NYU Gallatin Travel Blogs

Reflections from Students Traveling on Gallatin Programs

Category: Travel Course Blogs

Western Photography in Postcolonial Senegal

Sam Cheng
Gallatin Travel Course: “Postcolonial Urbanisms: Development, Environment, & Social Movements in Senegal
Senegal, Summer 2018

I am a photographer, but during this trip, I shot less than one roll of 35mm film. Our visit to Gorée Island early on in the trip forced me to grapple with the consequences of global tourism and modern photography specific to a postcolonial space. 

Gorée Island is a complicated place, to say the least. Gorée served as a trading post during the Atlantic slave trade, but its actual role and historical significance is debated. Many slave houses were built on the island, the most notable being La Maison des Esclaves. The island is now (with some controversy) protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and is a popular tourist attraction.

While walking through the island and especially La Maison des Esclaves, I was constantly going back and forth in my head trying to decide the most just and equitable way to capture my surroundings without being problematic and letting my Western gaze dictate the imagery. The paradox of the place was quite apparent, given the complex history of loss and suffering persisting alongside–or perhaps overshadowed by–the abundance of photogenic vitality on the island, seen in the lush plant life and colorful buildings.

Ironically, people from all over seek out remarkable places of rich history, like Gorée, that quickly become ordinary and diluted with the inundation of tourists and their cameras. The pristine touristic photo becomes less a sentimental memory of one’s travels and reflections but more of a trophy won in a competition as proof of voyage and accomplishment. Moreover, the resulting photos are often quite different from the reality on site and, in this case, don’t always reflect the historical magnitude of the place. A photograph is usually a decontextualized representation of just one moment in time and space, and it rarely captures the greater narrative.

Though not to the most extreme extent, the tropes of modern tourism were certainly seen on Gorée Island. The result might be a serene photo of the coastal views of the island, but the events of history are sidelined and emotional reactions repressed when the most important thing to do becomes capturing the perfect photo of oneself in the “Door of No Return” (believed to be the final exit point and view for slaves bound for the New World).

It was definitely interesting to observe this strange dynamic where the past and present become muddled; yet, alternatively, I also began to think of the ways in which this dynamic is maybe an expression of the reclamation of space. We can question the implications of disrupting the history and effect of the space through tourism and photography, but we can also ask ourselves how Senegalese people have potentially retrieved ownership of their history and this island as a means to further decolonize.

At first, it felt strange holding myself back from snapping away with my camera–there were so many beautiful scenes and photographic opportunities–but I’m glad I was able to take a step back and truly take in, observe, and engage with the cities we lived in directly rather than through a camera lens. The photos I did take were more thoughtfully considered, and they helped me better understand some of the complexities and responsibilities of being a photographer.

Days in Dakar: A Dean’s Scholarship Reflection

Shirley Reynozo
Gallatin Travel Course: “Postcolonial Urbanisms: Development, Environment, & Social Movements in Senegal
Senegal, Summer 2018

While I aim to have an integrated, culturally enriching experience when traveling, I am not interested in travel abroad fueled by romantic idealism nor superficial political correctness. I am interested in grappling with the implications of colonialism and the effects of white hegemony on the culture, language, environment, and urbanization process of former colonies. My language proficiency in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese are immediate gateways that allow me to understand the multiple narratives that exist regarding racial and gender structures and sociopolitical climates.

In my experience, Senegalese culture was more loving than that of their former colonial power. The solidarity amongst the Senegalese and their willingness to accommodate others was seen during everyday encounters. The solidarity amongst the Senegalese, and therefore Muslims, was evident to me during Ramadan.

As the sun began to set, opaque, gray-pink clouds covered the sky. My friends and I called for a taxi, and after some bargaining, we agreed on 3,000 francs. As our driver approached a roundabout, a man reached his hand into the car. Our driver extended his right arm and collected a handful of dates without saying anything. He continued to drive ten more feet, when someone else extended their hand to give him a baguette. Our driver received his food silently and continued to drive. His bread rested on his lap as he ate his dates. I realized then that it was time to break the fast, as the sun had come down.

As we drove past the illuminated Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, I was in awe of not only the scenery but the solidarity amongst the Senegalese. I marveled at the Wolof language and how it implements a positive outlook on life. The positivity is even evident in their customary Arabic greeting, “salaam maalekum(peace be unto you), which fully acknowledges the other person.

I am a strong believer that the way you think shapes the way you experience the world. For this reason, I favored the structure of the Wolof language. I got the impression that words in Wolof orient the people to have a calm outlook, especially with the influence of Islam. An example would be mangi fi rekk, which means “I am here, only,” as a way of saying that all is well. Another one is jamm rekk, meaning “peace only.”

