Tag Archives: travel

An Education in San Benito

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Village of San Benito, Nicaragua
(photo credit: Brittany Policastro)

San Benito is a community of 88 beautiful families (350 people) located in the Department of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. There are 94 energetic, curious students enrolled in primary school in San Benito. They currently study with two teachers in a private house. Since the house is only comprised of one room, the children attend school in two groups: Kindergarten through third grade in the morning and fourth through sixth grades in the afternoon.

Jerry Samuel, age 11 (photo credit: Mary Kate Ruffing)

Jerry Samuel, age 11
(photo credit: Mary Kate Ruffing)

In Nicaragua, the school year runs from February to November (based around the harvest season), and elementary education is free and compulsory. Although it is still customary for children to work for their parents from a young age, especially in farming communities like San Benitio, this village has made the commitment to their children to make education a priority, and to give their children a choice when it comes to creating their future.

Jerry Samuel, pictured above, was my favorite kid I met in San Benito. I know you’re not supposed to do that. Pick favorites. But if you had met this kid, you’d understand. Jerry followed our group around during our week’s stay in the village; not like a lost puppy, but a benevolent mayor. He smiled with his lips only slightly parted, but laughed in a way that made you feel like your jokes (or at least your broken Spanish words) were funny. I played Jenga with Jerry after dinner most nights, and gave him half of a leather shoelace the day we departed from the village. I kept the other half and tied it around my wrist. Jerry tied his to a plastic bottle and swung it in circles on the ground, like a Nicaraguan village version of SkipIt. I’ll never forget him.

Pato, pato... ganso! (Photo credit: Ella Cuda)

Pato, pato… ganso!
(Photo credit: Ella Cuda)

A San Benito community member, Sandra Miranda, said: “Education is the biggest need in our community. We would like to have a nice and comfortable building where our kids will receive the bread of knowledge. We want to see future doctors and teachers. I would also like to learn to read and write because I did not have the opportunity when I was a kid.”

"If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children." - Gandhi

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” -Gandhi
(photo credit: Charly Simpson)

Worldwide, there are 57 million children of primary school age without access to a classroom. Nearly one in six people around the world cannot read or write. No country has ever achieved continuous and rapid economic growth without first having at least 40% of its adults literate.

The above photo is of a student in the neighboring village of Los 40. He carries his desk to school because there aren’t any in the classroom. Through our project with buildOn, each new school is supplied with necessary supplies, including desks.

Mi familia - Perla y Arsineo

(L to R) Julie, Perla, Mary Kate and Arsenio – Our Host family / Our new friends

The people of San Benito are farmers, are their staple crops are coffee, cacao, corn and beans. In Nicaragua today, coffee supports the 45,000 families that own and operate small farms. Though the farmers are extremely proud of their land and product, they are also vulnerable. People’s vulnerability to the fluctuating coffee prices depends upon their location in the coffee commodity chain and their access to assets such as land, credit, diversified income sources and social networks.

One night, sitting outside on white plastic chairs under the blanket of stars, I asked our host dad, Arsenio, if he was happy with the price he receives for the coffee he grows and sells. I was told that Arsenio grew a unique variety of bean, one unlike his peers, and it was very special. Still, Arsenio shook his head no. The coffee farmers we spoke with receive $.50 to $1.00 for one large paint bucket full of beans. It’s unjust, because the labor it takes to grow and harvest coffee, as you can imagine, is quite extensive.

However, from my understanding, farmers like Arensio are less vulnerable to losing their livelihood, and that of their family, if coffee prices were to plummet below the already low selling price. This is because San Benito is aided by another nonprofit organization who has helped the village thrive in self-sufficiency: Agros International provided the resources for the San Benito families to set up shop in this growing village – namely land for homes, gardens, and cash-crops.

Dina, age 6

Dina, age 6

“When you educate a man you educate one person, when you educate a women you educate an entire family.” – African Proverb

When women and girls have the chance to advance their lives through education, the entire community reaps the benefits. At buildOn, the partner organization with whom we built the school, gender equality is the cornerstone of their methodology.

On the job site, men and women worked side-by-side performing the physical labor to build the school. Women are encouraged to step outside traditional gender norms and try different tasks, such as laying bricks, digging the foundation and mixing concrete. Indeed, the women of San Benito plunged their shovels deeply and fervently into the earth, literally breaking ground on their children’s’ futures.

As a condition of partnering with buildOn, each village makes a promise to send their daughters to school in equal numbers with their sons. Dina, pictured above, will certainly hold her own among the boys. She is feisty and fun, sassy and smart. I can’t wait to for the world to meet her.

Home

Home

We stayed with host families in San Benito, sleeping on cots, and living as they did: simply and purposefully. We generated no waste; there is no trash pick up in San Benito. Meals consisted primarily of rice and beans, though we also ate yucca and eggs from chickens kept in the back yard. We fell asleep to the sounds of roosters crowing, dogs barking, and monkeys howling.

Three meals daily were cooked over an open fire by the woman of the house, an idea that sounds quaint, but is truly terrible for their lungs. I hated hearing our host mom, Perla, coughing at night because of her work to cook our meals. This detail of her life is one of things I want to be different for her and her peers. I researched this issue upon my return home, and discovered that open-fire cooking is a major health issue in developing countries: exposure to cooking over an open fire causes over two million deaths from chronic lung diseases every year. To me, someone who has studied and celebrated the beauty of food, I felt like I had discovered another dark underbelly of its life. It was unsettling, to say the least. The good news is that there are people working on this issue – namely The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, to whom the U.S. government has committed up to $105 million for research and debt financing for large-scale cookware businesses.

