Your flight is how long?!

Three continents, four planes and 36 hours. It was my mantra as I frantically stuffed my bag with as many lotions, water bottles, and snacks as I possibly could. In less than 12 hours, I would be on my way to Los Angeles International Airport to depart on what many have told me will be the adventure of a lifetime. To say I am nervous is a bit of an understatement. I’ll be heading off to Cape Town, South Africa – an entire world away! For the next five months, I will be studying at the University of Cape Town in the Arts and Sciences program. To prepare for this incredible opportunity, I have been diligently reading every blog, article or info sheet I could get my hands on about studying abroad in Cape Town. Luckily for me, it’s clearly a very popular destination. I’ve found more than enough information to occupy my time during winter break. After reading so many different blogs from students across the country, I’ve come up with a list of common themes I have picked up as I have worked my way through masses of articles. As I compile this list, my hope is that I will be able to experience these things for myself and add new ones along the way.

How to prepare for studying abroad in South Africa: A Summary

  1. Be ready for a LOT of heat. I definitely packed SPF 70.
  2. Long Street will give you an entirely new definition of nightlife.
  3. Be prepared to be shocked by the prevalence of conversations and fixation of race
  4. BRAAI BRAAI BRAAI: When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a South African BBQ.
  5. Meet the locals and make friends. Don’t just stick with your American group.
  6. Visit the townships. There is more to South Africa than the beaches.
  7. Read A Long Walk to Freedom before and during your semester (check!)
  8. Culture shock is real – be prepared to be thrown out of your comfort zone in this vibrant city.
  9. WiFi can be slow (and impossible to come by at times).
  10. Life moves at a different pace. Embrace it.

And there it is! Ten themes that kept coming up in every blog I read. Each blog or article has me even more excited for this adventure ahead. I can’t wait to see what’s in store.

My next post will be coming at you from Cape Town, South Africa. Until then, bon voyage!

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From Punta Cana to Villa Altagracia: Deconstructing Stereotypes

Complex. You will probably hear me use this word again and again to describe the Dominican Republic because, at its core, there is so much tension between all kinds of different identities. While I am residing in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital, so far I have also visited Punta Cana, a city full of beach resorts similar to the one that I stayed at with my family just prior to arriving for my program, and Villa Altagracia, a small town outside Santo Domingo where I will be interning for a workers union at a fábrica that bears the town’s name (don’t worry, more on this later).

I will do a small exercise to show you what I mean about the Dominican’s complexities. I am going to write the first three observations that immediately come to mind when I reflect on each city. Ready, go:

Punta Cana

  1. White
  2. Paradise
  3. Tourist

Santo Domingo

  1. Middle
  2. Diverse
  3. Change

Villa Altagracia

  1. Black
  2. Struggle
  3. Lack

When I would tell people that I was going to the DR to study abroad, the answer I would receive more often than not was, “Ugh, I’m so jealous, with those beautiful beaches and 80 degree weather, you will have the time of your life!” The reaction that I would overwhelmingly hear painted to me again and again was most similar to my experience at the beach resort in Punta Cana: a quite literal paradise.

However, drive maybe fifteen or twenty minutes outside this city, and you will begin to see towns that more closely resemble Villa Altagracia. Abandoned buildings that are falling apart, loads of garbage and trash on the ground, poverty.

And then there’s Santo Domingo that is somewhere between the two, with a metro system that is brand spankin’ new and citywide blackouts that occur every other day for small periods of time.

The point that I am trying to make is that the picture that is often painted of the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean in general is one of heavenly delight, where people recline on the beach all day sipping on coconuts without a care in the world. This is certainly the image that resorts such as the one that I stayed at make millions of dollars each year off of.

But, this could not be farther from the truth. Because the DR is, ah, what’s that word again? Oh yes, complex. Along with experiencing colonialism, the DR has historically undergone not one but two US military occupations along with the reign of a brutal, racist dictator. The DR has a tense history with its neighbor Haiti, and is currently under international pressure to repeal discriminatory citizenship laws that render Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless.

