These past two weekends, I visited two of the most unique cities in Europe. First, I went to Interlaken, Switzerland and saw the most beautiful part of the Alp Mountains. The first day, we took a tour around the city and visited the Thundersee Lake. The city was amazing, and the chocolate that they had was like no other chocolate I've ever had before. In addition, the Thundersee lake was one of the most beautiful lakes I've ever seen. The water had a beautiful blue color, from all of the glaciers falling into it. Unfortunately, it was too cold to swim in the lake or else I would have been swimming in it all day.
However, the next day I went snowboarding in the Alps! As much as I love New Jersey's Mountain Creek Ski Resort and Pittsburgh's Seven Springs, I will never forget the mountains in Switzerland. Interlaken was all about outdoor activities such as skydiving, paragliding, canyon jumping, night sledding, etc. Unfortunately, I'm kind of a girl when it comes to jumping or diving out of things, so I decided to go with snowboarding instead. Snowboarding the Alps was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The view of the mountains around you was just breathtaking. Seeing pictures of the Alps and how beautiful they are is one thing, but when you see them first hand, its completely different.
The day after snowboarding, I walked around town and bought a mini Switzerland flag. I've decided that whenever I visit a different country I'm going to buy that country's flag, collect all the flags and bring them back home with me. Overall, Interlaken was unbelievable and completely different from anywhere I have ever visited, including Venice, Italy!
This past weekend, I ventured to Venice, Italy for their famous Carnevale di Venezia. The Carnevale is an annual festival held in Venice, and it's most famous for its distinctive masks. During Carnevale, people get all dressed up and wear a mask over their face and basically go crazy. So me and four other friends went there and all dressed up with basically the same black dress pants, white button down, and a black tie or bowtie. Everyone was supposed to buy a mask and wear it that night, but I was the only one that did so...Venice was absolutely beautiful, especially since it was Valentine's Day when we went there. All in all, it was a lot of fun and a great experience.
This next weekend there is a planned overnight trip through the study abroad program I am affiliated with to go to Perugia, Assisi, Siena, and San Gimignano which I would love to go to. However, I was also offered to go to Lake Bled in Slovenia. If I were to go to Slovenia I would definitely do some more snowboarding and even do some husky dog sledding! Either trip will be unbelievable and I can't wait to pick.
So its been the first week of studying abroad in Florence, Italy. It has also most likely been one of the best weeks of my entire life. First off, we moved into our apartment, which is right smack in the middle of Florence. I am within 5 minutes of the famous Duomo, one of the largest churches in all of Italy and the largest brick dome ever constructed. After exploring and looking around, I got to know my roommates. I have 5 other roommates, one from Florence who speaks Italian fluently and speaks English well enough to carry on a conversation. Every night, we have went to a different bar or club and had the time of our lives. However, other than that, I have been keeping busy and on February 2nd, we got to visit Pisa and I got to take that famous leaning tower of Pisa picture.
This week, we are starting classes and I only have classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. So me and 5 other friends took advantage of having off on Monday and went to visit Fiesole, which was beautiful. We had a great walk and got to see some amazing scenery, but the best of all was when we got to the very top of the mountain after an hour walk and got to see all of Florence within one view. We got to see the Duomo from there as well as the Florentina soccer stadium. But we plan on making a trip every Monday to a town close to Florence to see some more spectacular views. This weekend, we are leaving Thursday night to go to Interlaken, Switzerland. We are going to stay there until Sunday and have a pub crawl and some skiing planned for the trip. I can't wait to tell everyone about my experiences these next few weeks. CIAO!
After I started blogging about my Peace Corps experience, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from people who are considering joining the Peace Corps, all of which I’m more than happy to answer. However, while I love sharing all of my inspiring and happy moments, I think it’s really important to share the tough times too. If you’re thinking about becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s best to be prepared!
As a full disclosure, I’m drawing on my own experiences for this list. Each Peace Corps Volunteer is different, and some even live in apartments with wifi! In any case, it’s better to be the one who expected the hut and got the apartment than vice versa.
1. Are you ready to be sick?
When I mentioned not wanting to be sick during my interview, my interviewer actually laughed. While Peace Corps has an excellent medical team and does everything in their power to keep volunteers healthy and happy, there are sometimes things that simply can’t be avoided. I’m one of the rarities in my region that has gotten off pretty lucky in terms of stomach issues (no worms or giardia! Yet… 1-31-2013 Edit: I must have jinxed myself. I am now the proud yet temporary owner of a stomach full of amoebas!)
