Spring Break in New Zealand

Our spring break trip began at 6:00am on Sunday morning. We packed all 8 of our backpacking backpacks into the back of our van and drove 3.5 hours to QueDSC_0026.jpegenstown.

Once in Queenstown we explored the town, found our hostel, and enjoyed the evening at a local ice bar ( a bar where everything is made of ice and you have to wear special gloves and jackets) and a couple other fun dancing bars as well! That day me and the three others who decided not to bungee jump went and explored a ‘beach’ area in Queenstown, the ones who did bungee jump jumped off the highest bungee in the world!

The next morning we left around 7:00 am from Queenstown and embarked on the four hour drive to Milford Sound. Milford sound is in the Fiordland National Park and is a place where the ocean comes into a valley that was glacially carved. The mountains in this valley are beautiful and snowcapped at the top, and covered in rainforest and waterfalls as big as three times the height of Niagara falls  at the bottom!DSC_0173.jpeg

Four of us decided to do the Milford Sound boat cruise, which was absolutely amazing. The boat looked like an old wooden pirate ship and took us around the sound and under the waterfalls! After the boat cruise we met up with the three people who decided not to do the boat cruise at ‘The Chasm’ which is a rock formation where a waterfall goes in and out of rocks (there are parts where you can’t see the waterfall because there is a bridge of rock covering it).

While in the Chasm we all decided to do some ‘off-roading’ from the tourist approved track and ended up in this little valley where the waterfall ended. The water was crystal clear and you could drink from it, there were rainforest vines and trees DSC_0265.jpeghanging everywhere and in the distance was a snow-capped mountain. At the end of the day, we headed out of the Chasm to see the sunset at mirror lake, which is a lake that as you probably guessed, gives a perfect mirror image of the landscape. We then ended our day by driving to Te Anau and staying in a hostel before embarking on our three day backpacking trip through the Routeburn Track.

At 8:00am the next morning we set off for the Routeburn track, our van packed full with eight backpacking packs and eight people. The car was very heavily weighed down so it was a fun drive! We had to drive 3.5 hours to get there and we had a run-in with some sheep in the middle of the road. The sheep blocked our car for 15 minutes while being herded by two sheep dogs! We then finally made it to the base of the track and ate our bag of the PB&J’s we had made thDSC_0350.jpege night before at the hostel before setting out on our journey.

The first hour or two was hiking through jungle with a river to the left of us, at one point we stopped and refilled our water bottles in the river! There was one section of the hike that was only filled with giant ferns that looked straight out of Jurassic Park. After two hours of hiking we made it to the first hut and had a pit stop before continuing on to the second hut. The hike to the second hut was absolutely brutal, it was a steep grade the whole hour up, and I was at the back wheezing due to recently being sick. However, when we got to the the second hut we looked over the whole entire valley where the first hut was located and had a 48 person hut all to ourselves. We finished the night with wine and tin-foil meals of vegetables. 

The next morning we woke up and explored the second hut which was surrounded by over seven waterfalls and glacier springs. We then hiked back down to the first hut and stayed the night there. We were completely alone this whole trip until around 8:30pm when a man showed up in the pitch dark in the middle of rainstorm to sleep in the hut with us. (The weather was absolutely perfect the whole trip eDSC_0367.jpegxcept for rain on this day). The man had been climbing a glacier and had to leave due to gale force winds and decided to tramp the Routeburn to have a hut to stay in. 

The next morning we woke up with the intention of hiking the Emerald track, however, on our car ride to get there we had to cross multiple streams in the middle of the road, and we could only make it through one because of the weight of the car, and we did not want to risk not being able to return if it happened to rain that night, so we decided to stay a a nearby hostel and explore this little lake town. The owners of the hostel were very nice and had two children and two puppies! They allowed us to walk the puppies around the lake and surrounding area (one golden and one sheep dog)! We finished the evening with a meal, drinks, and a movie before falling asleep.

Our final day was the next morning when we drove 5.5 hours back to Dunedin to end the spring break trip! Overall, it was an incredible time and it was so amazing to hike my first backpacking trip and see Milford Sound.

