Biking in Germany

He flies past me, clad head to toe in black, no hands on the handlebars. He stops, dismounts, locks the bike up, lights a cigarette, and strolls away.

Everything about this short scene—lasting no longer than a minute—irritates me. First, he did not ring the bike bell to let me know he was passing. I startle easily, and there is nothing quite as startling as an unexpected biker. Although, I have recently developed a fear of bike bells. I hear one, my heart races as I look around for the incoming machine. After a few close encounters, it doesn’t take long to learn that pedestrians do not belong in the bike path. Very quickly, a nearly instinctual response develops in response to the chime of a bell. The first stage of reaction is a quick startle created by the noise itself. Followed by an assessment of surroundings to determine the directionality of the approaching noise. The final step is two-fold: simultaneously moving out of the way paired with minor annoyance. All from a simple “brringg- brringg.” Pavlovian conditioning at its finest.

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Lüneberg skyline from the top of the water tower. 
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I took a biking organ concert tour on one of my first weekends here. The fleet of German bicyclists was extremely impressive and somewhat terrifying. 

Another irritation is the biker’s outfit. He wears a black shirt and black jeans, maybe  even a light jacket. It is not particularly hot here, but neither is it cold. I cannot imagine how hot he must be in his ensemble. I am wearing a sundress and am sweating as I attempt to power my own machine up a hill. I love dresses. It’s frequently breezy here. I am reasonably certain I have flashed half of Germany  while biking to class. My strategy is to either wear shorts under my skirt or at least make sure I am wearing cute underwear. (I’m kidding about the underwear Mom—sort of.) Perhaps not the greatest solutions, but they have been working.

 

 


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Schwerin castle and gardens

 

 

The roads, particularly those paved with cobblestones, can be quite bumpy. He rides without hands, while I am doing my best to maintain my balance with two hands on the handlebars. The final straw? He is breathing steadily while I am now dripping in sweat. I am panting with each pedal up the hill that stands between me and class. Normally, being out of shape would frustrate me. He is breathing steadily. As I am trying to catch my breath, he pulls out a cigarette. A cigarette adds insult to injury.


 

Biking is an exceedingly popular mode of transport here. Bike trails and lanes are easy to find.   Cars whizz past bikes, as drivers are familiar with seeing

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Munich Rathaus

them on the roads. Popular destinations, such as schools, shopping centers, and churches have bike racks filled with the machines.  Despite my previous grumblings,I think the prevalence of bikes is amazing. Perhaps I am just irritated that biking is not as common in America, although it has been growing in popularity. Perhaps I wish I had packed another pair of pants. Perhaps I wish I felt as graceful and effortless as our friend looked. Perhaps I just want to make halfway up a hill without needing to catch my breath. And perhaps one day I will.

New experiences!

I traveled to Mumbai, India for a research abroad internship earlier this summer. It is a two month internship at a renowned chemical engineering university (The Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay) in the field of research on nickel-platinum alloys for the purpose of cost-efficient catalysts. I left the United States knowing the adjustment I would have to make for this experience would be hard and although I was a little nervous at first, I can confidently say that this chance is worth all the worries I felt.

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The start of an unbelievable experience!

I am absolutely enjoying my time in India! I have traveled to India before to meet family here, but I never really got the chance to explore and understand the rich culture that resides in this country. Mumbai is a metropolitan city situated on the beach which just makes it better! Two days after I arrived in India, I decided to walk to a beach close by and what I saw on the way was beyond amazing. On a Sunday morning I came across a laughter club being held to motivate the participants for a fun-filled week to come and enlighten their day-off.

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I caught a laugh too at this laughing club!

Further on, once on the beach I saw stalls of food, called Indian chaats, vendors selling toys for kids and people of all kinds. Some walking, some playing cricket or soccer (both extremely loved sports in India) while others just staring in awe at the beautiful rising sun. And there in the middle of all chatter from vendors and food stalls, I found the beauty of this big city. On one side of me was the endless sea roaring with every wave while on the other was the  famous Mumbai skyline and amid it I stood in a city that seemed so warm and welcoming, all my nervousness seemed to disappear.

After being in India for a few weeks I have gotten used to a few things and have rather begun enjoying them. It is about 90 degrees here during the day so I am getting acclimatized to being in the heat more often but I quite like it cause it gives me an excuse to eat ice creams and drink smoothies a lot more! The traffic in Mumbai is ridiculous to a point that it takes about an hour to travel 5 miles (that too aside of peak office hours) but thanks to this traffic, I have completed watching several seasons of an amazing TV series!

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The traffic situation I often encounter!