I have, however, been plagued by skin issues: mystery rashes, grotesque abscesses, and the general cuts, scrapes, and bruises.
2. Can you be productive and happy in an unsupervised environment?
If you’re like me, your boss might live at the other end of the country, so all of your work is up to you. You will need to assess needs, plan projects, train locals, evaluate your progress, AND ensure that your projects are locally sustainable, all without the physical presence of a boss or coworkers.
3. Are you ready to work and live in a location with no English speakers?
Peace Corps will give you excellent language training, but it’s still tough. As silly as this sounds, sometimes I talk to myself in English sometimes just because I never hear it anymore!
4. Do you understand that you will not like all aspects of the local culture?
Of course you’ve heard about culture shock, but are you ready to really be shocked? Before arriving in Panama, I reflected on my experiences studying abroad and considered myself prepared… wrong. While I may get frustrated with so many aspects of local culture it is also important to remember that we aren’t here to change people, we’re here to help them help themselves in ways that they value and want.
5. Can you handle living in an area where sanitation might be scarce, at best?
My host family’s baby didn’t wear diapers and pooped wherever he happened to be standing. Also, I am the only person in my community who uses a latrine instead of the creek. Also, one of the latrines doesn’t have a roof. Also, I once got sick during a thunderstorm and only had access to the roof-less latrine. Think about all of that.
6. Are you ready to be poor?
For us to become respected members of the community, we have to live like the community. Thus, you’ll be paid enough for your expenses with not a whole lot left over. I make less here than I made working for the Saint Vincent Admissions department a few times a week- and I’m responsible for rent, food, transportation, vacations, etc.
7. Are you willing to do what needs to be done?
Despite what your job description says, we’re here to work in whatever capacity the community needs. If I turned up my nose at the work that didn’t involve business, I would never, ever make it. Instead, I work in the schools, on the farms, and with youth and gender development.
8. Can you put America on hold?
While I can still call home and use Facebook every once and awhile, there are some things you just miss out on. I have no idea what is going on with current music, am still clueless to the new social media apps, and don’t find out about big news until several days or weeks later. I can’t even imagine what coming home in 2015 is going to be like.
9. Can you put the glamorous vision of Peace Corps away?
Sure, we still have a lot of great perks to our job, but it’s a lot less traveling and a lot more cold bucket water showers than you originally think. There will be great “Peace Corps” days where you dance around with little kids, a local businessman asks for your advice on a project, and your head is busting with ideas. However, there will also be days when every other neighbor tells you you’re getting fat, some kids broke some part of your house, your water ran out, you get sick and fall while walking to the latrine in the rain, AND your neighbors claim your rat poison killed their dog. And yes, both of those scenarios happened to me.
10. Are you really ready to commit to a full 27 months of service?
Think about everything that happened from the time you entered freshman year to the time you entered junior year. A lot, right? Now imagine being out of the country that whole time. You’ll miss your friends and family, you’ll dream of ice cream and Chick-fil-a, and you’ll have breakdown moments where all you want is your bedroom and a hug from mom. Despite all of that, you’ll still be committed to the full term of service. *Legally, Peace Corps is not binding, and should you decide to leave you will be free to do so. However, please don’t join If you don’t plan on staying. Your community and training team will have worked very hard to have you!
Before joining the Peace Corps, I felt as prepared as I could have been, and yet I never expected life to be as it is. The challenges that scare you before you get here usually end up being the easiest ones to get over and are only the tip of a very big iceberg. I have never in my life felt as physically, emotionally, and mentally challenged as I do as a Peace Corps volunteer. On the other hand, as cliché as it sounds, I have never felt more fulfilled or happy. Cold bucket showers and all, I know this is exactly where God meant for me to be.
I hope that I haven’t scared you away from Peace Corps service. It really is great if you’re fully prepared and fully committed. If you’re still considering Peace Corps as an option, I’m always here to help out a fellow bearcat- send me an email at AbbyExplores@gmail.com.
If, however, you realize that Peace Corps isn’t for you, Saint Vincent College has some great alternatives!
Study Abroad. This is a great way to travel and experience another culture, plus you’ll be able to cater the experience to your exact desires and goals.
Go on a Service Trip. Saint Vincent College has several organized trips that are not only a great experience for you as the student, but also truly benefit the sites they visit. Check with the Office of Service Learning for Upcoming Trips!
Seek out a long term service project. You'll develop a sense of community over the course of a semester or year, and you'll be able to see much deeper results from your work.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “So, what do you do?” Given that there are over 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers currently serving in the world and none of us follow the same schedule or exact job description, I’d say that’s a pretty valid question.
