10 Tips for Group Travelers

Most of my travel outside of the US has before 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! yes i’m that corny :)) 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!

  1. 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.  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.
  2. It’s all about dosage.  You can be pleasant with anyone, even your mortal enemy, 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 but friendly with all.
  3. Don’t gossip.  This one is hard for me, since I’m pretty chatty and people tend to tell me things.  But in a group setting it’s poison, and can turn good friends against one another.  I find it’s best if you’re direct: if it’s a state secret, say so when you tell someone so they won’t slip up by accident.  And if you’re not involved in a problem and don’t need to be, stay out of it!
  4. Be direct.  This can dovetail into the gossip, as often the cattiness starts because someone felt wronged and rather than dealing with the person directly, they go to a third party to complain.  If you can trust your third party and just need to blow off a little steam, that’s fine.  But if all you need is to vent then do so and be done with it.  If you feel compelled to share again, or with another person, then you need to face the facts: it’s bothering you, and the person who upset you deserves to be told in a polite, constructive, and direct manner.  Often, when you spend this much time together, people don’t even realize they’re bothering you!
  5. Determine your red lines as well as what you can give away.  In diplomacy, before going into a negotiation, both sides have a list of what they’re willing to give up, and in what order.  If you don’t care where you eat dinner, then be flexible.  But if you absolutely must see a certain museum or you won’t be happy, then let people know. Have enough respect for your fellow travelers to NOT put them in the position of determining your happiness: if your priorities don’t match theirs, split up and accomplish them on your own time.
  6. Compliment your fellow travelers.  I know this sounds silly, but you should have at least one good thing to say about each person you travel with for every day you’re together.  Tell them, with a smile, and without expecting anything in return.  On all of my best trips, the group has been very complimentary of each other, even when we weren’t always getting along in other respects.  It can go a long way to show that you’re paying attention to that person’s thoughts, plans, clothing, or ability to read a map.  And sometimes, appreciating someone you’re not particularly fond of is like a smile: fake it till you make it.
  7. Eat every meal with a different person.  This is a great way to get to know the people you’re with in a more profound and interesting way.  And to be honest, the best way to make your group feel bigger is to get to know each and every person well.  This can also help you to learn their strengths and weaknesses so you don’t run into trouble later on.  Finally, we as human beings have an easier time empathizing with people we know personally.  The more you have invested in the individual members of the group, the more you will be willing to set aside petty tribulations or personal conflicts for the good fo the community.
  8. Set yourself up for success, not failure.  What do I mean by this?  Don’t sit next to a chatty person on the bus if you need to catch up on sleep.  Don’t go out in a group where none of you know the local language.  Don’t go out with a high roller if you want to eat a budget meal.  In each of these scenarios, you will only end up frustrated.  Most of the time, you can avoid these unfortunate groupings if you know the other members of the group well enough and if you’re willing to admit your own agenda and red button issues as well as theirs.
  9. Expand your group.  Whenever possible, strike up conversations with strangers.  Surprisingly, most people outside of the US (and some parts of Western Europe) are incredibly willing to talk to total strangers.  As a Bostonian I find this wildly unsettling, but also extremely rewarding.  Translators, tour guides, waitstaff and the guy who owns the general store are all assuredly interesting people with worthwhile information about wherever you are.  If you spend some time making local friends, you can return to your group refreshed and perhaps with some insider knowledge on your locale.  This write-up is trite, but I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get to know local people, for your group dynamic as well as for your experience in general.
  10. Know thyself.  The quickest way to upset someone else on the trip is by thinking you can handle something that you can’t, which results in you lashing out at an innocent third party.  Don’t push yourself too hard, because it will only harm you and your relationship with others.  You have to come to terms with who you are on this trip, and what you want out of it.  If you need eight hours of sleep to be pleasant, then it doesn’t matter how many people are going out for first night drinks: you need those eight hours.  You owe them to yourself and to your group-mates.  If you need to save money or you want to see a specific site, then take ownership.  Understand fully the costs and rigor of the trip before you go, and adjust accordingly within the parameters.

How about you guys?  Any suggestions, disagreements?  How about suggestions from family travel?  While I find all of these to be good general practices for any sustained, closed environment (work, family, teammates, etc), I think family travel will need a dedicated list for itself.

The Value of Greek

I am such a linguaphile, I can’t even help it.  Too young to attend school under the French Immersion program like my older brother, I made up my own language to compensate.  Obviously, I refused to ever let my brother in on its secrets, which annoyed him to no end.  In seventh grade, I attacked French with gusto.  In ninth grade, I traded all my high school electives and part of my summer for the chance to take Spanish.  In college, instead of just testing out of both languages, I let my scores stagnate and struggled through Arabic.  And oh, have I struggled.

