Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rabidly excited

In a week I'll be going to India, for a wedding, with Partner in Crime Aheli. Being sensible (because I was forced) I went to a travel clinic to make sure I was all vaccinated and ready to go. Never mind that I will only be in India for six days, I was given five vaccination shots and two prescriptions for further preventative meds. So, more medications than days in the country. Whatever, I'm going to India!
I think the low point of the visit (and yes, this is a visit that includes me getting, let me repeat: five shots) was when the doctor gave me The Rabies Talk:
"Sometimes, countries don't vaccinate their animals against rabies, so there is a higher rate of rabid animals than we are used to here. In India, there are a lot of stray animals so there is greater chance that stray animals will be rabid. Now, I don't think we need to give you the rabies vaccine unless you really want it, but just know, there will be lots of stray animals, and you'll want to pet them, but don't since they might be rabid. If you do, and one bites you, you need to go get medical attention as soon as possible."
I'm not sure if I should be impressed by the detailed level of care, or if I should be slightly insulted that I look like the kind of person who will go pet rabid animals.
Although, to be fair, I may have stopped listening about halfway through to instead check out a really cool picture of a lion on the wall, so maybe this was justified. On the other hand, I know not to go pet lions (rabid or otherwise) either.
It's a toss up.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Just keep running

When I first got back from Scotland, I wrote that some of my best decisions have been made on a whim. This year presented a new challenge of sorts: I had graduated, I got a job, got an apartment, was committed to two weddings and a graduation – the year looked to hold a lot of responsibility, and not a lot of flexibility for ‘whims’.

Challenge accepted.

When I was in Edinburgh I ran my first Half Marathon, something I was fairly convinced I had no desire to do. And it was awesome. My support crew pointed out that the obvious next step was a full marathon. If I had never had any desire to do a half, a full was definitely not even on the table as a remote possibility. I scoffed, and went back to enjoying my Half Marathon runners high…and my epic post run meal at the all you can eat Indian buffet.

Fast forward to January 2011 when I was officially locked into all that grown up responsibility, and basically snowed into the city. I desperately needed a new adventure. I happened to read an article about the Best First Marathons and thought, well, why the hell not? It’s easy enough to take a weekend trip and it would be something to keep me occupied. My theory was along the lines of: This year I had to stay moderately grounded, and what better way to do that than running, making myself acutely aware of the ground and every forward step I took on it. Deep right?

Anyway, I chose the Marine Corps Marathon, put the registration date in my calendar, and when the day came, I managed to sign up in the 28 hours it took to sell out.

This was happening.

I had nine months to get ready, and ridiculously quickly it was October.

The Marathon Weekend was incredible. The article I read wasn’t lying, I can’t imagine a better first marathon. The Marine Corps knows what it’s doing in terms of organization and support, and I was amazed at how much camaraderie there is amongst 30,000 runners (plus spectators, plus Marines, plus…etc). Friday night there was the First Timers Rally, where experienced Marathoners were on hand to give last minute tips and encouragement. Saturday, was the Expo where we picked up our numbers and could browse dozens of vendor stalls (and stock up on a whole new wardrobe of Marine Marathon merchandise…not that I did that or anything…). A lot of Marathoners were staying in the same hotel I was and they adopted me for the trip to the Expo. When I thanked them, they actually said “Please, you’re one of us” and even better, they looked and acted like they meant it. Saturday night was the Carbo Dining in and another couple adopted me and gave me a run down of other marathons I should put on my “to do” list. I had heard from a lot of people during training that I’d possibly run one and be done, check it off my bucket list, and move on. OR, and this seemed too be the more common prediction, I’d be hooked. So it didn’t hurt to have some others ready for consideration.

Even though Saturday was a random snow/hail/rainstorm, Sunday morning was cool but clear and dry. While there was some stress (ok, a lot of stress) getting to the start, I finally found someone headed over, who happily let me come along. He was working towards fifty marathons in fifty states. He’d already done the seven continents. So, it was an interesting walk, and I managed to get to the start just in time.

Which actually was a good thing. While I would have loved to have a more relaxed morning, I was just so relieved to start running. It’s a little odd to think that the thought of running a marathon was the most relaxing part of the morning, but who am I to fight it?

Anyway, the course was gorgeous and the amount of along course support from random spectators and Marines was incredible (have I mentioned that yet? No, but seriously, There aren’t really words to describe the awesome energy on course). From mile 1-16 I was flying. On the recommendation of one of my many Marathon Mentors from the weekend I had decided to try wearing pace bands. Going in, my main goal was to finish, I really wanted to finish in under 5 hours, but secretly I was shooting for 4:30. Early on I checked my bands and realized, 4:30 wasn’t a stretch so I went for it. Anyway 1-16 were fabulous. At every mile I stopped (not literally) and thought, yeah, I would do another marathon. Miles 17-21 I could feel the distance, but was still loving it and knew another one was going to happen.

Mile 22 I decided I was perhaps ready to be done, but by that point, I almost was. Mile 23 I was not amused. Mile 24 I sadly passed the Dunkin Donut Munchkins food stop. I didn’t have time to stop to throw up AND break 4:30, so sadly the donuts did not make top priority (If I hadn’t been on track for my goal time, however…). Mile 25 I stopped thinking and just RAN. The final 0.2 was up a steep hill, and I’m not sure it even really registered because I had DONE it!!! (Ok, Ok, I felt that last hill. But I also told myself to stop being a baby, suck it up, and run damnit. So whatever.)

I crossed the line and pretty much almost burst into tears from happiness and a massive overwhelming high. Add the fact that I was being congratulated and thanked by Marines (when it really probably should have been me thanking them for everything), it was an emotional moment. And I’m definitely not usually one to admit to emotional moments willingly, so this was big.

I got my awesome warm shiny blanket, and my medal (!!) and took my picture in front of the Iwo Jima memorial. Next I was handed a bagel, banana, and Gatorade (Life is so good) and I walked to the Finish Festival. I collected my things (a random woman actually came over when she saw me with all my stuff, took my jacket and put it on me because she said I’d done enough for the day! Seriously, people were so amazingly nice), took a picture with the race mascots (Miles and Molly), bought a shirt that said “Finisher” (which I will now wear as frequently as I can get away with) and headed back to my hotel. Mission Accomplished.

I can’t say enough good things about this race, nor can I truly describe how it felt to be there. I can say that even at that worst mile, I knew this wouldn’t be my only marathon. And I think the quality of the MCM, and all the amazing people I met, had a lot to do with that conclusion. OORAH!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Frankenstein Incident

It was a dark and stormy night…

Maybe. Well, probably; it was Edinburgh after all! This was the Fall of 2007, when I was doing my semester abroad. For my Literature class I was supposed to have read Frankenstein to discuss it in my six person tutorial group. I say “supposed to” because this took place in November, which is Birthday Month so I was not exactly up on my reading. Anyway, because the discussion group was only six people, and it would be painfully obvious if I wasn’t talking, I needed to know something about the story. So, I read the Sparknotes, scanned a few key passages recommended by Sparknotes, debated the reality of “Birthday Magic”, and decided I would be fine.

I got to class before the tutor, and noticed one of the guys, let’s call him Hamish, (protecting the innocent) sitting there frantically flipping pages. He stopped long enough to ask me if I had read the novel, looked relieved when I said I had not, but went back to flipping and so missed the part where I said I had done a fair amount of research for discussion purposes. And then class started.

I should mention that I do not like talking in class. I don’t mind public speaking, and will, if not happily, at least contentedly, stand up in front of a room full of people and talk, but class discussions are just not my thing. I’m all for big anonymous lectures. At one point in my undergrad career, the goal was to have one thing to say in more than one meeting for a class in a given week. Shooting high, clearly.

