From Islands to Mountains

As I got on my flight to Honduras, my seat on the plane was in the last row, the very last seat. Past all of the people slowly shuffling, struggling with oversized, overweight bags. Past the old ladies confused in the aisles, the children that wouldn’t stay in their seats. Next to bathroom. I crammed my bag under the seat and tucked my knees into the corner, trying to ignore the antiseptic smell floating out of the bathroom. I pulled out my Kindle as we began take off. I had selected an adventure travel book. It began to discuss the most dangerous airlines in the world, fortunately the airline I was on, Aviancas, wasn’t on the list. Then it moved to the dangers of buses in Latin America. Over the next ten days my main form of travel would be chicken buses. Perhaps this would not be the best book to read. I looked at another book I had selected for my trip. It was about some wreck divers who died. With a dive planned for later in the afternoon, I decided this was not the best choice either. I really needed to reconsider my book selection criteria. I began to leaf through the airline provided magazines. They were in Spanish. The shopping magazine, however, was in English. So, lucky me, I could consider whether I needed a life-sized R2D2 or my own personalized back-adjustment brace.20140903_150745

I landed in Honduras and two hours later I was 40 feet under water. The memory of my flight washed away in the warm blue water. I could no longer remember why I had been stressed the day before about work, school, and the growing to do list I left in California. After diving with the sea turtles, I enjoyed a cold Salva Vida at the bar on the beach, which was really not much more than a tiki hut with a couple of coolers and a blender. There were five people there. All ex-pats. Looking tired. Looking relaxed. They were nursing beers or rum. Only the tourists drink the fancy drinks that required a blender. The ex-pats were talking about having their money sent to them from the states, they agreed it was such a hassle, couldn’t there be an easier way to receive money they pondered. A tiny puppy chased a little tow-headed boy around the bar. The wind kept the sand flies away. I had another beer as the sun sunk lower in the horizon.

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Day two brought two dives before I even really woke up. Life is amazing when you’re underwater. The island was empty, the throngs from the U.S. having returned to school the week before. I had a private guide, nearly private dives. It was real quiet, floating weightless in the water, watching the fish swim by, accompanied only by the sound of my own breathing.
Until the night dive. It was the first time I saw a crowd on the island. Only one dive shop was offering night dives, so there was ten of us bunched together in the dark. A fin kicked my face. I held on to my regulator. I bumped into a tank. I couldn’t take it anymore. I swam a few feet away from the group. It was much better. Now the dive was beautiful. Three of us found a small octopus. It scrambled away from our lights as fast as its eight legs would drag it. I understood, I wouldn’t like it if a bunch of strangers came into my bedroom and shined lights in my face.

The next day brought two more dives, before a much needed nap in the hammock. Still in my swimsuit, I feel asleep in20140904_072232 moments. I awoke an hour later, shivering as I heard a cry for help. “Help,” I heard it again. It was coming from a big black bird in the tree next to me “help, help, help,” it squawked. A dog barked at it. My nap was over.

Before long it was time to leave for Guatemala. We were assured the night before by one of the rather drunk Dive Masters, that we would need to pay $30 for a taxi and arrive at the airport three hours early. We paid $15 and arrived less than two hours before we took off. When we arrived in Guatemala City it was pouring rain. It was not the warm rain of Roatan, but the cold rain of the mountains. The rain followed us to our hotel in Antigua. It continued during our dinner at the restaurant, which served both gluten-free and vegan options. As it turns out, the gluten-free craze is global. The rain did let up however, in time for me to hear the rousing chorus of game fight songs coming from the drunks in the bar across the street from the hotel room I was trying to sleep in.

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The next day, after many hours on a chicken bus, and some very windy roads, I arrived in Nebaj. Nebaj is fairly indistinguishable from other mid-size towns in Central America. Nebaj is loud. Over my five nights in town, I attempted to sleep to a constant soundtrack of weaving tuk tuks and micros honking at stray dogs, who barked incessantly in return. That was only until 4am. At 4am it didn’t get quiet. No, at 4am is when the marching bands began to practice. I had the good fortune of arriving a week before September 15th, when the entire country shuts down to celebrate its independence. In addition to traditional music, dancing, and rituals, someone decided that marching bands playing bad renditions of American Hip Hop would be an excellent way to celebrate. After an hour of their playing, I missed the barking dogs and honking tuk tuks.
Chajul where I worked each day, on the other hand, invokes the feeling of a small mountain hamlet. It could be a rural, 20140908_110434mountain town anywhere in the world, but it is definitely in Guatemala. The whole town smells of fire, from families cooking their meals on open fires. The women walk around in brightly colored woven huiplis and red cortes, their children attached to their backs by a woven shawl. The men and children carry machetes and baskets of firewood attached via a strap to their forehead. On the first day we had lunch at the home of a local family. The mother prepared Boxbol, a local delicacy made of cornmeal, over a firewood stove on a dirt floor. The walls of her two-room home were black from the soot of the fire. Pinned on the walls were prized pictures of family members. While we devoured several bowls of Boxbol, a small chicken wondered through the house, as a kitten stalked it. A young boy, the youngest child in the family, practiced his Spanish language cards proudly in the corner.
A few days later I began what I thought would be a tranquil weaving lesson. I’ve embroidered, I even know how to knit, but I was not prepared to weave on a back loom. While my instructor’s hands flew over the loom, deftly turning strand after strand of thread into tightly woven cloth, I on the other hand, slowly created knots, which had to be fished out. My instructor must20140909_141121 have questioned my intelligence after the poor showing, because she sent her two small children to escort me back to town, concerned I would get lost on the three block walk. As I walked back to the village, escorted by my two pint-sized guides, huffing to keep up, the other children in town decided I was quite a sight. “Hola” they hollered, one by one, giggling as I responded. My guides blushed from the attention.

