The Tiputini Biodiversity Station, bordering Yasuni National Park, Ecuador


Steven A. Martin, Ph.D., Environmental Management

Click on Photos to Enlarge

The Rio Napo, Ecuador | Western Amazonia

Where is the most biodiverse place on the planet?

In my search for far-flung places to study, I met Professor Kelly Swing, an ecologist with the University San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador, who believes the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) may well be that place.

Swing told me that the station's output of research marks it as a world-leading biodiversity hotspot. While there are other sites of similar importance, these do not offer the same level of access and safety for researchers.

Tiputini Biodiversity Station | Western Amazonia, Ecuador

Tiputini Biodiversity Station is adjacent to the Yasuni National Park, and together they form the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve.

Location of Yasuni National Park in the western Amazon, Ecuador

Experience of a lifetime

My arrival in the Amazon town of Puerto Francisco de Orellana, Ecuador, better known as El Coca, was little short of disaster. On flying out of Quito, the Andean city nestled at the foot of the infamously active Cotopaxi volcano, we hit turbulence and heavy rain as the plane descended into the Amazon basin.

Packed with an odd mix of environmental researchers and oil workers, the 12-seat twin-engine propeller plane was forced by the weather to turn back across the mountains and the safety of Quito.

Above Quito, Ecuador

Learning there was a second flight scheduled to depart in a few minutes, I cleverly jumped in. However, this plane got delayed on the runway and the previous flight took off ahead of us, arriving first at El Coca.

First sight of the Amazon Basin near Puerto Francisco de Orellana (El Coca)

First sight of an oil drilling station near El Coca

Stranded in the jungle

Just twenty minutes behind my original flight, I landed at a deserted jungle runway.

Since I was not on the original flight, and in the hurry of the storm, the cars and drivers for the university and oil companies had already left.

I was standing in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, completely alone.

Alone in the Western Amazon

Moi Enomenga

The sound of the jungle grew louder as I looked around and saw nothing but trees and mud. It was my first time in the Amazon and I started to think that I might just be in serious trouble.

There was a light rain, no shelter, and the only thing to do was follow the muddy track and see where it led. But which way to go, left or right?

At that moment, a tall, strikingly confident Indian strode out from the forest and walked straight up to me.

He spoke to me in Spanish, "What are you doing here alone?"

Moi Enomenga, Huaorani Amazon eco-warrior and environmental celebrity

I was half terrified, and half relieved to see someone. In halting Spanish, I explained that I was a visitor from the University, and that my car had left without me because I had arrived on a later plane than expected. I was worried he might stab me and steal my camera, but instead he offered to show me the way to the hotel normally used by the university in El Coca.

Although I was stranded for a few days until I got things sorted out, it allowed time to get to know my rescuer. It turned out that he was not just any random passer-by, but a famous environmental campaigner – Moi Enomenga, Huaorani Indian and Amazon eco-warrior.

Interview with Moi Enomenga

Amazon celebrity

Moi is an Amazon celebrity, the son of a proud indigenous leader who chose the traditional life over the ideology of early Christian missionaries. His father took his family deep into the Western Amazon to an area known today as Yasuni National Park, and so instead of learning the Bible, Moi learned deep indigenous knowledge and the cultural traditions of the Huaorani.

The man I met near the runway at El Coca, little did I know, was also the Huaorani jungle boy featured in Savages, a best-selling book by award-winning writer Joe Kane. Moi had matured to become a leader of the local indigenous movement trying to defend the rainforest against the oil companies.

He certainly helped me out – a total stranger in the forest.

"Savages" by Joe Cane, with Moi Enomenga

A voice for the forest

Moi's example shows that one man who chooses to raise his voice can speak for the collective resources of the largest – and most endangered – natural habitat on the planet. Protecting the Amazon rainforest is his life's work, and the Yasuni National Park and surrounding area are testament to his ongoing success.

His recent project is the creation of a new protected area named Yame Reserve, in honor of his late father. In the light of all the growing threats to his environmental and cultural heritage, his willingness to network with tourism organizations, conservation groups, the Ecuadorian government and the United Nations offers hope to this globally vital, and profoundly endangered, natural paradise.

National Geographic | Ecuador's Yasuní National Park

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC 2012 | "Ecuador's Yasuní Park is one of the Amazon's last wild frontiers, boasting an incredible biodiversity—treetop orchids, prowling jaguars, nearly 600 species of birds—and serving as home for two indigenous nations. But a vast untapped oil supply beneath the forest floor is attracting the attention of multinational oil companies. National Geographic sent a team of five photographers, each with a different specialty, into the heart of the Amazon to document the delicate balance of life in Yasuní and how it is being impacted by the demand for oil."

Oil pumping station and water pollution in the Amazon rainforest | Steven Martin

Puerto Francisco de Orellana (El Coca)

El Coca is Ecuador's gateway to what the locals call El Oriente – the East of Ecuador, also known to outsiders as the western Amazon. El Coca is a rustic frontier town of around 45,000 people built at the confluence of the Coca, Napo and Payamino Rivers.

Puerto Francisco de Orellana, or El Coca | Amazon frontier town of nearly 45,000 people and gateway to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station and Yasuni National Park

It was an Ecuadorian holiday weekend and I was unable to get a call though to USFQ. Given my limited time schedule, it was looking like the Tiputini trip was off.

I didn't know exactly where the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) was, and my assumption that it was "just down the river" was way off.

For several days, I explored El Coca. The Spanish I gained from studying abroad in Spain was a godsend. I met taxi drivers and boat transport services, and eventually a group of oil workers at a makeshift helicopter pad.

They told me it was next to impossible to get to TBS without an organized expedition. The oil companies and other interests had a variety of armed guards, checkpoints and road-blocks along the route. There were also the issues of traversing several rivers, and, of course, a wide range of natural predators, including snakes.

Making phone contact with the university was the only way in.

People of El Coca

People of El Coca

People of El Coca

Moonlight expedition

After several days of this, I returned to the hotel one evening, and reception informed me that USFQ had called. My transport to Tiputini was arranged.

Due to my delay and problems in scheduling transport, I would have to travel to the Biodiversity Station at night. My first reaction was shock, but I figured I was in good hands with USFQ, and there was a full moon and clear sky.

It was a long night, traveling by jeep, by boat, and on foot. First we traveled several hours downstream on the Napo River to the village of Pompeya and the entrance of an oil operation.

In order to pass the oil company's security checkpoint, I needed to produce my passport and the yellow fever vaccination card, which I had gotten in Quito a week earlier. The guards at the checkpoint were armed, dressed in military fatigues, and seemed larger than life.

Next, we drove several more hours by jeep to the reach the bank of the Tiputini River, arriving at just after midnight.

The best was yet to come – we had to navigate the river, a deep and narrow channel carved through the clay that forms the Amazon Basin.

Moonlight on the Tiputini River | Franklin, a Quechua guide with USFQ, whistles to signal our arrival

In a motorized wooden canoe, with the help of a small group of Quechua Indian guides, we powered down the Tiputini River toward the station, dodging obstacles in the water as insects pelted us in the face for two hours.

My knuckles turned white from clutching the sides of the canoe to avoid being catapulted into the river as it tilted sharply left or right to avoid rocks, branches and sand-banks.