So the day of The Incident, I was not expecting anything other than getting through looking like I had maybe read some of the book. The tutor asked the first question. I considered, realized I knew the answer and so spoke up. And I did not stop talking for the rest of the class. I don’t know what happened! Every question, I had a thought, a comment, an observation. By my second contribution I decided to just roll with it, by my fifth I couldn’t have stopped if I wanted to. By the middle of the class, the tutor would ask a question and look to me first before opening it up to the rest of the students! Then, disaster: Hamish answered a question. Incorrectly. But unfortunately for him, in Literature no one ever says the answer is incorrect, but rather something along the lines of, “OK that’s an interesting interpretation. Can anyone elaborate on another possible conclusion here?” Which is what my tutor asked. And then I was off again, contradicting what Hamish had said entirely and careening on to the next point. He looked at me with a look of confusion and fear, like “Why wouldn’t she just say she HAD read the book? What’s going on?!” I felt bad. Really I did, but I couldn’t be stopped.

I suppose you could speak to the fact that that’s what went wrong within the novel itself, charging ahead single-mindedly without considering the repercussions or the response of those along the periphery. Reanimation of a being made from the parts of corpses, alienating the one Scottish person in class….same story, different century. Or something.

Anyway that was my roommate’s opinion when I told her. She likened my literary approach to playing rugby, a take no prisoners, don’t look back, charge to the finish. Grab that ball/book and RUN with it. If you run fast enough people might even think you know what you’re doing! Ok so maybe she wasn’t comparing me to a GOOD rugby player. But then again, I hadn’t actually read the book.

I was thinking about this last week, when I went to Hideous Progeny a play by Emily Dendinger and performed at The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (Preview here - I ended up sitting next to the woman who wrote it). The play takes place in the summer of 1816, the summer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later to become Mary Shelley, gathered with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and others in Switzerland. It was a cold, stormy summer and so to amuse themselves, Lord Byron proposed a contest to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary came up with Frankenstein.

That’s the story I had heard, and despite my love of the book (which I did eventually read) I have never delved deeper. Frankenstein is fascinating in its Gothic structure, it speaks to the dangers of science without reason, and it promotes discussion of feminism and the roles of women. But other than the comparison of Shelley’s feminism with that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and who died soon after Mary’s birth anyway), Mary Shelley’s personal life is often left out of the discussion. This isn’t so unusual; while personal histories are fascinating, it’s important not to confuse them with motivations for writing. Yes, it’s difficult not to leave something of yourself in your writing, but it’s impossible to truly know where voice of the book ends, and the real voice of the author begins. While related, the trick is not to treat the two as one and leave it at that.

But the personal backstory is what Hideous Progeny looks to explore. If the concept of Frankenstein is like a novel itself, just call this another voice to add to the complex, interwoven narrative structure in order to offer a more comprehensive, balanced view of the whole (See Mom? I know more than just monkeys and pubs). Anyway the play was really good. While I might not be able to discuss it in technical theatrical terms that won’t elicit judgment from my actor brother, I can tell you that I am a harsh critic of portrayals of the books I love. I watch the movies because I feel I should, but some of the enjoyment is lost in the scrutinizing of the (often disappointing) set and casting. Harry Potter is the exception. Ella Enchanted, well, we don’t talk about that….

So anyway, for me to say the play was good, means I truly enjoyed it, in what it showed, what it implied, and what it questioned. It was the kind of play that leaves you (or me, at least) looking for more answers and not believing that two hours had actually passed. Lord Byron was incredible, played to perfection as the type of person Barney Stinson aspires to be. And this with a club foot! Which, by the way, the actor portrayed so convincingly, that it took me until the second act to realize that it was not in fact a real condition (I’m pretty sure, anyway).

As with most things related to my time abroad, watching Hideous Progeny brought about the standard “Wow, I can’t believe it’s been almost four years since…” moment, this time related to the Frankenstein Incident. The Incident, by the way, that led me to do my final for that class on the novel, and another paper about it the next semester (after finally reading it for real!). It was also incorporated into (/inspiration for) my Masters dissertation. That whole rugby approach thing. I can only hope somewhere Hamish appreciates it was nothing personal…

Friday, July 15, 2011

The return of Monkey Girl

The New York Times ran an article yesterday entitled “Baboon Study Shows Benefits for Nice Guys, Who Finish 2nd” (read it here) about how sometimes it’s good to be the beta baboon. Apparently they have lower stress levels than the alphas, who must worry about maintaining their alpha status. The article was an interesting one, and brought me back to my Animal Communication class last year. In Febrauary 2010, I wrote about how all of a sudden I was the girl with the random animal facts, most regularly regarding monkey communication and mating (the ever shocking Subordinate “sneak and rape”). Anyway, the class finished over a year ago and since then my new monkey facts have been few and far between. So, I’d like to thank the NYTimes for my monkey mating quote of the day. It’s been way too long since I’ve had one.

“They had fewer mating opportunities than the alphas, but they did get some mating in, more than any lower-ranking males. After all, when the alpha gets in another baboon bar fight, who’s going to take the girl home?”

Oh the things you don’t realize you’ll miss ‘til they’re gone…

Monday, May 02, 2011

Ethics in the Caribbean

Last Monday the BBC released a video discussing the ethical implications of tourism in poor areas:

Is tourism in poor areas ethical?

This was a question faced daily in Cuba. There, tourism is a growing, profitable industry. There’s just one tiny catch: the profits support the growth and cater to the well being of tourists so as to get repeat business; it’s hard for actual Cubans to get the benefits. There’s a reason the most desirable jobs are in that particular industry.

Compounding this issue of inequality is that it occurs, not just monetarily, but in actual access to certain areas of the country. Varadero is an area that is one all inclusive resort after another along a long stretch of beach, and in past years Cubans were not allowed access to this long beautiful stretch of their own country.

In 2008 this supposedly changed with the decree by Raul Castro that Cubans could now stay at resorts should they so wish (Cubans allowed to stay at tourist hotels). As the article rightly points out, this is a sweeping generous statement with questionable practicality, because when the country has built up the resorts to 5 star levels, how exactly do they expect the Cuban people to afford it? I know that change cannot occur instantly, but my group studied in Cuba a year after the resorts were opened to the public, and we still saw signs of the old practice, with little indication that things were changing. One of the women who was a part of my group, Courtney, regularly contributed to the Havana Times while we were there and she has some interesting thoughts on the subject (Resort life). Also worth reading is her piece about Valentine’s Day which highlights the continued discomfort of Cuban/tourist interactions (The strangest Valentine's Day).

The 5 star Melia Cohiba

Only a few blocks away, an un-maintained pool next to a park and track

Going back to the video, I found this so interesting because of two distinct experiences while there. We were in a unique position. Being students we were not as removed as tourists from genuine everyday life, but we were still given special treatment not consistent with the lives of the Cuban people; for example, our rations for a day were obscene considering what some people were able to eat. Importantly, while we did not consider ourselves tourists, that is what we appeared to be, the most obvious conclusion to the question of our identity. And while the following incidents were realistically not something tourists would regularly do, or have access to (our status as students getting us a “backstage pass” as it were), just the fact that we found ourselves in these situations while clearly being foreigners is why I find the above video so relevant.

On a weekend trip to Matanzas, we, on our air conditioned tour bus, rolled in to a small town – the name of which I don’t remember even being told – where we were released for 15 minutes to explore. It felt horribly intrusive, our large shiny bus parked in the middle of the street and letting loose a herd of 13 Americans to just “look around” when clearly this was not a town used to that. It would have been better (maybe) had something been planned, like a talk by a townsperson, or a tour of a local business, but just getting off and wandering made me feel like I was intruding, like this town's sole purpose was to accommodate my intrusiveness as I observed the local culture, not fully engaging the people as actual people. It was obviously a poor area and showed signs of decaying grandeur, and I feel like had the roles been switched I probably would have just wished the tourists would leave me alone to live my life without emphasizing the life I didn't have.

