Odd Things About Spain

A fantastic vegetarian meal in Cordoba

One of the perennially interesting perks of traveling is learning what little American quirks I’ve been taking for granted. Traveling pushes us outside of little comfort zones we didn’t even know we had and leaves us pondering doorknobs, water fountains, and all sorts of other topics we don’t usually give a second thought to. So! To kick off a series of posts about my recent travels in southern Spain, here are eight quirks I ran into over spring break.

      1. Dinner is super late at night.
        It’s not unusual for Spaniards to sit down to eat dinner at 9 or 10 pm. It’s pretty standard for restaurants to open for dinner at 9 as well. I go to bed at 10:30! I usually eat around 6! We tried to adjust for a few days, but the tendency to eat late threw us through such a loop that we gave up and started finding restaurants that opened earlier. (There are explanations, but they didn’t make things any easier for jetlagged Americans used to eating dinner at 6 pm.)
      2. Corollary: nothing opens until 9 in the morning.
        Okay, not nothing. But a lot of places are closed until 9 or 10 in the morning. I usually eat breakfast around 7. What if I want to go buy yogurt at 8 am? What then, Spain? (I should just go shopping the night before, that’s what.)

        Eating churros and chocolate in Granada, Spain.
        Churros con chocolate in Granada. This “breakfast” was at 11am.
      3. Doorknobs are in the middle of the door. This baffles me. In the US and pretty much everywhere else I’ve traveled*, doorknobs are on the side of the door opposite the hinges. Opening a door is a two part movement: first you turn the knob, then you swing it open. In Spain, doorknobs are smack in the middle of the door! This is apparently done for aesthetic reasons, but it creates two problems: first, it’s harder to open and close doors, since leverage isn’t on your side, and second, it makes it impossible to use the door quietly.

        Example door (x)
      4. Their Spanish is different. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, but I hadn’t been exposed to much “Spain-Spanish” before this trip. It took me a few days to figure out that “bueno” for “okay” wasn’t going to get me anywhere — I needed to say “vale”. The accents were different, “aseo” apparently means “restroom”, and people said “cojer” without everyone in the vicinity turning red in the face. A strange world indeed.
      5. Smoking. Again, not a surprise, but not something I enjoyed. Second-hand smoke makes me cough, and I like to avoid it if I can.
      6. Weird ideas about vegetarian food. It’s not meat if it’s crumbled up really small and sprinkled in with your mushrooms! Thus goes the Spanish thinking about meat. Vegetarianism is a strange, exotic habit here. A waiter at a restaurant in Toledo actually told me I should “stop doing that” (as in, “stop being vegetarian”). Ah, well. There’s still good vegetarian food to be had, so I was happy in the end.

        A fantastic vegetarian meal in Cordoba
        A fantastic vegetarian meal in Cordoba
      7.  Lack of water fountains. Spain’s got a lot of catching up to do on this front. I pack a water bottle everywhere out of habit, so I was fine, but you really can’t rely on water fountains in Spain.
      8. Potato sandwiches. It’s not super difficult to find vegetarian food, as long as you like bocadillo de papa, the country’s ubiquitous egg and potato sandwich. Yep, that’s right, potatoes in a sandwich. They’re actually pretty decent if you give them a chance!

        *Which is mainly North and Central America and Asia and not Europe, to be totally fair.

        White text reading "Quirky Things About Spain" overlain on a picture of food.

I’m back! An update.

Hey there, blog. It’s been a while.

I’ve neglected you because, unfortunately, trying to finish my undergraduate degree was rather trying. Good news, though! That’s over with. I’m now free — free to write, free to travel, free to do whatever I darn well please, as long as money allows.

Although I was busy with school, I made time to travel. I spent eight days in Spain this semester, and five camping in New Mexico’s high desert. I’ve got plenty of posts on Chaco Canyon, Carlsbad, and southern Spain lined up.

More exciting and more to the point: I’m moving to Taiwan! I’ve been awarded the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, which pays for room, board, and tuition at an intensive Taiwanese Mandarin program. The scholarship kicks in this December (2017) and runs until summer of 2018. This fall I hope to get a TEFL certificate, probably in Thailand, so I can be more employable as an English teacher. Other exciting (but still highly tentative) plans are in the works.

So many projects and adventures are in the pipeline right now, and I can’t wait to share them all with you!

 

The Very Large Array

The Very Large Array has, at the same time, an incredibly descriptive and totally unhelpful name. The array in question is a Y-shaped network of radio telescopes that sit in the New Mexican high desert. They’re turned to the sky, listening to the sounds of worlds light years away from earth.

Unless you’re New Mexican or move in space science circles, the Very Large Array (frequently called the VLA) is likely foreign to you except for the vague feeling that you’ve seen it somewhere. It’s got a surprisingly large pop culture presence. Carl Sagan drove it into the public eye when he included it in Cosmos. The VLA is highly recognizable – movies like Contact, Independence Day, and Terminator Salvation have been shot here. Heck, Bon Jovi even shot a music video at the VLA.

Jodie Foster's character from the film Contact listens to a headset at the Very Large Array.
Jodie Foster’s astronomer from Contact listening for sounds of alien life at the Very Large Array. Although the VLA isn’t used for SETI projects, it is certainly capable of picking up alien signals buzzing around the universe.

Even if you’re not super into space or Jodie Foster movies the VLA is still worth visiting. Its hugeness and remoteness mean it’s awe-inspiring even without context. While it takes some driving to get to, it’s open from 8:30 – sunset every day for self-guided tours, making it an accessible day trip. I made the trip from Albuquerque one very cold afternoon in January. (That’s another thing to be aware of: not only is the VLA remote, it’s cold in winter. The woman in the gift shop told me it had dropped to -2 F with windchill the day before.)

The gift shop has shorter hours than the grounds, so if you’re interested in getting post cards or asking questions, come before 4pm. There’s a small theater where a short documentary plays on demand, which I’d recommend you watch to get acquainted with what you’re about to see. There’s also a small museum to wander through. I got in for free, but I can’t remember if it’s because I had a student ID or because I attended UNM.

After that it’s out into the cold! (Or heat, depending on when you go, I guess.) There’s a short walking tour that should probably take about half an hour. It took me about ten minutes because – have I mentioned this yet? – it was so cold. The tour takes you past a small dish, a few interpretive labels, and then right to the base of the closest working dish. From there you can walk up onto the balcony of one of the science buildings for a fantastic view of one of the VLA’s branches.

The closest dish. It moved when I was there, which was spectacular.

I was very much by myself this trip. Apart from the lady in the gift shop, I only spotted two other visitors and one scientist.

After you finish the walking portion of your tour you can drive a short distance to see one of the dishes in the massive service shed. Once it’s all fixed up they’ll roll it out onto a special set of train tracks and drive it very, very slowly to its new home.

If you’d like to visit the Very Large Array, check out Roadside America’s entry. Make sure to peek at the official website for up to date information about visiting hours and other logistical concerns.

Visiting the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico

The Trinity Test Site at the White Sands Missile Range marks the site of the very first atomic bomb test.

Ever since I moved to New Mexico for college, I’ve wanted to visit the Trinity Test Site. After my visit to Hiroshima, I felt like I needed to go, as a pilgrimage of sorts. This was easier said than done since it’s only open to the public for fifteen hours a year, for seven and a half hours a day on the first Saturdays in October and April.

A view of the whole ground zero site, taken from the perimeter of the site and looking towards the parking lot. The memorial obelisk is visible in the bottom left corner.

For a site that’s only open twice a year, the Trinity Site is structured well for tourists. There are educational materials on the perimeter fence, educational staff on site, a booth where you can look at trinitite and uranium artifacts, and a pop-up gift shop set up by the folks from White Sands National Park.

Before you ask: no, it’s not dangerous to your health to visit. While there is more radiation in this area than average, it’s less of an issue than, say, being a frequent flier.

 

Trinitite. It’s illegal to collect the rock formed from melted desert sand, but there’s plenty around to look at.

There’s also food (cooked fresh, but mostly baseball game sort of fare) and enough portable toilets to easily handle the crowds. BRING WATER. I never go anywhere in New Mexico without a liter of water on my person, and I keep at least a gallon in my car. Bring twice as much water as you think you’ll need, and snacks if you don’t want to eat overpriced sausage dogs. Besides water, the only real issue I had was with parking: due to the bottleneck caused by ID checking, I had to sit in traffic for half an hour to get into Stallion Gate, and I hit some more traffic before I reached the final parking lot.

 

 

Would I recommend checking out the Trinity site? If you’re in town at the right time of year, absolutely. It’s interesting for history and science folks alike. Because of what happened here, our history and science have been forever changed. That, at least to a lot of you, will make it worth the trip.

When to go: The first Saturday of October or April (check ahead of time – it’s possible they’ll go back to a once-a-year schedule). If you want to learn about New Mexico’s nuclear history and you’re not in town when the Trinity site is open, you can check out the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, or visit the memorial near Stallion Gate.

Further reading: The Atlas Obscura article is a useful resource, as is the official Army open house page.

How to get there: Don’t use Google maps. Navigating between cities in New Mexico is easy, and you’ll want to use the Army’s official directions to navigate once you get close to Stallion Gate. There is also an option for joining a convoy from Almagordo.

Pin it!

Visiting ground zero of the first atomic bomb detonation near Soccorro, NM.

Back on the Mother Road (Sort of): New Mexico to New Hampshire

May of this year, my brother flew down to New Mexico to tour my alma mater and help me drive my car back to New England. As it turns out, he’s not much for navigation or freeway driving, but what skills he lacks in those areas he makes up for by being a great adventure buddy.

Most of our trip was relatively boring because it’s hard to do lots of interesting things when you’ve got to drive for eight hours a day as well. With the help of Atlas Obscura, we did manage to make some pit stops worth blogging about. (Thus our chosen Instagram tag, #spookysiblingroadtrip.)

Traveling East out of Albuquerque you’ll cross some mountains and, soon after, the little town of Moriarty. A while later you’ll hit Tucumcari, a traditional stop on the Route 66 trek that we’ve always passed by. And then there’s nothing but flatness and windmills and a 75 mph speed limit to get you through the emptiness of the the Texas panhandle.

In the middle of this nothingness, there’s a teeny little town called Adrian. Adrian would be a drive-by town if it wasn’t for the fact that it sits in the dead middle of Route 66, half way between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Good morning midpoint!
Good morning midpoint! (As you can tell, my brother and I have laughably different ideas as to what a comfortable temperature is.)

 

 

Midpoint Cafe is dolled up in everything Route 66. (If you’re looking for gifts, it’s a good place to go.) The people are sweet, but the cafe has a limited menu with no vegetarian options after breakfast. By no fault of their own, they’re also frequently swamped with biker groups. As far as diners go, I’ve got really high standards – I grew up going to a local New Hampshire chain called Red Arrow Diner where the food is top-notch and cheap, the menu is huge, breakfast is available all day, and the hours are 24/7. As far as diners go, Midpoint is nothing too exciting. But if you’re making the trek, stop for the experience! If you’ve got kids or are a Pixar fan, it’s got a cool connection to the movie Cars, too.

Further East is the city of Amarillo, Texas. When driving the opposite direction, this is always our last hotel of the trip. When heading through Amarillo, we always make a stop at Cadillac Ranch, an art project that’s turned into one of 66’s most recognizable features. The amount of languages here is always astounding, as is the way people trek through a cornfield, almost reverential, to look at the spray paint covered Cadillacs.

Ethan spray painting one of cars.
Ethan spray painting one of cars.

After this we diverged from the mother road, traveling through Arkansas and then up through Kentucky instead of through Missouri to Chicago. Our route was longer by several hours, but it let us see a new part of the country and make a few cool stops we wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise, like our stop at a seafood restaurant featuring a Billy Bass Adoption Center.

Sadly, I lost all my pictures that weren't on Facebook or Instagram, including most of the "bloggable" ones.
Sadly, I lost all my pictures that weren’t on Facebook or Instagram, including most of the “bloggable” ones. Also, this picture features my first fish since Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. (I am a strongly habitual vegetarian, but I occasionally eat fish at special restaurants, like this one. Yes, yes, I know, I’m terrible or whatever. So sue me.)

Little Rock was much cuter than I expected, and we spent an hour or two walking around, enjoying the river. Next, we headed to Cave City, Kentucky.

Cave City was sort of like a dream. We got a little turned around and ended up in the downtown area, which was completely uninhabited except for several cats.

Imagine a whole street of this, completely empty for long minutes. A cat walks by. Another cat peers out of an antique store's window. The sky is moody. A Waillin' Jenny's song is stuck in your head.
Imagine a whole street of this, completely empty for long minutes. A cat walks by. Another cat peers out of an antique store’s window. The sky is moody. A Waillin’ Jenny’s song is stuck in your head.

We tried to find interesting regional food and ended up at a cafeteria that was in the process of closing for the night. The whole thing felt like a Crooked Still song should be faintly playing in the background. We eventually gave up on regional eats and settled for Mexican.

 

Cave City at Night
Cave City at Night

We stayed at a little Tepee motel. It was quaint from the outside, but I wouldn’t recommend it because of the bugs. Their dead little bodies were scattered around the windows, and I saw more than one crawl across the bed. I figured they must be bed bugs, but wavered later because so many were near the wood of the windowsill. (This feels like a good time to leave you a link about bed bugs: x)

wigwam-hotel-kentucky

Cave City sits adjacent to the biggest network of caves in the world, Mammoth Cave. It’s so big there are still unexplored sections! You can visit the top side of the National Park for free to walk or bike, or pay to go down into the caves on a guided tour. We did the Domes and Dripstones tour, which I’d recommend if you’ve only got a few hours to spend at the park. If you plan ahead and go on a weekend, there’s a strenuous, 6 hour caving tour called Wild Cave that sounds like an absolute blast.

Much of the cave’s history is tied tightly to the history of the African Americans who were integral to the cave’s early history. Standing in the interpretive center I poured over all the materials, killing time before our tour while hoping to learn something new. I stood in front of a display about one such explorer, absorbed in the material, when a park ranger approached me. “Interesting, isn’t it?” he asked, and I nodded. He pointed at the display and told me that the man I was reading about was his ancestor. After years of visiting National Parks all across the country, that little exchange is one of my favorite memories.

From Kentucky, we headed to Ohio, where we met up with a friend who assured me that yes, the state is mostly made of corn. After this brief sojourn we headed to the teeny little town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

What’s in Point Pleasant, you ask? Well, not too much, unless you happen to be really fond of cryptids, aliens, urban legends, and anything spooky. Which I am. (I even run another blog about it, I’m that much of a nerd.)

Point Pleasant is home to a legendary creature called Mothman. Is it an angel? An alien A sandhill crane? No one really seems to be sure. But Point Pleasant’s embraced the legend, and monster enthusiasts make pilgrimage to the tiny town from all over the states.

We then headed into Pennsylvania – home territory, at last! After a long day of adventuring in and driving through quite a bit of rain, I really wanted pasta for dinner. A simple request, in the decent sized town we were staying in.

Alas, it was not to be.

There isn’t really a short version of this story and the long version would need a post to itself, but I’ll do the best I can.

First, consider this: my brother can’t read maps. Not even if they’re in the GPS and showing exactly where we are on the road and exactly where we need to go.

Second, consider this: toll roads in Pennsylvania are BRUTAL. They’re expensive as heck, they’re hard to get off of, and if you get on the wrong road you’re gonna stay on the wrong road for an awfully long time.

With those two bits of background information, it probably makes a little more sense that we managed to miss the exit for the pasta place two miles away, managed to get desperately off track multiple times, ended up driving twenty miles away and settling for the first place that sold food besides the gas station. We listened to the same Crooked Still album five times straight through that day.

The next day we also found ourselves many, many miles off course, turned around, missing exits, and stuck in traffic for hours because of roadwork that wasn’t even happening at the time. There weren’t even any cryptids to break up the monotony. Finally we made it home to New Hampshire. I was exhausted, achy from so much driving, and I never wanted to see or touch or think about a car ever again, but hey. Ethan and I were still friends and several adventures richer, and that’s all that matters on road trips, right?

Gatos y Galletas: New Mexico’s First Cat Cafe

UPDATE, December 2016: Gatos y Galletas is now closed. But, if everything goes smoothly, a dog cafe will soon be opening in Albuquerque. If and when that happens, I’ll make sure to post about it.

Cute cats and hot drinks are a natural combination, so it may be surprising that the first cafe to officially combine the two opened in Taipei, Taiwan, only 19 years ago. The concept hopped over to Japan, where stressed workers who lived in pet-less apartments made the concept explode.

Something about the culture or the laws in Taiwan and Japan make cat cafes a breeze to open. When I visited Minimal Cafe in Taipei, cats wandered behind the espresso machine and dozed on top of a rack of mugs straight out of the dishwasher. This would terrify US health code inspectors. Actually, I’m pretty sure terrified US health inspectors are the main reason the first cat cafe in the US opened only two years ago, in 2014. It’s hard to know how many cat cafes are in the US, but the number seems to be about 20.

A cat licks its paw while sitting on a table covered with a variety of jars.
A cat sitting outside of NTHU’s on-campus cat cafe. That’s right, kiddoes, one of Taiwan’s most prestigious technical universities has a cat cafe plopped in the middle of campus.

I’ve loved the concept ever since I studied abroad at a university that had an on-campus cat cafe, so I was thrilled to hear that a cat cafe was opening up near my alma mater in Albuquerque, New Mexico, right along old Route 66. Gatos y Galletas opened April 22, 2016, and you’d better believe that my cat-loving roommate and I were there opening weekend.

Here’s how most cat cafes work in the US: food is ordered and prepared in one room. This room is completely separate from the room where the cats are. Cats can’t get into the food room, but people can bring their food into the cat room on disposable tableware. (Why disposable, I wonder? Isn’t the point of a dishwasher to…wash dishes? Cleanse them of things like cat hair? Am I mistaken? But I digress.) Many cat cafes (in the US and elsewhere) charge a flat cover fee, or sometimes an hourly fee. Some, like Minimal Cafe, simply charge a lot for their food and drinks.

Gatos y Galletas is Spanish for “Cats and Cookies”. It’s alliterative in both languages, which brings me great joy. Gatos y Galletas offers vegetarian fare, coffee, and loose leaf teas. You can stay with the cats for as long as you like for a cover charge of three dollars. It’s got a clean, healthy, friendly vibe, and although the food tastes a little too “healthy”, the drinks are fantastic.

Gatos y Galletas hosts friendly, adoptable cats from Fat Katz Albuquerque, a local no-kill rescue. The first time I visited, the cafe had been open for under 24 hours. We got to see the very first cat go home with his new family!

It’s a great little spot to hang out or study, and if you’re driving through and you’ve never been to a cat cafe, I’d recommend visiting. It’s totally worth it.

A black cat lies on the wood floor. Another cat is barely visible in a play tube. A partly visible person tries to entice the first cat.
Cats lounging in Gatos y Galletas.

 

 

A gray cat sleeps on a red cloth. A small plushie animal is nestled next to her face.

 

 

 

 

gatos_y_galletas_gif
Trying to get into the food cabinet, to no avail.

 

 

I shot some footage and made a little video, just to dabble. It’s just made in the YouTube editor, but I’m happy with how it turned out! Check it out below.

 

The Mysterious Mothman of West Virginia

Oh, Mothman. I never quite understood you. I mean, you seemed cool and all, but you were just some spooky dude with big wings and red eyes. All my friends in the regions of Tumblr’s cryptid zones thought you were so cool, the Hot New Cryptid, the Man (Moth?) of the Month.

But now? After visiting your hometown where they put up a statue of you and started a museum and host a festival every year? Okay, I’m starting to see it now. What about a mysterious insectohumanoid isn’t to like?

Mothman is Point Pleasant’s hometown hero, and he (probably) doesn’t even exist. He hasn’t even been sighted since the late 60’s, but that detail hasn’t cooled Mothman fever. If anything, the slew of sightings in a short 13 month period that ended suddenly with the tragedy of the Silver Bridge Collapse increased interest.

On our massive roadtrip from Albuquerque to New Hampshire, we weren’t exactly heading through West Virginia. No matter. We detoured to the little town anyway.

A splashy poster covering a whole wall reads 'MOTHMAN MUSEUM'.
The Mothman Museum, Point Pleasant, West Virginia

The museum itself is tiny, as I expected, but it only cost 3 bucks to get in. They have a lot of props and costumes from The Mothman Prophesies, and quite a bit of info on the odd gentleman who wrote the original Mothman Prophesies book. There are three different moth-folks to pose with, along with several maniquine Men In Black. If you want to, you can sit and watch a video. (We didn’t – gotta keep moving and such.)  There’s also some interesting stuff on the collapse of the Silver Bridge, a tragedy that killed nearly 50 people and shocked the whole town.

 

A series of magazines about the Weird featuring Mothman.
Magazines featuring stories about Mothman.

 

 

 

This will never fail to crack me up.
This will never fail to crack me up.

Outside of the museum, there’s a statue of Mothman. He can look shockingly different, depending on the artist, but this version has been photographed enough to become the definitive one. Go on, head over and take lots of pictures. You know you wanna.

'Found him!"
‘Found him!”

Visiting is easy, if you’re willing to drive a bit. Point Pleasant is about two hours from Dayton, Ohio, and about three from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Parking’s free, and there’s a good Mexican restaurant just a few shops down from the museum.  It’s a quick stop, and probably a total disappointment if you’re not interested in cryptids, conspiracy theories, aliens, or UFOs. But if you are interested, it’s totally worth it. There’s nowhere quite like it.

Visiting Hiroshima

A paper crane in the background with the words "Visiting Hiroshima" and a peace sign.

Hiroshima is three hours away from Kyoto and five hours away from Tokyo by shinkansen. It’s far too long to make a day trip out of it and not near too much of interest, and yet thousands of foreigners still stop by when they’re in Japan.

The bombing of Hiroshima by the US is modern history, but after the bombings, Hiroshima the city slowly slid out of the Western mind. The bombings were behind fifty years of growth, healing, and history when I was born, but even then, all I knew of Hiroshima was the destruction and enormous casualties. A lot can happen in 70 years, though. Hiroshima is now bustling city that reminded me of Boston with its waterways and green spaces. Most of the memorials to the victims of “little boy” are centered in the Peace Park, built over where the worst damage occurred.

This is the A-Bomb Dome. Once an important meeting place and source of pride for the city, it is now the most well-known icon of bombing. It’s only one block away from the hypocenter, the point directly below the bomb when it detonated, and everyone inside was killed. Somehow, much of the building remained, and it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Heritage Site status was declared in 1996 against the wishes of the US and China, who voted against granting the special historical designation. Pro tip from Renee to the US government: If China is the only other country voting “nay”, you should seriously reconsider your position. That’s not good company to be in.

Usually, the A-Bomb Dome doesn’t look like my picture above. When it’s not undergoing conservation, it looks more like:

(Picture from WikiTravel.)

The Peace Memorial Museum is an absolute must-see for understanding both the immediate aftermath of the bomb and the city’s healing process. It’s also nauseating and heart wrenching. This is coming from someone who’s read books about forensics and watched vlogs about mortuary science for fun. From the girl who went to the Museum of Death on spring break, where visitors frequently pass out.

This was worse.

But it was worth it.

Part of the shock was that I simply didn’t expect to see removed keloids or deformed fingernails in museum boxes. I was also a little concerned about the number of small children I saw with their parents. History is for everyone but not all ages. Most kids seemed either a bit shell shocked or like they were trivializing exhibits to process them.

Little Boy, actual size.

