Climbing Ancient Temples: Cambodia Part 1

In October of 2016, I got the opportunity to travel to Cambodia to visit a friend of mine, Lea, who was studying abroad there. I never thought about going to south east Asia before this because I didn’t know much about the region or Cambodia until I met Lea through my internship at the time. Little did I know at the time of booking my ticket, that it would be an adventure that would have me zooming through city Phnom Penh on tuk tuks, surviving bus breakdowns, and taking a sunset river cruise in Kampot…but I will get to those stories later.

In pure Cynthia fashion, when Lea mentioned to come visit her in Cambodia during her spring break, I jumped at the chance once I realized how cheap it was to fly there (about $600). I will never forget the looks on my professors faces when I asked for work early because I was taking a week off to travel to Asia. Their reactions were the similar, “Wait what? Cambodia? As in Asia?” and I just smiled and shook my head until they got over their shock. But sure enough, within 2 weeks, I was on a plane flying 8,825 miles (14,201 kilometers) from JFK in New York to Phnom Penh. I remember sitting on the plane and talking to the people sitting next to me telling me about how they were traveling solo through south east Asia for a few months and feeling both amazed and fearful for them. I thought that traveling alone would be scary and unsafe. But now, almost a year and half years later and traveling Europe by mostly by myself for 6 months and preparing to live in Ethiopia for a year, it is something I get to do in the future. After 48 hours, I finally stepped foot in Phnom Penh and into the tuk tuk with Lea.

Now when I say how CRAZY it is riding in a Tuk Tuk in the middle of the city where there seems to be no traffic rules, I mean that I was legit holding my breath for the first 5 minutes preparing for my imminent death. It was a HUGE wakeup call for this part of the world. After zooming throughout traffic without must direction (or so it seemed to me but at this point I was just trying to take in everything), we arrived at this beautiful temple surrounded by gold and gems, Wat Penh Nom. Lea explained the custom of coming here and lighting incents in increments of 3’s or 5’s and lay on the ground to say a prayer. I decided to light 3 incents and prayed to whichever higher power is up there to keep us safe and said how thankful I was to be there. From the Wat we got a traditional lunch of rice noodles with this beef type of stew called lak lak (at this point I was still eating meat). It was spicy but refreshing after not sleeping for almost a day. The thought crossed my mind about how safe the meat was to eat, but I figured I’d take the chance and ordered like a local. From the restaurant by the river, we went to Phom Penh Palace where the king lived. In Cambodia, the Prime Minister has all the power and there has been a power struggle issue. The palace was magnificent with vibrant colors of yellow and orange with statues of Buddha and the King everywhere. This was old my first encounters with not only monkeys who were aggressively trying to steal from the people passing by, but also came to the know the harsh reality of prostitution in Cambodia. While we were walking around the perimeter of the palace, a Monk came up to me and took my hand. I was taken aback at first, but Lea explained how he was saying a prayer over me and he gave me a yellow and red bracelet that was supposed to symbolize good luck throughout life.  The last stop of the day was the National Cambodian Genocide Museum.

You know that feeling when your hair stands on end and you know something is wrong? This is the feeling I experienced as soon as I stepped onto the property. Even after all this time has passed since I’ve been there, I can still vividly remember this feeling and the sights as we walked through the site. The only other time I would feel this way was walking through Auschwitz- Birkenau in Poland to give you some perspective. For those who are reading this and don’t know, from 1975-1979 a communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, under the control of Pol Pot killed approximately 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians or about 25% of the population in the country. The regime forced people into labor camps and the people killed during those times were buried in placed known as the, “Killing Fields”. One of the main stops before going to these camps or the killing fields, was Tuol Sleng Centre which was a mass prison- the place of the National Cambodian Genocide Museum. I got chills as I walked through the rooms with pictures of the way the prisoners were tortured with the intent to die. In many of the rooms you could still see the blood on the walls. I think the most intense aspect of this site was the fact that the prison was a converted school. The guards would use the remains of the school, like the bars where the children would have recess. They would hang prisoners from their nails and put on display until they died in agony. It was so heartbreaking and not something I was prepared for, though thankful that I could pay my respects to those who lost their lives and learn more about the dark side of the culture. Next, we solemnly rode the tuk tuk back to her apartment for the night. It was hard to go to sleep after hearing about such a tragedy.

