New Year’s Challenges

The New Year is coming. I’m generally not too big on New Year’s Resolutions – I get enough “fresh starts” in my day to day life that I don’t need a specific day to motivate me to change. I’m a pretty competitive person, though, and I like any excuse for a challenge. So, I’ve decided I will create a few New Year’s Challenges – those, I can get behind. Here’s what I’ve decided on:

  1. A few friends have set up a running challenge – to run 300 miles in 2016 and be the first in the group to do so – I’m in! I’ve scheduled my half marathon for the end of January, so I’ll be off to a good start. I’m currently running about 15 miles a week, so even if I manage to stick to that for only half of the year, I should be good.
  2. Read 50 books in 2016. That’s about a book a week – doable, but challenging. I’ve been going a little crazy lately on Amazon buying books, and then they all sit on my shelf and collect dust. I basically am a book collector. I just purchased a Kindle, so I will have no shortage of reading material…but I am always open to suggestions as well! Bring it on.
  3. Become conversational in either Hindi or Kannada – I haven’t decided which. I’m not even worried about writing, but I should at least be able to speak. I hate not being able to communicate with people who don’t speak English. And everyone here speaks about 5 languages, so I need to step up my game (I’m only at 3).

Here’s to a successful (and victorious) 2016!

2015 in Review

2015 was a pretty crazy year. I started off in Boston on the Orange Line, then moved to the Red Line with some friends. I bought a lot of proper furniture, bedding, pots and pans, etc. and was planning to be there for a while. In June, the plan changed when I unexpectedly parted ways with the organization I was working for. I opened up Google maps, decided India would be a good change and I bought my ticket a week later. I sold all I had accumulated, left my clothes in a basement and hopped on a plane in August with only my backpack. I’ve already gone through one job here – they were crazy. I’ve also gone through one roommate/apartment – he was crazy, too (keep your common denominator theories to yourself). But my new job starts the beginning of January and I am SO excited for it. And an apartment will follow soon.

Here are some pictures and highlights from the year. Looking forward to what new memories 2016 will bring.

  1. Surprise! – Blythe’s parents and I teamed up to pull a little holiday surprise. I secretly flew home for Christmas and popped out of a box to surprise her. This definitely makes the highlight list. I love surprising people. This went went much better than when I tried to mail a glitter “bomb” to LA…that surprise did NOT go over so well.

    This little gem is a blast from the past circa 2005 in good old Harbold. Not much has changed :)
    This little gem is a blast from the past circa 2005 in good old Harbold Hall. Not much has changed…though I don’t remember that chair being blue…
  2. Tenniversary – This year marked my ten year anniversary (tenniversary) with Blythe. I made a storybook with a rhyme on each page and drew children’s book-type illustrations with pastels/Photoshop and ordered it through Snapfish…and it came out really cool 🙂

    IMG_1371
    Ten years later. Hanging out at Jax’s Candy Cane – themed party…in August…
  3. KR Market – I could have done a top 10 of just Indian highlights, but I wanted to include a lot of US fun as well. Seeing KR Market was very surreal – it was so big, so crowded, and quite possibly the best people watching I’ve ever seen.

    IMG_0103
    The view from the safety of the bridge above.
  4. Boston Harbor – Living in Boston was pretty awesome. I loved eating on the harbor and the An Toine. If you’re in Boston, go to the Barking Crab – it’s the best there is!

    This city is pretty great (except when there is 5 feet of snow)
    This city is pretty great (except when there is 5 feet of snow)
  5. Poolside – That’s right, I bought a 5 foot inflatable pool at Target, filled it bucket by bucket and put it out on my deck. I could set a milk crate in the pool and watch Netflix while staying cool. It was easily the best idea I’ve ever had – whether I played cards, watched Netflix, drank Sangria with Kerri or listened to Megan call something Crazy Beautiful for the millionth time…it was pretty great.

