Posted by Andrew Wei
Since we kicked off this blog more than a year ago, study abroad has remained one of our most popular and frequently revisited topics. Other Scholars have written beautifully about travel: the excitement, the novelty, the lessons learned, the occasional pain of leaving.
When I set out this January on my own semester abroad at the University of Oxford,1 even knowing I would have plenty to keep myself occupied, I decided to keep a list of “challenges” to try and accomplish while I was away. I asked a bunch of friends to help contribute to that list as well, which resulted in a lot of new items I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I’d like to share a few of these.
Here it goes:
1. Start a photoblog and post a photo for every day abroad. (Status: Done!)
This was one I gave myself. I love taking pictures, and I wanted some way to encourage myself to do it consistently — what better way to do that than make myself accountable to an audience? In hindsight, I think keeping a blog actually helped remove some of the pressure associated with photography; instead of worrying about taking perfect pictures of everything I saw, I told myself that as long as I produced just one photo a day that I could publish, then at the end of my trip, I’d have more than a hundred pretty-decent photos.
You can see the results here.
2. Start a conversation with a stranger on a train. (Status: Done!)
I did this several times — basically every time I was on a train — but my favorite conversation was with a Norwegian lady aboard the Bergensbanen running from Oslo and Bergen, Norway. As the train passed through mountains and forests, we passed the time talking about the scenery, the newspaper she was reading, my experiences traveling, politics, religion, and what it was like to grow old. I was even there when her son pranked her over the phone for April Fools’ Day, which I had no idea was also celebrated in Norway.
3. Call home every day. (Status: Definitely failed.)
Sorry, Mom and Dad. I tried.2
4. For every city you visit, send a postcard to a friend at home. (Status: Done, sort of.)
This was one of my favorite ones. I ended up sending 18 postcards, which is about half the number of cities I passed through. Hunting for postcards became an excellent source of entertainment for days with bad weather or when I didn’t have anything planned. It also allowed me to just wander through the streets with a vague goal in mind, without anything so specific that I couldn’t take a detour or two.
Unfortunately, I didn’t send a postcard from every city, which might’ve been a good thing, because international postage can get surprisingly expensive. Some cities had confusing mail systems, some had ugly postcards, and toward the end, I was running out of both money and friends. 😦
Some of my favorite ones:
5. Read something by the Inklings (including Lewis, Tolkein, and Barfield) while abroad and go to The Eagle and Child (a pub in Oxford that the Inklings famously frequented). (Status: I did half of it. The easier half.)
It’s really a shame that I didn’t complete this one all the way, since Oxford has a world-class library. I guess I ran out of time. I did, however, eat an enormous burger at The Eagle and Child.
6. Watch the sunrise on your first day abroad and the sunset on your last day. (Status: Well, I tried.)
Sadly, my last day was a rainy day in London. Not much of a sunset there. I could’ve probably seen the sunset the next day as I was flying home if I hadn’t fallen asleep immediately after takeoff.
More happily, I got this great sunrise in Iceland my first day in Europe:
7. Take a photo of the skyline in every city you visit. (Status: Done, sort of.)
Like the postcards, I finished this in about half of the cities I visited. Since a lot of the cities I visited didn’t have the traditional, easily recognizable skylines filled with skyscrapers and such, I tried to get as high up as I could to capture as much of the city in the frame as possible. The photos below are from Edinburgh, Bergen, Bern, Nice, and Tangier.
8. Draw something related to your experiences. (Status: I’m not that good at drawing.)
This one was from my brother, who’s a lot better at drawing than I am. I did draw several sketches of people and landscapes, which made it into the journal I kept for the next challenge…
9. Keep a journal of the cultures, lifestyles, foods, and customs you experience, as well as the people you meet. (Status: Did my best!)
I did keep a handwritten journal, but this challenge was such an extensive one that I’m honestly not sure how much of it I can say I completed. That said, I definitely took it as an excuse to try as many different foods as I could:
In case there was ever any doubt, food is definitely the best part of traveling.
There were a bunch of others I could write about, but in the interest of time and space I’ll have to save those for another day. If any of you reading this are planning on taking an extended trip at any point, taking challenges from your friends is a great way to stay connected with the people back home! Despite my pretty mediocre completion record, I thoroughly enjoyed doing each and every one of these. They gave me great pictures, resulted in a lot of cool stories, and kept me busy during those times when I had nothing else to do. So to everyone who challenged me: thanks, guys. You’re the best.