My Principals Go Abroad experience was different to what I had expected. It wasn’t the best friend making, non-stop fun experience I’d quietly hoped for. It was however a once in a lifetime experience which I’ve gained so much from. I travelled to Proyecto Caraya – a Howler Monkey Rehabilitation Sanctuary in Cordoba, Argentina. On arrival at the sanctuary I expected there to be volunteers from all over the world. Instead there were two other girls from Argentina and only one person at the sanctuary who spoke English. Looking back now, I should have made much more of an effort to improve my Spanish beyond very basic before I left. The first few weeks were very isolating as most of the time I had no idea what anyone was talking about but once I had settled into the work at the sanctuary, not being able to speak much Spanish became less of a problem. At the sanctuary there was around 160 Howler monkeys, 25 Capuchin Monkeys and numerous other animals from llamas, cockerels (one which attacked me almost everyday), pumas and almost 40 street dogs which the sanctuary had taken in.
The work at the sanctuary wasn’t hard but everyone was busy all day, there was always something to do. As well as taking care of the monkeys each morning I would take a baby puma for a walk, or rather she took me! Nahla, the puma was found in the hills and brought to the sanctuary by one of the dogs when she was just a few days old. She’s now 7 months old and growing fast everyday.
It is easy to see the appeal of having a monkey as a pet after spending time with them but they are wild animals and people find they cannot care for a monkey as it grows into an adult. Many of the monkeys at the sanctuary were taken in from individual homes while others were rescued from the illegal pet trade. All have to be rehabilitated to allow them to relearn their natural behaviours.
The project manager at the sanctuary, Juan, luckily spoke fluent English and without him I don’t think I would have lasted all 7 weeks at the project. His work ethic and love for all the animals at the project was remarkable. Throughout my stay he didn’t have a day off as he was raising two babies, a capuchin and a howler who couldn’t be cared for by their mothers. Monkey babies are a full time job and need as much care an attention as a human baby!
It was a privilege to care for and develop an understanding of monkeys, they are similar to people in so many ways. After coming home it’s easier to appreciate the amazing experience I had and how much I had gained from it. People’s kindness and generosity never failed to amaze me despite our lack of communication.
This summer I spent a month studying law, politics and society at the Freie Universitat of Berlin, summer university programme. As a sentence that may seem pretty underwhelming, but my experience wasn’t.
The course itself was interesting, challenging and unexpected. I picked this course amongst a selection of others, primarily because of the way it was taught: the grading gave a great deal of weight to in-class participation (40%) and a final presentation (30%) with the final exam only accounting for 30% of the grade. While some may interpret this as an “easy-going course”, I found it to be the exact opposite. The constant evaluation meant that you couldn’t afford to come unprepared to class, and the emphasis on “active participation” favoured discussion-based learning over lecture-based learning, which had the double effect of keeping you awake and encouraging you to constantly make connections between the various themes of the course. Being able to experience this approach to learning has further encouraged my pursuit of a collaborative policy proposal on how to reshape education at the University of Edinburgh to make it more accessible to different types of learners, due to appear through the Buchannan Institute later this semester.
One of the things I most enjoyed about the course was the weekly excursions to various sites of historical relevance, including memorials and prisons from both the Nazi and the Soviet period. The sites that were chosen were by no means the most iconic, or the most famous, but for me personally this served to further hammer home the visibility and omnipresence of atrocity in these periods. All of this made for interesting points of reference when considering philosophical and semantic questions such as “What is the law?”, “should the law be just?” and “can we obligated to disobey the law?”; questions which I – and centuries of academic thought – haven’t quite answered yet, but which this course certainly helped to frame in new and interesting contexts.
Academically my experience was enthralling, but on a more personal level, it was unexpected. Many people when they think of Berlin conjure images of techno vikings or impenetrable night clubs (read Berghain), but my experience over the course of my stay taught me that there is a much softer, more relaxed side to Berlin, which is ultimately what makes the city so liveable. For me, Berlin wasn’t so much about the 24-hour partying and ubiquitous techno, it was about sitting in the sun, going to the lakes, reading a book, making friends, riding the incredibly efficient public transport, and maybe having a beer or two– but not necessarily in that order.
In June, I spent two weeks in the German city Bonn attending the annual conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as a delegate for the organisation UK Youth Climate Coalition.