I know that I still have so much to learn about the DR and about the oppression that the country has both experienced and perpetuated. I want to be aware of the role that whiteness and American-ness have played in forming the country’s current dynamics. Throughout my time here, I hope to listen to the diverse narratives of the people I encounter and learn more about identity and what it truly means to be Dominican.

Peace.Love.Complexity

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Reading Budapest

In just a few short days, I leave for Budapest, Hungary to begin a semester’s worth of study and travel. With my month-and-a-half-long vacation coming to a merciful end (I say “merciful” because I contracted cabin fever about, I don’t know, 12 days in), I thought I’d reflect on what I’ve done to prepare for my journey. Mostly, I didn’t do anything. I would – and I’m writing with the benefit of hindsight here – advise against that. Packing, scheduling and re-scheduling flights, and, oh, making sure it’s legal for you to enter your desired destination aren’t things best left to the days leading up to departure. Just ask my mother. But because you, reader, probably don’t want to hear about such captivating pre-departure adventures as waiting in line for a visa, I figured I would talk about what I was doing instead of gearing up for Budapest: reading up on the place. Hear me out. I tried my very best to waste away the extended break, but a few paperbacks disrupted those plans. So, without further ado, my Budapest reading list:

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein

Julian Rubinstein’s book may read like a thriller, but Ballad of the Whiskey Robber tells a tale so improbable that it couldn’t have been made up. Rubinstein relates the saga of Attila Ambrus, a charismatic Transylvanian-born athlete-turned-smuggler-turned-gravedigger-turned-robber whose high-profile, alcohol-soaked bank jobs captured public imagination in post-communist Budapest. From 1993 to 1999, Ambrus pulled off 27 increasingly audacious yet mostly nonviolent heists, becoming a folk hero in the process. Ambrus is probably the most endearingly insane person I’ve never met (“insane” because, among other things, he spiced up his robberies by presenting female bank tellers with flowers), and his stranger-than-fiction exploits, coupled with Rubinstein’s playful prose, make for great entertainment. In all, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber likens Budapest in the 1990s to the Wild West – a city equal parts fun and off-kilter, populated by the most colorful of characters.

Prague by Arthur Phillips

If Ballad of the Whiskey Robber showcases the manic side of Budapest in the 1990s, Arthur Phillips’ Prague, also set in the heady years immediately following communism’s collapse, is an ode to the city’s more depressive qualities. Budapest was once hailed as “Paris of the East,” but as the North American expatriates who populate the city in this novel come to discover, the 1990s do not make for another belle époque. As they slog through their own angst, Phillips’ characters begin to suspect that the good life is being had in nearby Prague, hence the book’s tongue-in-cheek title. If this all sounds kind of tragicomic, that’s because it is. But Prague is more an indictment of expats and their worldly pretensions than it is of Budapest. The portrait Phillips paints of the city is actually quite tender – it’s just also painfully aware of the stultifying effect the twentieth century has had on Hungary’s capital.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

The Invisible Bridge takes us away from the 1990s to the 1930s and ‘40s, which were not great decades for Hungary or for novelist Julie Orringer’s protagonist, Hungarian-Jewish student Andras Levi. The first half of the book is set in Paris, where Andras, an aspiring architect, begins to feel the winds of genocide and war. He is eventually called back to Budapest and conscripted into the national army, which is inconveniently in cahoots with Nazi Germany. It suffices to say that things start to go badly for Levi, his family, and his country. Orringer is an affecting and earnest writer, but The Invisible Bridge is looooong, such that it become hard to engage with the constant tension that stalks the novel. Still, it’s a worthwhile read, if only for its deep portrayal of this traumatic episode of Hungarian and Jewish history.


I’d recommend Ballad of the Whiskey Robber to anyone, Prague to anyone who wants to get sad, and The Invisible Bridge to anyone who wants to get sad and has a lot of patience. Next up for me is Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer, which, from what I’ve gathered, is about Hungarian basketball players who ride Budapest’s public transit in the nude. I’m looking forward to it, as well as the city it’s set in.

