Native bumblebee Bombus dahlbomii landing on Fuchsia magellanica flowers

Plant #17: The Perfect Partner

After only three days working in the field I found my favorite fuchsia shrub. Our 22 study plants were spread out over about 6 square kilometers of thick, Valdivian Rainforest. They ranged in habitat from lakeside beach to inland marsh, to shaded riparian forest. I grew to know this forest by heart. Sometimes I would even shut my eyes to see how far my senses could take me. To reach Plant #17 I would turn left on the large path from the research station. I followed the pathway over two small hills and down along the beachside until reaching the giant Coihue tree on my left. There, I turned towards the tree to head up the arroyo (little stream) where plants #14-20 were located. I would continue up the small path past all of my memorized turn offs, through a small gate, and up another hill until I reached a final uphill slope. Four fuchsias would meet me on the right and I would continue along the narrowing pathway. Finally, I would walk through a cut out fallen log and step down a staircase of 7 roots to reach the streamside. From there, I hopped on top of a large moss covered fallen Coihue, where I would perch before jumping down to streamside stones to greet my beloved Plant #17. During my 5 months in the field, I spent countless hours sitting on a moss-covered rock, admiring its spindly branches, and listening to the rush of the stream alongside us. So here is my ode, written one day on the moss covered rock, to Plant #17.img_0230

Ode to Plant #17

You learn towards gurgling creek,

wanting to listen closer to its stories.

You are crooked, but so strong.

Your trunk emerges from rocks

wearing hodgepodge green moss sweaters.

Your base is split, with small arm

reaching towards fallen tree below.

Your trunk rises 3 feet before fracturing

body into 5, reaching out to

gather in sunlight and knowledge

of your surroundings.

You reach out to me and suck away

my worries into saturated green,

aged motely brown, and fuchsia fire.

You make me feel comfortable

with my sadness, for you are strong

but damaged as well.

Your leaves remain green

but are munched by the hunger

of cryptic caterpillars.

Your bark is knarled, but contains

patterns of beauty-

messages passed from earth

through roots

fueled by creek and sun

only to reach my privileged presence.

You, Plant #17, are the perfect partner.

I am eating a lot

First week in Lyon, France has been an amazing stressful mesh of things. I have experienced so much more than I ever thought in just one week. And I am eating A LOT, but at the same time… nothing at all. I have had at least one baguette everyday since I have been here. That is not a healthy amount of bread people. I can’t stop and I probably won’t. My apartment inhibits me from cooking anything that doesn’t come in a microwave bag sooo bread and cheese have been my vice. I’m sure as the semester goes on I will get more creative but for now. I am eating a lot, of bread.

The street shops are not helping my ever growing addiction to bread and various decadent goods. Patisseries here are out of this world delicious. For now it is a free for all. As I am getting comfortable here it is important for me to have those comfort foods. It has been a pretty hard adjustment to set up my life here in Lyon.  (the study abroad program did not prepare me for anything) With any adjustment it’s important to keep yourself sane, and the best way so far has been so eat.

I am not worried about my weight because with every piece of bread I have comes over a mile of walking. I have probably averaged about 5 miles a day at least and boy is my body feeling it. So yeah I am going to keep eating.

Stay tuned to my adventure in Lyon, I promise it will be exactly like all of the other study abroad blogs you have read.

Au revoir

Melisande

Fall in the Swan

 

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Now many weeks into my beyond the classroom experience, I have realized that I will not be able to fit all of the things I have learned into this short blog post. I will not be able to tell of the many people I have met with and their views on issues like logging, farming, ranching, forest fires, or water rights; nor will I be able to perfectly explain the way that the Swan Range looks in the morning, the sun creeping slowly up and over the crest while a light powder from the night before glistens against the pink morning sky. I will not be able to show you the changing colors of the larches or the size of the grizzly bear track I found this morning, but I can tell you that it is these moments in particular that have made this semester one of the most enriching, educational and valuable experiences of my life.

