Tag Archives: communication

Ways of Seeing

Something that confuses me is oblivion–when someone just can’t see what’s staring you in the face.  Sometimes it’s just annoying to explain something over and over, or cruelly funny when a person is the only one out of the loop.  But it is the most frustrating and disheartening for me when this is oblivion to facts, the plight of others, and the narrow margin by which the lucky were so, and the others were not. 

But oblivion also leads to a more wondrous concept, and that is the brilliant things that one person sees and another can only appreciate.   My brother, for instance, is wildly creative.  He looks at a crack in the wall and sees a face, an old man, a scene.  I can only draw when instructed and led by the hand, but he is constantly seeing new and amazing things, abstract or concrete, in the whole world around us. 

My Andrew, on the other hand, can see in baseball.  He hasn’t admitted to it, but I’m fairly convinced.  I occasionally keep book for his neighborhood softball league games, something I enjoy but that I don’t yet understand the intricacies of.  Meanwhile, Andrew looks at the last inning and knows–no, sees–exactly who did what, even when it’s not notated.  It reminds me of that scene in the matrix, when Neo starts to see the world in code. 

My father sees in strategy.  He can play any card game and win any board game, even newly taught, because his brain is tuned to that frequency.  I taught him Cuban dominoes the other night (9-dot) and he beat the pants off my mother and I for a while.  Even when the fiches, or tiles, weren’t going his way, he could see the multiple levels of strategies he was just begining to comprehend. 

What about you?  What can you see that others can’t?  What do you wish you could see?  Have you noticed the mental advantages and thought processes of those around you?

Yovo, Yovo Bon Soir

That’s the refrain we heard all throughout Benin.  Countryside, city, airport.  Adults, children, wisened old anciens.  We were told we would be greeted with song, and man, they weren’t kidding.

Yovo, Yovo, bon soir!  Merci bien et toi?!”

It loosely translates to “whitey, whitey, good evening!  I’m good thanks, and you?”

As a result of this song, which every Beninois is taught from birth, (the way I learned “Trot Trot to Boston”) almost every Beninois greets us by saying “Bon soir!” even when it’s not evening, encouraging us to respond accordingly.  Even when they’re not running and yelling Yovo, they still sort of are.

Sometimes we would sing it back to confused children, who would erupt in giggles.  I overheard Allegra in a crowded marketplace saying (in english), “Yes I know I’m a Yovo, but I still need to get by!”  It was in that tone that”s halfway between charmed and annoyed.

Many of the little kids say it with wonder or glee.  Some, like at the rural primary school we visited, may never have seen a real live yovo before.  Others, often adults or older children, say it weighted with hope and anticipation: all the yovos they meet are Peace Corps, government or aid/non-profit related.  Sometimes, like at night and said by adult men, there’s a hint of menace in the way it is yelled.

There really is nothing like it in America, except for maybe the pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner.  What else compells every American, regardless of age, region, gender or class, to stand up and say something in unison?  Even ignoring any possible racial implications, we simply don’ tuniversally chant things in unison at a predetermined time.

Like in many other cultures, especially ones that speak romance languages (Benin is officially francophone) color and race are not quite such sensitive subjects.  Of course it’s also important to remember that there are very few light-skinned people in Benin, as well.  There are Lebanese immigrants who mostly own businesses like marches, and Chinese who build all kinds of amazing buildings and are involved in all kinds of trade.  Then there are do-gooders of the religious, governmental and hippie variety.

I wonder if the Lebanese and Chinese hear the shouts of yovo! yovo!  I never saw it happen, but that doesn’t mean much, since I rarely saw Lebanese or Chinese people just strolling the streets.  I wonder if, had we been a more racially diverse group, darker skinned Americans among us would also be called yovo.  I have a feeling it’s sort of like gringo–more a socio-economic issue than one of color.

I love the way our service-learning women used yovo the best.  They referred to the five of us, collectively, as yovo, especially before they knew our names.  They’d joke around when this yovo tried to dance and that yovo tried to sing, or when another tried to lift a bucket of water that they so often carried on their heads.  And they used it when we weren’t there at a party, but some other yovos from our group happened to be, entirely by chance.  As in, there were some other yovos here, but they weren’t our yovos.

By the time we were done in Benin, it got to the point where we started pointing out yovos, out of sheer shock and confusion at seeing ones we didn’t already know.

¿Te Gusta Cuba?

As I mentioned before, I’ve been stealthily gathering intel from all my roommates and some of the tourists we’ve encountered.  I’ve wanted to ask expats but haven’t had the opportunity.  I was fortunate enough to be able to ask the question at the Special Interests section as well.

One universal reaction was to assume that my question held an inherent judgment, though rarely did any two people assume I was making the same judgment, even if they were responding at the same time.  Some were offended that I would even call into question whether they like it, or that I could possibly imply (by virtue of my question) that not loving Cuba was possible.  Others were flabbergasted, asking how anyone possibly could enjoy Cuba.