The UNFCCC was founded to encourage and facilitate political action against climate change. Negotiators meet a couple of times a year to discuss how to move forward and to prepare for the big round of negotiations taking place each December. 2015 is a decisive year for the climate since the Convention will be signing a new deal in Paris this December to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The new deal was drafted last year, and the purpose of the Bonn conference was to edit it in preparation for Paris.
The plenary UK youth delegates
Our generation will have to live with the consequences of climate change and the Convention acknowledges the importance of involving youth in decision-making processes, thus invites us to participate at the negotiations as observers. This involves spending many hours sitting in the back of the plenary listening to negotiators repeat the same argument in 192 different accents or passionately discuss whether to include a bracket in a sentence. But more importantly, it gives us direct access to the negotiators and politicians who are writing a document that will have a profound impact on our future. We made the most of this unique opportunity by arranging meetings with negotiators to discuss our concerns and raise ideas, and by planning small events inside the conference, such as a die-in, in order to remind negotiators of the many lives threatened by climate change and urge them to take action. Our lobbying efforts especially evolved around the paragraph on intergenerational equity, which had appeared in the text as a result of successful lobbying by youth.
“Climate inaction kills” Youth briefing with Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres
Needless to say, it is incredibly intimidating discussing climate change and political strategy with someone who has worked in the field since before you were born. In addition, UNFCCC jargon involves an abundance of obscure abbreviations and technical terms, making the process very difficult to comprehend. However, I found that being young provides you with a unique and valuable perspective on the world, and that negotiators and climate experts are eager to share their knowledge and experiences. The negotiations demand a lot of attention to the history of structural injustices between the Global North and Global South, unfortunately it also became painfully obvious that said injustices continue to prevail as the Global South struggles to achieve equal representation. This issue is vital to address and overcome, within as well as beyond the UNFCCC. Finally, and most importantly, I learned that we cannot rely on the politicians alone to solve climate change. Real change requires a strong civil society movement to put pressure on the world-leaders and show them that their current lack of ambition is unacceptable. Moreover, youth needs to take initiative and actively engage in issues related to our future.
South America is a part of the world I had always wanted to visit. My Granny was born in Peru, which initially drew me to the country, however after doing some research I realised there were many opportunities to do volunteer work out there. I travelled to the city of Cusco where I was placed in a day care centre for children from disadvantaged families. I was involved in helping the children with lessons and homework, singing, arts and crafts, and teaching them some basic English. I also received Spanish lessons in the afternoons of the first week, which were very useful!
Before leaving for Peru I was quite nervous as I was travelling to a new continent with only a very basic level of the language. I was also aware of the potential dangers of being a young tourist and the crimes that unfortunately do occur there. However once I arrived I was given lots of advice and support and met other volunteers, which immediately made me feel comfortable.
I was initially worried about the language barrier with the children, however my previous experiences of working with children enabled me to overcome this. I managed to carry out fun activities using the Spanish I knew, and the Spanish lessons I received helped with this. I was also able to help the children with their lessons, for example learning about the local produce, by helping them to draw vegetables and choose the right colours. I learnt that the children are grateful for any help and really appreciate someone to do activities with while the teacher is marking work and preparing lessons. Even though they only have one room and a tiny outdoor area at the day centre, they make the most of their time there and the teacher does a brilliant job with the resources she has.
I learnt a lot about the culture during my time there, especially the way everyone contributes equally. The mothers of the children at the day centre take it in turn to cook breakfast for the children, for example rice pudding, or milk with quinoa. There was one morning where all the mothers brought in traditional Peruvian dishes for the children to taste. They were very generous and always wanted me to try their food! I was also lucky enough to be in Cusco during the festival period where everyone comes together to perform dances in the main plaza and in the streets, which was incredible to see!
After volunteering I was able to do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which was an amazing way to end my trip. I had an fantastic time volunteering and experiencing the Peruvian culture and I am very grateful to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund for enabling me to have this experience I will never forget.
This summer I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, to participate in a neuter project aimed at controlling stray dog numbers in India. Fear of contracting rabies drives many communities to perform brutal culls, with the government often supporting these. However this is not working, with numbers continuing to grow. Dog culling also increases rodent numbers, bringing new disease threats. The WVS training centre neuters/vaccinates dogs all year round.