 

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“For the snow, we make pizza.”

I missed writing my pre-departure blog post, but I thought I would post an update on my experience so far in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan! Now is my fourth day in Amman and my experience has been exactly the opposite of what you might expect when you hear of studying abroad in the Middle East. For the first three days I have sat with my Christian host family drinking coffee and wearing multiple jackets to keep warm. You can say that it’s been a slow start. I know you might be picturing the Middle East with scorching temperatures and a vast desert, but Amman, Jordan has a cold and snowy winter. Just a few inches is enough to shut down the entire city for days. My orientation was held online for the first two days because there was a dusting of snow throughout the city. While I was eager at the beginning to become familiar with Amman and other members of my program, luckily my host family provides more than enough entertainment for sitting at home waiting for the “storm” to pass.

I live with just a grandmother in her apartment. But, the grandmother’s three sons live in the other three apartments in the building with their families. Throughout the day there is much interaction between the four apartments, especially considering that my host mother (grandmother?) has nine grandchildren between the three apartments ranging in age from 1 to 11 years old. One of the grandchildren, Fadi, who is seven years old, seems particularly keen on hanging out with me and so far has been a great Arabic language partner since he is very patient as I slowly construe Arabic sentences and questions.

The Zaaroor Family has a special tradition when there is a snow storm – they make pizza! As a way to warm up the house by using the stove and lighten the mood while the family grumbles about the cold weather, my host Mom, Samira, makes pizza with all kinds of toppings. Making the dough and tomato sauce and then baking the pizzas is no easy task when there is a hungry family of 17 (including me!) to feed. Though she slaved away all day in the kitchen with some help from family members, it seemed worth it when everyone at the table finally ate their slices of pizza with smiles on their faces. Looking around, I think the adults were just as eager for the snow day pizza as the children.

I was surprised to learn that many of the host families for Arabic language students in Amman are Christian like my family. While about 96% of Jordan identifies as Muslim, there is a significant Christian population in Amman. I think that male students in particular are placed with Christian families because if a male student is placed with a Muslim family, then female members of the family wouldn’t be able to take off their hijab in their own house.

Today was my first day of face-to-face orientation at the CIEE study center since the weather finally cleared up and I was happy to finally meet many of my peers and the supportive staff at the center. At orientation we covered health and safety issues for students living in Amman – necessary but by no means exciting. Afterwards I got my first small taste of living in Amman. With a few other students we went to one of many cafes to try shisha, what Americans commonly call hookah. It was exciting to be able to observe other shabab (young people) socialize with each other as they smoke shisha. The cafe culture of sitting and talking with friends for hours at a time is very important to the lifestyle here, Jordanian cafes are certainly no in and out Starbucks.

That’s all for now – I can’t wait to see what the rest of the semester has in store! (I also can’t wait for the weather to get warmer)

Below on the left is a photo of the view from the CIEE Study Center. It may be a little dreary…but the people of Amman certainly are not! On the right is me with my host nephew, Fadi. He wrote me this welcome note: “Patrick, welcome to Zaaroor Family and welcome to Jordan. If you go, I will be sad. From Fadi, To Patrick.”

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They Don’t Want You to Study Abroad…Do It Anyway!

“Angela, you are the first one in our family to own a passport. Did you know that?” When my mother told me this, she was holding my “virgin” U.S. certified passport in her hands. I suppose I knew this fact about my family, but I never thought hard about it. Probably because leaving the country never crossed my mind until a couple of months ago. It definitely took my best friends from Community Scholars, Janelle, Sandra, and Ari, to study abroad and getting over the fear of the unknown, to begin the application process.

Decision day for study abroad applications came and I never thought I would see myself jumping for joy when I got accepted at University of the Western Cape in South Africa. I literally could not stop looking at my acceptance letter. And of course I had to do the obligatory Facebook status announcing the great news. Why not share this with my network filled with family, fellow Hoyas, old friends, past co-workers, and the rising high schools seniors I had the honor of mentoring this past summer at Princeton University, through the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) Program?

