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There are surely enough travel blogs out there, but given how much travel I do and my recent hiccups getting home from Benin (eg., 5 day total delay), I thought I’d throw together some of the things that keep me sane and somewhat prepared when I’m on the road…. I normally travel to Africa and Latin America, so these ideas may not be useful to people traveling to other places.  I have geared them towards women, though they might be useful to men also…. Ladies, add your tips to the comments section!

Breasts, shoulders, thighs, knees and ankles. Do a little internet research before you leave.  Observe what local women where you will go are wearing in pictures or on other people’s blogs. Especially notice the attitude towards breasts, shoulders, thighs, knees and ankles. In many places, for example, breasts are not a big deal, but thighs are.  Keep that in mind when you pack and in your behavior when you arrive. Don’t wear tank tops/spaghetti straps if you don’t see local women wearing them.  Same goes for shorts and capris or tight clothing.  This may be different if you are a teenager and traveling with a group, but I still recommend against a lot of thigh action if you want to be taken seriously and to be respected.  There may be different dress codes depending on urban and rural, so observe that and be respectful, be smart.  And if you are not, don’t be surprised if you get unwanted attention.  Maybe not the most feminist thing to say here, just being realistic.  People will often cut you some slack knowing that you are foreign, but when I travel, I tend to go for respecting local customs over my right to self-expression in my attire.

Sweat – Not a nice topic for many of us, but if you are someone who sweats (I always envy those people who don’t) it’s a fact of life when traveling somewhere hot. You’ll often be advised to wear clothing made out of lightweight fabric, however this kind of fabric shows every drop of sweat. Skimpy underwear does not absorb sweat and that fact will express itself on your clothing, especially when you are forced to sit in a hot car, meeting or community for several hours.  Not attractive.  Cotton boy shorts are a good alternative to the sexier variety of under things, as is clothing made out of thicker fabrics.

And speaking of undergarments – I get really annoyed when I see young women who, in the name of modesty or fitting in with local culture or just being hippy backpackers wear long flowing skirts without realizing that they are completely see through when walking in the sun! Do us all a favor and invest in a slip.

Tattoos.  You may get stared at for having visible tattoos.  You’ll want to decide how you feel about that.  I normally keep mine covered until people get to know me a bit so that any judgment comes later in the relationship. Since a lot of Americans have them these days, it’s also kind of fun to explain that tattoos are part of our coming of age ritual.

Packing – If you’re a frequent traveler, keep a second set of travel stuff right in your suitcase.  I keep a plastic Ziploc bag with less than 3 oz. quantities toiletries in it and just refill them before I leave and stash them on the top of my carry on for easy removal at security check points.  I keep all my favorite warm weather travel clothes in my suitcase. I have a checklist that I run through before I go to add anything that’s missing.  Makes for much easier packing.

Luggage – Put some identifying marks on your luggage so you can spot it when you arrive.  Assume it might be delayed by a day or so, and be prepared in case it is.  I do this by always packing any equipment, a change of clothes, and any essentials in my carry on.  This includes a small quantity of any printed materials I need if I am presenting at a workshop, just so that I won’t be left hanging.  I always take my laptop.

Travel socks – They are dorky but they keep your ankles from swelling and you from looking like you have tree trunks for calves upon arrival.  They also help prevent a potentially fatal condition (deep vein thrombosis) where blood clots form due to long flights.

Shoes – If the climate is hot your feet may swell and your shoes will be tight, especially if you are walking or standing a lot. This is most pronounced in the evenings.  Bring shoes that are a bit loose to be more comfortable.

Flip Flops – I wear them whenever I can get away with it, but sometimes they are seen as a sign of disrespect.  If you’re on any kind of trip where you need to do business or represent at any kind of function, or train a group, bring some sandals that don’t look like flip flops, at least for the first couple days. Do bring the flip flops for sketchy showers.

Sarong – Pick one up somewhere next time you see one.  They double as a scarf for freezing plane trips, and a skirt for when your luggage gets lost, you want to visit a pool or beach, or you need a cover up in a pinch, like if you have dinner in your room and want to throw something on to cover your shorts/your thighs when your meal or beer arrives.

Coffee press – If you are a coffee addict and are traveling to a country that produces wonderful coffee, rest assured that you will be served none of it.  You will get Nescafe.  I bring my own travel coffee press (pick one up for cheap at REI) and some ground coffee.  You can almost always get boiled/hot water.

