International & Off-Campus Studies
These winning literary pieces were done by St. Olaf College students who studied off-campus on Domestic and International programs during: Semester II and Yearlong - 2000-2001; Semester I and Semester I/Interim - 2001-2002 and January Interim - 2002.
We hope you enjoy these literary works. We thank the winners for sharing a glimpse of their Off- Campus experience.
Top Award Entries:
Nellie Rainwater '02 (University of Aberdeen) "Grey Silver" - Aberdeen, Scotland
Lindsay Mack '02 (Global Semester) "Our Room at the ECC" - Whitefield, India
Lindasy Mack '02 (Global Semester) "Eyptian Man" - Cairo, Egypt
I wake up very early Sunday morning with the music of cawing roosters. I am in the moments of awkwardness around strangers of family. My movements are still cautious, my tongue hesitant. It is the first morning of my host family stay.
Khun Mae cooks me rice and fried vegetables. I am the only member of the household to eat breakfast. I realize that I am obviously at the extreme of guest status.
Khun Pa, Khun Mae, Dao and I load into the car. We are going to "make merits." I have heard this word before. It is when someone gives food to the monks, an offering to their ancestors, or visits the temples to worship Buddha. Still, I am not sure what to expect and am not comfortable to ask too many questions. I perceive that making merit to Buddha is a personal experience and I don't want to offend my newfound family.
We stop in front of a white apartment-looking building on a back-alley street. It looks nothing like the beautiful temple I had envisioned arriving at. We ritually take off our shoes before entering the building and ascend to the third floor. Khun Pa opens the door, which reveals a fairly large room. On the opposite wall a large golden sitting Buddha is enthroned. Around him are gathered an elaborate collection of smaller Buddhas, Bhodisattvas, flowers, fruit, candles, incense, and photos. The remaining walls are bare and white, drawing our attention to the colorful array before us.
The four of us kneel in front of the Buddha. Khun Pa, Kun Mae, and Dao bow three times, palms in a wai and then flat on the floor. I sit nervously, yet strangely peacefully, unsure of what to do. Khun Mae leans over to me and explains that the man next to us is a fortune-teller who possesses special powers; he can see the future. We patiently wait our turn to speak to him. My feet and knees hurt from the hard surface of the floor. I try not to change positions too many times to avoid distracting anyone. It is finally our turn. Khun Pa crawls over to speak to the fortune-teller, waing before him three times. The fortune-teller begins to meditate. We continue to sit silently, stilly. The knobs on my body continue to aggravate me. I try to meditate, too, to move my mind away from the physical discomfort.
The fortune-teller speaks to Khun Pa again. He holds the gold Buddha figure that Khun Pa offered, places it on the altar and ties a white string around it. My eye follows the path of the string and I see that it winds through many more objects sitting before the Buddha. The fortune-teller also takes Khun Pa's candles, incense, and jasmine leis and arranges them into a make-shift altar. He begins a long series of cants. At times he stops, then continues after a moment of silence. Through the open windows come loud rhythms of the rock and roll music blaring next door.
When the fortune-teller is finished, he turns to us with a small straw broom in hand. He dips it in a gold pot of water, and flicks the water upon us while chanting. Khun Pa takes out a pen and piece of paper as the fortune-teller begins to speak to him.
We are apparently done when a woman brings in a tray carrying five glasses of water. She offers the drink to us and we accept. The fortune-teller now acknowledges the "farang" with Khun Pa. I hear Khun Pa explain that I am a student from America now studying at CMU. The fortune-teller smiles at me and then says farewell to my family as we get up to leave.
Later in the day, we stop at the market. Khun Mae explains that we need to buy fish to release in the river. "For good luck," she says with a grin. I again, don't ask questions. I am learning that sometimes you just do things and that in this family I will probably not know what we are going to do until it happens. We search the market for the right fish. Khun Pa chooses two live fish. Instead of walking back to the car, Khun Pa begins walking long the highway. Again, I refrain from asking where we are going, what we are doing, and follow my family.
We follow Khun Pa to a bridge on the super highway and then carefully climb through the weeds creeping from beneath the bridge. Underneath, a small stream of molasses-colored water trickles into a larger, algae covered pond. Within the cement poles of the highway-bridge, I see the evidence of home: a cardboard box, tattered blanket, and a few cooking utensils. Khun Pa squats before the water. He releases the fish from the plastic bag and taps it in the water a bit as it breaths freely again. He then lights a small yellow candle and holds it close to his forehead, kneeling next to the place where he released the fish. His eyes are closed, but his lips move in rhythm with silent words. Dao, Khun Ma, and I look on. He cradles the candle in a pile of rocks, still lit, and walks back to the car.
