Tag Archives: year abroad

My China Bucket List

I have always loved travelling, and as the end of my time at university drew to a close I knew that settling straight into a job, sat behind a desk, wasn’t for me. Fast forward a few months and here I am, just a few weeks away from moving to Beijing to spend a year teaching English, whilst experiencing and exploring the fascinating culture and history that China has to offer.

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Welcome to Jordan: Everyday Realities

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Welcome to Jordan

I had heard a lot of criticism about Amman as a city — that it is boring with nothing to do or see. In no way is this true — the city has plenty to offer! It may just take some effort to discover.

I moved here as part of my BA Arabic degree, which meant spending the entire academic year in a country I had never visited before. Having never travelled in the Middle East, this was rather an exciting prospect and, having come not as a tourist, but to stay (if only for a limited period), I wanted to know what the city was like to live in.

Having spent three months here so far, I have built up a list of observations that I found surprising, coming from a European background, which any visitor will notice sooner or later.

Blue skies and all day long sunshine over Amman's busy and often dangerous roads. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Blue skies and all day long sunshine over Amman’s busy and often dangerous roads. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Weather

While the assumption is that it is always hot in the Middle East, this is not entirely true. Admittedly, the heat in late August can be overwhelming — over 30 degrees and sunny all day long. But you get used to it very fast: soon 30 degrees feels like nothing. It gets to the point where you almost forget what a cloudy day looks like.

Come mid-September, everyone keenly awaits for the first signs of rain. “Look, clouds!” someone may shout, and everyone goes over to the window in eager anticipation. Jordan is 90% desert, and the climate is respectively a desert climate — scorching hot in the day, cold at night. Houses have little to no heating, and in November a common complaint is how cold it is — colder inside than out.

Amman is hilly, and there is a constant breeze — refreshing in summer, but in late Autumn, 18 degrees makes you think “winter is coming” (summer in Northern European terms!) There is a promise of ice and maybe even snow by January: sounds slippery considering the steepness of these hills.

City layout

The layout of the city (due to its fast growth) makes it very difficult to walk anywhere. Granted, there are a few areas where the pavements are decent enough to walk on, but for the most part, excursions on foot often mean dealing with cracked pavements that can be up to two feet high, and honking horns. Venturing from one area to another, the roads resemble motorways because of the amount of cars and lanes, and pedestrian crossings are virtually non-existent. Be prepared to walk a mile to encounter a bridge, or dare to run across the road fearing for your life.

Amidst the new builds in hilly Amman stands the remains of a Roman Amphitheater picture © Annabella Ahola

Amidst the new builds in hilly Amman stands the remains of a Roman Amphitheater. Photo © Annabella Ahola

Transportation

The above point means that taking a taxi anywhere is a common means of transport. Buses exist, but they are rare, and no one really seems to know their timetables and routes. The joke is that the bus is so fast you cannot even see it. There are also white servees taxis: a kind of shared minibus. With no designated route, they leave as they fill up with customers. Outside, men shout destinations at passersby, and you get on a bus heading in your direction, telling the driver where to drop you off. Sounds daunting, but it is very cheap — 35 qirsh* for a ride. A taxi across the city will cost you about 2 dinars. That said, taxis might not be easy to get, depending on how busy it is. A driver may even refuse to take you, and foreigners run the risk of getting ripped off. Hence one must always check to make sure the meter is running, or to agree on a price before boarding.

Money

Despite the preconceptions one might have about the Middle East, Jordan is not a cheap country to live in. The dinar is stronger than the pound, and the prices in supermarkets and Western-style malls are similar to those found in Europe. (This is why it is better to leave the malls for a special treat, and stick to local shops and produce.) Prices can vary significantly depending on where you are. A Turkish coffee from a corner shop could cost 35 qirsh, an American-style filter coffee, 2 dinars. In a nicer mall café, this could be 4 dinars including tax and service charge. That said, not all prices are fixed. A good rule of thumb is that if there is no price tag, the price is negotiable. This is particularly true for the souks, such as those in the older part of town. Traditionally, for Arabs, haggling is an art form, and agreeing to the price right away is somewhat disrespectful and makes you look like a fool.

