Monday, November 23, 2015

The Land of Fire and Ice

People who get the travel bug never seem to stop traveling.  And when they do, it's usually only temporary.  2014 was a bad year for my wanderlust.  Outside of a brief one night trip to Canada to see a baseball game, I was fairly grounded in the U.S.  This was mostly due to my beyond busy schedule and my lack of funds.  However, I feel that 2015 has since made up for my temporary lull in traveling.  So far this year, I've been to Israel, China...and now Iceland.

A friend of mine turned 30 last November and she decided that one way to celebrate her 30th year would be to go see the Northern Lights in Iceland.  Initially I loved this idea, but with work and school last November, I would not have been able to go.  Luckily for me, none of my friends managed to get it together to go last year.  So now, a year later, we made the trip.

It was decided that we would go for four nights (flying out on a Friday night and returning on Wednesday).  To me, this just wasn't long enough.  Seeing how I had the vacation time and the flight was the same price whether I came back on Wednesday or Thursday, I decided to stay that extra day by myself.  But first things first, my first four days in Iceland were spent with seven of my closest friends from Philly.

After not sleeping all night on the flight, of course we would spend all day seeing the town of Reykjavik.  And yes, I mean town.  There are only 300,000 people that live in the entire country of Iceland and 200,000 of them live in the Reykjavik area.  This makes the Reykjavik metro area only about a third of the size of DC (just the city, not the DC metro area).  To me, that is nothing more than a town.  But Reykjavik was a cute town at that.  I particularly loved the multi-colored roofs on the houses.

After spending most of the day in Reykjavik seeing the sites, we returned to where we were staying (a nice little flat we got on Airbnb) to shower, nap, and relax for a while.  But after a couple hours of cat napping, we hit the town again.  This time for dinner and drinks.  To me this was our most epic meal of the trip.  Four of us ordered the "Icelandic Feast" which included such delicacies as whale, puffin, reindeer, and lamb topped off with some Icelandic skyr for dessert.  I have to say, there wasn't anything I didn't like.

Grilled Char, Puffin, and Whale

Our second day was full of adventure and relaxing.  We started off by going ATVing.  Our ATV tour took us all the way to the coast and back.  Despite the fact that it was freezing, ATVing is always loads of fun.  After the two hour ATV tour, we made our way to the Blue Lagoon, which is one of Iceland's most popular hot springs.  Now I was skeptical about putting on my bathing suit and going out into the frigid weather, especially when I always seemed to be freezing with all my layers on, but there was something about the Blue Lagoon.  It seemed to warm you up from your core.  When we left the Blue Lagoon, I was not at all cold, even though now my hair was wet.  At that moment, there was nothing about Iceland that was cold.

The next day was when we really started touring around.  We drove the entire Golden Circle that day, seeing many of the main sites in Thingvellir National Park.  This trip had a lot of pretty scenery, but I have to admit that this was my least favorite day of my trip.

On Tuesday, we set out driving again.  This time we headed south.  Along our journey we saw many waterfalls and even one of the black sand beaches, but the real gem was at the very end of the day when we saw the glacier lagoon.  The ice was so blue and it just seemed like one of those moments in time where everything was standing still.  It was totally worth the 5 hour drive it took to get there (and another 5 hours back).  This was my last day to spend with all my friends before they left to go home.  I think the glacier lagoon was a good way for them to end their trip.  Unfortunately, not due to lack of trying, we did not see the Northern Lights while they were there.  We really tried to find them, but there was usually too much cloud cover to see any of the pretty colors in the sky.

Black Sand Beach in the town of Vik

Glacier Lagoon

The next morning I set off on my own little journey.  Now I was flying solo and I was ready to experience a little more of Iceland.  I had arranged a tour that left at 8 o'clock Wednesday morning and it took me to Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Honestly I wasn't even exactly sure what I was gonna see on the tour, but I was excited.  All I knew was that I would get to see the Snaefellsnes Volcano, which is the setting for the beginning of Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth.  This day just seemed to be filled with pit stops to see pretty scenery of snow capped mountains.  Some added bonuses included seeing seals and some amazing rock formations on the coast.  To top it all off, on the way back to Reykjavik, we managed to see the Northern Lights.  I didn't see much, but what I did see was out of this world!

Snaefellsnes Volcano

Overall, my adventures in Iceland were quite amazing despite the freezing cold weather and the bitter winds.  I know it is called the land of fire and ice, but all I really saw was ice most of the time.  However, I think the true testament to how amazing Iceland really is lies in the fact that I hate the cold weather, but I still liked Iceland.  That says a lot.

