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Since when did student travel become an opportunity for civil disobedience?

When my friend Sinan brought his art to Turkey, his homeland.

Sinan came to Minneapolis for grad school and is currently a computer science Phd at the U of M, specializing in technology applications for the collaborative arts. Which means he uses high tech gizmos to bring art into communities. He prefers video projectors because they have the power to display videos, images, and animations on practically any urban structure.

Born in Bergama, Turkey, Sinan grew up near the  west coast of the Aegean Sea. But during his adolescent years he left Bergama for Istanbul. “[I] fell in love with that city,” he said. “When I think of home, I often think of Istanbul.”

Sinan recently returned to Istanbul with a group of fellow artists to participate in the Istanbul Pride march. “Pride is a big deal in Istanbul,” he said. “Many people from all around turkey come to the political events, panels, the march, etc.” Sinan was there to support his gay community, alongside anti-fascists, anti-militarists, people against violence, feminists, leftists, Marxists, and worker unions. He did his part with video projectors. “Projections were another way of getting our message across,” he said.

Every year, the march ends at Galata tower, a monument built by the Genovese in the 14th century. That was Sinan’s target. “We projected some artistic content related to queer issues on the tower,” he said. Since we didn’t have permission (there is no way, they would give permission) it caused some tension.” The police were called, but they didn’t know where to find the ghost vandals. Sinan was hidden in a building across the street, projecting images out a window.

This political intervention wasn’t school sponsored—Sinan didn’t have the academic policy monkey on his back. He took it upon himself to bring his studies to the streets. If you’re interested in his direction, but want to keep things legal, there are plenty of study abroad programs centered on social justice.

Sinan and his team were eventually caught, but there were no arrests. “At the end things magically got resolved” he said “An officer even secretly told us that he thought the projections were cool.”


My next-door neighbor sleeps five feet away from me. We both live on the second floor of adjacent duplexes. Our windows face each other.

I finally met the guy behind the curtain last week during a grill-out party. His name is Ahmed Omar, and he goes by Mido.

He’s a 26-year old veterinarian studying animal viruses at the University of Minnesota; here for the research portion of a Masters project he started in Egypt, his homeland.

Interviewing him was easy. We just opened our windows and started talking.

I asked Mido to describe some general differences between Minneapolis and his home in Cairo. He first cleared up two common American misconceptions: Egypt is not one big desert and the main mode of transportation is not camel.

“Cairo is similar to Minneapolis,” he said, “We have twin cities, Cairo and Giza, and we have the Nile river that runs between them.”

Although Cairo crushes Minneapolis on the population scale—13,300,00 to 382,618—Mido said Minneapolis is more culturally diverse. In Cairo, Arabic is the dominant language and Islam the principal faith. The  houses are larger, too, yet due to crowding, most have been carved into numerous apartments.

Egypt and the U.S. do share one aspect: an obsession with sports. “We have the same things for fun,” Mido said. Though the other type football, soccer, is more popular. Egypt has won a record seven championships in the Africa Cup of Nations.

Moving to the other side of the Earth was a challenge for Mido, to say the least. This was his first time outside Egypt, so Minnesota might as well be another planet.

The cold was a shocker he said. Egypt is one of the hottest countries in the world, and he came here this past January.

But adjusting to this place meant more than buying a winter coat. “Another challenge I have faced here is being a Muslim,” he said. “I didn’t find many mosques to go to and pray.” He’s right. According to Google maps, there are only four Mosques within a five-mile radius of the campus.

Then there’s the language barrier:

“The first month [here] was really hard, because I had no friends,” he said. “How do you ask someone to be your friend? In Egypt, it’s easier. Same culture. Same language.” Having only studied British English, the Midwestern accent probably doesn’t help. Nevertheless, Mido remains positive. “The people are so nice here,” he said, and “the language problem will be solved over time.”

While Minnesota doesn’t have the Great Pyramids or year-round warm weather, Mido has been struck by one Midwest wonder: The Mall of America. “It’s very huge and very great,” he said. “It’s the best thing I have seen until now.”

Hong Kong

I know of one way to see the world without a study abroad program.

My friend Jamie, a 22-year-old American studies major at Yale University, is a singer and was a part of the a cappella group The Yale Spizzwinks(?) (Yes, that’s how it’s spelled—question mark, too.).

In May 2007, the Spizzwinks(?) toured China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam. In tailcoats and peak lapels they rocked high school auditoriums and downtown nightclubs.

And the praise they received was unforgettable: At a high school in Shanghai, students presented the group with a large banner of a Spizzwinks(?) publicity photo, blown up life-size. “It was a bit un-nerving to say the least,” Jamie said. “Our reception over there was unlike anything we received in the States… they treated us like rock-stars.”

Yet there were no mosh pits. “I think the most amazing thing was how silent they were during the show,” Jamie said of a performance in China. “Complete silence during each musical number, and enthusiastic but polite clapping after every song.”

