The Medinas of Morocco

By Nat Smith

                The experience most emblematic of my time in Morocco is walking down a crowded alley: weaving through a bustling throng, vendors vying for my attention, the drifting scent of olives and roasting meat, the call to prayer echoing out from mosque minarets towering above everything else. From Fez to Marrakech, most large cities in Morocco have an extensive history and a section of town built long before cars were a concern. These old areas at the heart of every major urban area are called medinas (from the Arabic word for city). Each medina has its own character, but they all share the quality of being a narrow, winding maze both daunting and exciting for a tourist. There are always overly friendly guides who can help you find your way (for a fee of course), reaching out in French, Arabic, and English. The streets of the medinas were built with one primary rule in mind: to be wide enough for two donkey carts to pass in opposite directions. The result is a pedestrian’s paradise and a respite from the roar of traffic that dominates US metropolitan areas.

                Fez has the largest and most overwhelming medina, over 180 miles of alleys snaking around in patterns only recognizable to a local. Bring a map or someone who knows where they’re going. A must-see landmark is the Chouara Tannery that has been in operation since the 11th century. You can climb up to the rooftops and look down at the process of dying leather, which has changed little in the last thousand years. If a leather jacket doesn’t quite fit your style, the city’s numerous shops filled to the brim with beautiful rugs may be better places to shop. The cuisine is another reason to visit. You could try a traditional tajine—meat and vegetables smothered in spices and slow cooked in one of Morocco’s iconic conical ceramic dishes—or couscous, traditionally eaten on Fridays to celebrate Islam’s holy day, but always delicious. The more adventurous could try a camel burger (a bit greasy for my tastes) or a bowl of snails. Food carts offering delectable baked goods or fresh prickly-pear cactus fruit are never far away. Fez’s cramped alleys can hardly contain the variety of shops and vibrant energy you feel walking around the ancient city.

 

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Tannery – Leather dying

 

                Since I’m one to usually avoid big crowds, my favorite medina was Chefchaouen. The tourist attraction of a city is tucked high up in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco. What makes the city so unforgettable and eye-catching is the blue paint that covers nearly every wall in the medina. Come for the scenery and stay for the lifestyle. Given its proximity to where Morocco’s marijuana is grown, Chefchaouen has gotten the reputation as the country’s hub for illicit activity (and thus attracted plenty of western tourists). Everyone in the city was friendly, whether because they were smoking hash or trying to sell me some I could never tell. Regardless, the blue city is something everyone visiting Morocco should try to experience. I can say without exaggeration that a labyrinth of blue alleys nested among a panorama of grey-green peaks is a city unlike any other.

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                The diversity of scenery in Morocco is incredible. You can go from snow-capped mountains to rolling hills of olive trees spotted with grazing goats inside of an hour’s drive. From the sand seas of the Sahara to the waves of the Atlantic, Morocco always provides a captivating vista. Still, of all the beautiful places I visited there, when I think of Morocco I miss the medinas.

Abroad in Milan

Emily Hake

I had the opportunity to study abroad in Milan, Italy for the Spring 2017 semester, where I truly fell in love with the culture and beauty of Italy. Living abroad was eye-opening and challenging at the same time. It allowed me to learn much about myself and also how diving into other cultures is integral to our understanding of the world. My focus for the global theme and challenge is technology and society and while in Milan I was able to engage with a few of the ways in which technology is shaping business markets overseas. Specifically, my entrepreneurial finance class gave my class direct access to a med-tech conference taking place in the city where concepts of how technology is influencing innovation is taking root on a world-wide scale. We were asked to use these new/technological concepts to craft our own innovation or business idea. Seeing first-hand the incredible innovations coming out of Italy and surrounding European countries proved to me that the world is becoming ever-more technological and that the U.S. has a great amount of competition in the innovation world. In terms of fostering my personal leadership skills, studying abroad helped me understand what navigating a new place is truly like and that if you want to learn and grow you often have to step up to the plate yourself. Going abroad has left me curious about how the world will continually change as we become more interconnected and globalized. Overall, this study abroad experience is something that I will never forget and has shaped the rest of my life.