Before long it was time for me to leave Chajul and Nebaj. Two micros, one tuk tuk, one chicken bus, and a taxi brought me back to the airport. At the airport I entered a fancy restaurant, filled with U.S. and European businessmen conducting their work in broken mix of Spanish and English. I was there for the free Wi-Fi, but I had to order something to eat for the privilege. I ordered a sandwich and a Coca Cola Light. My food order doubled the total amount of money I had spent in Guatemala. As the day slipped on, my trip to Honduras and Guatemala ended.

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Lost Shaker of Salt- A trip through the Florida Keys

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Key West living

Arriving in Key West and driving to Miami gave me the sensation of trying to crawl up a slide. Every couple of years my mother and I go on a trip and this year it was to the Florida Keys. Key West is the most expensive of the islands, so we decided it would be less expensive if we flew to Key West during the week and spent the Labor Day weekend on Key Largo. While, financially, this made sense (as well as allowing us to avoid the vast majority of the horde of South Floridian tourists enjoying the long weekend in the keys); during the entire trip I was sure we were heading in the wrong direction.

I live in California. Most of my shoes are flip flops. Even with the abundance of bachelorette parties, weddings, and baby showers that have taken over my summer weekends as I enter my thirties- I still spend almost every weekend at the beach. Technically, I even live on an island (admittedly one in the middle of San Francisco Bay’s urban environment). Yet, Key West was a whole different level of island living.

The main strip, Duval Street, is reminiscent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans- minus the good music. Instead of soulful jazz, the musicians of Key West prefer singing off-key renditions of Bob Marley. However, there are an assortment of bars serving hurricane slurpies and shops selling cheap t-shirts from China with bad puns all housed in beautiful historic buildings.

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The Original Sloppy Joes

One night I dragged my mother into Captain Tony’s Saloon for a cold Key West Ale. The bar had once been the home of Sloppy Joe’s, made famous by Hemingway’s habitual frequenting of the establishment. Prior to housing Sloppy Joe’s the building originally served as an ice house, where it doubled as a morgue. As it is rather hot in Key West, the wise residents decided that they would use the tree in the courtyard directly outside of the ice house as the local hanging tree, ensuring that they wouldn’t have to carry the decaying corpses to far in the tropical sun. When the building owners eventually enclosed the courtyard, they left the tree. Now in the middle of the bar, the tree still stood. Bras now dangled from the branches that once held dead bodies. The bras must have been thrown there during much wilder nights then the one we decided to visit one. After listening to caterwauling of the intoxicated musician that was supposed to be the evening’s entertainment for twenty minutes, we decided to leave.

Key West wasn’t very crowded when we arrived. Mid-week, at the end of August, meant that most of the people we ran into were locals or long-term visitors. I grew up around sailors; as a result, I am very aware of what a life of too much sun, too much wind, and way too much booze can do to your body. The men and women in Key West exemplified the look. Their skin had tanned to an unearthly, almost orange shade, their hair so blonde; it was almost white, cut in the latest of 1980s mullet-styles. But, what bothered me most was the leathery wrinkles, which gave them the appearance of dried up fruit, left in the sun too long. The wrinkles must have of bothered the women as well, as they tried to cover their orange wrinkles with thick, dark, make-up, which melted and dripped down their faces as they sipped their sugary drinks. After one day in Key West, I went straight to the convenience store where I purchased several bottles of sunscreen, with SPF counts so high, I was sure they were making them up.

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Key West Style

 The weather in Key West is amazing, as the wind keeps the island’s heat from being unbearable. One morning we went kayaking where we saw a nurse shark and watched fish jump. We enjoyed conch fritters and key lime pie, and I was quite content to spend the rest of the trip on Key West. That was until the cruise ship arrived. All of a sudden masses of pasty-skinned tourists slowly stumbled through the streets, constantly flapping paper fans.

“Ready to go to the next island?” I asked. Before long we were in the car on our way to Key Colony Beach.