Fun Facts:
No one lives in the center of Iceland; everyone lives on the coast.
Beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989.
Iceland was the 40th country I've been to.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Back in July my work sent me to Beijing for three weeks.  I spent most of my time working, touring around Beijing, and shopping.  I won't bore you with the specific details because I spent most of my free time doing what everyone else who travels to Beijing does.  However, I did spend a whole weekend at the Great Wall and I had quite a fabulous experience.  So in this post, I'll focus mostly on that side trip.

Ever since I arrived in Beijing I was looking for a particular experience at the wall (in China, the Great Wall is often simply referred to as the wall).  I didn't want to go to the restored, overly touristy parts of the wall.  It was too ordinary for my liking.  So when one of my coworkers started telling a couple of us about a really unique trip she took to the wall, my interest was peaked.  This coworker of mine went for a "Wild Wall Weekend" with William Lindesay and his family.

William Lindesay is a British man who now lives in Beijing with his Chinese wife and their two teenage sons.  William is considered one of the world's experts on the Great Wall and he is also a big advocate of conservation of the wall.

Our weekend started off with us getting picked up at our hotel on Friday afternoon after work.  We then drove for about 2 hours out to "the Barracks," which is how the Lindesay's refer to their residence near the wall.  While we were there, the Lindesay's treated us like we were their personal guests.  We ate with the family and they engaged us with many of their stories of the wall.

On our first full day there, we woke up at around 3 AM because we had to leave the barracks by 3:30.  To many people, this seems absurd, but considering it was summertime at the wall, it made perfect sense.  If we went out for a hike later in the day, we would be caught in the worst heat of the day.  So we started our hike at around 3:30 and hiked up to the wall.  Once we reached the wall, we started to hike along the wall.  At some points the wall was so steep, I found myself holding on to the wall with at least one hand in order to work my way along the wall.  This was by far the most difficult hike we did that weekend, but it was incredible.  We eventually made our way back to the barracks where a full breakfast was waiting for us.  After eating and bathing, we were then told to go nap through the hottest part of the day.  I couldn't have agreed more.

After napping and having a little lunch, William's wife took us on a short hike (or a stroll, as they referred to it) to a lookout point about 2.5 kilometers from the barracks.  The rest of the evening was spent relaxing, eating, and socializing.  It was incredible how we could ask William almost anything about the wall.  He was unbelievably knowledgeable and able to answer any question.

On Sunday morning, we again got up at 3 AM and left the barracks by 3:30.  Our hike on Sunday was a little shorter and a little easier than Saturday morning.  We hiked up to a different part of the wall this time.  Just like the day before, once we got to the wall, we hiked along the wall and then back to the barracks.  We returned by around 9 AM.  After we got back we had some breakfast/lunch and then we packed up and headed back to Beijing.

Over the entire weekend, we were hiking and climbing parts of the Arrow Nock (Jiankou) part of the wall.  The China Daily has referred to this part of the wall as the most dangerous part to hike unless you are with an experienced guide.  It is completely unrestored and it is often overgrown.  I felt like that's what gave it part of its charm.  It is the same exact wall that those of the Ming Dynasty used so many years ago.  Despite the danger and the challenge, it was completely worth it.

This was not only an incredible adventure, but it was also completely unique.  The only way you can go on a wild wall weekend is if you know someone who went.  William does not advertise these weekends at all.  It all started after he hosted a friend of his for the weekend.  Later that friend told William that he had a few friends who would like to come visit as well and that William could charge them a little something.  Now anyone who goes on a wild wall weekend can pass along William's contact info to friends and acquaintances for them to go on a similar adventure as well.  This is a great way to keep these weekend trips rather unique.

Monday, August 3, 2015


Late last year my dad came to me to discuss going on vacation.  My parents were about to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in 2015 and he wanted to take my mom on a trip to commemorate this milestone.  Before I even got a chance to think about it, he proposed going to either Israel or Hawaii.  Most people think that these are two totally random, extremely different places.  I can't agree more; however, my mom has talked about how she has wanted to go to both, so they seemed like appropriate options.  My dad then asked me what I thought and if I had any other ideas.  Quite honestly, I couldn't have come up with anything much better.  Considering my mom's lack of desire to travel terribly far, I suggested Israel because I felt like it was just a little closer and I knew they could get a direct flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv.  My dad was also fully aware that he would struggle to plan this trip on his own.  He also knew that I would enjoy planning it and that I would do a stellar job.  In addition, he was unable to deny the fact that if I was planning the trip, I would definitely want to come with.  And if he was taking me, he should also invite my brother as well.  That's how this slightly off-the-beaten-track vacation began.

