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 the Cairo sun, we looked for those famed juice bars.  Before we could find one, we caught the eye of a cute young couple.  By young, I mean 18 or so.  They had been lounging in Tahrir, as roundabouts are one of the few green spaces in Cairo.  More importantly, out in public is their only option for handholding and coy smiles.

They didn’t speak any English, but Sarah and Khalid had enough Arabic to let them know we were thirsty and wanted a drink.  We were sent on our way with directions and smiles, but soon realized we were misunderstood: we stood in front of a vending machine.  Not quite the cultural experience we were looking for.

Disheartened, we decided to wander rather aimlessly around the swuare until we found one.  Never ones to let hospitaly waver, the young Egyptians noticed and made it their personal mission to make our day.  As we walked toward a juice bar, our hunger and ignorance of koshery came out, and that was that.  Koshery is this amazing dish of noodles, lentils, and fried onion , sprinkled with lemon juice and some sort of red sauce.  It costs about a dollar, and regular Egyptians eat it by the big metal bowlful.  At one point, I sat next to the sweet girl who was our guide, and she started fishing through her bag while we talked about music and politics and our home towns.  She produced a silver ring, and thrust it toward me.  I had a feeling I understood the word she said to me, but I wanted to double check as I was so taken aback.

It is a gift.  Take it, it is for you my friend.”

Such a simple gesture, but all so unheard of amongst strangers in America.  She then produced several other trinkets for the rest of the girls at the table.  We were dumbfounded, and cobbled together lip gloss and such to repay the favor.

The next hour or so was filled with friendly chatter, delicious koshery, and eventually, yes, our juice bar.

As we strode towards the museum, our bellies full and eyes smiling, Khalid interrupted our thoughts

“Hey guys!  We just had an Allyson Experience!” and out came that sincere laugh that filled the humid air.

An Allyson experience is the ultimate in traveler fun: something fun, happy and adorable that occurs on your way to doing…well, something else entirely.

The Boy with the Sunken Teeth

Learning that someone only eats one meal a day is not something that makes me cry.  I’m perhaps the most cynical and hard-hearted social sciences/save the world type you’ll ever meet, except for maybe Falconer.

But then I sit and interview a young mom, whose husband is away five or six out of every seven days.  And the kids come to play and ask for my glasses or a picture to be taken.  I always ask them their names and how old they are, and I think I surprise them with formality when I shake their hands hello.  They laugh at me for being 22 with no novio, no esposo, no hijos para mi mismo.  It makes me a little sad to see how skinny and short they are for their ages.  It’s a little sad when for three days in a row, many of them wear the same clothing.  But they laugh and tease me and say cute things, so it’s easy to forget that they’re hungry and their school isn’t very good and they probably will never have a steady job. 

One little boy stands right by my side, leaning all over the arm rest.  He smiles a lot but doesn’t talk often, and patientily listens to me trip through Spanish.  He doesn’t wear pants or a shirt, just a ratty pair of underwear, their color undiscernible.  He laughs at me sometimes when I mess up or I make funny faces at him, and thats when I see the inside of his mouth.  From the front, with a formal, American closed-shut smile, everything looks fine and normal.  It isn’t until he gives a big, young belly laugh that I see the sunken black centers of all of his teeth.  With his eyes closed and his head thrown back, I can see what’s left of each and every tooth.  They are rotting away, from the sugar cane, from no dentist, from no toothbrush.  It makes my own mouth ache and twist to look at those teeth, every one of them pitted from the inside out.  It makes it obvious how a boy like this one grows into the decrepit old man with too few teeth to pronounce his Creole. 

There is a certain poverty that comes from looking like an old man before you’re ten years old, from not being able to eat an apple even if someone gave it to you.  A poverty of constant toothaches, of prevention just slightly out of reach, of losing your own basic faculties.

Following the Dog Out of the Window

I am not one of those it’s-for-the-best feel good types.  I’m with Josh Ritter when he says, “if the best is for the best then the best is unkind.”  I am not generally described as fatalist or optimistic.

Yet, here I am.

It was for the best.

