Ten Things No One Tells You About Study Abroad

  1. You will have at least one nervous breakdown.
  2. People don’t really want to hear that much about your trip30 seconds or less will do.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. You will spend too much money.
  6. No matter how carefully you pack, you will have brought too much, and still manage to have left behind something you totally miss
  7. It’s harder to adjust to life back home at the end of the trip than life away from home at the beginning.
  8. Everyone gets in.  Well, pretty close to it.
  9. 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.
  10. You will, in fact, spend the same amount of time on facebook and watching movies/television as you did back home.

Only a Soph-o-more

Often on school trips, both at high school and university level, the students are treated as unskilled laborours.  This is true with the Dialogue of Civilizations programs, Alternative Spring Break, and pretty much any trip that involves volunteering. 

What is up with that?

College students are NOT unskilled.  Especially if you take into account where in the world they are sent to volunteer.  When they are working with 1st graders in Benin, they have worlds more education. 

Why is it that so many of out volunteering abroad programs only use people to build schools, paint community centers and tear down old houses?  Just because you’re not a doctor or an engineer doesn’t mean you are entirely without skill.  And really, don’t even get me started on the mistakes made by EWB–every engineer I know informs me that no no, they make totally good decisions about culture, cuz they like have someone who knows about that and stuff.  Yeah, high school Spanish doesn’t really cut it on the cultural awareness and general-development-aid-savvy scale. 

Anyway: back to us “unskilled” laborours here.  We’re not unskilled.  If you look at the overall global population, having a high school diploma makes you one of the lucky few.  Several semesters of college?  It’s rare throughout the world, and totally unheard of for many populations. 

Now, all this doesn’t mean we’re smarter than them, better at whatever we do than them, and more equipped to understand their culture than them, whoever “they” may be.  It just means that the aggregate knowledge of our affluent lives and relatively good education systems means we should be shooting higher.  It also means there’s a good chance that we geeky political junkies are perhaps better fit to policy decisions than breaking large rocks, and could do far greater good from a desk than a hot field.  Yes, it is appealing to go somewhere and see children in rags and have them smile for your digital camera.  It feels great when they love you, and to use your hands to create something tangible. 

But are we really all in college so we can be day-laborers?  Or are we just assuaging our own guilt?  Or perhaps even being misused? 

On that note, I HAVE been involved in several different volunteering abroad opportunities, and I’m looking to get into another one.  What’re your thoughts?  Any dos or don’ts?  Any questions you would ask before volunteering?  I’m looking at you, yovos and Allyson Goldhagen!

Estados ¿Unidos?

Welcome to the United Snakes: Land of the Thief, Home of the Slave”

-Brother Ali

What unites Americans? Certainly not politics, religion or even language.  Music?  Forget it.  It’s really only certain events.  Even the Olympics can’t unite us as much as they do other countries.  We are united by tabloid stories, like balloon boy and Save Coco.  Events like 9/11–but even now that has faded and changed.   There is far more loyalty to city, state or region than to pais or country.  You’re not American, you’re a New Yorker, or a California Girl.

There is a distinct attitude to being American, one that’s hard to see form the inside.  The individualist, capitalist attitude.  Who we blame for misfortune, and our attitudes about work, success, entitlement and what we deserve are particularly American.  In Cuba, we saw it with food, with what I came to call Capitalist Breakfast.  We had one egg per person on hard-boiled egg days, and that was it.  17 people, 17 eggs.  But that’s not how it shook out.  Some people didn’t want theirs (supply) and others were still hungry every morning (demand).  Some were bough with kindness, but most with cunning.  Well, cunning is the nice, American way of putting it.

Maria, who made our breakfast, saw everything that happened.  She couldn’t believe the way some people would take or hide eggs beyond what was given to them.  It was so American and so repulsive to her.

“Don’t they know that everyone is hungry?  Why do they think they should have more eggs than everyone else?”

Well, in the American ethos, if I want it and I can manage to get it, then I deserve it and it is mine.  And rightfully so.  If someone complained about not getting their egg, the response was, “Well, you didn’t wake up early enough and I did.  That’s what you get.”  This would simply not happen in a Cuban household.  This is what unites us: selfishness disguised as meritocracy. Because, “It’s a free country, I’ll do what I want.”

“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!”

At least? Shouldn’t we shoot for more?  And aren’t there lots of other places that are free?  We cling to this claim to fame as though we are unique to it.  We have a singular passion for absurd expressions of freedom.