So when I found out I was going to Greece, learning the language seemed like a no-brainer.  I got a phrasebook, I signed up for language-learning software via Odysseus, and I started trying to re-learn the Greek alphabet (with correct pronunciation, no thanks to the Greek system of American Universities.) I know from my experience with Arabic that truly knowing the alphabet through and through makes a huge difference, and I intend to have it fully mastered, along with basic phrases, before I leave in September.  When I’m in Greece, I fully plan on auditing one of the Greek 101 classes that my students take.

Since then, however, conversations with several people have caused me to question my resolve.  How realistic is it for me to become conversational between now and December, when I return?  How often will I used Greek after this trip?

I suppose this really gets at the question of why do I study languages?  When people ask why Arabic (no one ever asks Why Spanish? or Why French?) I sometimes answer, “because I wanted to read the Qu’ran.”  That’s true, but I have no intention of reading it in its entirety in Arabic (I’ve read passages in class, but lack the stamina and vocabulary to do the whole thing), and it is widely available in English.  When I started learning French, I had no thoughts on going to France.  It isn’t that I didn’t want to go; it simply wasn’t on my radar or in my mental conception of the possibilities of life.  I did, however, start Spanish with a clear head.  I knew two things: First, speaking three languages instead of two would be both challenging and a feather in my cap.  When it comes to education, I am equally seduced by the challenge and the accolades.  Second, I knew that a person who speaks English, French and Spanish can talk to the majority of the world’s population.  Adding Arabic to that list definitely reduced the number of people in the world with whom I cannot communicate.

So going by this criteria, learning Greek will definitely fire me up with the challenge of it all.  Plus, it’s a different alphabet (which ups my linguistic cred) and if I ever want to catch up with Theresa Hines-Kerry I need to get a move-on.  (She speaks seven languages at my last count.)  Greek will definitely add a lot of people to my can-communicate list, however it has nowhere near the numbers of my other three languages.  While Greek will be super-relevant for three months, it likely won’t be much use after that, unless I apply to work for a study abroad provider in Greece after I graduate, which is not out of the question.

I’ll keep you posted on my trials and tribulations, and in the end work may keep me too busy, but I think what it boils down to is this: I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try. 

I’m Going to Greece

This news has sort of trickled out in dribs and drabs, but for my last coop I’m going to Greece with NUin.  There’s a bit of info on the Greece page under the “Where I’ve Been” tab, as well as on my original announcement of employment.

Reasons I’m excited about Greece:

  • It’s another Mediterranean country
  • I get to go to Parker and Lauren’s wedding.  The locations have different departure dates, and only Ireland or Greece would accommodate their August wedding.  I know it sounds silly, but they’re my cousins and I would hate to miss a family wedding.  I can’t think of a way to feel more homesick than to miss a big, fun event that my whole family goes to without me.
  • I love foreign language settings (the other options were all English-speaking or Costa Rica).  I’m sure I’ll have plenty of adventures to write about stumbling through Greek.
  • To that end, this will be my first time to go abroad with no experience at all in the language
  • That being said, i got a phrasebook and some language software (NOT Rosetta Stone.  I’m not a fan.)
  • I can go to Istanbul easily–it’s an 8 hour ride from Thess, and ACT runs a cheap weekend trip there every semester.
  • I love the whole Greece/Cypres/Turkey dynamic
  • I’m BEYOND pumped to submit an article to the NU Political Review about the Eurozone and Greece’s current economic situation.  As my dad said, “Greece used to be fine, and then it wasn’t, so Delia decided to go!”

At this point, I have met my Site Director(SD), Chis, who is a retired history teacher and has tons of abroad experience. Plus, he speaks Japanese and has run 4 marathons–how cool is that?!  There are three Assistant Site Directors (ASDs), Jennifer, Staci and Kelly.  Jennifer was an intense corporate consultant before teaching English in Korea for a year.  Staci just moved back from Baha, Mexico, and has also spent a lot of time in Australia.  Kelly just had her birthday during our second orientation (yes, we sang and made the participants sing a bunch of times, too), and just finished her masters.  All of them have masters degrees, actually.  I’m really psyched to work with such a fun, smart group of people.  We’ve all been getting along very well, and I’m excited to meet the other International Student Advisers (ISAs).  There are 7 ISAs plus me.  I’ve already met them all, and the general consensus is that Team Greece=Rock Star Team.

We’ve already had all three pre-departure orientations, or PDOs as the Boston staff insists on calling them.  During orientations I’ve been able to get to know some of our Greece participants, watch the SDs and ASDs of other locations run their programs, and get the hang of how NUin runs their pred-departure.  I’ve done pre-departure for study abroad, but it’s different when people stay overnight, their parents come, and they’re paying $30k for a semester.  Plus, for NUin participants, this isn’t just a semester abroad–it’s their first semester of college, and for some it’s their first time out of the country or even their first time away from their parents for more than a week.

