A Place Where No One Should Have to Live: Remembering Kibera (Part 4)

A few days ago Kibera was mentioned at an event I attended and the name sounded so familiar. After a moment I realized it sounded familiar because I had been there three years ago.  I went on a volunteer trip to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, with my dad and a group called Cross-Cultural Thresholds. How did I manage to completely forget about an experience that shook me to the core? Forgetting Kibera was a coping mechanism, because if I thought about it all the time I would never be able to do anything. How do I work on a novel when I know that there are 2 million people living in a slum with no electricity or running water? How do I enjoy time with my friends when I know kids are starving to death? While it serves no one to put my life on hold because there is suffering in the world, I do believe I have a responsibility to remember and share what I saw. I am reposting some of the emails I sent to Mike while I was there:

I heard the most incredible story from one of the local volunteers today. Jimmy grew up in a poor, rural area outside of Nairobi. The planes of Wilson Airport flew directly over his village and he dreamed of flying one of those planes. He found a magazine about flying and wrote a letter to every address listed in the directory. He kept doing that for years until finally he got one letter back from a man named David in Connecticut.

David encouraged Jimmie to study hard and follow his dreams, and they began a pen-pal relationship that lasted years. When Jimmy graduated from high school with great grades, David paid for him to go to college in Michigan. He trained to be a pilot there and then got a job in Arizona as a private pilot for the Mayo Clinic. The clinic offered to pay for his Masters but he really wanted to go back to Kenya and be a pilot at Wilson airport. He’s been flying for Air Kenya for 4 years now.

David is a volunteer on our trip and he asked Jimmy to meet us on the first day and share his story. He asked if he could help us in Kibira because he had never been there before. He immediately fell in love with the project. He’s joining the board of the daycare center and is going to become our liaison. He doesn’t have much money but he realized he was given a great gift from a man who encouraged him to study and now he wants to help hundreds of young kids study as well.

Jimmy’s story became our slogan for the trip. When someone said we couldn’t finish digging the foundation that day, another person said, “Well if Jimmy can fly…” Whenever something seemed hard, we just kept saying “Jimmy can fly.”

In other news, this morning we dispensed 200 pairs of Crocs to the kids at the daycare center. The kids went crazy for them. It was amazing to see their joy in receiving such ugly shoes but it was it was also gut wrenching to see the kids outside the daycare center watching this giveaway, barefoot and hungry. They stood outside the gate, hoping to get an extra pair but we didn’t have enough. Well it felt great to give these shoes away, it was a reminder that the gift of schools, wells and roads do a lot more good than finite, material goods. Despite how ugly they are, there will never be enough crocs to go around.


A little girl receiving her first pair of shoes.

Afterward, Marina and I finished the mural. It’s really cheerful and the construction workers kept taking breaks to look at it and give us the thumbs up. In art school, the idea that art is supposed to be challenging and serious was crammed down our throats. Today was a nice reminder that art can also cheer people up and be pretty.

Last night at dinner we were talking about the book Many Lives, Many Masters. It’s by a professor who did a lot of research into past lives. As I was walking out of Kibera today, I thought  about that book and almost vomited. I had absolutely no control over where I was born, and I just as easily could have been born in Kibera. The thought that past and future lives could be real, freaked me out because as long as there’s the chance of being reborn, there’s the chance of being reborn in Kibera. I think a lot more people would do volunteer work, and donate money if they thought there was a chance they could be reborn on the other end of the lucky spectrum.

A Place Where No One Should Have to Live: Remembering Kibera (Part 3)

A few days ago Kibera was mentioned at an event I attended and the name sounded so familiar. After a moment I realized it sounded familiar because I had been there three years ago.  I went on a volunteer trip to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, with my dad and a group called Cross-Cultural Thresholds. How did I manage to completely forget about an experience that shook me to the core? Forgetting Kibera was a coping mechanism, because if I thought about it all the time I would never be able to do anything. How do I work on a novel when I know that there are 2 million people living in a slum with no electricity or running water? How do I enjoy time with my friends when I know kids are starving to death? While it serves no one to put my life on hold because there is suffering in the world, I do believe I have a responsibility to remember and share what I saw. I am reposting some of the emails I sent to Mike while I was there:

So I was having a really hard time picking out a souvenir for you. I didn’t want to get a tacky trinket, and so I got you a son! There was an adorable boy at the daycare center who needed to be sponsored. He has big, white teeth and a dimple just like you! It’s just a dollar a day and it pays for three meals a day and all his school supplies.