And free to do what?  Overpay for health care?  Have our elected officials ignore our wishes?  Have someone else determine our president?  T overpay for education and graduate to underemployment?  Free to harass immigrants as though that’s not how we got here?  Free to discriminate, to make intolerant jokes as some proud banner of resistance to the Church of Political Correctness?

No wonder we don’t have much in common–we can hardly stand each other.

Turning Down Travel

Earlier this week, I made a very difficult decision: I’m not going to Honduras this November. 

I haven’t been anywhere outside of the US (not that I haven’t travelled!)  since I got back from Benin this past June, and my feet itch.  My would-have-been travel companion and I are both working full time on co-op, which makes a looong weekend away seem even more enticing.  It would be warm, they speak Spanish, and there are amazing Mayan ruins and renowned scuba diving.  We’ve traveled together before, and have similar styles (fast-walkin’, mystery meat-eatin’, history-lovin’ sarcastic types.)  It’s notoriously cheap, (once you get there) and we even found bargain basement airfare. 

But alas, we are not going. 

Travel is only really cheap if you have time.  Time for a less direct route or slower method of transport; time to spend in a cheap country for the plane tickets to balance out across your cost per day. 

We have neither of these. 

When it came down to it, we both realized our food wouldn’t be as cheap as we hope, because there’s a learning curve on that one.  And our lodging probably wouldn’t be too bad, but still more per night than I’d like.  But when it all comes down to it, it’s about time.  We wouldn’t be able to stay long enough for the bargain flight to cost little enough per day to make it worthwhile.  And then throw in diving and we’re well about the $100/day mark. 

Sad, travel-less faces for Emily and I. 

On the bright side, we both realized this about the same time, so there is no fighting, crying or betrayal.  I’m choosing to focus instead on saving up for another, longer-term adventure.  Because really, we all know that five days wouldn’t satisfy me.  So maybe I’ll check you later, Honduras. 

But in the mean time: damn you co-op, for giving my just enough money and time off to make this almost possible, but not quite.

Why I Travel: A Sense of Clarity

Reflecting on Pico Iyer’s Why I Travel, the many ensuing responses, and the current political climate in the US, I thought I would try my hand at it. 

I’ve noticed that often, people try to hijack my travel experience and use it to reinforce their world view.  “Oh, you must have loved Cuba–but I bet you’re so happy you live here with all this stuff and where we’re all FREE!”  Or, “Oh wow, you must have loved Cuba, getting to see how awesome a country is even though it’s not capitalist and America’s trying to keep it DOWN!”

I generally don’t feel comfortable responding in the affirmative to either statement.  The “you must really love our wealth/infrastructure/freedoms” people are right, I am happy to live in a country with pillowtop matresses, good water pressure and wings whenever I want them.  But their statement almost always contains an inherent pejorative of wherever I’ve just been, a sense that it was a lovely/educational dalliance, but now I was back in the REAL world, the good one.

On the other hand, the business about seeing places so different from America, without our “rampant consumerism, corrupt politicians and danger around every turn” does ring true–a little bit.  There really are other ways of carrying on life and a country, ones that are far less selfish and just as succesful.  But these views tend to put the rose-colored glasses on for foreign countries.  And let’s be honest, if I won’t wear them for my own country, I’m certainly not going to wear them for anyone else’s.

I love travel because it sorts the wheat from the schraff.  I get to see other communities where people don’t have the same assumptions as we do here, and see how successful they are in carrying out their lives based on their own values and assumptions.  I get to compare different ways of respecting or interpreting civil rights, and see what I like about different the approaches.

Traveling helps me better see the world for what it is.  To see past the stereotypes, politicians and social constructs that have been ingrained in me (or others) for the duration of my life.  To discover best practices on everything, from recycling to child-rearing to dating to cooking.

Travel doesn’t make me hate America, and it doesn’t make me overwhelmingly happy I live here.  It just helps me see and understand the truth about every community I interact with, including my own.  And the hope is that someday, this aggregate knowledge will help me in my dream of developing communities into places that are better at recyling or child rearing, dating or cooking, no matter where on earth I end up doing that.

Meet, Plan Go! Boston

This was my first blogger-in-person type deal, and it was definitely interesting.  I really loved being in a room full of people who care so much about travel and value it so highly, instead of always being “the weird one” or “the one who travels.”

I brought my roommate Alex with me, because she loves to travel (Egypt, Syria) and is really interested in teaching English abroad after she graduates in December.  On the whole, the place read more like an alcoholics anonymous meeting than anything, which was fine because we’re addicts, too.  I was waiting for someone to say, “Hi, my name is Adventurous Kate, and I quit my job today so I can travel.”  (In reality, someone else did this for her.)  I was waiting for the group to say, “Hi, Kate,” but instead we all just clapped for her.   Oddly enough, Kate is from my hometown and was in the Drama club with my older brother, and she was friends with a lot of my friendsolder sisters.

