Mark Michelini’s Time in Germany

I have arrived here in Germany! From the time I arrived until now, time has flown by very quickly. It has already been three weeks since getting off the plane in Munich. It has been quite the experience so far. I have met so many new faces, gone to many places, and have adjusted to the boarding culture at Schule Schloss Salem, something drastically different than being a day student at Athenian.

The most difficult aspect of my trip so far has been the language barrier. There have been several occasions where it has been challenging to interact with the German students. If they are all together as a group, they often aren’t interested in speaking in English. It does make friendship more difficult, but usually one or two of them in the group will talk with me in English. Luckily, I have found a lot of students in the English system that I have become great friends with. I wish I had used Duolingo before I left for exchange.

The environment in the school is much stricter than Athenian. All devices must to be turned in each night at 9:30 pm until the next day after lessons are over. We usually get them back around 2:15 or 4:00 pm depending on the length of the school day. It is definitely something to get used to coming from the relaxed phone culture at Athenian. The phone policy feels nice after a while to simply interact without the distraction of phones and live in the moment. They have a silencium each day for two minutes during lunch, where students and teachers must be quiet while eating. Also, all students are woken up each morning at six-thirty for a morning run. It is a tradition where everyone must run for about five minutes outside before getting ready for school. It is such a rude awakening, but it does get the blood flowing and makes me less tired. In reality, it is probably not that strict, just coming from relaxed Athenian.

Students come mainly from all over Europe and Asia, and even the U.S, representing a broad range of nationalities. It’s unlike Athenian, where the majority of students are local except for the small number of boarders.

When I first arrived, the weather here contrasted to the sunny California climate. It was pouring rain and cold here for many days, which had me missing home. My spring tan had quickly faded. At the beginning of June, it luckily turned sunny and warm. Many of us swam in the local lake and ate ice cream to cool us down.

The food here in Baden-Württemberg, which is the German state I am in, I will definitely miss. Sausages and meat are the main cuisine. One of my favorites is “Currywurst mit pommes,” which is sausage covered in a delicious red sauce and French fries on the side. It’s so good and I have had it many times. All of the traditional food is quite heavy.

At my last day in Salem, there was a massive alumnus gathering of about 1,000 people. One of the school’s buildings was transformed into a dining hall to serve dinner to all of these people. It was the job of the students to serve dinner to those adults who used to attend Salem. I decided to help out as I had nothing else to do and since all of my friends would be participating. It ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of my time in Germany. It was chaos as about fifty students with their serving plates navigated through a jam-packed sea of alumni. When I was serving, I felt like a fish going against the current. It was overwhelming serving and cleaning up after them. However, it was incredibly interesting to me to watch all of these wealthy people going crazy and screaming German words I didn’t understand at each other. The vibe was like an over-the-top bachelor or bachelorette party. The dinner looked fantastic, and the students were able to eat the leftovers. All of these alumni were invited because they had donated a certain amount of money to the school.

After my time at the school ended, I found myself so grateful for the experience I had, yet a little disappointed. I wanted more of my exchange experience. I only went to school for three and a half weeks. That’s a short time for exchange. My time at Salem was amazing, yet I think if I was there for a few more weeks I could have gotten much closer with the friends and made a lot more memories with them. Other than that, this experience has been something I will never forget. I had so much fun with everyone there and it was a nice change from going to school at Athenian. It’s so cool to stay in touch with friends across the world. Another of my friends lives in New York City, which is much easier to get to than Germany.

After Salem, there was a two-week holiday. My exchange partner and I traveled to Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. These are the three biggest cities in Germany. Since Olivia Ghorai was on also on exchange at the same time in Hamburg, I was actually able to meet up with her for an hour. We both talked about our exchange experiences and how it felt to be in a completely foreign place. It was a lot of fun to be with somebody that lives so close to you, yet see them across the world.

Now, as I write this, I am about an hour-and-a-half from landing in San Francisco. It makes me sad that this experience has come to an end. But I am excited to live my life in California in a different way, having grown from this exchange program and become more confident in myself. I hope to visit Germany next year and see Yannick again. We’ve become much closer friends and laughed a lot together. I will miss annoying each other and all of our inside jokes. His family was so amazing and kind to me. I will definitely stay in touch with them.