Shopping

When it comes to the kind of produce on offer, Amman has a lot of variety. In the bigger malls and supermarkets, one finds a lot of the same brands and products as in Europe. No big culture shock there. However, when it comes to more specialised things, such as organic produce, or foods aimed at vegans or people with allergies (tofu, gluten free…) the struggle is real. If these are available, they are rare and difficult to find.

The Taj Mall in Amman, where the likes of Miss Selfridge and Burberry can be found. © Annabella Ahola

The Taj Mall in Amman, where the likes of Miss Selfridge and Burberry can be found. Picture © Annabella Ahola

“If you have specialist needs — like a particular brand of shampoo you like — bring a supply of it with you,” we were advised by our school. But with limited suitcase space, I think I am OK with my hair adjusting to something new, for now.

[*a qirsh is one hundredth of a dinar. 1 dinar is equivalent to £1.11 at time of publication].

Featured image © Anton Mukhametchin

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How to make the most of your year abroad: Part 1

It goes without saying that a year abroad can offer the chance to travel to all sorts of exciting places with new found freedom, time, and money. But in my experience, there are smaller, day-to-day habits and unexpected events that can be just as life-enhancing as gallivanting off to capital cities and famous landmarks.

In the interest of context, I lived in France for eight months in 2011/2012, working as a primary school English Language Assistant in a small town named Monistrol-sur-Loire near Lyon.

1. Being mentally present

Being away from friends, family, and partners can understandably cause anxiety and homesickness, and making the effort to keep in contact can lead to excellent ongoing support. Having said that, it can be incredibly easy to fall into the habit of spending a large chunk of your time still mentally in your home country. Having the option of connecting with friends and family online is fantastic, but if too frequently prioritised over face-to-face engagement, it can lead to a disconnection with the place you are physically in. I learned the hard way that this can be especially true if you are going to be living alone. Time alone and privacy can be an essential part of life, especially if you are more of an introverted person, but too much can be isolating.

Split your time evenly between spending time alone, talking to loved ones and meeting new people - don't isolate yourself.(Photographer: Transformer18; Flickr)

Split your time evenly between spending time alone, talking to loved ones and meeting new people — don’t isolate yourself. (Photographer: Transformer18; Flickr)

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My American Travel Wish List

As a student who is soon to be heading off to Oklahoma for a year abroad (getting nervous now!), I have started to think about which areas of the United States I’d most like to visit whilst I’m there. Some of the places hold historical interest, like Washington D. C. and Boston, and others are simply places I have always wanted to see such as New York and Nashville – but all of the places on my list are fascinating cities that I may never get the chance to see again. So I have compiled a list of the top 5 cities on my wish list and included some of the things I’d like to do there, hopefully to help some of you who may want to see more of this incredible country but are not sure where to begin – this may give you a few ideas!

My plan is to begin my travels in the north east and work my way down back to Oklahoma. This means my first stop will be (you guessed it) New York City; a fairly obvious tourist stop but one of the most dynamic and exciting cities in the world. As the most ‘touristy’ of tourists my travel aspirations for New York are fairly standard: the Empire State Building is a must, regardless of how long the queue may be – I’m told the view is worth it. Central Park is also a necessity, to experience the juxtaposition of a beautiful sprawling park in the centre of a city sounds incredible. I’d especially love to visit in the autumn (or fall) to see the leaves changing colour.

The next city on my travels will hopefully be Boston, Massachusetts. As a lover of history, my desire to visit here is mostly centred upon attractions such as the Freedom Trail, which stretches 2.5 miles and includes 16 sites related to the American War of Independence (1775–1783) including the Old North Church and the Old State House Museum. Guided tours are available of the trail, however if like me you prefer to make your own way around, then you can download a map of the trail and make your own itinerary. Another historical attraction for me in Boston is the Black History Trail, which includes the Museum of African American History and the African Meeting House where former slave, Frederick Douglas, once delivered an anti-slavery speech. Now, even if you aren’t a sports fan (I most definitely am not) I still think that Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Socks (Boston’s famous baseball team) is worth a visit. If there is one thing I am looking forward to about my year in the U.S., it is to be standing in the crowd at a sports game wearing my team’s scarf, soaking in the atmosphere and cheering along with everyone else – even if I have no idea what’s going on!