Not only am I living the ‘big city’ life, but I am enjoying every bit of it! I am getting to know new people, learning a lot in my field of educational interest and eating a lot of delicious Indian food. Furthermore, I am travelling and exploring more than I have before in a city that is beautifully unfolding itself to me. I am glad I have a few more weeks in this astounding and marvelous city and I am very excited to see what these weeks have in store for me!

Namaste from India!

Dachau: How Numbers Deceive Us

There are twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, and one-thousand seven hundred and sixty yards in a mile. A mile contains one point six kilometers. The Dachau concentration camp was over one square kilometer when it was liberated in 1945. An estimated 41,500 people were murdered within this space. These are numbers and facts. They are unavoidable. The sheer numbers stand alone, horrifying in the vastness of their scope. They are persecution and terror in stark black ink on a white page. We associate numbers with clarity. Despite a few conversions between systems of measurements, numbers often transcend language barriers—a recognizable figure on a receipt or otherwise unreadable plaque.

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Each plot marked where the barracks once stood. This yard stretched on and on, out of sight
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A section of the fence, with a guard tower in the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Dachau demonstrates that numbers can fail us, can deceive by packaging experiences into a figure. A visit to Dachau forces an examination of the meanings behind the numbers, that they represent the systematic and industrialized torture and murder of innocent people. The realization is unquantifiable, an attempt to understand infinity. I could easily say that I don’t have words to describe the terrible vastness of the camp. It would not be an inaccurate statement: Dachau is appallingly enormous. The yard that once held the barracks brimming with prisoners stretches on and on. As you walk down the central road, away from the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gates towards the back of the compound, near the cruelly efficient crematorium, every step is a wish that the road would end. It doesn’t, not until your feet and your soul ache. Every step by every marked plot for a barrack building is a haunting reminder of the thousands that suffered in that very spot. It puts numbers into perspective.

 

 


I could say that there are no words to describe the moment that numbers become inadequate. It would be easier than scouring the dictionary and thesaurus for a suitable word. I would not have to recall the eerie feeling of standing in front of the execution wall, where countless people spent their last moments facing a firing squad. I could try to let the shock of seeing storage rooms dedicated to corpses awaiting the flames of the crematorium fade away. I could let the horror of bold black letters advertising  a gas chamber as a shower dull with time. Personal experiences generate visceral reactions that we must process. Numbers fail us, words fail us, pictures fail us. But we must continue to attempt to record our reactions, our experiences, to capture them at their most poignant. I can not, I will not, and I absolutely refuse to allow myself to dull this experience into “I can’t describe it.” For me, attempting to interpret a day visiting Dachau is a reminder, if only to myself, that it is impossible to quantify the amount of suffering in an inch.

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“Ashes of the Unknown Concentration Camp Prisoner

Venture to München

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Hello! My name is Stacy Solomon and I love trying to call everything an adventure, but some experiences fit the definition a bit better than others. While I have traveled internationally before, it’s always been with close family or friends and never venturing further than the Americas. Getting to travel to Germany for the first time with a group that I’d never met outside of the trip was an astounding adventure and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

To begin with our trip was part of a Global Health course, a valuable field of study for almost any student. As a result, our group was a unique mixture including six females and one male, seven nursing majors and one biology, and ranging from sophomore to graduate student. Each person brought a different perspective and personality to the group and these people combined with a great professor are really what made this trip a great experience 🙂

It also helped that Munich is an incredible and beautiful city. Munich was a city of everything, a large and modern city with medieval structures and rich history, surrounded by beautiful countryside.Schloss Neuschwanstein

A few of the places we visited…

Schloss Neuschwanstein

If you ever choose to visit Munich, you will see a lot of castles…so many castles… and cathedrals. Munich is a wonderful place for anyone who loves history. There’s lots of opportunities to learn history from visiting various sites, but even if history isn’t your thing, it was incredible for me to experience the setting of a world that was so different from my own and imagine what it was like to live there. There are many castles within a small radius of Munich and each castles has a very different character and illustrates the different priorities and qualities of the ruler who built it. All of the medieval architecture combined with street musicians and the culture make Munich into a stunning city.

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Dachau Concentration Camp

One thing that surprised me in visiting Dachau is that it was full of local kids and teenagers on field trips to see the concentration camp. Every country has dark history. I was amazed by how adamant the German people seemed to be about learning from their mistakes and being honest about their past. In America, often history books often seem to gloss over the darkest parts of our history such as the way Native Americans were treated, at least for the sake of young children. In Germany, it did not seem like young children were shielded from the past but instead shown it in person to make sure the same mistakes weren’t made again. In Germany, political buildings are made of glass to illustrate their attempts at being a transparent government for the people. When asked to describe German ideals, many Germans will include tolerance as one of the most important. Overall, the Germans seem to be very intentional in acknowledging their mistakes as a country and learning form them. Dachau is also a good example of how experiencing a place is so different from just hearing about it. It’s one thing to hear the numbers of Holocaust victims and something entirely different to see the barracks and prison cells and gas chambers and individual stories.