Lucy Sparks Mendez Comes Home From Argentina

I’m writing this is on US soil, so maybe it’s cheating, but I’ve only been in the United States 34 hours. I honestly expected coming back to the monotony of home to feel like a letdown after being surrounded by novelty and intrigue and challenge for a month, but I was surprised. It felt good to come home. Driving through LA–I flew from Buenos Aires to LA, had breakfast with family, and then flew on to Oakland–after landing felt like visiting my grandparent’s house as a kid. I don’t know how to describe it better than that. 

Pulling into my driveway didn’t feel as jarring as I thought it would, just like I was back after a road trip for a week or two. Seeing my family felt good. My sister ran and hugged me in the driveway, refusing to let me go for several moments. My bed felt amazing. There’s something about your own sheets and comforter and pillows. Nothing else will ever really measure up.

In terms of the last week of exchange, I’d say what I felt more than anything was just wanting to stay for longer. I missed my family the most the first weekend and the last weekend. But, I was really sad to leave Buenos Aires as I was just beginning to make friends. I was also sick the last two days of school, so I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone from school. I did say goodbye to my host, and that was sad for both of us. We plan to keep in touch. 

The adjustment to home so far has been good. It has started to feel normal pretty quickly. School starts tomorrow, though, so perhaps I shouldn’t give you my assessment until after that. 

Cooper Jacobus reports from India

First Day Recommendations:

If you go on exchange to the Doon School, the first thing I recommend you do after taking your bag to your room is to get a uniform. I found that this was an important step for two reasons. First, you will feel much less out of place once you have a uniform. Chances are, when you arrive, you will still be wearing whatever you wore on the plane, while the rest of the boys are required to arrive already in uniform. This will make you feel even more out of place than you would normally. You will feel much less obtrusive once you have a uniform. Second, your clothes are likely not a fit for the climate, while the uniform is. If it is hot when you arrive, you will want to put on something breathable, which the uniform surprisingly is.

Once you have gotten yourself a uniform and unpacked, you should introduce yourself to your roommates. You will likely be in a room with four other boys, one of whom will be your exchange partner and you will have to get to know the other three. These will be the boys who will look after you and make sure you are doing alright. They can only do this if you get to know them.

Hierarchy:

Seniority is everything. Older boys have the power to make younger boys their servants. Younger boys will have to wake up early with alarms so that they can get dressed before going upstairs to gently wake the older boys. They also distribute snacks at night to the older boys while they are studying. If they fail to do this in any way (skip a room in the morning, wake someone up too violently, forget a person when distributing snacks, etc.), the older boys will punish them by making them hold a push-up position for as long as they feel is necessary. Younger boys will be expected to yield to older boys in any situation. They will be very confused if, for example, you do not cut them in a line.

Academic Culture:

One of the most interesting things about the Doon School is the culture built around academics. The school is the absolute best in the entire country, which means that it intrinsically attracts students who are academically motivated and then only selects a choice few of those who are especially capable. Thus, all the students who attend must be distinctly smart and academically motivated. Once inside it is apparent, however, that the reputation of the school precedes the characteristics and motivations of the student body. In an obvious attempt to address this issue, the administration tries to fabricate more academic motivation in the following ways:

  • All grades, marks, scores, etc. are 100% public to anyone who wants to see them at any time regardless of relation. Rankings of students are posted in the classroom and are attached to report cards. This is designed to make the top boys feel competitive for the best spot and to shame those who fall to the bottom, so that all boys feel more motivated to do better than their peers.
  • The Average Grades on standard tests by class are posted on the doors of the teacher’s classroom, so that it is obvious which teacher’s classes do best on tests. This similarly encourages the teachers to compete and thus to spend class time pressuring their students to study harder rather than teaching the material.
  • Houses compete for the best overall grades. Even if pressure from your teacher and yourself is not enough to motivate you, you will be pressured by your peers in your house to do well.

This is very effective. Students care A LOT about receiving High Marks.

NOTE: They score with a similar system of Letters (A* instead of A+) except that everything is shifted down. In a math class, it might be something like A* = 100-90%, A = 90-80%, B = 80-70%, C = 70-60, D = 60-50%. I am unsure if this is a kind of grade inflation or if the grading is just harsher in general to make up for this.

Food Notes:

Food is safe. Somethings which you think will be spicy (like chicken) will be plain. Nothing is guaranteed.