Key Colony Beach was not filled with beautiful historic colonial homes that lined the streets of Key West. Most of the homes are condos and weekend homes owned by Miami residents, who want a place to fish on the weekends. The houses were all built in the 1980s and 1990s, designed to look vaguely like Mediterranean villas. It reminded me of Discovery Bay in the Delta, and like Discovery Bay, during the middle of the week it was fairly empty. Our hotel had a beachside pool, complete with a bar that served lots of different fish meals, and featured a singer, who caterwauled off-key Bob Marley songs, which I began to realize was the staple of any decent establishment on the Keys.

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Key Colony Beach

After a day of swimming, laying on the hammocks, and watching the iguanas run by, it was time to head to Key Largo, where I was antsy to go diving. We stopped on the way at Robbie’s Marina, an assortment of shacks that’s claim to fame was that they let you throw fish at the massive tarpons that swim by the docks. I’m not sure what it is about watching a substantial, prehistoric-looking creature leap for rotting fish in your hand that turns grown men into twelve-year-old boys. But watching them giggle and shriek as they dared each other to get closer, was almost as entertaining as watching the tarpons themselves. I once saw a similar scene in Costa Rica. There the men were dangling the fish over the heads of giant crocodiles. Costa Rica, of course, is much less familiar with lawsuits.

Eventually we made it to Key Largo. However, I had failed to book any diving prior to arriving on the island and was only able to schedule two dives. Not to be dissuaded, I signed up for a snorkel trip as well, and enjoyed two days on the reef.  The reef is about 45 minutes from the island and at the end of each day, as the boat slowly motored back; I watched the dwindling sunlight dance across the water. I pondered the important questions of life, like, “Why is the sand hotter at some beaches than others?” and forgot my resolve to wear sunscreen always.

Before long our time on the Keys was over. I was sad, but excited to go on a swamp boat tour of the Everglades. Unfortunately, that was not to happen. As we drove across the bridge exiting Key Largo a big fat rain drop splattered on the windshield. The weatherman on the radio told us the conditions of the reef should be perfect all afternoon- no wind, no rain, just sunshine. We continued to drive forward under an ominous grey cloud. Then the skies opened up. I’ve never seen rain like this before. Before long I couldn’t see anything outside of the car, which made driving really difficult.

To make matters more challenging, my car charger and phone suddenly died, leaving us without GPS. After several wrong turns and attempts to drive deeper into the Everglades, which seemed to be the epicenter of the storm, I pulled over into a residential section, and waited for the tempest to pass. Within twenty minutes the storm began to subside (at least enough to see a few feet in front of the car). In front of where we had parked to wait out the storm, two men in a work truck had also stopped. The two men drove out on the ride-on lawn mowers they had parked in the back of their truck and began to joy-ride through the puddles and constant downpour, leaving me to believe that South Floridians are rather odd.

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Miami Beach

By the time I could see enough to drive, it was too late to go to the Everglades and we drove to Miami instead. Our hotel was in Miami Beach and it was decorated in the ornate art-deco style that Miami is famous for. The decadence was a bit jarring after a week in the laid-back Keys, where license plates and dollar bills stapled to the walls are considered the height of décor. Our hotel had an international feel to it and the wait and pool staff spoke to us in Spanish. I thought nothing of it and answered in my best Spanglish, until I heard one waitress speak to young blonde woman in English. It wasn’t that the staff didn’t speak English; it was that they assumed we didn’t.

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Miami at Night

Miami is beautiful; it looks like a movie set, and I could have spent a few more days enjoying the shopping, however, it was time to go. Once we reached the airport I realized I had made a great oversight on my trip. After a week of eating fish at every meal (an accomplishment I am quite proud of) I had forgotten to try Cuban food. We quickly stopped at a small Cuban sandwich shop and I ordered a Media Noche, a delicious sweet bread sandwich. As I waited for the plane to board, I enjoyed my ham sandwich, and wondered where I could find conch fritters in Alameda.

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What do you do?

“What do you do?”

 That question is my least favorite part of mind-numbing small talk.

 “What do I do?”

I walk my dog. I write. I go to the beach with my mom. I go boating with my friends. I read. I sail with my dad. I watch the Giant’s play baseball. I run. I watch movies. I travel. I do a lot of things.

I realize that the question is really “What do you do to earn money?”

But, I’m still never sure how to answer. Yes, I’m a grant writer. I work at a non-profit. But, I also tutor at another non-profit. I also Chair a Board of yet another non-profit- I don’t get paid- but it’s definitely a lot of work. I know I’m not the only one who suffers from chronic volunteerism. I was at a social event for non-profit staff and at one point someone asked me the dreaded “What do you do?” For a moment, I couldn’t remember whether I was there for my main job or one of the other non-profits I’m involved with. So, I told her just that. She smiled knowingly, “Oh, you work the non-profit double shift.”

