Student Blogs & Vlogs | College Study Abroad Programs, IFSA-Butler

Road Trip, Day 1 – We Made It! Bachaquero, Venezuela

Time February 16th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Highway mainte-what?

These potholes could swallow a small car without problem; driving past them, I couldn’t see where the holes ended. The tollbooths were all abandoned; as I understand, the federal government prohibits them from collecting tolls. And there were the burnt out streetlamps that haven’t been fixed for kilometers at a stretch (according to my travel companions, something that didn’t happen prior to 1999).

And there were the speed bumps.

Yes, speed bumps. On the highway.

You’re flabbergasted I know. Allow me to explain.

Along the highway that connects Barquisimeto to Maracaibo, small towns have popped up far less than a stone’s throw from the road. The people in these towns sell coffee, lemonade, fruits and homemade bread to travelers, but not from their roadside stands. Instead, they stand in the middle of the road and conduct their business via the windows of passers-by. Between these vendors standing in the middle of the road and children playing nearby, there were enough accidents to prompt the construction of speed bumps throughout the highway.

Unfortunately, these speed bumps have not been maintained. Which means unpainted speed bumps – let’s call them, “surprises” – litter the highway for miles and miles. Walking around later, I continued feared that my world might suddenly be jolted up and down while the sound of thunder/an abused suspension system assaulted my ears.

Other fun facts:

  • Whenever road construction is under way, or a car has wrecked, or the highway is for any other reason impassable at some point, large piles of dirt and branches are thrown in the road as an indicator of such news. This was used once to indicate that the four-lane highway was about to become two lanes. Half of the bridge ahead had collapsed and it was inadvisable to try to jump the gap. Of course, without signs or arrows, it’s hard to know what calamity you’re supposed to avoid until you’ve either avoided it or not.
  • Impatient drivers often pass you via the shoulder when somebody is passing you too slowly in the left lane.
  • Brake lights? Good joke.
  • Signaling to change lanes? Waste of time.
  • Looking before you change lanes? Ditto.
  • Semis looking before changing lanes to avoid crushing your Vitara like a cockroach? They have better things to do.

I can’t imagine making a road trip in the States anymore. As Gertrudis said, it’s boring driving in the States. You can’t help but fall asleep when you’re not dodging potholes and fallen bridges and unpainted speed bumps on an unlit road.


Collecting Families

Time February 7th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

There was no mistaking her words as I walked into her open arms: “Bienvenidos, nieto.” Welcome, grandson.

All of my grandparents passed away between two and a half and forty-five years ago. But yesterday, I was not only a grandson but also a child once again. Claudia’s grandparents (in English they are her grandparents, in Spanish mis abuelos, my grandparents) invited me to their apartment, to a sleepover, and I accepted. And my greeting was no less genuine than if their own blood had walked through the door.

Abuelita set before me a heaping plate of vegetables – eggplant, carrots, string beans and potatoes cooked in a tomato sauce, a dish reminiscent of Indian cooking. And there were plantains, two of them, with a bowl of white cheese to sprinkle on top. Playing the role of grandson who doesn’t want to hurt his grandmother’s feelings by not eating everything she puts in front of him, I ate everything she put in front of me. Which, by the end of the next day, amounted to three toasted white cheese-mayonnaise-tomato-ketchup sandwiches, a plate of rice and fish, oatmeal, an apple, three plantains, loads of white cheese, homemade cake, two cups of coffee, a constantly-refilled glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and Toddy, the Venezuelan equivalent of Ovaltine. What’s the only thing that says, “You’re my grandson,” more than a glass of Ovaltine? Not being allowed to get off of the couch as your grandmother brings you a glass of Ovaltine.

And that was how the day went. Of course, not everything was so child-grandparent oriented. We talked about the political persecution of their children and relatives, several of whom were a part of the over 20,000 workers fired and blacklisted by the government after the national oil company went on strike in 2002. We talked about their wishes for their grandchildren to leave the country and about the months that have passed without coffee, milk, plantains, etc. In short, we talked politics. They were atypical conversations for our relationship, but typical given the political situation in Venezuela.

More broadly, in Latin America there is an openness, a conscious permitting of the blurring of (non-political) lines, that I appreciate. Family is of the utmost importance, and a bigger family, it seems, is better. I have gained grandparents, aunts and uncles, in-laws, etc. The entrance exam is simple: if our granddaughter/daughter/niece loves you, and if you love her, and if you treat each other well, then…ok!Still, back in the U.S., they will be my girlfriend’s grandparents, my girlfriend’s mom, her dad. And my sisters-in-law back home will still be SIL’s, not sis’s.

What about Peru? Thanks to IFSA, my host family has already contacted me. “We already have experience in receiving students into our home,” Bubby, my host-mother told me in her first e-mail, “although more than students, we treat them like they were our own children.”


Lessons in Serendipity

Time January 18th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

ser·en·dip·i·ty [ser-uhn-dip-i-tee] – noun

1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

2. good fortune; luck.

There has been a change of plans.

All of us, sooner or later, recognize that everything is not under our control. Some of us chalk this up to God, some to fortune or luck. But me, I give credit to Columbia University’s Office of Financial Aid.

The university reduced my grants this semester because it costs less to live in Peru. It makes sense, but I was told that while studying abroad my financial aid wouldn’t change. That students in Paris and students in Peru receive the same amount of money and are expected to get by. I’ve done what I can do, but without written proof of what I was told, I don’t have a strong case to push with the University.

