People I’ve Met on the Mountain

By Georgia

Recently, I made a pretty big change to my gap year plans. Instead of working at home after my busy three months in South America, I decided to move to New Mexico and work the ski season in Taos Ski Valley. The job is pretty cool for a number of reasons: lots of mountains to explore, a free ski season pass, Taos is a certified B-corporation (which means they adhere to high environmental and humanitarian standards), and the job is just a short drive from the Rio Grande Gorge (which just so happens to be one of my favorite places on the planet). But surprisingly it wasn’t any of those factors that drew me to the job. It actually wasn’t a “what” that drew me to the mountain job at all, it was a “who.” This blog post is an ode to those people who’ve inspired me to chase the unexpected.

When I came with my family for a week during the winter holiday season, I met a lot of cool people on the ski lifts. Ski lifts are like that – they’re long and cold, they group strangers together, and are best endured by shedding layers of life and insight amongst liftmates (while of course keeping all your warm coat layers on!). On ski lifts, you get to know people quickly, and I often find myself falling in love with the persons and their pieces that I encounter.

The first person I met on a lift this year has summited all seven of the famed seven summits (including Mount Everest), was friends with the late legendary climber Anatoli Boukreev, has raced on bike from the top to the bottom of the U.S. (the Continental Divide Bike Trail) five years in a row, is in his late sixties, and is currently preparing for a thirteen-day cross country bike race. Then I met a competitive trail runner who wrote hiking guides in the high Andes and worked on documentaries in South America with Oliver Stone. Then I met a chef who has worked in a cook-line in a restaurant kitchen for over ten years now. Next came a young woman who did seasonal work and rugged traveled all throughout her twenties, and is now a nurse at thirty-six. She said to me, “I don’t regret one minute of how I’ve spent my life. I’m happy.” And these are only the first four people I met!

The “seven-summiter”* and I reminisced about our respective mountain adventures, our reflections landing in particular on the topic of being the coldest we’d ever been in the mountains. The trail runner and I talked about hiking and South American history and politics, him drawing on his work centered on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and I drawing on my recent experiences in Bolivia and Peru. The cook and I shared joy over our love for the energy that we’ve found in the restaurant business, and the responsibility that comes with service-industry jobs. And the nurse conveyed to me that it is possible to pursue passion, self-improvement, and world-improvement, all in one life, and reminded me that there is no singular linear path towards my goals.

After meeting these people over the span of only a couple days, I knew that Taos was the place I needed to be for the next few months. The energy, the inspiration, the excitement, the self-reflection, and the learning that these people stirred up within me was enough to make me giddy. It was a no-brainer that I had to come back here.

Since moving out here for the season, I have also met a woman from the Taos Pueblo who is the head of Taos Ski Valley community outreach, a bunch of university students from Argentina, Peru, and Paraguay who are here to work for the season as part of an internship that offers credit towards their degrees, musicians, public defense lawyers, artists, and even a rocket scientist, who have all given me the great gift of their friendship (some only for the extent of a 10 minute lift ride, and others indefinitely). What a place to be.

And on top of all the inspiration that these people have offered me, I’ve found that every single one of us has something in common. It turns out that all it takes to uncover whatever that thing may be is the length of a ski lift. To have something in common with someone who has summited seven mountains, or someone who has devoted his life’s work to a job as difficult as working in a hot kitchen, is empowering. I know I have a long way to go before I find myself as accomplished as those folks, but to see that we share interests and curiosities reminds me that my wildest dreams are attainable if I pour my heart into them. What all of the people I’ve told you about have in common is an immense passion for what they do. What is life without passion? I do not know – and I hope to never know!

One last thing I’ve learned from this adventure so far, and from ski lifts, is that “strangers,” really are not that strange.

* I intentionally chose to omit all names from this piece, just to protect my new friends’ privacy!

Just How Small Is Israel?

By Ethan

When trying to explain to someone its small physical size, people frequently compare Israel to New Jersey. But what you don’t hear as much is that Israel feels much smaller than New Jersey.

