Travel by Safia Southey

I never choose the window seat, because I want to be the first one racing out the door when we touch down. I’ve been trained as a New Yorker to never stop, to take lines as a mere suggestion and to treat slow walkers like obstacles in a maze. I use my travels as an exercise of my quick upbringing, identifying the must-sees and trip-advisor day-tours, moving a mile-a-minute through the streets of new cities with simply my camera and a backpack. I refuse to take cabs from the train or bus station, walking is my preferred methods of transport - which has led me to some interesting experiences gallivanting around Yerevan, Chisinau, Beirut (...) in the dead of night, reassuring myself of all the comforting things I tell my mom to make sure she doesn’t worry. It’s also led me to my best photos and most authentic experiences, to the neighborhoods filled with genuine people outside the urban centers, setting up their restaurants and preparing for the day ahead. While the big touristy experiences can be interesting (if not extremely overwhelming), it’s the meandering journeys I take to get there through markets and parks and even along highways, the street food I discover on the way and the sounds of people chattering, that truly make my quest not just another page from a guidebook.

I never plan what I’m doing, quickly finding a hostel on my phone using the airport wifi while going through customs and finding some distant point to make my way to using google maps (honestly my travel savior, I would be literally dead without it and honestly was close when in China - Baidu just doesn’t do the trick). I search for experiences that continue to push me to be my wildest self - from skydiving above the Dead Sea to sinkhole jumping in Oman (not my best moment) to stealing currency in North Korea (probably shouldn’t publicly admit to that), I tend to make decisions that aren’t the smartest. And while I admit that many of my reckless choices are a product of my desire to uphold my reputation, it’s more to myself than to anyone else. I want to continuously prove to myself that I am the brave girl that my parents raised me to be, that I’m not growing weak as I get older, but rather that I am taking every opportunity that I am presented to ensure that I will never have to face the regret of what I could have done if I just weren’t so cautious. I yearn for experiences that interrogate normative patterns of thinking and being, environments that urge me to question my standards.

However, I understand that my travel can be extremely problematic, on a number of levels which deserve to be acknowledged. As a human rights major and self-proclaimed politically correct semi-“woke” bitch, I need to learn to separate my search for wild stories from actually supporting violent and abusive regimes that go against all that I work to deter (which is why I will not be going to Saudi Arabia any time soon), and from taking advantage of my opportunities in a way that simply furthers modern day white imperialism (no voluntourism thank you very much). And while I preach traveling as if it were a sprint, I often forget that I am not a machine. I abuse my body through lack of sleep and food and water, forcing it through hours of just going in shoes that are not made for walking and clothing that should not be worn in negative degree weather (you’ve all seen my skirts-only wardrobe). My parents and friends have to beg me to take a break and just sleep on occasion, which is a concept that completely defies my sense of self-image. Half my decisions are powered by my mental health, or lack thereof, with anxiety that tears through my chest on a near-constant basis, forcing me to power through so that I don’t waste any second I am awarded outside of school or work. There is a pressure in my heart whispering that I will never forgive myself if I don’t take that jump, that with every time I decide to relax instead of tackling some new adventure, I am that much less impressive.

My heart races thinking about all the places I have never been and all the time that I do not have - my mind fills the future with dreary classrooms and desk jobs that won’t permit me to escape at any impulsive urge. But hopefully, I will find new opportunities which will allow me to adventure in more productive ways, through work that is less selfish than simply wanting to see everything that I possibly can. People criticize my travel for just wanting to cross places off my list - but it’s most of a manifestation of how daunting and big the world feels, and how I’m terrified of not being able to see it all. I will continue to walk the Earth, tearing through countries as if I were running away, but I’m slowly realizing that sometimes it’s necessary to stop rushing. I never choose the window seat, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate those moments when I forget to specify a preference and end up taking a hundred photos of sunsets on my phone. It is when I finally slow down and abandon my hectic New York mentality that I can actually appreciate all the little moments along the way and see just how lucky I am to experience all that I have.

Is it really helping? by Safia Southey

We attend a school for politically minded students, for those who possess an insatiable curiosity regarding the world and all its complex intricacies. Adorned with our elitist education and politically and culturally-astute sensitivities, we are driven by a desire to go out and do good in the world, help underprivileged and disenfranchised communities.

This gets complicated very quickly. While most of us are highly critical of US interventionist policies, we can be hypocritical in this regard ourselves, embarking on a journey to provide disadvantaged groups with what we feel will help them most. Take TOMS shoes for example - while they dedicated their entire mission to giving children in Africa shoes, this really wasn’t necessary and had no real impact on the community; the money could have been spent in much more effective ways (Buying TOMS shoes is a terrible way to help poor people).

That’s not to say all smaller NGOs are useless, and that the ones focused on more individual-scale issues should be completely disregarded - as the cliche goes, helping one person might not change the whole world, but it could change the world for one person. This being said, it is important to see what impact is really being made. New Western NGOs pop-up every day with identical mission statements, created by idealistic youth who believe that they know best, when in reality the money that is used to establish new programs in low-income countries could be so much more useful if given to already developed organizations with the proper connections and infrastructure to actually make a substantial difference. Of course innovation is important, but for the most part these organizations don’t truly hold any unique qualities.

Somebody once told me that it is necessary to consider when starting a new job or traveling to a new place under the guise of humanitarian work, are you doing more for the community, or is the experience doing more for you? There is a thin line between traveling to gain experience and using the information to learn in a useful manner (if there is one), and taking advantage of a place. “White savior complex” is a common phrase, but I believe that the definition should be more broad than some Westerner who visits war-torn communities, volunteers in unsustainable ways, and takes selfies with POC where the visitor is still the center of attention. Many NGOs are guilty of this same syndrome, never asking what the communities actually need and instead imposing their preconceived notions of good onto them.