Feeling nervous about meeting new people and performing surgery for the first time, I boarded my 10 hour flight… On arrival at Bangalore I met up with some fellow participants. At 5am we departed for Ooty – 6 of us crammed into the car, with our suitcases balanced precariously on the roof with rope. Little did we know there was still a 10 hour drive ahead and we soon discovered driving in India is crazy! Finally we made it to the WVS training centre which was to be our home for the next 2 weeks.
By 9pm all the participants had arrived. Despite ages ranging from 21 to 34 everybody clicked immediately. We started work the next morning, each person performing 1 castrate and 1 spay a day. It was our responsibility to both anaesthetise and operate on the dog, despite having limited surgical experience! Whilst daunting, we soon found our feet and gained confidence. By the end of the week we were much quicker, finishing by 4pm rather than 7pm! However our enjoyment of the staple meal curry and rice had lessened with each passing day!
On Saturday we were informed there were 4 rescued ponies which needed castrating – naturally we jumped at the chance! Afterwards we ventured out into Ooty for a well earned beer and some indian dancing. It was a fabulous evening and just what we needed after a hard week. The following day we took the train through the tea plantations to absorb the beautiful scenery. Sunday also gave us the chance to immerse ourselves in Indian culture and talk to the local people.
The second week went by in a blur, as we became much more competent in surgery. We continued to bond as a group going on numerous meals out and adventures to the local taverns! The last Friday came around all to quickly and we headed out for a final meal to celebrate completing nearly 200 neuters between us!
On Saturday some emotional goodbyes were said… We had experienced so much together, through the highs and the lows that come with doing veterinary medicine. I learned so much about myself, became more confident and discovered a passion for travelling. With a heavy heart I had to leave the cultural delights of India behind. Thanks to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund for giving me this opportunity. I will never forget it and want to return to carry on the work of the WVS.
Waking up on the day I had to return home from China, it struck me exactly how much the daily work and play in Beijing had become a normality. The five weeks had whizzed by at a rate I had never expected. The tinge of melancholy was only to be comforted by the realisation that I’d be in China for a whole year, beginning in 12 months time as part of my degree in Chinese. I learnt a huge amount whilst in the political capital of China. Regarding my reaction to the contrasting cultures, although I did not experience any culture shock, I was taken aback, as well as bemused, whilst finding it utterly captivating. This was most notable at the very beginning when I was picked up from the airport by a driver who spoke zero english, hurtling down the hard shoulder of the motorway in a taxi that resembled a tin can. Despite this, I found many aspects of Chinese culture particularly fascinating, such as the complexities of the tea ceremony, the distinct individualism of Chinese people I met, in one of the defining collectivist cultures, and the genuine openheartedness of the Chinese people.
One of my favourite memories was exploring the outskirts of Beijing, when a Chinese man beckoned us in to his art school turned gallery. We promptly discovered he prided himself in being a pioneer of Chinese culture. Together with his devoted assistant, he conducted tea ceremony, demonstrated his kung fu mastery and completed an intricate art cutting before our eyes, before giving us gifts of his art when we left. This unexpected display of skill, hospitably and sheer friendliness was humbling.
It was an incredible experience meeting some particularly intelligent, simulating young people from all over the world, including countries such as Switzerland, Germany, U.S, Denmark, Netherlands and Croatia, all participating in the consulting lectures and ensuing four-week internship. I was working on a day-to-day basis at Peak Sports, one of China’s leading sportswear companies with 600 stores worldwide. My role was advising them in which overseas markets they should develop their presence, as well what the optimum marketing techniques would be. I learnt a huge amount in lectures during the first week about what consulting, business and marketing entails, before implementing these skills working formally within the multinational company for four weeks. The final recommendations in the form of a report and presentation were well received, with our report to be used as a guiding document in the company’s international expansion. The insight into Chinese business culture was eye opening, and my ability to interact with the Chinese in a way you can only do if you speak mandarin has made me particularly enthusiastic to continue learning Chinese at University.
It is difficult to even give an overview of my time in China in fewer than 500 words, as I experienced and saw so much. It was most certainly a trip of a lifetime, which not only provided invaluable practical experience, but also complemented my studies in an inspiring way I had never imagined.