Monday, March 18, 2019

Preservation of the Reservation: A week in the Navajo Nation

I’ve considered coming back to my blog from studying abroad for the past year, and I am officially deciding to do so to post about my trip to the Navajo Nation. I’m choosing to do so for two main reasons: 1. My trip to Arizona was amazing and the Navajo culture is so unique and beautiful that I want a platform to talk about it and 2. My motivation for coming on this trip came from Australia.

A common theme that I heard during my semester abroad was that “Australia is just like America but 10 years behind.” I found that to be true in some ways, like when it came to gay marriage, and untrue in others, like when it came to gun control. 

But one hot issue in Australia that was unlike anything talked about in America was native rights. In Australia, the Aboriginal rights movement is of a magnitude comparable to Black Lives Matter in the United States. There was talk of ending Australia Day because the establishment of Australia cannot be truly separated from the displacement and forced assimilation of the Aborigines. Seeing this issue in Australia made me question on a philosophical level, “can you love where you live while respecting the people who were there first?” And on a personal level, “what is happening to the Native people in my country?”

I grew up in Rochester, NY which is located in an area that was traditionally inhabited by the Seneca people. I distinctly remember learning the “SCOOM” mnemonic to help remember the Iroquois tribes in New York State and making little paper longhouses in my 4th grade class. I pass a longhouse every time  I drive to my grandparents’ cottage, and I drive through the Seneca reservation every time I head to Erie for school. However, my encounters with natives in Australia made my realize that I knew little about the lives of Native American people in the 21st (or even 20th) century.

Leading up Alternative Break Service Trip to the Navajo Nation, my group and I brainstormed a list of things that we knew about modern day natives from the news. Casinos, high rates of chronic diseases (such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease), alcoholism, and cheap gas were things that came to mind. Walking into the Navajo Nation, I wanted to know “is this the true image of the modern native?” And if so, “how could the traditional custodian of American land become so ill-served by it?”
I have gained a great appreciation of the Navajo culture during my week-long trip, and I wanted to highlight a couple of the things about the Navajo culture that stood out most to me. 

In Navajo culture, understanding of life comes from the 4 cardinal directions . The Navajo reservation is bordered by 4 Sacred Mountains, each pointing to each of the cardinal directions - the San Francisco Peaks in the west, Mount Taylor in the South, Blanca Peak in the east, and Mount Hesperus in the north. Each of these directions and each of the mountains is associated with a color (blue, white, yellow, or black), a time of day (morning, day, evening, night), and a phase of life (birth, childhood, adulthood, and old age). Although I don’t know that I would’ve thought to group the cardinal directions with phases of life, grouping ideas is a common study method that our professors recommend to help build knowledge off of previously held knowledge. I found it funny that the Navajo take the same approach to understanding their world as I take to understanding hypertension meds in school. But this way of grouping ideas to explain concepts helped me to understand gender roles in the Navajo culture. Vanessa, a Navajo/Seneca woman who worked with our group, explained women do not traditionally hold public office but they choose the men who fill those roles. She compared men and women to an eagle feather, stating that the men are the sharp edge that cut the wind during flight and the women represent the opposing edge that provide balance for flight. 
The Flag of the Navajo Nation - showing the 4 Sacred Mountains in the 4 main colors 
Because the Navajo derive their understanding of life from their relationship with nature, they protect and honor nature in their activities of daily living. The Navajo people were not at all wasteful. In the process of basket weaving, the weaver will go out and collect stems of the three-leaf sumac shrub, dye them, and weave them into concentric circles. Any stems that are not used in the process are driven north where they are returned to nature. 
My turn to grind the corn into flour to make Navajo cake!
A sweat lodge ceremony is one way that the Navajo people maintain and reinstate their relationship to the natural environment. Sweat ceremonies are performed weekly for the purpose of purification. Men and women participate in different ceremonies. The sweat lodge itself is a structure made of a frame of sticks and insulated with blankets. It is entirely dark inside with the exception of the slight glow of the red embers that heat the room. The ceremony involves sitting in the hot room for four sessions of about 20 minutes each. The twenty minutes are a time of prayer and intentional thinking. 

My group was fortunate enough to be able to participate in one of the sweat ceremonies. We entered the sweat lodge on the east side of the building, and moved in a clockwise formation to find our place around the hot embers. This is the traditional way to enter a sweat lodge or hogan because it mimics the way that the sun rises in the east and the way that water drains in a clockwise rotation. In each session, we progressed from thinking of one phase of life to another. No amount of time in a sauna or hot yoga classes can prepare you for the amount of sweat produced within the sweat lodge. When the session was over, we crawled out of the sweat lodge like babies new to life. After wiping sweat from my eyes at the end of the fourth session, I felt hyper-aware of the environment around me and my connection to it. I could deeply appreciate the colors and the contours of the rocks surrounding Mr. K’s canyon home. I could feel the coolness of the red sand under my toes and two distinct cold patches where the breeze pushed my dripping sports bra and shorts to my skin. I could hear the trickle of the irrigation system and the moving of approaching cows as I tuned out the sound of my group returning the embers to the glowing fire. This image, my view when I left the sweat lodge, is one that I will not soon forget. 
The view of the canyon after being in the sweat lodge for close to an hour
Witnessing the beauty of the Navajo culture firsthand made me wonder why more people did not know about it, but I got my answer as I learned more about the treatment of the Navajo people by the U.S. government throughout history. On our first day of the trip, we went to visit the Grand Canyon National Park and other parts of the canyon that were on Navajo land. As we stood looking over the hundreds of meters of eroded sediment to the Little Colorado River, Mr. K explained that Navajo people had to run and hide through these areas during the Long Walk. The Long Walk was a forced displacement of Navajo people from Arizona to New Mexico in 1860s because the goal of the United States at this time was to build a cross-country railroad and fulfill Manifest Destiny. Although I had known of the Trail of Tears and other times in history when displacement and ethnic cleansing of natives had occurred, I was surprised to find out that the Long Walk occurred during the Lincoln administration. One friend in my group remarked that Lincoln was her favorite president because we remember his legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation and preventing the secession of the south during the Civil War. We were all shocked to learn that a man who was remembered for ending slavery could also allow such atrocities to occur to another group of people. 

