Tag Archives: study abroad

Priorities, or Death When You’re Away

Nana and I
Nana and I

Enough people have died when I travel for it to give me pause.  When I was twelve and in Colorado for a school trip, my dad took me away from my friends to his hotel room to tell me: “Sister Peggy passed away.”  He exhaled it all at once like he had been holding it in since the phone call, trying not to let is slip out in front of everyone.  Sister Peggy was my great-aunt, my Nana’s sister as well as a nun (Sisters of Notre Dame) and she had died five months after my Nana, almost to the minute, of a very similar complication.  My dad hugged me and told me we would miss the services.  Sometime later, perhaps when she took me to the grave so I could finally feel like it was real, my mother said she never would have told me if I’d been on the trip alone.  Without my dad there to look after me, the news would have kept till I was back in Massachusetts.

This picture of Terry, my mother and I hung on Terry's fridge for years.
This picture of Terry, my mother and I hung on Terry’s fridge for years.

I was blessed with an abundance of grandparents, both biological and honorary.  When I was in Rouen, France five years later on a short-term high school exchange, I only talked to my parents three times.  The final time, just a day or two before I flew home, I remember hanging up and thinking about that time in Colorado.  I knew my parents wouldn’t have told me if something terrible had happened, if someone had died, and I went to sleep uneasy.  On the ride home from the airport they told me Bud had passed away, one of my grandparents of the honorary variety.  There’s something extra-special about people who don’t have to love you but choose to anyway, not out of any sort of obligation but the one they feel in their heart.

My father, my Gram and I.  She is 84 and still going strong!
My father, my Gram and I. She is 84 and still going strong!

Just over a year ago, I went to a party at a friend’s house in my hometown.  We had known for a while that my next door neighbor, Carolyn, was dying.  There had been several phone calls over the past few months with updates on her health, but mostly as a gentle nudge to say my goodbyes.  I had a feeling that this one last nudge was the right one though, and I went to the party planning to be at my parents’ house the next day.  I had a feeling she wouldn’t be there to see me anymore.  I was right, and I expected to feel guilt or regret, but I honestly don’t.

Cousins at the MS Walk in Portsmouth
Cousins at the MS Walk in Portsmouth

Four years ago, one of my mother’s favorite cousins finally succumbed to a long and difficult illness at the end of a brief and happy, but incredibly difficult, life.  My mom decided she was done saying her goodbyes at wakes and funerals, or even at hospital bedsides.  Of course I wouldn’t hear about this decision for another month or so since I was in Cuba for the first time, but when I did I thoroughly agreed.  I had come to the same conclusion when a close relative was diagnosed with a degenerative condition.  What was the point of missing a fun dinner for yet another protracted club meeting?  In the grand scheme of things, what was the cost of missing a meeting here or there, versus the cost of missing out on time with a loved one?  What was the point of ever missing an opportunity to see the people we love when we know we could lose them soon?

Carolyn at my dad's birthday party.
Carolyn at my dad’s birthday party.

So that’s how I had been with Carolyn.  I had spent many afternoons at her house since we moved to the Terrace during the early 1990s.  What art skills I have came from her, and she made my American Girl Doll clothes more beautiful than anything in a catalogue.  She tailored a bridesmade dress for me, which is when I found her cheat sheet: Kevin: boy, tall, brown hair.  Delia, girl, brown hair, glasses.  I saw her in her hospice bed, many times.  I held her hand, and told her stories even when she didn’t know my name.  I delighted on the days her face lit up with recognition of mine.  As my mother said, I was done waiting for people to die to miss them.  I was determined to enjoy them while they were still here.

At a family reunion.
At a family reunion.

And that’s how we came to miss a funeral of one of my mother’s relatives, even though I was in the country.  We sailed right past the exit toward Terry and Bud’s house.  While he had died in 2006 when I was in France, we had seven more great years with Terry.  Bud’s funeral was also when I decided to go to college in Boston.  My older brother had been forced to miss it and it pained him, and I decided I didn’t want that.  I wanted to be able to go the things that mattered to me.  Terry mattered to us, an awful lot, so I found myself in Hyde Park on a bunch of days off with my mum.

