The Fifth Week of Adventures in Paradise

As my time at CEI nears it’s end, I can’t help but feel quite sentimental about it. I only have one more week of waking up and seeing the ocean as I open my eyes. Only one more week of being able to see the most astonishing things I have ever seen. Never before in my life have I been so immersed in adventure.

I also got a special opportunity this week. This Tuesda,y the stingray team took a subset of CEI’s Bahamian staff out to catch rays. This is a particularly extraordinary opportunity because it not only gives the ray team a chance to collect data, but it gives the staff a unique research-oriented experience.

Rays were around the Schooner Keys, a beautiful set of very small islands just offshore of campus, as well as in Deep Creek, an intertidal creek system located not far from CEI. Surprisingly, almost none of the staff had ever been to the keys, despite their geographical proximity. Catching rays was an incredible introduction into the world of research, since the capture process is incredibly active and exciting. To catch a ray, the staff, along with CEI’s stingray interns and researchers rode around on boats or trudged through the water looking for rays. When one was spotted, the team would surround the ray as fast as possible, being careful not to let it get through the circle. Once the ray was herded into a giant net, it was scooped out with a smaller net and led to shallow water to be measured and tagged. The ray’s barb was secured, and the staff got a chance to feel and to interact with the ray, as well as to  measure and tag it. Throughout the day, we caught two southern stingrays (D. americana) and two Caribbean whiptail (H. schmardae) stingrays.

The capture and tagging of these rays is invaluable to the research being done at CEI because each ray caught is data towards the hypothesis that there is significant habitat separation between the two stingray species mentioned above. The four rays we caught contribute to this hypothesis. The two Caribbean whiptails were caught in Deep Creek, while the southerns were caught on the small offshore Schooner Keys.

Stingrays were a particularly special species to be able to research because all too often they are associated with an unfortunate stigma of fear and are a vastly under-researched creature. As meso-predators, and under their role as habitat engineers, they’re importance in an ecosystem cannot be understated. One day in the field with the stingray team at CEI and that fear had dissipated and was replaced with loads of curiosities and questions.

Science is, at it’s core, the exploration of curiosities. By providing an opportunity for the staff to get out in the field, curiosities were both created and satisfied.

In my final week at CEI, I am excited to continue field work, strengthen the relationships I’ve made so they’ll last after we all part to our respective homes, and to continue to be as adventurous as possible!



EI Purpan summer program – the internship


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After studying in Toulouse for a month, most of us students in EI Purpan were packed and shipped to our individual internship locations for another month of practical work. Being in the viticulture & enology program, we were matched to wine-related facilities, most commonly vineyards. In my case, my internship location was a chai, a vineyard, as well as a pépenière. north of Bordeaux, in a small village called Générac. Wines produced here belong to the côtes-de-blaye or the blaye-côtes-de-bordeaux appellation, part of the appellations system of Bordeaux. The vineyard is large compared to most and fully mechanized, but the pépenière relies on manual labor, so that was where I worked most of the time. Later when it became too hot to work in greenhouses we went to the chai (the brewing and labeling facility) to label bottles from previous years. In the two greenhouses, I worked with the host madame’s niece to sort through grafted vines based on their sizes and health, picked away off shoots growing from the root stem, watered them and loaded the plants onto vans. The greenhouses are full of interesting critters like orange slugs, toads, and once we saw a green salamander.

Everyday my work starts at 8 am, at noon we have lunch and siesta, then resume back to work from 2 pm to 5 or 6 pm depending on how much work is to be done on that day. For every meal (breakfast excluded) it was usually the madame, her husband and me at the table, sometimes a relative or two would come over for lunch; no mater how many people ate together, the food was always brought out in courses: aperitif, starters (usually melons, pretzel snacks, or a slice or country ham), main course, salad (which became synonymous with lettuce), cheeses and dessert. I liked how it is mandatory to “make the table” before the start of every meal — having the plate, silverware, water glass, napkin all ready to use really makes eating a more serious business. There are certain patterns in foods too. For example, every Saturday the couple’s youngest daughter comes over to make steak and fries, every Sunday is a family gathering of 10 people or more.

While interning here, the madame and her in-law’s family showed nothing but hospitality and inclusion. Together we went to the Citadel of Blaye, Saint-Emilion (a famed Bordeaux wine producing region and appellation), Plassac at the bank of the Gironde river with its historical buildings and yellow stone houses, we also biked to a lake and watched the music festival there; one Saturday the in-law broke out her horse riding gadgets and let me ride with their ponies.