As a third year environmental studies student at the University of Montana, the global challenge that I chose within GLI is to examine the teachings of environmental education through hands on learning techniques, particularly among youth. This semester, I am a student of exactly that. Living in the Swan Valley of Montana with nine other students in an old homestead barn, we are learning to interpret the natural world around us every day in the field. From snorkeling and identifying native fish in the Swan River, to identifying flora and fauna around the valley, we have been interpreting and experiencing first hand what it means to live in rural Montana.

Living in a town of nearly 600 year round residents, I have witnessed the connectedness of a community formed of shear numbers. I have understood their rural lifestyles and the needs for hunting and fishing when the closest grocery store is 45 miles away. I have recognized the pride and love that each community member holds for the Swan Valley and their appreciation to be able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Coming from the “big city” of Missoula, it has been interesting to switch places and accept the view that locals have on the environmentalist city slickers that live there, much like myself.

And through this vision, I have learned that there is no right or wrong in any of this. I have agreed with environmentalists and loggers alike, have spent a weekend bear hunting and shooting pistols alongside the yellowing snowberry, while continually being astonished at the Mission Mountains caked in snow.

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One of the most applicable things I have learned this semester is the idea that “values trump facts.” As I continue down this tract of environmental conservation, desperately searching for some middle ground that people can agree on, I will keep this forever in my mind as a tool to apply to any single person, whole community, or even on a national scale. You cannot try to change people’s beliefs, but you can listen, interpret, and be aware of yourself as well as others in the place that you inhabit.

So as I sit on the back porch of the cabin we call the cookhouse, looking out over the grazed pasture full of horses and deer alike while the Swan Range towers over like the dramatic backdrop to a movie, I know that I am lucky to have these experiences. I know that although I may not be able to explain all of the different viewpoints I have heard and things I have seen through the writing of this small piece, I have learned and will be able to apply these skills and knowledge to other natural resource and sustainability issues around the world.

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Living the Dream (Internship Week 1)

My medical internship was at Peking University Shenzhen Hospital, which is one of the teaching hospitals of Peking University School of Medicine. Jet lag and endless warnings for turbulence confused my senses. Listening to people speaking in Mandarin made me realize that I had arrived at my destination after over 30 hours of flight and transition. It was so familiar, but new and exciting at the same time, because this was my first solo adventure in a new city as an adult!

First life lesson I learned from my internship: Never be afraid to ask for help! When I first arrived at the hospital, I started my “scavenger hunt” for my supervisor, internship office, my dorm arrangement, and where to get my work clothes/name tag. So, I started with finding my supervisor, Dr. Li, and dragged my luggage among a crowd of patients at the busiest hour in the morning. I asked volunteer guides where to go almost every 5 minutes.

First excitement: I received a white coat to wear for the duration of my internship! It was the first time that I could be so close to my dream career. On the second day of arrival, I started my internship at Department of Plastic Surgery in the OR. Even though I was just getting oriented to observation protocols, I noticed the striking similarities with what I saw when I shadowed at American hospitals: equipment, procedural standards, and infrastructure. My supervisor, Dr. Li, told me that she received part of her medical training at USC, CA. She also shared that large percentage of the equipment and materials for plastic surgery were imported from American companies. I was excited to learn of the existing medical collaboration between the U.S. and China. It encourages my dream of becoming a physician who wants to participate in the global effort in improving people’s life quality via wellness.

 

Australians and the Aborigines

The Australian culture was one of the things that made me love Australia so much. They may be crass or even harsh, and they will probably poke some fun at you, but that’s their humor. They are such friendly people; they are so direct because they have good intentions. I had a lot of fun with Australians, especially when interacting with them at pubs. They are just amazing people.