Fenway Park- source wikipedia

Fenway Park- source wikipedia

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Detained: A Visa Story

Photo by: themachanicalturk, Flickr

Photo by: themachanicalturk, Flickr

The ability to choose how and where you live your life should be treated as a fundamental human right; something that all people have the opportunity to decide for themselves. It’s understandable that countries don’t want criminals and law-breakers crossing their borders with free abandon. But a well-educated, financially-supported University student, whose entire family lives in the country she is trying to enter… where’s the harm in letting her through?

New Zealand is an amazing, breath-taking, safe place, but with airfares being so expensive between there and Europe, I spent many years wondering if I could ever escape. When you hit a certain age, safe just isn’t what you want anymore. You want adventure, exciting new experiences, and, if you’re like me, you desperately want more of those sexy British accents you hear so much of on TV. I moved to England just over two years ago, an exciting prospect for someone who had lived her whole life in the same house, in the same suburb, in the same small, out-of-the way country.

Getting into England initially was no problem. My father had a British passport (through his father, a Falkland Islands native), and my brother and I were under-age, so we classed as dependents and couldn’t be separated from our parents. However, in order to make it to England in time for the start of the school year my brother and I entered the country under my mother’s work Visa, while my father stayed behind to pack up the house in New Zealand. If we had known then what I know now, we would have done things completely differently. But we were naïve and thought that, once we’d established ourselves in England, everything would turn out just fine.

Two years later, and with many exotic holidays, cultural explorations and generally good times having been had, I graduated from school with excellent A-level results. I was ready to head off to the University of my choice, but with the minor issue that my current Visa was set to expire at the end of September. My mother, brother and I applied for family settlement Visas under my father.

Barely weeks later, a response came. The envelope was addressed solely to me and, to add insult to injury, looked as though it had been written on by a child. I opened the envelope as a formality; we all knew it would contain my new Visa.

Once I saw the word ‘rejected’, the rest of the letter simply blurred together. From what I remember — and what our lawyer later told us — it contained a set of arbitrary reasons as to why, effective from September, I would have to leave my family and the country I’d come to love.

Naturally, everyone was outraged, especially when my mother and brother’s shiny new Visas then arrived in the post. We couldn’t understand why I, the most non-threatening and hard-working of people, would be denied the right to study and live in England. The real kicker was that, because my current Visa was still valid until September, I had no right to appeal the decision. This left me with an acceptance letter from the University of East Anglia in one hand, and my passport in the other.

Everything just snowballed. We attempted to fight the decision, and were unceremoniously shut down. We tried to apply for an Ancestry Visa, and realized that, although it was fine for my father to apply for a British passport with Falkland Islands heritage, most overseas territories didn’t count for the Ancestry Visa. Finally we fell on the idea of obtaining a Tier 4 Student Visa for me. Unfortunately, even that bright idea came with a few set-backs – I would have to fly back to New Zealand just before the start of my University course in order to apply for it.

At that point in time, on a flight back to my hometown of Auckland, I was convinced that I would never see England again. Every decision made so far had not gone wrong, so why wouldn’t this one? I applied for the Student Visa anyway, and began the waiting process.

The irony of the situation was, had I not received the grades I needed for University in England, I would have gone back to New Zealand to study anyway. But once they took away my right to choose, I realized just how much I was leaving behind, how much I wanted to stay in England. No Visa would mean being ripped away from my family, my new friends; my support-system. I had no real money of my own, only what I’d earned that summer.

My application for a Tier 4 Student Visa was accepted with just a week to spare. Finally, it seemed, the world was righting itself. So, when I jumped on that plane back to England, my relief outweighed the omnipotent trepidation I’d felt over the past few months.

What this whole experience has taught me is that you can never take anything for granted. I never in a million years thought that the UK government would deny me the right to live with my family. If you’d told me this story a year ago, I would have smiled politely, feigned sympathy for the victim, but would secretly be comforting myself at how small the possibilities were of the same thing happening to me. It’s strange how so much can change in such a small space of time. I am currently studying at the University of East Anglia, and am very happy and content with my life. But now, at the back of my mind I know, once my three-year Student Visa is up, the fight will begin all over again, and I think we all know who will win it this time.

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