The injustices to the Navajo people did not end in the 19th century. More recently, the Navajo people have been affected a law called the Bennett Freeze Act. In the wake of the Long Walk, a treaty that created the Navajo reservation was signed in 1868. Shortly after, in 1882, another treaty was signed between the United States and the Hopi natives (a neighboring tribe) which promised them a reservation as well, some of which overlapped with Navajo-promised land. The U.S. government claimed that the Bennett Freeze Act in 1966 was needed to minimize conflict between the Navajo and Hopi people, but in reality, the law provided the opportunity for private companies to mine coal and uranium on this land. This law prevented people from improving on their properties in any way, including fixing roofs and constructing water and gas lines. My own house was built less than 20 years ago, yet we still have roofers and electricians come by for occasional repairs. Imagine not being able to make any changes to your house for over 40 years! Although this law was repealed during the Obama administration, the impact of the Bennett Freeze Act continues today as only about 60% of the houses in this area have electricity. 

A Navajo women selling some turquoise jewelry - spoiler alert for some Christmas gifts. Getting a crack in your turquoise jewelry is sign of protection as it shows the stone took the blow for you. 
Although the reservation system has allowed for the preservation of Navajo culture in the Southwest, the Navajo people do not own any of their land. They must apply for a lease every 70 years in order to maintain their land, but their “property” is entirely at the discretion of the United States government. Because they do not own their land, they are not able to use it as collateral when applying for loans, which keeps them at an economic disadvantage.

To bring the issue closer to home for a minute, think of the bumpiest patch of thruway between Rochester and Cleveland. You may have sped by a red sign with lots of words that you never had a chance to read. They state, “New York State owes the Seneca Nation $675 million dollars.” The Seneca claim that New York State pressured the tribe to allow the state to build the thruway through Seneca land without allowing the Seneca tribe to collect any tolls in the area. The estimated $675 million represents one dollar for every car that has driven on the road. The road remains in a state of repair because anything more than routine maintenance of the thruway requires consent of the Seneca nation, and ongoing disagreements between the Seneca people and the New York State government regarding these tolls, casino fees, and taxes on goods. 

I am happy that I had the opportunity to learn about Navajo life and culture during my spring break. My experiences motivated me to remember
Our nation is constantly debating who deserves to be here, in discussions about immigrants, refugees, Dreamers, etc. but let us not, in our debate, forget the people who have always been here nor the humanity that we all share. Regardless of your stance on any of the issues listed, thank you for reading this post to further your understanding of a beautiful culture.

My ABST Group with Mr. K on his farm 
If you are more interested, here is some more information about the Bennett Freeze Act, the Long Walk, and the 2.7 mile stretch of I-90 that runs through the Seneca Nation:

The Long Walk -
The Bennett Freeze Act -
1-90 Thruway in the Seneca nation -

Friday, November 24, 2017


Since I last posted on my blog, I finished my semester at ACU, camped in Australia, soaked up the sun in the Gold Coast, celebrated my friend’s 21st birthday, and lived out of a van in New Zealand. I’ve said goodbye to a lot of people who have become so important to my life here, and now I’m trying to fit in as much as possible before I journey back to America in just one week. I feel like I’m moving at 100 miles per hour, but in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to take some time to stop and reflect.

Yesterday was the first time in my life that I had ever missed a family holiday. The first thing I did when I woke up was FaceTime my family, who was cleaning up from dinner when I called. They told me that they accidentally set a place at the table for me, which simultaneously made me laugh and miss them. Thankfully, I had plans to celebrate with my little Aussie family, including Matt, who got to celebrate his first Thanksgiving!

The Gasbarres' favorite Thanksgiving food - Nonna's tortellini

We all brought something to contribute to the meal. Although we had to substitute kangaroo meat for turkey, we did a good job sticking to the traditional Thanksgiving foods. I made sweet potato casserole, which is one of my favorite Thanksgiving foods. I used Aunt Ro’s recipe, and it was a big hit! It was quite funny to cook it with Matt, who was appalled by the amount of butter and sugar went into the recipe. I really enjoyed being involved in the process of cooking the meal. This is not usually the case at home because I trust my mom, Aunt Ro, Grandma, and Nonna to do a great job. Also, I’ve always passed up on opportunities to cook because I didn’t know how. Having been in Australia for 5 months now, I’ve had no choice but to learn. I’m thankful to Australia for that- for making me push myself to try new things.
sweet potato casserole... not even sure you could consider it a vegetable anymore

We all gathered on Friday afternoon outside our building for the meal. We wanted to do it on Friday instead of Thursday because it was closer to the time that our families would have been celebrating at home. We had mashed potatoes, a chicken (which I had to carve, just like a turkey), green beans, sweet potatoes, and pie. In traditional Thanksgiving fashion, I didn’t eat all day in preparation for the feast. I felt really thankful that I was surrounded with such good friends. Although our Aussie Thanksgiving was a huge success, I don’t plan to miss many more big holidays with my family at home.