However, I also learned a lot about the history of their culture and the aborigines. We spent a day in the city of Cairns when they had a cultural festival. This festival celebrated the culture of the aborigines. There was a stage set up out in a park, and there were aborigines performing traditional dances with face- and body paint on. A big crowd of aborigines and white Australians intermingled and enjoyed the show. There were food trucks that served traditional aborigine dishes. There was also a gallery with dozens of different aborigine art products for sale such as paintings, sculptures, boomerangs, jewelry, etc.

The relationship between the aborigine tribes and the Australian government was very interesting. I learned a lot about this relationship, and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. It was so interesting because there were many similarities with the relationship between the American government and the Native American tribes. For example, the hunting laws for both indigenous peoples are pretty similar. Certain aborigine tribes also take the initiative to conserve their environment like Native American tribes. For example, there was a tribe that got government funding to construct a national park in their forest and they now use proceedings of this park to conserve their forest. Anyway, it was great to see how Australians value the history and culture of aborigines, and it was great to have learned so much about it too.

Living in the Rainforest

My trip to Australia was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Living in the rainforest was something I had never done before and I was very excited about it. Being someone who really loves animals and being surrounded by them, I thought living in the rainforest was awesome. Every morning I was woken up by a serenade of cool birds such as whipbirds, and chowchillas (we called them startrooper birds because they sounded like blaster rifles). I saw amazing animals I never thought I’d see before, almost daily. We had a resident bandicoot that hung around the center and he came by every night to steal whatever food scraps he found on the ground. We also had a resident bush turkey called Charles, who was always clucking around when we were having lunch. Even seeing Victoria rifle birds, a bird of paradise, while playing volleyball outside was a common instance. I also saw a python when taking out the trash once, and I saw another one on a hike.  I also had a juvenile emu in the wild walk up really close to me. I even petted a kangaroo and cuddled a koala in Kuranda! But I think one of the most amazing experiences I had while over there, was feeding wild wallabies. These were all unforgettable encounters

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Living there was great, however I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there were also a lot of annoying things and there was a certain element of danger. I got leeches on my legs almost every day, especially when it rained. And when it rained, it poured. The rain would last days sometimes, it was the first time I ever experienced a day where it literally rained all day. The rain made our cabins extremely humid, and leaving anything in its place for more than a few days would cause mold to start growing on it. A lot of the other students also complained about mosquitoes and other bugs, especially spiders, which were huge of course. There were also numerous plants that we had to be careful for, like wait-a-whiles, which had curved thorns that hooked onto your skin and ripped it open if you continued walking, and stinging trees, which according to some reports can cause reoccurring burning sensations for years. In any case, living in the rainforest was an amazing experience, it wasn’t always great, but it was definitely life-changing.

Going Abroad

When I first signed up for my Australian summer abroad program, I had no idea what to expect. It was only going to be a month long, so I thought “how am I going to learn much?” But after being there for about two hours, I already knew this was going to be a very busy month.

After driving up a mountain for what seemed like hours, we arrived at the Center for Rainforest Studies. The access road had no signs indicating that was the entrance, and that was the intention. It kept us even more isolated from the rest of civilization. The “center” was really just a small building in the middle of the Australian rainforest and it had a small classroom, a common area for the students, a kitchen, and the staff’s offices. Behind the center was a muddy path that led to the cabins, where we slept. After being given a small tour of the area, we had lunch followed by a hike around the site, and then a few lectures which introduced us to our schedule.

Our schedule started at 7 a.m. every day – we woke up, had breakfast and did dishes, then we split up into groups and did different activities. At the end of the day we had dinner, did the dishes and went to bed. I did so much in such a short month; I installed animal traps in the pouring rain on one day, the other I went to a town called Kuranda and interviewed the local residents, another day I did transect surveys of native plant species. I snorkeled in the great barrier reef and learned to identify bleached corals. I did bird surveys and platypus surveys in the early morning. I set up camera traps to capture images of pademelons and bandicoots. I went spotlighting for opossums in the night. I did so much, and I learned so much in that month, that now I believe every student should take the opportunity to study abroad if they can.

