Category Archives: Group Travel

Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

En route to Ganvie.
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.
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 or hiding our cameras, not meeting each other’s eyes or theirs.

A local boat
A local boat

After I made my purchases I was tired of being pressed further, so I went to the porch to watch some kids splash around.  They were all quite small and in various states of undress, but were too engrossed n their play to bother with another bunch of yovos.  I took a couple of pictures, as did some others, but one of our flashes went off and a little boy put his hand over his genitals.  In French he yelled that he would only remove it for money, which horrified us.  Then he said we should really pay so we can have National Geographic pictures, and I was horrified for a different reason.  This kid knew our number, knew the number of everyone who pays a boat to take them out there.  We wanted something gritty, graphic, exotic and strange.  Something that looked like a poor, primeval stereotype of Africa.

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Typical houses in the village.

We were brought from one building to the next, and it quickly became clear that there would be no talk on the history or culture of Ganvie.  Just a lot of wooden statues, wind chimes, and toy cars for sale.

Some students began to get seasick from getting in and out of the boats so often, and others were nervous about a couple of the buildings that seemed to bounce and sway a little too much, where we could see the water beneath our feet through the cracks and holes in the floor.  A chatty group, we got more sullen and silent in the face of a strange and incredibly un-fun shopping trip.  The less we bought, the more agitated the shopkeepers, boat captains and other locals would get.  Some people tried to explain that every shop sold the same thing, or that we were but poor students, but there was little sympathy to be found.

Fish farming plots.
Fish farming plots.

Someone in charge heavily insinuated that it was an obligation to buy things, since we had shown up as voyeuristic little tourists, never mind that these same people in charge brought us here with little warning and no option to stay behind.  We came to wonder if the men who brought us there were from the community, how the community felt about our presence (though I think we knew) and who actually owned those motorboats.

Sometimes I think of Ganvie, and it always makes me uncomfortable.  It’s one of those places I hardly ever discuss.  It felt wrong to be there, but also wrong to take away the much-needed tourism dollars.  It was disappointing not to learn more about the logistics of their way of life, but it seems entitled to be disappointed that strangers don’t take time out of their day to entertain me and answer my questions.  Some people complain that the locals are too unfriendly–how dare they not smile for us, not open up their homes for us.  Most of all, I think about how young the naked boy must have been to already understand exactly how the world sees him, and what it expects of him.  He didn’t do anything wrong–in fact he was being a clever entrepreneur.  It’s just so unsettling that his venture is successful.

Make Your Own Luck

Habana vieja street photography travel cuba havana bike taxi bicitaxi
I feel lucky to have found someone actively repairing a bicitaxi, but it never would have happened if I hadn’t spent 100+ hours walking around Habana Vieja.

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.

Spit trinidad cuba little girl travel street photography
Capturing a little girl in the act of hocking a loogie seems lucky and statistically rare, but the important thing to remember about this image is that I took it when the group was back at the all-inclusive resort, too busy with sun and booze to go out shooting. If you’re not shooting, the likelihood of taking a good image is 0%.

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 musician or actor who is an “overnight success,” luck is just a downplayed misnomer for the reality of their success: hard work and patience.

gay pride havana cuba lgbtq 2013 travel photography parade
I got this image because I chose to march in Havana Pride, not to view it from the sidelines. If you get in the middle of the action, you’re way more likely to come across something amazing. Plus, it’s more fun.

In travel we have a similar opportunity to make our own luck. It’s why I got the large passport, the ten year, multiple-entry visa instead of the single-use one. It’s why I go to travel meet-ups, and include my travel as part of my professional image.  It takes a million small decisions of setting yourself up for success, going the extra mile, and keeping an eye out for opportunity disguised as risk to make your luck.  Of course, not everyone has the privilege to take advantage of these opportunities, and that is nothing to sneeze at.  Nor is it due to any negligence or shortcoming on their part.  I feel strongly about making travel more accessible for all, as well as publicizing cost-effective opportunities.  When I talk about people who don’t make their own luck, I do not refer to people without a realistic ability to take advantage of opportunities.  Rather, I’m speaking about people with the ability to take advantage of opportunities (which other people would kill for)  who choose not to go for it because they’re too tired, it’s too much work, it’s too far out of their comfort zone or they’re too easily distracted.  I’m speaking about people who haven’t prioritized an attainable goal they say they want, and then are surprised when they don’t reach it.

