simply put, Nicaragua…

A month ago, I returned from a journey that simply changed my life. After many days of letting the trip digest, I have summarized it (not so briefly, I’m afraid), illustrated it, and now offer it for your literary entertainment (or pure curiosity…yes it is okay to only browse the bold words and photos). Enjoy and namasté. 

Seven days of Stories

IMG_7078I passed through the JFK airport in a groggy haze and slept almost the entire flight to Miami, where we connected before our flight to Managua. Aside form spending an astronomical amount at the Miami airport (which, by the looks of the designer gift shops, twelve variations of coconut waters and a plethora of chocolate covered açaí berries, was the most luxurious airport I have seen yet) the trip progressed much like my other flights in the previous weeks. It wasn’t until I put down my novel and peered that the tattered corners of my passport as I filled out my customs form, did I realize that this was REALLY happening: I was on my way to Nicaragua, a country that I probably could not immediately identify in Central America (between Honduras and Costa Rica for those who are interested). This would be my second international experience in the year (our return date was EXACTLY the day I left for Spain the previous year…is the irony freaking you out yet??) and I was totally prepared to be unprepared: to take the experience as it would come, like a wave crashing over my head and then retreating away from the shoreline. This would be total immersion into something completely new and removed: with no Internet access and no phone service, I would have the simultaneous trepidation and luxury of separation from everything within my everyday reality.

Not even two steps out of the plane, I was enveloped by the warm stickiness of balmy, tropical air. I was already a happy camper. We walked out of the airport and were greeted by smiling drivers sent by El Coco Loco Resort, the eco-lodge that we would be staying at during our time in this place. As we passed through Managua, I gazed at the total vibrancy of it all: storefronts and homes in bright oranges and pinks, school busses splattered in rainbow colors, the advertisements painted on buildings blended so seamlessly with the building colors that they looked less commercial and more artistic. People sat in the beds of trucks and blasted music as they waved to those that passed. It seemed like the whole city was awake, engaged, alive.

Image About an hour outside of the city, we stopped to see Momotombo and Momotombito, two of Nicaragua’s active volcanoes. The spectacular views were just a taste of what we would experience just a few miles northwest. After three hours of two-lane, but paved, asphalt, we turned right down a one lane, bumpy dirt road. We arrived at an open space dotted with a few trees and a few lights peering out in the distance from behind branches. Ben, one of the founders of El Coco Loco, helped us unload our bags and showed us to our cabins. He explained that although it wasn’t much, it was the essentials: beds tented in mosquito netting (which was, in fact, more for gecko poop than mosquitoes), one light per cabin, a communal cold-water shower and a compostable toilet (see more on that here…or research on Tree Hugger for some fascinating articles). The essentials, it turned out, ended up being plenty, and I experienced simplicity as refreshing rather than inconvenient. After unpacking, we headed up the hill towards an open cabana at the peak of property that included a lounge area, long dining table for communal meals, a gift shop wall, a pool, a covered lounge and a “relaxation space” with hammocks and rocking chairs. While I sipped on a bubbling club soda while enjoying the first of many incredible meals, I was struck by El Coco Loco’s organic seamlessness. Open spaces blended organically with the open landscape of the coastline. As we meandered back down the hill to our cabins, and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves, there was a profound sense of calm settling over the group.

IMG_6673We rested and rose with the sun, which meant getting up at 5:30 the next morning to the sounds of squawking birds and palm fronds ruffled by the breeze. I crawled out of my princess-canopied bed, and got ready for our Sunday adventure. Today, we would be climbing Cosigüina, a dormant volcano that was Central America’s tallest volcano before two thirds of it blew off in 1835 during the most violet eruption in Nicaragua’s recent history. Before we left, however, we had a delicious breakfast at the main cabana up top. Everything was fresh: homemade granola with local cacao beans, fresh eggs, bread and fruit…not to mention amazing coffee.

IMG_6710After we were comfortably full, two white Humvees pulled up and we were on our way. The hour long ride was a little bumpy, but nothing too frightening….until we started driving up the volcano and our right wheels got stuck in a ditch, and our large white box of a vehicle started teetering to the right. Fortunately, leaning to the right meant we were leaning away from the edge of a cliff. Unfortunately, it took us a good fifteen minutes to get out of the roadside’s firm grip. After driving another half a mile, the other Humvee experienced a similar teetering dilemma and we all decided that we were just fine with walking a few extra kilometers to reach the peak. As we climbed, the jungle-like climate at the base transformed into a more arid woodland. Spectacular views of the plains of Nicaragua enveloped our sights.

ImageAt the top, we reached el mirador de los tres paises, or the view of three countries, where we saw the volcano’s crater and lake, and stunning vistas of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. We stood in awe of the spectacular views as we noshed on banana corn muffins (probably my favorite thing that I ate the entire trip…I’m still working on recreating the recipe, although the key ingredient was by far the candy-sweet bananitos grown on site at El Coco Loco).

After a less threatening ride down the volcano, we stopped in Pontasi for a traditional hacienda meal. Pontasi is a small, quiet town and because it was Sunday, most everyone was in the streets leaving mass before a Sunday meal with their families. Before we sat down, a few students and I stopped into the sherbet colored church across the street. I was enthralled by the architecture, a style that blended traditional Spanish elements with a distinctive twist. ImageOur meal was wonderful and reminded me a lot of a traditional Mexican plate: pollo asada, refried beans and rice. The difference was incorporation of more root vegitables, like yucca, and a different flavor to the salsas. While sipping peach juice and casually transitioning between English and Spanish with many members of the table, I was excited and surprised by comfort level speaking in this manner. After lunch, we packed the car and headed to a beach about 15 minutes away. We had all been itching to get in the water, especially after our hike in the hot sun, so when we stepped foot on the beautiful black sand and dipped our toes into the seventy-five degree water, Northern Nicaragua seemed like the clearest definition of paradise.

We were swimming in the northern gulf, just below the volcano, from where you could see Nicaragua from the shoreline, and Honduras and El Salvador in the distance. It was spectacular and refreshing. ImageWhile most of us were lounging in the water, a few courageous characters jumped off of the pier into the water. We were all immediately inspired to do the same and spent hours jumping in and climbing out, a patterned that reminded me of my childhood summers when my siblings and I would cause tumultuous waves in our pool by springing off of the diving board one by one by one, over and over again.A bit later, a few of us started talking with the local kids who taught us chelitas (gringas in Nicaraguan slang) about chichcastes (or jellyfish… there were quite a few moon jellies in the water) the names of local fish, and other chunches (things) like how to stay cartwheel (vuelta de estrella, which translates to spinning star).

ImageAfter many excited waves goodbye, we returned to our beach at El Coco Loco around sunset for a meal of fresh local fish and the first of many stories about El Coco Loco, our eco-lodge, and Waves of Hope, the non-profit organization so inextricably linked to the lodge, that the missions of each seemed to be one in the same. As Ben explained how in the world the birthplace of both was found in rural Northern Nicaragua, he was careful to highlight the essentiality of community within both the eco-lodge and the non-profit. Of the 24 families that were a part of the Manzano #1 neighborhood, 22 were somehow involved with the lodge, the non-profit or both. What characterizes El Coco Loco as unique is that the non-profit and lodge share the same space and community. While an aunt may be cooking the grilled fish taco dinner for the eco-lodge guests, her niece may be at kids club, practicing English and playing soccer with El Coco Loco’s guests. The commitment to maintaining this socio-cultural interaction is the foundational groundwork for all of the projects “Waves” has been able to create and implement.