I wanted to go to Honduras in November, because I needed SPACE and warmth and travel and there were some enticing prices.  But it wasn’t as good of a deal as I had hoped, so I stayed home.  But I got my space anyway in December, and I got a chance to save some money for the next opportunity coming down the pike.

I investigated Alternative Spring Break, which was exciting because there was an opportunity in Honduras with a do-gooder focus and a longer time-line.  But then I looked at the cost, authority on the trip, and simply lost enthusiasm for the project.  For some reason I felt like I needed validation on this decision, like I needed permission to not spend my time and money on ASB.

Then I got the most fantasy-fulfilling opportunity of all: I was invited to apply for an all-expenses paid fellowship in Saudi Arabia.  This would allow me to visit a country that is normally off-limits to Americans, do it in a non-scary and not-too-long way, get to travel for free, be back in the Middle East, and get to continue some of my research.  I know, I know, how many American feminist 22 year olds fantasize about wearing an abaya and niqab for two weeks in a Gulf country in which they cannot drive?  But seriously, it sounded amazing.  When I didn’t hear back within the allotted time, I had an awful sinking feeling.  Then I found out about the winners on facebook.  Now I was really mad, because I hadn’t even been notified.  I emailed again to see what happened, and apparently my application was never received, even though I sent it to and from the exact same addresses I used to figure out what happened.  That was just so crushing–to find out I had never even been considered.  I’m really not so sure what the upside is on this one.  I can still apply next year, if it runs.  But it was incredibly hard to read the blogs of all my friends in the Arab League program who were over there together.

See what I mean about not being upbeat?

And then I got an email about a trip to Haiti.  So okay, it didn’t turn out to be Haiti in the end.  But it meant exploring more of the Caribbean, and taking more classes in social enterprise, which is a damn good thing since it’s what I want to do with my big-girl life.  It also lead to getting cozy with 40 new(ish) people, more time spent translating, and a great field research opportunity.  Now I’m looking at a whole different sector of jobs, I had a much higher impact than originally intended, and my costs went down significantly.

So I’d say I made out alright.

Move into Uncertainty

My once and future yoga teacher, Julie, also known as my amazing Benin TA, used to tell us to embrace the shaking.  When your body is at it’s most uncertain, where it could just cease to hold the position, where you cannot tell if you can push yourself further, where your body is no longer in charge of itself.

I have always found this difficult but rewarding.  I have also found that it is easier when my yoga is of the intoxicated variety.  Pushing myself a bit further is how I lower myself all the way to the ground from that crazy half-seated-without-a-chair position.  It’s how I do full bends.  It’s how I launch my legs up to the sky and then send them back over my head until I flip all the way around.  It’s slow and scary, and such a (head)rush when you succeed.  But even the failures teach you what you can’t do.  More importantly, the breaking point is usually not nearly as conservative as I once thought.

Cope, my grandfather, told me when I first started Arabic that it is good to do something so challenging, because it exercises my learning muscles, leaving me with a greater learning capacity than I had before.  Moving into the shaking, sweating, unknown parts of my life leave me equally surprised and expanded.

I find a new capacity for listening, after spending time with one of only five people capable of talking more than me.

After the deprivation of Cuba, I have been permanently able to make do with less, and to do so happily.

Find the walls that keep your life small and fixed, the positions that make your muscles doubt themselves, and push.

Managing Expectations

Our precious cargo.
Our precious cargo.

We crossed the ocean with them.  We flew over the Mediterranean and the Maghreb with them.  We took them in a bus to a boat and now up a dusty dirt road, into a women’s organization in a rural area that was lucky enough to produce a Mama Benz.  Benze as in Mercedes, meaning that this badass woman Mire is constantly on television, and is really rather running the show in Benin’s two major cities.

We cram into an area too small for 25 yovos and about 60 partially-inflated soccer balls, nevermind the twenty or so Beninoise women who were recieving us.  As we pump the soccer balls and hear the excited screams of children too poor to go to school but clever enough to know we have soccer balls, a welcoming speech is made.  I almost spit my warm water when I hear this:

Thank you so much for coming, and for bringing all of these wonderful soccer balls.  But the river is quite big, and perhaps next time you could bring a boat?”

I am too stunned to translate it immediately.  But I do, and good lord are we all alarmed.

