Beleza (It’s all good) Blog #2


Hand sculpture at the Memorial da América Latina

Oi gente! Too many events have occurred during my first week here to put into one blog post (I have gone out more in one week here in Sampa than I do in a whole month in DC) and I don’t want to bore anybody to death by making a laundry list. So I’ll try to fill you in on the events and sites that really stood out for me from that first week. Let me forewarn you that in this blog and most of my blogs in general, I will talk A LOT about food so please forgive me if I make you hungry.

As you might recall from my first blog post, I arrived one day before the scheduled start of my program –CIEE Liberal Arts in Sao Paulo- as a precaution against any setbacks (i.e. flight delays).  The next day, July 2nd, I took the shuttle from the airport to meet up with the Resident Coordinator and the other students who would be participating in the program. I had no problem finding the group and after two hours (we were waiting for everybody in the group to arrive) we departed on a bus CIEE had rented towards the Bee W. Hostel, a hostel off Avenida Paulista where we stayed for the next two days –the duration of the on-site orientation.

We had about an hour to rest and were treated to lunch (by CIEE of course) at a restaurant next door called Segredos de Minas, which serves typical Brazilian from the state of Minas Gerais. As some of you might know, Brazil is a country blessed with an infinite variety of fruits and vegetables that are unknown in other parts of the world, so there is a wide variety of delicious fruit juices to sample. It was here at Segredos de Minas that for the first time I tried cajá juice, and let me tell you, I am absolutely in love with it! This juice is made from a fruit called cajá which tastes like the fruit lovechild of a passion fruit and a mango – it is quite glorious and I recommend you guys try it if you’re ever in Brazil.

After stuffing our faces with delicious Brazilian food we walked off some of the calories on Avenida Paulista, which is the Brazilian equivalent of New York’s Fifth Avenue. To say it is huge is a gross understatement: one million people pass by it every single day. The architecture of the buildings on Paulista is pretty varied: you can find anything from tall, glass high-rises to modern Brazilian architecture (best embodied by the MASP museum). However, by far my favorite building on Paulista is the Casa das Rosas (House of Roses) – it is the only remaining mansion on Avenida Paulista from Brazil’s coffee era (1800-1903). Originally, Avenida Paulista was built to house the mansions of the wealthy Paulistano (people from the city of São Paulo) coffee barons. However, over the years, these beautiful mansions were torn down to make space for high rises and the only mansion still standing is the Casa das Rosas, which is now a museum and cultural center.

We finished the day off by dining at a local pizzeria called Bendita Hora. Unlike the average American pizzeria, Bendita Hora serves both salty AND sweet pizzas. Yes you heard me…SWEET PIZZAS. We tried two different pizzas: pumpkin pizza and chicken pizza and finished off with the delicious Aphrodite pizza (what an appropriate name!) which consisted of melted chocolate, condensed milk, and strawberries. Oh and of course a cup of Brazilian coffee (it is pretty strong and resembles a three-shot espresso) with two cubes of gelatina de pinga (little gummy cubes made with cachaça).

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Sagui at Parque da Água Branca

Fast-forward three days later to Monday, July 6th: the first day of my intensive summer Portuguese language class. Class was interesting, but long –it is three hours of Portuguese for four days a week- so I am just going to skip over that and get to the good stuff: the after-class cultural activities! Monday after class we went to the Parque da Água Branca (Whitewater Park), a multi-purpose park near my house complete with a playground for kids, an aquarium, a gazebo where you can rent books to read, and even animals like peacocks and monkeys and chickens (yes chickens) running free. Miraculously the animals don’t wander off and leave the park. Here I came across an animal called a sagui, which is a little monkey the size of a squirrel.

Our walk through the park was short as our destination was the Memorial da América Latina (Latin American Memorial), a multi-building complex constructed by Brazil’s most famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer, to honor the culture, history, and peoples of the various countries that make up Latin America. In the main square (Praça Cívica), there is a large concrete sculpture representing an open hand in vertical position, with the map of Latin America painted in red. It symbolizes Latin America’s past of oppression and its battles for freedom, with the red map as a reminder of the blood from the sacrifices that were made.