I’ve found that I’ve been feeling more and more grateful as my time in Australia decreases from months to weeks to days. I remember walking around North Stradbroke Island with my friends at the beginning of the month. We were blown away by the beauty of the coast and its wildlife. With just one turn of the head, we could see kangaroos on land and giant sea turtles and dolphins in the water. Ashley looked over at me and said, “I could cry, I’m so happy here,” and I knew she wasn’t exaggerating because I felt the same way. I had put so much energy and thought into planning my semester in Australia, but I never expected to be counting sea turtles in the ocean as they came up for air. Those surprise moments that I could never have planned but took my breath away were the things for which I am most thankful. I am thankful for the people I met that shared those moments with me, and I want to let them know how much I appreciate them.

Room 100 – Of all the people in the world who could have been my roommates during my semester in Australia, I’m so glad it was you guys.

Gianna- I knew I would like you from the moment you responded to my initial Facebook message in all caps, but I knew I would love you when you gave me an extra-long hug the moment we met. I am so happy that I can use our special knock on our shared wall and you come running. More than just loving you as a friend, I respect you so much. You are so passionate about your films, hair dye, art, and adventure. Thanks for coming back from class on Mondays to hang out with me, for spontaneously getting in a helicopter with me, for snuggling with me in our graffitied van, and for being my go-to on this side of the world.

Rachel- Thank you for being one of the sweetest people I have ever met. You are so kind, so fun, and, surprisingly, so much trouble. Thank you for driving in New Zealand, always yelling at Gianna to get in the elevator, and being your best self. Thank you for keeping life interesting in our room. I can’t wait to visit you in Fairfield.

Ashley- I knew we were going to have a great semester together after we talked on Instagram. I love that you always want to have fun and care so much about other people’s feelings. I think my dance moves improved just by watching you at the club. Thank you for letting me borrow your clothes (literally every single time we go out). Thank you for taking the far side of the tent so I could feel a little less nervous about being abducted in New Zealand. Thank you for reminding me to take advantage of every minute of our last couple weeks. Most of all, thank you for staying an extra week so that we can explore Melbourne together.

Keiko – Thank you for being the first person to join me in Room 100 to end my streak of loneliness. I’m so happy that I got to know you and even meet your mom. Thanks for teaching me about Asian food and cosplay. I hope I get to see you if I’m ever in Santa Clara!

The “Aussie Posse” ... Devon, Savannah, Liz, Leanne, Nicole, Danielle, Jiorden, Katie, Daphne, Rachel, Ashley, Gianna - I could not be more thankful for all the time that I got to spend with you. I have never felt more comfortable with a group of girls than I did with you guys. Thank you for all the beach trips, Thursday nights at Prohibition, and Bachelor viewing parties. So much changed as we explored different parts of Australia, but you guys were a constant. Thank you for always being around to hang out, get food, “study,” explore the city, watch movies, or whatever. I know that you guys will be life-long friends, and I can’t wait to meet up in the upcoming years for trips around the world, weddings, or whatever life throws our way. I can’t imagine what my time in Australia would have been like without you, and now I’m looking forward to finding you all in America.

Nolan- Thank you for saying yes before I even finish offering up the ideas. I am so happy that we were able to see so much of Australia together- Cairns, Sydney, Byron Bay, and Alice Springs wouldn’t have been the same without you. Thank you for seeing beauty in everything and for always allowing time in our itineraries for sunrises and sunsets. I will never forget how you literally jumped for joy when we saw a rainbow over Sydney Harbor at Watson’s Bay. Thank you for not getting annoyed by my backseat driving when you drive fast on curvy roads (even though I know you got it). You are such a special person, and I’m so glad Sammi told me to look out for you. I’ll see you in Pittsburgh or Erie or Chicago or Canada or Africa or somewhere.

Troy – Thank you for helping me to feel comfortable in Brisbane. You were the go-to person for cool hikes and great views. Thanks for coming over for family dinners and bringing us food throughout the semester. Thank you for taking us to see the galaxy. Thank you for waking up at 4 AM to say goodbye before we flew to New Zealand. I’m jealous that Ashley and Gianna got to visit you in Singapore, so I plan to do the same one day!

Matt –  I am so happy that I met you and continued to talk to you even though the circumstances didn’t encourage it. Thank you for making two trips to Brisbane and for inviting me to meet your family and friends in Sydney. I had so much fun with you and them, and I will never forget the time we spent together. Thank you for translating Australian slang. Thank you for immediately Googling any city I was planning on visiting to tell me the best places to go. Thank you for reading my blog every single time I posted something. Most of all, thank you for reminding me to live in the moment.

Mom – Thank you for selflessly encouraging me to travel to Australia for the greatest adventure of my life so far. Thank you for encouraging me to take risks. Thank you for reminding me to be brave when I worried about poisonous animals or volcano eruptions. Thank you for never excessively worrying about me on the other side of the world so that I could call you telling you how I just jumped out of a plane or was about to bungee jump. Thank you for sending me Facebook posts about cool things we’re going do when I get home to help me get over my post-trip sadness. Most of all, thank you for reminding me that I am missed and loved. Somehow, I feel even closer to you after being away than I ever have before. Remember that no matter where I am, I will always be your girl!

I could go on forever giving thanks to individual people who have made my life better in the past six months. If you have ever read one of my blog posts, commented on a picture I posted, called me to catch up, or reminded me that I am missed somewhere else in the world, I am thankful for you. I am thankful for so many people, and so many places, and so many experiences, so this month I’m celebrating “Thanks-throwing” rather than “Thanksgiving” as I throw thanks into the universe.

