Book #2: The Lost Girls

“Travel is never a matter of money, but of courage”- Paulo Cuelho

Would you drop everything to travel the world for a year?

That’s exactly what three friends working as journalists in New York did. This is a true story about Jen, Amanda and Holly who were experiencing quarter life-crises and saw travel as an escape.

 

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From left: Jen, Holly, Amanda

 

This book really spoke to me as a twenty-something year-old because these girls faced the universal pressures to find a soulmate, settle down and have 2.5 kids while landing the perfect job and the perfect life.

It will make you examine your own life and its pressures and shows that life can speed up so fast, its hard to jump off. Leases, jobs, and boyfriends all tied them to one spot on the face of the earth.

I had to cringe when they worked up the courage to tell their family, friends, bosses and boyfriends about their year-long world trip. Co-workers warned it was career suicide, families begged them to consider how dangerous traveling is, and some boyfriends threw down ultimatums. No matter how painful disentangling themselves from their commitments in New York were, the three friends set off anyway.

This is not your typical college back-packing tour of Europe; their plans lead them through steamy jungles, steep mountain ranges, dusty deserts, and sun-drenched beaches.

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“…any romantic notions we’d harbored about our around-the -world vacation, or about one another, had long since been discarded by the roadside. In their place was a real perfectly imperfect group of friends”.

This story is realistic: they did not ride off into the sunset and enjoy a 100% care-free vacation. Instead there were conflicts of interest within the group, they had to face purse snatchers, bugs and visa issues.

 

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Jen, Holly and Amanda in the Amazon Basin

 

What this year-long adventure does reveal is the importance and power of friendship.

It was really hard to talk about this book without giving too many details away. So I’ll leave you with this: it doesn’t matter how old you are, you should always take the chance to explore!

P.S: I’m making a book list as I go along. If you guys have any suggestions of what I should add to my list, please comment below! 🙂

 

Book #1: I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban

“People say, ‘Oh that’s Malala’-they see me as ‘Malala girls’ rights activist’. Back in the Khushal School, I was just Malala, the same double-jointed girl they’d always known, who loved to tell jokes and drew pictures to explain things”.

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be “authentic”. I say this because you really feel like the friend of this young author who describes her and her family’s story in her own voice. The world knows her as the youngest UN ambassador who survived a horrific attempt on her life, but Malala shows herself to be a young girl who only wanted an education.

I like how Malala familiarizes the reader by centering her story around her family in their beloved Swat Valley in northern Pakistan. She talks about school field trips, pets, and the complicated but loving competitive friendships between her and her classmates.

You could say this book is a tribute to her parents, especially her father Ziauddin whose kindness and bravery blessed them with the opportunity to open a school and change the lives of hundreds of families in the region.

I was often reminded of ‘Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl’ because Malala details the slow growth of the Taliban’s influence in the region. I can only describe it as cancerous: the group, led by an influential leader and supposedly ‘religious’ man, was well liked after helping to rebuild villages destroyed by a devastating earthquake, but quickly morphed into a regional totalitarian ruler who punished and publicly executed those not in perfect step with Shari’ah law.

That’s why I thought it was insane how openly Ziauddin and Malala criticized the Taliban. There were even personalized death threats taped to their front door! Most parents would’ve kept their outspoken kid at home, but both understood that speaking out was the only way to fight crushing oppression.

Malala’s brush with death is well-documented, but I never realized how suddenly she was spirited away from her home: one day she is a school girl riding the bus home from school, and when she wakes up, she’s in a foreign country surrounded by strangers. Without giving away everything, it is definitely bittersweet and Malala reminds readers that her cause is not special: education should be a natural right no matter where you live.

There are two take-aways from this book: kindness and generosity are the greatest sources of wealth, and that the courage to speak out is just as powerful as any threat.

Let me know what you think! Already read it¿

Hello Again!

After slowly coming out of my post-final exam daze, it has occurred to me that I have not posted in quite some time.

Since I won’t be traveling anywhere anytime soon this summer, I will be posting non-fiction and travel book reviews! I’d like to learn about people and new places, despite my seriously limited bank account.

This was just to let you know, I’m back on line and that you can expect to be reading my posts much more often! 😉

 

Fresh eyes: Reverse culture shock in America

Walking through Walmart at 9:30 pm felt wrong. Not being able to ride the train to school or work was strange, and Sunday was another work day.

A few years ago, I never thought it would be possible to see my hometown differently. But that was before living and working in Germany for two years.

