Monday, September 19, 2011

Viaje #3: Ica y Paracas!

We have just returned from our third excursion here in Peru! This trip was to Ica and Paracas, Peru and was full of excitement and fun!

We first arrived at the Huacachina Lagoon (an oasis lagoon in the middle of the Peruvian Desert!) and boarded dune buggies to take on the desert! The dune buggies carried 8 people each and riding in these was INSANE! We rode through the desert at an incredibly high speed, spinning around sand dunes and cruising up and down them. The ride was more fun and more crazy than any roller coaster I have ever been on! Many of the dunes are amazingly high and steep, which made the dune buggy rides intense! After being thrown around on the dune buggies, we stopped at the top of a large dune in the desert. From here, looking out into the desert was an amazing view of sand for miles in every direction that you looked. It was something straight out of Aladin and unlike anything I have ever seen before! Then we were all given boards to try sandboarding! Like I said before, the dunes were massive, which made standing up on the board nothing less than difficult- but still very fun! At first, on most of the larger dunes, we all laid down on our stomachs and rode down the dunes head-first on our boards (some kind of extreme desert sledding). Once I grew comfortable enough on the dunes, I was able to ride down the dunes standing on the board. It was a lot different than wake boarding and even snowboarding in that on the sand, you cannot really carve or cut, so rather than curving to slow your speed down or control where you are going, you just balance yourself and go! Needless to say, there were some pretty harsh wipe outs, but we all made it back without any very serious injuries.

The next day, we headed to Paracas, a coastal town in Peru where the desert meets the Pacific ocean. In Paracas, we boarded a boat and roade out to las Islas Ballestas (an incredibly beautiful island chain off the coast which is home to many diffferent types of animals, including penguins and sea lions!)  We rode around the islands for an hour or so and then we were able to explore the town of Paracas. I spent time relaxing on the beach in the sun before getting a late lunch and then heading back to Lima.

The view on the Dune Buggies

La Laguna de Huacachina


Los Lobos del Mar

The view on the beach in Paracas

Volunteering in Lima!

There are many opportunities to volunteer in Lima- and this is something that ANYONE should take advantage of while studying abroad! It is an incredible way to meet people, help the community, practice the language, and learn more about the people and the culture--among other things! Unfortunately, in Peru, the wealth is extremely unequally distributed. The majority of the wealth in the nation is concentrated in Lima. This, along with below average public resources (public schools, health centers, jails, etc.), has created unbelievable poverty in countless communities in the country. Even if you drive just 15 minutes outside of Lima, you can find incredible poverty. Erin and I have been involved with the Church in our university and have been able to take advantage of many opportunities to serve some of these communities.

This past weekend, we were able to travel to the a small pueblo just outside of Lima with a group of about 15 other Peruvian students. We spent the day working with children, ages 10-12. We held workshops and activities for the children which emphasized the importance of leadership, values, morals and self-esteem. This particular community is one with which our group works very closely! The children in the community were so excited to get to see us and hang out with us! They were familiar with many of the volunteers in our group. The experience of helping out here was AMAZING! The community is extremely poverty-stricken and consists of countless incredible people who have virtually nothing. It was humbling to look at their living conditions- the people here are living in single-room houses made of mud, and have roofs made of grass. Yet, the population was so joyful and very welcoming.

As I stated, the Church has been working in huge ways in this community for some time now. The community consists of countless small homes and literally nothing else. But now, the Church has developed a plan to build an amazing school (preschool, grade school and high school) for the community and has begun building! The grade school and high school classrooms are finished and being used this school year, but lack some essentials such as tiles to cover the dirt floors, among other things. There are plans to build a library, the preschool, and even a computer lab! The school is a true blessing in this community, but there is still a lot of work to be done! We are currently working on fundraising and once the money is raised, the group will begin building the library.  

The opportunity to be a part of a group who is working in such an incredible way has been one of the greatest blessings for me as well! And easily, one of the coolest things I have been able to do while abroad!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Deciding Where to Go!