I say that maybe a tour would have been better, because the other occurrence that made such an impression was in fact a tour. As part of one of our classes, we were given a tour of a nearby medical facility/home that supported women with difficult pregnancies. Which again, was fascinating; so few people are able to see Cuba and here I was getting an inside look at the support offered to the women there – especially interesting in a comparison of healthcare systems. But here’s the thing, this was a home for women in difficult, painful, and scary situations, and the whole group of us, men included, were walked in and shown around. And it’s not like any of us were going into the medical field so while this was informative, it wasn’t directly relevant to our careers or training. Part of the tour took us in to actual patients’ rooms where we saw several women who looked as though they had been crying, and one woman spent at least ten minutes, during which she was asked questions about her care, trying to rearrange her blankets so as to cover herself better – something that should not have been necessary in her own room. As we walked around, our chronically insensitive professor actually photographed the facility and while I doubt if he asked permission, even if he had, how could they have said no? It seems obvious that they could have, but we were visitors from the US, representitives of the perpetuators of the embargo, and home to many who feel strongly that it is a good thing to have in place (even if we were personally against it). I feel like that’s an intimidating presence to be packed into a single facility and while it was obvious by looking at the people in charge (especially a few of the nurses) that patient care was paramount, it would be impossible to ignore the fact that this tour also had a large degree of country PR involved.

To me this demonstrates the danger not necessarily addressed in the BBC video in that inviting tourism may not be as welcoming as it appears. If the tourism industry is the most lucrative and offers the best financial benefit, who is to say that people are inviting the tourists in because they truly want them? An invitation is not a guarantee that tourists are actually wanted on a social level. Additionally, Cuba is renowned for its medical care and of course people in the industry are going to want to present the extent of this care, which is why as students we were given the behind the scenes look. But at what cost? In showing us the level of care, I think the integrity of the care actually decreased with the compromise of privacy.

I hope these issues are better met in the Brazilian initiative from the video. I hope in the subsequent two years they have been met in Cuba. It was incredible to see the things I saw while I was there, but I don’t want my experiences to been at the expense of people who are there permanently. That’s no way to create a dialogue, and certainly no way to move forward – a movement US/Cuban relations are in desperate need of.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Auto Adventures

Last week my tire exploded. Well, ok maybe not quite 'exploded,' but it sounded like it. And the hole in my tire was pretty epic if I do say so myself. Luckily I was not on the highway, luckily I could pull over onto a side street pretty easily to assess the damage, and most importantly, luckily, a random guy stopped on his way to class, talked me down from the minor panic attack I was having, and put my spare on for me, refusing to allow me to call AAA. In the rain.

I was amazed. In a city, and especially a city not known for its good temperament, he put off getting his coffee and instead stopped to help. I’m still in awe of that, as well as the fact that he wouldn’t even let me buy his coffee afterwards as thanks. Very Pay it Forward (from what I’ve heard; my movie watching abilities tend to leave a lot to be desired). I guess as mornings go, it could have been worse. Tire: RIP; Faith in humanity: Alive and well. Overall win.

As I was thinking about car misadventures, mostly while standing in the rain trying to look helpful, I couldn’t help but think about Cuba.

Cuba is known for its old cars. Picture Cuba, picture a snapshot of the 1950s, when cars were big, colourful, and had some solid cojones. Times have, of course, changed, and while the cars still have the attitude, the mechanics are not quite what they used to be. And they are primarily used as taxis, so I got to experience this first hand. My favourite car was a giant yellow boat driven by a no-nonsense woman who could totally have single handedly taken down the resident machismo. I was seated up front and watched as the gear shift jumped wildly about in an ever expanding hole through which I could actually see pavement. We kept a solid racing pace of about 30 mph, but the speedometer was flipping between 70 and 80. It took twice as long as usual to get to the beach, but the trip was easily the best part of the day.

Another day, we found a man willing to take six of us in a five seat car – one seat of which he was already occupying. This is, of course, illegal in any country, but especially in Cuba when on top of the grossly overpacked vehicle, he wasn’t even a registered cab driver. He said this would be fine so long as we pretended to be family in case a police officer stopped us. We looked around. Not one of us looked remotely alike in any way – except maybe in that we were all easily identified as tourists. But the price was right, the man was friendly, and so familia we decided to be and we piled into the car.

As we were driving (after the first time we were pulled over by the police, but before the second time. Whatever.), we noticed a car waving frantically at us, motioning that we should stop. Our driver rolled down the window and called across to ask why. The response came that it was something about a tire.

We pulled over. The driver got out. The familia followed. As the car was relieved of its seven person weight, one of the front tires just popped off, rolled a few feet and then tipped over as we all watched in some combination of confusion, intrigue, and horror. Our weight was all that had been holding the tire on. We were driving on a tire without bolts. What?!

Our driver, however, was unfazed. No matter, this tire may have lost its bolts, but there were still three other tires that bolts could be borrowed from. So in the most unusually appropriate demonstration of the political practice of the country, he redistributed the bolts from the remaining three tires so that the fourth tire could be bolted back on. Vive la revolucion indeed.

Except who knows for how long. The Cuban cars are, if you want to be overly symbolic and slightly cheesy, a good representation of Cuba itself: A snapshot of a previous time, with only a shadow of the grandeur, but with an immense pride and captivating presence despite the tragic beauty of the signs of decline. Confusing? Yes. If there’s one thing I learned in Cuba, it’s don’t bother to try for simple classifications: contradictions abound. Last week was the 6th Communist Party conference in which Raul announced that things are going to change, and while he stressed that this was not a move towards capitalism, the facts don’t make that clear. There are talks of governmental cuts in service, privatization of business, and shorter terms for officials, all of which have been met with a combination of intrigue, skepticism, and most importantly, hope.

As various news reports have stressed, it’s too soon to tell what will happen. But Cuba is strong, resilient, and resourceful. Throughout Cuba’s history the government has been inconsistent and volatile and political decisions, both within Cuba, and regarding Cuba, have been intricate, delicate, and occasionally just absurd. And yet the people cheerfully persevere, so regardless of how Raul’s changes affect the country, I know the people will cope and flourish.

Another win for ‘faith in humanity.’ Not a bad week overall.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How to Procrastinate Without Really Trying

So while I am trying to write the hardest paper of my college career, I might as well procrastinate my brains out! Why else would Facebook, Stumbleupon and Addictive Games have been invented?

Anyways, I figure now is the best time to share how to snag free stuff at markets and vendor places stalls things.

So as I mentioned in my last post, I just recently came back from Punta Cana. (Send me back! Its suppose to blizzard on Friday!) Where, as my friends and I took a 45 min stroll down the beach, we found a little shanty shop place! Yay! One of my favorite souvenirs to collect  is locally made jewelry or paintings if I can find them. So therefore when I see local markets I get really excited to score some cheap stuff.

To score free stuff:

1. Walk up to vendor with guy friend.
2. Start looking at bracelets and necklaces for said guy's girlfriend.
3. Engage in conversation with local.
4. While discussing with local shopkeeper that 'no you will not go home with him and why thank you I know I'm very pretty' ("don't kidnap me please!") have guy friend mention girlfriend.
5. As shopkeeper asks if you are this girlfriend play along, it will work to your advantage.
6. Hopefully, in response to the GF question, your guy will respond with "I'm looking for a necklace for my first GF, this one already got something."
7. If all goes well, shopkeeper will high five the guy for being such an awesome player and give you a free necklace for fully accepting polygamy.

There you go, free stuff! With only slightly compromising your morals and playing along with the locals :D. If this doesn't work, I find batting you eye lashing and telling people that you forgot your money at home usually leads to free things.

Good Luck!