    FullSizeRender
    This is what I like to call the good life. Pool – check. Friends – check. Sangria – check.
  6. New Thanksgiving Traditions – This year, some friends and I got together, streamed the parade at 9pm and ate mutton biryani, bruschetta, mashed potatoes and tandoori chicken. Then we watched a few Friends Thanksgiving episodes. It didn’t include turkey, but it was still pretty great.turkey day
  7. Peach Cobbler & Nutella Cheesecake – my birthday included both of these, and family, a pool (a real pool) and crab legs…making it the best birthday ever.

    Andddd...proper pool
    Andddd…proper pool
  8. Austin – A friend and I escaped the Northeast blizzard and went to Austin for a week. Typing this also makes me realize that food seems to be a theme on here…because we basically ate our way through Austin. We had a goal of 10 tacos from the 10 best food trucks…but only managed to do 7 on the last day.

    This doughnut food truck was the highlight of the trip.
    This doughnut truck was the highlight of the trip.
  9. Dog Show – While I was running one day in Boston I stumbled upon a dog show – I believe it was the national semi-finals. What it was doing in South Boston I’m not sure, but it was pretty fantastic.

    These jumping dogs were amazing
    These jumping dogs were my favorite. I took some pretty sweet slow motion videos (which apparently I can’t insert) boo.
  10. Chennai Relief – This has to round out the list. Helping with the relief efforts and experiencing such a sense of community after such tragedy was a pretty amazing thing to see. I look forward to going back to Chennai in the near future and checking out the beaches when they are back to their former glory.IMG_2765

It’s Not Funny Anymore…

When he first joined the race, I enjoyed laughing at the ridiculousness of Donald Trump as much as the next person. He called names, he lied, he picked fights and made absurd comments about building a wall between the USA and Mexico. His craziness was almost as entertaining as Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her house. Yeah, he is number one in the polls, I thought, but polls aren’t reliable, right? While the people putting him in first place appreciate his “honesty” and his ability to say whatever he wants, they know deep down that he can’t really be president, don’t they? I hope so.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric goes deeper than political parties. It goes deeper than trying to win the race to the White House. I don’t disagree with him because he is a Republican or because he is conservative. I don’t disagree with him because we have different beliefs about policy. I disagree with Donald Trump because he is perpetuating hate in the country which is supposed to be the leader of the free world.

America is nicknamed The Melting Pot. Virtually everyone’s family came as immigrant at some point in time – even Trump’s. There are millions of children and adults alike living in the US as legal citizens who hear all of this hateful rhetoric and a seed is planted in their heads – the thought that they don’t belong or that they are somehow lesser because of the color of their skin, their accent or their religion. If someone running for president of the United States says these things, they think, then everyone must believe it. This seed is a dangerous seed – it makes them feel like they don’t belong. If you’ve ever felt this feeling, you know how powerful it can be.

Even worse, Trump’s hate isn’t contained within our boarders, it has spread. Around the globe, people look to America as the Land of Opportunity. Billions of people dream of coming to the US and building a better life for themselves and their children. At least two or three days a week there is a front-page article in the Indian newspapers about the US presidential race. This is the impression that Indians (and countries everywhere) are getting about America and they think that this is how Americans feel as a whole. As an American abroad, sometimes people assume that this is how I feel. It makes my heart hurt.

One of the most dangerous things a person in power (or the media) can do is to instill fear without giving a solution – which is exactly what Trump is doing. I understand that there is fear of the unknown – this is perfectly natural. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where everyone went to either the Catholic church downtown or the Lutheran Church nearby. Everyone was white and no one was divorced (looking back, this is so weird). I never saw anyone wearing a hijab until I moved to France at the age of 25. Fear is a natural emotion, and it’s easy to succumb to it when everywhere you look, someone is telling you that Muslims are dangerous. And even easier when you don’t know any Muslims personally. I would guess that there is a high correlation between the percentage of people who fear Muslims and the percentage of people who don’t have any friends who are Muslim.

I challenge you to rise above what is easy. If you are apprehensive, educate yourself. Read about Islam and its beliefs (hint: Islam and ISIS are NOT the same thing.) Read the stories of others, like on the Humans of New York blog. The writer, Brandon Stanton, has been doing a lot of work telling the stories of Syrian refugees and posting them both on Instagram and on Facebook – they are both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. Stand up to fear and make your own educated choices. Have conversations with your friends, your children and your colleagues. Fear is perpetuated by ignorance and you can help to stop the spread.

