Cultural Travel

Ten Things No One Tells You About Study Abroad

You will have at least one nervous breakdown. People don’t really want to hear that much about your trip.  30 seconds or less will do. Other countries are really not that scary.  The people are pretty much just like us–they just dress, talk and act different, and eat different food. Some days, it will suck. This is because it is real life, not an extended vacation.  So laugh and keep moving.  Even if you have to fake it, you probably won’t notice when you stop needing to. You will spend too much money. No matter how carefully you pack, you will have brought too much, and still manage to have left behind something you totally miss It’s harder to adjust to life back home at the end of the trip than life away from home at the beginning. Everyone gets in.  Well, pretty close to it. Everyone lies about how perfect study abroad is.  Study abroad is awesome, but not perfect.  I promise, your friends don’t post pictures, blogs or status updates about feeling overwhelmed, having trouble making friends, or being ridiculously homesick.  No one wants to admit “defeat” especially since everyone else’s time seems so perfect.  But everyone is having their rough days, too. You will, in fact, spend the same amount of time on facebook and watching movies/television as you did back home. Like this:Like... read more
Is this African Enough?

Is this African Enough?

When I was in Egypt, we often joked that we were in Fake Africa.  When asked if I had ever been to Africa before Benin, I would say yes and explain Egypt, which elicited much doubt.  I was told, in one way or another, that Egypt didn’t count, or wasn’t really Africa because it was: too rich too Arab not black enough too developed too wealthy filled with too many people who were fully clothed not hungry enough not in civil strife not “native” enough too educated If that’s not offensive to all parties, I’m not sure what would be.  Often our stereotypes, both positive and negative, get in the way of our ability to just appreciate a place for what it is.  When in the markets of Benin, many of the girls looked for “something really African,” such as wooden, hand-carved jewelry.  Wooden, hand-carved statues.  Or wooden, hand-carved anything.  Many were frustrated that we only saw cheap plastic and metal jewelry from China in plastic wrap.  But that’s what the women around us wore.  Not hand-carved elephants or oblong faces on a string of wooden beads. Instead of trapping Africa in the CNN version of it (hungry, desolate, war-torn and filled with safari animals and naked people) why don’t we just let Africa reveal itself to us?  Sometimes Africa is t-shirts, while other times it’s vivid-patterned cloth from China, and still others it’s an abaya.  We are the observers–not the creators–of Africa, and like any destination, we should try not to let our own imagination hold us back from the amazing world unfolding right in front of us. Like... read more

Why do They Hate Us?

On long days when the state of the world seems dismal, and my ability to help it negligible, I find my self turning to the West Wing.  One of the most brilliant episodes is entitled Isaac and Ishmael, and is the September 11th episode.  It has no impact on the rest of the timeline, but is something Aaron Sorkin, one of my favorite writers of stage and screen, felt compelled to create.  In the episode, one of the main questions  a young tour group poses to the staff is “Why do they hate us?”  I was reading an article that brought up a similar theme, and as someone who studies the Middle East I am often confronted with both thoughtful and hurtful responses to this question.  So here’s mine: Who is they? Leif has been linking often to Jeff Jarvis, who suggests that every criticism should be seen as a reflection of the person giving the critique.  This is reinforced constantly by Miss Conduct, who advises readers to tread lightly, as often seemingly random criticisms stem from the speaker’s own insecurities or personal life situations.  But for us, in an America that has almost forgotten while simulataneously can never forget September 11, 2001, sometimes we need to turn a light on ourselves.  I know everyone grows weary of the “just blame America” Camp, which I think is only so strong because of the equally tiring “Amurica is perfect” camp, but this isn’t about that.  This is about who we think our enemies are, and who they very much are not.  We need a greater understanding of basic definitions, like Muslim and the... read more

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go You talk about showering more than you actually do it You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there …but now you can’t wait to go back You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too You eat peanut butter You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once You’re still annoyed by street harassment You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33” People laugh when you eat with your hands You don’t speak Fon,... read more


In Santeria, my orisha is Chango, one of the guerreros or warriors.  His colours are red and white like Santa Barbara, he wields metal weapons and is often depicted with lightning.  He is often thought of as a virile–a Casanova and all that is mean.  Why are those synonymous in Cuba?  Or Anywhere?  But that’s not how I identify with him.  Each orisha has many paths  that they can take, and ways you can be like them.  I like that when syncretized with Catholicism, Chango has some gender–bending, and his tendency to mete out divine justice. I have a strong sense of Justice.  Whatever is good and fair compels me, regardless of how it favors or whether it directly affects me, which sometimes confuses others.  It isn’t as noble as it seems, and can often be annoying, like a compulsion.  You see for me, the absence of truth, facts and fairness is offensive.  Facts and justice are my religion, so it effects me whether the disservice concerns me or not. I greatly dislike situations like this one, where there is no right answer.  The writer in me thrives on ambiguity and grey area, but ethically it makes me uneasy in daily life.  There’s just so much we can’t make sense of, from child labour to servitude that borders on slavery, the attention we receive from men as well as our very presence here. Even if there is no right answer for everyone, I like to at least have my own rules, my own personal sense of what’s best.  that’s the beauty of Chango–he delivers his own swift justice, not... read more

“This is Why People Believe in God…”

