Tag Archives: honesty

Kerala Blog Express, pt 3

If you haven’t yet, read part 1 and part 2 of this series in order to get caught up on how my journey to Kerala, India came about.  

This trip will be different for me in several ways. First and foremost, I will not know the language at all. The closest I’ve come to his was in the Gaeltacht in Ireland (where English could still be heard, and I had a guide) or in Turkey (where I couldn’t eavesdrop on local conversations, but my English, French and Arabic were more than enough to understand others and make myself understood.)  I will be accompanied by representatives of Kerala Tourism who speak English so I am sure all official events will be translated for me, but the window for spontaneous local interactions outside if the mold has gotten that much smaller. This means I will have to devote more energy than usual towards putting myself in a position to see beyond the veneer and meet regular people.

Speaking of the veneer, this trip will be quite unlike what most people experience in India. For one thing, I will be in the richest state in all of India, a place where even major cities feel small and familiar. There will be less crime, fewer people, and a generally different vibe than most people associate with the subcontinent.  Beyond that, I am going to be on a government-sponsored tour with the intent of promoting tourism. Their goal is for me to have a wonderful time and tell everyone in the world about it, which means that they have a vested interest in keeping any unpleasantness away and keep everything in line. That being said, I’m used to state-sponsored trips and funding the real beneath the veneer.  

I plan on talking about their attempts to keep the veneer intact. That’s their job and there’s nothing wrong with that, but my job is to dig deeper and be upfront wig my audience about all my experiences.  Additionally, in my opinion, the logistics of being on a sponsored trip are a major part of this experience, so you can expect to hear about them, good and bad.   I feel that transparency is the least I can offer to all of you who are not only readers, but supporters who voted and promoted me into this trip in the first place.  

In light of that, here’s another dose of transparency for you.  Many people have been asking me what it means for the trip to be sponsored.  Answer: they’re paying for me to be there.  But how exactly does that work?  I don’t have all the details yet (that seems to be the trip motto) but here’s what I know so far:

What Kerala Tourism is paying for:

  • Accommodations
  • Meals
  • Half of the cost of my round-trip flight, up to 700 USD (to be reimbursed)
  • On the ground transportation (coach bus)
  • Transportation to and from the airport
  • Entrance into various attractions

What I will be/have been paying:

  • Personal expenses like souvenirs and booze
  • If I were traveling solo before or after, that would be on me.
  • The other half of the round-trip airfare
  • My medications (ugh, antimalarials, how I loathe you)
  • My visa (10 year, multiple-entry tourist)

I mentioned that not only do I think the mechanics of a sponsored travel blogging trip are interesting, but I feel I owe it to my supporters to be really up front about everything, since I wouldn’t be going on this trip without all of you.  To that end, while I have said thank you in person, on facebook, and via text to everybody who let me know they voted or promoted me, I’d like to send all my supporters a little slice of India in the form of a postcard as a way to say thank you.  So, if you supported me and would like to recieve a postcard from my trip, send me your address!  You can use facebook, DM on twitter, text me, or if you don’t actually happen to know me all that well (internet strangers and future in-laws, I’m looking at you!)  you can email it to me at harrington [dot] delia [at] gmail [dot] com.  I’m looking forward to getting to thank you all personally and to navigating the Indian postal system!

Some people have voiced concerns that this trip could be an elaborate hoax, or could go wrong in some way.  Honestly, most trips can and do go wrong in one way or another, and that’s often when they’re the most interesting.  I’m quite used to getting myself out of tricky situations at this point, so I don’t think there’s much I can do other than hiding my emergency cash and keeping my head on a swivel.  I also think worries like this overstate the safety and predictability of other kinds of travel.  A big university name can do a lot of things, but it can’t change whether or protect against pickpockets, no matter how reassuring the study abroad website is.  And you wouldn’t want that, anyway.  Life without complications and intrigue would be completely boring.  Personally, I think it’s when we assume nothing could possibly happen to us that we are most at risk.  That’s largely formed from my experiences and those of people I know, that most  thefts abroad (and at home) happened when people were in traditionally safe tourist situations and let their guard down because of it.