I was predisposed to liking Rob Verger because of his blurb on the Meet Plan Go site, but meeting him only made me like him more.  His travel philosophy of staying in one place for a while and really getting to know the culture (including language!) gels with my own views, and it’s a subject I so rarely hear travel bloggers covering.  He was also super helpful to Alex, because one of his major experiences was with Teaching Abroad.

Lillie Marshall (I can’t help but think of How I Met Your Mother) showed her schoolteacher tendencies by quieting chatty bloggers with Teacher Voice, and wore a great dress from Ghana.

I loved getting to hear from David Kramer, who has been very focused on Latin America.  His wife is Colombian, so they’re raising their daughter as a bilingual, bicultural traveler (how cool is that?!)  It was also funny to see how even though all of these people are considered big, expert travelers, they were only experts on one aspect or type of travel, and were often novices on others.  Like David, who immediately admited to never having been anywhere but the Americas, and said he welcomed the other travelers’ advice.  He also works in the non-profit sector and got his start teaching English abroad, so I was pretty interested in that.

Ryan Larkin rounded out the group as one of the youngest on the panel.  He has worked at EF, did ASB (Alternative Spring Break) and most notably volunteered at Edge of Seven in Nepal.  Working amongst the locals, and under their direction, he helped build a school with minimal equipment for two grueling but rewarding weeks.  The longer you stay the better the deal ends up being, and it’s definitely something I would consider doing for a few months.

Meeting Amanda Pressner was great, and I felt more like I was getting drinks with a friend than talking to an incredibly succesful RTW travel blogger who also happens to have co-authored a book.  She was humble and realistic about travel, blogging and the book industry, and seemed genuinely interested in talking to and helping out me and my roommate.  Even though I have no desire to travel in the manner she did, The Lost Girls was the first travel blog I read, and I devoured the whole of the archives in a month or so.  It was just great to meet one of the first people who made me think that there’s a whole world of this out there.

They did a great job selecting panelists tghat covered the spectrum.  Solo travel, couple travel, women’s travel, travel with kids, RTW, regional, vegan and vegetarian, travel with friends, quitting your job, working remotely, freelancing, doing a program, taking a leave of absence, they pretty much covered it all.  I’m definitely more excited now about my upcoming travel and blogging plans, and I’m looking forward to more events like this one.  And can I just say that it was wicked awesome to have a Boston-centric event.  Between travel and all being from here, it felt like we all had a lot of common language.

Why on earth don’t I have pictures?  Because I’m a rookie, that’s why.  Thanks to all involved in the planning, it was a great time!  Hope to see you all again soon!

What’s Wrong With Us?

People all over, from your parents to the New York Times, are lamenting what exactly is wrong with current 20somethings.  We are mucking it all up.  We are not “progressing to adulthood,” which is defined by leaving school, becoming financially independent, getting married and having a child.

Um, ew.

and to quote Mr. Carroll, “Sez Who?”

Who says that being an adult means having a child?  What about all those completely fulfilled, fully-functioning people who don’t have a child?  Some are single, some are married, some are committed long term.  Some can’t have children, some choose not to because of other priorities, and others are simply uninterested in the business of procreation.  Does that make them perpetual children themselves?

I say pshaw, sociologists, parents and NYTimes.

I’ll grow up how and when I want.  What’s the point of rushing towards a steady job where I pay into a social security system that will never support me?  What’s the point of having a kid in an overpopulated world if I don’t feel like it?  And who’s defining this financially independent bit anyway?  How is that supposed to happen when our current system for pumping out adults automatically saddles anyone who isn’t hyper-elite (in privilege or in brains) with an unbearable amount of debt?  Can you blame people for staying in school longer, considering that for many, leaving after your undergrad is hardly cutting your losses?

Again: pshaw.

I will have many different careers, travel, and maybe go back to school again.  I will remain unmarried for an amount of time that will drive my mother and grandmother insane, and leave me thoroughly harassed at weddings.  I will not give up a career to have kids, but I also won’t give up kids to have a career (are you listening, corporations who treat pregnant women and parents like crap?)  Yeah, I may move back into my parents house, if it’s a sound financial decision.  Don’t judge me–you should be too busy living off of my social security and political support for universal health care, anyway.

Nothing is wrong with us.  It isn’t that we’re not adults–we’re just not your kind of adults.  The world is changing and we’re changing with it.  So hold onto your rockers, because this generation is redefining the term “adult”, and things might get a little messy.