Another bit worth noting is that most people had to pause and collect their thoughts for a moment before speaking, regardless of how they felt about the place.  Cuba just isn’t black and white, I suppose.

I think on this one I’ll just present you with a few anonymous quotes from the group, without my judgment, since you already got it (sort of) in the form of my response to the question.

“Interesting, different from my first experience I got here”

“It’s really day to day here.”

“[long pause]…um, yeah.  Yeah, I like it here.”

“I’m just kinda frustrated, I cant understand as much as I’d like to.  I guess I’m just frustrated.  It’s kinda holding me back a lot cuz I’m embarrassed.  I’m just embarrassed that I don’t know more.  I don’t like to talk”

“This was my first choice, and some days I wonder why.”

“There definitely is good days and bad days though.  I mean I don’t really have bad days in Boston; there’s always something to do.”

“I feel a lot of pressure to like Cuba.  I think I can not like Cuba and still have had a positive experience.  But I don’t think I can tell people that.”

“I think I could stay here for a while.”

“I’m counting down the days…”

“I don’t think this place is about that, truth.”

“There is no right way to experience Cuba.  If you enjoy how you’re spending your time at the moment, then you did it right.”

“I don’t like it here, but I don’t think that’s the point of coming here.”

“Ohmigawd I wanna live here!”

“I think it’s different when you’re somewhere for a long time.  It’s hard to stay so excited to be there for three months.”

“_____ wants to live here.  How?  Has he been here?”

Learn from Experience

I think it’s important to pause and reflect before, during and after every adventure.  While I did some of that because it was mandated for Egypt, I also did a decent amount of that for this blog.  More often, though, I tried to make this a way of reflecting in a sort of “together” academic sort of way.  Post-Egypt I hit the ground running, so here is a look back at what I’ve learned, whether it be for my next trip to Egypt, travel in general or writing this blog.

When I go back to Egypt:

  • Cairo Jazz. I tried often, but never made it, and I hear it was a blast.
  • Alexandria. We were the definition of gilded cage while there, and I barely got to see any of the great Euro-Arab hybrid city.
  • Speak  more with locals. I’ve got a lot more confidence about my ability to intimidate/tell off strange men or hustlers, so I should stop whining about how the boys get extra practice and just get some myself.
  • Take more pictures. This gets into a bit about traveling as well, but there’s a lot of my experience that I didn’t capture, whether that be Egyptian friends or the khan el-khalily market.  I have a million pictures of ancient things, and I think it kind of burnt me out.
  • Sinai Peninsula. This place is wicked important historically, politically and scuba-ically.  We all wanted to go but weren’t allowed to because of our security detail, and I’ve heard from many that it’s must-see.


  • Pictures again. I want to take more pictures of people, and less of stuff, as well as to try to avoid picture burnout.  It should be neither an obligation nor a chore.
  • Pack lighter. I will always and forever say this.
  • Wander around more. We were so busy in Egypt that I didn’t explore nearly enough.  Luckily, with Havana being much safer and my time frame much longer, this should be easy.
  • Plan ahead. I didn’t realize how little time I would have once I was there.  This meant that I didn’t know how much I wanted to do something until my time was almost over.
  • Collect local music. Every day in our vans we listened to some great music, but unfortunately only Wa wa wa made it back.  Cuba is world renowned for its music, and is in fact one of the aspects of Cuban culture I’ve researched before, so I plan to pick up some great CDs.
  • Plan souvenirs ahead. Buy throughout, instead of mostly at the end (so stressful!)
  • Think in the local currency. After all, that’s where you are.  If you don’t heed Miss Asha Fierce’s wise words, you’ll go broke.
  • Carry pen and paper always, and don’t be afraid to take notes. In fact, I want to go one better and bring a voice recorder too for when my thoughts get going too fast for my pen.
  • Buy smart. This applies to everything, but I thought of it when it comes to myself.  The Egyptian skinny jeans and the handmade mirror I bought are among my favorite souvenirs, and they aren’t silly knick-knacks, they are things I will wear and decorate with for a long time.