What I found more interesting than the local food, however, were the foreign foods. They apply their own tastes to foods from the US and China: pizza usually has chicken, chow mein is spicy, etc. This is especially notable in non-American foreign foods. This strikes me as evidence that we in the US also do this (which we already knew). If we are also changing the food from its original, then to go from the American adaptation to the Indian is two degrees of separation instead of one. This idea suggests the existence of a kind of feedback loop where a food could be exported, changed, imported, changed, exported, and so on. This happens with a lot of Mexican food. This also allows for repeat parodies, like Indian pizza, which is an adaptation of American pizza, which is an adaptation of Italian pizza.

Curriculum Notes:

At Doon, they study a lot of the same things we do at Athenian. I was able to wander into Physics, Chemistry, and Math classes and keep up with no extra effort. They hang posters about the American Revolutionary War in their History rooms. They offer Spanish classes. They study authors like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in their Literature Classes. The only distinct difference in the general curriculum was Economics. They offer Economics as a year-round class from 10th through 12th grade. Many students take it for all three years. I took this class. I have to say that it seems like very valuable knowledge and that there is too much for our new seminars to be able to fully cover.

Religion and Spirituality:

IMPORTANT NOTE: I was born Christian and technically identify as Atheist and this will inform my analysis.

The other exchanges and I attended a religious ceremony on the bank of the Ganges River in nearby Rishikesh. There were many differences between the prayer there and common prayer in a Christian church in the US: Polytheism, Dress, Language, etc. What I found most interesting, however, transcends those more appearance-like aspects of the spirituality. To draw this distinction, I will again compare to the traditional American Christian church. A common church in the United States is arranged such that there is a podium in front at which a religious figure preaches and receives prayer from the audience as a representative of ‘God.’. I call this method of expressing spiritual devotion “indirect” as you pray to something which is abstract and because the sacrifice you make is generally monetary (indirect in its own regard) and is lost once it leaves your hands. In direct contrast to the American Christian church, the Hindu religious ceremony I attended was designed such that everyone (attendees, priests, musicians, etc.) was sitting together on the same stage, all facing towards the water (the actual, real-life, physical embodiment of the divine). In this regard, the ceremony is one of more community – the religious leaders sit next to the average attendee and do not preach but rather guide the prayer, a prayer that they do not receive but rather encourage. The sacrifice made here is not monetary but takes the form of fire given to the river on hand-sized boats. I call this more “direct” because the community prays together directly to the divine embodiment. There is no middle man and there is no disconnect between the devotees and the aspect of their devotion. I feel that this distinction is rather profound, because the average person is much more spiritual/religious, which I attest to this.

While in Delhi, I visited several religious places, including a Mosque, a Sikh Temple, multiple Hindu Temples, and a Bahá’í Temple. The Sikh Temple serves free meals 22 hours a day and has a pond with holy fish (which you apparently can’t pet). One Hindu Temple has an amusement park containing animatronic nativities and an indoor boat ride/exhibit depicting the lives of religious figures. The Bahá’í Temple is shaped like a massive nine-pedal lotus. The Bahá’í religion is interesting. It concludes that prophets and holy messengers from other religions like Jesus, Abraham, Mohamed, Krishna, Buddha, etc. (notably not Joseph Smith) are all representatives of the same God and are carrying effectively the same message. Because of this, they are very accepting to basically any faith that enters their temple as they believe in a portion of the Bahá’í faith.

There is a sort of comradery between faiths. Many people respect each other for their beliefs as there is a lot commonality between them. In the same regard, many are confused or offended by the concept of atheism. It contradicts their faith in more ways than other faiths because it doesn’t make sense that someone would not have something to believe in.

Miscellaneous:

The Emporium – Every driver in Delhi tried to convince us to go to this place called the Emporium. Some drivers we found were even waiting on street corners for tourists to pass by so they could walk beside them to earn their trust and casually mention the Emporium. (Most are pretty good. They walk in front of you so you don’t think you’re being followed and offer assistance like “now’s the time to cross the street.”) One driver was honest and said something like “they have good handicraft and give me a gas voucher if I bring tourists” so we went with him and they gave him a voucher proportional to how much we spent.

Bracelets – Many of the boys in my form wear these silver bracelets. This seemed odd to me because I think of bracelet-wearing as a feminine thing and noticed that the boys who did tended to be the more masculine ones. I learned later that the bracelets function as a weapon. They can be taken off and used as a kind of brass knuckle. I never saw or heard about these ever actually being used; however if you know what they are, they work as a pretty good ‘don’t mess with me’ fashion item.