What is truly beneficial is a complex network of intersecting trajectories. Some may consider that simply learning about the world and sharing these experiences is enough, however it is necessary to weigh out the positives and negatives of entry (particularly considering the profound carbon footprint, whether the money you spent on flights could have been spent on actually making an impact, etc.). The money spent on voluntourism and mission trips, (which are often unsustainable, succeed primarily in making the attendees feel good about themselves), could be used towards actually making a difference.

Sometimes international studies can be orientalist in themselves, and oftentimes people romanticize other parts of the world and try to help in a way that can do much more harm than good (The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad). Despite this, I believe that intent and application of these studies are instrumental in establishing if someone is taking advantage of others’ difficult situations for their own good, whether that be for their career, personal imagine, or sense of morality.

There is no easy answer to these considerations, it is just necessary to maintain a sense of self-awareness and to constantly be re-evaluating your intentions. This is something I am trying to navigate myself, and honestly don’t have many answers. Still, I try my best to keep a critical eye and to practice effective altruism, and encourage others to do the same.

Why I Will Never Go On Birthright by Safia Southey

Propaganda is not necessarily a monologue that intends to incite reflection. but rather works to produce echoes. Now, W.H Auden may not have been talking about Israel and their underhanded tactics, but his understanding of propaganda can definitely be applied to describe and explain birthright.

‘Taglit-Birthright Israel’ or simply 'Birthright' is a well-known Jewish heritage experience that many young Jewish people take part in. In its description, it sounds like a fantastic cultural experience that is packed with authentic cultural and historical experiences - and it's free! Unsurprisingly, this has led to me being asked the same question an umpteen number of times: "Why haven't you gone on Birthright yet Safia?” I continuously toss this question aside, having no intention of getting into an intense political conversation with family members and acquaintances who mean no harm - but then despite my efforts, I am bombarded with the same old slew of comments, "You really must go!” or  “It’s an unforgettable experience, you’ll just fall in love with Israel!”

But now, down the rabbit hole we go after all - once and for all I’d like to explain why I have never, and will never will, go on Birthright - even if it's free.

Taking into account the dozens of accounts of the trip, I can begin to piece together a slightly precise idea of the overall experience one receives from the trip; Sarah Rosenblatt, a popular illustrator, affirms that “The Zionist indoctrination I experienced on the trip was far more insidious and violent than I had expected.”

Escorted by IDF soldiers at most times, Birthright trips are meticulously designed to present a comprehensive flawless (and highly fictitious version) of Israel, ostracizing and obscuring any possible traces of Palestinian life. These trips, quite clearly,  are devised to establish cultural and political support for Israelis (which sheds light on why American Jews and the US, in general, are such avid champions of Israel); it doesn't end there though, the trip tries to obstruct the consequences of the country’s highly problematic policies that include but are not limited to:

  1. Israeli occupation of Palestine,
  2. an abundance of apartheid laws that actively discriminate against Palestinians in daily life,
  3. and the denial of rights to Palestinian refugees to return home.

I had a hearty laugh when I heard about various instances of tour groups visiting Palestinians schools - these school visits are intended to show young and impressionable Jews that YES! Arabs are in fact people too, and Israeli Jews and Arabs live in harmony and eat hummus and couscous together!

Ok, maybe I am being cynical, but what about the other elements of the trips? Another itinerary event involves quickly driving through Gaza with the sole purpose of saying, “look, no genocides here!” - the propaganda and manipulation are almost poetic at this point.

However, quite recently, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s education department made an announcement stating that all trips must cease any interactions with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians in their program. Brilliant! that was the authenticity that was missing from this propaganda trip - an established rule that now prevented contact with any non-Jewish state citizens. This is truly indicative of the problems with Birthright as Arab Israelis make up 21.6% of the population of Israel; they are a crucial part of Israeli culture and history. How can one truly learn about Israel, when they can't even interact with almost a quarter of its citizens? The idea that a proper dialogue was present before was quite ridiculous, but the lack of any remotely different perspective is frightening, especially for a 'heritage' trip. Tunnel vision is damaging,  multiple perspectives add multiple dimensions to any dialogue, thus neglecting and censoring them would be detrimental to actual growth or discovery - ironically defeating the purpose of Birthright trips.

To explain the depth of the consequences of birthright, bear with me as I share a bit of history and Palestinian perspective; during the 1948 Nakba, Palestinians were driven from their homes in the dozens, never to return. Many of them kept the key to their houses with them when they left and passed them down over several generations with the hopes that one day they would be able to return - not only can they never sleep in their own beds, they can never visit their own homeland of Jerusalem, the holiest place for most Palestinians. Now, in the status quo, take a moment and consider the 18-year-old American with a vaguely Jewish background, possibly not even Bat Mitzvahed, who is able to embark on an all-inclusive ten-day trip to Israel with every experience meticulously planned and censored.