Where Theories became Force: A summer in East Germany

From May 31st to July 14, 2017 I studied the history of European Integration and violence in Europe at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany. I was surprised from the moment of arrival, essentially – as I saw a side of Germany that I did not think about – the difficulty of recovery from being divided. When I arrived in Berlin, I was surprised to find that two years of German and learning about the culture and language still could not fully prepare me for culture shock. When I arrived in Frankfurt an der Oder, taking a train from Berlin eastward, I was even more surprised to find something that had yet to cross my mind learning about Germany. Frankfurt an der Oder, a smaller, different town than Frankfurt am Main (the big one) used to be an industrial hub under the Soviet Union, and when Germany was reunited, all the heavy industry was shut down and the town suffered unemployment and a population drain. When I think about Germany, I think about how it is the economic hub of Europe, how its infrastructure is nearly unparalleled, and how its political system functions quite well. I did not think of abandoned buildings that the local government has no money to repair, or how Germans in the east blame the EU for many of their troubles. Not only did my studies relate to Social Inequality and Human Rights – my whole experience showed me an experiment in trying to fight inequality. I did not think how the culture of former east Germany has yet to fully assimilate to the west. Nor did I think of how the west has failed to adjust and help merge the former two Germanys in many ways. The cultural problem remains difficult to solve in many ways, as there is still almost an anti-western sentiment in eastern Germany, and vice versa in west Germany. The way the country has attacked the economic problem, and even started to attack the cultural divide, has been interesting though. With the dawn of European integration and the revival of the German economy, the infrastructure – the public institutions, transport, and other structures in east Germany – has undergone serious revitalization.

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(Pictured: The Abandoned Communist Youth Theater, Frankfurt an der Oder)

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(European University Viadrina, Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany)

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(Façade of the Reichstag, Berlin, Germany)

The university I studied at was closed by the Soviets, but has been built back up by the country to become a well-known international educational institution. In many ways, though many buildings are abandoned and still destroyed – the infrastructure in East Germany is better than the west, as its become more focused on making its students cosmopolitan. Therein lay the biggest cultural difference I saw in Germany – the way children are brought up to know their own history more thoroughly than anything before they broaden their knowledge to the world. The Holocaust is a giant scar on German history, and the Nazi period is a taboo subject for many in the United States. However, in Germany, people fully recognize the past’s mistakes, as the old slogan “never again” truly means something to them. In discussing their history, Germans were very blunt and thought the only productive way to move forward was to recognize the past so as to understand the problems of today and solve them. Though most Americans know their country’s history, the attitude toward it, and attitude toward education here is far different than the German one, and I honestly wonder now what changes developing these attitudes and approach toward a more efficient infrastructure at a local level, particularly here in Montana, with the presence of historical trauma on reservations and a lack of proper education structures for many, could make.

Me in Japan and the world

Kyoto, the emperor’s home of the past and today’s cultural heart of Japan. This is the setting of my study abroad experience. Upon arriving I had a lot of challenges ahead of me, from learning a new transportation systems to studying the language. Some challenges are easy to overcome, while others take time. When considering GLI, I’ve taken the challenge of trying to come to an understanding of how cultural differences might affect relations, especially economical, between Japan and other countries, in particular the United States. My study time here is not yet over, but I feel like I’m coming to a level of understanding where I can contrast the two with accuracy and confidence. While in Japan, I feel like I’ve come to know my own country better than ever before. To give an example, let’s take a look at work in Japan versus the United States. With my time here, I can confidently say that the Japanese are hard workers, and I can also say they tend to take this admirable trait too far at times, overworking themselves. Given this comparison, I began to see how much and at what level Americans value personal and family time in relation to work. When talking about social topics like this, it becomes difficult to leave out parts of the grander narrative, which includes a country’s culture and politics all the same. Having so far spent much time with Japanese friends, international friends, and from time to time Japanese families, I would say my perspective on Japan’s culture and politics has definitely broadened. Although with the past year’s tense elections, both in the US and Europe, I have also been able to see the reactions of events taking place around the world. Whether or not this experience has greatly developed my leadership skills is yet to be tested. However I do know I am more confident now, especially when it comes to subject matter such as Japan or politics. Given I were to be involved with these topics, I would no doubt feel comfortable in taking a position of action. I have come to really love Japan, though I will say there are also things I have discovered to dislike as well. Likewise can be said for America. This brings up some big questions, both societal, and personal. In particular, personally I’ll likely one day have to make the decision of where to live and work in the world. What is better, Japan, America, or some other country? Unfortunately the world is not cookie cut into good and bad pieces, which makes such questions difficult, to say the least. So instead, with my remaining time in Japan, and at The University of Montana, I’ll have to continue thinking about a variety of things. What is valuable in the American culture? How much should politics affect my actions regarding international matters? Does culture affect economy, and if so at what level? With time, it is my hope I can come to a right answer to at least a few of these questions.

Thank you for reading.

Best,

Isaac LaRowe

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.

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.

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.

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.