Tag Archives: Preparation

What About Benin?

I’ll be going to France on May 8, and after a week in Paris I’ll go to Benin until June 5.

Benny-what?

Benin. It’s a small country in West Africa.  It’s mostly known in history for its sad part in the slave trade as a major departure port.  I’ll be spending some time in Cotonou, as well as the capital of Porto-Novo

The Basics

Map courtesy of the UN website

I’m going through Northeastern University and the Dialogue of Civilizations program.  Instead of taking summer classes, I’m doing this.  I’ll get the normal summer credit for it (8 credits/two classes) and will be graded and such.  It’s like what I did in Egypt, except entirely different. 🙂

French is the official language of Benin, so I’ll be taking some lessons while in Paris and practicing my rather dormant French skills while there.  Many people also speak Fon, of which I know nothing, and Yoruba, a language that found its way to Cuba (and modern Cubañol) via the slave trade.  The country is considered very safe, but is severely lacking when it comes to infrastructure.

For our safety/for the sake of NU’s lawyers, we aren’t allowed to ride on motorbikes and will only be eating from a select few restaurants.  I have malaria pills and got my yellow fever vaccine, whose injection site still kinda hurts.  Blast, yellow fever, you’ve done it again!  I’m waiting with bated breath for my visa to come back (this seems to be a theme with me…) and already scoping out luggage and drawing up packing lists.  Here we go again!

Service-Learning

While in Benin, we’ll be meeting up with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to learn more about the country, such as development, culture and politics.  We will each be working with a local NGO for a few weeks, ranging from health care to orphanages to micro-enterprise(!) and lending a hand any way we can.  More on this later, since it’s most of the reason I chose this program.

Songhai Center

I’ll be living in the Songhai Center in Cotonou.  There are several of these throughout the country, and they are used for training Beninese people about agriculture and such.  It’s also thoroughly Green with a capital G, with each part of the center helping to fuel another.  Which brings up another point: I’ll be taking chilly rain barrel showers for most of the summer.  Basically, I’m going to refer you to the video contained in the link below, courtesy of BoingBoingTV, because it does a far better job of explaining than me.

Songhai Video link

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.

Learn from Experience pt. 2: Packing Edition

Now that I’m packing for Cuba, and considering my last post, my brain naturally made the leap to my packing successes and pitfalls from this past summer.

Things I Wish I had brought to Egypt:

Look at me, all wearing long pants and not even sweating. Oh and pyramids.
  • Jeans. We were told they’d be too scandalous and hot, but I found them to be neither.  Also, most of the Egyptians and Americans were wearing them, so those who followed this dictate simply bought awesome ones in country.
  • A hooded sweatshirt. Again, I was under the impression that Egypt would be a sweltering heat-death, but it was fine.  And on many occasions, the AC was overwhelming.  Most of all though, hoodies are comfy.  When you’re traveling and tired, comfy is key
  • Cute going out clothes. I pretty much wore the same purple shirt every time we went out, or else looked awkward.
  • Plain black sweatpants. Comfort, yes, but the lovely Janine had some that were more clean than grungy, so she was able to wear them a little dressier when she wanted.  Comfy but deceptively dressy is my goal in pretty much all things.

Things I’m Pumped I brought:

  • My travel pillow and sleep sack. They are the bomb, and considering how much travel there was during our six weeks, both were great ideas.
  • Wipes. My feet were disgusting approximately 99% of the time.  That 1%?  Due entirely to some kind of handi-wipe.
  • An extra (empty) duffel bag. This was for in-country travel as well as for bringing souvenirs home.  Unfortunately, mine self-destructed
  • Nutella. Hands-down my best decision.  It’s wicked expensive in Egypt (and many other places) and amps up any snack, which came in handy on a daily basis on our trip.
  • Tupperware and ziploc bags. So versatile, but especially useful when sneaking food from the complimentary breakfast every day.

What I shouldn’t have brought:

  • Hiking boots. They were gigantic and heavy and I didn’t use them all that much.  Sneakers would’ve been fine pretty much every time.

Penelope Trunk had a great post about how you should be yourself when traveling, and I couldn’t agree more.  If museums bore you here, they’ll bore you somewhere else too.  If a hooded sweatshirt means home, that’ll be true anywhere.

I read a great book before going to France, about a girl sent on a European adventure by her aunt’s letters, which were sent posthumously.  The aunt has a few rules, though, and one of her most stringent is that he niece should not read any travel books.  While this may sound ridiculous, she has a point.  The girl cheats a little and reads that when traveling, sturdy, plain white sneakers are the best.  She complies, and finds that the sneakers out her constantly as a tourist, while other travelers look cool and comfy.

Sometimes, you just have to ignore the advice and look like you.

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.

Travel:

  • 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?

Linguist

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?

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.

Leaving on a Jetplane

In a few short hours I’ll be checking in to the international terminal at Logan, then off to Cairo via Frankfurt.  Everyone has been asking what the deal is with various time differences, so I’ll try to break it down.  And yes, at 2 am the night before I go, still unpacked and mildly disheveled, I’m writing this instead of a paper. Let’s not talk about it.

I arrive at Logan at 1pm, because we’re a big group and we’re doing everything on the safe side.

Our plane leaves at 4:30pm local time, to arrive in Frankfort at 5:20am Germantime (11:30 pm in boston).  This is a seven hour flight, and a six hour time difference ahead of Boston. (Remember: East increase, West is less)

I then get to spend almost 5 hours in glorious Frankfurt airport.  At 9:55 Germanytime, aka 3:55 bodyclock/Bostontime, I leave for Cairo.

After a four hour flight I will arrive in Cairo at 2:55pm Egyptian time, which is one hour ahead of Germany, or 7 hours ahead of Boston.  At this point it will be 7:55am on Thursday in Boston and my brain, and I will have spent at least 19 hours en route.

And then I will go ride a camel and see the Great Pyramids, because really, how else could you possibly start a trip to Egypt?