The next morning, we woke up early to the sound of cooling rain as we jumped on the bus to Kampot. Along the way I continued to try traditional foods like dragon fruit (although I now know I can get it in the States) and stuffed bread with shredded meat inside. The further we traveled into the country side, the more it hit me that I was half way across the world and traveling like a local. There were no other tourists on the bus and it was such an amazing feeling to be immersed in the culture. The bus traveled on the dirt roads mostly with motorbikes whizzing by and rice fields seemed to go on for miles. Once we arrived in Kampot (a 2-hour bus ride magically turned into 5 but welcome to Cambodian travel everyone), Lea and I wanted to explore so we walked around the streets where we saw the South China Ocean Bay. We rented motorbikes but that turned out to be a HUGE failure because it is sooooo much harder than it looks to steer it! WE tried multiple times as the locals in the nearby restaurants stared and laughed at us. Eventually giving up, we rented traditional bikes and rode along Kampot river and throughout the city. It was so freeing to be able to see the city in this way and to feel the cool wind hit my hot face. I remember thinking that biking in Cambodia, DEFINITLY better than class.

We decided to book a river cruise that provided dinner and drinks at stops along the way. I tried another staple that night of Cambodian beer which tasted like a sweeter version of Bud Light The views were breath taking as we floated down the river passing little villages with different colored roods and the mountains in the background. I tried to stay in the moment and just take in all the sights, smells, and sounds of the birds chirping as the sun started to go over the horizon. As the night sky started to appear, lighting bugs danced on the water and I couldn’t tell where the mountains started, and the water began. I felt as peace and harmony with the world around me.

We woke up 6:00am the next morning to start our journey to Siem Reap. Little did we know, it would not be as simple as riding the bus. BUT that’s for another blog post.

xx, Cynthia


Peace Corps Vs. Teaching Abroad: Finding My Path After Graduation

As my college career at Chestnut Hill College (CHC) is quickly coming to an end, like most graduates, I’ve been struggling with what I want to do with my degrees in psychology and global affairs. CHC let me expand my leadership skills, both academically and socially, as well as gave me a place to make new friendships. With only 2 months left (specifically 44 days but who’s counting) until my graduation, figuring out the next steps for my life has been on my mind daily. But let’s back track for a second.

In June 2017, I had just gotten back from an amazing experience of living in Europe for 7 months. First studying abroad in Paris, France and then going on a three-week tour through the Scottish Highlands, small towns of England, and AMAZING Snowdonia National Park in Wales (seriously, you have to go in their lifetime, if they have the opportunity- just look it up). With 25 countries checked off in my Been app when I returned home, I couldn’t wait to get back out into the world to explore. But the logistics of: how to pay for it and when I would have the time to go, settled in. Sadly, I accepted the fact that I would not be traveling anymore until after graduation.

I worked all summer at a camp where I was able to meet girls from around the world in exchange programs working at other camps in the area. They served as my ticket to the world through their stories and adventures. As the end of the summer approached I was getting more questions by friends and family (though mostly family because they want to know what I am doing at all time) about what I was going to do after I graduate. THIS IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION! And since then I get asked it more times than I can count. I started to sit down to really think about this question because I had NO IDEA and if anyone reading this is going through something similar I just want to say that THIS IS COMPLETELY NORMAL! I’d say that if you knew what you wanted to do or know where you wanted to apply for jobs, you’re in the minority and I envy you.

I sat in my room pondering this question with the help of YouTube videos (wayyyy too many YouTube videos, which often ended in me watching travel videos), books, and just talking to my recent graduated friends. I had this dream of serving in Peace Corps and for those of you who don’t know, it’s a program ran by the US government to send US citizens in developing countries to work on projects in various fields (environment, health care, economic development, etc.).  I realized that after I graduate would be the perfect time to do something like this because it is a long commitment of just over 2 years abroad and being only 21 I wouldn’t have any ties- except my cat, damn do I love my cat. I decided to reach out to recruiter and after many hours at Starbucks and revisions with his help, I applied to Peace Corps. I had applied openly, which basically means that they would take my degrees (in my case global affairs and psychology) and place me in any country with any job they saw me as a good fit in. Now, if there is a specific country or region or job you wanted to do within Peace Corps, I wouldn’t recommend this but I was up for anything and applying this way would allow me to be considered for more placements which meant more of reality that I would be offered an invitation to serve. So by August 2017 I had applied to Peace Corps and I started the agonizing waiting game the US government LOVES to play (no, but seriously if you taking this route be prepared to not hear back for months at a time). This of course gave me more than enough time to constantly worry and debate of whether I will get an interview which would lead to an invitation, but at least the hard part was over. OR SO I THOUGHT….

