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Group Travel - Away She Goes

Group Travel

Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

En route to Ganvie. It’s rare for people to write about Ganvie, or really any part of Benin, but when they do it churns my stomach.  Romantic, they write.  Mystical, inviting, the Venice of Africa. None of this is what I saw in Ganvie. We got to the stilt village in the middle of Nokué Lake, not far from Cotonou,  Moving in a pair of long motorboats we passed fish farms and what looked like the invasive species water hyacinth along the way.  Because we were a human services group, someone asked the obvious question of whether the men who brought us there were from the community, and the answer was hand-waved away with a probably.  When we arrived, we got out to find a small, angry monkey chained to a post, setting the tone for our visit. The only monkey I saw in three weeks in Benin.   Reasons given for the existence of the village are varied, from the villagers themselves as well as the internet.  Some claim it started 400 years ago, others say the 16th or 17th century.  The Tofinu people were running from enslavement by either the Fon or Dahomey tribe.  Or was it the Portuguese?  Some claim it’s the only one in the world, or perhaps the biggest. Everything felt uneasy there. A woman screamed at us in a tribal language as we came to a shop.  Throughout the day, children and adults would curse, yell and point at us as they passed on their completely non-mechanized boats.  Even for those who didn’t speak French, it still had a chilling effect.  We found ourselves lowering... read more
Make Your Own Luck

Make Your Own Luck

In photography, people often dismiss great shots by attributing them to luck or other outside factors. That person just happened to be there at the right time, they have nicer equipment, that shot is easier because the subject itself is so interesting, colorful or rare.  But as Andrea, one of my favorite photography professors, reminds me, photographers make their own luck. Yes, that may be a lucky shot, but you’re not seeing all the other shots that didn’t work out.  You don’t see how many hours they waited in that location for something good to happen in that frame, how much research they did to find the right location, or how much time they invested getting their subjects to trust them and feel comfortable.   You’re also not seeing how much time they spend practicing being creative and getting to know their own equipment, so when the time comes they can see something more interesting than what everyone else is seeing, and capture the image quickly. During my two summers in Cuba as a TA to Northeastern University’s photography program, the students with the best collection of images were the ones who created their own luck. They went back to the same locations over and over again, getting to know people and becoming an accepted presence in their midst as opposed to an intruder existing outside the action. They learned the necessary background information to find the potential for great shots, and learned when the variables could possibly line up.  Eventually, this hard work paid off with gorgeous, insightful, authentic views of their subjects in their own environs. Like a... read more

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Since moving from a study abroad participant to a leader of trips abroad, I have had some recalibrating to do.  There is a difference between the risks I’m willing to take myself and those I’m willing to allow my students to take. This came rushing to the fore last summer when I was walking at night in Havana with the majority of our students, and at least one of the Cubans with us was stopped by the police for walking with white women while black.  It is important to note that this is a significantly worse offense than walking while black, although that’s an issue in Cuba as well.  The reason is not only due to racism and history, but also tourism, industry, and hegemony.  While I find the term “tourism apartheid” a bit strident, there is more than a nugget of truth to it, and the way it plays out in Cuba is that it’s somewhat acceptable if the white woman is visibly into it, but otherwise all young black men are assumed to be harassing your tourist dollars away.  Of course, not once has the policia ever showed up to stop genuine harassment (to my knowledge).  And the component of hegemony: when it comes down to it, some lives are deemed more worthy than others, and white skin and our little blue books protect us.  Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unacceptable for an American to lose their life abroad.  It’s cool at home, especially if they lost their life to a legally purchased gun, or if they are not white and middle class.  But that’s... read more

Tightlipped

Those who know me and read this blog have noticed that there are usually two reasons for me to go quiet: I’m incredibly stressed and busy, or I can’t possibly keep my mouth shut about a new potential opportunity. This time it may be a bit of both.  I’m graduating in May, which brings with it a job hunt and certain anxieties about friends moving away, finding a place to live, and paying off bills.  Granted, I’ve been rather laid back about the whole thing, but that doesn’t make it go away and that doesn’t make people stop asking me about it. On the bright side, I’ve been having beautiful, magical transportive dreams of crumbling colonial facades, cramped, sticky rooms bursting with tambores, and of course, that living creature that is the malecón. See you in May, mi habana! Like this:Like... read more
The Funny Thing About Europe