We would drink tea, eat tune salad sandwiches, and talk about books, Boston politics, JFK and feminism.  I found myself ditching work a couple of times to go to Block Island with her and the rest of her family, who rather generously made room in the family roster for my parents, brother and I.  I remember dumb things, like giving her my cone when hers broke one night that last summer, knowing she would be gone soon and that I would wish I had given it to her.  And rubbing the dry skin on her hands with lotion on the last day I saw her alive, taking photos of her with my mother because I knew she would want them.  Looking back, I remember thinking god, how pissed would I be if I missed Block Island with Terry to work a shift at Kohl’s?  How pissed would I be if I missed this because I didn’t have the guts to ask for a day off from my job, a job which wouldn’t even exist six months later.  I look back and thank god I traded whatever day to day crap I was supposed to do for all those afternoons in Hyde Park and long weekends on the Island.

It’s how I knew the answer, right away, when my mother asked me if I could afford to go to the funeral of another honorary grandparent, my Nana’s cousin Fritz.  Sure, I missed yet another Arabic class and had a job interview that I rushed to afterwards.  I  ended up with a C for the semester.  But those wheels were already in motion–it’s not like I could trade the funeral for an A.  And how much would it suck to miss the funeral and get that grade anyway?  Some things matter more than others, and while Arabic class mattered in the aggregate, Fritz’s funeral mattered, period.  Besides, I got the job, which sent me to Greece.

If travel is your life, inevitably, you will experience all aspects of your life in connection to it.  Travel bloggers don’t usually write about death.  The usual stance on missing out on home is that you should just go because you won’t miss anything worthwhile; everything and everyone will be the same when you come home.  That’s mostly true, except for when it’s not.  And it means when you’re home you have to make a bigger effort to see the people who matter, since you don’t have as much margin for error.

Team Rojo in the Dominican Republic
Team Rojo in the Dominican Republic

Of course my philosophy isn’t perfect.  It’s much harder to prioritize people who are young and healthy, especially when everyone is so busy and there are so many friends criss-crossing the country and the globe.  I genuinely have no idea when the last time was that I saw my friend Naman, who died at 21.  I’d like to think it wasn’t when we left the Dominican Republic, but it could be.  For whatever reason I spent the next few semesters too caught up in the bubble of my daily life and my ex-boyfriend’s friends, people who I haven’t seen in years now, to spend time with one of the best groups of people I’ve ever traveled with.  To spend time with a perfectly healthy 21 year old who was taken well before his time.

Goofing around with my brother and cousins on Christmas morning.
Goofing around with my brother and cousins on Christmas morning.

It gets harder as life gets busier, and as the competing offers get more interesting, to see in the moment which choice you will thank yourself for later at a funeral.  Every time I find myself thinking, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” I try to remember that really, we’re all just one complication or offer too good to pass up away from missing even the most important events.  That’s what I was thinking about when I woke up early this morning for Terry and Bud’s memorial mass: not just to remember the people I miss, but to spend more time with everyone else I love who misses them so much.  And it’s what I think about every time I spend Friday night with my 9 and 12 year old cousins.  Sure, they can’t have a beer with me for another decade or so, but it’s important to me.  Some day, when they look at the sum total of their lives, they will remember that in spite of how often I left the country, I was always there, the whole time they were growing up.

Life is Not a Reality Show Starring Me

One of the hallmarks of western people traveling is that by and large, we only “befriend” service workers.  That is to say, our only local interactions of any length involve the exchange of currency.  Of course I think we should support local businesses as much as possible, but think about your life back home–is it dominated by people who are with you because they are paid to be?  How much would you really know about your city or country if you only went to the top ten tourist destinations and spoke only with cab drivers, tour guides, bartenders, waitstaff and hotel/hostel staff?  I understand that this level of engagement is fine or even optimal for many people, but to me it is severely lacking.  Luckily, that is starting to change.

People ask a  lot of questions if you travel, and one of the absolute best was by one of my dad’s cousins a couple of years ago.  “So if we were in Cuba right now, if we were just two Cuban guys, what would we be doing?  What would our day be like?”  If I asked a variation on this question at most travel meetups, or sadly after many study abroad programs, the response would be crickets.  Or worse, when someone fills in the blanks with stereotypes or takes one small thing they saw once and applies it to an entire city, country, or region.