I’m happy to be working, “What do you do?” is much worse when you are unemployed. I can still hear the voice of the careers director at my master’s program, “Take advantage of all of your networking opportunities.” But, when I was searching for a job- I really didn’t want to tell some stranger at a cocktail party how I split my time between submitting resumes, conducting “informational interviews”, and watching NCIS marathons. Instead I usually mumbled something like, “just finished school”, “still looking”, or, my personal favorite, “I’m in-between opportunities.”

One day I was volunteering at an event. The volunteer manager gathered everyone together to introduce themselves. She must have known that “What do you do?” is an awful question, because she asked everyone to share “What are you passionate about?” At first I thought that her question was really enlightened- I could chose whatever I wanted to define myself. Then it was my turn to answer and I realized I wasn’t sure what one thing I wanted to define me. “I’m a grant writer,” I mumbled.

A couple of years ago I was traveling through South America. At one point I realized that out of all the people I met, no one asked me “What do you do?” In fact, I traveled with some people for a couple of weeks and I didn’t even know what they did. There wasn’t a need to ask. Travel is what we did.

 Instead travelers ask “Where have you been?” followed up by “Where are you going next?” Unlike “What do you do?” “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going?” have a purpose. Once a traveler starts listing places, they inevitably get to a place where the other traveler has been or is going to, which gives a chance to share advice, trade stories, and find common ground.

 So, next time I’m asked “What do you do?” I may just respond with places I’ve been.

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Sacramento

A couple of weeks after I returned home from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women conference I went to Sacramento, California. Sacramento could not be more different than New York City. I stayed in a hotel near the capital. To get from the hotel to the capital building, I passed under an overpass where homeless people slept, through a mall that was not much more than a food court, and rows of empty storefronts. On the other side of the hotel was Old Town Sacramento. California still has ghost towns leftover from the gold rush. When I was a child, my parents dragged me to every last one. Now they are mostly tourist traps, places for children to pan for gold, take pictures in costumes, and eat penny candy. Walking through OldTown means maneuvering over a crooked wood plank floor and around groups of second graders eating ice cream. At one of the Old Town pubs they served corned beef tacos, a concoction I concluded must had been devised by an intoxicated patron. Compared to New York’s shiny sky scrapers, bright lights, well-dressed residents, and constant noise, Sacramento is almost eerily quiet—a town where the past is enjoyed and the present ignored.

I was in Sacramento for a readers’ conference for the California Department of Education (CDE). At a readers’ conference “experts” read grant proposals and determine which ones should receive funding. In a grant proposal a problem is presented, a plan for a program to solve the problem is explained, the goals and objectives listed, and the worked planned out.

I love grant proposals. Out of all the proposals that were submitted to the CDE there was probably only funding for less than a tenth. But each proposal represented so much hope. In a proposal there is a solution to every problem. As I read over the dozens of proposals I imagined each community, each school, each program, each child- learning something new, having fun, being inspired. Each proposal made the problems caused by poverty, failing schools, and inequity seem solvable, the solutions doable.

I left the conference knowing that only a few of the programs would be funded, and even the ones that did would struggle to survive. But, I also left feeling hopeful, because all over California people had big plans, ideas, hopes for the future—and I was lucky enough to read a few of them.

On Friday after the conference was over I drove back to the Bay Area on Interstate 80. As I drove down the long, flat freeway the wind picked up. A tumble weed blew in front of my car, colliding with my front bumper. I closed my eyes for a moment and then I continued to drive.

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Girls Are the Solution

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Conference is concluding, but I’m already back in California. When I envisioned writing this post I thought that I would be overwhelmed with best practices, inspirational stories, and motivational words. Everyone keeps asking me how it went. I’m not sure how to answer. Every session at the Conference was filled with depressing stories of horrific violence: rape, child brides, sex trafficking, teen dating violence, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, slavery, femicide, infanticide, honor killing. But, I know that is not what people are asking me about. They want to know what the United Nations is doing, what different ngos are doing- they want to know what is the solution.

The inspirational stories were not the stories that each speaker told, but they were there- hidden under the tragedies. There was the story of the City of San Francisco. In San Francisco activists successfully lobbied the City to form a Department on the Status of Women, which gathered government agencies and community-based organizations together to combat domestic violence and sex trafficking. There were the women in Cuba, who during the 1960s went out in the countryside to teach the campesinos to read. There were the women working for Kids In Need of Defense, who provided unaccompanied immigrant minors with pro-bono legal defense. Or there was the Take Back the Tech Campaign, which spread awareness to youth about protecting themselves from technology being used against them. There were the women campaigning to bring women all over the world together, to share their stories at a Fifth World Conference on Women.