Shwaib Ayub, the young boy I sponsored

Shwaib Ayub, the young boy I sponsored

[In a tragic turn of events, two weeks after I left Kibera, Schwaib was hit by a car and died instantly. I shared this terrible news with my friends and family, and together we raised over $1,500 to donate to his daycare center.  What happened to him was a tragedy, but there are still so many kids who need help there. Click here if you would like to make a donation in honor of Schwaib.]

Today it poured. And you don’t want to be in Kibera when it rains. There were streams of fecal waste, plastic bags and old shoes running past us. The smell is horrific. The pathways are just piles of slippery mud, and you have to hold onto the sides of the houses so you don’t fall down. When you touch the houses, the walls crumble apart.

Some pretty clever, make-shift umbrellas.

Some pretty clever, make-shift umbrellas.


Talking to strangers in Idaho

OK, everyone keeps asking me why I was in Idaho and Montana for the last 8 days. A section of the novel I’m writing takes place on a wildlife preserve in Northern Idaho. In the story, there’s a conflict between the local hunters and the conservationists, and since I’ve never been to Idaho and I’ve never spoken to someone who hunts, I thought it was about time to check both of those off my list.

I flew into Spokane, Washington, rented an amazing Subaru, and then drove 700 miles, stopping at every dinky diner, every remote visitor center, and every tiny museum. I even interviewed people as they scraped snow off their cars. What I lacked in a plan I made up for in chutzpah.

On the fist day of driving, I followed signs for The Museum of North Idaho. It was snowing hard (with already a foot of snow on the ground), and when I arrived at the museum it looked closed. Hilariously, there was a sign to pay at the “parking machine” which was a stack of envelopes for people to send a dollar to the city. The door of the museum was locked but a kind gentleman said I could come in just to get out of the cold. I started telling him about my book, and it turned out that he was the leading historian on Northern Idaho. He spoke with me for over 2 hours about Idaho and why the people don’t like government control, how hunting is a part of the culture, and what originally brought people to that region. It was fascinating. I’ve read a lot about Idaho, but his knowledge was so much more intense and nuanced. 

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Gil and his animals

A few days later I talked with Gil Mangels, owner of The Miracle of America Museum and Pioneer Village. He killed all the animals in the picture above and had a story about each one. Before coming on this trip I thought hunting was the dumb man’s sport. I had a picture in my mind of guys getting drunk on bud light and shooting whatever moved. Gil, and every hunter I spoke to, loves animals, loves being out in nature, and loves the fine craftsmanship and history of guns. He can tell you about every species of plant, the difference between a white tail deer and a mule deer, and the year and make of practically any rifle. His aim is a point of pride because he knows he will hurt the animal more if he’s not well-practiced. he eats all the animals he kills and even says a prayer for them after he brings them down. Gil and the other hunters I spoke to gave me such great insight for my story. 

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I never thought I’d get to hold a gun.

I realized half way through the trip that my main character was going to have to shoot a gun at some point in the story so I should know what it’s like. I found a gun and rifle club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and introduced myself. I spoke with the NRA representative who couldn’t have been nicer. I was a little scared of talking to him because I don’t think people should own guns, but he believes as long as people want to own guns it’s his responsibility to teach them how to use them safely. He taught me how to shoot a 9mm hand gun and holy camoly that thing is scary. I could feel my arm shaking for a few minutes afterward. I cannot ever imagine pointing that thing at a person and I don’t know how anyone could carry it on their body, but to each their own. I’m glad I got to try it out, and meet so many people I normally would never come across.


My Journey Out West and Within

The beautiful mountains of Montana!