Two Cities Yet Twin Stories

T. Time: III of VII

There’s some good in this world

and it’s worth Fighting For

-S.G.

It’s not often that I am rendered incapable of words. That must be obvious to you by now, my long silence on the blog non-withstanding. Entering the humbling halls of St. Peter’s Basilica and La Sagrada Familia did the trick. Today, as I watch the cursor blink lazily back at me, I am again at a loss. Our country has just made a major decision. It truly breaks my heart to see the division which it has caused, and grappling with the reality of the fragmented populace that it has revealed in a land we deemed to be that of unity will be the challenge of our generation.

There was never any doubt, no matter how the votes were tallied last week, that the nation which many of you may call home has slowly been revealed as battered, tired, and some may say defeated.

So today, I’m not going to demand revolution or submission. I will not be so arrogant as to tell you that we must storm the streets in protest. I will refrain from demanding your compliance with the new regime. Today, we will discuss something much more difficult to grasp than the immediate recoil of defeat or the smug elation of victory.

Recently, I took a fairly hurried trip to Prague. This last March, my program informed us that for an extra fee we could sign up for an excursion of the city – which naturally I marginalized and decided I could plan myself. As such, I and two of my friends booked an Airbnb, snagged train tickets, and planned our departure four days prior to the day we were to leave. I know, quiet the responsible and pensive decision to make.

Who would have thought that in light of recent events, from the hurried planning to national elections, this trip would be one of the most hopeful I have been on in my time away from the United States. We marveled at baroque architecture and the Lennon Wall and explored a city full of history, culture, and sweets. We spent nights and days with those that we loved, and I even had a chance encounter with a friend would have never thought I would see in Prague.

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has”

Thus after relishing the weekend in the laughter and good conversation of friends, it’s no wonder that Prague is a city in which I felt unwilling and disappointed to leave. In a way, it parallels a trip I had many months earlier.

Montpellier the city wasn’t anything outside of the ordinary for the French Riviera. Graceful giant cathedrals of stone and impressive architecture all rising before the beautiful sight of the Mediterranean. While this was impressive, what made the trip truly special was the people – both strangers and friends. The host Florence was incredible. While she spoke hardly any English, she was jovial, generous and kind. Finding ways to communicate with us through gestures and even cracking good natured jokes at the expense of yours truly. A store clerk was incredibly gracious as he ushered us in. Again, he spoke hardly any English – however, he gave us incredibly kind discounts on what we purchased. Even when a ragged man walked in and began to pay for his beverage, the clerk smiled and waved him through, not asking for any kind of compensation.

Later that same night, the three of us sat with the ceiling high windows thrown open to reveal the night sky and the bright lights of the city, illuminating a massive church across the street from our fifth floor apartment. The hours passed by as we discussed our hopes and dreams, the trajectory of humanity, and what we hoped to accomplish for our fellow man.

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A look at the majesty of Prague

 

As you recall, I mentioned in my first entry that this story would be full of colorful and vibrant characters and friends both new and old. That’s something that I think these trips really display beautifully in concert with one another. Separated by a few months, they both teach the same lesson.

You’ve probably been feeling a few different emotions over the past week. Whether it be elation with the conclusion of this grueling year and a half of politics, or exhaustion as you come down from your democratic induced high. Maybe it’s the victorious feeling of triumph as your candidate emerged victorious, or perhaps the crushing despair of a defeat too horrible to imagine.

Yet I implore you; never lose faith in your fellow human beings, and never give up on those that you truly care about. Don’t despair. Don’t lash out in anger or euphoria in your victory. Strive to see the good in humanity. It does the soul wonders, and could even do more for the world in which we live.

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“Imagine” – J. Lennon

-Your meek conductor and Watchword Guide, T. R. E.

 

Find Your Alps

T Time: II of VII

Don’t lie

 Don’t cheat

Don’t create a life for yourself based on those things

If you do you will never know

Peace

You will have to constantly check yourself

and that is no way to live

-D.J.