First, a little bit about Israel...For those who are unaware, Israel is a small country about the size of New Jersey located among some of the world's most volatile countries in the Middle East.  It is also one of the most resilient and astounding countries I have even seen.  It never ceases to amaze me how not only was this country completely unphased by all the unrest around it, but it was also able to thrive economically leap-frogging in a way in which it's economy will soon enough converge with the world's more advanced countries.  I had never seen anything like it.  If you would like to learn more about Israel's incredible advancement, I would highly suggest reading Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.  This book not only helped explain how Israel's economy grew, but also gave some great incite into the mindset of the Israeli people, their way of life, and how they view the world.  I read this before I went, and so many things made much more sense to me than they would have otherwise.

As for my trip, we started in Tel Aviv where we spent our first night.  Then we took a three day tour which took us up to the northern part of the country.  While there we approached both the Lebanese and Syrian borders, briefly saw the towns of Tiberias and Hafia, watched the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, and learned endless amounts about Israel's tumultuous history.


Acco (Near the Lebanese Border)

The Lebanese Border
(You're not allowed to take pictures of the actual border crossing)

The Syrian Border

The Sea of Galilee

The Ancient City of Beit Shean

After this first tour, we were left off in Jerusalem.  For this part of the trip I decided to go a bit more ad hoc.  We spent the majority of our time in Jerusalem without a tour guide, leading ourselves around this incredible ancient city.  Jerusalem, East Jerusalem in particular, amazed me due to its melding of religions.  At one point we found ourselves on the narrow streets of the old city listening to the Franciscan monks recite the stations of the cross, while simultaneously hearing the Islamic call to prayer in the near distance, all the while being in a country that is 75 percent Jewish.  You always hear about all this fighting that occurs in this part of the world, but we rarely ever saw it.

The Western Wall with the Dome of the Rock in the Background

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of Pater Noster
(The "Our Father" in different languages)

The View of the Old City from the Mount of Olives

One day while we were in Jerusalem, we took a day trip to the Dead Sea and Masada.  Masada is an ancient fortress that was built on a plateau above the Dead Sea by Herod the Great roughly two thousand years ago.  It's amazing how something like that can still be there today.  And as many people may know, you go to the Dead Sea for one reason float.  The water is so salty that you immediately bounce back to the surface.  However you also come out covered in this salty slime that is truly disgusting.


The View of the Dead Sea from Masada

After spending five nights in Jerusalem, it was time to depart for our next adventure.  We took another three day tour to southern Israel and Jordan.  We drove all the way south to Eilat on the Red Sea.  Then we spent the second day of the tour crossing the border into Jordan to go to Petra.  Petra was where I truly found my physical limits.  We walked two and a half miles downhill through terrain that was often rocky or sandy.  Then, although some people opted to pay for a ride back up (**Cough Cough** Mom and Dad), me and my brother decided to walk all the way back up to the entrance.  None of this would have been that bad had we not been on a rather strict time frame and had it not been 95 degrees outside.  Nonetheless, I think Petra may have been my favorite part of the whole trip.  And finally on the third day of this tour we traveled back up to Tel Aviv through the Negev Desert making a few stops including one at the desert home of David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel.  I do believe it was his unique vision that has led Israel to be what it is today.

The Coral Reef in the Red Sea

The Treasury at Petra

Statue of Ben Gurion

Once back in Tel Aviv, we spent one last day lounging by the beach and taking in the sun, the sand, and the sea, before departing to come back to the states.

Overall, I think it was a fantastic trip!  There was only one bombing while we were there and it was in Gaza (a place most tourists would never go).  The Israeli people are not only astounding in their own right, but they are some of the most grateful and gracious people I've ever met.  Everywhere we went our tour guides were constantly thanking us for choosing to visit Israel, which, compared to many other destinations, is quite expensive and often not considered the safest place to go.  That being said, whether you are Catholic or Jewish, religious or not so religious, Israel is such an incredible country to go see and experience in all its glory!

Monday, July 27, 2015

What is a Country?

When I think of all the places I've been on this Earth, I have all these fantastic memories of countries and cities, national parks and exotic landscape.  To me, the different places I've been all seem to blend together.  Probably in the same way that the world actually blends across national borders, as opposed to the way we often think of it as a hard stop of one culture and landscape to something entirely different on the other side of the fence.  However, no matter how I think of my adventures, there really should be some way to quantify exactly (or really not so exactly) how much I've travelled in my lifetime or how far I've been or how many places I've visited.

The way I've been referring to where I've been is in the form of how many countries I've been to.  This has some obvious restrictions due to the vastly varying sizes of the countries of world.  For example, I've been to Luxembourg City, which is the capital of the small state of Luxembourg.  I've also been to Beijing, which is the capital of China, one of the world's largest countries.  To say that I've seen the same amount of Luxembourg as I've seen of China would be an obvious inaccuracy.  It should be obvious that I've seen a much larger percentage of Luxembourg than I did of China.  Granted these two countries are just extreme examples on opposite ends of the spectrum.  There are also much more moderately sized countries that I've travelled through extensively.  So the ultimate question is, how do we balance all of this into one accurate form of measurement?