ImageTheir most recent project, and one that we were heavily involved with during our time in Nicaragua, was the construction and establishment of a high school for the residents of El Manzano. Waves raised funds to purchase the land, construct the school in accordance with national code and create a reading center to develop literacy among members of the community. What is so incredible and inspiring about this organization is not just the construction of the school, but the founder’s continual involvement with its functionality. What many people do not realize is that in order to cause real development in education, recognition and compliance with national standards must be observed. This requires months and months of continued involvement, representing the NGO, the community, and even the construction team in legal meetings at the regional and national level. Because the founders of Waves and El Coco Loco live in the community, they are able to commit themselves to a cause on this deeply interpersonal level. Besides the adventurous anecdotes about riding motorcycles up and down the Pacific Coast of Central America, Ben’s story brought a new level of awareness to my understanding of how successful community organization projects are initiated. It takes more than an idea, more than passion and more than money: involvement beyond the project’s fruition is what guarantees its sustainability.

Building a Foundation, One Rock at a Time

ImageOn Monday morning, before my “work week” began I took a picturesque morning run on the beach. As my walk to the shoreline increased to the steady rhythm of a jog, I chuckled as I passed heard of cows accompanying me in my post-dawn exercise. Cows on the beach is nothing new in this part of the country and reminded me once again that I was in a place where raw simplicity permeated cycle of each day. From the beach, it was easy to become more acquainted with the topography and differentiating economic status of the residents of this community. Although I could be biased by my interactions with the locals, the grandeur of large homes seemed not only separatist but also foolishly unnecessary: the large homes on stilts seemed to self-consciously scoff at the beauty of nature which was, quite honestly, just wait out if their league.

ImageAfter reaffirming just how much I loved Nicaraguan bananas at a breakfast of banana pancakes, we left for the high school worksite in the back of a blue pickup truck. Before we reached the high school, we stopped at a tour of one of Waves of Hope’s first projects, the elementary school that though originally constructed by NGO Save the Children, was abandoned and taken over by Waves to provide infrastructure and national compliance. (Fun fact: All schools in Nicaragua are blue and white, colors of the state flag. This school was originally painted a purplish pink and although repainted, the plaque certifying that Save the Children did, indeed, build this building, has been left on a side a wall.) We learned that the elementary school students are in better compliance than El Coco Loco’s when it comes to using the compostable toilets, and that running water for the school is donated by a local grandmother’s well. Once again, I was reminded of the amazing power of community in displacing the importance of physical possession and ownership. ImageAt the high school site, we divided into several rotating groups to work on digging trenches for the septic system, painting the insides and outsides of classrooms and creating the rock and gravel foundation for the reading and literacy center. I spent most of my time lifting and tossing these foundational rocks and even found myself enjoying the physical labor. During our lunch break, we took turns sharing how inspiring this collaboration was in creating something bigger than ourselves. We were building for others, with others and for the freedom and boundlessness of education.

Later in the week, we found out that over 200 volunteers, some students, some celebrities, some just passing through, had worked on the construction of this place. It was a collective cause of solidarity based on our mutual and transcendent belief in the good this place had to offer. ImageAfter a few more hours of “good hard work” we returned back “home” (it was already feeling like it) and took a dip in the ocean before our cultural exchange activity. In this exchange, we learned the bachata, a Latin American dance that required less compliance with the rules and more understanding of the movement. Nicaraguans from the age of 5 to 25 were dancing and moving better and faster and smoother than the whole lot of us Americans combined. Nine year olds exhibited how they were experts at twerking long before Miley made it cool, guys who were tossing rocks with us early in the day were now spinning their dance partners with flawless grace. It was hilarious and embarrassing but filled with so much compassion and excitement to share that even the natural wallflowers were up dancing, spinning and having a great time. The night concluded early with the already comfortable pattern of ocean swim, dinner (chicken with jalapenos and…wait for it… a banana split :)), reflection and walk to the cabana under the stars. I went to bed feeling like a five year old, out like a light the second my head hit the pillow.

Namaste in Heart Waves

ImageWaking up on Tuesday was a lot more challenging than previous days and I thought it would be a perfect morning to work on a stretch yoga practice at El Coco Loco’s studio. I have intentionally not mentioned this studio yet in order to attempt to succinctly explain just how much seeing this place was one of those “aha” moments of love at first sight. On Saturday night, right before we ate dinner, Nuria walked me over to the corner of the hammock space from which a path jutted off towards a raised cabana yoga studio. I couldn’t see much, but it already looked like just about the coolest place I could possibly imagine to practice. We collectively agreed that the Monday afternoon yoga class just wasn’t happening after hours in the hot sun, but Tuesday morning, I was determined to get a closer look.

ImageI woke up around 6:30am and marched up the hill towards the lofted studio. White shells filled the path from the main cabana to a staircase that lead up to a lofted hardwood studio. From this perch, the blue horizon was dotted by the occasional white-capped wave. Banana trees and floral bushes trickled towards me from the coastline and the lush green foliage behind me ensured that this spot really was out of the reach of everyday existence. About thirty minutes into my practice, the sun peered in from under the palm frond roof and painted warm zigzag shadows across the ground. An hour afterwards, my usual post-vinyasa hunger pains started surface and I noshed on a bowl of granola and yogurt and bean covered chips shaped like half moons.

ImageAfter that, it was back to the high school for a day of painting. A fun fact about all Nicaraguan public schools: they are all painted white and blue to represent the colors of their flag. More than just a symbol for national pride, these colors reflect the hues that appear naturally throughout the country. Nicaragua, which roughly translates to country surrounded by water, is home to white sandy beaches and gorgeous blue coastlines. As I moved my blue-soaked sponge roller up and down the concrete exterior, I thought about this relationship with the water and how the ebb and flow of exchange between the members of this community and us was very reminiscent of the tide that governed their waters. The connection of this place to the waves and the rhythm Mother Nature dictated for this land was fascinating to observe and experience.

Our workday ended early today, and we headed back to El Coco Loco for Kid’s Club. This program that takes place on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, allows all of El Coco Loco’s guests to actively engage with the local community…and when I say active, I mean that literally. We spent the first part of this afternoon learning the words for body parts in English by playing “Simón dice/ Simon says and beach volleyball. Just as the group decided that a soccer game would be the next move, Nuria asked me to accompany Katia, the wonderful Waves of Hope program coordinator, and a few other students to walk around Manzano Uno and invite local female community members to our Wednesday Woman’s workshop. A few minutes later, we were off. We passed through lush gardens on the cliffs above the ocean and arrived at a dirt road. Along the path, pockets of land with little residences appeared. With each home that we stopped by, I learned so much about how simply people live and how poverty can be looked at from many paradigms. As we stopped to chat with families, many graciously invited us into their homes and showed enthusiasm for our educational workshop. Between visits, Katia would share anecdotes about the neighborhood, funny stories about friends, and the details about her upcoming wedding (in case you were curious, girls chatting about wedding details can be universally translated as a series of excited awws and squeals). One of the most captivating things that she spoke about was how the range of apparent poverty didn’t really seem to affect the spirits of many people in the community. We would stop at everything from palm frond topped cabanas with black plastic trash bag walls, to plywood cabins, to concrete buildings, and Katia explained that there was not a noticeable socio-economic distinction between the residents of each. People wore the same bathing suit and shorts many days in a row. One pair of tennis shoes was sufficient. “I’ve got all I need,” she explained, “I see no need for lots of material things…better to be happy with friends and family.”