Perla had the most beautiful garden in the village. She spoke lovingly of her three-year-old daughter, Anna, who was staying with her mother in town for the week on holiday. Her daughter, she told us, would learn English. In fact, Perla traveled to the city of Matagalpa once-a-month or so to take English classes. My friend (and roommate) Mary Kate discovered Perla’s interest in English by finding a page torn from an English work book lying in the compost pile. Indeed Perla was shy about her English at first, shy about a lot of things in the beginning. But by the end of the week, we were exchanging words in both of our mother languages. Mary Kate and I were brought to tears during the closing ceremony when Perla got up in front of the whole village to speak, to say her thanks, and her goodbye; she was the first woman in the village to do this, followed only by two others, and it must have taken a lot of courage and conviction to make the decision to speak up and out in public.

Though our Spanish was lacking, or probably because of it, Mary Kate and I formed a quick and solid bond with Perla and Arsenio. The day we left, Arsenio told us that we would live with him forever – “en el corazon” (in his heart).

buildOn teams build schools with villages that have historically had no adequate school structure – where students are squeezed into dark and crumbling mud huts, or are taught under trees when the weather permits, or have to walk multiple miles to a neighboring village, or can’t attend school at all.

buildOn teams build schools with villages that have historically had no adequate school structure – where students are squeezed into dark and crumbling mud huts, or are taught under trees when the weather permits, or have to walk multiple miles to a neighboring village, or can’t attend school at all.

Our group raised $50,000 to build this school in San Benito and to travel there to be a part of its construction. We worked every day from 7am to 11pm, alongside men and women who live in the village and will directly benefit from the construction of the school. Barriers between our two groups were quickly disassembled. Working side by side, for a common purpose, blurred the lines between an “us” and a “them”, and it was clear that we were all there for the same reason: for the education of the 94 children of San Benito.

Stones, age 5

Stones, age 5

Leaving San Benito was emotional. Since our goodbye and subsequent return to Philadelphia, I’ve come to the conclusion that sincere, deep, and lasting connections are formed in environments saturated by vulnerability. Not vulnerability as in a place of imminent danger or doom, but vulnerability as a state of uncertainty, awkwardness, discomfort – or a farmer’s perpetual uncertainty of his crop – because in the attempt to soften these blows you reach out your hand to the person next to you. And because that person may be a perfect stranger, or just someone you don’t typically sleep next to, you expand – you have to crack open or you’ll crack up. You let yourself be vulnerable by falling back into a night of Nicaraguan stars deep enough that you’re destined to swim up with a discovery, or at least a shoelace, in your pocket.

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The school as it stands today! Almost complete!

Hey, thanks.  Love, Jerry and Julie

Hey, thanks. Love, Jerry and Julie

To there – from here – with help

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“For one month follow the yes and don’t fight with no. Give more cooperation to the yes – that is from where you will be united. No never helps to attain unity. It is always yes that helps, because yes is acceptance, yes is trust, yes is prayer.”    – Osho

savasana

This morning, I posed a question to a friend:

“If today you had a strong desire to jump on a plane and go to another country for a week, if that place was calling you, would you do it?” Like many of you, I suspect, his answer was “no”. His reasons are probably yours, too: (lack of) money, plans and time.

I recognize my proposition as a tad nonsensical, but not far off from the space where I believe you should take flight if you’re called. Where do you want to go? And how are you going to get there?

When I was invited to move to Italy for a year, I was riding a wave of semi-irrational momentum that only brought me pause the night I sat at my kitchen table in Philadelphia, hunched over a glowing Excel spreadsheet with a phone pressed to my ear, my very rational mother on the other end.

“I can’t gooooo,” I wailed. I was staring at the screen of numbers – big numbers with dollar signs. My mother is extremely talented at managing, saving and moving dollars, an all-around rock star at her relationship with money, and she replied: “You’re right. You can’t.”

I could have folded at this point. Given up on this expensive dream. Cursed the lack of a trust fund. Instead, I called my sister. Though she didn’t give me money, she did tell me how much she had taken out in student loans for graduate school.

Then I sold my car and cashed in my vacation days. I left my job and I moved to Italy.

italy road

It wasn’t exactly waking up one day and putting a plane ticket on a credit card, but figuring out the numbers did feel satisfying, like scratching a hard-to-reach itch. When you want something bad enough, you get fueled to find and finish ways to make it happen. If you get too scared, or if there is a bigger plan in store for you, momentum usually dies and your Excel sheet wins.

Now, two years later, I’m planning my travels to Nicaragua with a group of yoga teacher trainees to build a school in a village there. You might think that getting to a hot country lacking in luxury would be easier than getting to the lush vineyards of northern Italy, but the legwork involved in coming up with the money to get to Nicaragua has proven to be more complex, challenging and uncomfortable by far.

While getting to Italy necessitated signing papers and promissory notes, getting to Nicaragua involves me asking other people to pay for it. Think that sounds weird? So do I. To participate in the school build project, each trainee has to raise $5,000 to fund a portion of the school building materials and their room and board with a host family in the village. While I could, hypothetically, pay my own way, this would be cheating the type of journey this is supposed to be (and is kind of against the rules of my training). So I’m challenging myself to do something uncomfortable. I’m challenging myself to be comfortable with asking for help.