The answer is that we can't easily do that.  I suppose I could tell you how many cities I've been to.  That may be more accurate, but what about all the places that I've been that aren't cities.  As you can see, this is quite difficult.  This is why I choose to stick to my method of counting countries, depsite all of its caveats and flaws.

That being said, I realized this morning that even this method can swing in one direction or the other.  As many of my friends already know, I've been looking forward to the milestone of 40 countries.  After visiting China, I only need one more country to hit the 40 country mark.  However, I noticed that I may have already hit that number.  It depends on what you consider a country.

You may be wondering how I could be debating such a simple thing, but when you really get down to it, it's a confusing qualification.  Most people would go with the United Nations member countries; however, there are several states that are often overwhelming argued to be countries that are not member countries of the UN for various reasons.  The one least argued about is Vatican City, which has voluntarily opted out of being a member country of the UN to remain neutral due to its religous base.  Yet despite its lack of membership in the UN, barely anyone would question whether or not the Vatican is a country.  Others are a bit more debateable but are usually still considered countries, such as Kosovo and Taiwan.

When I'm determining for myself 'what is a country,' I generally like to go with the Sporcle rules.  Sporcle is a quiz website and it has its own classification of what is a country and what is not.  Sporcle accepts all UN member countries without any questions.  It also accepts several other countries, which are determined on a somewhat individual basis.  Outside of the UN member countries, Sporcle accepts Vatican City, Kosovo, Taiwan, and Palestine.  So due to Sporcle's somewhat recent acceptance of Palestine, by these rules, I've already been to 40 countries!

Now whether I should really count Palestine as a seperate country from Israel, I'm not sure.  Because I've travelled around Israel, I have basically been to Palestine as well.  This one is tricky because Palestine doesn't necessarily have agreed upon borders.  So to say I've been somewhere when we can't even determine where that somewhere is is drawing on many shades of gray.  This leaves me wondering...have I really been to 40 countries or just 39?  I'll have to think some more on this one and for now I'm still looking forward to hitting #40!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Post-Grad School Life

I know it's been a while...but it has been an insane year for me.  Aside from finishing grad school, I also started working for the federal government again last August.  Up until when I graduated in May, I had so much to do all the time I couldn't even think, let alone write about it.

That being said, I'm back!

So first a little catch-up.  I believe I last left off towards the end of the school year last year.  After the Spring semester ended, I spent the first half of my summer taking an online course.  The second half was spent relaxing and waiting.  There is nothing worse that a government HR department.  It took them nearly two months to officially offer me a job.  Two months!  That was after my office had already informally offered me the position.  Then I had to wait another month for the revalidation of my security clearance.  So I finally started work August 25, 2014.  Coincidentally, that was the same day my Fall semester classes started.  I was back to being a government intern, but at least this time they were paying me for my services, which was a breath of fresh air that I hadn't seen in a long time.

The Fall went well and the Spring followed.  I was working 4 days a week and going to school full time.  There wasn't much else going on.  There was no time!  But needless to say, I eventually made it to graduation, which was one of those milestones in life that you can never quite match.  Also upon graduating, I was offered the option to convert to a full time civil servant in my office.  So at the fear of not finding a job elsewhere and being content enough for the time being, I took them up on the offer.  Within a month I found myself with a real person job and it felt good!

A few days after graduation, I left DC for a family vacation to Israel. I know...not your normal family vacation destination.  But then again, my family is not quite normal and I prefer it that way. (I'll write a longer post about this trip later.)

Once I returned from Israel, I was only back for about a month before my work decided to send me to China on a temporary assignment for 3 weeks.  I've been to a lot of places, but I had never been to China or anywhere in that part of Asia.  So this was an exciting trip for me.  Not only that, but I rarely have someone else footing the bill for me to travel.  A free trip to a place I had never been?  Of course I was excited!  (I'll write more about this later too.)

I just returned a few days ago and I'm finally getting the feel for this post-grad school life.  It's a funny thing to have free time, especially when you haven't had any in so long.  It's been an adjustment, but not a bad one.  Hopefully part of my free time will be used to blog a bit more frequently than once a year.  We'll see if I hold to this.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Things Come Full Circle...Somehow

I find it interesting how so many things in my life here in America take me back to that time when I lived in Uganda.  It seems like I could relate almost anything to my Peace Corps service and yet life here is so incredibly different.

This time last year, I had just finished up my 30 Sites and 30 Nights Project and I was preparing to COS.  Now, a year later I have things that remind me all the time of what I was doing this time last year.

Today I was reading an article that was assigned for my Development Economics class and as I was reading some of the examples in this article, my mind was slowly taken back to a time where I was in the examples and things were much more real.  The article I was reading was about Conditional Cash Transfer, which is the idea of giving poor people in developing countries money on the condition that they will do something.  For example, poor families will be given a supplemental income if they send their children to school.

