of the few cities which was relatively unharmed by WWII, so it actually has older buildings), through the Schloss (the castle/palace looming over the city), to an absolutely top-notch vegetarian restaurant, an Aldi Süd, and more.  The main highlights of the trip were getting to see Lotta and Sam, experiencing Germany a bit, seeing the great views of Heidelberg from the Schloss, attending an organ concert, and going to Mass at an unexpectedly beautiful church.   I didn’t document the trip as well as I should have via photos, unfortunately, but here are some:
Jesuitenkirche–the unexpectedly beautiful church where I went to Mass in Heidelberg
Graffiti'd prison cell for misbehaving students
Took a train up the mountain only to find that it was too misty to see the town.
Oh well, I thought the mist was pretty cool itself.

Ruins of a building in the Schloss

The world's largest wine barrel that had been filled with wine at some point
Gate of Alte Brücke, the main bridge across the Neckar

The weekend before going to visit Lotta, I made a mini pilgrimage to Namur and Beauraing on the Assumption (August 15).  It was actually my first big day-trip by myself, having previously been accompanied to many Belgian cities by the other MISTI Belgium people (typically including Nancy of course!). Namur turned out to be one of my favorite cities so far, with its massive citadel on the hill, awesome Cathedral, beautiful parks, etc.  If you go, be sure to walk up the hill towards the citadel and explore the whole structure–they have lots of helpful historical signs throughout the citadel and the city as a whole.  Everything is quite walkable too.  Here are some Namur photos:
That same day, I spent a couple hours in Beauraing, where in the 1930s, there was an apparition of the Virgin Mary to some kids.  Since the Assumption is a big Marian feast day, it was cool to check it out, see the huge crowds by the sanctuary (note that Beauraing is town similar in size to the one I grew up in with around 8000 people, so pretty small), and pray.  I also managed to meet some cool people who were doing the same sort of mini pilgrimage as I was.  There was a Belgian priest, who had spent time in Ann Arbor, MI in the 80s and had all kinds of funny stories to tell, and then there was an Irishman who is one of the few people who works in the Irish consulate in Brussels.  As a warning, there’s almost nothing else notable in the city except the sanctuary.

View over the city next to Namur
Beautiful park in Namur

Before my trip to Namur/Beauraing, some MISTI Belgium people visited Brussels during the flower carpet display, which happens in the Grand Place every other year.  They have a massive display of flowers arranged into patterns so that it looks like a huge colorfully patterned carpet.

Flower carpet

Nancy eating a Belgian waffle

And before that: I went to SWEDEN!!!!!  My friend Erik, who was an exchange student from Sweden at my high school, organized a trip for me.  I flew from Brussels to Stockholm, took the night train to Umeå (way up in northern Sweden), then Erik and his grandpa and great uncle drove to the place where a ferry takes you to the island Norrbyskär.  Poor Erik had a big family emergency, so he couldn’t stay to hang out with me after the first day or two I was there; however, he had asked the YMCA camp on the island (where he usually works in the summers) if I could “kula,” which is their term for volunteer-working on the camp in exchange for food and a bed.  So, for 3-4 days, I got to help do miscellaneous things on the camp: tightening the rocks on the rock-climbing wall, participating in team-building and leadership activities, cleaning stuff, etc.


Looking out to the sea from Norrbyskär
The building on the campsite which houses the ledar rum where one eats mackor
My friend Erik, probably lecturing me about American politics
and complaining that he can't vote in the upcoming U.S. election.
Ship ruins on Norrbyskär
"Cliffs" on the campsite looking out to the sea
Math building at the University of Umeå

But of course, in the evenings, the group of camp leaders and volunteers would have fun by sailing, singing songs around a campfire, eating mackor (for our purposes, just grilled cheese sandwiches, but we cooked them in little griddle things which were like waffle-makers but flat).  I had a great time, needless to say!  Practicing Swedish, meeting really nice, fun Swedish people, etc.  I hope it won’t be boring if I talk about some of the cool people I met.  First, there were two current students at the University of Umeå, Ellen and Philip, who work on the camp being in charge of the high ropes course, the rock-climbing wall, and things like that.  They are both going to be middle or high school math teachers, so we talked about math a bit (in English though–I guess their math classes are often in English).  They were a lot of fun to be around though and were super helpful with allowing me to practice my Swedish on them.  Super nice pair.   The many other camp leaders and volunteers were awesome too, but I spent less time with the others than I spent with Ellen and Philip, who sort of took me under their wing when Erik left.

I also had the pleasure of meeting the cook:  the grandfatherly Ralf, an old man who makes good food and always wears a hat that says, “BOSS.”  He sometimes hangs out with the camp leaders to make jokes in his deep voice and thick (northern?) accent, which I was only occasionally able to understand.  He is such a happy sort of guy, too.  When asked what his favorite part of that day at camp had been (after a day of leadership/team-bonding activities when there was a large transition from one group of camp leaders to the next), he said something like, “That I woke up again,” or something like that (but in Swedish, of course, so like “att jag vaknade igen i morse”).  That was perhaps not the best explanation, but the point was that he was happy to be alive!