Because I need to have a plan in every aspect of my life, thank you Mom and Dad for this AMAZING quality (she says sarcastically), I researched other ways I could live abroad after graduation as a back up plan. I looked into nannying, woofing, working in hostels, but one job that stuck out to me was teaching English. For those who are new, I taught English abroad in Ghana for two weeks in 2014 and I LOVED IT!! So like everything I do, I turned to google and legit typed in “teaching English abroad jobs”. And all these sites popped up with schools/ programs all around the world that wanted native English speakers. Some wanted me to have a TEFL certificate (which I do not have), others wanted teaching experience (which I did not have), and others wanted an education degree (which I did not have), and some wanted you to pay to teach (which I was not doing cause I am a broke bitch). SOOO I had to narrow down my search to a continent- I chose Africa naturally. For those again who don’t know, Africa has a special place in my heart because it was the first place I traveled outside the states without my family or friends and I just find all the cultures with in fascinating. I started my google search again but this time only for African teaching positions and ended up finding a request to teach English in Ethiopia, which is in East Africa. I didn’t need a TEFL certificate and I didn’t need to have a teaching degree- PERFECT. I quickly sent my resume and heard a response back in October of 2017 asking for an interview.

At this point you might be thinking, “wait what about Peace Corps”, well by the end of the summer I found out I was being considered for a health extension volunteer position in Benin (it’s in West Africa- I had never heard about it before). I was interviewed by August and then the waiting game started again. I wouldn’t hear back from them again until December, but I will get to that in a sec.

I was offered a position to teach English to third graders at School of Tomorrow in Ethiopia and for something that was supposed to be cause for celebration, it caused a panic for me as the questions came pouring into my brain. Do I turn the position down to wait for Peace Corps? Do I accept the position and continue with Peace Corps if I get in? Do I email Peace Corps and rescind my application?! I HAD NO IDEA. So naturally, I cried a little bit and then made a pros and cons list. Now for all my family and friends reading this, this is why I need you all in my life because for the months afterward, this inner turmoil will be ALL I talked about. I can imagine you wanted to pull my head out or lock me in a closet- or both. In the end I decided to accept the teaching position and not say anything to Peace Corps just in case I didn’t end up getting into Peace Corps.

I decided to relax now about what I was doing after graduation and when people asked me about what I was doing after graduation, I would just say that I had options and that I was definitely moving to Africa. I was content and happy with that answer because my next adventure was starting to come together, and I would soon be leaving the US for at least a year, YAY! However, in December my world would be turned upside down when I finally I saw an email subject like that read, “Invitation to Serve”. Man did I ugly cry! My years of dreaming to serve in Peace Corps was going to be in a reality! I was going to be leaving September 15, 2018 for Benin as a health extension volunteer BUT (AND THIS IS AN ENORMOUS BUT), I had to pass medical and legal clearances. Long story short, with $1,000 spent, countless appointments at government services and EVERY SINGLE doctor imaginable (like I needed teeth xrays- what?!) and almost 4 months later, I did not get cleared to leave for Benin due to my past struggle with mental health. So again, more ugly crying occurred. If anyone wants more information on what happened or want me to share my experience with the whole Peace Corps process leave a comment below.

I am now writing this post in March 2018 and I still get emotional about my rejection because I was heartbroken. I went through all the stages of grief and being PISSED was a loooonnnnggg phase. Again, I just want to shout out to my AMAZING friends and family who tried to keep me positive and tried to keep my mind off of it. I am also thankful that I found out this information right before spring break where I went to Orlando, Florida for the week to escape snow storms back in Philly. But I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and Ethiopia was now my next destination!