Teachers ask, “any doubts?” instead of “any questions?” to which students almost never respond. At first this struck me as a challenge, like, “Do you doubt my lecture?” I now think it more of a symptom of an overall culture of not asking questions because you do not want to appear stupid.

Ethan Monk’s time in South Africa

After living in Johannesburg for six weeks, I can confidently say that the memories and lasting sense of culture were well worth 48 hours of round-trip travel and a month and a half away from home. Arriving in Johannesburg and being met by my host family, the Bremners, I was immediately thrown into the fascinating cultural chaos that is South Africa.

After a day to recuperate at my new home, school began immediately for me at St Stithian’s College (Stithian being a Saint I’m positively sure Johannesburg pulled out of thin air) where I was greeted by a thousand-strong student body of blazer-clad students in the freezing (literally) morning air. With this many students, even in my sixth week I found myself having to introduce myself as “the new exchange student from America” at a school that otherwise felt surprisingly similar to Athenian. The dress code was strict, and Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans may have been language options, but the similarity in curriculums and most classes was uncanny. After school, I often found myself watching a rugby game or a cricket match at home with my host family. On the weekends, I occasionally found myself at one of Saint’s rugby or cricket games where the crowd was encouraged to sing and yell in broken half Zulu-half English at the opposing team in what they call a “war cry.”

Cape Town from atop Table Mountain

One weekend I was lucky enough to visit Cape Town with my host family. I was shown a wonderful city that I found quite different than Johannesburg. Cape Town is more international than the culturally-confined Johannesburg, as well as more scenic. Cape Town was built from the ocean’s edge up into the mountains that Johannesburg sits on top of–700 miles away and 4,000 feet above Cape Town’s ocean front promenade. And while Cape Town was built into the natural valleys and hills of the Cape, Johannesburg was thrown on top of the ever-so-flat Highveld, the miles and miles of grassland above Cape Town (think Nebraska but with ostriches). That fleeting change of scenery made the walks on the oceanfront promenade and the hikes up the Cape’s vast mountains even more special. My host family also took me on a short boat trip to Robben Island, the prison that was used to house political inmates throughout the historical period of apartheid, where an Afrikaaner party used a political majority to hold down and segregate the country’s Black population.

Another week I was treated to a four-day stay in the Kruger Park, a seven-hour drive from Johannesburg. On game drives, I saw animals such as giraffes, leopards and elephants. At night, we routinely had to chase hyenas away from our barbecues. Here, I was also introduced to the African foods pap, which I was pleased to learn I could eat with my hands, and biltong (think beef jerky but worse), which most people in Johannesburg treat more patriotically than their flag. Every day we woke up early and went on a game drive before returning to our zero-emissions house to retreat from the afternoon’s blazing heat.

In between these two fantastic vacations, I found myself waking up daily at 5 am, tiredly looking forward to attending my classes for the day. I hung out with two Jordanian exchange students and small group of Saint’s boys I befriended. While I took slightly fewer classes than the regular Saint’s student (the school graciously allowed me to customize my schedule), I always looked forward to attending my several South African and world history classes. There I learned more about apartheid, the Rwandan genocide, and African history and politics than I ever could have hoped to learn in the United States.

In between classes, the connections I made with my fellow exchange students and students at Saints were transformative. The conversations we had over the best two-dollar coffee I’d ever had will always stick with me. I’m still in contact with some of these students today. While I was initially apprehensive when signing up for the exchange program, this experience is one I would gladly repeat.

Michael Salako is in Tasmania

I originally never wanted to go on exchange. It was my mom who persisted and basically ended up making me go. I always thought it was way too much work and a waste of time. To make things worse, in December I found out that I didn’t even get my first choice, which was Latin America. I opened my email to see that I would be on my way to Tasmania in July, to Scotch Oakburn College. At that point I didn’t even have the energy to be disappointed anymore. I was being forced to go to school across the world.

Fast forwarding to the day I left, there were somewhat negative thoughts running through my head. All I could think was “Let me just get this over with.” Although I hate plane rides, the 13-hour flight to Melbourne wasn’t bad. Once the plane landed I checked in, got my suitcases and wandered around the airport since I had an eight-hour layover until my next flight. Once I was on the next flight and we were nearly in Launceston, the city I would be staying in, I couldn’t stop staring out the window. I saw miles of flatland, animals almost everywhere you looked, and beautiful water surrounding the island of Tasmania. The plane touched down, I got my bags, met my exchange, Dean, and his mom, who made up my host family, and we made our way to the car. I had my first shock as we got in. I was confused as I saw her walking over to the right side of the car, I got a little nervous because I thought she wanted me to drive. I got in and saw that there was no steering wheel on the left, and I stared in amazement to see it on the opposite side.

