Bearcats on the Road
The past week has been entirely devoted to directed research. The complement of 22 students in the program were broken up into six different groups whose research groups included both physical and social science topics. Some of the most interesting projects, in my opinion, were: biodiversity in local forests, the growing cordycep (an extremely valuable Himalayan fungi) market, conservation around religious sites and, my own research project, the effects of forestry management practices on local forest stands.
Being that the entire summer semester program is six weeks long, the directed research component is extremely compact. The first day of the project was spent writing a six-page research proposal with my three other colleagues. The next four days of the project were used to collect data at nearby Kikila Pass, a local conifer forest at the top of a mountain. This field research included coring trees and collecting data on the regeneration of specific pine species in a managed forest stand. The field research experience is a new type of learning that I’ve never been exposed to before, and it was something that I really enjoyed. I got to work closely with authors in the field who had written the research that I’d used in my proposal which provided me with an incredible wealth of information to tap into.
After four days of data collection and in-depth data analysis, the hardest part of the research was upon me. The requirement for our research paper was 16-pages (single-spaced) written in the span of around 36 hours. In addition, we had to develop a presentation and a poster for a symposium. Needless to say, there was relatively little sleep the past several days, but the research materials somehow got finished! After giving the presentation to our classmates, I was selected with another member of my group to give the presentation again to the government staff the following day.
Anyone who knows me somewhat well knows that presentations aren’t exactly my favorite thing in the world, but after another jam-packed 24 hours of work, I was ready to present the research in front of a crowd of 50 people in our symposium. I was the very first student to speak in the first presentation of the day, but I can say that the presentation went very well and that I also looked rather official in my all-black gho that I had to wear for the occasion.
After all the stress of the research, the program directors decided that we were due for a bit of break. That break came in the form of an eight-mile hike to the top of the ridge above campus. Luckily, I enjoy rigorous hikes, but I can’t say the same for all my peers. It was a tough hike, too, but the payoff at the end was incredible. From the top, I was surrounded by prayer flags, whipping winds and around 40-degree temperatures (Yes, in summer! We were at about 12,000 feet). I could see the valley we have been staying in, Bumthang, as well as the neighboring valley of Chumae, which culminated in being one of my favorite experiences of this entire study abroad so far.
So, now it’s time to move again. I’m all packed up and tomorrow we head off to one of Bhutan’s larger cities, Paro. We’ll be finishing up our studies there and visiting the world-famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery before heading back for the states on the 15th. It’s hard to believe it’s that time already.
The past several days have been filled with a plethora of cultural experiences with locals in and around campus. While simply walking down the street can tell you a lot about the Bhutanese people, it is something else completely to spend significant amounts of time talking with a Buddhist monk or staying with a family. Luckily, I’ve been able to do both of those things in the span of a few days.
As part of a field exercise, we traveled to a nearby monastery where a major Bhutanese religious figure was believed to have visited 1,300 years ago. This monastic community was in many ways like the one I’m used to at Saint Vincent, and in other ways, so very different. None of the monks spoke English, so we had to communicate through translators who helped us pose our questions. We were welcomed with hospitality by the monks who dressed in dark red and orange robes with sashes across their chests that ranged in color from yellow to purple. For my time with the monk, I asked him two questions: what did he find most rewarding about his monastic lifestyle and what advice he had for a young American man? First, he told me that in his prayers and spiritual aid of others, he was able to help a lot of people he’d otherwise never be able to help. As for the life advice, he spoke for about three straight minutes. How much of the final product I got in translation, I can’t be sure, but here is the short version of what he told me:
“Be mindful of your actions and try to do the greatest good you can. Be careful of unmindful action and how it can hurt others. Give willingly. Don’t assume that others are always trying to take advantage of you, and instead, give with a loving heart. And be happy.”
The next day after my visit to the monastery, I had the rare opportunity to visit the home of a local family with another student. We were paired with a local Bhutanese student who attends the local high school in Jakar. Our student, Tsherink, is in 11th grade at the high school and she hopes to one day be an accountant. She showed us around her home and around the town below. I got to hear what she had heard about the United States (she said she’d heard it was lots of big cities and people that had a lot of money), and I got to tell her a little bit about an American’s take on Bhutan. She was in awe when my fellow student and I showed her pictures of where we’re from. She was especially impressed when I showed her a picture of where I go to school (“it’s so beautiful” came up a few times). We finished the day with a dinner of rice, potatoes, assorted vegetables and chilies before heading back to campus.
Neither experience was exactly in my comfort zone. It’s pretty hard to communicate when both parties have a limited understanding of what one another is saying, but they were experiences I’m extremely glad I had. Getting to interact with the locals up close has only reaffirmed my belief that they are some of the warmest and kindest people I've ever met.
Oh, today I started my directed research surrounding the effects of forest management on several environmental factors on the top of a mountain pass, but I’ll save that for my next post.