Although I verbally accepted the position with School of Tomorrow in Ethiopia, their communication has not been that great and I have yet to see a contract 4 months after being hired. This has been hard for me to deal with because I am not at all patient and in US culture, everything is done right away. But I have recently received communication and I am definitely hired and they know I am coming in August 2018. I have allowed myself to get excited by buying the Lonely Planet Ethiopia book and language book, along with the typical FB annoucment, and of course dragging all my friends to Ethiopian restaurants to prepare for this next chapter of my life in Ethiopia.

So for anyone thinking about what to do after college but know they want to get out to experience the world, look into these options but also the other ones I mentioned. From my experience, you have to be prepared for rejection and countless hours sending out resumes and waiting around for responses if living abroad is something you want to pursue. But the rush when you find out that you’ll be living in another country for a year and traveling as you go, is all worth the stress and uncertainty. I try to remind myself that just because I was brought up to get a conventional 9-5 office job and I have the degrees to potentially do so, does not mean that is what I have to do that anytime soon. I don’t know what will happen in Ethiopia or the experiences I will get to have, but I do know that it’ll be an adventure. Life is meant to be experienced and that’s exactly what I plan on doing.

Happy travels, Cynthia

Descending into the Parisian Catacombs

Who wouldn’t want to walk down 135 stairs into tunnels full of dead people on a random Wednesday afternoon? Well me being me, I was up for anything and my roommate Meredith and I decided to adventure into the Parisian Catacombs. I hadn’t heard about the catacombs in Paris until one of my favorite Youtubers, FunForLouis, had gone with his Live the Adventure crew into the thousands of tunnels under the city to see the bones of the departed. They stumbled through water up to their waist and ducking their heads in order to fit into the small tunnels. I had no idea what to expect when my roommate and I got onto the line outside the entrance of the Catacombs (it was a pretty long line to get in, so if you’re thinking about going make sure you get there early).  IMG_6732

Winding through the tunnels, I was amazed to see the seer amount of bones just on display. For what seemed like kilometers (it was only about 2), the the tunnels led me deeper and deeper into them. In the old quarries from when Paris was being built, the tunnels were lined with heads and all different types of bones. I had no idea more than 60 million bodies were houses under the streets below were I have been living for the past 4 months. The city continued to collect bodies within these tunnels between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when graveyards were being closed because of sanitation reasons. A majority of the bodies came from “Cimetière des Innocents” graveyard, but soon the number grew and included bodies from the surrounding hospitals, people dying on the street, and from local morgues. During the French Revolution, the catacombs were used a final resting place for victims of the war.


The cold, stale air added to the eeriness of the walk, as Meredith and I stared in wonder about the lives of the people in the Catacombs. I could not help but think about they types of lives these people had. Were they children? Mothers? Fathers? Bankers? Lawyers? Being living on the street? What were their stories? Who were they? It is easy down there to just get lost in the volume of the bodies, but all of them had lives just like us. Lost in history, their bodies had been placed here due to just circumstance. Do their families know they’re here? Where are the relatives now? Do they even have relatives? You might think I’m over thinking these questions, but these people never received a proper burial and I doubt they knew their ruins would be on display for hundreds of years after their death.

It was interesting to see all the bones displayed in different formations and to hear how the bones get rotated every so often to ensure they don’t get damaged. Maybe it was the dreary, rainy day or the fact that I was tired from taking a final exam earlier that morning, but I left the Catacombs with an unsettled feeling. But I enjoy eerie things (shoutout to American Horror Story) so descending into the Parisian Catacombs allowed me to get my fix of creepy things during my time here. If you’ve been to the Catacombs in Paris or somewhere else, let me know your thoughts!

P.S: We were not up to our waists in water and the walk was very easy!

Happy travels, Cynthia

Hang Gliding in Interlaken Switzerland

It’s almost like a right of passage for college students studying abroad to travel to Interlaken, Switzerland for a weekend and after I went there I 100% understood why.

After a full day of traveling from Paris to Interlaken, with a few hours in Geneva to explore, my roommate Casie and I found ourselves in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Our hostel was right on the water of Lake Brienz and whenever we looked, everything had a blue glow. The water was so clear that the mountains reflected onto it and there was a sense of peace in the world. It is almost impossible to be unhappy there due to fresh, clean mountain air and the local people smiling everywhere we turned. It was a huge contrast from smelly, depressing Paris we had left behind for the weekend. Although everything was 5x more costly than Paris, the atmosphere made it all worth it.