We got to the small house meant for two people, I unpacked my stuff and then immediately pulled up a calendar to count the days until I was back in the US. I found myself doing this for the first few weeks, but I slowly started to stop as time went on. It took me a while, but as I went to bed I realized that I was there, in Australia, over 9,000 miles away from home. I thought to myself that it was going to be a long and tiring six weeks.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and there was no school on Monday, so I had three days until the start of the school term. On Saturday, Dean and I went to Cataract Gorge, one of Tasmania’s oldest tourist attractions. I saw some amazing scenery and animals I had never seen before. The next day Dean took me on a tour of Launceston.  We walked all around the small city, home to only 67,000 people, and we went to all the main landmarks of the city.

On Monday, we went to Scotch Oakburn College to get my uniform. I got to see the school I’d be attending for the next six weeks. There was a slow buildup of anxiety as the day went on. I wasn’t really worried about classes or about making friends. I was worried about the stares. During the school year before summer, people were constantly telling me about how there was pretty intense racism mainly towards black people in Australia. I let this influence how I viewed people early on, and I thought that this would just make school life even harder.

The first day of school rolled around and I could feel the stares as soon as I stepped on campus. I wasn’t sure if they were staring because of my skin or because I was an unfamiliar student, so I kept the judging to a minimum. Little did I know that those were just stares of curiosity, and that those same people would show me an endless amount of kindness over the next six weeks.

Dean and I made it to our first class of the day, Japanese. He introduced me to everyone, and the hour-and-40-minute class period began. It was weird because I didn’t understand a lot of what they were saying although they spoke in English from time to time, so I basically just sat there spaced out until it was over. Next we had a 20-minute break in which Dean introduced me to a couple of his friends, and we talked until the next class started. Not much happened in the class

After the class ended, we made our way over to assembly, which is just like morning meeting. They went through some announcements, a couple of people gave speeches, and eventually the exchange director called all the exchanges to the front to be introduced to the whole school. I went up with Dean and I was excited to see the other people who would be going on this experience with me. When I got up to the front I looked to my left and saw just one other girl, who wasn’t even an exchange. Her exchange was having problems getting to Tasmania and didn’t show up throughout all the time that I was here. So I was Scotch Oakburn’s only exchange for the next six weeks.

Lunch was right after. Towards the end of it a huge group of guys came up to me. They immediately started launching questions left and right. “Do you play basketball? Do you watch the NBA? Who’s your favorite team,” and other questions like that. Someone even asked me if I was related to Michael Jordan, and I’m pretty sure he was serious. To be honest, I was relieved to know that they love basketball over here. The next day at around the same time, I saw the same guys playing basketball outside. As I saw them, somebody came up to me and asked if me if I wanted to join. I said yeah and went out to play. While we were in the middle of a game, some of the guys asked me if I could dunk. I told him I could. It took me a couple of attempts, but I got one to go down and all the guys went crazy. They started yelling and running around and all I could do was laugh. As I was on my way to the last class of the day, people started walking up to me and asking me if I could really dunk and some other basketball questions. Although it wasn’t how I planned to do it, I was already making new friends and connections. I didn’t realize it at that moment, but that was the first time I had fun since leaving the US.

The school days that followed were fun and full of surprises. I met new people, learned a lot of new things, and participated in some really cool school events, like their peace festival and singing carnival. Classes took some getting used to. A lot of them are full of disruptive and loud kids who don’t really seem to care about their grades, but there are some responsible kids who do. On the weekends my host family took me to places all over Launceston. We watched an AFL game, toured Sydney, and I even got to play in the basketball tournament that Scotch Oakburn was participating in.

My time in Australia has been amazing. I’ve gotten to do and see things that I probably never would have if I hadn’t gone on exchange. When I look back on it, it’s hard to believe that I didn’t want to go on exchange. If not for my mom, who made me go, or for the fact that I wasn’t sent to South America, I would not have had as amazing of an experience as I’ve had here in Tasmania. To anyone who’s hesitating to go on exchange, or if you don’t feel like going on exchange at all, I strongly encourage you to give it a chance. I used to want nothing to do with exchange at all, but I ended up loving every single day of it. I leave in two days, and while I’m sad to go, I’m also a little happy to be returning home. I’ve seen and experienced a lot of what Tasmania has to offer, and I’m hoping that one day I’ll be back to see it all again.