Of course, if someone were to run a scam or otherwise mess with us, doing it to 27 people who spend their time writing on the internet is a terrible idea.  What, like we’re not going to tell everyone about it, complete with pictures and video?  I actually think most businesses and employees we encounter will be bending over backwards in hopes of a good, high-traffic review, to the point that all our reviews will need to be taken with a grain of salt since I doubt we’ll be treated like average, anonymous travelers.  If something weird does happen, I can always just leave.  I could fly back home, hang out with the other KBXers or go find Janine or several of the other amazing people in nearby areas who have offered to put me up if I come through their way.  After all, life is a grand adventure or nothing, and I’m going to choose the grand adventure every time.

Now you guys know everything I know about this trip.  I fly out of Logan on Friday evening, stopping in JFK and then Dubai.  I’ll be posting short updates to instagram and  twitter until I get my hands on some wifi, when I’ll be able to update this blog and my brand spanking new facebook page.  If you are interested in my writing (here or otherwise), photography, or travels, please consider liking the page.

See you on the other side!

Top image is via Kerala Tourism

Ten Things No One Tells You About Study Abroad

  1. You will have at least one nervous breakdown.
  2. People don’t really want to hear that much about your trip30 seconds or less will do.
  3. Other countries are really not that scary.  The people are pretty much just like us–they just dress, talk and act different, and eat different food.
  4. Some days, it will suck. This is because it is real life, not an extended vacation.  So laugh and keep moving.  Even if you have to fake it, you probably won’t notice when you stop needing to.
  5. You will spend too much money.
  6. No matter how carefully you pack, you will have brought too much, and still manage to have left behind something you totally miss
  7. It’s harder to adjust to life back home at the end of the trip than life away from home at the beginning.
  8. Everyone gets in.  Well, pretty close to it.
  9. Everyone lies about how perfect study abroad is.  Study abroad is awesome, but not perfect.  I promise, your friends don’t post pictures, blogs or status updates about feeling overwhelmed, having trouble making friends, or being ridiculously homesick.  No one wants to admit “defeat” especially since everyone else’s time seems so perfect.  But everyone is having their rough days, too.
  10. You will, in fact, spend the same amount of time on facebook and watching movies/television as you did back home.

Should We Be Here?

I worry that since we’ve had a discussion on ethics, the issue was opened and then closed.

Unfortunately, the more I learn about this program the more I question our presence here.  Many of our readings discussed the pitfall that service-learning is all about the learning, with service as a secondary concern, or rather an afterthought.  No one in this group denies this when it is phrased as, “but learning is the most important thing,” which they say often, but several people looked uncomfortable when I stated that service is less important to this program.

We are literally service-learning about service-learning.

I didn’t realize that until today when a group was presenting about service-learning, and the many disciplines it is in.  Sociology, human services, nursing, even math.  But there’s something odd about the recursive nature of this program.

We haven’t taken any courses on Benin—its culture, history or language.   We’ve had a few short readings, and one week of language classes.  The language classes were on the large side, had only two levels, and complied with the typically dismal expectations of Americans as language learners.

The American ambassador to Benin responded to a question on Monday about how to handle aid ethically in Benin.  He felt that the problem is not being able to give them enough, because the Beninois always want more aid and never complain about it having imperialist strings attached.  I think, sir, that’s rather not the point.  Everyone wants money, sure, but is it ethical to give it the way we do?

I don’t like that we’re ignorant when we talk to the Beninois students, and that until earlier this week it wasn’t clear what the adjective form of Benin is.  I hear Beninese, Bee-inese and  Beninois.  Isn’t that a little disgusting?  Shouldn’t we at least know what to CALL them before we go in and analyze them for a day or two?  Isn’s a few days too short to make decisions about what to do with funding?

What do you think?  Do we have an obligation to spend more time before we make an analysis, draw a conclusion?  Should we know more than the local language?  Should people know at least the language?  Does it not matter because American tourists “never know anything”?  Is that even acceptable?  Should we be in a different category from tourists?

And now, I wonder that I won’t be labeled as negative and counter-productive if I continue to raise such concerns within the group, especially since that’s something for which I can be docked points.  Not what matters in the grand scheme of things, I know, but it would be nice to talk these things through.  I don’t want to just pull a nutty and yell at all the Human Services majors, but everyone seems so reluctant to venture into much more analytical thought on the matter.

So what do you think, my intelligent, well-intentioned readers?

