Yes COVID – And , the travel bug

If the travel bug were real, I’d be infested. And I’m sure I caught it the moment I stepped off the plane in Lyon, France where I would spend the past year studying international politics and French literature. 

I joined the sizable cohort of international students at Université Jean Moulin in Lyon during the turbulent COVID pandemic, when the existence of such a program was under stress from a myriad of health and safety concerns. I think there’s interest in the idea that two very different viruses — COVID (real) and the travel bug (not real) — would exist in the same plane for me during that year. 

The lens through which COVID asked that I perceived the world revealed so much about my global theme and challenge. In fact, it really redefined culture and politics by putting them into quotidian terms. For instance, the diversity of cultures within Europe, already a small sliver of global diversity, insists that culture isn’t an abstraction to be experienced for a few months by airplane, but instead a lens through which we define our own existence. At the risk of getting too metaphysical, I realized while abroad that a theme like culture and politics is more about how we name the world than it is about what that world superficially looks like. 

The guiding principal for me right now is a ‘Yes – And’ : it’s the idea that two things can be true at once, and that there’s always a third truth next to them. 

Naming the world for me began at the academic level. I sat among French students in classes on topics ranging from fundamental rights and liberties in European courts to medieval poetry in early France to the geomorphology of water-based landscapes in the time of climate change. Diversity is a word that comes up a lot when we talk about culture, and it certainly applies to academic culture as well as social culture. This diverse set of subjects affirms that the perspectives with which I approach my degrees are not mutually exclusive. I can look at the world from both a cultural and a political stance, from both a literary and a scientific stance, or from both a pragmatic and an abstract stance. Understanding academics in this way indicates that nothing exists in isolation, and that interdependence is the defining quality of global culture. 

Naming the world continued and found its peak impact for me while travelling. This is where diversity in the classic sense returns, as I started to think of seemingly distinct countries like Finland, Tunisia, Malta, and so many others in terms of their interdependence. Oftentimes, though, I’ve been surprised by how pervasive that interdependence can be. In an example, a pastry vendor in Marrakech, Morocco, related to my travel friends and I that he used to work in the tourism industry, directing visitors to popular attractions around this part of north-western Africa. During COVID, when travel declined, that business practically dried up. In order to remain economically afloat, he pivoted to baking as a (hopefully) temporary position to support his family. It’s startling that we all experienced the COVID pandemic in very diverse ways, but more importantly that our personal privileges dictated how severely we were each impacted.

More profoundly, the way we each pivot during stressful moments is so indicative of how we have learned to name the world. It’s overly simplistic, but I like the sentiment that we are all just piles of organs trying to make correct decisions.

As I transition back into a more ‘stationary’ education here at UM, I continue to think about the uniqueness of those two viruses existing simultaneously. The globe is stocked with ‘Yes – And’s. I hope that I can let multiple truths exist together, and that I can let them guide my evolutive naming of the world. 

A Community of Kindness: Volunteering in Barcelona

After two years of a global pandemic, countless applications, and plans being reschedules, I am so pleased that I have had the opportunity to spend the summer of 2022 in Barcelona, Spain as my Beyond the Classroom Experience for the Franke Global Leadership Initiative. I currently have three weeks left of my experience, but I have learned more, experienced more, and met more people that I ever thought possible in just two months.

While in Barcelona, I have been working/volunteering for a non-profit called Fundació Enllaç, a foundation that works to help, advocate for, and create a community for the older population of adults who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This foundation holds events for those members who are looking for community, they have created a volunteer program to check in on and provide companionship for the older members, and they participate in events to raise awareness about LGBTQIA+ issues. As a member of this team, I have had the opportunity to participate in community events all around the region of Catalonia, spend time with volunteers and members of the foundation, and learn the day to day operations of a non-profit, with a specific emphasis on community outreach and social media. I have also learned the cultural norms and practices of Spanish business, as well as how to work with amazingly diverse groups of people, both with and without a language barrier. 