1508159_10203193679429260_1732810526_nWe experienced this blissful, welcoming energy first-hand while walking past the home of a El Coco Loco staff member. A tiny, smiling woman stopped us and asked how we liked Nicaragua and if we would like to see her mapachín. Grateful for her offer, but totally unsure of what a mapachín was, we entered her humble home. She proudly pointed out photos of her and her children holding academic awards. After a few minutes, we entered the back room of the home and lounging across the pink bed was Pachi the mapachín…..a domesticated RACOON! As we as laughed hysterically, the little creature crawled up the arm of the tiny woman, settled on her shoulder and posed. It was an ironic example of paradox: we see raccoons as wild and plastic walled homes as underdeveloped; but what I began to realize, as I watched Pachi behaving much like a pruning kitty, is that maybe our definitions of “underdeveloped” and “uncivilized” are not as developed as we really think. Once again, the simplicity of this community’s wisdom was blowing my mind and warping my interpretation of social paradigms. We concluded our walk with 25 or so confirmed attendees and noshed on bites of Katia’s relleno, a sweet corn meal treat that seemed like a Mexican tamale filled with dulce de leche. Returning to El Coco Loco at sunset, we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to jump in the ocean right away fully clothed and full of smiles and laughter from the day’s once-in-a-lifetime activities.

Crafting Creative Solutions to Conscious Consumerism Image

That evening we sipped on club soda and chowed down on delicious veggie lasagna while Christine, Ben’s fiancé shared a story about Nicaragua and how she ventured away from the stereotypical path and has found nothing but joy and fulfillment. As a accounting student in Toronto, Christine was on her way to a high paying job in the finance world when was introduced to the Manzano Uno community through her then-boyfriend Ben. She fell in love with the culture, rhythm and people of the area and decided to trade the corporate world for oceanfront country living. She moved to Nica, transformed her part-time yoga position into a full-time gig, and openly offered herself to the needs of the community. Early last year, she noticed the beautiful, hand-made jewelry and clothing crafted by the women of Manzano Uno and had an idea. Using her accounting skills and expertise, she started a craft club for women in the community who wished to produced their stunning crafts as souvenirs for El Coco Loco’s guests. The crafts were an instant success and the club transformed into jewelry making and sewing groups that supply of the souvenirs for the eco-lodge.

ImageChristine handles the finances and marketing, in addition to finding beads and fabrics for the women. She always keeps an open mind and is excited to see what kind of ideas will allow this micro-finance initiative to grow sustainably. Like everything else associated with El Coco Loco/Waves, sustainability is a core tenant of this project’s philosophy. While the club is growing, it is still operated on a volunteer basis that trusts women to take raw materials and produce artisan products at their leisure. The club is meant to be a space to empower and provide opportunity, not to create a powerhouse for profit. This means that sometimes, multi-layer shell necklaces are plentiful; other times, beaded bracelets or rompers may be stocking the shelves. While we stayed at the eco-lodge, there was a consistent level of product inventory available, and as 20-something girls, we certainly were excited to shop! What was interesting, however, is due to the individual uniqueness of each product and to the story of empowerment that we all grew to love so much, we weren’t rushing to collect bracelets for 20 of our closest friends; instead, we saw each piece for its own distinct worth and only brought home a few baubles each for ourselves or those close to us. This type of conscious-consumerism was particularly inspiring to me because it positively infuses sustainability, art and conscious-consumption. Since I have returned, I am even more aware of the fact that with each item that I purchase, I have a choice. Particularly in regard to clothing, this choice can make a huge impact. Covering Fashion Week in Madrid last spring showed me one, that fashion is truly an expressive art form, and two, that art forms are an emotional expression of society. The clothing that I don says a lot about who I am, what I support, and how aware I am of global trends in both hemlines and hemp production. As I look forward and the post-grad world becomes closer in reach, I am eager to utilize both my passion for and awareness of these choices to actively challenge public perception and transform society through celebrating more sustainable trends.

Leadership, Beauty and Almond Fruit:  Wednesday Women’s Workshop

ImageWednesday was, by far, the most transformative day of the entire trip. As the midpoint of the week, it cinched together all of our hard work and collective effort, created a beautiful, safe space for conversation and reflection and left all of us inspired, challenged and a little bit more deeply culturally competent than we thought we would become.

Just another little bit of back-story before I begin: The group members consisted of all females except for one male student and a course instructor. When Nuria spoke with Jamie, he suggested that as globally engaged female learners and leaders, we had a wonderful opportunity to share our passion for female empowerment in a way that would be sensitive, compassionate and would spark creative conversation.  We immediately got to planning and created a day-long workshop that used painting, games, jewelry making, photography and story-circles to talk about inner beauty, financial independence, sexual autonomy and pursuing dreams. It was a big challenge, but we were excited and determined to make the day a success. ImageFast-forward back to that Wednesday morning when we met with all of the girls and migrated to the yoga studio, our space for activity and reflection that day. We gathered in a circle and began the introduction activities. My group was responsible for this first activity, and cautiously I began explaining, in Spanish, just what I meant when I said we would be introduce ourselves by “dancing our names.” My instructions, it turned out, were well understood and my outlandish flailing-hand-dance-move seemed to be a laughable success (particularly with the younger crowd). As the day progressed, we painted images of natural beauty, took pictures of what was beautiful around us and told stories of empowerment, failure, inspiration and success all from this lifted perch. Looking back, our safe space was much like a nest: we nurtured and nourished our souls while growing to be more inspired and supportive of the women around us. We all left the nest at the end of the day in a state of sympathetic joy. We were strong, collective and inspired. Confused and conflicted, but more aware. It was a day of growth for everyone and although we were the “experts,” we concluded the day learning much more than we could have ever imagined. That night, after a perfectly blissful sunset surf session we all surrounded the pool and reflected on the most powerful moments from the day’s activities: creative name tags and silly photos, defining the age of deteriorating optimism, child support and “daddy issues”, national pride and professional dance moves…every moment had its own essay-worthy importance, but the underlying achievement of the whole thing, as one particularly brilliant and aware peer pointed out, is that this workshop was “sustainable.” Acting sustainably, it turns out, is more than just recognizing the awesome efficiency of compostable toilets or micro-financing fashion. It’s about how efforts are implemented and relationships are made, and maintaining the mindfulness to make sure that each action has positive long-term consequences. Humbled and happy we all went to bed glad to be wonderful women with hearts open to the world.

Staying open…. listen to the universe!  Image

We began our Thursday morning with a yin yoga class with Nikki, Jamie’s partner and another yoga instructor at El Coco Loco. The yin class was perfect: a gentle reminder to stay open after yesterday’s emotional activity. We spoke about “seva” or selfless service and reflected upon the concept as a tool for seeing our world and ourselves differently. As we returned to the high school for our final day of work, I kept returning to the idea. Scrubbing splattered white paint shatters from the black-barred windows made me aware of the kindness and compassion of the many people whose hands have helped shape this high school. Construction of the bars, welding, painting, placing, cementing, and painting again were all a part of the life of this project. As a white paint scrubber, I was acting as a final puzzle piece: a testament to the workmanship of many and I chose to actively participate in this activity with kindness.  I have since tried this exercise a few times, and have surprisingly discovered that the amount of positive energy in the world that can be attributed to seva is incredible! Image

When we returned to the beach for Kid’s Club that afternoon, most of the young girls from the day before…and their brothers…showed up to play and celebrate our last kids club of the week. We spent hours and hours playing ball games, dancing, singing, drawing and reading. My favorite part of the day was reading Un caso grave de rayas (In English, A Bad Case of the Stripes) to some of the girls, a book that my grandmother gave to me when I was around their age that remained a favorite of mine throughout my youth. It was another absolutely spectacular day (I’m suspicious of the reality of any bad weather here) and we all went down to the beach. After a few refreshing hours in the water, a delicious filling Thai meal and great conversations around the pool, I went to bed completely comfortable with my simplistic surroundings. No technology, a few changes of clothes, three simple meals and lots of activity created such a sense of completeness that I began to question the necessity of so much “fluff” I was preoccupied with at home. My roommates and I concluded that this detox from “real life” was exactly what we need before returning to school for another semester. Proud of the work we accomplished, and excited for Friday’s celebration activities, we went to bed, dreaming of what sort of concoctions we would create during tomorrow’s “chocolate making workshop.”