Partnering with local mayor’s offices and a number of local NGOs, buildOn has constructed 94 schools throughout the regions of León, Chinandega, Nueva Segovia, Esteli, Matagalpa, and Madriz. These schools have built a new generation of readers and writers with limitless opportunities.

Partnering with local mayor’s offices and a number of local NGOs, buildOn has constructed 94 schools throughout the regions of León, Chinandega, Nueva Segovia, Esteli, Matagalpa, and Madriz. These schools have built a new generation of readers and writers with limitless opportunities.

Help given freely and without prompting – like when someone takes half of the six grocery bags you’re carrying out of your hand so that you can get your keys out of your pocket, or cleans the dishes after dinner because you did the cooking – feels pretty loving and fair.

But asking for help? Hard. Asking for money? Even worse. Asking for help makes me feel vulnerable, guilty, needy and annoying. Why should you help me? Help yourself! You work hard for your money! Go buy that plane ticket to Nepal and get yourself a nice cup of tea.

fold gratitude

Through this process of trying to get myself to Nicaragua by fundraising, I realized that a “You find your way and I’ll find mine” attitude is my default mode of operation, and it’s hindering. Yet it’s not surprising. I come from a lineage of strong, capable women and men – nurses and steel workers and breadwinners; the caretakers, not the ones being taken care of.

I wonder if the Nicaraguan men and women with whom we will build the school felt – and may feel when we get there – uncomfortable asking for help. There is no way that they could afford the materials for this new building without the assistance of buildOn, the non-profit facilitating the project, or the fundraising efforts of our Beyond Asana yoga teacher training group. It’s a lot of money. It’s taking a lot of time. It can feel like a burden. And yet I’m happy to do it.

Lajero School Volunteers, Nicaragua

Lajero School Volunteers, Nicaragua

But first –

To help others, I want to allow myself to experience what it feels like to be helped. To ask for support and to receive it. To live up to the responsibility I’m offering to accept. To let myself feel real, heavy gratitude toward another person for making something happen, and not just proud of myself for balancing my Excel sheet.

Asking isn’t easy and receiving isn’t a given. But I’m learning that when you let others help you, you give them the chance to be powerful and bright. When you let others help you, you relinquish control. You believe that you’re worthy of care and attention. When you let others help you, momentum and grace is gathered into a force infused with the energy of thousands and that vastly surpasses what could come from just one pair of hands.

Being on the receiving end of help allows you to learn what gratitude truly is, to say thank you… and mean it.

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Thank you to everyone who has made an individual donation on my buildOn page. At the halfway mark of my yoga teacher training, I am, fittingly halfway toward my fundraising goal. Thank you to the organizations whose foundational and generous support is helping to raise fuller funds faster:

“The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” Australian artist Helena Rosebery sketched gorgeous "Veggie Asana" notecards for donor incentive gifts. View her work & imaginative design services at  http://www.facebook.com/bobiro.graphics

“The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” Australian artist Helena Rosebery sketched gorgeous “Veggie Asana” notecards for donor incentive gifts. View her work & imaginative design services at http://www.facebook.com/bobiro.graphics

Meghan Nunes, Arbonne Independent Consultant & colleagues are donating a portion of summer sales to the Nicaragua school build project, having already contributed $250. Visit Meghan's page to buy fresh Arbonne skin care and health products at http://www.facebook.com/MeghanNunesArbonneI

Meghan Nunes, Arbonne Independent Consultant & colleagues are donating a portion of summer sales to the Nicaragua school build project, having already contributed $250. Visit Meghan’s page to buy fresh Arbonne skin care and health products at https://www.facebook.com/MeghanNunesArbonneIC

The fun guys over at Jackie Party Tops are donating each tank sale ($25) bought with the online promo code YOGA to the project. Head over to www.jackiepartytops.com to purchase (Women & Men's sizes)

The fun guys over at Jackie Party Tops are donating each tank sale ($25) bought with the online promo code YOGA to the project. Head over to http://www.jackiepartytops.com to purchase colorful tanks for women & men

Nicole Smith, owner of Pacific Yoga, Philadelphia's newest yoga studio in Fishtown, is hosting once-a-month First Friday pay-what-you-can donation classes from 6:00-7:30. All proceeds go to the project. www.pacificyogaphilly.com

Nicole Smith, owner of Pacific Yoga, Philadelphia’s newest yoga studio in Fishtown, is hosting once-a-month First Friday pay-what-you-can donation classes from 6:00-7:30 through November. All proceeds go to the project. http://www.pacificyogaphilly.com

Thank you to my teachers and my teachers’ teachers. To the leaders of the Beyond Asana yoga teacher training, Brittany Policastro and Maura Manzo. And to buildOn for their vision and organization.

Beyond Asana founded by Brittany Policastro Philadelphia, PA www.beyondasana.org

Founded by Brittany Policastro Philadelphia, PA http://www.beyondasana.org

Next Stop: Nicaragua

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“It’s no accident that when you look closely into the eyes of another, the very first thing you see is yourself. That when you hold their hand, you can feel your own warmth.  And that when you give of yourself, you give to yourself. Because, quite simply, both you and they are the same.” – TUT

The road more or less traveled, Nicaragua

The road more or less traveled, Nicaragua

“You used to dance,” she said to me from the front of the room. I gazed up at her from my crossed-legged position on the floor and nodded my head. “I used to dance, ballet mostly,” I confirmed.