The program is for rising high school seniors, who represent all racially diverse backgrounds and low-income communities from across the nation. I was a scholar in the summer institute, the main component of the program, three years prior. Given that the main goal of the program is to get students, like us, into the top schools of the nation, like Georgetown (YAS), I knew how important it was to let these scholars know about the opportunities one has once being accepted into one of these highly competitive institutions. These types of opportunities may not be known as possibilities in our respective communities. I have been fortunate enough to be a member of communities like, LEDA, the Georgetown University Community Scholars Program, and the Georgetown Scholarship Program, that give their participants the resources that they have historically been deprived of in America.

Now here I am, an African American woman, eight generations removed from American slavery, reminiscing on how far my family has come for me to get here in this moment.

Before embarking on this life-changing journey, let me leave you with two great reasons to study abroad:

  1. Inspiration: As a mentor for fellow Hoyas and LEDA Scholars, I have found that one of the best things you can do as a mentor is inspire others. So I am not only going abroad for myself. I am also going to inspire others, whether it is my wonderful mentees, my family, my friends or complete strangers who happen to stumble across my blog. I am also thinking about the future generations of my family and the stories I can share with them about my experiences in Cape Town to let them know about the possibilities. If you have the opportunity to study abroad, do it and inspire as you go!
  2. If it can be paid for, I mean… : Studying abroad can be out-of-this-world expensive. However, I am thankful for Georgetown University financial aid and the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program for helping me completely fund my trip! If your study abroad costs can be covered (partially or fully), what are you waiting for?!

 

 

 

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Study abroad in a city of contradictions

My first two weeks in Beijing were even more hectic and eventful than expected. Between canceled flights, almost-lost luggage and full week of orientation, I got to meet around 80 new people and explore significant parts of the city. After having spent two months interning in Beijing this summer, I thought I would just slide back into my familiar routine, and avoid the awkward stages of adjustment abroad. However, that was not the case. Beijing is one of those places where the adjustment curve is more like a sine wave. There are days when the air pollution is high, the temperature drops, you hit rush hour, miss your bus because the subway was too crowded, almost get run over by an angry old man on a bike, and arrive at your class only to find that the heating system isn’t working and there’s a Chinese dictation you didn’t know about. But there are also days when you realize you are able to hold a short conversation with your favorite street food vendor, get walking directions from a kind lady on the bus in Chinese and manage to actually follow them, make a new friend at work, try some amazing new food and maybe even read a couple of characters on the menu. These small victories are the reason I came here. If you are looking for an easy study abroad location, China is not one of them. But if you want a challenging experience that will allow you to learn more about yourself, then there is no place I would recommend more.

If you choose to take up the challenge, here are some of my initial observations / tips:

  1. If you try crossing the road, look in ALL directions. Yes, there are lanes and traffic lights. No, they don’t actually matter. It is not rare to see motorcycles on the sidewalk, or vehicles reversing on a highway. It takes some time to get used to, but sooner or later you will cross the road like a true Beijinger.
  2. Food, food, and more food. For less than 6 RBM (which is about $1) you can get an amazing Chinese breakfast, and for less than $5 you can get just about anything else. Try everything (yes, even frog meat), and then decide if you like it or not. If it’s not good, it’s a good story.
  3. Public transportation is the fastest way to get around the city, but it is quite challenging at first. Sometimes, the busses will get so crowded that you won’t be able to get off at your stop, and if you aren’t aggressive enough, you will never get to your destination on time. During rush hour, it’s every man for himself.
  4. People will be extremely nice if you try to explain what you want / need in Chinese. However, if the line is long and the vendor is stressed, maybe try practicing another time and just point at the menu.
  5. Whenever you ask for water at a restaurant, you will get boiling hot water – so get used to it fast. You may not enjoy it in the summer when it is around 100 degrees outside, but you will be extremely grateful for it in the winter (plus, it’s apparently healthier).
  6. Due to Internet restrictions and censorship, you will spend more time trying to figure out how to get on Facebook / Snapchat / Instagram / gmail than you will on homework. If your friends and family really want to hear from you, make them download WeChat (the entire country basically runs on this app).

