Sunday, February 13, 2011

Italia - the Airport and Air Lufthansa

So my mom’s side of the family is huge, which I believe I’ve said before. And every year we all get together in Pine Mountain, Georgia, for a week. It’s me, my family, my mom’s two sisters and brothers, their families, and my grandparents. The total of people taking over Callaway Gardens (the place we stay) is usually around 25 or so. We’re noisy, we go through a whole lot of beer, and it’s pretty fantastic. But I couldn’t go last summer. I was working in Idaho, and the week that everyone else was in Georgia, I was in Driggs bagging rations of peanut butter pretzels.
they're basically delicious, you know.
Which was a bummer. But I loved my job, so it was ok. I got to skype approximately a third of my family at one time a few times, which mostly was just noisy and unintelligible. Ah well. Gotta love ‘em.
plus, we're all fantasically attractive. so that helps.
And then, in early August, I was at the drive in movie theater right by the branch watching Despicable Me. And my dad called me, and said “Hey peanut! Want to go to Italy next month?”
oh gosh, tough decision. wait, no it's not. YES!
See, my dad goes to Italy every year with NOLS to do a week-long Alumni trip in Northern Italy. It’s a hut-to-hut backpacking trip through the Dolomites. And, as he was to explain to me, he and Mom had talked about it, and they decided that since I hadn’t gotten to go to Callaway, I could go with my dad to Italy for two weeks.

A month later, I was sitting in the Riverton airport, waiting to get on a plane to fly to Verona, Italy.

I’d actually managed to talk my dad into letting me fly to Verona a few days ahead of him, so I’d be in Italy by myself for two fantastic days. Though he was convinced I was going to be kidnapped and pick-pocketed and possibly also shanked all at the same time, I really wasn’t all that worried. I’ve done the whole international travel thing several times in my life, and it usually doesn’t behoove you to psych yourself out before you even leave the ground on your first plane.
For those of you who have never had the pleasure of flying out of the Riverton Wyoming International (hah!) Airport, let me fill you in on the only things you really need to know about it.

1.     It is a very tiny airport. This makes sense, as it supports a smallish portion of Wyoming, which is the least populated state.
2.     It is absolutely full of dead animals. I’m not kidding. Coming into the airport is like someone saying “Hello! Welcome to Fremont County, where we shoot everything that moves, then give it some glass eyes and mount it on our walls.” There is everything from a dead mountain lion to a dead bison.
this is a real picture of the airport. goddamn dead animals, everywhere.
3.     The only airline that flies out of the Riverton Airport is Great Lakes Airlines, which is staffed and run entirely by lazy, incompetent morons. Seriously. I have had more flights canceled by Great Lakes than any other airline I’ve ever flown put together. Trying to get somewhere with Great Lakes Airlines is like playing Russian roulette, except instead of the prize for winning being alive and happy with your life, you get crammed onto an airplane the size of a drainage pipe and rattled through the air for 45 minutes while you clutch at the armrests and pray to whatever deity you hold faith in, promising a lifetime of good behavior if you can just land safely. And not only does the airline like to cancel your flight without any real notice or reason, they also like to change departure times with absolutely no warning. Or actual apparent reason. So if you’re flying out of Denver, you’re forced to sit at gate B853, all the way down at the end of a perpetually frigid tunnel of monotone gray misery, clutching your carry-on for warmth, and sending dagger-like glances toward the placidly banal airline employees, seated at their desks probably playing Minesweeper.
I hate you.
What? Oh. Sorry, I get a little carried away sometimes. Bitter? What, no of course not! Why would you even ask something like that? Of course I’m not!

And let me tell you something – my flight to Denver was not exactly fantastically awesome. Remember how I said I get slightly motion sick? Yeah. So as we were headed in to land in Denver, we suddenly veered up and away from the ground, and the pilot came on the intercom and said “Uh, folks, they’re having a bit of strong wind here in Denver. So we’re going to have to circle for a bit until it gets a little more still.”
"... and then we're going to shove bamboo splinters under your fingernails, because we know you'd probably enjoy that more than flying with us!"
I do not deal well with turbulence. Or circling. So as the plane circled the greater Denver downtown area for 45 minutes, I spent those miserable minutes puking essentially non-stop into a wax-lined paper bag, with my wretched seat-mate trying to get as far as he possibly could from me, while I gasped out apologies in between my heaves.
but then I left it on the plane. Hah! delay my flight, eh? take THIS!
But I made it to Denver without throwing up any of my internal organs, and then I got to fly Lufthansa Airlines all the way to Frankfurt, Germany. Which was actually quite fabulous. First of all, the airplane was huge. No flying culvert here! Also, it was the first plane I’ve been on that had a whole separate floor for bathrooms. You just hopped up from your seat, trotted down a set of steps, and there were two rows of little airline bathrooms in a downstairs hallway.

Also, I quite enjoy listening to other languages and trying to figure out what words I understand, and all the announcements on the plane were said first in German. I don’t actually speak German, except for being able to say some very rude things about someone’s mother, as well as being able to say “pickle-slicer.” (That’s what comes of being an exchange student, and hanging out with a bunch of other foreign teenagers. I can also insult your mother in Flemish and Turkish.)
this is where they speak Flemish, which incidentally sounds like German being spoken with a mouthful of applesauce.
Upon landing in the Frankfurt airport, I made my way to customs. Which was probably the easiest customs I’ve ever been to. I handed a blonde German fellow my passport in a little cubicle. He flipped to my picture, gave me a cursory glance, then stamped it and said “Velcome to Germany. Pliss enjoy your stay.” And that was it!

