Sunday, July 14, 2019

Welcome to Hotel Porvenir (Guna Yala, Panama)

Welcome to Hotel Porvenir! (Gula Yala, Panama)

(Biidub, a beautiful island in San Blas Islands, Panama)

It never occurred to me that electricity is a first-world luxury before coming to El Porvenir. El Porvenir is the capital of the San Blas islands or Guna Yala. One of the 5 Panamanian indigenous territories (or comarcas in Spanish), Guna Yala is a territory governed by the Guna peoples. The Guna are one of the many indigenous tribes in Panama. Many Guna are bilingual, speaking Spanish and the Kuna language. An estimated 50,000 Guna live in Guna Yala. 

During my week-long stay in San Blas, I met local Gunas and learned about their unique culture.  

You can reach El Porvenir by boat or plane. We took a very wet boat ride through the Caribbean to reach our destination. Luggage and backpacks were hauled into giant trash bags to protect our belongings from the sea!

This is one of our super friendly Guna guides. Catching fish, cooking food, and creating intricate molas - the artistic tapestries and clothing pieces that are signature of Guna culture - are regular parts of his day.

Beautiful molas designed and hand-stitched by our Guna friend. Each mola takes a month to a month-and-a-half to make. They sell for 20$ a piece.

You can find Guna Yala 3 hours to the east of Panama City by car and a 45-minute boat ride across the Caribbean Sea. There, 300+ islands dot the bottle green sea. Only around 44 of these islands are inhabited by the Guna, who make profits off ecotourism and exporting local goods, such as seafood and coconuts. (Fun fact: Until the 90s, the Guna used coconuts as a form of money to trade with Colombia and Panama for food and other goods!). 

Other than Guna and a few tourists, you most likely won’t see anyone else on these beautiful remote islands. But if you’ve come from abroad to study marine biodiversity in Panama’s coral reefs... then it’s a different story. For 5 nights and 6 days, my classmates and our professors, Dr. Dagang and Dr. Diaz-Ferguson, will live in bungalows on El Porvenir to collect data on marine species. (We're also here for the amazing view).

<-- Me, repping the Jaspers from my favorite napping place:
a hammock by the sea

To give you an idea of how small El Porvenir is, the entire island can be walked around in about 20 minutes.  

It has a hotel (which is a scattering of bungalows), restaurant, one TV, a Congress building where a base of Panamanian narcopolice live and an airstrip for charter planesPart of the airstrip is shattered into pieces where the Caribbean Sea has eroded it. You can see it below:

 I walked to the airstrip one morning out of curiosity and found something rather mysterious...

While checking out the airstrip, I noticed something strange at the edge... It kind of looked like a deserted spaceship from Star Wars. I took the chance to get closer while the tide was still low.

A shipwreck!

I climbed inside to find sand and broken wires... but no signs of Chewbacca. :'(

There is one generator on the island which is turned on from 6-10pm. My advice is to bring a portable charger and go easy on Snapchat. At 10:00PM sharp, the lights on the island turn off and the buzz of news on our only TV fizzles into silence. If you're caught in the bathroom at this time, it's not so fun.

This is my room one second before blackout.

This is my room one second later. 
(But you can still see my trusty mosquito net!)

With nothing but my flashlight and the fuzzy moon above me, I go to the beach at night. Sand crabs dart into holes at the sight of me. They are scared off by the swooping beam of my flashlight, but they don’t move until I take my eyes off them. Grackles – the small black birds that populate this region and look distantly related to a pterodactyl – screech in the trees. Geckos, hermit crabs and fallen coconuts join me on my moonlight stroll.    

The song of waves and thunder is constant in the Caribbean. Always there is a storm coming or going here. Last night at 2AM, I woke up to monsoon-like rain and lightning outside my window. We sleep with the doors wide open to catch the sea breeze (the perks of no electricity means... no A/C either!) So there is no buffer to soften the hours of booming thunder. The storm didn’t let up until 7AM when it was time to eat breakfast and get ready for Marine Biology class.

Without 24/7 electricity or any complimentary WiFi, I am certainly out of my element in Guna Yala. But I have found that existing in this disconnected paradise is full of pleasant surprises, like the gorgeous sunset and snorkeling in coral reefs, which I'll talk more about in my next post.

Thanks for reading! Check out the MC Study Abroad Instagram story today on 7/15 to experience a day in El Porvenir with me. I will be taking over the MC Instagram for a day to share my amazing study abroad experience.