Above all, please remember that these are real human beings – people like you and me. So next time Donald Trump makes one of his comments, don’t laugh. Discrimination and hate aren’t funny and they’re certainly NOT how to make America great.

That’s Not Even Spicy!

I love food. In fact, when I travel, it is one of the gauges I use to decide where to go. After living in Nicaragua (there’s a reason you don’t see any Nicaraguan restaurants anywhere) and then Kenya (same deal) I decided that I needed to use different criteria when choosing a destination. Indian food = amazing, and I’m not joking when I say it was a big part of my decision.

I am finally starting to learn how to cook, and last week I made my first attempt at a curry. My very honest taste testers declared that it was “A great first attempt, but missing coconut and a little too strong.” I’ll call that a success. My best dish so far: coconut chutney. I’ve got that one down.

There is a big difference in local foods depending on where you live in India. There are primary differences between the South and the North, but they vary from city to city as well. I’m no expert, but I know a few of the staple, southern dishes and I can tell you that southern foods are spicier and rice-based where as northern foods are creamier and wheat-based. They are all, however, fantastic. I would also like to proudly announce that my spice tolerance can stand on its own two feet here. I was quite worried about eating some mystery curry and not being able to handle the spice – you know, when your face gets all red and you start to cry. I can even take more spice than a few Indians, which everyone is always highly amused by. Win!

It took me a little while to even begin to get a grip on the cooking – normally if I eat a good Italian meal, or even Mexican food, I can taste the ingredients and then attempt to recreate. Indian spices are so foreign that I have no idea where the taste is coming from. So far,

  1. I can identify coconut – I love coconut. Opening the coconut, however, is a skill I have yet to master. I always get the water all over the floor.
  2. Even though everything is yellow and people seem to use a lot of turmeric powder, I use WAY too much turmeric powder. That’s kind of gross.
  3. I also use way too much chili powder. And probably way too many spices in general. They’re just so colorful and so tasty!
  4. I can’t yet taste the flavor of curry leaves, but they somehow make everything taste so much better. Do we have these in the US?
  5. Dried coriander/coriander powder is really different than fresh coriander (cilantro) – learned that lesson the hard way.

People also have a really cute way of describing good food – they say “It’s yum!” Not yummy, just yum. And not just little kids, it is the equivalent of saying something is delicious or really good. That’s yum! I love it.

Climbing the Stairs

There are some times when I feel like my life is perpetually falling down a flight of stairs. But then, sometimes, my life manages to get up, brush itself off, and put one foot in front of the other. Right now, I’m walking.

My most exciting news is that I’ve found a new job! After multiple Skype interviews where I either had internet issues (not my fault) or I miscalculated the time difference from here to Australia (a little my fault) I will officially be starting a sales and marketing job with a solar energy company in Bangalore. The people seem awesome, I can really get behind who they are and what they do, and overall it seems like a great fit. I couldn’t be more excited. I am also continuing to interview for a higher-level position to potentially start in April. Stay tuned.

I am currently homeless and am once again staying with Veena (who, if you continue the flight of stairs metaphor, would be at the bottom of the stairs in India with some rum every time) <– she rocks. Anyway, my old roommate was crazy. He got kicked out of the apartment for making too much noise. I was subletting (I wasn’t on the lease) so I got kicked out by default. But I have some good leads which I will check out tomorrow. I am also treating myself to a staycation in Bangalore this weekend at a hotel in Koramangala, which will be a nice little treat.

Finally, I am quite excited for Christmas. Though the weather is warm and there isn’t any snow, I have some fun plans with a group of friends which mainly involve eating foods like cheese and sushi, drinking wine and binge-watching the new season of Transparent. Veena got a Christmas tree, her fridge is stocked with chocolate and we’ve already watched Elf, The Grinch and Charlie Brown Christmas. I also mailed a large package out to PA yesterday with lots of goodies. If you live in PA and you are reading this, there is a good chance it’s coming you way! Get excited – a little piece of India will be there soon.