Since it was getting late and afterwards we were planning to see the rehearsals of a samba school, we decided to grab something to eat at a restaurant nearby. Our guide, Viliane took us to a restaurant called Sabores do Nordeste (Flavors of the Northeast) which specializes in food from northeastern Brazil. You guys can already guess where this is headed haha. Anyways, here I was finally able to try acarajé, a dish from the state of Bahia of West African origin which is made from black-eyed peas formed into a ball and then deep-fried in palm oil. It is then split in half and stuffed with a paste containing shrimp, ground cashews, and coconut milk. However, that was just the appetizer; since the portions were so big, my friend Nashwa and I ordered carne de sol com baião de dois -rice with black eyed peas, fried meat, cheese, and pieces of yuca- and soursop juice, which is yet another of the many fruits that can be found in this wonderful country.


Pérola Negra’s rehearsa

Finally it was time to head out to Vila Madalena to see the neighborhood’s samba school, Pérola Negra, rehearse for Carnaval. The rehearsal was not at all what I expected: I had imagined that the rehearsals would comprise of us, the audience, sitting on some bleachers watching the dancers and the musicians practice on a stage in yoga pants and sneakers. That is what most people imagine when you hear the word ‘rehersal’, right? Well, it was far from that. First of all, the warehouse where the rehearsals were being held resembled a club more than anything else. As you entered the building, there were bouncers checking people and confiscating any bottles. By the way, you also have to pay a “cover” fee like you do at clubs.

Inside there was a stage where there was a band and later a DJ playing funk carioca -a musical rhythm originating in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Strangely enough, amidst this chaos, there were whole families -grandparents, parents, children, etc.- all partaking in this event. Some were dressed normally but others had Perola Negra t-shirts and jerseys, like one would of one’s favorite sports team. After about two hours of this, the rehearsal finally started. Most of the dancers and the musicians were already in costume as if Carnaval was tomorrow. The minority that wasn’t in costume were dressed like they were going clubbing; they had full make up on, sky high heels, and clubbing clothes on. You get the picture.

That’s all for now gente (everyone). Até a próxima! (Until next time!)

Mon Horaire

water fountain nyon

Water Fountain in Nyon

If you read my last post, I said that I had my first class at 11:15am the next day. WELL, I was definitely reading my horaire wrong and actually had class at 9:30am. Wow. That’s early for a college kid! My first week of school is over and let me give you a rundown on the schedule of an SIT: Switzerland International Studies and Multilateral Diplomacy student.

Every morning, I wake up around 8:00am. I get up, use the restroom, and put my clothes on. Let me tell you, it has been HOT here in Switzerland! Today it was 90F. So recently I have been cycling through my 3 pairs of shorts and 4 short sleeve/tank top shirts that I brought. I was really expecting it to be colder! If we have a speaker from an international organization then we have to dress business causal, and that is the worst because dressing up nice in this heat is annoying and stifling. After I get dressed, I make sure everything I need for the day is in my backpack and head downstairs to have breakfast. Every morning I eat yogurt and two slices of bread with butter and jam. Now, before I came here I never used to eat butter. Ever. I maybe had butter on my bread twice a year. But since I have been here, I have just felt très European by eating my bread this way. If you haven’t tried butter and jam, you’re living a half-life. After breakfast I quickly put my dishes away and make my lunch. Lunch has consisted of cheese, crackers, mini-sausages, a peach, and a yogurt. It’s like a grown up Lunchable! Finally I brush my teeth and race out the door.

For some odd reason I always think I am going to be late, however I always get to the train station at least 5 minutes early. Le gare is a 16 minute downhill walk from my apartment. The walk is beautiful in the mornings! I pass by the town hall, a grape vineyard, and dozens of small yet beautiful European houses. I also pass a few water fountains. But, unlike America where our form of water fountain is an ugly metal contraption that is dirty half the time and the other half of the time doesn’t work, in Switzerland, there are actual water fountains. As in, water comes out of a pipe (or multiple pipes) into big, concrete collection area, usually lined with flowers. Some are simple, and some are extravagant! In America, you would never drink out of one of these, because the water would usually be unsuitable. In Switzerland, however, the water is always drinkable unless there is a sign that says “Eau Nonpotable”.

