Learn from Experience

I think it’s important to pause and reflect before, during and after every adventure.  While I did some of that because it was mandated for Egypt, I also did a decent amount of that for this blog.  More often, though, I tried to make this a way of reflecting in a sort of “together” academic sort of way.  Post-Egypt I hit the ground running, so here is a look back at what I’ve learned, whether it be for my next trip to Egypt, travel in general or writing this blog.

When I go back to Egypt:

  • Cairo Jazz. I tried often, but never made it, and I hear it was a blast.
  • Alexandria. We were the definition of gilded cage while there, and I barely got to see any of the great Euro-Arab hybrid city.
  • Speak  more with locals. I’ve got a lot more confidence about my ability to intimidate/tell off strange men or hustlers, so I should stop whining about how the boys get extra practice and just get some myself.
  • Take more pictures. This gets into a bit about traveling as well, but there’s a lot of my experience that I didn’t capture, whether that be Egyptian friends or the khan el-khalily market.  I have a million pictures of ancient things, and I think it kind of burnt me out.
  • Sinai Peninsula. This place is wicked important historically, politically and scuba-ically.  We all wanted to go but weren’t allowed to because of our security detail, and I’ve heard from many that it’s must-see.

Travel:

  • Pictures again. I want to take more pictures of people, and less of stuff, as well as to try to avoid picture burnout.  It should be neither an obligation nor a chore.
  • Pack lighter. I will always and forever say this.
  • Wander around more. We were so busy in Egypt that I didn’t explore nearly enough.  Luckily, with Havana being much safer and my time frame much longer, this should be easy.
  • Plan ahead. I didn’t realize how little time I would have once I was there.  This meant that I didn’t know how much I wanted to do something until my time was almost over.
  • Collect local music. Every day in our vans we listened to some great music, but unfortunately only Wa wa wa made it back.  Cuba is world renowned for its music, and is in fact one of the aspects of Cuban culture I’ve researched before, so I plan to pick up some great CDs.
  • Plan souvenirs ahead. Buy throughout, instead of mostly at the end (so stressful!)
  • Think in the local currency. After all, that’s where you are.  If you don’t heed Miss Asha Fierce’s wise words, you’ll go broke.
  • Carry pen and paper always, and don’t be afraid to take notes. In fact, I want to go one better and bring a voice recorder too for when my thoughts get going too fast for my pen.
  • Buy smart. This applies to everything, but I thought of it when it comes to myself.  The Egyptian skinny jeans and the handmade mirror I bought are among my favorite souvenirs, and they aren’t silly knick-knacks, they are things I will wear and decorate with for a long time.

This Blog:

  • Pictures! I know it makes a big difference when I’m reading the blogs of strangers.  Unfortunately, my internet and computer situation in Egypt made this basically impossible.  I hope to go back and update some old posts with pictures, as well as to post WAY more pictures from Cuba
  • Loosen up. Sometimes I need to just show the basic, emotional part where you’re processing a million things at once, instead of just the polished academic.  The downside?  It makes my mother nervous.
  • Be honest. There are some things I couldn’t be honest about in Egypt, and some things that just would’ve given my mother and Gram a heart attack.  But really, a lot of it wasn’t so bad.  I’d like to show people a more realistic picture, if I can.
  • Take video! I took one or two videos but they were awful and I never posted them.  I have the power, so I figure why not?  In the near future you may see a youtube account with some rough videos off of my canon still camera.
  • Encourage comments. I know how many people read this, and I have a vague idea of who.  At this point, it’s mostly me just saying whatever I want, or occasionally answering questions I’ve heard in person from friends and family or reacting to relevant news pieces.  For those of you family members who are not quite so into the internet, reading a blog without ever commenting/making your presence known is called lurking.  And yes, it’s meant to sound that creepy.  I KNOW you have questions and things to say–people email me or they ask my mom or, more often, they will tell me months after I return.  So comment!  an interactive blog is a fun blog!  I’ve been making an effort lately to encourage comments, which is something I never really did or thought about in Egypt.

