The Search for Familiarity

It was grey the day I arrived, and it was grey the day I departed. The heavy, low-lying clouds brought me a reassuring sort of comfort, and the refreshing breeze flowing between the apartment complexes and the Straßenbahn tracks of Karlsruhe Nordstadt reminded me to breathe slowly and deeply to keep my emotions at bay. It was pouring rain the first time I lugged my black suitcase with anything but grace and ease over the cobble-stoned sidewalks; and although droplets didn’t fall from the sky’s loose grasp as I walked away from my building for the last time, the gloom in the air was palpable. Perhaps it was the weight of my luggage or the heaviness of my heart that made my feet move like blocks of lead as I boarded onto my last Straßenbahn, but two things were for sure:  A part of me was staying behind here in Karlsruhe, and the person leaving it behind was no longer the same as the individual who had brought it here in the first place.

In my opinion, life is full of juxtapositions. I like to think that there are patterns that flow through everything we do – from the places we visit, to the people we meet, to the activities we participate in along the way; and if we are paying attention closely enough, we are given the opportunity to acknowledge magnificent details that might otherwise go unnoticed. From my time abroad here in Germany, I have been observant of a particular cultural tool that I myself especially used during my transition into a new environment, and it involves this basis of comparison and contrast that we apply to our realities in order to understand the world itself. From grocery shopping in an entirely new environment, to that often awkward introductory conversation with a stranger, there is a dominant characteristic manipulating our choices and interactions, and it is this: we are constantly searching for familiarity.

Naturally, there are many components that influence us over time, but it is the concoction of our mixed experiences and diverse lifestyles that tint our vision of what is good and what is truth. The way that we maintain and continuously build upon our identities has entirely to do with the ways in which we equate minor characteristics in our surroundings with an idea at large. This search for familiarity is a game that we are constantly playing, where the purpose is not necessarily receiving the answers themselves to our gaps of understanding, but instead recognizing the internal and external transformations which occur in the process.

In attempts to develop meaning out of my time abroad, I took a chance at trying to understand this search for familiarity, and here is what I have determined:


As stated in the movie Into the Wild, “Happiness is only real when shared.” A single location can solace an individual, but it is the company of others that instills significance in our interactions with our environment.

 I once wrote in an Instagram post concerning Germany that you know the place where you belong when find the place where you long to be; however, I now believe that belonging is a not as much of a spontaneous impulse as it is a committed choice. It’s easy to love something when seeing it at its best; but still admiring it at its darkest hour is the real sign of appreciation.

My European journey began and ended with a magnificent trip to the Swiss Alps. As a native Montanan, I find that where there are mountains, there is a perfect canvas for deep reflection, and it has been a big Bucket List dream of mine to visit these famous, beautiful ridges. But as I stood on these high peaks, the most reoccurring thought was that of home. I suppose we can travel the world, achieving goals and going great lengths, but wherever we go, the greatest thing we carry with us is our origins.

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 (Special thanks to GLI for the worldwide support, the educational guidance, and the indispensable stimulating inspiration)

Day Fifteen: January 19, 2016

Today we woke up early (no surprise there) and headed straight for the national park Glendalough. I tried to sleep on the bus, but couldn’t take my eyes off the countryside, for I knew it would be one of my last glimpses of Ireland’s green plains for awhile.

The park itself was lovely, and had some truly beautiful craftsmanship put into it. I was honestly surprised that we skipped over such a magical place in our studies. I don’t recall Bartlett mentioning a Saint Kevin or any National Parks. Adam and I walked around the site, I really wanted to go to the lake, but was feeling pretty weak and lightheaded. So while everyone else ventured off hiking, Adam and I went inside and got some hot soup. It was difficult to tear my eyes away from the misty mountains, and the intricate rock work on the ground. Hopefully, I will be able to return to that park someday and explore more.

As soon as everyone concluded their hiking and had grabbed some lunch, we loaded back on the bus and left for Dublin. I was excited to return to the capital, and see if it looked the same to my Ireland-adjusted eyes as it had to my jet-lagged ones. Of course, it did. The city was just as beautiful as I remembered it.