The first answer I have- There is no typical day. As a former Type-A person who loves lists, schedules, and plans, this lack of structure was one of my greatest fears as I entered Peace Corps life. Ironically, that very same aspect has become one of my favorite parts of my job.
In my case, I am one of about 50 Sustainable Agricultural Development volunteers currently in Panama, and one of about 5 or so who are specifically tasked with agribusiness development. I live in a small community in Bocas del Toro, and the supervisor in charge of the agriculture program lives and works in Panama City, a twelve-hour bus ride away. So, not only do I have no fellow co-workers (in terms of other volunteers) but I also have no day-to-day supervision. Pretty different from a 9-5 with your colleagues and boss right down the hall, right?
However, don’t mistake the lack of supervision with a lack of work. If anything, I feel even more accountable for my day-to-day activities, especially since I still occasionally get comments like, “It must be nice to take a 2 year vacation” or “So when are you going to get a real job?” While it’s true that I do have more down time than someone working full-time in an office, I also never get to leave work. I’m a volunteer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no questions asked.
As I mentioned, every day is different. Sometimes I have events, trainings, workdays, or meetings, and if I do then my day will generally revolve around that.
For example, once a week I generally hike a little over an hour to visit my neighboring volunteer (who works with water and sanitation) to hang out and work on coordinating projects, on Wednesdays and Saturdays I meet with two different artisans’ groups to learn about local crafts and help them with basic business practices, and during the school year (March-November) I teach English to two elementary school classes twice a week. I’ve also organized training seminars for local producers and am working on putting together an after-school youth program.
However, if I don’t have anything specific on my schedule, this is more or less what I do:
In the mornings I take my time and wake up slowly. Sometimes I’m up at 6:30, sometimes I sleep ‘till 9 or later. Then, I make breakfast and some locally grown coffee and spend an hour or so reading and planning out my day. The mornings are usually when I appreciate my job the most; When else is getting ready for work going to be this relaxing?
Next, I usually go pasearing, a Central American custom that basically entails taking a walk to visit families, completely unannounced. Usually the family will give me some of their home-grown coffee or hot chocolate, and occasionally I’ll also get a bite to eat. I always hold by breath and cross my fingers if they mention food, as it would be considered disrespectful for me to turn away a gift. Best case scenario: rice and a piece of meat. Worst case scenario: Chicken neck with boiled green bananas and a fermented grape nut juice. Regardless of the food, it is always great to hang out with the families and talk about upcoming or potential projects. They’re not only the closest thing to co-workers I’ve got, but also my closest support system. One family even told their kids to call me tia, aunt, so that I would feel like I was a part of their family too!
Once I’m done pasearing, I almost always have my own work to do. Common chores include cleaning up after the chickens and pigs that roam around my house, washing my clothes in the creek (I’ve recently upgraded from rock to old-fashioned washing board), or working in my garden.
In the evenings I like to spend time experimenting with food and cooking a nice dinner. After his visit, my dad claims that I would be the best person to have around while camping- all of my food is hiked in, none is refrigerated, and my only appliance is a gas burner. I even like to get fancy sometimes; I’ve learned how to bake brownies on the stove!
A high point of my day is when I get visits from neighboring kids who can’t wait to go through my game box. In the evenings we usually color, play cards or checkers, make crafts, and sometimes even play games on my iPad (Which they’re currently obsessed with.)
If I’m lucky there might be a bit of cell signal at night to call home. If not, bedtime comes after a cup of tea and a nice book. To end the day, I tie my shutters open, snuggle up with my puppy underneath my mosquito net, and drift off to the sounds of birds, bugs, and the creek by my house.
Hi! My name is Michael Cerchione and I am a junior at Saint Vincent College, where I am majoring in Business Management with a minor in Operational Excellence. This spring semester I will be studying abroad in Florence, Italy at Fairfield University. I have always wanted to study abroad in Italy, but it was more of a dream than reality until I started talking with the study abroad program at Saint Vincent.
It was hard to choose studying in Italy for an entire semester rather than stay at SVC especially knowing that I will be missing some of my friends last semester. However, everyone who has studied abroad or gone overseas says that it is a once in a lifetime experience and could potentially be the best 4 months of my entire life. I plan on traveling throughout Europe including countries like Spain, Ireland, and France while I'm there.