I found this quote on the wall of a sandwich shop in Byron Bay back in August, and it couldn't be more true than right now. Going home is such a bitter-sweet blessing, but I am so happy to be returning to my family and friends in one week, knowing that I am leaving Australia with no regrets.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


After weeks of yelling "WOOHOOULURU" at Nolan and Gianna, we finally made our trip to the Red Center! There are two schools of thought when it comes to visiting Uluru and the Outback. Some people say that "you can't understand the real Australia without seeing the Outback" while others question "why would you spend so much money to go see a big rock?" I knew that I couldn't leave Australia without realizing my stereotypical idea of this country with red sand and wild kangaroos so Nolan and I planned this trip back in August before planning anything else.
Me and my Ulu-crew

As our little Fokker-100 flew into Alice Springs airport, Nolan and I noticed red sands, patchy grasses, and utes speeding along straight roads. We met Gianna, who was equally excited to be in a less Americanized version of Australia. The three of us enjoyed our first Outback sunset on top of Anzac Hill before getting Indian food for dinner. I was annoyed that I had to pay an additional $4 for rice on top of an already expensive meal, but Nolan reminded me how difficult it is to transport goods to the middle of the country. That night in the hostel, I didn't sleep well. I hadn’t slept well in the nights leading up to the trip because of coughing, but this time I couldn’t sleep because I was incredibly excited to start this adventure. I woke up twice that night to check the clock and make sure that we hadn’t missed our pick-up.

I was "keen" to be in the Outback with my Keens.

We were picked up from our Alice Springs hostel at 6 AM in a pink van by a guy named Scruffy from Mulgas Adventures. Scruffy had long, curly hair and always wore a beanie, reflective sunglasses and a cut-off tee shirt. He looked like he was quite a character, and he was. According to Scruffy, you haven't really been for a country if you've been there for less than 4 months. By his definition of travel, he has been to 30 countries. By my definition, he's been to 57. He has also been deported from 2 different countries. He was kicked out of Thailand for stealing a gibbon from a guy who was abusing it, and a corrupt police officer threatened to put him in jail for 10 years. Scruffy was an expert on local Aboriginal cultures, rock formations, flora and fauna, and life in the outback.

I mostly slept during the 5 hour journey from Alice Springs to our campsite. We stopped a couple times to use the toilets and refuel. We also stopped at a camel farm where I got to ride a camel named Curly! 

When we finally arrived at our campsite, I learned a new definition of the word "swag." Swags are like a combination of a canvas tent and a sleeping bag with a mattress inside. Surprisingly, they were very comfortable and I actually preferred it over sleeping in a tent because it gave us a great view of the stars!
Here's our group packing up our swags at the campsite

We ate lunch and introduced ourselves to the rest of the people on our tour. There were people on our tour from Italy, Germany, Austria, Japan, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, and Canada! In addition to having 5 of 7 continents represented, we had people of all ages as well. The first people we met were Keith and Denise, a 68-year-old couple from the Sunshine Coast. They told us how they had been wanting to see Uluru, and felt like now was the perfect chance. They had no idea that they had booked a backpackers' trip, but they kept up with the group during hikes and didn't have trouble camping outside. We also met a group of girlfriends, named Claire, Chiara, and Liz from Sydney. They are all in their mid-20's, established in jobs, and dating. I loved the fact that they were all traveling together. I had always wanted a similar group of friends who were committed to exploring the world with me; I felt blessed to be with Nolan and Gianna because I feel like they are becoming those people for me. We also met a cute middle-aged couple named John and Sarah. I liked them because you could clearly tell how much they loved each other despite the fact that they were always harassing each other. I also met a girl my age from Italy who was working as an au pair, a German couple on their honeymoon, and a group of friends from Brazil. The awesome people I met definitely added to an amazing weekend.


We wasted no time before heading to Uluru. As we drove up and I saw it for the first time, I was amazed. I couldn't imagine what it would have been like as a nomadic Aboriginal or a white colonizer exploring Australia’s harsh inland and walking up to the immense rock in the middle of the outback.

The rock itself is amazing. It is the second largest monolith in the world. Nolan and I argued about whether or not it was an igneous or metamorphic rock, but we nerds were both wrong because it's sedimentary. It appears to be a stunning red color during the day when the sun hits it, but changes to purple and grey as the light changes. It is actually a grey color (which you can see in the caves) which has turned red as a result of the iron in the sandstone oxidizing. Up close, the surface of Uluru appears to be flaking off. Something else that surprised me was that Uluru is a semi-permanent waterhole. The area had just experienced a lot of rain just before we arrived, so there was plenty of water when we got there!

No wonder Uluru is a spiritual location for the Anangu people. For the Anangu people, Uluru is essential to Tjukurpa, which is their understanding of creation and the laws of life. Each face of the rock has identifiable marks that are explained with stories. For example, a line on the face of Uluru represents a python woman who fights an evil snake man who kills her nephew. These stories not only explain the history of the natural surroundings, but are also used as lessons. Each story has multiple layers, each with 3 lessons. Children are taught each layer of the story when the elders determine that they are ready. Patience is critical in Aboriginal societies. In order to become an elder in the community, one must know all of the stories and the lessons.