Laure gave us the night off, but most the group already had plans to go to the Oscar Wilde production at the Gate Theatre. Tonya, Lydia, Adam and I stayed at the Belvedere hotel for a while and relaxed, then we walked to a nice burger joint for dinner before the play. I tried falafel for the first time, and it was delicious.

Attending a local performance of The Importance of Being Earnest was absolutely one of my favorite things that we have done so far. It was very well done, and highly entertaining. I love going to plays, but rarely get the chance, and I cannot remember ever seeing a performance of such high quality. 

Now I’m just back in my room, brainstorming ideas about what to do to make my last day in Ireland special, and writing in my journal. I’ve come to the conclusion that I never want to leave this magical fairyland.

El Fin

By: Ciara Gorman

(Posted September 16th, 2015)

My time in Nicaragua came to an end and it was time to travel home. Saying goodbye to all of the wonderful friends I had made was tough but I was ready to see my family! Little did I know that the first week home would be a huge adjustment. I wasn’t used to running water during the day and certainly wasn’t used to the weather that felt like I was going to freeze. I often looked around throughout that week and realized how much I took advantage of simple things that really are luxuries. I wasn’t used to the paved roads, the urgency everyone around me had or the use of electronics that truly dominates our way of living in the United States. I cannot speak for other countries because I do not live there but I know that most Americans could benefit from a type of service trip in a place that is very different from our way of living. I say this and am hesitant though because third world countries do not exist for others to pity on and give charity to. Never in my life have I seen neighborhoods and communities like the ones I did in Masaya, Nicaragua. The people were so supportive of one another and truly were friends to not only one another but to visitors like myself. From the young children to the elderly ladies that got together at dusk, every person I had the chance to meet and converse with made me feel like an old friend. I think what I was trying to say earlier is that most people in today’s world are so comfortable in their setting that they do not realize the potential that is out there for personal growth and new experiences.

The medical aspect of the trip was incredible as well and I was lucky to be with a group that had similar goals and career interests that I did. I didn’t know a single person on this trip with the exception of looking on Facebook! I loved meeting people from across the country who wanted to learn and make a difference each and every day and am lucky to call many of them my friends today. As much as I felt like I helped our patients, I don’t think they realize how much they helped me in return. This was my first opportunity taking patient histories and performing physical exams with a team. I realized the importance of not only asking the right questions, but also performing a thorough exam so we didn’t miss anything when the doctor came to us. Educating our patients on hygiene, diet and answering their questions was one of our strongest tools as well. The opportunity to see conditions and diseases not typical to the US was unique and my first experience conversing in Spanish with patients was so cool!

The best way to understand a culture is to fully immerse yourself in it and I will repeat that until my last day on Earth. This trip was an experience of a lifetime and I cannot express how grateful I am for the opportunity. Traveling to a country I’ve never been to, speaking a language I wasn’t confident about and eating food I normally would not are things I would highly recommend to anyone. Getting out of my comfort zone was one of the best life decisions I have ever made and the friendships, memories and clinical experiences I gained are only proof of that. I want to thank Vida Volunteer for coordinating our trip and to GLI for helping make my experience possible. Pura Vida!

“Only a life lived in the service of others is worth living.” -Albert Einstein











By: Ciara Gorman

(Posted September 8th, 2015)

Day 7 of our trip was the turning point for me in our clinics. During our clinic orientation, Dr. Pinto had taught us about common illnesses and diseases we would frequently see throughout the next couple weeks and mentioned to us that prevention education was one of our most powerful tools to help people. By now, I felt confident in taking patient history (mostly in Spanish by now!) and performing physical exams. I was not prepared however for the emotional toll seeing some of these patients had on me though. Experiencing some of the living conditions our patients had and the surrounding communities really opened my eyes to why some people were sick! It was a common practice to burn garbage in these areas, but, often times they were open fires in backyards or right next to the homes. We would frequently see children with severe allergy symptoms and respiratory issues in our clinics and I would tell the parents that their smoke from burning garbage was a likely cause.