I wish I could write about everywhere we visited but this is a sample of a bit of what we were able to see in Munich. In my next post, I’ll write more about Germany in regard to global health. To be continued…

-Stacy

The Journey Begins

My name is Natalie Davis and I will be spending a month studying abroad in Costa Rica. Although this is not my first time traveling outside of the country, traveling by myself, or even visiting a country in which my native language is not spoken, something about this trip feels very different. I think it is the combination of all of those things that make it both so terrifying and exciting. Although I don’t mind traveling alone, the idea of going to a place where I know no one is a pretty scary thought. In addition to that, I am relying on my language studies to even survive! Although I’ve studied Spanish for a long time, I’m now doubting all of my abilities because I’ve never been fully immersed and using it all the time.

I’m flying out this morning and will arrive for lunch to meet the host family that I will be staying with over the next month. Over the next few days I will be in orientations before starting classes Monday. I will keep updating as fun and exciting things begin to happen, but I just wanted to do one practice post from the states before my journey begins.

Wish me luck!

Natalie

Musings from Germany.

In the 11 days my group and I spent in München, Germany, we gained a new perspective about the lifestyle of a very beautiful country. Walking around the city, talking to the local people about German ways of life and their healthcare system, and eating delicious food all helped me become more oriented to the similarities and differences between the American and German lifestyles. Here are a few small things I learned to appreciate and will miss slightly too much.

Escalator – stand on the right. Pass on the left.

Bicycles – very common method of transport. You’ll see a well-dressed man in a 3-piece suit riding around on a bicycle, and it’s perfectly normal. I have a slight crush on these beautifully handy machines, especially the folding ones (they’re just so convenient; you can ride around town, and then fold it up when hopping onto a bus or tram).

Also, with these views, I’d take a bicycle over a car any day. Or a moped.

 

Weather – … is eventful. During the month of May, it ranges from the high 40’s to low 70’s and sometimes is accompanied by rain. However, it changes within moments. When it comes to weather, layers were my best friend. Overall, it’s a good thing to be prepared for literally anything: cold, hot, rain, hail, cute dogs. Example: in the middle of a very hot, sunny day (with a 40% forecast of rain) in the marketplace, the German skies started hailing and thunder-storming. Be prepared, kids.

Transportation and accessibility – the public transport is incredibly efficient and clean. Major modes of transport are by foot, buses, trams, U-Bahn and S-Bahn (underground trains), babies riding in attractive strollers, cars, taxis, and bicycles. The public transport system bypasses traffic, is cost efficient, and you don’t have to search and fight for parking (Yass to all of that!). Feel like people-watching? Take the U.

The majority of the time, we walked everywhere… we averaged at around 10-12 miles each day. It is easy to get from one part of the city to another by using a combination of these methods. This in addition to the compact structure of the city makes everything more accessible as well. One major advantage of public transport is that people who are unable to or do not drive benefit from the accessibility and independence it provides.

The city – is condensed. In other words, a very large city is fit in a slightly smaller area. For a large city, the compact structure means that with a public transport system, you can get to places fairly quickly, given that you do not take the wrong train in the wrong direction. It took me a couple of days to finally start understanding how the U-Bahn (underground train system) operated. The maps look intimidating at first (and second) glance, but after getting lost several times, you learn to enjoy the adventures and get more efficient at map reading each time. #progress.

Dogs – a major attraction in the city streets. We see a lot more pets traveling with their owners daily here. Big dogs, small dogs, fluffy dogs, all cute dogs. Ian, our tour guide on a day trip to Salzburg (Austria) bought his dog with us for an entire day, and nobody complained. Several pets don’t even have a leash on, which starkly contrasts with pet norms and policies in the states. My extensive analysis on this important subject matter is that since pets spend more time with their families in the busy streets of larger cities like Munich, they are more used to outdoor interaction and are very well-behaved.

Food – is really good! Being a vegetarian, I was initially concerned about the options I would have available to me, mainly because Google implied that I may struggle. After all, German restaurants are known to offer some pretty great meat options. All in all, I found vegetarian food very easily and at almost every restaurant we went to. In fact, there were several purely vegan and vegetarian restaurants throughout town. In addition, there are many small places to eat in almost every part of the city that offer a considerable variety.

Architecture and views – any word I use will be a major understatement. Basically, imagine a postcard. Imagine being inside of it. Castles, super green grass, canola fields, busy train stations… it’s all stare-worthy. One problem I did run into while abroad: I had to give myself a time limit for staring.. and then remind myself that time was up. Talk about a real challenge.

