The Knees Have it…
I was fortunate enough to join the Thailand Winter 2020 program with Wildlands. This program was one out of three that would have worked into my schedule, and it took me a while to decide what program I wanted to apply to.
After I set a plan for financing the trip, I had to consider what type of trip I wanted and what experiences I wanted to gain. Wildlands Studies has a diverse range of programs. Some take students into the Himalayas, others into South Africa and the tropics. All of these environments would have been novel to me, and would have stretched me well beyond my comfort zone. Additionally, most of these programs are as physically rigorous as they are academically rigorous. They take students deep into the ecosystems that they are studying, and that often means intense backpacking over mountains or through jungles. Choosing which trip to apply to requires consideration of both academic and physical factors.
As someone who loves hiking, I am no stranger to tough terrain. Like most Pacific North-westerners, I love charging up a mountain, rain or shine. However, I have the knees of an 85 year old. In considering which program was right for me, I had to be very honest about my physical capabilities. I can handle a few days in a row abusing my joints up a mountain, but a six-week program would be too much. My ability to enjoy myself and immerse myself in the experience would be hindered by my joint issues if I signed on to a program that I was not physically ready for.
And this is something I think students should take a moment to consider. How well suited are you to the trip/program you are considering? I hear a lot about students getting overwhelmed while abroad, be it to culture shock or homesickness, or just due to the inconsistencies between their expectations of the trip and reality. Some of this might be avoided if students spent more time considering what aspects of a program would be too much for them.
I would advise students to look deeply into the programs they are considering and think about what factors might push them too far outside of their comfort zone. Do you want to go on a program where English is still a primary language? How much physical activity are you comfortable with? Are you okay with varying levels of accommodations, sometimes camping, sometimes staying in areas far different from Western standards? How comfortable are you being isolated from other people or from means of contact, no signal or wifi?
These factors may seem trivial to some, but I think they can have a large impact on the level of enjoyment and participation you get from your study abroad experience. The trip becomes less valuable to you if your focus is diverted to how uncomfortable you are.
Personally, I recognized that a six-week backpacking trip was beyond me physically. Thankfully, the Wildlands Thailand program focused much more on swimming/snorkeling as apposed to backpacking. And I would be exposed to some of the highest marine diversity hotspots in the world which would be an enormous gain to my understanding of the world’s ecosystems. This combination of intensity level and study focus was the determining factors in my choice of Wildlands program.
Having decided on joining the Thailand program, I had to research what I was getting myself into.
Sunscreen and Bug Spray
Being from Washington, I am used to mild summers and a gentle sun. I knew I was going to be wholly unaccustomed to the type of heat and humidity that Thailand was going to throw at me.My solution was to buy seven bottles of sunscreen. My pale self was not about to take chances with the equatorial sun.There are some things that travelers should know about skin products in Thailand and Indonesia: many contain skin whitening products, some safer for the body than others. Thankfully, a co-worker told me this before my trip and I was able to stock up on products before leaving. Some students opted to wait to buy things like sunscreen or bug spray until they were in-country to avoid carrying them through the airport which does save on space while packing. However, options can be limited, especially if you are in a more remote location and likely will contain these skin-whitening agents. Also, if you have any kind of skin sensitivity or allergies to product ingredients, your options might be further limited. For me, it was easier to buy skin products in the states to avoid the hassle of finding what I needed in various 7-Eleven’s (7-Elevens in other countries are much nicer than in the states, have the absolute BEST air conditioning, and are as plentiful as Starbucks are in Seattle).