I’m getting ready to head over to Idaho and Montana to do some research for the novel I’m writing. I’m excited for the adventure, but most of all I’m proud to be taking my writing this seriously.

Last year I was hesitant about spending $300 on a writing course, now I’m spending twice that just on the rental car for this trip. Someone, and I can’t remember who, once said, “show me your calendar and your bank account and I’ll tell you what’s important to you.” I got to a point where I realized that I wanted to be a writing but I wasn’t backing up that claim with time or money. Not only is this trip going to help crystallize the details of my novel, it is a symbolic gesture of my commitment to the craft; a honeymoon for me and my writer-self.

I can’t wait to share more about it in upcoming posts. Wish me luck!

Jumping into an Open Mind

Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed in the O...

Reynolds Creek southwest of Boise, Idaho.  (Wikipedia)

My reward for finishing the first draft of my novel is a trip to Idaho; however, I wasn’t that excited about going to Idaho. Correction: I’m really scared to go to Idaho. In my story, the main character visits a fictitious big cat (cougars, lynx and bobcats) sanctuary in northern Idaho in late January by herself. My idea was to recreate the trip. It was very easy to come up with excuses not to go:

  • I don’t know anyone in Idaho
  • Plane tickets are expensive
  • It’s still the first year of marriage, I can’t go on a trip by myself!
  • There’s no guarantee my book will get published so this is a lot of time and money to spend on a potential hobby

Last week I decided, what the heck, I’m going to buy those tickets. Here’s how I responded to those excuses:

  • People are friendly; I’ll just stop in different dinners along the way and introduce myself as a curious writer.
  • Yes, plane tickets are expensive (about $600 to Boise), but a ticket to Spokane, Washington, which is closer to my ideal location anyway, is only $250.
  • Ok, the marriage excuse is just ridiculous. I’m scraping the barrel of excuses here.
  • My writing will certainly remain a hobby if I don’t take it seriously. My book takes place in Idaho so how can I possibly not go to Idaho?!?

A funny thing happened as soon as I stopped making excuses, and bought the ticket: opportunities began to appear. My brother’s sister’s college friend said she’d host me in Missoula, Montana (only a 4 hour drive from Spokane). She also said I could visit her parents in Idaho. I found another person who works with wolves who said she’d meet with me.

By opening up my search to Washington and Montana I made this trip possible. My advice to anyone who’s making excuses: keep an open mind and leap whenever possible.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (Part 5)

Sorry for the delay in this series – I was in L.A. and Santa Fe for the last few days. I’ll tell you all about that soon, but, first things first, I need to finish telling you all about our journey from the northern tip of Manhattan to the southern tip.  In the last post we were enjoying some tasty dogs in the flatiron district.

For the next ten blocks, we kind of stumbled around in a tired, over-stuffed stupor. At first I thought I was imagining all the bells and singing, and then I realized that we were in Union Sq. just in time for the Hare Krishna show. For my first few years in New York, Union Sq. was definitely my favorite part of the city. My sister went to NYU and her dorm was right around the corner. When I’d come to visit her, I’d tried to spend as much time in the square, watching all the skateboarding punks, the old men playing dominos, the street performers, and the people selling jewelry and apple pie. Even now, with a Whole Foods, DSW and three Starbucks, I still think it’s the perfect spot to spend the afternoon people-watching and getting a true sense of the diversity that makes NYC so unique.

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The Hare Krishnas in Union Sq.

Just when I thought I couldn’t walk any farther, we crossed the 200 block marker, and I felt a sudden rush of energy. “Let’s walk to New Jersey!” I joked.

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200 blocks!

A good representation of Little Italy

We made it to Little Italy just in time for dinner. Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures because I was too focused on finding a restaurant and it was pretty dark, so this is someone else’s picture of the garlic scented streets.

Here’s my advice for eating in Little Italy: be careful of the specials. We chose a restaurant where the entrees were all between $15-$20. I ordered one of the pasta specials and as the waitress was leaving to put in our order she casually said, “oh yeah, because it’s a special it’s going to cost a few extra dollars. That’s ok, right?”

“Sure,” I said, and then fortunately added, “Wait, how much exactly?”