For some reason, while I was reading this article and taking in all the examples given, I was overwhelming reminded of a day I had a little over a year ago.  I had just started my 30 Sites and 30 Nights project and one of the first volunteers I stayed with, Chelsea, took me with her and her counterpart out to a remote village to do outreach at a local health center with pregnant women.  During this outreach, Chelsea's counterpart gave the women a health talk on prenatal care and then those women who were over seven months pregnant got ultrasounds.

One of the first things that I remember really striking me that day was when Chelsea asked her counterpart to ask the women in the local language if they would mind me taking pictures (or "snaps" as Ugandans called them).  I was simply just blown away when her counterpart said to us "They don't know what snaps are."  I did not work in a very remote part of Uganda, but I had also never encountered anyone who didn't know what it meant to have their picture taken.  At first I didn't really believe him.  I thought maybe he was saying it wrong or the women just weren't understanding, but as I took pictures I realized that they were totally unaware of what I was doing.

The other thing that intrigued me that day was the reactions (or lack there of) that some of the women had after receiving their ultrasounds.  One woman was told she was having twins and she showed no excitement, disappointment, or any reaction at all for that matter.  Another woman had been told by her mid-wife that her baby was dead, but the ultrasound that day proved that the baby had a heartbeat and was indeed alive.  She also showed no reaction to this news whatsoever.  And then the very last women who got an ultrasound that day simply astounded me.  Chelsea's counterpart noticed that her feet were swollen and he told her she probably had preeclampsia.  He told her she needed to go to a gynecologist in order to give birth, otherwise she would most likely die in child birth.  Considering how remote we were, I just knew that she wouldn't be able to do that.  So she basically got the news that she would most likely die in child birth.  She was two weeks from her due date.  Again, no reaction!

I know as I tell this story most people will read it and think they really understand.  That's how I felt reading many of the examples in that article I was reading this morning.  But it is because of first hand experiences like this that I know I don't understand.  I enjoy studying development, but I don't like hearing the stories from other people.  They become so much more a part of you when you are there.

In the end, I always think back on that day in Uganda as one of the most memorable experiences I had in my entire two years there and it obviously was not for happy reasons.  But it was at that moment that I felt like I started my long journey to understanding what it really means to be poor and living in such a remote place.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Was I Completely Out of My Mind?

The Lobby of HST
A few months ago I wrote a post describing my schedule this semester.  I was questioning the fact that I might be taking on too much due to the fact that I was interning full time while still taking full time classes (among other things).

I started my internship at the State Department on January 6th.  It seems like years ago.  At the onset, I was terrified of myself and my ambitions.  I was taking four classes, working full time, organizing events for the Graduate Student Council, and trying to maintain my sanity all at the same time.  I was supposed to be finished March 14th, but in order to finish out a few projects, I voluntarily extended for a few extra weeks and now tomorrow is my last day.  In the end, was it worth it?  Was it worth not seeing my family for 3 months?  Was it worth doing homework every weekend, every morning, every evening?  Was it worth the stress and anxiety of getting things done in time?  The answer to all these questions: Yes!  It was worth every minute of it.

For the past three months I've been interning at the State Department in the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.  It has been quite the experience!  Despite the fact that these countries are extremely complicated, I feel like an expert on Sudan and South Sudan.  It's possible that I actually know more about Sudan now than I do about Uganda.  The learning curve at State is almost vertical.  It's so fast paced that you have to simply learn how to adjust.  You have to keep up or you might fall apart.

I've been working in the Harry S Truman Building in Foggy Bottom.  I love and hate this building all at the same time.  I love to roam the halls.  At the end of every corridor there are mural size pictures of different places from around the world.  Just walking around you feel like you are travelling.  This is one way I know how to find my way back to my office, which is right next to the UK mural.  There are also many pictures of the Secretary (John Kerry) with various heads of state and other important officials all over the world. (What I want to know is who's job it is to change all of these when the secretary of state changes.)  In addition to all the pictures there are inspirational quotes on the walls from people like Gandhi.  Sometimes I plan my route to a certain place in the building based on going down corridors that I haven't been in.  I also hate this building because even though it is laid out in a way that is supposed to be easy to navigate, it is so easy to get lost.

As I said before, the learning curve at State is steep and you often find yourself doing things that you never thought they would let an intern do.  One of my biggest tasks was research.  I was tasked with researching the Sudanese economy, their exports, and specific industries within the economy.  As a student of International Economic Relations, I found all this fascinating!  Sudan is under comprehensive economic sanctions with the U.S. currently.  This means that U.S. companies and citizens cannot import things from Sudan or export things to Sudan, for the most part.  My office knew my background and they really tried to make my internship as meaningful to me as they could.  I was actually told at one point "We never knew we had so many economic projects until you got here."

