Cultural Travel

Varadero

Picture this: you’ve spent three weeks living in a beautiful foreign country but have barely seen the beaches.  You only have two showers and they’re both always cold, and you’ve been eating arrozcompollo morning noon and night since you’ve been here.  Your mattress is thin, the pillows are stuffed with rags and old cotton batting. But then you get the best news: you’re headed to an all-inclusive resort on the longest uninterrupted beach in the world.  All you can eat food, much of which comes from la Yuma.  All you can drink liquor, but the only one that matters is rum.  The showers are hot, and there’s one for every pair of people. Okay, this place creeped me out. Also among the amenities?  Cubans are bussed in and out every evening, and only if they have proper identification proving that they work on a resort.  This way, there are no pesky hungry people ruining your beach view.  Bingo is conducted in English, French, Spanish and German.  At every meal beef–no matter that outside of these tourist traps is like winning the lottery to find beef from a cow in a Cuban restaurant. “I can’t even say ho-laaa!” the tourists cackle, mostly Canadians and British.  People stumble around at all hours, never leaving the specified resort area.  Never removing their precious plastic bracelets that separate them from the rabble that is Cuba. We only stayed for three days, but for most, this is all they will ever see of Cuba. We stuff our faces, we shower several times a day.  We drink all day long, accomplishing little else.  We cook... read more

Joy is More Sustainable than Duty

“If you feel like it’s a duty or hard work to help the poor, don’t do it.” It was the first time I had ever heard someone say that many people who help the world’s poor do so because they find it fun, interesting and challenging. I smiled in spite of myself, and felt like I was looking up to see an old friend for the first time in years. Whenever people ask why I wan to do this, I’m at a loss. Yes, I do feel some sort of moral obligation to humanity, but there are a lot of ways to fulfill that obligation. I think my neighbors who deliver meals and spend time with isolated friends in nursing homes are also doing good work that improves us all as a species. I view those who lead campaigns to pick up trash at local parks in much the same way. So I could easily help people in a different manner, and in the past I have, from teaching CCD to leading free tours at the State House to being a good granddaughter. And yet, I feel compelled to do this, to do more. Or, more accurately, to do different. Hearing Professor Shaugnessy say that the people who do the best job helping the world’s poor at the people who love it, thrive on it, are good at it has, in a way, let me out of the closet as someone who is happily, selfishly trying to save the world.  Or at least some small corner of it. So here’s the thing: I’m good at this stuff, and it... read more

My Allyson Experience

Allyson Goldhagen is a dear friend to whom I refer as Goldilocks.  People have stopped cars to talk to her, filmed her eating, invited her to weddings, proposed marriage etc.  Usually as soon as they meet her. Allyson is a magical wonder of intelligence and idealism, and a heavy dose of both at that.  Her fair hair and skin and blue eyes get her attention in the Arab world, and she never ceases to have amazing stories of local interaction.  Every day in Egypt, every few hours it seemed, she was having the sort of experiences that people write travel memoirs and blog posts about.  Not me! I was getting lost in cabs by myself and accidentally witnessing indecent exposure.  Needless to say, Alyson’s perspective is very different from mine, since she has some sort of magic travel dust in her flaxen hair. One day, eager to explore and nearing the end of our time in Cairo, Sarah, Khalid, Katie myself and a few others set out to see the Museum of Modern Art.  Or was it the Modern Art Museum?  I’m not sure, but I know we all fought about the name! Well our Arabic wasn’t pitch perfect, or maybe our source was off, but we got out of the cab and wandered around some impressive gates to see that we misunderstood.  Rather than open until one, it was open after one.  At about eleven am and not wanting to admit to defeat, we had little choice but to kill time. We explored the museum’s compound for a bit, generally meandering toward Tahrir square.  Quickly becoming thirsty in... read more