On the 14th of July, instead of going to the jumping show at the Citadel with the family, I asked for a day-off on Friday and went hiking in Cantal. Le Cantal is known for its mountain range and great cheeses, and soon after I told them my plan the madame and the in-law’s family decided to join me as well — the hike later turned into a family road-trip in a snuggly camping car.

I can only be grateful for the good hearts of these hard-working people, knowing how many different jobs it involves to make a bottle of wine, and understanding what family unity means to the château, when every child who comes to visit, 35 or 20 years old, would help out in the greenhouses or the chai.

Jamaica, Uncategorized

Jamaican Me Crazy, Oakley Whalen, Winter Break 2017

IMG_1401Even after I had arrived in Jamaica, it still felt completely and utterly surreal. I had never been to another country so studying abroad in Jamaica was a whole new ball park for me. I had no idea what to expect! When we first arrived I was stunned by the beauty of it all. I kept having to pinch myself. I knew instantly that I was going to love it.

On our first full day of the trip we went to the University of the West Indies Mona campus that was in Jamaica. We learned about the history of the beautiful campus and saw the training field that Jamaica’s own Usain Bolt trains on! The most interesting part of UWI for me, was learning about student life compared to student life here at U of I. At UWI they were similar to us in the fact that they also have a lot of different clubs and extra curricular activities to take part in.One thing that did differ between UWI and U of I is that UWI does not have sorority and fraternities like we do here, instead they stay in residence halls and become loyal to their halls. Each hall has colors and competes in sports just like our greek life here does. It was so intriguing to learn all about it.

Another cultural thing that I found astounding, is that in Jamaica, since a large fraction of people do not attend college, people’s “alma mater’s” are their high schools, not where they attend college. This is very different from American culture, because I personally feel that people have more pride for their college than for their high school. I was excited, nervous, and eager to learn about all Jamaica had to offer.


La Vida Española – Granada Spring 2017 pt 2

As I approach the halfway point to my semester abroad I thought it would be fitting to write about the different places I have traveled to so far.  Being in Europe definitely has its benefits with having very easy access to a lot of different destinations.  In the past two months I have traveled to ten different cities in six different countries.

The first month I stayed in Spain got to explore Granada, Madrid and Ibiza!  I am so in love with my host city of Granada.  It is not as well known or as big of a city as Barcelona or Madrid but it has a lot of character being in southern Spain.  I was pleasantly surprised about the large Mediterranean influence in this part of Spain.  To be honest I never considered Spain a Mediterranean country until now having actually experienced the lifestyle.  I love the food, the people, and the culture.  Needless to say that traveling up to Madrid for a weekend was a very different experience.  I was interesting to see how similar it was to big cities in the United States.  The Americanization in Spain was also evident as you could walk down the main streets and see companies like Burger King, the Apple Store, and others.  I think a lot of big cities in Europe are similar with the current situation of globalization.  I had a completely different experience in Ibiza, where our AirBnB was in more of a residential area and the trip had more of an island and vacation feel.  With a much more relaxed and calm atmosphere it was a great weekend away in the first few weeks where we were able to cook our own food and watch movies in English.  Its the little things that you don’t realize that you will miss when you study abroad.  I’ve quickly learned that it is important to take time for yourself every now and then so you don’t become too overwhelmed with the new environment you’re living in.  This can also help with the homesickness.

After a month in Spain I felt it was due time to start seeing the rest of Europe.   My first real trip was one that I had been planning for a while to France for a friend on my program’s birthday.  We went to Bordeaux first to visit La Cité du Vin, which is an interactive museum dedicated solely to wine.  For the other half of the weekend we went to Paris which was amazing.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed France because before coming to Europe I didn’t have a great desire to travel to France, I think mostly because I don’t understand the language.  But I had a great experience and it was definitely one of my favorite trips.

The next weekend I traveled to Rome, Italy which was also amazing.  Getting to see such iconic landmarks like the colosseum and going to the Vatican was unreal.  Also the food in Italy was unbelievable.  I learned that I actually like mushrooms while in Rome from trying my friend’s dinner.  I think that is one of the best parts of traveling is getting to try new things and discovering new parts of yourself.

The next week was our first course break so I traveled to the United Kingdom and Ireland.  The first stop was Manchester, England.  My younger brother is a very big soccer fan and watching soccer is something that my family always does together, so getting to tour the Manchester United stadium was a very cool experience for me.  The next stop was Edinburgh, Scotland which was probably my favorite from this trip.  I have to say that I was not expecting much from Scotland and that it definitely surprised me how much fun we had there.  There were lots of sights to see, but my favorite was climbing Arthur’s Seat which is a large hill on the outskirts of the city that gives you an amazing view of the city.  The last stop on the trip was Dublin, Ireland which was a lot of fun.  My favorite part of going to Ireland was taking a bus tour out to the Cliffs of Moher which were absolutely breathtaking.  That was definitely another moment where I realized how lucky I was to have this opportunity to travel around Europe.