Above, the river naturally created an opening to the sky, and the full moon was visible the entire night. The air was fresh and clean. Once my eyes adjusted, I could clearly see the river and banks in the moonlight, and I felt exhilarated to be in the real Amazon at last.

I never felt more alive.

Tiputini Biodiversity Station | Patrice Adret

Select Photos | Travels and Guides at Tiputini

Click on photos to enlarge

Quechua guides at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station

Franklin, my Tiputini guide

Tiputini River transport canoe and guide

Rainforest research observation tower at TBS

Bromeliads in the rainforest canopy at the Tiputini observation tower

View of the Tiputini River below the Rainforest

View of the Tiputini River from TBS during the dry season

Curious Toucan

TBS researchers accommodations

Learn more

If you feel motivated to learn more about the University San Francisco de Quito (USFQ)'s Tiputini Biodiversity Station, or would like to arrange for a public talk on this topic or other Learning Adventures, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

For study abroad, there is nowhere on earth more exciting, remote or rewarding.

Thank you.

–Steven Martin

Thank you for reading my story and sharing in the journey to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station and Yasuni National Park

At the request f the TBS administration, I wrote the following letters supporting public and private awareness.


Contact USFQ and TBS

Interested parties, including students and scientists, can contact USFQ for more information on joining or supporting education and conservation efforts for these outstanding programs:




Summertime fun in Austria. Thailand's Jantanee Martin visits three of the country's best known cities.

We hope you enjoy these short Vlogs of our summer 2019 European travels.

The Habsburg Imperial Crown | Treasury of the Vienna Hofburg | 962 CE

Austria Map (in Austrian) | 2019 European Learning Adventures


Sites visited and featured in our short video, Vienna, include the St. Stephan's Cathedral, Hofburg Imperial Palace, Albertina Museum Vienna, and the Vienna State Opera.

Vienna | Wien | Austria

  • Video: iPhoneX
  • Stills: iPhoneX and Panasonic GH5
  • Editing: Final Cut Pro
  • Music: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Vienna | City of Music


Salzburg, Austria, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site widely known as the birthplace of Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and for the 1965 romantic musical, The Sound of Music.

Locations appearing in our short video include, Kapitelplatz, Salzburg Cathedral, Festungsbahn Funicular Railway, Makartsteg Bridge, Salzach River, Mirabell Palace, Mirabell Garden, Mozartplatz, and The Hohensalzburg Fortress.


  • Video: mostly iPhoneX
  • Stills: mostly Panasonic GH5
  • Editing: Final Cut Pro
  • Music: Waltz of the Flowers, by Tchaikovsky


Sites visited and featured in our short video, include the Museum Goldenes Dachl, Hofburg Imperial Palace, Tyrolean State Museum, Cathedral of St. James, Inn River, and a trip to the top of Innsbruck on the Nordketten Cable Car.


  • Video: mostly iPhoneX
  • Stills: mostly Panasonic GH5
  • Editing: Final Cut Pro
  • Music: Torrance Sunset, by Dan Lebowitz
  • Thanks to: Hotel Central Innsbruck

Thanks for visiting our Austria Page. If you like these short Vlogs of our 2019 European travels, please visit our YouTube channel at University Filmworks for the complete series, with Surfing Munich, Prague, Budapest, Greece and Istanbul.

Thank you,

Steven & Jantanee Martin




Steven A. Martin, Ph.D., Environmental Management

Click on photos to enlarge.

Map and Location of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

In 2003, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), Ecuador, invited me to visit the opening of a new international college campus on San Cristobal Island – in the Galapagos!

I didn't waste any time in booking the flight to Quito to meet the staff who were developing the facility and study program.

Galapagos brown pelican

After a meeting at the university main campus in Quito, I flew to San Cristobal, the administrative capital of the islands.

I arrived at the new campus in the afternoon, and although the accommodations were not yet officially open to staff and students, they made an exception, and I was among the very first to stay at the new facility.

Welcome to San Cristóbal | Galápagos National Park Headquarters

Arriving in San Cristobal

USFQ | GAIAS | GSC | San Cristobal

A baby seal sunbathing on the rocks | 2003

What I found was way beyond my expectations – a new college campus built directly in front of a world-class beach!

Today the USFQ facility in the Galapagos has grown to include a scientific research center developed in conjunction with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

Below are a few photos taken in 2003 when the original community college opened to offer students on the island an opportunity to study locally.

Study on the beach | San Cristobal

USFQ GAIAS | GSC | Study Abroad on San Cristobal

USFQ programming

At the time of my visit in 2003, the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS) was established as a branch of the USFQ in Quito. Current programing includes USFQ Galapagos semester abroad opportunities, service learning projects, and ongoing projects with the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Summer and semester programs with USFQ

International students who study at USFQ can select semester-long courses from a variety of academic areas in the biological and social sciences:

  • Evolution, Ecology and Conservation
  • Marine Ecology
  • People, Politics and the Environment
  • Sustainable Tourism

Helpful links

The newly-opened USFQ campus | 2003

Oceanfront classrooms | 2003

USFQ accommodations | 2003

San Cristóbal | Administrative capital of Galápagos Province

The Galápagos Islands are located nearly 1,000 kilometers west of the South American coast, and I stayed on San Cristobal, the fifth largest and easternmost island in the archipelago.

I knew the islands received large waves year-round from the northern and southern hemispheres – But was it safe to go surfing there, considering the abundance of marine life and a wide variety of shark species?

Map of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Fortunately, I had packed several surfboards for the trip, and was able to meet up with the local surfers, who explained that although sharks are definitely of concern, they are well-fed due to the natural abundance of fish in coastal waters, and not generally interested in eating surfers.

However, Galapagos sea lions were another story, particularly males protecting females, and mothers protecting their young. Males reach weights over 400 kilos and females average 120 kilos when full grown. Although they barked at me in the water, and chased me around a little, nothing serious happened.

I had surfed among frisky sea lions before in California, but sharing the waves with large marine iguanas was a first for me. I watched as they launched themselves off the rocks and dove through the big waves like fearless prehistoric surfers.

A Galapagos marine iguana checks the surf before taking the plunge

In 1835, a 26-year-old Charles Darwin (1809-1882) arrived in the Galapagos Islands aboard the Beagle, a 10-gun brig-sloop, captained by Robert FitzRoy, landing at San Cristóbal.

Forever touched by his experiences in the Galapagos, Darwin went on to develop his theory of evolution, and is best remembered for his research on the process of natural selection. His name, now a globally-recognized acronym for his scientific theories, is often expressed as simply "Darwinism".

As far as we know, Darwin didn't surf, but it is safe to assume that he marveled at the big waves, as well as the wildlife around San Cristobal.

Today, the port city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, capital of the Galápagos province, remains the oldest permanent settlement of the islands.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno | San Cristobal

Evolution in theory and practice

Having the opportunity to visit this amazing place, following in the footsteps of Darwin, was a truly life-changing experience. Iguanas diving into the sea, seals of many different types, colors, shapes and sizes, the incredible variety of birdlife, dolphins and sharks swimming near the coast, and giant land-bound tortoises, for which the archipelago is named, all combined to make it one of the most incredible places on Earth.

Like the tortoises, my time in Galapagos was mainly land-based, in contrast to tourists who spend most of their time in the islands on live-aboard boats. While I may not have had the opportunity to travel between the 13 different islands, go diving, or see very much of the marine wildlife, I was there on my own, independent of tour guides and groups, rules and regulations.