UPDATE: Since writing this post about a week ago, the issue of ethics has gone from a whispered concern to a major topic of conversation, for almost everyone on the trip.  It’s always nice to be proven wrong when it comes to ethics and analytical thinking.  I’m pleased to say that we (the group, leaders, and organizations we interact with) will be adressing the issue continually for the next two weeks.

Traveler or Traitor?

Damn! Are we traitors? Un-American Commie sympathizers? Freedom Fry-eating liberal whackadoos? Or just misguided college kids?

In our discussion today, many people mentioned that they had received negative reactions to our trip.  They were called un-American or traitors, and chided for not volunteering at home, or treated as stupid for “wasting money” to volunteer abroad.  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

  • Our trip is service-learning, and for credit.  It actually costs less than a regular summer semester at NU would, if you include housing, food and such.  I would also be taking classes regardless of whether I traveled this summer, so the argument that my program fees are better spent on aid/charity doesn’t quite work here.
  • Many of the people who say things like, “why aren’t you doing something about all the poverty at home?!” aren’t actually doing anything about it either
  • Service doesn’t have to be either/or.  Volunteering at home and abroad is not mutually exclusive
  • Experiences abroad can make us better volunteers/employees back home
  • Things will never be perfect at home, so by that logic we (as people, a community and a nation) should never help any other country, state, neighborhood or even family.  That sort of logic doesn’t help make the world a better place, and if you start applying it to the prioritization of issues it is a virtual spiral into inaction
  • It is no one else’s decision but my own to determine my priorities and my path in life.  In other words, buzz off!  This is my money, my credits, my scholarships, and my time.  I’ll put it where I think it can benefit me and others the most.

What do you think?  Are we wasting our time and our money by going abroad?  Should we be focusing on Roxbury, the Reading food pantry and other such local isssues?  Is it better to do something like go work on Katrina relief effort, or is that not okay until we’re done fixing Massachusetts?  Would my tuition money be better spent at some charity or relief organization while I stay at home?  Should we, as an imperialist nation (and human beings) feel obligated to help?  Is helping foreigners un-American?

Did You Hate it?

Sometimes I feel like this guy.

I’ve been reading the U Michigan group blog, and it always leaves me feeling uneasy.  Some of the entries, like Franny’s, are beautiful and lyrical. But others reflect an intense dislike of all things Cuba, extreme efforts to distance oneself from Cuba.

A partial group shot of Americans lounging on the steps of La Universidad de la Habana

When I was at a reunion for last summer’s Egypt crew, I found myself suddenly on a stage.  I was late (curse you, green

line!) and, as I was suddenly reminded, the only one who had been away for the semester who was back.  Chantalle asked about the Cuba program, and I gave her the practical answer, the kind I wish I had been given by people who went the year before me.  I talked about the realities of hunger and food scarcity, even for privileged Westerners, and the complex nature of friendships and relationships.

During a pause, someone chimed in dryly with a, “wow, sounds like a great place.”

I always feel like I’m balancing, countering myself when I talk about Cuba.  It’s just not cut and dry; there’s no easy answer.  Yes, I often felt like some of the U Mich kids who sought refuge in a western hotel with AC, nice bathrooms, comfy couches and English around every corner. A place where the privilege of my skin color, clothing and passport would allow me to block out the stresses of the Cuban reality.

Hotel Nacional, a lavish place most Cubans can only hope to work.

But I also learned a lot from Cuban values.  The importance

family, in whatever form it may come, and pride in one’s community.  A sense of place, an intense eye for culture, both low and high, and the reality that perhaps those terms are outdated.  To smile more, to relax, to complain less, to accept failure–or at least try.

I am very proud and protective of the places I have been, the cultures I try to know.  I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, and I feel a perhaps self-inflated responsibility to portray everything with as much honesty and dignity as possible, but I find it tough when everything is so conflicting and based on rumour.

So please bear with me, as I try to tell you all the conflicting sides of life there, and how I felt about it.

But Are They Happy?

Since my return, many people have asked me if Cubans are happy.  Some ask without judgment, while others convey that they believe Cubans are silently outraged or depressed, yet others still assume that they live happy, simple, carefree lives.

I have a hard time answering this question.  No, they’re not depressed about being from Cuba.  They’re proud of it, and they’re proud that their country has succeeded, despite America’s best efforts.  They’re proud of Cuba being their own man, so to speak.  They’re proud of the music, artes plasticos, films and athletes that come from their island.