Yes, I do agree, it’s a great opportunity for a free trip, but the pretense and political implications behind it are glaring. How can we ever expect to see anything but support from the young impressionable adults that only ever see such a one-dimensional view of their supposed 'homeland'? Furthermore, not only are these non-Israeli Jews given a chance to visit Israel, but they are also given the right to settle in Israel (with automatic citizenship) according to the 1950 Law Of Return. All these privileges while the while the people who built their homes and started families on those same grounds are locked behind guarded walls. It is well known that one of the primary goals of Birthright is to persuade young Jews to one day take advantage of the Law of Return and move to Israel. The intention is distinctly obvious, they are working towards ensuring that  the majority in Israel always remains Jewish, despite the presence of 1.8 million Arab Israeli citizens. The Israeli government is safeguarding the political power of Jewish people by maintaining this majority and thus will continue to build settlements and further assert their dominance over Israel and its surrounding territories, and subsequently the people who lived there before.

As Jewish Voice for Peace aptly explains, “It is fundamentally unjust that Israel’s Law of Return extends a ‘right to return’ to any Jew around the world, regardless of their personal familial ties to Israel, while denying the right to return to Palestinians, whose families have lived there for centuries.” If you cannot see the fundamental flaw with this ideology and legislation, than no amount of information or statistics will change your mind about why Birthright is a fundamentally bad idea, and why Israel is an oppressor.

Many a time, during these discussions, I am told that I am not allow to have an opinion on something or somewhere without seeing or experiencing it myself - this argument is absolutely incredulous and flawed. Will you discount a man’s activism and active involvement fighting patriarchy because he hasn’t experienced it? Is it inherently logical to shun perspectives and opinions of non U.S Citizens on Donald Trump? If you support this rhetoric of ‘No experience, no opinion’, all you’re doing is suggesting that it’s wrong for anyone who is not North Korean to comment on the country’s dire state and Kim Jong-Un’s tyrannical rule and policies.   

As someone who is majoring in Middle Eastern geopolitics, worked extensively in the region regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and interviewed people on both sides of the issue, I feel that I have as much of a right to an opinion as that of an American Jew who attended a 10-day  government-funded trip to Israel after graduating high- school.

Some of you have told me that taking part in Birthright is completely fine as long as you go in with a critical mind and ask the right questions - here’s the problem,  by doing that, all you accomplish is perpetuating an inherently corrupt system. In my opinion, refusing to go on Birthright is confronting privilege head-on, a privilege constructed on dispossession and injustice. If not from here, hear it from the educated activists at Jewish Voice For Peace who say, “Whether or not a Birthright participant has intentions to be critical on the trip, or to protest a settlement or join an anti-occupation collective after their trip, their participation in the program reinforces the interests of the state and right-wing organizations that shape Birthright programming.”

Here is some extra reading for those who are interested!

25 quick thoughts for Safi by Safia Southey


Experiences from my brilliant, inspiring mother, Adeena Karasick:

  1. Drank Mushroom tea at the Rainbow Gathering and tripped on Acid all week with naked revelers
  2. Slept in a pool of cat-piss in a sweat-drenched Buffalo Anarchist house with no running water or bathroom in an abandoned 8 floor walk-up in Alphabet City. I am still here.
  3. Read Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Voltaire while travelling to Marrakesh and Marseille, and wrote all day in Paris cafes to not only read about being a flâneuse but to live it.
  4. Threw a dart on a map and travelled to Thailand in the 80’s when there were no roads. I swam naked and ate oatmeal cooked in a pot on the beach that I bought for 20 cents, and then lived in a temple in the jungles and practiced Vipassana meditation where I couldn’t speak for 10 days or make eye contact with any living thing, and was only fed once a day - all so I could get a free place to stay.
  5. Almost got gang raped by three stoned Arabs in an Oujda basement
  6. Got a legit. ticket for hitchhiking on the autoroute
  7. Escaped from a Moroccan prison
  8. The love of my life picked weeds from the side of an Italian boxcar and rolled up a pizza and called it a cake for my 19th birthday; it was the most romantic gesture ever.
  9. Even though I was raised Conservative, in the early 80’s I talked my way into getting permission to study at the only Hassidic Women’s Yeshiva so I could study 13th century Jewish mysticism, historically forbidden to women, in the mountains of Tsfat, the holiest site in Israel. Once there, I convinced all the girls to sneak out at night, get drunk, smoke weed, go to movie theaters on Shabbos -- and then smuggled my boyfriend into the attic, atop 14 stacked metal bedframes. In the middle of the night, on one of the holiest holidays, we shook the beds and the building to such a degree that all the beds came crashing down and all the holy men and their prayer books came running through the halls at 3:00 am in the women’s yeshiva; we pushed ourselves out of a tiny broken window and in the middle of the night, ran half naked through the snows of Jerusalem chased by Hasids.
  10. Slept on the floor of Allen Ginsberg’s 7th street alphabet city walk-up, and in the middle of the night we noticed his address book on the floor of his study where we were sleeping, proceeding to copy it all night on his cum-stained floor and then sent our first poetry magazine Anerca/ A Journal of Postmodern Poetry and Poetics to 1600 artists, musicians, renegades and madmen.
  11. Planted spruce and pine trees (1000 a day) for 10 cents a tree –repopulating the British Columbian forests. Once a week we’d travel 100 miles into town, do laundry, get drunk, steal food and watch the first nations small-town strippers who wore kneepads in order to not scar their knees with their kneespins. And all the drunk and rowdy treeplanters would demand: “SHOW US YOUR KNEES!!!”
  12. Harvested tomatoes and baby’s breath in glass houses in a moshav in the negev desert
  13. Slept on hammocks living for 6 weeks on contraband boats from Iquitos from Belem and drank tea made from bark
  14. Ate a live bird from a barbecue in Morocco when I was so starving because we had everything stolen from us on a train in Morocco
  15. “Borrowed” a Moroccan man’s suitcase from an oujdan train and my boyfriend Kedrick wore his djellaba ever after
  16. And his yellow banana shoes which I may still have 30 years later
  17. Drove a drive-away car to the Pentagon, half naked, dirty, and high on shrooms
  18. Learned to feel my breath. That my body as a pulsing mass of strong sensations – from my time living at Wat Swom Mok, a Temple in the jungles of Thailand
  19. At 18 years old, and pre internet or cellphone was shown more love than I ever knew possible by receiving monthly cassettes of poetry and dedication from a tobacco farm outside Zimbabwe in the mail
  20. I literally walked into a bookstore asking for a book on GO-ETTY and a woman named Maria Rilke; but realized was just a precursor to all my work in Literacy obliteracy and sound poetry
  21. Though I secretly wanted to join the circus, when I was 22 I was a gypsy sound poet at The World’s Greatest show in Peterborough Ontario, alongside trapezists and sword swallowers
  22. Postered every inch of my teenage bedroom, all the walls and ceiling so I was constantly surrounded by my musical and artistic and literary idols
  23. While hitchhiking in central France, in exceptionally poor French, told our driver, that France was a nurse for sick travellers which got us taken care of for days in a sprawling French farmland
  24. Slept in boxcars, beaches, park benches, contraband boats, the back of muebles trucks, train stations, bus stations, reminding me how we’re always in transition
  25. Teaching at the Gutenberg universitat Mainz as a young, short jew-haired grad student at the height of neo-Nazism uprisings in the early 90’s. Everywhere was posted: “gieben Nazis a kleine chance,” had to constantly hide my identity, both in the classroom and on the streets. And on hot summer days had to remind myself the krematoria not a place for ice cream

