Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Blissful Barcelona

Ah, Barcelona...

From bustling beaches to historical sites, modern art museums, never-ending tapas, young international students, and Catalonian natives alike, there is never a dull moment in Barcelona. The city provides an opportunity for inspiration and creativity on each corner. Street performers serenading tourists, local grocers meeting me halfway with my broken Spanish, working alongside native Barcelonian students in classes, discussing international politics with new friends from around the world, getting lost around the city in search of every Gaudi location, taking a mid-week run to Parc Guell to enjoy the views, Barcelona is bliss.

I begin each day with morning yoga on the roof of my house where the sun beams down between the shadow of the clothesline. I listen to my new favorite Spanish songs as I cook breakfast, from the freshest produce this California girl has ever seen, alongside one of my housemates, Byron, from Chilé. I have 9 housemates from around the world–each in Barcelona for their own academic or professional experience. I eat my breakfast on my front porch as I peruse the news, sip my morning coffee, write in my journal, and read from the book I picked up in Paris two weeks ago. Barcelona is bliss.

As a college student in New York City, I have grown accustomed to burn-out culture. Everything in my life in New York fits into a perfect, color-coordinated box in my moleskin planner. My study abroad experience has allowed me to process the fast-paced environment I have called home for the past two-and-half years. While I set out to seize each day and make the most of my environment here, Barcelona has also proven to be the perfect place to just relax and evaluate my past, plan for my future, and to appreciate my present situation. In Barcelona, I am learning to let love into my life and to be thankful for the life that I live. 

This weekend, I am heading to Madrid with three friends I met at the Universait Abat Oliba CEU here in Barcelona. I am eager and excited to see how Madrid compares to Barcelona as well as experience its uniqueness. So far, I have visited Girona, Montserrat, Besalu, Figueres, and Sitges outside of Barcelona. Each city has been magical. While I love traveling to new places and experiencing new ways of life, it has been refreshing to return to my Barcelona bliss after a weekend adventure. 

A glimpse into my journal :)

A photo of me, living my best life, at the Bunkers @ El Carmel for the sunset this past weekend. 

Saturday, February 22, 2020

MADRID 2020: "De Madrid al cielo."

From Madrid To Heaven
"De Madrid al cielo."

February 22, 2020. 
Madrid, España. 

There is nothing like walking through the streets of Madrid. Music and laughter are always present within the crowds. Every corner of every street has a story anxiously waiting to be told... the streets have become my muse. And walking or sitting in a plaza while reading, drawing, or simply watching the people pass by while eating "tapas" has become my favorite hobby. And I wouldn't change it for anything in the world. 

It is safe to say that, so far, everything feels simply perfect here in Madrid. The people are kind and friendly, the university is professional and safe, the food is exquisite, and the city manages to give me something to write about or something to hold dear in my memory every single day. 

Last Monday, after I went to my 8:30 class, I decided to take a walk through El Viejo Madrid to discover the history of the city a bit more. As I got out of the Metro Station and started walking, I stumbled upon an old woman sitting on the corner of the street selling handmade jewelry. She looked at me as she was finishing what appeared to be one of her longest necklaces as if she knew that I was going to pass by, and she gave me a smile. 

- This one is for you- she said in Spanish while extending her arm up and handing me one of her golden necklaces that had a brown beautiful marble stone tangled within a golden wire. As if she knew my first language is Spanish and that I was planning on buying a necklace. Her face looked tired, but that did not take away the honest and beautiful smile she had on her face. I asked her how much it was. 

- Fire euros- she replied-, but I will give you another one for free simply because it is Monday.

I had no idea what made the woman think that I deserved two of her necklaces, but I decided to simply agree, sit down, and talk to her while she finished doing her job. We talked about the city and I told her about my fascination with it. I told her that I am a student and writer from Puerto Rico and that my wish is to fly to the heavens and travel the entire planet. And as I saw her finish the necklaces and handed her the five euro bill, she handed me both necklaces with the same tired, but happy and caring smile, and she told me something that I will forever hold dear: 

- "De Madrid al cielo, cari. De Madrid al cielo...". 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Madrid: Our first days!