Throughout my internship I also got to go to various talks and lecture series as well as "field trips" both with my office as well as the internship program.  Below I describe some of what I found most interesting in my three months working there.

1.) "Creative Diplomacy" with Thomas Pickering--Thomas Pickering is one of the most well known and influential diplomats of the last 50 years.  He did a lecture/Q&A session on creative diplomacy.  Mostly he was taking questions about his views on U.S. diplomacy in today's world.

2.) FBI--One of the field trips through the internship program was to the FBI building.  While there I got to see agents re-certifying and I also got a chance to walk around their museum where they have some interesting artifacts.

3.) The Hill (House Foreign Affairs Committee)--The Special Envoy testified in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee a few weeks ago and I went with other people from my office to see him testify.  All of these sessions are open to the public, but I had never been before.

4.) The Chiefs of Mission Conference--This was a conference for all the U.S. chiefs of mission (aka Ambassadors).  I found myself volunteered for "mic duty", where I was tasked with passing the microphone around to people with questions for the speakers.  This sounds kind of boring, but I got to sit in on a couple interesting sessions on congressional relations and fragile states.
Diplomatic Reception Room

5.) Diplomatic Reception--My office threw a farewell reception for Ambassador Akech, the South Sudanese ambassador to the U.S., who was being recalled to South Sudan.  This was held on the 8th floor in some very elaborate diplomatic reception rooms.  While we were there, one of my co-workers gave us a tour of the reception rooms.  It's like a museum!  They had so many important artifacts, including many original works of art and the desk that Thomas Jefferson sat at when he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

We got really good seats at the University
Town Hall Meeting
6.) University Town Hall Meeting (with John Kerry)--John Kerry held a session for college students and all interns were invited.  He mostly took questions and there were a lot of questions.  It was awesome hearing Kerry speak, however being a part of the audience was embarrassing.  Many of these students clearly had no sense of the world.  I was in line to ask a question, but was never given the chance because there were about 5 times more people with questions than Kerry actually had time to answer.

7.) U.S.Geological Survey--One of my co-workers and I took a trip out to the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, VA.  I was working on some research about Sudanese gold and we wanted to get some information from mineral experts.  It was quite the adventure simply getting out there and it was nice to get out of DC for a day.

Sudanese Embassy
8.) The Sudanese Embassy--I sometimes got to take a trip to the Sudanese Embassy (which is right near Dupont Circle) to drop off visa applications or attend meetings.  I especially enjoyed sitting in the waiting room and watching Sudanese TV in Arabic (although I didn't understand a word of it).

These were not all of the events and experiences I had working at State, but they were some of the best.  In general, no week was the same.  It was such a dynamic environment to work in.  I often felt like I was being pulled in ten different directions, but at the same time it wasn't like I was being asked to get ten different people coffee.  All the work I was doing was, on some level, important, and someone had to do it.

I don't think anyone who has not worked at State can understand just how substantial these type of internships are.  I didn't fully understand it myself until I did it.  In fact, I applied to do it all over again in the Fall.  I never thought I would enjoy and feel so fulfilled at an unpaid job, especially after having so many good paying jobs.

I also loved the fact that I got to wake up with the Washington Monument every morning.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Movie Review: Girl Rising

Happy International Women's Day!!

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I am a huge advocate for women's empowerment and, more specifically, girls' education.  This all started when I was in Peace Corps, mostly because I worked at an all girls' school and I saw the ability of some of my students, as well as their dreams and aspirations.  I also got to see, first hand, how women in a country such as Uganda were treated.  How they often weren't given the same opportunities as men and how this contributed to the structure of society.

This week I went to a film screening on my college campus.  The film I saw is called Girl Rising.  This is a movie that I heard about a few months ago and ever since I heard about it, I've been dying to see it.  However, it isn't like a regular movie in theaters.  There have been selective screenings around DC, but every one I found I couldn't go to (usually because I had class).  So when I finally found one I could go to and it was right on my university's campus, I couldn't pass up the opportunity!

Girl Rising tells the story of nine girls in different developing countries throughout the world.  Some of these girls have been through tremendous amounts of hardship.  They have experienced natural disasters, sexual assault, arranged marriages, child slavery, and other unthinkable injustices.  Despite the hard lives that they have had, they tell their stories about how they were able to rise above it, become educated, and gain support from those around them.  Each girl was paired up with a writer from their country, who helped them write and tell their story.  The film also provides a multitude of statistics about the disadvantages that women have in today's world.