A common illness we saw was Chikungunya. This was a viral disease passed to humans from mosquitos and resulted in rashes, fever, joint pain that could last anywhere from a couple weeks to several months. It was interesting to see an illness not common in the US frequently in another country and reminded me of the importance of constantly studying and staying on top of illnesses whether they are common to your area or not. I learned the vital importance of a thorough physical exam when a young girl complained of common cold symptoms like a sore throat, fever, and body aches. The minute I asked her to open her mouth so I could look inside I was shocked. She had the most swollen tonsils I had ever seen and we classified them as stage III tonsillar hypertrophy, meaning they were almost completely obstructive to her throat. Thankfully we gave her an immediate referral to the hospital to get them taken out. If we hadn’t looked in her throat, we probably would have diagnosed as a common cold and just prescribed acetaminophen!

Thankfully our long days were also followed up with relaxing evenings exploring the cities we visited. In Masaya, we visited their famous outdoor mercados (markets) and shopped for souvenirs and even found hammocks a couple of us bought! I had my first smoothie with guayaba and pitaya! They were some funky looking fruits but they tasted awesome. All of the fresh fruit we’ve never heard of but got to try everyday was definitely one of my favorite parts of Nicaragua. I never found one I didn’t like!

exchanging money at the Nicaraguan border!






The best smoothie i’ll ever have!




Pitaya aka dragonfruit!


Carmen del Parque & La Fortuna

By: Ciara Gorman
(from September 3rd, 2015)
We had out second clinic day in the community of Carmen del Parque. I was particularly interesting in learning about both Costa Rica and Nicaragua’s healthcare systems and made it a point to find out more today. Costa Rica has a universal healthcare system and is regarded as some of the best in Latin America. Often times, we saw patients whose family worked in some sect of the government so they had the opportunity for a privatized plan. Many people from other countries try and move solely for the healthcare benefits, referred to as seguro social, and job opportunities. However, it was apparent that if you were from another country besides Costa Rica, you most likely did not have healthcare access and consequently were patients we saw in our trip. This community had cobblestone streets and the houses were colorful with children playing everywhere. Children who had school that day were dressed in white pressed collared shirts and navy bottoms with black shoes. They took such pride in their school attire and made sure to not get dirty by playing with the younger kids before they left!

In the afternoon, we headed back to where our vet team was located and had ice cream for the first time! It was an interesting experience but it was so hot outside that day that no one really noticed the differences in flavor and texture. We played a pickup soccer game with the kids around that neighborhood while we waited for the vets to finish up. This is hands down one of my favorite memories of the trip! I started to juggle with a couple of the kids with my scrubs and stethoscope still on and they just stared at me. For one, I was a girl playing with a soccer ball. Two, my Spanish was still a work in progress at this point so we had a little bit of a language barrier. A couple of the young boys really stood out to me, however. One was named Juan Carlos and we ended up scoring goals and winning the game together. The other guy I called Real Madrid because of the jersey he had on. They both were phenomenal soccer players and were only 12 years old! We left the community a little sad that day but I know one day I will hear about a famous Costa Rican soccer player named Juan Carlos and smile.

We had an off day so we traveled to the city of La Fortuna and checked in to our next hotel. We ended up visiting this beautiful hot springs resort for the afternoon and it was our first chance to really see the country as tourists. What I was shocked by was the hospitality and friendliness every Costa Rican showed us! We stayed at Villas Vistas Arenal overlooking a volcano for the night before our all day bus trip to Nicaragua that following morning.

Thank you Costa Rica for everything you taught me, I will be back for you someday!



A blue-eyed local?

Three times, three times in ONE week, I was mistaken for being Chilean…. by Chileans! Toot toot! Ok I’ll put my horn away.  I may not be able to say much, but damnit I can sure imitate that accent. 🙂

If anyone was wondering.. it’s been confirmed. I’m the proud owner of the biggest feet in Chile (on a female, that is. Although in general, I’m probably close). La mama chilena approached me last week and very forwardly looks at my Chaco-clad feet and says “Uh-uh. Nope. Not acceptable. No more Chacos. We’re going shopping.”  Promptly at 9 a.m. the next day, she hauled me out of bed and off to the mall we went. First store we stepped in, we browsed a bit before I realized I hadn’t seen my size once.  Nor anything within 3 sizes of my size. She marches up to the front desk and asks if they carry a 44, and he says, “of course!” …pointing to the men’s section. “No no no,” she says, “women’s!”  …The response: a headshake….followed by a squinty, not-real-subtle look of disbelief and a quick up-and-down of the tall gringa (me) by her side.  11 stores later, I was laughing and shaking my head while she, ever more determined, starts calling in the whole family, asking where in the country there might be a shoe store that carries my size. “Ay dios mio” she says, “what are we going to do with you!”  Hey– at least in Missoula socks and Chacs are cool.