Through this position, I have been relating my experience back to my global theme of Technology and Society alongside my global theme which focused on how social media and upcoming technology can be used to reach populations that often go unnoticed, or who are less accessible by traditional means of social media outreach. As a foundation with a specific interest in the population of older adults, outreach can be hard, especially when many members of the LGBTQIA+ community are susceptible to higher levels of isolation and mental illness that may make it hard for them to engage in or seek out community. I spent the last year working on my GLI capstone project, “Mitigating the Damaging Effects of Covid-19 Isolation in the Elderly,” that was very similar to this theme, and helped a lot in my understanding of what goes on in the community of older adults. This experience gave me a first hand look into the importance of community and outreach within this population, as well as how hard it is to reach them, especially when Instagram, Twitter, and Tik-Tok are not known platforms that this population prefers to engage with. That being said, I am currently working on a team trying to update and invigorate the presence of this foundation to reach all members of the Barcelona community, and therefore use word of mouth to spread our mission and activities to those less reachable by technology, as well as optimize Facebook and WhatsApp as platforms that the older population is more comfortable with. 

This experience has exposed me not only to the cultural of Spain, but countless others as I find myself in a global city full of amazing people. I have had the opportunity to engage with city culture (something I am not familiar with coming from a small town in Kansas and moving to Montana), the culture of specific groups of the LGBTQIA+ community, refugees, immigrants, and people from countries across the world as well as places across the US. One of my first days here, I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting of members of Fundació Enllaç as well as a foundation that worked with LGBTQ+ youth and another that worked with refugees with the goal of creating an event to give all of these populations a chance to connect. I sat in this little conference room, looking around and it hit me just how crazy it was that I was there. I was sitting in a room with people who could not have been more different than me, listening to them talk about issues and ideas that I had never even considered in my life. This isn’t a great description, but I can still feel myself sitting there and looking at all these peoples who were from different countries than me, spoke different languages, had different genders or sexualities, people who were torn from their homes or forced to leave everything they once knew. People who had experienced things that I will never know. And they all had the vision of creating something better for those around them. They wanted to help. That was awe-inspiring to me. I have never felt more optimistic or proud to be a part of something, not only as a part of that organization but as a part of the future of our world, a part of the next generation. 

I could write for pages and pages about my experience here, but the most important thing to note is that this experienced has changed me in ways that I will be forever grateful for. I have been a part of an incredible community of kindness and hope. Being here is hard. Away from family, friends, and everything familiar. But it has been amazing, and I wouldn’t trade my experience and the people I have met for anything else. 

This is me and my coworker at a community event in a little neighborhood of Barcelona
Here’s a another picture of some of my amazingly kind, passionate coworkers/fellow volunteers
This is the view of Barcelona from Park Güell

Wilderness & Civilization

My name is Libby and I spent the Fall 2021 semester backpacking and camping throughout western Montana as part of the Wilderness & Civilization program. My theme is Resources and Sustainability, which pairs well with my major in Wildlife Biology. My major is a fairly niche field, but Resources and Sustainability encompasses a greater scope of topics that I was able to explore through this program, including wilderness ethics, nature writing, and land art.

Land art at Blackfoot Pathways sculpture garden in Lincoln, MT

What I really loved about this program was the way it balanced teaching us about big, abstract concepts driving discourse about the wilderness with learning practical skills for surviving in it. There were many days where I would get into heated discussions about the future of the Wilderness Act in the morning, then literally heat it up in the afternoon with emergency fire building. It challenged me to rethink my opinions on everything from land designations to the logging industry, and more importantly, to put those ideas into words and actions.

Logging site owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy in accordance with the principles of ecological forestry

One of the ongoing conversations we had in almost every class was about whether or not “wilderness” is even a worthwhile concept in the first place. “Big W Wilderness” as we called it is the strictest, most protected land designation we have in this country. It preserves landscapes in their most pristine condition, with no roads, motor vehicles, or extractive activities. However, it operates under the assumption that “pristine” means untouched and “untrammeled” by people. This is a very Western idea because it ignores a long history of active management by Native peoples in these landscapes. We spent over a month reading about the wilderness from the perspective of early foresters, indigenous leaders, nature writers, and modern scientists. At the end of the semester, we had to distill all of these conversations into a final essay defining our wilderness ethic and our hope for the future of wilderness. This is one of the hardest essays I have ever had to write. 