Certain parts of this movie really took me back to my life in Uganda and my students.  I was really touched by these stories and the fact that these girls had the courage and the will power to tell them.  I really don't think I can better describe this movie.  I don't care who you are or what you think, everyone should see this movie.  It will change the way you think about feminism and women's empowerment.  Feminism is unfortunately often thought of as a negative thing, imposed on people by dominant, outspoken women.  However, when I speak of feminism, I'm simply talking about equal rights.  In the U.S., women have fairly good lives.  Everything isn't entirely equal across genders, but I know how much worse things can be.  I think this film portrays feminism and gender equality in a way that no one can really argue with.

However, as with almost everything in this world, there are criticisms for Girl Rising.  The film only shows girls with stories that ended on a somewhat positive note.  They didn't show the number of girls who die of HIV or other diseases.  They didn't show those who are victims of sexual assault and never seek help.  They didn't show those girls who never overcome the struggles of child slavery or arranged marriages.  And I even though I know this would have been extremely difficult to portray, it would give a much more well rounded picture.  This film also doesn't tell most of the stories in the voices of the girls themselves.  I would have much preferred to hear their voices (voiced-over, of course), so that you could get a better sense of who they really are.

In general, I think this film was incredible and as I left campus that night all I could think about was how much I just wanted to see it again!  It also made me realize how much I miss my students.  I wish I had kept in touch, but at the time I left my site, I was so fed up with the administration of my school that I didn't want to keep ties.  However, now I'm seeing the downside to that.  I may never know what happens to my best and brightest students.  There is one in particular that I might try to contact.  This could end up being extremely difficult, but before too much time passes, I feel like I should try.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Homosexuality and Human Rights: Uganda Taking Steps Backward

I often wonder what it must feel like to have been a Peace Corps volunteer back in the day in a country that I couldn't fathom Peace Corps operating in today.  For example, I wonder how RPCVs from Afghanistan or the DRC feel today, first looking back on their service and contributions to that country, and second looking at where that country is now.  I can imagine how disheartening that must be to see a country that you put so much of your personal efforts into digress when it comes to things like economic development and political stability.

I often times refer to Uganda as "my country".  Obviously, I'm an American citizen and (don't get me wrong) I am true and loyal to Uncle Sam; however, I've never spent so much time outside the U.S. as I did when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda.  For two years, I felt like I put an immense amount of effort into bettering that country.  For this reason, I often feel like it is my country, in the same way someone would feel ownership of a big project they are working on.  When the outcome is successful, you feel good, and when things digress, you don't feel so good.

All this being said, my true point of this post is to put out my thoughts on Uganda's most recent anti-gay law.  The entire time I spent in Uganda, this bill was always on the table for the parliament to pass.  And because of this, it always made us (volunteers) feel like we were in a bit of limbo.  The U.S. government had threatened to pull out all foreign aid if it was ever passed and Peace Corps is a foreign aid program.  So based on this one bill being passed in parliament, we knew that it could cause us to be pulled out and potentially sent home.  And as much as volunteers may complain about their host country, no one wants to involuntarily leave without being able to finish up projects and properly close out their service.

Normally when the topic of homosexually is brought up in any context (in the U.S. or internationally), I usually take a very indifferent approach.  I never understood those who are so greatly opposed to things such as gay marriage.  If it isn't affecting you, why should you be so against it?  However, I'm sure the same could be said of the rights of minorities back in the 60s.  People generally oppose what they don't understand or what they don't want to understand.  For me, I never saw any reason why I would oppose the rights of gay people, however, as a straight woman, I also never felt the need to be a big advocate of it (until now...)

To give you some more background on what is currently going on in Uganda right now, Parliament passed an anti-homosexuality bill in January of this year, at which time it was sent to the President for his signature.  At first, it didn't seem that President Museveni was going to approve of it.  I think that maybe he saw the consequences that would be imposed on Uganda by the international community, however, the Ugandan people put a lot of pressure on him.  This led him to shift his standpoint (probably partly in lieu of the 2016 elections).  He called for a panel of experts to research the "issue" and determine whether or not there is a genetic basis for homosexually.  (As a side note, I feel that this is part of the problem with developing countries.  They think they need to reinvent the wheel after it has already been done).  Basically, the ministry of health hired these scientists who (after a few weeks) came out with a report; however, the report was based on research that was poorly cited, misinterpreted and sometimes not cited at all.  When the Ugandan government is looking for a specific outcome and they hire people to produce the outcome, what do you think that outcome will be?  It's going to be whatever the government wants it to be.  This is corruption at its finest.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., researchers at Northwestern University came out with a study that reports the exact opposite of this Ugandan panel of experts.  So, based on his own "evidence", Museveni signed the bill into law.

This law, although not as harsh as its original proposed version, still allows for people to be put in jail for simply being who they are.  It also allows the government to imprison those who know someone who is gay and does not turn them over to the police.  This is such a basic violation of human rights, that I can't even fathom what Uganda's Human Rights Report is going to look like next year.