Suzie Myles is in South Africa

The beginning of my trip to South Africa was hectic, to say the least. After an eleven-hour layover in Frankfurt, I flew from Germany down to OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Arriving there, I was relieved to be almost done with my journey. After waiting for around half an hour in the immigration line, I was told that I didn’t have everything I needed as an unaccompanied minor entering South Africa. No one had told me that I needed more than my passport, and even if I had read it somewhere, when packing I didn’t know. For those of you who are unaware, when traveling into South Africa as an unaccompanied minor, one needs not only their passport, but a copy of their birth certificate and a letter signed by both parents approving the travel. As this progressed, my sleep-deprived mind became more and more convinced that my journey would end before it begun. I called my parents with my eyes filled with tears. Keep in mind that it was past 1 AM back home, so it was a miracle I was able to contact them at all. Luckily, I was able to get a letter from each parent, as well as a photo of my birth certificate in under an hour. Given the circumstances, the border control officers accepted this and let me move forward to meet my host family.

After my nearly three days of travel, as well as an hour of anxiety inducing border control, I was ready to take a nap. After a brief stop at a high school rugby game, we proceeded to the place we would be staying that night in Pretoria. The rest of that day is a bit blurry, and mostly made up of me sleeping as my host family enjoyed the day in Pretoria. Despite the chaotic beginning to my trip, the first day was alright. Since then my trip has gone off without a hitch.

The next day, we drove for four hours from Pretoria to my host family’s house in Sabie to prepare for school, which started the next day. One big difference between our schools and schools in South Africa is that school here starts at 7 AM. Given that Sabie is a 45-minute drive from Nelspruit, where Penryn is located, that meant I have woken up at 5 AM every morning for school. Given that for the first week of school I was only able to fall asleep at around 2 AM, I was very tired for the start of school. For this reason, I would highly recommend travelling to your country around a week before the term starts.

Apart from the uniforms and the difference in starting time, Penryn is not all that different than Athenian. In general classes are small, though with a more classic layout, with desks in lines, as opposed to our generally circular table layout. Students here have a bit more control over which subjects they take. Rather than needing to meet a requirement in every subject, they choose three subjects to focus on after grade 9. From then they take only classes in those subjects, along with a language (generally Afrikaans or Siswati) and a math. Despite the differences in schooling here, and a few differences in beliefs, political and otherwise, the people here are really not that different from people at home. With the ups and downs of life in high school, there will always be tired students, gossip, and drama, no matter where you are. There will always be adults giving (sometimes unwarranted) life advice. People will always be people.

Over the course of the weekends since I’ve arrived, I’ve done many different things with my family, from chill weekends at the house to 10-hour drives through the Kruger National Park. We’ve really done as much as we could with the time I’ve had here. There was one long weekend where Amber’s sister and a friend came to visit from Johannesburg, and we visited an elephant sanctuary together. The next weekend, we went to the Kruger. That weekend was incredible. We saw so many rare animals, including seven lions, two leopards, three rhinos, and a bunch of wild dogs. The Kruger is one of the biggest tourist attractions in South Africa, and one of the largest national parks in the world. I learned that if you drive every single road in the Kruger, you will see less than 5% of all the land in the park.

I am still not done with my trip, but this is my last week in school. This coming Saturday, I will be leaving on a four-day, three-night hiking expedition, a requirement for all grade tens here, including Amber. The hike will end on Tuesday, and I will be going home the following Sunday. My trip has been a whirlwind of new people and incredible experiences, and I am not ready to go home. It really is true that time flies when you’re having fun, and this trip has been no different.

Mary Cottrill is in South Africa

After two long days of travelling, I arrived in South Africa on July 21st. I was pleasantly greeted by my exchange, her mom, and her best friend. The first initial change I saw from California was that they drive on the left side of the road. The car ride from the Cape Town airport to my home for the next six weeks was one I will never forget. The whole car ride I was looking out the window taking in all the new, beautiful views. I was amazed by the mountains we were surrounded by and how they differed from those in California. Along the highway I continued to see farms and vineyards up until my exchange’s house.