Roll with it

I feel like I've been fairly serious and introspective lately. So now for something random and irreverent! But first, a disclaimer:

I’m not a mean person, I swear.

That’s important to make clear right from the start;  I could understand how there might be some confusion about that after reading this. Because ‘this’ is all about falling, or rather the best falls I have witnessed. Don’t judge, it’s common knowledge that as long as the person is ok, falling is funny. My family lives by this rule and often after one of us has done something ridiculous that lands them on the ground, you can see a crowd of concerned passersby crowded around, while the rest of the family is doubled over in hysterics. This is usually cause for glares of disgust from the passersby, and encouragement for the person on the ground to milk it for all it’s worth, making the rest of us look like horrible people. But the universe tends to balance out. None of us are particularly coordinated (except my brother who is a gymnast, but that just means he can fall in even more spectacular ways). So we get our laughs in while we can, knowing full well that next time it could be any one of us getting laughed at.

But for self preservation’s sake, this will not be about the falls occurring in my family (although there are some awesome ones). They read the blog and it would be remembered. But that’s not a problem, we have been witness to some pretty spectacular falls. And while I reiterate that I’m not a mean horrible person, I also can’t claim to be the concerned passerby. Family or not, as long as the person is ok? Totally fair game. I’m the one trying not to laugh until I’m an acceptable distance away. And I’m ok with that.

Oddly enough, both of my Top Two Witnessed Falls occurred in Miami (by which I mean Coral Gables, but Miami is shorter to type).

So here they are for your pleasure:

2. The Shorty Roll

Shorty’s is my favourite BBQ place. It’s in an odd spot, and not somewhere I’d necessarily choose to go had I not been told about it, but it is incredible, and if I only had one night to eat out while in Miami, it would be there. The food is good and the portions are large. I won’t ever NOT finish what’s on my plate…but I also won’t be able to do anything that involves any sort of movement afterwards. The Shorty Burger, which is everything a burger should be, was my first meal when I got home from Cuba, the pulled pork is Heaven on a plate, and my entrée of choice, and the fries and corn on the cob complement everything. They also make their own BBQ sauce. Absolute happiness. 

Inside the restaurant it’s family style seating at picnic tables. This is important. So this actually occurred at the epic first meal back after returning from Cuba. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Cuban food – to the point where my family is still not unconvinced that I chose Cuba merely as an excuse to eat rice and beans for three months (I won’t say that didn’t occur to me, but I maintain I had other motivations as well), but anyway, after three months there, I wanted my first night back to be something super American, and a Shorty’s burger fit the bill. So my brother and I were sat there, indulging ourselves, when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.

At a picnic table perpendicular to us, a man who was, well, ok he was rather large, the kind of person who looks like bbq is more than just an occasional treat, had started rolling. Yes, rolling. His legs trapped under the table, he couldn’t move or catch his balance, and he rolled backwards off the bench! Due to his impressive waistline, it truly was a roll and not a fall, and it actually happened in slow motion, almost graceful (a la the Fantasia hippos...). The general noise and chatter stopped and people looked stunned, with thoughts of heart attacks, I’d imagine, racing through everyone’s mind. But it wasn’t a heart attack, and he wasn’t even unconscious or anything. In fact, he lay on the floor, still holding his corn on the cob, looking just as stunned as everyone else that he was now on his back with his legs in the air. I’m pretty sure he had just leaned too far back and then the momentum caught hold and there was no stopping after that. Kevin and I quickly turned and took a huge bite of burger to avoid laughing out loud. The man rolled himself upright, and maneuvered back onto the bench. Embarrassing? Yes, but not enough to walk away from a full plate at Shorty’s.

1. Walk of Shame Wipeout

The other epic Miami fall occurred during breakfast at Einstein Bros Bagels, another staple during my Miami visits. I should also mention that we are not morning people in my family, so breakfast is more accurately brunch, meaning that we arrived, at the very earliest, at 10am. But that’s being optimistic. As we stood waiting for our bagels, two girls walked in, and oh my goodness they were quite the picture. They were so very clearly wearing clothes from the night before: ripped stockings, 4 inch (at least) stilettos, hot pants, tiny ‘going out’ tops, hair that at one point looked as though it had been styled within an inch of its life, but was now all over the place, breaking free of that extra hold, and of course, smeared raccoon eyes. My parents, brother, and I exchanged looks. We didn't know what was going to happen, but we were ready to watch whatever it was. What can I say? We love a good show with breakfast.

The girls ("This is such a walk of shame isn't it?" "Mom how do you know that phrase?") toddled around in their sky high heels, making their way to the front of the line and then over to wait for their bagels, right by us. We went from exchanging looks to avoiding ALL eye contact, because we are not subtle and would absolutely start laughing upon confirmation that everyone else was also thinking the same thing. Our bagels arrived. Kev and I started walking to the door while my dad waited for the other tray. And then: Disaster! With a loud WHAM, one of the girls WIPED. OUT. We’re talking legs sprawled, top askew (although thankfully still covering everything!), hair even more mussed, and raccoon eyes wide in shock, and then closed in embarrassment. The other girl, who may still have been drunk, wobbled around anxiously, while my poor father who was somehow right in the middle of this, tried to figure out how to react. Kev and I had to leave (sorry Dad) and stand outside while we burst out laughing.

We gathered ourselves slightly and found a table and parked ourselves. My dad came out and laughter resumed. Then the girls emerged. There were empty tables, but they went straight to their car. And ate inside of it. Where we could all still see them. Then they drove off.

SO many questions flew around our table. They had a car. Why, then, did they not go home to change first? Or why didn’t they go through a drive through? And if they were too embarrassed to eat at the tables, why not drive away before eating in their car only drawing more attention to themselves? And clearly they were dressed to go out, so had to have known that if they drove, they would have to stay somewhere over night. Why didn’t they throw an extra t-shirt or pair of sandals into the car for next morning? Or why didn’t they steal a t-shirt from whoever they spent the night with? …then my mom gave us the MOM look and told us to stop being inappropriate so Kev and I resumed eating. But seriously.

So there you are, my Top Two Witnessed Falls, that are still talked about every time we return to the scene(s) of the incident(s). I also have my Top Two Witnessed Collisions, but those will have to be saved for another day. My karma is probably already on shaky ground. And it's only Wednesday...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dos años

I feel like I've been talking about Cuba a lot recently, but it was such an awesome (as in the real, filling one with legitimate awe, sense) experience, and so unlike anything else I've ever done, that it's impossible to not think about. As I've mentioned, this is especially true in the months mirroring those that I was there, which leads to many "can you believe that two years ago I was..." moments. Today is especially bittersweet, because two years ago the semester was over and I was leaving Cuba. It's obviously always sad to leave a place you have been for a long time, and have truly come to love, but this departure was harder because we were experiencing the ultimate luxury unavailable to the people there: leaving freely. Additionally, we were leaving not knowing if or when we could go back, and what would have happened to the country in the interim. The possibilities are too numerous.

As part of the study abroad program at NU, it is required that you keep a journal to be submitted to the department upon your return. Cynically, I suspect this is to track the stages of "culture shock" as fodder for future orientations, but I have to admit that even though that suspicion is glaringly obvious through many of my entries, I'm glad I kept the record of my time there. I'm not sure I would have had I not been forced, as part of my resentment of the assignment came from having to waste time talking about my experiences, instead of being out experiencing more.

But anyway, in remembrance of the two year anniversary of my return, here's my original entry, written upon arrival back to the states:

March 29, 2009: Last Week...

So the last week was a blur. I spent it trying to fit in everything I hadn't done yet and buying all the souvenirs I needed and just soaking in the last little bit of Cuba before going back home.