Final Thoughts

ImageFriday morning began with a wave of sweet smelling incense passing our noses as we heard the story of the kind sage. A Wiseman who explained that he was kind simply because, “kindness is what I am.” Kindness has both outward and inward applicability. We must be kind to ourselves to be kind to the world, in the same way we must offer our kindness to the world in order to receive and enjoy it as a gift.

IMG_6933This week, for me, was a perfect expression of the complete symbiosis of giving and receiving. Although a large intention of this trip was to make ourselves available to work, assist and teach in whatever ways we were able, the other side of this intention was to stay open to opportunities to learn, receive and let go. During our chocolate making activity, we learned about harvesting cacao beans and peeled and ground up our own to make tasty chocolate treats. As Nikki lead us through the production process, she told us the story about her relationship with El Coco Loco and how she determined that this opportunity for abundant happiness resulted from listening to the ever-present voice of the universe. Staying open and flexible for what life (or God, or the universe, or whatever you want to call it) is the key to successfully pursuing dreams, accomplishing the goals you are passionate about and finding a balanced will power that grounds your success. After a day of cooking, chocolate crafting, surfing, Spanish speaking, dancing, hugging, swimming, learning, laughing and loving all that life had to offer, I wrote down the following in my reflection…

Nicaragua, you have taught me reflection, symbiosis, energy, community, sustainability, partnerships, friendships, to be the good, to appreciate and live my dreams and most importantly, to think simply: to be Kind, the essence of I am.

 Although it has taken me exactly a month to put these jumbled words into cohesive thoughts that span the length of many a page, I am still, a month later, so grateful for this experience and how in its unprecedented simplicity, it has allowed me to uncover and understand so much about the beautiful, mystifying complexity of our world.

A few more photos…

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Branching into New Territory, Finding Old Roots (Part 1)

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It has been 12 days since I landed back in New York after a weeklong adventure in a place that I would characterize as nothing short of the most miraculous place I have ventured to yet. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I don’t downplay this description. Nicaragua, for me, was unlike anything I have ever experienced: from the preparation leading up to the trip, to the adventure of it all, to the return, I was completely overwhelmed by the trip’s serendipity. Rather than delineating the specific magic of how I ended up falling in love with Nicaragua, I want to begin a story that connects universe’s clear intentionality in a series of somewhat random, yet somehow interconnected events.

Once upon a classroom…

This story begins in a classroom in the Smith Center for the Arts on Providence College’s campus. I was a sophomore, taking a class called Case Studies in Globalization with a professor who (little did I know at that time) wrote my freshman year Spanish books and would become an inspiring and powerful role model in my future. She was a linguist who had both an incredible knowledge of language and a distinctive and accessible teaching style that made each of her students completely engaged in learning the class material. We responsible for our own learning, which was, admittedly a bit frightening (read: procrastination didn’t really cut it), and we were expected to connect what we learned in class to something tangible outside of the Providence College bubble. I also learned she has an uncanny ability to guide her students, which was super lucky for me because she also happened to be my academic advisor.

Because our Case Studies of Globalization section focused on Education, my  “outside the class connection” manifested as an ESL tutor at an elementary school in South Providence. Although at first a bit intimidated by the fact that I would actually have to speak Spanish with native speakers (let alone native speakers who were at the prime age for spitting stinging insults), it was an invaluable experience that I grew to love. I accomplished more than just the courage to speak Spanish in public, I learned about inter-cultural exchange, the beauty of communication within limited understanding of language, and most importantly how easy it was to connect with foreign language learners of all age groups, social groups and cultural understandings. It was my first introduction to the symbiotic nature of true teaching and learning: a real understanding of an education.

Fast forward a semester and I am back in Nuria’s classroom, this time for a class on the Linguistics of Globalization. It was a class about language and communication that extended beyond just the differences between Arabic, Spanish and Mandarin. We discussed languages of power, the voices of generations, and the intricacies of the relationship between language and culture. It was the fall semester before I was to leave for abroad and I was completely enraptured by the material. During this same time period, I was teaching double-digit numbers of yoga classes per week, both on and off campus, developing my understanding of a different type of language: the language of mind-body and how inextricably tied this type of learning is to my understanding of living fully. About halfway through the semester, as I was on some rant about how our vitality is dependent on listening to the language of the body, Nuria shared how she recently had this really incredible experience in Nicaragua and couldn’t wait to bring students. She said, “We will go someday.” The photos I saw of the sunsets and lofted cabana yoga studio blew me away, but I didn’t think much of it. What I have learned about Nuria is that when she suggests something…like take this courseor declare a Spanish majoror study abroad in Madridor hey, let’s go to Nicaragua, you just always, without fail, end up saying yes (this, I have also learned is common phenomena among those close with her).

Fast-forward, once again, to the fall of my senior year, where I am signing up for a Global Service Trip to Manzana and Manzanillo Nicaragua. Global Service Learning is a relatively new concept in higher education where a service trip is paired with a semester long course on a topic that fuses the topics of the excursion with associated themes that can be explored in a classroom and/or service site setting. Our excursion theme was Supporting Community Literacy in Rural Nicaragua. After we returned from the trip, this theme would be connected to the idea of Community Voices in Storytelling and we would study and observe the empowering nature of literacy in telling stories. Our semester endeavors are centered around  the project of creating bilingual children’s books with a non-profit afterschool arts program in Providence called CityArts.  In the information session, we learned that we would be staying at an eco-lodge on the northwestern coast of Nicaragua. We would be working on the construction of a high school literacy center, working one-on-one with locals in an English/Spanish language exchange, and one day, host an empowerment workshop for the women of the community. In our downtime, we would participate in yoga, surf and nature excursions…

This whole time, I’m thinking,

“okay…Pacific Ocean, eco-friendly traveling, reading and writing, Spanish, working with kids, girl power (thank you, OLP)…surfing??….YOGA??”

It was if almost all of my passions had combined into some strange utopia in the form of a weeklong service trip. After my experience abroad, I was dying to return to a Spanish speaking country and was determined to make the trip work somehow. Due to some serious hardwork and serious generosity, I was set to head to El Viejo, Chinandega, Nicaragua the second week of 2014.

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Grounded Vision

Sunrise BridgeAt 2pm the car is packed. By 5pm I’ve crossed bridges, passed through tunnels and picked up an Iced Chai along the way. Throughout these summer months, my travels have not ceased; I’ve just changed locations and utilized different modes of transportation. While I am enjoying the easy rythm of my weeks in Providence, the weekends have been a time for exploration of the east coast. I have dipped my toes in the chilly North Atlantic, and spent hours diving through waves just a few streets south. I have developed slight nomadic tendencies and I can definitely tell you the best and worst places to stop along the Jersey Turnpike.

There’s something about road trips that people either adore or can’t stand. Growing up, road trips were not my family’s first choice for vacations (our home’s close proximity to the beach and mom’s relatives on the opposite coast limited most of our traveling to planes and beach bike rides), but the few we did take taught us a lot about each other and proved that we really did love each other…even after nine plus hours of zero personal space. Not only do road trips provide time and a space for the fellow road warriors to get to know each other on a deeper level, but they offer the opportunity to see more between points A and B.