I was free to walk to local surf spots in the mornings, paddle out to sea, sometimes alone, and to explore inland areas in the afternoons and evenings to see the flora, fauna, and the geographical features of the island.

Frigatebird | Crater Lagoon

Around San Cristobal

One of the benefits of spending time on the same island was getting to know the local people. I met fishermen, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, surfers, and the new staff who were setting up the university program and community college.

I fondly remember the smell and taste of home-grown Galapagos coffee, kindly shared by the owner of a small cafe in the early mornings before opening to the public.

Appreciating natural history and travel

Like Darwin, spending time in the Galapagos changed the direction of my life.

This amazing, one-of-a-kind world of biodiversity, deepened my appreciation of natural history and my enthusiasm for learning and travel.

Sunbathing on the beach in front of the USFQ campus

Toward the end of my stay, I called home to the US from a payphone right on the beach, and agreed to sell my stake in our business, Surf Lessons Hawaii, to my business partner. With that cash, I was free to attend graduate school in Taiwan and begin to realize my plan to launch an online magazine, the Study Abroad Journal.

Learning is an adventure.

Thank you for visiting my Galapagos Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this amazing educational opportunity, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Online Resources

San Cristobal | Galapagos

Jewel of Travel

Jewel of Travel


By Steven A. Martin, PhD

First published as Great Expectations in 1999 by the International Honor Society, this experiential essay explores how the dream of world travel matches up with the reality.

Great expectations

As a young man in the 1980s, I was confident that the more I knew about the world, the more I would enjoy life. I dreamed of visiting the world's iconic places, having fun, and getting a global education. Then, in 1998, I met a man from the US State Department on a bus ride en route to the Dead Sea. He told me, “Travel makes you smarter but less happy.”

Jerusalem, Israel | 1998

My dream of international travel

In my early thirties, I was lucky enough to be able to realize some of those dreams. I visited the Far East and the Middle East. I paddled a boat through the Amazon Rainforest, drove a camper through the Australian Outback, and trekked through the Tibetan Plateau. I saw the Great Pyramid at Giza, skateboarded along the Great Wall of China, and saw the sunset at the Taj Mahal. I crossed the Yangtze, cruised down the Nile and studied the archaeological sites along the Indus. I visited the great museums and historical sites of London, Paris and Rome.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India | 2001

Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt | 1998

Great Wall of China | 2002

The first 10 countries

In the first three years, I visited ten countries, approaching them with a romantic and optimistic mindset. My great expectations were fulfilled – I was seeing the world, having fun, and living my dream of travel.

Surfing in the Bay of Biscay, Spain | 1993

10 to 20 countries

With the next ten countries, I became increasingly aware of the serious issues facing our planet. The more I saw, the more I needed to see.  At the same time, I felt increasingly concerned about the many interconnected threats to our world – such as climate change, pollution of the air, soil, and sea, economic inequality, terrorism, racism and religious bigotry.

Napo River, Ecuador, in the Amazon Rainforest | 2003

Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa | 1997

20 to 30 countries

Between 20 and 30 countries, I was in a process of personal realization.

Along with fulfilling my colorful dream of world travel, I had directly encountered appalling acts of deliberate pollution, manufactured poverty, environmental disruption and human suffering.

In every corner of our world, I found a one-sided, undeclared war against nature. I realized that my own jet-set carbon footprint was contributing to the problem, and that I, like almost everyone else, did not know how to be part of the solution.

Johannesburg's South-western township (Soweto) South Africa | 1997

30 to 40 countries

Beyond thirty countries, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. My enthusiasm for travel was tempered by my growing sense of impending doom for our beautiful world. Everywhere I met experts who told me that our world was imperiled, if not already damaged beyond repair, and there seemed to be very little I or anyone else could do about it.

Soweto, South Africa | 1997

Santo Domingo, Ecuador | 2004

Surat Thani, Thailand | 2007

Global issues

I had seen DDT powder scooped into baskets with bare hands in markets in Ecuador, and found gold- and oil-mining companies spilling mercury and lead into Amazon tributaries. I had witnessed organized religion tearing apart a Holy Land.

I had endured air pollution in China so thick that I could feel my life expectancy drop with each breath. I had witnessed violence, sickness and hunger in India and Africa. I had seen sewage, plastics, and nuclear waste dumped into our seas and oceans.

Everywhere I had met people who were concerned about these issues but could offer no solutions.

Cambodia's great lake, the Tonle Sap | 2007

I began to realize that the troubles of others are also my own. How can anyone be truly happy when others are suffering? How can anyone in the world be safe as long as there are people – or corporations – damaging our health and the global environment?

Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, China | 2000

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa | 1997

Mekong Delta, Vietnam | 2014

Burden of knowledge

Travel has taught me that I must, without surrender, be grateful for whatever happens.

Albert Einstein explained that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is all comprehensible. Those who want to understand the current state and complexity of today's world are destined to carry the burden of that knowledge.

As I confront the geopolitical, economic and environmental issues that are harming our species and our planet, I inevitably feel deeply concerned and accountable. The more I know, the more I owe.

New Delhi, India | 2001

Coca, Ecuador | 2003

Xian, China | 1995

On the flight home from a trip around the world, I gazed through the airplane window, and reflected on my travels. I had explored forty countries and heard the tones of as many languages. I had spent my life savings and learned many things about our world, some of them fantastic, others unsettling and several terrifying.

I had to agree with Shakespeare that the jewel of experience comes at an infinite price.

Mount Everest, Tibet | June 2000

The Jewel of Travel was originally published as Great Expectations, in the 1999 International Honor Society Anthology Nota Bene. The essay also won top honors in the 1999 Hawaii Community College Literary Competition and the 1999 State of Hawaii League for Innovation Literary Competition.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided.

Thank you,

–Steven Martin

On expedition to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in western Amazonia

Silk Road

Silk Road

Teaching Demo | Silk Road | Eastern Civilization


THE SILK ROAD (絲綢之路  Sīchóu Zhī Lù)


Kashgar, Xinjiang, China | Silk Road 1995


I first traveled along the Chinese Silk Road in 1995, on a trip organized by Professor John Cheng through the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH). We journeyed by bus, train and short flights. Reaching Kashgar on China's westernmost border just in time for the Sunday Bazaar, I vowed to return one day with more time to explore.


In June, 2001, I returned to explore the Silk Road. On this trip, I traveled overland from Xian to Kashgar, China, and across the Karakoram Mountains to Pakistan (see Silk Road Part II, Pakistan).

Although a long journey across deserts and mountains, it was certainly not as difficult as in the past. By 2001, modernization in Xinjiang had brought hotels, tourist amenities, and transportation networks, including a new rail link between Urumqi and Kashgar.

I hope you enjoy the highlights of the 1995 and 2001 photo journals below, and find the links to Silk Road maps, presentations and resources helpful.

For more information, please contact me or visit my university course at Eastern Civilization.

Jiayuguan Fort, Great Wall of China | A beacon of Eastern civilization and culture

Teaching Eastern Civilization

Sir Aurel Stein | Photo 1909

I have been sharing my Silk Road experiences with students of all ages for over twenty years. I am interested in the early works of European explorers, particularly Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943).

Stein's archaeological and geographical work is well represented in his 1933 publication: On Ancient Central Asian Tracks: Brief Narrative of Three Expeditions in Innermost Asia and Northwestern China.