So, as I climb back up the steps this week I will enjoy the view – it’s not too bad 🙂 Here are five other things I will enjoy this week

  1. Serial – Season 2 is out! I cannot wait to listen.
  2. Amazon is having great sales on their magazine subscriptions, so I will spend some of my final unemployment hours perusing Time and The New Yorker. This will be even more enjoyable after my Kindle arrives (Merry Christmas to me!!)
  3. My staycation hotel has a gym, so I will spend some time running WITHOUT worrying about getting run over by crazy drivers.
  4. I forgot how much I love the Trans Siberian Orchestra -I recommend their Pandora station to get you in the holiday mood
  5. I got some sweet new shades at Commercial St. I had broken both of my old pairs, which made the last week quite challenging. Finally, some rest for the baby blues.

 

How to Fix the Problems of the World in One Easy Step

I propose we ship Donald Trump to Kiribati. Confused? Let me explain.

Kiribati is a small island nation in the South Pacific. It is northeast of Australia and directly south of Hawaii. It has islands lying in the Northern, Southern, Eastern AND Western Hemispheres, and it is the reason that the International Date Line has that funky shape on the southern part. Kiribati is only about 2km wide and an average of 6 feet above sea level…making it the first country which will completely be wiped off of the map as sea levels rise. Check out this awesome interview/TED Talk with the president of Kiribati as he speaks about the challenges his nation faces here. It’s really good – and their president is a pretty cool guy.

You may see where I’m going with this. Kiribati has recently bought some land in the Philippines in case they have to move their entire country because it’s under water. They are also working with Japan to build new, floating islands. That’s where my plan comes in: there is a high chance that even if we do get the entire world to drastically cut back their carbon emissions, Kiribati will still be wiped off of the map in the near future because of the damage we’ve already done. I suggest we:

  1. Ship Trump to Kiribati – Alone. We’ll even make him fly………COACH! (insert dramatic music here.) But won’t that punish the good people of Kiribati, you ask? What did they do to deserve this terrible punishment?
  2. Use Trump’s money to build new islands – We will build new islands and make them climate change-proof. They will use 100% renewable energy, they will rise with the level of the sea and they will be cyclone-proof as well. What the heck, we will throw in a free iPhone for everyone, too. Thanks, Donald! This means he will be stuck on the doomed island all alone.
  3. Make Kiribati Great Again – This will be the project slogan. It will also Make America Great Again since Trump will no longer be in it. Everyone will have new homes, new phones and they will be very happy on their state-of-the-art island. We all will live happily ever after.

Contingency plan: Just in case this plan somehow fails and, worst case scenario, Trump manages to find his way into the White House, I have a back-up plan. Actually, I have to give Megan Amram at The New Yorker credit for this one. She wrote a genius article entitled  Those Fleeing President Trump: Welcome to Canada! where she graciously welcomes all Americans who cannot live under the brutal thumb of The Donald. It’s a really great plan. I would definitely take her up on her offer if I didn’t already move to India. Her article is brilliantly written. I highly suggest it.

The final Republican debate of the year airs tonight – I can’t wait to see what new, racist idea Mr. Trump comes up with this time. Stay tuned. Until then – I will continue to dream of a world where we Make Kiribati Great Again.

 

 

Chennai – Days 4 & 5

I spent both Thursday and Friday at the same distribution hub doing some assembly line-style work, making packages of uncooked food and then loading the thousands of sacks onto trucks. Nothing like six hours of some good old repetitive, monotonous tasks  to get the blood flowing – but hey, those packets of turmeric weren’t going to separate themselves.

I’m  so glad I came to Chennai, though, it was pretty cool to be part of such a large force of people, all trying to improve the lives’ of others. It was grassroots organizing at its finest, for sure – and there’s nothing I love more than a little organizing and activism. Everyone – from 6 year-olds to 80 year-olds was working together, side by side, to make a difference. And it was so refreshing to see everyone put aside politics and simply join forces for a common goal.  I love that stuff. In addition, I’ve been featured on 3 local news stations – everyone wants an interview with the white girl. I’m basically a celebrity.