Making the decision on where to study abroad can seem like a daunting task, so here are a few tips which can make the decision a little easier!

#1: Do you want to study a language? Even if you have not yet begun studying a foreign language, I would recommend to anyone to try to pick one up! Studying abroad is an incredible way to pick up a language rapidly, because you can surround yourself entirely with that language- and it is fun. If you are studying Spanish, look at what you would like to do with your Spanish in the future. For me, I have interned with a Hispanic marketing firm in KC, which works primarily with the Mexican and Latin American populations within the US. For this, studying in a South American or Latin American country was much more practical for picking up the language than going to Spain, because the dialect, accent and many words/phrases are much different!

#2: Are you studying with a program? Look at the program options included with many different programs. All are great, but many offer different things. Choose what seems to best fit you and what you want from the experience.

#3: What traveling do you want to do? Check out the excursions which are either included in the program that you chose, or the options available for you to do some traveling on your own! The traveling is a huge part of what will make your study abroad experience so incredible. Is there any place that you just have to visit -like a bucket list item? For me, this was Machu Picchu! I knew that if I wanted to study abroad and was going to South America, I had to visit Machu Picchu! It helped me narrow down my options to Peru.

#4: What universities are available and what classes do they offer? I would suggest to any student with background in their foreign language, to take classes in that language- it is the best way to continue to learn that language. The university websites are a resource to use in checking what is offered. Also, make sure that your classes will transfer back to your home university ahead of time.

#5: Always keep in mind cost! It seems that some countries are more expensive than others to study/live in. At the same time, within the place that you are studying, the different universities can differ greatly in cost.

Narrowing your options to 2-3 and then deciding can be helpful as well. No matter where you study, the experience will be unlike anything you can ever do againn! You can't go wrong while studying abroad!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Viaje #2- CUZCO!

We have just returned from our second excursion through ISA to CUZCO!
The city of Cuzco was my favorite that we have visited so far in Peru---yes even topping Lima! Cuzco is much smaller than Lima and is tucked away in the Andes. The Inca history in Cuzco is rich to say the least, and the city is beautiful. We were able to explore Cuzco and also to visit the Cathedral and some ancient Incan ruins.

The following day, we were making our way towards MACHU PICCHU! We took off into the Sacred Valley, where we were able to visit more incredible ruins, visit Andean weavers, and go to a local Peruvian bar where we made chicha (traditional drink) and played "frog" (a typical bar game here which is a lot like our washers). After, we boarded a train for Aquas Calientes- the town outside of Macchu Picchu.

Waking up at 5am the next morning was not a problem, because I was more than excited to be visiting Machu Picchu that day (One of the 7 Wonders of the World!). We had a bus to take us up to the entrance of Machu Picchu and once inside, we were headed straight for Wayna Picchu (the tall mountain which overlooks the ancient city). Our first view of Machu Picchu was BREATHTAKING! I have been fascinated with Incan culture and especially Machu Picchu and it truly blew all of my expectations out of the water!!! Around 8am we began hiking up Wayna Picchu--and when I say hiking, I mean more like scaling and climbing the mountain. The trek up was difficult and long, usually takes 1-2 hours, but VERY WORTH IT! I would recommend to anyone to make this hike because once you are at the top of the mountain, looking down over Machu Picchu is unlinke anything else! We enjoyed resting at the top while taking in the view, and then it was back down to explore within the ruins. The trek down was just as difficult as climbing up, but again, a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Once we were back inside the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, we took a tour of the ruins and learned more about the daily life, the rich history, the religion and the Inca people. We were able to see temples, houses, the infamous sun dial, and various other things in Machu Picchu. After, we were left to explore on our own. I think I took nearly 200 pictures just within those few hours (and for me, that is A LOT!). The views were incredible and the experience was unlike anything I have ever done in my life. It was amazing to be there and see how this ancient city was constructed. Within the ruins, there are llamas and alpacas grazing freely as well, which definitely adds to the environment. I would have just spent the rest of my 5 months haning out in Machu Picchu if given the chance!

