Aldi in Malta

Off the Beaten Track

It all starts with a dream, and then it changes into a mission and at last a reality. This is to me the very basic elements of my field school in Malta. I always dreamt of taking what I study and applying it to a real life situation. And so it happened!

It all started with looking for a scholarship online when I came across Off The Beaten Track – Applied Anthropology Field School. I looked into it and it seemed legit, I started the application process and before I knew it I had my final letter of acceptance into the program. But this is just a simplification of it al. Such adventures, including exchange programmes, takes a lot of time and effort. Firstly, you most of the time have a full academic schedule to follow and of course a social life to keep up with and then comes along the admin and preparation for your journey.

Aldi (Right) and Friends
Aldi (Right) and Friends

Firstly, the admin, yes it does take time and sometimes can be frustrating but keep calm and carry on. Make a checklist of what you must do and take it step for step. It will all come together with a bit of perseverance. I also had to learn these lessons with my trip. The next big hurdle in the preparation process is flights and visas. Now here I can and will say get a good travel agent to help you and make sure that you get your dates right. I nearly had my flights booked 2 weeks to late, which would have been a disaster!

The visa monster, we all have heard that visas are a headache and they are, but ask if you not sure and remember to keep track of your documents. Most embassies require you to make a personal appointment with them, book this in time to avoid any complications. The excitement for my trip started about 2 weeks before I left. It was time to finish up the term and get ready for the Mediterranean.

The field school provided great information on what to bring along and what to leave behind, and they were right. The key is to pack effectively and not to overdo it.  I know, we girls like to take our whole wardrobes along, but chances are you can find some items on that side without having to carry the extra weight around. At last, after months of waiting and dreaming the day arrived to start the journey!

I left Cape Town on Friday the 18th of June and arrived in Malta on the 19th after several stopovers in Johannesburg and one in Cairo, just my luck to leave there before all the major riots started. I remember arriving in Malta and being blown away by the heat, but yet it was welcome, very welcome after some rainy days back home. I still had one day to myself before the program started, I spent this in Malta’s capital, Valetta a beautiful town on the sea-side, bustling with people from all corners of the world. After a good night’s rest, which I seriously needed, it was time to do the last leg of traveling. This was by ferry across to Gozo, the third island of the Isle of Malta. Luckily I didn’t have to do this on my own; I met a fellow student from the program the previous night in Valetta.

Off we went, over the blue-blue sea  to Gozo

Sunset in Malta
Sunset in Malta

Off the Beaten Track is a field school in Applied anthropology, it is hosted by the University of Leuven, Belgium. The program itself runs for three weeks at a time, on the island of Gozo. It has been running for the past 8 years and has seen exceptional growth! The three weeks consist of several fun assignments in and around the island to teach one key lessons as an anthropologist, secondly and most importantly, you get to set up your own research project and do active research on the culture of Gozitans, the world is literally your oyster! And lastly, you get an amazing opportunity to work with some of the best anthropologist around and also get to make new friends with people from right around the world. There is no strict structure to the program, except for a weekly one-on-one meeting with the director and tourism anthropologist Marc Vanlangendock. There are also supplementary workshops that you can take part in such as workshops in visual anthropology, anthropology of food and anthropology of tourism.

Arriving at our apartments where we stayed, was an unreal moment, I arrived in the bay that I have dreamed about for months. The time was here to make my own history. What was my research on you might wonder? Well I was torn at first; I had several ideas that I wanted to look into but just couldn’t choose. With the guidance of the staff there and especially Marc, I decided to research couch surfing, a new and alternative way of traveling. More specifically, I researched the key components of the relationship between host and guest in the couch surfing context. It was by luck that I was introduced to a man from Gozo who was a couch surfer himself and at the time had 5 boys, 4 from France and 1 from Italy staying with him. It took some time to understand them seeing that they could initially speak so to say no English and also there was a bit of confusion with regards to what I was REALLY doing.

None the less in the end it all turned out very well. Too well, I got an opportunity to stay on for the third and last field school for the year as academic staff. It was a daunting choice to make, but I decided to stay and take the position. This allowed me to continue my research for an extra month and a half which was great. The guys became good friends with all the other students and staff, it made my research a lot easier and also made it possible for all of us to have a great time there. There is so much that I have learnt in the field outside of a strictly academic space. If I had more space to tell you about it I would, but I don’t have so all I can do is recommend this field school to any one passionate about anthropology and anything similar. It is about following your dreams and making them work for you.

In short, it was out of this world. The people, the culture, the food, the island and all of its history is just out of this world. It is an island lost in time; we use to say “it is Go-Zo slowly time around here.”  From the festas, celebration of the saints by each of the catholic parishes to the lazy afternoons with friends. It all made it a very rich experience!

It was a sad day to leave the islands, but I left knowing that I have changed and have learnt so much. I was and still am very grateful for the opportunity I got. I arrived at Cape Town International Airport, in shorts and t-shirt regardless of it being 15 degrees outside, happy to be back and see family and friends. It was time to get back into studying. With 4 weeks of class to catch up I had to just push myself, but the motivation was there. I learnt that there is a reward for working hard even if you have to go look for it. Since the summer school I have been more passionate about anthropology than ever and I have also applied some of the skills and techniques that I learnt that side. Now that I have done it once, I am seriously considering it again…soon.Off the Beaten Track has been a life changing experience, not a penny spent wrong!  I would tell anyone who considers any form of exchange/ summer school to JUST DO IT! You are young and free, live in the now – it is all you have!