View from our hostel window

Interlaken is a mountain village is known for its hiking trails and extreme sports like mountain biking, snowboarding, paragliding, hang gliding, and sky diving. Although I was not up for the complete thrill of sky diving (I am just not that daring), Casie and I set up to go hang gliding with a company called Hang Gliding Interlaken. Hang gliding is where you are basically suspended in the air, flying with an airplane type thing- it looked sorta like a paper airplane. Now, if you’re nervous about these types of adventures, as I was, these two Aussie’s are the way to go. The company is owned by “Birdman” Bernie and he is an expert in this territory for knowing exactly where to take off and land. He along with his sidekick Ed, drove us up the side of the mountain to our take off spot. They told us stories and cracked jokes the entire way which give me a chance to forget about my fears about trusting this flying contraption and POSSIBLY running to my death.

At one point they stopped the car about halfway up the mountain and said that we could either jump here or go further up the mountain to get better, longer views.

IMG_6394Casie looked at me since I was the nervous one (she had already gone sky diving and loved roller coasters). I thought about it for a second before I thought, FUCK IT! I would be dying if something happened either way, so I might as well die looking at a better views (for the record: I was COMPLETELY over reacting. I’m a baby). So further we went up the winding trail to the very top with a bunch of other hang gliders and parasailers. The car stopped randomly as the road did, so we had to hike up the rest of the way which proved to be more difficult due to my body being quite out of shape and the air being quite thin due to the high altitude.

Once we reached the top, to my surprise Bernie had me help me prepare the hang glider which I believed was a TERRIBLE idea. But it was a good tactic because it helped me to forget how high we were and it kept me present in the moment instead of freaking out about the jump. Then it was finally time to run off the cliff in the middle of the Swiss Alps mountain range. It was now or never- at this point I wanted it to be never. But we ran right off the mountain and suddenly we were soaring!

The first thing I thought of was the old Disney ride called Soaring (it was replaced by Star tours), because it felt EXACTLY like that. I felt as though I could fly with the wind flowing through my hair and being higher than the clouds. We flew over the mountain tops and with the lake beneath us, it is a sight I will never forget. I felt invincible as _1000364we drove through the air with the views of the Swiss Alps all around us with little houses dotting the roads. All the cars looked like ants from thousands of feet in the air. It was incredible to feel so in the moment and present in life. The day before I had woken up in Paris, and now I was soaring high above the Alps in Switzerland, truly incredible.

Before I knew it, it was time for us to return to land and the small objects below grew. Suddenly, we were hovering above the ground until the wheels touched the grass and then we rolled to a stop. I was shaking with adrenaline and immediately wanted to go again (although my wallet said no). I was so proud that I had accomplished a bucket-list activity. Casie and I drank beers as we handed over 300 Swiss Francs (this included the flight, plus many pictures and videos) for the thrill of a lifetime.

I spent the rest of my day traveling farther up the Alps towards a town called Mürren, where I hiked along the IMG_6415panoramic trail. It was amazing to be alone and to spend time with nature in its purest form. I was able to look down on the clouds and the small mountain villages in awe. I would have never thought I would be as lucky as I was just then. I was fully present in the moment without thinking about my future plans or what I wanted to do with my life. It was all about making sure I was taking in the views and being at peace with myself. I had found my balance once again and I felt truly happy. I hope to explore more and experience the natural beauty of Mother Earth. Where are some places on Earth that have natural beauty that you’ve traveled to?

Happy travels, Cynthia

The hostel we stayed at:

Check out “Birdman” Bernie :

Paris Bucket-list

Before I left for Paris I researched both the city and the country to find what to do here. For countless hours I read blogs and watched vlogs on youtube showing places to see and things to do in and around Paris. Here is my list:

1. Climb the Eiffel Tower: I mean seriously? How can I not?

2. Spend and afternoon at Shakespeare and Company: a well known English bookstore that has been visited by  famous authors like, Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I may or may not have spent more than one afternoon AND I may or may not have an obsession)


3. Visit the Louvre- This museum has one of the best collections of artworks in the world.

4. Go to the top of the Arc de Triumph: The views are spectacular and one of the view places where you get a view of Paris with the Eiffel Tower


5. Visit the Pablo Picasso Museum: He is one of my favorite Cubist artists and he lived in Paris for most of his life.

6. Go to the top of Sacré- Cœur and wander through Montmartre: The arts district of Paris where Picasso, Monet, and Pizarro used to hang out. In the heart of the district, there is a beautiful basilica with views of the city.