The train comes at 8:59am and by 9:09am I am in Geneva! I have never gotten a seat on the morning train because it is so busy. Most of the commuters are business people going to work. Therefore, I usually stand in the entrance or sit on a staircase (it is a double-decker train) and look out the window as the train speeds on. It passes through the Swiss countryside, multiple farms, some big châteaux, all whilst lining the coast of Lac Léman. You can even see the majestic, Mont Blanc in the background! On lovely days with blue skies and minimal clouds, I feel as if I am staring at a painting

What’s 52 in French?


When I first started to write this blog post that’s supposed to be focused on my identity, I wrote about how being a gay Pakistani-American Muslim affects how I perceive the world and how it’ll affect my time abroad. However, seeing as how I’m going to be in England at a fairly liberal school, it wouldn’t really be much different than being at GW. If I were in a Muslim country or another area that wasn’t as safe to be who I am, it would make for some great reading, but while my background and history is interesting, I think my identity as an English-speaking American is even more interesting (and funny). Read the rest of this entry

An Introduction



My name is Allison and I’m blogging this semester from Amman, Jordan. Today was my first full day in Amman and the beginning of the Middlebury School’s orientation. Orientation Week is particularly crucial for this study abroad program, as it’s the only time during the semester that we will be allowed to speak in English. It’s all Arabic after this.

Orientation was helpful, but by far the best experience of the day began afterwards, when we met our mentors (مرشدون) and began to explore Amman. We grabbed coffee at a local shop (where smoking indoors is still very cool) and talked for a while. The mentors are all University of Jordan students. It’s really calming to talk to someone your own age who understands both Jordanian culture and that of American study abroad students. The mentors also give us some idea of what modern Amman is like. The female mentors all wore hijabs, but one of them cursed continually and talked openly about politics. Lara, my mentor, wears skinny jeans and loves Dan Brown books. None of this is particularly earth-shattering I guess, but every new detail about their lives feels like a small piece to the intricate puzzle of Jordanian identity.

So far, my only other source for extended interactions is my host family, who live in the house above mine and my roommate’s basement apartment. We have the most contact with Eman; as the mother, she is in charge of the children (including us). She has four children, one live-in servant, and a husband who I have yet to meet. She’s also in charge of feeding us breakfast and dinner, which is great because she’s an excellent cook. Tonight’s dinner was mansaf. The national dish of Jordan, it’s lamb and rice soaked in a yogurt gravy. And it’s delicious. IMG_2869

Overall, my first day has been filled with anxiety. Everything is different here, and that’s a concept that my mind is having trouble accepting. Still, my interactions with Jordanians so far have taught me that, however different-minded we may be, at the end of the day people are just people no matter what country you’re in. Maybe it’ll be different once I start speaking to the mentors and my host family in Arabic, but right now the best cure for anxiety is a long conversation with another person. It makes everything strange or foreign melt away until I’m left with the warm, familiar feeling of getting to know a new friend.

That’s all for now.

!مع السلامة

A French Farmer’s Market


See the rainbow. Smell the rainbow. Taste the rainbow.

“Oh, it’s only about a 12 minute drive.” It was my first ever trip to France. And to think, I had only been in Switzerland for four days! I woke up later than I had planned so I had to skip the shower (oops). Oh well, I thought, Europeans shower less anyway, right? Okay maybe that part was wrong but either way, after I jumped out of bed I staggered downstairs, still half asleep. Finding my host mom and her partner, Noel, chatting on the balcony overlooking Commugny, Switzerland, I was greeted and shown breakfast. Now, in Switzerland, unlike America and unfortunate for me, there is no big, greasy, multi-plate breakfast that overflows with carbs and protein. Instead, what I have been eating the past few days has been an assortment of yogurt, oatmeal, bread (lots and lots of delicious, crusty, white bread), cheese, and deli meats. And of course jam and butter. The next thing I knew I was sitting in the backseat of my host mom’s red sports car and we were on our way!

When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was how people in France parked; they didn’t just parallel park on the side of the road. They parked their cars halfway up the curb onto the sidewalk because hey, there’s room there, right? We entered the market and Noel acted as my personal tour guide and showed me the many fruits, vegetables, and spices, and meats from around the world. Walking through the market was wonderful. I felt like I was a trader on the Silk Road, looking for the spices of life that would sell big back home. I saw buckets of vinegary smelling olives, stacks of sweaty socks smelling sausages, and blocks and wheels of cheesy cheese!

