Abroad Awry

by Jilian Gundling | 4/25/08 5:15am

by Tilman Dette / The Dartmouth

Trips abroad are an essential part of the Dartmouth experience for many students. Students return from Foreign Study Programs and Language Study Abroads with tans, souvenirs and stories galore of their amazing and rewarding foreign adventures.

Or so it seems.

Not all off campus programs are created equal. From homestay families that resemble a particularly bizarre episode of "The Twilight Zone," to incompetent professors and directors that spend all the money on pancakes, here is a chronicle of when study abroad stops being real and starts going awry.

Bret Vallacher '10 experienced the Arabic LSA+ in Morocco in a way that defied all expectations, and not always in a good way. "I want to stress that my professors and the people on the program were amazing and so was traveling around Moroco in a group," Vallacher prefaced his tale. "The program was awesome, but my homestay was pretty atrocious."

Arriving at his new Moroccan family's home, Vallacher first noticed the state of his room. "Essentially I didn't even have my own room," Vallacher recalled. "I just had a curtained off room in the family room. My bed was long enough for a human to fit, but it was an ad hoc thing stuffed with old clothes and cotton with a ricksack covering. It reeked of cat piss."

The bathroom in Vallacher's house also left much to be desired. "There was no soap or toilet paper in the house," he said. "Also, our shower and toilet were the same apparatus. The drain for the shower was a toilet."

According to Vallacher it is common for Moroccans to not have toilet paper. "Moroccans wipe with their left hand. I found out on the last day that my host mother would use her left hand to wash our dishes without any soap. I saw her."

That was not the only thing to dampen the atmosphere of meals. "Before every meal there was a ritual where the five-year old would mash her grubby hands into the communal dish that held the food," Vallacher said. "Her mother would hit her on the head every time, but she would do it again at the next meal."

Massacring food, however, was not the five-year old's only talent. "In the middle of the night she would whip open the curtain of my room, slap me on the eyeball and run away," Vallacher said. "That was her favorite game. She would also abuse my dog.

"She would pick it up by the front paw and swing it around. She would put it on her head and run, so obviously it would fall off and get pretty hurt."

Vallacher bought the ill-fated cocker spaniel on the street for $20 and named her Maha. According to Vallacher, Maha was extremely useful in fighting off the large roaches that ran throughout the house. Unfortunately Maha didn't make it back to the States. Vallacher had to leave her with his host family.

Besides obnoxious children and roaches, Vallacher's home had many other interesting inhabitants. "My house brother stole from me," Vallacher said. "He would sneak in and take my wallet, and money would disappear. For most of the trip, I thought that I must not have been spending my money wisely, but one day I was napping and I caught him taking my wallet. His parents were ashamed and made him apologize."

Yet, not even a thief can match up to his homestay father. "My house father was a Moroccan red neck," Vallacher said. "He would listen to his little hand radio at full volume. It would be completely distorted, and he would put it right next to his ear."

The father liked to have a good time. "He quit his job when he got the check from Dartmouth," Vallacher said. "He was at home smoking menthols all the time. His prized possession was a satellite TV with 1,000 channels that he would have on constantly. The TV was two feet away from the cat-piss bed where I slept."

However, nothing was more amusing to Vallacher than the wardrobe his host father possessed. "He only owned three shirts," Vallacher said. "His favorite was this white one that said 'SLUT' in pink lettering. It was hilarious because he would be completely oblivious, thinking he was all tough, walking around smoking his menthols with his pot belly hanging out. He had no idea what the shirt meant."

Although it might be impossible for anyone to top Vallacher's homestay trials, Jenna Smith '09 is another student who dealt with the antics of an interesting character on the environmental science FSP in South Africa.

"My homestay was really fun," said Smith. "You just never knew what was going to happen."

Smith lived in the Mamelodi township outside Pretoria, across the street from an informal tavern called a shabeen. One of the regulars from the shabeen soon latched onto her.

"There was one woman who was drunk all the time named Jane," Smith said. "Whenever the car pool would drop us off, she would come running up to me. She grabbed my boob and called me her American friend.

