Tag Archives: Clothing

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.

Cover Up

Say it’s for respect, say it’s because of religion, say it’s just a rule and don’t ask questions, say it’s arbitrary and sexist.  Just don’t say we need to wear high necklines and low hems so that we are not sexually harassed.  Don’t do it.  Don’t victim blame, don’t lie.  In harassment-heavy countries like Cuba and Egypt, I have seen anecdotally that the amount of clothing is irrelevant.  Cuban guys say piropos to all women, regardless of clothing and almost regardless of age.  White women get slightly more commentary, but no amount of clothing will make me less of a gringa.

In Egypt, it has been found that women believe they get harassed less when they cover up more (more being even more than we do in the West, since it includes the abaya, the hijab and the niqab.)  However, these same women actually self-report higher levels of harassment when they are more covered.  It’s just an instance of intense cognitive dissonance, egged on by years of messaging from men, women, harassers and victims alike claiming, as if in some desperate plea for relief, that if only we could wear the right amount and combination of clothing, they would just leave us the hell alone.  But they don’t.  Women in full abaya and hijab get raped in public.  Women in jeans and modest shirts are assaulted all the time.

To say that I can stop (or even stem) harassment by changing my clothes is an indictment of women and men alike.  It says men cannot control themselves and thus need to be prevented from seeing that which entices them so.  It says women who get harassed must not have dressed properly, it must be their fault somehow.

It still boggles me that otherwise-progressive people fall into this trap.

i <3 Boston Fashion Week

While I’m home, I’m writing a series of posts about Boston, Massachusetts, and New England at large.  Because you can always be a tourist, and because if going abroad doesn’t give you a fresh perspective on your home, then what’s the point?  You can see all the posts in the series here.

I love that in Boston, Fashion Week is affordable, inclusive and green-minded.  Unlike New York, where everyone keeps making a big deal about fashion bloggers going to shows like it signals the apocalypse, our style bloggers in Boston have quite a hand in things.  It’s great to see groups of friends supporting each other and meeting new people.  I’m also glad that swaps are becoming mainstream, since they’ve been going on formally for years, and informally ever since girls realized their friends also have closets.  No need to feel ashamed about being frugal, or wearing something used, ladies: it’s just Sustainable Fashion!

I think because fashion and design are emerging industries/tastes in Boston, and due in part to our overall feel as a city, everyone is much kinder in fashion.  People are just so excited that someone else is into the same thing as them that they don’t feel competitive.  There’s a great collaborative atmosphere–the tide raises all boats–and it’s a trait that will always make me pick Boston over austere, competitive, back-stabbing New York.

I only went to one event this year, the BFW Swapaholics Sip&Swap, but it was great.  For 10 bucks I got to sample a few different wines, unload some gently used clothing, hang out with friends and meet some new ladies.  A few of my favorite style bloggers were there as well, including Julie from Orchid Grey.  I came out of it with three dresses, two skirts, some jewelry and accessories.  Not bad for ten bucks on a Thursday night in the ‘ville.

The swap was definitely different from our typical swap among friends–it was closer to the running of the brides.  Some people literally grabbed everything in sight, although everyone remained polite, even if they didn’t want to.  On the other hand, our swaps are usually casual, with wine, apps (food, not stupid cell phone junk) and dessert.  Ladies only, shades are closed, and a very collaborative, fun, empowering movie montage-style try-on and dance party ensues.  VERY different from a large, professional swap.  I enjoy both styles, and Sip&Swap was definitely more of an Event.

After my first little sample of fashion week, and watching the Gossip Girls NYFW Fashion’s Night Out episode (why did Serena’s dress match the walls?) I can’t wait for next year’s events to roll around.  And they’ll be even better, because they’re in Boston!

And did I mention that clothing swaps are a great way to save money for travel?  No?  Take it away, Lillie!  Travel requirement, I consider you met.

http://www.thesavvybostonian.com/2010/09/the-work-week-september-27-september-30/

Is this African Enough?

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Yep, this is Africa, too.

When I was in Egypt, we often joked that we were in Fake Africa.  When asked if I had ever been to Africa before Benin, I would say yes and explain Egypt, which elicited much doubt.  I was told, in one way or another, that Egypt didn’t count, or wasn’t really Africa because it was:

  • too rich
  • too Arab
  • not black enough
  • too developed
  • too wealthy
  • filled with too many people who were fully clothed
  • not hungry enough
  • not in civil strife
  • not “native” enough
  • too educated
A beautiful new university building
A beautiful new university building

If that’s not offensive to all parties, I’m not sure what would be.  Often our stereotypes, both positive and negative, get in the way of our ability to just appreciate a place for what it is.  When in the markets of Benin, many of the girls looked for “something really African,” such as wooden, hand-carved jewelry.  Wooden, hand-carved statues.  Or wooden, hand-carved anything.  Many were frustrated that we only saw cheap plastic and metal jewelry from China in plastic wrap.  But that’s what the women around us wore.  Not hand-carved elephants or oblong faces on a string of wooden beads.

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The beautiful game.

Instead of trapping Africa in the CNN version of it (hungry, desolate, war-torn and filled with safari animals and naked people) why don’t we just let Africa reveal itself to us?  Sometimes Africa is t-shirts, while other times it’s vivid-patterned cloth from China, and still others it’s an abaya.  We are the observers–not the creators–of Africa, and like any destination, we should try not to let our own imagination hold us back from the amazing world unfolding right in front of us.