 The stories of the girls and youth participants were the most inspiring. There were the college students from North Carolina, who researched issues of violence against women to present to the United Nations and their classmates. There was the Children’s Parliament in India, where children gathered to discuss the issues that impacted their lives and advocate for children in the adult Parliaments. There was also the many, many Girl Scouts and Girl Guides from all over the world. They argued that “girls were the solution” and proved it, by telling their stories about how they planted trees in their village in Africa to provide fruit and firewood for their families, or how they led teen dating violence workshops with pre-adolescents in Scotland to encourage their younger sisters to think critically about media messages.

 Gaynel Curry from the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights told delegates that “violence against women is a global challenge and everyone needs to be part of the solution.” The girls attending the UN CSW Conference answered with their solutions. In a letter to the United Nations they urged UN funding of education worldwide, arguing that “knowledge, not violence, should be the international currency of power.”

 While I don’t know what the United Nations is going to do, I do know that there are many ngos trying to make a difference. But I believe that the way change will happen is when we stop focusing on the tragedies and start looking to the solutions. Zainab Salbi the founder of Women for Women International argued, “We need to own our story. We each have a story and it has to start from within. It is about us telling a new story of us.” 

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Stories

On my way into New York I shared a shuttle with a bunch of people from Italy. One woman kept taking pictures of all of the garbage- a broken window in the back of taxi, a mattress on the side of the road, a boarded up building covered in graffiti. She ignored the New York City skyline, Times Square all lit up, the Empire State Building- only pulling her camera out for the grittier side of the city. I imagined she was planning to go home and try to convince her friends that New York City was destroyed in apocalyptic event.

She got me thinking about how we frame stories we tell, what pictures we choose to show. When Consultation Day (an event for representatives from NGOs worldwide) at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Conference began it was filled with tragic information. Michelle Bachelet, the Under-Secretary General and the Executive Director of UN Women told the crowd, “Violence against women is undermining all development efforts.” We heard statistics on sex trafficking, domestic violence, and prostitution. When Dr. Helga Konrad, the Former Austrian Minister for Women, argued “the main problem is that we are dealing with effects of human trafficking not prevention. We are managing human trafficking not combating it,” the woman next to me, who worked in Iraq, told me about the Syrian refugees being trafficked in Iraq. She asked “how can we possibly prevent human trafficking?” I didn’t have a response, so I just shrugged.

Ambassador Gunnarsdottir of Iceland said “we often describe all the problems and we do not get any further than that.” She was right, but the problems seem so overwhelming. I struggled to reframe- to focus on possibilities instead of problems, when Sean Southey, the Executive Director of PCI Media Impact, got up and said “victims, advocates, victims and advocates. What stories do we tell? We have to be sure we are telling the right stories.”

I thought about the young women from GIRL Be Heard, who kicked off the event with their amazing monologues. They reminded me of our teen girls at Girls Inc., who celebrate G-Day (Girls-Day) every February, sharing their own stories about what it means to be a girl in the world. The teens always leave me feeling empowered by their bold voices. I am going to stay focused on those stories this week- the bold, powerful voices of girls and women.

“One good story can change the world and together we can change the world one story at a time.” – Sean Southey.

#CSW57

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Feminism

I never considered myself a feminist. My mother was a feminist. The oldest daughter in an immigrant family, she fought to go to college, to marry who she wanted, to dress how she wanted. But I didn’t need to fight. I always knew I would go to college, my parents never questioned what I wore, and while they may have questioned who I dated, they respected my right to choose. Feminism seemed outdated, a fight that had already been won. In graduate school I attended an amazing session on gender mainstreaming in development work. Led by a Cornell Law professor and hosted by the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs Women in Public Policy group, I enjoyed a day of engaging dialogue about the role that gender plays in international development. Here, it seemed, there was still work to be done, progress to make. After the amazing workshop, I signed up for a follow-up session. The day of the session I caught a ride with a friend to the professor’s house, where the event was held. The car smelled of fast food French fries, an effect of the biodiesel that fueled the car. Five of us were crammed in there, all talking at once about the prior week’s workshop. We were excited to find out what the focus would be for the follow-up session. All we knew was it would be about women’s rights in India.

We arrived at a huge house on the lake, and trudged through the snow to get to the front door. When we arrived there was a woman in her late fifties sitting on the floor, her legs wrapped around a small drum. While she was a white woman, she wore loose fitted clothing that resembled clothing that a man in India might wear. We sat down on the colorful pillows strewn about nearby. As we sat the woman began to lightly thump on the drum in her lap. She told us about how she had gone to India in the 1970s to learn to play the drum. She told us how she challenged the locals’ views on women by becoming the first woman to be trained to use the drum, which was traditionally a man’s instrument. I looked at my friends, only to see the same puzzled expressions on their faces that I had. What did one American woman traveling in India, learning to play a drum, have to do with women’s rights in India? One of my friends began to fidget as she listened to the woman’s story. My friend, who was born and raised in India, had spent several years as a journalist before coming to Cornell, often interviewing women who had experienced all sorts of challenges. Finally, my friend couldn’t take it anymore, she interrupted the woman. The drum stopped. “Did you actually spend time with any women while in India?” The woman seemed confused by the question. “No, only men played the drum, so I spent my time with them,” she replied.