I gained a new appreciation for this small-world feel when I went to a quaint cafe across the street from where I live in Jerusalem. To my surprise, I found the sitting prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, eating lunch with his wife and son. Of course, there was a security detail surrounding the cafe, and a guard asked me a few questions before letting me in to eat. Not twenty feet away from my table in the courtyard sat Prime Minister Netanyahu, who, when finished with his meal, took a picture with me after I asked. He even insisted on a selfie!

Being as effortlessly close to the leader of a country as it was in this case is a remarkable reflection of how real and small this country is. At home, I have never met my senators, representative, or governor, let alone the president. Thus, meeting the prime minister in such an average-Joe’s setting was awesome.

The holiday of Chanukah happened at the end of December, and experiencing it in Israel was outstanding. To see so many people lighting their Menorahs in their windows every night of the holiday was inspiring and beautiful. In fact, in some places, people have special glass boxes to enable them to light their menorahs outside! This concept doesn’t quite exist in the United States, so seeing a different way others practice the same holiday was wonderful. Chanukah also made me feel a unique sense of community.

In other news, I’ve spent some time visiting places around Israel lately, from the alleged tomb of Samuel, a biblical prophet, to a tour of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building. I even got to sit in on a live plenary session! I also went to Masada, an old mountaintop fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, followed by a short hike in a nearby oasis called Ein Gedi.

Lastly, because Jerusalem is a city considered sacred by all three Abrahamic religions, I went to the Armenian and Christian Quarters in the Old City on Christmas Eve to explore how another religion celebrates its holidays. There were lights everywhere and people coming and going from mass and holy sites. The Old City felt harmonious and charming .

 

Barcelona Part 2: Typical Day in the Life

By Quinn

This post is the second in a two-part series. Read the first part.

I have been told I speak Spanish with a heavy American accent, but if there is one thing I can say like a native, it is “espresso with oat milk over ice to go, please.”

The man ahead of me takes his croissant and black coffee, and the barista signals me to order at the counter. I take a calming breath, and repeat the same line I have been practicing everyday since my arrival to Barcelona two months ago in my head.

“Café con hielo y un poco de leche de avena para llevar, por favor.”

I dig through my purse for the correct amount of euros, and I am still searching when the barista returns with my coffee, clearly exasperated by the hectic Friday morning rush. She asks me in Spanish if it is possible for me to pay with a credit card or apple pay, agitated by my inability to quickly claw my coins from the depths of my bag.

“No, lo siento. Me robaron mi tarjeta. Y mi teléfono también,” I reply.
“No, I’m sorry. My credit card was stolen. So was my cell phone.”

What feels like eons later, I have retrieved the coins and, with a “muchas gracias,” am out the door and on my way to the metro.

“Life Without Google Translate.” Captured at a music festival day after my phone was stolen.

If you want to learn how to be truly mindful and present in every moment, I recommend getting your phone pickpocketed, which apparently, is easier than I could have ever imagined. I have been without a phone for one month now. It was stolen sneakily—and very gracefully, might I add—out of my zipped purse along with my credit card and driver’s license during my second week in Barcelona. The new phone that my parents mailed me from home is stuck at customs in France, and I have little reason to believe it will be released anytime soon. So, whereas previously I might have spent this ten-minute metro ride listening to music or texting my friends, I now people-watch or read my current book, The Secret History. I also eavesdrop—a lot. But ONLY if those near me are speaking Spanish. If you eavesdrop on a conversation in your native tongue, it’s nosy, but if you eavesdrop in a foreign language, it’s educational. A young couple to my right establishes their dinner plans, two young boys to my left laugh over a Spanish Youtube video, and the loudspeaker alerts me that we have arrived at my stop.

Polaroid of my class at Spanish school

I finished yoga school two weeks ago, and it was an incredible experience. I believe that practicing yoga daily, combined with my involuntary off-the-gridness, have made me much more present and aware, for which I am very grateful. Since finishing yoga school, I have been attending a Spanish school, which begins at 9:30am and finishes at 1:30pm every weekday. I have met some really cool people from all around the world in these Spanish classes, and I have formed a great friend group with three girls from Sweden.

