Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Adventures in New York: Jackson Heights, Queens

This month I've been helping on a DOT project, tracking pedestrian usage of a plaza in Jackson Heights, one of my favorite NY neighborhoods. The bustling immigrant energy fills me with hope. 
For those that don't know, JH is one of the most diverse zip codes in the world. It is an entry point for Latin Americans and South Asians, among others. The area the plaza is in is transitioning from Indian and Pakistani to Tibetan, Nepali and Bangladeshi, as one set of immigrants achieves the American suburban dream and leaves room for newcomers. 
As I arrive home from a day out there, I feel like I have been around the world and back. Magical!

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Volunteering and Learning Along the Migrant Trail in Southern Arizona

This past week I visited Southern Arizona to immerse myself in border issues. The US-Mexican border in Arizona crosses the Sonoran Desert, which is hot and inhospitable, but for many it is an important path to economic survival.  Current immigration policies and the border fence erected since 9/11 have made what many longtime Arizona residents told me was a routine crossing into the US for seasonal work into a dangerous activity.  In fact, between 200-400 migrants die each year in the Tucson sector of the border while making this journey.

It takes migrants about 6 days to walk from the border to Tucson where they can slip into anonymity and travel to their final destinations around the US. As they begin the journey they can carry about a day or two’s worth of water and after that they are often forced to drink from cattle troughs and other dirty water sources that can make them sick and even more dehydrated or not drink at all.  This dehydration slows them down and can lead their coyotes to leave them behind as to not hold back the rest of their groups. Left alone in the desert with out water or food or a guide has led to at least 2,666 migrant deaths in the Tucson sector according to No More Deaths, an organization  whose mission is to end death and suffering on the U.S./Mexico border.  They and other social justice groups have sprung up in Southern Arizona to try to help with this crisis. 

Arizona/Mexico Border Trip

I had an amazing, eye-opening, moving trip down to Southern Arizona to immerse myself in the migration issues in the border communities in both the US and Mexico.

Click HERE to see pictures from my trip

Volunteering at El Comedor, Nogales, Mexico

In May, I spent a morning serving food to the recently deported at El Comedor in Nogales, Mexico, where I had the chance to hear many stories. El Comedor, run by Jesuit nuns and the Kino Border Initiative, feeds migrants who have just been dropped back into Mexico by US Immigration. Each day American volunteers come across the border and join the nuns to serve breakfast and dinner to up to 100 migrants a day. They also provide medical care and advice on how to re-group and figure out what to do next. They help migrants get bus tickets home, get money wired to them, take testimony of any abuse they may have suffered in the hands of Border Patrol and most importantly offer kindness.

Click HERE to see a few pictures

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Visiting South of the US/Mexico Border Fence in Nogales, Mexico

I headed down to Southern Arizona to immerse myself in the migration issues in the border communities in both the US and Mexico.  Since 9/11, efforts have been made to close the border and it is affecting life on both sides.  Before this time there were many border towns that that functioned jointly on both the Mexico and US sides with people working, living and going to school together. When the US decided to put up a wall, families were split, workers were on the opposite sides as their jobs, students were on the opposite side from their schools.  Unfortunately this border fence has sucked the vibrancy out of many communities. One example I explored was Nogales, Arizona, US and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico where many efforts are being made to keep both sides vibrant.

I took a tour with the Border Community Alliance and FundaciĆ³n del Empresariado Sonorense A.C. (FESAC) to learn about the efforts to make sure Nogales, Mexico continues to be a vibrant, healthy community with economic activity and a civic life and doesn’t suffer the fate of cities like Juarez and Tijuana that have been torn apart by the drug war. Unlike other parts of Mexico, the border towns face different challenges. 

People travel there from all over the country for jobs, and don’t have the family roots and the support network they are used to, so great efforts are being made to build a cohesive community and help help people make connections. 

My favorite organization helping to build connections and economic activity was a place where they were teaching women to sew.  As men find themselves settling in Nogales, often because they are deported out of the US there or migrating up for jobs at the factories n Nogales, they send for their wives and kids to come join them in the community.  These wives need to find ways to make money.  Sewing is a skill they can use at home bringing in tailor work from their neighborhood while being able to have a flexible schedule to look after their kids.  FESAC hired a sewing teacher and invited the

women in to learn sewing while they waited for their kids who were at school across the way.

On the tour we explored the community and drove around to see some of the factories lining the Mexico-US border.  Nogales is growing by leaps and bounds and the Mexican government is trying to keep up by building houses and creating city services.

Since the border fence has been erected though, there has been a large drop in travelers from the US to Mexico and tours like this also show a safe charming community in effort to encourage travel again.  Many Arizonans told me, prior to the fence they went to shop and eat in Nogales all the time.  Interestingly one cross-border temptation still attracts US citizens to Mexico.  Medical care…  The streets right next to the pedestrian border crossing are lined with dentists, orthodontists, eye doctors and pharmacies. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dear Cuba...

