This summer, I was privileged to be one of the 136 youth leaders from around the world accepted to attend the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Summer School in Coimbra, Portugal. I wrote on IndieVolunteer about my previous experience with the UN AoC as a Youth Delegate and co-moderator at their Youth Event in the 4th Annual Doha Forum , which was an incredible experience – honestly, one of the highlights in my life. I made tons of incredible friends from the Middle East during that conference, and every night we would stay up until 3 am in the middle of the hotel lobby singing songs and dancing. Well – they sang songs and danced – I don’t speak nor sing Arabic so I just sat with them and enjoyed it all. I of course also loved everything that I learned from the panels and workshops at that Forum, so I had those experiences in mind when I applied for the Summer School.
Of course, it turned out to be very different from what I expected. We arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on August 3, 2012. I went as a member of International Youth Council and I was really pleased to meet members of international IYC chapters, as well as familiar faces from the Doha Forum. However, United Airlines had lost my baggage, so while everyone else went to Coimbra and got to know each other, I decided to explore Lisbon on my own instead of waiting at the airport for my luggage. Lisbon is a beautiful city with old-world charm and very few tourists during the height of vacation season. Indeed, I was astonished at how quiet and empty most of the city was. The heat was oppressive, and most of the city closed because the Portuguese go on vacation in August, but I still managed to find amazing pastelerias with tortas de nata (a baked egg custard pastry specialty) and enchanting praças (public squares) to sit in. I must admit, I am now so used to traveling alone that it felt amazing to simply walk around by myself and drink in every possible detail.
The actual summer school took place at the University of Coimbra. It is a gorgeous university that is among the oldest in Europe, and the oldest one in Portugal. Everyday that we walked to class, we had to fight amongst the throngs of tourists taking pictures of the breathtaking view of all of Coimbra and the university’s intricate architecture and gorgeous ceramic tiles. They actually charged people to enter the chapel because it was so beautiful. Our days consisted of seminars about different intercultural issues, and workshops that our peers gave about their work in their own countries. I learned about amazing youth-run, non-profit organizations such as World Faith, Y-Peer, CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and many more. I must admit that it was very refreshing to have so many different perspectives on issues such as the perception of Muslim women, media and democracy, and other controversial topics. I have always disagreed with American universities teaching very unilaterally in their classrooms, when their student bodies reflect many more opinions and experiences.
The most interesting part of the summer school, however, was the trips. We visited Lisbon, Guimaraes, and Braga. I was impressed by how small every city in Portugal felt – even though I later learned that Coimbra is the third most populous city in all of Portugal! I was also impressed by how lively and young Braga was, even though it is essentially a small town. Braga was chosen as Europe’s Capital of Youth for 2012 because of 40% of its population is under 30 (a raising statistic in many parts of the world now) and its vibrant arts & culture. We were honored as guests in one of their outdoor concert parties, called WAY We Are Young (literally!), which I thought would be a rather stodgy affair but instead absolutely blew me away. A relatively small praça next to an old church filled up to the point of overflowing, and people hung out on the streets and on overlooking balconies. They started out with a DJ playing standard hits (of course, ‘We Are Young’!) and then a local university Portuguese choir sang some traditional songs and did a march. Then, more DJs started playing some more updated mixes and I was astonished to see everybody completely break it down until the wee hours in the morning. Surprisingly, this was the one night of the program where the staff didn’t provide transportation for us back to where we were lodged – the night that we probably needed it most, after dancing til 4 am and drinking questionable amounts. After barely a week with these people, I felt surprisingly comfortable letting go with them, and even making fun of them as we circled the small town searching for taxis and laying down out of pure exhaustion in the middle of the cobblestoned roads.
Some comments that I have about the program include that it was simply had too many people. One week is far too short a time period in order to get to know 137 amazing people. Also, not everybody there had the same level of experience in the youth empowerment/civic engagement/international development fields. I would advise to UN AoC to accept less people for the program so that they can get to know each other better. It was obviously very difficult to coordinate for 137 people, so the staff were frequently running short on sleep and time. Also, and this is just a personal preference, I thought that the breakfasts were a bit unhealthy. We just had bread, cookies, and jam. I firmly believe in fruits and protein for breakfast – the most important meal of the day – and I understand that while UN AoC had a budget, that they should still recognize that their participants’ nutritional needs are a necessity. Many of the participants, including myself, would have liked to go grocery shopping, but we often had no time throughout our packed schedules and social activities, and there were no grocery stores nearby.