I went to the Market in Old Havana a couple of days, ate my last Happy Place (Fabio)and had the best Mojito ever at the Hotel Nacional. I saw Hemingway's house and then went on an adventure to find Parque Lennon....and yes that is Lennon as in John Lennon of the Beatles. Castro felt that he was a fellow Revolutionary Spirit and so there is a little park that has a bronze statue of him sitting on a bench. Meg, Courtney and I went and posed with the statue ad were enchanted by a little boy, approximately 2, who could say John Lennon when asked who the statue was.

For one of our final (!) Music classes a group of rappers came in and they were so incredible and fierce. I went with Emma to Idalia's house and then we went to the Casa goodbye party. I went with Emma to the Havana Yacht Club out in Miramar and it was truly another playground for the rich and famous non-Cubans, a throwback to the days of Batista. I had to hand in my passport to even get though the main gates. I went to the beach one last time, had the most depressing goodbye party at the residencia, packed my things, got on a bus where we all sat sobbing, played my last game of Jose Marti, got on a little prop plane and here I am back in Miami.

Where did the last 3 months go?

I can't believe it's over. Cuba will definitely always be one of the best experiences of my life. To visit a country that no one else can go to, and speak a language I really couldn't speak before I got here has been amazing. I didn't know what to expect in Cuba and truly it defies expectations. Often I'm reminded of the Red Hot Chili Peppers song "Snow". The part that goes "The more I see the less I know, the more I have to let it go." Every time I thought I'd figured something out, I saw something else to completely throw off that conclusion. And the worst part is I don't want to let it go. I want to figure it out, but as we were so often told by Cubans, unless we were born there, and grew up there, we can't understand it. Even the people who did don't understand it.

So while I may not understand it I certainly won't forget it. I'll think more about the food I eat, the things I can buy, and I'll watch eagerly to see what Obama does and whether or not he opens up the borders. Which he should. I feel like I learned so much that I can't even begin to put it down here. Suffice to say that anyone who gets the change to have a similar experience should take it. It isn't easy. It's heartbreaking every day, but also uplifting and fascinating.

One of my favorite lessons? It doesn't matter what you wear. Wear anything. Wear stripes with polka dots. Wear plaids with flower print. Mix patters, mix colors, bedazzle it all and rock it. As long as you do it with confidence you can do anything. That lesson comes from the fabulous and fierce Cuban women who may not have a lot, but who can take on the world with what they've got.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I'm Back People!

Ok so basically this is another way of avoiding the dreaded Capping project every Marist senior has to do. Read:80 pages of torture by way of analyzing a company on everything they have basically ever done. Oh yeah, this is FUN people.

So I figure what better time to avoid doing homework crucial to my shmaduation (ie graduation, but this word is illegal in my house)?

For those who are not in the know, and I'll admit its usually me, I just got back from an absolutly fantastic week in Punta Cana. Think pink sand, aqua water and 85* weather. Yeah thats right be jealous :D

Lovely isn't it? Yeah I though so too, that was until I was shown my room.

I booked this trip with about 130 people from my college. Yes that is 130. So I realized going into spring break that our hotel my not be the 5 star gorgeousness that I'm use to seeing on the travel channel. I was not disappointed.

Barcelo Punta Cana was lovely from the out side, and from what I heard had a very nice renovated wing. My room on the other hand was rank. Think hairballs on the floor, scummy shower, and the lovely order of mold and mildew. Oh and I had to share it with my 3 other housemates, usually not a problem but with two rock head beds we were in for a few sleepless nights.

Now the room I really don't care about. Ok so it was gross, but I've stayed in hostels so I can tough it out. The one thing I refuse to compromise on is my food. If you can't tell, Steph and I like to eat, like to eat a lot, and like good food. The food at Barcelo, not so great. I mean its was edible for the most part, but a girl can only like on bread rolls and pasta for so long. Were on an ISLAND wheres the seafood and fresh fruit? My vision of sitting on the beach with a plate full of pineapple were sadly unfulfilled.

Other than the lack of nutrition and edible substances, Spring Break was awesome! The beach was sunny, the drink were strong (don't judge me mom!) and the boys were cute ;). Would I do it again? Yes. At Barcelo Punts Cana? Nope, lesson learned.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The TSA and Me

I think I might be the person who cares the least about the new airport full body scanners. Well, ok I thought that until I read Samantha Brown’s blog yesterday (http://blog.travelchannel.com/samantha-brown/read/what-are-the-worst-offenders-in-the-indignities-of-air-travel/) about how, not only is she not complaining about them, but she wants to try them, even asking to be put through it…after already walking through the standard x-ray machine Her view is that these controversial machines are the bane of every traveler’s existence and so how can she live up to her reputation as supreme travel guru while not having had this outrage inducing experience? That’s the very basic gist of it anyway. I only skimmed the first paragraph; I’ll go back and read it more fully later, but since I was already writing this I didn’t want to be accidentally influenced and come across as being a Samantha Brown groupie who thinks exactly like she does or something. I mean, I’d love to be her/have her life…but that’s not the point here.

So yes, I have not been through the full body scanner, which I think is a bit of a waste for the TSA because I just don’t care. And I could never care enough to go through the opt out pat down – I’d rather have people looking at my scans, then actually touching me. I guess listening to the reasons people give, I should care, but I just don’t. Sure it shows the outline your body, but it’s not like it’s a photograph (details: http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/ait/privacy.shtm and http://www.tsa.gov/approach/tech/ait/how_it_works.shtm - actually it kind of just looks like a melting Barbie doll…). And anyway, I’m a lifeguard with an unfortunate history of wardrobe malfunctions. I’ve lived through worse.

Additionally, I feel like with glimpses of 80s fashion making a comeback (oh the horror) people wear enough spandex that we’re not exactly hiding anything anyway. Spandex does not suck your ‘wobbly bits’ in, it just makes it so that everyone can see exactly where they are. And judging by some of the things I’ve seen people wearing, TSA cannot exactly be enjoying this slightly more explicit view. I’m more than happy to just make life as painless as possible for the both of us, with the promise of an exotic location (hopefully) at the other end of my flight.

Of course every time I’ve flown through a full body scan airport, I’ve been moved to a regular x-ray line. Sometimes I’ll start out in the body scan line (I just go for whichever line is the shortest and in general I’m too short to see what’s at the end of it) and twice now I’ve gotten to be the third person in line before an agent runs over and moves me to an x-ray machine. I wonder if it’s because I look so young and they’re worried about people kicking up a fuss about young, pretty (I suggest modestly…) girls being put through the scanner? Or maybe I look like I’ll throw a fit? I hope not. I wouldn’t. But either way, I am currently in the awesome company of Samantha Brown: I have not been through a body scanner…and I’m intrigued.

I guess I’m lucky. Not to jinx anything here, but I’ve had really good experiences with the TSA and have gotten to have some really fun encounters, however brief, with agents over the years (I should also extend this to include whatever is the British equivalent of the TSA). These encounters usually involve them commenting on the ridiculous pieces of clothing I chose to think are appropriate to travel in. It makes my time in line more fun, and I’m hoping it keeps them amused amidst all the cranky people, for at least a few seconds.

There was the time I wore bright pink , palm tree covered socks on the way to spring break. “You just wore those because you knew you were going to have to take your shoes off didn’t you?” asked the agent. “Added bonus,” I replied “I don’t need an excuse to wear THESE socks!”

Another time I was wearing my gold glitter wellies (not to be confused with the time I did an all out sprint through the Heathrow wearing said wellies). “Your wellies! They sparkle!” said the man in bewildered excitement, which was only enhanced when he saw Aheli’s red wellies following close behind on the belt. “Party boots,” I explained “I don’t want to leave Edinburgh so I needed to wear something cheerful.”