Uluru is like an art gallery with different paintings representing different stories, but it is also like a house with many different rooms. There are caves within Uluru and separate areas for men, women, boys, and girls. Each group has a different area because each group has separate roles in their community. Despite the different roles of men and women, men are not considered to be more important than the women as their society is very equal. We also learned that the Anangu people do not have any tools to cut wood in their society. To cut trees, they carve a line into the wood then use hot sand to gradually wedge the wood apart. The Anangu people have definitely learned how to maximize their resources, which you would have to in order to survive and thrive in an area of extreme temperatures and scarce water. As Scruffy put it, each tree is used as a "pharmacy, hardware store, or a grocery store."

The land around Uluru provides resources, including water which attracts animals which become food. It was a beautiful place for the Anangu people and the white men who "discovered" it and renamed it as Ayers Rock. The rock has since been returned to the Anangu people, but this land is shared for the National Park which is led by a counsel of 12 people (4 Aboriginal male elders, 4 Aboriginal female elders, and 4 white people).
They have to make decisions about the National Park, including the controversial decision about the climb. Aboriginal culture forbids the climbing of Uluru because it is a sacred site, however there is a chain along the side of the rock to assist people in climbing the mountain. Plenty of people have died during this climb, and plenty more have been injured. Many of the rangers who have to rescue the people who are injured during the climb are Aboriginal, which puts them in a difficult situation when choosing between respect for their religion and their duty as a ranger. Thankfully, there are a lot of reasons that this climb can be closed, as it was when we were there. There is hope that if fewer than 20 percent of visitors to the park choose to climb Uluru, the climb will be closed for good. 
The irony - a sign that says that you can't climb Uluru next to a sign that gives you the option to climb Uluru

We drove a few kilometers from Uluru to get a good view of the rock during sunset. This was the first time that I was focused on a rock, rather than the actual sun, during the sunset. It was amazing to see the rock change color, from red to purple, as the sun set. 

Kata Tjuta

The next morning, we were woken up at 4 AM to see the sunrise at Kata Tjuta. The words "Kata Tjuta" means "many heads" as the dome-shaped rock formations resemble heads. The sunrise was pretty spectacular, as was the rest of the hike! Similar to Uluru, Kata Tjuta is also a sacred site. Ceremonies are still conducted there today, although the location is far from the hiking path and a secret from tourists.

After we left Kata Tjuta, we returned to our campsite for lunch. We had camel burgers. They tasted really good, but at first, they didn't sit well with my stomach. I learned that in Aboriginal culture, you get sick when you eat your spirit animal. I was thinking that camel was my spirit animal, but I digested before we hopped back into our van.

Once again, I fell asleep again on the way to our next campsite. I woke up to the sound of wheels turning fruitlessly in the dirt. We stopped to collect firewood and got stuck in the process. While I felt like it was the worst possible thing to wake up to, I could see in Nolan's face that he was secretly excited. After collecting the wood we needed, we dug out our tire and began to push. I thought it was ironic that this was the second country I had traveled to where I had to do this, but thankfully have never had to do it at home. However, unlike in Haiti, the girls had to help push too.

Fortunately, we were able to get back on the road in one piece. We stopped once more to refuel when Scruffy asked if anyone was interested in going up in a helicopter. Initially, I dismissed the idea because I thought it would be expensive. But when Scruffy told us that it was only $60 to go up for 5 minutes, Gianna, Nolan and I looked at each other expectantly. Next thing you know, I was ooh-ing and ahh-ing into my helicopter headset and spotting goanas from the air. It was a very impulse decision, but I was happy to simultaneously add something and check something off my bucket list. 

Our next campsite had an even better view of the stars (somehow), a fire pit, and a very cold pool. We also saw brumbies (wild horses) walking through the bush under the setting sun. I really enjoyed toasting marshmallows and talking to the other people in the group about their homes, their travels, and their stories.

King's Canyon

The next day, we left for King's Canyon at 5:15 AM (we got to sleep in a bit that day). The first thing we did was climb "heart attack hill." Somehow, I think King's Canyon was more beautiful than Uluru and Kata Tjuta combined. We walked a total of 7 kilometers as Scruffy told us about the native plants and this history of the rock formations.

After returning to the campsite for a quick dip in the pool and some lunch, it was time for us to say goodbye. Some of the group stayed for another day, but we had to return to make our flight in the morning. We were sad to leave the Outback and the new friends that we made on the tour – they chased the bus as we pulled away! Camping is not usually my thing, but this was my favorite trip that I have done in Australia so far! I learned about Aboriginal culture, I made experienced nature in an un-touched region of Australia, and I made friends with people from other countries! Camping in the Outback with Mulgas Adventures was the best possible way to experience the outback!

The pink bus and our friends from the tour - chasing the bus as we pulled away

Monday, October 2, 2017

Eat, Pray, BREATHE

Long flights are the perfect time to start a new book, and that is why I picked up Eat Pray Love when I first came to Australia. I figured that my semester in Australia would be the best time to connect with the author's travels to Italy, India, and Bali. I identified with the Elizabeth Gilbert’s wanderlust and desire to find herself in my guilty-pleasure read. Reading her book began my interest in Bali- which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Australia. I did not live with a Balinese medicine man or fall in love with a Brazilian man like she did, but my experience in Bali didn't disappoint. I experienced the "Love" that she described as the overarching theme of her time in Bali, but the best word to summarize my experience is "Breathe."

Personality tests and life experience has taught me that I am a Type A, control freak, perfectionist. This has been an asset for me in a lot of situations and a detriment in others, and I think these characteristics are the reason that I ended up crying on a FaceTime call with my mom the day before I was supposed to leave for mid-semester holiday.

When I heard the news that Australia set its travel warnings for Bali to the highest levels because of the possibility of Mt. Agung erupting, I instantly became nervous. My other friends who planned to travel to Bali for the week were able to joke light-heartedly about the situation, but that only made me more nervous! (I have also learned that I tend to be less nervous when other people share my fears). 