And one extra...

First time I heard poetry read aloud was when bill bissett came chanting with his rattle into my first year university class led by Warren Tallman who for the whole class, drank vodka straight from his briefcase with a straw. He introduced bill as a shaman and then proceed to read this: “the first time i fistfucked someone, i lost my bracelet somewhere inside. i looked and looked… but nowhere could i find it. Every day i went back looking for it. inside…”  My life has not been the same since.

Travels by Safia Southey

“I’m jealous,” I whine to my mom, “I never have the same kind of cool experiences as you.”

She was telling me about her many adventures, living on contraband boats from Iquitos from Belem and escaping from a Moroccan prison.

She laughed. “Sometimes when you travel, you get caught up in where you are in a way that doesn’t allow you to fully process the moment. Write down your experiences, because while they may not seem life changing in the moment, they mean a lot more when looking back.”

So the following is a brisk look back at the years and the moments that I never want to forget. And while they may only hold meaning to myself, I believe that one of the best parts of traveling is being able to share your experiences and inspire others to seek and explore, to investigate the habitat and lifestyle of the other, opening avenues of communication and tolerance.



After exploring Ramallah on my own for several days, I got stranded on a Sunday morning when the busses weren’t running. Needing to get back to Jerusalem to catch my UNRWA bus back to Jordan and barely speaking the language, I hopped in a taxi - however, Palestinians aren’t allowed to cross the border and enter Jerusalem, leading to a very confused and stressed state when I was dropped off at a checkpoint and told that I would have to make the rest of the journey myself. Waiting in line with hundreds of people waiting patiently to cross to the other side, I was internally freaking out, seeing so many having to turn back after being denied entrance. Eventually I made my way through and immediately began sprinting from the checkpoint to the UNRWA office through neighborhoods of Orthodox Jews and Muslim merchants, stopping the bus just as it was starting to roll out of the gates.


In the Masai Mara on safari, a pack of lions circled our car after being chased out of the shade of a tree by an elephant wanting a nap, sniffing out the warm breakfast we had packed in the back. My father was terrified, but I kept asking the driver to slow down so I could take pictures.

In Zarqa I lived with an Arab family during Ramadan, every night eating with the entire family, going house to house to visit children, grandchildren, uncles, nieces. Sometimes they would all crowd in one of the tiny houses, eating giant dinners filled with mansaf and dates, with fifteen children giggling while using all the English they could muster. Sometimes, the little ones would even put a hijab on me, begging their parents to take pictures. I was the only Westerner in the area, stubbornly walking to work every day in the awful summer heat, inspiring confused stares everywhere I went. Once I happened to be walking through one of the refugee camps for home visits on the last official day of school, getting to see children of all ages bursting out of the classrooms onto the streets, throwing their papers into the air and enjoying the new sense of freedom. The young boys would shout at me asking for my Snapchat, while the girls would shoot me bright big smiles.


Eastern Europe with Genevieve was filled walking and coffee shops; vlogging and exploring; nesting at restaurants for hours and hours. We travelled through the mountains by busses that were so hot they nearly gave us fever dreams, being the only girls surrounded with old men who’d spend every break smoking while I danced outside in the frozen tundra without any shoes in order to cool down.

And while I’ve previously written about my DPRK experience, I may have ignored some of the bits including snake vodka, Icelandic chewing tobacco, illegally filming military checkpoints, binging on North Korean beer, some wild karaoke, smuggled currency, nearly being stuck there forever, and many, many jokes about stealing children.