And most recently, embracing my inner geeky 12 year old boy, I wore my tshirt proclaiming me “Life of the party since 1985” with a picture of the green mushroom from super mario bros (http://shirtshovel.com/videogames-lifeoftheparty.shtml) . “That is an AWESOME shirt” said the agent, happily as he waved me throw the x-ray machine. Instant bond.

The only slightly awful experience was when after traveling/being stuck in the Charlotte airport for 30 hours, my friends and I got selected for further bag checks after getting through the initial security. But it was really more awful for the agents who made the mistake of selecting us. One opened my bag and had to duck aside as my deodorant launched right at his head, and the other asked my friend to take her belt off, whereupon her pants promptly fell down, leaving the agent standing awkward and uncomfortable. He needed her to put her arms up, but with her arms up she couldn’t hold her pants up, and he didn’t know how to handle that. What, they don’t go over that in training?

I feel like traveling is an inherently weird and potentially awkward situation. You’re shuffled through gates and hallways like gerbils, forced to remove articles of clothing and open personal belongings with strangers packed in around you, and fall asleep in odd locations and positions. I’d argue that I’d feel way more vulnerable with that last one than with full body scans. Sure, look all you want at my distorted digital outline, but please avert your eyes, or give me a quick nudge if I start to sleep talk!

In the end, I’m ok with the full body scans (and public sleeping) because I know they are steps in a process that will get me out and about in the world, and to me that’s worth it. So I put on my funny socks, strategically pack my deodorant, and accept that, if nothing else, I’ll never be short of ridiculous stories.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three Times Lucky

The start of 2011 has been pretty unique, in that it is the third place I’ve spent the months of January-March in three years; this year I’m in and around Boston, in 2010 I was in Edinburgh, and in 2009 I was in Havana, Cuba. While very cool to think about on a day to day basis, holidays in particular tend to present themselves as occasions to compare the three very different experiences I’ve had in recent years. This past week was St. Patrick’s Day week (yes, week) and it was impossible not to spend some time thinking about the different ways I’ve celebrated since 2009.

St Patrick’s Day has recently become one of my favourite holidays. I’m not sure when this happened exactly, but all of a sudden this year I found myself counting down to what would become, as I mentioned above, St. Patrick’s Day Week (SPDW). Not to say that the holiday isn’t worthy of being classed as a favourite of course! But I suppose it could be seen as a bit odd that I love St. Patrick’s Day and am indifferent about Thanksgiving. Never one to be normal…

Except here in Boston the love of this holiday is normal. Boston starts scheduling St. Patrick’s Day events early in the month so as to be able to fit in that much more celebrating. My SPDW started on March 12th with the 3rd Annual Irish Pub Challenge (9 hours, 9 pubs and lots of free stuff: http://tenontours.com/events/boston-events/irish-pub-challenge-2011/ ).

South Boston, a hub for the New England Irish population goes all out with The Southie Parade, which is often described as something you have to do ONCE…and then spend the year recovering from before realizing once is not enough. The week of St. Patrick’s Day, here, is a green wearing, bead collecting, Guinness drinking, city-wide event.

In Edinburgh, too, the holiday is celebrated in epic fashion with Irish bars Malones, Dropkick Murphey’s Biddy Mulligan’s, Finnegan’s Wake, and (part of) the Three Sisters being spaced just evenly enough that you never have to be without a festive pint on your wanderings throughout the city.

Hats and balloons are given out, cover bands (2U anyone?) abound, and the city joyously celebrates its nieghbour to the west.

Which brings me to Cuba.

According to a Havana Journal article from 2005 (http://havanajournal.com/culture/entry/tracking_down_the_celts_in_cuba_and_the_irish_in_havana/ ), an Irish population and culture in Cuba is actually fairly prevalent. I did walk past the O’Reilly’s pub in old Havana (mentioned in the comments) a few times, although it was sadly never open when I was around. Having just read this, I wonder what, if anything, was done for St. Patrick’s Day…because I can tell you for sure that mine was anything but traditional, predictable, or normal.

Despite the fact that Cuba and the US do not have diplomatic relations, there is a US Interests Section (baically an embassy except in name) in a prime location on the Malecon. The building is intimidating. It’s huge, well maintained, and has a scrolling message board on which it relays world news headlines to the people of Cuba.
Not to be outdone, the Cuban government has installed a set of black flags at just the right height to obscure the view of this board. So there you have it, a little piece of America: perched on the edge of the impressive sea wall, often with waves crashing over into the streets, in a large building with a flock of black flags whipping around in the wind in front of it. I should also mention that you are not allowed to walk on the same side of the street as the building, but are asked to cross by one of the many guards stationed around it, visibly tensing and standing to attention as they see people approaching. Ominous and foreboding on all counts.

But my fellow students and I were not so easily deterred. We were US citizens, and we wanted in! So with the help of a professor, we arranged a time to cross the street and meet with someone inside. Inside, by the way, which was not so impressive as the outside would indicate: sterile corporate America at its best.

The meeting was telling and frustrating all at once. So a few fun facts: Because of the whole lack of diplomatic relations thing, the US Interests Section is actually a part of the Swiss Embassy. Its purpose in Cuba is to assist with Cuban visas to the US, help US citizens who might be in trouble in Cuba (and supposedly they won’t turn you over to the government even if you are there illegally. I’m not entirely sure I believe that.), and try to gather information and liaise with the Cuban government with the goal of accurate policy making in the US. There are a few problems with this, the first being that in general the Cuban government doesn’t want to liaise with us. Nothing personal, they don’t really share too much information with anyone, although the US gets significantly less, forcing the employees of the USIS to gather most of their information second hand from other embassies. This was a little concerning because it sounds like a grown up game of telephone where we’re basing policy off of information that was not given directly to us, and therefore may have had some things lost in translation.

And that’s basically how the meeting went. They told us things that at first seemed to be encouraging, like the US trying to get information to improve relations, but upon closer look were less exciting than they first appeared, like having to get that information second hand. Also, the USIS runs Internet rooms for Cubans to access the Internet unhindered by Cuban restrictions. However, if you are seen entering one of the rooms it could negatively affect your career in Cuba. Worth it? Who can say. Finally one of the women told us that to do our part we should leave behind fashion magazines when we leave to let Cuban women see what they are missing and spread information. Personally I wouldn’t want Cuban women to be anywhere near trashy US Fashion Magazines. They don’t give a picture of intellectual America, but only commercial articles about clothes Cuban women don’t have access to and unhealthy body images that Cuban women aren’t bothered by. The Cuban women I saw and met are fabulous and have the most positive body image I have seen in my travels (wear what you want, and even if it is sequined bedazzled skin tight spandex…with stilettos, if you rock it, you look fabulous) and so that seemed an odd request on the part of the USIS woman. Also, when we asked how the USIS employees' lives were here, meaning day to day, she said “It’s very safe.” Well yes, after 2.5 months we weren’t really concerned otherwise. Disterbingly, USIS employees are not allowed to leave Havana (and yet are supposed to understand Cuba) and because they have to hire Cubans though the government, they have to be very careful what they say (even around their nannies) in case its classified. So basically after hearing all about the USIS, we weren’t entirely sure we understood much more than before. It’s not just the black flags that obscure the information coming from the building…

On our way out, we stood in front of the dark glass box to which we had submitted our passports upon entry. Out came our passports. And out came a flier. To a St. Patrick’s Day Party. At the Marine house. What? There are Marines stationed in Cuba? Apparently. The flier boasted of green beer and jello shots and looked like a frat party flier…but was taped up to a door in this pseudo Embassy. As with so much, we were intrigued and said of course we would be there. “Great,” said the woman showing us out (we still couldn’t see who was actually IN the darkened glass box), “It’s in Miarmar [muy rico] on [whatever] street. You can’t miss it. High walls and barbed wire. Very safe.” Shockingly, we were not comforted. As I observed to one of the other girls, “Is the barbed wire to keep Marines safe from the Cubans? Or the Cubans safe from the Marines?” Either way, much like the Interests Section itself: ominous.