They all agreed that they didn't want to tell their moms and make them worry more, but I knew I had to talk to my mom. I was thankful for the fact that I knew my mom would give me strength in this situation instead of compounding my fears. When I told my mom the situation, I was surprised that she kind of laughed. She laughed in a reassuring way rather than a mocking way as she reminded me that if I wanted to travel the world, then I would have to deal with bigger issues than just snowstorms in Rochester, NY. She reminded me of the privilege I have to travel places that most people I know (including her) have never seen. And most importantly, she reminded me that God wouldn't put me in a situation that I wasn't meant to be in.

Over the next couple days, I watched the news carefully. Talking to my family about it was the best way to calm my nerves because they helped me to make light of the situation. My brother yelled "THE FLOOR IS LAVA" during one of our FaceTime calls to help me practice. And although I don't think that the destruction that volcanoes can cause is even remotely funny, I needed my family's twisted sense of humor at the time.

I was excited to travel to Bali with Ari, one of my close friends from school and favorite travel buddies. Based our past experiences traveling together, I was expecting her to be more worried about the volcano, but she surprised me. She didn't get worried until a guy working at the front desk of our hostel told us not to fly to Bali without traveler's insurance "just in case your family needs to fly your body home." That's when we shared the realization that we didn't know anything about travelers insurance and were in over our heads. I questioned whether or not we should even go up until the flight took off. I was reassured a little bit to see so many seemingly calm people on our flight (including parents with kids). 

On the flight to Bali, I started reading Half the Sky. It's about the oppression of women around the world, and it was simultaneously the best and worst book for me to read on my first trip to Southeast Asia. The first couple chapters were about sex trafficking, which scared me but made me realize that there were things that I can control and things that I cannot control. While I cannot control when the volcano erupts, I can control my awareness of my surroundings. Nonno always reminds me to “keep my eyes open,” and reading that book made me realize that that’s what I needed to do. 

I was expecting the volcano to erupt from the second we landed in Bali. The news coverage made it seem like the tremors were like massive earthquakes felt over 100 times per day. It sounded like all parts of Bali would be destroyed by lava if the volcano were to erupt, but this is not likely the case. Bali is bigger than it seems, and for the media to say that "people are evacuating Bali" is not the same as saying "people are evacuating the region of Bali that is closest to the volcano." 

Ari and I made it safely out of the airport, thanks to Made. Made helped us with our luggage and drove us to our accommodation in Ubud. Between his gentle voice, the calming music in the car, and even the unaggressive car horn, it was impossible for me to feel unsafe. I was able to fall asleep in the car so that I didn't even know that it had rained outside!

Day 1

The next morning, we met our tour guide, Wayan. Ari and I both agree that Wayan was one of the best things about our Bali trip. He made us feel so welcome and safe in Bali, as he taught us about his home rather than just showing us around. On our first day, we explored Ubud! We didn't get more than a block away from the hotel when Wayan gave us our first lesson in Balinese culture. 

He pointed out the offerings in a temple along the street and explained how every family makes an offering every day. The offering consists of 3 different color flowers (to represent the 3 main divisions of the Hindu God), rice (to sustain life), and some type of candy or food. He also taught us our first word in Balinese- "Suksema," meaning "thank you." Wayan explained that "suksema" is the most important word in the Balinese language, which I think is a testament to the respectful and kind culture that exists in Bali. 

Wayan showed us around the monkey forests, where the macaw monkeys took over a temple and the Balinese let them. He took us to have lunch in the rice paddies and then took us through the markets, where we tried our best at bartering.

Day 2
The next morning, we awoke at 1:30 AM to leave for a sunrise hike up Mt. Batur (a different, less threatening volcano). The hike was pretty difficult, especially because it was still dark outside, but we were able to make it to the top before sunrise. 
Mt. Agung is the high peak to the far right of this picture!

The view was stunning. It started out relatively dark, but slowly, light crept over the land so we were able to discover a body of water standing between Mt. Batur and Mt. Agung in the distance. We watched the clouds pass through us as we were so high up in the sky, and we were careful not to let the monkeys steal any of our stuff from our bags! By the time we walked back down the mountain at around 7 AM, I had already walked about 20,000 steps and felt more awake than I do most days at school. The hike was fulfilling but definitely tiring so I was excited to be spoiled by a Balinese massage and a nice nap when we got back to the hotel. After a couple of hours of relaxing, Ari and I went to a Balinese dance performance that Wayan recommended at the Ubud Main Temple. I didn't totally understand the plot because the few words spoken during the performance were in Balinese, but it was interesting to attend an event that wasn't catered towards English speakers.

Day 3

The next day was my favorite. Wayan brought us too Tirta Empul temple for a water cleansing ceremony. Rather than just watching, he encouraged us to participate. We each offered up everything that was weighing on us psychologically in addition to our physical offerings, and we formulated these thoughts into a wish to say before putting our heads under each of the fountains. I didn't know exactly what I was doing, but I started with "Dear God." I imagined my God as I spoke (although I believe that my God and Wayan's God are mostly the same). The fish in the water were nibbling my toes as I tried to focus on my thoughts. I finished my offering with "suksema" and then dunked my head in rushing water of the fountain.

After the cleansing ceremony, we dried off and went to another part of the temple to pray. Ari and I were dressed in traditional Balinese clothing and were able to participate in ceremony, following Wayan's lead. We put flowers from our offerings between our hands as we prayed, to show appreciation for life and nature which is at the core of Balinese Hinduism. The love of nature is also the reason that traditional Balinese clothes are so colorful, like flowers!