Reverse culture shock is an actual thing. In fact, there is an entire article entitled “The Psychology of International Living” written by Dr. Dennis White. Dr. White is a clinical and consulting Psychologist, whose work is cited for the Rotary Exchange program.

In the article, Dr. White explains, “In a sense, you have become a citizen of the world, so it may be more than a little confusing to think where home is”.

Also, “…the extent to which you immersed yourself in your host culture, and truly adapted, is probably the best indicator of how much reverse culture shock you will experience”(White, Dennis).

In a way, it is kind of treated like the mourning process, in that it has different phases:

1.)Happiness: You’re super excited to be back and see friends and family!

2.)Frustration: You can get really frustrated. For some reason, after returning from small town-life in Germany, I hated huge stores like Walmart where everything felt commercial. I felt like no one really understood what I was talking about. Everything grated on me (and sometimes still does).

3.)”Gradual Adjustment”: It may sound strange, but I had a hard time remembering certain phrases in English that made me sound like a wierdo in my own native language, and no matter how cool riding the train was in Germany,there’s nothing more fun than cruising down the highway in your own car, blasting music. In short, you slowly get the hang of not being in a foreign culture anymore.

4.)”Biculturalism”: You’ll never forget what you learned during your stay/travel abroad! I’ll always hold onto the German language and love of Bavarian tradition. With time you can feel at home in both cultures.

The article also suggests not to ignore reverse culture shock, rather to talk it out with loved ones, and maybe even find a group of return exchange students, missionaries and other travelers!

I hope this helps anyone out there who may be experiencing reverse culture shock but doesn’t know it.

Anyone ever had an experience like this?

My Volunteer Year Abroad

I never really planned to dedicate and volunteer a year of my life abroad in Germany. It just kind of… happened.

I was studying German at a small school in Bavaria and I was intimidated by the prospect of attending university over there (going to school is stressful enough and even more so, when you’re not 100% with the language).

So I took my friend’s advice, and considered applying for a volunteer position to orient myself. As with any big decision I was scared, had my doubts, but I did it anyway.

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I have absolutely no regrets! I made amazing friends, visited beautiful cities, and dealt with learning curves that come with a new job.

In Germany this volunteer year is sponsored by the German government, and with most positions, you receive room and board as well as some pocket money. I had the luck of finding a volunteer position at a historic monastery in Upper Bavaria.

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In the monastery, it was like a dorm setting, and I lived and worked with seven other awesome people who became my friends. We greeted visiting school groups who would come there for retreats and seminars. It was a great way to meet hundreds of new people!

When we weren’t doing chores or office work, we got to take school groups out canoeing on this beautiful emerald green lake nearby (that will forever by my favorite swimming spot), or hiking and spending the night at a cabin in the forest. I had to pinch myself several times, asking if this was a real job!

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On the weekends, we’d sit out in the cool beautiful inner courtyard of the monastery on yoga mats eating pizza, or taking a bike tour to the different small villages.

Unfortunately, after a year the contract ends, and I said goodbye to my friends. But it was bitter sweet, because, although it had come to an end, I knew I had gained so much from my time there.

I learned how to handle stressful situations, how to be happy with less, and how to make new friends.

This is just to let you know, what can happen when you do say “yes” to certain chances. It may be the beginning of something you’ll never forget!

Home-sickness: Have a Plan!

As I sat in my host-family’s living room, surrounded by smiling faces and polite small talk, I felt like a scuba diver whose oxygen had run out at the bottom of the ocean. Everything that was familiar and dear to me was thousands of miles away.

Never had I been this far away from home. Never had I stayed somewhere, where my hosts were not blood-related or friends of mine. I was 19 years old, it was my first day as a foreign exchange student in Germany, and I was desperately home-sick.

Thank goodness my dad literally wrote down a plan for me before I left. I didn’t feel I would need it, but that first night alone, I frantically dug through my backpack until I had fished it out. For anyone out there who feels they are on the verge of a home-sickness panic attack, breathe and read:

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1.) Exercise: Take a walk around the block. The first five minutes your mind will still be a knotted mess, but after maybe ten minutes you’ll be distracted by the birds in the trees or an interesting building.

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2.) Don’t think about how long your trip is: Big mistake! Stop it! A lot of panic comes from thinking about how long you will be away from home. Instead of stressing out about being gone for 3 months, think only as far as tomorrow. How do you eat an elephant? Bite for bite.