Hi everyone! My name is Kevin, and this is the story of how my life has been since making it to Madrid. To start, I’d be remiss to not say how nervous I was leading up to this trip. I had traveled before with my family, but this study abroad was truly the first time I would be traveling to a different country completely on my own. I didn’t know how I’d adapt to a new culture, being so far removed from the comfort I had allowed myself to accustom myself to. Safe to say, however, that these last few weeks have been some of the greatest of my life.

We first touched-down in Madrid in early January. While some may assume that because Spain is in winter-time like back at home in New York, that the weather would be freezing, but to my amazement, it has been like living in a summer break movie over here. After first arriving in the early hours, and a much needed nap, I and a couple of friends decided to explore all what Madrid had to offer.

Being in a new country, everything can be extremely overwhelming. What do we see? How do we get around? All of these questions filled my mind, but was quickly put to rest by a wonderful lady Rocio. Rocio is our program director while we’re here, and she also doubles up as our parental figure while ours are home. She showed us around the university we’d be studying at, which, by the way, is incredibly large, and also got us our metro-cards that we could use to explore all of Madrid. After our walking tour, a couple of us within the group went to go visit Buen Retiro Parque, which lies in the south of Madrid. At this park, we were able to witness the liveliness Madrid had to offer. Performance artist showing of their incredible skills to crowds of tens to hundreds of people, vendors selling a variety of snacks. After grabbing some food, we continued our walk to the center of the park. Here in the center, there is a service in which you can rent a boat for an hour. We jumped at the idea, and took to the water, soaking in the warmth from the sun. 

Here below is the Royal Palace of Madrid. I got the chance of checking it during our “Old Madrid” walking tour. Sadly we didn't catch any royals this day, but hey there’s always next time 

Along with this, we got the opportunity to stop inside a cathedral during a service. The art was impeccable, and the environment was overall very welcoming.
The following weekend, a couple of friends and I decided to head to the Prado museum. Here below are just some of the snapshots I was able to grab.   

Last weekend, my friend Gabby and I decided to head to the flea market, held every Sunday, in Tiros de Molina. The market was teeming with life, music filled the air, and there was something for every person. From tapestries, to leather jackets, to cool antiques; it was a center of everything and anything you could want.

This is only the beginning. I cannot wait to continue to see what is up next for me while here in Madrid. In the upcoming weeks, I’m planning on traveling to London, Stuttgart, and Paris. So until next time, stay tuned!

Madrid 2020: The Royal Palace of Madrid

The Royal family of Spain Consist of a King, Queen and their two daughter, the princess. You'd think that because they're the royal family and because there is a royal palace they would be living there right? Wrong. The Royal Palace of Madrid which was built in 1735 is now only used for royal ceremonies. The Royal Family reside at a different palace outside of Madrid. I ended up taking two trips to see the Royal Palace, just a quick train ride away from where I am living, it is easy to see a lot of different sights. My first trip to the palace was with our entire group and was led by Ricardo who gave us a walking tour of "Old Madrid", which we got to learn a lot about the history of Spain and a lot of fun facts along the way.

Right when you walk up, and before you can even get a good look at the palace you are in front of a statue. Technically you are Plaza de Oriente, which was where we first met up to start our tour. This statue was a moment created to honor Felipe IV who was the King of Spain and Portugal from 1621 until his death in 1665.

This is the view that you get right behind the statue of Felipe IV. This is the Royal Palace of Madrid. You can't go in through this way, or get close to the doors as there was a sign telling you how close you could get, along with a police officer there. 

The Royal Palace of Madrid. While I did not go in for a an official tour, I got a good look from the outside. It's definitely what a palace in my opinion looks like. I hope to go back a third time and actually go on a tour and see the inside.

Learn more about the Madrid study abroad program here!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Madrid: A Day in "El Museo del Prado" and in "Barrio de Letras"

As students in another country, one of the first tasks handed to us by our culture class was to explore museums by ourselves. Of course the first museum we chose is "El Museo del Prado", known for its variety collections of Velasquez, Goya and El Greco. These collections however were not the only impressive assortments of art that the Prado had. Two of my absolute favorite pieces of art had to be a roman sculpture of Venus and Mars in a tender embrace and a painting titled "Woman from Madrid"  by Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta, with the medium being oil on canvas. Unfortunately since "El Prado" has a strict 'no photo' policy, I could not capture their beauty to post here, but luckily they are a google search away! The building does not look it, but it is actually ten times bigger when you step in than when you are outside looking in. It genuinely surprised me how many rooms and floors there were, it felt like the art never stopped. Another room that I was completely fascinated by was the "dark paintings" room that had famous painting "Saturn Devouring His Son"by Francisco Goya. This piece has become well known on the internet, and it was amazing being able to see it  in real life. 