Saludos!Autumn Herndon


Sunday, July 7, 2019

Holá Panamá! The Festival of Corpus Christi - Autumn Herndon

Holá Panamá! The Festival of Corpus Christi

The festival of Corpus Christi only takes place once a year in Panama to celebrate the rich history of folklore and Catholicism in Panama. Corpus Christi is a Catholic celebration of God and Panamanian folkloric tradition. Panama, which is a primarily Catholic country today, is called Crisol de Razas or “Rainbow of Races.” This nickname comes from Panama’s history of immigration starting from the days of Spanish colonization when Catholicism first found its way to Central America in Panama.
Since then, Panama has become a symbol of cultural diffusion with a population of Panamanians coming from all over the world. One of the most historic and dazzling haunts in Panama City is Casco Viejo or Casco Antigua. The English translation is “Old Town.”

I couldn’t miss the chance to pose in one of the many ruins in Casco Viejo!

Casco Viejo is the only remains of original Panama City, which was burned to ruins by Welshman Sir Henry Morgan in the 17th century. Here in Casco, the buildings alternate between colorful fronts of rosy pink and powder blue or cratered stone ruins left untouched for hundreds of years. Casco is a tourist heaven (you’ll see many tourists snapping shots for Instagram in the cobblestone streets and gift shops). Far more modern than the antiquated edifices let on, most of the buildings in Casco are hipster restaurants by day and rooftop bars or clubs by night. Walk inside a ruin past 8pm and you might find yourself in a discoteca!

(Plaza Catedral, Plaza de la Independencia, Panama City)
The festivities took place steps away from this gorgeous cathedral… which mercifully had A/C

Yesterday, I found myself in a Panamanian colonial time warp. Folkloric music and rain filled the air. Children danced around a maypole in stage makeup and layered historical costumes, as if they didn’t notice it was over 90 degrees outside. On the weekend of July 5th, the Plaza de la Independencia turned into a grand festival of Panamanian folklore. It was the weekend-long celebration of Corpus Christi in Panama City. This is one of the biggest Catholic holidays in Panama after Christmas and Easter.

Children dancing around a Maypole

Part of this beautiful celebration is a historical reenactment of the Days of Colonization in Panama. Children and adults dressed in traditional costumes to celebrate. Local artisans sold handmade crafts to represent the different provinces and cultures of Panama. If you ever have the chance to see Corpus Christi in the flesh, then you might notice costumes and images of brightly colored monsters all around. But these monsters aren’t monsters at all. In fact, they represent the Devil.

These life-size cardboard cutouts of El Diablo welcomed us to the festival!

Handcrafted toys of El Diablo for sale

The Panamanian folkloric rendition of the devil is more playful than Christian images in the U.S. and Europe. (See: Red horns, forked tail, flames, eternal screams of the accursed sinners). I stopped to ask a Panamanian vendor what is the purpose of the devil image? She answered me with a sheepish shrug: “Tradición!”

Even this car is in the spirit of Corpus Christi!

Panamanians in colonial dress

Traditional dances in the Plaza de la Independencia

            This festival was a beautiful way to learn and relive the history of colonization in Panama. Language barriers are always tricky to navigate, but I ultimately felt more capable and knowledgeable after talking to a Panamanian vendor. She was kind enough to bear with my butchered Spanish and teach me about the festival origins. I bought a wooden hand-painted plate of a Panamanian folkloric deity from pre-Colombian Panama. According to my Panamanian guide, this type of folkloric art dates back to prehistoric times before the Ice Age.

Showing the trademark open-mindedness of Panamanians, I was given a handmade angel by the vendor for free. “For good luck,” she said, gesturing for me to wear it. The angel had a string attached so that it could be worn as a necklace.

My next stop in Panama is El Porvenir in the Guna Yala province, home to one of the largest indigenous populations in Panama, the Guna.

Autumn Herndon

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Turistas in Monserrate, Colombia

Turistas in Monserrate, Colombia
One thing I didn’t expect from my first trip to Latin America? Eating arepas on top of a mountain. (For the record, Colombian arepas are rico).

Rewind a week from now. Palm trees and beaches were a nudge closer to what I had in mind for my study abroad trip in Colombia, but I couldn’t have been farther from reality. (Actually, I am farther from the beaches. The closest one is more or less 6 hours away by Uber). My home for two weeks is Bogota: a mountain city in north Colombia. Coming from upstate New York, I am used to family hiking trips to the Adirondacks mountains. The Adirondacks are roughly 5,000 feet above sea level. Bogota is 8,860 feet. (And that’s not even the top of the mountain).

Monserrate, Bogota, Colombia

It might be summer in New York but here in Bogota, there is only one season for the entire year -- and it isn’t summer as New Yorkers know it. Bogota exists in an eternal blend of summer and fall. This means the weather is never predictable. Mornings are cold and cloudy, calling for a leather jacket to protect against the mountain chill. It isn’t strange for a rain shower to break through the clouds before 12:00… or to get a sunburn at midday.