Dear Cuba:

I love you!  After my third trip to visit, I am even more in love than the first time I set foot on your shores.  I love your passion for standing tall against the US and the "normal" unbalanced relationship most Caribbean islands have with it.  I still love the ideals you have tried to maintain since the Revolution.  I do wish you could be a bit more open and give your citizens more freedom to make their way.  I have witnessed the energy and drive of your people and believe given the permission and a little help they would be able to help you with your economic woes.  I wish my country wasn't so threatened by you and could just let you be.  I wish the Cuban-Americans could just get over their anger and let policy normalize and see what happens.

But more than all those political and economic issues, I love your strength.  Your people are solid and strong.  I love your music.  There is a beat to every footstep in your streets and the music playing everywhere adds energy to everything. And I love that the music has so many ethnic roots. I love your vibrant rainbow of skin colors from white to black, with 36 gradations  recognized along the way.  I love that a group of boys hanging on the Malecon might have a very pale blond boy, a very black one and few of other shades.  I learned that its not that simple and of course, you, like all lands with slave holding history, still haven't quite figured out how to erase race, but still a walk down any street in Havana had so many diverse faces,which is a delight for a portrait photographer like me.  Surely with some more of the new dialogue on race and work to show more positive images of Afro-Cubans, you will be able to rise to be an almost racially neutral country.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Few Thoughts About Cuba

I leave this trip from Cuba with more questions than answers. Everything I thought on my last trip remains true. It's a beautiful country with impressive architecture and rich culture. The people have a warm inner spirit that makes me keep wanting to go back.

On each trip, I scratch a little deeper and since I was there for an NYU grad school class this time, I really dug in. We met with experts who explained the challenges Cuba is currently facing with its economy. They spoke to us about their healthcare system, where they train doctors from around the world and also send 1000s of doctors to work in other countries.  We also learned about their rich creative community, housing policy, work dealing with issues related to race, sexuality and gender issues. We heard about how they are preserving their historical architecture and are trying to develop a tourism industry that benefits and doesn't displace locals.

I continue to admire some of the values of the Revolution and all the efforts to even the economic landscape for everyone, but feel frustrated that even with so many interventions inequality exists on many levels and tourism and the influx of money from it and other outside sources is reopening old scars.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Classic Cars in Cuba

Re-posting from Cuba March 2005

In honor of my recent trip to Cuba I'm re-posting my write-up from after my trip there in 2005

It has been three weeks since I returned from my second trip to Cuba. I’ve been having a hard time putting what I saw onto paper. I know that a few minutes in Plaza Vieja in Old Havana drinking a fresh sweet minty mojito and listening to one of the many Cuban bands that play all over would bring it all rushing back to me. The slow pace, the comfortable feeling, the beauty, the warmth, the history and most importantly those big smiles that radiate out of every person you see.

The best I can do though is to pop in the cd from my favorite band there and try to gather my thoughts for you…

Cuba is a magical place. It’s both stopped in time and at the same time so very current. It’s got a rainbow multicultural mix of people. Locals could have long blond hair and pale skin, dark black African skin or most commonly dark hair and striking eyes of their Spanish ancestors. The cultural boundaries of racism that keep us separated in the US, seem to be gone there. It’s one of the good byproducts of the Revolution. 

(Unfortunately, I learned in my 2014 trip, that although Cuba is definitely a vibrant rainbow of race, racism exists here too more prominently than I could see on the surface. The ideals of equality in the Revolution came a long way to helping Afro-Cubans achieve equality in economic and educational attainment, but as I saw a prominent intellectual say "Black is still black." so more must be done to promote positive black images in society. The complicated implications of a post-slavery society are hard to erase.  The good news in Cuba though is that an vibrant discussion is finally taking place about this issue.)

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Streets are Lined with Art in Philadelphia!

Somehow I missed this up till now but Philadelphia has an amazing assortment of street art with giant murals covering walls throughout the city. The Mural Arts Program began in 1984 as a component of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, an effort spearheaded to eradicate the graffiti crisis plaguing the city. The Anti-Graffiti Network hired muralist Jane Golden to reach out to graffiti writers and to redirect their energies from destructive graffiti writing to constructive mural painting. Now 30 years later there are over 3600 murals throughout the city.  I got a small taste of them by following the City Center walking tour, which is a self guide walk by 14 murals.  Each mural has a plaque and a phone number that you can call to listen to an interview with the artist about the inspiration for the piece and who helped them do it.  A big component of the project is to involve community members in the creation of the work.  It was a touching experience to listen to the stories.  

All in all, I have heard that Philadelphia has made great strides to attract artists by subsidizing housing and rehearsal space and seeing art EVERYWHERE showed they take this seriously.  I have always loved Philly, but I now feel a deeper excitement about its vibrancy. I can't wait to go back when the snow isn't falling and the wind isn't blowing and explore other neighborhoods and see their art.

Click HERE to see an online album of some of the marvelous murals on Philadelphia's streets

Monday, January 27, 2014

Travels in Tennessee

Hello Uncle Sam.  Please show me America.
The more I travel to other countries, the more I realize how hard it is to really understand a culture.  It has makes me want to dig deeper into America, because gosh, at least I should be able to to understand the nuances of my own country a little better! So in January, I set off to explore Eastern Tennessee, which was a great place to go see history, music, vast dramatic landscapes and eat lots of comfort food. I visited Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.  I honestly didn't stay long enough to get a solid impression of each of the cities, but I enjoyed what I saw. You have to really dig deep to understand the subtle differences in American culture, but I did the best I could.  