In Erbil, I would wander out into the weekend markets, crowded with men trying to buy cheap shoes and goods for their families. I decided to take a shared taxi to Dohuk, having to pass through the outskirts of Mosul on the way. Once the other passengers left, the driver was worried about me gallivanting through Dohuk on my own and decided to accompany me through the streets. While giving me a tour of the area, he recounted wild stories and showed me pictures on his phone of his time in the peshmerga, brandishing a huge gun as well as a proud smile. When a few boy gave me some trouble on the side of the street, my peshmerga guide threatened to hurt them if they kept talking, leading to a few pushes that luckily got stopped short before an actual fight began. “Arabs,” he said, shaking his head, “they’re all terrorists.” Eventually, we began the drive back to Erbil, stopping midway to full up the gas. We ducked into a dingy building in the middle of a desert, miles away from any semblance of civilization. In this little hut were maybe twenty young men, playing decades old arcade games and screaming at each other over FIFA games on miniature tvs. We played, and although I was horribly losing, my new friend let me win a couple matches in order to save my dignity. Eventually we got back on the road, after a couple hours of me trying to figure out if I was actually going to be taken back to Erbil or if this was my new life. With no phone service or way to get back otherwise, I was completely at the whim of my Kurdish driver. I didn’t have an ID with me, so I was stopped at a checkpoint near Mosul and almost forced to get out of the car and return to Dohuk, the authorities not believing that I merely forgot my passport at my hostel. Luckily, they let me through after some intense begging, and I returned to my bed just as sunset hit.



Sometimes my adventures are even more impulsive – in Muscat, I jumped off the side of a 20-meter sinkhole and nearly fractured my lower spine, not being able to walk for a week.



In Bagan, I rode around on motorbikes and scaled the sides of temples; I got food sickness from delicious coconut rice while watching the sunset, and talked to locals about the refugee crisis. In Inle Lake, I got stuck in the pouring rain while out on a tiny boat in a floating village. I biked miles to a vineyard to go wine tasting, before celebrating New Years Eve on the rooftop in remote village and then in a tiny local restaurant with live music and kids singing while using tables and pots as percussion. I rode on the back of a pickup truck overnight through the rain on my way to the airport, crying at the thought of leaving.

I walked around the Vatican at midnight, drunkenly singing panjang umurnya to my best friend during a surprise weekend full of day-time mojitos and corny jokes for her birthday.


In the middle of a field in Dusseldorf, I took the most beautiful pictures of Sonia, with sun sparks piercing the frame as her green eyes blended in to the world behind her - potentially due to the synthetic mushrooms we had just taken. Later, Sonia left me in Paris for two days to spend time with her close friends because she thought I would harsh her vibe, leaving me to traverse the city, visiting every museum, garden, monument, I possibly could. I went on Tinder, not to find myself a boy to hook up with but rather for a tour guide, and soon I had myself a Sorbonne-going Parisian boy to whisk me around the city on his vespa to every classic site, zipping under the Eiffel Tower and to the hole-in-the-wall gems kept secret by the locals. And at the end of the day, he dropped me off at my hotel with a kiss on the cheek, wishing me a good conclusion to my Euro adventure. At one point Sonia and I paid a visit to Vienna, guided by my friend Nils. In the dead of night, we ventured into a local fair where I excitedly ran to a towering pendulum ride, being the adrenaline junkie I am. At the top, with the hot summer air whizzing past me and sparks of rain hitting my face, I had literally never been happier.

And while camping out in the desert during a hike to Petra, I danced with bedouins swinging swords until the sun rose.


I traveled to Amsterdam to see my friend from years back, and after tripping (literally and figuratively) through the Van Gogh Museum trying to figure out how Van Gogh created that wiggly effect on his paintings, we hid out in the Apple Store afraid of the outside world and genuinely weeping out of happiness at how far away we were from our toxic high school.

When I was much younger, my mom and I visited Turkey, bringing along pool floaties to make our cheap overnight ferries to Greece more comfortable. My first memories were filled with strange men in colorful markets making passes at my mom, along with some accusations of her stealing a small blonde child (herself easily passing for Middle Eastern). “Do you want a donut?” someone once asked us, a temptation no small child could ever resist. I begged my extremely resistant mother to follow him, willing to go anywhere for a free sweet. When we finally got there, I remember seeing the panic in my vegetarian mom’s eyes as we realized that he meant donar, not donut, nearly running away at the sight. There were a lot more memories from that trip that are placed at the back of my mind, including my mom taking us from hotel to hotel in order to escape from skeevy men, serving as a warning to my future self to stay aware, “woke” and careful.


Fast forward maybe 8 years to the era of college visits, when I got flown to the UAE to visit NYU Abu Dhabi. Establishing a little group on my first night, we would stay up literally all night, surviving off caffeine pills and waiting until the morning when the coffee machines would start working again. Trapped in our little dorm buildings covered with cameras in order to regulate the gender specific floors, we discovered a secret room in the lobby where we would hide out from the disapproving supervisors, our jokes growing more and more hilarious as our sleep deprivation increased. From taking mini-naps during the info-sessions to getting scolding for posing for pictures in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in my burqa, from sand surfing during a feast made by bedouins to riding on camels through the desert, it was a complete blur. I remember everyone putting on beautiful dresses and suits for the final ceremony, a huge banquet dinner, and falling asleep while standing up while everyone was dancing and learning to sing a traditional song.


On a visit to Yale-NUS a year later, I pulled the same stunt, not sleeping for the entire school visit. Having already decided to attend a different program for university, I wanted to make the most of my time, finding a student in a similar situation and exploring Singapore together instead of sitting through the tedious organized sessions. Hiding throughout the campus to avoid supervisors, we walked 20 miles a day (partially due to being stranded downtown after the metro shut down), sneaking into huge malls after closing horus through construction sites and staying there until they opened again. Chinatown at 3am, truth or dare on rooftops, singing in the Butteries, messily dancing in Clarke Quay, and buying way too many Chomsky books at the beautifully oversized bookstores: with no sleep to break up the days, Singapore will similarly stuck in my mind as a glorious stream of adventures that could have easily all been a dream.