When class is finished for the day, I meet up with the Swedes and we head out for a fika, which is technically the Swedish word for snack but, as they have explained to me, is a word with much cooler connotations which are not reminiscent of cheese sticks during recess. We walk to a cafe and I order another coffee: it’s my time to shine ~en español~ once again!

After the fika, I ask my friend Karin if she has time to attend a yoga class with me before its time for pickup at the preschool. Karin is 19 years old from Gothenburg, Sweden—also on a gap year—studying Spanish and nannying in Barcelona. Since finishing my YTT, I have been trying to maintain my personal yoga practice everyday, which becomes exponentially more fun when I successfully convince a friend to join me at a class, like I do today!

After yoga, I part ways with Karin and take the metro back to my apartment, where I hop on my laptop and let my parents know that I am still alive, which I do three times per day: in the morning before heading out to Spanish school, in the evening before heading out for the night, and later in the night when I have returned safely home. In all honesty, I have been very grateful for the break in social media that came with my phone-robbery and refusal by the French government to release my package into Spain. One of my goals for my gap year is to go off social media entirely, but I quickly realized upon my arrival to Barcelona that would be impractical, as all of my friends here communicate solely via instagram DM. I doubt that my will-power alone would have been enough to keep me off social media for all but fifteen minutes per day, but I do find it really difficult not to be in more frequent communication with my family.

I DM my friends asking about our evening plans and hop in the shower while awaiting their response. My shower, as well as the entirety of the bathroom, is covered in a thin layer of black mold, which might explain the chronic cough I developed shortly after moving in. But, aside from that small detail, both my apartment and my roommates are very charming. Given I found this living situation by posting an advertisement on the internet (19 YEAR OLD GIRL SEEKING FUN ROOMMATES IN BARCELONA!!), I’d argue that living happily despite a little mold is a great deal.

Atop Tibidabo, a hill with a church, a small amusement park and views of the entire city, with Rewa, Maxime and Niky!

By the time I am out of the shower, my friends have formed a plan for the night. I met this friend group on my third day in Barcelona, and they are truly some of the best friends I have ever had in my life. My first three days in this city were incredibly humbling and included me following a group of teenagers into the public zoo, which did not end as I had hoped (with them welcoming me into their friend group and inviting me to a Spanish house party), and instead ending in a much sadder and more pathetic way (with me spending 20 euros on a ticket to enter, only to wander aimlessly around the zoo alone for two hours. (It was a great zoo though.)) I promise I am neither a creep nor completely socially unaware (as you would have full reason to believe after reading the prior sentence), I just did not know one single person in the city and knew no other way to make friends than going up to people on the street. Luckily, everything worked out, as I ended up meeting, in my opinion, the coolest people ever just two days after my pathetic zoo experience. Rewa, Maxime and Niky are all studying abroad in Barcelona while they get their undergraduate degrees, and they are from England, Greece, and the Czech Republic, respectively. Kai and Pierre are also studying abroad while they earn their master’s degrees, and they are from Germany and France, respectively.

A group of Pierre’s friends from France are visiting for the weekend, so he wants to show them Ovella Negra, our favorite place to start on a night out. Kai also has a friend visiting who wants to go to Razzmatazz which, with 5 separate floors each playing different genres of music, is the largest discoteca in Barcelona. Meet at Pierre’s apartment at 10 before heading to Ovella Negra and Razzmatazz? Rewa, Maxime and Niky are in.

I cook some dinner, take a nap and facetime my family to let them know I’m going out for the night but will text when I return home. I grab some cash (enough to hail a taxi on my way home but not enough to be in a lot of trouble if I happen to get pickpocketed again), text my friends I’m on my way, and I’m out the door!

The Last Couple Months

By Ethan

I anticipated that joining the Israeli workforce, even as an unpaid intern, would open my eyes to new elements of Israel’s culture– I was right. Over the last couple months, I worked at two different places, met many interesting people from varying backgrounds, and poured long hours in to feel the rewards of hard work.

At my first job, I worked at a media company, helping with video editing and live recording and production. The company I worked for did strictly contract work, meaning every project was with a different set of people. This style of work meant I met everyone from political figures to worldwide news anchors to non-profit leaders. It helped me realize how important it is to treat everyone professionally and with respect, as people are working toward their own goals and facing their own challenges in their lives.