Another thing-if you are planning to go snorkeling around coral reefs, please consider reef-safe sunscreen. Ingredients in typical sunscreens like oxybenzone and octinoxate have been shown to damage the growth of coral and may actually increase the risk of coral bleaching. Here is a site with more in-depth information on the impact of sunscreen on coral reefs and reef-safe alternatives. An important take away from this discussion is that sunscreen in large quantities, whether labeled reef-safe or not, is bad for reefs. Instead, sun protective clothing greatly reduces the amount of sunscreen needed and it is more effective while swimming since you don’t have to reapply. Also, its so helpful to have when swimming through sea-wasps. These little creatures are as horrible as they sound. You cannot see them, but they are little stinging organisms that find spend their time floating in the sea, waiting to sting poor, unawares snorkelers. If you are not wearing a rash guard and swim into a swarm of them, it is a miserable experience. One of my group members had a full-length rash guard and leggings she wore every time we went snorkeling. I didn’t realize they made swim leggings, so I thought it was a little silly at first. That was until I scorched the back of my legs from hip to heel. Friends, let me tell you, no amount of aloe will make sitting in sand with a burn comfortable. Given the chance to pack for the trip again, I would have gladly bought the leggings and rash guard. In fact, I would have bought two rash guards considering a monkey stole my only one halfway through the trip.
I had never used buy spray until this trip. I don’t know if I just smell extremely unappealing to mosquitoes, or if they are tame in Washington, but I usually make it through the mosquito season unfazed. However, the mosquitoes in the tropics are of a different breed. These pests are determined and resourceful. Your low-concentration DEET will mean nothing to them. In fact, I think they like a challenge. I was under prepared for the bugs on this trip, and I would recommend mid to high strength bug spray to preserve your sanity. However, there is nothing you can do about the flies. One night, as my mental state deteriorated with every fly that landed on me, I watched as they crawled over the citronella insect repellent bottle, obviously undeterred. If you have a mosquito net, bring it for your mental health.
Do You Even Lift?
Armed with enough sunscreen to coat every individual on the program, I turned my attention to packing for the rest of the trip.
Having never been to the tropics, I had no idea what I would need. Thankfully, Wildlands if a very thorough program. About a month and a half before the trip all of the students were sent a packet of information including the trip logistics, the academic syllabus, and a packing list.
The packing list included items deemed necessary by the program leader as well as student recommendations on items that might be helpful but are not required. I would recommend living by this list and avoid bringing anything extra. I understand the urge to over-pack. You want to throw extra cloths in the backpack or bring all of your hiking gear and tech. Do not do this to yourself. As soon as you spend an hour at the airport lugging your belongings around through lines, you start to imagine tossing these things into the nearest trash bin.
I ended up over packing on toiletries which are fairly easy to pick up in country (besides sunscreen) and I chose to use a duffel over a backpack. This was a mistake. I underestimated the amount of time I would spend transporting my belongings and how committed I was going to be at keeping my bag organized. My duffel had less space that a backpack, especially once I riffled through it a few times. It was also much less convenient to carry for long periods of time. Backpacks distribute weight over your back and hips. My duffel, however, dropped all 30 lbs onto one of my shoulders. Between carrying the bag through airports, up bungalow and ferry steps, and to waiting trucks, my right bicep is clearly more defined than my left. Folks, use a backpack!
Prepare For Takeoff.
Packing aside, I was very nervous the week before leaving for the trip. Having never been out of the country or even on an airplane, I was about to jump into a whole world of unknown experiences. I was worried that the trip would not meet my expectations or that it wasn’t going to be worth all of the effort I had put in to go. This of course was just anxiety, not my true feelings towards the upcoming experience, but it got a bit overwhelming thinking about all of the firsts I was about to tackle.
For future students who might find their excitement overshadowed by anxiety, I would recommend focusing on the aspects which led you to apply for your abroad program in the first place. What got you excited to go? What are you looking forward to the most? What are you hoping to learn?
I had to keep reminding myself of my expectations for the trip-the cultural exposure, the opportunity to learn in a wildly diverse ecosystem, the food! I had a very supportive network of people who also helped to remind me of why I got involved in study abroad. They provided the encouragement I needed to keep on top of packing and prepping.
One thing I kept reminding myself whenever I started to doubt the trip was how disappointed in myself I would be if I backed out. If I let my nervousness stop me from going, I knew I would be kicking myself after graduation for years. Saving myself from future regret may not sound like the most positive means of motivation, but you have to use what works for you.
Packing finished and mindset focused, I was ready to start my adventure.