Honestly, I was a little disappointed. I’d prepared my speech of why I was in the country, complete with humorous anecdotes and factual time periods.
"And why are you carrying all those books, eh!? Very suspicious, you know..."
Navigating the Frankfurt airport was a little difficult, mostly because there seemed to be far too many doorways that didn’t lead anywhere in particular. Also, there were approximately 17,000 little stands selling pretzels, which I found slightly peculiar.
sadly, not the peanut butter kind.
Thankfully, I managed to navigate my way perfectly fine, and even made it onto my plane to Verona.

Or did I…?

Ha! I shall leave you with a cliffhanger so you return to read the next post!
also if you don't come back and read again, and also subscribe, this baby panda will continue to be sad.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Culture Shock - it's Totally a Real Thing

When I was a freshman in high school, a friend of mine from my weird-kid homeschooling days went to Thailand on a study abroad program. (She has a pretty cool blog too, actually. You should check it out here)

I was instantly struck with jealousy. I've always had a travel bug, and being a student in a foreign country somewhere was my ultimate dream. How cool would that be, to be able to live with a regular family and go to a regular school, in an altogether non-regular place?

So I started looking into exchange programs. As a sophomore, I first applied for the Rotary program, which I didn't get. Bah. And then I applied to a program called AFS. AFS stands for something like 'Ambulance Field Service', 'cause they were an ambulance service during WWII. But after said war, the founder decided he'd had enough of young people killing one another for stupid reasons, and so a study abroad program was created.
pictured: stupid.
And wonder of wonders, I was accepted. Now I had to pick a country. My choosing process was simple: find a country/culture I knew jack shit about, make sure it was really, really far from the US, and go. From this process came Malaysia.
yeah, how much do you know about it? that's what I thought.
My parents were none too thrilled with my choice of countries. I think my dad checked the FBI website for info on Malsysia probably twice a day. They vetoed Turkey, which I found silly, but finally OK'd Malaysia, though they weren't entirely thrilled. But I was bound and determined to go.
though to be fair, it does border Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Georgia. which aren't exactly peaceful places these days. maybe they had a point...
And so, as just a young snippet of a thing at 15 years old, my family put me on a plane to Malaysia for a year. Well, they actually put me on a plane in Casper, Wyoming heading to Denver. Then from there I flew to Los Angeles, spent a few days there meeting the two other US students that would be going to Malaysia as well and learning all sorts of helpful multi-cultural things like "never lend someone your passport" and "what to do if you've lost your passport".

And then the three of us (me, an obnoxiously hipster douche named Nate, and a bouncy blonde girl named Jeana) got on a plane to ride for 13 hours to Taipei. Once in Taipei, we wandered around for a bit, then flew another 4 hours to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Next time you're in a bookstore, go to the language section, and look for a Malay-English dictionary or phrasebook. If you can find one that has more than 50 pages, I'll give you a dollar.
this kind of dollar!
Because of this aforementioned fact, my Malay was admittedly a little slim. I could say "thank you", "please", and "toilet". Maybe "My name is..." if you really pushed me. Nate the Hipster Douche was smug in his greater knowledge of Malay, grandly spouting off his age, his purpose for travel, his country of origin, and probably his goddamn favorite color and shoe size as well to the stone-faced Customs agent, all in Malay. My process was slightly less smooth, though we managed to understand each other with a series of complicated hand gestures (mine) and heavily accented stilted English (the Customs agent's).

Now for those of you who are unaware, Malaysia is a predominately Muslim country. Their main governmental religion is actually Islam, and many of their laws and customs are based around this fact. The population of Malaysia is in fact quite divided, with around 50 or more percent of people being ethnically Malay. 25 percent or so are Chinese, and 15 percent are East Indian or Sri Lankan. By law, if you are ethnically Malay, you must also be Muslim. Likewise, if you marry a Malay, you must convert to Islam. I can't remember how much of your ancestry has to be something other than Malay before you don't have to be Muslim anymore, but it is a pretty high percent.

Most Muslim women in Malaysia do not completely cover their faces, and those who do tend to opt for colorful clothes and head coverings (known in Malaysia as a tudung). I would estimate around half the girls I went to school with covered their heads, and none covered their entire faces.
one of my pictures from a Hari Raya celebration, at a friend's house. I totally blend, right? the colorful clothes are called baju korong, and again the headcovering is called a tudung.
But when I first got there, and was trying to navigate KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) with a giant suitcase, massive jetlag, and the beginnings of culture shock, I didn't know any of this. So the three of us little American students get on one of those transport shuttle things to get to baggage claim. And I was looking around, and noticed that Jeana and I were the only two girls on the shuttle that weren't wearing full-on burquas.
good lord it must get sweaty inside that thing.
And then I had a mini panic attack. Because what I didn't know at the time was, since Malaysia is such a Muslim-friendly country, there are a lot of Middle-Eastern Muslims that travel there for vacationing. They know they can get halal food (a.k.a. food safe for Muslims to eat = not containing things like pork or alcohol), not be harassed for wearing traditional clothes, find mosques easily, and find a place for morning prayer. But like I said, I didn't know that. In my head, I thought Oh my god, what was I thinking! Everyone here is going to be wearing buquas, and people are going to judge me for not wearing one, but I don't want to wear one because it looks really really hot, and shit what am I gonna do...

And so forth and so on. I managed to calm myself down when I noticed one of the women on the shuttle was reading Janet Evanovich and wearing a leopard print dress underneath her burqa. And then several of my cultural stereotypes were shattered right then and there, and I started to breathe again.
oh the horror! wait, no...
So yes, I spent eleven months in a country by myself when I was fifteen. And it was one of the most terrifying, exhilarating, interesting, fascinating experiences I have had thus far in my life. Don't worry, I'll tell you more about it. But there's no way I can fit it all in one post, so I'll leave you with this gem.

you're welcome. sorry if you don't like snakes.