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Squirt Guns & Buddhas

The Buddhist New Year, Songkran, is celebrated by several countries in Southeast Asia, but especially in Thailand. I was told by my Thai professor that it is religiously observed with a tradition in temples where the monks pour water over their buddha relics, cleansing them of sin and refreshing them for the New Year. Somehow over the years, that tradition morphed into the country-wide squirt-gun fight that is modern Songkran.

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While Thais celebrate the calendar New Year (January 1st), the Bhuddist New Year doesn’t actually occur until mid-April, which is extremely lucky as April is by far the hottest month in Thailand. I was told by friends to buy my squirt gun a week or two in advance, as the demand for them can be so high that it becomes impossible to find one. I was also told to make sure I didn’t bring my phone out unless it was in a waterproof case, and to be on my guard the entire week for rouge squirt-gun assassins.

This was all very good advice.

Children (and a decent amount of adults) roamed the streets with buckets, ready to attack anyone foolish enough to get within reach. I was hit several times while running to buy groceries, and even once while speeding down the road on a motor taxi.

During the night, the streets with bars and clubs turned into swimming pools, with thousands of people, all soaked, running around with hoses, buckets, squirt-guns and anything else that could contain any amount of water. One of the major streets in Bangkok was shut down for the festivities one night, and THOUSANDS of people turned out to get soaked and listen to the free concerts with Thai pop stars.

It is probably the biggest holiday in Thailand. I can’t even compare it to how Americans revere Christmas, because it felt much bigger than that. Everyone walked around the streets, soaking wet and smiling.

My friends and I also visited a temple during Songkran to see the religious side of the celebration, and watch the monks wash their buddhas with golden cups of water.

I was so glad I was able to have this experience. I had never even heard of Songkran before, but couldn’t believe what a big deal it was. I had an absolute blast and it was probably one of the highlights of my trip.

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Holiday in Cambodia

My first trip outside of Thailand was with a friend of mine, Juliette, to Siem Reap, the capital of Cambodia. We had decided to travel there for five days, because our visas required us to leave the country once every three months in order to remain valid. But really, that was just an excuse. We desperately wanted to get out of Thailand and see how the rest of Southeast Asia compared, and it had also been a dream of both of ours to see Angkor Wat. The flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap was very short, and before we knew it we had landed and were taking a tuk-tuk to our ($3-per-night) hostel. The difference between Siem Reap and Bangkok was very striking. While Bangkok was a bustling metropolis, it still seemed somewhat less modern compared to European and American cities, but Siem Reap made us realize exactly how modernized Bangkok was compared to its counterparts in the area. Many of the roads were unpaved, the sidewalks were few and far between, and there was a noticeable lack of streetlights. Despite this, our hostel had an incredibly fun and relaxed environment and we enjoyed swimming in the pool and getting to know the other guests before heading off to bed.

The next day we woke up around five a.m. to get ready for our sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. I will never forget driving around the corner and seeing Angkor Wat against the barely-lit horizon. Our entire tour group sat still and watched the sun slowly crawl up behind the temple before our tour guide ushered us on to go explore the inside. The structure was ancient, and absolutely amazing to look at. It reminded me of Thailand’s temples, but somehow also seemed reminiscent of ancient Aztec and Mayan temples I had seen pictures of before. Juliette and I were incredibly glad that we booked a sunrise tour, not only for the view, but because of the fact that after 10 a.m., it became almost unbearably hot, so the sunrise tour gave us a few hours of exploring the temples without melting.

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Angkor Wat at Sunrise

The area of Angkor Wat is actually incredibly large, and covers about 500 acres with dozens of ancient structures on it. Our Cambodian guide told us about the history of the buildings, which was interesting to hear. The most striking part of it for me was physically seeing how the Khmer Rouge regime in the 80’s had destroyed some of the buildings during the Cambodian Genocide. We saw several temples with bullet holes in the walls, areas where land mines had been detonated, and even one temple that had been almost completely intact for hundreds of years until the Khmer Rouge destroyed it in the 1970’s.