“I see you dancing,” she continued, doing an awkward waltz to strengthen her point, then laughed, apologized for her lack of coordination.  “You’re in the middle of a circle of children patting them on the head,” she continued, “You’re protecting them. Why did you turn this opportunity down?”

Flustered, I racked my brain for what this stranger could possibly be referring to. “I don’t know?” I offered.

“You’re going to build schools. Like Oprah,” she said definitively, snapping closed the book on the prediction for the next chapter in my life before moving on to the next person in the crowd.

Some people carefully make plans, weighing the pros and cons of the risks and benefits on their decision chart, researching and reading and editing until they have the most logical answer. I consider the advice of psychics.

I let the prediction go, but realized a few weeks later what she was talking about. In January, I had been discussing work with a yoga teacher and traveling with a group of yoga teacher trainees to Nicaragua to build a school for children. But, in January, I had plans to move to California, and I backed out of working with the teacher and the training. I turned the offer down.

I used to dance. Sometimes I still do. In my room. Big, brazen dances with strong arms and elongated legs. That creative energy is contained within my four walls, even though I often yearn to break it out and bring the wild dance to the streets.

As January fell into February which turned into March, I started to be pulled in a direction that could allow me to use more of this creativity. To write, to generate ideas, and to share what I know. I chose not to move to California. I wanted to jump into something else.  A project. Anything. I wrote to the yoga teacher and asked if I could have a do-over. I wanted in.

49% of students in buildOn schools are female.

49% of students in buildOn schools are female.

As of today, I’m at the 40 hour mark in the 200 hours I need to be a certified yoga teacher, though explaining what we’re doing in those terms minimizes the growth and openness that this training is provoking in me and in 11 other women – and one calm, anchoring man.

As a group, we’re raising over $100,000 with buildOn to build two schools for children in two villages in Nicaragua; the schools will double as hurricane shelters. The kiddos we will build for are currently taking classes, but they don’t have a proper building in which to learn. As of now, their school looks something like this:

Old School

Old School

No one is saying that what happens inside of this school is any less important than in any other school, but the village wants a new, bigger, sturdier school so that even more kids can learn and read and play in a safe space.  And the kids deserve it. The new school will look something like this:

New School

New School

We will be in the village for a week in February 2014. During that time will get to know the people who live there. (I’m practicing my Spanish.) We will eat together and play together and build the school together. I predict we might even dance together. I hope we do.

My portion of the school fundraising efforts is $5,000. For more information about the Beyond Asana buildOn Project in Nicaragua and to donate, please visit my fundraising page.

The Sweet Friend Tour

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“Friendship is the purest love. It is the highest form of Love where nothing is asked for, no condition, where one simply enjoys giving.”

– Osho

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life/I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder/if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened/or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

– Mary Oliver

Brunch at Whisker Jacks

Clockwise from left: Maria brunching at our classmate’s pop-up cafe, Whisker Jacks; Jack’s bread; Maria’s apricot marmalade; Helena blows out 25 candles on Steph the baker’s cake; Esther’s citrus strips

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-November, I stood in my apartment in Bra, where I had lived for the past 12 months, looking at two suitcases and a box. The night before, I had spent hours looking at and touching the details of my home abroad: the brass door handles shaped like fish tails, the huge kitchen window with the thick wooden frame and no screen and the potted pink Julianas that decorated my small balcony. I had hoped to tattoo these items in my memory. Several times that day — moving day — I had said: “I don’t want to leave Italy.” Be careful what you wish for.

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Clockwise from left: Raw oysters with lemon juice at Abergaveny Food Festival in Wales; Vegetable pie with the works — mashed peas, potatoes, fried shallots and gravy; Lorenzo pouring suds at Bristol Beer Factory’s Factoberfest; “Pirates” dancing by the River Avon; Totterdown alleyway; Counting pounds; Helena and Lorenzo at Saint Nicholas farmers market

I had returned to Italy after living for six weeks in Bristol, United Kingdom, where I interned at Sustainable Food Trust, and worked to survive the cloudy disposition of both the weather and the city’s inhabitants. Had it not been for my friends Helena and Lorenzo, who were also interning in Bristol (Helena for Square Food Foundation and Lorenzo for Bristol Beer Factory), I might have jumped shipped. Yet together we filled our weeks venturing to Wales for a food festival and to London for the scene. We watched women in leopard suits perform The Lion King, stuffed ourselves with Chelsea Buns from Mark’s Bread and listened to many nights of live music on Stokes Croft.

But a weight lifted off my shoulders when I returned to Milan. That day, the sun was shining on the walls of the massive stone train station, and men and women were taking coffee outside at curly brass tables; they were talking loudly and laughing. Italy felt so good.

That evening, I sat on my bed with a glass of Barbera d’Alba and a bar of Swiss chocolate. I watched the sun set behind the Alps. A massive and profound appreciation saturated my body and continued through the next day when I rode to my favorite park to have a picnic of ricotta, spinach and bread. The warm sun nudged me into a nap. I hadn’t realized how influential this globe was to my happiness before I left it for a while, nor had I fully realized Italy’s charm until then, my last few weeks in Bra.

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Our bright kitchen window on Via Principi di Piemonte

It is very possible that I would become jaded with Italy’s intricacies if I was staying indefinitely, but I didn’t because I wasn’t. My visa stated that I would no longer be a resident after November 16th, 2012 and so, for the next few weeks, I went right on appreciating the quality of life that made me so happy, the novelty that constantly stimulated me, the food that unabashedly brought me pleasure, the people that sang to me with their language, and the parks and architecture and statues and churches and cobblestones that set the stage of one of the most growth-provoking years of my life. I was certainly on a high. How else could I have felt a genuine appreciation for door knobs?