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Extremes of American Tourism: Pigeon Forge and Dollywood

I hadn't planned it but it almost seemed like we were sucked towards Dollywood and Pigeon Forge, Dolly Parton's idea of how to bring prosperity to her home town. Even in the off season, when we had the roads to ourselves and the amusement park was closed, we found magic in the good old American excess: Mount Rushmore pop culture style with Roy Rodgers, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin; a possibly life sized Titanic with a big iceberg, that I guess you could go into and relive the story; a giant upside-down house imaging a crash after a tornado that is called WonderWorks. Anyhow, I doubt I can put accurate words to describe the craziness, but I enjoyed it in the same way that I love Vegas.  Americans are strange tourists!  I can't imagine actually paying to go into any of these places, but they were fun to look at from afar and certainly one part of the American travel experience.

Friday, January 10, 2014

My first trip to the New York State Capital

Yes, I know that it seems unfathomable that a person who has been to 56 countries and 40 states could possibly never have been to her own home state capital when she has lived in the state on and off since she was 7 years old!!! But its true.  So today I expanded a work trip to Albany into a tourist exploration.  I was up there putting on a forum about community college completion.  (Yes, yes, might sound geeky to some of you, but I embrace my geekyness and now get to work focusing on interesting topics like this.)  Anyhow, I digress, it was a chance to come to Albany and started me off on the right foot for any state capitol visit. At the event I made sure legislators and their staff, as well and other government and nonprofit folks learned about an important issue and hopefully were inspired to legislate to improve things.  So, by the time I set off on my Albany exploration I was in a legislative state of mind.  

Monday, December 30, 2013

Farewell 2013, its been great...

Hello Friends - 

Somehow December sped by, but I didn't want to miss the chance to send my holiday hellos, updates and warm wishes. 
It’s hard to sum up a year in a few sentences, but here are my high points. I started a new job as Deputy Director of the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank that focuses on economic and workforce development in New York City. I finally decided to take the plunge and start grad school and enrolled in NYU Wagner's Executive Master in Public Administration program. I traveled to Machu Picchu in Peru, out to explore the west in New Mexico and had a fun weekend in DC for Obama's Second Inauguration.

I continue to explore New York and have been trying to get my exotic travel fix in neighborhoods I can get to by subway vs plane. For me that has meant dining on Russian food overlooking the ocean in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, discovering a huge Hindu temple in Elmhurst, Queens, visiting a gigantic food court in Flushing, Queens selling every kind of Chinese food imaginable, rivaling any hawker stand I saw in Singapore, and much much more. It also means chasing Banksy and other street artists who continue to change NY's streetscape.  Walking around the city is more fun when I try to look at every wall and light pole to see if there is anything new.  And most importantly, I continued to help NY recover from Hurricane Sandy by volunteering in the Rockaways and helping the city's Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) by facilitating community workshops.  It has been incredible to follow the process closely and see just how hard recovery is.  The world moves on, but there is sooooo 
much to be done.
I really didn't plan to lead a life like this. I haven't gotten my white picket fence in the suburbs yet, but the black railing on my terrace between me and my skyline view seems to work for me too.  I'm doing my best to embrace the hand I was given and New York just keeps giving back.
I love watching your lives on Facebook and through other means. I hope you have found peace and balance in this endlessly stressful fast paced world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

"I'm often asked about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. To me, a tourist visits all the big sights, sees spectacles on stage, and returns home unchanged, with a suitcase full of knickknacks. A traveler becomes a temporary local, engages with the culture, and comes home enriched, with a vivid collection of experiences and a broader perspective"Rick Steves

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

New Mexico 2013 - Another Chance to Hunt for the Real America

This was my second trip to New Mexico, but this time I was looking at it from much wiser, more-traveled eyes.  After all my travels I know how to find the road less traveled and the quirky special places that are a little hidden.  I pick between the more touristy places and decide which are a must see and which can be passed to make time for a more local real neighborhood that might give me a little more insight into what lies below the surface.  Now when I go to a city like Santa Fe, I want to see where people really live more than the main square or seeing every museum.  I'd rather wile away an hour in a local coffee shop watching people then wander through endless galleries the city is famous for, though I try to travel at a pace where I can do a little of both.

The purpose of this trip was to go visit my brother in the north eastern corner of the state in Mora County, a poor, rural farming valley tucked in the
soaring, stunning Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  My brother and his family have relocated here to live a different kind of life.  They bought a plot of land and have begun homesteading there.  They are building a yurt to live in and collecting water from two streams on the property.  Until the systems are better set up, they spend short periods of time on their land, and also have been lucky enough to stay at a local farm on other nights in exchange for work there.  

Photos from Arizona and New Mexico

Click HERE for pictures from my trip to Arizona and New Mexico

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

- Mark Twain