Many of Stein's original works are currently royalty-free and available on

1933 Chinese Silk Road Map by Aurel Stein | Innermost Asia | Click to enlarge

1995 Experience | The University of Hawaii Silk Road Study Tour

The photos shown here are highlights from my first trip along the Silk Road.

The travel began at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, and ended at the Kashgar Bazaar, also known locally as the Sunday Market, and now officially known as the International Trade Market of Central and Western Asia.

Click on photos to enlarge.

1995 Highlights

Monks at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian

Big Wild Goose Pagoda | Xian

Rainy start on our Journey to the West | Xian

Riding the Iron Rooster to Western China

Exploring the Gobi Desert at 33 years old

Jiayuguan Fort | Western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall

UH Hilo Prof John Cheng | Dunhuang, Gansu Province

Turpan and Urumqi | Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Flaming Mountain, from the epic tale, "Journey to the West"

Farmer in Turpan | Eastern Xinjiang

Taklamakan Desert | Xinjiang

Kazakh yurts in the Tianshan | Heavenly Mountains

Toordi Ashan | Our Uyghur driver in Urumqi, Xinjiang

Tianshan | Flight from Urumqi to Kashgar

Kashgar | Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Islamic culture | Kashgar

Musical instruments for sale | Kashgar

Knife seller | Kashgar Sunday Market

Islamic culture | Kashgar Sunday Market

Sunday Livestock Market | 1995

Tobacco seller | Kashgar

Afaq Khoja Mausoleum (c. 1640) | Kashgar

My 2001 Silk Road Independent Study Project

In the summer of 2001, I made an agreement with the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) to conduct independent research on the Silk Road. I proposed to travel overland from Xian, China, to Delhi, India.

My Liberal Studies Adviser, Prof. John Cheng, agreed, providing I visited Harappa, the Indus River Valley Civilization site, and Taxila, the Gandhara Civilization site.

Taxila was one of the most ancient universities in the world, where people from all over Asia and the Middle East came to study and teach. At least eighteen subjects were covered, including medicine, religion, and science. Instruction was available in at least five different languages, and this multicultural environment contributed to the pre-eminence of Taxila as a center of learning from the 5th century BC until the 2nd century AD.

Taxila was a key site where the ancient Greeks met the Buddhists, a cultural coincidence that occurred at the dawn of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the birth of the Gandhāran Civilization.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the Sirkap archaeological site at Taxila, evidence of an ancient Greek city in South Asia.

Sirkap archaeological site | Taxila, Punjab, Pakistan

Visitors today can explore the ruins of a two-thousand-year-old university, and stroll around the Taxila Museum filled with unique art history.

I kept a comprehensive photo journal of my travels, and after returning and presenting my photo journal at the university auditorium I earned enough credits to complete my undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii.

Journey to the West  西遊記

My plan was to follow in the footsteps of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (玄奘) (c. 602–664), who traveled to India in the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty, and kept a detailed account of his travels.

His journal, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記), is an outstanding treasure of Chinese history.

Nine hundred years later, Xuanzang's true story was brought to life in the16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West (西遊記), one of China's "Four Great Classical Novels."

Journey to the West | Xuanzang in the 16th century Chinese classic

Journey to the West is a tall tale retracing Xuanzang's travels with an unlikely group of companions, namely the tricky and powerful Monkey King, the greedy and ravenous Pigsy, and the hideous and obedient Friar Sand. Mixing fact with fiction, the story incorporates Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and folklore into the groups' improbable pilgrimage of spiritual enlightenment.

Xuanzang travel map | Click to enlarge

National Geographic | Treasure Seekers: China's Frozen Desert

Based on the lives of Sir Aurel Stein and Xuanzang: "As commerce flourished along the Silk Road, Central Asia became a melting pot of cultures. Here on the edges of the Taklmakan Desert, an exotic blend of Indian, Mongol, Chinese, and European influences fueled an astonishing cultural Renaissance. In the 7th century, a Chinese monk, Xuanzang, plunged into the desert while on a Buddhist pilgrimage to India..."

2001 Journal Highlights

Starting in Xian, at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda built in Xuanzang's honor, I began my own journey. I tried to visit the same cultural sites and physical landscapes, and to keep a journal, like he did. While his trip to India and return took 15 years or more, I had just two months.

The photos shown here are highlights from the Chinese leg of the journey, placed in chronological order.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Statue of Xuanzang | Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian

Bell Tower in Xian | Beginning of the Silk Road as a trade route

View from the train | Xian, Shaanxi Province, to Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

Sunrise at Jiayuguan Fort, Great Wall | Gansu Province

Jiayuguan Fort | Western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall

Singing Sand Dunes | Dunhuang

Dunhuang | Mogao Caves

Uyghur man with his taxi at the Gaochang ruins

Uyghur youth at the Gaochang ancient ruins

Uyghur dancer | Turpan, Xinjiang

Raisins for sale in Turpan

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

Urumqi, Xinjiang Gateway to the Tianshan

Hui culture | Urumqi

Frank Li | Hui culture in Urumqi

Kazakh family erecting their yurt | Tianshan

Kazakh family arriving at lower pastures | Tianshan

Home for the summer | Lower pastures of Tianshan

Kashgar, Xinjiang China's western frontier town

Overnight train | Urumqi to Kashgar

Kashgar International Trade Market

Livestock market | Kashgar Sunday bazaar

Chili peppers for sale | Kashgar

Kashgar knives at the bazaar

Uyghur youth at the Kashgar Sunday bazaar | Xinjiang Province

Watermelon seller | Kashgar Sunday bazaar

Working at the Kashgar bazaar

Wooden pitchforks for sale | Kashgar bazaar

Id Kah Mosque (c. 1442)

Islamic culture at the Id Kah Mosque

Reading the Koran across from the Id Kah Mosque

Yusuf Balasaguni | 11th century Islamic philosopher

Yusuf Balasaguni Mausoleum | Kashgar

Online resources

Thank you for visiting my Silk Road Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy the photos and information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to know more about the Silk Road or other Learning Adventures, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

South Africa

South Africa

Cape of Good Hope | South Africa


Study abroad in South Africa

The waves and wildlife of South Africa captured my imagination and sense of adventure. I was a surfer, and so it was easy to choose South Africa for my next study abroad experience.

Big surf at Jeffreys Bay | Eastern Cape, South Africa | 1997

When I contacted universities in Cape Town and Durban to talk about studying in South Africa for a semester, I discovered that completing the enrollment process was nearly impossible for people who did not have South African citizenship. The universities at that time just were not set up to welcome independent overseas students looking to study abroad. It looked like I would have to blaze a new trail through this bureaucratic jungle.

School for International Training | 1997

Fortunately, at this point I heard about the School for International Training (SIT) at Cape Town, South Africa.  They offered a pathway to a six-month student visa through enrollment in their program in Arts and Social Change.

SIT is a globally-respected institution, based in Vermont, USA, with a philosophy based around intercultural exchange and experiential learning. They're the result of a 1932 project called “The Experiment in International Living”, from which one participant, Sargent Shriver, would ultimately develop the Peace Corps.

"Just to travel is rather boring, but to travel with a purpose is educational and exciting." – Sargent Shriver

South Africa | Click to detailed map

The SIT Cape Town program included homestay accommodation, and classes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The day my SIT acceptance letter arrived, I packed my clothes and surfboards for the trip of a lifetime to South Africa.