Finally, thanks to those of you that donated on my fundraising page. There’s still a few days left if you still want to contribute – I’ve used the money that was donated to date ($265) to buy flip flops and mosquito repellent. These were two needs that were glaring and weren’t well-covered by other recovery teams (at least according to my observations). All of the standing water means that mosquitoes are absolutely everywhere…which means a rise in malaria and dengue. Also, during my time at the clinic I saw how many people were barefoot and coming in to get wounds treated on the bottoms of their feet. I purchased the products and left with a locally run NGO to distribute – there’s nothing that annoys me more than a foreigner coming in and throwing money and supplies around without knowledge of the area, language, slum culture, etc. It’s so much better to come from one local to another. In total, you guys helped me provide 250 pairs of flip flops and 1,000 mosquito coils. So awesome!! 🙂

I’ll spend my last day in Chennai visiting with friends and checking out the city, and then I will head back to Bangalore tonight – back to the real world. I’ve got some apartment searching to do, some job interviews to ace, some Kannada lessons to learn and some Christmas shopping which I can no longer put off. Oh…and since I’ve eaten my weight in dosa, chicken curry and ghee this week, I suppose some running is in order as well.

Check out some pics from my final days at the relief center below.

This main road is still under about 6 inches of water. This was taken on Friday.

IMG_2786

This is one of the side roads in Kotturpuram, near the clinic. I snapped it from the window of my Uber on the way to the relief center. This was taken on Friday.

IMG_2807

Packing boxes of oil, rice, spices, etc.

IMG_2793

Once the materials above are sorted from the boxes and bagged up, they come sit, waiting to be delivered. I spent the entire day Friday moving the bags in a human chain into this room after they were packed.

IMG_2812

Volunteers taking a break on the lawn and having some snacks (aka high school study hall).

IMG_2824

Chennai – Day 3

Despite my promotion to “Doctor” yesterday (yes, I was prescribing and handing out medicine – apparently I’m qualified in India) I decided to go to a different gig today in Nungambakkam. Residents have transformed a wedding hall into a kitchen, packing and distribution center that is the largest source of both cooked and uncooked foods serving those affected by the floods. Hundreds of volunteers are cooking, prepping and delivering 30,000 cooked meals each day, in addition to 30,000 sacks of uncooked staples (rice, dal, spices, oil, etc.) which are packaged and delivered to needy communities. It’s a pretty impressive (and surprisingly well-organized) operation.

The majority of the volunteers are high school students. Schools in Chennai have been closed for the past month due to the rain. The nicer schools will open up in the next few weeks, but schools in slum areas have been turned into temporary housing, so it is unlikely that the students in these districts will return to class until the next academic year (which means April in India). Students eagerly came out to lend a hand and socialize with friends – it was pretty cool to see. The organizers did a good job keeping the kids engaged in monotonous, assembly-line tasks with their spontaneous drumming and dance performances, chants, and motivating announcements.

I spent most of the day working with an 11th grader named Anjana and her group of friends. Anjana is a pretty impressive young lady. She loved to tell me all about Chennai and its beauty and made me promise to come back when the city isn’t under water. “Chennai is the best city in the world,” she told me more than once, “I’m from Bangalore, so I should IMG_2790think Bangalore is best, but I like Chennai more. You won’t find better people anywhere.” Not only did she get up to come volunteer this morning, but she made all of her friends come as well. “This morning they all wanted to sleep…but it’s not fair that some people don’t even have a bed to sleep on right now. My friends are lazy. I went to their houses and woke them up and made them come.” She sees the world pretty clearly for a 16 year old. “In Chennai, we don’t need government. The government just makes things more complicated. People take care of each other here. In some ways, you could say some good came out of the flood because everyone came together and is helping each other. We will be back to normal in just one month because everyone is helping. You’ll see. Come back in January.” She told me we could go to the mall together. Ah…to be 16…

I’ve witnessed what Anjana told me so many times throughout the week. I’ve seen people stop their motorcycle to ask elderly people if they would like a ride. I’ve seen people buying food and medicine when someone requests, no questions asked. I’ve seen thousands of donated supplies coming in from across the country. Mostly, I’ve seen the initiative taken by everyday people on social media to actively seek out needs and to fill them. People scour Facebook and Twitter constantly to see who is asking for clothes, shoes, food, etc. and then deliver the requested items which they’ve either purchased themselves or gotten as a donation. Everyone is doing it. I’ve never seen anything like it – hashtags have literally changed lives. Anjana was spot-on when she said that the people were taking care of themselves…and it is pretty cool to see.