A few weeks ago I spent a four day weekend in Santiago.  I had a blast.  It started out being picked up at the bus terminal by two wonderful people I didn’t know, just friends of friends, who pulled me into the crazy mess that is the Santiago metro.  Thousands of people, lines in every direction, about 8 different floors of trains… kinda made Valparaiso feel like a deserted forest.  My fearless leaders stuck by me, though, and an hour later we stumbled out into, well, I still have no idea where we were. Another twenty minute walk and we made it to his house, where his mom (everyone lives at home until they’re 30 here….so weird) cooked us dinner and insisted we practice his English.  David actually attends an English institute, and he knows a fair amount of the language but is very shy about speaking it.  It worked out perfectly–I help him with English and he helps me with Spanish. He is ruthless when it comes to correcting my Spanish and I love it.  People are usually too nice to point out errors.  We still keep in touch almost daily, and he’s always quick to help me out with stuff I don’t understand.  The best was when we got into an argument over Spanish grammar– something HE had said, and I brought it to my professor here and proved him wrong. Hehehe. His sweet mother gave me a woolen doll she had made and insisted I come back anytime.  Later, we went to a party where I saw all of my “army of Chilean protectors,” aka the goofy guys I met camping back in February.  What a blast.  And this time, I could understand them. 

I spent the rest of the weekend exploring Santiago and being passed around from friend to friend, seeing all kinds of friendly faces I met when I was traveling.  I went to see La Moneda, the president’s house, that was bombed in 1973, killing Allende during the military coup.  I wandered all the famous hills, parks, museums, tried supposedly the 25th best ice cream in the world (I wasn’t convinced), saw an enormous protest in action and decided, rich with history though Santiago may be, I am so very glad I chose the city that I chose.  I feel more and more like I hit the jackpot living where I do.

Lunch with la mama and her son turned immensely powerful and educational when I brought up that I was going to a showing of a new movie, Allende en su Laberinto (Allende in his labyrinth), a film documenting the last hours of Allende’s life in La Moneda as Pinochet rose to power.  I had been nervous about approaching the subject at home, and it’s something I had been wanting to ask her about since before I even arrived.  It is a touchy subject here, though, and I’ve heard it compared (by Chileans) to asking a German about the Holocaust.  The country is still very much divided.  When I mentioned the film, her son Oscar, who thankfully speaks very clearly, warned me that the film was unlikely to be objective, but rather would paint Allende as the hero. He is well-educated and objective himself, and was able to clearly explain both sides, as in who supported Allende and why, the mistakes he made, and who was in support of his fall.  And the same was said for Pinochet; who benefited from his rise to power, his economic success with Chile, and the horrible social actions he took in the process.  On the other side, my host mom is poorly educated because she couldn’t leave the house for 12 years of her young life under Pinochet, but was able to explain what life was like for her at the time… the things that she saw, the family members who were killed, the friends who were never heard from again, and how she would stand in line once a week for a single kilo of bread for the family, silent and head down while the military stood over them with machine guns, ready to drag off and shoot anyone who stepped out of line.   For 3 hours they talked, each supplementing each other’s thoughts with interjections of their own… it was more than I’ve ever learned in any history class on the subject, and well-worth staying with a family for that alone.