In addition, this was my first time working under a boss in a standard office setting, so getting used to the grind of office life was tough at first, but a valuable experience to have. My schedule involved a commute via two public buses, which helped me better understand Jerusalem’s layout, and in this practical way, feel more like a local.

My second job was working for an organization that educates young English-speaking Jews about Judaism and Israel. I witnessed the passion that educators have for what they do, and appreciated how hard they worked just to teach people. I worked with many different forms of content across many different media platforms, in addition to sitting in on some of the live classes they taught to groups. Because of all of this exposure to teaching, I learned a lot about how people respond differently to different types of education, whether that be a lecture, a conversation, or a debate.

The office in this job was bigger than my first one and felt more like a family; everyone was working hard, and this shared effort built tremendous office place comradery. I would hope for any place I work at in the future to have the level of efficiency, effort, and collegiality of this workplace.

Reflecting on my internships, I have grown into living in Israel and feel much more comfortable communicating in Hebrew, and being part of the everyday workforce has played a significant part in that. Adjusting to living in another country is a process, but it’s one I’ve enjoyed.

Barcelona Part I: The Dream

By Quinn

July 2021, the Thierfelder kitchen dinner table.

“Quinn, what is this obsession with Barcelona? You do realize they hardly even speak Spanish there, right? Why would you go to a Catalan city to learn Spanish?” asked my mother, cutting her grilled chicken.

“I don’t know, Mama. I just have always had this romanticized dream of living there,” I replied.

At the time, I truly did not know when or why the Barcelona seed had been planted in my mind. However, months of reflection later, a certain brochure comes to mind. One Wednesday of sophomore year, a spokesperson from School Year Abroad visited my Spanish class to encourage us to apply for a transfer term of high school to a Spanish-speaking city, promising rapid language development and memories of a lifetime. He handed us brochures for the Barcelona exchange program. Having never traveled to a Spanish-speaking country before, I was obsessed with the idea of immersing myself so deeply in a different culture and the opportunity to practice my Spanish language skills. And the kids on the brochure, enjoying jamón ibérico under Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, just looked so dang happy.
Memories of Cheetah Girls 2, the feeling of the Spanish sun against my skin, the scent of patatas bravas wafting through Mediterranean Sea-salted air, and visions of discotecas and moonlight vespa rides flooded my senses. Thus, while planning where I would spend the fall of my gap year, I bought Frommer’s Guide to Spain and drew hearts in the margins on page 237: Barcelona.

I decided I did not want to do an organized program for my gap year, meaning I did not want to move to Barcelona with a group of other American gap year students. I knew that moving to a foreign country would bring challenges whether or not I had the support and structure of a program, and I really wanted to throw myself into the deep end of the living-abroad experience. Having just graduated from a boarding school of 800 students, where everyone knew everyone’s business and our time was structured to the second, the idea of relocating to a foreign country, where I could build a life entirely on my own (or at least 3 months of one) and meet people with different experiences and cultures than my own enthralled me. So, I found two roommates online, and I booked a flight to Barcelona.

Instructing my first yoga class!

I found a yoga studio that offered a 200 Hour Vinyasa Yoga Teacher Training course, which would include eight hours of training every weekday for one month. I had occasionally practiced yoga throughout high school, but I preferred more high-energy forms of movement, such as dance, spinning classes, or running. The latter forms of movement served as ways to get outside of my brain and away from my thoughts through exercise, and I found yoga’s focus on meditation and push to go inwards daunting. However, one of my goals for my gap year is to learn to undo some of the high-strung and perfectionist qualities I developed in my four years of what I call “trying to get into Duke,” aka high school. I was enticed by visions of myself finishing my YTT as a new, incredibly zen person, and I was happy to have a month of yoga school to provide structure as I got settled in Barcelona.

“Okay,” my mother said around her grilled-chicken chewing, “I’m still not convinced Barcelona is the best place to learn Spanish, but I do think it would be an amazing experience nonetheless. You should
totally do it. Just don’t get pickpocketed.”