My mind was focused so intently on how much I would miss bella Italia that after I finally dragged myself to the airport on departure day, I missed my flight. It was the first time all year that I made a major travel mistake, but it bought (or cost, depending how you look at it) me one more night sipping red wine in Italy. The next morning, I finally felt like I could say goodbye, the memories were tattooed.

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Graduation Day: FC7 Masters in Food Culture and Communication – 27 students from 13 countries

The thought of returning home to Pennsylvania felt simultaneously comforting and impossible. Going back to something familiar seemed ridiculous after living among the unfamiliar for so long. Knowing that I could survive, and even thrive, in a new environment is the biggest lesson I learned this year. As Maura’s theme for 2012 was “optimism”, mine was “transformation”. Right on, 2012.

With the gut rejection of returning to the familiar, I began the “Sweet Friend Tour”, graciously and enthusiastically visiting the homes of Esther in Amsterdam, Danielle in Los Angeles  and Colleen in Seattle. Jobless but happy world traveler was a rolling stone…

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Esther the Amsterdamer

My friend Colleen and I used to joke that the reason we couldn’t be world travelers was because we wouldn’t have health insurance. The fact that I was currently not a card-carrying member of any emergency medical insurance was in the front of my mind as I rode side-saddle on the back of Esther’s boyfriend Wouter’s bike through the streets of Amsterdam one chilly Friday night in November. After a few beers. And a café.

To get on the bike, I had followed Esther’s instructions and trotted beside it, in red wedge boots, putting out my hands and pulling them back as I squealed in resistance to hopping on the back of what is usually my favorite form of transportation, but now looked like a very bad idea.

“This can’t be safe!” I yelled over my shoulder to Esther as she rode behind me, laughing so hard that tears were coming down her cheeks. “Everyone does it!” she assured me. The bike only gave an incremental wobble as Wouter received my weight and dutifully peddled me through the brightly lit city and over the calm canals.

Amsterdam's center is home to 240 bridges

Amsterdam’s center is home to 240 bridges

Indeed, Amsterdam’s bike culture was one of my favorite things about the city, and I was delighted to see vehicles with two wheels outnumber those with four.  Bike lanes had a prominent place next to motor lanes. Esther lent me my own bike one day, and we rode over the quick, smooth, arched bridges, past exposed boat houses and Renaissance architecture — narrow but tall (often six stories!) houses that arm themselves with attic window hooks. The roofs looked like beautiful white layer cakes. Amsterdam is a delicate city. I felt like a human in a doll house when we had a lunch of nettle soup and sour dough bread in a pretty cafe.

Raw herring with onions and pickles

Wouter and Esther in Volendam

Wouter and Esther in Volendam

One afternoon, Esther and Wouter took me to the fishing villages of Marken and Volendam, where we walked along the frigid water eating raw herring and pickles with toothpicks. We stopped in a fish shop where Esther bought the ugliest looking seafood I’ve ever seen — smoked eel (which ended up tasting delicious). Wouter shared his fried cod, which had crisped in the bubbly deep fryer in the back while money was exchanged for the ugly eel. The hot, salty, soft fish will forever be on my tongue, it was so delicious. We stood eating it in the middle of the fish shop as a song that will always remind me of Philadelphia played on the radio.

Like the Amsterdam canals, things like hearing a familiar song in a foreign country connected pieces of my old and new life together and made me feel like I was never far from home. Now, back in the US, three weeks after leaving Amsterdam, it’s funny to think that I’m using those bridges to go back the other way. A song, a photo, or even a train ticket stub can catapult me back to moments like dancing in Greece with with my classmates or laying on the beach  in southern France with my friend Yahli. The blue pleather seats of the Italian trains are etched it my brain. Life has little tricks to make sure that once things and people are connected, they remain connected.

D and me on Catalina Island in southern California

D and me on Catalina Island in southern California

Proof of these long-term connections were displayed when I reunited with one of my college roomates, Danielle, whom I met almost ten years ago. She had since moved to southern California, and I visited her after returning from Amsterdam. D introduced me to the people and scenery that created the happiness she wore like a flattering dress. She lives in Newport Beach, the quintessential SoCal beach town, home to busy streets speckled with taquerías and gas stations, the ocean in the background serving as a steady clock. Her apartment is about 100 steps from the sea, in the middle of beach houses that were glowing with primary-colored Christmas bulbs. We ate fish and avocados all week and went on the hike I’ve been waiting for: Catalina Island with a 360 view of the Pacific Ocean. The mild weather only required long-sleeved shirts.

As far as transportation is concerned (actually, as far as many things are concerned), Los Angeles is a stark contrast to Amsterdam. No bikes in LA. Everyone drives. Without a car, I braved public transportation, primed by vexing train navigation from Bra to anywhere, and concluded that it isn’t all that bad. I enjoyed the diversity that LA provided, and listened to Mandarin, Spanish and the low, drawn out SoCal accents on the bus ride past tall, toothpick-thin palm trees and annoyed drivers.