After the ceremony, Wayan told us more about his religion. He explained how Hinduism and Buddhism came to the country of Indonesia as early as the 5th century. He told us Islam is now the most prevalent religion in all parts of Indonesia except Bali, where Hinduism is most widely practiced. He said that all religions are welcomed in Bali as long as they fit into "the system," which he explained to mean the system of tolerance and respect. He said in Bali, Hinduism may be more prevalent, but it is not more dominant than the other religions. He helped me to understand the similarities and differences between Balinese and Indian Hinduism. Both types of Hinduism share beliefs in karma, reincarnation, and nirvana, but in Balinese Hinduism, the caste system only relates to ceremony and does not affect daily life as it does in Indian Hinduism.

After Wayan finished answering all my questions, he showed us the community aspect of temple life. He showed us where the Balinese women were working to make offerings and encouraged us to learn from them. We walked into a huge room of Balinese women working away at their offerings, and they all stopped to look at us as we walked in. They were looking at us and we were looking at them, until I smiled at them in attempt to show my intentions for being there. I also said "Swastiastu," the way to say hello in Balinese (although it more literally is a blessing). Despite the fact that I could only speak 2 words in the language, I think that they understood that I was there for good reason. I thought back to my experiences in Haiti when I was able to establish a connection based on a smile alone, and I decided that one of my favorite feelings in the world is when you make a connection with someone whose background is different from your own. Being reminded of that feeling in the temple made me reestablish my interest in practicing medicine in a developing country after I graduate. 
Here we are learning how to wrap a couple grains of rice into a banana leaf for part of the offering! It was harder than it looked!
For the rest of the day, we explored waterfalls and rice terraces and the famous Luwak coffee, before heading back to the hotel for the night. That night, I woke up twice in the middle of the night because I felt tremors from Mt. Agung shaking my bed. They lasted for about 5 seconds each, and each time, I looked over at Ari with wide eyes. Ari slept through the tremors, so I had to remind myself that no amount of stress I put myself through would prevent the volcano from erupting. I wasn't going to will the volcano to remain dormant by staying up all night, so I went back to bed.

Day 4
We left Ubud for a beach trip to Kuta. Kuta was HOT and very touristy, but we decided to go in hopes that the Bali Sea Turtle conservatory would be releasing baby turtles that day... and luckily, they were! It was a really special experience to be involved in such an amazing process. I learned that only 1 in every 1,000 sea turtles survives until adulthood, and I hoped that mine would be the one to make it. 
Carried this guy to the beach and he did the rest of the work from there!

Day 5
Ari and I planned to do a cooking class on our final day. The class started with a visit to the local market, where we learned about the local ingredients which were commonly used in Balinese dishes. We had a lot of fun cooking, but my stomach didn't feel great after the class. I imagined Nonno laughing at how my stomach didn’t like the food I cooked for it.
Yours truly was the slowest chopper in the class, but we had fun!
After we digested a bit, we headed off to a yoga class (another good reminder to breathe)! The Yoga Barn was just down the street from our hotel in downtown Ubud, but its tucked away location on a side street made it feel like it was a yoga retreat. We took the intro class, which involved a lot more talking than actual stretching. However, I left the class feeling stretched and calm. I almost fell asleep in class, which I interpreted to mean that I was calm. I enjoyed the class a lot, and I felt like it was the perfect way to end our experience in Bali.

On the way to the airport, we had a nice conversation with Wayan where he asked us about our biggest goals in life. He told us about how his goal was to travel to the United States. When I asked him how he liked it when he finally went, he said he was surprised by the people in "survival mood." I asked him if his experiences made him miss Bali, and he said, "from day one." It made me so sad that my friend didn't enjoy spending time in my country, but I can see why he felt that way. He also told us about how his other goal was to buy his own car, which he accomplished as well! He talked about how he used to work on cruise lines and didn't enjoy it all. I respected Wayan so much for finding a way to use his work experience and passions to build a business that he loves. Ari and I both were sad when we left him at the airport.

We were sad to leave Wayan and sad to leave Bali.... until we logged into the wifi and learned that our flight was delayed for 24 hours. After we got over our initial frustration that our plans changed, we realized that we were getting an extra night in Bali paid for by our airline. It honestly worked out better than we had originally planned because we didn't have many plans for Darwin anyway! 

Despite my worrying during the trip, God had better plans for me than the plans I had for myself. This quote says it best:

"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

I will continue to think about the volcano and worry about how it will affect Bali, Wayan, and the friends we met, but I am safe, happy, and blessed to be back in Australia. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Speaking Whale

This past weekend I (a relatively small mammal) had the opportunity to swim with one of the world’s largest mammals- the humpback whale! I had never snorkeled or been whale watching before, and a company called Sunreef in Mooloolaba offered the opportunity to do both at the same time! My roommates (Rachel, Gianna, Ashley, and Keiko) and I planned it as a roomie-bonding experience when they first arrived, and although we’ve all gotten really close since we planned it, that goal was definitely achieved as a result of this trip.

We woke up early on Saturday morning, to make the 8:20 train up to the Sunshine Coast. We all fell asleep on the train after doing each other’s hair so that we all had matching pigtail braids. We looked a little bit like a gang with our matching hair, but we joked that we were each other’s stunt doubles because it was really hard to tell us apart from behind.