The Funny Thing About Europe

…is that it has drinkable water and hot showers and everything you could want to buy.  There are crepes and high prices, wi-fi and western food.  And still, it is not enough for some. But then, it is still Greece, the modern-day Sick Man of Europe.  And as one econ professor always reminded us, Greece is only considered European as long as it suits the Great White West.  I feel funny just calling it Europe.  Now that Greece has become inconvenient (yet again), there are rumblings of amending the Schengen Agreement to allow the “temporary” removal of states, for the “protection of the integrity” of the alliance.  Sounds an awful lot like the precursor to Children of Men to me, especially the quotes in the FT article.  But still, I can’t wait to see what this means for all things NATO, EU, Eurozone and Schengen.  Not to mention to study abroad ramifications! So there is that other part of Greece.  That part that has me missing Zamalek every day.  I see Cairo everywhere, and when I look out on my balcony I search for the minarets and nautical nightclubs that punctuate the Nile. My room and hotel even look like el fondoq flamenco, the hotel I called home for most of my six weeks there. Stray cats and dogs wander freely, though not in such great numbers (or as such a great nuisance) as in al Qahira.  But there is that dustiness that settles over everything, and the heft to most of the infrastructure that gives one the feeling that anything thin or aesthetically appealing would simply take too... read more
Opening Week

Opening Week

Things have been slow on this blog because they’ve been fast in my life.  However busy I always thought I was the first few days abroad, it’s nothing compared to running a study abroad program.  Add to that the various other engagements back home (writing and otherwise) that have been tugging at my brain, and it seems there’s been so little of me left for…well, for myself. On the bright side, my little room is up high and has a balcony, and I don’t have a roommate.  While I hate falling asleep alone in my room (I miss you Jordyn!)  it is nice that everything is exactly how I leave it, and I never have to worry that it will bother anyone else.  OF course, this is a hotel, so there is maid service.  I try to stave them off, but they’re incredibly persistent and I don’t want the “do not disturb” sign to dissuade the guys on my floor. Oh, right, Em and I are in charge of a floor of all guys.  I sometimes feel like Wendy leading around the Lost Boys, especially since the first thing any of them said to me was, “Hello, Lady!”  In a naïve way, not like a pushy, New York way. For the most part, all the students are pretty good.  They’re all wildly tardy (we are always 30 minutes to an hour late to everything), and generally ask us a million questions rather than ever look at their own schedules, but they’re kind and rather funny. We’re still adrift here on team Greece, however.  We have yet to establish a... read more
Group Travel: Recognition

Group Travel: Recognition

In light of my upcoming time in Greece with a group of 145 students, 11 other staff and myself, I’ve been thinking about what has made my past travel groups some of the best communities of which I have ever been a part.  The way we recognize the members of our community shows a lot about ourselves, and what we value. I’ve had some truly beautiful communities, like the Egypt and DR summer experiences, as well as the past spring’s Model NATO/Model Arab League travel teams.  I’m trying to draw from these good examples when I plan the activities and traditions I want to embed in this year’s N.U.in Greece program. At the end of our Benin trip, during our wonderful Memorial Day at a Lebanese hotel (read: a pool and American food) we had two great forms of recognition: superlatives and speeches.  The superlatives covered everything, from most afraid of bugs to to most prepared to most likely to eat cous cous again.  With write-ins and multiple winners, it was a laid-back way to reminisce.  After, we gave our speeches.  The day before, each of us had drawn a name out of a hat of someone else on the trip.  That night at dinner, starting randomly and following the chain of speeches back around, we each took a turn to rise and recognize the singular, spectacular achievements and contribution that person made to the group.  While this can be uncomfortable if the group stays sectioned off, it’s a nice way leave everyone feeling good about their time. When Esther was in Zambia, they passed a baton that had... read more