3.) Write in your travel diary: Think of your diary as a buddy. Friends share what’s bothering them and getting it out of your system can take a lot off your chest. Plus, you’ll need to write down all of your awesome experiences somewhere!

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4.) Souvenirs from home: This can be anything that gives you the comfort of home. For me that was bringing my favorite DVD’s and playing them at night on my laptop before going to bed.

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5.) Get spiritual: For those of you who are religious, it may be comforting to attend a prayer service. I’m Catholic, so going to mass anywhere in the world is the same. The language was different, but the flow was the same.

6.) Take care of yourself: Keeping up with personal grooming is important because it keeps you healthy and helps you mentally. For example, giving myself a manicure/pedicure lets me concentrate on something else and makes me feel put together.

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7.) Carpe Diem! You’ll only experience this once! Don’t waste time mourning a place you’ll return to soon. Soak up everything like a sponge; enjoy every bite of a new dish you just discovered, take pictures with newfound friends and come home exhausted with too many stories to tell!

8.) Stay connected (in moderation): Luckily technology makes it easy to call home. It’s helpful to get an earful of encouragement from family and friends, but don’t be on the phone all the time! Sometimes it’s helpful just to know that you can always call home if you have to.

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9.)Learn something new: It’s good to talk about where you come from, but also be open to new things. Learn something about the country you’re visiting!

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10.) Personal space: Traveling and meeting new people can be exhausting and sometimes the most luxurious experience is having alone time. Slow down and enjoy where you are!

After a few days of applying these tips, I forgot I was homesick, and started to fully enjoy the present. That is the goal of traveling, and that’s why I hope anyone who’s homesick reading this will realize it is only stealing time away from a precious experience.

Let me know if there’s something YOU do to stop homesickness, or if this has helped you! I wanna know 🙂

Berlin: First impressions

When we rolled into Alexanderplatz station in what used to be East Germany, Berlin didn’t exactly overwhelm me with it’s beauty.

It was hot, it was crowded, and it was dirty. This was Berlin? I expected a gleaming capital city centered around modern parliament buildings.

We were staying in Marzahn at a Don Bosco youth shelter in an area known for its poverty and crime rate. Here, young adults had a place to stay without paying rent, and learn various trades if they had no home to go back to.

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On my first evening there, I stood on the balcony and looked around me. We were surrounded by what East Berliners call “Plattenbaus” or high rise apartment buildings. Every surface was decorated with graffiti, and trash skittered along the sidewalk in the hot breeze. I couldn’t wait to go back to Munich.

Berlin’s beauty lies not in her appearance, rather her significance. During our stay, I expected to see scars of war and memorials, but what I didn’t anticipate, was how moved I was being able to put my hands on history.

Standing next to the wall made me feel small and powerless. I imagined my family or friends on the other side, and I could suddenly feel a pang of desperation. The same emotion that was the strength behind the hammers that brought down the wall.

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When I visited the Holocaust memorial, I saw a forest of tall black cement blocks in front of me. There is no plaque explaining the reason why the memorial was constructed this way, but it becomes apparent when you walk among the giant black slabs. You become separated from friends, intersecting with total strangers in this labyrinth. A sense of loneliness seeped into me. I realized this may be a very small taste of what Holocaust victims felt. Forever searching for family or friends that may never be found, crossing paths with others who are lost in an endless bleak landscape.

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On our final night, I had an experience that tied it all together. We were near the Bundestag and Brandenburgertor on the banks of the Spree river. A short open-air documentary was being shown, and I expected a boring explanation of Berliner history. It was projected onto a screen on the opposite bank of the river and the music and lights took my breath away.

It described the hard-fought battle to regain democracy in a country lying in smoldering ruin and then the pain of being a divided nation with little sovereignty. This small film highlighted the strong will of not only the Berliners, but also that of the German people to never be separated or controlled by malicious powers ever again. It also demonstrated that despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Germany and democracy has not only survived, but is now thriving.

 

Berlin is not beautiful, but it works. It’s a city many call home, and it’s rough exterior is just a badge of honor, celebrating its resiliency. It’s the cold hard truth of the effect of war, and she has a valuable lesson to teach.

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So later that night, as I sat in the beaten down grass of a park on the river with friends, I smiled as I flicked an old cigarette butt out of the grass. The park was filthy, but all around me, friends and other groups of young people were drinking their beer, laughing and enjoying the cool evening. Berlin was not beautiful but it is beloved.