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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.

Alone

Sitting on the seaside cliffs in the Icelandic town of Keflavik waiting for my connecting flight to whisk me back to the world of the real, I have the chance to reflect on my experiences in Germany and Europe. This is my first time alone in a country and somehow feels like my first time alone ever. I learned how to be alone these past six months, and how to like it. I spent time in churches alone in Marburg sometimes. I would pray. I’m not religious but it just felt right. I would ask God or something what I was supposed to do with my life, for the guidance to be on the right path, for some sign that my impact in this world will be greater than me. I guess it was a time for me to reflect just for me, not for a letter to someone or a Facebook post; just a time to be. It was peaceful and sad and reassuring. I figure at least I am asking the right questions, at least I am asking the questions everyone asks: “Why are we here?”. But sitting on the coast with the chilly sea breeze brushing me with goosebumps while the sun at the same time warms my face in this small fishing town in Iceland, that doesn’t seem to matter. It is a question we have to answer for ourselves. No one is there to tell us what to do or how to live our lives, we just have to do what feels right for us. Being alone always helps me realize how much I do because of other people, and not because of me. Not that this is a bad thing –we are social creatures– I just start to reflect on the ways our fears shape us to be the kind of people we think other people want us to be. I think what I have most taken away from my time here is my appreciation for being alone. I enjoyed lunch today alone at a table at a restaurant. I was amazed by the sympathetic stares –the kind I had always given to every person I have seen travelling or eating alone– and I don’t care. I want to be alone.  I want to travel alone, to feel whole and not lonely or lacking in doing so. I love people. I love family, and friends, and romance, and growing up in a family of twelve never really afforded me time to be alone. I had a twin by my side all 21 years; even in Germany she was there. I was afraid of being alone. I am alone for the first time in my life, really alone, and it feels sweet and warm and real. I feel real.

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Clichés

I feel like I need to offer up some cliche about my time here in Germany. I need to say something about how much I have developed as a person and the way I am going to change the world because of the things I have seen and done. And it’s not that those things aren’t true, I just feel guilty. I feel like I am supposed to be using this opportunity for something more than self-development. I feel like I am supposed to be doing more. I also know that this is just the first step. I would not be prepared at this point in my life to go on some altruistic mission. I need to learn how to be alone. I need this development period to become more aware of the ways I can be a positive influence in the world. I need to learn about myself and my capacities, and to develop the kind of empathy this experience has begun to give me. I need to shake the American/white saviour complex that compels so many young adults to go on a weeklong volunteer mission to *insert third-world country here* to take pictures of themselves with children and feel better about themselves. I want to work in a way that will actually make an impact in this world, but I know that takes the humility to know that I might not make an impact, and that it might not be my place to try to help where I am not needed. I need the humility of being a foreigner and I need to know that I am not the solution to the problems in this world. All I can do is try. I want to do so much more than just be sitting on the steps next to the University alongside the river and living in a dorm doing what I would be doing in the US, just in a different setting. But this is the first step. This is the beginning.

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Always Learning

A big point of frustration for me in Germany was the education system. I assumed that by going to a country so similar to the United States like Germany, I would be having a very similar experience as what I had in the U.S. What I realized while there is that even the smallest differences can feel very frustrating and confusing. I have spent the last 16 years of my life being shaped into the proper student for a very specific kind of education system. Every step of the way, I knew what I was supposed to do, I knew how to cite a paper properly, how to format an academic paper, what voices to use and what not to use, I knew how to study for tests and to be the right kind of student for the system, and I was good at it. Coming to Germany and to not “fit” into the system was indeed a frustrating experience on top of trying to act like having every single class in German was normal. It did become normal, but at first, everything felt wrong. I did not take the system seriously because it did not fit into my idea of what a university “should” be like. I was not used to having a session for each class only once a week, I was not used to finding reading material on my own and not having assignments but just suggestions, I wanted the guidance of a structured American college course. It was a transition that required adjusting and learning, and eventually I did get used to it the way it was. I learned to like the independence and lack of constant supervision and deadlines. The students had more responsibility, and they were not babied. Although this proved a challenge for my concentration and self-motivation, thus causing more frustration, I learned to understand that there are flaws in our system and the way we prepare students for the world, as there are in Germany. There is no one way to educate or to learn, and now I want to know more about how school and education systems can look. I want to know how they teach in Africa, in Bali, in Peru. I want to know that school does not need to have a strict structure and that there are more ways to learn through a school system. After learning so much about other people and their lives and other cultures, I know that the education system we have does not prepare us for the real world. No one on the street asked me to fill in their definite articles with the proper case and gender. All those worksheets did not teach me how to have a conversation with someone, all those quizzes were not in a format that prepared me to answer questions at the doctor’s office. There is no multiple choice section in life. Everything is a learning experience, and we need to take them as they come and learn from the people we meet and from our experiences. The most valuable lessons cannot be found in a textbook.

