iSURF week 1: Karibu Sana to Tanzania

Harvard President Drew Faust never disappoints when it comes to her commencement speeches. In addressing the class of 2013 with regards to the excitingly scary new chapter of their lives, President Faust sagaciously encouraged graduates to run towards adventure.

I wanted to join in on this “seize the day” mentality too! My adventure for the summer awaits me in Tanzania! Running is definitely the appropriate metaphor here. Personally, whenever I have a 5k/half marathon footrace, regardless of how many months I’ve been training (or at least talking about my intentions to train), it always seems like I haven’t trained enough and that I’m always rushing. It’s not the most comfortable feeling in the world. Good thing  discomfort is temporary because this same sentiment is experienced every time I travel abroad.

As I mentioned last week, most of my summer will be dedicated to nutrition research in the iSURF (international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program, which involves me traveling abroad. Distracted by finals during the end of last semester, my program partner/travel buddy and I semi-arbitrarily selected our internship dates, using flight sales as the most important determining factor. She bought a round trip ticket as I purchased a one way flight to Africa with the hopes of traveling (to South Africa/Bolivia) before allowing summer vacation to end.

As with most college stories, most of my abroad preparations were pretty last minute. After a quick skim of the government’s website on traveling to Tanzania, I recognized all the vaccines and thought I was in the clear. With regards to medical preparations, all I needed was anti-malaria pills so I tried buying some at the Harvard pharmacy and was quickly turned away without a prescription. Oops. UHS (University Health Services), although they get ragged on by most of the student population, was really great at scheduling a last minute appointment with my doctor and the travel clinic who determined I actually needed several vaccines. Double oops. It may seem like I’m really irresponsible, but let me take a moment to defend my honor and say that I got all 3 vaccines in my left arm so that my right arm would be unaffected for my final.

Many students travel home before starting abroad programs so they can take care of all this with their doctor who has known them since the womb. However, students like me who don’t go home very often have all the resources necessary at UHS. All this health business wasn’t a priority for me when I was choosing colleges, but it’s definitely an advantage having a university health system that’s really flexible – you can even cut down on costs and waive Harvard’s supplementary insurance if your parents still cover you!

Another surprise bonus of going to school in Boston is the international airports. Yes, plural. I’m from  San Diego which means I can pretty easily choose between San Diego and Los Angeles for my flying needs. Luckily, on the other coast, I can freely choose between Boston and New York as well. Matters get even more economical when bus tickets between Boston and New York are $15! Some of my friends at different schools fly into their closest airport and have to cab/shuttle it forever to get back on campus. Sucks for them. By the way, the Silver Line on the T (the subway) is free from the Boston airport.

I left Boston with my cheap bus ticket to New York and passport in hand.

Breakfast fit for airplane champions

I was thrilled to be en route to Africa for the very first time! I love flying and the airplane food. My short legs are also really conducive to cramped spaces. My ebullience continued to rise with a 13 hour layover in Amsterdam – it’d be my first time in the Netherlands and my first time leaving the airport during a layover!

Breaking out of the Amsterdam airport for a city adventure! Stroopwaffles and cheese, here I come hungry!

Amsterdam’s clean and fast public transportation is admirable!

On the train leaving the Amsterdam airport and entering the city, I sat next to a woman who generously shared her map of Amsterdam. Across from us sat a man. The three of us started talking as we were all planning to infiltrate the city during our lengthy layovers – I’m beginning to suspect all flights have long layovers to stimulate their economy or something! The man turned out to be a student at Harvard Business School; it’s strangely cool and natural how connected I always feel when meeting someone with a Harvard association. The conversation got even livelier as we all spoke in Spanish. Fun fact: we took a free walking tour around Amsterdam conducted in Spanish.

Amsterdam can definitely be a looker!

Having the opportunity to explore Amsterdam on the way to Africa was awesome – I felt like I was utilizing Harvard’s summer funding to squeeze in 2 abroad experiences! It wasn’t until I was communicating in Spanish with my new layover friends that I realized the only reason I could communicate so well was because Harvard also afforded me the opportunity to travel South America last summer. It was during this transformative summer that I finally tested my Spanish skills outside of the classroom as a means for survival rather than for a passing grade. Six years of formally learning Spanish is one thing, but throwing yourself into the culture and a host family will do wonders to language fluency! I now have a grand old time feigning a South American accent whenever possible. This is why graduating college and entering the real world in a year scares me to pieces – can there really be more opportunities after life at Harvard? When else can I receiving funding for my abroad explorations??

Amsterdam highlights:

EYE Film Institute: This screen creates art from your body’s movements!

The original bookcase that Anne Frank lived behind for years!!!

One of my favorite pastimes is spinning my abroad experiences like I’m just getting paid to travel. If I wanted any elements of reality in the picture, I’d illuminate the fact that I’m definitely not showering in diamonds, but perhaps just dangerously playing with their razor sharp characteristics. There are undoubtedly inherent risks while traveling abroad. And watching Taken the day before I left the country absolutely did not comfort me whatsoever.

After my Amsterdam layover, I had a less fun 6 hour layover in Nairobi. I was extremely exhausted by this point but didn’t dare sleep: Nairobi has been nicknamed by tourists as Nairobbery and I’m no fool. Pleasant surprise: free wifi! Unpleasant surprise: dead computer battery and my plug adapter was in my check in.

Nonetheless, arriving in Tanzania went pretty smoothly. This was the first time I entered a country without an appropriate visa which made me a little nervous. Again, not an accurate indicator of irresponsibility since everyone recommended I apply for a visa at the airport upon arrival.

Within the 2 months leading up to my arrival, I had been e-introduced to about half a dozen people. I was emailing faceless people associated with the iSURF program as well as the clinical research studies. They were extremely essential to planning a smooth arrival and I can’t be grateful enough for their help with accommodation reservations and coordinating drivers from the airport to our hostel as well as our first day of work.

The most important lesson I’ve learned about traveling with a few passport stamps under my belt is that success while traveling is directly proportional to one’s flexibility and ability to quickly adapt. In other words, planning a smooth arrival doesn’t necessarily imply its execution.

My program partner – the other undergraduate student selected to participate in the program – and I tried to coordinate arrival times as best as possible. We would be landing within ~5 hours of each other, me being the first to arrive. Some of our on-site program coordinators scheduled separate drivers for us to be picked up at the airport and safely shuttled to our hostel. Yet no one was holding a sign with my name on it :( This wasn’t like the movies at all. Exhausted from sleep deprivation, I overemotionally responded by feeling like an abandoned 3rd grader. Although I exited the airport about an hour after my scheduled arrival (delay due to visa application), I thought maybe they were late because all of my abroad experiences have also taught me that there is an almost universal lack of respect for time and punctuality. I waited, wishfully searching for a sign with my name; I would have even settled for a sign with my initials.

It took a while for me to muster up the courage to ask those around me for help. In my mind, admitting that I’m lost and confused is equivalent to telling someone to mug me. Most people didn’t speak English, but I really stroke luck when someone offered his phone for as long as I needed. Eventually, the driver arrived and profusely apologized. There seemed to be a misunderstanding between my arrival and that of my program partner’s. I pretty much showed every sign of narcolepsy as soon as I stepped into his car, but during my small and quick bouts of consciousness, I remember him saying 2 things: “Sorry, there was a misunderstanding!” and “Karibu sana, you are very welcome.” I genuinely accepted his apology and sat in my confusion as to the implications of the second statement. Should I be thanking him more often? Am I being culturally disrespectful?? After my heart skipped a few beats from panic, I realized that he was welcoming me to the country!

Heads up, if you’re ever in Tanzania (and maybe other Swahili speaking countries), you’ll hear “Karibu” all the time. It demonstrates their tremendous friendliness! I think Americans are a little rougher around the edges, which is really just my nice way of saying Americans are meaner, so Tanzania’s friendliness was a little overwhelming at first! I really can’t complain about their hospitality though and I look forward to adapting this mentality! With everyone left and right emphasizing how welcome I was, I definitely felt less intimidated by the language and cultural barrier to ask questions to catalyze my personal orientation.

I didn’t anticipate this, but arriving on a weekend meant that we couldn’t really use co-workers to help us get oriented. Since my program partner, Leanna, and I were starting our summer internship very early on in the summer, most of the people we knew who were going to be in Africa hadn’t yet arrived. This wasn’t a huge deal as we spent much of our first weekend sleeping. One of the side effects of our anti-malaria pills is dreaming vividly – I met so many celebrities in my REM world! When we weren’t sleeping we explored around our guest house and found tons of small shops, a gym and a decent beach all within a 5-7 minute walk from our room! I’m proud to say we successfully grocery shopped and laid out on the beach over the weekend.

Living that beach side life

My first day of work was pretty much ideal. I met a ton of people who work in my building and started putting faces behind the emails. To my surprise, they had a Dartmouth intern who took her spring quarter off for this internship. It seemed as if things couldn’t be planned any better because her last few days overlapped with my first few days so she was able to not only orient me to the workplace, but also around town!

As I find my footing in the city, I’ll be sure to update! Wish me luck!

 

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2 comments

  1. Justin Yak’s avatar

    Amsterdam is incredible. We went kayaking in rivers in the city. Awesome place! There where sooooo many bikes! More Bikes than people!

    1. Jeanie Nguyen’s avatar

      I was freezing in Amsterdam, but still had a good experience! That’s how you know a city is great ;) I didn’t see anyone on bikes, but the public transportation system was amazing!

      –Jeanie

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