 

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Out of an outrageously long list of things I’ve seen and learned, there’s my very small but useful but small list from my time in Munich; maybe it has convinced you to consider Munich as a place you should (definitely!) visit; if not, don’t worry I’ve still got more to say. 🙂

I plan to write more about the global and healthcare based observations I made in my next post! Hope you guys are having a wonderful summer as well! J

The Story of a Few Steps

“The ship begins to move. The band still plays, we continuously swing handkerchiefs. I have to keep from crying again… Germany! Goodbye!”
-Fritz Pauli*, 1953

     Everyone wants to know what the “mosts” or the “bests” are of traveling. The most fun. The best food. The prettiest city. The most awe-inspiring church. The most difficult or most frightening moment on a trip. We rabidly seek out “can’t miss” experiences. I found my most difficult moment at the airport.

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A good-bye breakfast before my flight!!

I can carry fifty pounds of luggage up a flight of stairs. I can get lost in a new city and find my way back. I have navigated bus routes and language barriers. I have walked for miles with blisters on my heels, but the most difficult steps I have taken were the first ones away from home. I thought it would be easier, this time, my second time studying abroad. As I stood in front of the security line, saying goodbye to my family, I realized I was wrong. I said goodbye. They said goodbye. I said goodbye again, and they did too. We said goodbye a third time, for good measure. I threw up a “peace out” sign and got in line. They were still on the other side of the glass when I made it through security, watching me walk away. I spoke with other students studying abroad. From all parts of the country, we shared a similar story. There is something inherently difficult about a few short steps, despite months of excitement and planning. The word “travel” shares etymological roots with “travail” for a reason. Travel is not always easy.


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My dad watching me progress through security.

Those vital first steps are the most difficult. They were difficult the last time I went abroad, and they were difficult this time. Those steps are when the decision is made to leave. Applications may have been filled out and accepted months prior. Fees may have been paid for weeks. An interest in travel and exploration cultivated over many, many, years. Tickets bought well in advance of those fateful steps. But that simple right-left-right that it takes to leave? That is the decision. Everything else is paperwork and checks on a list.


I hypothesize that this moment humanizes leaving– it puts a face to your home. It is a face filled with sunny streets, days soaked in laughter, and nights dripping with memories. It is a familiar face filled with comfort. Most accurately, it is the faces of your loved ones valiantly trying not to cry in the middle of an airport. And because these steps demand the sacrifice of the known, of the comfortable, of the loved, they are the most difficult of a journey. I hope that they never get easier.
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Sunset above the clouds
*My great-grandfather, who was an Operation Paperclip scientist, wrote an account of his trip to America entitled “Der kleine Rutsch: Ein Umeiedlung von Europa nach Amerika.”

My Week in Dublin, Ireland

My first trip across the Atlantic to the European city of Dublin, Ireland began with a short flight from Huntsville to Charlotte, followed by a not-so-short transatlantic flight into Dublin. Our group of six started our first day in Dublin with a walking tour of the historical area of the city. We had the opportunity to visit the Book of Kells and the Long Room in the Trinity College Library — both humbling sites to see. IMG_4669.JPG

We started day two of our trip with a bus tour of the city. Some of the highlights of the bus tour was getting to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin’s historical Georgian Squares where every door is a different color, and the beautiful Phoenix Park. Following this we traveled to the Innovation Academy at the University College of Dublin for a Design Thinking Workshop where we learned about how different ideas from individuals can be merged to create solutions to problems. We participated in an exercise where we were assigned with redesigning the umbrella. In this exercise, we were required to conduct interviews with passers-by around the university and then discuss as a group the data gathered from the interviews. From this data we continued the design thinking process of creating a prototype, testing our redesigned umbrella, and presenting the prototype. It was a fun exercise, and we learned about how each other thinks as well as how we, ourselves, think.IMG_4781

Day three was my favorite day. As if the four hour drive to the northern coast of Ireland wasn’t beautiful enough, we got to see the natural phenomenon known as Giant’s Causeway. As we got off the bus, we took a twenty minute hike down the mountain to see  the naturally formed hexagonal columns that extend from the water. As I stood on the columns looking at the waves crashing in from the sea and looked back toward the massive mountains, I couldn’t help but be in awe of God’s handiwork. IMG_4924