Recently my dad visited my school in the south of France, whisking my friends away on a road trip through France to Andorra for my birthday. The entire car hungover, we magically maneuvered through the mountains during a blizzard, thinking that at any moment we would skid off the side into the abyss below.


I am extremely lucky to have experienced the things I have, being provided with immense privilege in being able to go to all these far away places. I often find myself defensive of my adventures, why I travel so often and where I choose to go, creating internal dialogues full of self-criticism and reassuring explanations. And often even more important than the places I visit are the people I travel with, and it’s a sad thing in my life that I haven’t traveled with many people I’d like to, such as my grandmother before she passed away or my best friend Vy. But no matter what, I’m fantastically appreciative for the experiences I have had; whether negative or positive, they’ve left an impact on me and changed the way I look at the world; ushering me into new ways of thinking and being and ways that i impact my environment as much as it impacts me.

Myanmar From a Different Perspective by Safia Southey

In the Western media, the Rohingya crisis seems to be a clear-cut moral issue: the military is conducting ethnic genocide of the Muslims of Rakhine State. The basic narrative regarding the conflict is agreed upon by both sides: Bangladesh Muslims emigrated to Myanmar, settled in Rakhine State, requested citizenship, and began to call themselves Rohingya in an attempt to assert their own ethnicity and achieve political recognition.


This, however, is where the narrative changes. According to some sources, such as the BBC, terrorist organizations such as a group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged from these Rakhine Muslims, and frustrated by their lack of representation began to attack the military in an attempt to gain political power. The military, in part due to a general fear of Islam in Southeast Asia, responded with extremely harsh attacks on the Muslim communities. This is a different narrative than what is covered in the West, which is best exemplified by a CNN article explaining who the Rohingya are: “They have been raped, tortured and killed. They have been crowded on boats and ping-ponged between nations that don't want them. They have been forced into labor and have no rights to their land. Rohingya Muslims are among the most persecuted people in the world, and once again, they find themselves running for their lives.” The reports of the conflict from the Myanmar government have been proven to be enormously dishonest, as while the military and government denies their killing and raping of civilians, evidence collected by the UN and other agencies seem to prove otherwise. The government has tried to account for these differences, saying that the Rakhine Muslims were burning down their own houses and villages. As one Bagan local, named Christopher described, “It’s frighteningly similar to George Orwell’s, Animal Farm. Some people may think that something’s true, but nobody really knows if something is true or not.” 

However, speaking to people in the country exposes a much more skeptical perspective. Outside of Rakhine State, educated locals admit that there are attacks going on in the western part of the country, although they maintain these attacks are not as extreme as is often being reported. Christopher explained, “I don’t want to say I can’t believe it, but I can only believe one part. People say that their child was killed, but you would not throw a three-year-old child into a fire for no reason; it’s hard to believe. If you write about it, you need to have something behind it. I don’t want to say I don’t believe it, but people have their doubts.”


Buddhists in Rakhine State argue a more extreme narrative, claiming that the Rohingya were originally Bengali Muslims brought to the area by the British in order to fight against the Rakhine and to work the rice fields. Now, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have come over the Bangladesh border illegally and are now referring to themselves as Rohingya, while raping and attacking villages in the area. The issue as explained by these locals is not that the groups are simply Muslim, but that they are terrorists demanding citizenship and political rights that the government will not agree to. Some even argue that the military is in fact defending the Rakhine Buddhists, and that though the Rohingya were offered an opportunity to become citizens, they declined, demanding further independence.

The Washington Post recently published an article addressing this local anti-Rohingya mindset, blaming new technology for spreading “fake news” fueling ethnic hatred against the Rakhine Muslims. As the article explains, “an endless stream of provocative photos and cartoons claim that there is no “ethnic cleansing” against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Instead, according to the posts, international news and human rights organizations are falsely accusing the military of carrying out atrocities against the Rohingya to help terrorists infiltrate the country, kill Buddhists and carve out a separatist Islamic province… A recent study found that 38 percent of Facebook users in Burma got most, if not all, of their news on the site. And news feeds in Burma are rife with anti-Rohingya posts, shared not only by ordinary people but also by senior military officers and the spokesman for Burma’s de facto leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.”


There is truth to both sides of the conflict, and it is extremely important to consider all available information (which is quite limited). Western media definitely has a bias to it, as seen with the constant usage of the term Rohingya, which carries much more significance and meaning to it than is recognized in most sources. As explained by a Myanmar local, “we have eight major ethnic groups and 135 minor ethnic groups in the country… Rohingya Muslims believe that by naming themselves they can create their own ethnic group and their own state as a Muslim territory. That’s not how it works.”

Further, it is necessary to note the differences in why the conflict arose in the first place, as while it definitely seems like a “textbook example of ethnic genocide” in an attempt to rid the area of Muslims, it was also a reaction to small militant groups. Of course, it was an extremely disproportional and extreme reaction on the part of the military, carried out on a much larger scale than the original small group which conducted the original attack(s).

The treatment of the Rohingya is unacceptable, no matter what the context.

I did not write this to excuse the military’s behavior or the mass killings that are being systematically conducted against the Muslim communities in Western Myanmar. However, it is necessary to understand the mindset of the people on the ground, and to analyze ways in which information about the issue is being transmitted; propagating only one version of the narrative and offer a multiperspectival approach to a highly complex and volatile situation.