Many people ask me why I chose to come back to Beijing, and I think that it’s mainly because it is full of beautiful contradictions, and is the perfect mixture of past and present. You have modern skyscrapers, malls and Starbucks at every corner, and a great nightlife scene. On the other hand, you can still see many hutongs (old narrow alleyways) and courtyards, traditional small restaurant and street food vendors, and beautiful temples everywhere. These contradictions make this city interesting, and seeing it change on a daily basis is quite exciting. I’m extremely happy to be back and I cannot wait to see what adventures this semester brings.

 

 

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Los Rituales del Caos

It is day three of orientation week. Today’s theme? Transportation. Today is the day that we are learning how to take public transportation to get to the two local universities that we will be taking classes at, INTEC and El Bonó. Little did I know that this would also be the day that I truly learned what I had signed up for in this beautiful and complex city.

Public transportation in Santo Domingo is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. The vans that run routes around the city are known as guaguas, and they hold, I kid you not, 25 people at a time in a space meant for 10 at most. There is a man waiting at the door that you pay (at the beginning of the your ride, the end, the middle, how the man keeps track of who pays and when I will never comprehend) 25 Dominican pesos (the equivalent of about 50 cents, they only take cash) in order to be dropped off somewhere along the route.

“EN LA ESQUINA, POR FAVOR!”

“POR FAVOR, DEJAME!”

“CUANDO PUEDA, COBRADOR!”

These are all ways to indicate that you would like to be dropped off the guagua. You have to shout at the top of your lungs to be heard from the back over the traffic zooming by. Once the car is stopped, you peel your sweaty legs away from those of your neighbor and disembark one of the most hectic rides of your life.

To someone who prides herself in her ability to deftly navigate public transportation in DC, this system reeks of pure and utter chaos. But what is even crazier about this system? It works. As I was leaning my head against the guagua to relieve myself of the stench of a particularly grimy passenger sitting next to me, I remembered the title of a story I had read by Carlos Monsiváis in my Latin American literature class last semester, Los Rituales del Caos, the rituals of chaos. Although the story is written about Mexico City, this title perfectly encapsulates Santo Domingo as well.

There is a method to this city’s madness. When I board a guagua I have absolutely no idea where it came from or where exactly it is going. There is no written map that shows the various paths around the city. There are no designated spots for passengers to be dropped off at. There are no ways to indicate a stop without the help of your own lungs. But at the end of the day, everyone gets to where they need to go, unscathed (as long as you were holding your bag tightly).

This moment shows something important about the identity of Santo Domingo and about why I chose this program. I wanted to challenge myself to be immersed in a nonwestern culture that was different from my own, that has different emphases and values. While here, I want to be cognizant of these cultural differences and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Santo Domingo’s cultural complexity will surely be a theme throughout my time here.

Peace.Love.Culture

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Mishaps and Marriotts: My Pre-Departure Misadventure

The first thing you should know about me, dear reader, is that I am largely incompetent. Charming, delightful, and amicable, sure. But incompetent. Undoubtedly, this will be a primary theme in my grand European adventure. But alas, this adorable trait of mine didn’t wait to cross country lines to rear its ugly head. Our story starts yesterday, at approximately 5:00 pm at the front gates of Georgetown.

I had just returned from leading an Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans with my motley crew of fourteen other Georgetown students. We went out for a farewell Tombs dinner, me alternately laughing at inside jokes and sulking at all of the fun plans and reunions in which I wouldn’t get to take part. The bittersweet goodbyes and punishing winter winds forced tears down my cheeks as I ran to my dad’s car. As the Healy lights faded in the rearview mirror, everything felt right. Symbolic, somehow. I had ended my first semester on a note of undeniable love and happiness. This chapter was closed and I was ready to move to the next. Until I was an idiot.

About halfway to Pennsylvania, one of my co-leaders from the trip called me. “I’ve found something that might interest you,” she said, “you left your laptop at my house.” I clapped a hand to my mouth.