After that day I was hesitant to get involved with anything that focused on women’s rights. Yet, when I graduated from Cornell, I went work at Girls Inc. I wanted to work there because Girls Inc. had a good reputation as a strong youth development organization in my community. I worked in youth development programs since I was a teenager, but prior to Girls Inc., the organizations were always co-ed. My first role at Girls Inc. was coordinating an afterschool program in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. The Fruitvale is an international neighborhood; most of its residents are recent immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and Vietnam. My girls reflected the neighborhood. For the first time since I started working with youth, I began to hear the girls’ voices. In a co-ed setting, only a few girls are able to make themselves heard over their often noisier and more rambunctious male peers. But, now I was able to hear all of the girls- from Naomi* who always wanted to be in charge to Beatrice who moved through life at her own very….slow….pace. There was Lisa, who was always quiet in class, but played every sport to win. She once stole a ball from another group of girls. When I asked her why she took something that wasn’t hers she looked at me as if I was stupid. “Because I wanted it,” she replied. Then there was Anya, who after meeting one of the guest engineers that we brought in told me, “I’m going to be an engineer too. You know why? Because I’m smart!”

Girls Inc.’s mission is to inspire all girls to be strong, smart and bold. But, this group of nine and ten year old girls inspired me instead. They made me realize that we still need to fight, to make sure their voices, and all girls’ voices are heard. They inspired me to call myself a feminist and they are the reason I am where I am today, on a plane on my way to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Conference to learn more about what I can do to support girls and women worldwide.

* All names were changed for privacy.

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Favelas

ImageIn a few days Rio de Janiero will be erupting with Carnival. While I can’t be there, I was fortunate enough to visit the amazing city in the past. A few weeks before I left for Rio the news was filled with armed battles between the Brazilian police and the drug lords that ruled the favelas. Every night I saw images of buses on fires, criminals shooting at police, frightened bystanders trying to escape the chaos, and crying children. My friends and family questioned my decision to visit Rio. “I’m sure I will be fine.” I replied.

 I used to live in Oakland, California. While Oakland was swept up in the Occupy Protests I would get worried calls from friends around the country. In the news they had seen images of protesters with bandannas hiding their face, breaking windows, lines of heavily armed police officers, and tear gas and smoke filling the sky. My home was only a few miles from the protests and on a quiet night you could hear them, but it really didn’t impact my neighborhood. The protests, which often disintegrated into riots, weren’t the first riots I’d seen in Oakland, and I’m sure they won’t be the last.

Once, when speaking of his home city of Rio de Janiero, one of my Brazilian friends told me “Rio, it’s not really like that. I mean, yes, what you see on the news is really happening. But, that it is not Rio, not really.”

“I understand” I replied.

In Rio you can go on a tour the favelas. When I first heard about it I thought it was a weird tourist gimmick and I was sure I wouldn’t go. But anywhere you go in Rio, you can see the rainbow of bright colored homes on the hills that make up the favelas. Their beauty called to me. Where I live, million-dollar homes have the million-dollar views. But, in Rio it is the poor who live on the hills. Without reliable transportation, the homes on the hills are the most difficult to access. So the poorest live up highest, enjoying the views of one of the world’s most beautiful bay. I couldn’t resist, I wanted to see the rainbow of homes up close, so I signed up for a tour.

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The group picked us up in an old white tourist van, filled with travelers from Australia and the United States. As we climbed up the hill we passed a family of three on a motorcycle, the man driving the bike, while the women clutched a toddler and him. The couple both wore sandals and didn’t wear helmets. My heart leapt as we made a tight turn next to them. I was sure she would drop the baby, but she didn’t, and they sped off ahead of us. The van dropped us off at the entrance to the favela.

The smell of chicken barbecuing on the radiator of an old truck filled the air. We stopped and ordered capahrina’s from a street vendor, trying to cool down from the sticky heat. I took a sip of my capahrina, slightly puckering from the sour taste. I licked a drop of sugar off of my lip as I glanced over at the tattoo shop. “We could get ink there,” said the girl sitting next to me. A bubbly Australian surfer girl with tight curly blonde hair, she had stopped for tattoos twice already on our trip through South America. I made a non-committal grunt thinking about the possibility. Getting a tattoo in a favela in Rio didn’t seem like the safest idea.

Years before on a trip to Australia my friend and I decided to commemorate our trip with tattoos. We went to a tattoo parlor in St. Kilda, Melbourne that was recommended by an Aussie we were staying with. We both got tattoos of the Southern Cross, a constellation only seen in the southern hemisphere, which emblazons the Australian flag. Much smaller than my other tattoos, this small cross on my hip didn’t hurt much when they tattooed it. After getting the tattoos we jumped on a bus to Sydney. With the fresh ink on my hip I couldn’t get comfortable on the bus as the bumpy road caused my clothes to rub against the healing flesh.