We drive home after that and I presume the merit making is done for the day. Khun Pa had apparently completed the fortune-teller's prescription. I'm not sure what the fortune-teller revealed to Khun Pa or what Khun Pa needed good luck for, but somehow it didn't matter. Somehow, for me, this day of merit making provided a ceremony of new beginnings.
Jessica Knutson '02
Term in Asia
First day in my host family stay. Chiang Mai, Thailand
I was sitting in a bus, alone except for the driver
who suddenly leaned back, shortly before my stop, and told me, Yi know,
yi really should ride on the top level of the bus to see the granite
more clearly. For the buildings can be grey or silver,
depending how yi look at it.
He must have noticed the way I clutched at my travel book, peering into it as though it
were some holy scripture offering me wisdom and truth I had previously been denied
The part I liked most was: One detests Aberdeen with the detestation of a thwarted lover.
It made me smile, and I smiled too at the bus driver. It was not till later that I knew Lewis
Grassic had not done me justice in preparation. He did not tell me this one thing, which should have heard long before I landed in this place:
You are an American.
Well, he was Scottish himself, so why would he tell me But the guidebook, you see, was supposed to help. A guidebook guides. And I was lost.
I had never been American until I left America.
And now I was American.
Oh. I am American.
I'll have to think about that. I'm not sure I like it.
I got out of that bus to discover my flat, and in a week became an alcoholic, it seems, drinking whisky for dinner in a nearby pub.
Ehm, well, ehm (I could do the accent.) Do you think that's Filthy McNasty on the
wall? Or Sir Walter Scott perhaps? My Canadian friends laughed,
But there was this one bloke with a cap standing nearby, and I saw him turn around and
think to himself-
I could read this thought now-
Oh, you must be American.
It had become a dirty word, and I needed to breathe quietly.
I knew my voice was tainted with a history of disintegration.
Smoothly, smoothly now - This is the country of the oppressed,
Remember. Remember, I came here for a reason,
I told a friend from home, while shivering in a phone booth.
What reason? To free the sheep:
No! A woman has a cosmic connection with these lands. I wanted to yell to Scotland,
Embrace my gender if not myself! Misel
is too small for all of this.
It is just a voice.
I am just a voice.
But I know it is more, the same way that I know that the bay by my flat is not for
Swimming. That is the North Sea out there, and the only people who dip their feet in that
water are not from around here.
I knew that it is more because once
when I was walking through this city,
thinking that it welcomes from the outside in, I saw the flag,Our flag: our stars, our stripes
and I felt
what you're supposed to feel, I suppose,
not proud, but homesick,
We know there's something grand about being the dissenters, the adventurers,
claiming justice and wholeness for
But we have done too many things wrong for me to stand on foreign soil, with a badge
and a smile.
Seeing from here.
I can't see from there anymore,
My vision begins from two points that become blurred.
Now I know what it means to be American.
The driver was right. When it is night, in the rain,
and I am stairs above the rest of the passengers,
riding up and down the narrow cobblestone streets,
almost touching cottage windows, I feel it glisten.
I see the specks of precious metal in every inch of stone.
An when it is day and the sun feels shy, it is grey and cold.
Nellie Rainwater '02
University of Aberdeen II
When I first arrived in Aberdeen, I became hyper-aware of my national identity. I felt uncomfortable and questioned my own lack of perspective. I began to realize America is not the world
Our Room at the ECC
One particular October, I stumbled, exhausted, out of Mumbai and into a place that caught me off guard and braced me with sudden healing. It had been a month I would never forget and I was agitated, disordered, and bewildered. All around me, people had passed smiling, singing, "Shanti, Shanti," until I paused and looked with tired eyes at the reality before me. My pulse grew louder drowning out the traffic, the chatter, the animals, and staring until all I saw or smelled or heard was the blue-gray sludge of garbage sliding through mud rivets in the street and a child with no legs dragging himself through the people pleading. I wanted to turn away and hide my pity for the girl sitting on the side of a cart with large, vacant eyes absently hitting a goat with a stick. I wanted to fade away as I squinted my eyes through hot tears watching the men with chapped hands washing laundry in the blaring sun. Surrounded by people, I was bewildered by their laughter and shouting, persistence and curiosity: tapping my water bottle, pulling my skirt, asking for something. And the sweat slid down my neck and the backs of my legs, like tears, of all I was seeing. I had been pushed to the brink of everything rational and sensible and something in me was growing increasingly homesick, craving gentleness and consistency. At the last, I sensed something familiar and I found myself in a cool, quiet space where outside it rained and rained, the first soaking rain in two months.