Dominoes Cuba havana cigarette
The way I was able to get this close was that I hung out with these guys for 45 minutes or so, chatting in Spanish, after spending time in the youth center outside of which they were sitting. I only did that because I decided to follow an older couple when they offered to show me the place, which only happened because I actually talk to my subjects in the first place.

People say I’m lucky to have gone to Cuba three times, twice in a work capacity. But those opportunities never would have existed if I didn’t put in the hard work of applying and then making it through the three month Cuba program I did in 2010.  I took a risk of being homesick, unhappy, missing out on everything back home, and losing a precarious relationship in order to go on what I knew would be a strange and challenging adventure.  I didn’t know yet all the ways it could pay off, but that hard work and risk is still making me “lucky” to this day.  I didn’t plan for employers to google me or to win a contest, but since 2009 I’ve been writing online, putting in the time and effort.  I’ve been told I was lucky to win a spot on the Kerala Blog Express, but most of the people who say that could never have even entered the contest, because they have never put in the work of writing a blog and cultivating an online presence. That’s not a bad thing, but the difference between me and the people who didn’t win isn’t just luck, it’s years of hard work.

gay pride cross-dressing tans LGBTQ gay rights havana cuba parade
The only reason I knew there was a Gay Pride Parade happening down the street is that my roommate got up early, saw it, and knew I would want to be there. The lesson from this, other than to shoot and travel with cool people, is that your network not only needs to be strong, but they need to know what you’re looking for. I send him every sports-related tip I can, and in return he bullied me into getting my ass out of bed for an amazing event. Good deal.

Another huge difference is a willingness to take risks.  Most of he people I know who are jealous of my Cuba trips wouldn’t have the guts to go if they were presented with the opportunity, never mind the guts to go on a longer trip when it was an unproven, unknown quantity.  Many people would never have entered a contest because it seemed sketchy or too good to be true.  They wouldn’t have lobbied their contacts for votes, and they wouldn’t have committed to buying a plane ticket to the other side of the planet, still a little unsure if it was all a scam.

If we consistently work hard, take risks and set ourselves up to be able to take advantage of opportunities, we’ll find ourselves stumbling into a whole lot of luck.  So get up early, pound the pavement, separate yourself from the crowd of long lenses, talk to some strangers, and make your luck happen.

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 a whole other thing.

But back to the story, and the risks involved.  This was probably during what most people would call my time off, but it was nonetheless immediately obvious to me that I was in charge and it was my job to keep my students safe.  This is because regardless of what time of day or night, my state of mind, whether I’m with friends, coworkers, clients or students, or how undesirable the task may be, when something needs to get done, I see it as just doing my job.  This is because I have a pretty broad definition of my job, which goes beyond the things for which I am paid, things done in a cubicle, or times when I am expected to watch how I dress, speak, or act.  In my mind, my job is to keep everyone safe, and increase justice and knowledge whenever possible.  Literally all of the time, for the entire time I’m alive.  I’m off the hook if I’m sleeping, but if someone wakes me up I’m right back in it.

So this leaves me with some dueling priorities.  Number 1, I need to make sure nothing happens to my students, who are likely best served by calmly walking away from the cops questioning their friend across the street.  Number 2, I know why the cops are talking to their friend, and I know it’s bullshit.  I know we have more pull than they do in this scenario, but I also know that if I (or my students) screw up, we will not face the consequences.  The Cubans will.  And then there’s the guilt.  If these guys had been doing their own thing, without a giant pack of white women to whom they were nothing but polite and friendly, no one would be talking to the cops right now.  Oh and number 3, none of my students have any clue that the cops are questioning him for no good reason, or that they have played any role in all of this, or that they could do serious damage by trying to help.  Or rather, I thought this had occurred to none of them.