The positivity in the language is also evident in the fact that people do not say “no.” I learned  that they will maneuver around saying no, with something along the lines of xaaral ba mu am rakk (wait until it has a younger sibling). There are also the words, ñoku boku, which is how they say “you’re welcome.” The literal translation is “we share it,” because the culture is structured for people to share and care for each other.

The most remarkable experiences I had that highlight the Senegalese sharing culture were the meals with my host family. Like other cultures, the Senegalese eat around one large plate. In this intimate setting, family members and friends of all ages reach toward a single plate of food. I was always encouraged to lekkel (eat) even when I said, “Suur na” (I’m full).

My family members always made sure I had enough to eat by adding more food to my section. Usually my mother did this, but one of the younger siblings, Boury, would cut up the chicken and made sure everyone around the plate had some. It was beautiful to see that even at such a young age, the Senegalese are cognizant about making sure everyone’s needs are met. I find it especially funny that when my family had me “taste” a food or a drink, they give me a full serving. Another way in which my family accommodated me was by providing me a dress to wear for Eid so that I could join them in the festivities. That made me feel a part of the family and made me feel included in their intimate, religious celebration.

It also pleased me that the children were comfortable around me. They all wanted me to play with them. When groups of them would see me, they all greeted me joyfully, using my Senegalese name: “Nanga def! Bonjour, Boury!” Even if the children had seen me walk by them five minutes earlier, they would greet me with the same enthusiasm.

Though these beautiful mannerisms shape Senegalese culture, there are remnants of white hegemony. One obvious one is the French language. Another is the croissants and baguettes that the Senegalese have for breakfast. However prevalent the French influence is, though, it has of course been reappropriated into the Senegalese culture. This highlights how people are non-linear, multi-faceted and multicultural.

Despite my keen interest in understanding the world and the concept of race in a global perspective, the intersectionalities of religion, gender, and socioeconomic identities made it difficult for me to navigate the perspective and lens through which to see Senegal. For one, I was unsure how to interact with women. It was men, for instance, who more likely asked me to take their photo. On one occasion, I asked a woman for directions, and she told me to ask a man. This led me to ask myself: are women more pious?

My host family was mostly women, though, so I learned to how I should interact with them—with respect, above anything else. There were five women and three girls, but this multiplied, because friends would come in and out. Thus, there could be up to 20 women and girls in the house at one time! This made me truly happy, as it allowed me to see what it may be like to be a Senegalese women, since these spaces are mostly intimate.

All photos taken in Dakar, Senegal, by Shirley Reynozo (@dtba_)

Summer at La Pietra

Mallika Kavadi
Gallatin Travel Course: “Italian Renaissance, Art, and Literature: The Culture Explosion
Florence, Summer 2017

Studying at NYU Florence this past summer was an inimitable experience. I spent a few weeks at NYU’s La Pietra campus studying Renaissance art and literature for Gallatin’s travel course, Italian Renaissance, Art, and Literature: The Culture Explosion.

Apart from the delight in reading Dante and Machiavelli in the city where they lived and were exiled from, and experiencing the immediacy of art I had previously only studied in books, my summer was special because of our stay at La Pietra.

garden with fountain and statues

The Renaissance Gardens of La Pietra

Florence is saturated with so many artistic and architectural marvels that it can get overwhelming at times, but NYU’s quaint hilltop campus provided contemplation and quiet inspiration.

A cypress-lined avenue climbs up the hill towards the Villa La Pietra, so named because of a Roman stone marker that used to be nearby. The Tuscan yellow Baroque building overlooks an expansive olive garden, distant umbrella pines, and glimpses of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral better known for its iconic dome by Brunelleschi.

garden with villa

La Pietra

landscape of greenery and mountains

View near Villa Natalia

parasol pines with cathedral roof in background

Il Duomo peeks from behind the parasol pines

garden with trees and benches

Garden

During the summer months, La Pietra hosts the Season, evenings of book readings, music concerts, and performances. We were able to catch a riveting performance of the Odyssey at the amphitheater situated in the middle of the olive garden, and attend readings and concerts in the Limonaia (equivalent of the English Orangeries, an enclosed space in the garden meant for growing citrus trees during the winter months) followed by receptions in the gardens adjoining the villa.

And all this happened in our free time after having exciting course visits to the city’s churches and museums.

Garden pathway at dusk with villa

clouds looming over the gardens

Summer storm looms over the gardens

The greatest benefit of studying art history in the city was being able to see the evolution of art from the early to late Renaissance and to see different artists’ takes on the same subjects. The best way to explore Florence was to enter any church that was open. You were bound to come across interesting art.

For an extracurricular activity, we were able to see an opera at the Florence Opera House. On the weekends, we were free to go find our own adventures. I visited Urbino, a Renaissance duchy that was the birthplace of the artist Raphael and the setting for Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier as well as a text we read for the travel course.