What about you?  If you have been to Egypt, travelled or blogged then you should have some suggestions!  Also, since you’re here you read this blog, and doubtless have some suggestions for what I could improve.  For example, Eena requested captions for the pictures, since the few from Egypt don’t really have explanations.  So when I’m in Cuba and all my photos have great captions, you can thank her.  As for the rest of you, what are your suggestions?

Planning a Trip

Lately I’ve gotten some questions about how to choose a destination and prepare for a trip.  I’m wicked flattered that I’ve achieved status as the friend to ask for some of you, and this is my attempt to share what I’ve figured out so far.  They’re not hard and fast rules, it’s just trial and error from my own experience.

One thing I’d love to emphasize, though, is domestic travel.  These rules work even if you’re traveling within your own state, and don’t feel that you shouldn’t be contributing or proud of your resume, even if your passport is blank.  We’re lucky enough to live in such a culturally and geographically diverse country.  So often domestic travel is ignored or looked down upon, but you should be proud of learning about your home more thoroughly than most. So please, join in with the comments and advice, no matter how far or close your destinations are!

First, I recommend checking out your potential destinations on a few key places online.  You should be looking at climate, financial situation within the country, personal safety, language skills needed and the type of experience you want.  There are really only so many places where you can, but if all you want to do is lie on a beach all day at a resort you can go just about anywhere.

The following are a collection of my favorite travel websites:

Lonely Planet

One of the best things about Lonely Planet is that you can download portions of many of their guides for free, giving you a great starting point as well an idea of what their guide will contain.  You’re then better equipped to comparison shop.  If you do go with their guide, you can also buy it in digital, which is preferable for some travellers. They also feature a great interactive trip planner, if you’re into that sort of thing.

US State Department travel warnings

Here’s my gigantic caveat: never forget that this is made by a government. Yes, it is our government so you want to believe it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should.  This is an avenue for propaganda like any other, and should not be your only source.  I also urge you to be mindful of the level of crime we actually are living in when we’re at home.  Everyone was worried about me going to Cairo, but I was much safer in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek than in my dorm in the projects.

Glimpse

I like this site because the content is all user-generated.  You can read blog entries, how-to guides and tips.  They have a strict word count max on all of these, so you can get a lot of concise, first-hand data quickly.  (Full disclosure: I have a profile on glimpse)

Students Abroad

This one comes courtesy of mi madre and the State Department.  The point is to make a hip, relatable travel website, and they actually succeed.  I know, I’m floored.  This some dumb stuff, but it’s mostly user-friendly and surprisingly laid back.  There’s even a  fanny pack joke!

CDC

Depending on where you go and when, you might need some shots.  If you stick to western Europe (or New England) this won’t be a problem, but some more hardcore traveling should warrant a gander at this site and a trip to your local infectious diseases/travel clinic.  I like Lahey.

Before you go, the best thing you can do for yourself is to talk to other people who have been there.  I like to keep a running list of questions as I do my preparation so I’m sure not to miss anything.

On the fun side of preparation, I like to go into a country with a pretty good historical and cultural background.  I know this is unusual for most tourists, and I’m also admittedly a nut about history and research.  One of the most accessible things you can do for yourself is to watch a few films.  You could go with ones made in or by people of that country to get an idea of the culture, or something with a bit of historical accuracy for some research that even a normal human being would enjoy.

One of my favorite pre-trip activities is to read some books about or from the country that are neither academic nor travel guides.  Memoirs and fiction are a great way to feel connected to your destination without feeling like you’ve been assigned homework.

How about you guys?  Was there anything you disagree with?  What are your tips for travel preparation?  Do you have a preference for a certain brand of guides?  Is there a great travel site to add to the list?

Help your fellow travellers out and leave a comment!

Also, don’t forget to leave a comment here with your Cuba questions!