“…they think, ‘Please God, make the rain stop!'” My roommate may be on to something, there… We woke up our first morning in Benin to a glorious monsoon-like splash for a few hours.  The call to prayer pleasantly lulled me awake, but I wish i had heard it four more times that day. The rain helped break the heat, but created massive traffic jams and many puddles throughout the Chant d’Oiseau hotel. The group of 22 of us (plus our TA Julie and profs Lori and Rebeca) are all staying on one floor without strangers, so we wander around the balconies and each other’s rooms, debating brushing our teeth with tap water, or the use of the weird orange tarp on our beds.  (Word on the street is that it’s to protect the bed from rats, but that has been neither confirmed nor denied, and probably never will be.) At night my roommate Erin and I tuck ourselves into our forts, AKA beds with bug nets.  We’ve learned to keep chapstick, the alarm clocks and a bottle of water on the INSIDE and have even perfected the art of shutting our lights off from inside our “forts”. Amid the fairly quiet night, exposing the screeching of bats and scuttling o creatures, we drift off around midnight and get up around  eight or our breakfast of baguette du pain and cafe or du the. We’ll be going to Porto-Novo on Thusday, bu we’ll be back at the end of our trip again, as the airport is here in Coptonou.  We’ve spent the last few days with students of Abomey University,... read more

Benin in Brief

Sory all, but the intenret cafe i’m in has some serious issues, so this is going to be a quick and dirty bullet post; sans photos. sidewalks are treqcherous in Benin, including gaping three foot deep holes into the sewage system which is just stqgnant water due to a linguistic mistake, we have no ac.  This is why it’s important to know the local language! All the Benois students we’ve met have been enthusiastic and so friendly! We bathe often but not thoroughly, and it makes little difference in the fqce of such heat we have bug nets, zhich thankfully protect us fro, the bats as well it is most definiely the rainy season n Benin some of the letters and all of the sy,bols are ,oved aroung on the French keyboard which they use in Benin.  Desolée! there qre very few streetlights and no trqffic lights there qe no taxis; everyone rides motorbikes without helmets I hope to find a better internet cafe soon, or perhaps somewhere with wifi! Like this:Like... read more

Did You Hate it?

I’ve been reading the U Michigan group blog, and it always leaves me feeling uneasy.  Some of the entries, like Franny’s, are beautiful and lyrical. But others reflect an intense dislike of all things Cuba, extreme efforts to distance oneself from Cuba. When I was at a reunion for last summer’s Egypt crew, I found myself suddenly on a stage.  I was late (curse you, green line!) and, as I was suddenly reminded, the only one who had been away for the semester who was back.  Chantalle asked about the Cuba program, and I gave her the practical answer, the kind I wish I had been given by people who went the year before me.  I talked about the realities of hunger and food scarcity, even for privileged Westerners, and the complex nature of friendships and relationships. During a pause, someone chimed in dryly with a, “wow, sounds like a great place.” I always feel like I’m balancing, countering myself when I talk about Cuba.  It’s just not cut and dry; there’s no easy answer.  Yes, I often felt like some of the U Mich kids who sought refuge in a western hotel with AC, nice bathrooms, comfy couches and English around every corner. A place where the privilege of my skin color, clothing and passport would allow me to block out the stresses of the Cuban reality. But I also learned a lot from Cuban values.  The importance family, in whatever form it may come, and pride in one’s community.  A sense of place, an intense eye for culture, both low and high, and the reality that perhaps... read more

A Whole New World

Being home is great because America is like this whole new place to me.  I appreciate a lot more, and there’s so much to experience.  I’m not clamoring to speak my mind or exercise the rights we come to think of as synonymous with “America” and the antithesis to a place like Cuba.  I never felt unprivileged in that sense.  Rather, it’s everything that’s transpired here in the last three months. Reading the Globe on the porch instead of on my laptop, trying on lots of clothes just for fun, trying to cook.  There’s always people to catch up with, television shows to catch up on, the radio dial full of new songs, and movies I haven’t heard of.  Food to re-experience, places to re-visit, and things to get reacquainted with, like going to American bars, ordering takeout or driving again. And really, nothing can compare to driving again.  I blare the stereo, singing and dancing along (even if I don’t know the words.)  Tonight’s inspiration, if you must know, was Rage Against the Machine.  Because sometimes new is great, but familiar is even better. Like this:Like... read more

Super Market Sweep

Let me say, to begin, that I should’ve known going to Market Basket on Holy Saturday was a bad idea. Weekends are always terrible there, especially holiday weekends, and that includes the entire Patriots season. But less than twenty-four hours after coming home from abroad? From a poor country? From Cuba, where there’s no advertising, no options, no variety? I am a woman with a death wish, apparently. My mum kept asking me questions: which kind of cheese? Hot or mild salsa? I had no clue how to answer these questions. I am far more indecisive now than I already was. So I stood there, gripping the handle of the shopping cart while she scouted deals. I should not have been steering. My eyes were so wide, and my face so apparently disturbed, that a nice guy who worked there stopped to ask if I was okay. Um, yeah. I’m just a little overwhelmed. Everywhere, options. Why do there need to be so many kinds, so many brands of lettuce? It’s just leaves, right? “Wild crispy tango romaine lettuce.” What? How is that even a thing? The waffle aisle was disturbing. Yes, frozen waffles had their own aisle. Name brand, store brand, other name brand. Whole grain, seven grain, blueberry, chocolate, cinnamon, homestyle. I can only imagine the damage a Cuban would do if they were allowed to shop at just one of these aisles. If they had options beyond the state-backed brand, the grey market, or nothing. The sheer volume of dairy products made from actual dairy would astound the average Cuban. Everyone was acting as though all... read more

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