Don’t Fear A Visit To Myanmar

**Sadly, due to recent events, I’m adding this note and suspending the series before completing Part III. In October and November 2016, an increase in violence in the northern regions has led to a number of village burnings and significant loss of life. As a result, I encourage anyone considering a visit to research events and the current status before making any decisions. For the time being, it looks like many of the recent gains made are being eroded.**

Despite hearing glowing stories about visits to Myanmar (formerly called Burma) from friends, it was with some trepidation and a significant sense of adventure that I booked the ticket for my brother and I from Copenhagen to Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Most articles about Myanmar right now either focus on the drug trade/Golden Triangle, armed conflict in several of the remote regions, or gush about the importance of, “visiting Myanmar before it’s ruined”.

Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be dangerous? Was it going to be massively under-developed? Was there any tourist infrastructure at all? Would the visa process be a nightmare? Would we need armed guards to guide us around the country or military minders ala North Korea? Were food poisoning and feces stained walls surrounding filthy squattypotties lurking around every corner?

Inle Lake - Myanmar - Alex Berger

As usual, it was ignorant pigswill.

Myanmar is spectacular and the sooner you can visit the better.  The people are wonderful. The tourist circle; Yangon to Bagan to Mandalay to Inle Lake and back to Yangon could not be safer. The food is decent. The culture is vibrant. The tourist infrastructure is rapidly evolving (perhaps too rapidly). Getting around isn’t difficult.  It’s relatively affordable. The historical, natural and cultural beauty is spectacular.

Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!

Puerto de Iguazu, Toucans and an Animal Rehabilitation in Argentina

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

After a delightful evening filled with relaxation, socialization and an absolutely delicious Argentinian steak it was time to decide what my second full day in Puerto de Iguazu would consist of. I debated a return to the falls and explored my options for a quick visit to he Brazilian side. There is a $140 visa fee for entrance into Brazil, in addition to a 1-2 day wait. Both unwilling to spend the $140 for a 1 day visit and lacking the time to wait for the visa I explored rumors that it was possible to visit the Brazilian side of the falls without a visa if you took an organized tour.

Unfortunately, as with most travel rumors they turned out to not only be false, but led to a short conversation with a very annoyed tour salesman. Unwilling to experiment with the second option I’d heard mentioned – trying to sneak or bribe my way across – I turned my attentions towards other options. There was the usual zipline option which didn’t strike me as overly appealing or cost effective and waterfall/cliff repelling adventure tour which looked interesting but was sold out. Frustrated by my limited options I asked the front desk girl for suggestions – her response? The animal rescue located just outside of town.

Monkey in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

With my interest piqued I quickly looked through the brochure, asked a few questions and then prepared to catch one of the local buses out of town. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was eager to see local wild life above and beyond the butterflies, coati, large lizards, cows and horses I’d encountered so far. After all, what’s the value of a trip to the jungle if you don’t see at least one Monkey or Toucan?

Bid in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

The Guira Oga Center is located a few minutes outside of Puerto de Iguazu and stretches across a large, sprawling green area of mixed jungle, raised boardwalks, small buildings, rookeries and spacious cages. I paid my $30AR (about $7 USD) and settle into a chair near a lazy cat content to lounge by the gift shop and completely oblivious to anything occurring around him. Before long another tourist showed up and shortly after that a large tractor rumbled out of the jungle. The tractor had a decent sized open air trailer behind it which was ideal for a tour and reminded me of adventurous trips to the pumpkin patch as a kid.

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

As the tractor wound back through the jungle our guide explained a bit about the Bird Rehabilitation center and how it had also added several mammals. He talked about the approach they take, where their animals come from, and which they’re able to re-introduce into the wild. He informed us that the tour would include visits to Coatis, Toco Toucans, Guans, Turquoise-fronted Parrots, White-eyed Parakeets, Scaly-headed Parrots, Macaws, general small and medium sized birds, Plumbeous Kites, Peregrine falcons, Hawks, Stygian Owls, Barn Owls, Tropical Screech Owls, several monkeys and an alligator.

Tucan in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

The birds were an incredible mixture of vibrant and muted colors, large birds, small birds, vocal birds and silent birds. Some were capable of flight and others mirrored modern domestic chickens preferring quick hops and glides over long-duration flights. The cages were mostly open wire with raised wooden boardwalks running beside them – each isolated by vines and swaths of jungle like small bungalows at a fine resort. Our guide was careful to pause periodically to remind us to watch our fingers and to keep them out of the cages.

Owl in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

At one point we paused outside of large windows which offered a view into the incubator rooms where they’re protecting, and hatching some of the rarer and more endangered inhabitants offspring. Some will go to Zoos and similar places, but most will be groomed for introduction into the wild. In addition to the incubators there were also other areas where food was being raised and bread for the carnivorous birds.

Eagle in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

Some of the most impressive birds at the rescue were the eagles and falcons. Several were tied up on perches in an open area where they were able to stretch their wings, screech loudly, and stare at us with inquisitive eyes. The main eagles were truly massive. The size of a medium-sized dog, their wingspans were massive and they dwarfed their handlers as they carried them in and out of the common space.

Eagle in Animal Refuge - Iguazu, Argentina

As we wound our way towards the end of the tour we paused at a small construction area where the guide informed us that they were building an enclosure for several big cats (jaguars or leopards I can’t recall). So, if you get the chance to visit sometime soon, there’s a good chance there will be a lot more to see than beautiful birds and gorgeous butterflies.

Guira Oga Center was an absolute delight to visit.  What they’re doing there is fantastic.  The birds were gorgeous and the way the facility is laid out and the tour is given is delightful.  If you find yourself with a spare hour or two in Puerto Iguazu, definitely don’t miss it.

Like the photos in this post? They were shot on a Canon G11, check out the Canon G12 now on Amazon.