California cactus on Catalina Island

California cactus on Catalina Island

Another link proved connected when I met Maria, one of my classmates and dearest friends in Italy, and her boyfriend (and LA native), Graham, in Chinatown for Sunday dim sum.  “This is the first time we’re hanging out in America!” we realized, smiling and knowing that it wouldn’t be the last. The couple drove me through the ill-famed Downtown LA and the green, jungle-like streets of the Silver Lake neighborhood. Maria’s knack for knowing where to get the perfect food or beverage led us to Intelligencia, where I was schooled on “the slow drip” — water painstakingly finding its way through coffee grounds and a brown filter to make a pure cup of joe that is worth the 15 minute wait.

A faster coffee — frappuccino with Maria and Whisker Jack in Greece

When I asked Maria and Graham why so many people move to LA, Maria paused and gave me the kind of thoughtful answer that only Maria can: “I think people feel a lot of hope here,” she said. Indeed, people come to LA to “make it” in show biz or otherwise, and there is a feeling of confidence and pride that is palpable to visitors. I also think the full-time sun doesn’t hurt…

It’s interesting that Maura and I both ended up in California. It’s one place in America that is seemingly most different from Philadelphia.  Loving what “different” can evoke, that’s appealing.

Magic Seattle balls

Magic Seattle balls

Tucked away in the northwestern corner of the United States, Seattle prides itself on being different. Looking at a map, the city looks like it might jump into the Pacific, or be pushed in and forgotten. Yet journeying here pays you back in novelty and a defunct kind of friendliness. My dear friend Colleen, a children’s hospital colleague, moved here over a year ago to attend UW’s clinical psychology doctoral program. Seattle was the last place she ever thought she would end up, but the city’s insulation from fast food chains and malls, replaced with an inundation of flea markets and coffee shops (that moonlight as wine bars) are a good fit for my beautiful friend who has always decorated her life in vintage floral prints.

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Seattle may be one of the few places that still has “Soul Night”, as Havana did one Thursday. The bar was packed with young people who knew how to shake it to Otis Redding and James Brown while clutching their whiskey sours. Seattle knows what’s good.

Colleen eating Paseo's cajun scallop sandwich (SO good) outside Seattle's Google offices

Colleen eating Paseo’s cajun scallop sandwich (SO good) outside Seattle’s Google offices

Now that I’ve completed a sampler platter of cities and lifestyles, I recognize that I truly could be comfortable just about anywhere. I started to realize at the beginning of this year’s journey, but now stand very strong in the conviction, that it’s not things that bring happiness. What brought me happiness  this year were the experiences that shook me with their newness; the new friends who matched pieces of me that no one ever had before; and the old friends and family who welcomed me home as soon as  I was ready. This year gave me a confidence that I will try to hold onto in order to seek out and face even more of the unknown.

Like Maura, I recognize the circularity of time. Life’s joys and challenges often repeat themselves disguised in different clothes. But sometimes, a new experience emerges, breaking the pattern and widening the circle. That’s growth; sometimes provoked by experiences and at other times people. Yet you’re always the one allowing (or not allowing) it in. I learned that from a few sweet friends.

Tea, Sugar, Dreams – Istanbul, Turkey

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The voice of the man we would never see entered the window of our second floor room in the hostel on Bogazkesen street. It echoed in our ears while we were half asleep. We tried to ignore the words we didn’t understand by pressing our faces into our pillows. It was only sunrise after all.

Though we would never meet the muezzin whose call to prayer marked the days, we grew accustomed to witnessing his significance throughout Istanbul. The closest we came to seeing this man was in the New Mosque next to the famous Spice Bazaar. We sat cross-legged on the carpet of the mosque’s tourist canal, scarves that we bought especially for this occasion draped awkwardly over our heads.

The seeming inappropriateness of us being in this reverent heaven was balanced by the respectful awe apparent in our eyes. My friends, Cara and Erica, and I darted them from the men bowing and listening, kissing and wanting in the front to the more aptly-scarfed women behind gates in the back. I saw Erica tilt her face to the ceiling where surely the great divine that sent shivers up our arms was granting each prayer as it came through the devotion.

I had never been in a city were religion was so palpable, so laced in the culture. Even the strong-willed opinions and Western clothes of what looked to be Brooklyn hipsters in Cihangir couldn’t erase the presence of the reverence.

Each morning we stopped in front of a handsome man using a chunky steel juice press to turn oranges and grapefruits into our breakfast. Teşekkür ederim we whispered shyly testing one of the few Turkish words we learned.

The manager of our hostel had sat with me on the couch the night I arrived, poured me a cup of tea, took the sweet cakes I had set on the table in front of us and told me that you pronounce thank you like tea-sugar-a-dream.  I noted it was five syllables longer than thanks. We had the time.

We easily familiarized ourselves with our neighborhood for the week, Taksim, and hiked up steep streets whose body could surely only fit one car, but pushed us up against houses as two squeezed by. Many prayers in the mosques must be devoted to driving in Istanbul, as the evasion of accidents defies all laws of gravity and space.

Ironically, the streets where no cars are allowed to drive are the ones that could fit them. People flock to these larger spaces and fill them with the movement of raised arms holding snapping fingers, shoulders slightly hunched, eyes looking at the ground. Guitars are strummed on these streets. Demonstration pamphlets are distributed. These too are prayers.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon we scrambled to the edge of the Sea of Marmara to catch a ferry to the “Big Island” of Büyükada, part of the Princes Islands. We were warned to take the one hour ride, not the two, and we navigated several well-dressed, wing-tipped men to obtain three tickets on the right boat. I only got half-way through saying thanks in Turkish before Cara pulled me in the direction of the sea. As we pushed away from the dock, I admired the intricacies of the Istanbul skyline, cutouts piling on top of each other against the blue sky to get a good view of our departure.