Since we were already in "El Prado" we decided that after a quick tapas lunch, we would head out and explore the "Barrio de Letras" or the neighborhood of letters. This section of the city is well known because of the Museum of Lope De Vega and the house where Cervantes lived and died. It was fascinating seeing these places firsthand and acknowledge that these people were once living and not just a subject to study in spanish class. We could not enter either of these because it was already a bit too late, but we did get to take a few pictures before heading back to the residence. 

The house were Cervantes lived and died.

The Museum of Lope de Vega

Inscription on the street in front of the Museum of Lope de Vega stating: "This is the house where Lope Félix de Vega y Carpio, called "The Phoenix of the Geniuses", whomst literature transcended the limits of the credible and cultivated all the genres of literature lived and died on August 26, 1635."  

Inscription found in front of Cervantes house that quotes Don Quixote and states: "In this street, in the number 2, was where he lived and died on April 23, 1616, Miguel de Cervantes. The original building, with entrance by number twenty of Leon Street was demolished in 1833."

Hopefully, with bit more time on my hands, I will get to come back to both the Museum of El Prado and the Barrio de Letras to be able to experience both of these more clearly and calmly. I believe that both of these are very important places to visit in a trip to Madrid. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The UAE: A Culturally Immersive Kick-Off to the New Year Pt 2

Part 2 Abu Dhabi

Part 2 Abu Dhabi
Thursday, January 9th- Tuesday January 14th 

Thursday January 9th
We started off our visit to Abu Dhabi on Yas Island, a popular tourism sector and home to Ferrari World which has the fastest roller coaster in the world. The rest of the afternoon was spent in Khalifa City, the UAE’s first sustainable city. Here we raced around in driverless vehicles and learned about the history of the UAE’s sustainability efforts and the future of energy studies. The final part of the afternoon was contrasted with a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world’s largest and most inclusive mosques, welcoming those from all religions and nationalities, a capacity of up to 40,000 visitors per day. The mosque was constructed in 1998 by British, Italian, and Emirati Architects, and borrows design inspiration from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt. 

Friday January 10th 
The next morning it was time to road trip to Al Ain. Our first stop was the mountains of Al Ain, a great photo opportunity. The afternoon ended with a historical visit to the Al Ain Oasis, which is a 2,000 acre site that is centered around the Sheik Zayed Palace Museum. It was recently opened to the public in November of 2016 and we were free to roam the palace quarters to experience some of the rich history ourselves. The Al Ain Oasis was originally a site established from two wells and was a headquarters of the UAE’s traditional irrigation system known has ‘falaj’.This oasis is home to about 147,000 date palms, as well was up to 100 different types of vegetation, and a fully operative camel farm. As we wandered the palace later that afternoon, we were surprised by the roar of thunder that came over the hillside, lightning hit soon after, followed by about 10 minutes of heavy rainfall. Some of us ran towards the palace corridors to seek shelter and SWIM, who skipped a shower that day, didn’t mind getting a little wet. 

Saturday January 11th 
The next day we drove to the neighborhood of Al Ras Al Akhdar to explore the grandiose Presidential Palace, Qasr Al Watan. This palace was recently opened to the public in 2019 and operates as a meeting place for the nations federal cabinet, Sheikhs Kahlifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (Ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE) and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces). The architecture was awe inspiring and the grounds were expansive. It’s museum like layout allowed for an interactive journey, revealing the governance, knowledge, and craftsmanship of the nation.

We ended the afternoon in the town of Al Ras Al Akhdar, visiting the Heritage Village Museum, and the Qasr al-Hosn Palace, which is the oldest stone building in the capital of Abu Dhabi. 

