Tag Archives: Ilham

Lesson Learned from Friends on the Road

  • You should always bring some of the clothes you love and rely on (Nellie) but should also buy/bring some basic stuff you don’t mind giving away (Rhiannon)
  • Of course, don’t be “that guy” who just gives away all their broken/dirty junk: give away the things you love, and it’ll come back to you (Deirdre)
  • Just do it, magn/There’s nothing you can do about it now, so have fun/shoes are lame (unless someone steals yours)/spend your nights under the stars (Kristina)
  • There is no right way to experience a country, so just do what makes you happy in the moment, and if you enjoyed the time while you spent it you can’t look back with regret (Abby)
  • Bring a book or two, and trade them away for others when you’re done.  After all, on the road, a new story is worth more than one you already know, and can easily find again (Emma)
  • If you really are the “whatever” person (like Avi The Army Guy or Julie The Yoga Girl) trust that everyone knows that already, and let them come to you if they want to know more (Julie and Avi. Duh.)
  • Bring all-purpose items, and travel speakers (Laurel, aka Leslie)
  • Don’t lend people your Coach/Ignore all negativity (Aliesha)
  • Be unapologetically ridiculous and enthusiastic, and you’re bound to make friends.  Even if you don’t, you’re probably already having a ton of fun (Brit and Kristina)
  • Sometimes the cost of something “lent” is worth the friendship or the conversation you get in exchange (Britito)
  • Really listen, and remember people (Nellie, Laurel, Julie)
  • Sometimes being the butt of the joke is the best way to put everyone at ease, and the quickest way to gain friends (Gumby)
  • Lack of language doesn’t mean lack of communication (Mike)
  • You can sweet-talk your way into (and out of) anything (Pasha Daoud)
  • You’re always surrounded by a million memorable moments waiting to happen (Allyson)
  • Trust strangers (Dylan and Taylor)
  • Always ask the parents before you give kids something, especially candy–and make sure you have enough to go around (Lori)
  • Don’t let anyone (or anything) hold you back from what you want to see or accomplish (Falconer)
  • Just eat it (Brit, Rhiannon and Falconer)
  • Be humble; laugh at yourself; always be learning (Janine)
  • Keep an open mind and try to put things into context.  Also, always have a notebook and pen (Ilham)
  • Even if you don’t have the words, you can always make friends with your talent (Justino y Míles)
  • Laugh and smile and you will make friends (Diana)
  • Ask questions (Julie–like you don’t know which!)
  • Always have a scarf and a sweater (Marisa and Cynthia)
  • Always bring at least one or two things that make you look hot–you never know (Sarah)
  • Packing is for overachievers (Erin)
  • Relax.  When the bus breaks down, have a photoshoot! play cards! work on your tan! (Profe)
  • When you don’t have something, whether it’s an object or a skill: outsource (Kate)
  • A good friend is always there for you, no matter the distance or time difference (Alex)

What are your best lessons, from travel or otherwise?  What have the people around you showed you?

Perspective

Reasons I’m suddenly happier about Cuba:

Going home doesn’t seem so far away. A weird paradox, but knowing it’s soon frees up some mental space to stop stressing and start enjoying

We went to Santiago. For one thing, I love that city.  Another is that we got a change of pace, making Havana seem fresher, and my time there more precious, in addition to giving me an entire new perspective on Cuba

I emailed Ilham. She was a faculty leader on the egypt Dialogue, and she’s on of my personal rock stars.  All throughout Egypt we had to keep journals for reflection, and I was very conscious that Ilham was reading it, at times almost treating it like a conversation with her and expecting her to react the next day about something I had written the night before.  Something about writing her a conversation for real was comforting, and reminded me of the person I’m trying to be, both personally and academically.

Our Group. The people I’m with includes Michigan and NU students, house staff, Casa staff.  I’ve noticed that the whole group is a lot more zen lately, especially about interpersonal relations.  I’ve seen people cutting each other slack where they wouldn’t before, and spending time with people they hadn’t before.  The relaxed attitude makes our house so much more pleasant to live in.  It fills it up with boisterous, friendly chaos, instead of jarring, staccato coldness.


I watched some American TV.
Dumb, I know, but it helped.  It was also fun to just be American kids for a little while.  We could’ve been anywhere at home, lounging on a couch, eating (fake) pringles and watching television in English.

Food. Aliesha’s mom sent a giant box of goodies, and Kristina’s mom brought some homemade cookies and pancake mix.  We also got great, filling breakfasts in Santiago, and decently priced, delicious food for lunch and dinner.  That was probably one of the only times I’ve felt truly satisfied with a meal her.  To boot, there aren’t as many shortages right now on staples like bread or eggs.

Home is a wee bit more organized. I know when my flight leaves for France, and when I come home from Benin.  I can go to Andrew’s graduation (after missing so many important events in his life this past year) and I can go to BMG’s first communion.  The first thing she asked was whether I would be there, and I hated that I didn’t know and wasn’t really in control of the answer.  Cuba has made me really laid back (in some ways), but I feel calm knowing I won’t let Miss Bridget down.

It’s amazing how much your perspective can change by seeing your world through someone else’s lens.  It felt good to have someone well-traveled recognize that Cuba is indeed strange.  We’re not imagining it, this really is hard, and it really is different from going to Australia.  I also loved realizing that what comes to mind about Cuba for me is all the good stuff, and I see all the bad stuff in a good light.  Things that other people found strange, stressful or scary rolled off my back with a laugh.  Someone said that we’re a funny group, but I countered that no, it’s just Cuba that’s funny.