My first three days were the hardest because everything was new. I was still settling into the fact that I was across the world form all my friends and family, and at the same time I was being introduced to a whole new culture and family. My first day of school was very overwhelming. I was meeting so many new people in a short amount of time and Bridge House is so different from Athenian. Two differences from Athenian I immediately noticed were how the students referred to their teachers as Ma’am and Sir, as well as how they wore uniforms. It took me about a week to settle into the school and find my way around because the campus is bigger than the Athenian campus.

I have been staying in a small town called Franschhoek, which is only about 15 minutes away from my school. The town isn’t drastically different from Danville, but there are some differences I’ve seen. The town is much smaller than Danville and everything is within walking distance. It also has more extreme differences between poverty and wealth. Within a minute driving down the main road you can see a township, showing extreme poverty, and then an expensive restaurant ranked top ten in South Africa. It has been very eye opening to see the extremes of both poverty and wealth in such a small area, and how people in the community are continuously helping each other.

So far, I have been able to climb Lions Head and Table Mountain, which were both a lot of fun. Unfortunately, when we climbed Lions Head the fog was very bad so there wasn’t much of a view, but we still made the most out of the situation. I have explored Cape Town, gone on a sunset boat ride, and driven to Hout Bay to go to a famous market. I have enjoyed seeing these different parts of South Africa and embracing the culture and traditions.

Exchange as a whole has been the most amazing experience of my life. It wasn’t easy at first–in fact, it was very hard–but in the end it has helped me to become a better person. I am more confident in myself after having to make new friendships with people I had never met before and coming alone to a country across the world. Being alone throughout this experience has allowed me to learn a lot about myself that I couldn’t without exchange. I have learned to enjoy every moment, no matter how small, and not to be afraid to do things out of my comfort zone.

It might seem scary to leave home all alone and travel to another country, but I highly recommend going on exchange because it is such an amazing experience you can grow from. I have made friendships that I will never forget and will cherish forever. I have been so lucky to have such an amazing exchange experience and amazing exchange partner to experience it with. South Africa and the people here have changed my life. I will never forget the things I have learned and the people I have met.

Lucy Sparks Mendez is in Argentina

I am three weeks into my Argentinian exchange. It’s funny, because it’s just this week that my walls have finally let down a little. I know this post is coming a bit late into the exchange, but honestly, I think that’s better because now I have more news. 

The first weekend was the hardest. I found myself crying the first time I talked to my family, and by the second week I was longing to pet one of my dogs. My exchange, Estefi, and her parents live in an apartment in the city, a five-minute walk from her school. The family has been more welcoming than I could ask for. They cleared out an office so I could have my own room and immediately asked if there were any foods I was accustomed to having that I wanted them to buy. I had to ask four times to convince Estefi and her dad to talk to me in Spanish (they’re both fluent in English), because they wanted to make sure I understood what they were saying. 

The people here are very welcoming–one of Estefi’s friends made me a cake for my first day– though it’s been hard for me to be in a new environment with people who have known each other for years. After the first week, the questions died down, so if I wanted to talk to someone I had to start the conversation. I’m normally a pretty outgoing person, but I was surprisingly timid my first couple of weeks here. Part of it was definitely the Spanish. I can speak the language well enough to be understood, but I had no idea how to translate any of the jokes I wanted to make. In addition, the kids here speak so fast I sometimes can hardly distinguish the words. 

But, like practically everything else, time has made it better. The more I’ve stayed here, the more comfortable I’ve become and the more I turn back into my loud extroverted self. Especially this week, I feel that I’ve begun to make friends with both the other exchanges and students here. Estefi and I get along really well. Knowing that I only have one more week here makes me much sadder than I thought it would.

The one thing I wish I had known from the beginning was how much easier it is to get to know people if you speak English. Now, it’s a weird mix of Spanglish. Sometimes if I ask a question in Spanish, the other person will answer in English, or vice versa. I’m honestly begun to be a little worried that once I get home, I’ll talk to people in Spanish. 

The other last note I would like to make is how much of a difference it has made when I’ve had the courage to go up and start a conversation with someone I don’t know..