Check out some of my assembly line pics below. Day 4 tomorrow – I’m planning to go back to Nungambakkam with my high school buddies. Stay tuned!

One of the delivery trucks responsible for shipping out 150,000 cooked meals to those affected by flooding.

IMG_2765

In this room, half of the volunteers made stacks of newspaper and butter paper (like wax paper) while the other half put rice on top and wrapped it up. All of the food is cooked on site.

IMG_0881

People of all ages came out to help.

IMG_2770 (1)

In another room, volunteers measured and packed up uncooked dal, rice, oil, spices, etc. to send out to people so they could cook at home if they’re able.

IMG_2774

The items were placed in these blue bags and tied closed with twine. These women were the “tires” – as was I 🙂 Tie a bag, slide it down the line.

IMG_2777

Uncooked supply bags tied and ready to be shipped out. This team doesn’t mess around – like I mentioned above, 30,000 are going out each day!

IMG_2781

Chennai – Day 2

I wanted to set the scene a little better as to why and how the floods happened. Chennai is a city right on the sea (this was the view from Gayatri’s terrace this morning) and tIMG_2729here are several rivers that run through the city and out to the ocean. The area I have been working, Kotturpuram, sits right on the banks of the Adyar river where there are a number of drainage reservoirs located. There are also three bridges, two of which were under construction.

According to the recommendations when the city was initially established, no one should have been allowed to construct within 80 meters from the edge of the river because it was labeled a “flood plain.” Somehow, however, the city government approved the purchase of land and the construction of houses as close as 30 meters from the water’s edge. Many of these homes belong to the upper-middle class and are quite beautiful and well-built. In addition, there are several slums set up along the riverbanks. Small dwellings constructed of palm leaves, tarps, branches, etc. fill up every available space and house entire communities. A single tent the size of a dining room table will house an average of 4-5 people. Hundreds of these were set up only meters from the water’s edge.

In the past 30 days, Chennai experienced 28 days of rain. Everything was already saturated river levels were pretty high. When the monsoon came last week, there was nowhere for all of the new water to go. Reservoirs were opened and immediately flooded. In addition, the two bridges in Kotturpuram which were under construction were weakened by the force of the water and collapsed…meaning people were trapped. When these two factors occurred, tent communities were washed away in a matter of minutes and the big houses suddenly found their ground floor under a few feet of water. The poor infrastructure of the city in general – inadequate drainage systems and clogged drain covers caused the floods to rapidly expand the entire city quickly found itself under water. Rain continued, waters rose and the rest is history.

Now that the flood waters have subsided questions have been raised – government officials asking why people built their homes so close to the river when this should have been prohibited and homeowners asking why the construction had been approved and signed off on by the government itself in the first place. Investigations will follow in the coming months as to what actually happened, though I doubt anyone will actually be held accountable.

Stay tuned for tomorrow – day 3, where I’ll talk about how India came together as a whole and why Chennai is so awesome. As promised, here are some photos from the past few days.

These two boys pose for the camera – they saw me surveying with my camera in hand and quickly got to action.

10

People start to make their way out into the streets as the waters receded in Kotturpuram

chennai-rain-

I am told that a few days ago water was over 5 feet high on this road. Waters receded enough overnight that by Monday morning it was passable.

1024px-India_-_Chennai_-_Monsoon_-_06_3059058000-1-1024x768

 Just a few streets down, the neighbor had already been pumped out and trucks of volunteers were distributing goods.

IMG_2733

Pumped out park. The water was higher than the fence two days ago. People took advantage of the much-needed sunshine and hung their clothes out to dry on the weathered fence.

IMG_2737

These are the pumps being used to clear out the water.

IMG_2731

This is the clinic I have been working at in Kotturpuram.

IMG_2741