Traveling to other countries, for me, is not about getting as many different passport stamps as possible, or crossing off everything in a guide book or 1,001 places to see before you die.  Other people’s lives and communities are not playgrounds for me, set pieces and props for my story, devices to teach me and other western people valuable lessons in navel-gazing.  They are human beings, whole and entire.  They are not merely sad and pitiable, noble in the face of their immense struggles, nor are they just inspiring in their happiness, ignorant to how much better life is with iPhones and DVR.  They have a full range of emotions and experiences, just like us.  Other people exist for themselves and their own goals, struggles, and desires, not for our profile pics, poverty porn, and Eat, Pray, Love-style enlightenment.

If I’ve learned anything while traveling, it’s that our world is full of millions of other small worlds, each one fascinating and full of its own truth.  If I am patient, kind, polite, and sit by very quietly, occasionally I can learn something from these worlds as I encounter them.  If I am able to stay somewhere long enough, sometimes these worlds let me in so I can be a part of their community for a little while.  All of my best memories abroad (and at home–because travel is not an escape from real life) come from getting to know people and places well enough that they trust me with some very real part of their existence.  Some of the most interesting things that have ever happened to me are the things that have re-aligned my view of people or a place, clarifying some generalization or misunderstanding I have previously held.  There is more to this world and this life than 7 billion people and 196 countries at the service of me.  My travel, no matter how exciting to me, is still just somebody else’s Wednesday, their day job, their ride home.  And to me, that is the most exciting part of all–not the bungee jumping or the skydiving or the tattoos or the scuba diving; getting to see what somebody else’s Wednesday can be.

The Urgency of Travel

I came across an article recently about the growing phenomenon of students who spend almost every weekend of their semester abroad traveling somewhere outside of their host city, and often outside of their host country.  I immediately thought of my students last fall in Greece, many of whom spent exorbitant sums of their (or more often, their parents’ money) to leave Thessaloniki as often as possible.  I know they did this because I was responsible for knowing their general whereabouts.  I know about the exorbitant sums they spent because so many of them told me, almost proud, about all the last minute flights they booked.  

The article details this extreme sense of urgency, the idea that this is a once in a lifetime experience.  On most of my trips leading study abroad students or being on myself, I have heard this urgency expressed in a variety of ways.  Some students spend little time sleeping in order to see it all and do it all, and inevitable crash or become ill or get sun sickness.  Others never get to know their host country or host city because they only see it in Monday-Friday terms.  Face it, if you never spent weekends in the place where you live, it would seem to be a very different place.  Then there are those who are so busy cramming in all the “right” “must-see” sites that they never see the best stuff.  The everyday things, the regular people who aren’t in the service industry, the places that no one writing for Lonely Planet noticed because they were on deadline and quite frankly weren’t being paid to linger and discover.  

For me, the lingering and the discovering is the thing.  That’s where the nature of a place is hiding, where the most worthwhile friendships have cropped up, and where I’ve seen the kind of beauty that makes a permanent spot in my heart for that place.  

I certainly do go to many if not all of the places on the must-see list, but that’s for the first day or week or month, not for your settled-in stay.  The people you meet there will likely be fellow tourists, so judging a place based on those crowds is unfair.  Often, those landmarks are old.  There’s nothing wrong with old, but I find something perverse in worshiping a place only for its past, while ignoring all the amazing things that are happening in the here and now, ignoring all the people and innovation and art and history, ignoring the current identity of a place.  Basically, if all I did in Egypt was go to the pyramids and king tut’s tomb, I would have missed out on thousands of years worth of Egypt to fall in love with.  

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with people who work in the service industry (in fact, they almost never let me down with friendliness, patience, and recommendations, at home or abroad), but it’s no accident that Americans have a reputation for “befriending” every cab driver and bar tender, and no one else.  If the only time you see a person is when they are paid to not only do something for you, but do it with a smile and inviting personality, perhaps this is not actually friendship.  

There is nothing wrong with traveling while you’re abroad, and I understand that many people see it as cost-effective since they have already paid for the “big flight,” which in these conversations is almost always to Europe.  Because let’s face it, even though other sites are gaining popularity, most study abroad participants are still going to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.  But for those who want to travel, I recommend getting to know other parts of the same country.  See something beyond a capital city, because good lord a country is so much more than that.  Go to the country, go where residents of your city go on vacation, go to the secondary cities that matter a great deal to locals but outsiders seem to ignore.  Your time in your host city and your time studying your host country has created an outline.  Let your time traveling around familiarizing yourself with the nooks and crannies fill in the picture, slowly.  