What I Wish I Brought

Let me start by saying sorry for the bizarre spacing–wordpress is dumb and so am I.  Second, congrats the UNA for their performance at Southeast!  Even more congrats for finding the Spartanburg nightlife–I hadn’t thought it was possible.  Good luck gearing up for Nationals!

Toilet Paper.
Closet storage. We don’t have any bureaus, and in my room Kate and I have to share a nightstand, which she graciously lets me use most of.  We each get four hangers in the closet, and the rest of our stuff is in suitcases under the bed.
Snacks. There just aren’t any here.  That seems like no great loss, but I seriously feel like I’ve been observing the most epic Lent ever over here.
Sweats. Like with snacks, sometimes you just need something comforting and home-like.  I don’t do the whole bit with bringing pictures from home.  If I miss my dog, I have pictures on my laptop.  If I miss my dad, I listen to Bruce.  If I miss the entire Harrington clan, I can watch Gram’s 80th birthday thing.  If I’m sick or tired, I just want some sweats and goldfish.  Well, I really just want Andrew and pad thai, but neither of those travel well.

Underwear. Let me first clarify that I did in fact bring sufficient undergarments for the trip. I did not, however, bring a ton.  It’s such a pain to wash your underwear here, because it either goes in the ineffective washer and out on the line for all to see, or is painstakingly washed (still rather ineffectively) in the bathtub and then put out on the line for all to see.  I think when you’re in a very strange environment, comfort is key (if you didn’t get that already.)  They don’t take up much room, and are far more valuable than a lot of the space-wasters I brought.  So for Benin, given how little room clean underwear takes up and how drastically it brightens my mood, I plan to bring enough so that I don’t have to wash it.  Yes, I know this is absurd.  But whatever, I’m the one going to weird countries, I get to decide what eccentric items make it possible for me to do so and not go insane.  Apparently, it’s underwear, sweatpants, cheez-its and my teddy bear.  Because I’m twelve.

School Supplies. It seems they can only be bought at rest stops here, who knows why.  It would also be nice to leave some with some of the people I’ve met here, since pens and pencils are a commodity.
Rain Boots. We’ve been rained at and semi-flooded often, and seriously epically flooded once.  I didn’t realize I’d need the boots here as much (or more) than  I need them in Boston.


More stuff to give away.
Toilettries, presents, clothing, medicine.  I didn’t need the big bottles I brought that weighed down my suitcase, but in this instance it worked out because it means I have a bunch left to leave to someone like Miledys.

Cold Medicine. I was a sniveling mess when I left the states, and I was terrified they would think I had h1n1 (I didn’t, and had the vaccination card to prove it) but my parents thought they would take away dayquil and cough drops.  Since then, I have wished I had them a million times.  What’s the worst that could have happened?  They take away my bargain bag of Halls?


Warmer clothes.
This is the coldest “winter” Cuba has experienced in about thirty years.  This country was not made for these gale force winds or temps toward freezing.  We can’t even close all the windows all the way.  For the first week or so, we wore all of our warm weather stuff all the time, even to sleep.


A bigger carry-on.
They weigh the checked luggage, not the carry-on.  Duh.  Silly Delia.

DVDs. I know it sounds stupid, and that’s why I didn’t bring them.  I’ll be in a tropical country, I thought.  I’ll be too busy being tan and fabulous to do a silly, indoor thing like watch a movie.  Yeah right, Bad-at-Packing Delia.  It’s three months!  There will be downtime, and there will be nights when you just want to stay in and relax.

What Does Poverty Look Like?

While In Egypt, I discussed how different poverty looks from one country to another.  I remember first arriving in Cairo and thinking I was looking at slums and abject poverty, and then realizing later that I lived in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest countries on the continent.

Mind=blown.

Here, poverty looks different too.  It’s hard to judge individual poverty since almost all buildings are crumbling and in disrepair.   Then there’s the small matter of this being a communist country–a doctor’s salary is going to be on par with a bureaucrat, an athlete’s with a teacher.

Then there are the signs that are different here than in the US.  Clothing, for example.  It simply isn’t all that available.  There isn’t a lot of variety to be had.  Falla, who I think is doing okay financially in his capacity as a professor, radio personality and musician, always looks sharp.  He wears suit jackets and dress pants, and often dresses all in black, especially to perform. Then you notice he always wears the same shoes, which is not a big deal.  But then you notice they’re usually the same black clothes.  Finally, you notice those aren’t dress pants; there are cargo pockets on the sides.  So if Falla, who clearly takes pride in his appearance and has done well for himself and his family, can’t get a couple full suits, how the hell can anyone else?

What do you think poverty looks like in the US?  We often hear that it’s invisible.  Many families go to great pains to look outwardly normal, to remain in the same tax bracket they once occupied even if it’s only in appearance. We hear about parents going without food so their kids grow up healthy, and picking up second and third jobs so their kids wear normal clothes and go to college like everyone else.

What does poverty look like here?  The peanut man, yeah, he’s probably poor.  The people with undocumented residences, also known as ramshackle huts?  Yes, they’re not doing well, but they’re way out of sight, especially from tourists.  Sometimes you notice that a friend is incredibly thin, even though they hide it well in their well-worn clothes.

But then I remember, I live in Vedado.  This is a wealthy neighborhood.  In the economic center of the country.  A country that is often chastised for its “greed” with reminders that it is prospering in comparison with other Latin American countries.  In Padrino’s neighborhood, the rooms are tiny and the plumbing is almost non-existent.  In Alex’s section of our own Vedado, people have gaping holes in their floor and possessions are often stolen.

I’m still trying to calibrate for the Cuban scale of poverty, and even trying to grapple with class and poverty in this, the alleged utopia of the poor.