"One day, one of my friends from the FSP, who is Asian, came over. Jane came running and started singing ... She got so into it that she lay down in the street and kicked her shoes off. We couldn't hold it in any more and burst out laughing. She told us, 'Do not take me for granted. I will kick your ass, my friends.'"

According to Smith, Jane memorized the car pool schedule and would lie outside the gated house that Smith's host family lived in. She would ring the doorbell for an hour, even after they went inside. One day Smith's host mother tried to explain the situation: "She told us that a long time ago Jane was having an affair with the husbands of women in the neighborhood," said Smith. "According to my host mother, the woman sent a witch doctor to put a spell on Jane and that was why she was crazy."

Aimee Moon '09 lived with an elderly woman in Barcelona whose poor vision lead to unappetizing meals. "She had a dog named Nana, a black cocker spaniel," Moon said. "Without fail, four to five times a week I would have dog hair floating in my food -- dark, curly hair. She had vision problems so I don't think she saw it. She would also pack me lunch sometimes and I would find flies in my food."

On a more serious note, aside from dog hairs and flies, however, Moon also commented on the prejudice she faced in Barcelona. "I'm Korean and my friend is African-American," Moon said. "We would get racial cat calls constantly. It was really obnoxious. People would yell 'Konichiwa' to me because they assumed that was my language."

According to Moon the professors in Barcelona also rubbed some students the wrong way. "For some reason our conversation professor thought the best way to get us talking would be to talk about very controversial topics," Moon said. "We would talk about things like race and sexuality and often people would get upset to the point of tears."

Although not dealing with insensitivity from the locals, Rebekah Rombom '08 found herself dissatisfied with the academic side of the 2006 English FSP in Glasgow.

"One of the most disappointing aspects was that I felt the academic rigor, support from professors and professors' expertise was nowhere near on par with Dartmouth," said Rombom, who is member of The Dartmouth senior staff.

While Rombom was surprised to find that they had "the equivalent of one Dartmouth class a week," she was most annoyed by how little freedom was allowed with assignments. "I had one completely incompetent professor," Rombom said. "I wanted to write on a subject that had really interested me in one of the papers we had read, but the professor said 'No, you can only write it on one of the paper topics I gave you because that's the way we've been doing it for 600 years.' Some of that might just be the way they run their program. Their system might be less creative. It just didn't seem to all click."

Rombom did find one benefit from the easy academics: "The lack of academic rigor made it much easier to travel stress-free on the weekend. Every weekend was fun and I had a great time every time I left."

Like many others, Rombom found that the living arrangements were less than ideal and an obstacle to meeting non-Dartmouth students. "Your card only opened your building," Rombom said. "Other Dartmouth friends were in other buildings and I had to call them to let me in. Once inside the dorms, hallways with five rooms were locked and you only had a key to your hallway. There were no common rooms. There was no impromptu socialization."

Another unfortunate part about the trip's housing was the location of the dorms. "We lived in a somewhat dangerous part of the city. It was over a mile walk to campus and there wasn't any public transportation," Rombom said. "Sometimes I avoided leaving my room at night."

According to one '09 girl, who wishes to remain anonymous, the housing for her English FSP was much improved from the conditions Rombom described. "We got really great housing," she said. "For our year they worked hard to get us into nice student apartments."

Despite what she considered an overall successful FSP, this student was dismayed at the way in which the director from Dartmouth chose to use the program money. "He'd use all of our FSP money to buy breakfast things and then specifically make the girls cook breakfast," she said. "He would tell the guys to come and sit out with him and he would tell the girls to cook."

She would have liked to have seen less money spent on meals and more money spent on organizing trips. "He didn't organize anything and squandered all the money on a few big dinners," she said. "He always tried to put the responsibility of planning trips on everyone else, when he is paid to organize them."

So what lesson can we learn from all this doom and gloom? In the end, when going to study abroad make sure to expect the unexpected. And if your homestay father resembles a Looney Tunes character on speed, take comfort in the fact that someone has been there before.

Jilian is a staff writer and deputy editor for The Mirror.