I feel that urgency too, and I try to fight it.  That urgency makes a person look to the next thing on the list instead of noticing what’s happening around you in the present.  That urgency makes you competitively compare at hostels, instead of just happily share.  That urgency will always leave you feeling you missed out, even as you were doing or seeing something amazing, or meeting someone amazing.  

When I feel that urgency hit, I think of something a professor said to us toward the end of our time in Egypt: Do not think of this as goodbye.  Don’t think of this as leaving Egypt forever.  You can always come back, and you will come back, if it means that much to you.  There is nothing to stop you from coming back here, if you want.  

And to be honest, almost all of us have gone back.  And it was exactly what I needed, and it will be again when I return.  So when I get to feeling frantic, I tell that urgent, Fear of Missing Out voice to shut up.  I hold onto the feeling knowledge that I will be back, and try to do what makes sense in the moment.  Sometimes that means going to a foreign city.  Sometimes it means staying in to get some rest.  Sometimes it means reading a good book in the sunshine.  And sometimes it just means lingering and discovering a new side to the same old place I’ve seen a thousand times before.  

In Defense of Television When Travelling

I often find myself on the wrong side of a lot of debates.  I dislike hand sanitizer, sunscreen and bugspray, in favor of a boosted immune system and not experiencing the negative ramifications of abstaining.  I think we shampoo our hair too often, shelter our kids too much, and give google too hard of a time about censoring itself in China.

But by far the dirtiest looks roll in when I watch television while on the road.

Everyone is out to separate themselves from the be-fannypacked masses, and flipping on a television is like, as my roommate at the Songhai Centre put it, “Cheating on Africa.”

So am I cheating?  And if so, why?

For one thing, I defend tv in general, in my home life as well.  I get annoyed by the, weeeell, I don’t even own a television” crowd.  (PS–lots of people don’t, but they’re not such jerks about it!)  I also don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with television–The West Wing, Mad Men and Newsradio are all brilliant and entertaining shows.  They’re smart, witty and they make me happy.  So what if they come out of the “Idiot Box”?  If you choose to watch awful reality tv, or things that make your brain turn to goo and slide out of your ears (I’m looking at you, The Hills), then that’s your own darn fault, not television’s.  (Of course when it comes to True B lood, I also have an argument In Defense of Camp, but that’s for another day.)  Those shows only run because they get ratings, and we all have the power to effect those ratings.

But that’s at home.  Travelling is about being a totally different, better person (right?) and taking advantage of each and every day.  Not sitting inside gnoshing on chips in front of the boob tube.

Well, screw that.

Television is a very real part of life in many communities all over the world.  Sure, it’s not considered what the French call “High Culture,” but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile or valid for regular people all over the world.  Telenovelas in Latin America that feature women making progressive, empowered decisions about birth control and divorce increased knowledge, attitudes and positive actions on the subjects.  Hows that for working your medium?

Even when tv isn’t changing the way people think about controversial topics, it’s still important.  Maria, our live-in abuelita in Cuba, watched tv every day.  Sitting with her, trying to figure out what was going on, it was a window into what matters to her.  And where else can you watch Fidel rant on television several times a day?

Watching the Superbowl in Cuba was an eye-opening experience as well.  There were almost no ads, something that in the US is actually more popular than the game itself.  The only ads were for the channel we were already watching, sports in general (like Soccer.  A straight up endorsement for the game of soccer.), and other locations in Cuba that one should visit.

That is a huge daily difference in life for Cubans, and it matters.

In Benin, they show obituaries on tv, around dinner time.  We encountered basically no print outlets, so everyone relies on the television for all their news.  Sometimes, that news included us: the group of 20-odd yovos (white people) running around their country mangling French and trying to eat with our hands like the locals.

Television shows teach us about who we are(Courtesy of UJC).  Our priorities, our sense of humour, what is considered acceptable.  In Egypt, the most scantily-clad women I saw were on tv.  Unless, of course, it was a commercial for something like a cleaning product, and then the woman was heavier, had no or very natural makeup and was sporting a plain, matte, single-colour hijab–the Egyptian version of the Mom Jeans look.

If you’re in a comunity where no one has a television, or only the rich get to watch it, I understand eschewing it for other, more local interactions.  Or if you’re camped out in your air conditioned hotel room watching CNN or Sex and the City all day, yeah you probably wasted your money traveling and need a serious reality check.  But if you’re surrounded by people who watch television, then by all means: dive right into their world.

Pull up a chair and watch what they’re watching, and see what you can learn.