Perhaps the most fun I’ve been up to is playing tour guide for a plethra of buddies who come visit me. I am so glad I traveled first… I am so lucky.  I met so many excellent people on the road, and instead of having to say goodbye, I got to say come see me in the North! Each person who has come here to see Valparaiso and visit me I only knew for a few days at most, and yet the second time around it’s like seeing an old dear friend again. Plus, it has allowed me to do so much exploring of these cities! Visiting the house of Pablo Neruda, free walking tours, hours and hours wandering the steep hills of Valpo, getting lost in street art and friendly characters, finding the best empanadas and the cheapest underground pubs. Beaches, beautiful sand dunes, street performers, artists, ancient rickety elevators, the adorable musicians on the metro who round up the ladies and serenade us with their guitars and their catchy lovesongs, the sweet Rasta man on the corner who sells shawarmas at a discount if you help him with his English….  If someone had told me 6 months ago that I would soon fall in love with a city, I’d never have believed it.

My Advice to You

There is a certain, unmistakable ball of dread that awakens in my chest and circulates to my head, flows down my limbs to the tips of my fingers, and quickens my heartbeat as soon as my foot touches the unknown territory directly below the bus that became my home over the last five hours. Like a car emerging out of a thick fog back into clear visibility, the courage that once surrounded my being, providing not necessarily comfort but the motivation to keep pushing forward, immediately evaporates around me. I start to question my naivety in traveling so far alone without an absolute awareness of the bus stop location in the big, bustling city at night’s dark, intimidating hour. The crisp air soothes the burning anticipation in my chest, and my observation mode kicks into overdrive as I explore the new area in search for the train station. With a deep breath and some small, internal pep talks, I move with the flow of my instincts and expect nothing more than an adventure with each step.

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This was my initial reaction after arriving in Vienna, Austria after twelve long and lonely hours from Karlsruhe, Germany. I had a place to stay with someone to contact if I needed help, and I had heard of some big places to visit while in Vienna, but the rest of my trip was intentionally spontaneous, unplanned and open to any possibilities. Of course, I had traveled alone before to Switzerland and other locations in Germany, and certainly compared to the trip alone from Montana to Europe, twelve hours on a bus was nothing; nevertheless, I had yet to find the remedy for the doubt, fear, or uneasiness caused by the sharp reality of thrusting oneself outside of the welcoming, understanding, and affirming borders of the comfort zone. Yet, I do not want a solution for this sensation.

Some people claim to solve the world’s problems or find the answers to long sought-after questions while in the shower; but for me, this special experience of revelation and re-evaluation find me when I travel alone. These small weekend trips on which I have embarked during my time in Europe have taught me more lessons and instilled more cultural insight than I could have ever extracted out of my comfortable, familiar surroundings. Traveling in general, of course, will invest remarkably into the spirits of the Adventurous; however, I stand firmly in my respect for the Lone Rangers.

Going solo showed me how to be more assertive in my basic needs, such as personal security, and more observant of the most minor details composing the physical environment. Venturing out into the world by myself has taught me how to question reality more thoroughly and listen more sincerely to the answers I receive. Most significantly, perhaps, is the rebirthing of my indescribably deep appreciation for and my continuously un-quenched curiosity about communication and interaction between human beings, which has followed me into every new city and etched itself into my most favorite memories during my time abroad. 

If I could leave you with anything, it would be this: travel alone. Be smart, know your own boundaries and follow your gut if the risk tickles greater than the opportunities. Be curious, be confident, be patient, and breathe deeply when your nerves tremble so strongly that you cannot identify your heartbeat over your self-doubt.

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We as humans didn’t survive by caging ourselves in comfort, and frankly, we never will. These moments, scary as though they may appear to be, are what we, as curious, creative, and compassionate individuals live for.

Day Two: January 6, 2016

We landed in Ireland at the break of dawn, it was beautiful, but the plane ride was terrible. Tonya (one of my classmates) and I spent most of the flight getting to know each other, because neither of us could get comfortable enough to sleep. It felt like the flight attendants were waking everyone up every ten minutes anyways; to hand out everything from drinks and food to hot towels and sleeping masks. On top of all of that, they kept the cabin lights on most of the night, and the guy in front of me leaned his seat all the way back, until he was – quite literally – in my lap. That alone made it a very long and difficult ride. Tonya, being a rather tiny human being, was kind enough to curl up in a ball and offer me some of her leg room.

After landing, everyone wanted nothing more than to head to the hotel, shower, put on some fresh clothes, and pass out, but Laure (our professor)  and Tom (our tour guide) made sure that we stuck to the schedule and began touring instead. At that point, Adam and I had only slept about five hours since Sunday evening, and it was now Wednesday. You can do the math on that one.