It was longest commute to school I ever had, the better part of two days and nights.

Kona – Honolulu – Chicago – Washington, D.C. (Dulles) – Frankfurt – Johannesburg – Cape Town.

Once I got to the university, I was pleased to find that the campus offered spectacular views from the top of the gently sloping city, at the foot of the city’s iconic landmark, Table Mountain.

The University of Cape Town | UCT Campus and Table Mountain

University of Cape Town | UCT Campus

University of Cape Town | UCT Campus

South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights

In 1997, the study abroad program I attended was called South Africa: Arts and Social Change. The program is still running, currently under the name South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights. The program continues to offer students opportunities to explore issues of multiculturalism from historical and contemporary perspectives, and to visit important cultural and environmental sites around the country, such as Soweto (South West Townships) located southwest of Johannesburg.

The history of Soweto illustrates the segregationist thinking which lead to the 1948 establishment of Apartheid.

South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights | SIT

Soweto | Southwest Township | located southwest of Johannesburg

During Nelson Mandela's 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island, he drafted Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.

Visiting the prison, now a living museum, I met an ex-inmate who knew Mandela personally and told me about Mandela's commitment to education and learning, especially reading books, as exemplified by his famous remark, "We'll turn this prison into a library."

One of the prison cells on Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years

Cultural Homestay

My host family lived in a Cape township named Surrey Estate.

The father of the family was originally from Durban, of Indian ancestry, while his wife was from Cape Town and of Malaysian ancestry, and they had two daughters in their early twenties.

The family were Muslim, and so this was a great opportunity for me to learn about Islam. I studied the history and events of Islam specific to Cape Town, focused on Cape Malay traditions and culture.

Studying Islam in Surrey Estate, Cape Town | Cape Malay culture

Mr. and Mrs. Ramjan | Host family parents | 1997

Zara (left) and Shahana (right) Ramjan | Host family sisters | 1997

Twenty years on, I am still in contact with the family, and I still have fond memories of Mrs. Ramjan's home cooking.

Shahana in 2018 with a family of her own | Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town

My first impression of Cape Town was of an Atlantic coast, multicultural city, with sandstone mountains towing over picturesque white sand beaches, reminding me of Rio de Janeiro.

Over the course of time, I discovered much more about the city, taking public transportation to school, visiting townships, and eventually living within walking distance of Glen Beach. Surfing the waves at Glen Beach connected me with Cape Town's surfing culture and from then on I felt like a local, with a tight-knit group of friends and opportunities to travel to other surfing spots.

I surfed some of the best waves in the world with the Cape Town crew, including Elands Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean coast, north of the city, and Jeffreys Bay, on the Indian Ocean coast, east of the city.

View of Cape Town from Table Mountain

Atop Table Mountain

Table Mountain from Robben Island

View over Lion's Head from Atop Table Mountain

The Waterfront at Cape Town

Cape Town train station

Picture-perfect Camps Bay

Surfer catching a wave at Glen Beach

Palm-fringed Camps Bay Beach

Around the Western Cape

Bartholomew Dias captained the first European vessel around the Cape of Good Hope in the name of Portugal in 1488, returning home after a skirmish with local tribes. Ten years later, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape, and was the first to reach India by that route.

Nearly a century later, Sir Francis Drake, the legendary English explorer, described the Cape of Good Hope in his ship’s log as, “the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.”

Among members of the international surfing community, the powerful waves around the Western Cape province are legendary, and I was keen to see them for myself.

Cape of Good Hope | Cape Peninsula | South Africa

Boulders Beach | Simon’s Town

Oudtshoorn | Western Cape

Protea | Hiking in the Western Cape Province

Eastern Cape | Addo Elephant Park

At UCT, I had heard that Addo Elephant National Park, located in the Eastern Cape Province, was one the best places to see and photograph wild elephants in South Africa. But this wasn’t always the case. The Addo elephant was hunted to near extinction by Cape farmers, and in 1931, only eleven were still alive.

Today, the number of elephants in the park and surrounding areas is estimated to be 500.

Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa's third largest national park

The Addo elephant is a unique sub-species of elephant, which is slightly smaller than most African varieties.

Visiting the park for myself, I learned that they had been protected through the work of British naturalist Sydney Skaife, who founded the Wildlife Protection and Conservation Society (currently the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa).

Addo Elephants | Protected through the work of British naturalist Sydney Skaife

The Trans-Karoo and Voortrekkers of yesteryear

Before the semester abroad was over, I felt that I needed to see and learn more of the country and its rich history, so I bought a ticket on the Trans-Karoo, South Africa’s cross-continent rail system linking Cape Town with Johannesburg.

I was intent on experiencing Xhosa and Zulu cultures, seeing Durban and the Indian Ocean Coast, and visiting the country’s legendary game reserves to see the wildlife I heard so much about for myself.

The Trans-Karoo was the modern-day route of a much older story in the European quest to push east and across the continent, namely the 1837 Great Trek undertaken by the Voortrekkers, South Africa's Dutch pioneers.

After arriving in Johannesburg, my first stop was the Voortrekkers monument, a focal point in South Africa's historical geography which I had studied at UCT (see photo below).

The Voortrekkers (Afrikaans for the ‘first pioneers’) are comparable to the American pioneers, zealous Christians who ventured across a continent in search of a new land, encountering native peoples, and facing challenges and dangers. Whereas the American pioneers headed west in their covered wagons and encountered Native Americans, the Voortrekkers headed east and encountered the Xhosa, Zulu, and other large tribes already occupying the land – and poised to defend it.

Descended from the Dutch East India Company's original settlers, the Voortrekkers were hearty adventurers left behind from an early supply station at the Cape of Good Hope. They were Boers, Dutch pastoralists, dissatisfied with British rule, choosing instead to make the “Great Trek” and face untold dangers and bloodshed in the African heartland.

They camped at night with their covered wagons drawn in a “Laager” – That is, they formed their wagons into a tight circle to provide security. Laagers were more than a campsite; they represented an isolationist mentality, first from the church in Europe, then the English church in the Cape, and on the frontier from the Khoi-San, Xhosa, and Zulu.


To the Voortrekkers, the African interior was terra incognita – a foreboding land of savages and wild beasts – but the Voortrekkers pushed east with great South African pride, “Ons vir jou Suid-Afrika,” which meant “We for you South Africa.” Outnumbered by large and powerful Zulu tribes numbering in the thousands, they nevertheless pressed on into Kwa-Zulu Natal, where they were narrowly victorious at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.

Armed with a doctrine of supposed racial superiority supported by religious belief, their guns were loaded with "Bullets with butterfly wings," a modern graffiti I saw spray-painted on nearby street-corner by local youth targeting ideological connections between the Voortrekkers, the institutional segregation employed during Apartheid a century later, and the residual challenges they face today.

Soweto | The South West Township

Soweto represents a group of South African townships, appropriately named for its location southwest of Johannesburg, where residents took to the streets in 1976 to protest of the government’s implementation of Afrikaans language into the school system. The residents were, and still are, mainly speakers of Nguni languages, such as isiZulu and isiXhosa, and they fought to retain their own languages as media of instruction in local schools.