10 Tips for Group Travel Success

Group travel takes a lot of heat from travel bloggers, but it has been my specialty and I find it incredibly rewarding. Most of my foreign travel has been for at least four weeks, and with the same group of people. The groups have ranged from 8 to 30, and this fall I’m making a huge jump up to 145 students and 12 of us staff. Eeek! While I am definitely looking forward to some solo side-trips, I have also learned a thing (or ten!) about living, working, learning, and traveling with the same people day in and day out, and I’d love to share them with all those group travelers out there! Carve out some down time for yourself.  This is paramount. Whether it means reading on some evenings in instead of going out with the group, putting on headphones or napping during a bus ride, or getting up early for yoga or a run, you need your personal space to survive group travel. You will have plenty of time to get to know each other, but only limited sanity if you don’t keep up the hobbies and habits that maintain you as a person. It’s all about dosage.  You can be pleasant with anyone as long as you limit the duration and frequency of your actions. If you can tell someone will get on your nerves, do your best to separate yourselves (politely) when you can.  That way, when you don’t have a choice it won’t get to you as quickly. Become the master of the “loose tie” as Malcolm Gladwell puts it; be friends with some... read more

Group Travel: Reflection

Now that I’ve accepted a job leading a group of brave young travelers, I’ve been thinking back on my many, fabulous travel groups and what made them so great. Reflection is one of my favorite things, clearly.  I love writing, reading, thinking (blogging!) and discussing ad nauseum.  When I was in Egypt, the hours of conversation I shared with J9, Sheff, Iskandriyya, Goldilocks and others helped me grow exponentially.  It deepened my comprehension of Middle East and Egyptian culture, helped me work through my conflicted feelings of our daily experiences, and brought me to a better understanding of our own country.  Sharing my experiences out loud in a safe forum, while hearing from phenomenal, brilliant women whom I hope to emulate really made me get the most out of Egypt.  I honestly don’t think I would have learned as much or been as happy if it weren’t for those ladies and those conversations. It is conversations like those that are the basis for this blog.  Every time someone compliments the ideas here, I feel like that praise belongs equally to those aforementioned ladies, as well as to Marisa, Jordyn, Kate and Leif, to my roommates in Cuba, to the ballers that made up the DR Dialogue and to my capstone class, all of whom sparked great discussions and debates that I later share with all of you. I’m sure reflection is already a significant part of the N.U.in curriculum, especially considering there is a 1-credit course devoted to service-learning, introspection and their “Global Experience” as a whole.  However, I plan to make sure some of the best practices that... read more

We Are Family

Everyone is sad to go, for a variety of reasons.  Cairo is like home, and no one wants to go back to the real world, outside of our bubble.  But one of the biggest causes of sadness is that we have all gotten so close so quickly.  Massages, relentless teasing and snuggling en masse have become a regular part of our group culture.  We all have little nicknames (some more loving and adorable than others…) and almost all the roommates love each other.  I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m not greated by 25 Great Americans every morning at breakfast.  I will miss Brendan’s goofy laugh, Sarah’s practical advice and Nana’s insanity.  There will be no more “anonymous” lovenotes from Meaghan, fake sermons by Khalid or constant freestyling from Ray.  I didn’t come here intending to find all these people who would become so important to me.  In fact, I didn’t think about the social aspect at all.  But I’m glad our ragtag bunch was the group I was lucky enough to join, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  So to my Dialogue family, (which includes a creepy, plastic anatomically correct new addition):  thank you, I love you, I’ll miss you.  I hope to see everyone at our welcome back hafla, and I’m so glad we’ve already started planning reunions.  You’re all welcome to stay with me at NU or in Reading any time, and I can’t wait to see how our friendships transition stateside.  Dennis Sullivan gave us some good advice: don’t think that you may never come back.  Just enjoy it and think about... read more

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