I really do believe it.

An Americaine in Cairo

Recently, I mentioned the time I spent in Egypt to a young (late-20s early 30s), liberal, well-traveled woman, and was surprised by the response.  I gave my usual one-sentence opener, which is that I was there for six weeks this summer, loved it, and can’t wait to go back.

Really?!  I’ve lived everywhere, even Beijing, and that was the worst city for being a woman.  I was so uncomfortable all the time.”

Um, wow.

Granted, that opening line is designed to intrigue, confuse and incite discussion.  But this is the first time I’ve encountered someone who not only had actually been there, but is in pretty much all the same demographics as me, and does not want to go back.  Not only that, she was thoroughly uncomfortable.  So in light of this, I think it’s about time I reflect succinctly on my time there, through the lens of a young, white, liberal, ostentatious, middle-class American woman.

Oi, what a mouthful.

First, I need to emphasize the ways in which my experience was different from that of the average tourist.  I honestly believe that I have a very different view of the country based on my education before and during my trip, as well as the nature of my trip (ie length of time and breadth of cultural immersion).

  1. I speak Arabic. This is huge.  I am not amazing at it, I was nowhere near the best in our group (VERY much to my chagrin), but I made a sincere effort and that changes both how people treat you and how you are able to assess any given situation in-country.
  2. I have studied the culture and politics far more than your average person. I am by no means an expert, again, but I do believe that I am better versed in religious and cultural practices, as well as the politics of the region and Egypt in particular, than most westerners.
  3. I had Ilham. This is a biggie.  Ilham is not only academically versed in the Arab World, but she straddles western and middle east culture.  Born in Lebanon, educated in France and the US, she was able to help us through some of the roughest of cultural clashes, successfully staving off culture shock as well as making us smarter, better people.  In short, as the Pasha would say, “Ilham is a bomb lady.”
  4. I stayed there for a long time, by tourist standards anyway. The people in our neighborhood got to know us and left us alone.  I also became quite used to the Egyptian way.
  5. We had security. We’re not entirely sure for who’s benefit they were there, and sometimes they were more present than others, but I was definitely treated differently at Khan el-Khalili market when a suit was overseeing all my haggling.

Now there were a few things that helped me thrive in Egypt that aren’t necessarily specific to my trip, and that I highly recommend for anyone traveling to that area.

  1. I have a good eff-off face. This is key on the subway, in the market, and walking down the street.  People know to leave you alone, which is how I was able to walk through the market in Luxor, by myself, and be left mostly alone.
  2. I went off the beaten path. This is  one of the biggest points of our program, Dialogue of Civilizations.  I talked to Egyptians who had never spoken to Americans before.  I went to the other side of the Nile in Luxor, where all the natives live.  I went to a tiny village where there is virtually no crime or illness.  If all you see is the pyramids at Giza and the men and children who hock their wares, you will have a very skewed version of the country.  It would be like coming to the US and only seeing Disney World, or a rural WalMart.
  3. I had a support system. Every day, I had intense cultural discussions with Janine, Sarah, Allyson, Katie, Alex and Anthony.  There were 25 of us Americans, all experiencing roughly the same things, and we really helped each other talk through every awkward, uncomfortable or confusing encounter.  If I hadn’t had a bunch of smart, kind people to  air these issues with, I probably would’ve internalized them and gotten upset.  I highly recommend not going alone for your first time in Egypt, and definitely talking about the issues you encounter.

Alright, now that the full-disclosure is done, here’s my take.  Were there uncomfortable moments, derived entirely from the fact that I was female?  Yes, of course.  There was an incident in a restaurant and a similar one outside the train station that freaked me out.  There were men who didn’t realize I knew what they were saying.  There were times when I was really angry at the American guys I was with for not understanding when we needed protection and when they were just a nuisance, pleasing themselves.  But unlike the woman I spoke to, I was comfortable walking around alone during the day, at least in Zamalek.  The first week we were there I took a cab alone.  An intense experience, of course, but I got through it just fine.

On the flip side, a lot of this has to do with my own personality.  I pointed out the restaurant thing to the girls I was with, who were disgusted.  I later told some girls about the train incident, which no one else witnessed but was clearly directed at me, and they were all shook up, and kept asking if i was okay.  It was disgusting and undesirable, but I was in no way hurt.  As for the cab, one of the guys pointed out that I was one of the (if not the) only girls on our trip to do that solo, especially so early on.

As far as Egyptian women, I did not have the same perception as the woman who told me she wouldn’t go back.  I did see them walking at night, and I did see them by themselves.  On the other hand, I know from my research the ways and frequency with which many of them are cat-called or physically abused, and it is revolting.

So, my conclusion?  Yes, I still would go back.  And I know I will, someday.  There’s a sort of balance between cultural understanding and maintaining your personal integrity.  There’s also that balance between my own feminist ideals and the reality of life in Cairo.  Yes, I did once  tell off a cab in colorful Egyptian because I had simply had enough of being treated like that, but most of the time I kept my cool about it, the same way I do when I’m treated that way in America.  I don’t mean to make excuses for men behaving poorly, but I honestly don’t think it was much worse than how I am treated here, with just a few exceptions.

I think the biggest measure is that in the end, when I reflect on my time in Egypt and what it meant for me academically, personally and socially, the catcalls aren’t even on my mind.