KFUM Camp Leaders for third part of the summer
Ralf is wearing his usual hat
Ellen and Philip are directly to Ralf's right (our left)

Naturally, all the Swedes asked about the upcoming presidential election, and knew way more than me or the average American.  The Socialist party happens to be especially strong in the north, so obviously they all expressed their sadness that Bernie Sanders hadn’t won the nomination.

Overall, I found it unbelievably cool to be isolated from society, experiencing true Swedish culture and having a relaxing time.  Sweden is awesome!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Lo que voy a extrañar de Santiago

Santiago, te voy a extrañar.

I came to this country barely being able to tell about myself in the native language. During the first couple of weeks, I desperately listened to the people around me, understanding maybe 5%. I wished that everyone could start speaking French and I could finally be able to communicate. On my first Saturday here, we went to a party on the rooftop (27th floor!) of our apartment, and I was ecstatic when I met some guy from Lyon. We chatted in French for a while, and then I smiled and tried to string together awkward Spanish sentences for the locals.

Here's the thing about Santiago: yes, it may be the fifth largest city in South America, and literally the "New York" of Chile, but barely anyone speaks English. Some level of Spanish is practically mandatory to be able to live sanely here. Forbes calls it the "most underrated city in South America", mentioning its metropolitan exterior that covers hidden treasures. This is true. There are not many classically pretty buildings and architecture tourists marvel at in the European capitals. But, there is a certain charm. Beyond the skyscrapers and houses, there are the beautiful, timeless, inviting Andes.

The view from our rooftop! :) 
With the constant looming white mountaintops, Santiago makes me feel like Grenoble had done. Yes, I am in a modern city with little in terms of exotic architecture, but it is energetic and constantly changing. There is something magical and even majestic about the snowy tops against the backdrop of the pink and magenta tones of sky. They take my breath away everytime, and my roommates chuckle as I say "Mira, las montagnas!" everytime they come towering into view from a new viewpoint.

Anyway, what will I miss about Santiago, and Chile in general? Here's a short list.

1. The fruit and the jugos naturales. You can go to any cafe or restaraunt in Santiago, even some 'fast-food' place, and I guarantee you it will have freshly squeezed juice from one of these fruits. There is always a variety.

Chirimoya - my favorite! :) 

Papaya, mm.
But I have to admit I often chose the juego de frambuesa. It is actually quite surprising since they don't even sell raspberries in the supermarkets in the winter (our summer!) but the juice is as fresco as it can be! 

2. Espagnol chileno. Yes, I never imaged I would say it, but I will miss the Spanish language being constantly spoken everywhere. Though, to be specific, the Chilean Spanish! There is a certain intonation and inflection in the words and sentences that Chileans use that is very aesthetic-sounding to my ears. And, I will most definitely miss the classic Chilean-isms such as "Que bueeeena" (Awesome), "Sipo" (Yeah), "Es bakan!" (It's excellent/cool!). 

3. This view every morning, evening, afternoon: 
Disclaimer: When not too much smog  :) 

4. The CRAAAAZY partidos de fútbol! The crowd is loco, I tell you, and it's so great! :) 

5. Lovely, lovely people. It is easy to make friends anywhere in Chile. The first Sunday Kelly '15, James '15, and I were in Tocapilla, we made friends with a group of locals and watched the Copa America final with them. The next weekend, we went to hang out with some of our neighbours on the roof, and all of them where eager to talk to us and welcome us (though of course it may be a bit because we look like tourists :-)). But throughout the 7 weeks here, we have made friends here from all over the world... the most lovely friends from Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Russia, Dominican Republic and Brazil. So many adventures and conversations that have really given us a new outlook on this culture, from so many perspectives. From nights out salsa dancing until late night hours to hitchhiking from football games to cooking a Venezualan dish with one of my good local friends to singing guitar in our apartment, I will cherish and miss every moment... 

Cheering on a local university club team in Rancagua, 100 km South of Santiago

6. Easy access to some of the most incredible hiking spots. 

El Cerro Manquehue
El Cerro Pochoco

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Notes from Atacama - días 1-4

Disclaimer: Most of this post was written on June 30 on a plane from Iquique to Santiago, so please excuse it. ;)

Day 1: Arriving in Chile and Iquique - Our ~30 hours in Tocapilla included walking along shore to the Esmeralda ship, buying salty fish, seeing a celebration (pre-celebration?) of the San Pedro festival; staying in Backpacker’s hostel and having our first meal of empanadas with chicken after not finding much restaraunts open and wandering several circles through creepy streets. Lots of surfing going on, even though water is freezing!
Pacific Ocean from Iqueque :) 
In the morning at the hostel, before leaving on the big road trip, we met a son and dad from Australia who came all the way from California to Iquique (the teenage son is homeschooled) with surfboards and gear in their trunk, traveling for the last 8 months. They recommended some nice beach near Santiago (for surfing!) and a fancy skiing location (to which you can only get by helicopter!). I took pictures of their map, which actually saved us multiple times.