Last fall, my family of six drove up to San Francisco to move my sister into school. Aside from hours of catchphrase and a new charades game based on the music from my sister’s iPod shuffle, we saw gorgeous parts of California that I never knew existed. We picked up Garlic in Gilroy (home to the Garlic Festival that boasts all sorts of garlicky things…including garlic ice cream) and drove past enormous beach cliffs outside of San Luis Obispo. From beach to desert to farmland to lush forests, we soaked in our surroundings as we soaked in the wide variety of landscape along California’s coast. I experienced a similar sensation this spring when I took a bus from Madrid to Sevilla; the scenic greenery and spacious farmland went on for miles. From point A, the country’s captial, to point B, a great historic city in the south, I saw cows, sheep and wild horses. We zoomed past places where life passed by slower, a side of the country that I never experienced in either city and I was thankful to collect a snapshot of this difference.

This past weekend, the journey involved a cruise up and down the eastern coast. Once again, I was reminded of the spectacular beauty we can discover while traveling on the ground. The traffic, road work and (hmmm…how to put this nicely) “extremely creative drivers” are standard elements for a trip of this length, but taking a moment to appreciate the view just beyond the windshield made the experience just a little bit spectacular.

Rainbow

Bridges

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Weekends, the Warrior Series and Waves: Finding the Yin to my Yang on a Boogieboard

2As I begin to settle back into real life, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of routine and its opposite, lighthearted spontaneity. While I would love to characterize myself as a fun-loving and spontaneous free spirit (it just sounds so fun), I recognize that there are some parts of my composure that really dig routine…calendars, to-do lists, my Lily agenda, and don’t even get me started on Post Its. It’s probably a mix of genetics (thanks mom) and a style of living (thanks yoga) that predetermined this notable characteristic; but, the structure has served me well in keeping up with everything I’m involved in, making sure I get things done when my memory fails me, and keeping it simple on days where I may have stayed out a little too late the night before or I have a gargantuan project consuming 99% of my brain power.

Last Monday, I went to staples and bought a black and white wall calendar. It’s poster-sized with lined boxes for each date, exactly the kind of calendar I grew up with that my mom color coded (I was pink, obviously) to keep track of all of the family activities. For a routine-girl like me, putting together a calendar is a particularly exciting event of the month. I pulled out my brightest colored pens, my metallic Sharpies and yes, even my crayons, and began jotting down work schedules, meetings, concerts and trips, some with accompanying illustrations. Half way through coloring in a smiling sun for the summer solstice, I stopped and thought about all this planning and how even though I could make organization fun, lack of structure can sometimes put me on edge. I experienced this exact sensation last weekend on a weekend trip to Ocean City.

As we drove in late Thursday night and breathed the sticky, salty ocean air, we both immediately relaxed. There’s just something about the ocean that brings a sense of peace and tranquility, a magic energy that doesn’t fit into any particular combination of words. It was wonderful to walk into a familiar, comfortable and loving environment and spend time with family. Though the stormy weather raged Friday from dawn to dusk, we could enjoy the ocean breeze from an open window and listen to the melodic rhythm of raindrops and crashing ocean waves. On Saturday, the weather cleared up and we cruised over to the beach. I was excited to finally take a dive into the ocean. Besides a quick dip in the Mediterranean in February and a putting my toes in the water in San Sebastian, I had not been swimming in the giant salt water pool since late August. Because of the passing storm, the waves were strong with a heavy shore break, not to mention strong side currents and a couple of rips. As we got past the breakers and swayed back and forth in the calm water, I enjoyed the moment, succumbing to my minute importance in the expansive waters all around me. It was calm, noiseless, and beautiful. Only me, my board, and the cerulean sky meeting the blue-green water.

And then, I realized it. Only me, tiny me, floating out in the rip tide farther and farther away from shore. My pulse quickened. I could feel my heartbeat move up into my throat. What do I do? Paddle. Yes, Paddle. I paddled and paddled and got back to where I needed to be. Phew! Crisis averted. My pulse returned to a normal rate. And then we went in again, this time I entered the Ocean timidly. I flinched at the crashing waves; I didn’t like that side current and was this cold temperature really necessary? I was fighting the water and I was frustrated that I couldn’t just get out there. I didn’t understand why I was so uncomfortable, why the ocean, something I have been comfortable with since birth, felt incredibly foreign. I got out there and there was no more peace, just an acute awareness of exactly how small I was. The knowledge that sharks lived in this big thing and that I, the blonde in the wetsuit, could very well be shark bait.

The nervousness continued and I decided I had enough of Mr. Atlantic Ocean for the day. I once again fought the rip, quite clumsily I admit, and tried to get back onto shore. Mike came over and tried to push me into a wave so that the ocean could do the work for me, but out of a combination of nervousness, stubbornness and an unwillingness to just trust for one more wave, I fought it, seeing the wave’s potential to toss me around like a t-shirt in the washing machine rather than a source of momentum for guiding me to shore. Rather than accepting the help from the water and the guidance from Mike, I took this anxiousness out on both of them, kicking Mike square in the face before gripping to the board as the very non-threatening wave brought me to the sand. It was a disaster. Not only had I lost my connection with the water, I may or may not have broken a nose (I’m sorry again :( ). How had I grown away from something that used to bring such a sense of peace? Where had that connection gone? I had felt it for the first few minutes, but then it went away.  It seemed that as I tried to reclaim that connection with the water, it slipped away faster the more I white-knuckled the sides of that boogie board. I had forgotten than in order to stay connected with the ocean, all I needed to do was let go.

This moment of confusion and stress, though seemingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, was actually a great reminder about the balance and imbalance that comprise daily life. Through my yoga practice, I have met many teachers that speak about the concept of yin and yang in the body and its consequences on our lifestyle. Yin, the passive and gentle energy is simultaneously connected to, yet opposite of, the active and forceful Yang. These elements are dynamic, constantly moving back and forth to achieve a neutral balance. These elements are in all things and when unbalanced in the body and mind, we can do very unmindful things (like accidentally kick our boyfriends in the nose). Keeping in mind the interconnected importance of these two, however, is important in maintaining an open heart, a positive mind and a healthy perspective.

In yoga, I practice power yoga or vinyasa classes to gain strength and prepare my body for activity, but I would not be able to move into some of these postures without the flexibility that is gained through gentle yin stretching. In this same way, our minds cannot solely be prepared for the activities that are routine to us: those events that we are prepared for would not be the same without unadulterated spontaneity.  The key is to embrace this balance by letting go. While I can enjoy my calendar, my schedule and my routine, it’s important to go with the flow and enjoy those moments when you really just don’t know what is coming up next. That moment may come on a boogie board, in the office, on a road trip or in the yoga studio …and even if it doesn’t have an illustrated description of its time and place on my wall calendar, it is still sacred, important and laden with lessons to be learned about life.

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Recent Reflections: Reality after Abroad

mirador In my experience, the old adage “time flies when you are having fun” could not be more accurate. It seems like only a few short, action-packed weeks since my last post, but in reality it has been a few months of deep cultural immersion, wonderful adventures to different countries, great academic strides and professional accomplishments. I have experienced age-old traditions and created new ones with friends and family. I have found yet another new city that I can confidently call home and I have grown on a spiritual and intellectual level at a rate that rivals my 7th grade, 5-inch growth spurt.