This post is the first in a two-part series. Read the second part.

Nutcracker and Nostalgia

By Emmie

When I think of December I think of The Nutcracker. It has become a staple of my December since I danced in my first Nutcracker (I was the mouse that got shot in the battle scene). I think like many dancers there is a love-hate relationship with The Nutcracker. The holiday tradition often seems inescapable as the music of Tchaikovsky’s famed score fills studios in October as rehearsals start and is heard through the new year as the twinkling notes of the sugar plum fairy’s solo echo behind a car commercial or the upbeat rhythm of the candy cane divertissement fills a department store.

This year was no different as rolled Mid-October we had started rehearsal. I had the opportunity to dance in the Waltz of the Flowers. This was the first Nutcracker I performed with a company other than the company I started dancing at and danced with until I graduated. When you dance at the same studio for such a long time you work your way through the cast of Nutcracker as you start by performing as one of Mother Ginger’s gingersnaps and eventually performing as the sugarplum fairy or Clara.

Even with all of those Nutcrackers, I had never performed in Waltz of the Flowers before but this year the excitement I usually felt about The Nutcracker was subdued. I think this was because despite Nutcracker being the cornerstone of my Decembers this was a new Nutcracker. The choreography was different, the people I was performing with were different, and the theater was different. It was all new and it wasn’t the Nutcracker I had grown up with and had associated with all of these happy memories. Something that I used to get so excited about felt more like a hurdle that was standing in front of me than something I used to wait with anticipation for all year.

I carried this attitude with me until that first performance. I think I forgot about the pure joy that comes along with the performance. As I ran off stage I felt that child-like joy I had always associated with Nutcracker. I forgot about the discomfort of the new and different and remembered why I loved Nutcracker: because it was fun. As I sat backstage watching the Grand Pas de Deux I was overrun with the nostalgia of watching the Grand Pas rehearsal through the doorway of my home studio when I was little, in awe of the grace and beauty. And as I sat backstage this year I felt the same way and remembered how magical dancing and performing is and how lucky I am to do it every day.

Listening to My Gut

By Pallavi

I’ve been home from my adventure in the pacific islands since November 10, working, spending time with my family and friends on break, and reacclimating to normal life. The last 6 weeks have consisted of many different things: applying to a ton of jobs, getting ghosted by those jobs, all of a sudden getting 4 jobs at once, narrowing it to 1, and then working and preparing for song auditions in nyc. My daily routine consisted of waking up, going on a long walk, going to work, which is at Aerie in Georgetown, DC, finding parking, and making the walk to work before my shift.

Rainy walk to my car through Georgetown after my shift!

Parking is my biggest enemy. I’m really bad at it, and I don’t live downtown, so parking in tight corners is unfamiliar to me. I park in the residential areas where the meters don’t usually get checked, and that usually leaves me about 15-20 min walking from Aerie. The walk is my favorite part of my day. I put in my half-broken earbuds, my playlist (which has lately consisted of a LOT of 80s rock) on shuffle, and my hands in my pockets to hide from the cold, and think about my life.

An issue I’ve been having recently, as dumb as it sounds, is having too much time to think. A lot has changed in my personal life recently, and my grandfather unexpectedly passed recently as well, so being home with a very predictable routine has given my brain a lot of time to over analyze my life. But for some reason, on this walk to work, I feel a lot more peaceful.

Maybe it’s because I love interacting with people and at work I get a lot of that. Or because of the combination of employee discount and working at my favorite store. My boss has labeled me the fitting room expert, and if anyone needs a bra fitting, somehow I am now your girl.

But, the upside about getting to think a lot is I have time to plan my future. I’ve spent more time with myself than I ever have before, if that makes sense. This past 6 weeks has felt like an in-between existence. I’m not quite at the next thing yet but I’m way past the first. I knew not always being super busy would be challenging for me because I genuinely cannot remember a time in the last ten years before this year that I had a lot of down time. It’s hard when you always feel unproductive, but also easy to fall into the comfort of home.

I remember reading a DGYP blog post from someone else on this last year and hopefully anyone reading this can have the same takeaway: it’s ok to not be as crazy productive as you’re used to. I’ve found that getting a lot of little things done during the day—even if they aren’t crucial in the big picture— can really make a difference.