My favorite booth was the spice booth. It had all sorts of spices from all over the world and it looked and smelled like foreign and exotic lands. Surprisingly there were also many booths dedicated to bras, underwear, clothes, and purses! But like any farmers market, those weren’t too popular. The most popular stands gave samples, and boy did I take advantage of that! I tasted olives (bleh), ginger (very strong), almonds (meh), hazelnuts (not very strong), sweet brioche bread (mmm), sheep cheese (soft), and nougat (kind of like light fudge)!

By the end of the three hour trip I had seen dead chickens with their heads still attached, dead and skinned rabbits, a man playing accordion (a typically French thing to do), and the oldest running hydro-electric plant in France. We returned back to the apartment where I sat on the balcony and gave some quality “TLC” to Ronja, my host mom’s black forest cat.  Her balcony overlooks several other apartments, villas, a school, and the town hall. In the not-so-far distance you can even see Lac Léman! For reference, and to not sound like a tourist, Lac Léman is the actual name of the lake that is shared between France and Switzerland, not Lake Geneva. School officially starts tomorrow and I better go see if I have any readings to do. But I also may take a stroll around town… good thing class isn’t until 11:15am!

Cloudy with a Chance of Monsoon: Finding My Way, Week 1


Here in Telangana State, Southern India, the locals have been a bit unsettled about the weather. Although Monsoon Season technically started about three weeks ago from today, my 7th day in India, we have yet to feel a single drop of those mythical waters swinging in off the Arabian Sea. Monsoon is an essential part of life in India, bringing much-needed relief after three months of the brutal Indian summer. However this year more than ever, and particularly here in Telangana, Monsoon is crucial. An unprecedented heatwave enveloped the state in May and June, pushing temperatures upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit for days on end and claiming more than 550 lives. While temperatures have undoubtedly cooled off, the earth has become a dry, rusty red dust.

However unsettled they might be, however, the Indians remain unafraid. “The rain will come,” assures one local after the other with the gentle bobble of the head so characteristic of this country. I watch at the same time day after day as the blistering white sun quietly disappears behind a massive bank of dense, grey clouds that seem to appear over Hyderabad from out of nowhere. The clouds linger for a while, watching over the city like uniformed army sentries, and a hush seems to fall over Hyderabad as people take a seat on porch steps and wander into stores, heads turned toward the dense, swollen sky. And then, just as quickly as they appeared, the clouds vanish, perhaps off to bless some other thirsty city with the gift of rain. The sun reemerges and the city comes back to life, loud, bustling, and hot as ever.

Amidst all this, the constant heat is making me restless. Last night I tossed and turned for seven hours, unable to sleep for more than ten minutes in the oppressive humidity. When I finally sat up in bed at dawn, admitting defeat, I found myself to be literally dripping in sweat, as though I had just run a half marathon through Death Valley. Just the day before, a billboard advertisement depicting two tourists swimming in a pristine (not quite realistic) Ganges River sent me into a frenzy of trying to locate the nearest pool. I started daydreaming about being allowed to wear a swimsuit to orientation, or the international students’ dining hall serving huge bowls of mango ice cream instead of actual meals.

And yet the locals carry on, perhaps a little unsettled, but overall, unafraid, optimistic, resilient. Meanwhile, I lie awake in the dense, hot darkness of my room and stare up at the swirling fan for hours, terrified that I’ll never adjust —  not just to this stifling weather, but to anything about life in India. Everyday, it seems, a dozen new challenges await just outside my door from the moment I wake. On the first day of orientation, it was standing by the gate of my homestay waiting to be picked up, doing my best to shoot an imposing glare at the possibly rabies-infected stray dogs barking at me just feet away. Learning to cross the street a few days later meant silently praying to every deity imaginable and sprinting across the lane-less highway in a pack of my fellow petrified foreign students, dodging motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, 14-wheelers, and taxis before collapsing against a rusty sign post stuck in the dirt on the other side.