We concluded the course with a traditional Tuscan meal. The immersive experience complimented the interdisciplinary nature of the course.

historic buildings in a valley with mountains behind, at sunset

Florence, view from Piazza Michelangelo

bridge over river at night

Lights of the Ponte Vecchio reflected in the Arno

people looking into shop window

Francesco’s shoe shop

vintage red bike

Vintage bike race

dog howling from vintage bike with man in background

A bike race companion barks as a vintage bike aficionado looks on

woman standing outside shops

Shops on Ponte Vecchio

rooftops of historic buildings

Slope of Il Duomo, overlooking Florentine rooftops

Learning Queerness is Okay in Berlin

Brennan O’Rourke
Gallatin Travel Course: “Berlin: Capital of Modernity
Berlin, Summer 2017

Much of my life growing up in a city in Kansas (and I use the word “city” lightly) has been spent hiding my queerness. The Midwest is not the most welcoming of places to queer people, especially when it comes to challenging gender stereotypes. I always enjoyed a balance between the feminine and masculine, whatever those terms mean. I enjoyed wearing clothing and expressing myself in ways that men were not supposed to.

Berlin gave me the freedom to explore my gender expression. The judgment wasn’t completely absent, but my experience was certainly freer than anything I had ever experienced before. During my time in Berlin, I barely got any looks of disgust or hate. It was a new experience for me.

author posing on a wallWithin the first week, I made an amazing friend after we matched on a certain dating app (I know, I know; however, this friend became one of my rocks). He gave me the confidence to explore my gender expression. We went out a few nights in Berlin to queer clubs.

I remember one night specifically. Beers in hand, we were walking to a club, but something stopped us, and we stood there on the street talking about queerness. He explained to me about his family—how he hasn’t told them much, but that they know. I talked about how I was scared to explain to my family what gender fluid means, because of the way they think about gender. We spent about two hours there outside with our dress clearly indicating our queerness.

When I got home that night, I reflected on the number of times I had ever felt safe enough to stand on the street dressed like I was for that long. And the answer: never.

My studies about queer Berlin and Berlin’s evolution as a city have contributed to my growth as an individual. Berlin proved to be the centerpiece of the exploration of my queerness, and it also gave me the courage to express myself and embrace the importance of queer friendships.

Berlin: Multiculturalism through Food

Amy Ni
Gallatin Travel Course: “Berlin: Capital of Modernity
Berlin, Summer 2017

poster reading "You Matter" with drawings of artists

Wheat-pasted poster outside MAIFOTO Gallery in Kreuzberg

Berlin ranks among Europe’s most culturally diverse cities. During my month-long stay in the German capital, I was able to learn about its tumultuous political history and get a taste of the growing multiculturalism that has become both an attraction and a source of tension. 

Through literature, films, and museum and city tours curated by Professors Karen Hornick and Fred Smoler, I was struck by the German state’s intimate reckoning with its violent past. The acknowledgment of human suffering is embedded throughout the city, built into its architecture and infrastructure. Berlin dwells in the liminality between woes of the past and excitement of tomorrow; it is charging into an urban future while clutching closely lessons learned from history.

Still, while Germany confronts its history directly and seeks to reconcile as well as prevent, signs of racial and ethnic discrimination persist. There have long been problems with the integration of immigrant communities, particularly with families and individuals fleeing war and unsafe conditions in their home countries. The notion of integration itself can also be troubling, as the line drawn between German and immigrant is a rigid one that does not allow for much hybridity or fluidity.

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Perhaps the most inspiring example of multiculturalism in Berlin can be experienced through its variety of food. Turkish food is easily found in Berlin and does more than reflect the city’s large Turkish population. Berlin-style doner kebab has become one of the most popular fast foods in Germany.

menu showing meal options

Sign outside Turkish restaurant

dishes of food on a table

Dishes at Mercan, a home-style Turkish restaurant

Southeast Asian cuisines are also readily available. Vietnamese restaurants seem to be one of the most numerous and range from uncomplicated, family-owned, hole-in-the-wall types to ultra-modern variations on traditional ideas.

Vietnamese burger menu

Menu at District Mot, a modern Vietnamese restaurant with a Saigon street food theme

plates of food on a table

Assorted sticky rice, chicken, and vegetable dishes, and drinks at District Mot

plate of food

Tibetan curry

plate of food mostly eaten

Tibetan spinach momo

During the warmer months, families set up rows of food stalls in Preussenpark, where mostly women cook and prepare Thai food on the spot. The weekly event has become known as Thaipark and attracts steady flows of locals and tourists. Visitors walk through the makeshift aisles and picnic in the grass beside the main marketplace among Thai and German locals, de-formalizing strict vendor/consumer relations.

food stalls

Thaipark: rows of food stalls beneath colorful umbrellas

man shopping at food stalls

Man buys food from vendor at Thaipark

In addition to the diverse array of cuisines that can be found in Berlin, the types of spaces also differ, constructing both familiar and unique environments and exchanges.