Worst Blogger EVAH!

Sorry I’ve been so AWOL–in the last month or so I’ve come home from Benin, started a new job (and a new commute…ugh), and had some life stuff to deal with.  Another thing I’ve been working on is blogging for Northeastern’s Study Abroad department, AKA my new employer.  Check out the tumblr here to see my professional blogging side.  Of course if you go to NU you should bookmark it, add it to your RSS or Like the facebook page!

Have a good weekend everybody, and I promise to have some good stuff coming down the pike soon


The Final Countdown

You can miss a lot in three months.  While I am pumped to go, here are a few things I’ll miss while I’m gone.

  • Pat’s post-season and the Super Bowl.  I watch the Super Bowl every year
  • St. Patrick’s Day.  St. Patty’s is a big deal in my family, what with us being absurdly Irish and it being Kev’s birthday and all that.  I’ve also never been 21 for it before, and because of Southeast and UNA last year I pretty much missed it entirely.
  • Valentine’s Day.  For me, and any self-respecting UNA kid, V-Day means Harvard and all that that entails.
  • Chicken Lou’s TKO.  So delicious.
  • Husky Hockey.  The regular season, the Beanpot, etc.  I haven’t missed many games in my tenure at NU; it usually only happens when I’m out of state.
  • Harry Potter exhibit at the MOS.  I was hoping to get in there before I leave, but that didn’t happen.  I’m hoping they extend it beyond February.  Even if they do though, it probably won’t still be there in April.
  • Milk.  It’s only rationed for babies in Cuba, so I won’t get any for three months.  How weird is that?  And I’m a huge milk drinker so this may be an issue.
  • Dates with Meredith in Davis.  It’s a great little neighborhood with some of the best shopping.  Keep an eye out on Poor Little Rich Girl for me, k?
  • Alex, my partner in crime.  This will be the first significant amount of time that we’ll spend apart in over a year.  We survived the long hours of UNA, the Egypt trip, a broken ankle, a broken heart and a lot of fun.
  • The New England winter.  I know, easy for me to say.

If you were gone for the next three months, what would you miss?  Anything you totally wouldn’t miss?

Coming Out Party

I’m going to Cuba.  For a semester.  Starting pretty much right after New Year’s.


Sorry I’ve kept this way on the dl, for reasons both personal and logical.  I didn’t know if I would be allowed to apply, I didn’t know if I would get accepted, and I didn’t know if the trip would actually happen.

Even more surprising, is that this idea has been around for a while.  A little more than a year ago I mentioned it casually to my dad, who I assumed would shoot it down.  I should have known better.  As much as dad is always getting all worked up and worried that I’ll get myself into some sort of trouble with my curious, opinionated rabble-rousing ways, I know that we’re basically the same person.  Which means that he wishes he could go to Cuba too.

Since then, the idea was in the back of my mind.  After Egypt I knew I wouldn’t be staying in this country long, but due to co-op I would have to stay at least six months.  I casually mentioned the idea to a few friends as a “someday” possibility at the end of the summer, but then I let it drop.

One Thursday, I panicked and thought the deadline for Cuba was closer than it turned out to be.  At the idea of not being able to go, I suddenly realized the myriad reasons why I absolutely NEED to go.  By that Tuesday I had applied.

Since then it’s been my bizarro little secret, with only Sarah, Alex, Marisa and my immediate family in the loop.  I saw no reason to get everyone all worked up if I didn’t get in.  But now I’m going.  So there!

I feel like this is a press conference.  But given the last sentence of the previous paragraph, a press conference for a toddler.

I want this blog to be a lot more interactive.  I love travel, politics, language and culture, but I also love education.  I love educating myself and I love the act of spreading knowledge, which is a big part of why I started this blog.  Many of you will never go to Cuba or Egypt, or any third (or second!) world country.  But I will.  So much of what we hear about these places is misunderstood, over-simplified or flat-out false.

So live vicariously through me.  Leave comments with your questions.  Do you think I’ll be safe?  Do you think I’ll be able to send/receive mail?  Do you think people will hate us there?  Do you think people will speak English?  I want your impressions of Cuba.  Does it make you think of Scarface and cigars, or Hunter S. Thompson and rum?

I promise to answer the questions, especially the safety one.  I already know answers to some of them (especially the safety one!) but I would love to hear your impressions of Cuba, whether they’re based on books and movies or our President and the news.