Xhosa mother and child | Soweto (Southwestern Township)

I was fortunate to tour Soweto with Max Maximum Tour Company, run by a Soweto local named Max, a Xhosa man about my age with first-hand experience with the sufferings of Apartheid.

In 1976, as a young boy, Max witnessed the force of the apartheid system against unarmed children of Soweto: “They opened fire on us with live rounds and ran us down with mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles called Casspirs, ominous war toys named after the South African Police (SAP) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).”

The Casspir I saw looked like a truck straight out of a Mad Max movie, with tall military tires, armored plates, bulletproof windows, and the only entrance through a hatch on top.

Xhosa house | Soweto

Casspir | Mine Protected Vehicle

Max took me to see the monument and small museum honoring Hector Pieterson, the first student killed in the riots which began on June 16, 1976. He showed me a group of white storage containers, with black and white photos on the walls illustrating the chaos and violence that had claimed somewhere between 200 and 700 lives.

I walked around, practicing what little isiXhosa I had learned at UCT, meeting people, and exploring squatter shacks as well as some newer parts of the city with electricity and improved roads. People were friendly with me, especially when I said, "Molo!" (Hello!) and "Unjani wena?" (How are you?) in isiXhosa.

My camera was a great tool to break the ice when I asked residents if I could take pictures of houses and families.

Life in Soweto

Xhosa parent at Soweto

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park | The first nature reserve in South Africa

One of the highlights of living, traveling, and studying in South Africa was going on safari at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal Province. Seeing Africa's legendary wildlife with my own eyes was a life-changing experience, deepening my understanding of natural history and the role that human beings play in conservation.

I have posted a few photos below, and links to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the official website for park management conservation and biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal Province. Click on a photo to enlarge or visit Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife pages for the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park camp areas.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi River and Park

KwaZulu-Natal | The 'Dark Continent' and Durban's sunny coast

Other than the draw of surfing some of the best waves on the planet, I chose South Africa for my African study abroad experience as there was relatively less chances of catching malaria than in other countries in the region.

But this wasn't always the case.

It was diseases like sleeping sickness and malaria that would echo the name “Dark Continent” behind the very mention of Africa. I learned that malaria came from Italian words meaning “bad air,” because it was believed to be an airborne disease, which was partially true considering that mosquitos are definitely airborne.

The TseTse fly was actually the greatest single factor for the name “Dark Continent,” causing sleeping sickness in man and ‘Nagana’ in livestock. The fly made much of central Africa, and Zululand in South Africa, virtually uninhabitable for the Europeans.

In 1945, DDT spraying wiped out the fly, but a recent outbreak was reported during my stay, just north of the South African border.

Zulu cultural park | KwaZulu-Natal

Lungani | KwaZulu-Natal guide

Nguni cattle | KwaZulu-Natal

For me, the fun was in Durban, a 'surf city', like Waikiki, Hawaii, but with date palms and waves breaking on sand bars, compared Waikiki’s coconut trees and coral reefs. Durban had a flavor unlike anywhere in the world, a sandy beach town and cultural mosaic of African, Islamic, Indian, and European food, faces and architecture.

Hotels in Durban | KwaZulu-Natal

Zulu Rickshaw | Durban

Thank you for visiting my South Africa Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this amazing education abroad experience, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Online resources



College Consortium for International Studies (CCIS) Center at the International College of Seville, Spain


Welcome to my Spain semester abroad Learning Adventure. I hope you enjoy the pictures, and find the links useful.

This page is part of a series of journals documenting my Grand Tour of education abroad programs, which culminated in my becoming a professional academic.

In 1998 I spent a semester abroad in Seville, Spain, with St. Bonaventure University (SBU), College Consortium for International Studies (CCIS), and the International College of Seville (ICS).

  • Campus-based courses | Culture and society of Spain, History of Spain, and Spanish language.
  • Travels in Spain | Cordoba, Granada, Rhonda, Marbella, Madrid, Mallorca, and Segovia.
  • International travels | Morocco and Portugal.

Spain and the Iberian Peninsula

For more than 15,000 years, people have been creating extraordinary art on the Iberian Peninsula.

Beginning with images of bison painted on cave walls at Altamira over 15,000 years ago, the art that we can see today in Spain covers the whole of human history. The ancient Greeks and Phoenicians, the Romans who dominated Spain for six hundred years, the invading Germanic Visigoths, and the Moors from North Africa who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, bringing Islamic art, architecture, and religion, all left their artistic and cultural legacy on this unique country. As an American, the experience of living and studying in Spain brought history into my life in a way that I hadn’t encountered before.

Paleolithic art | Altamira bison | Click to Altamira Museum

Topographical Map of Spain | Click to enlarge

Spring semester in Seville

During the 5 months that I studied in Seville, I saw the people and parks come to life with the arrival of spring, experiencing first-hand the Spanish idiom "La primavera, la sangre altera" (In Spring, the blood rises). As the green leaves and orange blossoms appeared, and the vibrant bougainvillea came alive in the parks, so came the sunshine, warm weather, and tourists from around the globe.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Springtime in Seville's Maria Luisa Park

Early Spring in Seville

Early Spring in Seville

Springtime in Seville

Guadalquivir River

The Seville program

In 1998, the Seville semester abroad program was designed so that our courses were held Monday through Thursday, giving us three day weekends for traveling outside the city.

After classes on weekdays, I explored the many local sites around Seville, such as the Alcazar, Cathedral, Bullring, Italica, Plaza de San Francisco, Torre del Oro, and other parks and museums.

Click on a photo to visit a virtual museum.

Seville Cathedral

Torre del Oro

Seville Bullring

My neighborhood | Porvenir

While in Seville, I lived in a small apartment in a neighborhood named Porvenir. It was a coincidence that the Sevillian apartment owners, who were my host family, shared my surname. The sign above the entrance to my door read "Casa Martin".

Friends near the Porvenir Apartment

My Porvenir Apartment | "Casa Martin"

Spring at the Porvenir Apartment

Porvenir means "for the future" due to the planned construction ahead of the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition World's Fair. It included not only the housing area where I lived, but also two current landmarks in Seville, namely the Plaza de Espana and Maria-Lusia Park.

Plaza de España

The Plaza de Espana and the Maria-Lusia Park were a short walk from my apartment, and I passed through them nearly every day. Many times I met new people, Spanish couples young and old, horse-drawn carriage operators who took tourists for rides, and occasionally Gypsies offering a rose in exchange for good luck or a curse, depending whether or not I was willing to give up a few pesos.

The spectacular architecture of the Plaza de Espana has featured in many famous movies, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Star Wars Episode II, Attack of the Clones (2002), and The Dictator (2012).

Plaza de Espana | 1998

North tower | Plaza de Espana

Horse drawn carriages | Plaza de Espana | Click to

Vicente Traver fountain | Plaza de Espana | Click to

Ceramic tiled benches and alcoves of the provinces | Click to

Tiled alcove featuring the province of Zaragoza | Click to

Maria Luisa Park | Parque de María Luisa

Maria-Lusia Park (Parque de María Luisa) is Seville's foremost green area, featuring Moorish-style gardens and architecture with fountains, monuments, pavilions, ponds, and statues.

What I remember most are well-dressed ladies and gentlemen out for sunset walks, young couples kissing on colorful tiled benches, and afternoon visits to the Museum of Arts and Traditions of Sevilla.