But I don’t want to infantilize them, either.  They’re not living some blissfully ignorant life.  Many people have commented to me flippantly that if only they knew what we have, they would be sad or jealous or want to be Good Capitalists, instead of Good Communists.  But that it isn’t so. They’ve seen House and Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmore Girls.  They have the internet, albeit slow, and American radio.  They are not ignorant of our way of life, yet many of them do not covet it. There are many who do, of course.  Some want to not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin.  Some want to be able to make a decent living.  These are the ones who I think are the most deluded, the ones who are fooling themselves in thinking they can get these things in America.

I think there’s something to be said for sticking around with your family and friends.  Not that I hold anything against the so-called guzanos or those who want to Jump Ship, I just mean that I respect someone who has seen the “streets paved with gold” and had the intelligence to see past the illusion or the heart not to give up their Home for it.

Cubans are happy: they dance, sing, drink and tell stories.  But they’re not ignorant.  They’re not these sad little simpletons who don’t know they’re poor, or this entire island of people too terrified to speak their mind.  Cubans are pretty opinionated, and definitely long-winded.  I think most of them want more from their government, but who doesn’t?  Even Libertarians want something more, it just happens to be that that something more is for their government to exist less.

I think Cubans are optimists.  I think that they choose not to dwell on the bad parts: to tell you about the domino game on the roof, instead of the valuables lost, when the floods come waist high in their houses.  I think they want the revolution to continue in new, ever-changing, ever-evolving forms–not capitalism.  I think communist values are inherently good and worthwhile, and it would be as hard to remove them from Cubans as it would be to ingrain them in Americans.

So try not to think of a country in such simple, blanket terms.  Are Americans happy?  Are Americans any one thing?  Rarely can you say yes, unless that one thing is “complaining” or “individualistic.”  I think many more Cubans are happy than you think, but I don’t believe it’s for any lack of intelligence or awareness.  I think they actively decide to be happy; I think it’s a cultural value the way we value cynicism and sarcasm.

I think happiness is a state of mind and a decision, and that theirs, which is more or less collective, and is a greater measure of their culture than of their government or GDP.

Algunos son Buenos, Algunos son Malos

Me, smiling deliriously on some guy's shoulders at Calle 13. I have no clue what's about to happen.

Just when I go thinking, “I’ve got this, I’m handling the travel thing,” I get a little proverbial smack.  A smack designed to wipe that smug look off of my face.

I got pick-pocketed.

The travel gods say no, you’re not that suave.  And in true Cuban fashion, the times when I think I get something are the only times I am truly wrong.

It didn’t happen in Boston, France or Cairo, but sooner or later it was bound to happen.  The worst part (well, there are a few worst parts) is that I’m the only one to blame. After all those nights of bringing just chapstick and 10 cuc in my pocket to clubs or the Malecon, I went to the most crowded event in Cuba with a decently bulky wallet that had the potential to poke out of my pocket.  I was also dumb in that I didn’t tell the guys we came across to buzz off, and I rolled with sitting on some guys’ shoulders at a concert even though I didn’t know them and didn’t really want to.

The real worst part is that behind me, while I was up on shoulders, was a guy who was gesturing, and then laughing.  He was nudging his friends and making me uncomfortable.  I couldn’t understand him because it was so loud and I was up high.  As soon as I got down and was in a standing position, I knew my wallet was gone.  I saw him laughing and put something in his pocket.  It took just enough time for me to realize I lost it, tell Kristina and accuse the guy in white behind me for the real culprits, the guys who had brought Kristina and I to the front and boosted us up, to vamoose into the crowd.  So yes, I accused a totally innocent Cuban.  He apologized, turned out his pockets, and explained the gestures.

He was trying to warn me.

And how do he and his friends treat the evil gringa who worked her way in front of them, blocked their view and then accused one of them of theft?  They went and told the cops about the guys who really took my wallet, and set them hunting.

I suck.

I didn’t lose much–some random papers (they created the bulk, really) some moneda nacional (worth <2 CUC in total), my Changó necklace, ~15 CUC, and my Cuban health card.  And yes, the health card and the necklace are the two things I’m most bummed about, because I’m like that.

But ya know what?  I think Cuba is getting to me.  Because this is what I looked like after my wallet was stolen: