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Courtney in Kenya with her host dad and one of her host moms.

The Africa in the news is often portrayed as dangerous, impoverished, and war-torn. But this depiction is only one facet of the continent. My friend Courtney, a senior Global studies major and English minor, had an entirely different experience when she studied abroad in Kenya for a year. Over email, she shared some of the most eye-opening and enjoyable experiences she had while abroad.

Courtney came to Nairobi, Kenya, somewhat unexpectedly. A German-speaker since fourth grade, she had been planning to study in Germany, but everything changed when she began taking Swahili classes on a whim: “I fell in love with the language and my Kenyan professor, and knew I wanted to go to Kenya.”

Despite her love for the country, she was unprepared for at least one thing: her polygamous host family. “I didn’t really get the whole situation straight until after a while,” she explained. “My program didn’t tell me what my situation would be like, nor did my family announce to me when I met them, ‘Hi, we are polygamous.’”

“At first it was sort of hard to figure out who was who,” she said, because people from the nearby village were always visiting and sleeping over.

“Our home was a courtyard with 8 small houses, which were allotted to different wives and extended family,” she said. “In total, I think there were about 40 permanent people in our compound. But everyone does everything outside, so you can’t really tell who belongs to which house.”

It took about two weeks into her stay before she met all the members of her immediate host family. “My [host] dad introduced me without flourish to a woman at the breakfast table. ‘This is my third wife. You know we Africans are like that right?’”

While her host family was rather larger than she had expected, Courtney felt a comfortable and familiar family atmosphere. “Life passed as normal,” she said. “The kids (and there were lots of them) played with each other, the women sat around chatting after the day’s chores were done, and my dad drank tea and chatted with his friends. It’s kind of weird how not weird it was.”

The ease with which Kenya accepts diversity continued to surprise her. While there are extreme differences between rural and city life, it was the groups that lived side-by-side that impressed her.

“In Nairobi, for example, you can walk down the street and pass a man in jeans and a Michael Jordan jersey, a woman in a bai-bui and hijaab, a Maasai warrior carrying a spear, and a man in a business suit carrying a briefcase,” she said. “People just coexist with an unspoken respect for one another’s lifestyles.”

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Not as sunny as Greece or as romantic as France (and still recovering from Soviet rule), Poland is usually overlooked by the student traveler. But the country’s eccentric combination of history, nature, and nightlife may help to put it on the map, according to a host of recent travel articles:

Veteran traveler and television personality Rick Steves touts Krakow, Poland, as both “the next Prague” and the “Boston of Poland” in his CNN article. With historic sites at Main Market Square, folksy market stalls, affordable dining, and pastoral countrysides, Krakow has a unique and sometimes wacky spin on history. A salt mine just outside the city, for example, houses an underground cathedral carved entirely out of salt.

According to the New York Times, the city of Wroclaw has an equally unique combination of modernism and history. Over 150 bronze dwarfs, symbolic of the communist resistance movement in the 1980s, have dotted the city since 2001.

But don’t let its quirky exterior fool you: Residents praise the vitality of the “young” town, as evidenced by student-friendly clubs and cafes. The article also lists recommended hotels, restaurants, and sights.

Even the Polish sector of Minneapolis is having its own revival. Previously ruled by Polish delis and clothing stores, the 13th Avenue stretch of northeast Minneapolis is now home to art galleries, restaurants, and record stores, according to the New York Times. Neighborhood artists and students alike can afford nights out at the well-priced Anchor Fish & Chips or the 331 Club (no cover charge).

Experience the offbeat culture of Poland for yourself with a semester-long study abroad program in Warsaw. And since Rick Steve says that it is one of Europe’s least expensive countries, Poland may even be worth an independent trip.

A new statue in Senegal has been causing a stir this week (read this CNN article for more). The 164-foot copper structure (which features a man, woman, and child with arms outstretched) has been criticized for everything from its expense to being the product of the Senegalese president’s self-indulgence.

Yet it is not the first statue to receive widespread attention for its dramatic back-story. A number of statues around the world have become tourist destinations because of their creator, height, or history. From the multitude of online lists ranking the most popular or tallest statues around the world, I picked out a few sculptures that I would like to see someday (along the lines of my post from a few weeks ago about quirky buildings worldwide).

The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen

Photo courtesy of http://www.VisitDenmark.com

1. The Little Mermaid. Inspired by the popular Hans Christian Andersen children’s story, the mermaid has sat curled in the harbor of Copenhagen, Denmark, since her creation by Danish sculptor Edvard Eriksen in 1913. But the lady has not led a peaceful life: she has been the victim of vandalism, three decapitations, and an attempted drowning in 2003. (Time your visit carefully: According to The Daily Mail, the mermaid will leave her home for the first time in 100 years to visit the World Expo in Shanghai from May to November this year).

2. David. Michelangelo’s contemplative interpretation of the Biblical figure took three years to complete and, according to ItalyGuides.it, the sculptor continued to work on the piece even after it was revealed to immediate acclaim in Florence’s Piazza della Signora in 1504. The statue was moved from its original location to the city’s Academy Gallery in 1872 to protect it from the elements (a copy was put in its place). The success of David is said to be what inspired the Pope to invite Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel.

Photo courtesy of the China Culture Center

3. Great Buddha at Leshan. There are innumerable Buddha figures around Asia, but this 71-meter-high statue has a unique claim to fame as the largest carved stone Buddha in the world, according to Touropia.com. The serene figure occupies an entire hillside of the Sichuan Province in China, and its construction took nearly 100 years, beginning in 713 AD during the Tang Dynasty. The Buddha’s giant fingers are about 11 feet long, and its bare feet are each large enough for 100 people to sit on.

4. The Statue of Liberty. Although it is right here in the U.S., our 105-foot-tall statue, created by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, represents an international friendship. A gift from France for America’s centennial celebration in 1876, this symbol of democracy and freedom raises a torch covered with 24k gold, holds a tablet inscribed with “July 4, 1776,” and stands upon the broken shackles of oppression, according to StatueofLiberty.org. Her iconic green color is actually the natural weathering effect of her copper covering, which is less than the thickness of two pennies.

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Two of the Schoenstatt sisters read the morning paper in the center's dining room. They are particularly happy because the center was mentioned in the paper!

Most student travelers decide to stay in hostels or with host families when they go abroad. But my friend Leesha a junior at the University of Minnesota, relies on the hospitality of Catholic sisters in different convents around the world.

I asked her why she chose such an unusual travel experience, what the living conditions are like, and whether non-religious people are welcome. Ever the English Major, Leesha took her assignment seriously, describing the two weeks she spent in Australia in 2008:

So what made me want to stay with a bunch of nuns? Well, being Catholic, I knew there were places I could stay internationally that would be clean, safe, and cheap. These places are convents or even monasteries.

The Schoenstatt sisters of Mary are part of laity in Catholicism which means that they minister specifically to the lay people, and are not a cloistered convent, in which the sisters are mostly or entirely removed from secular society. The Schoenstatt (sh-uhn-shtah-tt) shrines are places of pilgrimage.

In Australia, the Schoenstatt sisters had three buildings, plus the shrine itself. The bedrooms usually have two beds, and we were able to do our laundry at the shrine while we were there, a much-needed amenity.

I found out about the Schoenstatt sisters through friends of mine. As for other convents, I have friends who know different orders in the various countries I hope to visit (France and Italy, for example), so I’ve been asking them for the email contacts or phone numbers of these orders.

One of the orders I found out about through some friends are the Little Sisters of the Lamb. They are a mendicant order, which means that they beg for their food daily. In spite of their poverty, the sisters are very hospitable, so my friends assure me.

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We’ve all experienced head-smacking moments during our travels. We realize that we forgot to bring enough cab money, or that the person who described December weather in Mexico as “cold” has clearly never been to the Midwest. Despite the plethora of travel guides available, there are some things that only an experienced traveler can tell you.

My friend David, a junior double-majoring in Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering and Spanish, has been studying abroad in Toledo, Spain, since January. I asked him over email about some of the surprising things he’s discovered about life in Spain over the past few months.

1.  What was the first thing you bought in Spain?

Food, I think, as in groceries.

2. What was the last thing you bought?

A beer.

3. What do you wish you had remembered to pack?

My cord to connect my camera to my computer (luckily my brother brought it when he came to visit).

4. Was something insanely expensive there?

Food in restaurants. I love going to restaurants in the states to try new foods and was expecting to do so here. But unless you want to destroy your wallet, you don’t really go to restaurants.

5. What is surprisingly cheap?

Bread is surprisingly cheap. They eat baguette type bread with everything (you can get it anywhere) and it’s really good. It [costs] as low as 40 euro cents for a loaf of it, which is very filling. That’s less than a dollar.

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You may think that the only way to be beautiful is to be tall and thin, with a perfect smile and shampoo-model hair. But don’t expect that to be the case wherever you go.

Singer and tabloid magnet Jessica Simpson now hosts a new show on vh1 called “The Price of Beauty.” While the show features many over-the-top publicity stunts and has not received many viewers, the basic concept seems good. Simpson and a few of her friends travel around the world to document the tortures and treatments that women endure to fulfill an elusive idea of beauty.

My own quest to discover what other countries consider beautiful led me to a slightly more established source: Oprah. Not only did Oprah host Jessica Simpson for a discussion about beauty earlier this month (read about it here), but she also did a similar show about worldwide beauty in 2008. During both shows, special correspondents like Lisa Ling traveled around the world to see how women from Japan to Norway define and achieve beauty—with everything from leg-lengthening surgeries to tattooing their lips blue.

Some of the most surprising things I read? Japanese women swear by bird dropping facials. And Brazilians outdo Americans in their pursuit of thinness—the country is the biggest consumer of diet pills in the world. Women in Thailand tribes elongate their necks with stacks of brass rings, and girls on a West African island try to get as fat as possible (by eating gallons of high-fat milk) in preparation for marriage. Read more on Oprah’s website, and also watch her exclusive global beauty secrets video.

Suffice it to say, there are as many definitions of beauty as there are cultures and people in the world. It’s especially interesting to hear these definitions from women themselves. Marie Claire magazine runs a monthly column called “What I Love About Me,” which features groups of women, many college-aged, from around the world flaunting their favorite assets. Women from Iceland, Dubai, or Barcelona praise their piercings, scars, and eyebrows. You can even find similar columns featuring women from around the United States.

Take a look around while you’re traveling abroad. You may think that you stick out here in America, but other countries may find your tattoos, curly hair, or long neck to be just right.

Frances Mayes is the author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” a bestselling memoir/cookbook/travel guide about her move from San Francisco, California to Tuscany, Italy in 1996. Her story was made into a 2003 movie featuring Diane Lane, and it inspired a number of her fans to travel or move to Italy.  She is now coming out with a second book this month called “Everyday in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life,” and recently talked about her life in Tuscany with CNN.com (you can read the full interview here).

Since Mayes has lived part-time in Italy for more than a decade, I wondered how her experience of Italy compares with that of a student traveler who is only in the country for a few weeks. My friend Jessica is a junior French & Italian Studies Major, Linguistics Major, and Global Studies Minor and went to Florence, Italy during a three-week study abroad May Session in 2009. I asked her to respond by email to some of the same questions that Mayes answered in her CNN interview. It turns out that Italy, no matter how long you are there, leaves quite an impression.

Q 1: Here in America, people view Tuscany as this magical place. What feeling did you get from it when you were there?

Jessica: As an Italian major, my experiences in Tuscany were surreal. As Mayes says, there is something magical about Italy. The entire country is completely seductive. The language seems to flow like velvety chocolate. When I first arrived in Tuscany, I was blown away by how old the cities are, yet the people are so modern. This doesn’t exist in the United States. In Italy, some of the buildings have been there since the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, and I almost cried knowing I was tripping over the very cobblestones that once paved the streets in the time of Dante and Michelangelo. Every region of Italy has its own culture, its own language, but luckily for me Tuscany is where the Florentine dialect (a.k.a. Standard Italian) is spoken. As the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Tuscans carry a deep-seated sense of pride and belonging for their homeland. This aura made the people even more interesting, and I was mesmerized by their style, gestures, and traditions. I can’t wait to go back!

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The magical and crazy world of Tim Burton’s newest film, “Alice in Wonderland,” was almost entirely computer-generated. Everything from the giant vegetation to the Red Queen’s castle exists only on top of a green screen. Yet there are a number of very real places that would have functioned well as the backdrop of an imaginary world like Wonderland. I chose a few of the most whimsical buildings that you can visit—without falling down a rabbit hole:

Photo courtesy of the "Works of Antoni Gaudi" sector of the World Heritage Collection

1. Pargue Guell. Any list of fanciful buildings would be incomplete without Antoni Gaudi, who built this site in 1914. A winding wall covered with colorful, recycled mosaic tiles surrounds his public park in Barcelona, Spain. The playful nature of the space is accentuated by the tiled dragon that greets visitors at the entrance of the park, as well as by the caretaker’s lodge, which resembles a gingerbread house.

2. St. Basil’s Cathedral. With its Candyland-inspired “onion domes” and central location in Moscow’s Red Square, this building is as much a symbol of Russia as the Eiffel Tower is of France. Legend has it that after Ivan the Terrible commissioned the Cathedral in the 16th century, he blinded its architect so that another equally beautiful structure could not be built elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of the Hundertwasser Non Profit Foundation

3. The Crooked House. Created by Szotynscy Zalesk in 2003, and inspired by a series of fairytale illustrations, this sagging “house” actually contains a number of restaurants and shops. It is located in Sopot, Poland, and has become the most photographed building in the entire country.

4. The Forest Spiral. This curving apartment complex is located in Darmstadt, Germany and was built by Austrian Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 2000. According to the author of the Armchair Travelogue blog, all 105 of the apartment units are accessible by a series of spiraling ramps, instead of stairs or elevators. Its façade is not only made up of eye-catching bands of color, but also features a garden of various trees on its “green roof.”

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If you need to escape from a building abroad, don’t bother looking for a glowing, bright red “Exit” sign. Much like the debate over the metric system and the concern over which side of the road is “correct,” Americans and the rest of the world don’t see eye to eye about their exit signs either.

As Slate Magazine explains in their latest installment of a series about international signs, the American sign has two strikes against it: 1. It’s composed only of words, and 2. It’s red.

Since it’s adoption by the International Organization for Standardization in 1985, most other countries have used a version of Japanese designer Yukio Ota’s green “running man” exit sign, as seen above. The Slate article explains that a recent directive from the European Council, for example, requires that a running man appear on a green background. Advocates say that the green color of the sign implies safety, and that the pictogram can be understood by anyone.

Despite the green running man’s popularity abroad, the National Fire Protection Association (which regulates safety signs in the U.S) says it has no plans to replace the red marker in the near future. NFPA administrator Robert Solomon explains that, “when the NFPA investigates fires, it never encounters circumstances ‘where someone says I didn’t know where the exit was because I didn’t know…what the exit sign was. When they don’t know where the exit is, it’s because there was no signage there whatsoever.’”

While some buildings or institutions in the U.S. are gradually beginning to use green exit signs, Americans shouldn’t expect their familiar red markers to disappear overnight. But student travelers should be ready to remember that, in a foreign country, green means both “go” and “exit.”

I’m not particularly afraid of insects. I can smash a spider with my shoe or flick away a bee without a second thought. But some foreign critters are worthy of worry—even I am not okay with clusters of worms suddenly appearing inches before my face.

This happened to me while I was on a family vacation to an island off of South Carolina. It was only a short walk through picturesque, tree-lined paths to the beach. Yet this short walk required me to struggle through curtains of little green silk worms hanging from the trees by invisible threads. This test of psychological strength was not something the island had advertised.

While South Carolina luckily isn’t exactly a hotbed of poisonous creatures, the same can’t be said of all places. Any list of deadly critters would be incomplete without Australia, which contains some of the most dangerous animals in the world. Those little green worms pale in comparison to the Sydney funnel web spider, for example. The spider contains a lethal dose of venom and can sneak its way into urban areas.

Even pesky mosquitoes can pack a wallop if they are carrying anything from malaria to yellow fever. These tiny terrors are in good company with fleas, ticks, and sand flies, all of which can also cause a variety of sometimes-deadly diseases.

Don’t let information like this and photographs like these dissuade you from going abroad. Just remember to protect yourself with proper vaccinations, research, and common sense.