A Spizzwinks(?) performance is a combination of music, skit, and comedy. While the language barriers made parts of their shows hit or miss, the humor was never lost on their audiences. “We did have them laughing out loud when we tried to introduce ourselves in Chinese,” Jamie said. “The one Chinese guy in our group taught us all to say, ‘Hello, my name is_________ and I study ______’ before the show, but needless to say we all butchered the language during the actual performance.  I think they found it endearing! ”

The group performed every other day on average, Jamie said, and in their free time they were “full-time tourists.” Jamie witnessed the heavy construction going on in Shanghai, host of this year’s World Expo. They experienced a Chinese spin on Karaoke–the difference, as Jamie described, is that you get to avoid the bar crowd. They rented a room, ordered drinks, and sang to Chinese renditions of U.S. pop videos.

They braved new foods and were…well, brave: “We all wanted to be outgoing and challenge ourselves with the strange Chinese delicacies we were offered” Jamie said. “I think that attitude eventually got the best of us, since we all ended up getting sick at one point or another…there was definitely a period when I was feeling very ill and refused to eat anything but Oreos and Ritz crackers.”

But it takes more than indigestion to discourage the Spizzwinks(?). They have since toured New Zealand, Europe, and Africa.

Watch Jamie and the Spizzwinks(?) perform Billie Jean.


Below a redwood at Henry Cowell SP

Last month, I spent an afternoon at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

It was 80 degrees outside but felt like 60 in the park. If you’re looking for sunshine avoid redwoods, they own it.

I won’t attempt to describe these trees beyond the fact that they’re huge. But I will say that Henry Cowell Redwoods SP has a couple defining features:  more trees than people, and quietude.

Depending on the nature of your studies abroad, maybe a day at a tree’s pace will do some good. See LonelyPlanet’s list of international tree reserves.

If you’re more than a tree tourist, the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Biology offers international research programs through the National Science Foundation.

In any case, here’s a picture I took of a squirrel at the park:


My roommate Jory Pestorious, 21, Pharm.D. at the U of M, studied ethnobotany in Hawaii over winter break. The class, Plants in Human Affairs, is a 12 day, 4 credit program and is run through the  Center of Spirituality and Healing.

Jory’s tip for those going abroad:

Don’t go, because you won’t want to come back.

Ok. I’m behind the times on this one. Last week I was at the MSP airport, and while waiting in line for customs, I saw some impressive technology.  I was in the last stretch of those slow-moving Tensabarrier lines, and I was up next to show my papers to the T.S.A. officer. But the traveler ahead of me had no ticket. He just swiped his mobile phone over a small box next to the T.S.A., showed his license, and went on to screening.

The box had a glass face sensor like a grocery check out, and it flashed red when the phone passed over it. I didn’t catch on. It was another security measure I figured. So I dug out my own phone, and asked the T.S.A. if I needed it scanned. I didn’t. He told me that the other guy’s phone was actually his boarding pass.

The New York Times ran a piece on mobile device check in. Apparently, what I saw isn’t new. Half a dozen U.S. airlines including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, and Alaska have adopted the technology. But only Continental allows complete paper free passage from customs to the plane. All other airlines still require paper verification before boarding.

They look cool, and they’re smarter. According to the Times, the electronic passes use a two-dimensional encrypted bar code instead of the one-dimensional bar code printed on paper. The electronic code is tougher to crack, which is why it flies with the T.S.A.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me and use a mobile device without Internet access, you’ll need to upgrade. Palmtop computers or smartphones, like the iPhone, Blackberry, and Razr, will do the trick.

I flew out of town last Saturday, but before I could go anywhere, I needed to figure out how to get to the airport. If you’re not sure how to get from wherever you are to MSP, all you need is ten minutes online to change that.

I used Google Maps. It’s straightforward, and it links to destination websites (if they have one), street views, and bus route schedules.

If you live around campus, driving is the shortest means to the airport, but if you plan to park there, it’s also the most expensive. General parking costs you $8 for the first hour, $2 each additional hour, and maxes out at $20. For more details, visit the MSP. Public transportation triples the time, but costs you a $2 fare at most. Biking, minus luggage, will get you there in a little over an hour, free. With luggage? That spells road hazard. Walking? A small marathon. Google estimates the 11 mile journey at about 4 hours.

I went with public transportation. If you live around campus, take the light rail. Excluding any bus transfers, The LRT will shuttle you straight there. But depending on where you live, there are two LRT stations to consider.

If you live on or near the West Bank the Cedar Riverside Station, near the Bedlam Theater, is your best bet. But if you live east of the river and need to bus it, don’t stop on west bank. Continue to the Metrodome Station. You’re going away from the airport, but a bus trip to the Metrodome beats your walk to Cedar Riverside by six minutes, which might count if you’re flight leaves in an hour. However you get there, it’s important to remember your terminal number. Going south by car or the LRT, Terminal 1-Lindbergh arrives before Terminal-2 Humphrey.