But the biggest challenge of all that had been looming over my head since the day of my arrival was learning to get to and from campus all on my own. The directors of my CIEE study abroad program had been mentioning the idea to the three girls living in homestays almost constantly since the first day of orientation, but we had been able to blissfully ignore the idea as a campus car reserved just for us would pick us up one by one and drop us right at the CIEE program building each morning, and would leave us at our individual homestays every evening. Our biggest challenge was waiting outside our houses and remaining calm as we were gawked at, accosted by stray dogs, and caught in the walking paths of cows. We all knew the day would come when we had to find our way to the University of Hyderabad without anyone to help us, but we had vehemently denied the idea in our minds. Unlike the eleven other girls living in the international students’ dorm on campus, each of us homestay students has been placed in a separate home, in three neighborhoods located in completely opposite directions of each other. We wouldn’t even have the comfort of tackling this challenge with another foreign student; it was each of us against the world.

I knew, at least at base level, what I was expected to do. The directors made the task sound simple. First, cross the two lane road outside the University’s main gate (a road which in the US we would probably be considered four lanes, but which here consisted of two massive hoardes of motor vehicles swerving around each other, making U turns without warning, and incessantly honking their horns at each other). Next, stand in the dirt path on the side of the road and wait for a seven-seater shared auto to come by. These “shared autos” are basically little rectangular boxes on four wheels, with two upholstered benches in the back and a shotgun seat up front next to the driver. About three people are supposed to sit on each bench, and one person would legally sit up front, hence the seven-seater concept. However, in most cases, about eight people will squeeze into the back, two more hop into the front with the driver, and at any given time the auto might stop to let two or three stragglers jump into the “trunk” area, an open section between the second bench and the back of the vehicle, about 2 feet wide, and open to the elements (these things pretty much never have windows). If he’s really feeling daring, the driver might let a friend cling to the back of the auto from the outside, so that the vehicle tumbles over the bumpy Hyderabadi streets like a barrel of monkeys with miscellaneous arms and legs hanging out of windows and women’s dupattas (head scarfs) billowing in the wind.

Just flag one of these things down and hop in, no big deal right? Shout your destination (in my case it’s Indira Nagar, a busy area for shopping and restaurants about a fifteen minute ride from the university) at the driver, make sure to tell him when to stop at the side of the road, jump out into the dusty feeder, toss him a ten rupee note, and swear your life away as you cross that river of traffic once more to your street. No big deal.

I spent most of today wanting to puke. Nothing we did was remotely enjoyable because the idea of getting back to my homestay in the dreaded auto rickshaw wouldn’t leave my mind. The afternoon chai and biscuits break I loved so much was spoiled, as the tea turned into muddy street puddles and the biscuits transformed into spinning motorbike wheels before my eyes. Maybe the directors would change their minds and drive the three of us home one last time. Maybe I could stay over in the dorms tonight. Could I call my homestay parents to come pick me up? Anything to avoid literally sitting on top of complete strangers in one of those accidents-on-wheels. Even the mile and a half bike ride from the CIEE office to the university’s main gate seemed too short. I would have gleefully continued the cardio workout in the sweltering heat for another four miles if only I could postpone this journey a little longer.

But it was hopeless. My hands shook as I chained my bike to the gate and made my way to the main road with the other two homestay girls, Sara and Caroline. Caroline, the smallest of all of us but easily the bravest, lived close enough to walk home. She shot across the street in a flurry of flowing blue and green cotton before Sara and I could even catch our shaky breaths. Just like that she was gone, as another wave of traffic rushed by and blocked her from our view. Sara didn’t need to cross the street to take an auto home, but I stood with her anyway, letting countless opportunities to dodge my way across the street pass me by as I tried to steady my breathing and push back the metallic taste of fear rising in my throat.

But finally I couldn’t wait any longer. A split second of bravery washed over me and I shouted “I’m crossing, I’m doing it!” as I sprinted  to the other side, a hundred foot journey that felt like a hundred miles in my mind. Even so, I had only completed the first part of my task. Hailing a shared auto was a completely different story. Within seconds of reaching the other side, a swarm of smaller auto-rickshaws pulled up to me,  their drivers shouting various locations across the city or simply “Madam! Madam! Auto-rickshaw!” I shooed them away, my eyes flashing back and forth at the chaos all around me, craning my neck for some glimpse of the a little white box on wheels rolling by. Finally, I saw one, raising my arm as high as I could and waving it frantically so as to be see over the hoard of yellow, beetle-like rickshaws surrounding me. Instantly the auto pulled over to the side of the road and I ran through the motions: shout “Indira Nagar,” jump inside, and pray that if there is an accident one of the eleven bodies squeezed up on every side of you will prevent you from flying out the open windows, since seatbelts aren’t really a thing in India.