The fourth day of my trip started off with a walking tour of Dublin’s Silicon Docks. With Ireland’s 15% corporate tax rate, large companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others house their European headquarters in the Silicon Docks district. After eating lunch we visited LogoGrab, a technology company known for its technology in logo recognition software. Many companies such as Coca-Cola, AT&T, and other companies with trademarked logos seek out LogoGrab to have analysis on the use of their logos through social media posts. This is a way they can monitor when and how their logo is being used. If you have a public account on Facebook or Instagram, there is a great chance that a photo you have posted is in LogoGrab’s database and has been part of a logo analysis. Following this lecture, one of my classmates and I walked over to the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute where we had the opportunity to interview a postdoc Ph.D. about her research in cancer. She informed us of the innovations of today in cancer research, including immunotherapy in which she specializes. After the interview she took us to her lab for a quick look.IMG_5040

On Friday, our last day in Dublin, we attended a MAKESHOP workshop. MAKESHOP is a place owned by the Science Gallery at Trinity College where the public can attend hands-on workshops where they can actively learn about science and put their knowledge into practice. Our group learned how to solder on circuit boards. We used the knowledge we acquired to create a portable speaker that can be plugged into an auxiliary port on a device.

We did have to come back to the USA on the seventh day, but I will never forget the incredible experience I had in Dublin, Ireland. The opportunities I have had at UAH are incredible. I was humbled to receive the Honors SAGA airfare grant, and I am forever grateful for that. Below are some of my favorite photos. Until next time, Dublin.

Making My Way in München

Hello!

I was lucky enough to attend a study abroad trip to Munich, Germany. As this course is centered around nursing students, I was very nervous considering I was a pre-health Biology major. However, I came to find this gave me a new perspective when comparing the health care between the U.S. and Germany while their medical training gave me a new perspective as well.

I have traveled a lot before, but I have not traveled on an international scale. I was very nervous, but my previous German language skills and family background gave me an advantage in reading signs and directions. This made the transit systems much more user friendly and it came to be very convenient.

I got to experience real German regularities when it came to social events and food. I really got to understand how another productive society functions. There are unsaid norms in German that I had to know stemming from these experiences. For example, speak in a low voice on public transportation and NEVER walk in the bike lanes. In both cases, you are socially unacceptable.

Thanks to my family living only and hour from Munich, I was able to see my cultural background and let me realize how well my family has made it an essential part of my life. It is so beautiful here; I may have found a new residence. 9C474C6B-A9BA-4CFC-9A1E-E1F86858D4A3.jpg

An Internship in Costa Rica: Weekly Updates from Alex Marbut

 

Hi all,

This is Alex Marbut posting a prototype update. I will be going to Costa Rica from June 1-July 1, 2017. I am very thankful for the help that the Honors College has given me through SAGA, and I am excited for my coming internship abroad.

I am posting this to familiarize myself with the website’s layout, and I look forward to updating you all weekly this summer.

 

6/5/17

Hi everyone,

This is Alex Marbut again. I am back for my first “official” blog post, as this post is to let everyone know that I have made it safe and sound to the beautiful Tico country of Costa Rica. I arrived on June 1st, but I have been immersed in orientation classes until now, and I am making the time to update everyone at the Honors College.

The topic of this post is an exposition of Costa Rican culture. Above, I called it “Tico country” because the people here call themselves “Ticos” like we call ourselves “Americans.” Tico comes from an archaic mode of speaking here; in olden times, they would end many adjectives with “tico” (e.g. “El chico es muy chiquitico” instead of “El chico es muy chiquito,” which is the broader diminutive of a Spanish word for “small.” For that reason, although it is not common to use that form of diminutive in Costa Rica anymore, Costa Ricans call themselves “Ticos.”

The food here is magnificent. One of the more common meals here is called a “casado,” which means “married man.” It is called that because a “casado” is a big meal consisting of a meat, white rice, black beans, a salad, and plantains. Also in olden days, when men would go to work you could always tell when one of them was married because his wife would cook him a big meal (while the unmarried men just had a sandwich or something very simple.) So, they started calling these big meals “casados” because you could tell a married man by them.

I can’t talk about Costa Rican culture without mentioning white rice and black beans. I know that might sound odd, but you have not seen a staple until you have been to Costa Rica and seen how they eat rice and black beans. A traditional Costa Rican won’t even call the food in front of him or her a meal unless it includes rice and black beans. There are Walmarts here, and I am sure everyone has seen the long isles that Walmart has. Well, there is an entire isle from one end to the other full of these staples: black beans on the left all the way down and white rice on the right all the way down. One of the most popular dishes here is a breakfast meal called “gallo pinto” or “piebald/spotted chicken.” The chicken part is as much a mystery to me as “pico de gallo” (chicken peck), but it is simply black beans and white rice mixed together with added cilantro, onion, and spices for flavor. The two staples are usually eaten separately, and this famous breakfast was created when people began to mix the leftover rice and beans from the night before together. It is commonly eaten with eggs with a side of coffee to drink. Important: I plead with anyone reading this to go to eBay and order a bag of Costa Rican coffee. It is the best in the world and no one will convince me otherwise.