Amid all of this change, I realized I also was craving a change in plans. Though I’ve spent almost 2 months singing and putting together material for the auditions I had planned on doing, I realized I had lost a little bit of the spark for it that I had before and that the stress of moving to New York alone in the dead of winter and entering a very critical environment was seeming less exciting and “growth opportunistic” and more like a very expensive chore. The timing felt wrong, and the universe confirmed that when my housing in nyc fell through. So I followed my gut and made a change.

I decided to look into a program my friend had told me about earlier in the year called VACorps, a company in Cape Town, South Africa that places you with an internship and housing and connects you with other gap year students for 2 months. Somehow I submitted the application, got interviewed, placed, and was allowed to sign up less than a week in advance…

Me about to leave to fly to Cape Town! Finally allowed to overpack again now that I’m not backpacking 🙂

So, I’m headed to Cape Town!!!! I’m editing this entry from flight UA2222 from IAD to CPT as we speak. In 12 hours I will be in South Africa, and I will be interning with an American lawyer named Kelly Stern working on human rights, gang violence, and mass incarceration. An internship in human rights was originally on my bucket list when I first decided to take a gap year, and though I didn’t envision it in January necessarily, I am so excited for this change. New York will always be there, and if come April the nyc spark is back, then I would love to try it again. If not New York, then I’m researching other music programs too. But for now, even just focusing on music for the past 2 months in preparation has sort of fulfilled me. Plus I’ve always wanted to see a safari!!!

It’s summer in South Africa right now, and much like the French, holiday is taken very seriously there. So, my internship won’t start for another week, giving me and the other gap year students plenty of time to explore the city and connect with each other. My pre-trip planning has included a very glamorous last day of work at Aerie where I scanned, by hand, as in manually, not one, not two, but three thousand pairs of underwear. It sounds like I’m exaggerating. I’m not. Probably one of the most mind-numbing 5.5 hours of my life.

Safe to say, I’m excited for some change in my life, and as I sit on this plane right now, I feel so much more calm than I did at this moment before my trip 5 months ago. It’s crazy to think about how different my life has been in the last few months, and how much my mentality has fluctuated too. I’ll miss my daily walks, but they’ll be there when I’m back. I can’t wait to see what the next two months hold (hopefully a safari and penguins!!!), and I will definitely be more active now that I’ll consistently have technology.

The Long Road to Master

By Benjamin

One of my longtime goals was to become a national master in chess, a game I’ve been playing since I was nine. In chess, an elo rating system is used to standardize each player’s approximate strength. In the US, to get to National Master, a title only the top 1% of players obtain, one must get to 2200 elo, and I got 2198, just 2 points shy! In this blog, I’ll take you along my chess journey in the past couple of months.

For the past few months, I have been studying a ton of theory, watching courses, doing drills, and practicing against strong opponents. After putting in the work, I have noticeably gotten much better, but I had to face the real test: using what I learned in a real competitive tournament game.

I set my sights on the NC Championship in October in Charlotte, a tournament that joined dozens of players from all around the state to compete for the state champion title. I was deeply committed to getting a good result, as I was rated 2133 and was close to reaching the threshold. I came in seeded around 10th out of 40 in rating but finished tied for 4th after winning 4 and losing 1 game. These games were real stepping stones, as it was the first time in a tournament game that I had implemented the openings I just learned, so I definitely learned a lot, especially from my one loss.

After this tournament I was rated 2155, a 22-point jump. Then, I sought to play in the US Masters on Thanksgiving weekend. This time, it was much different. The field was far stronger, and there were over 40 international masters and grandmasters, which are titles that are leagues above National Master. In fact, the tournament required you to be a master to play, hence the name. There were 200 players from all around the world, and I was seeded just 190th by rating. With such a strong field, it was going to be an uphill climb to get a good result, but at the same time, playing all these incredibly strong players was going to be a great opportunity.

