Category Archives: Uncategorized

Life is Not a Reality Show Starring Me

One of the hallmarks of western people traveling is that by and large, we only “befriend” service workers.  That is to say, our only local interactions of any length involve the exchange of currency.  Of course I think we should support local businesses as much as possible, but think about your life back home–is it dominated by people who are with you because they are paid to be?  How much would you really know about your city or country if you only went to the top ten tourist destinations and spoke only with cab drivers, tour guides, bartenders, waitstaff and hotel/hostel staff?  I understand that this level of engagement is fine or even optimal for many people, but to me it is severely lacking.  Luckily, that is starting to change.

People ask a  lot of questions if you travel, and one of the absolute best was by one of my dad’s cousins a couple of years ago.  “So if we were in Cuba right now, if we were just two Cuban guys, what would we be doing?  What would our day be like?”  If I asked a variation on this question at most travel meetups, or sadly after many study abroad programs, the response would be crickets.  Or worse, when someone fills in the blanks with stereotypes or takes one small thing they saw once and applies it to an entire city, country, or region.

Traveling to other countries, for me, is not about getting as many different passport stamps as possible, or crossing off everything in a guide book or 1,001 places to see before you die.  Other people’s lives and communities are not playgrounds for me, set pieces and props for my story, devices to teach me and other western people valuable lessons in navel-gazing.  They are human beings, whole and entire.  They are not merely sad and pitiable, noble in the face of their immense struggles, nor are they just inspiring in their happiness, ignorant to how much better life is with iPhones and DVR.  They have a full range of emotions and experiences, just like us.  Other people exist for themselves and their own goals, struggles, and desires, not for our profile pics, poverty porn, and Eat, Pray, Love-style enlightenment.

If I’ve learned anything while traveling, it’s that our world is full of millions of other small worlds, each one fascinating and full of its own truth.  If I am patient, kind, polite, and sit by very quietly, occasionally I can learn something from these worlds as I encounter them.  If I am able to stay somewhere long enough, sometimes these worlds let me in so I can be a part of their community for a little while.  All of my best memories abroad (and at home–because travel is not an escape from real life) come from getting to know people and places well enough that they trust me with some very real part of their existence.  Some of the most interesting things that have ever happened to me are the things that have re-aligned my view of people or a place, clarifying some generalization or misunderstanding I have previously held.  There is more to this world and this life than 7 billion people and 196 countries at the service of me.  My travel, no matter how exciting to me, is still just somebody else’s Wednesday, their day job, their ride home.  And to me, that is the most exciting part of all–not the bungee jumping or the skydiving or the tattoos or the scuba diving; getting to see what somebody else’s Wednesday can be.

The Urgency of Travel

I came across an article recently about the growing phenomenon of students who spend almost every weekend of their semester abroad traveling somewhere outside of their host city, and often outside of their host country.  I immediately thought of my students last fall in Greece, many of whom spent exorbitant sums of their (or more often, their parents’ money) to leave Thessaloniki as often as possible.  I know they did this because I was responsible for knowing their general whereabouts.  I know about the exorbitant sums they spent because so many of them told me, almost proud, about all the last minute flights they booked.  

The article details this extreme sense of urgency, the idea that this is a once in a lifetime experience.  On most of my trips leading study abroad students or being on myself, I have heard this urgency expressed in a variety of ways.  Some students spend little time sleeping in order to see it all and do it all, and inevitable crash or become ill or get sun sickness.  Others never get to know their host country or host city because they only see it in Monday-Friday terms.  Face it, if you never spent weekends in the place where you live, it would seem to be a very different place.  Then there are those who are so busy cramming in all the “right” “must-see” sites that they never see the best stuff.  The everyday things, the regular people who aren’t in the service industry, the places that no one writing for Lonely Planet noticed because they were on deadline and quite frankly weren’t being paid to linger and discover.  

For me, the lingering and the discovering is the thing.  That’s where the nature of a place is hiding, where the most worthwhile friendships have cropped up, and where I’ve seen the kind of beauty that makes a permanent spot in my heart for that place.  

I certainly do go to many if not all of the places on the must-see list, but that’s for the first day or week or month, not for your settled-in stay.  The people you meet there will likely be fellow tourists, so judging a place based on those crowds is unfair.  Often, those landmarks are old.  There’s nothing wrong with old, but I find something perverse in worshiping a place only for its past, while ignoring all the amazing things that are happening in the here and now, ignoring all the people and innovation and art and history, ignoring the current identity of a place.  Basically, if all I did in Egypt was go to the pyramids and king tut’s tomb, I would have missed out on thousands of years worth of Egypt to fall in love with.  