When we finally arrived, we stood silent and spent while they told us that we would have temporary double rooms until our single rooms were ready. The evening air smelled clean and the night was still and embracing. It was as if after all I could bear, and all I could handle, some comfortable, experienced, capable old woman had taken me in her arms, and was rocking me whispering "shhh" while I stared blankly, trying to find my balance, trying to collect my vulnerability that had somehow leaked all over the floor.
Pants and I walked into our room. There were two wooden beds pushed L-shaped into the corner and a tall shelf built into the wall. Next to the door was a plain desk with a chair, and above one of the beds was a window with an elaborate iron lattice grate that I later determined was to keep the monkeys out. We slid our bags to the cement floor and flipped on the light. Something ran towards my bag and I let out a gasp. I lifted my suitcase, gingerly looked beneath, and then dropped it back to the floor. I looked at Pants with wide eyes and she burst into laughter. The first roach had made itself known. The creatures, we soon discovered, were everywhere. Long brown millipedes, cockroaches, toads bigger than my hand and endless armies of ants. It was as though we had invaded their home. Through the walls, we could hear people shrieking and laughing, smacking bugs with shoes, and kicking dead cockroaches into the hallway. We collapsed on the bed in exhausted laughter.
At night we would pull our mosquito netting down from its frame around our beds like queens. We talked about the poverty and the future, our changing ideas and the haunting language of music. We talked and somehow we could share all of the thoughts that had been inside of our heads and never quite came out. Then we would blow out the candle and try to sleep. Sleep took her time coming, probably because my bed was too short and I had a pillow like the Sunday Tribute. Hours later, I would wake with damp sheets wrapped around me and my face tuck to the mosquito netting.
It felt like we had happened upon some kind of primitive tropical bible camp. It was a place beyond expectation or hope that nurtured everything we understood or believed right there, right now. For these few days, we were isolated and safe. It was a time of presence and a time of healing. It rained everyday and as the rain fell, it caught flower petals and leaves and pulled them to the ground or brought them to rest on our windowsill. Sometimes, we sat or slept in our room silent but for the warm rain falling through the trees. And then the rain would break and I would lean up against the cool brick wall with my knees drawn up under my chin just thinking, with Pants asleep in the next bed, breathing deeply. I sat, in my bed full of books and clothes with the mosquito netting draped around me and the quiet sunshine, brightening and fading through the window as the rain clouds floated away across the sky. I could hear people talking and somewhere a door slammed. Then Pants and I would make grape Kool-Aid, shaking the powdered mix in a bottle of water and step back over our bags and suitcases to the beds where we would sprawl and talk and pass the juice back and forth.
I began to come to terms with everything I had seen and I began to notice the beauty in my memories. Something, it seemed, had been added to me. We had talked so much, that I could think again. It felt like a part of me had gained some sort of feeling or texture, like fingers shampooing hair. I swear this feeling was always there, but I could only see it after those few days. It was a voice whispering, "Move on, sweet child. There is more to taste, to feel, and to see."
Lindsey Mack '02
Global was filled with so many different feelings and each new place demanded a period of transition. We continually had to readjust to our new surroundings.
Like so many of the buildings we had seen, the mosque was streaked with the gray-black dirt of exhaust, desert sand, factories and time. The dirt floated around me in the sunlight, a peaceful thickness. The building was undergoing renovations and was covered with scaffolding and plastic. We walked out of the city and in through the rough inner wall, built centuries ago to keep merchants and pedestrians way from the sacred exterior of the building. Across the sandy dirt yard and up the worn stone steps.
As we walked through the doorway, a line formed and our entrance further inside slowed. I looked to the head of the line peering through the dusty shadows to a back corner of the stone room. There a man sat, on a worn, dirty rug. A rug so used by the time that I couldn't see a color or pattern. Only threadbare marks rubbed in with visible consistency. Behind him sat a low wooden box of cubby holes filled with dirty pieces of canvas.