At which point I nearly choked on my water, and immediately ordered something else. Pasta needs to be covered in gold if I’m going to pay that much for it. That really rounded out my experience of feeling like a tourist.

Ok, we’re so close to the end – only a mile and half to go.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends (Part 1)

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bright eyed and bushy tailed at the beginning.

I’ve always wanted to walk the length of Manhattan and watch how the neighborhoods change from block to block. Two weeks ago, Mike and I grabbed our water bottles, donned our sneakers and headed  up to the northern tip of Manhattan.

We rode the A train till the last stop in Manhattan, Inwood 207th St. The subway ride was pretty typical: From 42nd St. to Columbus Circle, there were the usual hoards of tourists, pouring over their subway maps, scratching their heads in confusion. When the A train raced past the next few stations (because it is express), a group of Italian tourists jumped up demanding to know why the train wasn’t stopping. This happens every time. We explained that the next stop was in Harlem and they could turn around there. Upon mention of Harlem, they gave us a look that said, “Please don’t mug us.” The next twenty minutes of the ride was silent – the car filled with depressed looking people who just wanted to get home. We got off at the last station, eager to see Manhattan by foot.

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The entrance of Fort Tryon Park

We were immediately taken aback by the beauty of Ft. Tyron Park. It’s easy to forget that Manhattan was once a wooded, swamp land. This park is a great reminder of what Manhattan might have looked like hundreds of years ago.

A stranger asked if we wanted our picture taken (something I always offer to tourists to prove that New Yorkers are not as mean/rude as the stereotypes suggest). It was fun feeling like a tourist in a city I practically grew up in. Everyone knows to go to Central Park when they visit the city, but I’d highly recommend this park. It has a wide open courtyard (with clean bathrooms), rocky hills to explore, and stunning vistas of the Hudson river.


If you’re planning a trip to the city, I would recommend a visit to the Cloisters, a medieval castle in Manhattan, and then a picnic in Ft. Tryon. The fall is really the best time to visit because the colors of trees are stunning.

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I’ve never seen this view of the George Washington bridge.

The next twenty blocks were uneventful, but we did eat some pretty amazing empenadas. It’s pretty remarkable how quiet some parts of Manhattan are – I’m so used to the constant noise of midtown. Just as we were getting used to the peace and quiet, we started to notice a lot more honking and traffic; a sure sign of the George Washington Bridge. We tried to take more pictures of the bridge, but there were too many aggressive bikers in their neon spandex, yelling at us to get out of their way – they were in a rush to enjoy the day.

So far that covers the first 2 miles of our journey. Stay tuned for the next 11 miles!

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Mini Memoir Monday: The First Journey

This week’s mini memoir was submitting by Greg. Check out his travel blog, Greg’s China, and read all about his day to day experiences in China.


Back when I was a young and impressionable seventeen year-old, I took a train from my home town in West Yorkshire to Oban. Oban is a small city on the west coast of Scotland, and the gateway to the Hebrides. This was the first real time I’d traveled alone. My destination was a tiny 9 x 3 mile island named the Isle of Coll. You may be wondering what business a lone teenager had in the Outer Hebrides; I was going there for a selection course in the hope I would be accepted as a volunteer for Project Trust, a charity that sends volunteers abroad to teach in developing countries (A gap yah, in other words!).

As the train pulled away from the station I remember clearly the feeling of nervous excitement that you only get from going on an adventure. My heart beat fast as the blurred scenery shot by. As darkness gave way to the warm orange of dawn, the familiar sight of rolling fields was replaced by the ghostly desolation of moor land. Opposite me a middle-aged man sat looking out on the same view.


“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said, looking over with a friendly smile.

“Sure is” I replied.

We introduced ourselves and I asked him why he was going up the west coast of Scotland. It turned out he was going to stay with family up in Fort William, a town of about ten thousand way out in the Highlands.

“What do you do?” I decided to ask him.

“I do what I like to do, I suppose.” He said.

Seeing that I was a little confused by his statement he clarified. “I keep a list on me wherever I go. And on that list, I have written down every dream or ambition that I want to achieve.”