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with people who work in the service industry (in fact, they almost never let me down with friendliness, patience, and recommendations, at home or abroad), but it’s no accident that Americans have a reputation for “befriending” every cab driver and bar tender, and no one else.  If the only time you see a person is when they are paid to not only do something for you, but do it with a smile and inviting personality, perhaps this is not actually friendship.  

There is nothing wrong with traveling while you’re abroad, and I understand that many people see it as cost-effective since they have already paid for the “big flight,” which in these conversations is almost always to Europe.  Because let’s face it, even though other sites are gaining popularity, most study abroad participants are still going to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.  But for those who want to travel, I recommend getting to know other parts of the same country.  See something beyond a capital city, because good lord a country is so much more than that.  Go to the country, go where residents of your city go on vacation, go to the secondary cities that matter a great deal to locals but outsiders seem to ignore.  Your time in your host city and your time studying your host country has created an outline.  Let your time traveling around familiarizing yourself with the nooks and crannies fill in the picture, slowly.  

I feel that urgency too, and I try to fight it.  That urgency makes a person look to the next thing on the list instead of noticing what’s happening around you in the present.  That urgency makes you competitively compare at hostels, instead of just happily share.  That urgency will always leave you feeling you missed out, even as you were doing or seeing something amazing, or meeting someone amazing.  

When I feel that urgency hit, I think of something a professor said to us toward the end of our time in Egypt: Do not think of this as goodbye.  Don’t think of this as leaving Egypt forever.  You can always come back, and you will come back, if it means that much to you.  There is nothing to stop you from coming back here, if you want.  

And to be honest, almost all of us have gone back.  And it was exactly what I needed, and it will be again when I return.  So when I get to feeling frantic, I tell that urgent, Fear of Missing Out voice to shut up.  I hold onto the feeling knowledge that I will be back, and try to do what makes sense in the moment.  Sometimes that means going to a foreign city.  Sometimes it means staying in to get some rest.  Sometimes it means reading a good book in the sunshine.  And sometimes it just means lingering and discovering a new side to the same old place I’ve seen a thousand times before.  

Walking with the Ghost

Cuba chases me around. I never really expected to be back here again before all hell breaks loose, but here I am. I’m glad today went well, because I needed a win this afternoon. This morning I tried to take some photos of Coppelia (the famou ice cream shop of Fresa y Chocolate fame) then wandered accidentally toward the US Special Interests Section and from there I fell into the old neighborhood.

I stood outside of Casa, my old school for a while. I didn’t go in. I walked past Alex’s house without noticing. I didn’t go inside la esquina de primera y a. None of the ninos were by the fuente. I didn’t stop for croquetas de pollo y una naranja. The woman at the gas station had to count out omy change for me, and even bought a goddamn fiesta cola. Light. Two of them, actually. Goddamn they taste like crap.

Everyone was probably with their madres today anyway. Sometimes I dislike how easily I go unrecognized. I have the same shoes, beach cover up, and tshirts. I go to the same beach and speak the same fractured Spanish. But I have red hair, bangs, a hoop through my nose and 15 fewer pounds to show for the last two years. A lot of the same people are important to me, with a few notable exceptions.

Everything is more affluent this time around. We had lobster my first night. It was the only option, so bottoms up for me! Luckily it was the first food I kept down all day.

There are two channels of HBO, as well as multiple ESPNs. Breakfast is an actual buffet, with real options and more than enough for everyone. Multiple types of bread, plenty of butter substitute. No fighting over the cocoa powder or Nescafe.

There was hot water in the shower. I turned on the cold water anyway. I guess I’m old fashioned like that.

It’s strange not living in the Real World House, or even a reasonable facsimile. I only share my bathroom with one other person. No one barges in unexpectedly. We don’t have the internet, but more importantly, there is no music. There is no dancing. There is no drinking in the shower, no Try a Little Tenderness, no swimming off the Malecon, no practicing drums in the living room.

There are the same flat pillows and scratchy towels. The threadbare bedspreads and choking old guaguas. The politics are the same, although mis compadres know far less about it now than those who came before them. Instead of my balcony, I write from my artificially condicionado’d room, about the same size as the one I shared with four other girls back in the day. Everything is either exactly the same, or exactly different. Are we sure I came back to Cuba? Or is this some other isla?