For bus schedules, visit MetroTransit.

Welcome back. Here are the final two of my four interviews on Chatroulette, a website that randomly connects you with strangers via web cam and chat room. Is this a reliable resource for travel advice? Absolutely not. This maelstrom social activity is probably not going to turn up what your looking for.

But if you go in empty handed, you might run into someone who can give a little about their homeland or maybe where they’ve traveled. Then it becomes a question of can you trust them–they’re still strangers.

Because of the length of the conversations, I’ve taken the liberty of cutting out the trivial and tangential.

Some typos were fixed for readability. Names have been added before the fact.

Here’s part two:

Stranger: Andrew from Chili

Andrew: hi

Drew: hey

Andrew: how r u

Drew: good

Drew: having fun trying to interview strangers

Andrew: hahaha

Andrew: minnesota?

Drew: yeah minneapolis

Stranger: name?

Drew: drew

Drew: u?

Andrew: Andrew

Drew: nice

Andrew: from Chile

Drew: nah really?

Andrew: really!

Andrew: look

(Andrew stretches out the front of his Chilean soccer shirt)

Andrew: believe me?

Read the rest of this entry »

Last week,  friends showed me Chatroulette–a social website that syncs the web cams of those signed on, like a video-conference, except the meeting is random.

The website displays two windows: video of you and video of stranger. You control what your partner sees or hears (video and audio can be turned off) and you can disconnect at any time. Your computer identity is obviously hidden but that’s it. The stage is yours.

Which is to say the potential is questionable (things tend to get increasingly graphic as the night wears on).

But I wondered if this social circus could offer any sound travel advice.

So I tried starting interviews with four questions:

1. Where did you travel abroad?

2. Can you recommend a place to eat/drink or a regional dish/drink?

3. What’s fun there (music, dance, drama, film, sport, party, shopping, adventure)?

4. What can you find there that you can’t find at home (or in the U.S.)?

The interviews were a gamble. Most never got off the ground. Some showed promise at first, but never went beyond how wild and stupid things got overseas. One got ugly, which I had to terminate. But a few were remarkably civil and fun.

The following are four interviews I had with strangers who had something to say.

Because of the length of the conversations, this post is split into two parts, and I’ve taken the liberty of cutting out the trivial and tangential.

Some typos were fixed for readability. Names have been added before the fact.

Here’s part one:

Read the rest of this entry »

Montezuma Surfboards

Outside Montezuma Surfboards, Australia. Courtesy of Professor Jeffrey M. Pilcher.

I blame figure skaters and their Olympic Championship.

Walking into the Bell Museum Auditorium last Thursday night, I questioned why I had just paid $7 for admission. I was there for Historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s lecture on the Globalization of Tex-Mex cuisine.  I was late. So why were only six people in the audience?

I figured that most people were probably at home watching the Olympics. I went to the front and chose an empty row. I sat down then reconsidered the whole thing–a woman ahead of me was knitting.

But then Prof. Pilcher took the stage.  He talked about Tex-Mex with fervor. And in the course of the hour, he made good my money.

Although the scholar said it best, here’s what I gathered:

  • Mexican is one of America’s top three ethnic cuisines beside Chinese and Italian.
  • What is known as Tex-Mex emerged during the colonial period, when indigenous dishes of Mexico spread north and people adopted Texas fare. In particular, beef replaced poultry and wheat flour replaced corn flour.
  • In the early 19th century, word about Tex-Mex got around via railroad. The Alamo and the Chili Queens of San Antonio–female Mexican street vendors, mythologized as uncouth, promiscuous women–became the two primary tourist attractions in Texas.
  • Nachos arrived mid century (before then, Mexican restaurants served saltines). Around the same time, following McDonalds’ lead, Tex-Mex entered the fast food industry.
  • Taco Bell’s Glen Bell claimed to have patented the first taco fryer. Not true. The first taco fryer was patented by Mexican restaurateur Maldonado Juvencio. Here’s the patent.
  • Still, credit goes to Glenn Bell for franchising Tex-Mex. It has since circled the globe. Tex-Mex feeds Europeans, South Africans, Mongolians, Japanese, and Australians. Astronauts, too. “NASA launches tacos into outer space,” said Prof. Pilcher.

During Q&A, a woman in the audience shared a story about her travels to Scotland. She had become sick of pub food and one dreary Scottish night she found a Tex-Mex restaurant. “The place was packed with Americans,” she said.

After the lecture, I asked Prof. Pilcher where to find Tex-Mex overseas. He recommended two spots: Anahuacalli in Paris, France–“A stone’s throw away from Notre Dame”–and La Bamba Oshini (now called Hermanos) in Osaka, Japan.

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