It is also crucial to consider Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s role in the Rohingya conflict. She has been consistently attacked in Western media for not defending the persecuted Muslim population, however there is uncertainty as to what this would actually achieve. The military has an incredibly strong rule over the country, and her speaking out against their actions may lead to her being removed from power, further hurting the democracy of the nation instead of fixing the humanitarian crisis in any manner. Most locals continue to support her as one of the sole protectors against the military rules, “I always supported Aung Sun Suu Kyi and I still believe in her, and I think she is going to do her best on the crisis. She doesn’t care about the religion, she cares about the country, and she’s going to make the country good. I never liked the military government, and if they take power again for some reason I will try to get out of the country as I don’t want to risk my child if they take power again.” Alleging that while she could be doing more to defend the Rohingya, it is perhaps politically shrewd for her to negotiate with the military behind closed doors. We do not know if she is fact attempting to do so, but it is potentially unfair to write her off already as disrupting the democracy that she previously worked so hard to achieve.

It is also interesting to note the similarities between this conflict and that of Israel-Palestine, with much of the same language being used in regards to an ethnic minority being displaced and systematically killed under the guise of being labeled as terrorists. However, when the West has less reliance on the country being called into question or political and economic care in the matter, it seems we are much quicker to call out genocide and mass murder.


North Korea: Part Four by Safia Southey


North Korea is a strangely idyllic world. Pyongyang, looking like a 1960’s film depicting the future with it’s space-age skyscrapers peppered with neon lights, is filled with bikes, pastel colored buildings, and a focus on the collective goals rather than that of the individual. People are careful and avoid eye contact with foreigners at all costs, and the streets are clean with not a speck of litter visible anywhere. People are seemingly happy, immersed in pride and adoration for their country and leader, but it is only due to their constant busyness, complete ignorance of the rest of the world, and the intense regime of propaganda imposed on them daily. Locals are severely limited, having to gain travel permits to enter or exit any city in the country, and must provide rationale for any internal movement. However, things are somewhat less restricted than I previously assumed, with people out ice-skating, children exploring playgrounds, and locals even playing beer-pong with us. Resources are limited, with lack of power forcing people to carry around flashlights in order to make their way through the pitch-black streets and underground tunnels at night, and I am confident that food is much more scarce than my tour would lead me to believe. There is a vast oversupply of labor and a lack of genuine work to do so people are overworked with menial jobs to make up for the difference, rewarded with food rations instead of wages, only to be awarded actually money as a potential bonus.


There is a stark lack of factual knowledge in the country, but as one of my guides explained, “what locals lack in information, they make up for with life experience. While they may at times seem naïve, they have lived long and difficult lives.” North Korea is the optimal example of a dystopian society, and I am extremely interested in seeing the progress of one of the mostly unusually ran countries in the world. From hotels to museums to any old teahouse, everything seemed to open up just for us; it is bizarre how much heating and energy is used in order to keep up appearances for the tiny amount of tourists that visit in winter. While I am more than confident that my experience was a highly curated façade of the true country, I am happy to have seen it for myself, if only to know that it was the wrong thing to do.


The amount of money I spent on this tour contributing to the economy and in turn the regime is menial in comparison to the destructive impact that the tourists have on the local community and way that the society is formed. I understand that it would only hurt the locals if the tourism industry disappeared as it employs so many people, but I genuinely believe that the exploitation of DPRK residents and general havoc that foreigners have. From taking pictures as if they were in a zoo to playing music and being loud and often quite disrespectful at monuments and public buildings (even libraries) to forcing restaurants and shops to open up solely for tourists, foreigners create an incredibly destructive environment, perpetuating the government’s child labor and ability to force people to create a fake society for visitors. I admit that I am a complete hypocrite, that I took photos and bought souvenirs and supported this entire tourism industry, but I cannot express the vast amount of shame that I now feel.

My overall advice: don’t go to North Korea, at least not for a simple tour. I am considering returning for a school program, after discussing it at length with Ms. Kim, but I am met with intense hesitancy. The country is amazing, beautiful, interesting to see – but you will not answer any questions; rather, you will just perpetuate a long lasting cycle of tourism and exploitation of the local communities, and if you’re anything like me, be overcome with an intense sense of guilt.


North Korea: Part Three by Safia Southey


The next day, half our group hung-over from drinking too much snake vodka, we arrived at the highly anticipated mausoleum. We had received strict instructions for this event – no jeans, no sneakers (I had to pick up a pair of flats in Beijing as my normal Adidas were apparently not acceptable), men must wear ties, skirts and dresses must be at or below the knee, shoulders must be covered, no smiling, no laughing, no speaking, no photography (they confiscated our phones and electronics), bowing three times at each leader’s tomb, etcetera, etcetera. As soon as I entered the mausoleum, I knew I would not be able to follow all the rules; two wax figures of Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il, each 3 meters tall immediately brought a grin to my face. I would love to describe the room but the only thing I can recall was how bizarre and excessive the entire experience was, but that was only the beginning. Walking in lines of 4, we entered the rooms holding the bodies of the 'great' leaders; it would have been a strange experience in itself just bowing to the huge leaders in glass boxes illuminated by red light from the ceiling, but the sobbing Korean women in traditional colorful dresses added whole other element. Crowds of women and soldiers accompanied us into the museum, visibly upset at the lives of their past leaders. I smile a lot when I’m uncomfortable, so viewing this made me so close to laughing that I thought I was going to get deported, or worse. The women looked genuinely distraught, but I am convinced that they are taught to cry at events and monuments such as this, essentially dishonoring their leader if they do not. We silently shuttled past all the medals, honorary degrees, and awards that Kim Il Sun and Kim Jung Il received from different countries during their years in office, shocked at the mere amount. It was overall a very surreal experience, being immersed in such a sense of national pride.