I watched as the members of my group went and stood before him one by one. I was early in the line, and I walked to the front of his rug to take my turn. He looked up at me for a split second and then looked to my feet. His brown hands reached to the pile next to him and he slipped a dusty canvas slipper over my foot and tied the string in a loose knot at the front. Two quick light pats and I slipped my other foot in the second slipper. Then he was done and I turned and walked away.
As I walked away from his rug, I paused and looked back. The line was long and for a moment, he stopped and lifted his head to look at the people waiting. Then he turned back to the One in front of him and steadily tied the knot, patted the foot, and tied the other knot.
The group fidgeted and laughed impatiently, but he kept on, steady like time, smooth like water. A picture of patience. A picture of peace.
Lindsay Mack '02
This quiet man caught my attention one afternoon in a mosque we visited. He seemed completely present in the moment he put the slippers on my feet. I thought about him often as I moved from country to country, trying to be present here and now.
Honorable Mention Entries:
Alison Smith '03 (ACM Tanzania) "Email to Friends/Family" - Tanzania
Anna Kendig '04 (Literature of the Environment Interim) "Maybe" - MN Northwoods and Lake Superior
Jessica Knutson '02 (Term in Asia) "The Kite" - Tiananmen Square, Bejing, China
Nellie Rainwater '02 (University of Aberdeen II) "Today Self" - Aberdeen, Scotland
I washed my underpants and socks in the washing machine one night. Khun Mae was away for a few hours and Dao was upstairs studying. It all began when I threw one lonely sock in by accident and it was caught in a twisted-up pair of dirty pants. I stopped suddenly to stare at the alien sock, fallen into the forbidden. I caught my breath and looked behind my shoulder. "Did anyone see me," I thought. The coast was clear.
I picked up the flimsy sock, scolding it for entering the machine. Then I held it in my hand, so innocent, and wondered what difference in the world it would make if I decided to wash this sock in the machine. It was a piece of cloth, similar to that used in the T-shirts I had just guiltlessly thrown into the machine. I pondered this concept deeply.
Socks are associated with the foot, which in Thailand is the lowest and most offensive part of the body. The sock, therefore, is a carrier of the dirtiness of the foot. "Food cooties," in other words. In reflecting upon this, I acknowledged that I am not required to take off my socks when entering the house, as I am my shoes. Furthermore, I am not asked to remove my feet or hide the fact that I have them.
I was awakened from my daydream by a creak in the floor above. My heard skipped a beat until I was assured that Dao was not coming downstairs. I looked back at the sock, frustrated by the silly debate in my head. If I hand washed all of my socks and underwear that night outside the house in the sock and underwear bucket like I was supposed to, it would take a long time. My hands would turn blue from the cool water and night air and, in actuality, the sock that had troubled me so would probably not be much cleaner than if I washed it in the machine. With this thought, my hand withdrew its grip on the filthy sock and dropped in into the laundry abyss.
It felt good. The torment of analyzing the morality of washing my sock was over. I looked back down into my laundry bag and was faced with a crowd of dirty underwear. I picked one pair up, looked at it, and dropped it into the laundry machine. It felt even better than the first time. I picked up another one, looked at it, and dropped it in after the first. I did not even look at the next one that I compulsively picked up and dropped in the machine. I dumped the entire bag into the machine, watching with a psychotic fancy, as the remaining pairs of underwear and socks poured into the machine.
I could feel the bad karma emerging from my body. It began with one sock, one pair of underwear. So innocent, yet each act made way for the next in a fury of temptation.
I should feel sorry for my inadherance to the cultural taboo of Thai laundry, but I don't. Since that night, I have secretly washed my socks and underwear in the washing machine two other times.
Jessica Knutson '02
Term in Asia
I consider myself culturally sensitive, but there came a time when I just wanted to wash my socks and underwear like the rest of my clothes. It ended in an "experiment" to test the consequences.
Email to Friends and Family Sent Home in November 2001
I am back in Dar es Salaam after spending the past two months in the vast Serengeti Plains of sub-Saharan Africa. It was quite a strange feeling to come back to the city and suddenly be surrounded by so many people, cars, and buildings again. After living in the bush for so long without seeing a single tourist, television, computer, etc., it was quite a shock. During those seven weeks, I lived in a tent with two other girls in a quaint little Maasai village in northern Tanzania, over 200 miles from the nearest city. The name of the village is Endulen, and it is located within the boundaries of Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). The NCA is an area protected by the Tanzanian government in which the Maasai are allowed to live on their traditional lands and raise their cattle, so long as they agree to live alongside the wild animals and tolerate the tourism that is the main source of income for the entire country. (Unlike in Serengeti National Park, where the Maasai and all other tribes were evicted from their lands in the 1930s so that SNP could be protected solely for the animals. This is even today a very controversial issue in Tanzania. Should the wild animals, Tanzania's biggest sources of revenue, take preference over rights of the tribal people to live on their traditional lands?) Endulen, however, is some distance from the tourist track, so the Masai of Endulen have been virtually untouched by western influence. It requires special permits from the government to stay in the village like my group did. The best way to describe my experience in Endulen living among the Maasai people would be to say that it was absolutely incredible. I will forever be in love with the land, the people, and the animals that I encountered there.