With a rumble and cough of thick black exhaust, we’re off. My hair whips into my face as we barrel down the street and the air rushes into the vehicle from all sides. There’s a baby practically sitting in my lap, someone’s stepping on my foot, my knees are touching those of the woman in front of me, and I’m pretty sure there’s a guy asleep in the trunk. Eight sets of eyes are trained on my face as I hold my breath and stare at the rush of life outside the window: barking dogs, herds of water buffalo, men with kerchiefs tied around their faces whizzing past on noisy motorbikes, honking trucks painted in a kaleidoscopic swirl of neon “Om” symbols and Hindu deities, patches of jungle that give way to crumbling sandstone structures next to glossy new shopping centers. Somewhere between desperately trying to avoid awkward eye contact with my fellow passengers and shouting “Yahan par rukiye!” (stop here) to the driver, I lose myself in that outside world and for the first time since I’ve been in India, it finally hits me: I’m really here. I’ve made it. This is India, and I’m smack dab in the middle of it all.

I’ve got two blocks to walk before home, and another, even busier, road to cross, but once I jump out of the auto and pay the driver, it’s as though I’ve left any fears I had right there in the backseat. I watch the little white auto haphazardly swerve back into traffic and I could almost swear that I catch a glimpse of that petrified version of myself from just a few hours ago poking her head out the window. She’s only a wisp of a girl, and she dissolves into the thick summer haze as I turn my back and head for home.

As I trudge through the dust and cacophony of street noise toward my homestay, the Ramanan household, I chuckle to myself at how this terrifying experience somehow managed to help me finally place myself in India. It wasn’t the breathtaking tour of the 16th century Qutb Shahi tombs, viewing the entire city from the incredible height of the Mughal Era Golconda Fort, drinking chai on the promenade of Chowmahalla Palace, or even sharing the road with a few cows on my bike ride to orientation. It was this ride, this task that had filled me with so much terror, this smelly, noisy, bone crushing, chaotic trip, that somehow made me fall in love with India, that somehow made me realize that I had started to find a home here.

I turned the corner onto my street, catching a glimpse of the magnificent vermillion-blossomed Gulmohar tree that I so often gazed at from the balcony of my homestay, and felt a sudden change in the air. There was an iota of coolness, the tiniest breeze rustling through those lush green branches, the thick scent of dampness in my nose. I looked down, and there they were: dark spots, blooming before me in the dusty dirt road, appearing faster and faster. With a gust of wind and a wash of grey above me, the sky opened, and the rain began. Gentle though it was, far from any monsoon storm, I giggled out loud, beside myself with joy. I practically skipped down the road to my homestay, water droplets trailing over my sun-dried cheeks, wet hair clinging to my temples. The gate to the Ramanan household had never looked so beautiful as it did in the grey haze of Monsoon season, with glossy raindrops clinging to its black iron rails.

The rain continued on for the rest of the evening, picking up speed and spicing things up with thunder and lightning, a true Monsoon storm. Even now as I sit on my balcony typing away, I watch as the long-awaited flood rushes down my street, a river of moonlight flowing by in the darkness, and I poke my bare feet through the balcony rails to let India wash over me.

Identity Crisis


My identity has long been a place of confusion and resentment. I’m a Palestinian-Greek American. Three vivacious and similar yet so different cultures wrapped into one person. It doesn’t stop there. I’m also a convert to Islam. I was raised with my mother who is Greek, Christian and attended Greek School and church from a young age. I didn’t know anything about my Palestinian culture because I didn’t even know I was Palestinian until I was around seven years old. I knew I was half Arab because of my different last name and foreign father, but that was irrelevant to my life because I didn’t live with him. As far as I was concerned, I was a Greek, American girl who for some reason didn’t feel complete with my Greek friends and felt different from my American friends. Little did I know that identity crisis was soon to take a more dramatic turn. Read the rest of this entry