Machu Picchu was truly an unbelievable experience, and unlike anything I have experienced! The climb up Wayna Picchu with the view from the top was undescribable, just unlike anything in the world. And truly nothing compares to simply walking around the ancient ruins in Machu Picchu. This experience was INCREDIBLE!!!

The beautiful Cathedral in the central square in Cusco

Me at Machu Picchu

I made a new Peruvian friend!

Still not to the top of Wayna Picchu, but almost there! Overlooking Machu Picchu

My Study Abroad Program: ISA

I am studying abroad with a program called International Studies Abroad (ISA).

For a student studying abroad for the first time, or a student who has studied abroad before, but in a different country, I would highly recommend going through a program such as ISA!
- ISA has a staff here at each of the universities. The staff knows the area well and is incredibly helpful and usually young so they are very relatable. You will get to know the staff team right away! They are your go-to team for questions about anything at all (school, program, the city, travel, culture, etc.)
- Very helpful in setting up classes and working with the university. ISA has a working relationship with all of the universities which their students attend. For this, ISA helps students in choosing classes, placement in appropriate levels of courses, and any negotiating with faculty that is needed. For me, they have been a HUGE help even in only the first month of classes.
- Excursions! With my program, I have 4 excursions included. In my 5 months in Peru, I will have traveled to Machu Picchu in Cuzco, Junin (Andes Mountains and into the Central Jungle), Ica (Peruvian desert), and Iquitos (Amazon Rainforest) through ISA. These excursions are INCREDIBLE. We are always set up with some of the best accomodations and get to take part in AMAZING activities (like sandboarding on the desert sand dunes, hiking up Wayna Picchu which overlooks Machu Picchu, swimming with dolphins and fishing for pirhanna in the Amazon, etc.) These are truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences and they are all set up through ISA.
- Exchange activities with locals are set up for us throughout the weeks as well. We get a chance to experience fun and different things in Lima with local Peruvian students. This is a chance to get to know others outside of our university and program. Some of these activities have been: playing soccer with locals, traditional peruvian music and dance, surfing, etc.
- In-city excursions for the study abroad group is included. There is A LOT to see and do in Lima, and we get the chance to do all the "tourist-y" things with the group during the Lima excursion days. We will do things such as visiting historical sites, ancient ruins, parasailing, etc.
- The other students studying through the program will provide a GREAT group of friends! I was surprised when I came at how diverse the other American students all were, but we all bonded VERY QUICKLY. It is great to have them all here to go out with, and share in the amazing excursions and cultural experiences.
- Housing is also set up through ISA. I am living with a Peruvian host-family, which was already set up for me before I arrived. I completed a short survey on my likes/dislikes/etc. and ISA placed me with a house. My family speaks only Spanish and they are incredibly generous and hospitable! This is by far the best way to really immerse yourself in the Peruvian culture and best experience daily life in Peru! I would recommend this type of housing to EVERYONE interested in studying abroad!
- 3 Meals a day are provided 7 days a week by my host family. This is GREAT because with this, I am able to really experience Peruvian cuisine---and it is DELICIOUS! My family does an incredible job at getting us to try all sorts of new things and not miss out on any of the traditional Peruvian food.
- Safety and health is assured with ISA. ISA gives students invaluable advice for safety in the country. ISA also provides an incredible insurance program for health issues while abroad. Hopefully this will not be needed, but in the case that it is, ISA does all that they can to help their students with these issues.

The only cases where I would not recommend using a program would be to students who might already be familiar with the area. You might not need help getting set up with housing, and if you have already traveled to the excursion locations, it is typically less expensive to directly enroll in your chosen university. But if you are looking to revisit those locations or if you want help setting up housing, a study abroad program is great for this. With ISA, you can have flexible options as well with costs (for example: if there is an excursion which you have already been on and you would rather not go there twice, then the cost of that excursion is left out of your program payment).