I am so glad I get to call Valencia my home. I love this city! Transportation costs me about $30 bucks month between taking the metro or the bus. The bus costs 1.50 if you don’t have a preloaded card , about 70 cents if you do. You can recharge your card at various kiosks throughout the city. I use exclusively cash here because if not I get hit with a 3% fee from my bank and also whatever extra the Spanish vendor would charge for using it. To get my cash, I use Moneygram to avoid ATM fees (the ATM charges you a fee, my bank charges a fee, the exchange rate might not be the best, and they take out a certain percantage as well, adds up pretty quick). Moneygram is a service I hadn’t heard of until about 3 days before I left for Europe. It sounded sketchy at first, but really it is super easy and there are plenty of Moneygram locations in Valencia. How it works is my mom gives cash in USD to a moneygram location in the States. After filling in some information, she receives a code. She send the code to me and I go to a Moneygram location in Valencia and pick up the equivalent in Euros. I just have to present my passport matching the information that my mom gave them, and show them the code. The fee for using Moneygram is 8$ for every 1000$ sent, so only %0.8 which is really good compared to using ATMS. I hardly every go out to eat in valencia becuase it is generally more expensive, like 13$ for a lunch meal. Kebabs are really good here and not too expensive, so every once in a while I will spoil myself with one of those. Grocery stores are a bit more expensive but not too much, and they don’t have celery. Meat is more expensive here, so I end up eating a lot of eggs. And I discovered I really like onions here so I eat about an onion a day (cooked obviously). For lunch I often times grab a Bocadillo (sandwhich/baguette) which is really good at my school cafeteria. There are super generous with how much the fill it up. The price of drinks varies alot depending if you are in the city center or in the student area in Blasco Ibanez. Rent is really cheap, I pay 220 euros for rent each month plus 40 for utilities which is really great for being in the city center. I see the sunrise over the city every morning from my bedroom window, and the sunset over my balcony. We have a big living room great for having people over, and are appliances in the kitchen schock us if we arent wearing shoes. One time, we all held hands in a chain to see if the shock would go through all of us. It went through about 3 or 4 of us. Overall, life in Spain is great. With the beach nearby, the square 5 minutes away with always something going on. Erasmus students here treat weekdays like the weekend so there is always something fun to do. I will definitely miss Valencia..
About the 4th week of school, I took a 9 day trip to Morroco. We drive in a bus of 50 erasmus kids down to the southern most tip of continental Spain. Then we took a 50 minute ferry to a city on the African continent that was still technically Spain. Once we actually got into Morocco we did a road trip around the country. I have never been in a bus for so long as in Morocco. Im pretty sure we averaged about 6 hours a day on the bus. We didn’t stop very long in any city, I wish we had more time in them. We went to Chefchaoune, a small city that was painted blue everywhere. It was super cute, with all different shades of blue. We also went to Fez where we visited a tannery, and Marrakesh where there was a large market. However, my favorite part by far was the Sahara Desert. I felt like I was in a hollywood movie, riding a camel in a caravan into the sunset in the dunes. We took the camels to a campsite in the desert where we stayed the night. They played some music for us and we danced around a bonfire. Then we sat on the dunes and watched the night sky. It was the second best starry sky I had ever seen in my life! (First being in Peru). We saw at least a dozen shooting stars, I couldn’t believe it at first. So many shooting stars! It was magical. The next day we took some 4 wheel drive vehicles into the dunes to a native village. Abruptly there was a sandstorm, and then it started raining! We were pelted with rain (the type that actually hurts) and sand and ran back to the jeeps. We were soaking wet, muddy, and having the time of our lives. I would totally go back to the Sahara. We ate a lot of Tagine and Couscous, wasn’t too impressed with the food there. Some of the landscapes we drove through actually reminded me of Utah or New Mexico. Lots of Moroccon men harassed and catcalled us, but we were never really in danger. Some of them were actually also very rude to some of my friends that were girls. One of my friends got sick on the bus and puked which wasn’t cool and there were a couple of other people that got sick. But I sort of expect that for many of the trips I go on. Overall a great trip, especially the Sahara!