Concerns About Egypt Going Forward

The new constitution needs to come hastily but be respectful of human rights State of Emergency needs to be lifted.  Now. The police force (or a police force, for those not thrilled with the last one) needs to be instated, for everyone’s sake Economically, it is critical that Egypt be seen as stable and inviting asap, in order to bring the tourism industry back up to speed.  Without it, Egypt cannot function The military council–of which I am not particularly afraid despite the fact that it is military–must usher in a quick transition to a civilian government To that end, we need real elections with real parties and discourse on policy.  My understanding is that is already happening, with candidates already taking out papers to be on the ballot The US needs to maintain th 1.3 billion in foreign aid from the Mubarak era, but perhaps it could be better spent once it gets there The heightened sense of unity and tolerance needs to continue; it is the only way forward for Egypt.  It was shown so beautifully for Christmas services a few months ago, when Muslim Egyptians became human shields so their Christian countrymen could go to services without threat of another suicide bomber, and kicked into high gear when non-Muslim Egyptians started taking the blows of water cannons so that their Muslim friends and neighbors could pray in peace.  The great mix of men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian and all things in between needs to continue and become a force within civil society, not just within the protests.  anyone who tells you this was... read more

Choosing a New Place

When I first heard about the Benin trip, and how it had a one-week France component, I was a little bummed.  I had already been to france, I already had that stamp.  But I think a lot changed when I was in Cuba. As the trip got closer, I thought of paris as a comfort, as a home in so many ways.  As a breath of fresh air, the way a weekend at my parents’ house can be.  Now, when I think of bangladesh, I don’t think oh! Now I can say I’ve been to asia.  I don’t think about all the great proximate countries and how to cram them in as cheap as possible.  I think about how hard it will be to experience my first truly blind foreign language experience.  I think about how ill probably be alone, and what will I do for housing.  I think about how they treat women, and wonder whether harassment is prevalent.  When I think about the Dominican Republic, I think of the comforts of Spanish and familiar food.  I think of the proximity to Cuba and Haiti.  I think about how going there three times in a six month period will be such an asset.  Of course, I also hope there will be enough food, and that I wont get sick of spending so much time there. I think a lot, too, about the choices I don’t make.  Latin america isn’t supposed to be my focus area.  Shouldn’t I be in Africa or the Middle East?  Shouldn’t, as a friend suggested, I be running back to Cairo? This is where... read more
I Love the Egyptian Revolution

I Love the Egyptian Revolution

The Egyptian Revolution has captivated the world, and it seems every few minutes someone is calling, texting, or emailing to ask me what I think. Between my political science and Middle East Studies background, my travel to Egypt, and the friends I have living there, the Egyptian Revolution has been consuming every spare moment I have. How can you not love a revolution wherein a human chain forms to protect its museums and priceless antiquities?  A mob that thinks to maintain its history and culture, even in their anger and confusion? How do you not love revolutionaries who form a citizen police force, because they don’t want looters or violence and their government has abandoned them and their safety? How is it possible for your heart not to ache for the Christians who are human shields to protect their Muslim countrymen while in prayer, repaying a favor from Christmas Eve of this past year? I think the Egyptian Revolution is beautiful.  People keep asking me, who are the good guys?  Isn’t Mubarak better than the Muslim Brotherhood?  Is it safe over there?  These people are the good guys; the people who protect their countrymen, their history, and their homes.  These people who want real democracy because their “president” has not left office in 30 years. Mubarak isn’t better than the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood.  But that’s irrelevant (for now), because MB didn’t organize this.  The Egyptian Revolution was organized in what was once a small facebook group, by students on twitter, by men smoking hookah in cafes, and by women bringing their children to school. Contrary to what you... read more

Domino

This is my best possible recollection of something that happened about a year ago.  The quotes may be a bit off, but the sentiment is there. Also, some names are changed because I felt weird. I wander down the broken street, and my steps start to bounce because I can hear Rigoletto floating down to me out of a high Havana window.  Bum bum bum bum-ba-da, bum bum bum bum-ba-da, baa daa daa daa-daa, baa daa daa daa-daa.  I think briefly of seeing that opera at the Met when I was in high school, and the warmth of the memory has Havana feeling like home.  But still, I get slow and cautious as I approach the tiny barrio within itself.  It isn’t about safety; I don’t want to be the first one to show up. There are no women poking their heads out of windows tonight, no children running around and curling themselves around my ankles.  One little, bare bright, bulb shines and makes shadows out of Brittan and Fernando.  Rather than playing dominoes and crouching on the metal skeletons of chairs, they rest comfortably on a low, cement wall.  They drink, but their voices are relaxed and slow and the bottle remains upright and still most of the time. Brit smirks and stands to hug me, and suddenly Fernando is animated.  He immediately busies himself getting me the closest thing to a proper chair and a jam jar for the clear, grainy rum. “Heh, Have I got a story for you,” Brit quietly laughs to me.  So Fernando won’t hear it: “we’ve been talking about you.”  He seems pleased... read more