As promised, one hour later we stepped off of the ferry and stepped onto what looked like an antiquated beach town. Men in sweaters sold the yellow flowers of blooming mimosa trees and women in flowing peasant skirts stood by racks of flowered crowns.

We walked slowly by ice cream shops displaying chocolate and pistachio-crusted cones before spotting a small, doorless store front with a red metal oven housing three drawers filled with baked potatoes. We practically ran to the glass case displaying toppings, and ticked off the items with which we wanted to crown our potatoes. We started with butter and salt. I added everything but the pepperoni: purple cabbage, carrots, couscous, beets, pickles, cheese, black olives, peas, cole slaw, hot sauce. Before you say ‘ew’, I want to tell you that I finished it all.

Besides eating three pounds of potatoes, we had a very specific mission on Büyükada: we were going to make some wishes.

With a heart full of belief and comfortable shoes we started walking up the road lined with white washed houses whose back yards were the sea. Bikers and horse-drawn carriages breezed past us as we took in the details of the thick trees and multi-colored stray cats.

I thought about my wish and the description Erica had read to us out loud from the tourist book she carried in her tan purse: “Although the church building itself is unexceptional with nothing really fascinating, the backyard of the church offers some very beautiful sights of the other islands and the sea. On April 23rd every year, which is considered as St George’s holy day, a crowd of seemingly tens of thousands attend the church to make wishes. Wish making rituals that day range from the usual burning a candle to climbing the cobbled path on bare feet to untying wool balls all along the path.”

Erica, Cara and I are pretty faithful girls. We believe in dancing emphatically to our favorite songs at 700 Club; in a long yoga class at the end of a long day; in the necessity of humor; and the power of travel to new places to open your mind and make you feel free.

Though we weren’t at Saint George’s on the official saint’s day, we each took a pen, a small square of white paper and wrote down a wish we wanted to come true. A wish sounds more magical than a prayer.

Hearing the echo of the man we would never see, I folded my piece of paper and dropped it into the clear glass box on the east wall of the church. Making wishes in that church, with Istanbul across the sea, weaving and waning its prayers, I think we had it all on our side.

Italy the Ordinary

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“I believe it is in the way we handle the ordinary that gives us the foundation to step into the extraordinary when it calls.”
– Margaret Stortz

“It’s only time, it will go by. Don’t look for love in faces, places; it’s in you. That’s where you’ll find kindness. Be here now.”
– Ray LaMontagne

Zeit ist immer. Time is always.”

It has been five months since I moved, and I guess you could say that I’m in the middle of my journey. Life in Italy has begun to turn faster, travel itineraries are traded like cards and the sunshine has started to melt all of the clouds in the sky into a holy blue canopy. Consequently, I have not been able to put things together in my head fast enough to write about them.

But tonight, with a promise to myself to deliver something of substance, I stumbled upon a page I had written last April, before boarding a plane to Italy with two suitcases had even been a realized possibility.

I remember sitting down to write the reflection at the shiny wooden kitchen table in our Green Street apartment. I had just returned home from a yoga class with one of my favorite teachers, and her interpretation of the Guru Mantra we chanted before moving into less prostrate postures was still reverberating in my mind.

In yoga, chants from the Yoga Sutras (basically the Yoga bible) are sung in the very old, fairly stoic language of Sanskrit. Like any time you change one language to another, there can be slight differences in the interpretations of the words, flavored with a pinch of your own culture. Here is the chant (though it’s so much cooler if you hear it):

Gurur Brahmaa Gurur Vishnu
Gurur Devo Maheshwarah
Guru Saakshaata Parabrahma
Tasmai Shri Guruve Namah

And a bit of interpretation/take-home notes:

  • Brahma is the Hindu god of creation
  • Vishnu is the preserver of the universe
  • Maheshwara (Shiva) is the destroyer of the ego and, ultimately, of the universe
  • Brahman is the “unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe”
  • All of deities are teachers, so show reverence to them all

Off sticky mats and outside of yogi circles, “talking Sanskirt” tends to make some eyes roll, so I promise that there are only English words from here on out. But I had to outline the mantra because what the gurus (Hindu gods) represent are the beginning, middle and the end. (And you thought all we did in yoga class was tone our abs!)

Last April, I had written:

  • There is a teacher in the beginning, middle and end. The beginning of a day, the middle of a class, the end of a relationship, for instance, all have lessons that would be different if presented at any other point. There is a responsibility in each of these points – as teachers – to bring to us an understanding of that moment’s experience.
  • Beginnings tend to bring excitement and nervousness because they are new and fresh and still a bit uncertain. This lesson tends to take a lot of energy because things need to be built, created, started.
  • Currently in the middle, I feel that same satisfaction and joy, but also some sadness, as I see hints to an end. Almost three years since this new beginning, duties at my job are becoming a bit old hat, good friends are moving, old friends are growing apart, my body is changing and life is pushing forward.
  • As easy as it can be to define the beginnings and ends, it’s the middle of things that – in my experience – requires the most patience and carries the most potential. Like in Warrior II – the pose of the present, my teacher said – your body should not be placed too far forward (in the future) or too far back (in the past). Being right in the middle creates a firm burning in your quadriceps (!)…but also feels really stable. That’s how the middle can be: sometimes it’s frustrating because it feels uncomfortable, but ease can be had if you let it take over. A balance can be struck if you let yourself be in the middle, the present, the now.