About the third week I was in Spain, I went to Ibiza with Happy Erasmus, a cheap travel agency catered towards students studying abroad. It was pretty fun. We took a ferry from the Port of Valencia that took about 5 or 6 hours and then a bus to San Antonio, a city there. Ibiza is super famous for its nightclubs, but I didn’t go to any famous ones because it cost like 50 or 60 euros (~75$) just to get in! I heard a bottle of water was 12$ in some of the clubs, ridiculous. But I had friends that went and had alot of fun (said it probably wasn’t worth it though) . I roomed with a couple of Germans I just met and we rented a car and went around the island. One of the prettiest beaches I have ever seen was Playa Comte in Ibiza. We just lay out in the sun for hours, taking a dip every once in a while. It felt so so perfect. We also went to a party in an abandoned zoo that was super cool. I got body painted a Peacock and some people dressed up as animals. There was a guy in a giant panda costume that was really funny. I also went to a Children of the 80s party where they only played 80s music. We explored the castle in Eivissa and returned exhausted on the ferry.
I also took a trip to Grenada by myself. It had been a long time since I went hiking, so I went specifically to hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains, 45 minutes away. The first 3 hours were suuuper pretty. I met a group of Czech Guys trying to summit Mulhacen, the highest point in continental Spain and joined. About 15 km in, a storm came, but we figured we might as well summit, we were so close. At 17km it got so bad we had to turn around though. It was snowing/sleeting/raining and the wind was soo strong. The visibility got really bad and we couldnt see very far ahead. We were 1.5 km away from the summit but we probably wouldve froze on the mountain if we kept going, plus we couldn’t see the trail. I was under prepared because I was only in tennis shoes walking through the snow. So my entire body was soaked from the rain, and I was the coldest I have ever been for the longest amount of time. We hiked over 3 strenuous hours back ( another 17 km) in the most miserable hiking conditions I have EVER endured. That is for sure the last time I am going to try to beat the storm to the mountain. It was perhaps one of the stupidest things I have ever done, because if we had gone off the trail by a bit, there is a big chance we wouldve been stuck on the mountain the entire night in less than 0 Celsius. Needless to say when I got back to my hostel I curled up trying to not get Pnemonia. But Grendada was pretty.
3 Germans, a Belgium guy, and I rented a car to go to Barcelona. It was fun, but way too many tourists. We went to a club one of the nights, Opium, where I fell asleep at the club at like 4 in the morning on my friends shoulder when we went outside for a little break (not because it was boring, but because I was exhausted). After a 20 minute nap I was up and ready to dance again. The nice thing about Spain is that people actually dance here, instead of just grinding like in the states. On our last day in Barcelona, we went hiking nearby in Montserrat. It was pretty cool but too many stairs.
Probably the biggest culture shock I experienced in Valencia was the school system. I attend the University of Valencia, Burjessot Campus, which is just a little outside the city. So it usually takes me about 40 minutes to get to class by walking + bus or walking + metro. The bus never comes on time though, but I’ve learned to deal. The first couple weeks in Valencia were chaos, between trying to find an apartment and figure out what to do about my classes. It took 2 weeks for me to enroll because I had no idea what to take, who to talk to, or where to go. While I was stressing out abit, all the Spanish people thought it was perfectly normal to be so uninformed and everything so disorganized. Picking my schedule was hard because the times for each class changed every single week – not one of my weeks here has had the same schedule! Sometimes a class will be at 9 30 am on a Tuesday and the next week Ill have it at 11 30 on Wednesday. On top of that, some of my classes overlap. The third week of school, I had to skip an entire week of 3 of my classes because I had mandatory “practicas” for my 4th class. And the 4th week of class I went to Morocco. Needless to say, I started off very far behind and am still trying to catch up.
Everything here runs a little bit late and it almost seems like University is taken way less seriously. Teachers will cancel class one hour before, or show up 10 minutes late. It is totally normal and not even frowned upon for about 3-5 kids to show up late everyday to class in a class of 30. I am so happy that my courses are only Pass/Fail, it alleviates alot of pressure and I can enjoy more of Spain. There is alot less homework here, but the finals are worth %60 of the grade. Yikes. There are 3 weeks of finals here, so my last one isn’t until January 24th. Another different thing here is that my classes are in the same classroom. Ill have 3 classes in a row, all in the same classroom which gets a lilttle old. The teachers here are actually really good, very knowleadgable and I generally like the way they teach. Keeping up in Spanish is sometimes difficult if they throw in too many technical terms. I have been to office hours before and they are super super helpful. Overall, love Valencia. Don’t love how school is that much here though.