Food – If you are vegetarian, pack granola bars, a jar of peanut butter, some chocolate, and some of those little cheese hunks wrapped in red wax… they last up to a week or 2 without refrigeration (if you’re not squeamish), and taste really good after a few days of full-on starch meals (eg., vegetarians often get a plate of bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and green plantains for lunch and dinner and some more bread for breakfast).  Try to make friends with your hotel or workshop venue cook and ask if they could make you some beans or cooked vegetables.  Make sure you don’t refer to yourself as a vegetarian without giving some suggestions of what you do eat, or you may get raw vegetables and salad which often lead to amoebas and giardia.  Buy some fruit when you see it. Bring a knife from home to cut it up and be sure to wash and dry it well before digging in.  Fancy hotels will often have no idea how to feed you so look forward to a lot of French fries and omelets.  Local hotels or hosts will usually make an effort using what they have available.  Don’t assume that your fancy hotel food is safer than other food.  Different bacteria is different bacteria and your system just may need to adjust.

Bottle opener – Light, easy to pack, and a life saver when you have to buy your beer in advance or want to drink it in your room on a hot evening.

Ziploc baggies –Freezer size zip lock baggies seem to always come in handy for something.

Flashlight.  A small flashlight is useful for frequent power cuts. Especially for visiting bathrooms outside your sleeping area at night.

Towel – Often small hotels will not provide towels, or will give you a non-absorbent hand towel.  If this is a problem for you, bring your own towel.

Mosquito net – You can never count on a mosquito net.  Do yourself a favor and purchase your own.  I bought my own self-standing mosquito net (a “travel tent”) which has been a life saver.  Light weight and convenient, it sets up on any single bed or even on the floor.  It means you get sleep without being woken up by mosquitoes buzzing in your ears, and you can avoid taking malaria pills (well, unless you’re working for an organization that makes them mandatory….)

Laundry soap/clothesline – I usually pack a clothes line to string up in my hotel room, and a baggie of powdered laundry soap.   You can also get these when you arrive. You can pack lighter if you wash things out in the evening. If you’re in a hot climate they will dry in less than 24 hours.  When Air France lost my bag in Togo, I made it through 9 days by washing in the evening and re-wearing in the morning.

Water – If you see a bucket in your room, it is a sign that the water goes off.  Keep it filled or you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when you go to take a shower.  There’s quite a talent in toilet flushing with buckets.  Experiment and soon you will learn how to economize on water use and keep the bathroom area clean as well. I got through each day in rural Rwanda on one jerry can by being smart about re-using my bathing water for the toilet, etc.  Get a plastic cup at the market to make it all easier.

Candles – Same as a bucket – candle in your hotel room means that the power goes off fairly often – be prepared.  Charge up all your stuff whenever there is available electricity.

Electricity adaptors – Often your room will have only 1 or 2 outlets, (if at all when you’re out somewhere really rural).  A 3-plug + an adaptor are handy for charging up 3 things at a time instead of juggling them one after the other.  Google “electricity converter” or “electricity adaptor” something like that before you leave and get some plug adaptors of your own. It gets annoying when people are always asking to borrow yours, and your hotel will not have them unless you’re traveling in high style.

Check in – Check in on-line if you can.  If not, get there early enough to get a window seat on long flights.  Don’t expect any special attention unless you are wearing a fancy suit and a big watch.

Airport pick up – Assume that no one will be there to pick you up from the airport.  Maybe this is just an issue with my organization, but it happens quite often.  Before you leave, be sure that you write down the address and phone numbers of your office, any contact persons, and your hotel.  (I once arrived in India without this information…. not wise).  This is also helpful to keep handy when filling out paperwork at the airport upon arrival.

Flight delays and ticketing – Be aware that once you purchase your ticket, Orbitz and the like won’t help you much as they transfer the ticket over to the airline systems.  I found out last week when stuck in Benin for 4 extra days that your ticket will not have a phone number on it, or it will be an 800 number, which only works in the US.  Try to get a non 800 number before you leave in case of anything.  When in a real pinch, send out pleas for help on Twitter and the community will get you the phone numbers you need.

Cash – Some places only change $20 bills or less.  Other places give a better rate for $100 bills.  Do some research.  Change money in the airport when you arrive if the agencies are still open. Assume you may not have access to an ATM when you arrive.  Assume your hotel may not have cash to change money for you when you need it.  Assume you will wait for 2 or 3 hours at a bank to change money, and will need ID to do it.  Know that every time you ask your organization’s driver to do these types of things for you, you are probably ensuring that his day is that much longer. (Drivers in my experience have the worst rap, always having to arrive before everyone and leave after everyone’s all taken care of, and they don’t get any recognition for their work).

Communications – Get an unlocked cheap phone and buy a local SIM card and some airtime on arrival.  Check before you go which network has 3G or Edge if you plan to use it for internet.  Download the software to connect your phone to 3G internet before leaving.  If you travel often, it can be worth the money to invest in a phone that connects to internet.  If you are a Twitter or Facebook freak, install Snaptu for Twitter/Facebook on your phone.  Outlook doesn’t work on all phones, so I do an out-of-office reply giving people my phone number for emergencies.  I create a rule to auto-forward my work email to my gmail.  If you use an i-phone and want to get some extra mileage out of it on the plane/before you jump into local phone/local SIM mode, Duracell makes a $17 charger that gives you an extra 3 hours.