7. Visit Notre Dame and climb to the top: A beautiful gothic church in the center of Paris. (I really just wanted to see if Quasimodo was still there)

8. Visit Sainte- Chapelle Church: The stain glass windows are breathtaking, so made sure you go on a sunny day. IMG_4168.jpg

9. Discover a secret restaurant

10. Visit Musee D’Orsay: A museum with one of best collections of impressionism in the world.


11. Stroll through Tuileries Garden

12. Day Trip to Palace of Versailles: The famous Châteaux that Louis XIV built that has amazing gardens and The Hall of Mirrors.


13. Try escargot: It was sorta slimy but I covered it in butter so I mostly tasted that. But when in France right?

14. Day Trip to Mont Saint Michel: A monastery that is sometimes completely surrounded by water when there is high tides. The place is a holy spot with an Abby at the top of the island.


15. Visit the Catacombs: Who wouldn’t want to hundreds of year old bones and creepy heads under the streets of Paris.

16. Day Trip to go Champagne Tasting


17. Read in Jardin du Luxembourg

18. Walk along Champs- Elysees

19. Try macaroons from Ladurée: It’s a must do for anyone coming to this amazing city


20. Climb the Palais Garnier staircase

21. Spend an afternoon in Le Marais


22. Design my own perfume in Maison Guerlain

23. Eat a crêpe: The Nutella ones have been my favorite, although a “jambon et fromage” (ham and cheese) savory crêpes are good too.

24. Drink the hot chocolate at Angelina: I have gone 4 times and had to stand in line BUT it was sooooo worth it. Best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, try the egg croissant- also amazing.


25. Climb the Montparnasse Tower: Beautiful views of Paris at night.

26. Day trip to Disneyland Paris: I wanted an excuse to be a kid for a day.

27. Visit the love lock bridge


There is my list of everything I hope to accomplish in France before I leave on May 15th!

Happy travels, Cynthia

Utopia56: Volunteering at a Parisian Refugee Camp

I never know who I am are going to meet to meet in life, and on my way back to my apartment from Charles de Gaulle Airport was one of those times. My roommate and I shared an Uber with a woman who was on her way to volunteer with refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. Never would I have thought that the experience would help change my outlook for the better.

In the metro system and the streets of Paris, I constantly see women and children huddled together on a blanket with a few items asking for money. Many of them hold make shift signs saying “Famille Syrienne” and have heavy eyes looking into the walkways. Whenever I pass them, my heart always go out to them and hope that their situation is better than the life they left behind in Syria. I think about where they are coming from and if they lived in similar conditions that I have seen in my travels to Ghana and Cambodia, or if they have family back home. I am the type of person who acts on my feelings and when the woman from the Uber told me about an organization that help refugees, I automatically signed myself up to volunteer.

The organization is called Uptia65 and it’s located in the heart of the poor region of Paris. It is surrounded by old, vandalized buildings with make shift housing for multiple families. It is crazy to think that a 20 minute metro ride from the Eiffel Tower, people are just starting their new life in Paris. The refugee camp is not much to those who walked by and although it’s on a busy street it is hard not to notice the sad state of it. There were security guards surrounding the camp and fences huddled together with blankets being used as shelters for the people who could not get into the camp that day. It broke my heart to see the people laying on the ground trying so hard to stay warm in the cold, March weather.

I was welcomed into the camp by smiling volunteers who were surprised to see a new face coming to help and I was shown around the camp with explanations on the work being accomplished there. The organization helps mainly male refugees from South Sudan and some Middle Eastern countries, although there are some families staying at the camp. Due to territorial conflicts, the security guards were there to help stop any fights that may break out. The men can stay at the camp for two or more weeks while they start to get on their feet. They are given new clothes, food, shelter, and access to social workers to get the right immigration or mental health information the men might need. The camp serves close to 400 men at a time and with the help of only about 10 volunteers a day, there is so much work to be done.