My semester in Spain has been incredible so far! I have never had so much fun in one semester. I meet a dozen new international students from Slovakia to Mexico, Lithuania to Brazil. There are so many events for Erasmus students (Europeans studying abroad in Europe) that it is very easy to meet people and make friends. 2 of my roommates are from Germany and one is from Ecuador. We started off not knowing each other, but now the German girls and I hang out all the time. There are actually a TON of Germans in Valencia studying abroad. A TON. So most of my friends here are actually German and I’ve started to learn German from them and Duolingo. Came to Spain expecting to practice Spanish, instead learning German weird right? There are also a lot of Italians here so every once in a while I get to practice my Italian, half of which I forgot from my semester in Italy. Valencia is my favorite city in Spain so far. It used to be Barcelona 3 years ago, but when I came back this year I didn’t like it so much because it was overcrowded with tourists and too many Americans. I have visited Granada, Ibiza, and a few hiking spots around here. Next week I am going to the capital Madrid. The weather here in Valencia is fantastic. It is still in the high 60s in December!
The beach is really nice to go to, in September I was there most days and got to play alot of sand volleyball. I would 10/10 recommend Valencia to study abroad. I live in the city center, and rent is only about 300 USD. Prime location with a huge balcony on the 11th floor overlooking the old city center. I still have a month and a half left here in Spain and am soaking up every minute of it.
Over Winter Break I had the fortune of going to Colombia for 2 weeks. I flew into Cartagena and spend a couple of days in the old town. It was the prettiest city I had every been to – and I’ve been to 27 countries. It was extremely colorful. The houses and streets were super dainty and cute, lively with flowers. On some of the streets there were murals, others had small triangular decorations hanging across them. There was also a cool fort you could go into with shops and street vendors. The food was pretty good, although I would have to say Panama still takes the crown for food. Since I speak Spanish, I was able to get around easily and haggle down prices. From Cartagena we took a bus to Taganga, which is about 4 hours away. Taganga was a beach town famous for Scuba Diving. I went on 2 dives, my first ones after getting my Scuba Diving license over the summer. It was only $50 USD! I met my scuba diving buddy at an outdoor restaurant – he randomly came up to us (group of 4 friends). His name was Sam and he was Canadian. He told me about how he spent 8 months biking from North Carolina to Chile.
After Taganga we went to Medellin. We did a Pablo Escobar tour of one of his properties. We also went to this place with flooded hills that looked really cool. We climbed up this huge, huge, gigantic, big, massive rock called el penol to get a good view. We took a cable car up to a park at the top of Medellin called Parque Arvi and hiked around for a bit. At night we did a pub crawl with our hostel, it was super fun. The bars were somewhat small but had good dancing. One of the bars had a ball pit in it and people were diving in it. I had a blast until a British guy dove on top of me and I had a headache the next day. Another bar we went to was incredibly patriotic. They sang the Colombian national anthem at like 1 am and everyone was waving around flags shouting great things about Colombia. It was very interesting, there were alot of people dressed up in random costumes and the decorations were super over the top and eccentric. I danced on stage with a midget dressed up as Pablo Escobar.
Colombia was overall pretty nice and I felt very safe the entire time I was there. I even got to go paragliding which was for sure the highlight of my trip. The views from the air were absolutely stunning and we flew through a cloud which was incredible. Tayrona National Park was also incredibly beautiful, but too crowded.
OU Cousins is an organization on campus dedicated to cultural exchange between the international students and American students. There are events such as Bingo, Thunder games, and a BBQ where you can have fun experiences with your OU Cousin. My first year with OU cousins I had a girl from Bolivia and another year I had a girl from Asia. Although I became friends from the girl from Bolivia, I never heard any responses from my second OU Cousin unfortunately. When I went to the matching ceremony this year I wasn’t paired with anyone which was disappointing; it seems like there are always more Americans fighting to have an OU cousin than there are international students available. However, I have not let this deter me from being involved in the international community. I have a few Angolan friends that I always talk to (trying to speak with them in Portuguese) and I also unofficially attend a Portuguese class where I learn both the language and some cultural aspects from the teacher who is native to Brazil.
The presenter talked about the importance and success of his Hand and Hand schools he started up in Israel to promote peaceful relations. In Israel, roughly 22% of the population is Palestinian-Arab, the rest being constituted mainly by Jews. There has been a history of strife between the groups that continues to this day and there is virtually complete separation between the Arabs and the Jews. Throughout Israel there are by De Facto Arab-only schools and Jewish-only schools, each only speaking Arab or Hebrew respectively. Lee Gordon is the co-founder of Hand in Hand, a network of integrated bilingual schools where Jews and Arabs are educated together. It is a model for peace education and a shared society that was implemented in a time where there is a complete lack of peace process. He began the schools by recruiting 35 kindergarteners but now there are over 1000 kids in 6 of the Hand in Hand schools. The schools are bilingual, emphasizing Arabic and Hebrew equally. The schools have become increasingly recognized for their academic superiority; the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem is the best junior high and high school in the city with a heavy advancement in the sciences. One of the biggest challenges in recruiting students for the schools was that people were often cynical, rather than racist. They didn’t think that Jewish and Arab students could co-exist well. The schools have also been faced with acts of violence. It has been vandalized several times, with hostile phrases like “death to the Arabs” spray-painted on it and has even been set on fire. Despite these bumps, it is evident by the soaring success of the schools that Gordons vision of seeing Jews and Arabs share a common society is becoming increasingly achievable.