Sunday January 12th 
During our final morning in Abu Dhabi, we visited the town of Al Samha, where we were given a presentation on the industrial infrastructure of the Abu Dhabi ports. Later that afternoon, we headed back into town to visit the company headquarters ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company). After we were greeted by the hospitality team, we were given a brief presentation on the history of the UAE’s hydrocarbon value chain. Our presenter shifted the focus from the current view of the oil and gas economy and mentioned ADNOC’s continuing mission to be the world's leading energy producer. To compensate for the current depletion of the land’s natural resources, ADNOC has extensive framework in place, for the re-forestation of mangroves and seagrass plantations, as well as for the restoration of coral reefs. The presentation was concluded with ADNOC’s 2030 plan to focus on partnership, technology, and the workforce (human capital) that contribute to the UAE's continual growth and success as a nation. 

Afterwords, we were given an extensive tour of the impressive office building which includes an open floor plan consisting of Arabic coffee bars and themed meeting rooms. There is also a floor home to about 10 different restaurants and a separate level with a state of the art gym facility, spa, and locker rooms. ADNOC employs about 10,000 individuals, and the company's facilities are open to its labor force at all hours of the work day, even on weekends. 

We ended our eventful evening with a group reflection dinner and to commemorate the last night in Abu Dhabi, SWIM stayed up all hours of evening dancing to the live music in a small club in Mina Al Siyah. Good thing we were able to catch up on sleep on the flight back home!

Monday January 13th 
The end! The bittersweet flight back to the USA.

Tuesday January 14th 
Can we get a rewind? 

The UAE: A Culturally Immersive Kick-Off to the New Year Pt 1

Part 1 Dubai 
Friday, January 3rd- Thursday, January 9th 

Friday January 3rd
The trip began with a football game playing on back of the Etitiad Airline's seats. I had barely gotten any sleep the night before so it was best in my best interest to dose off during the flight. Upon arrival in Dubai, I was feeling well rested and ready for the adventures to come. The general group consensus was that we were full of excitement, therefore I knew we were in for a great trip. 

Saturday January 4th 
We started off the next morning with dune bashing, which was a great way to get the adrenaline going and it certainly helped to mitigate any jet lag. Dune bashing is known in the UAE as a tactical sport that requires special skill of the driver along with the release of tire pressure in accordance with the number of guests in the car. 

We were picked up from our hotel in white SUVs and we started to drive in a caravan towards the Al Madam Desert. When we arrived at the dunes we drove through them at varied speeds, the cars climbing up and down the sandy hills, somehow the vehicles remained in control. Only a few of us suffered from hitting our heads on the roof of the car during some of the more speedy bumps. After our ride through the desert, we arrived at the camp were invited to partake in sunset camel rides. Afterwards, inside the camp quarters, we were greeted and offered traditional sweets known as, Luqaimat or sfingis (in Arabic). The festive evening was concluded with henna tattoos, Middle Eastern dancers, and a buffet full of delicious of traditional food. 

Sunday January 5th 
The next day we wandered the corridors of Al Bastakiya, which is the oldest town center in Dubai and took in some of the traditional architecture for the first time. We had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the history at the Sheik Mohammad Cultural center, where we learned about Dubai's past economy consisting of of fishing, pearling, and other types of trading. Learning about the history of the UAE before oil was an interesting precursor to learning about the more modern developments of the region. 

Later on we experienced enchanting boat rides in the Dubai creek towards the Souqs of Al Kabeer, some of the oldest shopping centers in Dubai. After taking in the smells and sights of the Spice Souq, and briefly getting lost in the luxurious lap of the Gold Souq, it was time to take a special look into the future of Dubai. We were lucky enough to be invited to see the construction site of the future developments of Expo 2020, which Dubai will be hosting for 173 days starting on 10/20/2020. The development is essentially a miniature city, which focuses on three themes of opportunity, mobility, and sustainability. This inspiring vision of Expo 2020 is also run by youth leaders determined to emphasize the collective mission, "to build a better world we need to use our heads and our hearts". 