The museum covers the events after the bombing thoroughly, until after the effects of atom sickness began to appear. Then it switches to a long, elevated hall with a clear view of the A-Bomb dome out the window on one side and posters detailing other bits of history on the other side. I stood in front of the poster that explained how the bomb was tested in New Mexico for a long time. In Hiroshima, the atom bomb destroyed upwards of 100,000 lives. In New Mexico, we named our baseball team the “Isotopes”.

You’re probably getting the feeling that a day visiting Hiroshima isn’t fun. And it’s really not. So after I left the museum I got ice cream (from Baskin Robbins, because Asian ice creams are terrible) and sat next to the river.

Visiting Peace Park only takes one day, but I planned for two days in Hiroshima. My second day, I took a day trip to a unique island a short train ride out of the city. It’ll prove much lighter and, uh, fuzzier than this entry, I promise!

Museum of Man’s Cannibals: Myth & Reality Special Exhibit

I love museums. Love ’em. I love how involving and interactive they can be, how they can bring people together, how intuitive and enjoyable they are compared to typical educational experiences.

This means that when I hit up a new city, I’m always checking sites like Atlas Obscura for quirky museums I might have otherwise missed. I also follow quite a few offbeat blogs that keep me updated about oddities, which is how I learned about the Museum of Man’s new exhibit on Cannibalism.

An hour or so spent in a room with strangers while you all learn about people who eat people may not sound like fun, and the Museum of Man gets that. They seem to have a thing for doing thoughtful, innovative exhibits on topics most people don’t like to discuss. (They just retired an exhibit on torture.)

As best I can tell, this theme started when the MoM was struggling financially and facing criticism for their portrayal of torture in the main galleries. Listening and responding to the community is of huge importance to modern museums, and so they designed a new special exhibit with the input of human rights groups and torture survivors. The resulting exhibit (which required an additional ticket for entry) was well received and helped the museum’s bottom line. The new cannibalism exhibit seems to take the same approach.

First off, let me tell you how impressed I was with the exhibit design. It was top notch – it made you think deeply, interact with the information, question your assumptions, and was varied without being busy. There was so much to do.

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In one interactive portion of the exhibit, visitors are invited to lift specially weighted buckets that simulate physical degeneration on siege rations.

The design actively avoided typical shock-and-horror that usually accompanies the topic of cannibalism. It starts with historical context, easing you into the tougher stuff, and by the time you’re leaving you’re asking yourself hard questions like “what is cannibalism, actually?”, “is cannibalism actually wrong?”, and “am actually a cannibal?”

…look, I totally get it if that turns you off from seeing the exhibit. But it’s worth it, if you’re in San Diego. Just maybe eat lunch before you visit, not after.

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On my experience at NTHU

A hand holds an ice cream burrito. Visible in the background is a NTHU sweatshirt.

(Originally posted here.)

What follows is a long post  with no pictures. Sorry, folks. My intention here isn’t to rant. It’s to provide more information to curious friends, as well as students who are considering NTHU for exchange.

Perhaps some of the issues I’m about to discuss are new problems or may be solved in the near future, but last semester was one frustrating experience after another.

You should know a few things up front: first, I’m attending UNM on a scholarship that requires I take 15 credits a semester with at least a 3.0 GPA, for eight consecutive semesters. You should also know that Computer Science is not my original major, and that I’m also double majoring in Languages, so I’m a little behind schedule in some spots.

That said, let’s start with a brief overview.

The Basics

The following is how I explained the situation to my study abroad counselor at UNM:

“I constantly had communications issues with NTHU. For instance, we weren’t told how or when to pay for our dorms, yet we were locked out for late payments. All dorm staff spoke only a smattering of English, and all memos we got were in Chinese. Two of my classes were rescheduled without notice, and the only English language calculus class was canceled, also without me being notified. Support staff we had to meet with for things like internet permissions and mail didn’t speak any English, and most of the required paperwork was in Chinese only. Due to NTHU’s special class registration system for exchange students, we weren’t officially registered until weeks after classes started, which meant we weren’t on attendance sheets, weren’t assigned lab space, weren’t able to log into homework submission systems, etc. While professors used English in class, the tutors and TAs were mostly unable to communicate in English. NTHU assigned me an adviser from my department, and while she was very helpful, NTHU never told her she was assigned an exchange student. Things actually look worse for next semester, as websites that used to have in English switched to just Chinese, and English course offerings for computer science are more limited. Essentially, compared with Taiwanese students, exchange students at NTHU have many extra hoops to jump through while getting much less support.”