I analyzed my games, practiced more, and memorized more theory for a month, striving to overperform. Then, it was go time. My first two rounds were rough, losing against two FIDE Masters (one step below international master), but they were very close, hard-fought battles, and the fact that I could even have chances against them was a sign of improvement. Because of my early losses, I was bounced to the back of the standings so I had to play players who weren’t rated as high as the first two. In the next 6 rounds, I bounced back quite remarkably with an undefeated streak, winning 4 games and drawing two, all against players who were rated much higher than me. By the 9th and final round, I reached the top quadrant of the standings with 5 points, and I was by far the lowest-rated player to do so. I even scored higher than a lot of top grandmasters and international masters. That set me up to play one of America’s top prodigies in the last round, an 11-year-old international master. It was a shameful defeat for me, but I still held my head high as I knew my overall performance would get me close to, if not to, 2200. A few days later, I saw that I’d jumped to 2196, a little bit disappointing but also encouraging.

With such a short distance to master, I strove to play some casual Saturday tournaments where I play much lower rated players and easily pick up a point or two without a ton of risk, but that only got me up to 2198.

The journey still goes on, and I hope I can get it in the next tournament without losing and digging myself into a deeper hole. Hopefully next time you hear from me, I’ll be a chess master!

Feet

By Georgia

Note: This is an adaptation of a blog post, “Feet,”  that I wrote and posted on the “Where There Be Dragons Yak Board” (11/24/22). It represents well some of the learning I did and conversations I had while in Bolivia and Peru.

I have a confession to make: I love shoes. For my trip to South America, I painstakingly limited myself to bringing three pairs: my Hoka hiking boots, my rubber Birkenstocks, and my thrifted navy blue low-top converse. My feet are small, size 3.5 kids, and they are soft and smooth with nails intact. They endured the beginnings of a blister or two on the first trek of my trip, but nothing major. My feet aren’t beautiful, they aren’t anything special, but they definitely spend most of their time tucked neatly into Nike’s or converse, with comfy cute socks acting as a cover between foot and shoe. Why am I giving you a vivid idea of my ten toes and their preferences? Here’s why:

Watching 72-year-old Don Jose of Asunción del Quiquibey (an indigenous Amazonian community) stand with bare feet at the head of a canoe for the better portion of an hour-and-a-half-long boat ride, I had an epiphany: since the start of my time in Bolivia, I’d seen a lot more feet than I normally do in New Jersey. And the feet here tell some pretty cool stories. The guides on my first trek wore sandals for the entirety of the trek, the Quechua women I’ve met have all worn sandals, and my new friends in Asunción del Quiquibey have impeccable balance and control of their boats in the Amazon because of a lifetime of experience and the grip of their bare feet.

The feet here look different from mine; they are weathered, calloused, and have nails that have overcome brokenness and fought to stay intact. These feet live under the sun and in the dirt and Amazonian waters. They have crossed Incan trails and withstood the busy streets of La Paz.

In culture and in medicine, feet are vastly important. They keep us in contact with the earth beneath us, they carry the weight of our bodies, thoughts, and things, and they are widely important indicators of overall health and healing. I remember giggling when I was younger over “free the foot” movements in the United States; people would run marathons barefoot as the ultimate show of strength and people even invented toe shoes (which were basically gloves for your feet). I laugh at those same things still now, but for a different reason. They’ve turned something quite simple into something unnecessarily grandiose. Here in Latin America, generations of people have humbly kept in touch with their roots by never abandoning the ground from which we’re all derived. The physical inch of distance that a rubber sole maintains separates a person from Pachamama and diminishes the fundamental relationship and reliance between humans and homeland.

Shoes can trick us into believing that we are entities separate from the land that we occupy. After eating locally here, harvesting my own cacao beans, weeping in the mountains, and observing the way that the Quiquibeyans can read the river like an old friend or a brother, I conclude that we are all extensions of the land – like trees or like rocks.

The Andean cross, the Chakana, is composed of smaller cubes circling a larger central cube. As I learned from a class on Andean Cosmovision, the central cube is representative of a mother figure to the smaller cubes. Through observing her children, the mother, Pachamama, discovers more about herself, and in turn, the children also benefit from her knowledge. I believe that us humans are her children, and as I described, fundamentally connected to her as our life and information source. Our feet facilitate this connection best. They physically connect us to our origin and remind us of our interdependence with the land.