Medications – I don’t like taking medicine.  I do however have a prescription for Ambien for sleeping on flights. That means I can sleep all night on a plane, get some coffee when I arrive, and get straight to work, and I can avoid arriving a day or so early to acclimate.  Never take a sleeping pill before your flight is in the air in case you have to deplane!  Get a prescription for Cipro before you go.  Take it if you have a bad stomach w/fever for a couple days. Then eat lots and lots of yogurt when you get back home as Cipro depletes your good stomach bacteria.  (*Note – I’m not a doctor and am not giving medical advice here, just telling it like I do it!).

Malaria – I never take malaria pills.  They make me tired and nauseous which means I can’t work, so what’s the point?  And the pills prescribed by your doctor at home may not be effective for the zone or area that you are traveling to because of how the disease evolves.  Decide for yourself, but if you are careful, you can get by without them.  (Again – I’m not taking responsibility for this if you follow my advice and you do get sick).  I prefer using my mosquito net, wearing long pants/long sleeve shirts in the evenings, and using hard core bug spray on exposed skin.  Beware that many bug sprays will eat through nail polish.  My toenails normally look like there is chewed up gum residue on them by the time I get home.  Dark clothing attracts mosquitoes so be aware of that.  Don’t be surprised if sometimes there is a cloud of them swarming over your head if you have dark hair…..  Never take Lariam.  I know of a couple cases where the side effects caused permanent psychological damage to colleagues.  I don’t really know why it’s still prescribed actually.

Marriage proposals and unwanted attention – I could write a whole book on this, but in an effort to be succinct….  Ladies, if you are under, say, 30, don’t be surprised if you get your fair share of suitors.  If you are over 30 and divorced or single, expect some attention from 20-something young men who imagine you to be desperate and lonely.  If you’re interested, by all means, go for it, but protect yourself just like you would when you’re at home. Don’t take any excuses.  Condoms are readily available just about anywhere, or better yet, always travel with some.  If you are American, you will likely have a reputation for being loose (thank you Hollywood and MTv) [note: adding “and all the ‘Western’ women who have helped confirm that stereotype“). If you are divorced, people may pity you.  If you are married or in a relationship, some men will still try to pick up on you.  (In El Salvador when I’d say I was married, men would often say “It’s ok, I’m not jealous”).   If you are not interested and the attention you are getting is not overly offensive, take it in stride.  Don’t be rude, but do be firm.  Deflect lightly when possible and move on, it’s OK to say no. Sometimes you may want to keep your phone out of sight so that you can pretend you don’t have one if you keep getting asked for your number.  If the attention is scary and threatening though, do whatever is necessary. As anyplace, be safe.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something…. Add your comments below.

Update:  Here’s a great post by Scarlett Lion:  What to bring and not bring when traveling to Africa.

Related post on Wait… What?

Getting screwed by Orbitz.

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For the past couple years, I’ve been supporting the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) project in 6 African countries. One of the best things about being involved in the project is the opportunity to work with some incredible people who are developing the program strategies and implementing YETAM on the ground.  Bedo, the child media program coordinator in Plan Mali, is one of those people I’ve been lucky enough to work with.  He’s kind, gentle, thoughtful and soft spoken yet solid in his opinions and knowledge. His face totally lights up when he’s working with the youth. He has clear vision and gets things done, writes excellent reports, and isn’t afraid to clarify things if he’s not sure he’s understood correctly.  It’s been a real pleasure working with him. On Friday, Bedo told me about some of the short-term positive results that the Mali team is seeing in the YETAM program there, which I’ll summarize below. Photo: Bedo in December 2008 at the Social Media for Social Change Workshop in Kenya.

YETAM
The YETAM project aims to help youth develop their skills to communicate, educate and advocate at local, national, and global levels about issues impacting on their lives using the arts, traditional media, and new media tools.The project methodology consists of hands-on workshops and activities where youth can improve their communication and analytical skills in order to effectively raise their viewpoints and enter into dialogue with families, peers, community members, decision makers, and the general public. Youth go through a process of participatory mapping, discussions to prioritize their key themes, topics or issues. Then they learn to use arts and media to get their messages across to those that they want to engage in helping them find solutions. To date the project is being implemented in 6 countries in Africa (Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Rwanda, Kenya and Mozambique).

YETAM in Mali
In Mali, around 60 children and youth in a community in the Kati District have been involved in the YETAM project for about a year and a half so far.  In an initial workshop, the youth raised a number of issues through participatory mapping. They researched, investigated and developed opinions on these issues further through song, poetry, theater, photo and video, and later in the process, prioritized their most important issues:

· many children do not have birth certificates
· rural exodus
· violence at school
· excision (female genital cutting).