Tired and cranky, Tom took us to the Kilmainham Gaol prison, a place where both de Valera and Charles Stewart Parnell both did time, it was also the location of the outrageous 1916 Easter Rising rebel executions. I walked through the prison, haunted and excited; pausing occasionally to wonder how many great men had stood where I was standing. The size and complexity of the prison amazed me, along with the logic behind the design of it all. It was genius yet disturbing how they planned the place out; making sure that nothing anyone or anything did went unseen by the guards.

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After the tour of the prison, we drove around Dublin and grabbed lunch at Temple Bar (the happening, pub-filled, area of town). Once we ate, we walked over to Trinity College and visited the Book of Kells. The book itself is strikingly beautiful, but I was much more interested in the grand library upstairs, that’s filled with antique books and artifacts.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was our next stop. A very beautiful and holy ground, I am not religious, and certainly not Catholic, but I loved looking at the architecture, sculptures, and stained-glass windows that adorned the place. Catholics really don’t spare any expense when it comes to their house of worship. Sadly, I spent a large deal of our time there waiting in line for the bathroom, which was impressively small by the way.

Following the Cathedral tour, we finally went to the hotel; at that point, everyone was walking around like zombies, except instead of brains we really just wanted to sleep in peace. Of course, we had to check in and eat dinner first though. I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the dinner the hotel prepared for us was. Not only did they work around everyone’s allergies, but they also prepared an excellent vegetarian meal for me (traditional pasta, vegetable spring rolls, and cheesecake).

Finally, after eating, we were dismissed to go to our rooms, take hot showers, and sleep in actual beds. It was a fantastic first day in Dublin, but I wish I would have been less tires and more alert to enjoy it.

Day One: January 5, 2016

After months of waiting, our journey has finally begun. Now the entire class is jet-lagged, exhausted, and stuck in yet another airport (JFK to be exact). But, I guess that’s just how travelling goes. I cannot even imagine how good it is going to feel to get off of the next plane, and walk out onto foreign soil for the first time. Several of the other students in this class have already travelled the world, but this is a first for me. I am excited, to say the least. Also, I thoroughly regret not getting more than an hour of sleep last night, but in the end, it was probably worth it.


As usual, the airports have been awful: crowded, noisy, boring, and they all have the same over-priced, mediocre food. I have flown many times in the past, but never for more than ten or twelve hours at a time. This twenty-four plus hour thing is a little much for me. I’m sure it will be worth it in the long-run though. It better be. I am honestly terrified that I put hundreds of hours of work and god knows how much money into a trip I might be miserable on. That’s ridiculous though. I have Adam (my wonderful boyfriend) to keep me company, and am beginning to get to know some of the others in the class, and I am sure that after the first few days I will be more comfortable with everybody. The fact that I was not actually in the fall-semester history class with everyone else (I had to take an independent study instead, due to a schedule conflict), makes me feel outside of the rest of the group, but that will certainly change soon. Either way, I am thrilled to go on this amazing adventure, and see/learn all that I am able to, in such a short amount of time.

Snow School

It was my last week here at Swan Valley Connections. A bittersweet end to such an amazing time. I spent my last week primarily in the field, exploring new areas and working on my track identification. Badger, bobcat, wolf and lynx were just of the few species we were able to track, but my last day was spent a little bit differently than the rest. I was fortunate to help instruct 20 students from Potomac in a day of Snow School. Our primary objective for the day was to get kids out on snow shoes and to teach them about winter ecology, including plant and animal adaptation as well as some basic snow science. We built snow pits and measured the temperate as well as took snow water equivalent measurements. We built homes for our “animals” (cups of hot water) to teach the students about the insulating properties of snow. The students loved caring for their animals and were all pleased to find that each individual made it through our winter. The game the students loved the most though was a game of camouflage. Similar to hide and seek although the seeker isn’t allowed to move. The students had to earn their food to survive the winter and some even adapted by being given white sheets. We went on color hunts and did memorization scavenger hunts. Over all the students had an amazing day, and I walked away with a renewed sense of wonder and the possibility of discovery fresh in my mind.