My thoughts about the program include that the seminars were not as useful as I thought they would be. The seminars were frequently given by academics and professors, but I thought real-world practitioners in diverse fields would have been more useful. For example, it would have been more illuminating to hear a speech by someone who addressed the issue of gender inequality in Muslim countries instead of an academic who informed us that Muslim countries are very diverse and that gender inequality greatly ranges across all of them. That is all well and good, but it is slightly like preaching to the choir when the majority of the summer school participants are from Middle Eastern countries and know very well that the Middle East is very diverse. It is more the Western world that perceives that women suffer broadly in the Middle East. In fact, that seminar set off a fiery chain of comments about how in fact women DO have many rights in the Middle East, comments so defensive and obviously personal that I had to stand up and say that it doesn’t matter how sensitive we can be to the fact that the status of women’s rights is different across this particular geographic region when the fact that gender inequality still DOES exist and must be addressed in a practical and functional way. Indeed, while I felt that many seminars addressing the issues of diversity and perceptions of the Middle East were useful, I still felt frustrated about how we could all be helping each other with our observations from the field and grounded research on human rights, the environment, water, and so forth instead. At the end of the day, I think that forging powerful relationships and connections across cultural barriers and perceptions is best achieved when people are united by purpose.
My suggestions for the summer school in the future (and I absolutely intend on participating in one of the UN AoC future summer schools!) is to design interactive and informal problem solving circles. You could choose a case study – say of a community split by religious strife but struggling with unemployment, rising crime, etc – and ask participants what they would create as a solution and why. In this way, you could not only separate summer school participants into groups based on their fieldwork experiences/issue interests, but you could also jumpstart their creativity processes and perhaps create useful professional connections.
A highlight during the program was making local friends, as this is the only way to get an insight into the culture and learn more about the country today. I became close with two women from the program, and one of them made friends with locals in Coimbra during a day off. We started hanging out with these two guys – musicians/students – and they even came to visit us in Braga!
After the program was over in Braga, most of the summer school participants went back to Lisbon to take their flights back home. However – and I had planned this out for weeks – I took a train to Porto. I had changed my ticket about a week back so that my departure date from Portugal was three weeks later. My life philosophy is to take any advantage of travel, and I wasn’t about to leave Portugal after only having been in the country for a week. The ticket change cost me about $330 – thanks a lot, United Airlines – but if that was the cost of three weeks of freedom, then so be it. I arrived in Porto, shivering and wet, as I found out that Porto is much colder than the more southern parts of Portugal, and frequently rains to boot. However, it is deservedly famous for its food and architecture. I went with a Turkish girl from the UN program, but we were both trying to figure out our own plans. She split after a day, as so did I. My two friends from Coimbra actually came up to Porto to visit and say hi, and I ended up going back to Coimbra with them.
It was very different, being in Coimbra as a traveler now than as a participant in a UN program. First of all, I felt much more freedom to soak in the culture and meet more people. I stayed with my new friends, in their band’s music space, and in their family home, and tasted some delicious traditional sopas. We really didn’t have much to do everyday, since school was out and Coimbra was fairly empty, but I enjoyed just walking around the cobblestoned streets everyday and sitting around the Praça, waiting languorously for their friends to pass by. It seemed as though time was still and plenty, like you could scoop it up into a bottle and preserve it there forever.
Unfortunately, I left Coimbra because I had my camera stolen (and by one of their friends too… it’s not to say that you can’t trust locals when you travel, but you definitely shouldn’t trust second or third degree acquaintances as much as the locals that you initially met and conferred trust upon) and because I greatly missed Barcelona and speaking Spanish. However, my time in Portugal really impressed me. I realized how much speaking the local language has benefited me in the past – because not speaking Portuguese was definitely a hindrance while I was there. So I decided to study Portuguese right then and there, and I’ve now been studying [Brazilian] Portuguese at NYU for the past four months. Also, I was just really impressed by how friendly and sweet Portuguese people are. They’re very outgoing and always willing to make time for their friends and family. And they certainly know how to throw a good party… even by a New Yorker’s standards 😉 If any of you are interested in traveling to Portugal, I would really recommend visiting Lisbon, Coimbra, Braga, Porto and the Algarve. Portugal’s a beautiful country with very warm, grounded people, and honestly, it’s not too bad for a budget student traveler, either. And remember – wherever you find yourselves to be – on a program, on a business trip, visiting some family – throwing in some IndieTravel is never a bad idea!