My time in Taiwan has been so non-stop that I’ve barely had time to write any updates! The trip is two days away from ending, and while sleeping in my own bed sounds marvelous, I know that I will miss this as soon as I’m gone. Taiwan is filled with so much beauty and I am so grateful to be here.
Our first few days in Taiwan were spent hosting an English camp at a school in Taipei with students from Fu Jen Catholic University. It was so much fun to spend time with the students, and not just because they taught us how to use a Chinese yo-yo! Both the Fu Jen and grade school students were excited to be with us. They all have such good senses of humor that it is impossible not to smile with them.
After our time in Taipei, we spent one day at a middle school where we mostly played with the students. One group of girls let me braid their hair, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and then they sang for me. The experience at the middle school was wonderful as well.
Now, we are in a mountain village with a native tribe of Taiwan. The community here is so welcoming and good to one another. Everybody looks out for each other in the village (it is really like one giant family) and they were very kind to let us join in. Last night a few young girls were playing with me. They were very excited to teach me to count in Chinese, and they came up with a secret handshake for us.
Connecting with the people here is one of the greatest experiences I could ever ask for. The villagers are as beautiful as the mountains that surround them, and their singing surpasses any I have ever heard. I didn’t understand a word of this morning’s Mass, but the singing that took place was so beautiful. The tribe is famous for their musical talent, and rightfully so. Their harmonies were breathtaking as their voices vibrated through the church. Never have I experienced such a beautiful and genuine worship of the Lord; I imagine what I heard at Mass is close to what the heavenly choirs sound like.
Being surrounded by such beauty in Taiwan has filled me with a deeper love of life, God and others than I’ve ever had before. It is so good to have life; it is so good to be a person. If there is one lesson that the Taiwanese mountain village has been screaming to me it is that no matter what happens, living is worth it.
After a few weeks of finally settling into the city of history, culture, arts, nightlife, food and much more; Thessaloniki, Greece, has become my stay for these 37 days abroad. Choosing a city (the second largest in Greece), that is not too common among Americans for studying abroad, was a place I knew was going to be very different. For example, dinnertime does not start until at least 9 p.m., businesses close from 3 to 5 p.m. for afternoon nap time, a large number of Greeks are avid smokers and the surprising appreciation from locals when attempting to speak Greek. The differences, however, have shown me that there is much excitement that can be found from being immersed in unfamiliar places. Places that hold so much learning and discovery.
Life in Greece is not like most countries in Europe. Here, everything moves at a slower pace (literally). Being on time for anything does not happen often. Whether it’s waiting for the bus to take you into town or to school, your professors strolling in 10 minutes late or ferry rides that are well past half an hour due departure, the Greeks are ones that appreciate their relaxed, cultured life that has been present for a great number of years. They also like their mid-day naps very much.
Despite this leisurely lifestyle, Thessaloniki boasts an immense amount of entertainment and events. Whether it’s strolling along the boardwalk and capturing the views of the Aegean Sea (pictured right), sipping a frappé (created by the Greeks) in the numerous coffee shops around town, shopping in the marketplaces, visiting the many museums and churches surrounding the city or checking out its well-known nightlife, Thessaloniki presents itself as a place for one to always keep busy, even in a laid-back lifestyle.
Part of experiencing Europe deals greatly with the food, which the Greeks excel at. Going to local, traditional restaurants around the city and to bakeries and gelato places have been a daily discovery here in Greece. Traditional meals like gyros, souvlaki, moussaka and Greek salads are among my favorite dishes. My second day in Thessaloniki consisted of a food tour around the city, where I drank a hot Greek coffee and received a Greek fortune from the remnants in the cup. I tried the popular Greek breakfast treats of bougatsa (pictured right) and sesame bread rings at a bakery. I also toured the huge marketplace that sold fish, meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, olives, pastas and more. I even experienced a Greek cooking class, where I made Tzatziki (a dip for bread) and grape leaves. In addition to eating out in local restaurants, the Greeks will often give free desserts of either ice cream or Greek yogurt and fruit. Food is well-admired among the Greeks.
While seeing the city, tasting the food and attempting to live like a local have made my time so far in Greece very adventurous, I’ve learned that much more awaits when one studies abroad. One of the most important things I’ve learned thus far was from my theology professor, who has stressed the most important thing to take from being here is experience. It’s not enough to just read and see pictures and dream of things. Experience enables us to be immersed in places that give a deeper understanding and realization of others beyond our familiarity. Experiencing life is what makes all of us much more fulfilled in our own endeavors.
During the past week, we left the relative coziness of our dorms on campus to go on a trek through the surrounding valleys. It was a three-day hike that would begin with us hiking across the Bumthang Valley where our campus is located. After the flat portion of the trek, we went straight up over the extremely small Himalayan Mountains in the area (only 12,000 feet high — the Laurel Highlands are a small fraction of that). Once on the other side, we’d be in the neighboring Tang Valley where we’d camp another night and hike to a cultural site to finish off our learning adventure.