Later that evening we arrived at the high walled, barbed wire, fortress in the fancy suburbs of Havana. How does one enter a fortress? Knock? We tried it. Knocking, apparently, works. The party on the Marine compound had started as a family cookout and was transitioning to more of a non-family party. So a little about the Marines in Cuba. There were nine of them stationed there and their basic duties include being bused to the USIS where they check passports and hand out visitor passes (and apparently party fliers) and being bused back to the compound in the evening. They are athletically trained by a former Mr. Cuba but beyond that they are not allowed to interact with Cubans. They do not go out. They do not leave the city. In the midst of this rich cultural environment, they had resorted to having a moustache growing competition for entertainment because they were bored. Despite the restrictions, they are expected to have some opinion about the country in order to report back. We did not get the impression that they particularly liked it there. “We have to be here,” one explained to me, “you know, because it’s such a threat. We also have people stationed in Russia, because you know, they talk about us.” Oh. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it the former Soviet Union that had strong ties with Cuba? And doesn’t the word FORMER imply it is no longer? And wasn’t it this breaking up of the Soviet Union that led to the devastated economy of Cuba? When we let them get a word in amidst our rapid firing of such questions, they asked what our lives were like there and were shocked to find out that we had traveled the country, both through the school and on our own, and didn’t have any security, and morever seemed unconcerned by the issues they found to be most crucial.

It was an incredible matchup of opinions. On the one hand we were hearing the standard line that Red Cuba is dangerous and threatening, and on the other was my group, singing the praises of the resilience and strength of a friendly population who make do with the hand they’re dealt. And over the years, from the time long before Batista, and through the present, they’ve been dealt a lot. Despite the free flowing green beer, it was a sobering conversation.

But that’s not to end this on a bad note. That was the beauty (and tragedy) of Cuba and my time there: the constant juxtaposition of ideas and encounters. We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day enclosed in the barbed wire compound of the Marines in a country in which I had never felt unsafe. My biggest concern in Cuba was that my Spanish was basic so if I were to get lost, my only hope would be creative gesturing. But I always knew that whichever unfortunate passerby saw me frantically gesturing first, would stop, struggle through it, and point me in the right direction. Piropos optional.

At the Southie Parade this year, apartment doors were flung open and people wandered freely. A friend of mine and I, looking for another group of our friends, made a lap of the completely wrong apartment without being stopped, before realizing we were on the wrong floor. I think maybe this is part of the reason why I love St. Patrick’s Day (week). From Cuba to Edinburgh to Boston, it ends up being a holiday that has conventions and traditions, but leaves enough room for constant new reinterpretations, often influenced by chance encounters with random people. My Marine day couldn’t have been more different than standing in the courtyard of the Three Sisters watching 2U, but both were pretty epic. And any holiday, in which the only consistent elements are epic adventures and lots of green, seems pretty worthy of ‘favourite’ status to me.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kick Him While He's Down

The idea of “Culture Shock” is one of my pet peeves. I’ll spare you the full rant, but I’ve always found the idea frustrating. Northeastern had a Study Abroad Orientation – that I had to go through TWICE – that focused on Culture Shock and coping with it (with very little about actually enjoying studying abroad!), but all I kept thinking was “But I KNOW I’m going to experience another culture. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t go. How is that in any way shocking?!” Of course the second time I was mostly thinking “Whose idea was to put this the morning after Halloween and WHY did I accept that last beer?!” But that’s neither here nor there. My point is, I want to experience different cultures when I travel, and the fact that they are different is not nearly enough to “shock” me.

Still the closest I’ve gotten to being culturally shocked was one of my first weekends in Scotland when I was there for the semester. I should note, for the sake of Scottish reputation, that this is probably not a reflection on the whole culture, and is most likely no different than in many, many other places. But anyway…

I was out with my two roommates, Aheli and Sarah, and we were just leaving a little pub to head back to the flat. Upon leaving, we noticed, across the street in an alley, a man face down in the gutter, groaning. So we went to investigate. He was clearly intoxicated and barely conscious, and most frighteningly, he was by himself. We scurried back to the bar to alert the bartender and see what could be done. The bartender grudgingly peeked out, handed us a glass of water to bring over, and said “Don’t worry, I’ll look out once in awhile to make sure he’s still alive.” Sarah, to whom I give credit for being WAY more responsible than I am, said this was not enough and so asked if she could call an ambulance. We went and stood near our passed out friend to make sure he didn’t die while waiting for help.

As we stood a group of intoxicated-but-still-conscious (barely) boys came by and asked why we were waiting. “We don’t want him to die?” “Well his friends left him so you shouldn’t be stuck with him. Come with us instead!” “No, we can’t leave him” “Maybe you should try kicking him…hey, yeah! KICK HIM!” We (Sarah) were appalled. “We can’t KICK him!” “…Flash him?” We returned a look of scorn. But hey, gotta give them credit for trying.

At least two more groups of boys ambled on by suggesting we kick him but, although that was getting more appealing by the minute, we did not. Finally a police woman came by and asked us what the problem was. We explained. She looked at him, bent slightly and looked a little closer…and then she kicked him. He stirred, and was soon sitting (relatively) upright. Our mouths dropped in (not so cultured) shock. Apparently the proper was response WAS to kick the drunks while they were down. Who knew?

I was thinking about this today having read a BBC article entitled “Mystery surrounds man's 15ft fall in Edinburgh”, full text here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-12566160 and short enough to be copied below:

Mystery surrounds man's 15ft fall in Edinburgh

Police are probing how a man fell 15ft (4.5m) from steps onto an Edinburgh street below.

The 22-year-old called emergency services at 0415 GMT after he regained consciousness in a pool of blood at the bottom of Slater Steps in Holyrood.
Police officers are now making inquiries including checking CCTV footage in the area to discover if he was pushed or if he fell.

The man is being treated at Edinburgh Royal infirmary for a broken thigh.

The last thing the man can remember is being at a local nightclub.
A Lothian and Borders Police spokesman said: "There is no explanation as to how he came to be there."

I love this article, because to me, there is absolutely nothing mysterious about it (apologies in advance for my irreverence should this turn out to be legitimately serious). The place he fell is so near to the Cowgate, home of trashy clubs, student dorms, seedy hostels and the alley where we found the man passed out so many years ago. A tour guide once told us that Walter Scott was born off the Cowgate and grew up in squalor. Even today, squalor is actually one of the best ways to describe the area on a weekend night (and the morning after).

Anyway, I imagine the fall probably occurred after a night of drinking (Clue: “The last thing the man can remember is being at a local nightclub”) and he either tripped on the many cobblestones the city has to offer…or if he was “assisted” it was probably just that he started to pass out, and some helpful passerby kicked him…out of the goodness of his heart.

Maybe the most shocking thing, is that none of this shocks me.

Me with Aheli and Sarah in 07...

...and again in 09. Looking exactly the same.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Groovy Kind of Love

I’ve always loved Valentine’s Day. Call it commercialized, call it a fake holiday created by card companies, call it whatever you like really, but a day in which pink and red are encouraged and chocolate is central is ok by me.

My favourite Valentine’s Days, counterintuitively enough, have been the ones when I’ve been single. And no, that’s not me being bitter or being a lonely girl putting on a brave face. Don’t get me wrong, the ones with the ex were good, but even then I went for the unconventional. We did the whole B&B in Vermont thing one year. That was ok. But the year we were both too busy to make plans, and instead, in between meetings, he ran (almost literally) by my apartment to drop off flowers? That one was pretty good. And the one with the blizzard where he rescued my Ugg boot from 5 inches of slush in the middle of the street, where it had gotten stuck, while oncoming traffic approached, and I hopped around nearby? Awesome. Uggs and slush, just call it chivalry of the modern day. With the ex, I didn’t want the over extravagance of the day; it seemed to cheapen what was supposedly the essence of the holiday by playing it up too much.