Learning the Language Matters

I’m sick of reading posts by bloggers who assure you it’s okay, they had a magical and revelatory experience in a foreign country wherein they knew basically none of the language.  Good for you.  Do you know how we treat people in America who don’t learn the language?  Like dirt.  Even if someone knows the language but has a little trouble, or a bit of an accent, we give them a hard time.  We insinuate that they’re clueless or stupid, and make jokes about their lack of credentials.  We say, “It’s AMERICA, learn ENGLISH!” Do people even understand the phrase doesn’t work that way? At least, “We’re in England, learn English,” works rhetorically, but the America one just makes you sound ignorant.    Every time someone goes abroad and doesn’t even have to try the language, they’re demonstrating a tiny bit of why people hate America.  We get whatever we want, and no, we’re not working hard for it.  We just collectively have so much money and pull, and other countries have so little, that they have to accept our 2.5 gpa English-only students.  Don’t pat yourself on the back for getting by with gestures.  Try moving away from the backpacker code or the study abroad rut and learn something real about the place you’re going to.  Something that doesn’t involve alcohol, hooking up or a beach.  Maybe it will involve a local meal for more than just the one token time, which inevitably will become a blog post or oft-repeated story.  Or try spending time with people who are not also fellow travelers, people who are not expats... read more

Cuban Novio, Cuban Boyfriend

By far, the majority of my traffic centers around these search terms.  That worried me.  It says that there’s a need.  There are these women out there with Cuban boyfriends, or wanting them, and not knowing how to handle it.  What to buy them, how to get one, how to know if they’re cheating, what to feed them, when to believe them.  I didn’t just put those thoughts into people’s heads, they’re all very real search terms I see all the time. Here’s the thing: I’ve never had a novio cubano, for a variety of reasons. If you want to know what it’s like, read Whitney’s series Adventures with a Cuban Boy over at her blog On Love and Other Things.  She has great prose, genuine thoughts and enchanting pictures.  And more importantly, she has the experience. I won’t talk about other people’s experience, but I cant talk about mine.  Here are a few posts I’ve written on the male/female dynamic in Cuba, from the perspective of a young, white American foreigner. I had a hard time with the novio thing in Cuba.  I’m a girl who’s used to having close guy friends, and a few good circles of guys to spend time with.  I’m also used to people finding out I have a boyfriend and respecting that, rather than trying to make me forget or “live in the moment.”  I’ve taken a bit of crap from fellow travelers for disliking some of the attention I get when abroad, but I don’t think anyone should have to put up with harassment, and I think everyone has the capacity to... read more

Something Worth Celebrating: National Coming Out Day

Instead of some long-dead jerk who didn’t really discover America (he DID land in Cuba though!) and even if he had, was clearly second-best to the vikings, let’s celebrate something real, something American. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That’s really what this is all about.  I don’t care what your politics or your religion are, everyone deserves to be happy.  They deserve to get promoted or hired based on their skills, to adopt if they’re fit parents and so choose.  To go on dates in public and not feel glares or hear slurs.  To go to school and learn, not hide from bullies.  If you have a problem with that, I think you’ve misunderstood America and what we’re doing here, and I’d kindly direct you to re-read some of our most important documents.  Or might I interest you in a stint in North Korea?  I hear Kim Jong-il isn’t a big fan of tolerance or civil liberties either. For National Coming Out Day, I encourage you to post on facebook, twitter or your blog encouraging our friends, families and neighbors to be comfortable in their own skin, whatever that may mean to them.  You should also look at the It Gets Better Project over on youtube.  Far too many kids have been bullied and lives have been lost.  Show people you Give a Damn. And finally, a plea: if you’re cruel to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, trans, intersex, in transition, or a myriad of other things that simply don’t fit the standard view of normal, you’re only hurting yourself.  Inevitably, there are people in... read more

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