As much as I have loved traveling these past few months I am glad to be able to stay in Granada this weekend to really enjoy time in my host city.  I think that sometimes, especially in Europe, students can get too caught up in wanting to travel everywhere and don’t really spend a lot of time experiencing all that their host city has to offer.  This being my first time in Europe I understand wanting to travel a lot, and I have certainly done my fair share of traveling these past two months, but it is important to find a good balance with this.

Overall, I am so grateful for this opportunity to get to see the world through studying abroad and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering it at UIUC.

Kelsey Wahlgren


South Africa

South Africa- Andrew Rice

When I got off the airplane and stepped onto the bus that was going to take us to our new home for the next three weeks I was in bewilderment of the scenery that was put before me. Nothing that I have ever seen in my life looked so nice. Driving on the left side of the road was one of the many things that I grew accustomed too over my three weeks abroad. The next day we woke up and got introduced to all the people that will be helping us over the course and I have never been more welcomed to a foreign area. I had no clue what to think about this country that I had just got too, but I was soon to find out just how amazing South Africa is.

Our very first week in South Africa was a week of non-stop tourism and being able to see the beautiful country. One of the very first things we did, to get to know each other, was to go to a braai (picnic) at Ivy’s, who is one of Jan’s good friends. When we were at Ivy’s was when I first got my cultural shock in South Africa. We had a traditional meal of cooked beef and lamb, spinach, corn, and white flour dish. We ate all this in a little bowl with our hands and drank luke-warm water but I wouldn’t change that for anything because I would never have had that if I didn’t go over to South Africa. After we got done eating we blocked off a road and had a small dance circle. We showed them how we danced, and they showed us how they danced and it was quite amazing to see all the different cultures. After we got done dancing for two hours we got back on the bus and went back to our house.

I loved every part of this trip so much and wish every single person got the chance that I got to see one of the most amazing places that I have ever been to. The best part about the trip is how it affected my life. All the way from the small stuff like how much I missed iced drinks and how they aren’t a thing over in South Africa because it is so expensive to make ice, or even how I noticed how big carpooling is over in South Africa because they can’t afford a car and really want to save on carbon emissions. This shows me that we need to do more of this over in the States just so that we can be more like South Africa. I know from going on this trip, I will always keep apart of South Africa with me so that then I can give the story of the people over in South Africa that I experienced. From getting accustomed to the people of South Africa, I learned that you need to value more of the important people in your life and the basic needs in your life that you must have instead of valuing the wants you have in your life. South Africa is a place where you can find yourself while seeing the world and I can’t wait to go back to this beautiful city.

-Andrew Rice



Morocco, College, and Religion

January 6, 2017

Even though this was a horticulture trip, the cool part was that we learned many more of Morocco’s identities, like its religion and educational systems. We visited Al Akhawayn University. On the way to the university, we visited an apple farm where we learned the importance of how the crop is grown to have optimal success. Once at the university, we met a U of I alum, Naim, who currently works at Al Akhawayn University. We learned about the the difference between school systems using the traditional Moroccan system and schools that use the American system and how economics plays a major role in which school students can attend. Al Akhawayn University was made, because it was desired to clean up the community and the king at that time wanted to make a school using the American system. The American name of Al Akhawayn means Two Brothers. Students that want to attend this university have to submit their high school records, portfolio, entrance exam, and get an interview. To graduate, seniors must complete a capstone project incorporating their knowledge gained throughout their years at the university. Students also have to do an internship for two months and complete 60 hours of community service working with people in underserved communities before they graduate.

While at the university, we visited their mosque. This was a very unique experience for me, because my knowledge about Muslim religion is very slim and I had never visited a mosque. As we entered with our shoes off and our minds open, I was astonished by the intricate designs of the mosque which included cedar carvings and Jewish designed chandeliers. It was beautiful and so peaceful! Naim and Mosbah (or faculty leader) gave us a miniature insught into how services are held and answered all of our questions regarding Muslim religion and services. We discussed topics ranging from how students at the university lead prayer sessions to the extensive training required to be recognized as a scholar and religious leader to how Osama Bin Laden helped create a false an image of Islamic culture and beliefs. The conversation wrapped up with discussing the relationship between Islam and Catholicism and how Moses, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary are highly respected in the Quran. I found so much value in learning about the Muslim religion, contextual history, and found myself having a desire to learn more about the religion.