I hope everyone has enjoyed my first blog post from Costa Rica. I will update everyone again next week. I apologize if my English slowly deteriorates as my posts continue, I even found this one hard to write. It appears that I am losing my English, but I am glad. That means I am well buried in the cognitive frame I’ve built for this language over the past seven years. I should get my English back when I come back to the United States…eventually. Does the Psychology Department at UAH accept graduate papers in Spanish? Ay dios mío…

06/12/17

Hi again all,

I’ve just gone through my first full week of work for my internship, and as always I have been quite busy, but I am glad to be back for my weekly update for the Honors College.

The topic for this week is natural dangers in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is a tropical country bordered on either side by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. For this reason, there are only two real seasons here: the dry season and the rainy season. For those who do not know, tropical rains are sudden and dramatic. I work in a restaurant in the Old Market in Heredia. Due to all of the rain here, most of the roofs are made of metal because it is cheaper to make and repair–roofs like we have in the United States would fall apart from the weather. The Old Market has a metal roof, too, and when it starts raining you have to scream to the person standing next to you for him or her to be able to hear you. There is much flooding in Costa Rica due to this rain, and it is always important to carry an umbrella wherever you go, but you have to be careful opening it because if there is electricity in the air you could be struck by lightning.

Rain is one of the safer natural occurrences here. There are frequent earthquakes in Costa Rica. I haven’t experienced one yet, thankfully, but I was taught that I likely will at some point. They can be mild or fierce, but the most common cause of casualty during earthquakes is people panicking. I was taught in orientation that there is something called the “triangle of life.” For instance, you can place yourself beside a bed facing a wall. If the wall collapses inward, it will fall toward the bed but there will be a triangle where nothing falls (the wall is the hypotenuse, the bed one leg, and the floor the other.) This is a safe space if one is in a high floor in a building, but is safest to get out into an open space.

Due to these earthquakes and the platonic location of Costa Rica, there are also many volcanoes here. Many of these are dormant, but some of them are active. The ones that are active mostly belch smoke and ash up into the sky (I have allergies here, perhaps it is due to the ash.) At times it can be so bad that one can hardly breathe, but thankfully I haven’t had to experience that. This past weekend, I went on an excursion to the Arenal Volcano in the northeast portion of Costa Rica. This is one of the active volcanoes, but it was not dangerous at the time that my group was able to go. This volcano is known for being distinctively conic in shape. We could not go up to the top, but we were able to swim in magnificent hot springs, Baldi, near its base and visit an enormous waterfall in the tropical rain forest surrounding it. I would recommend these to anyone who went to Costa Rica at a time when Arenal was safe. The hot springs contain many pools that rise up (you can walk or swim), and they get hotter and hotter the higher you get until you reach the top of the hot springs and there is a waterfall called “Cascara del Infierno” (Waterfall from Hell.) This is a secret, so don’t tell anyone, but they have bars in the pools of these hot springs, with music and flat screen TV’s. Of course, I didn’t have anything to drink, but I imagine it would be quite nice to swim in a volcanic hot springs with some tropical beverages. The enormous waterfall that we went to near the volcano and hot springs was magnificent, but its water would easily tear one’s flesh off one’s bones. In comparison to the hot springs, the water surrounding this waterfall was quite cold, but it was incredibly refreshing, and there was a natural pool below it that at one point was easily 6.5 feet deep. It was easily one of the funnest times I’ve had in my life (just be careful of the current, this is no pool and there are hard rocks everywhere.) Also, if you look in the pictures below there is a picture of me at the top of the stairs leading down to the waterfall (the waterfall is tiny there.)  Note how far away it is, and now know that the stairwell down to that waterfall is essentially straight down. I dare you to run up it (your thighs will thank you later, even if they threaten your life at the time.) I added photos of the old staircase and the new staircase, for your enjoyment. Oh, and as an explanation the photo of the sign with the sloth is on the staircase encouraging people to not give up on the hike back up.

There are natural dangers in Costa Rica, but they are beautiful (well, maybe not the earthquakes, but the others are quite magnificent.) The tropical rain is warm as it is fierce, the volcanoes are magnificent to visit, and the waterfalls make for a great swim. I hope everyone has enjoyed this week’s blog post! My apologies for the fault of pictures last week, I posted some pictures of a “casado” and a traditional coffee maker for all to enjoy as a visual demonstration from my last post, and I hope everyone enjoys the pictures below from this week!

6/19/2017

Hi all,

This is Alex again for his third update from Costa Rica. This week’s topic will be Costa Rican politics, and the basis for this post is my recent visit to San Jose, the nation’s capitol city.