The trek was an amazing experience. On the first night, we were camped at the base of the mountains near a river where there were ruins of a Dzong (a Bhutanese fortress). After hiking for seven miles, we climbed up the steep hillside to the site of the ruins before dinner, and it was one of the most rewarding sites I’ve ever been too. The view I had was that of the entire river valley with sunlight peering through some light rain. The next day is when it started to get interesting as we would be going over the top of the ridge and down the other side in one day. I awoke to fog gathering around the tent and horses grazing outside. The hike on the second day would take eight hours over 10 miles and see an increase of 1,500 feet of elevation on the front side. On top of that, it also rained for seven of the eight hours that we hiked, but it was surreal coming to the top of the ridge and seeing the rainbow of prayer flags blowing lightly in the rain.
By the time we’d camped that night, the rain had finally stopped. The next day we awoke to the sun shining and headed out for our final destination on the adventure. We hiked an additional three miles to the top of another nearby mountain where there was a feudal fortress turned museum. There, we were able to see a wide variety of cultural artifacts that were up to 700 years old. In addition, we had a guest lecture by a distant relative of the Bhutanese royal family who spoke about the role of women in Bhutan and the changing nature of the gender roles in the nation.
Later that day, we headed back to campus, having hiked approximately 30 miles in three days. It was an incredible experience that I will probably never get to do again. Despite the rain and the mud, it is not often you get to have a hands-on learning experience on a hike through the Himalayas.
This coming week, I’ll be focused on studying for a series of examinations as well as preparing for directed research to begin.
My time in China is coming to a close, and I just got kind of good at figuring out the subway system. It’s sad to know I’ll be leaving in the morning, but I am excited to arrive in Taiwan and begin the next segment of this trip!
Since you’ve last heard from me, I visited the Great Wall of China and the Pearl Market, as well as spent two more afternoons with the orphans at New Hope. The Great Wall was incredible - I was not prepared for the beauty that I saw. Similar to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, no photograph can do it justice. Initially when we arrived at the Great Wall, we were amused by a sign that read, “do not appreciate the scenery while walking.” A few minutes into our hike, however, we understood. (And yes, hike is the appropriate word to describe walking the Great Wall.) It was a difficult hike, but it was breathtaking. I honestly think that it's worth a trip to China to visit the Great Wall alone.
Today was our first travel day, and after our 12-hour flight, we finally arrived in Beijing! When we arrived, we were greeted by our host and driven to our hotel in a van. Along the way, we learned about the population and a brief history of Beijing. After arriving at our hotel, we were given around 20 minutes to put down our luggage and get changed if we wanted. Then, we went to dinner at a small restaurant that was right across the street from the hotel. The food was AMAZING. Then, some of us took a stroll down a large shopping street near our hotel. It had a large amount of stores, restaurants and much more! We walked along and just explored the view around us.
As I am reflecting about my return to Beijing, I can't help but compare it to last year’s trip (I did go on the same mission trip last year). Last year, I arrived in Beijing with no prior experience. I took a ridiculous amount of pictures, and I was filled with amazement. This year, I didn’t take as many pictures and I wasn’t really filled with amazement. Instead, I was filled with pure happiness and hopefulness. I was happy to be back in a country that contains good memories of friendship and adventure. I was hopeful to make more memories and more friends. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the trip holds.
It’s hard for me to believe, but the classes I’m taking here in Bhutan are already nearing their end. There’s still about one more week of condensed classes before we move on to directed research, but in that week we’re packing in a lot of learning. Today I had a pair of field lectures that tie into some of the research projects we’ll be doing here. The first was on biodiversity monitoring the government does to keep track of the animals that inhabit nearby areas. Looking at trail camera footage from within 15 miles of campus, we saw everything from wild boar to leopards and even majestic Bengal tigers. The second was on tree-core research and the methods used to test tree age, health and plot prosperity. This one was particularly interesting because I actually got to bore into some of the blue pines that populate the hillsides near campus.
Despite the stressful schedule that is a byproduct of taking a condensed six-week semester, there are some opportunities to sit back and relax ... or not. This past weekend we had two days off. One was a scheduled day off on Sunday and the free Monday came as a surprise due to a Tsechu, a Bhutanese festival, which was declared only two days before. On Sunday, I was able to explore the nearby ridges that surround campus with some of my classmates. A two-and-a-half-hour hike took us up to the crest of a ridge where the clouds flew by just several feet above us. At the Tsechu on Monday, we had the rare opportunity to witness a festival that won’t occur again for another 12 years. The small village of Chamkar below our campus poured into a nearby temple with thousands from neighboring areas. While I may not consider being crowded in with thousands of other people as a relaxing time, it was a powerful moment to see just how much of an impact Buddhism and culture has on the Bhutanese people.
In addition to my last several lectures this week, I’ll also be heading out on a multi-day trek to the far north of Bhutan. We’ll be learning in the field while we hike, and I’m looking forward to another glimpse of the Greater Himalayas.