Integrating YETAM into school curriculum
Following the prioritization of their topics, youth began an education effort around the 4 themes with the local population and local authorities from their village and surrounding villages. As part of this effort, six school teachers were appointed by local school authorities to support the youth and supervise extracurricular activities around the youths’ 4 themes. They were trained by local consultants and Plan Mali staff on participatory methodologies using arts and media as participation tools.

During this training, teachers learned to adjust their teaching styles and to address the 4 topics not as lessons taught in the classroom, but as information sharing and advocacy topics through drawings, poetry, crafts, dance, and theater. New students joined the small arts groups according to the type of activity that they were interested in.  Students who had been involved longer supervised and trained newer students and helped integrate the program within the school.

In addition to the arts, youth and adults worked together on several short drama films. One of these was about female circumcision. It discusses the medical complications of circumcision in a married woman during her 1st birth. The complications were due to excision, done in infancy, and resulted in vesico-vaginal fistula. Rejected at first by her husband, the woman is eventually accepted after the husband’s becomes aware of the existence of appropriate care (free in Mali) and the commitment made between spouses at marriage.

Engaging the public and local authorities through arts and media
Through the training workshops and the production of the different arts and media materials, youth were able to form their own opinions, messages and ideas for solutions to the issues that they had prioritized.  They organized a public event in the community where they performed their drama, songs and poetry pieces, showed their film, and held a panel with local authorities to discuss how to improve the four areas that they had identified.  Photo:  youth performing a drama piece in the village.

Short term results to build upon
According to Bedo, “Integrating the YETAM methodology with the school environment enabled teachers to learn to address and manage issues with children and youth in a participatory way. The education methods have changed and the student / teacher relationships have become less tense, especially when it comes to discussing subjects such as violence at school or practice of female circumcision.”

Bedo explained that “the introduction of the ‘violence in school’ theme by the students initially caused some frustration among teachers. At first, they felt directly targeted. But when we integrated the teachers into the process, their frustration dissolved and trust began to grow between students and teachers because teachers are discovering another way to teach and discuss sensitive issues – they are behaving as coaches.”  Bedo also said that since the discussions took place at the school, the education authorities have become more interested in the topics and the project.

“At the community event,” said Bedo, “the mayor declared that the council was taking all steps to ensure that all children have birth certificates.  He also addressed the migration of young people from the rural to the urban areas, saying that one of the main reasons is lack of employment. He promised to create jobs to reduce the mass exodus of young people.” Photo: Children interviewing local authorities.

One of the most extraordinary things that happened as a result of the youth’s education and advocacy, according to Bedo, was that “the village chief also made a pronouncement….  He announced that ‘The practice of female circumcision is part of our traditions. As it has adverse consequences on the health of women, I have decided to end female circumcision in the village.’”

Teachers are engaged
Teachers have been happy with the new ways of teaching and the integration of the YETAM project within their school curriculum. One teacher told Bedo that “there have been developments in many areas, especially in the areas that teachers and students developed together – birth registration, rural-urban migration, female circumcision and violence at school.”

The teacher explained that the youths’ messages have extended to parents and those who practice these phenomena.Those who practice circumcision have pledged they will stop it. Corporal punishment is now prohibited by school rules, because we now know that violence undermines the intelligence of the child. The teachers have agreed to end it. They are ready to make every effort to pass the message of awareness among their colleagues so that together we can make every effort to end school violence….”

Youth see concrete results
Participating children also commented that they think that there have been improvements due to the project’s integration into the school. One 14 year old participant in the project said “With this new formula of YETAM, the suffering of children through corporal punishment in schools and the harmful practice of female circumcision has decreased. Before, we children, we could not stand before the public and parents to discuss the subject of female circumcision, but now we can do it. This has greatly reduced the practice of female circumcision. In our village, many people practiced circumcision, but now they say they will stop because they have learned from our messages about the harm it causes.

Another participant, who is 12 years old, commented that “with YETAM, teachers have ceased to beat us in school. Many of our schoolmates have their birth certificates. We are noticing an improvement in our situation.

Next steps
Bedo says that given the positive impact so far of the project, they will ask school authorities to institutionalize an annual special day for each of the 4 topics.  They will continue to support the work that the youth are doing and try to involve more youth, teachers, community volunteers and surrounding villages in this type of project.  Plan Mali also has plans to conduct a participatory assessment with stakeholders to evaluate the project so far and learn how to improve it.

Within the next month or so, the overall project website will be complete, and the maps, art work and videos of all 6 participating countries will be uploaded so that youth can connect with their peers in Africa as well as share ideas with youth in non-African countries.  A curriculum for teachers and youth groups based on the arts and media work that the youth have done around their priority topics is in the works and will be available for schools in the participating countries.


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