San Jose is a large city at the center of the country’s four largest provinces. It is similar to the Four Corners states in the US in that you can walk through four different provinces in a short time there. It is densely populated–the country hosts over four million people, and three million or so of them live in the San Jose area. For this reason, “la hora pico” or “rush hour” is nearly impassible in San Jose. This is a fun fact for my post, but in Costa Rica there is a police force specifically for traffic accidents. Here, if you are in a traffic accident you must remain where you are until the traffic police arrive to determine how the accident occurred. You can’t even move your car out of the way of traffic: if you do, your insurance won’t cover you. You must remain exactly where you landed at the end of the accident. For this reason, “presas” or “traffic jams” are quite common. Thankfully, the country runs on “Tico Time,” which is similar to “Hawaiian Time” in the United States; it is alright to be fashionably late.

There is a central street in San Jose. It is composed of two parts: a part for driving and a part for purely walking, where the only cars that are allowed to pass through are those of law enforcement. However it may be that one part of this street is for cars, on Sundays it is common for this part of San Jose to be closed off to vehicles, also, for special events such as political demonstrations. On the day that I visited San Jose, the street was closed off for just such an occasion. A hot topic in Costa Rica right now is animal rights. It is common here for people to train dogs or chickens to fight each other for bloody sport (there are poor psychological and evolutionary consequences to this; breeding violent animals produces further generations of even more viscous animals, whereas breeding peaceful animals produces further generations of more friendly animals.) There are two main faces for this political outreach against animal cruelty: the first is a dog whose snout was cut off, and the second is a toucan whose beak was broken when a group of kids threw a rock at it. There is a political effort in Costa Rica to pass a law to harshly punish incidences of animal cruelty, and this political demonstration was for the purpose of raising awareness of the issue and signing petitions to pass this law. People filled the street with their dogs–and one man even walked around with his rooster, letting the rooster sit on people’s heads.

The section of this main street that is only for traversing on foot is full of shops and restaurants of all kinds. In this area, you will find the three central banks of Costa Rica, along with the National Post Office. Of course, pictures of these are available for your viewing pleasure below. I will also mention this as a fun fact, but Costa Rica does not have addresses like the United States and so directions are harder to give. It is more common to give directions using landmarks. A famous example of one such landmark is a statue called “La Gorda” in this central area of San Jose. This is a state of a large woman constructed from Creole tradition, but the main two things to note about her are that she is a central landmark for giving directions in this area and that you can touch her large buttocks for good luck.

The National Theatre is another famous landmark in San Jose. It was constructed by the Costa Rican aristocracy long ago when Costa Rica first found its niche for coffee. The aristocratic plantation owners wanted some kind of entertainment, and they paid for the National Theatre to be built using a French design, as in its nascence Costa Rica had good relations with the French (this can also be seen in the colors of the Costa Rican flag, which is composed of the same three colors, red, white, and blue, in a horizontal rather than a vertical pattern.) The National Theatre was created so that anyone could enter, although of course there was a balcony where the aristocracy could sit separate from the commonfolk. On the second floor of the Theatre, there is a parlor where the aristocracy used to sit and converse. There is a large, elaborate central room that was intended for the men, and there are two smaller, simpler side rooms that were intended for women. Interestingly enough, there is a painting in one of these of a statue of a woman with no head; this was said to mean that women should be present in body but not to think or speak. Imagine sitting in that room! Talk about learned helplessness. On a more positive note, in the men’s room there is a painting on the ceiling that was created to produce an optical illusion similar to that of the Mona Lisa, in which the central figure follows you with her eyes as you walk. An entire essay could be written on the art in this Theatre, but to say the least I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the fine arts.