As my departure date comes closer and closer, I have been packing my things and saying my goodbyes. I will be flying out of Newark airport the 26th of January and will fly into Munich, Germany and then get onto another plane to fly to Florence, Italy. I can't wait to leave and look forward to sharing my experiences throughout the semester!
Looking for a fun way to explore the neighboring islands, my dad and I decided to spend our last day in Bocas del Toro on a snorkeling trip. Though I could tell dad was a little hesitant about this last minute adventure, I assured him he´d be glad he did. And wouldn´t you know it, I was right!
We started the tour off driving through perfectly still, mangrove surrounded waters to reach Dolphin Bay. According to our guide, Willy, you have an 80% chance of seeing dolphins on any given day, as this bay is home to a pod year round. The dolphins are free to roam out into the open ocean, but seem to prefer this secure bay which abounds with jellyfish- one of their favorite foods.
Next, we made a lunch stop at a restaurant with one of the most beautiful views in the world. Though the food wasn´t the greatest, their lovely macaws made up for it.
After ordering our food, we headed out to the neighboring waters to snorkel while it was being prepared. I do believe that that´s the most fun I´ve ever had waiting for food.
The next and final destination was Isla Zapatillas (aka one of the most gorgeous islands in Bocas). The aquamarine water and complete lack of development in this national park made it the perfect place to lay back and nap while listening to the gentle waves hit the beach.
It´s certainly been a great week out of site, but I´m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things in my little village. If there´s anything I learned in the McKenna school, it´s how good it feels when your hard work pays off.
P.S. Everyone stay warm up there. I heard it´s been a little cold?
During our last goodbyes in June of this past year, my dad tearfully hugged me and promised to visit me in Panama for Christmas. It was that very visit that gave me something to look forward to and got me through some of my roughest moments down here.
Harvesting cocoa with some of my villagers
Six months, to the day, after that sad goodbye, my dad finally arrived! To say he´s not exactly a traveler is putting it lightly. So, add an international trip with connecting planes, busses, and taxis in a land where he doesn´t know the language (and isn´t quite accustomed to the booming music and noises of Central American towns) and my dad was more than a little out of his element.
After an overnight delay in Costa Rica (unplanned and unwanted), I picked my dad up from the bus station and threw him straight into my village. For the first few days he got a taste of life as a Peace Corps Volunteer- lack of amenities included. Despite my warnings to conserve water, my huge water tank was empty within the first 3 days. I reacted the only way possible, with a laugh and a walk to the creek to bathe and gather water. Even dad managed to look on the bright side. In his words, "Who else do you know gets to look at a little waterfall when they´re taking a bath?"
Checking my water tank
Next, we headed up to the mountains of Chiriqui where we spent Christmas in Boquete (which happens to be one of the top ranked places in the world for retirement). I enjoyed being able to cook with tons of kitchen appliances, and my dad and I both enjoyed a coffee tour with Kotowa coffee.
Then it was back to my site for another week, where we visited various families, prayed for rain to refill my tank (which didn´t come), and prepared for our town´s first New Years Party.
A deliciously fresh breakfast!
Last on our agenda, we spent a glorious week soaking up the sun on Isla Colon, a lovely 1 hour commute from my village. We rented bikes, cruised various beaches, took a snorkeling tour, played with a Macaw, and ate oh so much food. Though I had a stomach ache for most of the week (Apparently that´s what happens when my village vegan diet returns to a normal meat and dairy filled one), it was wonderful to spend our last few days in one of my favorite locations in all of Panama.
Saying goodbye this time was just as hard as the first. Though I do love my town and my new home, it´s still a little hard to return to village life after a blissful week of vacation, especially since I´m returning without my padre in tow. Fingers are crossed and prayers are said for a safe trip home (and speedy return to Panama) for my dad, and I´m anxious to see who my next Panamanian visitors will be!
During my last week here in Cuernavaca, México, I had the opportunity to go see a club soccer game at Estadio Azteca (the primary soccer stadium in Mexico City) where Club América faced off against the Tigres. In the end, Club América won the match 3-0. Below are some pictures from the game:
Over the past month, studying abroad has been an anxious, exhilarating, enjoyable, and life-changing experience. I can say with the utmost certainty that this adventure has changed my life, and I am coming back to Saint Vincent College a new person. Overall, I learned a lot more about myself in one month than I did in the past year and a half at school. Due to the unique environment in which I learned and the exploration of another culture, I feel that this educational expedition has been a defining moment in my life and will continue to influence my life for year's to come. In just four and a half weeks, it seems that my ability to tolerate ambiguity has improved, and I have made long-lasting friendships. I believe that the shared experience of living entirely submerged in another culture made these friendships particularly poignant and enduring.