Since Morocco is a Muslim country, it is important to discuss religion and how it has had an impact on the country. I truly appreciated Naim and Mosbah being willing to share their experiences and their religious house of worship with us. Even though religious views may vary from person to person, I believe everyone on the trip gained new knowledge, respect, and perspective on the Muslim religion.





Fun in the Sahara Desert in Morocco

January 16, 2017

As we pulled up to a hotel in the middle of the desert, we saw camels lined up outside along with the guides. It was so exciting seeing our camels all lined up waiting for us. Riding the camels were definitely not what I expected. As the camel raised from the ground, it felt like I was rising to the sky and I was going to fall off (which did not happen). It was a long way down, but hopefully the sand would cushion my fall was what I thought to myself. The camel ride was not as comfortable as it seemed, and this made me wonder if people that use camels for transportation experience similar discomfort. Once we arrived at our destination, we climbed sand-domes and on the other side of the sand dunes awaited a night that we would never forget. We danced the night away with Berber men, enjoyed their Berber music, ate well, and watched the sunrise and sunset in the Sahara. On the ride back to the hotel, I tried to talk to the two men that were guiding us. Turns out they were in my age group. One man was 20 and the other one was 22. I asked them some questions but sometimes they could not understand what I was asking due to the language barrier. One question I asked was had they ever left Morocco, and their answer was no. They have the desire to, but cannot afford it. In that moment, like many times in this trip, I realized my privilege. I wish I could have talked to them more, but it was difficult since I did not speak Arabic or French. This was a great learning experience that a classroom could not teach us. Camel rides make beautiful pictures too!


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Costa Rica

VIDA Pre-Vet Costa Rica 2017 – Haley Evans

At the beginning of the year, I had the amazing opportunity to travel abroad to Costa Rica where I helped assist local veterinarians with spaying/castrating dogs and cats. Going into this trip, I had no expectations. New country, new culture, new experiences. I would make the most of it. Being hands on with every patient, assisting with surgery, and monitoring the anesthesia was incredibly rewarding. It allowed all of us to get a taste of what life was like for a vet. Learning new skills, both technical and social, was the theme for this trip. Everything we did required effective communication. By the end of the tour, we were more in sync with how surgeries and consultations went. I can honestly say my decision to take the vet career path was the right one for me. This tour fueled the spark that keeps me moving forward, closer to my goal. There’s a common phrase that is said in Costa Rica: Pura Vida. It means pure life; I took this to heart. Live life in the moment and appreciate what you have while acknowledging what you do not. And work your butt off for what you want.


Haley Evans


Dominican Republic

Santiago, Dominican Republic- Abigayle Steffes, January 2017

After spending a few days in the capital of the Dominican Republic, my class ventured two hours away to Santiago. Within hours of being in this city, I fell in love with it. With endless music and dancing, the city of Santiago never sleeps. I had no expectations of redefining who I was, but this city changed me.

Our first night in the new city was spent in the mountains at an ecotourism site called Jarabacoa. From waterfalls to smokey mountains, the scenery was one that took my breath away many times. At Jarabacoa, we bonded with six of the Universidad ISA students. They taught us Merengue and Bachata. In exchange, we taught them how to line dance and swing dance. These cultural exchanges made me rethink some of our American values and truly opened my eyes to what I was experiencing. Jarabacoa was the highlight of my study abroad trip because I bonded with American and Dominican students, and made some of the best friends.

Another meaningful aspect of my time in Santiago was when we visited a Batey. A Batey Libertad is a rice growing area, where many of the workers live in the community across the street. Eventually, the community converted to sugar cane production that issued work visas for Haitians. These communities are typically poor, and the people often don’t leave the community to seek higher paying work.

From the moment we stepped off the bus, the children welcomed us. They held our hands and would not let go. As we toured their community, I opened my eyes to just how much we have in the United States. We have running water, electricity, and homes with more than one room. However, what we lack is the pure happiness and love for basic things. I noticed that even the company of new people brought an insane amount of happiness to the children we were blessed to meet.

There was one kid in particular that touched my heart. His name was Macero. Macero insisted on braiding my hair and teaching me games, such as handshakes that have corresponding songs. I could see pure joy in his eyes as we interacted. While we Americans may have more luxuries, the Batey community absolutely had more love and fulfillment in their lives because they were not caught up in material items, or living life based on the amount of time you have.

ACES 298: Discovering Systems of the Caribbean taught me more than just agriculture systems. I learned about a different way of life, gained new perspectives and discovered myself. #imagineACES