This job in general is pretty amazing, because it is really getting into the niche of using study abroad as a way to motivate people toward social responsibility.  There will be a service-learning aspect, with a 30 hour volunteering commitment as well as a 1-credit course for reflection and discussion.  I’m hoping I get to TA one of the sections, since so much of what I enjoy is examining travel, foreign cultures and volunteerism, so we can make the biggest, most effective impact possible.  I’m also looking forward to some of the programming, from going to the movies in Greece (I always go to the movies abroad if I can help it) to climbing and camping on Mt. Olympus.

Let me know if you have any tips/advice on Greece, or on leading 145 college freshmen in a foreign country.  I’ll need it!

Mata los Indios

This cement housing is typical of bateyes, as it was once used as barracks for sugar cane workers. Now, whole families live in them. This blue section is three separate homes, with a third one not pictured.
This is a playground.
The sweet, quiet girl who came and hung out with me while I was super boring and wrote. She sat on my lap and snuggled up with me for the afternoon. She barely even let me get this picture.
Town Leadership, and a Sister Island Project rep on the left
Ubiquitous trash on the rocky road to Mata
Ninos playing basketball

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 have been shown to me are introduced into their discussions as well.

  • From Amnesty/Benin: Step Up/Step Back.
    On stepup/stepback days, everyone self selects and does the opposite of what they normally do.  Those who are shy are heavily encouraged to participate more strongly, and those who usually contribute greatly (or, like me, dominate the conversation) are asked to hang back.  While I personally have huge difficulty observing the rules of step up/step back, I think it’s incredibly valuable.  I can see that even more clearly after the spring break capstone trip, in which I was uncharacteristically quiet. [note of awesome: Chris, the Site Director for Greece AKA my boss mentioned both this and One Mic during our very first pre-departure orientation!  Woohoo!]
  • From Amnesty (mostly Thenjiwe): One Mic.
    The one mic policy is very simple: there is only one mic, and if you don’t have it you can’t speak.  Let me clarify: I prefer to never have a physical object like a talk stick or whatever, if it is at all possible.  But it’s nice to be able to just say hey, can I get one mic up here? If people start speaking over you when you have the floor.  Much less disruptive than me banging the gavel and saying “decorum delegates!” in the iciest voice I can muster.
  • From SEI: Base your comments on facts and observations. 
    This is actually the rule that pissed me off the most, if only because so many of our discussions were asking for our opinions, and people gave me shit every time I said the word “think” even if it was couched in the statement, “based on those observations, I think…”  But nonetheless, I think it’s good to get students in the mindset of only making statements they can back up, and I have changed its wording to reflect that.  Much like Oberheim’s exericse (read: torture) of not letting us write with the verb ‘to be’, it is not so much meant to be held to with fascist fervor, but is rather a good tool for getting you to leave behind bad habits, like saying a stereotype without realizing you’ve based it on nothing.

Varadero

Picture this: you’ve spent three weeks living in a beautiful foreign country but have barely seen the beaches.  You only have two showers and they’re both always cold, and you’ve been eating arrozcompollo morning noon and night since you’ve been here.  Your mattress is thin, the pillows are stuffed with rags and old cotton batting.

But then you get the best news: you’re headed to an all-inclusive resort on the longest uninterrupted beach in the world.  All you can eat food, much of which comes from la Yuma.  All you can drink liquor, but the only one that matters is rum.  The showers are hot, and there’s one for every pair of people.

Okay, this place creeped me out.

Also among the amenities?  Cubans are bussed in and out every evening, and only if they have proper identification proving that they work on a resort.  This way, there are no pesky hungry people ruining your beach view.  Bingo is conducted in English, French, Spanish and German.  At every meal beef–no matter that outside of these tourist traps is like winning the lottery to find beef from a cow in a Cuban restaurant.

“I can’t even say ho-laaa!” the tourists cackle, mostly Canadians and British.  People stumble around at all hours, never leaving the specified resort area.  Never removing their precious plastic bracelets that separate them from the rabble that is Cuba. We only stayed for three days, but for most, this is all they will ever see of Cuba.

We stuff our faces, we shower several times a day.  We drink all day long, accomplishing little else.  We cook our skin, we stomp around salsa like this is Dirty Dancing and we’re all in the Birkshires.  The entertainment staff performs a bastardized santeria song and dance and we wonder how the tourists aren’t terrified or curious.  They clap and take pictures of poor people in synthetic clothes, dancing for money instead of the orishas. We dress up and pretend Batista is still in charge.

This is so fucked up.