Later in the trip Juliette and I went to a museum in Siem Reap dedicated to the history of the Cambodian genocide and military struggle surrounding it. It was a simple museum, mainly consisting of tanks, deactivated land mines, and other wartime memorabilia sitting in a mango grove, but it was amazing in the sense that every single one of the guides had personally been through the genocide. I had been to war museums before, but never one like that. One guide was missing an eye a limb and several fingers from fighting in the military during that time. He spoke about his experiences, which included killing a khmer rouge soldier. Another guide spoke about how he watched his father murdered with a shovel during the genocide, and how his grandfather had disappeared and was never heard from again.

I can’t stress how amazing, and horrifying, it was to hear firsthand accounts of a historical event such as this. It was even more amazing to see the effects from it that were still around today, from the physical damage of temples and buildings, to the extreme poverty and political corruption that is still very present in the country, to the column of  real human skulls that sat near the center of the city, many of them bashed in or filled with bullet holes, all of them unidentified.

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Seeing living history like that was not easy, but I had such a greater appreciation for the country and its people after seeing how they have begun to progress from that dark period.

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Bangkok to Phuket

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It was nearly midnight on New Year’s Eve when I stood in line at Thai immigration to get my passport stamped and be officially welcomed into Thailand. After nearly 27 hours total of flying, on top of a fifteen hour time difference, I thought I would be absolutely exhausted, but as I stood around looking at the holiday decorations throughout Suvarnabhumi Airport I couldn’t have been more excited. I finally made my way to the front of the line and had my passport and visa stamped by a friendly immigration officer who wished me a Happy New Year before ushering me towards baggage claim. I glanced at my phone on the way and saw that the date now read January 1, 2016. I had begun the New Year nearly 8,000 miles away from home.

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A Ronald McDonald statue sitting outside the McDonald’s near my apartment doing the “wai”, a traditional Thai greeting and sign of respect

Bangkok was going to be home for the next six months, and I can honestly say that I fell completely in love with the city after only a few days. It’s certainly rough in some places, rightfully known for it’s atrocious traffic and filthy streets, but all of that is completely forgivable once you taste the food, meet the incredibly kind locals, and see your first glittering temple or golden Buddha amidst the concrete buildings.

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The Grand Palace is not only the historical home of the Royal Family, but Bangkok’s main tourist attraction. Dozens of buildings and temples sit in the complex, all covered in glittering tile and intricate mosaics. 

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A golden Buddha meditates at the Grand Palace.

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These are just a few of the buildings that form the Grand Palace.

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A pair of massive demon guards stand by the gate to the palace.

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Spires at Wat Pho, located next to the Grand Palace. The Wat Pho is one of the most famous temples in Thailand and was historically used by royalty.

While Bangkok was where I spent most of my time, I also was fortunate enough to explore the rest of the country as well. I traveled with a large group of friends to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, where we rented motorbikes to drive through the mountains, hiked and even got to meet some friendly elephants.

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A meditating buddha rests under lanterns at a temple in Chiang Mai.

I also traveled down to the Southern Islands of Thailand, probably the most visited and recognizable area of the country. It was a bit cloudy during my trip, but that didn’t make it any less stunning. We snorkeled, boated, swam and took in everything we could from Phuket and Koh Phi Phi.

All of these places were gorgeous, but one of my absolute favorites was a small island called Koh Samet, which was accessible from Bangkok by a three-hour bus and ferry ride. I went here twice during my semester, once with my exchange student friends and once at the very end of my trip with my boyfriend. Koh Samet had the most beautifully colored water I had ever seen, amazing bars, and even had fire shows for entertainment on the beach at night. Besides Bangkok, Koh Samet was probably my favorite place in all of Thailand.