Every day I basically have to pinch myself (multiple times in fact) that I’m actually here LIVING in Spain. For as long as I could remember, I knew I always wanted to study abroad in Spain and, to me, it always felt like a dream of the distant future or a day that would never come.
In the weeks leading up to my flight, I was asked multiple times, “What made you want to study abroad?” Almost instinctively I’d give the same generic response of, ”To see ways of life different than my own. I want to experience other people's culture on their terms.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After almost a week of traveling, I finally arrived at Paro, Bhutan, at around noon local time on Friday. Our flight from Thailand left early in the morning and we had one layover in Bagdograh, India. As we took off from Bagdograh, I had my first experience viewing the Himalayas. Looking out over the vast plains of Northern India, they rose terrifyingly high. Once we’d reached our cruising altitude, the silhouettes of the mountains still challenged our aircraft for superiority in the sky.