On the 22nd of September I took an 8-hour bus trip to Arusha with seven of the other students in my group to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing volcano in the world. At just under 20,000 feet, reaching the summit (Uhuru Peak) proved a formidable task. After four extremely intense and difficult days of climbing, we made our push for the summit on the night of September 26. Leaving at midnight, we hiked a vertical mile in just under six hours, with only the stars lighting our way up the snowy peak. We reached the summit just in time to watch the glorious sunrise over the cloudline from the "roof of Africa". Though a bit delirious and the most exhausted I have ever been in my life, it was an absolutely incredible feeling to be at the top looking down over the world from such a height. It took another two days to descend. Climbing Kili was the most challenging venture I have ever undertaken, but I have a great sense of accomplishment for having tackled it.
After Kili (and my first shower in 8 days), the nine of us met up with the other 16 people from the program and we headed for Serengeti National Park, stopping in the famous Ngorongoro Crater on route. We spent a week on safari in the Serengeti studying the animals and ecology of the huge park, camping amidst all the wild animals. SNP has the world's largest accumulation of large predators, and is just teeming with animals. I saw lions, giraffes, gazelle, impala, dik dik, elephants, cape buffalo, hippopotamus, hyenas, ostrich, eland, baboons, zebras, wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, huge birds, and luckily three of the world's most endangered species-cheetahs, white rhinos, and leopards. We also spent time at the Serengeti Wildlife Research Institute hearing lectures from professional researchers and wildlife veterinarians. It was an amazing opportunity. What came next, though, was my favorite part of my African experience by far.
I left for Endulen in the NCA with seven other students on October 8th. In addition to the students in our camp just outside the village, there were many Tanzanians: my professor, two assistant professors, one graduate students, three cooks, and several armed Maasai and Swahili guards who would alternate 24-hour shifts protecting us day and night from the hyenas, cape buffalo, aggressive baboons and other creatures that continuously wandered through camp. As I mentioned, I lived in a tent the whole time. I never imagined it would be as comfortable as it was. After dinner we would all play cards or sit around the campfire until we got tired, then retire to our tents. I often woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of hyenas whooping outside the tent or heavy rains pounding down on the nylon roof over my head, turning the grasslands lush and green. I frequently laid in my sleeping bag at night with my Discman on, gazing out at the huge expanse of open sky reflecting on everything from things I was missing from home to what I was doing there in the bush. I would wake up to the sounds of birds chirping, a giraffe munching on acacia branches behind my tent, or the jingle of cow-bells as Massai herders grazed their cattle along the road past our campsite. Out there, I felt such an intimate connection with nature. Imagine how many stars you can see when there are no city lights for over 200 miles. The sky is ablaze with literally millions of bright stars, and I was overwhelmed with love for the magnificent beauty of the earth when I gazed up at them every night.
I spent most of my days at Endulen Hospital, the only care facility in the entire NCA, which caters to every Maasai village and boma in the area. With another pre-med St. Olaf student, I did a research project on the presence of intestinal parasites in Maasai children, never done before in that area. In one month, we collected and examined over 400 specimens in the lab, finding an infection rate of just under fifty-percent. Now all of these children will receive treatment, and hopefully our results will inspire further work on parasite prevention in the area.
This has been the best overall experience of my life and I know I will never be the same. The people I have met, the places I have gone, the things I have seen all are unforgettable.
With much love,
Alison Smith '03
An email home to relate my adventures on Mt. Kilimanjaro and living in the bush of sub-Saharan East Africa.
I have been tired
over and over
in my mind,
not knowing if
I'm turning circles
I have been tired
over these tangles we may
bound in a past we cannot sweep away.
I saw Superior
cold under impervious skies.
incensed by reckless winter wind,
rail against the shore,
throwing their turquoise depths
against insensate rocks
over and over
in helpless icy sprays.