This leads us to a less-but-still-relevant…

…Short Rant About NCTU and Calculus

I also had issues with NTHU’s partner school, where I took calculus. Honestly, that’s putting it lightly. This calculus class was the bane of my existence. When NTHU’s fall classes came out, they weren’t offering calc. That was a problem, as I’m behind in my math sequence, so I was relieved when they added an English calc class. I registered and showed up for the first day of classes…and no one was there. They canceled the only English language calculus class, required for the huge majority of students, without notifying me. NTHU runs very small classes sometimes, and I know there were at least two other foreign students registered for this class. Why they canceled is beyond me.

Anyway, I decided to take calc at NTHU. They offered more than one English calc class, but because other classes were moved and I had to join late, I only had one option. This class, I soon realized, was moving deep and fast, sort of an honors-and-intensive rolled into one. We finished our coursework almost a month before students in the regular classes and moved right on to calc 2 material. The homework was almost all proofs, difficult proofs. I found the answers to one of the problems on an answer sheet for a different class, one that listed Linear Algebra as a prerequisite.

I took my homework to tutors, but that was only some help. They spoke very little English, so if I didn’t catch something, they couldn’t explain it to me. Sometimes they couldn’t even work out the answers. There was one problem early on in the semester that five tutors spent twenty minutes working on, only to tell me that they couldn’t answer it without more advanced techniques we weren’t allowed to use. I asked UNM’s online tutors for help then, to try to get explanations. I’ve only had good experiences with CAPS (UNM’s tutoring office), but the poor tutors were stumped by these homework problems, and astonished that they were only for calc 1.

Couldn’t I have just dropped? Nope, not exactly. Remember that 15 credit requirement? Yep.

Spring Semester

The NTHU Department of Computer Science is only offering three courses in English Spring semester for undergraduates, one of which is “English Listening and Speaking”. The other two don’t correlate to any classes required for my major and/or require NTHU-specific prerequisites. This means that a second semester at NTHU would not have brought me closer to finishing my degree, and I would have returned to the US too late to enroll in summer courses. Coming home allows me to take relevant classes this summer at the local community college. In addition, my roommate and closest on-campus friend had moved to Taipei, I had pretty much used up my travel opportunities, and I wasn’t enthralled with the thought of pushing through a semester that would be essentially useless.

What now?

I appealed to UNM for a leave of absence for the spring semester. Most schools (including UNM) grant these exceptions for serious illness or injury, family situations, missionary work, and military orders. Documentations and letters of support are strongly suggested. My only documentation was the NTHU school calendar and a few screenshot emails, but somehow, it worked. My leave of absence was accepted and I’m returning to UNM in the fall, scholarship intact.

In hindsight…

I wish there was more information on NTHU online. Non-university, English language websites are practically non-existent. No blogs, no vlogs, no review websites, zilch. When I started this blog, I couldn’t find a single relevant blog. Now, this little blog is on the second page of Google search results for the third result and first non-NTHU result for  “national tsing hua university blog exchange student taiwan”, and is the only blog Google returns in the first five pages. So maybe this will help others out.

Update, January 2016: This post is now the third result and first non-NTHU result for “national tsing hua university blog exchange student taiwan”. The blog’s homepage is the fourth. There is, however, another blog post within the first five pages, which is pretty good reading. You can get to it here.

NTHU is a well-regarded technical school in a beautiful country, and I hope the adjust their systems to better support exchange students. Do I regret going? Nope. But I don’t regret coming home, either. I took a gamble based on the information (and vastly reduced application time) available to me, and it didn’t work out this time. But trying new things, meeting new people, and traveling while I can was kind of the whole point of this adventure.

 

Happy adventuring!