I found it very intelligent and strategic of Lee Gordon to target the racial tensions using the education system. If kids grow up understanding that, despite differences between Arabs and Jews, they are both human and can coexist, then it will shape their mindset to be more tolerable of others. Adults are often firm in their beliefs and stubborn, while children can be more easily swayed by various influences. By erasing prejudice early on by educating the kids in the same setting and giving equal value to both groups, the kids will have a greater chance and desire to live at peace with each other.
One impactful moment from the Lunch and Learn was that a girl from Gaza expressed her utmost gratitude to Lee Gordon for building the schools. She relayed how all she remembered from Israel was tragedy and never expected to live to see the change from war but was extremely happy about the effort towards peace he had ventured for and the success of it. Her emotional commentary even brought a few tears to some of the audience. This reaction shows just how important efforts are to appease tensions between the religious groups, in this case by starting up schools that cater to both groups. Before the presentation I was completely oblivious to the scale of tensions between the Palestinian Arabs and Jews in Israel but am now aware of the need to take small steps with huge impact to achieve peace for the country. I find what Lee Gordon is doing to promote peaceful relations by educating the Arabs and Jews together a fantastic approach and very noble.
The IAS Symposium keynote speaker for the lunch was Ron Diebert. His presentation was over the Toronto-based Citizen Lab’s experiences with targeted digital attacks on civil society. He brought up a few case studies that highlighted Citizens Lab successful prevention of security breaches in people’s phones for example. Ahmed from the UAE, was targeted using a text message by the NSO, a foreign company that only sold their technology to governments only. Luckily, Ahmed forwarded it on to the Citizen Lab who then determined it was malicious and could have access to nearly everything, from Ahmed’s web searches to his whereabouts.
I assumed there was intelligence out there and a cyberwarfare going on, but the presentation confirmed this and provided a few more insights. For example, China gifted the African Union with a building but hid microphones in it. While this doesn’t mean China intended harm, it certainly shows that they want to keep tabs on other political entities that concern them. The coexistence of privacy and technology seems to be heading down a grim path.
One of the main things that kept popping into my head throughout the presentation was ‘What’s the point of even upping the security’? To me, the cyber security crisis seems exactly like the Security Dilemma discussed in class. One side bumps up their security and the other feels threatened so they in turn bump up theirs. It’s an endless cycle that eventually results in both sides developing weapons with incredible destructive potential. In this case, the weapon is digital technology. Every time cybersecurity is bumped up, hackers develop new ways and advances to get past the security so the cybersecurity gets bumped up again. While the defensive side seeks to protect people, if the intelligence somehow finds its way to the other side there will be counterproductive consequences. Personally, I find it not a far-fetched idea that technology would escalate on both sides to a point where the all of our technological systems from traffic lights to satellites, the internet, any radio connections, etc. can be infected with a virus with the click of a button and our society spirals into chaos because of our dependency on 1s and 0s.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a very interesting and moving discourse on the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar. The speaker was Matt Wells, who worked for the Human Rights Watch and was a senior crisis advisor for Amnesty International. His presentation was over the crisis in Myanmar regarding the genocide and of a minority population of Muslims, the Rohingyas, numbering about 1-2 million. He spoke about the atrocities that occurred from this ethnic cleansing, of the burning of homes and buildings, shooting of children, and merciless killing that drove the Rohingyas into Bangladesh. While numbers and statistics were necessary to show the gravity of the situation, hearing case studies from the victims themselves was a more potent way to understand the situation. Many of the pictures of the cases he himself interviewed were very graphic and moving, especially the one of Noor Nahar a woman with her scalped infant. These people were victims of systematic killing where the military did not distinguish between woman or man, child or adult, or actual threats vs the helpless.
The situation in Myanmar for the Muslim minority group is extremely critical and the crisis amounted to Apartheid, according the Amnesty International. It still blows my mind why people can be so cruel to others who have not harmed them, solely because they are different. I get the feeling that the casualties in the Rohingya crisis are often overlooked by Americans because the people are far removed from us; but if this genocide happened closer to home it would surely make headlines which is upsetting that the public knowledge of atrocities that occur is proportional to how involved the victims are with Americans.