Where Are All the Women?

Going out at night in Cuba, we were surrounded by men of all ages, a smattering of foreign women (Cuban men in hand!) and really no one else.  Where all the Cuban ladies at?

Some of my friends pointed out that part of why Cuban guys were so forward with us was that our very presence in night life was saying A LOT more than we thought it was.  One of our first nights, we saw one girl out.  She was in Chucks, cut-off shorts and a tank top, but she ruled that place.  She shook her booty like booties have never shaken before or since, except when attached to her.

Along the malecón, you can see couples canoodling everywhere.  They are attached at the hip to their guys, and from what I hear, they spend a great deal of money on their men.  Clothing, absurd silver/gold tooth coverings, and of course food.  What the what?

Is that the only place for young Cuban women in nightlife?  Booty shakers and girlfriends?  Oh Madonna and the Whore, the Two Marys, how I tire of thee and thine eternal truth.

Have people experienced this in other Latin American countries?  Where on earth were all the young women?  Maybe they just knew better and were staying away from all the men, unless they found one worthy of their attention?  Who knows–but it definitely made us gringas stick out even more than we already did.

In Defense of Television When Travelling

I often find myself on the wrong side of a lot of debates.  I dislike hand sanitizer, sunscreen and bugspray, in favor of a boosted immune system and not experiencing the negative ramifications of abstaining.  I think we shampoo our hair too often, shelter our kids too much, and give google too hard of a time about censoring itself in China.

But by far the dirtiest looks roll in when I watch television while on the road.

Everyone is out to separate themselves from the be-fannypacked masses, and flipping on a television is like, as my roommate at the Songhai Centre put it, “Cheating on Africa.”

So am I cheating?  And if so, why?

For one thing, I defend tv in general, in my home life as well.  I get annoyed by the, weeeell, I don’t even own a television” crowd.  (PS–lots of people don’t, but they’re not such jerks about it!)  I also don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with television–The West Wing, Mad Men and Newsradio are all brilliant and entertaining shows.  They’re smart, witty and they make me happy.  So what if they come out of the “Idiot Box”?  If you choose to watch awful reality tv, or things that make your brain turn to goo and slide out of your ears (I’m looking at you, The Hills), then that’s your own darn fault, not television’s.  (Of course when it comes to True B lood, I also have an argument In Defense of Camp, but that’s for another day.)  Those shows only run because they get ratings, and we all have the power to effect those ratings.

But that’s at home.  Travelling is about being a totally different, better person (right?) and taking advantage of each and every day.  Not sitting inside gnoshing on chips in front of the boob tube.

Well, screw that.

Television is a very real part of life in many communities all over the world.  Sure, it’s not considered what the French call “High Culture,” but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile or valid for regular people all over the world.  Telenovelas in Latin America that feature women making progressive, empowered decisions about birth control and divorce increased knowledge, attitudes and positive actions on the subjects.  Hows that for working your medium?

Even when tv isn’t changing the way people think about controversial topics, it’s still important.  Maria, our live-in abuelita in Cuba, watched tv every day.  Sitting with her, trying to figure out what was going on, it was a window into what matters to her.  And where else can you watch Fidel rant on television several times a day?

Watching the Superbowl in Cuba was an eye-opening experience as well.  There were almost no ads, something that in the US is actually more popular than the game itself.  The only ads were for the channel we were already watching, sports in general (like Soccer.  A straight up endorsement for the game of soccer.), and other locations in Cuba that one should visit.

That is a huge daily difference in life for Cubans, and it matters.

In Benin, they show obituaries on tv, around dinner time.  We encountered basically no print outlets, so everyone relies on the television for all their news.  Sometimes, that news included us: the group of 20-odd yovos (white people) running around their country mangling French and trying to eat with our hands like the locals.

Television shows teach us about who we are(Courtesy of UJC).  Our priorities, our sense of humour, what is considered acceptable.  In Egypt, the most scantily-clad women I saw were on tv.  Unless, of course, it was a commercial for something like a cleaning product, and then the woman was heavier, had no or very natural makeup and was sporting a plain, matte, single-colour hijab–the Egyptian version of the Mom Jeans look.

If you’re in a comunity where no one has a television, or only the rich get to watch it, I understand eschewing it for other, more local interactions.  Or if you’re camped out in your air conditioned hotel room watching CNN or Sex and the City all day, yeah you probably wasted your money traveling and need a serious reality check.  But if you’re surrounded by people who watch television, then by all means: dive right into their world.

Pull up a chair and watch what they’re watching, and see what you can learn.