Children wait below the balcony, hoping for a soccer ball.
Children wait below the balcony, hoping for a soccer ball.

The list continued.  Money, food, medecine, everything.  But the image of 25 kids splitting a boat into pieces so we could fit it into our checked luggage and then reassemble it in West Africa really showed how much we were misunderstood.

Lori handled the rather imperious requests in a polite but assertive way, explaining that we were not an aid organization or in any way charged with the duty of dispersing funds (not true, but for their purposes it was, and you best believe they found out we gave other groups grants.)

Whenever someone tells me they have been perfectly clear about their intentions in the developing world, I always pcture myself lugging a massive wooden canoe, haggling with the gate agent about how much it costs to check it.

193No matter how clear you are, there will be expectations.  This is because every white person before us had shown up with money.  This is because in a small country, it doesn’t take long for everyone to find out we have money to spend on certain projects.  This is because our wealth is incomprehensible to many others, in the same way their poverty is incomprehensible to us.  If we have ipods, how can we not have the $60,000 they need to buy a machine?  Don’t we have enough money to not only live in America but to leave it at will, to go to school enough to speak in foreign tongues?

In this respect, I think our Capstone did some irreversible damage to the reputation of gringoes.  We are hardly alone in that, but the precedent is set.  Worse, I think we were all collectively far too naive about the expectations we were walking into.  Just because we were perfectly clear doesn’t mean it came across as we intended it.  If every group is perfectly clear that they are not giving away food or money, but then proceed to do one or both of those things, it is natural for people to assume that, “we’re not giving you food or money,” is gringo for, “just wait a few days and Santa Claus will be here.”

To think that our actions and words are the only ones that contribute to what is expected of us is a rookie mistake.  It is one of those mistakes that I can’t help but feel is the difference between the business mindset and social sciences mindset, for better or for worse.

Food Donation: Is it Ethical?

After a day or two in Mata los Indios, a rural, poor village in Dominican Republic, we reflected on what we had seen and what we could do.  We came there with the intention of assessing the needs of the community and mapping their assets, in an attempt to persuade Esperanza International to open a Bank of Hope.  This Bank of Hope would most likely be funded by a donation raised by our group of 40 people in a capstone class in poverty and social enterprise.  The Bank of Hope would help 25 or so families start their own businesses with a series of small loans that they would repay over a 6-12 month period, with a relatively low interest rate.  The interest would pay for services like health and dental, which the community badly needs.

That was the plan.  Use our questionnaire and our Spanish to take thorough notes of the community, literally map them out, present our findings to Esperanza, and come back to the states to do a more thorough analysis.  And hopefully, at some point, make an actual damn argument about it.

But then we saw the community.  As we reflected, some people were getting pretty choked up (did you not know people are poor?).  Professor was saying it had been a long time since he had seen poverty this bad (you mean since last summer?).  There was shock that people were only eating once a day (that wasn’t in our questionnaire, and no one wanted to talk about it–how did you learn this?).  Then there was the woman who had lost 9 of her 10 children (ok really, what kind of intrusive questions are you asking to get this stuff?).

I sort of felt like a robot.

At this point, we were basically ordered to make a considerable, one-time food donation.  This seems logical.  They are hungry, we are not.  They need food, we have money.  Except this is not a group of missionaries.  We are students who study how to develop poor areas in a sustainable and socially responsible way.  A one-time donation is not sustainable.  We are linked to Esperanza, so that may send an incorrect impression about what Esperanza does.  We are almost entirely white; this might send the wrong message about what the presence of gringos means.  These are the landmines we have been taught to look for.  And here we were, plowing forward with our one tonne of rice.

We went through the local pastor, and created the equal portions ourselves, which were equivalent to about one month’s worth of food per family.  I have no idea how that was calculated.  Every household was to receive one.  No more, no less.  While this meant no one could get screwed out of their food, it also meant some people perhaps got more than they deserved/needed, while others got less.  But in a community where everyone lives on less than $1 a day, how bad could that disparity be?  the food would be dropped off and distributed without us there, which was a good decision.  Except maybe some people went?  It’s unclear.