This Blog:

  • Pictures! I know it makes a big difference when I’m reading the blogs of strangers.  Unfortunately, my internet and computer situation in Egypt made this basically impossible.  I hope to go back and update some old posts with pictures, as well as to post WAY more pictures from Cuba
  • Loosen up. Sometimes I need to just show the basic, emotional part where you’re processing a million things at once, instead of just the polished academic.  The downside?  It makes my mother nervous.
  • Be honest. There are some things I couldn’t be honest about in Egypt, and some things that just would’ve given my mother and Gram a heart attack.  But really, a lot of it wasn’t so bad.  I’d like to show people a more realistic picture, if I can.
  • Take video! I took one or two videos but they were awful and I never posted them.  I have the power, so I figure why not?  In the near future you may see a youtube account with some rough videos off of my canon still camera.
  • Encourage comments. I know how many people read this, and I have a vague idea of who.  At this point, it’s mostly me just saying whatever I want, or occasionally answering questions I’ve heard in person from friends and family or reacting to relevant news pieces.  For those of you family members who are not quite so into the internet, reading a blog without ever commenting/making your presence known is called lurking.  And yes, it’s meant to sound that creepy.  I KNOW you have questions and things to say–people email me or they ask my mom or, more often, they will tell me months after I return.  So comment!  an interactive blog is a fun blog!  I’ve been making an effort lately to encourage comments, which is something I never really did or thought about in Egypt.

What about you?  If you have been to Egypt, travelled or blogged then you should have some suggestions!  Also, since you’re here you read this blog, and doubtless have some suggestions for what I could improve.  For example, Eena requested captions for the pictures, since the few from Egypt don’t really have explanations.  So when I’m in Cuba and all my photos have great captions, you can thank her.  As for the rest of you, what are your suggestions?

A Lesson in Window Dressing from Mr. Carroll

In my Freshman year of high school, in Mr. Carroll’s class, I suddenly found myself getting yelled at.  For yawning.  I hadn’t even realized I’d done it, cuz I was tired and fourteen, but I immediately started arguing back, citing a study I had recently read about come people’s predisposition to yawning (to the point where just reading the word triggers it).  I yawned involuntarily several times the argument, as well as this paragraph, whcih didn’t help matters. 

He looked at me, with that look he gives, and said “You know you can dance circles around me all you want, and you’re probably right, but that’s not the point.  There’s a way to do it, and there’s a way to do it Harrington.”

And he was right.  My gesture was truly thoughtless in the purest sense, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was insulting.  A year later, on the first day of school, a different history teacher threatened to jam a nalgene bottle into a student’s jaws if he ever yawned like that in his class again.  A little intense, but keep in mind this is a man who bit his dog back in order to teach him a lesson.  (No, the dog never bit him again.  Unfortunately, he didn’t employ the same technique to teach his child.) 

The way you do something matters.  The other day a woman I work with came in and asked me to do a favor.  A whole bunch of crazy landed on her that day, and she didn’t have time to get something done.  “So, even though I know this is way below your pay grade, would you have time to do this for me?” she asked. 

And I gladly did.  She acknowledged that I was doing her a personal favor, and that she knows I am both capable of and paid to do more complicated tasks than photcopying and mailing. 

She found the right way to do it.


Paul Grew currently holds the title of Family Linguist, but I think I come in at a close second. 

Many people look at foreign languages as insurmountable and, well, foreign.  So here are a few tips from someone who has done pretty well for herself with language. 

  1. Don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot.  You need to speak in order to get better, and you will inevitably sound like a child.  Get over this and you will improve rapidly. 
  2. Look for cognates.  The better your english vocabulary and grammar is, the easier the other languages will be, especially if you go with a Germanic or Romance language.  Don’t worry if you’re bad at grammar, I’ve seen and experienced greater understanding of our own grammar concepts after learning the same one in a different language. 
  3. Pay attention the first time around.  I have been able to retain all those years of high school French avec Madame because I really learned and understood the concepts to begin with.  Now, when I review, it is just that. 
  4. See number one.  Yes, it’s that important that you speak often.  I came back from France a much better speaker than many of my friends because they were timid, so I was always the one ordering our food, asking for directions and trying to find the changing room.  Those who didn’t speak barely got anything out of the trip, linguistically. 
  5. Expose yourself to the language as much as possible.  This means movies, television shows, children’s books, music, whatever.  Your ear will get faster and your accent will improve. 

What’re your sure-fire tips for picking up/keeping up a language?  I know some of you are abroad now (Jackie) or will be soon (Miss Sarah) and some have had to deal with trying to maintain fluency after returning (Michelle.)  There are also a whole bunch of you who speak foreign languages (Aunt Sue, Dad, Kev) just as well if not better than me.  How did you do it?


Many people have asked me “Why Cuba?” 

Most often, my answer is, “because it’s illegal.”  I’ve been told that this sounds childish.  No Kidding. 

In part, I am joking.  There is a certain appeal to going somewhere you shouldn’t, but there are many logical, acceptable reasons for me to go to Cuba. 

Then there’s the part of me that’s not kidding.  I do want to go places that are illegal and/or unlikely.  Why?  Because that’s what I want my life to be about.  So many Americans will never go to Cuba or the Middle East or a whole bunch of other places.  A big part of why I blog is to educate those who will never have this opportunity. 

I mean really, how often do you get to read a first-hand account of an American in Cuba? 

So perhaps I’m not being childish after all.  Perhaps I think it’s childish to be afraid of a country because of a decades-long and decades-old grudge.