Parque de María Luisa

Parque de María Luisa

Springtime in the park

Museum of Arts and Traditions of Sevilla

Seville cultural events

When studying abroad in Seville during the Spring semester, week-long cultural highlights include the Seville Fair (La Feria de Abril) and Holy Week (Semana Santa).

Click on photos to enlarge.

Seville Fair | La Feria de Abril de Sevilla

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Seville Fair | Spring 1998

Holy Week | Semana Santa

A trumpet signals the start of Semana Santa

A "Paso" in the street

The crowd at Plaza de San Francisco

National and international travels

Three-day weekends

Throughout the five months I lived in Seville, I made good use of my three-day weekends.

From Monday to Thursday, I attended all classes, and completed all assignments, but on Friday mornings, I woke to the Spanish sunrise, tidied up the apartment, and headed directly to the bus or train station.

I visited, photographed, and studied important cultural centers in central and southern Spain, such as Cordoba, Granada, Ronda, Marbella, Madrid, Segovia, and the Balearic island of Mallorca.

Cordoba | Roman Bridge

Granada | Alhambra

Ronda | Tajo de Ronda

Mallorca | Balearic Islands

San Lorenzo de El Escorial | El Escorial

Segovia | Alcazar

Tarifa | Baelo Claudia Roman Ruins

Trujillo | Francisco Pizarro statue

Long holiday breaks

On longer holiday breaks, I went on more adventurous trips, such as Lisbon and the Algarve region in Portugal for surfing, or across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangiers, Morocco. One particular trip, I rode the Marrakech Express and hired a guide in order to cross the Atlas Mountains, entering the Sahara Desert, and riding a camel east toward the Algerian border.


Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal | Surf break

Algarve region | Southern Portugal


Tangier | Morocco

Water man | Marrakesh, Morocco

Jemaa el Fnaa Market | Marrakesh

Sahara Desert | Morocco

Sahara Desert | Morocco

Academic interests | Al-Andalus and Islamic-influenced Spain


A topic of personal interest to me is Islamic-influenced Spain, sometimes referred to as Al-Andalus, a term recognizing the Muslim territories of the Iberian Peninsula. At its greatest extent during the 8th century, Islamic rulers governed most of Spain and Portugal.

During the 780 years (711-1492) of the Moors in Spain, Islamic territories waxed and waned depending on political tides, creating frontier areas where Christian and Islamic influences were in close contact, politically, culturally and economically. For example, a close look at place names around Andalusia reveals many towns with the name "de la frontera" added.

Giralda Bell Tower at the Seville Cathedral, originally designed as an Islamic minaret | Click to enlarge

Entrance to the Alhambra in Granada | a pinnacle of Islamic culture in Spain | Click to museum website

Beginning in 711, swift-moving Islamic armies from north Africa invaded Spain, and in less than a decade occupied nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula. A process of acculturation followed, and Spain developed, and flourished, into a hybrid civilization comprising Muslims, Christians, Jews, Gypsies, and other cultural influences.

Although conflicts certainly existed between the various cultural traditions and religions, they were, for the most part, mutually tolerated and therefore combined to form a new culture. As a result, Islamic-influenced Spain developed into one of the most sophisticated cultures that Europe had seen since the fall of the Roman Empire four hundred years earlier.

One of the more fascinating outcomes was the arrival of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge which had been preserved in Islamic libraries. While living, studying and traveling in Spain, I learned that ancient Greek philosophy, math, and science, which had long since been translated to Classical Arabic, was translated back into Latin, Spanish, and other European languages during the Moorish period. This knowledge had been lost in Europe because of the Christian habit during the Dark Ages of burning all books other than the Bible. It is ironic that after Christians had destroyed all the pre-Christian written history and wisdom of Europe, much of this knowledge arrived back in the continent through the Moorish influence in Spain.

Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold) | 13th century Islamic watchtower on the Guadalquivir River in Seville | Click to museum website

This is to say that the great body of Greek knowledge, as well as ancient works from Persia, India, and China, essentially unavailable to the West for several centuries, became available once again. Notably, areas of knowledge and research, particularly math, architecture, and astronomy, which had been familiar to adepts in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, had been further developed by Islamic scholars, and subsequently, this powerful knowledge flowed into, and through, Spain, eventually reaching important cultural centers in France, England, Germany and crucially Florence, Italy, where these books helped to kickstart the artistic and scientific revolution that later became known as the Renaissance.

Great Mosque Cordoba | Click to Islamic Art website

The culture of Al-Andalus thus had a major impact on the shift of Western Europe out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

I was fortunate enough to study this topic at the International College of Seville, and to visit key sites with my professor, Oxford-educated Richard Bastin, who I nicknamed "Señor Bastino" due to his expertise in Spanish culture and history, although he was actually English. Our travels together included a visit to Toledo, where scholars at the Toledo School of Translators undertook the important work of translating the ancient texts into European languages in the twelfth and thirteen centuries.

Documentary | When the Moors Ruled in Europe

Online Resources

Thank you for visiting my Spain Learning Adventure page.

If you feel motivated to learn more about studying abroad in Spain or other Learning Adventures, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Juan (left) and Jose (right), friends at Seville's only surf shop "Surf Planet", showing off their new T-shirt design with Seville's unofficial motto "Mucho Arte"

Friends at Surf Planet - Surf Shop Seville, Spain - Steven Andrew Martin - Study Abroad Journal



This is the story of the most spectacular photo I have ever taken.

In the summer of 2000, I made an agreement with the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH) to conduct independent research in Tibet after my summer study abroad at Peking University (北京大学). I proposed to travel overland from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Nepal.

My Liberal Studies Adviser, Prof. John Cheng, agreed, providing I kept a detailed photo journal of my travels.

Ancient Buddhist rock art near Lhasa | 1066 AD | Click to enlarge

Lhasa, Tibet, and the journey ahead

After a month-long study abroad program with the University of Hawaii, ending in Chengdu, southwestern China, I set out with two students, to Lhasa, Tibet.

Potala Palace, former residence of the Dali Lama | Lhasa, Tibet

I planned to travel southwest from Lhasa, by Toyota Land Cruiser, across the fertile valleys of Xigazê and Gyantse. These ancient cultural and religious centers are the gateway to the Tingri Plain, a 4,500 meter-high basin located north of Mount Everest.

Tibetan village | En route to Xigazê | Tibet

The trip began inauspiciously. As mandated by the Chinese visa restrictions in Beijing, I had booked through the China International Travel Service, CITS, for the hire of a Toyota Land Cruiser and local driver for two weeks, as well as a national guide and an international guide – not a cheap excursion by any means. I had paid in advance for what I hoped would be a relatively new model vehicle to get us over the mountains and difficult terrain ahead. What actually appeared outside the CITS office in Lhasa that morning was an ancient, battered truck with bald tires, stinking of fuel from what was clearly a leaking tank. The less said about the social skills of the Chinese driver, the better.

Within ten minutes of sitting in the fume-filled truck, I was physically sick. I made the decision that there was no way I was going to spend two weeks like this, and insisted that the driver turn around and head back to the CITS.

Smiling, but unyielding, I explained quietly and politely to a series of CITS officials that the truck was unsafe, and unlikely to get us to Everest.

After several hours of this, I was very relieved to see the arrival of Mr Quan, a distinguished-looking driver in a beautiful late-model Toyota Land Cruiser. We were back on the road.