Sarah Liu arrives in Bogota

From running in the Los Angeles International Airport terminal to getting lost in the shadier part of town, my experience in Bogotá can be described as a wild, crazy, amazing adventure. An adventure that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and whose one week has flown by far too quickly. I’ve had the opportunity to try so many amazing things, from chocolate croissants from the local bakery down the street (I eat one almost every day) to homemade arepas (hopefully I’ll never eat one again). The food in Bogotá is really unbelievable, with Michelin star restaurants and up-and-coming eateries clustered around luscious green parks filled with joggers and puppies. Luckily, my host family is always more than ready to show me all the best spots to gorge oneself on Colombian food.

My host family has been really welcoming to me. From the beginning, they’ve been excited and eager to show me around the city. I’ve had the opportunity to ride a funicular to the top of Montserrat, walk through the caverns of an underground cathedral, and eat brunch next to the sprawling golf course country club Guayamaral. In between sight-seeing and school, they make sure to introduce me to different aspects of their native Venezuelan culture as well (with a few comments about how it is obviously superior to the Colombian equivalent, of course).

Colegio Anglo Colombiano is really different than Athenian. For one, I have all my classes in two main buildings. Also, their first period starts at seven in the morning, which means I have to wake up at five thirty every day. The Anglo and Athenian, however, actually have a lot of similarities, especially since they’re literally on opposite sides of the globe. For example, the students are really nice, so it hasn’t been hard to make friends. The Anglo is also similarly devoted to keeping their environmental footprint to a minimum, and the school has a program similar to AWE where students spend two weeks in the Amazon rainforest. Overall, the Anglo has welcomed me with open arms and really isn’t that different from Athenian. (The Anglo also has an excessive number of class-wide meetings.) I’m definitely looking forward to the next three weeks in Colombia.

Sophie Eckstein checks in from Cape Town

Traveling to South Africa has been a roller coaster of emotions. I arrived in SA with my family nine days before the school’s winter term started. We saw vast canyons, Lucky’s potholes, animals while on safari, and the enormous Victoria Falls. A quick peak into the touristy side of Africa let me know that there was loads more fun to come.

The first day without my parents was scary, but the sweetest thing happened to me. That night instead of being alone in the boarding house with no family or friends, a group of girls from the 10th grade invited me out to dinner. That simple gesture was the first of many and the start of my exchange.  It took a while to adjust to the boarding house because of all the rules, but it also allowed me to bond with the other exchanges. The first week was really interesting and a huge surprise to me. There are currently four other exchanges who I have become close with (from Canada, Australia, Japan and Scotland). Jhana, Katie and I had to participate in a fashion show and attend practices in the very beginning of our exchange. It was a lot to be thrown at us not knowing anyone and have to strut down a stage, but we all got the hang of it and soon were having just as much fun as the other girls.

Along with the differences in rules in the boarding house, I’ve noticed differences in cultures. I sometimes disagree politically with people here in SA, but it’s helped me acknowledge my bias. The school culture is also a bit different. Athenian and St. Cyprians both want strong bonds with teachers, but here there seems to be a clear line between grades. The main differences are that it’s an all-girls school and a lot of the students speak Afrikaans.

My favorite part of exchange so far has been the Red Bus. My host and the other exchanges got on this huge double decker bus and rode around in the top half. It was quite windy, but I was able to talk to Mila (my host) and see the city. I was able to see spider monkeys, cute penguins, beautiful gardens, and pretty mountains all in one day. Another highlight was going to Boulders Beach and Cape Point. The beach is a national park and it is filled with penguins. Being a few feet away from adorable baby penguins was incredible. Afterwards we drove to Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. While there I saw an ostrich farm right as the sun set.

Another one of my favorite weekends was when a girl invited all the exchanges and some of her friends to her beach house in the Grotto. Their beach house was amazing and right near a national park. I was able to see giraffes and the beach in one day. On a weekend the school hosted for exchanges, we were able to go to the Aquilo Reserve and see lions and rhinos. After the safari we went zip-lining over rushing rivers and along the mountain. That weekend also helped all the exchanges get to know each other really well.

Along with the amazing sites, I’ve been able to meet so many amazing people. It’s been so fun learning the lingo South Africans use and just what it’s like living in Cape Town. Despite being worried about the food in South Africa (since I am vegetarian), my host family has been really helpful with giving me meat substitutes and making sure I never go hungry. The only difficult thing to cope with is my sleeping habits. In the summer I normally wake up really late and I’ve had to wake up early for the busy weekends, but it’s been well worth it considering all the places I have seen.  I’ve been here for seven weeks now and I would definitely recommend going on exchange. Even if you’re more introverted like me, it’s an amazing experience.