Cattle Call

Sometime in the next few weeks I will be posting an FAQ post.  I’ve already received a lot of questions in person, but if there’s anything you would like to know about Cuba, Egypt, France, the Dialogue program, travel in general or being a student at Northeastern, now is the time to ask!

I’ve already done a decent amount of research, but if I don’t know the answer I’ll do my best to find out or point you in the right direction.  If there’s anything I won’t be able to answer yet, I’ll save it for when I’m in-country, which brings me to my next point…

If there’s anything you’d like me to find out about or take pictures of while I’m in Cuba, let me know.  Most Americans will never have the opportunity to go, so this is your chance to get the answers to any question you could possibly have about Cuba. 

I know you’re reading, and I know you’re curious because I keep getting texts and emails about my trip, so leave it in the comments section!  I promise I won’t bite 🙂

Newspapers: Reporting Their Own Death

I wrote this post a while ago and was too annoyed/lazy to put in the appropriate links and post it, but given the hullaballoo of the past two weeks, I thought it would be an appropriate time. 

If print media want to survive, they need to stop running stories about the decline of print media and evolve already.  Yes, I love the beauty of it too, but it seems the only newspaper story I ever read anymore is a countdown to when I won’t be able to read newspaper stories anymore. 

  • Make it personal.
    Newspapers started printing those little black and white photos that transfer onto silly putty in order to seem more personal.  Well, bring that to the next step.  Photo diaries, flickr accounts, pictures on blogs, podcasts and vlogs are all great ways to get the reader to care who you are. 
  • Show us your face
    In television reporting, a lot of success comes from the personality of the reporter.  Many will follow reporters from one outlet to another.  Blogs beat print journalism hands down for Miss Congeniality.  It’s the interaction that really helps.  I like that Anderson Cooper follows me back, and that Miss Conduct responds to the comments on her blog
  • Get online!
    The Economist and Financial Times have been doing this for years.  Granted, its easier for them to get you to pay a premium for their content, because their reputation is that they actually write premium content.  So have something more useful and/or prestigious to say, newspapers, and start charging!  The genius of FT is that their subscription that includes internet and print is only a few dollars more per week, thereby causing thrifty Americans to keep the printed numbers up even if they initially wanted nothing to do with the paper copy.
  • Stop whining about blogs!
    I know, I know, journalists think blogs and “the blogosphere” (almost no one uses that word in conversation, ps) are like the Wild West of media.  It’s a no-holds-barred orgy of unchecked facts.  This is crap.  The reputable news blogs cite links and other sources, and many have editors.  Those blogs run by the media who have already jumped on the bandwagon are subject to the same.  Even if it were not crap, we’re still sick of hearing about it and they’re still beating you, so do something about it instead of complaining
  • Outsource!
    CNN calls this the iReport.  Everyone has a blackberry or cell phone with a camera, and it seems everyone has a blog.  So take advantage of these masses!  Personally, it makes me a little nauseated to think that we’re saving them money by doing their work for them, but it certainly gets people invested. 
  • If you want us to be invested in you, get invested in us
    Don’t just set up a “twitter feed,” (a phrase you say with such affectation we know there’s no way anyone over 25 is writing it for you.)  Learn about the technology that’s surpassing you, and become a real part of it.  It can be a useful tool, if you think of it as such, rather than as a chore that must be performed to pacify a few key demographics

 

I realize that I’m making a lot of comparisons to television news, and that’s not an accident.  They’re doing a lot of this right–twitter, blogs for individual shows and reporters, incorporating citizen reporting, and great interaction.  Of course, they enter our homes in a much more real way, which gives them the leg up.  That is why reporters need to be more than just a byline, and they have more to overcome than journalists in other media.  Really, we can get our news from anywhere.  But we choose where based on who is presenting it: are they smart? personable? balanced?  A friendly journalist will retain more readers than a smarter, less open one.  We don’t just want the news; we want you to share it with us. 