I get the high sign from one of the Cubans, and a couple of people (who I didn’t realize were intoxicated) translate my message of “keep walking, wait for me at the end of the street, and don’t cause a fuss,”  into something loosely resembling, “holy shit we got that guy arrested!  and now no one can have fun and everyone should scream!”  Somehow everyone instantly became belligerent and less logical in that moment, but eventually they reluctantly followed instructions.  I’ve written before about this, and about how strange it was the next morning to hear 22 different versions of the same night.  But after they left was the real trouble.

After they left was the real trouble because that’s when those students from before, the ones I didn’t count on understanding precisely what was happening, remained.  And they did what I would have done.  They asked the other Cubans what would fix it, and they did their best to follow through.  It didn’t work, but they’re good people for trying.  Meanwhile, I got to be someone I never imagined being: the callous authority figure, giving them instructions that would protect them but not their friends.  Normally, I would have been the one going over to talk to the cops.  Instead, I was the one with a plan for how to get their US passports here before they could potentially be taken to jail.

Luckily, my students were fine, although those who remained till the end were certainly hurt in an irreparable way, the way that only powerlessly watching complete injustice from a place of informed privilege can make you feel.  The guy who the police brought away in cuffs had to pay an unimaginably high fine for a Cuban salary, but he was a free man the next day.  I was of course fine too, as my students and I never wore cuffs and didn’t have to pay a dime, but I was left wrestling with the idea of choosing the safety of one group of people over justice (and potentially safety) for another.  When it comes down to it, I am responsible for my students.  And I don’t know them as well as I know myself, so there is a greater unpredictability to their risks than mine.  But finally, when I take my risks, I can really only take them when I travel on my own, when I am not endangering anyone but myself.  And therein lies the downside of being in a group: a risk for one becomes a risk for all, whether we mean it to be or not.

So yes, I tell them not to swim  off the malecon, but I also don’t say a word when I know they’re doing it.  I told my kids in Greece they better not go to protests, but I was pissed I missed them myself, and Sarah knew without my asking that the first thing I wanted to see in Cairo, other than her gorgeous face, was Tahrir Square.  I count their heads and make them promise me that they’ll use the buddy system, and I tell them they’re not allowed to scare me like that when they get back to the bus late or have too much to drink.

But sometimes it gets trickier, if you can believe it.

I take cabs and walk alone, I dress how I want to dress.  No, I will not tell my female students they can’t wear a mini-skirt to a club on a Friday night.  First of all, I wouldn’t believe in doing that even if it would help.  But second, I know for a fact it won’t do anything to keep away the cat calls and the groping.  Driving and walking alone is harder.  I think in general, everyone is safer with the buddy system.  But I also know it drove us to insanity in Cairo when for six weeks we were basically never alone.  It’s why I would hide in the lobbies between floors reading, or insist on wandering museums alone.  When I could have my independence, I took it.  There’s also something to the idea that if a guy doesn’t have a buddy, it’s not a huge deal.  If a girl doesn’t have one, whatever happens next is her fault.

I don’t want my students to be alarmist, and I sort of read one the riot act when she claimed last summer that her roommate was not only certain to be raped in Havana’s most crowded, safe, zero-violent-crime neighborhood, but that it would be the roommate’s fault, and how dare that roommate scare her like that.  I hate the pearl clutching and the victim blaming and those who would scare us into never leaving America or our hometowns or our kitchens, but I also count heads compulsively.  I always know where the exits and the cops are.  I waited behind because one of them ran off at night to get his fifteenth sandwich of the day, and everyone going home without telling him was unacceptable.