IMG_3667My abroad experience brought a new level of perspective to how I see the world. Over spring break, I experienced Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Sevilla with all of its festive pompadour: the passionate pasos, the outdoor and rainy Palm Sunday mass that brought the entire city to the streets in their Sunday best, the gatherings at the Cathedral and the pride of this Andalusian tradition…all juxtaposed with the tangible air of a Southern Spanish ease so distinct from my central Spanish city. I took a flight north to stay with my crazy, loving, fun and brilliant superwoman cousin Melissa in Oxford where we saw Harry Potter buildings, ate delicious meals at potlucks, shared pints with amazing new friends and I tried my first real plate of fish and chips…oh yeah, and saw the Queen dressed in her signature pastels. That Sunday, I had the most unconventional Easter experience at the Oxford/Cambridge boat race in London (Oxford won, of course)….then attended a ball (yes, the kind Cinderella made famous) that night.

IMG_3892In April, I basked in the Portuguese sun in Lisbon, and witnessed breathtaking views from the tops of mountains at the miradores. I turned 21 in Madrid, and danced the night away with old best friends and new ones. I saw Northern Spain and witnessed the strikingly peaceful beauty in the Basque region. In Bilbao, I marveled at Walt Disney’s collaborative effort to construct a Guggenheim with warped walls that can only be described as out of this world. I experienced San Sebastian and understand how one of the world’s most beautiful beaches can’t quite be captured on camera.

IMG_4328My last month, May, was an absolute whirlwind that I am still trying to process. The first week of May brought four exams, the submission of a 15 page research paper and an accompanying oral presentation about where I think the future of journalism is headed. For the first time, I approached these Spanish exams with a confident understanding of the language. I had been eating, breathing and sleeping Spanish and journalism for the past four months and through periods of deep thought, reflection, frustration and discovery, I had developed a new perspective on how I saw journalism in the modern world, not just in a one-dimensional –American-capitalistic context. This new definition tied in  elements of citizen participation, the validation of social media as a means to communicate valuable information, the possibility that longstanding institutions like El País and the New York Times may not be the powerhouses that they were ten years ago, and the hope that this type of journalism incorporates a newfound sense of ethics distinct from the modern business format. There is no answer for exactly where the future of journalism will be, but rather than becoming anxious and doubtful, I see this void as an opportunity for the introduction of an innovative model that is progressive, living and will develop with the generation that creates it. With this hopeful conclusion, I took my last set of exams, turned in my portfolio and stated my case in an oral presentation. I had officially concluded the academics of my junior year!

943101_10200127653369215_1415048530_nThis conclusion brought me to the simultaneously wistful and exciting time of my last week and a half in Spain. I was extremely excited because Mike was on his way to visit me and explore Madrid and Barcelona. We were traveling with some of my best friends from abroad and I was grateful for the opportunity to share this time with some of my favorite people in the world. After an early morning airport pickup, I played tour guide as we picked up bocadillos and picnicked in Retiro. Later in the afternoon, we ran into friends near the lake and sipped on cañas in the beautiful afternoon sun. It was a perfect day in Madrid.

The next morning, we journeyed to Barcelona to spend the weekend. We took Vueling and I have to say it was the hippest airline I have ever flown! As we took off and landed, we were soothed by the gentle melodies of Bon Iver and the airline’s magazine boasted many interesting articles. It was incredible to see Gaudi’s architecture up close and spend our afternoons on the beach. We got a taste of the city’s famous nightlife and casually sipped on cocktails with royals (no seriously, that happened). We returned home tired, sunburnt and with a little bit of resaca…all signs of successful weekend in this beloved Spanish city.

IMG_4130My last few days in Madrid were overcast and cold, atypical for mid-May, but the perfect kind of weather for museum hopping! Luckily, there was a new Dali exhibit at the Reina Sofia that I had wanted to see and it was well worth it. The Persistence of Memory gave me the same star struck feeling I had experienced with artwork in the past, but this time, the intensity was similar to sitting down for coffee with Bradley Cooper (okay, maybe a little less exciting, but you can understand the visual). Dalí’s eccentric and creative style builds off of so many different element; a person could spend hours staring at the same work of art without noticing the intricate details woven throughout. I left the exhibit utterly impressed and with a mind full of whimsical, magical and bizarre imagery. When the sun peaked out for a few hours in the afternoon, we stopped for an afternoon snack of chocolate con churros and revisited some of my favorite plazas in Madrid. In Plaza de España, Mike and I stood gaping at the street performers for probably too long, him in pure intrigue and me in, well, sheer terror (something about clowns still freaks me out). You can gage your own reaction here in the video we found a few days later. Despite the dismal grey and icy chill in the air (and spattering of extremely unseasonable hail), I still managed to have some very warm goodbyes with new friends that have made a lasting impression on my life. As we sipped Oreo-fudge milkshakes and laughed about the crazy, exciting, meaningful and ridiculous things we were a part of that spring semester, we couldn’t help but smile. It was a sad goodbye, but  also celebratory: knowing that we did the semester right, and although we will always love the city, this experience was coming to a close. From this point forward, this chapter of our lives would forever be stored away in our hearts as a beautiful memory.

973692_10200093799647773_1449344098_nAs I left Madrid, I held on to this mindset. Through this semester I learned so much about parts of the world that I have never experienced before, I learned how to be flexible and patient with communication, I developed a greater appetite for adventure (…and croquettas) and simultaneously developed gratefulness for the vivacity, love and excitement within my life at home. I was prepared to experience a sort of “reverse culture shock” while adjusting back to life in the US, but so far I have been able to see with a lens of appreciation.  I was lucky enough to return to the U.S. for a Memorial Day celebration in Nantucket that was filled with so much laughter and so many smiles that I didn’t have time to be sad. I returned to Rhode Island and spent a week with family relaxing and enjoying the beach before returning to “real life” the following week.

IMG_4225On Sunday, I moved into my Barbie Dreamhouse, the home that I will share with 6 beautiful friends for my senior year at Providence College. I also started an on campus position in the Center for International Studies (i.e.: Study Abroad Office). I absolutely love my job and I have been thoroughly enjoying updating social media accounts, making posters with beautiful pictures from all over the world, putting together informational packets based on my experiences and preparing to share this experience with other students in the next few months or so. I also began a social media management position for a small tutoring company called Academic Advantage. This company offers tutoring services, academic planning and testing prep for elementary and high school students. All of the tutors are extremely well qualified, many times certified teachers or individuals with graduate degrees in the material they tutor. The director, Rick Deutsch, has been working in education for more than 30 years and is a pleasure to work with.  I’m so excited for both of these opportunities and the valuable professional experience that I will gain through the next few months!

Today, I stumbled upon this quote, by the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru, that basically summarizes exactly how I feel studying abroad has amplified my world view:

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

Keeping my eyes wide open and searching for the charming beauty of everyday adventures, I start my summer with a sense of accomplishment, a newfound understanding, and unadulterated excitement for the experiences ahead.