Monday January 6th 
The next day we experienced a more modern side of Dubai’s infrastructure: the Dubai Center for Tourism, the University of Dubai, and the Dubai Mall. Later that morning, we met with the young entrepreneurs who founded the company, Lagoon Digital Design. They gave us a focused presentation that included some of the ins-and-outs of social media marketing, content creation, and the simple determination it takes to become a modern-day web developer. After the presentation, we split apart to tackle some shopping at The Dubai Mall. Swim (someone who isn’t me) had actually had to re-learn marketing 101 and some of the crucial steps of the consumer habit cycle, that included decision fatigue & *slight* buyers remorse. By dinner time we were re-united to have dinner as a group, which took place on a floating dock at the base of the Burj Khalifa. The spectacle of the fountain show was a great way to conclude the evening, as we indulged in the traditional Arab dishes at Abd Alb Wahab

Tuesday January 7th 
The next day we arrived at Al Banteen Airport, where our group was greeted at GCAS (Gulf Center for Aviation Studies). Here we learned about the aviation economy and how it is a crucial backbone in Dubai’s tourism sector. Our presenter gave us an inside scoop on the two major airlines of the UAE, Etitiad Airways and Emirates. We learned about the famed, 737 Boeing Max, and the types of aviation error that can occur. Besides the obvious human error, there are also different categories of software and mechanical errors that can take place. A critical factor in most human error is largely dependent on time, which happened to be the case with the unfortunate event that had happened with the plane in Iran. 

Our presenter at the GCAS specified that the aviation industry is all about striking the perfect balance between businesses aspects like cost effectiveness and environmental aspects such as sustainability, creating relatively low operating margins of around 8% (as compared to Apple at 29.8%). As our natural resources on this planet are depleting, the UAE and the rest of the world is faced with the careful balance of managing of environmental challenges, oil challenges, and cultural challenges. He posed the question “What if we don’t need oil technology to exist?” This resonated with the group as we took a look into our future of renewable energy sources such as solar energy.

We concluded the evening at the Marsa Hotel in Dubai, where we were introduced to the CEO and founders of CTZN Cosmetics. The company was founded by three sisters Aleena, Aleezeh and Naseeha Khan, who shared a collective vision of a make-up community that is derived on 5 main factors: Inclusiveness, genderless, purposeful, vegan & vegetarian, and cruelty free. 

Wednesday January 8th 
The next morning we were invited to explore the DIFC (Dubai International Financial Center). We had an immersive discussion about the financial free zones of Dubai, as well as the booming economic past, present, and future of Dubai, which exists on a forward thinking timeline of 1976-2025. Later in the afternoon we were free to explore the art galleries of Za’abeel Second, Dubai’s financial campus. I took this time to relax in a well-lit gallery sitting room, which was centered around a magnificent translucent coffee table that encased pink & blue dyes, and crumpled gold foil. 

We then transitioned to another afternoon in the Souks. While we had some free time, I was honored to be among one of the non-muslim women, to visit the oldest Mosque in Dubai in Al Souq Al Kabeer. I was accompanied by two other group members, Veronica Cheng and Naomi Kitano, and we were invited to dress up in the traditional abaya and were given a tour by our guide, Yakob Mohammed. We were pleasantly surprised when we were invited to take unlimited photos and walk on the carpet with our bare feet. It was a very enlightening and honorable experience. 

Later, we met back up with the rest of the group to walk through the souks and were invited to attend a traditional lunch was hosted by a local emirate woman, Meera Alfalasi, who was proud to share her family's personal history as fishermen. The early industries of fishing and pearling gave wealth to a few founding families of the nation who make up the 20% of the Emirati population today. The UAE is home also too many expatriates, over 200 nationalities, although the largest groups are Indians and Pakistanis, at 28% and 12%, respectively. 

The bubbling nature of the UAE's melting pot combined with the security of oil reserves in 1966, provided fairly recent economic expansion and plenty of modern infrastructure and development under the rule of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan who was chosen as ruler of Dubai that same year. 

To conclude the afternoon, we toured the inside of the prized gem of the Dubai’s modern architecture, the Burj Khalifa. We were granted with expansive panoramic views on the 125th and 126th floors, where we could take in the past, present, and future ambitions of Dubai’s infrastructure. What a great photo opportunity!

Thursday January 9th 
The next day we were en route to Abu Dhabi. We said goodbye to Dubai on the white sand beaches of Umm Suqeim Third, where we had a lovely view of the Burj Al Arab, the only 7-star hotel in the world.