I learned so much this semester about the amazing place I live and the many perspectives and experiences that have made it the place it is today. But I also learned a lot about myself. I put myself way out of my comfort zone to do this program, and it was worth it in more ways than I can count. I realized I am so much more capable than I thought I was. I lived in the backcountry for 10 days, I navigated my trek crew through river crossing and bushwacking and trusted them to lead me in turn, I learned from indigenous voices and challenged my assumptions about industries I knew little about. And all the while, I was making friends for life. Thank you, W&C cohort of 2021. I will never forget you.

Admiring a valley in the Badger-Two Medicine, the aboriginal land of the Blackfeet Nation. The next day, we would hike past that furthest peak.

Surviving Yanapaccha

I went to Peru to experience other mountains. I need mountains, having left Seattle to live in Missoula. I wanted to meet someone else’s mountains, so I trekked over a couple in the Andes and Cordillera Blanca. My guides shared their culture and reverence for nature in a mixture of English, Spanish, and Quechua. But walking was familiar. Arriving at the end of my trip, I realized, terrified, I am going to climb a mountain.

When we begin, the sky is dark. Dark enough to see the swath of pinpricks composing the Milky Way – without my contacts in! The ground is dark too, save for the round white beams emanating from our headlamps. Yana, Quechua for “black,” I learn. For twenty minutes we clamber over rocks in our moonboots, following the trail marked only by occasional rock cairns and the dirt of rocks crushed by those who’ve passed before. Today, I lead.

Reaching the glacier, we clamp on our cramp-ons and unhitch our pickaxes. Our guide scrambles up the ice face to set an anchor. “On belay!”

Hours of slow steps across thick, frozen snow follow. The altitude gives some of us stomachaches, others headaches, and makes our breathing heavy.

A bright light shines over the edge of a nearby mountain. Sunrise? But it is only 3 am. The moon reveals itself fully, outlining the enormity of the mountain.

My feet barely pass each other with each step. One of my partners does not feel well either though, so my pace suffices. We keep our heads down, sights set on following the pre-existing footprints that keep us on trail. By halfway, sunrise imbues the snow with a soft glow.

Here we rest. I cannot stomach food so I down a juice box. I try to keep my eyes open. My friend does not feel well at all. The summit may be a lofty goal for us. Our guide points to some hills, two-thirds of the way.

“If you cannot go any more, just say so and we can turn around,” He says.
“Let’s go there and then chat,” we decide.

We never had that chat.

Slope after slope rises in front of us. The severity of the steepness overwhelms me – how can I climb this? “Zero!” I call, as my heart climbs into my throat and my eyes well with tears. If I can just compose myself… I close my eyes for a moment. I am afraid. Yes. But, I have made it all the way here. “Clear!”

By the last ice wall, immense, we are too close to give up. Despite dwindling strength, we pull ourselves up twenty meters. We each collapse at the top of the wall, only to be roused to our feet. We are not there yet. With the guide tugging on the rope, I struggle to crawl up the last bit. I gave up hours ago on reaching the summit. I only agreed with myself to take the next step, the next hill, the next traverse. Now I’m here.

“You made it!” a friend at the top exclaims. “I didn’t think we would,” I mutter. I wanted to let the mountain beat me, but my team’s encouragement refused. They gave me the courage to lead, to bite down my fear, to remember the skills at my disposal to evade all the danger and thoughts the mountain threw at me. Laying on my pack, I cry at my exhaustion, my upset stomach, my aching limbs. I cry because I did not have faith in myself and yet I still succeeded. Pagcha, or paccha, Quechua for “waterfall,” I remember, making my own. I feel intense respect for Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, and what she can do for or to us.

The peak is beautiful.

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.