Day 2: Road trip to Tocapilla - Beautiful stop at the oceanside, with sunset photography...
While we styed in Tocapilla - Chile won against Argentina! We found a rather random hotel, stayed there and watch the game in the company of the hotel owner, his sons and friends. We (or rather I, since Kelly '15 is already pretty Chilean ;)) learned some Chilean slang (add “po” to everything, kind of like "like"), and had Chilean drinks. The hotel owner told us about what sets the Chileans apart (Chileno corazón!); one of them recommended some Chilean band and offered us glasses of wine and cheered for the Chilean best player Sanchez, number 7. In the morning, when we were leaving, the workers at the hotel asked if James was Prince William and if Kelly was an actress...

On our way to Tocapilla :) 
The Pacific Ocean from Tocapilla

Day 3: Road trip to Calama and San Pedro: On our way to the coveted San Pedro (the center of all the good stuff - volcanos, deserts, salt flats and camping sites) had Chinese food in Calama, a small mining town (pretty good chicken and fried dough things). Then we took off to San Pedro, saw some beautiful flatlands and the first views of the volcanoes were magnificent. We saw beautiful cliffs and canyons along the way, closer to San Pedro. We arrived to San Pedro at around 5pm, got some mango cake, coffee, and coca tea (you don’t get that in the US, supposed to help with altitude sickness). In the evening, we ended up staying in hostel since unfortunately I needed more internet to write about IYPT stuff. Hostel had a very flufffy cat who wanted to eat things in the morning, and stayed up till 4AM writing emails. But the views from the day were fantastic.

James '15 and Kelly, LMF '15

Day 4: Drive to the first salar & Cerro Toco: This was an absolutely beautiful road trip through the eastern part of the Atacama desert: along the way we saw some incredible formations on the first salt flat, such as outwardly poking bubbles of ice and very smooth icy surfaces, just perfect for skating, for instance. How do these bubble things form? Maybe Kelly could explain more - we had many geological discussions along the way. :) Also, things started to get cold.

Driving down further, saw the Salar des Aguas Calientes, along with some alpacas. It was exciting to finally see them! After checking out this Salar, we continued happily back to hike the “relatively easy” Cerro Toco (only 600 meters, from 5 km to 5,6km!). However, we had no ideea what a challenge that would be....

We could definitely feel the altitude, started breathing deeply. I thought it was OK at first - just felt a slight head-achy discomfort, and took an ibuprofen (so did Kelly, and James took three) - for it to start working as the altitude changes more. We were fully ammunitioned with 3 layers, winter coats, hats, face masks and extra pants. However, the further we went, the more difficult it became to breathe - I had to breathe frequently and deeply, almost like in the Voice and Speech class, trying to get air all the way to the diaphragm. If I did not do that, I knew there was no way I would have enough oxygen not to faint. We were already at a 5km elevation.

My head also started to show signs of being affected by altitude sickness. Somehow, through this pain, I got to 50m below the Cerro Toco summit itself. Exhausted, breathing like I was hyperventilating, and with a splitting headache, I felt almost a metaphysical existence. The only thoughts going through my head was to keep breathing optimally and move my body such that my hands did not get frostbite. Finally, about 20-30m from the summit, the wind chill became unbearable, and my headache became torturous when I took a step to increase the elevation. The roaring and bonechilling wind did not make it any better. I realized it would take me at least 5 stops between where I was and the summit to be able to get there and not faint, but by that time we would all have frozen hands and feet. So I decided it was the right time to give up. Sometimes it can be the right choice. Kelly wanted to go ahead - James got down a bit to give me his sleeping bag, so that I survive while they try to brave the last 30 meters to the summit. :) I climbed into the bag, shielded on one side from the wind by a big rock. I lay there for about 10 minutes before Kelly and James showed up, looking kind of miserable. They had made it to about 5m from the very top, but were in danger of getting frostbite had they stayed up any longer.

We didn’t make it to the very, *very* top, but I think we’re hardly to blame. Still feeling the effects of altitutude sickness, we drove back to San Pedro and had a cracker-like pizza with a pina colada and pisco. It was nice. Upon returning to the hostel, we planned for a day of camping.

Salar de Talar (huuuge salt flat!)
It was coold! 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

All Quiet on the Western Front

Don't have anything much to say, but just wanted to use that title while I'm in California these two weeks. It is quite peaceful, though; so perhaps the title is deserved. Here are some pictures from hiking around beautiful Truckee.

Monday, August 1, 2016

I went somewhere!

Hearing about everyone's adventures made me feel like I was missing out.

So I decided to go somewhere for the week this summer!