I was immediately put to the task of helping to hand out clothes to the new men who arrived at Utopia56. It was set up like a store where the men can pick out their own clothes that we take out of the bins. It is a quick process to look at their ID cards to see what clothes they have already received and what clothes they might need in the future. Because it was still pretty chilly, many needed better pants or long shirts.

At first the job was overwhelming due to the language barrier, the volunteers do not know much English and the refugees do not know much French, but through hand gestures we were able to communicate. It was fun to try to help the men figure out what clothes they wanted although at times it did get frustrating. Some of the men didn’t know their size or were not happy with any of the clothes that we available for them to choose from. Some of the men were picky about style, but some seemed so grateful to even have a jacket. Those were the men, to me, that made the volunteering experience so worthwhile. To see the look on their faces when they got the new clothing and to laugh with them about some of the ugly clothes they had to choose from, made the word “refugee” that much more relatable.

Being from the US, immigration and the “refugees crisis” are always on the political agenda and people seem very divided on the subject. Many times, the people who have the loudest voice against the idea of an open door policy are those who are the most ignorant and uneducated about the subject. We get so caught up with the word “refugee” that we forget that these people are just looking to survive and to live a life they are proud of. These people just want to have a life that we have been fortunate enough to have. They are not looking to steal from our government or take up our resources; they just want to live a life they deserve. To live a life human beings deserve.

When I mentioned to my family back in the US that I spent the afternoon volunteering, they responded with: ‘wow those people are so lucky to have you helping them’. But in reality, I am the lucky one. I had the privilege to help those men get back on their feet and to feel good about themselves even when they have been put in such a shitty situation. I had the opportunity to be more educated on what life is like in a Parisian refugee camp and to gain another perspective on life. I spend so much on travel and new experiences, but volunteering with these men reminded me that some experiences are priceless and sometimes three hours is all it takes to change multiple lives: theirs and mine.

Happy travels, Cynthia

Finding Balance Abroad

In January of this year, I was setting of on my biggest adventure yet- Paris, France. I would be living in the 19th arrondissement in a Parisian flat and getting a taste of what it is like to live abroad for a total of four months. Now that my time here is almost over, the thought of going home is bittersweet. I expected to travel to different countries and learn about the different cultures while I am in Paris, but I did not expect so many other things.

I have been able to travel to more countries in the last 3 months than I have in my entire life. I have now been throughout Europe and checking off places on my bucket list and I am feeling quite satisfied. Drinking hot chocolate from Angelina’s and eating my weight in macaroons from Ladurée were things I expected to do. But the countless days sitting by canal Saint- Martin reading a book or writing in journal, or making the thirty- minute metro ride to Luxembourg Gardens were things I didn’t expect to do. While I am here, I am realizing that I am taking more time to enjoy my life on a daily basis- why do I not do this at home? Is it because my daily life in Philadelphia comes with too many expectations? Is it because I put so much pressure on myself to get perfect grades, to be the perfect daughter, or to constantly trying to better myself? Whatever the reason, I know now that it is ok to just be content without having to reach for the stars or to excel. Sometimes it’s more important for me to take time for myself to do what I want to do.

This semester has been a semester about me. It isn’t about the getting the perfect grades (although my grades are a lot worse than I would like them to be) or about filling out countless applications for the perfect internship. It’s about me, Cynthia Brain. I feel as though saying that makes me selfish or that it is not ok, but it is. This semester I have traveled to the countries I have wanted to go to without having to compromise or ask permission. I have been able to explore all the quarters in Paris from the Latin Quarter to Montmartre and I have been able to do it alone (but of course my roommates have been more than happy to join sometimes). It has been so liberating these last few months to really understand what life has to offer and I have been incredibly happy.

I have learned that it is not a negative thing to have anti-social days where I just want to be myself. Being by myself has helped me to grow and realize what type of stuff I like to do. I found out- the Louvre, not my thing; spending hours in Shakespeare and Company drinking cappuccino- is. Taking time to really get to know myself and to understand what the emotions are that I am feeling at a given time is just as important as seeing a new city or exploring a new quarter in Paris with my friends.

It’s all about balance and I am slowly gaining mine.

Happy travels, Cynthia