When we arrived in Mooloolaba, we met up with Nolan. It wasn’t long after checking in that we got suited up in our snorkel gear. I had never worn a wet suit before, so as soon as they handed me all my equipment, I was all smiles. (Seriously, Gianna has a video of me with the dumbest possible grin on my face). I put my gear on right away, although it was quite difficult to walk around the docks in flippers as we waited for the boat. Our boat was called Croc One. It had “Crocs Rule” written on the back of it, which made me think of my dad (Love you Dad, but not your Crocs).


After we boarded the boat and got some instruction, the captain set us loose to look for whales. The goal was to intercept these curious creatures during their annual migratory journey up north for breeding. In the summer months, humpback whales hang out by Antarctica. The whales travel north along the coast of Australia during the winter months to give birth to their calves in the warmer waters of the Pacific. I took the job of looking for whales very seriously, as we climbed to the top deck to get a better view. They told us to look for little clouds above the water, formed by water coming out of the whale’s blowhole. We looked for grey and white bodies coming out of the water to get air, to slap their tails, or to breach.
They got me to look away from the whales for a second
We also looked for “foot prints,” which are calm areas amidst the rippled ocean formed by the whale’s tail slapping the water and distressing it. These footprints are created by the strongest muscles in the animal kingdom! I learned that each whale has a unique footprint, like each human has a unique thumbprint, so scientists can use these to keep track of which whales they are seeing. Keeping an eye on the footprints was a good way to keep track of the whales when they dove below the surface.

Our guide was very knowledgeable about the whales, and he told us that the best way to identify the difference between a female whale and a male whale is to look at its coloring. A male is likely to have more white scratches because when the males fight for mates, they scratch each other with their beaks. This, and the fact that she was swimming with a calf, helped us identify the first whale we saw as female.

When we came upon the mother and her calf, the mother whale was slapping her tail on the surface of the water repeatedly. Humpback whales slap their tails on the surface of the water to create a sound that will travel through the ocean in order to communicate with other wales. Usually the whale does a couple tail slaps at a time, but the mother whale was doing this repeatedly to teach her young calf.
A good mama teaching her baby how to slap her tail!

We all got so excited to see the whales that we were all gasping and yelling out of sheer excitement. I was worried that we’d scare the whales, but the captain encouraged us to make noises because it gets the whales’ attentions, as they are naturally curious. They let us get really close to them, and when we were close enough, we suited up in full snorkel gear (including our shark deterring anklet) and jumped into the water.

I was so shocked to see so many jellyfish where we were swimming. These ones have small tentacles so they are not a major concern. 

At first, I was just getting used to swimming with flippers and a snorkel. It took some adjusting to get used to breathing through my mouth instead of my nose, which would have caused my mask to fog up! When I finally got my breathing down, I looked into the water. I was alarmed that all I saw were jellyfish! They weren’t the big scary kind, but they looked like little clear donuts with short tentacles. I was more focused on avoiding the jellyfish than looking for whales, but I did see the whales – SWIMMING LESS THAN 10 METERS AWAY FROM ME!!!! The first time I saw the whale, I was in shock and I don’t think I completely registered what I saw! I only got a quick glimpse of the whale before we got back on the boat.

If you look really closely, there is a whale in this picture!!!! The visibility makes it look a lot further away than it actually was! (PC Ashley)

These whales were swimming away, so we had to go find some more who were interested in finding out about us. The next time we saw a whale, it jumped out of the water (breaching). Ashley and I were so in awe that we kept saying “Whoa” or “Oh My God” or just incoherent noises of amazement. It was so cool to watch, the whale even put his pectoral fin out of the water as if he was waving hello. Of course I had to wave back, and I even tried to speak whale. I had been joking about speaking whale forever, but something about this experience really brought it out of me.

Just a whale waving hello to welcome me into the ocean (PC Nolan)

The next time we jumped into the water to swim with whales, they swam away from us. We tried to swim up and catch them, but they were too fast so we got back on the boat and looked for more. It looked like we weren’t going to see any more whales up close, when all of a sudden a baby whale came up to breathe RIGHT NEXT TO our boat! It was so close that I was worried that the mother was going to come up right under our boat and tip us, but she broke the surface not too far behind her baby. We all ran to the bottom level of the boat and threw on our snorkel equipment and jumped into the water. I was able to see the baby calf so clearly beneath me (maybe 5 m away) that I choked on some ocean water.

Your favorite dork-el learning to snorkel
The whales didn’t stay to hang out with us, but I was so content that me and the whale were able to capitalize on our mutual curiosity and share the same space. It was such a humbling moment to be in the open ocean with the whales. I was able to connect with one of the world’s largest mammals in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I felt like I was fully immersed and capable of understanding and appreciating whale life. I felt love for the whale, my fellow mammal and creation of God, and it made me want to do everything I could to protect them. I had a death-grip on the Teddy Grahams wrapper I was holding as I looked over the rail of the top deck of the boat to admire the whales for fear that I would accidentally drop it into the ocean and pollute it.

When we got to the point where the water was warmer than the air (which I found out as we attempted one last jump), we headed back. I couldn’t be more thankful for the experience. As the boat headed back to the docks, we sat in on the top deck letting the sun hit our backs and dry our wetsuits. I was tired, but my heart was full. I am so blessed to experience the animal in a way that not a lot of other people do. I liked Sunreef as a company, and I liked the fact that they do not force interactions with the whales. The crew assessed how the whale was behaving before we decided whether or not we should join them in the water. It allowed me to experience whales the way they experience life themselves, outside of a tank, as they should be. I don’t think I will ever forget the experience of looking past all the jellyfish to see a baby whale in the open ocean!
Feeling tired but exhilarated and blessed - my favorite combination of feelings