But now that I’m single? Hell, bring it on!

The day, for me, has turned into an excuse to do whatever I want, to treat myself. A little narcissistic if you think about it, sure, but if I needed justification (which I rarely do, but always have on hand just in case), I’m not above letting people thing I’m some poor, long suffering, lonely single girl who needs to do a little something extra on this day to make up for the fact that she is all alone. Am I? Well no, hardly, but whatever works…

One of my best Valentine’s Days was in Cuba. I started the day by going to the Havana Book Fair aka every English Major’s dream. Across the water from Habana Vieja the Morro fort was filled with books, and every space not filled with books was filled with people looking at books.

Posters proclaiming “Leer es Creer” were everywhere. It was just short of overwhelming, but, as my roommate (another English Major) pointed out, really incredible how many people were excited for books!

So that’s where my day started: looking out over Havana from the fort, surrounded by books and booklovers…and with a Coppelia (famous Cuban ice cream) stand right there. Libros + Helado = Love.

But my day did not stop there.

When I told my parents I had decided to go Cuba for a semester (and once they had realized that this was not idle talk) my mom told me that I had to see the Cuban ballet. It was not said explicitly, but very much implied, that if I did not see the ballet before attempting to return home, I would not in fact have a home to return to. So in the semester leading up to my departure, my mom figured out Google and my inbox was inundated with youtube clips and articles for me about the Cuban ballet. My dancing career ended at the age of four, when after a stellar performance of the “Good Ship Lollipop” I hung up my tap shoes and my Shirley Temple hair curlers forever, but even with my limited experience, I could tell that the Cuban Ballet is very much deserving of its status of cultural phenomenon. Tellingly, in a country where machismo reigns, male dancers are not considered any less masculine for choosing to dance because the training is so rigorous, and their athleticism is renowned.

The ballet is under the direction of Alicia Alonso, a truly inspirational figure. Early in life she had vision problems and despite several operations and years of forced bed rest she became a world famous ballerina. She's in her 90s now, but is still in charge of the direction at the ballet as well as choreography.

So anyway, earlier in the week I had bought tickets for the showing of Giselle on Valentine’s Day.

It was especially exciting that they were performing Giselle, because Alicia Alonso danced the title role in New York in the 1940s. I later found out that she had learned the steps after one of her operations when she was on bed rest. Her husband taught her the steps using her hands in order to keep her busy since she couldn't stand not being allowed to practice. Anyway, she was declared The Ballerina to watch after her performance in Giselle so the fact that I was going to see a performance of the ballet that was actually choreographed by Alicia Alonso was pretty amazing.

I got all dressed up and found a cab to take me to the Gran Teatro near the Capitolio. My seat was in the SECOND ROW. Then before the performance started, all of a sudden there was a loud cheer and everyone turned and applauded as ALICIA ALONSO herself came into the theater and took her seat in the balcony. I'm pretty sure my mouth dropped open, and stayed that way the whole performance. It was spectacular. Since I was eye level with the stage, I was basically on stimulation overload; I could see the steps, I could see the actual facial expressions of the dancers, I could see the costumes up close. AMAZING. I didn't get home until almost 11:30 and the show felt like it could not have lasted more than an hour…at the most. It was that good.

So that was my best Valentine’s Day. Other tops include last year, when I was in London for Allie’s 21st birthday, and freshman year when my roommates and I went to see Northeastern play in the Beanpot hockey tournament.

Actually, this year I went to watch the Beanpot again, and followed it up with a David Garrett concert the next day combining both low key and classy in a two day celebration.

So, Valentine’s Day: commercialized and fake, maybe, but ooh the possibilities…

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Venetian Life Lessons

Several times when I lived in Boston, the quickest route from my apartment to wherever else I may have wanted to go was an alley. This horrified my mother who felt I should be sensible enough to know that the extra five minutes around the block was not worth the possibility of being stolen. Sensible I was not, and I continued to walk through, although I stress that it was not that big of a deal. The pizza place I frequented opened onto the alley, and they knew me and so watched out for me, if only to see what stupid thing I would do next. My then-boyfriend’s apartment also looked onto the alley and if the walk was too sketchy I would just call out that I was walking through and to please come meet me. I’m positive this was endearing.

The problem is that I like quiet streets, especially ones hidden away in busy cities. Where my mother sees stealing potential, I see peaceful respite from the loud traffic and crowded sidewalks. This has always been a point of contention between us, from the shortcut I took back and forth to school in London when I was 13, to the time I walked around the other side of the castle my first day in Edinburgh, to the fact that I thought nothing of early morning runs (or afternoon walks for that matter) through the streets of Havana. Actually I’m not sure how much she knows about any of these. Mom, maybe forget you read this, ok?

I would argue (whether convincingly or not) that it’s worth it to occasionally ignore the warnings against random wandering in cities. Very rarely have I actually felt unsafe (and most of that was the fear of my mom’s reaction should she find out) and I think as long as you are not being stupid, beyond the actual wandering itself, these random trips can be some of the most rewarding. Luckily I tend to surround myself with people who feel the same way, so at least if I am wandering, I have other people with me. Never mind the fact that we are all short and look about 12, so being in a group hardly helps. But still.

Before our cruise in April, Aheli and I arrived in Venice a day early so that we could explore the city. Aheli, like me, tends to wander while travelling. She has also been to Venice before (albeit as a child) so we decided that we would not be purchasing a map of the city because it cost a whole two Euro. And why spend that on a map when you can get gelato instead?

Early in the day, this was not a problem. There were signs to the main attractions, and lots of good food along the way. We happily got a huge lunch of pasta and gnocchi followed by caramel gelato and sat ourselves in the Piazza San Marco to people and pigeon watch for a good portion of the day.

The sky was overcast, and so it started getting dark fairly early and we decided to be sensible and head back to the hotel. Now, both of us have a fairly good sense of direction, which combined, usually means we can find our way back the way we’ve come. And we did mostly, if you ignore a few extra loops around the Rialto Bridge. But I would argue that it is so pretty that it has to be seen from several angles to truly appreciate its beauty. Or something like that.

Anyway, we stopped spinning and were en route to the hotel when we felt something behind us. By this time the streets were less crowded and the sky was dark so we were on high alert. We turned, and saw nothing out of the ordinary, a few tourists, some kids, a man in those swishy track pants so popular in the 90s. Nothing special. We kept walking. But we couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed. We turned again: Different tourists, other kids, a man in swishy pants. Oh wait a minute…

Now we were definitely alert, and as we kept walking we realized that we weren’t so much aware of a presence as the sound of swishing coming up behind us. We stopped. It stopped. We took a few steps. Swish, swish, swish, came the answer. Was swishy pants man following us?! Before we panicked we needed to be sure. So we tested our theory:

We stepped: Step, step.
He swished: Swish, swish.

Step, step, step.
Swish, swish, swish.

Step, step, step, step.
Swish, swish, swish, swish.


He was! He was following us! We stopped, and turned ‘fiercely.’ He nonchalantly examined a nearby flower pot. We stayed where we were; it was a swishy pants show down. Finally, he had to concede and swished on past us, as we glared ‘menacingly.’ We waited until the sound of swishing had faded into the distance and continued walking.

There are several lessons that I could have taken from this: Don’t wander in a strange place, Always buy the map, Don’t go out after dark…

But I do all those things anyway. If anything (and you can’t convince me otherwise), my years of practice prepared me for this situation and allowed me to focus on being followed, while not being concerned with the rest. No, for better or worse what I came away with was: If you’re planning on following people, it’s probably best to make sure you’re wearing quiet pants.

Valuable lesson learned.