Rio was the end of my short trip in South America, so there would be no bus rides to contend with, but I decided to pass on the tattoo in favela anyways. We finished our tour at a community center next to a small school. The school wasn’t in session but there were a couple of children playing on the computer, while others kicked a soccer ball around the yard. It reminded me of the schools I worked at.

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Our guide gave us his closing remarks. “In Brazil, the locals don’t enter the favelas. That’s why we started the tours. We wanted people to know, what they hear, what they see about the favelas. That is not the truth. The favelas are more, they are my home.”

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A (Short) Tale of (Voting in) Two Cities

White House at Night

In 2008 I lived in Washington, D.C. In D.C. people breathe, eat, drink, sleep, and spend every waking minute consuming politics. Living there during a presidential election year was intense. Working for the Organization of American States, one of the world’s oldest international organizations, my days were not focused on the domestic race. But every night I walked home, crossing in front of the House on Pennsylvania Avenue, and I was reminded of the significance of the race.

A D.C. Afternoon

The Tuesday of the election was grey and drizzly. I waited, bundled in my puffy fall coat, in the long line that stretched down the block. I shivered from the cold as it took over an hour until it was my turn to vote. I’ve always voted in person. I like checking the boxes, feeding my ballot into the machine, and, of course, getting a sticker that proudly announces that I voted. But, I never waited as long to cast my vote as I did that bitterly cold fall day. When it was finally my turn I walked in the door of crumbling brownstone office building to cast my vote. I left my gloves on to stay warm as I filled out my ballot.

That night after work I came home to watch the election results with my housemates. It was only my second fall on the East Coast and I didn’t realize how late the election results come in there. As the results slowly trickled in over the hours, we celebrated by taking shots and chugging our beers. Washington D.C. overwhelming voted for President Barack Obama. When he finally won around midnight the excitement exploded into the streets. Within moments everyone walked outside, cheering, hugging their neighbors, as the city vibrated with excitement.

Enjoying My Neighborhood

Yesterday I voted for the president again. Now I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. To get to the polling place I walked towards the beach, enjoying the sunny weather. There was no puffy coat needed this year, no this time I was wearing a sundress. At the polling place, my neighbor’s driveway, I needed to put on my sunglasses to read the ballot in the bright sunlight. Within moments of arriving, I completed my ballot and left to work.

By the time I got off of work, the polls had closed in most states and results were pouring in. I watched the results while bouncing my goddaughter on my knee. I celebrated the night’s victories by splitting a beer with my friends. After, I went home and crawled into bed well before midnight.

California Voter

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Hawaii is not a state of mind, but a state of grace– Paul Theroux

When I arrived in Kauai, I felt like I was returning to a dream I’ve had many times. When I was younger my whole family would take a big trip to the islands every other year. Everyone- grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins- all piled into a couple of condos. As my family grew older and bigger, our lives grew busier and the trips grew less frequent, eventually stopping all together. This trip with my parents and my brother to Kauai was the first in nearly a decade.

Arrival in Kauai

We arrived at the Lihue airport in the morning. The airport hadn’t changed much in the previous ten years; it probably hadn’t changed much in the ten years prior. Lihue airport reminds me of my father. When I was young he was larger than life. He had a big rosy face and a laugh that could be heard for miles. One time we caught an inter-island flight from the Big Island. My dad bought a rack of ribs in Hawaii and we hadn’t finished them. So he brought them in his carry-on cooler along with a bottle of rum he hadn’t finished. With his rib and rum filled cooler, a guitar slung over his back, and a bright Hawaiian shirt on, he loudly herded our family through the airport. Other passengers watched as our boisterous family passed by. Today, with his UC Berkeley hat and his ever-present glasses, my father looks more like a befuddled professor as I herd our small, quiet group through the airport.

Old Koloa Town

After landing we headed to the farmer’s market to get fresh fruit for the week. The farmer’s market is held in a little league baseball field outside of Old Koloa Town. We waded through the crowd of pale-skinned tourists, slowly shuffling from one booth to the next. When I came here as a child my nonno picked fresh mangoes, guavas, and coconuts from the trees growing all over the resort. He couldn’t stand the idea of the fruit going to waste, so he shimmied up the trees and picked the ripest fruits. Neither my parents nor I know how to select a ripe mango or guava, so my father asks an older vendor what we should select. The old man points to a mango, “this one, you eat today.” We bought it along with a couple of guavas.

Traveling Kauai

Run, pool, beach, ice cream, beach, sunset, mango, pool, rinse, repeat.  Life in paradise.

Sunset in Poipu

Everyone seemed tired. The restaurant staff, the dive boat captain, they were all helpful- with a constant smile on their faces- but they were just going through the motions, tired of the hordes of tourists walking through their doors. Maybe it was just because it was September and they were recovering from the summer rush.