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The Changed Face of Germany?

While most participants the Missoula to Berlin Journalism school program had done some international travel previously, and some had even spent time in Germany, I was afforded the unique perspective of observing Europe immediately before and after the refugee influx of 2015/16. Because I had lived and worked in Bavaria during the summer of 2014 and studied in Austria in the following fall and spring, I perceived the refugee “crisis” as a type of before and after snapshot that is probably uncommon.

While back in the United States last winter, I followed the refugee situation fairly closely, and expected to return to a radically changed Europe. Instead, I found Germans more prone to volunteerism, more politically polarized, but far from expressing the monumental shift in consciousness I had expected.

To the outsider, there were also minor observable differences. An Austrian chain supermarket in the town where I studied had been converted into a Syrian grocery, machine-gun toting police officers now patrol the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and more women in headscarfs can be seen on the subway system.

Although my original intention in writing this blog post was to highlight some of the superficial and aesthetic differences between Germany of 2014 and today, I realize this over-simplification is inaccurate and dismisses the significance of the situation.

For all their media hype, the immediate and tangible challenges of accommodating refugees pale in comparison to the long-term, intangible difficulties of cultural evolution. While not all asylum seekers plan to stay in Germany permanently, some certainly will. It will be Germany’s ability (or inability) to make these new residents prominent members of their cultural and political identity, that will shape the new face of Europe.

The type of monumental paradigm shift that I had expected upon arrival in Germany this summer, while not yet fully expressed, must come to fruition if the violence of radical islam and nativism are to be avoided in the future. Germany has been superficially, yet undoubtedly changed, but it will be the ability of Germans to change themselves that will  decide the future of the nation. The greatest challenge concerning the refugee crisis is not what has already passed, but what is to come.

The Silver Lining

In addition to the interviews that each member of the Missoula to Berlin reporting team set up in Germany, the group was treated to numerous lectures from various experts on the refugee crisis in Europe. On the third day of our visit, Werner Schiffauer, a professor of cultural studies at Europa Universität, gave an engaging lecture about refugee integration and the social implications of religious diversity that changed my perspective on the european refugee crisis.

Beaming in the brightly lit conference room, Schiffauer’s interest in the topic was infectious. Besides his owl-like eyebrows and Bavarian accent that filtered even into his fluent English, what struck me most was his emphasis on the good that has come from the refugees in Germany.

Schiffauer explained that the media has focused heavily on the negative implications of the refugee situation, such as the financial burden of accommodating refugees, the threat of terrorism and the backlash from right-wing extremists. While this is necessary to the discussion of refugee issues, what Schiffauer highlighted was the unparalleled “Refugees Welcome” movement. Volunteer workers have spearheaded an astonishing number and scope of projects in the last year to address this issue. Refugee shelters were often overwhelmed by the number of donations and many were even forced to stop accepting donated food and clothing items.

It is this grassroots effort that Schiffauer finds so heartening. For many Germans this unprecedented rise in altruism became a partial expression of atonement for their role in the holocaust and the second world war. Unfortunately this movement has been downplayed in the media.  “The media focuses on the rise of the right-wing,” he explained, “but ignores the monumental left-wing momentum since 2015.”

According to Schiffauer, this willingness to give and desire to innovate is the sliver lining of the crisis. While volunteerism and left-wing momentum have decreased in the past six months as fewer refugees have entered Europe, unprecedented numbers of German’s are still engaged. This selflessness in the face of fear and uncertainty is what gives me hope for the future of refugee integration in Germany.

It’s not only Germany which can benefit from the human willingness to give. Even many conservative Germans find the United States’ meager acceptance rate of 10,000 refugees laughable. As someone who has observed the refugee situation in Europe firsthand, I suggest that the United States government reevaluate its minuscule acceptance quotas. My hope is that we, as a nation, can address our fears and uncertainties associated with immigration in a reasoned manner in order to become more selfless and giving to those in need.