This Saturday, I found myself on top of the famous Monserrate. Monserrate is the mountain range overlooking all of Bogota. At 3,127 meters above sea level, Monserrate looms over the capital from a dizzying height. This translates to roughly 10,260 feet or 8 Empire State Buildings.

A church on the peak of Monserrate is a regular hotspot for joggers to catch their breath after running up the mountain. (We cheated and took a 5-minute ride in the Funicular; a cable car that conveniently toted us via tunnel to Monserrate).

According to a La Salle Universidad student, Andres Buitrago, the statue of Jesus in the church is believed to possess divine power. The most religious believers climb the mountain on their knees to reach this famous statue and ask for a miracle.

Religious symbols cover Monserrate from the food market to vendor stalls. Rosary beads, tiny Marys and Jesus can be purchased at turisto prices, so do your wallet a favor and buy souvenirs at the markets below in Bogota.

Coca tea is sweet and delicious at 3,000COP per cup. That’s less than 1$USD!

From arepas to empanadas and plantains, Colombia is fried food paradise.

Jaspers and LSU students at the Monserrate summit! (Not pictured, our sunburns. The sun is strong this high in the mountains).

<Quien soy? Autumn Herndon, International Studies Major, rising senior at Manhattan College 2020. Check back in for the next stop, Panama!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Japan: Thank you Japan

Hello Jaspers! 

As my final day here in Japan approaches I would like to share with you all a little about my overall experiences here. Back in New York, after I received news that I would be able to study abroad, I was thrilled. I was happy but my brain and body did not process the news in the way that I thought it would. I know this because before any big travel plans I get jittery and hyper and with the news about Japan, I did not. I am pretty sure that my mind and body were in shock, up until the point where I stepped foot off of that plane. No, actually I started coming to my senses as the plane descended, and I was able to see the island that is Japan. I was thrilled to be on the other side of the world, creating new friendships and experiencing a new culture. But because of the jet lag I was suppressing those emotions. 

Two things before I go off on a tangent telling you all about my experiences; my expectations for Japan were not met, they were exceeded and two, my initial thoughts on what Japan would be like were completely incorrect. 

Studying abroad in Japan gave me every thing that wanted to get out of this trip. Not only did I get to travel to Asia and broaden my horizons, I also got to step out of my comfort zone in a country whose main source of food is seafood. Although those things are great, my favorite things about studying abroad were learning about the culture and heritage of Japan, getting to see first hand what the people are like, and getting to see unbelievable places. 

Let’s start small, before coming to Japan what I had pictured in my head was Geisha in places like Kyoto and what the Japanese call Harajuku fashion in Tokyo. Basically I pictured commercialized Japan. This is a great example of how narrow-minded people can be. Even with having done research beforehand, that is what I was expecting and it was not at all what I got. Instead, I got people who live and dress just like you and me, yes there are people who do dress like this but not a large population of people. That is why I think traveling is the key to ignorance, points of views can be altered. This study abroad trip was an eye-opener, it was just the right medicine and I think that everyone should take advantage of travel abroad for the sole purpose of enriching and opening your mind. Because, not only are you seeing, you’re also learning first hand in a classroom setting. This teeny tiny detail about my trip made all the difference in my experience. 

Here, in Japan I have had quite the experience. I tried sushi for the first time (not a big fan of the texture but it is pretty good), I got to see amazing places both up close and far, I got to hang out with deer at Nara and Miyajima Island, I got to struggle with a deer because I did not want it to eat paper and get sick, I got lost a couple of times without google maps (made exploring even more fun), and I was forced to rely on myself. Although all of this sounds like nice experiences I have had a couple of rough patches. 

The first week of the trip I felt alone and as if I had nobody to enjoy Japan with. This really became a problem for me because it was keeping me from enjoying my time in Japan and it was keeping me from being happy. But by the second week I got myself together and told myself that I did not need to be included, that I did not need to let that affect my time and experience in Japan. From there on out I started doing my own thing, and I was relying on myself, I started to enjoy my own company, I did not let being alone influence my experience. Instead, being alone enriched my experience, I gained a new-found confidence. So, in the end, looking at the bigger picture, I did not have a bad experience, I just had an experience which taught me something and I would not have been able to learn that if I weren’t on this trip. I had the best time in Japan.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Japan: An Artistic Masterpiece

Hello Jaspers!