Secret Beach

A few days into the trip we went to our secret beach. It probably was never much of a secret, but we were excited to find the hidden gem years ago. The white-sand beach had a lagoon and coral-free entry to the ocean. It also was a hike from the dirt road past a homeless encampment, but that only added to the feeling that we were finding a beach that no one knew about. Now Secret Beach is listed on the map they pass out at the airport. The dirt road was paved over and the homeless encampment replaced with million-dollar homes. But, the lagoon, the shady white sand beach, and the coral-free entry to the sparkling blue ocean is still there.

Island Evening

When I was a child this island was overrun with frogs- slimy, croaking, green carpets of frogs. My brother named them all “stupid” after watching one jump into a window. After dinner our nonno would take us all frog hunting. Nonno carried a white Styrofoam cooler he had rummaged from the condo. “How many frogs are we going to hunt for?” my brother asked, his eyes widened, as he imagined filling the cooler with frogs.

“Enough,” responded my nonno.

“Enough for what?” I questioned.

“Enough to race,” was the response. “Be quiet so we can hear them.”

We stopped by a neatly manicured hedge. My nonno put the cooler down. The sound of the frogs bellowing filled the night. Suddenly my nonno bent down and his hand shot out. When he stood up he was clutching a fat green frog. My brother studied how nonno caught the frog and watched him move it into the cooler. Walking a few feet away he mimicked nonno’s actions and grabbed his own fat green frog.

I wanted to catch one too. I walked around the bush until I noticed a little frog in the corner. I reached down, grabbing it as fast as I could. Then I had a fat green frog of my own. I tried to hold it firmly but not crush it. “I’ve got one,” I said as I walked back to the cooler. A bright yellow stream came from the frog. “Gross,” I shrieked, dropping the frog, which quickly escaped.

“It was frightened,” my mom explained, wiping my hands with the tissues she always carried. I didn’t care if it was frightened; it was gross. From then on I just pointed the frogs out to nonno and my brother.

Eventually nonno determined that we had enough frogs to race. He gathered us close and spoke solemnly into the cooler. “Hop fast, little frogs, because we are eating whichever one of you loses,” he warned the frogs. I groaned at the thought of eating the little creatures and he winked at me. We each picked up a frog and lined them up, holding them back on an invisible line. “Ready, set, go,” nonno shouted and we released the frogs. All the frogs hopped off in different directions, making their escape into the bushes.

The last time we went to Hawaii with the whole family, I was seventeen. My nonno could no longer take us frog hunting after dinner, as his knee slowed him down. At night after soup and barbecue, my brother and I went over to our five-year-old cousin, David. “Come on,” my brother said, “we are going frog hunting.”

“What’s that?” David asked.

“It’s when we go catch frogs to race,” my brother explained, as I pulled a white Styrofoam cooler out of the closet.

“What do we do after we race them?” David asked.

I looked over at my nonno, who was watching us, and I winked. “We eat the loser,” I replied.

Kauai Style

There are still a few frogs but now the island is overrun with chickens. Every morning at 6:30am the constant crowing of a rooster woke me up. I miss the frogs.

Too many chickens!

The road to Waimea is covered by red dirt, which flows across the asphalt after it rains. Between the chickens, the dirt, and the desert-like terrain, the road should be in a Spaghetti Western, except for the endless groves of palm trees and golf courses that pop up out of nowhere. The roads wind to the top of the mountain. From there we stood above the helicopters, looking down at the sparkling waters, waterfalls, and rain forests.

Waimea Overlook

The road to Hanalei is lusher. It starts with the same red dirt covered roads. As we drove from Poipu to Hanalei we passed abandoned sugar mills, green valleys, and rusty bridges over glassy rivers. We passed the Coco Palms Resort in Wailuā. The resort made famous by Elvis Presley in the movie Blue Hawaii has been abandoned since Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Now it sits hollowed out and empty rotting back into the land, a ghost of its glory days in the 1970s.

Coco Palms Resort

Drive, view, ice cream, hike, beach, sunset, hot tub, snorkel, beach, rinse, repeat. Paradise continued.

Paradise Continued

On the second to last day I went snorkeling at Poipu Beach. It was amazing- sea turtles, moray eels, needlefish, and butterfly fish- all right off the beach. A monk seal decided to sun itself on the spit. The lifeguards roped off the area to protect the endangered animal. In the water the monk seals are actually quite pretty, graceful swimmers. This one looked dead. As it lay on the beach, it steadily ignored the throngs of tourists photographing it from just beyond the rope. I wasn’t sure if it was enjoying the sun or just to tired to do anything else. After checking out the monk seal I went and sprawled out on my beach chair. Drinking a Kona ale to wash the salt water taste out of my mouth from snorkeling, I watched the sun lazily sink on the horizon.

Monk Seal

Goodbye Kauai, mahalo for the memories.

Aloha

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