All of which is to say that I will not be traveling in Colombia and Ecuador this winter.

But two weeks ago I met Claudia’s uncle, a high-ranking member of the International Labor Organization and resident of Lima. We had the cocktail-version of an intellectual conversation (the conversations a liberal arts degree most prepares one for), and it went well enough that by the end of the night my new uncle invited me to stay at his house. I’ve purchased my tickets, and I will arrive in Lima by way of Bogotá on February 17, 11 days before my program begins. Because I won’t be spending money on hotels/hostels, I should have enough to explore Lima and the surrounding areas before the program begins. ¿Cheverísimo, no?

And the news gets better. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see more of Venezuela than Caracas, but at the beginning of February I’ll be traveling with Claudia’s mother and grandparents to Maracaibo, a port city in western Venezuela. I’ve been told two things about Maracaibo: it’s hot, and they make really good cheese. So hopefully I’ll have a couple dispatches for you all from the hot cheesy port city in a few weeks.

It’s amazing the kind of things life throws at you if you’re willing to play ball. My travels, if nothing else, are teaching me to take advantage of opportunities that come my way while I’m going with the flow. I may not be doing what I planned to do, but I don’t think I could’ve planned anything this incredible anyways.

One final example: last night, I was invited to a birthday party of a friend of mine. There was no question in my mind about going – not only would we get to celebrate his birthday, but I would get to talk to new people, work on my Spanish, and hear Venezuelan music.

Forty people squeezed into the living room of an apartment. Thirty-six were musicians, including some of the most famous in Venezuela, like Aquiles Baez and the singer from a band called Mayonesa Guayanesa. Whoever didn’t have a guitar, cuatro, mandolin, cello, maracas, etc. in hand was singing along to traditional Venezuelan music, Argentine tangos, and even songs in Portuguese. The music filled the room, poured out the door, and spilled out of the window onto the street. People were laughing at the traditional contrapunteo, in which a man and a woman alternate improvising song lines directed at one another. They cried when a woman sang a love song she wrote, and they erupted in laughter again when a late arrival performed his musical stand-up routine, a multi-pronged assault on the slang of Venezuela.

Life became surreal as the significance of what I was seeing and hearing grew on me. I chuckled to myself, wondering, how did I get here? I didn’t know the answer, but I was glad to be along for the ride.


Sí valdrá la pena

Time January 4th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

March, 2004 – the first time I traveled alone. I was thirteen, nearly fourteen, a middle school student flying to Philadelphia to visit my brother and sister-in-law. As an “unaccompanied minor,” I had to wear a badge around my neck with “U.M.” spelled in white block letters on a scarlet background. I tried to hide it under my jacket, but the woman who led me from the ticket counter to the plane demanded it remain in plain view.

In Philadelphia, I was driven around the airport until I saw my brother. When our eyes met I yelled, “Seth!” and I told the guard, “That’s him, over there.” Still, the security guard made my brother present his identification.

I knew who he was; why did he have to identify himself? I thought. I was furious. Why wouldn’t the airline let me be? Why did they make me wear these humiliating letters? Everything they did took away my autonomy and made public my age and immaturity, the two things I wanted to escape by flying solo.

Now, I see that me circa 2004 knew that traveling opens up opportunities, and I was flustered when others prevented me from exploring these. I had the ability, for this short flight, to be me on my terms and nobody else’s. It was my chance to see a big city, to find out what else the world has to offer, and that scarlet badge hindered me.

Now, in some ways, I wish I could have that badge back, to have somebody watching over me as I travel. My family was in Philadelphia to be my guide; this time, I’m travelling alone. Nobody at the airport, no home to go to, nothing. The potential to remake myself is greater than ever before, but so is the potential to become lost – lost in the city, or lost to myself.

Ultimately, this is what drives me to make this adventure: the opportunity to free myself of both my preconceived notions of the world and the world’s preconceived notions of me. Each, in the end, allows us to know ourselves better; the absence of labels permits us to visit worlds that were once out of reach, to see how or where we fit into the galaxy of personalities and peoples that populate our planet.

All of which isn’t to say it’s an easy process. I suspect that more than one out of every five Americans would have a passport if it were otherwise ( There will be misunderstandings and fear; I will struggle and second-guess myself from time to time. But there will also be elation and wonder amidst all this adventure.

What I’m trying to say is, this trip vale la pena. Generally translated as “worthwhile,” vale la pena literally means, “it’s worth the pain (or embarrassment, etc.).” And my travels, studies, mishaps and more will, in the end, be worthwhile.

I began my travels Tuesday, December 28, when I flew from Newark to Caracas, to celebrate the New Year with my girlfriend and her family. From here, I’ll be flying to Colombia in late-January, where I will hopefully see the beach at El Parque Nacional Tayrona, the salt mine cathedral at Zipaquirá, and more. Then I’m off to Ecuador in mid-February for a currently uncharted trip, and finally to Lima, Perú at the end of the month to begin my studies abroad.

I hope to share with you pictures, conversations, meals, etc. that I experience along the way. I hope to illuminate a few aspects of what it means to travel and what it’s like to live in foreign places. I will put myself out there, both on the ground and online, in hopes that such honesty will lead to the most honest discoveries.