Throughout the course of this trip we have visited many wonderful sites but there were only a few places which really captured my attention. One of which was the Nikkō National Park. Nikkō is a town located at the Northwest corner of Tochigi Prefecture. It is known for its picturesque beauty and its amazing structures. This small city has 1,200-year old history, nature and culture that has been nurtured quietly by its citizens. The beginning of the history of Nikkō starts in 766 when Shodo Shonin, a Buddhist priest, founded the Shihonryuji Temple (the origin of the Rinnoji Temple). This is when the mountains of Nikkō became a sacred place. The "Shrines and Temples of Nikkō", a UNESCO world heritage site, consists of 103 religious buildings within the Toshogu and the Futarasan-jinja (Shinto shrines) and the Rinnoji. Nikkō is a beautiful example of how Buddhism and Shintoism do not clash but instead flow together and empower one another.

The train ride to Nikkō from Tokyo was long but it was amazing. The change from big city and tall buildings to rice fields and bamboo forests really set the mood for what was waiting for us at the last stop. Soon as we hopped off of the train we were greeted by a beautiful mountainous region in a small warm town that seemed to be out of a fairy tale. On our way to the mountain we stopped at the Shinkyo Bridge. A beautiful bright red wooden structure that crosses the Daiya-gawa (a river). Legend has it that when Shodo Shonin could not cross the river he asked for help from deities and Buddhas and two snakes appeared and transformed to the bridge.

A store house decorated by artists
who had never seen elephants
As we made our way through the sacred grounds I could not believe my eyes. The artistry, careful handcrafting, astonishing buildings all took my breath away. To just think about all the money, the will power, the man power that must have been used to create these beautiful structures and to keep rebuilding after natural disasters blows my mind. Every building caught your attention, every building made you take a closer look at the details, every building was powerful. Nikkō has to be one of my best experiences here in Japan, it is a true masterpiece.

Storehouse with "Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" monkeys
The Five Storied Pagoda

Toshogu Shrine

Saturday, May 25, 2019

JAPAN: A World 13 Hours Away

Hello Jaspers!

These past few days have definitely been quite an experience for me. Some things seem very familiar while others seem like something I could only imagine happening. Coming from one big city to then landing in Tokyo was a little disappointing to be quite honest with you all. Tokyo is pretty much the same as New York City, well at least in Shibuya. Shibuya is a symbolic urban scenery and probably the "scramble" of all of Japan, very much like Times Square. It is packed with people at every corner, foreigners like me taking pictures of everything and causing foot traffic, bright lights at night, etc. Although these are the things that remind me of NYC there are many things that distinguish Shibuya from Times Square. Some of which are, shorter buildings, stores which are way more expensive, it is denser and more compact than NYC, those neon lights and those illuminated fronts of buildings seem to be squeezed together. But to shed some light on what I just said it is still very spectacular to be here. Besides all the things that remind me of NYC, there are things that I wish people in NYC could take notes on and adopt.

The Japanese people fascinate me. Their way of conduct and their way of life is very admirable. People here are sophisticated and orderly. Everyone walks to their left side on the sidewalk or anywhere else so there is never any fuss on the streets, people do not talk on their phones on the train or to each other (and if they do, they whisper), everyone is kind to each other, there is no trash on the street (there are limited garbage cans so, people take their trash home with them) and there is very little crime here in Japan. It is like living in an alternate universe and I love every second of it. I would not mind living here in the future.

Monday, April 1, 2019

ROME: When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do

by Jessica Solan

No matter how hard I try to wrap my head around it, I don't think my brain will ever comprehend that I am in Rome - and not just some knock-off brand Rome, but the Rome.

As much as I love America, we only have several hundred years of history. Before this trip, I would find awe in two-hundred year old buildings. Now, I could not avoid a two-thousand year old building, even if I wanted to. When I heard that we would have four long classes every day on four days per week, I thought my new friends and I would just be missing the center of Rome more than half of the time. When classes began, I found out that we would be taking three or four field trips into the city per week, and those trips always make my day! My"Christian Faith and the Arts" class has been visiting two ancient churches every week, and the artwork, architecture, history, and ages of these places is astounding.

Modern Rome is beautiful in a different way. The colorful buildings, the zooming tiny cars, and the hustle of 21st century Italians fill the streets. Modernized trattorias and pasticcerias send their scents down the streets with parked vespas all over. The palace on top of a hill used to be the only way to feel the world at your fingertips, which can now be felt by sitting on a rooftop restaurant and taking in the city views of Rome.

Rome is a city that always has more to discover. Once you think you have seen everything, you realize that there are a few centuries you forgot to look into, as well as the upcoming times in this ever-changing city. Yet, no matter how much Rome changes, the Romans make sure that they never forget what they came from.

Roman Forum

Circo Massimo at Sunset