All in all, studying abroad has opened my eyes to the extensive world around me. I met individuals who live far differently from us Americans in the United States, discovered what we had in common, how we were different, and developed an idea of myself that I did not have before leaving college in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. In short, I learned how the world could feel both large and small at the same time. I learned how people of another country have the same hopes and fears as I do. I learned how to take in a new culture and use it to reflect on my own, and further use that knowledge to understand what it means to be me.
Sure, I have some remarkable and surprising stories to tell about living in another country; however, México gave me a lot more than that. I guarantee that when I arrive home, I will step off the plane with confidence, maturity, and insight into who I really am, and how I want to spend the rest of my life.
I could not have been more blessed on this trip. Thank you to those who have supported me the entire way through this adventure: Mom, Dad, James, Anna, Belle, Dr. Blandino, Sara Hart, the staff of La Universal, my friends here and back home (Kathryn, Jessica, Adam, Trevor, and Rachel), and of course, my host family (Ana María, Alejandro, and Diana). And a special thanks to those who followed this blog and to those who read this blog in the future. I highly encourage you or anyone who has not traveled abroad yet to start thinking now. As I have said multiple times - the experience will change your life.
Que Dios le bendiga,
(Sophomore, SVC Class of 2016 )
¡Feliz Navidad y Año Nuevo! Between classes, celebrating Christmas, taking excursions, and preparing for New Years, the past week has kept me busy. On December 24th, my school and host family celebrated "Las Posadas." Because there is no literal translation, Las Posadas can be generalized as a series of nightly celebrations that begin on December 16th and end on December 24th (Christmas Eve or Noche Buena).
Each evening, a procession of people travels down a street, typically holding statues or candles of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and many other Saints. As the procession walks along the street, the people sing Christmas songs (Villancicos Navideños), sometimes stopping for a prayer or religious reading. Eventually, the procession arrives at a designated house and a song begins that alternates between those inside and those outside. The song finishes as everyone enters the house. Inside the house will be various cultural foods and a traditional punch consisting of cinnamon sticks, guava, prunes, sugar cane, and a small, circular fruit called "Tejocote."
This past weekend, the group traveled to two different destinations in Morelos: Tepoztlán and Las Estacas (A natural water park). Tepoztlán is certainly one of the stranger, yet more beautiful towns in Mexico. Largely occupied by a lush valley whose walls were formed by curiously shaped mountains, these mountains look like the work of some colossal, abstract expressionist being. The mountains were visible from almost anywhere in town. Even the parking lot provides an extraordinary view.
Tepoztlán is certainly immersed in legend and mystery. This peculiar mountain lies adjacent to the alleged birthplace of Quetzalcóatl (The Aztec Serpent God) and most definitely comes as close as one will get to an untainted, mystical mountain hideaway.
Finally, on Sunday, the group traveled to Las Estacas, a natural water park located roughly 45 minutes south of downtown Cuernavaca. Due to its natural beauty and proximity to Cuernavaca, Las Estacas, in my opinion, was considered one of the more relaxing destinations. Inside this natural water park flows the crystal-clear waters of the Yautepec River.
I hope everyone back home had a warm and loving Christmas holiday. Feliz Año Nuevo, and keep looking back for more updates on the blog in the last two weeks.
Mickey Orange (SVC Class 2016)
It has only been three days since arriving in México, and already, I have had the opportunity to see some of the most significant theological and archeological sites spread across this stunning country. On Saturday, the group spent the morning driving from the state Morelos to the state Guerrero, where we spent the entire day in the city of Taxco touring it's central plaza. Today, we spent the morning traveling from Morelos to Mexico City, where we visited the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Afterwards, we traveled to Teotihuacán and spent the afternoon hiking through The Avenue of the Dead, The Pyramid of the Sun, and various other pyramids.
Well, classes start bright and early tomorrow at 8am. Buenas noches and keep looking back at the blog for updates! Below are a few of the pictures I took:
SVC Class of 2016
Saturday December 14th, 2013:
A.) Taxco (Bird's-Eye View)
B.) Taxco (La Iglesia de Santa Prisca - The Cathedral of Santra Prisca)
*Later than afternoon, there happened to be a wedding ceremony taking place when I stopped back inside. I hurried to grab a quick photo before I got kicked out.
Sunday December 15th, 2013:
A. Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica
(Where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego in 1531)
B.) Teotihuacán Valley