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Rain and the Reina

a view from one of my at home study spaces

a view from one of my at home study spaces

Hello and Happy Father’s Day from Spain! Yes, fathers, here in Spain your day is a national holiday and everyone has the day off…cool right? I write this post after a relaxing long weekend in Madrid. I had quite a few assignments to complete before the long-awaited descanso de Semana Santa, so I figured I would take this weekend to be productive so that my daydreaming of tapas on the coast and Big Ben would not hinder my academic pursuits. The weather throughout the weekend was inconsistent: days that were of beautiful warm sunshine and a few that were dismal, cold and wet. Honestly, I was glad for the variation. It was just enough sunshine for a few afternoon runs, and just enough rain to keep me focused on my literature essay.

photo copy 2The rainy weather also provided plenty of time for reflection at just about the mid-point of my study abroad experience. I really can’t believe that I have been here for two months…it has absolutely flown by! But as I think about how much my Spanish has improved, the wonderful friendships that I have made, the wealth of information I have learned about Spanish culture, this capital city and oh yeah, about myself, I can see how these two months have been anything and everything than unproductive. I didn’t truly understand what the students who returned from study abroad meant when they said your study abroad experience being a total transformation…now I get it!
IMG_3514The weekend studying did not stop me from enjoying the city with a few ridiculously gorgeous runs through Retiro…seriously, this may be my favorite place in Madrid and the light at sunset makes the whole thing just that much more magical. On Sunday, I decided to do a bit of rainy day exploring with fellow CIEE student and blogger, Julia. We started our expedition at Museo del Traje, a bit peculiar, but interesting museum in the Moncloa neighborhood of Madrid. The museum, which as its title suggests is filled with clothing and costume of various time periods and styles, opened in 1925 as a museum of royal garb. Since then it has come to hold Spanish fashion from many eras ranging from a gown worn by la Infanta Isabella, to a Jean Paul Gaultier suit circa early 2000s (read: wetsuit/paisly/zipper millenial disaster). It is interesting to look at fashion as a lens for documenting history. Though the styles varied greatly, Julia and I both kept saying “that’s coming back!.” The portion of the exhibit I found most interesting was a slideshow that documented the trends with “waists” from the 19th century to the present times. From the itty bitty waists of the late 1800s, to the waistless gowns of the 1920’s, to the peplum style 1950’s (look what’s back!) and the drop waist 2000’s, this measurement was a key to defining the structure of style.

IMG_3519After our walk through the runways of a few centuries, we made our way over to the Reina Sofia. Embarrassing fact: I have lived in Madrid and I have not been to this grandiose contemporary art museum. A museum that is just a block away from my apartment. And free. (In truth, I have attempted to study at the museum’s library before, but every time I needed a library to study in, it was closed…the hours of Spanish libraries is something I will never understand!) Deciding to not let this ridiculousness exist for yet another day, we made our way over to the giant red-tiled edifice and entered a complex that is even bigger than it looks from the outside! A bit of history on the place, the building was originally San Carlos Hospital, founded in the 16th century by King Felipe II. After many years of changing hands, the museum opened in 1986 and was expanded again in 2005. The building itself is as much a comprehensive work of art as it the pieces within it. I look forward to spending more time wandering around this place. After we rose to the second floor in the glass elevators facing a plaza square, we made our way through a series of contemporary collections from the surrealist, Dadaist and cubist movements, finishing in front of the piece we were most excited to see: Picasso’s “Guernica.”

a Dalí and Guernica in postcard form

a Dalí and Guernica in postcard form

Seeing a painting as iconic as this in real life is hard to put into words. After studying so many of its minute details, its symbolic and pacifistic elements that lie within the violent turmoil…. it is almost like being in the presence of a celebrity crush and knowing more or less every film that they are in, except you also have the feeling that you are seeing in real life a piece of history, something timeless that will have an impact beyond your lifetime. It’s a truly exhilarating feeling and one of my favorite parts of the study abroad experience thus far. After just a tour of the second floor, we were utterly exhausted (analyzing artwork is hard work you know! Oh, the troubles of study abroad…) and decided to conquer the third and fourth floors on another day, so more Reina very soon.

This is a short week, and before I know it I will be journeying to Sevilla and then off to London for Easter…if I make it to the Reina Library this week during an hour that the Spanish study, I’ll be sure to check back in.

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Fairytale Weekends

no matter how your heart is grieving, if you just keep on believing, the dreams that you wish will come true -Cinderella

no matter how your heart is grieving, if you just keep on believing, the dreams that you wish will come true

It was yet another busy week in Madrid as students, professors, professionals scramble to finish exams, papers and projects before springtime, sunshine and Semana Santa limit our planning abilities to long walks in the park, weekend trips to the beach and strawberry-gelato-runs after dinner. Fortunately for my very wild imagination, this week Madrid was cold, rainy and dismal, which made studying just a bit more appealing than running around Retiro. The rain also brought a great time for reflection on what I have learned, seen and experienced in this first half of a semester abroad and what I am looking forward to during the remainder of my time here.

This week, I have been preparing for the final presentation that accompanies my internship. Along with our internship credit hours, students must prepare a 15-page paper on the research topic of their choice and explain their findings to a small interested audience in a 20-minute oral presentation. Although at first glance, I was entirely overwhelmed by this idea, I realized that this type of preparation, especially in Spanish, is truly invaluable for my research skills, professional career, and bettering my vocabulary and fluency. Although I must admit that this week the ominousness got to me, I also realized how much I’ve learned and grown from this internship in just two months and how the lessons I have learned within this sector of my abroad experience have already begun to shape where I see myself professionally in the future.

IMG_3225Once the workweek came to a close, it came time to explore this city I call home. A couple friends and I were interested in seeing Matadero Madrid, a former slaughterhouse that has been converted to a center for music, art, design and film in the past half a decade. There are a number of exhibitions, theaters, music venues and libraries to peruse and explore within the sprawling space. Recently, Matadero has been connected to the path alongside the river so that during weekends, creative arts aficionados can take a break from a bike ride along the shore for peak into this collective space. When get got to the Madatero, however, it was rainy and worse yet closed (not to self, check opening times on weekends, oops!), so we decided it would be best to return on another spring weekend, perhaps after a rollerblading by the river…that will be an adventure worth writing about!

vvg_cotn_moma_13About a month ago, the same group of girls and I stopped into the Thyssen-Bornemisza art museum for the Cartier exhibit. While we were there, we really did not get to see a large part of the permanent collection, so we decided to return and check out what we missed. I was pleased with this idea, especially since my museum attendance in Madrid has been embarrassingly low thus far! We started in the temporary exhibit Impressionism and Open-Air Painting: From Corot to Van Gogh that absolutely blew me away. I had no idea that I would have such a connection to this type of art, but as we meandered through the exhibit rooms, I was totally enraptured by Rousseau’s “Study of Rocks and Trees”, Gustave Courbet’s “The wave” and Van Gogh’s “The Stevedores in Arles.” I think I was most intrigued by the idea of using the natural world as a subject for unparalleled artistic expression. Above some of the paintings (I believe in the landscapes room) an excerpt of one of Van Gogh’s letters to Emile Bernard, circa 1888, caught my undivided attention. It read:

“Others may have more clarity of mind than I for abstract studies…I’m still living off the real world. I engage it, I sometimes make changes to the subject, but I still don’t invent the whole of the painting; on the contrary, I find it ready made, but to be untangled in the real world.”

This idea of “untangling” a masterpiece from the real world really spoke to me duringIMG_3219 this visit. As a global studies student, living in a country where political conflict and protest has become more or less a thing of daily  life, my optimistic mentality has been hit with some pretty debilitating blows. While it is true that yes, the world can look pretty tangled: full of corruption, of sadness, of injustices, of pollution, of commercialization, of industrialization, you name it, there is still some salvaging hope for a masterpiece once the complications of life are untangled. The difficult thing is that creative minds cannot be dissuaded by the “knotty” reality, but rather view it as a puzzle, something that must be sorted out in a totally original manner in order to bring forth solutions that the future will regard as inventive masterpieces!

After my surprise moment of optimistic enlightenment, we stopped into the Thyssen’s café for a renewal of caffeinated energy. The dining space is just as beautiful as museum itself and the coffee tasted exceptional! We could not have picked a better place to spend a rainy day in the city. After our coffee break, we toured through the permanent collection, yet another goose-bump-inducing experience…note to self, I have to do this museum thing more often!