I braced myself as the full weight of my Dad’s wrath crashed over me. Luckily for me, he’s a) quick to forgiveness b) used to my idiocy and c) easily bored in car rides, so his natural propensity for entertainment and conversation saved me soon enough. We turned around in a Maryland rest stop and make the drive of shame back to campus. So much for my symbolic goodbye. Instead, I had to weave my way through drunk revelers, sorely regretting the parties I was missing and wishing to God that I hadn’t packed my only winter jacket. I fetched my laptop and we arrived back in Pennsylvania at about 1:00 am, a mere three and a half hours later than anticipated.

The next morning dawned a steely gray sky shot with dark clouds. The world was still and quiet. Until my mom discovered how little I’d packed. The morning devolved into a panicked, stressful mess, my packrat tendencies prodding me to protest that yes, of course I needed nine pairs of shoes because what if I get in good with the Pope and need a fancy outfit, while my mom remembered everything I’d forgotten and my Dad alternately cursed at and fiddled with the printer.

Against all odds, we left the house at 2:00 pm, the perfect time to make my 5:50 pm flight. It was about that time that I discovered that I didn’t have a necessary Italian textbook (stay tuned for the outcome of this particular SNAFU). Other than that, my parents and I were in good spirits. I’d said farewell to my brother and sister earlier.

We arrived at the Philadelphia International Airport and did an uncoordinated but very enthusiastic celebration dance when the luggage we’d painstakingly packed (and unpacked and repacked ad nauseum) just fit within the flight limitations. The nice bag weigher people laughed at us.

We had lunch/dinner/whatever meal it is when Kate’s incompetence kept you too busy to eat at normal times at the Marriott Bar and Grill. I had a glass of wine because I am a newly minted twenty-one year old, and thereby very sophisticated.

We had a lovely time, and our farewells at the gate were teary. I love them very much, and will miss them these next few months- not to mention how much I’ll miss their constant rescues due to my aforementioned incompetence.

As I got aggressively patted down by the TSA security guard, my mind wandered to the winding streets and indecipherable languages I’d soon encounter by myself, without my two ballasts. These next five months will likely be filled with misadventures, mistakes, and aimless wanderings around some city or the other that I fail to navigate correctly. But just like this preparation process, I’m sure it’ll also be full of laughter, love, and very kind people. Ciao, America!

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When Your Flight “Aller Simple” Isn’t So Simple

“Are you sure you can get into the country with a one-way ticket?”

When my mum initially asked me this question two days before my flight was scheduled to depart, I brushed off her concerns. She asked what seemed like a million other questions about my semester abroad in Paris leading up to my trip and I was getting lazy about responding.

But about 15 seconds later, when it hit me that I didn’t actually know the answer to her question, panic set in.

I bought a one-way ticket to France because I intend to travel around France for a week or two after my final exams, but I’m not sure when my last exam will take place. I found a travel agency that offered me a $500 one-way ticket to Paris from San Francisco — near impossible to find, by the way — and gladly purchased it in late November of last year.

The question remained: Would I be denied entry into France or onto the airplane because I didn’t book a round-trip flight?

And so the roller coaster of emotions and the Google searches commenced. I tried typing “one way ticket student visa” and “france border entry requirements” and everything in between in French and English with very little luck. I browsed through travel forums and looked through the French Embassy’s website and couldn’t find a conclusive answer. My heart sank.

Luckily, I found some solace on an FAQ web page for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. Under the question, “What are the border controls going to ask for when I arrive in France?” it lists that holders of long-stay visas, which include student visas, will only be asked to show their passport and visa upon arriving at customs. I breathed a sigh of relief.

However, If your mother is anything like mine, she didn’t think this web page was enough — she wanted written or verbal confirmation from a real person. I wrote e-mails to the Washington, D.C., and San Francisco French General Consulates, but didn’t receive a response. I called my airline and the travel agency that I used to book my flight and their responses were either uncertain or suggested that I might not be allowed to board my flight. Panic ensued once again.