The Group

This May, eighteen University of Montana students, including myself, packed up our notepads, recording equipment, and varying degrees of altruistic aspirations and took off for the European continent. We had little in common except for our decision to participate in a faculty-led, journalism-school expedition with the stated goal of “chasing the refugee story all the way to Berlin.” Most group members were journalism students; several, like me, came from a mishmash of related majors from which we could manufacture some vague connection to a reporting trip in Germany.

The differences between the students in the group were about as pronounced as those between our two intrepid leaders: the NPR reporter turned university dean with a voice like a prohibition-era speakeasy doorman, and the formerly punk-rocking Berliner with the blustery demeanor and attire of a threatening (yet motherly) cumulonimbus. After arriving in the once divided, symbolic epicenter of the Cold War tensions, we were joined by a Montana cowpoke turned Fulbright photographer and four translators, all of whom were recent arrivals from various war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Syria.

We were a passionate, if eclectic, group of journalists, who looked somewhat lost while traipsing through Europe’s second largest metropolis. Most of had some apprehension when confronted with the thought of sharing each waking moment for the duration of the project with group members in the cramped, if luxurious, living quarters of the Cat’s Pajamas Hostel. That was before we visited the Emergency Refugee Shelter in Neuköln.

There, hundreds of recently arrived refugees share extremely crowded quarters with complete strangers in a converted factory building. In a place where each person’s tiny living space is separated from the countless others by acoustically unforgiving blankets, privacy is essentially nonexistent and tensions run high. Although the Neuköln shelter was intended as temporary relief housing, the beaurocratic hurdles of obtaining residency status and the German government’s stagnancy in processing asylum applications means that many refugees have been living in these challenging conditions for over a year.

Unlike our “eclectic” group of “intrepid” journalists, refugees living in the Neuköln shelter come from completely differing cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most are confronting the unspeakable traumas associated with fleeing their war-ravaged homelands, witnessing the deaths of loved ones and traveling for thousands of miles through politically unpredictable, and sometimes hostile foreign countries.

Suddenly our own apprehensions seemed trivial, our stresses insignificant, the publication of these people’s stories more important than ever. With the residents of the Neuköln shelter in mind, the group began research on our news stories and embarked on a relatively conflict-free three weeks communal living in Germany’s capital.

Crossing Cultures: Obama in Argentina

IMG_2596One of the most interesting yet intimidating events we experienced in Buenos Aires was President Obama coming to visit. The first day we arrived in the city, several people told us he was coming, even though it wasn’t for another month. However, his arrival in Buenos Aires was greatly anticipated and incredibly controversial. In order to explain why, one of our professors gave a weeks-long history lesson about Argentina.

Forty years ago, the Argentine military staged a coup and took over the government, which began the darkest period in the country now known as “The Dirty War” or “La Guerra Sucia“. During this time, the military leaders formed the Triple A: The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance. The Triple A hunted down and killed any left-wing activists, military dissidents, or Peronists. An estimated 30,000 people “disappeared” meaning they were killed or kidnapped. Many children of the victims were kidnapped and given to military families. The 30,000 disappeared are known generally as the “desaparecidos”. Having occurred only four decades ago, the Dirty War and its victims still feel like a fresh wound in the hearts of many Argentine citizens.

How does Obama’s visit play into this? Well, he was set to arrive in the country on the fortieth anniversary of the military coup. This date angered a huge number of Argentine citizens because many feel like the U.S. somewhat “condoned” the military’s activity because Henry Kissinger had secretly approved the military rule, and U.S. has yet to release classified documents about the war that could possibly shed light on the fate of many victims. People were mad. They were angered that the President of the U.S., a country that did not push harder to respect and help human rights during such a violent time in Argentina, felt he could come to their country on such an emotional and important day.

When President Obama arrived on March 24th, huge protests were held in Plaza de Mayo which rests between the government buildings that house the Argentine president’s office. We decided to attend the protests. As we walked down the main avenue to the plaza, hundreds of people held up pictures of their killed or disappeared friends and family members and shouted “Nunca Más!” meaning “never again”. I couldn’t help but tear up as we witnessed the emotion and unity of thousands of citizens in the streets.

While many held up signs and photographs, we witnessed more intense protests of Obama’s visit in the form of burning American flags and posters denouncing the President’s presence. Once we saw these, my roommate and I decided to head back to our house just to be safe. It was an incredibly intense day in the city, but I was undeniably lucky to witness such an event–one that I will never see again. It gave us a chance to step away from our American identities and understand a different history from a new perspective.