My Life is Different

In the last week, I’ve had a few thought-provoking incidents.

When picking out go-to attire for a woman’s closet, I was thinking of a scarf, black and white cardigans, and skirts that go to the knee.  In my mind, everything was lightweight and flowing, and colors and patterns are encouraged. They all said LBD and plain black suits.  I explained myself: you never know when you’ll end up in a mosque, or meet with a dignitary who would be insulted by bare shoulders.  I thought this in all earnestness, and have given this “must-have” list to many fellow travelers.  They looked at me, mouths agape, and someone said, “is that what your life is like?  Do you just like meet princes and stuff every day?”

Well, not every day.  But often enough to bring the damn scarf.

For jewelry, I was thinking of my funky fork bracelet from Cuba, a scarf that benefited women in Thailand, or politically snarky Cold War-themed earrings.  The other responses were along the lines of Tory Burch flats, animal prints and “nude pumps.”  to me, that sounds like the tag line of some crummy skinimax flick.

Yesterday in class someone gave me a hard time for writing out “His Excelleceny the American Ambassador to Canada.”  People were laughing and the professor asked why.  It’s over the top they said.  While i know in part they only said this because they were offended that I called their paper over the top, they were also genuinely surprised by the terminology.  My partner assured them we looked it up, but internally I was agitated.  We didn’t need to look it up.  I did to make her feel better, but i knew i was right, because I use that terminology.  To be clear, to say Mr. So-and-so the ambassador to Canada is like saying Mr. Clinton, who used to be president.  It’s not just a job, it’s a title; that title is forever.

I didnt end up defending my word choice because I was so incredibly taken aback.  “I know you say it’s right, but it just sounds really pretentious,” they declared

And that’s when I realized it: no one else in that room had ever met an ambassador before.  Just like no one in that other room had been inside a mosque before.  A quick tally has me at nine different embassies in the last five years.  Not that I always meet the ambassador.  It’s usually a chargee d’affairs or something, but you always brief everyone for the possibility, and I have met several ambassadors.  I won’t even bother to count all the various houses of worship.  How is this not everyone else’s life?  Aren’t they bored?  How do they fill their time?

My life is different.  It just is.  I spend dusty days riding vans down pock-marked roads in the field.  I find myself in four- and five-language chains of translation.  I prepare for modesty and have rules about giving gifts or money, or allowing people to use my camera.  Why?  Because this isn’t new.  This is my life.  Eaving the US, travelling eveyr other weekend or so, packing at a the last minute, this is who i am.  Learning what poverty looks like in this new place, counting heads, cursing people out in a foreign language when necessary.  constantly knowing nothing, being an outsider, feeling useless.  Meeting royalty, fighting over minutiae the likes of which most people have never imagined, debating whether to feed a starving person.  Greece, the alleged armpit of Europe, felt luxurious to me.  I felt guilty just for being there.  It’s not all good or all bad, but it is definitely my life.  And it is definitely weird to most people.

Honestly, i wouldn’t have it any other way.  And that’s the bit that has me stuck.  Because so much of that life doesn’t account for what else is my life: playing school with Bridget, watching Zach and Cody with DeDe, tea and old standards with my grandmother.  Weddings and funerals in spades.  Holidays that range from 30 to 90 people.  Walking places alone at night that would make my mother’s skin crawl, bars where they know my name and order, sports teams that make your world and break your heart.

FAs I look forward, it seems like it will be starkly more difficult to reconcile these two odd pieces of my life.  for one thing, model un will be gone forever.  No more debate, no more conference, no more “mom!”, no more winning, no more neurotic, competitive delia.  No more mentoring, no more embassies, no more overnight trains, no more brand new crop of friends every semester.  That UNA part of me will never come back.

I will no longer have a partitioned life, a clear timeline and financial capability to leave, purposefully, for a little while.  I talked the other night with a friend about the need to be relevent, to do the things that I consider “work” all the time.  So often when people ask, amazed, “why did you do that?” that answer is, “because it’s my job.”  When taking care of delegates and advising students to go abroad isn’t my job, what will be left?  When I don’t have readily available ways to matter to the human race, to contribute, what will be left?  He’s right: I can’t be happy if I’m not doing my work.  It is a passion.  But what if no one will allow me to do that work and pay the rent?  Worse, what if they won’t allow me to do the work and not pay the rent?