This sense of patriotism transferred over quite seamlessly into our next big visit, to the War Museum. Filled with captured US tanks, fighter jets, spy ships, bombs that “the United States Aggressive Forces attempted to exterminate Korea with,” and pretty much anything that could be used to humiliate and discredit the United States, the museum had a very clear version of history and a message to spread. We were seated in a small theatre to watch a film called, “What Divided Korea?” the answer to which, if you were wondering, is the United States. In the exhibit called “Atrocities Committed by US Imperialists,” the guides explained how America used chemical and biological warfare in conflict, dropping poisonous insects and napalm in order to exterminate their enemies and “kill as many Asians as possible.” To be honest, most of the information they were offering about the United States is most likely true or at least based in fact, although I believe they greatly exaggerated some aspects of American influence and demonized intention that were perhaps not as malicious as initially intended, while also minimizing other countries’ influence. We watched a panorama (the largest panorama in Asia, apparently) version of war and conflict with the United States, filled with dead US soldiers and burnt American flags, overlaid with propaganda and eerie traditional music. I purchased a book called “US Imperialists Started the Korean War” on my way out, to delve more into this version of history. Our tour guide gushed over the exhibit back in the bus, speaking of how important it is in order for school children to learn about the past conflicts using such proof as the museum provides (how reliable that proof is, I am not entirely convinced).



We followed up the war museum appropriately with a trip to the shooting range, where I shot my first gun (an AK47). Most fascinating part was how there were absolutely no regulations for the guns, as they were being tossed pretty much anywhere, and I’m a little cautious of any place that allows me to shoot a gun.


My opinion of the country and feeling towards this trip changed dramatically on the fourth day, and now I feel uncomfortable being here and sharing any of the pictures I have taken so far. We visited an elementary school, which I was vastly looking forward to, as I absolutely love talking to children. However, as soon as we arrived it was like nothing I had ever experienced; the children were waiting for us in the courtyard holding on to silks, ready to dance for us in an elaborate weaving ceremony. After they finished we were hustled into a room with a group of children in ballet costumes who immediately broke into absurd acrobatic tricks that made their small bodies look like spaghetti; definitely not things I believed eight year olds could do. A string of performances followed, including singing, instruments, Ping-Pong, more dance, English language skills, and even jump rope.


I believe I started crying at about Ping-Pong. What I was watching was not school, rather an exhibition. Putting aside the anti-America propaganda lining the walls with imagery of rockets and “satellites,” it was the optimum example of exploitation, with these children putting on full on performances with complete costumes for random tourists coming in 1-2 times per month in non-tourists seasons and 1-2 times per week in warmer months. I knew that people were not able to choose their careers, that the government chose it for them, but it was horrifying to see how forced it was at such a young age. It makes economic sense for careers to be determined by skill, but makes for horrendous human rights conditions. People were in awe at the performances, wondering how long it took for the children to achieve this level of talent, but to be honest I do not want to know the conditions that brought this about. I was genuinely afraid for any student who played a wrong note or forgot a single step, I could see the flash of fear run across their face with a quick look to their teacher every time it happened. It was the most forced and disingenuous show of education that I could imagine – especially as it was winter break and school is not currently in session, meaning that the students literally came in specifically to entertain us. Even the language classes were a performance with the children singing, “I like English, this is my classroom, I love it here;” it was as if I was watching a cult in the midst of brainwashing the youth. It was child labor, a way to remind foreigners of how impressive their society is when in fact it just reminded me of how horribly messed up it was; it was a factory, churning out talented workers from the time they are born against their own will for the improvement of the nation. It is a perfect demonstration of community over the individual, with complete disregard for decisions or human rights.


The rest of the day seems like an angry blur now, including a trip to a library where the guide blasted Beatles in a reading room in order to impress us with their technology, completely disregarding the people actually working in there. In fact, they turned on the lights in a different reading room specifically for us; I genuinely cannot fathom the amount of special treatment tourists get in order to make the country seem so much better from afar. We visited a large tower, some museums, historical sites, the metro system. The most interesting occurrence that happened was when we arrived at some museum a couple minutes too early and watched as the people scrambled to turn on the lights and look busy, opening up solely for our arrival and most likely closing as soon as we left. This seems to be a common occurrence. I asked our guide about feminism during this time, if women desired more power in society. She told me that men and women were equal in the DPRK, women are respected and given the same rights, especially if the woman have lots of children. Like most questions I ask here, I was left unsatisfied with the mostly defensive and vague answers possible. 

The night continued with bowling, beer, and karaoke – a very strange capitalist American-esque experience in a very anti-American society. The next morning we arose at an early 5:30am to board our flights and trains. I was supposed to take the 23-hour train back to Beijing, but I apparently misread the information and realized that you can only use the 72-hour China visa if arriving by international flight, so at the last minute we had to squeeze me onto an already full flight. It was very chaotic and at times I thought I was going to be stuck in North Korea for quite a bit longer (the next flight was days away). As Kim, my incredibly sweet DPRK guide, sat with me, she asked me how I liked the trip. I responded with vague compliments, knowing that I couldn’t give my true opinions. She smiled, “Please tell your friends back home that we are not the same as western media portrays us, we are just like all of you. I hope you come back soon."