Last time I was here, I saw my first Dalí entitled “Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before waking up” (gotta love those surrealist titles ;)). This time we saw, Degas’ 1879 “Dancer in Green”, Jean Metzinger’s “Bathers” (1905) and Edward Hopper’s “Hotel Room” (1931) among other works by Georgia O’Keefe, Pablo Picasso and Richard Estes….maybe you’ve heard of them? Although not the most famous collection in Madrid, the Thyssen is truly vale la pena for every visitor of this city.

I found yet another quote, this time by Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza that spoke about the “remarkable capacity that works of art have to move and unite human beings.” I could not be more in agreement with this idea and as I sipped a glass of white wine that night with friends, talking about how much we loved our Friday, our friendships and the fact that we LIVE here, I felt that capacity in action.

Segovia on Saturday

The following morning, we awoke early for the trip to Segovia. Segovia is a small town located just about an hour outside of Madrid and is home to 36 Roman churches, an impressive Roman Aqueduct, one of the last Gothic cathedrals built in Spain, and perhaps most famously (okay, what I was most excited to see) the Alcazar de Segovia that the construction of Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle is based on. N.B. : the Cinderella castle is the castle at the center of the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. Construction of the Cinderella castle at Disneyworld was completed in 1971, and is more than 100 feet taller than the Sleeping Beauty Castle located at the original Disneyland in California (based on the Neuschwanstein Castle castle in Bavaria, Germany, for those who are interested). Being an unapologetic Disney princess aficionado, I was beyond thrilled to see this city and visit the castle of a Disney princess.

IMG_3245We began our tour at the bus stop with a cup of café and a piece of bizcocho, or sponge cake (a typical Madrileña breakfast, I was told), before starting our tour of the town. We began at a church in the Barrio de las Brujas. Interestingly, because the towns in this old city hold so many churches, the barrios are traditionally named after the church in its center. This church was constructed in Romanesque architectural style, complete with tall apses on both ends. The spooky barrio name is not due to any sort of haunted nature of the church’s edifice, however, but rather in reference to the women of this area who would wear black dresses and hats when they went to mass on Sundays. When the wind passed through the church’s plaza, the women would look like witches casting spells among the town’s inhabitants.

We then ventured to the Aqueducts of Segovia. These aqueducts are some of the most IMG_3254well preserved ancient structures that remain on the Iberian Peninsula. Although we observed just a small portion of the structure from Plaza Azoguejo, the aqueduct extends for about 16km in its entirety. Its construction of granite blocks carefully arranged in a pattern to sustain tons and tons of weight (oh yeah, and moving water) is an incredible sight to see from below. At its tallest, the aqueduct is 28.5 meters tall (almost 100ft). I was most intrigued by the many arches constructed with the same heavy granite blocks that make up the pillars….how the Roman’s managed to formulate that architectural plan, build the aqueduct to such height and keep it functioning for the length of an empire is beyond me…maybe we should start looking for creative solutions to global change with them…or learn from their mistakes (just a thought!).

We then walked over to a part of the city with incredible views of the mountain range that separates Segovia from Madrid. The mountain range, called la mujer muerta (or the dead woman), has a few legendary stories defining its origin. One speaks of two sons of a chief fighting for the power to rule. The mother of these two warriors did not want to witness the fratricidal battle and instead sacrificed her life for peace in the kingdom. After she died, the gods created a mountain range in the distance in the shape of her body. Once the brothers saw this and realized the sacrificial act of love of their mother, they stopped fighting and peace resumed. It is said that at 6pm each night, the two brothers send kisses down to their mother in the form of a cloud that drops down to touch one of the peaks.

IMG_3288Behind this stunning vista is a very interesting building known as Casa de los Picos, although the origin is not known for sure, a plausible story says that the home was owned by a rich Moor. Rather than being known for this, at that time, derogatory title, the owner changed it to Casa de los Picos, a definition based on the architecture, not necessarily the owner’s background. We then passed by the Cathedral, a truly magnificent and almost magical structure that, as I mentioned before, is one of the last Gothic cathedrals constructed in Spain.

And finally, we made it to Alcazar de Segovia! The castle, the moat, the romantic gardens and the spectacular views make you feel like Prince Charming is waiting just around the corner! The castle is constructed on a point above the Eresma and Clamores rivers and this nautical proximity is tied into the castle’s construction through its shape: a construction that looks very much like the bow of a ship. It was originally built by Arabs as a fortress in the early 1100s and soon became the residence of Castilian monarchs of the region. Each king that lived in this castle added to its structure, creating the grandeur that stands today.

IMG_3349One very important historical fact about this castle is that it served as a fortress for then princess Isabella, who was crowned here on December 13, 1474 as Isabella I of Castile. This coronation is depicted in a painting inside the castle in a super creepy manner (so much folklore in this city!). The work depicts Queen Isabella proceeding into the streets with the townspeople surrounding her. Although it looks like an encapsulation of any historical event might look, it lacks one minor detail…. not one person has eyes! This is because Isabella was crowned queen on December 13, the day of St. Lucia, patron saint of vision. The  artist chose to remove vision of his subjects, just as the royal court removed any sort of remembrance of this saint on the day that this powerful woman was brought into power.

IMG_3399Later we looked at the royal bedroom, a museum of armor, and a number of great rooms where the royals would hold meetings with their subjects and contemporaries. I was most impressed by the room with two thrones and a banner above with the motto of los Reyes Catolicos (Isabella and her husband Ferdinand) “Tanto Monta” which means basically “they amount to the same” or “equal opposites in balance,” confirming the fact that the two monarchs ruled their kingdoms with equal joint power. We then climbed the 157 stair tower to the top of the castle where we witnessed ridiculously stunning views of the cathedral, the valley and the city buildings below…seriously, where was Prince Charming and his fleet of musicians to serenade me and present me with the glass slipper?

IMG_3421We concluded our trip with a lunch at a local restaurant, where one of my friends tried the food Segovia is most known for: cochanillo. What may you ask, is this food? Cochanillo is suckling pig, or baby pig not yet weaned from its mother that is roasted in its entirety and served on a large plate, usually for large social gatherings. While the concept of eating a baby pig did sort of freak me out at first (hello? baby Wilbur!) I did try it and found the meat rich and delicious and the crunchy skin much more appetizing than I thought it would be. While I don’t plan on making a habit out of eating this type of food, it was certainly an experience worth having.  I also tried the traditional Segovian dessert, called tarta de ponche, which basically just tasted like a marzipan-coated cake. Not anything to write home about (figuratively speaking, since I guess literally I am) but again, worth the experience. On the bus ride home, exhausted from an action-packed day, I took a quick nap, and if I’m being honest, tuning into the Disney princess soundtracks on my iPod most of the way home…what can I say, You can take the girl out of the castle, but she’ll still be a princess (yes, I know, corny…but accurate ;) )

After a weekend that I did not think could get any more wonderful, I had a surprise visit today from one of my best friends from Providence, Kaitlin! It was so wonderful to meet up and talk about our new Spanish adventures over a glass of wine. Although we didn’t have long to catch up, it was wonderful to have a quick conversation and see a familiar face after such a long time. As we casually exchanged words in English transitioning into Spanish, transitioning back into English, it was clear that the both of us have already learned and grown so much.

In the second half of this trip (SO crazy that we have already been here two months!), I am excited for new adventures in Madrid, warm weather, St. Patrick’s Day at Irish bars in Spain (a distinct experience of globalization), my twenty-first birthday, trips to other countries and along the Spanish coastlines, yoga in Retiro and Sunday afternoon walks…. wow, this place really is a dream come true.

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