Reading last April’s words, I realized that they are almost identical to this April’s feelings. Does anyone else get antsy in the Spring? Perhaps it’s because when us North bloods hear the urgency of the sun’s gunshot, we strip off our sweaters and sprint at full speed in the warm grass, knowing that we’ll blink and, just like that, in a few months, we will have to put our sweaters back on. West coast kids and those who live in warm climates don’t have to deal with the impermanency of fair weather and are therefore move even keeled, more steady.

Like Pennsylvania, northern Italy too has cold winters and, just as the sun has consistently been showing its face, so has grown my itch to make something new happen. It’s like the Spring is my warm open window of opportunity to use up the rest of the juice in my Middle; to get things in line so that I know where I will be when I have to pull my sweater over my head again.

Let’s face it: stability can be boring. I had tons of material for the beginning of my adventure, and will most likely have some tear-stained stories about the end. Yet the middle can feel a bit old hat if you’re not careful. And the way to be careful, as last year’s lesson taught, is to let yourself feel at ease, preserved, protected. Relish the stability because it often signifies that an end and, therefore, new beginning is right on the horizon.

There are so many miracles in an ordinary day that can be realized if you pay attention to them. So, cultivating the opposite of wanting something else, I relish in my favorite things:

v In certain spots around the town in which I live, you can see the Alps on the horizon, stained on the sky like a lightly pressed temporary tattoo on a child’s arm at a fair.

v Every afternoon from around 2:00 to sundown, the sun shines directly into my bedroom, making it impossible not to throw open the doors, sit on the balcony or take a nap.

v The generalization that every kid in Italy grows up knowing how to play soccer is true. Running through the park, I see little guys as young as 18 months kicking a ball with a wobbly leg, and 5-year-olds chest bumping and dribbling with the ease of David Beckham. I love watching my classmates play the same game and engage the kids we meet on our study trips in kicking the ball around. I love how the sport is a universal language.

v Gelato. Mostly fior di latte. Lord help me not every day.

v My commute to school is down a catapulting hill and through bucolic farm land. Now that the grass has turned “new green”, as my friend Maria and I call it, it’s even more stunning to pedal through. It almost puts me over the edge that the commute ends in front of what was once the Savoy family’s summer house – these buildings are our classrooms. Earlier this week, I was lying on the grass imaging the Italian royal family roaming around, enjoying the same warm sun as I was feeling on my shoulders.

v I’m terrible at math, but I will venture to estimate that there is approximately 1 church per every 300 people in Bra. I see two from my apartment – one from my front balcony and one from our back kitchen window. There is nothing like getting sandwiched between the ringing of bells thrown from these holy walls when the clock strikes noon.

It is precisely these sights that welcome me to keep my eyes open; these tastes that make me close them in order to savor; and these sounds that jolt me awake, rendering me helpless to be anywhere but the middle.

A New Winter

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“Rodin was a proponent of metamorphosis as a principle of style, and let himself be guided by the chance blots and aureoles of water color.”
– Rodin museum, Paris, France

“As the weeks and months progress, it seems that the more you tap into that vast pool of potential and strength that lies within you, the more magic and abundance you can attract into your life. Key theme for 2012: Transformation.”
– Sarah-Jane Grace, 2012 Astro Forcast (Leo)

What does it take to make a change? Some may say a good plan. Others, a good reason. Change can develop organically, or be beckoned by an emotion that forces you elsewhere. As the New Year approached and crested, I decided that change is best guided by a healthy does of chance.

I have been feeling like Rodin: dipping my brush into a pretty sunset pink or lemon yellow, holding it over the paper, taking a deep breath, and connecting brush, paint and surface. I have been paying attention to what develops. While many artists, and at times Rodin, carefully control their brush strokes, in his water colors, Rodin first observed what was taking shape before making his next move. I imagine he entered an almost meditative state, let his eyes go hazy, memories flying, imagination expanding before inspiration struck. His watercolors weren’t rushed, and once he realized the path of the pool of paint, he created another image entirely around the chance shapes.

When you read musings on change (thus chance), it’s often preached that you have to leave comfort behind. Why is this so? I don’t know, yet I find it to be true. Comfort is ease, luxury and coziness; things you don’t think of when you hear “change”. During a yoga practice this morning, my teacher even went so far as to say that “change is pain.” It’s the time you keep your eyes peeled, especially when you’re not sure exactly what it is you’re looking for…until you do.

I’m living in a hybrid state of comfort and change. And I’m excited. The past two months have brought travel to inspiring places with like-minded people: I laughed over plum liquor in Parma with six brilliant girls; admired the Eiffel Tower on the horizon during Christmas time with my family; rode my bicycle along the Po River in Turin; shouted “Bonne annee!” in Lyon as the clock struck midnight on January 1st; pruned a vineyard on a sunny day in the foothills of the Langhe with two new friends; gazed at the snow covered Alps perched on a stone wall in Salutzzo without an inkling of the time. These are my favorite memories so far. These have the power to transform.

This new learning has carved bright, clean places in my body and mind that I’m free to let air; once the band-aid rip of change stopped stinging, the healing, the regeneration, the transformation began. It’s imperative to remain open and believe that the gamble you took brought you to the places and feelings you were meant to find. We alone shape every moment, harnessing and projecting our light and grace to see what we desire manifest in front of our eyes. It happens when you take a chance.