Professor asked Esperanza, our partner and a micro-enterprise institution (MFI), what they thought about what we did.  Their response was polite, but they had concerns. They didn’t want Esperanza to be interpreted as party to this, their central message is that working to lift yourself out of poverty is more effective and dignified than receiving charity, and they were concerned that the distribution may not have been equitable.  Here, equitable would mean going to who needs it most, not necessarily giving out fair portions to all.

If I had been able to answer, I would have said this, exactly: Gracias para todo tus consejos, y creo que estamos de acuerdos por la mayoridad.  Pero, no podemos hacer lo que es mejor ahora mismo.  No tenemos este abilidad.  We all agree, for the most part, with what you said.  However, we cannot do what is best right now.  We don’t have that ability.

We aren’t a micro-finance institution, and unless they would help us, we were utterly impotent to do anything else for the people of Mata.  And as it became clear that our allegiance was to working with Esperanza (regardless of whether they help Mata) instead of to Mata (to help them somehow, even if Esperanza wasn’t the answer), it felt imperative that we do something, anyhting, to help.

I only hope that one thing I didn’t list as a concern doesn’t happen: that the food drop doesn’t help us was our hands of MatalosIndios.  That we don’t check it off our list and move on, because rural is a pain, and we miss electricity, and Esperanza may not agree to help them.

Was what we did okay?  I don’t know.  It certainly isn’t what we’re taught to do.  And I do think it contributes to mismanaged expectations, which is another post unto itself.  But I think it’s a very human impulse to feed someone when they’re sitting next to you, hungry.  And I think we should cultivate that impulse, because sometimes the friend who needs help the most isn’t next to you at all, they’re halfway around the world.

Ego Goes Both Ways

Normally when I travel, yoga is a daily occurrence or more.  It calms me down, helps me sleep better and often attracts friends.  This past week, however, I did a few stealthy backbends and that was about it.  And man, was I suffering because of it.

In yoga, one of the internal (eternal) quests is to shed the ego, something I have a lot of trouble with.  This means no mini victory dances when I get twistier than the tiny chick in lululemon pants.  In fact, I’m not even supposed to compare myself to lulu. Generally, not wearing my glasses and closing my eyes helps, but there’s still that little voice that makes me keep going when my flat feet are killing me, because I don’t want people to think I’m too terrible to hold a warrior I.

This past week, I saw the harm of my ego cutting the other way.  I was uncomfortable joining in the small ragtag group doing yoga in the middle of breakfast.  This is totally unlike me, as there are pictures of me doing yoga pretty much everywhere: airports, bars, hotel rooms, parties, restaurants, the Sahara dessert.  I laughed, gave some superior advice from afar, and watched the group of newbies look confused and redfaced. Meanwhile, my back was aching for a good chataranga.  Given how easy it was to be “one of them” (gooba-gabba!) once I allowed myself to do it, I wonder how much of that otherness I was feeling was self-induced.

By one of them, I mean a part of this new segment of NU’s population.  For them, I am (or was) an unknown quality.  All week people told me they thought I was a freshmen, they didn’t know my name, or they thought I was 19.  This is not the perception I am used to.  I am used to being a leader, intimidating, respected.  Even among new groups, I tend to emerge as a talker and a an asset early on.  Not so in this shark pit.  Do they make shark pits?  Whatever, this group is so weird and intimidating it needs its own expressions.

I have no problem looking dumb/silly/whatever.  I do, however, have a problem having people think I care about looking dumb.  Key distinction, of course.

Presumably, they no longer think I’m dumb or a non-factor.  Actually, it didn’t take long for the people I spent time with to start making the same friendly jokes I always hear about my vocabulary.  And once I had the chance for some good one-on-ones I could feel my words becoming more important to my audience.  I learned a whole lot from everyone else of course–there was never any question about that.  I was all brandy-new to the school of business, this professor, these field studies and this social group, so I was constantly learning and reevaluating.  I think I just missed feeling like my presence created learning for others as well.  I guess SEI is like a really big family–you have to be very loud or very patient.  And in a loud family, even the quiet ones are raucous.

So next time you see people dancing or doing yoga or laughing or really any little thing you love to do, don’t  hide yourself  away.  Put your ego aside and join them.  Somebody may even learn something.