So I let them hate me for not “stopping” or “letting them stop” their friend from getting arrested.  And I do my best not to get into arguments about the futility and misogyny of dress codes as safety measures.  I want them to know street harassment, sexual assault, political violence, corruption, all of these injustices, they happen all the time.  But that shouldn’t keep them home or moving around in air-conditioned vehicles in knee-length baggy skirts in groups of ten or more.  The world is simultaneously more terrifying and more kind than they’ve ever imagined.  I just don’t know how to tell them that.

Tightlipped

Those who know me and read this blog have noticed that there are usually two reasons for me to go quiet:

  1. I’m incredibly stressed and busy, or
  2. 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!

The Funny Thing About Europe

…is that it has drinkable water and hot showers and everything you could want to buy.  There are crepes

Look at that beautiful bathroom! The water is even hot 🙂

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.

The boardwalk of Thessaloniki at night

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 much time.  I find the same type of pasta that populates koshery, and (at least in our group) one never has to go far to find an Arab or hear in’shallah.

Unlike Cairo, I garner no one’s attention, the streets are not so overwhelmingly full by all demographics until 5am, and there is a general lack of worry for one’s safety. Of course, the late-night crowds (and their chronological breadth) are still impressive compared to the states, and meals are still late, it’s just nothing compared to Cairo.

For now, I’m, content to explore this city so reminiscent of Alexandria.  Little wonder:  it is named for The Great’s half-sister, and this Ottoman/Roman mix was no doubt an inspiration for Iskandriyya’s ambience.

Opening Week

Things have been slow on this blog because they’ve been fast in my life.  However busy I always thought

The view from my balcony. Yes, that's a condemned building

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.

Roxanne, Kathy and myself, 1/4 of Team Greece

We’re still adrift here on team Greece, however.  We have yet to establish a schedule, or even some of our protocols, and we are generally a bit scattered, somehow falling off the treadmill before we even started.  To make matters worse, news from Boston is slow to nonexistent, often arriving via rumour mill.  I must say I’m generally pleased by everyone here in Greece, but rather flummoxed by the behavior of the collective entity that is the Boston office.

On the plus side, I’ve really loved getting to know my Greek coworkers.  Edlira lives here in the hotel with us and is constantly organizing everything,  helping me get on buses and ferry students, and teaching me Greek.  She is joined by Irini, Joanna and Julianne, all of whom are very sweet to me.  They rarely speak rapid-fire, incomprehensible Greek in front of me, and are beyond necessary for this job.  I’m looking forward to when the students have class everyday, affording the staff some time to get our ducks in a row, as well as some time to socialize.

I’ve taken almost no pictures because I’ve been so uncertain of our days, and even less certain of my autonomy during them.  I hope to remedy that soon.

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.

A fraction of the students, posing above the city

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 been all over the world.  The idea is to recognize those who have been excellent (diligent, polite, optimistic, helpful, kind) but who have been lacking in attention thus far.  This original baton continues on, and you can track it at The Baton Lives Free.  In order to recreate the awesome of the baton but not have to continually hijack it, SEI has opted to create a new baton or set of batons for every trip.  They are passed from Professor and Esther, and from there they are awarded to students, by students.  Each student adds or alters the baton in some way.  For example, with our capstone baton, Kevin added a star to DR on the globe.  The baton can be anything–for our Dialogue, it was a star wand and a crown.  It’s interesting to see the meandering path of the baton, and the speeches for the next recipient are thoughtful and heartfelt.  People tend to pay more attention to their behavior, too, when they know they could be publicly awarded for it (or not).

Superlatives are a great way of ending your time in any type of group.  It’s important to make sure someone is in charge of it, although I would say not a student, as people sometimes vote for cruel or thoughtless superlatives.  We did these in Benin as well as the DR, and people got pretty rabid in the DR when we delayed announcements in an effort to add photos.  I noticed that the superlatives that mean the most are more creative than “best smile” or “best laugh”, and less obvious than whatever running jokes have been present from day one.

I’m looking forward to adapting these to our large group of 145 in Greece.  We’re going to need a lot of batons.  What methods of recognition have you seen in the past?  Do you have any ideas for how to recognize good behavior and create a strong sense of community in such a large group?