Finally, San Jose is also host to the National Museum. This is composed of four separate areas in what used to be a fortress when Costa Rica had a standing army years ago. That’s right, Costa Rica does not have a standing army, and it converted this old fortress into a National Museum. I love it! The first area is a greenhouse that houses all sorts of vegetation along with a species of butterfly only found in Costa Rica–the “morpho.” This is a humongous butterfly with shimmering blue wings that can potentially hold a span longer than an adult human’s hand. They are quite beautiful: and friendly! I had four butterflies, though not all of them morphos, land on me before I left. The second area of the National Museum is the prison, which was preserved for historical reasons. Inside, you can see old prisoners’ latrines, showers, cells (with graffiti), and a tower where soldiers would be stationed to fire their rifles at incoming enemies. The third portion of the Museum is dedicated to all sorts of traditional Costa Rican artwork, from statues to paintings. Two such examples are a painting that depicts astral space in traditional belief and a tomb marker that is bordered by engraved images of animals so that the buried body would be protected by the gods that those animals represented. The final section of the Museum was a historical walk-through of sorts. It began with examples of indigenous artifacts (e.g. graves, fruit, etc.) prior to the arrival of Europeans. Further on, there are artifacts from colonial times. This section ends with prominent contemporary figures. A highlight of this historical timeline is a statue that is intended to depict Costa Rica’s self-actualization. Even after independence from Spain, Costa Rica did not have much of a national identity. It was due to William Walker, a United States filibuster from Tennessee who, in the wake of the South’s losing its wealth of slaves in the American Emancipation, decided to attempt to enslave the newly ungoverned people of Central America. He succeeded in conquering Nicaragua, which is immediately to the north of Costa Rica, and naming himself its president, but Costa Ricans rallied against him and pushed him out before he could take over their nation. This was the moment in which Costa Rica gained its identity, similar to the signing of the Declaration of Independence for the United States. The statue that depicts this is of a group of women rallying together above a fleeing man. The group of women represent the nations of Central America, and in the center is a woman standing tall and holding another woman, who is weeping. The central woman represents Costa Rica, and the weeping woman represents the violated Nicaragua. Of course, the fleeing man represents Walker, who was later executed by Honduras. As a final note, both outside and inside the National Museum, you will find enormous boulders. These are in the shape of perfect spheres of varying sizes (the largest is taller than me), and they come from indigenous times. These are an anomaly, as they obviously mean something, but no one knows where they came from, who made them, or for what purpose.

I hope everyone has enjoyed my blog on Costa Rican politics and the nation’s capitol! I will be back next week, so stay tuned, and please enjoy the pictures provided for your entertainment below.

 

06/26/17

Hi all,

This is Alex back for his penultimate blog post. The topic of this week’s post is Costa Rican religion and beliefs.

Costa Rica is a Catholic nation. This can be seen in terms of Costa Rican politics, in which political parties even carry religious names (something politicians in the United States are more timid about.) However, the influence of religion here can been seen in everyday life, even in the layout of Costa Rican towns. Every single town here has the same central layout: in the center is the town church; in front of that church is a soccer field or park; and to the side of that park there is a bar. You will find those three things in the center of every town. This is a potent demonstration of the importance of the Catholic religion in Costa Rica, that everything in a town should spread out from the church at its heart. Compare this to the United States, where religious institutions are constructed wherever they happen to be.

I have always found churches to be fascinating in terms of their symbolism and architecture. I have never been to a Catholic church in the United States, so I am not sure how they compare, but here churches vary from simple to elaborate. In many churches you will find beautiful stained glass from Italy. Some churches even have paintings on their ceilings. Some symbols in these paintings that I have never seen (in one painting, God had a triangular halo; possibly this represents the Trinity.) I found that, at least in one church, there seemed to be a more diverse spectrum of angelology depicted than I have found in the United States. I saw paintings of traditional cherubim (angels with three animal heads, not the babies with wings) and even seraphim (angels with six wings.) Compare this to churches in the United States, where angels appear of a more similar type.

Needless to say, in terms of beliefs tradition is very important here. Political leftists here would still fall on the right hand side of the political spectrum in the United States, arguably due to the importance of the Catholic religion here. Being central left myself by United States political measures, I was not sure what it would be like to be in a country where beliefs trended as a whole to the right of what I am used to, but I have found here an argument for the saying “People are people all over.” Certainly, God is referenced more in everyday life than in the United States. “My God” here is not considered blasphemy but is a common saying. It is also a quotidian valediction to give a blessing to a person upon leaving, such as “Qué Dios lo acompañe (God be with you.)” Every morning, you will hear people saying “¿Cómo amaneció? (How did you wake up?/How did you sleep? How was your morning?)” The response to this is “Muy bien, gracias a Díos (Very good, thanks to God.)” However, these are manners of speech, and I can speak with the friends that I’ve made here just as I can in the United States. Talk in the kitchens here is just as crude as it is in the United States (gracias a Díos.) I am not sure if this is the case in all high schools, but in one of my neighboring high schools there is a uniform for the students. However, people’s clothing choices are also similar to those in the United States. I see people wearing band shirts from English speaking rock bands (there is an obvious grunge subculture here, as there is in the United States.) Conservative dress here is about as common as in the United States, too; people aren’t afraid to show skin. This is a fun note, but unlike in Alabama you will find that you can buy alcohol here on Sundays. Yes, even bars are open. In terms of beliefs, there is certainly no fear of alcohol here. All of this is to say, for those of you who might consider coming here someday who are left leaning in terms of your beliefs, you won’t be overwhelmed by cultural differences or religious differences. Remember, people are people. This has always been my belief, and now I have experiences to reify that belief.

I hope that you all have enjoyed my penultimate blog post on Costa Rican religion and beliefs.