If we eat from the earth, breath of the earth, and live in its cradles, how are we any less animal? Any less earth? To know our earth best is to live in sync with the land and to treat it as a life source, in the same way that we respect our own mothers for doing the same. To do so, our feet must embrace the land, feel the dirt between our toes, and accept the embrace that the earth offers back.

Patagonia Trip

By Nathan

I spent most of the past month on a trip through Argentina’s Patagonia region organized through my exchange program. Along with 52 other exchange students, I spent 17 days traveling along the famous “Ruta 40”.

The trip started with all of the exchange students from northwest Argentina meeting at the Córdoba bus station. We had previously met each other at an orientation camp in September, and all of us were excited to see each other again. We then got on the bus and spent the first of many nights sleeping on the road. 20 hours later we arrived in Puerto Madryn where we spent two days whale watching, exploring the beach town, and playing cards at night, sharing stories from our exchange year so far.

From Puerto Madryn we went to El Calafate, making a stop along the way at Punta Tombo to see the world’s largest reserve in the world for Magellanic penguins.

Perito Moreno Glacier

After an hour of watching these adorable 2 ft tall penguins waddle around, we resumed our trip toward El Calafate and spent the night on the bus. In El Calafate, we got the chance to visit “Parque Nacional Glaciares”. We spent hours taking in the massive—yet ever-shrinking—size of the approximately 18 thousand-year-old glaciers. While we were viewing the glacier, we heard a huge boom and watched as the glacier calved and a massive piece of ice fell into the water. We then got on a boat to get a closer look at the glacier.

The next day, we spent some time in the town of El Chaltén visiting a waterfall and hiking a small mountain.

Playa Larga; where we took our polar plunge

At 2 am, we continued our journey south toward Ushuaia. The Islands of Tierra del Fuego–where Ushuaia is located–are shared by Argentina and Chile, so that meant 4 border stops along the way, which moved particularly slow because the border agents were a little distracted watching the world cup games that were on. There were even a few students who had to go through the window twice because the agent forgot to stamp their passports the first time. Eventually, we made it to Ushuaia at 9 o’clock that night. Only 1,000 km from Antarctica, Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, started as a prison where Argentina sent their “most dangerous criminals”. The town now boasts 75,000 residents and is one of the “gateways to Antarctica” as many ships port here before their journey to Antarctica. I spent Thanksgiving day swimming in the freezing ocean and was thankful for a warm meal afterward. We also visited the national park of Tierra del Fuego before turning around and starting the journey back north.

From Ushuaia we drove all night to Esquel where we made a one-night stop on our way to Bariloche. In Esquel, we visited Los Alerces National Park where we saw 3,000-year-old cave pictographs and the beautiful Lake Futalaufquen.

Then, our last stop. Bariloche is a glacial lake town famous for its Swiss influence and chocolate. We spent most of our time here exploring the waterfront and taking in the incredible views.

On our last day in Bariloche, we visited a camp with horseback riding, relay races, and an Asado lunch. We had a lot of fun competing against one another and sharing one of our last meals together. After we returned to the city, we visited a chocolate shop and watched a demonstration of how they make Bariloche’s famous “Rama” chocolate. We then explored the small shops before having one final dinner at the hotel. The next morning we got on the bus and spent 22 hours driving back to Córdoba.

I have wanted to go to Patagonia for years, so this trip was a dream come true. We took in some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen and I was able to make friends around the world. Although there was some tension when the World Cup games were on, all of the students became very close and we are looking forward to the next time we will see each other again.

Speaking of the World Cup, the energy is unreal here as we wait for Argentina to play in the World Cup final on Sunday against France. The USA got knocked out in the round of 16, but ever since I have been cheering on Argentina, and Sunday they have a chance to win it all. My ultra-superstitious host mom will make sure everything is the same for the final as the other games; same room, everyone sitting in the same spots, all of it. Then we will sit in agony for the next 90 minutes, with the hope of Argentina, and Messi, bringing home the country’s third World Cup.