He paused to take a sip of his coffee, “I don’t take to it aggressively, but my opinion is that by knowing what you want to do, and being willing to do it, things just fall into place.

“Each thing written on the list is like… a bubble rising from the ocean floor. Eventually it reaches the surface, as it has always been destined to, and just like that,” he clicked his fingers, ”your desire changes from ambition to reality. This is how I’ve lived my whole life, and it’s always worked for me!

“Got a pen?” he asked.

“Umm, yeah, I’ve got one right here.” I replied.

“Good. Take it out and write your own list, right now.”

“What am I supposed to write about?”

“Write down anything and everything you want to do in life. You’ll achieve what’s on your list if you really want to.”

I finished writing the list. It was full of angst and teenage pipe dreams, but at the time it was profound to me. I made to show it to him, but he just said “That’s your list, you don’t need to show it to anybody, you just need to know that it’s there, and that it’s achievable.”

As the train pulled into the station, we shook hands and said our goodbyes.

I never saw Kirk again.

Even though his life was lived out of a suitcase, and I’m sure this must have brought about a fair share of troubles, he emanated a sense of contentment and freedom that I remember being in awe of. I like to think that wherever he is now he’s still carrying that same list and waiting for the perfect moments to execute each of his plans.

What could have just been a standard train journey was instead turned into a lesson that has stayed with me for seven years, and will continue to stay with me for as long as I live.

The lesson I learned was that even if you need to make sacrifices or you need to wait, there will come a time when what you want is achievable.

Some plans on my list have long since been crossed out, and others are yet to be achieved. I’m not anxious though, with enough time and patience every bubble has the chance to make its way to the surface.

Fishing in Canada

Last week I didn’t post at all because I was busy roughing it in the Canadian wilderness. Mike and I spent the week fishing with his parents, who have been driving around the country for three years now in their suped-up RV (talk about a HeSo project!).

Now let me make this clear: I had never been fishing before. The thought of impaling a worm on a hook so that I can sit around for a few hours and wait for a bite filled me with anxiety and guilt. Yet, fishing was an important part of my husband’s childhood, so I really wanted to get a better sense of what draws people to this past time.

I am not a morning person, but waking up at 5 am, trudging through icy water to get to the boat, and holding on to your thermos of coffee like it’s your lifeline, was surprisingly  fun. Being a New York City girl, I hardly ever feel alone when I’m outside. If I want a taste of nature, I end up in Central Park where a three piece bands is playing Take Five, kids are screaming, tourists are asking me for directions, and some guy is trying to sell me $4 water. Out on the lake, the water was absolutely still, we were the only people out, and it was blissfully quiet.


The sunrise as we readied ourselves for early morning fishing

I really wanted to prove that I wasn’t a sissy, but the truth is I am a sissy. For the life if me, I could not bring myself to put the writhing worm on the hook. Mike and his mom took turns hooking my bait. At first I caught a bunch of these little guys:


Perch number 15

We had to throw these back in the water because they were too small. Then we caught some bigger fish. I tried with all my might to hold the fish for picture time, but they were too gross and unpredictable. My father-in-law had to hold up the fish in each of my pictures:


Can you tell how uncomfortable I am?

Mike was a natural at fishing:


Mike and his fish

Eventually I got the hang of it:

My 25" Bass

My 25″ Bass

The best part of this fishing trip was that we got to eat fresh fish every night. The worst part about eating fresh fish every night is that you have to gut and skin the fish. Yuk! I have a whole new appreciation for the perfect fillets of fish in the supermarket.


Skinning a bass

So now that I’m back home, and no longer smelling of fish, would I do it all again? I quickly realized that fishing is not about the fish at all – it’s about slowing down your pace, your expectations, and your thoughts. One day you can catch 20 fish, and the  next day you can catch nothing but seaweed. While the underwater tug-of-war is exhilarating, it’s the hours of staring off into the wilderness that felt like an exotic experience for me. Having nothing to do but just observe, and relax, was  a vacation in of itself. So, yes, I would go fishing again.