Getting petrol in our Toyota Land Cruiser in Lhasa before the trip to Mount Everest

And so it came to pass that Mr Quan, myself, my two students Kawika and Aaron, our national guide, Mr. Wu, and our international guide, Nancy Lan, set off for Everest.

Over the next few days, I learned that Mr. Quan was indeed a driver of quality, who had previously served many dignitaries on past tours, including the Kennedy family from the United States and other international government officials.

Mr. Quan (right) and Tibetan villagers at the window of our Toyota Land Cruiser

Valleys, villages, and mountain passes

With Mr. Quan at the wheel, we crossed though expansive valleys with fields of yellow rapeseed flowers and visited small traditional Tibetan villages. We cautiously drove up steep, dangerous switchback roads to high-mountain passes, some at 16,000 feet or more.

At each pass, we stopped to check the vehicle, especially the brakes, before descending to the next valley. I followed local tradition by tying prayer flags to shrines to thank the spirits for our safe passage, and send peaceful mantras in the wind.

Prayer flags at a mountain pass on the way to Xigazê

Fields of Tibetan barley (qingke) in a picturesque valley

Tibetan farmer standing in a green field of 'qingke' barley on the way to Xigazê

Visiting a rural Tibetan village

Meeting an elderly Tibetan woman

Prayer stones at the Tibetan village

Tibetan scriptural texts stored in a rural monastery

Mount Everest and the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve

Entering Qomolangma National Nature Preserve, we headed to the Rongbuck Monastery to photograph the north face of Mount Everest. Our Land Cruiser powered up the last mountain pass of the trip, through sunny skies and cold winds, and as occasional gaps appeared in the clouds, we caught distant glimpses of Everest across the most impressively massive valley I ever saw. (See my photo top of this page).

Entering the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve

Supply truck on the Tingri Plain

Sheep crossing the Rongbuck glacier and stream

Everest towers above the Rongbuk Monastery

Rongbuk glacial valley at the foot of Everest

View of Mount Everest near the Rongbuk glacier base camp

At the foot of Everest, June 2000

Story of most spectacular photo I have ever taken – Qomolangma, the snow goddess of Mount Everest

South from the Rongbuck Monastery, across a glacial valley of naturally-crushed grey rock, I hiked to nearly 18,000 feet and stood at the foot of Everest. The north face of the mountain towered nearly 10,000 feet above.

The air was thin and the wind reddened my skin. I set up the camera and took pictures, in color slides and black and white prints, but Everest had a mind of its own.

As quickly as the summit appeared through the rapidly moving clouds, it was gone from sight. I had seen just enough to know it was there; but for several hours, until nearly dark, I saw only grey clouds breaking across the summit.

It was getting dark and dangerously late to return to camp, and I scrabbled down the glacier feeling somewhat defeated, reflecting on the stories I'd read of climbers who spent years planning and training, only to fail in their bid for the summit.

The truck started, and we drove away in the darkness with the mountain at our back. As I was reaching for something behind me, I caught from the corner of my eye the sight of a sudden change of wind. In seconds, the east wind whipped away the covering clouds from the mountain, revealing the full magnificence of Everest in crystal clarity.

Qomolangma, the legendary goddess of the mountain, was miraculously lifting her veil.

"Stop!" I told Mr. Quan. "Wait!"

I gathered my gear and launched out of the truck, fumbling to get a shot before the surreal moment was gone.

I knew it was the perfect photo of the top of the world.

Mount Everest from the Rongbuk Glacier | June 2000 | Click to enlarge

Thank you for visiting my Tibet Learning Adventure Page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to travel to Tibet, or would like to arrange a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Egypt and Israel

Egypt and Israel


The only time that I ever really thought I was going to die was in Egypt.

Not from militants, drowning in the Nile, or heat stroke – It was the food!

Sailing south on the Nile from the Aswan Dam, I ate something that I shouldn't have. In a half coma for 3 days, my eyes transfixed on banks of the Nile as the boat drifted downstream with the current, I watched men watering their herds and women washing their clothes.

I thought about the great explorers of yesteryear who had perished on this very stretch of river, and never before did my life seem so insignificant.

Hieroglyphic Art | Egypt 1998

The Pyramid of Khafre | c. 2570 BC

After crossing the Sinai Desert by bus, my camera and film were held hostage at the Israeli border.

I was somewhat annoyed while the Israeli police X-ray scanned my film with heavy-duty equipment more than a dozen times. Once they were finished, the film was damaged, and I never bothered to share the remaining pictures with anyone.

The good news was that I eventually passed through the border near Palestine and was on my way to Jerusalem in time to find a hostel for the night.

The photos shown here are from the original 1998 prints dug out of a shoebox.

Click on photos to enlarge.

The Giza Plateau

Arriving at Giza for the first time | 1998

Great Sphinx of Giza

The Pyramid of Khafre

The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) | c. 2580–2560 BC

The Nile | Lifeblood of Egypt

The Nile | Aswan Dam

Sunset on the Nile

Traveling south toward Cairo

The Nile | Cairo


Shopkeeper near Aswan

Spices for sale near Aswan

Felucca on the Nile

Pyramid of Djoser | c. 2665 BC

Hieroglyph | Egyptian tomb

Egyptian Hieroglyphics


Valley of the Kings


Western Wall | Temple Mount | Jerusalem

Western Wall | Jerusalem

Wedding photos | Jerusalem city wall

Jewish culture | Western Wall

Christian Priest | Bethlehem

Temple Mount and Mount of Olives | Jerusalem

Masada Cableway and the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea

Israel/Lebanon Coast at Rosh Hanikra

Israel Lebanon Border | Rosh Hanikra

Thank you for visiting my Egypt and Israel page.

I'll be adding new content to this page over the coming months, including my near-death experience on the Nile, crossing the Sinai Peninsula in a public van with 12 Palestinians, and surfing in Tel-Aviv, Israel.

–Steven Martin

South America

South America


Costa Rica was a popular destination among surfers – And I had plenty of good reasons to study in Costa Rica.

I wanted travel, fun, romance, adventure, and most of all, to surf the legendary waves that I had heard about.

The study abroad program I picked was with the University of Nevada at Reno and University Study Abroad Consortium (USAC), an organization which represented a number of US universities and guaranteed accreditation.

Studying abroad with University Study Abroad Consortium (USAC) | Costa Rica 1996

Studying abroad in Costa Rica was just the beginning of what turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. South America – the New World – was too close to not see, and I found a cheap airline ticket with stops in Panama, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

Click on photos to enlarge.

A few hours from Panama City

South America offered the romance of a new world, a vast continent where the most sensual languages in the world, Spanish and Portuguese, were spoken. I couldn’t wait to get started.

My flight landed in Quito, Ecuador, and I first went looking for the museum built on the equatorial line. A team from the French Academy of Sciences had surveyed the area in 1743 to find the exact line of the equator, giving the country a new name as a result...

Panama Canal

Quito | Ecuador

Standing at the Equator | Quito

Surf at Pichilemu | Chile

Fishers at Pichilemu | Chile

Aconcagua | Chile/Argentina border

Mar Del Plata | Argentina

Whale Research | Uruguay

Surf beach | Uruguay

Checking the surf near Rio | Brazil

Rio de Janeiro | Brazil

Saquarema | Brazil

South America | 1996 Travel Journal

South America | 1996 Travel Journal