When I don’t have this insane workaholic schedule, the one I started at age eleven with science team and forty hours a week at school, who will I be?  When there are no lectures, no charity events, no competitions, no meetings, what’s left?  And what good is all this experience and education, this thoroughly different life, these five fractured languages, if I never use them to help anyone?

Signs I’ve Been Home Too Long

  • I resort to watching reality trash like “Love in the Wild,” just to see the Costa Rican landscape
  • I’m trying to learn another language
  • I go out to dinner and on vacation with my parents.  often.  willingly.
  • I’ve made several fantasy itineraries for future travels
  • It’s been months since I’ve eaten fresh, local, fruit
  • I talk to myself in Spanish
  • My workout music is all foreign
  • People have no problem getting mad about my new piercing/unemployment status/messiness, because they’re completely over the novelty of my being home.
  • I have plenty of time to write but nothing to say
  • People keep asking which country I’m in and/or trying to hang out with me, “before you leave again!” assuming I should be leaving any day now
  • The excitement of living near a target has (almost) worn off
  • My parents’ upcoming trip to Montreal for 3-4 days sounds mouthwatering.
  • Walking for 40 minutes seems absurd
  • I don’t get excited about tap water; I expect it
  • I waste things without even noticing
  • The idea of a beach being for wealthy people is annoying but expected

On the flip side, check out Signs I’ve Been Traveling too Long.  How do you know you’ve been home too long?

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.

eCollegeFinder’s Study Abroad Ambassador List

eCollegeFinder is a website dedicate to helping students find an online educatuon that’s right for them.  They also offer resources on every aspect of the college experience you can imagine, from health and well-being to finances.

They just released their list of the Top 75 Study Abroad websites, and I’m happy to say I’m on it!  If you’re looking into study abroad, check out their list.  There are blogs from students, study abroad providers, and members of the industry.  Beneath the link to each blog, you’ll see their advice to students looking to go abroad.

I’m so excited to be included on a list with some other great bloggers, like API’s study abroad blog.  API (Academic Programs International) is a provider NU works with, and one I’ve used before as a participant.  They are awesome people and they run a great blog, even if you’re not going through their company!

So then the Blogess happened…

So I don’t know how many of you are here who don’t know me in real life.  Because to be honest, on the one hand I fight tooth and nail for every page view, but on the other, no one ever comments so I can’t be entirely sure.

But here I am feeling grumpy.  Hating the 16th of December, hating my lack of a birthday, not really giving a shit about Christmas for several years now.  And then I watch Firefly and read this.

So if you need it, and you’d like it, please send me an email or give me a comment.  Address, name (real or fake) and your story.  As in, who you wish you could buy a gift for but just can’t.  Everyone deserves a real damn christmas, even 12 year olds who just lost their Nana.  I’ll give 5 $20 gift cards away, most likely to someplace practical and universal.  I don’t have a lot but I think I can handle eating in and drinking in for a little while to make sure at least someone likes christmas.  If I don’t get that many requests, I’ll send the balance on over to the Blogess.

And remember things like Toys 4 Tots, and SalvArm, even though they don’t like gay people.

Merry Christmas.

WebLove Wednesday

Untranslatable words (is that even a word?) via Miss Conduct

I love words and phrases and feelings oh so very much.  How great is the word for that look and that relcutance?  Although I must say, there’s something wonderful about not being able to name a feeling that so strongly revolves around silence.  Sometimes seeing or describing everything else around the silence can be more beautiful than the vulgarity of naming it.

What is Fair Trade, Really?  A thought-provoking little article to get you in gear about fair trade, from All of Us Revolution, discovered via Almost Fearless

A scorecard grading Obama‘s ability to keep promises made during his Cairo Speech in 2009 (I wasin Cairo!  but getting to that speech was impossible:( )
via The Moor Next Door

An actual link to Almost Fearless, concernign traveling parents, the cultural differences in what is considered safe/good parenting, and Britney Spears.  Well worth the read, and I love her humility, openness and practicality.  What a good mom!

A great visual about the history and money-making madness of student loans.

BlogHer and Real Beauty

BlogHer is a network of blogs by, for and sometimes even about women, to which I belong.  They have an awesome initiative called Own Your Beauty.  The idea is to get as many women as possible to upload pictures of themselves.  They want to see women’s faces as they really are, no matter how they are.

So come out from behind the camera, ladies, and get into the spotlight!  Upload a picture of yourself to the flickr group, and browse the gallery to see a wide range of Beauties.

If you’d like to participate but don’t have a flickr account, feel free to email me your picture and name ( and I will upload your submission along with my own.