By the time my departure date rolled around, I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t know what to expect when I got to the airport. I printed out as much proof as I could that I only planned to stay in France until the end of this semester and intended to return to Georgetown to complete my studies and practiced explaining myself in French.

It turns out that I didn’t need to. No one batted an eye at my lack of a return flight to the States. Not the persons working at the check-in counter, not the TSA, not my airline. Two flights and one quick trip through customs later, I entered France without having to apologize profusely for failing to book a flight back to the States.

I got lucky. And while I’m grateful that I am safe and sound in Paris, the stress ensued reminded me about how I need to be much more careful when I navigate my way through rules and systems that I am not familiar with. I’m more mindful than ever of anticipating possible consequences while I’m abroad, being sure to ask questions well in advance of any situation and booking round-trip tickets. No more billets aller-simple for me for a while.

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Growing Pains

My departing flight from Havana to Miami left four and a half hours later than it was scheduled to, a fact that meant I was scrambling to get through passport control, customs, and to my connecting flight in Miami before it left for California without me on it. Fortunately, I made it to my plane in time to be one of the last ones boarding, and was even able to stop to go to the bathroom and pick up some food before the long cross-country flight. Even though that sounds mundane and maybe irrelevant in the overall narrative of my long day of travel home, those two little tasks actually stand out in my memory of the day because the hour that I spent rushing through the terminal to catch my flight was one of the most overwhelming in my memory.

Two of the ways that Cuba differed most from the U.S. were in the areas of plumbing and food. At least, those were the two ways that the countries felt the most starkly different because they were differences that I faced everyday, multiple times a day. For example, every time that I went to the bathroom I knew not to throw the toilet paper into the bowl, and not to be surprised or deterred if there was already waste in the toilet because there was no running water that day to flush. In the U.S., neither of those things occurs frequently, if at all. Or, with regards to food, it became the new normal to have limited options, variety, and flavors, whereas those are defining characteristics of the United States and its food industry in particular. So, completing the relatively mundane tasks of using the restroom and buying food in the airport represented my reintroduction into the American culture of efficiency, convenience, choice, and consumption, which also happened to coincide with the time of year that American abundance and consumption is at its height, the holiday season. However, because I was so pressed for time, I was unable to really process all that I was seeing, hearing, and feeling as it was happening.

My mind was torn between the stress of rushing to get to my flight, the intense familiarity of the whole scene and the intense discomfort of just seeing so MUCH. It was a complete sensory overload. However, the fact that I had to complete those tasks of using the restroom and buying food relatively quickly meant that I was forced to mentally channel my old habits from before going abroad and rely on those in order to get the tasks done and get to my plane in time. It was kind of like running on automatic pilot because I was completing these tasks without error but, at the same time, my mind wasn’t really engaged due to the fact that it was so desperately trying to process the overwhelming and unfamiliar scene. As a result, to my great frustration, I began to understand just how easy it is to slide back into life in the U.S. and all the comforts that that entails (i.e. fully and efficiently functioning bathroom, and a variety of food options).

It was almost as if all the habits I’d just cultivated over the course of the semester just disappeared or faded away because of how much easier it had just become to complete even the simplest of tasks. Even though I was extremely frustrated with myself at first for the fact that it was so easy to readjust, I soon realized that it was one final way for Cuba to show me just how privileged I am. This is because, at the end of the day, despite spending four months living in Cuba with all the hardships that doing so entails, I was ultimately able to leave, to go to another country that does have reliable plumbing and an abundance of food/food options, a privilege that many Cubans wish they had but will never get.

Therein lies the most important way that Cuba changed me. Namely, it gave me an awareness of my vast privilege and all the ways that it manifests in my life. That understanding about privilege is a powerful tool that will allow me to be able to make a positive difference in the world even if it is just on a small scale, such as challenging it within myself or in my daily life. It has become evident that even if I do get used to the ease and comfort of American life again, which I for the most part have, my heightened awareness of privilege is one thing that will never fade, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

 

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