In the past month and a half, I’ve had an unquantifiable number of experiences. I rediscovered my spirituality under the vaulted ceilings of Sagrada Familia and Saint Peter’s, and witnessed a never ending sunrise over the North Sea. I’ve received a Papal Blessing; studied the Cradle of the West in the shadows of both the Athenian Acropolis and the Roman Pantheon; and contemplated life, love, and friendship in the French Riviera – turns out the fifth floor in Marseille has some great views.

Barcelona is as vibrant as Rome is mighty. Florence is as moving as Luzern is stunning. Venice is a curious city, and Milan has some righteous pizza; word on the street is that it’s known for fashion, but I digress.

These experiences will be covered in due time. In my last entry, you probably gathered that I am a longwinded person. As such, never doubt that I’ll find an excuse to talk about things of the above nature. But those stories and all they contain are for another entry.

For it was in the Alps where I found my peace.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Rockies guy. Those mountains are in my blood, and I truly believe that some of the most beautiful sights on earth are in the great state of Colorado. However, there’s just something special about wandering through the jagged peaks that appear to have sprung to life from the words of Tolkien, with lakes and clouds alike winding lazily through the stone behemoths.

Our program had an excursion during which we were able to hike through the highest Alpine Pasture in Austria. The timing could not have been more perfect as we were arriving when the people of the Salzburg area were taking their herds down from the mountains for the river and giving thanks – imagine something akin to Thanksgiving, but with more cows.

Every year at this time and only this time, a mass is held in a small chapel set in the middle of this meadow in the clouds. The organ plays and the congregation sings on what seems to be the top of the world, as cattle graze peacefully in the foreground set against a backdrop of majesty.

It was within this moment, with music and sights, that I found peace. This isn’t to say that it is a peace that will be felt forever – life is full of unprecedented shifts and unpredictable turns. But it reminded me of an exchange I had a few weeks ago in Nice, France.

Good friends are want to clash on occasion, particularly when they travel in such close quarters for extended periods of time. But it was during this mild conflict that my old friend reminded me of something – be at peace with who you are. Don’t just own it, celebrate it.

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“I put it to you then – defend who you are” – Socrates on the Acropolis, most likely.

Often we are faced with to urge to justifying the essence of ourselves, what we believe in, or who we aspire to be. Too often we shy away from these challenges. We laugh away the discomfort, belittle ourselves, construct walls to shut people out of the most critical portions of what makes us who we are.

I put it to you then – defend who you are, and be at peace with who that is. For the record, this is not about “Finding Your Beach”.  The Study Abroad Department couldn’t land me the rights for that slogan in time for the release of this entry. This is about finding your Alps. Finding your peace. You don’t have to be around a chapel and alpine bovines – all you have to do is be unafraid of what makes you, you.

Don’t try to lie to others about yourself, and absolutely don’t cheat yourself from being the person that you are meant to be. Don’t second guess or yearn for the past, but be at peace with everything that you are in the present, and continue to develop that into who you are meant to be. You owe it to who you are in the now and who you will become.

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A group of us at Postalm, the Alpine Pasture. Life’s too short to take yourself too seriously.

Additionally, I need to provide a disclaimer: The University of Denver is not responsible for mishandled or lost Amazon shipping orders of Austrian Cattle.

-Your meek conductor and Watchword Guide, T. R. E.

We Found Love in a Hope-Filled (Za’atari Refugee Camp)

This post is long overdue for many reasons. I have been in Jordan for three weeks now and have not had the urge to write down my experiences and share them. Well, that’s not true. I’ve had so many moments and times and inspirations to put my experiences into words, but I’ve been scared. I’ve been scared because I want to do these experiences justice. I don’t want to let people down. Then I had a dear friend remind me that this space and this blog isn’t a place where judgement is welcome. It’s my space to invite you in to take a peek at the wonderful moments that are perfectly imperfect. That’s all. And there is one moment, one day in particular that is imperative to share and frankly, I have a responsibility to do so because of the life-changing, eye-opening capacity this day embodied. So – here it goes.

On September 19th, my study abroad group had the incredible opportunity to visit the Za’atari refugee camp, a refugee camp that currently is called home by about 80,000 Syrian refugees. I won’t spend this time delving into the facts about Za’atari, but take a moment to educate yourself about this particular camp because it’s commonly called a “model” refugee camp (if there really is such a thing). If included in Jordan’s population count, it is the fourth-largest “city”. In my opinion, Za’atari looks and functions as it’s own city.

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We started our morning with meeting with a member of the Jordanian police and a women from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who gave us a quick overview of how the camp runs and answered our eager questions. We were scheduled to then visit an NGO called Questscope.

Questscope is an NGO that is run by Syrians for Syrians within the camp. It is a safe-space where youth can come to seek mentors, knowledge, art, and everything in between. Syrian adults have the chance to be mentors and teachers of their craft to the Syrian youth who are seeking a haven to be themselves and regain some sense of normalcy.  Questscope offers alternative education for the youth who have lost years of education when “formal” schooling is sometimes not an option. We started by getting an overview and history of Questscope and what they are advocating. They are advocates of dreams. The selfless people who work/volunteer for Questscope strive to unlock the abundant potential that these Syrian youth have bursting from their souls.

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Some of the workers from Questscope we had the privilege of meeting. (Photo courtesy of Questscope blog)

After a quick tour of Questscope’s facility (which is comprised of caravans),  I was in awe. Syrian youth have access to a library, computers, art supplies, sports facilities and trainings, and most importantly, support. One of the most prominent images that stuck with me after this tour was the art space. The art work these people created wasn’t bleak or sad – it was joyous and unique. I didn’t see art that could have easily depicted the tragedy every single Syrian had been though. I saw dancers, mermaids, pride for Syria, and creations that proved hope was abundant in the camp. It was a moment that took my breath away.

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A sports field that provides a refreshing patch of green where kids can be kids. (Photo courtesy of the Questscope blog)

After lunch, we were invited to interact with the youth during some of their activities. If you know anything about me, I immediately rushed to the room where music was blasting and dancing was infectious. It was a women-only zone where the women, both mentors and mentees alike, could shed their inhibitions and own their bodies. They immediately turned on the TV and cranked the volume so all the women could participate in Zumba. Side-by-side, we danced, we sweat (a lot), we looked like fools, we laughed and smiled.  Zumba organically morphed into free-dancing where the women could openly express whatever their bodies wanted. We were taught dance steps from dances that you could tell were an important part of their identity. Every time I looked into the eyes of these women, pure joy was spread across their faces and their smiles never once left faded. I lost track of time because I was overflowing with joy.

Let me take a moment to be selfish. Dancing with these women meant more to me than I can put into words. Dance was re-introduced in my life when I was at a low point and it renewed my spirit and made me whole again. Being able to share such an intimate and personal moment with these women, expressing ourselves though dance, still brings tears to my eyes like it did that day. It was a truly magical, euphoric moment that I will never, EVER forget.

These women and these people could have given up. They could have said life treated them unfairly and stopped living it. But they didn’t. They continue to dance and they continue to smile and they continue to move forward because of their incredible courage and unwavering pride. I held their hands and I felt their strength. I shared moments with them that are forever etched on my heart. These people have not and will never give up. They want to return to Syria and resume the lives that were taken from them. They want to be doctors, lawyers, activists, and artists. They want the world to know that they’re simply mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and at the end of the day, people just like you and me. They watch the same sun set and dream of a better and brighter future because no one can take their dreams away from them. They are my heroes.

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Watching the sun set after a day at Za’atari.

Please, share this story. Not for me, but for the 80,000 Syrian people who have had their lives changed forever. They are not Skittles, they are not peanuts, they are not your next news story, they are not the enemy. They are HUMAN BEINGS with families, passions, hopes, goals, pride, dreams, and ambition I wish I had. They are true inspirations. Give them the autonomy and respect they so rightly deserve and share their stories. It is a small move that can have lasting impact. Hope is abundant at Za’atari and it’s time the world knew.

*None of the pictures within the camp our original or my own (only the sunset at the end of my day in Ajloun). I wasn’t going to Za’atari to take pictures and diminish these people to a social media post because they are SO MUCH MORE than that. I went to learn, listen, and observe. And to have my life changed forever.