Addendum: I was reading the blurb in the Metro the other day (do they even write things longer than blurbs?) about how to possibly save the industry.  A phrase they used often really bothered me, and I think shows a lot of what’s wrong with the industry.  The writer continually emphasized the need for “a free and independent press,” as the reason the government should step waaaay in to basically save his job.  I would argue that we have a vibrant, free, independent press, comprised of many different institutions.  They’re just not all in print and they’re probably not going to hire him. 

Ariana Huffington summed it up well at the hearing:

The future of quality journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers”

So there.

The Infamous Minaret Ban Campaign

The psuedo-feminist slant on the Swiss campaign to ban the contruction of minarets represents the worst of so many things, including western portrayal of hijab. 

The commonly-used campaign art shows a truly frightening woman cloaked in harsh black.  She is wearing the naquib, meaning that with the exception of her eyes,  her entire face is covered. 

This is exactly the sort of propaganda that makes western people afraid of and fascinated by the hijab.  So many Muslim women observe hijab without looking dark and scary.  There are also those who are Muslim without observing hijab, or at least not observing it in such a way that we would recognize.  

The poster is misleading in so many ways.  What, precisely, does a woman in hijab have to do with the construction of minarets?  And really, Switzerland, the 5% of your population that is Muslim is really going to inundate your country with minarets?  That’s impresive since last time I checked there were only four minarets in the entire country. 

I am disgusted that feminist ideals were co-opted in order to frighten women into thinking that minarets are giant phallic symbols of Muslim men’s power over (currently) Muslim and (coming soon!) Christian women.  I am also disgusted that people fell for it, and in droves.  There is no logical reason to have a woman in a rather offensive portrayal of hijab on this poster other than to frighten non-Muslims. 

Many articles reacting to the vote have taken an apologetic tone, noting that it’s simply unfortunate that Muslims claim the role of “unknown” for the Swiss to fear.  Switzerland’s voting population is extraordinarily well educated, and I find it disingenuous to excuse their behavior out of ignorance.  Let’s cut the crap, western media.  Europe has shown that it still has a racist side, and that side has a penchant for hating on Arabs and Muslims.  This wasn’t a silly little mistake whereby the Swiss population was confused by glossy photos, this is a demonstration of just how very peachy the Swiss find discrimination. 

Another disturbing aspect of the discourse on the referendum is this idea that minarets will somehow change Switzerland.  This is, at its core, another attempt to frame Muslims as other, regardless of their citizenship.  As one woman is quoted as saying in the Times,

Before you know it, we’ll have sharia law and women being stoned to death in our streets. We won’t be Swiss any more.”

This of course strongly implies that being Swiss and being Muslim are mutually exclusive, and that being a practicing Muslim necessarily includes sharia law and stoning women.  The attempts to tie the religion to an unknown (but thoroughly frightening) political agenda (which allegedly Jews and Christians don’t have?  Since when?) are tenuous at best, and yet still wildly successful at their worst. 

The UNA’s simulation this past weekend of the Council of the EU (which discussed the ascension of Turkey) witnessed similarly disgusting  ideas, with many delegates citing the “cultural” differences between Europe and Turkey as reason alone to slam the door.  Apparently, they forgot the segments of their own population who have genes from outside of Europe, or that the Ottoman Empire was considered a major European player.  While the delegates were all (sadly) rather on-policy, I’m not at all convinced it was because they did their research. 

Rather, I think many of those students, like many Americans, like to think that Italians are Italian, and that there are no black or Asian people in Britain.  It never ceases to amaze me how very many Americans will remark with surprise when they meet a black Brit.  We do not have the market cornered on diversity, and we certainly don’t have it cornered on making the diverse among us feel marginalized, either. 

Thanks for reminding us, Switzerland. 

For a more all-encompassing, scholarly/political take on the Swiss ban, I direct you, of course, to Khalid, the eponymous Moor Next Door.