Once the bill was passed into law, the Red Pepper, a Ugandan tabloid, reported the names of suspected homosexuals in Uganda.  However, this is not the first time this has happened.  In 2010, another tabloid that no longer exists printed a similar list of known homosexuals.  And only a month later, David Kato, one of the biggest LGBT advocates in Uganda was killed.  Keep in mind, this was before this law was even passed, so I don't think things going to get any better now.

For obvious reasons, the international community and many foreign governments are outraged.  This is a blatant violation of human rights occurring in a country that receives a huge amount of foreign aid.  Some countries, including Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, have already cut some of their foreign aid programs.  The U.S. has yet to cut any aid, however, President Obama has made it quite clear that the U.S.-Ugandan relationship has become strained.  President Museveni doesn't seem to care, making statements saying that Uganda will develop without foreign aid from these countries.  I find this most interesting because Uganda gets a large amount of funding for antiretrovirals (ARVs) for those living with HIV.  It appears that the Ugandan government is more interested in ridding its country of gays than saving the lives of over a million of its citizens from dying of AIDS.  This is a blatant disregard for human life.

The bottom line is that I'm one of those RPCVs who is becoming disheartened by my former host country.  I feel that when it comes to human rights, Uganda is moving backwards instead of forwards.  This is particularly discouraging because I put so much of my time and effort into trying to make a difference there and yet it is still dragged back down by such close-mindedness.

Note: I've posted below many of the articles that I've come across that reference this subject (most of these are from the last few weeks).  Most of what I wrote here is based on my own personal knowledge of the subject (acquired partly from reading these articles), so you may not find every single detail cited in these articles.  But if you would like any further reading on this topic, these are some good sources.

Uganda President Signs Harsh Anti-Gay Law

Museveni Seeks U.S. Advice on Homosexuality

How Museveni Used Junk Science to Pass Uganda's Anti-Gay Bill

Museveni Responds to Obama on Anti-Gay Bill

Uganda Tabloid Prints Names of People it Says are Homosexual

Day After Uganda's Anti-Gay Law is Signed, a Tabloid Publishes Names

LGBT Ugandans Attacked, Killed as Tabloid Lists 'Top 200 Homos'

Several Countries Cut Aid to Uganda Over Anti-Gay Law

Ugandan Government Shrugs Off Aid Cuts Over Anti-Gay Law

Gay Not to Be Encountered: Culture Minister

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Facebook: Changing the World One Like at a Time

As many of you probably heard in the news earlier this week, Facebook just celebrated its 10th anniversary.  When I first heard this, I simply couldn't believe it.  It seems like yesterday when I was a freshman in college tinkering around with my new Facebook account.  In fact, I think I started college at the perfect time.  As a freshman in 2005, I was getting to know my campus and my friends at the very same time that Facebook was doing the same thing.

In the process of commemorating Facebook's 10th anniversary, I read several different articles on the topic and some of them really got me thinking.  Has Facebook really changed the way we interact with the world?  Or are we just wasting our time?

The first question is a hard one for me to answer.  As I said before I don't know post high school life and socialization patterns without Facebook.  From the time I started college, Facebook has always been there.  I suspect, though, that Facebook has changed the way we socialize.  You can more or less have a full and lasting relationship with someone on Facebook.  I actually attribute some of my longest friendships to Facebook.  I would not have been able to stay in touch with what was happening back home while I was in Uganda without Facebook.  And now, living in DC, I'm in a similar situation.  Not only do I share news and information with my distant and not so distant friends via Facebook, but I plan events and stay in tune with what is happening in the lives of people I may not have even seen in 5 or 10 years.  It's things like this that just blow my mind.

My second question pertains to whether we are just wasting our time using Facebook and spending so much time on it.  Despite the fact that one can waste a large amount of time on Facebook accomplishing nothing, if used properly Facebook can be a valuable tool.  I use Facebook these days mostly to get my daily news.  I have several news outlets with Facebook pages that I've liked and now I receive their news updates on my news feed.  I would say that about 70%-80% of my news feed is filled with actual news as opposed to pictures of a friends cat or homemade sushi rolls.

So overall, I feel that Facebook is useful, however, I do on occasion waste time on Facebook.  In 2004, I didn't know what Facebook was.  I wasn't even very familiar with the idea of social networking.  Now in 2014, I can't imagine life without Facebook.  It has become as ingrained in my daily lifestyle as my iPhone and my Kindle.

I've posted two articles here.  The first one is from the New York Times in 2004, speculating at the usefulness of Facebook just after it was created earlier that year.  The second is about how at its 10th birthday, Facebook is changing the role technology plays in many different arenas throughout the world.

On Campus, Hanging Out By Logging On

Facebook at 10: The World is a Social Network Now